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

Friday, September 30, 2011

Blood On the Snow, Chapter 11

NB: Names used in this chapter will not be consistent with earlier chapters. That'll be fixed in the full-length draft (which will eventually be available as an e-book).

Chapter 11

Lena waited until the following morning to set up her email program to receive and send emails from the State Police email server, though the first thing she did was, as Betty advised, was to log in through the web-based server and change her password. After doing that, she downloaded the emails. Crap, she thought, there were something like twenty of them. No way could she bill the Johnsons for doing any of this, she’d have to eat the time. Working for free tended to make her cranky.

One of the first emails that she read contained a link to a state software server and a suggestion that she download the encryption program contained on the site. She did that. The software was for a public/private key encryption scheme; it contained a severe warning to not forget one’s password, as the passwords were not recoverable. Lena doubted that, she didn’t believe that any government agency would buy an encryption program that did not have a “back door”. But maybe the state was too cheap to pay for such a feature. She made a mental note not to get too chummy or chatty in any emails on the state’s system.

Two days later, Lena received a priority mail package from Betty McDougall. As promised, it contained a ream of State Police letterhead, with Lena’s contact information and her name as “special investigator” at the top. At the bottom, there was a footer that said: “Investigations Division, Captain Edward Davis, Commander” and listed a telephone number. It was good quality engraved heavyweight letterhead, accompanied by a large box of matching mailing envelopes. Lena was impressed, for she had created her own letterhead on her computer and just used that as a header on her letters that she printed. She used regular copy/printing paper, the stuff she was sent felt like at least 24lb bond paper. There was also a box of business cards with the State Police shield embossed on them. Last, but not least, Betty had included a government gas card, together with a post-it note that read: “The Captain implores you to use this only for official business.”

Lena wrote letters to all of the agencies who had files with questionable shootings. The letters did not refer to her earlier requests, for if they wanted to play that she wasn’t the civilian who had written for access, then she’d accommodate them. She didn’t give a damn whose turf it was or who was lead on anything. As far as she was concerned, there was quite possibly a killer out there and she didn’t give a damn who got the credit.

Three days later, Betty McDougall sent a short email to Lena to inform her that a number of law enforcement agencies had called Captain Davis’s office to verify that Lena was a legit inspector. The responses started coming back a few days after that. All of them were variations on “you want to see the file, make an appointment”. It seemed that Lena had moved from “meddlesome civilian” to “meddlesome statie”, in the eyes of local law enforcement. She could live with that.

Lena made up a spreadsheet for her victims list. She had sixteen possibles spread across ten counties. None of the shootings were in incorporated areas; she was going to be dealing with the various county sheriffs. The sheriffs themselves were a mixed bag. All of them were politicians. Some had been cops or deputies before they were elected. Some had not been. A decade ago, the Feds had a major corruption probe in these parts with resulted in a couple of sheriffs going away for a few years on involuntary vacations. None of them were going to be happy to learn that a possible serial killer had committed undetected crimes in their jurisdictions.

Looking at all of the files was going to take at least two solid weeks of work. Lena would have to call the Johnsons tomorrow to talk about this. They might want Jasper’s killer found, but this case was shaping up to be a whopping time sink. She sighed and took her little office coffee pot and her coffee mug down to the ladies’ room to rinse them out. She thought about some litigation cases she had worked where the complexity of the cases had blossomed– no matter what the outcome, the clients were rarely happy.

Oh, well. Lena filled the coffeepot with fresh water, so in the morning, all she had to do was add coffee and turn it on. She put her laptop into its bag, donned her coat and made ready to leave. Lena armed the security alarm, switched out the lights, went out the outer door and locked it. It was too late to stop off at the Post Office, she’d have to do that on the way in tomorrow.

Lena lived northwest of Petersburg. One of the reasons why she lived where she did was that the road home took her right by Petersburg Field. Flying didn’t cost her any additional driving time. By air, her home was three miles from the airport and abeam the runway. She rarely heard any airplanes flying overhead her house and an intervening hill blocked most of the noise, unless it was a very noisy jet. Most of the aircraft noise she heard were airplanes going to or from Hopkins Air Force Base, but there was hardly any of that nowadays. The Air Force wanted to close it. From the squadrons of fighters and bombers that Lena remembered seeing and hearing as a child, all that was left was a reserve squadron of C-130s and most of them had been sent to the other side of the world a decade ago.

It was twilight when Lena got home. She pulled into her driveway and got out her car to walk over to the mailbox across the road. She pulled the mail out and glanced at it. Something fell from the pack of mail, she bent down to pick it up. Lena heard a sharp crack overhead, she knew what it was before she heard the distant report.

Somebody had taken a shot at her. Lena flattened herself alongside the road. She didn’t hear anything. Her purse and cell phone were in her car, across the road. She had her handgun, for all the good that did her. The Marlin in her car’s trunk might have well as been on the far side of the Moon, not that it would do her any good now. She couldn’t stay where she was, she wasn’t dressed to lie in a shallow ditch in late Winter. The cold would kill her if the shooter didn’t.

Three seconds, she figured. If she got up to move, it would take the shooter at least two seconds to align, figure the lead for any cross-movement and shoot. Lena figured that he was shooting from the woods on the other side of the winter-wheat field, over a half-mile away. The bullet would need at least a second to reach her. All right. Lena gathered herself and lunged across the road, angling a bit so that she wasn’t running directly away from where she thought the shooter was. One. Two. Three and Down! Lena threw herself to the ground. No shot.

