Authors: Debby Giusti
Mason was an unknown, which gave Everett pause.
“I’m trusting this ends well,” he said in closing.
“Agreed,” Frank added. “I’ll meet you there.”
The housing area wasn’t far, and Everett was the first to arrive. He pulled to the curb and spotted headlights in his rearview mirror, then stepped out and waited for Frank.
“The report came from that side of the duplex,” Frank pointed to Quarters A. “Let’s talk to Mason before we question the neighbor.” Frank was the lead on this call, with Everett along as another set of eyes if need be.
Both agents climbed the front steps. Frank knocked on the door. “Special Agent Frank Gallagher, CID.” He glanced at Everett before adding. “Mason, it’s Frank. Everett’s with me. Everything okay?”
He tapped the door again.
Everett glanced at the duplex across the street. A light went on in an upstairs window.
“I’ll check the rear.” Starting down the steps, he heard a door creak open and turned to find the neighbor in Quarters A standing backlit in her doorway.
Long, shoulder-length black hair, slender build. Probably 110 to 115 pounds and five-four or five-five.
She stepped onto the porch. Oval face, big eyes drawn with concern, her mouth angled downward in a frown.
“We’re with the CID, ma’am. I’m Special Agent Kohl,” he said as introduction. “You called in the report?”
She glanced at her watch. “About fifteen minutes ago. I haven’t heard anything since then.”
“What did you hear earlier?”
“Raised voices and two screams, followed by thumping, as if someone had fallen down the stairs.”
Everett nodded. “Wait inside, ma’am. I’ll need more information after we make contact with the residents.”
Walking through the wet grass, he rounded the house, flicking his gaze over the large side yard and the rear access road. Headlights signaled an approaching vehicle. A dark blue sedan screeched to a stop.
Mason lunged from the car, wearing running shorts and a gray Army T-shirt damp with sweat. Eyes wide, he glanced at Everett, then turned his focus to his quarters.
“It’s Tammy, isn’t it? What happened? Is she hurt?” Breathless, he raced to the back door.
“A neighbor heard screams.” Everett hated being the bearer of bad news.
“She called me, distraught. I heard a voice in the background.” Mason pushed open the door and charged into the kitchen.
Everett followed. Unwashed dishes sat in the sink.
“Tammy, where are you?” Mason ran through the living room, then rounded the corner into the foyer. Stopping short, he staggered to brace himself against the wall.
Everett’s gut tightened. A woman lay sprawled at the foot of the stairs, her face contorted in death. Blood pooled under her head.
He felt her neck, knowing instinctively he wouldn’t find a pulse.
Mason fell to the floor and reached for his wife, a scream keening from deep within him.
“Don’t touch—” Everett couldn’t warn Mason fast enough.
The husband’s broken sobs echoed in the quarters.
Everett had been at too many crime scenes, but none as wrenching as Mason holding his wife’s lifeless body.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and opened the front door. Frank stepped inside, face tight and eyes brimming with the same emotion Everett felt as they shook their heads with regret. Both special agents were aware of the significance of Mason’s arrival on-site. If he hadn’t been home, then someone else had argued with his wife. Someone who may have pushed or shoved or thrown Tammy Yates down the stairs to her death.
Everett raised his cell and called CID Headquarters. “Notify the military police. We’ll need a crime-scene investigation team, ambulance and the medical examiner.”
Frank patted Mason’s shoulder. “Come on, buddy. Let’s get you into the other room. The MPs are on the way along with the ME.”
Mason shook off the attempt to comfort him. “Tammy,” he moaned, pulling his wife even closer into his arms.
“You need to step away from your wife. Remember, we have to preserve evidence if we’re going to catch this guy. Come on, buddy. Let’s head into the other room.”
Mason shrugged out of Frank’s hold and glanced at the open doorway. His face twisted in rage.
“What’s she doing here?”
Everett turned to see the neighbor cover her mouth and muffle a cry of disbelief. Fear flared from her eyes.
“Ma’am, I asked you to remain in your quarters.”
