By Jessica Ricks
Josh Hamel’s bare feet padded across the wood of the pier at Pacific Beach in San Diego. Just twenty feet away from the edge of the pier, Josh saw freedom. He picked up speed until they reached the edge. With all his strength, he jumped off the pier, soared through the air and landed with a huge splash in the cold ocean. Only last week he finished his sophomore year in high school, and now he was going to celebrate the arrival of summer by hanging out on the beach as much as possible and maybe, just maybe, he’d be able to forget what happened last summer.
Once he surfaced, he took a deep breath.
As he swam back to the beach, he watched a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and huge headphones walking around with a metal detector. Josh had heard that men had found gold watches, Spanish doubloons, thousand dollar necklaces left by careless beachgoers, even, so one of his friends had told him, a pistol that had once belonged to Al Capone. Curiosity got to better of him and he walked over.
Josh stepped in front of him to get his attention. “Hey, dude?”
The man noticed him and removed the headphones. “Hello.”
“What are you doing?” Josh asked.
“Just looking for things.”
“What kind of things?”
The man shrugged. “Anything really. Lost things, old treasures. I once found a silver dollar from the 19th century and I guess I became obsessed. You’re welcome to look with me if you’d like.”
Josh had never looked for anything with a metal detector before. He decided it could be fun so he walked with the man. “I didn’t know people still used these things.”
The man chuckled. “Oh yeah, they’re quite popular.”
“Have you ever found anything cool?”
“Sure. I found some gold rings last weekend.”
“What did you do with them?”
“Pawned them. Got a couple hundred dollars for them.”
Josh’s eyes got wide. “Maybe I should start doing this.”
The man laughed again and then held out his hand. “I’m Simon.”
They shook hands.
The metal detecting thing went on quite unsuccessfully for 30 minutes and Josh was starting to second-guess doing this stuff for a living. If he could not find rare gold rings at every turn what was really the point?
Yet he enjoyed talking to Simon while they looked. Maybe it was odd for a teenager to be looking for lost things with a man old enough to be his father, but in a way Josh wasn’t your typical teenager. He was curious; he liked exploring things and people that most people would not even consider worth looking at. Like during the school year, he had made it a point to spend the last 10 minutes of his lunch period talking to one of the science teachers before he retired at the end of the year, or when he was 11 and spent a month observing the birds on the playground.
When they reached the edge of the pier, all of a sudden, the metal detector beeped loudly and a red light flashed.
“Looks like we’ve found something,” Simon said. He dropped the metal detector and he and Josh started to dig.
They found something shiny. The possibilities ran through Josh’s mind. However, after a few seconds they realized they had found a gun. Josh’s heart beat fast as he exchanged a look of concern with Simon. As they started to dig through the thin layer of sand, Josh dug with shaking hands afraid of what they would find.
The first thing they found was a hand. It was small with the nails painted red. They then uncovered the rest of the arm up to the neck. Josh jumped back and shouted when he saw the face.
It was the face of a woman. She looked young, maybe about 19 or 20. Her brown hair was matted and tangled with sand and seaweed. Her skin was dirty and scratched with debris. What caught Josh the most was her eyes. They were wide open, a dazzling shade of green, but glazed over and devoid of any life.
This seemed too familiar. Suddenly he was back in time, last summer, around this time. Green eyes stared back at him in the casket, eyes that had haunted him ever since that day. He couldn’t go to sleep without seeing them staring back at him asking him why he didn’t do more to help.
The eyes of this girl seemed to mesmerize him now in the worst way as they asked the same questions.
“What happened to her?” he said softly still finding it hard to peel his eyes away.
“She was shot,” Simon said.
Josh trembled as he watched him lift her head and sure enough, there was a bullet wound in the side of her head. He suddenly felt light headed. He turned away from the body feeling as if he would collapse if he looked at it any longer.
Simon put his hand on his shoulder. “Are you alright Josh?”
Josh nodded slowly, unable to get words past his lips. Then he made the mistake of looking at the dead girl again. He jumped as the eyes gazed at him and he let out an involuntary sob. Why was this happening again?
“Come on, Josh,” Simon said in a comforting tone gesturing for him to get up. He did and Simon led him across the beach away from the scene. “I’m going to call 911. This isn’t something you should be seeing.”
Josh sat in the sand staring across the expanse of sand at the place where the body was. He couldn’t see it from there, and he should have been glad. Although a part of him was drawn to it, he wanted to see her. His vision blurred with tears as he asked himself how yet another beautiful life could be taken away so easily.
Simon sat down next to him. “The police are on the way. You can go home if you want to.”
“No, I’ll stay,” Josh said shaking his head. Despite his feelings of unrest, the curious side of him wanted to know what would happen when the police came.
“How are you doing?”
He was unsure how to answer the question. Then he peeled his gaze away from the pier and looked at Simon whose face showed no signs of uneasiness. “Why are you so calm?”
“I did forensic work many years ago. I saw things like this all the time.”
“This is probably a piece of cake for you then.”
“Sure it was all in a day’s work, but no matter how many times I see a dead body…it never gets easier.”
Josh noticed Simon’s face darken as he averted his eyes away from him.
“I did a lot of crime investigation, saw dead bodies all the time, murdered in the worst ways sometimes. It got to be a lot…I couldn’t continue. It all got to be too much.”
“I guess it would take a toll on anyone to see that stuff all the time,” Josh said. He completely understood. After seeing it once before, and of course now, he knew he could not do what Simon did every day.
“Exactly,” Simon said. “You start to wonder what if you could have done something to help them. Or if it could have been someone you know, your family or friends.” After a long pause, he sat upright and clapped his hands together as if putting an end to the dark thoughts. “At least that’s something you don’t have to worry about though.”
He had no idea.
Before they could say anything else, several police cars and an ambulance pulled up to the beach. The officers and EMT’s began to get out and one officer, a tall man with a thick mustache and a stern expression made his way over to them.
“Where’s the body?” he asked before he had even reached them.
Simon stood up. “I’ll show you. You wait here Josh.”
Josh watched the scene unfold in front of him. Simon led the mustached officer, the EMT’s and several other officers over to the pier. The beach goers were starting to get curious and deeply concerned. People began to get out of the water to see what the commotion was about and several people made their way over to the remaining officers to ask questions.
