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PAID IN BLOOD
By Mel Odom
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2006 Mel Odom
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA >> THE PRESENT >> 2053 HOURS
Will Coburn stopped in front of the dead woman lying crumpled on the threadbare carpet. He stared down at her. Violent death still gave him pause even after years of seeing it.
He held his flashlight steady and examined the woman's body. She was in her midtwenties. She'd kept her black hair short and neat, but blood matted it now. More blood streaked her face and made her look of pained surprise even more stark. She wore blue jeans and a dove gray blouse under a nondescript green Windbreaker.
Someone had cut the woman's throat. Crimson streaked the front of her blouse and Windbreaker.
Only a few blood streaks stained the carpet she lay on.
Violence and death no longer shocked Will. Since his transfer to NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigative Services, three years ago, he had seen every kind of inhumanity one person could show another. But he never got used to seeing it. It was enough, at times, for him to question God, though he knew that God allowed men free will. When men abused their freedom, it was their own fault, not God's. Still, the peace Will had with the Lord was an uneasy thing, made even more uneasy by what was occurring in his own family life these past months.
Will glanced around theapartment, trailing the flashlight beam with his sea green eyes. There was no electrical power to the room. The building super was supposed to be working on that.
Unfurnished and untended, the apartment held the thick smell of must and old sweat. The late March night left the room cloaked in thick shadows. Whirling blue lights from the police car parked in the street outside washed over the spiderwebs clinging to the top part of the window. The lower part of the window was broken. Glass lay inside on the floor, telling Will that the window had been broken from outside.
"Is she one of yours?" The voice was loud and challenging.
Will turned to face the man who had accompanied him into the grim room.
Wilmington police detective Leonard Carpenter stood nearby. He was shorter than Will's six feet one inch and at least twenty pounds above his ideal weight. His sandy hair held streaks of gray and he wore a neat mustache. His pale blue eyes looked permanently bloodshot. His tan suit held wrinkles.
"She's one of ours," Will answered. He ran a hand through his thick shock of black hair, cut within military regulations. Though the room was cool, his khaki Dockers felt like they were clinging to his legs, and he was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm under his blue NCIS jacket. He shrugged the jacket off, revealing the Springfield Extreme Duty .40-caliber pistol he carried in a holster strung across his broad shoulders.
Carpenter flipped through his notes. "Says here that she's Chief Petty Officer Helen Swafford. She was NCIS?"
Carpenter put his notepad away. "Know what she was doing out here?"
"If she was working on something, seems like she would have had a partner."
"The rest of the team is accounted for." Will had checked that through Swafford's supervisor.
"Then she was out here on her own hook."
"Looks that way," Will agreed.
"Wilmington's not that far from Camp Lejeune," the homicide detective said, "but she came a fair piece to get herself killed."
"I'm sure getting killed wasn't on her agenda, Detective," a feminine voice stated.
Will glanced up as Maggie Foley entered the apartment. At five feet four inches tall and slender, Maggie didn't look like much of a threat. Her dark brown hair was cropped at the shoulder, and she looked younger than her twenty-seven years. But she had an obsession with the gym and no-holds-barred volleyball that made her tough as nails on a martial-art mat.
Maggie looked as if she'd been at a dinner party when the call had come in. She wore black slacks with razor-edge creases and a charcoal, bias-striped shirt. French cuffs added an understated elegant flair. Her diamond earrings glittered as they caught the light. To Will, Maggie's appearance seemed in stark contrast to her surroundings in this room of death. But then, even in fatigues, Maggie Foley never looked middle class.
The NCIS drafted most of its agents from the civilian sector, including a number of ex-policemen and security guards. Will's unit was different. Because his team handled potentially lethal special assignments, most of his team members had been handpicked from the military. Maggie was the sole civilian. None of the personnel the military had to draw from had the expertise she brought to the team. She'd spent eight weeks in boot camp prior to assignment to the unit, then another month working with Special Ops personnel to bring her up to speed. There were things she was still learning about military ops, but she learned them quickly.
"According to the super, this apartment has been vacant for two months." Maggie shined her beam on piles of empty beer cans and cigarette butts in three corners of the room, and the two stained sleeping bags in the center. "Somebody comes calling while the three bears are out."
"Neighborhood kids," Carpenter replied. "They come up here and party when no one's looking."
"Did one of them make the call to the PD?" Maggie asked.
"Don't know. Caller didn't identify himself."
"According to the phone records of the pay phone outside," Maggie said, "a call was placed to the Wilmington Police Department about an hour and a half ago. That was at 7:17 p.m. Took you a while to call us, didn't it?"
"I wanted to verify the murdered woman's identity before I bothered you," Carpenter said.
Will knew that wasn't exactly the truth. Anytime military personnel were involved in a crime-whether that person was the victim or the criminal-the investigation was turned over to the military. The friction between the local authorities and the military investigators was long-standing.
"How did you make the identification?" Maggie persisted.
"Her ID was on the floor."
"Did you disturb the body?"
Anger stained Carpenter's broad face. "I got better things to do than stand here and answer stupid questions." He started to walk away.
