[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?”
“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 ladderway 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.
There amongst the chaos of people, bustling sailors and few officers, I spotted the lead command investigator. He was working the radio. “Hey, MA1 Barkley,” I yelled. “What’s going on?”
“A sailor was stabbed, sir,” he yelled back. “Found bleeding in the passageway.”
“Where?” I asked, walking up to him.
“Next to the Engineering Berthing Three.”
“He’s inside the berthing area. At least four or five sailors are pinned down inside.”
“He’s got a K-bar knife.”
“How’s the victim?”
“Medical’s working on him,” he said. “It doesn’t look good.”
“The victim’s ID?”
“His name is,” MA1 Barkley scanned his logbook, “Fireman Ryan Ortiz.”
“Damn. Who’s the hostage taker?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
MA1 Barkley called into his radio, “Blazer Command calling Blazer One.”
The radio buzzed. “Blazer One,” a scratchy voice replied.
“Give me Thunder’s ID.”
The radio hissed, clicked, and then a voice replied, “A witness identified Thunder as Fireman Apprentice Laroy Mehl.”
“Damn.” I sat down on a chair.
The Kitty Hawk’s security force quickly contained the situation. The inner perimeter boundary was set one hatchway before the ladderway drop-off into the Engineering Berthing Three. Just outside the hatch, a hostage negotiation cell was established. Electricity to the area was isolated. Then it was cut off.
Only a dim glow of emergency electrical lanterns lit the steel encased world. I peeked round the hatchway and traced the line of a cable phone tossed in earlier by one of the master-at-arms. It disappeared down into the ladderway. Without the electrical power, the ambient air temperature quickly soared. MA1 Barkley handed me the handset. I grabbed it.
“Hey, Laroy,” I said into the microphone. “This is Ian Pierce, the NCIS agent. Pick up the phone. It’s in the small bag we tossed in.”
After a brief moment, a distraught metallic voice bled through the speaker. “I knew you’d come,” the voice said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I don’t want anything,” the voice said. “I just wanted you to be here. You see, I’m finished. My life’s over.”
“You’re not finished, Laroy. You still have a way out.”
“There’s no way out for me. You know that.”
“Nothing’s too late. Give up your weapon. Come out. And we’ll talk.”
“It’s too late for talking,” the voice said. “But before I go, I want to make one thing clear. I never meant to kill Janette. That’s the truth. You’ve got to believe me. I loved her. I always did. I could’ve really been nice to her, much better than that asshole. By the way how’s Ortiz?”
“Medical is taking care of him.”
“I stabbed him good, didn’t I? Is he dead?”
“Laroy, you got to let the hostages go. No sense escalating it any further. Give up your weapon. Come out. Then we’ll talk about it so you can set things straight.”
“It’s fucking too late for that, don’t you understand?”
“Nothing is ever too late, Laroy. What you need is—”
“Don’t give me any crap. Everything’s fucking too late,” the voice screamed.
“You’re still young,” I said. “You can still fix things. There’ll be time to do that. But you must first make your move. Your first step is let the hostages go. Then give up your knife. Then come out.”
“You know, Mr. Pierce,” the voice said. “That night when I saw Janette walking alone, crying, I knew Ortiz had done bad things to her again. I asked her what was wrong. She told me she hated Ortiz . . . are you listening, Mr. Pierce?”
“You see, Janette kept crying so I led her to a quiet place where I knew we could be all alone, a place I went all the time to sit and think about things, and there we sat down on the ground and I listened to her tell me what a jerk Ortiz was cheating on her. She cried some more so I put my arm around her and she let me hold her . . . are you listening?”
“Go on, Laroy. I’m here for you.”
“You see, she just kept crying and we sat there for a long, long time and with my arm over her shoulder I told her I thought she was beautiful. I told she needs a kind man who would treat her like a lady. I told her I always liked her. I told her I could really take care of her if she would only let me. When I said all that she stopped crying. Then you know what she did?”
“No, tell me, Laroy. What did she do?”
“She laughed. Just like that. She looked me in my face and laughed. Like I was out of my mind for saying what I had said.”
“I understand how that would have made you feel.”
“You’ll never fucking understand how I felt,” the voice said. “No one ever will. The way she looked at me. Her eyes, her mouth, her whole body—that bitch—all of her just laughing at me. The way she stood up, the way she stared down at me at last time, shaking her head, and the way she just walked away from me, me sitting there alone, like I was just a fucking piece of trash she’d just tossed away. Seeing her walk away from me like that, I felt something crack inside my head. Everything just went blank. When I realized I had a brick in my hand and she was lying on the ground, bleeding.”
Mehl said no more. And I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. I held the microphone, feeling the pressure of the unsettling pause that I was unable to fill. Finally, I blurted out: “Please, Laroy, just come out. Give me a chance to talk to you. Just you and me, face to face. Give me a chance to help you.”
Another silence followed. Then the voice said, “I just have one regret.”
“What is that?”
“Ever since Mom died my father hated me, and I don’t know why. He’d get drunk all the time and he’d yell at me saying if it weren’t for me he’d have had a better life. I’m worthless he said to me all the time. Said I’d fail in everything I do in my life. One night I told him I had enlisted in the Navy, told him I was leaving home, and then he looked at me—that fucking drunkard—and laughed, saying I wouldn’t last two years, that I didn’t have what it takes to make a man a real man. I hate to admit it. He was right.”
“Screw your father. You can still make things right.”
“Mr. Pierce, you don’t get it, do you? When I realized I killed Janette, something had gone terribly wrong inside of me. I felt it, like I too died the moment she breathed her last. I’m just glad Mom’s already dead. She doesn’t have to know about any of this. All I need now is a way out.”
“We’ll find you a way out, I promise,” I said. “Give yourself up. Toss you knife. And come out.”
“I’m coming out, Mr. Pierce,” the voice said. “Goodbye.”
“Wait, Laroy.” The phone went dead. “Laroy!” I looked round the corner of the hatchway, at the dimly lit gape on the deck that led below to the berthing area. In the dim glow, a shadowy figure came up the ladderway. MA1 Barkley squatting beside me turned on a spotlight. In the bright light, Mehl stood with the K-bar in his hand.
“Drop the knife, Laroy,” I yelled, instinctively drawing my weapon. Mehl held his free arm over his eyes, blocking the harsh light. He squinted into the spotlight. Blood smeared on his arm, glistening dark against his wan skin. “Drop the knife,” I yelled again. I thought Mehl smiled before he lifted the knife hand above his head and screamed and charged towards me, the blade flashing in the spotlight.
“Stop, goddamn it,” I yelled, and then holding my breath I pulled the trigger— double-tap, two shots into the center mass, just as I was trained to do.
The blast noise cracked against the steel bulkheads, tearing at my eardrums, as the charging mass collapsed several feet in front of me, hitting the deck hard.
I kept the muzzle pointed at the unmoving mass. The air choked with the smell of burnt gunpowder. I took a few steps forward. I kicked the knife away from him. “MA1, get medical,” I yelled, but I knew Mehl was dead.
I just stood there gazing down at Fireman Apprentice Laroy Mehl, laying facedown on the deck, not knowing what to do next, feeling a strange stir in my guts, way deep inside of me, slowly rising into my chest, almost choking me. I realized I still held my gun. Holstering it, I knelt down beside his body and put my fingertips on his neck to check for the pulse. Nothing. On the deck, in the harsh spotlight, his blood spread out quickly. I stepped back, shivering, as if someone had pumped chilled water through my veins. Suddenly I realized what had happened. Now I carried Laroy Mehl’s burden inside of me. And I didn’t have a way out.
*** End ***