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 9th Installment

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department found two bodies in an old vehicle recovered from an area lake, opening up a decades old cold case. And meantime, the sheriff has gone missing. This picks up where the last entry left off.

Chapter 5

“Thanks,” Smoke told me when we were back in his car. “This whole thing is kind of hitting me, now that we’re talking to Toby’s and Wendy’s folks. I don’t think I could have handled it as well as you did.”

“You’re welcome. And I’m sure your professionalism would have guided you through the visit, as it has time and time again. And giving them each a hug was a nice touch, Smoke. It showed them that you care.”

“Yeah, there are a lot of people who think a case is a case for us. They forget we are the deliverers of bad news all too often.”

All too often. “When did Doctor Patrick think she’d have the skeletal remains reconstructed, and the exam completed?”

“She didn’t give a time. I was thinking it’d be at least a day or two, from what she indicated. She and her team said with them being fairly intact before they removed them from the car it wouldn’t be all that difficult. But if a more pressing case comes in, they could be put on hold.” He took a glance at his watch. “We have about forty minutes ‘til sunset. Let’s pay a visit to Harry Gimler, the guy that showed up at the scene today. I would think we’d have no problem getting permission to take a hike down his hill to the lake.”

“Which house is his?”

“I didn’t think to check. In the interest of time, why don’t we have communications look him up?”

“I’ll do that. What’s his first name again?”

“Harry. Lives on Burlington. One of the three houses on the dead end overlooking the lake.”

It took communications officer Randy about fifteen seconds to discover that Harry Gimler house number was 1503. Smoke drove up and parked on the circular drive in front of his home a few minutes later. It was in the middle, an upscale home flanked on either side by equally expensive ones. All were well-kept, including the grounds, from what we could see.

“Now these guys know how to keep up with the Joneses,” Smoke said.

We got out and made our way up the brick walkway to the house. There was a security camera eye and intercom two feet above the doorbell. I rang the bell prepared to identify myself before anything else would happen. Instead Harry Gimler himself opened the door, looking a little worse for the wear, or three sheets to the wind, as Smoke would say. The smell of an alcoholic beverage emanated from his person, and lazy eyelids confirmed that.

“Come in, deputies. I have to confess I started the cocktail hour a little early. All things considered, this has been a difficult day.”

“Truth be told, no one wants a discovery like that on your property.”

“No, you don’t.” He took a step back. “Come in, please.”

“Actually, we’re on a bit of a race against time here. We were hoping to get permission to take a walk down to the lake from your place.”

“Oh. Well, that would be fine. I’ll go with you.” He shifted to steady himself.

Smoke shook his head. “That’s not necessary. We’re just going to do a quick look-see, try to do some calculations, and then we’ll get out of your hair.”

Harry was obviously disappointed.

“Mr. Gimler, did you build your house?” Smoke lifted his hand.

“Well I had it built, yes.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Almost twenty years ago.”

“Did you have the old farmhouse torn down, or was it the property owner who did that before you bought the land?”

Gimler nodded. “I did. Actually, my grandfather owned the farmstead. He was in the nursing home a long time. I always loved the area and was happy when he finally decided to sell. It was in tough shape, so instead of trying to restore it, I had it torn down. Same with the barn. It was slowly collapsing and dangerous. I used some of the wood though, as paneling in my den. It’s rustic and reminds me of the fun I had here when we visited here when I was a kid.”

“You’re not from around here?” I asked.

“No, I grew up in Swift County, outside of Benson, about a hundred miles. I’d help Grandpa on the farm in the summers when I got older. Got to know a few of the farm kids around here.”

“All right, we might chat about that another time, but we need to get a move on tonight. Thanks for the info, Mr.—”

“Harry. Mister makes me sound old. We must be about the same age, right Detective?”

Smoke nodded. “Pretty close. We’ll be in touch.” He pulled a card from his breast pocket and handed it to Gimler. “Feel free to call with any questions or concerns. And our crime lab team will likely need to check the area to determine certain details they’ll need for their report, take measurements, et cetera.”

Harry’s lips turned downward. The alcohol was taking more of a hold on him, evidenced when he grabbed onto the door jamb for support.

“Will you be all right?” I asked.

He blinked hard. “Yes. I might just go to bed early.” He closed the door and I followed Smoke around the house to the back yard.

Harry had a massive multi-level deck system that was surrounded by patio stones on the lawn level. “Wow,” I said quietly.

“You talking about the view?”

“That too. Wow. Can you imagine what it would be like drinking your morning coffee on the deck overlooking the lake?”

