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Gallows Hill

Lois Duncan

  Gallows Hill

  Lois Duncan

  For Jim Ellis, a friend for many lifetimes



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  A Biography of Lois Duncan


  THE CRYSTAL PAPERWEIGHT SHOULD have been clear, but it was not. The man who had cast it was bewildered. He was certain that he had used the correct amount of selenium to counteract the iron in the silica sand and decolorize the glass. He had been in the glass-pressing business all his life and took great pride in the quality of his work.

  Still, when he peered into the globe, which by rights should have been clear and transparent as window glass, he saw at its core what appeared to be gray wisps of smoke, twisting and curling, rising and darting, twining and intertwining like a nest of snakes preparing to strike.

  With a sigh of regret he consigned the paperweight to a bin of defective glass products labeled Seconds. Eventually the crystal sphere, along with a sad assortment of hornless unicorns, tuskless elephants, and double-beaked swans, was placed on a special shelf of curios at the back of the showroom.

  A surprising number of people made it a habit to browse the discount shelf in search of bargains and joke presents. One of those customers was an older woman with thick black hair and heavy-lidded eyes. She picked up the paperweight and examined it carefully, more than a little disturbed by what she saw in its depths. In fact the images she found there upset her so much that she left the shop without making a purchase.

  The following day she came back and found the ball still on the shelf. This time she forced herself to buy it. When she got home, she took a seat in a straight-backed chair in a dimly lit room, placed the globe on a black velvet cloth on a table in front of her, and looked once more at the visions that appeared in the swirling mists. Being practiced in the ways of scrying, she knew what they meant and set about putting her affairs in order.

  Ten days later, when she suffered a fatal heart attack, her house was clean, her bills were paid, and her will had been updated.

  The woman’s son flew in from California for the funeral and put the small house up for sale. Since he was soon to be married, he had thought he might keep the furniture, but when he saw the condition of the mismatched chairs and the underslung sofa with cigarette burns in the upholstery, he sold them too, getting less than a hundred dollars for the lot. He gave his mother’s strange, wild clothes to charity, but took her personal effects home with him for sentiment’s sake.

  Among those items was the paperweight, which he placed on a corner of his desk, where it remained for the rest of his comparatively short lifetime, clear and transparent as window glass.



  THE FIRST TIME SARAH ZOLTANNE saw Eric Garrett, he was standing out by the flagpole in front of the school building talking with a group of friends. Backlit as he was by the afternoon sunlight, everything about him seemed painted in gold—his hair, his skin, and, as far as she could tell from where she stood some distance away at the top of the cement steps, it even appeared that he might have golden eyes. In her literature class back in California she had done a unit on mythology, and the image that leaped immediately into her mind was of Apollo.

  From then on Sarah seemed to keep seeing him everywhere. Striding down the hall between classes with an armload of books. Seated in the bleachers with some of the guys from the football team watching cheerleader practice. Pulling out of the student parking lot behind the wheel of a red Dodge Charger filled with laughing teenagers. She was actually starting to wonder if Fate was trying to tell her something, when he turned up behind the podium at a senior-class assembly. Only then did she realize that he was president of the class. Since she herself was on the lowest rung of the social ladder, having just started as a transfer student in her senior year, she saw no point in further speculation.

  Which was why she was taken totally by surprise when, one Thursday afternoon in late October, she arrived at her locker at the end of fourth period to find the Sun God standing there waiting for her.

  “Hi,” he said. “We don’t know each other, but it’s time we did. I’m Eric Garrett.”

  “I know who you are,” Sarah said. “I’ve seen you at assemblies.” She wondered what on earth he could possibly want. She already had learned the hard way that the “in” crowd at Pine Crest High School didn’t waste time on outsiders, especially on one who arrived under the circumstances she had. It occurred to her that he might be keynoting one of those degrading “Be Kind to New Students” programs, the kind that gave extra credit for being nice to newcomers. In her last school she had been so embarrassed for the new students that her natural friendly impulses had been immediately quelled.

  “I know who you are too,” Eric said with a contagious twinkle. “You’re Sarah Zoltanne. You’re from Ventura, California. You and your mother moved here at the end of August. I know more. Ready? Your favorite food is—this is hard to believe—artichokes! You’re hooked on New Age music, and you’ve got a black cat named Yowler with a torn left ear.”

  “Where did you hear all that?” Sarah asked in astonishment.

  He grinned. “What would you say if I told you a psychic told me?”

  “I’d say you’re pulling my leg. Pine Crest is not exactly a hot spot for metaphysics.”

  “You’re a smart girl,” Eric said. “I see you’ve got your thumb on the pulse of this town, and you’ve only just got here. So you can see how we’re going to have a pretty rough time digging up a psychic in this community. How would you like to be one Saturday night?”

  “What’s happening Saturday night?” His eyes weren’t really gold, she decided; they were hazel with golden flecks, like sun-speckled pond water, and his lashes were long and light, the exact same shade as his eyebrows.

