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
Monday, July 10. Murder + five days.
Isaac Shepherd felt the blow like a fist to his stomach. For just a moment the air in the Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command East, or NEPAC East, was too heavy to breathe.
“Isaac?” Jeong-ja Li asked from across the office as Shepherd replaced the telephone with the stilted movements of an 18th century steam-powered robot. “What’s wrong?”
Li and Shepherd were the only to in the office. Most of NEPAC’s sailors were out to lunch. He and Li were the only two chiefs in the building. She had been going over the production scheduled forwarded to her via email from Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Clayton Ford, her Production Leading Petty Officer. Her attention had been diverted when she overheard Shepherd gurgle something unintelligible after answering the phone.
Both chief petty officers were wearing the aqua-blue camouflage Naval Working Uniform, but they had “de-bloused,” taken off the outer blouse. NEPAC East’s air conditioning was on the fritz, the building near the naval station’s helicopter hangars was about two degrees hotter inside than the ambient air temperature outside…and that 88 degrees. The building had been built as the base photo lab decades earlier, and as such, had no windows since it used to be used to process classified intelligence film.
Everyone at NEPAC East was a bit pale in the heat, and the officer in charge, Ezekiel Warren, was planning to let everyone go early. Warren, recently promoted to full commander, had told the officers and chiefs that morning he had a philosophic objection to having his Sailors fall prey to heat stroke in his own building.
Shepherd, however, had gone a death’s head white. “I knew it….”
“Isaac, what?” Li spun around in her chair. “What did you know?”
He gave his head a small shake, like he was trying to get his brain to re-engage with the present, and looked at Li. “You remember MC3 Rex Morgan?”
Li nodded, “Yeah. He went to shore duty at LANTFleet a few months ago. Why?”
“Jenny, he’s dead,” Shepherd said, using Li’s nickname.
“He’s what?!” Li started and felt her own color drain from her face.
“He’s dead,” Shepherd said. “Apparent suicide. Hung himself in his barracks room. That was my friend Abraham Gray on the phone. He went to see Morgan today. Morgan found the body of Lt. Horton, you know. We both felt like there was something he wasn’t telling us.”
“That’s right,” Li nodded, “You got caught up in another murder when Morgan called you instead of the police. You think he lied?”
“I don’t know,” Shepherd said, and suddenly slammed his fist down on the desk so hard the computer itself jumped and Li was so startled her spleen dislodged itself and tried to fly out of her nose. “GOD DAMMIT!!!”
He was on his feet, pacing the small office in a rage. “I knew something was wrong that day at LANTFleet, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was until Abe and Tom and I were talking in my house Friday that we realized Morgan was reacting all wrong! He was acting scared, not horrified! DAMMMIT!!!!”
Li was taking several small breaths to steady herself from Shepherd’s angry sonic boom. She was also trying to process her own emotions. She had actually deployed with Morgan two years earlier when she and Shepherd were still first class petty officers and Morgan a seaman.
“We have to tell everyone,” She said, bringing the two of them back to the present. “Most people here know Morgan. We have to tell them today before they find out from the news.”
Shepherd made Li jump a second time when he slammed his fist on the desk a second time. Somewhere in the apps running in the background of his brain he realized his hand was already badly bruised.
“Who found him?” Li asked, her own throat tightening a bit, and she told herself it was only because of the difficult task ahead of telling their shipmates at NEPAC East the tragic news.
“Who found who?” Another voice made the both jump. It was Lt. Mary Watson, the short, petite, nuclear-powered artillery shell who was the assistant officer in charge of NEPAC East. Dark hair surmounting a slightly dark face that bespoke of her mixed Hawaiian/Irish parentage, she was a deceptively small and low-key woman…until someone or something honked her off. Shepherd had known her for years. They met when she was an ensign training as a surface warfare officer aboard the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) five years earlier. Even then he had been impressed by how quickly the fire and steel in her came out and created the illusion she could grow to seven feet tall.
“I heard you shouting…and beating up the place,” She looked at Shepherd and pointed to the wall. “I was over in Ops. What’s up?”
Shepherd told her.
She closed her eyes and bowed her head. Much like Cmdr. Warren, she took personally any misfortune to befall her shipmates. It was part of what made her such a powerful, up-and-coming officer.
