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
Wednesday was a gray morning promising more of the same…to those who saw the sunlight. It was an old Navy joke (rooted in more than a little truth) that the “nukes,” the engineers who maintained a carrier’s super-secret nuclear power plant, were pasty white because they never saw the light of day. To others, however, it simply meant a wet walk from the ocean-sized parking lot on Naval Station Norfolk’s waterfront to the piers.
MC1 Dionne Robinson was surprised to see Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Thomas Timmy getting out of his car just as she was got out of hers. It was nearly 10:00; as far as she knew Seaman Timmy should have been on board at 07:00.
“I got caught at the I-64/I-264 interchange,” Timmy explained. The looping mass of roadways where the two major arteries of pavement met up was infamous for its delays.
“Well, did you let the ship know?” Robinson asked, wondering if Seaman Timmy was even old enough to shave yet.
“Yep,” Timmy said brightly. Eternally optimistic, he was one of the few Sailors she had run into on the IKE who did not seem beset with fears about the murder. His youth seemed to have insulated him into a cocoon of trust that the chain of command would sort things out.
She shut her SUV’s door. On her dashboard a chicken, a figure of the “Cuccos” character from the “Legend of Zelda” games, wobbled on its spring-loaded stand.
“I like your ‘coexist’ sticker,” Timmy said, pointing to the bumper sticker on her back hatch. It was a play on the “coexist” stickers that spelled the word using various world-wide religious symbols. Robinson’s “coexist” used various gaming characters and symbols, such as Pac-Man, to spell the word.
“Thanks,” Robinson smiled as the two started to hike towards the looming hull of the Dwight D. Eisenhower in the light mist that was wrapping the ships in a gauze-like haze.
“I always wondered why the hangar bay is the main deck and not the flight deck,” Timmy said out of nowhere. Robinson had the impression he was trying hard to find something to engage her in conversation about. “I mean, the flight deck is the weather deck, isn’t it?”
Robinson laughed; she actually knew this one. “Hang around Chief Shepherd and you start to pick a lot of useless trivia. The first carriers were built from converted ships. A collier and two cruisers, I think. They just stripped the existing superstructure, and stuck a hangar deck on the main deck and then built a flight deck on top of that. After that when they designed carriers they built them like regular ships—a hangar on the main deck and the flight deck as part of the superstructure. It wasn’t until they built the Forrestal in the 1950’s that they made the hull and flight deck an integral unit.”
“Oh,” Timmy said, utterly fascinated. “I get it get. By that time everyone was used to calling the hangar deck the ‘main deck’ and not the flight deck?”
“Exactly,” Robinson said, trying not to laugh at Seaman Timmy’s absurdly eager innocence. Even so, her white teeth glowed brilliantly against her dark, ebony skin as she smiled. “We tease him a lot, but Chief Shepherd did his degree in history. And he’s got a point about heritage—get to know your heritage and you feel a lot more part of whatever organization you’re in. Question for you, Seaman Timmy—why do we call the bathroom a ‘head’ in the Navy?”
Timmy shrugged. The IKE seemed no closer as they hiked into the “E7 and above” parking area. “I don’t know.”
“Sounds like you have some homework to do,” Robinson said. “Chief Shepherd and I are leaving Friday afternoon. You have until then to tell me why the bathroom is called a ‘head.’ Good morning, Chiefs!”
Glancing forward she had seen Chiefs Shepherd and Rhyme heading to the ship as well.
Shepherd glanced back and waved. The end of Rhyme’s conversation wafted to the junior Sailors as they caught up.
“…so I planted a wildflower garden in front of my house, just like you,” Rhyme was saying. “I wanted to get some butterflies and not have to spend so much time in maintenance. After all, I volunteer with the horticulturalists at the Norfolk Botanical Garden on weekends. Doesn’t’ give me much time for gardening at home.”
“I know,” Shepherd said, “I volunteer there too as a photographer for special events. Good morning, MC1, Seaman Timmy.”
