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.
Chief Deputy Mike Kenner called a meeting for eight o’clock the next morning. Smoke phoned me at seven. “It’s for all the command staff and supervisors,” he explained.
“If it Kenner got out of his recovery bed, it must be about the sheriff.”
“Yeah, the media got wind of it and let’s just say if—when—it gets posted on a social media site, it will go viral.”
“Great. I wonder if there is a big bubble somewhere I can put my mother in until the sheriff reappears.”
“Corky, I know you do your best to protect your mother, and most of the time it’s with good reason. But in this case she’s gotta know what’s going on so she doesn’t get blindsided by a reporter calling her or showing up at her door.”
“You’re right. I’ll ask her to get one of her helpers to run the store today, and she can spend the day with Gramps.”
“Sure, why not? It might help her if we included her, like at the meeting.” Smoke was a brave man.
“I’ll see if she wants to. And you’ll clear it with Kenner?”
“I will, shouldn’t be a problem. And Kristen can tag along with us when we head to the MEs office if she wants, and when we check on how our team is doing with the Charger.” A very brave man.
“You don’t think it will bother anyone to have my mother there gasping every five minutes?”
Smoke chuckled. “You have a point. We’ll start with the meeting and take it from there.”
After we’d hung up, I phoned my mother who surprisingly did not ask a hundred questions and agreed to letting her helper run the shop. Her voice was shaky when she said, “Thank you for taking me to Chief Deputy Kenner’s meeting with you. That means a lot.”
“Sure. I’ll pick you up at seven-forty-five.”
“I’ll be ready.”
I scrambled a bit, showering, dressing, and getting Queenie situated in her kennel. My mother was waiting on the front step of her old farmhouse when I pulled into her driveway. Every once in a while it struck me how lovely she was. She could have been posing for a fashion shoot, wearing a mid-length flowing navy skirt with a subtle ivory print, ivory silk shirt, and a smooth, button-less navy waist-length cardigan sweater.
She waved and attempted a small smile when I stopped then jogged to the car in seconds, hopped in, and buckled up. “Morning.”
“Morning. Did you get any sleep?” I asked as I turned my car around and headed toward town.
“A few hours maybe. I know I worry too much about you and John Carl and Gramps. And maybe some other things. But this is different.”
“It is different. Denny has always been dependable and we’re all feeling a little lost here.”
When Mother didn’t answer, I glanced over and saw her lip quivering and a tear spill from her eye. It broke my heart to see her suffering. We didn’t talk for the rest of the drive. When I’d parked into the sheriff’s department lot, I turned to. “You don’t have to go to the meeting, you know.”
She looked at me and patted her face with a tissue. “Yes, I do.”
We walked into the office and the staff did not hide their looks of curiosity when we passed by. The sheriff was missing and his fiancée was in the building. Did we know more about the disappearance than we were letting on? Had the sheriff been abducted after all? That’s what it seemed to me were the possible questions they didn’t dare ask.
We reached the squad room that had been converted into a conference room for the meeting. A sign PRIVATE MEETING was posted on the outside of the door. When we went inside, Chief Deputy Kenner graciously captured one of my mother’s hands in a warm embrace and put his other arm around her shoulder in a hug. “Thanks for coming, Kristen.”
She nodded and tucked her lips in like she was doing her best not to break down. Smoke came over, blinked his eyes at me, gave Mother a hug then steered her to a seat at the large table. He sat down next to her and I mingled for a minute before finding a seat on the opposite side of the table.
Extra chairs had been brought in to accommodate the twenty plus command staff, detectives, and supervisors. The temperature in the room was rising with the body heat of concerned officers. Although I didn’t often suffer from claustrophobia, I felt uneasy. Tense. Glancing around at the others, with all the body shifting going on it was clear I was not the only one.
Kenner clapped his hands together in front of his chest for everyone’s attention. “Okay. Let’s get started. We’re here about our sheriff, and I thought it’d be good to apprise you of where we’re at in terms of the investigation.”
My mother flinched a little, but remained dry-eyed and silent.
“A number of you got quite a case dropped in your laps yesterday, and we’ll keep working on that, along with all the other balls we got up in the air. Meantime, I think all of us can agree that our top priority is locating Sheriff Twardy.”
That caused a moment of quiet conversations.
