Under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1971, this is a fully copyrighted and protected work by law. Copyright is owned by and all rights are reserved to Nathanael Miller. No part may be reproduced in whole or part without my written permission. Facebook and Twitter links to this story may be shared; but the work itself and all characters are my intellectual property and may not be shared or reproduced except with written permission. All characters and events are fictitious.
The Eisenhower Murder
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
The room was full. It had taken some wangling and arguing with Gray, but Shepherd had finally convinced him to allow the meeting to be held in the still-roped off Chiefs Mess. When pressed Shepherd had argued quite persuasively the scene of the last murder, with its tape silhouetted of the body and lingering stench of terror, would be an effective backdrop to The Big Reveal.
However, based on the events of the past 24 hours, Shepherd and Gray were taking no chances. In addition to the players in the tragedy, about fifteen Masters-at-arms (the Navy’s security force) would be in the mess fully armed and ready to pounce.
Gray had caused a minor storm of protest back at NCIS when he phoned Charlotte Webb and demanded some fast forensic work on the body of Yvonne Jenny. His boss was none too happy, but grudgingly got the lab wizards out of bed when he explained their theory and how the preponderance of evidence seemed to be leaning in its favor.
So it was that at 11:00 Friday morning fifteen “MA’s” took up their posts around the perimeter of the Chiefs Mess, each man and woman looking as imposing and dangerous as they could (another bit of theatrics Shepherd had implored Chief Master-at-arms Sole. D. Rock for—a detail of his meanest and toughest looking Sailors). Chief Melody Rhyme was only able to enter the space on the supportive arm of CMC John Copeland (privately he was cursing Shepherd and Gray for insisting on holding this meeting in the Chiefs Mess).
Chief Culinary Specialist Cleveland Bark entered and froze at the sight of the MA’s ringing the compartment. His small frame seemed to have shrunk in the past day and his normally well-tailored uniform fit loosely on his bones.
NCIS Special Agent Shay Cremer was next to enter, escorting a shackled CS2 Tyrell Knocker. Following Jenny’s death Knocker had been arrested without delay and was scheduled to be moved from the ship to the big on the naval station that afternoon. His hands and feet were connected through the shiny, clinking chains of his restraints and his eyes held a livid hatred for everyone he looked at. Cremer was squat, a “Danny DeVito” type in build and more than enough to keep Knocker in line should the young Sailors try to fight.
Chief Sole D. Rock decided to show up. He fully trusted his security force, but, frankly, he was nosy. A large man with the build and chiseled jaw of a gym junkie, the ship’s company kept calling him “John Cena” behind his muscled back.
Lt. Cmdr. Potts came in quietly and took a seat towards the back of the room. She looked at Rhyme with great sympathy.
Slowly the rest of the chiefs and the other CS who had been in the space when Jenny died filtered in.
Lastly the captain and XO entered. Everyone came to attention and Capt. Arion Deedra quickly put them “at ease” so they could sit down.
And that’s when Copeland realized three people were missing.
“Where the hell’s Shepherd and Gray and MC1 Robinson?!” He barked to the room at large.
No one answered. Indeed, no one could. The captain and XO both sat back, crossed their respective legs, and waited patiently. Knocker’s chains clinked and clanked every time he shifted…and in his nervous state he shifted often.
Bark had had the foresight to have coffee brought in from the aft galley for everyone. He knew no one on that ship wanted to drink anything prepared in the Chiefs Mess at the moment. Still, the cups were served, the CS’s departed, and no one drank.
And they waited…
11:30 came and went.
Melody Rhyme’s sedative was wearing off, and she was crying quietly as the emotions flooded her. Potts shifted her position and sat next to Rhyme, laying an arm comfortingly over her shoulder.
Bark looked at Knocker, but Knocker refused to meet his eye.
Copeland was cursing under his breath. The captain and executive officer were staring at their watches.
A clatter of steel-toed boots on steel decks outside made them all look up. The door opened and Abraham Gray, Isaac Shepherd, and Dionne Robinson entered. For three people nearly an hour late to a meeting they had called, all three looked remarkably calm.
“Do you know what time it is, Chief Shepherd?!” Copeland snapped before anyone else could speak.
