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 dark ocean of night was shattered by the glitzy glitter of a million stars, each one twinkling brightly below his feet. The cold wind of the high altitude wrapped around him as he studied the great rivers of black splitting the starry night under him apart; rivers of black that nonetheless reflected the glittering light on their waters.
New York City spread itself under Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac Shepherd’s feet as he stood gazing down from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. Dressed in “summer whites,” Shepherd’s uniform took on an electric blue hue from the blue LEDs lighting up the great spire rising behind him. With the Memorial Day weekend and Fleet Week New York at hand, the Empire State Building was lit up in red, white and blue.
Ignoring the jostling crowd for a moment, Shepherd swept his gaze around. New York was lit up like a galaxy. Some buildings, like the New Yorker Hotel where he and the NEPAC media team were staying, glittered with lights from their windows. Others, like the nearby magnificent Chrysler Building, were washed with floodlights that lit up their structures. At the south end of Manhattan the giant tower of the new One World Trade Center pointed to the heavens like a cosmic lighthouse. Still nearer at hand the glamourously over-charged lights and signboards of Times Square shown so brightly they created a local haze over that area.
Fleet Week New York. The Navy’s largest and most spectacular public outreach had flooded the streets of New York City with Sailors wearing dress whites or, for chiefs (like Shepherd) and officers, the summer white uniform. The media operations center was set up in Pier 92. A five-minute walk down the waterfront to Pier 88 brought one to the lead ship of the week—the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3). The Kearsarge was berthed next to the World War II aircraft carrier-turned-museum USS Intrepid (CV 11). Right off Pier 92 the U.S. Coast had the new, flashy cutter USCGC Hamilton (WMSL 753) and the Canadian Navy’s HMCS Glace Bay (MM 701) rounded out the ships in central Manhattan.
Brooklyn was playing host to the cruisers USS Monterey (CG 61) and USS San Jacinto (CG 56) and patrol craft USS Zephyr (PC 8) while Staten Island provided berthing for the destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82), fast transport USNS Yuma (EPF 8), and several patrol craft from the Naval Academy. The oceanographic research ship RV Neil Armstrong (AGOR 27) was scheduled to arrive the next day and join the cruisers in Brooklyn.
Even at this late hour on this late Saturday night in late May, New York was wide awake. It was nearing midnight and still the streets teamed with life. Sailors and local civilians mingled and swapped selfies and generally had a raucously good time. So far no incidents had marred the events spread throughout the city’s five boroughs and across the Hudson in New Jersey. Even the Empire State Building at this hour was crowded with tourists and Sailors.
Shepherd hadn’t been to New York City for nearly seven years. He had long-distance dated his now ex-wife here and gotten to know the girl who was became his step-daughter, and who he still raised with as much dedication as if she were his biological daughter. He was fond of this place. New York City was one of his three favorite cities in the world along with Paris and Naples. It was an epic collision of humanity that was crass and congenial, eloquent and exasperating.
It was also not enough to clear his mind completely, but, up here in one of the greatest buildings ever built, he finally felt enough space from the world to think even in the midst of a crowd of people.
Casting back to the horrible events of that day on the Norfolk Rover that marked the end of the first week in May, he still felt the horror of what he had seen. It was a sad mark his experience and maturity in facing murder and death that, unlike years before when he first met Abraham Gray, he was able to process and work through those feelings with relative ease and get back to doing his job.
But…there were other things that angered him and would not release their hold on his thoughts.
The Monday following the suicide of Gordon Morrow Shepherd had met with Gray for a private conversation in one of the best places for such a meeting—a booth in the crowded, noisy food court of Building C-9 on board Naval Station Norfolk. The conversation of the two men was lost to eavesdroppers in the crushing lunch gaggle that flooded the place like water gushing into a breached hull. Their anonymity was enforced by the utterly boringly typical appearance of them. Shepherd wearing the current blue camouflage uniform, his 45-year-old hair heavily salt-and-peppered. Gray was in his typical blue suit, his half-century-old head shining silver and looking older than he was. To the crowd, they were just another chief and civilian executive having lunch in a field full of junior and senior personnel having lunch.
