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
Only things did not work out that way at all. After some reflection and quiet, private conversations behind closed doors, Gray ended up dumping Shepherd right back at NEPAC East.
“Look, Isaac, this is the smart move,” Gray said, impervious to Shepherd’s temper. “For the moment, you’re actually safer here. Besides, you are in the middle of planning the Navy media coverage of Fleet Week New York—and that’s barely two weeks off. You know you have to get with Jordan Power over at Region East Coast and get things moving. Let me do my job and I’ll bring back whatever we turn up. I’ll want you to look at everything anyway; that amazing brain of yours will likely turn up something.”
Shepherd found himself having to put on one of the best acting performances of his career as he sat in the NEPAC East conference room with Jordan Power, Lt. Mary Watson (NEPAC East’s Assistant Officer in Charge) and Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Dionne Robinson, the “Leading Petty Officer” of NEPAC East’s Operations Department. Shepherd was currently the Leading Chief Petty Office of both Operations and Production. Once Fleet Week was over at the end of May, he would turn over Operations to a fellow chief and start focusing with greater singularity on his retirement in September.
“Ok,” Power was saying, completely unaware Shepherd was only pretending to be interested. “That pretty much wraps it up. It’s going to be tight; we’ve only got your five MCs from NEPAC we can count on. The other MCs all belong to other commands and I can’t guarantee we can use them. You’re sure you can cover all these jobs?”
“Sure? Of course not,” Shepherd said bluntly, trying not to look at the clock and chafe that it was now nearly 3:00 p.m. “Odds are we’ll lose a job or two just by virtue of New York City traffic. That’s why I needed to know the critical jobs that we have no choice on; I’ll sacrifice everything else if I have to in order to ensure that ‘critical’ list is covered.”
“We can do it,” Robinson said. “I’ve done Fleet Week New York once before two years ago, and we did all this with just four MCs…and, unlike you, Chief, the chief we had back then refused to leave the media operations center and cover anything. Those couple of jobs you’re going to help out on will take a lot of pressure off the rest of us.”
Watson smiled, “Just remember you’re Jordan’s co-editor, Chief. I know you love field work, but don’t get too caught up in shooting jobs! You’re officially a desk-jockey now that you put on anchors.”
Shepherd smiled, and it was a genuine smile. He had a long history with both Robinson and Watson. Robinson had been his student years earlier when he taught at the Defense Information School, and Watson was one of the most solid lieutenants he had ever run across. The three of them were the Operations team for NEPAC, and, by coincidence, also the three senior NEPAC East Sailors involved with Fleet Week.
“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Shepherd said, “I’ve largely had my fun. It’s the junior Sailors’ turn to make a name for themselves. But I am not missing the mass reelinstment Admiral Sparrow is going to preside over at the 9/11 memorial plaza. As to the other jobs…well, I’m only taking on three others over five days…two of which are at Pier 88 where the Kearsarge will tie up next to the Intrepid Museum. We’re going set the media operations center up on Pier 92, so I’ll only be a five-minute walk down the waterfront.”
Concluding the meeting, Robinson escorted Power from the briefing room back to the Quarterdeck to turn in his visitor’s badge.
Watson held Shepherd back. “Chief? I know what’s going on. Are you ok?”
Shepherd realized that Watson would have been briefed by Lt. Cmdr. Warren; she was also the Assistant Officer in Charge of NEPAC East, after all.
“No, I’m not,” Shepherd said restlessly. “I don’t like just sitting here. Abe Gray had a good point, but this is a situation I’ve never been in before.”
“You’ve had people try to kill you before, you know,” Watson said.
“Yeah, out of revenge or because I was getting too close. But a psychopath like this…someone who kills and then holds onto the body until the right moment and then deliberately involves me…” Shepherd trailed off.
“Chief?” Watson asked.
“Sorry,” He shook his head. “Just had something strike me, but can’t quite think of what.”
The conference room door opened. Robinson was back with Abraham Gray.
“That was quick. You’ve only been gone all day,” Shepherd said. “What did you learn?”
Gray fell heavily into a chair at the conference table. “This situation is deeper than we thought.”
Robinson sat down. Though she was not technically invited, her assistance the previous month in unraveling a double murder on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower earned her a seat at the table.
Gray was looking tired. “Let me summarize things for you. Carla Tenbold and Shey Cremer learned that no missing person report has been filed with the Norfolk police. However, I spent a good bit of time on the Norfolk Rover and that Captain is as nervous as a man on his way to the gallows. His background is great; he’s been a dinner cruise captain for over fifteen years for various companies along the Eastern Seaboard. His most recent job was up in New York, and his employer gave him rave reviews and offered him a huge pay raise to stay.”
