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"Aren't you Rafael Soto's sister?"
Sia bristled. She had been his sister, but now she was Lieutenant Commander Ambrosia Soto, U.S. Navy JAG. Most of her friends called her Sia, but she didn't think Master Chief Steven Walker was acting at all friendly toward her right now.
He was her number-one suspect in the death of a decorated F/A-18 pilot whose body had been recovered from the bottom of the Pacific, and the man had gone from helpful to belligerent as soon as he discovered who she was. A Navy JAG lawyer often had that effect on guilty people.
The tone of the man's voice said he wasn't a fan of her brother, but highly trained and aggressive fighter pilots were often considered elite jerks by the enlisted.
Ending up on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific was a common occurrence for a JAG officer. She'd been to many places around the globe, handling all types of legal issues and investigations. She took this assignment in stride. She had been on temporary assignment duty, or TAD, investigating another case in San Diego when she'd been ordered to handle this investigation aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. James McCloud her brother's last billet. "You can address me as Commander Soto or ma'am."
"But you're his sister, right?"
"Master Chief, are you not getting my drift? I'm here to ask the questions, not answer them." She flipped open his file and glanced down. The picture and material were all neatly maintained. She looked up at him and narrowed her eyes. "This investigation is about Lieutenant Malcolm Saunders, who lost his life yesterday when his F/A-18 Super Hornet plunged into the sea. It's not social hour."
Her sharp words seemed to glance off him. "Yeah, you'd know about fighter jet accidents, wouldn't you?"
She shot him a cold look and a smoldering fury burned beneath her skin. She maintained eye contact with his direct ones with a relentless stare, as if doing so would give her an insight into his soul. She was rewarded as he looked away, but before he did, she saw a challenge and the unmistakable look of a liar. Her scalp prickled and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She always got that feeling when someone was hiding something. Almost like a sixth sense.
She picked up his folder and studied the man's service record, looking for any inconsistencies. "We both know you didn't get to your rank by being uncooperative, Master Chief." At her statement, he sat up straighter. "In fact, you have a spotless service record. The Navy is your life and you've given to it unconditionally."
For a moment, deep regret filled his eyes, but when he blinked they were once again neutral. "I have, sometimes to the detriment of all else."
"And the Navy has given back. You head up Maintenance Material Control."
"Maintenance is the heart of this carrier. Your division is responsible for repairing aircraft and related support equipment."
"One of the branches you oversee is the avionics division?"
"Were there any problems with any part of the systems your people maintain?" She set the file down and closed it.
For a moment, the master chief sat in silence, but she could see something she said had caused him concern. But his next words were contrary to the worry he tried to hide. "No. That plane was in tip-top condition."
She lifted her brows and tilted her head. "Yet the pilot and the plane ended up at the bottom of the ocean. How do you explain that?"
Sia couldn't help it. She winced and the look on the master chief's face made Sia want to make him pay for his scored hit. "I've been assigned to investigate the reason a forty-million-dollar jet crashed into the ocean and killed the pilot. Lieutenant Saunders was in charge of flying the plane. You were in charge of maintaining the plane. Therefore, I'm asking you questions. I suggest you answer." The authority in her voice was unmistakable. The master chief's lips tightened at her tone.
"I know I'm responsible for the maintenance of the plane. But you have the logs"
"And I'll inspect them thoroughly. Thank you, Master Chief."
He got to the door, opened it and stopped, his body language aggressive. His aftershave mixed with the unmistakable scent of the ocean and the metallic smell of the ship. A slight breeze ruffled the hair at her nape that had escaped her tight bun.
"Why aren't you looking at pilot error? Are you so sure the pilot didn't make a mistake?"
"I run a thorough investigation. I'll get to the truth of the accident." She rose and set her hands on the small table she'd been sitting behind. "My way."
"Maybe you have a mental block regarding pilot error, Commander Soto?" he said with a soft, accusing tone.
Something snapped in Sia. She was across the small compartment and in the master chief's face before she could stop herself.
"It's no secret what happened with my brother, and it's no secret regarding my insistence for a reopening of the investigation into the incident. I will not have you impugning my integrity. If you do so again, I'll bring you up on charges. Is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, his anger barely banked.
"You are dismissed."
Sia had been in the JAG Corps long enough to understand respect was due an officer and some of the good ol' boys left over from the old system didn't take very well to a woman in command. But with the master chief, Sia was sure he had more to hide than his distaste for women in uniform. She had only to prove it.
Maybe you have a mental block
The master chief's words made her angry all over again. Sia trusted in her brother's abilities as a pilot. When the JAG who'd investigated her brother's F/A-18 accident cited pilot error, Sia had protested loudly. But it did no good. Now six years later, Sia was in another battle. She'd petitioned to have her brother's ashes memorialized at the Naval War Memorial and was promptly told by the official she talked to it wasn't possible. Her brother hadn't died a hero.
That meant she'd have to get her brother's case reopened and that took an appeal to the Secretary of the Navy, or as he was referred to at JAG, SECNAV.
