Under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1971, this is a fully copyrighted and protected work by 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.
Off Center (A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
The rain had not let up all day. Abraham Gray fully expected to see a few boats sailing along the street as he turned off Town Pointe Road and cruised up Twelfth Man Lane into Suffolk. Cutting right onto Pertwee Street he entered the Eccleston Range neighborhood, hooked left onto Tennant Street and then doglegged right onto Baker Street.
The Yellow Duck, number 2210, stood right on the corner, lights burning warmly inside. Pulling into the drive next to Sarah Jane’s dark blue form, he pulled up his collar, grabbed his bag and stepped into the downpour. It was only a few steps to Shepherd’s door, but his coat was soaked through in that few steps.
Shepherd was waiting for him and opened the door as he approached. Late March and the sun didn’t start sinking until after 6:00 p.m., but the rain darkened the sky enough that Shepherd’s motion-sensor lights came on.
Gray shook his head. “Barely. You can’t see two feet in front of you out there.”
“I know. I had to drive home in that a couple of hours ago.”
Gray handed Shepherd his dripping coat. Shepherd bundled it up and hurried out of sight to the laundry room where it could drip to its heart’s content.
When he returned Gray had slipped off his shoes and was heading through the cathedral-ceilinged Great Room towards the kitchen.
“I brought everything I could legally take out,” Gray said as Shepherd came in the room. The floor tiles were checked black and white, and Shepherd had painted the room blue, creating a farm themed-space. A few small pig and cow figures peeked off of shelves and an inordinate number of chickens were the central motif. A bevy of house plants on small wooden folding tables and hanging from the ceiling in the bay window created a pleasant indoor kitchen garden.
“Coffee?” Shepherd asked. He was quite proud of extraordinary skills in brewing gourmet coffee using his fancy red “Keurig” machine from Walmart. He was even more proud of the foresight to buy the red one—it matched the other red fixtures he had around the counters.
Gray nodded and pulled papers out of his bag as the Keurig buzzed happily. “Look, you and I’ve been through this before. I am officially consulting you because I believe you might have information on this investigation that could be relevant to its outcome. I have to ask you to keep this interview confidential and not speak of it publicly because you might prejudice it…and get my butt kicked for letting you see these documents.”
“What did you bring?”
“First answer me this, what set you off?” Gray asked. “What caused your ‘murder radar’ to go off?”
Shepherd laughed as he handed a “Doctor Who” mug of coffee to Gray. He was using the “Snoopy” mug himself.
“’Murder radar?’ Nice. The story in the Virginia Pilot said Stiles committed suicide through a single shot to his forehead the night of March 17. That right there was…odd. But then they got someone who said it was off center a bit—“
“I’m pretty sure that was an EMT tech,” Gray said. “I think I know who, but I don’t have time to go after someone for leaking details to the press. Go on.”
“The fact he killed himself using a private hand gun put the tin hat on it for me,” Shepherd said. “John Stiles was a fair man, but he was a complete Nazi for doing everything by the book. He’s the only man I ever met after I left boot camp who actually checked if my boots were laced properly—right over left—when he was CMC on the Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
“A man like that breaking the law by bringing a private gun on base? Not likely. Ok, we can—and we all do—do stupid things now and then. But our stupid things tend to be in line with our character. Having a gun on base was so out of character for him…well, that just did it for me.”
Gray nodded. “Well, you’re so fond of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, let’s see what your little gray cells can do. Cards on the table—I’m not the lead agent on this case, so I did not interview Carolyn Stiles or the son, Lt. j.g. John Stiles, Jr., myself. I did assist by interviewing YN1 Gordon Grey—and before you ask, he’s no relation to me. Even spells his name differently.”
“So what you’re saying is some of this is a Gray area to you?”
Abraham Gray suddenly felt like demonstrating his own handgun in that kitchen.
“Let me read,” Shepherd said. “We have to find motive, opportunity, and gain. Statistically speaking it’s going to be one of these three people…but not definitively.”
“Here’s Carolyn Stiles’ statement,” Gray said. “I agree…but good luck. It is like a cheesy murder mystery story if you’re right.”
Shepherd sipped his coffee as the storm tried to insult his house. The Yellow Duck serenely stood and let the rain water roll off its back.
