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
Thursday, July 13. First murder + eight days; second murder + three days
“I was able to track down the janitorial contractor,” NCIS Special Agent Abraham Gray said. “They’re a company called Sulfide Services. They have the contracts for most of the buildings on NSA Hampton Roads, all of the naval station and several schools and local hospitals. That means they have the contract to NEPAC’s buildings too.”
Gray, Shepherd, Coleman, and Admiral Jones were seated around the downstairs coffee table in the Yellow Duck’s Great Room. Darkness had fallen and the July cicadas were buzzing happily outside the house.
“Grey would figure out a way to make sure he didn’t walk into NEPAC HQ or my own building at NEPAC East,” Shepherd said. “He’s out to get revenge on you and I for screwing up his life; if he ran into me at NEPAC the game would be up.”
The quartet was sipping coffee in Shepherd’s home because it was the most private place they could meet and keep Admiral David E. Jones’ presence from eliciting attention. As it was, Jones’ eyes were given over the slight bloodshot look of a man who had just spent most of the day comforting a grieving widow and children at a funeral. His dress blue uniform coat was laid over the stairway banister, and his tie was loosened at his neck. Four gold stars glittered on each of his shoulder boards.
Which, in fact, he had. Lt. Horton had been buried earlier in the day. Morgan’s body would be flown home to his parents in Wyoming the next week.
Abraham Gray nodded. Despite the late hour he still looked like a politician ready to stump. Although he had hung his sport coat up in the entrance closet under the random shower head (as a joke Shepherd had mounted a non-functional shower head over the closet door just for the sake of eliciting double-takes from his guests), he had not loosened his tie and his slacks were still neatly creased.
How the hell does the man do it? Shepherd wondered, sitting in a pair of jogging pants and a T-shirt featuring two skeletons on it (one skeleton was holding the other’s spinal column and saying “I got your back.”). By 8:30 most nights he himself bore the slightly rumpled look of a grizzly bear needing a nap. A nap about six months long, that is.
“Ok, kids,” Gray said with a dark humor. “This is where it gets complicated.”
The agent held up a rather large sheaf of papers.
“Sulfide Services employs two thousand people across all of Hampton Roads in their janitorial services division,” Gray said. “Of those two thousand, 1,600 are cleared and registered to work on the various bases—and all of those can work in the barracks on the naval station. Of that 1,600, there are 367 people who have the clearance to work in LANTFleet’s building and, of that 367 people who are cleared, 164 are actually registered to do so. Meaning there are 164 people from Sulfide Services that can walk into your building, Admiral.”
“Well, we can cut that down pretty quickly,” Coleman said. He was in a ratty pair of old board shorts and a hoodie, and had perched in Shepherd’s wooden rocking chair. “If we’re sure we’re after your man Gordon Grey, then we can eliminate the women right from the off.”
“Exactly,” Gray nodded to Coleman. “And that leaves us with 73 men to look at.”
Jones, occupying Shepherd’s quasi-18th century wing-backed arm chair, nodded, waiting.
“We can cut that 73 down even more,” Gray went on. “Of that 73, there are six on vacation and my team has already verified those six are out of the state.”
“Wow,” Shepherd said, shaking his head. “That still leaves us with, what, 67 men to sort through?”
“What about tattoos?” Coleman asked. “Can we use that to narrow it down more?”
“I like how you think, Tom,” Gray said. “Already done…but that leaves us with 41 men who have sleeve-type tattoos on their arms. 41. And all of those 41 men have solid work backgrounds and clearances.”
“So either this Gordon Grey has fabricated his paperwork, including a high-level clearance investigation, or else someone in that company has faked it for him,” Jones said.
