Looking Back – Chapter 5 and Denouement

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 5-

Why the hell didn’t you tell me you had these three days ago?!” NCIS Special Agent Veronica Bale bellowed at Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Isaac Shepherd as she looked that the prints he had just made.

He was wondering if her volume actually exceeded that of the crashing thump overhead as another aircraft slammed down onto USS Carl Vinson’s giant flight deck as the night strikes over the enemy were beginning to wrap up.

“I forgot I had them,” He said, and hated the slight defensive whine he couldn’t keep out of his voice. Seventeen years later he would have been calm and even sarcastic dealing with this sort of verbal onslaught; but at 29 years old and only an E5 he was quaking. “Things happened so fast that night and then I was in here with you yelling at me and I forgot I took them.”

Bale caught herself; yelling would only shut Shepherd down…and he had a point. She had been extremely forceful with hi that first night.

“Ok, but the fact you took photos of the scene before rendering aid…even though you knew Blake was dead…we’re going to have to do some fancy footwork on that one. You will let me explain why it took so long for these to surface. And from now until the end of the world, you snapped these immediately after the corpsmen arrived to take over. The angle you shot leaves it plausible they were behind you and out of the image. Do. You. Understand?”

Shepherd gulped and nodded…and was blown away by the fact that Bale was going to falsify a statement (albeit a small one) to protect him. It would be a decade later before he understood why.

“Let me look at these,” She said.

“Pull out your photos, the ones taken after the body was removed,” Shepherd said.

She did so, and he found an exposure that was taken from very nearly the same angle his were.

“There. Look close in the back right, on that workbench. Notice anything in my shot that’s missing in yours?”

“Oh, my stars!” Bale said. “You’re right! There’s a half-hour time difference between these images. Time enough for someone sneak an arm around that back corner and get that thing out of there…the one thing they left behind…”

“And it was left behind by the one of the few people we thought had no motive…but he did have a motive, and I think I know what it was,” Shepherd said. “We need to get him in here along with ship’s security, the Judge Advocate General, and the ship’s XO. We have our murderer.”

Bale wondered why Shepherd looked so ill.

By 05:00 the requisite personnel had gathered. Bale and Shepherd stood behind her desk. Capt. Thomas Moody, Carl Vinson’s executive officer, Cmdr. Juris Prudence, the senior judge advocate general sat on either side of it. Two very thick and muscular Masters-at-Arms stood guard over a seated and quavering Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Patrick Beasley of VFA-455. Behind Beasley his own commanding officer, Cmdr. Cameron Fitts, and his command master chief, CMDCM Delbert Atkins, were there to act protect their Sailor…or ensure his rights were respected.

Beasley was shaking and pale.

I asked you a question, Petty Officer Beasley,” Bale said. “Is that your portable CD planer on the back bench in this photograph?”

Beasley continued to shake, sweat rolling off his brow. He finally nodded. “Y—Yes…”

Then why is it missing in this image taken exactly one half an hour later?”

I….It….I”

Cmdr. Prudence spoke up, “Petty Officer Beasley, as the ship’s JAG I must remind you that have the right to remain silent. However, you are under oath. If you choose to speak and lie, that alone is grounds for court martial under the UCMJ. I am here to act as your lawyer until such time as you have possibly left the ship are being served by different counsel. Do not speak…unless you plan to tell the truth.”

It’s mine…I took it….I went back…I snuck back and took it after I realized I’d fogotten it after I…”

Prudence shot Bale a warning look, “I must remind you of your rights again, Petty Officer Beasley, you do not have to speak.”

Oh, for crying out loud!” Shepherd took even himself by surprise (nearly two decades later he would have no problem standing up to senior officers; at this point it was a novel experience). “Commander Prudence, with all respect, we’ve spent more time in here advising Petty Officer Beasley of his rights than we have getting answers. He’s signed three statements and verbally said on tape that he understands them!”

Prudence glared a death glare at Shepherd.

Uh…Ma’am,” He said meekly.

Special Agent Bale, why is this Sailor in here?!” Demanded Capt. Moody. “He has no business in this room during an investigation! He found the damn body and is as much a suspect as anyone!

I agree!” Cmdr. Fitts of VFA-455 snapped. “I want him out. NOW!”

Bale stood up and slammed a hand on her desk. “I will thank you both—all three in fact,” She glared at Prudence, “To remember this is my office and my investigation! PH2 Shepherd found the body, yes. But he has come highly recommended to me by one of the top agents in all of NCIS! It was his evidence and his assessment of the situation that brought us to this point. He will remain because I say he stays!”

