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.

Are You a Plotter or a Pantser? By Christine Husom

A question writers are often asked—of other readers and writers alike—is whether or not they outline their stories. Or do they just start writing, and see where it goes?

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Contrast that with John Grisham’s method, “The books are carefully outlined before I ever start. Chapter by chapter, from beginning to end. And usually tedious and boring and even painful– but it’s the only way to make sure the story’s going to work. Usually the outline is 50 pages long. And the longer the outline, the easier the book is to write.”

I recently moderated a panel discussion at Bouchercon 2015 and posed that question. Three of the authors said they were plotters, outliners, and one said she was a pantser.

It intrigues me to hear what other writers do because it’s not always apparent in their work. There are stories that seem to twist and turn in ways that would hint they were not outlined, and yet they were. And others that seem so carefully plotted, one would believe the writer had a detailed outline he or she was working from.

When I come up with an idea for a story—and mine are currently all mysteries—first I think of a beginning, a way to introduce the crime or the mystery. That gives me the idea of who the bad guy is and how it will end. Then I think of my characters, who they are, and some key plot points that will help move the story along.

I fall more on the pantser side, but I tend to outline a little bit ahead, not on paper, but in my mind. I’ll jot notes here and there as I go along, indicating this or that needs to happen. And then in about the middle of the book I think about what’s happened so far and how things need to move to conclude it, to resolve it all. I also take notes on what has happened in each chapter. It might be called an outline in reverse.

Perhaps there’s not as much difference between plotters and pantsers as people believe. Plotters detail things out ahead of time in the form of an outline, and pantsers detail things out as they are writing the story.

I have tried to outline and I’ve tried to storyboard, but neither has worked for me so far. I find I need to get immersed with my characters in what is happening in their world, meet other characters when they do and watch their reactions. I need to hear the sounds of their voices, and appreciate their differences, and suffer with them when bad things happen. I need to fight for justice and solve crimes with my good guys.

For me writing a book is a lot like living life. When I get up in the morning, I know what’s on my schedule, so I have an idea of what I’m supposed to do. But then I get a phone call or a visit, or something breaks down, or any other curve balls are thrown my way, and what I’d planned changes. So I make new plans. Just like in my books. I have an idea for the next chapter, and then a character does something strange, and I change my plans.

How about other writers out there, are a plotter or a pantser? I’d love to know.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series. Her sixth book, Secret in Whitetail Lake, will be released next month.


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The Secret in Whitetail Lake 12th 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 entry left off last month.

Chief Deputy Kenner determined that it was premature to dust the safe for prints, and if we did, we should have a search warrant. Obtaining that may be difficult given the lack of evidence that someone had broken in and stolen the money. Kenner decided to post deputies around the clock to keep watch on the sheriff’s house until he was found. If anyone tried to gain access, we’d know about it immediately.

I carefully checked the doors and windows, inside and out, and found no signs of forced entry. Then Mother and I went into garage and I looked in the windows of the sheriff’s department-issued vehicle. There were no papers or anything else lying on the seats or the floors. “Man, I think Denny is more of a neat freak than you are, Mom. He even keeps his car as neat as a pin, just like his home and office.”

“He certainly is. And it’s one of the things I really appreciate about him.” Of course she did.

We completed our tasks in fairly short order, and Smoke found us in the garage. “Anything?” he asked and I shook my head. “Then I guess we’re done here for now. Deputy Ortiz pulled up a minute ago and parked back by the sheriff’s lawn shed. He won’t let anything get by him. Kenner has deputies on two-hour shifts here.”

“Good,” I said and turned to my mother. “You look worn out, Mom. Why don’t we drop you off at Gramps’ house and maybe you can take a nap.”

“Corinne, you know I can’t sleep during the day. But it’s probably a good idea to go there, after all. Your grandfather is worried too.”

We delivered my mother to her father’s house then headed back to the sheriff’s office to check on how the investigation of the Dodge Charger was progressing. “I have a better insight on your mother, little lady. And a clearer understanding of what you’ve been complaining about over the years.”

I let out a short laugh. “When I was younger, all my friends told me she was the most protective parent on the planet, and I really had a hard time with that. Then I finally got to the point when I realized she is who she is and she’s not going to change. But amazingly, the one person she seems the most calm around is Dennis Twardy. So not knowing where he is like a double whammy for her.”

“Kristen wasn’t as high-strung in high school, as I remember, and maybe it was because she had your dad. Losing him probably explains the main reason she’s such a worrywart. I’m just not used to people, even under stress, gasping as much as she does.”

I laughed again. “It takes some getting used to, that’s for sure. When I was about ten I vowed to never—under any circumstances—make that sucking-in sound she does. It used to startle me, make me afraid that something awful was happening. Now I barely notice when she does it.”

When we’d arrived at the department, we headed straight for the garage where the team was working on the Dodge Charger. The smaller items we’d help remove from the vehicle were drying on a rolling unit with mesh shelves. The backseat of the car was sitting on a pallet. There were four fans running at a medium speed some distance away. Sergeant Doug Matsen was working alone. After we’d exchanged greetings, we took a look at the few items on the shelves. The wallet, purse and its contents, keys some small tools, what was left of the various articles of clothing, including the letter jacket, and the tire iron from the trunk.

