Note: This is very much a work in progress. None of the locations exist in real life, not even the state where the story is set.
Lena stopped at the diner down the street from her office. She sat down at the counter and ignored the menus. The waitress behind the counter poured a cup of coffee without asking if that was what Lena wanted. “The usual, hon,” she asked.
Lena nodded. She pulled a paperback book from her laptop case and opened it to the bookmarker page. In a few minutes, the waitress slid a plate with one egg and two slices of whole-wheat toast next to the book. In keeping with Lena’s preferences, she slid a check, face down, next to the plate.
She ate her breakfast as though the meal was an obligation to be endured, rather than a break in the day to be enjoyed. Many of the other diners were also reading, but they seemed to be using some variant of an electronic device to do so. Maybe they were more efficient, but how does one make notes in the margin, she wondered. How does one give someone an autographed copy of an e-book? She had a few books in her home library that were purchased by her great-grandfather when he was a student before the First World War; will anyone ever pass down an e-book from one generation to the next? She doubted that very much.
Face it, Lena mused, you’re part Luddite. Not that there is anything wrong with technology, but there are times that the old ways and methods were better. She still used film cameras for much of her work, because negatives were a lot more difficult to forge. She had gone into mourning when Kodachrome was discontinued. Digital was too easy; she knew of at least one cop who had done prison time for perjury when the defense attorney was able to prove that both the digital image had been manipulated and that it had been shot a month before the cop had testified it had been taken.
Lena finished her breakfast and put down the payment without waiting for the check. If they had raised the price, she’d make good on that tomorrow or the next time she was in. She put on her coat and gloves. It was rather cold outside, the temperature had climbed just over the zero (F) mark Snow was piled along the curb in berms that were about five feet high. It made pulling out of parking lots a bit of a gamble. There was a street behind the diner’s parking lot that Lena used to get back to the main road. She drove an older Subaru Legacy, all-wheel drive, or four-wheel drive, was almost a requirement this time of year. Subarus were almost the official car of local residents who didn’t want to drive SUVs or pickup trucks.
She made it back to the main road, although she was almost clipped by a big-ass SUV in the parking lot. That bozo’s Escalade’s windows were almost completely obscured by snow and ice. She wondered if he had a scraper in his $50,000 egomobile, probably not as the SUV bore Alabama plates. What the hell was some cracker from Alabama doing this far north, she briefly wondered. It’s not as though there was any good skiing around here and the SUV did not have a ski rack. It was really none of her business.
It took her all of five minutes to drive to her office. The office was on the second floor of a nondescript office building. The rent was below-market rate, well below. The building directory gave only her last name and first initial. The brass plaque next to her door read “Yelena Smirnova, Esq., Inquiries”. She didn’t like using her name as her business name, but there was some damn rule about that.
The door to her office led into a small foyer with two chairs, a couch and a coffee table, all of which had seen better days. The door into her office itself was more substantial and had a crypto lock instead of a standard door knob. The foyer had an intercom into the inner office. The outer door had a small magnetic switch that sounded a very soft ding inside. There was a tiny camera as well. Lena did not like surprise visitors.
Or, for that matter, any visitors. She preferred to meet new clients in public places. For ongoing matters, she would visit them at their job, in public or at their homes. People were more secure in places they knew and it was her belief that people who were feeling more secure were more likely to tell the truth. Strange offices could be as intimidating as a police interrogation room.
Today, though, she had two clients coming to her office. Mr. and Mrs. Emmitt Johnson had been referred to her by an attorney over in Gibson County, which was about 200 miles to the west, and not by roads that were in terribly good shape this time of year. Gibson County probably was no more populated now than it was 140 years ago. It was primarily agricultural in nature and had been since the local Indican tribe had largely been exterminated. The Clarke Mountains were nothing to sneeze at, offering opportunities for hunting, fishing and winter sports, but Gibson County was a hell of a long way from anywhere in particular.
Lena set up a pot of coffee in her six-cup coffee pot and turned it on. Both the milk and the half-and-half were still good, she noted. Might as well be hospitable. She turned on her computer and ran a Google search on the Johnsons. Nothing definite came up.
The chime to her outer office door sounded at three minutes to ten. Lena turned on a small monitor and saw that her visitors were a couple. She got up from her desk and went out to greet them.
“Mr. and Mrs. Johnson?” They nodded. “I am Yelena Smirnova. Would you please come this way?” Lena led them into her office area, showed them where they could hang up their coats. Besides her desk, she had a small coffee table with three chairs around it. She believed that it was better to not talk with a desk in the way. Mrs. Johnson declined the offer of coffee, her husband accepted. After everyone was settled, Lena asked what it is that she could do for them.
Mr. Johnson said simply: “We need you to look into the death of our son, Jasper.” As he said that, Mrs. Johnson took a photograph from her handbag and gave it to Lena.
“This is Jasper,” Lena asked. The Johnsons nodded. Jasper was a thin, strong, nice looking young man in the photograph, possibly in his middle-to-late teens when the photo had been taken. It had been springtime or summer, he had a “gimmie” ballcap pushed back and a flannel shirt that was halfway unbuttoned, He looked happy. “Can you tell me how he died?”
The question seemed to add five years to the apparent ages of the Johnson couple. Mr. Johnson had the wiry thinness of a rancher or farmer. His wife appeared as though she spent as much time outdoors working the place as she did in the kitchen. Both had the countenances of people who spent very many years out in the sun without anything that had an SPF factor.
“He was shot and killed last year during whitetail season,” Mr. Johnson said. “The fish cops said it was an accident, that he had been hit by a stray bullet fired from a long distance away.”
