Buried in Wolf Lake
When a family’s Golden Retriever brings home the dismembered leg of a young woman, the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department launches an investigation unlike any other. Who does the leg belong to, and where is the rest of her body?
Sergeant Corrine Aleckson and Detective Elton Dawes soon discover they are up against an unidentified psychopath who targets women with specific physical features. Are there other victims, and will they learn the killer’s identity in time to prevent another brutal murder?
“Sergeant Aleckson, report to my office.” Sheriff Twardy’s voice dropped like a bomb from the public address system speaker in the squad room where four other Winnebago County deputies and I worked on reports.
Instead of phoning or paging me, the sheriff always called me over the rarely used system, letting everyone in the department know I was summoned again. He didn’t do it to humiliate me. The sheriff was in his late fifties and old-school cop in many ways.
As I hit “save” on the computer and pulled out the zip drive, the chiding began.
“Wha’d you do this time, Corinne?” Brian Carlson mocked, throwing his head to the side to look at me.
I wracked my brain for a second and shrugged. “I honestly don’t know.” For once. “You guys can stop your gloating. I’ll tell you when I get back.” I stacked my reports and shoved them to the side.
“You mean if you get back,” Todd Mason paused from his typing to dig in.
“Very funny, Mason. You know, I really love the moral support you give me around here. Remember, what goes around comes around. Next time once of you guys gets called before the sheriff–”
“Are you kidding? Hey, we’re not the ones who are always getting ourselves in trouble–you are,” Todd shot back.
I looked back over my shoulder as I crossed the threshold. “Only because, as your sergeant, I take the heat and keep you out of it.”
“Whatever,” Todd murmured.
“Huh!” Brian added.
As I wove my way to the sheriff’s office, I reflected on the camaraderie I had with most of the other deputies in the department. A few weeks before, Mason and Carlson helped stop a madwoman intent on killing my friend and me. I hoped I would never have to return the favor, but we all knew I wouldn’t hesitate if it came to that.
“Denny, there is no way she is going in there!”
I heard Detective Elton Dawes’ voice resound from the sheriff’s office.
“That’s not up to you, Smoke! It’s up to her. You’re too protective of Aleckson. She is a trained professional, for godsakes,” Sheriff Twardy shot back.
Oh, boy, now what? Everyone in the secretarial pool was, no doubt, as curious as I was about the exchange. I knocked, stepped inside, and closed the door before more words could escape into the outer office. The sheriff’s hazel eyes and Smoke’s sky blues fixed on me.
Instead of demanding to know what was going on, I politely said, “Yes, sir?”
“Take a seat, Sergeant.”
I eased onto a chair across from the sheriff. The creases in his face seemed deeper than usual. Twardy continued to scrutinize me and I fought the urge to shift in my seat. I glanced at Smoke. He was looking down and running his hands through his thick salt and pepper hair. What was going on?
“I got a call from Captain Palmer,” the sheriff said.
Palmer was the administrator of the Winnebago County Jail.
“Alvie Eisner wants to see you. Alone.” Sheriff Twardy watched for my reaction.
I tried to mentally process why Alvie Eisner would possibly want to see me. Alone.
Smoke leaned forward. “Forget it! That monster almost killed Corky and now she wants to see her? Just forget it.” He looked from me to the sheriff. His long dimples deepened as he worked the muscles in his lean, angular face.
I tuned out Twardy’s and Smoke’s voices as visions of Alvie Eisner jumped to life in my mind. Her only son, a miscreant, had been sent to prison for his crimes and committed suicide while incarcerated. Alvie determined revenge would be best served by killing everyone she held responsible for his death. She murdered a retired judge, the county attorney, and the public defender. It was sweeter still when she made the deaths look like suicides so their families would suffer as she had.
Due to my level of involvement in the investigation, Alvie Eisner determined I should die too. She threatened my friend Sara, a probation officer, and me with a gun. When I knocked the gun out of her hands, she went after me with the full force of her body. Eisner was many inches taller and close to one hundred pounds heavier, so she was a worthy adversary. I battled Alvie Eisner for a matter of minutes, but they were very, very long minutes. Thank God my colleagues arrived when they did.
