Under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1971, this is a fully copyrighted and protected work by law. Copyright is owned by and all rights are reserved to Nathanael Miller. No part may be reproduced in whole or part without my written permission. Facebook and Twitter links to this story may be shared; but the work itself and all characters are my intellectual property and may not be shared or reproduced except with written permission. All characters and events are fictitious.
The Eisenhower Murder
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
The elegantly geometric bulk of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) loomed above Pier 14. The portable city was quiet, only the occasional bell or announcement breaking the silence of the waterfront night.
Water rustled against the hull and then, insulted by the giant ship’s lack of response, scuttled on its way down the James River. Even seagulls were asleep in the chilly April air this early in the morning. Most of the ship’s company was as somnolent as their ship; only a small fraction were awake, many guzzling coffee or energy drinks to retain their consciousness as the fatigue of their predawn watches set in.
Commissioned in 1977, the ship was older than most of the Sailors on board, but she had at least two (and maybe three) more decades of useful life left in her steel plates yet. She had already seen three generations of fighter jets alone cross her flight deck, from the venerable “Brick” that was the F-4 Phantom II, to the immortal F-14 Tomcat, to the modern and deadly needle of the F/A-18 Hornet. Vast swaths of her innards had been upgraded over her nearly 40 years. She started with vacuum tubes; today she sported LEDs and even (on good days) the internet.
The noisiest part of the ship at this hour were the galleys, where the Culinary Specialists (or “CS’s”) were already cooking the first of the several thousand meals to be served that day. Music blared from Bluetooth speakers wirelessly connected to cell phones. The aft galley was serving up an odd mix of jazz and bluegrass along with steam, oatmeal, eggs, and fruit. The forward galley featured hip hop along with pancake batter, vegetables, and enough coffee, soda, and juice to float a battleship. The smell of bacon and sausage freely mingled with the wafting aroma of hydraulic fluid, diesel fuel, and grease from elsewhere in the hull.
Breakfast would be served in just a couple of hours. The Sailors living on board and those staying overnight with their duty section would need to eat. However, many of the ship’s company who lived out in Norfolk and the other six cities of the Hampton Roads area often chose to have breakfast on board after they had driven on base and boarded the ship for the day’s work. Even as breakfast was being consumed, the prep for lunch would have to begin, and then there was dinner to think about…
In the noisy bustle of the galley, a few extra sounds knocking about the steel giant would not be readily noticed. The “IKE” is a warship, after all; a highly industrial environment defined by steel, punctuated by welded seams, and supported by the sea. Amid the blaring of music, the clatter of cookware, and the chatter of Sailors, only a couple of people working in the aft galley even noticed the suddenly clanging of a hatch nearby. They paid it no heed; something was always clanging aboard a warship.
The body of Culinary Specialist 1st Class Simon Paige, his head stove in from the falling hatch, would not be found for another hour.
Abraham Gray’s hands were in his pockets, his sport jacket draped over them. As usual the NCIS agent wore a dark suit and red tie, looking for all the world like an erstwhile presidential candidate. Bright silver hair lent a dignity in compensation for making him look a bit older than his 51 years.
“It wasn’t a two-ton hatch like I was told in the initial phone call,” Gray said looking up. “Well, that hatch probably weighs nearly two tons, but what killed him was the scuttled hatch.”
A “scuttle” is a small, round hatch that can be used for access when larger hatches in deck itself were closed and secured. Scuttles could be quickly locked shut, and were only slightly bigger in diameter than an average man’s shoulders. The scuttles in deck hatches were commonly used because many main hatches around spaces that contained access to munitions, aviation fuels, or other potentially explosive cargo were kept secured for safety.
Every Sailor who has ever had to climb up or down a ladder and contort themselves through a scuttle (especially while carrying something) quickly learns a vast array of new curses that would make curdled milk blush.
“If it had been the larger hatch that dropped on CS1 Paige, we wouldn’t be so concerned,” Gray said, using the Navy shorthand for Culinary Specialist 1st Class. “The weight of that thing will kill a man in a heartbeat. Granted the scuttle is heavy enough to cause a fatal injury, but the damn things have a mechanical lock that engages when they’re opened and it has to be manually released to close them. They’re so small and the fulcrum is so close to the center that there just isn’t time for one to accelerate enough to cause the kind of damage suffered by Paige.”
