The Hunter House Tourbyeroslit©
NOTE: In honor of my 50th submission on this site, I present the first few chapters of a non-erotic mystery novel. Based on feedback alone I will determine whether or not to finish it. Thank you for reading it and for your input. Love, Traci.
Thirty miles. Half way. The sweltering, mid-morning July sun already was having an effect on the lone cyclist as he coasted down the country road. It had been an hour since the last of the blue-gray haze had burned off above the surrounding fields. Now he knew, with two hours of rolling roads in front of him, that he would have to stop soon for a rest.
But how far ahead was she. He hated her more with every passing mile. He struggled up a small hill and, at the top, peered ahead. Nothing but rolling road, corn fields, pastures and woods. She wouldn’t stop. He knew she wouldn’t. She’d ride until she passed out if it meant staying ahead of him.
Only the sound of an occasional mourning dove, a barking dog in the distance, and his heavy breathing broke the silence. Hot, humid air filled his lungs with every breath. He was drinking water constantly. And he needed a rest.
If he stopped now, he’d have to think of an excuse to use when she let him catch up to her. A flat tire? Attack dogs? Old age?
At forty one, Eric James was to the point where recreational cycling in organized, one-day tours was just that--recreation. He could do it, he usually enjoyed it and, well, it gave him a chance to spend some time with Sherrie Carlyle.
Five years younger than Eric, Sherrie rode with the fervor of a twenty year-old, intent on pushing herself to her physical limit on every ride and expecting no less from him.
But, less was what she was getting on this July morning. He was about two miles behind her, she guessed. Eight minutes; maybe ten. She knew the route they were traveling only got hillier as they headed south and the thought of a short rest sounded pretty good.
Ahead of her was a short, but steep, hill that was bordered by woods on both sides. The shade would be cool and the hill would afford her the chance to watch for him as he approached. She got up out of the bike seat and pedaled hard up the incline. As she reached the top of the hill, she saw a break in the trees on the left. Two faint tracks identified the opening as a path barely wide enough for a car to use.
She pulled off the road and the sharp clicks of her cycling shoes unhooking from the pedals echoed through the woods as she climbed off the bike. Resting the bike against the closest tree, she reached for a water bottle and looked back down the hill, then into the distance. From her vantage point, the road reminded her of a large scale version of the kiddie roller coaster she used to ride at the county fair.
She would be kind to him this early into the ride, she thought to herself. She would save the really brutal criticism until they were safely in his car driving back to Columbus.
With no one in sight, she decided to sit on a grassy bank at the side of the road and wait. Her water was only cool, at best, but it felt good as she drank it and poured a small amount over her face. It dripped down her neck and inside her cycling jersey. She fought the urge to use more of the water as a mini-shower, knowing that a small village was less than five miles ahead and fresh water would be available there.
In a few minutes, Eric could be seen cresting a hill a half-mile back from the one she now rested upon. Despite herself, she felt a sense of relief that he was alright. Worse yet, there was that unexplained contentment that she got from just being around him. She had struggled with her emotions for the past fifteen years over their failed relationship and ever-growing friendship. She refused to believe that she could ever succumb to his endless proposals. One dreadful marriage ending in divorce was enough for Sherrie Carlyle, she told herself.
All Eric James saw ahead was another small hill and then what looked like a much steeper one. Sweat poured down his face into his eyes and around his mustache. He was riding close to the edge of the road, taking advantage of what little shade was offered by the occasional clumps of trees. He decided if he couldn’t see her from the top of that big hill he’d stop and pay the consequences later. His physical need for rest was outdueling his mental desire to not give her reason for gloating. As he glided down preparing for the big climb, a reflection in the woods ahead caught his eye. It looked like a bike, he thought. Then he saw her multi-colored jersey against the green background. Damn. She would sit and watch him struggle up the hill. If he had any nerve he would continue down the other side of the hill and.... No, he’d stop.
He felt like a thousand eyes were watching him as he neared the summit. He pulled into the small lane, half stumbled off his bike and put it up against a tree opposite hers.
“That look is good on you,” he said between breaths, making sure she saw his eyes staring at her small nipples through her wet jersey.
“Pervert,” she replied. “You don’t deserve it after the way you’ve been riding today.”
“Well, there was this bear that jumped out of the woods at me and....”