She pointed a finger at Mason, the distraught husband holding his wife’s bloodied body, and screamed.
atalie ran back to the Joneses’ quarters, unable to take in more of the death scene. The horrendous sight stuck in her mind, and she couldn’t erase the image of the woman lying at the bottom on the stairs.
Seeing who clutched the woman’s bloodied body was even more unsettling. She hadn’t expected Mason Yates to be the neighbor next door. Her stomach rolled, recalling his steely eyes and accusing glare that brought back memories she wanted to forget.
Locking the door behind her, Natalie raced to the downstairs half bath and ran water in the sink. Pumping a large dollop of liquid soap into her palm, she lathered her hands and tried to wash off the blood she kept seeing.
Although she hadn’t entered the Yateses’ quarters, she felt soiled and defiled. Scrubbing with soap and rinsing her hands in the hot tap water did little to change the feeling.
Her reflection stared back at her from the mirror. Black hair, still damp with rain, tumbled around her shoulders in disarray, and her eyes, puffy from her earlier sleep, appeared as anxious as she felt.
Worried about the baby, she dried her hands and raced upstairs, trying to keep her footfalls light. She felt vulnerable, knowing the men on the opposite side of the wall would hear her as she climbed the stairs.
Relieved to find Sofia still asleep, Natalie rubbed the back of her hand over the baby’s soft cheek, needing contact with goodness and purity after what she’d seen.
She shook her head and tried to calm her racing heart, but all she could think of was the woman who had died. Her mouth gaped open as if the scream Natalie had heard had carried down the stairs with her. Death was supposed to be peaceful, but the neighbor’s death had been anything but.
Blood was smeared along the wall and down the stairs, pooling under her head. The sights had brought back too many memories of another woman who had died in Germany. The similarity was frightening.
Hurrying downstairs, Natalie stopped in the foyer and shivered, realizing she was standing in the exact spot where the victim’s body lay in Quarters B. Sirens sounded in the distance, and flashing lights filtered through the gauze curtains.
She glanced out the window. Two military police squad cars pulled to the curb. An ambulance followed. The medical personnel were too late to save the woman and would, instead, transport her body to the morgue.
A knock sounded at the door.
Swallowing the lump that filled her throat, Natalie peered through the peephole. The CID special agent she’d spoken with earlier stood on the porch.
Needing to control her emotions, she ran her fingers through her hair and sighed, thinking of the tangled web into which she’d stepped.
If only she could turn to God, but He’d never taken an interest in her. Not in Detroit growing up, not with a mother whose care bordered on abuse, not with a father who liked the bottle more than he liked his only child. God hadn’t helped her then. He wouldn’t help her now.
Her breath hitched when she opened the door. Earlier, she hadn’t realized how broad the special agent’s shoulders were or the deep brown of his eyes. Even through the screen door, they appeared rimmed with concern. She couldn’t let down her guard, no matter how sympathetic the agent seemed.
She had to be strong and take care of herself.
She’d done it before. She could do it again.
At least, she hoped she could.
Plus, she couldn’t let anything or anyone harm Sofia. The baby’s needs came before her own, and Sofia’s safety was Natalie’s main concern for the next two weeks.
* * *
Despite the tragic crime scene Everett had just left, he couldn’t help but be taken in by the woman who answered his knock at Quarters 324-A. She was pretty, with dark brows and pensive eyes, a slender nose and full cheeks now pale and drawn, like her mouth. Even her shoulders seemed weighted down, no doubt from what she’d seen. Death was never pretty, and Mrs. Yates’s life had come to a traumatic end.
While the ME tended to the body and the crime-scene team looked for evidence, Everett needed to question the neighbor.
Frank was continuing to quiz Mason. He had been running in the training area when his wife had fallen to her death.
In shock and visibly grieving, Mason had been forthcoming about the evening he and Mrs. Yates had spent together. She had prepared a light meal, they had watched a favorite TV show, and soon thereafter, he had left, as he often did, for a nighttime jog. From the many photos displayed in the home, they appeared to have been a loving couple, but things weren’t always as they seemed.