"Detective Carpenter." Will's voice carried command. After twelve years spent aboard ships-six of them commanding one, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy-his voice was a tool, as solid and heavy as a ball-peen hammer. "I can contact your captain. I bet I could free up some time in your schedule."
Carpenter cursed beneath his breath but the sound carried in the small room. "I got fifteen years in on homicide. I know not to mess with evidence. When I checked that ID, this was still my murder scene."
"Now," Maggie said coolly, "it's ours."
Will knew Carpenter wanted to say something. Intent stiffened the man's bulky frame. But he kept silent. A moment later, the homicide detective turned and left the room.
"Well," Maggie said, "I suppose that could have gone better."
"It could have," Will agreed. "It didn't." He turned his attention back to the dead woman.
"He cost us nearly two hours." Maggie pulled on a pair of thin surgical gloves from her purse.
Looking at the dead woman, Will said, "We were already too late."
* * *
"She wasn't killed here." Maggie moved around the room and shot images with a digital camera from every angle.
"I know," Will replied. He took notes on an iPAQ Pocket PC.
"There's not enough blood and no signs of a struggle." Maggie took another image and moved closer to the body, where small triangular white markers with black numbers on them marked evidence.
"There are bruises on her face and arms," Maggie went on, "and three of her fingernails are broken. She didn't go down without a fight."
Twenty minutes ago, the building super had reconnected the electricity to the room. The bulbs offered a weak yellow incandescence that required an external flash on the camera. But the light relieved the darkness that had filled the room.
"Judging from the blood smears on her clothing, whoever killed her used something to transfer the body." Maggie squatted and took another shot. "I'm guessing a sheet or a piece of carpet from the blotches I'm seeing. Something fabric, not plastic."
Will had already guessed that. When he'd first taken the NCIS assignment, processing a crime scene had seemed beyond his capabilities. There were so many things to know. He'd surprised himself by learning them so quickly. He'd surprised his field training officer as well.
"That transfer material is incriminating," Maggie said. "That's why he or she took it from the scene."
"Maybe we'll get lucky and find it." Luck, Will knew, was part of every criminal investigation. Sometimes it worked for an investigator and sometimes it worked against. But luck was made by effort. They had to start beating the bushes.
* * *
Dr. Nita Tomlinson was thirty-one years old, a tall, lean redhead with freckles and gray-green eyes. She possessed an easy disposition and could generally be counted on to join the beer-and-pizza crowd after hours. She was also the team's medical officer.
As she stepped from the military Hummer that would carry Chief Petty Officer Helen Swafford's mortal remains back to the medical lab at Camp Lejeune, Nita pulled a lab coat on over the charcoal slacks and green-and-white-striped knit top she wore that enhanced the curves of her body. Her high-heeled boots seemed designed more for clubbing than fieldwork.
"Interrupt something?" Will asked when he went outside to meet her.
Nita brushed her hair back from her face. "What?"
"Nice clothes," Will said. "I thought maybe you got called away from a night out with Joe."
Joe Tomlinson was Nita's husband of five years. They had a four-year-old daughter named Celia. Will knew that with the backlog of work Nita had verifying even routine deaths and checking files on those killed in action, she seldom got home during the evenings these days.
Nita seemed a little disconcerted. "No. I was ... out. By myself. Just had a couple drinks with girlfriends to clear my head. I wasn't ready to go home and put on my mommy cap. Where's the body?"
"Inside." Will walked beside her as he guided her toward the building. The police had roped off the area with yellow NCIS crime-scene tape and sawhorses.
"Commander Coburn," a young Asian woman called from behind the tape. A press ID hung from the lapel of her jacket. She held a microphone out. "Could you give us a comment?"
"I see the press has learned your name," Nita said.
Will didn't offer a comment, nor did he break stride. He assumed the media people had resourced his picture and made identification. So far the media still didn't have the dead chief petty officer's name.
"Where's the rest of the crew?" Nita asked as they stepped into the building's foyer.
"Frank and Shel are knocking on doors in the neighborhood," Will said. "Estrella is going through the chief petty officer's office files."
"The vic wasn't on assignment?"
"According to her supervisor, nothing she was working would have brought her out to this neighborhood."
Nita frowned. "So it's a mystery."
"I hate mysteries."
"When we finish the job," Will said, "there won't be any mysteries left." As he turned toward her, he smelled alcohol on her breath. "Are you in shape to do this?"
Nita shot him a reproachful look. "Yes."
"I smell alcohol."
"At this time of night, you usually would." Nita took a breath mint from her purse and pulled on a pair of surgical gloves. "I'm fine. If I wasn't, I'd call someone else in. I know how to do my job." Her tone was angry and defensive.
Will had heard that in her voice a lot lately. "All right," he said. He'd never known a time when Nita couldn't perform her job. But he was afraid a storm was brewing on the horizon. He'd been a sailor much of his life, and sailors knew storms. Maybe he'd have noticed Nita's situation earlier if he hadn't been dealing with his own.
Excerpted from PAID IN BLOOD by Mel Odom Copyright © 2006 by Mel Odom. Excerpted by permission.
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