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
Tenbold and Cremer met Shepherd and Gray at the pier in the shadow of the sleek, black Norfolk Rover. It was nearly lunch, and passengers were filing up the brow for their cruise.
Cremer crinkled his face and cracked his knuckles as Gray, impeccable as always in a dark blue suit, and Shepherd, in his Naval Working Uniform, approached.
“I see you had to bring Sherlock Holmes with you again,” Cremer said acidly.
“Well, you need Sherlock Holmes around when you’ve got Tweedledum waiting for you,” Shepherd responded coldly.
“Enough! Both of you!” Gray snapped, but his eyes were boring into Cremer’s. Several passengers looked over curiously at the exchange. “You guys have it?”
Tenbold held up an enveloped. “One warrant to search the ship. I think we better get a move on before too many passengers show up.”
“And before the captain tries to run,” Shepherd said. “I just saw him looking through that porthole there at us. Must be his stateroom, but he knows we’re here. And if I’m right that means right now he’s letting our murdering ‘Joe Smith’ know we’re here too.”
“Let’s go,” Gray led the way, affixing his badge to the outside of his suit coat (Tenbold and Cremer had already done so), cutting several passengers off. The rude interjections and invectives they hurled at the NCIS agents and Shepherd were ignored with studied ease.
“I’m sorry, but this is the lunch cruise. Unless you have a ticket, you will have to leave the ship, sir,” A tuxedo-wearing maître d blocked them, his eyes taking on a snooty look at Shepherd’s slightly rumpled uniform.
“And this is a search warrant authorizing us to turn this ship inside out,” Gray said, taking the warrant from Cremer and showing it to the insufferable man. “This ship is not going anywhere, so you might as well break the bad news to your passengers.”
“Stow it and get tell them they’re stuck,” Tenbold said, feeling goosebumps on her arms. Even just inside the hatch she could tell the ship’s air conditioning was exceptionally low.
“Carla,” Gray said, “You stay here. Make sure no one goes ashore; I’ve already got the Coast Guard and Norfolk Police Marine Unit coming up on the outside to make sure no one dives off again. Norfolk police will be on the pier any minute to back us up, but let’s get control of this ship now. Shay—bridge. Shut down the engines if the ship is still connected to the shore power. If not, keep them running, but make sure the line handling crew is brought back inside the skin of the ship. Isaac, come on. Captain’s stateroom!”
The team split up and plunged into the opulent depths of the Norfolk Rover as Tenbold planted herself at the brow, the scowl on her face enough to prevent even the most hardened of felons from being tempted to leave.
Rich wood paneling flashed past as the deep, navy blue pile carpeting muffled Gray and Shepherd’s footfalls. Despite the serious nature of the day, Shepherd felt ridiculously underdressed in his blue camouflage Navy Working Uniform as he and Gray punched through the posh lunch crowd of people in suits and gowns.
As they neared the forward end of the dining area, Gray got the attention of a young crewman who apparently had just come in from the bow. The man was wearing an orange life vest over his navy blue T-shirt and pants (apparently the working uniform for the deck hands).
“You!” Gray said authoritatively, “Take us to the captain’s stateroom.”
“Uh,” The young man’s eyes widened under his dark hair. Despite the cold air in the ship, he had started to sweat, “I’m…I’m sorry but the captain ordered everyone not to bother him. If we do we’re fired and I—”
“Sailor, you were given a directive by a member of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and you will comply!” Shepherd had stepped forward and barked with a level of growl and power in his voice that made Gray flinch in surprise.
The young deck hand nearly came to attention and sucked in a terrified breath, “Uh, yes, Chief! Right away. Please follow me!”
Gray looked impressed as the crewman turned smartly about and led them forward. The passed out of the opulent dining area and into a more utilitarian part of the ship. Obviously these spaces, though still comfortably apportioned, were intended for the crew and not the guests.
The three of them clattered down two ladders as they headed further into the bow. The lower they went, the colder the air was. Shepherd, long experienced at tuning out a ship’s ever-present ventilation, found the powerful sound of huffing air conditioning units unnaturally loud.
Sliding around a corner, the young man pointed to a door at the end of the passageway.
“The captain’s stateroom, sir and Chief. He’s been in there for two days now.”
