Looking Back – Chapter 4

Looking Back1

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.

Looking Back

(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)

by Nathanael Miller

-Chapter 4-

Back in the present, Chief Shepherd paused from his tale to swig a gulp of water.

You already knew a lot about the murderer, huh?” Seaman Blunt asked. “All from just knowing murder statistics?”

Shepherd nodded. “It’s an unfortunate statistic, but you are far more likely to be murdered by someone you know than a random shot from a terrorist. Hell, death statistics are interesting. I was four days from an individual assignment to Iraq a few years ago while I was running the print shop at the Office of Naval Intelligence near Washington, D.C. I was scared to death until I did some math and realized I had a one in seven chance of being killed in Iraq…but a one in four chance of being killed in traffic on the D.C. beltway! The mission was cancelled and I never went to Iraq, but breaking down the numbers will surprise you.”

So you spent the night reading statements?” Lt. Watson asked. “You didn’t go talk to people that time?”

Not like I expected,” Shepherd said. “Bale was no slouch…as she schooled me in no uncertain terms the day before. She had done most of the legwork alright. But I did bring a unique perspective to the case…and a piece of evidence I had completely forgotten about…”

 

The clock had turned over; it was after midnight and Nov. 10, 2002, had just begun for USS Carl Vinson as Shepherd sorted the transcripts of Bale’s interviews on her desk. He had three piles. One of useless fluff, one of potentially interesting facts, and a pile of interviews he considered critical.

Bale was watching. She had let her hair out of its tied-back look and was sporting a relaxed afro. She was impressed; Shepherd had largely sorted out the interviews the way she had…except for two.

Why did you put those two in your ‘critical’ pile, Sparky?” She asked, intentionally using his nickname. He was actually started to earn her respect.

There’s something here that is striking me,” Shepherd said. “Look, we know Black was dork. If I may use flight deck language, he was a dick. He was cruel. He found things out about people and used that against them. My buddy Beasley confirmed that the other night. But these two statements…Jenkins and Byron. Let me read them again.”

Shepherd picked up the transcript of Bale’s interview with Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Clara Jenkins of VFA-455, the same squadron as Beasley and the deceased Black. She too had been TAD to HAZMAT, but had recently returned to the flight deck working on the engines of her squadron’s F/A-18C Hornets.

I’ve known Blake for three years now, ever since I got here. He was a shady MOFO and I never trusted him. He was always nosing around. I caught him several times trying to get into lockers or other people’s bags. That’s why he was sent to HAZMAT; he was always trying to find out junk on people. He never stole anything, but if he found out your secret he’d blackmail you for it. Money, soda, cigarettes, whatever.

He also made up junk about people if he couldn’t find anything on them. He lied about me and said I was sleeping with a plane director in the ship’s V-1 division. I wasn’t, but he had managed to forge a letter from that yellow shirt’s girlfriend—and I have no clue how he found out the yellow shirt was sleeping with a girl down in the Reactor Department. He threatened to send it to the guy’s wife if the guy didn’t pay up. When the guy reported him, Blake said I was the girlfriend and I nearly went to mast until Beasley and Cramer and Byron and few others testified I was with them in Singapore back in August and not with that yellow shirt. I never did understand why he fingered me instead of the mattress down in Reactor who was sleeping with the married man.

Thing is, Blake was a weirdo. He was a loner. He wanted power over people, but never hung out with anyone. I don’t know if he ever went on liberty with anyone but Beasley, and I have no idea how Beasley could stand him. Far as I know Byron and Beasley were the only junior guys in our squadron Blake didn’t try and blackmail. Maybe it’s because Beasley was a wuss and just did whatever Blake wanted anyway. Actually, maybe Beasley wasn’t such a wuss; maybe he was smarter than the rest of us because he stayed out of Blake’s way. Byron…that kid is just weird. Total goth moody dork who I think looked up to Blake. Blake just ate that crap up.

