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 won the mad scramble, but not by much. He had never been a very good sprinter. However, the profusion of tables and chairs in the darkened banquet hall tripped up the other group while Shepherd and Robinson had a diagonal path clear. The got to the hall first and led the charge towards the kitchen.
A grinding, choking sob hiccuped down the darkened corridor as two shadowy figures rose up in the half-light of the emergency lights. Although night time and darkness did not agree with Shepherd’s weak and chronically myopic eyeballs, he quickly resolved Kelly Sniff crying hard in the arms of Miles Killer.
“What happened?!” He barked as he skidded to a halt.
Behind him Robinson stopped abruptly; the other three smacking into her like characters in a cartoon.
“He was in there!!” Sniff cried hysterically, pointing to the kitchen. “He was in there! He attacked me with a knife!!”
“Who attacked you? Miles?!” Steinbeck demanded.
“Think about it, you idiot,” Carpet said. “If Miles had attacked her I doubt she’d be letting him hold her.”
“I saw her leave,” Killer said. “When she didn’t come back I went to look for her.”
Sniff continued to sob as Carpet and Robinson peeled her off Killer and each wrapped an arm around her. Killer’s shirt was rather wet, and not all of it were tears he realized as he heard Sniff snork up a sizable load of mucus.
“Why did you leave?!” Shepherd demanded. “I ordered no one to go anywhere without two other people with them!”
“They were asleep!” Sniff sobbed. “I—I had to use the head. I didn’t want to wake them! I thought it’d be ok!”
“Are you injured?” Robinson asked.
“No…No, I don’t think so,” Sniff said. “But he was here! A man…I’m pretty sure it was a man! He grabbed me and put a knife to my throat! When I screamed he ran back that way!”
She pointed to the kitchen. The wind was howling, making the dark passageway an eerie fun-house corridor of shadows and noise.
“Why did you come this way?” Robinson asked. “The heads are back by the entry way.”
Sniff wiped her nose. “I heard something after I got done in the ladies room. Sounded like someone rattling around in the kitchen area. I was curious.”
“So you came up here by yourself?!” Carpet asked surprised. “Kelly, that was stupid! You could have been killed.!”
Sniff rubbed her neck, “I know, I just…oh…oh my! I’m…I’m bleeding!”
“Let me see,” Shepherd shined his torch on her neck. “You got…you got lucky. There’s a small cut across the right side of your throat…but it’s not deep. Looks like the knife was just starting to cut when it was pulled away.”
“Looks like your big theory is shot to hell there, Chief!” Steinbeck barked triumphantly, talking over the wind. The storm was reaching its zenith.
Irritated, Shepherd turned around to face him, “accidentally” blasting the flashlight into Steinbeck’s face. “How’s that?”
Steinbeck flinched and threw his hand up to block the light, “Watch where you point that thing!”
“Oh, I’m so terribly sorry,” Shepherd lowered the light, but not before exchanging a glance with Robinson. She was obviously trying not to laugh.
“One of us can’t be the killer of that dork in the kitchen if someone tried to kill Kelly.” Steinbeck said.
“That ‘dork’ was my boyfriend!” Robinson snapped, a sudden rage firing her blood. “Watch you damn mouth, Harper, or I’ll make sure you lose some teeth!”
“Chill, people!” Shepherd said. “If you’re right, Harper, then we’re all in more danger than I thought.”
“How so, dude?!” Steinbeck demanded.
“First off, it’s ‘Chief,’ not ‘dude.’ You’re still in the Navy and I still outrank your ass…and always will because I’m two years senior to you!” Shepherd snapped. “Secondly, think it through before spouting off like an ignorant jackalope. If one of us was the killer, and we were all staying together in one big group, the killer would be unable to threaten anyone.”
They all looked at each other.
“But,” Shepherd said, “If the killer is a party completely separate from us, then that person is on their own in this building with us…and can act with impunity because they can set up situation where there are no witnesses.”
The rain pounding the roof seemed a bit quieter all of a sudden as they took in Shepherd’s point.
“Which does bring me back to why the hell you disobeyed and went to the head alone, Kelly?
Shepherd snapped. “Look, far be it from me to turn every bloody situation into a learning event, but did it occur to you…to any of you…that my order was to keep you alive?”
“I’m…sorry,” Sniff sniffed.
“It’s done,” Shepherd said. “But we need to have a look around. Dionne, I need you with me. And you pick one other person to come with us. Everyone else—back to the banquet hall.”
Robinson thought fast, “Persia, take Kelly and everyone else and keep everyone together. Miles, you come with me and Chief.”
“I am NOT staying behind!” Steinbeck said, stepping towards Shepherd and shoving Robinson aside.
