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.
On the Rocks
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
“I saw on Fox News you guys had a body wash up on shore?”
Sitting at his desk in his library, Isaac Shepherd glanced up at his monitor as he sorted through a pile of mail. He was on video chat with Jackson Cutter, his former student, shipmate, and best friend. Cutter, a barrel-chested country boy possessed a nearly unhealthy obsession with the Seattle Seahawks. He had studied photojournalism under Shepherd when Shepherd had been an instructor at the Defense Information School on board Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.
Later Cutter had served alongside Shepherd at the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East (NEPAC East) on board Naval Station Norfolk. Like Shepherd he had rolled from sea duty to a shore duty job in which he got his instructor qualification and helped Shepherd build an intermediate-level media skills school for Sailors needing targeted training, but unable to get to Fort Meade.
Shepherd nodded as he tossed another advertisement in the shredder. “Yeah, someone drowned apparently. I think his name was Lt. Norbert or Norden…something like that. It made Fox News?”
Cutter nodded from across the country. He was seated in his home in Port Townsend, Washington, where he was now the marketing director for a food co-op. “And CNN. Just small notes; nothing big. But, I figure, death, dead bodies, Norfolk…you’d probably be involved.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Shepherd said with a grimace. His sea-green eyes twinkled. “You should know I don’t go looking to get into these things. They just seem to happen.”
“I don’t know. I’d say you’re a murder magnet,” Cutter laughed. “You should join the FBI or NCIS when you retire in September for all the murders and crap you’ve solved.”
“Hey, it hasn’t been just me. You’ve had your share, or have you forgotten that little hit-and-run event you witnessed a couple of years ago?”
Cutter shook his head, “Nah. I remember. How’s Abe, anyway?”
“He’s fine,” Shepherd said. He held up a letter for Cutter to see on the webcam. “I’ve owned this house four years now. I’m still getting court documents for Lydia Reed. She was a tenant here about seven years ago. I’m done going to the Portsmouth Court house.” He dropped the letter in the shredder.
“Portsmouth? But you live in Suffolk,” Cutter said, lifting a cup of coffee to his lips. It was nearly 8:00 p.m. on the East Coast; Shepherd was winding down after a long day at work. Cutter was in the middle of his early afternoon and working from home.
“I know, but whatever Lydia Reed did, well, I keep getting letters from the court in Portsmouth. I’ve been there twice and filed affidavits that she doesn’t live here anymore, but they still keep sending stuff.”
“Won’t you have trouble if they come looking for her and you’ve shredded all those?”
Shepherd shook his head. “Nope. I’m not her. So where’s my nephew?”
Cutter had married the former Leslie Gunthrey, another of Shepherd’s former students and former shipmate at NEPAC East. Both of them were civilians now; he had joined the Navy Reserves and she was a federal government protocol officer at Whidbey Island. Their two-year old son, Hunter, was referred to by all as Shepherd’s fifth nephew since Shepherd and Cutter referred to each other as their “other brother.” Shepherd’s own older brother and sister-in-law, Jacob and Leah, had four kids…meaning Shepherd had quite a calendar of birthdays and Christmas presents to keep up with!
“Oh, old Poopy Pants is out with his mom today,” Cutter said, using his favorite nickname for Hunter.
“You realize that kid is going to hate you if call him that when he’s a teenager, Scrapyard?” Shepherd said, falling back to his old nickname for Cutter.
“Ah, he’ll get over it. So you getting into this Norbit guy’s death, Sparky?” Cutter responded with an old Navy nickname that had been hung on Shepherd nearly 19 years earlier. “And why don’t you go by ‘Sparky’ much anymore? I haven’t seen you use that on Facebook or anything since you put on chief.”
Shepherd laughed, “I am categorically not getting into Northrop’s death…or whatever his name is. He drowned. As to ‘Sparky,’ well, after making Chief Petty Officer two years ago…I kind of quietly let it go mostly. Just felt like I needed to set a bit of a higher level of professionalism as a chief, so I kind of just shifted the whole ‘Sparky’ thing and its variations to my Instagram and personal Facebook accounts and civilian-side photography identity.”
