Trooper Irwack’s cruiser nosed up the long gravel driveway to Mrs. Lassiter’s house. The house was a handsome two story, white with green trim, and built in the federal style. Broad fields stretched away behind the house till they met the distant wood line. To the right of the house a small hill dropped away to a swamp. The stone foundation of an old outbuilding, overgrown with burdock and mullein, sat about halfway down the hill. The faint remnants of a road arched from the driveway to what would have been the front of the defunct outbuilding. To the left of the house was a small orchard, neatly enclosed within a stone wall, and beyond that were more woods that stretched uninterrupted all the way to the Springs Road. As the cruiser came to a stop in front of the house a cat jumped down out of sight into the old foundation.
Mrs. Lassiter, who was an ornithologist and a former professor at the University of Vermont, stood in the open doorway with a severe look on her face. A baseball cap was pushed down over her graying shoulder-length hair, and she was dressed in a brown sweatshirt, blue jeans and a pair of black rubber boots that came up nearly to her knees. The outfit struck Trooper Irwack as being kind of mannish, and he was reminded of a rumor he had heard that she was a lesbian.
“Hi, Mrs. Lassiter,” said the trooper as he exited his cruiser. He had learned not to say “good morning.” He had also learned never to start a conversation at a hospital, prison or court house with “How ya doin?” With a practiced air of concern and the appropriate amount of gravity he said, “I understand you had some trouble last night.”
She nodded her head gravely.
Jill Lassiter was visibly shaken. She spoke in a voice that was choked and affected and had to stop often to wipe away tears with the back of her hand. Trooper Irwack scribbled a few notes into a pad of paper he had produced from a breast pocket as she recounted the night’s events.
“Well, I was asleep in my bedroom upstairs. It was at 12:37. I know that because I have an alarm clock right next to my bed. It was 12:37 when I heard a loud crash. That must have been when he kicked in the door."
"Who?" Trooper Irwack interrupted.
"Oh, I don't know."
"Sorry to interrupt, go on."
"Then I heard heavy footfalls at the bottom of the stairs. My bedroom is right at the top of the stairs and the door was open so my cats could come in and out if they wanted to. I was just paralyzed looking at the open door. At any moment I expected to see the frame of a man fill the doorway, and I didn’t know what I would do. I thought I was gonna get raped or killed or something. I was paralyzed. Truth is…I pissed my sheets. I haven’t done that since I was a little girl. Then I heard whoever it was run out of the house and across the porch…couldn’t have been in the house for more than minute, but it felt like an eternity. I could hear him moving around down there, and all I could do was lay there all wide-eyed and pissing my sheets.”
“I’m so sorry Mrs. Lassiter. We’ll do everything we can. Why did you wait to call us until 5:30?” asked the trooper.
“The only phone in the house was downstairs. I was too scared to go down there. So I locked myself in my bedroom until it was daylight. Then I got up enough nerve to venture down.”
“I see. Was anything taken?” asked Trooper Irwack.
“Yes, as best I can tell the only things missing are a box I had left on the kitchen counter and my rifle, which I kept in a closet just inside there.” With a finger she pointed inside the house in the direction of the closet.
“What was inside the box?”
“Some unusual bones I had collected from owl stool samples.”
“I hadn’t identified them yet, but they were highly irregular. I was going to take them to the University today.”
“Huh. Why would somebody want the box?”
Mrs. Lassiter shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Did you talk to anyone about the box?"
“No. Well…just my colleague, Jerry Lebrun, up at the University, but he was looking forward to examining them with me today.”
“Do you suspect anyone, Mrs. Lassiter?”
Trooper Irwack stepped inside the house and took a few pictures of the smashed door with a digital camera. He tried to lift a finger print off the closet’s door knob, but was unsuccessful. He also recorded detailed descriptions of the box and rifle in his pad, and then asked, “Is there anything else that you can recall? Anything might be helpful, you never know.”
“The only thing I can think of was that I heard a gunshot from behind the house at 1:50. I know it was 1:50 because I have an alarm clock right next to my bed.”
“Behind the house?”
“Well…not close by…It sounded like it was way back there, but who would be shooting back in the woods at that hour?”
“How many shots?”
“Just one. Believe me, I was listening with both ears. It was just one.”
Trooper Irwack scribbled “one shot- 1:50-behind house,” into his pad, and then suggested that he might poke around the property a bit.
He didn’t think he would find anything. He just felt bad that he couldn’t do more for Mrs. Lassiter who was obviously upset, and it was mostly for her benefit that he wanted to make a show of doing all he could. He skirted the orchard and set out along the edges of the fields behind the house. As he walked the dew left sparkling droplets on the tops of his shiny boots and darkened his pant legs halfway up his shins. After ten minutes he came to a spot where a small brook trickled out of the woods and cut the fields in two. Across the brook a large pine loomed over the field, and at its base Trooper Irwack observed a small gray bundle. He jumped the ditch that contained the brook, and walked over to the bundle. Crouching down, he observed that it was an owl, shot cleanly through its middle. He used a nearby stick to roll it over and noted that its talons had been cut off.
He gripped the bird by its feet like an oversized chicken with its wings splayed out, and holding it awkwardly away from his body he cut through the fields to the house.
To be continued…