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.
**This special post features Chapter 6, 7, and the denouement!**
The Norfolk Murderer
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
“MCPON Gordon is going to be staying and hosting a dinner at the Virginia Beach Regency,” Shepherd put his phone away as he and Gray barreled east along I-64. They were passing the Norview exit, and Gray was preparing to merge right as Northampton came up so he’d be in position to get onto I-264 into downtown Virginia Beach.
“That still doesn’t tell us much,” Gray said, putting his own phone away. “He quit Sulfide a week ago.”
“He may have quit Sulfide, but Sulfide might not know,” Shepherd said as the car slid into a space in the right lane as the Northampton ramp fell behind the them. There was always a long line at the I-264 interchange. “He quit a week ago, but if he wants to get at someone like the MCPON, he can only get through the attendant security if his Sulfide ID is still good. I’ll bet that Lee help him keep his credentials active since Sulfide also contracts to clean certain hotels like the Regency prior to special visitors and events.”
“Maybe so,” Gray said, taking a breath and calming down as traffic crept towards the I-264 interchange. “Unfortunately Lee got his wits together, clammed up and lawyered up shortly after spilling the beans to Shey about the Grey’s alias as Hector James. But it stands to reason you’re right. Damn this traffic! We need to get there and sweep those rooms before Master Chief Gordon arrives!”
“At this rate we’ll get there before everyone else can,” Shepherd said.
“Most everyone else,” Gray corrected. “And I ordered everyone to keep the lights off and not come screaming in because I don’t want him spooked. He’s too smart and it’s too easy for him to get ahead of us.”
“Now, how did you know the MCPON is coming in?” Gray asked as the car finally started climbing the ramp and he hooked left at the fork, turning onto I-264 east. A veritable sea of cars lowed through over-taxed multilane highways like flood water shoving its inexorable way through a dam’s floodgates.
“I was talking to Dionne last night at NEPAC East, and noticed her visit on the Production Board along with the two Virginia senators,” Shepherd said. “And I’ll wager dollars to doughnuts as my mother would say that Sulfide had the MCPON’s visit on their board, and that’s where Grey got his idea. Big wigs like the MCPON and Chief of Naval Operations very, very rarely do surprise visits, especially when public events like this dinner the MPCON is apparently holding for region command master chiefs tonight!”
Finally on I-264 Gray ignored his own orders and activated the subtly hidden lights in his sedan. A siren wailed.
“I’ll shut it down as we get closer to the ocean front,” Gray said, “But we have got to get there sooner than later!”
“Side note,” Shepherd, still in his khaki uniform from that morning, glanced at Gray, “Any ideas on who leaked the information about me to the press? I’m sure if it had been Gordon Grey he would’ve trumpeted it!”
“Actually, yes,” Gray said, “But I need to dig more for evidence.”
It took 20 minutes, even with his lights flashing, for Gray to get them through the Friday after crush along I-264. Mount Trashmore, a Virginia Beach park created by a repurposing and landscaping a former city landfill (the ultimate in recycling!) rose right and green to their right, people atop the artificial mountain flying kites and playing “Frisbee.” The Lynnhaven Parkway exited passed with agonizing slowness, and then slowly appeared the First Colonial exit with its sign directing NAS Oceana traffic down its ramp.
I-264 East began a gradual descent to level ground and opened up even as the “End 264” sign hove into view as they passed the Virginia Beach Convention Center on their right. I-264 turned into 21st Street, and Gray shut down the car’s emergency gear and simply risked getting pulled over as he punched straight through until making a left on Pacific Avenue.
The drove north, faster than was advisable. Off to his right, a block away past Atlantic Avenue, Shepherd saw the Neptune stature dominating Neptune Park. The flew past the ritzy Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn…and saw the glass and concrete elegance of the Virginia Beach Regency looming up. Gray hung a sharp right onto 34th Street, and immediate left onto Atlantic Avenue, and then a very hard right into the Regency’s poshly appointed circular drive.
“What time is the MCPON supposed to be here?” Gray asked as he parked, did a quick check of his sidearm, and unbuckled himself.
“If Jenny Li’s information is right, her plane is landing now on the naval station, so give an hour for all the office calls she has to make, and the MCPON should be getting out here in two hours, maybe three with traffic.”
“I’m surprised she’s staying out here; this place is expensive!”
Shepherd shrugged as they exited the car, “Oddly enough, she pays for it herself. Her husband is a rather highly placed civilian engineer; between their combined salaries they are pretty well to do. Otherwise she would be staying on base!”
Gray clipped his badge to the outside of his blue suit coat. “I only hope everything else is in place on time. Otherwise this is going to be very difficult!”
“I’m not letting this bastard win,” Shepherd said. “I’ve got plans. Plans for life after retirement and they don’t involve Gordon Grey running around killing people to get at me!”
Gray laughed, fiddling with his radio. “Well, you are the brilliant one who spotted his target. With luck, we stop him here.”
