In the first two parts of this series, I describe arriving at the pier in Norfolk, Virginia, on a cold morning in January, 2019, ready for my tour aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, as part of research for the serial killer thriller Steel Fear, and walked through some of the sights that Monica Halsey, the ambitious Knighthawk pilot, and Finn, the SEAL with the troubled past, see in the early chapters of the book. In this final installment we’ll look at some of the ship locations as the plot unfolds to its final fatal confrontation.
When the “Man overboard!” call comes over the 1MC (the ship’s PA system), about six thousand people hear it — but we’re concerned mainly about three of those six thousand, because they’re the three whose stories we’ll follow as they seek to piece together the puzzle of the Lincoln’s mounting death toll. One of those is someone we haven’t met till now: Harlan Robichaux (“Robbie”) Jackson, the highest-ranking noncom on the ship.
“Command Master Chief Robbie Jackson glanced down at his cooling coffee. Master Chief Jackson was not a patron of Jittery Abe’s. He liked his coffee the traditional navy way: from the mess, black and nasty. A description that he himself had answered to on more than one occasion. Though he was not in fact a nasty man; an even mix of drill sergeant and Creole den mother, Master Chief Jackson was revered among his crew, even loved. Also feared. No one aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln had ever seen him smile.
When he roamed the Abe’s passageways Jackson moved like an Abrams tank that had taken a few semesters of ballet.”
There is something fishy about the building sequence of “suicides,” and when the ship’s self-serving, small-minded captain fails to do anything about it, Jackson takes that mantle on himself, risking his own career suicide in the process. Throughout the rest of the book, Jackson and a hand-picked clandestine investigative team will hold progress meetings in
the CMC’s office.
Which looks exactly like this — because it is this. Here you see me meeting with Chief James W. Stedding, the CMC of the Abe when I visited in early 2019, and when you read descriptions of Robbie Jackson’s little office you’ll see it is set up exactly like this, right down to the two small couches and coffee table. (Something very bad is going to happen on one of those couches.)
When Monica hears the “Man overboard!” call she’s in her office below in the hangar deck, the massive storage bay in the belly of the ship that holds its aircraft (when they’re not on the flight deck). This shot, taken in the Indian Ocean during a WestPac in 1993(two years before Brandon’s first WestPac on the same ship), is from hangar bay 3, in the aft, looking forward; Monica’s office is tucked away behind one of the side walls.
When Finn hears the call he is sitting astride a big Gatling gun on one of the ship’s CIWS (close-in weapons systems, pronounced sea-whiz) mounts, like Major Kong (Slim Pickens) riding his A-bomb in Dr. Strangelove.
“He abruptly tossed his sketch pad onto the catwalk and slipped down off the big gun, grabbed up pad and blanket roll, and headed inside, making his way to deckhouse 3 on the hangar deck, his assigned station . . . The passageways were jammed with sailors rushing every which way, scattering like a disturbed ant hill. Six thousand souls scrambling to get to their muster posts, all at the same time. It was a wonder there were no serious collisions.”
And the plot is off and running. Later on, as he continues his quiet reconnaissance, Finn takes a tour in the bomb assembly room deep in the lower decks, and then an ordnance magazine, which can only be accessed through a trunk line — a long vertical tunnel that serves as the trigger that brings his claustrophobia to the surface. (I took this trunk line shot on the Intrepid.)
Later Finn’s investigations take a more devious turn, as he breaks into the captain’s cabin (located on the gallery deck, just below the flight deck) and searches Eagleberg’s parlor, what the captain calls the “Lincoln Room.”
“He snaked across the small anteroom, oozed through that door and into the captain’s parlor. Took a slow breath, listening to the silence. Looked around, taking it all in. He saw why they called it the “Lincoln Room.” The place was decked out like a museum exhibit of nineteenth-century life. Dark hardwood furnishings, period wallpaper, the whole nine yards.”
Here’s how CMC observes this same room earlier in the story when he meets with the captain there:
“Jackson glanced around the room so as not to seem impatient. Took in the crown moldings and coffered ceiling, the muted slate-green silk-print Colonial diamond-pattern wallpaper, the polished mahogany sideboard with its crystal decanter, and matching glasses. The space had received a makeover modeled after the sets on Stephen Spielberg’s epic film Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg had already spent Hollywood-scale research money-making his sets historically accurate. The Navy saved taxpayer dollars by simply copying what was in the movie.”
True story, by the way, about the Navy and the Spielberg film. “Your box office dollars at work,” as Jackson puts it.
Monica, meanwhile, pursues her own investigation, and for her, it soon gets quite personal. A few key turning points in that investigation happen over chow in one of the ship’s wardrooms, the officers’ dining areas. So, for that matter, do a few pivotal encounters between Finn and Jackson.
When a severed finger turns up on the flight deck (a “foreign object” for the daily Fodwalk if there ever was one!) Finn and Jackson end up together in the ship’s medical station.
On my tour I spent some time with Capt. Merrill Rice, the Abe’s senior medical office(SMO), confessed he’d been toying with the idea of writing a book himself. I earnestly hope he does; he’s a soft-spoken, deeply intelligent guy who no doubt has a ton of fascinating experiences and observations to share.
These two medical office shots show you both its surgical and dental capacities. In the second (dental chair) shot you’ll notice a series of yellow boxes suspended from the ceiling: these are the emergency lights that pop on automatically throughout the ship when the normal lighting starts to fail, during the climactic sequence near the end of the book. They are notoriously weak, as the book describes from several different characters’ points of view:
“The blackness lasted no more than a moment, at which point the emergency lights kicked in, their glow about as strong as a few candles … In the pale glow of the emergency lights the little compartment looked like a cave … The emergency lights popped on, releasing their pale glow into the compartment and diluting the blackness to a dark murk.”
Remember back in Part II, when I described the incredibly sloppy FOD walkdown, and how Finn gazed upward to lock eyes with the captain standing on a catwalk outside the bridge? It was inevitable that these two would end up inside that bridge in a confrontation. Sure as dogshit on a shoe, they do. Here’s what the place looks like, and here is the chair where Capt. Eagleberg sits…
“The captain sat at the fore of the bridge gripping the arms of his big pedestal chair, the one with COMMANDING OFFICER stenciled on the back in gold letters. His face turned a shade whiter while his ears turned a simmering red.”
… and Finn commits a crime that could land him in prison for the rest of his life — or worse, could earn him the death penalty.
And then, the final sequence. The first time I read about this place, the first time I saw photos online of the gaping, cavernous hangar deck, I knew that the cat-and-mouse game of Steel Fear was going to end up here in the hangar deck. Of course, it does. Where else? There’s a massive storm brewing outside and all the planes have been brought below, and here, in the dim red glow of the ship’s nighttime safety lights, killer meets stalker, predator meets prey, and past meets up with the present.
It’s way back in chapter 5 that we first read that Finn has supposedly joined the ship’s crew on a “special assignment.”
“People keep asking him exactly what that means. The truth is, even he isn’t sure. An antiseptic term, crafted to cover a lot of sins. Could be as simple as briefing a high-level committee. Or as complex as extracting sensitive intelligence from deep inside hostile territory. Sometimes a special assignment concluded when two men walked into a dark alley and only Finn walked out. What better place for that dark alley than the belly of the beast?”
Hope you enjoyed the tour — and hope you enjoy the book!
About John David Mann
John is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, “Steel Fear,” which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order “Steel Fear,” and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at SteelFear.com.