Standing next to Gray, Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac T. Shepherd had his arms crossed and was also looking up at the open scuttle. He wore the blue “aquaflage” Navy Working Uniform…and uniform that would be phased over the next three years in favor of a lighter weight green camouflage pattern. Shepherd was singularly unconcerned about the uniform change; he retired in September. Six months left to go to cap off a 20-year career. The shift to the new uniforms would begin in October; in October he would be (he hoped!) settling into his first civilian job since his mid-20s.
Astonishingly deep and vibrant sea green eyes peered through Shepherd’s Navy-issue wire framed glasses. He was too cheap to spend money on fancier frames when the Navy provided a perfectly nice set of black wire rims for free (well…maybe at the cost of one’s soul for a few years…).
“I agree,” He said. “I’ve seen plenty of fingers and hands crushed by scuttles. Even a couple of badly bruised feet back on the Ponce. But there really isn’t any way for a human being to just drop a scuttle on his head. It’s almost physiologically impossible; his arms would be in the way.”
“Exactly,” Gray said, shifting to put a foot on the ladder leading up to the sealed hatch and fatal scuttle. “The most logical explanation is that he was climbing up, and had his head starting to poke through the scuttle but his arms still on the ladder under it…and someone slammed it down on him.”
“Even then…the actions of climbing through a scuttle…that would give whomever scuttled his life only a fraction of a second or so before Paige’s arms were in the way.”
Gray chose to ignore the pun. He was sadly used to them after nearly 18 years knowing Shepherd.
“When was he found?” Shepherd asked.
“06:00, one hour before reveille,” Gray said. “Ship’s security was very efficient in sealing off the area and getting us on the scene. I have to admit I was impressed. However, the aft galley and mess decks are still off limits, and that is having an adverse effect on the ship because the forward mess decks and galley weren’t designed to handle the entire ship’s company all day.”
The galley was the kitchen that prepared the food. The “mess decks” were the spaces the ship’s company would actually eat, relax, and hold special events.
Paige’s body had been removed, but blood stained the deck and ladder itself. The predictable tape outline of the body lay between him and Gray. The small compartment he and Gray stood in was painted the “haze gray” so well known in the Navy. It was a small room that provide access down from the second deck near the aft galley on the port side of the ship to the third deck. Further down below were storerooms where food was stored.
“My best guess is Paige was coming up from the storeroom. Aside from the injury, there were no injuries or other signs on his body of a struggle,” Gray said.
“So he either knew his attacker and they caught him unawares,” Shepherd said, “Or else an unknown attacker surprised him. Most likely he knew his murderer. They usually do.”
“Right,” Gray said.
“So why am I here, Abe?” Shepherd asked.
“For a man who prides himself on his intelligence, I’m surprised you can’t work it out. I need your help.”
“I worked it out,” Shepherd said. “But NEPAC is still pretty pissed off I got involved helping you with the Stiles case last month and didn’t tell my chain of command until it was over.”
“I covered you on that one,” Gray said. “I already talked to your OIC.”
Gray referred to Lt. Cmdr. Ezekiel Warren, the officer in charge of the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East (NEPAC East), one of the three centers of the globe-spanning Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command.
“I know you did,” Shepherd said. “He and Cory called me into the office first thing this morning and told me to meet you at Pier 14. And then gave me a long lecture about not endangering myself and not going off on my own again like last month.” Shepherd referenced Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Cory Stout, the senior enlisted advisor (and ranking enlisted member) of NEPAC East.
“So, again, why am I here? You’re NCIS. Why do you need my help?”
The question was asked partly in jest as Gray and Shepherd had 18-year-long history together.
“Despite NEPAC’s irritation at your lack of communication last month, they were exceptionally impressed by what you did.”
“I know, they told me.” Shepherd said.
“Isaac, don’t downplay it. Master Chief Stiles’ murder was set up to look like a suicide, and it was done so well it fooled us. You picked up on the details that let us nail the murderers.”
“Murdered by his own and wife and yeoman,” Shepherd said. I know her trial starts next month. You guys find him yet?”
Gray shook his head. Yeoman 1st Class Gordon Grey (no relation to Abraham Gray) had managed to kill a guard and escape custody before his court martial. “He vanished. FBI is on it now. But the fact is you were the key to that case. Just like all the others you’ve helped with.”
