Claire Weatherly and her beau, police detective Jakob Fisher, learn that when it comes to murder, evil can hide in plain sight in this all-new addition to the national bestselling Amish Mysteries.
Jakob and Claire have been enjoying more time together in lovely Heavenly, PA. With Claire's help, the detective is making slow progress reconnecting with the members of his Amish family who shunned him when he left to pursue a career in law enforcement. Jakob's mentor, Russ Granger, the long-retired police chief who inspired him to become a cop, is back in town. Claire has always wanted to meet the man who changed the course of Jakob's life. But not long after he arrives in Heavenly, Russ is murdered.
Jakob can only imagine that his old friend must have been killed by someone outside of the Amish community. He and Claire soon find that things are not as they seemand that Russ may have stumbled into something sinister before he was killed. The answers they uncover are closer to home and more shocking than they ever expected.
About the Author
While spending a rainy afternoon at a friend's house as a child, Laura Bradford fell in love with writing over a stack of blank paper, a box of crayons, and a freshly sharpened number-two pencil. From that moment forward, she never wanted to do or be anything else. Today, Laura is the national bestselling author of the Amish Mysteries, including A Churn for the Worse and Suspendered Sentence. She is also the author of the Emergency Desert Squad Mysteries, and, as Elizabeth Lynn Casey, she wrote the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
She was on the porch when he drove up, the sight of his car, followed by his full-face smile as he spotted her, eliciting a dreamy sigh she was pretty sure hadn’t come from her own mouth. A glance at the wicker chair to her right simply confirmed that observation.
“I heard that, you know.” Claire Weatherly smoothed her hand over the simple late-summer dress she’d almost forgotten she owned and abandoned the porch swing. “And while I probably should say something about you being every bit as incorrigible as Grandma ever was, I’m just going to say I feel exactly the same way when I see him. Times a hundred.”
Diane Weatherly stilled her knitting needles. “I wasn’t looking at Detective Fisher, dear.”
Claire darted her own attention back to the parking lot just long enough to confirm Jakob had exited his car but was still just out of earshot. “You weren’t?”
“No. I was looking at you, dear.” Tucking her needles into the multicolored ball of yarn wedged between her knees, the sixty-two-year-old woman tilted her head down just enough to afford an uninhibited view of Claire across the top of her reading glasses. “One day, when you have a child of your own, you’ll understand.”
“That’s mighty cryptic, Aunt Diane.”
“It’s just the best defense I can offer.” Diane’s thinning lips twitched with a grin just before her eyes led Claire’s back to the handsome man now no more than three strides away from the porch steps. “Now, go give him a proper greeting so I can sigh in peace.”
Claire tried to nibble back a laugh but it was no use. Instead, she closed the gap between them, kissed the top of her aunt’s head, and then turned back toward the steps as a still-smiling Jakob reached the top. “You look mighty happy this morning. Is it from seeing me or knowing that she”—Claire hooked her thumb at first Diane and then the waiting picnic basket on the floor beneath the swing—“can’t help but toss in a few extra goodies earmarked especially for you?”
“That depends. What are these extra goodies of which you speak?” Then, pulling her toward him before her answering gasp could gain much momentum, he stemmed the rest with a sweet kiss. “Mmmm . . . You taste good.”
Bracing her hand against his chest, she stepped back just enough to ensure a front-row view of the dimple sighting she knew was near. “That’s because those extra goodies that were supposed to be for you were really, really, really delicious . . .”
“What?” She peeked back at her aunt. “Don’t tell me he didn’t have that coming.”
“I did have that coming . . .” Jakob stepped around Claire, greeted Diane with a kiss on the cheek, and then claimed a spot on the porch swing. “That said, you were kidding, right?”
She joined him on the floral cushion. “I was if you were.”
“Phew . . .” He rested his right arm along the back of the swing and found the perfect amount of sway with a practiced foot. “So, Diane . . . Guess who called me last night to say he’s back in town for a few days?”
A quick clap hijacked Claire’s attention back to the wicker chair and the woman whose smile rivaled the late-September sun. “Oh, Jakob, that’s wonderful! I bet Callie and the children are positively thrilled!”
“Callie Davidson?” At her aunt’s nod, Claire moved on, tidbits of information she’d managed to glean during her past eighteen-plus months in Heavenly falling into place a piece at a time. “That’s the redhead that lives over by the playground, isn’t it? The one with the three little towheads that couldn’t be any cuter if they tried?”
Diane nodded. “That’s right. And Russ is her father. He retired down to Florida close to ten years ago after—”
“Serving as chief of the Heavenly Police Department,” Claire finished as she turned her focus back on her swing mate. “Oh, Jakob, no wonder you were smiling like that when you walked up! Your mentor is back in town!”
He nuzzled his chin against the side of her head and then leaned back to look out over the same fields that had served as a backdrop for his Amish childhood. “Trust me, Claire, that smile was all about you. Still, I’m pretty excited to see Russ again, too. It’s been a long time. He wanted me to come out and meet him at Murphy’s on Route 65 when he called, but I was already in bed and I didn’t want to take a chance of missing my alarm when it went off this morning.”
“We could have rescheduled our picnic!” Claire protested. “Especially for something like seeing an old friend.”
“I know that. But I didn’t want to reschedule.”
“Do you two keep in touch on the phone?” Diane asked as she transferred the yarn from her lap to the small table at her elbow.
“We try. And sometimes we go through spurts where we do pretty well with that. But more often than not, I’m busy, he’s busy . . . You know how it is.”
Hiking her calf onto the swing, Claire turned so her back was flush against the armrest and her view was of Jakob and her aunt. “Isn’t Russ retired?”
“On paper, yes. But once a cop, always a cop.”