“That’s where this is going to get dicey, sir,” Shepherd said. “Grey was the Force Master Chief’s yeoman…before he shot the Force Master Chief in the head. Before that he was in the security manager’s office on the Cowpen—that’s where he made Yeoman First Class. Anyway, as a yeoman in the security manger’s office he’d be handling clearances and would get to know that system pretty well. Admiral, I got to VQ-12 as a yeoman myself in Spain about two months before you came in as the XO. I don’t know if you recall, but I was in the security manager’s office too. I can’t recall most of what I did, but I do remember that I was amazed how much access to a lot of systems and databases I had. And that was in the days when the digital revolution was just starting.”
Jones nodded, “I remember. Shortly after I got there, though, you got moved back to main admin and took over the awards desk.”
Shepherd smiled, appreciating the admiral’s tact, but had no qualms being open. “Sir, you don’t have to protect my privacy. These guys know what happened. I tried to commit suicide and was in the Rota base hospital for three days. That’s why I got moved back to main admin.”
Jones smiled. “Yes, but after six months at the awards desk Commander Harold moved you to the squadron public affairs office because you were always taking pictures.”
“Twenty years ago public affairs was just nice-to-have pictures. Today it’s a theater of the war we’re in,” Shepherd said. “But, aside from you signing my application to convert to naval photographer after you took over as CO, I do recall being surprised how much access I had in the security manager’s office.”
“And this twerp Grey had a hell of a lot more experience during his time on the Cowpens,” Gray said. “He might very well be able to fake the paperwork necessary. Or he might have inside help from someone in the company. That’s one of things we have to pursue.”
“He’s also damned good at blending in,” Shepherd said. “His photos have been plastered all over the Tidewater, from Wavy 10 TV to the Virginian Pilot to Fox News, CNN, etc. Yet he apparently is able to walk into one of the most tightly secured buildings in the area. He has succeeded in altering his appearance to such an extant most people aren’t able to recognize him, even after the FBI provided all those digitally altered images to show how he might look with a beard, mustache, fake scars, etc.”
“So he’s smart, dangerous and devious,” Jones said with a sigh. “And if I increase security in headquarters, he’ll probably be alerted and bolt.”
“It’s not that simple…or bad…Sir,” Shepherd said. “Granted you have to play it safe, but Grey knows we’ll have figured out both suicides were, in fact, murders. He knows we’ll be looking for a murderer, and, if my guess is right, he’ll be counting on us to be looking for him. That’s part of his little game.”
“I’m not quite following, Chief,” Jones said, but looked intently at Shepherd.
“Sir,” Shepherd said, “Grey is playing with us, but what he doesn’t know is that we know how he got in. If you have your people do a round turn on general security…hell, go ahead and announce that Lt. Horton was murdered! If Gordon Grey wants to play a game, let’s give him what he wants. Announce that MC3 Morgan was murdered as well. We’ll give Mr. Grey a little thrill up his little leg as he watches this…but that’s where we double-back on him. I’m pretty sure good ole’ Special Agent Abraham Gray here can whip up a cover story that makes it seem like we’re looking for the wrong person in the wrong place.”
“Make Gordon Grey develop a false sense of security,” Jones nodded. “I see. It would serve to divert him from your real efforts…while letting me put my people on their guard.”
Coleman’s phone went off and he pulled it out to look at its display.
“It’s Linda, my wife,” Coleman said to the admiral as he got up and excused himself.
“Abe,” Shepherd said, “How do we go about getting into Sulfide Services without alerting the twerp that we’re getting near him?”
“We don’t,” Gray said firmly, “I do. I’m sorry, Isaac, but you need to stay out of this part of it. You don’t have the training, expertise, or connections to delve into a corporation like this with any level of finesse or discretion. You start poking around in Sulfide Services and you will tip him off. You need to let me and NCIS handle this.”
Shepherd grimaced, but held his tongue. He hated it when Gray was right.
“However,” Gray said, “What I need you to do is keep using your ‘Chief Mafia’ connections to build a biography on Gordon Grey. You’re always talking about how people act in character and you can—and you actually have—spotted a murderer that way. Learn everything you can about him. The more we learn about him, the better the profile, the better able we can spot him even if he has turned out to be a master of disguise.”
