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.