Charlie has always believed that his grandfather had sold his house to his longtime tenant, Martin Hale. So when Martin dies, Charlie is surprised to discover the house was not left to Martin but instead belongs to Charlie. As he and Diesel check out the house he remembers fondly from his childhood, he is pleasantly surprised that it is in better condition than expected. That is, until they find a literal skeleton in a closet.
While the sheriff’s department investigates the mysterious remains, Charlie digs deeper into the past for clues to the identity of the bones and why they are there. But the cold case heats up quickly when Martin’s grandson is found dead on the farm.
As Charlie delves into his own family history, he encounters many people who might have been motivated to take a life. But Charlie and Diesel know that things are not always what they seem, and that secrets seemingly lost to time have a way of finding their way back to haunt the present.
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I hadn't been down this road in over four decades, not since shortly before my paternal grandfather died. New houses adorned the landscape, taking the place of the fields of cotton and soybeans I remembered, among other crops, and I saw fewer cows and horses. To my surprise, I did espy several goats in one pasture.
My goal lay only three miles ahead, I thought, not completely trusting my rusty memory. "We'll be there soon," I said as I glanced over my shoulder at my passenger in the backseat.
Diesel, my Maine Coon cat, chirped in response. He enjoyed riding in the car, even if we were headed to the veterinarian's clinic. They made such a fuss over him there, he never seemed to mind when I took him. He would find today's destination fascinating, I was sure. There would be much to explore.
I spotted fewer houses along the road now and more land dedicated to farming. Slowing, I could see my turn coming up. As I drove up the graveled drive, I realized that the old cattle gap right off the road was no longer there. I missed the sound of the car bumping over the spaces in the boards that I had always loved as a small boy.
Framed and shaded by five towering oaks, each well over a century old, the white frame house stood a couple of hundred feet back from the road on a gently rising slope. The front yard with its randomly placed small flower beds had recently been mowed, and the structure appeared to be in good repair. I pulled the car up close to the old, detached garage to park. I left the engine running for a moment.
Why am I hesitating? I asked myself. What memories of this place do I have to fear?
Nothing terrible had happened to me in my grandparents' house that I could recall. I thought perhaps I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the past suddenly rushing over me. My childhood felt so far away, and yet here I was, at a place indelibly linked in my mind with those years of my life. A happy time for me, for the most part.
I didn't fear the memories themselves, I realized. I feared the feelings of loss the memories triggered, a longing to see my parents and my grandparents again. I blinked back a few tears and resolved to get on with inspecting the house. As an only child with no first cousins, I had felt the lack of family keenly when my parents died. My mother's parents had died some years before, and she had been an only child as well.
From the backseat I heard an inquisitive warble and a loud meow. Abruptly, I switched the engine off and got out of the car. I opened the back door for Diesel, and he hopped onto the graveled drive. We stood there for a few moments longer as I gazed at the building. This early-August day promised heat, and I could already feel the perspiration starting. I walked the several yards to the house and mounted the five steps up to the front porch. Diesel trotted along beside me, emitting an occasional chirp.
A faint breeze wafted along the open porch, and I sank into one of the elderly rocking chairs to stare out at the lawn and the road beyond. Diesel stretched out at my feet. I closed my eyes, and I could see my father and my grandfather sitting on the porch. My mother would have been in the house helping my grandmother prepare the Sunday meal. We visited my grandparents on Sundays twice a month. I was about four on the last Sunday we saw my grandmother. She died of a heart attack at home shortly afterward.
I had only vague memories of my grandmother, a short, plump woman with a loving smile. As her only grandchild, I knew that I was special. She spoiled me as much as my parents would allow, and now, all these years later, I felt a sudden pang for her. I wished I'd had many more years to get to know her, but that wasn't to be.
Forcing my mind away from my grandmother, I focused instead on the conversation I'd had earlier this morning with my lawyer, who also happened to be my son, Sean. When he told me that I had inherited my grandfather's house, I honestly thought he was kidding me.