“Meaning?” she prodded.
“Russ has police work in his blood. Which means he got himself hired on at the station in his new town inside the first month of being down there.”
“But not as a chief,” Diane interjected.
Jakob nodded. “Right. Not as a chief. According to him, he fiddles around at the front desk. Said it kept his finger on the pulse and him out of Amelia’s hair.”
“I take it Amelia is his wife?” At Diane’s slow nod and downtrodden expression, Claire sighed. “And I take it she’s since passed?”
“She did. About five years ago, I believe.” At Diane’s nod, Jakob continued. “He retreated for a while after that. Didn’t return my calls, didn’t acknowledge the notes I sent, et cetera. But eventually he got his feet back under him and he’d send me an occasional text to see how I was doing. When I told him I was considering coming back here if I could get a job, he pulled some strings and, well, here I am.”
“Remind me to thank him.” Claire rested her cheek against his hand, watching him as he appeared to drift away in thought. After a few moments of silence, though, he caught her looking at him and smiled. “So?” she asked. “When and where are you going to get to meet up with him again?”
“Tonight. At Heavenly Brews. Eight o’clock. And I’m kind of hoping you’ll be with me when I do.”
She drew back, surprised. “But you haven’t seen him in what? Two years, at least?”
“Actually, it’s been almost eight.”
“Then you don’t need me tagging along, Jakob,” she protested. “Go. Spend time with him. Talk cop stuff, tell him all the great things you’ve done since you’ve been here in Heavenly—the cases you’ve solved. You can introduce us a different day, before he heads back home.”
“I want him to meet you now, Claire. Besides, there’s nothing Russ and I need to talk about that we can’t talk about with you sitting at the table, too.” Toeing the swing to a stop, he pushed his fingers through his sandy blond hair and laughed. “I’m telling you, Russ is quite a character. He sees everything and forgets nothing. It’s one of the reasons he made a heckuva cop and chief.”
She waited for his hand to return to his lap and then captured it inside her own. “So what you’re telling me is he’ll probably have some cute stories to share about you from your Rumspringa days?”
“Oh, no doubt. Stories I’ve long forgotten but he hasn’t, I’m quite sure. Some that go back even before my Rumspringa, too.”
“Before? But how? You weren’t able to hang around the station until you were on Rumspringa, right?”
“True. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t intrigued by men in uniform before that . . . And Russ being Russ noticed, of course. He made sure to wave whenever he caught me peeking out at him from the back of Dat’s buggy on the way through town.” Jakob turned his hand inside hers so they could intertwine their fingers and then nudged his chin toward the Amish countryside in the distance. “Some of my fascination was simply because they looked different. I saw English from the back of Dat’s buggy often, but police officers? Not so much. But it wasn’t just about the uniforms and the shiny things hanging off them. It was the way they held themselves, the way they’d get down to eye level with English children we’d pass in town, and the way the English children looked back at them—like they were something special, something to be respected.
I remember this time, when I was no more than six, maybe seven, and we were coming back from a horse auction or something. Dat was driving, of course, and I was sitting in the back of the buggy with Martha. We were heading down Lighted Way, which was nothing like it is today in terms of the number of stores. Anyway, this guy comes running out of a shop. And by running, I mean running. Anyway, a few seconds later, the shopkeeper comes out and starts yelling that this guy stole something from his store. Russ, who must have been sitting by an open window in the station house or something, comes running out, takes no more than a split second to get his bearings, and takes off after this guy. Before Dat’s horse had all four feet on the gravelly part of the road just past what is now Yoder’s Furniture, Russ had this guy on the ground with his hands behind his back.” Jakob slid his gaze back to Claire’s. “I . . . I don’t think I can ever explain just how taken I was with that—how in awe I was of Russ and the entire police profession even though I wasn’t supposed to be in awe of anyone other than God.”
Extricating her fingers from his, she scooted across the swing until they were practically nose to nose. “You actually don’t have to explain a thing, Jakob. It’s written all over your face.”
He laughed and pulled her close. “I can’t wait for you to meet him,” he said against her temple. “You’re going to love him.”
“I don’t think I could have imagined a better day than this, could you?” Claire leaned back against Jakob’s chest and watched as the rock he’d been saving for last skipped across Miller’s Pond four times before sinking below the surface. “Summer is still here, but fall is most definitely knocking at the door.”
“Fall has always been one of my very favorite times of the year.” Jakob wrapped his rock-skipping arm around Claire and pressed his cheek against hers, his words serving as a tour of a life she could never seem to learn enough about. “Sure, I loved coming here in the summer with Martha. Splashing around, skipping rocks, trying to swim to the other side . . . It was all good stuff. So, too, was winter and waiting for that moment when the ice was strong enough we could play hockey with whatever stick we could find.”
“What did you use as a puck?” she asked as her mind’s eye tried to place the man she knew with the boy he was describing.
“Most of the time we used a flat rock, like the kind I was just skipping. A few times, we used one of my shoes. And once, we used a baseball hat we found on the side of the road.”
“Your mother didn’t mind you taking off out of the house with an extra shoe?”
“When we used a shoe, it was always one of the ones I was wearing.”
She cocked her head up so she could see his face. “But if the ice was hard enough to stand on, wasn’t it too cold to be taking your shoes off?”
“Amish boys at that age aren’t much different than English boys. You see an opportunity to play, you play. No matter what.”
Bringing her focus back to the water in front of them, she took in the sunlight dancing across the top, the squirrels chasing each other on the opposite shoreline, and the way the leaves on the nearby maple tree were beginning to hint at the autumn finery to come. Everywhere she looked, nature was at its best, but at that moment, thoughts of a young Amish Jakob, darting around the ice in one shoe, was all she could really see.