“It is breathtaking. Especially if you’re afraid of heights.”

I smiled and repressed a chuckle.

“I didn’t want to get into the party days at the farm here with Gimler. The one time I was here, I guess at the time I didn’t think much about who owned the place. But when I think about it now, I can’t imagine the old man opening it up to a bunch of underage drinking partygoers,” Smoke said.

“That is a discussion we need to have with Mr. Gimler on another day. Much earlier in the day. Before the cocktail hour.”

“You got that right.” Smoke walked around, studying the ground. “Okay, if the farmhouse was about on the same spot as Harry’s house is currently sitting, I’d say the barn was close to where the neighbor’s house sits.” He waved his hand at the house to the south of Harry’s. “Let’s hike down to the lake.”

The soles of my boots had a little tread on them, but not enough for a good grip going down such a steep hill, dampened by the recently melted snow. I slid a short ways. “Behind you,” I called in time for Smoke to turn around and act as a protective shield as I plowed into his chest.

“We should have stopped by your house for your hiking boots,” he said as his arms closed around me and held me firmly.

As much as I liked being right where I was, anyone, including Harry Gimler, may be watching and wondering what was going on. “Thanks. Maybe I should wait here.”

“Nah, come on. Hold my hand.”

“Aren’t you worried what the Joneses will think?”

“No. I’m doing what I can to keep my partner safe, and they can think what they want.”

Smoke grabbed onto my hand and we cautiously made our way halfway to the lake where the mowed lawn ended then we stopped. “Are you steady enough so you won’t go sliding into the lake on me?”

“I think so.” I dug my feet into the ground for the best possible hold.

Smoke let go of my hand and turned to look back at the house. “It’s steep all right. But say Toby and Wendy got into his car, and Toby had had a few beers and got mixed up, turned the car the wrong way then there was no stopping it on this grade of decline. On the other hand, if he had applied the brakes, it might have taken some effort, but with a crank of the wheel, it seems he could have avoided plunging into the lake.”

“Maybe he passed out and the car rolled down by itself.”

“Poor Wendy.” Smoke shook his head. “In any case, there should have been the tire marks they created, or somebody who heard something.”

“Scanning through the files, no one seemed to know much of anything.”

“Thirty-three years ago when they interviewed everyone, including me, we didn’t know where they’d disappeared to. Now we do. It appears they were at Harry’s grandfather’s farm, and never left. It’s where they’ve been buried all these years.”

“I know this is hard for you, Smoke.”

He held his hand out for me. “Another time, we might enjoy the colors of the sunset. But tonight it’s reminding us nightfall is upon us.”

I lowered my voice as I took his hand for the uphill climb. “Do you think we should let Harry know we’re leaving?”

“You mean should we check on him?”

“That too.” I raised my eyebrows and grinned.

Smoke spoke at a near whisper. “Nah, let’s leave him be for tonight. It sounds like he was going to retire the bottle for the night. And I want to get that DNA collection into the evidence room so they can get it to the lab first thing in the morning.”

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series. The Secret in Whitetail Lake is the 6th in the series.

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The Secret in Whitetail Lake 8th Installment

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department found two bodies in an old vehicle recovered from an area lake, opening up a decades old cold case. And meantime, the sheriff has gone missing. This picks up where the last one left off.

Mother was pacing outside her shop, and for the umpteenth time in my adult life I was struck with wonder at how she managed to stay so young looking despite her propensity to agonize over the darndest things. She was trim with wavy blonde hair that touched her shoulders. Most people guessed she was at least ten years younger than her actual age of fifty. Smoke told me it was good genes that helped disguise that. I had to agree that played a part, and Mother also had an otherwise healthy lifestyle.

When Smoke pulled up to the curb, I jumped out and Mother threw her arms around me and held on for dear life. I indulged her until my arms started to numb. “Hey, Mom, it’s going to be okay. Like everything else. We’ll get through it.”

I felt her tears on my cheeks, and I fought the urge to do the same. Smoke got out of the car and waited for the minutes it took before I had Mother safely nestled in the front seat then I hopped in the back. Smoke closed the door for me since there wasn’t a handle on the inside. The better to keep arrestees inside.

Smoke was barely in the driver’s seat before Mother wanted his opinion of where in the world Denny might be, and why Toby and Wendy had driven into Whitetail Lake all those years ago. “Kristen, I can’t tell you how many times I have wished for a crystal ball to help bring light to some of the tough cases over the years. Unfortunately, we have to be more patient that we think we’re capable of most of the time. Whether it be Denny’s unexplained absence, or what happened to Toby and Wendy back when, we’ll do all we can to get to the bottom of it.”

