Read Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery) Online

Authors: Laura Bradford

Tags: #FBS, #Amish, #Mystery, #read2015

Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery) (4 page)

BOOK: Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery)
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F
or the first time since Esther got married, the sight of the twenty-year-old standing in the doorway of Heavenly Treasures didn’t bring Claire joy.

Oh, it wasn’t that she was unhappy her former employee had stopped by—because nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, not a single day went by that Claire didn’t wish things could be different, that a married Amish woman could work outside the home right up until the moment she became a mother. But seeing her best friend standing there with swollen and red-rimmed eyes changed everything.

“Esther? Oh my gosh, sweetie . . . what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

Undeterred by the emphatic shake of her own head, a fresh round of tears began the slow descent down Esther’s face. “I . . . I . . . I am not hurt.”

Claire grabbed hold of the young woman’s shoulder and guided her over to the counter and the stool that sat vacant on the other side. “Is it Eli? Did the two of you have a fight?”

Esther’s soft gasp was quickly followed by a hiccup. “No! Things with Eli are wonderful. He is a good man and a good husband.”

Claire’s shoulders sagged with relief only to tense up once again as her thoughts traveled in a different direction. “Is something wrong with your mother? Your father? One of your siblings?”

Esther settled onto the stool and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, sniffing as she did. “No. All are well.”

“Then what’s wrong, Esther? What has you so upset?”

“I saw her mother today. I saw the sadness in her face. It is a different one now. Because she no longer has hope.”

She tried to follow Esther’s words, tried to fill in the gaps with people they both knew, but she came up short. She had absolutely no idea what her friend was talking about and she said so.

A second round of sniffing and tear-wiping was finally followed by some clarification. “Waneta. Waneta Lehman.”

“I’m sorry, Esther, I don’t know who that is. Did something happen to her?”

“N-not Waneta. H-h-her daughter . . . Sadie.”

Maybe it was a by-product of the relief she felt at the realization that Esther and her loved ones were okay. Maybe it was the tossing and turning she’d done during the night as she worried about Jakob and what he’d found at the site of the barn raising. But whatever the case, she could feel her patience running a bit thin. She took a deep breath, let it release slowly, deliberately. “You lost me, Esther. I don’t know who either of these women is.”

“Sadie is Waneta’s daughter. Or was when she was still alive.” Esther leaned her upper body against the edge of the counter and took a deep breath of her own before continuing her narrative in more of a straight line. “Sadie disappeared in the middle of her Rumspringa when I was a baby. Everyone said she went to the city to live the life of an Englisher.

“I remember, as a little girl, seeing Waneta in church. Her eyes did not smile with her mouth. I remember asking Mamm why she looked so sad and Mamm said it was because Sadie did not say good-bye before she left.”

Claire started to speak but stopped as Esther continued. “I touched Waneta’s hand after church a few years ago. I said that maybe Sadie would come back one day. That she would come back to say hello and give Waneta a hug. She squeezed my hand and said we would hope for that day together. And, until this morning, that hope has kept her eyes from being so sad.”

Once again, the tears began to fall, the force and velocity of their encore preventing the young woman from uttering another word.

“You said this girl’s name was Sadie, right? Is this the one who was friends with Benjamin’s late wife?”

“Y-yes.”

“And they went on Rumspringa together, didn’t they?”

“Y-yes. Only Elizabeth c-c-came home for a few years before she died. S-Sadie did not.”

Claire squatted down beside Esther’s stool as the meaning behind her friend’s statement hit its mark. “Wait. Did news come that Sadie died somehow?”

“Not news,” Esther wailed. “Bones!”

Jerking back as her thoughts instantly rewound eighteen hours, Claire said, “Are you talking about the bones they found on the Stoltzfus farm last night?”

Esther pulled her gaze from her lap and fixed it, instead, on Claire. “You know about the bones?”

“I was with Jakob last night. We were standing on the edge of the Stoltzfus property, watching the men clear away the last remnants of the barn fire, when a young boy started yelling about finding bones. Jakob ran to him right away and you know how fast your uncle is. By the time I reached him and the hole, he was telling me to step back . . . telling everyone to step back.”

