A blog where Stephanie M. Belser test-drives her fictional stories.
Expect the occasional
"stall, spin, crash & burn".

Friday, April 8, 2011

Blood On the Snow, Chapter 4

The sun had gone down by the time Lena touched down at Petersburg Field.  She was hungry, a little bit tired and it was getting cold, too cold and too late to be mucking around at the self-service fuel pumps.  She put the Cessna back into the hangar and went home.  There was some hot chocolate mix at home calling her name.  That would go nice with a bit of vodka.

The next morning was spent writing up her notes and observations from the day before.  she used Acme Mapper to determine the distance from where Jasper had been shot to the tree line of the next set of hills.  It was 1,200 yards.  Hell of a shot from a bench rest, let alone in the field.  

She noted the name of the pathologist who had done the autopsy. Lena’s law school had offered a course to acquaint lawyers in the reality of autopsies and scientific protocols.  She had taken the course, it had been taught by the same medical examiner who did Jasper’s autopsy.  So Lena called the doc, who remembered Lena and who was also free for a late lunch, say two-ish.  Lena said that was fine.

Damn, now she was kicking herself for not gassing up the airplane last night.  She’d have to make time to do it. which meant that she’d better leave for the airport right now, though after she did the online weather briefing.  As she did so, she offered up the usual imprecations to George Bush, who had turned the call-in weather briefing to a private contractor, which then had made it almost unusable.  It was forecast to be good weather all day.

Grover City International was a bit busier than the airports up in Lena’s area.  It had airline service to a few of the regional hubs.  There was a Customs station there, but hell, most of the town airports in Lena’s area had a Customs agent either on the field or on call.  There once was airline service to Canada (hence the “International” in the name), that had gone the way of airline consolidations and the “hub and spoke” routings.

It was a little over two hours of flying time down to GCI.  The fixed-base operator there had a car that Lena could borrow for a few hours, because Lena bought fuel for the airplane.  She winced at the posted amount, it was a buck-fifty a gallon higher than the smaller airports.  So it goes.

Lena met the medical examiner at an Italian restaurant not terribly far from the state police headquarters.  Dr. Parent was now about in her early sixties and probably bumping up against the mandatory retirement age.  She was almost pixie-ish in size, a trait that had often led defense attorneys to underestimate her.  Lena noted that Dr. Parent had opted to go grey.  It worked for her.

They settled down at a four-top table and began the obligatory small talk about mutual acquaintances.  Dr. Parent was a bit of a raconteur and Lena was soon laughing at some of her stories.  It was an enjoyable meal.  Over coffee, Dr. Parent peered at Lena.  “This has been nice,” she said, “but I doubt if you came down from Petersburg just to have lunch with an old professor of yours.”

Lena nodded.  “I was looking over the autopsy results of the Jasper Johnson shooting last year.”

“Why are you in on this?”

“The parents are a little skeptical of the conclusion by the police that he was hit by a stray bullet. “

”So they hired you,” Dr. Parent said.  “And now you’re here, buying me lunch, which tells me that you saw something in the autopsy report that bothers you.”

Lens smiled.  No flies on the doc. “The bullet was a through-and-through.”  Dr. Parent made a “uh-huh” noise.  “But there was nothing in the report of any indication that the bullet had expanded any.”

“Because there was none.  A bullet fired from a very long ways off would likely not have the velocity for reliable expansion.”

“But it had enough power to punch through a down parka, a set of insulated overalls, a sweatshirt, a long-sleeved undershirt, go through his torso, glance off a rib and then go back out through the same layers of clothing?”

Dr. Parent looked at Lena.  “Did you get an A in my course?”

“No, you gave me a B+.”

“Probably way too late to correct that mistake.  Anyway, hollow point bullet noses sometimes get clogged with cloth from the outer clothing, which prevents them from expanding.  But the victim was shot with a rifle and rifle bullets don’t have wide hollow points like pistol rounds.

“One of two things, then.  Either there was enough energy in the bullet to go through the victim and yet not enough to expand or upset the bullet, or he was shot with a non-expanding bullet, such as a fully-jacketed bullet.”

Lena mulled that over for a second or two. “Which begs the question as to why someone would be out during hunting season with ammunition not used for hunting.”

“Maybe someone was target shooting,” Dr. Parent suggested.

“Maybe.”  Lena didn’t think so, but she didn’t voice her thoughts.  Jason and Kyle only heard one shot.  Nobody goes target shooting and only fires a single shot.  Nobody sights in a rifle for hunting using different ammunition than what they would use for hunting.

Dr. Parent started to stand up.  “I need to get back to work. Thanks for lunch, Lena.  Come down sometime when it’s not business.”

Lena said that she would and they shook hands. Dr. Parent left as Lena paid the bill.  Not bloody likely, thought Lena.  There were four thousand people in Petersburg and to Lena’s mind, that was too many.  She didn’t care for cities, not that Grover City was anywhere near the size of Chicago or Denver.  It was still too big for her.

She mentally replayed the conversation during her flight back to Petersburg.  It was probably a mistake not to have brought the autopsy report with her, though she had thought that having color photos of an autopsy might not play out well in a restaurant.  The “stray bullet” theory was not a good one and she thought she knew why.

The weather forecast, though, was turning out to be a bust.  Bushie’s favorite contractor had forecast clear skies and good visibility.  There was a solid deck of clouds moving in and they looked to be fairly low.   It appeared that she had enough time to land before things closed in.

