Lena thought that, snow be damned, it would have been nice to have gassed up her Cessna after the flight to Grover City. If there was one thing that she had learned from flying, though, it was that regrets fixed nothing. She went out to the airport and pulled the Cessna from its hangar. She borrowed her hangar neighbor’s tow tractor to tow the Cessna to the gas pumps. She filled the tanks, towed it back, pulled it into the T-hangar, plugged in the pre-heater and set the timer, then went home.
She had e-mailed the airport operator in Jonesboro to reserve a rental car. Not too many small airports did it that way, but she had been there before and knew that the airport operator was trying to drag his operation into the 1990s. That wasn’t her major concern, though. The weather was.
She had to fly through a pass in the Clarke mountain range in order to get there, for her Cessna did not have the power to fly over those mountains. That meant an early flight before any winds started to blow. Going the other way, if there was a bit of a wind, it would be OK, but struggling along at 10,500 feet with a 40 knot headwind was not any fun whatsoever. Driving or flying, she planned on staying overnight.
Lena had an automatic feeder to parcel out kibble for Bucko, who had an un-catlike tendency to eat everything put in front of him. That may have been because he had been a stray and likely learned that “food now” had a higher priority than “food later”. If there was unlimited food in front of him, he’d eat until he barfed. She also had an automatic water fountain that would provide enough clean water for several days, as well as a self-cleaning litter box. Bucko at least just used the self-cleaning litter box. The cat before him had figured out how it worked and would just walk into it so she could see the rake moving (and attack it).
The rest of her day was spent doing both chores and paperwork. There was laundry to do, invoices to send out, and letters to write to a few clients who were being too slow to pay. She almost never did work anymore without pre-payment and if any clients ended up with a balance, those were subjected to eight percent interest. If a client didn’t pay up over time, she usually sold the file to a collection agency.
Her alarm went off at 4:30AM. Her plan was to be in the air before sunrise and be at the pass at sunrise. Current reports were for calm winds everywhere. That was one nice thing about this modern age; there were more and more automated weather stations, so reports were available around the clock. The downside, for there always was one with technology, was that the automated stations were horrible when it came to describing the cloud cover. A reporting station could have clouds all around it, but if there was a hole in the clouds, the port would be “skies clear”.
Things went according to her plan. Unlike a lot of other pilots, Lena used oxygen above 8,000 feet. She thought it was worth the cost to not be fighting borderline hypoxia. By 7:30 AM she had the Jonesboro airport in sight. The office at the fixed base operator (flying-speak for the business that sells gas as well as both repairs and rents airplanes) wouldn’t open until 8:30; Lena knew where the transient tiedowns were located. She gassed up at the self-service island, then tied down the Cessna.
The airport café was open, she had breakfast there. It wasn’t terrific food, but the eggs were fresh, hers wasn’t overcooked and the coffee was strong. That was a lot to be thankful for. Lena bought a copy of the Capitol Post-Tribune and read it over breakfast. The usual goings-on were recorded in the CPT. Some legislator was fighting off charges of taking using campaign contributions for personal stuff, in this case, women and liquor. The state was not so far removed from its pioneer days that people got upset about married men carousing around with other women. The general rule of “not being caught in bed with a dead woman or a live man” held sway. Some lobbyist was alleged to have special arrangement with the minority leader of the state senate because the lobbyist had caught the senator having sex with the lobbyist’s wife. Extracting favors for such an event was frowned upon, though Lena thought that if the lobbyist had instead shot the senator, nobody would have thought twice about it.
She had time to kill, which to her mind, was always preferable to being late. The paper was good entertainment. It also served to keep people from trying to make conversation. Airport cafes tended to be populated by pilots, many of whom thought that they were the Almighty’s gift to women and comported themselves accordingly. Reading the paper and ignoring them was better than shooting them.
Lena walked over to the FBO’s offices a little before nine. The car they had for her to rent was a rusting Jeep CJ that was nearly clapped out. It had 167,000 miles on it, which for a Jeep, meant that it was even money whether she would drive it back to the airport or have it towed to the junkyard. At least the rental fee was appropriate to the age and decrepitude of the Jeep. It started, though not without some grinding of the starter and some appropriate curses from Lena. She left her bag and flight kit in the airplane, it’d be safer than in the back of a rag-top Jeep. She just took her portable office kit.
It wasn’t difficult to find the sheriff’s office. Jonesboro was the county seat of Lawson County, but it was a pretty small town. The courthouse was in the middle of the town square, the sheriff’s office was in the basement. It wasn’t exactly ADA-compliant, but nobody thought about such things when the courthouse was built as a WPA project during the Depression. Deputy Wilson was back in the offices. The dispatcher waved Lena through when Lena explained why she was there. Unlike larger sheriff’s offices, this one didn’t have a metal detector at the entrance, nor was the dispatcher sitting behind a window of bulletproof glass.
Deputy Wilson was tall, thin, and looked like a rancher. A “go to court” suit hung from a coat hanger on a coat tree behind him. There was a computer keyboard and monitor on his desk, the monitor was probably one of the last remaining tube monitors in the county. He stood up, shook hands, offered Lena coffee and then led her to a conference room.
On the table, which appeared to be an old cafeteria table, Deputy Wilson had placed a few file folders. “Before you get into these,” he said, “tell me about the Gibson County shooting you’re looking at.”