Reading was one activity that always calmed the frenetic glop of thoughts racing around Shepherd’s head. He loved reading and usually had a novel or something going. His biggest problem was speed; he tended to finish books in only a few days. Reading was a bit of an expensive hobby for him!
Taking the statement he adjusted his glasses down his nose as if they were reading spectacles and studied Carolyn Stiles’ transcribed statement. The agent’s questions were omitted, but Shepherd could pretty easily reconstruct those from her answers:
John called that afternoon to say he’d be working very late. He sounded…he didn’t sound good. He sounded very upset, like he was angry or something. He must have had something legal to take care. He only got angry when the Sailors did something illegal and he had to take them to Captain’s Mast, or if someone tried to harm the Sailors under him. It wasn’t unusual for him to work late or for me to go to bed before he came home. He told me he’d be on the phone with other master chiefs around the world, and the time difference meant he’d be late at the office.
He didn’t want anyone to know he was depressed or that he tried to kill himself when we were first married during his first tour. That was back in Washington State. Bremerton, I think. No? No, Whidbey Island. He was ashamed of it, even though he always pushed his Sailors to get mental health support if they needed it. These last few years his medication, he was on citalopram, worked very well for him. His moods were a lot more stable and he gave me absolutely no indication he was in danger. In fact we were supposed to go to Barbados on vacation next month. He was very excited about it.
We had been at the range the day before shooting. We used the back room to clean and store our weapons. That night we had laid them out for cleaning on the work table, but we got home late and didn’t clean them. Usually we cleaned them immediately, but once in a while we’d get lazy and leave it overnight and I’d clean them in the morning after he went to work. I got up with him and we had breakfast. He headed to base and I ran the trash out the back door to the pail. Before I came in I heard John Jr., our son, calling from the driveway. We hadn’t expected him home until the next day.
I was so excited to see him. He hadn’t been home on leave in five years. I helped him bring his bags in and then took him to the Pancake House on Granby Street for breakfast. We must have been there all morning. At lunch John called to see if I wanted to meet him, so John Jr. and I were able to surprise him. John—my husband—was in a hurry so we just ate the food court in Building C-9, but he was so excited John. Jr. was home.
I wondered if that was why he sounded so upset when he called that evening—he wanted to have dinner with his son. But he had something to do and told me and John Jr. not to wait up. So John Jr. and I watched “Game of Thrones” until about 11:00. John Jr. didn’t want me to cook so he ran and picked up a pizza around 8:00. He must have been gone an hour; apparently a wreck at Little Creek Road and Granby Street backed things up. The pizza was stone cold when he got home, but we just microwaved it.
When I was notified the next morning of John’s…John’s suicide…it was later that morning I realized my .32 was missing from the back table. I know it was there when John left because I glanced at the table when I took out the trash. I decided to clean the guns before I headed into Virginia Beach to do some volunteer reading at a library. I don’t know when he came home to get it, but he didn’t take it that morning. He must have come back when John Jr. and I were at the Pancake House because we were home all afternoon after lunch. As soon as I was told John had used a handgun, I thought it must have been mine. He never liked that gun; said it felt uncomfortable in his hand. He always shot his .44. I don’t know why he’d take that gun, but he did. I hadn’t even cleaned any of them yet. When John Jr. came home I was just so excited I forgot all about it. I just don’t understand why he did this to us. He was so happy to see our son.
Shepherd put down the statement. “Interesting. Stiles apparently came back home, avoided his wife and son, picked up a gun he didn’t like to shoot, took it on base, and killed himself with it.”
Gray nodded, “After being excited his son was home for the first time in five years. Speaking of John Jr. He’s a Naval Flight Officer stationed in California. Academy graduate, flies on E-2C Greyhounds. Good record, but heavy in debt. Goes to Las Vegas a lot and is not very lucky. His credit cards are run up pretty high and he is in financial trouble. Not too bad yet, but he’s in over his head. Here’s his statement.”
Gray handed another paper to Shepherd over his coffee. Looking down he did a double take. The “TARDIS,” the clever space-time ship “Doctor Who” traveled in, had vanished from one side of his mug and appeared on the other. Smiling, he realized it was one of those heat-activated prints that changed the scene when the cup was warmed.
