The Slabaugh family are model Amish farmers, prosperous and hardworking, with four children and a happy extended family. When the parents and an uncle are found dead in their barn, it appears to be a gruesome accident: methane gas asphyxiation caused by a poorly ventilated cesspit. But in the course of a routine autopsy, the coroner discovers that one of the victims suffered a head wound before death—clearly, foul play was involved. But who would want to make orphans of the Slabaughs’ children? And is this murder somehow related to a recent string of shocking hate crimes against the Amish?
Having grown up Amish, Kate is determined to bring the killer to justice. Because the other series of attacks are designated hate crimes, the state sends in agent John Tomasetti, with whom Kate has a long and complex relationship. Together, they search for the link between the crimes—and uncover a dark secret at work beneath the placid surface of this idyllic Amish community.
The dogs were going to be a problem.
He’d driven by the place twice in the last week, headlights off, windows down, looking, listening. Planning. He’d heard them barking from their pens. Fuckin’ beagles. He could see the tops of the chain-link kennels from the road. At least a half dozen of them. The old lady had a whole herd of ﬂea-bitten, barking mutts. But then, that’s what dirty old bitches did. Collected dirty animals. Lived like a pig herself. If she thought dogs would keep them from doing what needed to be done, she had something else coming.
The wind had come up in the last hour, hard enough to rattle the tree branches. The cold wasn’t a hardship; the wind would help cover any noise. With a little luck, they might even get some rain or snow. Messy with the mud, but messy was good when you didn’t want to get caught.
He’d killed the headlights a mile back. Lowered the window as he rolled past the place one last time. No lights in the house. Dogs were quiet. The moon was a fuzzy globe behind thickening clouds, but then the dark was a plus for the task ahead. He knew what to do, knew the layout of the place, didn’t mind working blind.
Glancing at his passenger, he nodded. “Time to rock and roll.”
He parked the truck on a dirt turnaround a hundred yards from the mouth of the gravel lane. He’d duct-taped the dome light, so there was no telltale glow when he opened the door. Then they were out of the truck. Gray-white breaths puﬃng out. Winter silence all around. The click of tree branches in the wind. The hoot of an owl down by the creek. The cornﬁeld had been cut, and the fallen stalks whispered like disobedient children.
Standing at the passenger door, he quickly toed offhis boots, shoved his feet into knee-high muck boots. Going to need them tonight, and not just for the mud.
The leather sheath came next. He strapped it around his hips like a gun belt. On the backseat, the blade of the bowie knife gleamed like blue ice. It was German-made—the best on the market—with a thick six-inch blade and an epoxy-coated leather handle. He liked the handle a lot. The texture kept your hand from slipping when the blade got slick. The guard was small, so he couldn’t do a lot of jabbing. But the piece was heavy enough to slash and do some serious damage. He’d gotten a free sharpening stone when he’d ordered it four years ago. Damn good knife.
A thrill ran the length of him when he picked it up. It was a comfortable weapon in his hand. Deadly and beautiful. A piece of art to a connoisseur like him. Dropping it into the leather sheath, he silently closed the door.
Then they were across the bar ditch and walking through the cornﬁeld, toward the wire fence on the south side of the property. Nylon hissed against nylon as they walked, but their muck boots were nearly soundless on the cold, wet ground. Twenty yards from the livestock pens, he heard the animals milling about. They reached the fence.
As they ducked between the bars of a steel-pipe gate, a dozen or more sheep began to dart around. With the exception of pigs, most slaughter animals were stupid. But sheep were especially dense. Mindless herd animals. Reminded him of his human counterparts. Stupid. Trusting. Diluted. Letting themselves be led to slaughter. Not him. He knew what was going on, and he was tired of having it shoved down his throat. Time to make a stand. Do something about it.
They stood in the pen, ten feet apart. His eyes had adjusted to the near blackness. The sheep were moving in circles, trying to blend in with the rest of the herd, avoid the threat. There was no safety in numbers tonight.
He could see his partner on the other side of the pen, picking out an animal, lunging at it. A hard rush of a dozen hooves. The glint of a blade. He heard the strangled scream of the condemned animal. Saw the black spurt of blood on the muddy ground. The old bitch was in for a surprise come morning.
The leather handle was rough and comforting against his palm. He spotted a fat old ewe in the corner. That made him think of the old lady. Dirty old bitch. Human pollution. He leapt, grabbed the ewe around the neck, locked it against him by bending his elbow around its throat. The animal bleated, tried to run, kicked out with its hooves. Cursing, he grasped wool in his ﬁst, jammed the stinking, lumpy body against his chest. A single slash. Wet heat on his hand. Slick on the leather handle. The sound of the death gurgle, like wet gravel in his ears. The animal’s body twitched, then went limp.
A righteous kill.
He dropped the dead sheep. He could hear the dogs barking now. No lights yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Time for one more.
He looked around, saw another ewe standing in the corner, looking dazed. He rushed her. The animal tried to dart past him. He brought the knife down hard. Sank in deep. Heard the steel snap of the blade hitting bone. The animal went down.
Not thinking now, just acting, getting the job done. He grabbed the sheep’s ears. Yanked its head back. Slashed hard. The spurt of blood looked black in the darkness. Hot against his hand. On his clothes. Never liked that part of it. . . .
“Lights,” his partner whispered. “Gotta go.”
He turned, saw the yellow glow through the trees. The dogs were going nuts in their kennels. “Fuckin’ dogs.”
Already moving fast. Not speaking. Ducking between the bars of the gate. Mud sucking at his boots. And then he was running full out. Arms pumping. Breaths billowing white. Adrenaline running hot.
They reached the truck, wrenched doors open, clambered in.
“How many you get?” he asked.
“Two.” The passenger yanked offhis cap. Still breathing hard. “How ’bout you?”
“Two.” Thinking about it, he smiled. “Dirty old Amish bitch.”
The rain started at midnight. The wind began a short time later, yanking the last of the leaves from the maple and sycamore trees and sending them skittering along Main Street like dry, frightened crustaceans. With the temperature dropping ﬁve degrees an hour and a cold front barreling in from the north, it would be snowing by morning.
“Fuckin’ weather.” Roland “Pickles” Shumaker folded his seventy-four-year-old frame into the Crown Vic cruiser and slammed the door just a little too hard. He’d known better than to let himself get sucked into an all-nighter. It wasn’t like he was getting any younger, after all. But his counterpart—that frickin’ Skidmore—had called in sick, and the chief asked Pickles to ﬁll in. At the time, cruising around Painters Mill at four o’clock in the morning had sounded like a ﬁne idea. Now he wondered what the hell he’d been thinking.
