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GONE MISSING. (CHAPTER 1)
My mamm once told me that some places are too beautiful for anything bad to happen. When I was a kid, I believed those words with all of my young heart. I lived my life in a state of ignorant bliss, oblivious to the evils that lurked like frothy-mouthed predators outside the imaginary gates of our small Amish community. The English world with its mysterious and forbidden charms seemed like a million miles away from our perfect little corner of the earth. I had no way of knowing that some predators come from within and beauty has absolutely nothing to do with the crimes men commit.
Ohio’s Amish country is a mosaic of quaint farms, rolling hills dissected by razor-straight rows of corn, lush hardwood forests, and pastures so green that you’d swear you had stepped into a Bill Coleman photograph. This morning, with the sun punching through the final vestiges of fog and the dew sparkling like quicksilver on the tall grass of a hay field, I think of my mamm’s words and I understand how she could believe them.
But I’m a cop now and not easily swayed by appearances, no matter how convincing the facade. My name is Kate Burkholder and I’ve been the police chief of Painters Mill for about three years now. I was born here to Amish parents in a one-hundred-year-old farmhouse set on sixty acres of northeastern Ohio’s rich, glaciated soil. I grew up Plain—no electricity, no motorized vehicles. Up until the age of fourteen, I was a typical Amish girl—innocent, God-loving, content in the way most Amish children are. My future, my very destiny, had been preordained by my gender and the religion bestowed upon me by my parents. All of that changed on a postcard-perfect summer day much like this one when fate introduced me to the dark side of human nature. I learned at a formative age that even on perfect, sunny days, bad things happen.
I try not to let my view of the world affect the way I do my job. Most of the time, I succeed. Sometimes I feel all that cynicism pressing in, coloring my perceptions, perhaps unfairly. But far too often, my general distrust of mankind serves me well.
I’m idling down Hogpath Road in my city-issue Explorer with my window down and a to-go cup of coffee between my knees. I’ve just come off the graveyard shift, having covered for one of my officers while he visited his folks in Michigan. I’m tired, but it’s a good tired. The kind that comes with the end of an uneventful shift. No speeders. No domestic disputes. No loose livestock wreaking havoc on the highway. When you’ve been a cop for any length of time, you learn to appreciate the small things.
I’m thinking about a hot shower and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, when my radio crackles. “Chief? You there?”
I reach for the mike. “What’s up, Mona?”
Mona Kurtz is my third-shift dispatcher. She’s been part of my small police department from day one, and despite her Lady Gaga-esque wardrobe and decidedly uncoplike manner, she’s a good fit. A night owl by nature, she keeps things interesting when the shift is slow—which is usually the case—but when the situation calls for it, she’s all business and a true benefit to the department.
“I just took a nine one one for some kind of disturbance,” she tells me.
“What’s the twenty?”
Images of drunk and disorderly teenagers flash in my mind’s eye and I groan inwardly. The Tuscarawas Bridge is a favorite hangout for some of the local youths to “chill.” As of late, some of that so-called chilling has deteriorated to other unsavory activities, like underage drinking, fighting, and drug use—and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A week ago, one of my officers busted the mayor’s seventeen-year-old son with an ounce of weed and a meth pipe. The mayor hasn’t spoken to me since. But I know the conversation is coming. Probably in the form of a request I won’t be able to grant.
I glance at the clock on my dash and restrain a sigh. Eight A.M. “They’re starting early.”
“Or staying late.”
“Who called it in?”
“Randy Trask was on his way to work and said there was some kind of ruckus.”
Muttering beneath my breath, I swing right, hang a U-turn in the middle of the road, and hit the accelerator. “Is Trask still there?”
“He left, Chief. Had to get to work.”
I sigh. “I’m ten-seventy-six.”
