An old Dodge Charger with the remains of two victims has been recovered from an area lake in the latest Winnebago County Mystery. This entry picks up where the last one left off.
Doctor Patrick shook her head back and forth. “This is my first experience with remains that have been submerged for decades in a vehicle. I have two assistants who are on their way with gurneys and body bags.” She grabbed a pair of gloves out of the lab coat pocket, pulled them on without a downward glance then made the sign of the cross on her head and chest with her right hand.
“The team assigned to major crimes this week happens to be two of the guys that got called out on the dive. They’ll get here before long,” Matsen said.
“Is that Mason and Weber?” Smoke said.
“You might want to put on coveralls. I got a good supply of the impervious ones that will protect your clothes from possible contamination,” Matsen said to Smoke and me.
“I’ll take a pair, also. I have some in my van, but didn’t think to grab them,” Doctor Patrick said.
Smoke and I followed Matsen to the supply closet on the back wall of the garage. He handed us each a plastic bag containing a coverall. While we tore into the bags then slipped on the suits, Matsen carried one over to Doctor Patrick. When we were all outfitted, Smoke, Matsen, and I closed in some feet behind the doctor. She turned and visually surveyed us. “Are we ready?”
I was touched by the significance of it all. “Smoke, they were your friends; maybe you should do the honor of opening the door.”
Doctor Patrick frowned and Smoke explained what Matsen meant.
She nodded. “By all means. Go right ahead, Detective.”
The Charger was a two-door model with push buttons on the handles, similar to the ones on my GTO. Smoke tried to push the button of the driver’s door with his thumb, but it didn’t budge. He put more weight behind it, but it still didn’t move. “I guess we need to try a spray lubricant and some tools. If that doesn’t work, we may have to break the window.”
“I’ve got some spray and a screwdriver and hammer right over there. We’ll give it a shot,” Matsen said and went to get the supplies. When he returned he handed Smoke the tools, and then aimed the nozzle of the lubricant at the area around the opener and gave it a generous shot of spray. When he was finished, Matsen took a step back. Smoke moved in, set the screwdriver against the button, and tapped it with the hammer. After a few tries, it went in. “Bingo,” he said. He handed the tools to Matsen, depressed the button, and pulled the door open.
I braced myself for whatever stench the vehicle might release. A fishy, lake and mud smell spilled out. I was used to it from many hours of fishing with my Gramps. Since it was tied to great memories, I actually found the smell pleasant. When the car dried out, any number of other odors would likely make themselves known. Leather, mildew, rust: from the car itself and from the shoes, clothing, and other belongings left behind by the victims.
Doctor Patrick got a phone call from her assistants saying they were outside, and requested we open the garage door. I jogged over and pushed the automatic opener. Doctor Calvin Helsing, assistant medical examiner, and Karen Sherman, a pathology assistant, were waiting with the necessary equipment. They were wearing the same type of coveralls we had on, with elastic closures at the wrists and ankles. They pushed in their gurneys with supplies and body bags atop.
I had met both of them the previous fall at the autopsy of a woman we worked diligently to identify. It was a couple of days after I’d met Doctor Patrick for the first time. We’d called her out to scene where the victim had been found, lying on the floor of a woods. Another unusual, difficult to explain, death.
Dr. Helsing was an attractive man about my age of American Indian descent whose pupils dilated when he looked at me. The same thing had happened the last time we’d met. It seemed he found me attractive. Karen was a few years older, on the plump side, with a flawless complexion that no makeup could enhance.
They both said “hi,” and joined their boss on the driver’s side of the car. Smoke and Matsen went to the passenger side and opened the door using the same spray and pounding method. With both doors open it was easier to view and assess the inside and its contents. Matsen snapped a series of photos, and I captured image after image with my mind’s eye.