Case in point, the attractive woman staring at Everett through the screen door. She appeared totally confused and upset. Had she seen or heard more than raised voices and thumps against the wall?
Although he had introduced himself earlier, he doubted the woman had focused on his name when she was worried about her neighbor. Again, he held up his badge. Following protocol was always good, especially tonight when a woman had died so tragically.
“Everett Kohl, Criminal Investigation Division. I’d like to ask you some questions.”
She pushed open the screen door. “Come in.”
The house was tidy and nicely furnished with a leather couch and two chairs covered in a flowered pattern.
A number of side tables held pretty knickknacks and photos of a baby. “Your child?”
She shook her head. “Sofia’s the daughter of Lieutenant Terrance Jones and his wife, Wanda. She’s also a lieutenant.”
“You’re visiting the Joneses?”
“I’m the nanny, at least for the next two weeks. Wanda’s TDY at Fort Hood.”
“What about her husband?”
“He’s deployed to Afghanistan.” She pointed him toward the living area. “Shall we sit down? I have a feeling this might take time.”
“Hopefully not too long.” He lowered himself onto the couch. The leather was cool to his touch. He drew a tablet and pen from the pocket of his jacket. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take a few notes.”
“Let’s start with your name.”
“Natalie Frazier. I’m prior military, served for six years and now live in Freemont.”
She seemed willing to provide information. A good sign. “You said you were caring for the Joneses’ daughter.”
“You work as a nanny?”
“I started this morning as a favor to Wanda. She’s taking an army training class at Fort Hood that begins in a few days and didn’t have anyone to care for her child. I’m finishing the last course for my teaching degree and hope to find a job in the local schools. The nanny position came at the right time.”
He noticed the textbook on the coffee table. “How did you meet Lieutenant Jones?”
“We knew each other in Germany. That was my last duty station. Wanda and I were both taking night classes for our degrees. I transferred back to Fort Rickman, liked the area and decided not to reenlist.”
“And home is?”
She stared at him as if she didn’t understand. “Freemont is currently my home. I live at 2010 Pinegate Circle. You probably want my phone number.”
He nodded, made note of the cell number she provided and then rephrased his earlier question.
“Where was home before the military?
“Where did I grow up?” She hesitated. “I was raised in Detroit.”
The inner city had crumbled over the past decade into a no-man’s land. The suburbs still held on to hope of regeneration, but the downtown looked worse than some of the bombed-out areas in Afghanistan.
As if reading his mind, her voice took on a defensive edge. “I joined the army to make a life for myself, Special Agent Kohl, and I hardly see how where I grew up has bearing on what happened tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He looked down at his notebook. “Let’s go back to this evening. Could you tell me what you heard?”
“Pounding against the wall. A woman screamed twice, followed by a thumping sound.” She crossed her arms and hugged herself as if to find comfort. “It sounded like someone was falling down the stairs.”
“There was a storm,” he prompted. “Lightning, thunder, heavy rain. Could you have mistaken the rumble of thunder for sounds you thought came from the adjoining quarters?”
She bristled. “I know what thunder sounds like.”
“Of course you do.”
Her shoulders sagged and her assuredness ebbed. “I was studying for an exam and had evidently fallen asleep.”
“Here in the living room?”
“That’s right. Something woke me. Maybe the storm. Maybe something else. Like raised voices or a crash against the wall.”
Natalie continued to chronicle what had provoked her call. “I heard voices that escalated into a heated argument, although I couldn’t make out what was being said.”
“Could you determine if the voices were male or female?”
“Not really, although one of them sounded far more aggressive and seemingly male.”
“It was deeper, raised and more insistent. The argument kept escalating. When something crashed against the wall, I immediately thought of domestic abuse.”
“How many times did something crash against the wall?”
“Two times, maybe three.”
He pursed his lips. “You’re not sure?”
“Two hits. Both followed by a scream. I knew something bad was happening.”
“Did you pound on the wall or call out to see if anyone needed help?”
“Not at that point.” She raised her brow as if worried she hadn’t reacted appropriately. “Do you think I should have?”
“Ma’am, I can’t tell you what you should have done.”