Restless Spirit of Sear’s Shoe Store See Specials/Sales here
A Ghost Story by Tamara Denise Copyright 2014
This is a fictitious story set in a real place. There are stories about a detective agency that once operated from the second floor of the building that is now Sear’s Shoe Store and there is some evidence that this is the case. All names, with the exception of Jerry Sear and his forebears (used with permission), are fictional. MORE GHOST STORIES HERE.
“You know this place used to be a detective agency,” I overheard store manager Peter tell one of the employees – apparently a new hire, because his eyes grew wide in amazement.
I’d been buying shoes in the place for thirty years and had heard the story at least that many times. Upstairs, it went, there were still newspaper clippings about grisly murders tacked to the wall – and books about creepy stuff lying here and there.
Upstairs was not accessible from the inside of the store. To get there, you had to go outside, around the corner and enter by an unmarked door, then traverse an old, narrow wood staircase lined high along one side with empty shoeboxes and lit by a single bare bulb that dangled at the very top of the steps.
I had seen the staircase but not beyond – it was off-limits to anyone but select employees.
As for the detective agency story, I didn’t believe it myself. At least not the part about the horrendous murders solved by the agency. At least not if they were doing local detection work.
This sleepy little town of 9,784 people, founded a mere 65 years ago, had hardly ever known a regular murder – say a wife incensed over a husband’s indiscretion or a drunk with a grudge and a gun – let alone something truly grisly.
Still, I had to admit, I had a hankering to see the second floor for myself.
Sear’s Shoe Store is an icon not only in town but in a tri-state region, maybe even beyond. In the 60s, it was very 60s. In the 21st century, it’s still very 60s, but now we call it funky – not me, but younger people call it that. I’m not even sure what funky means.
The store grew out of three generations of family-owned businesses – from shoe repair to dry goods to shoe sales – in a number of local towns: from Chattanooga to Lafayette to Fort Oglethorpe. Sear’s Shoe Store opened in Fort Oglethorpe in 1967, run by Jerry Sear, son of Harry and Ray and grandson of Solomon of Poland. Jerry Sear has a reputation as a tightwad and you can see it in his store – almost nothing has changed since 1967, except the shoes – they’re all the latest.
Once a year, Mr. Sear has the outside of his store painted the same color it’s been forever – flat-beige. One year, I stood with a neighboring business owner across the street, watching the latest paint job, and after a while he mumbled around a toothpick, “I can’t tell which part they already painted and which they didn’t.”
Inside, aisles of shelves that were probably bought at auction from someplace that closed in 1959 crowd the store. In front of the shelves, on the floor, stacks of boxes sit three feet high, blocking shoes behind them on lower shelves.
The aisles are one-way – or ‘suck in your stomachs and hug each other as you both turn around’ way. Shoes hang from the ceiling, too. The store is a veritable maze, because it’s actually several stores opened into one another, sometimes at more than one spot. After all these years, I still get lost in the place.
If you have claustrophobia, this is not the place for you. Shelves in the tight aisles run ten feet high and more, blocking the light, and the place is littered with step ladders employees use to reach the upper echelons.
The solution to the constant need to move the earth to connect with a pair of shoes -- and to watch for the theft that is made all the easier by the nooks and crannies of the store -- is employees – lots of them, loitering, skitting, climbing, squeezing around customers, running outside and upstairs or outside and to the warehouse to find a size or style not in the store.
So, you might wonder, what in tarnation is the draw of this confusing, tight little store? In a nutshell, 300 brands of shoes in almost every size under the sun – size 5 lady’s, size 23 men’s, triple A to triple E-wide and more. And a long time in the business. No one else is doing it like this, maybe never did and certainly wouldn’t even consider the model today.
If you were driving through town and didn’t know the reputation of the store, you might not even stop. It’s located in a slightly abandoned part of the city and plays its part, what with its blasé paint job, faded signs and yellowed changeable letter sign on rusted poles in the parking lot, which much like the store is an act of tango to navigate. Yet stop people do – they come from all over: Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and beyond.
