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 Hanged Man
(A Short Navy Murder Mystery)
by Nathanael Miller
The Norfolk Navy Exchange bills itself as the largest Navy Exchange in the world for good reason: it is.
With more than 180,000 square feet of retail space, the facility just outside the gates of Naval Station Norfolk—the world’s largest naval station— in the Hampton Roads part of Virginia, the “NEX” building is never a quiet place as service members and their families buy clothes, garden supplies, uniform items, hardware, and appliances. The great sprawling mall hosts a food court that is never quiet, an upscale jewelry counter, a barber shop/beauty salon, and concessions for an optometrist and dry cleaner. The building is also directly connected to the Defense Commissary Agency’s Naval Station Norfolk Commissary, making it extraordinarily convenient for naval station personnel to get their retail and grocery shopping all done at once.
The food court is a bright place with large windows looking out over the NEX’s scenic parking lot. Often guests eating will watch aircraft such as E-2C Hawkeyes and C-2 Greyhounds taking off or landing beyond the trees on the naval station’s runway.
Hanging TVs allow patrons to catch upon the news or sports while a variety of eateries provide pizza, tacos, Chinese fare, sushi, or fried chicken. The bustling din of thousands of people, most of them in uniforms varying from blue “aquaflage” to flight suits to chief’s and officer’s khaki, passing through or absorbed in their own conversations creates an ideal spot for two ancient friends to catch up after they discarded the refuse of their own early dinner.
“You’re miserable,” Lt. Col. Thomas Coleman, United State Air Force, said.
“Say what?” Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac Shepherd, United States Navy, asked.
“I said you’re miserable,” Coleman repeated. At 46, he was one year older than Shepherd, but had, annoyingly enough, inherited the genetics to stay naturally trim and “cut,” his tall, slender frame still built very much as it had been in his 20s. His ash blonde hair was thick and, despite years of service in various deserts, his skin was smooth and barely lined.
There was no denying it, but Tom Coleman and his wife, Linda Coeland Coleman, both looked like perpetually made-up Hollywood movie stars who had yet to discover they were fast approaching middle age.
It was infuriating.
In contrast Shepherd, though only 45, had salt-and-pepper hair that leaned way more towards “salt” and a formerly skinny frame that had discovered its own genetic desire to grow exponentially in girth. Shepherd was by no means fat; he kept up a pretty steady physical fitness routine, was rather active, and ate pretty decently, but still could not quite reconcile his modern barrel-chested look with the skinny kid stuck in his memory.
His own skin, exposed to the sun as much at sea as Coleman’s had been in the desert, had a bit more of a weather appearance. Add to that the heavy fur on his arms and exceptionally dark patches of beard showing under his skin (patches that had not yet turned steel silver), well…whereas Coleman looked like an underwear model who had yet to strip down for a photo shoot, Shepherd bore more of a resemblance to an older version of the rugged, slightly unkempt mountain man who advertised a certain brand of paper towels.
The two men were both wearing civilian clothes. Coleman—in keeping with the Hollywood image he was so oblivious too, was dressed in a stylish green polo shirt and designer slacks with glistening, soft leather shoes on. Shepherd was wearing a “microfiber” T-shirt, cargo shorts, and sneakers. They may have been in civilian clothes, but anyone with an iota of military experience would have immediately pegged Coleman as an officer and Shepherd as an enlisted man.
“Isaac,” Coleman said, “I’ve known you for 30…good Lord, no, over 31 years now. I seem to recall I was the first person you met in Niceville at Ruckel Jr. High…back when it before it was a middle school and they moved the freshman class over to Niceville High our senior year. I know when you’re miserable. Hell, I pegged you for chronic depression years before you attempted suicide and got on meds and all after you joined the Navy.”
Shepherd couldn’t help but laugh. Outside his immediate family there were only two men who knew him so well. Tom Coleman was one; the other was former Navy shipmate Cutter Jackson who was now in the Navy Reserves and working on an officer’s package. Both men Shepherd called his “other brothers.”
“Alright, alright, I concede the point, Lieutenant Colonel!” Shepherd deliberately made using Coleman’s rank a joke. “But I’m not miserable, just…stressed out. I’m a total control freak, you know. It’s part of what makes me a good chief. But it’s July 5, I have just under 90 days left before I retire, and no jobs lined up yet.”
