A frantic man phones the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department reporting his brother is armed with a large dagger and on his way there, intent to sacrifice himself. Sergeant Corinne Aleckson takes the call, learning the alarming reasons behind the young man’s death wish. When the department investigates, they plunge into the alleged criminal activities of a hidden cult and the disturbing cover-up of an old closed-case shooting death. The cult members have everything to lose and will do whatever it takes to prevent the truth coming to light. But will they find An Altar by the River in time to save the young man?
Smoke knocked on Alden Armstrong’s door frame to alert him. He stepped in first and I was a close second.
Alden Armstrong’s name suited him well. His large, strong arms extended from broad shoulders. He was a big guy. Well over six feet, perhaps two hundred and fifty pounds. Brown hair sprinkled with gray, cut military style. Armstrong was seated at his desk. He looked up and seemed to take us both in with one glance.
“Lieutenant, got a minute?” Smoke asked.
He raised his right hand then waved. “Sure, have a seat.”
Smoke and I slid onto the two chairs on the visitor side of Armstrong’s desk.
“Question on a case?” he asked.
“Good guess. An old case. Harlan Manthes.”
A storm cloud crossed Armstrong’s face and forced his eyes partially closed.
Armstrong stood, nearly brushing me as he passed by and closed his office door. I hazarded a quick peek at Smoke. His expression was unreadable.
Armstrong sunk back into his chair, failing to mask his agitation. “That is an old case.”
“Tell us about it.” Smoke slipped into his interview mode.
I was the appointed note taker.
“Not much to tell. Tragic accident. Four friends deer hunting, Manthes got in the line of fire.”
“From three different guys?”
Armstrong shrugged. “They were trying to flush out deer. According to the men who were with Manthes, they said he got ahead of them and they didn’t realize it. He stepped into a clearing and they shot.”
“That’s why God invented blaze orange,” Smoke said.
“I was the first one on the scene. Manthes was not wearing orange. I asked the others about it, and they said he had an orange hat on, but must have lost it when he got separated from the group. They seemed pretty upset, shooting their friend in the back.”
“The back?” I asked.
“Two big, twelve gauge shotgun slug holes.”
“They all have twelve gauge shotguns?”
“As I recall.”
Smoke studied Armstrong for some seconds. “Anything else?”
“Not that I can think of. Pretty cut and dried.” Armstrong grabbed onto the arms of his chair and his knuckles whitened.
Smoke slid to the edge of his chair. “What are you not telling us?”
“I don’t know–”
“Alden, you got up and shut the damn door when we asked about the case. Why would you do that? It’s an old case. A closed case. Look at you. You look like you’re ready to jump out of your skin. What are you hiding?”
Armstrong’s face flushed. “Nothing–”
Smoke leaned forward and laid his arm on the desk, not far from Armstrong’s chest. “Even a rookie can tell you’re lying, Armstrong. Spill it.”
“If you are so forthcoming, maybe you can tell us where you hid the report on this so called accident.” Smoke’s complexion darkened to a brown tone of red.
“Sergeant, do I look like I feel like playing games here?” Smoke didn’t give me time to answer. “Where did you put the damn reports?” He half stood, grabbed a piece of Armstrong’s shirt, and tugged.
As shocked as I was seeing Smoke manhandling a superior officer, my fleeting thought was, Armstrong is going to cry.
“Let go. I’ll tell you everything.”
Christine Husom is a Minnesota native. She is the author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River in the Winnebago County mystery thriller series. She enjoys solving mysteries in stories and in real life, and believes fact is usually stranger than fiction. Husom holds an undergraduate degree from Concordia University in St. Paul and a law enforcement certificate from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.