"There must be some mistake. My grandfather sold that house right before he died."
"Weren't you listening, Dad?" Sean scowled as he leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. The light hit the polished sheen of his now exposed cowboy boot. I stared at it for a moment as I struggled to take in the import of Sean's news.
Another house-I had inherited another house. My paternal grandfather's farmhouse. That was what Sean was telling me, but I found it hard to understand how this had come about.
"Start over, and go slowly," I said, "with less legal jargon."
Diesel warbled in support, or so I imagined, and Sean grinned. "If Diesel is confused, then I guess I threw too many legal terms at you. All right, Dad, I'll go over it again."
Sean opened the folder of papers that he had closed only moments before and scanned the document on top, evidently my grandfather's will.
"Your grandfather, Robert Charles Harris, leased his house to one Martin Horace Hale until said Martin Horace Hale's death. The original date of the lease was almost forty-five years ago. Your grandfather died about three months later. At the time of his death, he was a widower residing in a nursing home in Athena."
I nodded. I vaguely remembered going to the nursing home a couple of times to visit my grandfather, but I was only about six at the time.
"There is correspondence with the will," Sean continued, "to indicate that, as your parents did not wish to occupy the house, it being out in the country, your grandfather decided to make other arrangements."
I nodded. "Dad had no interest in being a farmer. I know that disappointed my grandfather, and I think it caused some hard feelings between them. I thought that was why my grandfather sold the house and the farm."
"He never sold any of it. He leased the house and the farmland to Mr. Hale for fifty dollars a year." Sean glanced up from the papers to look at me. "It's what they call a peppercorn rent, because according to the taxes paid, the property was worth quite a lot more."
"I've heard the term before," I said. "Was this peppercorn rent paid every year?"
"Yes, it was, without fail. The most recent payment was made in January of this year," Sean said. "It's in an interest-bearing account at the Athena bank."
"Who paid the taxes on the property?" I asked.
"Martin Hale," Sean said. "Part of the lease he signed. In return for paying the taxes, he kept all the profits from farming."
I thought about that for a moment. "An odd arrangement."
Sean shrugged. "I guess since Granddad didn't want to be a farmer, your grandfather did what he thought was best at the time. He obviously didn't want to sell outright. Maybe he hoped Granddad and Granny would retire there."
"They might have, I suppose," I said, saddened by the deaths of my parents at far too young an age. I felt a paw on my leg, and Diesel chirped at me. I knew he felt my sadness. I rubbed his head.
"I take it that Martin Hale died," I said, trying to focus on the present.
"Yes, about nine weeks ago," Sean said. "He was in California at the time, visiting family, and they didn't think to inform anyone in Athena until about a week ago, when the grandson came to clear Mr. Hale's effects from the house."
"Why haven't you told me about this before now?" I asked.
"Because I didn't find out any of it until a couple of days ago," Sean said patiently. "Mr. Hale's grandson didn't have any information about his grandfather's will or even the identity of his lawyer. He went through the house looking for his grandfather's papers, and he finally found them in an old dresser, or so I was told. He didn't do anything with them, however, until late last Friday. He reported his grandfather's death to the sheriff's department, asked about finding my father-in-law, and was referred to me."
"What did he tell you?"
"The basic facts of his grandfather's death," Sean replied. "He handed me an envelope marked the lawyer, and inside I found a brief explanation about the property. I was shocked, of course, but I decided there was no point in going into it with you until I'd had a chance to study the documents. Plus, I had to track down a copy of your grandfather's will."
Sean reached into a drawer and pulled out a set of keys, four in all. He handed them over to me. "I thought you might want to go out there this morning," he said.
I nodded. "Will you come with me?"
"I can't right now," Sean said, his tone regretful. "I have a couple of matters that I need to address this morning, but once I'm done, I can head out there if you'll give me directions."
That done, Sean assured me he would be along no more than thirty minutes behind me.
