Unidentified Woman #15, page 1
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FOR RENÉE AND RENÉE AND RENÉE AGAIN
The author wishes to acknowledge his debt to India Cooper, Pat Donnelly, Tammi Fredrickson, Randy Gustafson of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department, Maggie Hood, Phyllis E. Jaeger, Keith Kahla, Ramsey County Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire, Sergeant Anita Muldoon of the St. Paul Police Department Homicide Unit (Ret.), David P. Peterson, Forensic Science Supervisor with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Alison J. Picard, Dr. James Schlaefer, and Renée Valois.
It was snowing heavily when they rolled the girl off the back of the pickup truck onto the freeway.
What happened, I was heading east on that stretch of Interstate 94 where you cross from Minneapolis into St. Paul. Rush hour had expired long before, yet traffic was moving at a cautious pace out of respect for the inch of snow that had already fallen and the twenty-miles-per-hour winds that made it swirl, reducing visibility to about the length of a football field. A vehicle came up tight on my rear bumper. I knew it was either a pickup or an SUV because of the height of its headlights.
Nina was sitting next to me, her voice competing with the whump-whump of the windshield wipers and the hockey game being broadcast on the radio, my Minnesota Wild against the Tampa Bay Lightning—a regular occurrence that always made me shake my head, hockey in Florida. She was telling me that we needed to get something for the condominium we had recently purchased together, yet the sudden appearance of the vehicle distracted me.
“What do you think?” Nina asked.
“You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said.”
Driving instructors everywhere warn that it’s dangerous to hug the rear end of the vehicle in front of you, especially during a blizzard. I tapped my brake pedal politely to remind the driver. I figured the flash of my brake lights must have done the trick because the pickup pulled into the lane next to mine.
“Of course I’ve been listening,” I said.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think whatever you want to do is fine with me.”
“Sure it is, until I actually do it, and then it’s hey, I didn’t agree to this.”
The pickup accelerated until it was even with my car. The passenger looked down at me and said something to the driver. The pickup leapt forward and abruptly pulled into my lane.
Swoop and squat, I thought. I might even have said it aloud. A vehicle swoops in front of you and slams on its brakes, causing a rear-end collision that, according to state law, is always your fault. Usually the vehicle will contain several passengers—like the man wearing a heavy coat with a hood, squatting in the truck bed—who will testify that the extreme pain and suffering caused by the medically ambiguous injuries they sustained can only be alleviated by hefty insurance settlements. And if you happen to be driving a $65,000 Audi S5 …
I immediately applied the brake, causing the Audi to shimmy a bit on the snow-covered pavement as it slowed. The pickup accelerated at the same time, putting plenty of distance between us.
“What?” Nina said.
I took my foot off the brake.
“Nothing,” I said.
Nina has often accused me of being cynical, of having an overly suspicious nature and a generally low opinion of my fellow man. So have many others, come to think of it. Watching the pickup speed away, I told myself they might be on to something.
And then the hooded man dropped the tailgate.
He scooted to the front of the truck bed and, with his back against the cab, used his legs to shove something out. I didn’t realize it was a woman at first. She was lying horizontal across the bed, and I thought she could have been a thick carpet. Hell, she could have been a sack of potatoes. Until my headlights caught her blond hair twirling through the air as she fell.
It seemed to me a terrible way to end a relationship.
I stomped the brake so hard I thought my foot would go through the floor. My tires gripped the icy asphalt with a high-pitched shriek. The car fishtailed, yet I managed to keep it going in a straight line. The girl seemed to roll toward me as I moved toward her. I cranked the steering wheel hard to the right and the Audi skidded sideways. I lost sight of the girl. The car came to an abrupt halt, its nose hanging over the white line indicating the shoulder, its rear resting in the driving lane.
I thought of moving the car, but I didn’t know where the girl was, so I worked the manual transmission into neutral, pressed the button that started my emergency flashers blinking, and released my seat belt. I pointed at the snow-covered bank that led from the valley that was the freeway up toward the residential streets.
“Get out, climb the bank, stay away from the car,” I said.
Nina did not argue, did not question, did not hesitate. Instead, she did exactly what I asked, and in the brief moment while I was still thinking about her, my inner voice reminded me that I was lucky to have a woman who trusted me that much.
I opened my own door; the sound of the wipers and a Wild power play followed me as I escaped the Audi. The girl was lying on her back next to the rear tires. Her wrists were tied together with twine. I didn’t know if I had hit her or not. There was no blood that I could see, but I knew that meant nothing. Her eyes were open and staring at me as I bent over her.