Mother nodded and a small gulp of air, followed by a hiccup slipped out. Smoke pulled into my maternal grandfather’s driveway and parked. He got out and opened both the front and back passenger side doors. I was out before Mother who needed a moment to compose herself before she faced her father.

“Mom, will you be okay with Gramps for a couple of hours?”

Her face squeezed together. “You think you’ll be gone that long?”

“Maybe. The sun will be setting in,” Smoke looked at his watch, “about ninety minutes. We won’t be doing much outside after that.”

I gave my mother a gentle pat on the back, feeling for a second like I was the parent. “We’ve got to get moving so I can’t go in with you. Tell Gramps I’ll catch him later.”

Mom gave a single nod and it looked like more tears were about to spill. She turned and headed into the house as Smoke and I pulled out of the driveway.

“Kristen really is a basket case. I hope Denny turns up sooner rather than later,” Smoke said.

“Yes. I thought telling her about your classmates might distract her, but I think it just piled on more stress,” I said.

“She went through a lot being widowed with two babies. After all these years of being single and finally finding love, I am hoping against hope nothing bad has happened to Denny.”

Smoke drove to Wendy Everton’s parents’ house. They lived in two-story home in a nice neighborhood on the west side of town. It was the same place Smoke had picked Wendy up from for the few dates they’d had. After she’d aided him in accidentally burning down his ice fishing house, he’d decided she was too hot to handle and their relationship had cooled.

“It never occurred to me I’d have to give the Evertons this kind of news about Wendy in this lifetime. Of course,” Smoke said after he’d turned off the ignition but made no attempt to move.

“I can take the lead on this one.”

He turned to me. “I think that’s a good idea. I feel kind of strange. It brings me back to all those years ago when I was a teenager and the future was one big unpainted canvas.”

“Smoke, that’s almost philosophic.”

“Yeah, well, my philosophy on that changed quite a long time ago.” We opened our doors and got out then Smoke followed me up the sidewalk to the front door. I rang the bell with one hand and reached back and gave Smoke’s hand a quick squeeze of reassurance with the other.

A minute later, a well-kept woman around seventy years old opened the door and looked from me to Smoke then back to me. “You’re Kristen and Carl’s daughter. Sad thing about your father, taken like that so young.”

My father had been gone over thirty years, but people still referenced it from time to time. It was part of my identity. “My name is Corinne, and I’m a sergeant with the sheriff’s department.”

She glanced down at my badge and gun, nodded then focused on Smoke. “And of course I know you, Elton. Aside from a little salt in your hair, you don’t look much different from your high school days. This seems like a rather unusual visit.”

“Mrs. Everton, there’s something we need to talk to you about, if we can come in.” I said.

Her lips pursed and her frown lines deepened. “Yes. Come in. But I have to tell you you’ve got me worried. Did something happen to one of my children or grandchildren?”

“Let’s go inside,” I said.

Mrs. Everton led us to the living room where her husband was sitting in a recliner with the television turned up to a volume my grandparents would appreciate, but made my ear drums throb. When he saw us, Mr. Everton moved the lever in his chair so he would be upright. He retrieved the remote from the small table beside him, hit the off button, and the room fell silent.

“Clifford, this is Corinne Aleckson, Kristen and Carl’s daughter. You know, we’ve seen her picture in the newspaper. And you remember Elton Dawes, of course.”

Mr. Everton dug his hands into the arms of his chair and pushed himself up. It was a brief struggle for him to get stable on his feet, but he managed. He shook hands with Smoke. “It’s been some time since you’ve been here, Elton.” He turned to me and stared. “You look a little like you dad and a little like your mom, like they did back all those years ago. Good kids.”

I smiled. “Thanks. Is it all right to sit down in here, or would you rather go to the kitchen?”

Mrs. Everton’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh, I haven’t even cleaned up the supper dishes yet, so why don’t we stay here.”

“This isn’t a social call, I take it.” Mr. Everton said as he got settled back in his chair.

Smoke and I sat on the gold and red striped couch and Mrs. Everton took the coordinating patterned chair next to it.

“Have you folks heard about the vehicle that was recovered from Whitetail Lake this morning?” I said.

“Why, no, we haven’t. Whitetail, you say?” Mr. Everton said.

“That’s right. There is no easy way to say this, but appears it was the Dodge Charger that belonged to Toby Fryor.”

Mrs. Everton grabbed her ample bosom. “Land a notion. How can that be?”