“We sure as hell beat the rest of the team. I thought the Virginia Beach Police Department were going to meet us?”
Gray shrugged as they jogged up the marble steps and through the smoky glass doors.
“Charlotte was calling them, and that won’t take long,” Gray said, “But we’re still way ahead of them, so for God’s sake, be careful!”
The Regency lobby was a study in overt elegance. Marble flooring and table tops; massive glass chandeliers, and a vaulted ceiling that leaped upwards to glass ceiling giving a view of the Regency tower rising into the Virginia Beach sky.
The manager was not too pleased with their appearance.
“It is not our policy to let unknown persons inspect the rooms of incoming guests,” The man said. Much to Shepherd’s amusement, the man had the punctiliously supercilious attitude of a cartoony caricature one would expect in a low-grade “B” movie. His eyes raked Gray’s expensive suit…and found it obviously not expensive enough. He didn’t even bother to look at Shepherd. “Besides, we cater to a very exclusive clientele here and our public image is delicately balanced to be both welcoming and exclusive. I’m afraid I cannot allow…access to our rooms for such—”
“Uncultured rubes off the street?” Shepherd piped up, unable to resist. He was watching the manager very closely.
“People who have not paid to use our services!” The manager said, huffily.
“I don’t care about your policies or your delicate public image,” Gray said sweetly. “Very soon about a 100 Virginia Beach police officers are going to be swarming this building, and more NCIS and even FBI agents will be right behind them. There is a very strong chance you have a dangerous serial killer in this building, and if you would rather wait for all that manpower to show up and disturb your guests…and your publicity…”
The manager blanched while the receptionist, glaring at him behind his back, shook her head in disgust. Apparently his attitude was not common among the staff.
“I need to get into the suites that the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy will occupy to make sure a serial killer with a talent for accessing secure spaces isn’t there.” Gray said. “But if you prefer to dick around down here until the entire Virginia Beach police force shows up to convince you”
The manager, who looked more and more like a gerbil for some odd reason to Shepherd, twitched his nose, “Oh, alright. I will take you up. But I assure you I will be lodging a complaint with your…supervisor! Our staff and our contracted help are carefully vetted and no one gains entry that isn’t supposed to be here!”
“I think that’s what Custer said just before Little Big Horn,” Shepherd commented mildly.
Gray shot him a look as the manager got the keys and led the way to the elevator as the smoky glass doors opened and more people walked into the swanky establishment.
The manager punched the button for the 16th floor and they began to ascend up, the glass elevator giving a lovely view of the elegant lobby and then Virginia Beach skyline as they rose. Shepherd glanced down at the people coming in the lobby, then shifted his eyes upwards.
“Top floor,” Gray said to Shepherd, “You say she pays for this place out of her own pocket? She and her husband certainly have it made!”
The lift stopped, and the exited into a hallway that looked like something out of the palace of Versailles.
“She is going to stay in Suite 1604,” The manager said, leading them down the hall to 1604. It was a corner suite, meaning it would have wrap-around windows with a stunning view of Virginia Beach and the Atlantic and a long balconey that connected with the others on the floor, separate by a partition to offer some privacy. The manager unlocked the door.
“Ok, sir, you go,” Gray said as he got out his weapon and slowly turned the knob, getting ready to throw the door in so as to catch anyone inside by surprise.
The manager did not waste time but hurried back to the elevator, his nose in the air. Shepherd was sure he had a look of scathing disregard on his face and plans to immediately call NCIS to bitch them out for sending something so gauche as an agent to his hotel.
The elevator dinged, closed, and left.
“Ready?” Gray looked at Shepherd.
The gunshot was so loud and so close that Shepherd wasn’t sure if he had dropped to the deck out instinct or from being hit. But hit the deck he did.
Gray dropped and began to spin around, feeling bits of fiberglass sprinkled down on him as a voice rang out from behind them, “Stop! Drop it, Mr. Gray!”
Gray and Shepherd both looked behind them and froze.
Emerging from Suite 1603, directly across the hall, was Gordon Grey. In the living room of the suite they could see a couple tied up and gagged, laying on the floor, their eyes wide with terror. Grey was holding a pistol, a 9mm near as Shepherd could see. He had fired it into the ceiling ties above them, leaving a hole that was remarkably camouflaged by all other holes patterning the acoustic tiles.
“Mr. Gray, your weapon?” Grey ordered. His hand was steady, his weapon pointed at Abraham Gray’s face. “Clear it, drop the clip out of it, and slide them over here.”
Gray sighed, glanced at Shepherd, and did what he was told.
As soon as the gun slid to Grey’s feet, he motioned to the door of 1604. “It’s open. Go ahead and go in. I promise I won’t shoot either of you in the back. That’s no fun.”
As they got up they saw him kick Gray’s weapon and clip into 1603 and shut the door. “You got here early; I hadn’t had a chance to kill them yet. Oh, well, I’ll get to them later. Plenty of time before the cavalry arrive. Get in.”