It hadn’t always been that way. Back in the day, the night shift had been his salvation. The troublemakers came out after dark, like vampires looking for blood. For ﬁfty years, Pickles had cruised these not-so-mean streets, hoping with all of his cop’s heart that some dipshit would put his toe over the line so Pickles could see some anxiously awaited action.
Lately, however, Pickles could barely make it through an eight-hour shift without some physical ailment reminding him he was no longer twenty-four years old. If it wasn’t his back, it was his neck or his damn legs. Christ, it was a bitch getting old.
When he looked in the mirror, some wrinkled old man with a stupid expression on his face stared back. Every single time, Pickles stared at that stranger and thought, How the hell did that happen? He didn’t have the slightest idea. The one thing he did subscribe to was the notion that Father Time was a sneaky bastard.
Pickles had just pulled onto Dogleg Road when his radio crackled to life. “You there, Pickles?”
The night dispatcher, Mona Kurtz, was a lively young woman with wild red ringlets, a wardrobe that was probably a nightmare for the chief, and a personality as vivacious as a juiced-up coke freak. To top it off, the girl wanted to be a cop. He’d never seen a cop wear black tights and high heels. Well, unless some female was working undercover, anyway. Pickles didn’t think she was cut out for it. Maybe because she was too young, just a little bit wild, and her head wasn’t quite settled on her shoulders. He had his opinion about female cops, too, but since it wasn’t a popular view, he kept his mouth shut.
Of course, he’d never had a problem working for the chief. At ﬁ rst, he’d had his doubts—a female and formerly Amish to boot—but over the last three years, Kate Burkholder had proven herself pretty damn capable. His respect for her went a long way toward changing his mind about the female role in law enforcement.
He picked up his mike. “Don’t know where the hell else I’d be,” he muttered.
“Skid’s going to owe you big-time after this.”
“You got that right. Sumbitch is probably out boozing it up.”
For the last two nights, he and Mona had fallen to using the radio for small talk, mainly to break up the monotony of small-town police work. Tonight, however, she was reticent, and Pickles ﬁgured she had something on her mind. Knowing it never took her long to get to the point, he waited.
“I talked to the chief,” she said after a moment.
Pickles grimaced. He felt bad for her, because there was no way the chief was going promote her to full-time oﬃcer. “What’d she say?”
“She’s going to think about it.”
“I don’t think she likes me.”
“Aw, she likes you just ﬁne.”
“I’ve been stuck on dispatch for three years now.”
“It’s good experience.”
“I think she’s going to bring someone in from outside the department.”
Pickles thought so, too, but he didn’t say it. You never knew when a woman was going to go offon a tangent. The night was going to be long enough without having his dispatcher pissed off at him, too. “Hang in there, kid. She’ll come around.”
Relief skittered through him when he heard beeping on the other end of the line.
“I got a 911,” she said, and disconnected.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Pickles racked the mike and hoped the call kept her busy for a while—and didn’t include him. He used to believe that as he got older, women would become less of a mystery. Just went to show you how wrong a man could be. Women were even more of an enigma now than when he was young. Hell, he didn’t even get his wife 90 percent of the time, and he’d been married to Clarice for going on thirty years.
Rain mixed with snow splattered against the windshield, so he turned the wipers up a notch. His right leg was asleep. He wanted a cigarette. His ass hurt from sitting.
“I’m too old for this crap,” he growled.
He’d just turned onto Township Road 3 when Mona’s voice cracked over the mike. “Pickles, I’ve got a possible ten-eleven at the Humerick place on Folkerth.”
He snatched up the mike. “What kind of animal trouble?”
“Old lady Humerick says something killed a bunch of her sheep. Says she’s got guts all over the place.”
“You gotta be shitting me.”
“She thinks it might be some kind of animal.”
“Bigfoot more than likely.” Muttering, Pickles made a U-turn and headed toward Folkerth. “What’s the address out there?”
Mona rattled offa number that told him the Humerick place wasn’t too far from Miller’s Pond and the greenbelt that ran parallel with Paint ers Creek.
“I’m ten-seventy-six,” he said, indicating he was en route, and he hit the emergency lights.
The Humerick farm was lit up like a football stadium when Pickles arrived a few minutes later. A mix of snow and rain sparked beneath a giant ﬂoodlight mounted on the barn facade. A widow for going on twenty years, June Humerick was the size of a linebacker and just as mean. She claimed to Amish, but she neither looked nor acted the part. A decade earlier, she’d thumbed her nose at the bishop and had electricity run to her farm. She drove an old Dodge pickup, dipped tobacco when it suited her, and cursed like a sailor when she was pissed. The Amish church district no longer claimed her as one of its own. The widow Humerick didn’t seem to mind.
She stood next to her old Dodge, wearing a ﬂ annel nightgown, knee-high muck boots, and a camo parka. She clutched her late husband’s double-barrel shotgun in one hand and a ﬂashlight in the other. “I’m over here!” she bellowed.
Leaving the cruiser running and the headlights pointing toward the shadowy livestock pens on the backside of the barn, Pickles grabbed his Maglite and heaved his small frame from the car. “Evening, June,” he said as he started toward her.
She didn’t bother with a greeting, instead pointing toward the pens ten yards away. “Evenin’ hell. Somethin’ killed four of my sheep. Cut ’em to bits.”
He followed her point. “Lambs?”
“These was full-grown ewes.”
“You see or hear anything?”
“I heard ’em screamin’. Dogs were barkin’ loud enough to wake the dead. By the time I got out there, those sheep was dead. I got guts ever’where.”
“Could be coyotes,” Pickles conjectured. “I hear they’re making a comeback in this part of Ohio.”
“I ain’t never seen a coyote do anythin’ like this.” The widow looked at him as if he were dense. “I know who done it, and if you had half a brain, so would you.”
“I haven’t even seen the dead sheep yet, so how the hell could I know who done it?” he replied, indignant.
“Because this ain’t the ﬁrst time somethin’ like this has happened.”
“You talking about them hate crimes against the Amish?”
“That’s exactly what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Killing a bunch of sheep is kind of a roundabout way to go about it, don’t you think?”
“The hell it is. Some folks just plain don’t like us, Pickles. Us Amish been prosecuted for damn near a hundred years.”
“Persecuted,” he said, correcting her.
The widow glared at him. “So what are you goin’ to do about it?”
