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 modern glass and steel cube that housed the headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet (or “LANTFleet”) was located in the middle of manicured, park-like grounds in darn near the very center of the small Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads. Radiating out from the building on roads that were laid out like spokes on a wheel were the headquarter buildings for Naval Air Forces Atlantic and Submarine Force Atlantic. Only the headquarters for Atlantic Forces Surface Command (AFSC) was not here, but the skeleton of steel rising on one of the “spokes” of the wheel of roads would eventually house that command. Currently AFSC was located on the naval station itself in an older building that Shepherd had come to know well, having solved a murder there back in March.
Despite the building’s modernity of appearance, LANTFleet’s Quarterdeck was decked out in bunting, paintings, and ship models, wheels, and other artifacts that turned the ceremonial (and practical) front lobby into a veritable mini-museum of the history of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic operations. There were several carved wooden benches occupying the circular space which was surmounted by a large skylight pouring sunlight down onto the Atlantic Fleet crest laid out in the tile floor.
At late hour only the Quarterdeck watch and the watch floor upstairs near the admiral’s office were manned. The large wooden desk and counter manned by a single Sailor, but a single Sailor armed with subtly placed monitors connected to security cameras that let him see every door, every corridor, and every outer office in the building. Manned by a Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class in the black pants and khaki shirt of the Navy Service Uniform who had a clear view of the main entrance, the carved desk and counter was as functionally in control of the Quarterdeck space as it was part of the ambiance of Navy heritage. The “BM2” saw Shepherd and Coleman approaching the now-locked front doors. He glanced over.
“Hey, MC3, is this the chief you mentioned?” He called.
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Rex Morgan, a very young man with a very slight built, looked up from the bench he had been huddling on. He nodded.
The BM2 hit the buzzer and the doors unlocked before Shepherd could ring the outer bell.
Long practice had taught both Shepherd and Coleman to have their ID cards out and ready. The BM2 checked them thoroughly, and greeted Coleman with proper deference, and then looked at Shepherd.
“Chief, I’m BM2 Edwards. This guy says he knows you. Hasn’t been able to say what happened, but just kept telling me over and over you were coming and would know what to do.”
“Thanks, Boats,” Shepherd said, using a common Navy-wide nickname for a Boatswain’s Mate. “Uh, look, just a head’s up, but NCIS is on the way. MC3 apparently found a suicide victim—Lt. Dale Horton, and panicked–”
“Lt. Horton?!” Edwards was shocked. “He killed himself?! Why didn’t you say something, Morgan?!”
“Boats,” Shepherd held up a hand, “It’s ok. It’s not easy to walk in on a dead body—trust me on that, I know what I’m talking about. But I called NCIS. Special Agent Abraham Gray is on the way, and he’ll probably have a few others with him as well as NSA security. If I were you, I’d call your Command Duty Officer right now. The admiral will need to be informed as soon as possible.”
“On it, Chief,” Edwards said, picking up the phone and starting to dial.
Coleman walked over with Shepherd to the huddle, bony lump of skinny young Sailor. MC3 Rex Morgan was wearing the same “NSU’s” as BM2 Edwards, only the rank insignia on his collar had one chevron to BM2 Edwards’ two chevrons…and considerably less ribbons above his left pocket.
Morgan was dark haired and looked much younger than his 22 years. He was medium height, or would have been if he hadn’t been hunched over and trembling, like a building collapsed in on itself.
Shepherd crouched down in front of him. “Hey. When you left NEPAC East and I said I’d see you soon, I wasn’t talking this soon.”
Morgan looked up, wide-eyed and clearly in shock.
“I need you to focus, Petty Officer Morgan,” Shepherd said, and Coleman noticed his voice has subtly taken on a harder edge to it. Not dangerous, but definitely not the friendly, winning tone he had used earlier. “Focus and tell me what you found.”
Coleman was impressed. He had seen Shepherd inadvertently step up and almost accidentally take command of situations all the way back to their high school days. However, Shepherd had always done almost as if he were juggling glass eggs. Now, however, Coleman realized he was looking at a man who had learned what power he wielded and was comfortably wielding in. In a way he realized he was seeing his old friend for the first time.
Good Lord, he’s finally really grown up, Coleman thought. Somewhere in the last few years he’s really grown comfortable with himself.
