Book excerpt

Her Last Breath

A Novel

Kate Burkholder

Linda Castillo

St. Martin's Press

CHAPTER 1
 

When it rains, it pours. Those words were one of my mamm’s favorite maxims when I was growing up. As a child, I didn’t understand its true meaning, and I didn’t spend much time trying to figure it out. In the eyes of the Amish girl I’d been, more was almost always a good thing. The world around me was a swiftly moving river, chock-full of white-water rapids and deep holes filled with secrets I couldn’t fathom. I was ravenous to raft that river, anxious to dive into all of those dark crevices and unravel their closely guarded secrets. It wasn’t until I entered my twenties that I realized there were times when that river overflowed its banks and a killing flood ensued.
My mamm is gone now and I haven’t been Amish for fifteen years, but I often find myself using that old adage, particularly when it comes to police work and, oftentimes, my life.
I’ve been on duty since 3:00 P.M. and my police radio has been eerily quiet for a Friday, not only in Painters Mill proper, but the entirety of Holmes County. I made one stop and issued a speeding citation, mainly because it was a repeat offense and the eighteen-year-old driver is going to end up killing someone if he doesn’t slow down. I’ve spent the last hour cruising the backstreets, trying not to dwell on anything too serious, namely a state law enforcement agent by the name of John Tomasetti and a relationship that’s become a lot more complicated than I ever intended.
We met during the Slaughterhouse Murders investigation almost two years ago. It was a horrific case: A serial killer had staked his claim in Painters Mill, leaving a score of dead in his wake. Tomasetti, an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Identification and Investigation, was sent here to assist. The situation was made worse by my personal involvement in the case. They were the worst circumstances imaginable, especially for the start of a relationship, professional or otherwise. Somehow, what could have become a debacle of biblical proportion, grew into something fresh and good and completely unexpected. We’re still trying to figure out how to define this bond we’ve created between us. I think he’s doing a better job of it than I am.
That’s the thing about relationships; no matter how hard you try to keep things simple, all of those gnarly complexities have a way of seeping into the mix. Tomasetti and I have arrived at a crossroads of sorts, and I sense change on the wind. Of course, change isn’t always a negative. But it’s rarely easy. The indecision can eat at you, especially when you’ve arrived at an important junction and you’re not sure which way to go—and you know in your heart that each path will take you in a vastly different direction.
I’m not doing a very good job of keeping my troubles at bay, and I find myself falling back into another old habit I acquired from my days on patrol: wishing for a little chaos. A bar fight would do. Or maybe a domestic dispute. Sans serious injury, of course. I don’t know what it says about me that I’d rather face off with a couple of pissed-off drunks than look too hard at the things going on in my own life.
I’ve just pulled into the parking lot of LaDonna’s Diner for a BLT and a cup of dark roast to go when the voice of my second shift dispatcher cracks over the radio.
“Six two three.”
I pick up my mike. “What do you have, Jodie?”
“Chief, I just took a nine one one from Andy Welbaum. He says there’s a bad wreck on Delisle Road at CR 14.”
“Anyone hurt?” Dinner forgotten, I glance in my rearview mirror and make a U-turn in the gravel lot.
“There’s a buggy involved. He says it’s bad.”
“Get an ambulance out there. Notify Holmes County.” Cursing, I make a left on Main, hit my emergency lights and siren. The engine groans as I crank the speedometer up to fifty. “I’m ten seventy-six.”
I’m doing sixty by the time I leave the corporation limit of Painters Mill. Within seconds, the radio lights up as the call goes out to the Holmes County sheriff’s office. I make a left on Delisle Road, a twisty stretch of asphalt that cuts through thick woods. It’s a scenic drive during the day, but treacherous as hell at night, especially with so many deer in the area.
County Road 14 intersects a mile down the road. The Explorer’s engine groans as I crank the speedometer to seventy. Mailboxes and the black trunks of trees fly by outside my window. I crest a hill and spot the headlights of a single vehicle ahead. No ambulance or sheriff’s cruiser yet; I’m first on scene.
I’m twenty yards from the intersection when I recognize Andy Welbaum’s pickup truck. He lives a few miles from here. Probably coming home from work at the plant in Millersburg. The truck is parked at a haphazard angle on the shoulder, as if he came to an abrupt and unexpected stop. The headlights are trained on what looks like the shattered remains of a four-wheeled buggy. There’s no horse in sight; either it ran home or it’s down. Judging from the condition of the buggy, I’m betting on the latter.