“Yes,” Shepherd said and then ignored him. “Captain, I am deeply sorry for the delay, but we were waiting for piece of information from the forensics lab. It just arrived.” And I wanted you all to be here when it arrived, Shepherd kept the last part private in his thoughts.
Shepherd was wearing a borrowed pair of coveralls that sported a hastily-pinned on chief anchor insignia and no name-tape. NCIS had been forced to confiscate the uniform he was wearing at the time of Jenny’s death for evidence.
As per their plan, Robinson sat down near the door. Knowing Shepherd was correct and no one was paying her any attention, she slipped a voice recorder from the Media Center out of her pocket and set it unobtrusively on her leg, starting the recording.
“Chief,” the captain said, “When we met three days ago you assured me you and MC1 Robinson were only going to be ‘passively’ assisting Special Agent Gray.”
“I seem to recall you assured me the same,” Potts was miffed.
Deedra nodded his head. He wore officer’s khakis and his aviator badge was pinned to his chest above enough ribbons that one wondered how he kept from falling over to the side. His hair was white. Dead bright white, yet his mustache was brick red. It gave him an oddly comical look that somehow was never laughed at on the ship.
“From what Chief Bark and Chief Rhyme reported, you were far more active in this matter than you led us to believe you would be,” Deedra was not angry, but he was also not a very happy camper.
Shepherd shrugged, “Sir, frankly, I lied. MC1—I kept her to the passive collection of information. And it turns out she’s damned good at it! But I have never been passive, and I’ve dealt with a lot of murders over 20 years. I find them morally repugnant and if I’m involved, I will act. I’m not sorry for lying at all; frankly I said what I needed to say in order to be allowed to get to work.”
“You still have six months to retirement, Chief,” Deedra said. “Granted you can’t just be busted down in rank at Captain’s Mast, not since you were officially advanced to E7 two years ago. But you can still be put on restriction, your pay docked…your last six months can be made rather unpleasant.”
Shepherd was way too tired to play this game. “Sir, if you think that is the right course of action, go ahead and tell my chain of command. Otherwise, don’t try to scare me. In the last four days I’ve been assisting NCIS at their request to find a killer on your ship. In the last 24 hours alone a second murder took place right here, and I was the intended target. It would have succeeded except that poor Yvonne Jenny picked up the wrong coffee cup. So, please, sir. I get that you’re unhappy with me. I understand that. But threatening me is not going to do anything except delay us and give a serial killer time to enjoy the spectacle.”
Deedra leaned back, clearly not mollified.
“So?” Copeland demanded. “We have the murdered right there in chains. He has a history of violence, he conveniently found Paige’s body and was in this room when Jenny died. It’s pretty clear that little snot-nosed son of a bitch did it!”
“John,” Shepherd glanced at Gray, who just smiled. “John, chill out. Knocker might have a temper on him and might need a serious attitude adjustment, but he did not kill anyone. He was set up the day Jenny was killed. He was a convenient scapegoat for the real murderer. He’s as innocent as you are.”
Knocker’s head snapped up in surprise. “I’m…you believe me?”
“Yes, I do,” Shepherd said. “I told you three days ago to give me a chance. If you had you wouldn’t be in leg irons. No matter. You’ll be out of those in an hour.”
Turning back to Copeland, Shepherd shrugged, “By the way, you were right, John. I was wrong. We did solve it by Friday!”
“Solve what?” Cmdr. Riggs asked from next to her captain.
“People act according to their natures,” Shepherd said. “When we’re shocked by someone’s behavior, it’s because we never really knew them. Might not be our fault at all; the person might be a really good actor. But we act according to who we are. And who this murderer is…well, we can start sketching them out right now. They are someone who panics easily and acts for the most part spontaneously. They give very little thought to their actions…yet surprisingly enough they are intelligent enough to be good at covering their tracks.”
Gray stepped forward. “Simon Paige started this chain of events by deciding he did not like the course his life was taking because of his passive character. So, he set out to change himself and shift rudder. He became a much more active Sailor. He started volunteering for things, started pushing his own Sailors to further their education, etc. He was scared into action by realizing that, if he didn’t pick up Chief this year, he’d be force to retire.”