But, as much of an ass as Blake was, he had just as many secrets to hide as anyone else. I always wondered how he’d feel if someone started exposing his skeletons. He had them in the closet like everyone else. I even told him that when I told him to fu—to jump in a lake. I told him I knew some of his secrets and that maybe I’d broadcast it to the ship and see how he liked it. I owed that son of a bitch.

Shepherd put down the transcript.

Well?” Bale asked. She noted Shepherd’s sea green eyes had a flinty glint in them; she could almost see the synapses in his brain firing off.

Ok, we have just reinforced what we know about Blake—he liked power over people. But we’ve got some new facts here. Blake was not above actually lying about people to get what he wanted, even if what he wanted was maybe just a cruel laugh. Jenkins apparently didn’t like him, but assuming she did nothing overt to antagonize him, then he just picked a random female out of thin air instead of actually naming the girl in Reactor. So that means he was a sociopath. He found it more fun to get her name dragged through the mud instead of the actual girl who was committing adultery with this plane handler—the yellow shirt—whoever he is.”

And what does that tell you?”

It means Blake was far more dangerous than we initially thought, and that means the list of enemies could be far greater than we thought. And Jenkins was really pissed off he’d nearly ruined her career just to get at someone else. Total motive there.

Ok, I admit I hadn’t considered that when I read through her transcript after our interview,” Bale nodded. “She gave a good description of him, and she has motive, but again the opportunity wasn’t there. At the time Blake was murdered she was in her squadron’s ready room standing her own final checker board, so motive but no opportunity. But you’re right…it is significant he was willing to pick a random person out of thin air for the fun of it instead of taking his revenge by naming the real girl.”

Unless…unless he was after that same girl and, like with Simmons, was trying to get a rival out of the way,” Shepherd said.

Bale blinked. She was impressed. “Good point. Very good point. And very likely, given his behavior with Simmons and that other female he had his sights on. But, what about Byron’s statement is striking you?”

Shepherd picked up Aviation Maintenance Administrationman 3rd Class Seth Byron’s statement and began reading.

Blake like me and Beasley. Don’t know why he liked Beasley; that doofus was just a coward, a wuss always doing crap for Blake like he was his butler. Blake like me because I liked his style. He didn’t take crap from no one no hows, and he knew how to put even a chief or officer in their place. I liked how he always managed to dig up dirt on people and get them out of his way.

There were two girls on the ship he liked, and he managed to get them to himself, but I think he lost interest in them after he conquered the other dorks who were macking on them. He never did anything with them in port or find a fan room or someplace they could play. I think he realized they were ho’s and beneath him. He was a class act and once he realized those two girls were not all about him only, he dumped them.

Funny him tossing them away like that because in port he went after every piece of tail he could get. Sailor or local, if he could plug it, he did. I don’t know about those girls on the ship. But I’m pretty sure their original boyfriends were pissed off. Maybe they decided to do something to Blake?

And?” Bale asked. “I didn’t see anything in there beyond more reinforcement of Blake’s bad attitude…well, that and the fact I think Byron needs to be kicked out of the Navy himself. He just hasn’t done anything actionable.”

Agreed,” Shepherd said. “But think about it, Agent Bale. Blake goes to all the trouble of getting two rivals out of his way in particularly nasty ways…and then dumps the girls like yesterday’s trash. Why? And could that be a motive for murder? Two girls…pursued and won and dumped? Or perhaps pissed off that he ruined their little ‘good thing’ on this ship and wanted revenge for that?”

Bale nodded, “I confess I hadn’t thought to look too deeply at those two female Sailors. But it’s only been a little of 24 hours and usually the murderer is closer to the victim. But you have a point.”

Shepherd leaned back and, without thinking, steepled his fingers together, suddenly looking very much like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. In point of fact, this was the very first time he ever took that posture while thinking.