One warm summer afternoon – too warm to be outside – I was hanging out at the town library, which had excellent air conditioning and amiable personnel. It was a Saturday, as I recall. I had already checked out several books – about architecture, my latest passion -- and was chawing over the weather and local politics, not wanting to take leave of the coolness and head back home where my only relief was sitting in direct line of my one and only box fan. It’s not that I didn’t have AC at home – I just couldn’t bear to use it, actually disconnected it. I had it installed in the house in 1969, as an anniversary gift to my bride, Molly. You’d think I’d given her the moon – she thanked me for it every summer day for the rest of her life, right up to the day she went to heaven, and I just couldn’t enjoy it without her.
At any rate, it was about a half hour till closing – the library closes at one on Saturdays – and in walked a stranger. When you live in a little place, you can tell right off if someone is not local. And this fellow was not local.
Overall, he was round – round body in the mid-fifties range, round head of little hair, but what there was – around the edges – was brown, round glasses to complement his other roundness. He looked to be about seven or eight inches over five feet. He wore a conservative striped shirt in blues, khaki pants and some expensive-looking dress shoes in browns.
We all stopped talking when he entered, so surprised were we to see a stranger – at the library of all places. Then Mary, the librarian, said hello in a sort of stiff way, the two summer volunteers smiled and nodded and I said howdy.
Our guest looked not unlike me, except I was slightly less round and had a full head of unruly gray hair and a good 20 years on him, and I was blessed with keen eyesight.
Mr. Guest approached us without greeting and asked in a Yankee accent with equally Yankee abruptness, “I am looking for information about a detective agency that once operated in this town. What do you have?”
The librarian was taken aback. We had Yankees in town, but they were polite ones, and we didn’t encounter this variety very often. But I was just taken. I saw an adventure right off and heaven knows, I needed some distraction in my life.
“There are stories,” the librarian began, but the Yankee cut her short.
“I’m looking for documentation,” he said.
“Yes,” said Mary. “I understand. I would have to do a little digging. Will you be in town long?”
I could hear the “I hope not” in her voice, but he said, “As long as necessary.” Then he glanced around with no expression in particular and turned to leave. I followed.
“So,” I said as we both stepped out into the heat, “we share an interest.”
The Yankee stopped and looked at me. “I’ve heard the stories about the detective agency and have been toying with doing some research on it myself,” I said. He didn’t respond, just kept staring at me. Yankees just don’t have the gift of conversation.
So I continued – thought if I gave him something solid it might spark his interest. “Yup, they say there was an agency over at Sear’s Shoe Store, upstairs, one time. Still stuff up there, even.”
He still didn’t speak.
“Well,” I continued, “what say we work together?” He drew a business card from his pocket and handed it to me, then waddled off in a superior sort of way toward his Lexus. I stood there looking at the card: Preston P. Prescott IV, Esquire. New York, NY. “Ta-te-ta,” I thought. “We’ve got ourselves a New York Yankee lawyer in town. This should be very interesting.”
That evening, sitting in front of my fan, which I’d dragged out onto the front porch, and drinking iced tea and looking at my architecture books, was one of the easiest evenings I’d had since my Molly slipped off to heaven without me. For the first night in a long time, my mind was consumed with something other than sadness and loneliness. A double-mystery was on hand and I felt a little thrill. “Molly,” I said, for I still talked to her, “you would love this.” And I told her all about it, even as old Miss Busybody across the street sat watching me talk to myself so she could tell all her biddie friends about it the next day, if she waited that long. Poor old Davy, she’d say, losing his marbles now that Molly ain’t here to help him keep his brains in. I chuckled at the thought.
I dozed off thinking that maybe I should have some cards made up to give out should I meet someone of consequence and wondering if I should have them inscribed with Davy or David and what I should call someone named Preston. Prest? I came full alert when I nearly fell off my chair and my tea went flying. Miss Busybody jumped from her rocker and jerked open her screen door before I could kick the ice cubes off the porch and into the rose bushes.
The next day was Sunday. I went to church in the morning and didn’t hear a word about the Yankee. Somehow this pleased me. I liked the idea of having a corner on something – the scoop, as they say in the newspaper business. The preacher and a few others invited me over for dinner, but I declined. How I wanted to call that Yankee, but it just didn’t seem right on a Sunday. I wondered what he was up to, if he’d gone to church somewhere, if he was even a Christian man. I was worrying that he might be getting a jump on me in the research department when I recalled that the shoe store was open Sunday afternoons. I hightailed it over there.
