A Death in Lionel’s Woods will be released later this year by Second Wind Publishing. I first posted an excerpt in April. Detective Smoke Dawes, Sergeant Corky Aleckson, Deputies Vince Weber and Amanda Zubinski are at a death scene in a private woods next to a public county park. This picks up as the medical examiner arrives.
The four of us turned at the sound of an approaching vehicle. The Midwest Medical Examiner’s van turned onto the field road and continued to where the mobile crime lab sat. The van stopped next to it. A short, stocky woman with gray hair moussed into a spikey do got out and walked toward us with deliberate steps. “Bridey Patrick,” she announced before the rest of us had a chance to greet her. Her small brown, not quite beady, eyes narrowed on Smoke. “Detective Dawes.”
“Doctor Patrick. Thanks for making it out here so fast. Team, introduce yourselves.” The three of us gave her our names and got a quick nod in return, then the doctor turned her attention to Ms. Doe. Whatever she was thinking, she kept to herself.
“You photographed the deceased?”
“Yeah, from all angles,” Weber said.
Doctor Patrick pulled on protective gloves and then leaned down and touched the inside of Ms. Doe’s wrist. “She’s as cold as the earth she’s lying on.” Her initial examination was brief, as she ran her hands over the body, looking for obvious signs of what caused her death. Her hand stopped in Doe’s mid-back section. “There’s something underneath her.”
“We didn’t see anything–”
“No, her sweater’s covering the part that’s sticking out. Could be a large knife, or some sort of tool. Let’s turn her over.” Zubinski and Weber had crime lab gear on, so they moved in to help Patrick. Any one person could have completed the task alone, but Zubinski and Weber carefully slid their hands under Doe’s shoulder and hip and rolled her on Weber’s count of “three.”
“What the heck? She was laying on a garden trough?” Weber said.
Smoke and I took a step closer then we both leaned in, almost bumping heads. “The ground is disturbed under the leaves,” he said.
“She was digging something? Weber, where’d you put your camera?” I asked.
“Back in my squad. Front seat, on top of the pile there.” I left to retrieve it.
“Grab an evidence bag while you’re at it,” Smoke called out. I didn’t know what supplies were in the trunk of the squad car I had driven. Since I’d been assigned to office duty, I’d been driving my personal vehicle back and forth to work. The squad car I had previously shared with two others had picked up a third deputy in my absence. I wasn’t sure what would happen after today. Only God knew that. I found the camera where Weber said it was, then I popped open the trunk of the borrowed car and dug through a box of evidence bags until I located one large enough to accommodate the trowel.
I returned with the camera and handed it to Weber who snapped photo after photo from various angles. Zubinski took the evidence bag from me and waited for Weber to finish. When he handed the camera back to me, Zubinski opened the bag and Weber reached down, lifted the trowel, and dropped it in the bag. Zubinski sealed it, and then carried it over to the crime lab where she would date it and give it a number.
“Do you need the deceased while you conduct the rest of your investigation here, Detective? She’s been out here alone for two days, by my estimation. I’d like to take her to the office.”
“No, we’ve got what we need from her. I’ll help you with the gurney.” He followed Doctor Patrick to her vehicle.
“I don’t want to know how uncomfortable that was, laying on that thing,” Weber said.
I stared at Doe’s face again, but her blank expression hinted at nothing. If anything, she looked at peace. “For sure. Something went terribly wrong somewhere. We just have to figure out what.”
“Yeah, that’s what we’re here for.”
Is that what I’m here for? I’ve missed having that strong sense of purpose these past months. The belief, the assurance, that I used to take for granted.
Smoke and Bridey Patrick rolled the gurney to about four feet from Doe’s body. Patrick unzipped the bag as Mandy returned from the mobile crime unit. “We’ll get her for you; she can’t weigh eighty pounds,” Mandy said and nodded at Weber. Ms. Doe didn’t protest in the least when they scooped her up and laid her in the body bag. Patrick zipped her in, unlocked the brake on the gurney, and Smoke pushed it to the back of the van.
