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.
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
The elegantly geometric form of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) threw a massive bow wave up as she charged ahead, shoving nearly 100,000 tons of water out of her way as she sailed. The air was still this late afternoon, so the ship was using the full force of her four reactors to spin her four 21-foot, 30-ton bronze propellers fast enough to dash through the Arabian Sea sunlight and create over 20 knots of wind across her four-acre flight deck.
The ship was named for Georgia Congressman Carl Vinson, a visionary naval leader in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol whose efforts resulted in the largest naval procurement act in U.S. history: the 1940 Vinson-Walsh Act, or “Two Ocean Navy Act.” This law expanded the U.S. Navy by 70% and, whether through good luck or prescient foresight on Vinson’s part, started the development of the industrial infrastructure that allowed the United States to recover from the attack on Pearl Harbor and build a globe-spanning Navy that was key to the Allied victory in World War II.
Only two more ships of the Nimitz-class were due: the future Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) was at sea off the U.S. East Coast undergoing sea trials, and the future George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) had not even been laid down yet.
The Middle Eastern wars were in their early, nascent days, and the Navy strikes were being led by the famous swing-wing F-14 Tomcats and the lethal darts of F/A-18 Hornets. As it was, Carl Vinson’s air wing was flying night missions and those of the second carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, were covering the day missions—thus the enemy was being clocked around the clock nonstop. As the late afternoon wore, Carl Vinson’s flight deck had shifted from launching patrols and training flights to high gear as the evening launch cycle roared into life.
Walking forward under along the starboard side of an F-14D Tomcat from the Dark Lions of VF-713, Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Isaac T. Shepherd, only recently minted a “final checker” and awarded the white jersey and float coat (the life vest all flight deck personnel wore) with their checker-board patterns, felt roasted, toasted, and cooked. The flight deck in the Arabian Sea easily surpassed 110 degrees sometimes—and that was just the ambient air temperature. Factor in the piping hot jet wash and the proverbial joke about frying an egg on the deck became an all too sweat-inducing reality. The amount of sweat Shepherd’s body alone had already turned his brand-new white jersey a dull tan, to say nothing of the stains caused by flight deck grime.
Shepherd nervously concentrated on listening to the radio built into his cranial as the F-14 rolled forward; this was only his sixth launch as a final checker, and he was petrified he’d miss something, especially considering he was still wiped out from the horrible events of the day before. Finding a dead body and being grilled by NCIS for hours was not anywhere near how he had planned for the previous day to end.
The voices he heard just barely were audible over the jet noise. The roar of the jets on the catapult was like a freight train’s bigger brother tearing through a concrete tunnel while an acid rock band tossed in a few riffs for good measure. The Sailors on a carrier flight had a complex sign language all their own they used to communicate with…right down to ways in which they could “yell” using their hands. Even the final checkers, indeed all those who had a radio-configured cranial, often found the flight deck sign language a more efficient way to talk.
Lion 106 rolled slowly forward, following the directions of an aircraft director wearing a yellow shirt and float coat.
The plane director in his yellow shirt gave a wide sweep of his arms—the signal for the aircrew to deploy the Tomcat’s great wings as the nose gear was locked into the catapult. The aircraft shuddered slightly as the wings swung out, a great beetle reach to take to the air. Shepherd and his partner, Aviation Structural Mechanic Joshua Roby over on the jet’s port side, reached up and tugged and pushed and tried to manipulate various flight control surfaces. They all held firm. Beneath their heavy flight deck boots the heat of the steam catapults on the Carl Vinson’s bow soaked into their feet, creating the illusion that the soles of their boots were melting. VF-713 Aviation Ordnancemen in their red jerseys gave the smart bombs a final once-over before getting out of the way.
Shepherd and Roby positioned themselves at the back end of the Tomcat, both kneeling low.
Shepherd loved and lived for this moment. The moment when the pilot would give a quick, final cycle of all control surfaces, the giant engines would roar out their rage, and the Tomcat would fly. For just this moment, all memory of the previous night was wiped from his hyperactive mind.
He and Roby pointed at each surface (rudder, elevator, etc.) on their side of the jet as each surface cycled. When the cycle was complete the pointed at each other and gave each other a double-thumbs up, the final signal everything was good. The two airdales then extended their arms out, holding their hands in the “thumbs up” position so the catapult officer could see them and know they were ready.
Both Sailors were kneeling, but leaned forward so one hand was touching the deck. VF-713 flew the F-14D model of the 30-year-old Tomcat. The F-14D was fitted with the GE F110-400 engine, an engine so powerful it would actually burn a hole straight through the steel jet blast deflector that rose up behind the if the pilot engaged the afterburners. Even so, roaring up to only 80% power created a subsonic pounding in Shepherd’s chest that disrupted his very breathing and filled him with an adrenaline rush no amount of bungee jumping could ever match.