A little more than a month later, I continued to wake from terrifying nightmares in a cold sweat, with my heart pounding. I knew I should talk to someone about my dreams, but I wasn’t ready. The thought of putting words to my angst sent waves of increased anxiety through my entire body. I shuddered slightly.
“That woman is out of her gourd.” I came back to Smoke’s words. “There is no reason she should be allowed to talk to Corky. She’ll face her in court when Corky testifies against her. They can’t discuss the case, so what in the hell could she possibly want?”
“Palmer told me Eisner said it was something personal–not about the case.”
Smoke craned his neck toward the sheriff. “Personal? Personal? She is totally off her rocker if she thinks Corky wants to discuss anything personal with her.”
The sheriff and Smoke were both right. Alvie was off her rocker and Smoke–my mentor and dear friend–had always been a little protective of me. He was even more so after the incident with Eisner.
“I’m here,” I reminded the men, interrupting their stalemate. “Okay, I agree. Alvie Eisner is a monster, but I can’t help but wonder what she wants. I mean, don’t you?” I looked from Smoke to the sheriff, but neither replied.
I continued, “I don’t think I heard five sentences come out of her month through our entire investigation. I was lucky to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the times I talked to her.”
“Bad, bad idea,” Smoke said.
“I’ll tell Palmer I’ll meet with Eisner after her trial is over with. The jail can shackle her. We’ll be on opposite sides of a heavy conference table. Someone can watch through the glass.”
Smoke crossed his hands on his chest. “I still say no. She’s a damn nut case.”
My words were interrupted by the sheriff’s phone.
“Sheriff Twardy . . . What! . . . Tell me again . . . What’s the location? . . .Okay.” I watched the sheriff’s face grow red, the visible sign his blood pressure was climbing. He stood and straightened to his full five-foot-eight-inch height.
“Call the mobile crime lab. Who’s working major crimes this week, again?. . . Okay, good. I got Dawes and Aleckson with me. They’ll meet the crime lab team out there. Send the call information to the squad computers, but don’t put this out on the radio. Flag it as confidential. We’ll find out what we got first.” The sheriff hung up and shook his head. Silver-gray hair framed his red face.
Smoke’s body tensed during the sheriff’s conversation and my own muscles tightened in turn.
“That was communications. This is a new one. A dog just came home with a human leg, appears to be from a female.”
“Where?” Smoke asked.
“Dayton Township, Wolf Lake. You two get a move on. I’ll see you there.” The sheriff led the way out of his office and stopped by his secretary’s desk to fill her in.
“I gotta grab my reports from the squad room. Beat you there,” I challenged Smoke.
Smoke was, hands down, the most skilled driver in the department. He could push one hundred miles an hour on curvy roads. All the deputies were good, but no one was that good.
The squad room was empty so I grabbed my things without needing to converse. I hustled to my squad car. “608, Winnebago County.”
“Go ahead, 608,” communications officer Robin answered.
“I’m clear 10-19.”
“10-4, at 1530.”
Winnebago County had recently equipped our squad cars with portable computers linked to the county communications department, sheriff’s report and arrest records, as well as Minnesota state driver and vehicle registration records. I read the call for service on my computer.
The reporting person was a Tara Engen of 8539 Abbott Avenue Northwest, Dayton Township. Not a name I recognized. There were a number of people who called in to report various extraordinary, sometimes downright unbelievable, things on a regular basis. They were seldom valid complaints. Some of the callers had mental health issues. Others were bored, hyper-vigilant, or just plain too nosy for their own good. But, like the little boy who cried wolf, even our frequent theatrical reporters had a legitimate call from time to time.
It was a suspicious circumstances call. Tara Engen reported her dog found a woman’s leg in Wolf Lake. My mind scanned through reports of missing people in the county. We had our fair share. Most were teenagers who left without telling their parents where they were going and turned up a day or two later. There was the occasional dementia patient who wandered off on foot or in the family car. The majority were found fairly quickly. Once in a while, a non-custodial parent would run off with his or her child. But a missing woman? I could not recall one in the recent past.
How long had the leg been in the water? Days, months, years?
