Author Archives: Christine Husom

About Christine Husom

Christine Husom is a former corrections officer, deputy, and mental health practitioner. She combined her love for writing and solving crimes crafting her Winnebago County Mystery Thriller series, featuring Sergeant Corinne Aleckson and Detective Elton Dawes. Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, An Altar by the River, are the first three books. A Noding Field Mystery will be released in November, 2012.

The Secret in Whitetail Lake–Fourth Installment

The Winnebago Sheriff’s Department has recovered an old Dodge Charger from the bottom of a lake. Meantime, the sheriff is nowhere to be found. This picks up when the last entry left off.

Chapter Three

Sergeant Doug Matsen, head of the newly expanded Winnebago County Crime Lab, was waiting with the overhead door of the evidence garage open. KT Towing’s flatbed truck was backed up close to the garage, ready to unload the Dodge Charger. Smoke joined the group right ahead of me, and we all squinted against the blinding rays of the late morning sun reflecting from the glass and metal on the vehicles. Even with my sunglasses cutting out most of the glare, my eyes still partially closed from the assault.

Sergeant Matsen was in his late thirties, seven or eight years older than me. He had been on the wild side in his earlier days with the department, pushing the limits of what he could legally do to solve crimes. Word was that it had kept Sheriff Twardy on edge wondering if Matsen might cross the wrong line at some point. But Matsen had the determination and dedication that made him an astute road deputy. And when he put in for the crime lab’s supervisory position, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was the one best suited for the job.

“Back far enough into the garage to unload this precious cargo,” Smoke said.

Kyle got back in the driver’s seat and did just that. “Say when,” he yelled out his open window.

Smoke, Matsen, Ted, and I went into the garage to monitor the process.

“That’s good,” Smoke called out, and the truck came to an immediate stop.

Ted walked around to the back of the truck. “Okay Kyle, lift the front of the bed up and I’ll get the ramps in place.”

When the bed of the truck rose to about a thirty degree angle, Kyle lowered the ramps then climbed back up. He grabbed the truck bed wall for better balance as he walked uphill to operate the winch. Kyle shut off the truck’s engine and got out to watch the action. As the strap loosened, the car made its slow descent to the garage floor.

“If this don’t beat all,” Matsen said as he snapped on latex gloves and stared into the Dodge Charger that had been safely delivered to him. “When you get out of bed in the morning, you never know what the day is going to bring you.”

“That’s a given,” Smoke said.

It most certainly was.

Smoke honed in on Kyle and Ted who looked like they were settling in, prepared to stay for the duration of the investigation. “Thanks, guys. We need to get to work, and I’m sure you do, too,” Smoke said.

The towing team took the non-subtle hint and left with a wave and a nod.

Matsen frowned as we bent over and stared in the windows. “Two victims, from what I can see. Was it accidental drowning? Or something else?”

“That’s the puzzle we’ll have to put together. I know this car, and who it belonged to. I’d be willing to bet the owner’s one of the victims. And the other one was his girlfriend.”

Matsen straightened and studied Smoke like he was a specimen under one of his microscopes. “You’re serious?”

“This would not be a time when I’d be kidding.”

“No. No, I guess not. Who do you think they are?”

Tony Fryor and Wendy Everton. They disappeared thirty-three years ago. It seemed at the time that they fell off the face of the planet.”

“Thirty-three years ago? Damn, that is an old case. So how do you know so much about the car and the victims?”

“They were my classmates, and friends.”

“And my mom’s and dad’s, too,” I added.

“Whoa. Here at Oak Lea High School?” Doug said.

“Yup,” Smoke said.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Matsen took a moment to have another look inside the Charger. “And they did a thorough investigation at the time?”

“Yeah, it sure seemed like it. I’ll go through the file again, but when the department hit enough dead ends, they called it.”

“What did they think happened to them, some kind of foul play?”

“No. They figured they ran off together. Maybe eloped.”

“Hmm, so it sounds like not everyone was in favor of their relationship.”

“That’s true enough. The way I remember it, Tony did not measure up to the high standards Wendy’s parents had set. Not exactly sure why. He was a star athlete, and seemed ambitious enough.

“And I don’t think Tony’s mother cared much for Wendy, given the fact that she’d had a number of boyfriends throughout high school. Everyone who knew them was questioned, back then. Including me, and Corky’s parents. I don’t know of anyone in our class who wasn’t. The classes were smaller then and most everyone knew everyone else. The detectives—and there were only two of them in the county in those days—were trying to find one person who had heard them say they were running away. And they never did. I guess now we know why.”

“Accident or suicide-homicide? That’s what we’ll try to figure out.”

Smoke drew his eyebrows together and sucked in a breath. “No, that’s what we will figure out. Now that we know where they ended up, we have a starting point anyway.”

“Smoke, are their parents still living?” I asked.

“Yeah, as far as I know. I looked through the file on them all those years ago, after I’d started here with the department. You know, I think about Tony and Wendy from time to time, kind of doing a little wishful thinking that they’d come back with a pack of kids and show everyone they were meant to be together after all.”

“A sad ending. But now their families will have closure,” I said.

He nodded.

“We know there won’t be any fingerprints. The water would have dissolved them within the first month.” Matsen said, enlightening me on that. “What time did you call the medical examiner?” he directed at Smoke.

“As soon as the divers said we had skeletal remains. She was tied up, finishing an autopsy. When she called me back, she said she’d meet us here.” Smoke looked at his watch. “Should be shortly.”

“Good. I’d rather wait for her. I’ll get some more shots of the car and the contents.”

The contents.

Smoke’s phone rang. He pulled it out of its holder, looked at the display, and pushed a button. “Cindy. What have you got for me? . . . Hmmph, his radio? And his car is gone from the parking garage? . . . . Okay, well thanks. And keep me posted.” He hung up and caught my eyes with his. A slight shake of his head told me there was still no word from the sheriff, but it sounded like he had driven off somewhere. “His portable radio is sitting on his desk.”

A growing sense of unease pickled my nerve endings. It was completely out of character for the sheriff to not answer his phone or at least let his staff know when he left in the middle of the day where he was going. And to leave his portable radio behind was unheard of. As the chief law enforcement office in the county, Sheriff Dennis Twardy was always on duty. Always. And there we were sitting with evidence of the very old, unsolved mysterious disappearance of a young couple and he was nowhere to be found.

“I’m gonna give Kenner a call, see if the sheriff stopped by to see him. And maybe has a dead cell phone,” Smoke said. Chief Deputy Mike Kenner was out on medical leave, following a surgical procedure.

“You’re looking for the sheriff?” Matsen said.

“Yeah. Nobody seems to know where he is.”

“I saw him in the break room getting a cup of coffee first thing this morning.”

But where did he go after that?

Smoke phoned Kenner, checked on how he was doing, and learned Kenner had not heard from the sheriff at all that day.

Sergeant Matsen spent the time getting photos of the car from every angle.

“I’ll try one last thing. The sheriff took his car, so he’s got that radio, if he’s still driving.” Smoke pulled out his radio. “Three-forty to Three-oh-one on two.” When there was no response, he repeated the call. Still no response. He shook his head and his shoulders lifted in a slight shrug.

As Smoke turned to me, Doctor Bridey Patrick from the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office opened the inside entrance door and walked with purpose in her step toward us. She was short and squat, and had spiked gray hair. Patrick was wearing a white lab coat over a black top and pants. She gave Smoke a look of noted appreciation, and greeted us with a simple, “Morning,” then turned her full attention to the Dodge Charger and its “contents.”

