The dawn phone call. Almost a cliché for cops, it rarely brought anything but bad news. Of course, the bad news was never their bad news—it belonged to someone else. Most career cops learned to put up the wall and keep their feelings out of the equation. But, being human meant those the feelings were still there, buried someplace. One thing was for sure: the dawn phone call could be a life changer.
“Dawkins.” His voice was still thick with sleep.
“There’s an accident, a one-car fatality you should probably come look at.”
His feet found the floor. When Bill “Crash” Simpson, veteran accident reconstruction specialist, told you to come have a look, you trusted his hunch and got out of bed. “Where?”
“Highway 5 in Lake Elmo, just past the roundabout. Look for the flashing lights, you can’t miss us.”
Cade Dawkins, an investigator with the Minnesota State Patrol, was one of two full-time plain-clothes investigators working out of the east metro division in the Twin Cities. The thirty-one-year-old had already spent nine years in law enforcement and was a recent transplant, having previously been with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension—better known statewide as the BCA. He’d quickly made his reputation with a once-in-a-lifetime case. Taking down the highway shootout killers had made him the Patrol’s golden boy in the eyes of the media.
Crash was right, you couldn’t miss the lights. State Patrol, Washington County Sheriff, and Oakdale police were all on scene. As was standard procedure in fatalities, the road was closed, but a deputy waved Cade through. He parked behind Crash’s SUV, not wanting to contaminate the scene. Standing just over six feet, Cade was solidly built from years of soccer and had blondish brown hair, which some of his peers in law enforcement gave him grief for always being messy. Zipping up his jacket against the cool morning air, Cade headed for the commotion.
Recognizing Mike Swanson, a veteran trooper, Cade asked, “What do we have?”
Swanson, a typical trooper with a buzz cut and no neck, was an adrenaline junkie who raced cars in the summer and snowmobiles in the other six months of Minnesota’s year. He shook his head in the I’ve seen it before and I’m going to see it again way.
“A body was discovered in a one-car accident down in the ditch. An early morning commuter saw the glint of metal when the sun peeked out. The car had probably been down there for hours.” Along the rural stretch of Highway 5 in Lake Elmo, where cornfields frame the road, and deer cross with reckless abandon, it wasn’t uncommon for a crash to go unnoticed for long stretches of time. “Lucky for us, the sun was out this morning.”
“Any day the sun makes an appearance in March is a lucky day. What do we have on the victim?”
“The victim, Holly Janek, was an event planner on the way home to Stillwater from a downtown Minneapolis event. Her live-in boyfriend said she left Minneapolis at approximately 2, so the fatality most likely happened around 2:30 a.m. To me, it looks to be an accident, like maybe she fell asleep at the wheel. But I’m just a simple road trooper. Crash is the man to tell you for certain.”
Crash Simpson was a 50-something bear of a man, with a ruddy face and a ready smile—which, considering he spent his days looking into car crashes, seemed ironic to Cade. He slid down the muddy embankment toward the green Camry. The car faced the wrong direction in the ditch, but showed no major damage. “What do we know?” he asked when Crash, who knelt by the driver’s side rear bumper, stood up.
“Let’s look at the road evidence first,” Crash said, leading Cade back up the embankment. “The marks tell the story. You can learn a lot from vehicle marks if you know what you’re doing.” He looked at Cade with a grin. “And lucky for you, I know what I’m doing.”
Together, they walked along the road’s shoulder. Crash stepped out onto the road and gestured. “The marks begin here, so this is where it started. And for the record, these aren’t simple skid marks. Skid marks show forward movement without tire rotation—in other words, the brakes are locked up with the car’s momentum carrying it forward.”
Crash pointed up the road toward the crash site. “Instead, the road evidence shows yaw marks, followed by scuff marks. These marks are in an S pattern, which means the victim tried to correct, overcorrected and ultimately lost control and went off the road.”
“Yaw?” Cade wasn’t familiar with the term.
