CHAPTER ONE: At Your Funeral

On the third of June, it was as if the world had ended.

No correction: my world shattered into millions of broken, unfixable pieces. With the death of Maxwell James Porter, my oldest and only sibling, I was plunged into the black sea of reality. But as I sat at the table, listening to the paramedics rehash the story, I slowly broke apart.

Max was barely twenty-one. He was invincible. And more than that, he was a good person. In fact, he was the best person I knew. But as soon as the media got hold of it, he became nothing more than rotting flesh and a good story. It was the perfect opportunity for The Bedford Paper to milk Max's death for all that it was worth. It was for them to decide which story (purely a rumor) would sell more copies. The actual truth behind his unfortunate and abrupt fate was no longer important, and it brought on an ocean full of anger and a need for revenge.

Then there were the elderly, old-fashioned couple that lived across the street. Mr. and Mrs. Cranford insisted that all of this was Max's own fault because he had a big mouth. There was a point in time where I would have agreed, right until the bitter end, but Max knew when it was time to call it quits. Unfortunately, when someone as influential and respectable as the Cranford's made an accusation, everyone else was quick to jump on the bandwagon.

My brother knew his limits better than anyone. He was a smooth talker, and he had an extremely high IQ level. I was skeptical to even consider that his mouth had led to this.

The morgue was colder, colder than any winter day I could remember. Everything was white, stainless steel, and the only thing I could smell was death. No sterilizing in the world could contain that scent.

"He's in here," Richard Lowell, county coroner, whispered. His hands were on my shoulders as he guided me towards a gurney. A body laid flush against it, and even with the white sheet on top, I could see his cold, pale, lifeless feet peeking out where the fabric ended.

Tears pooled in my eyes. My body quivered as I tried to keep going.

"You're the only family he has, Ms. Porter. I'm sorry you have to identify him. This is never easy for anyone," the coroner apologized. Slowly he pulled the fabric down.

I gasped, my wobbly knees giving out. I collided hard onto the sanitized, tile floor. Emotion slammed into me with the speed of ten Mack trucks cruising on the interstate. "No, no, no," I whimpered, my hands balling into tight fists. "No, it can't be him," I repeated over and over, streams of tears falling from my face. "This…this is a sick joke, isn't it?"

Richard Lowell bent down. "I assure you, it's not a joke, Miss Porter. Why don't you get to your feet and I can tell you what you need to know? Also, the police are going to need to talk to you about your brother afterwards. Are you up for that?"

"No," I rasped. "I don't think I'll ever be ready for that."

"You'll get through it," he assured. "Everyone else does."

As I stole a glance at my brother's lifeless face, I wasn't sure I'd ever get through it.

"I've gathered his personal affects for you." He held out a clear, plastic bag. "He didn't have much on him."

I took the back and rooted through the contents. There was his cell phone, his wallet, and his keys. "Nothing suspicious," I whispered, putting everything back. But to me—none of this made sense.

"I have very little to go on, but I did notice a few unusual bruises on your brother." He pulled down the fabric, exposing his neck. "Do you see this?" He pointed to a very red area. "The markings are consistent with a strangling. The local CSI's are looking for a possible ligature that might've caused such aggressive bruising, so I can't identify what the weapon was. And as for his stomach, he had a lot of shallow wounds—none that would be fatal."

Stabbed? Strangled? The words echoed in my mind like they were supposed to mean something. They didn't.

"I didn't find any unusual markings, fibers, on substances anywhere on his body or clothes, and as I work on the autopsy—cause of death will most likely be due to asphyxiation."

"Strangled? Who would strangle him?"

Dr. Lowell patted my shoulder. "I believe that's a job for the CSI's and the police. I can't give you a means or motive—let alone opportunity. Why don't you speak with the police, Ms. Porter? They've been anxious to talk to you all night."

Goosebumps covered my arms and legs. Instinctively, I clutched Max's personal effects tighter in my hand.

"Please take care of him," I whispered, slowly heading towards the door.