Gray and Shepherd stood up and slowly entered 1604.
Gordon Grey snapped the door to 1603 shut, followed them into 1604, and locked the door behind him. The grand vista of the ocean and Virginia Beach framed him like some blockbuster movie scene as he circled around, his back to it, and sat down in an overstuffed arm chair.
With this gun held steady and his gaze keeping them centered, he directed them over to stand in front of a sofa. Shepherd noted there was no coffee table between them, nothing they could use as a weapon. And Grey kept them too far away for them to rush him; he had plenty of time to kill them both if they tried.
“The great Isaac Shepherd and Abraham Gray,” Grey sneered.
“You’re too smart to not realize we have back-up coming,” Gray said. “We just got here early.”
“I have exactly one half hour before your ‘back up’ arrives,” Grey said. “Even the Virginia Beach police will have trouble getting through that traffic on a Friday afternoon. Besides, I have more time than that. Anyway, I wasn’t sure you two would show up. I was beginning to think you were too stupid to work out my ‘reaching for the stars’ message. Still, I knew I could count on you two to lead the charge and get here before everyone else. You two are personally invested in this, and that makes you do some stupid things. Like show up here early. You’re type are so predictable.”
“And if we didn’t?” Gray asked.
“I’d kill the MCPON and keep on enjoying myself.” Grey said casually. “Of course I still have to kill those people in 1603. But that’ll be quick. I’ll be nice to them and be quick. Not their fault they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Like Rex Morgan?” Shepherd asked.
“Who?” Grey asked, clueless.
“Rex Morgan,” Gray answered. “That 3rd Class you killed in the barracks.”
“Oh, the dipshit who walked in on me killing the lieutenant,” Grey nodded, recalling. “Yeah, stupid kid. He’d called up to the office and I had that lieutenant tell him not to come up. But he was so intent on his stupid little picture project he came up anyway. Still, he was useful. I had him hold the lieutenant’s legs and ease him down so the rope took up the strain and killed him.”
Gray and Shepherd exchanged glances as Grey laughed, “Man, you should have seen the look on the lieutenant’s face as the dipshit kid lowered him slowly and he felt himself start to strangle. It was beautiful! And there was dipshit crying and moaning like a pissy little baby. No balls at all. If I didn’t have to kill him to eliminate him as a witness, I’d have done it anyway to get rid of him because the Navy don’t need no pansy little babies like him.”
“And the Norfolk Rover?” Gray asked. “Why did you make it so…brutal? Did you really have to torture and kill the captain’s family?”
“I’ve never actually tortured anyone before,” Grey admitted. “I did it initially to force the boat’s captain to obey me. But, you know what, it was fun! I love watching people’s faces when they realize they’re about to die and start whining and crying. It gets really fun when they piss or shit themselves before they actually start dying!”
Grey laughed merrily. “Ah, some good memories! But, deliberately torturing them? Never tried that before. I did it just as a leverage tactic, but it was fun! Especially the little boy! Oh, the things I did to him and the things I got him to do! Kids…I need to pay more attention to kids! They’re so much fun!”
Gray and Shepherd shared a glance, nodded, and suddenly sat down, both men leaning back and crossing their legs as if they had not a care in the world.
Grey was startled and put off balance, “I didn’t tell you to sit down!”
Shepherd shrugged, “You’re going to kill us anyway. Personally, if I’m going to die, I want to be comfortable. I’ve nearly died a few other ways and they were just plain annoying.”
“You are remarkable calm considering your half-hour clock is counting down rapidly, and you did already fire a shot…probably startled everyone on this floor.” Gray pointed out.
Grey shrugged. “No worries. Those idiots in 1603 are the only ones on this floor right now. And, besides, the MCPON isn’t staying in this room. She’s going to be down the hall in her favorite suite, 1612. I know; when I was Master Chief Stiles’ yeoman I booked it for her before during one of her trips to Hampton Roads.”
“Nicely done!” Shepherd said with genuine admiration. “The hotel manager. He’s one of your boys. I thought his performance seemed a bit…artificial and contrived. And he agreed to bring us up here too quickly for a man who is really obsessed with negative publicity.”
“Don’t blame him,” Grey shrugged. “I’ve got leverage on him. He doesn’t know who I really am; he thinks I’m just a Sulfide Services contractor this place engages to help get things ready for big dogs. I just managed to motivate him to help me out.”
“How” Gray asked.
“Now that would be telling!” Grey laughed. “Anyway, if you two hadn’t shown up early, I’d have just killed those people in 1603, killed the MCPON for the fun of it, and left. And kept going. Got to keep punishing you for ruining my life and hurting my girlfriend. Carolyn deserved better than that twit she was married to, and she deserves better than what you two did to her!”
“Yeah, about that,” Shepherd suddenly rose and strode over to the picture window, “I don’t think you’ll find she likes you much anymore.”
“Sit back down!” Grey barked.
