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 Pancake House and Grill on the corner or Granby Street and Little Creek Road has been a Norfolk staple since the early 1960s. A family-owned business that has held its own against the likes of IHOP, Waffle House, and other chains, it’s known for its pancakes, coffee, and friendly atmosphere that drags in a large crowd from both the civilian world and Naval Station Norfolk. With such a diverse crowd, especially at lunch, it is an ideal place for three people to hold a private conversation. Anything short of a CIA listening device would never pick up their voices amid the general bustle and confusion of a typical day.
“You want me to do what?!” Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Dionne Robinson asked over her soda.
Shepherd and Gray, sitting across from her in the booth near the back of the dining area, sighed in unison. It was so perfectly coordinated that she nearly laughed.
“MC1,” Gray said, using the shorthand for her rate and paygrade, “Sometime between 04:00 and 06:00 this morning there was a murder aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. As of now we have no leads, no real suspects, and no clues. But I want this case wrapped up as fast as is humanly—and legally—possible. That ship is supposed to deploy in a couple of months, and we can’t send a carrier to sea with the crew looking at each other and wondering who’s a murderer.”
An ebony hand with elegantly manicured nails swirled her straw around in her Diet Coke. “So…what are we supposed to do, Chief?”
“You and I have an ‘in’ with the IKE already—we both deployed on her,” said Shepherd. “Five years ago I was the NEPAC detachment leading petty officer. You were ship’s company after you left the Defense Information School seven years ago. That always opens doors with the current Sailors on board a ship. We can interact with the Sailors in a way NCIS can’t.”
“While we teach a photojournalism workshop?” Robinson asked. She wore her long hair braided and tied up in an elegantly tight knot at the back of her head.
“That’s our ‘cover,’ if you will. Yes, we will be teaching. The ship’s PAO, Lt. Cmdr. Potts, and their media chief petty officer, Melody Rhymes, are the only two besides the triad that know why we’re really there.”
The “triad” is a Navy term for the commanding officer, executive officer, and command master chief—the top leadership team in a Navy command.
“So we’re supposed to question people while teaching a class?”
“Not exactly,” Gray said. “What I need from you and the chief is to talk to people. Just…talk. You’ll be on board for at least four days, the rest of the week. Just talk to people. Take notes. Mentally, I mean. But talk, listen, and then the three of us will meet nightly and see if anyone has said anything that might give us a lead. Chief Shepherd and I have cleared this with your OIC, so NEPAC East will cover down while you two are gone.”
“I’ve never done any investigating, Chief. Not like you have apparently. Since ‘A’ School I’ve just been an MC.” The Navy referred to basic technical schools as ‘A’ Schools, such as the joint-service Defense Information School (or DINFOS) where all military public affairs professionals were taught.
Shepherd chuckled and sipped his coffee. A waitress floated past, the tray daintily balanced on her hand possessing a diameter that was nearly as wide as she was tall.
“Dionne,” Shepherd said, being a bit informal, “I know this isn’t your normal thing. Believe it or not, it’s not mine, either. These things just seem to happen to me. But I do have a philosophic objection to murder, and someone killed a Sailor on that ship. I can talk to a lot of people, but I’m a chief. As a First Class you’re still a ‘blue shirt.’ A lot of people will talk to you in conversation and tell you things they’d never tell a chief.”
“If there’s a murderer on the IKE, then aren’t we kind of in danger?”
Shepherd smiled, “This is why you’re my Operations LPO. Not many E6’s in the Navy are as sharp as you. I always said back at DINFOS when I was your instructor you’d go far and fast. Yes, there is an element of danger here. We’re going to be on a ship with a murderer, and doing our level best to get people talking about the murder without letting them know we’re anything other than nosy MC’s. But that’s where Abe here will help.”
“How?” Robinson leaned back as their food arrived.
“Here you go, Ma’am,” Their young waiter delivered a grilled chicken salad to Robinson. As NEPAC East’s Command Fitness Leader, she felt a certain responsibility to set an example about food.
Gray reached up and accepted his plate of steak and eggs and a fresh glass of tea. Shepherd had his usual plain cheeseburger (no lettuce, tomato, pickle, or onion!) and a glass of water. He’d finish his coffee later; he hated drinking a hot beverage with hot food.
“Anything else?” The young man asked. All three shook their heads and thanked him, so he scurried off to check his other tables.
“I’m your distraction,” Gray said.
“Our what?” Robinson asked, attacking the salad as though she had a vendetta against all things green.
“Misdirection,” Shepherd said, swallowing a large bite of burger. “Ever read a mystery novel?”
“No,” Robinson said. “I prefer fantasy. Wizards, sorcerers, dragons, that sort of thing.”