Pickles was all too aware of the recent rash of crimes against the Amish. Most of the infractions were minor: a bashed-in mailbox, a broken window, eggs thrown at a buggy. In the past, the Painters Mill PD as well as the Holmes County Sheriff’s Oﬃce had considered such crimes harmless mischief. But in the last couple of months, the crimes had taken an ominous turn. Two weeks ago, someone had forced a buggy off the road, injuring a pregnant Amish woman. The chief and the Holmes County sheriffwere working on getting a task force set up. The problem was, the Amish victims had unanimously refused to press charges, citing an all-too-familiar phrase: “God will take care of us.”
“Well, June, we ain’t been able to get anyone to ﬁle charges,” he said.
“Gawdamn paciﬁsts,” she huffed. “I’ll do it.”
“Before we lynch anyone, why don’t we take a look at them sheep and make sure it wasn’t dogs or something.” Pickles sighed, thinking about his new Lucchese cowboy boots and the mud he would soon be introducing them to.
June’s nightgown swished around her legs as she took him over the gravel drive, toward the deep shadows of the pens. The steel gate groaned when she opened it. Pickles could smell the sheep now, that earthy mutton stench mixed with mud, compost, and manure. She had a couple dozen head, and they all chose that moment to bleat. He could hear them stirring around. Mud and sheep shit sucked at his boots as he and June traversed the pen. The skittish animals scattered as they passed.
“Heck of a night to be out,” Pickles said, wishing he were home in his warm, dry bed. He shone the ﬂashlight beam along the perimeter of the pen. Midway to the wood-rail fence, he stumbled over something and nearly went down. Cursing, he shone the beam on the ground, only to realize he’d stumbled over the severed head of a sheep.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Where did that come from?”
“That’d be Bess.” June Humerick lowered her voice. “Poor old girl.”
The ewe’s head lay in a pool of muck and blood. The mouth was partially open, revealing a row of tiny white teeth. A pink tongue hung out like a deﬂated balloon. Pickles shifted the beam to study the throat area. He didn’t know how that head had been severed from the carcass, but it didn’t look like the work of some scrawny coyote. The ﬂ esh was cleanly cut. Red tissue and the pink bone of the spine jutted from the base.
“Don’t think a coyote did this.” Pickles stared, aware that the hairs on his neck were standing up like porcupine quills. “Looks more like a knife.”
“I coulda told you that.” She ran her beam along the periphery of the pen. “If I’da gotten out here faster, I’da plugged that sumbitch’s ass with lead.”
Stepping back from the severed head, Pickles swept the beam to a second carcass. He’d never been squeamish about blood, but a quivery wave of unease washed over his stomach when he saw pink entrails ripped from a belly that had been sliced open from end to end.
“What the fuck?” he said.
Taking his language in stride because she’d been known to use the same word herself on occasion, the widow Humerick walked to him and shone her light on the dead sheep. “This is just senseless.”
“If it wasn’t raining, we might have got some tracks.” Pickles swept his beam left and right. “You sure you didn’t see any lights out here?”
“I didn’t see nothin’.”
Pickles leveled his ﬂashlight beam on the carcass. “Could be them devil worshipers down south.”
The big woman crossed to him, jabbed her thumb at the decapitated carcass. “They didn’t take nothin’ for sacriﬁce.”
He could tell by the widow’s expression that she wasn’t buying into the devil-worshiper theory. He wasn’t going to stand out here in the rain and snow and debate it. “Well, I’ll drive around back behind them woods and then get a report ﬁled.”
She shot him an incredulous look. “What if they come back? What if they’re out in them woods waitin’ for you to leave so they can come hack up the rest of my sheep?”
“There ain’t no one here to arrest.”
“You could search the woods.”
“Too dark to be tromping around those woods, especially in this weather.”
“That’s just a crock of horseshit, Pickles.”
He sighed; twenty years ago, he’d have been chomping at the bit to get into those dark woods and snag him a couple of Amish-haters. The hunt would be on. Tonight, with his knees aching and a chill that went all the way to his bones, he was more than happy to wait until daylight and pass the buck to the next shift.
“I’ll talk to the chief ﬁrst thing in the morning, get the ball rolling on that task force.” He started toward the gate that would take him back to the driveway and his nice warm cruiser. “You might lock them sheep in the shedrow the rest of the night.”
June held her ground. “Gonna take more than that rickety old shed to keep out whatever lunatics done this.”
“Have a nice evening.” Pickles was midway to his cruiser when his radio cracked to life. “What now?” he growled.
“Pickles, I got a ten-ﬁfty-two out at the Slabaugh farm. David Troyer just called, said they got three people down in the manure pit.”
“Shit.” Pickles fumbled for his lapel mike. Back in the day, a cop had a radio in his cruiser. If he chose to ignore a call, he could. Now, you carried the damn thing around like some weird body part, one end clipped to your belt, one end stuck in your ear, and a microphone pinned to your chest like some damn medal. “You call EMS?”
“They’re en route. Thought you might want to get out there.”
Pickles heaved another sigh; he’d just about had all the mud and shit he could handle for one night. But he knew a manure pit could be a dangerous place. There were all sorts of nasty gases that would do you in faster than a gas chamber if you weren’t careful. “What’s the twenty on that?”
“Three six four Township Road Two.”
Pickles knew the area. It was a dirt track south of town that would be hell to traverse without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Figuring this was the end of his Lucchese boots, he cursed. “You might want to call the chief.”
“I’m ten-seventy-six,” he said, and forced his old legs into a run.
Insomnia is an insidious thing: a silent and invisible malady that robs the afflicted not only of sleep but also peace of mind, sometimes for months on end. It dulls the intellect, demoralizes the spirit, and eventually leaves the affected open to a host of ailments, both physical and emotional.
I’ve never been a good sleeper, but in the last couple of months my occasional sleeplessness has degenerated into chronic insomnia. Sometimes, as I lie awake in bed watching the shadows dance on the window, I wonder how long a person can go without sleep and not suffer repercussions. I wonder how and when that ax will fall on me.
I’m staring at the glowing red numbers on my alarm clock when the phone on my night table jangles. I’m so surprised by the sudden blast, I jump, then quickly reassure myself it’s Tomasetti calling to check on me. He’s a friend, lover, and fellow insomniac, the latter being one of many things we have in common.
A quick glance at the display tells me the call isn’t from John, but the station. Considering the fact that I’m the chief of police and it’s
5:00 a.m., this doesn’t bode well for whatever news awaits me on the other end of the line. Still, I’m relieved to be called away from the dark
cave of my own mind.
“Chief Burkholder, it’s Mona. Sorry to wake you.”
“No problem. What’s up?”
“Got a 911 from Bishop Troyer. One of the Slabaugh boys says he’s got three people down in the manure pit out at the farm.”