“Dude, you need to relax,” Coleman said. “You’ve got applications out the wazoo submitted and, statistically speaking, employers don’t usually talk to people unless they can start within 90 days. You just hit that window.”
“Like a bird,” Shepherd quipped. “But there are moments when you look in the mirror and wonder what the hell you did with your life. And how the hell such large parts of it went so damn wrong.”
Coleman shrugged, “Look, you’re gay. But you fell for a woman once and tried to make a marriage work. It didn’t, and I know—I know—that tore you apart. But it was a mistake on you and Jennifer’s parts, not a crime. And you did inherit a step-daughter who’s, frankly, your daughter. Not like her biological father’s been seen, in what, seven years? You’ve been raising Catherine since she was two. She’s twelve now.”
“I know, and that’s called ‘cognitive behavioral therapy,’ or CBT, a counseling technique of learning to control and consciously adjust thought patterns to less-stressful lines,” Shepherd said. “I’ve worked with counselors who specialize in CBT ever since my suicide attempt 18 years ago. I work at it but, when I’m alone, I’ve never been very good at it.”
Shepherd nodded. “Yes. Jennifer and I’ve been apart for over three years now. She’s remarried to a damned good man, and you don’t know how happy I am for her. But once I let her go and came out to the world…I really thought I’d have at least a boyfriend by now. But there’s not much market for a 45-year-old gay libertarian who keeps getting involved in murders. As it is, I’m the only—the only—person I’ve ever run into who will retire from the military alone. Everyone else rode off into the sunset with a family. Me…?” Shepherd shrugged, “I try to focus on the adventure and new beginnings of it all. But sometimes it just gets lonely. Still, how you and Linda managed to both stay active duty and raise five boys…I barely manage one pre-teenage girl as a non-custodial day!”
Coleman laughed. He, Shepherd and Coleman’s wife Linda had known each other since all three were freshman in high school. Whereas Shepherd had defied everyone’s expectations and desires (incurring his own family’s displeasure for a few years) by enlisting, Coleman and his wife had both gotten commissions as Air Force intelligence officers. Still, as the years went by Shepherd’s career path proved his choice the right one for him—he belonged on the “deckplate” with the common Sailors, even though he was decidedly known to be rather uncommon.
Coleman shrugged as the clouds were crossed by the ascending shape of a C-2 Greyhound taking off from the nearby runway. “Well, both of us are in the zone to make full colonel, but, frankly, I’m starting to wear out. Kind of how you describe you feel. You’ve only done 20 years and you just put on chief petty officer two years ago, but you’ve hit every goal you had in the Navy and then some, and feel like you’re a kid ready to leave high school? I’m starting to feel that way myself. I’m strongly considering retiring myself and letting Linda be the big military star.”
“Well, I haven’t quite had the sense of belonging I did since I left naval aviation behind when they retired the F-14 Tomcat,” Shepherd said. “But let’s be honest, the stress level demanded by Navy life—especially for a chief—is high. It’s slowly…Tom, it’s slowly killing me. Best way to put it. I need to move on and take more control over my life.”
Coleman nodded again, and suddenly he looked far older than his 46 years. “I don’t have your fight with depression and anxiety, but I’ve come to understand you a bit better after the last couple of deployments I’ve done. That mortar attack that leveled the building I was in on the last one…I still have nightmares. And it’s very hard for me not to overreact when the kids get very loud very suddenly. And there’s still pain in my back from being caught until that concrete beam after the blast. Isaac, I’m tired and I think I don’t want to play this game anymore.”
“She’s only gone downrange three times in 20 years, and all three of her deployments were, thank God, quiet. She has a level of resiliency left I don’t think I do. Besides, she has a better chance of making Brigadier General than I do—she lucked out and pulled a few more strategic assignments. She wants to go on, but she’s been advising me it might be time for me to pull chocks and transition to the civilian side too.”
“I know what it’s like to have people try to kill you,” Shepherd said. “And there was that business on Guam…”
“The Sumay Strangler case?”
