Read Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery) Online

Authors: Laura Bradford

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Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery) (2 page)

BOOK: Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery)
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She noted the lingering bitterness in the man’s voice at the mere mention of Benjamin Miller and held it against everything she’d learned about the pair since moving to Heavenly, Pennsylvania, thirteen months earlier. The two men had grown up together, their proximity in age and common interest in all things outdoors helping to forge a friendship within the confines of their small Amish community. When they hadn’t been helping their elders on their respective farms or sitting side by side in their district’s one-room schoolhouse, the boys had often met at the creek to catch frogs, skip stones, and swim. It was a friendship that had soured, though, as they approached their teenage years, thanks to a jealousy Jakob’s own father had stoked in his son. Jakob’s departure from the Amish fold before his twentieth birthday simply served to sever the tie completely.

Diane returned to her upholstered lounge chair on the other side of the oval hooked rug and sank into its depths, a worried expression creasing her brow. “I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject, Jakob. I’m sorry.”

“No apologies needed. Elizabeth’s heart did not belong to me. I accepted that fact seventeen years ago.”

“Is that why you
really
left the Amish?” Claire whispered.

He shifted his body ever so slightly, grazing his shoulder against hers as he did. “No. I left because I wanted to help solve John Zook’s murder—as a
policeman
.”

It was a decision that had cost Jakob everything, not the least of which was any hope of a relationship with his childhood family or anyone else from his former Amish life.

“When Elizabeth first told me of her feelings for Benjamin, I was angry. I saw it as yet another way I didn’t measure up. But, years later, when I had time and distance to reflect, I knew it was more than that. Elizabeth had changed during Rumspringa. At first, it was a change that brought us closer. But then, like everyone else, she could not accept what I wanted to be.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I was fascinated by the police long before Zook was murdered. The uniforms that made my family and friends wary, excited me. I wanted to know what they did and where they went. During Rumspringa, while my Amish friends were wearing English clothes and listening to English music, I was spending my time talking to police officers and watching what they did. When Rumspringa was over, my fascination with law enforcement had only grown. Which is why, looking back, I should have
known
baptism was not right for me. But I resisted. Had I not, I could be a part of my sister’s and brother’s lives now.”

It was a part of the Amish culture she would never understand. The notion that a man like Jakob could be excommunicated from his family for choosing to serve the public simply didn’t sit well. But it was not hers to judge, as Diane always said. Had Jakob made his decision to leave prior to baptism, everything would have been different.

“And Elizabeth?” Claire prodded. “She was bothered by your fascination?”

“When her own Rumspringa was over, she was very quiet. I remember her crying a lot. She would never really say why, but she’d let me hold her sometimes when she was really upset. Oftentimes I would ask her if she was sure she wanted to be Amish. Each time I asked, she insisted she was.

“I was skeptical until the moment I told her I was thinking about becoming a police officer. She got so upset at the mention of me becoming a cop that I knew, at that moment, that she was confident in her decision to be baptized.”

Diane reclaimed her copy of the
Heavenly Times
from its spot atop the end table and smoothed it across her lap. “Did you happen to know that young Amish girl who left during Rumspringa and never came back?”

“Sadie Lehman?” Jakob clarified. “Sure, I knew her. She was Elizabeth’s closest friend. They were like two peas in a pod, as my mother used to say. They played together, dreamed together, went on Rumspringa together. Having Sadie take off like that in the middle of it all was hard on Elizabeth. She thought they were friends, she thought they would be baptized together.”

Diane clucked softly under her breath. “Hence the tears that you dried when Elizabeth’s Rumspringa was over . . .”

“Hence the tears I dried,” Jakob confirmed. “But it was Benjamin, not me, who was finally able to convince Elizabeth that Sadie’s decision was God’s will.”

There was something about Jakob’s tone that made Claire want to reach out and smooth away any and all lingering hurt from his features, but she resisted. There was simply too much uncertainty where his feelings for her were concerned.

“And then, only a few years later, it was
Benjamin
who had to accept God’s will.” Diane shook her head slowly, the downward turn in the room’s atmosphere beginning to weigh on the sixty-three-year-old’s shoulders.

Jakob stiffened ever so slightly beside Claire. “What happened to Elizabeth, exactly? All I’ve ever been told is she passed away shortly after she and Ben got married.”

“Oh, Jakob, it was such a sad, sad tragedy,” Diane murmured. “It was early December, if I remember correctly. She was walking out near those thick woods next to Bishop Hershberger’s farm and—”

“Wait. That’s hunting season.”

“Yes, it was.”

Jakob raked his fingers through his dark blond hair, groaning as he did. “Awww no . . .”

Claire looked from Diane to Jakob and back again. “What? What am I missing?”

Pitching forward on the sofa, Jakob dropped his head into his hands. “She was killed by a stray bullet, wasn’t she?”

Her gasp wasn’t loud enough to drown out Diane’s affirmation and Jakob’s subsequent, louder groan. “I . . . I had no idea,” she stammered. “I . . . I just assumed she’d been sick or something.” A glance to her right confirmed she wasn’t the only one who’d made a similar assumption.

“In some ways, I think an illness would have been easier for Benjamin. It would have given him time to prepare. But a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? There’s no way to prepare for something like that . . .” Diane’s words whispered off only to return on the heels of a weighted sigh. “They’d been married less than three weeks.
Three weeks
.”

She searched for something to say—for Jakob, for Benjamin, for the woman who’d clearly meant so much to both men—yet she was speechless.

“I always knew it would take someone mighty special to make that poor man even consider the notion of getting married again. It’s just a shame that—”

Desperate to keep her aunt from finishing, Claire cleared her throat, then trained her attention on their guest. “Hey . . . you okay?”

