Whiskers of the Lion: New Excerpt

Whiskers of the Lion by P.L. Gaus is the 9th Amish County Mystery, and this time an Amish woman in mortal danger attempts an ingenious disappearing act (available March 31, 2015).

After Fannie Helmuth's unwitting actions make her the target of a murderous drug ring, the young Amish woman hides in plain sight among America's scattered Amish communities. But confrontation looms in Holmes County, Ohio, when her traveling companion is caught and murdered by a cartel that won't stop at a single killing.

Sheriff Bruce Robertson is charged with finding the elusive Fannie and getting her into protective custody so she can testify in federal court. Playing out his struggle in dreams of a deadly lion, the sheriff finds himself torn between upholding the legal system he represents and the beliefs of the people he is sworn to protect.

1

Wednesday, August 17
4:50 a.m.

Stan Armbruster had been a Holmes County deputy sheriff long enough to know that even the best day could skip sideways on you like a ricochet. With the instincts of all patrol officers, he had ridden his entire career knowing that the positive could flip to the negative with the single bark of a gun. A bark as arresting and irreversible as the clang of a bell.

But Stan Armbruster wasn’t going to ride in patrol cruisers any more. He was done with that. Done with the uniforms and done with the heavy-duty belts of gear. Now he’d wear a suit with a simple leather badge case hung from his suit pocket. He’d trade the big 9 mm pistol for the diminutive .38 revolver of a detective.

Armbruster stood in his new suit in front of the closet-door mirror in his trailer home and liked what he was seeing. He liked it so much that he found it easy to dismiss his patrol officer’s instincts for the negative. Found it easy to dismiss thoughts of gunshots, ricochets, and clanging bells. Found it easy to be positive, because his first day as a probationary detective would surely prove to be the best day of his life.

Armbruster fished in the side pocket of his suit coat and took out his new flip case of business cards. He fanned the short stack of cards, then closed the case and dropped it confidently back into his pocket. Then he finished the knot in his tie, cinched it under his chin, and studied his new image in the mirror. Hair black, growing out long enough to sustain a part. Complexion fair, with a ready smile, offset by a dark blue suit with a sophisticated charcoal pinstripe. White dress shirt with a roomy collar and a red power tie. A new look for a newly minted detective. He was done with crew cuts, uniforms, patrol cruisers, and rental trailers. He smiled at himself and turned for the front door.

There he smiled, too, at the photo on the wall of his partner, Detective Pat Lance. Maybe, he dreamed, this would be the day he would tell her. Maybe this would be the day he’d ask her out. If not today, then soon. Because it just wouldn’t do for her to learn, before he had a chance to explain himself, that he kept a picture of her at his door.

Outside, August’s moist heat painted Armbruster’s cool skin with cloying humidity. Runoff from the overnight rains dripped from wet branches hanging heavy and low. The last cloudburst had just finished with the racket of close thunder. Runoff clattered from the trailer’s metal roof into the gutters and downspouts. As he locked up, a vaporous negativity again brushed the margins of his thoughts—Fannie Helmuth, missing since April, probably already dead.

But OK, Stan, be positive. They’d find Fannie Helmuth soon enough, safe after all, in some remote Amish colony a thousand miles away.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe she really was dead. Fannie Helmuth. The locus of Sheriff Robertson’s summer-long obsession.

Settling in behind the wheel of his red Corolla, Armbruster shook his head. Stop this, he thought. Just stop it. The sheriff will never change. Giant Bruce Robertson—impulsive, insistent, and impossible. As big as a Barcalounger, with the personality of a tank commander.

So do your job, Stan. Hit it early and have another report on Robertson’s desk before the man makes it down to the jail. Go out to their farm and wake up the Dents if you have to. Ask them again. Not that they’ll ever tell you anything. Not that they’ll ever admit they know where their Howie has been hiding with Fannie Helmuth.

