The book launched on November 16th. In this installment, the sheriff’s department has begun an investigation to uncover the identity of a woman whose body was found by a man returning from a morning hunt, starting with the man who found her.
“Who was the guy that found her? The hunter?” I asked Smoke as we walked to our cars.
“Kevin Lionel. This woods and the surrounding property belongs to him.”
“Do you think we should talk to him first off, see how he’s doing?”
“Sounds like a plan, little lady.”
I followed Smoke’s Crown Victoria back out to the county road, and when he headed north. He turned left into a driveway about 100 yards down on the west side of the road. We pulled up close to the house, parked, and met at the front door. A chill ran through me as I pondered whether I even knew how to interview a witness after all those months behind a desk.
“Like riding a bike. Nothing to worry about,” Smoke said.
“You can read my mind now?”
“Prit’ near. You get a little crease close to your left eyebrow when you doubt yourself.”
“Really?” I’d have to make a conscious effort in the future to keep that little crease ironed flat so I didn’t give myself away to Smoke, or anyone else for that matter. At least when I was working.
He rang the doorbell. “Like falling into a soft pile of snow.”
“More like jumping out of an airplane.”
A lumberjack of a man opened the door. He had several inches on Smoke’s six feet, and was a foot or so taller than my five-five. He had a full dark beard which gave an impressive contrast to the blaze orange stocking cap and matching flannel shirt he was wearing. The man I presumed was Kevin Lionel looked from Smoke to me and shook his head. “Did you find out who she was?”
“No, we haven’t made an identification yet.” Smoke waved his hand into the open doorway. “This is Sergeant Aleckson. Mind if we come in for a few minutes?”
Lionel gave me a curt nod. “Hi. Forgot my manners. Sure thing, come in.” He moved out of the doorway, and we stepped in. Lionel shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t gotten around to taking a shower and changing yet. I hope the buck scent isn’t too strong and stinky. I can’t even smell it anymore.”
There was an unusual, sour odor clinging to him that I guessed was the doe urine many hunters used to cover their own personal scent. My hunter friends had informed me that deer have a keen sense of smell they use to both stay out of danger and to find other deer, mates in particular.
“Not to worry,” Smoke said.
“That’s all I’ve been doing is worrying. I’m tied up in knots trying to figure out who’d put that poor woman’s body in my woods. And why my woods?” Lionel reached up and scratched his head then pulled off his cap, revealing thick, curly, nearly black hair. He tossed the cap on the shelf in his open entry closet.
“That’s a good question. There’s no evidence that indicates someone else put her body there.”
Lionel shrugged. “Oh, I just figured that.”
“We’ve completed the preliminary investigation, but we’ll leave the perimeter marked in your woods, for now. We’re not posting a deputy at the scene to keep it secure, but it’s best not to advertise where the victim was found.”
“I got the ‘No Trespassing’ signs posted. Mostly so people don’t go hunting without permission. Hope that helps keep people from snooping around.”
Smoke nodded and paused before changing the subject. “No recollection of ever seeing her anywhere before today?”
Lionel shook his head. “No. No recollection at all.”
“You know all your neighbors?”
“Sure. At least to say hey and shoot the breeze awhile. I can’t say I’m close to any of them, but we’re friendly enough.”
“That’s more than most of us nowadays. Mister Lionel, now that you’ve had a little time to think about it, is there anything else that’s come to mind, or do you have any other questions?”
Lionel frowned. “I’m still sort of in shock, I guess. I can’t think of what to ask.”
Smoke nodded then pulled his business card and the plastic-enclosed photo from his breast pocket. He handed the card to Lionel. “Call anytime, if you need to.” Then he held the photo up for Lionel to see. “We found this with the victim. Does the family look familiar to you?”
Lionel reached over and carefully, almost reverently, took the baggie from Smoke. He studied the photo for a second, and a flicker of an expression that signified recognition crossed his face. His eyebrows raised slightly, his mouth pursed.
“You know them?” Smoke asked, leaning closer.
“Ah, . . . no.” He handed the photo back.
“You don’t sound too sure of yourself.”
“Um, well, the woman looks a little like someone I knew.”
“Someone you knew?”
“Knew, as in the past tense?”
“She left about a year ago.”
“Where is she now?”
Lionel shrugged. “I have no idea. I came home one day and she was gone. Left me a note.”
“And she hasn’t filed for divorce?”
“We weren’t actually, um, legally married.”
Smoke nodded. “And you’ve had no communication with her at all?”
“Nope. I thought maybe she wasn’t real happy, but she never said she was unhappy. I guess you could say I wasn‘t exactly happy either.”
“Okay. But the woman in the photo is not your wife, even though she looks like her?”
“No, she is not my wife and I’ve never seen those kids before. I know that for a fact.”
