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The pungent odor of manure and smoldering wreckage clogged Anna's throat. As she coughed, she tented her hand over her eyes to shield them from the lowering sun. Stalks and stalks of corn swayed under brisk winds, masking the point of impact where the singleengine plane plummeted into the earth. An unmistakable desire to scream overwhelmed her. She clamped her jaw to quell her emotions. She had to hold it together for now. Swallowing hard, she tried to rid her mouth of the horrible taste floating in the air. Across the country road from her parked vehicle, first responders fastened the straps to secure the crumpled plane to a flatbed truck.
Turning her back, she flattened her palms against the window of her car. She closed her eyes as the world seemed to slow to a crawl. Tears stung the backs of her eyes. Her brother was dead. She was alone.
Anna turned around and leaned back against her car. She ran a hand across her damp forehead. It was unusually hot for early October in western New York. The heat rolled off the asphalt, scorching her cheeks. The bold blue numbers 977 stood out on the tail of the plane, remarkably unscathed among the heap of metal. Her brother had sent her a photo of the plane a few weeks ago. He had been so proud of his purchase. She had thought he was crazy. Pressing a hand to her mouth, she realized she had never responded to his email. She had been so wrapped up in her job as a high school counselor at the start of a new school year. Now it was too late to tell him anything.
Her brother had always been there for her when it truly counted. Now only one thing remained for her to do. She closed her eyes. Dear Lord, please welcome my brother into Your arms. A tear tracked down her warm cheek.
"Anna Quinn." A male voice sounded from behind her. Swiping at her wet cheeks, she glanced over the hood of her car, surprised to see a tall gentleman striding toward her with a confidence normally reserved for those in law enforcement. Her legs felt weak and she took a deep breath to tamp down her initial trepidation. His dark suit fit his broad shoulders impeccably but seemed out of place among the uniformed first responders dotting the countryside. The intensity in his brown eyes unnerved her.
"Yes, I'm Anna." Dread whispered across the fine hairs on the back of her neck, but she kept her voice even. Her brother was dead. How much worse could it get? Foreboding gnawed at her insides. Past experience told her it could always get worse.
"I'm Special Agent Eli Miller." She accepted his outstretched hand. Warmth spread through her palm. Self-aware, she reclaimed her hand and crossed her arms tightly against her body. Thrusting her chin upward, she met his gaze. The compassion in his brown eyes almost crumbled her composure. She wondered fleetingly what it would be like to take comfort in his strong arms. To rely on someone besides herself.
Heat crept up her cheeks when she realized he was waiting for some kind of response. "You called me about the crash," she said.
The call was a blur, yet she had recognized the soothing timbre of his voice. She had barely gotten the name of the town before she hit End and sat dumbfounded in the guidance office where she worked sixty miles away in Buffalo. She had left without explaining her emergency to anyone in the office.
Anna's chest tightened. "How did you know to call me?"
The deep rumble of the flatbed truck's diesel engine fired to life, drawing the man's attention. The corners of his mouth tugged down. "Your brother asked me to call you."
Anna wasn't sure she had heard him correctly over the noise of the truck as it eased onto the narrow country road. She tracked the twisted metal of her brother's plane on top of the flatbed truck until it reached the crest of the hill. Then she turned to face him. Goose bumps swept over her as the significance of his words took shape.
"When ?" She hesitated, her pulse whooshing in her ears. Had she misunderstood? Was her brother in a hospital somewhere? A flicker of hope sparked deep within her. "When did Daniel ask you to call me? My brother's dead?" Rubbing her temples, her scrutiny fell to his suit, his authoritative stance. The world seemed to sway with the cornstalks. "You told me he had been killed."
Concern flashing in his eyes, the man caught her arm. "Yes, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to mislead you. Your brother died in the crash." He guided her to the driver's side of her vehicle and opened the door. "Here. Sit down."
Anna sat sideways on the seat, her feet resting on the door frame. "When did you talk to my brother?" She stared at the agent's polished shoes, trying to puzzle it all out. Finally, she met his eyes. "Was he in trouble?"