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.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series

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No Wake Zones in Minnesota

When people refer to Minnesota, “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is often included as the tagline. There are officially 11,842 lakes that are ten acres or larger. Wright County, the one I live in, has about three hundred lakes within its 714 square miles, so you don’t have to go far to find a place to fish or recreate.

In addition to water quality and its management, lakeshore property owners are also concerned about preserving their shorelines. Depending on the lake, some have sandy beaches, some have clay to the water’s edge and have added rocks to make them more accessible, others are on a steeper grade and have built retaining walls with steps down to the water, as a few examples.

In high precipitation years, lake, river, pond, and ditch levels rise in conjunction, creating any number of problems. This past year, our area had nearly seventy inches of snow and was also the second wettest April on record. So as the snow was melting, instead of soaking into the saturated ground, the water gathered in low areas, including the lakes, and shorelines crept closer and closer to peoples’ homes. Waves on the water, either from strong winds, or motorized vehicles, can cause erosion. A bank in one of our county parks collapsed into its lake this spring during a high wind storm.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) established high water no wake restrictions a number of years ago on certain waterways to address this problem. In the last few years, a number of lake associations and lake improvement districts in Wright County have requested to be included in no wake restrictions. There are different levels of restrictions, but the most common one is when water levels reach the high mark, motorized vehicles, which can produce good-sized waves, are not allowed to go more than 5 miles per hour within 300 feet of the shoreline. On some lakes it’s within 150 feet.

According to the Minnesota DNR website, “All water surface use management starts at the local unit of government – town, city or county, depending upon where the lake or river is located. Any ordinances proposed by the local unit of government must have a hearing and be approved by the DNR before they can go into effect.”

This past June, the DNR declared emergency no wake zones, allowing local jurisdictions to impose restrictions for 30 days, or until levels receded below high water marks. As is the case with many rules and laws, I don’t think no wake restrictions would be necessary if people would use common courtesy and common sense when recreating on lakes and rivers. Do you have similar laws in your state?

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County mystery series.

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The Secret in Whitetail Lake, 3rd installment

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department has recovered an old Dodge Charger that had been at the bottom of Whitetail Lake for decades. This entry picks up where the last one left off.

I bent over close to Smoke so I could talk quietly. “Mother is going to freak out if it turns out to be your friends. And she’ll have a very good reason, for a change.”
Smoke lifted his eyebrows, wrinkling his forehead. “No doubt. Think of their families who have wondered all these years.” He straightened up and so did I.
“Oh my, yes.” Having a loved one disappear, never to be heard from again, was one of the most difficult things for a person to cope with. I glanced around at the sheriff’s department personnel who were on the scene and thought of the obvious one who wasn’t there. “I’m surprised the sheriff shown up.”
“Cindy hasn’t been able to locate him just yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“She called me during the towing process to let me know. Truth be told, it’s got me a little concerned.”
A shiver ran up my spine. “I’m sure he has a good reason for being wherever he is.”
Smoke’s shoulder lifted a couple of inches then he went back to his perusal. The other deputies made quiet comments about the car, the bodies. All were wondering how in the hell the car had ended up in the lake in the first place without anyone seeing it go in, or at least noticing damage from the tire tracks on the hill, or on the bank of the lake.
I walked over to where Zubinski and Ortiz were stationed and called them aside. “Go over and have a look, you two. It’s something we’ll never see again in our careers, I’m sure. At least I hope.”
They murmured their thanks and joined the others who were looking in and at the car from all angles. Mason had gotten his camera and was capturing the scene in still shots. The man who had asked Smoke for information earlier jogged over to me. “How long has that car been in Whitetail, and how did it get there in the first place?”
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Harry Gimler.”
“Mister Gimler, we don’t have any information to give out just yet.”
“People are wondering if there are bodies in that car, or why the deputies keep looking inside like there is.”
“There are doing a good visual sweep, and then we’ll take the car to our crime lab and see if we can get some good answers for when and why it went down.”
“I’ve fished in this lake for years, and you’re telling me all this time there was an old car sitting on the bottom.”
“We’ll do our best to figure all that out. In the meantime, if you’d be so kind to watch from over there.” I pointed to the guardrail. “It sounds like they’re ready to load the car on the flatbed.”
Gimler’s eyes darted from me to the Charger like he was considering whether he could make it to the car for a sneak peek before he was apprehended. Instead, he followed my directive and joined the group who was watching from afar.
When Zubinski and Ortiz returned from their look-see, I walked back to check the loading process.
Kyle pushed wheel ramps from the truck bed to the ground, and Ted adjusted them. “Let’s move the side winches back to get them out of the way,” he said and Ted jumped up on the truck to help him. They loosened the straps enough so they could accomplish the task. After the equipment had been repositioned, Ted jumped off the truck and the Charger was pulled up the ramp and onto the truck’s bed in no time, leaving behind more mucky water on the way.
Smoke addressed Warner. “Are you going out for another look around the lake?”
Warner blinked and his lips turned down at the corners. “Hmm. I hadn’t planned on it, but as long as I’m here, it may not be a bad idea.” It looked to me like he’d rather get off the lake. And the sooner the better.
“I was thinking you and the divers should go back where the car was sitting. You could check if there happened to be any other evidence. Most likely not after all this time, but who knows?” Smoke said.
Warner nodded and waved his hand back and forth at the divers. “We’ll need two of you to stay, in case we need your diving skills again.”
Mason and Weber volunteered to be the two. We all watched as the tow truck prepared for the journey back to the county shop where the Dodge Charger would be coaxed to give up every secret it had been keeping.
Smoke walked over to Kyle’s driver’s side window. “I’ll meet you at the shop.”
No one from the crowd of spectators moved until the tow truck was heading east on County Road 35. Harry Gimler puffed his way over to me. “Will you let me know what you find? I mean, it technically was on my property from the looks of it.”
“I will do that. I’m sure we’ll be talking to all the neighbors.”
His eyebrows squeezed together. “So you’re saying there was something in that car. Or someone.”
I smiled at his persistence, despite my intention not to. “Mister Gimler, I’m not at liberty to say anything about this investigation yet.”
He gave me a once over, taking in my street clothes, the Glock in its holster on the right side of my belt, and my badge clipped on next to it. “You look too young to be a detective.”
“I’m not that young and I’m not a detective. I’m Sergeant Corinne Aleckson.”
“I thought you looked familiar. I’ve seen your picture in the paper.”
I didn’t enlighten him on the fact that I lived not far from there. It wasn’t that he was creepy. Exactly. He struck me as cagey more than anything, and I planned to look him up in our department arrest and calls for service files when I had a minute. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to shove off.”
I caught up with Smoke who was giving instructions to Zubinski and Ortiz. “You can get back on the road as soon as all the snoopers leave.”
“Will do,” Mandy said.
I nodded at the two deputies. “Thanks, Mandy and Joel for doing crowd control.”
“You bet,” Joel said. Mandy smiled then they headed to their squad cars.
I turned to Smoke. “I’ll meet you at the shop.”
“It’s your day off, little lady.”
“Not anymore.”