“Motivation—the right motivation—can move people to change all but the very foundation of who they are,” Shepherd interjected.
“And Paige found a very powerful motivation in realizing he was nowhere near ready to leave the Navy yet,” Gray said. “He all but became a whole new man in his quest to earn the right to stay longer and be selected for the prestigious advancement to chief. He began to really get to know his Sailors and picked one troubled Second Class Petty Officer as his special project, didn’t he, CS2 Knocker?”
Knocker nodded slowly.
“Paige was desperately trying to find a way to keep you from going to Mast again for assault,” Gray said. “He got to know you enough to finally start seeing behind your temper was a hostile work environment. Someone…someone who outranked you…was harassing you. And he learned of it finally right about the same time you were driven to distraction enough that three weeks ago you suddenly started skiving off from work. You may have temper issues, but until three weeks ago you never missed work. What changed in that time period?”
“Cue MC1 Dionne Robinson, who could do Ms. Marple a good turn on stage!” Shepherd said. “Took her a bit of doing, but in only three days she got in good enough with the First Class Mess on this ship to find out a lot of junior Sailors—Second Class and Third Class Petty Officers—were experiencing mild to overt forms of sexual harassment. It wasn’t just Knocker. This was a cancer slowly spreading through the deckplates…but the junior people weren’t talking. They were all afraid to identify their tormentor…or, like Knocker here, they seemed to be laboring under the belief nothing would be done because high ranking people stick together.”
“It was nothing that would make its way up the chain…yet. But the problem was building. Funny thing though, it was only happening during one duty section’s hours: the duty section Paige and Knocker were part of,” Gray said.
“Yvonne Jenny got hemmed up for being overly familiar with the boys down in the reactor rooms,” Shepherd said. “Rumors aside, all evidence points to her being just that—friendly. She was a junior chief, barely a year in khakis and making the mistakes young chiefs do. She made a very public apology when the inappropriate nature of her behavior was made clear to her. And, I’ve since learned, she was scheduled to be trained to become a sexual assault victim advocate. Seems to me she learned her lesson and, beyond that, never had any bad intentions. Just immature behaviors.”
“So what?” The captain said.
“So what is that we all assumed we were looking for a man, Captain,” Shepherd said. “But sexual harassment, as with Jenny’s unfortunate case, can be committed by either gender. We got too focused assuming the initiator of such violence against Paige would be a man. But what if it wasn’t a man? What if he had tracked down the actual offender and confronted them? Or even been confronted by them? What if they had tried to worm out of it all, but he made clear he was going to file a formal grievance, so they panicked and dropped a scuttle on his head?”
“Interesting theory,” Deedra was leaning forward.
“The forensic evidence we were waiting for concerned Chief Jenny,” Gray said. “Normally detailed toxicology takes a few days, but I got the lab wizards to put in some overtime. Yvonne Jenny was killed by an organic poison, alright. The toxin from water hemlock. It’s common here in North America. It causes grand mal seizures and death…but normally not so fast. Usually it takes about 15 minutes or so before the victim begins to show signs of distress.”
“However, Jenny had sipped from the cup meant for me about twice and went right into a seizure right here,” Shepherd stepped into to the middle of the outline of her body and brought his boot down with a resounding thud on the deck.
“Chief!” Copeland protested as the entire room reacted with shock and disgust. Rhyme began crying harder and buried her head in Potts’ shoulder. Bark clamped a hand to his mouth. Potts glared daggers at Shepherd. Even some of the hardened MA’s around the compartment shifted uncomfortably.
Nothing like a bit of theatrics,” Shepherd thought darkly.
“Whoever poisoned that cup used enough water hemlock to kill a man—or, as it turned out, woman—in less than fifteen minutes,” Shepherd still stood in the center of the body outline, hands now casually in his pockets. “That is an awfully big dose the murderer used. They meant business and wanted to ensure I suffered a very quick, if very painful, death.”
Off to the side he caught side of Robinson having to suppress a wicked grin.
“Who would know better about organic poisons than a Culinary Specialist?” He asked, looked directly at Cleveland Bark.
