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
Friday, July 7. Murder + two days.
“How’d it go?” Coleman asked Shepherd as he came downstairs from the computer room in his house, a two-story with a half-loft extending partway over the cathedral-ceiling crowned living area. Whimsically named the “Yellow Duck,” the house on Baker Street in Suffolk had been the Shepherd family home in Suffolk until divorce transformed it into a rather posh—and over large—bachelor pad.
“Good. First job interview I’ve had since applying to Office Depot two years before I enlisted.” Shepherd said, settling into a wooden rocker and laying his cell phone on the small table between the rocker and an elegant winged-backed arm chair. The table itself was a large nautical-style compass that actually worked set on three legs.
“This was with the Army, right? Fort…Hood?” Coleman tossed the copy of Perspectives, one of the magazines of the American Historical Association (Shepherd had been a member of both the AHA and the Organization of American Historians since completing his masters the year prior).
“No,” Shepherd said. “Army Center for Public Affairs up on Fort Meade. Working out of the Defense Media Activity building,” Shepherd said. “I enjoyed living in that part of Maryland when I taught at the Defense Information School—it’s also on Fort Meade, you know. But that board was tough. Still, whatever the outcome, I feel like I did pretty good. Got them to laugh a couple of times. I’m surprised I got interviewed; my background in training and course development didn’t quite fit their paradigm, but I think I was able to pivot that background to show how I can look at any program, evaluate it, and make recommendations based on a commander’s priorities.”
“Probably why they wanted to talk to you in the first place,” Coleman said.
The “Great Room” they were in was done over in a bit of a mash-up of Colonial themed furniture and modern Navy Sailor memorabilia meets thrift-store treasure cherry wood coffee table and sofa (on which Coleman lounged). A “family wall” on the wall of the staircase featured photos of his daughter, brother and family, parents hung above an antique manual sewing machine that had belonged to Shepherd’s great grandmother in Hawaii. The fireplace was surmounted by a Colonial-style clock flanked by two 19th century “carnival glass” battleships made during the Spanish-American War. Outside these were a “trench art” ash tray made from bullet and shell casings by some unknown Marine in World War II and a coffee up with a tiny teddy bear standing in it looking for all the world like it was giving a speech to an invisible crowd.
“What are you going to do with the house?”
Shepherd shrugged. “Not sure. Probably have to sell, but if I could realistically keep it and rent if out, I’d like to. This whole part of northeastern Suffolk is the growth are of the Tidewater right now.”
Coleman stretched. “Man, I did not expect to spend my post-July 4th leave being interviewed for nearly 36 hours by NCIS over a murder.”
“Welcome to my world,” Shepherd said. “Happens to me all the time.”
“What are we going to do next?”
“I don’t follow you, Tom?” Shepherd asked.
Coleman shrugged. “You. Me. Murder. You’re the Accidental Detective, after all. What do we do next? You’re not the kind to just let this go, not once you’re involved. Once you’re in the middle of something, you always see it through. Always have since high school.”
Shepherd laughed ruefully, “Am I that predictable?”
Shepherd leaned back, crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head, thinking. “I’ve got a few ideas, but I don’t feel like repeating myself. I had a call from Abe Gray right after I got off the phone from my interview. He’ll be here in about half an hour at 5:30. What struck you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Tom, you’re an intelligence analyst. You’ve got far more formal training in aggregating information and developing a synthesis than I do. Granted this is a crime scene, but you have to have a few ideas.”
Coleman smiled. “Yeah, a few things did hit me. I don’t know your boy Morgan. Until Wednesday I’d never even heard of him, but he seemed way too agitated for a guy who just found a dead body. Again, I don’t know him, but his reaction was well over the top to what I’d expect. But…that swelling you and Abe described in the face and head means Horton wasn’t dead that long, so maybe we did see Morgan’s initial reaction. And that clumsy suicide note…those ligature marks on the wrists were way too obvious. Why try to set up a fake suicide when the professionals will see through it in two minutes? The timeline doesn’t bother me.”
“My question exactly,” Shepherd said. “However, the timeline may be a problem. I’m not forensic science, but I can tell you that Horton was NOT dead that long. I do have some forensic training from my old days as Photographer’s Mate before the Navy merged all the media jobs into the Mass Communication Specialist rate. Modern “MCs” don’t do forensic photography much anymore since NCIS has their own digital cameras, but back in the days of film us Photo Mates did. The swelling of his head and neck isn’t as telling as you think. The fluids trapped in the cranial area were being held there by the rope around the base of his neck. As long as pressure remained on the neck like it was, that fluid could remain in place for a few hours. We have to wait for Abe to find out what the pathologists think. But he could have been dead for several hours.”
“Then why would Morgan say he was called to deliver photos to Horton?”
