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.
On the Rocks
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
Special Agent Abraham Gray sat staring at the pile of paperwork in front of him. The small mountain range of pulped and processed trees threatened to capsize the table in the conference room of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s office on board Naval Station Norfolk.
Gray stared at the papers as though they were deliberately keeping a secret from him. At 55 he had spent the better part of his life sorting through evidence, seeing slim possibilities, and brining justice to those who flouted the law. Dressed as usual in a dark suit, red tie, and American flag lapel pin, Gray’s attire and bright silver hair gave him an uncanny resemblance to a politician running for office. His face, though certainly not that of a 20 year old man, was by no means reflective of his half-century (a nice trade-off since his hair went silver when he was only 23).
He had read over every report, examined all the forensic evidence, studied every witness statement, and was once again led back to the conclusion that the whole affair was, well, nuts.
The body of Robert G. Norman had been found washed ashore onboard the world’s largest naval station Sunday night—48 hours ago. Norman’s corpse had been found midway between the memorials to the dead from the attack on the USS Cole (DDG 67) in October 2000 and the Sailors killed in the explosion of a gun turret aboard the battleship USS Iowa (BB 61) in April 1989.
Gray picked up the report of the discovery and read over it again. Norman had been wearing brown shoes and slacks, a pinstriped blue shirt and brown tweed sport jacket. He had a set of car keys in his pocket, an inexpensive Timex watch on his left wrist, a wallet containing his Navy ID, credit cards, and $67.35 in cash was in his right hip pocket. His cellphone was on the body, as was a bottle of eye drops and a thin gold chain around his neck. He had been found by a roving security patrol at 23:41 hours (nearly midnight). The body had been surrounded by cats (the naval station had a very large population of feral cats along the waterfront), but otherwise surprisingly intact.
Gray sat back, ignoring the cup of coffee that had long since turned cold and began begging for ice. Instead he picked up the medical examiner’s report. Norman’s body had been taken to Portsmouth Naval Hospital across the Elizabeth River for the autopsy. The findings made him crinkly his brow in consternation.
Something else was bugging him. He couldn’t quite place it. But something was missing.
“Still staring at that crap?” Special Agent Shay Cremer came in, coffee in hand. Cremer was short, stocky man with a build like Danny Devito in his prime. Cremer could never find shirts that actually fit, and his shoulders and arms were always stretching the seams.
Following Cremer into the conference room was Carla Tenbold, another special agent. She was a plus-sized woman with a deceptively matronly air about her that gave no hint to her unique side angle at night: teaching belly dance classes to local women in Chesapeake, one of the seven cities of the Hampton Roads area. She tossed a file folder on the table as she and Cremer sat down. She carried her own tumbler of coffee.
Gray shook his head. “This one just doesn’t make a lot of sense…hell, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Tenbold sipped her coffee. “Shay was just starting to catch me up. I know the body was found two days ago. Seems straight forward enough. Drowning victim.”
Gray shook his head. “It’s not. For one thing, his parents talked to him on Wednesday…and he put off meeting up with some guys from HSC 227 on Tuesday. But the coroner’s absolutely sure he was already dead by a week when he was found…meaning a dead man talked to his friends and his parents.”
“Norman’s body was in the water,” Cremer said. “You know that immersion royally screws up all the evidence.”
“Right. But for one thing, he’s been dead a week, yet his body doesn’t show signs of being immersed for a week,” Gray said. “The body only shows limited maceration in the hands and arms and legs. That kind of loosening of the skin due to water absorption—restricted to the limbs—occurs about 24 hours into immersion. Hair and nails are all intact. His face and ears show very little damage from crabs or fish, meaning he was not in the water longer than 24 hours. Overall his face was intact enough for a visual identification by his commanding officer—again evidence he was not in the water that long.”
“You just found all this out?” Cremer asked.
Gray held up a report, “Fresh from the medical examiner. Norman’s body was in the water no more than a day. The water damage was not sufficient to erase all over evidence, so they were able to put the time of death somewhat accurately back to eight or nine days ago, right about April 30th. Yet he was phoning his friends on May 2nd and his parents on May 3rd.”
“I know that look, Abe,” Cremer said, “What else is in the medical examiner’s report?”
“Well, Norman’s lungs were filled with fluid alright,” Gray said.
“That could happen after death though; he might have drowned by an intense spasm of the larynx blocking off air while he struggled. Once he died, the larynx would relax and allow the lungs to flood,” Tenbold said. “Though the flooding would not be as deeply invasive as if he asphyxiated from actively inhaling a large volume of water.”
Gray shook his head. “Nope. Not that. The fluid in his lungs was not water.”
Cremer and Tenbold glanced at each other, confused.
“It was beer,” Gray said.
“Say what?” Cremer shook his head.
“Beer,” Gray repeated. “And, from what the lab wizards can figure, pretty cheap beer at that.”
“Cheap beer?” Tenbold repeated.
Gray nodded. “But it gets better. He did not die by drowning. There was none of the usual signs of death by asphyxiation. After only 24 hours in the water, the body was intact enough for them to figure that out. And the lungs were filled with a relatively cheap beer I will leave nameless. However, blood toxicology indicates an old Agatha Christie favorite—cyanide.”
