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.
The Norfolk Murderer
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
“I know this is short notice, but this requests from Admiral Jones himself,” Isaac Shepherd said that Friday morning. He was dressed a bit more casually in the blue camouflage pattern of the Navy Working Uniform, or “NWU.”
It was 8:00 on a Tuesday morning, and the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East (NEPAC East) was gathered for morning Quarters (the traditional Navy “all-hands” meeting that started off the work day). They were gathered in formation in the production room of NEPAC East. Two long tables, one full of PCs, the other full of Macs, dominated the space. At the far end of the room stood the supply and admin divisions. In the middle between the tables was the production division. Training gathered on this side of the tables, and squashed in the small walkway created by the Production Assistant Lead Petty Officer’s desk was Operations and the khaki gaggle of officers.
Shepherd stood in the center of the room next to Chief Mass Communication Specialist (Select) Dionne Robinson. Robinson was still technically a First Class Petty Officer, but had been selected for Chief and so, in long tradition of the Navy, she was known as “Chief Select” until the actual pinning ceremony would would be held on the equally traditional Sept. 16…just over a week away.
Robinson was a heavily muscled, ebony-skinned woman renowned both for her obsession with “CrossFit” and her ability to belt out a high-quality multimedia production in record time, was the command’s overall Leading Petty Officer, or supervisor for a few more days. After that, she would hand that duty off to another First Class as she assumed the full duties and responsibilities of a chief.
She was also still mourning the death of her boyfriend, Jacob Collander. He had been murdered only a few weeks earlier by a jealously possessive ex-girlfriend he had broken up with after finding out said ex-girlfriend was already married.
Until this month Shepherd had been her boss while he wore the dual hats of Operations and Production Leading Chief Petty Officer, but those duties had been turned over as he neared retirement. Indeed, he was technically on ‘terminal leave,’ that is, burning up the last of his leave time by taking it to coincide with his final weeks of active duty. His presence in the building, and in uniform, had surprised the junior Sailors considerably.
However, their questions were answered as he gave the assignment from Adm. Jones. It was well known around NEPAC East he knew the admiral personally, having been a Yeoman 3rd Class under then-Commander Jones at a squadron in Spain. The admiral was scheduled to speak at Shepherd’s rapidly approaching retirement ceremony, so it was no wonder his office had contacted Shepherd about this job.
At least, that was the fiction Shepherd and the NEPAC leadership were letting the Sailors (both enlisted and officer) believe. It was imperative both for their own safety for the success of the operation that they believe they were doing nothing more than their normal jobs.
NEPAC East was one of three centers than made up the worldwide scope of the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command (the others were NEPAC West in San Diego and NEPAC Japan in, well, Japan). NEPAC’s mission was to embark public affairs officers and enlisted Mass Communication Specialists on Navy ships as they deployed. Large ships like carriers had media centers, but were only staffed at half-strength while in port. Smaller ships like destroyers had no media personnel as part of their crews. NEPAC Sailors made sure the “big decks” were brought to full manning and the “small decks” were supplied with media personnel when they headed out into the deep blue sea.
Normally NEPAC East in Norfolk was a semi-ghost town with most of its Sailors deployed. In an odd confluence of timing, however, 70% of NEPAC East was present, having just come off various deployments. Shepherd had been at NEPAC East for five years now, first on sea duty deploying aboard the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). He had then rotated to one of the few shore duty jobs and taken over as training manager. While training manager he had been selected for advancement to Chief Petty Officer.
It had been a rough decision, but in the end he decided to call it at his 20 year mark and retire, meaning he would retire only two years after putting on the anchors of a chief. After that decision was made, he requested and received permission to extend his tour of duty at NEPAC East by a year to coincide with his retirement date, so he would not report to a new command only to retire within a year of doing so.
And then the last seven months had happened, and it all started with that bastard Gordon Grey murdering Master Chief Stiles in March. Since then Shepherd had dealt with four other murder cases, two of which turned out to be perpetrated by Grey himself. So that was five murder cases in seven months…a record even by Shepherd’s standards. And these murder cases were interspersed with him doing his job—traveling to Italy to teach a couple of courses, going to New York City as the senior editor of Fleet Week New York, the Navy’s largest annual outreach, Key West on holiday…all the while also preparing to retire.
He was desperately hoping he and Gray could get one step ahead of Grey and stop him before five murder cases became six.