“Shit.” I brake hard. My tires skid on the gravel shoulder. Leaving my emergency lights flashing, I hit my high beams for light and jam the Explorer into park. Quickly, I grab a couple of flares from the back, snatch up my Maglite, and then I’m out of the vehicle. Snapping open the flares, I scatter them on the road to alert oncoming traffic. Then I start toward the buggy.
My senses go into hyperalert as I approach, several details striking me at once. A sorrel horse lies on its side on the southwest corner of the intersection, still harnessed but unmoving. Thirty feet away, a badly damaged buggy has been flipped onto its side. It’s been broken in half, but it’s not a clean break. I see splintered wood, two missing wheels, and a ten-yard-wide swath of debris—pieces of fiberglass and wood scattered about. I take in other details, too. A child’s shoe. A flat-brimmed hat lying amid brown grass and dried leaves …
My mind registers all of this in a fraction of a second, and I know it’s going to be bad. Worse than bad. It will be a miracle if anyone survived.
I’m midway to the buggy when I spot the first casualty. It’s a child, I realize, and everything grinds to a halt, as if someone threw a switch inside my head and the world winds down into slow motion.
“Fuck. Fuck.” I rush to the victim, drop to my knees. It’s a little girl. Six or seven years old. She’s wearing a blue dress. Her kapp is askew and soaked with blood and I think: head injury.
“Sweetheart.” The word comes out as a strangled whisper.
The child lies in a supine position with her arms splayed. Her pudgy hands are open and relaxed. Her face is so serene she might have been sleeping. But her skin is gray. Blue lips are open, revealing tiny baby teeth. Already her eyes are cloudy and unfocused. I see bare feet and I realize the force of the impact tore off her shoes.
Working on autopilot, I hit my lapel mike, put out the call for a 10-50F. A fatality accident. I stand, aware that my legs are shaking. My stomach seesaws, and I swallow something that tastes like vinegar. Around me, the night is so quiet I hear the ticking of the truck’s engine a few yards away. Even the crickets and night birds have gone silent as if in reverence to the violence that transpired here scant minutes before.
Insects fly in the beams of the headlights. In the periphery of my thoughts, I’m aware of someone crying. I shine my beam in the direction of the sound, and spot Andy Welbaum sitting on the ground near the truck with his face in his hands, sobbing. His chest heaves, and sounds I barely recognize as human emanate from his mouth.
I call out to him. “Andy, are you hurt?”
He looks up at me, as if wondering why I would ask him such a thing. “No.”
“How many in the buggy? Did you check?” I’m on my feet and looking around for more passengers, when I spot another victim.
I don’t hear Andy’s response as I start toward the Amish man lying on the grassy shoulder. He’s in a prone position with his head turned to one side. He’s wearing a black coat and dark trousers. I try not to look at the ocean of blood that has soaked into the grass around him or the way his left leg is twisted with the foot pointing in the wrong direction. He’s conscious and watches me approach with one eye.
I kneel at his side. “Everything’s going to be okay,” I tell him. “You’ve been in an accident. I’m here to help you.”
His mouth opens. His lips quiver. His full beard tells me he’s married, and I wonder if his wife is lying somewhere nearby.
I set my hand on his. Cold flesh beneath my fingertips. “How many other people on board the buggy?”
“Three … children.”
Something inside me sinks. I don’t want to find any more dead children. I pat his hand. “Help is on the way.”
His gaze meets mine. “Katie…”
The sound of my name coming from that bloody mouth shocks me. I know that voice. That face. Recognition impacts me solidly. It’s been years, but there are some things—some people—you never forget. Paul Borntrager is one of them. “Paul.” Even as I say his name, I steel myself against the emotional force of it.
He tries to speak, but ends up spitting blood. I see more on his teeth. But it’s his eye that’s so damn difficult to look at. One is gone completely; the other is cognizant and filled with pain. I know the person trapped inside that broken body. I know his wife. I know at least one of his kids is dead, and I’m terrified he’ll see that awful truth in my face.
“Don’t try to talk,” I tell him. “I’m going to check the children.”
Tears fill his eye. I feel his stare burning into me as I rise and move away. Quickly, I sweep my beam along the ground, looking for victims. I’m aware of sirens in the distance and relief slips through me that help is on the way. I know it’s a cowardly response, but I don’t want to deal with this alone.
I think of Paul’s wife, Mattie. A lifetime ago, she was my best friend. We haven’t spoken in twenty years; she may be a stranger to me now, but I honestly don’t think I could bear it if she died here tonight.