Shepherd ignored him. “I sort of reminded her you tried to stab her that night we arrested you two, and that motivated her to spill the beans about your Restless Leg Syndrome. After that, well, we started to track you through your medicine. Before that I had pegged you at Sulfide Services though already. I know our little recon mission there spooked you, but it netted us John Lee…who gave us the rest of what we needed.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Grey rose and backed up, trying to keep both Shepherd and Gray in his line of sight. “You nearly didn’t get my ‘stars’ message!”
“True,” Shepherd nodded, “But, see, while you are a smart man, Gordon, you’re nowhere near as clever as you think you are. A truly clever man would never have hidden a skip code in a fake suicide note! A truly clever man would never have tried to lead his targets to him. He’d choose the time and place of his final confrontation with them randomly, to keep them guessing.”
“You think you’re so much smarter than me?!”
“I am smarter than you. Way smarter.” Shepherd said looking nonchalantly out the window. “For one, I have two bachelor’s and one master’s degree…and I think you graduated high school. For another, I made Chief and you never will because you were too stupid to realize sleeping with the Force Master Chief’s wife and murdering the Force Master Chief is not the way get promoted! For another, you completely misjudged Abraham and I. Your little murder spree didn’t crippled us with grief and guilt; you pissed us off and made us determined to bring you down. A truly clever man would have killed our families, then us…then disappeared. Hmm…surfers. There’s enough wind and swell that we’ve got some surfers down on the beach.”
“You think you’re so damn smart, huh?!” Grey was clearly being rattled by Shepherd and Gray’ studied lack of being afraid.
“Oh, you did give me a good lesson in not getting too caught up in my own abilities,” Shepherd admitted. “I dismissed your fake suicide notes out of hand for two months. I jumped to a conclusion you were making a stupid inside joke, and was so smug I didn’t reconsider that until recently. But I did. And that’s the difference between us, Gordon. You think you can do no wrong. I stop and ask if might be wrong…and that makes all the difference.
“Oh,” Shepherd turned. “By the way, really?! I mean, come on, tying most of your murders together with the name ‘Gordon’? That is soooo…so just plain stupid. The FBI and NCIS now have a line on you going back years. I admit you were a bit clever. Killing people now and then on ‘Gordon Street’ or the USNS Gordon, but your little fixation on your name and making murder look like suicide gave you away. You really are a loser!”
“I’m a loser, am I?” Grey was angry now. “You’re the one about to die.”
“I’m not going to die,” Shepherd said. “I’ve got plans.”
Grey snickered. “Well, I’ve got plans too, and the first one is to kill you both.”
“You won’t kill us, Gordon,” Shepherd said. “I’ve already won. And very shortly now you’re going to die.”
“How do you figure that?” Grey laughed and leered evilly. “I’ve got a 9 mm and neither of you have nothing.”
“Oh, simple, I’m going to prove my Sailors were right all along. That my puns can kill,” Shepherd said.
“A pun?” Grey looked incredulous. “You’re going to tell me a pun?”
Shepherd looked at Abraham Gray, back to Gordon Grey, and nodded. “Yep, I’m just going to shoot from the hip and take a shot in the dark here.”
“That’s it!” Grey snarled, raising his weapon.
The explosion of powder in the cartridge shook the room as the projectile was forced through the short barrel at over 2,500 feet per second. The bullet cracked the air, splitting it apart as it homed in on its target, impacting the neck and tearing through flesh. A sickening sound of meat and tendons ripping echoed as the bullet, still possessing is manic energy, blasted a huge hole upon exiting the throat and flew straight into the picture window, smashing through it and leaving a spidery pattern in the impact-resistant glass.
Somewhere out over the beach the bullet’s momentum, compromised by flesh and glass already, was eroded by air resistance and it began arcing downward to the water. It splashed into the Atlantic surf even as its victim reflexively clutched his throat, chokingly sucking in breath until he fell, thudding into the rich carpeting.
He was dying.
The blood was spurting from the wound in his neck with every beat of his fading heart. The damage done by the bullet had torn his throat apart; breathing was a choking mass of sundered tissue flapping back and forth as he gagged for air. But…but it was the blood being ejected from his prostrate body that was deciding his fate.
He was dying.
There was nothing for it. He was going to be dead in a very few minutes, and he could…not…stop…it.
It was not supposed to end this way. Not at all.
He had plans. He had goals and dreams. He had a good job lined up…actually, several good jobs lined up. He was finally going to have the freedom to stop scrimping and save money, travel, live like he had wanted to for years. So many years of work were about to pay off.
Yet it was all being taken away from him with every unstoppable beat of his soon-to-be-stopped heart.
He was too weak to even feel anger or horror now. His brain was already getting foggy as its oxygen levels dropped with his blood volume. Even the sadness as fading away slowly as he felt an increasingly acute sense of cold envelope him; an icy feeling of chill creeping inwards from his wounded extremities. Made sense, he supposed. Bleeding out like this meant his body had no mechanism to transfer heat within itself anymore.