“Put her clothes in paper bags and we’ll pick them up later.”
“Right. I’ll call you when they’re ready,” Doctor Patrick said.
“She’s as serious as Melberg. Seriouser,” Weber said after Patrick drove away.
“I love it when you make up words, Vince,” Mandy said and frowned, negating her statement.
“Patrick’s like Melberg at crime scenes and autopsies. Both of them are extremely focused. Some guys can joke, release some steam to break up the tension. Others can’t I guess. Or won’t. Melberg and Patrick fall in the latter category.” Smoke got on his hands and knees. “Let’s scoop up the leaves she was lying on and bag ‘em up. There may be some kind of trace evidence or transfer from her clothes. Or somebody else’s.”
Zubinski retrieved a small shovel from the van and Weber waited with a large evidence bag, open at the top as far as he could stretch it. Mandy bent over and scooped a small amount of the leaf matter, dropped it in the bag, and scooped another, taking some dirt with it.
“What have we here?” Smoke asked. He bent over for a closer look, then used his pen to push a few leaves aside.
“She buried something here?” I asked as I leaned in myself.
“Photo man, we need some more shots,” Smoke said, needlessly pointing at the ground.
Vince sighed as he handed the leaf-filled bag to Mandy and then lifted the camera that hung from a strap around his neck and rested on his chest.
The disturbed area on the floor of the woods was about twelve inches by eighteen inches. The dirt appeared to have been dug out, then put back, and patted down.
“Curious,” Mandy said.
“And curiouser,” Vince said. “And I didn’t make that up. It came from something I read as a kid.”
“You read Alice in Wonderland?” Mandy’s eyebrows squeezed together.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” he mumbled and hitched a shoulder up.
Mandy smiled and I shook my head.
“Let’s see what might be in this rabbit hole,” Smoke said. He held out his hand for the shovel which Mandy handed over, and then set about carefully digging around the edges of the “rabbit hole.” After he’d had dug a little trench around the perimeter, he knelt down and started brushing away some dirt from the surface. He stuck his pen in the ground a few places. “There’s something here.”
Mandy, Vince, and I leaned in even closer, growing cuiouser by the second.
Smoke stood and used the shovel to scrape thin layers of dirt from the site. “I got something.” He uncovered a gallon-size plastic bag, then bent over and lifted it from its burial plot, shaking off the bit of soil that clung to it.
“What the heck?” Vince said.
“Bags of money in there?” Mandy said.
“That’s a little on the strange side. But I have heard of people burying money before,” I said.
Smoke gave a quick nod. “We’ll need two of you take these bags, one by one, and count to see how much is in each bag. First let’s see just how many we got here.”
“I’ll get another evidence bag so we can transfer them as you pull them out,” Mandy said. She was gone and back in a flash.
Smoke reached in and withdrew one sandwich size baggie after the next and handed them to Mandy who kept count, then dropped them in her bag.
“We should be able to get fingerprints, find out if there are any other ones on them besides our victim’s,” I said.
Altogether, there were nine bags of varying thicknesses, depending on the stack of bills in each one of them. On the bottom of the gallon bag was a single picture in its own baggie. It was the last baggie Smoke removed. He studied the front of it for a long moment. “I’m guessing it’s our Miss Doe, but she has a whole lot more muscle and tissue on her body. She’s with two little kids.” He flipped the bag over and read out loud what was written on the back. “Looks like M-A-I-S-A, Maisa, L-E-L-A, Lela, S-E-S-E, Sese. And Georgia. Georgia, I’m guessing that’s where they were when the picture was taken.” Smoke looked at me and handed the photo over. “Those sound like Swiss names to you?”
“Could be I guess. I really don’t know.”
“Swiss names?” Mandy asked.
“Our sergeant here thought maybe Miss Doe was a member of the Swiss Apostolic clan in Kadoka.”