However,” And here Bale looked at Shepherd, “He will remain silent unless and until I ask for his input!”

Yes, Ma’am,” Shepherd swallowed.

His point is valid, though,” Bale said. “Cmdr. Prudence, the suspect knows his rights. I will thank you to stop interrupting. Every time he makes the choice to speak, you cut in and cut him off with talk of his rights. His rights are guaranteed and respected. But he has the right to make that choice for himself.

Now,” Bale said, and the room was as hushed as if a gale had blown through. “You admit this is your portable CD player on the back bench? And you admit you—in your words—your ‘snuck back’ to get it. Am I correct on these points, or I am I wrong?”

You’re correct.”

Why did you feel the need to sneak back and get it?”

I was afraid I’d be blamed for what happened.”

But the fact you say you sneaked back to get it implicitly means you were there not long before the murder. So how did you know the murder happened? Either you saw it and chose to tell no one, which makes you an accessory, or you committed it and were trying to cover your tracks…only PH2 Shepherd’s crime scene documentation caught the one thing you left behind.”

Beasley melted into the chair and nodded.

So I ask you again. Did you murder Reginald Blake?”

Beasley began crying quietly. “Yes. I did.”

You hit him from behind to knock him out, then used this funnel,” She held up the funnel, encased in a plastic bag, “to pour Benzene down his throat to kill him. Am I correct?”

Beasley nodded. “Yes.” It was a whisper.

Good Lord, why?” Fitts asked, stunned.

He…he said he was going to tell everyone I was gay and get me kicked out of the Navy!” Beasley was sobbing in earnest now.

Why the hell would he say that?” Master Chief Atkins blurted out.

He….We….” Beasley couldn’t speak.

I…I can answer that, if I have your permission, Special Agent Bale,” Shepherd said.

Bale considered him, then nodded, wondering why Shepherd looked so disturbed. She hadn’t chewed him out that bad. Indeed she harbored a very sneaky admiration for the way he stood up to Cmdr. Prudence.

Patrick, you and Blake…you two were secret lovers, weren’t you?”

WHAT?!” Fitts jumped to his feet.

Commander, please allow PH2 Shepherd to continue,” Bale shut him down. “Petty Officer Shepherd, please go on.”

Patrick, you and Blake were secret lovers, weren’t you?” Shepherd repeated.

Beasley buried his face in humiliation and nodded.

That’s why all this happened. You see, Cmdr. Fitts, Capt. Moody…Reginald Blake made a great name for himself with the girls when we were in port. But on the ship, despite some very nefarious blackmail to get some rivals out of his way, he then proceeded to ignore the girls he ‘won.’ For a man who made a rep for himself as a womanizer, that didn’t make sense…until I realized what something another witness said meant.

Another witness that was questioned related that she was used by Blake during one of his blackmail schemes. She was innocent; he lied about her to blackmail someone else. Well, after it was over, she said she told him she knew his secret and was going to start spreading it about the ship, to give him a taste of his own medicine.”

Beasley was rocking side to side now.

That secret was that Blake was secretly bisexual and Petty Officer Beasley here is gay. She had seen the two of them engaged in…in homosexual activities on board the Carl Vinson. Beasley has been described by several witness as a doormat following Blake around like a Butler. He did so because he had feelings for him…and I’m guessing he thought Blake loved him too.”

So what happened?” Cmdr. Prudence was horrified and curious.

Our female witness did what she wanted—she terrified Blake. Blake, the great bully, was suddenly on the receiving end of a threat that would his career and get him branded a fag. Let’s face it, our Navy has made a lot of strides in many areas, but ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ still hangs like a sword of Damocles over every gay Sailor. If they’re caught out, they can be summarily kicked out of the service…and that reinforces a culture that regards gays as ‘fags,’ as subhuman beings not worth basic human decency.”

Shepherd sighed. “So Blake faced this, and decided to act to protect himself. That night, Nov. 6…just before midnight when I found his body…he told you, Patrick, that he was going to expose you and say you were making advances on him. He was going to cut you off and humiliate you to protect himself, didn’t he? And when he did, you were both betrayed and you were terrified, weren’t you?”

I thought…I thought he loved me…” Beasley wept. “I thought…but then he said he’d get me kicked out. I was…he betrayed me and I was scared. I can’t go home a faggot. I’m Mormon; I get kicked out for being gay and my family will disown me and the church will kick me out and I…I can’t….I can’t….I can’t…”

So you panicked and killed him,” Bale said.

Atkins looked sick. “Two fairies in my squadron…Uhh!”

