“Off Center (A Short Navy Murder Mystery)” — Chapter 1

Good evening!  I’m starting an experiment in The Writer’s Craft here.  I am going to spin a yarn, and you will see the creative effort in public as it happens.  I am writing a short murder mystery, and each chapter will only get one or two read-overs by me before I post them.  I’m taking inspiration from a bit of performance art by the great Harlan Ellison.  He used to sit in a window and write a story, taping each page to the window as it was finished.  The audience saw the story as it was generated with no chance for Ellison to “clean it up.”  Plot threads left unresolved could not be tied up or erased, spelling errors were evident, etc.  It was a supreme act of courage in The Writer’s Craft by Ellison to post a rough draft for the world to see.

I’m not quite so brave–I will give each chapter a brief read-over before I post it, but the story is going to be 90% rough draft.  Years of being a professional journalist and of teaching journalism have left me obsessed with spelling and basic grammar; I have to look for those.  But, other than that, you will see it in real time as I get a chance to work on it.  It may not be finished for a while, and I will post other items in other categories as the inspiration.

Under the Copyright Act of 1971, this is a fully copyrighted and protected work under United States 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.

Now please sit back and enjoy the show…..


Off Center (A Short Navy Murder Mystery)

by Nathanael Miller

-Chapter 1-

United States Navy Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac T. Shepherd pulled his Navy Working Uniform fleece around him tightly as he started the car.  Late March and the weather had decided to get really nasty and drop back into the low 20s.  Not very nice, that; especially when one considered that February had been unusually warm and Spring-like.  All the Bradford pears had budded, bloomed, and gone into full leaf mode.  Now the sub-freezing nights were making the trees in front of his house look like a few of his former shipmates had after rather raucous port calls in which more alcohol had been consumed than was thought to be humanly possible.

A die-hard “Doctor Who” fan, Shepherd had whimsically named his small SUV Sarah Jane after one of the characters on that long-running show.  Shifting Sara Jane into “drive,” he pulled out of the drive and left The Yellow Duck, his equally-whimsically named house, behind.  The trip out of northeast Suffolk was brief; he crossed the Portsmouth city line and navigated to Towne Point Road, his entryway to the Western Freeway.

Normally he loved the drive along the Western Freeway as it zipped up along the West Norfolk Bridge across the Elizabeth River.  The sun coming up over the water and shipyard created a classic, picture-postcard Virginia view until the Midtown Tunnel shot him into Norfolk.

Normally, but not today.

Today he drove as much on autopilot as was safely possible.  Life had become generally distracting and even unpleasant over the past week.  Retirement was looming for him after nearly 20 years in the Navy.  Seven months to go.  Only seven months.  For the first time in his adult life he really had no idea where he’d be at the end of the year.  Feelings of anxiety beset him about future employment.  Everyone else made getting a federal, state, or private industry job after retirement look so easy…but his luck never ran that way.  Very little ever seemed to just “break” his way.  Usually things did work out, but over a very slow, deliberate time table.  He hadn’t felt like this since those sweat-soaked days after Florida State University when he couldn’t hold a job longer than nine months as a lousy economy kept deep-sixing his positions.

And…today was the memorial service.  He wasn’t going to attend; he had more important business.  However, his team would be providing coverage.  He was the Production and Operations Leading Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command, or “NEPAC” for short.  NEPAC’s job was to deploy Navy public affairs officers and enlisted Mass Communication Specialists (or “MCs”) on ships that were setting sail or to exercises and other major events to provide media coverage.  NEPAC was broken into three centers: NEPAC East in Norfolk, NEPAC West in San Diego, and NEPAC Japan in, well, Japan.  Shepherd himself was actually on shore duty.  He had been NEPAC East’s Training Manager for three years before finally being accepted into the hallowed ranks of the Chief Petty Officer mess.  He was still on shore duty, but had taken over Operations and Production—two jobs usually held by chiefs on sea duty who would deploy.

The problem was they were all deployed.