Morgan was responding to Shepherd’s command. He seemed to find a comfort in the authoritative direction Shepherd was giving him. His breath shuddered and he said, “I…I had to drop off a DVD of photos to Lt. Horton. His door was o-open so I wen-went in and he was h-hanging fr-from the ceiling.”
“Why didn’t you call 911 or the police?” Shepherd asked.
“I…I…I….” Morgan said.
“I gather that we’re talking about you,” Shepherd said. “Why didn’t you call 911?”
“I don’t know. He was green and he was dead and I’ve never s-seen anything like t-that before and I screamed and just ran out like-like I’d seen a ghost and you’re the only p-person I could think of-of.” Morgan stuttered out.
“Ok, well, NCIS is on its way. Get ready for a long night, I’m afraid,” Shepherd said.
It was not five minutes later that NCIS Special Agents Abraham Gray and Shay Cremer entered LANTFleet’s Quarterdeck. Close on their heels were a dozen Naval Security Force personnel. NSF was an amalgamated unit made up of civilian Navy police and active duty Masters-at-Arms.
Abraham Gray was 56, but his shockingly white hair gave him the air of an older man. He wore a dark blue suit and red tie—and as usual looked more like a politician running for office than a seasoned and hardened law enforcement official. He was tall, nearly six feet, slender, and projected an air of authority that preceded him by a few hours.
Shey Cremer was the opposite in many ways. Although Cremer was impeccably dressed in tan slacks and polo shirt with the NCIS logo embroidered on it, he was short, barely making five feet in height. What he lacked in height, though, he made up in muscle. He looked for all the world like a younger, very well-muscled Danny Devito.
Shepherd walked over to Gray and took his hand, “Abe, thanks. I have a Sailor here in a dead panic and an apparent suicide of Lt. Horton, Adm. Jones’ aid.”
Gray shook Shepherd’s hand and then reached into his jacket, pulling out his own notebook, “Ok, before I talk to your boy, tell me how you ended up in this one, Isaac. You really are making a habit of this you know!”
Shepherd laughed ruefully, “You’re telling me. I’m just trying to retire. March, April, May…I’m just glad I got a break from homicides last month!”
Coleman had wandered over and shook Gray’s hand. “Lt. Col. Tom Coleman, U.S. Air Force.”
“Abraham Gray, NCIS,” Gray said. “You know this turkey?” He pointed at Shepherd.
“For over thirty years. We met as freshmen in high school,” Coleman said.
“Wait a minute,” Gray said, clearly remembering something. He looked at Shepherd, “Isaac, is this the Tom Coleman you played baseball with in high school?”
“Yep, and at Florida State,” Shepherd said. “But, as to how we got here, we were eating at the NEX when MC3 Morgan called me in a dead panic. He could barely speak. It sounded like he’d found a dead body here, the body of Lt. Horton. We’re in Tom’s car, so he drove while I called you. My cell phone’s still in the car; private cells aren’t allowed in the building, you know. But the phone log put Morgan’s call to me at 4:57 p.m. We got here about 5:20.”
Gray turned to Coleman, “And what brings you to visit Isaac?”
“My wife and I are both intelligence officers at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas,” Coleman began.
“Weren’t you born in San Angelo?” Gray asked Shepherd unintentionally cutting off Coleman’s narrative.
“My dad was stationed at Goodfellow,” Shepherd confirmed.
Coleman went on, “I was attending a conference at Andrews Air Force Base. It finished on June 30, so I headed down here to spend the July 4th holiday with Isaac before heading home.”
“So neither of you have been to the scene, yet?” Gray asked.
“Nope,” Shepherd said. “We don’t have access to these spaces without escort, so I reckoned waiting here for you was the best idea.”
“It was,” Gray said. “Dammit, Isaac, this is not how most Sailors spend their last few months on active duty. But, you two are here and you might as well take a look at things with me in a minute.”
Cremer meanwhile, had taken a brief statement from BM2 Edwards and was now grilling Morgan like a cheap fish in a low-budget fast-food joint.
“So instead of calling for help, you phoned some random chief you used to work for?!” Cremer growled.
Morgan was steadily wilting under the assault into a puddle of goo. His speech was becoming less intelligible with each passing moment.