His face was wet and sticky; he could feel his own blood creeping through his hair where the side of his face lay on the floor. A wave of nausea hit him as the blood loss made him dizzy. He stirred a bit, but he didn’t have the strength to wretch.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He wasn’t supposed to be the one dying. He wasn’t supposed to be the one defeated. The story was supposed to end with him bringing justice down on the villain who had stalked his nightmares for months now.
Instead he was dying. He had lost, and lost big.
He managed to turn his head and glare up at his adversary.
His vision was blurring and darkening. The form of his enemy stood quietly, watching. He tried to talk, tried to at least curse the man hovering, ghoulishly enjoying his death. He tried, but the bullet had done its work too well; his throat was a mass of jellied flesh fully incapable of performing its proper functions ever again. All he could do was gurgle out a spittle-filled cough.
Flecks of blood landed around the enemy’s shoes. Maddeningly, no blood landed on the shoes. He was to be denied even that petty bit of satisfaction.
“Funny thing,” The enemy said from three feet and two hundred miles away. “You never even knew it, you never saw it coming. For all your clever ideas, you never saw where it actually came from.”
The gun in the enemy’s hand was cold. He knew…he knew all right. The shot that tore out his throat had not come from in front of him. He had blindly fallen into the trap…a trap he should have foreseen. After all, he was the clever, smart one everyone always talked about!
A shudder wracked his fading body. His frame started to struggle for air, but there was no blood to transport it even if he could take a clear breath. His vision was fogging out quickly now.
His enemy leaned down and looked closely at him.
“I’m tired of you. Go on to hell.”
It was just not supposed to have ended this way!
Gordon Grey’s last vision was the face of Isaac Shepherd…and then he was gone.
Shepherd rose back to his feet looking at Veronica Bale. Gray had already flown from the room to release Gordon Grey’s recent prisoners from across the hall.
“That was quite some climb you did, getting over those partitions on the balconys!” Shepherd said, laughing.
Bale smiled grimly and holstered her weapon under her jacket. “Isaac, I thought you were an idiot…but you really did call it. How did you know the manager was working with him?”
Shepherd stepped over the dead body of Gordon Grey to hand Grey’s weapon to Bale, “Lucky guess, I admit. But it was logical. To get the access Grey needed to lie in wait for the MCPON he’d need inside help…someone who actually works here full time. And once I realized the ‘reaching for the stars’ comment was a reference to the MCPON…I realized it was a trap. Oh, if we’d missed it he’d have just killed the MCPON anyway, but he was luring us in, me and Abe.”
Bale smiled as Gray came in.
“They’re physically ok, but I need to stay with them. I presume the police are downstairs?”
“The manager was taken into custody as I started up the elevator,” Bale said.
Gray headed back across the hall.
“Isaac,” Bale said, “It was still a risk, you two being alone and trusting I could get over those partitions and jimmy the sliding door to get in here unseen.”
“An acceptable risk, Veronica,” Shepherd said. “You’re a rock climbing fiend, for one thing. Even at this height getting over one of those partitions is nothing to you. And for another…we’re on the 16th floor. Nine times out of ten this high up balcony doors are left unlocked.”
“This happened to be ten out of ten,” Bale pointed out. “They were locked.”
“But you’re a professional agent with experience and training breaking in to places,” Shepherd said. “It had to be just us; this dork was too good. Any bigger of an operation and he would have picked up on it and split like a bad banana dessert. Another difference between him and I. He controlled and used people. I trust and partner with people. I knew you could get in and come unseen through the bedroom, and Abe knew you’d be able to get here with the police in time. I give Grey credit, though, it was clever of him to have us brought to a suite other than the one the MCPON would have rented.”
The hallway became filled with sounds. Gray stepped back into 1604, followed by Carla Tenbold with a camera. She immediately began marking and photographing the scene as Shey Cremer could be seen out in the hall directing paramedics to assist the couple Grey had tied up in 1603. Virginia Beach police cordoned the room off and began their part of the crime scene sweep.
“Come on, you two,” Gray said. “We can debrief back on base. “Let’s get out of the way. Carla! You and Shey have the con!”
Tenbold grunted her acknowledgment without looking up.
The three of them passed through the crowds of law enforcement and rode the glass elevator back down.
“Now we just need to find out his hold on the manager,” Shepherd said as they exited and came face to face with a squat, plus-sized black woman who made Shepherd think of the DC Comics character Amanda Waller.
“Child porn,” Charlotte Webb, field director of the Norfolk NCIS office, said. “He came unglued as soon as we showed up, Chief Shepherd. “You three are unharmed?”
“Yes, ma’am,’ Gray said to his boss.
Webb nodded, “Ok. There’re are several very high ranking people back at the naval station waiting for you three. Adm. Jones, MCPON Gordon, and a few others. Go be socialable, but I want you all back at NCIS in two hours. We still have a lot of clean up from this mess.”