“Here, have some water. You’re hallucinating again.”
“How far to that next town,” he said, pulling out his map and sitting next to her.
“A couple of miles. That’s another half hour for you.”
“Go to hell.”
“If we don’t finish this ride by 12:30 or 1, we’re going to think we are in hell.”
“Yeah, that rain last night is making it feel like a sauna out here this morning.”
“Have you seen any of the other riders?” she asked.
“Not since about the twenty mile mark. There’s probably only about a hundred people doing this tour, and we got started late, remember.”
“Don’t look at me. I told you to be there at 7. I was ready.”
“I couldn’t get her off of me,” he said disgustedly. “She wanted more. Then the shower....”
“In your dreams,” she said, cutting him off. “C’mon. Let’s get going. I’m starved.”
She pushed herself up and suppressed a laugh when she heard him grunt behind her. She glanced instinctively down the path as she crossed it. “Yeah, like a car is going to come speeding down on me from out of the woods,” she thought to herself. The quietness of the woods around them was a sound in itself. Every step they took sounded like they were in an empty school hallway.
As she returned her glance from down the path to her bike, something caught her attention. Something out of place amid the grass and dirt and trees.
“Hey, Eric, hold on,” she said, not taking her eyes off the dark brown object.
“What?” he asked.
She was walking along the side of the path away from the main road, heading towards a clump of thick grass. She felt like she was being drawn by an unseen force.
“If you have to go, I’m not waiting,” he yelled.
He saw her stop.
“Oh..my..God!” was all he heard.
Eric ran the twenty yards it took to get to her. She had walked around to the opposite side of a gap in the heavy underbrush. They both stared down at the body, then at each other, then at the body.
“I don’t believe it,” Eric muttered. “I just don’t believe it.”
He reached down and put his fingers on either side of the man’s neck. The head rolled over onto its side with his touch, causing Sherrie to let out a small gasp and take a half jump-step backwards. She quickly put her hands to her mouth and whispered, “Sorry.”
They were looking down on a man in his 50’s, well tanned and solidly built. He wore a light-weight short-sleeve dress shirt, tan slacks and dark brown loafers. The man lay on his back at a ninety degree angle to the path, six or seven feet into the grass with his head near the woods. Brownish-red, dried blood stained his hands. More blood could be seen on the ground on both sides of the body from the man’s neck to his knees.
“Well, don’t touch anything,” Eric said in a shaky voice. “I don’t think he got here by accident.”
“Eric, we have to call the cops.”
“Yeah. It’s not going to do him any good, but I wouldn’t want to be seen leaving here, either.” Eric got up and looked around them. The lane continued for a short distance, then turned into the woods and out of view. If there were houses nearby, they were not visible.
“If you want to stay here, I’ll ride ahead and send somebody back for you,” Sherrie suggested. Her voice had lost the firm, deep tones he was accustomed to.
“OK. That might be best. I also don’t want to walk up to the nearest house without knowing who this guy is. I’m in favor of turning it over to the cops as soon as possible. You go ahead. I’ll watch for a sheriff’s car on the road, but I think you’ll have better luck in...what is it...Clearview. Isn’t that the name of that little place ahead?”
“Yeah, that sounds right,” she said. “I don’t remember it being large enough to have its own policeman, but I can call the sheriff’s office from there.”
“OK.” He looked at her intently “You alright?”
“Sure. I’ll be OK. I won’t be long,” she said as firmly as her dry throat would allow.
Eric followed her back to her bike and watched as she dropped out of sight down the far side of the hill. In the opposite direction, two more riders could be seen rolling up and down the road. He hoped his stopping along the side of the road didn’t result in the place becoming a gathering spot for other tired riders, as was known to happen on hot days. He thought about moving across the road to the other side, but decided he was being overly cautious. It was only a dead man’s body, he told himself, and he doubted that anyone else stumbling upon it now would suspect him of any foul play.
He watched the pair of riders come up the hill and, to his great relief, pass with a quick “Mornin’” and disappear. He glanced behind him down the path, not knowing what he expected to see that was any different than the last time he looked.