Mud sucks at my boots as I cross the ditch. On the other side, I spot a tiny figure curled against the massive trunk of a maple tree. A boy of about four years of age. He looks like a little doll, small and vulnerable and fragile. Hope jumps through me when I see steam rising into the cold night air. At first, I think it’s vapor from his breath. But as I draw closer I realize with a burgeoning sense of horror that it’s not a sign of life, but death. He’s bled out and the steam is coming from the blood as it cools.
I go to him anyway, kneel at his side, and all I can think when I look at his battered face is that this should never happen to a child. His eyes and mouth are open. A wound the size of my fist has peeled back the flesh on one side of his head.
Sickened, I close my eyes. “Goddammit,” I choke as I get to my feet.
I stand there for a moment, surrounded by the dead and dying, overwhelmed, repulsed by the bloodshed, and filled with impotent anger because this kind of carnage shouldn’t happen and yet it has, in my town, on my watch, and there’s not a damn thing I can do to save any of them.
Trying hard to step back into myself and do my job, I run my beam around the scene. A breeze rattles the tree branches above me and a smattering of leaves float down. Fingers of fog rise within the thick underbrush and I find myself thinking of souls leaving bodies.
A whimper yanks me from my stasis. I spin, jerk my beam left. I see something tangled against the tumbling wire fence that runs along the tree line. Another child. I break into a run. From twenty feet away I see it’s a boy. Eight or nine years old. Hope surges inside me when I hear him groan. It’s a pitiful sound that echoes through me like the electric pain of a broken bone. But it’s a good sound, too, because it tells me he’s alive.
I drop to my knees at his side, set my flashlight on the ground beside me. The child is lying on his side with his left arm stretched over his head and twisted at a terrible angle. Dislocated shoulder, I think. Broken arm, maybe. Survivable, but I’ve worked enough accidents to know it’s usually the injuries you can’t see that end up being the worst.
One side of his face is visible. His eyes are open; I can see the curl of lashes against his cheek as he blinks. Flecks of blood cover his chin and throat and the front of his coat. There’s blood on his face, but I don’t know where it’s coming from; I can’t pinpoint the source.
Tentatively, I reach out and run my fingertips over the top of his hand, hoping the contact will comfort him. “Honey, can you hear me?”
He moans. I hear his breaths rushing in and out between clenched teeth. He’s breathing hard. Hyperventilating. His hand twitches beneath mine and he cries out.
“Don’t try to move, sweetie,” I say. “You were in an accident, but you’re going to be okay.” As I speak, I try to put myself in his shoes, conjure words that will comfort him. “My name’s Katie. I’m here to help you. Your datt’s okay. And the doctor is coming. Just be still and try to relax for me, okay?”
His small body heaves. He chokes out a sound and flecks of blood spew from his mouth. I hear gurgling in his chest, and close my eyes tightly, fighting to stay calm. Don’t you dare take this one, too, a little voice inside my head snaps.
The urge to gather him into my arms and pull him from the fence in which he’s tangled is powerful. But I know better than to move an accident victim. If he sustained a head or spinal injury, moving him could cause even more damage. Or kill him.
The boy stares straight ahead, blinking. Still breathing hard. Chest rattling. He doesn’t move, doesn’t try to look at me. “… Sampson…” he whispers.
I don’t know who that is; I’m not even sure I heard him right or if he’s cognizant and knows what he’s saying. It doesn’t matter. I rub my thumb over the top of his hand. “Shhh.” I lean close. “Don’t try to talk.”
He shifts slightly, turns his head. His eyes find mine. They’re gray. Like Mattie’s, I realize. In their depths I see fear and the kind of pain no child should ever have to bear. His lips tremble. Tears stream from his eyes. “Hurts…”
“Everything’s going to be okay.” I force a smile, but my lips feel like barbed wire.
A faint smile touches his mouth and then his expression goes slack. Beneath my hand, I feel his body relax. His stare goes vacant.
“Hey.” I squeeze his hand, willing him not to slip away. “Stay with me, buddy.”
He doesn’t answer.
The sirens are closer now. I hear the rumble of the diesel engine as a fire truck arrives on scene. The hiss of tires against the wet pavement as more vehicles pull onto the shoulder. The shouts of the first responders as they disembark.
“Over here!” I yell. “I’ve got an injured child!”
I stay with the boy until the first paramedic comes up behind me. “We’ll take it from here, Chief.”
He’s about my age, with a crew cut and blue jacket inscribed with the Holmes County Rescue insignia. He looks competent and well trained, with a trauma kit slung over his shoulder and a cervical collar beneath his arm.
“He was conscious a minute ago,” I tell the paramedic.