That’s how it worked out. Once again, she opted to skip refueling the airplane before pulling it into its hangar.  It started to snow as she drove back home.  At least this wasn’t the first snow.  The people who couldn’t remember from year to year how to drive in snow had either refreshed their memories or their cars were in the body shops.

When Lena got home, she fed her cat, made a cup of tea and sat down with the autopsy report.  It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for.

It was a simple matter of physics, after all.  Bullets slow down in flight, gravity is constant.  That means that as the bullet slows, its flight path gets steeper to the point that it looks more like the trajectory of a snowball.  If Jasper had been hit with a bullet fired from two miles away or more, the bullet would have likely entered just below his shoulder blades and exited around his navel.  A nearly-spent bullet would have probably not even exited or even lost to much energy penetrating his clothing to do any serious damage.

But that was not what the autopsy report showed.  For the bullet to take a “spent round” path, Jasper would have had to have bent forward at the waist, and not just slightly.  But neither of the witnesses mentioned that.  Jason had said that Jasper had turned around to look at something. then he stumbled and fell.

Lena sipped her tea.  Bucko, her cat, was trying to lie down on the autopsy report.  She moved the report away from him and made a few notes.  Bucko tried to help Lena’s note-taking by batting at her pen.  She picked him up and put him on the floor.  Bucko stalked away with his tail held high.  A minute or so later, Lena heard something hit the floor in her bedroom; Bucko had probably jumped onto her dresser and pushed something off.  Whether he was testing gravity or showing displease was unknown to Lena.

She didn’t like where the facts of this case were going.  Her gut feeling was that Jasper had been deliberately shot.  But all she had to go on was an autopsy report with no forensic evidence.  Even if she went back after the snow melted next Spring and found a bullet, there would be no certain way to link that bullet to Jasper’s murder.

Finding a bullet or a cartridge case in a rural field was not exactly unusual.   Hunters who wanted to sight in weapons and marksmen who wanted to get in some field practice usually just set up a target in a field with a good backstop and got to it.  Some of the less environmentally sensitive shooters would simply nail a target to a large tree, but most stopped due to the risk to loggers from hitting an embedded bullet with a chain saw.

What Lena was more certain of was that if Jasper had been murdered, it probably wasn’t the shooter’s first kill.  If she developed solid evidence of the existence of a serial killer, that was about as far as she could take it.  Law enforcement would then take over the case.

Maybe it was corny, Lena mused, but there were two very old principles that would trip up a criminal.  The first one was that nobody was perfect.  Everyone made mistakes.  The second was that investigators had to find a mistake made by the criminal in order to catch him (and, of course, recognize the fact of the mistake).

Her gut feeling was that it was probably a man who was doing the shooting.  Even in this new century, a lone woman out in the countryside with a good rifle was going to be noticed.  A man in a generic pickup truck, wearing Wal-Mart cammies and who had a rifle behind the seat of his truck was not going to be remarked upon by anyone.

She opened up her laptop and found the telephone number for the Lawson County Sheriff’s Department.  She called and asked the receptionist for the detective division.  Deputy Wilson picked up the line.  Lena identified herself and began her request: “I’ve been told that you had a hunter who was shot to death during hunting season a few years ago.”

“Yeah, Herman Anderson, three years ago.  It still happens, not as much as it used to before the Ledge required everyone to wear blaze orange.”

Lena knew that “the Ledge” was how a lot of people derisively referred to the state legislature, which was a part-time legislative body that almost everyone regarded as being thoroughly corrupt and deeply in the pockets of the mining and oil industries.  Legislators were paid a thousand dollars a session, they spent tens of thousands of dollars each every two years to campaign for a job that paid them two thousand dollars over the same two years.

“Was the shooter identified,” she asked.

“No, ma’am.  Usually in those cases, the hunter gets shot by another member of the hunting party.  But not this time.”

“Did anyone fire their rifle?”

“Yes, one did.  But we ruled him out.”

“Mind if I ask why?”

“No, sure don’t.  He was kind of an old-school guy, he had one of those Quigley rifles, like in the movie.  It was a .45-90, black powder, too.  He said he went out with ten cartridges and he had nine live ones and an empty case.  And a dead deer.  The county coroner said that the victim’s wound was made by a smaller bullet.”

“Did you recover the bullet?”

“From Anderson?  No, we didn’t.”

Lena was making notes.  “Can I see the case file and the autopsy report?”

Deputy Wilson paused for several seconds.  “It’s still an open case.  Mind if I ask why the interest?”

“I’m working for the parents of a young man who was shot in a similar fashion in Gibson County last year.”

“And you or they think that it wasn’t an accident?”

“That’s the possibility I need to check out, Deputy.”

“OK.  I’m going to have to clear it with my boss.  Best thing if you were to fax over a Freedom of Information Statute request to--” he read off a number.  “I’ll talk to my boss and give you a call.  It’ll probably be best if you come here to look at it and, if you then want copies, my boss will have to clear that, too.”

“I’ll get that right out to you.”

“Good enough, I’ll give you a call when my boss clears it.”

Lena and the deputy made the ususal pleasantries and ended the call.  She had a FOIS form on her laptop; she quickly filled it out and included her cell phone’s number, printed it out, signed it and faxed it to Deputy Wilson.

She heard back from him the next day.  Yes, she could come out to look over the file, but any copy requests had to be approved by the commander.  The weather forecast was good, so she made an appointment for the following day at 10AM.

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