She had also known Shepherd and even helped him through a few of the murder cases he kept blundering into. She had learned to trust his instincts…even to read them in his eyes. “You don’t think he killed himself.”
Shepherd said, his voice a growl. “No. This was no suicide. I’ll put money that it wasn’t. He saw something about the Horton murder that put him in danger. What’s more—he knew he was in danger!”
Watson had longed learned to ask the right questions years ago. “Who found him? And how was he found?”
Shepherd took a breath. “My friend, Abraham Gray. He went to his room Saturday, but no one was there and the Quarterdeck watch had seen him leave earlier with a group of people. Somewhere between Saturday and whenever he died, he came back in, but none of the other watches particularly recognized him, so there’s no telling when he actually returned.”
“Wait,” Li said. “How did that one guy on watch on Saturday know he left?”
“They were friends,” Shepherd said. “Gray told me the sailor was upset he was stuck on watch and couldn’t go out with Morgan and the rest. Anyway, Gray went back this morning. Morgan was the only one in his room; he had no roommates at present. He used his badge to get access to the room and found Morgan hanged in his bedroom with a suicide note on the bed. The common area and kitchen area were clean and neat like no one was there. Morgan’s bedroom was neat—no sign of a struggle.”
“Are you heading over there, Chief?” Watson asked.
“No,” Shepherd said. “Abe’s already got the NCIS personnel over there. They don’t need me in the way. He’ll catch me up later. But he is sending me a photo of Morgan’s supposed suicide note. But he agrees with me—he thinks someone got to Morgan.”
“But the barracks are a relatively secure place,” Li said. “I know they’re not locked down like LANTFleet’s building is, but the Quarterdecks are pretty good about checking IDs and making residents sign in guests.”
“They are,” Shepherd said tightly. “So you know what that indicates?”
Li thought for a moment, “If someone did kill Morgan like you think, it’s someone who lives there.”
“Which is exactly what we’re supposed to be thinking,” Shepherd said, hitching a hip on the corner of a desk. He sat hunched over, looking for all the world like an overgrown small boy.
“I don’t understand?” Li said. “Lt. Horton could only have been murdered by someone working in LANTFleet’s building. And it’s most likely that, if Morgan was murdered, it was by someone who lives in the barracks with him.”
“Exactly,” Shepherd said.
“Chief, you’re losing both of us,” Watson said. “If we’re supposed to think what Chief Li just said, what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that this morning, a few hours before Abe called me to tell me about Morgan, I contacted Chief Glover over at LANTFleet’s public affairs office.”
“Alonzo’s working there now?” Li asked, surprised. “I thought he was still on the Iwo Jima.”
“Nope, he transferred,” Shepherd said. “Anyway, I just had an odd thought so I asked him to check how many of LANTFleet’s junior sailors live in the barracks.”
“How many?” Watson asked, already knowing the answer.
“Just one. MC3 Rex Morgan,” Shepherd said.
“That means if he was murdered in his room…” Li started.
“…He was killed by someone who was able to gain access to the building through means that aroused absolutely no suspicion or caused anyone at the Quarterdeck to even notice,” Shepherd said.
“Chief,” Watson said, “I still don’t get why you wanted to see who all lived in the barracks?”
Shepherd shrugged. “Ma’am, I can’t tell you exactly why. Just a…hunch. A feeling. Kind of that sort of feeling you get when you think there’s something small crawling in your shoe but you really don’t want to take the shoe off and check because you’d rather not know there’s a spider in there with your foot…but you take the shoe off anyway. You know?”
Watson and Li looked at each other blankly, back at Shepherd, and shook their heads.
“Chief, that made absolutely no sense,” Watson said.
Shepherd shook his head and pulled off his glasses to rub his face before returning the spectacles to his nose. He had recently started wearing bifocals.
“I can’t describe it. Just…look, Morgan was not reacting or acting like a kid who’d been shocked by finding a dead body. And some details he told us—like he was delivering a photo DVD to Lt. Horton—didn’t seem to hold water when we reviewed the situation.”
“How did that not hold water?” Li asked.
“There was no DVD anywhere around. Not in Lt. Horton’s office, not on the Quarterdeck, not anywhere,” Shepherd said. “Needless to say, his story was not entirely accurate. But why? Why did he tell one thing, but evidently did another? We began to think he might have seen something…might have actually seen the killer and been threatened by him. That’s why Abe went to talk to him Saturday, but missed him.”
