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
Finding a place to meet surreptitiously aboard a warship, even one as large as an aircraft carrier, is easy feat. It’s not so much of a problem of having a space to oneself; rather the problem often comes in trying to get to that space unobserved.
Chief Rhyme has solved that particular problem rather creatively. When in home port the main bridge of the ship was generally deserted, especially at night. All the “action” usually took place at the Quarterdeck and enlisted brow. She came up with the idea of meeting with Abraham Gray on the bridge at 23:00 hours, and to ensure Shepherd and Robinson’s cover was assured, all the parties meandered their way up to the bridge at different times.
The meeting Tuesday night had gone rather quickly. Abraham Gray had nothing new to report except that PS1 Driver was standing watch on the Quarterdeck with three other people at the time of Paige’s murder Monday morning.
“So that washes him,” Gray said. “However, I spoke with security and it turns out Paige wasn’t the first to actually make a formal accusation against him of theft. Paige was just the most vocal about it.”
“Anything on the forensics side?” Shepherd asked. The bridge around them was dark; they kept the lights off and used small flashlights for illumination. Far below them the empty flight deck was occupied by a couple of lonely Sailors carrying weapons on roving security patrols. The lights of Norfolk and the rest of the Tidewater glittered under the clear, cool, starry sky. April was turning out to be a much more mild and comfortable month than March had been.
The four were grouped around the chart table. As high-tech as a ship might become, the use of paper charts as at least a back-up system for navigation would not disappear entirely.
Gray shook his head. “Not much, but a couple of interesting points.”
“Oh?” Rhyme chimed in. Despite her apparent attempts to “subdue” her appearance to a more military standard, the bright red lipstick she had applied earlier seemed to glow a bit. Shepherd had almost said something to her about it earlier, but refrained. After all, although pushing it, her lipstick technically still fell within regulations and, as a guest, he didn’t find it quite appropriate to start pointing out the contradiction in her change of nail color but continued use of garish lipstick.
Then again, small steps, He thought. Even for chiefs.
“Well, we have determined he wasn’t killed by the scuttle hatch,” Gray said.
“I though it crushed his skull?” Robinson asked.
“No, it didn’t, though that was the initial appearance,” Gray responded. “The scuttle did fracture the top of his skull and, had he survived, likely would have caused serious brain damage. But he was alive when he fell down that ladder and hit the deck. No, what killed him was a second blow to the back of his head.”
“A second blow?” Rhyme suddenly seemed alarmed. “You mean there was a second person?! We have two killers on board?!”
“Chill, Melody,” Shepherd said good-naturedly. “More likely, I’m guessing the same person came down the ladder to check if Paige was actually dead, and then found him alive, right Abe?”
Gray nodded. “That’s the most likely scenario. He was alive, and the murderer had no way of knowing how much damage he’d actually done. We found evidence of finger marks on his neck. I think the murderer picked up his head and bashed it down on the deck, resulting in the crush injury to the back of his skull.”
“That’s sick!” Robinson said, horrified.
“That’s murder,” Shepherd said grimly. “Anything else?”
Gray shrugged. “Only red paint.”
“Took a bit to get a handle on it, what with all the blood around the body, but there are distinct chips of red paint adhering to some kind of plastic substance.”
“Red-painted plastic?” Robinson repeated Shepherd’s question, as perplexed as he was.
“Yes. The lab wizards are trying to determine if we can determine anything about it, but I think it’s a significant piece of evidence because the paint chips were found under Paige’s head…and nowhere else in that space. They’re also examining his body for any DNA or other physical evidence from his attacker. If the attacker grabbed his throat hard enough to leave finger-spaced bruises, they likely left something else to find. But finding such evidence in the real world is a hell of a lot harder than it is on TV shows,” Gray said.
“And being aboard ship muddies it up even more,” Shepherd said without thinking.
“Chief?” Robinson asked.
“A few years ago you know I was ship’s company on the USS Ponce when I was an MC1. LPD-15, the last of the Austin-class amphibious transport docks. Anyway, in addition to the hazing incident that led to the firing of our captain, we had a death aboard while at sea. The NCIS agent assigned to the Kearsarge, the lead ship of our amphibious readiness group, came over. For once it wasn’t Abe here.”
Gray chuckled. “One of the few times you solved a death without me. I felt left out.”