  “The Halloween Carnival. You must have seen the posters. Every year the senior class puts on a carnival to earn money to hire a band for the prom in the spring. There’re contests, games, a spook house, and all that stuff. I was hoping to talk you into being the fortune-teller.”

  “I don’t know a thing about telling fortunes,” Sarah said.

  “There’s nothing to it,” Eric said reassuringly. “You just read people’s palms or whatever and tell them their future.”

  “There’s no way anybody can know the future.”

  “No, of course not. So you’d just make things up, like they’re going to find money or take a trip or meet somebody sexy and irresistible. Nobody’s going to sue you if the predictions don’t pan out.”

  “I wouldn’t know where to start,” Sarah said. “I don’t know anything about anybody in Pine Crest.”

  “That’s what makes this idea so great and you so perfect,” Eric explained. “The kids here don’t know you either. The main reason there’s never been a fortune-telling booth at the carnival is because nobody wants to spend money having their fortunes told by somebody they’ve known since kindergarten. But it would be different if it were done by a stranger.”

  Sarah had to struggle to hide her disappointment. For a few lovely minutes in the beginning she had actually thought that he might be getting ready to ask her for a date. But her
first assumption had been correct. He had only sought her out because he wanted something from her.

  “I wouldn’t be any good at that,” she said.

  “Don’t say no until you’ve heard me out,” Eric quickly countered. “I’ve got this dynamite system that will make it a cinch for you. You’ll dress like a Gypsy—we can borrow a costume from the Drama Club—and under your scarf you’ll wear earphones. On the other side of the room we’ll station an accomplice with a hidden walkie-talkie. When she sees people enter your tent, she’ll secretly fill you in on their background. You’ll look at their palms and tell each person their whole life story so that they’ll think you are reading their minds! It’ll blow them away!”

  “How will my accomplice know so much?”

  “Kyra’s a walking encyclopedia,” Eric said. “Her parents were born and raised here, and she knows all the dirt about everybody. She’ll feed you so much info, you won’t know what to do with it all.”

  “Oh, so Kyra’s behind this,” Sarah said stiffly. The pieces of the puzzle flew quickly together and made sickening sense to her. No wonder Eric knew so many things about her, including the tattered condition of Yowler’s poor ear! She shuddered to think of what other information Kyra might have given him about personal things that were none of his business. Did he know which deodorant she used? What brand of toothpaste? Did he know that she broke out in hives whenever she ate chocolate? Did he know that ever since she and Rosemary had moved to Pine Crest, she had experienced nightmares so dreadful that she cried out in her sleep? I can’t bear it, she thought. Not this on top of everything else. How dare that horrid girl make my private life public!

  She managed to keep her voice steady and said politely, “No, thank you. I appreciate being asked, but I don’t want to tell fortunes.”

  “Come on, be a sport!” He said it in a way that implied he seemed to think she wanted to be coaxed. “Think what a great way this will be for you to meet people. By the time the evening’s over, you’ll know everybody in town.”

  “I don’t want to do it,” Sarah repeated. “Especially not if it involves Kyra. And as for knowing everybody in Pine Crest, that doesn’t really matter. I’m not going to spend my life here, it’s just for one year. Now, please, excuse me, but I’ve got to get a move on. If I don’t get going, I’ll be late for P.E.”

  She took off down the hall so fast that she was almost running, half expecting to feel a restraining hand on her sleeve or to hear Eric calling her name as he hurried after her. It was not until she was almost at the end of the hall that she realized she hadn’t gotten her gym clothes out of her locker. She briefly considered going back for them and decided against it. Eric had seemed so self-confident that she might well find him still standing there, waiting for her to return to say she’d changed her mind.

  She would tell the coach she had forgotten that her gym clothes were in the laundry, accept a demerit, and chalk up one more victory to Kyra. At least, she told herself with some satisfaction, she had the comfort of knowing that she had handled an awkward situation with dignity. Thank goodness it had not turned out to be “Be Kind to New Students Week” after all.

  “You shouldn’t have asked her!” Kyra exclaimed. “It’s not like you had to. If you were that hard up for a fortune-teller, you could have asked me! I would have been glad to do it.”

  “You’re a junior,” Eric said. “The carnival’s a senior-class project. Juniors aren’t allowed to participate, except to help with the promotion.”

  They were standing in the school entrance hall, just to the left of the open doorway through which the entire student body was trying to cram itself at once. Kyra was acutely aware of the picture they made together, with Eric, as tall and blond as the hero in a romance novel, and she, small, snub-nosed, and freckled, with a head of orange curls that came barely to the level of his shoulder. She was conscious, too, of the lack of curious glances from the students streaming past them. Everybody was so used to seeing the two of them together that nobody took it for anything more than a platonic friendship that dated back to preschool days when their mothers, who had been best friends since high school, had traded them back and forth as if they were cousins.

  “So what if I’m a junior?” she asked, keeping the tone light. “That didn’t stop you from asking me to man the walkie-talkie.”