Suspicious circumstances, all right.
A message from Smoke appeared on my screen. “20?” He wondered where I was.
“CR 10, at 50th.” I typed back with my right hand, keeping the squad car under control with my left.
“10-4, crossing 70th.”
Smoke was two miles ahead of me. I pushed down my accelerator, knowing I wouldn’t catch up with him, but I could try. Wolf Lake was about twelve miles from the station. Officially, it wasn’t a red lights and siren call, but to the person keeping watch over a woman’s leg, it would be. The faster we got there, the better.
“710, Winnebago County.” It was Deputy Todd Mason on the radio.
“Go ahead, 710,” Robin answered for communications.
“Show 710 and 723 10-8 with Unit 3.” Mason and Carlson were rolling with the mobile crime lab.
“10-4, at 1539.”
Dayton Township was sparsely populated. Lake Pearl State Park occupied about half the nine square mile area. Lowlands, unsuitable for building or farming, took up another quarter. The remaining ground was rolling tree-covered hills, pastures, and farm fields. The south and west sides of Wolf Lake butted up to the state park.
County Road 10 crossed County Road 27 on the southern border of the Minnesota state park. I slowed down as I approached County Road 27 and turned left. Abbott Avenue was the first cross road and I pulled my steering wheel right. It was a gravel road and dust hung in the air from a vehicle ahead of me. My squad car stirred up more. I saw nothing but a cloud behind me when I glanced in the rear view mirror. I crossed Eighty-fifth Street Northwest, the road that led into the park.
Abbott ran close to the west bank of Wolf Lake and I surveyed the water as I drove by, half expecting a hand to pop up like in the old movie, Deliverance. What had happened to the rest of the woman? Coyotes? Cougars? Coyotes were prevalent and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported occasional cougar sightings. Either was possible, but would an animal leave a leg in the lake? Not likely.
I continued to the north side of the lake and pulled into the Engen’s driveway. An older yellow farmhouse sat on a small rise with a barn and several outbuildings. It was the only dwelling on the lake, built many years before the state purchased the nearby land for the park in the 1960s.
I phoned communications to tell them I had arrived and hopped out of my car. A dog barked in the distance, perhaps from the barn, or a kennel behind the house. He sounded big enough to carry a woman’s leg in his mouth.
Smoke and a forty-something brunette woman stood together near some patio furniture on the east side of the house. Actually, Smoke stood and the woman rolled from feet flat on the ground to tippy-toes in a continual rocking motion. Her arms crossed her body in a self hug as she peered at the ground.
Smoke looked at me as I approached, creased his eyebrows together then blinked at a spot a few feet away. I fixed my eyes on the gruesome sight of a woman’s right leg–from the tips of her scarlet red polished toenails to the top of the thigh. The cut which severed the leg from the rest of the body was clean, not jagged or ragged or torn. Not the work of an animal–a non-human animal, at least.
“Mrs. Engen–Tara–why don’t you have a seat on the chair, there,” Smoke directed in a calming tone. He put a hand on Engen’s shoulder to guide her to the patio furniture.
Engen released a loud breath. She stopped rocking, but shook her hands at her sides for some seconds. “Um . . . I’m gonna be sick.”
She ran a short distance and retched a few times before vomiting. I swallowed and slowly sucked in air through my nose to calm my own churning stomach. Smoke’s eyes traveled from Engen, to the ground and back, for the duration of her sick spell.
Engen’s peaked face was splotched with red circles when she finished. “Okay if I go get cleaned up?”
“Of course,” Smoke assured her.
Smoke and I moved closer to the leg. “Hopefully, she’ll be feeling a little better now,” Smoke said.
“Don’t count on it. Not for a long, long time,” I countered.
The grass on the lawn was recently cut, a neatly trimmed combination of grass, clover, and plantain. The pale white leg with its red toenails, on a bed of green grass, struck a frightful contrast. The colors of Christmas on a warm August day.
“Okay, this is the creepiest thing I have ever seen,” I said.
“I got a lot more years in than you so I’d have to think about that.” Smoke squatted to get a closer look and moved the readers from his breast pocket to his face. “Yeah, I’d say this would be on my top ten list. Let’s see what we got here.”