Lena knew that a lot of people referred to the fish and game wardens as “fish cops.” She said: “And you don’t believe that it was an accident.” It wasn’t phrased as a question.
“No ma’am, we sure don’t.”
“Can you tell me why is that? It’s not unheard of for hunters to catch a stray bullet during hunting season.”
This time, Mrs. Johnson spoke up. “We know that. But we heard things, stories, Two years ago a hunter in the foothills of the Clarke Range was shot dead. Three years ago a hunter in Lawson County was killed the same way.”
“I’m sorry, where is Lawson County?”
“West of Gibson County,” answered Mr. Johnson.
“All ruled as accidental shootings,” Lena asked.
Lena sipped her coffee before she asked her next question: “How often does somebody get shot in hunting season?”
Mr. Johnson thought for a few seconds and then answered: “It happens, I won’t deny that it doesn’t. But we’ve lived in Gibson County almost all our lives, other than when I was at State College. You might hear of a hunter getting winged every five or ten years, but not three hunters being shot dead over three years, nothing like that.”
“So you would like me to look into that for you?”
The Johnsons glanced at each other and both said they did.
Lena sipped her coffee. “I can do that. But I have to caution you that I may not get very far. The police don’t often like civilians conducting inquiries into open cases. It won’t be cheap, as there will probably be a lot of traveling and legwork. For this sort of work, I charge fifty dollars an hour, plus expenses.”
“All right with us,” Mr. Johnson said.
Lena nodded. “Did you get any sort of official reports about your son’s death?”
“They did an autopsy,” he said.
“Who is `they’?”
“State police crime lab down in Grover City. The fish cops said that since it could be suspicious, that they wanted the state medical examiner to do it, not the county coroner.”
“Who is your county coroner?”
“I don’t know of him. What is his specialty?”
“Hell, ma’am, he’s a large animal vet. Ends up doing some unofficial doctoring, too, stitching up people and such.”
Lena nodded and sipped her coffee. She knew how things were done. She also knew that the county coroners were elected officials and that a few of them were morticians. “They gave you a copy of the report? That’s somewhat unusual.”
Mr. Johnson shrugged. “They said it wasn’t looking like a homicide and since it was unlikely that they’d ever charge anyone with even manslaughter, they closed the book on it and sent us the report.”
“Do you still have it.”
“It’s at home.”
“Was anyone there with Jasper when he was shot?”
“Jason was. So was Kyle Anderson.”
“And they are?”
”Jason’s our middle son, Kyle’s one of their friends, he lives on the next place.” Mr. Johnson replied. Lena knew that the “next place” could be five miles away. “They didn’t see anything, but the boys heard the report and heard Jasper yell. And before you ask, the fish cops did check the rifles and do a swab of their hands and coat for gunpowder reside. The rifles hadn’t been fired in a month and their hands were clean.”
“I’ll need to talk to them and see all of the papers. Probably easier for me to come out there when it comes to that. Anyway, let’s do the paperwork.” Lena want behind her desk and sat down at her computer. She asked the Johnsons for their address. In a few minutes, she printed out two copies of a retainer letter and gave it to them to look over. She also printed out some releases, which authorized her to obtain information regarding jasper’s demise.
She explained the terms of the retainer to the Johnsons and informed them that she would need a $2,000 retainer. Mr. Johnson glanced at his wife and pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket. He counted out 20 hundred-dollar bills, placed them on the coffee table and asked: When can you start?”
“Let me give you a receipt,” Lena said. She printed one out, signed it hand handed it to Mr. Johnson. “I’ll begin in five days.” Seeing an objection start to form in Mr. Johnson’s eyes, she added: “That gives you time to think this over. If you don’t want me to proceed, I’ll mail your money back to you, no questions asked.”
Mrs. Johnson said firmly: “We won’t change our minds.”
“Lena nodded. “Even so, that’s the way I do things. You get time to reconsider. Now there is one other thing: Did you tell anyone why you came this morning to Petersberg?”
Mr. Johnson thought for a few seconds. “I didn’t, other than our lawyer. Did you, Shirley?”
“Good,” said Lena. “Please don’t tell anyone that I will be looking into this. You know how the Range Telegraph works. We don’t want anyone who knows anything to know that I am coming.”
“Thank you for taking this on,” Mr. Johnson said. Everyone stood up.
“Come, Emmitt, we have some shopping to do,” said Mrs. Johnson, with a glint in her eye. She glanced at Lena. “After all, people are going to wonder why we came here. We’d best give them a reason,” Mrs. Johnson said as they stood up to leave the office. Mr. Johnson looked as though he was going to have to crap out a cactus.
Lena showed Mr, and Mrs. Johnson out of her office. She went to the bathroom and then poured another cup of coffee before she started setting up the case file. Her instincts were that the Johnsons would not change their minds, so she began to do a little bit of research. There were still newspapers in most of the counties, but almost all of them were weeklies. If they had any archives available online, she was not able to find them. A quick check of Lexis-Nexis gave a similar result. The closest daily newspaper, the Capitol Herald, had nothing about any hunter deaths in the Northern Kingdom (the unofficial designation for the northern counties). That wasn’t terribly surprising as the state capitol was a long way off though, in the views of most of the people Lena knew, it could have been a lot further away.
After a few more minutes on-line, Lena concluded that the only way that she was going to be able to do the research she needed to do would be by the old-fashioned way. That was almost a refreshing novelty. So much investigative work these days was mainly knowing what databases to subscribe to, or knowing who had access to the databases. Hardly anyone other than process-servers went around knocking on doors anymore.