Her Last Word

Page 21


Adler mentally distanced himself. He couldn’t think of her as a person. Her body was evidence now and demanded his full attention. The remains would tell the story of her death and possibly her killer’s identity.
The victim’s head rested in a cradle, her chin slightly tipped up to expose her neck. This position showcased the wound slicing deep across the neck and traveling over the jugular. Her blond hair, brushed back, accentuated the pallid face sprinkled with a dozen freckles over the bridge of the nose. The jaw was slack, the lips a faint blue.
Dr. McGowan tugged the overhead microphone a couple of inches toward her and began the autopsy with an external examination. She noted the injuries to the neck and abdomen and inventoried specific details. The first were the tattoos, including a peace sign on the underside of her wrist, and on her left hip the letters GM encircled by a heart. GM had to mean Gina Mason, and the heart resembled the one he’d found on the notes and her shower wall. On the right knee was a faint two-inch scar.
Dr. McGowan then reviewed a series of X-rays with the detectives. “She does have an old spiral fracture on her right wrist. It healed years ago but is likely attributable to someone or something twisting her arm so badly it broke.”
“Any estimate on how long ago?” Adler asked.
“A dozen years perhaps.” Dr. McGowan noted Jennifer Ralston by all appearances had been a healthy thirty-two-year-old woman.
Quinn shifted her stance but gave no other signal that the autopsy might have been bothering her.
Dr. McGowan peered up at the detective but said nothing. “Victim was stabbed five times. Three to her abdomen, once on her left forearm, which appears to be a defensive wound, and finally the strike that killed her, a slice through the jugular.”
“The arterial blood spray on her shower walls supports the theory her heart was pumping when he inflicted the neck wound,” Adler said.
“If you note the angles of the cuts, they all appear to slice downward.” She curled her fingers into a fist and made a downward motion, simulating a knife strike. “Her killer was likely taller, or she may have fallen to the floor before the wounds were inflicted.”
“She’s what, five foot seven?” Adler asked.
“And a half,” Dr. McGowan noted.
“She could have been sitting in the shower to shave her legs,” Quinn said.
Adler arched a brow but didn’t comment.
Quinn shrugged. “You try standing in a shower stall and shaving your legs. I dare you.”
Dr. McGowan smiled. “Walk away, Detective Adler.”
“Not touching it,” he surrendered.
For anyone not in law enforcement, this gallows humor sounded callous. But humor helped cops blow off steam and mentally process the violence.
“No indication of drug use.” Dr. McGowan grew serious again as she held up one of the victim’s pale arms. “However, if you notice, there’s faint scarring on the inside of her left bicep. As I go over the body I’ll look for more scars like this.”
“She’s a cutter?” Quinn asked.
Dr. McGowan pointed out several more identical cuts on the inside of the left thigh. “I’d say she was at one time. These folks typically injure areas that won’t impede their daily activities too much. They also choose areas easily covered by clothing so they can hide their habit. She must have decided the arms were too obvious. She also chose her left side exclusively. I assume she was right-handed.”
“Cutting is supposed to relieve stress,” Adler said.
“I spoke to the physician’s assistant who prescribed the meds we found in her medicine cabinet,” Quinn said. “The NP said Jennifer was visibly upset when they met in January.”
“Did she say why Jennifer was upset?” Adler asked.
“Jennifer said she had bad taste in men. Had just gone through a breakup.”
“Wasn’t that Jeremy Keller last year?”
“I asked her, but I sensed this was a new guy,” Quinn said. “The new guy didn’t have a name.”
Dr. McGowan positioned the body for a vaginal swab and examination. Adler didn’t avert his gaze but found anger bubbling as he thought about the methodical stripping away of her dignity.
After the exam was complete, Dr. McGowan said, “There are no signs of pregnancy. There’re also no traces of vaginal bruising or semen. She hasn’t had intercourse recently.”
That confirmed what Adler had hoped was true. “She hadn’t been raped.”
“Still believe this was sexually motivated?” Quinn asked Adler.
“The excitement for stalkers comes from watching,” he said. “As far as they’re concerned, they already share an intimate connection with their victim. And now only he shares her last moments alive.”
“But most stalkers don’t take it this far,” Quinn said. “What was the trigger that ramped up the violence?”
It could be an imagined slight, job loss, or even something as simple as a wrong order in a restaurant. “Your guess is as good as mine, Detective. What about DNA?” Adler asked.
“The lab is testing the tulips left under the bed,” Quinn said. “The chances are slim, but he might have arranged them before he put on his gloves and suit.”
Dr. McGowan rolled the body to its side. “Swirl tattoo at the base of the spine, and more razor-thin scars on the underside of the left thigh. These cuts are still red and look fresh. I’d say these were done in the last six months.”
He thought about the picture of the smiling girl with her friends by the river and how the album ended abruptly. He recalled Kaitlin saying so many people weren’t the same after Gina.
“Several of the fingernails on her right hand are broken,” the doctor said, inspecting French manicured nails. “These appear to be defensive wounds.”
“Perhaps there will be DNA under the nails,” Quinn said.
“There was a scratch on Jeremy’s arm,” Adler noted.
“And we didn’t see his entire body,” Quinn said.
Dr. McGowan inspected the remaining fingernails closely, scraped out samples from under two of them, and handed both off to her assistant. “You might have DNA to test.”
She selected a scalpel from the instrument tray and pressed the tip against the pale skin at the base of the breastbone. With practiced skill, she slid the knife tip between and then under the breasts. She then sliced straight down to the abdomen, creating a Y-incision. Carefully the flesh was pulled away, exposing the ribs. She reached for bolt cutters and snapped each rib until the cage released and then set the cutters aside.
“The heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys all appear to be in excellent shape,” she said. “All the stab wounds missed vital organs. All these injuries were survivable.”
She removed the organs and set each on the scale for weight and measurement. Once they were catalogued, she dissected the stomach and examined the contents. “The victim ate within hours of dying so the food isn’t completely digested. Victim’s last meal appears to be chicken and salad, which are partially digested, so I estimate lunch was her last meal. She also ingested wine.”
“There was an open bottle in the kitchen. It was half-full,” Adler said.
“She had about ten ounces,” Dr. McGowan said.
“She pours a glass in the kitchen, consumes most of it, and then refills.”