“Toby Fryor’s Charger? Are you sure?” Mr. Everton’s face took on a reddish tinge as he grabbed the arms of his chair.

“We verified the nineteen-sixty-six license plate, yes.”

“So they left his car behind, hid it in the lake, so no one would find it?” Mr. Everton said.

I shook my head. “Sadly, no that’s not what happened. There are human remains in the vehicle that we believe are your daughter and Toby Fryor.”

Mr. Everton’s face dropped into his hands and Mrs. Everton appeared too stunned to do more than tighten the grip on her chest.

“Are you sure?” Mr. Everton said as more of a plea.

“Reasonably sure. They are with the medical examiner now. We’ll need your help to make a positive identification.”

“We should go where Wendy is,” Mrs. Everton said.

I gave them a moment before I said, “You certainly have that right, but I’m afraid you wouldn’t be able identify her that way. The medical examiner will need DNA samples to compare with your daughter’s.”

Mr. Everton nodded.

Mrs. Everton searched her husband’s eyes with her own then moved them to Smoke and me. “I always believed in my heart that something bad had happened to Wendy.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I knew she wouldn’t run off and never come back, if she had anything to say about it. I was afraid Toby had done some kind of mind control. I’ve seen that on television where a person will fill another person with all kinds of lies about their family and friends.”

Striving for complete control of a victim was a typical behavior pattern of an abusive person.

“We were worried she may be dead. And in the early days we called police departments all around the country whenever we learned a young woman’s body had been found,” Mr. Everton said.

“We sent her picture everywhere,” Mrs. Everton added.

Mr. Everton rocked himself of out his chair and went over to his wife. He eased himself onto the arm of her chair and put one arm behind her shoulders and the other on her arm. She reached up with both hands and grasped his hand. Tears formed in both of their eyes.

“Well dearie, here they were just a few miles away all this time,” Mr. Everton said.

Mrs. Everton looked up at her husband. “Now we can give her a proper burial.”

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series. The Secret in Whitetail Lake is the 6th in the series.

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The Secret in Whitetail Lake 7th Installment by Christine Husom

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department found two bodies in an old vehicle recovered from an area lake, opening up a decades old cold case. And meantime, the sheriff has gone missing. This picks up where the last one left off.

My personal cell phone rang, and when I glanced at the dial decided it was important to answer it. “Excuse me.” I slipped out and found a semi-private corner. “Hi, Mom.”

“Corinne, I’m worried sick. Ever since you called looking for Denny, I’ve tried his phone a dozen times and he hasn’t called me back. It’s just not like him to not return a call after so many hours.”

I searched for encouraging words to reassure her, but there were none. “The patrol deputies are on the lookout for his car. I know it’s odd, but there is a very good reason which we’ll find out.”

“You sound so sure, dear.”

“I am.” And hoped it was true. Thirty years ago her classmates had disappeared and we’d finally found them today. I counted on the fact that the sheriff was a resourceful man with years of experience in countless situations. Maybe he had run an errand that had taken far longer than he’d thought. And if his cell phone was dead, he wouldn’t know we were looking for him. There was a remote possibility something like that had happened.

“Mother, I’m sorry that I have to cut this short, but I’m in the middle of something right now. Hang in there and I will call the minute we get word about Denny.”

“All right, I suppose. Thank you, dear.”

I hung up and it took me a minute to steer my mind from wondering where the sheriff was to the investigation at hand. When I slipped back into Smoke’s cubicle, he was in the middle of collecting DNA from Darwin Fryor. Smoke swabbed the inside of his mouth then dropped the sample in a sterile bottle and sealed it.

“We’re going to review the files from when Tommy and Wendy disappeared, talk to some folks, and try to piece together what happened. And we’ll keep in touch with you, Mister Fryor. ”

Darwin Fryor rubbed his forehead then his cheek. “I surely can’t figure how the car could have ended up in Whitetail Lake.”

“It’s a real puzzle to be sure. And we’ll do all we can to piece it together,” Smoke said.

He escorted Darwin Fryor out and I returned to the file room. I was reading statements taken from the friends and classmates of Tommy Fryor and Wendy Everton when Smoke joined me.

“You come across something troubling in there?”

“What? Oh, no. It’s the sheriff. Mother was the one who called me. She is a nervous wreck, of course, because she can’t help herself. And in this instance, it seems like she’s got good reason.”

“I’m with you on that one.”

“I don’t want to even say this out loud, but what if someone lured Denny out somewhere, somehow took control of him, and is planning to hold him for ransom.”