Sherrie Carlyle could see the first few houses that constituted Clearview less than ten minutes after leaving Eric. She knew they had passed through it on other rides, but they must have come in from another direction, as nothing yet stirred her memory. The woods on either side were thinning out and, after crossing over a small stream, she passed the first house that was not associated with a farm. She passed a small, wooden sign atop a shaky metal stake. “Welcome to Clearview. Incorporated 1868. Population 643.”
Her attention was drawn back to the road by a dog barking at her ominously. She reached for her dog repellent spray before seeing that the animal was tied in a nearby yard. A large, dirty man was working in a garden near the house.
“That’s enough, Jake,” the man yelled while watching the young woman pass by.
Ahead and to her right she noticed a beautiful, three story brick home with a sign hanging in the front yard. “The Hunter House” was painted in big white letters on the top, just above “Bed and Breakfast” in smaller letters. A separate, small “Vacancy” sign swung on metal hooks from the bottom of the bigger sign.
“This will do,” she said to herself.
She propped her bike up against the sign, took off her helmet, hung it over one of the handlebars, and put her cycling gloves inside the helmet. She ran her fingers through her short brown hair, attempting unsuccessfully to restore it to its normal appearance. A few shakes of her head as she walked up the half dozen steps leading to the porch helped a little.
A “Please Come In” sign was nailed next to the storm door. The door opened with a distinctive squeak, which was quickly followed by the ringing of bells from above the door. Sherrie was instantly engulfed in the beauty, comfort and age of the room she had entered. To her left was a staircase leading to the second floor and, to the left of the steps, the entrance to a large dining room. The room she was in had once served as the living room of the old mansion and was dominated by several over-stuffed, high-backed chairs and sprawling couches. The wall facing her on the right contained a magnificent stone fireplace and brick hearth. The hardwood floor was uncovered except for a thin area rug in front of the fireplace.
Opposite the fireplace and along the wall under the staircase was the check-in desk. Sherrie guessed that it once served as the bar in a now defunct drinking establishment. She thought for a moment that she had somehow been transported back in time to the turn of the century.
She was jolted back into reality by the appearance of an elderly, white-haired lady, who entered through swinging doors separating the main room from another room Sherrie could not see.
“Well, hello. What can I do for you?” the woman asked pleasantly, wiping her hands on a plaid apron.
Sherrie hadn’t thought much about what she was going to say, and after a brief mental de-briefing, replied, “I would like to know if I could use your phone. A friend and I are on a bike tour and there’s been...,” she hesitated, “an accident up the road. I would like to notify the sheriff, if I can.”
“Oh, dear. Of course you can,” the woman said, sounding to Sherrie like a grandmother reassuring her grandchild. “Here, and the phone book is right here, too.”
She opened to the front of the small phone book and quickly found the emergency numbers. Fire, police, sheriff. Sherrie dialed the number and waited, glancing at the old woman and smiling.
“Sheriff’s office. Jill speaking. Can I help you?”
“Yes,” Sherrie said, her voice cracking slightly. “Is the sheriff in?”
“Not at the moment, ma’am,” the young girl answered. “But, we can reach him if it’s an emergency.”
“I believe it is. Would it be alright to leave a number where he could reach me, if you promise it won’t be too long?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Have him call The Hunter House in Clearview and ask for Sherrie. Wait, I’ll give you the number.”
“The Hunter House? That’s OK, we have it,” the girl said. “And ask for Sherrie?”
“May I ask what type of emergency this is,” the girl asked politely.
Sherrie hesitated. “Uh, medical. But, I’ll explain it all to the sheriff if you can have him call.”
“OK, it shouldn’t be long.”
“Thank you,” Sherrie said, and hung up.
“Do you need the squad?” the old woman asked.
Sherrie could see the excitement building in the woman’s face and wasn’t sure how to satisfy her without having to go over the entire story. She only knew that as soon as the sheriff called, there would be no hiding it from her any longer.
“No, that’s OK. Can I sit down for a minute?”
“Of course, dear,” the woman said, scurrying from behind the desk to escort Sherrie to one of the large chairs. “How about something cold to drink. Ice tea?”
“That would be great,” Sherrie said, knowing it would buy her a few seconds of peace, at least.
When the woman had gone back through the swinging doors, Sherrie looked around the room again, this time focusing on the enormous paintings hung on each wall. Straight out of a Smithsonian exhibit on American History, she decided.
Much too quickly, the proprietor came back with a thick green glass full of iced tea. “My name’s Dorothy Hunter. I’m the owner here,” she said, handing over the glass.