I could observe perfectly well from where I stood.
“Pretty clean cut. Power saw? Miter saw, fine blade? A butcher’s saw?” he guessed. “Appears to be from a fairly young Caucasian woman–I don’t know, twenties, thirties. Takes care of herself: pedicure, shaved, maybe waxed, legs–or leg–to be precise.”
Smoke squinted against the sun to find my face. “Which brings up the obvious question. Where the hell is the rest of her?”
I glanced around, taking in the surroundings. The yard was mowed to a few feet from the water. Swamp grasses filled the space between the lawn and the lake. Poplars grew close to the water on the east bank. Pines and hardwoods–maple, oak, and basswood of the state park–filled in behind them.
Where was the rest of the victim’s body and how did her leg wind up in a small, rural Winnebago County lake?
“Wha’d Engen say?” I asked.
“Not much. I got here only a minute before you. Said her Golden went for a swim and came back with the leg.” Smoke studied the leg for a few seconds. “Doesn’t look like it’s been in the water long. I’d say we got ourselves a crime scene.”
“You can see the dog’s teeth marks, but look–” I had grown more accustomed to the sight and squatted, facing Smoke on the other side of the leg, “–it looks like a human bite mark here.”
I pointed to the spot near the top of the thigh. The injured area was several inches in diameter. There were bruise marks where it appeared six upper and six lower teeth had sunk into the victim’s flesh.
Smoke lowered his head for a better look. “Yeah, well somebody likes to play way, way too rough–bites and cuts.”
I heard a vehicle on the gravel. The dog, which had quit barking some minutes before, started up again.
“Crime lab is here,” I said.
We stood and Smoke waved the deputies over. “Grab the tape and some stakes,” he called.
Brian Carlson opened the side door of the mobile unit, stepped in and out a second later with a roll of bright yellow crime scene tape and a small armful of thin, metal stakes.
Mason walked up to the dismembered leg and shook his head. “This is the stuff nightmares are made of.”
Smoke nodded. “No doubt.”
“Mine are bad enough already,” I said.
Smoke opened his mouth in question as Sheriff Twardy’s unmarked white Crown Victoria pulled in and parked next to my squad car in the driveway. He climbed out and hurried over.
“Had to get gas,” he said in case anyone wondered what had taken him longer than anyone else to get there. “Oh, for godsakes–it is a leg.”
“Sheriff, we call the coroner in for this?” Smoke asked.
Twardy frowned. “Good question, Detective. This is a first, as long as I’ve been with the department, all thirty-one years.” He wiped the back of his hand across his brow. “Sergeant, phone Melberg and let him make the call. Tell him we’ll start searching for the rest of her.”
Dr. Gordon Melberg was the county coroner.
“Right.” I stepped away from the others. Dr. Melberg answered on the third ring.
“Doc, it’s Sergeant Aleckson. The sheriff asked me to call.” I gave him a sumary of the dog’s discovery.
Melberg clucked his tongue loudly against the roof of his mouth. “The M.E. is about finished here so I’ll head up there shortly.” He was observing an autopsy of a person who had allegedly stabbed himself, according to a witness. “Give me about an hour. Is the leg lying in the sun?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay. Don’t cover it, of course, but figure out a way to get some shade over it, protect it from the sun.”
“Will do. Thanks, Doc.”
I relayed Melberg’s instructions to the others.
“Let’s grab four of those stakes to build a little tent,” Smoke directed.
Smoke, Mason, Carlson, and I each forced a stake into the ground a few feet from the leg to form four corners.
Smoke brushed his hands together. “Mason, got a tarp or blanket in the mobile unit?”
“Sure, I’ll grab it.”
We pulled the tarp over the stakes. Smoke looked up at the sky, then down at the leg. “Pull it a little more to the west to block out the sun.” The four of us worked to make the adjustment. “We’ll keep an eye on her, make sure we keep the sun off ‘til Doc gets here.”
We understood Smoke meant each one of us was responsible for that task.
Smoke jotted something on his memo pad. “We’re going to need reinforcements to help with the search, keep the scene secure, interview neighbors.”