“So who did you play hockey with? Martha?”
His laugh rumbled against the back of her head. “Oh no . . . Martha would hang with the best of us when it came time for summer activities. But when winter came, she stuck close to home, preferring to read or work on a quilt during any free time we happened to have.”
“No, not Isaac, either. By the time he was old enough to get out on the ice without worrying he’d do something silly, I was needed around the farm more.”
His chin nodded atop her head. “Man, we had such fun when we were kids.”
She knew he was still talking, even managed to register the part about Ben donating his shoe on occasion, too, but mostly she was just thinking about the Amish man she called friend. Benjamin Miller was quiet, kind, hardworking, a phenomenal listener, and a respected member among his brethren. The fact that he’d actually proposed leaving his community to start a life with her the previous year had simply endeared him to her all the more. “Do you think he’ll ever remarry?”
“I don’t know. I hope so. Elizabeth has been gone a long time.” He released his hold on her long enough to push a strand of her auburn hair off his cheek. “I’ve seen him in the fields with the Stutzman boys and he’s good with them. He shows them how to do things instead of just telling them, you know? Makes me think he’d make a good dad one day.”
“I agree and . . .”
The rest of her sentence fell away as the clip-clop of an approaching horse claimed their collective attention and sent it toward the dirt pathway they’d navigated on foot not much more than two hours earlier. “Sounds like we’re about to get some company.”
“It does, indeed.” Wiggling out from behind her, Jakob rose to his feet and then held out his hand to help her do the same. “C’mon, let’s see who it is.”
Together, they cleared the oak tree that had provided shade during their picnic, as well as back support for Jakob while they talked, and made their way toward the path. As they reached the edge, a familiar gray horse with a black mane and curly black tail stepped into their line of vision, pulling an equally familiar buggy.
Claire squealed. “Ooooh . . . It’s Eli and Esther and the baby!”
Sure enough, Ben’s younger brother, Eli, lifted his hand in a wave as his wife and Claire’s former gift shop employee turned friend, Esther, broke out in a mile-wide smile. In her arms, nestled in a simple blanket, was their two-week-old daughter, Sarah.
Claire waited until Eli stopped the buggy under a grove of trees and then ran around to Esther’s side. “Good afternoon, Esther! How is that precious little girl today?”
The smile Claire couldn’t imagine being any bigger, grew exponentially. “She is good! She slept through her very first church service.”
Esther exchanged a knowing smile with her husband, who, in turn, nodded like the proud new father he was. “It was a good thing, too. Mast had to be nervous enough without the fuss of a baby.”
“Mast?” Jakob ran his hand down Carly’s mane, darting his gaze between the animal and Eli as he did. “Is he a visiting bishop?”
“He is the new minister. As of today. It was between him, Bontrager, and Benjamin.”
Jakob’s answering whistle perked Carly’s ears. “I can imagine Benjamin’s relief when he heard it was not him.”
For the first time since they came around the corner, Claire peeled her attention off the blanketed bundle and looked from Eli to Jakob. “I didn’t know Benjamin wanted to be a minister.”
“No one wants to be minister,” Jakob explained. “In fact, getting that tap on your shoulder, for lack of a better description, isn’t necessarily a welcomed moment for the Amish.”
“I don’t understand. They’re”—she motioned up to her friends on the buggy seat—“you’re such God-fearing people.”
Jakob gave Carly one more pat and then rejoined Claire. “Being minister or bishop is an added responsibility. They must still farm or do whatever it is they do to earn a living, but now they are also responsible for preaching and looking after the members of their district, as well.” Rocking back onto his heels, he continued, his words stirring an occasional nod from Eli and Esther. “If the verse is in their hymnbook, they will do it, of course. It is something they vow to do when they are baptized. But wanting to do it and doing it are generally not one and the same in this case.”
“But if Benjamin was being considered . . .” she prodded.
“His name was given to the bishop.” Eli tucked the reins beside his feet and jumped down from his seat. “Along with Mast and Bontrager.”
“Given by whom?”
“People in the district. When there is a need for a new minister, everyone is asked to nominate someone and they do so, quietly. The top vote-getters become the candidates.”
Eli took over for Jakob. “This morning, each opened their hymnbook to see if the slip of paper with the Bible verse was in theirs.”
“Wait. So this is decided lottery-style?” Claire asked, glancing at Jakob. At his nod she turned back. “Wow. I had no idea.”
Eli walked around the buggy and reached up for the baby. After a quick check of the blanket and a kiss on Sarah’s head, Esther handed the newborn down to her husband as he continued. “It was Elmer Mast. He did not weep the way some do.”
“Weep?” she echoed.
“You have to remember Claire, the Amish do not like to elevate themselves above others,” Jakob said. “Being a minister is about leadership. It makes them uncomfortable. So if this Mast fella took it in stride, that’s unusual but good.”
She heard the name, even slightly registered a face to go with it, but at that moment all she could really focus on was the infant sleeping soundly in Eli’s strong and capable arms. “Oh, Esther . . . Eli . . . I could look at that sweet face all day.”
With little more than a grin, Eli transferred the baby to Claire’s arms and then reached up to assist his wife down to the ground. Claire, in turn, blinked back the same tears she’d been unable to hold at bay during Esther’s unexpected delivery at Sleep Heavenly earlier in the month. “Oh, Jakob, look . . . Isn’t your great-niece absolutely precious?”
When he didn’t respond, she looked up to see him watching her with a mixture of emotions she couldn’t quite identify. “Jakob? Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat, stepped in beside her, and smiled down at Sarah. “I’m great. Just imagining, is all.” Then, glancing back up at Eli, he got them back on track. “So this Mast fella? He really seemed okay with it?”