“Yaw is a sideways movement of a vehicle that’s turning—basically movement of a vehicle in another direction than which it’s headed. If you’re driving too fast into a corner, you’ll create a set of yaw marks. For some reason, our victim went from a typical forward motion into a yaw.”
Cade held up a finger. “I’ve been told I’m a smart guy, so clearly what you’re telling me is she didn’t fall asleep and drive into the ditch.” Crash nodded. “And clearly, she didn’t have a reason to turn suddenly at full speed. This is a straight section of road.” Crash nodded again.
“Let’s continue,” Crash suggested. He walked further along the marks. “Right about here is where she overcorrected and lost control. The vehicle was in a spin and exited the road, here.” Crash moved to the edge of the pavement, roughly 35 yards from the Camry’s final resting place. “She bottomed out with the far side of the ditch’s upward slope halting her forward progress, leaving her facing in the wrong direction. The entire thing happened in less than three seconds.”
They moved off the road, once again sliding down the embankment to the Camry. Mud caked Cade’s boots.
“As I said, the road evidence suggests there’s more going on here than another case of overtired driver meets the ditch. But all is not well here, either. Notice our victim’s position and the state of her clothing.”
Crash stepped back, allowing Cade to move into the open car entrance.
“Don’t touch her, the Dragon Lady hasn’t made her appearance yet.” The Dragon Lady was the Ramsey County Coroner. A flamboyant spectacle of color, she was more often than not dressed in vivid purples or reds with an outrageous hat to top off her unique ensemble. Without having a coroner of their own, Washington County had to wait for one to come from St. Paul. As obvious as her death appeared to be, only the coroner had the authority to pronounce someone dead.
The door was open, with a woman still behind the wheel. The blonde woman’s face was a bloody smear, with splatters on the Toyota’s steering wheel. “As I said, the road evidence shows she spun out of control, which could explain these violent splatters,” gesturing to the blood on the steering wheel. The airbags hadn’t been deployed and her seatbelt wasn’t fastened.
Cade took in the dead woman’s disheveled appearance. Her shirt was open at the top, her bra showing, and her short skirt was pushed up and torn. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say she looks like she’s been out parking with her date.” Cade looked up at Crash. “Could an accident have caused this?”
“It could.” Crash’s face suggested he didn’t believe it, though.
“If the accident was violent enough to kill her, wouldn’t her airbags have been deployed?”
“Not necessarily. There wasn’t a major impact or collision.” Crash looked almost child-like with his I know something you don’t know and I’m not going to tell you smile.
“You’re making me work for this, aren’t you?” Cade asked. Crash simply shrugged in response.
“The biggest issue in my mind—besides her post-prom appearance—is her seat belt. It’s not fastened,” Cade said. “And if the spin was violent enough to kill her, it should have been violent enough to toss her from her seat. Which leads me to believe . . .”
Cade leaned in and slid a pen under the victim’s shirt at her left shoulder. “Huh.”
“What?” This time it was Crash being led down the path. “What is it?”
Cade stepped out of the doorway and faced Crash. “There’s an abrasion on her neck consistent with seat belt restraints. Yet her seat belt wasn’t buckled.”
“It’s possible she unbuckled after the accident just before her injuries took her life.” Cade didn’t think Crash believed it either.
A trooper slid down the embankment. “Crash, the Dragon Lady’s here.”
An explosion of purple stood at the top of the ravine. Dressed in easily a half-dozen shades of purple—from her oversized hat, to her long scarf, to her fluffy coat, down to her lavender boots—was the Dragon Lady. Minerva Adams had been the Ramsey County Coroner for longer than anyone could remember. As colorful in her quirkiness as she was with her clothing, she took total charge of her accident scenes. Truth be told, she intimidated many of the burly troopers.
“Young man.” She addressed the trooper next to Cade and Crash.
“Yes, Miss Adams?”
“Are you going to make me get down there by myself?” The trooper actually looked down at his feet.