Robinson’s temper snapped. Before Shepherd could react Robinson had grabbed Steinbeck’s arm and twisted it around into a shape that should have been anatomically impossible to achieve. His knees buckled, but he was saved from falling onto his face by Robinson’s abrupt pivot that shoved him into a wall.
“You better watch who you lay a hand on, Harper!” She barked through gritted teeth. “By a lawful order of the only Chief Petty Officer on scene I’m the Petty Officer in Charge here and if you assault me or another Sailor here again tonight I’ll break you goddamned arm!”
“Whoa, there, Dionne!” Shepherd stepped forward, trying—and failing—to contain his laughter. “I think he gets the point!”
Hunkering down so he was on level with Steinbeck’s contorted face, Shepherd again “accidentally” shined the torch directly in his eyes.
“Harper, two tings. One—don’t lay hands on someone who does CrossFit five times a week and is a black belt in Tang Soo Do. Number two—what she said!”
Shepherd rose, “You can let him go, Dionne. I think he got the point.”
Robinson let him up, but continued staring at him.
“Dionne, Miles, come on. Kelly said her assailant went back towards the kitchen. We need to check it out. Persia, see you back in the banquet hall in a bit.”
Shepherd led his two charges deeper into the dark hallway. A couple of the emergency lights had given up the ghost, their batteries dead. Even in the sections where the emergency lights burned, Shepherd’s flashlight was the brightest object.
“Miles,” Shepherd asked “Why did you leave the banquet hall?”
“I saw Kelly go past me. I must have dozed off…I think most of us did. Anyway, she brushed past me after leaving the ladies’ room as she headed to the kitchen. I dozed back off, then I woke up a few minutes later and realized she was alone. I was worried about her going alone, so I got up to go with her.”
“You saw her leave the ladies room?” Robinson asked.
“Stop!” Shepherd ordered.
They had reached the kitchen.
“What, Chief?” Killer asked.
“The body. Look at the body. I’m sorry Dionne, but you need to look at Collander’s body.”
They did. Even Killer saw what Shepherd was referring to.
“It’s been moved. Someone moved it.”
“What the…?” Robinson started to ask.
Collander’s body was rolled partly onto its right side. But left side of his face and upper shoulder, the side facing upwards, had blood smeared on them, as if he had been rolled onto that side first, and then turned over onto his right side.
“The killer was here,” Shepherd said. “And the killer was looking for something.”
“The pockets are turned out on this side of his pants,” Robinson said heavily in very clipped tones. “And…is that loose change on the floor by him?”
“Yeah,” Killer said. “And…keys. His car keys.”
“I need to know something,” Shepherd said.
He crouched down and, taking a breath, rolled Collander a bit farther onto his right side so he could examine the pockets on Collander’s left side.
“His phone’s missing,” Shepherd pronounced.
“It is?” Killer asked. “How do you know?”
“Because it was there when I first examined the body after Dionne found him,” Shepherd said. “Look close—see the rectangular shape in the pocket area? I’m guessing Collander used a larger cell phone and always carried it in that pocket because its impression is still in the cloth of his pants. However, it’s not there now. And I have photos of it on my phone because I took pictures of the body after I sent you all back to the banquet hall. I got close up on every detail…and his phone was there.”
“Why…why would the killer take his phone?” Killer asked.
“There’s something on it that incriminates the killer, Miles,” Robinson said. “There can’t be any other reason.”
“So the murderer is in here!” Killer said, looking around nervously.
“Miles, the murderer has been here all along,” Shepherd said, standing up. “But now we have more information…and pretty critical information. Most murders are committed by people close to the victims. Not all…” Shepherd trailed off and glanced at Robinson, both thinking of recent events. A serial killer out to get Shepherd was murdering targets at seeming random.
“Anyway,” Shepherd got his mind back on track, “Anyway, now we have confirmation that Collander was murdered by someone close to him. That narrows the list of suspects a lot…even if Dionne can’t help us with that tonight.”
“Me?” Robinson was startled.
“He was your boyfriend,” Shepherd said, not unkindly. “Think. Do you know of any connection he had to anyone here tonight…besides you, I mean?”
“No. I’m sorry, Chief,” Robinson looked like she just signed her own death warrant. “I’m…I’m the only person he knows that’s here tonight.”
“Di, that doesn’t mean you did it,” Killer said reassuringly.
“He’s right,” Shepherd said.
“Chief,” Killer said, “Look back there.”
Killer was pointing down the hallway. From the kitchen they could see the glint of light on something on the floor.
Shepherd led the way back and they saw a small kitchen knife on the floor.