The sheriff pulled out his phone. “I’ll call the chief deputy to pull as many as he can. What’d think? Six more be enough?” he asked Smoke.
Smoke ran a hand across his chin. “Should be to get started. I’m thinkin’ we’ll need divers too, but I want to take a quick look-see around before we get ’em here.”
The sheriff nodded and made his call.
“Okay, troops, let’s get this roped off before anyone else shows up,” Smoke advised.
“How much are you thinking, Detective?” Carlson asked.
“From here to the road, down the road the length of the lake.” Smoke pointed out the areas in question. “If we spot tracks of a vehicle pulling off the road, go around ‘em.”
He paused a minute, scanning the lake and the land around it. From our north side vantage point, the east side was wooded and the south side had a gentle hill that rose perhaps five or six feet, then dropped into a swampy area. On the west, there was a fenced-in pasture on the other side of the road.
Todd Mason held the mobile unit’s thirty-five millimeter camera. Smoke motioned to him.
“Start with the leg, then move down to the lake. When the homeowner comes back out we’ll see where the dog found the leg. Hard to see from here, but it looks like there are a fair number of tracks by the water.” He squinted and pointed to an area on the west bank.
“Aleckson and Carlson, you mark off the perimeter to the west there, then we’ll take a closer look,” Smoke instructed.
The house screen door closed and we turned to see Tara Engen coming toward us. Her drawn face had a little color restored to it and her shoulder length hair was wet and straight. Apparently she had done a quick shampoo and towel dry.
“Ms. Engen, you see where the dog found the leg?” Smoke asked.
Engen shook her head. “No. Zeke likes to go for a swim. He usually goes in over there.” She waved her pointer finger in the direction where Smoke had noticed the tracks.
“It’s easier to get in the lake, not so many weeds, like here.” She indicated where her yard became swamp reeds and grasses by the lake. “Anyway, I was putzing around the yard, not paying much attention to him. On my way to the garden I heard Zeke barking, you know, like he was telling me something?” She searched Smoke’s face and he nodded that he understood.
Engen exhaled sharply. “So I went back and saw Zeke had something laying on the ground. At first I thought it was a log, but it looked so weird. I couldn’t figure out what it was for the longest time and Zeke just kept barking the whole time.” Engen crossed her arms, resting them on her waist.
We were as still as four sculptures in Engen’s garden, listening to her account, waiting for answers.
“Then what happened?” Smoke urged.
Engen closed her eyes and hugged herself tighter. “I think I screamed . . .” She paused, then nodded. “Yeah, I screamed. And that pretty much scared Zeke. He looked at me like he knew something awful had happened. I couldn’t think of what to do next. Finally, I put Zeke in his kennel and called 911. Then I called my husband at work and told him to come home right away. He works in Plymouth and should be home any time now.”
“You did exactly the right thing,” the sheriff assured her.
Engen frowned. “Who would put a leg in our lake?”
The burning question.
“That’s what we intend to find out,” Smoke affirmed.
Sheriff Twardy took a step toward Engen and eased a reassuring hand on the back of her shoulder. “Let’s go sit on your patio and let the deputies do their jobs.”
Engen nodded and the sheriff ushered her away.
“We’re going to need a bunch of stakes. Think we got enough?” I asked Brian Carlson.
“Should have.” He was holding four or five. “We’ll start marking and I’ll grab more when we run out.”
Carlson handed me the roll of crime scene tape, then stuck the first thin metal stake in the ground about eight feet north of where the leg lay. I attached the tape and unrolled as we walked toward the road, following the length of the Engen’s driveway. Carlson and I kept our heads down, our eyes searching every inch of ground as we moved slowly along. Abbott Avenue ran anywhere between four and eight feet from Wolf Lake on the west side, following the shoreline. Carlson stuck a stake in the ground every eight feet, or so. I followed behind, attaching the tape.
Christine Husom lives in Minnesota with her family. She holds an undergraduate degree from Concordia College in St. Paul and a law enforcement certificate from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. Christine loves reading and writing mysteries. Buried in Wolf Lake is the second book in her Winnebago County mystery thriller series.
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