Christine Husom is the Second Wind Author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series

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The Secret in Whitetail Lake continued

The Winnebago Sheriff’s Department is preparing to recover an old Dodge Charger with skeletal remains from the bottom of Whitetail Lake. Detective Smoke Dawes suspects it belongs to someone he went to school with. Meantime, no one seems to know where the sheriff is. Sergeant Corinne “Corky” Aleckson is the narrator.

“Geez, Detective, let’s hope that’s not your friends down there,” Weber said and we all muttered muffled words of agreement.
“We’ve never had to recover a vehicle in that deep of water before. In my time here, anyway,” Carlson said.
“It’d be safe to safe we’ve never had to in the department’s history, period,” Warner said. “This is one of the deeper lakes in the county. And there’s no road access on that side. The car would’ve been down there another who knows how many years if not for the new sonar device. Apparently, no one knew there was a reason to dredge the lake back when these people went in.”
Smoke blew out a loud breath of air. “They’ve been down there long enough. Let’s get ‘em out and figure out who they are and what we’re dealing with.” He pulled his cell phone out of its holder. “Anybody get a hold of the sheriff?”
Warner shook his head. “I left him a message on his work number.”
“I’ll call his cell. We’ll need a tow truck with what, a hundred yards of chain?”
“About that. The divers will have to use due caution after they get the vehicle hooked on. It’s a dangerous operation.”
“No doubt.” Smoke looked at the divers. “When we recovered that truck from Bison last year, the one that went through the ice, were all three of you involved in that?”
“Yeah. That was a much easier deal, by far. It was only twenty-five or so feet out from shore in ten feet of water,” Mason answered for the group.
“That turkey shoulda known better than to park there with the thinning ice.” Weber was referring to the owner of the truck.
Smoke hit a couple of numbers on his phone. “Denny, it’s Dawes. Call me a-sap. We’re about to launch a recovery of that vehicle on Whitetail, and it appears there are the remains of at least two victims inside.” He ended the call. “Hmm. Sheriff must be in an important meeting. I’ll have communications locate us a tow truck with extra chain and connectors.” He made the call and answered Officer Robin’s questions of what we had found.
A few minutes later she called to let us know both Kyle and Ted, the owners of KT Towing, would be en route as soon as they loaded extra chain on their rig.
We all waited impatiently in the boat, taking turns staring at the image of the older model Dodge, the burial ground of two or more people. The combined anticipation warmed the air around us. Between that and the waterproof wetsuits, the three divers all had beads of sweat on their brows.
Three squad cars arrived on the scene within minutes of each other. Apparently the word had spread from communications to the road deputies like a hayfield on fire in the middle of a drought.
“Nothing like a mystery to bring out the troops,” Warner said.
Deputies Amanda Zubinski, Joel Ortiz, and Sergeant Leo Roth got out of their vehicles and gathered at the water’s edge.
“You need another diver?” Roth called out. “I got my gear in my car.” Roth was off-duty, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“What do you think?” Smoke asked Warner.
Warner didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, suit up,” he called to Roth.
“Tim, when you go in for Roth, maybe you could pick up Zubinski and Ortiz. I’ll get off to make more room on the boat. I’m sure they’re dying to see what your new sonar discovered,” I said.
“I’ll do the same,” Smoke said.
“Why not? This is not your run of the mill find.”
Warner trolled in. Roth changed in his SUV, and got out carrying his fins, face gear, and tank. When we reached the bank, Smoke threw the rope to Ortiz who tied it on the post. Smoke climbed out of the boat and turned to help me onto shore.
“Zubinski, Ortiz, your turn. Hop aboard,” Smoke told them.
Neither of them would have asked for the chance to get a look at the underwater find, and their faces brightened like two kids seeing lights on a Christmas tree for the first time. They both nodded and climbed into the boat before Smoke changed his mind. Roth was right behind them.
Smoke looked at his watch. “Where in the hell is the sheriff?”
“Call Dina, maybe she knows.” I loosened the rope on the boat and threw it to Weber who caught it and pulled it inside.
He withdrew his phone and dialed. After a two minute conversation, he hung up. “She has no idea which is not like our little mother hen Dina.”
“No it’s not. I’ll call my personal mother hen and ask her.”
“Yeah, if Dina doesn’t know, Kristen should.”
My mother and the sheriff were engaged to be married sometime down the road. I figured they were waiting until all the stars and planets were perfectly aligned, whenever that was.
“Kristen’s Corner, may I help you?”
“Mother.”
“Corinne, I didn’t have my readers on, so I couldn’t see the number. What are you up to on your day off?”
“Oh, having a little adventure. I’ll tell you all about it, later on. Do you know where the sheriff—ah, Denny—is?”
“Denny? Why are you looking for him?”
“Smoke has been trying to reach him, and we thought maybe you knew his schedule, like if he had any appointments.”
“Why, no, I don’t. He should be at work at this time of day. I talked to him a couple of hours ago and I’m sure he would have told me if he had anything special planned.”
“I’m sure he would have. No biggie. We figured he’s tied up in a meeting. I’ll catch you later.”
“Bye, sweetheart. Stop by when you can.”
“Will do. Bye, Mom.” I pushed the end button. “Okay, that’s odd. Mother doesn’t know either.”
“I don’t think I’ll bug Dina again. She gets pretty worked up when it comes to keeping the sheriff healthy and safe. I’ll have Cindy do a little checking, and if she can’t locate him, I’ll try to raise him on the radio,” Smoke said.
A chill ran up my shoulder blades and down my arms. “I hope he’s all right.”
Smoke’s eyes captured and held mine. “Me too.”
He was still talking to Cindy when the towing team pulled up in their rig. The earth rumbled around us and the smell of diesel drifted through the air when they pulled to a stop and let the truck idle. Both Kyle and Ted climbed out and hurried over to us. Kyle was the half of the team who did most of the maintenance, and had grease permanently embedded in his cracked beefy hands. He was the taller and heavier one of the two. Ted was more on the wiry side. He was the one who responded to most of the calls, and gave the impression that time was money and the more efficiently he could get the job done, the better.
I pointed to where Warner and his boat crew were anchored. “That’s where the car we got to pull out is sitting.”
“Damn, that’ll be our biggest challenge we’ve ever had, huh Ted?” Kyle said.
Ted didn’t answer right away. He was deep in thought as he looked from Warner’s boat to the surrounding shoreline. “No good place for us to pull in to get closer. How in the hell did a car wind up over there?”
Smoke finished with his call and put a hand on Ted’s shoulder. “We called you because we figured you could handle the job if anyone could.”
“We’ll do our best, Detective,” Ted said. “Kyle, jump in the truck and I’ll guide you to where you’ll need to stop.”
“Not much of a landing.”
“Nope, but it’s what we got.”
“Detective Dawes on two.” It was Sergeant Warner telling Smoke to switch from the main radio band.
Smoke plucked the radio from his belt, turned the knob, and depressed the call button. “Go ahead on two.”
“We’re coming in, but we’ll wait ‘til KT is in position.”
“Copy.”
People driving by slowed down to check out the happening at Whitetail Lake. Others that had no pressing deadline, or particular schedule to keep, pulled off County Road 35 onto the shoulders of both sides of the road.
“This is turning into a three-ring circus,” I said.
Smoke shook his head slightly. “Barnum and Bailey.”
“The Ringling Brothers,” Ted added, surprising me. I didn’t think he had a sense of humor.
“People must be thinking there’s been a drowning,” I said.
“And they are most likely right. When the drowning occurred is yet to be determined,” Smoke said.
Kyle backed the rig closer to us and Ted jumped to attention. He held his left hand up and bent his fingers over and over in a ‘keep coming’ motion. Then he gave him the halt sign.
“I hope you got good brakes on that thing,” Smoke said.
“Something we test all the time,” Ted said.
Smoke’s phone rang. “It’s communications,” he said when he glanced at the display. “Hey. . . . Just tell them we found an object on the bottom of the lake and we’re retrieving it. . . . Yup. . . . Thanks.” He hit end and replaced his phone. “They’re getting flooded with phone calls wondering what we’re up to.”
Kyle joined us by the water’s edge as Warner and company reached the landing. “Detective?” Warner said.
“I’ll defer to you and your divers and the towing guys here,” he said.
“Excuse me, but can you tell us what’s going on here?” A middle-aged man with skinny legs and a round belly inched near the front of the tow truck and pointed to one of the houses at the top of the south side hill. “I live up there and own part of this lakeshore.”
“Sir, our water patrol spotted a large object on the bottom of the lake with his sonar, and we’re here to recover it. I’ll need you to stay clear of the area.” Smoke looked around at the other people crowding in and added. “All of you.”
The group shifted over to the guard rail on the inside edge of the road’s shoulder for a box office view of the action.
Smoke focused on the crew in the boat. “Ortiz, Zubinski, change of plans. I guess I’ll need you to do crowd control.”
They nodded then got out of the boat and walked to the front of the tow truck. “It was fun while it lasted,” Ortiz muttered under his breath.
Smoke lowered his voice to avoid being overheard by any of the bystanders. “Okay, Ted, Kyle, there’s an old Dodge down there. And as much as we have been able to check out, it appears it’s been a coffin for a pair of individuals for a long time.”
Kyle did a double take. “What’d you say?”
“Robin didn’t say there were people in there.” Wiry Ted rocked onto his tip toes.
“Unfortunately, about all that’s left is their bones,” Warner said.