We’re missing something else, Agent Bale,” He said, and by now every trace of frenetic insecurity was gone. Bale, who had had a lengthy discussion about Shepherd behind his back with Chief Carpenter, suddenly understood why Carpenter respected Shepherd’s work and potential so much. As soon as the young man had a problem to focus on, his mind seemed to become glacial and quiet. Carpenter had described Shepherd as being “cool as a cucumber” on the flight deck during the chaotically industrial ballet that was never the same one day to another; Shepherd was always observing and thinking and seeing ideas…when he wasn’t finding the most overly-complicated way to solve a simple problem, Carpenter had said with a laugh.

A little maturity on this guy, and he would make a terrific agent! Bale thought. “What are we missing?”

Blake and those girls. Rather, Blake ignoring those girls…apparently his blackmail worked both times and, according to these statements—especially Jenkins and Byron’s statements—he had a clear shot at hooking up with them. But he didn’t. That’s…I’m sorry, but that’s the key to this thing. Something in his disdaining of those girls after he’d ‘won’ them, so to speak.”

Maybe he didn’t like girls?” Bale suggested. “Look, I don’t give a damn about the whole ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy regarding gays myself. Maybe he was in it for the power, but didn’t like girls himself.” Bale referenced the Department of Defense policy instituted under President Clinton that allowed gays to serve as long as they stayed in the closet; on the other side the DoD would no longer ask about or seek information on sexual orientation. The problem was that a command could administratively separate a member if they were found to have engaged in homosexual activity.

No, he liked girls alright, I’m pretty sure of that!” Shepherd said. “He and I were in the same duty section.”

So?” Bale asked, intrigued.

Well, he and I were in the same section, so we had the same liberty days. Beasley and Byron weren’t in the section with us in Thailand. They both got switched into our section before we did the port call in Singapore. But, Blake. Trust me, as soon as we hit Pattaya Beach, Thailand, back in late July he and his liberty buddies headed straight for the strip clubs. And I mean straight for them. And he made no secret of getting every girl he could for the three days liberty we had. You hear things in the air wing; and see a lot too, even when you don’t drink and refuse to step into one strip joint or go-go club.”

You don’t drink?” She asked.

Not in port,” Shepherd said. “I don’t trust anyone around her enough to be drunk and have them watch my back. Anyway, I even saw Blake…er…engaging in some rather amorous activity in an alley behind a club one night.”

Amorous activity?” Bale was amused by Shepherd’s sudden reticence, the embarrassed blushing that was overtaking his face.

Ok, ok,” Shepherd conceded, “I saw him boinking the daylights out of Thai girl in the alley.”

Boinking?!” Bale was sure she hadn’t heard correctly.

Boinking,” Shepherd repeated, misunderstanding her reaction. “Boinking. You know, banging, plowing, drilling, fu—”

“I know what it means,” Bale said, almost laughing. “I just haven’t heard it in a very long time. Ok, so you have it on very good personal authority he liked girls.”

“Right,” Shepherd said, “Which makes his…it makes him ignoring those two girls he ‘won’ on the ship through blackmail more significant. Somehow that’s the key. That’s the part that doesn’t make sense, but when it does, it’ll explain why he was murdered and by who.”

“Now that you point this out, I agree. Abe Gray was right about you—you really need to grow up, Petty Officer Shepherd. But you have a fantastic talent for seeing things others miss. I admit freely I didn’t even see this particular angle. But now that you bring it up, I agree. It’s completely out of character for him and that seems to be important.”

“Now that I think about it,” Shepherd said, “Blake went out of his way in port to go after the girls and always bragged about his conquests after we were underway. He did it back during workups when he was with his squadron, and he did it after the deployment began when he was stuck in HAZMAT. If you saw him coming to talk to you, you knew you were about to lose two hours of your life—two hours that you could never recover and would put you closer to the grave—listening to him brag about sex.”

“You don’t seem to have liked him.”

