Adventure and thrills return as Jack Erikson tries to settle down to a calm, relaxing life at Hawthorn Inn. He doesn't get that time to relax, though, when the inn receives its first guest even before it opens and his mom's investors arrive just a week before the big Halloween party the inn is hosting. Tensions rise and relationships evolve as Jack is thrown into more mystery and mayhem.
Another bright morning greeted young Jack Erikson as his eyes were shot full of sunlight. He groaned and peeked his head out of the covers to stare at the large windows. He scowled at the cheery sun which peeked through the heavy curtains of his room. Glumly he tossed aside his bed covers and stretched his stiff limbs.
For nearly two weeks Jack had been cooped up in Hawthorn Inn, grounded from even exiting the front doors to walk outside thanks to his adventure with Kyle Skinner, his cohort in trouble. His companion had likewise been barred from all but school travel. That meant the only entertainment Jack been given was watching the carpenters and plumbers finish the kitchen renovations and unlock the doors to the east wing.
The opening was as anticlimactic he’d hoped, however. The men had simply used his mom’s skeleton key to unlock the doors and the gaping light from the lobby had pressed itself into the old, forgotten wing.
When the dust had settled and the flashlights taken inside, the men had found the assortment of furniture and rugs as he remembered them. The hatch to the secret tunnel was well-hidden beneath the carpet.
The overwhelming filth of the room, however, had discouraged his mother from immediately tackling the wing with her cleaning supplies. Thus the area had been given back to the locked doors and silence. Kyle and Jack’s secret would be kept, at least for a while longer.
Jack figured it was a good idea no one was allowed inside that place. That secret tunnel with those shadows and human bones still haunted him in his nightmares, and he’d had a number of sleepless nights. The strange attack preyed most heavily on his mind. He felt as if that strange, monstrous thing was still wrapped around his legs.
The solitude of his penance, however, had allowed him to thoroughly broach the small library in the sitting room for answers. Unfortunately, he’d found no clues to explain what Kyle and he had seen down there in that tunnel. There were no rumors or old tales about murders or missing persons to reveal the history behind all those human skeletons laying beneath the foundation of the inn. There was not even a hint of such a tunnel beneath the east wing in any of the inn layouts.
The only help he’d found was in the small journal he read religiously every day. With each entry there was a meticulous study in two-hundred and fifty year old terminology. He’d been forced to find himself a dictionary to cope with the words. The constant line by line analysis made the going slow, and he’d hardly gotten through a tenth of the many pages of that small handwriting.
Jack would have ample opportunity to find answers, however, since his daily routine was nearly at an end as he dressed and walked down for breakfast. His punishment would end tomorrow and he would be allowed outside into the frosty air. Autumn had fallen on the remaining leaves and frost had killed the flowers, but he still looked forward to the fresh, chilly air of freedom.
He would still be blocked, however, from roaming into the woods. The beast which attacked animals had still not been caught and there had been sightings at night of a large animal stalking along the forest tree line. Some people were in a panic for the safety of their children, and his mom was not quite an exception to the hysteria.
Jack reached the landing and was about to go down the stairs when he noticed a strange gentleman standing in front of the fireplace. The stranger was staring up at the wall covered in stuffed animals. The man was about sixty years old with a gray beard and a few strands of white hair on his head. He wore a thick black jacket, which almost hid a plain, tan polo shirt. His blue jeans and brown hiking books finished the ensemble, and Jack was left with the distinct impression he was here to hunt some large game. He had a small bag at his feet and a large trunk stood near the front door. Smoke rose from his head and the young lad covered his mouth while the cloud slowly drifted through the room. From the smell, he was evidently puffing away on a cigar or the like.
Jack tried to quietly move down the stairs and slink into the kitchen to alert his mom, but his feet creaked on the step boards. The stranger abruptly turned and assessed the boy with a curious air. Now Jack saw that he held a long cigar in his hand and smoke was puffing out of his mouth.
“Do you belong here?” the stranger sharply questioned.
“My mom owns the inn,” Jack curtly informed. The man’s forward way of speaking was too blunt for his tastes. “Did you need to ask her a question or something?”