“Sherrie Carlyle. Nice meeting you,” replied Sherrie with a smile.
The woman appeared to Sherrie to be in her early sixties. Her pure white hair was cut short and seemed to curl naturally. The woman sat down on a couch across from Sherrie.
“Where did you say this accident was?” the woman said after a short silence.
“Maybe three miles back up the road, to the north.”
“Was it someone you know,” the woman persisted.
“No. Not really.” Sherrie was feeling more uncomfortable with every passing second. It must have been obvious, because Mrs. Hunter looked down at her hands and then into the empty fireplace.
Mercifully, the phone rang. Both women flinched before Mrs. Hunter got up and walked quickly to the desk.
“Hunter House,” she answered. “Yes, she is. One second, please.”
“It’s for you Ms. Carlyle,” Mrs. Hunter said, trying to suppress her obvious excitement.
Sherrie was already up and crossing the floor.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the phone. “Hello....Yes it is....Oh, hello Sheriff Jackson. Thank you for calling so quickly. Let me explain why I called. My friend and I were stopped along the side of the road about three or four miles north of Clearview on, well, whatever road that is that goes straight north out of Clearview....Yeah, that sounds right....Anyway, we stopped at the top of this hill to rest. We’re on a bike tour and, well, while we were stopped there, we, uh...,” Sherrie glanced at Mrs. Hunter, “we, uh...found a man’s body.”
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Hunter gasped loudly.
Sherrie Carlyle told the sheriff she would start heading back to the site where Eric James waited, and meet the sheriff and a deputy there.
Sherrie looked at Mrs. Hunter, whose face now displayed shock, excitement and disbelief all in one strange fixed stare. Sherrie shrugged.
“I’m sorry this had to happen, but I appreciate being able to use your phone.”
“A man’s body? Who was it?” the woman asked without thinking. Before her visitor could think of a kind way of answering, the woman blurted, “Well, of course, you wouldn’t know who it was, would you?”
“Three or four miles. That would be up by old man...,” Mrs. Hunter’s voice trailed off as if she had fallen asleep, but her eyes were wide and intent. “Oh, who knows.”
“Well, I have to get back. I really do appreciate everything you’ve done,” Sherrie said, heading towards the front door.
“Oh, my, that’s OK. You’re welcome at The Hunter House anytime. Come back when you can stay,” said Mrs. Hunter, closely following her.
Eric James watched about a dozen riders go past in the half hour since Sherrie had left. He alternated glances between the left and right. On the right he prayed for riders who would proceed down the hill without stopping and on the left he watched intently for a lone cyclist coming back up the hill. The intense heat of the day was now building and what little air had been with them in the early morning was replaced with a stifling calm.
He watched cows graze in a large uncut field in the distance. Their lethargic movements seemed appropriate for the time and place.
A car came quickly up over the hill on his left and sped past. Then, appearing just as quickly as she had disappeared, Sherrie could be seen riding slowly towards him.
She took several deep breaths as she got off her bike.
“No sheriff yet, I take it,” she finally said.
“Nope. Is he on the way?”
“Yeah. I called him from this great B&B in Clearview. You should have seen the old lady that runs the place. What a dear. I just made her day, I think,” Sherrie said as they both sat down.
“What did you tell them?”
“Well, I told the sheriff that we had found a man’s body and left it at that...besides the general location.”
Eric nodded. “How long did he say it would take?”
“He didn’t. We just agreed to meet here.”
“I suppose he’ll want to take us into Sherman for statements. Maybe we can get lucky and do it here.”
Sherrie shrugged. She tilted her head and looked sideways at her riding partner. “Did you plant that guy there so you wouldn’t have to finish this ride?”
He put on his best “if looks could kill” face and then quickly turned back away from her. She knew he couldn’t resist her innocent, green-eyed sideways glance. It was one of many weapons she often used on him when she sensed he was getting up-tight about something. She could sense it now.
Before he had a chance to reply, they both saw the sheriff’s car coming over the rolling hills from the direction of Sherman. They stood simultaneously without saying a word. As the car reached the crest of the hill, the uniformed driver switched on the emergency lights on top of the car and pulled off the road across from where they stood. He spoke into the police radio for a brief moment, then got out.