“Eli stayed into the night with some of the other men. He says the bones are Sadie’s.” Esther’s hands shook as she brought them to her face. “All these years Waneta walked over the place where her daughter was buried and she did not know. She did not know!”

Claire searched for something, anything to say as Esther’s tears morphed into racking sobs that literally shook the young woman’s body. “Shhhh . . . Esther. You need to take a deep breath. It’s not good to get this upset. Besides, I don’t know how you can be so sure those bones are Sadie’s. The police can’t even be certain of that without testing DNA or whatever it is they do when the only thing they have is bones. And surely, even with that, verification would take weeks, maybe even months.”

“I do not know what is worse, Claire. The loss of Waneta’s hope . . . or knowing that I am the one who gave it to her in the first place.”

“Maybe Eli misunderstood,” Claire hypothesized. “Maybe the bones aren’t human at all.”

“No, they’re human, alright.”

Startled, Claire sprang upward, grazing her arm against the edge of the front counter as she did. “Oh. Jakob. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“You just didn’t hear the bells.” He crossed the showroom floor and stopped beside Claire, his gaze leaving hers just long enough to note his niece’s presence. “Hey. I wanted to stop by really quick to apologize for the way last night ended. I hated having to shove my keys into your hand like that and tell you to drive yourself home. I just knew it was going to be a long night and I didn’t want to keep you out there in the cold any longer than absolutely necessary.”

“No. I understand. Truly.” Mindful of Esther’s gaze richoceting between them, Claire took a deep breath and released it slowly through her nose. “I dropped off the keys and your car with the dispatcher as I drove through town last night.”

“I know. I got ’em.” He ran his finger along the top of the counter and sighed. “But I didn’t give you the car so you could walk home in the dark from the station.”

“I didn’t. I called Aunt Diane and she was back from her dinner in Breeze Point. So she picked me up.”

“Good. I don’t want to have to worry about you, too.” He peeked over the edge of the counter and addressed his niece. “Esther, I heard what you said when I came in. You have nothing to blame yourself for in all of this. Nothing.”

Claire silently waited to see whether Esther would acknowledge her uncle despite the ban of communication his postbaptism departure demanded. But, as was often the case with the twenty-year-old, her actions were guided by her heart more than the Ordnung and its unwritten rules for behavior among the Amish.

“Sadie was buried on her parents’ land,” Esther said between sniffles. “I do not understand how they could not know.”

“That’s what I’m going to try to find out, Esther. You have my word on that.”

Claire held up her hand. “Wait. I thought the barn that burned was on the Stoltzfus property.”

“It was. But this time last year, that particular parcel of property belonged to the Lehmans. They sold it to Stoltzfus at the same time Daniel Lapp sold them acreage on the other side.”

“So if those bones really belong to this Sadie Lehman, she’s been buried on her own property this whole time?” She heard the disbelief in her voice but could do little to stop it. Like Esther, the notion that a woman could spend years looking forward to the return of a child whose remains were within yards all along was truly heartbreaking.

“It sure looks that way.”

“Is there a specific reason why you think these bones are Sadie’s?” She stopped, tilted her ear toward the back room, and lifted her index finger into the air. “Actually, can you hold your answer for just a second? I’ve been waiting for a delivery from that Amish soap maker you put me in touch with, Esther, and I think it may have finally arrived.”

With a quick nod at Esther and then Jakob, Claire made her away toward the back room, the promise of new inventory quickening her steps. But as she approached the door that led to the alleyway, she realized her error. For there, standing just on the other side of the screen, was Benjamin Miller.

Like his younger sister, Ruth, Ben’s eyes were as blue as the ocean on a sunny day. His cheekbones were high as well, but on his masculine face they appeared almost chiseled. His light brown straw hat contrasted nicely with the darker shade of hair barely visible around its base.

He raised a callused hand in greeting, then let it slowly slip down his clean-shaven face. “Good morning, Claire. It is good to see you.”

Oh, how she wanted to believe him, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he harbored no hard feelings where his ill-fated marriage proposal was concerned, but she couldn’t. Not entirely, anyway.

Sure, she’d seen him countless times since that day in the woods behind the shop. And yes, he’d been a driving force in her continued presence as a shopkeeper on Lighted Way. But despite all of that, the quiet yet powerful camaraderie they once shared was different now. It was a bit more awkward and a little less special.

