"I was wondering if you'd show up, Ricky. I'm glad you did. I know it's kinda early, but hey, you got outta school. Have a seat and get comfy, we got a lot to talk about."
Ricky Linderman edged his way into his uncle's cramped office and pulled up a wooden chair across from his cluttered desk. His uncle was leaning upon the windowsill with one long leg hanging down into the room and the other was curved up toward his chest. He played with the blinds to let a smattering of sunshine into the room and cracked open the window. Ricky kept his eyes upon the dusty rays of light that shone through the chinks and he blinked rapidly. His uncle adjusted the strap of his black leather holster and pulled it off his broad shoulders. He was tired, and the dark circles under his eyes betrayed him. He stroked his fingers through his silver, curly hair and frowned.
"I think it's time for a haircut…least that's what Ronnie's been telling me for the last few months. When you coming over for her lasagna? Angie really misses you too. "
"I don't know, uncle Albert. I've been busy…but, I still love it…and that princess. The Barbie castle must be pretty lonely without Ken home. I got her little cards and the latest mug shot from picture day."
Ricky grinned a little and patted near his wallet and chain. He adored his fun aunt, Veronica, and her fantastic Italian cooking expertise, and off the cuff sense of humor. His adorable six-year old niece Angelica inexplicably clung to him as he did to his uncle Albert in his younger years. He really missed them both.
His uncle placed his holster on top of a muted gray file cabinet. The handle of the gun faced Ricky and he winced. He shifted his focus on the burning cigarette in the gold tin ashtray before him. It surprised him to see it, considering his uncle had quit well over a year before. The smoke choked him up, but it was more his fear. He quickly leaned over and stubbed it out.
"I thought you kicked this? What was so important that I come down here, uncle Albert?" Ricky squirmed awkwardly under his fixed, blue-eyed gaze.
Albert was his father's younger brother at forty. Albert Linderman was working his way toward Police Captain at the downtown Chicago station and was currently one of their brightest detectives on the force. He was cynical and tough, with a shark-eyed glare that would make anyone cower, but he also had a kind heart and good sense of humor…once you broke the ice. His stature and broad, handsome features commanded immediate attention whenever he walked into a room. Ricky admired him completely.
Albert helped raise Ricky the same way Ricky practically raised his little brother. While his parents weren't deadbeats, they were often in their own mundane world of work and pleasure, and they pretty much failed to connect emotionally with their children. Ricky's mother tried harder than his father. That was where Albert and later Veronica stepped in to carry the load. Ricky found a solid male figure to relate to and they were best buddies, until the tragedy that took his brother's life. That was when Ricky became a shell of his former self and shunned the world. His entire family changed. His mother went from a vivacious school teacher to a frumpy housewife that kept rollers in her hair all day. His father just stared blindly at the television and sometimes drank himself into grief stricken stupors. Ricky would never say that Albert didn't try and reconnect or understand their plight, because he tried hard, with sweat and many tears that only Ricky and Veronica knew he had the capacity for.
Ricky's uncle was first to be called on the scene the night Ricky attempted to slit his wrists. His distraught mother found him writhing on the bathroom floor and moaning. "I'm sorry!" over and over. It was Albert that stepped up to the plate and forced Ricky into therapy, and it was Albert that pushed him to return to school the following semester. The man was a pillar and Ricky often wondered if he'd be dead without him.
Albert flicked the cigarette in the trash and dumped out the ashes.
"I know, Rick…I was just having some deep thoughts and craved it. It happens. I'll kick it when you kick it." He frowned and wiped his hands on his slacks. He slumped in the rolling chair behind the desk.
"I barely smoke, uncle Albert. I'm not addicted."
"You say that now. Aren't you hot in here? Take that stink jacket off. I'd open the window more, but it blows all my papers around."
"That's why you have a filing cabinet." Ricky pointed out. He sniffed his coat discreetly; it was getting a little ripe from constant wear and oil, but it didn't bother him.
"True…but who said I use it?" Albert shrugged. "I can never find a damn thing in their either."
Ricky in fact, didn't want to remove his jacket; it was his way of hiding from the world, and at this moment, his uncle–and they both knew it. Albert leaned back and folded his arms behind his head.
"Well? The rack's over there."
"Uhh, no thanks, I wanna keep it on."
"Alright…suit yourself and keep hibernating."
