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 Laughing Gull was an extremely upscale seafood restaurant on the Virginia Beach boardwalk just off the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and 5th Street. Like many beach establishments, it was done over in a relaxing motif of 19th and early 20th century nautical décor. The outside porch was still enclosed by plastic sheeting to trap the heat of space heaters in the unusual March chill. The restaurant’s namesake bird twittered in the air, competing with other sea birds for food in the surf just off the porch as the tables—all of them occupied—hummed with conversation rolling like the ocean.
A very idyllic spot for a quiet dinner for two.
YN1 Gordon Grey sat like an imperturbable painting done in gouache as the late sunset light turned him a deep purple and the candle on the table lit his face with an orange glow. The Atlantic Ocean stretched endlessly before him as he thought about the future. Two glasses of wine sparkled on the table as he waited, the picture of contentment.
“Petty Officer Grey, isn’t it?”
Startled, Grey looked up over his bushy brown mustache. The mustache could have been a life form all its own.
“Yes?” He asked, not recognizing the tall stranger peering at him through wire-rimmed glasses.
“I’m Chief Shepherd, from NEPAC East,” Shepherd’s hair, long ago turned more salt than pepper, picked up the glow from the candles on the tables around them.
“NEPAC East. Sorry. The Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East,” Shepherd said. “We haven’t met, but I know you by sight. I wanted to offer my condolences on Master Chief Stiles’ death. He was a good man, and I’m sure you were happy to go TAD after his death.”
Grey nodded as Shepherd referred to the temporary assigned duty (TAD) he was on at the Naval Station Norfolk headquarters building. “Yeah, thanks, Chief. I just couldn’t keep working there.”
“You found him, right?” Shepherd asked, all sympathy.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Grey said.
“What?” Shepherd asked, “Sorry—crowd noise. Here—say again?”
Grey was taken aback as Shepherd abruptly pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Sorry,” Shepherd said again. “Too much time on the flight deck when I was younger. Hearing’s not very good in a crowd, and I’d hate to be rude. What did you say?”
A waiter passed by balancing enough food to feed a small army on an even smaller tray.
“I said I was happy not to be at AFSC anymore. Not after what I saw,” Grey said, annoyed.
“Date tonight?” Shepherd glanced at the two wine glasses. “I’ll be off in a second. But I can relate, a bit anyway. I never walked in on anything like you did. But I have photographed many an autopsy in my younger days when I was a 2nd Class.” Shepherd referred to the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class, a paygrade he had not held in 11 years. “Some things stick with you.”
“Yeah, uh, they…do,” Grey wrinkled his face angrily as Shepherd helped himself to a piece of bread and started buttering it. “Excuse me, Chief, but—“
“Finding the master chief like that must have really made you feel pretty weird about partying the night before. I mean—out at a club dancing while your boss is blowing his brains all over his back wall like some post-modern art. And the color of the blood just did not go with the carpet in that office.”
Shepherd started munching his buttered bread, his face the appearance of innocence.
Grey looked at him with open disgust, “Chief, that is just not called for. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t talk about the master chief like he was—“
“Disposable goods? Something to toss aside if useless and in the way?”
Grey stiffened. “Yes. Chief, I’m sorry but you need to leave. My date will be here soon and this is a private dinner. Get lost.”
“Oh, I’ve been lost before, but now I’m found,” Shepherd quipped. “Great thing about being lost is that, if you embrace it, you can find some really interesting places you’d never have thought about exploring. But that’s for another time. Anyway, that was the oddest St. Patrick’s Day celebration the Drowning Swallow had. No green, no shamrocks…almost like it was just a standard March 8th or March 9th evening.”
Grey had turned grey, even under the orange of the candle. “What?”
Shepherd shrugged. “So, tell me…you were up for Sailor of the Quarter…but yet you’re getting out of the Navy in six months. I guess Master Chief Stiles liked you so much he was trying to get you to reenlist?”
“Yes,” Grey nodded, his body tense. “He was trying to get me to stay in.”
“So that’s why you stayed in the AFSC building that night instead of going to the club?”
Grey’s neck stiffened up so much his tendons popped out into high relief. “I…I wasn’t there that night. I was at the Drowning Swallow. I Facebooked photos that night. I don’t know why they didn’t do a St. Patrick’s Day thing. I’m not Irish so I don’t care much about St. Patrick’s Day.”
“Yeah….No.” Shepherd shook his head. “Odd thing about letting an old photo editor—like me—look at a photo. I see everything. The lack of shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day for one. The TV in the background broadcasting ESPN and showing the date to be March 8 or March 9. It was a bit too blurry to make out which date, but it was one of the two. And, for a man who doesn’t care about St. Patrick’s Day, your Facebook photos from the last two years shows you getting all green and happy…and you in green sequined swim briefs with body paint on was an image I really didn’t need to see…not with that over-abundance of chest hair you have.”