Armbruster started his car, turned on the air conditioner, and drove down the lane toward the blacktop of County Road 189. At Ohio 83 in Holmesville, he turned south toward Millersburg. At Courthouse Square in Millersburg, he joined truck traffic climbing eastward up US 62. Outside town and down in the next valley, he turned south on Ohio 557. After the long curve at the roadside tourist stands, he angled right to climb a wooded hill on an unmarked gravel lane. When he crested the hill, Armbruster parked on the hill in front of Miller’s Bakery and set the brake because of the sloping grade. He got out in the dark and walked past a line of black buggies, the familiar country fragrances of fresh road apples and wet horsehair ushering him up to the door. Aromas like this outside a bakery? Armbruster thought. Only in Amish country.

Inside, Armbruster stopped to let his eyes adjust to the white-hot glow of the Amish gas mantles spaced at intervals across the low ceiling. Morning sales had long been under way, and a mother in a black bonnet and shawl was paying for pastries at the cash register. Her three young daughters, also in black shawls, pulled close to the hem of her long olive dress when they saw Armbruster enter through the screened door.

At the front of the salesroom, a white-bearded grandfather in Amish-blue work denims was stacking loaves of bread into his wicker basket. He gave Armbruster a reserved nod of his head. Two Amish lads in black denim suits stood beside a low table at the rear of the salesroom. They were pouring coffee for themselves from a steel thermos into Styrofoam cups. They ignored Armbruster with the practiced aloofness of religious separatists, mixed with the disdain of all teenagers, making private jokes at the expense of their elders.

From the back, one of the older Miller girls carried a wide aluminum tray of pies out of the kitchen and said to Armbruster, “Sticky bun, again?”

Armbruster smiled, “Maple cinnamon today, Edna.”

The girl set her tray down, brushed flour from her hands, and turned back toward the pastry case. Over her shoulder, she asked, “You’re not on patrol?”

“New job,” Armbruster said and stepped up to the front of the case. “The biggest one, there at the corner,” he pointed. “It’s a celebration.”

The girl teased the corner bun away from the rest, dropped the bun into a white pastry box, closed the lid, and handed the box across the top of the case to Armbruster. “I can take your money.”

Armbruster handed her five dollars. “Keep the change.”

Back in his Corolla, Armbruster put the pastry box on the passenger’s seat and drove down off the hill to turn right again on Ohio 557. In the quiet little burg of Charm, he parked beside the Roadside Amish Restaurant and went inside as the first dim hint of sunrise was giving vague outline to the congestion of old rooftops in town. He took a seat in a booth by the front windows and ordered the farmer’s special—eggs over easy, bacon, sausage, hash browns, orange juice, toast with butter, and coffee. When he had finished his celebration breakfast, the sun was coming up stronger on a day that Stan Armbruster planned never to forget. Outside, the heat of an August morning was already starting to build.

From Ohio 557, Armbruster made the sharp turn onto County Road 70, to climb the blacktopped lane up toward Troyer’s Ridge. Overnight rains had left the pavement wet and puddled, and the Corolla’s tires hissed and splashed as Armbruster leveled out to turn north through a stand of timber on narrow Township 369.

This would be Armbruster’s second visit to the Dent farm this week. The sheriff had ordered the visits at least three times a week. Drive the narrow blacktop and gravel lanes north of Charm, out into the middle of pastureland nowhere, and ask the Dents again. Ask a thousand times if you have to, Robertson had insisted. Find Howie Dent. Whatever it takes. Because that’s where we’ll find Fannie Helmuth.

Armbruster crested the rise south of the one-room Troyer’s Ridge schoolhouse, and he turned his Corolla right onto Township 371 toward the Dent farm, which would be at the second lane after the turn. But first, Armbruster came to the long drive leading back to the deserted Jonas Helmuth farm, and as he passed the drive, the corner of his eye caught a patch of yellow off to his left. He stopped twenty yards beyond the gravel, backed up, and looked toward the main house some seventy yards down the drive. There sat the yellow VW bug.

