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You see a lot of things when you’re the chief of police in a small town. Things most other people don’t know about—don’t want to know about—and are probably better off for it. I deal with minor incidents mostly—traffic accidents, domestic disputes, petty thefts, loose livestock. I see people in high-stress situations—friends, neighbors, folks I’ve known most of my life. Sometimes I see them at their worst. That reality is tempered by the knowledge that I see them at their best, too. I see courage and strong character and people who care, some willing to risk their lives for someone they don’t even know. Those are the moments that lift me. The moments that keep me going when the sky is dark and the rain is pouring down.
My name is Kate Burkholder and I’m the police chief of Painters Mill. It’s a pretty little town of about 5,300 souls—a third of whom are Amish—nestled in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country. I was born here and raised Plain, but I left the fold when I was eighteen. I never thought I’d return. But after twelve years—and after I’d found my place in law enforcement—my roots called me back. Fate obliged when the town council offered me the position of chief. I like to think their interest was due to my law enforcement experience or because I’m good at what I do. But I know my being formerly Amish—my familiarity with the culture, the religion, and being fluent in Deitsch—played a role in their decision. Tourism, after all, is a big chunk of the economy and our city leaders knew my presence would go a long way toward bridging the gap that exists between the Amish and “English” communities.
It’s a little after four P.M., and I’m riding shotgun in the passenger seat of my city-issue Explorer. My newest patrol officer, Mona Kurtz, is behind the wheel. She’s all business this afternoon, wearing her full uniform, which still smells of fabric softener. Her usually unruly hair is pulled into a ponytail. Makeup toned down to reasonable hues of earthy brown and nude pink. She works dispatch most nights, but recognizing the importance of patrol experience, I’ve been spending a couple of hours with her every day when our schedules align. I want her to be ready once I get a new dispatcher hired and trained.
It’s a brilliant and sunny afternoon; cool, but pleasant for November in this part of Ohio. The X Ambassadors are feeling a little “Unsteady” on the radio, which is turned down low enough so that we can hear my police radio. We’ve got to-go coffees in our cup holders, and the wrappers of our burger lunch in a bag on the console. We’re cruising down County Road 19 when we spot the dozen or so bales of hay scattered across both lanes.
“Looks like someone lost their load,” Mona says, slowing.
“Driver hits a bale of hay doing fifty and they’re going to have a problem.”
Hitting the switch for the light bar, Mona pulls over and parks. “Set up flares?”
I look ahead and sure enough, an Amish wagon piled high with hay wobbles on the horizon. “Looks like our culprit there. Let’s toss the bales onto the shoulder and go get them.”
We spend a few minutes lugging bales onto the gravel shoulder, and then we’re back in the Explorer heading toward the wayward driver. It’s an old wooden hay wagon with slatted side rails, half of which are broken.
“At least he’s got a slow-moving-vehicle sign displayed,” I say as we approach. “That’s good.”
“Shall I pull him over, Chief?”
“Let’s do it.”
Looking a little too excited by the prospect of making a stop, she tracks the wagon, keeping slightly to the left. We can’t see the driver because the bed is stacked ten feet high with hay. It’s being drawn by a couple of equally old draft horses. Slowly, the wagon veers onto the shoulder and stops.
Taking a breath, Mona straightens her jacket, shoots me an I-got-this glance, and gets out. Trying not to smile, I follow suit and trail her to the left front side of the wagon.
The driver isn’t what either of us expected. She’s fourteen or fifteen years old. An even younger girl sits on the bench seat next to her. Between them, a little boy of about six or seven grins a nearly toothless smile. I can tell by their clothes that they’re Swartzentruber Amish; the boy is wearing a black coat over blue jeans and high-top black sneakers. A flat-brimmed hat sits atop the typical “Dutch boy” haircut. The girls are wearing dark blue dresses with black coats and black winter bonnets.
The Swartzentruber Amish are Old Order and adhere to the long-standing traditions with an iron grip. They forgo many of the conveniences other Amish use in their daily lives. Things like running water and indoor plumbing. They don’t use windshields in their buggies or rubber tires. The women wear long, dark dresses. Most wear winter bonnets year-round. The men don’t trim their beards. Even their homes tend to be plain.