“Are you working alone today?” Smoke said.

“For a while, anyway. Kenner has his hands full with Twardy disappearing and pulled the major crimes guys to help in that effort. Oh, and I got the DNA samples from the victims’ families delivered to the regional lab this morning. The ones you left last night, Detective.”

“Good, thanks,” Smoke said.

“A question for you, Detective. Did you guys carry cement blocks around in your car in the old days for any reason?” Matsen said.

Smoke smiled at his friendly jibe then frowned. “I’ll forget the ‘old days’ wise crack, and answer your question. No one I knew drove around with cement blocks in their cars.”

“I didn’t think so which is what makes the one I found wedged in partway under the front seat so suspicious.”

“Where was it?”

“I’ll show you.” Doug went to the driver’s side and pointed at area of the floor beneath the driver’s seat then he walked over to where the object in question sat on shelf.

Smoke studied it. “Looks like the kind of patio block a lot of people used back then. And still do today, although they’ve gotten fancier, with different sizes and shapes. What are the measurements on this one?”

“Six inches wide, three inches thick, twelve inches long.”

“And weight?”

“Twenty-three pounds.”

Smoke nodded. “Fairly dense. A buddy of mine built an entertainment center of sorts with wooden boards and cement blocks similar to this one, but they were more decorative. Back in the old days.”

Matsen smiled.

“Seems to me that it’d be stupid, and downright dangerous, to carry something that heavy in your car. In the event of a crash, it’d turn into a heavy projectile that would do a whole lot of damage to a human body,” Smoke said.

“People don’t always think of things like that,” Matsen said.

“Unfortunately, you are right on there. The question we have is why Toby would have one in his car.”

“Maybe his dad was building a patio and sent him to get more of the same kind of blocks, and he forgot it was in his car. It could have been on the floor of the backseat, and moved during the crash,” I said.

“That is one possibility, but knowing Toby, he’d have it in the trunk so it didn’t mess up his car. And it’s an easy enough thing to verify with his dad.” Smoke pulled the memo pad out of his pocket and flipped through some pages. “I’ll call him and ask.” He picked up his phone, dialed, and waited. When he was connected, he said, “Hi, Mr. Fryor, it’s Elton Dawes. How are you doing today? . . . Yes, it will take time. Say, Mr. Fryor, I’m sorry to bother you with this, but something came up that raised a question. We found a cement block in Toby’s car and we’re wondering if you’d have any idea why. . . . Wedged under the front seat. . . . No landscaping projects you were working on? . . . Okay, thank you. Be sure to let us know if you need anything. . . . Goodbye.” Smoke hung up and shook his head. “Poor guy. I hope he’s going to make it through all this. He has no idea why the block would’ve been there.”

“Like I said, it’s suspicious,” Doug said.

“Yes, it is,” Smoke said. “Well, Corky and I are heading to the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office to check on things. I’d think if either of our victims had been struck in the head with a cement block, the docs would have noticed that when we removed their bodies from the car. But we’ll ask. Is there anything you need before we shove off, something we can help you with?”

Doug used his shoulder to scratch his chin. “Thanks, I’m good for now, but I’ll holler if I do.”

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

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The Secret in Whitetail Lake 11th 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 entry left off.

Chapter 6

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.”

“Or you.”


“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.


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The Secret in Whitetail Lake 10th 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.

After Smoke dropped me off at my car, I climbed in and headed to my Gramps’ house. It wasn’t a minute later that Vince Weber called. “Hey, Sergeant.”

“Hey, Vince. What’s up?”

“Touching base. Quite the day in the drink, huh?”

“Man alive. Good old Whitetail was finally forced to give up her secret.”

“I’m kind of wondering if Warner’s gonna go crazy and do a search on every lake in the county.”

“Could be. At least until it hits home that three hundred lakes is a lot of lakes, and he’s got all of his other duties.”

“That’s the truth.” He paused a moment. “And what’s up with the sheriff vanishing like that?”

My heart speeded up at the reminder. “I can’t imagine. Between you, me, and the lamppost, I don’t know who I’m more worried for, the sheriff or my mother.”

“Yeah, your mother takes things pretty hard, doesn’t she?”

“She does. She’s been at my grandfather’s house today so she didn’t have to be alone. In fact, I’m turning into Gramps’ driveway now to pick her up.”

“I’ll let you go then.”

“See you Vince.”

I gathered every ounce of optimism to display that I could pull out of my body as I walked into Gramps’ house. Gramps was in his usual chair watching a news show, and I heard Mother in the kitchen. I gave Gramps a kiss on the cheek then checked on Mom who had thrown herself into cleaning out Gramps’ refrigerator. She was setting the milk back on a shelf when I said, “I’m back.”

She jumped half a foot and turned around. “Corinne! You know better than to sneak up on me.”

“Sorry. I guess the TV was too loud for you to hear me.”

