Chapter 9: The Darkest Hours
It took me a few minutes to compose myself as we rode toward our destination.
"Was it a traffic accident?" I asked at length.
"No, sir," Litchfield answered, but said no more.
"What was it then? How did she die?"
I saw the two men glance at each other before answering.
"We believe your wife was murdered, Mr. Hansen," Etchevarry answered.
"Oh God, no! How could that be? Who would murder her? Did this happen in our home?"
"No, sir," Etchevarry responded. "She was discovered by the housekeeping staff this morning in a room at the Riverbend Inn. It's a motel in the Park Hill area.
"What?" I said, now completely confused. "Why would she be there? We live in Taylorsville."
"She rented the room just before nine last night," Etchevarry continued. "She was alone when she checked in according to the front desk clerk."
I had no way to process this information. I was beginning to lose my ability to concentrate. Diane was dead. That much I understood. But why? And why was she in a motel? None of this made any sense.
We arrived at a building with a sign indicating it was the county morgue. The detectives escorted me down to an office and introduced me to a gowned man. He took me into a cold room with a series of large lockers on one wall. I knew where I was and it finally hit me. Diane really was dead. She was gone. I didn't know if I could get past the next few minutes.
The man took me to one of the locker doors, unlatched and opened it, pulling out a stainless steel tray with a covered body on it. He looked at me and I nodded. He turned the sheet down, revealing the head. It took me some seconds to recognize that it was my wife, Diane. She had been beaten and her face was a mass of black and yellow puffiness. But it was her. As much as I prayed this was all some horrible mistake, it was my beloved wife. I nodded again as the tears poured down my face.
I didn't watch as he covered her head once more and slid the tray back into the locker. I was staggering toward the door and desperate for some place to empty my stomach. The attendant must have realized what was about to happen and guided me to a large steel sink and gave me some privacy while I attempted to cough up the remains of my breakfast. He ran some water to wash away both the bile and the smell. I borrowed some of the water and splashed it on my face.
I began to feel that I wouldn't faint or lose my balance as I made my way out of the morgue. The detectives were waiting for me.
"Can you confirm that the body you were shown is Diane Anita Hansen?" Etchevarry asked.
"Yes, that's her. She was beaten. Is that how she died?"
"That's our preliminary finding, but it's subject to the coroner's confirmation."
"Who would do that to her? Who?"
"That's what our job is, Mr. Hansen. That's exactly what we want to know. Why don't we move to a more comfortable room and we can talk. We're going to need some information from you to help us with our investigation. I know this is a big shock to you, but the sooner we get on the trail of the perpetrators, the more likely we will catch them."
They led me to a small room with little in the way of furnishings other than a desk, four chairs and a mirror on the wall. As I looked at the mirror, I realized it was probably a one-way window. Was I a suspect?
"Can you tell us your whereabouts from eight o'clock last evening until eight this morning?" Litchfield asked.
"Yeah. I was in my hotel in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina from about six PM through to six AM this morning. I only left the room to eat in the coffee shop at about ten PM."
"What were you doing in Kitty Hawk?" Etchevarry asked.
"I drive a tour bus for Silver Arrow. I was on a trip. We had started here, then worked our way over to Virginia Beach and down the coast to Kitty Hawk and then toward Charleston. My company called me just before I got to Wilmington that I was to come home and they had a plane waiting for me there."
"So someone saw you at or about ten o'clock last night in Kitty Hawk then?" Litchfield asked.
"Yes, the waitress and a couple of the passengers saw me. Am I a suspect?"
"We have to check out all the possibilities, Mr. Hansen," Etchevarry replied. "We know that more often than not, victims know their killer. We go through this process in a stepwise fashion because we've learned over the years that it brings the best results."
"Well, you'll find that I was a long way away from the motel when she was killed. I think you had better start looking elsewhere," I said with some anger.
The two men ignored my outburst and continued.
"Can you think of anyone who might want to harm your wife?" Litchfield asked.
