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
Chief Yeoman (Select) Harper Steinbeck’s statement as transcribed by Chief Mass Communication Specialist (Select) Dionne Robinson:
My name is Harper Steinbeck. I’m 37 years old and assigned to Naval Station Norfolk’s Administration Department. I’ve been attached there for two years.
I arrived at Bay Vista about 6:30 tonight for this stupid Murder Game thing. I drove by myself and parked next to the building. When I came in I found you and Chief Shepherd sorting through the background material for tonight’s event. I sat down while you two finished separating the clues.
I think Carpet, Killer, Smith, and Sniff all came a little after that. I remember Carpet getting here right after me. Killer, Smitt, and Sniff all waked in a few minutes later. I think it was around 6:45 or 6:50.
At 7:00 Chief Shepherd got a phone call and stepped out to the foyer. He came in about 20 minutes later and told us Tropical Storm Kelly had turned unexpectedly and was going to make landfall. He said the rest of the selectees weren’t coming and the event was cancelled, and he took it upon himself to order us to stay here. I tried to leave to go home about 7:30 but he refused, so I had to call my wife and tell her he was being a jerk and keeping us here.
Around 8:00 you went to the kitchen. A few minutes later Shepherd got a call from you and ordered us to follow him to the kitchen where we found you standing over that dude’s body.
My name is Persia Carpet. My parents came to Florida from Belize just before I was born. I joined the Navy 13 years ago, and I’m 31 years old. I’m assigned to Expeditionary Small Craft Unit 18 here on the naval station. I’ve been there three years.
I arrived at Bay Vista about 6:35, right behind Steinbeck. I saw him getting out of his car in the rain as I parked. I stayed in my car for a few minutes to catch the news on WNIS before I cam in. That’s when I first heard the tropical storm had changed course and was going to make landfall on Norfolk.
I think I walked into the Bay Vista banquet hall about 6:40. You and Chief Shepherd were busy sorting the material that would be used as backstory and clues by us during the Murder Game tonight. Steinbeck was standing by the door playing a game on his phone. I walked over and spoke to you both about the storm. As I came in I remember hearing someone come in behind me and I think I heard Sniff come out of the ladies room. I guess it was Smith and Killer who walked in behind me?
Chief Shepherd made a call about the storm to someone, but he had to leave a voice mail. I think he was called back around 7:00 or 7:10. He stepped out to the foyer to talk.
About 7:15 or 7:20 he came back in and told us the base Command Master Chief had confirmed the storm’s unexpected track. He told us the event had been canceled but the weather was deteriorating too fast for any of us to make it home safely, so we were going to have to spend the night here. Steinbeck argued with him for something like 20 minutes before he shut up. Sniff stepped off to the side to make a phone call while Steinbeck argued.
Power went off around 8:00 I think. Maybe a bit earlier? I don’t recall.
But a little after 8:00 you went to the kitchen to get some water bottles for us. You called back to the chief to tell him something had happened. We all went to the kitchen and found Jason Collander’s body on the floor.
When got in there we all acted pretty stupid for a while until Chief Shepherd shut us up. I’m sorry we didn’t give you more consideration, Dionne. That was a pretty piss poor way to treat you.
What time was that? I think we met you in the kitchen around 8:20? Maybe 8:30?
Statement of Chief Quartermaster (Select) Miles Killer as transcribed by Chief Mass Communication Specialist (Select) Dionne Robinson:
Smith and I live next door to each other down in Sandbridge, so we drove up here tonight like we do for most events during initiation season. Weather sucked as we drove, and we thought we were going to be late. Oh—I drove. Smith rode with me.
What? Oh, My name is Miles Killer. I’m a quartermaster on shore duty here on the naval station. That pretty much means I’m running the barracks and doing maintenance. I’m 27 years old and joined the Navy right when I was 18. I’m the youngest and most junior Sailor in our class of selectees.
We got here around 6:45 I think. We were soaked as we came in. When we got into the banquet hall I saw Persia’s coat on the rack over by the door and you were talking to the Chief Shepherd and Persia.
Chief Shepherd took a call around 7:00 I think. John Smith and Kelly Sniff and I were hanging out talking while you and Persia talked. Harper? I don’t recall seeing him…no, wait. He was over by the door playing on his phone. That’s right. Yea, I’m sure.
Chief Shepherd came back and told us about the storm and that we were stuck for the night. Harper got all up in his face about it and Sniff was complaining to us about her kids and her husband having to look after them all night alone.
We all headed into the kitchen after you about 8:45 after you called Shepherd about finding, well, finding your boyfriend. I’m damn sure sorry about that, Dionne. And how we freaked out at first and didn’t even think about how you were feeling.