Alarm rattles through me. Born and raised Amish, I’m well aware of the dangers of a poorly managed manure pit. Methane gas. Ammonia. Drowning. The Slabaughs are Amish and run a hog operation just out of town. I can tell by the smell when I drive by their place that they don’t utilize good manure management. “You call EMS?”
“They’re on the way. So is Pickles.”
“Victims still alive?”
“Far as I know.”
“Call the hospital. Let them know we have multiple vics en route.” I’m already out of bed, ﬂipping on the light, fumbling around in the closet for my clothes. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
The Slabaugh farm is located on a dirt road a few miles out of town. Rain mixed with snow is coming down in earnest when I make the turn onto Township Road 2, so I jam my Explorer into four-wheel drive and hit the gas. Less than a hundred yards in, I ﬁnd a Painters Mill PD cruiser stuck in the mud. I pull up beside it and stop.
The driver’s side door swings open and Pickles, my most senior ofﬁ cer, slogs toward me through ankle-deep mud. Opening the passenger door, he climbs into my Explorer, bringing a few pounds of sludge with him. “County ought to pave that damn road,” he grumbles as he slides in.
“EMTs make it?” I ask.
“Ain’t seen ’em.”
“This road is the only way in.” The Explorer ﬁshtails when I hit the gas, then the big tires grab, slinging mud into the wheel wells, and we bump toward the Slabaugh farm half a mile ahead. I’m well aware that the human brain can survive only about four minutes without oxygen before suffering permanent damage, so I drive too fast, narrowly avoiding the bar ditch a couple of times.
I’m afraid of what we’ll ﬁnd when we get there. Depending on how bad the ventilation is, gases emanating from a manure pit can be lethal. That’s not to mention the ever-present risk of drowning. Two years ago, a pig farmer by the name of Bud Lathy died when he went to the barn early one morning. It was cold, so the night before Bud had closed all the doors and windows. Without proper ventilation, the gases built up inside all night, suffocating several pigs. When he went out to feed them the next morning, he fell unconscious within minutes and died of asphyxiation.
My headlights wash over the ﬁgure of a small boy just in time to avoid hitting him. Adrenaline sweeps through me like an electrical shock. I stomp the brake and cut the wheel hard. The truck slides, missing the boy by inches, and comes to rest crossways in the road. “Shit.”
Pickles and I throw open our doors and slosh through mud toward the boy. He’s standing in the center of the road, looking lost and terriﬁed. Despite the cold, he’s not wearing a coat. I can tell by his ﬂat-brimmed hat and suspenders that he’s Amish. “Are you okay?” I ask him.
He’s about twelve years old, crying hysterically, and soaked to the skin. “We need help! Mamm and Datt . . .” He points toward the long gravel lane behind him. “They fell in the pit!”
I don’t wait for more information. Grasping a skinny arm, I usher him to the Explorer and muscle him into the backseat. Pickles and I slide in simultaneously, then I ﬂoor the gas and we start down the gravel lane.
I look at the boy in the rearview mirror. “Are they awake?”
“No!” he sobs. “They’re sleeping! Hurry!”
A quarter mile in, the lane opens to a wide gravel area. The white clapboard house is to my right. The hog barn is straight ahead. I don’t slow down until I’m within a few feet of the barn, then I brake hard. The wheels lock, cutting ruts in the winter-dead grass. Gears grind as I ram the shifter into park. I ﬂing open the door. My boots hit the ground before the SUV comes to a complete stop. Grabbing my Maglite, I rush around to the rear of the vehicle, throw open the hatch, and snatch up a twenty-foot section of rope. A mix of rain and snow slashes at my face as I sprint toward the barn.
I shove the door open with both hands. “Police!” I shout. The ammonia and rotten-egg stench of wet manure staggers me, but I don’t stop. I see lantern light ahead and rush toward it. Somewhere to my right, I hear a young girl keening. A teenage boy and a younger boy stand just beyond the wood rails of a large pen, looking down. Shoving open the gate to the pen, I cross to them. “Where are they?”
They point, but I already know. The concrete ﬂoor is slightly angled so that the urine and feces from the pens drain into the six-foot square hole. The steel grate cover has been removed. I spot the snow shovel and hose on the ground a few feet away and realize someone had been cleaning the pens. I shine my ﬂashlight into the hole. Six feet down, three people lie motionless in a pool of oozing black muck.
“How long have they been down there?” I snap.
The eldest male looks to be about seventeen years old. His terriﬁ ed eyes ﬁnd mine. “I don’t know. Ten minutes.” He says the words through chattering teeth. His face is the color of paste. He wears trousers with suspenders. The knees are wet with muck.
I shove my ﬁnger at him. “Open every door and window in this barn right now. Do you understand? Get some air in here.”
“Ja.” Nodding, he sets offat a run.
I shine my light into the hole again. There are two male victims and one female. I can tell by their clothing that they’re Amish. The two men are facedown. Too late for them, I think. The woman is faceup. Still alive, maybe. “We’re coming down to get you!” I shout. “Can you hear me?”
None of the victims stirs.
“Hang on!” I hear movement behind me and turn, to see Pickles and the young boy approach. “Where the hell is that ambulance?” I snap.
Shaking his head, Pickles hits his mike.
I point at the boy. “Help your brothers open all the doors and windows. We need fresh air in here. If you can’t get the windows open, break them. Go! Now!”
Nodding through his tears, he turns and runs.
Cursing, I glance down at the rope in my hands. The last thing I want to do is go into that pit; I’ve heard of more than one would-be rescuer unwittingly becoming a victim himself. But there’s no way I can stand by and do nothing while a mother of four slowly asphyxiates.
That thought pounds my brain like ﬁsts. I look around for something with which to anchor the rope. Ten feet away, I spot the support beam. It’s a huge six-by-six-inch length of hundred-year-old oak sunk in concrete. I wrap the rope around the beam, yank it tight. I’m in the pro cess of looping the other end around my hips when Pickles walks up to me. “You’re not going down there, are you?” he asks.
Ignoring the question, I walk to the pit and sit, my legs dangling over the side. “I need you to spot me.”
Pickles looks alarmed. “Chief, with all due respect . . .”
“Get your gloves. Lower me down.”
He looks at me as if he’s just been told he’ll be facing execution by ﬁring squad. “You go into that pit without a respirator, and you’ll be joining the other three.”
“You got a better idea?” I snap.
“No, damn it.” He doesn’t make a move toward the rope. “Maybe we could loop the rope around them, drag them out one at a time.”
“Goddamn it, Pickles. She’s dying.” I scoot closer to the edge.
He grabs my arm. “Kate, you ain’t got no choice but to wait for the ﬁre department.”