As a group, they get a bit of a bad rap, especially from non-Amish people who don’t understand the culture. Most complaints have to do with their refusal to use slow-moving-vehicle signage, which they consider ornamental. I’ve also heard some non-Amish grumble about the personal hygiene of some Swartzentruber. Having been raised Amish, I appreciate the old ways. Even if I don’t agree with them, I respect them. I know from experience how difficult it is to lug water when it’s ten below zero outside. Such hardships make it impractical to bathe every day, especially in winter.
The kids are uneasy about being pulled over, so I move to set them at ease. “Guder nochmiddawks,” I say, using the Pennsylvania Dutch words for “good afternoon.”
“Hi.” The driver’s gaze flicks from Mona to me. “Did I do something wrong?”
I nod at Mona, let her know this is her stop. “No, ma’am,” she tells the girl. “I just wanted to let you know you lost a few bales of hay.”
The girl’s eyes widen. “Oh no.” She glances behind her, but can’t see past the stacked hay without getting down. “How many?”
“Ten or so.” Mona motions toward the fallen hay. “About a quarter mile back.”
Now that I’ve gotten a better look at them, I realize I’ve seen these children around town with their parents. I’ve stopped her datt on more than one occasion for refusing to display a slow-moving-vehicle sign on his buggy. It’s gratifying to see he heeded my advice.
“You’re Elam Shetler’s kids?” I ask.
The driver shifts her gaze to me. “I’m Loretta.” She jabs a thumb at the younger girl sitting beside her. “That’s Lena. And Marvin.”
I gauge the size of the wagon and the stability of the load. It’s a big rig that’s overloaded. The road is narrow, without much of a shoulder. I’m about to suggest she go home to unload and return with an adult when she gathers the reins and clucks to the horses.
“Kumma druff!” she snaps. “Kumma druff!” Come on there!
The horses come alive. Their heads go up. Ears pricked forward. Listening. Old pros, I think.
“Are you sure you can turn that thing around?” I ask her.
“I can turn it around just fine,” the girl tells me. There’s no petulance or juvenile showmanship. Just an easy confidence that stems from capability and experience.
I glance at Mona. “Let’s back up the Explorer and get out of the girl’s way.”
“You got it, Chief.”
I retreat a few feet and watch with a certain level of admiration as the girl skillfully sends both horses into a graceful side pass. The animal’s heads are tucked, outside forelegs crossing over the inside legs in perfect unison. When the wagon runs out of room, she backs the horses a couple of feet and once again sends them into a side pass. Within minutes, the wagon faces the direction from which it came.
“I have a whole new respect for Amish girls,” Mona whispers.
I cross to the wagon, look up at the girl. “Nicely done,” I tell her.
She looks away, but not before I see a flash of pride in her eyes, the hint of a blush on her cheeks, and I think, Good girl.
I motion toward the fallen bales of hay. “Pull up to those bales, and Mona and I will toss them onto the wagon for you.”
The children giggle at the thought of two Englischer women in police uniforms loading their fallen hay, but they don’t argue.
I’ve just tossed the last bale onto the wagon when the radio strapped to my duty belt comes to life. “Chief?”
I hit my shoulder mike, recognizing the voice of my first-shift dispatcher. “Hey, Lois.”
“I just took a call from Mike Rhodehammel. Says there’s a horse and buggy loose on Township Road 14 right there by the old Schattenbaum place.”
“On my way,” I tell her. “ETA two minutes.”
I slide back into the Explorer. “You hear that?” I ask Mona.
“Yep.” She puts the vehicle in gear.
A few minutes later we make the turn onto the township road. It’s a decaying stretch of crumbling asphalt that’s long since surrendered to the encroaching grass shoulder and overgrown trees. There are two houses on this barely-there swath of road. Ivan and Miriam Helmuth own a decent-size farm, growing hay, soybeans, and corn. The other property is the old Schattenbaum place, which has been abandoned for as long as I can remember.
I spot the buggy and horse ahead. The animal is still hitched and standing in the ditch against a rusty, tumbling-down fence. The buggy sits at a cockeyed angle.
