Five days later, Lena called the Johnson’s ranch to let them know that she was going to come out to visit. Mrs. Johnson said that was fine, that Jason was at home, but that they had had a foot of snow the day before, that the roads were not plowed and that the only two ways to the ranch were by snowmobile or by an airplane with skis. Lena said that was fine and Mrs. Johnson told her the state designation for the airstrip, adding that it was only 200 feet from the airstrip to the house. Lena said that if the weather cleared, she’d be out tomorrow. The forecast was good, so she put together her research kit. It contained a laptop, a digital camera, a hand-held scanner (you draw it down a page), a steno pad, a little leather case that held a small selection of office supplies, a sketchbook, a tape measure and some pens and pencils.
The next day was bright clear and cold. Lena was at the local airport just after sunrise with her research kit, an overnight bag in case the weather soured, and her emergency kit. The electrical engine and cabin heaters had been switched on hours earlier to heat the airplane. Lena did her preflight and then pulled the airplane, a well-kept Cessna 170, from its hangar. She was soon on her way.
The trip took a little over an hour over the at least four hours it would have taken to drive, given that there were no direct roads. She had turned on the hydraulic pump soon after she left her home airport and pumped the skis down, anticipating that the Johnson’s strip was snow-covered. It was. She landed and taxied up beside a Husky that was also on wheel-skis. A power cord led from the Husky’s engine to a hangar.
Lena was putting the winter engine cover over the cowling to retain the engine’s heat when a rangy young man in his late teens or early 20s came out of the house. “Morning, Ma’am, you must be Miss Smirnova. I’m Jason.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice airplane. Hey, if it has a Tanis heater and you have a power cord, you can plug it in if you want to. It’s pretty cold here, the engine won’t keep that heat for very long.”
“Thanks, I do.” Lena had a 100' power cord in the baggage compartment. To say it was cold was an understatement. Lena had glanced at the air temperature gauge when she landed, it was -5F. As she got the cord out, she asked Jason if he flew the Husky.
“Yes, Ma’am, soloed at sixteen and got my private license at seventeen.”
Lena glanced at him. “Ayup, that’s as far as the Feds are concerned. So when did you really solo?”
Jason grinned. “I was thirteen.”
Lena smiled. She plugged one end of the cord into the aircraft heater and Jason plugged the other end into the hangar. Lena got her research kit and a smaller bag out of the airplane and the two went to the house.
Lena stopped in the mudroom of the house. She took off her coat, insulated coveralls, gloves and boots. From her tote bag, she took a pair of slippers and slipped them on. She then followed Jason into the kitchen. Mrs. Johnson was there, she put out coffee and some Oreos without a word. Lena fixed her mug with a little bit of milk.
Both women sat at the table. “Did you have any problems finding the place,” Mrs. Johnson asked.
“No, thanks to the miracle of GPS,” replied Lena.
“It has it uses. I didn’t see you land, what did you fly up in?
“Hmm. Is it yours?”
“Yes.” Lena imagined the laughter she’d hear at one of the FBOs if she had asked to rent an airplane to land in the back country. “Do you fly?”
“We all do,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Emmitt is out with his Cessna 185, doing a supply run to one of the out-camps. Jason here--“ Mrs. Johnson fractionally inclined her head towards the teenager, who had opened the refrigerator in search of something “--thinks we ought to get a Robinson so we can get into more of the pasture lands.
“Anyway, I don’t think you flew up here to talk about airplanes. Do you want to talk to Jason and Kyle now or after you’ve looked over the papers?”
“After, I think.”
“OK, then. Kyle’s upstairs in Jason’s room. The dining room is across the hall, the papers are on the table. The bathroom is to the left and down the hall.” Mrs. Johnson looked at Jason. “Son, go up and work on your homework. You and Kyle don’t play with the computer, I’ll kill the router if I have to. We’ll let you know when Ms. Smirnova wants to talk to you.”
“OK, Mom,” he said. He left. Lena refilled her mug and went across the hall, then came back to inquire whether there were any coasters for her mug.
