Jordan Milner was a late bloomer, small for his age, face smooth and rounded. Melanie Byers peered through the glass-
paned door and watched him bounce a basketball off the rim of the hoop mounted on the garage. A sweat-soaked shirt
stuck to his back revealing a bony frame. The kid’s toes barely cleared the asphalt of the driveway when he made a
jump shot.
When she opened her law practice in Winston-Salem three years ago, Melanie gravitated to juvenile cases. Her
reputation for an aggressive, unstinting defense of her young clients spread through the legal community. After she
read about the deaths in the morning paper, the call from Cynthia Milner, Jordan’s grandmother, hadn’t been entirely
unexpected. Pushing open the door, Melanie gestured for the woman to remain in the house.
“I need to speak to him alone.”
She stepped onto the brick patio and waited beside an umbrella-shaded table while the boy crossed the driveway on
shuffling feet.
“I’m sorry about your aunt and uncle, Jordan.”
“Why do I need a lawyer?” The boy’s voice held no traces of the deeper pitch another year or two would bring. His
almost colorless gray eyes slid from Melanie’s face to the basketball hugged tightly to his chest. “I already told the
police what happened.”
There was no outward sign of recognition on his face, but Melanie was sure he remembered her.
“The detective in charge of the case has some more questions she needs to ask. I know it’s hard talking about this, but
I need to hear the story before the meeting at the public safety center this afternoon.”
His expression remained wary as he dropped the ball and slid into the wrought-iron chair she pulled from under the
table.
“What kind of questions?”
Careful to give him space, Melanie rotated her chair to face the boy.
“I need you to tell me what happened at your house yesterday.”
“I came home from school at two like I do every day. Aunt Rachel usually fixes me a snack and sits at the table with
me while I eat.” Fisted hands rose to rub eyes that filled with tears. “She didn’t answer when I called, so I went upstairs
looking for her.”
When the boy’s hands returned to his lap, his eyes remained closed. Melanie imagined the scene he described had been
burned into his memory for a lifetime.
“I found them both in their bedroom. She was on the bed. He was on the floor in front of the window. That’s all I
know.”
“Did you touch anything in the room?”
When the police arrived in response to his 911 call, Jordan answered the door in blood-stained clothes.
His chin sank to his chest.
“I tried to wake them up, but they were dead.”
A chill of recognition moved an icy finger up her spine. The boy used the same words three years ago after he found
his parents’ lifeless bodies sprawled in the living room of their home. Her appointment by the court to represent
Jordan after his parents’ death had been her first case. The police hadn’t considered him a suspect. Her job had been
to hold his hand during questioning, just as she planned to do today.
“Have your aunt and uncle been having problems?”
“What do you mean?”
“Have they been arguing?”
“Aunt Rachel calls them discussions. She says everyone who’s married has them.”
“Do you know what those discussions were about?”
His fingers curled tightly around the arms of his chair.
“I’m not supposed to listen to private things.”
“Jordan, if you know something that will help the police understand what happened, you need to tell me.”
The working theory was a murder-suicide. The gun that killed the boy’s aunt and uncle had been found beside his
uncle’s body.
The boy’s eyes flicked upward to briefly meet her gaze, then scanned the yard as if searching for a source of rescue.
Melanie had to lean toward him to catch the mumbled words.
“Aunt Rachel wanted Uncle Steve to move out. But Uncle Steve said he wasn’t the one who wanted a divorce, so he
wasn’t going to be the one to leave.”
In Melanie’s brief questioning of Jordan’s grandmother, the woman insisted that her daughter and son-in-law were a
happily married couple. There was no imaginable reason why Steven Bryce would shoot his wife and then turn the gun
on himself.
“How long have they been talking about getting a divorce?”
“For a while, I guess. Aunt Rachel didn’t say anything to me until last week. She knew I heard them talking, it got kind
of loud so she told me I didn’t have to worry. If Uncle Steve wouldn’t move out, we’d move in with Grandmother. I
could still go to my school, and everything’d be fine.”