I picked out a men’s leather shoe lying near the gas pedal and its mate close to the driver’s door. A leather wallet had made its way out of a pocket and was partially visible under the pelvis of the larger skeleton. A large leather purse was lying on the backseat bench. Articles of clothing clung to the bones, but items made of leather had survived with the least deterioration. A belt and bit of rusty buckle was around the larger skeleton’s middle. Leather sleeves clung to his arm bones.
“Looks like he was wearing his school letter jacket. I mentioned earlier that Tony was a standout athlete. Lettered in football, basketball, and baseball,” Smoke said.
“Their clothing no doubt helped hold them together, but be prepared that they may not stay that way when we remove them. We’ll go slowly and carefully, but it’s going to be a challenge,” Doctor Patrick said.
Doctor Helsing rolled a gurney close to the vehicle. “If we move the seats back as far as possible, it’ll give us more room to work,” he said.
“Good plan,” Smoke said. He struggled for a moment with a lever under the driver’s seat, and when it depressed, he held it down with his right hand and pushed the seat back with his left.
Doctor Helsing worked on the passenger seat, and got it moved back. Karen picked up a body bag from the gurney, revealing what looked like a giant plastic-coated bread board. She laid it on the other gurney, opened the body bag, spread it out on the gurney so it was ready to receive a body.
“Is that your version of a backboard?” Matsen pointed at the board.
“Yes, it comes in very handy at many of our scenes,” Doctor Patrick said.
Deputies Todd Mason and Vince Weber came into the garage quietly, observed the progress we’d made for a minute, then helped themselves to coveralls.
“Anything else of import turn up on the bottom of Whitetail Lake?” Smoke asked
“Nope. Warner took a couple of laps to be sure he didn’t miss anything,” Mason said.
“He’s kind of itching to get out on some of the other lakes, after coming upon that major find.” Weber nodded at the Charger.
“Mason and Weber, why don’t you help Doc Helsing there. If that’s okay with you, Doc Bridey?” Smoke said.
“Certainly,” she said.
Karen handed Doctor Helsing the board and he positioned it under the remains of the passenger’s remains. “One of you deputies can hold the end, and I’ll work to get the victim on it. Then we’ll move the gurney in, and slide her on.”
Weber and Mason took a quick glance at the other and by silent agreement decided Mason would be the one to do that. Mason had a slighter build than Weber, and wouldn’t take up as much space next to Helsing.
They worked slowly and carefully. And as Doctor Patrick figured would happen, some bones separated from their mates and made the process more tedious than I could have imagined. But we were all committed to be there, assisting in whatever way we could until the job was done.
Captain Clayton Randolph, next in command after Chief Deputy Kenner, who was next in command after the sheriff, paid the investigative team a visit as soon as he could break away from his duties. He watched the progress, but stayed in background.
Before he went back to his desk, he sidled over to where Smoke and I were standing. After talking about the impact of finding the Charger and its human remains, he changed subjects. “No one seems to know where Denny Twardy disappeared to. It is the damndest thing. It’s been four hours since anyone in the office has had contact with him.”
Smoke’s face tightened. “It’s got me pretty keyed up. Something’s not right.”
Randolph nodded. “I’m going to have communications send a message to all the road deputies asking if they’ve seen his car parked anywhere.”
“Good idea,” Smoke said.
Randolph looked at me. “You’ve talked to your mother about it?”
“I did, a few hours ago. She’s so easily alarmed that I just asked if she’d heard from him. She must be really busy at the store because she hasn’t called back to check if I’d talked to him yet.”
“You’ve sent someone to check Twardy’s home, right?” Smoke asked.
“Yes, and no luck.” He shook his head. “We all know what to do if we hear from Twardy,” Randolph said then left.
Yes, we needed to communicate any news to rest of the department.
Through the next hours, deputies and other sheriff’s department personnel came into the garage to witness the historical find. Pulling an old car out of Whitetail Lake was not a secret, but the word of who it belonged to, and who may be inside of it, was to be kept as quiet as possible until the victims were identified and the families were notified.
Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series