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
Tuesday, July 11. First murder + six days; second murder + one day
The room was archly quiet.
Isaac Shepherd had no idea why that term, “archly quiet” kept popping up in his mind. As a former instructor and professional journalist he knew the use of “archly” in this context was completely and utterly incorrect. “Archly” meant something like “playfully sarcastic,” and there was nothing playful or sarcastic about the gathering in NCIS’s conference room.
But, still, for whatever reasons his brain had in its head, it kept seizing on that terminology.
The room was archly quiet.
Abraham Gray, dressed as usual in his blue suit and red tie had his chin in his hands as he sat at the mahogany table, eyes unfocused on the papers scattered before him and the somnolent laptop by his elbow. Lt. Col. Tom Coleman, again in civilian clothes, stood next to Shepherd, looking at a blank white board. He was at a loss and stood next to his old high school friend more as a show of support than anything.
NEPAC East’s officer in charge, Cmdr. Ezekiel Warren was there in his khakis and reading (for the umpteenth time) a transcipt of one “witness’” statement.
Shepherd’s mind put the word “witness” in quotes because the only real witness they had was now dead. No one else had seen or heard a damned thing.
Paper cups, some with cold coffee still in them, some empty, littered the table among the sheets of paper and photos of crime scenes.
Seated at the head of the table was The Big Man himself: Admiral David E. Jones, Commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet and, perhaps, the second most powerful officer in the Navy due to the world-spanning scope of his area of responsibilities.
Jones was also in khakis, the four stars of his rank glittering at his collar. He was heftier than when Shepherd had met him nearly 17 years earlier. Jones had been a commander back then, and commanding officer of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 12, or “VQ-12” in Navy terms. Shepherd had been a Yeoman 3rd Class whose photographic hobbies landed him in the VQ-12 public affairs office.
Jones was heftier, but no where near “old.” He was now in his upper fifties, but his bisceps were still so big they stretched the fabric of his uniform to a dangerous level whenever he bent his arms. His hair had maddeningly stayed black of its own accord, and his face, though lined with age and years squinting into bright skies while piloting P-3C Orion and EP-3E ARIES II aircraft, was alert and could crack into a smile that lit a room.
The gathering had been going on for two hours when the admiral arrived quite unexpectedly. Gray wondered how Jones had known he had convened this small group in the NCIS building on Naval Station Norfolk near Gate 3. But, then, Jones was LANTFleet’s commander and probably only need pick up a phone and could find out anyone’s location he wanted.
Warren had asked to come when Shepherd let him know he’d been called by Gray. Morgan had been one of Warren’s Sailors for two years. Warren still felt a responsibility for him even though he had transferred months earlier (one of Warren’s greatest failings—if one could call it that—was his inability to simply cut off the idea of Sailors who were no longer under his command).
They had been talking in circles for two hours when Jones had been escorted in by Special Agent Carla Tenbold.
Now the quintet was quiet. Jones had been there for an hour and finally ideas and suspects and theories had been exhausted. Jones was understandably angry. His aide was dead, and a Sailor who had worked for him and possibly knew something was dead. They all believed Morgan had been murdered too, but as yet, other than the screwy suicide note, had no evidence to back up that assertion.
Shepherd, also in his khakis, muttered something after nearly fifteen minutes of total silence (a personal best for him).
“Chief?” Jones looked up. His bright brown eyes were subdued with grief, anger, and the weight of an admiral’s duties that allowed no time for personal mourning.
“We’re missing something,” Shepherd said again, still looking at the blank white board.
“I think that’s obvious, Isaac,” Gray said.
Jones leaned back. He had so long been accustomed to command that he wore it like a cologne; as soon as he entered a room his quiet authority dominated all and set a tone that compelled events and people to order themselves. “Chief, I haven’t forgotten the Symko affair in Spain. You and Agent Gray cracked that one. This is the second time someone who works for me was murdered…maybe the third if you can prove Morgan was a murder and not suicide. If you think we’re missing something, then we’re missing something. But…what? What are you thinking? Help us by talking us through it.”
Coleman couldn’t help but be impressed by the confidence this Navy leader had in Shepherd. But, then, Shepherd had always had a habit of engendering confidence in high places without actually realizing he was doing it.
“I don’t know, sir. That’s all I’ve got. I feel like it’s right in front of me, but I can’t see it. Like those 3-D pictures you have to defocus you eyes to see.”
“The ‘Magic Eye’ pictures,” Gray nodded. “I know the feeling.”