Shepherd shook his head. “That’s not what he said—he never said he was called to Horton’s office. He just said he was delivering a DVD of photos.”
“Oh,” Coleman said. “I misunderstood him. But if Horton was dead longer than just half hour or so…how come no one else noticed? The admiral or their secretary?”
“That I can tell you—they had the day off. Admiral Jones was attending an informal luncheon with business leaders down at Waterside in Norfolk. Normally his aide would have accompanied him, but it’s not unheard of during an informal function for the aide not to come.”
“How do you know about that?” Coleman was impressed.
“NEPAC was requested to provide a photographer,” Shepherd said. “It was on the Production board late last month. I remember because it’s one of the last jobs I approved before turning over Production to Chief Li as I get deeper into the separation and retirement process. As to the secretary…the only logical conclusion is she was off since her Facebook page had photos of her and her family caught in traffic coming back from North Carolina on the 5th.”
Coleman’s jaw dropped. “You trolled her Facebook page?!”
Shepherd laughed. “I did. I’m an old reporter. I know how to be nosy.”
A maroon sedan came around the corner, turning off Tennant Street onto Baker Street and parking just short of Shepherd’s red mailbox with its bold numbers proclaiming 2210.
“I think Abe is here,” Coleman said.
Shepherd turned to look over his shoulder out the large front window. Abraham Gray was indeed walking up the driveway between Coleman’s rental and Shepherds small, blue SUV named Sarah Jane after a character in the popular “Doctor Who” TV series. Gray was in yet another dark blue suit, but sported a green tie as he hefted a leather case bulging with paper.
“Uh-oh,” Shepherd said, getting up to open the door. “I know that face. We have a problem.”
“Dude, a man was murdered in his office. We already have a problem!” Coleman said as Shepherd opened the front door.
“Abe,” Shepherd shook his hand as the agent stepped in and kicked off his shoes.
“Gentlemen,” Gray said. “Isaac, didn’t you have an interview today?”
“Yep, first one in over 20 years. Did good. But it’s the federal hiring system so it’ll be awhile before I find out if I am offered the job or not. Coffee? Tea?”
“Water, thanks. I have a feeling it’s going to be a late night. I’ve got a lot to go over with you and Tom,” Gray shucked his coat and Shepherd put it in the coat closet.
“Wait,” Coleman said, suddenly realizing what he was looking at. “Isaac…is that a shower head over your coat closet door?!”
“Yes,” Shepherd said, closing the door and looking at Coleman like shower heads over closets were natural. “Don’t you and Linda have a random shower head just sticking out of a random spot somewhere in your house?”
Gray intervened, “Isaac, why you order a pizza and I’ll get this crap set up on the kitchen table?”
“And I’m supposed to pay?” Shepherd asked, feigning irritation.
“I got the last one,” Gray laughed. “Your turn!”
The pizza arrived in about 30 minutes. As Shepherd signed the slip and carried the box to the kitchen where Coleman and Gray were already seated round the round wooden kitchen table. It was not that long ago in March, Shepherd reflected, that he and Gray had sat around this same table and started unraveling the first murder in this deadly final seven months of his career.
“Isaac was saying the time of death might not have been as recent as I thought due to the cranial swelling,” Coleman was saying.
“It wasn’t. Let’s eat while I fill you two in, and then after dinner I’ll pull out the paperwork.”
Over glasses of water and pizza, Gray sketched in what had been gleaned so far. He began to tell them about Jones and his secretary being out of the office, but Shepherd cut in and told him they knew that part already.
“Figures you’d troll an innocent federal worker’s Facebook page!” Gray laughed. “Anyway, your caution to Tom was spot on. Forensics estimates the time of death was about four to six hours prior to the body being found. That means he died somewhere between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.”
“Did he have a family?” Shepherd asked.
“Of course,” Gray said heavily. “Wife. Baby son. Adopted daughter from Korea.”
Shepherd dropped his head in his hands and mumbled something.
“What?” Coleman asked, picking up his pepperoni pizza.
“Later,” Shepherd said. After two slices his appetite was sated.
“Anyway, death was obviously by hanging,” Gray said, “But it was far earlier than when Morgan found him. As to the swelling in the head, the rope if you recall was at the base of the neck; as long as there was weight on it to seal the neck and cranial cavity his face would stay bloated. There’s also several small, round bruises at points on his back, mainly at the kidney level. Looks like he was getting dressed to go home when his assailant came in. My guess is the killer jabbed a gun into his back several times.”
“So the timeline was not the one we initially thought,” Shepherd said. “And the body…those offices have cathedral ceilings. His feet were a good two feet above the floor. How did the killer get him up there to hang in the first place? That ceiling fan barely held his weight; it was not going to stay up there if it used like a pulley.”