Smoke’s eyebrows shot up and his lips formed an O. “Whoa. Little lady, you do have a vivid imagination at times. I can’t imagine the sheriff falling for something like that. On the other hand, the whole thing is definitely worrisome. We got a bunch of deputies scouring the county for him. The chief deputy is checking with other county employees to see if anyone saw him leave. We’re bound to learn something before long.”

I nodded, and as much as I wanted to believe that, I wasn’t convinced. I knew Smoke wasn’t either. “One thing: I know we can trust Chief Deputy Kenner to be thorough, and he’ll make sure no stone is unturned.”

“Very true. And in the meantime, we’ve got our work cut out for us.” He sat down at the table and moved a pile of documents closer to him. “So is there a golden needle in this haystack that may give us a clue?”

After reading and taking notes for a while, I said. “It sounds like Tommy was a bit of a risk taker, which led his classmates at the time to support the theory that they had run away.”

“He was. Not unlike most of the teenage boys I’ve known. Most of us feel immortal when we’re sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.”

“I have to say I pretty much did myself.”

“Ditto.”

“The investigation back then was focused on why Tommy and Wendy disappeared. Most everyone thought they must have run off together.”

“That was the talk, and the only explanation anyone could come up with.”

“A number of his friends were surprised he’d do that since it looked like he had a promising future, either as a professional athlete or a coach.”

“Yeah, when you get to my statement, you’ll see I was in that camp. Tommy was a star athlete. He was offered a full scholarship at three or so colleges. On the other hand, he was smitten, more like obsessed with Wendy Everton. A lotta other guys were, too. Fortunately, I did not go too far down that road with her.”

“I’m trying not to dislike her.”

Smoke reached over and squeezed my forearm. “Corinne, whatever Wendy was or was not is no longer an issue.”

And she wasn’t there to defend herself. “Of course. Mostly I feel awful that their families have gone through over thirty years of agony.”

“Thanks to Sergeant Warner for picking Whitetail to test his new sonar equipment, they’ll be able to bury Tommy and Wendy, and hopefully work through it.”

We scanned through the documents for another hour.

“We should pay a visit to Wendy’s parents then I’d like to examine the area where the car went in. Try to figure out what in the hell happened.”

“From what I read, there was no indication that either one of them was depressed. A few wondered if Wendy was pregnant.”

“That was the talk at the time. If she was, no one knew it for sure.”

We gathered the papers, packed up the file, and put it back in its place in the drawer. It was 6:01 in the evening and my mother phoned again. She was still at work. “Corinne, you haven’t called and I thought maybe you got busy and forgot.”

“I have been busy, but I haven’t forgotten.”

“So there is still no word on Denny?”

“Not yet, unfortunately.”

“Where are you, anyway?”

I knew she was wondering why I hadn’t stopped by her shop to see her. “I got caught up in a case. A car was pulled out of Whitetail Lake this morning.”

“One of my customers told me about it a little while ago. She happened by when they were loading it on a tow truck. I hadn’t heard of any cars going in the lake. The road is nice and straight along there, so how did it happen?”

Maybe if my mother had something else to think about, she’d worry less about Sheriff Dennis Twardy. “Brace yourself for this one. That car has been down there a long time; since you were in high school, in fact. It appears it was Tommy Fryor’s Dodge Charger.”

There was a clunking sound in my ear and I realized Mother must have dropped the phone on her counter. It took a few seconds before she was back. “What did you say?”

Smoke reached his hand out for my phone so I passed it over. “Kristen, it’s Elton. . . . No, it doesn’t seem real. . . . No, they did not push the car in the lake before they ran off. . . . Because there were humans remains in the car.” Smoke put my phone against his chest. “I think she dropped the phone.”

I took it back from him and waited until Mother said, “What?”

“Mother, I am going to pick you up and give you a ride to Gramps’ house. Okay? . . . I’ll be there in five minutes.”

“Your poor mom. We might as well take my car, and I’ll drop you off at yours when we get done for the day. Let’s go rescue Kristen.”

I nodded.

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

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The Secret in Whitetail Lake 6th Installment

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.

Chapter Four

After the remains of the victims were safely removed and on their way to the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Anoka County, our team vigilantly worked to remove every item, mucky as they were, from the inside of the car, including the glove box and the trunk. It was painstaking. At three o’clock, Captain Randolph phoned Smoke to tell him he had ordered pizzas, and we all needed to take a break. I hadn’t though about eating since the granola bar and yogurt I’d had for breakfast. The mention of food made my stomach growl in response.

“You guys go ahead. There are only a couple more items to mark, and then I’ll secure this cart of things in the evidence room,” Matsen said.

