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.