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The Cycopaths: Mystery Short Story

IN THE July 29 ISSUE

FROM THE 2017 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
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by Judy Penz Sheluk

This story is part of Judy’s Live Free or Tri collection, which can be purchased on Amazon for .99.

The water in Georgian Bay is chilly, even in the middle of July. In late May, it was downright frosty, but that didn’t stop the dozen or so members of the Cycopath Triathlon Team from diving right in. All but one, a finely muscled woman named Cherry, wore long-sleeved neoprene wetsuits. Cherry went sleeveless.swimmer

To be fair, Cherry was there that day as our lifeguard, but I suspected her choice had more to do with showing off the new bicycle chain tattoo on her forearm than anything else. Cherry was the founder, president, and enabler of our club, a role she took far too seriously. I just hoped she didn’t expect us all to get the same tattoo. I’m not much on commitment, whether it’s in the form of relationships, personalized license plates, or body art.

We were at Sunset Point Park in Collingwood, Ontario, a four-season vacation community bordered by the Blue Mountains and the Grey Bruce Peninsula to the south, and Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay to the north. Skiing, snowboarding, hiking, fishing, boating, windsurfing, cycling, or swimming, if you were an outdoors enthusiast, Collingwood was your kind of place. But on this unseasonably frigid, gray morning we had the beach to ourselves.water

We were there because our team was getting ready for the first triathlon of the season in two weeks time. The purpose of today’s exercise was to practice our open water swimming. Cherry had gone out earlier in her kayak and set up a 750-meter course, which she marked with bright orange buoys. They bobbed up and down on the choppy surface like giant pumpkins, a triathlete’s trick or treat.

You might think a women’s only triathlon club would be kinder and gentler than a mixed or all male group, but you’d be wrong. Get together any group of type-A personalities and there’s bound to be some drama, especially if they’re in the same five-year age bucket. The Cycopaths were no different, although we usually made the effort to pretend that we were one big, happy family.

At least most of us did. The notable exceptions were the “besties,” for whom standing on the podium was a right of passage, and the only place that really counted was first.

Maryanne was by far and away the team’s best swimmer, having come up through the ranks as a competitive freestyler, and qualifying for—and winning—Worlds more times than any of us cared to hear about. Katie was our quickest runner, with legs that came up to her ears and a stride to match. Cherry used to say you could crack walnuts on Katie’s calves, and she wasn’t far off.

When it came to the bike, no one could touch Laura, a deceptively tiny thing that morphed into a machine the minute she straddled the seat and leaned over her aerobars. Laura’s motto was, “ride it like you stole it,” and that pretty much summed up her approach to life: fast, furious, and altogether fearless.goggles

For her part, Maryanne was known to yell, “lousy swimmer” when Laura would whiz by her, annihilating the two minutes and twelve seconds Maryanne had gained by getting first out of the water. That might seem unsportsmanlike; in truth, it probably was, but let’s face facts. Everyone knows in triathlon, it’s the bike that counts. You have to get through the swim. It helps if you’re a decent runner, hurts you if you’re not. But eight times out of ten, it’s the bike that’s going to win or lose a race for you.

I’m telling you all of this because if you were to ask me who was most likely to end up getting killed that day, I’d have told you either Cherry or one of the besties. I would never have picked Sunny, and yet that’s exactly who wound up dead.

###

We were back at the beach, changing out of our wetsuits and into dry clothes—all except for Maryanne who was still out there swimming, and Cherry who was watching her from shore—when we realized Sunny was missing. To be honest I can’t remember who noticed first. One moment we were chatting, and the next moment we were staring at a lime green bathing cap riding the waves as it drifted further and further off course. beach

From our vantage point, I couldn’t tell if there was a head and body attached to that cap, but the short odds make it likely. The long odds allowed for the possibility that Sunny had taken off her cap, although either way spelled trouble: the main reason you wear a cap in triathlon, beyond keeping your ears warm and dry and being visible in the water, was to have something to wave. That’s right. If you found yourself just about ready to drown, you were supposed to have the wherewithal to pull your cap off and wave it overhead to get someone’s attention.

