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
Melody Rhyme was one of the most colorful characters Isaac Shepherd had ever collided with. A solid Asian woman who clearly loved “CrossFit,” she had a personality that easily spanned two time zones and the boundless energy of someone who took delight in the simplest things. She even had the unique (or dubious?) reputation of a sense of humor with a “corny” factor that matched the droll puns Shepherd was infamous for in the fleet.
She met him and MC1 Robinson on the Dwight D. Eisenhower’s enlisted brow. Carriers, being so large, tended to reserve the formal Quarterdeck—the ship’s ceremonial entrance—for officers and dignitaries. An “enlisted brow” was set up on Elevator 2, one of the four titanic elevators used to lift naval aircraft to and from the flight deck. In port Elevator 2, or “El 2” as the ship’s Sailors called it, was lowered, giving access to a hangar deck large enough to comfortably house a U.S. Navy destroyer.
After getting Shepherd and Robinson signed in a assuring them access to the ship for the rest of the week, she kept up an incessant banter as she led them up to the “03” level. The main deck of a Navy ship is referred to as, well, the main deck (or “weather deck” if it’s exposed to the elements). Everything below is referred to as a deck, everything above this deck is a “level” and referred as the 01 (“Oh-1”), 02 (“Oh-2”) level, etc. On a carrier, the hangar bay is the main deck.
The ship’s Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Potts, maintained her office on the 03 Level in a sponson jutting from the main hull. She was as brisk and formal as Chief Rhyme was gregarious.
“Captain Deedra will meet with you at 13:00, Chief Shepherd,” Potts said. The office was roomy for a warship, meaning Lt. Cmdr. Potts was its only occupant. Otherwise it was a typical warship office—more of a metal closet with welded shelves on the bulkheads, hard-backed plastic chairs and a vinyl-covered sofa straight out of a World War II movie’s casting call.
“Will Special Agent Gray be at that meeting?” Shepherd asked. Robinson was sitting quietly, her black backpack full of training materials.
“Maybe. He wants to avoid being seen with either of you, but he told me he might be there,” Potts said. As unlikely as the demographics were, she was as Asian as Rhyme. Both women were of Korean descent Shepherd knew, but while he had worked with Rhyme off and on for years, meeting her when they were both 2nd Class Petty Officers, he only knew Potts by reputation. Like Rhyme her black hair was pulled back into a bun. Unlike Rhyme she kept her makeup as minimal as possible, presenting an almost severe appearance.
“I don’t like this, Chief,” Potts said, leaning forward on her desk and folding her hands. “I did not agree to this…this assignment. You and MC1 Robinson are NEPAC Sailors, not NCIS agents. I know you have a history of…of helping NCIS, but the fact is you are under my authority while aboard IKE and that makes your safety my responsibility. I am only following the captain’s orders, and he ordered us to help provide this cover for you and MC1. I do not like putting Sailors at risk for no reason.”
“I understand, Ma’am. I can only assure you I’ve had the same discussion with MC1 Robinson here. We will take no unnecessary risks. But if NCIS is asking for help to find a murderer, we will do it. MC1 Robinson was under no obligation to assist me here; she was free to make that choice herself.”
Shepherd shifted on his uncomfortably government-issued chair, “I also appreciate your honesty. We have four days and all we’re going to do, besides significantly improve the skill set of your MCs, is talk to people. Try to get more information for Special Agent Gray so he can determine a suspect.”
“I confess that part of this Chief Rhyme and I are looking forward too,” Potts conceded. “Your reputation as an instructor is quite admirable, Chief Shepherd. Apparently they still talk about your time instructing at the Defense Information School, and the intermediate-level school you helped build at NEPAC East and West over in San Diego has had a significant impact on the fleet’s ability to deploy public affairs professionals. I am frankly hoping you’ll spend more time training my Sailors and less time investigating.”
Shepherd smiled, “I appreciate that, Ma’am. Whatever we’re able to contribute to Special Agent Gray’s investigation, MC1 Robinson and I have every intention of leaving your media center in better shape than we found it…except for Chief Rhyme. I’m not even going to try and match the shape she’s in.”
“You’re cutting yourself short, Isaac,” Rhyme said from the plastic sofa where she had parked herself next to Robinson. “Come on, I’ve been on you for years to give CrossFit a try!”
“And, at 45 years old, I’m man enough say I will never be as strong a woman as you, Melody. And your cross does not fit me!” Shepherd said.
Potts had no intention of letting her time be subsumed by a pun-fest. She kicked them all out.