“I found a nearly identical letter laying on my front stoop yesterday too,” Gray was saying, reading over a paper Shepherd had given him. “Can’t say it makes me feel any better, but if our creep is true to form, it does take some worry off us. And you’re the one who always says people behave according to their natures. His certainly seems to be one of the sickest natures I’ve ever run across.”
“Tell me about it,” Shepherd said. “This guy is whacked.”
Gray looked back down at the letter. It was printed on an ink-jet like all the others:
MCC Shepherd, I hope you enjoyed the game. That’s about all I have left right now is the game, so I figured I’d play it with you and Agent Gray. I had a great career and girlfriend until you two took that away from me. Don’t worry, though. I’ve got no plans to visit your ex or daughter. That’d be way too obvious and predictably stupid. No, I figure I’ll have more fun challenging you the way I just did. Besides, it’ll just stick in your crawl that you are the reason I get to kill “innocent” people for our game.
You killed that Navy dork, and the waiter and the captain and his family. None of them had to die, but you two started this. I was nice to Morrow’s family even though you weren’t. I shot the little boy from behind when he and mommy weren’t looking so he didn’t know it was coming. And then I shot her immediately after before she knew what had happened.
Carolyn’s really upset her son is dead. He hanged himself, you know. That was your fault too. If you two had stayed out of it he’d be alive and happy. Carolyn and I would be happy too. But you had to put her in jail and kill her son. She doesn’t know what to do or where to go. I don’t even think she understands she’s about to be tried for something that was your fault. You hurt my girlfriend by killing her son. I won’t forget that.
So enjoy the game. That’s all you left me, so have fun with it. Each dead body that turns up is another murder you committed. Don’t worry—I’ll make sure you know when I’m playing. I can’t kill everyone for you. There are some sick people out there, and I guess you better stop them while you can. Enjoy New York. I’ll be watching.
Shepherd glanced to his left, looking out the window at traffic on Gilbert Street. “Talkers drive me up the wall, but they provide a lot of wonderful information. This bastard just made his second unforced error, you know.”
Gray nodded, “If you mean his slip that he and Carolyn Stiles are still in contact, yep. I noticed it.”
Shepherd crossed his arms, uncrossed them, and leaned forward, steepling his fingers like Mr. Spock again. “Gordon Grey is a narcissistic psychopath with no sense of irony or guilt. He really thinks we killed John Stiles, Jr., and still thinks of Carolyn Stiles as his girlfriend. Of course, for all we know, she still calls him her boyfriend. Hell, she had an affair with him and then helped him murder her own husband, so I guess she’s about as far off the map as he is.”
“Gordon Morrow was doomed from the off,” Abraham Gray said. “Gordon Grey kidnapped his family and set everything in motion. Morrow knew he had to commit suicide before we could arrest him if he wanted his family to live. But then Grey ‘broke the deal’ as it were and murdered his family. And taunted him with the knowledge of it. Morrow’s suicide was supposed to be his redeeming act after being forced to help murder two men…and then Grey changes it to the act of a man in total despair and hopelessness. And then Grey blames us.”
“Still, Gordon Grey has made a few serious mistakes,” Shepherd said. “For one, he thinks you and I will be prostrate with guilt and grief, thinking ourselves responsible for the murders he committed…and will be committing.”
“You’re not, I hope?” Gray peered into Shepherd’s eyes, seeking the truth.
“No,” Shepherd said. “I’m too old to fall for that line of malarkey. No, he miscalculated because instead of paralyzing us with guilt, he just pissed us both off. I know you, Abe. You’re better at the dispassionate, professional persona than I am. But you are just as offended by murderers as I am; you’re just as enraged at this turkey as I am. He just made two very powerful enemies. And each innocent person he kills will only piss us off more, not paralyze us.”
Gray laughed sadly, “Yes. But we have no leads right now on him. He’s good; this is twice now he’s vanished. And the collateral damage goes on. The Norfolk Rover has already declared bankruptcy; everyone booked on a meal cruise for the next six months cancelled. That means the owners are out of business and every crew member on that ship is unemployed.”