Traffic was light. The car ride from the exclusive enclave off Robinhood Road where Jordan’s grandmother lived to
the public safety center downtown was mercifully brief. Cynthia Milner kept up a steady stream of patter Melanie
attributed to nerves. Jordan remained silent.
The lead detective on the case, Phoebe Sorenson, ushered them into an interview room minutes after the patrol
officer in the lobby called up to announce their arrival. When Melanie settled Jordan between her and his
grandmother at the gray metal table, Phoebe introduced the second detective in the room. Neither Melanie nor
Phoebe gave any indication they knew each other more than casually; in truth, they had been best friends since
elementary school.
Phoebe spoke in a soft, reassuring tone, “Jordan, Detective Reirson and I are very sorry about your aunt and uncle. I
know Ms. Byers has explained why we asked you and your grandmother to come down here today, but I want to make
sure you understand. We’ll be taping the interview and asking you questions about what you saw and heard at your
house yesterday. We wouldn’t ask you to go over painful memories if it wasn’t important we find out what happened to
your aunt and uncle. Do you understand?”
Eyes fixed on the table surface, Jordan dipped his head to nod. Melanie rested a hand lightly on the boy’s shoulder.
“Jordan, Detective Sorenson needs you to answer out loud for the recording.”
His voice held a slight quaver, but was clearly audible, “Yes, I understand.”
Phoebe took him over the same ground Melanie covered earlier, eliciting the same information about his arrival home
and discovery of the bodies. After walking him through a detailed description of his movements in the room, she
asked whether Jordan knew anything that could help explain why his uncle may have killed his aunt and then taken his
own life.
Melanie leaned toward the boy and whispered, “You need to tell Detective Sorenson what you told me.”
“Aunt Rachel wanted a divorce. They’ve been arguing about it. Uncle Steve said he wasn’t going to do it. She told me
last week she’d decided to leave him and move in with my grandmother.”
“What are you talking about, Jordan?” Cynthia Milner spoke for the first time since introductions were made.
Leaning forward to catch the woman’s gaze, Melanie favored her with an expression usually sufficient to quell her
most audacious clients. She thought she had made it clear that the woman was there to provide silent support, with the
emphasis on silent.
“I’m sorry, Grandmother. Ms. Byers said I had to tell.”
For the next half hour, Phoebe probed Jordan’s knowledge of his aunt and uncle’s marital problems, while Cynthia
Milner sat rigidly on the edge of her chair, her lips tightly pressed together as if to contain words she desperately
wanted to speak. Melanie was both impressed by and grateful for the woman’s self-control.
Neither Jordan nor his grandmother spoke on the drive home. Melanie searched for topics to break the silence, but
every effort at conversation fell flat. After a brief expression of appreciation for Melanie’s efforts on her grandson’s
behalf, grandmother and grandson disappeared behind the massive oak door of the sprawling brick home. Other than
a check for her services, Melanie heard nothing from them for nearly six months.
* * * * *
The call came the Friday after Thanksgiving. Planning to take the day to recover from her mother’s marathon family
dinner, Melanie was tempted to put the woman off. But Cynthia Milner’s tearful request had her agreeing to a mid-
afternoon meeting at the Milner home with only a token protest.
She pulled the car into the circular drive and parked in front of the door precisely at two. Wreaths decorated the front
windows. Swags of garland draped the wrought-iron banister on the front stoop. A fortune in red bows dotted the
greenery. Evidently, the Milner’s had gotten into the Christmas holiday spirit early this year.
The sound of chimes filtered through the door when Melanie pushed the doorbell. Ten minutes and a half dozen rings
and knocks later, she stood fuming on the stoop. It didn’t make sense; the woman insisted on the urgent meeting and
now was nowhere in evidence. The memory of Cynthia Milner’s near-panicked voice had her reaching to try the
doorknob before she could inhibit the urge. The knob turned without resistance and the door swung open with an ease
that belied its size.