Coleman reappeared looking exceptionally put out.
“Tom?” Shepherd asked, “You look like someone just stepped on your pet frog.”
“I had Linda give a copy of both fake suicide notes to my her linguistics people,” Coleman said. “You know we all felt like something was there that just didn’t seem right?”
“What did they find?” Gray asked. Jones and Shepherd both leaned forward.
“It’s a skip code; they’re both written as skip codes,” Coleman said, looking stunned at the simplicity of the thing.
“Skip code?” Jones asked.
Coleman nodded, “It’s a simple code. The first word of the first sentence is the start, then you set a word in each subsequent sentence to be the actual word used and build a message that way. In this case, it’s the third word of each subsequent sentence.”
“The Empty Hearse,” Shepherd said, surprised.
“The what?” Gray asked.
“The Empty Hearse,” Shepherd said again. “January 2014. First episode of the third season of the BBC TV series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. It was co-created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who also was showrunner for Doctor Who at the time.”
“How the hell do you know all that?!” Gray asked.
“Dude, he’s a huge Doctor Who fan,” Coleman said. “You know that. Anything connected with Doctor Who, he’ll know.”
“I’m also a huge Sherlock fan,” Shepherd said. “You should watch it; damned good show. But put the subtitles on; Cumberbatch as Holmes talks so fast even an Anglophile like me has trouble keeping up.”
“And this has to do with this code how?” Jones asked, getting them back on track.
“The villain in the show used a skip code identical to the one Tom just described,” Shepherd said. “It might just be a coincidence that Grey organized his little skip code the same way—“
“But it might also have inadvertently revealed one of his pet TV shows,” Gray said. “There are rarely coincidences like this in criminology. I think Isaac is on to something. Grey might have just telegraphed us more information.”
“But, to business,” Shepherd said, rifling through the papers on the coffee table until he came up with a pen. “Let’s see what Grey was telling us…unless Linda told you over the phone?” Shepherd looked to Coleman.
Coleman shook his head.
Shepherd found the first note, the one supposedly written by Lt. Horton:
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’s office I will say goodbye. I want the end to come quickly and just be done. It’s really cleaner this way.
Grabbing a pen from Gray’s shirt pocket without so much as a “May I?” Shepherd began writing:
I am being killed by the cleaner.
“You…have got to get kidding!” Coleman stared. “That bastard just told us the janitor did it! Holy CRAP! How the hell are you going to look for him now?!”
“No.” Shepherd said.
“No?” Jones asked. “Chief, it’s plain he’s telling us he’s the janitor, so it stands to reason he knows we’ll be looking for him at Sulfide Services.”
“No. No…no….no,” Shepherd was shaking his head. “This isn’t…no! I’m sorry, but no. This isn’t like Grey. He’s changing the rules up, yes…but I think he just made another unforced error! Every time he left notes before, he left them openly! I think he did this to amuse himself, not clue us in! Remember, he’s clever, but he thinks he’s far more clever than he really is. I’m sorry, but I don’t think he actually thought we’d work these out. I really think he did this to have a laugh at us in the privacy of his dark little heart.”
“You might be right, Isaac,” Gray said. “I’ve run into a few perps who left ‘mystery’ clues as a private joke on us…and were very surprised when we used those clues to nail them. You’re right; Grey’s style when communicating with us has been to use open notes or the dead bodies themselves.”
“That’s one hell of an assumption,” Coleman said.
“It is, Tom,” Gray admitted. “But at the moment it’s an assumption that fits our available facts and, whether we like it or not, it’s the only course open to us.”
“Let me see the other note, the one from Morgan’s room,” Shepherd rummaged until he found it:
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.
Writing hastily, Shepherd deciphered the code. Even Jones got up to peer over his shoulder at it:
The game is getting fun. I am reaching for the stars next.
“What the hell does that mean?” Jones asked.
“You got me, Admiral,” Shepherd said, leaning back and glancing up at his former commanding officer…
…and freezing cold.