The master chief spun on his heel and left, abandoning his Sailor.

Looking over, Shepherd say Capt. Moody was looking with equal revulsion at Beasley. “Well, this is going to court martial and either way you’ll be out of the Navy. We don’t need your kind on our ship.”

Moody too walked out in righteous indignation.

Fitts however was staring at the door; he had been shocked by Atkins’ sudden desertion of the room. Shepherd was surprised to see a level of rage on his face as he contemplated Atkins. But then he turned and laid a hand on Beasley’s shoulder.

Petty Officer Beasley, you killed your shipmate. You have violated every tenant of our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. However, you are still my Sailor. You will have to answer for your actions at trial, but I promise you I will do everything in my power to ensure your rights are protected and your trial is fair. I don’t give a damn about…about your love life. You’re a human being, and you are my Sailor until this is over.”

Fitts looked at Prudence and Bale. “How do we proceed?”

Ma’am,” Shepherd cut in, “May I be dismissed for now?”

Bale looked searchingly into Shepherd’s eyes. Something was really bothering him, but she had no idea what. She nodded.

Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Isaac Shepherd left the office, feeling sickened for reasons that had nothing to do with murder. He headed up to the hangar bay and stood at the massive opening underneath El 2. For a long while he did not move.

A single tear escaped his eye as he watched the sun rise.

…“It was a very difficult time, but the court martial was held on board the ‘Chucky V,’ and I had to testify,” Chief Petty Officer Isaac Shepherd finished his narrative in the break room of NEPAC East. His audience was silent, horrified.

I…don’t…understand…” Blunt said. “But…but aren’t you gay, Chief? How did you…I mean…?”

Shepherd smiled sadly. “Yes, I’m gay. I was in the closet back then…like most gay people in the military until ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed in 2011. Even then I was married to a woman—the only woman in my life who ever turned my head. I didn’t finally come out until 2014 after we finally gave up and realized no matter how much we loved each other a mixed-orientation marriage just could not work.”

Shepherd leaned back, “Seaman Blunt, there’s no easy way to explain it. It was a very different world back then. Even today being gay has certain…social challenges. But at least we can serve openly and have legal marriage rights. It was rather surprising in 2011 who came out that no one expected. My buddy, Josh Roby—he came out and he was the last person I’d have expected to be gay. He’s married now and working for either United or Delta as a mechanic.

But to murder someone over being caught out as gay…?” Blunt asked.

I tried to do the same thing in 1998,” Shepherd said.

All four heads snapped over to look at him.

You what?!” Cmdr. Warren asked.

You all know I make no secret I attempted suicide in 1998 at my first command. I was already pretty unstable, but my depression and anxiety wouldn’t be properly diagnosed until 2003. However, what put me over the top was that I got accidentally ‘outed’ at my first command when I left an email from a potential boyfriend out on my desk. The person I tried to murder for being gay and being caught was…me.”

But they didn’t kick you out?” Robinson asked.

Not everyone was like Master Chief Atkins,” Shepherd said. “Beasley’s CO, Cmdr. Fitts—he stuck with him. There were a lot of forward-thinking people who were already ignoring ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ My CO back at VQ-2, Commander David Jones, was one of them. He’s a far more staunch Roman Catholic than I am, but he told me while I was in the hospital in Rota, Spain, on suicide watch that his own religious convictions had no bearing on judging me as a person or a Sailor. He made sure I was able to stay in. Hell, the next year he gave such a ringing endorsement on my application to convert from being a Yeoman to a Photographer’s Mate that I beat out 18 candidates for the one open slot. Because of him, I not only never attempted suicide again, I’m sitting here as a Chief Petty Officer and one of the top respected enlisted public affairs professionals in the Navy.”

Wait…Commander David Jones….?” Watson asked. “Not–?”

Shepherd laughed. “Yep, Admiral David Jones today. Commander, Atlantic Fleet and probably the second most powerful officer in the Navy after the Chief of Naval Operations. Why do you think I asked him to give the opening remarks at my retirement ceremony in September? I owe him my life…and my current career.”

Warren smiled, “So you had to testify on the ship? What happened?”

Despite our conflict in Bale’s office, Prudence was a good attorney for Patrick Beasley” Shepherd said. “He freely confessed and plead guilty. But she managed to get the jury to consider the psychological stresses he was under. I know those stresses myself; once I came out and stopped hiding who I really am, my own fight with depression eased up considerably. He was convicted, of course. But instead of life at Fort Leavenworth he only got 18 years. He’ll be released in 2020.”