Statement of Chief Ship’s Serviceman (Select) Kelly Sniff as transcribed by Chief Mass Communication Specialist (Select) Dionne Robinson:
My name is SH1 Kelly Greenwell Sniff…well, oops. I mean Chief Ship’s Serviceman (Select) Kelly Sniff. Going to take me a while to get to used to the promotion! I come from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My husband, Richard, and I have been married 7 years and I have twin boys, Bart and Barry, both are 5. I joined the Navy 15 years ago and I’m 33 years old.
Richard dropped me off right around 6:30 I think, but it may have been later because I walked in right behind Smith and Killer, and the three of us were talking and found you, the chief, and Harper Steinbeck in here already.
What was everyone doing when we walked in? Well, let’s see. You and the chief were talking to Pesia and Harper was over by himself. I think he was texting someone. Or playing a game maybe? Anyway, he was on his phone.
Somewhere around 7:00 Chief Shepherd went into the foyer to answer a phone call. When he came back a few minutes later he told us the storm was making landfall unexpectedly and we were going to have to stay here. I think I was a bit rude but I had to call Richard and let him know so he and the boys wouldn’t worry about me. Except for stepping away a bit to call Richard I stayed with the group because I was nervous and didn’t want to be alone.
We were hanging out for a while. I remember Harper tried to argue with the chief about staying. But then you went to the kitchen for something and called back to chief. At least, that’s what he told us. But he had all of us follow him to the kitchen and then we found that awful scene. I can’t imagine what you must be feeling right now, and I’m so very sorry for your loss!
What time was all that? I think we headed to the kitchen around 8:15?
Statement of Chief Quartermaster (Select) John Smith as transcribed by Chief Mass Communication Specialist (Select) Dionne Robinson:
John Smith. Chief Quartermaster (Select) on shore duty here on base. I’ve been in for 14 years now. I’m 36 years old. Tried going to college for a while but partied too hard, so after I got kicked out I joined the Navy.
I live in Sandbridge next to Killer and his family, so he and I drive everywhere together. I rode with him tonight.
I think we got here around 6:30, but I was asleep until we arrived, and didn’t look at a clock for a while.
Harper was already here playing on his phone as usual. You were here talking to Shepherd and Persia. Sniff was right behind us as we came into the banquet hall.
I think the power went out about 7:45 or 7:50, and you headed to the kitchen a bit after that.
What? Oh…ok…uh, somewhere around 7:00 the chief came back in and told us Tropical Storm Kelly had shifted and was going to hit Hampton Roads before midnight. He said were stuck here because the weather was already too dangerous to drive in. Harper tried to posture all up on him, but got his ass handed to him as usual.
I think it was about 8:10 that you headed to the kitchen to get water or something. Chief Shepherd got a call about fifteen or twenty minutes after that—that was you calling him bring us all back. He sent us ahead and followed the group into the kitchen. That’s when we found you and your boyfriend’s body. I’m real sorry about acting like such an ass, Dionne.
“I’m impressed,” Shepherd said. “You even transcribed the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ very nicely.”
“Trying to be accurate,” Robinson said quietly.
She and Shepherd were seated in a corner of the dark banquet hall. The other five were on the other side of the room. Steinbeck was getting on everyone’s nerves complaining about his phone dying and having no way to recharge it. Robinson was glad for the excuse to put some space between him and her.
It was after 10:00. Tropical Storm Kelly was fast approaching its zenith, which the last word Shepherd had would be midnight. The wind was making a howling roar as it beat against the building. The huge picture windows lining the all of the banquet hall were rattling, but otherwise the air inside the dark building was still, murky, and dangerous.
Robinson had finished taking the statements and then waited for Shepherd to return from somewhere in the empty building. He had pulled her aside, insisting they stay in the banquet hall where everyone could see them and they could see the others as well, but had segregate the two of them for a bit of privacy.
He picked up the notebook and glanced at it, then set it down, turned off his flashlight, and thought for a few moments.
In the half light provided by the emergency lights he could see Robinson looked weary and soul sick. He couldn’t blame her. He was doing his level best to keep his own anxiety disorder under control; he had been a smart boy and forgotten his meds at his house, so he had not the luxury of his anti-panic attack med to fall back on.
And that is what he was fighting right now. A full-blown panic attack. Accelerated heart rate, massive amounts of adrenaline being dumped into his blood stream, and a profusion of sweat dampening his armpits.
Well, at least everyone’s sweating in this humid air, He thought.
But still, a panic attack was nothing to having your boyfriend lying dead a few yards away on a kitchen floor.
Robinson looked up, “Hmm?”
“You ok?” He asked.