“Oh…my, God…” Shepherd said.
“Isaac?” Coleman asked. “What’s wrong?”
Gray looked at Shepherd’s ashen face, and then saw what Shepherd had seen. He felt his stomach drop into his impeccable leather loafers.
The four stars of Jones’ shoulder board insignia were glittering in Shepherd’s eyes.
“We have a problem,” Gray said, standing up and looking at the admiral. “We have a very big problem.”
Jones wasn’t any more in the know that Coleman was. “What are you talking about?”
Shepherd rose, “Admiral, Grey left these as a joke on us. But we figured it out and he doesn’t know…he doesn’t know we just identified his next—and his biggest—target. You.”
Jones actually took a slight step back in surprise. Coleman looked up, caught sight of the admiral’s stars on the admiral’s shoulders, and caught his breath.
“Admiral,” Gray said, “I’m sorry to tell you that our murder is apparently targeting you for his next strike.”
“That is rather disturbing,” Jones said. His reputation for a nearly inhuman calm in the face of crisis was well-earned.
“However, we aren’t in critical danger yet,” Shepherd said from the sofa. “Or, rather, you aren’t, sir.”
“How you do figure that, Chief?”
“Grey’s first murder was in March. He didn’t show up again until May. That’s nearly two months of quiet. The he lay low again until now. Another near two-month span. I think he’s trying to keep us living in fear and not create so many dead bodies it’s easy for us to track him. If that pattern holds he won’t move against you until mid-to-late September.”
“That’s not terribly comforting,” Jones said wryly.
“No, it’s not,” Gray said. “But it gives us just a bit of time to work with, and a greater advantage than we had. We know how he’s getting access, we know what company he’s working for, and we know who his target is. That is a hell of a lot more information than we had before.”
“Even so, you need to increase your security, Admiral,” Shepherd said.
“Won’t that tip this punk off?” Coleman asked.
“I don’t think so,” Shepherd responded. “The admiral’s aide was murdered in the admiral’s office suite. It’s only logical for the admiral’s security to get beefed up. And don’t bother looking for the janitor to kill you…or try to, sir.”
“Why not?” Jones asked.
“Grey isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is, but it he is clever. He won’t risk using his cover as a janitor to get at you. He’s just smart enough to cover his bases and take a different tact on the off chance we do get wise to his employment as a practitioner of the custodial arts. He has actually been striking in exceptionally varied circumstances and locations. However, his murders all have one thing in common.”
The other three waited, but Shepherd just stared at the admiral, a thoughtful look on his face.
“Isaac?” Coleman said, “You want to clue us in?”
Shepherd smiled. “With the exception of the Norfolk Rover murders, he seems to like making murders look like suicides, even if only as a lame joke. He’s done that three times now, and he’s grouping his murders together as single operations. Master Chief Stiles was the first. The Norfolk Rover murders were the second. Lt. Horton and MC3 Morgan were the third. Two of the three the murders were made to look like suicides, and in all of them he got close to his victims by either being someone they already knew and trusted, or putting himself into a position where he gained that trust and access…then turned on them.”
Abraham Gray nodded, “That’s actually quite a succinct analysis. We have a lot of information, but it’s still not enough. And, if Isaac’s guesswork is accurate, we know we have about 60 days until his next strike. We have 60 days to catch him before he makes his attempt on the admiral’s life.”
The four fell silent. No one quite knew what to say next.
Friday, July 28. Mallory Square, Key West
Chief Mass Communication Specialist Isaac Shepherd stood alone, staring out from Mallory Square across the harbor as the sun set over the aptly named Sunset Key.
His backpack was light on his shoulders; tonight he had left his fancy DSLR at the resort and was doing what he called “guerrilla photojournalism” with his cell phone camera. As soon as people saw the big Nikon camera, their behavior changed in what Shepherd called the “Kardashian Effect” in reference to the fact that cameras altered people’s behavior. With the little cell phone, he could get natural, candid shots in the crowds.