They nodded and started forward. Gray and Bale’s badges got them passed through the police cordons without incident and they split up, heading to their respective cars.
Once safely inside Gray’s burgundy sedan, Shepherd looked at Gray. “That’s it, Abraham. Now…now it’s finished.”
And Isaac Shepherd promptly fell asleep.
Friday, Sept. 22, was clear and cool. Temperatures were hovering in the low 70s, making it a blissfully wonderful early autumn day.
The Navy Hangar at the Military Aviation Museum in the Pungo region of Virginia Beach was open, several aircraft pulled out to strategic positions on the tarmac as the rest had been arranged into a semicircle anchored by the massive and majestic PBY Catalina flying boat. The Military Aviation Museum boasted one of the largest private collections of flying World War II aircraft (Army Air Force, Navy, and even Russian) in the world, and was expanding a collection of World War I aircraft (come vintage, some faithful replicas).
Sitting under the nose of the grand PBY Catalina was one of the oddest official parties to ever grace a retirement ceremony in the 240+ year history of the United States Navy. A four-star admiral, a captain, a commander, a U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel and Chief Master Sergeant, and a Navy Chief Petty Officer.
The protocol research for ceremonially piping such a party “aboard” had taken three days alone.
The Shepherd family had a long, storied history, and stuck together. So much so that despite nearly having a stroke from terror at the idea, Shepherd’s father, Chief Master Sergeant (Retired) Joseph Francis Shepherd, agreed to be the guest speaker. Shepherd’s older brother, Lt. Col. Joseph Peter Shepherd, an Air Force intelligence officer, agreed to act as chaplain for the ceremony.
Four speakers. Cmdr. Warren as Shepherd’s officer in charge and immediate boss opening the ceremony following Lt. Col. Shepherd’s prayer. Cmdr. Warren then handed it off to the Adm. Jones. Jones gave some brief remarks highlighting his first meeting with then-Yeoman Seaman Isaac Shepherd in Spain at VQ-2 some 19 years earlier and the first murder “Spark” Shepherd had helped solve.
Jones then segued into a brief history of Chief Master Sgt. Shepherd’s career before turning the mic over to him.
Joseph Shepherd (the senior one, not Isaac’s older brother) had spent a solid 30 years in the Air Force and rose to the rank of Chief Master Sergeant (an E9 on the pay scale), as high as he could go. Yet, to hear his speech, one would have though his youngest son son, who was retiring after only 20 years and as a Chief Petty Officer (an E7 on the pay scale) had far surpassed him in military success. Listening to him go into humorous detail about Isaac’s career…well, underneath it all the assembly could hear the pride in the man’s voice, and a bit of disbelief at the passage of time as he recalled standing in Jacksonville, Florida, with Mary, Isaac’s mother, watching Isaac enlist so many years ago.
Those assembled who had never met anyone outside the family suddenly understood why Isaac always described them as a “tight-knit” family. “Clan” might have been a better word for all the bonds that laced the Shepherds together.
The audience consisted of old friends, even from as far back as high school, such as Shepherd’s best friends Lt. Col. Tom and Lt. Col. Linda Coleman…and their five boys. Tom, Linda, and Isaac had been an odd trio in high school, and were still knitted into an extended family today.
Shepherd’s sister-in-law, Natalia, sat with her and Lt. Col. Joseph Peter’s four boys.
Mary, Shepherd’s mother, anchored the front row and wept openly as Captain Messenger presented Issac with the Navy Meritorious Service Medal and Admiral Jones read a special letter from the Secretary of Defense himself, thanking Isaac for his service in stopping the Norfolk Murderer.
Finally…finally it was Isaac’s turn to speak.
Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dionne Robinson, acting as master of ceremonies, held up a hand to quiet the applause following the reading of the letter. The admiral and captain sat back down.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I now present Chief Petty Officer Isaac Timothy Shepherd!”
She reached over to hand the microphone to him, but he shook his head. He had been a teacher for many hears, and was not about to use a mic now.
“I notice the admiral, captain, commander, and my dad all used cue cards,” Shepherd said, fishing some cards from the inside pocket of his dress blue uniform coat. “A very good idea when speaking to keep one’s thoughts together. I did the same. Here they are.”
He held up two index cards, each with a giant letter “Q” on them in red marker.
Even the vintage airplanes surrounding them in the hangar groaned.
Laughing, he put the “Q” cards away and called all the First Class Petty Officers up front. It was a long tradition for a retiring chief to give a set of anchors to each First Class in the hope and expectation of them anchoring up, and Isaac made sure to fulfill it.
Finally, he began his actual speech.
“I’ve thought long and hard about what to say, and I never could find the words,” He said, his hands coming together almost prayer-style in front of his chest. It was a well-known habit he had when gearing up for an extemporaneous speech.
“But I plan to keep this short. I want to be the retirement ceremony everyone remembers fondly, not the one everyone remembers going long.