“No,” She admitted. “I…don’t know what to feel, really. I feel ok when I have something to do. But as soon as got these statements and had to stop doing something…I don’t know. I guess part of me doesn’t really believe he’s actually dead. And most of me is afraid I’ll be blamed since that’s usually how these things work.”
Shepherd could sympathize a bit. “I know what you mean, at least, a little.”
He smiled and admitted his own emotional duress to her. “But, for one thing, a panic attack is not the same as what you’re feeling. And, for another, I don’t have a choice. I’m the chief here, I’m the senior person. You all are my responsibility. I don’t have the luxury of going to pieces, not unless I want to fail all of you.”
She smiled ruefully. “Same as being a 1st Class Petty Officer. The junior Sailors are all looking up to me. I’ve got be on my game even when I feel like crap.”
Shepherd nodded. “But it’s a bigger responsibility when you anchor up. You don’t just have the junior Sailors looking at you, you have the officers too. The junior officers are looking to you for the calm and confidence they need, and the senior officers are expecting you to maintain order on the deckplate because you’re the chief.”
“Sometimes I think I’d rather have stayed a 2nd Class,” Robinson said. “Just been the technical expert shooting stories.”
“I miss those days,” Shepherd said. “When I was with VF-713 I was the shift supervisor, but I was the guy on the flight deck launching the F-14s. And being the only recon camera technician on all of NAS Oceana’s flight line to get final checker qualified too…oh, I was quite the stand out. Best time I ever, ever had in the Navy.”
“But,” He went on, leaning forward and resisting the urge to drop his head into his hands out of weariness, “After that I went to Guam. I was the shift supervisor at the photo lab out there, and that was the best of times in another way. That was my time to be the guy out shooting all the stories.”
“You hooked up with the Coast Guard a lot, didn’t you?”
“I did. Spent a good bit of time on the USCGC Galveston Island. Also did a lot aerial work, security forces jobs, congressional tours…it was fun.”
The wind beat down on the roof and shook the building with a particularly loud groan.
“This is nothing,” Sheherd said. “Three weeks after I got to Guam Super Typhoon Pongsonga schwacked the island. Sustained winds over 180 miles per hour, gusts busting 200. The building I and five other people sheltered in—the Christian Servicemen Center—was halfway demolished around us. In one year I went from war in the Middle East to a terrorist event in Washington, D.C., while I was in the Intermediate Photojournalism Course up at Fort Meade to a major natural disaster on Guam. Ah…that run my cup of adventure really did run over.”
She laughed. “I bet. But still…does it compare to this last few months? What is this now for you? Since Master Chief Stiles was murdered in March this is what…?”
“Five murders in six months, a record even for me,” Shepherd said. “Not at all how I expected to spend the last seven months before I retired. Got enough on my plate with getting my house ready to list, applying for jobs, interviewing…all that without a spree of murders.”
“You seem to have picked up your spirits a bit,” Robinson pointed out. “You were getting really down the last couple of months.”
“Chronic depression and anxiety work like that,” Shepherd said. “We all have emotional cycles, bu those of us with depression…our ‘emotional sine wave’ as it were tends to be a lot more pronounced. I was in a down cycle, and that combined with the anxiety of jumping into the unknown…and the realities of murder…to bring me down. But I always come through. In the end, I’m always still standing.”
“You make it seem like you have no care in the world, Chief.”
“You forget I’ve had years of practice at coping,” Shepherd said. “But coping skills, and the acting skills that keep y’all from seeing how scared I am…they don’t stop me from being scared. I’m taking one hell of a risk.”
“You could reenlist, you know?”
He shook his head. “No. Even if I wanted to, the end of my Navy career was set in stone when I dropped my retirement papers in February. I waited to the last possible minute to decide, so when I did decide to retire I knew it would be an irrevocable decision.”
“Why irrevocable? Did you not want the chance to change your mind?”
“Oh, not that at all. No, but it was a close thing; I almost stayed in. But, in the end I realized I was less excited by the next set of orders than I was opportunities on the outside. Put it this way—do you remember how you felt when you were about to graduate high school and couldn’t wait to get out of there and move on?”
“Yeah. I felt like I’d outgrown it.”
“That’s how I felt. When you start to feel that way, it’s time to move on. Don’t stay in the service just to grasp and covet at rank and paygrade. Oh, I’d love to make Master Chief…but I’d rather be happy instead. So when I called it in February, I gave myself as much time to consider. But that was the big deadline for me because, in March, Big Navy factored my retirement into the chief quotas for next fiscal year. Meaning we gained one more MC chief slot by me retiring.”
“Just find it funny that you, the man who craves order and predictability and all, are the one who chose to jump at 20 years and not keep the guaranteed paycheck longer. Funny that you’re the man who’s showing the rest of us how to take a risk.”
