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.
Off Center (A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
NCIS Special Agent Abraham Gray saved Shepherd the trouble of signing in and going through security by meeting him in the lobby.
“Isaac,” Gray said, holding out a hand as Shepherd entered the building. “Good to see you again!”
Shepherd shook his hand. “For some odd reason I think you actually mean that.”
Gray shrugged. He was wearing a dark blue suit and bright red tie that made him look like a presidential candidate. His ash blonde hair was as streaked with silver as was Shepherd’s formerly black hair. Like Shepherd, Gray was tall, but he didn’t quite break 6’1”, while Shepherd clocked in at 6’3”. Years ago when they first met, they had both been quite skinny. Gray, at 51, had a good six years in age on Shepherd, but had kept his skeletal frame late into his 30s. Shepherd had started to fill out back in his 30s. Now, however, both men were strapping and barrel-chested. Formerly bony faces had thickened up and waistlines expanded a couple of inches from where they had been all those years ago.
Two old men, Shepherd thought in spite of himself.
“So, you don’t think Stiles shot himself?” Gray opened as he sat down on a pre-fabricated government couch next to the window.
“No,” Shepherd said. “Assuming the stories I read on line are accurate, he shot himself in the head.”
“Right,” Gray nodded.
“Look, Abe, people who commit suicide by shooting themselves in the head either put the gun in their mouth or against their temple. Don’t you find it the least bit odd the entry wound was just barely off center in the middle of his forehead?” Shepherd asked. “Granted I’m no firearms expert—“
“But you did stay in a Holiday Inn Express the other night, right?” Gray laughed.
“Oh, ha ha. But, come on, Abe. The man kills himself by putting the gun nearly dead center on his forehead?”
Gray sighed and looked outside, “Isaac, to be honest, most of us agree with you on that. It is odd. Damned odd. But it’s a classic case; the setup is right out of those Agatha Christie novels you love so much. His office was locked, he was alone. He had a private weapon on base illegally. You know private firearms currently aren’t allowed on any military base. But he wouldn’t be the first to bring a gun on board a base in contravention of the rule. He and his wife were avid shooters. Ironically the gun belonged to her. She’s really having heartache over that, I can tell you.”
“And?” Shepherd wasn’t trying to be callous against Mrs. Stiles’ feelings, but he was trying to get a view of the situation.
Gray shrugged, “His yeoman had left for the day at 16:00 like he always did. Stiles was alone, time of death was 19:00 to 20:00. That’s all I can say. And yes, we questioned the yeoman and Mrs. Stiles and their son (he’s Navy too and home on leave). But the YN was out at a club and even posted a few selfies of himself dancing like an idiot. God, I hate the selfie generation! The wife and son were at home watching ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Shepherded leaned forward, steepling his fingers just like Mr. Spock from “Star Trek.” His long back arced and his eyes locked onto Gray’s. “And John Stiles put the gun to his forehead….meaning he’d have to twist his hand around at a very odd angle to fire.”
“Isaac, I agree the whole thing looks weird, but this isn’t Spain and this isn’t an admiral’s daughter killing people—“
“Or her father killing the witnesses…or coming after me a few years later,” Shepherd said. “I get it. But I was right back then. Remember? And I was right on aboard the Ponce¸ and the IKE, and the—“
“Isaac, chill. We wouldn’t be talking about this if I hadn’t learned to rely on your judgement. You have the world record for solving murders of anyone who isn’t a professional detective. But I don’t see what a bullet that’s slightly to the left of dead center in a man’s forehead means other than the man in question was determined to kill himself and chose a highly unusual method to do it.”
“John Stiles was left handed,” Shepherd said quietly.
“Come again?” Gray asked, completely lost.
“Abe, if you’re right handed, and you try to put a gun to the middle of your forehead, odds are the shot will be a bit off center because of the extreme bend you’re putting in your wrist, correct?”
“Correct, just like we found.”
“To quote Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, you need to use your little gray cells and think it through with order and method,” Shepherd said. “A right-handed man tries to shoot himself dead center in the forehead; the human wrist just doesn’t bend that far that easily. The shot likely would be off center by a bit…but on the left side of the forehead, not the right. A left-handed man…the shot would have likely been off center on the right side of the forehead.”
Gray sat forward very suddenly. He held up his right hand, holding his finger like a gun and stuck to this own forehead.
“Good grief, you’re right. My wrist…I feel like I’m straining the hell out of trying to keep my finger in place…and with a gun in the hand…you’re right…my hand is tracking to my left…”
Shepherd nodded. “John Stiles was left handed. I know. I’ve seen him write. If he put a gun to the center of his forehead, it would have tracked ever so slight to the right side of his forehead, not the left. The entry wound should be slightly off center to the right, not the left. Instead, the entry wound was on the left side of his forehead.”