“That still doesn’t tell me why you wanted to know who lived in the barracks,” Watson pointed out.
“If he was under threat, and I could track down all the LANTFleet sailors who live in the barracks, then we both narrow a possible list of suspects in Horton’s murder and I’d have an idea if Morgan potentially needed protection. Well, there was no one else in that barracks from LANTFleet, but obviously Morgan needed protection.”
Shepherd’s phone beeped. He pulled it out of his uniform trousers and found that Gray had sent him a photo of the note found in Morgan’s room. He read it aloud:
The time I had is over. The stupid game is over. The thing is I liked Horton. But him getting on my nerves had to stop. I thought fun would be had in watching him die, but there wasn’t. It’s time I ended the pain. Slowly I am planning to exit. No use reaching for the phone because I’ll be gone before help could arrive. It was for nothing I guess. In time the memory of it would have killed me. I’ll see stars before I black out I think, but that’s ok. After that next I’ll pass out and die and it’ll all be over.
The office was dead silent when Shepherd finished.
Li shook her head and finally spoke. “That made no sense whatsoever.”
“No, it’s doesn’t,” Shepherd said, staring at his phone. His brow crinkled as he looked up and locked eyes with Watson.
“Whoever wrote this seems to be trying to make us think Morgan killed Horton,” Shepherd said. “But this doesn’t even sound like Morgan…hell, this doesn’t even sound like whoever wrote it was sober!”
Shepherd started typing on his phone.
“Chief?” Watson asked.
“I’m sending this to a friend of mine with linguistics resources. This note makes no sense…but I can’t help feeling like I’m looking at something really important,” Shepherd began tapping on his phone. “I’m sending this to a friend with some linguistics contacts.”
“Can you do that? Legally?” Li asked.
“Probably not, but my friend has already been involved with this case, so I double Special Agent Gray will object.”
Shepherd took another breath. “Ok, Jenny, look, you’ve already got most of the turn-over I can give you for Production anyway. I need to go…I need to go.”
“I though you said Agent Gray didn’t want you to go to the barracks?” Watson asked.
“I’m going home. My friend, Tom Coleman—the one I texted—he’s there. I need to talk to him since he’s in this too.”
Watson nodded. “Go. We’ll break the news to the gang. And I’ll tell them you’re hot on the trail of the killer. It’s not much, but at least it’ll give them a sense that something’s being done.”
“Don’t promise them what I may not be able to deliver,” Shepherd said.
“Oh, come one, Isaac!” Li said. “Even I know how success the ‘Accidental Detective’ has been. You’ve never yet failed to nail a bad guy. Even that Sumay Strangler on Guam—the one who accidentally fell into his own trap before you found him—you still figured out who it was and found his body. You’re batting 100 here.
Shepherd said, “There’s always a first time, Jenny. No one is perfect, and I’ve just been really, really lucky. I’m not a professional detective or law enforcement official. So don’t promise them the moon. But I have to go.”
The drive out of Norfolk was long. Shepherd was largely on autopilot, despite his attempts to focus. He took his usual route up Granby Street, cutting over to Colley and then onto Brambleton Avenue to circle around into the Midtown Tunnel. Hampton Blvd. made a straight shot into the tunnel, but Shepherd had long learned Norfolk’s traffic patterns and realized that he simply made better time avoiding the heaviest traffic that piled up on Hampton.
The tunnel spit him out in Portsmouth near the marine terminals, and he zipped up and merged onto the 164 Western Freeway. Traffic this early in the afternoon was absurdly light, so he had the leisure of the entire West Norfolk Bridge over one of the many branches of the Elizabeth River to himself. Normally he loved this view, looking out past the marine terminals up the river towards the naval station in the distance.
Today he stared straight ahead as sunlight bathed the road, driving his small, blue SUV (named Sarah Jane after a favorite character from the long-running BBC TV series “Doctor Who”) through the outer parts of Portsmouth.
Turning up onto the Towne Point Road exit, he zig-zagged his way onto Towne Point Road, turned onto Twelfth Man Lane was soon across the city line into Suffolk. He passed through the middle class Burbage Grant, and entered his own neighbor, Eccleston Range via Pertwee Street. A quick left put him on Tennant Street and another dogleg let his tires ride up onto his own street, Baker Street. The Yellow Duck stood right on the corner of Tennant and Baker street.
