Detective Paige Aldridge fought hard against the nausea that was quickly consuming her. She leaned against the tree trunk of a huge oak that stood in her sister’s front yard. Her hands shook violently as she tried to cover her mouth. Her stomach gave another turn. Taking a deep breath, she stood up straight and squared her shoulders. Gathering up her remaining strength, she walked back toward the garage.
Unusually cold for a late August evening in Louisville, Kentucky, a soft breeze swirled around her; raising the hair on the back of her neck as her eyes made their way from the floor to the scene. Suicide. It’s never easy to see. Her seventeen year old nephew? A boy she felt was as much her very own son. Why?
She clutched her hands to her chest to keep her heart from escaping and circled around the lifeless body that hung in front of her. Richie’s face was already swollen and blue. The smell of death filled the garage. She swallowed hard, forcing down the lump in her throat as she cautiously stepped over the small step ladder that was kicked aside to accomplish the deed. Paige steadied herself by grabbing the elbow of a fellow officer and maneuvered between the others. Silence swept through the room as everyone watched her. An investigator’s camera flashed just as tears filled her eyes. She fought back the urge to run home screaming as she slowly backed away and turned toward the garage door where her partner stood.
Jay Vittidini didn’t try to force a smile when she walked toward him. Instead he offered her his handkerchief. “Hey, Paige,” he half whispered. “You okay?”
“N ... no. I am never ready for anything like this,” she replied as she took a deep breath, not noticing the light mist that formed. It was difficult to draw another breath in, like trying to blow up a new balloon. Hugging herself tightly to fend off the nausea and chills, she leaned against the garage door frame beside Jay. “Have you talked with Sarah? Is she okay?”
“Yes, she’s inside. Tom’s with her,” Jay sighed; scuffing his feet on the driveway as he mindlessly glanced at what was left of the sunset. “She’s had to deal with so much lately,” he said as he gently put his hand on Paige’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “She needs you and if you need me, I’m right here. I mean it.”
Paige couldn’t feel his touch. “I know,” she drew in another deep breath while she covered his hand with hers trying to reach for some sort of reality. “I’ll go on in and talk to her,” she could only whisper as she walked around the front of the red BMW parked in the driveway.
Pausing when she reached the end of the gray stone sidewalk, she leaned against the railing.
She absentmindedly ran her hand across the top of the shrubs that she and Sarah had planted. Paige’s parents died when she was three and Sarah’s mother and father had adopted her. They passed away several years later while both Paige and Sarah were in college.
They were not only sisters but best friends as well. How could she help her now? Again, she felt helpless. “If only I had come out to see Sarah when I wanted to earlier, Richie may have been okay,” she thought to herself. Tears burned the back of her eye lids again as she thought that maybe, just maybe, she could have prevented Richie from killing himself.
She remembered Richie playing in the back yard and picking dandy lions for her. He would run up to her with handfuls of the bright yellow flowers along with the grass and clover that had happened to grow alongside them. She wanted to once again touch his red hair and freckled nose as he would smile up at her and shower her with hugs and kisses.
Paige remembered the panic-stricken phone call from Sarah only thirty minutes earlier. “He’s … dead … oh God … he’s dead!” was all that Paige could make out between Sarah’s sobs.
“Who? Anthony?” Paige tried to ask calmly. Senator Anthony Steckler was Sarah’s late husband and the love of her life. Sarah found Anthony in their bedroom strangled to death not even a week ago. Devastation had taken over Sarah’s life. During the investigation, Paige determined that all roads were leading to the Steckler’s teenage son, Richard. He had been home at the time of Anthony’s murder but claimed to be passed out in his bedroom from his usual alcohol binge. Richie had become a troubled teen over the last year. He was rarely home. When he happened to be, it was usually in the middle of the night. He would stumble up the stairs and pass out until far past noon the next day. Unable to be objective any longer, she asked to be removed from the case and turned it over to Jay. She promised to help every step of the way.
“No … oh, God Paige … its Richie … he’s in the …” Sarah’s frantic words became impossible to understand between the sobs.