Albert's hand reached across the desk and Ricky's eyes widened as his fingers brushed over a manila case file with his name on it. He sat up stiffly, but couldn't control the trembling in his legs. He was sure Albert noticed this reaction, but he chose to ignore it. Albert tapped his fingers on the file and smiled…it was a dry and wry smile that Ricky was accustomed too, but it was laced with empathy and disappointment. Ricky hated to disappoint Albert, even more so than his own father.
"Promise me you'll hear me out before you storm off and never speak to me again, Rick." Albert asked quietly.
Ricky took a few deep breaths and nodded slowly…he was prone to doing that, as his best friend Clifford Peache had learned.
"No, say you promise. I never broke a promise to you and this is the only time I'm going to seriously ask you to do this for me." Albert replied gravely.
Ricky tossed his hands up and down. "Okay, I promise I won't leave until I hear you out."
Albert swiped the file up and opened it. He rifled sadly through its contents, but shielded it from Ricky's view.
"There's only so many ways I can say this…and believe me it's not easy, I've had many sleepless nights and bitter pangs of conscience…but I loved you too much to tell anyone."
A sharp breath caught in Ricky's throat and he wrung his hands until they were clammy. His cheeks flushed with shame and anticipation. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to imagine what his uncle was going to reveal next.
"I know what you did, Ricky. I know that Chris didn't suicide…I'm sorry, but it's the truth."
Ricky's eyes popped open and the breath he held in escaped with a loud burst. Maybe Albert didn't think he was the killer? But then why would he say he 'loved him too much to tell?' Ricky hung his head, knowing that Albert respected eye contact with a passion. His brow crinkled, his nose itched. Not now…he couldn't cry now. He had to hear the rest of Albert's story.
Albert didn't scold him for looking down, and waited calmly for Ricky to come back to awareness. In his usual brusque manner he had all but told the kid that he was guilty as charged. It was a tough pill to swallow and Ricky had been tough to crack in the last year of his ongoing depression. He refused to talk about the incident, he flushed the pills the psychologist prescribed, and he dropped out of school to spend his days holed up in the gritty garages and junkyards while he worked on a secret project.
Albert believed it was this project, which Ricky scrupulously attended to, that kept him stable. Albert often prodded him about it with an intense curiosity. He always knew his nephew was mechanically inclined from the day he bought him a tinker toy set. At four years old, Ricky feverishly constructed his own airplanes, bikes, cars and all other doohickeys of his childhood imaginings.
Ricky finally glanced at him and licked his lips. They had suddenly parched. He stared at the water cooler and Albert sprang up to give him a paper cup of water. Ricky gulped it down and Albert passed him three more until he was satiated. Ricky balled up the cup and tossed it in the bin. Albert took his seat again.
"Umm…what…what makes you say that, uncle Albert? Why this? Why now?" It was an honest question, there always had to be sound reasoning for accusing people of heinous crimes. However, he choked on his words. They sounded terribly naïve.
"It's not that something made me say it, Ricky…it's something…I always knew." He admitted.
Ricky's jaw dropped, here, his stalwart uncle, a man so full of integrity and justice…had let him get away with a crime. Ricky's lower lip trembled.
"But…but why…how…how did you know? Why didn't you say anything? What was in it for you?"
Panic rose in Ricky's voice and he jumped out of the chair, startling Albert. Ricky wanted to lunge for the door, but he remembered his promise. Albert wasn't here to arrest him. He wanted to admit something to ease his own troubled conscience.
Albert put his fingertips together and held his hands under his nose in deep concentration. He lowered his eyes and his jaw quivered as he explained.
"I put myself on the line, Ricky…but I insisted you were innocent! Your desperation alone told me that whatever had happened, it wasn't an intentional murder. You loved Chris, we all did…I blame my brother for all this! I told Richard to keep that freaking gun out of sight!"
Albert pulled at his face and took a sharp breath, allowing his own guilt to come to the fore. "Hell, I blame myself! I was the one who convinced him to keep one in the first place. He kept you guys living in that slummy neighborhood and crime was getting bad. There were four reported break-ins in your area alone the week I convinced him. That was my mistake, a big, damn mistake. The only people who should be carrying guns should be in law enforcement, not blue-collar maintenance men. I told him how to handle it! I told him where to keep it...crap!"
Albert's careworn eyes grew teary. "I told him while you and Chris were home that night...you must have heard everything. No wonder Chris found it and...he probably knew how to load it himself. That kid may not have acted like it, but he was smart as a whip!"