Wow,” Robinson said. “Sounds like you learned a lot. It must have killed you, though. Being secretly gay yourself and having to go through all that.”

It was,” Shepherd admitted. “I never did come out to Bale, not until many years later. But she had me in her office the rest of that deployment when I had free time. She really trained me in how to be a detective. She had me study case files and work out the ‘who done it’ based on the available evidence, and then would tell me if I was right or wrong. It was a good education. One of the more interesting ones she had to deal with—and had me study—was a serial killer NCIS just could not pin down out in Bremerton for months. Turns out the woman had a split personality.”

I don’t understand?” Warren said.

Sir, people are lousy at recognizing faces,” Shepherd explained. “We notice clothes, and height and mannerism and scars, but we rarely really can describe faces. So someone whose entire demeanor changes between personalities can talk to the same person over two days…and that person will think they talked to two completely different individuals. So it made it hard to profile this woman.”

Sounds like Veronica Bale likes you as much as your friend Abraham Gray does,” Watson said.

She taught me a lot the next few months when I wasn’t launching airplanes,” Shepherd said. “That was my most formative time as a student detective. I was not expected to have a career as an amateur sleuth, but her lessons taught me more about critical thinking, looking at facts, slowing down and examining a situation…all good leadership techniques. Once I did get on meds and get my moods under better control, I was even better in problem solving and leadership.”

But,” Shepherd said, “Her training did come in handy over the last fifteen years. The next time I ran into Abe Gray was after I left VF-713 and was stationed on Guam. We ended up tracking down the alliteratively named ‘Sumay Strangler” on base…but we never caught him.”

Why not?” Warren asked.

Ironically enough he killed himself. He was setting a trap for a victim and slipped into it himself. It was something right out of a ridiculous B-level horror movie,” Shepherd laughed. “But Bale’s training had really honed my skills, and she forced me to start growing up in a way no one ever had before. By the time Abe and I were on the Sumay Strangler case, we moved very quickly and the stranger was literally hours from being caught by us…until he won that year’s ‘Darwin Award.”

Well, this has been fascinating,” Warren said. “And I mean that. But I have a meeting next door at HQ.”

And I have to get with Production and start planning on our support for the Navy exhibits at Norfolk’s Harborfest next week. I’ll be in the transition/retirement class during the event, so I need to make sure everything’s line up with MC1 Ford.”

The group rose, WWI-looking government-issued chairs clattering and scraping on the painted concrete floor. The second half the Navy work day was officially underway.

-Denouement-

June 27 was coming to a close over Virginia. Evening was fast replacing the heat of the sunlight, and house number 2210B Baker Street in the Eccleston Range neighborhood in Suffolk was lighting up. At strategic corners and spots Shepherd had planted solar-charged spotlights. At night these lights gave the house, whimsically named the “Yellow Duck” by Shepherd, an elegantly upscale look.

It was a yellow-sided house. Backed into the driveway was Shepherd’s small, blue SUV. Named Sarah Jane after a favorite character on the long-running British sci-fi hit Doctor Who, Sarah Jane’s engine was clicking as she cooled down from a day running errands.

The Yellow Duck’s main great room was a cathedral-ceilinged space. As one walked back to the dining area, they came under the half-loft that was the start of the house’s upstairs spaces. It was a house way too big for one man, but Shepherd, his (now) ex-wife and daughter had lived her together until the marriage ended. Unable emotionally to handle a move and start over, Shepherd had kept the house after Jennifer made it clear she wanted nothing from him but voluntary support for Catherine.

Even the judge had been surprised by this. He reminded Jennifer of her rights to claim part of the property, but she explained they married in good faith, taking a big risk. They were ending it in good faith, and she had no intention of punishing Shepherd for being unable to be the husband she needed simply because he was gay. All she wanted was the personal property she had brought into the marriage and a simple verbal promise from Shepherd to keep being Catherine’s dad. As to forgoing court-ordered child support, well, Catherine was Shepherd’s step-daughter. Catherine’s biological father was a deadbeat grifter Jennifer had long given up on getting proper child support from. Even so, she adamantly refused to force Shepherd to pay anything. If he loved the girl like he professed, he’d keep his promise.

And he did.

Shepherd would never given up on this little girl he’d been raising from the age of two. He didn’t have the chance to adopt her formally due to the divorce, but to Jennifer, to Shepherd, indeed to the now 12-year-old Catherine herself, Isaac Shepherd was her father. He had never stopped being there for her—or for Jennifer, whom he still held deep feelings for and would never abandon as a friend.