Still she’d made the right decision. The last thing she wanted was for Ben to suffer the kind of gut-wrenching hurt Jakob experienced every day as an excommunicated Amish man.

Finding her smile, she pushed open the door and motioned him inside. “It’s good to see you, too. How are you?”

“I am well. Thank you. Is Esther ready to leave? I am to drive her home to Eli.”

She lowered her voice to avoid any chance of being overheard, but peeked around the corner and into the storeroom to be certain her friend was otherwise engaged. “I’m worried about her. She’s taking the discovery of those bones on the Stoltzfus property extremely hard.”

“If Eli is correct that Sadie Lehman has been found, it is a shock, of course, but it is God’s will. I will speak with Esther in the buggy.”

“Before you go, why don’t you come into the store with me for a minute? Jakob is here and I was just asking him why he seems so certain the bones are Sadie’s.” She led the way back into the showroom, stopping every few feet to straighten a stack of bibs, a display of homemade candles, and a collection of wooden spoons hand-painted by Esther’s mother, Martha. “While there was no soap delivery to be had, I did find Benjamin. He’s ready to bring you home now, Esther.”

Esther looked up from her lap and wiped at the remaining wetness on her cheeks. “I am sorry, Benjamin. I did not mean to keep you waiting.”

Jakob stepped forward and extended his hand. “Ben.”

Claire held her breath for a beat, releasing it slowly as Ben’s momentary hesitation gave way to an answered nod. “Jakob. Eli spoke of what happened last night. He said you were still at Stoltzfus’s farm when he left to milk the cows.”

Jakob shrugged. “Even after all these years, we still have to take care to preserve any evidence we might find.”

“For prosecution purposes?” she asked quickly.

Jakob pitched his upper body forward and planted his elbows on the counter, the exhaustion from his sleepless night clearly beginning to weigh on his body. “Prosecution
and
initial identification. And it’s what we found in terms of the latter that makes me virtually certain we found Sadie Lehman.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There was jewelry mixed in with the bones.”

Esther’s head dropped forward into her hands, prompting Claire to leave Jakob’s side and move closer to her friend. Then, with one hand on Esther’s back, she gave voice to the protest that seemed so simple. “Doesn’t that say, right there, it can’t be Sadie? The Amish don’t wear jewelry.”

“They do if they’re on Rumspringa.”

Rumspringa.

The time when Amish teenagers experiment with English life in order to make an informed decision as to whether baptism is right for them . . .

Slowly, methodically, she moved her hand in a circular motion at the base of Esther’s neck, the young woman’s breathing coming in fits and starts. “But it’s been almost twenty years since she disappeared, right? How could anyone possibly remember what jewelry she was wearing?”

“Because one of the pieces was a silver necklace with her name dangling from the chain.”

She swallowed hard. “And the other?”

“Was the right side of a friendship bracelet.”

Esther lifted her head just enough to peer over the top of her fingers. “W-what is a f-friendship bracelet?”

“It’s got a pendant that looks as if it’s been broken in half. English girls and their friends often give or get them as gifts. One friend’s bracelet has the right half of the pendant and the other friend has the left half. At least that’s the way the chief explained it to me this morning.”

Seeing the confusion in Esther’s eyes, Claire stepped over to the register and the canister of pens tucked neatly to its side. “Here,” she said as she plucked a blue pen from the mix and brought its tip to the first piece of scrap paper she could find, “I’ll show you what he’s talking about.”

Carefully, she drew a small circle with a jagged cut through the middle. On one half she wrote
best
and on the other she wrote
friends
. When she was done, she showed it to Jakob for confirmation she was on the right track.

“Yeah, that’s it. Only the one we found was heart shaped and had the word
forever
written in cursive across its half.”

“Oh. Okay. I can do that.” She flipped the paper over and drew a heart with the same jagged line through the middle. On the left side she wrote
friends
and on the right side she wrote
forever
. “Now, keeping in mind I’m not the most skilled artist in the world, this gives you a pretty good idea of what your uncle is talking about.”

BOOK: Suspendered Sentence (An Amish Mystery)
10.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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