Monday, May 09, 2011

Excerpt - The Officer's Secret by Debby Giusti

The Officer's Secret
Debby Giusti

In the middle of the night, Maggie Bennett finds her army officer sister dead in her military housing. She's devastated by the loss of the estranged sibling with whom she was trying to reconnect. But as U.S. Army criminal investigations agent Nate Patterson begins asking questions about the officer's suspicious death, Maggie can't tell the handsome man everything she knows. Except that her sister was definitely murdered—for a secret Maggie can't share. Then she walks into the killer's trap and has to trust Nate with the truth…and her heart.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Chief Warrant Officer Nathaniel Patterson, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division, got the call at 0315. Possible suicide at Quarters 1448 Hunter Road.

Arriving fifteen minutes later, he parked behind two MP sedans and stepped from his car, adjusting his weapon on his hip. Although Nate hadn't known Major Bennett, the death of an officer was significant, and tonight, the combined resources of the military police and the army's major crime unit, the CID, had been called in to investigate the case.

Headlights signaled an approaching vehicle. Nate waited as his friend and fellow agent, Jamison Steele, crawled from his late-model sports car. Dressed in a tweed sports coat and gray trousers, he looked like a fashionable young executive in contrast to Nate's run-of-the-mill navy blazer and khaki slacks.

With a hasty nod, Jamison fell into step beside Nate and followed him up the front steps in silence. Before either man could knock, Corporal Robert Mills opened the door. The young MP had the makings of a future CID special agent if he learned to keep his somewhat self-centered ego in check. Nate chalked it up to youth.

Hopefully over time, his impetuous nature would mellow.

Raising his right hand to his forehead, Mills saluted the two warrant officers. "Evening, Mr. Patterson. Mr. Steele."

The agents returned the salute and stepped into the brightly lit foyer. Nate glanced into the living room where a woman sat huddled in a high-backed chair. Blue-green eyes looked up with the hollow stare of shock he'd seen too many times at crime scenes. The raw emotion written so clearly on her face brought home the tragic reality of what had happened tonight.

Their eyes met and held for an instant, causing an unexpected warmth to curl through Nate's gut. Then, tugging on a strand of her auburn hair, she dropped her gaze, breaking their momentary connection and leaving Nate with an emptiness he couldn't explain. Probably the middle-of-the-night phone call and his attempt to respond as quickly as possible that had thrown him slightly out of sync.

Or maybe it was the woman—a family member, perhaps.

Putting a human face on the tragedy—a very pretty face—intensified his desire to learn the truth about what had happened tonight. Nate was good at what he did. Tonight he wanted to be even better. The woman deserved as much. So did the victim waiting for him upstairs.

Bottom line, the army took care of its own in life and especially so in death. He motioned Corporal Mills into the kitchen as Jamison headed upstairs. Nate pulled out a small notebook and ballpoint pen from his breast pocket then, lowering his voice, he nodded toward the living room. "So who's the woman?"

"She's the sister of the deceased, sir. Name's Margaret Bennett, but she goes by Maggie. She found the major's body in the attic."

Nate knew how tough it was to lose a sibling. He thought of his own brother. Although eight years had separated them in age, they'd always been close.

He scribbled Maggie's name on a blank page of his notebook. "Apparent suicide?"

"Roger that, sir. Major Bennett hung herself from a rafter. Sergeant Thorndike's upstairs. He wanted me to check for prints."

A half-empty bottle of cabernet sat on the counter. Nate pointed to a wineglass, stained with residue. "Be sure to send off a toxicology sample on whatever's in the bottom of that glass."

"Yes, sir."

Opening the dishwasher, Nate used a latex glove he pulled from his pocket and lifted a second wineglass onto the counter. "Check the bottle and both glasses for prints. Let me know what you find."

"Will do, sir."

Nate nodded his thanks to Mills, returned the notebook to his pocket and grabbed a water glass from the cabinet, which he filled from the tap. Leaving the kitchen, he approached the woman in the living room.

"Excuse me, ma'am. I thought you might be thirsty."

Maggie Bennett glanced up with tear-filled eyes and a drawn face that expressed the heartbreak of a deeply personal loss. The two sisters must have been close. His heart went out to her, understanding all too well the pain she must be feeling.

