The Winnebago Sheriff’s Department is preparing to recover an old Dodge Charger with skeletal remains from the bottom of Whitetail Lake. Detective Smoke Dawes suspects it belongs to someone he went to school with. Meantime, no one seems to know where the sheriff is. Sergeant Corinne “Corky” Aleckson is the narrator.
“Geez, Detective, let’s hope that’s not your friends down there,” Weber said and we all muttered muffled words of agreement.
“We’ve never had to recover a vehicle in that deep of water before. In my time here, anyway,” Carlson said.
“It’d be safe to safe we’ve never had to in the department’s history, period,” Warner said. “This is one of the deeper lakes in the county. And there’s no road access on that side. The car would’ve been down there another who knows how many years if not for the new sonar device. Apparently, no one knew there was a reason to dredge the lake back when these people went in.”
Smoke blew out a loud breath of air. “They’ve been down there long enough. Let’s get ‘em out and figure out who they are and what we’re dealing with.” He pulled his cell phone out of its holder. “Anybody get a hold of the sheriff?”
Warner shook his head. “I left him a message on his work number.”
“I’ll call his cell. We’ll need a tow truck with what, a hundred yards of chain?”
“About that. The divers will have to use due caution after they get the vehicle hooked on. It’s a dangerous operation.”
“No doubt.” Smoke looked at the divers. “When we recovered that truck from Bison last year, the one that went through the ice, were all three of you involved in that?”
“Yeah. That was a much easier deal, by far. It was only twenty-five or so feet out from shore in ten feet of water,” Mason answered for the group.
“That turkey shoulda known better than to park there with the thinning ice.” Weber was referring to the owner of the truck.
Smoke hit a couple of numbers on his phone. “Denny, it’s Dawes. Call me a-sap. We’re about to launch a recovery of that vehicle on Whitetail, and it appears there are the remains of at least two victims inside.” He ended the call. “Hmm. Sheriff must be in an important meeting. I’ll have communications locate us a tow truck with extra chain and connectors.” He made the call and answered Officer Robin’s questions of what we had found.
A few minutes later she called to let us know both Kyle and Ted, the owners of KT Towing, would be en route as soon as they loaded extra chain on their rig.
We all waited impatiently in the boat, taking turns staring at the image of the older model Dodge, the burial ground of two or more people. The combined anticipation warmed the air around us. Between that and the waterproof wetsuits, the three divers all had beads of sweat on their brows.
Three squad cars arrived on the scene within minutes of each other. Apparently the word had spread from communications to the road deputies like a hayfield on fire in the middle of a drought.
“Nothing like a mystery to bring out the troops,” Warner said.
Deputies Amanda Zubinski, Joel Ortiz, and Sergeant Leo Roth got out of their vehicles and gathered at the water’s edge.
“You need another diver?” Roth called out. “I got my gear in my car.” Roth was off-duty, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“What do you think?” Smoke asked Warner.
Warner didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, suit up,” he called to Roth.
“Tim, when you go in for Roth, maybe you could pick up Zubinski and Ortiz. I’ll get off to make more room on the boat. I’m sure they’re dying to see what your new sonar discovered,” I said.
“I’ll do the same,” Smoke said.
“Why not? This is not your run of the mill find.”
Warner trolled in. Roth changed in his SUV, and got out carrying his fins, face gear, and tank. When we reached the bank, Smoke threw the rope to Ortiz who tied it on the post. Smoke climbed out of the boat and turned to help me onto shore.
“Zubinski, Ortiz, your turn. Hop aboard,” Smoke told them.
Neither of them would have asked for the chance to get a look at the underwater find, and their faces brightened like two kids seeing lights on a Christmas tree for the first time. They both nodded and climbed into the boat before Smoke changed his mind. Roth was right behind them.
Smoke looked at his watch. “Where in the hell is the sheriff?”
“Call Dina, maybe she knows.” I loosened the rope on the boat and threw it to Weber who caught it and pulled it inside.
He withdrew his phone and dialed. After a two minute conversation, he hung up. “She has no idea which is not like our little mother hen Dina.”
“No it’s not. I’ll call my personal mother hen and ask her.”
“Yeah, if Dina doesn’t know, Kristen should.”
My mother and the sheriff were engaged to be married sometime down the road. I figured they were waiting until all the stars and planets were perfectly aligned, whenever that was.
“Kristen’s Corner, may I help you?”
“Corinne, I didn’t have my readers on, so I couldn’t see the number. What are you up to on your day off?”
“Oh, having a little adventure. I’ll tell you all about it, later on. Do you know where the sheriff—ah, Denny—is?”
“Denny? Why are you looking for him?”