"Your brother and I talked last week." Special Agent Eli Miller rested his elbow on the open door. "Daniel told me to call you if anything should happen to him." He seemed to be gauging her expression for a reaction.
Anna scrunched up her face. "If anything happened?" She pointed to the field. "Like if he was killed in a plane crash?"
"I don't think he could have predicted that, but yes, he asked me to call you." He reached into his suit coat pocket and pulled out a worn business card with a familiar logo on it. She straightened her back. Years ago, after she had landed her first job as a high school counselor, she had dropped the card into a care package for her brother stationed in Iraq.
"Daniel gave you that? I don't understand." She rubbed her forehead, wishing she could fill her lungs with fresh airair without this horrible smell.
"He wasn't only worried about his own safety." He never lifted his pensive gaze from her face. "He was worried about yours."
"Has anything out of the ordinary happened lately?"
Anna bit her bottom lip. Her mind's eye drifted to the strange note she had found on her car after school last week. She shrugged. "Someone left a note on my car. It was nothing." She struggled to recall the exact words on the note. "I think it said, 'You're next.'"
"Did you report it?"
Anna laughed, the mirthless sound grating her nerves. "No I'm a high school counselor. A few faculty cars had been egged the week before. That's all it was." She scooted out of the car and brushed past him, turning her back to the crash site. "I took the job to help kids. If I ratted them out every time they looked at me sideways, they wouldn't trust me." Goodness knew where she'd be if her high school counselor hadn't reached out to her.
"Anything strange besides the note?" The concern in his voice melted her composure.
Tears blurred her vision and she quickly blinked them away. "Other than the occasional disgruntled studentwho is harmless, I can assure youI live a pretty boring life."
"Is there anyone you want me to call for you?"
"No," she whispered, staring over the cornfields. An uneasiness seeped into her bones. Her brother tended to be the paranoid one, not her. But she couldn't dismiss it. History told her things weren't always what they seemed. "Can I see your credentials?" Anna met his assessing gaze; flecks of yellow accented his brown eyes. She turned the leather ID holder over in her hands. Special Agent Eli R. Miller. It seemed legitimate.
"You met my brother in person?" She studied him, eager to read any clues from the smooth planes of his handsome face. She wanted to ask: Did Daniel seem okay? Was he thin? Dragging a hand over her hair to smooth the few strands that had fallen out of her ponytail, she was ashamed she didn't know the answers. Ashamed she had grown estranged from her big brother. Dear Lord, please forgive me. Let me find peace through this nightmare.
Special Agent Miller hiked a dark eyebrow. "Yes. We talked briefly a week ago. I had some questions concerning his return to Apple Creek."
Anna jerked her head back. "I don't understand. He was in Apple Creek working on his photography. Why would the FBI be concerned about my brother's whereabouts?" Foreboding mingled with the acrid fumes hanging in the air.
"Your brother went to Genwego State University, right?"
"Yes." She furrowed her brow. "He dropped out his senior year. What does that have to do with anything?"
"I'm working a cold case. I've been re-interviewing people who lived in the area ten years ago."
"Was my brother able to help you?"
"No. But when I met with him, he was worried about his safety and yours. I had a sense he was somewhat relieved I had contacted him."
"Do you think I'm in danger?"
They locked eyes. He seemed to hesitate a moment before saying no.
She reached into her car and pulled out her purse. She dug out a new business card. Holding it between two fingers, she offered it to him. "May I trade you?"
He accepted the new card and handed her the old one. She flipped it over. In her handwriting on the back she had written: I'm only a phone call away. The faded ink was water-stained, but the message was clear. Yet the phone calls between her and her brother had become few and far between.
As she slipped the old business card into a pocket of her purse, the clip clop clip of what sounded like a horse reached her ears. She froze as a horse and buggy made its way along the country road. A man in a brimmed straw hat gently flicked the reins, urging the horse on. Tipping his hat, he seemed to make direct eye contact with the FBI agent as he passed.
