Ayden sprang out of bed the next morning, full of resolve. He had no other choice. He either followed the clues to exonerate his brother or to have him convicted for the brutal, unforgivable murder of Jade. He couldn’t go on pretending all was well, or would be with Time.
So, pulling on his clothes, he went out to his car. Very carefully he inspected the trunk. The lock was undamaged. No hint of tampering. Good. Inside, the gas can was just where he’d left it a few months ago upon their return from that ill-fated campout. Once at work, he would take his first break to dust for fingerprints. He expected at least three sets, his, Jade’s and Braylon’s — or, none at all.
If his brother was worth just half of his salt, he would have wiped the can clean. But, given the circumstances, in which Braylon had made himself scarce during the incident, it was possible he didn’t have time to clean up after his misdeed. Once the authorities were finished with the scene and his dear wife’s body carted off, Ayden couldn’t wait to leave that place. As it stood, now, he would likely never return. So, unless Braylon had cleaned up the can after he finally came home … the lack of tampering suggested no. Ayden couldn’t perceive why the prints, or lack thereof, would be disturbed in any way. Since he kept his keys locked up in his safe along with this service weapon, that left Braylon without access.
Nathaniel was getting to an age, too, where ‘borrowing’ his Dad’s car for a joyride might be fun. Twelve years going on eighty, he could be a handful, to be sure. Ayden had ‘borrowed’ Erik’s car, after all, and sometimes the nut didn’t fall too far from the tree. Nathaniel was very much like Ayden. Therefore, unless Braylon was an expert at safe-cracking, he didn’t have access to Ayden’s keys, either. Nobody did, but him. And while his father goofed around, pulling his ghostly pranks, he rarely possessed anything to simply break it. Nor would he be inclined to take keys. Ayden took his own car to work, which would leave Braylon access at night, only. There was simply no damage whatsoever to the trunk’s lock. No scratches anywhere.
Or — Ayden was completely wrong. He hoped and he prayed he was wrong. That the accident was simply that. A horrid, terrible, fatal accident, but only an accident and nothing at all sinister.
Lieutenant Ayden Cantrell got to work straightaway, arriving at the precinct exactly on time.
“Hey, Jovan, Bobbi, good morning!”
“Good morning, Lieutenant,” they said.
“Ayden, you’re in a good mood,” Bobbi said, winking at him, as she handed him a coffee.
“Thank you, Bobbi,” he held up the to-go cup at her and nodded. “It’s funny how a good night’s sleep affects the temperament.”
“Well, whatever it is, Sir, it’s nice to see you smile again.” With that, she turned on her uniform boot heel and got to work, her dark pony tail bouncing as she walked.
Ayden went to the computer and got another case file. After doing the preliminary cross-data checks, he created a map on the board. Then, he got the equipment needed, and headed to the crime scene. Once he was back, he decided he would dust for prints on the gas can in his own trunk. Then along with the other evidence he anticipated gathering at the new crime scene, he’d also process whatever he got from his gas can. And if he got nothing, then that would be that. End of story. And he’d cease to berate his younger brother at every turn. Do his best to put the family back together.
Should he find the suspected prints, he would take his situation to the Chief. If she agreed he had just cause, he’d go ahead and call for a full-blown investigation into one Braylon Cantrell.
The crime scene took longer than he’d anticipated. By the time he got back to the station, he was consumed with hunger. He did take the time to snap pictures of his car, the trunk lid, the bumper, the lock and finally the gas can in his trunk. Then he applied a liberal amount of dust to the red can of gas, and to his dismay, he lifted several prints that needed to be sorted. He had his own on file, as all the officers did, and he had access to Jade’s and Braylon’s through their driver’s licences.
Ayden’s legs grew wobbly. Was his very own brother truly guilty of such a heinous crime? He had another cup of coffee, which oddly, served to stabilize his now shaky self, besides stave off the hunger pangs long enough for him to run the prints found, through the analyzer. He fed in the digital photos and heard the beep. On the monitor screen, the match flashed, blinking its green light at him. On off, on off, on off. The image would forever be burnt into his retina, his mind and his broken heart. Braylon’s prints were clearly seen, both on the can’s handle and on the sides of the red canister. There was no mistaking it.