“We all took the same risk when we joined,” Shepherd said. “We all faced the Great Unknown when we swore in. We all will face that moment again when we get out. I just decided to face it on my terms and my timing. And, well…none of this is easy, especially for a man like me with the malformed wiring I have in my head. But I also made a decision to accept agoraphobia as just part of who I am and not let it cripple me. Difficulty facing life isn’t the same as unable to face life. Just like you made a difficult—but utterly correct—choice when you didn’t punch Steinbeck but manipulated him instead.”
“What?!” Robinson was startled. “You saw that–?!”
“I was watching from over there. You did pretty damn good taking control of the situation.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because as much as it sucks for you right now—and it does suck BIG time, Dionne—the fact is you are about to put on anchors and I’m about to retire and leave the deck. You’re taking over my fleet. All of your selectee mates are, but you’ve been my Sailor for some time now. I’ve kept an eye on you ever since I taught you at ‘A’ School.”
“One of your selected students?” She smiled.
“Yeah. All instructors have them. Over the last ten years I’ve taught over 3,500 people. I remember many faces, but very few by name. Anyway, I wanted to see—and I wanted you to see—how well you’d take control of a crisis situation while under extreme personal duress. You did damned good. And it was pretty obvious to me you were ready to cold-cock Steinbeck.”
“You just watched?” She shook her head. “That’s kind of cold.”
“No, it’s not,” Shepherd corrected her. “Dionne, you already know you have to make hard choices as a leader. The stakes only go up once you put on anchors as a chief. Making the call to keep everyone here tonight was not easy…especially with Steinbeck and that nuclear mouth of his. But it was the safest course with the storm track changing. It’s horrible and awful and hard-nosed of me, but letting you have the chance to regain control of your peers allowed me to gauge your skills and you to discover the power you hold within yourself.”
She leaned forward, hugging herself, and looked up.
Shepherd smiled in the half light, “It let you discover that you are not crippled or frozen even by personal tragedy. Which brings me back to these.”
He held up the notebook with the statements she had taken.
“I might be mistaken, but I don’t think you took these to assist NCIS at all. You’ve had experience with them and you know damned well they won’t even look at these until well after they’ve talked to everyone themselves.”
“No, I lied. I want to know who killed Jacob, and I figured these would help you find the killer.”
“Thought so. But you could potentially do this yourself, you know. I don’t have the be the only Accidental Detective the Navy has ever seen.”
“Funny. But, what do you think?”
“You first. What strikes you?”
She thought. “The inconsistencies in the recollections of time. They’re all over the map. Everyone is off from everyone else by ten or fifteen minutes. And only two of them—Persia and John—even mentioned the power going out. But there’s nothing else there that stands out to me.”
“It is always amazing what people notice and don’t notice,” Shepherd said. “You and I were the only ones to notice the blood splattered on the wall of the kitchen. Everyone else was focused on Collander’s body. The time stamp inconsistencies are nothing unusual. Very, very rarely does anyone actually look at a clock when something happens. They guesstimate based off the last time they actually knew the time.”
Shepherd leaned forward and tapped the notebook. “These statements and their inconsistencies mean most of these people are telling the truth. A good investigator will be highly suspicious if too many witness statements match up too closely. That’s good evidence of collusion.”
Robinson suddenly looked up as the implications of what Shepherd said hit her.
“’Most of the these people are telling the truth’? So you are sure now someone here killed Jacob?”
Shepherd raised his eyebrows.
Robinson’s eyes widened. The dank darkness only made the whites of her eyes even more dramatic against her black skin. “You know who it is!”
“I have…an idea, yes,” Shepherd said.
“Dionne, my ideas are not legally actionable. I have a very good idea now who did it. But I have no actual proof. Nor do I have a motive,” Shepherd said. “Telling anyone right now, even you, could backfire badly and just leave me open to a charge of making false accusations.”
“But…how…what gave you your idea…?
“Think, Dionne,” Shepherd said. “You need to think. Read these statements again. Then think about everything everyone’s said tonight. The clues are there. The thing we have to do now is find some kind of hard evidence. That’s another reason I need to keep my ideas from you. Telling you could just corrupt your thinking. I need your observations to be genuine, honest, and unfettered.”
A scream rent the air and made Shepherd and Robinson jump out of their respective skins.
“That was Kelly!” Robinson said, shocked.
Pulling his epidermis back on over his skeleton, Shepherd looked around and noted the absence of Sniff and one other from the group on the other side of the banquet hall.
A second scream deadened the sound of the storm outside and made the entire group start running back towards the darkened kitchen.