“Are you okay?” I asked—a stupid question that she made no effort to answer. She had just been thrown from a pickup truck traveling at least fifty miles per hour. Of course she wasn’t okay. This wasn’t the goddamn movies. How badly hurt, though? I couldn’t wait to find out. I gripped the back of her shirt under her shoulders—she wasn’t wearing a jacket despite the January cold. I lifted and pulled, cradling her head between my arms the way they taught me back at the police academy.
Yes, it was risky to move her. I knew what was about to happen, though, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I dragged her body in a straight line across the asphalt and down into the ditch that ran along the freeway. If she was in pain, she did nothing to show it.
The ditch was filled with two months’ worth of snow, and I sank several inches with every step, yet the lack of friction made it easier to slide the woman along. When I reached the bottom of the ditch, I maneuvered so that I was pulling the girl away from the Audi. I managed maybe fifteen yards when the inevitable happened. A driver, following the long curve of the interstate, saw my car too late, hit his brakes, slid sideways, corrected course, and plowed his vehicle into the passenger side of the Audi. Both vehicles lurched forward about ten feet. A few seconds earlier, the girl and I would have been buried under the wreckage.
I settled the girl against the snow. Her eyes were closed now. The flakes melting on her face and the distant yellow freeway light gave her a ghostly appearance. I knelt and placed two fingers across her carotid artery. She was warm to my touch, and I c
Nina trudged toward me. I held up a hand to hold her back. At the same time, a skidding sound caused my head to snap around. I was just in time to see a second car crash into the car that crashed into my Audi, although with considerably less force. A third car managed to stop in time, only the driver behind him wasn’t as capable. His car hit the third car with enough force to push it into the second car.
“Oh my God, this is going to be a bloodbath,” I announced to no one in particular.
I left the girl, climbed out of the ditch, and moved to the cars. The radio in my Audi continued to broadcast the hockey game, although the windshield wipers had ceased working. I yanked open the passenger door of the second vehicle. The air bag had deployed, and the driver was sitting there with an expression that suggested he had no idea what had just happened. The woman next to him seemed more cognizant. There had been no air bag on her side of the car, and she was holding her shoulder under the seat belt strap with one hand and her forehead with the other. Blood seeped between her fingers.
I took the handkerchief from my back pocket and folded it over. I pulled her hand away from the wound, covered it with the white cloth, and returned her hand. She didn’t seem to mind at all.
“I told you you were driving too fast,” she said. “I told you. Didn’t I tell you?”
I’m not sure the driver even heard her.
“Try not to move,” I said.
She turned her head, looked me directly in the eye, and said, “Huh?”
“Try not to move.”
Another car piled into another car, which was hit by yet another car.
The snow grew thicker and heavier.
The wind blew harder.
Nina appeared at my side. She held up her smartphone for me to see.
“I called 911,” she said. “They’re sending help.”
I could only nod. I watched the freeway behind us. Some vehicles, unscathed, were caught in what was fast becoming an enormous traffic jam stretching all the way back to the Mississippi River bridge. Others were skidding and sliding and bouncing around like bumper cars. The magnitude of it all was beginning to overwhelm me. It was Nina asking, “How’s the girl? Did you hit her?” that brought the world sharply back into focus.
“I don’t know,” I said, one answer for both questions. “Is the operator still on the phone?”
I took the smartphone from Nina’s hand and spoke into it.
“There are car accidents piling up all around us,” I said. “We need paramedics. Ambulances. Police. Send everybody. Also, and this is important—are you listening?”
“I’m listening, sir.”
“This isn’t just an accident scene. It’s a crime scene. A young woman was purposely thrown out of a moving pickup truck. That’s what started it all. She’s alive, but I don’t know for how long.”
“What is your name, sir?”
“Rushmore McKenzie. I used to be a cop with the St. Paul Police Department.”
I added that last bit in case the operator thought I was some kind of nut job—she wouldn’t have been the first.
“You will remain at the scene, Mr. McKenzie,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
I returned Nina’s phone just as a Wild player deflected the puck past the Tampa Bay goalie. The radio announcer gleefully shouted, “He scoooooooooooores.”
And another car hit another car.
“We should shut that thing off,” Nina said.
* * *
In the end, 37 assorted vehicles were damaged in what the Minneapolis Star Tribune labeled the most massive highway pileup in state history, easily exceeding a recent 25-car melee in Des Moines, Iowa. In case anyone was feeling smug about it, though, the newspaper also reported that the accident paled in comparison to a 140-car, fog-induced pileup in Texas, a 100-car accident near Fargo, North Dakota, and an 86-car pileup in Ohio. This was Minnesota, after all, and we liked to keep score.