In that single glimpse of yellow, Stan Armbruster’s celebration came to a halt. He flashed the thought of a bullet striking a bell—a ricochet. His grand breakfast was a distant memory. The maple cinnamon bun lay forgotten on the passenger’s seat beside him.

This was going to be Howie Dent’s yellow VW. Armbruster considered the radio, but as he pulled to a stop behind the VW, he saw that the doors were standing ajar. An odd assortment of items had been tossed out onto the gravel on either side of the car.

Armbruster shoved his gear shifter into park and shouted out the window, “Howie Dent?” He got nothing but lifeless silence in response. He shut his engine off, climbed out, walked a circuit around the VW, and made a mental catalog of the puzzling items scattered on the wet ground beside the car.

There was an old red backpack, soaked from the overnight rains, zippers pulled open, apparently empty. Armbruster picked it up and felt inside the pockets. Nothing there.

In addition to the red backpack, there was a small travel pack of tissues floating in a muddy puddle outside the passenger’s door. There were also the contents of a typical glove compartment strewn across the gravel nearby—a tire gauge, a metal penlight, a bottle of aspirin, and napkins and straws from fast-food restaurants.

As he mounted the wooden steps leading up to the front porch, Armbruster again called, “Howie Dent?” He tried the door and found it unlocked. Heading inside, he called, “Howie?” and stepped farther into the front hallway. Deserted since April, the empty house sounded cavernous. “Where are you, Dent?”

In the parlor, the long Amish-purple drapes hung like sentinels, in straight pleats of plain cloth guarding either side of the glass. Morning light sparkled the dust that stirred into the stale air as he paced around the empty room. As he walked down the long hallway to the kitchen, Armbruster’s footfalls on the hardwood floor punctuated his steps and gave him grade school memories of tapping a hollow wood block for music. It reminded him of the simple tunes of his childhood. The trouble was, it wasn’t the pleasant tune of a grade school melody that was playing right then in his mind. It was something more frenetic. Something more akin to distress. Maybe Led Zeppelin in manic high pitch, Armbruster thought, or a wrenching guitar solo by Carlos Santana.

Armbruster continued to search inside. Like the rest of the house, the kitchen hadn’t been used in months. Drawers and cabinets stood open and vacant, just as the Helmuths had left them when they had packed up last April and cleared out abruptly for Kentucky.

At the back porch, Armbruster climbed down the short run of block steps to the outside and hurried across the muddy yard to the tall barn at the back of the property. With each step, he felt his polished shoes sinking into the ruination of the muddy drive, but he dismissed this in his urgency to find Dent. A lightning strike broke suddenly into a clap of thunder over the pastures to the east, and a hard wall of rain fell instantly down, soaking his hair and the shoulders of his blue suit coat just before he managed to duck into the cover of the barn.

Ten paces in, Armbruster could smell dried manure and pungent, moldering hay. The barn was obviously deserted, but he called out for Dent again. A flight of purple martins shot loose in the rafters.

Armbruster stood inside the wide doors of the barn and watched a gloomy wall of gray rain hammer the gravel of the drive as if it were an anvil, eradicating his footprints in the span of only minutes. Erasing tracks that might have been made there. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped.

Distrusting the break in rain, Armbruster hurried out onto the drive again and turned right toward the little Daadihaus. There, too, he searched inside for Dent. But he found only the gloom of an abandoned home.

Outside, a light rain had started to fall again. Not bothering to run, Armbruster crossed the drive to go back inside the main house. There he searched briefly upstairs. Most of the bedroom furniture had been taken away when the Helmuths, the extended family of Fannie’s brother Jonas, had caravanned to their new land in Kentucky. In the second-floor bathroom, he tried the faucet in the sink, but it was dry.

So the well water tanks in the attic were empty, Armbruster muttered. Of course. They would have disconnected the windmill when they left. Again he felt the abandonment. Even the water had deserted the pipes.