“Is he the one you told me about a few weeks ago?” Jakob slipped his arm around Claire, alternating his glances between the baby and Eli. “The one who came to look after the wife’s kin and then opted to stay in Heavenly even after that kin passed?”
“And Bontrager?” Jakob asked. “Which one is he again?”
“John Bontrager . . . He farms the land across from mine. Has seven kids—all sons. Family keeps to themselves outside of Sunday service. Kind of surprised me to know his name came up to the bishop so many times.”
“Especially when he has such trouble with Amos.”
Claire glanced over at Esther. “Who is Amos?”
“John’s oldest. He is on Rumspringa.”
“Seven kids? Maybe it’s best he didn’t get the verse.” Jakob pulled his hand from the baby’s chin, stuck it inside the front pocket of his jeans, and pulled out his vibrating phone. “Oh, hey, it’s the station. I better take this.”
Claire watched him wander off toward the pond and then leaned forward to kiss Esther’s cheek. “Can you three stay for a while? We haven’t had our dessert yet and there’s plenty for you and Eli.”
“Eli?” Esther peeked at the baby and then smiled up at her husband. “Would that be okay?”
Eli motioned up at the sky. “Yah. It is the Lord’s day, a day of rest and visiting.”
Tightening her hold on the sleeping mound in her arms, Claire led the way toward the blanket and the picnic basket still housed in the shade of the largest oak tree. “I got up early and made a pan of brownies from a recipe of my aunt’s. They have a drizzle of white chocolate on the top and the guests at the inn always seem to love—”
Startled by the tone more than anything else, she looked over her shoulder, the sight of Jakob’s ashen face sending a chill more befitting an early-December day down her spine. “Jakob, what’s wrong? Has something happened?”
“I . . . it’s . . .” He stumbled backward into a tree. “I . . . I have to take you home. Now.”
“Is it Aunt Diane?” she murmured.
She heard Esther’s gasp, even noted the flurry of movement that was Eli as he moved into place beside her, but at that moment all she really knew for sure was the blessed relief that came from the rapid shake of Jakob’s head.
“Thank God! I thought that something . . .” The reality that was Jakob’s widened eyes and wringing hands stole the rest of her sentence and had her passing Sarah to Eli. “Jakob, please, tell me what’s wrong.”
Covering his mouth with his hand, Jakob squeezed his eyes closed for a second, maybe two. “I . . . I just can’t believe it.”
“Believe what?” Slowly, carefully, she captured his hand in hers and pulled it away from his face. “Jakob, please. Talk to me. Maybe I can help if you—”
His answering nod was short, labored.
She glanced back at Eli and Esther, their confusion crossing into the same worry she felt clear down to her toes. “Jakob, I—”
He opened his mouth to speak only to close it in exchange for a hard, quick swallow. “He . . . he’s dead, Claire.”
She was wide-awake and waiting when, at nearly two o’clock in the morning, she heard his footfalls on the exterior staircase that led from his parking spot behind Gussman’s General Store to his second-floor apartment. Dropping her feet onto the living room floor, she made a mad dash toward the door in an effort to keep him from having to fiddle with the lock in the dark.
“I’m here,” she said, swinging the door open.
Jakob jumped. “Claire!”
Something about the look in his eye and the way his hand moved to his hip sent an uneasy shiver through her body. “I’m sorry . . . I . . . I probably shouldn’t have let myself in, but I was worried about you.”
He righted himself with the help of the vestibule wall and then stumbled past her through the doorway. “No. It’s fine. I gave you the key. I just didn’t see Diane’s car.”
“It’s out front. On the street.”
“I didn’t notice.” Pulling her to him, he lingered a kiss against the top of her head. “I’m glad you’re here, Claire. I really am. It’s just really late and I hate that you’ve been waiting up for me this whole time instead of—”
She shushed the rest of his words away with a gentle kiss and then, stepping back, cupped his face in her hands. “Can I get you anything? A glass of water? A soda? Anything?”
“No.” He slid her right hand around to his lips, kissed it, and then used it to lead her over to the couch. “Can we just sit? Together? I think I need that more than anything right now.”
“Of course.” She sank onto the cushion beside him, pulled the quilt off the back of the couch, and draped it across their laps. “How are you holding up?”
“I think I’m numb. I mean, I did everything I needed to do with the scene but I still just feel—”
“The scene?” she echoed, drawing back. “What scene?”
His Adam’s apple jumped with his swallow. “Russ was murdered, Claire.”
“Murdered?” she echoed. “But I thought his daughter found him . . . I assumed he had a heart attack or something . . .”
“No,” he said, only to wave his answer away. “I mean, yes, Callie found him, but it wasn’t a heart attack.”
“But h-how? W-when?” she stammered as her brain worked hard to catch up with her ears.
Cocking his head against the back of the couch, he stared up at the ceiling. “He was stabbed. Time of death appears to be sometime between two and four a.m. last night.”
“Where did she find him?”
“Outside. Not far from the detached garage.”
“At two a.m.?” She tugged the nearest throw pillow to her chest as she mulled his words. “Wait. That was the same night he was out at that bar he wanted you to come to, yes?”
“Do you think someone may have followed him home from there?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. The investigation is still early, of course, but the one thing I know for certain is that he’d been back in the apartment for a while before this happened.”
“I thought he was staying with his daughter while he was in town.”
“He was. Callie’s place has an apartment over the detached garage. She thought her father would get more sleep over there what with the kids being such early risers and all.” He raked a hand through his hair and then released a sigh so long and so loud it echoed around the narrow room. “The only blessing in all of this is that her ex-husband took the kids to the park in the morning, arriving and departing with them via the main house. Kept the grandkids, if not his daughter, from seeing him like that.”