Grey was frozen.
“But then,” Shepherd held up his left arm and pushed back the sleeve of his denim jacket, revealing a thick salt-and-pepper fur covering his own extremity, “Who am I to criticize body hair? Oh, do you mind?
Shepherd picked up Grey’s wine and sipped from the glass. “That’s better.”
Putting the wine down the glanced around the crowded dining room and lowered his voice, “So, tell me something. The Gatorade bottles—those were piss bottles, right? Because you had to hide in the office all night to avoid the security cameras and keep the window locked form the inside, right?”
“I was not at AFSC that night,” Grey’s jaw was clenched. He spoke through his teeth, and Shepherd suddenly understood that Grey wasn’t afraid. He was angry.
Highly appropriate, Shepherd thought. “About that…aside from the date on the TV telling me what night you were really at the Drowning Swallow, I’ll grant it’s possible you just uploaded the wrong photo in the dark. But there’s the problem that you were not seen leaving AFSC at all on the evening of the 17th. You left for lunch, came back in the building about 13:30 or so if I recall…but none of the security footage shows you leaving the building that evening. In fact the last time you were recorded leaving your office was at 16:52, and that was to go to the head. After that you went back to your office, and weren’t seen on camera again until 08:32 the morning of the 18th.”
Grey looked like a deadly cat, ready to spring.
Shepherd wasn’t worried. The large crowd in the restaurant afforded him a certain level of protection. And, despite his well-worn jokes about his “advanced” age, at 45 he was still rather energetic. However, his own long-running fight with depression and high anxiety was in play. Despite having taken his panic-attack medicine, Shepherd could feel his heart racing and had to work very hard to act like the nonchalant busybody.
“You waited until there were enough people in the building to come running outside the office acting like you’d just walked in and found John Stiles dead. And you know what, YN1?”
“What.” The word was clipped out as a statement.
“You nearly pulled it off. You really are a right clever man. Nearly a proper genius, I’d say. You pulled off a stunt that actually sidetracked NCIS…and it is a tall order to bamboozle them. Not bad…except for the annoying fact you didn’t count on someone as clever as you.”
“You, I assume, Chief?” Grey shifted a little. Shepherd noted his eyes darting furtively about, measuring a number of possibilities like a chess player.
“I’m too modest to boast,” Shepherd said, “But yes. Me. Never let an old reporter and editor hear of something as preposterous as a man committing suicide by shooting himself darn near in the center of the forehead…oh, you never really knew John Stiles very well at all, did you?”
“He was left handed. If you wanted the stupid shoots-self-in-the-forehead idea to have worked, the bullet wound needed to be off center alright…but off center on the right side of his head, not the left. You shot him on the wrong side of his skull.”
Shepherd rubbed (calmly, he hoped!) his own sweaty palms together and saw a figure approaching reflected in a ship’s wheel-themed mirror on the opposite wall.
“I just can’t quite figure out how you knew when to go get the gun, but perhaps your lovely date can help me out on that one,” Shepherd rose and gallantly pulled out a chair. “Won’t you join us, Mrs. Stiles? We’re having the loveliest dinner conversation.”
Carolyn Stiles was dressed to the nines, alright. Long, burgundy dress that shimmered in the candlelight. Blonde hair swept up into an arrangement that suggested a storm-tossed sea. Face smoothly made up and looking utterly shocked. Automatically she sat before she realized what she was doing.
“Who…?” She stammered. “Gordon…?” She looked to Grey.
Grey shook his head, “Shut up. Don’t say a word!”
Grey turned to Shepherd, “This is all conjecture, you son of a bitch!”
“No, it’s not,” Shepherd said. “I have a buddy at NCIS, you see. And he confirmed the AFSC security cameras did not find you leaving the building the night of the 17th at all…after I had examined your fake Facebook upload and pointed out the date discrepancy. There were a few other things that didn’t make sense until I realized you didn’t act alone.”
“Carolyn,” Shepherd turned, “We haven’t been introduced. Isaac Shepherd, NEPAC East. I’m LCPO of Operations and Production. So, the night your boyfriend here shot your husband…he grabbed the wrong gun, right? You called him when your son came home unexpectedly and you went out for lunch. That’s why you left the back door unlocked. So YN1 Grey here could get in, get one of John’s guns, and kill him with it. But Grey isn’t a shooter like you. He grabbed the .32 instead of John’s own gun by accident, right?”