With the look of a boy being chastised by his kindergarten teacher, the trooper scrambled back up the embankment. “No, ma’am. Sorry.”
She held onto his arm as they made their way down the steep incline. “And if I ever hear you call me the Dragon Lady again, I will kick your ass all the way to the Wisconsin border. Am I clear?”
Cade turned away, not wanting to get busted by the Dragon Lady for his grin. Crash had done the same.
“Mr. Simpson. May I have a peek at your ICR?”
Crash handed a clipboard with the Incident Crime Report to the coroner. He stepped back while Adams glanced at the report, her face offering nothing. “Let’s see what we have here,” she said to no one in particular and knelt by the open driver’s door.
Crash waved a finger at Cade and they stepped back to the Camry’s rear. “Another thing for you to see.”
A dent with deep horizontal scratches was evident in the dark green paint of the quarter panel behind the driver’s door. Squatting next to the Camry, Cade examined the damage. “Recent?”
“Uh huh. Fresh damage will be clean. Like taking a cloth and wiping it. If it were older, there would be a layer of dirt and grime sitting on top.”
“Like my car,” Cade grinned. After a moment’s hesitation, he frowned. “I’d expect there would be some paint transfer to the victim’s car. But I don’t see it. Am I wrong?”
Crash cleared his throat and nodded toward the coroner as she closed her medical bag and approached them. “I’ve made the pronouncement. Her body is released. Good luck with this one, gentlemen. Looks like you’ll need it.”
Grabbing onto the arm of the waiting trooper, the Dragon Lady headed back up the embankment and was gone.
Crash leaned in by Cade. “See? It didn’t feel right to her either. And you’re right about the paint transfer. Typically, the vehicle evidence shows paint from the other car—usually quite noticeable. The BCA can analyze the paint transfer, telling us the make, model and year range of the other car. But not when someone has wiped it off.”
They walked around the back of the Camry and Cade faced Crash. “So, let’s say you’re correct about this being more than your typical late-night one-car fatality. The road and vehicle evidence suggest someone bumped our victim’s car on this deserted stretch, and the bump sent her vehicle into an unrecoverable spin. She ends up dazed in the ditch, vehicle pointed in the wrong direction. So far, so good?” Cade looked to Crash for confirmation.
“I don’t have a sense of how much trauma occurred from the spin, but I have to assume there was some. Our mysterious perpetrator then enters the vehicle, and in no particular order, kills her, molests her, and unbuckles her seat belt. He cleans off the dent, thereby removing any evidence of his vehicle’s paint. He climbs back into his own vehicle, heads for home and the comfort of his own bed, leaving her to be found hours later—all without a single witness.”
“Yeah, that about covers it.” Crash stated. He held Cade’s eyes.
“I’m guessing our perpetrator must have had some issue with our victim. Maybe her boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend. Wanted to make it look like an accident.” Cade shook his head. “Odd way to go about it though.”
Holding up a finger, Crash hesitated. “There’s one more thing.”
Cade’s eyebrows went up, but he didn’t say anything.
“Remember the early morning fatality last month on Highway 95? Black BMW, woman apparently fell asleep, a St. Paul attorney.”
“I saw the report, but Rob handled the follow up. How do you remember all these cases?”
“It’s all I do. I have no life.”
“Sucks to be you. Anyway, what about it?”
Crash didn’t say anything. That was until Cade prodded him. “Crash?”
Crash let out the breath he’d been holding. “It was the same victim.”
Cade’s confusion was apparent in both his voice and expression. “Same victim?”
“Appearance-wise anyways. The victim, Jennifer Allard, was an attorney from Bayport. She was tall and athletic, a knockout. Same long, white-blonde hair. Pretty similar style of dress as well.” Crash pulled off his cap, running his fingers through his thinning hair.
“Maybe it’s just a coincidence.” Cade didn’t believe it, though.
Crash replaced his cap and folded his arms, looking directly at Cade. “I hate coincidences.”
“Me too.” Head spinning with ramifications, Cade repeated, “Me too.”