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
The Norfolk Rover was a new, start-up dinner cruise boat that tied up along the Elizabeth River part of Norfolk’s waterfront. It was an attempt at competition with the older, established elegance of the Spirit of Norfolk dinner cruise ship. Both cruised up and down the Elizabeth River with quick jaunts into the James River to tour the naval station’s piers and wow their guests with (assuming ships were in port) the might of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet.
It took Shepherd about 20 minutes to drive out of Suffolk and use the West Norfolk Bridge to pop through the Midtown Tunnel into Norfolk. He hooked right and took West Brambleton Street into downtown Norfolk. Another right on Boush Street led him towards the water. Boush turned into Waterside Drive, and Shepherd found parking in a garage across the from the Nauticus, a private marine science center whose building also housed the Navy’s Hampton Roads Naval Museum and battleship USS Wisconsin (BB 64).
The “Wisky” had come to downtown Norfolk in the inactive reserve in 1992, but in 2009 was finally struck from the naval register and became a full-fledged museum ship. Her giant 16” guns sat quietly pointed inland. If she ever fired them from this position, the shells would actually overshoot the entire city of Norfolk and land somewhere in Virginia Beach.
Shepherd had no idea what he was going to say as he walked under the lights of the Nauticus. He wasn’t even really dressed for this. He had on track pants, a T-shirt, and his old green fatigue jacket (it wasn’t military issue; he had bought it at Target in Bowie, Maryland, back in 2006, while teaching at the Defense Information School). The weather was finally clear and the sun just now disappearing below the horizon. The sky was riot of color and the lights of the city were sparkling into being.
Jaywalking across Waterside Drive he passed the Wisconsin and Nauticus building on his right. Rounding a curve with the sidewalk, he passed Town Point Park and approached Waterside, an upscale shopping area on the water designed to attract boats and tourists. The Norfolk Rover was tied up here, not too far from the competition she hoped to supplant.
Stopping to look at the ship, Shepherd saw a last few passengers debarking. They were all dressed to the nines…and he looked like a low-grade, middle-aged fashion disaster.
Well, my dress sense never was good. Jennifer always did dress me better than I did myself, He thought fondly of his ex-wife and her ability to actually put him in clothes that made him look less like a disheveled “Indiana Jones” wannabe and more like a respectable person.
The Norfolk Rover was an ultra-modern yacht-type craft. Whereas the older, established Spirit of Norfolk was white, the Norfolk Rover was black and lined with tubes of LEDs that outlined the ship in brilliant white—or changing colors (whatever the captain decided). Her bow jutted so far forward she looked like a knife charging at a steak, and her four-level superstructure raked backwards, the upper two levels creating a tiered balcony that hung far past the fantail over the water. The ship’s very lines screamed out “MONEY!!!”
Shepherd was impressed. She was a pretty ship.
Now, how the hell do I get in there and ask the questions I need to ask?
Glancing down at his clothes and old trainers, he decided a straightforward approach was best. He’d lie through his teeth. Well…halfway lie. He’s use just enough truth to keep his story straight.
The last of the passengers seemed to have left. He pulled out a notebook and pen he’d grabbed off his desk and headed for the brow.
“Excuse me, sir!” He said in a jolly voice to a worker who was sweeping the brow. “My name is Isaac Shepherd. I’m a local blogger and just read the story of that Navy officer dying and his CO saying this was the last place they saw him. There are a lot of rumors going around that he died here instead of drowning this past weekend. I do reviews of restaurants, local sites and attractions, and I’ve eaten on board here. Loved it! I was wondering if I could talk to the captain and see if I could get some information so I can write a piece that might help dispel the rumors.”
The crewman was obviously tired. “Look, the captain don’t want no more press here. He’s sick o’ you jerks.”
“I bet here is, but I’m not press. I’m a local blogger who wants to make you look good. I think the Norfolk Rover is a wonderful addition to the waterfront dining scene and I don’t like these rumors threatening the ship. The story is already on Fox News and CNN; a friend in Washington State told me that. So I thought I’d see if I can’t get a jump on a piece that sets the record straight.”