Diesel meowed loudly and brought me back to the here and now. "Yes, I know we should go inside. Even with the breeze it's humid out here." I felt the sweat rolling down my back. I couldn't remember whether the house had any kind of air-conditioning system, but I hoped it did. Sean had mentioned that the electricity was on, thankfully.
The key turned easily in the lock. The front door opened into a center hallway that stretched to the back of the house. I stepped inside and paused for a moment to look around. There were several rooms on either side of the hallway, four to a side. The parlor stood to my left and a bedroom to my right. The doors to each room stood open, and I meandered down the hall, Diesel beside me, stopping to look into each room.
The interior of the house was cool, and I felt the sweat beginning to dry. Diesel rambled in and out of the rooms, sniffing and chirping. My memories of the furnishings in my grandparents' day were hazy, but most of the furniture I saw looked old and frankly shabby enough to have been here in their time. The air in the house wasn't stale, but it did have that scent peculiar to houses that have been empty for a while, a mingled aroma of dust and must from lack of cleaning.
The original house had burned near the end of the Civil War, all its contents destroyed except for a few pieces.
The present house had been built not long after the end of the war. I remembered that much at least of the family history my father had shared with me.
Near the end of the hall to my right a door opened into the kitchen. The appliances at least were contemporary, I saw, and the house overall looked tidy, though more than a bit dusty. I kept memories at bay as I wandered, trying not to let myself be swept away by nostalgia. I opened the refrigerator and found it empty. Glad that I didn't have to clear away moldy items, I shut it.
Near the refrigerator I saw a door. Was it to the backyard? I couldn't remember. I opened it and found a set of stairs leading upward. That was odd, I thought. Then the realization struck me. The attic.
I suddenly felt an urge to shut the door and turn my back on it.
Don't be silly. You're not four years old anymore.
My grandmother had wanted to take me up to the attic, I now recalled. There were things up there that I could play with, she had told me. I had taken one look at those stairs and the darkness above and had run away. She didn't try to get me to go up there after that.
I laughed, a bit shakily, and Diesel rubbed hard against my leg. "I'm okay, boy, really I am. Just an old, foolish memory. We'll go up there."
Diesel evidently took that as permission because he scurried up the stairs. I had no idea about lighting, but as I stepped into the stairwell, I saw a switch and flipped it. The shadows above me disappeared, and I ascended slowly.
The musty scent I had detected earlier grew stronger here. Once I reached the top of the stairs, I spotted footprints on the dusty floor that looked recent. Mr. Hale's grandson had no doubt explored up here. Then I saw that the footprints went only a few feet into the attic. Evidently the grandson had seen enough and decided to leave the space alone.
I couldn't blame him. The jumble of boxes, old chairs, a large wardrobe in the far corner, and piles of junk would have daunted anyone. I didn't relish sorting through all this myself in search of family treasures, at least not until the area had been thoroughly cleaned.
The attic had some ventilation because it wasn't as oppressively hot as I had expected. I couldn't ascertain what ventilation there was, however, because of the accumulated stuff everywhere.
I heard a loud warble and looked around for my cat. I saw his footprints leading away from me toward the other side of the attic, but otherwise I saw no sign of Diesel.
"Where are you?" I asked, feeling slightly alarmed. "You'd better not be stuck in anything. I'll bet you're filthy by now."
The cat meowed loudly, the sound more muffled this time. I glanced around, trying to figure out where he could be. I caught a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye and focused on the old wardrobe. One of the doors was moving.
"Diesel, come away from there." I began to pick my way through the piles to retrieve my cat. He could be stubborn if he found anything to interest him.
I heard a loud thump, and Diesel chirped. I dodged around a stack of boxes and came to a sudden halt.
Diesel sat about three feet in front of me, his right paw on a human skull.
My first thought, after a moment of sheer horror had passed, was that Diesel had found a fake skull, probably plastic or resin. While I stood transfixed to the spot, the cat batted the skull with his right paw, and the thing wobbled sideways.