“Nothing to worry about folks!” another officer said as he began to direct people away from the pier.
They put up police tape around the scene of the crime. Soon several other cars began to show up and more officers got out.
Josh’s heart sank into his stomach as he watched the EMT’s roll a stretcher covered in a black body bag back over to the ambulance. A hand with the red painted nail polish hung over the side. Josh suppressed his nausea at the sight. An EMT noticed the hand and put it back under the bag then they began to load her into the truck.
It was surreal really. Josh felt like he was a ghost watching the action in front of him. It was as if he was not a part of it. The whole time, two pairs of eyes darted in and out of his mind.
Finally, one word snapped him out of his trance.
He looked up and the mustached chief of police was standing in front of him. He bent down to be eye level with him and extended his hand.
Josh shook it. “Hello Officer Manoli.” The two knew each other well from last summer.
“Simon tells me you were with him when he discovered the body?”
“Yeah, I was.”
“I’m going to need you to come down to the station with me.”
An hour later, Josh found himself in the waiting room of the police station sitting on a wooden bench waiting for the police to question him. He was incredibly bored. One of the officers had been nice enough to bring him lunch and Simon had been taken in for questioning a long time ago so now Josh was left alone with his thoughts.
This was not anything new to him really. The police had questioned him after another death. It wasn’t a time he wanted to remember. He had been trying to forget the details of that day for a long time but after today he was sure he wouldn’t be able to forget last summer for a very, very long time.
The door to the station flew open and the next thing Josh knew he was smothered by a rib-crunching hug from his mother.
“Josh, are you okay?!” she exclaimed.
“Mom, I’m fine!” he said trying to break free of her hug, although he couldn’t help but be comforted. He pretended to hate hugs from his mother, but after everything had that had happened that day the familiarity of her perfume was pleasant.
His parents sat on the bench next to him. “What happened, son?” Mr. Hamel asked.
Josh hesitated to tell them. He wasn’t sure how they would take it. “I, um, found a dead body on the beach.”
His parents exchanged an equally concerned look which Josh took as them questioning his sanity. After being thrown into therapy last summer and refusing to go back soon after, his parents were constantly questioning his mental state. He felt like this would be the final straw and they would surely make him go back to see a therapist.
“I’m fine though,” he added quickly. “Seriously.”
“Josh…” his mother began. Before she could say anything more the door behind them opened and Officer Manoli stepped out.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hamel, I’m glad you were able to get here,” he said. “Can all of you please follow me?”
The three of them followed the officer to a room with a single table in the middle and chairs surrounding it. Unlike his mother’s perfume, the familiarity of this room wasn’t so comforting.
He sat down in the cold chair and his parents sat on either side of him. He almost wished they weren’t there. It would give them one less reason to worry about him.
“Alright Josh, how about you start by telling me exactly what happened today?”
Josh started with going to the beach that day not seeing a reason to bore Manoli to death with the details of his morning at home, then proceeded to tell him everything that had happened with him and Simon. The whole time the stenographer was taking notes and the conversation was being recorded.
“Thank you, Josh,” Manoli said. “I know after last summer…”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Josh said.
“Josh…” Mr. Hamel said sternly.
“No, don’t worry Mr. Hamel, I understand,” Manoli said. “I do appreciate Josh staying to give us the information we need.”
It’s not like I really had much of a choice, Josh thought.
“That’s all we need from you at this point in time, however if we have more questions we’ll surely call you back in.”
Josh and his parents stood up to leave. Josh felt like sprinting towards the door. He couldn’t get out fast enough.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hamel, can I speak to you privately for a moment. Josh, if you don’t mind,” Manoli said gesturing towards the door politely saying get out.
Josh stepped outside of the door but pressed his ear against it unable to resist hearing what they were going to say about him.
“How has Josh been doing since last summer?” Manoli asked.
“There are good days and bad day’s officer,” Mrs. Hamel said. “We were deeply concerned when he refused to continue speaking to Dr. Joshua in December.”
“Well, it can be normal for a kid to have a hard time opening up about their feelings, let alone to a therapist,” Manoli said.
“It seemed like he had been doing really well recently, although after this I’m worried this could set him in the wrong direction emotionally.”
“I understand,” Manoli said. “I just wanted to check in and make sure. The death of someone so close it’s traumatizing for an adult let alone a teenager, but I hope things start looking up from him after this. However, if not, I would strongly advice getting in contact with Dr. Joshua again or another therapist. Too many times I’ve seen these things take a terrible toll on a child and I wouldn’t want that to happen to him.”
Josh knew they were all worried about him. He had been made to go to therapy at the suggestion of the police because his parents thought it would be better for his well-being. He’d quit soon after. Every session it was, “How do you feel?” and “Put all of this out of your mind.” He didn’t need to talk to anyone about his problems. He could handle it on his own. He did not want to have to lean on anyone. Therefore, he refused to go to any more therapy sessions no matter how many times his parents said it would help.
He wasn’t going to be put into another therapy session like a science experiment. He vowed to himself that he was not going to let today or the past year eat away at him any longer.
Josh dragged himself downstairs to have breakfast where his dad was sitting at the table with his usual coffee and newspaper in front of him.
“Well look who rose from the dead,” his father said lightheartedly.
Josh had barely heard him. “Hmm? Oh yeah, right,” he mumbled.
“Are you alright son?”
Josh thought for a moment. Despite what he had told himself, what happened that day at the beach had been weighing heavily on his mind for the past few weeks. He couldn’t get the image of the girl out of his mind. It made his heart ache every time he thought about it reminding him even more of last summer.
“There’s a story in here about the girl you found dead on the beach. Seems like they’ve finally come to a conclusion about what happened to her.”
All of the drowsiness was replaced by alertness. Josh ran over and snatched the paper. “Give me that!”
He said down in a chair and flipped through the pages until he found the story.
Stephanie Johnson, 21, was found dead under a pier on Pacific Beach.
Johnson was found a month ago by two beach goers. According to police, Johnson had already been dead for a week when she was found. Simon Smith and Josh Hamel found her with a handgun, which was found to have only her fingerprints on it leaving police to rule the death a suicide.
