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 Murder Game
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
The dead body gave it away.
She had seen one or two after all, and not that long ago either. Just a few short years earlier she had been called upon to photographically document the remains of a shipmate who had fallen down a ladder well on the carrier USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) during a deployment to the Middle East. She never quite forgot the pallid color of recently dead skin as the blood pooled towards the back of the body under gravity’s pressure, nor the unnatural twist to the lieutenant commander’s head and the weird folding in the skin of his broken neck.
Even more recently (like, this year, not four months back) she had assisted NCIS and one of her chiefs root out a murderer on the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) while that great ship was pierside here in its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia. She hadn’t actually seen either of the dead bodies that murderer had produced, but she had been critical in the successful effort to identify and capture Melody Rhyme.
Now, however, the first thing that went through her head was the simple fact that she really didn’t need this right moment, and not just because the stiff in front of her was probably already pretty stiff with rigor mortis.
It was just supposed to be a game. The “Chief Selects,” the First Class Petty Officers who had been selected for advancement to Chief Petty Officer, were supposed to be gathered in the Bay Vista Reception Center on board Naval Station Norfolk for a night of team-building fun. The “selectees” had been undergoing some seriously intensive training since their selections were announced at the beginning of August. The whole imitation thing would after about six weeks during a traditional pinning ceremony around Sept. 16.
Tonight was supposed to have been an over-night bit of team building fun built around the classic “murder game:” a “dead” body is discovered in the facility and the players have to solve clues to figure out which among them was the “murderer.” It was the only event of this year’s “initiation season” to be run (much less involve) Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac Shepherd, until recently the Operations and Production Leading Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East, or NEPAC East for short.
Shepherd was retiring from the Navy in less than four weeks. He was busy stressing out…as well as sorting and significantly downsizing his possessions while trying to make small repairs so he could more easily sell his house and move to…wherevever he got lucky enough to land a job. At this late date at the end of August, he still had no offers. Even so, he was in the place most retirees stand as they close in on that last 30 days after a lifetime of service: caught between excitement for the future, grief for what was closing out, and stress in facing a lot of unknowns.
Still, his long-reknowned expertise in solving murders had earned him the fleet-wide nickname “The Accidental Detective.” As such the naval station Chief’s Mess had asked him to stage a special event for the selectees—a murder game that would build teamwork while also being just plain fun. (It was also a clever way a few of the chiefs around base concocted to get Shepherd to relax by giving him a project to focus on that involved teaching, something he was insanely good at.)
Even beyond all those wonderfully clever factors…and beyond the fact that she herself was deathly tired from nearly four weeks of 3:00 a.m. reveille’s for PT, late nights working with the Selectee Mess on projects ranging from the class guidon carried during PT to coordinating numerous community relation events…beyond all was the simple fact that she really didn’t need this right now.
Tropical Storm Kelly had upended the plans for the whole night rather masterfully for a non-sentient force of nature. The storm was supposed to be skirting the southeastern Virginia coast, giving the Tidewater area much-needed rain, while keeping the bulk of its winds far off shore as it took aim at Newfoundland.
She had arrived at the Bay Vista Center on the naval station that afternoon at 3:00 p.m. with Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac Shepherd to set up the murder game for her selectee classmates. At that point the skies were cloudy and rain fell freely, but there was no sign of what was about to happen with the weather. Five other selectees had come early, arriving by 4:30 as the weather deteriorated, meaning there were seven people (well, eight if one counted the corpse) in the building with its vast picture windows overlooking the naval station carrier piers and the turbulent waters of storm-tossed Willoughby Bay.
That’s when Kelly decided to drop in.
The storm had run into a high pressure system that abruptly changed lanes without signaling, forcing Kelly to detour hard west to avoid a collision in the free-for-all that was the atmospheric highway. A high pressure system that had been sitting over the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (and was expected to keep Kelly far out to sea) decided instead to take a walk northwest, leaving a clear path for Kelly to move into.
It was one of those one-in-a-million weather shifts that are so, well, one-in-a-million, no one in their right mind would actually expect it to happen. The shift west meant that Kelly was now making landfall on the Hampton Roads area (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, and Newport News) and introducing all seven cities to its 55 mph sustained winds. The storm’s center was expected to smack Norfolk dead-on by midnight, bringing its full wind speed of 62 mph onto shore.