“Fair enough,” Shepherd said. “Misdirection—in a good murder mystery you keep the reader guessing by throwing red herrings in the plot to distract them until you’re ready to do your Big Reveal. Abe is our misdirection. He’ll be turning the IKE upside down with his official investigation. That’ll keep everyone looking at him and allow us to be just two nosy MC’s butting in out of morbid curiosity. That will also serve to…protect us a bit.”
Robinson looked at Shepherd. “I always heard it was cool to end up in the fleet working with your old instructors. I never heard of anything like this!”
He smiled ruefully, “The Navy—it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure!”
Gray sighed. “Look, MC1, I need your help, but there is an element of personal danger here that is very real, and it’s not the kind of personal danger you volunteered to face when you enlisted.”
“Mr. Gray, Chief, you know I’m going to help you,” Robinson said as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Just…tell me what to do.”
“Talk to people, MC1,” Shepherd said. “It really is that simple. On breaks, during lunch, during dinner. We’re going to work late—the cover being we’re providing training to the day and night shift both. Talk. Be curious. Ask questions like a tourist. Share sea stories and gain trust. And take mental notes of everything. Last month the Stiles case was broken open by two very off-hand comments by two different people. You never know who or what will give us a lead.”
Shepherd nodded, “Yes. Do not trust anyone. You always hear that in the movies, but it’s true. Don’t believe anyone, don’t take anything at face value. Suspect everyone. There were about a thousand people already aboard IKE when CS1 Paige was killed. Don’t just dismiss a comment because you ‘feel’ like you can trust someone. That’s my biggest problem; I’m inherently a very trusting person. I take everyone at face value; it’s very hard for me to suspect anyone of anything, especially if I really like them. You’re already better than me at being a little more hard-nosed about people. Keep that in mind—just because you like someone doesn’t mean they’re innocent.”
Robinson pushed her empty salad plate away. Gray was finishing off his steak. Shepherd, finally not talking, dove in to tackle the rest of his burger.
“Ok…so…what’s first? I guess I’m supposed to ask you about the victim, Mr. Gray?”
Gray nodded, wiping his mouth. “CS1 Simon Paige. He was the aft galley’s LPO. Nineteen year veteran. This year was his last shot at making chief before being force-retired at 20 years as an E6. He was married ten years ago and has two kids, both boys. One is eleven and one is seven. His wife, Wilma, works part-time at the 7-Eleven on Hampton Blvd. They live in Lincoln Military Housing off Fletcher Road.”
Gray went on, “CS1 Paige is…was…well, ordinary for the most part. From what little we’ve got so far he was an adequate First Class, but not spectacular. Did his job, but didn’t go out of his way to shine. Probably why he never picked up chief. But I think he was having second thoughts because he was a lot more active around the ship this year, taking leadership roles in the First Class Association and leading several community relations efforts in local schools. Looks like he suddenly realized he was about to hit high year tenure and be forced to retire, and so he was going all out to be selected for chief petty officer this August.”
“He died this morning? How’d you find out all that so fast?” Robinson was impressed.
“I’m not the only agent at NCIS here in Norfolk,” Gray smiled.
“Oh.” Robinson clearly hadn’t thought of that. “Chief Shepherd mentioned murder novels. There’s always a list of the usual suspects in a murder mystery. Do we have any here?”
“You learn fast. First off we are questioning CS2 Tyrell Knocker. One of Paige’s Sailors, but with serious anger management issues. Knocker’s been to Mast twice in the last six years for assault, and it looks like Paige was running paperwork up the chain of command to send him to Mast again. If he went, it’s likely Captain Deedra would have kicked him out of the Navy.”
“Captain’s Mast” referred to non-judicial punishment a commanding officer could mete out against certain offences as defined by Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Commanders in all services have this authority, and the Navy refers to it as “Mast” from the days of sail when the captain would sit in front of the mast to hear cases.
“More assaults?” Robinson asked.
“Don’t know yet,” Gray shrugged, “But I’m guessing yes because of his history. There has also been a spate of robberies on the Eisenhower. Pickpocketing, of all things. Paige reported his own wallet stolen last week and accused Personnel Specialist 1st Class Dexter Driver of being the thief because Driver bumped into him shortly before he realized his wallet was missing. Paige told the command master chief he felt Driver reach into his pocket. Driver showed up at the CMC’s office and started yelling at Paige. Even threatened to ‘bust him up’ for spreading rumors about him. Oddly enough Driver has been placed in the vicinity of several Sailors when they realized their wallets were missing, but only Paige seems to have had any hard evidence it was Driver.”
“So it could be either of these two knuckleheads or both,” Robinson said.
“You’re making an assumption,” Shepherd said. “You are assuming those two, either separately or together, are the killer. They might be, or they might have nothing to do with this. Like I said, trust nothing and listen to everything. As of the little we know right now, those two might have motive, but it’s a thin motive for murder. Granted Knocker has anger issues and might have just lost control, but we don’t even know if he was anywhere near the aft galley at the time of death. That’s one thing Abe will determine—if these two nuts had opportunity. Were they near the area of the death? Or can they be positively placed elsewhere?”