“I’m still stuck as a Second Class,” Cutter groused. “Two years in a row there has been zero percent advancement in the Reserves to MC2.” Cutter, like Shepherd, was a Navy Mass Communication Specialist—a public affairs and media technician. However, he had left active duty as a Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class—an E5 on the military pay charts. Known more generically as a “Petty Officer 2nd Class” when the rate name was not used, E5s are the backbone of the Navy workforce and First Class Petty Officers (an E6 on the pay chart) were the front-line workcenter supervisors.
Unfortunately for Cutter, the Reserve MC1s, or Mass Communication Specialist First Classes, had been over-manned, meaning there was no room for advancement for more junior Sailors like him.
“You could always knock off a few First Classes,” Shepherd said.
“And then have you arrest me?” Cutter’s image lagged for a second behind his voice. “No way, you’re too good with solving murder. I know your name was kept out of it, but that investigation on the IKE made headlines over here.”
“Abe Gray asked for my help on that one,” Shepherd said. “I’m still in therapy over it. For real. Not only did the murderer take a swipe at me and miss by accident, killing a second person…she was a goddamned fellow chief. A chief!”
Cutter nodded, “I know. But she’s in jail and will be tried and all. You did what you could and you probably helped restore faith in the Chiefs Mess on that ship by stopping her.”
Shepherd shrugged and held up another piece of junk mail for Cutter to see it on the screen. “Hey, I just won the right to compete in the final round of an overseas lottery that will net me millions of foreign currency! All I have to do is send them my bank account information and I’ll be entered and, if I win, the money will be direct deposited!”
He shredded it.
“How’s the job search?” Cutter asked.
“Five rejection letters so, Jack,” Shepherd said. “But the other day I got an email from the federal government say I was qualified for a public affairs specialist position with the Defense Media Activity up on Fort Mead, and my file was referred to the action officer for consideration. They may or may not contact me for an interview.”
“Great news!” Cutter took another sip of coffee from is (big surprise) Seattle Seahawks mug. “What will you do with the Yellow Duck if you move? Rent it out like I did my house in Norfolk?”
The Yellow Duck was the name Shepherd had whimsically tagged his yellow-sided house with its red mailbox. It was number 2210 Baker Street, right on the corner with Tennant Street in the Eccleston Range neighborhood, a small mid-to-upper middle class development sandwiched between the Burbage Grant neighborhood and the up-scale Harbor View development in Suffolk’s northeast corner. The mighty James River flowed to the Chesapeake not a mile from Shepherd’s Yellow Duck.
“I’ll probably sell it. I’ve see the headaches you and Leslie have had property managing your old place off Robin Hood Road.”
Cutter smiled wistfully. “Yeah. Man, I remember building that deck with you—“
“Twice,” Shepherd interjected. “We built it, then had to pull it all back up and add three more floor joists.”
Cutter laughed, “Yeah, but we had some good cookouts back there.”
Shepherd’s became serious. He had opened an envelope and was holding something that caused his brow to furrow and his salt-and-pepper hair to retract as his scalp pulled back a bit.
“What?” Cutter asked.
“Jack, pull up the news stories on that drowning victim for me, would you?”
“Just do. His name was Norman. Robert G. Norman. Pull up the articles. I need to get something.”
Cutter did some fast Googling as Shepherd got up, rummaged in a draw, and came back wearing a pair of white cotton gloves—the kind museum workers and archivist wore.
“I’ve got one from WTKR there in Norfolk,” Cutter said, noting the gloves.
“Ok,” Cutter said, mystified. “Here’s a newer one with some updates: Date line Norfolk, Va.
Navy Lt. Robert G. Norman was found dead washed up on the rocks along the naval station’s waterfront by a roving security patrol April 30.
Norman, a helicopter pilot assigned to the Happy Warriors of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 227, was the apparent victim of a drowning accident and his body was discovered washed ashore between the Cole and Iowa memorials on the naval station’s waterfont along Willoughby Bay.
“Right now we cannot comment on the investigation as it is an ongoing effort,” said NCIS lead Special Agent Charlotte Webb. “However, our hearts and prayer go out to Lt. Norman’s parents and friends. Tonight they are suffering a great family tragedy, and they have our condolences. We will do everything in our power to find out what happened and hopefully prevent this type of tragedy from striking the ranks of our Navy ever again.”
