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Locked in time, p.14
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       Locked in Time, p.14

           Lois Duncan
 
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  At first I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d heard. After a moment, though, the sound came again, and this time I did know. It was someone turning the knob of my door.

  There was no time in which to form a real plan. The one thing that flew into my mind was that I must not remain in the most predictable place. As silently as possible, I slipped out of bed and moved across the room to flatten myself against the wall next to the dresser. Although I couldn’t see into the pocket of darkness at the end of the room, I sensed movement there as the door came silently open. A moment later, I heard the faint brush of bare feet against hardwood floorboards and saw a black shape emerge from the darkness to become outlined against the moonlit sky beyond the balcony doors.

  Raising my right hand to the dresser top, I began to grope cautiously along it in search of something that could be used as a weapon. My fingers soundlessly worked their way past Mom’s picture, past a box of Kleenex and a stack of magazines, and settled around the handle of my plastic hair dryer. It wasn’t the sturdiest thing in the world with which to enter combat, but with the element of surprise on my side, it seemed possible that I might be able to wield it hard enough to stun somebody, at least momentarily. Gripping the dryer tightly, I lifted it high above my head and was just preparing to lunge forward and bring it crashing down on the figure beside the bed when a familiar voice asked softly, “Nore? Are you awake?”

  It was all I could do to keep my knees from buckling as the tension went out of me in one great rush. Slowly, I let the hand that held the dryer sink to my side.

  “Yes, Josie, I’m awake,” I said. “It’s a good thing you spoke up when you did. In another second I’d have smashed in your head.”

  I stepped over to the bedside table and turned on the light.

  Josie whirled to face me, a startled expression on her face. She was dressed in pink short pajamas, and her skinny legs protruded from beneath them like knobby matchsticks. The childish flatness of her chest was accentuated by the clinging fabric, and her chin was coated with a chalky white acne medication. She was holding something bunched up in her right hand.

  “Why aren’t you in bed?” she squeaked. “What are you doing over there?”

  “Trying to keep from being murdered,” I told her cryptically. “Considering what happened on the river the other day, can you blame me for getting nervous when somebody comes creeping into my room at night?”

  “I needed to talk to you,” Josie said.

  “Then why didn’t you knock?”

  “I didn’t want Gabe to hear me.”

  “That’s a good story, Jo,” I said. “It’s too bad I don’t believe it.”

  “But it’s true!” Josie insisted. “I know Maman and your father are sleeping hard, because I gave them the lullaby-time anisette, but Gabe’s light is still on. I saw it through the crack under the door.”

  “You gave our parents the special anisette?” I exclaimed. “I thought Gabe kept that in his room!”

  “He does,” Josie said. “He keeps the bottle under his mattress, but I sneaked in this afternoon and poured some into a jelly jar.”

  “And gave it to our parents after dinner?” I regarded her incredulously. “Why did you do that? You can’t be planning to go somewhere at this hour!”

  “I wanted them to sleep so I could go into their room,” Josie said. “There was something in Maman’s purse I wanted to get for you.”

  “What’s that?” I asked. “A dose of arsenic?”

  “That’s not fair, Nore,” Josie said in an injured voice. “I haven’t done anything bad to you, so don’t be so mean. See what I brought you!”

  She extended her hand and opened the balled-up fist. In it there was a roll of bills.

  “Money?” I said in surprise. “What do I need money for?”

  “It’s almost five hundred dollars.” She continued to thrust it out at me. “Go on, Nore, take it. It’s enough to buy yourself a plane ticket.”

  “A plane ticket to where?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Josie said. “Just anywhere. Run away someplace where nobody can find you.”

  “Like LA,” I said. “That’s Gabe’s line. He asked me to run away with him to California where we could live together and work as movie extras and everything would be perfect. Then five minutes later he tried to kill me. Is that what you’re going to do? While I’m counting the money are you planning to stick a knife between my ribs?”

