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.
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
Chairs scraped the painted concrete floor in the break room of the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East (or “NEPAC East” for short) building on 5th Street of Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. Four Sailors—one officer, one chief petty officer, one first class petty officer, and one seaman—all planted their posteriors on aged, partially padded government-issued chairs that looked (and felt) like they had been issued before World War I.
Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Dionne Robinson sorted through the bag of sandwiches from the run to Subway she had just completed.
“Lieutenant, your roast beef,” Robinson handed Lt. Mary Watson, the NEPAC East’s assistant officer in charge (or “AOIC”), a tube-shaped package.
“Seaman Blunt, you asked for the turkey with extra mayo,” She passed another paper-sealed mean over to Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Enrico Blunt on her left.
“Chief, you had the steak and cheese, right?”
“Yep,” Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac Shepherd nodded, taking the sandwich from her.
“And that leaves me my veggie and tuna,” Robinson said, her white teeth showing bright against her dark skin as she smiled in anticipation.
“Thanks for making the run, MC1,” Watson said to Robinson. “That reminds me, Chief, are the travel claims for the Fleet Week New York team from last month done and submitted?”
Shepherd nodded. 45 years old, a solid 205 lbs. barrel-chest man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair (extra salt), he was the leading chief petty officer (“LCPO”) of the Production Department for NEPAC East…and generally regarded as having one of the corniest senses of humor in the entire United States Navy due to his passionate love of really bad puns. “All the enlisted side of the New York team have been submitted. You told me you’d make sure the officers got theirs in.”
Watson, a short woman with dark hair and a fierce nature that rendered here one of the most effective leaders Shepherd had ever worked with, nodded. “Yes, they’re all in.”
Shepherd nodded, “Then we wait. I talked to Rhetta Gable over at Naval Region East Coast’s admin; they’ll be approving all the travel claims by the end of this week. But then Commander, Atlantic Fleet usually takes over 30 days to actually pay them, so we need to start looking for our money by the end of July.”
It was early June. A cold snap brought copious amounts of rain to the eastern seaboard over the past couple of weeks. As as result, about half of the recently completed Fleet Week New York had been conducted on very wet days. Only now was the temperature rising, and the weather predicters predicted temperatures in Virginia would quickly zip back up past normal June levels into the high 90s (normally August temperatures).
Fleet Weeks and Navy Weeks (Navy Weeks being held in cities that are landlocked and can’t host ships) are major outreach efforts through which the Navy keeps the American public aware of the part the Navy plays in keeping the nation’s sea lanes free and open, as well as continually educate people on the rich history of the sea services. Fleet Week New York is the biggest of all of these, and is traditionally conducted at the end of May over Memorial Day weekend. Fleet Week New York is so big that the U.S. Coast Guard and even the Canadian Navy sent vessels to join the 11 Navy ships of various size that tied up around the five boroughs of New York City.
It was exhausting work; the media personnel had no days off and worked very long hours. Shepherd had been the senior most enlisted member of the team, so his duties spanned job assignments to editing. However, their efforts across social and traditional media paid off. Their products were picked up by news outlets such as Fox News, NBC, and the New York Times, reaching an audience of well over 38 million people around the world. Not bad for a week of highlighting the Navy story.
It had also been the catharsis Shepherd needed to finally get re-focused. The previous three months, March, April, and May, had seen him embroiled in three particularly brutal murder cases that impacted the Navy in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. The last case had turned out to be perpetrated by the murderer from the first case—a former Sailor named Gordon Grey who had escaped custody after his arrest in March. Grey had recently engineered a very violent campaign resulting in the deaths of five people, including an eight-year old boy and a Navy pilot and driven a local dinner cruise ship completely out of business. Grey was still at large, and Shepherd had privately vowed to find him, but that would take time. Still, after New York, Shepherd finally felt like himself, like he was back on an even keel.
Watson picked up her water bottle. All four Sailors had been on the New York team. Since NEPAC East was located in Norfolk, Virginia, they had driven six hours to get to the city, and another six to get back home. Twelve hours in the car plus the time working closely together in the Big Apple allowed them to joke and tease and get to know each other with a level of camaraderie time would not easily break.
“A toast,” she said, “To a successful Fleet Week, a successful final operation for Chief Shepherd’s career, and no murders this month!”
“Hang on, Ma’am,” Robinson said, holding her bottle aloft. “It’s only early June. Plenty of time this month for a murder.”
“Do not jinx it, MC1!” Shepherd said, only half joking. “Three murder cases in three months—that’s getting pretty ridiculous, even by my standards!”
“Still,” Watson said, “Fleet Week New York was the capstone operation to Chief Shepherd’s career!”