She closed her eyes against her own memory involving a dead body and willed herself to breathe, to step outside her own head space and imagine what it would be like to find a loved one dead like that. Yet just as she did, her thoughts yanked her back to Jakob’s words . . .
“Jakob?” She waited for him to look at her, but when he did, the pain she saw there was so raw, so intense, she had to look away for a moment just to maintain her composure. “How can you be so sure Russ had been back at his place for a while before this happened?”
He blinked hard and then stood, his feet taking him on a path toward the fireplace and the mantel adorned with a half dozen or so framed photographs that always made her smile.
The winter shot of Lighted Way . . .
The close-up picture of Eli and Esther’s entwined hands on their wedding day . . .
The one of her making a snow angel in the snow . . .
“He left me a voice mail after he got back from the pub. I didn’t notice it until I was out at the scene.” He smacked his hand down on the mantel so hard, the framed photograph Aunt Diane had taken of them on the swing earlier in the summer jumped. “He called me, Claire! At one o’clock in the morning. Because he wanted to talk! And me? I didn’t hear the call come in because I’d left my phone out here.” He swept his hand toward the end table next to the couch, his face contorted in disgust. “Then, on top of that, I managed to miss the message indicator when I looked at the phone in the morning before coming out to your place!”
“Jakob, it was one a.m. You were sleeping.”
“I’m a detective, Claire. Emergencies come in at all hours of the night. My phone should’ve been by the bed.”
“It usually is, isn’t it?”
“It always is.” Again, he smacked the mantel, the sound of the frame falling over muted only by his frustrated groan. “Except. Last. Night.”
She’d never seen him quite like this. The anger. The regret. The self-loathing. More than anything she wanted to go to him, to hold him until he let go of the parts that didn’t matter in order to focus on the parts that did. But something inside her made her stay where she was, giving him the physical space he seemed to need.
Still, maybe a few questions would get him focused on what mattered most now. Her mind made up, she tossed the pillow back into its original place and leaned forward. “What did the message say?”
Something about the question or the sound of her voice seemed to snap him out of his funk long enough to see the knocked-over frame and right it. “I’m sorry, Claire. I’m not angry at you—never at you. It’s just . . .” He stopped, took a deep breath, and then slowly turned. “He said that, come morning, he was going to be able to put in dibs on that fishing trip to Lake George I promised him a few years ago.”
“Fishing trip?” she prodded.
“I don’t know, Claire.” He lowered himself to the hearth and dropped his head into his hands. “I mean, I remember talking about it at some point, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember the context in which I said it or why on earth he’d call me at one in the morning to let me know he was ready to collect. It makes no sense and isn’t ringing any of the bells I need it to ring right now.”
She stood, crossed to the hearth, and squatted down in front of him. When he lifted his head, she grabbed his hands and held them tightly. “Jakob, you just lost someone very important to you. In the most horrible and unexpected way. You’ve been scouring a murder scene for hours. You’re exhausted. No one can think clearly under those kinds of circumstances. No one. You need to try and get some sleep. None of what happened is going anywhere anytime soon. But maybe, with sleep, you’ll be able to think—to remember the things you’re trying to remember.”
He hesitated as if he was going to argue, but, in the end, he nodded. “I know you’re right. I really do. It’s just that . . .” He inhaled slowly and quickly released the same breath with a whoosh. “I just don’t know if I can sleep. I mean Russ is gone, Claire. I just can’t wrap my head around it enough to believe it, you know?”
Pitching forward onto her knees, she rested her forehead against his. “I know. And I’m so sorry. But I’m here, and I know you’re going to figure this out. I know it just as surely as I know I love you.”
She tasted the saltiness of his single tear as he buried his head in her shoulder. For a while, she simply held him as he cried, and then, after several minutes, he mustered a deep breath and sat back, his eyes red. “Thank you, Claire. You have no idea what it means to have you here with me right now.”
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here with you.” And it was true. Jakob was her future. She knew that. Believed it.
Hooking his finger beneath her chin, he managed a version of the smile that had gotten her through more than a few trials of her own. “I love you, too, Claire. And you’re right. I will figure this out.”
She was halfway between the inn and her shop when the vibration of her phone against her side led her to her purse. Reaching inside, she pulled out the phone, checked the screen, and held it to her ear.
“Hey, you . . .” At the sound of an approaching car, she held her free hand over her open ear. “How are you feeling? Did you get any sleep after I left?”
“I had no idea you’d left until I woke up shortly after nine.”
“So that’s a yes—good.” She sidestepped a still-muddy rut from a hard rain the previous week and continued walking. “I stayed with you until you fell asleep and then I let myself out.”
“You could have stayed. I’d have taken the couch.”
“You needed some real sleep and I knew I needed to be at the shop by eleven this morning. This just made both those things easier.”
She rounded the final corner between the inn and the Lighted Way shopping district and took a moment to breathe in the calming sight. The cobblestone roadway . . . The row of buildings, all painted white, lining both sides of the road . . . The English cars and Amish buggies parked behind one another in front of the shops . . . The hatted and unhatted passing each other on the sidewalks, each intent on whatever had brought them to the busy thoroughfare on that particular day.
Her gaze moved to the right side of the street and the shops that lined it—Glick’s Tools ’n More, Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe, and, just beyond the mouth of the alleyway, her own Heavenly Treasures. A few steps past Glick’s, Jakob’s continued silence marched to the forefront of everything else.
“Jakob? Are you still there?”
“Yeah . . . yeah, I’m here. Sorry. Tom just dropped off the pictures from the garage apartment and . . .” His words gave way to what sounded like the shuffle of paper, followed by the telltale creak of his chair as he pushed back from his desk. “Claire, I’ve gotta go. I’ll give you a call or stop by later.”