Norman had been with HSC 227 for a couple of years. He had two deployments under his belt and was spending a week on leave when he somehow ended up in the bay. Unnamed sources inside Naval Station Norfolk say NCIS has amassed evidence that Norman did not die by drowning and was not in the bay for very long. These sources also say he died over a week before his body was being found.
HSC 227’s commanding officer, Cmdr. McNeal Hammill, said such rumors are ridiculous. “People like to spread rumors. Norman was with us on a dinner cruise on the Norfolk Rover on Friday, April 28. He was having fun and enjoyed the bar so much he stayed late by himself after the boat pulled in as a start to his leave after the rest of us left. During the week he was in contact with his friends and his parents. He apparently was seen at the NEX and Virginia Aquarium and even Yorktown, so I don’t see where these ‘unnamed sources’ get off saying he was dead a week before he was found.”
Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base. Home to 75 ships tied up along 14 piers and 134 aircraft housed in 11 hangars, the naval station and its smaller Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads are the hub of Atlantic Fleet activity. Fleet Forces Command and Control (FFCC) has oversight on deployable units ranging as far as Europe and Middle East.
The naval station has lately seen a spate of two high-profile murders. The death of Force Master Chief John Stiles at Atlantic Forces Surface Command in March was meant to look like a suicide, but was found to be a murder. Recently in April the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) suffered a double murder. However, quick investigative work by NCIS and naval security personnel were able to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“How do you like that,” Cutter said. “They never even mentioned you.”
“I don’t really care,” Shepherd said, looking disturbed and thought full.
Cutter noticed Shepherd, his hands in the while gloves, was carefully slipping an envelope into a clear plastic zip-lock bag. Another bag apparently held some kind of card.
“So looks like a drowning with a bit of sensationalizing in the story,” Cutter said.
“No, it’s not sensationalizing,” Shepherd said gruffly.
“Oh no, you’ve got that look,” Cutter said. “Last time I saw that look was that hit-and-run incident on Hampton and Helmick Street that turned out to be attempted murder of that pregnant Lt. Commander by her jerk husband.”
“Scrapyard, Norman did not drown. And he was probably dead at least a week like the ‘unnamed sources’ said.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Cutter said. “You heard the CO say he’d been seen around town and all.”
“I know. But I also know a show when I see it. Norman did not drown, at least no accidentally. He was murdered.”
“And you say that because…” Cutter asked from Washington State.
Shepherd held up one of the plastic bags he had slid a card into. “I say that because someone mailed me Norman’s driver’s license.”
Cutter did a double take. “You’re kidding me.”
“No. It’s his license. Florida license like mine, expiration in two years. And they also sent a note. It was wrapped around the license, and it reads ‘You like puns, so here’s a pun for you: here’s Norman’s license. You’ll need it because you can’t drive without a license, and I’m going to drive you up the wall. The news stories are all wrong, but…how was it done?’”
“No wonder you put on gloves and slid all that into a bag.”
“Preserve whatever evidence might be there. Even the envelope, though I’m betting this creep has already cleaned these off. And the return on address on the envelope is a local comic book shop.”
Cutter looked worried, “Why would the killer—assuming that’s who it is—send you that stuff?”
Shepherd looked up, “Because this murderer is one of the most, if not the most, dangerous kind of murderer in the world. He or she is killing for sport and to make a show. I’d wager they know me and my experience in this stuff, so they’re pulling me into the case so they can have fun. This is a very sick and very clever killer we’ve got here Scrapyard.”
“Time to call Abe Gray,” Cutter said.
“Not yet. That new story gave me a clue. I’m going to make a couple of inquiries before I call Abe. I want to have some idea of what the shape of this is before I go annoy NCIS again.”
“You be careful, Sparks,” Cutter said. “If they’re dragging you into this then they know who you are. They know where you live. This is serious.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” Shepherd said. “But…I don’t think I’m in trouble yet. They want me as a witness and audience. But that means someone else will die…and then someone else, and so on. They either want to be caught after doing maximum damage, or all the people are connected in somewhat and this creep is working his or her way through a list. I got to go. Talk to you later.”
Shepherd cut the connection, lifted his barrel-chested 6’,3” frame and 205 lbs out of the chair and headed down to get his shoes and car keys.
Hopefully this late in the evening, the Norfolk Rover would be back in port from its evening dinner cruise.