Outlined against the purple and pink hues of the evening sky, the buggy maintained its steady progress until it crested the hill and disappeared. Anna made a full circle, taking in her surroundings, including the vast cornfield that greeted her brother's demise. She had been so focused on the crash siteon her distressshe hadn't noticed a neat farmhouse at the top of a long driveway across from the cornfields. A white split-rail fence ran the length of the property. A buggy, the same style as the one that had passed, sat next to the barn a hundred feet or so from the house. The early-evening shadows muted the details, but she realized something she had missed in her distracted state. "An Amish family lives here."
Special Agent Miller nodded, seemingly unfazed. Obviously he wasn't likely to miss such specifics. Besides, he had been in Apple Creek before now.
"My brother's plane crashed on an Amish farm? Ironic." A nervous giggle escaped her lips. "The very community that shuns most technology has one of man's modern marvels plummeting to earth on their soil."
Awareness heated her face when she found him regarding her with a quizzical look. "I'm sorry. I tend to talk too much when I'm upset." Her gaze drifted back toward the crash site, hidden by the tall cornstalks. "Thank God no one on the ground was hurt."
Special Agent Miller nodded but didn't say anything. His economy of words wore on her patience. Fisting her hands, she resisted the urge to slug the information out of him.
Crossing her arms, Anna narrowed her gaze. It wasn't beyond a law enforcement officer to lie to get what he wanted. She had learned that the hard way. "Why are you really here, Special Agent Eli Miller?"
The pain in Anna's eyes spoke volumes despite her display of false bravado. Eli refused to add to her burden, but his conscience didn't allow him to flat-out lie, either. "As I said, your brother's name came up in regard to a ten-year-old cold case." The words rang oddly distant in his ears. This wasn't exactly any case.
"Is was" she quickly changed tense "Daniel in some kind of trouble?" Her pink-rimmed hazel eyes pleaded for the truth.
"Ma'am." A baby-faced police officer emerged from the cornfield carrying a green garment. "I understand you're the deceased's sister." Nodding, Anna's eyes widened. "This was in the plane." He held out what looked to be an army jacket.
She grabbed the garment and hugged it to her chest. "Thank you." The officer tipped his hat, respectful of her loss.
"We need someone to identify the body." The officer tapped his fingers nervously against his thigh.
Anna dropped her head and covered her mouth with her hands. "I don't know ."
"Where's the sheriff?" Eli asked. "I thought he'd be out here."
"No, sir, I'm handling this one." The officer tucked his thumbs into his belt and looked at Anna. "We really need you to identify the body, Miss Quinn."
Growing impatient with the officer's insistence, Eli stepped forward, partially blocking Anna in a protective gesture. "I knew the deceased. I'll do it."
Anna lifted her head. "This is something I need to do." Her voice broke over the last few words. "Where.?" Her gaze drifted toward the cornstalks as if she imagined traipsing through the field and finding her brother's bruised and battered body on the ground.
The officer's wary gaze moved to Eli, then back to her. "The morgue is at Apple Creek Hospital. I can take you. It's getting dark and it's easy to get turned around on these country roads."
"Let me drive you." Eli placed his hand on her trembling arm.
Anna nodded, the corners of her mouth pulling down. "Is it okay if I leave my car parked on the main road?"
Eli took her keys, their fingers brushing in the exchange. Anna's eyes snapped to his and he smiled reassuringly. "Let me move your car off the road."
After he moved her vehicle, he guided her with a hand at the small of her back to his SUV parked in the Amish family's yard. No one was outside the neat farmhouse. Just as well. He had all the information he needed for now. The officer in charge had informed him no one on the ground had been hurt in the crash. Thank God.
Eli opened the car door for Anna. Her long lashes brushed her porcelain skin as she ducked into the vehicle. With his hand still on the door handle, his focus drifted to the familiar farmhouse. A young girl emerged from the house, her pale blue gown rustling around her ankles as she sprinted across the grass toward the building next door. The Amish girl reached the neighboring house without so much as turning her bonneted head. Longing for a simpler life filled him.
Squaring his shoulders, Eli strode around the front of the vehicle. The case he was working on had never been easy. The death of Daniel Quinn was an unexpected complication. But even though he was dead, Eli still had to get answers. For the family. For himself.