Grief swept over him. Swallowing hard, he steeled himself and then headed upstairs to the break room for a bite to eat. He no longer really felt hunger, but it was a good ruse to take a moment for himself. After he’d nabbed the last tuna sandwich — he thought it was tuna, anyway, he brought his plate downstairs. Time to have that unsavory, unwanted chat with his chief.
“Do you really think he’s guilty, Ayden?” the chief said, an enormous amount of empathy in her voice. “Your own brother? But, why?”
“It gives me no pleasure, Chief, but yes, I do think he murdered my wife by switching the normal lighter fluid for the gasoline. Jade wouldn’t have known the difference.”
“How could he do that without you noticing?”
“He was always coming and going from the camp site. We had an argument, just after he grilled burgers for us. He took off. I hit the sack a few minutes after he left. I never saw him return. Had I known —” Ayden drew in a ragged breath. “I had no reason to suspect anything. I honestly thought I was the one in some kind of trouble.”
“Ayden,” the chief put a hand on his arm. “Lieutenant Cantrell, you’re one of our best, why would you think you were in trouble?”
“That ongoing investigation, for one.”
The Chief gave a wry smile and waved at the air, “Oh, that. You were never the focus or the person of interest. We actually suspected your brother, truth be told. The Mobwives have moved into our quaint seaside town and it’s unsettled the town’s counsel. Now, you’ve just handed him over to us. Good job, as always, Lieutenant. We’ll take it from here. And thank you.”
Ayden was sick to his stomach. Advised to say nothing at all to his brother, he knew he had to at least tell his father. Choosing the right moment was hard. All of this time, Erik was well aware of the friction, the outright tension between his sons. One night, it nearly came to blows. Erik tried his best to talk to Braylon, to help smooth things over. Now, Ayden had to tell Erik his second son and youngest child was going to be arrested for a whole host of crimes, not the least of which was murder.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Ayden said. “I didn’t know what else to do. You know I haven’t been sleeping. I’m ripped to pieces over this. I miss my wife … sometimes I can’t breathe. Realizing my brother had anything at all to do with her untimely death. Her ‘accident’ sickens me. Knowing what it does to you breaks what’s left of my heart into fragments. I didn’t want this …”
“Ayden,” Erik echoed. “I chose you as my heir for a reason. You are not your brother’s keeper, nor can you change who he is. I’m the one who screwed up. Something I did or didn’t do. I let him down. I let your sister down, too. She never did marry. Never trusted any man with her heart. That’s my fault, too. I should have stayed a Rock Star and left the family rearing to those more competent.”
Ayden stood up. “Dad, stop it. You loved us. You loved Mom — we all love you, too. That should have been more than enough. You did your best. And, you came back. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
In the weeks that followed, Braylon was arrested and arraigned. Bail was withheld, as he was deemed a flight risk. Also, it was likely the Mobwives would put a hit out on him. A few months after that, Braylon went on trial. In the meantime, Nathaniel had a birthday. He was finally a teen. Tall, like the rest of the Cantrell men, he looked far older than thirteen.
Ayden threw a small party for him. He worked especially hard on his relationship with his oldest son, worried that since he really loved his uncle Braylon and the two got on so well, that Ayden’s thug of a brother would have an untoward effect on the boy.
Finally, the trial was over. To everyone’s chagrin, Braylon was found guilty of facilitating the demise of the victim, Jade Cantrell. He was given life. Ayden packed up his brother’s belongings and sold them. He wanted nothing more to do with the man.
Almost as if she knew, Jade appeared to Ayden one night when he was visiting The Blue Velvet Lounge. She’d appeared to him before, so he wasn’t terribly startled. Taking her aside, he let her know that Braylon was found guilty of arranging for her mishap with the grill and was put away for life.
“You’re free,” Ayden said. “You don’t have to roam the Earth anymore.”
“Are you sending me away, Ayden?” she said, looking sad. “Share your pictures of the boys again, please?”
Ayden whipped out his cell and with the flick of a finger had the photos called up. She gazed at them and then he hugged her tight. When he got home, he was going to have to free her soul to the netherlands, so she would really, finally be at peace.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too.”