And crowds there were!
Key West held the Sunset Festival every day in Mallory Square. Key West itself was a wonderful collision of humanity, and at sunset Mallory Square was the epicenter of the colorful blast.
This was his last night on the island. He had first visited back fifteen years earlier when he was still an F-14D Tomcat reconnaissance camera technician with VF-713. The squadron had come to NAS Key West to use the aerial gunnery range over the Gulf of Mexico. Shepherd fell in love with island living, and with Key West itself, during that two week detachment. He promised himself as a junior Second Class Petty Officer he would return for his retirement vacation.
He also realized as he turned and started back across Mallory Square that he had found his retirement home. Somehow, someday, he would not only return home to Florida, he would put his roots down in this bustlingly crazy little island’s sandy soil.
The retirement vacation was now nearly over. It had been a very good week. Ghosts tours, jaunts out to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, a rental bicycle carrying all over Key West with ease…it had been a very good week. Tomorrow he flew back to Virginia and would have to get really serious about getting ready for retirement. Tomorrow he would also have to face the fact that Gordon Grey was still out there, still a threat, and still someone he was determined to take down.
The crowd bustled happily around him as the sun disappeared. Already he had watched a young, tightly muscled busker do a juggling act on a 10’ high unicycle. Shepherd had met him earlier in the week during his first Sunset Fesitval. The two had talked; Shepherd himself juggled, but nowhere near as good. The young man always wore a trademark blue tank top and was quite the performer. He knew how to work a crowd and made his entire living busking.
Street vendors sold everything from painted coconuts to repurposed tin cans that had been artfully turned into whimsical folk art. The smell of hot dogs wafted from a cart. Children scrampered and avoided their parents. Inebriated visitors laughed a little two loud. The crowd was joyful. Key West was joyful. It had been a good vacation.
A vacation most definitely worth waiting 15 years for. Thanks to Shepherd’s parents, he had been able to fly down directly to the island (their retirement gift to him had been the airfare) instead flying into Miami and driving down.
And now this final night with the lively crowd on an island he had secret plans to end up on when he retired from his fast approaching second career.
Still, he looked around as he walked across the square, he wondered about the people around him. All of them had a story…but he wondered what they would say if they knew his story.
If only they knew… He thought. With only a break in June, he had been up to his anchors in murder mysteries since Grey murdered John Stiles in March. He should be focusing on retirement (September was fast approaching). He had a million things to do in order to successfully out process from the Navy. He had to decide what to do with the Yellow Duck. He hated being out of control, but all he could do was keep applying to various jobs ad hoping for luck in finding employment. And…again…he had a murderer to find.
Stopping at the military memorial on Mallory Square’s southern edge, he reached out a hand and gently touched the armored housing from the lost battleship USS Maine’s 10” gun director. The Maine had left Key West in 1898 on the ill-fated voyage that led it to its destruction in Havana Harbor. Shepherd had seen other relics salvaged from the Maine—it’s mast on the grounds of the Naval Academy at Annapolis and it’s ensign on display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, for instance—but this was the only one he could touch.
And so he touched it reverently, with respect for his deceased predecessors who had never known what hit them. Silently he also spared a thought for Lt. Horton, a man he’d never met, and for MC3 Morgan, who he had known. Two more lives cut down long before their time.
He had never expected to retire at only 20 years. His dad had done 30 years in the Air Force; Shepherd fully to go for 30 himself and retire with his family as a Master Chief Petty Officer (an E9); his dad had retired as a Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force.
He had no family. He was single and only came out as a gay man when his ill-starred marriage fell apart. Jennifer was one of his best friends; she had known he was gay when they dated. He never hid that. But they fell in love and, both being very relationally inexperience, married despite the obvious red flags (like the sexual orientation mismatch). Fortunately they had called it before they hated each other and were great friends to this day. And…well, Shepherd had ‘inherited’ a step-daughter from Jennifer’s prior marriage. A little girl to whom he was the daddy who chose her and stayed in her life. A little girl who was a constant bright spot in his otherwise often dark sky.