“That must be the knife the killer used on Kelly,” Killer said. “He probably threw it away after she screamed and he ran off.”
Shepherd stared at it. “Maybe. Or else our murderer grabbed a collection of knives and dropped this one. I wouldn’t put it past them to make sure they were always armed.”
“What should we do with it?” Killer asked.
“I’ll get a plastic bag from the kitchen and pick it up,” Robinson said.
She went back to the kitchen for a moment.
“We’re not going with her?” Killer was startled.
“No,” Shepherd said.
“I thought we had to stay in a group at all times?”
Shepherd was still staring at the knife. “She’s in no danger.”
Killer was troubled by the ugly look of fury contorting Shepherd’s face.
Robinson returned with a gallon-sized bag. Carefully turning it inside out, she picked up the knife using the bag as a glove. Turning it back right-side out, she zipped it shut and held it up.
“Exhibit A.” She said.
Shepherd stared at the knife in the bag very closely.
Shepherd held up a hand, silencing her.
Robinson and Killer glanced at each other, then back at Shepherd. He was clearly deep in thought.
“Ok!” They both jumped as he suddenly spoke, “We’re done here, I think. We should head back before Steinbeck decides to lead a mutiny.”
“Chief?” Robinson asked.
“Hmm?” He looked over at her.
“What? You were…staring at the knife pretty hard.”
“Oh, yes. Well, the knife is important. But it’s also completely irrelevant.”
“I don’t understand,” Killer said.
Shepherd smiled, his sea green eyes glittering in the light the plastic bag was scattering from his torch. “Oh, don’t worry about it.”
“Well, I’m worrying about it,” Robinson said, glancing down at the knife. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, just what I said,” Shepherd looked at her pointedly. “This knife is very important. Mainly because it’s completely irrelevant.”
She looked a the knife she held in the bag completely uncomprehendingly.
“Think,” Shepherd prodded her and Killer. “Both of you. Think. Think about everything that’s been said and look at everything we’ve seen.”
Killer’s face was blank. “I don’t…”
“I do!” Robinson said, suddenly. Her eyes widened. “So you mean–”
“No,” Shepherd said, “Hold you thoughts close to the vest, just like when you play spades on the ship. But, yes…I think you do see my point.”
She looked back at the knife, then to Shepherd. “We…need to talk.”
“Yes,” Shepherd said. “But not here. Time to get back to the others.”
Killer glanced around into the shadows. “You think the murderer is…going to try again?
The building shook as a large gust sucker-punched it.
“Oh, I think the murderer will lay low for a bit,” Shepherd said. “Especially as long as we stay in relatively large groups.”
“Why are you so sure?”
“Think it through, Miles,” Shepherd said gently. “Two people have been…well, attacked. Both of them have been, to the best of our knowledge, alone.”
“What do you mean, ‘to the best of our knowledge?’”
“Nothing you did not witness yourself is certain, Miles. And even then,” Shepherd shrugged, “Well, it is possible to see something that didn’t actually happen. Murderers are usually very good at misdirection and creating illusions. Let’s get on back to the banquet hall. Just…do me one favor, both of you.”
“What, Chief?” Killer asked.
“Don’t mention the missing phone. Please. The body’s been disturbed and all, but don’t mention the phone. If the murderer is lurking in the shadows, we’re safer if he thinks we haven’t picked up on that yet.”
“But,” Killer was thoughtful, “But if he’s been listening to us three…he’ll know we know.”
“True,” Shepherd acknowledged. “But the rest are safe if they’d don’t know. I hate to do this to you two, but if the murderer had been listening in and knows we three know about the missing phone, the danger is confined to just us…and we’re safe anyway in a group.”
The three of them made their way back down the hall way, Shepherd in the rear. Even with some of the emergency lights out, there was enough illumination to find their way without Shepherd’s flashlight.
A small storm of talk greeted their return. Steinbeck was silent, sitting sullenly by himself with his arms crossed.
The knife caused Sniff to recoil in horror and grab her neck. Carpet put her arm around Sniff’s shoulders.
The news the body had been disturbed caused another storm of speculation and fear and general muttering.
“Enough!” Shepherd called over the tumult. “Look, it’s after midnight, and the storm is going to start easing up in the next hour. I need to talk to Dionne, but we all need sleep.”
“We’ll set a watch,” Robinson said. “Two on watch at all times. Half-hour watches; we’re all tired and sweaty from the lack of AC and the stress.”
Robinson got the watches straightened out. Shepherd took the bag-enclosed knife and returned to the table he and Robinson had been at before Sniff had wandered off.
She came over a few minutes later.
“Ok, watches are set. Haper and I are on first watch,” She said.