“I’ll help you,” Mason told him.

“And if someone could hang a ‘do not enter’ sign on both the outside of the garage doors and on the inside entrance, that’d be good,” Matsen added.

“I’ll do that,” Weber said.

Smoke and I got out of our coveralls then I followed him to his desk and waited while he gave the sheriff’s cell phone another try. “I know Randolph has half the county looking for him, but I keep thinkin’ he’s gonna answer one of these times.”

“Should I call my mom again?”

“Maybe you should.”

When Mother answered the phone, I could tell she was flustered. But it wasn’t because she hadn’t talked to Denny Twardy. “Corinne, people are flocking in for the winter clearance sale. I haven’t had a chance to catch my breath all day. I should have scheduled one of my helpers to work today. I never dreamed I’d be so swamped. It hasn’t been busy enough to keep two of us busy lately.”

“Well, in one way that’s a good thing, huh? Mother, I’m checking to see if you’ve heard from Denny, or if you remembered he had an appointment, or something, after all.”

“Oh my goodness. No, I haven’t, and I was going to call him, but haven’t had a chance. Why, what’s wrong?”

“We don’t know if there is anything wrong. It’s just that we’ve got a big investigation here and we don’t know where he is.”

“Corinne, I hear the concern in your voice. Now you’ve got me worried.”

“Mother, there’s got to be a good explanation. Take care of your business and if Denny calls, or stops in, tell him to call the office, okay?”

“Okay. But Corinne—”

“I have to go now, but I’ll talk to you a little later. Bye.” I hung up before she could pump me for more information, and then shook my head back and forth at Smoke.

Smoke bounced his fist on his desk. “Our deputies certainly know his vehicle.”

“And Randolph said they checked his house.”

“Yeah, but it wouldn’t hurt to check again.” Smoke phoned him and learned deputies had made several stops at the sheriff’s house throughout the day. “Well, let’s get some nourishment, and figure out our next course of action. We need to talk to Tommy’s and Wendy’s families, that’s a given. And I’d like to run over to Ramsey to see how Doc Bridey Patrick’s team is doing on that end. But since there are only so many hours in a day, that’s not going to happen today. First off, we’ll pull the original missing persons file and review it.”

“I definitely want to read that.”

“Then talk to the families.”

“Right. Besides notifying them a-sap about what we got so far, we’ll need them to help us make positive identification.”

“Besides DNA, I’m wondering about dental records. I don’t suppose they’d have any after all these years. Do you remember the legal requirement for a dentist to keep them? Is it six years, seven years?”

“I remember from a past case I was on that it’s six years after a patient’s last visit. And I know a few of the old docs that never throw anything away. We won’t know for sure until we check.”

“We need to ask the families for DNA samples so the medical examiner has them for comparison.”

“We’ve come a long way, baby.” Smoke put his hand between my shoulder blades and gave me a mild push. “Let’s go scarf down some pizza.”

After running through each detail of the steps involved in recovering the old Dodge Charger from Whitetail Lake with about a dozen sheriff’s department personnel, between bites and swallows of a late, lukewarm lunch, Smoke and I broke away from the group and headed toward the records room.

“Since the case files go back to the beginning of time, they need to make room in the drawers from time to time and archive the old ones. I’ll take a look in the computer to see if the one we need has been moved to a storage box yet.” Smoke sat down at the computer and typed in Tommy Fryor’s name. I resisted looking over his shoulder, and instead checked my phone for messages in the minute it took Smoke to pull up the information.

“Yup. It’s in the storeroom with the other records from that year. In box number Seventy-three dash nine, which makes sense since it happened in the ninth month.” He logged off the computer, stood up, and pulled a set of keys from his pocket.

I followed him to the door of the records room and waited while he keyed in. The storeroom was about twenty feet by thirty feet and held cardboard boxes on shelves that started from a foot off the floor and climbed to a foot from the ceiling. We located the one we were looking for on the west wall, six feet up. I grabbed the ladder that was equipped with wheels and rolled it to the shelf. Smoke jumped on the first rung, climbed up a few feet then hooked his hand on the opening in the front of a box and pulled it toward him. He held it in one hand and climbed back down. I took it from him and carried it to the table in the center of the room. “This is heavy,” I said as I heaved the box down.

“The Fryor-Everton case alone must weigh a few pounds.”

Smoke lifted the cover off the box and was able to find the file with a quick glance. He reached in with both hands and pulled out the five inch expandable file that was filled to limit with papers. He laid it on the table. “Divide and conquer?” he said.