Parked right smack in front of the store was a fancy silver Lexus with New York tags – they make them put tags on the front and back. I sauntered inside hoping no one would greet me and give me away, but Peter was at the register and boomed, “Davy! Don’t tell me you’re gonna try to return those shoes you just bought!”
I laughed and tried to ignore him, but he wouldn’t let up. I kept glancing around, I guess a little nervous-like, and Peter took note. “You okay, buddy?” he asked.
“Fine, fine,” I said. “Just wanna look around a bit. You got something against a little extra business?”
Peter shrugged and turned to his work.
I found the Yankee back near the office, looking not at cowboy boots, which are housed in that area, but at the office itself. It’s a room built within a room – maybe 12 feet square, with walls that fall three feet shy of the ceiling. If Mr. Sear is in there dickering with a salesman or arguing with an employee, you can hear it all. Really, the whole store is that way – everything hangs out. You have to expect it in such tight quarters and where everyone’s always bumping into each other. On any given day, you’re likely to hear employees arguing with one another and even shouting matches between Mr. Sear and Peter. The employees range from just out of high school to retirees. Once I even heard Peter offer to “step outside” with a strapping young man who was giving him some lip.
If the Yankee had the least interest in human behavior or psychology (as he should, being a lawyer), this would be a place worth hanging around for a while. But I imagined he needed to get back to making money up north.
“So,” I said when I got within range of him, “funky little place, huh?”
He looked at me in that disinterested way again and started to wander around a corner. I followed.
“You know,” I said, “it’s not going to be easy working together if I’m the only one who talks.”
At this, I saw a tiny hint of a smile, so I pushed my advantage. “How about a cup of coffee somewhere?”
I can tell you some eyebrows shot up when that Yankee and I walked out of the store together. I bet we kept them in conversation the rest of the day.
There used to be a Starbucks in town, but it closed down – don’t know why. That would have been my first choice for a New Yorker. My second choice was his, since he couldn’t bring himself to climb into my beat-up old truck and we were riding in his car. He pulled into a donut shop.
He wasn’t shy about eating – four filled donuts and two cups of joe in the half hour we sat there. I ate one donut and passed on the coffee and did most of the talking. Lawyers can be like that – just let you go on and on till you bury yourself, but I wasn’t in trouble with the law, so it didn’t matter. Still, I told him more than I should have and more than he cared about, I’m sure.
Around his third donut, I was saying, “After Molly went off to heaven, I got myself on an improvement plan, started reading a lot more, learning new things, studying up more on local history, too.”
He kept staring at me. I could tell he was paying close attention – just couldn’t tell if he was the least bit interested.
“But I haven’t been able to find out a thing about the detective agency, and they won’t let anyone up on the second floor of the store – liability issues, they say.”
Mr. Yankee stood up, wiped his mouth proper-like with a napkin, folded it and said, “They’ll let me up there.”
I laughed. “Well, I want to see that.”
“Meet me at the store tomorrow at ten.”
He dropped me off back at the store. I didn’t know where he was staying and got to thinking that I also didn’t know a thing more about him than the first time I laid eyes on him. I meant to remedy that.
Instead of going home, I drove over to my friend Billy’s house. He’s my age, but somehow he’s learned all about computers, and I knew you could find stuff out about people these days.
Billy got on his computer and typed in Preston P. Prescott IV, Esquire. New York, NY. Up comes a fancy web site for a firm on Broadway. Forty-four lawyers working for the firm, but apparently, Mr. Prescott owned it. A real hotshot snooping around in my little town. There had to be more to this than idle curiosity about some rumor he’d happened upon.
Billy searched every which way, but the only other thing he could find out about the Yankee was that he mostly defended nut cases and mostly won – that was from newspaper stories. He got crazies off the hook and back out onto the streets. One guy went around cutting down trees in people’s yards because, he said, they wanted to be free. He’d been incarcerated in an asylum, but the Yankee got him out. I wondered if he was still cutting down other folks' trees. I wondered if Mr. Prescott had any trees in his yard.