Shepherd looked up, confused. “No. That’s only the one everyone knows about. You know—you were in the Pacific when it happened—the freighter full of ammonia nitrate? The terrorists who were planning to blow it up in San Diego, but the Coast Guard stopped them? The ‘adventure’ I actually got a Bronze Star for…but only about fifteen people know because it’s still classified?”
Coleman nodded, “Oh, yes. I remember now. I helped track back the terrorist cell to its origin in a certain civil war-torn Middle Eastern nation and bomb it out of existence. How did you get involved again?”
“My usual good luck,” Shepherd said, sarcastically. “First time I ever had to kill a man directly—and I had to do it by shooting him in the face with his own gun during a hand-to-hand struggle on the bridge…right after he nearly shot me through the eye. I still have a scar under my hair from the power burns over my right ear. Those bastards started the bomb timer to blow up the ship when they realized we were going to take them. We couldn’t stop the timer and we barely got clear of that damn ship before it went up. The blast crippled the cutter so badly it nearly sank and blew windows out on Guam…and we were 10 miles off the island. Took me weeks to get my hearing back. I don’t have nightmares anymore, but I’d be a liar if said I didn’t dream about his face now and then. The cover story about an ‘accidental’ explosion is still the official story and it’s been over twelve years.”
“We have seen some times, haven’t we?” Coleman asked ruefully. “God, remember when we were all idealistic kids who were going to save the world?”
“Then real life happened,” Shepherd said.
The loud crowd around them was a burbling current of sound that rendered ever other conversation incoherent to them, and theirs just as private.
“Speaking of your adventures, how goes your hunt for that Gordon Drey dork?” Coleman asked.
Shepherd laughed, “Gordon Grey, not Drey. Well, he’s still here in Hampton Roads. Even if he hadn’t left those little notes from Abe Gray and myself, I can just…I can feel him here. He’s near; he’s close and watching me. But…the longer he’s out there the closer I’m getting to him.”
Gordon Grey had been a Yeoman 1st Class and working for Force Master Chief Petty Officer John Stiles when he began an affairs with Stiles’ wife Carolyn. When he and Carolyn thought Stiles had discovered their affair, they hatched a plot that saw Grey murder the master chief and make it look like a suicide.
“The two things that tipped me off were the odd placement of the fatal shot,” Shepherd answered a question Coleman had posed to him about how he got into that case back in March. “People normally do not shoot themselves in the middle of the forehead when committing suicide. That, and the shot was slightly off center to the left. Thing is, John Stiles and I served together on the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. I go to know him pretty well. He was left handed; if he had shot himself in the middle of the forehead, the shot would have tracked to the right a bit, not the left. That’s why I went to see Abe Gray.”
NCIS Special Agent Abraham Gray (no relation to the murderer Gordon Grey) had known Shepherd for years ever since Shepherd stumbled on a double-murder while at his first command in Spain and ended up taking down a rear admiral and the admiral’s daughter as the murderers.
“Grey escaped from custody and killed a guard doing it, you know,” Shepherd said. “Well, he popped back up in May killing a lieutenant, and a waiter on the start-up Norfolk Rover dinner cruise. He kidnapped the captain’s family to force the captain to help him, then forced the captain into suicide by killing his family—the captain had a wife and little boy. Oh, and John and Carolyn Stiles’ son, John Jr., was a naval aviator, but the trauma of his dad’s death at his mother’s hands drove him to suicide. So Gordon Grey is, in my ledger, responsible now for eight murders, however indirectly. And I consider John Stiles, Jr.’s suicide to be a murder.”
Coleman shivered, “I would be freaked out having a serial killer out there gunning for me. I know his notes to you and Abe Gray said he wasn’t planning on going after your families because that’d be too obvious, but he could be bluffing.”
“He’s not,” Shepherd said. “Agatha Christie had it right. People act according to their character and nature. I’ve been making Mr. Grey my hobby ever since his Jack-the-Ripper spree in May.”
“What have you learned? And I assume I do not want to know how you came by most of our information?” Coleman asked. The late afternoon sun was creeping in through the NEX food court windows.
Shepherd laughed. “Over the years of being an accidental detective I’ve made some contacts and called in some favors. And the Internet is an information gold mine…at least until Grey went off the grid.”