“So, what do we know so far? Somehow Twardy got to the parking garage without being seen. He drove his unmarked vehicle to his house and parked it in his garage. His personal vehicle is not in his garage. I’ve had Detective Conley—who couldn’t be here this morning, or he’d give you his report himself. Anyway, Conley’s checked on both credit card transactions and also cell phone pings in the five county region. Unfortunately, he’s come up empty-handed so far, which we all know is extremely frustrating. On the other hand, we’re holding on to the hope that no news is good news.”
More rumblings among the troups.
Sergeant Warner was leaning against a back wall and took a step forward. “What can we do to help?”
“It’s important for all of us to have the same story to give to the media, or to Joe Citizen, or what have you. Detective Dawes and I put our heads together this morning and came up with a statement that is honest, and hopefully not too alarming. Detective?” Kenner looked at Smoke.
He nodded and stood up. “We decided to follow the KISS method in this situation so our message is simple: Sheriff Twardy left work of his own volition at nine-twenty yesterday morning without sharing his plans with his staff. We haven’t heard from him, but have no reason to suspect foul play at this time. And if anyone has contact with him, please have him call his office.”
My mother sucked in an audible gasp. I knew she couldn’t help herself. A few of the staff shook their heads and others nodded. It was a mixed bag of reactions. My mother looked from Smoke to Kenner. “I’ve wondered about this, but I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not,” she said.
It seemed like her words drew everyone in the room closer to her.
“What’s that, Kristen?” Smoke asked, his voice as gentle as a soft rain.
“Well, you know he has a brother.”
A few officers shrugged, like they may or may not have known.
“Oh, sure. Norman’s his name. He’s in a nursing home in Arizona if I remember right,” Smoke said. “I’m embarrassed that I kind of forgot about him.”
Kenner chimed in, “The sheriff hasn’t talked about him for quite some time. I’m not sure where he’s at, medically speaking.”
Mother raised her hand for the floor. “And that’s just it. Poor man has dementia pretty bad, from what Denny says. He’s wanted to go visit him, but it’s hard on him, since Norman doesn’t know him anymore.”
“We’ll contact the home; see if the sheriff has called there the last day or so.”
There was silence for a bit then Mother said, “What else can we do to find him?”
Kenner focused his attention on her. “Kristen, you have a key or the code to Denny’s house?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“We haven’t looked inside yet because we don’t believe he’s there. We checked the doors and windows and there’s an alarm system, as you know. Since you have permission to enter his home, I’d like you to go there with your daughter and Detective Dawes, take a look around, see if he left any indication of where he might be. Will you do that?”
“Of course.” Mother found me across the table and I gave her a thumbs’ up.
“And we have every agency in the state keeping a watch out for him. Since it’s been almost twenty-four hours with no word, we’re going to issue a statement to the media—press, radio, and television—with the same message Dawes gave you. And if anyone tries to pump you for more information, refer them to me. We don’t need all kinds of rumors flying around the county or the state. Any questions?”
When no one spoke up, I figured everyone was as stunned as I was under the circumstances.
Kenner cleared his throat. “On the other matter, I want to thank Sergeant Warner for locating and recovering, with the divers’ help, that old Charger from its decades’ long burial site in Whitetail Lake. The story is gaining national recognition, as you all know. One of our residents has already posted the whole thing on You Tube. We’re waiting to hear from Doctor Bridey Patrick’s office on their findings, and we should get some word today.
“Suffice it to say, we have way too much going on. But again, the highest priority is Sheriff Twardy. And we need to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. I’m confident we’ll hear from our sheriff before long. So if no one has anything to add, this meeting is over.”
I was thinking, “We just found two people who disappeared over thirty years ago, so how can you be so certain Denny will turn up any time soon?” But, out of respect, I held my tongue.
Kenner waited a few seconds, and when no one spoke, he stood up, patted a few guys on the back, smiled at my mother, then left. When several of the supervisors had given my mother their well wishes, Smoke hustled us out of the building to his car.
“I’ll take the back seat,” I said before Mother could argue that it was her turn.
We were on the road in moments. “I wish Denny had taken his squad car, so it’d be easier for people to spot,” Mother said.
“You could make that argument, depending on where he is and if people are paying attention,” I said.