“Smoke has been trying to reach him, and we thought maybe you knew his schedule, like if he had any appointments.”
“Why, no, I don’t. He should be at work at this time of day. I talked to him a couple of hours ago and I’m sure he would have told me if he had anything special planned.”
“I’m sure he would have. No biggie. We figured he’s tied up in a meeting. I’ll catch you later.”
“Bye, sweetheart. Stop by when you can.”
“Will do. Bye, Mom.” I pushed the end button. “Okay, that’s odd. Mother doesn’t know either.”
“I don’t think I’ll bug Dina again. She gets pretty worked up when it comes to keeping the sheriff healthy and safe. I’ll have Cindy do a little checking, and if she can’t locate him, I’ll try to raise him on the radio,” Smoke said.
A chill ran up my shoulder blades and down my arms. “I hope he’s all right.”
Smoke’s eyes captured and held mine. “Me too.”
He was still talking to Cindy when the towing team pulled up in their rig. The earth rumbled around us and the smell of diesel drifted through the air when they pulled to a stop and let the truck idle. Both Kyle and Ted climbed out and hurried over to us. Kyle was the half of the team who did most of the maintenance, and had grease permanently embedded in his cracked beefy hands. He was the taller and heavier one of the two. Ted was more on the wiry side. He was the one who responded to most of the calls, and gave the impression that time was money and the more efficiently he could get the job done, the better.
I pointed to where Warner and his boat crew were anchored. “That’s where the car we got to pull out is sitting.”
“Damn, that’ll be our biggest challenge we’ve ever had, huh Ted?” Kyle said.
Ted didn’t answer right away. He was deep in thought as he looked from Warner’s boat to the surrounding shoreline. “No good place for us to pull in to get closer. How in the hell did a car wind up over there?”
Smoke finished with his call and put a hand on Ted’s shoulder. “We called you because we figured you could handle the job if anyone could.”
“We’ll do our best, Detective,” Ted said. “Kyle, jump in the truck and I’ll guide you to where you’ll need to stop.”
“Not much of a landing.”
“Nope, but it’s what we got.”
“Detective Dawes on two.” It was Sergeant Warner telling Smoke to switch from the main radio band.
Smoke plucked the radio from his belt, turned the knob, and depressed the call button. “Go ahead on two.”
“We’re coming in, but we’ll wait ‘til KT is in position.”
People driving by slowed down to check out the happening at Whitetail Lake. Others that had no pressing deadline, or particular schedule to keep, pulled off County Road 35 onto the shoulders of both sides of the road.
“This is turning into a three-ring circus,” I said.
Smoke shook his head slightly. “Barnum and Bailey.”
“The Ringling Brothers,” Ted added, surprising me. I didn’t think he had a sense of humor.
“People must be thinking there’s been a drowning,” I said.
“And they are most likely right. When the drowning occurred is yet to be determined,” Smoke said.
Kyle backed the rig closer to us and Ted jumped to attention. He held his left hand up and bent his fingers over and over in a ‘keep coming’ motion. Then he gave him the halt sign.
“I hope you got good brakes on that thing,” Smoke said.
“Something we test all the time,” Ted said.
Smoke’s phone rang. “It’s communications,” he said when he glanced at the display. “Hey. . . . Just tell them we found an object on the bottom of the lake and we’re retrieving it. . . . Yup. . . . Thanks.” He hit end and replaced his phone. “They’re getting flooded with phone calls wondering what we’re up to.”
Kyle joined us by the water’s edge as Warner and company reached the landing. “Detective?” Warner said.
“I’ll defer to you and your divers and the towing guys here,” he said.
“Excuse me, but can you tell us what’s going on here?” A middle-aged man with skinny legs and a round belly inched near the front of the tow truck and pointed to one of the houses at the top of the south side hill. “I live up there and own part of this lakeshore.”
“Sir, our water patrol spotted a large object on the bottom of the lake with his sonar, and we’re here to recover it. I’ll need you to stay clear of the area.” Smoke looked around at the other people crowding in and added. “All of you.”
The group shifted over to the guard rail on the inside edge of the road’s shoulder for a box office view of the action.
Smoke focused on the crew in the boat. “Ortiz, Zubinski, change of plans. I guess I’ll need you to do crowd control.”
They nodded then got out of the boat and walked to the front of the tow truck. “It was fun while it lasted,” Ortiz muttered under his breath.
Smoke lowered his voice to avoid being overheard by any of the bystanders. “Okay, Ted, Kyle, there’s an old Dodge down there. And as much as we have been able to check out, it appears it’s been a coffin for a pair of individuals for a long time.”
Kyle did a double take. “What’d you say?”