Lena nodded. “Victim was a young man named Jasper Johnson. He, his brother and a friend were out deer hunting on the east side of the Range. Jasper was shot mid to late afternoon as they came out of the woods. The finding was that he had been hit by a stray bullet.”
Wilson looked at her. “You don’t buy it. Tell me why.”
“Couple of reasons. The trajectory of the bullet though Jasper was more level than it should have been. The bullet didn’t hit bone on the way in. Second, the bullet had enough energy to go through him and several layers of clothing, entry and exit. Third, the bullet didn’t mushroom or upset, just drilled on through.”
Wilson smiled. “Bullets do funny things. So you think that the bullet had enough energy to rip through him but not enough to expand?”
“Or he was shot with a match bullet.”
“Which don’t expand. What range do you figure on?”
“Thousand yards, maybe twelve hundred.”
“Hm. Long shot, but not impossible. Range estimation would be critical, but laser rangefinders are cheap enough these days. Any idea on the caliber of the weapon?”
Lena held out a hand, horizontal, and wiggled her palm back and forth. “ME says that the wounding is consistent with about a thirty caliber.”
“Which means a .308, .30-06, .303, 7.62 Russian, a .30 magnum of some flavor, maybe even a 8mm or a .270. Anything else?”
Lena shrugged. “One of the kids thinks he saw a white pickup truck hanging back in a field. Looks to me where someone might have come out of the woods on the far side of where a shooter might have been.”
“No bullet, no physical evidence?”
Lena shook her head.
“Jesus.” Wilson was looking off in the distance. “And you think that whoever did the shooting was too good at it for this to have been his first rodeo.”
“So what you have the scent of is a possible serial killer, who shoots at long range distances, kills maybe one vic a year, during hunting season, when nobody would think twice about an occasional hunter being shot by a stray bullet.” Wilson whistled. “OK. Here’s the file, see what you think. I’ve got work to do, so find me when you’re done.”
Lena opened the file. Herman Anderson had been shot on the opening day of deer season. The estimated time of shooting was 4PM, less than a half-hour before sunset and the end of legal hunting time. His buddies had gone looking for him and found him bleeding out. The sheriff’s department had done the investigation, not the fish cops. Wilson had been the lead investigator. There were crime scene photos. There was position data. Wilson had estimated that the shot came from the west, based on where Anderson had fallen and some blood spattering.
There was no physical evidence recovered. The bullet had hit Anderson in the chest, drilling a hole through his sternum, two major blood vessels, his spine and then exited. There was no sign of any mushrooming of the bullet. His buddies had heard a shot, but as they put it, they heard random shots all that day.
There was a sketch map of the scene in the file, but not anything showing the surrounding country. Lena went to look for Deputy Wilson; he was sitting at his desk, doing some two-fingered typing on a PDF form. If it wasn’t for the cowboy-ish attire, you could have put him in a leisure suit, given him a typewriter and he’d have looked like a NYPD detective from the mid-`70s, she mused. Polyester leisure suits, now there was a style that had died a quick and unlamented death. Back then, though, cops didn’t look as though they had just finished up a tour in the Marines.
Wilson must have sensed Lena looking up at him. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, do you have a topographic map of the scene?
“No need, pull up a chair.” Wilson launched a mapping program that Lena didn’t know, then he went back into the conference room. He came back with a sheet of paper, referred to it, and entered some numbers. The map program showed an aerial photograph. There was a large wooded area and then some fields. On the edge of one of the fields, a red “x” marked the place where Anderson had been found.
Lena pointed at some woods on the other side of the fields. “Can you tell how far that is from the spot?”
“Yeah.” Wilson used the mouse to click on the spot, then he clicked on the woods Lena had pointed to. A line appeared on the monitor. “Seven hundred and sixty yards, give or take.”
“That’s a fair distance.”
“Not for someone who knew that he was doing, though. Guy I know can hit a target that far off with a World War Two Russian sniper rifle.”
Lena didn’t have anything to say to that, specifically. “Can you pull that image back a little?” Wilson did so, slowly. When she could see the other side of the woods from where a shooter might have been, she asked him to measure the distance through the woods.
“Twelve hundred yards.” Wilson recentered the display on that far side and zoomed down on it. “Looks like a pasture and there’s traces of vehicles going from there to the dirt road.”
“So he could have driven up to the other side, humped his rifle in, made the shot and then driven out when things were clear.”
“OK.” Wilson thought for a few seconds. “Anderson was shot by his truck.”
“So was Jasper.”
“You’re thinking that our unsub might have driven around, looking for hunters’ trucks and then set up an ambush for them?”
Lena shrugged. “Possibly.”
Wilson shook his head. “Too thin. Simpler explanation is that we’ve got two men who died in unfortunate hunting accidents. You don’t have any evidence, just guesswork.”
Lena nodded. “Thanks for your time, Deputy.” She offered her hand.
Wilson took it. “If you can come up with something solid..”
“... you’ll be the first to know.” Lena made her way out of the courthouse basement to the courtesy car. Then she spied a public library across the street. They had open computers with broadband Internet. In a handful of minutes, she had logged onto her flight-planning service. The winds were still low in the pass through the Clarke range.
She went back to the airport, gassing up the courtesy heap on the way. At the airport, she handed over the keys, loaded her bag into the Cessna, untied it from the tiedown and started he engine.
Lena was at her house in a few hours. This time, she fueled up her Cessna before putting it into its hangar.