“Traffic was awful,” Timmy blurted out. “And then the gates were jammed.”
Shepherd shrugged. “Get used to it, Seaman. We have three carriers in port right now. Even without the air wing on board, that’s nearly 8,000 people. The Kearsarge is in and so are a number of destroyers. Plus this base employs tens of thousands of people. We all hit the gates at the same time every morning.”
“How goes the photo challenges?” Rhyme asked Robinson.
“We’ll see. I’ll go over the night crew’s stuff with them while Chief gets the day check teams out on theirs. I think they’re starting to understand why we are imposing the rules we are.”
Rhyme nodded. “People are resistant to change, and it takes a very humble person to be an expert but still submit to a restriction without a fight. I like what I’ve seen so far.”
“So does the CMC,” Shepherd said to Robinson. “He was very impressed you were forceful yesterday telling someone to get off their arse and move to a different spot.”
“That was MC2 Schott,” Robinson said as the four crossed the street and showed their ID cards to gain access to the pier itself.
“He’s always like that,” Timmy interrupted without the faintest idea it wasn’t entirely appropriate for him to contribute to the senior personnel’s conversation. “He always acts like he knows everything and gives MC1 Leonesio grief.”
Shepherd saw Robinson glance furtively at Timmy, and then met her eye. He picked up her intention to quietly mentor Timmy later about matters of propriety, so he didn’t say anything and was glad that Rhyme didn’t either as the passed under the rising mountain of steel that was the IKE.
Robinson instead said, “He was actually very surprised at what he captured after I coached him.”
“It just takes time to get people out of their comfort zones,” Rhyme said as they began to climb the long, rolling stairway up to El 2.
Down in the Media Center, MC1 Eric Leonesio, the ship’s media LPO, had the crew ready when the four arrived. Robinson broke off with the night shift team—all four of them—to go over their work. Shepherd herded the rest to the back of the production area to go over some items from the day before. Murder investigation or not, he was a teacher at heart and loved making Sailors better photojournalists.
“Right there, see that shadow in the background?” He pointed to the large monitor they were gathered around. “That’s the pipes in the overhead. They caught part of your flash and blocked it. It’s not much, but it does cut across the face of that guy right there and it is a bit distracting.”
“How do you avoid that?” Leonesio asked. He was surprised Shepherd had seen that detail; he hadn’t. Nor had MC2 Nelson who had shot the image.
“There’s no easy answer, not in an environment like this aboard ship,” Shepherd said. “You have to be aware of the background, be aware of any structures that might trap or block your lighting…and then just shoot a lot. Had you moved to your left about two feet, MC2, you might have gotten a version of this that didn’t have that shadow.”
“I shot like 20 exposures of that scene with flash, without flash, direct flash…,” Nelson said.
“Yes, and I applaud you for not just grabbing one shot and going. You did change up your flash technique nicely…but you didn’t move. You have got to move to different positions as well as change up your lighting. If you do a good, solid shoot, your legs should be pretty tired from crouching, climbing…basically be a monkey and shooting from places and positions you’d never dream of.”
“Such a small, stupid thing to kill and image about,” Nelson was not happy.
“MC2 Nelson, I am not saying this image is useless,” Shepherd corrected the perception. “Actually it’s pretty damned strong and quite releasable. I want you to send it up your chain for release. But you all have to remember this is a workshop we’re running; it’s MC1 and I’s job to find every little nitpicky detail, to push you and your team to excel. You don’t win the Super Bowl by only getting pats on the back for good throws. You win because your head coach points out every little flaw and tells you how to avoid it in the next game.”
“Isaac?” Melody Rhyme called from across the media center.
“Chief Rhyme?” Shepherd looked up and his eyebrows rose above his contact-lens wearing eyes.
“I’m sorry, but Special Agent Gray needs to talk to us.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Chief,” Gray said formally. “I needed to follow up with Chief Rhyme, and as you have been on board for a couple of days now, I’d like to ask you a few question. I’ll need to talk to MC1 Robinson too if that’s convenient, but I can meet with her later.”
