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
Back in the present day, three sets of eyes were locked on Chief Petty Officer Isaac Shepherd, enraptured.
“Wow!” Blunt said, “You walked into an NCIS’ agent’s office and said all that?!”
Shepherd laughed, “Seaman Blunt, there was not much heroic about it. For one thing, I was a suspect—I found the body. In many, many murder cases the person who finds the body is the murderer, so I had a vested interested in finding the real killer. For another, my behavior was not exactly professional. I was a hot-headed, hyper-active kid still. Didn’t matter I was 29; I was immature and usually shot my mouth off without thinking. Veronica Bale did me a real favor by making me realize I was being pretty snotty in assuming I was smarter than she was.”
Watson leaned forward on her elbows, “You had attempted suicide yourself in Spain at your first command, right?”
Shepherd nodded. He made no secret of it, or of his life-long fight with depression and anxiety. Indeed, for several years he had been NEPAC’s Suicide Prevention Coordinator and was tirelessly advocating for mental health issues.
Watson went on, “So you were on meds by this point? And that didn’t stop you from working on the flight deck?”
Shepherd laughed. “Actually, despite my suicide attempt in 1998, I was not on meds yet. I wasn’t actually diagnosed with chronic depression or agoraphobia—the particular anxiety disorder I have—until late 2003. So, during the time this story takes place, I was still trying to cope with a freneticly over-active brain and fear response and depression all by myself. And, just being on ‘head meds’ is not going to disqualify anyone from flight deck duty. You’ll be evaluated to make sure you’re safe for that kind of work, but there are a lot of Sailors up there on meds who do just fine. But…the lack of meds did not help. I finally think I started really maturing once I was on them because my mind was finally quieter and it was easier to focus on living and not merely surviving.”
“This from a man who still gets spun up faster than an anchor chain getting wrapped around a propeller shaft,” Robinson zinged her chief.
He laughed. “Oh, you think I’m excitable now; you think I have a hard time focusing and keeping this amazing brain of mine on track now? Back then…that’s one reason I loved the flight deck. Oh, it was cool to be up there and all that ooh-rah stuff we use in the recruiting ads, but there was more. For one, I really loved being an airplane mechanic. I’ve always had a white-collar brain, but a blue-collar heart. Being accepted by those \grease-monkey airdales as one of them did wonders for me as a young man. But—and I didn’t realize this until years later when I was on meds—it forced me to focus. That mechanical ballet on a flight deck an get real lethal real quick. Working in that environment forced my mind to stay focused and, oddly enough for such a noisy place, stay quiet.”
Robinson smiled, “So what did you do next? Go interview more people? Sounds like this Blake dude was asking for trouble.”
“He was,” Shepherd said, “But fate intervened the very next night. Remember, I was ‘day check,’ so most of the launches I did were training flights or patrols. The only inland strike launch I did was the final launch of the day; the night crew covered the rest. So it was that right after the last launch of the day check crew on Nov. 9 that our flight deck coordinator called me over….”
…Seventeen years in the past Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic Evers Carpenter called PH2 Shepherd over as the flight deck quieted down following Lion 110’s launch. Each squadron had one flight deck coordinator—always a chief petty officer—who was the liaison for that squadron with flight deck control. That chief also acted as an unofficial representative of the squadron’s CO since he or she was the first line of senior authority on the deck.
Carpenter was the epitome of the old, grizzled chief. He sported a brick red mustache that could be seen two time zones away, teeth stained lemon yellow from a lifetime of chewing tobacco, and the kind of no-nonsense, street-smart attitude that detested book learning and eggheads.
It was only recently Shepherd had stopped being terrified of him. When Chief Carpenter had advocated for him before the squadron CO as Shepherd was standing his board to qualify as a final checker, the younger petty officer had suddenly realized Carpenter actually liked him and respected him. Shepherd could not understand why (the fact Carpenter rarely found cause to criticize Shepherd’s work or often engaged him with historical questions just did not clue Shepherd in).
“Sparks,” Carpenter barked in that friendly way of his, sort of the way a happy German shepherd barks at you before ripping your leg off, “Special Agent Bale spoke to the CO earlier. She asked if you could work with her for a day or two. Said you have evidence that can help her in the Blake investigation.”