And then he was gone, any residual background sounds muted by the rhythmic clip-clop of the horse pulling into the alley just ahead and the end button on the detective’s phone. She quickened her steps past the bake shop and followed the charcoal-colored buggy toward the back of the buildings. When the buggy stopped, she was waiting.
“Hello, Martha.” She slipped her phone into her tote bag and pulled out the envelope she’d carefully filled in the wee hours of the morning. “I have your money from last week’s sales right here. And you did really well—not that that’s anything out of the ordinary.”
Martha dipped her kapped head in response and then rested the reins atop her lap. “I stopped by to see if Esther needed anything before I came to town.”
“I planned to bring Esther’s money to her after I close up this evening, but I can give it to you if that would be easier.”
“I am sure she would enjoy a visit with you.” Martha fiddled with the edges of her burgundy-colored dress for a few moments, her gaze moving from Ruth’s bake shop, to Annie’s horse, Katie, and finally onto Claire. “She spoke of seeing you and my brother by Miller’s Pond after the church meal yesterday afternoon.”
Unsure of what to say in light of the trouble Esther could get into for speaking to her banned uncle, Claire used her own glance back at the road to compose her thoughts. “Jakob and I were having a picnic by the pond when Eli and Esther drove up with the baby. I even got to hold her while she slept.”
“That is good.” Martha, too, looked back toward the road before dropping her voice to something just above a whisper. “Esther said news of a friend passing upset him? Is that so?”
Shielding the sun from her eyes, Claire looked directly at Martha. “It is. It was a man he knew as a child—during his Rumspringa and beyond. His name was—”
“Chief Russ?” Martha half whispered, half gasped.
Martha’s hand flew to her mouth as her gaze flitted off Claire and onto the sky above. “Was he sick?”
“No. He was murdered.”
This time, Martha’s gasp was so loud a pair of birds inhabiting the trees behind Heavenly Treasures flew off. “But he was a good man! A good friend to Jakob! He . . .” Martha squeezed her eyes closed only to open them directly onto Claire. “He will need someone to listen. He will need you, Claire.”
The emotion in the normally stoic woman took her by surprise and, for a moment, she wasn’t sure what to say. On one hand, she wanted to encourage Martha to reach out to her brother herself. But on the other hand, she knew that wouldn’t—couldn’t, as Jakob was quick to remind—happen. Blood or not, the moment Jakob walked away from his baptismal vows to pursue a life among the English, his relationship with his sister was essentially null and void.
Still, life had a way of superseding the Ordnung on occasion, necessitating conversations in spite of the generations-old unwritten code that forbade them. Sometimes those conversations had been official—questions that needed to be asked and answers that needed to be given in relation to a crime that affected Jakob’s former brethren. But sometimes, those same conversations led to something more genuine, like the shy smiles or seconds-long eye contact the detective treasured like others treasured warm hugs and affectionate pecks on the cheek.
It was the one part of Amish life Claire would never understand. The fact that someone as good and decent and honorable as Jakob was denied relationships with his loved ones because of a choice to protect and serve was simply too bitter of a pill to swallow.
Yet every time she lamented that practice, it was Jakob who always defended it, reminding her that he’d known the repercussions of his decision when he opted to become a police officer after baptism. That the fault for the aftermath of that choice rested solely on himself.
“When Jakob first told me of his decision to leave, I was angry at Chief Russ. I believed it was his fault. That he was the reason I would no longer have Jakob as my brother.”
“Jakob is your brother,” Claire insisted. “His decision to become a police officer didn’t change that. Your reaction to it did.”
The second Martha stiffened, Claire knew she’d crossed a line. But for some reason, the apology she knew she owed the woman wouldn’t come. Instead, she let her rebuttal hang in the air as she handed the envelope up to Jakob’s sister and then crossed in front of the buggy.
“He was baptized, Claire. He chose to leave.”
At the base of her shop’s steps, she turned back. “You’re right. He did. Because a member of your community had been killed and he felt compelled to find answers. He didn’t leave to sully God’s name. He didn’t leave to lead a sinful life or to speak ill of the Amish—quite the contrary, in fact. He is a man of honor and respect and loyalty to the people he holds most dear. Which, in case you’re unaware, includes you, your parents, your brother, Isaac, your husband, your children, and now your grandchild.”
She pulled open the screen door but stopped short of actually stepping through it as she looked back at Esther’s mother one last time. “It was good to see you as it always is, Martha. The items you make to sell here at the shop are routinely my best sellers. I hope nothing I just said changes that, because I don’t want it to. I treasure my friendship with you and with Esther. But I needed to say the things I just said. Not because I think anything will change, but because I just had to this one time. Your brother is very special to me. And I promise I will be there for him as he mourns the loss of his friend.”
There was something about watching Esther with her newborn that Claire found calming. Maybe it was the peaceful smile the new mother seemed to wear as effortlessly as the kapp on her head . . . Maybe it was the softly spoken Pennsylvania Dutch she cooed in the infant’s ear as she moved about the kitchen preparing the evening meal . . . Or maybe it was simply being in the presence of such pure, unconditional love . . . Whatever it was, though, it was exactly what Claire needed in the wake of her conversation with Esther’s mother in the alleyway.
Sure, she believed everything she’d said—believed it with her whole heart, actually. But knowing her words would have upset Jakob made shaking off the guilt she didn’t want to feel even harder.
“Perhaps holding Sarah will help you to smile.” Temporarily abandoning her one-armed dinner preparations, Esther strode over to the table. “Holding her always brightens my day.”
Without so much as a hesitation, Claire accepted the baby from her friend and stared down at the perfect mixture of Eli and Esther. “Oh yes . . . This is exactly what I needed,” she said, her tone hushed. “Exactly what I needed.”