The graceful curve of the staircase in the foyer hugged a tree that reached more than a dozen feet toward the second-
floor ceiling. Tiny white lights twinkled amid branches densely laden with ornaments. It wasn’t until Melanie’s gaze left
the tree to scan the room that she noticed Cynthia Milner sprawled at the foot of the stairs.
Her footsteps broke the silence as she jogged across the marble floor. Knowing it was futile; Melanie stooped to place
her fingers on the woman’s neck to check for a pulse. The bluish pallor of the face told her she was too late to be of any
help. The last six months had not been kind to the older woman. A red cashmere dress hung loosely on a too-thin
frame. Deep grooves not present at their last meeting curved from the corners of her mouth to her jaw line.
Melanie stood and pulled her cell phone from her purse to make the 911 call, informing the operator of the death. A
death that now left Jordan Milner alone is the world. His grandmother had been his last living relative other than a few
distant cousins whom the boy had never met. A string of violent deaths and now another loss: more than any child
could be expected to handle.
She wished she pressed for some explanation for their meeting. But Cynthia Milner refused to talk over the phone,
insisting Jordan would be visiting a friend for the afternoon and they could speak in privacy at the house.
The unseasonably-cold weather convinced her to wait in the foyer rather than outside on the stoop. In spite of her
report to the operator, EMS responded with both ambulance and fire truck. She watched while the first-responders
confirmed the death and then turned matters over to the young, Hispanic patrol officer who arrived shortly after
them.
Melanie gave her statement, outlining the reason for her presence at the house and what she found when she entered
the open door. The officer’s request for her to remain at the scene until someone from Homicide could speak to her
didn’t come as a surprise. At first glance, it appeared Cynthia Milner had taken an accidental tumble down the stairwell
to die on the marble floor at its base, but there would be an investigation. Phoebe Sorenson’s arrival ten minutes later
was the only bright spot in the day.
The friends murmured low-key greetings. Melanie repeated what she told the patrol officer while the homicide
detective scribbled notes on a four-by-six inch pad. When she finished, Phoebe motioned her into the room to the
right of the foyer.
“Either there’s something I’m missing or the Milner family has the worst Karma I’ve ever run into. How’s the boy
doing?”
“He doesn’t know about his grandmother, yet. He’s spending the afternoon with a friend.” At Phoebe’s questioning
look, Melanie shook her head. “No, I don’t know where.”
“I’ve called for the crime scene techs. The medical examiner’s on the way. With any luck, we should be able to move
her before the kid comes home.”
“You think there’s more to this than it looks?”
“Probably not, but with this family’s history, I’m not taking any chances.”
The two women returned to the foyer. Melanie kept out of the way while Phoebe hovered on the edge of the action,
making sure no short cuts were taken in spite of the accidental appearance of the scene. When the medical examiner
gave the go-ahead, EMS lifted the body onto the stretcher.
The glint of rubies and diamonds caught Melanie’s eye. The necklace lay curled on the floor where it had been covered
by Cynthia Milner’s body. She moved closer to be sure, but it was a vintage piece, a distinctive design. Her heart
thumped in her chest as she remembered clearly when and where she’d seen pictures of the necklace.
One of the crime scene techs stooped to retrieve the jewelry, placing it in an evidence bag.
“Must’ve come off during the fall; if this thing’s real, it’s worth a fortune.”
Melanie hoped her face didn’t betray her thoughts. The necklace was real, all right. What she hadn’t figured out was
what it was doing under Cynthia Milner’s body. Until she did, she wasn’t ready to share with Phoebe, even if the
homicide detective was her best friend.
Phoebe had taken the lead when Jordan arrived home just before dark. The boy’s response to news of his
grandmother’s death had been muted. The detective’s statement that he would be placed in a foster home until a
relative could be located had been met with silence and a blank-eyed stare. Melanie wondered whether the experience
of so much violent loss at such a young age robbed him of the ability to feel deeply, even his grandmother’s death.