Carolyn Stiles looked like the entire world had fallen in on her. “How did you find out I left the door unlocked—“
“Shut up, you bitch!” Grey spat, causing the entire dining area to fall silent. Every patron turned around and started. A waiter didn’t realize the wine she was pouring was overflowing the glass.
“Don’t say a word! This bastard’s got nothing!”
“Damn, YN1, you sound like a bad crime movie,” Shepherd said calmly. “And you’re disturbing the other diners. Now, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice you could be hemmed up for being disrespectful to me since I’m a Chief and, well, you’re not. But since you’re going to go up the river for murder, I think I’ll let that charge slide.”
The silence in the Laughing Gull got so loud it hurt.
“Now, how did I know, Carolyn? You and John have been shooting for years. You two have taught classes to gun owners. It’s one thing for you to leave your weapons overnight after a late night of shooting, but to ignore them all the next day? Nope. Even with your son showing up. Not cleaning them that long threatens real damage to a whole heap of money you and John invested. And, you neglected to mention locking the back door when you met your son…and then he mentioned in his statement locking up the back door that night finally. You were out to lunch with John long enough for ole YN1 here to get to your house, get a gun, and get back. And his story about going to lunch at the Navy Exchange…good touch. Huge, busy food court at lunch. Hard to identify one man at lunch whenever everyone in there is wearing the Navy Working Uniform, so that alibi is not easily challenged.”
Carolyn Stiles looked like she was about to throw up, and Gordon Grey looked like he was about to throw something at Shepherd.
“So John Stiles worked late a lot. A Force Master Chief…well, that’s his or her lot. But you didn’t like John not being home. Somewhere in there you and YN1 here hooked up and started having an affair. Eventually you decided you’d rather be with YN1 here permanently, so you cooked up the plot to kill your husband. He’s a bit younger than you…quite a bit, actually. But he’s a good looking stud and you’re one hell of a hot cougar yourself…with a lot of money that would be all yours once John died.”
“You’re all alone here,” Grey hissed very quietly.
“Not really,” Shepherd said evenly, working hard to keep his voice sounding smooth and confident and not show the tremors that were shaking his knees under the table. “There’s a very large crowd here staring at us right now. And, besides, I may walk alone, but I’m never on my own.”
“So, Carolyn,” Shepherd turned back to Mrs. Stiles. “Why the 17th? The planning that went into this was pretty good, but then YN1 here goes and pulls that boneheaded stunt when he uploads photos that show the wrong date on Facebook. Evidently something spurred you two into acting faster than you thought. It can’t have been the new will your son mentioned. All the money going to charity only happened after you both kicked it. You inherited quite a bit if John predeceased you, so what spurred you to act on March 17?”
“He knew,” Carolyn Stiles said, sweat causing her make up to run like a watercolors. “He was distant and angry and kept muttering about legal action for days. I just know he knew Gordon and I were having an affair. When John, Jr., came home a day early…it was a good opportunity.”
It all happened very fast.
Enraged, Grey snatched up a knife, shot up and started to swing it at Carolyn Stiles all in one movement. The table upended; dishes flew and silverware clattered. Shepherd, long since crisis -rained on aircraft carrier flight decks, noticed how the wine sloshed in a glass as it launched, drawing a parabolic arc, the wine trailing and glittering in the candlelight. It was oddly pretty.
And then everything moved again.
Someone–many someones—screamed. A waiter dropped his tray. Shepherd was on his fee, his arm shooting upward, catching Grey’s wrist and stopping the knife cold as Carolyn Stiles jerked backward so hard her chair toppled over, crashing her to the floor. A metallic click echoed like a snapping crack and Gordon Grey felt a gun at the back of his head.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Abraham Gray said, reaching forward and swiftly twisting Grey’s free arm. Gray moved so fast that Grey was on the ground, pinned by the NCIS agent’s knee and having his hands cuffed before he realized what had happened. Another agent popped out of the shadows as if beamed into the spot by the starship Enterprise and subdued the sobbing Carolyn Stiles.
“You had way too much fun with that,” Abraham Gray said to Shepherd after reading Gordon Grey and Carolyn Stiles their rights.
Suddenly feeling hollow and tired and realizing how sweaty he was, Shepherd shrugged. “I have a philosophic objection to murder. Now, if you’ll excuse me a moment, I need to make a head call.”
And Chief Petty Officer Isaac T. Shepherd, hero of the moment, catcher of murders, quickly sought out a men’s room to relieve his severely fear-cramped bowels.