Gray was looking at his shiny black shoes, and then raised his head to meet Shepherd’s hazel eyes.
“Abe, I’m telling you…and you know I’m right…John Stiles was murdered.”
Gray leaned back, shaking his head. “No. No, Isaac, that’s just not enough. I grant you the shot likely would have tracked a bit to the right, but it’s still possible for him to have put the shot off center to the left even though he was left handed, especially if he was in a state of sudden despair and flung the gun up in a moment of suicidal depression.”
Shepherd nodded, looking around the simple lobby. The receptionist, seated quietly and safely at her desk behind a bullet-proof window, pretended not to notice them. Her upturned nose and unconscious glance their way let Shepherd know the woman was decidedly in the “use Isaac Shepherd as an anchor” camp.
“Ok. I grant that. But what about the exit wound?”
Gray did a double take as a gust of wind shook the building and a cold rain fell out of the sky with a splat outside the windows. “Exit wound?”
“Abe, come on. A bullet at close range like that would not just bounce around his skull. I’ve photographed enough autopsies to know a bit about bullet wounds even without my accidental involvement with murders I had no business being involved in.”
“Of course there was an exit wound—“
“And I’m betting it was on the right side of his head with the bullet having traced a diagonal path from that entry point just to the left of his forehead’s midline,” Shepherd said flatly. Meaning the bullet entered at an angle from left-to-right, not left-to-straight-back.”
Gray nodded. “Ok, you nailed that one. The bullet did trace a left-to-right diagonal path through his head.”
Shepherd looked his old friend in the eyes, “You’re not happy at all with the findings and you know something’s wrong. So tell me what’s bothering you, Abe.”
“How do you know I’m unhappy? It’s weird and unusual, but all evidence points to a suicide.”
Shepherd shook his head. “Abe, you’re an NCIS agent. You people are the best there is in law enforcement; I’d sooner trust an NCIS agent than an FBI agent. You people don’t like ‘weird and unusual.’ You would not be here talking to me if you didn’t feel as certain as I do that something’s out of place. You want me here because sometimes the ‘outsider perspective’ sees things that someone immersed in a situation can miss. Same reason we move people around in the Navy—fresh eyes on jobs achieve new ideas and results, and I’m the ultimate outsider in this kind of stuff.”
Gray started at Shepherd, always impressed by his perspicacity.
“And,” Shepherd played his ace, “You asked me to come here today when I called. If you were 100% certain Stiles killed himself, you would not have told me to come over.”
Gray laughed. “Ok, ok, you’re right. I don’t think this is as clean-cut as it appears. None of us do, but, as much as I hate to admit it, we’re missing something here.”
“Ok, let’s talk crime scene. I never visited Stile’s office at Atlantic Force Surface Command. Tell me about it.”
Gray nodded and gave in. “Well, his office was down the hall from the Quarterdeck. Three doors down on the right. Atlantic Force Surface Command—AFSC—is a one-story building here on the naval station over behind the chapels and the Bldg. C-9 recreation center. Typical layout; outer office where the Yeoman First Class sits, and then Stiles’ office.”
“One in the outer office across from the YN1’s desk, none in Stiles’ office.”
Shepherd nodded. “Security cameras?”
Gray glanced out at the pelting rain, his face half-lit as he recalled details. “It’s an older building; cameras in the hallways. None in the outer office and, of course, none in Stiles’ office. No alarm sensors on the windows, either. Old-type mechanical window locks that you twist. So, before you say it, yes, someone could conceivably entered through the window in the outer office…but it was locked from the inside.”
Shepherded nodded again, trying to organize a picture in his mind. One of the problems his hyper-intelligent brain dealt with was a somewhat chaotic and frenzied thought process. Calming the ever-churching storm in his head was always an exercise.
Details, He thought. Details…what other details are important…?
“Locks,” Shepherd said. “What kind of security locks were there? Stiles worked in a region headquarters and was a Force Master Chief. There have to be cypher locks.”
Gray nodded. “Yep…but the older mechanical kind. AFSC is scheduled to get digital locks next year, but right now they all only have the older mechanical kind on the inner doors, and those don’t keep a log like the newer digital ones do. Security footage shows no one going in the building after hours, and Stiles died about 19:00 – 20:00 that night. He did suffer from depression and anxiety, just like you do, Isaac. And, like you, he attempted suicide at his first command, so the history is there.”
Shepherd nodded. He was too old now for his own suicide attempt or fight with agoraphobia to embarrass him. Rather the reverse; he was very active trying to use his experience to raise awareness of mental health issues. Stiles, however, had kept his struggles quiet; until his death very few in the Chief’s Mess even knew he had a problem with depression, and none had known he had attempted suicide 27 years earlier.