“First, I need to thank you, Adm. Jones, for taking taking to attend my ceremony. This means a great deal to me sir. I’m here because of you. Had you not approved my request to crossrate from yeoman to the old Photographers’ Mate rate, I would not have become an F-14 fighter mechanic…or been stationed on Guam…taught at the Defense Information School…or been assigned to NEPAC East. You put me on the path that led me to making Chief Petty Officer and being here today. Sir, thank you. You always were one of the best commanding officers I ever had!”
Shepherd turned to his dad, then to the crowd. “My dad told me he doesn’t like public speaking. I didn’t know what he really meant by that until last night when mom told me he’s been throwing up every night the last few nights from the stress of having to do it.”
Shepherd’s dad gave the evil eye to his mother. She smiled and shrugged.
Isaac went on, “Pop…you endured all that just to speak here today for me simply because I’m your son. I can only strive to give my own daughter the same dedication when she needs me.” Isaac turned and smiled at young Katherine, his daughter. She sat with Mary in a lovely blue and green dress that Isaac would never let her forget they bought the night before because she had left her dress at his ex-wife’s.
“Jennifer, my ex-wife, would have been here except she is working. She’s a Park Ranger up at Yorktown, go take her one of her battlefield tours,” Isaac said. “You think I’m a good speaker? She’s better.”
His hands went behind his back, just like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
“You’ll notice that, for a Chief Petty Officer’s retirement ceremony, there are an awful lot of 2nd Class and 3rd Class Petty Officers involved. That was intentional. We are, all of, part of something bigger than us. We all have a chance to shape it, influence it, leave it better. But it will go on without us. The Navy will continue long after we are gone.
“John Paul Jones retired, and the Navy went on. Fleet Admiral Nimitz retired, and the Navy went on. Adm. Boorda passed away, and the Navy went on. I wanted the junior enlisted Sailors involved because, well, they are the future. All of us senior personnel are on our way out. Some sooner, some later. But we are all going to face this moment, this leap into the unknown. And we are all going to have to realize the Navy will move on without us.
“I have had…one hell of an adventure. I’ve seen things I never dreamed I’d see. I’ve done things that, had someone back in high school said I’d do, I’d have thought them insane. In high school, as my friends Tom and Linda will tell you, I was a grade-A nerd—”
“You still are!” Tom Coleman called back across the hangar.
The laughter subsided.
Isaac went on, “We are, all of us, temporary. The Navy is permanent. We are, all of us, passing through. We are, all of us, given only so much time to make a difference. I haven’t always used my time wisely, but I’m human. None of us ever use our time perfectly. But I can say now, at the end, I have left a legacy that will live after me and keep my impact on the Navy alive.”
Abraham Gray and Veronica Bale shifted, expecting Shepherd to go into his crime-fighting efforts.
“As an instructor I have taught and graduated over 4,000 people, officer, enlisted, and civilian, from the various courses and classes I’ve taught. That is my great legacy, and no greater legacy could any leader ask for. I have had the honor…the privilege of being a teacher, a mentor, even a friend, to some of the finest junior enlisted and junior officers in the Navy. You are that of which I am most proud; I happily and confidently leave my Navy in your hands.
“My race is run; my story is done. It’s your turn to make a difference. Seize the day and go do great things! Live, explore, have the courage to do what’s right even when you know you’ll pay a price for it. Do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and not for any reward. In the end, the reward you find will be the esteem and respect of those looking up to you as a mentor, and that is the treasure you will carry with you. The story never ends; make sure you those coming after you prepared to take over for you.”
For just a moment Isaac Shepherd stopped, at a loss. But, he seemed to have reached the end of his words.
“In the end…20 years in the Navy…22 countries…3 U.S. territories…war…natural disaster…” He sighed and looked up, sweeping the official party and crowd with his gaze. “It was fantastic. You all—you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic!”
He seemed to gather himself, smiling, “You know what else?”
The crowd glanced around and shook their heads.
“So was I!”
The smile that broke from Isaac Shepherd’s face was as radiant as the sun.
It was close, and the two would argue for the rest of their lives about who got to their feet first, but Adm. Jones and Isaac’s mother led the charge to a standing ovation.
Isaac Shepherd looked around. He looked at the past, the present, and, in the younger Sailors, the future…and he was happy.
It was finished.
The cold January wind cut through Naval Station Norfolk like a frigid knife. Ice rimed on cars and trees and star railings. It was just damp enough to be miserable but not enough to be an ice storm and keep everyone at home.
NCIS Special Agent Abraham Gray, dressed as ever in his usual blue suit, signed in and was given a visitor badge before being buzzed through the security door into NEPAC East. He had long become a common figure around the command, and no one questioned his presence.
“Abe!” Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jeonghi Li greeted him. “What are you doing here? Oh, did you see Isaac’s latest Facebook post?”
“No, I didn’t. I’ve been pretty busy.”
