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
Shepherd pulled a bright LED flashlight out of his pocket. He always kept it in his backpack…and tonight he was very glad he did. He crouched down and began running it over the body of Jacob Collander.
“Aren’t…aren’t you going to take the knife out at least?” Steinbeck asked.
“No.” Shepherd said flatly.
“Why not?” Sniff asked.
Robinson spoke up.
“This is a crime scene. Touching the body will corrupt any forensic evidence. We have to…we have to leave Jacob there until NCIS can get here. And that means none of us actually touch him or anything in this room. Why else do you think the chief told us to get against this wall?”
The rest looked a bit startled as they realized Shepherd had a method to his orders.
Shepherd stood and walked carefully around the body. The blood had stopped spreading and glinted under the flashlight as he crouched down to examine Collander from another angle, getting down so his face was nearly on the floor.
“Well, despite the appearance, he did not die from a stab in the back,” Shepherd said.
“He didn’t?” Carpet asked as a whooshing sound of heavy rain fell on the roof.
“No. That was for a nice theatrical effect. His throat was cut. You can’t see much of a wound on the left side of his neck—the side that’s facing up. But I can see a pretty deep wound on the right side. Means the attacker was probably nearly as tall as he was and came up behind him, the knife entered the neck near the center line and only cut deep into the right side of the neck, severing the carotid artery on the right side.”
“Wow, good eye!” Carpet said, impressed.
“Well, there’s also no blood on the back of his shirt,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of obvious; if he’d died from the stab in the back the back of his shirt would be drenched in…in his blood. Besides, the knife is too low and isn’t in deep enough to have pierced his heart. There’s also blood on the wall over there above the sink. A stab in the back wouldn’t have splattered it like that.”
The others looked at her in surprise.
“I’ve…worked on a murder with Chief Shepherd before,” She said almost sheepishly.
“She’s right,” Shepherd said. “Another leadership lesson for you—don’t jump to conclusion. Oftentimes appearances mask the truth. Take a breath and ask questions. And look at everything.”
“I’m pretty sure the knife in his back is the weapon used to kill him,” Shepherd said, standing up. I can see residual blood along the length of the blade, and that’d be consistent with the act of slitting his throat. He hasn’t been dead that long, either. This light isn’t good enough to see much of his overall skin color, but the blood around him hasn’t dried yet. However, the splatter on the wall and the smaller splatters on the floor have dried already, so this had to have happened probably in the last two or three hours. Assuming he got here—or was lured here, whichever—about the same time as all of us…that would be around two hours ago.”
“You and Dionne got here before us,” Carpet said. “About three hours ago.”
“Very good,” Shepherd said. “So either Dionne killed him, I killed him, we killed him together, or someone got here just after the two of us and killed him. And five ‘someones’ got here shortly after us, so that leaves all of us in the mix as suspects.”
Five of the six selectees against the wall looked uneasily at each other. Robinson continued to stare at the body of her late boyfriend.
“Additionally,” Shepherd said, “All of us are of the right height to come up behind him and easily get a knife around his neck. I’m the tallest here, but even you, Kelly, are tall enough to cut his throat.”
Sniff jumped as he looked at her, “I didn’t–!”
Shepherd raised a hand to quiet her, “I’m not accusing you—or anyone—here. At least not yet.”
“What does that mean?” Killer asked.
“That means we’re stuck here for at least ten more hours on our own. I intend to figure out which of us murdered this man…if indeed it was any of us. It is entirely possible his killer lured him here, killed him, and then ran before any of us were aware. However, let’s be honest—that’s a very unlikely scenario. Possible, yes, but unlikely. The most logical conclusion based on the timing, the location, the storm…everything going on is that someone in this room killed Dionne’s boyfriend.”
Once again Shepherd had brought the room to a jarring silence even the howling wind outside couldn’t seem to penetrate.
“Another thing we have to consider is that it appears he didn’t struggle,” Robinson said quietly. “Looks like he was taken by surprise, but I don’t see any injuries to his hands or anything in the kitchen that makes it look like a fight took place.”
“Exactly,” Shepherd agreed. “We can reasonably determine he did know his killer—”
“Why do you say that?” Sniff asked.
Shepherd looked at her. “Would you show up to the kitchen at Bay Vista on a rainy night when you had no event scheduled there unless you knew and implicitly trusted the person calling you?”
“And, as Dionne points out, there was no struggle. Whatever was going on, Collander obviously didn’t feel threatened and didn’t fight for his life. He was taken by surprise—the likely scenario of the killer reaching around to slit his throat from behind supports that—but he was in the presence of someone he had complete and utter trust in.”