“Charlotte must not have been happy when you told her you were bringing me in on this,” Shepherd said, the ever-present buzz of the ship’s ventilation in his ear and that odd, indefinable sensation under foot that let one know they were standing in a 90,000 ton ship that was floating.
“She wasn’t, but she agrees with my reasoning,” Gray said.
Gray’s boss, Charlotte Webb, was one of many NCIS agents who knew of Isaac Shepherd and intensely disliked him. The problem was Shepherd was a rank amateur whose qualifications for practicing law enforcement consisted of a high native intelligence level, luck, and too many Agatha Christie novels. Yet he had been right every time he’d been involved in something. It created a professional jealously Shepherd understood and actually sympathized with.
“So what can I do? You guys aren’t blinkered by this one. You know it’s murder.”
“True, but we have no suspects this time.”
“Excuse me?” Shepherd said. Somewhere in the distance a needle gun (a pneumatic device used to remove rust) began its teeth-rattling caterwaul as an unknown Sailor engaged in the never-ending war against corrosion.
“Isaac, we have no suspects. Two people in the aft galley think they heard the scuttle clang around 06:00, and that would fit the time of death we’re guessing at for Paige. But they only think they heard it, and neither can be sure the sound was on the port side of the ship.”
“No one missed Paige?” Shepherd asked.
“Of course not,” Gray said. “He was the aft galley’s LPO. You’ve been an LPO—you know you could vanish for a few hours and none of your junior Sailors would think to look for you. They’d assume you were off doing something Navy.”
An “LPO” is a leading petty officer, the immediate supervisor that assure a work functions and completes assigned tasking.
“What I need from you is help asking questions, finding suspects, and gauging people,” Gray said. “You’re very good at that. You read people and you have a talent for seeing motivations and possibilities. Everyone is already talking and wondering who the murderer is. That will fester and fracture the crew. The IKE is supposed to deploy in two months. How do we send out a carrier when everyone on it suspects everyone else of being a murderer?
“And…I do not like having a murder on the loose. I want this bastard found.” Gray said darkly, his voice a growl. It was a very rare glimpse of the passion for justice the man possessed, a passion he let only a very few select people ever see. “An innocent man is dead. You know this ship, Isaac. You were aboard her before—“
“Abe,” Shepherd said, shifting his weight and shoving his hands in his pockets (completely against uniform regulations, mind you), “I deployed on the Eisenhower over five years ago as the NEPAC LPO. I was on a split sea tour from the Ponce. Five years. Everyone I knew back then is gone.”
NEPAC existed to embark teams of public affairs officers and enlisted Mass Communications Specialist on board deploying ships and to land-based exercises and operations. Shepherd had spent two years of a three-year sea duty rotation on board USS Ponce (LPD 15) before coming to NEPAC for the last year of sea duty. He then “rolled” to shore duty at NEPAC, heading up the Training department before taking over Ops and Production.
“I know all that, Isaac,” Gray said. “However, you’re a chief, and you have a history with this ship. Both of those will open doors for you conversationally. Your OIC already talked to the ship’s Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Shannon Potts. Officially you’re going to run a couple of training workshops for the Media Center. Not much of a cover, mind you, but it gets you on board and gets you access to the crew. They’ll talk to you a hell of a lot faster than to me.”
“Not a bad idea, but I am a chief. That can be…intimidating to some of the more junior folks. If this is going to be cost-effective, I’ll need help too.”
“Who?” Gray asked.
“The only other Sailor at NEPAC East besides me to have served aboard the Eisenhower,” Shepherd said. “I just hope she’s up to it.”
The two old friends started to climb up, carefully stepping around the blood stains on the ladder. Both men had to contort their wide shoulders to fit through the scuttle hatch and emerge from the small hole to the second deck like clowns from a clown car. The area was clear, but not quiet. By now it was past 10:30 in the morning, and ship’s work was underway. Even without the air wing embarked, the Dwight D. Eisenhower still had over 3,000 Sailors on board who made up the ship’s company.
Over 3,000 people, Shepherd thought, helping Gray out of the scuttle. And we have to figure out which of them is a murderer with absolutely no hard leads. Terrific.