“Come here!” She laughed and led the way into the Operations Office. Dionne Robinson, her “Eisenhower” jacket on over her khakis, was at her desk, trying to juggle the media manning needs of two carrier strike groups when she only had enough deployable personnel for half of one.
“Abe!” She looked up.
“Di, pull up Facebook,” Li said, smiling. “He’s got to see Isaac’s latest post!”
“I confess I’ve lost touch with him these past couple of weeks,” Gray said, handing his coat on a hook by the door. “Ever since he started that bloody cross-country road trip, he’s hard to keep up with.”
Li nodded, “Well, every job offer he got was back in September while he was active duty. After that…it just seemed no one was hiring.”
“So he just takes off to see the country…in the middle of winter!” Robinson said as Facebook loaded with the usual slowness of an NMCI system.
“I think we’re all actually a bit jealous,” Li said. “He is also talking to a publisher; apparently he’s drafting a murder mystery, and wants to see about becoming the next Agatha Christie!”
Gray laughed, “Well, he’s got enough source material to pull from!”
“Here it is!” Robinson announced.
“Here what is?” Cmdr. Warren had come into the Operations Officer. “Mr. Gray! What brings here you?”
“Well, apparently I have to see Isaac’s latest status update before I’m allowed to say anything!”
“Here,” Robinson slid her monitor around so everyone could see it.
The camera was evidently set up on Sara Jane, Shepherd’s SUV, because the could see a hint of blue fender in the bottom of the frame.
Beyond was a figure standing wrapped in a heavy brown coat with a blue knit cap on his head. Sea green eyes twinkled a smile out over a thick, steel-gray beard.
“Oh, good, Lord!” Gray laughed. “He looks like Grizzly Adams!!!”
“But, he made it,” Robinson said.
“Made it?” Warren asked.
Robinson nodded. “When he took off he said he planned to drive all of the lower 48 states, but his goal was to get to Alaska. Looks like he made it!”
Only then did Gray realize Shepherd was standing under a sign that proclaimed in bold white letters:
Welcome to Juneau
Alaska’s Capital City
“Wow!” Warren said. “He drove all the way up to Alaska?! In the winter?!”
Gray nodded, “That is exactly the kind of thing he’d do…especially after not being able to lock in a regular job for so long.”
“So, what brings you by, Abe?” Robinson said, turning her monitor back.
Gray signed, “I need your help, Di.”
“Oh, no!” Warren said. “You are not turning another one of my chiefs into an accidental detective!”
Gray shrugged, “I’m afraid Isaac did that, Commander. But I do need her help. There is a case that she might be able to help me get a lead on.”
“Why me?” Robinson asked, almost wearily.
“It’s a stumper,” Gray said. “Stolen car found parked as neatly as you please inside Pembroke Mall among a display of new cars. Dead body inside.”
“Let me guess,” Robinson said, “You’re here because the dead body is a Navy Sailor?”
“U.S. Marine, actually, “Gray said. “Marines are under our jurisdiction just like the Navy. Anyway, the interesting thing is the Marine died three days earlier and was already in the morgue when his dead body apparently got up, walked out, and drove a stolen car from Portsmouth clear over to Virginia Beach to park it in a mall display.”
“You’re kidding, right? About wanting my help?” Robinson asked hopefully.
“No,” Gray said. “I need a fresh set of eyes on this, especially as we’re still down an agent.”
“You are?” Warren asked.
“Charlotte reprimanded Shey Cremer after we determined he leaked the information about Isaac the press in September. He resigned in a huff.”
Gray turned back to Robinson. “So, what do you say? Murder? Adventure? Mystery? The Navy needs an ‘Accidental Detective,’ Dionne. And Isaac chose you.”
Warren and Li looked at her, their expressions a mix of pity and admiration.
“Go on, Chief,” Warren said. “I think Chief Li can hold the fort for a few hours.”
“Oh, good grief,” Robinson said. “Oh, all right.”
She got up and got her pea coat. “I assume everything is still at Pembroke Mall?”
“All except the body,” Gray said. “We had him taken back to the morgue…and I was highly tempted to have him put under restraints. I don’t like corpses walking around.”
“Yes!” Li suddenly exclaimed. “I forgot!”
“What?” Robinson asked.
“Isaac left something for you,” Li said, rummaging in her desk. “He told me to give it to you ‘the day Abraham Gray comes calling.’ And that’s a quote.”
Li pulled a gift bag out of the drawer and handed it to Robinson.
Robinson cautiously looked inside the bag and jerked in surprise, a strangled groan escaping her lips.
“What is it, Chief?” Warren asked.
Robinson reached in and slowly…very slowly…pulled out a “deerstalker” cap—the type traditionally worn by actors portraying Sherlock Holmes.
“I…hate…him…” Robinson said. But then, suddenly, her grumpiness evaporated and she started laughing.
“Come along, then, Madame Holmes,” Abraham Gray said, his eyes sparkling with mirth. “The game’s afoot!”