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Locked in time, p.17
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       Locked in Time, p.17

           Lois Duncan
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  “The chance to run away with you?” I exclaimed sarcastically. “What sort of an ‘out’ was that? While you and I were in California, my dad would’ve been left at the mercy of your mother. That black widow spider would have finished him off in a day!”

  “You’re wrong about that,” Gabe said. “With you gone, he would’ve been perfectly safe here. You and my mother both are named in his will. On your father’s death, his estate is to be divided equally between the two of you. For Maman to inherit it all, Chuck will have to outlive you.”

  He uttered this statement so matter-of-factly that for a moment I was as unaffected by it as I would’ve been if he’d told me his family was holding off on buying a plasma TV until there was a sale. Then the full meaning of what he’d said came through to me, and I regarded him incredulously.

  “You mean Lisette studies the wills of her husbands as though they were contracts? She gets rid of the competition and then goes for the jackpot?”

  “What choice does she have?” Gabe asked me reasonably. “That’s the only way we can survive. We have to live by a different set of standards from other people. You can’t get a job without having a Social Security number, and to get that, you have to show a birth certificate. That, of course, is something that none of our family can do.”

  “But to kill people off!”

  “We all hate that part of it,” Gabe said. “If Maman had her way, she’d wait out her husbands’ natural lifetimes. The problem is that she can’t remain married to anyone long enough for him to notice that none of us are aging. We can’t even live here at Shadow Grove for more than a couple of years at a time, or the people in Merveille might start noticing that we’re different. We have to go off to some big city and get lost in the crowds for a while. Then we come back and pass ourselves off as a new generation.”

  “No matter how sensible you try to make it sound, what you’re talking about is murder,” I said. “Your mother is a monster. I can’t believe you and Josie love her.”

  “We have to love her,” Gabe said. “She’s the one who takes care of us. There’s no way Jo or I could make it on our own. Back in earlier times, I could sometimes take off by myself for a while. Around nineteen hundred, for instance, when I was with Felicite, the two of us built a cabin. She had a garden, and I fished the river, until she grew past me. Then she got married to some farmer, and I came back home. Life today has become too complicated for that sort of arrangement. Without a birth certificate, you can’t even get a driver’s license. That’s why Maman drives like a snail and never takes chances.”

  “Well, that explains something,” I said. “It’s no wonder you couldn’t afford to be arrested. And to think that I was crazy enough to take the blame that night!”

  “Try not to hate us, Nore,” Gabe said imploringly. He took an impulsive step toward me. Automatically, I stepped away from him, and then wished I hadn’t. Until then, I’d been standing in front of the doorway, but now Gabe was blocking it, which cut off my only access to the outside world.

  “We’re locked into something we can’t get out of,” Gabe continued. “Maman was impulsive and didn’t think things through. She didn’t fully understand what she was getting us into. If she had, you can bet that she’d never have made her deal. She’s the one to be pitied, not the men she marries. They get to move on to whatever God has planned for them. Maman’s stuck here forever, ‘raising’ kids who will never be grown. Jo and I are her responsibility for all eternity.”

  “I’m not sorry for her,” I said. “She’s a horrible person. And you—you’re just as terrible—maybe more so. You pretended you cared about me and then tried to drown me.”

  “I didn’t pretend,” Gabe objected. “I really do care about you. I have no choice. I have to do what Maman tells me. Back when Louis was alive, it was he who—”

  What happened next was sudden. It occurred so abruptly, in fact, that I had no idea anything was coming. One moment Gabe was standing with his back to the doorway, and the next, he was flying forward across the room. He crashed full-tilt into the far wall and then stumbled backward, struggling desperately to regain his balance. His legs seemed to buckle, and he crumpled to the floor, landing hard on his knees.

  “Don’t get up until I say so or you’re going to get flattened.” Dave Parlange’s broad shoulders seemed to fill the doorway. “This is one time I don’t plan to show respect for my ‘elders.’ ” He turned his attention to me. “Are you okay, Nore? Did that creep hurt you?” I shook my head, too stunned by surprise at his unexpected arrival to bring forth an answer.