I shake off his hand a little too roughly. But I know he’s right. It would be worse than foolhardy for me to go down there. Some might even call it stupid. But I’m not always good at doing the smart thing, especially if someone’s life is at stake. Or if there are kids involved. Urgency and indecision pummel me. I think of the children growing up without their parents and I want to scream with the injustice of it. In the last months, I’ve seen too many bad things happen to too many good people.
“Let’s bring them up,” I say after a moment.
Looking relieved, Pickles loosens the rope from around the beam, feeds me the slack. I get to my feet and step out of the loop. Standing at the edge of the pit, I widen the loop and toss it into the hole. Vaguely, I’m aware of the distant blare of a siren, but I don’t pause. All I can think is that every second could mean the difference between life and death.
I guide the looped end of the rope toward the female victim. She’s faceup, which tells me she probably hasn’t drowned. If she hasn’t succumbed to the gases, there’s still a chance. . . .
She’s closest to the near wall, almost directly below me, which means she’ll be relatively easy to capture with the rope. Planting my feet solidly at the edge of the pit, I lean forward and extend my arm, trying to position the loop around the upper part of her body. A stiffcable would have been more suitable, but I don’t have one handy and I don’t want to waste time going back to my vehicle, so I’ve no choice but to work with what I’ve got.
After several tries, I’m able to drag the loop over the victim’s arm. I jiggle the rope, work it up her arm all the way to her shoulder, then over her head, and draw it tight. It won’t be a comfortable ride up, but I ﬁgure a few rope burns are a lot better than being dead.
“I’ve got her!” I shout. “Pull!”
Pickles glances around, spots the eldest boy a few feet away, and whistles to get his attention. “Give us a hand!”
The boy rushes over, grabs the rope, wrapping it several times around his bare ﬁst. Hope is wild in his eyes. “Okay!”
In tandem, we begin to pull. The slack goes out of the rope. The woman’s arm lifts out of the muck when the rope goes taut. Even though there are three of us, pulling 120 pounds out of thick muck is no easy task. Grunts and growls sound behind me as Pickles and the boy strain. Boots slide and scrape against wet concrete. I use my weight, leaning hard against the rope. I didn’t think to put on my gloves, and the rope cuts painfully into my palms, but I put every ounce of strength I possess into the task.
With painful slowness, the woman’s limp body inches out of the muck— ﬁrst her head and shoulders, her torso and hips, and ﬁnally her legs and feet. I dig in with my boots, heaving against the rope. I’m too far from the pit now to see the victim, but I can hear her body scraping up the wall as we pull her upward.
When I see her arm and the top of her head at the rim, I glance back at Pickles. “Keep the rope taut.”
His face is red with exertion, but he gives me a nod. I slide my hand along the rope until I reach the victim. Putting my hands beneath her shoulders, I give Pickles a nod. “Pull!”
I guide the victim onto the concrete. The ﬁrst thing I notice is that her skin is cold to the touch. Her clothes are soaked with muck. Her lips are blue. I see tea-colored water in her mouth, so I drop to my knees and roll her onto her side. Voices and the shuffle of shoes sound behind me. I jolt when someone places a hand on my back. I look up, to see a uniformed ﬁreﬁghter and young EMT looking down at me. Both men carry resuscitation bags in their hands.
“We’ll take it from here,” the EMT says.
I look down at the victim. Filmy eyes stare back at me, and in that instant I know she’s gone. The realization makes me want to slam my ﬁst against the concrete. In the smoggy haze of my thoughts, I’m aware of the teenage boy coming up beside me, looking down at his mother. I hear the girl crying nearby. Another child falls to his knees, screaming for his mamm. That’s when it hits me that these kids are alone.
The next thing I know, someone—the ﬁreﬁghter—puts his hands beneath my arms and pulls me to my feet. I’m in the way, I realize. I feel shaky and cold, and I wonder if it’s the gases from the pit that have rendered me useless or if it’s the effects of my own impotent emotions.
The EMT kneels next to the woman, placing the mask over her face. I hear the whoosh of air as he compresses the bag, forcing oxygen into her lungs. A few feet away, two respirator-clad ﬁreﬁghters lower rescue equipment into the pit.
I look down at my hands. They’re slick with a rancid mix of water, blood, manure, and mud. It’s sticky on my skin, gritty between my ﬁngers. I see rope burns on the insides of my knuckles and realize the blood is mine, but I don’t feel the sting. At the moment, I don’t even smell the manure. All I can do is stand there and watch the paramedics work frantically to resuscitate the motionless woman.
A few feet away, the four Amish children huddle, their eyes ﬁ lled with hope that the Englischers and all their high-tech rescue equipment will save their mamm and datt. I see faith on their young faces, and my heart breaks, because I know faith often goes unrewarded.
“You look like you could use some air.”
I turn, to see Officer Rupert “Glock” Maddox standing a few feet away, looking at me as if I’m a dog that’s just been hit by a car—a badly injured dog that might bite if touched. I have no idea how he got here so quickly; he doesn’t come on duty until 8:00 a.m. It doesn’t matter; I’m just glad he’s here.
“She’s gone,” I say.
“You did your best.”
“Tell those kids that.”
Grimacing, he crosses to me. “Let’s get some air.”
Glock isn’t a touchy-feely kind of guy. I’ve worked with him for two and a half years now, and I can count on two ﬁngers the number of intimate conversations we’ve had. It surprises me when he takes my arm.
“Goddamn it,” I mutter.
“Yeah.” It’s all he says, but it’s enough. He gets it. He gets me. It’s enough.
He ushers me through the main part of the barn. It’s not until I step outside that I realize I’m woozy. Though the barn doors and windows have been thrown open wide, there’s not much of a cross breeze, and the air inside is polluted with an unpleasant mix of ammonia and stink. Not to mention all those nasty gases. I’ve been inside only for ten minutes or so, but I can already feel the effects. A headache taps at my forehead from inside my skull.
For a full minute, I do nothing but stand in the rain and snow and breathe in the clean, cold air. It feels good, like cool water on heated skin. After a minute or so, I look at Glock. “I’m okay.”
“I know you are.” Sighing, he shoots a glance in the direction of the barn. “Tough scene.”
I think of the kids, and a lead weight of dread drops into my stomach. “Worst is yet to come.”
“You want me to give you a hand with their statements?”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“We going to do it here?”
I look around. We’re standing twenty feet from the barn. Around us, emergency workers—paramedics and ﬁ reﬁghters—move in and out of the big door. The strobe lights of a ﬁre truck and two ambulances from Pomerene Hospital glare off the facade. To my right, the pretty white farmhouse looks cold and empty. The windows are dark, as if some internal light has been permanently extinguished.