“We have to proceed on the belief Morgan was murdered,” Shepherd said. “So then we have to assume whoever killed the admiral’s aide also killed Morgan because Morgan knew something. So we have the same killer or killers for both sailors. We have the single most secure building in the Hampton Roads area…but with several floors or surveillance cameras out of order and not recording. We have a murder on July 5 when 98% of that building’s occupants are there, but no one notices anything.
“The we have a murder in the biggest barracks on the naval station on a Saturday in a Sailor’s room that should have been secure. But no one saw or heard anything suspicious.”
“And the barracks has cameras on all decks, but they’re on a 12 hour loop,” Gray said. “Every 12 hours they record over the previous 12 hours. Anything they picked up the day Morgan died is long over-written and I can’t justify getting digital forensics on it based on a hunch.”
Gray’s laptop beeped. He reached over to check his email.
“We have a ghost,” Coleman said. “Someone who can effectively walk through walls.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Warren said, putting down the statement he’d been reading.
Coleman and Shepherd shared a glance that recalled many experiences contradicting Warren’s claim, but this was not the time.
“This is interesting,” Gray said. He looked up from the email. “Morgan died twice.”
All four men looked over at Gray.
“I just got the preliminary notes from the autopsy on him. There were two sets of ligature marks on his neck. Closely aligned—so closely in fact that one set nearly obliterate the other set. But two sets.”
“People don’t hang themselves twice,” Warren said.
“No,” Shepherd said. “He was strangled, then hung to make it look like a suicide.”
Gray nodded, “Exactly. Well, we needed hard evidence he was murdered. Here it is.”
Shepherd stepped forward, his hands rising to steeple his finger tips at his chin, a light suddenly going off in his eyes.
“I know who it is,” He looked at Gray. “So do you. Who do we know that has a history of making murders look like suicide? And who do we know is out to kill random people in an effort to paralyze you and I with grief and guilt? And who do we know that has only targeted sailors, their families, and civilian mariners?”
Abraham Gray nodded in agreement. “Gordon Grey.”
“You mean the man who shot Master Chief Stiles?” Jones asked.
“Yes, sir,” Shepherd said. “And murdered two men directly on the Norfolk Rover a few months ago…as well as murdered the family of the Norfolk Rover’s captain to force him to kill himself. Same guy. He’s had a vendetta against Abe and myself ever since we took him down for killing Master Chief Stiles. But he’s not targeting out families. He’s a colossally bad judge of character; he is going after strangers in order to prostrate us with guilt for their deaths. But instead he’s just pissing me off.”
“Well, we have a suspect,” Coleman said. “But…how? How does a notoriously wanted mass murderer walk into a highly secure building like LANTFleet and kill on a busy day? How does he breeze into a barracks that, while not tight as a drum, is still relatively secure, and kill again?”
“I see your point about a ‘ghost’,” Warren said, picking up his empty cup and tossing it into the waste basket. “If it is Gordon Grey, how did he do it?”
Shepherd was watching Warren closely.
“It’s like a variation on the classic ‘locked room’ mystery,” Gray said. “A person is murdered in a room that is locked from the inside. How did the murderer do it?”
“We’re missing something,” Shepherd said again, suddenly whipping his eyes away from Cmdr. Warren.
“You said that, Chief,” Jones said. “But you haven’t given us any direction to work in.”
“No, sir, I mean we’re literally missing something. We’re missing the obvious. Cmdr. Warren doesn’t believe in ghosts. I do for good reason, but we need no ghost to commit these murders. Nor does Gordon Grey. He did it—it’s his ‘m.o.’ as they say in detective stories. But the problem of the proverbial locked room that Abe brought up—the ‘how’ of it—that’s what we’re missing. We’re missing the obvious. We always miss the obvious. Office workers usually do.”
“Ok, Isaac,” Coleman said, “That was some terrific oratory and a nice incorporation of Cmdr. Warren and Gray’s observations. But I’m reasonably certain you still didn’t bring us anywhere near a point.”
“Oh, yes, I did!” Shepherd’s energy level was rapidly increasing and his sea green eyes glittered with a firey light that both Coleman and Gray knew well meant he was on to something.
“Think!” Shepherd said. “Who can murder in an office building and no one notices? Who can hunt in a crowded barracks and no would would question their presence? Whose hunting ground is the vary secure environments we work and live in…but no one ever notices their presence?”
Four faces looked back at Shepherd blankly.
“Commander,” Shepherd looked at Warren, “What’s the name of the cleaning lady at NEPAC East?”
Warren looked startled. “I…I don’t know. She’s a very nice lady…but I don’t think I actually know her name.”
“Lynn,” Shepherd said. “Her name is Lynn. She was born in Taiwan and her family emigrated here when she was 19. She’s married to a retired Boatswain’s Mate. Tom–!”
