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
Isaac took a moment to do a quick-change act in his car before heading into the NCIS offices. Located near Gate 3 on Naval Station Norfolk, the NCIS offices occupied a two-story, nondescript building with a very 1970s glass front.
Shepherd shucked his uniform and emerged into the warm September air wearing jeans, a yellow T-shirt, sneakers, and an old brown corduroy sport jacket, the ever-present small necklace of an owl around his neck. He locked Sarah Jane (he had named his blue SUV after a popular character from the British sci-fi hit Doctor Who) and headed into the building.
He was met in the lobby by Carla Tenbold, one of Gray’s fellow agents. Tenbold was a stout woman who’s matronly appearance gave her a tactical advantage: she looked nothing like what most people thought an NCIS agent would look. Until getting to know her, most people assumed she was a typical middle-aged mother.
“Isaac,” She said, with just a hint of former coolness. Like her fellow agent Shey Cremer, she had always resented Shepherd’s amateur involvement in law enforcement, even if he did have a double degree from Florida State University in history and criminology. However, the past few months of rapid, one-after-the-other cases has caused her to revise her thinking a bit and develop a grudging respect for him.
“Carla,” Shepherd said. “I thought Charlotte was going to meet me?” Charlotte Webb was chief of the Norfolk field office.
“She’s on the phone with Adm. Jones,” Tenbold said. “Come on, Abe is upstairs waiting.”
Tenbold signed him in at the desk (the receptionist sat behind thick, bullet-proof glass), handed him a visitor badge, and escorted him to through the door into NCIS.
A short elevator ride ended on the second floor and Tenbold led him to the conference room.
“Veronica!” Shepherd was startled.
“Sparky!” NCIS Special Agent Veronica Bale, a tall, elegant black woman who’s hair nowdays was braided and done in an elegant knot with gold thread highlights, smiled as she called Shepherd by his decades-old flight deck nicknamne. She rose and came around the table to hug him.
“I know I sent you a note two years ago, but it’s good to say it in person—congrutulations on making chief!” She said. “And on retiring soon!”
“Thanks!” He smiled. Abraham Gray had been his unwitting partner throughout most of his career, but Veronica Bale had intersected his life several times as well, and the two developed a warm friendship over the years. “What are you doing here?”
“Came down from Washington to help out,” Bale said. “Abe asked for an extra set of hands.”
Gray, who had been reading something, looked up when he heard his name. “Isaac. Nice outfit. Who’re you supposed to be? Doctor Who?”
Shepherd laughed, “No. But I did use this coat as part of my costume as the Eleventh Doctor last Halloween; that’s probably what you’re thinking.”
“Coffee, Isaac?” Tenbold asked as she poured herself a up.
“Thank you,” He nodded.
“Shey is running down the RLS lead,” Tenbold said. “That’s a great detail to have, but it’s not easy to track someone like Grey who’s lying about, well, everything, to their employer.” She handed Shepherd a cup and he started adding cream (about one cow’s worth) and a bit of sugar. “But he’s got an idea so he’s running that down.”
“What idea?” Shepherd asked.
“Well, the whole point of this operations is to track and pinpoint Grey without being able to. Now, based on our RLS research—which admittedly includes what you told Abe about your own case—we know he has to take his meds twice a day every day. Yes, he can skip a day now and then like you do, but that’s not much,” Tenbold explained as she and Shepherd sat down. “All the meds used to treat RLS are prescription, so they have to be tracked. Grey’s not in a position to get them himself; we’ve got people looking at security camera footage from all the pharmacies in the Tidewater area, but no one even remotely matching his descriptions come up.”
“So we’re looking for someone to be getting them for him, but that means that someone has to have RLS too. I seriously doubt Grey could get a doctor in this area to sign off on a prescription for him under a fake name. Odds are, if he’s getting help or sharing meds, it’d be with someone close.”
“Someone also at Sulfide Services,” Shepherd said.
“Exactly,” Tenbold said. “Shey is heading a team that’s looking into all RLS cases tracked in this area through prescription medication. He’s already been able to narrow down about six Sulfide employees with RLS; the next step is to see if any of their med usage patterns have changed. This kind of arrangement can’t last long, but it in the short term it could help Grey get the meds to keep his condition under control.”
“What if all six are helping him?” Shepherd asked.
“Say what?” Tenbold looked at him. Gray and Bale also looked at him in surprise.
“I mean, it’s just a thought,” Shepherd said. “But, it’d sort of like the fact all twelve suspects were actually involved in the murder in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Assuming you guys are looking in the right direction—and normally NCIS does look in the right dirctions—what if all six Sulfide employees with RLS are helping him?”
