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A Mennonite Community's Way of Life Is Threatened by Outsiders
By Nancy Mehl
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2010 Nancy Mehl
All rights reserved.
There are five words guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of any human being. No, it's not "Step up on the scale," although this phrase is certainly a contender. And it's not "Can we just be friends?" which might actually run a close second. Of course, I'm ruling out all scary medical conditions that elicit remarks like "Let's run that test again." I'm talking about day-in, day-out, non-life-threatening situations that we all face but hope every day when we roll out of bed that today won't be that day.
Unfortunately, today was that day.
"License and registration please, ma'am."
I fumbled through my purse, looking for my driver's license. The setting sun pierced through the windshield like some kind of spotlight on steroids, almost blinding me. My hands shook as I flipped open my Garfield wallet. I flashed a smile at the basset hound–faced man who watched me through narrowed eyes. He was obviously not amused.
"I—I know it's here," I said a little too loudly. A quick thumb through all the cards jammed into the dividers revealed my debit card, an old library card, several business cards belonging to people I couldn't remember, and my only credit card. The credit card had never been used because my father had convinced me that the first time I pulled it out of my wallet, I would end up on the street, overcome by high interest rates and personal degradation. I found a reminder card for a dental appointment I'd completely forgotten, an expired coupon for Starbucks, an expired coupon for a Krispy Kreme doughnut, and a card from a video store that had gone out of business two years earlier. No license.
The officer's breathing became heavier and created steam in the frigid November air. I was reminded of one of those English horror movies where the thicker the fog, the sooner the intended victim bites the dust. The cold seeping into my car through my open window did nothing to dispel the beads of sweat forming along my hairline. Where was that stupid license? Could it have fallen out inside my purse? But why would I have taken it out of my wallet? Another quick look revealed a bank envelope with the cash I'd withdrawn before I left Wichita. I tore it open like an addict looking for drugs. Sure enough, my fingers closed around the small piece of plastic that would surely save me from being hauled to jail.
"Here it is!" I declared with gusto. "I had to show it to the bank when I withdrew cash from my account. I forgot it was still in the—"
"And the registration, ma'am?" The officer's cold expression and stern tone made it clear that finding my license hadn't ignited elation in the man's obviously stony heart. However, this time I was prepared. My father actually checked my glove compartment every time I went home to Fairbury, Nebraska. He was almost paranoid about making sure my registration was where it was supposed to be. Between that and the "credit cards are straight from hell" lectures, I knew where my car registration was at all times.
This balanced out the fact that I had almost no credit. Even my car was a gift from my parents. At least the rent on my old apartment had been in my name. My one accomplishment as an adult.
I pulled the registration out of the blue plastic folder in my glove compartment and handed it to the waiting officer. If I'd expected him to congratulate me on this show of responsibility, I would have been disappointed.
Like I was going to take off and let him chase me? I was pretty sure his patrol car had more power than my Volkswagen Bug, even if it is cute and perky.
While he ran my license, no doubt hoping I'd pop up on some Most Wanted list, I tried to figure out what crime I'd just committed. I always drove under the speed limit, even if it meant everyone raced around me, many times blaring their horns like I was breaking the law instead of abiding by it. I hadn't passed anyone in a no passing lane. In fact, I hadn't passed anyone at all for quite some time. I'd stopped at every stop sign and slowed down to a crawl in every small town I'd driven through. Why in heaven's name had he pulled me over?
In my mind I quickly ran over my exit from Wichita. I'd spent the last two and a half months there, working with my boss at Grantham Design to set up a way to freelance for him while training his newest in-house designer. I'd cleaned my apartment and finished out my lease so I wouldn't lose my deposit. All my utilities had been turned off, but I was pretty sure utility companies don't contact the police if you fail to end your business with them correctly.
I glanced at my watch. Almost six o'clock. I'd told Sam I'd be back to Harmony by sunset, but there was no way I'd make it. Being gone so long had been necessary, but I'd missed him and Harmony more than I'd anticipated.
I glanced in my rearview mirror. The officer was heading my way with a flashlight in his hand. What now? Was he going to go through my car? If he thought he'd find drugs or alcohol, he'd be disappointed. About the only exciting substance in my car belonged to my cat, Snicklefritz, who was sleeping peacefully in his carrier. If the officer wanted a real fight on his hands, all he had to do was try to wrestle Snickle's catnip toys away from him.
I know the smile I gave the officer was goofy, but I couldn't help it. I felt goofy even though I had no idea why.
He leaned in and handed me back my license. "Ma'am, do you know your right taillight is out?"
I breathed a sigh of relief. "No. No, I didn't, Officer. It was working when I left Wichita."
His frown deepened. "And how do you know that, ma'am?"