Bark started, sure he hadn’t heard correctly. “Excuse me?! You think it was me?!
“Well, you did have Knocker assigned to the Chiefs Mess the day after I talked to you to get your permission so I could talk to him,” Shepherd said mildly. And the next day you were with me, Melody, and Yvonne at the same table. Yvonne and I got up to get the phone, when we came back we didn’t sit down because John came in, but Yvonne picked up the cup meant for me and drank it…and died. Having him in the room sure did make it appear he was involved.”
Bark was looking paler than usual and sweating.
“You have an extensive list of books on toxicology in your office, Cleveland,” Shepherd said. “Special Agent Gray looked last night.”
“Or course I do! We serve food, and some of it we get from around the world, you jackanape!” Bark was on his feet, incensed. “I need to make sure we’re not going to poison our crew with some oddball fruit or whatever! Besides, if you make that argument, you just undermined your belief in Knocker’s innocence! He’s a Culinary Specialist himself, and all the CS’s have access to my library for safety’s sake! Any of them can look up poisons!”
Shepherd smiled, “Right! Which means you are the obvious suspect except for the fact you were not on board the night Paige was killed. So relax, you’re off the hook. Whoever killed Paige…I’m guessing they joined the duty section right about the time Knocker started hiding from them…only he’s still not ready to trust me and talk. So I’ll have to work it out for him.”
Knocker was staring at Shepherd as though Shepherd had sprouted two heads.
Shepherd hopped a little hop on the tape outline of where Jenny’s head had fallen. Rhyme sobbed louder.
“Chief, please move!” Cmdr. Riggs ordered.
“Oh, I’m sorry! How rude of me!” Shepherd said, obviously not meaning it as he stepped out of the outline.
“So many little snippets of data. So many bits of people’s personalities and habits can be learned if one just listens. Listens to the CMC during a late night conversation on the flight deck. Listens to an MC1. Listens to a Sailor here or there…and listen to CS2 Knocker when he tells me ‘we all stick together.’”
Shepherd turned to Knocker again. “You can’t possibly hate me. You never met me before. But there was hatred in your voice when we talked. Something about me, something I represent…that’s what you hate. And for good reason. Something I represent was harassing you and no one in the upper chain was listening because you do have a bad history. Only one person would listen, CS1 Simon Paige. Simon Paige won your trust, Simon Paige believed you, and Simon Paige tried to fight for you…and Simon Paige died. He died for you, Tyrell Knocker. Remember that when this is over. He died for you. He believed in you and your worth as a Sailor and person enough that he died for you. He thought that highly of you. Be worthy of that faith he had in you.”
Shepherd whirled around. “So…our murderer is someone who joined the duty section a little over three weeks ago…and knows about toxic plants. Cleveland’s clear; he’s not in the duty section. I was Barking up the wrong tree intentionally. Jenny was clear; her time on duty was spent below decks in Reactor. But one person who does ‘love the boys’ and knows an awful lot about plants did join the duty section three weeks ago, right Melody?”
“What?” Potts said, confused.
“I don’t…get it…” Copeland said.
Deedra and Riggs were on the edges of their seat; they got it.
Melody Rhyme looked up through her tears. “W-What?”
“You volunteer with Horticulture at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, so you know plants very well. You joined the duty section four weeks before Paige’s murder; one week after you joined Knocker started hiding. And, if I recall, there were red paint chips directly under Paige’s head where it was bashed into the deck to make sure he was dead.”
Shepherd stepped forward, “You changed your nails the morning after the murder. It was enough of a shift that the MCs in the Media Center noticed it. Before that you wore bright red fake plastic nails, I believe?”
“Nothing’s conclusive,” Gray said from next to Melody Rhyme. He had been quietly sidling over to her. “But the red-painted plastic chips we found under his head are consistent with artificial fingernails and polish. You broke your fake nails when you smashed the back of his head into the deck to make sure he was dead, didn’t you?”
