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 rest of the night had been a long whirlwind. Shepherd ended up spending an hour at the IHOP on College Drive near his house in Suffolk before Abraham Gray caught up to him. He had not wasted the time; he nearly ran the charge out of his phone doing research on the net after alerting his command to the situation (that last part alone was going to entail loads of conversations he was not looking forward to).
Gray had mobilized a team and swept the Yellow Duck for safety before letting Shepherd return. By the time Shepherd was in his house again it was well after midnight. Gray told him to sleep; they would head to base in the morning. In the meantime Gray stationed himself in Shepherd’s upstairs guest room. Done over in a general Texas theme to honor the state of Shepherd’s birth, the room was comfortable and provided plenty of closet space for Gray’s stuff…and the clothes and equipment of the five other agents occupying the house that night.
As most people who fight depression and anxiety will testify, fatigue is one of the greatest enemies Shepherd faced. As soon as he could he strapped on the CPAP machine mask that ensured sleep apnea did not halt his breathing and was out like a light. Five hours of sleep completely restored his mental equilibrium.
He drove in to the naval station with Gray after a hasty breakfast at IHOP (being a bachelor meant Shepherd did not keep enough food on hand for a small army).
“Your CO and OIC are going to meet us at the office,” Gray said as they dipped into the Midtown Tunnel under the Elizabeth River.
“Great.” Shepherd said. The Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command was a world-spanning command that existed to embark public affairs officers and enlisted Mass Communication Specialist on board deploying Navy ships, as well as to exercises and other events around the world. “NEPAC” was broken into three main centers, with NEPAC East being located in Norfolk right across the street from NEPAC’s HQ building, meaning Shepherd’s immediate Officer in Charge had the whole shebang’s commanding officer next door.
Gray could tell the shift in mood that come over Shepherd since the frenetic phone call of the night before. Sleep always steadied him. But, more than that, Shepherd’s high-speed mind was focused. He was turning the situation over and over, and that meant he was going to probably see something so obscure, so outlandish, so patently absurd it would unlock the mystery in short order.
Gray also recognized an angry Isaac Shepherd when he saw one. “You ok?”
“I have work to do, and this nozzle is getting in my way,” Shepherd said. He was the Leading Chief Petty Officer of both the Operations and Productions divisions at NEPAC East. “Fleet Week New York is next week. Biggest public affairs outreach of the year for the Navy. My last major ‘hurrah’ before I completely shift into retirement mode to be ready to separate in September. I don’t have time for this clown. And…I do not approve of murder.”
To anyone else that patently obvious statement might have sounded absurd. Gray knew better. Murder enraged Isaac Shepherd. The idea that some people believed they had a right to cut short the lives of others for their own convenience repelled him and he was always eager to bring justice to a murderer. The simple statement was merely an understated expression of Shepherd’s moral revulsion at the untimely death of Lt. Norman.
“Fleet Week might have to find another LCPO,” Gray said. “I know you were going to lead the NEPAC East team and act as senior editor for all the public affairs teams up there, but this is a bit more important.”
Gray slowed to a stop at a red light. Students going to early classes at Old Dominion University crossed the road. Unlike March, which had seen a sudden and unpleasant wet blast of late winter, May was going in the opposite direction and hitting August-like temperatures in the 90s. Already this early in the morning it was over 70 degrees and all the students were decked out in shorts.
“No,” Shepherd said.
“No. This won’t take that long,” Shepherd said. “I’ll explain when we get to your office. But this creep…this creep made a huge unforced error last night. I’m going to New York with the team next week. I’m going to cap out my career with Fleet Week. And this bastard is going down before then.”
Gray said nothing. He and Shepherd finished the drive to the naval station in silence. Driving up Hampton Blvd., they turned right onto Admiral Taussig Blvd outside Gate 2 and hooked around to Gate 3A. The NCIS offices were closer to Gate 3A.
Inside his building, Gray signed in Shepherd and got him a visitor’s badge before leading him up to the main conference room.
Shay Cremer and Carla Tenbold were already there. The icy chill in the room was not because of the air conditioning; their disdain for Shepherd was way too apparent.
Also waiting were Captain John Messenger, commanding officer of NEPAC. He was a medium-built man with a long career in public affairs. Next to him was the slight frame of Lt. Cmdr. Ezekiel Warren, officer in charge (or OIC) of NEPAC East and Shepherd’s immediate boss. The two officers were sitting opposite the agents at the conference table. A palpable discomfort hung in the air.