  “Of course not,” Josie said. “I just want to help you. And Gabe must have, too, or he wouldn’t have tried to get you to go away. If you told him no, then that was your fault. There’s only so much that he and I can do for people.”

  “Josie,” I said softly, “you’re incredible. I can’t believe what I just heard you say. There’s just so much that you and your brother can do between murders!”

  “I didn’t say that,” Josie said, sounding shocked. “I never, ever told you that. You’re the one who keeps using words like kill and murder. All I said was that I know that you’re feeling unhappy here. I thought maybe I could help you get away.”

  “I don’t want your mother’s money,” I told her bitterly. “Much as I do want to leave Shadow Grove, I’m certainly not going to walk out on my innocent father and leave him here to be eaten alive by his black widow of a wife.”

  “Your dad will be all right,” Josie said matter-of-factly. “Nothing can happen to him, Nore, as long as you’re alive someplace and nobody knows where.”

  “Nothing will happen to him?” I exclaimed. “Yeah, I bet it won’t! Just the way nothing happened to—” I caught myself before I could blurt out the name of Robert Vardeman. There was no sense in disclosing to Josie at this point how much I had found out about her family history. That was information I would use later as ammunition with which to convince my father.

  “So you’re not going to go?” Josie asked me.

  “No, I’m not,” I said. “Not until Dad agrees to go with me, which he will very soon. So go stick that money back in your dear mother’s purse. You can be sure she’s going to need every penny of it when Dad files for divorce.”

  “Okay,” Josie said. “Just remember that I really did try.”

  She crossed to the door, placed her hand on the knob and then turned back to face me. For a moment she simply stood there in silence.

  Then she said in a rush, “You have to understand how it is with us, Nore. It’s not the same as with other families. We may not agree with the things she does—we may even hate her sometimes—but there’s no way Gabe and I could do without Maman. She’s the only grown-up we have.” She paused, and then added in a less impassioned voice, “Turn out the light so it won’t show out into the hall.”

  I reached over and flicked off the bedside lamp. In the sudden flood of darkness, I heard the door open and then softly close.

  Moving away from the bed, I went over to the door and stood with my ear pressed against it. It was over five minutes before I heard the sound of the door of Josie’s room being opened and shut. I could only guess that she’d used the intervening time to go back to our parents’ bedroom and return the pilfered money to her mother’s wallet.

  For the next ten minutes I continued to stand without moving, waiting to see if there would be other sounds. When there weren’t and I felt certain that Josie was settled in for the night, I opened my own door and stepped out into the hall. As I walked slowly down it, trailing my fingertips along the wall for guidance, I was relieved to see that the strip of light Josie had commented on seeing under Gabe’s door no longer existed.

  When I reached the door to Dad and Lisette’s bedroom, I opened it quickly, before I could lose my nerve, and stepped inside. After the total darkness of the hallway, the moonlit interior seemed incredibly bright. Light streamed in through the door to the balcony to fall in great splashes of silver on the Oriental rug and the antique dressing table and to illuminate the two sleeping figures that lay side by side on the double bed.

  My
father was lying flat on his back with his mouth slightly open, snoring. Lisette lay on her left side with her back turned toward him. She, too, was breathing heavily with the slow, steady rhythm that accompanies deep slumber. The anisette had done its job.

  I didn’t have to turn on the light to locate Lisette’s purse. It was lying on the dressing table in a pool of moonlight. Going directly over to it, I undid the clasp and opened it. Bypassing the wallet, which was situated near the top, I groped down into its depths until my hand closed around what I’d come for—a metal ring that held a large assortment of keys.

  The courtyard was filled with moonlight when I crossed it to reach the line of cabins behind the house. I gazed up at the globe of light above me and was disconcerted to realize that this round, white face had looked down upon the world since its creation. On a night well over one hundred years ago, this very same moon might have witnessed the birth of a baby girl named Lisette DuBois, who later grew up to become Lisette Berge. It had seen the birth of Lisette and Henri’s three children, and many years later, the death of one of their sons. Somewhere in between these two events, it might even have observed whatever had taken place that had kept the Berge family from ever growing old.

