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
“You goddamned son of a bitch!!!!” USS Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command master chief, John Copeland, lunged across his small office, seized Isaac Shepherd’s uniform blouse, and slammed him against the bulkhead so fast no one had even really seen him move. “You’re the great genius, Mr. Detective!! You were supposed to stop this and now Yvonne Jenny is dead!!! You freakin’ poser! You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, do you?! Two of MY Sailors are DEAD!!”
Lt. Cmdr. Shannon Potts, Abraham Gray and MC1 Robinson were both momentarily stunned by Copeland’s ferocity, hadn’t reacted. Cmdr. Honor Riggs, the IKE’s executive officer, had just closed the door and was likewise frozen. The CMC’s office was on the starboard side of the second deck just forward of the aft mess deck. Sailors passing by outside were startled to hear the bulkhead reverberate as something hit it.
Shepherd, though was, at the end of his tether too. His uniform still reeked of Jenny’s bodily fluids and the taste of her vomit assaulted his nose from his abortive attempts to provide artificial respiration. The implications of the broken cup sat on his conscious, a deadweight anchor of survivor’s guilt. The sheer horror of watching the violent death Jenny suffered banged unceasingly around his memory like some shrieking banshee. He could not stop hearing the terrified gurgling and sputters of Yvonne Jenny as death over took her.
He always joked that he had a very deep, volcanic temper that would make anyone quail should it ever be unleashed. He was also a very easy going man and it really did take a lot to get him truly angry. In fact, no one at NEPAC East had ever actually seen him truly angry in the past few years.
Some rational part of his brain understood Copeland’s outburst and even sympathized with it. That small rational part of his mind knew he too would be nearly uncontrollable if his Sailors were harmed.
That small rational part of his brain, however, was drowned out in a microsecond by the sheer rage that erupted as he felt the man opposite him shove him backwards so hard his head bounced off the bulkhead with a resounding clang. The pain exploding through his skull and the stars in his eyes only deepened the madness that took him.
Isaac Shepherd was angry, and John Copeland was in trouble.
Though long out of his studies of Tang Soo Do due to knee and elbow injuries stemming from a motorcycle wreck his second year in the Navy, muscle memory kicked in. Shepherd’s arms flew up and his elbows dropped without mercy onto Copeland’s arms. The impact was sudden and full of as much violence as Shepherd could produce. It snapped Copeland’s hands open and forced his arms down.
Before Copeland could react Shepherd’s right hand shot out and clamped down so tightly on Copeland’s muscular neck the shorter man couldn’t breathe. Using his foot against the bulkhead as a lever, Shepherd pushed forward and shoved Copeland inexorably backward until the master chief was crashing over his desk like a rag doll and then slamming into the bulkhead with an echoing bang. Shepherd’s counter attack was as sudden as Copeland’s attack and caught the assembled group just as flat-footed.
Shepherd’s counter-attack was far more vicious, however. Copeland’s windpipe was sealed and being crushed ever tighter. His face was turning blue and his eyes popping in shock.
“ISAAC!!!” Abraham Gray snapped to action, leaping forward and seizing Shepherd’s arm. He didn’t bother with words; he used his own hand-to-hand training to twist Shepherd’s arm while violently shoving a finger into a pressure point, effectively taking control of Shepherd’s arm and releasing the CMC.
Shepherd’s hand snapped open and Copeland dropped about three inches; until that moment no one realized Shepherd had actually been holding the master chief’s feet off the deck with his outstretched arm.
Not fighting Gray, Shepherd stepped forward and put his nose directly against Copeland’s nose. His voice was low and carried a chilling, death-like tone that could have frozen dry ice.
“If. You. Ever. Touch. Me. Again. We. Will. Have. A. Serious. Disagreement.” Wrenching his arm from Gray’s control, Shepherd turned and stalked across the small office, a malignant shadow consumed by rage.