“And you left early on Wednesday,” Shepherd said, all comic pretense dropped. A look of deepest loathing deformed his otherwise handsome face. “You went and concentrated water hemlock toxin so you could kill me. You knew Knocker had been moved to the Chiefs Mess; what better way to divert attention and stop me than by killing me with him in the room. You only needed a fraction of a second to pour the toxin into my cup. You got your distraction when the phone rang. Only poor Yvonne grabbed my cup by mistake and died instead. Either way you were content to let Knocker take the rap.”
“It was her,” Knocker said suddenly. He was standing. “She kept cornering me and touching…touching me…and kissing me…she always found me….no believed me….well, CS1 did…”
“Oh, God, I’m sorry!!!” Melody Rhyme broke and blurted it all out. “I…I didn’t mean to kill him! I was angry! That bastard was going to ruin my chance of making senior chief! I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just being playful and these little pansies couldn’t take it and now Yvonne’s dead! I didn’t mean too! I liked Yvonne! I didn’t mean to kill her!!!!” She looked horribly pathetic and small, her whole frame shaking as though she were having a seizure.
Lt. Cmdr. Potts had released Rhyme from her comforting embrace and was staring at her in surprised disgust.
Gray was behind her and had her hands cuffed before she knew it. He read out the statement of her rights as she wailed. Everyone else in the Chiefs Mess was a statue, stunned into a paralyzed silence.
“Your chances of making senior chief?!” Copeland roared. “You killed two shipmates over that?!”
“I didn’t mean too!!!!” Rhyme screamed. “Isaac…Isaac…you know me…it was an accident…it just got out of control…I didn’t mean–!”
“Oh, stow it, you bitch!” Shepherd snapped. “You wore the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy! It was your responsibility to protect these Sailors; not use them to get your little jollies between your legs or kill them because your poor little career was in danger as a consequence of your own actions! You are a traitor to everything that uniform has represented for 200 years! Now shut up and never talk to me again, you sea hag!”
He turned to Robinson, “You got all that on tape?”
“I do indeed, Chief.” She handed the digital recorder to Special Agent Cremer. He had removed the shackles from Knocker and handed them to Gray who was fitting them onto the screaming Melody Rhyme.
“CS2 Knocker will have to come with us so we can un-process him, but then he’ll be back on duty tomorrow,” Gray said after Cremer dragged the hysterical Rhyme from the mess.
Copeland walked over to Knocker, “No. Take the weekend and relax, but call me every day. I need to make sure you’re ok. We still have two weeks before we get underway; Monday I’ll take you to a proper counselor. Besides the anger issues you have, you will need help to recover from this. I was wrong, CS2. I apologize.”
Knocker looked completely bewildered by this as he followed Gray out of the mess. He stopped and looked back at Shepherd as if he had never seen anything like him before. Shepherd smiled and winked. Knocker left.
“Isaac,” Copeland turned, “I’m sorry. I…I was wrong. Yesterday in my office. I was wrong.”
Shepherd smiled, “It’s ok. Your Sailors were under threat. That’s enough to make any good chief cranky. Captain, I believe I must report the murderer has been found and the case has been closed.”
Deedra nodded, still silent. Speaking finally, he said, “This is going to tear apart the Media Center. Chief Shepherd, I am afraid I need your help. I will speak to your chain of command at NEPAC East. I need you on board for a few days at least. You and MC1 Robinson, if possible. I believe you two will be well-placed to assist Lt. Cmdr. Potts in trying to get my media team through the immediate trauma.”
“It would be our honor, sir,” Shepherd said very genuinely for himself and Robinson. He turned to Potts, “Ma’am, I’m NEPAC’s Command Suicide Coordinator, so crisis behavior and crisis response are my bailiwick. First thing we need to do right now is get the whole Media Center together and tell them the truth. You, me, and MC1 Robinson here. We have to answer the thousand questions they will have as best we can.”
Potts nodded, “Good call, Chief. MC1 Robinson, please come with me. Let’s get them rounded up now. Chief?”
“John,” Shepherd held up a hand to Potts, asking for a moment, “John, get the Fleet and Family Support Center on Hampton Boulevard on the phone. We need professional crisis counselors on this ship now. And not just for Media. The Supply and Reactor Departments have suffered deaths at the hand of a shipmate; their ability to trust anyone is shot. They need help as much as the MCs in media will.