"No. Not a soul. She was a wonderful person with many good friends. I can't believe she had any enemies at all."
"Did she have a job?" Litchfield continued.
"She had her own home business. She did billing and accounting for small businesses. She had built it up over five years into a very successful operation. It allowed her to stay home and look after the children and still earn a good living."
"How would you describe you relationship with your wife?" Etchevarry asked, changing the subject.
"Outstanding. We were as close as two people could possibly be. I never had a moments doubt that she loved me and I felt the same about her."
"Can you think of any reason why she would be in that motel at night while you were on the road?" Litchfield asked.
Now they were circling in on the questions I was beginning to ask myself.
"No ... not a single one. I'm at a complete loss to understand why she would leave the house and our children and check into a motel several miles away. It makes no sense."
"It would make sense if she was meeting someone there," Litchfield said.
"I know what you are suggesting ... that she was having an affair. I can't bring myself to believe that. There was no evidence of it and no hint that she wasn't completely satisfied with our relationship."
"It wouldn't be the first time that a husband had no clue that his wife had a lover, Mr. Hansen," Litchfield continued.
I was shaking my head. "Look, why don't I give you some background on our relationship. Maybe that will clear up what our marital situation was."
They nodded their agreement and I began to relate how Diane and I had been married, divorced, reconciled and had built an ever stronger marriage than before. I watched as Litchfield made a few notes, but I was sure the entire interview was being recorded.
"Besides yourself and your children, who was your wife's closest friend?"
"Christie Wilson lives across the street from us. She and Diane were the best of friends even before we reconciled. They told each other everything, Diane claimed. I'm sure Christie would have picked up on something like Diane having a lover. Women are pretty good at that, unlike men," I said, ruefully.
"We will talk to her," Etchevarry said, "but please don't say anything to her in the meantime. I don't want her to try and shape her story to protect your wife or you. For now, this conversation is just between us."
"I understand. Listen, I'm worried about my children. I don't know where they are or who is looking after them."
"Children's Services has taken them out of school and is bringing them here. They may be here now. I'll check for you," Litchfield volunteered.
"Do they know?" I asked.
We talked a bit more and I agreed that the police could take Diane's computer with them to see if they could find anything on it that might lead them to her killer. I gave them permission to search her room and her car as well. I wondered aloud if I needed a lawyer and Etchevarry didn't respond. That told me he hoped I wouldn't ask for one but he didn't say anything.
The children were brought into the interview room and we were given some privacy. I had no idea if anyone was watching through the glass or recording anything that was said. It didn't matter. We had nothing to hide.
"Daddy," a tearful Debbie said and she rushed into my arms. "It's horrible. Mom's dead. I can't believe it. She's dead."
Billy was silent, but the tears were evident even though he was trying to hold them back. Big boys don't cry.
Sandy simply came and held onto my hand. I was her lifeline at that point. I had no idea what to say or do yet. I still hadn't really come to terms that Diane was gone and would never return. I felt a hollowness I had never experienced before. What could I say to my children that would make it better?
The police department had provided a van to take us home. It was a wordless ride with only the sounds of sobbing interrupting the silence. When we arrived at our home, I saw my Outback in the driveway. Someone had thoughtfully brought it from the Silver Arrow lot and parked it here. I always left my keys with dispatch in case Diane needed it in an emergency.
I thanked the driver and we slowly moved up the walk to the front door. Sandy was holding my hand and wasn't about to let go under any circumstances. Billy was trying his damndest to be a man and not cry. I think it might have been better for him if he had broken down and let it loose. Perhaps that was still to come. Debbie had dried her tears, but I could see the look of doubt on her face as we stepped into our home. What the hell were we going to do now?
I hadn't eaten since my snack this morning and I could feel my stomach tell me it was long overdue. I went to the kitchen and looked into the refrigerator to see what was on hand. I looked, but I didn't see. I had no idea what I was looking for. I closed the fridge door and sat at one of the kitchen chairs. I put my head in my hands and wept. I could feel my shoulders shake as I sobbed, spilling all my sorrow for what we had lost. It was so unfair. She had been taken from us and nothing was going to change that.