Robinson had never been afraid of anyone before. Suddenly she realized she was absolutely terrified of her own chief. She had never seen him like this before and always thought his stories about his temper were a bit of dramatic hyperbole. She had finally been able talk to him in medical while he was being cleaned up from trying to revive Jenny before they all reported to Copeland’s office. She was glad that conversation was done; right now she would not want to be alone with Shepherd.
“Everyone just calm down!” Gray took command of the situation. “Just calm down! If anyone lays a hand on anyone else in this room, I will take you down and put you in restraints. Is that clear?”
“Yes.” Shepherd growled, staring at Copeland.
The gathering was convening in the CMC’s office nearly seven hours after Chief Yvonne Jenny’s violent death. Her body was already off the ship and being examined.
“Good,” Gray said. “Master Chief, I sympathize with you, more than you know. But this is not Isaac’s fault. It is not my fault. It is not your fault. This is the fault of someone who we now know to be a serial killer. We know the killer was in that room, in the Chiefs Mess That narrows it down to Isaac here, Melody Rhyme, Cleveland Bark, you, the two CS’s in the galley, and the half a dozen other chiefs in there are the time.”
“You forgot Yvonne Jenny,” Shepherd said.
Copeland spun and looked for all the world like he wanted to choke out Shepherd, “You’re saying Yvonne Jenny is the killer, you moron?! After she died?!”
“Call me a moron again, dipstick, and Abe will have to put me in restraints!” Shepherd yelled back. “Yes, Yvonne Jenny is a suspect! It wouldn’t be the first time a killer accidentally killed themselves while targeting someone else. Go get a back issue of the Navy Times and read up on the Sumay Strangler. Serial murder on Guam while I was there. He was finally caught after he accidentally got himself caught in his own trap while trying to kill a Marine. You want this solved, then you better get your head out of your ass and think! No one in that Chiefs Mess is above suspicion, not even you or me!”
“We know who did it! It was that punk Knocker!” Copeland spat. “He killed Paige and he killed Jenny!”
“No, he found Paige and someone in the Chiefs Mess tried to kill me!” Shepherd said. “Jenny picked up the cup I was drinking out of. Luke Reed’s cup, the guy who’s on leave. She picked up his cup accidentally. That’s the one she was drinking out of when she was poisoned. She died by accident. I was the target, not her.”
“Poisoned?” Riggs spoke up. “How can you be sure it was poison and not a seizure?”
“Oh, do try to keep up, Commander!” Shepherd snapped, completely forgetting his military bearing. “She was healthy. She wasn’t prone to seizures. One murder happened four days ago already on this ship. She drinks out of a cup I was supposed to be drinking from and falls down dead. I’m pretty certain we can figure it was poison that did her in.”
Riggs was not fazed by Shepherd’s temper or disrespect. She was a senior officer and long dealt with Sailors who were traumatized by events. She knew the best thing for him was to get the anger out; it was very obviously eating him alive.
Gray cut it, “Commander, it was some form of organic poison. Not much else has been gleaned, but the preliminary toxicology based on her symptoms at time of death, physical appearance, and early indicators from her blood point to an organic poison.”
“Ok, you have a telling point. But Knocker was at the scene of both deaths,” Riggs said. “The CMC has a very good point that Knocker is a real suspect in this. And, while I respect your desire to keep everyone in that Chiefs Mess under suspicion until more facts come in, I don’t see what else we could do but arrest Knocker.”
Shepherd paced incessantly. It wasn’t much of a pacing, however. Not in that small space. With this 6’3” frame and long stride, pacing right now meant two steps to port, spin, two steps to starboard, spin, repeat.
“We’re missing something. Knocker is way too easy,” Shepherd said.