Robinson nodded, her eyes going wide. “This is going to be complicated.”
“You have no idea!” Shepherd said. “My gut tells me there’s something else going on here we don’t know about. Granted we don’t have a lot of data yet, but the little we have just doesn’t fit the pattern of a moment of passion. Like I said, my gut says there’s something else here. Abe will look at Knocker and Driver, but I’ll wager dollars to donuts it wasn’t either of them. It just doesn’t…it just doesn’t track.”
“What do you mean, Chief?”
Shepherd shook his head and sipped his coffee, the burger long since eaten. “I can’t explain it right now. Call it a hunch based on nearly 20 years dealing with murder. My gut is telling me there’s someone else on that ship, an unknown actor who is the real murderer. It’s just never this easy.”
“And his gut has historically been right,” Gray said. “That’s why my boss hates him.”
“Long story,” Shepherd said. “We’re going to be working unusual hours to cover both day and night check. We’re scheduled to be on the ship from 09:00 until about 19:00 from tomorrow through Friday. That’s not much time. Just four days. But we’ll able to talk to a lot more people than Abe can alone.”
Shepherd leaned forward, “Dionne, listen to me closely. This is not a game or mystery novel. Someone on that ship decided another human had no right to continue living. A person who murders once is very likely to murder again, especially if they believe they are in danger of being caught. Be careful. Do your best to never be alone in isolated spaces with anyone. If you feel your physical safety is threatened, get off that ship. Get me? We are going into a situation that could be as dangerous as combat. You are my Sailor, and I am asking you to take a very real risk. Do not jeopardize your own life. My job is get you off that ship alive, and I’ll be damned if I don’t.”
Robinson nodded, unnerved by the deadly serious look on Shepherd’s face.
“Ok,” Shepherd said. “Chief Rhyme will tell meet us at the Quarterdeck tomorrow morning at 09:00 and get us temporary access so we won’t have to be escorted around the ship. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m taking full advantage of Abe’s offer to pay for our lunches.”
“Where are you going?” Robinson asked.
“I have an appointment to talk to Mrs. Paige. Funny, this is the second murder widow in as many months I’ve run into…only I’m pretty sure this one didn’t kill her husband!”
Sliding out of The Pancake House, Shepherd hopped into his small, blue SUV. Christened Sarah Jane after a favorite character on the long-running British hit Doctor Who, the vehicle was just big enough to give the 6’3’ Shepherd plenty of head room without ruffling his salt and pepper hair. Sarah Jane was a replacement for Herbie, a whimsically-named green Ford F-150 Shepherd had owned for years. Unfortunately, Herbie had lost an argument with a Ford F-350 on Admiral Taussig Blvd. near the Navy Exchange two years earlier. Tonnage usually wins in a collision, after all.
As much as he missed his truck (Shepherd had been a trucker driver since he was 20 years old), he did enjoy driving Sarah Jane. The smaller SUV had a lot of zip in her accelerator, cornered like a champ, and her smaller size made maneuvering around the crowded streets of the Virginia Tidewater area much easier.
Not that he didn’t intend to get another F-150 as soon as he could. He would just own two vehicles at that point. At 45 years old, he felt like confident enough to justify two vehicle “just because.”
Sarah Jane hummed along Little Creek Road until Shepherd cut right onto Tidewater Drive. Not two minutes after getting on Tidewater he was turning right into the parking lock of Johnny’s Diner, one of a small chain of Southern-style diners in the Hampton Roads area.
As it was still lunch and the world’s largest naval station was nearby, Shepherd was hardly the only one in uniform. Johnny’s Diner was as packed as The Pancake House had been, except for a solitary woman in the back corner staring disconsolately out the window, her eyes aimed at Walmart across the street, but clearly seeing something else.
She wasn’t a super model; like many mothers she had the slightly large-hipped look that bespoke a woman who had brought life into the world. Like many Navy wives she had the mildly lined faced betraying long months separated from her husband and the stress of carrying on alone. The single tear running down a carefully made up face created an oddly dramatic effect. She may not have been gorgeous, but she was a handsome woman with an inner dignity. Even from a distance Shepherd suddenly understood on a visceral level why Simon Paige had fallen in love with her. The woman just radiated some kind of indefinable elegance.
She looked up, self-consciously wiping the tear away. “Chief Shepherd?”
“Isaac, please. May I?” He gestured to the empty seat across from her. She nodded.
“May I get you something?” A waitress had appeared as if by magic as he sat.
“Just water, please,” Shepherd said. To Wilma Paige he explained he had just eaten and had coffee. “If I have any more coffee they’ll be peeling me off the ceiling.”