The catapult officer received a final salute from the pilot—the signal the aircrew were ready. He knelt low, touched the deck…
…and point to the bow. Down in a small cubby hole in the flight deck between the forward catapults a green-shirted Sailor hit the button, releasing the fury of super heated steam, allowing it to slam into the piston, blasting it forward and dragging Lion 106 with it. It took only two seconds for the catapult to fling the 70,000 lbs. Tomcat into the air at over 120 knots.
And it was over. Lion 106 was the last jet to be launched for this cycle. In another few hours it would all start again, but Shepherd was about to turn in his tool pouch, hang up his float coat, and be off until 06:00 the next morning. The night shift for all the squadrons in Carrier Air Wing 11 aboard Carl Vinson would ensure the enemy got no sleep.
“You ok, Sparky?” Roby asked, using an old nickname of Shepherd’s as they inventoried each tool in the pouches on their hips.
The final checker shop for VF-713 was not much more than a broom cupboard on the O3 level under the flight deck near elevator 3 (“El 3”) on the ship’s starboard side. On a carrier the “main deck” is the hangar bay. Everything below this is referred to as a “deck,” and everything above is a referred to as a “level.” Thus the ship had the 2nd deck and 03 Level, for instance. The flight deck was the 04 Level. Around the two of them VF-713’s other final checkers were inventorying their own tools and getting ready to head up to the flight deck for the night work, or go eat and shower and have a few hours off.
“Yeah. Just…” Shepherd shrugged.
“You’re bugged by finding Blake’s body, aren’t you?” Roby was ruddy and red-haired. He looked like the typical Iowa farm boy he was, only his years at sea working on aircraft structures had both sculpted his arms into power tools in their own right while making his forearms swell so much he bore an unfortunate resemblance to the “Popeye” cartoon character.
“No,” Shepherd said. “No, I’m not so much upset by that as bothered by something Agent Bale said.”
They signed the log book and hung their took pouches back in the locker. The repeated the inventory procedure as they hung up their float coats. The float coats carried a light, whistle, auto inflation system, and signal mirror—each had to be checked and accounted for before and after the float coat was worn.
The two waited until their supervisor, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Erica Boyle, had come back from the night maintenance meeting and handed out specific maintenance assignments for the night.
“Sparky,” Boyle called over the clatter of a tractor directly over their heads. “There’s going to be an early TARPS mission tomorrow, so tomorrow morning go to the TARPS shop before you come here.”
“Roger that,” Shepherd said. Every other Photographer’s Mate in the squadron was in the TARPS shop, the shop that maintained and hung the reconnaissance camera pods on the F-14s. When a TARPS mission was being set up (and these were flown during the day) Shepherd would go back and help the TARPS shop get things ready.
Roby led Shepherd out of the shop after Boyle released them.
“Food? It’s Friday—that means sliders on the forward mess decks,” Roby said happily, using Navy slang for hamburgers.
“Josh, there’s always sliders on the forward mess deck. That’s all they serve. Well, that and hot dogs.”
The two navigated down the narrow ladders, pausing to allow a chief petty officer to ascend, before stepping out into the cavernous hangar deck, big enough to house a Navy destroyer. Broken into three bays by gigantic fire doors, each bay was assigned to specific squadrons. Bay 3, all the way aft, was home to VF-713’s Tomcats when they needed heavy maintenance. It was also home to the HAZMAT shop where, 24 hours earlier, Shepherd had found a dead body.
Shepherd kept dinner brief.
“What’s the rush, Spark Nuts?” Roby asked. He found it amusing to butcher Shepherd’s nickname as many ways as he could.
“I need to go ask some questions, Joshua.”
“Like what?” Roby polished off his fourth burger.
“Last night, well, early this morning, Agent Bale told me they’re looking at Blake being killed by accidental poisoning. He picked up the wrong bottle in the dark and drank something wit antifreeze in it.”
“So, first off, if he drank plain antifreeze, he’d spit it out. Antifreeze has a sweet taste, but, by itself, any of us would know it wasn’t an actual drink and spit it out. So if he did die of antifreeze poisoning, it had to be hidden inside something else. That means it was done deliberately. That means he was murdered. Besides, it takes almost 12 hours for antifreeze to kill you, and you’ll be feeling so bloody sick before hand that you’d go to medical and they’d save you.”
“So I think he was murdered with something fast-acting. I can’t understand why Bale would think it’s antifreeze poisoning. She can’t be that dumb.”
“When did you figure all that out?” Roby was surprised.
“I read it when I took some criminology classes at Florida State. I double-majored in History and Criminology.”
