Home > Her Last Word(9)

Her Last Word(9)
Author: Mary Burton

“I suppose cops make her nervous.”

He thought back to when he’d first seen her. She’d appeared tense, but he’d been too focused on another case to find out why. “She came by the police station in December. She caught Logan and me outside the station as we were headed to a call. She wanted to talk about a cold case. It was a day before the explosion, and I forgot about her until tonight.”

“In your defense, you did get blown up.”

“Yeah.” Thinking about Kaitlin now, he couldn’t believe he’d forgotten her.

Quinn burrowed her hands in her pockets. “Let’s get this party started.”

They started with the row house standing five feet from Jennifer Ralston’s home. Adler rang the bell, paused, then banged hard on the black lacquered door for nearly thirty seconds before lights clicked on in an upstairs room. Curtains fluttered, and then the door opened to a guy in his midtwenties. He was wearing sweats and an inside-out sweatshirt. His expression was annoyed until he glanced at Adler’s face next to the badges he and Quinn held up.

“Jennifer Ralston was murdered tonight in her home,” Adler said. “Mind if we ask you a few questions?”

His eyes widened as the words sunk in. “Shit. I mean, sure, ask me anything.”

“What’s your name?”

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Ah, my name is Mike Noonan.”

Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and another young man came down. He was dressed in athletic shorts and a torn Brew Thru shirt and carried a bat.

Adler held up his badge, his other hand sliding to his weapon, watching until the second man lowered the bat and leaned it against the wall.

“Hey, sorry,” the second man said. “What gives? I have to be up at five.”

Adler explained the situation. “What’s your name?”

“Thompson,” he said. “Chuck Thompson.”

Adler scribbled the name. “How did Jennifer appear to you lately?”

Chuck glanced at Mike. “I rarely saw her.”

Mike’s brows knotted. “She’s been kind of skittish lately. I said hello to her the other day, and she flinched. Dropped her groceries. Her apples rolled down the sidewalk, and I chased after a couple. I apologized. She tried to laugh it off, but her hands were shaking.”

“Did you ask her what was wrong?” Adler asked.

“I did. But she looked embarrassed. Said it was no big deal.”

Chuck rubbed the dark stubble on his cheek. “She was always a fanatic about closing her curtains and locking her doors. I figured city living was scaring her. Some people love it, while others just can’t get comfortable with it.”

Quinn looked confused. “How so?”

“You know, they can’t tune out all the street sounds. Someone drags a trash can along the alleyway, and it sounds like they’re in the next room. There’s only about an arm’s length between the houses. Like I said, it’s not for everyone.”

“And you don’t think Jennifer liked it?” Quinn asked.

“She was raised in the burbs. Took her months to learn to parallel park,” Chuck said.

“But she stayed,” Adler countered.

“She planned to sell. She’s been fixing up the place for weeks. Jennifer said she wanted out.”

“When did she plan to put the house on the market?” he asked.

“In April, I think,” Mike offered. “She signed a realtor about a month ago. They were waiting for warmer weather. The neighborhood looks its best in the spring.”

“Ever see anyone watching her house?” Quinn asked.

“Anyone linger?” Adler added.

“I work twelve hours a day,” Mike said. “I’m barely home myself.”

Chuck shook his head. “I mean, there are a few houses on the street getting renovated, so we see all kinds of new faces around here these days. It would be easy for a stranger to blend in right now.”

Mike shook his head. “Her cat went missing two weeks ago. She was crying when she knocked on my door.”

“Did she find it?” Adler asked. Ashley Ralston had told him all this earlier in the evening, but he always confirmed witness statements.

“If she did, she didn’t tell me,” Mike said.

“Did she date anyone in particular?” Quinn asked.

“There was Jeremy,” Chuck said. “He was around for a few months, and then he stopped coming by.”

“Does Jeremy have a last name?” Adler asked, again double-checking Ashley’s answers.

“Keller,” Chuck said. “He’s an engineer in her firm. I did see him around a few weeks ago. He was ringing her doorbell, but she didn’t answer. It was late. I figured it was a dry booty call.”

They’d confirmed Ashley’s information and tossed in an extra tidbit about Jeremy. “Okay. Thanks.” He handed the two men his card. “If you think of anything else, give me a call?”

“Yeah, sure,” Mike said.

Chuck nodded. “Absolutely.”

The detectives left the two standing in their doorway as they moved to the next row house. By four, they’d spoken to six neighbors. Most had seen the flashing lights but hadn’t been alarmed. Another burglary, most assumed. All were taken aback by the news of her death. A few noted she’d grown jumpy recently, and a couple emphasized she’d appeared to improve in the last couple of days. One woman swore she saw a man lurking in the bushes across the street in the park and said she had called the police. A patrol car arrived, but the officer found no one.

Of the six homes they’d visited in the last few hours, four reported having cameras and promised footage. In the minutes before sunrise, they walked down the uneven brick sidewalk back toward the Ralston crime scene. It was still lit up, and technicians continued to process the scene. They’d only be getting in the way if they entered now.

“I want to have a look at the alley.” Adler moved to the wooden gate that led to the side alley. The lock on the gate had been cut.

Quinn rubbed her hands together. “A uniform cut it for me so I could search the backyard.”

As he pushed through the wooden gate, several bells on the other side clanged and clattered. “They look new. Early warning system?”

“She was fortifying her house.”

The backyard was narrow and long. At the opposite end was the small garage he’d seen earlier. He found the garage door locked but the side window unlocked. Adler opened the window. He shone his flashlight into a space that was barely large enough for one car. Hanging from the sidewalls were lawn chairs, Christmas lights, autumn wreaths, and Halloween decorations. The kind of crap that was cool a handful of days but was useless the rest of the year.

“Where’s her car?” All signs suggested Jennifer had entered her front door.

“It’s a blue Honda parked several spaces down. I searched it and found nothing out of the ordinary. I suspect she found a spot out front and took it.”

To the right of the garage was a gate leading into the alley that ran between Twenty-First and Twenty-Second Streets. There were two dumpsters in the alley. “What day is trash pickup?”

“Thursday. The forensic team already checked the dumpsters. They were recently emptied, and the few bags present didn’t contain any evidence.”

“We need to expand the radius. The guy might have parked a couple of blocks away.”

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