“Why? What else is there?” Potts finally spoke up. “The ship is on lock down. No one is coming aboard—except NCIS and law enforcement—and no one is leaving. We have to find an answer here, and soon. And if you don’t have anything, Chief, then we’re done. Chief Rhyme as it is has been given a sedative in medical. She and Chief Jenny were good friends and often liberty buddies. She’s taking this very hard, and I want to get her and the crew off this ship. Jiminy Cricket all mighty! She only joined that duty section a month ago and she just lost one of her best friends! You need to find an answer, Sherlock Holmes, and you need to find it now!”
Shepherd shook his head. “It’s not Sherlock Holmes. More Hercule Poirot.”
Blank stares all around, except from Abraham Gray. Gray was as big an Agatha Christie fan as Shepherd.
“Look,” Shepherd said, “Why am I looking at Jenny at all? Sexual harassment. MC1 Robinson did some digging for me. The First Classes talked to her in ways they would never talk to us senior-ranking Sailors. Jenny was generally well-liked, but apparently had a history of…oh, MC1 you tell them!”
Robinson suddenly felt like the proverbial deer in the equally proverbial headlights as every set of eyeballs in the room turned to her. However, she wasn’t considered one of the most top-flight MC1s at NEPAC East for no reason. She quickly shifted into “briefing mode” and delivered a concise dissertation on what she had learned.
“Chief Jenny had two complaints lodged against her in the last year of creating a ‘hostile work environment’ down in the Main Machinery Rooms. Apparently one male and two females in the MMRs believed she was showing undue deference to the men and slighting the female Sailors when it came to awards and ratings on the annual Evaluations,” Robinson said. “From what the other First Classes told me, both complaints were dealt with informally, and she did openly apologize to the entire work center.”
“She did. I was there. So what?” Copeland spat. “She screwed up. Everyone can do that. If they take correction on board and move on, so what?”
Robinson was not one to (outwardly, at least) quail before an angry master chief (however, her bladder did tap her on the shoulder and tell her it needed to find a head…and soon).
“There were reports in the MMR that she had shifted her targeting and was flirting with males from other rates in other divisions, including people in the duty section that was on duty the day CS1 Paige was killed. According to the rumors some Sailors were ready to make a complaint against her. Rumors only, mind you, Master Chief. But Chief Shepherd asked me to explore everything. She was aboard the day Paige was killed, and this was hanging over her.”
“She was on duty that day,” Shepherd repeated. “If, and again this is an ‘IF,’ she knew Paige was going to make a formal complaint against her for something, she might have bashed in his head in an act of desperation. And then tried to kill me to distract from the investigation by pinning it on Knocker since he was in the room.”
“Only she picked up your cup by mistake after poisoning it?” Potts asked. “Sounds fishy, to me.”
“The whole thing is fishy. And I’m not trying to drag a dead chief’s name through the mud. Rumors of her flirting with other Sailors might easily have started even if she hadn’t had to be corrected for unprofessional behavior in the MMR,” Shepherd said. “This is a ship. Even if Jenny’s behavior had been exemplary, rumors fly. When I was deployed on IKE five years ago, there were all kinds of rumors that I was gay simply because I didn’t get drunk in every port.”
“But you are gay,” Copeland said, almost viciously.
“Totally beside the point,” Shepherd snapped back. “Back then I was still in the closet. The point is the rumors got started only because I didn’t get drunk. Rumors on a ship will start with anything. So Jenny might have been continuing her sexually charged ways, or she may not have been. Still…we’re still missing something here so goddamned obvious it’s driving me nuts.”
“Well,” Gray said, “We all need to take a break, cool down, and think without accusing each other of things that are not our fault.” He had locked eyes with Copeland. “Unfortunately Lt. Cmdr. Potts is right—no one is boarding or leaving this ship until we have a handle on this. The killer is here, on the IKE. We have to find them; otherwise if they leave the ship they will likely disappear and never come back. Let’s all take some time to cool down. I have other agents on board now questioning people. We need space from each other to think.”
