The widow was so distraught that she had to be sedated. I didn’t get to question her until the following day. She was still fragile and teary, leaning on the broad shoulders of her late husband’s best friend. Even then, he did most of the talking.
“We heard the gun shot and both of us went running. I tried the door and it was locked from the inside, so I busted it down and we found him in his easy chair.” Ben, the best friend and army buddy of the diseased, spoke with the grim authority of a seasoned military man. “I didn’t want her to see him like that, but she pushed passed me and…”
“It was horrible,” the widow whimpered. “I didn’t think, didn’t think it was that bad…” Linda Shepherd dissolved into tears. Her husband of seven years—the bulk of the time spent overseas in war zones—died of an apparent suicide in his custom man cave—complete with a 60” flat screen TV, video game platforms, a vintage pinball machine, Foosball, a fully stocked bar, and classic western movie posters. The case looked like it was going to be yet another sad statistic. Master Sergeant Josh Shepherd was just one more veteran unable to adjust to civilian life.
“We, I, did everything I could to make him feel at home again. Ben got him a job at his electronics firm and I turned the guest bedroom into a man cave. When he was in Afghanistan it seemed like such a good idea. We Skyped about it…Talked about how much he wanted to be a family man. I wanted it to be perfect for him. I tried so hard, so…”
“Detective Phelps, do you really have to put her through this? Josh was depressed—more depressed than any of us imagined. He’s been back here for a little more than a year and he kept talking about redeploying, about how he was happier over there where the lines were clear, where he knew who he was and where he stood. He said civilian life was confusing—all shades of grey.”
I’d heard all of this before. Not just from Ben Saunders. It was all over the news. Soldiers unable to acclimate to normal post-war life. Some so accustomed to the hair trigger reactions to sudden sounds that they were unable to navigate suburbia without jumping into action, while others felt paralyzed by the mind-numbing hum of life at a slower pace. Depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and suicide were all too common. Still, as a homicide detective, I had to check into deaths that might be something other than self-inflicted. On the surface, this was an obvious suicide, but I would be shirking my responsibility if I didn’t follow procedure.
“Mrs. Shepherd, I’m sure you understand that there’s a protocol, a series of things to check-off before…”
“Yes, yes,” Ben interjected. “But doesn’t the coroner do that? You’re a policeman. Why are you torturing Linda with questions?”
I was hardly torturing her, but he was entitled to his opinion.
“The doctors will make the declaration of the manner and cause of the Master Sergeant’s death. I collect evidence that informs that declaration—forensic evidence and interviews—that help clarify the medical evidence…”
“It’s it obvious? Honestly, I think you’re wasting the tax payer’s money and prolonging unnecessary grief and… Linda, why don’t you go check on the babies?”
The young widow nodded at me as she rose and walked upstairs to the nursery.
“Twins,” Ben added. “Fraternal boys… They are a lot of work.”
That’s when my suspicions went from vague unease into high gear.
“Mr. Saunders, the job you gave your friend, the job at your family’s electronics business,” I paused as if I were unsure or confused. “Did it have anything to do with the local theater company?”
“No,” Ben chuckled. “I handle all the theatrical special effects personally. It’s a sideline, not our core business. More of an amusement than a…How did you know about…”
“Oh, I just recalled the name from the program at last month’s production. My niece was in the show.” I sighed, signaling the typical exasperation of a non-parent. “I go to every show that she’s in.”
He smiled his reply.
“The twins,” I paused and took a deep breath, conscious that Linda was safely upstairs and out of range. “The twins are yours and your friend Josh knew.”
Ben sputtered, turned red and then stood, towering over me. At six-foot-four and two hundred plus pounds, he was the type of man who routinely used his size to bully and intimidate. Just as I—as a five-foot-one woman, had come to rely on how such men underestimate smaller people.
“Sit down, Mr. Saunders. There’s nothing new under the sun and you’re not the first man to find his way into to the bed of his best friend’s wife while he is far away. And now that he’s gone you’ll be their dad officially. That’s the plan, right?”
“How did you know?”
He blinked, looking relieved and that’s when I knew I had him.
“The way Mrs. Shepherd and you look together. Your protective hovering, the way she immediately responded to your suggestion that she check on the babies, the lingering looks… By the way that wears thin.”
“What feels like security and assurance now, tends to feel like imprisonment and control down the road. This isn’t the Army. She’s not under your command. At least not for long… She’s going to want out—eventually.”
“Who do you think you are? Some suburban girl cop… You have a problem with men?
I didn’t pay attention to him, because I was calling my partner in the Medical Examiner’s office. He was on his way, in a squad car with two uniformed officers.
“Please sit down Mr. Saunders. I’m going to read you your rights and then we’re going to have a short, candid talk before you get cuffed. You see you have choices to make right now. You can make it easy for Linda and the little boys or you can make it very difficult for them.”
“You have the right to remain silent…” I recited the familiar Miranda warning and he sat, slack-jawed and pallid.
“This is how it went down, you shot Josh Shepherd in his man cave using a silencer, stashed the gun in your car and ‘arrived’ for your visit via the kitchen door for you usual ‘private time’ with Linda. Using the same kind of remote you used for the theater’s sound effects, you created a gunshot—really the sound of a gunshot—while you established your alibied whereabouts in the kitchen with the widow. You were the one to ‘try’ the door of the man cave and discover it was locked from the inside—which it was not—and so you broke down the door with impunity and discovered your friend’s body at the same time as his widow. She believes that he killed himself and that her infidelity was the cause. She’s an emotional mess and your plan was to let her suffer from a guilty conscience while you kept the truth from her.”
Ben did not reply. He sat, shrinking inside himself and deflating like a large, sad balloon.
“This is my suggestion, if you care about those two little boys and their mother, you’ll confess as soon as you see the Assistant District Attorney. Because it was murder and not suicide, Linda and her children will be entitled to the Master Sargent’s full pension, insurance pay out, and the honors associated with being the family of a heroic Army officer.”
I made a show of checking my watch.
“My partner and the squad car will be here in less than five minutes. Make your decision before they arrive. Be a man. Be a real man—not a clichéd man cave man, be the real deal. Confess and take your punishment. Leave Linda and the children out of it.”
By the time my partner arrived, Ben Saunders was a shadow of himself—a shivering, sniveling, and ready to confess.