Maybe the shooter’s gone, she thought. But she wasn’t willing to bet her life on it. At least she had left the car door open; the next rush took her right into the car. She grabbed her cell phone and flipped it open. Two bars, that’ll do. She called the Sheriff’s Dispatcher and asked to be put through to the shift supervisor.

“Lieutenant Bridges.”

Oh, thank the Lord, Lena thought. “Uncle Bill, it’s Lena.” He was her mother’s youngest brother.

“Hi, Lena. Kak deala?” Uncle Bill liked to tease her with the Russian version of “how’s things”. Lena did understand Russian to some degree, since her elder relatives spoke it amongst themselves.

“Uncle Bill, I’m at the entrance to my driveway. Someone took a shot at me with a rifle a few minutes ago from the far side of the Schroeder farm.” Lena put the phone on speaker, then she put her car into gear and began driving up the driveway, mostly by keeping her head down and going slowly.

Uncle Bill’s tone shifted from bantering to all cop. “I’m sending some cars now.”

“I wouldn’t, he only took the one shot, I think he’s gone. But Uncle Bill, can you ask the patrol units to keep an eye out for any vehicles out this way, especially white pickup trucks?”

“I’m sending Sam out to your house, code two. He’d be there anyway, once the word got out. Wait for him, please, before you go inside. As for the trucks, you want us to stop and question them?”

“No, observe and report, only. I don’t have anything firm on the shooter using a white truck, just a feeling.”

“OK. I’ll see if the staties can add in a couple of units. They’ve got the continuous license-plate readers, now, so if I can get them set right, they’ll have a record of everyone passing by.”

“Thanks, Uncle Bill.”

“I’m going to switch you over to Dispatch, they’ll put your call on a speaker. Stay on the line until Sam gets there. Anything happens, just sing out and she’ll pick up.”

“OK, thanks,” Lena heard the clicks as the dispatcher did what her Uncle Bill wanted. She made it up her driveway and pulled into a spot where she could see the driveway and yet was somewhat shielded from a full view of the woods and slight rise at the back of Dan Schroeder’s old farm. Schroeder was long dead, the property had gone through several hands and was now owned by some doctor from the city, but everyone still called it the Schroeder farm”.

Lena cranked the heater in her car up to full. Between the adrenaline wearing off and rolling around in the snow and road dirt, she was beginning to shiver. She kept a blanket in the back seat. She leaned her seat back and then another thought hit her. So she slid into the back seat, opened a pass-through hatch, and pulled the cased rifle out from the trunk. A box of cartridges was also in the case; she removed both the rifle and the ammunition. She slid cartridges into the loading gate, but did not load the chamber. Then she put the blanket over her loosely.

She caught a glimpse of the red and blue flashers from Sam’s cruiser, but she noted that he turned them off well before he reached her driveway. He came up the long driveway and spotted Lena’s car. When Sam got out of his cruiser, he had a patrol rifle with him. It had a large scope sight on it.

He walked over to Lena’s car, she rolled down the window. “You OK, Lena?”

She nodded. “A little shaken up and I’m cold.”

“So, what happened.”

Lena told him the story. Sam didn’t apparently doubt for a second that Lena had been fired upon. He told her to wait there. Sam then walked over to his cruiser, opened the bipod on his rifle, set it on the roof and sighted over to the Schroeder farm. He looked through the scope for several minutes, then he picked up the rifle and walked back over to Lena’s car.

“I can’t see anything moving,” he said.

“Night sights?”

“Yeah, generation three or something. The Department got them with Homeland Security money.” He folded up the bipod. “Let’s get you inside.”

Lena parked her car in the garage. She opened the door into her house. Sam insisted on going in first, but nobody was lying in wait. Lena went into the kitchen and put on a kettle of water for tea; she could hear Sam moving around upstairs. It wasn’t a big house, he was back soon.

“Do you want anything to drink,” Lena asked.

Sam shook his head. “No, I better get back out on the road. You make sure your doors and windows are all locked and pull the blinds.”
“Thanks for coming by. I’ll have to have you and Margy over for dinner some day.”
Sam nodded. Like that was ever going to happen, he mused. Margy didn’t care for Lena one bit. “You take care.” Lena heard the truck lid slam on the cruiser and saw the taillights going down the driveway.

Lena went around the house and did what Sam suggested: She locked the doors, windows and pulled the blinds. Like a lot of homes in the Kingdom, her house had heavy curtains to help keep the cold at bay. Bucko came out from wherever he was hiding and wanted his food, so Lena fed him.

She shut off the kettle, thinking it better to take a warm shower first. Her trousers were wet with a mixture of melted snow, road salt and sand. They’d go to the cleaners tomorrow. She had stuff to take road salt off her boots and she used that, rather than take a chance on it setting.

She was in the shower for a long time, she put the Bulldog on the toilet tank before she got into the tub. After a good soaking, Lena toweled herself dry, wrapped herself in a terry-cloth robe and went back downstairs to make some green tea. It was probably too late for caffeinated tea and she imagined that she might have trouble sleeping. She wasn’t hungry, but she nibbled on some cheese and crackers so that she wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the right, ravenous.

As she suspected, sleep was a long time in coming.

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