Shepherd leaned back to read the statement of Lt. j.g. John Stiles, Jr. It was much shorter that Carolyn Stiles’ had been. Again Gray had omitted the questions and just transcribed John Stiles, Jr.’s, anwers:
Mom and Dad were expecting me the today. But I thought I’d surprise them by showing up today. I caught mom in the backyard. We went to breakfast and then dad called, so we met him for lunch on base.
He was happy to see me. They’ve flown to California a few times, but I haven’t been to Norfolk in five years since I got commissioned. Lunch was hurried. Dad said he had a problem with a Sailor to deal with. He wouldn’t say what it was, but he indicated it was pretty ugly. He wasn’t happy with it. Told me he’d tell me about it later. Mom was in her own world. I don’t think she was listening to anything we said because I had to talk to her a few times before she responded. She just kept staring at me and trying to hold dad’s hand while he ate.
Mom and I were going to make dinner that night, but dad called and mom said he was going to have to work late. I thought he was just trying to finish whatever he mentioned since he had expected me the next day. I ran out to get us a pizza as we watched TV that night. Mom told me not to worry because dad often worked so late she went to be without him.
Traffic was lousy. There was a wreck that held me up for an hour. Mom and I microwaved the pizza once I got home. I got home about 9:00. We watched TV for a couple of more hours. We were watching “Game of Thrones.” I took the pizza box out and thought it was funny she hadn’t cleaned the guns yet. After I came in and locked up the back door, I told her about the guns. She laughed at me. Said they weren’t important. Said seeing me was. She would get to them later with dad.
I found out the next morning dad had taken one and shot himself.
Mom and dad never told me about any suicide attempts he made before. I never knew he suffered from depression. I always thought he was just an ass. I loved him, but he could always be a real cold ass. Now I know why.
It’s weird because they told me when we planned me coming home that they were going to update their wills. They were going to leave something to me they said, but there was some charity they wanted to support. She said dad was really insistent about getting it done, but he never did.
Shepherd put down the paper and leaned forward, his chin in his hand. He glanced at Gray. “Did you question him about his finances?”
“No,” Gray said. “This was a suicide…we thought. No need to go too deep. I didn’t find out about his gambling debts until after you went back to NEPAC today. I made some calls and his problems came out finally. He was out of the house during the hour his father died. And money is a motivation for some people to kill their parents. From his statement and the notes by the investigating agents he was certainly a lot happier to see his mother than his father.”
“What about his statement that he didn’t know about John Stiles’ depression?”
Gray shrugged, “True. Carolyn confirmed it. They had kept if from him his whole life.”
“So,” Shepherd shifted and pulled off the old gray jersey he wore as a sweater, draping it on the back of his chair. “He’s off on his own with a convenient car wreck to keep him from home. He has increasing debt and suddenly finds out he might be largely out of the will. He’s not terribly close to his father…in fact seems to dislike him somewhat…”
“And if this were a TV show,” Gray said, “He’d be the murderer.”
“Except the inconveniently annoying fact Stiles managed to die inside a locked room in a building with security cameras showing no one entering his office,” Shepherd said. “And, assuming he didn’t like the situation with the will, the fact remains the Stiles’ were in good health and he had no reason to think his father was going to die from lead poisoning so soon.”
Gray ran a hand down his forehead in exasperation, but Shepherd wasn’t done yet.
“And, I bet, while John Stiles was auditioning for a non-speaking role in a bad remake of ‘The Living Dead,’ there really was a car wreck at Granby and Little Creek?”
Gray nodded, refraining from telling Shepherd the puns were making him feel like a cast member of “The Walking Dead.” It did no good. Complaint only encouraged Shepherd.
“Not to mention in good traffic it takes nearly half an hour to get from the Stiles house to Gate 22 on Granby Street, around the naval station runway and past NEPAC to the AFSC building near Gate 2. And that is the fastest route to and from their house,” Gray added.
“So, realistically, there is no way Jr. here could have pulled it off in the time he was out getting pizza…unless his mother is covering for him and there is no pizza?”
“Nope. Pizza box in the garbage out back. And a receipt from a local pizza place,” Gray said. “And John Stiles, Jr., shows up on the pizza joint’s security cameras right about 8:00.”