Shepherd raised his eyebrows. “He was pretty quiet.”
She smiled grimly, the woosh of rain on the roof making her grin take on an evil character, “I told him it was first watch…or I’d break his arm. I didn’t get an argument.”
Shepherd laughed. “Nice! Ok, Di, tell me…tell me everything. Everything you’ve seen, everything you think…and most of all…tell me why you think it. I’m asking for speculation, yes, but speculation based on hard evidence.”
Robinson stared at Shepherd. “You do know. You’ve figured it out.”
“Yes,” He answered. “I know exactly who murdered Collander, and I’ve a pretty good guess as to why. But I need more, and you’re the key to the ‘more’ part of the equation. I can’t bring your boyfriend back to, and I’m so sorry about that. But I can make sure his murderer rots in jail. So…tell me everything you’ve seen and think based on evidence.”
The conversation lasted over an hour. Two watch rotations passed before they finished.
“So, am I right?” Robinson aske.d
“No,” Shepherd smiled. “No, you’re not. But you’re closer than you think.”
She leaned back, noticing the wind was considerably quieter now as it approached 2:00 a.m. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t feel bad, this is not an easy job, being a detective,” Shepherd said. “Especially being an amateur. In fact, to be honest, I think this is only the second or third time in 20 years I’ve dealt with a…a case and not had NCIS present to help me out. No, in one way you’re on the right track, Di. But you’re not looking at the obvious answer. Are you familiar with Occam’s Razor?”
“Times like this I love being a master of what most people call ‘useless’ trivia!” Shepherd laughed. “William of Ockham was a Franciscan friar. He studied logic in the 14th century. In the modern world his name is usually spelled ‘O-c-c-a-m.’ Anyway, his ‘razor’ is a logical principle that states, basically, when you have a problem with multiple possible solutions, the simplest solution is usually the right one.”
She leaned back as Shepherd studied her.
“So, again, I ask you based on that idea, what can we reasonably eliminate?”
“It seems so fantastic,” Robinson looked over at her fellow selectees, “But honestly it seems simpler that one of us killed Jacob than a ‘random’ stranger is running around the place.”
“Exactly,” Shepherd said. “And that fits with the statistic that most murder victims are killed by someone they know. You’re having trouble grasping the obvious because these people here are your friends, your Selectee Mess…your brothers and sisters.”
“Well, maybe not Steinbeck,” She said with angry humor.
Shepherd laughed. “I know the feeling. Remind me to tell you about my Chief’s initiation two years ago! So…back to the matter at hand…we can eliminate a lot. The rest remains…well, unlikely, but probably true.”
“That honestly sounds familiar,” Robinson said.
“You ever read Sherlock Holmes?”
“No, but I’ve seen a lot of movies. I really liked the Robert Downey, Jr., movies and the Bennedict Cumberbatch ‘Sherlock’ serices on the BBC.”
“That’s what’s jogging your mind,” Shepherd said. “A very famous Sherlock Holmes quote. ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’”
“I see,” She said.
“My own favorite author’s most famous character would say we need to use our ‘little grey cells,’” Shepherd said. “So, eliminating the impossible, what remains?”
“One of us killed Jacob.”
“Exactly,” Shepherd said. “And I know who. You can know too…but you have to let go your likes and dislikes, your affections, and your idea that you actually know your messmates. For the most part you do, but there is one of them who is an incredible actor, and that person has murdered Jacob and betrayed you all. I’ve had many years of practice at suspecting my friends; this is new to you, Di. But if you’re going to take up for me, you have to learn.”
“Who says I want to?” She flared, suddenly angry. “Who says I want to be the next ‘Accidental Detective’ in the fleet arguing with every NCIS agent I run into or dealing with murders?!”
Shepherd wasn’t phased. “You do. Dionne, you have a passion for justice that reminds of mine. You really are personally offended by murder. The fleet needs one of us, and I’m about to move one and start a new story. I intend you to replace me, not just as a chief…but as the Navy’s next great amateur detective, the Sailor out for justice who sees things that NCIS and others can’t.”
She glared at him…and felt her anger drain away. “So..what now?”
“Let go of it all….all your affections and prejudices and ideas….let it all go and just look at facts.”
She sighed, nodded, and leaned forward.
“Now, start again,” Shepherd said. “Tell me everything you have heard, seen, and guess based on evidence. After that…after that I’ll tell you how you can help me solve this once and for all.”
She talked. For nearly an hour she ran through everything. As she finished relating what she and see and heard in the kitchen with Shepherd and Killer, her back suddenly stiffened.
“No…No…it…it can’t be…”
Shepherd nodded. “Yes, it can be. You know. Now…here’s what I need from you…”