The coasters were in the sideboard. The dining room was painted a light yellow, the ceiling was white. The floors of the house were hardwood. The dining room had a hutch as well as the sideboard, both appeared to be made of cherry. The dining room table was large and old and Lena could have sworn that it was made of chestnut, which would make it very old, as almost all of the chestnut trees were wiped out a century ago by a Chinese blight. There were eight chairs around the table and two in the corner. The table was large enough for a dozen diners.
There were two folders and a USGS topological map on the table. One held the police report, the other the autopsy report. Lena started with the police report. The call had come in from Kyle Anderson at 3:45 PM, an ambulance was requested for an accidental shooting. EMS and a deputy sheriff were dispatched and the game wardens were notified. They arrived on the scene at 4:30 and it was twilight by then. They found one victim, the paramedics hooked up a monitor to the victim and a doctor at Gibson Regional Hospital had pronounced him dead at 4:35. The deputy took initial statements and examined the weapons on scene. None had been fired recently. The two witnesses (Jason and Kyle) both said that they had heard a distant shot and Jasper had fallen. Kyle went for help while Jason stayed with his brother. The deputy had taken swabs of the hands and coats of the boys for GSR, none was found.
The game wardens had gone back over the scene the next morning. The scene had been disturbed by animals that had likely detected th scent of blood and had dug around looking for something to eat. They found nothing within 500 yards to indicate where the shot was fired from. They listed the rifles as a .270 Winchester, which was Jasper’s rifle, a .25-06, which was Kyle’s, and a .243 Remington, which was Jason’s. All were bolt-action rifles. The game warden’s opinion was that the rifles had not been fired in well over a month.
The fish cops were sworn officers with full power of arrest state-wide, which always bothered people when they were pulled over by one for a traffic violation. The fish cops all had to either graduate from the state-run police academy or they had to have had recent law enforcement experience before they were hired They were all trained in how to investigate a crime scene and they had yearly refresher training. The report was reasonably thorough, though it was apparent that the investigating warden had concluded before he got there that the shooting was accidental.
The medical examiner’s report was full of details about the health and physical condition of Jasper Johnson, none of which was relevant to Lena’s task. The round had hit Jasper in the back, maybe an inch off center to the left. The bullet, approximately .30 caliber, had brushed the pericardium, tearing it and then exited between the sternum and the left nipple, cracking a rib in the process. The ME had concluded that Jasper had died within a minute or two of rapid blood loss and that, absent his being shot just outside of an operating theater, that he would have died regardless. Lena thought that Jasper was probably dead before Kyle got the truck started.
Lena read over the investigate reports twice and the autopsy three times. She couldn’t see what was missing, but something wasn’t there. Ah well, she thought. Things like that come to her better when she wasn’t trying to get to them. That’s why she kept a notepad and a pencil by her night stand.
She went to the bathroom and then into the kitchen. Shirley Johnson had a large bag of flour on the counter. She had dumped some into a large plastic bowl and she was beating it with a dough-hook on a mixer. “Sorry to interrupt you, Mrs. Johnson, but could I talk to the two boys now?”
“Sure.” She turned and punched the button on an intercom. “Jason, Kyle, get on down here, please.” She punched it off and said: “Boys are probably playing a video game or something. You could stand at the base of the stairs and bellow and they’d not hear it, not unless the word `food’ was part of what you’d be yelling.” She might have said more, but the two boys had shown up.
Lena took them into the dining room and sat them down. If they were suspected in any way, shed talk to them separately. “OK, tell me about that day and start from the beginning.”
Jason took it up. “We met here for breakfast about 5:30 that morning. We had bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. We made sandwiches and more coffee to take with us.”
“Did your mother make it for you?”
Jason shook his head. “We did, Jasper and I. Mom said we could leave everything in the sink if we didn’t make a big mess.”
“When did you leave here?”
“6:15 or so?” Jason looked at Kyle.
“Yeah, about that,” Kyle said. “Dawn was just around 7 or so, we wanted to have time to get into the woods.”
“When did you get there?”
“Quarter to,” replied Jason.
“Did you go into the woods together?”