“…Like me…” Robinson said. She knew everyone was thinking it, so she reckoned she might as well say it.
“Except for an inconvenient fact,” Shepherd said. “You and I have been together since at least noon. We were both at NEPAC East until five. Then we hit the NEX and Commissary to get supplies and food for tonight and got here a little before six. It’s currently just past 8:30 and Collander has clearly been dead for longer than that.”
“The rest of us got here by 6:30,” Killer said. “We were all early; show time for the event was 9:00. I came early because of the weather; I didn’t know how long it would take me to get here from Sandbridge.” Sandbridge was a coastal community sitting on the far southeastern corner of Virginia Beach.
“Well, someone got here and killed Collander,” Shepherd said. “Bay Vista was open and empty for us at 5:00. The base Commander Master Chief texted me that he had it open and waiting for us. Dionne and I met him outside when we arrived, so he saw us arriving before 6:00. Then he headed home. He might or might not have passed any of y’all on the road. As it stands he was here with the front door open at 5:00.”
“Why didn’t he see anyone come in if he was here and only the front door was open?” Carpet asked.
“Head call?” Smith speculated. “Or maybe he fell asleep waiting?”
“Either way there might have been a window for someone to get Collander in here on some pretense, the kill him,” Shepherd said. “Dionne and I got here and spent out time setting up the main banquet hall for the rest of you.”
“We only have your word that you two were together all the time,” Steinbeck said acidly.
Shepherd looked at him, a mildly annoyed expression on his face. “Yes. You do. But I only have your word that you didn’t get here right at 5:00, sneak in with Collander for some inane reason, and then murder him. As I’ve said, we’re all legitimate suspects…but my point of view is the one that’s going to rule the roost tonight.”
“And why do you get to be in charge?!” Steinbeck spat, his face contorted with anger.
“Well,” Shepherd said gently, slowly moving around Collander’s body to approach the group, “For one thing, I’m a Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy and I outrank your arrogant little ass, so you’ll follow all lawful orders I give. For another, there are only two people in this building that have dealt with murder investigations and, of those two people, I’m the one with more than 20 years’ experience solving them.”
In one quick long stride Shepherd’s shot across the remaining distance to get right in Steinbeck’s face. Steinback was startled and jumped backwards, banging the back of his head into the wall.
“Finally,” Shepherd said quietly, his flashlight right in Steinbeck’s eyes. His voice has devolved from the light conversational quality he effected earlier into a guttural, dangerous growl. “There is likely a murderer in this room right now. Someone who murders once is highly likely to murder again…especially to protect themselves from detection. So, basically, if you want to live through the night, you will do exactly what I tell you, nothing more and nothing less. Do you understand?”
Rubbing the back of his bruised skull, Steinbeck glared into the light resentfully, but nodded.
He’s going to be trouble, Shepherd thought unhappily. Out loud, however, he affected a nonchalant air. “Glad we got that straightened out. Dionne!”
“Chief?” She asked nervously.
“Take this group back to the banquet hall area. Remember, no one goes anywhere unless they’re in a group of three. There’s six of you so that should never be a problem.”
“Except you?” Steinbeck was constitutionally unable to keep quiet.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Shepherd said. “If I wanted to kill you, I certainly wouldn’t do it in front of witnesses, would I?”
Again Shepherd brought the group to a screeching silence as the wind howled, clawing at the impervious building.
There was no talking as the group of six Sailors headed back to the banquet hall. However, once they got into the stuffy, darkened space, another cacophonous flood of verbose verbal vexations rent the group.
“He has not right to just take over like that!” Steinbeck snapped.
“He’s the chief!” Carpet’s rich voice came back across the room. “He’s in charge whether you like it or not!”
“Yeah, but he might be a murderer for all we know!”
“Throttle if back, Harper!” Smith said to Steinbeck.
“Well, what’s he doing all by himself in there? Destroying evidence?” Steinbeck spat.
“We’re all scared. That’s no reason to lash out!” Killer said. “As long as we stay in one group we’re all safe.”
“I can’t handle this,” Sniff said tearfully. “I want to go home.”
“We need to get the police!” Steinbeck declared. “ I’ll go. Who’ll come with me?”
“You can’t go out in that storm!” Killer said.
“Someone call them!” Sniff said. “Someone’s phone must have a signal!”
“I’ve got no signal,” Carpet said.
“Neither do I,” Smith said.