Without so much as a by-your-leave Shepherd was gone. It was afternoon heading into evening time already. He eschewed the Chiefs Mess. It was roped off as a crime scene, so he and the other chiefs ate on the main mess decks. He ate with Robinson and then finally got a shower using soap and a towel Cleveland Bark had been kind enough to loan him.
Laying in his temporary rack in the chief’s berthing (the chiefs assigned to IKE herself berthed in a space aft of the Chiefs Mess on the second deck), he could not sleep. Part of it was sleep apnea; without his trusty CPAP machine his distorted and irregular breathing kept him awake.
But it was more than that. His mind was churching. Too much was going on. So, somewhere between 00:30 and 01:00 Friday morning he rose, put his uniform back on, and started wandering the quietly tense ship.
He vaguely noticed that his legs were very sore. Four days of walking on steel decks and climbing ladders was getting to him. It was always like that his first few weeks on a ship until his muscles adapted. Still, he was on autopilot; a hazy recognition of the hangar bay knocked on his mind until he wasn’t there anymore.
He was looking at Dwight D. Eisenhower. That is the first that that finally registered. He was standing face to face with Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, the great general and leader who, in Shepherd’s mind, was the only World War II figure who could rival Shepherd’s personal ultimate hero and model leader—Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz.
As Shepherd’s brain re-engaged he realized he was looking at the bronze bust of Gen. Eisenhower in the “IKE Room,” a ceremonial museum room maintained by the ship. Every ship had some place where it displayed memorabilia relating to its namesakes. Carriers, by dint of size, had an entire small compartment dedicated to the ship’s namesake. Two decades ago Shepherd had never visited the “Carl Vinson” room on board the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). But during his deployment on IKE as NEPAC East’s Detachment LPO five years earlier, he had spent a lot of time in the IKE Room on board the Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It had made sense; his (at the time) bachelor’s degree in history from Florida State University and his early career in museum work (before Florida state budget cuts ended that job and shunted him into the Navy) made him a logical choice to maintain the room and even help give tours of it to visiting dignitaries.
The room was just off the passage way used as the Officer’s Brow on the hangar bay just below the ship’s island. It was also located by a refueling station, so he had enjoyed the responsibility on that deployment of going down every time there was a replenishment at sea planned and putting a large protective steel cover over the room’s fancy glass door.
Now he stood in it alone, looking at the bronze bust of the general. Soft lighting illuminated panels encircling him with the story of Eisenhower’s life and legacy. The Eisenhower family, including Eisenhower’s widow, Mamie, had dedicated a few artifacts from the late general and president’s life to the ship, and these were carefully preserved under glass along the room’s bulkheads.
But pride of place in the center of the room was held by a life-sized bust of Eisenhower bearing his likeness from the heady and terrifying time of D-Day in 1944. Much like General Washington two centuries before him, Eisenhower preferred to be remembered as a general before being remembered as a president.
During that deployment five years before Shepherd would come here to “talk” to the general when he was troubled…and back then that was quite often. A marriage was breaking down despite his and his (now) ex-wife’s best efforts to make a mixed-orientation relationship work (greater experience and maturity would have told them not to try it in the first place, but they were in love and optimistic and…well, what can you do?). The public affairs officer at the time was easily the second worst officer he had ever worked for in his life. Talking to the general, or, at least, his bust, had always helped Shepherd get his head straight while the ship conducted operations in the Arabian Gulf and other Middle Eastern waters.
Now as then, the bronze eyes of General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower stared back at him, waiting.
“General, I don’t know what to do,” Shepherd said quietly.
“Do I really think Jenny was involved?” Shepherd asked as if the bust had spoken and he was merely repeating the question. “No. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Shepherd wondered what it would have been like to be stationed on the Nimitz and get to commune with his ultimate hero, Nimitz. He laughed quietly at the thought and then addressed Eisenhower’s bust again. “I just don’t know. I told MC1 the other day I felt like the answer is already at my finger tips and I’m just not seeing it.”