“I—uh—I…..” Morgan spluttered.
“Knock it off, Cremer!” Shepherd literally stepped between the agent and the puddle of goo…er, MC3 Morgan. “Bullying him won’t get you any answers, you moron! Can’t you see he’s traumatized?”
“Get out of my way, Shepherd! You’re obstructing an investigation and I’ll throw your ass on the floor and cuff you faster than you can blink if you don’t move it!”
“Try it, you nozzle!” Shepherd barked. “I don’t give a damn who you are; you will not bully a Sailor in front of me!”
Coleman was taken aback yet again. Granted Shepherd towered a good two feet over Cremer, but the shorter man was both a trained law enforcement official and exuded just as much force of personality as Shepherd. It was like watching two diesel locomotives colliding in the middle of a crowded switching yard. He had never see Shepherd stand so ramrod straight in the face of such an onslaught before.
Coleman jumped out of his skin. Pretty much everyone in the LANTFleet Quarterdeck did.
Pulling his epidermis back over his skeleton, Coleman realized it was Abraham Gray who had bellowed out that irresistible command and stepped between Shepherd and Cremer. If ever a long stand grudge existed, it festered between those two.
Putting his finger in Shepherd’s chest, Gray barked, “You, good sir, will kindly not interfere with one of my agents during an investigation!”
Much to Coleman’s surprise, Shepherd stood down. From the look of chagrin his old friend gave the agent, Coleman realized the depth of respect that existed between the two men.
“I’m sorry,” Shepherd said to Gray (Coleman noted he did not even acknowledge Cremer).
Gray didn’t hesitate but wheeled around and jabbed his finger at Cremer, “And you will not bully a witness on scene! We are not interrogating a suspect but gathering information from a traumatized witnessed. Do I make myself clear? I don’t care who is in this building that pisses you off!”
Coleman walked over to Shepherd, who was staring very thoughtfully at MC3 Morgan’s trembling form. “You ok?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
Gray, meanwhile, had answered a call on his cell and was returning it to his pocket. “The admiral will be shortly. I’ve also called in Carla Tenbold to help you take statements, Shey. Tom, Isaac, let’s go look at the scene of the incident.”
Coleman noted a dark look from Cremer as they headed up a glass staircase from the circular Quarterdeck to the second floor.
“What was all that about?” Coleman asked when the three were out of earshot. “That guy step on your pet frog, Isaac?”
Shepherd sighed and dropped his head in his hands for a minute, then resumed walked and caught up. He had to delicately use a finger to adjust one of his contact lenses—he had accidentally slid it out of place when dropping his head into his hands.
“No, Tom,” Shepherd said as the three trod a deep blue carpet down the wood-paneled corridor leading the admiral’s suite of offices. The walls were lined with large museum-like placards displaying biographies and histories of the Atlantic Fleet. “It’s professional jealousy. Normally I don’t let it get to me this bad. Imagine how infuriating it’d be for you if the Air Force Office of Special Investigations—your version of our NCIS—walked into your building and started telling you how to do intelligence analysis. Worse…what if they were actually right?”
“I’d be pretty peeved,” Coleman admitted.
“Many of my colleagues actually have a real respect for Isaac’s talents and involvement,” Gray said. “But unfortunately ego gets in the way. I got over mine twenty years ago when Isaac proved right about a person in danger. None of us listened and that person was the second murder victim in that case. I got over myself real quick. It’s not so easy for everyone, though.”
Stopping outside the admiral’s suite, Gray turned and looked at Shepherd, “I’m not making excuses for Shey, but you need to get your temper under control, Isaac. He had every right to arrest you down there.”
“I know, I know,” Shepherd said.
“Well, here we are,” Gray said.
The suite of offices was enclosed behind a glass door that marked out the boundaries of the outer office where Adm. Jones’ secretary sat. The glass door was standing open; its door stopper having fallen from its stowed position and caught in the carpet.
“Tom,” Gray said, “Issac’s done this a hundred times, but I don’t know if you have. Look, but do not touch a thing. And if you feel like the sight of a dead body is going to upset you, stay here.”
“I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies,” Coleman said grimly, “Most of them I arranged their death. But I wont’ touch anything. What about the floor? What if we step on something and screw up data or something?”