Shepherd grimaced. “I despised him. He was a braggart, a womanizer in every sense of the word, a serial sex harasser, lazy, selfish, devious…I will not lie and say I’m not unhappy I don’t have to put up with him. But…still…”

“…Still?” Bale prompted.

“Still,” Shepherd went on. “It’s irrelevant that I didn’t like him. I find…you know what? I find murder to be rather…rather deeply offensive. I don’t like the idea of someone thinking their life and goals are more important than someone else’s. I find it morally objectionable in the extreme that someone thinks they can end a life just because it’s convenient to them…”

 

…Far into the future of a Navy career that was winding down, Chief Isaac Shepherd broke off his narrative in the NEPAC East break room and stood up.

“Commander!” He greeted Ezekiel Warreen, officer-in-charge of NEPAC East and recently promoted to full commander. Per Navy customs and courtesies, Sailor were not required to stand when an officer entered the room unless they were a captain or admiral. However, Shepherd considered Cmdr. Warren on par with NEPAC’s world-wide commanding officer, Capt. Messenger. As a chief Shepherd felt an obligation to set an example of respect and observing customs…and, on a personal level, he respected Warren’s leadership and dededication to his Sailors like he had respected few leaders in his life.

He had seen then-Lt. Commander Warren pull senior-ranking officers into his office, close the door, and then heard Warren rip them apart for mistreating NEPAC East Sailors.

The others followed his lead. Watson shared the same respect for Warren that Shepherd did, and had a similar outlook on extending courtesies normally reserved for commanding officers to Warren considering he did run a world-reaching center of public affairs professionals that regularly deployed more than 50 Sailors a year around the globe.

Robinson followed suit for similar reasons.

Seaman Blunt jumped up just because he saw the chief do it.

“Please, please, sit!” Warren said, holding the inevitable small red and white can of soda. He was taller than Shepherd at 6’5” and twice as skinny. An Ohio native, he and Shepherd found themselves rivals since he was an Ohio State alumni and Shepherd a Florida State alumni. “It seems quiet and you all looked like you’re pretty deep in conversation. Mind if I join you?

As if anyone would say no, Shepherd thought. “Please, join us, sir.”

“The chief was relating one of his past adventures,” Watson said as the group reseated itself around the table. “Back when he was with VF-513 on the Carl Vinson.”

“VF-713, Ma’am,” Shepherd corrected. He very quickly brought Warren up to speed.

“Interesting, so you had put together a pretty tight profile on this Blake kid,” Warren said. “You and Special Agent Bale had a new angle work on. So what happened next, Chief?”

“Well, for one—and this is total useless Isaac Shepherd trivia—that comment to Bale I made about finding murder morally offensive? I’m pretty sure that was the first time I ever said it, but it’s not original. I stole it from a line Hercule Poirot—Agatha Christie’s famous detective—said in several of his books. But I meant it.”

“So did you haul in any of these suspects for further questioning?”

“No, sir,” Shepherd answered. “That was when I suddenly remember something I’d forgotten. Remember, this is Nov. 10 2002—this is only day 3 of the investigation. I was tired, stressed, and had been completely wrong-footed in my initial interactions with Veronica Bale. It was Nov. 10, but about 02:00. And I suddenly remembered something that turned out to break the whole case wide open as they like to say in those detective TV shows…”

 

…PH2 Isaac Shepherd suddenly jumped up, mounting his skinny legs as if his chair had bitten his butt.

“Oh, crap!” He said. “Now I remember! I have to go!”

“Wait!” Bale ordered, “What did you remember…?”

But Shepherd was gone.

He sprinted back up through the hangar bay—a dangerous thing to do, run. Chains securing aircraft spider-webbed the deck; wings and pylons hung low. It was easy to do oneself serious injury, but Shepherd didn’t care. He ignored several people yelling at him to slow down.

He didn’t stop until he blasted back into the VF-733 final checker shop. No one was in there; they were all up on the roof (aircraft carrier slang for the flight deck). In his haste he fought with the lock on his small locker, but got it opened and pulled out his camera. That dumb, small little point-and-shoot he always had with him.