“Why would you do that?!” Roby was both impressed and horrified. “Hell, I couldn’t even stick with one major so I dropped out of Iowa State after one semester.”
Shepherd shrugged, “Honestly, it was kind of cool to do. Not many people double-majored, and I thought it’d be cool to double in American history and criminology. I never really thought about it. I mean, I wanted to work in a museum, so the double-major was just, well, I just sort of did to be cooler than everyone else.”
“You mean smarter,” Roby laughed. “Didn’t you work at a museum?”
“Museum of Florida History,” Shepherd nodded. “Was an assistant, and was going to be a curator one day if state budget cuts hadn’t killed my job. But at FSU we did a big study of poisons. Had to do a term paper on them. I remember things pretty good, you know?”
Roby shrugged and smiled with genuine affection. He really liked this egghead-turned-airplane mechanic, though sometimes the “egghead” part left him speechless. “Dude, you know too much. Let it go. They’ll figure it out. I’m going to shower and sleep. See you tomorrow.”
He carried his tray to the scullery, dancing around the knots of other Sailors on the forward mess deck, and vanished.
Shepherd sat there, thinking. He was missing something. He just knew it. He had forgotten something. He really should get cleaned up and get some sleep, but he knew he was right and had to find a way to make Bale listen to him. She certainly wouldn’t be impressed by all his book-learning at Florida State. He’d learned that the hard way in Spain; it had taken a second murder for that other agent, that Abe Gray, to take him seriously.
That means I need to come up with something concrete to show her…and I don’t want it be a second murder this time, Shepherd thought. I need…I need evidence. I need something. That means I need to talk to people.
And that meant another very long night. Might as well get to it.
Dropping his tray in the scullery, he climbed back up into the hangar deck, emerging inside Bay 1. It was a ten minute walk to the aft end where HAZMAT was, what with all the ducking and weaving he had to do around the parked and chained aircraft being worked on. Buzzes and whirs and hammer strikes and bangs and curses bounced around like racquetballs.
The sun was falling outside the great bay doors; the ocean took on the purple sheen of evening where the ship’s wake did not break its surface into an orgy of foam. Orange lighting—designed to both protect night vision and keep the ship from being visible too far away, flickered on. Very soon now the shadows would overwhelm the little daylight left and night would be upon them.
Under his feet the rhythmic throb of the “Chucky V’s” engines was a constant comfort. Ever so gently the great ship swayed back and forth, side to side. The movement was not nearly enough to unsteady anyone, even those maintainers perched high atop the aircraft they were working on.
“Beasley!” Shepherd called as he passed the main HAZMAT desk, still roped off as a potential crime scnene.
Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Patrick Beasley, attached to VFA-455, turned. He was one of the Sailors TAD from their squadron to help run HAZMAT, and had known the dead Blake. He was just putting on a set of headphones attached to his portable CD player when he heard Shepherd.
“Sparky,” Beasley was clearly upset.
“Hey, got a minute?” Shepherd asked.
Shepherd glanced around, “Come on. We need to talk.”
He led Beasley into a passage way off the hangar bay, turned a corner, ducked under an air duct, and hit a dead end.
“What’s up?” Beasley asked. He wasn’t put off the location at all. Isolated blind alleys like this always gave a measure of privacy on a warship.
“Look,” Shepherd said, “I don’t buy the line they’re putting out that Blake killed himself accidentally. You and I aren’t great friends, but we’ve known each other a while now. As corny as this sounds, is there anyone or any reason you can think of someone would want to murder him? You two were in HAZMAT for the last three months; did he piss off anyone? Did one of the other squadron guys or ship’s company guys have a grudge?”
Beasley looked startled. “They said it was accidental. Why do you think it wasn’t?”
“They’re saying he drank antifreeze. Antifreeze takes twelve hours to kill you, and you’d be getting so sick you’d likely go to medical long before you’d be dead. That’s why. I don’t get it, but there it is. Was anyone with him last night that you know of?”
Beasley shook his head. “I don’t know. I last saw him going to work. Did you find him late?”
“Around 23:00. I was still up; my TARPS shop is painting one of the pods, so I was a nice guy and went to get more paint. He was alone as far as I know when I found him.”
“Come on, you and he were friends. You must know something. Some on this ship had to have not liked him.”
Beasley sighed. “I don’t know. I know Jim Simmons, the 2nd class from VFA-332, was pissed because Blake was hitting on a girl he liked.”
Shepherd blinked. “Jim Simmons?”
“He’s a Yeoman 2nd Class. Apparently he was pissed Blake was macking on girl up in 332’s admin that Simmons liked, and Blake got in Simmons’ face and threatened to tell his chain of command he was trying to sleep with one of his own Sailors. And I know Blake didn’t get on with AM1 Tyler Pearl, the day time leading petty officer of HAZMAT. HE and Pearl got into it pretty bad when he said Pearl’s wife was a fat cow; that’s why they switched me to days and Blake to nights, to separate them. And Blake honked off some guys from your squadron by mouthing off to them–”
“I know. I was one of the guys he mouthed off to,” Shepherd said dryly.