Down on the first floor, on the screened back porch, Armbruster took an old rag from a Shaker peg and sat on a wicker chair to wipe the mud from his new Florsheims. Standing again, he turned in place to remember his last time in the house. He and Ricky Niell had guarded the Jonas Helmuth family while Robertson hunted the county roads for Teresa Molina’s gray Buick, which had been described by Fannie Helmuth and identified among others registered in northern Ohio by after-market tire prints that Armbruster had molded from the muddy edge of the Helmuths’ driveway.

Armbruster remembered that day. He had guarded the rear of the house from this very porch. Down the interior stairs, the family had taken shelter in the basement.

Armbruster crossed back through the kitchen to the top of the basement steps. Using the handrail, he eased down the steps in the dark until his feet found the dirt floor of the basement. He could see only the dim shape of an eight-by-eight upright post, and he reached out for it, caught his suit on a protruding nail, pulled back, and heard the expensive fabric of his sleeve take a short rip. He groaned in self-reproach, fingered the tear, and climbed back up the steps, angry with himself for the vanity of his new attire. In better light, he inspected the tear in the sleeve, rolled his eyes, and muttered a scolding invective at himself. Then he pulled off his ruined suit coat and tossed it in a heap onto the kitchen counter.

A battered red kerosene lantern was hanging beside the back porch door. Armbruster found matches in a kitchen drawer, lifted the globe to light the wick of the lantern, set the globe back into place, and turned again for the basement steps. Lantern in one hand, railing in the other, he descended.

The lantern’s flame threw a troubled glow of yellow light onto the basement’s dirt floor and gave dim outline to the posts and walls. On the far wall ahead of him, there were wood shelves for canning jars. The shelves were empty. Against the wall to his left there was a stack of empty wooden crates and pallets, held in store perhaps for firewood. To his right, clotheslines hung lifelessly from hooks in the braces. His eyes adjusted more to the lantern’s anemic glow, and Armbruster saw worn leather tack and harnesses, pegged to the wall beyond the weary clotheslines. And it was only then that he noticed the faint odor of urine, mixed strangely with something sweet. Maybe alcohol.

Armbruster took another anxious circuit around the front portion of the basement, then turned to the back part behind the step risers. A boarded partition nailed to the risers partly divided the front half of the basement from the back. He rounded the corner of the partition and saw a vague and disturbingly upright form strapped to the far side of another eight-by-eight post. He turned the wick of the lantern higher and advanced. The question, Howie? caught in his throat, and he asked aloud, “Who’s there?”

No movement. No sound. He stepped forward and came around to the other side of the post. He took a nervous step in place, and something sounding like plastic cracked under the sole of his shoe. He lifted the lantern to eye level, advanced two steps, and was startled by the swollen, bloodied face of Howie Dent.

There in the basement, in the lantern’s pale light, Probationary Detective Stan Armbruster stared with shock at the pale death mask of a man who had died badly after hideous torture. He stared slack-jawed at the evidence that Fannie Helmuth might now be dead as well. He stared with an addled mind at the proof that was written in Howie Dent’s ashen face. The proof of both the beginning and the end of Armbruster’s new career, over and done with in this morning’s single clang of a metaphorical bell.

The big celebration breakfast rumbled in Armbruster’s gut like corked fury. He set the lantern down on the dirt floor and circled back to the steps fighting a vomit reflex. With one hand clamped over his mouth and the other hand pulling himself along the railing, he labored up the steps. Running then, and losing control of his stomach as he crossed the kitchen linoleum, he spewed vomit onto his shirt and tie, and hurtled himself on unsteady legs down the back steps. Outside Armbruster doubled over onto his hands and knees and felt a wet chill soak into the expensive fabric of his new suit pants as he heaved the rest of his breakfast onto the grass of the back lawn.