“You mean he hasn’t come out to command the ship?” Gray asked, startled. “But you’ve been underway doing your cruises!”
The deck hand shrugged, the gesture making the smooth fabric of the life jacket slide over his T-shirt with a slithering sound. “He hasn’t come out, sir.”
Gray and Shepherd glanced at one another.
“You’re dismissed,” Shepherd commanded.
“Chief!” The young man left with a bit more haste than was absolutely necessary.
“That was impressive!” Gray said to Shepherd, watching the deck hand scuttle away. “I was getting ready to flash my badge at him.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” Shepherd quipped. “Did you see his left hand? He has a small tattoo of crossed anchors on the webbing between his thumb and index finger. That’s the rating badge of a Navy Boatswain’s Mate; a lot of them get the crossed anchors tattooed on their hands like that. And considering he didn’t look old enough to shave yet, I’m guessing he joined the Navy right out of high school, did only one hitch, and just got out. Trust me; Boatswain’s Mates in Deck Department are conditioned to jump if a chief barks at them. I was counting on that training still being second nature.”
Gray shook his head, “Nice. Shall we confront our good Captain Morrow?”
“Yes,” Shepherd said. “I want to know who our psychopathic friend is.”
The two men started cautiously forward. Gray pulled out his sidearm; Shepherd fell back behind him. Being unarmed, he would only be a liability if shooting started.
The carpeting here was a lighter blue and not nearly as deep as the pile up in the dining area, but it was still enough to muffle their footfalls as they walked down the wood-paneled passageway. The door had a simple brass plaque on it that read, “Captain.”
Reaching the door, Gray crouched down and motioned for Shepherd to do the same. Odds were if the captain shot at them through the closed door, he would shoot high, expecting them to stand. This was not exactly normal procedure, but long ago Gray and Shepherd had survived such an experience.
One last glance at each other, and Gray reached up to knock as high as he could, contributing to the illusion the two were standing.
“Captain! Captain Morrow!” Gray called. “Special Agent Abraham Gray, NCIS! We have a warrant to search the Norfolk Rover! Captain! I’m ordering you to open the door and step out peacefully for questioning in the deaths of Gordon Stewart and Navy Lt. Robert G. Norman!”
Gray knocked and called again. When no response was forthcoming, he cautiously tried the knob. It was locked.
Except for the over-loud push of frigid air being pumped through the vents, this forward lower deck was as quiet as a grave. Gray and Shepherd both rose back to their feet. Gray’s hand on his pistol was slightly blue from the cold.
“Maybe he slipped out before we came?” Gray asked. “You’re sure you saw his face in a porthole?”
“Yep,” Shepherd said, glancing up and around the passage way. “Geographically, we’re in the right spot. He was in that stateroom alright, but he might have slipped out. He did see us coming.”
“Well, Carla’s got the brow secured, and Shay’s got the bridge,” Gray said. “By now the Norfolk PD will be on the pier and on the water with the Coast Guard. If he did slip out, he’s trapped himself on this ship.”
“We have the warrant, can you force the door?” Shepherd asked, jerking a thumb at the door.
That was the moment they heard the gun shot.
The blast was so loud and echoed so powerfully that both men dropped to the deck, looking around wildly in a vain attempt to identify the source before they realized where it came from.
“That wasn’t aimed at us,” Shepherd said.
He and Gray stared at each other, eyes wide as they processed the shock.
“No,” Gray said, “It wasn’t.”
“That was inside the stateroom,” Shepherd said, suddenly feeling hot despite the cold. “Oh, my God…”
Gray leapt up and kicked the door with a force most would not have thought he still possessed at 51 years old.
The thin wooden door shattered; half flying into the stateroom, the other half slamming back on its distorted hinges.
The two men charged inside, Gray leading with his gun at the ready.
And the two men just as quickly froze, their fears confirmed.
Sitting slumped in an executive chair behind his desk was Captain Morrow. A pistol lay on the deck under his limp hand. His head was cocked over to one side, eyes vacant and slightly crossed, creating an almost comical juxtaposition to the ugly lumps of bone and brain matter decorating the bulkhead behind him.
“What’s that smell?” Gray said, almost absently, his eyes raking the scene, just as he knew Shepherd’s would be.