“We’ll do it in the house. The kids’ll be more comfortable there. They’ll need to eat something.” I know it seems mundane, but even in the face of death, people need to eat. “I’ll call Bishop Troyer to be here with them.”
If Glock is surprised by my response, he doesn’t show it. I don’t have a maternal bone in my body, but I’m feeling protective of these kids. All children are innocent, but Amish youngsters possess a certain kind of innocence. They have further to fall when that innocence is shattered. I was fourteen years old when fate introduced me to tragedy. I know what it feels like to be abruptly plunged into a world that is so far removed from the only one you’ve ever known.
I glance toward the barn and see Pickles and the four kids standing outside the big door. Fireﬁghters and EMTs pass by them without notice. The last thing I want to do is question them about the horrors they witnessed, but as is the case with most of the curveballs life throws at us with indiscriminate glee, I don’t have a choice.
Ten minutes later, I’m standing in the big Amish kitchen with Glock and Pickles. The four children sit at the heavy wood table, their pale faces lit by the ﬂickering kerosene lamp. The house is warm inside and smells of hot lard and lamp oil.
I take a few minutes to light a second lantern on the counter next to the sink. A lifetime ago, the dim lighting wouldn’t have bothered me. Up until I was in my late teens, it was all I’d ever known. This morning, the lack of ﬂuorescent bulbs makes me feel half-blind.
An old-fashioned kerosene stove next to the sink is still hot from earlier this morning. On its top, a cast-iron skillet ﬁlled with scrapple, an Amish breakfast staple, sits in a bed of cooling, thickening lard. On the table, the remnants of a breakfast left unﬁnished sits cold. I see a basket of bread and a small bowl ﬁlled with apple butter. A pitcher of milk, fresh, probably. Seven plates. Seven glasses. Three cups for coffee.
I move the cast-iron skillet onto a hot burner to warm it; then I go to the table. I feel Glock’s and Pickles’ eyes on me as I pour milk into four glasses. It’s a strange role for me, but I’m compelled to play it. I place a slice of bread in front of each child. Bread that I know was baked by their mother just a day or two before. A mother who will never make breakfast for her children again.
The kids are probably too upset to eat, but I serve the warmed scrapple anyway. When I run out of things to do, I sit down at the table and fold my hands in front of me. “I’m sorry about what happened to your parents,” I begin.
The youngest child, a boy I guess to be about ten years old, looks at me. “Is Mamm coming?” he asks.
“I’m sorry, but your mamm and datt passed away.” Because I’m not sure if he understands the expression, I add, “They’re with God now.”
“But I saw you save her. I saw you.”
“I couldn’t save her. I’m sorry.”
The boy looks down at his plate and begins to cry. “I want my mamm.”
“I know you do, honey.” Reaching across the table, I pat his hand. It’s small and soft and cold beneath mine. Feeling helpless and inept, I turn my attention to the eldest boy. He stares back at me. I see deﬁance in his eyes, and I wonder if he’s trying to defy death or maybe deny his own grief. “What are your names?” I ask.
“I’m Salome.” The girl sitting across from me is in her mid-teens, with mouse brown hair and a pale complexion mottled pink from crying. Her eyes are forest green and skitter away from mine when I look at her. She’s the only one who has picked up her fork and sampled the scrapple.
I give her a nod, then I turn my attention to the boy sitting next to her.
“I’m Samuel,” he says.
“How old are you, Samuel?” I ask.
I give him a smile I hope looks real, then I look at the youngest child, who’s sitting two chairs over from me. He’s a blond-haired boy with blunt-cut bangs and a sprinkling of freckles across a turned-up nose. “How about you?”
“I’m Ike and I’m ten.” The words are barely out when he lowers his face into his pudgy hands and bursts into tears. “I want my mamm.”
I feel like crying, too, but of course I can’t. That kind of emotion is as contagious as any virus, and I can’t afford to allow it into my psyche. Instead, I touch Ike’s shoulder and then look across the table at the eldest boy. “What’s your name?”
“Moses, but they call me Mose.”
He’s a tall, thin boy with greasy blond hair and patches of bright pink acne on both cheeks. But any hint of teenaged homeliness ends there. His eyes are crystalline blue beneath blunt-cut bangs. I see the unmistakable glint of intelligence in those eyes, and I know he’s smart enough to realize that all of their lives are about to change in a very profound way.
“How old are you, Mose?”
“I am a man.” His voice cracks, belying the words, and he sits up a little straighter. “I’m seventeen.”
“My name’s Kate. I’m the chief of police, and I need to ask you some questions about what happened.” No one says anything. No one looks at me. “What are your parents’ names?”
After a moment, Mose raises his eyes to mine. “Datt is Solomon, but they call him Solly. Mamm’s name is Rachael.”
“And the other man?”
“Our uncle, Abel.”
“Last name Slabaugh?”
“Ja. He’s visiting from Lancaster County.”
I feel ancient as I look from young face to young face. Innocent kids whose lives, until now, have been untouched and undamaged by the ravages life can sometimes inﬂict. My gaze stops on Mose and I say, “I need for you to tell me what happened this morning.”
His eyes go to the plate of untouched food in front of him and for a moment he looks as if he’s going to throw up. He takes a full minute to gather himself, then speaks to me without looking up. “Datt and Uncle Abel were feeding the hogs and cleaning the pens. Mamm and the rest of us were in the house. She sent Samuel out to fetch Datt so we could say our before-meal prayer and eat breakfast.” He closes his eyes brieﬂy. “Samuel came back screaming.”
I turn my attention to Samuel. “What happened?” I ask gently.
The boy looks down at his plate. From where I sit, I can see that his hands are dirty and scabbed, with short, bitten nails. Typical boy hands. Amish hands that work and play in equal measure. “Datt and Uncle Abel were in the pit. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Were they awake?”
Samuel looks at Mose. Mose gives him a nod, which seems to bolster the boy. Samuel meets my gaze, then his face screws up. “Ja. Datt couldn’t speak. But Uncle Abel . . . he yelled for me to get help.”
“What did you do?”
“I ran to the house to get Mamm.”
I nod, trying not to imagine the horror of that. I look at Mose. “Then what happened?”
“We ran to the barn to help them,” he replies.
“Who ran to the barn?”
“All of us. Mamm. My brothers and sister.”
“How did your mamm get into the pit?”
Little Ike rubs his eyes with small, dirty ﬁsts. “She tried to save Datt.”
Mose cuts in. “She lay down on the concrete, right in all that muck, and tried to get Datt to take her hand. She was screaming for him to wake up, but he wouldn’t. She tried to save Uncle Abel, but he fell asleep, too. Mamm started to cry. She was too close to the edge and fell into the pit.”