Ricky sank into his chair again. The stuffiness of the room overwhelmed him. He remembered the night Albert brought the gun over. Chris was all over it, demanding to touch it, but Ricky kept him out of the room so the men could talk. He leaned forward on the desk, trying to maintain his calm and kept his voice steady.
"No, uncle Albert, don't blame yourself…you were trying to protect us. Chris...he...wasn't the one who took it out of the closet. He just wanted to see it after I pulled it out. It was loaded, but I don't think dad even realized. Chris didn't pull that trigger…I did. I lied and told everyone I found him that way."
Admitting his guilt had come much easier since he had tearfully told the truth to Clifford the other night. Clifford had accepted his story with no qualms, but they were still kids. His uncle was a grown man and trained to find motive.
"Now you know the truth. But you still didn't say how you know that Chris didn't do it himself." Ricky demanded, an edge crept into his voice.
Albert wiped his eyes and stared at him. "There were the obvious clues…the angle and entry of the bullet wound versus the position of the gun in his hand…the bullet somewhat deflected and hit your mother's china closet after it struck him. If he had raised it to his head and pulled the trigger like that, the bullet may have still been lodged in his head. The fact that the gun was still in his hand after it fired…the impact would have been jarring and the recoil would have forced him to drop it. He was only eleven years old, and would not have been used to that force…. those are just some technicalities that got lost in the sauce. Poor kid."
Albert clammed up, refusing to say more on the subject and Ricky got the hint. It really appeared that Albert did go out on a limb, perhaps even covering up vital aspects of the investigation. It was no wonder he was troubled. This had been a disturbing week for both of them, Ricky supposed. The day before, Ricky's custom built motorbike was thrown into the pond near the school and he was almost pummeled by Moody and his bodyguard, Mike. Ricky had allowed it to happen, he didn't want his peers to have their biggest fears and suspicions about him confirmed. He was not a bully; he was not a killer…though presently, under the intense gaze of his uncle, he felt like he should be taking the long walk to the electric chair.
Ricky's eyes filled with tears. What was the point of all this? "You gonna tell my parents?" He asked sullenly.
Albert lowered his brow sorrowfully, but shook his head. "Your parents are already in their own hell…why should I dig them any deeper? Besides, that would have to be your decision, when you feel the time is right. You know I'll support you in any way that I can…"
Ricky stood up again and kicked at the chair. He faced his uncle anguished.
"Why did you have to say anything to me, uncle Albert? Does it matter any more? You didn't tell on me then, are you gonna now? Why?"
Albert stood up with him and put out his hands. "Calm down, Ricky. Obviously I'm not gonna tell on you…but I'm telling you for your own good…your sanity. I just wanted you to know that…you're not alone here. You've been so depressed to point of almost killing yourself and it scared the heck out of me! The only way to conquer that is to face up to your mistakes and get some help. I'm not a therapist or anything…but I'm your family, and dammit, if no one else can help you, then I will!"
Ricky laughed suddenly. He didn't mean for it to come out so spiteful.
"You act like you're my father! You're not! You have a wife and daughter, take care of them and leave me alone! You're just my uncle!"
Albert strode from behind the table pushed up against him. He grabbed Ricky's collar and forced his gaze. "An uncle that took care of you and your brother when no one else gave a damn! I wasn't trying to be your father, but sometimes I felt like it. Richard knew that…and he abused it! He knew I got along better with you than he did, for whatever stupid reasons he had. I don't really know. He's a big clam, like you. You both suck down your feelings until you can't stand straight, and then wallow in depression. Your father and I used to have it bad when we were kids. Our dad was an abusive drunk, okay? And being the oldest, your father got the brunt of his anger. Instead of becoming an abuser, he just became an emotionless void that drank heavily. I saw how much that hurt you as a little child and I couldn't stand it. Silence like that is just as destructive as abuse."
Ricky shook himself from Albert's grip and bumped against the file cabinet. He wasn't stunned over this news. He always heard whispers of his grandfather's mistakes, he just never connected it to his father's behavior. Ricky angrily rubbed his eyes. He didn't care if he cried in front of Albert anymore.
"So what are you saying? That my father doesn't love me? I don't understand all this!"
Albert slumped his shoulders and faced the window with his hands behind his back.
"No Ricky…not that. I'm just saying that I love you too much to see you spiral. I'm afraid for you again…I haven't heard from ya in months. Every time I call, you're not home and the worst thoughts run through my head…talk to me, Ricky. God, I don't want to get a blotter telling me they found the body of teenaged boy in some sewer or in an alley. Tell me what's been going on!"