“Carolyn Stiles is still awaiting trial,” Abraham Gray said to the room at large. “She’s civilian, so her high-powered lawyer is mucking up the works every way he can, but we have her. It’s only a matter of time. I’d like to say YN1 Grey’s court martial concluded with a guilty verdict, but that bastard killed a guard at the Navy Brig in Chesapeake while being transferred after trial and is at large.”
NEPAC East had the odd, geographic distinction of being the only NEPAC center located physically across the street from NEPAC’s headquarters. Shepherd’s immediate boss was his Officer in Charge, Lt. Cmdr. Ezekiel Warren, but the whole shebang’s commanding officer, Captain John Messenger, was on the naval station as well.
The gathering was in the CO’s office in the headquarters building. Capt. Messenger sat behind his desk. Cmdr. Susan Takashima, the executive officer, stirred cream into a cup of coffee by the window overlooking 3rd Avenue. Lt. Cmdr. Warren between Gray and Shepherd. The Command Master Chief (or CMC), Elena Esperanza sat at the conference table behind them with Lt. Mary Watson and NEPAC East’s senior enlisted advisor, Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Cory Stout.
Messenger looked at Shepherd, “I’m not sure I’m happy with how you did this, Chief. You didn’t inform your chain of command at all. You did the right thing, and thanks to you two murderers were caught, but I don’t like finding out from NCIS one of my chiefs has been involved in a murder case.”
Shepherd did not blink, “Captain, I did tell Lt. Watson…a bit late, I admit. But the OIC,” Shepherd nodded to Warren, “Was out. And, as I explained to Lt. Watson, if I had been wrong, there was no reason to tell anyone. Until Agent Gray told me on Thursday I wasn’t wrong, there still wasn’t reason to bring it up. After that…I’m sorry, sir. But events moved very fast.”
“Captain, I’ve been part of NCIS for over 20 years, so I understand the sensitivity of a CO to maintaining the chain of command,” Gray said, “And I do apologize for commandeering Chief Shepherd like that. But there was every evidence Carolyn Stiles was about to leave the area and, if so, finding her would not have been easy. We needed to move and Chief Shepherd had…well, sir, he’s worked with me before.”
“We know,” Warren spoked up. “Mary briefed us on the Symko case.” Officers and chiefs would often refer to one another in their communities by first names (though chiefs usually did it only when other enlisted Sailors weren’t around).
“That’s not the only time,” Gray said. “Chief Shepherd is loved and hated around NCIS. He’s helped me on a number of cases over the last 18 years, and he was always right. And he’s nailed a few I wasn’t part of. He’s a rather talented man who should have been in law enforcement. But I needed his help and I needed it fast.”
Messenger and Warren were clearly still not happy, and Shepherd could guess he’d be having a long talk with the CMC and Senior Chief Stout later.
But that was small potatoes.
“What chance is there Gordon Grey will come after Chief Shepherd?” Esperanza asked.
Abraham Gray shrugged, “I can’t say, Master Chief. No one can. Odds are if he surfaces it won’t be for a while. Right now everyone’s looking for him. If he does, it’ll be later when he feels safe.”
“Elena,” Shepherd looked at the master chief, “This wouldn’t be the first time. After we took down Symko in 1999 in Spain…he came back. Got out of jail thanks to some powerful friends and came after me for revenge. Tried to kill me in 2002 when I was with VF-213 Black Lions at NAS Oceana. He put two of our F-14s out of service for a while when he shot at me. And…there were a few others…I’m used it.”
Gray shook his head. “Look, we’re not abandoning Isaac. Gordon Grey has now killed two men—that we know of—and clearly attempted to kill Carolyn Stiles in the restaurant that night. We’ve kept an eye on Shepherd for nearly 16 years now ever since Symko came after him.”
“You have?” Shepherd was clearly surprised.
“Oh, yes,” Gray said. “You’ve been watched, even when you didn’t know it. You think I’m going to let you get killed for doing the right thing…even when you’re annoying in how you do it?”
“Anyway,” Cmdr. Takashima spoke up over her coffee, “Grey was about to get out of the Navy, and then he and Carolyn Stiles planned to run off together?”
“Apparently so,” Shepherd said. “Though one thing eludes me. They did all this planning so they could hook up…but how the hell was she going to explain all this to John Stiles, Jr.?!”
Gray shrugged, “They were pretty brilliant, but even brilliant people can be stupid. I’d guess she had planned to spin him a yarn about Grey having been there for her after Master Chief Stiles’ death and her falling for him and all. Stupid and thin, but there it is.”
“So Stiles knew his wife and YN1 were having an affair, huh?” Stout asked.
“Nope,” Gray shook his head. “That was Carolyn’s overactive imagination, probably fed by guilt and fear that they would be caught. No…Stiles was angry because he was working on the prosecution of a Sailor who got caught trying to deal drugs on the destroyer Mitscher. She pulled the figurative trigger out of panic, you see.”