“Meaning he actually left the house earlier than his mother said he did,” Shepherd said. “But the drive and average traffic would have gotten him there around 8:00?”
“Correct,” Gray said folding his hands on the sky blue table cloth. “He picked up the pizza, and left. Took about five minutes. He got onto Little Creek just after the wreck and got stuck.”
“So he’s out,” Shepherd said. “Unless Mrs. Stiles is covering for him…and that doesn’t make sense. I didn’t know them well at all, but they were close. What did she stand to gain from his death?”
“Quite a bit,” Gray said. “But you’re right. Now that I’m looking at this as a murder and not a suicide, the picture is different…but it still doesn’t work. Carolyn Stiles had a lot to gain financially, but not apparent reason to kill her husband. She seemed genuinely devoted to him, and, unless I can find evidence to the contrary, I don’t think she’s acting. Their story is a very happy one. And she seems to have had no opportunity.”
“And the son?”
Gray shrugged, “Motive to kill his father—stopping the new will ensuring he inherited a lot of money right when he needed it. But while he might have motive (and a thin at that one, I have to add), again we have the evidence that shows he had no opportunity.”
“What did you think of their statements?”
“Typical,” Gray said. “Each shows a very different version of the same story. Witness statements usually do that. If they matched up too much and in the wrong places, then it’d look like they were colluding to keep their story straight.”
“I agree,” Shepherd said. “But…”
“But…?” Gray prompted.
“Two things really jump out at me. I’m not sure how they fit…if at all…but I can see why they’d be missed by agents who are investigating an apparent suicide…especially by a man with a history of depression.”
“And those are?” Gray asked.
Shepherd, however, shook his head. “Hang on. Let me read YN1 Grey’s statement. And take a look at his photos.”
Shepherd swigged down the last of his coffee and picked up the photos reproduced by Gray of Grey’s night at the club when John Stiles had died. There were four of them, all of Gordon Grey on the dance floor. Three were blurry but recognizable; typical of the slow shutter on a cell phone camera in low light. The fourth was sharper; this time Grey had stood still under a yellow light that lit him up nicely. Around him indistinct shapes blurred and writhed to some unheard tune while another yellow light lit up the barman under a TV I the background.
“I’ve never met YN1 Grey,” Shepherd said, studying the image. Grey seemed to be of average height, with the typical short-cropped hair of a military man. A tattoo sleeved his left arm—the arm he held the cell phone up with to take his photo. “He posted these the night John Stiles bought it?”
“Yep,” Abraham Gray said. “Over a three hour period. Uploaded them to his Facebook. Date and time stamp on Facebook matches up to his story, so here’s our third suspect clearly down in Virginia Beach and nowhere near the naval station when Stiles died.”
Shepherd stared at the photo, studying it, then laid it aside. A gust of wind shook the house, but the Yellow Duck merely shrugged. “More coffee?”
Gray shook his head.
Shepherd picked up YN1 Grey’s statement. “Let’s see what the yeoman has to say. Tell me about him afterward since you interviewed him.”
I don’t know what to think. I just saw him last night before I went home. He was working on some legal issue and didn’t tell me what. That was not unusual. He was a Force Master Chief. There were a lot of things he dealt with I couldn’t see. But I liked him and he was cool to work for and he made sure I got Sailor of the Quarter twice and was really helping me get my package together so I could be named Sailor of the Year and let that help me put on Chief.
He went to lunch to meet his family. Said his son was in town. Told me to take a long lunch. I felt like getting out a bit so I went to the Navy Exchange Food Court and then drove over to the Exchange car wash across the street and got my car cleaned. I think I got back to the office around 13:30. He wasn’t back yet, but came in a few minutes later, looking very angry. I guess whatever legal crap he was doing was nasty.
I stayed until nearly 17:00. He was working on something but I tried to help out by typing up a number of corrections to some awards packages so all he’d have to do is sign them the next day. I left out the back door; a lot of us did because it’s closer to the parking lot than the Quarterdeck. When I left I knocked on his door and he didn’t even look up. Just said to get going and have a good night.
Then, right before I left he called me back and thanked me for doing so much for him. Said he had never really personal thanked me or told me how much I meant to him because I did so much to keep his office straight. Even gave me one of his coins.
