The Heron: Coming 15 April 2021 / A sample
7 July 2019
Oyster River, New Hampshire
Thoughts of murder crossed her mind. Her fingers itched to wrap themselves around the woman’s throat, cutting off her endless stream of words. They’d catch her, she’d never get off the plane undiscovered. She’d die in jail. Might be worth it. Abbey pictured the headlines. College Professor Throttles Obnoxious Seatmate On Flight From Hell. Through gritted teeth, she smiled at the unsuspecting, garrulous woman beside her. The seatbelt sign dinged and flashed on. Relief flooded her mind. Thank you, Sweet Jesus.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are beginning our final descent.” The now chipper attendant spieled off instructions to the turbulence weary passengers crammed aboard the long-delayed flight from Houston. “Welcome to Portsmouth International Airport.”
Saved by the bell, hallelujah. The woman would live and Abbey spared life in prison. Good thing. Orange was her least favorite color. Abbey gathered her belongings and peered sideways at her seatmate. Poor dear. The anxiety-ridden flight brought out the worst in all of them, herself included. She took a deep breath and centered her mind, putting her brutal day behind her. The hours spent sitting on the tarmac, the stomach churning turbulence, the endless nervous chatter, it was coming to an end. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts. She glanced down at the card stuck in her book as a placeholder. An invitation, handwritten in beautiful calligraphy, on thick cream stock. She read it for the millionth time.
Doctor Abigail Coote,
It is with immense pleasure I write to inform you that you are the recipient of the Pine Tree House Award for Academic Excellence in the field of American History. This letter entitles you to two weeks accommodation at our recognized historic home, Pine Tree House. Local excursions and access to knowledgeable historians included. All meals prepared by a world class chef.
Please contact us with your travel plans, ASAP, so we can prepare the house for your arrival. Congratulations and we look forward to serving you soon.
Abbey had yet to discover the culprit who’d submitted her name for consideration. No one at the university admitted to it. Her chief suspect was Cassandra, her best friend, who knew the intimate details of Abbey’s recent tragic accident and encouraged her to leave town for a well-deserved break, so here she was, winging her way to New Hampshire. She was grateful to abandon the Texas heat and humidity for a cool New England summer. But more than that, she craved distraction from her inner turmoil. As the plane touched down, Abbey slipped the paper into her purse.
The airport was tiny and compared to Houston Hobby, easy to navigate. Abbey glanced at her watch. Four o’clock, four hours late thanks to thunderstorms and ground delays. As she wheeled her suitcase through the arrivals area, the stress of the flight dissipated, and her excitement grew. The blue-haired chatterbox, surrounded by a bevy of grandchildren, waved from across the baggage claim carousel. Abbey gave her a magnanimous salute. She couldn’t help but grin at the kids’ evident pleasure, clamoring for their Gran’s attention.
Entering the pickup area, she spotted her name in calligraphy, held aloft on a rectangular piece of cardboard. The sight of the man holding the placard caused a pause in her step and a slight lift of an eyebrow. Tall, blond and slender, he was drop dead gorgeous. An immediate stab of guilt pierced her pleasant mood as her battered emotions fought for the higher ground. Jesus girl, get a grip, he’s a cute cab driver, you’ll never see him again. You’re allowed to look. She took a deep breath, plastered a weak smile on her face and hurried over to the sign-wielding hottie.
“Hello there, I’m Abigail Coote.”
The man gave her a noncommittal once over and made a slight old-fashioned bow. “Good afternoon, Doctor Coote. I hope your flight was uneventful, despite your delays.” His tone was serious, like a butler speaking to his employer.
“It was. Thank you.” A bemused smile danced on her lips. She couldn’t tell if he was joking. Perhaps he’s an aspiring actor, practicing a part.
He reached out and grabbed her carry-on bag, slinging the strap across his shoulder. “The car is just outside. It’s a quick drive to Pine Tree House.” He strode off in front of her but glanced back. “My name is Jeremiah.”
He has the most beautiful blue eyes. Stop it, Abbey.
The automatic doors slid open with a pneumatic hiss; Abbey glided into a glorious New England afternoon. She lifted her face to a cloudless sky and inhaled, filling her lungs. There was a familiar briny tang to the air, not unlike the Gulf Coast, but the temperature was cool perfection. She trailed Jeremiah a short distance to a discreet black Mercedes sedan, thankful it was not a flashy stretch limo. The engine purred to life, and before she knew it they exited the compact airport and headed west. From the back seat, she caught glimpses of trees and water through the tinted glass. Her driver hummed a melodic tune under his breath.
As the car sped across a large bridge, Jeremiah pointed to the left. “That’s Maine, just over the river. The Piscataqua. On the right, smack in the middle of the river, lies Goat Island. The finger of land that juts into Little Bay is Fox Point, named by the original settlers.” His eyes caught hers in the rear-view mirror. “We have to drive into the town of Durham to cross the Oyster River and head back in this direction.”
Abbey nodded, half-listening to his commentary on the unfolding landscape. Traffic was light. They soon crossed a smaller bridge and turned onto a narrow tree-lined road. “Do you mind if I open the window?”
“No, go right ahead.”
Abbey lowered the glass halfway; the sharp scent of pine teased her nose. She rested her head against the seat and smiled in pleasure. The vehicle slowed, veering onto a gravel drive. A quarter-mile later, the car burst free of the trees and rolled to a stop some distance from a range of buildings.