“If it weren’t for that, we might not have made the decision for this risky of an operation. And we want to keep quiet about the bodies for the time being,” Smoke said.
Kyle’s face was solemn when he nodded. “Understood. We should have plenty of strap. We’ll get her in.”
Ted bounced from one foot to the other. “Why don’t you secure the hook in your boat and we’ll unwind the strap as you drive.”
“I’ll put two divers on each side of the vehicle to keep a close watch. It’ll be a slow process, but we’ll take as much time as we need to,” Warner said.
Smoke inclined his head toward the boat. “Corky, you go out with Warner. I’ll work on this end of it.”
I gave him a nod and climbed into the boat. Kyle turned on the hydraulic winch and slowly unrolled the strap. Ted grabbed it and walked it over to the boat where Weber took it and held on. “How much power does that baby have?” Weber asked.
“Pulling power of twelve thousand pounds,” Ted said.
“Whoa, no shit.” Weber turned to Warner. “Sarge, how many pounds you figure that car full of water down there weighs?”
Warner plopped a hand on the opposite forearm and tapped his fingers like he was counting. “Well. The car would be around four thousand pounds, two ton. Probably less. The water and silt inside of it? I’d guess there’s around two hundred gallons of water. No good idea about the silt, so let’s stick with the water weight. Who’s good at math?”
“Mason is,” Carlson said.
“A gallon of water weighs about eight point three pounds,” Warner said.
Mason nodded. “Right around sixteen-sixty.”
“So we’re looking at less than six thousand pounds combined weight of the vehicle and the water.”
“We’re okay then. We’ll have some resistance from the lake itself, but not that much,” Ted said.
“Let’s do it,” Warner said.
Smoke released his hold on the boat’s tie rope. Warner gave it some gas and moved slowly toward the site, unrolling the strap from the winch as he did. When the car came into view, he cut the engine. “Okay, I want two of you on each side of the car. Weber and Mason, you apply the hook to the undercarriage as close to the center as possible. Then get into position with your partner. We’ll move slowly to turn the vehicle from its current position facing west to the north.
“Oh, and divers, as an added caution: stay far enough back from the vehicle. If you get in trouble, your partner is there to help you. Signal ‘stop’ if you notice any part of the operation going south. Any questions, comments, concerns?”
“I got a comment. When they turn the car, it’s going to stir up all that muck on the lake’s bottom,” Mason said.
“Good point. We’ll go as slow as we can to minimize that. Okay, Roth you take the south side of the car, the driver’s side. Carlson, you take the north. Weber and Mason, make the connection then signal when you want us to start tightening the strap. When it’s taut, give us the ‘stop’ signal and we’ll wait until you’ve both moved out of the way until we start the tow. Weber, you’re with Carlson, Mason you’re with Roth. Drop the hook and let’s get this operation underway.”
Roth lowered the strap into the water, and then the four of them pulled on their face masks and jumped in. We watched the action on the screen. Weber and Mason worked for a while to attach the hook. When it was secured, Mason gave us the ‘okay’ sign to tighten the strap.
Warner depressed the talk button on his radio. “Six-eleven, Three-forty on two.”
“Go ahead on two,” Smoke answered.
“The hook is in place and we’re ready for a slow and easy shortening of the line.”
“Copy.”
“I’ll put my arm up when it looks like they’re getting close and drop it when the divers tell me to stop,” Warner added.
“We’ll be keeping a close watch.”
I held my breath and kept my eyes peeled to the screen. When it appeared the strap was losing the last of its slack, Mason waved his hand back and forth to signal ‘slow down’. Warner stuck his hand in the air then dropped it like a lead balloon when Mason’s hand shot up in the ‘stop’ signal. Ted’s reflexes were spot on. He halted the winch’s pull, but there was still a slight jerk on the car.
I blew out the rest of the air I’d held too long.
Weber and Mason joined their partners, and Warner spoke into his radio. “Six-eleven to Three-forty.”
“Six-eleven?”
“Let’s get the vehicle turned a quarter turn to the north. Nice and easy.”
I had an involuntary sharp gasp, making me seem like I was the tensest one on the scene. Watching other deputies in situations that held a high probability of danger was one of the most difficult parts of my job.
When the car moved, the dark cloudy bottom of silt rose and surrounded the car. It hung in the water like a dense fog. Ted had the hydraulic winch moving at a snail’s pace and it took a few minutes before the car was positioned facing north. I glanced up at Warner. Lines of sweat were running from his temples down the front of his ears to his neck. His jaw was set and his eyes were intently focused on the sonar screen. I wasn’t the only one on pins and needles.
“Breathe,” I said.
“Huh?”
“That’s what I have to tell myself when I’m tied up in knots.”
He gave a single nod, sucked in a breath then held up his hand for Kyle to proceed. He said, “Nice and easy,” into his radio.
“Nice and easy,” Smoke repeated.
The silt continued to be stirred along the way as the hydraulic winch was tightened and the old Dodge inched toward Whitetail’s north shore. Warner trolled behind and we maintained a close watch on the operation, especially on the divers who were visible even when clouds of rising lake bottom surrounded them. At the slow pace, it was still only a matter of minutes before the car was at the shoreline. It was not yet visible above the surface.
The divers surfaced and Warner steered the boat to the west of the car. “So far, so good,” Warner said. “Bottom here is right around eight feet.”
Smoke and Ted moved to the water’s edge and looked down. Kyle jumped off his flat bed truck and joined them. He craned his neck both right and left, apparently assessing the situation. “I’d feel better if we’d get some guiding straps around it. It’d be less likely to twist and turn, maybe flip over.”
Ted agreed. “You divers okay with that?”
They all were.
Kyle fished around in a large stainless steel storage bin in the back of the truck and found the equipment he needed. He carried the straps and hooks to the edge, said, “Heads up,” and dropped them on the ground near Ted’s feet.
Ted picked up a strap by the hook at the end and handed it to Mason. “If you can attach this to the undercarriage behind the left front wheel.” He gave the second strap to Weber. “And this one to the right side.” The two deputies went down with the hook ends of the straps and completed their task in no time. Ted gave Kyle the loose ends which he fed into two smaller hydraulic winches on opposite sides of the truck bed. He wound them until they were taut and ready for tugging action, then paused the winches.
My stomach muscles were as tight as the towing straps when Ted said, “We’re ready to bring her out. I want everyone to move to either side of the truck when she reaches the surface. We’ve never had a strap break, and she should be fine, but a guy can never be too careful in an operation like this.”
Kyle nodded and waited for the four divers to get out of the way before he continued. He fussed with the settings on the winches then started them up from one to the next in a seamless move. Warner turned his video camera on the landing and hit ‘record’.
Smoke was standing as close to the edge as was safe. He looked at me with what felt like a pleading expression. I wanted to take him in my arms and hold him while the car was released from the lake that had been its burial site for too long. What I read on Smoke face told me he was convinced his missing friends from all those years back were about to be found. I managed a weak smile and folded my hands. He blinked his eyes in response and turned his attention back to the vehicle that was emerging from the deep.
Every one of us gasped. We couldn’t help ourselves. Warner reached over and grabbed my forearm, reminding me he was there. But I didn’t take my eyes off the old blue water and silt-filled Charger that surfaced, aided by the best equipment available. When most of the vehicle had cleared, water and muck began draining as it was guided onto the bank.
I was drawn back to Smoke and his reaction. He closed his eyes, bent his head, and stroked his forehead with the fingers of one hand for a moment. He was perhaps saying a prayer. I had been praying throughout the whole operation.
Kyle stopped the winches and we all were dumbstruck. Smoke, Ted, and the divers slowly approached the car knowing it was a coffin holding the remains of at least two people, and peered in the car windows. Each one of them stared, but not one audible word spilled from their mouths. We had all be been cautioned to keep quiet about the discovery for the time being.
“Let’s dock,” Warner said at a near whisper. He pulled up to shore and signaled Weber who was closest to the landing post. Warner threw him the rope and when the boat was secure, we climbed out.
My legs were shaky, like I’d been on board for days. I wobbled over to Smoke’s side and caught his hand in mine to offer a brief comforting touch. We squeezed each other’s hand then released them before the others noticed.
“This is definitely a first for us.” Kyle was the first to break the silence. It was a first for all of us.
New people arrived and moved near the near the front of the truck, craning their necks in an effort to see what they could, before Ortiz and Zubinski yelled for them to get back. Someone standing by the guard rail yelled they had a good vantage point, and the newcomers moved there, making crowd control an easier job for Zubinski and Ortiz.
I leaned over and stared into the Charger. I had my second involuntary gasp of the morning. Two skeletons were in the front seat of the car. One was half lying on the other, making it appear he or she was shielding the other. More likely, since there was no evidence of attached seats belts, the bodies had ended up that way from the plunge into the water. But if that hadn’t killed them, they must have embraced when they knew they were trapped.
I followed Smoke as he started on a visual tour of the rest of the vehicle. “Smoke?”
“I am ninety-nine-point-nine percent certain this is Tommy Fryor’s Charger.” His face was solemn as he leaned closer to the passenger window and squinted against the sun.

