Home > Her Last Word(4)

Her Last Word(4)
Author: Mary Burton


“Speaking of homes, I hear you’re ripping apart a shack in Ashland.”

“I am.”

“You needed a project?”

“I did.”

Two and a half weeks after the explosion, the day the doctors amputated Logan’s left leg below the knee, he’d bought the seventy-year-old three-thousand-square-foot house in Ashland, an old railroad town twenty miles north of Richmond. The historic home was located in the city center, and he’d paid over asking price to close the deal. In less than a week, he’d had a contractor lined up to help him demo and gut the downstairs. While on leave, he’d filled his time meeting with architects, designers, and landscape architects and visiting Logan.

The reno was a couple of weeks from completion, and the breakneck pace had cost him a small fortune. But he was in the house and finding a new routine. These days he rose before five a.m. thanks to the Amtrak train that lumbered along the track through the center of Ashland. The beast rattled every plate and window, and at first, it had startled him awake. Now the rumble, grind, and squeak of the engine’s wheels were comforting reminders that life moved on. You had to keep moving, or you were going to be left behind or run over.

Downstairs the uniformed officer posted at the front door greeted a new arrival. Seconds later the clatter of a stretcher on the first floor signaled the entrance of the medical examiner’s two technicians. The pair carried up the gurney, but the woman trailing behind them approached the detectives. She was tall, slim, and in her midthirties. Long dark hair was coiled into a bun at the base of her neck.

“I’m Jessica Everett. I’m a death investigator with the medical examiner’s office. Are we clear to remove the body?”

Adler and Quinn nodded to each other and stepped back.

Everett moved to the bathroom threshold, and her expression softened briefly with sadness before she crossed to the body. She laid her hand on the victim’s shoulder as if offering comfort. She and her assistants then laid out the body bag and gently lifted Jennifer’s naked body into it.

As she zipped up the pouch, the room’s heavy silence was shattered by footsteps and heated voices echoing from downstairs and then a very loud, “I want to see the police! If I have to sit any longer in that damned car, I’m going to go insane!”

Peering down the stairs, Adler spotted a young woman dressed in jeans, a gray silk top, and a tailored black jacket. She wore her brown hair in a tight ponytail that accentuated dark-framed glasses.

Her gaze locked on Adler. “I need a cop who can give me answers.”

Adler glanced back and motioned to Jessica to halt. “Let me get her out of the house first.”

“Of course,” Jessica said.

He descended the stairs and escorted the woman outside, away from her sister’s body and the ME’s technicians. “I’m Detective John Adler.”

“Is Jennifer really dead? I saw all the blood, but I was afraid to touch her.”

“Yes, ma’am. She’s gone.”

She ran a shaking hand over her head. “I can’t believe I was too terrified to touch my own sister.”

“I know it was tough for you.” Adler led her down the sidewalk several paces and angled her so she couldn’t see the front steps of her sister’s home. “No one would blame you for being afraid and upset. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“I’m Ashley Ralston. I live in Rocketts Landing. We were supposed to go to a lecture tonight. Jesus, I told her to be careful. I told her to call the cops again, but she said she had it handled.” Her tone reflected frustration, grief, and shock.

“Why did you want your sister to call the cops again?”

Confusion and annoyance knotted her brows. “Because she had a vibe someone was watching her. She was certain it was a stalker.”

“What made your sister believe she was being watched?” Adler kept his voice calm, almost monotone, hoping she’d hear his steadiness. His life might be a chaotic cluster with his return to work, the renovation of a new home, and keeping up with Logan’s recovery, but he could still be her momentary life raft.

She drew in a deep breath. “No specific issues she could put her finger on except the cat.”


“Jennifer came home a couple of weeks ago and Morris was missing.”

“Maybe she accidently let him out.”

“That’s what she thought at first, but the more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that the last time she saw Morris he was sunning himself on the sofa in the front room. He did that every morning. Jennifer searched for hours and put up flyers all over the neighborhood, but no one ever contacted her.”

“Was there anything else bothering your sister?”

“The feeling you get when someone has been in your house, but you can’t prove it.” Ashley shoved out a breath. “She said the other day she hadn’t had the feeling in a few days. She thought maybe it was work stress. Too much caffeine.” Tears filled her eyes, and she pressed her fingertips against closed lids. When she looked up, the tears fell down her cheeks. “How did Jennifer die?”

“We’re still collecting evidence,” Adler deflected. “Did she receive any letters or communication giving her reason to worry?”

“She said no, but I’m not sure. It was like she was always trying to convince herself this problem couldn’t be real in the face of everything else she had going on.”

“What else was happening in her life?”

“She had trouble at work, and this house was way too expensive for her to maintain.” She brushed away a tear. “And she kept telling me she was over the breakup but, again, I wasn’t convinced.”

“A breakup. Who had she been dating?” Quinn asked as she joined them on the sidewalk.

Ashley dragged the back of her hand over her nose. “She saw a guy from work for a while. He ended it months ago, but she still missed him.”

“How did it end?” Quinn pressed.

“As far as breakups go, it was benign. Jennifer said it was smarter to keep the sex out of the office.”

“What’s the guy’s name?” Adler asked.

“Jeremy Keller. He’s one of the partners at her company, Keller and Mayberry.”

Adler pulled out a black leather notebook. “What’s your address and phone number?”

She recited the information.

From a pocket in the notebook cover, he pulled out a business card. “What type of cat was Morris?”

“A purebred Siamese. He has a chip.”

“Okay. I want you to call me directly if you recall anything else. I’ll likely have more questions for you later.”

She took the card and absently flicked the edge with her finger. “Sure. Thank you.”

“You said you live in Rocketts Landing?”


“Did you drive?”

“No, I Ubered over.”

“I’ll have an officer take you home.”

As she turned to leave, Adler asked almost as an afterthought, “What was the lecture you were planning to attend tonight?”

“A local communications professor was speaking. We went to high school with her. She’s making some kind of documentary or podcast about a classmate of Jennifer’s who went missing fourteen years ago. I’m not really sure about the particulars of this lecture. It could be anything, knowing Kaitlin. She always did march to her own drum.”

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