One of the Sailors raised their hand. “Chief, I thought we weren’t supposed to highlight or endorse private businesses?”
Shepherd glanced up. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dorothy Gale, one of their newest members, had spoken up.
“You’re right, we’re not supposed to and that’s not what we’re going to do,” Shepherd said. “The admiral has been looking at veterans’ issues lately, and he’s envisioning a series of multimedia pieces highlighting not the businesses, but the veterans who happen to work there. Yes, we’ll be naming the business in the piece, but that is merely a fact of the story. The story is the veteran and the opportunities they’re finding as they transition into the civilian world. The admiral picked Sulfide Services because, well, they clean his building and he also wants to highlight the fact that there are plenty of good-paying blue collar jobs out there, not just white-collar jobs. So we’re going to alternate; one trade or low-skill story with a white-collar story.”
“The admiral wants this started as soon as possible, so we are shuffling the calendar and I want two teams out today,” Robinson said. “I’ve got your contact information at Sulfide’s facility. It’s down in Chesapeake, just past Indian River Road in the Greenbrier area.”
“That’s kind of sudden, isn’t it?” Lt. j.g. Calvin Arts asked.
“What can we do?” Shepherd looked over and shrugged. “He’s got four stars.”
“Anyway, today and tomorrow you guys will be hooking up with a couple of vets, one who’s been there for a while and one who’s brand new. They’ll show you around, sit for in-depth interviews, and they’ll make sure you get as much b-roll as you need,” Robinson finished. “B-roll” is a video term for the background video usually played during a voice-over.
“Ok,” Shepherd said, “I apologize for hijacking the end of Quarters, but I’m not retired yet and when you get a call from a four-star admiral, you jump. After this, Chief Select Robinson, I need you to come with me. The OIC wants to meet with LT. Watson, you, and I to go over everything and make sure you’re tracking on warning flags that would make it look like we’re endorsing the businesses instead of just doing the stories of the vets.”
The “OIC,” or officer in charge of NEPAC East, was Cmdr. Ezekiel Warren. Warren was a tall, thin man who looked like he should have been a professional basketball player. He was one of the few men taller than the 6’3” Shepherd. Lt. Mary Watson was the assistant officer in charge (“AOIC”) of the center. She was slight, petite woman with dark hair and quasi-Hawaiian features from her mother…and a backbone of steel. Neither officer were people Shepherd would ever want mad at him.
“One last note,” Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jeong-ja Li, who was succeeding Shepherd as NEPAC East’s Operations Leading Chief Petty Officer, called out. “As of now we are ten weeks out from the fall Physical Readiness Test. If you’re annual Physical Health Assessment is due by October, get to medical and get it done! That’s all, Chief Select Robinson.”
“Alright, we’ve got some hoops to jump through, so let’s do it,” Robinson said. “NEPAC East, attention!”
Everyone in the room, officer and enlisted, came to attention (as formation leader, Robinson had positional authority over them all).
“Fall out and carry out the plan of the day!” Robinson ordered.
The formations broke up and the milieu began the inevitable conversations that consisted of one part grousing about the abrupt change in schedule, two parts plans for checking out equipment from supply, and three parts deciding who was going to run up to the Wawa on Hampton Blvd. for coffee.
Shepherd and Robinson threaded their way through the crowd out into the hall. NEPAC East occupied the first floor of a square building. Another expeditionary command occupied the top floor. In an accident of geography that forever gave Cmdr. Warren a headache, NEPAC East was located across 3rd Avenue on Naval Station Norfolk from the NEPAC headquarters building, meaning the commanding officer of the entire worldwide shebang was across the street everyday, looking over their proverbial shoulders.
They passed through a small hallway off which sat the admin office, then turned left and headed to the OIC’s office.
Cmdr. Warren’s office was right next to the heavy back door…a heavy back door that banged like the devil whenever it shut. Shepherd had spent half a decade wondering how the three OICs he had served under at East kept from being driven mad by that door.
Warren’s office door was shut. Shepherd knocked and heard the door lock click and the door was opened by Lt. Watson.
The two enlisted Sailor stepped inside and Watson shut the door.
Inside with Warren and Watson were Abraham Gray, Capt. John Messenger (NEPAC’s commanding officer), and Cmdr. Susan Takashima (NEPAC’s executive officer). Being across the street from the command’s headquarters buildings did have its downsides.
“You told them our cover story?” Gray asked.