Gray smiled, “Good question. I’m impressed. Just watch where you step. If you think you see something, tell me. Otherwise, look closely at everything and make mental notes. We’ll take your statement down later and use it to compare things. This is very outside normal procedure, but I know what Isaac can contribute…and I’d rather you be up here with us since you’re with Isaac than downstairs with Shey and his famous temper.”
They turned and entered. Shepherd was standing in the middle of the outer office, looking at two doors behind the secretary’s rather large desk, each door a deep cherry finish. One had a gold plate in the middle reading:
ADMIRAL DAVID E. JONES
UNITED STATES ATLANTIC FLEET
The other office had a simple plaque that read “Flag Aide.”
“I notice Lt. Horton didn’t even rate his name on his door,” Coleman said.
“Shush” Shepherd commanded. “Give me a second…”
“What?” Gray asked after a moment.
“Not sure,” Shepherd said. “Something…I don’t know. Yet. But…well, I assume you have gloves?”
Gray was already putting them on before stepping forward and opening the door to Horton’s office.
Lt. Dale Horton was hanging from the middle of the room, his two feet nearly two feet from the floor as his limp body dangled from a ceiling fan mounted high in the arching cathedral ceiling. Horton was Caucasian with a 1950s-style flattop haircut shaping his black hair. He was dressed in civilian clothes—blue jeans, brown cowboy boots, and a plaid cotton shirt. His face was a weird chalky green and his tongue bulged unpleasantly from his mouth. His blue eyes were bloodshot and his face swollen. The noose encircled his neck low, below the Adam’s apple. A slight dried froth of blood was evident at the corners of his mouth and nose. His fists were clenched, and a truly unpleasant stench emanated from his body—it was obvious his bowels had evacuate themselves during his death throes.
Under his feet a tall stool lay on its side; clearly this is what he had stood on and kicked aside to hang himself.
His khaki uniform lay on the leather sofa adorning one wall to the left of the office door under a painting of the destroyer USS Reuben James (DD 245), the first U.S. ship sunk by hostile action in World War II. Past the sofa was a closet with a mirror on outside of the door. His desk was neat, everything stacked, and a printed note in the middle of it.
Coleman looked around, trying to play detective and be useful while Shepherd and Gray went into what seemed a long-practiced routine of talking about the body.
“Low point of suspension,” Gray said. “Slow asphyxiation. Hands are still clenched and evidently his bowels were evacuated during the terminal convulsions.”
“I know,” Shepherd said. “Swelling of the head and neck—his jugular veins were cut off, but not the arteries, allowing blood into the cranial area but not allowing it to drain away. Bleeding at the mouth and nose. Probably lost consciousness relatively quickly, but his body was struggling to breath.”
“He left a note,” Coleman said, pointing to the paper on the desk.
Shepherd had put on his reading glasses and was staring at something midway down Hotron’s body, “Read it, please.”
Gray, who had begun a very methodical sweep of the entire room with his eyes, stopped and glanced at Coleman.
Coleman began to read:
I really can’t go on. I really am just a liar. The situation being what it is, it’s over. It really killed me to fake being such a good officer, but I tried. And so by my admiral I will say goodbye. I want the end to come quickly and just be done. It’s really cleaner this way.
“That makes absolutely no sense!” Coleman said. “I never met this guy and even I feel like this is absurd. Is it possible he was on drugs or something?”
“No,” Gray said. “I take it you saw it too, Isaac?”
“Yeah. I’m looking at it now.” Shepherd was staring at Horton’s limp wrists.
“What?” Coleman asked.
Gray shook his head. “Suicide? And he leaves his uniform just lying over the arm of the sofa like that?”
“And who ties up their own wrists before hanging themselves?” Shepherd said. “Come here, Tom. Look closely at his wrists. What do you see?”
Coleman went over and looked at Horton’s wrists. Unlike Shepherd he did not need contact lenses for regular distance vision. However, like Shepherd he required reading glasses up close. Pulling them out of his own pocket he got up and close and personal with the body of Dale Horton, trying to ignore the stench from the poor man’s excrement.
“Oh, my Lord,” Coleman said. “Ligature marks.”
“Exactly,” Shepherd said. “Ligature marks. His hands were tied when he was hanged. This was no suicide. Dale Horton was murdered.”