Shepherd inhaled and roused himself from his brief reverie, “So we’re left with—“
“The classic locked-from-the-inside window, a man with a history of mental health struggles who illegally brought a firearm on base, and a very questionable bullet path through his head,” Gray answered. “With the exception of the bullet path through his skull, everything points to suicide.”
“But it doesn’t,” Shepherd said, as much to himself as to Gray. “Abe, we’re meant to think it was suicide, but that improbable bullet path alone is enough to shoot that theory in the head.”
“Really?” Gray deadpanned, raising his eyebrows at Shepherd’s pun. At times like these one could never tell if Isaac Shepherd skirted into such awful puns on purpose or not.
“I know it’s not enough to satisfy legal requirements, but I’m telling you, Abe, that bullet wound…that entry would is critical here. Something’s missing that we’re missing.”
“Your circular logic is amazing, Mr. Spock,” Gray said sardonically.
“Abe, I need to see a photo of the body. I know it’s not supposed to be allowed, but I have to see the pictures.”
“I can’t. Dude, come on, you know how this works. This isn’t some Mary Higgins Clark novel. In real life agents like me don’t let outsiders like you into the case files.”
“Then you need to give me a lot more detail. Tell me about the entry wound. Size, caliber, blood, skin tone, everything.” Shepherd leaned back, folding his long arms around himself, the black fleece making him look somewhat akin to a Catholic priest.
Gray hated this part. He was used to pulling details out of witnesses, not having them pulled out of him.
He closed his eyes. “The gun was .32 hand gun. Easily carried and concealed. Stiles had a concealed carry permit; he just shouldn’t have had it on base. Only his fingerprints were on it. The wound itself was clean like you’d expect an entry wound to be. It looked like something a Hollywood make-up artist would create for a movie; the catastrophic damage came from the exit wound at the back of his head. He was sitting in his chair, and it’s one of those extra-high backed executive chairs. Bullet passed through it and embedded in the wall behind him with the ejecta from his head all over the chair and spattered up on the wall. He fell left as the force of the material being ejected from the back right side of his skull acted like a…well, not to be gross but like a jet engine.”
“Jet-recoil effect,” Shepherd nodded.
“Right,” Gray said. “He fell to the left and—“
Gray started, “What?”
“The gun was his wife’s?”
“But only his fingerprints were on it?”
“Yeah,” Gray said. “So what….oh, crap.”
Gray looked at Shepherd, understanding what Shepherd had seen and they’d missed, but Shepherd began speaking the question aloud first.
“If the gun belonged to his wife, why—“
“Weren’t her prints found on it as well?” Gray finished. “That is a point…but it could be accounted for if they cleaned their weapons religiously.”
“Did they?” Shepherd prodded.
Gray cast his mind back to his examination of the Stiles’ house and gun collection. “No…the weapons were clean but several had recently been used and weren’t polished. In fact, she said that .32 was her favorite pistol; she shot it all the time.”
“The most likely weapon he’d grab would be one from a pile they’d used recently, and that group wasn’t cleaned and polished. So her fingerprints should have been on it most likely.”
“But why grab her gun…? Still not enough,” Gray said. “Close…we’re close…but no. No judge would admit that.”
“One more thing,” Shepherd said. “You told me the entry wound was clean, like something a makeup artist would create. How bad were the powder burns?”
“Burns?” Gray asked blankly, caught off guard by Shepherd’s leap of thought. “There were no burns. Like I said, a clean entry wound.”
“Abe, you wanted something more. This is it. A man puts a gun to his head and shoots himself. Wouldn’t the skin immediately around the wound be burned from the discharge?”
Gray stood up abruptly, “Good Lord…You’re right…there were no burns…”
“Which means,” Shepherd leaned back, crossed his legs and looked up to meet Gray’s eyes, “Which means that gun was not pressed against John Stiles’ forehead when it fired. It was far enough away to prevent the skin from being burned by the discharge when it was fired. Which means—“
“Which means John Stiles did not shoot himself,” Gray said. “Dammit, we’re all idiots. I’m a damned fool! It was right in front of us. But we got caught up in all the window dressing that made it look like a suicide. Dammit!”
The receptionist looked up behind her bullet-proof window, startled at Gray’s exclamation.
“And murders are usually committed by somebody close to the murder victim,” Shepherd said. “So now we have to figure out who killed John Stiles—the yeoman, the wife, or the son?”
“Or someone we haven’t run into yet,” Gray amended, looking down at Shepherd as the storm raged cold and forbidding outside.