The IKE’s Media Center was located on the third deck, just aft and below the aft galley. To reach it they descended several ladders from the 03 Level back to the hangar bay. Considered a “weather deck,” hangar bay etiquette in port required Sailors to wear their covers and salute officers as they transited through. Fortunately, the hatch way they entered the hangar bay through was a short distance from the hatch allowing access to a ladder down to the second deck.
The second deck is the “main street” of life aboard a Nimitz-class carrier like the IKE. A pair of parallel passage ways ran nearly the length of the giant hull. Between these thoroughfares were the galleys and mess decks, medical department, some berthing spaces, and, towards the aft end of the ship, the Chiefs Mess. Outboard of these passageways along the hull were more berthing areas, the legal office, maintenance offices, and access spaces to ladders leading deeper into the ship’s guts.
Shepherd took in the crowd of Sailors who respectfully made way for the two chiefs and First Class as they emerged onto the second deck right next to the starboard serving line of the aft galley. Only 24 hours after the murder, and the aft galley was back in business. However, the portside serving line was still roped off, so the line for the crew at this galley would start lining up here in just under two hours.
“We’re supposed to be underway again in about two weeks,” Rhyme went on non-stop, perfectly in character as though Shepherd and Robinson were there for nothing more than a photojournalism workshop. “And I really want to have you two challenge my MCs so they can do something more during that period than the standard jet-lands-on-flight-deck shots we see all the time.”
“Y’all are going out to provide a training platform for the air wing?” Robinson asked as she turned left, following Rhyme past the serving line.
“Yeah,” Rhyme said. “You were ship’s company a few years ago, right? Same thing you did back then. Get underway to run drills, keep the crew exercised, and allow the pilots here and at NAS Oceana to practice carrier operations. Nothing exciting, but there are always stories to tell. I want my MCs to do better than they’ve been doing, and—where’s Isaac?”
Robinson stopped with Rhyme and turned around. Shepherd, his 6’3” frame slightly stopped to avoid knocking his head on the requisite pipes and wiring conduits liberally running through the passageway’s overhead space like mutant snakes.
“Sorry!” He said, catching up to them. “Haven’t been aboard for five years. Got caught up in memory lane.”
Just aft of the galley itself, they turned right and proceeded down a short “p-way” running athwart ship. Passing a door with a large brass plaque announcing the ship’s 3M office (hub of the ship’s maintenance efforts), the trio came to a ladder descending to a vestibule on the third deck with one door—the entrance to the Media Center.
As they descended the ladder, Shepherd told Robinson the Media Center had been, when, the Eisenhower was built, the Photo Lab.
“Back then Photographer’s Mates had a more documentary function and only occasionally supported the Journalists and Public Affairs Officers up on the 03 Level. That’s why all the carriers have the Media Center separated so far from the PAO office and TV studio up on the 03 Level—they used to be separate departments until the Navy merged all the media rates into the Mass Communication Specialists we are now.”
Robinson politely declined to tell Shepherd he had told her this before. She had harbored a deep respect for the man ever since he instructed her at the Defense Information School, or “DINFOS,” years before. However, his obviously frenetic brain had an apparently rather scattered memory and forgot whom he had told what to and often repeated himself. She had learned to resignedly ignore it.
The twenty MCs of the Media Department were waiting for them when they arrived. They were grouped around a large “finishing table” in the work center’s center. Surrounding it were stitchers, cutters, and printers for publishing various articles and enough computer workstations to outfit a small army. One of the benefits to being an MC on a carrier was working in space that was actually larger than the entire mess deck on a cruiser and having enough computers that only rarely did anyone get in anyone else’s way.
“Chief! You cut your nails!” A Third Class blurted out as they entered.
Rhyme glanced at her her neutral-colored nails, “Yeah, I started thinking that bright red was a bit too garish in uniform. If I’m going to be policing your grooming standards, I thought I ought to start setting a better example, so I got rid of the artificial nails and bright red polish.”
She turned and gestured for Shepherd and Robinson to come forward. “This is Chief Isaac Shepherd and MC1 Dionne Robinson from NEPAC East. Some of you studied under Chief Shepherd when he was NEPAC’s Training Manager. He’s now the Ops and Production LCPO, but Lt. Cmdr. Potts asked him to facilitate a workshop to improve your photo skills. Isaac?”