“Cmdr. Riggs, the ship needs to go into Dry Creek 1 now.” The “Dry Creek” terms denoted a series of levels of security for off-ship communications. Dry Creek 1 indicated the internet, email, phones, basically everything except the captain’s lines of communication were sealed off. Shepherd continued, “We need to control the information and make sure neither Wilma Paige nor the public learn of this from some yahoo’s Facebook post. It has to come from the captain or NCIS in a formal statement.”
Riggs went to the phone on the wall and called the IT people.
Not 30 seconds later a voice was blaring over the 1MC, the internal paging system. “Attention aboard the IKE. Now set Dry Creek 1. Now set Dry Creek 1.”
Copeland was on the phone next, and a team of crisis counselors from the Fleet and Family Support Center would be aboard the Dwight D. Eisenhower within one hour.
Taking a breath, Shepherd followed Potts and Robinson. The mystery was solved, and that was the easy part. Now they had to do clean up, and clean up was always a messy affair. Clean up after someone who thought they had more right to live than others…someone who didn’t really care how much of the ship they tore apart to protect their own little life. Clean up that meant helping heal devastated, angry Sailors; heal a wife and children who had to find a new life without their husband; heal a ship full of strangers who had to learn to be shipmates again.
Murder mystery books never deal with the clean-up, Shepherd thought. And I really hate cleaning up after someone like…her.
He couldn’t even bring himself to think her name.
After this one, he was going to have to let the professionals clean him up too.
“You did really good, Isaac,” Abraham Gray said. “Thank you.”
For once Gray was not in his usual politician-like suit. He wore an old Washington State University sweatshirt and jeans. Next to him Shepherd wore an old green fatigue-style jacket over a brown T-shirt and jeans and Robinson was decked out in a retro “Space Invaders” T-shirt and boots over her jeans. They were standing under the pavilion on the end of the naval station fishing pier. The pier itself was located at the end of the carrier piers and was a popular fishing spot since fishermen needed on license on base. It was a Tuesday morning, however, so there was no one else on it at the moment. As they watched, the long, elegantly geometric form of USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) glided past Sewells Point and set her bow for the shipping channel cutting through the Hampton-Roads Bridge Tunnel.
“Hard to believe it’s been two weeks. It’s nearly May already,” Shepherd said as the tug boats began to peel alway. IKE was making enough headway that her four 110,000 lbs. rudders could control her course. “I hope they’re ready. Two weeks is not a lot of time to recover, especially for Media, Supply, and Reactor.”
“I never experienced anything like that before,” Robinson said. “Having to go into that Media Center and tell them what happened…that Chief Rhyme was the murderer…I don’t know, but I think that work center’s been screwed up for good. How do you trust anyone ever again when one of your own shipmates in your own shop was harassing and killing people?”
“Especially when it was your chief of all people,” Shepherd said grimly.
Gray nodded. He had never regretted being a civilian, but he did admit there was something his active duty friends experienced by dint of wearing the uniform that he never would.
“They’re only out for a few weeks, and the counselors are all on board,” Gray said. “Best thing for them, in my opinion. Get them back to sea. Get them being Sailors again.”
Gray turned as the salt breeze wafted a nearly subsonic hit of the carrier’s powerful engines to them.
“You two could be on that ship, you know. Capt. Deedra and Lt. Cmdr. Potts both asked you to stay for this underway. I’m pretty sure NEPAC East would have approved.”
“No.” Shepherd shook his head. “We did our part, but we can’t be responsible for putting that shop, or that ship, back together again. It’s one thing to step in for ten days or so and help restore order and the chain of command. But IKE’s leadership have to be the ones facilitating the long-term restoration of the crew, not a couple of outsiders like us.”
“You ok, Isaac?”
“No,” Shepherd said. “I’m still having nightmares about Yvonne’s death. Survivor’s guilt. And the lack of any job lined up after I retire is a daily torment to a control freak like me. Double jeopardy. And…Melody…”
“I imagine the feeling of betrayal is strong,” Gray said. “I’m sorry you have to testify against her. I know how hard that will be on you.”
“No, it won’t,” Shepherd said. “She betrayed everything a United States Sailor—and especially a chief—stand for. The betrayal is hard; testifying will be easy.”