“Cremer thinks—and I agree—that there is more than one killer,” Gray said. “Odds are his feet were bound too, but his socks would protect the skin from chafing by the ligatures, unlike his wrists. Someone lifted him up after he was bound while the other one tied off the rope. The signs of asphyxiation and injuries to the neck indicate he only slowly strangled; there was no jarring of the neck. He was not dropped, but rather slowly lowered until the rope took his weight and strangled, this keeping the ceiling fan from breaking loose from the shock of a drop.”
“Lord, what a way to die,” Coleman said.
“Well, this should be easy,” Shepherd said. Granted the admiral and secretary were out, but with Lt. Horton in his office, we can just check the security footage to see who went in and out of that office during the three hours in question.”
“Yeah….not going to happen,” Gray stood and gathered their empty plates, depositing them in Shepherd’s dishwasher. Jeez…I’ve been here enough to know how he likes his dishwasher loaded!
“What’s the problem?” Shepherd knew he was not going to like this.
“LANTFleet’s building is five stories high,” Gray said. “A computer glitch had kept the cameras’s recoding system on the second and third floor inoperative for two weeks. I doubt this is the killer’s doing; he or she or they didn’t hack the system. It’s a software issue at the manufacture of the system and it hit LANTFleet as well as several other buildings on the NSA. So there is no footage from that time. If the Quarterdeck watch was not keeping eyeballs on the monitor for every space on those two floors, then we have no witnesses and no records as to activity in those spaces.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Shepherd rolled his eyes.
“You realize this killer probably knew this?” Coleman asked. “He or she or they decided to act during the glitch. Odds are the watch wouldn’t have seen them moving about; I counted at least thirty small monitors at that Quarterdeck; with a full building’s activity going on they wouldn’t notice anything.”
“Which means this is premeditated, with the perp or perps planning it out…then realizing they had a golden opportunity to get at Horton during a particularly vulnerable time. Those offices are sound-proofed so secure information can be discusses opening without eavesdroppers in adjoining offices hearing. No one would have heard Horton yell for help—assuming he could—from the office suite next to the admiral’s,” Gray said, sitting back down and pulling out his files.
Shepherd was standing, staring out the darkening window over his back yard, watching a pair of mating cardinals he’d named Thomas and Martha—after Thomas and Martha Jefferson—picking at the feeders he kept out. Around his head the hanging plant of his indoor kitchen garden created an almost Pan-like crown of leaves.
Coleman bean sifting through autopsy photos. “Eww…this was not a fun way to die. Who the hell did Horton piss off enough to want to kill him? His wife have a jealous ex-boyfriend?”
“It’s not that simple,” Shepherd said, still staring out the window, thinking. “You know that’s a secure space, Tom.”
“I was being facetious, to quote you,” Coleman responded, picking up and reading over Morgan’s statement.
“There are something like 300 people that work in LANTFleet’s headquarters building,” Shepherd said. “Three hundred. All are badged and cleared and vetted and hold Top Secret clearances. To get in the building you have to swipe your card and put in your personal PIN code…unless the Quarterdeck lets you in the front door. But even then LANTFleet policy is for people using the front door to badge in like normal so there’s a computer record of their access. The Quarterdeck watch is only supposed to let in visitors who are then held at the Quarterdeck until their escort signs them in.”
“And that building was full,” Gray said. “It was July 5; literally the only two people not at work that day were Admiral Jones and Chastine Whittaker, his secretary. Everyone else was in catching up after the July 4th long weekend. So Lt. Horton was murdered during a three hour period on a day in which 99% of the building’s occupants were there at a time when the security system on the second and third floors were glitching and not recording video.”
“Three hundred…?” Coleman was aghast. “How the hell do we find a killer or killers out of three hundred people?!”
“I missed something else,” Shepherd said suddenly, realizing what had been bugging him when they went to scene of the crime Wednesday. “The door to Lt. Horton’s office was closed.”
“So what?” Gray asked, but not with any sense of dismissal. He’d learned long ago to trust Shepherd’s statements, even if they seemed out of left field.
“When I talked to Morgan before you got there, he told me he walked in, and Horton’s office door was open. So he went on in to drop the photo DVD on Horton’s desk, saw Horton’s body, panicked and ran out. He said he ran like he’d seen a ghost.”
“I’m not following, Isaac,” Coleman said.
“Tom, if you’re in a dead panic and run nearly screaming from a room, are you going to stop and shut the door? No, odds are you’re going to keep going. Those office doors have no closing mechanisms, and unlike NEPAC’s old building which is slightly tilted, LANTFleet’s building is level. An open door stays open.”
“We found it shut,” Gray said, cottoning on. “So who closed it between Morgan’s panic and us getting up there? Good Lord, the killer might still have been up there!”