“Stephanie had suffered with depression for the past year,” said her father, Frank Johnson. “We never would have guessed her was suicidal.”
Last seen with Johnson was her boyfriend Dan Harfield.
“She left my house alone that night,” Harfield said. “She had been angry. I would give anything to have her back right now and tell her I’m sorry.”
The more Josh read the article the more shocked he became. It was surreal to think that this girl who had lived a few minutes away from him was now dead.
“I know it’s a lot to take in,” his dad said snapping him out of his thoughts. He put a hand on Josh’s shoulder. He looked up from the paper and saw that his father’s eyes were full of concern. “I don’t want you to worry about it too much, Josh. Go have fun, focus on having a good summer. This isn’t something you should have to worry about.”
Josh read over the article again. Despite what his father said, questions were quickly beginning to overrun his mind. Dan had been with her on the night she had gone missing. He said they had gotten into a fight. He found himself hoping more information would come out on the story because the more he thought about it, the more unconvinced he was.
Shooting sounds rang out through the house until suddenly the door opened and the light was turned on.
“Gah!!!” Josh and his friend Mike exclaimed.
“For goodness sake’s, turn the volume down!” Mike’s mother said. “The neighbors can hear you!”
“You’ve invaded the sanctity of the man cave!” Mike exclaimed dramatically.
She just rolled her eyes and left the room.
“Geez, some people have no respect,” Mike said. “Let’s do a rematch.”
“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the dead girl I found,” Josh said distractedly as they started another game. In attempt to be a normal teenager he had gone to Mike’s house, however he had been distracted ever since he got there.
“I’m sure,” Mike said. “I mean, finding a dead girl on the beach, that’s some crazy shit. That’s like horror movie level stuff. I’d be kind of messed up for a while too.”
“It’s not just that, it’s just…something about her story doesn’t quite add up. They said she had been depressed but never suicidal and then there was the whole thing with the boyfriend. I mean why haven’t they done a deeper investigation on this guy, you know?”
“It’s all a conspiracy man,” Mike said. “They keep the people in the dark but behind closed doors it’s some sacrifice in their efforts to take over the world.”
Josh rolled his eyes. “Dude seriously.”
“Alright, here’s what I think happened. She wasn’t really depressed, it was just a show she put on, a different persona per say. She leads a double life. She fights villain’s vigilante style in the middle of the night with the boyfriend. But one day she pissed him off, and when you piss off a guy like that you know what happens?”
Josh sighed. Mike and his ridiculous imagination. “What?”
Mike put the game on pause. “He kills her! And he plants the gun!” he said dramatically. Then he fell over laughing.
There was a reason Mike could never be taken seriously. Just when he was about to dismiss this as another one of Mike’s outlandish stories, Josh realized he could be on to something. “Do you really think he could have planted that gun there? To get himself off the hook?”
Mike shrugged and picked up the game controller. “How would I know? What do I look like, a detective? Now are we going to play or not?”
Josh picked the game controller back up but as they played, he thought about what Mike said. He wondered if he found out what had really happened to her, could he get some closure on the whole thing?
She was always glowing with positivity and energy. She could change the mood in a room just by her presence. Whenever she was around him, she’d give him a hug and call him a dork and they’d share laughs and jokes.
Last summer he began to notice her changing. She didn’t laugh as much, her eyes were often red like she’d been crying, and she became quiet and reclusive. He knew it was because of him. That jerk boyfriend of hers, Jeff, had been destroying her emotionally and physically. There was nothing anyone could say to her that would make her leave him. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. As she was leaving the house to go see him yet again, Josh had stepped in front of the door.
“Get out of the way Josh,” she said firmly.
“Why are you doing this? Why do you let him torture you this way?” he said. Usually she was the one in charge, but it was time he started taking care of her.
She twisted her long dark hair around her fingers nervously. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Then explain it. Help me understand why you put yourself through this.”
Her lower lip trembled for a moment and he thought he’d struck just the right chord within her, but then her green eyes looked into his full of determination. “Because I love him.”
“Someone who loves you wouldn’t do this to you.”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “You’re too young to understand love.” Then she walked out the door.
As Josh was heading home from Mike’s house, his bike came to a screeching halt as he put on the breaks. He wasn’t home; instead he was at the police station. He looked up at the brick building for a moment contemplating going in. Stephanie’s death was too familiar. He could just imagine her broken and unable to admit there was a problem. He wasn’t buying the story the police put out and after what Mike had said, he desperately wanted answers.
No, that’s stupid, he thought. It’s none of my business what happened to this girl. The police said it was a suicide and that’s that.
Maybe Josh was just too curious for his own good, or maybe he was on to something. Either way he hopped off the bike and he went inside.
In the middle of the gloomy room was a desk where a bored Officer Manoli was sitting doing a crossword puzzle. “Can I help you Josh?” he said when he saw Josh come inside.
“Hi, um, I wanted to ask a question about the Stephanie Johnson case,” Josh said nervously.
“Go on,” the chief said.
Josh had no idea how to approach this. At first, he figured ease into the topic gently but what came out of his mouth proved otherwise. “Are you sure she committed suicide?”
Manoli pinched the sides of his nose in annoyance. “Josh, we know what we’re doing around here. We’ve been in this business for years, investigated about a million murders and suicides so believe me when I say that yes, Stephanie Johnson committed suicide. No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.”
“That still leaves holes in the story,” Josh said refusing to accept this answer. “Where was Dan Harfield really on the night she died? What is his alibi? The parents claim she was depressed but how depressed was she? Is there any record of this? Was she…?”
“Everything that was needed for the case was found out and reported on in all of the press,” Manoli said. “Look through the records of what we have if you don’t believe us.”
“Yes, actually I would like that.”
Manoli stared at him for a moment in surprise. Then he glared at him. “They’re not public records.”
Josh could tell Manoli was getting annoyed but he wasn’t going to leave without an answer. “But you just said…”
“I can’t just go handing private files to a kid. Unless you’ve got some credentials then I’m sorry, I can’t let you look at them.”