“No, we spread out a little. Jasper was in the middle, Kyle was to the north and I was to the south. We--“ Jasper tilted his head towards Kyle “--tried to keep Jasper in sight.”
“We also had those little FM two-way radios with earbuds, so we didn’t have to yell to each other,” added Kyle.
“Did you have on any blaze orange?”
“Sure did. We all had orange hats. Kyle had an orange jacket. Jasper and I had these orange safety vests, like the road crews wear.”
“How long did you stay in the woods?”
“Maybe four hours”, Jasper answered. We came out for lunch a little before noon and then we went back in. Didn’t see very much, a couple of does.”
“When did you come out?”
“Around three. The sun had gone down behind the hills and it was feeling kind of cold. Dad always told us that there is no point in shooting a deer right near sunset, you don’t have the light left to track it if it doesn’t drop.”
“So you came out of the woods. Was that when it happened?”
“Just about. Jason was maybe a hundred feet from the truck. He had turned around to look back at something. I saw him stumble, he went to a knee and dropped his rifle. I knew something was bad, Jason would never do that. Then I heard the shot.”
Two or three seconds, thought Lena. “Where did the sound come from?”
Jasper shrugged slightly. “Hard to tell. Sound kind of bounces around those hills.”
“I think it came from the east,” Kyle said somewhat tentatively.
Lena looked at Kyle. “Did you see Jasper go down?”
“No, ma’am, I didn’t. I heard the shot and then a few seconds later, Jason here started yelling for me.”
“There was blood and--“ began Jason. He stopped because Lena had held up a hand.
“I don’t need you to tell me about Jasper’s last minutes. But you tried to call for help?”
“Yeah,” Kyle said. “But you know, those little radios are all encrypted, so you can’t get anyone other than your friends. There wasn’t any cell coverage. Jason took the keys from Jasper’s pocket and told me to drive until I got some bars on my phone. So I headed as fast as I dared towards Gibson.”
“How far did you have to go?
“Ten miles to get a signal. I called the sheriff’s department, told them that Jasper had been hit and asked for an ambulance. They told me to wait where I was, they’d send an ambulance and a car and I could show them where it was.”
Lena pulled over the topo map. “Could you show me where you were hunting?”
Jason looked at the map “Right about here.” Kyle nodded.
Lena marked where he had pointed with a pencil. It was in a slight valley, in-between a range of low hills and the eastern edge of the rise of the Clarke range. “Kyle, when you went down there, did you see any other vehicles? Any dust clouds?”
Kyle shook his head. “Nope. No dust clouds, we’d gotten some snow the week before and it was pretty cold.”
“When you waited for the emergency vehicles, did you see anything? Anyone else go up or down the road?”
“OK, so did the emergency vehicles came together?”
“Yes, ma’am. Deputy Peters was driving the cop car. His kid brother is in our class. He told me to drive back as fast as I could and they’d follow.”
“Did you see anything at all on the way back.”
Kyle thought. “There was a road out of a field, kind of more of a rutted track. I thought I saw a truck way back and it was moving towards the road.”
“Which side of the road?”
To the north, Lena thought. “What can you tell me about the truck?”
“White pickup is all. It was too far away to see a make. I wasn’t paying attention to it, it was too far off to get in my way.”
“Did the deputy look around much at the scene?”
“Not really,” Kyle said. “He got our rifles and checked them, is all. It was about sundown by the and starting to get dark. He said that there was no reason for us to go back to town with him. I went back to the scene with the game warden the next morning. He looked around a bit.”
Lena nodded as she made a note. The likelihood of one man finding any sign over several acres was pretty low. “Can you boys take me there and show me the scene?”
“I could, but it’s better if you ride out on my snowmobile. Kyle can ride Jasper’s if you want him to come with.”
“I do. How long will it take to get there?”
“Twenty minutes, maybe 25?”
“Stay here a second, please.” Lena got up and went into the kitchen to tell Mrs. Johnson that she wanted the boys to show her the scene.
“OK,” Mrs. Johnson said, “but they need to be back by three.”
“That should be fine, since I need to take off not soon after if I’m to get out of here before dusk.”