Chapter 31: Storied past
“Oh, so you are the ones who are brave enough to buy the old Sterben place,” Beverly Grasso asked, a sly grin spreading across her face. “Makes sense once you learn the history.” She gave him an appraising look. “Which I really doubt you know.” Alex wasn’t sure he liked this woman, who had been in charge of the county historical society for more than thirty years. Looking over the dusty displays and ancient books, Alex thought this was because no one else wanted or cared about the job. Beverly, however, clearly did not share this view. A quick look around the room showed she seemed to focus most of the society’s research on the Sterben house. “The history of that house is extremely interesting, intriguing, and,”—she dropped her voice to conspiratorial whisper—“evil.” She then backed away, looking him carefully up and down. Alex felt like he was being x-rayed. He waited. He tried to continue smiling benignly at the older woman. Suddenly she seemed to come to a conclusion. Slapping the desk causing Alex to jump, she motioned to a chair as she sat heavily on an old leather high-back one behind the desk. “Well, the original owners, the Von Sterbens, who I believe your grandmother was a descendant of…”
“Um, sure, if you say so. Granddad said we had a connection to the house, but it had been out of the family for years,” Alex replied with a shrug. “Some kind of scandal that hurt a lot of people.” A dark cloud covered his face. “Something that people are still asses about. Sorry,” he grumbled about his language.
Continuing on as if she hadn’t heard anything, she said, “Well, they had been a well-liked and respected family in the area, founding members of the community, very civic-minded.” Beverly sighed. “But due to that scandalous misfortune, along with strange sickness and early deaths, the family fell on hard times.” She searched through some papers. Pulling out an old newspaper that Alex hadn’t seen in the archives, she waved it in his face. “It was quite salacious.”
The headline read “Prominent Man Guilty of Inappropriate Conduct.” Alex snatched the paper from her. His eyes burned through the information. It spoke of prostitutes, larceny, and underhanded dealings with the underworld. The thing that struck him like a punch in the stomach was the word murder. Scanning farther, Alex’s eyes bulged at the information. His ancestor was being accused of setting the fire that had killed Edgar’s grandmother.
“What happened with the murder charge?” Alex croaked; his throat was a desert. He looked up to see Beverly watching him closely.
“Hmm, I see not something the family discussed often, eh?” She laughed. It was more of a rasping cackle. “Charges were never filed. Never enough evidence.” Leaning forward and lowering her voice, she said, “It didn’t matter, though. The rumors ruined him. None of the things the family was accused of stuck.” Her tone dropped lower. “It didn’t matter. They were ruined, and then the Davis family began to prosper.” She leaned back slowly. “When your family was forced to sell off the house and business, public opinion was that they should just give the Davis’s the keys and leave town.”
“Well, my family didn’t do that, now did we?” Alex frowned. “Would have been better if we had,” he muttered.
Ignoring him, Beverly was rummaging through the papers on her desk. With a flourish, she found what she was looking for. An old photo was thrust into Alex’s hands. It showed several people standing in front of a much smaller version of the house where Chloe was. “This was from a better time.” She smiled slightly. “The house was eventually sold to the Davis family.” Beverly continued without letting Alex spend too much time with the old photo. She was rummaging again. “Well, the Davises were not nearly as well liked.” An old box top was flung over, dust flying into the air. “It was later rumored that Old Lady Davis was a witch.” Another ancient photo was thrust in front of him. The woman pictured was hunched and decrepit-looking. Her eyes were the only thing in the picture in focus, and they burned with malice. The picture was snatched back. Beverly was happily back to digging in a box. “It was rumored she was behind the troubles with the Sterben family. Couldn’t prove it, though, could they? Since she was dead.” Alex opened his mouth, but the question was not allowed. “Oh, she was murdered all right, killed out in that shack in the woods.” Her eyes filled with excitement as she told the tales. “Police eventually said it was an accidental fire. Bah!” She waved the idea away. “So the house gets bought by Old Man Davis, who brings his alcoholic wife and two boys to live there.” Another photograph landed in front of Alex. His hand slammed down on it, holding it in place.
A cruel smile crossed Beverly’s face. “Yes, that is Edgar,” she said. Alex, surprised, met her gaze. “Evil man, that Edgar,” she proclaimed, looking at the picture upside down. Her finger tapped the taller young man standing next to a severe-looking older man. Next to Edgar was a handsome man with an easy smile. The finger tapped next on this young face. “That is Richard. He tried to be a protector of Edgar, who was always in trouble with their father,” she sighed. “Never had the brains, that Edgar. Then there are the rumors.” She stared straight into his eyes. “You might know that they are not rumors. You are at the house. Have you seen it?” Alex thought she was referring to Chloe. His mouth opened to protest, but he was cut off. “Not the girl,” she interrupted as if she’d read his mind, “the dark mass of evil?”
Alex shivered. “Yes, I’ve seen him,” he whispered.
“And her? Have you seen the girl?” Beverly had a manic look alight in her eyes.
“Yes,” he hissed.