  Tonight, I told myself, I, too, would learn that secret. For some undefined reason, I was filled with a strange sort of certainty that somewhere within the cabin that Lisette used as a storage room was something to explain the unexplainable.

  Finding the key to fit the lock to that cabin wasn’t easy, as Lisette had more than two dozen keys on her ring. There were house keys and car keys (I recognized a set that belonged to my mother’s van), suitcase keys and tiny keys designed for such things as diaries and jewelry boxes, multiple no-name keys that might have been made to open almost anything, and one huge brass key which I could only imagine must fit the giant lock on the gate at the end of the driveway. Once I did finally manage to locate the key to the storage cabin, it turned easily in the padlock. I pulled the lock free so the door could swing open and reached inside to grope along the wall for a light switch.

  By the time it occurred to me that slave quarters wouldn’t have been wired for electricity, my fingers found a switch, and the room was filled with light. The fact that someone in more recent years had taken the trouble to have electricity installed seemed to me to be a good indication that the cabin was being visited with some frequency.

  I pulled the door closed behind me and turned to face the room. My whole first impression was of being surrounded by the past. This feeling wasn’t the result of the appearance of the piles of documents, photographs, books and ledgers that covered every inch of floor space so much as it was the smell of them. The musty odor of aged paper was so overwhelming that my eyes were watering before I’d even had a chance to focus them. Once I did zero in on the room’s total contents, I stopped thinking about anything except the magnitude of the huge reservoir of information that lay before me.

  Unable to contemplate an organized investigation of so much material, I leaned over and picked up the item closest to my hand. This turned out to be a folder filled with marriage certificates. As I leafed through its contents, the names that leapt out at me were familiar ones. The oldest of the certificates documented the fact that in the year 1877 Henri Louis Berge had been joined in wedlock to Lisette DuBois. Next in the pile, there was a certificate legalizing the 1931 marriage of Lisette DuBois Berge to Robert Vardeman. Doing some quick mental arithmetic, I managed to ascertain that even if Lisette had been in her teens at the time of her first marriage, by the year 1931 she would had to have been close to seventy years old.

  I flipped through the remainder of the documents, filing the names and dates in my memory for future reference. Zollinger and Hillerman were there, as well as two other names that Charlie Lacouture had neglected to mention—Stephen Donaldson and William Buchanan. These most recent of Lisette’s ill-fated husbands had evidently come and gone with so little fanfare that the usually well-informed Charlie hadn’t known of their existence. Dad’s and Lisette’s certificate wasn’t among those in the folder. I could only imagine that Dad must have it in his own possession.

  For the next several hours, I worked my way methodically through masses of letters, photos and legal documents, not certain what it was I was searching for, but feeling sure that I would know it when I found it. Some of the papers I found meaningful; others were more confusing than enlightening. Among those falling into that latter category were the financial statements, receipts, bankbooks and investment materials. These were so numerous and so out of order that it was hard to imagine even a full-time accountant being able to make any sense of them in a lifetime.

  Some of the more interesting finds as a result of my investigation were death certificates for Lisette’s son Louis and for two of her husbands, Norman Zollinger and William Buchanan.

  Louis was listed as having died of a broken neck in 1957. Zollinger had died of “unknown causes” in 1958, and Buchanan had suffered a drowning death in 1982. These papers turned up separately, instead of grouped together in one folder, which seemed to indicate that the certificates recording the deaths of Lisette’s earlier husbands were likely to be scattered around the room.

  The photographs were better organized. Most of these were stored in manila envelopes marked with dates and geographic locations. The older photos were formally posed, black-and-white studio portraits, but from 1940 on, more and more of the pictures were color pictures. Out of curiosity, I opened the envelope marked with the year of my birth. Even though I now knew the circumstances of the Berges’ bizarre situation, it still came as a shock to riffle through its contents and find a picture showing thirteen-year-old Josie feeding peanuts to the elephants at the Memphis Zoo at what might have been the very moment that I was being born.