Many years after that painful divorce he sat up in the loft—an area set up as the main TV room and was rather informally decorated like a beach house. July was nearly upon him, and so far he had received five rejection letters, five notices from the federal hiring system he was being considered for referral to hiring managers, and one job interview by phone earlier that day.

He didn’t know if the job would be his, but he had called Jennifer at her job at the Yorktown National Battlefield Park to crow that, whatever the outcome, his first job interview in over 20 years had gone great.

But now…the Yellow Duck. Looking around as he sorted mail, an old Justice League cartoon series running on Netflix, he knew he needed to do some serious downsizing while on leave this week. He wanted to stay in Hampton Roads, but he had to plan on moving and that meant he needed to thin out all the furniture that had remained after the marriage. Surprisingly, he found the idea easier than he thought it would be.

I guess I’ve healed and grown up more than I thought, He glanced at the TV as Superman and the Flash distracted yet another supervillian so Batman and Wonder Woman could get in behind and clock him.

Looking down at the pile of mail, Shepherd’s eyes lit up as he read the return address on an envelope. Pausing the show on Netflix, he glanced up at the four little bettas in their individual tanks around his loft. Nichols, Maluhia, Luna, and Poseidon.

I finally got a letter from him, guys!” Shepherd announced happily to the fish. “I was beginning to worry; it’s been a couple of months.”

The four little fish stared out their tanks at him, daring him to threaten their sacred territories.

Shepherd ripped open the envelope and read:

Hey Isaac

Sorry it’s been so long. But the last couple of months were tight with finals. I did it though—I graduated finally! Got my degree and passed the board to get certified! Once I get out I can see about working with troubled gay youths. Won’t be easy to find a job, but there’s several good support networks for people like me, and they say I’m starting to make inquiries at the right time. So I should have some kind of job lined up when I’m released.

Won’t be anything like the high-level prestigious stuff you’ll get, but at least it’ll be work and I can work with troubled kids. I’m not jealous either, by the way. You sure as hell made better choices than I ever did. You earned everything you got, and I was so proud when you made chief two years ago. I know your Sailors are safe under you.

Still, man…I until I started all my final papers and boards I just did not have a clue why you were always talking about being so busy finishing your master’s thesis. I get it now. You did all that while on active duty, too! I had a lot more free time to do my school work than you…and there I was complaining about being overwhelmed until you set me straight. Thanks!

I got your invitation the other day. Thank you so much for inviting me, and I’m so very sorry I can’t be there for your retirement ceremony. I understand you also invited Captain Fitts. He wrote me and told me; said he’d pull his old dress blues out of the closet for your ceremony. Man, has it been eleven years since he retired?!

But I’m sorry I can’t make it. However, I have great news! Rear Adm. Prudence is still following me and helping me out. She managed to get me parole next year since I’ve been a model prisoner and done so much work getting my degree and counseling licenses and all. That means I’ll be out in the summer of 2018 instead of 2020! And she’s also working with her network to help me find a gig with some kind of youth counseling clinic.

I’ll never make money you’ll make. Not as a convicted felon or murderer. But, hey, at least I have a life and can make a living once I’m out. I still think about Blake and I’m still troubled about what I did. But I took your advice and got back into counseling. You’re right—it’ll take me a long time, if ever, to finally find peace, but at least I can get help learning to live with it. Black was a selfish ass, but he should still be here. The least I can do is live my life earning my life by remembering how precious each life really is.

Thank you for sticking with me all these years. I was surprised as hell when you came out. And I’m sorry you went through so many lonely years too. But the world changed finally and we’re at least allowed to be who we are. It ain’t perfect, and I aim to help make it ever better once I’m out, but what we have in America is so much better than so many other parts of the world we saw.

But, anyway, your friendship helped me get through a lot. I’m in sight not of getting out and starting over. It’ll be hard, but I’ve got resources and a network. My parents still pretend I don’t exist, but over the last few years my brothers have opened up to me and I have them as well.

Got to run and get this in the mail. Good luck finding job. Knowing you, you’ll find something in Washington, D.C., advising the president or maybe becoming director of NCIS!

Later!!!

Patrick Beasley

Shepherd laughed happily. Beasley would be out in 2018. That would be great. He still had a very hard road ahead of him, but, at least he seemed to have grown up and was ready to face it.

Shepherd had his own unknown future to face, but at least he had far more options and freedom than Beasley would.

Kind of puts my own anxieties into perspective, Shepherd thought. Chuckling, he leaned back and hit “play” on Netflix. Superman was about to knock a bad guy into orbit.

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