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By D. A. Ratliff
I hadn’t been here in a long time.
Not since my grandfather’s funeral, when my father had the funeral director swing by as we returned from the gravesite. My dad told us to stay in the car as he exited, brand new padlock in hand. He strode with a purpose to the building, pulled away the crime scene tape, and padlocked the latch at the top of the wooden door. Just as purposefully, he returned to the limo and announced, “No one will enter there again.”
That was twenty years ago. No one in the family had returned. My parents had retired to Naples, Florida, a few years before, and I was now the senior partner of the family law firm in Charleston. My brother left the firm after a few years to become an FBI agent and lived in San Francisco. He hadn’t been back to this place either.
I sat in the car, reluctant to move, staring at the ramshackle old service station. The metal awning over the old gas pumps bent toward the ground, and a gaping hole in the repair bay garage door was evidence someone had tried to break in to steal something. The windows weren’t broken, which seemed strange to me, but then the station sat back a bit from the road, difficult to see from the overgrowth. Besides, one look at the property and it was apparent there was nothing worth stealing.
Glancing at my phone, I saw it was time for the man I was meeting to arrive. I picked up the padded manila envelope and slipped out its contents — a single sheet of paper. Across the top in my father’s cursive scrawl was a note.
Savannah, I have transferred ownership of Dad’s property to you and Jackson. You and your brother do with it what you will.
Taped to the bottom of the note, the padlock key.
My fingers hovered over the key, almost afraid to pull the tape off. It seemed like a betrayal to my father’s wishes. No, this needed to happen. This long chapter of our lives needed to end. I pulled the key off the paper and got out of the car — time to unlock the past.
Weeds growing from cracks in the broken, worn asphalt were tall, and I picked my way through the thicket to reach the front door. I remembered the padlock as shiny and silver, but a dull silver lock worn down by the weather greeted me. Would the key work? Panic rose in me as I wondered.
The key wouldn’t go in. The lock appeared rusty. Well, this wouldn’t do. I wasn’t certain why the man I was meeting even wanted to see the inside. The real estate agent who contacted me said the developer wanted to raze the place and put up a modern convenience store with gas pumps. If we decided to sell, there would be nothing left here anyway.
I was still trying to get the padlock open when an SUV pulled up. A sign on the side said Davis Developers, Charleston, SC. I knew about them before the agent contacted me. One of the attorneys in the firm had drawn up a contract with them for one of his clients. I inquired about how they were to do business with, and he informed me they appeared honest and negotiated in good faith, but I still didn’t trust developers.
The man got out of the vehicle. “Ms. Edwards?”
“Yes. You are Mr. Davis?”
“I am. Jonathon Davis, but please call me Jon.”
“Savannah Edwards and I go by Savannah.”
“Nice city, Savannah.” His smile was warm, and for some reason, I felt totally at ease with this man.
“My mother was from Savannah. Since she was marrying into a family with a history of two hundred plus years in Charleston, she decided to remind them where she came from, hence my name.”
Jon laughed. “I like your mother already.”
My heart skipped a beat. Why did I tell him that? Back to business.
“I understand you wanted to see the interior of this building. Have a bit of a problem accomplishing that. After my grandfather died, my father put this padlock on, and well, the lock is corroded.”
He nodded. “I think I can fix that.” He returned to the SUV and opened the back hatch, returning with a can of lubricant. “Never go anywhere without this.” A quick spray into the lock mechanism and the key slipped in. He removed the padlock and opened the door. “Let me go in first and make certain the structure is sound.”
After about thirty seconds, he called out. It was safe. My breath caught as memories of my childhood came flooding back. The old ladder-back chairs that Jack and I spent hours sitting on with the books Gramps insisted we read when we stayed with him. The chips racks still held old bags of chips, and there were a few glass bottles of soda in the small cola machine. I walked behind the counter and then wished I hadn’t. The bloodstain was dark and faded, but it was still there. I felt a bit wobbly and grabbed the counter for support. He noticed.
“You all right?”
“Uh, yes. The air is just a bit stale in here.”
He looked at me as if he didn’t believe it but nodded. “Yeah, it is. I’d open some windows, but someone sealed all but the front window with plastic. Wonder why they did that?”
I laughed. “I can tell you. The old air conditioner never worked correctly. My dad was after Gramps to replace the windows and get a better AC, but he liked this place just the way he bought it. It was pretty rundown, but it was the way he wanted it. Lined the windows with plastic to insulate them.”