“Hear, hear!” The four said, “clinking” their plastic water bottles together.
“What do you do now, Chief?” Blunt asked.
“I have a little over 100 days on active duty left,” Shepherd said. “Next week I’m taking the transition assistance class again. You should do it twice—once a year out and once four months out or so. Then I get hip-deep in the separation process. I’m not Operations LCPO anymore; Chief Steinbeck took that over the day we left for New York. Chief Li will take over Production from me next month after she’s back from her deployment on Carl Vinson at the end of this month and has time to take some leave.”
NEPAC, as its name suggested, was an “expeditionary” command. Broken into three main centers—East in Norfolk, West in San Diego, and Japan in, well, Japan, NEPAC existed to embark public affairs officers and enlisted mass communication specialists (or “MCs”) on board deploying ships or to major land-based exercises and operations in order to provide media coverage.
“Speaking of the Carl Vinson, you owe me a story. Actually, you owe the lieutenant and I both a story,” Robinson reminded Shepherd.
“I do?” He was blank.
“Yeah. Remember on top of the Empire State Building that third night of Fleet Week? You said you’d tell us about the first murder case you dealt with that didn’t involved Abraham Gray.”
NCIS Special Agent Abraham Gray and Isaac Shepherd had a history spanning nearly all of Shepherd’s 20 year career.
“Wait, Chief, how many murders have you done?” Blunt asked.
The three senior Sailors all choked on their sandwiches, laughing.
Trying not to spit out his food, Shepherd managed to swallow and said, “I have not ‘done’ any murders, Seaman Blunt. But I seem to have been caught up investigating an inordinate number of them over the last two decades.”
“So the last three months were normal for you?” Blunt asked, still not understanding why his statement was so funny.
“Uh, no,” Shepherd said. “To repeat myself, three murder cases in three months is ridiculous even by my standards. If you average them out, I seem to have dealt with two per year.”
“And you met Special Agent Gray on your first one in Spain?” Watson asked.
“Yep. Guy murdered in my barracks. I picked up some information and realized it led straight to the admiral’s daughter. The admiral was visiting Rota with his family—he was Commander, Naval Forces Europe. Abe Gray was the only NCIS agent in Rota who would listen to me, and then I think he only did it for fun…until a prediction I made unfortunately came true.”
“What prediction was that?” Robinson asked. She had been Shepherd’s student years before when he taught at the joint-service Defense Information School, training her in the basics of modern media and public affairs. Shepherd had graduated over 3,000 students in his 3 and a half years teaching; Robinson was one of the few he remembered by name because she had stood out so much.
“I predicted that one of the guys in my barracks was in danger because he was a witness, though he didn’t realize what he’d actually seen. Sure enough he was murdered a day later. After that Gray defied his boss and started working with me. The thing ended with the admiral’s daughter being arrested for the first murder, and the admiral being arrested for murdering the witness to protect his daughter.”
“Wow!” Blunt blurted. “You took down an admiral?!” He was clearly impressed.
“I don’t get points for taking out someone based on their rank,” Shepherd said, a bit sharply. “In fact the higher the rank of a murderer, the more I despise them. As you move up in rank you are supposed to take care of your Sailors, not kill them.”
“What rank were you?” Blunt asked.
“Back then I was a Yeoman 3rd Class. I always wanted to be in naval aviation and lucked out by getting assigned right out of yeoman school to VQ-2, a land-based patrol squadron based in Spain.”
“You were an admin clerk?” Blunt was surprised.
“Oh, yeah. It was at VQ-2 that I ended up being stuck in the public affairs office because I took decent pictures. That led me to put in a package to cross-rate to Photographer’s Mate.”
“Pho-waht?” Blunt asked.
Watson spoke up, “Until ten years ago or so, we had four media rates. Journalists did video and assisted public affairs officers. Draftsmen did all the graphic designs and naval art work. Lithographer’s Mates ran the print shops. Photographer’s Mates like the Chief assisted public affairs now and then, but their primary duty was combat documentation and aerial photo work. Ten years ago the Navy merged the four rates together into the Mass Communication Specialists you guys are now, but the aerial work is all done digitally now, and MCs mostly provide visual imagery for public affairs.”
“Oh,” Blunt said.
“So I cross-rated to Photo Mate and promptly became an airplane mechanic,” Shepherd said. “Right out of the Defense Information School I was assigned to VF-713, and F-14D Tomcat squadron based at over at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach. My primary job was maintaining, mounting, and setting the TARPS pods—Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System. It was a 17-foot long pod that weighed 2,000 lbs. fully loaded and was mounted under the F-14 between the engines. Oh, and for good measure we also maintained and mounted the laser-targeting pod the F-14 carried. It had nothing photographic about it, but they gave it to us anyway.”