Esther fidgeted the side of her dress with her newly freed hand. “Is it true? What Mamm said when she came by again this afternoon? That my uncle’s friend was murdered?”
Sinking onto the bench on the opposite side of the long wooden table, Esther closed her eyes for as long as it took to sigh. “I do not understand why people make choices that are for God alone to make. It is not right, it is not good.”
“You’re right, Esther. It’s not right. And it’s not good.” She tucked the thin blanket under the baby’s chin and tried her best to keep her posture at ease. “Jakob cherished that man and this is tearing him up inside.”
Esther stood, made her away around to Claire’s side of the table, and then squatted down beside her. “With you by his side, he will get through this. It is like it is for me with Eli. When something goes wrong or I am worried about something, knowing I have Eli helps me to be stronger. It is that way for Jakob with you. I see it. Eli sees it, too.”
“I hope you’re right. I hate seeing him hurt like this.” She lifted Sarah to her lips and then slowly, reluctantly, lowered her back down. “I think I may have upset your mother today and that wasn’t my intent.”
Esther’s brow furrowed as she stood. “I am sure you did not upset Mamm. How could you?”
“By speaking of her relationship with Jakob when I know I shouldn’t. It’s just that . . .” She nibbled back the rest of her sentence and looked away.
“It is just what, Claire? Tell me.”
Her eyes traveled back to Esther’s. “I know it is the Amish way. I know this. But I hate watching him love all of you as fiercely as he does only to be held at arm’s length—if he’s even lucky enough to get that close—in return. It’s heartbreaking to watch and almost as heartbreaking to have to stand by and accept it as”—she quoted her fingers around the baby—“the way that it is.”
Esther’s smile slipped from her face, taking the happy set to her shoulders and her overall demeanor with it. “I am sorry, Claire. I do not mean to hurt my uncle. It is why I asked you to bring a guest to my wedding and hoped it would be Jakob. It is why I invite you to bring Jakob over for dessert sometimes—so we can sit on the porch and face out at the fields when we visit. I try to find ways even when I know I am not supposed to.”
“And I’m a fool.” Squeezing her eyes closed, Claire exhaled away her frustration. “I know you try. And I know the efforts you and Eli make mean the world to Jakob. I . . . I shouldn’t have said any of that. It’s just that, well, he’s hurting right now and I don’t know how to fix it. So I’m grasping at straws trying to fix something, anything, where he’s concerned and now I’ve just made more problems.
“I’m sorry, Esther.”
“Do not be. I would do the same for Eli.” Esther pointed at a plate of cookies to the left of her mixing bowl. “When I worked at the shop with you, cookies always cheered you up. Perhaps they will still do the same?”
Claire smiled down at the baby, who was beginning to show signs of stirring. “Ohhh, Sarah, just wait until you are old enough to eat your mamm’s cookies. They are the best.”
“I think it is a good thing she can’t understand you.” Esther plucked the plate from the counter and carried it over to the table and Claire. “Eli says I make too many cookies. Before Sarah, he thought I made so many because I was eating for two. But I am no longer eating for two and I still make many.”
It felt good to laugh. It felt even better to see Esther’s precious little girl open her eyes. “Ohhhh, I could sit here and hold this little one all day . . . She is so perfect.”
“It is God who is perfect. Not man.”
Startled, she looked up, her friend’s kapp and aproned dress rooting her in a reality she’d almost forgotten. “I’m sorry, Esther. I . . . I didn’t mean any harm. It’s just”—she dropped her focus back to the now wide-eyed child in her arms—“that I’m kind of in love with your daughter.”
“I am, too.” Esther helped herself to an oatmeal cookie, broke off a morsel, and carried it down the short hallway to the front window. “I thought Eli would come inside when he saw that you are here. But—wait! I see him. He is speaking with Elmer and John.”
Turning on her well-worn boots, Esther hurried back into the kitchen and over to a second, larger plate of cookies sitting on top of the refrigerator. She took it down, grabbed an empty plate from the cabinet, and carried both to the table. “I think there are enough here to put on two plates, don’t you?”
Claire nodded even though Esther had moved on to dividing and redistributing, sans answer. “I didn’t mean to make so many cookies while Sarah was napping this afternoon, but I just kept adding and stirring until I had more dough than I needed. I wanted to give some to Mamm when she stopped by again after her visit to town, but I forgot.” The new mother stopped fussing with the cookies to peg Claire with a raised eyebrow. “Perhaps I should make three plates so you can take one?”
“No, no, it’s okay. But who are those for?” she asked, pointing.
“The Bontragers have many mouths to feed.”
“Bontrager,” she repeated. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
“Because John is outside.”
“No, I think—yes! I know! That’s the one who owns the farm across the street, yes? The one you and Eli were talking about out at the pond yesterday?”
“Yah.” Esther placed five cookies on the second plate, only to bring it back down to four just as quickly. “Elmer and Miriam do not have extra mouths. They will be fine with four.”
Then, lifting both plates off the table, Esther motioned toward the door with her chin. “Come. We can say hello, and I can get rid of some of these before Eli wonders why I made so many.”
Slowly, carefully, she stood with the baby and trailed Esther to the door. “Elmer is the one who did get the job of minister, right?”
“And you think he’ll do a better job than your neighbor across the street?” She stepped out onto the porch and let her eyes travel the dirt lane to the trio of men at the end. Eli stood beside one man, while another sat on a buggy seat, sweeping his hand toward the fields on both sides of the road.
Esther led the way down the steps. “John would have done fine, I am sure. But there are many in our community who think he must focus on his son Amos.”
“That’s the son who is on Rumspringa, right?”