“Sure,” Shepherd said. “MC1 Leonesio, you have the assignment sheets? Good. Alright, everyone, MC1’s got your challenge for today. Go to work and go do great things!”
Shepherd headed past the finishing table to join Rhyme and Gray.
Behind him a storm of protests erupted from the assembled Mass Communication Specialists.
“This is ridiculous!”
“How are we supposed to do this?!”
“He’s crazy! This is stupid!”
“You all might want to watch your mouths and not call a chief ‘crazy’ when he’s still in earshot,” Shepherd said sharply, and then whirled on his heel.
The entire compartment froze at the icy look in Shepherd’s green eyes.
“Uh…” Someone started to say.
“What’s wrong?” Shepherd said, clearly angry. “I admit I was expecting surprise. Happens all the time at NEPAC when we give this challenge to a class. I did not expect disrespect. Tell you what, let’s assume I’m not crazy and let’s assume no one in this compartment just insulted a senior ranking member of the Navy, something that could easily earn them a very long and very unpleasant conversation in the office with me. Let’s assume there is a rational and logical reason for that assignment in your hands. So…what questions do you have?”
MC1 Leonesio was looking daggers at MC2 Schott. Clearly he had been about to bite Schott’s head off for the “crazy” comment before Shepherd preempted him. “Chief, I think people are confused about the equipment. We’re really supposed to shoot both of today’s challenges with just our cell phones?”
“Yes.” Shepherd said. “Long ago naval photographers—good ones, I mean—woud carry a little point-and-shoot camera with us in case something happened and we didn’t have access to our full kit. Using a little pocket point-and-shoot I’ve shot images in the jungles of Guam and on aircraft that were published and made the day’s ‘Top Shot’ on the Navy website. Well, you all have a point-and-shoot on you. It’s called a cell phone. You won’t always have a full kit with you when something goes down, but we all nearly always have our phones on us.”
“But we can’t zoom in with it,” Seaman Timmy said. “We can’t use flash, we can’t—”
“It’s a camera, and you are all professional photojournalists…or at least you’re supposed to be,” Shepherd said impatiently. “A true professional does not need all the bells and whistles of a Nikon or Canon DSLR to get quality imagery. Look up my Instagram feed before y’all start work today. Seriously. My handle is Shepherd1524. Two-thirds of what’s on there I shot with my phone. Look at that, and then tell me what you can’t do.”
Shepherd clasped his hands behind his back in a gesture very much like “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock. “Better yet, why not stop whining and go show me what you can do? Unless, of course, none of you are good enough to shoot without training wheels.”
He turned on his heel and left them all feeling very sheepish, following Gray and Rhyme into Rhyme’s office.
“That was harsh, Isaac,” Gray said. “I like it.”
“I hate people whining about what they can’t do. I’m the biggest pessimist on this planet. My inherent nature is to always see the problem, see what can’t be done. If I can overcome that to succeed, they sure as hell can.”
Rhyme smiled, “I think you gave them something to think about. So, Special Agent Gray, what’s up?”
“Nothing, actually,” Gray said, leaning on a file cabinet. “I’m here to keep up appearances. You were on board with the duty section the night Paige died, Chief Rhyme. Anyone would expect me to talk to you and the others again. And it only makes sense I’d want to talk to Isaac and Robinson in case they’d heard anything. By me coming like this to ‘question’ you two, it just reinforces the cover that I’m working the investigation alone.”
“Makes sense,” Shepherd said, hitching a hip on Rhyme’s desk. Somewhere in the distance, a needle gun began its long banging wail against a rusty part of the hull. “I had talk with the CMC last night.”
“Oh?” Rhyme asked.
“He’s sure Knocker is the murderer. By the way, Abe, you never told me Knocker is the one who found the body. Of course, I also forgot to ask.”
