Home > Her Last Word(8)

Her Last Word(8)
Author: Mary Burton

“And before that you said you worked for an ad agency in Texas?”

“Yes. A sizable pay cut.”

“Who’s financing this project?”

“My savings. The university job. Frugality. I make it work.”

He nodded, sizing her up. Light from a streetlamp cut across his angled face. “I expect Jennifer Ralston’s interview tape tomorrow.”

“I said I’d drop it off.”

She slid behind the wheel, and as she raised her key toward the ignition, her hand still shook. She sat for a moment and drew in a breath, willing her muscles to unwind.

“You all right?” he asked.

She gripped the wheel. Breathe in. Breathe out. “Jennifer really is dead?”

“I’m sorry.”

“It would be cruel to lie.” Adler didn’t look like the type that played games, but another cop had lied to her after Gina went missing, so she was wise to be cautious.

“I would never do that,” he said.

Gray eyes scrutinized her so closely it was hard not to look away.

“You’ll keep me updated on Jennifer’s case?”

“We will talk again.”

She closed her door and turned the ignition. He patted the top of the car, and she pulled away. A glance in the rearview mirror captured him standing on the deserted street, staring at her like a hunter. And she was in his crosshairs.



Sunday, August 15, 2004

We had gathered on the large rocks on the James River at Pony Pasture Rapids. I was witnessing a celebration. Gina, Erika, and Jennifer were heading off to college in less than a week, and this gathering was their private send-off. I felt privileged to be included because I was only a rising junior. This evening would never have been open to me if I’d not been Gina’s cousin.

Pony Pasture is part of the James River Park System, with the Huguenot Bridge just upriver. Called by some the Redneck Riviera, it attracts thousands of sunbathers, swimmers, and kayakers daily during the summer. We’d arrived after sunset, officially trespassing and violating park rules when we hopscotched over the trail of massive boulders onto the river.

The sultry evening began simply with a few laughs, and then Jennifer had produced a plastic quart bottle of lemonade spiked with vodka. I knew when the nectar came to me I should have passed. I hadn’t had a drink in almost eleven months. I had promised my mother I’d get my life together. But I was naive enough to think I could stop at one drink. So I took a sip. The cool, sweet liquid slid over my tongue, quenching one thirst and igniting another. Shortly after, the bottle was half-full and we were drunk. My head spun. I’d never had so much fun in my life.

Then Jennifer wobbled to her feet. She had to go because her grandparents were coming into town early the next day. She called her sister, Ashley, for a ride. Soon, at least I think it was soon, a blue sedan pulled up and headlights flashed. Jennifer and then Erika got in the car and left. Gina and I were alone.

We inspected the jug, now nearly empty. Time to call it a night; we began to walk toward my aunt’s home a half mile down the road. We’d not gone more than a few hundred yards when I had the first suspicion someone was watching us. It was the creepy sensation you get at the base of your skull that sends shivers down your spine. When I looked up, Gina was ten yards ahead of me. Not a big deal, but there was no moon that night. I ignored the fear, attributing it to the booze. I barked at Gina to wait. She told me to hurry. My flip-flop snagged on the gravel road. I stumbled and called out to her. I heard nothing in the pitch blackness. In only a few seconds, I caught up. She was bracing, her face white, and her lips drawn tight with fear. Standing beside her was a man in dark clothing wearing a clown mask. He was holding a large knife to her neck.

No one spoke for a moment. He told me to run.

My mind was blurred by the booze. I remember staggering and trying to stand straight. I wanted to run. I was so afraid. And then Gina began to scream. I focused and saw the large jagged blade pressing against her cheek and blood running down her neck and chest. I stumbled forward and saw Gina’s ear on the ground, her silver earring still looped through the pierced lobe. He’d sliced off her ear.

“Run or I’ll kill her.” The clown raised the severed ear as if it were a trophy. “One, two . . .”

I don’t remember what I did next or how much more time passed before I turned and ran.


Thursday, March 15, 2018; 11:15 p.m.

Adler watched Kaitlin Roe drive away. He couldn’t get a full read on her. She was nervous and edgy, but he sensed a resolve. Her blond strands blended into long dark roots, drawing attention to her angled face and sharp brown eyes. Her green V-necked sweater was full and loose, but when she’d moved, the fabric had clung to a tight body and full breasts. She’d filled out the worn jeans nicely.

When she’d first tried to meet him months ago, he and Logan had been responding to a call. The explosion happened a day later, and his promise to call Kaitlin Roe back was forgotten.

There was no forgetting her now. In fact, getting her out of his head wouldn’t be easy. As he drove back to the homicide scene, he ran a search on Kaitlin Roe. There were no charges pending against her in Virginia. There’d been a speeding ticket in Montgomery County last year, which she’d paid.

An Internet search of Lyn Tyler pulled up references to her advertising job in Dallas. She wasn’t listed on the staff page, but when he clicked on prior events, he found a variety of pictures featuring her at corporate functions. If he hadn’t been looking for her, he might have missed her. Her hair was fully blond, and the makeup she wore made her look too perfect. In one cocktail setting, a blue sequined dress skimmed her trim body, and tall heels made her already-long legs look, well, pretty damn stunning. In another image her dress was black and fitted, and she was holding a crystal award while surrounded closely by several older men. Kaitlin was grinning at the camera while the others were enraptured by her.

This version of Kaitlin would have turned his head when he was a younger man. But he preferred the woman who’d demanded a meeting with him and whom he’d found tonight in the deserted meeting space stacking chairs. She was interesting. She had dropped whatever mask the Texas Kaitlin had been wearing, and didn’t seem to care what he or anyone thought.

Next he called the police records division and asked for the Gina Mason investigation book. Maybe there was a connection between Jennifer’s and Gina’s deaths.

At the murder scene, he found Quinn sitting in her car. The forensic team was still inside the townhome processing evidence.

He tapped on Quinn’s window, and she reluctantly set aside a thermos of coffee and climbed out of the car. “Ready to knock on a few doors?” he asked.

She rolled her shoulders. “Ready to wake up the good citizens.”

He checked his watch. Eleven thirty. Yeah, they were going to disturb a few people, but the earliest hours in a murder investigation were the most critical. Now was the time to talk to anyone and everyone.

“So how did it go with Kaitlin Roe?” Quinn asked.

He outlined the details of her project. “She says she did an interview with Jennifer Ralston. I’ve requested it from her and the Gina Mason files from records.”

“How did Ms. Roe react to the news of Ms. Ralston’s death?”

“She was upset, but held it together. I suspect she’s had some practice hiding her emotions.”

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