The dark lighting make the bronze bust take on a depth of shadow and form that created a deep impression of timeless wisdom.
“No, sir. I have no real…no real ideas or threads to follow,” Shepherd answered a question Eisenhower’s image had not asked. He chuckled. “I wish Admiral Nimitz was here too. I really could use both of your insight. This is your ship; I don’t like it being sullied liked this. And I find murder highly offensive in any case…and in this case it’s yet another shipmate murdering one of our own.”
Just behind the bust of Eisenhower on the wall was a photo of Gen. Eisenhower standing next to Adm. Nimitz with both in full dress uniform. They were being honored with honorary degrees by Harvard in 1946.
“Adm. Nimitz, you always said, ‘when in command, command,” Shepherd said to the photograph across from him. “I’m trying to do that. But I can’t make a decision or get events moving without a firm lead. And right now I’m out of firm leads. I’m just out of ideas. I confess, Admiral, it feels hopeless right now. Especially for CS2 Knocker. Unless I can come up with something especially clever, Knocker is going down for murder…and I’m not sure he did it. You once said a favorite prayer was to help you hold onto a course because it was right even if it seemed hopeless. Admiral Nimitz…I need that help now.”
Shepherd shifted his gaze from the photo of Ike and Nimitz together back to the bust of Ike. “General, any help from you would be most welcome as well. My head is in a jumble. I can’t sort things out and I know I’m feeling…I’m feeling guilty Yvonne Jenny died instead of me. Irrational, but there it is.”
The ship’s ventilation hummed and that odd, indefinable vibration in the deck certified the ship was floating and not a ground structure. The ship herself was still and quiet. That odd emotional and even “psychic” energy permeating a ship was dampened down with the crew, still trapped aboard, mostly asleep.
Shifting his feet, Shepherd noticed the light on the bust of Eisenhower created the illusion his eyes shifted too. Involuntarily Shepherd’s eyes flicked to the left, and picked up a quote from the general that was printed on one of the historical displays:
“The older I get the more wisdom I find in the ancient rule of taking first things first. A process which often reduces the most complex human problem to a manageable proportion.”
“Good ddvice,” Shepherd said. “Do that and the hopeless won’t seem so hopeless, will it?”
Slowly beginning to stride around the room, Shepherd talked freely to the two men, or, at least, to the memory of the two men whom he looked up to so much. Truly, they were only second in his personal pantheon of heroes to people like Lincoln, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Harriet Tubman.
“Ok, General, Admiral. First things first. First thing: CS1 Simon Paige is murdered. The killer used a scuttle hatch, but that didn’t actually kill him. They came back down the ladder and bashed his head a second time to make sure he was dead.”
Shepherd had completed one orbit of Eisenhower’s bust. “CS2 Knocker was hiding from someone, and began hiding on a few weeks ago. He’s had personal issues with temper and authority for a while, but his work ethic was great…until about three weeks ago. He starts hiding three weeks ago…so what changed three weeks ago?”
“Red paint…red paint chips are found under Paige’s head after he’s murdered. What does red paint mean…?”
Two orbits of Eisenhower’s bust.
“According to the gossip Robinson got out of the First Class Petty Officers, there has been an uptick on possible sexual harassment issues on this carrier…but Chief Yvonne Jenny was corrected for ‘undue’ behavior a while ago. However, rumor puts her getting jiggy with the boys in other divisions…but that is after a public apology and apparently solid shift in rudder regarding her behavior down in the MMR.”
Three orbits of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Jenny has been in that duty section for some time. Whatever started Knocker hiding from someone only began three weeks ago. Did Yvonne Jenny suddenly start hitting on him? Doesn’t make sense. Something else changed three weeks ago. Jenny’s a nuke; even on duty she will be pretty much locked away down in Reactor standing her watches. And nukes’ watches are pretty brutal.”
Four orbits of Ike.