“What?” Tenbold said. “He was poisoned? And then someone shoved beer into his lungs and dumped him in Willoughby Bay?”
“Not quite,” Gray said. “He was poisoned and the body stored somewhere somewhat cool. Not a full-on refrigerator, but cool enough to retard early decomposition significantly…and then beer was pumped into the lungs and he was dumped.”
“Oh, Lord,” Cremer said, “He was killed by a lunatic.”
“Whoever killed him,” Gray said, “Is a very calculating and clever individual. Norman was killed for show. He was killed by poisoning, then his body was defiled and dumped a week after the fact.”
“Wait,” Tenbold said, “You told us he phone his parents and some friends.”
Gray nodded. “I did. But how could he have done that if he was dead? The medical examiner’s facts are incontrovertible. Robert G. Norman died over a week ago. So how does a dead man phone a friend?”
“Unless it wasn’t him,” Tenbold said. “This killer is clever…and sadistic. I would not be surprised to find out they’d staged the phone calls. Maybe they picked Norman because they could easily disguise their voice to sound like his.”
“Wait,” Cremer said. “You said ‘phoned’ his friends and parents. None of them actually saw Norman during this past week?”
“No, he was on leave,” Gray explained. “I talked to his CO. He was on leave and, when talking to his friends and parents, expressly said he wanted to be alone for a few days. Obviously that wasn’t him, but HSC 227 has had a heavy deployment cycle and it’s not unusual for people to want to vanish from work as far as they can when on leave.”
“Charlotte’s going to go nuclear over this one,” Tenbold said, referring to their boss. Charlotte Webb was an old, talented NCIS professional who had a near-record string of successful cases. She was also someone who was not easily amused and was preceded by a reputation of fierce, uncompromisingly gruff professionalism.
“Exactly,” Gray nodded. “We have a perp here who apparently is calculating, crafty, clever, cunning, and cold—and still out there possibly threatening others.”
“Since when do you go all alliterative, Abe?” Cremer asked.
Gray shook his head, “Sorry. Hang around Isaac Shepherd enough and it rubs off on you. Anyway this perp is dangerous. He or she doesn’t just want to kill, this person wants to make a statement. Raise a honking big red flag over their work. I don’t think they killed Norman out of revenge or any grievance against him. I think he was killed so the killer could have fun.”
“Well, we need to start sorting out the last time he was physically, verifiably seen alive,” Cremer said.
“Yes,” Gray nodded. “And that’s where I need your help. We divided the labor pretty well amongst the three of us interviewing the suspects and witnesses in the Stiles case back in March. I want to divide and conquer with you two specifically again.”
“What about your ‘friend,’?” Tenbold asked, somewhat tightly. “Your special little ace in the hold over at NEPAC East?”
Gray looked at her with a withering expression. “Carla, relax. The only time Isaac gets involved is—“
“When he thinks we can’t do our jobs.” Cremer groused. “He’s a freakin’ Mass Communication Specialist, not an agent. He needs to keep his nose out of our business.”
Gray sighed and dropped his head in his hands. Looking back up over the island of paperwork, he locked eyes with Cremer. “Shay, I get how you feel. I really do. But Isaac has a knack for seeing…seeing ‘sideways’ through a problem and he’s always been right. I know it’s no fun to have a public affairs guys get into our business, but even you have to admit he’s done a lot for us just over the last two months. He was the one who realized the Stiles case in March was a murder and not a suicide like we thought. I asked for his help on the Eisenhower Murder case specifically because we had a limited timetable before that ship started tearing itself apart. And he came through.”
“I still don’t like him. Every time he gets into our business it makes us look like idiots,” Tenbold grumbled.
“What’s more important, Carla? Really? Our egos or getting to the truth?”
Tenbold glowered at Gray, “I hate it when you do that. Ok, ok, I’ll admit this Shepherd guy has been helpful. But we’re not pulling him into this one, are we?”
Gray shrugged. “No need to. But we need to get on this timeline. I’ll go back to HSC 227 and talk to the CO and XO and all. Shay, I’ve got the list of calls he supposedly made Tuesday and Wednesday. Talk to these people—especially his parents. See if they are absolutely 100% sure it was his voice, his manner and rate of speech. All that. And see if someone has any voice mails of his left and also perhaps recorded the Tuesday and Wednesday phone calls. If we can compare a genuine voice sample with the calls this past week, we might get a clue.”
Tenbold was scanning the medical examiner’s report. “Where do you want me?”
“Financial records. If his phone was used so might his debit or credit cards. That’ll give us a line on where he might have…er…well, ‘been’ this past week. Or, more accurately, where his cards were used.” Gray said. “I want this one done quickly. Anyone who murders and then puts on a little show like this will do it again. We don’t even know if Norman was targeted randomly or because he was Navy.”
“Alright, let’s go to work,” Cremer said, pulling a file to him and starting to read. He and Tenbold would need to study up on all the data Gray had amassed.
“You guys do your homework,” Gray said, getting up and button his suit jacket. “I’ve got to talk to Charlotte and then start making some inquiries.”
Gray left his partners to study the case as he headed out to meet with Charlotte before going to HSC 227. He didn’t say anything to Cremer or Tenbold, but he was sure he was missing something…