I was still sorting through the possibilities when Cherry hopped in her kayak and began paddling her kayak in the direction of the lime green cap. Laura called 911. The rest of us began the struggle to get back into our wetsuits—a nearly impossible task now that they were indeed wet. But charging into the icy water in our clothes was out of the question, and swimming in our undies meant risking hypothermia, hardly an effective rescue strategy.

Besides, Maryanne was already on the job, alerted by Cherry’s shrieks echoing across the water. We stood transfixed as the two of them struggled to lift Sunny’s lifeless form over the front of the kayak, watched helplessly as they slowly dragged her body back to shore, Maryanne’s right arm wrapped tightly around Sunny’s neck, her left hanging on to the side of the boat.water

I suppose we all hoped that Sunny would recover once they pulled her onto the beach, but despite Cherry’s valiant efforts at CPR, there was no sign of life. It wasn’t until Laura finally pulled Cherry off Sunny’s unresponsive body that I noticed an angry welt circling her neck like a rattlesnake.

It was beyond belief that Sunny, whose real name was Cordelia, could be dead, let alone strangled in the water. She had been the Miss Congeniality of the Cycopaths, perennially happy, unfailingly supportive, and unlikely to ever beat any of the besties, let alone make it to the podium. In short, everyone loved her.

Or had they? Recently I’d noticed some tension between Sunny and Maryanne. Over the winter, Sunny’s 100-meter pool splits had improved into the 1:30s, within sniffing distance of Maryanne. Add drafting into the mix—something that’s legal in the open water swim portion of triathlon, although not on the bike—and anything was possible. Sunny could chase down a trail of bubbles like a shark after chum.

And now Sunny was dead, despite Cherry’s futile attempts to resuscitate her, and Maryanne had been the last one out of the water. I looked at Maryanne, blue-lipped and shivering, and wondered if staying number one on the swim was enough for her to kill for.

###

I suppose in the spirit of full disclosure I should tell you that I’m one of the team’s “wannabes.” The antithesis of the besties, the wannabes were never going to podium, not just for lack of natural athletic ability, though that certainly factored in, but because we just didn’t have the same bloodthirsty drive for victory. For us, it was enough just to participate in a sport that required you to swim, bike, and run in the same race.

To have fun.

Where the besties would endlessly practice their transitions—the change from swim-to-bike and bike-to-run—all with the goal of shaving off a few precious seconds from their overall finishing time, the wannabes accepted that, for us, mastering the “fourth discipline,” was pretty much a waste of time and energy. We didn’t spray cooking oil on our bodies to make our wetsuits slip off easier, we didn’t care if it took an extra fifteen seconds to slather on some sunscreen before we mounted our bikes on a blistering summer’s day, and we weren’t about to spend our Friday evenings timing our transitions in Cherry’s single car garage.bike

So it stood to reason, as we stood on the beach silently waiting for the first responders, that we found ourselves divided into two camps: Cherry and the besties on one side and the wannabes on the other. Any camaraderie between us was, at least for the moment, severed, as we stared at each other, assessing the strangers we’d suddenly become. Sunny’s body lay a few feet away, her face covered by someone’s bubblegum pink beach towel. None of us looked at her.

The fire department and paramedics were quick to arrive,
followed closely by the police, who came by boat. There was an initial flurry of activity as they coordinated their efforts, but it was obvious to everyone present that there was no saving this swimmer. I overheard one of the paramedics say they’d have to call the coroner, at which point the firemen dispersed and one of the police officers went back to the boat, presumably to investigate the scene. Her partner, a thickset man with salt and pepper hair, strutted over to where our team had congregated.ambulance

“Detective Gilhula,” salt and pepper said, introducing himself. “Can someone tell me who the woman was?”