  “When I saw the gate was locked, I figured something was wrong,” Dave said. “I climbed up on the roof of my car and dropped over the fence.” He stepped into the room and glanced around with interest. “Well, I see old Charlie was right. There’s tons of stuff here. Were you able to find the information you wanted?”

  “Yes,” I told him shakily, regaining control of my voice. “Lisette kept a diary that spelled out everything. I tried to tell Dad about it, but he wouldn’t believe me. He left today on a business trip, and he won’t be back until Saturday. I was scared I wouldn’t be alive when he returned.”

  “After overhearing our friend here, I doubt that you would’ve been,” Dave said. He turned to Gabe. “I want you to give me the key to the gate.”

  “I don’t have it,” Gabe said. “Nore can tell you that my mother carries all the keys. There’s no way you’ll ever get out of here unless she wants you to.”

  “I wouldn’t count on that,” Dave said. “I got myself in, you know.” He crossed to Gabe and bent to grab hold of his wrist. “Get up and go get that key. I know you can if you want to.”

  “I don’t give orders to Maman,” Gabe said. “She’s the one who makes the rules.” Nevertheless, he did as directed and struggled to his feet. He grimaced as Dave gripped his arm and bent it behind him.

  “Come with us, Nore,” Dave said. “Either we’ll get that key from your stepmother, or I’ll hoist you over the fence and we’ll get out that way.”

  So the three of us left the storeroom and walked out through the open doorway into the gentle beauty of the deepening twilight.

  Lisette stood there, quietly waiting. She was holding a gun.

  Lisette looked so young. Even knowing what I did—or, perhaps, because I knew what I did—my first reaction on seeing her there, standing against the hedge behind the patio, was that she looked more like a child than a full-grown woman. She was wearing a simple white sundress, cinched tight at the waist, and her slim, bare arms had a vulnerable, unmuscled softness.

  Her hair wasn’t pinned up, as she often wore it, but fell loose about her shoulders in a thick, dark cloud. The fragile perfection of her features was emphasized by the freshness of her skin. Her cheeks were softly flushed, and her eyes were wide and lovely.

  I had never seen her so beautiful. Or so terrifying.

  The long-barreled, pearl-handled pistol that she gripped in both her hands was one of the antique firearms from the gun case in the parlor.

  “Release my son, Mr. Parlange,” Lisette said quietly. “A former husband of mine was an expert with firearms. He taught me to shoot, and although it’s been some time since I’ve done so, it would be very unlikely that I would miss at this close range.”

  I could see by Dave’s face that he didn’t know how seriously to take this.

  “You wouldn’t take the chance of hitting Gabe,” he said.

  “No, I wouldn’t,” Lisette agreed. “But, then, I wouldn’t have to. Nore is exposed and has no one to use as a shield. I think you would be wise to let Gabriel go.”

  Dave glanced across at me, and his bravado deserted him. He released his grip on Gabe’s wrist, and Gabe stepped quickly away and moved to his mother’s side.

  “You told me you could handle this on your own,” Lisette said accusingly. “It’s lucky I decided to keep an eye on things.”

  “I wanted a chance to talk to Nore alone,” Gabe
said. “She’d found out so much that I thought she should hear the rest. There wouldn’t have been any problems if Josie’s pal, here, hadn’t come bursting in on us the way he did.”

  “I was out on the balcony and saw him come over the fence,” Lisette said. “I couldn’t imagine who he was or what he was doing here.” She turned to Dave. “What are you doing here, Mr. Parlange? Surely you know by now that Celina no longer works here.”

  “He didn’t come to see Celina,” Gabe said. “He came to see Nore. He’s had his eye on her ever since that night at the club. He asked her then if—”

  He let the sentence fall away, uncompleted, obviously realizing he’d already said too much.

  “What night at the club?” Lisette responded immediately. There was an edge to her voice. “I don’t recall that I gave permission for any such excursion. In fact, I distinctly remember vetoing that idea.”