The Tuscarawas covered bridge is a Painters Mill icon and of substantial historical significance. It was built in 1868, fell to ruin during the Depression, and was refurbished at the expense of the taxpayers and a donation from the Painters Mill Historical Society in 1981. Constructed of wood and painted barn red, it spans 125 feet across Painters Creek. The bridge is a tourist attraction and has been the topic of many a town council meeting, mainly due to the fact that a few local graffiti artistes have declared it fair game—and my department has yet to catch a single one. It’s located on a little-used asphalt road that cuts through bottomland that’s prone to flooding in the spring. The surrounding woods are dense with century-old hardwood trees and a summer’s growth of underbrush—the perfect locale for a multitude of illicit activities.
It takes me five minutes to reach the bridge. I slow as I approach its yawning red mouth. To my right, I can just make out a footpath cut into the forest, and I know there have been plenty of people hoofing it down to the creek bank to fish or swim or whatever the hell it is they do there.
A jacked-up Chevy Nova with wide tires and a spoiler at the rear is parked on the gravel turnout, its oxidized paint glinting dully in the morning sun. Next to it, an ancient Bonneville with a patchwork of Bondo on the front quarter panel squats on the shoulder like some armored dinosaur. The driver’s side door is open and the coarse echo of techno-rock booms out so loudly, my windows vibrate. I see two more cars parked on the other side of the bridge. I peer ahead and see, cloaked in the shadows of the covered bridge, the silhouettes of a couple of dozen young people grouped into a tight circle.
I pulse my siren a couple of times to get their attention. Some look my way. Others are so embroiled in whatever’s going on, they don’t even notice. Or maybe they don’t care.
I park behind the Nova, shut down the engine, and hail Mona. “I’m ten-twenty-three.”
“What’s going on out there, Chief?”
“I’d lay odds on a fight.” I’ve just opened my door, when a scream echoes from within the bridge. “Shit,” I mutter. “Is Glock there yet?”
“Just walked in.”
“Get him out here, will you?”
Racking the mike, I slip out of the car and hit the ground running. Several of the teens look up and scatter as I approach, and I catch a glimpse of two people on the ground, locked in battle. The agitated crowd throbs around them, shouting, egging them on, as if they’ve bet their life savings on some bloody dogfight.
“Police!” I shout, my boots crisp against the wood planks. “Back off ! Break it up! Right now!”
Faces turn my way. Some are familiar; most are not. I see flashes of surprise in young eyes alight with something a little too close to bloodlust. Cruelty in its most primal form. Pack mentality, I realize, and that disturbs me almost as much as the fight.
I thrust myself into the crowd, using my forearms to move people aside. “Step away! Now!”
A teenage boy with slumped shoulders and a raw-looking outbreak of acne on his cheeks glances at me and takes a step back. Another boy is so caught up in the fight, he doesn’t notice my approach and repeatedly jabs the air with his fist, chanting, “Beat that bitch!” A black-haired girl wearing a purple halter top that’s far too small for her bustline lands a kick at one of the fighters. “Break her face, you fuckin’ ho!”
I elbow past two boys not much bigger than I am, and I get my first unobstructed look at the epicenter of the chaos. Two teenage girls are going at it with the no-holds-barred frenzy of veteran barroom brawlers. Hands grapple with clothes and hair. Nails slash at faces. I hear animalistic grunts, the sound of ripping fabric, and the wet-meat slap of fists connecting with flesh.
“Get off me, bitch!”
I bend, slam my hands down on the shoulders of the girl on top. “Police,” I say. “Stop fighting.”
She’s a big-boned girl and outweighs me by about twenty pounds. Moving her is like trying to peel a starving lion off a fresh kill. When she doesn’t acquiesce, I dig my fingers into her collarbone, put some muscle into it, and haul her back. “Stop resisting!”
“Get off me!” Blinded by rage, the girl tries to shake off my hands. “I’m going to kill this bitch!”
“Not on my watch.” I put my body weight into the effort and yank her back hard. Her shirt tears beneath my hands. She reels backward and lands on her butt at my feet. She tries to get her legs under her, but I press her down.