The look on Jordan’s face as the foster-care worker for the department of social services led him to the car erased any
thoughts Melanie had of keeping her distance. Like it or not, she was the kid’s attorney. Her response to his
grandmother’s call for help had been a tacit agreement to continue that relationship.
In spite of the late hour, Melanie detoured to her office on Fourth Street rather than head for home. The security light
in the parking lot behind the townhouse she leased was broken again. She made a mental note to call Duke Power as
she climbed the wooden stairs to the rear entrance.
Two deadbolts and an alarm system slowed her passage through the door, making her question for the hundredth time
whether their presence was worth the extra time and effort. Her laptop and files were stored in a fire-proof vault she
salvaged from the demolition of a local bank. There was nothing else of value in her office for a thief to steal.
After retrieving Jordan’s file, she sat at her desk to review the contents. The police report from his parents’ murders
three years ago gave a description of the contents of their safe provided by the insurance company. The working
theory had been that a burglar entered the home and forced Jordan’s mother to open the small wall safe in the living
room. Surprised by the unexpected arrival of Richard Milner, the intruder shot both husband and wife with a nine-
millimeter handgun that had been stored in the safe, ditched the gun in the front hallway and fled the house with the
contents of the safe.
The last Melanie heard, the killer had never been caught and none of the items from the safe turned up at pawnshops
in the area. An antique, diamond and ruby necklace was one of the pieces of jewelry listed in the report. When the lead
detective questioned Jordan about what the boy had seen and heard on the day his parents died, he had shown the boy
photographs of the safe’s contents. Jordan identified the necklace as one his mother had worn on special occasions.
How had Cynthia Milner come into possession of the necklace? The jittery feeling in her stomach told Melanie she
needed to speak to her client first thing in the morning. The holiday weekend wouldn’t slow Phoebe down. The
detective would pull everything the WSPD had on the Milner family tragedies and the police file would contain not
only a description, but a photograph of the necklace. Melanie would need to work fast if she was going to stay ahead of
her friend.
Three cups of strong, black coffee left her wired without banishing the effects of a sleepless night. A plump, gray-
haired woman wearing jeans and a Carolina blue sweat shirt answered the door. Her smile was friendlier than Melanie
had a right to expect at eight o’clock on a rainy, Saturday morning.
“I’m sorry to bother you so early, Mrs. Franklin, but it’s important I talk to Jordan.”
Jordan’s foster mother waved Melanie into the living room of the modest Cape Cod house.
The smile grew more tentative, “I hope the boy’s not in any trouble. Detective Sorenson called and I told her you were
on your way over. She’ll be here at nine.”
Just as Melanie feared; Phoebe wasn’t wasting any time.
“There’s always an investigation, even in accidental deaths. I’m sure the detective has follow-up questions she needs
to ask. Since Jordan doesn’t have a parent or guardian, I have to be there when they meet.”
The woman didn’t need to know that Melanie had questions of her own.
“Such a terrible thing to happen to a child. The DSS social worker told me about the deaths: first his parents, then his
aunt and uncle, now his grandmother falling down the stairs. They’re looking for a relative to place him with, but I don’
t think they’re too hopeful.”
The woman reached to take Melanie’s rain-spattered parka and pointed to a well-worn sofa across the room.
“Please, have a seat. I’ll get Jordan. He already finished his breakfast and went up to his room.”
“If you could show me the way, I think it would be better if we spoke alone.”
There was a nod of assent, but the look the woman gave Melanie was a shade less friendly.
“Second door on the right at the top of the stairs.”
The runner carpeting the stairs muffled her footsteps as she climbed to the second floor. Melanie tapped softly on the
door.
“Jordan, it’s Melanie Byers. May I come in?”
The thud of feet hitting the floor was followed by a soft swish then the door swung open. Wispy, blond hair curled over
his ears and drooped down his forehead in a longer style than he had worn last summer, but the boy’s eyes held the
same wariness she remembered from that meeting.