She smiled sadly. “What can I do for you? I told the NCIS people everything I could earlier. I don’t know why Agent Cremer asked me to meet you.”
Shepherd signed, “I…assist NCIS now and then. They asked for my help in this case.”
“He said you were good at solving thing…but I got the feeling Agent Cremer didn’t like you much. I swear his teeth were clenched when he asked me to meet you,” Paige said, her hand shaking ever so slightly as she lifted a glass of soda to her lips. “But he said an Agent Gray had called him and directed him to ask me.”
Shepherd didn’t want to go into the two decades’ worth of history many NCIS agents had against him. “Look, Mrs. Paige—”
Shepherd smiled, “Wilma. Look, I can’t even say ‘I’m sorry’ because that is so ridiculously inadequate in the face of your loss. And even if we can find Simon’s killer, it won’t bring him back. All I can offer you and your boys is the knowledge no one else will be threatened by this person again.”
Wilma Paige shook her head, “I want Simon’s boys to know the Navy cares enough about its people that it’ll do everything to bring justice. Simon loved the Navy. It really hit him this past year when he realized he would be forced to retire if he didn’t make chief. He even asked me if he could ‘cross-deck’ to another ship to get an extra deployment in to make it easier to make chief if the IKE got held up.”
Shepherd just listened.
“The boys are…in shock. I don’t think they really believe it yet. My God, it’s only been this morning. I was getting them up for school when they…knocked on the door. Jerry—he’s our oldest—was all excited thinking NCIS meant the TV show. He even got his brother Shelby thinking the TV show actors were here until…until they said…until I was able to get them to understand what was really going on.” The hot, tragic devastation radiating from Wilma Paige’s face made Shepherd feel like his own skin was blistering.
“Where are they?”
“My parents live in Virginia Beach. We’re staying with them. I can’t stay in that house anymore…”
“I understand. Wilma, I know you told NICS everything you could, and I know that’s not much as far as this morning’s tragedy. Frankly I’m amazed you agreed to meet me—alone at that—here. You are a remarkable woman.”
She smiled. “I’m not. I’m running on adrenaline and mortal grief. My dad dropped me off; he’s across the street at Walmart buying new teddy bears for the boys. He’ll be here in half an hour. That’s all I can manage.”
Tears ran freely down her face.
Shepherd nodded. “I need you to just tell me about…him. I need to know him if I can. I can’t tell you why exactly, but knowing him can help me spot…spot things. Ideas. Possibilities.”
“He hated being up early. It’s funny, but he hated being up early, but that’s the Navy for you. He loved being at sea, and was so over-protective of our kids. We got married after our eldest was born. Simon and I argued all the time over whether Jerry should be mowing the lawn. Simon was worried Jerry would hurt himself and I kept telling him Jerry’s 11 and needs to be doing chores.”
Wilma looked out the window. “Simon loved the colors in autumn and hated it here because Virginia just doesn’t get as colorful as Connecticut. That’s where we’re from. Colchester.”
“I’m familiar with it, actually,” Shepherd said. “Used to have a friend named Michael who lived there.”
She nodded, “What else…? Well…he read comic books. Loved ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ and ‘The Avengers’ and we argued over who was better. I used to tease him that he loved ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ more than me. He watched cartoons with the boys all the time. He played some superhero-based role-playing game on the ship with his Sailors when they were underway. And he hated cooking. He only became a CS because he didn’t have the ASVAB scores to be an MC like you. Always pushed his Sailors to study like he didn’t.”
Shepherd smiled. “Did he talk about his Sailors like they were his kids too?”
“No. He said he was there to make them work, not raise them. But he acted like they were our kids,” Wilma Paige said, choking on her breath a bit. “He was very upset he could never get that Blocker kid to straighten out. I think his name was Blocker.”
“Knocker,” Shepherd corrected.
“Knocker,” Paige said. “That’s right. Anyway, he hated having to write-up Knocker, especially as Knocker said he was having issues with someone. Simon told me someone was sexually harassing Knocker and that’s what was making Knocker get so angry, but Knocker was still the one who had hit the other Sailor.”
“Did Simon tell you who he thought was messing with Knocker?” Shepherd asked.
“No. But he said he had to talk to a chief about it today….today….” Wilma started crying quietly. “I’m s-sorry. I can’t…I just can’t…”
She looked out the window, tears flowing freely. “My father just pulled up. I—I have to go…I have to go…”
She got up and started to bolt…but then turned around and walked back to Shepherd. Her legs were stiff and her face held rigid as tears flooded her cheeks. Every patron in the diner was staring at them, yet again she somehow managed to be the picture of a grave, self-possessed dignity.
“Isaac, find him. Find the man who killed my husband. Give my boys that. Solve this!”
And then she was gone.