“Captain,” Shepherd greeted the CO first, and then turned to Warren, “Boss.” He always called the OIC “Boss.”
“Chief Shepherd,” Messenger growled, “This is the second time in two months we’ve ended up with you getting involved in a law enforcement case you have no business being involved in. You had no business getting into that situation in March, and I should have forbid your work on the Eisenhower murders last month. You’re a Chief Mass Communication Specialist, not an NCIS agent.”
“Captain,” Gray said, “Chief Shepherd’s involvement in the Stiles case in March ensured a pair of murderers were caught. Without him, YN1 Grey and Mrs. Stiles would literally have gotten away with murder. And his involved on the Dwight D. Eisenhower case last month was at my request. He is the one who broke that case for us too. I fully understand your concern for the safety of your Sailors, but getting in his butt now will do no good. He did not seek this out. Someone is targeting him. I don’t think blaming the victim here is appropriate at all.”
“Sir,” Warren cut in, “Special Agent Gray is correct. Right now Chief Shepherd’s safety is the concern. He’s being targeted, and I for one think his unique talents for mysteries will help here.”
Shepherd just stared at his CO. Messenger was a great public affairs officer and, overall, a damned good leader for NEPAC. But right now Shepherd was not exactly impressed with his priorities…even though he sympathized with his outlook.
“The chief might not be targeted if he kept his nose out of our business,” Tenbold said bluntly. “Face it, Shepherd. Your little adventures over the last twenty years have made you some enemies. Looks like one of them might be calling home.”
“Carla!” Gray snapped. “That’s completely uncalled for!”
“She’s got a point, Abe,” Cremer said acidly. “This individual has been sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted for years.”
“So…that makes it ok for someone to murder an innocent man to get at me, you jackalope?” Shepherd shot at Cremer. “Look, I get why you don’t like me. I wouldn’t like it much if you two walked into NEPAC East and told me how to do public affairs for an event…and I’d like it even less if you were actually right. But this creep has murdered at least one innocent man—and probably two others already—just to create a show for my benefit. And before you get too sanctimonious, very rarely have I ever actually walked into NCIS with an idea unless someone else somewhere dropped the ball and I was trying to lateral it to you!”
“Enough!” Gray snapped at the whole room. “This is getting us nowhere! Chief Shepherd is in this whether any of us likes it or not. And, if we’re all honest here, he does have a talent for this. So we might as well use him while we’re figuring out how to protect him. Captain, I understand your reservations, and you have the authority to walk out of here anytime. But Shepherd is currently in my protective custody and will stay here until this is sorted out. Carla, Shay, we’ve talked about this. Get over it. He’s here…and you know he’ll do some good.”
Gray and Shepherd sat. The table was still piled with files and data, but it was not in the disheveled piles Gray had last seen it. Cremer sighed and spoke first.
“You said you think this perp might have killed three people?” He asked Shepherd, a visible effort at courtesy making his nose twitch. “Why?”
“Yes,” Shepherd said. “After I got Norman’s driver’s license last night and read up on some news articles, I went to the Norfolk Rover and talk to the captain, a guy named Morrow.”
“You did what?!” Lt. Cmdr. Warren was stunned. “Chief, that was incredibly dangerous! You were out alone!”
“It was, yes, sir,” Shepherd admitted. “One of my biggest failings is a tendency to jump without thinking when I’m either really angry or suddenly very frightened. Last night I jumped because I was terrified and I didn’t think it through until after talking to the Norfolk Rover’s captain. That’s when it kind of hit me how stupid that move had been. I am sorry about that. But, for all its stupidity, that move ended up providing me with a wealth of data.”
Tenbold had perked up, “You talked to the ship’s captain? How did you manage that?”
Shepherd shrugged, “I lied…sort of. Said I was a blogger—which I am—and wanted to do a story to counter the rumors that Norman had died a week prior to his body being found. I talked to a deckhand on the brow and he called the captain after telling me the captain was sick of the press.”
“And the captain came to see you? That’s…that’s odd in and of itself,” Tenbold said.
“How so?” Messenger was clearly impatient.
“Sir,” Shepherd turned to his CO, “Think it through. I show up in track pants and a jacket. No credentials, no professional attire. Just some crackpot claiming to be a blogger. That deckhand told me the captain was sick of the press. The captain, by all rights, should have had that deckhand tell me to go to hell. Instead Captain Morrow came down the brow to talk to me. It’s almost as if he wanted to look at me.”