“No sign of the driver.” Mona pulls up behind the buggy and hits the switch for the light bar. “What do you think happened?”
“The Helmuths have a lot of kids.” I shrug. “Maybe someone didn’t tether their horse or close a gate.” I get out and start toward the buggy.
The horse raises its head and looks at me as I approach. The animal isn’t sweaty or breathing hard, which tells me this isn’t a runaway situation. I peer into the buggy, find it unoccupied, three old-fashioned bushel baskets in the back.
“Well, that’s odd.” I look around and spot a red F-150 rolling up to us.
“Hey, Chief.” Local hardware store owner Mike Rhodehammel lowers his window. “Any sign of the driver?”
I shake my head. “Might belong to Mr. Helmuth down the road. I’m going to head that way now and check.”
He nods. “I thought someone should know. Hate to see that horse get hit. I gotta get to the shop.”
“Thanks for calling us, Mike.”
I watch him pull away and then start back toward the Explorer. “Let’s go talk to the Helmuths.”
I’m in the process of sliding in when I hear the scream. At first, I think it’s the sound of children playing, but the Helmuth farm is half a mile away, too far for voices to carry. Something in that scream gives me pause. I go still, listening.
Another scream splits the air. It’s high-pitched and goes on for too long. Not children playing. There’s something visceral and primal in the voice that makes the hairs at the back of my neck prickle.
Mona’s eyes meet mine. “What the hell, Chief?”
“Where is it coming from?” I say.
We listen. I step away from the Explorer, trying to determine the direction from which the voice came. This time, I discern words.
“Grossmammi! Grossmammi! Grossmammi!”
Panic and terror echo in the young voice. I glance at the Schattenbaum house, spot a little Amish girl running down the gravel lane as fast as her legs will carry her.
Mona and I rush toward her. In the back of my mind, I wonder if her grandmother had an accident or suffered some kind of medical emergency.
I reach the mouth of the lane. The gate is open. The little girl is twenty yards away, running fast, darting looks over her shoulder as if she’s seen a ghost—or a monster. She’s about five years old. She looks right at me, but she doesn’t see.
“Sweetheart. Hey, are you okay?” I ask in Deitsch as I start toward her. “Is everyone all right?”
When she’s ten feet from me, I notice the blood on her hands. More on her face. On her dress. A lot of it. Too much. A hard rise of alarm in my chest. I glance at Mona. “I got blood. Keep your eyes open.”
The girl’s body slams into me with such force that I stumble back. She’s vibrating all over. Mewling sounds tearing from a throat that’s gone hoarse.
“Easy.” I set my hands on her little shoulders. “It’s okay. You’re all right.”
“Grossmammi!” Screaming, she claws at my clothes, looks over her shoulder toward the house. “Da Deivel got her!”
“What happened?” I run my hands over her. “Are you hurt?”
The girl tries to speak, but ends up choking and crying. I kneel and ease her to arm’s length, hold her gaze, give her a gentle shake. “Calm down, honey. Tell me what happened.”
“Da Deivel hurt Grossmammi!” the girl cries. “She’s bleeding. He’s coming to get me, too!”
“Where is she?” I ask firmly.
Choking, she lifts a shaking hand, points toward the old house. “In the kitchen. She won’t wake up!”
I look at Mona. “Get an ambulance out here. Call County and tell them to send a deputy.” I ease the little girl over to Mona. “Stay with her. I’m going to take a look.”
Normally, I’d take Mona with me, but this child is too young and too panicked to be left alone. I don’t expect anything in the way of foul play. Chances are, Grandma had an accident, a fall or heart attack or some other medical episode. Of course, that doesn’t explain the blood.…
I hear Mona hail Dispatch as I jog toward the house. I notice the buggy-wheel marks in the dust as I run. A burlap tote someone must have dropped.
I reach the back of the house. No movement inside. No sign anyone has been here. I go to the porch, spot a single footprint in the dust. The door stands ajar. The hinges squeak when I push it open the rest of the way.
I smell blood an instant before I see it. An ocean of shocking red covers the floor. Spatter on the cabinets. The sink. The wall. Adrenaline burns a path across my gut. I slide my .38 from its holster. A female lies on the floor. She’s Amish. Blue dress. White kapp. Older. Not moving. There’s no weapon in sight. All I can think is that this was no accident or suicide, and I may not be alone.