NEPAC suffered from the same manning headaches that eternally beset all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.  They were lucky if they hit 80% of the Sailors they were supposed to have.  And, being an expeditionary unit, most of their public affairs officers and MCs were deployed.

Still, those who were home on “dwell” time between deployments had to be kept busy and their skills sharp, so NEPAC East provide public affairs coverage to the world’s largest navy base: Naval Station Norfolk, and to the other bases in the Virginia Tidewater area.

Currently Shepherd had oversight of 32 Sailors (enlisted and officer) on three Carrier Strike Groups, two Amphibious Readiness Groups, one hospital ship in South America, and three land-based exercises with allies in Europe.  Add to that the five officers and 15 MCs in Norfolk on dwell whom he ensured were gainfully employed while keeping their administrative needs met…well…again…retirement was best.  If he left NEPAC and took over as the Leading Chief Petty Officer of a carrier or large-deck amphibious assault ship’s Media Center…to him that’s be a step down.  Not a bad step, mind you.  But a step down overseeing one ship instead of a center with Sailors all over the world.

Better to leave the Navy being part of operations on a global scale.

But…the memorial service.

The entire Hampton Roads area had been rocked by the apparent suicide of Force Master Chief John Stiles.

A “Force Master Chief” is a Master Chief Petty Officer (an E9 on the payscale) who is acting as Senior Enlisted Advisor to senior leadership one step below the Fleet Command level.  Force Master Chiefs very often moved up to be Fleet Master Chiefs…and every two years a new Fleet Master Chief was tapped to become the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, the senior most enlisted leader in the fleet.

Stiles’ apparent suicide had whacked him pretty hard.  For one, a brother Chief had gone down.  For another, five years earlier, when Shepherd had reported to NEPAC East as a Mass Communication Specialist First Class on sea duty, he had led the NEPAC detachment aboard the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) for a deployment.  Stiles had been the carrier’s Command Master Chief back then (the ship’s senior enlisted advisor to the captain).  Stiles was an unusual “CMC” in that he was a prior Mass Communication Specialist himself who had left the MC rate as a Senior Chief to become a dedicated senior enlisted advisor.

Stiles had never forgotten where he came and often popped into the “IKE’s” media center.  Shepherd had not known him terribly well back then (to be honest, he had scared the living hell out of Shepherd), or later.  However, he always respected Stiles.  Stiles was a Force To Be Reckoned With.  He knew his business.  He knew media and mass communication.  He knew the Navy and was an absolute holy terror to anyone who messed with his Sailors…and an absolute holy terror to any Sailor who messed up!  He was one of the few men Shepherd had ever served with who always let you know exactly where you stood with them.

If Stiles liked what you did, you knew it.  If he didn’t like what you did…you knew it even faster!

Hampton Boulevard was creepy-crawling as usual.  The naval station occupied over four square miles, had fourteen piers (well, thirteen, actually, but historic naval superstition prevented a “Pier 13” from actually existing so the piers skipped from Pier 12 to Pier 14), an entire air station, and thousands of Sailors and civilians working on it.

And that cast of thousands all seemed to have to be at work at 7:00 a.m.

Naval security had come a long way since the lax days Pre-9/11, and this morning every car was being stopped and every ID card being meticulously scanned.  Shepherd never minded waiting; he was quite happy to be patient if it meant no one with bombs was getting one base.  Besides, he had left early enough to get to base long before the memorial service.

Approaching the gate, he admitted to himself he freaking loved hearing the sentries say, “Good morning, Chief!” or “Welcome aboard, Chief!” every day.

At 45 years old, Isaac Shepherd was quite comfortable admitting his own vanity and even a very real level of egotism that, if he didn’t keep it in check, bordered on narcissism.

The cold air smacked him in the face as he lowered his window and surrendered his ID for inspection to the guard in her heavy parka.  He silently cursed March again, this month that decided to play a climatic and climactic practical joke on them all.

“Welcome aboard, Chief!” The young Sailor said, handing back his idea.

“Thank you!  Have a good day, shipmate.  Try to stay warm!” He smiled, nodding at the small butane heater near her legs.

