Home > Her Last Word(6)

Her Last Word(6)
Author: Mary Burton

She grabbed the trash bag from a metal can and began collecting the discarded plastic cups of wine and crumpled napkins. She had the space until midnight, enough time to clean and close up. Rolling her shoulders, she worked the tension from the muscles knotting her back. When she’d gathered the trash and tied off the bag, she started stacking the chairs and placing them on the cart.

Kaitlin thought again about Jennifer, who had assured her she would attend tonight. She pulled her phone from her pocket and switched the ringer on as she checked for any texts or voicemail. Nothing from Jennifer.

Kaitlin had already interviewed Jennifer once, but had wanted to set up a second session with her tonight. She texted Jennifer: Missed you tonight. Hope all is well.

A knock on the window startled her. She gripped the phone in her hand and took an instinctive step back. Her heart in her throat, she quickly slipped her shoes back on.

A fist pounded on the front door. “Ms. Roe? This is Detective John Adler.”

Detective John Adler? She recognized the name and the deep, gravelly voice. She’d visited the city’s homicide department several months ago, expecting to talk to someone about Gina. Adler and his partner had been on their way out. The detective had been tall and smartly dressed in a dark suit that fit his trim body well. He’d also been brusque. He’d had no time to talk to her.

“I know you’re in there. I see the light and the movement. Open the door, I’d like to talk to you.”

Her grip on her phone tightened as she walked toward the door. Long fingers hovered over the dead bolt. “How do I know you’re Detective Adler?”

“I’ll hold my badge up to the window,” he said.

The statement carried a tone of finality as if his proposed solution answered all her questions. When metal clinked against glass, she reached for the shade and peeked. The gold shield read Detective in bold letters. On the other side of the fold was the name John T. Adler.

“Why are you here?” she persisted. “It’s been months since I came by your office.” She’d heard about the fire and knew he’d been on leave. Given the pictures she’d seen of the burned-out house, she was amazed he’d survived, let alone returned to the job.

“Jennifer Ralston.”

That answer caught her a little bit by surprise. “Did Jennifer send you?”

“I’m not having this conversation through a door.” An edge sharpened each word.

Jennifer hadn’t shown for the lecture, but a cop had. Not good.

She unlocked the door and cracked it slightly. Detective Adler wore a well-cut dark suit, white shirt, and a red tie, just as he had that first time she’d seen him at the station. Black hair was peppered with gray and brushed away from chiseled features. The fire had driven the lines around his eyes and mouth deeper, adding more interest to a face already hard to forget.

“What about Jennifer?” she asked.

“May I come in, Kaitlin?”

She opened the door and stepped back. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“I understand you were giving a lecture on the Gina Mason disappearance.” He held up the invitation for tonight’s event between two fingers, waving it like a challenge.

This was the second time he hadn’t answered her question about Jennifer. Cops were good at dodging answers. She’d tried to interview him as well as several law enforcement officers who’d worked Gina’s case, but so far, only silence from the blue wall.

“Did Jennifer mention my name to the police? Is my research upsetting you or someone who worked the original investigation?”

“Can we sit?” Another question to answer a question.

She stepped aside but kept the door ajar. As he walked into the space, she noted the faint scent of an expensive aftershave with a woodsy citrus base. His gaze swept every corner and exit.

“Do you have a personal stake in the Gina Mason case?” he asked.

“If you’d bothered to return my call, I could have explained it to you months ago.”

“I’m asking now. What’s your connection to Gina Mason?”

He didn’t apologize or explain why he’d blown her off. She automatically bristled. She wasn’t crazy about cops or their questions. But making an issue out of this inquiry would only lead to more questions. “I was with her the night she vanished.”

“You were a witness?”

“Yes. I tried to tell you that, but you were in a rush to leave the station.”

He studied Gina’s poster. “This is Gina?”

She was losing patience. Cops didn’t ask questions unless they had a good idea of the answer. But for some reason, he wanted to play dumb. “Don’t tell me you decided to finally follow up on my visit and have a lead in the Gina Mason case?”

“As I mentioned when you cornered me several months ago, I was working in the robbery division when she went missing. Our division arrested a guy who later became a suspect in the case. Refresh my memory about the night she vanished.”

“We were walking along Riverside Drive near her parents’ house. A man came out of the woods. He took Gina and told me to run. You arrested Randy Hayward a few months later for stealing from his mother. He got seven years in prison for that and another drug-related charge.”

Memories appeared to click in Adler. “Hayward was caught fencing his mother’s stolen silver a few weeks after Gina disappeared. But Mrs. Hayward reported the robbery the night Gina vanished, placing Randy near Gina and you that night,” he said. “Though he was within walking distance of the crime scene, the cops were never able to make a case against him. There was no physical evidence linking him to Gina.”

She nodded. “His mother hired a good attorney. Cops never got a confession. But most of the cops believed he was involved in the crime.”

His rigid jaw pulsed at the joint. “Why did you invite Jennifer to this lecture?”

“Jennifer was one of the last girls to see Gina alive. There were four of us hanging out by the river the night Gina vanished. Jennifer was one of them. I interviewed her for my podcast.” His grim expression didn’t fit with a man looking into a cold case. “Detective, I’m still not sure why you’re here. Are you here about Gina’s case?”

Some of his edginess softened. “I’ve come from the scene of a homicide. Jennifer Ralston was murdered.”

The blood rushed from her head, leaving her lightheaded and nauseated. Her throat constricted with the rush of emotion. She fought the urge to throw up. “Jennifer? Are you sure it’s Jennifer? I spoke to her five or six hours ago.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” His deep, steady voice left no doubt. “She was found in her home. How did you know her?”

Did. Past tense. Shit, this couldn’t be real. Kaitlin ran a trembling hand through her hair, and he pulled up one of the chairs. She sat and crossed her arms, trying to hold her grief and shock at bay until she got her bearings. “I’ve known her since high school,” she whispered.

“I am sorry. This can’t be easy for you.”

“No.” The swirl of disbelief, anger, and sadness mirrored what she’d experienced after Gina was taken.

“Why are you asking about Gina now?” His tone was softer, kinder, as he pulled up a second chair and sat across from her.

She moistened her lips. This was one of those times she wished she still drank. “Gina was never found. She needs closure.”

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