She didn't blame the War Memorial. She blamed the wingman who'd flown with her brotherthe man with whom she'd had the most explosive, intimate relationship in her life. Even six years later, the thought of him made her heart beat faster and her palms sweat. She didn't want this reaction, but she couldn't seem to stop it. That promising relationship had ended with her brother's fatal accident.
The loss of her brother had torn her family apart, and she'd simply lost everything except work. The JAG Corps and her job sustained her and honed her into a legal killing machine. Focusing her thoughts back to the investigation, she asked the ship's resident JAG to send in the next person for questioning. In this case, it was the pilot's wingman.
The master chief hesitated when he saw Lieutenant Saunders's wingman standing silently but attentively through their exchange at the door. Then he said something softly under his breath and strode off down the corridor, ducking through the hatch.
Sia focused on the man in front of her in his crisp khaki uniform and aviator's flight jacket. "Lieutenant Russell, thank you for your time."
"I hope it helped in the investigation." His voice was subdued, the grief at the loss of his friend and wingman poignant. Unexpectedly, Sia's throat filled as a result of the memories of the day she'd lost her brother all in one terrible fiery crash. It was the same day she had lost the man she loved, her brother's wingman, who had ejected to safety. "Mal and I were more than wing mates. We were best friends."
"I am very sorry for your loss."
"Thank you, ma'am."
He stepped into the compartment and she shut the door. She indicated the chair in front of the table. "Have a seat." When he was settled and she'd taken her own seat again, she said, "Can you tell me about Lieutenant Saunders's state of mind yesterday when his jet crashed into the ocean?"
He smiled, his eyes brightening. "He was psyched. We always were when we got to fly."
Sia leaned back in her chair. "Anything happen that was out of the ordinary?"
Lieutenant Russell frowned. "The only thing that happened wasn't out of the ordinary."
"What is that?"
He sighed. "Master Chief Walker always seemed to be in Mal's face."
"They didn't get along?"
"No. The master chief was always using what we liked to call good-natured ribbing to put him down, and Mal just ignored his behavior."
"Do you know why the master chief had this perspective?" Sia asked.
"No, ma'am. It seemed to manifest from the first day Mal and I were assigned to this ship."
Sia looked down at the open folder. "I don't see any reprimands in the master chief's file."
Lieutenant Russell shrugged. "Mal wasn't like that. He held his own, he told me. He didn't need to tattle to the Navy command because an enlisted sailor didn't like him. He was as perplexed as I was as to why the master chief immediately singled him out for abuse. We revere master chiefs in the Navy. They know just about every damn thing there is to know. We just didn't get it."
"He should have reported him."
Lieutenant Russell's shoulders drooped and his voice grew strained. "I agree, ma'am. But, Mal is I mean was Mal."
"Is there any other information you can provide that might help the investigation?" She saw him hesitate and look down as he ran his fingers along the brim of his hat, debating. "Anything," she prompted. "No matter how small and insignificant."
He looked up. The anguish on his face twisted Sia's heart. Her memories were still painful, as if her brother had died yesterday instead of six years ago. Fresh pain flooded through her. "Lieutenant Russell?"
"I hope I'm not talking out of turn, ma'am, but I saw the master chief near Mal's coffee before we took off."
"In the wardroom? Enlisted personnel aren't allowed in there," Sia said.
"No, Mal was just about to step onto the flight deck, and he was finishing it off." He set his hat on the table and leaned forward, his voice dropping. "I don't want to accuse him of tampering with it, but Mal was a top-notch aviator and there's no way in hell he would have downed that plane like that."
"Are you willing to sign an oath to that, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, ma'am. I will." He held her gaze and never wavered, clearly a man who was dedicated to both his friend and the Navy.
Sia dismissed Lieutenant Russell and she moved quickly. She contacted the captain via the ship's phone and requested a search authorization for the master chief's rack, citing the evidence from Lieutenant Russell's oath. With his permission, Sia made her way to the master chief's quarters with a burly master-at-arms in tow. Once inside, she started to methodically search his locker. She found nothing. Sure that she had missed something, she started the search once again. As she went through his underwear and socks, she was about to give up. Her hand brushed against a sock and she felt a hard lump. Fishing out the sock, Sia pulled the garments apart and a bottle fell out onto the deck. Reaching down, she picked it up. When she turned the label toward her, she found she held an over-the-counter product for irregularity.
Her brows furrowed as she looked down at the bright yellow bottle. Why was this in his sock drawer and not in the medicine cabinet? Then it dawned on her. He was trying to hide it.
She would have the contents of the bottle analyzed against anything that was in Lieutenant Saunders's bloodstream. She could be holding the murder weapon in her hand. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled and goose bumps ran along her back and arms.
She needed to detain the master chief and talk to the ME who was doing the autopsy right away.
She motioned for the master-at-arms to follow her as she headed to the legal office to log the evidence and contact the ME. She dismissed the master-at-arms once she reached the office.