Her Last Word

Page 23


“What happened next?”
She pressed her fingers to her forehead. “I was having trouble walking. I was drunk and kept tripping on my flip-flops. Gina got too far ahead of me, and I lost sight of her in the dark. That’s when I thought I sensed something wrong. I ran ahead and was right. I saw him standing next to Gina.”
“The man with the clown mask holding a knife to Gina’s neck.”
“What did he say to you?”
She closed her eyes. “He cut off her ear, and then he told me to run.”
“And you ran?”
Her answer wasn’t audible, and North asked her to repeat it.
“I must have turned and run.”
“How did her blood get on your T-shirt?”
“I don’t remember.”
If Adler had not been watching closely, he’d have missed Kaitlin’s hesitation. Was it guilt? Pain? Anger? A lie?
“I know you’re lying, Kaitlin. I think you spiked the drink with narcotics. Maybe you wanted everyone to have a real good time. Maybe you wanted to mess with them. And you did. But the fun and games ended when something happened to Gina. Did she overdose?”
She folded her arms over her chest. “It wasn’t like that!”
“Okay, Gina didn’t overdose. But someone found you girls, and that cocktail is the reason all of you were so incapacitated and could barely walk, let alone defend yourselves. I’m amazed you all didn’t drown in the river.”
She didn’t speak.
North was silent for a moment. “You know what I think?”
“I can’t wait.”
North smiled. “I think you and Hayward were working together. I think he told you to spike the lemonade so Gina and the other girls would be too messed up to resist anything he wanted to try. Hell, you’re twisted.”
“He broke up with you, but you still loved him. I bet you’d have done anything to get with him.”
Kaitlin shook her head. “I didn’t hurt Gina.”
“Sweetie, you drugged her. Made her defenseless. Hell of a friend you are.”
Kaitlin’s expression crumpled as if she’d been slapped across the face. “I didn’t do it.”
“You’re complicit. Now all I have to do is prove it. And I will. Why don’t you save us both a lot of time and tell me. If you had a conscience, you’d feel better, too.”
Kaitlin rose. “I’m leaving.”
“I’m just clowning around,” he smirked.
“Go fuck yourself.”
Adler rewound the DVD and froze it on the last expression the camera caught of her face. Raw pain was carved in the lines around her eyes and mouth. But he’d seen murderers feel deep remorse. It was possible to love someone, kill them in a moment of rage, and then mourn their loss.
And now Kaitlin was back in Richmond hooking up with her old boyfriend. It had come full circle, and Hayward was right in the middle of it.
Thursday, February 22, 2018; 7:00 p.m.
Jennifer Ralston sits perched on the loft apartment stool, her booted heels locked behind the stool’s footrest. She looks around the city apartment, studying the exposed brick, unfinished dusty rafters, and tall framed windows overlooking the James River and the city’s north side. In her hands, she cradles an RVA mug filled with hot green tea. Though Gina paid the ultimate price, we each lost a piece of ourselves that night.
“Is the microphone rolling?” Jennifer looks at my recorder.
“Is it cold in here, or is it me?”
“I know this room can be drafty. Can I get you a blanket?” I start to get up.
“I’m fine. I’m always chilled. A quirk, I guess.”
“Why are you always cold?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t felt warm or safe since Gina’s disappearance. I probably should have gotten counseling, but my mother thought seeing a shrink was a sign of weakness. I’m an adult now and know what Mom said is BS. And I’m not weak.”
“No, you’re not.” I smile in what I hope is a reassuring way.
“Did you get help?”
“I did. But only last year.”
“Why did you wait so long?”
“I wish I knew. I packed my life with activity to dull the pain. To forget. I finally realized if I didn’t drop the baggage, it would consume me.”
“So you decided to undertake your own investigation as a catharsis?”
“That’s right.” Pages flip in my notebook. “Jennifer, what do you remember about Gina?”
Jennifer’s laugh is lighter. “The usual. Nicest girl. So popular. Always a kind word. I used to joke if you looked perfect up in the dictionary, you’d see her face.”
“What were we talking about that night?”
“You should know. You didn’t drink at first.”
The point of me coming to Virginia was to get sober. I was just trying to keep it together. Not drink. But the temptation was too great. And in all honesty, I didn’t like sobriety and all the memories it didn’t suppress.
“Teenage girls. We must have been talking about boys.”
“I suppose. That night is still a blur for me. Whatever we were drinking was loaded.”
I hesitate. “You and Erika told the cops I brought the spiked lemonade.”
I see her visibly stiffen, and she doesn’t respond.
“I’m not trying to get anyone into trouble. I just want to find Gina.”
A long silence. Finally she answers.
“Yeah, I brought it.”
“It made sense to blame me. I was the most likely to, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Did you spike it with Ecstasy?”
“No! I didn’t. And I don’t know who did.”
I believe Jennifer on this one, happy at least one lie about me has been dispelled. But I don’t dwell. This isn’t about me. “You called your sister to come pick you up, right?”
“That’s right. I could barely walk. So Ashley drove down to the river and picked me up. Erika hopped in the back with me at the last second.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
“Lying in the backseat of the car. My sister was pissed.”
“At you?”
“Someone else.” Jennifer looks confident about this. “I think she was arguing with someone on the phone.”
“I don’t know. I assumed it was her boyfriend, because they fought a lot. But I passed out and didn’t wake up until the next morning. I was in my own bed and wearing the clothes I had on from the night before, but I have no memory of arriving home. The cops were at our house, and all hell was about to break loose.”
Saturday, March 17, 2018; 5:45 a.m.
Near-freezing rain dripped on the windshield as he parked across from Erika Travis Crowley’s big white house. This upscale neighborhood didn’t really stir until about six thirty, and a rain-delayed Saturday slowed them all the more.
However, Erika kept to a rigid, eerily predictable schedule. She didn’t leave her house very often, but on Saturdays she exited her front door at exactly the same time and made the three-mile drive to the small yoga studio. She found comfort in keeping her world contained. Her house was her fortress from the truth. She’d betrayed Gina.