She threw the dish cloth she was holding onto the counter. “It’s so loud I can’t even hear myself think.” She half-shrugged. “Maybe that’s not such a bad thing when I’m this worried, imagining the worst.”

I put my arms around her for a comforting hug. “I know you’ve been praying, and so have I. You can’t make yourself sick over this.”

“I called John Carl earlier and even he seemed upset.”

“Of course he did.” I took a small step back. “Do you want to go home, or stay here, or maybe stay at my house?”

“Oh dear. Well, I guess I’ll go home. In case Denny calls.”

“You think you’ll be able to sleep?”

“I don’t know, but that would be true wherever I was.”

“I guess so.”

“What about my car?”

“We’ll get it tomorrow. And I best get going or Queenie will wonder where I am.”

Mother put her arm around my waist and steered me into the living room to say goodnight to Gramps.

After Mom was safely in her house, I drove home and rescued my energetic Queenie from her kennel. After she licked my hand and we’d run around the yard for a few minutes, I gave her the command to sit. “Do you want to go for a ride, girl?”

She jumped up and moved her head back and forth telling me she did. “Okay, let’s go.” I opened the door to my GTO and she hopped in the back seat, like she’d been taught. “Good girl. You probably think we’re going to Gramps, but I need to go over to Whitetail Lake for a while.”Queenie gave a single bark.

I drove the short distance, did a quick U-turn, and pulled to a stop on the north side of Whitetail Lake. In the cloak of night, with illumination from a half moon and twinkling star, the houses on the far hill were visible but not well defined. The middle house was dark, indicating that Harry Gimler had likely gone to bed after all.

I was lost in thought, studying the lake when a car pulled up behind me and parked. I turned in my seat instead of relying on my rearview mirror. “Queenie. Guess who’s coming to visit us? Detective Dawes.”

Queenie barked, and when Smoke opened the passenger door she barked some more. “Can I come in?” he said.

“You don’t have to ask.”

“I get the feeling that Queenie is more excited to see me than you are.” He reached in the back and patted Queenie’s head.

“I think that is probably true given the fact that we were together all day, and my doggie hasn’t seen you for a while. No offense.”

Smoke chuckled. “I’ll give you that. So why are you here, are you trying to pull information out of a lake even though it can’t talk?”

“Something like that. I’ve driven by this lake probably thousands of times; so have you. It’s not much of a swimming lake since it has no beach. But there are fishers out now and then. I keep looking up that hill where the car came down. It must have been at a pretty good speed. It had to have gone airborne, or it would have gotten caught up in the weeds at the edge of the lake. What do you think?”

“That’s a sound theory. Speed is a decided factor. The one big question is why they’d be over there. It’s not like we’ve heard about in other cases, where people leave the roadway and end up in a lake or pond or river. The other question is why did no one hear them, or notice the evidence the vehicle tracks had to have left behind.”

I traced the wheel with my finger. “So what made you come here?”

“I just finished up at the office and spotted you when I drove by. And nosy as I am, I thought I’d see what you were up to, although I’d pretty much figured it out.”

“I’m curious about what the ME’s report will say. I don’t suppose there’s any way to tell if they died in the crash, or drowned after they were submerged.”

“The victims could show evidence of head trauma. That’s what I’m hoping happened: they got knocked out so they didn’t know they were drowning.”

A shiver trickled through me. “Which is why I don’t like driving on the ice in the winter, even when should be perfectly safe. There is always that minute chance.” I thought of an embarrassing event from Smoke’s past, and couldn’t resist teasing him. “You know, like if you burn your fish house down. I mean, that must melt the ice around it, huh?” I held my smile to a minimum.

Smoke leaned in close to me and I smelled cinnamon—probably from tea—on his breath. “I wonder how many times that whole fiasco with Wendy is going to come up during this investigation?”

I resisted the temptation to close the small gap between our faces and kiss him, which took some doing. I held onto the hope that someday he would realize we could break through any barriers he thought prevented us from having an intimate relationship. My grandma had told me Smoke and I were intimate, without the fun part.

I rubbed my nose lightly across his. “Old secrets have a way of bubbling to the surface when we least expect them to, my friend. I promise not to bring up the subject with anyone. And if the guys catch wind of it and try to pry it out of me, I’ll send them your way.”

He reached over and squeezed my hand. “Thanks. Yeah, every stupid thing we do in life seems to come back to haunt us. I sure never expected that humiliating, not to mention costly, incident with Wendy to be brought to light through this awful discovery.”

Queenie let out a small bark, followed by a whine.

Smoke gave my hand a final squeeze then turned and scratched Queenie’s head. “You’re reminding me I need to get home and take care of my own mutt. He’s used to my unpredictable schedule, but I know he doesn’t always like it. Goodnight, you two.”


Smoke got out of the car and drove off a minute later. I needed a little more time at the lake, pondering the night’s events from long ago, a few years before I was born. Smoke was troubled by the secret Whitetail Lake had been keeping. So were the victims’ families, of course, and any number of friends, including my mother. But wondering where her fiancé was filled her with far more immediate distress.

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 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.”


“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.


“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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