Her Last Word

Page 18


She didn’t answer right away. “You really want to know?”
“Do I look like I’m being polite?”
“I’m not.”
“Whatever happened to Gina sent ripples through so many families. None of us—Jennifer, Erika, or me, our families and friends—were ever the same after she vanished. Time doesn’t heal all wounds.”
“That’s your only motivation?”
“You think I’m holding back?”
“I don’t see the other interview tapes.”
“When you get Gina’s case file, can I read it?”
He shook his head, no hints of apology in his expression. “You’re on the wrong side of the blue line.”
“I’m aware.”
He patted the top of her car. “In the meantime, suspend your podcast interviews until I can figure out what or if anything links Jennifer’s murder to Gina’s disappearance.”
Smiling, she shook her head. She wasn’t stopping, and if anything she was more motivated than ever to find Gina. “I’ll take it under consideration, Detective.”
Thursday, February 15, 2018; 11:00 a.m.
ONCE A LAWMAN, ALWAYS A LAWMAN. The saying is burned into driftwood and hangs over retired missing-persons detective Joshua North’s bed at the Oak Croft Retirement Center. The room is bathed in beige except for a lone bouquet of wilting red, white, and blue balloons in a corner. A piece of untouched chocolate cake, sporting a tilting, unlit candle, sits on the small table beside Detective North’s recliner. It’s his seventy-eighth birthday.
As he does every day, he insists on shaving and donning his khakis and pressed white shirt that is now his unofficial “uniform.” It’s important he proves to himself he’s the same man who retired from the department thirteen years ago. A year after Gina Mason vanished.
Time has mellowed some of my anger toward this man. But in full disclosure, I will never forgive what he did. I balance my own slice of cake, trying not to notice his hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes. It’s easier to hold on to anger when I picture him taller and stronger. Like the cake, this man had seen better days.
“Thank you for seeing me.” I steady the dessert plate on my knees.
I first met North in the emergency room fourteen years ago. I was still intoxicated and so agitated by the trauma of seeing Gina taken, I could barely sit still. When he pushed open the curtain of my examination cubicle, I felt protected. I needed help, and I thought it was him. He found people. He could end this nightmare.
I could easily underestimate him now, until I look behind the thick silver-rimmed glasses and see sharp blue eyes staring back.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time. Kaitlin Roe, right?”
“You remember me.”
“Your hair is different. A little older, but I remember you and Gina Mason. Her kind of case haunts cops.” His eyes never leave me. “What have you been up to?”
“College. Film degree. Thought I’d move to LA and make films but was hired by a Dallas PR firm to make commercials. Life got comfortable. Time passed.”
All true. What I don’t mention are the panic attacks, the drinking, and finally a desperate outreach to AA.
“Why are you doing this interview?”
“I want to find Gina. Maybe if someone hears my podcast, they’ll remember something and speak up.”
“Don’t be so sure everyone’s going to be happy about this project. Politicians, cops, the people who became obsessed with her—none of ’em want you digging up the past.”
“I couldn’t care less. It’s time.”
Police searches went on for months after Gina vanished. There were hundreds of tips that led nowhere. Some were cruel hoaxes, others were cases of mistaken identity, and even a few psychics called. Gina’s mother was still visiting psychics and tarot-card readers until her death. The media produced first-, fifth-, and tenth-anniversary stories. But all the leads and exposure took the case nowhere.
“I lost track of the man-hours I invested. We all busted our butts trying to find her. Have you recently talked to the cops?”
“The case is technically still open, so no one will speak to me. I’ve lost track of how many messages I left.”
He doesn’t look bothered by my frustration. “I’m surprised you came to see me. You hated me.”
“I’m still not fond of you. But I want to find Gina.”
He presses against the pillows supporting his back. “Did you ever remember anything more about that night?”
I hear the challenge behind his words. “Not more than I did fourteen years ago. I’ve tried, but I can’t fill in all the pieces.”
Detective North brushes imaginary lint from his creased sleeve. “Don’t beat yourself up. I know I was rough on you.”
“Why didn’t you believe me?”
“Too many holes in your story. Her blood was on your shirt. Your failed memory. Your relationship with Randy.”
“Randy’s back in jail on murder charges.”
“I know. I keep up.” He sighs. “I leaned hard on him. I wanted to keep pressing, but finally had to settle. The guy never wavered from his story, and his parents were connected and had money. He was arrested for burglarizing a home in his parents’ neighborhood a few nights before Gina vanished. He got seven years for that conviction. To this day, I believe I got my man when I arrested him. Sometimes you lose and take what you can get. No way he’ll skate this time.”
Friday, March 16, 2018; 3:00 p.m.
Kaitlin had never been good at taking instruction, especially from cops. She’d learned firsthand no one was really safe no matter how carefully they played it. She parked at the end of the gravel driveway and studied the brick home covered in ivy and surrounded by boxwoods. It looked as she had remembered. A little digging had told her Randy’s mother, Ruth, still lived here.
Out of the car, pad and recorder in her purse, Kaitlin knocked on the door. Through its glass panes, she saw the flicker of movement before footsteps sounded in the hallway. The door opened to an older woman with sweeping white hair who was dressed in a flowing cream-colored shirt, black slacks, and flats. Her makeup was immaculate, and she wore a strand of pearls with a diamond clasp.
“Mrs. Hayward?”
“That’s right.”
“I went to school with your son, Randy. My name is Kaitlin Roe.”
The smile vanished. “What are you doing here?”
Good to be remembered. “I went to see Randy earlier today.”
Kaitlin adjusted the backpack on her shoulder. “I’m making a podcast. I’m trying to draw attention to the Gina Mason disappearance.”
A neatly painted brow rose. “I’d think you’d want to forget what happened to your cousin.”
“I tried. I can’t.”
Mrs. Hayward shook her head. “I’ve worked hard to put that time behind me, and I’m not interested in opening old wounds again.” She moved to close the door.
Kaitlin blocked it with her hand. “I’m not here with a grievance. I have a couple of questions about Randy. Honestly, I just want to find Gina.”
Mrs. Hayward didn’t try to shove her. “You’re not the first reporter to contact me.”