“We lied through our teeth,” Shepherd said. “And this is a win-win for us; we’ll get both a very detailed look inside Sulfide Services and enough material for a good series of ‘veterans still serving’ stories.”
“You seem to be taking this pretty lightly, Chief,” Takashima said. She and Shepherd had worked together off and on over several years, but she had never quite grasped his use of humor to diffuse a tense moment.
“I agree,” Messenger said, looking from Shepherd to Gray, and then back again. “I know this…this project was ordered by Adm. Jones himself. He called me personally last night. But we’re putting out Sailors in a dangerous situation in a law enforcement capacity. Under the Posse Comitatis Act, the military is technically forbidden to engage in domestic law enforcement except when placed under the command of the Department of Homeland Security. Not only are we breaking the law, aren’t we going to threaten the viability of any evidence our people get?”
“The Posse Comitatis Act actually does not apply to us, Captain,” Shepherd said.
“I beg your pardon?” Warren asked from his desk, aware that Lt. Watson was stifling a laugh.
“The Posse Comitatis Act of 1878 was written to cover only the Army,” Shepherd launched into his spiel. “It was updated in 1956 and 1981, and the 1956 amendment included the Air Force with the Army under its jurisdiction. However, the act has never had language inserted that puts the Navy or Marine Corps under its limits.”
“It covers the Department of Defense, Chief,” Takashima corrected him.
“No, ma’am, it doesn’t,” Shepherd said.
“I think you’re mistaken–” Takashima began.
“No, I’m not,” Shepherd said, aware that Lt. Watson was laughing quietly.
Never mess with a man who has a master’s in American history, She thought.
“My primary field of study is the Civil War, and Posse Comitatas grew out of Reconstruction,” Shepherd said. “Further, I’ve spent seven of the last ten years teaching courses, including courses on media and military law and ethics. Now, yes, the Navy had regulations in place that mirror Posse Comitatas, but the fact is we are assisting a legitimate investigation and our Sailors aren’t going to do anything that could be thrown out of court…especially as they think they’re only doing ‘feel good’ stories about opportunities for veterans, are only going to operate and film in public areas they’re allowed.”
Gray leaned forward, his blue suit making him look for all the world like a visiting Secretary of the Navy. “He’s right. There is no threat to any evidence that might be uncovered. The fact is we don’t need evidence at all. We just need a lead on Gordon Grey’s whereabouts. He’s already got about two hundred warrants out for his arrest. We just need to find him. He had no reason to even suspect we know where he’s working…or that we have a lead on him through his medication for the restless leg syndrom. The risk to your Sailors is minimal, Captain. However, he pops up about every 60 days to murder, and we are fast coming up on that window. We know Admiral Jones is the target…and he has no idea we know. So, again, we’ve got the home field advantage. But we need to get a look inside Sulfide without arousing suspicions.”
“I don’t understand how this will help,” Warren asked. “If you know this Gordon Grey works there, why not just go in and arrest him?”
Gray straightened his tie as he replied. “Commander, we know where he’s working, yes, but not under what name or appearance. You have to remember this man has proven to be a master of hiding and disguise. The FBI, Virginia State Police, NCIS, and local law enforcement have been looking for him since March, and yet he’s managed to hide in plain sight. To be blunt, we need to be very sure of our target before we move or we’ll likely lose him again.”
“But how does having my people go film a couple of stories in Sulfide’s facility get you two any information?” Warren directed this question to Shepherd.
Shepherd shrugged, “Sir, it’s a bit of a long shot, but this is a way to let us see into that building and start getting an idea of the people in a directly indirect way. Chief Selecte Robinson here has given very specific orders that the b-roll is to be as general as possible, to get as much of the daily life as we can get. If we get very lucky, we might even get Grey on camera.”
“So you’re gambling everything on accidentally getting this guy on camera in the background?” Messenger asked.
“No, Captain,” Gray said. “We have another lead that Chief Shepherd and I uncovered while interviewing Carolyn Stiles in prison yesterday. As soon as one of my colleagues runs that down, and we get a look at that b-roll your Sailors are gathering, I will be very nearly confident we can move and nail him before he gets wise and disappears again.”
“What lead?” Takashima asked, curious.
“One small detail that is hard to track, but will paint a very big neon target on Grey’s back if we can run it down,” Gray said, evading the actual question.