“Shit. Shit.” I hit my radio. “Ten-thirty-five-C. Ten-seven-eight.” They are the codes for homicide and need assistance.
I train my weapon on the doorway that leads to the next room. “Painters Mill Police! Get your hands up and get out here! Right now!” I hear stress in my voice. My senses are jacked and overloaded. My adrenaline in the red zone. Hands shaking.
“Get out here! Now! Keep your fucking hands where I can see them! Do it now!”
Keeping my eyes on the door, I go to the woman, kneel, and I get my first good look at her face. I’ve met her at some point. My brain kicks out a name: Mary Yoder. She lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Miriam and Ivan Helmuth, at the farm down the road. I bought a cake from her last fall.
“Damn.” Even before I press my index finger to her carotid, I know she’s gone. Her skin is still warm to the touch, her eyes open and glazed. Mouth open and full of what looks like vomit.
I rise and sidle to the doorway, peer into the living room. It’s dark; curtains drawn. Shadows ebb and flow. Lots of blind spots. I yank the mini Maglite from my belt. I listen, but my heart pounds a hard tattoo against my ribs. I shine the beam around the room. The front door is closed. No sign of anyone. No movement or sound.
I spin, see a Holmes County deputy come through the back door. He does a double take upon spotting the victim. “Holy shit,” he mutters.
“Place isn’t cleared,” I tell him. “Victim is deceased.”
“Fuck me.” Drawing his sidearm, he sidesteps the blood, moves past me, into the living room.
“Holmes County Sheriff’s Department!” The voice comes from outside an instant before the front door flies open. A second deputy enters, shotgun at the ready.
“House isn’t cleared,” I tell him. “Deceased female in the kitchen.”
Sunlight slants in through the door, allowing us to see. The men exchange looks. The first deputy strides to a casement doorway, peers into an adjoining room. “Clear!”
The other deputy calls for additional units. Together, they start up the stairs to the second level.
I go back to the kitchen, stop in the doorway, bank a swift rise of revulsion. I’ve seen a lot of bad scenes in the years I’ve been a cop. Traffic accidents. Knife fights. Serious beatings. Even murder. I can honestly say I’ve never seen so much blood from a single victim. What in the name of God happened?
I look up to see Mona come through the back door. She spots the victim and freezes. After a moment she blinks, shakes her head as if waking from a bad dream. A tremor passes through her body.
My newest deputy is no shrinking violet, but she’s not ready for this.
“Mona.” I say her name firmly. “Get out. I got this.”
Without making eye contact with me, she backs away onto the porch, bends at the hip, and throws up in the bushes.
That same queasy response bubbles in my own gut; no matter how many times you see it, there’s something inherently repellent about blood. The sight of death, especially a violent one. I shove it back, refuse to acknowledge it.
“Where’s the girl?” I ask Mona.
“She’s with a deputy, in the backseat of his cruiser.” Hands on her hips, she spits, and then looks at me. “Chief, kid says a man took her sister.”
The words land a solid punch to my gut, adding yet another awful dimension to an already horrific situation. “Did you get names?”
“I know the family,” I say. “They live down the road.”
“What do you think happened?”
I shake my head. “Hard to tell. Looks like she was … stabbed.”
Butchered, a little voice whispers.
We’re both thinking it, but we don’t utter the word.
I hit my lapel mike and hail Dispatch. “Possible ten-thirty-one-D,” I say, using the ten code for kidnapping in progress.
I look at Mona. “We need to look around, talk to the parents,” I tell her. “Confirm if the girl is missing.”
If we were dealing solely with a likely homicide, my first priorities would be to protect the scene, limit access, set up a perimeter, canvass the area, and get started on developing a suspect. The possibility of a kidnapped minor child changes everything. The living always take precedence over the dead.
“Did the little girl say anything else?” I ask.
“Couldn’t get much out of her, Chief. She’s pretty shaken up.”
I take a final look at the victim, suppress a shudder. “Let’s go talk to her.”
Copyright © 2019 by Linda Castillo