I set the box on the floor, giving us room to spread out the papers as needed. “Holy man, I mean, where do we begin?”

“Same as always, one step at a time, one page at a time.”

I reached over, picked up the top half of the pile, set it down then slid onto the chair behind it. A little shiver ran through me, and it wasn’t because it was a cold case. It often happened to me when I worked to solve a mystery, most notably a crime. “Someone interviewed in here knows something.”

“That would not surprise me. We just gotta figure out who it is.”

Smoke’s phone rang. “Dawes. . . . You don’t say. Well then, I will come out there and talk to him.”

“What?” I asked when he’d disconnected.

“Darwin Fryor—Tommy’s dad—wants to talk to us.”

“Word zips around pretty fast.”

“With or without social media. I’ll meet him at the front and take him to my cubicle where we can talk. It’ll be less formal than an interview room. You want to join us?”

I stood up. “Yes I do.”

Smoke left and I made sure the door was secure when I closed it behind me. I waited in the corridor outside his cubicle for the two of them, and when they walked toward me, I was caught slightly off guard by Mr. Fryor’s appearance. He appeared to be around my Gramps Brandt’s age, but he looked even more feeble. He was bent over at the waist and his spine was twisted so one hip had a forward tilt and the other was tilted more to the back. He had to swing his right leg in a painful looking way to walk.

After introductions, we settled in around Smoke’s desk and I held my breath while Mr. Fryor sat down, knowing it must be a challenge for him. He let go of a drawn out “huh” when he was finally in the chair. Smoke sat behind his desk and I pulled up a chair on Mr. Fryor’s side.

“I got a call from a friend of mine who’s friends with Harry Gimler, the one who lives up there on the hill overlooking Whitetail.” Gimler was the man who had rushed to the scene when we were recovering the vehicle.

“Sure,” Smoke said.

“Is it true? Was that Tommy’s car you pulled out of the lake?” He leaned in, and rested his elbow on the desk. A dozen wrinkles fanned out from the corner of his milky brown eyes.

“We don’t know that for a fact just yet, but that’s the way it looks.”

Mr. Fryor lifted his hand and dropped his forehead into it. When he raised it again there were tears on his lower lids. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his nose. “We thought they’d up and run off. That Wendy sure had a way of turning a boy’s head when she wanted to.” He thought for a moment then stared at Smoke. “Well I guess I don’t have to tell you that, Elton. She caused a problem for you. A pretty big one, as I recall.”

Smoke shifted in his chair, clearly uncomfortable the attention had switched to him and a past indiscretion. “That’s true enough.” He cleared his throat. “We were planning to pay you a visit yet today, let you know what was going on. My apologies you had to track us down instead, Mister Fryor.”

Fryor nodded. “You know, Tommy disappearing like that caused a rift between the missus and me that we couldn’t mend. I tried, but she didn’t. A couple years later, she moved out. Was living over in Emerald Lake until a week ago Friday—” He quit talking and his eyes teared up.

“Where she go?” Smoke said.

“Passed on. We buried her last week.”

“I’m sorry, Mister Fryor.”

“If she’d a held on a little longer at least she could have known what happened to her son. Back in those days, she’d go off by herself every now and again for a day or a weekend for what she called some meditating time. It really stung that she shut me out of her life, wouldn’t let me help her. I was hurting too. But Tommy was her baby. They were like two peas in a pod. You try not to favor one kid over the next, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. It was pretty obvious to the other two kids, so I did what I could to be fair, and loved each one as much as the next.”

What my mother told me is that she loved my brother John Carl and me the same, but liked us for different reasons. That made sense to me because that’s how I felt about my three living grandparents, and my grandma who’d died.

“We used up a lot of our savings trying to find Tommy. But one day Ellen—that’s my wife—said we’d spent enough on two separate private detectives and needed to save some in case we ever needed to help the other two.”

“How long did you work with the private detectives?” Smoke said.

“Six weeks. I knew we’d used up a lot of our savings. I was surprised she had made the call is all. I figured Tommy and Wendy would tire of each other one day and they’d come back, so I agreed and we called off the search. And I know you folks did what you could to find them. Now we know why it wasn’t meant to be.”

“People disappear way more often than you could ever imagine,” Smoke said.

I thought back to the case we’d had the previous November and the staggering statistics I’d read about missing people and unidentified remains. If I had a loved that disappeared, I would never give up hope until I was convinced there was none.

“Mister Fryor, we’d like to collect a DNA sample from you so the medical examiner can make a positive identification.