With the same reckless speed he sped below decks. In an era long before the Navy combined the media rates into the Mass Communication Specialist rate, what would become the Media Department work center was, in 2002, merely the ship’s photo lab.

Located on the 3rd deck, one had to go just aft of the aft galley on the 2nd deck, turn down an athwart-ship passageway, and then hang a left and go down a ladder to a vestibule and the lab’s main entrance.

Shepherd punched in the code and headed in. He spent so much time in the lab keeping his film developing and printing skills sharp the chief had authorized him to have the door’s code. He was the only non-ship’s company Photographer’s Mate on aboard with that privilege.

There were only three Sailors in the lab at night. Two were asleep.

“PH3 Downs,” Shepherd said, “Please tell me one of the film processors is open!”

Downs, a young red head wearing the blue coveralls favored by the ship’s company Sailors, nodded. “Yeah. Number 3 is open. Why–?”

Shepherd ignored him. He headed around to the processor room. Winding the film in his camera, he pulled out the cartridge. Carl Vinson’s film processors made things easy. One only had to use a smool to pull the leader bit of film out of the film cartridge, attach it to a plastic tab with perforations along the edges, and then feed that plastic card into the machine, shutting the lid. Gear wheels in the processor gripped the perforations and started pulling the card—and the film—through the machine while the lid kept it light-tight.

It took only an amazing fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes that felt like an eternity to the twitchy Isaac Shepherd. The machine developed the film and dried it so that a strip of 35mm negatives was ready for Shepherd to snatch out of the delivery tray.

Downs watching curiously, Shepherd raced from the processing room to the printing room He carefully cut the film into five-exposure long pieces and slid them into a Mylar film-holding sleeve. Then he put them on a light table, it up, grabbed a loop (a small magnifying glass) and started examining the negatives. He had forgotten—right after finding Blake’s body he’d instinctively taken four or five exposures of the HAZMAT area before starting the useless CPR.

Turns out he took five. Three were useless; the flash hadn’t gone off and they were dark. One was blurry.

But one image—the second one he’s shot—that one was sharp and looked well exposed.

He pulled that strip of film and stuck in on an enlarger. Using a light box to prepare the print paper, he shot a dozen prints, each using slightly different exposure settings and filter packs to ensure one would accurately show the scene.

Once the paper was exposed, it was another half an hour before the prints were developed, fixed (to prevent any further reaction to light), and dried.

He carried the prints out into the main work area and laid all 12 on the finishing table.

“PH2?” Downs asked.

“Not now!” Shepherd barked. He quickly sifted through the prints until he found the one that was both brightest and best depicted the scene in HAZMAT. Grabbing a magnifying glass he started searching over it, a very deadly game of “Where’s Waldo” for a detail he could not remember, but a detail he knew had to be there…somewhere…

“Holy shit,” Shepherd said.

He had seen it. He knew it! Something had been missing from the photos Bale showed him, photos shot at least half an hour after he found the body and the body had been removed. His photos were taken right when he found the body, and the camera (thank God!) printed a time and date stamp on the negative so he could use them in a court of law to prove what he saw was true.

But now that he saw that detail, he sat back…thinking….

He had the answer. He knew who the murderer was.

But…in heaven’s holy name…why?!

General Dwight Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz were two of Shepherd’s heroes. Both had led victorious campaigns against great odds, and both were models of leadership and clear thinking. Both embodied the idea of looking at facts, assessing the situation in whole, and then acting.

So Shepherd took a breath and forced—with great effort—the tornadic maelstrom of frenetic energy in his mind to slow down and become still. He reviewed in his mind everything. Everything everyone had said. Everything he had seen. Everything….

…And it hit him. A scenario no one had thought of. But it fit…it was the only scenario that fit all the facts…

And it sickened him for deeply hidden personal reasons that went way beyond his moral opposition to murder.

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