  “That’s different,” Eric said. “Nobody would have known you were doing it. And even if you were a senior, you’re just not the type to play a Gypsy. Gypsies are dark and mysterious, not red-haired pixies.”

  “What’s so mysterious about Sarah?” Kyra demanded. “It’s not like she comes from some weird place like Romania. Ventura is a California beach town full of stuck-up weirdos who call their parents by their first names and listen to recordings of people beating drums and chanting.”

  “People around here don’t know where she’s from,” Eric reminded her. “Her name sounds foreign and exotic, and she looks like a Gypsy with that long black hair and those bedroom eyes.”

  “Why not use Debbie Rice?” Kyra suggested. “She’s got dark hair, and her eyes are as bedroomy as you can get. On top of that, she’s president of the Drama Club, so she ought to be able to pull it off.”

  “I don’t want Debbie,” Eric said stubbornly. “I want the Zoltanne girl. Doesn’t your dad hang around for student conferences on Thursdays? Let’s see if we can catch him before he takes off.”

  “What do you want from my father?” Kyra asked in surprise. “You can’t think Dad has any influence over Sarah!”

  “He might. He’s used to having people do what he tells them. And after all, he’s on the way to becoming her stepfather.”

  “Don’t count on it!” Kyra snapped. “It’s a middle-age fling, that’s all! Besides, the first thing Dad will ask us is if Mr. Prue’s okayed it. Almost everybody on the school board is on the governing board of the church, and you know how they feel about anything that smacks of the occult. It was hard enough to convince them just to let us have a spook house.”

  “Gypsies aren’t occult,” Eric said. “They’re a bunch of beggars who look at the lines in people’s hands and make up stories about them. Besides, we don’t have to tell him what sort of booth it will be. We’ll just say we’d like to have Sarah on the Carnival Committee and we need his help in convincing her. Come on, Carrot Top, let’s go have a talk with him. We need that carnival money to finance the prom.”

  “I probably won’t even get to the prom,” Kyra said. “Juniors can’t go unless they’re dating seniors.”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised if a senior asked you,” Eric told her. “Stranger things have been known to happen.” He flashed her his white-gold grin, and a dimple appeared in one cheek, giving him the look of a mischievous ten-year-old.

  As always, Kyra felt herself melting.

  “All right, I’ll go with you to talk to him,” she said reluctantly. “I warn you, though, it’s not going to do any good. Sarah hates my father as much as I hate Rosemary. My dad doesn’t have any pull with her at all.”



  THE HOUSE THEY HAD rented on Windsor Street was a small, one-story stucco structure with blue wooden trim. The front yard was almost totally devoid of grass because a huge oak tree had kept it shaded throughout the summer. Now the tree was losing its leaves, and sunlight slipped between its branches to fall in erratic patterns on the ground below, mottling the surface with patches of light and shadow.

  Her mother had raked that day, Sarah noted as she crossed the yard to the house. It was probably as good a way for her to keep busy as any. In Ventura they had lived in a garden apartment. The landlord had been responsible for keeping the grounds up. But there, of course, her mother had held a full-time job and had not had any time to devote to yard work

  Yowler was perched on the doorstep, slit-eyed and glaring, looking like a displaced alien. When Sarah opened the door, he continued to crouch there, defiantly expressing his lack of intere
st, until the very last moment before the door closed, when he slid in after her and disappeared behind an armchair.

  Sarah sympathized totally. She, too, had a feeling that she should have rung the bell before entering. Although they had been living here for over two months, she still felt like a visitor in somebody else’s home. Her mother had made an effort to lay claim to the place by painting the walls the same shade of eggshell white as those in their last apartment, so that their furniture was set against a familiar backdrop, but the proportions of the rooms were so different that nothing seemed to fit or to look like it belonged there.

  The house smelled of chocolate. Sarah crossed the living room to the kitchen, where her mother was removing a pan of brownies from the oven.

  Rosemary Zoltanne glanced up with a welcoming smile. She was dressed in jeans and a bright red sweatshirt. Her soft, pale hair was combed back from her face and tied with a scarlet ribbon, giving her the look of a child at a Christmas party.

  “Hi, honey,” she said. “I didn’t hear you come in. Did you stop to admire the job I did on the yard?”

  “You must have used a vacuum cleaner,” Sarah said. “What’s with the brownies? You know I don’t eat chocolate, and we’ve still got half the spice cake you baked on Tuesday.”

  “I wanted to make something special for the weekend,” her mother said, straightening up and setting the pan on the counter. “You can eat the cake while Kyra and Brian eat brownies. Something for everybody, right?”

  “They’re coming again? We just got rid of them!”

  “I don’t like to hear you talk like that,” Rosemary said. “They probably won’t sleep over, since they stayed both nights last weekend, but I’m sure they’ll be spending some time here. Ted wants to see as much of his kids as he can.” She paused and then deliberately switched gears. “So, how was school?” she asked brightly. “Did you talk to the sponsor of the Drama Club?”

  “I told you the club’s filled up. They don’t have room for another member.”