“Thank you, Chief Rhyme!” Shepherd stepped forward to the finishing table. The overhead florescent lights cast a bright, cheerful glow on his bright, cheerful face and made his green eyes sparkle. He raised his voice a bit to makes he was heard over the ever-present hum of the ventilation system. “This is not a formal class like the one I used to teach at NEPAC while I was running Training. It’s going to be a series of specific challenges. You will be given an assignment sheet, but there will be some interesting wrinkles you will have to meet. MC1 Robinson is here to assist me because I believe getting her involved in providing training beyond NEPAC will help her chances of being selected for chief. And…she’s a lot meaner than I am. I’m the nice guy; she’s the one who’ll rip the sleeves off your uniforms if you get out of line.”
Robinson rolled her eyes, but Shepherd’s laugh clearly indicated this was a joke. The MCs gathered laughed.
“Chief?” A seaman in the back raised his hand.
“Seaman…Jones?” Shepherd lifted up on his toes (no easy feat in steel-toed boots!) to read Jones’ name tape.
“What kind of ‘wrinkles’ are you talking about?”
“The kind that ironing and starch won’t take out,” Shepherd quipped. It took them a minute to get the pun, but Rhyme was laughing heartily. She had picked it up instantly.
He smiled, “Sorry. Anyway to answer your question, I’ve been in instructor billets of one form or another for seven of the last ten years of my career. One thing I’ve observed is that great photojournalists move. Adequate photojournalist get decent shots, but they are all from the same height, the same, perspective, the same distance. Great photojournalist get dirty by getting low and kneeling in the mud, or covered in grime by climbing—safely, of course—on top of an aircraft on the flight deck to find a different angle.
“You will be shooting at least two photo stories a day. MC1 and I will be coming in around 09:00 or 10:00 because we’ll be staying late to challenge your night shift too. But the assignment challenges will be the same. For example, have you ever shot an entire photo story with your camera no higher than three feet off the deck? Or been required to incorporate curves in every shot?”
The entire room looked as blank as a computer in sleep mode.
“Well, that is what MC1 and I will required of you,” Shepherd said, studying each face and wondering if any of them could provide information leading to the identification of a murderer.
“Chief, that’s doesn’t seem fair,” A second-class raised his hand. “If we can’t shoot the story the way we want, we’ll miss out on some good shots.”
“Oh, there’s nothing fair about it,” Shepherd said evenly. “You not shooting for you. You’re shooting for the customer, and the editor enforces that. I don’t really give a rat’s patootey about being fair. We’re here to make you better photojournalists, and I guarantee you will be surprised by Friday just how much skill you develop after being put on a few assignments with severe constraints. The constraints will force you to be creative in ways you never imagined you could because you never had to imagine it.”
The room looked decidedly shocked, and Shepherd had to admit to himself just how much he enjoyed discomfiting a group of students like this.
“MC1 Robinson will be your front line editor and mentor. She will give you the assignment sheets, brief you on the job, and enforce the hard deadline. You are all adults and professionals. We don’t need to see your work unless you ask us to go over it with you prior to deadline. But at deadline all work stops and you will present your story to the whole center as is. Part of becoming a better photojournalist is being able to constructively critique your work and other’s work. Good editors are coaches; they tell their people not only what is wrong, but what is right and guide them to getting to a ‘more right’ place.”
Mangling the English language was an old habit of Shepherd’s.
“MC1,” He stepped aside so Robinson could take center stage. She began laying out the first challenge of the day…
That…took forever! Shepherd thought as he headed forward along the starboard p-way. He was leaving the Media Center to Robinson. He had a feeling she would be able to ferret out any details there. Despite his assurances to Lt. Cmdr. Potts, he actually had no intention of being a passive vacuum cleaner for information. He was going to start actively kicking over a few rocks and see what he could find.
He found Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Tyrell Knocker in the forward mess decks, wiping down tables and muttering under his breath.
“What?” Knocker said and then looked up. “Oh, sorry, Chief.” He didn’t sound sorry at all.
“Got a minute?”
“No,” Knocker said. He was Hispanic and sounded like he came from the southern end of Shepherd’s own home state of Florida. “I have to finish wipe down before lunch starts in half an hour.”
“Actually, you do have a minute,” Shepherd sat down. “I talked to Chief Barks. You’re clear. Have a seat. I’m Chief Isaac Shepherd, from the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East.”
Knocker looked at Shepherd with open suspicion. “What do you want?”
“To find out who really killed CS1 Paige,” Shepherd came right to the point. “I know you’ve been questioned by ship’s security, by NCIS, and probably by Santa Claus. I also find myself pretty damned sure you didn’t do it.”
“Everybody around here thinks I did,” Knocker said angrily. He would have been handsome except for the scowl.
“Please, sit down,” Shepherd said again. “I know you weren’t in the aft galley yesterday morning. I know you have anger issues. I know Paige had paperwork on you after you hit another Sailor.”
