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 day did not start off well at all. Shepherd had expected a call from Gray the day before. It had not come, and Shepherd knew better than to call and bug him. He spent Wednesday in limbo at the office and in frustration that night as he went to bed, still having heard nothing.
Being Thursday now, Quarters (the daily morning formation) was held at 8:00 in NEPAC East’s Production Department.
Shepherd held two jobs, or, wore two hats in military speak. He as the Leading Chief Petty Officer (or LCPO) of Production, but also functioned as the Leading Chief Petty Officer of Operations. It was a busy life, but fortunately Ford and Robinson made his life easy. It wasn’t every chief who could leave the running of 2/3 of a worldwide, deployable operation to two First Class Petty Officers and rest easy.
But it also made him realize how much he was going to miss the Navy.
Still, he fought to keep himself from drifting as Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class (or “MC1”) Robinson went over the plan of the day. She held her clipboard with the muster sheet in ebony hands. Staring at it, his mind drifted inexorably back two days to his kitchen when he and Gray discussed the Stiles case. He reckoned it would take Gray some time to get law enforcement moving on their deductions, but he was surprised he had heard nothing from Gray the previous day.
He thought about the statements he had read and the photos he had seen. This was murder, all right. And if I’m right…but there’s something else I missed…right in front of me…
And it clicked. He had completely forgotten to act like an editor in that kitchen and missed one major detail. Sucking his breath in, he mentally kicked himself for not—
He started, “I’m sorry?”
MC1 Robinson was looking at him, “Does Operations have anything for the group?”
She was obviously repeating herself.
“I’m sorry,” He said. “Busy morning already. Anyway, uh…” He looked over at the fourteen sets of eyes looking at him, “Pre-deployment checklists. I need to get with Hooker, Carver, Shaver, and Lance this morning. You guys are next in the pipeline to deploy it the near future. I know the Navy just upended the entire General Military Training program and we’re on hold for completing those requirements, but Petty Officer Robinson and I need to go over your checklist status today.
“Also,” Shepherd continued, “It is each Sailor’s responsibility to come back from leave within standards. That means get your hair cut before you show back up. You do not show up shaggy and tell me you’re getting a haircut at lunch. Ma’am? Anything?” He glanced down at Lt. Mary Watson, the Assistant Officer in Charge (or AOIC) of NEPAC East.
She was considerably shorter than him, but he held a great deal of respect for her. She was lithe, brunette, and described herself as a “British import,” her father having married an English woman while he was working in the American embassy in London. With her lingering accent she sounded like she came right out of a “Downtown Abby” episode.
“I just want to echo what Chief Shepherd said,” She glanced around the room. “But it pertains to females as well as males. Don’t show back up for duty with hair, nails, or any grooming out of standards. We’re a public affairs command; we are in the public eye all the time.”
And so it went. It was traditional for the senior Leading Petty Officer (usually a First Class) to run Quarters. Robinson went around the room. The Training Department had a few items. Production had a few. Supply. The usual.
By 9:30 they had broken formation to carry out the plan of the day. Shepherd and Robinson led the four Sailors he had called out to the Operations office. Two entire walls were covered in a grid-pattern white board Shepherd had installed for his predecessor…who had the deployed and thereby “bequeathed” the Ops LCPO position to Shepherd in addition to his oversight and editorship of the Production Department. The board had simply been called the “ops board” until Shepherd joined Robinson in the office and dubbed it the “Ouija Board.” This was not an homage to the supernatural board game, but a nod to Shepherd’s own past as a fighter jet mechanic on aircraft carrier flight decks. A carrier’s flight deck control had a board that mapped out the flight deck, complete with silhouette models of the aircraft. The models were kept in constant motion so flight deck control could track the aircraft. For decades those flight deck maps were called “Ouija Boards.”
Robinson gathered three Sailors around her as Shepherd steered Lance to his side.
“Lance,” Shepherd said, “You’re up first next month. We’re helping out NEPAC West, you know. Well, they changed their RFS for the Nimitz strike group—“
“Their what?” Mass Communication Seaman Dinah Lance asked.
“RFS, Request for Service,” Shepherd said. “The message a command sends out requesting support. Originally they just needed a First Class, so we have Oliver Queen on it. But they expanded the RFS because the Nimitz lost a sailor to an injury. So Robinson and I talked to the AOIC and decided to shift you off the USS Bulkeley mission to the Nimitz mission. It’ll only change your deployment date by a couple of weeks, so your family won’t have to adjust too much. And I prefer sending a junior Sailor on a big deck like a carrier for their first deployment so they have an entire media center around them for support. Once you have a carrier or a large-deck amphibious assault ship under your belt, it’ll be far easier on you to independently deploy to a destroyer like the Bulkeley.”
Shepherd turned. MC1 Ford was standing in the door with Abraham Gray and Lt. Watson. Gray had on a visitor badge and a bag slung over his shoulder, “Agent Gray from NCIS is here to see you.”
Watson was staring at Shepherd with open curiosity.