I changed at the office and drove out to Virginia Beach, up near 81st Street. I parked along a street and walked along the beach for a while. It was cold and windy but the beach was empty and I liked doing that once in a while before hitting the club. I think I got to the Drowning Swallow about 19:30. I stayed there until 21:00 or so, then went home.
I came in to the office today at 08:00 like usual. No—I used the back door. Most of the staff always does. I changed into uniform and started to work. It wasn’t unusual for the master chief to come in later. He’s a master chief, he can do what he wants. About 10:30 I opened his office to get some files and that’s when….that’s when I saw him.
Shepherd looked up at Gray. “So, what do you think of Grey, Gray?”
Abraham Gray was again hit with a sudden desire to use his hand gun. Instead he sighed. “Gordon Grey is 36, and joined the Navy when he was 27. Kind of like you—joined late. He put on First Class pretty quickly, and this year is his first time up for chief petty officer. He seemed…well, Isaac, he seemed as normal as I’d expect for a man who found his boss dead and brain matter splattered around a room.”
“Or a good actor,” Shepherd said.
“Isaac, all three of them are either very genuine or very good actors. But for all the detective stories that tell you agents can ‘feel in their gut’ someone is lying…the sad truth is that often doesn’t happen, not during an interview like this. A lot of people are very good actors when they think they’ve got it covered. It’s only when you’re able to start poking holes in their story that they start to crack if they’re guilty…or if they’re scared of being blamed wrongly and are trying to protect themselves.”
“And you had no reason to start poking holes here?”
“None,” Gray said. “In fact, until you turned up and pissed off my entire office this morning, I had no reason to even think we needed to.”
Shepherd leaned back. “And the AFSC staff using the back door—I assume Grey’s telling the truth?”
Gray nodded. “AFSC staff can use the building back door, so the Quarterdeck never knows who’s come in or left necessarily. Nothing unusual there. Grey had a gym bag with him; said he was going to work out later. I glanced in it; typical gym bag. Shorts, T-shirt, clean socks and underwear and towel. Bottle of Gatorade and his Ipod and soap and deodorant and a padlock.
“His description of Stiles’ behavior also matches a typical pathology for a man about to commit suicide,” Gray continued. “Unusual expression of affection and gratitude and even giving Grey a coin.” Abraham Gray referred to a military tradition of specialized, commemorative coins bearing command logos or high-ranking personnel’s rank being struck and used as badges of belonging or thank-yous.
“I know.” Shepherd said. “It still doesn’t add up. Here’s our third suspect…but again no motive or opportunity. In fact he lost a lot when Stiles died. Stiles was pushing for him to be Sailor of the Year, and a Force Master Chief’s pick is going to carry a lot of weight with the selection board. Might not guarantee him the win, but it damn well helps. And he was in the club that night.”
Gray leaned back. “So, we have three likely suspects that were all without motive, benefit, or, most importantly, opportunity. I don’t know, Isaac. Maybe Stiles did commit suicide and we just don’t want to admit it.”
“No,” Shepherd said. “He was murdered.” Shepherd picked up Carolyn Stiles’ statement and read over it, and then John Stiles, Jr.’s statement. His brow furrowed as something obviously clicked together in his mind. “He was murdered that night, a pretty bang up job was done making it look like a suicide. But the fact remains, John Stiles was murdered. And, you know what? I think it was a rather rush job. I don’t think the murderers planned it for that particular night, but I think they grabbed a lovely opportunity.”
“Murderers?” Gray sat up, alert. “Multiple?”
“Murderers,” Shepherd confirmed. “I admit it’s a stretch, but yes. Murderers, plural. And they’re right here in front of us,” Shepherd held up the three statements. “Read these again, Abe, and tell me if a couple of things don’t jump out at you now that you’re looking at this as a murdered and not assuming suicide.”
Gray read again while Shepherd glanced at the nightclub photos. When he was done he stared out the window, thinking hard. He looked back at Shepherd.
“You’re right, Isaac, this is completely out of character,” Gray held up one of the statements. “So, the question is…which of these turkeys do we pressure until they crack?”
Shepherd’s face broke into a truly evil grin, “Oh, that’s no question. I know exactly who, and if the luck of the Irish is with us, we’ll have our perps.”