This resulted in pretty much everything being shut down as all six major bases in the region sent their people home; city governments and private enterprises alike dumped their people on the highways to get them home by stranding them in a rain-soaked rush hour. Chief Shepherd had not wanted to play Russian Roulette with the traffic that, even at this late hour, was snarling the I-64/I-264 corridors. Bay Vista was built on a slight promontory, so the building was not at risk of flooding by anything less than a Category 3 hurricane’s storm surge, and had been built to a code that ensured it would withstand the winds of a Category 3 hurricane as well.
Shepherd called the rest of the base Chief’s Mess to cancel the night’s events, but kept the selectees who had shown up with him to shelter in place. Most were vocally unhappy about it, but Shepherd reckoned it was a hell of lot safer for them than getting stranded on the highways as the falling evening brought a full-fledged tropical storm with it.
It would be a long, loud night without power (it had failed half an hour ago), but the eight (seven living, one comfortably dead) were far safer sheltering inside Bay Vista than trying to drive home in the maelstrom. An unintentional irony had seen them all park in the slots right up against the side of the building, meaning their cars were quite by accident in the lee of the structure and protected from the fierce winds.
She didn’t even have to touch him to know he was dead. The large pool of blood puddling around him on the Bay Vista kitchen floor and the carving knife sticking out of his back with such artful precision eloquently told the tale.
Eight people—one chief petty officer, six selectees, and the dead guy—had gathered in Bay Vista before the storm upended their plans and stuck them all there.
Now this turkey was dead as a door nail; a stiff pushing up a carving knife instead of a daisy on the facility’s kitchen floor. He wasn’t even supposed to be in the building because he wasn’t one of selectees. Her heart was in her throat as she looked at the body for reasons far beyond the revolting surprise dead bodies in kitchens usually are.
That meant there were seven people still alive in Bay Vista as Tropical Storm Kelly came ashore.
One of those seven people was likely a cold-blooded murderer. She knew she wasn’t the killer, and long experience gave her a reasonable idea that it wasn’t Chief Shepherd either. Still, that left five possible murderers in the building (assuming the murderer wasn’t some random Joe who just dumped the body here and ran).
No one else knew about this yet; she had come to get a bottle of water and found the corpse. Pulling out her phone, she dialed a number.
“Chief? Yeah, it’s Dionne. Is…is everyone else with you? They are? Good. Could you, uh, bring everyone to the kitchen. Yes, I am serious. Trust me on this. We have a little problem.”
Hanging up, Chief Mass Communication (Select) Dionne Robinson of the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East (NEPAC East) shoved her ebony-skinned hands back into her pockets and tried to start thinking.
Not only was the late Personnel Specialist 1st Class Jacob Collander not supposed to be in the building in the first place, her most certainly wasn’t supposed to be exceptionally dead.
Worse, his murder was exceptionally inconvenient for Robinson seeing as how she’d been sleeping with him for two months.
As footsteps approached the kitchen she took a breath and steadied herself. Her grief would have to come later; at the moment she was more afraid of facing the accusing stares and muttering comments she knew were coming when she admitted her relationship to Collander.
She was not far off base after the initial shocks wore off everyone.
Harper Steinbeck, a Chief Yeoman selectee who was assigned to Naval Station Norfolk’s administrative department, nearly fainted and had to run out of the room. They could hear him wretching up his last meal in the nearby men’s room.
Nerves of steel, that one, Robinson thought sarcastically.
The other two NAVSTA Norfolk selectees were both Quartermasters on shore duty helping run the bases’ Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) department. John Smith and the (Robinson reflected) most unfortunately named Miles Killer took a step back, startled. Smith and Killer were both dark-tanned Sailors who spent their workdays (when on sea duty) driving very large ships and their off time surfing, tanning, and living on the beach when not watching gothic horror shows on Netflix.
Chief Boatswain’s Mate (Select) Persia Carpet from Expeditionary Small Craft Unit 18 (ESC 18) was a first-generation immigrant’s daughter from Belize. She was as dark as Robinson, and far more direct as was common to the no-nonsense, line-handling culture of her rate. She neither threw up nor was startled. Her 16 years in the Navy had led her to see her share of graphic injuries on the weather decks of a more than a few Navy warships.