“That is very odd, especially for high-class outfits like the Spirit of Norfolk and Norfolk Rover. The owners wouldn’t want the captain talking to a random stranger at night like that,” Tenbold said. “So why do you think there are two more murders in this?”
“Captain Morrow mentioned he was missing a waiter and bartender. Said he thought they jumped ship,” Shepherd said. “Lt. Norman was last seen alive on that ship—”
“No, he wasn’t,” Cremer cut in curtly. “We have him on security video footage at the NEX, the Virginia Aquarium, and witnesses who said they talked to him at Yorktown. Even his parents and friends said they recognized his voice on the phone.”
“Yet we know that could not have been him,” Gray said. “Forensics don’t lie, Shay. Robert Norman died a week before his body was found on May 7.”
“Norman was an average-built man, right?” Shepherd asked. “Abe told me he was 5’6”, 165 lbs, dark hair, and tended to wear aviator sunglasses?”
Cremer nodded, and Shepherd went on.
“Did your witness describe his face or his clothes in more detail? And did you see his face or just someone of similar build in his clothes on the security camera footage?”
Tenbold sucked in her breath, “Good one, Chief. In the footage—and at Yorktown—he was wearing a bright blue jacket and red ball cap. Everyone, even us I admit, focused on the clothing. Bright blue jacket, red cap—those kind of clothes will distract most people from really noticing a face. And at Yorktown they said he had on sunglasses…even inside the Museum of the American Revolution.”
Shepherd smiled grimly, “Exactly. Abe was right, forensics don’t lie. The real Lt. Robert G. Norman was dead already. We have an impostor walking around for the sole purpose of creating a show.”
Now Capt. Messenger was leaning forward, intrigued, “But…why?”
“And that, skipper, is a very good question,” Shepherd said.
Gray cut in, “You see, whoever killed Norman did it with cyanide, and then preserved his body in refrigeration for a week. Right before dumping him in the drink they filled his lungs with cheap beer. This creep knew we’d see through the fake Norman in short order once the forensics report came back on the body, so this creep did all this strictly for show, for fun.”
“For fun…?” Lt. Cmdr. Warren said, shaking his head.
“Yes, sir,” Shepherd said. “For fun. This murderer is a new one for me to run into. Every murderer I’ve dealt with has had a very specific material motive. Money, classified data to sell, etc. Melody Rhyme on the IKE last month murdered to protect her career from charges of sexual harassment. This creep…no…he’s something new in my experience. He’s a true psychopath. He’s doing this for fun…and he’s having fun at my expense. This whole thing was concocted to drag me in and terrify me—that’s why he…or she…sent me the driver’s license.”
“He has a grudge against you,” Warren said. “An old enemy returning?”
“Or someone who just picked me out of a crowd, but this whole things is for my benefit. This creep murdered Lt. Norman—and maybe those two missing crewman on the Norfolk Rover—just to set up a very nasty game for me. Captain Morrow is involved somehow. That ship is involved in this right up to her freeboard.”
“Why do you say that? Maybe the two missing crewmen—if they were killed—are just more collateral damage?” Cremer asked.
“Norman’s body was kept for a week and then dumped in Willoughby Bay,” Shepherd said. “It had to have been dumped just off the naval station’s shore line during the incoming tide to ensure it washed up and was found on schedule. Now, guess where the Norfolk Rover goes on Saturday nights?”
“It cruises past the piers and then turns around,” Warren said. “My wife and I did a Thursday dinner cruise on it last month.”
“Normally, yes, sir,” Shepherd said. “But, part of their game to compete with the established Spirit of Norfolk was to change up the route. On Saturday nights they offer an ‘extended’ dinner cruise that goes past the naval station piers and turns into…you guessed it—Willoughby Bay. Oh, and did I forget to mention that when the Norfolk Rover was cruising in Willoughby Bay at about 22:00 Saturday night, May 6, the tide was coming in? Perfect conditions to dump a body and ensure it washes up 24 hours later on Naval Station Norfolk’s waterfront.”
The room was quiet. Even Abraham Gray was stunned, and he was used to Shepherd’s leaps of brilliance.
“When…when did you work all that out?” Tenbold was impressed in spite of herself.