  “Stop talking to me as though I were a child, Maman,” Gabe said. “You should know that I’ve been around for a while. If I’m not able to make a few decisions on my own by this time, then I never will be.”

  “That’s the point I was trying to make, dear,” Lisette said calmly. “You will never be able to make mature decisions. You will always be mentally and emotionally a boy. I should have hoped that you would have benefited from your brother’s tragic example. Louis never would have had his accident if he had obeyed me when I told him he wasn’t to ride that stallion.”

  “What happened to Louis was no accident,” Gabe said bitterly.

  “What do you mean by that statement?”

  “Lou knew he wasn’t strong enough to control that horse,” Gabe said. “He knew the risk he was taking if he tried to jump it. He took that risk because he wanted to—because he was tempting fate—because he was sick of living the way we have to live. Louis hated the things you made him do. He hated being dependent. He thought that nearly eighty years of childhood was enough.”

  “I know you don’t believe that,” Lisette said with a nervous laugh. “You’re saying it only in a childish attempt to hurt me. Well, it isn’t going to work, dear, because I know what lies behind these little flare-ups of yours. You’ve allowed yourself to get too attached to a girl again. That always results in your getting upset and bitter.”

  “If he’s attached to Nore, he picked a strange way of showing it,” Dave said. “What do you two have planned for us now—another boat ride?”

  “No, you’re going back into the cabin,” Lisette informed him. “Gabe, go get the keys out of the purse in my bedroom and bring the car around to the front of the house. You and Josie wait for me there. I’ll be joining you shortly.”

  Gabe turned to me. “Nore, I’m sorry. I’m not responsible.”

  “You are responsible,” I shot back. “You’re Maman’s little henchman. It makes me sick to think that I once thought I might be in love with you.”

  That would have made a great parting line if my eyes hadn’t betrayed me by suddenly filling with uncontrollable tears.

  “Into the cabin, Nore,” my stepmother ordered. Could that possibly be a note of regret that I heard in her voice? There flashed through my mind the memory of our conversation in the kitchen on the morning that she had sent me to meet Gabe by the river. “I wish your relationship with us were different,” she’d told me then.

  At the time, of course, I hadn’t understood her meaning. Whatever measure of affection she felt for me—if, indeed, she did feel any—was clearly not enough to keep her from following whatever plan she’d made. The pistol in her hands didn’t waver. She nodded toward the cabin, and I knew I had no alternative but to enter it.

  Once ensconced in the storage room, out of the sight of Gabe and his mother, I covered my face with my hands and let the tears come. I wept for myself, of course, and for Dave, whom I had dragged into this mess, and for my father, so blinded by infatuation that he wasn’t aware of the danger.

  And I wept for Gabe—yes, even for Gabe—for in that one final instant before I’d turned away, I’d looked into his face and seen such pain and hopelessness there that I couldn’t bring myself to truly hate him.

  I heard the sound of Dave’s footsteps entering the cabin and then the thud of the door slamming closed. Then there was the metallic clink of the padlock being snapped into place. A moment later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Dave turned me toward him, and, sobbing, I threw myself into his arms.

  “Don’t cry,” he said gruffly as he cradled me against his chest. “She’s gone now. We’re safe in here. We’ll just hole up for a while until your dad gets back.”

  “Dad won’t be back for two whole days!” I wailed.

  “So? It’s not the end of the world if we wait two days,” Dave said. “Our stomachs may growl, but at least we’ll have plenty to read.”

  His attempt to make light of such a miserable situation both touched and angered me.

  “You don’t understand,” I said, pulling back so that I could look up at him. “You don’t really think this is all there is to it, do you? Lisette isn’t going to just walk off and leave us to be rescued. We know too much for her to allow that. We’d ruin everything for her.”

  “Then why didn’t she shoot us while we were out in the yard?” Dave asked reasonably. “She had the opportunity, and she didn’t use it. You heard her send Gabe to get his sister and bring the car around. The family’s going away, and they’re obviously not taking us with them, so I don’t really see what we have to worry about.”