“My Sailors are trained to face dangers on the flight deck or at sea, not from a psychotic serial killer here in Norfolk,” Messenger said. “However, I’m not just concerned for them. Chief, you are not even 25 days away from retirement. How is this impacting your transition?”
For a brief moment Shepherd teetered on confessing how stressed out he really was. Just that past weekend he’d had a complete meltdown after Habitat for Humanity came and picked up most of the downstairs furniture in his house. The house, whimsically named “The Yellow Duck” by Shepherd, had been a family home until his divorce. His daughter lived with is ex, Jennifer (a woman he was still very close friends with). Jennifer, was fiercely independent and had waived all rights and claims she had to the house.
The upshot was he had a large, 2,400 square foot home with two living areas (a formal one downstairs and an informal one upstairs in a loft). Even if he stayed in the Tidewater, he needed to downsize and had donated nearly all the downstairs furniture. However, the strain of letting go of his house as he embraced the great unknown of transitioning out of the military—while hunting a serial killer—was sometimes more than his depression and anxiety-addled brain could handle.
Saturday after the Habitat for Humanity people left he had bumped his head on the kitchen’s hanging light fixture (a fixture that had, for the past four years, had a table under it). That small bump had been the proverbial final straw, and before he was fully cognizant again he had smashed several decorative plates that had been on the walls and ended up on the floor a quivering mass of distress.
It had taken a great deal of humility and discipline to call his best friend, Tom Coleman. Coleman had “talked him down” as it were, but he was in another state. Coleman finally convinced Shepherd to call Abraham Gray. He had spent Saturday night with Gray and his wife, Sarah.
However, the hesitation was so slight only Gray noticed it, and that was only because Gray had helped him sweep up the mess in the kitchen (fortunately, despite being swept up in a blind terror and rage, Shepherd had managed some level of control and not broken anything truly important to him).
“I’m doing alright, skipper,” Shepherd lied. “Stressed, yes, but that’s pretty normal for everyone retiring. Anyway, I have an appointment with my counselor tomorrow, and, since I’m on terminal, it’s been pretty easy to divide my time between getting my house listed for sale and tracking this dork.”
Gray stood, “Chief Shepherd and I need to get back to my office. Chief Select Robinson, once you have the raw b-roll, can you get a copy of it to NCIS over by Gate 3 without letting on?”
Robinson nodded. “Once the teams are back, I’ll have them download, then send them home. There’s nothing weird in that; this type of story is what we call an ‘evergreen’ story—there’s no harsh time requirement on it. It’ll be later this evening, somewhere around 18:30 or 19:00. Lt. Watson’s going to help me—we have to render the footage to the right format and burn a DVD or two, and we can’t start that until I get everyone out of here so we don’t arouse any questions.”
Messenger looked surprised, “You do video editing, Mary? Are you practicing to be an MC?”
It was common in the wardroom for the officers to refer to each other by first name (of course, no called the CO, XO, or OIC anything other than their proper titles). The Chief’s Mess worked much the same way.
“I took Chief Shepherd’s multimedia course last year while he was still training manager,” Watson said. “And I’ve been practicing. Being proficient at the skill lets me give top cover to the MCs while deployed when a ship’s leadership makes unrealistic demands…and it also keeps me from being given a snow jog by an MC who’s trying to skate out of work.”
Warren spoke, up, “Ok, Mary—I’m putting it on you. Make sure everyone—wardroom, chiefs, blue jackets—everyone is out of here by 15:00 so you and Chief Select and get to work. If any of the officers try to stick around, let me know quietly and I’ll get them out of here.”
“Consider it done,” Watson said. “I’ll order a pizza for us, MC1. Going to be a late evening.”
“One last question,” Takashima piped up. “Thursday is ‘final night’ for your, Chief Select. Is this mission negatively impacting your ability to get through initiation so you can get pinned next Friday? That’s only seven days from now.”
“No, ma’am, I’m good.” Robinson said. “The chiefs have been very flexible once Chief Shepherd and Mr. Gray explained the situation to them.”
“Unless it’s literally a matter of life and death, she’ll go through final night and graduate with her class so she can get pinned on next Friday, Commander.” Shepherd said.
“Chief,” Gray said, “Let’s go.”
“Be careful,” Messenger said, rather emphatically. “I’m not comfortable with any of this, but we do have a very real opportunity here to help catch a serial killer that’s preyed on shipmates, civilians…even little children. I just want to make sure this bastard doesn’t have a chance to hurt any of my Sailors!”