Then, with his legs rubbery and his mind struggling to make sense of a useless tangle of grotesque images and fragmented thoughts, Armbruster got himself somehow back to his Corolla. He sat behind the wheel, pulled the microphone off the dash hook, and clamped the fingers of both trembling hands over the switch to radio in. “Armbruster! Over.”

He eased back in the driver’s seat, groaned from the gut, and drifted among ragged thoughts. He was alone. He wasn’t sure how the new temp dispatcher would handle him. He was defeated. She had started just yesterday. He was finished. Adele “Just Call Me Del” Markely. Brought over from the Mansfield Highway Patrol to handle communications while Ellie Troyer-Niell was bedridden during a difficult third trimester with twins. Ricky Niell was home with Ellie, taking paternity leave. Mind wandering, Armbruster realized that he didn’t know if Del Markely had responded to his radio call.

“Base, this is Armbruster. OK?”

“Go ahead,” Markely responded evenly.

“Howie Dent is dead. Helmuth farm. Need the captain. Medical Examiner. Everybody. Over.”

“What’s that twenty, Armbruster?”

“Helmuth farm. North of Charm.”

“I’m gonna need more than that, Armbruster.”

“The sheriff knows where it is, Del! Just send everybody out here!”

Exhausted by shock and emotion, Armbruster switched off and pulled himself out of his car. Leaning against the front fender like a derelict hobo, he felt his stomach heave again, this time dry, and he bent over at the waist to wait it out. Then he sank to his knees, turned himself around, flopped down with his legs out straight, arms limp at his sides, back resting against the front wheel, with cold wet mud soaking into the seat of his new suit pants.

“A new suit, Stan?” he whispered to himself. “Really? Get a grip! What happened here? THINK.”

Fannie Helmuth had disappeared in Charlotte with Howie Dent in April. On a bus run from Sugarcreek to Sarasota.

Robertson had been manic since then to find them. Best hope, that Fannie Helmuth and Howie Dent were hiding in one of the remote Amish colonies that were scattered across America. Second-best hope, that knowing the danger to Fannie, they’d never try to come home. Not without the sheriff’s help.

But now they had come home. At least Howie Dent had.

It had all started with the murder of Ruth Zook, an Amish girl vacationing in Sarasota’s Pinecraft colony. Murdered by the Teresa Molina drug gang. For refusing to deliver a suitcase of drugs that she had been coerced into carrying on the bus ride home to Ohio.

Her friend Fannie Helmuth had then gone to the sheriff to say that she had earlier brought home a suitcase, too, one that she now suspected had also held drugs. She had carried the suitcase for a woman in an old gray Buick. Teresa Molina.

Then the sheriff’s sending Ricky Niell on the chase to Florida, hunting the Molinas. And a shootout in Sarasota/Bradenton’s eastern outskirts. Killing Dewey Molina, cousin to Teresa. And Teresa Molina and the rest of her crew? Vanished like smoke on the wind.

So Fannie Helmuth had fled the sheriff’s protection. With Howie Dent’s help. And Ricky Niell had tracked them as far as the bus depot in Memphis.

Thus you were assigned the Dent watch, Stan, Armbruster chastised himself grimly. Show up three times a week and ask Richard and Susan Dent if they’ve heard yet from their son. Two days ago, they had answered again in the negative. Now their son was dead.

So here you sit, Stan, Armbruster thought, laughing nervously. New suit ruined, and you failed Howie Dent. Celebration breakfast spewed across the lawn, and you failed Fannie Helmuth. Promotion to detective now a total loss, and you failed your first day on the job.

And the whole happy gang is headed right here to your position.

And what position is that, Stan?

The unwitting victim of a ricochet.

Fumbling uselessly with the quandary of unringing a bell.

Butt down in the mud.

On the worst day of your life.

Copyright © 2015 P.L. Gaus

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Paul Louis Gaus lives with his wife, Madonna, in Wooster, Ohio, just a few miles north of Holmes County, home to the world’s largest settlement of Amish and Mennonite people.

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