Chief Ship’s Serviceman (Select) Kelly Sniff was a small, petite, blonde wisp of a woman who was always pulling her phone out to show off her twin boys (Bart and Barry). Her husband, Richard, was always photographing them and sending her the photos. Nevertheless, Sniff, who was assigned Naval Supply Systems Detachment Hampton Roads (or, as the Navy is fond of saying in its own shorthand, NAVSUP DHR), did not flinch when she saw the body, the blood, or the knife.
She was also the first to ask the obvious question.
“That’s your boyfriend, isn’t it?”
“Not boyfriend,” Robinson said, a very slightly dull horror tinging her voice as she looked at his body. “We hadn’t gotten that formal yet or anything.”
“But you were sleeping with him?” Carpet asked with the bluntness they had come to expect from her.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Robinson asked out of embarrassment.
“It means it’s pretty convenient you’re seeing him, he shows up here when he’s not supposed to be here, and you find him,” Smith said. “You got here before us; who knows what you could have done before we got here!”
Steinbeck, looking rather green under his red hair, wobbled back into the kitchen. He looked anywhere but the body.
“You can’t just accuse her of murder based on that!” Carpet said.
“Persia’s right,” Sniff chimed in. “This could mean there’s somebody else here…hiding…”
“How the hell did he know to be here?” Killer asked. “One of us had to tell him—this was a selectee event!”
“That does not mean it was one of us!” Carpet snapped back. “There are 47 people in our class. Assuming he was lured here by a selectee, it could be anyone. And that’s assuming it’s just a horrible coincidence he was killed here tonight.”
“You told us you two had been arguing,” Steinbeck directed his wobbly voice at Robinson.
Robinson felt her face grow hot with defensive fear, “No, I told you guys we’d had some troubles because I had to duck out of a lot of date nights! That’s a whole different story!”
“You cannot accuse a woman of murder just because she and her boyfriend are arguing!” Carpet shot at Steinbeck in her rich, quasi-hypnotic voice.
“It’s just odd it’s her boyfriend that turns up here dead and she finds the body!” Steinbeck said. “Don’t you pay attention to the news? Most murders are committed by people close to the victim and she’s pretty damned close to him!”
“Hey, back off,” Smith said, stepping in front of Steinbeck. “She just lost her boyfriend and we have no idea who actually did it!”
Steinbeck seemed to be regaining his nerve. His color wasn’t so green anymore. Or maybe he was just getting defensive himself as Smith postured up on him
“Oh, really? She’s in here with the body all by herself and she didn’t do it?”
“He does have a point,” Killer said. “I hate to say it, but right now we don’t have anything else to go on.”
“We really should call the police” Sniff sniffed, her sympathetic eyes on Robinson. “They’ll get to bottom of this.”
“I’ll call,” Killer pulled out his phone.
An abrupt crash made them all jump as the building shook. Carpet shook off her surprise and ran to peek out the back door.
“The cell tower they built next to the building has fallen,” she said, ducking back inside as a gust of wind slammed the door shut.
Killer was still jabbing his fingers at his phone. “I’m not getting any signal. What, did one tower take down the whole network?!”
“They built that tower because cell reception on the naval station sucked,” Steinbeck said. Working in the base’s administration department, he would know such things. “Now we’re trapped!”
“So we can’t call anyone for help?” Carpet asked.
“Let’s just go to the fire station on Gilbert Street,” Sniff said, not answering Carpet’s question. “It’s not that far.”
“You can’t drive in that,” Carpet said. “It’s already near zero-visibility in the rain, and the wind would push you right off the road. I’ve been on the weather deck in winds like this—you can’t even walk in it safely.”
As if to punctuate her point, Tropical Storm Kelly slapped Bay Vista with a massive gust that shook dust from the ceiling.
“So we’re trapped here?” Steinbeck’s voice was getting high as he repeated himself. His nerves were obviously not of the strongest mettle. “We’re stuck here all night with a killer?!”
Robinson started as she realized he was looking at her. “Hey, dork face, I didn’t kill anyone, but if you don’t stop accusing me I just might get tempted!”
For exactly thirty more seconds the conversation devolved into a cacophony of ever-increasing panic.
But it was only allowed to do so for exactly thirty more seconds.
The powerful voice blasted from the shadows behind them, making all six selectees jump. Even the wind outside seemed to quiet itself for a moment before remembering it was an unstoppable force of nature.