“So why did he come to Norfolk?” Robinson asked, her eyes fairly glowing against her dark skin.
“The Norfolk Rover offered him a bigger salary than the biggest raise he would have gotten in New York. Plus his wife grew up in Norfolk and his son was born here too, so for him it was bringing the family home,” Gray said.
“But he’s nervous?” Shepherd asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Gray said, running a hand through his stark white hair. “I honestly felt like I nearly had to pull my gun to get him out of the room so I could interview the staff one-on-one. He’s nearly in a panic, though I can’t tell why.”
“What did you learn?” Shepherd asked.
“The missing bartender was named Joe Smith,” Gray said.
“That’s original,” Watson interjected.
Gray nodded. “The missing waiter was named Gordon Stewart. Don’t let the name fool you; he was Chinese. Adopted from China by Jimmy and Rhonda Stewart of Oklahoma City. His fellow waiters used to tease him about being Chinese but having a thick Oklahoma accent. Stewart and Smith both went missing the same night Lt. Robert Norman stayed late on the Rover after the squadron part was done. In fact, we had some agents go interview the wardroom of HSC 227 about that night. Apparently every single one of them thought Norman left the ship with someone else.”
“You mean no one actually talked to him to find out he wanted to stay at the bar?” Shepherd asked.
“Precisely. It was a case of crowd mentality; everyone left, even the CO. They all left in small groups and each assumed Norman was in another group. They had bought out the ship that night, so there were no other passengers.”
“And no one on the staff saw Norman after that?” Watson asked.
“Nope,” Gray said. “One waiter I talked to, a Davey Buckner, said he saw Stewart helping Norman to a head. Looked like Norman had too much to drink and was stumbling a little bit. But after that he was cleaning and didn’t notice Stewart or Smith hadn’t returned until a couple of hours later.”
“How do you not notice someone not showing up for work on such a small ship?” Robinson asked.
Gray shrugged, “The Norfolk Rover is doing its best to win the dinner cruise war its in with the Spirit of Norfolk. The company hired a ridiculously large staff so as to create a ratio of one waiter to every three guests. With a staff that big, it’d be easy not to notice someone missing because there’s so many people working that no one feels like they’re being over-burdened.”
Shepherd’s face had clouded and he rose. Steepling his fingers and bringing them to his mouth, he suddenly bore an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Spock from “Star Trek.”
“What?” Watson asked.
“I know why either Smith or Stewart—or both—are missing,” Shepherd said.
“So do I,” Gray nodded grimly. “But it gets better. We got lucky—a security camera over at the Waterside shopping area was aimed in the Rover’s direction. We have an image of our murderer. Cremer went through the footage from that last night in April and found this.”
Gray laid a still photo on the table, and then another beside it. The second was obviously an enlarged detail of the first. It was a frame grab that showed the stern end of the Norfolk Rover. In the glare of reflected light from the ship’s LED illumination strips a human form could be seen diving into the water. The figure was wearing a white shirt and black vest.
“And I know who it is,” Gray said. “Joe Smith, the bartender. Waiters wear a white shirt and black tie. The bartenders wear the vest.”
“So that’s why no one saw him go ashore,” Shepherd said. “There are more ways than just he brow to leave a ship. He went over the side. So that’s our psychopath. But what did he do with Stewart’s body?”
“Good question,” Gray said.
“You’re saying this is the man who killed Lt. Norman and the waiter, Gordon Stewart?” Watson asked, horrified.
“I’ll bet Stewart got involved by mistake,” Shepherd said. “And this Smith guy, or whoever he really is, killed him as insurance against Stewart giving the game away.”
“I don’t understand,” Robinson said, staring the enhanced security camera frame.
“Think about it, MC1,” Shepherd said. “Who better to poison someone than a bartender? He must have given Norman something to make him drowsy or even ill. I’ll be Norman was supposed to go the head and then be rendered unconscious until he could be killed. But poor Stewart sees one of his guests unsteady and goes to help him get to the head so he can be sick. Abe, did toxicology find—”
“A high level of Diphenhydramine hydrochloride in Norman’s blood. It was masked by the cyanide that killed him, but it was there. He was slipped the ultimate mickey to ensure he did not leave the ship.”
“What in the hell is Diphenhygra—whatever?” Watson asked.