Shepherd smiled, and continued. “Anyway, the death was not a murder, but involuntary manslaughter. It was very difficult to prove anything because, of course at sea there isn’t a forensics lab. We eventually did find the real killer. However, once the body was back stateside they did all the normal forensic work you’d expect as a matter of course. The DNA evidence left by the actual killer on the body was there, but it was corrupted by all the DNA evidence left by everyone else on board Ponce—including DNA evidence left by me. Being in such close quarters on a ship means we’re all collecting each other’s hair, skin cells, even spit.”
“Eww,” Rhyme said.
Shepherd shrugged, “Nature of the beast whenever humans work in close proximity to each other in a relatively closed environment. Someone nearby you sneezes and you end up with saliva on you. I was rather surprised back then when the largest amount of DNA on the body came from me…but I had just spent two days working with the Sailor because they wanted to cross-rate to MC. So after running around the ship shooting together and working side-by-side in my office, they had a significant amount of me on them.”
Gray nodded, “That’s part of the problem here. The lab wizards have already told me there is DNA evidence from at least six people and one cow on Paige’s body.”
“One cow?” Rhyme asked.
“Well, they think it’s a cow from early testing,” Gray said. “Might be a bull.”
Shepherd was laughing.
“Isaac?” Rhyme looked at him.
“Paige was a CS. A Culinary Specialist. A cook. Of course it’s make sense for him to have animal DNA on him. He was probably handling beef that morning!” Shepherd laughed. “Well, now that we’ve reached the meat of the topic, we can get cooking.”
Rhyme laughed. Robinson groaned. Gray closed his eyes, telling himself this was no place to use his sidearm.
“Anyway…” Gray said. “Isaac already told us about his rather interesting interview with CS2 Knocker. Have you learned anything, MC1?”
“Things seem find on the surface, but the crew is really on edge,” She said. “Seaman Jones down in media told me privately he’s scared and there are rumors flying all over the place that it’s a terrorist or a serial killer. At lunch I got to talking with some of the other First Classes from other departments. They were all surprised at Paige. Chief Shepherd called it earlier; he was sort of a non-entity until this year. This year he sort of ‘burst out’ and got really involved with the ship and was turning out to be really, really good with junior Sailors.”
“Anything else?” Gray asked.
“Everyone is sure they know who did it, and half the people they think did it apparently weren’t on the ship at the time. I had to play rumor-control down in media a lot while Chief Shepherd here was coaching today’s second assignment. Seaman Jones and MC3 Smith seemed to think they were going to be arrested for just being on the ship when it happened with the duty section.”
Gray shrugged, “That’s probably my fault. But I’ve had to question a lot of people. You know carriers have an NCIS agent assigned to them, but IKE’s is on vacation. So, not only are they getting grilled, they’re getting grilled by a complete stranger.”
“I had to calm everyone down that morning,” Rhyme nodded. “It was a nightmare for the duty section in media. We had to spread the word all the while telling people not to get on social media and blast news of this until the family had been notified, and, of course, someone nearly did. The ship was on lock-down for a few hours that morning so the rest of the crew couldn’t get on board immediately, meaning the duty section had to carry the load for a few hours with no relief.”
“Speaking of the media center, I need to strike below and check on the night shift’s challenges before I go home,” Robinson said.
Shepherd nodded, “I think we’re done here as it is. Same time tomorrow night?”
A series of nods followed and the four exited the bridge, careful to separate their departures by a few minutes.
Shepherd was the last to head down. Instead of going to the media center, he detoured and headed out on the darkened flight deck. It took him nearly five minutes to stroll the nearly 700 feet from the island—the carrier’s superstructure—to the edge of the bow. Beneath his feet the huge number “69” was painted in numerals so large they would have been more than twice his height if they were stood on end.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower was tied up at Pier 14, her bow facing towards the naval station. To her portside a large, ancient observation tower stood, silent guard over the mouth of the James River. The lights of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel defined the point where the James River officially met the Chesapeake Bay.
Two piers down on Pier 11 (there was no Pier 13 due to ancient maritime superstition) the carrier George Washington (CVN 73) was tied up, also facing inland. Unlike the IKE, whose hull number was displayed in white lights on the island, the Washington’s hull number glowed in red, white, and blue lights on the sides of her superstructure. Beyond the Washington, the brand-new Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), lead ship of her class, floated quietly, her space-aged looking island only a third the size of the islands on the older ships belonging to the Nimitz-class.
