“INSIDE” (page 2 0f 3)
“Just curious, that’s all.” He crossed his legs, his eyes staring at me, his lips twisted in that crazy smile. His steel-toed boot, at the end of his leg that stretched across his knee, bounced rhythmically in the air, up and down. His rubber sole was cracked split at the arch.
“Okay if I continue with my questions?” I asked.
“Let’s get this thing over with,” he said. “What’s your next question?”
“Was Jeanette Keating your friend?”
“Not really. We worked in the same Pit, you know. In the Main Machinery Room One. A shipmate. That’s all she was.”
“Did you see her the night before the ship left Yokosuka?”
His boot wagged a little quicker. “How did she die anyway?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Are you sure she was murdered?”
“Everyone’s sure of that,” I said. “Just answer my question. Did you see her that night?”
“Where were you that night? the night before we left Yokosuka?”
“A bar in Roppongi. In Tokyo. Drinking.”
“Anyone to vouch your alibi?”
“I’m always alone, you see,” he said. “I prefer it that way.”
“Why do you think Jeanette Keating was murdered?”
Mehl’s boot stopped bouncing. He cocked his head backward, lifting his chin, and his eyes flitted at ceiling, as if he were tracing the pipes that crisscrossed overhead.
“Come on, take a guess,” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said, still looking at the ceiling. “Someone was angry at her. Maybe she pissed him off. Something like that. Maybe the guy had to kill her to protect himself. How the fuck should I know?” He faced me. “You’re the investigator. You figure it out.”
“What do you think should happen to the person who murdered her?”
“Why in the fuck should I know, or care?”
“It’s just a hypothetical question. Just answer it anyway you want. What do you think should happen to the person who killed her?”
“Maybe the guy needs help, you know. Send him to a shrink, or to a chaplain. Get him some help, I mean. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill her. Maybe it just happened. Maybe he couldn’t help it. I don’t know. Maybe go to jail . . . I guess . . . if that’s what it takes.”
Now I came down to my last question—the bait. I shoved it right at him. “Any reason why we might find your fingerprints at the crime scene?”
His eyes widened. His mouth opened. Saying nothing he just stared at me, his eyes bulging out of his eye sockets, his face frozen in mask like form. If he had lost at that moment his mental balance, he recovered quickly. Inhaling an audible breath of air, he crossed his arms tightly over his chest. “I don’t get it,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Are you saying you found my prints?”
“I didn’t say that, did I?”
“Should I talk to a lawyer?”
“Any reason why you should?”
“Hell, you tell me.”
“Hey, Laroy, this is just an interview,” I said, relaxing the tone of my voice. “That’s all this is. I’m not saying you had anything to do with the death of Jeanette Keating, am I?”
“I guess not.”
“So what’s your response?”
“What’s the question again?”
“Any reason why we might find your fingerprints at the crime scene?”
“Yeah, I remember the question,” he said. “What can I say?”
“Say what’s on your mind.”
After a brief pause, he said, “Like I explained to you before, Fireman Keating and I worked in the same Pit. We shared things, you know. Like tools, pens, all kinds of stuff, even some personal things, like music CDs, that sort of things. I would pick up her things. She would pick up my things. That’s normal working in the Pit together. So maybe what you found was one of those things I had touched, you see. That should explain it, right?”
“Right.” I put my notepad on my desk. “We’re done.”
“I can go now?”
I stood up and led him to the hatch, where I extended my hand to him. “I’ll call you if I need to ask some more questions.” His hand shook limp and damp in mine.
“Sure, any time,” he said, averting my gaze.
After I closed the hatch, I felt a strange sense of relief.
Back at my desk, I perused through my investigative file. With no significant leads to track, I had conducted forty-eight screening interviews. Of all these, three had scored high on the numeric scale of deception. But of these three possible hits, if someone dared me to wage all the extra money I would make during the carrier battle group deployment and stake it all on just one suspect, all my chips would be stacked on Fireman Apprentice Laroy Mehl. He was the killer. Now I just had to prove it.
That afternoon I conducted several interviews of Mehl’s shipmates. No one really knew him. No one considered him a friend. He was a type of guy no one really paid any attention. He existed only in the shadows of his coworkers. On his off duty hours, Mehl kept to himself, always alone, playing computer games, or reading gamers magazines. Although the chief and the department head both vouched for him, saying he was a good kid, they both agreed he lacked social skills and career motivation.
From his enlisted service record book I learned he was an only child, raised in a small town in the Midwest, his mother dead when he was ten, raised by his father, a factory worker, graduated from high school with mediocre grades, enlisted in the navy a year later, went through the boot camp, completed the A school in San Diego, and then transferred to the engineering department of the Kitty Hawk about six months ago. On the surface he was just a mediocre kid, with no disciplinary problems, no known behaviors of aggression or violence. But somewhere deep inside of him, there was a darker side. I saw it in his eyes. I felt it.
By the time I left the office, my wristwatch indicated thirty minutes after midnight. I navigated my way through the slippery passageway, the deck tiles sweating with humidity. At least it was a bit cooler inside this steel world now since the sun outside had long sank. I had been pushing hard with this case; I haven’t seen the sun in five days.
I stopped by the wardroom. I needed food. Of course the chow line was long closed, so I whipped up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and washed it down with some stale, lukewarm coffee. Outside the wardroom, I went down a ladder way to my stateroom a deck below. I undressed, threw on a bathrobe, took a quick shower at a stall next to the head, and then went back to my room to hit the rack.
Since the Kitty Hawk went underway, I’ve never been able to sleep soundly. The metal framed bed, the deck, and the steel bulkheads constantly vibrated, the strident heartbeats of the colossal war machine never resting. Earplugs could not block the whirring noise. But I wore them anyway. And I lay down, feeling the hard mattress underneath my back, my whole body absorbing the sound and vibration of the ship that never slept. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
Suddenly, a blaring sound blasted out of the 1MC loudspeakers: “Lighting bolt. Lighting bolt.” The alarm system screamed.
I jumped off my rack.
“Crisis management team away. Compartment 3-152-2-Q. Lighting bolt. This is not a drill. Lighting bolt.”
Pulling on my 5-11 trousers, I scrambled my mind: What the heck is lighting bolt? Then it struck me. I grabbed my 9 mm Sig Sauer PP-229 pistol out from the safe. A goddamn hostage situation.
I dashed up the ladderway. Along the passageway I yelled to clear the people aside. I rushed to the ship’s Chapel, two decks above. It was the pre-designated area for the crisis operational command post.