The conversation died for a moment as each Sailor contentedly chewed a bit of sandwich.
“So I spent 13 weeks in photo school learning basic light theory, dark room techniques and basic photojournalism—this was in the days of film before the DoD went digital—only to end up a fighter mechanic,” Shepherd laughed. “I loved it, though. It was literally a dream come true—wearing the green jersey of a maintainer fixing and launching jets off a U.S. Navy carrier flight deck. I hung out with the guys in the other shops when we weren’t doing pod work and became a very proficient hydraulic and aircraft structures technician; I got pretty good on working on the GE F110-400 engines. I even got ‘final checker’ qualified.”
Blunt and Robinson looked confused.
“As a maintainer I wore a green jersey. But the final checkers are maintainers who wear a white jersey with a checker board pattern painted on it. These are a select group of Sailors from all maintenance shops in the squadron who are qualified to ‘final check’ every flight control system on the aircraft. Final checkers like I was walk the aircraft to the catapult, do a final pre-flight as the aircraft is locked into the bridle, and give the very-final thumbs-up to the catapult crew signaling the aircraft is ready to fly. It’s an extremely hard qualification to get, especially for a Photo Mate in the TARPS shop since our systems were so limited. But I set a squadron record and nailed it in eight months, qualifying and earning the white jersey in early November of that deployment.”
Shepherd smiled, looking back. “But I was a Photo Mate. I always carried a small camera with me and got some really good photojournalism done when I wasn’t turning wrenches. My stuff was better than the ship’s company ‘PHs’ got because I was far more familiar with the rhythm of the flight deck than they were. My whole career track was going to be sea duty in TARPS working on F-14s and shore duty in a photo lab.”
“That didn’t happen,” Robinson said. “Right after you left VF-713, they retired all the Tomcats, and the digital camera pods carried by the F/A-18s could be maintained by the electronics techs, so the flight deck jobs for PHs were eliminated.”
“And then my rate was eliminated,” Shepherd said. “That was hard; I became a Photo Mate because PHs had a long history that was entwined with naval aviation, and there were only 2,000 of us in the Navy. We were a small, tight rate. And of that 2,000, only 40 of us were the TARPS PHs. We were a small and very arrogant little cadre within the rate, and we all were based over at Oceana because that’s where all the F-14s were. I’m one of the last, if not the last, former TARPS PH still on active duty.”
“Must have been strange becoming pretty much a public affairs Sailor,” Watson said.
“It was. Being an airdale on the flight deck was like being at the biggest, baddest rock concert in the world. The subsequent 15 years as an MC have been like listening to a classical music concert. Still great and wonderful, but no where near the adrenaline level. Still, when the world changes you change with it, or get left behind. I adapted.”
Robinson crumpled up her empty wrapper. “Back to murder,” She said. “You said you’d tell us about the first case you dealt with that didn’t have Agent Gray around.”
Shepherd nodded, crumpling up his own sandwich wrapper and shooting it to the trash can. In the long tradition of his ineptness at basketball, he failed to make the shot.
“I got it,” Robinson said, getting up to dump her own trash and picking up Shepherd’s.
“Yeah, the first Navy murder I dealt with was at my first command, and Abe Gray was part of it. Ironically, my second murder case happened while I was at my second command, VF-713. We were deployed on the Carl Vinson, but Carl Vinson’s homeported in Bremerton. She sailed down to San Diego and on-loaded all the West Coast-based squadrons there. We had to fly all our gear and our F-14s across country to meet the ship in San Diego. It was supposed to be a typical Western Pacific deployment with a small jaunt into the Arabian Gulf before going back to the Pacific. Instead, two months after we deployed the attacks of 9/11 happened. On Oct. 7 of that year I helped launched the first Navy strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom as VF-713 led off from the Carl Vinson.”
“Wow!” Blunt was impressed.
“The murder happened in November.” Shepherd said. “We been flying bombing mission for over a month. You remember I mentioned that little camera I always carried? Well, the whole thing ended up turning on that camera. I found the body, you see. And right after I called the medical emergency in, something made me take several shots of the crime scene before I started trying to do CPR. I already knew the guy was dead because he was stone cold when I touched him. So I followed the impulse and took several images. Unlike MCs today, PHs were trained in forensic photography and crime scene documentation. Back then law enforcement used us for the photo documentation.
“Thing is,” Shepherd said, “I forgot about those shots almost immediately because I was scared silly from spending hours in the office of the NCIS agent was assigned to Carl Vinson, a woman with the rather splendid name of Special Agent Veronica Bale….”