Far past the Ford floatedUSS Kearsarge (LHD 3), and the twin-towered shape of the San Antonio-class Mesa Verde (LPD 19) were tied up. Beyond these a forest of masts from the sleek hulls of half a dozen Arleigh Burke-class destroyers rose into the night.
Ahead of the IKE loomed a vast parking lot infamous in the fleet for the distance one usually had to park and walk just to get to their ship. In the distance to his right was building Q-80, the combination waterfront gym and recreation center. A McDonald’s and Pizza Hut lifted their shapes like islands from a sea of parked cars.
The air was quite; stars winked and the breeze barely registered. Shepherd sighed. He wanted to be at home. He really hated being away from his house in Suffolk at night. He played a good part, so good even those who knew he suffered from agoraphobia, depression, and anxiety rarely realized how much mental energy he actually expended in maintaining his façade of calm. He was an open advocate for mental health support, but sometimes his ability to obscure the depths of his own struggles worked against his efforts to fight the lingering stigma mental health issues had in the larger culture.
The reality for him was that, even on the meds that had served him well for years, sometimes the panic attacks were overwhelming and it was all he could to function. His greatest enemies were fatigue and a breach in routine. Once he had finally been properly diagnosed, he stayed in the Navy for 20 years precisely because the lack of routine forced him to grow and continually learn new coping skills. But…it was time to retire and try those skills in a slightly less stressful world.
Six months to go until retirement, He thought.
Shepherd turned around. John Copeland, the IKE’s Command Master Chief (senior most enlisted leader on the ship) was coming up behind him.
“No,” Shepherd lied. He didn’t feel like getting into his emotional state, so he cast around quickly and came up with the first thing he could think of. “Thinking about baseball.”
Shepherd nodded. “I played in high school a bit back in Niceville.”
Copeland cocked his head. “Niceville?”
“Yes,” Shepherd sighed. He was forever having to convince people his hometown was a real town in Florida. “Niceville, Florida. I went to Niceville High School. It’s up in the panhandle.”
“I would have thought you’d play basketball with your height.”
“I don’t like basketball, to be honest. No; my friend Tom Coleman got me to go out for baseball with him our senior year. I was never very good at it. But…I did have one good game. A very good game.” His smile was genuine as the memory of that day nearly 27 years earlier came back.
“You’re up late, John.” Shepherd changed the subject.
“Murder. One of my Sailors killed by another of my Sailors. I’m not leaving until you guys are finished and find the killer.”
Copeland was average height, but looked the part of a master chief petty officer with his ruddy, lined face and copious tattoos covering his arms. Leathery skin testified to the long years he had spent on deck in the sun as a Boatswain’s Mate before becoming an official senior enlisted advisor as a senior chief years earlier.
“John, don’t get your hopes up. Paige died yesterday. This is only Tuesday night. Real-life investigations don’t get wrapped up neatly in a couple of days like they do in crime novels.”
Copeland was standing next to Shepherd, looking out over the vast parking lot. Nearly sixty feet below their feet the James River continued to lap at the Eisenhower’s hull.
“You worked out the Stiles murder in about two days,” Copeland said. “John Stiles was a friend of mine. I thought he and his wife were close. I still can’t believe she had him murdered. But you only took two days.”
“Simpler case than this. They had three clear suspects, and NCIS had already interviewed everybody. The evidence was already there. This time we’re trying to help NCIS find the evidence in the first place.”
“Seems like you’re doing that. Cleveland Bark told me you asked for some time to talk to CS2 Knocker directly. I thought you told Lt. Cmdr. Potts you and Robinson were only going to be ‘passively’ asking questions?”
“I lied,” Shepherd said flatly. “About me, anyway. MC1 Robinson is being the passive party to this. Part of that is for her safety, part so she can be in charge of the photojournalism workshop and leave me free to work. I’ve never been very passive. Besides, Robinson’s been my Operations LPO for a while now; I think it’s good for her to get some real deckplate leadership time with Sailors again.”
“She’s doing that, alright. I saw her up in the Tunnel telling one of the MCs to get off his backside and get his camera up in the overhead to get a shot,” Copeland referred to a long corridor of the forward end of the ship’s hangar deck that contained aviation maintenance shops.