The tall, barrel-chested figure had been standing behind the group, observing them. It had been an accident they had gotten ahead of him as they came to the kitchen, but it was an accident he was glad of because it let him see their reactions as soon as he realized what was going on.
“All of you, against that wall, and shut up!”
Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac Shepherd stepped firmly into the dim light cast by the emergency lanterns and faced the six selectees angrily.
“You people think you’re ready to be Chief Petty Officers, do you?!” He didn’t shout. He didn’t need to. His height, his barrel chest, his deep voice, and the anger blazing in his sea green eyes made the 45 years old Sailor a rather daunting figure in the noisy half-light of the storm-darkened building.
“You six think you’re ready to lead Sailors in a crisis? You run into an emergency and the first thing you people do is start panicking and accusing your own shipmates of murder with no evidence?!”
Robinson was sure she wasn’t the only one who noticed Shepherd was eyeballing Steinbeck, even though his words were directed at all of them.
“We…we just weren’t ready for something like this, Chief…” Carpet said uncertainly.
“Ready?!” Shepherd snapped, and Robinson realized he was genuinely angry. She had heard that guttural growl before and never wanted it directed at her.
“Ready?!” Shepherd repeated. “Good Lord, the most junior of you has been in the Navy for 12 years! When the hell have you ever been ready for the crap life throws at you? Huh?! If you’re waiting to be ready to handle the inevitable emergencies that hit you and your people, then you’ll be paralyzed and useless, like you are now! Life doesn’t wait for you to get ready. Life happens! Life happens to you, and life happens to your Sailors, and if you aren’t able to get your asses in gear better than this, then none of you any business being a chief!”
Shepherd took a breath and slowed himself down. “I heard exactly two good ideas—call the cops and try to get the fire station. However, most of the time you people were falling all over yourselves with panic. You think I didn’t want to panic the first time I ran over a dead body in my barracks in Spain 19 years ago? A dead body that I knew? No one was there to figure it out or help me, so I had to keep it together and do it myself. I know how hard it is, especially when a bloody damn murder is involved. But if you people want to lead Sailors and protect them…get your heads out of your asses! It is your job as the Chief to be the level headed one. It’s your job to be the one person who takes charge of the situation, not give in to blind panic!”
Shepherd stepped up nearly nose to nose with Steinbeck, “I don’t give a crap how scared you are! In the middle of your race to accuse Dionne of murder, did it it ever occur to you that she—your shipmate—just found her boyfriend dead?! Assuming she’s innocent—and we are all innocent until proven guilty—what do you think she’s going through right now?!”
Steinbeck swallowed hard, shocked. “I…I didn’t think about—“
“That much is obvious, you moron!” Shepherd was still boiling.
He stepped back and turned away from them, forcibly calming himself. They were properly cowed back into rational thought, and further anger was not going to help any of them.
Turning back he looked at them, weighing his words, and then spoke.
“No one is leaving this building. It is way too dangerous out there right now. But you all are correct—there is very likely a murderer in this room right now.”
All six of them were startled by his direct assessment.
“We’re cut off until the storm passes. Cell service on this base sucks; that is why they built the cell tower next to the building. But…it’s been knocked down and none us of has a signal. We are our own until morning, so you six had better keep it together. For one thing, no one goes anywhere unless there are two other people with them. Got it? A group of three will provide protection against another stab in the back. Second, I don’t care what pecking order you people had among yourselves in your Selectee Mess—your panic tonight does not lend me confidence in your ability to tackle a crisis.”
“Chief,” Carpet said.
“On behalf of us all, I do want to apologize for that. Our behavior was not…appropriate.” The other five nodded in agreement.
“Thank you, Persia,” Shepherd said. It was customary for the Chiefs to address the selectees by their first names as part of their transition into the Chief’s Mess.
But if a selectee presumed to call a chief by their first name…!
Shepherd went on. “By virtue of knowing and working with Dionne, I’m designating her as the Selectee in Charge tonight. That is not a slight against any of you, but we have a very serious problem and I need to have someone I whom I know as my liaison with you. Now…”
Shepherd turned and looked at the body, a level of disgust on his face that had nothing to do with gore, any everything to do with the offense he took at murder.
“Now…let’s see what we can figure out. Be ready—it’s going to be a very long night.”