Rumspringa, she knew, was a window of time when Amish teens experimented with the ways of the English world. Most limited such experimentation to music and technology, but there were always a few who went too far. “I’m guessing the trouble John is having with the boy extends beyond the home?”
“And this Elmer? The one who did get the minister job?”
“Six months ago, the added work would have been difficult for Elmer, too, but it is different now. Good, even.”
“What do you mean by different?”
“Elmer and Miriam do not need to look for Miriam’s uncle in the fields or in the woods any longer. They do not need to sleep with one eye open or to put cans above the door to know when he got out. His passing was a blessing in that way.”
Claire stopped making silly faces at the baby in the hope that would help her focus. But it didn’t. “Cans above the door?” she echoed.
“Barley got to wandering the last year or so. In the beginning, when someone spotted him, he’d just say he was out walking. But by this time last year, before Miriam and Elmer came, he didn’t say much when Eli would find him in places he shouldn’t have been. He’d just stare and shake his head.” Esther slowed long enough to peek at the baby before lowering her voice still more to keep from being overheard by the men now turning in their direction. “The cans were Elmer’s idea. And it was a good one. Kept Barley safe right up until his passing over the summer.”
“This Barley . . . Did he have Alzheimer’s?” Claire asked.
“I think that’s the word Miriam used. I just know he wasn’t the Barley I remember growing up. That Barley knew everyone. The Barley at the end didn’t know anyone. Not me, not Dat, not Mamm, not the bishop, not even Miriam and Elmer, themselves.” Esther slowed her steps in a near-perfect match to the whisper she adopted. “Mamm said Barley started getting like that when he lost his wife. Said he couldn’t think straight without her.”
At about ten paces out, Esther cleared her throat, squared her shoulders, and smiled at Eli and his visitors across the remaining stretch of lane. “I saw you standing out here and thought I’d take a chance that you could both use some cookies in your home this evening. They’re oatmeal.”
“I won’t turn ’em down.” The hatted man on the buggy seat reached down, took the plate Esther handed up to him, and then patted his slightly rounded stomach. “I’ve always been partial to oatmeal. Though you won’t catch me passing up chocolate chip, neither.”
Esther returned his smile and then handed the other plate to the man standing beside Eli. “There’s enough on here for your boys to have two each if they’d like, John.”
The tall, lanky man took them but said nothing. If his lack of response bothered Esther as it did Claire, the Amish woman didn’t let on. Instead, she spread her now-empty hands in Claire’s direction. “This is my friend, Claire—Claire Weatherly. She owns Heavenly Treasures on Lighted Way. Claire, this is Elmer Mast”—Esther motioned first toward the buggy seat and then to the man standing beside Eli—“and this is John Bontrager. John and his wife, Liddy, farm the land across the street with their seven boys.”
“Seven boys?” Claire repeated, grinning. “Wow, I imagine you must go through a lot of food.”
“They eat what we put in front of them.” John took a step toward the street and his farm but stopped as Eli waved him back.
“John, Claire might be someone you should get to know. She sells many things made by Amish in her shop. Esther’s dolls and quilts and Martha’s milk cans and wooden spoons, all sell well there. So, too, do Benjamin’s birdhouses and my footstools. Might be a place for you to think about selling those doghouses you’ve taken to building.”
Intrigue made her tighten her hold on the baby as she took a half step closer to Eli and Esther’s neighbor. “You make doghouses, John?”
“For big dogs or little dogs?”
“A lot of the tourists seem to have little dogs,” Claire mused. “Perhaps you’d like to leave one with me and we’ll see how it goes. If it sells, we can talk about me taking more and—”
“I will sell them on my own.”
His blunt reply had her recovering her step. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be presumptuous.”
“I’d think twice before being so hasty, John. Getting to put what you make on someone else’s shelf sounds pretty worry-free to me.” Elmer reached up, gathered the ends of his Eli-length salt-and-pepper beard between his fingers, and narrowed his eyes in thought. “Heavenly Treasures, you say? Isn’t that the shop across from the police station?”
Claire nodded. “It is. Though the best landmark for directing people to my store is to tell them it’s next to Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe. Everyone knows where Ruth Miller’s bakery is.”
Esther wiggled her finger at her daughter a few times and then turned back to Elmer. “Claire spends much time in the police station.”
“Oh?” Elmer readjusted his hat atop his head. “You do not look like someone who would find herself at the police station . . .”
“She doesn’t go because she has done something wrong,” Esther explained. “She goes to see the detective.”
Elmer lowered his hand back down to his lap. “Detective?”
“Yah. They are to marry one day.”
Esther leaned forward, cupping her hand around her mouth as she did. “Claire doesn’t like it when I say that, but it is true. I have seen them together. There will be a wedding soon, I am sure.”
Propelled by the sudden and face-saving series of vibrations in her front pocket, Claire handed the baby to Esther to check the display screen on her phone. Jakob’s name had her requesting a moment and taking a step or two back from the curious glances of the group.
“Hey there . . . I’ve been thinking about you all day. How are you? Are you doing okay?”
“Any chance I could see you tonight? I think I need to talk about Russ . . . Maybe reminisce out loud for a little while, if that’s okay? Might help me get through what I need to get through in order to get to the business of figuring out who did this.”
“Of course!” Glancing back at the group, she tried to smile away Esther’s worry, but it was no use. Esther’s antenna was up. So, too, was Eli’s if the way he kept rubbing his jawline was any indication. “Do you want me to stop by your place? I can be there in ten minutes—fifteen, tops. I just need to say good-bye to everyone here.”
“That’s fine. But let’s make it the inn instead of my place, okay? Maybe Diane would like to reminisce, too.”
Excerpted from "Just Plain Murder"
Copyright © 2018 Laura Bradford.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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