Note: This fourth book in the series will be released later this fall. Last October 20th I posted the first 2,000 or so words, and this exerpt picks up where the last one ended.
Chapter One excerpt
“What should we cordon off?” Mason asked as we walked along the dragging path toward the road.
“Tape around the body, and we better do the entire pathway to preserve any trace or forensic evidence until we get it processed.”
When we reached the end of field, it was evident a vehicle had been parked in the grassy area. Smoke shook his head. “The chances of finding a good tire mark here are slim to none. But there may be one on the shoulder of the road. Either when they drove in, or drove out.”
“I’ll walk out and check,” Mason said.
“Good. Let us know. Then I’d like you to stay out on the main road. Anyone who shows up, keep them away from the driving and dragging paths. Crime lab will be here momentarily and we’ll find out if there are any useful prints they can cast.”
Mason nodded and left for his assignment. Carlson was diligently snapping photos. Smoke and I walked back to the body, then Smoke continued a ways past it. “Nothing much south of here. Doesn’t look like they went that way at all.”
“Seven-ten, Six-oh-eight?” It was Mason calling me on the radio.
“Our reporting person is here.”
“Thanks. Ask him to walk in, and stay on the path we created.”
A few minutes later, the pilot came into view and his long strides closed the gap in no time. He struck me as someone who didn’t back down from danger. Like a cop or firefighter or combat pilot. His facial wrinkles crisscrossed on his high cheekbones and deepened when he squinted against the sun. His hair was trimmed close to his scalp and was pure white. He looked to be over sixty years old. He wore a beige shirt tucked into belted brown pants and his short sleeves only partially covered well-defined biceps.
I walked over to meet him, preventing him from getting any closer to the body. “Vernon Carey?”
He met my eyes and nodded while he studied me. “I’ve gone by Dodger since my second mission in ‘Nam. And being an aerial applicator is damn near as dangerous at that was, believe it or not. Dodger still fits.” He leaned his head to the left and glanced at the body, still staked to the ground. “In all my years in the business, I’ve never had anything close to this.”
“I’m Sergeant Corinne Aleckson, this is Detective Dawes, and Deputy Carlson,” I said as Smoke stepped in beside me and Brian walked over to join us.
Dodger lifted his right hand, noticed we all had latex gloves on, and plopped it on his left shoulder instead.
Smoke and I pulled memo pads and pens from our pockets.
“You recognize the victim?” I asked.
“He looks vaguely familiar, but can’t say I do. No.”
“Let’s start with your full name, date of birth, address, and phone number for our reports,” Smoke said.
Carey recited the information like he was still in the military; formally, rote. We recorded his words. He was sixty-two years old and lived in the country, outside of Oak Lea.
“Give us a brief narrative of your day, what led up to your discovery here,” Smoke instructed.
“I got a call from Willie Noding, the crop owner, a couple days ago asking me to apply some fungicide. I’ve been watching the weather. It can’t rain for three hours after spraying, or it’s a waste. Can’t have wind, or the chemicals get carried where you don’t want ’em. This afternoon was about perfect. Willie brought the chemical over yesterday and I was loaded and ready to roll today.”
“He knew you’d be going out today?” Smoke continued with the questions.
“Yes, sir.” He stopped in thought. “I called about noon to be sure we were good to go.”
“Anyone else know you’d be here today?”
Dodger sent Smoke a questioning look. “Willie would have to let his family know, I’m sure. And I filed with the airport, of course. Anybody around here could have seen me. I’m pretty hard to miss. My plane’s a bright yellow Air Tractor. All of the farmers around here know me and my plane.”
Smoke nodded. “So you took off from the Emerald Lake airport at what time?”
“Fourteen-thirty hours. Two-thirty.”
“Go on,” Smoke said.
“I got here about fourteen-thirty-eight, then I always do a couple of circles, checking out the fields before I start applying the chemical. I fly as close as four feet and up to ten feet above the crops, going about a hundred and thirty miles an hour. I can’t afford surprises, like wires or poles or windmills, or even a big animal that’s lying in a pasture next to a field that decides to stand up. A guy can’t memorize every wire from farm to farm. I fly ten hours a day in the busy season.”
“But not today?”
“No, this was my only run today. It’s slowing down. By June, there won’t be much ‘til August when the herbicide treatments go for a few weeks.”
“So you were taking your look-see?”
“Yes, sir. I was about twelve feet up when I flew over this area and thought, ‘What the heck!’ I thought it was a scarecrow that had toppled over, or that some kids had dragged here. I took a lower swoop, then another, and couldn’t believe my eyes. I flew right back to the airport and called the sheriff’s department. Then I phoned Willie, the farmer. He was up in Saint Cloud, but said he’d head back right away.”
“Did you see anyone else in the area?”
“No. I mean cars driving on county thirty-five there, but I didn’t notice anyone else around.”