His deep, throaty voice and slow drawl didn't help to dispel my nervousness.
"Well ... I mean, I guess I don't. It's just that I took my car to Jiffy Jump before I left town, and they checked everything out. N–not that you're mistaken or anything. I mean, I guess it went out after I left. I–I'll get it fixed right away."
His raised eyebrows confirmed what I already knew. I sounded guilty. And slightly insane.
"Just where are you headed, ma'am?"
"I'm going to Harmony. I recently moved there. You see, my family used to live in Harmony, and—"
"You have anything to do with that body they dug up a few months ago?"
"Why, yes. In fact, the body was found on my property. Well, it was my family's property when it was buried there. Then, of course, it went to my uncle, who—"
He snapped his notepad shut so forcefully the sound made me jump. "Ridiculous goings on," he growled, giving me a look obviously designed to frighten me. It worked. "You should have called me the minute you knew someone had been killed. People like you, thinking you can handle things outside the law. You're lucky you weren't charged with aiding and abetting. If I'd had anything to do with it ..."
Okay. That did it. Maybe it was being stuck in Wichita for so long, or maybe it was simply my desire to get home to Harmony, but this man had jangled my last nerve.
"Excuse me, Officer," I said, sarcasm dripping from my words like warm honey. "We weren't sure the man had actually been murdered until someone admitted to it. And then we called the authorities immediately. If you'll check with your superiors ..."
His rough laugh silenced the rest of my sentence. He leaned over and put his face up close to mine. Too close for my liking. "The pastor of that crazy Mennonite church called the sheriff in this county once you all had finished playing detective. Do you know who the sheriff is, little lady?"
I felt myself bristle at his little lady comment. "As a matter of fact, I do," I retorted. "His name is Patrick Taylor."
"And have you ever met Sheriff Taylor?" The officer's voice dropped an octave and his frown intensified.
I don't know what made me glance at his badge, which was partially hidden by his jacket, but something inside me knew. It was a sinking feeling followed quickly by a wave of nausea. The name on his badge was Taylor, and for the first time I realized he wasn't with the police. He was with the sheriff's department. "N–no, I never met him in person. After Abel Mueller called him, the FBI took over the case. I dealt with them directly."
A grin spread across the man's face that could only be described as evil.
"Y–you're Sheriff Taylor, aren't you?"
The sheriff spat on the ground and slowly put his notepad in his pocket. "I'm lettin' you off with a warning, little lady, but you'd better have that light fixed right away. If I see you again and it's not workin', even your little Mennonite friends won't be able to save you."
I put my hand over my eyes in an attempt to shield them from the sun and gazed up at him. Was he serious? I remembered something someone had said once about Pat Taylor—that he had a bad attitude toward the residents of Harmony. That he thought they were all a bunch of religious zealots.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Sheriff. I assure you that I can take care of my own problems. Thank you for the warning. I will make sure the light is fixed as soon as possible."
Sheriff Taylor glowered at me for a few more moments. From what I could see of his expression, my assurances to take care of my taillight hadn't endeared me to the ill-tempered law officer one little bit. "Be sure you do," he said finally. "I'll be keeping my eye on you. That uncle of yours tried to subvert the law." He leaned down until his face was just inches from mine. "Blood ties are strong, Miss Temple. Stronger than you could ever imagine. Don't you forget it."
With that, he turned on his heels and strode back to his patrol car. I sat there with my mouth hanging open. He was already inside his vehicle by the time I could come up with a response to his outrageous statement. But as his odd comment rolled through my mind, I had the strange feeling that Pat Taylor had known who I was from the first moment he pulled me over. I found the idea unsettling.
I waited a couple of minutes, hoping he would leave first, but his cruiser didn't move. Finally I put my car into gear and pulled back out onto the highway. The sheriff's car slid right into line behind mine. I kept my speed low, hoping he would pass me, but he kept a steady distance between us. I had at least thirty miles to go before I reached the turnoff to Harmony. Surely he wasn't going to follow me all that way. I slid my favorite Rich Mullins CD into the player. His music always calms me, and I needed that now. I tried to concentrate on the words and forget that I was being tailed by the sheriff from you-know-where.
As Rich began to sing about another hour in the night and a mile farther down the road, I could feel the tension leaving my body. I was so into the song that I forgot all about my new law enforcement buddy. When I finally checked my rearview mirror again, he was gone.
A few minutes later, I spotted the road to Harmony. The sun had set behind the trees, so I could finally see my way clearly. I looked at the clock on my dashboard. Almost six forty-five. I'd planned to be at Sam's by six thirty for supper. Myrtle Goodrich, his rather persnickety aunt whom everyone called "Sweetie," had to be fuming. It would take another forty-five minutes at least for me to get there. Unfortunately, I couldn't blame everything on my impromptu visit with Sheriff Taylor. I'd left town later than I'd meant to.