Mr. Fryor swiped at a new tear. “You never really get over a thing like this. This is probably going to sound strange, especially now, but I still think of Tommy being alive out there somewhere.”

Self-protection was natural when a tragedy occurred, I’d learned during my years with the department. It was difficult, sometimes impossible for some people to accept the worst.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series

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Bouchercon 2014: Murder at the Beach Take Away by Christine Husom

Conventions, conferences, writing groups, classes, workshops, and meetings with writers and others in the publishing world all afford opportunities for writers to hone their craft, get fresh ideas, and learn from others what has or has not worked for them in the world of publishing.

I have appreciated being part of the writing world in different ways, but had not attended a convention until two years ago when I went to Bouchercon in Cleveland. I loved the experience and was able go again this year: to Long Beach CA. It was my first time in CA, and an added bonus was I also spent two days with a childhood friend and her husband.

The main Bouchercon convention site was at the Hyatt Regency, but a number of the panels and events were at the nearby Convention Center. There was so much planned for the four days, they even had a panel to help guide attendees, “Bouchercon 101, Panel introducing Bouchercon first-timers to the ins and outs of the convention, including how Bouchercon works; what the many session, event, and networking opportunities are; and how to make the most of your experience.”

When you arrive at the convention, the first order of business is to register, then head to the book bag table for your supplies. Each bag contained a thick program guide, a pocket-size guide, and eight or so books from a variety of authors. I volunteered to help hand out bags, but they needed help stuffing the program guides in them instead. In two hours, our team stuffed hundreds. It was a good workout. What I learned was I could have brought my book bag with me and traded some of the books in my bag for others I was more interested in.

Each day, there was a hospitality area in the hotel rotunda where beverages and light snacks were served. It was a nice gathering place to meet others. There was a dealer book room “offering all the new and used books, recordings, and ephemera mystery fans could want.” Attendees were offered a Surveillance Training Workshop, followed by the opportunity to hit the streets out and practice the techniques they learned. There were a few tables where you could pick up free books, bookmarks, and other information about authors, editors, publishers, etc.

Thursday morning, after my bag-stuffing shift, I caught an hour of Author Speed Dating, where I sat at a table and a new round of authors sat down every few minutes and pitched their books.

A wide variety of panel discussions—150 of them—ran daily and included a moderator and four or five panelists. The problem was choosing which one to go to when up to eight ran concurrently, and most of them were appealing. They ranged anywhere from using humor in your writing, to how much violence you include in a book, to making sure the details are correct, to fighting for justice when the stakes are high. I often sat in on half of one panel and half of another.

In addition, they had Author Focus panels where people had the opportunity to spend twenty minutes with authors in a smaller setting. I was selected to be on one. The two main problems with the focus panels was that there were many other panels running at the same time and most people didn’t know what they were all about. Very few people attended them. I was lucky that three come to mine, including award-winning David Housewright.

The Opening Ceremonies were held Thursday evening. Honored guests were introduced, including Al Abramson, Fan Guest of Honor; J.A. Jance, American Guest of Honor; Simon Wood, Toastmaster Guest of Honor; Edward Marston, International Guest of Honor; Eoin Colfer, Guest of Honor; and Jeffery Deaver, Lifetime Achievement Guest of Honor. And William Kent Krueger was presented both the Barry and Macavity Awards for Ordinary Grace.

Friday morning there was a New Authors Breakfast, and each one had a minute to pitch his or her book. Friday evening featured The Shamus Awards Banquet where Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone received the Hammer Award. Later there was a Dessert Reception and Live Charity Auction that I didn’t attend.
Saturday afternoon featured an Anthology Book Launch and Signing from the Bouchercon 2014 anthology. That is something to check into for future conventions, if you’re interested. The highlight Saturday night was the Anthony Awards Presentation where William Kent Krueger took the Best Novel award for Ordinary Grace.

An estimated 600 authors and around 3,000 people attended. I met librarians and other readers who go to learn about authors and books. There were many volunteer opportunities. There are side trips. At $175, the convention itself was reasonable. Depending on where you live, travel can be costly. The hotel was the most expensive thing for me. I was not able to get into the convention hotel for either convention, and that would be motivation to register early in the future. For more details about Bouchercon 2014, check out their website. Bouchercon 2015 will be in Raleigh NC October 8-11. Some people prefer smaller conventions and conferences, so I’d like to check them out. Conventions are valuable for connecting and learning, and I’d encourage you go if you can.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series

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The Secret in Whitetail Lake 5th Installment

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.

“Yup.”

“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

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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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Filed under Christine husom, Excerpts, fiction

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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