“This girl was killed!” Josh exclaimed in frustration. “She had friends and a family that cared about her! This story doesn’t add up, she deserves justice! You are the police; you’re supposed to protect people! You owe it to her to figure out what happened to her and keep it from happening to anyone else!”
For a moment Manoli looked like he was about to yell but then his face softened. “Listen Josh, I know you’ve been through a lot. I know this hasn’t been easy for you, especially after what happened to…”
Josh felt like a knife had been thrust into his heart. “Don’t talk about her.” The stone cold look on his face was betrayed by the way his voice cracked.
“Well I know you think you’re doing the right thing, but this isn’t going to give you what you’re looking for. We did all we could and came to the logical conclusion based off the evidence. It’s about time you let this go.”
Josh look him in the eye for a moment then shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to leave after being unable to think of another remark. Then he turned back to the chief. “Suppose someone were to find evidence saying that she didn’t actually commit suicide.”
The chief smirked. “Someone like you?”
“Well by all means, bring it to us. But I doubt you’ll be able to find anything we haven’t already found.”
Before he could protest, a door behind the desk opened. Simon walked out and stopped in his tracks when he saw Josh. “Josh, what are you doing here?”
“I wanted to know if Stephanie Johnson was murdered and I wanted to look at the police records,” Josh said throwing a pointed look at the chief.
“For the last time, you cannot have those records!” Manoli said.
“Alright Josh, I think it’s time for you to go before you get yourself into more trouble,” Simon said ushering Josh out of the station.
“Why are you here?” Josh asked when they got outside.
“Remember I told you I used to do forensic work? They asked they asked for my input as they’re wrapping up a case in Del Mar.”
Josh’s spirits lifted as he realized something. “Simon, you can help…”
“Hold on, what’s this about you getting involved in Stephanie’s suicide?” Simon said suspiciously.
“It wasn’t suicide, Simon. I know it wasn’t. I just need to find proof that her boyfriend killed her.”
“Josh, this isn’t something to be taken lightly,” Simon said firmly. “The investigation has been run, it’s closed. The family is already grieving enough. This is not something you need to get involved in.”
“There are holes in the story though,” Josh insisted. “There’s no clear picture of where Dan was. There wasn’t an explanation for the finger prints on the gun, or where she even got it. Her life was taken away, don’t you think someone needs to be the one to dig deep and figure out why?”
Simon looked in him the eye for a moment. Josh could tell by his furrowed brow and pressed lips there was a mental conflict taking place in his mind. Then finally, Simon sighed. “I still don’t think you should get involved, the case has already been wrapped up but…” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and wrote a phone number on it. “Give me a call if you need to talk or anything. This has been hard for both of us.”
Josh took the number and they parted ways. He was overcome with a renewed sense of determination. There was a nagging part of him saying that this case wasn’t truly closed.
When Josh was a kid, his favorite game was Clue. There was just something oddly fascinating about trying to figure out a case of the object, the room, and the person.
This was kind of like Clue, but this wasn’t a game anymore. Someone had actually been murdered and it was up to him to figure out what had really happened or no one else would.
The next afternoon he pedaled his bike to the address that was written in the newspaper. It was a very lavish house a few blocks away from his own fairly large with a white fence, long brick driveway, and white pillars on the front porch. There was a garden at the front of the house filled with roses, daisies, and sunflowers. As he parked his bike on the edge of the driveway, a white Persian cat ran past him.
A feeling of unease settled over him as he started to second-guess himself. Was it really any of his business what had happened to this girl? He didn’t know this family at all; would they really want him poking into the loss of their daughter?
Nevertheless, he got off his bike anyway. The suspicions he had kept him awake last night. He’d played out this moment in his head over and over. Even if just to set his mind at ease, he had to go in.
Up the perfectly red-bricked driveway he went and up to the carved white front door. The doorbell chimed when he pressed the button and he heard footsteps behind the door. The door was opened by a balding man who he could only assume was Frank Johnson. He had glasses and looked to be about his father’s age.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi, um, I’m Josh Hamel. I wanted to ask you a few questions about your daughter.”
Franks eyes narrowed. “You look a little bit young to be a reporter.”
“I’m not a reporter,” Josh said quickly. “I found your daughter’s body on the beach. I wanted to give my condolences…and maybe ask a few questions.”
Frank studied him as if trying to figure out if he was sincere or not. Josh could only imagine how many people had approached him in the past few weeks to ask about the situation. He was expecting to be turned away but finally Frank let him in. “Come inside.”
As he stepped inside, the white cat ran past him nearly tripping him. He was led down a wide open hallway lined with paintings and wall decorations such as carvings that said “Home Sweet Home.” Bouquets of flowers sat on tables in attempt to brighten up the home that said misery all over it.
A woman stepped into the hallway. She had very long white blonde hair and wore a blue-checkered dress. She was beautiful except for that fact that her eyes were red and swollen from crying. “Frank, who is this?” she said softly.
“Eva, this is Josh. He found Stephanie’s body on the beach,” Frank said.
Josh reached out and shook Eva’s hand. It was soft and smelled like cherry blossoms. “Nice to meet you, Eva.”
“I-I have to thank you Josh,” Eva said in a voice cracked with emotion that had obviously been consuming her. “We had been looking for Stephanie for a week. It wasn’t like her to run off. I only wish that…” Her voice trailed off. She wiped a tear from her eye.
“I agree, I wish the circumstances had been better,” Josh said sympathetically. “You said it wasn’t like her to run off. Where did you think she had gone?”
Frank and Eva exchanged a look that Josh couldn’t distinguish. “How about we all take a seat?” Frank said.
“Would you like some tea Josh?” Eva asked.
Josh nodded. “Of course.”
He sat down on a soft blue couch in the living room that was complete with a chandelier and a large fireplace. Surrounding the room were various photos: a much younger Frank and Eva getting married, one with lots of people who seemed like family members, and then pictures of a girl. A little girl with wide eyes and hair in pigtails holding a big teddy bear, the girl on her first day of school, much older and wearing a long red dress at senior prom, another at high school graduation.
It made Josh sad. She had so much going for her, she could have done so many things, and she had a family that obviously cared about her a lot.
Eva came back with a tray of tea and she and Frank sat across from Josh. Josh picked up the hot cup and blew on it. He didn’t usually drink tea, he actually hated it, but this tea smelled like lemon and honey and when he took a sip he actually liked it.