Christine Husom is the Second Wind author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series

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How Are Easter’s Dates Calculated?

Today April 20th, Easter Sunday. Easter can fall anytime between March 22nd and April 25th. Have you ever wondered why?

Some of our holidays, like Christmas, are celebrated on the same day each year, while others follow a different set of standards. The leaders of the early church determined Easter needed to be celebrated on Sunday each year, and rightly so. In the early days, it was set on the Sunday following the first astronomical full moon after the spring equinox.

Then in 325 AD, the Council of Nicea decided they needed to establish a more standardized system for determining the date. Astronomers were able to approximate the dates of the full moons in future years, and established a table of ecclesiastical full moon dates. These dates would be the basis for setting holy days on the ecclesiastical calendar.

According to Mary Fairchild, in her article “Why Does the Date for Easter Change Each Year,” she writes, “At the heart of the matter lies a very simple explanation. The early church fathers wished to keep the observance of Easter in correlation to the Jewish Passover. Because the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ happened after the Passover, they wanted Easter to always be celebrated subsequent to the Passover. And, since the Jewish holiday calendar is based on solar and lunar cycles, each feast day is movable, with dates shifting from year to year.”

By 1583 AD the table for calculating the ecclesiastical full moon dates was established and been used ever since. According to the tables, the Paschal, or Passover, full moon is the first ecclesiastical full moon after March 20, which was the spring equinox date in 325 AD.

The early leaders were mindful of the best way to set Easter’s date, and I commend them. Calculating it is not as complicated as I’d once thought. Happy Easter.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series.

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Sneak Peek at The Secret in Whitetail Lake by Christine Husom

Sergeant Warner, Winnebago County Boat and Water Division is testing out his new sonar equipment on one of the county’s deeper lakes when he makes an unlikely find. He assembles his dive team, and Sergeant Corky Aleckson goes out to Whitetail Lake to see what Warner’s found.

“Ready, team? We have to be careful about not going too far down. If the bottom is stirred up, we’ll have zero visibility,” Mason said.

Mason and Carlson put on their goggles then the three of them affixed their masks in place. Their vests were equipped with regulars, and inflatable options. The oxygen tanks would supply them for well over an hour, even if they exerted, or got nervous and sucked in air faster than normal. Warner and I guided them over the side of the boat and they dropped in the water then drove into it.

We watched them on the sonar; my first experience doing that. My cell phone rang a minute later. I looked at the display and hit talk. “Hey Smoke.”

“Are they out in the water yet?”

“They are. I’m on the boat with Warner and we can see the three of them getting close to the sunken treasure. It looks like an old car. Maybe the same vintage as mine.”

“A car? And an older one to boot. Now I wish I had taken Warner up on his offer to ride along. I’ll be out there in a few minutes.”

I hung up and refocused on the three divers. They were making their way around the car, looking in the windows. Mason lifted his arm and Carlson started his ascent. When he surfaced, he gripped the side of the boat with one hand and lifted his breathing mask from his face. His face, reddened from the cold water camouflaged the freckles on his face. “It’s an old Dodge Charger and there are at least two sets of skeletons inside.”

“What?” Warner and I said together.

I leaned closer to Carlson and studied his face to see if he was kidding. The normal dancing twinkle was absent from his blue eyes and he looked like he’d seen a ghost or two all right.

“Damn,” Warner said and looked at me like I should know what to say.

“You call Sheriff Twardy; I’ll call Detective Dawes.”

“Damn,” he repeated and took another moment. “Carlson, we’ll need to figure out the steps to proceed with the recovery. In the meantime, get some shots from every which way you can down there.” Warner retrieved an underwater camera and waited while Carlson repositioned his mask then took it.