“Calm down.” I give her a shake to let her know I’m serious.
Ignoring me, she crab-walks forward and lashes out at the other girl with her foot, trying to get in a final kick. I wrap my hands around her bicep and drag her back several feet. “That’s enough! Now cut it out.”
“She started it!” she screams.
Concerned that I’m going to lose control of the situation before backup arrives, I point at the most sane-looking bystander I can find, a thin boy wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. “You.”
He looks over his shoulder. “Me?”
“I’m not talking to your invisible friend.” I motion to the second fighter, who’s sitting on the ground with her legs splayed in front of her, her hair hanging in her face. “Take her to the other side of the bridge and wait for me.”
I’m about to yell at him, when a girl with a pierced eyebrow steps forward. “I’ll do it.” Bending, she sets her hands on the other girl’s shoulder. “Hey. Come on.”
I turn my attention to the girl at my feet. She’s glaring at me with a belligerent expression, breathing as if she’s just come off a triathlon. A drop of mascara-tinged sweat dangles from the tip of her nose and her cheeks glow as if with sunburn. For an instant, I find myself hoping she’ll take her best shot, so I can wipe all that bad attitude off her face. Then I remind myself that teenagers are the only segment of the population entitled to temporary bouts of stupidity.
“If I were you,” I say quietly, “I’d think real hard about what you do next.”
I look around, gauging the crowd. They’re still agitated, a little too close for comfort, and restless in a way I don’t like, especially when I’m outnumbered twenty to one. Keeping my hand on the girl’s shoulder, I straighten and make eye contact with a few of them. “You have thirty seconds to clear out, or I’m going to start arresting people and calling parents.”
When they begin to disburse, I glance at the girl. She’s eyeballing her friends, gesturing, sending them nonverbal messages teenager-style, and I realize she’s enjoying her fifteen minutes of fame.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She gives me an “Eat shit” look. But she’s smart enough to know this is one standoff she’s not going to win. “Angi McClanahan.”
“You got ID on you?”
I extend my hand to help her up, but she ignores it and jumps to her feet with the grace of a fallen figure skater going for the gold. She’s a pretty girl of about sixteen, with blond hair and blue eyes, freckles sprinkled over a turned-up nose. Her build is substantial, but she carries it well, the way young women do. The sleeve of her T-shirt hangs off her shoulder. I see scratch marks on her throat, another on the inside of her elbow. There’s blood on her jeans, but I don’t know where it came from.
“Are you injured?” I ask. “Do you need an ambulance?”
She gives me a withering look. “I’m fine.”
She jabs a finger in the direction of the other girl and her lips peel back. “I was out here hangin’ and that fuckin’ ho jumped me.”
The words dishearten me, but it’s the hatred behind them that chafes my sensibilities. I don’t know when kids started talking this way, but I detest it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not naïve. I’ve heard worse words in the course of my law-enforcement career, many of which I’ve been the target of. But hearing that kind of rhetoric from such a pretty young woman somehow shocks me.
I reach for the cuffs tucked into a compartment on my belt, yank them out. “Turn around.”
“Dude.” Her gaze slides down to the cuffs and she raises her hands. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Put your hands behind your back.” Grasping her bicep, I spin her around, snap one end of the cuffs onto her right wrist, and draw it behind her. “Give me your other hand. Now.”
“Please don’t…” She’s upset now. On the verge of tears. Starting to shake.
I don’t feel much in the way of compassion. Grabbing her free wrist, I snap the cuff into place and crank it down. The too-sweet scent of drugstore perfume mingles with the stink of cigarettes and comes off her in waves. Grasping the chain link between the cuffs, I guide her to the window. There, I turn her around, lean her against it, and put my finger in her face. “Do not move from this place,” I tell her. “Do not speak to anyone. Do you understand?”
Mouth tight, she refuses to answer and looks away.