Gray was looking at Shepherd with open irritation.
Ford was looking at Shepherd with an open, if unspoken, plea to get back to his own work.
“Thanks, MC1,” Shepherd said. “I got him. Uh…MC1 Robinson, I’m sorry, but I think I need to kick everyone out of the office for a few minutes.”
The whole room had gone dead silent at the announcement an NCIS agent was there to see Shepherd. He could just imagine the scuttlebutt that would be flying around NEPAC East in only a few moments.
Robinson shooed everyone out of the office.
“Abe, do you mind if Lt. Watson sticks around?”
Watson was startled that Shepherd new Agent Gray well enough to be on a first-name basis with him.
“Not at all,” Gray said, stepping into the office and flopping down on a government-issued sofa under one “Ouija Board.”
“Ma’am?” Shepherd invited Watson in, and then shut the door. “Abe, should I give her the back story, or do you want to?”
Briefly Gray filled in Watson on the Stiles case and Shepherd’s involvement in it.
“And you didn’t tell anyone here? The senior chief? Anyone,” She looked annoyed.
“No, ma’am. I didn’t,” Shepherd was not apologetic. “If I was wrong, there’d be no point. If I was right, well, NICS would use my information and close the case. Besides, this isn’t my first rodeo.”
“Excuse me,” Watson asked. “What do you mean?”
Gray and Shepherd looked at each other, and in that look Watson suddenly perceived a long, shared history.
“Short version, even for me,” Shepherd said. “Do you remember reading about the trial and Rear Admiral Symko about 18 years ago?”
Watson shrugged. “Not really. I was finishing middle school. But I know he was court martialed for murder and it had something to do with his daughter.”
“He was Commander, Naval Forces Europe,” Shepherd said. “His daughter killed a man in my barracks in Spain. I was at my first command. He then killed the only witness who could have testified against his daughter. That’s what he was court-martialed for. Murder and accessory to murder.”
“Ok. So what?”
Gray answered, “Chief Shepherd was a Third Class Petty Officer back then. He actually solved the case and landed Symko in prison. I was a very junior agent at our field office in Spain. Much to my frustration he wouldn’t let the matter drop and, in the end, proved right.”
Watson was surprised, “You solved the case?”
“Yes, ma’am. And took down an admiral in the process. Knowing that, you can probably better understand my surprise I was allowed to make chief after all. Politics exist and can be pretty nasty. People like to punish you for doing the right thing when it takes down their powerful friends.”
Gray crossed his legs. “And that wasn’t the only one. Isaac has ended up…er…assisting us in several murder cases over the last 18 years. So much so that he has a very nasty reputation around NCIS.”
“Why nasty?” Watson asked, hitching a hip on Shepherd’s desk. “I’d think you’d look at him as an asset.”
“Lieutenant, would you like it if NCIS walked in here and started telling us how to do public affairs? Even if they were right? I don’t blame them. NCIS is one of the best law enforcement agencies in the world. And here I come parking in their parking lot without their permission. Worse, I’ve always been right when I do.”
“I got over my ego a long time ago,” Gray said. “So when Isaac brought his suspicions to me about John Stiles, I listened. And I think he’s right.”
“But…?” Shepherd asked. “You never called me yesterday like you said you would, so I can only guess there’s a problem.”
“There is,” Gray said. “Look, everything we went over makes sense…to a point. But you have to admit you’re theory about murder is a stretch based on the evidence. Your assertion that there are two murderers is just…my boss doesn’t believe you or me. She won’t reopen the investigation based on our conjectures. I can’t blame her either. Right now there isn’t a court of law that would give us a hearing; everything we have is circumstantial.”
Shepherd actually smiled. “No, it’s not. I can’t believe I missed it…hell, I can’t believe both of us missed it, but we did. May I assume you have everything in your bag?”
“Let me see the photos YN1 Grey put on Facebook the night he says he was at the club.”
“Says?” Watson asked.
“He wasn’t there, and now I know how to prove it. It hit me at Quarters this morning. That’s why I was distracted, ma’am.”
Watson watched as Gray handed Shepherd four photos. Shepherd selected one and then handed the others back to Gray. He stared at it, smiling almost gloatingly. “I knew it.”
“Knew what?!” Gray and Watson said together.
“Master Chief John Stiles died the night of March 17, correct?”
“Right,” Gray said.
“So tell me,” Shepherd flipped the photo around so Watson and Gray could see it. “If YN1 Gordon Grey is taking and uploading selfies in the Drowning Swallow the night of March 17, why is no one in this image celebrating St. Patrick’s Day?!”
Gray shot to his feet and grabbed the image. Watson’s jaw dropped open. Shepherd was right. There was not a hint of green or a shamrock to be seen.
“You and your partners were blinkered by being suckered into a well-staged crime that looked like a suicide. I got too focused reading their statements the other night. Stiles died on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Tell me—have either of you ever heard of a bar that didn’t put on a St. Patrick’s Day themed night? And…if you bear with me, Abe, there’s more in that image. I just forgot to think like an editor and look in the background. Come on.”