Jakob’s hesitation gave way to a reassuring pat on her hand. “Yeah. I’m okay. I’m just stunned. Stunned and saddened for Elizabeth . . . and Ben.” Then, squaring his shoulders, he plucked a familiar red-and-white-checked bag from the pocket of his coat and handed it to Claire. “I stopped by Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe after work today and thought maybe you’d like one of Ruth’s famous chocolate chip cookies . . .”

The rustle of newspaper on the other side of the rug did little to disguise her aunt’s cluck of approval, but it didn’t matter. Diane was right. It was a sweet gesture. By a sweet man.

“I’d love one, Jakob, thank you—”

“I’m still not sure what I think of this.” Diane adjusted her reading glasses atop her nose and then tapped the paper with the back side of her hand. “But I know Ryan O’Neil must be absolutely beside himself.”

Reluctantly, Claire broke eye contact with Jakob to address her aunt. “Who is Ryan O’Neil?”

Jakob’s non-cookie-holding hand shot into the air. “Wait. I know this. He was the mayor of Heavenly during the last few years I lived here as a teenager.”

“That’s right. And he held that office for another three terms before losing to Don Smith about seven or eight years ago. Folks around here thought Ryan would run again the first chance he got, but his pride was wounded and he never did.”

Claire took a bite of Ruth’s cookie, savoring the instant burst of chocolate. “Mmmm, okay, so what’s going on now?”

“His son, Mike, is throwing his hat in the ring for the next mayoral race.”

“Yeah, some of the guys in my department were talking about that this morning. They seem to be divided on how he’d be as mayor. The ones who grew up around here seem to find the notion funny; the ones who didn’t, think he’ll do a decent job.”

“That’s because the ones who grew up around here remember the Michael of old and it’s not a very flattering image. Especially in conjunction with someone who wants to hold a position of power in our town.” Diane took one last look at the article, then peered up at Claire’s sofa mate. “Do you remember Mike from back then, Jakob?”

“Vaguely. I know from my time hovering around the police department during my Rumspringa that he set something on fire once. But nothing happened to him on account of being the mayor’s son . . . And I know he was part of Elizabeth’s Rumspringa crew a few years later, thanks to Miriam Hochstetler.”

Claire stopped chewing. “How could he have been a part of Elizabeth’s Rumspringa? He’s English.”

“And that’s exactly why he was part of her crew . . . because he
wasn’t
Amish,” Jakob said.

“Oftentimes, it’s through those English counterparts that Amish teens come in contact with things they might not have otherwise,” Diane added by way of explanation. “Cigarettes, alcohol, mischief, et cetera.”

“Which brings us back to the limited memories I have of the mayor’s—”

The wail of a siren as it raced past the inn brought Jakob’s sentence to an end and him to his feet. “That’s the fire department.”

Diane pushed the paper from her lap and stood, her stride and her destination matching that of both Jakob and Claire. When they reached the bay window that overlooked the Amish countryside, they dispensed with the traditional pull string and, instead, parted the curtain with their hands to reveal a bright orange glow in the distance.

Claire felt the gasp as it escaped her throat, knew it had been echoed by her aunt, but all she could truly focus on was the sound of Jakob’s voice as he barked into the phone now clutched to his ear.

“Detective Fisher. What’s going on? Copy that address, please . . . Okay, got it. I’m on my way.”

He snapped the phone closed inside his hand, returned it to his pocket, and then gathered Claire’s hands inside his own. “Stoltzfus’s barn is on fire and they’re worried about the house going next. I’ve got to get out there and help. But I want to thank you”—his gaze left hers just long enough to offer a quick yet deliberate nod in Diane’s direction—“for tonight. For the conversation, the warmth, and the sense of normalcy. I can’t think of the last time I felt so at home anywhere.”

And then he was gone, his strong, confident footfalls disappearing as he made his way through the front door and into the night, the rising pillar of flames in the distance guiding his path.

Chapter 2

C
laire stood at the lone window overlooking the alleyway between her store and Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe and watched as Ruth Miller carried one box after the other through her side entrance.

The boxes, in varying shapes and sizes, were a normal part of the workday for each and every shopkeeper along the cobblestoned thoroughfare that connected the English and Amish sides of Heavenly. But unlike the other shopkeepers, the Amish bakery owner didn’t carry her own boxes. Ever.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t capable—because she was. And it wasn’t that the twenty-two-year-old beauty was some sort of kapp-wearing diva—because nothing could be further from the truth. But she
was
Eli Miller’s twin sister. That, coupled with being Benjamin Miller’s unmarried little sister, was all the explanation needed.

Every morning, while the gas-powered lampposts still burned bright up and down Lighted Way, Benjamin delivered the bakery’s supply of fresh milk in his horse-drawn wagon. Once the shop opened, Eli showed up at various points throughout the day to attend to any deliveries and carry out the trash that had accumulated between visits. They came quietly, performed their tasks quietly, and left quietly, the only indication they were around coming via the whinny of their respective horses in the now-empty alley.

Something was wrong.

It had to be.

Squaring her shoulders amid the lull in customers, Claire wound her way around the counter and into the back room, the hinges of the screen door announcing her presence in the alley as surely as any verbal greeting ever could.

Ruth looked up from the dwindling stack of boxes at her feet and smiled shyly. “Good morning, Claire.”

She took a moment to study her neighbor and the many features that made the young woman more suited to a high-end fashion runway in Paris or Milan than a small Amish bakery in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Only with Ruth, her beauty didn’t hinge on one particular feature and an artist’s ability to highlight a few others. No, the youngest Miller’s beauty was a complete package—one that included large, ocean blue eyes, high cheekbones, and long golden blonde hair parted severely down the middle and pinned into place beneath a plain white kapp. And that was just the exterior.

BOOK: Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery)
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