"That's my job."

And before the coroner could give me another pitying look, I booked it out of the morgue and never looked back.

My eyes filled with tears as I wondered a reason. Just two days ago I had been at the morgue, and based upon what I was told, it was impossible for his mouth to be the cause. There was the bigger picture I was missing, but I wasn't sure I'd ever find out what led to his death.

In fact, the coroner had never been able to confirm a cause of death. Although he was positive it was asphyxiation, supposedly the local CSI's had found more evidence that proved otherwise. And so Max's death was busted wide open, put in the hands of the Bedford County Sheriff. His death was marked as suspicious, and the case was left open and active.

"For the record, please state your name," the cop spoke, his tone harsh and cold.

I was at the Bedford County Police Station being interviewed in the interrogation room. I felt like I had committed a crime. I felt imprisoned like they didn't really care about my feelings and my loss.

"Ruby Irene Porter," I forced.

"Did you live with your brother?"

I put my hands together. "Yes, we shared an apartment."

"Was your brother involved with any suspicious people? Did he disappear at random times of the night and not come back to the next morning?"

"We had different schedules, sir. I never saw much of him to be honest."

The room filled with silence.

"Did your brother have any enemies?"

"If he did, I didn't really know them."

The officer sighed, running a hand across his face. "Ms. Porter, I need you to understand that your cooperation is imperative to solving and ultimately closing this case. I need you to dig deep and think about these questions because if your brother's death wasn't accidental, then there is a murderer out on these streets. Are you understanding the severity of this situation?"

My legs shook. I forced my hands to hold them into place. I was an emotional wreck, ready to pass out and the asshole wanted me to answer questions I didn't know the answer too. I wanted to find out what happened to my brother more than they did. I knew I was being cooperative, so I ignored the officer's scolding and nodded tightly. "Yes."

"Good. Is there any information you can share with us that wouldn't be in your brother's record?"

"Well, he did some volunteer work at the senior citizen center when he had time. His girlfriend is my best friend, and I don't know of one person that didn't like Max."

The officer jotted down a few notes. "This will have to do, Ms. Porter. If you can think of anything, please come down to the station. This case is our number one priority."

"I will." My voice quivered. "Can I ask a quick question, sir?"

"That should be fine."

"Where did you find my brother?"

"We found him down in the old industrial part of town along the riverbank." He took a sip of his steaming coffee. "He, I know this will be hard to hear, was covered in blood and dirt. I can't say much about the case Ms. Porter, but I think you should lay low for a while."

Imagining Max covered in his own blood shattered my heart. "Max wasn't suicidal, not even close, sir. He is…was…the greatest person I knew."

"As Gil Grissom's reiterated: the evidence never lies, Ms. Just give the CSI's and the rest of the police force some time to do their job, and you'll get the answers you need."

But not soon enough, I thought out loud.

It was strange how the case was never made public. Maybe they preferred to keep it hush-hush or maybe they were offered a hefty reward to stay silent. Either way, I wanted to know the truth, and all that anyone seemed to know (or assumed) was that Max had entangled himself into the world of a violent gang, turning himself into the ring leader's right hand man.

And the leader of that rumored gang? It was none other than cocky, mysterious Jude Carlson. Besides an address and his favorite place to shop, no one knew a thing about him. I was more clueless than most because I didn't follow the gossip, and I wanted to put this rumor to rest immediately. And even if Jude had been involved, it was nearly impossible to pin Max's death on him because Jude was the biggest mystery.

Jude wasn't an easy guy to target or accuse. Anything floating through gossip about that boy was purely speculation and exaggerated rumors. And he was like a phantom. If he was in town and carrying out business, he was never seen.

He had the advantage in the palm of his hand. Jude treated that as a golden opportunity to infuse fear into any weak soul that dared to cross paths with him. And if people weren't convinced by his dangerous, low tone, they knew it by the weapons he carried.

But, above all, Jude lacked any kind of compassion, making him one miserable and cruel son of a bitch.