  It was in a far corner of the room, in a cardboard packing box, that I found the seventeen-volume set of leather-bound notebooks. When I opened the first of these, I saw that it was a diary. Recognizing the handwriting as the same delicate, spidery script that Lisette used when making out her shopping lists, I knew immediately that she was the one who had kept the journal.

  The paper was yellow and brittle with age, but the ink was still dark enough to be legible. The date of the first entry was January 7, 1878.

  “This was the most joyous day of my life!” Lisette had written. “How one’s values change when one enters the state of motherhood! On my sixteenth birthday, when dear Henri proposed marriage, I was certain that I would never be happier than on that day. I felt the same on our wedding day when my parents presented me with Shadow Grove. Today, however, I have experienced the ultimate joy. At six twenty-two this morning, after a long and difficult labor, I gave birth to a seven-pound son, Gabriel DuBois Berge!”

  So, here, at last, I had the evidence I’d been searching for! The date of Gabe’s nineteeth-century birth was documented in Lisette’s own handwriting.

  I set that book aside and, bypassing the next in the series, picked up the volume dated 1880. Here, in an entry made on the third of June, I read of the birth of the Berges’ second son, Louis Henri. Then, in a later edition of my stepmother’s chronicles, I read of the birth of Josephine Marie Berge on April 22, 1882.

  From that point on, I thumbed haphazardly through volume after volume, reading a paragraph here and a paragraph there. Although “dear Henri” was obviously being subsidized by his wife’s wealthy parents, the plantation seemed to be prospering under his management. These early books were filled with references to dinner parties and formal dances, to the fittings of new gowns and to the gifts of jewelry bestowed upon Lisette by her adoring husband. There were lengthy accounts of the playful antics of the Berge children, including one story about how Gabe and Louis had cavorted in the lily pond and then rushed into the parlor to muddy the furniture. There were also numerous pages in which Lisette rhapsodized dreamily about the “sweet nights” spent in Henri’s arms.

  About 1890, however, the tone of the e
ntries changed abruptly and took a sudden turn toward depression. Lisette had now celebrated her thirtieth birthday, and although this event had been commemorated with a party and she had received a diamond necklace from her parents, she was deeply concerned about having rounded the traumatic corner that led into what she referred to as her “middle years.”

  “Life is passing me by too quickly!” she lamented. “I sat for an hour this morning, studying my face in the mirror. The soft roundness is gone from my cheeks, and tiny lines are beginning to form at the corners of my eyes. I am worried that Henri may no longer find me desirable. Although I am still admired at parties, I am dreading that inevitable day when the eyes of my dinner partners dart past me to younger women. Gabriel will soon be entering young manhood, and Louis is almost as tall as I am. My baby, Josie, is pleading for permission to wear her hair up. Soon—soon—I shall be old! Dear Lord, how will I bear it!”

  The next several journals continued to take Lisette on a downhill spiral as she became more and more obsessed with the fear of aging. There were reports of trips into New Orleans to purchase imported skin creams and lotions, of beauty masks applied to her face each afternoon at siesta time, and of expensive cosmetics designed to camouflage lines and blemishes. Her jealousy of Henri also seemed to be increasing. Each day’s entry culminated with a notation about whether or not he had been home for dinner that night. If the couple attended a party, Lisette would list by name each of the women with whom Henri had chatted, and all of his out-of-town business trips were greeted with suspicion.

  Her greatest concern was about the rumor that, once their wives lost their dewy youthfulness, many of the Creole plantation owners were being “drawn from their homes by spells and potions” to form romantic unions with those young women who had taken up voodoo.

  “The wives turn their heads and pretend they don’t see,” Lisette wrote bitterly. “They fear that to speak out in protest might jeopardize their marriages. No DuBois woman would permit herself to be so humiliated! If I were ever to discover that Henri were engaged in infidelity, I would put an immediate end either to the affair or to Henri.”

 
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