“We’ll take good care of him, Chief.”
Rising, I take a step back to get out of the way.
He kneels at the child’s side. “I need a backboard over here!” he shouts over his shoulder.
Close on his heels, a young firefighter snaps open a reflective thermal blanket and goes around to the other side of the boy. A third paramedic trots through the ditch with a bright yellow backboard in tow.
I leave them to their work and hit my lapel mike. “Jodie, can you ten seventy-nine?” Notify coroner.
“Roger that.”
I glance over my shoulder to the place where I left Paul Borntrager. A firefighter kneels at his side, assessing him. I can’t see the Amish man’s face, but he’s not moving.
Firefighters and paramedics swarm the area, treating the injured and looking for more victims. Any cop that has ever worked patrol knows that passengers who don’t utilize safety belts—which is always the case with a buggy—can be ejected a long distance, especially if speed is a factor. When I was a rookie in Columbus, I worked an accident in which a semi truck went off the road and flipped end over end down a one-hundred-foot ravine. The driver, who’d been belted in, was seriously injured, but survived. His wife, who hadn’t been wearing her safety belt, was ejected over two hundred feet. The officers on scene—me included—didn’t find her for nearly twenty minutes. Afterward, the coroner told me that if we’d gotten to her sooner, she might have survived. Nobody ever talked about that accident again. But it stayed with me, and I never forgot the lesson it taught.
Wondering if Mattie was a passenger, I establish a mental grid of the scene. Starting at the point of impact, I walk the area, looking for casualties, working my way outward in all directions. I don’t find any more victims.
When I’m finished, I drift back to where I left Paul, expecting to find him being loaded onto a litter. I’m shocked to see a blue tarp draped over his body, rain tapping against it, and I realize he’s died.
I know better than to let this get to me. I haven’t talked to Paul or Mattie in years. But I feel something ugly and unwieldy building inside me. Anger at the driver responsible. Grief because Paul is dead and Mattie must be told. The pain of knowing I’ll probably be the one to do it.
“Oh, Mattie,” I whisper.
A lifetime ago, we were inseparable—more like sisters than friends. We shared first crushes, first “singings,” and our first heartbreaks. Mattie was there for me during the summer of my fourteenth year when an Amish man named Daniel Lapp introduced me to violence. My life was irrevocably changed that day, but our friendship remained a constant. When I turned eighteen and made the decision to leave the Plain Life, Mattie was one of the few who supported me, even though she knew it would mean the end of our friendship.
We lost touch after I left Painters Mill. Our lives took different paths and never crossed again. I went on to complete my education and become a police officer. Mattie joined the church, married Paul, and started a family. For years, we’ve been little more than acquaintances, rarely sharing anything more than a wave on the street. But I never forgot those formative years, when summer lasted forever, the future held infinite promise—and we still believed in dreams.
Dreams that, for one of us, ended tonight.
I walk to Andy Welbaum’s truck. It’s an older Dodge with patches of rust on the hood. A crease on the rear quarter panel. Starting with the front bumper, I circle the vehicle, checking for damage. But there’s nothing there. Only then do I realize this truck wasn’t involved in the accident.
I find Andy leaning against the front bumper of a nearby Holmes County ambulance. Someone has given him a slicker. He’s no longer crying, but he’s shaking beneath the yellow vinyl.
He looks at me when I approach. He’s about forty years old and balding, with circles the size of plums beneath hound dog eyes. “That kid going to be okay?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” The words come out sounding bitchy, and I take a moment to rein in my emotions. “What happened?”
“I was coming home from work like I always do. Slowed down to turn onto the county road and saw all that busted-up wood and stuff scattered all over the place. I got out to see what happened…” Shaking his head, he looks down at his feet. “Chief Burkholder, I swear to God I ain’t never seen anything like that before in my life. All them kids. Damn.” He looks like he’s going to start crying again. “Poor family.”
“So your vehicle wasn’t involved in the accident?”
“No ma’am. It had already happened when I got here.”
“Did you witness it?”
“No.” He looks at me, grimaces. “I think it musta just happened though. I swear to God the dust was still flying when I pulled up.”
“Did you see any other vehicles?”
“No.” He says the word with some heat. “I suspect that sumbitch hightailed it.”
“What happened next?”
“I called nine one one. Then I went over to see if I could help any of them. I was a medic in the Army way back, you know.” He falls silent, looks down at the ground. “There was nothing I could do.”