“Are you still my lawyer?”
Melanie moved into the room and closed the door behind her.
“That’s what your grandmother wanted, but it’s up to you. You can ask the court to appointment another attorney.”
“Mrs. Franklin said Detective Sorenson wants to talk to me.”
Brushing aside a pair of discarded socks, Melanie pulled a straight-backed, wooden chair from under a small desk in
the corner. She sat and gestured for Jordan to do the same on the unmade bed.
“Your grandmother’s death looks like an accident, but Detective Sorenson still has to consider all the possibilities.”
Short-bitten nails picked at the nap of the navy flannel comforter.
“They think someone killed her?”
“What do you think, Jordan?” His eyes jerked upward. The cold, impassive look told Melanie she was on the right
track. “You need to tell me everything. Detective Sorenson’s very good at her job. She’ll push until she discovers the
truth. I won’t be able to help unless I can stay a step ahead of her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His sneer set Melanie’s stomach roiling and hardened her resolve to force the truth out of the boy.
“Your grandmother found your mother’s necklace. That’s why she called me yesterday.”
His deer-in-the-headlights stare signaled a direct hit. She pressed on.
“Detective Sorenson has the necklace. The police have a picture in their files. She knows it disappeared from the safe
the day your parents were killed.”
“That doesn’t prove anything.”
Melanie had lain awake most of the night trying to convince herself that her suspicions were nothing but paranoid
delusions.
“There was never anyone else in the house that day, was there, Jordan? You took the things in the safe to make it look
like a robbery when you shot your parents.”
The sneer was back.
“I was a little kid; nobody’ll believe I shot them.”
“Why did you kill your aunt and uncle?”
Eyes that could have been carved from flint showed no remorse.
“My uncle said I needed discipline. They were going to send me away to a military school in Virginia.”
“Your grandmother found the necklace. She knew the truth about your parents’ deaths.”
His hands curled into tight fists.
“I had to stop her from telling.”
“But you didn’t know she had the necklace in her pocket when you pushed her down the stairs; did you, Jordan?”
“The police can’t prove I did anything.”
Her head pounded and sweat dampened her shirt. Suspicion was one thing. Listening to a client confirm he was a serial
killer was more than Melanie bargained for when she opted for juvenile law.
“Detective Sorenson will figure it out like I did. The medical examiner will find evidence at the autopsy. They’ll take a
closer look at everything they have from your parents’ murders and your aunt and uncle’s deaths.”
“The worst they can do is to send me to a juvie center until I’m eighteen.”
The arrogance in his voice killed the last of bit of sympathy Melanie felt for the boy.
“I’m sorry, Jordan; I forgot to wish you happy birthday.”
The kid’s lack of reaction confirmed her suspicion. The boy had no idea of the mistake he’d made.
“North Carolina’s not one of the more enlightened states when it comes to juvenile law. You turned thirteen last week.
The DA’s required to try you as an adult for your grandmother’s murder. He can’t seek the death penalty, but he can
put you away for life.”
The only warning of the attack came from the sudden tensing of muscles before he sprang from the bed. His weight
and momentum flipped the chair backward and her head struck the floor. The force of the blow sent a wave of agony
through her skull and grayed her vision. He straddled her, hands encircling her neck, cutting off her cry of alarm.
She was stronger and outweighed him, but murderous rage and surprise gave him the advantage. Her legs scissored
around the boy’s slim hips. A wrenching, sideways thrust rolled him from her body. Struggling to pry his fingers from
her throat, her nails dug into his skin as she grasped his wrists. Rewarded by a cry of pain and a loosening of the
crushing grip, she sucked in her first deep breath in what felt like minutes. When strength returned to oxygen
deprived muscles, she moved to pin him to the floor, hands above his head.
A raspy whisper was all she could manage, “It’s over, Jordan.”
Juvenile Law
By Cyndy Edwards Lively