When I turn my back, she mutters, “Bitch.” I let it go and start toward the crowd. Most of the teens have disbanded, but there are several stragglers, their eyes bouncing from me to Angi, hoping for more fireworks.
The crunch of tires on gravel draws my attention and I see the Painters Mill PD cruiser pull up behind my Explorer. Relief flits through me when Officer Rupert “Glock” Maddox emerges. A former marine with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt, Glock is my best officer, and I’m invariably glad to see him, especially when I’m outnumbered, whether by teenagers or cows.
The remaining teens give him a wide berth as he walks onto the bridge. He has that effect on people, though he doesn’t seem to notice. “Whatcha got, Chief?”
“A couple of Einsteins thought it might be fun to roll around on the ground and beat the shit out of each other.”
He glances past me at the handcuffed girl. “Females?”
“It’s the new thing, I guess.”
“Damn. That’s just wrong.” Shaking his head, he slants a doleful look my way. “Girls didn’t fight when I was a kid.”
“Evidently, stupidity is an equal-opportunity condition.” I motion toward Angi McClanahan and lower my voice. “See what her story is. If she gives you any shit, arrest her.”
He pats the Glock at his hip. “Hey, I’m an equal-opportunity kind of guy.”
I withhold a smile. “I’m going to talk to Muhammad Ali over there.”
I find the second fighter on the opposite side of the bridge, standing next to the girl with the pierced eyebrow. Both girls are facing away from me, staring out the window, elbows on the sill, smoking clove cigarettes.
“Put the smokes out,” I tell them as I approach.
Two heads jerk my way. The girl with the brow hoop turns to me, tamps out her cigarette on the sill, and then drops it to the floor. The one who was fighting flicks hers out the window to the creek below, then faces me. For the first time, I get a good look at her face. Recognition stops me cold. I know her. Or at least I used to, and I’m pretty sure she’s Amish. For an instant, I’m so shocked that I can’t remember her name.
“Hey, Katie,” she says sweetly.
I stare hard at her, racking my memory, unsettled because I’m coming up short. She’s about fifteen, with gangly arms and legs and a skinny butt squeezed into jeans at least two sizes too small. She’s got pretty skin, large hazel eyes, and shoulder-length brown hair streaked blond by the sun. She took at least one punch to the face, because I see a bruise blooming below her left eye.
She smirks, a shifty amusement touching her expression. “You don’t remember me.”
My brain lands on a name, but I’m not certain it’s correct. “Sadie Miller?”
She dazzles me with a smile that’s far too pretty for someone who was on the ground and throwing punches just a few minutes ago. She’s the niece of my sister’s husband, and I almost can’t believe my eyes. The last time I saw Sadie was at my mother’s funeral, just over three years ago. She’d been about twelve years old, a cute little tomboy in a blue dress and white kapp; all skinny legs, scabby knees, and a gap between her front teeth. I remember her so well because she was sweet and social, with a natural curiosity that had appealed to me even through my grief. She was one of the few Amish girls who could hold her own with the boys and had no qualms about speaking her mind to the adults. I ended up spending most of my time with her that day, mainly because most of the other Amish refused to talk to me.
This young woman looks nothing like that cute little Amish girl. She’s tall and beautiful, with a model-thin body. There’s a wildness in her eyes that adds something edgy and audacious to an already-bold appearance—at least in Amish terms anyway—and I know her early defiance of the rules has turned into something a hell of a lot more chronic.
“Do you need an ambulance?” I ask.
She laughs. “I think I’ll live.”
I make a point of looking her up and down. Her nails are painted blue. Her makeup is well done but heavy on the liner. She wears a silky black tank with bold white stitching. The material is so thin, I can see her nipples through the fabric. I hear myself sigh. “Do your parents know you’re here?”
“It’s none of their business.” She flicks her hair off her shoulder. “I’m on rumspringa.”