“Grey gave us some serious information, though, Abe,” Shepherd. “Back to the night I impulsively went to the ship—he just had to let me know he was watching me. But he slipped and revealed his Navy background by the wording he used in that letter. He just told us we have a resource to leverage in Carolyn Stiles when the time is right. And he told us he’s sticking around here in Hampton Roads. He’s not only a narcissistic psychopath, he’s an egomaniac too. He’ll communicate with us directly again…and again. And each time he does he’ll screw up and give us another piece of data. He’s brilliant…but he doesn’t understand human nature at all.”
“If he did?” Gray asked.
“If he did then he’d know you and I would not be paralyzed by guilt like he’s trying to do. He’d know we’d be angry. He’s brilliant, but stupid. If he were smart, he would go after our families and be done with it. But instead he has completely misread us and is playing this sick little game…a game that will end with us taking him down while keeping our families safe.”
Bringing himself back to the present, Shepherd realized someone was talking to him. A Japanese tourist was asking to take a selfie with him. Shepherd smoothly shifted into “Public Spokesman Mode” and smiled warmly, letting the man and his wife snap a photo with the lights of New York behind them.
“Thank you, sir!” The man said.
“It was my pleasure,” Shepherd said. “If you post that or any other photos with Sailors to social media, please use #fleetweeknyc and #selfiewithasailor and they’ll become part of the story!”
The two bowed formally to Shepherd. Having had extensive years both growing up and serving in the Pacific, Shepherd returned their bow with proper form.
“You bowed like you grew up in Japan,” Lt. Mary Watson and MC1 Dionne Robinson separated themselves from a small knot of Sailors and Coast Guardsmen who were talking with tourists from Germany, Finland, and Smuteye, Florida. Shepherd had already run into a couple from Mossy Head, a small town in Florida near his own hometown of Niceville.
“My dad is from Hawaii,” Shepherd said. “His step-mother is Japanese. I grew up eating abalone, sushi, and sashimi while watching the Dallas Cowboys play football. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I realized most American kids grew up eating hot dogs and potato chips while watching football. And I was stationed on Guam for over three years. And done a Western Pacific deployment. I know the customs.”
“You doing ok, Chief?” Robinson asked as the three made their way through the crowd to the safety cage enclosing the observation deck. “Between planning for Fleet Week and what happened on the Norfolk Rover, you’ve had a hell of a month.”
“I am,” Shepherd said. “Surprisingly so considering this is three murders in three months. But I am. No matter what, I’m still retiring in September. Once we finish up here in New York and get back to Virginia, I’ll shift pretty much full-time into separation mode.”
“Any job offers yet?” Watson asked as street noise vaguely filtered up to them.
“Not yet, but most employers don’t talk to you if you can’t start within 90 to 100 days. I’ll hit the 100-day mark June 22. So hopefully the interview calls will start coming in soon.”
“Three murders in three months,” Robinson said. Her black skin was lost against the night, making her eyes seem to glow with an inner fire. “That’s true. And you’ve been getting caught up in these with Special Agent Gray your whole career?”
“Not all of it. Abe’s been through most of them, but there’s been a few…adventures I’ve had without him. Hell, the second murder I ever solved was without him. It happened when I was an F-14 Tomcat reconnaissance camera technician assigned to VF-213. We were deployed on the carrier Carl Vinson.”
“I’d love to hear that story, Chief!” Watson said.
“Me too,” Robinson agreed.
Shepherd smiled. “Tell you what, I’ll tell you all about it after we get back to Norfolk. I’ve had my fill of murder stories…for a few days, at any rate.”
Another group of tourists, this time from Indonesia with a few students from Luxembourg sprinkled in, approached them, asking questions about the Navy and wanting to take photos. Shepherd let Watson and Robinson get slightly ahead of him and engage the tourists while he took one last look out over the lights of the Big Apple.
Aye, Shepherd thought, You’re an arrogant, demented bastard, Gordon Grey. But you have fouled up. Instead of tearing us down, you pissed us off…you’ve pissed me off. Trust me, you won’t like having me angry at you. I’m coming for you, Gordon Grey. I’m coming for you, and if you had any sense in your thick skull, you’d be afraid. You’d be very, very afraid.
Taking a deep breath Chief Petty Officer Isaac Shepherd shifted back into “Public Spokesman Mode” and engaged the crowd. Vendetta or not he had a job to do here and now.
And Isaac Shepherd always did his job.