Leading the way out to Production, Shepherd ignored the stares Gray’s presence elicited. A sharp glance from Lt. Watson kept the Sailors at least pretending to do their own work.
“Chief?” Stark looked up.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I need this scanned in. High res. Now.”
It took a few seconds to get the image scanned. Shepherd grabbed the original and led Gray and Watson around to the other side of the Production table where the imaging workstations were located. He kicked everyone on that side of the table off so they could pull up the image without anyone looking over their shoulders.
Shepherd sat and pulled up the image from the server. Gray and Watson hovered behind him.
“Ok, here’s the image. Now…see the background? The bartender? Look at the TV over his shoulder.”
“I see ESPN,” Watson said.
“Yes, ma’am. But let me magnify it,” Shepherd enlarged the image. It began to pixelate, but it was still recognizable. “Do you see it? I saw it in my kitchen two nights ago and just didn’t pick up on it any more than I did the lack of shamrocks. But it’s been bugging me until I keyed in on it during the Quarters this morning.”
“I don’t…see…?” Watson shook her head.
Gray, however, did. “Right there, Lieutenant.” He pointed to the TV screen’s lower right hand corner. “ESPN is running a crawler with sports data and on the top bar is the date. I can’t say for sure if it’s March 8 or March 9, but it’s a single digit. Sure as hell not March 17.”
“So now we have proof,” Shepherd said. “This dork is lying. He was in that bar, alright. But in it nearly a week before the murder.”
The whole room froze as the word “murder” smacked them all.
Watson looked up at Gray, “So what do you two do now?”
Shepherd nodded, “This should be enough for your boss, Abe.”
“Oh, it is. She’s a top flight agent and trusts her eyes. This is also going to make her really despise you!”
Shepherd laughed, “I can live with that.”
“Something’s still wrong. Suicide investigation or not, as a matter of course we examined all the video camera logs around AFSC. No one, and I mean no one entered that building after 17:30 that night. The Quarterdeck shut down at 17:30 and the back door wasn’t used either, so no one entered…and the window was locked from the inside. So the “how” of it all is still a mystery.”
“Not really,” Shepherd said. “We all know John Stiles never left the building, right? Well, get your people on those tapes again. I’ll be you dollars to donuts you’ll find someone else didn’t leave the building that night either.”
Gray nodded. I need to make a call, then you and I need to call on someone, Isaac.”
“Go, Chief. Do what you need to do,” Watson said. “I’ll make sure no one here spills anything.”
The look she sent around the Production room caused a shiver as ever Sailor realized just what she would do to them if they spread word of anything they had overheard.
Shepherd handed the original print back to Gray and deleted the scanned copy. He then rose and returned to his office to get his hat. He found Gray and followed him out of the NEPAC East building. Gray was on the phone, and Shepherd could hear him telling someone to start reviewing the tapes again.
“Come on, we’ll take my car,” Gray said, sliding his phone back into its holder on his belt. As he did so, Shepherd caught sight of the holstered gun on Gray’s hip. “I’ve got Davis on the security footage. If Gordon Grey didn’t leave the building, we’ll find out.”
“That might explain the ‘Gatorade’ bottle,” Shepherd said, fastening his seatbelt. Gray had a burgundy sedan that, to Shepherd’s mind, just screamed “AGENT ON BOARD!”
“What do you mean?” Gray asked.
“You said he had a bottle of ‘Gatorade’ in his gym bag. Was it the yellow Gatorade?”
Gray nodded as he shifted into ‘drive.’
“There are no heads in the Force Master Chief’s office. They have to go down the hall to take a leak. If Grey was hiding in the office all night to avoid the cameras, he had to have a way to relieve himself. I’ll bet that wasn’t Gatorade in that bottle, but urine.”
“Isaac,” Gray asked, bemused, “Just how in the name of John Q. Arbuckle do you come up with this stuff?!”
Shepherd shrugged, “Because I have two empty bottles in Sarah Jane in case I ever get stuck on a bridge or in a tunnel again. I’ve been here seven years, bouncing from one command to another. The first time a traffic wreck stranded me on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel viaduct for two hours with no way to use the bathroom…well, after that, I got smart. I started carrying a couple of piss bottles with me.”
“Well, thanks for that extra-special glimpse into your bathroom habits,” Gray said, turning onto Aircraft Tow Way Road. “We have to go to the office and find out where YN1 Grey is now. He was temporarily assigned to other duties after the trauma of finding his boss’s brains blown out.”
“I’m sure his boss suffered a lot more trauma having his brains blown out than Grey did,” Shepherd said darkly as Gray took another left onto Gilbert Street and passed the fire station. “But I’ll bet we can crack him pretty easily now that we know he lied about the photos. And that should cause him to spill on his partner and confirm my theory.”
“So you still think—”
“Oh, I know. Abe, it’s the only solution that makes sense given the pieces on the table. For all he lost when Stiles dies, Grey stood to lose a lot more by him living. And so did Grey’s partner.”