He was leaving the Navy at 20 instead of 30 because he was tired and wounded inside. The chronic depression and anxiety he had fought with for all these years had taken a greater toll on him than he cared to admit as he faced the daily challenges of serving in the world’s finest Navy. Add to that the toll exacted on him by the adventures he had been on, some of which would be classified for decades to come, and he was as emotionally injured inwardly as a soldier coming back from the Middle East wars.
And…beyond the emotional injuries and all…he just wasn’t excited by the next of orders. Serving for five years at NEPAC East on sea and shore duty…well, that was a hard act to follow. At NEPAC he had helped found a whole new training program for Navy public affairs personnel, a program that had caused a subtle but seismic shift in the Navy itself. He had been the LCPO of an Operations Department that had over 30 Sailors deployed around the world on more than 20 ships and assorted land-based operations.
He rather liked the bragging rights that gave him. He’d rather go out on that kind of high note.
His decision wasn’t all based on darkness. The truth was he was the classic “late bloomer.” He had finally grown up and felt like a kid ready to leave high school and go to college. The Navy had been a stern taskmaster, but it had afforded him so many opportunities and adventures that he had literally out grown it and was ready to confront and conquer the unknowns of civilian life.
For all the traumas he’d suffered, he had also done things he had dreamed of as a kid…and more. In 20 years he had visited 22 nations and 3 U.S. territories. He had launched Tomcat fighters from an American aircraft carrier flight deck. He had met the royal family of Japan. He’d photographed presidents and generals and admirals. He had swum with sharks off Guam, climbed through World War Japanese caves all over the Pacific. Been asked for by name twice to go teach public affairs to non-public affairs officers over in Italy by himself.
And he’d cleared the bar to put on the anchors of a Chief Petty Officer two years ago.
All in all, he mused as his feet steered him through the nightly throng crowding Duval Street, it had not been a bad career. For all that huge and inclusive list, it still didn’t account for the murderers he had caught and the terrorists he had helped stop dead in their tracks. Truth be told, it had been a hard, lonely, difficult life.
Smiling, he also recognized that he would have had it no other way and would not trade one moment, not one line of one day for anything. He knew who he was now. He knew what he could do. He knew where he wanted to go.
He would always be a Sailor at heart.
It had been a good career.
There was only one loose end to wrap up: how the hell were he and Abraham Gray going to stop Gordon Grey? They had an advantage now, but how to press it and not give the game away?
The night air was warm and humid; he was glad he’d brought only moisture-wicking microfiber shirts to wear. He had to be careful in the heat; a botched “boonie stomp” in the jungles of Guam had inflicted heat stroke on him and damaged his body’s ability to regulate temperature permanently. Time was he could stand on a 120 degree flight deck sweating bullets and not have a care; since the heat stroke he fatigued easily and simply could not tolerate heat as he used to before feeling the first cold tendrils of heat exhaustion pricking at him.
A crowd of mopeds that looked they were straight out of a casting call for a 1950s movie were haphazardly parked in front of the world famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar.
He was tempted to nip inside for a drink, but decided to just grab one at the poolside bar at the resort. He’d left the rented bike at the resort tonight; he wanted to walk and feel the hot night air and be jostled by the crowd and breathe in the life and energy of Key West one more time. One more lovely night. Long hours on duty and the uncertainties of war had taught him how to savor a moment.
Tomorrow would come soon enough. And in that on-rushing tomorrow he would find out where the next part of his life would begin even as he and Abraham Gray ended the reign of terror of Gordon Grey. It would not be easy, but they would do it. That bastard was going down.
Smiling, Isaac Shepherd lost himself in the crowds of Duval Street. The night was young and Key West was just coming alive.
It had been a good vacation!
Isaac Shepherd will return in “The Murder Game.”