“Robin didn’t say there were people in there.” Wiry Ted rocked onto his tip toes.
“Unfortunately, about all that’s left is their bones,” Warner said.
“If it weren’t for that, we might not have made the decision for this risky of an operation. And we want to keep quiet about the bodies for the time being,” Smoke said.
Kyle’s face was solemn when he nodded. “Understood. We should have plenty of strap. We’ll get her in.”
Ted bounced from one foot to the other. “Why don’t you secure the hook in your boat and we’ll unwind the strap as you drive.”
“I’ll put two divers on each side of the vehicle to keep a close watch. It’ll be a slow process, but we’ll take as much time as we need to,” Warner said.
Smoke inclined his head toward the boat. “Corky, you go out with Warner. I’ll work on this end of it.”
I gave him a nod and climbed into the boat. Kyle turned on the hydraulic winch and slowly unrolled the strap. Ted grabbed it and walked it over to the boat where Weber took it and held on. “How much power does that baby have?” Weber asked.
“Pulling power of twelve thousand pounds,” Ted said.
“Whoa, no shit.” Weber turned to Warner. “Sarge, how many pounds you figure that car full of water down there weighs?”
Warner plopped a hand on the opposite forearm and tapped his fingers like he was counting. “Well. The car would be around four thousand pounds, two ton. Probably less. The water and silt inside of it? I’d guess there’s around two hundred gallons of water. No good idea about the silt, so let’s stick with the water weight. Who’s good at math?”
“Mason is,” Carlson said.
“A gallon of water weighs about eight point three pounds,” Warner said.
Mason nodded. “Right around sixteen-sixty.”
“So we’re looking at less than six thousand pounds combined weight of the vehicle and the water.”
“We’re okay then. We’ll have some resistance from the lake itself, but not that much,” Ted said.
“Let’s do it,” Warner said.
Smoke released his hold on the boat’s tie rope. Warner gave it some gas and moved slowly toward the site, unrolling the strap from the winch as he did. When the car came into view, he cut the engine. “Okay, I want two of you on each side of the car. Weber and Mason, you apply the hook to the undercarriage as close to the center as possible. Then get into position with your partner. We’ll move slowly to turn the vehicle from its current position facing west to the north.
“Oh, and divers, as an added caution: stay far enough back from the vehicle. If you get in trouble, your partner is there to help you. Signal ‘stop’ if you notice any part of the operation going south. Any questions, comments, concerns?”
“I got a comment. When they turn the car, it’s going to stir up all that muck on the lake’s bottom,” Mason said.
“Good point. We’ll go as slow as we can to minimize that. Okay, Roth you take the south side of the car, the driver’s side. Carlson, you take the north. Weber and Mason, make the connection then signal when you want us to start tightening the strap. When it’s taut, give us the ‘stop’ signal and we’ll wait until you’ve both moved out of the way until we start the tow. Weber, you’re with Carlson, Mason you’re with Roth. Drop the hook and let’s get this operation underway.”
Roth lowered the strap into the water, and then the four of them pulled on their face masks and jumped in. We watched the action on the screen. Weber and Mason worked for a while to attach the hook. When it was secured, Mason gave us the ‘okay’ sign to tighten the strap.
Warner depressed the talk button on his radio. “Six-eleven, Three-forty on two.”
“Go ahead on two,” Smoke answered.
“The hook is in place and we’re ready for a slow and easy shortening of the line.”
“I’ll put my arm up when it looks like they’re getting close and drop it when the divers tell me to stop,” Warner added.
“We’ll be keeping a close watch.”
I held my breath and kept my eyes peeled to the screen. When it appeared the strap was losing the last of its slack, Mason waved his hand back and forth to signal ‘slow down’. Warner stuck his hand in the air then dropped it like a lead balloon when Mason’s hand shot up in the ‘stop’ signal. Ted’s reflexes were spot on. He halted the winch’s pull, but there was still a slight jerk on the car.
I blew out the rest of the air I’d held too long.
Weber and Mason joined their partners, and Warner spoke into his radio. “Six-eleven to Three-forty.”
“Let’s get the vehicle turned a quarter turn to the north. Nice and easy.”
I had an involuntary sharp gasp, making me seem like I was the tensest one on the scene. Watching other deputies in situations that held a high probability of danger was one of the most difficult parts of my job.
When the car moved, the dark cloudy bottom of silt rose and surrounded the car. It hung in the water like a dense fog. Ted had the hydraulic winch moving at a snail’s pace and it took a few minutes before the car was positioned facing north. I glanced up at Warner. Lines of sweat were running from his temples down the front of his ears to his neck. His jaw was set and his eyes were intently focused on the sonar screen. I wasn’t the only one on pins and needles.