“We hoped she had just gone off with friends, or with Dan…anywhere just as long as she was okay,” Frank said.
“She’s never run away before. Yes she was a little rebellious at times…” Eva said.
“In what way?” Josh asked curiously.
“Lots of ways,” Frank said. “She got her first tattoo at 16 after we said no. She would go to the mall without permission. We would say don’t jump and she’d do it anyway. That kind of thing. Maybe that’s why she was involved with Dan.”
“What was wrong with Dan?”
“What wasn’t wrong with Dan?” Frank said. Josh could tell he’d struck a nerve. “Was into drugs, drove that damn motorcycle around at all hours of the night, lord knows where he took her on it, you name it.”
“Did Dan ever hurt her?” Josh asked tentatively.
“There were times where she’d cry over Dan,” Eva said sadly. “He broke up with her, he didn’t care about her. There is only so much you can tell a girl when she’s got her heart set on someone. I should have been stricter. I should have done more…”
Frank put his arm around her as she started to cry again. “We both should have done more, dear.”
“You said she was depressed. Do you know why?”
“No,” Eva said. “As far as we know it started when she was about 18. The doctors put her on antidepressants and it seemed to work. She was a ball of sunshine again. She was all about love and happiness. Yet in recent weeks…she became quite reclusive. It was very sudden really. She clung to Dan in a way she never had before. She moved in with him about a month before she went missing. She barely spoke to us. It was like she intentionally shut us out.”
“We tried to give her a good life,” Frank said. “We wanted her to be successful, go to college and have a well-paying career and a good man. She was desperate to go against that though. I don’t know why on earth she would have been depressed.”
“Do you think it was because of him?”
“I guess it could have been,” Eva said stirring her tea.
“Did she have a diary of any sort? Maybe she could have written her feelings in there.”
“She used to keep a diary.” Eva seemed to be very interested in her tea; she wouldn’t make eye contact with him. “She kept it hidden so we had only assumed she had stopped.”
“Was she suicidal?”
Frank shook his head. “I didn’t think so.”
“She could have been hiding her feelings.”
Frank leaned towards him. “Listen kid, you wouldn’t know this because you’re not a parent. But I know my daughter. However reclusive she would have become, I know that my girl was not suicidal.”
“Frank…” Eva said with a hint of caution in her voice.
“So you think Dan hurt her?” Josh pried.
“If it was that easy to think that someone hurt her, I would. I don’t know who and I don’t know if it would have been Dan. But you know teenagers, you tell them one thing and they do the opposite.”
“Did you tell the cops this?”
“Frank…” Eva was stirring her tea more erratically now.
“I told them what I know. The son of a bitch didn’t try to hide anything either which I think is…”
“Listen Josh,” Eva said quickly. “All you need to know is that Stephanie may or may not have been suicidal and the question of whether Dan had anything to do with the crime has been answered. Now, I think you’d better go.”
Josh observed the couple. Eva’s hands were shaking and Frank had his arms crossed as if he was deep in thought. There was something about these two he didn’t trust, but if he wasn’t wanted here what else could he do.
He stood up. “Thank you, for everything. It was nice talking to you both.”
The next morning he got a call from Mike asking him to go to the arcade with him. However, Josh declined. He needed to go talk to Dan; his mind would never be at ease if he didn’t.
This summer was supposed to be about good old teenage fun. He wanted to play video games, sleep all day, hang out at the beach, and try to get his crush to talk to him. Instead, it was turning into a murder investigation. His goal had become trying to figure out this case and he would not rest until he did.
If the Johnson’s house was one of the richest in the area, Dan’s apartment was a total squalor. It was old and run down looking with graffiti on some of the walls. Potholes covered the road and trash was strewn in the streets. As Josh parked his bike, he was worried it wouldn’t be there by the time he came back out.
He walked up the stairs to the second floor to apartment 201. He knocked on the door and a few seconds it opened revealing a tall guy in his 20s with messy black hair, a face covered in stubble, and arms covered in tattoos.
“Yeah?” he said shoving his hands into the pockets of his sweat pants.
“I’m Josh, I found Stephanie’s body on the beach.”
Dan smirked. “Let me guess, you want to ask me questions about it?”
“Yeah, I do,” Josh said defiantly.
“By all means, come on in.”
He seemed confident, a little too confident. Nevertheless, Josh went inside. The apartment was small. The living room consisted of an old couch and chair, coffee table, and a flat screen TV on the wall. There was half-eaten pizza and a can of beer on the table. Josh sat on the couch while Dan sat in the chair across from him.
“So, what does Mr. Hero want to know about me?” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “I’m guessing you’re suspicious? You think I had something to do with it, right?”
Josh had expected to be intimidated by Dan, but instead his presence made him angrier than anything else did. Everything about Dan reminded him about Jeff and it made him see him as some kind of spawn of Satan. “Where were you really on the night she died?”
“I was where I said I was. I was right here. Working out a business deal actually. I’m hoping to come into a lot of money soon.”
“What type of business deal?”
“None of your business, that’s what type.”
Josh coughed as he caught a whiff of smoke. “Okay then. You said she was here.”
“We got into a fight. She was always starting something. This time she claimed I was cheating on her.”
“I might have been. It was none of her business.”
“Was she depressed like the papers said she was?”
“Steph depressed? Off and on, I guess. She didn’t have the most stable emotions if you know what I mean. At one point she’d be all happy and all over me and the next yelling and saying she wanted to leave.”
“Her parents said you weren’t very kind to her.”
Dan snickered. “Oh you talked to them too?” He leaned forward and put his head in his hand. “I’ll tell you what. Stephanie was a push over. She did whatever I asked of her and when she didn’t I showed her who was boss. That’s how I convinced her to move in with me.”
Josh clenched his fist. “Why did you treat her that way?”
“Because she let me.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“I get the feeling you’re the type of guy who finds a lot of things hard to believe.”
“The gun that killed her was in your name.”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “She stole it.”
“Did you kill her?”