“Okay.” Smoke reached in his breast pocket, pulled out a business card, and handed it to Carey. “Suffice it to say, you won’t be spraying chemicals on this field today.”
Carey took the card and half shrugged.
“And if you think of anything else, give me a call. Or Sergeant Aleckson here.”
I fished out a card and gave it to Carey.
“That’s all you need from me, then?” Carey pursed his lips and frowned.
Smoke drew his own eyebrows together. “One more thing. We’ll need you to keep this quiet for a day or two. Give us time to identify the victim, talk to his family. You made about the worst possible discovery and you’ll want to talk about it, so confide in someone, but we’d appreciate it if you don’t tell everyone in your e-mail account, or get in any online chat rooms just yet.”
Carey’s left brow went up, indicating it was the last thing he’d do. “Yes, sir. I can keep a secret.”
As Carey turned and walked away, Smoke’s cell phone rang. “Detective Dawes. . . . Sheriff, . . . No, still waiting on Melberg. . . . Unknown male, forties, hands and feet bound and tied to stakes that are driven in the ground. Don’t know what killed him, but the scene is way outside the realms of natural. . . . We’ll be here a while. . . . Will do.”
Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department policy dictated that the sheriff be notified immediately in the event of an unnatural death in the county. Sheriff Dennis Twardy took that one step forward and personally showed up at most of those scenes. He said it reminded him why we were doing what we were doing and helped him maintain a high level of empathy for victims’ families.
“Twardy was at his association of sheriffs’ meeting in Saint Paul when communications phoned him. Sounds like he’d rather be here than there.”
It was my turn to take a phone call. “Hey, Todd.”
“Corky. The crime lab’s here. Where do you want them?”
I relayed the question to Smoke.
“Tell them to leave the vehicle out on the road, for now. Have them grab the essentials and walk in.”
“Did you get that?”
“Copy.” Mason said.
“Who’s assigned to major crimes this week?” Smoke asked.
“Weber and Zubinski,” I said.
He jutted his jaw out in a half yawn. “Isn’t this Mandy’s first day back?”
“Yeah, the chief deputy thought he’d ease her back into duty by assigning her to a partner on major crimes before she goes back solo on the road.”
Smoke shook his head. “Not knowing we’d have a very major crime right off the bat. Hope this isn’t too much for her.”
“We’ll watch her, help her out,” Carlson said.
Amanda Zubinski had been romantically involved with a deputy who turned out to be a bad cop. An evil cop. She had narrowly escaped death by members of his cult. Nearly everyone in the department thought she would quit, including me. But after intensive counseling, and encouragement from fellow deputies, she decided to stay and carry on.
Carlson made a “hah” sound. “But I gotta wonder how she and Weber are going to get though the week without killing each other.”
“Weber actually went to see her a few times when she was on leave–” I started.
“Weber?” His eyebrows shot up. “I didn’t hear that.”
“And they seem to be getting along fairly well. ”
Carlson raised his elbow toward my arm. “It seems like you and Zubinski are getting along better, too.”
“We are. Actually, I hate to admit it, but it started when we had our famous team building exercise. It reminded me–and rightly so–we are on the same team, after all. And that unbelievably bad experience where she almost died was enough to push us past our differences. I think that’s what happened with Vince and Mandy. I don’t think either he or I was ever more scared for another human being than when we discovered Mandy was about to be killed.”
Carlson shook his head at the memory, then nodded. “That makes three of us.”
Deputies Vince Weber and Amanda Zubinski came into view from the north. They were about the same height–five-nine or five-ten, but the similarity ended there. Vince had a square body, and his head appeared to sit directly on his shoulders. His facial features were on the round side–eyes, nose, mouth, chin. Mandy, on the other hand, had a lean frame and a long face with a long Roman nose. I considered her cropped, thick, auburn hair her best feature.
When the crime lab team had almost reached us, a four-wheeler came at us from the south. Carlson was closest and held up his hand, directing him to stop. A ruddy faced man with rust colored hair stopped the vehicle and jumped to the ground. Years of working in the sun was evidenced by the deep wrinkles on his forehead and cheeks. But they didn’t detract from his otherwise youthful appearance. He jogged toward the body. “What in the hell?”
Carlson stepped in front of him, stopping him in his tracks. “Whoa. Who are you?”
“Sorry. Willie, William Noding. This is my field. Dodger told me what he saw here. I thought the chemicals had finally gotten to him and he was seeing things.” He strained for a better look, then paled. “Oh, my god!”
“You know the victim?” Smoke asked.
Noding gave an affirmative nod. “Gage Leder, my, my, brother-in-law. My wife’s brother. We’re not exactly the best of friends, but I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.” He swiped his hand over the back of his neck, then across his face. “My wife’s gonna freak.”
Christine Husom is the Second Wind Publishing author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, An Altar by the River, and The Noding Field Mystery, to be released in Fall, 2012.