“Were you good friends with her, Chief?” Robinson asked. Her long hair was tightly braided, but otherwise fell in a long sweeping wave down the back of her shirt.
“We were never really friends,” Shepherd said. “She picked up chief the year after me. I’ve taught her a few times when I was NEPAC East’s Training Manager while we were both First Classes. We bumped into each other at various events. She had a reputation for being a very good, if very young and inexperienced, chief. We weren’t close, but I did get on with her…until she tried to kill me and missed.”
The carrier was far enough away that no sound emanated from it; it was a gray ghost sliding on the water.
“Chief, why did you want me to record the meeting in the Chiefs Mess?” Robinson asked. “You and Agent Gray already had enough evidence against her.”
“Not necessarily,” Shepherd said. “Assuming NCIS couldn’t get any DNA evidence to directly tie her to Paige’s body, everything we had was circumstantial enough that a good lawyer might have been able to get her off.”
“Even direct evidence can sometimes leave enough holes that a jury has a ‘reasonable doubt’ and therefore won’t convict the suspect,” Gray said. “Basing a case on circumstantial evidence is a really bad idea. Getting her to freely confess like that—on tape—makes our job in court a hell of a lot easier.”
“So…Chief, just how did you figure it all out?” Robinson asked. “When we arrived in the Ike Room you had it laid out, but I still don’t get how you figured it out.”
Shepherd smiled. “Read Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot…a lot! Listen to everything, suspect everyone, be open to possibilities you otherwise think are ridiculous and, most of all, learn to read people. People act according to their natures, and it takes a really significant event—usually traumatic—to make people change their natures.”
“That was about as far from answering my question as you get,” Robinson said pointedly.
“Sorry,” Shepherd glanced over at Gray. “One night I was talking to the Master Chief Copeland. He was convinced Knocker did it, but we also talked about Rhyme’s growth as a chief. He made a remark that she was a ‘great lover of the boys’ and he had to keep reigning her in and reminding her not to interact with them like she did when she was a First Class.”
“Interesting,” Robinson nodded. “So when I finally got the other First Classes in the duty section to tell me they were suspecting someone higher in the chain of command was sexually harassing their male Sailors recently, you put those two pieces together with the knowledge that Chief Rhyme had joined that duty section only a few weeks earlier.”
“Exactly,” Shepherd nodded. “That was part of it. The red painted plastic NCIS found kept bugging me for the same reason it bugged Abe—it was located directly beneath Paige’s body. It had to be connected to the murder. And the very first day you and I came on board someone down in media remarked that Melody had cut her nails and gotten rid of the bright red polish. She said it was to set a better, more conservative example…yet she kept that ridiculously bright red lipstick on. Obviously the woman liked red, and obviously her idea about setting an example was…incomplete, to say the least.”
“I see,” Robinson nodded.
“Once I linked the increase in chatter over sexual harassment with the fact that Yvonne Jenny’s behavior had been clearly overly friendly, but not sexual, it couldn’t be her.”
“That and the fact she was killed,” Robinson said.
“Yeah, that kind of gave it away too,” Gray said. “But the line of reasoning Isaac is following is basically one of seeing each person with possible motive and opportunity and playing it out. Had Jenny not died, could her behavior have even indicated possible homicidal tendencies?”
“I had to consider if Knocker was guilty since that stupid thief, that Driver dork, had been cleared by not being aboard that night,” Shepherd said. “If Knocker was guilty, of course he didn’t want to talk to anyone. But that avoidance behavior started well before Paige’s murder. Knocker has problems with authority all right, but something happened to wreck his work ethic and make him see me—a man he never met—as a representation of something he hated.”
“The uniform of a chief,” Robinson said.
“Yep,” Shepherd nodded as a laughing gull whisked by and then turned, winging towards the shrinking Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Something made him lose his trust in the chain of command, but Paige was able to put two and two together. He had been working with Knocker enough and trying hard enough to get Knocker to accept his help that he figured out what was causing Knocker’s abrupt shift in behavior.”
“And then she killed Paige,” Robinson said. “I read in the news she said she found out Paige was going to report her by name, so she slipped down to the store room he was in to talk him out of it.”