Dan paused for a moment. Then a smile crossed his face then a barking laugh rang through the room. “Why would I do that? I loved her. I would never do anything to hurt her.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“And who are you going to tell? Huh? The police have ruled her death as a suicide. The case is closed. Even if I did it, no one would care.”
Josh stood up. “I know you did it!”
Dan stood up as well. He was several inches taller than Josh and twice as muscular. He could have beaten him up easily if he wanted to but Josh stood his ground.
“You don’t know anything.”
Josh stormed through the doors of the police station. “He did it! I know he did!” he exclaimed as he went over to Manoli who was doing his usual lazy day crossword puzzle.
He looked up at Josh and rolled his eyes. “Who did what?”
“You know what I’m talking about! Dan killed Stephanie!” Josh shouted.
“Simmer down kid,” he said. “Now how about you calmly explain to me what happened?”
Josh ran through his conversation with Dan.
“Uh-huh. So where’s your evidence?”
Manoli pinched the sides of his nose and sighed. “Listen son, you have a suspicion that this guy has done something wrong. That’s great. But we can’t arrest anyone based on a suspicion.”
“But I know he did it! You should have seen him…!”
“But I didn’t see him. I wasn’t there. Unless you can bring me cold hard proof that this guy is a murderer then the case stands where it is.”
Josh looked him in the eye for a moment wanting to protest but he realized that he was right. “I’ll be back later,” he grumbled as he walked towards the door.
“Yeah, good luck with that.”
He left the station at a loss for what to do. He wasn’t a real detective; he’d never uncovered a case before and had no idea what the next course of action should be at this point. So he sat on the steps of the police department contemplating his next move.
A lightbulb went off above his head. He realized he had one of the most qualified people in town on his side. Quickly he pulled out his cell phone and dialed Simon’s number.
“Are you busy?” he asked him.
“Not really, why?”
“I need to talk to you about the Stephanie case.”
“Okay, how about we get lunch? Do you like Del Taco?”
About an hour later, the two had ordered cheese quesadilla’s and coke and were sitting at a table in Del Taco.
“How’s the investigation going?” Simon asked.
Since they had met up here, they had been treading around the subject, but Josh was relieved he had finally asked. “I know he did it.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“I was told I don’t have enough evidence. Apparently they can’t arrest someone based on a suspicion.”
“That’s true. How do you know he did it?” Simon asked.
“I can just tell. The way he acts, the way he talks about her. He was horrible to her. The way he talks about her sickening. But he ‘loved her.’ He would ‘never do anything to hurt her.’ I don’t believe it for a second.”
“Okay, so he wasn’t the greatest guy ever. That can be said for a lot of people. Her family did say she was depressed.”
“That’s the thing; I don’t trust the parents either. They said her diary turned up missing. They said she was depressed but she wasn’t suicidal and Dan didn’t hurt her. Why would she kill herself? It doesn’t make any sense!”
“Depression is a complicated thing, Josh. Sometimes the happiest people are really hiding a deep seated sadness.”
“There’s got to be a diary of some sort. Somewhere where she wrote down everything about him that the police didn’t see. Do you know anything about the Johnson’s, Simon? Any reason they’d have anything to hide?”
“All I know about the Johnson’s is they go to church every Sunday morning.”
Josh sighed, that wasn’t helpful. “You should have seen the smile on his face when I came out and asked him if he killed her. It almost made me throw up.”
“You would need to get an admission from him.”
“Help me then.”
“Help me get it,” Josh said eagerly. “You were a forensic scientist. You know all about detective work and all the right questions to ask. You can help me wrap this case up for good.”
“That was 20 years ago.”
“But you were! You of all people would know what to do.”
Simon wouldn’t make eye contact with hm. “I gave up forensic work. The things I saw in those days and the lives that were taken nearly tore me apart. I couldn’t continue. Besides, this case has been closed already.”
“Simon, I swear! I know he did it! This one time you can help. You know what to do. You know about detective work, I don’t.”
Simon wouldn’t make eye contact with him. “I can’t.”
Josh was starting to get frustrated by Simon’s elusiveness. “Why not? This is a life we’re talking about! An innocent life that was taken for no reason! And you’re not going to help because of something that happened almost two decades ago…!”
“Why do you want to figure this out so badly?” Simon finally exclaimed. “You’re 15 years old, you didn’t know this woman! Why is it any of your business whether that guy rots in prison or not?! This family needs to grieve in peace without a child interfering where he has no place!”
Josh was silent for a moment as memories he had tried with no avail to suppress flooded his mind. “My sister,” he said breaking the silence.
“My sister, Amira, was killed two years ago. Her and her boyfriend got into a fight in his apartment. He pushed her off the balcony.”
“Oh…I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Everyone in the family hated him. He wasn’t good for her, he treated her horribly. We tried to help but it was too late. When we got the call… it was devastating. She was only 20. When I met Dan, looking at his face, that smug look he had when I asked him, it reminded me of my sister’s boyfriend. I felt this anger that I’ve never felt before. I almost wanted to strangle him on the spot.”
“So that’s why you want this guy behind bars so badly, because of your sister.”
“I know what this family is going through. Stephanie reminds me of my sister. She was not suicidal. I know it. But people don’t understand. They don’t want to believe this type of stuff happens. It’s the kind of thing they want to brush under the rug and ignore. You can’t ignore it because people are hurting everywhere and the world only cares when it’s too late. I want justice for her and my sister. This man can’t get away with this. You have to help me.”
“I’m sorry about your sister. I’m sorry about everything you and your family had to go through. But this isn’t going to bring them back.”
Josh stood up. “Fine. Don’t help me.” He grabbed the rest of his quesadilla and left.
When they had gotten the news last summer, on the outside it had seemed to be a typical day like any other. Josh’s parents were in the kitchen having a conversation that he didn’t really care to know about because he was about to beat the next level in his game. Yet, an unspoken tension that hung over the family. Things between Amira and Jeff seemed to be getting worse. It was as if the light was slowly starting to fade from her demeanor and everyone seemed to notice it but her.
That night she had not come home. Everyone wanted to assume that she was with Jeff or better yet with some friends. No one wanted to say that something bad had gone down between her and Jeff so they were waiting the day out to see if they would get a call from her.