“Sorry,” Gray said. “It’s a sleep aid, and it’s found in over-the-counter sleeping pills. Norman had enough to knock him out. I’ll be the bartender, this Smith guy, slipped it to him as the squadron was starting to leave. Just enough to make him determined to stay. Make someone drowsy enough and you can suggest they stick around until they ‘sober’ up and they likely will.”
“But then, after the HSC 227 people left, Smith hit him with the rest of it, making him feel sick enough to go to the head, only Stewart got involved and so he had to be got out of the way too.”
“Good theory,” Gray said. “But as yet we have only a photograph of a likely suspect, one dead body, and a very nervous captain.”
“Not enough,” Shepherd said. “We’re missing something. Three missing men, two accounted for now. Smith and Robert G. Norman. We’re missing Stewart.”
“Maybe this Smith guy threw his body out with the trash?” Robinson suggested, but then shook her head. “No, that’s a dumb idea. We train having to carry 150 lbs. dummies on board ship to simulate getting an unconscious person out of a space. A limp, full-grown man or woman is just way too heavy to put in a trash bag and toss onto the garbage barge.”
She suddenly looked slightly sick, and shuddered. “Was there…was there any sign of him being…cut up?”
Gray smiled, “No, I don’t think so. Smith found a way to get Stewart’s body off the ship before he jumped over the side.”
“Wait!” Shepherd ceased his pacing and spun on the hell of his boot, the blouse of his blue Navy Working Uniform nearly twirling like a ballerina’s dress. “Wait…all three men went missing at the same time, right? I know when Norman’s body was found, but all three went missing the same night one week before Norman was found, right?”
“That means Smith never came back to the Norfolk Rover¸ so…so who dumped Norman’s body overboard that Saturday night? Obviously his body was kept on the ship. But who dumped it if Smith never came back?”
Gray sat back, stunned. “I never thought of that. Good Lord, we might have a fourth suspect in this now.”
“Maybe,” Shepherd said. “Abe, is there…is there anything unusual about the Norfolk Rover? Anything you noticed? Anything any of the guests you interviewed noticed? Anything at all?”
“The crew said Captain Morrow used to be a real friendly sort. Pretty hard task master, demanding and getting a tightly run ship, but a sailor’s captain,” Gray said. “However, over the last three weeks he’s been…distracted. Agitated and brittle. Not even the ship’s executive officer can get him to calm down.”
Shepherd nodded. “Anything else about the ship itself?”
Gray nodded, pulling out a notebook. He had the distinct impression Shepherd was seeing something, expecting something even. “Only one more thing now that you mention it. The ship is cold. I know it’s May, but it’s not that warm out yet, but the ship’s air conditioning has been set ridiculously high most of the crew told me. For about three weeks now.”
“I know where Stewart is,” Shepherd said.
“You do?” Watson asked.
“And I know how Norman’s body was preserved until the right moment to be dumped,” Shepherd said more to himself than anyone else.
“I don’t get it, Chief.” Robinson said.
“How do you preserve a body or two when you don’t want to risk them being found in the actual freezer?” Shepherd asked her.
She shook her head.
“You turn the whole ship into a refrigerator!” Shepherd said. “Abe, that’s how Norman’s body was preserved and that’s why no one has found Stewart yet. The whole damned ship is being used as a refrigerator; that’s why the captain has the air conditioning so high. Down in the lower decks and spaces it’ll be cold enough to preserve meat…or dead bodies. Stewart’s body is still on that ship.”
Gray leaned forward, tracking with Shepherd. “It makes sense…except…except the crew does maintenance everywhere. Even the void spaces are opened and inspected. Someone would have found him.”
“Nope, you’re not thinking like a sailor,” Shepherd smiled grimly. “There’s one place no one in a ship’s crew will go without permission.”
Gray’s eyes popped opened as he understood.
“Chief?” Watson asked.
“Lieutenant, no crewman alive will enter the captain’s stateroom if the captain has forbidden it,” Shepherd said. “That’s where we’ll find Stewart’s body. And that’s where Norman’s body was hidden. No wonder Captain Morrow is so nervous. He’s got dead bodies in his bedroom, and he was terrified you’d search it. For all he knew you had a warrant.”
Gray was on his feet. “Give me 30 minutes. I can get that warrant. And then I’ll pay a visit to Captain Morrow.”
“Oh, no you don’t!” Shepherd glared at Gray. “I’m in this up to my own eyeballs. Norman was killed for my benefit, remember? Otherwise this psycho would never have sent me his driver’s license. I’m coming with you.”
“Isaac, it’s safer for you here,” Gray said, knowing it was a lost cause.
“I’m not asking, Abe. I’m coming with you.”