Smoke and I drove down the road to the nearby county park and got out of our cars to chat.
A cooling breeze brushed across my face. “What a way to refer to his ex-wife. As someone he knew. Why wouldn’t he say who she was in the first place?”
“I caught that too. Sounded embarrassed about the whole thing, if you ask me. They weren’t married, he didn’t think she was happy, but she didn’t say she was unhappy. A little communication may have helped their relationship.”
“It may have. The look on Kevin’s face when he saw that photo certainly struck a chord with him,” I said.
“I’d say that’s a given. Could be it’s just what he said it was. The woman in the photo looked a little like his sort of wife, and it struck something in him all right. Brought back some memories, good, bad, or indifferent.”
“I think that if I saw a picture of someone that looked a little like my brother, for example, I’d have a different reaction. I know Lionel’s under stress, but still.”
“You’ve got a point. It could be he did recognize the woman in the photo and his mind is not ready to go there yet, in case it’s the same woman he found dead in his woods.”
“He seemed honestly upset about the woman’s body being in his woods, thinking somebody put her there.”
“He was that. I’ll run a background on Lionel, see if anything turns up. And we’ll keep him in the loop as much as we need to.”
Smoke went back to the office to take care of some business, and to make a copy of the photo to show people I talked to. I stayed in the park and started writing the report on my laptop. After working awhile, I thought I’d better call my work voicemail because I’d been out of the office since morning. No new messages, so I listened to the one I had saved. “You killed my friend.” Who are you, and who is your friend?
My heart pounded and a wave of nausea rolled through me, throwing me into a panic attack. I opened my car door in case I got sick. What is wrong with you? I chided myself. I need to believe in my heart of hearts that Grandma is right, that I will be okay again. Eventually.
I pulled out my memo pad with my case notes, and willed myself to concentrate on Jane Doe. I calmed down as I shifted my thoughts from myself to her. What—or was it a who—had brought her to Kevin Lionel’s woods where she died on a buried stash of money. My report could only include the facts of what, and not any suppositions of why.
When Smoke returned about thirty minutes later, he gave me a copy of the photo. We divided the houses within a one mile radius of where Ms. Doe’s body was found, and spent the next hour canvassing for answers. About half the people were home, and of those I questioned no one knew of anyone in the area who was missing. Nor did any of them recognize the woman and children in the photograph.
I finished my canvassing ahead of Smoke and returned to Jeremiah Madison County Park to wait for him so we could decide on the next course of action. He pulled in a minute before three o’clock and parked next to me, driver’s side door next to driver’s side door. We rolled down our windows and pulled our memo books from our front pockets.
“Find out anything?” I asked.
He drummed the steering wheel with his pen. “My stomach just let me know I skipped lunch, but that’s about it.”
I hadn’t even realized my own stomach was signaling for some attention of its own until he’d mentioned it. The emaciated body of Ms. Doe had undoubtedly quelled my appetite. “Yeah, that’s about it for me too.” I paged through my memo pad. “Not one of the neighbors I talked to knows of a woman who has gone missing, nor remembers seeing anything suspicious in the area in the last day or two—that includes people, vehicles, and activities. And nobody recognized any of the three in the photo.”
Smoke gave a nod and put his notebook back in his pocket. “Yup, that about sums up the responses I got, too. Of course, almost everyone was pretty damn curious about why I wanted to know. When I told them we were investigating a suspicious death in the area, they all got curiouser.” The long dimples in his cheeks deepened when he smiled.
“I can’t believe you’re actually quoting Weber.”
“Correction, I’m quoting a word Lewis Carroll coined.”
“Actually and coincidentally, there is another Lewis Carroll quote I think about sometimes. Mostly because it applies to so much of what we do: ‘One of the secrets of life is that all that is worth the doing is what we do for others.’”
“You know, Smoke, you amaze me sometimes, like when you pull one of those quotes out of your memory bank.”
“I’d like to say it’s because I have a steel trap mind, but we both know that’s not true.”
I smiled. “It is a good quote for a service-oriented job like ours, that’s for sure.”
Smoke’s eyebrows drew together. “Is it official? Are you back in the saddle again? Chief Deputy will have to know so he can revise the work schedule, and I surely could use your help, especially on this case.”
The thought of our Ms. Doe being ill and somehow ending up in Kevin Lionel’s woods, and then dying on top of a photo and some buried money tugged at my heartstrings. It ignited my compulsion to do my part to uncover the truth and help grease the wheels of justice. I realized I was nodding. “I want to work on this case. I need to find out what happened to our victim.”
“I’m glad to have you back. More than glad. I’m downright grateful.”
Christine Husom is the author the Winnebago County Mystery Series. A Death in Lionel’s Woods is the fifth in the series.