“Wait—why not just use the land line?” Carpet asked suddenly. “Why didn’t we think of that before?”
Steinbeck suddenly looked triumphant, “That’s a great idea! Where’s the phone?”
“It’s in the office,” Killer said. “At least, that’s the only one I know of.”
“And how do you know that?!” Steinbeck rounded accusingly on Killer.
“My last Commander Master Chief had his retirement here,” Killer explained, taking a step back out of nerves.
“Harper, calm down!” Carpet stepped forward, slightly between them. “We’ll go to the office and call.”
“You can’t,” Sniff said. “It’s locked.”
“How do you know?” Smith asked.
“Well, break down the door!” Steinbeck said, starting forward.
“You are not breaking down anything!” Carpet said. “Get real! None of us are in mortal danger right now as long as we stay together, so there’s no way you could justify breaking the office door in!”
“You’re so quick to take charge!” Steinbeck postured up on Carpet. “You hiding something?!”
Robinson’s shout startled everyone into an uneasy silence.
“Dammit, we’re arguing like idiots!” She snapped, a slight note of hysteria to her voice. “Can’t you all just shut up for a few minutes?! We’re not getting anywhere! Just shut up!”
Turning away she hugged her muscular arms to herself, trying to regain her composure. Losing her cool now wouldn’t help the situation.
Carpet walked over and laid a hand on Robinson’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. How long had you two been dating?”
“Not long,” Robinson said. “But…long enough.”
“How did you meet him?”
“That CrossFit gym in Virginia Beach off Laskin Road,” Robinson answered.
The rest of the group had the good grace to look a bit embarrassed as they realized they’d been ignoring their shipmate’s grief during their argument.
“Ok,” Robinson said, taking a deep, shuddering breath, but seeming to regain an even keel. “Ok, we need to account for everything each of us has done. We’re going to need to give statements to the police and NCIS. Let’s get organized on that.”
The others looked surprised as she went to a dark corner and fished a pen and notebook from her backpack.
“Ok, one at a time let’s go over to that table and talk. You give me your statement and I’ll write it down. You can review it for accuracy and sign it for accountability.”
“Wait!” Steinbeck interrupted. “What makes you a detective suddenly? According to every movie I’ve seen you’re the most likely murderer being Collander’s girlfriend!”
“Oh, don’t start that again!” Killer said.
“It is a legitimate question,” Sniff admitted.
“I’ve done this before, you haven’t,” Robinson said, rejoining the group. “The longer we wait to note down our movements and observations, the harder it will be to give an accurate account to NCIS without being influenced by what other’s say, wishful thinking, opinion, etc. We need to get our basic statements recorded now.”
“I don’t care what Chief Shepherd said,” Steinbeck spat. “You are not in charge of me and I am not going to be interrogated by you, Dionne!”
For a fraction of second Robinson was ready to slug Steinbeck. She felt her powerful arm twitching as her fist balled up, nearly snapping her pen in half.
Another idea hit her; a tactic she’d seen Shepherd use many times in maintaining his authority over a fractious group.
“Ok, you don’t have to. But when this is over everyone’s going to know you’re the one who didn’t obey a lawful order during an emergency,” She said mildly. “Can’t imagine anyone in the Chief’s Mess ever trusting you after that.”
“Oh, yeah!” She said suddenly, as if a thought had just struck her, “You’re so fond of accusing me of murdering my own boyfriend…but you don’t want to talk and let me record your statement…hmmm…what’re you hiding? I mean, you’d only refuse to talk if you have something to hide, right?”
“I’ve got nothing to hide!” Steinbeck said, set back on his intellectual heels as everyone stared at him suspiciously.
“Well, you can explain that to NCIS later. I’ve got work to do.” Robinson said, turning away.
“Alright!” Steinbeck broke, following Robinson to a table away from the rest of the group. “Alight! What do you want to know?”
Carpet sniggered as she fought to keep from laughing. Sniff looked bewildered. Killer and Smith were rooted to the spot, still struggling to keep up with everything.
“Persia, keep everyone over there,” Robinson directed. “Do not share stories about tonight. We need to keep our recollections and observations clear of each others’ influence.”
Carpet led the rest of the group to the far side of the banquet hall.
Robinson sat down with Steinbeck. “Ok, Harper. I’m going to ask you pretty much the same things NCIS will be asking us all tomorrow. Tell me everything you can to the best of your ability. Now, what time did you arrive here?”
Unseen as he watched from the shadowy hall leading to the kitchen, Isaac Shepherd smiled.