“If we believe Morgan’s version of events,” Shepherd said, looking like he was about to throw up.
“What are you saying, Isaac? Morgan lied?” Gray asked.
“I don’t know, but maybe,” Shepherd sat down heavily. “If we believe his version of events, then there was maybe an hour at the max between him find the body and the three of us going upstairs. Plenty of time for the killer to do something. But…I can’t get past this point…where was the photo DVD he said he was dropping off?”
Gray and Coleman both froze.
“Morgan was my Sailor. MINE at NEPAC East. I don’t like this, but we have to look at everything. He said he was dropping off a photo DVD. I saw no DVD in Horton’s office. Nor did I see one anywhere on the Quarterdeck,” Shepherd said. “What if he found the body far earlier than he said? And Tom’s right…he may not know Morgan, but he gauged his reaction right. MC3 Morgan was not acting like a man startled and upset by a dead body, but like a man terrified of something…or someone.”
“I’m following you,” Gray said, nodding. “Go on.”
Coleman picked up a facsimile of the suicide note again as he listened.
“He might have stumbled on something…maybe on the crime itself and the killer or killers threatened him,” Shepherd said. “I think he did see something…something that terrified him so badly he either lied to us…or gave us only a partial truth. He was terrified, but not of us. He had to have seen something. We need to talk to him again.”
Gray nodded. “You’re onto something there. I’ll go see him in the morning. Cremer already shut him down the other day; I’ll talk to him myself. You know, I had the feeling he was more terrified than disturbed too. Where does he live?”
“Barracks. Building X-2. That new, big one they just finished over near the waterfront. I’m not sure what room,” Shepherd said.
“He hasn’t moved since he left NEPAC East?” Gray asked.
“No,” Shepherd said. “I know because I stood Command Duty Officer at the end of June and had to do room inspections. I ran into him coming out of his room as I headed to one of my Sailors’ rooms.”
“You’re still standing duty, this close to retirement?” Gray asked.
“That was my last-ever watch in the United States Navy,” Shepherd smiled, and it was smile of genuine happiness. “Officially I don’t go off the watch bill until 30 days out, but we have enough ‘CDOs’ qualified that none of us ever stands watch more than one week every five months. Effectively, I’m done. No more week-long CDO watches at NEPAC East. No more standing on a ship’s Quarterdeck at 2:00 a.m. in January with a space heater to keep the feet from freezing. No more shore patrols…no more security rovers…no more watches or duty. I had some great conversations in the middle of the night with some great people, but duty sections and watches are one part of Navy life I will not miss!”
“Abe, can I borrow this?” Coleman asked, holding up the suicide note copy and dragging Gray and Shepherd back to the matter at hand. “I mean, not borrow, but send a copy of this to my wife?”
Gray raised his eyebrows.
“Linda is also a Lt. Colonel and intelligence officer,” Coleman explained. “We’re both active duty. Look, this note makes no sense. We all agreed to that when we first saw it two days ago. But there’s something…I can’t put my finger on it. But something here is significant. You know what it’s like to get…get that feeling you’re looking at important data but can’t make out its shape.”
“Short definition of investigative work,” Gray acknowledged.
“Let me send her a copy and have her give it to our linguistics boys and girls give it a look. They might see something we’re missing.”
Gray looked at Coleman thoughtfully.
“You can trust him as much as you trust me,” Shepherd said, looking at the autopsy photos of Horton, and then holding up a family photo taken in happier times when Horton was alive.
“Ok,” Gray said. “Go ahead. Anything that might narrow this down from over 300 suspects will help.”
Coleman photographed the note, and then sent a text to Linda in Texas.
Gray looked at his watch. “It’s nearly eight. I told Sarah I’d be home by nine. Tom, let me know as soon as you know anything about that note. Otherwise, you two just stand by. I’ll call you as soon as I talk to Morgan…actually on second thought, Isaac, I know tomorrow’s Saturday, but would you mind coming with me to talk to Morgan? Assuming he’s scared and not actually criminally involved, he might be more comfortable if you’re there too. If I can nail down if he’s home, we’ll go. Tomorrow is Saturday, so he might be heading out to the beach or something.”
“Sure. Tom, you don’t mind if I ditch you for a few hours if Abe needs me?”
Coleman smiled. “Nah. I need to run to Walmart up the street for a few things. Otherwise I’m going to veg out and sleep.”
Gray stood up and gathered back up all the material he brought. Shepherd saw him to the door and locked it as Gray drove off in the darkening evening.
“You look like a man who is very unhappy,” Coleman said.
“I am,” Shepherd sat back down in the rocking chair. “I don’t like this. Something is still bugging me, but I can’t place what.”