“Solving a murder is like…it’s like reverse-engineering the murder itself. You have to look at the whole thing backwards and try to see it forwards from there,” Shepherd glanced back at the photo of Eisenhower and Nimitz together. “The solution to the problem…the solution to the problem…”
Five orbits of Ike as a quote from Nimitz about problem solving began to float to the front of Shepherd’s mind:
“Is it in the realm of practicability of material and supplies?”
Shepherd often taught leadership course for newly promoted petty officers; the quote from Eisenhower and the quote from Nimitz were ones he regularly used. But now…perhaps it was his imagination…but now he felt like the general and admiral were trying to tell him something with those two quotes…
Six orbits of Eisenhower’s bust, and he stopped.
“Ok…you two are right. I’ve established the first things—murder…suspects…event timeline…but is it all practicable in light of time, material, and consistent with, as I’m always preaching, personality?”
“General Eisenhower, what am I missing?” Shepherd asked the bust and the room at large, desperately hoping the spirits of Dwight Eisenhower and Chester Nimitz really were hovering around.
And then it was like someone whispered into his ear to just…think. Just think. Just think. Stop running around and think. Stop imposing your ideas on this and let the pieces fall into the shape they want…
A dead CS1 with his head bashed in…
Red paint chips…
Sexual harassment rumors…
Panic…or attempted genius…? That second murder. The one meant for him that poor Yvonne Jenny had stumbled into. Was that panic…or a genius move to guarantee Tyrell Knocker took the fall…?
People acting in character…or out of character in ways still consistent with their character….
…And then it hit him. Organic poison.
Suddenly Isaac Shepherd stiffened and sucked in a breath. A whole new picture was taking shape in his head. The possibility was staggering and mind-numbing in its simplicity.
“Oh…my God…” Shepherd said staring at the bust of Dwight D. Eisenhower. “It…it can’t be…but it fits…”
He felt a sinking sensation in his gut that resulted in his stomach landing somewhere in his left boot. The horror of the idea was too much to bear…but it made sense. Too much sense…
He wanted to bolt from the room…but out of respect for the ceremonial resonance of the room, he carefully straightened his tired back, reached down and tugged his uniform blouse into a more crisp form with a short jerk. Then looking at the bust of Eisenhower, he saluted.
“General Eisenhower, and Admiral Nimitz, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I have to go now.”
It may have been corny, but to Shepherd it was only an appropriate acknowledgement of these officers who had gone before him.
Dropping the salute, Isaac Shepherd left the IKE Room, hung a sharp right, and approached the Quarterdeck. Approaching the podium he addressed the sleepy Officer of the Deck with a salute.
“Sir, forgive me for bothering you, but I need you to contact Special Agent Gray immediately. Here is his stateroom number.”
It took but a moment for the call to go through and Gray to get the message.
Shepherd had returned to the IKE Room and awaited his old friend there.
Abraham Gray and MC1 Dionne Robinson found him staring at the bust of Eisenhower. They both had the slightly disheveled looked of people rousted out of bed at 01:30 in the morning…which is exactly what had happened. Still, even as they entered the room, their groggy brains registered that something was different.
“I brought MC1 like you asked, Isaac,” Gray said.
“Good. Sorry to have him drag you up here, Dionne, but you’re way safer here with us than on your own right now. Anyone who murders once will do it again, and we’re dealing with a serial killer who’s murdered twice on the same ship within a week…one attempt of which was aimed at me. I won’t risk them getting at you.”
“It’s ok, Chief,” Robinson was still a little leery after seeing Shepherd’s temper exploded in the CMC’s office down on the second deck so many hours ago.
Gray, however, had known Shepherd long enough to recognize the steely glint in his sea green eyes.
“You’ve had an idea,” Gray said.
“Close the door,” Shepherd gestured to the glass IKE Room door. “You are not going to believe this, but I’ve got it. I know who it is. I know who murdered Simon Paige and Yvonne Jenny.”