Shepherd noted the cell phone on the desk with a photo displayed and the paper centered on the desk, neatly typed. But he broke away and turned to the anteroom where he presumed the captain’s bed was. In a daze he heard Gray on the radio calling Tenbold and Cremer while he cautiously entered the bedroom and identified the smell Gray had mentioned.
“I found Stewart,” Shepherd said tightly, his stomach turning.
Gray walked over and looked over Shepherd’s shoulder.
The body of Gordon Stewart, still dressed in his uniform, was laying on one side of the captain’s bed. The other side was slightly rumpled as if a body had been lying there too. Stewart’s body was clearly in the throes of decomposition, although the process was just as clearly being retarded by the cold air. Even so, the smell of death was strong.
“Look,” Shepherd bent down and pointed to a photo lying on the deck. He was smart enough not to touch it, but was able to study it. “This is…oh, God, this is sick. That’s Lt. Norman’s body lying on the bed next to Stewart’s. Morrow kept it in here on his own bed until he dumped it.”
“And he’s been living in here with Stewart’s body this whole time?” Gray asked, unbelieving. “If it weren’t for that security camera shot of our killer diving off the ship, I’d say Morrow was the psycho.”
Tenbold and Cremer arrived.
“What the hell–?” Cremer asked, horrified.
Shepherd and Gray walked back into the nightmare that had been the captain’s stateroom.
“None of this makes any sense,” Gray said.
Shepherd had stepped past him and was forcing himself to go into forensics mode, examining every detail of the gory scene. It had been a long time since he photographed an autopsy, but he made himself shift into that mindset and study everything as Gray filled in Cremer and Tenbold on what had happened.
“This is just…this is all just sick!” Tenbold said.
“I know,” Gray agreed, “And it makes no sense for him to have helped murder these people, much less live with their bodies for so long.”
“Yes, it does,” Shepherd said.
Cremer turned angrily, “Oh, like you’ve got it all figured out. You just look around the room and magically come up with the solution to the whole thing, right?!”
“No,” Shepherd said pointing at Morrow’s desk, “It’s right here in front of us, you moron! Look at the picture on the cell phone.”
The three came over and looked, still being careful not to touch anything. The cell phone displayed a photo of a woman and little boy. The two were tied together with duct tape. Both of their mouths were sealed, and both were obviously crying in terror. Taped to the woman was a sign printed in large letters reading, “Remember what happens to them if you don’t.”
“Oh, Lord,” Tenbold said, her hand going to her mouth. “That’s Morrow’s wife and son!”
“Our perp kidnapped them…that’s why Morrow…” Gray started, faltered, and then started again, “Our perp used them as leverage—JEEZ! Shay—get the cops and get to Morrow’s house now!!!”
Cremer didn’t hesitate but bolted from the room.
“They’re dead,” Shepherd said. “It’s too late. Morrow…he already lost them. They’re dead.”
“Why do you say that?” Tenbold asked.
“Look at the note on the desk. Morrow’s email is still up—he writing the perp, and this must be what the perp sent back. He deliberately printed it and left it for us to find.”
Tenbold and Gray shifted their heads to read it:
I was nice to your family until I didn’t need them anymore. If you’re smart you’ll use the gun I gave you. It has one shot. One nice little shot and you won’t go to the brig for murder. Funny how quick you were to help me murder two other people to save these two. Sorry also for making you live with the bodies, but your stateroom was the best hiding spot, and I really didn’t want Stewart found at all. Would have ruined the game, but I have to wrap up my little game now, and your old lady and kid are witnesses. Sorry about that. It’s nothing personal against you, Gordon. You were actually kind of a nice guy. Nice family and all, too. But I have to make sure a couple of people know the score.
“This is…” Gray was at a loss for words as Shepherd walked like ghost over to the porthole. “This guy is just…whoever this bastard is…he’s just evil.”
“All this and we still don’t know who’s behind it all,” Tenbold said. “Our perp said ‘a couple of people,’ but the only person we know was directly targeted in this is Chief Shepherd. Who’s the other one that’s supposed to be involved?”
“What was Lt. Norman’s middle name?” Shepherd asked with the expression of a man watching a train collision, but unable to prevent it.
