Home > The Last Sister (Columbia River #1)(4)

The Last Sister (Columbia River #1)(4)
Author: Kendra Elliot

Zander waited. He had not mentioned the nearly severed head or bullet wound.

“It’s happened a few times, and I’ve always suspected teenage punks. We have our share in Bartonville. There’s not much in town to keep them occupied.”

“So they kill animals for entertainment?”

“Something like that. I’ve reported it to the police, but I can understand how an old woman’s complaints about occasional dead vermin is far down their priority list.”

Zander suspected she hadn’t shared all her speculations about the raccoon with him. “I thought most small-town teenagers liked to drive aimlessly up and down the main streets and steal their parents’ beer to drink with their friends.”

“We have that too. Lots of it.”

He paused. “There was a bullet hole in the raccoon.”

She sighed, a look of understanding on her face. “Idiots.”

“Do you suspect some particular teens?”


Her answer felt a little too quick.

“Are you being harassed in any other way?” he asked quietly. “I know you don’t have a local police department, but the county sheriff should hear if you’ve had trouble.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. Some people see the house and assume we’re rich.” Disappointment filled her eyes. “But truthfully this house is a burden. The cost of maintenance is insane, and outside of Social Security and what we bring in from the diner—which isn’t a gold mine—we have no other source of income. Five people live here. We have no other place to go.”

“I’m sorry.” Having his suspicions confirmed turned his mouth sour.

“At one time, the Barton family sat at the top of everything. We helped build the school, the city hall, and we employed a large part of the population at the mill. When the town needed something, they came to us.”

“What happened?”

She shrugged. “Politics, the economy, competition, ego. A little of each.”

“You mentioned a nephew. Does he live in the home?”

“No. Rod lives on the other side of town. We call him when we need a bit of muscle around the house. He keeps the mansion mostly shipshape.”

“Who lives here with you?”

“Two of my sisters, Emily, and her younger sister, Madison. My third sister was their grandmother, but she passed years ago. Those girls have always been like grandchildren to all of us.”

Zander couldn’t help but like Vina Barton. She was direct, confident, and polite.

He set down his cup and leaned forward, holding her gaze. “Vina, this morning Sheriff Greer mentioned Emily’s father had been hanged.”

She blanched. “Why on earth would Merrill bring that up?” Anger flashed. “I don’t know why he has to stir up painful memories.”

She doesn’t know.

“Vina.” Zander paused, debating the necessity of telling her. “Sean Fitch was hanged.”

Her teacup clattered as she lowered it to its saucer. She thrust both hands into her lap, her face pale again. “What?”

He waited. Vina had heard him; she just needed a moment to process. He studied her facial reactions.

Shock. Disbelief. Then acceptance. She looked nauseated.

“What happened to Emily’s father?” Zander asked quietly. “I don’t even know his name.”

“Lincoln Mills.”

Vina stared out the window past Zander, her thoughts in the past, her eyes sad. She was quiet for a long moment. “Lincoln was dragged out of his house and hanged about twenty years ago.”

“They caught his killer,” Zander stated.

She turned a questioning look on him. “Yes. It sounds like you already know the story.”

“That’s the extent of what I’ve heard.”

“Then you know most of it.”

“Why did the killer do it?”

“Who knows? Chet Carlson was his name.”

A chill raced through Zander’s nerves.

“But they had the evidence to convict,” Vina said. “We’re all positive it was him.”

“Did you know the man who was murdered this morning?”

“I knew who Sean was. I know he taught at the high school and that his wife worked at the restaurant. Can’t say I ever had a conversation with him.”

“Any idea why someone would want to hurt either of them?”

“Only the obvious. He’s black. And he married a white woman,” she stated matter-of-factly.

Zander couldn’t speak.

Her gaze softened. “Shocked, are you? Every community big or small harbors some sort of hate and ugliness in its underbelly. Oregon has a very racist history. I’m not proud of it, and I don’t support it, but I won’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Hopefully that isn’t the reason that nice young couple was murdered.”