“Sorry,” Gray said. “I did forget to mention that. But yeah, he did.”
“Copeland told me Paige was talking to him about a possible sexual harassment problem the week before the murder, but Knocker wasn’t talking. Refused to talk about it at all.”
“And he thinks Knocker is our man?” Rhyme asked.
Shepherd nodded. “Yep. Based on Knocker’s history and the fact no one knew where he was for three hours that morning and the fact he found Paige’s body. He’s trying to get Knocker off this ship even before you formally charge him with anything, Abe. And I say all that with the caveat being I don’t know if he should be charged at all…or if you’re even looking at hemming him up.”
Gray shook his head. “I’ll grant there is some serious circumstantial evidence that makes Knocker a person of interest, but that’s all there is. There just is not enough evidence to convince a judge or jury. I’m sorry the CMC has it in for Knocker, and I do understand his reasoning. From his position the conclusion makes sense. From a legal standpoint I could no more arrest Knocker right now for murder than I could arrest you for thinking you actually have a sense of humor, Isaac.”
Rhyme sighed. “It might be better for Knocker to get off the ship, though. Leonesio has told me a lot the suspicion among the crew has settled on him. It’s not fair, but there it is. Getting him off the ship, at least until you two can find the real killer, might be safer for him. Or at least easier on him.”
Shepherd and Gray exchanged a very meaningful glance. Rhyme had the distinct impression they were sharing a memory.
“Melody, I’m going to tell you what I told John Copeland last night,” Shepherd said, “We cannot command a break in the case. Robinson and I are only here for four days. The odds of us finding the killer by Friday are ridiculously small. The best we can hope for is to give Abe enough of a boost with information that he’ll nail it down in the next couple of weeks.”
Gray shifted and flinched; he had nearly knocked his head on the low-hanging light fixture. “As to Knocker, perhaps it would be easier on him to send him temporarily somewhere else. But I don’t have enough to arrest hi—or anyone right—now because there’s nothing directly tying him to the actual crime. There’s not enough circumstantial evidence to convince a jury…and forensics won’t have an idea what those paint chips are from, or be able to come up with any DNA or other evidence that is actually identifiable, anytime soon. It just doesn’t happen that fast.”
The rest of Wednesday passed rather uneventfully. Wandering about the ship as he coached the media team during their shooting challenges, Shepherd did notice the weird combination of fear and hostility that lay just under the surface, a dangerously malignant pustule that could easily blow if stoked.
Rhyme left early to take care of some personal things, but MC1 Leonesio was around all day to keep an eye on the Media Department while Shepherd and Robinson ran the workshop.
Several times Shepherd tried to talk to Knocker, but the junior Sailor avoided him with all the skill of rabbit cleverly evading a hawk.
Shepherd did pull Robinson aside shortly after lunch. “MC1, we’re missing something here. Look, talk to the other First Classes some more. Find out everything you can about CS2 Knocker. Rumor, fact, everything and anything. This whole mess is centering on him. Also, just ask about any sexual harassment issues. Have any of the First Classes had Sailors reported unprofessional behavior or outright harassment?”
“You really think sexual harassment is involved in Paige’s death?” She asked quietly.
“It was the one thing Paige was talking to the CMC about regarding mitigating factors for Knocker’s behavior. It may be nothing. It may be everything. But I have a real feeling that it’s as important as those paint chips.”
“You are really focused on those,” She said.
“Yes,” He admitted. “I can’t say why, but they’re striking me as much as they struck Abe Gray. I feel like the answer is at my fingertips, but I can’t see it. Same thing with the sexual harassment angle.”
The 23:00 meeting that night on the bridge produced no new information. Gray, Shepherd, and Robinson met since Rhyme had dipped out early. Robinson had not been able to investigate the questions Shepherd had asked her to pursue, but she had plans to come in early and meet with some of the First Classes early the next morning before the workday got going.
