Sergeant Warner, Winnebago County Boat and Water Division is testing out his new sonar equipment on one of the county’s deeper lakes when he makes an unlikely find. He assembles his dive team, and Sergeant Corky Aleckson goes out to Whitetail Lake to see what Warner’s found.
“Ready, team? We have to be careful about not going too far down. If the bottom is stirred up, we’ll have zero visibility,” Mason said.
Mason and Carlson put on their goggles then the three of them affixed their masks in place. Their vests were equipped with regulars, and inflatable options. The oxygen tanks would supply them for well over an hour, even if they exerted, or got nervous and sucked in air faster than normal. Warner and I guided them over the side of the boat and they dropped in the water then drove into it.
We watched them on the sonar; my first experience doing that. My cell phone rang a minute later. I looked at the display and hit talk. “Hey Smoke.”
“Are they out in the water yet?”
“They are. I’m on the boat with Warner and we can see the three of them getting close to the sunken treasure. It looks like an old car. Maybe the same vintage as mine.”
“A car? And an older one to boot. Now I wish I had taken Warner up on his offer to ride along. I’ll be out there in a few minutes.”
I hung up and refocused on the three divers. They were making their way around the car, looking in the windows. Mason lifted his arm and Carlson started his ascent. When he surfaced, he gripped the side of the boat with one hand and lifted his breathing mask from his face. His face, reddened from the cold water camouflaged the freckles on his face. “It’s an old Dodge Charger and there are at least two sets of skeletons inside.”
“What?” Warner and I said together.
I leaned closer to Carlson and studied his face to see if he was kidding. The normal dancing twinkle was absent from his blue eyes and he looked like he’d seen a ghost or two all right.
“Damn,” Warner said and looked at me like I should know what to say.
“You call Sheriff Twardy; I’ll call Detective Dawes.”
“Damn,” he repeated and took another moment. “Carlson, we’ll need to figure out the steps to proceed with the recovery. In the meantime, get some shots from every which way you can down there.” Warner retrieved an underwater camera and waited while Carlson repositioned his mask then took it.
When Carlson dove back in, both Warner and I kept our eyes fixed on the unexplained find on the bottom of Whitetail Lake and the deputies who were investigating it.
Warner phoned the sheriff, but it went to voicemail. “Sheriff, we’re sitting on top of a possible crime scene on Whitetail Lake. There’s an older car on the bottom and it appears there are skeletal remains inside it.”
Per department policy, the sheriff was notified of any unnatural death, or suspicious death. Being submerged in a vehicle in a small lake fit both sets of criteria.
When Warner hung up, I said, “Are you going to call his cell phone?”
“I’ll wait a few minutes. When I talked to him earlier, he said he was going to be in his office all morning catching up on paperwork. A citizen could have stopped by to ask about something, or he’s in the biffy.”
I nodded and phoned Smoke. “I’m just about there,” he said.
“Good. I’ll see if Warner will troll over to pick you up on shore.” Warner nodded and gave me a thumb’s up signal. “He says ‘yes’.”
We hung up. “Our divers should figure out we’re making a run, and not abandoning them. And we’re only about a hundred yards,” Warner said.
“I know the sheriff mentioned purchasing those diving helmets with the communications capability built right in, depending on the cost.”
“That will be the next big purchase if we find a bunch of stuff with this new sonar system, and need to increase our dives.” He turned on the engine and shifted into low gear to safely clear the area, then sped up to reach the opposite shore. He eased against the landing area.
“Smoke’s here. Man, his day just got a lot more interesting. And not in a good way.”
“Surprise, surprise, surprise.”
Smoke jogged to the boat. He was wearing a light tan jacket over his shirt and tie, black pants, and black shoes polished to a gleaming shine. Not the usual fishing attire. But this wasn’t a normal expedition. “What’s up?” he asked. I leaned over the boat and offered my hand to help him in. “You guys look like cats that swallowed some canaries.”
“It’s bigger than that,” I said and took a step back to give Smoke a place to stand.
He gave my hand a squeeze then released it. “Bigger, how?”
“The guys found skeletal remains in the vehicle.” Warner said as he back the boat away from shore.
“Get out of here.” He pointed at the steep hill that rose up from the lake on the south side. “How in the hell would it get there? It’s not like they were driving down a road at high speeds, lost control, and wound up in the lake. There’s no road to drive off.”
He was right, and neither Warner nor I had an answer. We reached the site, and Smoke planted himself in front of the sonar’s screen to watch the action. The three divers rose to the surface. Carlson swam to the boat and lifted the camera. Warner bent over and scooped it up. The other two tread water while Carlson climbed the rope ladder up to the boat then followed suit.
We were hovering over the burial grounds of two or more unknown people and the momentary hush in the air seemed to be our sign of respect for them. When Weber and Mason had boarded, the divers all pulled off their masks and shook their heads. Warner clicked on the pictures captured by Carlson, and Smoke and I crowded in behind him.
“They’ve been down there a long time,” Smoke said.
“And in all my years with the department, I can’t recall anyone last seen in an old 1960s era Dodge and disappearing,” Warner added.
The blood drained from Smoke’s face. “I can.” His voice was quiet and a little shaky. “Not since I’ve been with the department. Long before that. Back when I was in high school two friends of mine went missing. Tommy Fryor and Wendy Everton. His folks gave Tommy their old 1966 Dodge Charger to run around in.”
The air went out of my lungs when Smoke said their names. I reached over and touched his arm. “Wendy was one of my mom’s best friends.”
Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series. The Secret in Whitetail Lake is the Sixth in the seris.