“That’s a good question,” Bale said.
Tenbold nodded, “I’ll…I’ll broach that possibility with Shey. Can’t hurt to look at that possibility as well.”
Gray sat back, “Ok, Isaac’s got NEPAC East going into Sulfide today to film stories on two veterans, both of whom work at the headquarters of Atlantic Fleet. Neither is Grey, but they’ll get a lot of footage around Sulfide’s building, and we should have it by tonight. In the meantime, what do we know about Gordon Grey himself? Isaac? Let’s just establish his profile.”
Shepherd leaned forward, steepling his fingers much like Mr. Spock from Star Trek.
“Well, to quote myself from a couple of months ago, he’s a narcissistic brat throwing an epic tantrum at being made to pay for his actions for the first time in his life,” Shepherd said. “He’s a smooth talker, but highly unpredictable; calm and cool one minute and volcanic temper the next. He’s smart enough to hide in plain sight, but has committed a couple of unforced errors by bragging too much and dropping clues in the notes he left to taunt you and I, Abe…and those dumb skip-code suicide notes. He thinks targeting random strangers will paralyze us with guilt. Yet he has an odd respect for family because he’s still genuinely concerned about Carolyn Stiles…even though he actually tried to kill her in a moment of panicked anger the night we caught him. He targets those he thinks are most useful to him…and in his mind Abe and I’s families are not useful because those are the expected targets.”
Bale leaned forward. “He has a very long history of anger management issues, but also of talking his way out of legal proceedings so well he was actually USS Cowpens’ Sailor of the Year. And…I’m convinced John Stiles in March was not his first murder.”
“What have you learned?” Tenbold asked.
“Before coming down here I got with my contacts at the FBI and did some research. He’s never been tied to anything, mind you, but everywhere Gordon Grey’s been there’s been at least one murder that matches the method he seems to prefer—a murder disguised as a suicide.”
“Was he ever questioned in any of them?” Shepherd asked, sipping his coffee.
“No,” Bale shook her head. “I only found the possible link after looking for this pattern in close proximity to him. Every duty station he was at, there was one suspicious suicide the family claims was impossible because the victim had no history of depression, no history of self-destructive behavior, nothing. This is a major piece of conjecture right now because there’s nothing obvious linking Grey to any of the dead. At least, nothing yet. But I’ve got people researching these cases to see if we can establish a link. At the very least, it shows us Grey has been a danger for a long time…and that he favors the murder-hidden-as-fake-suicide motif.”
“Overall Grey does enjoy the murder-diguised-as-suicide motif,” Abraham Gray said, still holding a sheaf of papers, “But he’s not above changing that method when it suits him. There was nothing sublte about the murders that shut down the Norfolk Rover dinner cruise back in May. And he’s starting to demonstrate an open sadistic streak. It might have always been there, but it was obvious a lot of the harm he inflicted on his victims in the Norfolk Rover case was inflicted simply for the fun of it.”
Gray laid his papers down. “Finally, everyone of the murders he’s committed…at least, the ones we know about…in every one of them he approached his targets by getting close through a professional cover. Obviously he was Master Chief Stiles’ yeoman when he and Carolyn Stiles conspired to kill Stiles in March. Norfolk Rover… in that case he got a job as a waiter. In the two murders in July he gained access to the LANFLeet headquarters building and a barracks by apparently getting hired as a janitor at Sulfide Services.”
“LANTFleet” was shorthand for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, currently under the command of Adm. David Jones.
“So where does all this leave us?” Bale asked. “Based on your findings in July, he’s targeting Adm. Jones, but I wager he’ll not screw around in LANTFleet’s headquarters building again. Sulfide has the contract for cleaning the admiral’s house here on the naval station, but those cleaning services are limited to the house’s public reception areas downstairs, not the personal residence upstairs. Even so, security around the house and all people going in has been increased significantly since the murders at LANTFleet. That won’t tip of Grey; it’s just common sense after a murder so close to a high-ranking officer. Lastly, we know he’s been acting about every 60 days, and that window is rapidly approaching. But…where does all this actually leave us?”
“Nowhere,” Shepherd said. “We’ve hashed out a lot of information and Cremer or the footage from NEPAC might give us a break, but that’s about it. We know a lot…but nothing we know is advancing us a step.”
“Well, we know one more thing,” Gray said.
“What’s that?” Tenbold asked.
“We know he’s a Sherlock fan. You know, the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, same as Isaac here,” Gray said.
“Yeah…” Shepherd said. “Frankly, that has started to bother me.”
“How so?” Gray asked.