I showed up at the shoe store at five minutes till ten the next morning, just in time for the show. Mr. Sear and Mr. Prescott were out in front screaming at each other. I knew from years of experience that Mr. Sear was a match for this Yankee when it came to yelling, so I decided to just sit back and enjoy the entertainment.
“I am Preston Prescott of New York City,” the Yankee bellowed in a dramatic courtroom sort of way.
“Yes sir,” Mr. Sear yelled back. “And I am Jerry Sear, owner of this establishment and you are not going upstairs.”
“I am investigating a federal crime with connections to this store,” yelled the Yankee (a bold-faced lie was my guess). “If I have to get a court order, I will.”
“You go right ahead,” Mr. Sear yelled back again. “I know a few lawyers myself.”
All the employees had wandered outside to watch and the first customers of the day sat wide-eyed in their cars. The audience seemed to have a tempering effect on the men and they lowered their voices.
“Look,” the lawyer said. “All I want to do is look around, take a few pictures. Then I’ll go back to New York and you’ll never hear from me again.”
“Come back to my office,” Mr. Sear said. “We’ll talk about it.”
And they disappeared inside. I didn’t think this was quite fair. Did that Yankee forget I was a co-investigator with him? Why, I’d known Jerry Sear for decades and this hoity-toity lawyer had just walked into town! It made me mad enough to start hatching a plan of my own. He may be slick in New York, I thought, but he doesn’t know Georgia slick.
I wandered around the corner of the store and out back to the parking lot between the store and the warehouse. I knew at least one employee would be back there sneaking a few puffs on a cigarette.
Sure enough, a fellow named Frank was leaning up against the back wall of the store smoking. He was 68 years old and had been with the store for five years and knew exactly what he could get away with – and where. Employees had to be more careful now that security cameras hovered all over the place.
“So Frank,” I said. “What’d ya think of that little fuss?”
Frank grinned. “That lawyer ain’t gonna get upstairs. Jerry’ll keep him back there talking for half an hour and he’ll walk out with nothing.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I spent some time with that Yankee last night. He’s good. You know what kind of cases he’s won?” I enlightened Frank and he started to doubt his own judgment.
“What gets me,” I said, “is he’s so darn uppity – arrogant as all New York.” I let this sink in. “You know what would be funny? If I could get upstairs first and get my hands on what he’s looking for. That’d put him in his place.”
Frank stood there puffing and thinking about this. “Jerry’d fire me.”
“He’d never know,” I said. “I could be in and out in a minute, so long as you show me where to look.”
Frank glanced around. “I was thinking about retiring,” he said.
“I’d still keep hush about it,” I encouraged him. “I’m not stealing anything – just borrowing it if it’s there. I need to know what that Yankee is trying to find out about our town. We should know first.”
That clinched it. Frank told me to stick close to the wall. He had a key on him. He opened the door and we slipped in and he locked it behind us.
It wasn’t dark inside, but it wasn’t exactly light, either. The stairs felt like they might collapse under us. The floor at the top felt more precarious. There were lots of rooms in the upstairs, piled high with shoes and old equipment. You could hardly get into some of the rooms, but we didn’t try. Frank knew right where the stuff was.
In a room near the back, with a window overlooking the warehouse, was an ancient, long-unused sink with boxes of shoes piled all around. In the sink lay two battered and mildewed books about detecting and murder. On the wall above the sink, on a bulletin board, yellowed newspaper articles about a grisly murder hung tackless – they’d been there so long they were stuck to the board. Who knows what had happened to the tacks.
My heart was beating hard and I was starting to sweat. I felt like a criminal. Frank was nervous and kept stepping out of the room and looking down the hall. I gently peeled the articles off the board. It was slow-going. I tucked them inside my shirt along with the two books, and a shiver ran down my spine.
I was about to leave the room when I thought to look in the cabinet under the sink. I had to move some boxes to get to it. Bingo, I thought. There were five old notebooks. I took all of them. By now, Frank was a wreck. He’d decided he wanted to keep his job after all.
We tip-toed down the hall and stood at the top of the stairs for a minute listening, just in case the lawyer had won. He hadn’t. We slunk down and Frank went out first to make sure the coast was clear.
I spirited the contraband to my truck – put it down on the floorboard and covered it with an old jacket. Then I sauntered back to the store.