At the mention of the windows, I walked over to a small window, drawn by the coffee cup sitting on the dusty ledge. Gramps’s coffee cup. He drank copious amounts of coffee, and the station always smelled like coffee brewing. It seemed out of place as I remembered the cup always sitting on the counter near the cash register. The light drifting through the thick scratched plastic sheeting covering the window made the cup look like a shadow. That’s what I felt. As if this place was a shadow in my heart. I shook off the feeling as I realized Jon was talking.
“Makes sense. I know you must wonder why I asked to see inside if we are only going to tear this place down. To be honest, part curiosity. I do love old buildings, but also, I have learned over the years that there are sometimes valuable items in these abandoned places that the owners never realized. I like to meet the owners of the property and want to be certain that if something was salvageable that the family had first dibs on it or could negotiate it in the sales contract.”
I admit his words stunned me as I was unaccustomed to such honesty, but then I dealt with corporate law — not a lot of honesty in that realm. “I’m appreciative of that, Jon. I doubt there is much of value here other than memories.”
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope, handing it to me. “This is our offer. I believe you will find it fair. However, we are open to any counteroffer and will consider any change in terms.”
I read the contents, and he was correct. The offer was fair, and more than I expected. “Thank you. My brother and I will discuss this, and I’ll get back with you promptly.”
We parted company, and I returned to my office. Before I called Jack, I called Dad.
“Savannah, you know I want nothing to do with this.”
“Dad, you can’t run from this. Jack and I both would rather you and Mom get this money.”
“Not discussing this.”
I changed the subject, asked him about Mom, and then said goodbye.
When I reached Jackson, he wasn’t sympathetic. “What in god’s name is wrong with Dad? It’s been twenty years, and he still won’t accept that someone murdered Gramps.”
Not wanting to get into the decades-old argument again, I told Jackson the terms and that I would scan and send him the offer. Two days later, we agreed to the terms with only minor adjustments and drew up the contracts.
We arranged for the closing to occur for thirty days later, and I found myself nervous. I decided to prepare the contracts and other documents myself and was surprised that Jon Davis was handling his end personally. We decided to hold the closing in a conference room at the firm, and as the time approached, I was shaking.
I didn’t want to admit that I felt an attraction to Jon. Years had passed since an unfortunate marriage and testy divorce, and I had plunged headlong into my work, done with romance. The fact that one man could stir my emotions so quickly unnerved me.
The closing went off without any issues, and as the agents and title people left, Jon lingered. “I wanted to thank you for making this process so seamless. Not always the case.”
“No problem, we try to do things efficiently around here.”
“That you do.” He paused. “It’s after one p.m., let me take you to lunch as a thank-you.”
I stammered out a yes and told him I would meet him in the lobby as soon as I took the documents to my legal assistant to file.
We walked to a favorite restaurant of mine, and after ordering, Jon asked me about my grandfather.
“I noticed the day we met at the station that you seemed uneasy. I decided to look into what happened there and I am sorry if I stirred up emotions about your grandfather.”
I sucked in a breath. I had not talked about what happened for years, but I wanted to tell this man. “No need to apologize. Your offer allowed my family to get past this. I want to tell you.” I took another breath. “My grandfather was a prominent judge in Charleston when my grandmother died of cancer. I was three, and Jackson was five, but I remember how sad everyone was. Gramps was devastated. She was the love of his life, and she was gone.” I fought back the tears, my voice breaking. “He took leave from the bench but never went back. Turned his back on everything and bought the service station. He had always tinkered with cars, so this was his only way to cope.”
“That must have been very tough.”
“My father was — is a driven man. He was always a good father, but he never dealt well with my grandfather giving up all he worked for and repairing cars and selling gas. Jack and I spent a lot of time during the summer and on weekends with him. Those chairs in the station were where he made us sit and read books. He allowed us to get a bag of chips and drink each day.”
Jon smiled. “He sounds like a good guy.”
“He was. Then when I was fourteen, our world fell apart. His mechanic showed up for work and found him in a pool of blood on the floor behind the counter. The cash register was open, money missing, his wallet, watch, and wedding ring gone. My dad fell apart internally. He never showed it outwardly, but I overheard him with my mom. He hated that his father had run away as he called it and blamed Gramps for putting himself in that position. On the day of the funeral, he padlocked the station and everything inside. He ordered none of us to go back.”