Shepherd nodded, “Precisely. Simon Paige had turned a new leaf in his book and was becoming very assertive. He refused to believe her claims of ‘just playing’ and crap like that. She knew she was in serious trouble; you know the Navy is taking sexual harassment pretty damn seriously these days. She preceded him up the ladders and made a snap decision to clock him with the hatch and make it seem like an accident.”
“She always did seem impulsive…” Robinson caught her breath and smiled, understanding all of a sudden. “She always seemed impulsive! I get it! Killing Paige was an impulsive act…and so was the attempt on you! She was the only one on board who was impulsive, had abruptly changed her red-painted nails, and was new in the duty section…and was with you nearly all the time and therefore able to know when you were getting close to the truth. So…another impulsive act!”
“Bingo! You got it, Dionne,” Shepherd said. “The Paige murder as well done in its way, but there was no way any experienced Sailor or NCIS agent would believe a scuttle hatch could kill a man. The full deck hatch, yes, but not the scuttle. And then she realized he wasn’t dead so she went back down and killed him, breaking her nails on the deck under him in the process. It was a bit of a snap decision to go concoct that poison to kill me, but I think as she’s examined on the stand it’ll come out that she got the idea when she realized Knocker would be in the Mess too. Put more circumstantial guilt on him.”
“The CMC certainly fell for it,” Robinson said angrily.
“Don’t judge him too harshly,” Shepherd said. “His conclusions were not far-fetched; Knocker has one hell of an anger management issue and was missing when Paige died. And then goes and finds the body. Copeland takes protecting his Sailors pretty seriously; he was in very difficult place emotionally. These were his Sailors being killed by someone who also was one of his Sailors. Emotions easily cloud critical thinking, and his inability to protect his people was eating at him bad.”
“I hope Knocker will be alright,” Robinson said.
“He will,” Shepherd said. “Copeland is on his side now, and his public apology to Knocker, coming after I did what I did to clear him, restored Knocker’s faith in the chain of command and built a bond of personal loyalty to me and Copeland. Knocker has a lot of growing up to do, but I think he’ll get the mentoring he needs to do it, and do it right.”
Gray studied Shepherd’s face. It was drawn and tight and tired. “Isaac? I know that look. What else is wrong?”
“What else? Same thing as always—I need a job. On top of all this, I still need a post-Navy job,” Shepherd said. “I got my second rejection letter. State of Virginia this one. At least my name is being seen and the process is working. My applications are being processed. And yes I have six months to go…but I hate waiting and I hate not knowing.”
“You’re both taking some leave, I hear?” Gray asked.
“Why do you think we’re not in uniform today?” Shepherd said. “After this think I’ll head to the Virginia Aquarium and stare at fish…or ‘feesh’ as I called them when I was three.”
Gray could see Shepherd was glum. A very bad depression had settled over the man, and he was obviously straining to cope with it. “When do you see your counselor again?”
“Next week,” Shepherd said. “And before you ask, I’m ok. I’m not thinking of harming myself or anyone else. And if I crash too bad you know I’ll call to talk. I’ve done it before.”
“You are taking your meds, right?”
“Yes, dad,” Shepherd said.
“This was a hard case. Harder emotionally than even I expected,” Gray said. “Want company?”
The IKE was passing the Hampton-Roads Bridge Tunnel and the tugboats were heading back to the naval station.
“Want company while you look at ‘feesh’?” Gray smiled.
“Don’t you have to work?”
Gray shrugged. “So I take a day of unpaid leave. I can afford it. Let’s go.”
“I’ll come too,” Robinson said suddenly. She reckoned Shepherd could use the company…and…if she was honest with herself…she wasn’t quite ready to be alone either. She was very shaken by the events on the IKE, and felt time with these two men would be good for her own emotional decompression. “I do have a new ‘Mario’ game…but it can wait. ‘Feesh’ might be fun.”
Shepherd nodded. “Ok. But I get dibs at the sting ray petting tank.”
The three turned and walked back down the pier as the flat-topped silhouette of the Dwight D. Eisenhower returned to the sea where she belonged.