Her Last Word

Page 16


“No. It’s an active crime scene now.” Adler pocketed the key and handed him his business card. “Please call me if you think of anything else.”
Jenkins studied the card as if it held a clue about what just happened. “I should call Ashley. She must be so upset.”
“I’m sure she could use a friend now.”
Adler left, and fifteen minutes later when he pulled onto Jennifer Ralston’s street, it was quiet. The forensic van and cop cars had cleared away. No watchful neighbors or reporters lingering for now. He parked in front of her house, climbed the stairs, and broke the yellow crime scene tape seal.
As he entered the foyer, the security system chimed in the eerie stillness of the house. When he’d been here last night, the small space had been buzzing. There’d barely been enough space to move around.
He commonly returned to murder scenes after the chaos had cleared. It gave him the chance to process the observations made earlier and begin to imagine the scene from both the killer’s and victim’s perspectives.
Inside, he paused to tug on black latex gloves while he studied the high heels still undisturbed at the front entryway table. He examined the purse and keys as the foyer mirror tossed back his reflection. He looked ten years older since the bombing. He felt even older.
He imagined Jennifer would have looked in that mirror every day. Women tended to use mirrors, sometimes to admire but more often to critique. He looked away, seeing little point in either.
He moved to the kitchen and tested the back door. It was locked. He flipped the dead bolt, and as he opened the door, the alarm again chimed a warning. Why hadn’t the killer tripped the alarm? He closed and locked the door.
He opened several cabinets to find dishes perfectly stacked. In a utensil drawer, the forks, spoons, and knives were polished and arranged in neat stacks. On the counter was an arrangement of apples. All the stems were facing up. Complete order.
Opposite the counter was a nook area serving as a home office. There were several pictures pinned to a bulletin board above the desk. All featured a smiling Jennifer with her cat, a dark Siamese with a bent right ear.
A small laptop rested in the center, papers stacked uniformly on the left, unopened mail on the right. He flipped through the unopened mail to find several bills and a couple of pieces of junk mail. He sat and opened the small drawer. Pens, pencils, paper clips, and stamps. He wondered how she found the time to be so meticulous.
He pulled the drawer out a little farther and ran his hand along the back edge inside. The wood was smooth, empty, and then his fingertips brushed what felt like paper.
He removed a stack of five folded notecards bound by a rubber band. The author had used block lettering and bold black ink.
He read each note.
My Girl, you’re still a beautiful woman.
My Girl, would you like a ride to work?
My Girl, I think about you all the time.
My Girl, remember that last summer by the river?
My Girl, what is your biggest regret?
The contents of each note were benign enough. However, if the author were a stalker, the repeated anonymous messages signed only with a heart would have been menacing. The heart written in blood in the shower or the flowers under her bed proved it.
Adler checked, and Jennifer had not filed any police reports. If she had been worried about a stalker, she’d not reached out to the police.
He pulled a plastic evidence bag from his pocket and bagged the notes. He checked the remaining drawer, but it contained more office supplies. He opened the computer and discovered it was password protected by a six-character code.
He tried the year of Jennifer’s birth plus her initials. That didn’t work. He tried her address. Nope. Didn’t work. He typed in Morris. No success. Resigned, he decided he’d have to leave the encryption to the geeks in the tech department.
Next he inspected the refrigerator. Fully stocked with fresh vegetables and several bottles of sparkling wine. There was also a takeout container from a pub just around the corner. In the freezer, chocolate ice cream and a bottle of top-shelf vodka stared back at him.
In the living room, an old fireplace painted in black lacquer looked as if its flue had been sealed and was no longer functional. She had arranged candles in the base of the fireplace in a circular pattern, which he supposed was to create a mood. All staged. He moved to a small closet packed with winter coats and several styles of boots. On the top shelf was a box. He lifted the lid and inside found a scrapbook. He sat in the overstuffed chair by the fireplace and opened it. The pictures dated back several years.
He turned the pages slowly until he came to a collection taken on the boulders at the James River. He spotted Jennifer immediately and noticed all these pictures featured not only her, but also three other girls. He flipped over one of the pictures. The inscription read: Me, Erika, Kaitlin, and Gina. He focused on Kaitlin’s face. The rich sweep of mahogany hair warmed her face and mirrored the color and texture of Gina’s. They could have been sisters.
Both Kaitlin and Gina wore wide grins. However, Kaitlin’s eyes were tired, whereas Gina’s were bright. In another image the girls were standing on the boulders at Pony Pasture. Behind them, the river was low, leaving exposed large granite slabs for kids to sun themselves on warm days. Had these pictures been taken right before Gina vanished?
He replaced the photo and turned the page. After the river pictures the book was blank. The memories ended.
Using his phone he took snapshots of the images. What were the chances Jennifer had narrowly avoided a kidnapping and then fourteen years later ended up murdered?
His phone rang. It was Kaitlin.
“I have that recording.” Her voice had a rusty edge that sounded seductive.
“I’m at Jennifer Ralston’s home now.”
“Okay. I’ll meet you. Wait for me.”
He found himself looking forward to seeing her. Given another set of circumstances, he’d have welcomed the prospect of pursuing her. “See you soon.”
Kaitlin grabbed her jacket and descended the stairs to her car parked in the lot. She drove up into Church Hill and found a spot a half block beyond Jennifer’s townhome.
She shoved her hands in her pockets and moved up the brick sidewalk toward the row house encircled by the yellow crime scene tape. As she stared up at it, Detective Adler strode out the front door. His expression was grim as he stripped off black latex gloves and came down the sidewalk toward her. She wasn’t the only one having a bad day.
“I went to see Randy Hayward,” she said.
“So he agreed to see you.”
“He called me out of the blue and asked to meet.”
“You gave him your number?”
Using a tactic from his playbook, she deflected his question. “He’s an important piece of the puzzle.”
“And he said he knows how to find Gina.” She held up her hand before he could voice the rebuttal glistening in his narrowed eyes. “I know, he’s a thief, liar, and con man. But he said Gina’s attacker had cut her ear off. That detail was never mentioned in the press. The cops told me not to tell anyone, and I didn’t. Hayward also knew the earrings she wore were borrowed from me. He gave them to me as a gift.”
Adler’s glare was unnerving. “How long has he been in jail?”
“One month. He couldn’t have killed Jennifer.”
He didn’t respond.
“I know Gina wasn’t your case. But Hayward wants me to find someone whom he can deal with. I thought about you.”