“I didn’t get much today out of Knocker,” Shepherd said. “He told me he was hiding from someone who was bothering him. But that’s all. Melody and Paige’s wife both told me Paige was trying to do something for Knocker even while having to write him up for assault. But Knocker looked at me like…I don’t know. Like he hated me, like I had personally done something to him.”
Copeland nodded. “He’s been a hard one since he came on board. Paige was trying to help him with a sexual harassment case. Knocker won’t say who has been harassing him, but Paige told me he was certain it was sexual harassment. Paige and I talked last week. You know there’s very little we can do if there are no witnesses and the victim doesn’t come forward. Best I could tell Paige is that we could do ship-wide training to at least remind people of professional behavior, but we can’t force Knocker to talk to us…even if that means he gets booted from the Navy. If he would just tell us, that might factor into his Mast and get the captain to give him a…hang on…third chance. He’s already had two.”
Shepherd nodded. “I know.”
“You’re still aiming to retire?” Copeland changed the subject.
“No choice now. My spot has already been written into next fiscal year’s selection numbers. I couldn’t re-enlist now if I wanted to.”
“You’re a damned good chief, Isaac. You should have stayed. You’re wasting your anchors,” Copeland said, pointing to the anchor insignia of a chief on Shepherd’s collar.
“No,” Shepherd said. “I should be doing what I think is right for me and my career. I’m not trying to be a dork, John, and I appreciate your intentions. But after 20 years I’ve the right to make career decisions and not be told I’m wasting my anchors. Being a chief is not about how long you wear the anchors, it’s about what you do with them while you have them on. Besides, there are new chiefs coming up that will replace both of us nicely. Melody has a lot of potential in her.”
“Melody…Melody…yeah…if I can get her to tone it down a bit. She’s a great lover of the boys, and I have to keep reminding her she’s a chief now and can’t be so overly-familiar with the junior Sailors,” Copeland said. “I did see today she finally got rid of that stupid nail polish and is wearing something more professional. Now I need to get her to do the same with her lipstick. I admit she’s within the letter of the regulation, but you and I both know we should be setting an example beyond the literal letter of the regs.”
“I noticed the lipstick too,” Shepherd said. “And she might still interact with the junior Sailors like she’s still a First Class Petty Officer, but other hand she is devoted to developing their skills and careers. Robinson told me a number of MCs have gotten orders to advanced schools because Melody pushed for it, and she’s also started study sessions for the Air Warfare and Surface Warfare qualifications that she runs for anyone on board, not just the MCs.”
“She’s definitely an up-and-comer,” Copeland said. “And I’d rather have to mentor a junior chief like her than someone who won’t get out of the Chiefs Mess.”
Copeland sighed. “It’s late; I’m going to rack out. You staying on board tonight?”
“No,” Shepherd said as one of the roving patrols passed in the dark, greeting the two chiefs before moving on. “I’m about to head home. Robinson and I are coming on board at 10:00 tomorrow; that way we can work with the night crew as well…and get more time to ask questions.”
“Is there anything you need you haven’t gotten yet?”
“I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I never even asked Special Agent Gray who found Paige’s body. I need to talk to them, or at least read whatever statement they gave Gray.” Shepherd shrugged in embarrassment. “I’m not a professional detective. I just get lucky, and…what?”
Copeland was looking at Shepherd with an odd tilt to his head. “You have talked to the guy who found Paige’s body.”
“I did?” Shepherd asked, completely confused. “Who?”
“CS2 Knocker. He didn’t tell you?”
Shepherd suddenly understood better why Knocker was so defensive. “No, he didn’t. But he wasn’t saying much to me at all, John.”
Copeland shrugged, “I know the investigation is going on, and nothing has been filed. But for my money, he’s the creep that killed Paige. He has a history of violence, he was being written up by Paige, and he was missing with no witnesses during the time Paige was killed. Then he conveniently finds the body before anyone has seen him. I want him off this ship, and hopefully I’ll have him gone in two days, even if you guys don’t have formal charges against him yet. Night!”
Copeland stalked darkly into the night.
Shepherd watched him go, and then took a walk to the fantail of the ship. Strolling nearly 1,000 feet took him five minutes.
No way, He thought, staring across the James River to the lights of Newport News and Hampton on the peninsula. It’s can’t be that easy…can it? But…those red paint chips are important. But how? And, statistically speaking, the person who finds the body in a situation like this is often the murderer. Can it be that easy?
But…those paint chips…why are they bugging me so much?