Shepherd wheeled around to Coleman, “You’re a commander yourself. What’s the name of the person who cleans your command’s bathrooms?”
Coleman looked as startled as Warren. “I, uh…I don’t know.”
“Exactly,” Shepherd wheeled to look at Gray. “Abe, who gathers the trash around here and mops all these love tile floors?”
Gray’s head was cocked to one side as he cottoned on to Shepherd’s thinking. “I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know. But…good Lord, you’re right. It’s brilliantly sick, but it would work!”
“I’m not following,” Warren said. “Chief, what are you talking about? What has…Lynn? Lynn. What has Lynn got to do with these murders?”
“Commander, Admiral, Tom–who walks around our secure spaces and is never noticed? The janitors!” Shepherd said, shoving his hands into his uniform pockets in a completely non-regulation pose. “Not one of you knows the names of the janitors, the custodial staff, in your own buildings. You talk to them; you’re polite to them. But I’m the only one who knows a name a life story.”
“And just why do you notice them?” Jones asked, interested.
“I learned a very long time ago everyone has a story, and everyone can shine a bit if you just take the time to shine a bit of light on them,” Shepherd said. “That’s how Grey got into LANTFleet and the barracks. I’ll bet anything the same janitorial company has the contract for both buildings.”
“But the Sailors are responsible for cleaning their own rooms,” Warren said. “Why would the barracks need a janitor?”
“Sir, a long time ago when I was a junior 3rd Class and the admiral here a commander, the barracks residents at VQ-12 had to clean the barracks themselves. Whatever duty section was on that day also had to sweep and mop the barracks. Well, those days have ended. Now Sailors are responsible for their own rooms, yes. But the common areas are cleaned by a janitorial service.”
“And if Grey’s been working in both buildings for a while then he’d know about the camera problems in LANTFleet!” Gray said. “And that would explain why no one has noticed his tattoos. A lot of cleaning people have them. Hell, a lot of cleaning people are ex-Navy themselves. All Grey would have to do is listen to people talking, as a few good-natured questions of those around him–”
“And those around him would be polite and friendly but never really actually notice who they’re talking to,” Shepherd cut in.
Gray nodded and finished his thought, “And if he was careful about it, he could pick up a lot of information…enough to murder in two busy buildings and not have anyone notice! He overhears a conversation about the camera system malfunctioning. He asks a few superficial, sympathetic questions. Nothing deep, mind you. Nothing that would trip an alarm bell in someone’s head. His sympathy elicits a response that tells him the system is not recording anything on certain floors…one of which houses the fleet commander’s office. He finds out who will be in and out by listening while he’s cleaning…and targets your aide, Admiral Jones.”
“But…how did Morgan get into it?” Coleman asked.
“With Morgan dead we can only guess until we nail Grey’s ass to the wall,” Shepherd said. “My guess is that Morgan walked in on the murder while it was happening. We all knew the lieutenant had been slowly strangled. He was hanged from a ceiling fan. If his body was dropped it would have torn the ceiling fan out of the ceiling. Bu if it was lowered slowly the fan would hold and he’d strangle. I bet Morgan walked in accidentally and was forced at proverbial gunpoint to help.”
“That would explain his behavior after we arrived,” Coleman agreed.
“And I’ll bet Morgan let him in his room of his own accord. Grey would easily have figured out who in the barracks Morgan hung out with. He came in on a Saturday, probably using his badge through a side entrance. Knocked on Morgan’s door and pretended to be someone else. Morgan opens the door…and Grey gets in,” Shepherd theorized. “If Grey wore regular street clothes, no one would notice him. They’d all assume he was like them—another resident in a building so big no one knows everybody else, but a resident all the same off work for the weekend.”
“Ok, this gives me something to go on,” Gray said. “I can easily get the name of the contractor who has the contract for those buildings.”
“Admiral,” Shepherd said to Jones, “Admiral it is imperative you do not alert anyone in your building about anything. If you do, you’ll tip off Gordon Grey and he’ll vanish again. This is the first break we’ve had since he escaped from custody in March.”
Jones nodded. “I understand. I’ll keep this quiet.”
Gray stood, energized. “This isn’t over, gentlemen. We have a starting point. But Grey will not be using his real name working for whatever company this is. If we just walk in with his photo, odds are he’ll disappear again.”
“I agree,” Shepherd said. “We have to get their records quietly, and then nail him through a process of elimination. He made a few unforced errors during the Norfolk Rover affair. But this time…this time we actually have the advantage, but it’s a very tenuous one. We have to be careful or we’ll lose him again. Still…for the first time since March we are a step ahead of this bastard!”