“Last night at IHOP while your people swept the Yellow Duck,” Shepherd said. “After I called NEPAC to let the OIC know what was up, I ran my phone into the ground doing some fast research.”
“Excuse me,” Messenger said, “The ‘Yellow Duck?’”
“Sorry, sir,” Shepherd smiled. “I named my house the Yellow Duck.”
“And you figured all that out last night?” Cremer asked. “How? You had no idea of the forensic data yet.”
“It’s called investigative journalism,” Shepherd said.
“You’re not an investigative journalist,” Messenger said blankly, “You’re a Mass Communication Specialist.”
“When I taught at the Defense Information School I got permission to moonlight as a freelancer for both the Washington Post and the Washington Times,” Shepherd explained. “Added to my already considerable experience with, well, murders…I got some good stories. There was enough in the press to figure out when Norman was found. The rumors of an earlier time of death got me thinking. Captain Morrow’s odd conversation with me and the fact that two more crew were missing…maybe they went missing because they saw our perp dumping the body.”
Gray nodded, “Makes sense. That ship does seem to be in the heart of this.”
“There’s more,” Shepherd said. “You have that note the creep left on my car?”
Gray pulled out a file folder and held up the note. It was inside a plastic bag. “Inkjet printer, untraceable. Just like the note sent to your house with Norman’s license.”
“I told you our creep made an unforced error in this game, and you’re holding it,” Shepherd said. “That was written while I was at the Norfolk Rover. There are small, portable printers one can buy, so the fact he or she used an inkjet printer is no mystery. However, the fact it was written right then means I was being watched. I don’t think the creep followed me from my house—he or she was already waiting at the Norfolk waterfront.”
“I see,” Warren said. “I wonder…did this Captain Morrow come out to stall you?”
“More like confirm it was me, I’d say,” Shepherd said. “This creep knew me enough to reckon I’d pull a boneheaded stunt like going down there alone. But there’s more. Our murderer is in the Navy…or at least was in the Navy.”
Messenger was caught up in this now. “How can you tell?”
“I’m an old Yeoman, sir. I came in the Navy as a Yeoman and spent two years in admin at my first squadron in Spain before going to photo school and then working on F-14 Tomcat reconnaissance camera systems. To this day I have to make a conscious effort to write Navy ranks according to the Associate Press Stylebook and not according to the Navy Correspondence Manual. The murderer wrote ‘LT.’ That’s naval correspondence-style writing, something only someone with Navy experience would do. A civilian would have written ‘Lt.,’ like we do for public release stories.”
“I see!” Tenbold was leaning forward. “And now that you point that out…our murderer addressed you as ‘MCC,’ the Navy short-hand for Chief Mass Communication Specialist.”
“Exactly, Carla,” Shepherd said. “Again, a civilian would likely only address me as ‘Chief.’ Our creep is in the Navy, or was. We’re looking for a Sailor. Someone smart enough to figure out tidal currents and times; someone familiar with the sea. Someone who enjoys killing and hanging onto dead bodies until just the right time for their big reveal. Someone who is not afraid to kill multiple people to terrorize one target—me.”
Gray leaned back. “I wonder…I wonder if you’re not onto something. This Captain Morrow might have come out to make sure you were you. The murderer saw you, but maybe wasn’t sure it was you in the dark. Morrow comes out to make sure…but you nettle him enough he lets slip the information about the two missing crewmen. Assuming they are dead, the murderer would not want that known.”
“And we wouldn’t know anything about them because they weren’t Navy,” Cremer said. “If the Norfolk Rover filed a police report, it would have been with the Norfolk Police Department. We only get involved when Navy and Marine Corps personnel and families are involved. I’m going to call the Norfolk police and research missing person reports.”
“I’m going to dig into this Captain Morrow’s background,” Tenbold said. “Might be something there.”
“Captain,” Gray looked at Messenger, “I’m afraid Chief Shepherd stays with me. Until this is solved, he’s a target. And…as you’ve seen first-hand…he’s good at this.”
Messenger and Warren looked at each other. Messenger spoke.
“Chief, stay in touch. I want you to call the OIC at least twice a day to make sure you’re ok. Go find this guy.”
“Yes, sir,” Shepherd said.
Gray looked at Shepherd, impressed. “Ok, Isaac, Ted’s got the Norfolk police and Carla’s got Captain Morrow. You and I are going to go cleverly interview a few crewmen off the Norfolk Rover.”