In the back of my mind, I wonder if she succumbed to the gases emanating from the manure and fell unconscious. “What did you do when your mamm fell in?”
“We were scared. It was like a bad dream. Too bad to really be happening.” Mose lifts a shoulder and lets it drop. “I knew the air was bad, so we opened the door. We yelled at Mamm, tried to wake her up, but she wouldn’t. The children were crying.” He looks at his younger brother. “That’s when I decided to bridle the horse and sent Samuel to Bishop Troyer’s house for help. The bishop has a telephone.”
“What did you do after Samuel left?” “I kept trying to get Mamm and Datt and Uncle Abel out of the pit. I tried to use the hose, you know, as a rope.” I recall seeing the hose lying on the concrete, and I nod. “Were any of them conscious at that point?” Salome cuts in, tears streaming down her cheeks. “They wouldn’t wake up. We yelled and yelled, but we couldn’t get them to wake up.”
“Why wouldn’t they wake up?” Ike whines.
I glance over at the boy. Generally speaking, I’ve found Amish children to be slightly more stoic than their English counterparts. But kids are kids, regardless of culture. Most are unequipped to handle this kind of situation. Some grief is simply too heavy a load for such a young heart to bear. “It’s the gases that made them sleepy,” I say.
“I want my mamm!” Ike cries. “I want her back. Why couldn’t she just wake up? Why couldn’t you save her?”
The accusation in his voice hits me like a slap. I know it’s only the grief talking. Still, I can’t deny there is a part of me that feels guilty for not being able to save them.
Salome gets up from her place and goes to the boy. The sight of her setting her slender hands on his bony, shaking shoulders, and pressing her face against his cheek is so heart-wrenching that I have to look away. “Shush now, Ike,” she coos. “Mamm and Datt are with God now. Remember that when your heart hurts for them.”
The back door creaks open. I turn in my chair, to see my youngest oﬃcer, T. J. Banks, peek his head in. “Coroner is here, Chief.”
I’d hoped Bishop Troyer would arrive before I had to leave the children to deal with the coroner. The bishop’s farm is only a couple of miles away, but he’s getting on in years and it takes time to harness and hitch a horse and cover that much distance. I look at T. J. “Can you stay with the kids until Bishop Troyer gets here?”
“Uh . . . sure.” He eyes the four youngsters with trepidation as he sidles into the kitchen.
I motion for Glock and Pickles to follow me and we head toward the barn. I’m midway there when I spot the coroner, Dr. Ludwig Coblentz, sliding out of his Escalade. Large medical bag in hand, he waits for me to approach.
“I was hoping your dispatcher had somehow gotten the call wrong,” he says when I reach him. “I can tell by the look on your face that’s not the case.”
“I wish it was.” I motion toward the house. “There are four kids inside who will never see their parents again.”
“Kind of thing that makes you question just how benevolent God is sometimes, doesn’t it?”
“Makes me question a lot of things.” Like why I’m still a cop when the last two cases I’ve worked have taken such a heavy toll. Don’t get me wrong; I love what I do. I’m an idealist at heart, and I love the idea of making a difference. But it seldom works out that way, and it’s not the ﬁrst time I’ve questioned if I’m cut out for the job.
We pass by two ﬁreﬁghters when we enter the barn. The rotten-egg and ammonia stench has dwindled, but it’s still strong enough to make my eyes water. Twenty-ﬁve feet away, in a concrete-ﬂoored pen, a young paramedic stands near the three bodies, scribbling furiously on a clipboard. He looks up when we approach and greets us with a tight smile. “We ﬁgured you’d want to do a quick ﬁeld exam before we bag and transport,” he says to the coroner.
“Thank you.” Doc Coblentz goes directly to the nearest body, that of Rachael Slabaugh, and kneels. Pickles, Glock, and I stop several feet away to let the doctor do his work. I haven’t smoked for a couple of months now, but it’s moments like this when I want a cigarette most.
“Hell of a way to go,” Pickles mumbles.
“Ain’t that the truth.” Glock shakes his head. “Death by shit.”
The older man nods in solemn agreement. “It’s almost worse when it’s an accident. No one to blame.”
“No one to shoot.” Glock offers a grim smile. “Makes it even more senseless.”
Nodding in agreement, Pickles looks at me. “Seems pretty cut-and-dried, don’t it, Chief?”
I nod. “Kids’ statements are consistent with an accident.” I watch Doc Coblentz move from body to body. Using the stethoscope, he checks for vitals. Because the cause of death is evidently accidental, he forgoes the kind of thorough preliminary ﬁeld exam a murder would warrant, such as ascertaining body temperature to help pinpoint the time of death. I know he’ll take a core liver temp for his ﬁnal report once he gets the bodies to the hospital morgue. Because the deaths were unattended, he’s required by law to perform autopsies, which will tell us the cause and manner of death. In this case, the cause is either asphyxiation or drowning; the manner is accidental.
I force my gaze to the nearest victim. Rachael Slabaugh was in her mid-thirties. An Amish mother of four. She’d once been pretty, but in death her face has a blue-white cast that lends her a ghostly countenance. Her left eyelid has come open halfway, and the cloudy white of her eyeball is stained with a coffee-colored ﬁlm. Her mouth hangs open. Glancing inside, I see the dark mass of a tongue and teeth colored brown from muck. She wears a green dress, an organdy kapp, and an apron that had once been white. The dress is twisted at an uncomfortable-looking angle, and I have to resist the urge to go to her to straighten it.
Her husband lies next to her. I estimate Solomon Slabaugh to be about forty years old. He wears dark trousers with a blue work shirt and suspenders. His full beard is clotted with solids from the pit. At some point during the retrieval of his body, the insulated jacket came off one of his shoulders. No one bothered to right it, so his left arm is twisted and slightly beneath him.
I guess Abel Slabaugh to be the younger of the two brothers. His lack of a beard tells me he is unmarried. He wears brown trousers with suspenders, a blue work shirt, and insulated coveralls. I’m sure he’d been wearing work boots as well, but they are nowhere to be seen. I imagine them sliding off his feet as he was pulled from the pit.
The three bodies are a horriﬁc sight to behold as they shimmer wetly beneath the glare of the emergency work lights set up by the ﬁ re department volunteers. A lot of stomachs couldn’t handle it, but you get used to things in my line of work. My thoughts drift to the four orphans, and I wonder if they have relatives to take them in. If they don’t, I know there are dozens of Amish families in the church district that would be more than happy to open their homes and hearts. I’m obligated to contact Children Services, but I know this is one of many instances where the Amish will go above and beyond the call of duty.