“I know I said a while ago using that dumb ‘skip code’ he got from Sherlock was bragging and all…but for some reason that’s bothering me now. Yes, he is a braggart and yes, he think he’s far more clever than he really, and I stand by that. But…”
“But what, Sparky?” Bale asked.
“Look, there’s no realistic way we know of he could get at the admiral,” Shepherd said. Not only is there base security to content with, but a four-star admiral also has Secret Service protection.”
“Ok?” Bale prompted.
“Let’s assume he really left those dumb skip-code messages as an inside joke he didn’t think we’d get. It’s a logical assumption his reference to reaching for ‘the stars’ was a reference to Adm. Jones, especially seeing how close he had gotten to the admiral in killing Adm. Jones’ aid in his own office. But…but what if we’re wrong? What if we jumped to an obvious conclusion, but missed the real point?”
“Clarify, Isaac,” Gray said. “You’ve lost all of us.”
Shepherd sighed, “It just seems too easy, that’s all. The more I think about it, it just seems to easy. Assuming those faked suicide notes were really an inside joke with himself, there are other ‘stars’ around the area for him to target. There are at least a dozen one- and two-star admirals around Hampton Roads. Any of them might be the target. And what if the ‘reaching for the stars’ comment refers to the upcoming MWR event with some Hollywood stars?”
“I think you’re overthinking things, Isaac,” Tenbold said.
“Maybe I am,” Shepherd said, “But no one here can deny leaving those skip-coded fake suicide note was out of character for Grey. Even I got caught up in the moment back then and have to re-assess my thinking on that. Yes, Adm. Jones is the likely target and all. But I’ve just been starting to feel like we’re missing something in how we’re approaching this.”
“I don’t see what more we can do unless Cremer turns up something, or we spot something in the footage you’re Sailors are getting,” Tenbold said. “And Adm. Jones does have the big open house coming up—the one he holds every year at his residence just after the chief pinning ceremony to welcome all the new chiefs. That will be a big headache security-wise. Sulfide Services will, of course, be there for janitorial duties, but it’ll be a chaotic day with people coming and going for about ten hours. For my money, I think will take his shot at the admiral either that day (he does like going for the dramatic), or else immediately after when security has been relaxed a bit.”
Shepherd still looked uncomfortable.
“Isaac,” Gray said, “Look, do you know why you’re here?”
“Because my winning personality and unstoppable ability to craft terrific puns make me an invaluable conversation piece?” Shepherd was partially right—his love of bad puns was legend in the fleet.
Gray smiled, “Partly. But mainly because we need you to see ‘sideways’ through this thing. See the angle we might be missing. Grey is a unique beast; he’s been able to stay a step ahead of us for too long. Obviously we need more than a vague feeling of discomfort on your part to take action. But don’t ignore those vague feelings. Those always seem to precede your amazing brain putting something together the rest of us have missed.”
Shepherd nodded, “I think I’ll take that as the most sarcastically back-handed compliment you’ve never given me. But, now, seeing as how I am in the middle of retiring, I’m afraid I have to run because I have a telephone interview for a job coming up in half an hour.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Tenbold said. “I need to go check secure email anyway.”
“I guess I’ll see y’all tomorrow afternoon,” Shepherd said as he rose. “I’ve got my final appointment with my counselor at mental health tomorrow morning.”
Tenbold gathered up her pile of papers and walked out with Shepherd in tow.
“What do you think, Abe?” Bale asked. “You know better than I do.”
“I think we’re lucky he’s on our side,” Gray said. “Unlike every professional, present company included, he’s never actually been proven wrong in the end. And when you consider how little experience he has conducting investigations compared to us professionals…that’s saying something. That man has all all brain power of Sherlock Holmes, the psychological insight of Hercule Poirot, and the humility of a great philosopher. I wish he’d gone into criminology professionally instead public affairs and photojournalism.”
Bale laughed her rich, deep laugh. “You won’t find any argument from me on that. But I meant about his sudden feeling of doom? When Isaac Shepherd suddenly says he might have been wrong with an assessment and starts reassessing…well, I’ve learned to listen. This abrupt feeling of doom he mentioned rattle me.”
“’Feeling of doom?’ That’s an interesting way to put it, Veronica. But, you know what, that is exactly what it is. To be honest, I’ve had the same questions nagging me too…the same feeling that this is too easy and that we’re missing something. He’s right—something about those faked suicide notes and that ridiculous skip code is fake.”
“It’s like we’re being given something to look at we’ll want to chase so as to keep us distracted,” Bale said.
“Exactly!” Gray said. “But what? We can’t go put over a dozen admirals on lock down for their security, and Adm. Jones is the most logical target. But…but what could Gordon Grey be waving at us to distract us…and what is he trying to distract us from?”