The bored crewman shrugged and called something into his radio. Shepherd waited with a smile, to all appearances a happy blogger listening to the water slap the Norfolk Rover’s hull.
Eventually a tired-looking man in a black blazer and white pants emerged and stomped down the brow. Four gold bands of braid on sleeves indicated he was the captain. He was brown-skinned. His ancestry obviously hailed from India.
“What?” He said curtly, ignoring Shepherd’s proffered hand.
“Evening, Captain Morrow!” Shepherd smiled ingratiatingly and reading Morrow’s name tag. Every fiber of diplomatic skill he had learned through 20 years in the Navy came into play. Civilian or military, he was pretty good and schmoozing higher-ups. “I’m Isaac Shepherd, a local blogger, and I was disturbed by the rumors flying around that that Lt. Norman died a week before his body washed up. A week before his body was found he was here with his command. Frankly, I’d like to talk to you and your staff so I can do a blog about that night and how he was alive when he left the ship. Basically get you off the hook, so to speak.”
“And what’s in it for you, Mr. Shepherd?” The captain asked. “You aren’t just here out of the goodness of your heart.”
“No, sir.” Shepherd admitted. “I’m trying to build my readership. Getting a jump on a story like this will boost my own blog as much as I hope to re-boost your clientele after that story came out. I imagine it put a dent in your customer base.”
Morrow grimaced, “Look, I appreciate the effort and all. But I’ve already got two crew members who’ve jumped ship this past week on top of this story. I don’t have time.”
Morrow began to turn his back, but Shepherd spoke up rapidly, “Two crew members jumped ship? At the kind of wages you pay? That’s weird.”
“What about our wages?” Morrow asked, annoyed.
“Well, I know your company is paying a slightly higher wage than the Spirit of Norfolk is right now to attract crew. I mean, that can’t be kept up forever, but in the short term it would seem to be to be something that would keep crew aboard.” Shepherd was silently very thankful he’d spent the previous day surfing local headlines at his desk at NEPAC East during a serious moment of procrastination (he had been avoiding a lengthy production report).
Morrow shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Two crew jumped ship. Unless you know of a waiter and bartender, then I have to go. Good night.”
This time Morrow did turn and stalk back up the brow. His black blazer vanished into the dark interior of the Norfolk Rover, and Shepherd was left alone in the night breeze.
His eyes itched. He had started wearing contacts for the first time in eleven years and should have taken them out a few hours earlier. In his haste to leave the Yellow Duck and get to the Norfolk Rover he had forgotten to grab his eye drops. His eyes were dry and itchy and, to top it off, he didn’t even have his reading glasses. He was lately wearing bifocals for regular glasses, and needed reading glasses when he had his contacts in. Of course he had forgotten the reading glasses too!
45 years old and my eyes are those of an 80 year old. I love my genetics! He turned from the ship and strolled into the night.
He angled his steps back towards Town Point Park. Traffic on Waterside Drive to his right zipped by, but he was thinking hard. His mind was a hyper-intelligent and lightning-swift organ, but it was also frenetic and given to a constant, chaotic noise that was part and parcel of the agoraphobia, high anxiety, and depression he fought every day. Quieting that fractious organ was one reason he took up yoga, began writing haikus, and read a lot. Like the fictitious Sherlock Holmes, Isaach Sherpherd never really knew what “quiet” was. His mind was only quiet when on his meds and he had something to focus it on.
But now the anxieties were overwhelming him. The mad impulse to cut off the conversation with Jackson Cutter and rush into downtown Norfolk had not been the smartest thing to do. It had been a gut emotional reaction to…well, he hated to admit it, but to fear. Panic. Terror, even. The driver’s license in the mail was a chillingly subtle and effective weapon against him. He had given in to the impulse to do something for the sake of doing something.
Lt. Robert G. Norman was murdered, and the murderer not only wants me involved, but wants me to know he or she knows where I live. Shepherd shoved his hands and phone into his pockets and began to cross the park’s grass, mindlessly heading to the Armed Forces Memorial that jutted into the Elizabeth River from Town Point Park.