I felt Debbie's arms hold me. "I'll get something for you to eat, Daddy. You need to eat something. We can't let you get sick now. We need you, Daddy."
I'm not sure how much later it was that the door chime rang. Debbie answered it while I remained in the kitchen. I had eaten a sandwich that she had made for me and drank a glass of milk. I was fairly confident I could keep them both down. I heard voices, but I couldn't make out what they were saying as it sounded like they were being careful not to be too loud.
A moment later, Christie came into the kitchen, her eyes red from crying as well. I wasn't a bit surprised. She and Diane were the best of friends and it was Diane that had helped Christie in the aftermath of her divorce from Paul. She sat at the end of the table and took my hand in hers.
"I'm so sorry, Doug. I can't bring myself to believe she's gone. I can't imagine how you are feeling. You've lost a wonderful wife and mother and I've lost my best friend."
I could hear the genuine remorse and sorrow in Christie's voice. She wasn't just saying what she thought should be said. The words were deeply personal and she was truly feeling the loss just as the children and I were.
"Have the police talked to you?" I asked.
"Yes. They just left. I told them everything that I could. I just hope they catch the bastard who did this."
"Why? I'm trying and I can't come up with a single reason why someone would want her dead. And ... what was she doing in a motel room at that time of night? Who was looking after the children?"
"Where's Debbie? She'll know," Christie said, looking around.
"I'm right here," my daughter said as she re-entered the kitchen. "Juliet was here until this morning. She slept on the couch. She answered the door when the police came."
Debbie seemed to be able to compose herself considering the trauma she'd been through and that she was barely fourteen years old. I was completely devoid of energy. The last few hours had sucked the life out of me in more ways than one. I really didn't know how I was going to carry on. A hundred things were going through my mind at once. How would I look after the children and still go to work. A nanny? I couldn't concentrate on anything. I looked up at the clock and it didn't register. I saw the face and the hands pointing at numbers, but they didn't tell me anything.
"Doug, I'm here for you," Christie said, entering my consciousness. "Let me help you with things until you're feeling better. Debbie and I will get supper ready. You need to eat. I'll stay the night and make sure they're all off to school in the morning."
I nodded, almost robotically. "Thank you." I slipped back into my reverie. Snapshots of Diane floated past. Memories of little things that I tried to grasp but couldn't. The way she looked. The way she walked. The way she teased me when she was playful. A kaleidoscope of images behind my eyes, tumbling by before I could grab one and hold it.
"Where's Billy? Where's Sandy?" I asked, now realizing I hadn't seen them since I got home.
"Billy's in his room playing his game-boy," Debbie said. "Sandy's in her room in bed. I think she's asleep, but I'll go check."
"Doug, maybe that's what you should do," Christie said softly. "Try and get some sleep. Tomorrow we can start to look at what has to be done to get on with the rest of your life."
"Maybe in a while. I better eat something. I haven't got much in my stomach. I won't sleep if I don't eat."
"I'll get supper started. Is mac and cheese with a tossed salad okay?"
"Sure. Make it small. Thanks, Christie. You're a life saver."
It was only afterward that I though about what I'd just said. A life saver. If only.
I didn't even think about where Christie would sleep. I ate some supper, drank some tea, dragged myself to our bedroom, had a shower and went to bed. I had no idea what time it was nor did I care. My neighbor and Debbie would look after things until the morning. Maybe by then I would be a little more "with it" and I'd be able to start dealing with all the changes Diane's death was going to bring about.
I must have fallen asleep almost immediately because I didn't remember anything until I woke the next morning and saw light coming through the window blinds. I hadn't bothered to close them last night. The clock said it was just past seven am and I made myself get up and head for the ensuite. I took another shower for no reason other than to wake myself up. I shaved, brushed my teeth and dressed, wondering what day it was. Wednesday? Thursday?