“Breathe,” I said.
“That’s what I have to tell myself when I’m tied up in knots.”
He gave a single nod, sucked in a breath then held up his hand for Kyle to proceed. He said, “Nice and easy,” into his radio.
“Nice and easy,” Smoke repeated.
The silt continued to be stirred along the way as the hydraulic winch was tightened and the old Dodge inched toward Whitetail’s north shore. Warner trolled behind and we maintained a close watch on the operation, especially on the divers who were visible even when clouds of rising lake bottom surrounded them. At the slow pace, it was still only a matter of minutes before the car was at the shoreline. It was not yet visible above the surface.
The divers surfaced and Warner steered the boat to the west of the car. “So far, so good,” Warner said. “Bottom here is right around eight feet.”
Smoke and Ted moved to the water’s edge and looked down. Kyle jumped off his flat bed truck and joined them. He craned his neck both right and left, apparently assessing the situation. “I’d feel better if we’d get some guiding straps around it. It’d be less likely to twist and turn, maybe flip over.”
Ted agreed. “You divers okay with that?”
They all were.
Kyle fished around in a large stainless steel storage bin in the back of the truck and found the equipment he needed. He carried the straps and hooks to the edge, said, “Heads up,” and dropped them on the ground near Ted’s feet.
Ted picked up a strap by the hook at the end and handed it to Mason. “If you can attach this to the undercarriage behind the left front wheel.” He gave the second strap to Weber. “And this one to the right side.” The two deputies went down with the hook ends of the straps and completed their task in no time. Ted gave Kyle the loose ends which he fed into two smaller hydraulic winches on opposite sides of the truck bed. He wound them until they were taut and ready for tugging action, then paused the winches.
My stomach muscles were as tight as the towing straps when Ted said, “We’re ready to bring her out. I want everyone to move to either side of the truck when she reaches the surface. We’ve never had a strap break, and she should be fine, but a guy can never be too careful in an operation like this.”
Kyle nodded and waited for the four divers to get out of the way before he continued. He fussed with the settings on the winches then started them up from one to the next in a seamless move. Warner turned his video camera on the landing and hit ‘record’.
Smoke was standing as close to the edge as was safe. He looked at me with what felt like a pleading expression. I wanted to take him in my arms and hold him while the car was released from the lake that had been its burial site for too long. What I read on Smoke face told me he was convinced his missing friends from all those years back were about to be found. I managed a weak smile and folded my hands. He blinked his eyes in response and turned his attention back to the vehicle that was emerging from the deep.
Every one of us gasped. We couldn’t help ourselves. Warner reached over and grabbed my forearm, reminding me he was there. But I didn’t take my eyes off the old blue water and silt-filled Charger that surfaced, aided by the best equipment available. When most of the vehicle had cleared, water and muck began draining as it was guided onto the bank.
I was drawn back to Smoke and his reaction. He closed his eyes, bent his head, and stroked his forehead with the fingers of one hand for a moment. He was perhaps saying a prayer. I had been praying throughout the whole operation.
Kyle stopped the winches and we all were dumbstruck. Smoke, Ted, and the divers slowly approached the car knowing it was a coffin holding the remains of at least two people, and peered in the car windows. Each one of them stared, but not one audible word spilled from their mouths. We had all be been cautioned to keep quiet about the discovery for the time being.
“Let’s dock,” Warner said at a near whisper. He pulled up to shore and signaled Weber who was closest to the landing post. Warner threw him the rope and when the boat was secure, we climbed out.
My legs were shaky, like I’d been on board for days. I wobbled over to Smoke’s side and caught his hand in mine to offer a brief comforting touch. We squeezed each other’s hand then released them before the others noticed.
“This is definitely a first for us.” Kyle was the first to break the silence. It was a first for all of us.
New people arrived and moved near the near the front of the truck, craning their necks in an effort to see what they could, before Ortiz and Zubinski yelled for them to get back. Someone standing by the guard rail yelled they had a good vantage point, and the newcomers moved there, making crowd control an easier job for Zubinski and Ortiz.
I leaned over and stared into the Charger. I had my second involuntary gasp of the morning. Two skeletons were in the front seat of the car. One was half lying on the other, making it appear he or she was shielding the other. More likely, since there was no evidence of attached seats belts, the bodies had ended up that way from the plunge into the water. But if that hadn’t killed them, they must have embraced when they knew they were trapped.
I followed Smoke as he started on a visual tour of the rest of the vehicle. “Smoke?”
“I am ninety-nine-point-nine percent certain this is Tommy Fryor’s Charger.” His face was solemn as he leaned closer to the passenger window and squinted against the sun.
Christine Husom is the Second Wind author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series