Flight operations over for now, Shepherd’s cranial was unfastened and sitting back on his head. He was startled. “Uh, so what does that mean? Do I not come up here tomorrow?”
“Nope,” Carpenter grunted and scratched his mustache (Shepherd often wondered if that mustache was a separate life form of it own. “Go see her tonight, but for the next couple of days you’re working with her. Now…what the hell did you do? You’re a frelling PH, not an agent. How did you get an NCIS agent to ask for your help?”
His initial reaction was one of fear that he was in trouble…but Shepherd had slowly been learning to read Carpenter better, and suddenly realized the man was impressed. “I…well, Chief, I don’t know. I had some ideas about finding the murderer, that’s all.”
Carpenter looked started. A tow tractor pulled an F-18 behind him as he cocked his head. “I thought it was an accidental death—that he drank antifreeze by mistake.”
“Not what Sparkiopolous thinks,” Roby appeared as though he had popped right out of the flight deck. “Gave me some long-winded spiel about antifreeze taking too long. Did you know El Sparkito here double-majored in history and criminology at FSU, Chief?”
“Josh!” Shepherd said, embarrassed.
“Really?” Carpenter said. “Why the hell did you enlist, Sparky? You should be an officer with that kind of education.”
Shepherd shrugged, “I needed a job really fast, and it was enlist and get a paycheck in a month, or wait a year unemployed to get into an officer program.”
“You’re too smart for this junk,” Carpenter said. “You need to get commissioned. But for now go turn in your tools and go report to Bale. Just phone Maintenance Control each morning to let them know you’re alive. Go!”
Shepherd jumped and scuttled off.
Bale was in her office. She looked up, took in his shipwreck-like appearance, and almost laughed. “You could have showered.”
“Chief Carpenter said to get down here.”
Bale leaned back, “Hmmm…ok…did he say to come see me tonight, or come see me right now?”
Shepherd thought for a moment, and realized her point. “Oh. He said to see you tonight.”
“Stop jumping to conclusions,” She said bluntly, but with a real measure of compassion. “You need to actually listen and think about what people tell you and not filter through your rather massive insecurities. Go shower and clean up and eat. Be here at 21:00.”
Shepherd complied. Showered, decked out in a clean set of flight deck gear (green fatigue pants and white jersey), stomach full, he sat across from Bale and waited nervously as he studied him.
She finally spoke.
“I don’t know Abraham Gray overly well, but he has a very good reputation. He’s definitely one of the rising stars in NCIS and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t jump ship and join the FBI or Secret Service in a couple of years. But I know him well enough myself to know he does not impress easily. So whoever you are, Isaac Shepherd, you are someone rather…unique. Read this.”
Shepherd took a printed email from her and read.
Good to hear from you. I heard you had been assigned to Carl Vinson, and looks like you got your hands full already. Yes, I know Isaac Shepherd. He was a Yeoman 3rd Class here and got picked up to convert to Photographer’s Mate while I was working with him. I’m glad to hear he also got promoted to 2nd Class.
First off, he’s exceptionally immature, hyperactive, thin-skinned, and egotistical as hell. Frankly I haven’t met a man so full of himself in a long time–
“What the hell does he mean I’m immature and thin-skinned?!” Shepherd looked up and asked angrily, completely missing the irony of his outburst.
Bale sighed. “Keep reading.”
I’m almost sorry you have to deal with him. Almost.
To be honest, he’s a big kid. Don’t judge him too harshly. I know he’s pushing 30, but if anyone was a late bloomer, it’s him. He’s still trying to figure out how to live in a grown-up world, and he’s got some real psychological issues to wrestle with. He attempted suicide while he was here, and, as I got to know him, I began to suspect a lot of his egotism and bluster are more a shield against whatever is troubling him than true selfishness.
Anyway, I said I was almost sorry. Frankly, and I hate to admit this, if he’s there and he thinks he knows something about the Blake case, listen to him. I know he thinks he’s a detective because he read everything Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, but the fact is he does have an amazing level of perception. He has a real gift for seeing patterns where others miss them, for listening to people and working out motives, causes, etc. He has a very real talent for recognizing how people act and how actions are consistent with character.