Mr. Prescott was at the checkout and Mr. Sear behind the register. The lawyer was purchasing two expensive pairs of dress shoes and a pair of cowboy boots that I thought he’d look real funny in. Mr. Sear was a happy camper. “Well, this is what I came in here looking for on Saturday,” the lawyer said. He paid cash.
Outside, the Yankee suggested we head back to the library. I told him I’d meet him there.
Mary hadn’t found a thing. She said some issues of past papers were missing from the archives. Mr. Prescott wanted to stay, though, and look for himself. I killed time reading about the creation of Washington, D.C.
Two hours later, we were sitting in the donut shop again. This time, Mr. Prescott ordered a dozen donuts and opened the box between us.
“So,” I ventured. “what now? A court order?” The Yankee snorted and kept eating.
Finally, he said, “That Mr. Sear of yours seems to like a dollar.”
I nodded. That was the general opinion.
“How many of them do you think would get me upstairs?”
“You’re going to bribe him?” I asked, a little appalled.
Prescott laughed. “Bribery is offering someone money to do something illegal. It’s not illegal for Mr. Sear to show me the second floor of his establishment. Incentive, not bribe.”
He emptied his coffee cup. “It’s perfectly reasonable for a man to profit from his business in every way legally available. Throw a figure at me that seems motivating.”
I had no idea and was getting nervous and feeling guilty to boot. I knew he wouldn’t find a thing up there.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe five hundred.”
The lawyer nodded. “Maybe a thousand would make him real happy.”
We parted without any specific plans for another meeting, but I did give him my number. I felt like I was in over my head and I’d hardly done a thing yet.
When I got home, there was a message on my machine from Frank. I called him back. “Davy,” he said, all out of breath, “you gotta bring back those things. Something weird is going on upstairs.”
I’d brought the stuff all inside and was relishing going through it, in spite of my guilt. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Noises, moans and groans, stuff moving by itself.”
“Frank, old boy,” I said, “you been drinking?”
“No! I’m telling you – we disturbed something. We gotta make it right.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll tell you what – I’ll be over there as soon as you open tomorrow.”
That calmed him down some. I wished him a good night and poured myself a glass of tea and sat at the kitchen table with my loot and started to read.
The first article was dated July 7, 1951
Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga. – Police were called to the home of Preston and Madge Prescott early in the morning where they found Mrs. Prescott dead of several stab wounds. Mr. Prescott was taken in for questioning and released on his own recognizance. Police say there are no suspects at this point. The investigation is ongoing.
Whoa, I thought, so Prescott is from Georgia stock? His grandmother -- I'd say it was his grandma, from the date -- was murdered right here in Fort Oglethorpe? By his grandfather, possibly? I guess if it were me, I’d want to know that about my history.
The article went on to say that the Prescotts of Fort Oglethorpe had a son – the III – who was a lawyer in New York and a daughter who lived in an asylum for the insane.
Some things were coming together, but there was more. The other articles said pretty much the same things. It was the notebooks I wanted to see now. I opened the first one and found what I’d expected: case notes, but I didn’t find the right ones till the third book.
On July 8, 1951, one Anna Prescott retained the services of A. Terney & Son Detective Agency (located on the second floor of what is now Sear’s Shoe Store). The son, Byron Terney, handled the case for the most part, it appeared. The records were all his.
I jotted notes as I read. Anna Prescott was the sister of Prescott II and apparently did not believe her brother could or would have murdered his wife and was worried that he seemed the prime suspect. The husband of the deceased maintained his innocence but was uncooperative in the investigation and made it clear that he was displeased with his sister’s interference, even if it was for his own good. The daughter in the asylum had lived there since the age of fifteen – very sad.
I finally came to some info about our current Prescott, the Yankee lawyer in town – he was on the verge of being born at the time of the murder, a 40-year-old father and 42-year-old mother awaiting his arrival. That put him at 63, a little older than I’d pegged him.
It seems Byron believed the old man – Prescott II – was innocent. He’d compiled a lot of details about why he couldn’t have done it. One possible motive for murder, he noted, was money – Madge Prescott was in possession of her own fortune, but so was her husband, another fact in his favor. Their son, the III, was in New York at the time of the murder, with his very pregnant wife, but Byron didn’t let him off so easy.