Doc Coblentz’s voice pulls me from my thoughts. I start toward him as he stands and snaps off a pair of latex gloves. “It’s a damn shame.”
I stop a few feet away from him. Neither of us looks at the bodies. “You’ll autopsy all three victims?”
He nods, grimaces. “My schedule’s pretty clear, so I should be able to start this afternoon.”
I want to say, “Good,” but this is so far from good, I can’t manage the word. For a moment, the only sound comes from the rumble of the generator, the buzz of work lights, and the occasional grunt from the hogs in a nearby pen.
“Do they have next of kin?” the doctor asks.
“I’ll check with Bishop Troyer. Notify them as soon as possible.”
“I don’t envy you that part of your job.”
Notifying next of kin is undoubtedly one of the most diﬃ cult aspects of being chief. But I’ve always thought cutting into a dead body would be worse. This morning, I’m not so sure. “Will you fax your reports over when they’re ﬁnished?”
He gives me a nod, then motions for the two paramedics standing by to bag the bodies for transport.
Having grown up Amish, I have mixed feelings about the lifestyle. Like most things in life, there was some good and some bad, with a whole lot of in-between thrown in. Leaving was the right decision for me, the only one I could have made at the time. But it wasn’t done without some regret. One of the things I loved most about being Amish was the sense of community, of belonging, of being part of something bigger than myself. I loved the way my Amish brethren pulled together in the face of tragedy. It didn’t happen that way when disaster struck my family, but looking back, I realize now that we were an anomaly.
By the time I leave the barn, the Amish have begun to arrive in force. Men wearing work clothes and insulated coats congregate near the barn. I know they’re here to feed the livestock, clean the pens, and keep the farm up and running. The women will busy themselves with house hold chores—laundry, cooking, and caring for the children. In the coming days, the Slabaugh house will be overﬂowing with the help of a community that is as generous as it is selfless.
I spot the bishop’s buggy parked near the back door as I head toward the house. A boy not much older than the youngest Slabaugh child tends the old horse. Two additional buggies I don’t recognize are parked behind the bishop’s. Beyond, the windows of the house are illuminated by yellow lantern light.
I enter to the aromas of kerosene, wood smoke, and cinnamon. T.J. stands near the back door, looking out of place and uncomfortable. His relief is palpable when he spots me. “Bishop Troyer arrived, Chief.”
I give him a nod. To my left, two plump Amish women wearing traditional garb—homemade dresses with white aprons, their hair tucked into organdy kapps—stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the kitchen counter. One of the women rolls out a round of lard and ﬂour pastry crust. The other slices apples into a large plastic bowl. I’m not surprised to see that they’re making pies. If food were a cure-all, the Amish would be the healthiest culture in the world.
Moving into the next room, I see Bishop Troyer and a silver-haired woman sitting in straight-backed chairs someone dragged in from the kitchen. All four Slabaugh children sit side by side on a sofa, lined up like sad little ducks. One of the cushions has a hole in it. I see a closely matched piece of fabric has come loose, and I know at some point Rachael Slabaugh had tried to patch it. It was probably one of a thousand things on her list of chores. A chore she will never get the chance to complete.
“Katie.” The bishop stands and extends his hand to me.
“Thank you for coming.” I take his hand and we shake. “I’d like to speak to you if you have a few minutes.”
The bishop looks over his shoulder at the woman. She gives a minute nod, telling him without words that she’ll remain with the children.
I’m keenly aware of the children’s eyes on us. They’re wondering about their fates, I realize. Where will they live? Who will take them in? Will they be kept together or will they be separated, the family shattered once again? Little Ike still looks at me as if I might be able to conjure forth his dead mamm. I know it’s self-defeating, but I feel guilty because I can’t.
The house is getting crowded, so I motion toward the front door and we step onto the porch. For the span of several heartbeats, the only sound comes from the tinkle of sleet against the roof.
I break the silence. “Do the Slabaughs have relatives?” It’s so cold, my breath billows when I speak.
“There is a brother.” The bishop looks out across the darkened ﬁeld. “We will take care of those children.”
I wait for more information on the brother, but he doesn’t offer it. “What’s his name?”
“Does he live around here?”
“Millersburg, I believe.”
I stare at his proﬁle, wondering why he’s so reluctant to offer information about Adam Slabaugh. “I need to notify next of kin.”
The bishop turns his attention back to me. “What of the children, Katie?”
“Children Services will probably place them with relatives. Or the brother.”
The bishop shakes his head so hard, his jowls jiggle. “Not Adam.”
“He is not Amish. Solly would not have wanted his children raised by a man who has been excommunicated.”
The reason behind his earlier reluctance suddenly becomes crystal clear. “Is there any other family?”
“Bishop, with all due respect—”
He cuts me off. “These children were raised Amish. An Amish family would feel blessed to take them in and raise them as their own.”
“This isn’t a matter of Amish versus English.”
The bishop gives me a sage look. “Yes, it is.”
It’s an old argument, one that’s taken on a painful new twist this morning because four young lives hang in the balance. “The decision isn’t mine to make,” I tell him. “Nor is it yours. I’ll have to involve Children Services.”
For the ﬁrst time, the bishop looks alarmed. “No, Katie. Do not do that. Your English government does not care about the Amish way. They do not care about the broken hearts of those children.”
I’ve known Bishop Troyer since I was a child. He was tough on me when I was an unrepentant teenager and made the decision to leave the plain life behind. We’ve had many disagreements over the years. But my respect for him is high. I’m old enough now to know he’s a decent man with a good heart and a fair mind. None of those things changes my responsibilities.
“Can you see to it that someone stays with the children until we get this settled?” Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t ask. In fact, I would have already notiﬁed Children Services and asked for a social worker to assist with placement in temporary foster homes. But because these children are Amish, I know they will be safe and loved in the hands of their brethren.
The old bishop nods and says, “Mer sot em sei Eegne net verlosse; Gott verlosst die Seine nicht,” which means “One should not abandon one’s own; God does not abandon his own.”
I’ve heard the old adage before. Because I know life isn’t always that kind—even if you’re Amish—I don’t respond. “I’ve got to tell Adam about his brothers and his sister-in-law.” I turn to leave, but he reaches out and snags my arm.
“These children have lost enough,” he says. “Do not take them away from everything they know. Do not take their faith from them. Solly would have wanted them raised Amish.”
I leave with those words ringing in my ears.
New York Times bestselling author Linda Castillo is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence, the Holt Medallion and a nomination for the Rita. She lives in Texas with her husband and is currently at work on her next thriller, also set in Amish Country and featuring Chief of Police Kate Burkholder.