Even still, nothing could have prepared Josh for the police officer appearing at the door that afternoon to tell them that Jeff had murdered her. Nothing would have prepared him for the agonizing scream his mother gave as she collapsed to her knees that still haunted Josh’s memories to this day. Certainly, nothing would have prepared him for the months of tears, emptiness, and lying awake at night wondering why it had to have been her and the guilt of not having gotten her away from Jeff sooner.
That’s why this plan had to work. He would get the dirt he needed on Dan and put a murderous boyfriend behind bars once and for all.
On Sunday morning, Josh went to the Johnson’s house. What he was about to do was insane and based entirely on a hunch, but if he had the opportunity, he was going to take advantage of it.
He hid behind a perfectly trimmed hedge while he watched the Johnsons pull out of the driveway in their white Lexus. As soon as they were out of sight, he made his way across the lawn to the side door. He turned the knob and found that Simon was right it was unlocked.
Great, he thought. Now I’ll be able to add breaking and entering to my list of activities I did this summer.
He had to find that diary. Something told him a diary doesn’t just go missing like that. It had to be somewhere in the house. He made his way down the hallway and up the mahogany staircase in search of Stephanie’s room, or at least the room she would have used when she was still living at home.
When he opened the door, it was the typical room any teenage girl would have, posters on the walls, makeup and perfumes on the dresser, and a big purple comforter on the bed. A lot of things that would have made the room more lived in like clothes and many personal items were missing from when she had moved out but other than that the room didn’t seem to have been touched in a while.
Josh set to his search searching every nook and cranny the diary. He searched the drawers, the bookshelf, storage boxes, but came up with nothing. He was starting to think this was going to be a failed endeavor, he didn’t even know if there was a diary. Then he noticed a box in the closet that he hadn’t seen before. In it were an assortment of spiral bound notebooks all labeled by year. When he opened them they were all written in her handwriting. He had hit the jackpot! But there was an extra space just wide enough for one of the notebooks at the end. The last book said 2014-2015.
He put the box back and his mind kicked into high gear. Where was the other one?
He paced the hallway wondering where the other book would be hidden. He decided to check room by room. He perused the guest bedroom, a bathroom, and then what looked to be an office. There he looked through every desk drawer, coat pocket, bookshelf. On the bottom corner of the bookshelf, there were some books sticking out at an odd angle. He pulled them back and saw a flower printed notebook. He opened the pages and sure enough, there was the same handwriting as the other books.
He didn’t understand why the Johnsons would hide this unless there was some incriminating evidence in here. Even still, what was in here that made them not want to turn this over to the authorities?
He opened the book to a random page and began to skim through it.
“Dear Diary, Dan and I got into another fight. This time it was worse than all of the other ones. He punched me in the face. But he doesn’t mean these things. Everything will be back to normal tomorrow and we’ll be happy again…”
“Dear Diary, mom and dad have been acting really weird lately. Every time I try to ask them about it they won’t say what’s going on. I’ve stopped bothering to ask about it. It’s not the first time they’ve hidden something from me…”
“Dear Diary, Dan has been really nice to me lately. I hope it stays this way. I don’t know what I’d do if he broke into another one of his fits of anger. I need him to make me happy. The beach has always been my special place. I think I’ll take him there and see if it helps…”
“Dear Diary, I found a gun in Dan’s closet today. I asked him why he had it. He said it’s none of my damn business and I’d do well to stay out of his business. I’ve never used a gun before but every time I look at it when Dan is gone it makes me scared…”
“Dear Diary, I’ve decided to move in with Dan. He said he really loves me and wants to be by my side always. And I think it would be good for us. If I move in it might make him a lot nicer to me…”
That last entry was dated around when her parents said she had moved in with Dan. The diary hadn’t been written in since. But what was here left so many burning questions. Her parents seemed to have been acting suspicious for a while. The gun did actually belong to Dan. He was violent towards her. She went to the beach often; could that have something to do with it?
The house shook with the sound of a garage door. Josh nearly dropped the book. He hopped off the floor as fast as he could and tried to shove the diary back into place with shaking hands. Then he heard voices downstairs.
“Frank, look! The side door is unlocked!” Eva exclaimed.
Josh swore under his breath and thought fast weighing his options. If he tried to go out the way he came, they would see him. He left the office, running as fast and quietly as he could, to find another exit. He spotted a door to the balcony but just before he reached it, he heard Frank’s footsteps upstairs.
“I’m going to look up here Eva. I still think you’re imagining things.”
Now Josh was in full on panic mode. The footsteps were coming closer. His eyes darted back and forth to find somewhere to hide. He hid behind a cabinet just as Frank entered.
“I told you there was no one here Eva!” Frank called.
Josh could feel the footsteps getting closer. He backed up with each step until he made his fatal mistake. He knocked a book off the shelf behind him getting Frank’s attention.
“What are you doing here?” Frank exclaimed when he saw Josh huddling nervously in the corner.
There was no way he could cover this up. It was all over and Josh knew it.
Josh ended up at the police station but under completely different circumstances. When he saw the look on his parents’ faces when they came to get him he almost wished it was the beginning of the summer and he was being taken in for questioning about Stephanie’s death than being under arrest for breaking and entering.
“Mom, dad…” he began figuring if he explained what was going on it wouldn’t be as bad.
“What were you thinking?” Mr. Hamel nearly shouted. “I get home from the store and I get a call that my son has been arrested! Do you have any idea how worried we were?”
“I know, I…” Josh tried again to explain but his father’s face was red with anger as he prepared to launch into another rant. Josh didn’t know why he was bothering to try at this point.
“Josh, I swear…!”
Mrs. Hamel stepped in front of him and cut him off. “Josh, what’s going on? Why would you do this?”
“I’ve been looking into Stephanie’s case,” Josh said knowing they’d be more upset the more he said. However, there was no way he couldn’t tell them now. “I needed proof that she was murdered and the Johnson’s told me she kept a diary so I wanted to find it.”
“So you broke into their house?” Mr. Hamel exclaimed still not done ranting yet.
Before he could say anything more Officer Manoli came into the room with the Johnson’s who he had just finished having a conversation with. The Johnson’s looked at Josh with disdain and his parents looked at him with an equal amount of disappointment.