“So I don’t know. Blake always had a way of finding crap out and then using it against people. Does that help?” Beasley clearly wanted to get out of there.
“Yeah, thanks!” Shepherd said. He remained for a moment, thinking. He hadn’t like bugging poor Beasley, and watched with sympathy as he put his headphones on, started his CD player, and headed back into the darkening hangar bay. He thought it odd that Beasley could be so critical of Blake but still friends with him. But, then, Shepherd had his own share of high-maintenance friends, so who was he to talk?
Well, I have more information than I did, Shepherd thought. Blake was a real ass. Called his boss’ wife a cow. Threatened to report a YN2 for fraternization just so he could have a shot at the same girl. He’s mouthed off to me and my squadron mates a lot. But is any of that enough for murder? And what did he he really die of?
Motive. Well, they’d been at sea with no port calls since the terrorist attacks in September started the war. They’d been bombing non-stop for over a month now. That alone ramped up all their stress, and who knew if Blake or Simmons or Pearl had lost any friends or family in the terrorist attacks? That would set them even more on edge.
And we’re on a ship stuck at sea. Sometimes just not liking someone is enough to want to toss them overboard. I know I joke about it. But someone actually did it…well, sort of.
There was nothing for it. He would have to go talk to Bale and hope to high heaven she listened to him. He reckoned he might as well get it over with; he knew she was working late.
He found her in her office, alright. She’d been assigned an office on the ship in the Legal Department spaces. On board a Nimitz-class carrier, the second deck was the hub of ship’s life. Two long passageways running down the port and starboard side of the ship, and most of the general ship’s activities and services were along these “main streets.” The Legal Department was forward of the forward mess deck on the outboard starboard side. Across from it was one of the entrances to medical.
“Petty Officer Shepherd, I’m busy,” Bale was blunt.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Shepherd said, sitting without invitation. “Look, I know you think I’m nuts, but I think Blake was murdered and I have some new information.”
Bale leaned back, clearly impatient. “What?”
“First off, it makes no sense for him to die from antifreeze poisoning. That takes over 12 hours, and he’d be sick enough to have gone to medical and gotten help.”
“Oh, really?” Bale leaned forward, her head resting on her hand and staring at him.
“Yes. Really. And he had enemies. Frankly, Blake was a dork. He had threatened YN2 Simmons of VFA-332. Told Simmons he’d report him for fraternization just so Simmons would be out of the picture and give Blake a shot at a female yeoman in VFA-332’s admin. Blake had fought and fought with his leading petty officer enough that he called the guy’s wife a cow and ended up on nights just so the two were separated. I don’t know about opportunity yet, but that’s at least two motives right there,” Shepherd fairly spit all that out with the breathless speed of an auctioneer.
“Anything else, Hercule Poirot?”
The dripping contempt from her voice hit Shepherd hard enough that he missed the fact she had called him by the name of Agatha Christie’s most famous detective instead of the more common insult he got—Sherlock Holmes.
“Ok. Well, before you get ahead of yourself, I know all about antifreeze poisoning. Has it occurred to you I might be letting that story circulated to obscure the fact I know he died of benzene poisoning,” Bale said, feeling a satisfaction at shutting down the smug recitation of drivel from Shepherd. “Secondly, Blake pissed off a LOT more people than your little list. Problem is, every single one of them can be accounted for by multiple eyewitnesses or even security camera footage. He was dead for at least two hours before you found him. The fact remains he drank his poison, and it was a big enough dose that it put him into convulsions and he died rather rapidly. Oddly enough he didn’t vomit any of it up. But, you see, Petty Officer Shepherd, I know more than you think. Funny that, me being an NCIS special agent and all.
“However, the fact remains it is entirely possible he did die accidentally by drinking the wrong crap in the dark. I don’t need one of my suspects telling me how to do my job. Now—get out!”
Bale was standing over her desk and staring down at him by now.
Shepherd was angry. He was embarrassed by his careless assumptions about her, but he was also pissed at being dismissed when he knew…something. He was forgetting something but it was critical and he needed her to listen.
“I’ll go. But before I do, do you know Abraham Gray?” Shepherd asked.
Bale was surprised. “Over in Spain? Yeah, I know him. Why?”
“I worked with him two years ago on the Symko case. Ask him about me. I know I know I can help. Ask Gray and he’ll tell you I know what I’m about. But, trust me, Agent Bale, something is right under our noses and we’re missing it. But it’s something that will ID the murderer and end this.”