He was going to miss the Navy so much it hurt…but standing watch in this kind of weather was something he would most certainly not miss!

Most of the chiefs would be at Stiles’ memorial service, but Shepherd had other business.  Once he made sure Mass Communication Specialist First Class (or “MC1”) Patrick Ford, the Production Leading Petty Officer, or “LPO” (roughly equivalent to a civilian officer manager), had the team out the door to cover the event, he had appointment of his own.

In truth he needn’t have even shown up to NEPAC East’s building.  Parking in back of Bldg. V-1524, he stepped out of Sara Jane and grimly endured the howling wind off Willoughby Bay as it sliced through his fleece.  He had been incredibly smart and left his own parka in the office.   He believed it important for the chief—him—to make an appearance as regularly as possible when major events brought his Sailors in outside of normal working hours.

As always, he found his LPO to be completely in command of the situation.  Ford was one of two unbelievably talented and reliable First Class Petty Officers (the other was MC1 Dionne Robinson, his Operations LPO) under Shepherd.  He was in the enviable position of having two First Classes who were fully capable of running a worldwide deployable operation without a chief around.

Robinson was an especially happy story.  He had been her instructor at the Defense Information School many years ago when she was training to be an MC.  She was one of the first of his former students to advance to First Class.  She wasn’t in yet; she was running command physical training for those not working the memorial service.

Ford was a newbie to him; Ford had reported to NEPAC only a few months earlier.  But Ford had let everyone know by a series of confidently assumed responsibilities he truly was Ford tough and could handle anything.

So Shepherd popped in and greeted his Sailors.  He answered a few questions about Stiles (he was one of the few in NEPAC who had actually worked with the dead master chief), and then left Ford to do his job.  He made it a point to avoid parking in his LPOs’ proverbial parking lots.  After all, he always hated being micromanaged; he wouldn’t do it to his First Classes unless they actually needed it.

But, to business.  He left NEPAC and hopped back into the still-warm Sarah Jane.

Shepherd had another reason for retiring as a chief that he very rarely shared with anyone else.  He never thought he’d be allowed to make chief at all due to his own past.  Oh, he wasn’t guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.  No, he was guilty of something far worse.

He was guilty of having done the right thing.

Long ago his run of bad luck had started.  At the dawn of his career, in Rota, Spain, he had tripped over a murder investigation in his own barracks that netted an admiral’s daughter who killed one of his shipmates.  And then his incredibly lucky ineptitude had resulted in the admiral being convicted of killing the only witness could have testified against his daughter!

Even better, that admiral had tried to kill Shepherd himself three years later.  Obviously the attempt failed, but Shepherd somehow kept finding himself in the middle of murders and attempted murders.  It was like a bad take on Agatha Christie’s immortal Ms. Marple mysteries, only with an American Navy Sailor substituted for a 60 year old British woman!

He reckoned the politics of taking down so many stars and ranking people would have killed any chances he had of advancing past First Class.


He made Chief and now wore the golden anchors and a fleece…

…And it occurred to him as he drove across base he had forgotten his parka again.  Dammit.

At any rate, he was determined to avoid the knives he knew were whetted for his back by many in the upper ranks who took revenge on those who did the right thing.  He had been lucky and found many good people to protect him, but the more senior he became the less protection he had, and he just didn’t feel like watching his naval back every day for another ten years.

Impending business intruded on his maudlin introspection.

Most of the people in the building he approached would have enjoyed seeing him used to demonstrate the operation of an anchor.  Most NCIS agents didn’t appreciate this oddball Chief Petty Officer who had trumped them several times.   He couldn’t blame them; they were the professional investigators, after all.  He certainly wouldn’t like them telling him how to build a public affairs program; there was no reason they should enjoy a rank amateur with a passion for Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle telling them their business.

Still, Shepherd knew in his gut he was right.  That, or else he had contracted a stomach flu.

Either way, he had to talk to the only agent who gave him the time of day.

You see, Isaac Shepherd was certain no suicide had occurred.

Master Chief John Stiles had been murdered.

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