Madge and her son -- Preston III, Byron recorded, were at odds over plans for the daughter, whose name I learned was Anita. Preston, who had just finished law school at the time and was living with his parents, opposed her commitment to the asylum; Madge insisted upon it. This seemed to me possible motive, if weak. Would Preston have killed his mother over a long-held grudge – or had her killed?
A knock at my door jarred me. It was 10 PM. I flipped on the outside light and looked through the blinds. It was Frank. I opened the door and he rushed in and slammed it behind him.
“Something’s after me,” he hissed. He was shaking all over and more scared than I’ve ever seen a human being. I got him a glass of water and helped him to a chair. As soon as he saw the books on the table he jumped up and plastered himself against the refrigerator.
“Frank,” I said. “They’re just books. The library is full of them.”
“We gotta get them back there,” Frank said. “Tonight. I got the key. You gotta come with me. I ain’t goin’ alone.”
I hadn’t finished reading the notebook and hadn’t even glanced at the other books.
“Look, Frank,” I said. “Just let me finish reading, okay? Then we’ll go. You stay here – you’re safe here. I’ve been here all evening and nothing strange has happened.”
He looked doubtful but he started to calm down a little and took a chair. I fixed him a sandwich and a glass of tea and kept up the light talk, and by the time I sat back down, he seemed almost normal, though he did keep glancing toward the windows.
I read faster now. Byron seemed to have felt Preston III was after his mother’s money rather than angry because she had had his sister locked away. But wait, Anita, it turns out was not Preston’s sister – she was adopted. She was ten years younger than Preston.
Frank’s nerves were deteriorating. He was jiggling his leg and making little grunting noises, which was making it hard to concentrate. “Frank,” I said, “tell me what happened. What has you so edgy?”
“I told you,” he said. “Moaning, groaning, stuff moving by itself.”
“The building is old,” I said. “it has to make noise, settling, stuff like that. And with all that junk up there, I’m sure stuff falls sometimes. I moved some things around – maybe I set off a domino effect. It could have been mice, anything.”
Frank shook his head vigorously. “I’ve been up there thousands of times. There’s never been nothin’ – nothin’ like that. Nothin’!”
“Did you see anything?” I asked him.
“No, but all the noise is in that room. There’s something there and it wants those books back. We disturbed something I’m telling you, and we need to make it right.”
“All right,” I said. “Give me a few more minutes.” Frank sighed and continued to jiggle his leg.
It was fascinating watching the investigation unfold in writing, as new evidence cancelled old evidence and a truer picture of the situation emerged. It was like living in the detective’s mind.
Byron’s notes started getting harder to read, more scribbly, like he was writing fast… something about Preston and an interest in psychology and trying to force Anita to believe she was crazy. Something about driving his sister over the edge. Byron suggested in a shaky hand that Preston had objected to his sister’s institutionalization because she was his guinea pig. His mother was denying him the object of his psychological experimentation.
Sick, I thought.
I heard a car pull up outside and Frank nearly jumped out of his skin. “Frank,” I said, “spirits don’t drive.” He took a deep, relieved breath.
Our visitor was none other than the Yankee. I let him in and he took in the situation quickly. He didn’t chide me for my deceit, maybe because he knew a thing or two about that field. He pulled out a chair and I poured him a glass of tea.
“So,” Preston P. Prescott IV said, “what have you learned?”
I told him what I had discovered thus far.
“Any conclusions?” he asked.
“I haven’t finished reading,” I said, “but I have an idea where it’s going. Still I’d rather hear it from you. If you’re willing.”
He sighed and didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he started his story.
“My father was a cruel man. It doesn’t really matter why at this point. He was cruel to his sister and he was cruel to me. When I was barely old enough to talk, he told me about his experiments on Anita – in lurid detail – about the thrill it gave him to see her reach the edge of insanity without quite going over, about how he loved making her believe things that weren’t true. But one day, it seems, he went too far and he couldn’t bring her back. She went berserk and their mother committed her to the asylum.”
“Why didn’t his parents stop him?” I asked.
“I don’t believe they knew, not before it was too late, anyway. My grandfather was rarely home and Grandmother was, shall we say, remote. The nanny knew, I’m sure, but she was terrified of my father. She told me once, when I visited her at a nursing home, that my father was a devil.”