The memorial was a concrete quay that was “littered” with artfully placed sheets of bronze paper forever blowing in a silent wind. Erected in 1998, the bronze “papers” were reproduced letters from Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who had not made it home from the nation’s many wars. It was understated, quite, lovely, and a good place to think.
Not paying attention, Shepherd tripped over one of the bronze letters. Stumbling, he got his footing and managed to get to the water’s edge without falling over. The lights of the Nauticus building with its giant LED screen advertising various exhibits and events created a cascading flood of color over the nearby buildings.
The stately bulk of the Wisconsin, her wars long over and her career as a historical monument still young, floated unmovingly in the waters of the river she had been born in. Across the river the lights of the Portsmouth Naval Hospital twinkled and a cruiser sat high out of the water in a floating dry dock next to the Berkley Bridge and the never-ending stream of cars traversing it.
He might be gay, but Shepherd was still Roman Catholic at heart. He closed his eyes and visualized his small pocket Rosary. It was a ring with ten beads (one decade) and a Celtic Crucifix. He forced himself to focus by starting at the image of the Crucifix with the Lord’s Prayer, and then saying a “Hail Mary” for each bead.
He always hoped the exercise would make God at least a bit happy with him, but he was honest that he used it more to focus and quiet the ever-present storm in his skull.
By the fifth “Hail Mary” he was breathing slower and had opened his eyes to gaze across to Portsmouth. By the time he “reached” the Crucifix in his mind and said his last Lord’s Prayer, he was calmer. Uttering a silent thanks to God and the Virgin Queen, he took a deep breath and began to order what he knew.
Order and method, just like Agatha Christie always wrote, He thought. So he organized his facts:
1) Robert Norman was dead
2) Robert Norman was murdered
3) The murderer knew where Shepherd lived
4) The murder distinctly wanted Shepherd involved
5) The murder obviously wanted Shepherd aware of 3 and 4
6) Norman’s last interaction with his command had been on the Norfolk Rover
7) Norman had stayed late at the bar on the ship
8) The Norfolk Rover had two missing crew—a bartender and a waiter
9) Shepherd possessed Norman’s driver’s license and a note from the murdered…a note printed on an ink jet printer and likely untraceable.
Shepherd blinked his itchy eyes. He actually had a lot of information at his fingertips already, and that disturbed him. Twenty odd years of murders he had seen (and that did not include the weirdness he and his friends back at Niceville High School and Florida State University went through). Twenty years of people ending the lives of other people.
Murderers did not want to be caught. Not as a general rule. Even the few people who had tried to kill him in the past had been sneaky and circumspect and did everything they could to avoid attention.
This person, this…this creep was something entirely new in Shepherd’s experience. This creep wanted attention. This creep was openly communicating with Shepherd…which meant…
Which means this creep really knows me! The terrifying reality of it hit him in a new and deeper way.
Suddenly paranoid, Isaac Shepherd looked around and realized he was standing alone, in the dark, in a deserted park. Not exactly a safe place to be with a murderer in town sending him mail. Still, it was unlikely anything would happen here. Shepherd’s gut told him this creep was not done with the show yet.
However, it was time to do the smart thing, the thing Cutter had told him to do in the first place. Rushing off down here had been an emotional reaction to fear and anger. Fear—Shepherd’s greatest enemy.
But Cutter was right. He should have called Abraham Gray two hours ago.
He pulled out his cell and dialed. Fortunately Gray and his wife, Sarah, were around.
“Isaac, what’s up?” Gray’s voice was cheerful.
“Abe, I have a problem. Meet me at my house in 30 minutes.”
Gray hesistated, “Isaac? You’re scared. What’s wrong? Where are you?”
Shepherd’s voice broke in spite of himself, “Damn right I’m scared.” He nearly started crying; reaching out to the one man who could help him broke the emotional dam. “Abe, I’m in trouble. Bad. I’m downtown in Norfolk, but meet me at the Yellow Duck. And…and make sure you bring your gun.”
“My what?!” Gray’s voice rose suddenly. “Isaac, what’s wrong? Tell me!”