“His Buick does not exactly stand out in a crowd, to be sure. But the expanded media coverage will be a good thing. That being said, we all need to be prepared for the extra attention we’re going to get,” Smoke said.
My mother turned her head to stare out the side window. Sheriff Twardy lived five miles south of Oak Lea. The back of his property bordered the Swan River. He had a large rambler with spacious rooms. In the summer, his yard looked like a park. It was early in the season, and no one, including the sheriff, had begun mowing their lawns yet. Smoke followed the long concrete driveway to the front of the garage and parked. Mother sat was an extra second before she moved.
Smoke let me out of the back seat then walked to the passenger side of the car. “Kristen, if you’d rather Corky and I go in alone we should be fine. As long as you give us permission and let us in, that is.”
Mother shook her head. “No, I need to go in. Maybe it will give me some sense of where Denny is.” She pulled a ring of keys from her purse and located the one she needed. “I’d rather go in the front door than through the garage.” She keyed in and Smoke and I followed behind.
I had been in the sheriff’s house a few times and admired how tidy he kept it. He had someone clean it twice a month and managed to keep the clutter to a minimum, something I personally found a constant challenge. When Mom sucked in another of her under-stress gasps, Smoke glanced at me and raised his eyebrows. I lifted my shoulder an inch and gave a slight nod, indicating she’d be fine with us there as back up. I was more accustomed to her emotional reactions and idiosyncrasies than he was.
Mom punched in the security code. If someone had entered uninvited, the alarm would have summoned deputies there. The foyer led into the living room which was in the center of the house and featured a fireplace on the opposite wall. There were tall windows on either side of it. A peaked ceiling rose twelve feet high in the middle of the room. One of the things that had delayed my mother’s marriage to Denny was deciding where they would live: Denny’s house, Mother’s house, or another one they built or bought together.
“We’ll do a walk-through and see if anything is out of place, or if there are any hints as to where he went,” Smoke said.
“Mom, officially speaking, Smoke and I can’t open drawers without a search warrant. But if you happen to see something suspicious if you’re looking for something that belongs to you, then we can deal with it,” I added.
My mother raised her eyebrows and said, “Oh. I didn’t realize how that worked.”
“We’re limited to what is in plain view,” Smoke said.
We followed Mother through the rooms of the house. She didn’t think it was respectful to rifle through cupboards and closets and that was fine with us. That is, until we went into the sheriff’s bedroom. The closet door was open and so was the safe that sat on a shelf.
“What in the hell,” Smoke said as we all stared at the contents inside.
“What all does he keep in here, Mother? Do you know?”
“Mostly cash, and some documents like his passport, I guess. I’ve only seen him open it once when he bought a big flat screen TV. He likes to deal in cash as much as possible.”
“Any idea how much he keeps in there?”
“Why, no, not exactly. But it’s thousands, tens of thousands I’m pretty sure.”
“Tens of thousands?” Smoke echoed.
“Really?” I said.
“Mother nodded. “When he got the money out for the television set, he grabbed a stack of one hundred dollar bills and pulled out ten of them. And it didn’t take the stack down by much. I didn’t ask how much he had, and I didn’t want to know the code.”
“Hmm.” Smoke moved his face in close to the safe. “No money in here now.” He turned and scanned the room. “And no sign of a struggle or a forced entry.”
Tears formed in my mother’s eyes. “Do you think someone’s holding Denny somewhere and forced him to give them his codes to the door and safe?”
Smoke looked at her. “I don’t know, Kristen. None of this makes sense. What it looks like is Denny took the money and ran, which certainly does not remotely fit with his normal behavior. He is one of the most predicable men I know. In a good way.”
“Smoke, do you think he left the door of the safe open to give us some sort of clue?” I said.
He lifted a shoulder. “Something to consider, all right. Why don’t you two keep looking around? Corky, check all the doors, windows, see if we missed anything. I’m going to call the chief deputy, then take pictures of this. I’ll see about getting permission to dust for prints.”
My mother gasped again and Smoke’s shoulders drew in, a sign he had tensed up a bit. There was no argument that my mother was not cut out for police work. She wasn’t fragile; she was emotional and expressive and incapable of putting on a poker face.
I put my hand on her the back of her shoulder and gave her a mild push. “Let’s see what we can find, Mom.”
Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mysteries. The Secret in Whitetail Lake is the 6th in the series.