“Then, I showed up.”
“Yeah, and it forced us to deal with it.” I stopped as the server brought our food.
Jon reached across the table to touch my hand. “We don’t have to discuss this.”
“No, I want to. It’s time to get it out.” He withdrew his hand, and my skin felt cold from losing his warmth.
“I read that whoever killed your grandfather was never found.”
“No, the trail was cold. With so many fingerprints from customers, there was no way to tell who was there last and no security cameras. The police interviewed over two hundred people and nothing. Not knowing destroyed my father.”
“Are you certain you wanted to sell?”
“That is kind of you to ask, but yes. Dad deeded the property to Jackson and me, and we wanted to be rid of it. Hoping that it would clear out the demons.”
At that point, I changed the subject. We talked about his plans for the area and also the project he was finishing up in Beaufort. He said he would be gone for a few weeks and then back to start clearing out the station property. As we parted, he asked if I would go to dinner with him when he returned, and I said yes.
Jon texted me often while he was gone, and the first week he was back, we went to dinner. A habit we got into at least twice a week. I learned he had been married as briefly as I had been, and both of us had decided to avoid entanglements. I was beginning to rethink my stance and was hoping he was.
He had kept me informed of the progress on the property. The first order of business was to dig up the gas pumps and tanks, grade the front lot, then raze the building. He asked me if I wanted to watch but I couldn’t.
Then he called. “Savannah, you need to come out here now. I have something I need to show you.”
I could tell from his voice he was serious, and I canceled my next two clients and drove to the site. I was surprised to find a police car there. I entered the building to find most of it, except for the counter, emptied. A metal box, a small piece of paper, Gramps’s coffee cup, and a tire iron sat on the counter.
“Savannah, you’re here. Good.”
He introduced the officer who said he was going to call a detective and left.
“What’s going on, Jon?”
“I left your grandfather’s coffee cup sitting in the window until the last. I felt better with him here to the end.”
“I was surprised to see his cup sitting on that ledge. I never remember it anywhere but on the counter, unless he was holding it.”
“There was a reason it was there.”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“I left it for last. We are bringing in the bulldozers tomorrow to raze the building. When I went to pick it up, there was a note with a tiny key folded in it underneath.” He pointed to the note. “The note says, I killed him. The proof is under the windowsill. We pried up the sill and found this box inside.”
He lifted the box lid. I gasped. Inside was a wallet, a ring, a watch, and cash along with a letter. Jon picked up the letter. “I’ve already touched the letter, so the officer said no harm to read it to you. It’s dated June 15th, nine years ago.” He began to read.
My name is Sam Franklin, and I killed Judge Tarleton Edwards. I didn’t mean to kill him. It was an accident. After I left work, I parked my truck at Jones’s Bar and waited for him to leave. I acted like I was getting sick, and I snuck out the back door of the bar and went to the station. I needed money or I was gonna lose my truck. I was getting the cash out of the register when he showed up. He was mad after all he had done for me. Said he was calling the cops and went for the phone. I panicked and picked up a tire iron sitting on the counter and hit him with it. I didn’t mean to kill him. I didn’t. I took his wallet, ring, and watch to make it look like someone else took the money. I showed up the next day as if I just came to work and found him dead.
I was so scared. I didn’t spend the money cause I was ashamed. Mr. Edwards gave me a month’s pay, and I used it to keep my truck, but my guilt has been with me since then. Then a few weeks ago, the doc said I was gonna die within months, cancer. I wanted to return his things but was too scared to own up to what I had done. I managed to break into the bay and found the coffee cup and decided I would use it so you would find the box. He always had that cup with him.
I used the tire iron to pry up the sill and hid the box and the iron in the wall. Left the note and the key under the cup.
I am so sorry. He was good to me. I loved him and those kids. Forgive me.
I reached out to touch the tire iron. Jon grabbed my hand and pulled me into his arms. I collapsed against him sobbing.
After learning who killed Gramps, my father seemed relieved to have closure. Jon and I were now living together, and one day he surprised me with the two chairs, the snack-food rack, and the cola cooler from the station. He had the items refurbished, and they were now in the family room of our new house. And on a shelf in the living room, Gramps’s coffee cup sat next to his photo. My favorite mug.
Please visit D. A. on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/