“What?” Tenbold asked, confused. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“What was Lt. Robert G. Norman’s middle name?” Shepherd repeated.
“Uh, Gordon, I think–!” Gray sucked in his breath, shocked. “You’re kidding. Oh, my stars, you’ve got to be kidding me!”
“What?!” Tenbold demanded.
Shepherd nodded. “Robert Gordon Norman, dead. Gordon Stewart, dead. Gordon Morrow, dead. A body held until just the right moment for a big reveal by a man staying in the room with it. Good, God. He’s been telegraphing his name to us this whole damned time. It’s Gordon Grey.”
“You don’t mean…?” Tenbold started to ask.
“Yes, he does mean,” Gray said. “Gordon Grey, former Yeoman 1st Class. Was having an affair with Carolyn Stiles, the wife of Force Master Chief John Stiles. He and Carolyn cooked up a plot and murdered John Stiles back in March. Tried to make it look like a suicide. He killed the master chief in his office, and then spent the night in the office with the body to avoid the security cameras until the building was crowded the next morning and he blend in with the crowd.”
“Carolyn Stiles’ trial starts next month,” Shepherd said, “But Gordon Grey killed a guard and escaped from the brig. He’s been at large ever since. John Stiles, Robert Norman, Gordon Stewart, Gordon Morrow, Morrow’s wife and son, and the brig guard—Gordon Grey’s killed seven people by now.”
“Eight” Gray corrected. “The Stiles’ son, John Stiles, Jr. He was a pilot, but he got knocked out of the training pipeline due to the murder of his father and the investigation.”
“I know, you told me,” Shepherd said. “What happened?”
“Not two hours before this mess started earlier this week I got word John Stiles, Jr., killed himself,” Gray said. “Left a note saying he couldn’t live with his mother having killed his father and felt humiliated losing his flight status. Hung himself in his apartment.”
Shepherd felt like a hammer hit his chest, the air being driven from his lungs. “He’s…he killed himself?”
Gray nodded sadly. “Carolyn Stiles must be living in her own personal hell right now in prison. She helped kill her own husband, lost her freedom, and caused the suicide of her son. And Gordon Grey’s hand is in this too. That’s eight people Gordon Grey has killed, either directly or indirectly by his actions.”
“And he did all this to get at you and me,” Shepherd said to Abraham Gray. “You were as instrumental to capturing him and Carolyn as I was. You were his other target. Abe, he’s still out there, and he’s coming for both of us. This whole…this whole setup. Impersonating Lt. Norman, making Morrow live with the bodies, torturing and murdering his family…it’s preposterous and stupid and overly-complicated…and utterly brilliant in a very sloppy way.”
“I don’t get it,” Tenbold said.
Shepherd looked at her, “Gordon Grey killed five people, torturing three of them in the process, just to target Abe and me. This whole overly-complicated plot had a very simple point—to torture us by showing us what he’s willing to do to perfect strangers to get at us, and to terrify us at the same time. That son of a bitch is still out there, Abe. And he’s gunning for us.”
Gray nodded. “Yes. I know. But…but right now we have a lot of work to do here. Somewhere in this…this nightmare we might find some leads to where Grey is now. Carla, do me a favor and call in the whole force. We have a major crime scene on our hands now.”
She nodded and left.
Alone in the cabin (save for the two dead bodies) Gray and Shepherd looked at one another.
“You ok, Isaac?”
“Not at all. But…I’ve dealt with a couple of psychopaths in my time.”
“I haven’t,” Shepherd said. “This…this is a new one for me. He did all this to complete strangers just to get at us. What’s his next step? Our own families? My ex and daughter live in Virginia Beach. You’re kids are grown, but Sarah and you live in Chesapeake. What’s his next step? We caught him back in March. That was only two months ago. Here it is early May and he’s back already.”
“I don’t have any easy answers, Isaac,” Gray said. “And I won’t insult you by saying we can give Jennifer and your daughter 24-hour protection or anything like that. All we can do is do what we do best. Grey’s wanted by us and the FBI, and, after this, I can assure that there will be a much larger task force of police and agents looking for him.”
A small ocean of chatter swept down the passageway as Tenbold led a contingent of police and NCIS personnel into the stateroom. The arduous, painstaking process of documenting and cataloging the crime scene began.