Coleman’s rental was parked in the drive…under the bushy and spreading Bradford pear tree. Shepherd always parked on the opposite side of the drive way to avoid the fallout from the birds nesting in the tree. Coleman’s car was, alas, not so lucky.
Although still on leave technically, Coleman was not idle. When Shepherd entered the house, he found Coleman spread out all over the Great Room. Papers were piled neatly…but piled everywhere and Coleman was on the sofa, his feet propped up on the old coffee table and his laptop propped up on his knees.
“You’re back early,” Coleman didn’t look up. He was obviously working from Shepherd’s home. The 21st century made a commander’s life easier in many ways, but harder in others. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, Coleman could work on even sensitive material as long as the house was relatively secure. On the down side, the internet meant he actually had to work.
Shepherd’s lack of answer didn’t penetrate Coleman’s mind. Vaguely he head the sound of boots being taken off and the coat closet opening.
Finally Coleman realized Shepherd hadn’t said a word. He looked up in time to see Shepherd hanging his blouse on the banister as was his habit. He pulled his NEPAC ball cap from his head and set it atop the blouse.
“What happened?” Coleman asked, signing out and closing his laptop.
Across from the sofa were a wooden rocking chair and a stylish wing-backed arm chair. Shepherd sat down in the armchair.
“Rex Morgan is dead. You didn’t get my text?”
Coleman looked surprised. “No, I didn’t, I…wait a minute.”
He rummaged under some papers and found his phone.
“Dammit, I left it on silent. Sorry.” He pulled up Shepherd’s text and read the attached note Shepherd had relayed form Gray.
“This is…stupid,” Coleman said.
“Morgan was hung just like Horton,” Shepherd said. “There were no ligature marks on him like there were Horton, but otherwise the same.”
“Damn, I’m very sorry, Isaac,” Coleman said. “I know what it’s like to lose one of your people.”
Shepherd nodded. “Abe will be over in a few hours. He’ll fill us in on everything NCIS gleans from the scene of the crime. But he agrees with me, he does not believe Morgan committed suicide. The question is…who killed him and how did they get into the barracks?”
Briefly he filled Coleman in on what he had learned about Morgan’s status as LANTFleet’s only sailor residing in that barracks.
Coleman shook his head. “Assuming you’re right and the killer knew he was a witness, why was he left alive at LANTFleet? Why not take him out there?”
“I don’t know,” Shepherd leaned forward, his head in his hands. “That’s a very good question. Letting him live…even if Horton’s killer threatened him…would be a huge risk.”
“And then how did the killer get into the Barracks? If you’re right and that Quarterdeck watch at the barracks is on the ball, the killer couldn’t just walk in. But there’s no way Morgan would have let the killer in…unless the killer came in with someone else as their guest.”
“And then managed to get into Morgan’s locked barracks room?” Shepherd asked. “How? And to be a guest in the barracks and then sneak off long enough to commit a time-consuming murder by hanging a guy…and no one notice?”
“Good point.” Coleman said. “Sorry, my expertise is foreign intelligence and targeting. You want a smart bomb dropped on some bad guys, give me a call. That I can do. But this…I’ve already forwarded this other note to Linda so she can give it to our linguistics contacts. Wish I could do more.”
“Actually, you already have, old friend,” Shepherd said. “You made an interesting point, though I don’t think you realized it. Someone was able to walk into the headquarters of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, one of the most secure buildings in the Tidewater, kill a man on one of the busiest days of the year, and walk out…and no one saw or noticed a thing. Someone was able to breeze in and out of a crowded barracks, gain entry to a secured room, kill another man…and no one noticed anything.”
“Like a ghost,” Coleman said.
“Exactly,” Shepherd looked weary. Anger had burned out and left grief and high anxiety. He was beginning to shut down, and needed to get away and rest to “reset” his mental processes. “But I need to go lie down. I’m not…I’m not feeling well. Abe will be over later this evening to talk and fill us in. But we’re missing something…and I don’t mean in the clues department.”
Shepherd rose ponderously, slowly, as if his personal gravity field had been significantly increased. “Who the hell can walk into two relatively secured facilities and kill with impunity…and no one notice?”
Coleman watched as Shepherd made his way to his bedroom.