Frank was back to normal now that he was hearing rational talk about the situation. “So why are you here?” he asked Mr. Prescott.
“When I was thirteen years old, I met my Aunt Anita. My parents had sent me to spend the summer at a camp in south Georgia. I knew the asylum was a short distance from the camp and slipped away one morning to see my aunt. I hated my father for what he had done to her.”
Preston sighed again and finished his tea. I poured some more for all of us.
“Aunt Anita was happy to see me. To meet me, actually. We talked some – she seemed normal in most ways. The asylum was clean and the grounds were nice, but she was miserable there, locked up through no fault of her own. She wore an ankle bracelet that set off an alarm if she wandered past certain points. It was quite eye-opening for a teenage boy. We walked over the grounds and sat at a picnic table under a tree and she told me her story. You know some of it. What I imagine you don’t know is that Anita is the one who killed her mother.”
I was shocked. “But how?”
“My father visited her at the asylum, even after moving to New York – he would fly down once or twice a year. He convinced her that it was her destiny to do it – that it was her calling to end her mother’s life. It was a continuation of what he had been doing while he and Anita were growing up. He arranged from New York for the nanny, who was now the family maid, to pick Anita up for a day visit back home. She was afraid, so she did it. Anita had been programmed and she acted accordingly. When my grandfather discovered what had happened, he took Anita back to the asylum before even calling the police.”
“So,” I said, “the crime was never solved?”
“No, but there’s more,” said the Yankee. “I’m sad to say there was another victim in this nightmare, too. That was Byron Terney. You see, Byron finally figured out the truth, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He went to visit Anita and felt she was innocent – by reason of exploitation – she talked a lot. But poor Byron had no idea what he was up against.”
Now Preston Prescott leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Ahhh, what a legacy my father left.”
We all sat in silence, almost in mourning.
“Byron,” said the lawyer, folding his hands on the table, “made the grave error of confronting my father. My father told me that on his deathbed. Byron’s remains rest somewhere in that shoe store. He died by my father’s hand.”
Frank’s eyes were as big as saucers. “The moaning,” he said.
The Yankee sat upright. “What?”
“There’s moaning at the store, upstairs.”
“We need to go there,” said Preston.
There didn’t seem to be any question about it now, come what may. Frank rode with me. It was half past eleven when got there. The street was deserted. I had brought the books and papers back with me in case that really was what this restless spirit wanted.
Frank opened the door to the upstairs and flipped on the light. We all nearly had heart attacks when we saw a figure standing at the top of the stairs. But it was only Mr. Sear. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. “Who took my key?”
The Yankee started up the stairs and said, “I’ll explain, but not yet. I have something very important I need to do up here.”
Mr. Sear seemed to sense his urgency and stepped aside. As soon as he did, the moaning started. He looked back but didn’t seem alarmed. The Yankee looked at him. “You knew about it,” he said.
Mr. Sear nodded. “I don’t know what it’s about, but I’ve known for years that a spirit lives up here. That’s why no one was supposed to touch that stuff. It’s safe up here for him. Or it was.”
"That’s very good of you, sir, very good," Preston said. "Not many people would be that sensitive. My father was responsible for the man’s death. I’m here to…”
The moaning had risen to a crescendo. “May I be alone with him for a moment?” asked the Yank.
“We’ll be at the bottom of the stairs if you need us,” said Mr. Sear. He descended – and we all waited. The wailing quieted and we could hear Preston talking, though we couldn’t understand what he was saying.
We waited and waited. I whispered that I thought we should go up and check on Mr. Prescott, but Mr. Sear shook his head no. Twenty minutes passed, then thirty. All of a sudden, there was a long, low, achingly lonely wail and the lawyer appeared at the top of the stairs and started down.
“Mr. Sear,” he said. “Do you know where the body is?”
Mr. Sear shook his head. “I know it’s here somewhere but I’ve never found it.”
“Is he still safe with you?” Preston asked.
“He is,” said Mr. Sear.
Preston looked at me, “Thank you for your help. If you will, put everything back where you found it.”
And the Yankee lawyer waddled out to his Lexus and headed back to New York to continue his penance for the sins of his father.