Rumspringa is the time when young Amish people are allowed to experience life without the constraints of the Ordnung, while the adults look the other way. Most teens partake in some drinking and listening to music—small infractions that are generally harmless. I wonder if this girl will be one of the 80 percent who eventually become baptized.
I stare at her, trying to reconcile the young woman before me with the sweet kid I met three years ago. “You’re kind of young for rumspringa, aren’t you?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a kid anymore.”
“You didn’t look very grown-up a few minutes ago when you were fighting.”
“I’m fifteen.” She looks away. “Old enough to know what I want.”
“Half of the adult population doesn’t know what they want,” I mutter drily.
She laughs outright. “That’s what I like about you, Katie.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I know you break the rules.”
“Yeah, well, all that rule breaking isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.”
“That must be why you left,” she says, her words saturated with sarcasm.
“Don’t go there,” I warn her.
“I’m thinking about leaving the plain life,” she blurts.
Since I’m the last person who should be having this conversation with a young Amish woman, I take a moment to dig my notepad from my pocket. “How do your parents feel about that?”
“They think the devil has gotten ahold of me.” She throws her head back and laughs. “They could be right.”
Trying not to wince, I turn my attention to her friend, the girl with the gold hoop sticking out of her eyebrow. “What’s your name?”
I scribble the name on the pad. “You can go.”
Her eyes slide to Sadie. “But … I’m her ride home.”
“Not anymore.” I point to the mouth of the bridge. “Go.”
Huffing a grievous sigh, she turns and walks away.
“I guess all those stories I’ve heard about you are true,” Sadie says.
“I’m not going to respond to that, Sadie, so save your breath.”
She ignores me. “Everyone says you’re a badass.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“I’m glad you cuffed that bitch.”
“If I were you, I’d start taking this a lot more seriously.”
She sobers, but I still discern the smile in her eyes.
“Who started the fight?” I ask.
Looking far too comfortable with the situation, she shrugs. “I threw the first punch.”
“Why were you fighting?” I ask, hoping none of this is about drugs.
“Her boyfriend likes me more than he likes her, and she’s the jealous type.”
“Who touched whom first?”
“She shoved me.” She glances down, peels at the nail polish on her thumb. “So I slugged her.”
“Did she hit you back?”
She points to her eye. “Hello.”
I frown. “Don’t get smart with me, Sadie. Just because you’re family doesn’t mean I won’t take you to jail. Do you understand?”
“I got it.” But she gives me a sly grin. “Angi McClanahan is a fuckin’ ho.”
The words are so incongruous with the girl standing before me that I’m taken aback. “Give it a rest,” I snap. But I’m acutely aware of the discomfort in my voice. “You’re too pretty to talk like that.”
“Everyone else does.” She looks at me from under long lashes, curious, testing me. “Even you.”
“This isn’t about me.”
“The old women still gossip about you, Katie. They talk about how you used to be Amish but left the plain life for the big, bad city.” She looks at me as if somehow what I did is something to be admired. “Fannie Raber said you told the bishop to go to hell.”
“I don’t see how that’s something to be proud of.”
She shrugs. “I’m tired of all the rules.”
The urge to defend the Amish way rises in my chest with surprising force. But knowing any such defense would be hypocritical coming from me, I hold my silence. “Maybe you should discuss this with your parents.”
“Like they’re going to understand.”
“Then the bishop—”
She barks out a laugh. “Bishop Troyer is so lame!”
“Fighting is lame. Look at you. How could you disrespect yourself like this? You’re going to have a black eye.”
Looking only slightly chagrined, she lowers her voice. “I’m serious about leaving, Katie.”
Suddenly, I feel as if I’m tiptoeing through a minefield without the slightest idea where to step. “I’m not the person you should be discussing this with.”
“Why? Because you left?”
“Because I’m a cop, and I’m not going to discuss it. Do you understand?”