“Have you called 9-1-1? I’m on my way!” Paige threw the phone down and ran out of the door. When her car squealed onto Sarah’s street in Gellendale Estates, the police were already there, lights flashing in unison with an ambulance in the yard.
The silhouette of someone hanging from the garage ceiling made her stop in her tracks as if she had been smacked in the face with a baseball bat.
Paige snapped back to reality when another detective brushed her arm as he passed. She realized she was still standing at the foot of the sidewalk, white knuckled on the railing.
She carefully moved toward the door. She could hear a voice in the back of her mind saying, “Be calm Paige. Everything will be fine. Just relax.”
As she opened one of the large double glass storm doors, she could hear Sarah’s sobs echoing from the parlor. What was left of her heart shattered into a million pieces as she ran into the room. Sarah’s face was as pallid as death itself. As she tried to stand and run to Paige, Sarah stumbled and fell back onto the couch; knocking the throw pillows into the floor.
“Sarah …” breathless, Paige ran to her. Their arms closed around each other as if hanging on for their very lives. “Sarah, I’m so sorry!” she tried to comfort her. Not knowing what to say, Paige sobbed along with her. She rocked her back and forth, letting Sarah rest completely in her arms like she was her own child. She stroked Sarah’s long blonde hair, desperate to comfort her. Paige tried to embrace the pain that Sarah was feeling, but she only felt numb. How could anyone understand such grief? The tears fell down Paige’s cheeks as if a faucet had been turned on inside her, but she didn’t feel the tears. She wished she could feel the pain. How could she relieve some of it for Sarah? What could she possible say to make things better? Fragile and helpless, Paige did the only thing she could do. She held onto Sarah as if she were her very life.
“Sarah, I don’t know what to say or do. I’m sorry, so sorry.”
Sarah nodded and hugged her tightly. Paige could feel her relax a little as Sarah’s breathing slowed. Hope, Paige had hope.
Finally, Paige opened her eyes, lashes heavy with tears. Glancing up, she found Tom Miller, one of the policemen on the scene, standing over them. She hugged Sarah once more. “I’m going outside to talk with Tom for a minute. I’ll be right back.” Sarah’s swollen eyes looked at her blankly. She nodded her head as Paige squeezed her hand. When Paige stood to walk with Tom, she asked another police officer to look after Sarah for a few minutes and she and Tom headed for the door.
When they stepped out onto the front porch, Tom looked out at the scene in the front yard. The news vans and reporters were swarming the investigators while they were taping off the scene. This was the second time in the same week there had been a tragedy at Senator Steckler’s estate and the reporters were determined to have answers.
A crowd of spectators were also gathering around, shouting questions without concern.
“She found him … she came home tonight, opened the garage door and saw him there,” Tom whispered to Paige as he pulled her from the crowd. “I’m surprised the poor woman has any sanity left. She was at the station earlier asking questions about the Senator’s murder. She swears Richard was innocent. Now, I’m not so sure.” Tom sat down on the step shielding himself from the crowd with the shrubs that lined the porch.
“If Richie was guilty, we need to find out why,” Paige sighed as she sat beside him. “Did he need money? Drugs? Did he hate his father enough to kill him? Was it an accident in the state he was in that night? I have to find the answers somehow. For Sarah’s sake!” Paige’s eyes filled with tears again. She wouldn’t let them fall. Not anymore.
She had to be strong. That was the only way she could help Sarah. Biting her lip, she stood up gracefully with what precious little strength remained and walked back into the house with Tom behind her.
Before she could enter the parlor, Tom whispered. “They are going to be removing the body any minute now. Maybe you should take Mrs. Steckler somewhere else in the house so that she doesn’t see.”
“Thanks Tom. I will,” she said as she laid her hand on Tom’s arm with a light touch that appeared to be out of concern but was more of trying to keep from falling down. She slowly turned and walked into the parlor to where Sarah was now laying on the sofa.