Thursday morning dawned over Norfolk clear and bright, promising temperatures in the 80s. Shepherd came aboard by himself; he knew Robinson was already on the IKE talking to the First Classes. When she didn’t show at 10:00, he launched the day’s photojournalism challenges. He figured she was deep in conversation with her fellow Sailors. By 11:00 he had the day crew out shooting.
As predicted the cell phone work they shot the day before had resulted in some spectacular shots. Even the ever-contumacious MC2 Schott had been impressed.
“Let’s go get coffee. It’s nearly lunchtime anyway,” Rhyme said.
She led him out of the Media Center and back up the ladder to the second deck. They headed off to starboard and then turned right once they reached the main passageway. The Chiefs Mess was aft and it only took the two a moment to get there.
Maybe it was because his entire time as a chief had been at NEPAC East, but Shepherd still felt a twinge of awe and even a slight suspicion he was out of place whenever he walked into a Chiefs Mess on a ship. It was a spacious area about the size of the Media Center with its own galley. The chiefs ate the same food as everyone else, but theirs was prepared in their galley by a couple of culinary specialists assigned to it. The mess itself was brightly lit and had numerous plaques and other memorabilia around it. A large screen TV and the expected government-issued couches provided an area for the chiefs to relax even as the tables and chairs gave them space to eat. A large wooden rack of coffee cups was affixed to one bulkhead. Each chief on the ship had their own mug.
“Here, you can use Luke’s,” Rhyme said, grabbing a mug that bore IKE’s crest and the name “Luke” on it as well as a cup bearing her own name. “Chief Yeoman Luke Reed. He’s on leave.”
Shepherd followed her over to the urn as she dispensed coffee. Mixing in cream and sugar, Shepherd glanced around. There were six other chiefs in the space and at least two Sailors puttering around in the galley itself.
“Isaac, how’s the photo work coming?” Chief Culinary Specialist Cleveland Bark came up, coffee cup in hand. Despite the image his name might have conveyed, Bark was a small, skinny man with the light skin indicating northern European descent. With him was a petite woman whose smiling face and dark hair fairly screamed out “Pacific Islander.” She sported her own coffee mug.
“Great. They’re learning a few things,” Shepherd said.
“This is Yvonne Jenny, one of our nukes,” Bark said.
“Glad to meet you finally, Isaac,” Jenny said, the smiling never wavering.
“You know me?” Shepherd was surprised. Nuclear engineers were a pretty insular bunch by dint of the highly classified equipment they worked on.
“Melody has talked about you a lot, and I read in the news your part in finding the murderer of John Stiles last month. That was sad. His own wife and Yeoman. Anyway,” She said, changing the subject. “I hear you’re from Florida?”
Shepherd nodded. “Yep. You?”
“Really?” Shepherd said. “I was stationed out there for a few years. Lived in Upper Tumon. Had the greatest view of Hotel Row and Tumon Bay.”
Jenny laughed merrily. “I grew up in Dededo. My dad was Army National Guard, so we never really went anywhere except Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands. I wanted to travel so I joined the Navy.”
“I miss it. Best hiking and snorkeling and food!”
The four of them carried their cups to a table and had just sat down when the phone in the mess rang. Sitting nearest to it, Jenny got up to get it. Listening for a moment, she looked at Shepherd. “For you. MC1 Robinson.”
The conversation was very brief. Robinson just wanted to let Shepherd know she needed to see him soon…and he had a very good idea why. He arranged to meet with her right after lunch. They both needed to eat, after all.
Jenny was still standing as Shepherd came back. Before they could sit John Copeland walked in. Unlike when a captain or admiral entered a room, Sailors don’t come to attention for a Master Chief Petty Officer. However, out of respect for Copeland’s hard-won position as CMC, Shepherd and Jenny remained standing to greet him as he came over their way.
“Fried chicken today?” He asked, sniffing.
“Smells like it!” Jenny said, picking up a cup.
Copeland was clearly not happy.
“What’s wrong, John?” Bark asked.