She holds my gaze. “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.” She lowers her voice. “I don’t fit in. I’m drawn to all the things I shouldn’t be. Music and … art. I want to … read books and watch movies and see places I’ve never seen. I want to go to college and…”
“You can pursue all of those things without fighting and getting into trouble,” I tell her.
“I can’t do those things and remain Amish.”
“You’re too young to be making such an important decision.”
“I hate being Amish.”
“You don’t know what you want.”
“I know exactly what I want!” she retorts. “I’m going to design clothes. English clothes. For women. I know that sounds like some stupid pipe dream. Or according to my datt: devilment.” She does a decent impersonation of her father. “He doesn’t get me, Katie. I’m so good with the needle and thread. Just ask Mamm. She knows I could make a go of it. Only she won’t admit it.”
She motions at the tank she’s wearing. “I made this! Look at it. It’s beautiful, but Mamm won’t let me wear it. She won’t even let me sell it at the Carriage Stop. She says it’s got too much ornamentation and that it’s prideful.”
The words tumble out of her in a rush, too fast and falling over one another, as if she’s been holding them inside and some invisible dam has burst. I recall a vague memory from a couple of months ago: My sister, Sarah, telling me about this girl’s needlework. I hadn’t paid much attention at the time; my sister and I have been dealing with our own issues. But Sarah had gone on about Sadie’s talent. How she’d already sold a dozen quilts at one of the tourist shops in town and customers couldn’t seem to get enough. There’s a part of me that hates the idea of snuffing out that kind of passion. Too many people slog through their lives without it. It is a view, of course, that would not be welcomed by the Amish.
“So are you going to take me to jail?” she asks, looking a little too excited by the prospect.
“I’m going to take you home.”
Sighing as if jail is the better option, Sadie reaches into her pocket, pulls a brown cigarette from a pack, and lights up. I can tell by the way she does it, she’s not a smoker.
“Put that out,” I tell her.
“Why, Katie? You smoke. I saw you. At the graebhoff. Why can’t I?”
“Because you’re fifteen and it’s illegal.” I snatch the cigarette from her and toss it out the window.
She stares at me with clear, watchful eyes that don’t miss a beat. It’s strange, but I find myself feeling self-conscious because, for some crazy reason, this girl looks up to me. She’s learning things she probably shouldn’t, wanting things that, if she remains Amish, she won’t ever possess. It’s a recipe for heartache, and I want no part of it.
“I don’t want to go home,” she tells me.
“Here’s a news flash for you, Sadie. You don’t always get what you want.” I glance over my shoulder. All but two of the kids have left. Glock is speaking with Angi McClanahan. She’s flirting with him, probably trying to get him to remove the cuffs. He jots something in his notebook, steadfastly unaffected.
“Stay put,” I tell Sadie. “I’ll be right back.”
I start toward Glock. He glances up and meets me in the center of the bridge, so that we’re out of earshot of both girls. “What do you think?” I ask him.
Glock shakes his head. “Were we that dumb when we were teenagers?”
He glances down at his notepad. “Apparently, the two girls were fighting over some guy. McClanahan made contact first. Other girl threw the first punch.”
“I’m so glad I’m not a teenager.”
“I’d kinda like to be the guy they were fighting over, though.”
We grin at each other.
“So who’re we taking to jail?” he asks.
“I’m going to let them off with a warning and have a chat with the parents.”
“Good call.” He nods his approval. “Fewer reports to write.”
“Will you drive McClanahan home? Talk with her folks?”
I glance over at Sadie Miller and sigh. She’s leaning against the windowsill, her foot propped against the wall, smoking a clove cigarette, watching me. “I can’t believe kids still smoke those things,” I mutter.
Glock nods in agreement. “They’ll kill you, that’s for sure.”
As I start toward the girl, I figure we both know there are far more dangerous ills facing our young people and that most of us are at a complete loss as far as how to keep them at bay.
GONE MISSING. Copyright 2012 by Linda Castillo