“Abe, I’m out and exposed and I have information for you about the murder of Robert Norman. I need you to meet me at the Yellow Duck.”
“Ok, ok. I’ll meet you there in…well…it’ll take me about 40 minutes to get there. Tell me, what do you know? You’re safer if you tell me what you know, and you know that.”
“I know he was murdered. I know the killer is a psychotic creep who wants attention. I know Norman died a week ago and his body was held until Sunday.”
“How—hang on,” Gray’s voice grew distant as he moved his mouth from the phone to talk to his wife, “Thanks, Sarah. Yeah, I’ll take the Honda. Don’t wait up; Isaac’s in trouble. Real trouble.”
“Sorry about that,” Gray’s voice was strong again as he spoke into the phone. “How do you know what you know?”
“I just talked to the captain of the Norfolk Rover.”
“You did what?!” Gray was obviously stunned. “What the hell led you there?!”
“A news article in which the CO of HSC 227 said that was the last place any of the squadron saw him and…”
“And?” Gray clearly knew something big was about to drop.
“And the murderer mailed me Norman’s driver’s license and a note saying I’d need it.” Shepherd’s voice did break and a tear of fear slid out of his left eye as he went on, “Abe, the murderer knows me, knows where I live…the murderer wants me in on this.”
Gray’s voice was steady. “I’m on my way. Go get in Sarah Jane and head home. I have a key to your house, remember? Head back to Suffolk but do not go to your house until I’ve checked it out. Do you understand? Drive on major roads and find a public area to wait. Go to that Walmart or IHOP by your house. I’ll call you as soon as I know the Yellow Duck is safe.”
“Thanks. See you soon.”
“Isaac!” Gray called to keep Shepherd on the line a moment more.
“Y-Yeah?” Shepherd said, the tears freely flowing now.
“Isaac, we’ve beaten a lot of very bad people together. You’ve beaten a lot of very bad people by yourself. You will be ok. We will win this. Ok? Faith, brother. Now go start driving home. I’ll call you when your house is clear.”
Shepherd hung up and turned back out to the water. Roman Catholic he might be, but somewhere in him he had a sneaking affinity for Neptune, the ancient Roman god of the seas. He studied how Neptune’s water lapped against the bricks under his feet and reflected briefly on how that water would, in the end, destroy those bricks. It might take thousands of years, but the soft, relentless water would win.
He took a deep breath and nodded. He and Abe would find this creep and stop them. He accepted his fear, felt it, embraced it, and realized suddenly that, for the first time in his life, he didn’t feel a need to forgive himself for it. The fear, the depression, the anxiety…it was all part of who he was.
He nodded again and set off up Waterside Drive back to the garage where he’d left his blue SUV, Sarah Jane. Named for a companion from the long-running British TV series Doctor Who, Sarah Jane and he had shared quite a few adventures. Getting back inside her would be a bit of a security blanket…
…until he saw the paper on the windshield, tucked under the wiper. A fresh dagger of ice sliced open his bowels as he froze.
Looking around he made sure he was alone, and then cautiously approached the vehicle. His was the only car on the level. But he had been down by the water for some time; plenty of time, in fact, for someone to put a note on his car and leave quite unseen.
Reaching the car, he hesitated and then pulled the note from under the wiper and read it. It was printed on an ink jet printer like the one he had received at the house:
The food on that dinner cruise was pretty good eating and the tips were great. Hope you enjoyed getting LT Norman’s driver’s license. And I hope you liked my pun. You always did like a good pun. Don’t worry, MCC Shepherd. Your house is safe. I’m not stupid. It’s way too obvious to do anything there. I’ll be in touch.
A new emotion began to add its touch to the mixture of turmoil in Isaac Shepherd’s stomach: anger. In spite of the fear still raging in him, anger ignited and began to burn.
Anger that focused his hyperactive brain…a brain that had spent two decades being trained as an editor. He studied the note and realized it was a goldmine of information. He began to steady and. In a sense, Isaac Shepherd began to reemerge from the tsunami of fear that had overwhelmed him.
Alright, you son of a bitch. It’s game on…and you just made an unforced error, Shepherd thought. A rather large unforced error…