Home > Her Last Word(3)

Her Last Word(3)
Author: Mary Burton

A brick patio covered most of the backyard. There was a strip of grass and then a garage. An alley was just over the fence. It would’ve been easy enough to walk up the alley after dark and slip into the yard without being noticed.

He stepped back into the house, then moved toward the stairs leading to the second floor. More flashes and the buzz of conversation drew him to the front bedroom overlooking part of the side alley between this house and the neighboring one, as well as East Broad Street.

He saw a skirted four-poster bed, and beside it, discarded undergarments as well as a forensic technician’s yellow evidence marker. The undergarments weren’t ripped or torn. It appeared as if the victim had removed them while undressing. Slip off shoes downstairs, pour wine, strip.

His attention shifted to the bathroom, where a forensic technician snapped pictures of a nude female’s body sitting upright in the shower. Her legs were spread, and her hands lay on the inside of each thigh. She appeared to have been posed.

He pushed aside the disgust he felt in the face of such sadistic violence and focused on what this evidence told him about the killer. It had not been enough to murder her. She had to be humiliated. Whoever had done this had been angry.

She’d been stabbed multiple times in the abdomen, arm, and neck. One of the cuts had hit her jugular and left arterial spray on the glass door and tile walls. She had soap in her hair. Shampoo bottles lined a niche, but one lay outside the shower.

“Victim’s name was Jennifer Ralston, aged thirty-two,” Detective Monica Quinn said as she came up behind him.

Adler faced his newest partner. Quinn, generally efficient and composed, looked stricken. Her lips were pressed tightly together, and her posture was rigid. Her five-foot-ten, chiseled frame was the by-product of daily weight training and running. No matter how long the job kept her each day, she worked out. Breaking a sweat and drinking single malt whiskey kept her sane. Judging by her expression, she’d be logging more miles on the road and extra shots before bed.

He understood doing whatever it took to process this job. His sanity these days came in the form of bathroom demolition and remodeling.

Quinn smiled. “Glad to have you back.”

“Hell of a first day back on the job.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t pack it in after the explosion.”

His father had wanted him to do just that, reminding Adler that his private-school education and University of Virginia law school degree were wasted as long as he carried a cop’s badge. Time to run for state senate. Adler had disagreed.

“I like my job.”

Her gaze lingered an extra beat. “How’s Logan doing?”

“Mending. Still has a lot of rehab in front of him.”

A brow arched. “I offered to visit, but he said no.”

“Don’t ask the next time. Otherwise he’ll never say yes.”

“Duly noted.” She flipped open her notebook.

“I saw the victim’s purse in the entryway,” Adler said. “Was anything taken?”

“Doesn’t appear so. Her wallet was there with cash and credit cards intact. Her phone is on her nightstand. Nothing appears disturbed in the house. I’d bet money, judging by how clean everything is, that she puts the purse and keys in the same place every day.”

“The back door was unlocked.”

“And there are footprints in the backyard by the alley fence. I think our guy left through the back door.”

“How did he get in without tripping the alarm?”

“Good question. Her sister used her key to get in the front door and said the alarm was set. Said the victim is always mindful of security and always had the alarm on.”

The killer knew the security code and had a key. “Is there a lock on the side and alley gates?”

“Yes. They’re combination, both brand-new, identical, and locked.”

“Why would the victim not have heard the security chime?”

“I think he was in the house before she arrived home,” Quinn said.

“He was waiting for her?”

She walked toward the yellow evidence marker by the bed and lifted the beige bed skirt. “Have a look.”

He pulled a small flashlight from his pocket and shone it underneath. The beam skimmed over wood floors, and there were white tulips arranged into the shape of a heart. “Jesus. He was waiting for her under the bed.”

Quinn’s lips curled in contempt. “Yes, he was.”

“Did he leave any other mementos behind?”

“No. But the forensic team is also going to sweep under the bed. Keep your fingers crossed for hair samples, a fingerprint, saliva, or semen. The team estimates they have at least twelve hours of evidence collection in front of them.”

“Why isn’t there a trail of blood leading from the bathroom?” Adler asked. “The killer should have been drenched in it.”

“Our boy must be watching CSI and worried he’d leave DNA behind,” Quinn said. “If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say he wore a personal protection suit. He figured it would keep the blood off him and contain the DNA.”

There’d been no signs of blood on the stairs or in the kitchen. “So the killer strips off the suit in here and bags it along with whatever he used to clean himself up.”

“That’s my guess.”

He straightened. “Signs of sexual assault?”

“Impossible to tell. That’s the medical examiner’s call, but there’s no bruising on her arms, legs, breasts, or groin area, and there appears to have been no struggle in the bedroom. I think he waited for her, and when she stepped into the shower, he made his move.”

“Did you shut off the water?”

“No. It was off when I arrived here. Ms. Ralston’s sister, Ashley, thinks the water was turned off when she arrived. She was pretty hysterical when I spoke to her.”

“Where’s she now?”

“In one of the cruisers out front.”

Another look into the bathroom allowed him a better view of the body. The victim was young, pretty, and fit. As he searched her still-stricken features, his gaze rose to the spot above her head. Drawn in blood on the wall of the shower was a heart. “Another heart?”

Quinn’s expression was grim. “Sick bastard.”

“The killer turned off the water because he wanted us to see his message. Why the hearts?” Adler asked.

“I don’t know, but I bet there’s nothing random about this.”

Quinn was right. It would have taken time.

The detective work would soon shift to knocking on doors and searching for any surveillance cameras that may have captured images of the intruder.

He returned his focus to the victim’s home environment. He noted, as Quinn had said, that Jennifer Ralston kept her home immaculate. Her matching gray towels were monogrammed with the letters JR and were clean and neatly folded. Her razor had a fresh blade, and a collection of perfumes lined a sparkling mirrored tray. In her medicine chest was an old prescription bottle for an antibiotic and a much more recent one for anxiety. The same physician’s assistant practicing at the nearby hospital had prescribed both.

“Lady keeps her house neat,” Adler said.

“Too neat.”

Her straight-backed posture and the crisp lines of her blouse and jeans had him commenting, “You always struck me as the orderly type.”

She closed her notebook. “My gym bag is organized, and my house is acceptable. Ms. Ralston took organization to a higher level.”

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