“He was hanged,” Zander forced out. “That’s a pretty clear message.”

“Or someone wanted the shock value. Or to put investigators on the wrong path.” She tilted her head a degree, her gaze narrowing. “Why am I doing your job?”

“You’re not.” But Zander was grateful for the reminder; he knew better than to let his focus narrow. Vina was correct to consider alternatives. “Was Lincoln Mills black?”

“No.” Her expression closed off. “He was a good father, and his death was a tragedy. His girls have suffered horribly since he died.”


It was midafternoon when Emily arrived at the diner and tried not to stare at Madison’s long, pink tulle skirt and black T-shirt as her sister waited tables. Old Converse tennis shoes and a small tiara rounded out the outfit. The clothes would be understandable on a thirteen-year-old. Or a six-year-old. But her sister was thirty-one.

Emily sneaked to her tiny office without being seen and collapsed into a chair, her brain scrambling over how to talk with her staff about Lindsay’s death.

Her employees were her second family. Along with Madison, Leo, her line cook, and Isaac were currently working. Isaac did everything besides cook and wait tables. Dishes. Cleanup. Prep work. The sullen teen wasn’t a talker, but he was a good worker. With Lindsay and herself—and sometimes the aunts—the five of them kept the restaurant running through the quiet months. Lindsay’s absence would leave a gaping hole.

This wouldn’t be easy.

Emily procrastinated, balancing the books for the previous day, the numbers soothing her overstimulated mind. It took only a few minutes; business was slow. She sucked in a breath and forced herself to leave the office.

Madison spotted her, and Emily gestured for her sister to follow as she headed toward the kitchen. Only two tables were occupied. Emily shoved open the swinging door and stepped into the kitchen, feeling the tension in her shoulders reduce a bit. It always happened. Behind the kitchen doors she was no longer on display to the diners. Back here it was just her and her employees. A place to relax before putting her hostess face back on.

But today was different.

From his position behind the prep area, Leo caught her eye and immediately laid down his knife and wiped his hands on his apron, his expression guarded.

Emily’s throat closed. She couldn’t speak.

Behind her, Madison stopped just inside the swinging door. Leo read Emily’s face. Her cook had worked in the restaurant since before Emily was born and was like an uncle to her. He turned his head toward the out-of-sight dishwashing alcove and shouted, “Isaac. Can you come out here?”

The teen emerged, his apron soaked and hesitation in his step.

The three employees stared at her, waiting.

Madison spoke first, her voice cracking in a show of emotion unusual for her. “What happened to Lindsay? Was she really murdered? Her husband too? Rumors are flying, and I don’t know what to believe. They say their house is crawling with police.”

Leo and Isaac were silent, their gazes on Emily. She looked directly at Leo and saw he was expecting the worst. She gave it to him.

“Lindsay was killed. Sean too,” Emily finally forced out, her mouth bone-dry. “They don’t know what happened yet, but they’re investigating.”

Madison sucked in a rapid breath with a sob. “No. That can’t be true. I talked to her last night.”

“Holy shit,” Isaac muttered, thrusting his hands in his back pockets. He wouldn’t look at Emily, staring anywhere else in the kitchen, his eyes growing red as he rapidly blinked.

Leo was silent, but waves of shock and sorrow rolled off him. He didn’t have any relatives and had adopted the diner’s employees as his family. Emily knew Lindsay had been a favorite. He abruptly turned and marched off. Emily heard the rear delivery door open and slam shut.

“This isn’t happening,” Madison muttered, her lips white. “You’re mistaken.” She grabbed the counter near the coffee machine.

Emily shook her head, unable to speak.

Sean’s hanged body flashed in her mind. A bloody Lindsay on the floor of her bedroom.

No one needed those details right now.

“How?” Madison spit out. “How?”

“That’s for the police to determine.”

Fury and sorrow alternated in Madison’s eyes.

“Do we need to close the restaurant?” Isaac asked. “You know . . . because . . .”

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