Ricky confused his uncle when he gave him a wide smile. He put his arm over his shoulder and led him to his chair and sat him down. Ricky removed his coat and slung it over the coat hanger on the door. His uncle deserved to know that up until yesterday's debacle with the bullies, he had been fine…because he had opened up…he had talked…and he made a new friend. Ricky spent the next half-hour telling Albert about school and his growing friendship with Clifford and others. The glare of happiness in Albert's eyes moved Ricky to more tears. He finally admitted about the incident with Mike and Moody.
"So that's that…I don't know what to do now, uncle Albert. If I don't come back, I'm a failure and a coward, and people will just start more rumors about me. I don't want that anymore…but…I'm scared." He admitted.
Albert came around the desk in front of Ricky, he folded his arms and leaned against it.
"I know, Rick. It's not easy coming out of something as serious as this and then deal with immature high school crap. I remember I couldn't wait to finish. I had real problems at home. A drunken father and a flaky mother who hardly stood up for us. I didn't care who I was taking to the prom or about the SAT scores…let the others worry about that and have their stupid fun, right?"
"Right! That's really not important anyway. It's just a dance..." Ricky mumbled. The spring formal was coming up and some of the girls at school had given him the eye, but he just wasn't ready for all that.
Albert patted his back. "True, but sometimes…we have to humble ourselves."
Ricky glanced up at him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, don't push yourself to be so grown up yet. This is your life right now. These are the circumstances that surround you. It's getting through the little stuff like this that builds character later in life, or even just gives you pleasant memories. I look back and I wish I was more active in certain High School activities. It would have helped me take my mind off what was bugging me at home. I don't have to tell you what to do here, Ricky. What do you want to do?"
Ricky fiddled with the new chain on his belt loop. Mike had ruined the other one. His face darkened.
"I want my bike back, uncle Albert."
"Then you go get it!"
"But…everyone will be there."
"And? It's yours. You worked hard on it, so go for it."
"What about Moody and this guy Mike? They'll probably show up again."
Albert shrugged. "So let them, it's a free country."
Ricky rolled his eyes. "You know what I mean. It's not really me I'm worried about…it's Clifford. He's kind of a runt and I don't want them beating on him."
Albert put a hand on Ricky's shoulder and stood him to his full height.
"Damn, you're taller than me now and still growing. Ricky, just get your butt over there and get your bike, and if you have to, help your friend! Isn't that what he paid you for, Bodyguard? Don't schlep out of responsibilities."
Ricky laughed a little. "I'm not. I didn't even take money the first time. It just felt good to be feared." Ricky held up his hands with widened eyes. "I know… I know…it's more important to be respected."
Albert pushed Ricky to the door and put the coat over his arm. "Then go and earn that respect! And remember how I always taught you."
Ricky nodded firmly. "That's right. Go for the nose!" He turned to leave and then stopped short. He opened his arms wide and gave his uncle a long hug.
"I'm sorry about all this uncle Albert…I don't want to be an outcast anymore…but I know at some point I'm gonna have to take the blame for what I did to him." He broke off into sobs and Albert hugged him again gently.
"Hey…hey…you're gonna be okay, Ricky. You've already acknowledged the blame, and that's a a good a start as any. I'll take care of ya. Just promise me that you won't give up, huh? I can't lose you."
Ricky pulled back and raised himself erect once more. "You won't!"
Albert smiled and turned back toward his desk. "How about that Lasagna on Saturday?"
Ricky gave him a sheepish smile. "Will Aunt Ronnie make her garlic bread too?"
"Then I'll be there…and I want to show you my bike too."
"That will be great, Ricky. I'll be waiting for you...and so will Ken and Barbie."
Ricky laughed and left the office with his confidence restored. He was going to head straight to the park to apologize to Clifford and if he had to, stand up against the bullies for what was right.
Albert picked the file up off his desk and opened it. Three blank sheets of paper drifted out. He tore it in half and threw it in the trash with a cynical smile. He had lied to Ricky. There were no technicalities in Chris's death, at least not anything noticeable by the police. Whatever had happened, Ricky covered his tracks well. He'd make a good criminal...or a cop. There were never any suspicions of murder, it was written off immediately as an accidental suicide. It was only Albert who long suspected Ricky played a part, but he never knew how to break it to him. All that mattered at this stage in the game was that Ricky confessed, not once, but twice. Albert didn't have to enforce the law on him. Ricky had put himself in his own prison, and now he was finally free.