“Officer Manoli, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, I’m so sorry for our son’s actions. I don’t know what has gotten into him,” Mrs. Hamel said.
“It’s alright Mrs. Hamel, the Johnson’s have decided not to press charges,” Manoli said.
The whole family became visibly relieved.
“That was a crazy thing you did though, Josh,” Manoli said sternly to Josh. “I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, the case is closed. We know what happened. You need to leave the whole thing alone.”
“What about Dan and the gun? I spoke to him! I saw what he’s like! He absolutely could have done it. He had a motivation, some kind of business deal,” Josh said.
“You’re right, Josh,” Frank said. “Dan was not a good man for our daughter. We all knew it but like I told you, she was rebellious. We couldn’t have gotten her to leave him. We struck up a business deal with him, a joint endeavor to multiply the profits of both of our companies. That much is true as well. But throughout the investigation, there has been no denying that no matter how terrible of a man he was, he did not kill our daughter.”
“How can you say that?!” Josh exclaimed. He pointed an accusing finger at Frank. “I was in your house, I looked for the diary! It was tucked away at the bottom of the bookshelf in your office where no one would find it. Why would you put it there if there was nothing to hide?”
“I wasn’t hiding anything,” Frank insisted. “Her suicide note was in her diary. I gave it to the police and put the diary on my bookshelf.”
Josh’s enthusiasm fell just as quickly as it rose. “Oh…”
“Why would I be covering up the death of my own daughter?” Frank said starting to get choked up. “I love her, both of us do. And to be accused of trying to hide anything, but a child nonetheless, is insulting!”
“We’re not going to press charges or anything,” Eva said wiping the tears from her eyes that had been brewing since she stepped into the room. “Just please, stop meddling in our lives.” With that, her and her husband left the room.
All eyes turned to Josh. He didn’t know how he was supposed to respond to what had just happened. He felt terrible for the whole thing and he felt like an idiot that he had been so sure that the boyfriend had killed Stephanie. The eyes of the chief and his parents bore down on him but he couldn’t look at any of them.
At that moment, he realized that he wasn’t trying to just solve the case to bring justice to Stephanie’s death, but to have some kind of control over his sister’s death and bring himself peace of mind. He had wanted closure, but he realized he had gone about it in the wrong way and he felt horrible for it.
“I’m really surprised at you Josh,” Mr. Hamel said. “If I had known you had been poking into this family’s life and trying to get answers out of an already solved investigation I would have put an end to it immediately. They were already grieving enough. Remember what it was like when Amira died? Can you imagine someone trying to pry into the situation even more?”
Josh nodded slowly as memories of Amira’s death suddenly breaking into his mind. “I know.”
“I think we should look into another therapy session for you Josh,” Mrs. Hamel said.
“What?” Josh said suddenly alert.
“Obviously you haven’t been handling this well. The trauma of what happened to Amira on top of this has obviously affected you a lot more than we thought.”
Josh stood up. “I don’t want to go to another therapist,” he said desperately.
“Your mother is right Josh. They’ll help you get to the bottom of this and help you to move on,” Mr. Hamel said. “I’ll call Dr. Joshua back…”
“No!” Josh exclaimed. “Don’t you get it? I don’t need another therapy session! I don’t want them to make me forget Amira!” His knees became weak, eyes welled up with tears, and his head became light. He collapsed back into his chair and began sobbing. A year of tears that he had been trying so hard to suppress began pouring out of him like newly opened floodgates. He’d tried for such a long time to be strong and push this out of his mind but he couldn’t.
Mrs. Hamel sat down next to him and put a shaking hand on his shoulder. “Josh…it’s okay.”
“No, it’s not. You don’t understand. None of you understand! Amira was my best friend and you’re trying to force me into therapy session after therapy session and make me forget about her! I don’t want to, I just…I just want her back.”
Mr. Hamel sat down on the other side of him and both of his parents gave him a hug.
“We know it’s been hard,” Mrs. Hamel said through her tears. “This hasn’t been easy for us either. We know how you’re feeling Josh. We want her back too.”
“We’re going to get through this together son,” Mr. Hamel said. “I promise. None of us have been handling this well and…we want what’s best for you. We don’t want to see you like this.”
The waves crashed along the rocks of the pier. The calmness of the water seemed to reflect the calmness of the town now. The Stephanie Johnson case was officially over. Everyone seemed to have moved on with their lives.
Except Josh. He didn’t feel like it was over. This whole time he had felt like he had been doing the right thing by trying to further the investigation and getting Dan arrested, but Simon was right. This didn’t bring back Amira or Stephanie or anyone else. Now that it was all over, Josh felt more empty inside than ever.
“Mind if I join you?”
Josh looked up and saw Simon standing behind him. “Yeah. Sure.”
Simon sat on the pier next to Josh. “I know what you were trying to do. And I think it was very courageous of you.”
“Then why don’t I feel so courageous?”
“You’re a good kid Josh. Despite how it turned out, your heart was in the right place. I can only wish that I had as much courage as you do.”
They sat in silence for a moment. A couple of seagulls soared overheard.
“The real reason I didn’t want to help you wasn’t because of my past work in forensics.”
Josh looked at him curiously. “Then why didn’t you?”
“When I works as a detective for the San Diego police department where a girl was found hanging outside of her house. Everyone was quick to saying she committed suicide. Much like you did, I had a hunch that they were wrong. I didn’t act on it though. I wasn’t brave enough to step forward and say that the guy who claimed he didn’t do anything to her had a false alibi and I let the case fall through. I felt guilty for it for a long time and it led me to quit detective work fearing that I wasn’t good enough for the job. I tried to forget that, until you came along. You were so determined to stand up for what you believe. I wanted to help but I was so focused on the failures of my past that it prevented me from getting involved. Even if you couldn’t save Stephanie or Amira, you gave me hope again. I think being able to touch at least one person’s life is better than touching none at all.”
Josh was silent for a moment as he let that sink in. Ever since last summer he had wished he could have saved his sister, then he wished he could have saved Stephanie. He felt like even if he had not been able to bring back the one person he loved the most, his sister, at least she would have been proud of him for all he had done.
One thought on “Putting the Pieces Back Together”
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