“Was it…was it…Brenda?” She demanded. “My great aunt went missing; was it Brenda?” She was standing right in front of him now.
“No,” he stated, staring back into her gray eyes. She seemed to deflate. “But I met her.”
“You…you met her? Where?”
Alex explained where Brenda was and his interaction with her. Beverly sat across from him and cried. “I always wanted to meet her. My mother spoke very highly of her. Maybe you could take me out there. You know, as a family member, I might be able to get through to her.” Her eyes flew wide as she sprung to her feet.
“I am not sure that is the best idea,” Alex explained uneasily. Beverly had started to scare him a little. He wondered if insanity ran in the family. “She was very angry, especially that no one came to find her. I think family might not calm her much.” After a little back and forth, Beverly agreed to wait to meet Brenda. After that, she was all too happy to return to the history of Edgar and the house.
“After their father mysteriously died, the house passed to Edgar.” It looked like Beverly had swallowed something horrid every time she spoke the name. “He lived there with his mother and Richard until she died, and Richard left to keep up and diversify the family business out in Pittsburgh.” She returned to the boxes, pulling out a flyer calling for a strike at the mill. “Had to diversify as Edgar couldn’t keep the mill profitable. This was just the beginning of the ugly business between the brothers,” the clerk told Alex in hushed tones. “After Richard left, the two barely spoke again.”
“What caused the quarrel?” Alex asked, thinking it likely involved money.
“Well, most people thought it was because of Edgar’s gambling debts.” Alex felt this had merit even though it was the first he’d heard of it. “I believe it was really about that girl who went missing right before my aunt did back in ’32.”
Alex sat up straight. “You mean Chloe Miller?”
“Yes, her.” Beverly’s manic look was back. “Richard never had a problem with the local girls; Edgar…”
“Not as handy with the ladies, I take it.”
The clerk laughed. “Oh, no, no, no. He was never popular. I believe he was considered to be creepy. There were always stories about him trying to lure local girls into his car.” Beverly sat back enjoying the effect this had on her audience. “Well, that young Miller girl had told her friends about an encounter the morning she went missing. Then she goes missing, and his truck has to get repaired? It was all very suspect, but the family had money, so the police couldn’t fathom a boy of good breeding would do anything untoward.” She snorted in disgust. “Didn’t stop them ruining your family, did it?”
Alex frowned. “So, how does the brother come into play?” He realized he was literally on the edge of his seat.
“Edgar’s story about a deer never sat well with many people. Richard spent a lot of time defending his brother. The thing is, too many things didn’t add up. There was the damage to Edgar’s truck, the fact that a well was demolished on the family property, something Edgar had been putting off for a while, and suddenly he gets it done without being asked. People were talking, and before you knew it, Richard left town. I guess he couldn’t take the shame. I think he knew his brother did it.”
“Why didn’t he go to the police?”
“Couldn’t prove anything, could he? No evidence against Edgar.”
“So, what happened to Edgar? I know he died in the house.” Alex leaned back in his chair.
“Oh, yes, killed there, he was. Gambling and drinking problem, that boy. Was always a drinker, but I think the guilt of the girls he killed—Chloe and my aunt aren’t the only ones. We never thought he was smart enough to get away with it.”
“So, who killed him?” Alex tried to get the conversation back on track.
Brenda took a moment to think. “Well, he was supposed to have dinner that night with a couple of the foremen from the mill.” She rifled through a few papers and then held out a yellowing news clipping that was starting to turn to dust in his hands. “The one fellow, new in town, was killed, too, and the other guy went missing, so I think we know who did the other two in.”
Alex read and reread the article. “Are you kidding me? Doesn’t look like the police even bothered to investigate.”
“After what he did? Did you really expect them to?” she countered. “By this point the town was just happy to be well rid of him.” She patted his hand. “People in town had thought the first couple of girls had just run off, what with the Depression and all.” She swiped at a tear. “But after the third girl went missing, then the fourth, people began to talk.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just wanted justice for…for his victims.”
“You just said what many here have felt for years.” She shrugged. “Especially after the sightings started.”
“Oh, you mean Chloe at the house, right?”
Beverly looked confused. “Chloe? You don’t mean Chloe Miller, do you?” She shook her head slightly. “I’ve heard the rumors about the house.” She stopped and stared at him. “Why would she be there?”
“Because that is where Edgar dumped her body, in the well?” he reminded her.
“Yes, but that is not where she died, surely.”
“It was,” Alex replied.
“Oh, how horrible; that means she was alive after he hit her.” Beverly’s hands covered her mouth, the horror written in her eyes.
“Yes, she was, but if you aren’t talking about her, then who?”
Leaning forward, her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper: “Gay, Patricia Gay. She has been seen down at the lake for years. Usually when someone is in trouble, boating problem or tired from swimming, you’ll see her rise out of the water and point to where trouble is. Never says a word, just points.”
Alex sat for a moment. “Thank you for all your help,” he finally mumbled, lost in thought. Before he even opened the door to leave the building, he decided to head to the lake the next day.