“The crew is about read to start a Salem Witch Trial against each other,” Copeland said. “It’s only been four days but everyone out there is ready to start accusing everyone else of murder.”
Shepherd didn’t say anything, but he was acutely aware of Copeland staring at him. He decided to deflect the situation with a bit of public affairs skill. “I’m sure Special Agent Gray and the NCIS folks are working as hard as they can. In the meantime, the photo workshop MC1 Robinson and I are running is working out great. I think we’re going to leave them better than we found them.”
“True that,” Rhyme said, smiling. “That cell phone challenge was a great idea. Granted when they’re on liberty in a port, I want them to relax. But that doesn’t mean they can’t bring back imagery from their phones.”
“Yvonne, you ok?” Bark asked.
Jenny was looking like she felt ill. She started to say something—
—A powerful spasm smashed through her body and she fell to the deck, shuddering and gasping, foam bubbling from her mouth as her coffee cup shattered next to her.
“YVONNE!” Copeland was on his feet. Rhyme bolted for the phone to call a medical emergency. Shepherd dropped to his knees and grabbed Jenny’s shoulders as she jerked and kicked.
“Is she epileptic?!” He asked. Her jaw as clenched tight and spit frothed through her teeth as tears poured from her flicking and rolling eyeballs.
“No!” Copeland gasped, trying to grab her head and steady it.
Jenny’s fingertips and lips were turning blue; a gurgling hiss escaped the horribly distended muscles in her neck…
…Everything stopped. Jenny’s entire body clenched up hard, and then just…stopped. Her limbs, released from their tortured flexing, dropped limply to the deck and her head flopped over to the side, her face a horrible shade of blue.
In nightmare Shepherd found himself sweeping his finger through the spit and vomit caught in her now-relaxed jaw to clear it. He ignored the horrible stench of the bodily fluids, clamped his mouth to hers, and forced air into her dead lungs.
At the same time he saw Copeland plant his powerful arms on her sternum and begin compressing her ribs, forcing her heart to pump blood.
Shepherd had no idea how long he breathed into her mouth or Copeland compelled blood to circulate, but it did not matter. Shepherd knew the truth even as the sweat rolled off his forehead. He had seen that horribly ineffable change happen to her body when life left her behind. She was not coming back.
In a foggy daze he felt strong hands wrench him backwards with no consideration. A team of corpsman flocked about her corpse, getting the body on a stretcher and trying to jolt her back into the land of the living. The young Sailors expertly performed each emergency procedure as they lifted the stretcher and raced with her out the door.
Looking around, Shepherd realized the room was still frozen. Everyone was staring at him and Copeland. He met the master chief’s eyes and knew they reflected the same horror as his own.
Copeland stood slowly and looked around. Shepherd remained seated on the deck, wiping Jenny’s spit and vomit from his own mouth. He knew he needed to get to medical and get their help cleaning her fluids from him and making sure he was ok, but he couldn’t move. His eyes were reflexively sweeping the deck, looking at the broken coffee cup, the puddles of vomit and what he was sure was urine; it only made sense her bladder would have been evacuated by the spasming muscles.
Shepherd glanced up and saw Copeland was looking over him towards the galley.
“Do not move! Somebody call Special Agent Gray NOW!” Copeland bellowed.
Shepherd looked over and saw who Copeland was staring at: CS2 Tyrell Knocker.
Knocker was looking absolutely terrified. Shepherd was certain he was ready to bolt…but there was no way out past the chiefs, and certainly not past Copeland.
As he got ready to stand finally, Shepherd took a final look at the broken cup. His blood froze solid.
Glancing at the table, he saw a cup sitting there with the name “Yvonne” painted on it. The shattered cup on the floor, the one dropped by Jenny as she fell, had broken into several large pieces, one of which had the name “Luke” clearly painted on it.
Jenny had apparently picked up the cup he was using and drank out of it unaware of her error.
And now she was clearly very dead.