"I'm Special Agent Nate Patterson, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division." With his free hand, he pulled out his CID identification, although he doubted Ms. Bennett would question his credentials. At the moment, she looked like a frightened stray caught in a trap. A beautiful stray, he decided, noting her high cheekbones, arched brows and full lips. But her strikingly good looks were overshadowed by a blanket of grief that lay like a black veil over her alabaster skin.

"I'm the lead investigator on this case, ma'am. Please accept my condolences as well as the heartfelt sympathy of the CID and the Military Police Corps here at Fort Rickman."

She bit her lip, then mumbled a broken, "Thank…thank you."

"I'll be upstairs for a few minutes. When I return I'd like to talk to you about your sister." He placed the water on the end table.

She gave a brief, pained smile of thanks at the offered glass and then looked back at him. "Yes, of course. Whatever you need to know."

Nate climbed the stairs to the second floor, feeling the weight of Maggie's grief resting on his shoulders. He'd give her a few minutes to gather strength before he saddled her with the endless questions that any death investigation required.

Reaching the second landing, Nate glanced into the home office on the right where Corporal Raynard Otis attempted to access the victim's laptop computer files. The soldier looked up, a full smile spreading across his honey-brown face. "Hey, sir. How's it going?"

"You tell me, Ray."

"Should have something for you shortly."

"That's what I like to hear."

Nate continued on to the open attic door. Rapid flashes of light confirmed the military photographer was already on the job. Within the hour, photos would appear on Nate's computer, systematically capturing every detail of the attic scene.

On the opposite side of the hallway, Jamison questioned a military policewoman and jotted down pertinent information she shared, information the CID team would review over and over again until all the facts were in and a determination could be made about the actual cause of death. Foul play needed to be ruled out. Hopefully, the case would be open and shut.

Climbing the stairs to the attic, Nate eyed the rafter and the thick hemp rope wrapped around the sturdy crossbeam. Without forethought, he touched his breast pocket where he had tucked the notebook, containing Maggie's name, as if to shield her from the grim reality of her sister's death. Lowering his gaze, he took in the victim's black hair and swollen face.

God rest her soul. The prayer surfaced from his past. His mother's influence, no doubt. She had raised him to be a believer, although his faith had never been strong, and for the past eight months, he had tuned God out of his life completely.

Once again, his hand sought the notebook as his eyes refocused on the body.

Death by strangulation was never pretty, yet despite the victim's contorted features, he recognized the same classic beauty that the very much alive sister sitting downstairs possessed. The deceased, with her low-cut silk blouse and snug-fitting leggings, appeared to be the more flamboyant sibling in contrast to Maggie's modest jeans and sweater, but appearances could lie, and more than anything else, Nate needed the truth.

A chair lay at Major Bennett's feet. Classic suicide scenario. In all probability, the victim had stood on the chair to secure the rope around the crossbeam and the noose around her neck. Kicking over the chair would leave her hanging and preclude the major from saving herself, should she have second thoughts about taking her own life.

Staff Sergeant Larry Thorndike stepped forward. The military policeman was mid-fifties with a receding hairline and an extra twenty pounds of weight around his middle.

"The victim worked in Headquarters Company of the 2nd Transportation Battalion," Staff Sergeant Thorndike offered as Nate glanced his way. "The major redeployed home from Afghanistan fourteen days ago as part of the advance party."

"Same unit that had two casualties in Afghanistan this week? " Nate asked.

"That's right, sir. Captain York—the company commander—and his driver hit an improvised explosive device. Now this. It's hard on the unit. Hard on everyone."

Nate knew all too well the tragic consequences an IED could cause. Was that what had led to the major's suicide? Had she felt in any way responsible for the captain's death? "How long before the medical examiner gets here?"

"The ME should be here any minute."

"Did you talk to the sister?"

The sergeant nodded. "But only briefly. She's pretty shook up."

An understatement from what Nate had seen.

"Ms. Bennett had enough sense to call for help," Sergeant Thorndike continued. "When I arrived she was white as a sheet and hyperventilating. Said she lives in Independence, Alabama. Received a phone call at approximately 2330 hours from the deceased. The victim sounded anxious, according to the sister. Major Bennett had fought with her estranged husband, Graham Hughes, shortly before the phone call."

"The major used her maiden name?"

"Roger that, sir."

"Has the husband been notified?"

"Negative. We're trying to track him down. Evidently he moved out a few days after Major Bennett arrived stateside."