“So? Tell me.”
“If this were a movie or novel or something, there would be oddly satisfying parallels between him and I, but there aren’t.” Shepherd said, “And, despite his threats to Abe Gray, I seem to be his primary target because I’m a chief and he’s bitter I took away his chance to be one. Anyway, he’s 36, Hispanic origin but grew up in Kentucky and joined the Navy at 27. Made Yeoman 1st Class pretty quick and was up for chief this year for the first time. His left arm is sleeved with a tattoo of mermaids and dolphins and a rather sizable octopus. He went to Great Lakes for boot camp like we all do—it’s the only Navy boot camp in operation. His first command was the amphibious assault ship USS BonHomme Richard. Oddly enough while he was still a seaman, he got into a major altercation with a 2nd class petty officer in port…but the other guy went to Captain’s Mast and Grey was a witness against him.”
“You sound…dubious,” Coleman said.
“It gets better,” Shepherd said, and shifted his gaze to a distant point past the crew making pizza behind Coleman. Coleman knew that look—Shepherd’s rather amazing brain was pulling a wealth of data from the recesses of his steel-trap memory.
“Grey was involved in another fight two years later with a chief while they were on shore duty in Pearl Harbor,” Shepherd said. “Yet again Grey was a witness against the other guy…the chief got all the blame. There was a third fight when he was at sea on the cruiser USS Cowpens. Both he and the other guy—and Grey was a Yeoman 2nd Class by this time—went to Captain’s Mast. Grey got off with a warning and the other guy got knocked down to 3rd Class.”
“Interesting pattern,” Coleman said. An intelligence analyst, he was rather good at seeing patterns too. Still, he’d learned years ago not to fool himself. He was good, but Shepherd was brilliant. Shepherd had been gifted with an extraordinarily powerful mind…and cursed with an extraordinarily frenetic and chaotic mind. When he didn’t have a problem to concentrate on—that’s when depression would set in big time. “This guy is in three fights…and only once is actually in trouble. Even then the old man lets him off.”
“You noticed that,” Shepherd said. “On top of this he had to be formally counseled several times for anger management issues at all his commands. Despite this he was named Sailor of the Year for the Cowpens and made Yeoman 1st Class first time up. He made rate fast. His job here working for Force Master Chief Stiles was his first assignment on the East Coast.”
“How did you find out about the counselings?” Coleman asked. “Even in the Air Force, unless an airman is convicted at an Article 15 hearing—what you call Captain’s Mast—those kind of personnel issues are sealed once the individual leaves the command.”
‘Well, for one, I’m a chief,” Shepherd said. “The Chief’s Mafia is real and can be used for good, and we use it all the time to take care of our Sailors. For another, I’m an old reporter and I know how to ask questions, and I’ve reached out to a lot of his former officers and shipmates. Finally, he’s wanted for multiple murders, so people are eager to talk and those division records—the once that haven’t been shredded per Navy policy—are no longer sealed. One thing I found out about him is that he’s a slick talker, but we could guess that from all the trouble he’s gotten out of. That’s one key right there—until Abe Gray and I nailed him, he never paid for a damn thing in his life. Even back in high school his guidance counselor thought he needed evaluation for mental health issues due to his temper and mood swings, but the teenaged Mr. Grey talked himself out of all that.”
Coleman was impressed. “So, you’re conclusions?”
“We have a narcissistic brat whose throwing an epic-level tantrum at finally being made to pay for his actions for the first time in his life,” Shepherd said. “He’s a smooth talker, but described as being highly unpredictable; calm and cool one minute and volcanic temper the next. He’s smart enough to hide here in Norfolk in plain sight—and that’s driving me nuts—but stupid enough to commit some major unforced errors by bragging too much and dropping clues in the notes he left to taunt me and Abe Gray. He thinks that by targeting random strangers instead of Abe and I’s families, he’ll paralyze us with guilt for being responsible for their deaths—a childish attempt to punish us for getting in the way of his fun. 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.”
“I’m impressed, Hercule Parrot,” Coleman said.
Shepherd burst out laughing. “Poirot! Hercule Poirot was Agatha Christie’s great detective. And, as he would say, as I continue to use my ‘little grey cells,’ I deduce another aspect of Gordon Grey.”
