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.
“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.