I nod, struggling to keep a handle on my outrage. I’m pissed because someone killed three people—two of whom were children—injured a third, and left the scene without bothering to render aid or even call for help.
I let out a sigh. “I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“I don’t blame you. I don’t see how you cops deal with stuff like this day in and day out. I hope you find the bastard that done it.”
“I’m going to need a statement from you. Can you hang around for a little while longer?”
“You bet. I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
I turn away from him and start toward the road to see a Holmes County sheriff’s department cruiser glide onto the shoulder, lights flashing. An ambulance pulls away, transporting the only survivor to the hospital. Later, the coroner’s office will deal with the dead.
I step over a chunk of wood from the buggy. The black paint contrasts sharply against the pale yellow of the naked wood beneath. A few feet away, I see a little girl’s shoe. Farther, a tattered afghan. Eyeglasses.
This is now a crime scene. Though the investigation will likely fall under the jurisdiction of the Holmes County Sheriff’s office, I’m going to do my utmost to stay involved. Rasmussen won’t have a problem with it. Not only will my Amish background be a plus, but his department, like mine, works on a skeleton crew, and he’ll appreciate all the help he can get.
Now that the injured boy has been transported, any evidence left behind will need to be preserved and documented. We’ll need to bring in a generator and work lights. If the sheriff’s department doesn’t have a deputy trained in accident reconstruction, we’ll request one from the State Highway Patrol.
I think of Mattie Borntrager, at home, waiting for her husband and children, and I realize I’ll need to notify her as soon as possible.
I’m on my way to speak with the paramedics for an update on the condition of the injured boy when someone calls out my name. I turn to see my officer, Rupert “Glock” Maddox, approaching me at a jog. “I got here as quick as I could,” he says. “What happened?”
I tell him what little I know. “The driver skipped.”
“Shit.” He looks at the ambulance. “Any survivors?”
“One,” I tell him. “A little boy. Eight or nine years old.”
“He gonna make it?”
“I don’t know.”
His eyes meet mine and a silent communication passes between us, a mutual agreement we arrive upon without uttering a word. When you’re a cop in a small town, you become protective of the citizens you’ve been sworn to serve and protect, especially the innocent, the kids. When something like this happens, you take it personally. I’ve known Glock long enough to know that sentiment runs deep in him, too.
We start toward the intersection, trying to get a sense of what happened. Delisle Road runs in a north-south direction; County Road 14 runs east-west with a two-way stop. The speed limit is fifty-five miles per hour. The area is heavily wooded and hilly. If you’re approaching the intersection from any direction, it’s impossible to see oncoming traffic.
Glock speaks first. “Looks like the buggy was southbound on Delisle Road.”
I nod in agreement. “The second vehicle was running west on CR 14. Probably at a high rate of speed. Blew the stop sign. Broadsided the buggy.”
His eyes drift toward the intersection. “Fucking T-boned them.”
“Didn’t even pause to call nine one one.”
He grimaces. “Probably alcohol related.”
“Most hit-and-runs are.”
Craning his neck, he eyeballs Andy Welbaum. “He a witness?”
“First on scene. He’s pretty shaken up.” I look past him at the place where the wrecked buggy lies on its side. “Whatever hit that buggy is going to have a smashed up front end. I put out a BOLO for an unknown with damage.”
He looks out over the carnage. “Did you know them, Chief?”
“A long time ago,” I tell him. “I’m going to pick up the bishop and head over to their farm to notify next of kin. Do me a favor and get Welbaum’s statement, will you?”
“You got it.”
I feel his eyes on me, but I don’t meet his gaze. I don’t want to share the mix of emotions inside me at the devastation that’s been brought down on this Amish family. I don’t want him to know the extent of the sadness I feel or my anger toward the perpetrator.
To my relief, he looks away, lets it go. “I’d better get to work.” He taps his lapel mike. “Call me if you need anything.”
I watch him walk away, then turn my attention back to the scene. I take in the wreckage of the buggy. The small pieces of the victims’ lives that are strewn about like trash. And I wonder what kind of person could do something like this and not stop to render aid or call for help.
“You better hide good, you son of a bitch, because I’m coming for you.”

 
Copyright© 2013 by Linda Castillo

LINDA CASTILLO, author of New York Times bestselling Sworn to Silence, lives in Texas with her husband and is currently at work on her next book in this series, also set in Amish Country and featuring Chief of Police Kate Burkholder.