The car was going to drive off the side of the cliff.
This was something Danielle Hunter felt sure of as she brushed her red hair out of her eyes and peered out the dirty window of the taxi. Miles of sharp-looking pine trees and jagged boulders peppered the landscape below the road. As far as she could see – and that was quite a long way at this altitude – there was nothing but trees, trees, and more trees. Okay, a few boulders and lakes here and there, but mostly there were trees.
Danielle would normally consider the view of the mountain pass beautiful, but on this day with a queasy stomach and an insane cab driver who liked to swerve, she was just a little nervous. She kept seeing the cab sailing over the edge of the road into nothing, then plummeting down and down into a pile of those trees and exploding in a horrific fire ball.
She sat back against the seat and closed her eyes, breathing deeply. It'll all be okay, she told herself. Why are you nervous? You should be happy you're here. It's not everybody who gets to spend a week at the McKane Mansion!
"Hey, Miss, you okay?" the cab driver asked her, peering at her in the rearview mirror. He drifted toward the edge of the road again as he looked at her.
"I'm fine," she said hurriedly. "Just tired." Just keep your eye on the road, you maniac, she growled in her mind.
He nodded and returned his gaze to the road. He didn't, however, stop talking to her. "So whatcha goin' to McKane's for, if you don't mind me asking?" Danielle didn't think he really cared if she minded or not.
She pursed her lips. She didn't really want to get drawn into a conversation with the man – Bob, his license on the dashboard read – but rudeness to strangers, especially strangers driving her up the edge of a mountain, were not really her thing.
"All finalists for his scholarship get to spend a week at his mansion," she said, not offering any more. Bob, however, apparently didn't like silence.
"Ah, you a smart kid, then?" he asked, a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
She shrugged. "I can write an essay."
That was all she had to do. Write an essay. A cheesy one at that, about why it was great to be an American. It was a nation-wide contest. The winner would receive a $10,000 scholarship to the college of his or her choice.
Danielle hadn't really thought she had a chance to win when she entered her essay, but she was willing to take the chance. A scholarship like that would really help her get to college. Although her parents weren't poor, they didn't really have the kind of money needed to finance Danielle's education. She wanted to help out as much as possible. So she had sent off her essay with no regret for the time lost in writing it.
When she had received the envelope in the mail, marked with the McKane Inc. logo in the corner, she figured it was a list of finalists, mailed out to everyone who entered. She was half right. It was a list of finalists, but it was not mailed to everybody. As she glanced at the list of 10 names, she noticed her name halfway down. "Congratulations!" it said at the top.
A month later and she was on her way to Mount Hope and the mansion at the top.
The driver was silent for a moment. "Well, hope you don't have any trouble up there."
"Trouble?" Unease trickled down her spine.
Bob shrugged. "They say the place is haunted, after McKane's wife died. Some even say that old man McKane killed her himself, that she still hangs around to punish him for it. And every once in a while someone goes in there – and doesn't come back."
Danielle couldn't help but laugh. "That's ridiculous! There is no such thing as ghosts."
"Whatever you say, miss. But good luck all the same."
Danielle shook her head in disbelief. Ghosts! That was the craziest thing she'd ever heard. She pushed it out of her thoughts and concentrated instead on the week ahead of her. A week with no parents, no school, and a huge mansion full of mysteries. She would be living the life of luxury for seven whole days. And maybe, if she was lucky, she would have a $10,000 scholarship in her possession at the end of that week.
Still, the driver's words stayed in the back of her mind, even as they drove up to the enormous wrought-iron front gates.