“Huh. Are those the ones who wear those kinda drab colored dresses and have those head coverings?” Vince wondered.
He jutted his chin out. “Oh. I thought we had a little group of Amish around here somewhere, but never asked nobody about it.”
“I think they’re mostly in southern Minnesota near the Iowa border. Around Harmony,” Mandy said.
“Peace loving people that they are, they musta picked that town for its name,” Weber said.
“There’s a fairly large population northwest of here too, in Todd County,” I added, my eyes fixed on the photo.
Weber shrugged. “Had no idea.”
“Any of you guys been to Georgia?” I asked.
“When I was a kid,” Mandy said.
“I’m trying to remember my geography. They have mountains there?”
“Sure, the northern part of the state,” Smoke answered.
I admired the setting. “Picturesque. Woman holding a toddler, another little one at her side, standing in front of some trees with the leaves about a hundred autumn shades of green and red and orange and gold. The mountain peak behind them in the distance.” I handed the photo to Mandy who held it up so Vince could look at it with her.
“Kids have regular clothes on, shorts and tee shirts, but the woman looks kind of old-fashioned in that dress,” Mandy said.
“How old do you suppose she is there?” Vince asked.
“Twenty-five, maybe younger,” Smoke said.
“The little girl can’t be two. The boy maybe four, five?” I said.
Smoke reached for the photo and nodded. “I’d say that’s about right.”
A small wave of sadness rolled over me. “They look happy.”
“It would’ve been nice if she had put the year on it, too. Give us some idea of how old the kids are now,” Mandy said.
“They might not be hers. Do you suppose they’re from Georgia, or were they on vacation, visiting someone there?” I asked.
“It’s a puzzle, all right. And we still got the question of why she had all these bags of money,” Smoke said.
Vince elbowed Mandy’s arm. “Speaking of which, let’s go count, Zubinski, see how much she was protecting when she died.”
Zubinski gave me the baggie-protected photo and I reread the names. Maisa, huh? And Lela and Sese. Unusual names, all right. Maybe they are Swiss.”
“We’re a melting pot nation.”
Smoke’s phone rang. “Dawes. . . . Okay, Doc. I’ll have someone from our office there, too. . . . Right, bye.” Smoke closed his phone. “Doctor Patrick. She got Miss Doe scheduled for autopsy tomorrow afternoon at two. They’re going to work on a computer sketch of what she might have looked like at a normal weight.”
“How’d she get that done so fast?” She can’t have gotten to Anoka yet.”
“I’d venture to guess she was conducting business over the phone on the drive over. Let’s check on our team.”
Smoke and I went to the doorway of the mobile crime lab and watched them work. “These stupid gloves slow down the operation,” Weber said as he fumbled to lift a five dollar bill from one pile to set it on the waiting pile on the narrow counter.
“One hundred and sixteen,” Mandy said and wrote it down on the outside of an evidence bag. She was the one who spoke the numbers out loud as she and Weber finished counting the bills in the bag they were on. She wrote the agreed total on the bag. Then she replaced the bills in the original baggie, slipped it inside the larger evidence bag, sealed it, and put her initials over the seal. “Two down, seven to go.”
“A hundred-forty-three bucks in that bag. How much in the first?” Smoke asked.
“One thirty-six smackeroos,” Vince said.
“Different amounts, so not consistent that way.”
“Largest denomination was a twenty in the first bag, a ten in the second,” Mandy added.
“And what would be the reason for all the smaller bags inside the big one? They weren’t marked, like the one-forty-three was for the electricity bill, and the one-thirty-six was for groceries,” I said.
“Yeah. Huh,” Vince agreed.
“Until we can find her family and or identify her, I think we’re stuck with way more way more questions than explanations,” Smoke said. “Weber, Zubinski, carry on here. Get your evidence taken care of, but I’ll keep the photo to show some folks. Aleckson and I will start talking to the neighbors in the area.”