  “Lisette didn’t want to shoot us if she could help it,” I said. “Bullets in people are hard to pass off as accidents. That doesn’t mean, though, that she doesn’t have other plans for us. She can’t afford to let us out of here alive.”

  “We’ll see about that,” Dave said. “There’s no way she can get the jump on us now. She and Gabe can’t get the lock off that door without our hearing them. If I’m prepared and standing ready, I can swing a pretty heavy fist. Nobody who steps through that doorway will get very far.”

  “We can turn off the light,” I said, beginning to feel more hopeful. “They won’t be able to see you if they’re stepping into darkness.”

  “And you can distract them by making some noise at the side of the room,” Dave said. “They’ll turn their heads in that direction, and—wham!—they’ve had it.” He pulled me back against him and gave me a hug. “I don’t have a tissue, but you can wipe your eyes on my shirt.”

  “I appreciate the offer, but I have a shirt of my own,” I told him. It was comforting just to stand there, encircled by his arms. “Can you imagine what it would be like to know that you were never going to grow old? That, if you took perfect care of yourself and never had an accident, you might be able to live until the end of the world?”

  “It sounds pretty boring to me,” Dave said. “It would be like playing an album with one song on it that never ended.” He tightened his arms in one final squeeze and then released me. “Well, where do we start our reading? Is this stuff in any sort of order? That journal you were talking about—”

  “Dave,” I interrupted, “I smell gasoline.”

  “You smell what?” He regarded me with surprise. “There’s nothing like that in here. It must be those papers and things you smell. When paper gets old and musty—”

  He broke off in mid-sentence and sniffed at the air.

  “No, wait—you’re right. I can smell it, too. It does smell like gas.”

  “There!” I cried. “Look!”

  I pointed to the far corner of the room, where a curl of gray smoke was rising lazily toward the ceiling. Stiff with shock, I stood immobilized, with my hand suspended in the air, watching the wisp fan out and begin to expand in all directions.

  “She must’ve taken the fuel can Gabe uses for the boat,” I said, too stunned to feel anything yet but numbness. “She’s doused the side of the cabin and ignited it. She’s going to burn us alive in here.”

  “That’s impossible,” Dave said. “Not even Li
sette would do that.”

  Then he turned to stare in the direction that I was pointing. The entire corner of the storeroom was now rapidly misting with smoke, and my eyes were already beginning to smart from the fumes. In the silence that had fallen over us, I became aware of a crackling sound that had previously been covered by our voices.

  I knew what that sound must mean, and a scream started building at the back of my throat.

  “This cabin’s a tinderbox,” Dave said in strange, flat voice, as though he couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of what he was saying. “As old and as dry as the wood is, it’ll go up like a bonfire.”

  As if on cue, a thin tongue of flame came darting in through the crack between two widely spaced boards and began to lick hungrily at the inside surface of the wall. Instinctively, I started to back away from it. Then, regaining control of my senses, I reversed direction and rushed toward it instead. Squinting my eyes half closed against the smoke, I began to kick the nearby piles of papers and documents back out of reach of the flame. Once those papers ignited, the fire would sweep from stack to stack, and in seconds, the interior of the room would be engulfed in flames.

  “I’m going to see if I can break down the door,” Dave said.

  I nodded without speaking, knowing that if I once allowed my lips to part, I would be lost in a helpless state of hysteria.

  Pressing my hands to my mouth, I watched as Dave backed away from the door and gathered himself for the charge. Then, like a football lineman, he went hurtling forward. His shoulder crashed into the door with so much force that it seemed impossible that the aged boards wouldn’t shatter. When he stepped back, however, I saw that the wood was stronger than it looked. The door held, and the hinges were still set in place.

  Dave readied himself for a second charge. This time, I shut my eyes, unable to allow myself to watch any more. The room was growing dense with smoke, and every breath I took caused me to break into a new round of coughing. The initial crackling sound had by now become a steady roar, and the heat from the wall behind me was becoming intense. There was one heavy thud—and then another—and still another—as Dave hurled himself again and again against the door.

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