“I thought you’d like to see the house from this vantage point.” Jeremiah exited the auto and opened her door. She refused his hand as she clambered out, excited for her first view. Her jaw dropped in amazement as she beheld the rambling building. It was austere and elegant, and she fell in love on sight.
Jeremiah moved to her side. “Do you like it?”
She glanced over at him, surprised by the pride that wreathed his handsome face. “It’s fantastic.” It occurred to her; he was not just a driver. His pleased look piqued her curiosity. “Do you work here?”
He nodded in the affirmative. “Yes. I’m the chauffeur, chef, handyman and tour guide, rolled into one.”
“Humph. Good to know.” Abbey stifled a wicked grin and turned to give the house her full attention. The sun, on its western descent, bathed the gray, weathered timbers in a warm light which glinted off the water in the distance. The website photos failed to do the place justice. Two chimney stacks rose from opposite ends of the house with a third stack rising from the center. The home appeared to have evolved over the centuries. Abbey watched a curtain twitch in an upstairs diamond-paned window. She glimpsed a pretty face, framed by white-blond hair, another guest perhaps.
Jeremiah stood beside her and pointed at the house. “Do you see the box-shaped portion of the house in the middle? That’s the original family home with its central chimney stack.” Two gabled additions flanked either side with a small gabled porch added to the entrance. He pivoted his arm. “To the right is a modern garage and staff house. A barn stood here centuries ago; it burned in a fire. Over there is the summer kitchen, now a store room slash garden shed. The funky building on your left is the privy, built circa 1750.”
“A privy, what fun.” Abbey sniggered like a naughty schoolgirl. “When did you get indoor plumbing?”
“Who said we have?” Jeremiah replied, straight-faced, as they walked towards the entrance.
Abbey, her eyes fixated on the sprawling house, stumbled on an unseen pothole but caught herself before she fell. God, how embarrassing. As she raised her head, the scene before her wavered. The wings of the house melted away, leaving the original small wooden box standing alone. A curl of smoke rose from the chimney, climbing high into the deep blue sky. A strangled cry issued from her mouth. What the hell!
“Dr. Coote. Are you okay?” Abbey’s eyes flew over to her chauffeur, his face concerned. His hand hovered over her shoulder as if unsure if he should touch her. She blinked and shook her head; the world returned to normal. “Ah, yeah. Just a dizzy spell.”
Marking it down to an overactive imagination, Abbey brushed off the incident and turned her attention to the view. Day lilies, in bloom, lined the walls of the outbuildings. Bright yellow flowers, bobbing in the warm breeze, softened their edges. The principal house stood unadorned as if it shunned unnecessary decorations, preferring its own stark elegance.
As they approached the entrance, the front door opened, and a diminutive woman hurried outside, shielding her eyes from the glittering sun. A smile lit her face. “Doctor Coote, Welcome to Pine Tree House. I am Miriam Foss.”
Abbey edged forward and shook her hand. “Hello, Miriam. I’m thrilled to be here, but please, call me Abbey. This place is spectacular. I can’t wait to see the interior.”
Her host moved aside and waved Abbey forward. She stepped across a thick slate slab, noting the ancient oak door with hand-wrought metal fixtures. A shiver of anticipation zipped up her spine as she crossed the threshold. The entrance hall was utilitarian, the well-worn floor the same gray material. A vintage coat rack occupied most of the gloomy space. Her jaw dropped as she entered the first room. “It’s like a time machine has transported me into the past. This is amazing.”
Miriam glowed at the praise; house proud. She paused next to the enormous hearth that filled an inside wall. “This is the oldest portion of the building, a first-period colonial house, constructed in 1658. A family of ten lived here.” She pointed up at the low-beamed ceiling, stained from centuries of smoke. “In its original state, it had a loft for storage and sleeping, the full second story came two decades later.”
Abbey, admiring the antique furniture, ran a finger across a gleaming sideboard. A pewter vase held yellow and white wildflowers and lent a pop of vibrant color to the shadowy space. “Authentic?”
“It’s English, produced circa 1650. I won it at auction three years ago.” Her host moved to the center of the room, hands resting on a Windsor chair. “This beauty is American made, best guess around 1725. Would you care to see the rest of the house?”
“I’d love too.”
Miriam glanced back towards the entrance where Jeremiah waited with quiet patience. “Jeremiah, would you deliver Dr. Coote’s luggage to her suite, please?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He turned and disappeared. Abbey heard his footsteps recede as he climbed an unseen staircase. She followed Miriam, who entered the adjoining room, a mirror image in size and shape to the hall. Miriam flipped a hidden switch to illuminate the sunless chamber with recessed lights.
“This is the parlor. Here the family would display pewter dishes, silver cups, candlesticks and their finest linens. The parents slept here in the best bed, hung with the richest fabrics.”
With a tentative hand, Abbey reached out to touch the beautiful paneled wall. The tips of her fingers grazed the mellow pine boards. At once, the room darkened, only the flickering firelight illuminated the space. There was no fire. She shivered as a ribbon of icy air enveloped her. Abbey searched the gloom for her host. The sound of weeping filled the space; her spine crawled with dread. As Abbey’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, a woman appeared, her features obscured, crouched in the corner near the hearth. Bare-headed, her blond hair clung to her sweat-soaked face. Clad in a thin linen shift, a puddle of blood spread out around her bare feet. The hair on Abbey’s arms rose, her entire body tingled. She reared back in shocked surprise and sucked in her breath. Jesus Christ, what is happening? ........