I can’t tell you to trust him. I’m not there. But if you want my advice, you’d be foolish to ignore him. He already saw straight through your cover story and has started to lock down concrete ideas of motive. I strongly advise you to trust him and listen to him. Besides, as a common Sailor, he has access to the crew in ways you or I never will. He can get into conversations and places and people will not have their guard up like they do with us.
I don’t know if you know, but he double-majored in history and criminology. I really think he made a mistake not pursuing a law enforcement career. He really is a gifted, if very inexperienced, detective.
Hope you’re well and I wish you speed in nailing this perp.
Shepherd looked up at Bale again. He was both humiliated by seeing Gray’s unfiltered opinion of him, and immensely proud of Gray’s unfiltered opinion of him.
Bale took a breath. “Ok, PH2. Whatever you did with Gray in Spain…he’s sold. If he’s sold…I’m sold. As I told you, Gray does not impress easily and he has already gotten the notice and patronage of some very high-level people in law enforcement. I’m willing to trust his instincts.”
“Thank you,” Shepherd said. “So…what now?”
“What now is we talk, and if any of this conversation leaves this room, I will nail your ass to the deck. I am taking a huge risk allowing you to see this kind of confidential information, but if it nails us a murderer, it’s a risk worth taking,” Bale said.
For once Shepherd knew enough to be quiet.
“Ok, as we talked about last night, every one you mentioned—Simmons, Pearl…even the female both Simmons and Blake were both after—all have cast-iron alibis that prove they had not opportunity to murder Blake, even though all three had motive. They are out of the picture. And Blake was alone the night of the 7th before you found him. HAZMAT had no one else working that night and three VAW-234 Sailors checked out cleaning fluid from him an hour before we estimated the time of death. They saw no one else in HAZMAT. That pretty much gives us one hour for the killer to get in and out.”
“And the real poison?” Shepherd hazarded
“You nailed the antifreeze story alright,” Bale acknowledged. “I think it was Benzene that killed him myself, though toxicology will have to confirm that. Benzene is found in fuels, solvents, lots of things. If something high in Benzene were poured into his water bottle and mixed with, say, soda, he could guzzle a lot of it before knowing what happened and be dead.”
“That’s a huge risk for the killer to take,” Shepherd didn’t realize it, but his demeanor had shifted. He was suddenly much more focused. “If someone wanted him dead, that’s a really lousy way to try and do it. Sure, it’d hide the cause of death a bit, but the lack of certainty of outcome far outweighs the risk of putting it in his drink.”
Bale nodded and spread several photos over her desk. “You were otherwise distracted by doing CPR, but here’re the photos of the HAZMAT shop right after his body was removed. Look around and tell me what you see.”
Carl Vinson’s engines quietly throbbed below them as the ventilation system quietly hummed above them.
“There’s a funnel on the deck, over there,” Shepherd said. “Not too far from where I found Blake’s body. Now that I see it again, I remember noticing it that night, but didn’t think anything of it.”
“Good eye,” Bale said. “Another detail for you—Blake has bruising on his neck and his lips—upper and lower—were abraded and cut on the inside, as if they had been pushed against his teeth. He also had a very recent bruise on the back of his head that had not had time to really start swelling before he died. Some of it was consistent with the expected injuries of you doing CPR, but not all.”
“You mean someone…someone clocked him over the back of his head, shoved this funnel into his mouth and poured the stuff down his throat?”
“You pick up fast,” Bale was clearly impressed. “That is exactly the scenario I’m looking at.”
“That means…that means whoever killed him was most likely someone he knew very well and had no reason to be threatened by,” Shepherd said. “Most murders are committed by people the victim knew, so that means we’re looking for someone close to him.”
Bale nodded, “Which narrows it to a squadron with over 200 people in it and at least 50 people here on the ship,” Bale said. “We have to narrow it further.”
“Yeah,” Shepherd said, looking at the photos. “But there’s something else…something I’m missing…”
“What?” Bale said. “Something you saw? Tell you what, I’ve got a fresh pot of coffee on. If you really are as perceptive as Gray makes you out, you’ll see something I haven’t. I want you to read over the statements I’ve accrued so far. You might pick up something, especially as you’ve interacted with these Sailor in a way I haven’t. Get ready for a long night, Petty Officer Shepherd!”