…. “You want to tell me why the hell you stepped back behind the counter of HAZMAT when you do not have authorization to do so, PH2 Shepherd?!” Special Agent Veronica Bale, an African-American woman possessing a delicate bone structure belying her ability to verbally pummel a suspect into pudding, demanded.
“I know you’re talking about you, Petty Officer Shepherd, so stop saying ‘I, I, I’ and answer the question!”
Photographers’ Mate 2nd Class Isaac Shepherd was completely off balance by the verbal assault. Standing 6’3”, weighing in at a nearly skeletal 157 lbs, the 29-year-old Shepherd’s dark hair was only beginning to show the first inklings of the heavy salt-and-pepper look it would have nearly 15 years later. “Well, I needed to get paint for the shop–”
“And you’ve said that already, too!” Bale snapped. A Sailor was dead and this petty officer had found the body by walking into a space he was not authorized to go into.
“I hit the bell several times, but no one came. Sometimes the HAZMAT guys are in the back playing games or listening to headphones at night, so we all usually step behind the counter so we can see into the back area and flag them. But I saw a leg lying on the floor so I went all the way in to check and found Blake lying there.”
“You say the body was cold to the touch, but you tried to do CPR on it anyway. Why?”
“I didn’t want to go to Mast,” Shepherd fairly squeaked, “Go to Mast” referred to being tried by a Sailor’s commanding officer. COs in the DoD had authority under UCMJ Article 15 to conduct non-judicial trials and award certain punishments for certain infractions. The Navy’s term “Mast” was a reference to the days of sail when the Captain of the ship literally sat in front of the mast and the Sailors to be tried reported to him there.
“And why would you go to Mast?”
Shepherd shrugged. “I’m not a corpsman; if I assumed he was dead and did nothing, and then it turns out he was still alive and died because I didn’t act, I could be sent to Mast.”
Bale could not fault that logic. She studied the skinny, grimy Sailor before her. His face was smeared with grime and his formerly white jersey was stained with hydraulic fluid, JP-5 jet fuel, grease, and few things she didn’t want to guess at. His hair, short as it was, spiked out in all directions after hours wearing the flight deck helmet commonly called a “cranial.” He also exuded a rather pungent order of fuel, chemicals, and sweat. He looked utterly exhausted. He had spent over 14 hours on the flight deck daily for weeks now launching strikes. Last night he had been running to get paint before getting a few hours to shower and sleep; instead it was now 02:30 in the morning of Nov. 7 and he was still up, being grilled like a cheap fish by NCIS.
“Why haven’t any of you reported the HAZMAT guys for not being at the front desk?” She demanded.
“I have,” Shepherd said. “Told my chief and he’s talked to the HAZMAT LCPO. But most of the guys in HAZMAT are TAD from the squadrons and usually not happy about it. The night crew has no senior people to watch them.” TAD was a term for temporary assigned duties in a shop or field other than the Sailor’s own. “So we all just step around and flag them. Can’t make them care if they don’t want to.”
Bale believed Shepherd was near the end of his tether and decided to throttle back.
“Ok. Look, go get some sleep. I’ve already talked to your chain of command. Your squadron’s CO, Cmdr. Rex, has authorized you to come in later tomorrow. And I double-checked that with your flight deck coordinator, Chief Carpenter. You can report in at noon. This looks like an accidental death. The symptomology suggests antifreeze poisoning. I think he picked up the wrong bottle in the dark to drink out of and killed himself by accident. Go to bed. I’ll let you know when I need you again.”
To Veronica Bale’s surprise, Shepherd did not move, nor, for all his evident exhaustion, did he look like he was beaten down. His sea green eyes glinted with some kind of inner fire.
“Ma’am,” Shepherd said, “I don’t think it was an accidental death at all. I think Reginald Blake was murdered.”
Bale stared at him, completely incredulous….
….“And you can bet she did not like that suggestion, not coming from me,” Shepherd said to his NEPAC East shipmates back in the present day.
“What did she do?” Watson asked.
“Told me to stop reading Sherlock Holmes,” Shepherd said. “I made the mistake of correcting her and telling her I was currently reading everything written by Agatha Christie. That really pissed her off and she threw me out of her office. Have to admit I wasn’t nearly as tactful as I am now. I was still pretty much a big kid at 29. I was the classic ‘late bloomer.’ At 29—and I turned 30 later that November—I had all the maturity of a 14-year-old.”
The three at the table laughed.
“But,” Shepherd said, “I knew I was right. I just had to get evidence, so I stuck my nose in where it didn’t belong.”