The usually composed Cherry started to sniffle, then broke out into huge gulping sobs. The besties moved closer to her side and made cooing noises. The wannabes averted their eyes and shuffled their feet.

“Cordelia Lemay,” I said, realizing no one else was going to volunteer the information. “She was a member of our triathlon team. The Cycopaths. Everyone called her Sunny. Like the sun. Because she was like a ray of sunshine.” I realized that I was babbling and stopped talking.

“So she was well liked,” Gilhula said.

I didn’t know how to answer that. Before today, I would have said yes, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“Of course she was well liked,” Cherry said, her tears momentarily forgotten. She shot me a venomous glare.

The look wasn’t lost on Gilhula, who gave Cherry a tight smile before turning his attention back to me. “You don’t seem convinced.”

“I thought Sunny was well liked.” At least I did until I spotted the rope marks around her neck.

“I notice the buoys out there.” Gilhula studied us with narrowed eyes. “Which one of you set up the course?”

“I did,” Cherry said, her chin tilted high. “We came to Collingwood to practice our open water swims.” Her voice took on a defensive snivel. “I received permission from the town. Set everything up properly. I’ve done it plenty of times before.”

If Cherry was looking for absolution, she was looking for it from the wrong man. Gilhula wasn’t about to show her—or any of us—any mercy. Not until he’d gotten all the facts.

“Who can tell me what happened?”

Maryanne bit her lip and stared out at the water. The rest of the team looked to Cherry for direction. None was forthcoming. It was as if she’d suddenly disappeared somewhere inside herself. I decided to speak up. If we were ever going to get out of here, one of us would have to.lake

“It’s like Cherry said. We were here practicing our open water swims for our first triathlon of the season. In two weeks. In Milton. The water there is always bone chilling, even with a wetsuit. We thought if we could manage Georgian Bay, we’d be prepared.” I shivered at the memory of my face hitting the icy water, the way it had almost left me breathless, thought about Sunny in her lime green cap, floating off course, rope marks on her neck. Had she been left gasping for air, or had her death been swift and merciful? I forced myself to go on.

“The bay was even colder than I expected. I barely managed to swim one round of the course—750 meters—before heading back to the beach. I’m not a particularly fast swimmer. By the time I got back most of the team was already changing into their warm clothes.”

“Most of the team,” Gilhula said, his eyes flicking from face to face, then back to me.

“Maryanne was still swimming, and Cherry was on shore by her kayak, spotting her. Maryanne’s by far the best swimmer on the Cycopaths, and she never seems to be affected by the water temperature.” I attempted a smile in her direction, knew it came across as forced. “Then someone, I can’t remember who, said, ‘where’s Sunny?’ and that’s when we noticed her lime green cap floating in the water. It was well off course. I couldn’t tell if it was just her cap or . . .” My voice broke. I clenched my fists to keep my hands from trembling, took a deep breath, then another. Hoped someone else would speak up. No one did. Gilhula looked at me expectantly.

“Cherry must have noticed the cap at the same time, or maybe we alerted her, I’m not sure, but all of a sudden she was paddling towards the cap. I’ve never seen her paddle that fast. The rest of us tried to get back into our wetsuits, but by the time . . . we heard Cherry screaming and Maryanne was already at the kayak. We watched as the two of them pulled Sunny out of the water and brought her back to shore. Laura had already called 911. Cherry tried CPR but it was . . . it was too late. Sunny was already gone. A couple of minutes later, the paramedics arrived. You know the rest.”

Gilhula nodded, his face an impenetrable mask. “Does anyone have anything else to add?”

“I noticed a mark around her neck when I was doing CPR,” Cherry said.

“I held Sunny around the neck while Cherry paddled the kayak back to shore,” Maryanne said, her face splotched with unattractive blobs of red. “Maybe I held onto her too tightly.”

“We’ll have to wait for the coroner’s office to be certain, but I expect the marks you spotted came from a rope,” Gilhula said. “A rope similar to the ones typically used to anchor a buoy. It’s unlikely your grip was the cause of death.”