“I’d like to check in immediately and get to scouting the area,” the man insisted, and he nodded to his luggage at the door.
Jack was saved from further conversation when his mom exited the dining hall. She looked tired from all the cleaning she’d been doing these past few weeks to get ready for the party, but she took control of the situation with a smile.
“I’m sorry I didn’t hear you come in, I was out back,” she apologized, and she shook hands with the gentleman. Jack noticed she tried not to wrinkle her nose at the smell of the cigar. The man had a firm grip and nearly shook off her arm. “Did I hear right when you asked to see a room?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledged. Jack didn’t trust him as his eyes flitted about the room. He acted too excited. “I’m looking forward to trying my hand at netting me some prizes like these,” he explained, and he nodded at the dead animals.
“I’m afraid Hawthorn Inn isn’t quite ready,” Mrs. Erikson regretfully informed. “Many of the rooms still need to be cleaned and we don’t have any meals we could prepare for guests.”
“I’ll clean it myself if I have to, I just need a place to put my bags and rest my head,” he argued with a scowl. He was evidently not used to disappointment. “Just point me in the direction of a dry room and I’ll take it.”
“I’m really very sorry, Mr…?” she trailed off. He hadn’t introduced himself yet.
“Mr. Arthur Smith,” he replied with a stiff bow. “And I insist on staying here. There’s nowhere else as close to the woods as this inn.”
“There are just no rooms available right now, Mr. Smith,” Mrs. Erikson countered. Jack could tell she was trying hard to check her anger at his obstinate ways. “Perhaps if you were to come back in a month or two.”
“No good, the prey might be hiding by then,” he pointed out. He picked up the small bag at his feet. “I’m willing to pay double the asking price,” he coerced. He stepped around them and toward the stairs. “And I eat what I catch, so meals won’t be necessary.”
“Really, Mr. Smith, this is most unusual,” the proprietor insisted, and she moved into his path. “I’m afraid I can’t allow you to stay, so I need to ask you to leave.”
“Madam, please don’t force me to resort to begging,” he implored. His stoic demeanor didn’t show any signs that he would belittle himself.
“Sir, I’m not even sure what type of game you’re looking for around here,” she insisted.
“I’ve heard you recently have some very big game around the area,” he countered. He puffed away on the cigar, and the distinctly fruity smell wafted into the air. Mrs. Erikson sighed and managed a smile.
“If you absolutely insist,” she gave in, but she did pointedly glance at the cigar. “But I’ll have to ask that you not smoke in the inn. The smell, you understand.”
“Nonsense, woman,” Smith objected. Jack noticed his mom stiffened at the insulting title, but she held her tongue. He was a guest, so she needed to handle her emotions. “These are top quality cigars. You wouldn’t find a better smell in all the world.” He dragged another taste out of it, and flashed a grin. “Believe me, I would know.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know as much about the world as you do, Mr. Smith, so I’ll have to ask you to put out your light.” She waved her hand toward the dining hall. “You’re welcome to smoke outside on the patio, but not indoors.”
“Surely you’re joking.” Smith couldn’t believe a woman could be this stubborn about such a little thing, but she was adamant. The tobacco smell was not pleasing to her or her son.
““I’m afraid that’s final. If you’d like, there are other places in the area you can stay at which wouldn’t mind your smoking.” He took her not-so-subtle hint and extinguished the rest of his cigar in the tray. Mrs. Erikson smiled and turned to her son. “Jack, could you show Mr. Smith to a room close to ours?” she requested as she gave him the master key.
“Where are those located?” he interrupted.
“At the corner of the inn against the west side,” his mom replied, and she waved in their general direction. “They have a beautiful view of the sunset.”
“I’d much rather have a room closer to the east,” he insisted. “A better view of the woods.”
“Show him the rooms there, Jack, and let him choose,” she instructed. “You can get his trunk when you get back.”
“I’ll see to the trunk myself after I see the room,” Smith offered as he looked down his nose at Jack. “It’s too heavy for a boy.”