I slowed down some and fished my cell phone out of my purse. Once I reached Harmony, it was virtually useless. But maybe I could get Sam while I was still a good distance away. I punched in his telephone number and was gratified to hear ringing.
"Hello!' a voice screeched through my small phone. "Is that you, Gracie Temple? Where in tarnation are you? My meat loaf is gonna dry up and turn to dust if you don't get here pretty soon."
"Sweetie, how did you know it was me? What if you'd just yelled at some innocent person?"
"Pshaw. Ain't no one else missin' right now. You're the only one would be callin' me right at suppertime. No one else in this town, specially someone I'd call a friend, would take a chance on rilin' me up like that."
She was probably right. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to be late. It'll be another hour, maybe a little less, before I get to town. You and Sam go ahead and eat. If there's anything left, you can warm it up when I get there."
Sweetie's voice softened just a little. "Nah, I'll just spoon some juice over it. Me and Sam would rather wait for you, Gracie. Been kind of lonely here without you."
"I missed you, too, Sweetie. Is Sam nearby?"
"Sam!" She yelled so loud I almost dropped the phone.
After some odd crackling noises and a thud, I heard Sam's voice. "Where are you, Grace? I've been sitting on the porch watching for your car, and I'm slowly freezing to death."
I explained my late departure from Wichita and briefly described my meeting with the Morris County sheriff. "I'll tell you more about it when I get there," I said. "I don't like talking on my cell phone while I'm driving."
Sam's warm chuckle drifted through the phone. "You're on the county road leading to Harmony, Grace. Do you see another car anywhere?"
I had to admit that I seemed to be completely alone. "I know, but I just feel uncomfortable when I'm not focused on my driving the way I should be. I guess it's not such a big deal right now, though."
He sighed. "Boy, I've missed you. I can't believe it took so long to get everything tied up in Wichita."
"I know. Between my landlord and Grant, I wondered if I'd ever get out of there. But the lease is settled, and I got my deposit back even though they tried to keep half of it."
"Because Snickle tore up part of the carpet with his claws."
"But Snickle is declawed."
I snorted. "Yeah, that kind of took the wind out of their argument, and they forked everything over."
Sam laughed. "Glad that's behind us. But what about Grant? What if he fires this second guy? Will he expect you to go back and train a third designer?"
My old boss, Grant Hampton at Grantham Design, was having a tough time replacing me. After spending almost a month in Wichita training his first pick, I'd been persuaded to come back and work with the second. Since I really needed the freelancing work he'd promised me, I was kind of between a rock and a hard place.
"He promised I wouldn't have to teach my job to anyone else. I think we're safe for a while. Four trips to Wichita in the past six months is more than enough."
"I can hardly wait for you to get here, Grace. To be home for good."
Home for good. Those words were music to my ears. "Hey, I'm working on a project that I can't wait to tell you about. Believe it or not, I think it will actually help Harmony."
"That sounds great, but right now all I want to do is put my arms around you and hold on for the rest of our lives."
I couldn't respond for a moment. My heart felt like it had lodged in my throat. "Hey, I'm going to hang up now," I finally croaked out. "I'll see you in a little while."
"I love you, Grace."
"I love you, too, Sam. Bye."
I clicked off the phone and dropped it into my purse. Then I settled back in my seat and clicked the CD to Rich's song about Kansas. As he sang about the prairies calling out God's name and our sunsets resembling a sky set ablaze with fire, I watched the incredible countryside pass by me, perfectly portrayed in his lyrics. I'd always thought of myself as a city girl, but the last few months had shown me that I belonged out here where God's creation outshines anything man can possibly fashion. Gratitude for His awesome power and tender provision overwhelmed me, and a tear slid down my cheek. I whispered a prayer of thanks. "You led me to Harmony, Father. And I found my life there. I'm so thankful...."
I wiped my face with my sleeve and checked the mirror to make sure my mascara hadn't run. I didn't wear much, but I had no intention of seeing Sam for the first time in months looking like a raccoon.
Rich had just started to sing the first song again and Snickle was beginning to let me know he was ready for freedom when I pulled into Harmony. I slowed down because of slick spots on the road that led through the center of town. A recent ice storm had left its mark. Sam had explained to me that while most small towns had the resources to clear their main streets, there were no funds for that kind of thing here. For the most part, residents just waited until the ice melted. The Bruners, who run the local feed store, donate coarse salt that clears off the wooden boardwalks, but there's not much they can do about the streets. Snow can be scooped up with plows, but ice is another matter.
Excerpted from Simple Deceit by Nancy Mehl. Copyright © 2010 Nancy Mehl. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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