[Published in the Hardboiled magazine, pages 40-46, Volume 31, January 2004.]
Outside, the flight deck scorched in the sun. I couldn’t see it but I felt it five decks below in my office: the USS Kitty Hawk slicing through the flat, dazzling surface of the South China Sea, banging its catapults, spitting warplanes into the sultry, turbulent sky. The heat, the tremor, the stench of JP5 aviation fuel seared through the steel bulkheads all the way down into my compartment where I sat facing a young sailor, my investigator’s hunch broiling, thrilled at the possibility of having tracked down the one I was hunting for—a murderer.
Fireman Apprentice Laroy Mehl hunched on a chair, his arms crossed, his body forming a tight, sweating mass in his oil-stained blue coveralls. For the past forty minutes, I had been running him through a series of screening interview questions, each of them designed to elicit deceptive responses only from those who had something to hide. And Laroy Mehl had something to hide.
Since my last query, his gaze lingered on the deck. Overhead, the air conditioner whined, spewing warm humid air.
“Who do you think murdered Jeanette Keating?” I asked.
Only his eyes responded, slowly moving off the floor. When his droopy blue eyes locked with my gaze, they narrowed, glinting as if with hostility, like those of a rabid dog. “Why are you asking me that? You’re the investigator. It’s your job to figure that out, isn’t that right?”
Right. I wanted to tell him how my instinct screamed I had found Keating’s murderer. But that, after all, was only my gut feeling, nothing more. My intuition doesn’t make a case. I needed a break, something more. So far all logical leads have led nowhere.
Fireman Jeanette Keating, age twenty, was last seen alive the night before the Kitty Hawk pulled out of its homeport naval base in Yokosuka, Japan. That was two weeks ago. Back on shore, my colleagues had tracked down two witnesses with the help of the Japanese police detectives, and both saw Keating staggering alone, at around 2130, through the off base bar district. She was crying.
On the aircraft carrier, I found three witnesses who placed Keating earlier in the evening, at around 2100, at an off base dive called the Club Buffaloes. Each of them recounted witnessing an altercation between her and her boyfriend, Fireman Ryan Ortiz.
At first, when the carrier battle group went underway, Keating was simply listed as having missed the ship’s movement. No one knew her whereabouts. Then three days later she was found. Actually, her decomposing body was discovered on the bluff above the sprawling bar district. A janitor found her crammed inside a concrete incinerator of a Japanese hospital.
Massive contusion to the back of her head by a brick found at the crime scene was the apparent cause of her death. No signs of sexual assault. No defensive wounds on her. No tracks or markings on the graveled ground. No forensic evidence. Only some useless smudgy latent prints lifted off the brick. That’s all we’ve got as far as the chronological facts went.
So I had nothing to go on. Thus nothing to lose. So I pushed my hunch. “I explained to you before,” I told Mehl, “that these questions are standard sets that I’ve already asked forty-seven people before you. They had no problems. But you seem to have problems. Why’s that?” I kept an eye on his reaction.
He shifted his weight on the chair, running his fingers through his wispy blond hair matted down with sweat. “All right,” he finally said. “You’re asking me who I think killed her, is that right?”
“That’s what I asked.”
“I say anyone could have killed her.”
“Scuttlebutt round the boat says she was real drunk that night. She’s a real pretty girl, you know. Her walking alone, drunk, a good looking girl like her. Anyone out of the blue . . . say like some Japanese punks, or gangs, or perverts, or even some drunken American sailors, really, if you ask me . . . could have like raped her and then killed her.” He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward toward me, his forearms pressing on his thighs. “But if you ask me to name a name, I’d give you Ryan Ortiz. A major asshole. He’s her boyfriend, treated her real mean, all the time. I don’t see what Keating saw in this dude.” Mehl shook his head. “I heard they had a real big fight that night. You should be checking him out, not me.”
If it would have been only that easy. Fireman Ryan Ortiz seemed at first a logical suspect—an abusive boyfriend, quick with his mouth, and even with his hands the rumors went. With his slender figure, sharply shaped, and a mellow face with melting brown eyes, he considered himself the lady’s man. That night with Keating he had an ugly verbal kung fu, over a Japanese high school girl he was messing around with on the side. I brought him in for preliminary questioning. I pushed him a little hard, and then he broke down, shaking like a kid, no longer the macho playboy who had swaggered into my office. He wept, pleading with his brown eyes as if for mercy, like I were a school bully who knocked him around a bit too hard. He understood things didn’t look good for him. But he had an alibi. I checked it out. It proved to be as solid as the steel hull of the ship we floated on. So Ortiz was out of the hunt at the get go.
“I looked into him,” I said, jotting down on a pad of paper my observations of Mehl, both verbal and non-verbal, giving them numerical scores.
“You think he killed her?”
“He’s got nothing to do with it,” I said. “The suspect’s still on the loose. But I’m closing in, fast.”
“Is it okay if I ask you a question?”
“Sure. Why not?” I stopped writing and looked at him. “Go ahead.”
“You ever killed anyone?”
“That didn’t come out right, did it?” His thin lips etched a crazy looking smile across his sallow face that glistened with sweat. “What I meant was, have you ever shot anyone on the job? You know, like killed someone to protect yourself.”
“I haven’t shot anyone,” I said, hating the shine in his eyes.
“You carry a gun, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” I lied, wishing I hadn’t left my Sig Sauer in my stateroom safe.
“You just haven’t use it, yet, is that it?”
“I’ve drawn my weapon several times, but I never had to pull the trigger.”
“The situation never called for you to kill, is that about right?”
“Why do you ask?”