“It can get pretty intense around the buoys,” Maryanne said, the blotches on her face fading slightly. “Everyone kicking and clawing and trying to cut it close so as not to add any unnecessary distance. It’s a bit like being inside a washing machine. She must have gone under the surface to avoid the fray, got tangled in the rope somehow.”

We all knew Sunny had been practicing diving down and swimming below the surface. But that had been in the pool, where you could see everyone clearly. Cherry had told her more than once it wasn’t a safe practice, especially in a lake, that it might even be a disqualifier. Maryanne and Laura had told her too, but Sunny wouldn’t listen. She was determined to become a bestie, whatever the cost. She’d even started going to the transition training sessions.

In other words, Sunny was no longer satisfied being a wannabe. How much longer before she’d go after Katie’s running record or Laura’s bike splits? How much longer before she took over as leader of the entire group, replacing Cherry in the role? water

And that’s when I knew that Cherry, Maryanne, Katie, and Laura were in on it together, not that anyone would ever be able to prove it. Murder on the Orient Express, Cycopath-style. Two people holding her down, one strangling her with the rope. A targeted push by all three to make sure she drifted off course. Cherry standing on shore next to her kayak, waiting until it would be too late.

I looked around at the other wannabes and wondered if any of them had seen anything. If they had, they weren’t saying.

Detective Gilhula asked a few more questions, mostly about Sunny’s immediate family. It turned out no one really knew anything about her or where she’d come from.

He wrote down our contact information. Promised to let us know if there was any resolution to what would almost certainly be ruled an accidental drowning.

We left Collingwood with one less person than when we arrived. Cherry disbanded the Cycopaths a week after the Milton tri—a dismal showing by each and every one of us—and the wannabes found new groups to train with. Laura, Katie, and Maryanne soon found their way back onto the podium, though they now try to avoid entering the same events. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever heard from Detective Gilhula again.

As for me, I gave up triathlon, mostly because I see a lime green swimming cap every time I try to get into the water.

Because I can’t help but wonder: what if? What if I’d never told Sunny she had what it took to be the “best” of the besties? What if she’d been satisfied staying a wannabe?

What if?

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.

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Judy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery, The Hanged Man’s Noose: A Glass Dolphin Mystery, was released in July 2015. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery series was published August 2016. Find her at www.judypenzsheluk.com, where she blogs about the writing life and interviews other authors.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Madeline Mcewen-AskerNo Gravatar
Twitter: @MadMcEwen?lang=en
July 29, 2017 at 9:27am

Confirms my theory that exercise is for the besties. Great voice. Super story. Thank you.
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2 Judy Penz ShelukNo Gravatar
Twitter: @JudyPenzSheluk
July 30, 2017 at 11:00am

Thanks Madeline!
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3 Judy Penz ShelukNo Gravatar
Twitter: @JudyPenzSheluk
July 29, 2017 at 9:46am

Thanks for posting this Lorie!
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4 Jacqueline SeewaldNo Gravatar July 29, 2017 at 10:33am

A compelling story. I didn’t expect the ending. Well-done!
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5 Judy Penz ShelukNo Gravatar
Twitter: @JudyPenzSheluk
July 30, 2017 at 9:55am

Thank you Jacquie! It is loosely based on a time that I attended a triathlon training camp in Collingwood — minus the dead body of course!
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6 Mary BartonNo Gravatar July 29, 2017 at 12:50pm

Great story!

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7 Judy Penz ShelukNo Gravatar
Twitter: @JudyPenzSheluk
July 30, 2017 at 9:58am

Thank you so much Mary!
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8 John LindermuthNo Gravatar
Twitter: @jrlindermuth
July 29, 2017 at 3:10pm

Excellent story, Judy. Enjoyed reading it.
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9 Judy Penz ShelukNo Gravatar
Twitter: @JudyPenzSheluk
July 30, 2017 at 9:56am

Thank you so much John. That means a lot to me, coming from you.
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