"Alert the post chaplain to a possible notification of next of kin. I'll want to talk to the husband. Let me know when you find out where he's staying."

"Will do, sir." The sergeant unclipped his cell phone from his belt and stepped to the corner of the attic to call the chaplain.

Nate neared the body. He examined the knots that formed the noose and then the victim's neck and hands, noting her intact skin. No signs of struggle. Blood had pooled in her extremities, consistent with death by hanging and the beginnings of rigor mortis. It all looked like a textbook suicide, and yet…Something about it bothered him, and it took a minute to put his finger on it.

The sergeant closed his cell. "Chaplain Grant will be here shortly, sir."

Nate pointed to the victim's bare feet. "Where are her shoes?"

"Main floor, sir. Under a table by the door."

"It's a cold night. Why would Major Bennett walk around her house without shoes?"

The sergeant shrugged. "You got me there, sir."

Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Nate turned as Major Brett Hansen, the pathologist and medical examiner on post stepped into the attic. "Good to see you, Nate."


The major nodded to the sergeant and photographer. "What do we have here, gentlemen?"

Nate filled him in on the somewhat limited information accumulated so far. Wasting no time, the doc slipped on latex gloves and began his visual exam of the victim's body. Once complete, Sergeant Thorndike would lower her to the floor so additional forensic evidence could be gathered.

Knowing the procedure would take time, Nate descended the stairs to the first floor where the bereaved sister sat, legs crossed and head resting in her hands.

Peering into the kitchen, he saw Mills bent over the wine bottle. "Find anything yet?"

The MP looked up. "The glass you pulled from the dishwasher had been wiped clean, sir. We might get lucky on the bottle."

"Good man."

Entering the living room, Nate glanced, once again, at the grief-stricken woman. She appeared fragile as a butterfly and, no doubt, was devastated by what she'd discovered tonight. As much as he hated to disturb her, Nate needed information.

Moving closer, he touched her shoulder. The knit of her sweater was soft to his fingertips. "Ms. Bennett? Maggie?"

She looked up, startled. The pain in her eyes cut through him like a well-aimed laser beam.

"If I could have a few minutes of your time, ma'am."

Fatigue lined her oval face, but her ashen coloring concerned him more. She had found her sister's body and was surrounded by law enforcement personnel trying to make sense of a tragic death. No one had time to offer her more than a perfunctory word of compassion or support.

He glanced at the empty glass on the end table. "Would you like more water?"

She shook her head and rubbed her hands over her arms. "Thank you, no."

"If you're cold, I could raise the thermostat?"

"I…I'm just tired."

"Of course." He pulled up a chair. "Could you tell me what happened tonight?"

When she didn't answer, he scooted closer. "I know it's difficult."

She nodded. "Dani called me. She was upset…almost hysterical. She had told her husband she wanted a divorce."

Nate removed the notebook and pen from his pocket. He needed to put aside the fact that this woman ignited a spark of interest deep within him and focus instead on the questions he had to ask and she, hopefully, would be able to answer.

"Graham…" Maggie hesitated. "My sister's husband wanted them to reconcile."

"Go on." Painfully aware of the heat that continued to warm his gut, Nate swallowed hard and concentrated on the information Maggie began to recount.

"They…they had argued. Graham was upset. But then so was my sister. Dani told him to leave. Obviously, he…he came back later and—"

When she failed to complete the statement, Nate asked, "When did your sister and Mr. Hughes marry?"

"Dani ran into him shortly after she transferred here to Rickman. That was two years ago. They dated a few months. She sent me a wedding announcement after they were married."

"You attended the ceremony?"

"I wasn't invited."

Could Maggie's dislike of her brother-in-law stem from being excluded from their wedding? Nate drew a question mark on his tablet before asking, "Did you know Graham?"


"Had infidelity been an issue?"

She wiped her hand over her cheek and sniffed. "Not that Dani mentioned. But when we met for lunch last week, she told me that their marriage was over."

Nate nodded as he continued writing. "When you entered the house, did anything indicate Graham had been here?"

"A bottle of wine on the kitchen counter. Dani never drank red wine."

"What about her husband?"

"I…I don't know. When I was upstairs, I heard footsteps on the first floor." Maggie bit her lip and shook her head ever so slightly, her eyes widening with realization. "Graham must have been in the house the whole time I was searching for my sister."

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