“Leading YN1 Grey to pull the real trigger,” Shepherd was pathologically unable to stop himself.
The room tried to ignore him, but a soft groan came from someone.
“What about Lt. j.g. Stiles? Gambling debts and his mother up on charges for killing his father?” Stout asked.
Gray shrugged. “He’s back at his command. But he’s in counseling and under observation. I can’t imagine the trauma he’s living with right now. I can only hope he’ll recover and get his finances under control. Bad enough his own mother killed his father, but I’d hate to see her actions destroy their son as well. Either way, he’s grounded and he’ll never fly again. It’ll take so long for him to recover that he’ll be too far out of the training pipeline. So Mommy Dearest did manage to wreck his career path.”
The meeting went another half hour, then broke up. Shepherd walked Gray to his car in the parking lot behind the HQ building.
A chill breeze came off Willoughby Bay, and a CH-53 could be heard churning the waters with its massive rotor blades.
“They are….pissed at you,” Gray said, leaning on his car. “You probably should have told them before causing a riot at the Laughing Gull.”
Shepherd shrugged. “I’m used to being on my own. Maybe I should have told them, but things were moving fast. And if I missed a step in military protocol, we still did the right thing. They’ll get over it. Besides, I retire in seven months. What are they going to do—give me a bad evaluation?”
“You sure about this, Isaac?” Gray asked, leaning on his burgundy sedan.
“Retirement. Dude, it is so obvious you love the Navy. You sure retiring now is the right thing to do?”
Shepherd glanced over to his left, watching the previously unseen Marine Corps CH-53 Sea Stallion slowly rise into view over the distant hangars. A loud whirring to his right announced an E-2D Hawkeye from the “Screwtops” of VAW-123 as it elegantly lifted into air from the naval station’s runway.
“Abe, I’m an old airdale. That’s all I ever really wanted to be,” Shepherd said, watching the Hawkeye climb into low clouds. “When they retired the F-14 Tomcat and took away our flight deck jobs…working on the flight deck, turning wrenches on those jets…that was like listening to the biggest, most kick-ass heavy metal concert in the world. Five years of that…and then we get shifted into straight public affairs work…it was like getting shifted to listening to piano music. Really, really good piano music, mind you, but not quite the same thrill, you know?”
The Sea Stallion continued to hover, its crew obviously doing some training.
Shepherd shrugged, “I’m not saying it’s been a bad career. I stuck it out for 20 years for a reason…and part of that reason was doing the PA job—being a Navy reporter and editor—has been fun. I also stuck it out because I made a promise. But in September that promise will be fulfilled and I just don’t want to go to sea as a Sailor anymore if I can’t be on that flight deck. Time to move on to other challenges. With a bit of luck, I’ll still work with the Navy and develop Sailors—especially Mass Communication Specialists. Once a chief, always a chief, you know. But I’d rather do it on my terms if I can’t wear the green jersey anymore.”
Gray needed, knowing Shepherd referred to the green shirt worn by maintenance personnel on carrier flight decks.
“Well, I have to go back to work. I refuse to ‘coast’ for the next few months. I need to set an example for these guys,” Shepherd jerked his thumb over his shoulder to NEPAC East’s building next door. “Show them that when in uniform, you are serving until the very last day.”
Gray nodded. “I need to get moving too. Got a death on the Dwight D. Eisenhower to look at. Some kid had a two-ton hatch fall on his head. I’m not looking forward to that mess.”
“I’d rather face that than my CO and OIC right now. I’m not broken up about it, but I also can’t blame them for being upset I didn’t communicate better. Well,” Shepherd held out his hand, “We did it again. Good luck finding Grey. Hell, if we’re really lucky, that bastard will get stuck on one of the rail crossings on Granby Street and a train will take care of him for us.”
Gray shook Shepherd’s hand, got in his car and drove off.
Shepherd looked back at the HQ building and sighed. Time to go face his own music. Knowing his chain of command, he would spend the next hour getting berated for his lack of communication, and then the CMC would buy him lunch for finding the murderer of a brother chief.
He had no qualms about retiring and moving on. He had spoken the truth to Gray—it was time to move on and find out who Isaac Shepherd was without the uniform. But he was going to miss the Navy all the same. It was an interesting life.
After all, no matter what the assignment had been, he had to admit the last 20 years had not just been a job, but rather splendid adventure!
The Sea Stallion turned and flew off towards the Chesapeake Bay.
– Finite –
Isaac Shepherd and Abraham Gray will return in “The Eisenhower Murder.”