Jack frowned, but a warning glance from him mom made him held his tongue. Instead he led their first paying guest up the stairs and down the hall to the row of rooms in the far back. There he allowed Smith the leadership position and the gentleman checked every room. He was satisfied with one near the end of the passage farthest away from their rooms. Jack’s eyes wandered toward the secret passage into the east wing hidden just a few doors down, but their guest soon wanted his attention.
“This will do perfectly,” he complimented, and he stepped out without his small bag. “I’ll get my trunk and pay my bill in advance in a few minutes,” he informed, and Jack took his cue to leave with eager steps.
Feeling his unquenched hunger, Jack made his way back to the lobby to tell his mom about their unusual new occupant when he suddenly stopped on the landing. He had a feeling of deja vu as he discovered another stranger standing at the fireplace. This time the person was an older woman, maybe in her mid seventies, with speckled gray and white hair and she wore a very stiff, flowered dress.
She was scowling up at the assortment of dead animals.
“Um, excuse me?” he asked as he walked down the stairs.
“These ugly things shouldn't be here,” she brazenly complained, and her wizened old hand swept upward toward all the heads and hides. “I don’t know what those Olsens were thinking when they put them up.”
“Is there something I can help you with?” Jack reiterated. He looked around for his mom. She had again disappeared into the bowels of the inn, so he was stuck as the resident greeter. Not a fun job for him. “Were you wanting to get a room?”
He straightened up and jumped back as the older woman whipped around and squinted at him.
“You must be the boy Kyle talks so much about,” she commented, and she turned her nose up into the air. “Kinda scrawny, aren’t you?”
“I get that a lot,” Jack shrugged. He wouldn’t let her distract him, though. “But did you want something?”
“What I want is to speak with an adult,” was the snippy answer, and she turned back toward the fireplace. “And for those ugly monsters to be removed from that gorgeous wall,” she mumbled to herself as she cast a quick glance at the photo above the large mantle. “That was always ugly, too.”
“Quite the crowd we have today,” Jack heard the joyous sound of his mom’s voice laugh as she exited the parlor. She steered directly toward the strange visitor with a hand of welcome outstretched. “You must be Mrs. Grover,” she greeted with a bright smile. “Ms. Huxley called to tell me you might be coming by to help with some cleaning.”
“Hmph, about time she was useful,” she grudgingly conceded. Apparently there was no love lost between those two. “I’m here to assess the damage to the inn and bring in some of the ladies to clean this filth up before the party you announced.”
“Well, I was hoping you could help me with that and some other preparation-” Jack’s mom began.
“Yes, yes, fliers and such. I know,” Mrs. Grover interrupted, and she looked up at the ceiling. “You’re going to need quite a crew to get this place in shape before anything happens.”
“And even sooner, since we’re expecting some investors this coming week,” Mrs. Erickson added as she turned her attention toward her son. “But where are my manners.” She stepped behind Jack and proudly put her hands on his shoulders. “This is my son Jack. Jack, this is Mrs. Grover, Kyle’s grandmother and a board member of the Historical Association.”
“Hi,” he weakly waved.
“Yes, well, a nice boy you have here,” the older woman stiffly complimented. Jack hardly believed she was sincere.
“He’s a lot like his father,” his mom proudly informed as she smiled down at him. Mrs. Grover detected, as well as Jack, the melancholy in her voice. “But not as tall yet,” she teased. She ruffled his hair and he swatted her hand away.
“Well, I suppose we’d better get started,” the older woman suggested. She walked over to the front desk and plopped her purse down on the top. “The crew will want to know where to begin.”
“You already have people in mind?” Mrs. Erikson asked with some disbelief.
“It’s the usual group for these sorts of things,” Mrs. Grover explained as she ran her hand across the desk. She frowned when there was a sheen of dust on her fingers. “We’ll need them,” she muttered.
“You’re not thinking of starting today, are you?” Jack’s mom further inquired.
“Heaven’s no,” their guest comforted as she removed her coat. Jack heard his mother sigh in relief. “We’re going to start tomorrow.” His mom turned a distinct shade of white. “I’m here today to inspect the place and assess the damage those Olsens did.”