When Carlson dove back in, both Warner and I kept our eyes fixed on the unexplained find on the bottom of Whitetail Lake and the deputies who were investigating it.

Warner phoned the sheriff, but it went to voicemail. “Sheriff, we’re sitting on top of a possible crime scene on Whitetail Lake. There’s an older car on the bottom and it appears there are skeletal remains inside it.”

Per department policy, the sheriff was notified of any unnatural death, or suspicious death. Being submerged in a vehicle in a small lake fit both sets of criteria.

When Warner hung up, I said, “Are you going to call his cell phone?”

“I’ll wait a few minutes. When I talked to him earlier, he said he was going to be in his office all morning catching up on paperwork. A citizen could have stopped by to ask about something, or he’s in the biffy.”

I nodded and phoned Smoke. “I’m just about there,” he said.

“Good. I’ll see if Warner will troll over to pick you up on shore.” Warner nodded and gave me a thumb’s up signal. “He says ‘yes’.”
We hung up. “Our divers should figure out we’re making a run, and not abandoning them. And we’re only about a hundred yards,” Warner said.

“I know the sheriff mentioned purchasing those diving helmets with the communications capability built right in, depending on the cost.”

“That will be the next big purchase if we find a bunch of stuff with this new sonar system, and need to increase our dives.” He turned on the engine and shifted into low gear to safely clear the area, then sped up to reach the opposite shore. He eased against the landing area.

“Smoke’s here. Man, his day just got a lot more interesting. And not in a good way.”
“Surprise, surprise, surprise.”

Smoke jogged to the boat. He was wearing a light tan jacket over his shirt and tie, black pants, and black shoes polished to a gleaming shine. Not the usual fishing attire. But this wasn’t a normal expedition. “What’s up?” he asked. I leaned over the boat and offered my hand to help him in. “You guys look like cats that swallowed some canaries.”

“It’s bigger than that,” I said and took a step back to give Smoke a place to stand.

He gave my hand a squeeze then released it. “Bigger, how?”

“The guys found skeletal remains in the vehicle.” Warner said as he back the boat away from shore.

“Get out of here.” He pointed at the steep hill that rose up from the lake on the south side. “How in the hell would it get there? It’s not like they were driving down a road at high speeds, lost control, and wound up in the lake. There’s no road to drive off.”

He was right, and neither Warner nor I had an answer. We reached the site, and Smoke planted himself in front of the sonar’s screen to watch the action. The three divers rose to the surface. Carlson swam to the boat and lifted the camera. Warner bent over and scooped it up. The other two tread water while Carlson climbed the rope ladder up to the boat then followed suit.

We were hovering over the burial grounds of two or more unknown people and the momentary hush in the air seemed to be our sign of respect for them. When Weber and Mason had boarded, the divers all pulled off their masks and shook their heads. Warner clicked on the pictures captured by Carlson, and Smoke and I crowded in behind him.

“They’ve been down there a long time,” Smoke said.

“And in all my years with the department, I can’t recall anyone last seen in an old 1960s era Dodge and disappearing,” Warner added.

The blood drained from Smoke’s face. “I can.” His voice was quiet and a little shaky. “Not since I’ve been with the department. Long before that. Back when I was in high school two friends of mine went missing. Tommy Fryor and Wendy Everton. His folks gave Tommy their old 1966 Dodge Charger to run around in.”

The air went out of my lungs when Smoke said their names. I reached over and touched his arm. “Wendy was one of my mom’s best friends.”

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series. The Secret in Whitetail Lake is the Sixth in the seris.

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Stalking Is Serious

In the fictional world of crime writing, stalkers make noteable characters. Their activities are obsessive, freaky, and often downright frightening, which creates and builds tension throughout a novel. But in the real world, a stalker’s motivations and actions are harassing, dangerous, and too often deadly.

With technological advancements continually upgrading, stalkers have increasingly new ways to make their victims’ lives more miserable than ever. There are countless programs and avenues for criminals to explore and use.

For example:

He can monitor his victim’s computer programs.

She can use a program that hides her own phone number and displays another’s on her victim’s Caller ID. And disguises her voice so even those closest to her won’t recognize it.

He can remotely access his victim’s voicemail, ensuring she doesn’t receive her messages. But he does.

She can send an anonymous email to cover that she is the one who is actually sending it.

He can post inflammatory, false, or enticing information about his victim that includes her name, address, phone numbers, and email address on a social network, which in turn causes her to receive harassing messages, sometimes visits, from strangers.

She can “friend” her victim’s family, friends, and other contacts on social networks to get personal information about her. And use it in insidious ways.

He can download a program on her phone that allows him to set up an account for himself to access her information and track her. Tip: only let people you completely trust borrow your phone to “make a quick call.”

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, “Protect Yourself From Computer Hackers,” it is very easy to hack into someone’s home computer and see what the eye of the camera is looking at. A slick, sick way to obtain an insider’s information about someone. Cover the eye of your computer camera.

I am currently working on the sixth book of the Winnebago County Mystery Series, and in the subplot one of the deputies, burly Vince Weber is a victim of stalking.

So what can you do if you know, or suspect, you are being targeted in this kind of abusive activity? Report it to the police. And preserve any evidence you have. If you get an unsettling phone call or email, do not delete it, as you may want to do. Sometimes it takes a person a while, and a number of incidents, before she recognizes she is being harassed. Save any suspicious message you receive. And if there are more messages, a pattern is emerging, and helps the police develop a case.

More and more stalking cases are being successfully uncovered and prosecuted. Stalking can lead to serious and tragic outcomes if the offender is not caught and stopped. Stay safe.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series.

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An Unsolved Double Homicide from 1897 by Christine Husom

Every once in a while I hear a story  that takes up residence in my mind and consumes me for some time. Maybe for days or weeks or months. The latest one is a crime, a double homicide, that happened in 1897 in Middleville Township, Wright County, Minnesota, about 15 miles from my home. The main reason it gnaws at me is because it was never solved, and all the family members, thus far, have gone to their own graves without knowing the truth.

 I first read of the murders of William and Lydia Boxell in the Wright County Heritage Newsletter last fall in an article submitted by Chris Marcotte, the great great great granddaughter of William and his first wife Rachel. I was stunned that a crime so similar to the one attributed to Lizzie Borden, five years before that, had not gained the same notoriety.

Last week, Marcotte spoke at the heritage center and I attended the session to learn more about what happened on that fateful night.  Marcotte has spent the past couple of years doing extensive research, visiting family members, and gathering hundreds of documents, newspaper articles, and pictures to learn as much about the family and the crime as possible. She has ten theories of who may have been the perpetrator(s).

Here is a little background: William Boxell married Lydia some time after his first wife Rachel died, and it must have caused quite a stir. William and Rachel had fourteen children and nineteen grandchildren at the time of her death. William’s two youngest sons, ages fourteen and sixteen, were still living at home when he married Lydia. He was sixty-two and she was nineteen, forty-three years his junior. Was it arranged by her parents who were promised 40 acres of land in return for their daughter’s hand? The two married after a three-day courtship, which may have angered at least one of her two potential suitors.

William was fairly well-to-do. He had 260 acres of farmland and was worth about $15,000, a nice sum in those days. After his marriage to Lydia, there was allegedly talk that William was changing his will. Was Lydia expecting a baby, or had something else sparked that belief? The couple had been married only three months at the time of their deaths.