“And no one knows where I was when he was killed because I was asleep. I skylarked and went to sleep. And no one believes me.”
“I believe you,” Shepherd said, and, getting frustrated, asked with an edge, “Would you please sit down?!”
Knocker finally sat. “Why do you care?”
“Because I’m an unusually noble and righteous person,” Shepherd said. “I talked to Wilma Paige yesterday. She told me CS1 Paige was upset about having to write you up because he believed someone on board was harassing you and he thought that was contributing to your desire to punch people. She told me he was trying to get you to tell him what was going on.”
Shepherd sighed. This kid was not going to make this easy. “So I want to know your story. Where you were, anything you may have seen, and who on this ship is harassing you.”
“And you’re going to play Sherlock Holmes and track down the killer?” Knocker sneered.
“No, NCIS is going to do that. I’m just going to pass on information if I can find it like anyone would. But I also don’t like innocent people being looked at for things they didn’t do. I know you were asleep in the fan room up on the 03 Level near the Captain’s in-port cabin. I read your statement. But I don’t think you were asleep at all. There’s more to your story and I need to know it if I’m going to help you.”
“Ah, go bite me,” Knocker started to get up.
“Sit down!” Shepherd’s growled in a voice that could have stopped a werewolf. Stunned, Knocker dropped back into his seat, his eyes wide in surprise as Chief Shepherd came out in full force, “Listen, you little creep, I’m on your side here. Right now, I’m about the only one! As unfair as it may be, your history of punching people and your lack of witnesses yesterday make you a prime suspect for murder! Stop acting like a wannabe little gangsta twerp and start talking to me—and you will remember you are in the United States Navy and talk to me with respect. Do you understand, Sailor?!”
Knocker glared at Shepherd, but he nodded.
“I don’t think you really went to the fan room to sleep,” Shepherd said. “You have a history of being am arrogant little cuss who thinks he’s the center of the world, and you need to learn to get your temper under control before you try to bully someone who can stomp your head into the deck, but your records shows you to be an excellent worker. Until the last few weeks you never missed a shift and you often took on extra work and volunteered for working parties even when it wasn’t your turn.”
Knocker actually looked a little surprised.
Shepherd caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Glancing back he saw IKE Sailors starting to line up at the serving window, waiting for lunch to start. He needed to hurry this up in order to keep it as private as was humanly possible on a warship.
“So, you’re an arrogant bastard with a temper who has an incredibly good work ethic. Then about three weeks ago you started disappearing during your normal working hours. CS1 Paige saw something in you that he wanted to develop, and was determined to try and get you on a straighter course before he died. For whatever reason he told his wife he thought you were being sexually harassed and did not want to send you to Mast for hitting that other guy. He was even getting ready to go to the CMEO about it when he was killed. So, tell me the truth. You were hiding from someone who’s bothering you, right?” Shepherd referred to the Command Managed Equal Opportunity program manager: a chief or officer who provided assistance to those who had a grievance for harassment, retaliation, or other behaviors that violated the Navy’s core values.
Shepherd signed. “Then you weren’t asleep. Look, I want to help with the harassment problem if you’ll let me, but more immediate is the murder problem. You weren’t asleep; that means you might have seen or heard something that will help NCIS find the real killer.”
“I’ll be honest, CS2, the case against you right now is not strong. I’m not a lawyer, but I’d be surprised if anyone tried to charge you with murder. However, if we don’t help NCIS find the real killer, you might have to live under suspicion for the rest of your life, and that sure as hell is not right.”
“I was hiding, but I was in that fan room. There is someone I don’t want to see and I don’t know how to get away from them. I was in the fan room when CS1 died. I don’t know anything because I wasn’t there. I was on the 03 Level, ok?”
Shepherd stared into Knocker’s eyes long enough to make Knocker feel weird
Shepherd shook his head. “I’m deciding if I believe you. I do. Who are you hiding from? Let me help. Even if you can’t provide information on the murder of CS1 Paige, let me help you stop this…this person that’s harassing you.”
A clatter of trays and bodies announced the opening of lunch. Sailors began filing into the mess deck area with food and conversation. Knocker stood up.
“I have to go.”
“CS2, let me help—” Shepherd began.
“No way. You people always stick together,” Knocker said with open disgust and walked off.
Shepherd leaned back, disturbed.
Now what did that mean? He wondered. Shaking his head, he rose and headed aft to the Chiefs Mess. Disturbed or not, his stomach was gnawing on his backbone and he wanted to eat before his meeting with the captain.