“So soon?” Mrs. Erikson nervously inquired. She and her son watched the other woman pace the lobby looking over the corners and walls.
“The clock is ticking, Mrs. Erikson,” Mrs. Grover bluntly scolded. She scowled at the rugs beneath their feet and gave them a soft kick. Then she looked up at Jack standing meekly next to his mom. “I might bring Kyle to entertain your son. Otherwise he’ll just get in the way.”
“That sounds like a wonderful idea. Now how about you show me where we can start the cleaning?” she suggested. While Mrs. Grover was giving the room another cursory look she leaned down into Jack’s ears. “This is the part where you run away,” his mom warned as she nodded toward the staircase. “Come down in about ten minutes to get some food,” she added when his stomach grumbled.
Jack didn't need to be told twice, and he moved toward the steps while his mom began showing Mrs. Grover the rooms. She was already clucking her tongue at the state of cleanliness before he reached the landing and disappeared around the corner. He nearly ran into Mr. Smith who was walking down the hall toward the lobby to get his trunk.
“Watch where you step, boy,” he snarled, and Jack stepped aside.
Mr. Smith proceeded on his way with more grumblings and Jack was able to make it the rest of his way to his room uninterrupted. He shut the door and leaned his back against it as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. Now he was really looking forward to getting out tomorrow to escape these new visitors.
Jack’s normal schedule returned an hour later as he lay on the bed. The old journal he and Kyle had found lay in his lap. He was surrounded by his notes and scraps of paper he used for bookmarks.
He’d marked a few of the more unique pages during his evaluation, and the one he kept returning to was the map. The brochure for the celebration was the marker for that page, and he’d been going over the marked areas again and again. His hand traced over the lines which led from the inn to the shed at the far east side of the meadow. He realized a few days after the incident that the markings signified the underground passage Kyle and he had discovered, but that still left a few unanswered points on the map.
Jack tapped the line in the center leading straight northward into the woods. He figured the hidden path to the east would remain hidden without his grandfather as a guide, but they hadn’t checked out that area yet. After the last adventure, though, he wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge. He pressed his hand against his heart and frowned. Another scare and his ticker might cease ticking.
“Studying hard or hardly studying?” his mom teased as she peaked her head into the room.
“Just reading,” he replied. He put down his book when he saw she had a plate of food in her hands. “So I’m guessing that lady’s gone?” he asked while his mom put the plate on the bed.
“Her name is Mrs. Grover,” she scolded, but she could understand why he didn’t like her too much. “And she’s gone for now. She’ll be back tomorrow with everyone else to tear this place apart.”
“I thought you cleaned most everywhere?” Jack inquired through a mouthful of food
“Not to her satisfaction, it seems,” his mother sighed. “She’s certainly a stickler for perfection.”
“When are they gonna start?” he asked.
“She mentioned something about beating the roosters, but I got her to agree to eight. I knew I needed time to get ready for them,” she grinned. Her face turned serious, though. “There is one thing I need you to promise me tomorrow.”
“What’s that?” Jack wondered as he sloshed down some orange juice.
“That you and Kyle are going to behave and stay out of trouble,” she explained. She folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t want you two galloping off to God-knows-where and me not being able to find you.”
“I’m sure Mrs. Grover will keep us in line,” he slyly commented.
“I doubt a ruler could keep you two in line,” was her snarky reply. “But at least promise me you two will try keep out of trouble.”
“I promise we’ll keep out of trouble,” Jack solemnly swore as he finished off his food.
“Good,” his mom smiled, and she took his empty dishes. “And don’t handle that old book too much,” she advised, “goodness knows where it’s been and what it has on it.”
“It’s just old,” he argued. She just smiled and left him to his research.
Jack waited until he couldn’t hear her footsteps before he set the journal in his lap and took a good look at the worn cover and cracked spine. Nothing outside would how show much trouble this book had gotten Kyle and him into. He opened to the page with the map and traced the areas marked so precisely with a careful hand. Those were trouble, and he bet Kyle wouldn’t be satisfied until they’d explored every part of the map.
Jack leaned back and smiled. He supposed he wouldn’t be happy, either, until he knew every secret of the inn.