The known facts of the case: It was around ten o’clock at night on May 15, 1897 and the two teenage Boxell brothers were spearing for fish in a nearby lake. Their older brother Joseph saw them as he headed for home after picking up a trunk for his father-in-law at the railway station in Howard Lake. When the boys returned home from fishing before midnight, they found blood on the porch and the front door locked. They went to get their brother Joe at his house, about a half mile away. They headed into town, where around fourteen men were getting out of a meeting. The whole group headed out to Boxell’s.

They discovered William’s body on the road, about 100 feet south of his gate. The boys had not seen it when they had returned home earlier. An ax was found thrown some distance away. The door to the house was locked, and it was apparent the killer had crawled out a partially open window, evidenced by the blood left on it. The boys had not noticed that earlier, either. Someone eventually rode to the county seat of Buffalo for the sheriff. He did not arrive until noon the next day. Why had it taken that long?

So what happened? According to Marcotte, it is believed that William knew the killer when he opened the door because he had loaded guns in the house, but did not have one on him. The killer struck William on the head with a club, which broke in three pieces. He then went into the house, locked the door, and attacked Lydia with an ax, fracturing her head in several places and crushing her face. Her body was found in a “crouched on the floor of the bedroom, having fallen forward from her knees with her head on the floor in a pool of her own blood,” as reported in the St. Paul Dispatch on May 17, 1897.

William likely was knocked out from the club blow then regained consciousness. He may have heard his wife’s screams and tried the door, but it was locked. Did he then head down the driveway to go for help, or was he trying to escape the killer who tracked him down and delivered an ax blow to his head? It was a blow so powerful that brain matter was found over twenty feet from the body.

In 1897, DNA had not been discovered. In fact human blood had yet to be separated from the blood of animals. Fingerprint evidence was not commonly used. There were a number of possible suspects, but the one who seemed to stand out from the crowd was son Joseph. He was tried and acquitted by a grand jury. But was he, in fact, the guilty one after all? If evidence had been collected properly and retained, even after all these years, the case could be solved and all the suppositions put to rest. Perhaps in the course of Marcotte’s investigation, she will uncover a key piece of evidence that will complete the puzzle, and the Boxell decendants will have the truth at last.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County mystery Series, including Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, An Altar by the River, The Noding Field Mystery, and A Death in Lionel’s Woods

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Protect Yourself from Computer Hackers by Christine Husom

Last week, I attended the Association of Minnesota Counties three-day conference. There were great workshops and presentations, but the one that really grabbed my attention was “Cyber Security” by FBI agent Michael Bazzell. He kept the large group of us spell-bound for 90 minutes. He was somehow easy-going and intense at the same time. His sense of humor and delivery style was reminiscent of a comedian at open mic night, and kept us engaged.

Bazzell’s job is exposing hackers and uncovering computer crimes, a constantly changing environment. It would be impossible to include all of the information on a short blog, but I wanted to pass on some of the things I learned.

Be sure to protect your passwords, and change them at least once a year. Use different ones for personal email, work email, financial records, and if you do online shopping. A lot of us are already doing this. I checked how many I have: 47. A few of the sites I am on frequently, others very infrequently.

Use a combination of letters, numbers, and characters. There is a program hackers use to crack people’s passwords that has every word in the English language. If you use a word like “flower” for example, it would take them approximately .07 seconds to find that out. Don’t post your passwords by your computer. Someone posted a picture of a well-known man sitting at his computer with his password clearly showing. He became a computer crime victim very quickly.

Business centers in hotels are insecure places to do any online work. Files are not encrypted and easily copied. If you use the hotel’s computer, be sure to not only close down the internet, but also log off. All a hacker has to do is look at the list of logins and bingo, they have your information. And they focus on higher scale hotels.

Any public place with wireless access is also subject to scams. There is a device called a “pineapple router,” available for sale that hackers use to intercept everything you do on your laptop. They gather your passwords, cookies, and websites.  

If you have a web cam on your computer’s hard drive, disconnect it when you aren’t using it. It’s very easy to hack into someone’s home computer and see what the eye of the camera is looking at. When I bought my laptop, I covered the camera eye with a sticky star I can remove if I ever would Skype.

 If you have a thermostat that you can access remotely, put a not-easy-to-figure-out password on it. There is new technology that allows hackers to search devices’ security cameras from owners cell phones or other mobile devices. The agent did just that and showed us a number of thermostat units in peoples’ homes. And it showed things like “porch light on,” what the temp was (so if it was 58 degrees, that indicates people are not home), and on and on.

Another device that is being used at ATM machines and gas pumps is a “skimmer.” They are homemade, a fifth the size of a postage stamp, with a pinhole camera that records you typing in your pin number. There are hundreds out there and difficult to trace to the thieves.

Those are a few things to be aware and beware of. Not long ago spam emails were easy to pick out. Now the bad guys are getting more sophisticated and their emails often look like they are from credible sources. Generally speaking, do not clink on any links, unless they are from your best friend who wants you to see his latest contribution on YouTube. Let’s do what we can to help in the fight against computer crimes.

 Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series, Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, An Altar by the River, The Noding Field Mystery, and A Death in Lionel’s Woods, www.christinehusom.webs.com

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A Death in Lionel’s Woods Third Installment

The book launched on November 16th. In this installment, the sheriff’s department has begun an investigation to uncover the identity of a woman whose body was found by a man returning from a morning hunt, starting with the man who found her.

“Who was the guy that found her? The hunter?” I asked Smoke as we walked to our cars.

“Kevin Lionel. This woods and the surrounding property belongs to him.”

“Do you think we should talk to him first off, see how he’s doing?”

“Sounds like a plan, little lady.”

I followed Smoke’s Crown Victoria back out to the county road, and when he headed north. He turned left into a driveway about 100 yards down on the west side of the road. We pulled up close to the house, parked, and met at the front door. A chill ran through me as I pondered whether I even knew how to interview a witness after all those months behind a desk.

“Like riding a bike. Nothing to worry about,” Smoke said.

“You can read my mind now?”

“Prit’ near. You get a little crease close to your left eyebrow when you doubt yourself.”

“Really?” I’d have to make a conscious effort in the future to keep that little crease ironed flat so I didn’t give myself away to Smoke, or anyone else for that matter. At least when I was working.

He rang the doorbell. “Like falling into a soft pile of snow.”

“More like jumping out of an airplane.”

A lumberjack of a man opened the door. He had several inches on Smoke’s six feet, and was a foot or so taller than my five-five. He had a full dark beard which gave an impressive contrast to the blaze orange stocking cap and matching flannel shirt he was wearing. The man I presumed was Kevin Lionel looked from Smoke to me and shook his head. “Did you find out who she was?”

“No, we haven’t made an identification yet.” Smoke waved his hand into the open doorway. “This is Sergeant Aleckson. Mind if we come in for a few minutes?”

Lionel gave me a curt nod. “Hi. Forgot my manners. Sure thing, come in.” He moved out of the doorway, and we stepped in. Lionel shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t gotten around to taking a shower and changing yet. I hope the buck scent isn’t too strong and stinky. I can’t even smell it anymore.”

There was an unusual, sour odor clinging to him that I guessed was the doe urine many hunters used to cover their own personal scent. My hunter friends had informed me that deer have a keen sense of smell they use to both stay out of danger and to find other deer, mates in particular.