“He’s an idiot when it comes to judging character. He really thinks Abe Gray and I will be prostrate with grief and guilt; he really thinks we’ll internalize it and blame ourselves for the murders he commits to get at us. In reality, he’s pissed us both off and made us not just enemies, but deadly enemies. He has completely misjudged us.”
“So you’re determined to stop him. All these murders you’ve gotten in the middle of over the years—have you thought about turning them into detective stories?” Coleman asked. “You’re a damn good writer; you could make a lot of money off murder mysteries.”
“You’re right,” Shepherd said, surprised he’d never thought of it himself. “I ought to fictionalize them and publish them. I could make a real killing!”
Coleman groaned and dropped his head into his hands. He had walked right into that one.
Shepherd and Coleman both jumped as the jubilantly staccato sounds of “Anchors Aweigh” suddenly danced out of Shepherd’s pocket.
“Good lord, how Navy can you get?” Coleman laughed as Shepherd fished for his cell phone. “I can tell you I do not have “Wild Blue Yonder” as my ringtone!”
“Dork!” Shepherd laughed. “I only set ‘Anchors Aweigh’ as my ringtone for Navy contacts. Gives me a quick head’s up it’s work calling.”
Shepherd got the phone out as the instrumental version of the Navy’s anthem reached the stanza where the words would have been, “Anchors aweigh, my boys! Anchors aweigh!”
“Hmm,” Shepherd said. “It’s MC3 Rex Morgan.”
Coleman looked confused.
“Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class—an E4?”
“Morgan used to work for NEPAC East, but just transferred to shore duty with the public affairs staff of Admiral David Jones, Commander, Atlantic Fleet.”
NEPAC East—the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East—was Shepherd’s current command. He was one of the few people there on shore duty (he had been on sea duty but “rolled” to shore duty to take over as Training Manager for several years). NEPAC East was an expeditionary public affairs command that existed to put enlisted “MCs” and public affairs officers on deploying ships and units.
“Good afternoon, this is Chief Shepherd,” Shepherd answered the phone.
Coleman couldn’t actually hear what MC3 Morgan was saying, but by the look on Shepherd’s face whatever Morgan was saying was chaotic.
“Morgan…Morgan! Calm down…I said calm down! I can’t understand a word you’re saying!” Shepherd plugged his right ear with his finger to help drown out the food court’s noise.
Coleman watched, his face growing into a concerned frown.
“You found what?” Shepherd asked. “I don’t understand…hanging around what…? No…stop, just stop! Breathe! Say again?”
Coleman was by now looking as alarmed as Shepherd, and he could only catch half of the conversation. The younger Sailor on the other end of the line was clearly in a dead panic.
“Alright, alright! I got it! Did you call 911?” Shepherd. “Why not? Wait…WAIT! Breathe….You’re sure…?”
Coleman’s eyes went wide at the mention of 911.
“Look, just…ok, I got it! I got it!” Shepherd said. “I’m on my way. Look…do not touch anything! Just turn around and walk out of there. Go to the Quarterdeck. I’m on my way. If you can’t talk without fainting then just sit down! I’m coming now! Tell the watch to expect me and an Air Force Lt. Colonel. No…I’ll explain later. Just do what I tell you. I’ll see you in ten minutes!”
Shepherd hung up and looked at Coleman. “Uh, sorry, but we are in your rental. I need you to take me to the NSA. Now.”
“The National Security Agency?!” Coleman was startled. “But that’s up in Maryland!”
“No, you doofus! The NSA—Naval Support Activity. NSA Hampton Roads—it’s up on the intersection of Hampton and Terminal Blvds. NSA—tiny little naval support sites. NAS Hampton Roads houses most of the major commands here instead of having them on the naval station. We have to get to the HQ of Atlantic Fleet now!”
By this point Coleman was following Shepherd through the crowd at nearly a run.
“What happened?” Coleman asked, managing to get his car keys out of his pockets.
“Assuming I understood MC3 Morgan correctly—and that’s a big assumption considering the state of panic he’s in—he just found the admiral’s aide hanging dead in his office!”