Footage of the accident, including aerial shots, appeared the next morning on all of the Twin Cities TV stations that pretended to deliver the news, as well as ABC, NBC, CNN, and The Weather Channel. Most Minnesotans who saw it felt an inexplicable sense of pride, what comes from living in a place where not much happens that’s of national interest. In each case, it was reported that the accident was caused when a car struck an unidentified woman that was trying to cross the freeway on foot at night.
I saw Bobby Dunston’s hand in that last bit—he was always one to keep his cards pressed firmly against the buttons of his shirt.
Dunston was a commander in the St. Paul Police Department’s Major Crimes and Investigations Division. They had roused him from his warm and happy home—which was coincidentally less than a mile from the scene—when the cops concluded that I was right, there was fuckery afoot. He saw me talking to one of his detectives and a lieutenant wearing the maroon hat and overcoat of the Minnesota State Patrol. The sight made him abruptly turn away, stand with hands on hips, and look up at the snow-filled sky.
It’s a pleasure to see you, too, my inner voice said.
He turned around.
“Hey, boss,” the detective said. “This is McKenzie. He used to be one of us.”
“I know who he is,” Bobby said.
He glanced over my shoulder and his face brightened considerably. Nina was resting against the bumper of an MSP cruiser. The paramedics had draped a blanket over her shoulders, and she held it closed over her leather coat with a gloved hand. Despite that, she was shivering. I don’t know if it was because of the cold, the wind, the snow, or the chaos around her. Probably all four.
Bobby gave her a hug.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about me,” Nina said. “I’m fine. How are Shelby and the girls? It must be awful getting pulled away from them on a night like this.”
He brushed the snow off her bangs and kissed her cheek. I knew what he was thinking because I had thought it myself on numerous occasions. There she was, looking and feeling miserable under miserable conditions in a miserable situation, yet she was more concerned about someone else. For the second time that evening, my inner voice reminded me how lucky I was.
“You should sit in a car, get warm,” Bobby said.
“What, and miss the show?”
Eastbound I-94 had been closed on the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River, and angry, put-upon drivers were being detoured to the side streets around us. Westbound vehicles were moving at a crawl because drivers had slowed to get a good look at what was going on as they drove past, which in turned caused several fender benders that snarled traffic even more.
The portion of I-94 where we were standing was no longer a freeway. It was a parking lot, and a surprisingly bright one, too, given the freeway lights, vehicle headlights, the blinking red and blue light bars on top of emergency vehicles and tow trucks, and the helicopters overhead with their searchlights—all of it reflecting against the slanting snow. Paramedics moved between the cars checking occupants for injuries. The man and woman in the vehicle that crushed my Audi had both been transported to Regions Hospital. Others had followed, yet I was impressed by how few of them there were. Experience told me, though, that come morning many people who insisted they were perfectly fine now would realize that they weren’t. Chiropractors and auto repair shops were going to make a killing off of this.
Drivers gathered in small groups to exchange insurance information. Skirmishes broke out between some of them that were quickly broken up by St. Paul cops, Ramsey County deputies, and state troopers, most of whom didn’t seem to be getting along any better than the accident victims. Undamaged vehicles were being carefully guided around and through the accident scene, their drivers thrilled to escape intact wit
“It could be worse,” they said.
Yeah, it could be snowing, my inner voice added. Oh, wait …
Nearly two inches had fallen since the girl was pushed out of the pickup truck, and I found myself stamping my feet to keep them from being buried.
Bobby gave Nina’s shoulder a big-brother pat and returned to where we were standing.
Hey, that’s my girl you’re manhandling, pal, my inner voice complained.
“Okay,” Bobby said.
The three of us all began speaking at once. He waved us silent and gestured at his detective. The detective told Bobby everything I had told him, adding that Ms. Truhler had corroborated my story.
“We also found the twine McKenzie claimed he cut, and there were deep abrasions on the girl’s wrists, so…”
Bobby turned to the officer from the state patrol, who pointed upward at a traffic camera fixed to a light pole.
“Already checked it out,” he said. “Footage confirms McKenzie’s story, too, only because of the blowing snow, hell, we can’t even identify the truck, much less the license plate number. What we know for sure is that the pickup left the freeway at the Cretin-Vandalia exit.”
“What about the girl?”
“Paramedics took her to Regions,” the detective said. “She was unconscious. I don’t know her exact condition. The medics said … I guess it’s not looking good. There was no ID on her. We searched the scene as best we could in the snow. No coat, no bag.”
While he spoke, I found myself tugging at the zipper of my own coat. The paramedics had returned it to me before they transported the girl. It was a dress-up coat, though, made for hopping from warm cars to restaurants and clubs, not for standing around in a Minnesota blizzard.
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