“Not to worry,” Smoke said.

“That’s all I’ve been doing is worrying. I’m tied up in knots trying to figure out who’d put that poor woman’s body in my woods. And why my woods?” Lionel reached up and scratched his head then pulled off his cap, revealing thick, curly, nearly black hair. He tossed the cap on the shelf in his open entry closet.

“That’s a good question. There’s no evidence that indicates someone else put her body there.”

Lionel shrugged. “Oh, I just figured that.”

“We’ve completed the preliminary investigation, but we’ll leave the perimeter marked in your woods, for now. We’re not posting a deputy at the scene to keep it secure, but it’s best not to advertise where the victim was found.”

“I got the ‘No Trespassing’ signs posted. Mostly so people don’t go hunting without permission. Hope that helps keep people from snooping around.”

Smoke nodded and paused before changing the subject. “No recollection of ever seeing her anywhere before today?”

Lionel shook his head. “No. No recollection at all.”

“You know all your neighbors?”

“Sure. At least to say hey and shoot the breeze awhile. I can’t say I’m close to any of them, but we’re friendly enough.”

“That’s more than most of us nowadays. Mister Lionel, now that you’ve had a little time to think about it, is there anything else that’s come to mind, or do you have any other questions?”

Lionel frowned. “I’m still sort of in shock, I guess. I can’t think of what to ask.”

Smoke nodded then pulled his business card and the plastic-enclosed photo from his breast pocket. He handed the card to Lionel. “Call anytime, if you need to.” Then he held the photo up for Lionel to see. “We found this with the victim. Does the family look familiar to you?”

Lionel reached over and carefully, almost reverently, took the baggie from Smoke. He studied the photo for a second, and a flicker of an expression that signified recognition crossed his face. His eyebrows raised slightly, his mouth pursed.

“You know them?” Smoke asked, leaning closer.

“Ah, . . . no.” He handed the photo back.

“You don’t sound too sure of yourself.”

“Um, well, the woman looks a little like someone I knew.”

“Someone you knew?”

“My wife.”

“Knew, as in the past tense?”

“She left about a year ago.”

“Where is she now?”

Lionel shrugged. “I have no idea. I came home one day and she was gone. Left me a note.”

“And she hasn’t filed for divorce?”

“We weren’t actually, um, legally married.”

Smoke nodded. “And you’ve had no communication with her at all?”

“Nope. I thought maybe she wasn’t real happy, but she never said she was unhappy. I guess you could say I wasn‘t exactly happy either.”

“Okay. But the woman in the photo is not your wife, even though she looks like her?”

“No, she is not my wife and I’ve never seen those kids before. I know that for a fact.”

 

Smoke and I drove down the road to the nearby county park and got out of our cars to chat.

A cooling breeze brushed across my face. “What a way to refer to his ex-wife. As someone he knew. Why wouldn’t he say who she was in the first place?”

“I caught that too. Sounded embarrassed about the whole thing, if you ask me. They weren’t married, he didn’t think she was happy, but she didn’t say she was unhappy. A little communication may have helped their relationship.”

“It may have. The look on Kevin’s face when he saw that photo certainly struck a chord with him,” I said.

“I’d say that’s a given. Could be it’s just what he said it was. The woman in the photo looked a little like his sort of wife, and it struck something in him all right. Brought back some memories, good, bad, or indifferent.”

“I think that if I saw a picture of someone that looked a little like my brother, for example, I’d have a different reaction. I know Lionel’s under stress, but still.”

“You’ve got a point. It could be he did recognize the woman in the photo and his mind is not ready to go there yet, in case it’s the same woman he found dead in his woods.”

“He seemed honestly upset about the woman’s body being in his woods, thinking somebody put her there.”

“He was that. I’ll run a background on Lionel, see if anything turns up. And we’ll keep him in the loop as much as we need to.”

Smoke went back to the office to take care of some business, and to make a copy of the photo to show people I talked to. I stayed in the park and started writing the report on my laptop. After working awhile, I thought I’d better call my work voicemail because I’d been out of the office since morning. No new messages, so I listened to the one I had saved. “You killed my friend.” Who are you, and who is your friend?

My heart pounded and a wave of nausea rolled through me, throwing me into a panic attack. I opened my car door in case I got sick. What is wrong with you? I chided myself. I need to believe in my heart of hearts that Grandma is right, that I will be okay again. Eventually.

I pulled out my memo pad with my case notes, and willed myself to concentrate on Jane Doe. I calmed down as I shifted my thoughts from myself to her. What—or was it a who—had brought her to Kevin Lionel’s woods where she died on a buried stash of money. My report could only include the facts of what, and not any suppositions of why.

When Smoke returned about thirty minutes later, he gave me a copy of the photo. We divided the houses within a one mile radius of where Ms. Doe’s body was found, and spent the next hour canvassing for answers. About half the people were home, and of those I questioned no one knew of anyone in the area who was missing. Nor did any of them recognize the woman and children in the photograph.

I finished my canvassing ahead of Smoke and returned to Jeremiah Madison County Park to wait for him so we could decide on the next course of action. He pulled in a minute before three o’clock and parked next to me, driver’s side door next to driver’s side door. We rolled down our windows and pulled our memo books from our front pockets.

“Find out anything?” I asked.

He drummed the steering wheel with his pen. “My stomach just let me know I skipped lunch, but that’s about it.”

I hadn’t even realized my own stomach was signaling for some attention of its own until he’d mentioned it. The emaciated body of Ms. Doe had undoubtedly quelled my appetite. “Yeah, that’s about it for me too.” I paged through my memo pad. “Not one of the neighbors I talked to knows of a woman who has gone missing, nor remembers seeing anything suspicious in the area in the last day or two—that includes people, vehicles, and activities. And nobody recognized any of the three in the photo.”

Smoke gave a nod and put his notebook back in his pocket. “Yup, that about sums up the responses I got, too. Of course, almost everyone was pretty damn curious about why I wanted to know. When I told them we were investigating a suspicious death in the area, they all got curiouser.” The long dimples in his cheeks deepened when he smiled.

“I can’t believe you’re actually quoting Weber.”

“Correction, I’m quoting a word Lewis Carroll coined.”

“Okay then.”

“Actually and coincidentally, there is another Lewis Carroll quote I think about sometimes. Mostly because it applies to so much of what we do: ‘One of the secrets of life is that all that is worth the doing is what we do for others.’”

“You know, Smoke, you amaze me sometimes, like when you pull one of those quotes out of your memory bank.”

“I’d like to say it’s because I have a steel trap mind, but we both know that’s not true.”

I smiled. “It is a good quote for a service-oriented job like ours, that’s for sure.”

Smoke’s eyebrows drew together. “Is it official? Are you back in the saddle again? Chief Deputy will have to know so he can revise the work schedule, and I surely could use your help, especially on this case.”

The thought of our Ms. Doe being ill and somehow ending up in Kevin Lionel’s woods, and then dying on top of a photo and some buried money tugged at my heartstrings. It ignited my compulsion to do my part to uncover the truth and help grease the wheels of justice. I realized I was nodding. “I want to work on this case. I need to find out what happened to our victim.”

“I’m glad to have you back. More than glad. I’m downright grateful.”

Christine Husom is the author the Winnebago County Mystery Series. A Death in Lionel’s Woods is the fifth in the series.

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by | November 20, 2013 · 5:00 pm