“Come on, Sarah. Let’s go upstairs and clean you up a bit.” Paige offered her hand to help Sarah stand. She nodded and walked with Paige toward the stairs. As they entered the bedroom, Paige suddenly felt ill again. Breaking into a sweat as nausea swept over her, she fought the urge to rush into the bathroom. “I need to be strong for Sarah because she really needs me now,” she told herself.
As Sarah was changing clothes and drying her face with a hand towel, Paige walked to the window and looked outside through the blinds.
The EMT’s were pushing Richie’s body, covered in a white sheet, into the ambulance. The memory of the same scene with Anthony’s body caused Paige’s stomach to lurch, yet again. As she watched the scenes unfold in the front yard, she saw someone in the shadows behind the tree line. Watching him as he moved from tree to tree along the back of the crowd, a suspicious feeling came over her. “Relax Paige,” a voice whispered. “It’s just a curious neighbor or a member of the press.” Rubbing the back of her neck, she turned her back to the window.
As she glanced around the room, she noticed the pictures on the desk and dresser. She walked over and picked up a picture of Sarah and Anthony. They had their arms around each other and they were both smiling happily. As far as Paige knew, they had a nearly perfect marriage, even for a politician. Fighting off a little twinge of jealousy, Paige placed the picture carefully back on the dresser. She wondered if she would ever find happiness like that.
She made her way to the guest bathroom and splashed cold water on her face until she felt better. As she looked at herself in the mirror she wondered what to do next. “I have to figure out if Richie was guilty or if there is someone else. Did Richie kill himself for another reason?” Then it hit her. The obvious question, “Has anyone found a suicide note?” she asked the reflection in the mirror.
Sarah was back in the bedroom when Paige came back in. Paige put her arm around her and led her back downstairs to face more detectives, suspicions, doubts, and tears. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” she assured her and hugged her tightly. Leaving Sarah with Tom as they reached the parlor, she ran back outside to find Jay.
Before she could even ask the question, Jay had the answer. “We found a note. It doesn’t make any sense but it’s all we have,” he said as he handed her a note that had already been sealed in an evidence bag.
Paige’s hands shook as she took it from Jay and held it up to the porch light. She could barely make out the words on the letter through the plastic in the dim light of the garage.
I’m sorry for all of the trouble I’ve caused you and Dad. I need help. I love you.
“I don’t understand. This letter sounds like someone who is reaching out, not someone who is … about to …” Paige was trembling.
“Exactly,” Jay cut her off. They looked at each other with complete understanding. They had been partners long enough to develop a sense of what each other was thinking. Paige likened it to a marriage where the couple could speak to each other without saying a word.
Jay was not only her partner, but her friend. One she argued with frequently but completely understood; even if she didn’t agree.
The rest of the investigation went quickly. Perhaps it was because Paige was numb and could not concentrate. After taking Sarah to stay at her Cousin Aileen’s farm, she decided to go home.
She poured herself a large gin and tonic with the juice of an entire large lime, crawled into bed and opened her journal.
“It’s amazing how quickly things can change. You think everything is normal, fine, routine. I mean, one minute I’m running bath water, ready to relax and the next, I’m staring death in the face. Why Richie? Why did he have to kill himself?”
She sighed and continued to write in her journal as suggested by her psychiatrist.
“I feel as if my world is caving in on me. I’m getting smaller and smaller. I have no control anymore. I want to reach out and help but I can’t. I’m helpless, alone, insignificant.”
She toyed with the corner of the page as she put her pen in her mouth, tears streaming down her face. She wiped them on her sleeve, took the pen and continued.
“I feel like I’m going crazy. I can’t remember things, days even. Something is happening to me. I thought I was better. I thought I had made progress. Today, I started to visit my sister, Sarah, to check up on her and it was like a voice was telling me to leave her alone. So, I didn’t call. I didn’t call!”
She drew several underlines.
“I’m going out of my mind. I should have been there. If I had, Richie would still be alive!”
She gave up, slammed her journal closed, and turned off her light. She sobbed herself to sleep.