Plain Secrets: Chapter One
Where is that girl? Hannah Nolt could hardly believe her seventeen-year-old stepdaughter had spent the entire night away from home. But here it was morning as sure as the rooster crowed in the new day, and not a single sign that Jessica had come home.
Hannah stepped from the warmth of the cottage, bracing for the chill of morning air. She tried to ward off all negative conclusions about the girl she’d raised as her own. It wasn’t like her to stay out all night even on Rum-springa—that time when Amish youth have their “run around.” And shirking morning duties was never a part of that.
Hannah should have been angry with Jessica, but instead it was only worry that filled her bones as she shivered in the darkness on her way to morning milking.
Jessica had been acting strangely for weeks now—demanding privacy, running off for hours with no explanation, even leaving the farm on weeknights. Things she had never done before. Hannah did not question the change in her behavior. She and Jessica had been closer than ever since Hannah’s husband’s death, just two years ago, and she had faith in Jessica’s good sense and kind spirit. Surely these estranged few weeks were just a simple bump in the road—a growing pain, nothing to be alarmed over. Now Hannah wondered if perhaps she had been wrong to put so much trust in the girl.
Hannah rushed on to the barn. Maybe Jessica had gone straight there from wherever she’d been all night.
But as she scurried up the steep hill, her hope that Jessica was inside milking the Jersey heifers diminished. Fear as thick as the morning fog clouded her thoughts. Something was wrong. Something terribly, horribly wrong. She could feel it in her bones. None of this made sense. Jessica was not the kind of girl to stay out late, much less all night. She just wouldn’t do such a thing. Not by choice. No. Something had happened. Something Farrichterlick—frightful.She closed her eyes and lifted her head to the skies. Please let her be safe, Lord. Let her be safe.
Hannah turned back to the path. A bright flash grazed the hillside, then disappeared. She paused. What is that? A coming storm? She heard no thunder. Saw no clouds.
Her dread doubled as she climbed the last slope to the barn. She pushed open the back door and stepped inside. Another flash of light blinded her eyes. It speared through the inside of the stable. That was no storm. Those were car lights.
The vroom, vroom of a powerful engine broke through the silent morning air. Hannah’s heart raced. Her mouth went dry. Who could be at the barn at this hour of the day? She shuddered. Whatever the reason, it could not be good.
She lifted her lantern. Cold air whooshed around her. Had someone just passed her? Brushed against her?
“Hallo? Jessica? Is that you?” The dead space swallowed her voice. Not even the animals responded. Another flush of air brushed around her. The door behind her slammed shut. She turned, only to have the lantern knocked from her hands. Its flame was extinguished as it hit the dirt floor. As she scrambled after it, something bumped against her once more, this time knocking her to all fours.
Please, God. Be my light. Help me to safety.
Scrambling to her feet again, Hannah lunged toward the closed door, but the large wooden slider wouldn’t budge. She was trapped. The only other door out was at the other side, where she’d seen the car lights. Where she still heard its engine. She took one step forward and stopped. She had not the courage. Sliding into an empty stall, she crouched low, pressing her back against the wall. Footsteps padded down the aisle behind her. Hard, heavy steps—those of a man, a large man. The man who had locked her in and knocked her to the floor.
Beams of light once again filled the eaves of the barn. Hannah sucked in her breath and pressed deeply into the wooden boards behind her, wishing somehow she could disappear into the wall.
Please be leaving. Whoever, whatever you are please be leaving.
A car door slammed. Gravel crunched. The hum of the car motor grew dim. Her prayer had been answered. She slinked upward and peered over the edge of the stall. Through the open front doors, Hannah spotted a long, shiny black sedan heading away.
Hoping but not truly believing she was alone, she crouched again, feeling over the earthen floor for her dropped lantern. She refilled her lungs, taking in the soothing, familiar smells of animal and hay. She tried to calm her panicked mind. She listened to the cows’ lows and sheep’s vibrating baas.
With trembling hands, she found her lantern and relit the flame. A warm orange glow filled the space around her, and her eyes adjusted to the soft light.
Slowly, she stood and stumbled her way to the front of the stable. Her mind reeled. What had just happened? Who had pushed her to the ground and locked her inside, and why? What mischief had brought an Englischer’s car to their barn? Hannah’s legs trembled under her as she moved across the dirt floor. She jumped when one of the cows swung her head into the aisle, then again when the gray barn cat sauntered over her path.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not fear.” Hannah whispered the Psalm to herself and the animals. I should not be so frightened. She wondered if the disturbance had something to do with Jessica’s absence. In fact, for a moment the car had given her hopes that Jessica had come home. But that idea had died when she was locked in and knocked to the floor.
The cat cried. Hannah stooped to scratch its head. A lamb skirted beside her, down the aisle and out the front.
“What are you doing loose, little girl?” Hannah placed her lantern on the ledge of the sheep pen. Someone had left the gate wide. She peered in only to see that the space was mostly empty. Twenty-plus sheep were out scampering the hillside no doubt. Once it was light, she’d fetch one of the dogs to help round them up.
Hannah turned back to the aisle but stopped as something in the far corner caught her eye. One sheep still sleeping. How odd that he hadn’t stirred when the others roused. Perhaps he was hurt. She reached back for her lantern and moved nearer with care not to startle the creature. But as she closed in on the figure, she realized it was no animal. It was a human. A girl. An Amish girl. Her Amish girl.
Hannah knelt beside her stepdaughter, who in all this time had not moved, nor made a sound. “Jessica? Jessica?”
Putting the lantern aside once again, she touched the girl’s shoulders and rolled her slightly, drawing her face toward herself.
Jessica’s body was cold. And there was blood. On her face. On her apron. On her neck and hands.
Jessica! Jessica! Oh, Father in Heaven, what has happened?
Hannah whispered prayers as she felt the lifelessness of the body beside her. Shock flowed over her and flashes of Peter erupted into her thoughts. Images of the night he’d been killed. The ice. The untrained horse. The car coming toward him, traveling too fast. Her dear husband, Jessica’s father, thrown from the buggy and trampled. There had been much blood that night, as well.
Hannah reached for the girl’s arm to feel for a pulse. There was none. No life. No spirit. Jessica was no longer in this body. No longer with her.
She touched the girl’s cheeks and turned her face toward the light. There on her soft neck hung open flesh. The throat had been cut—deliberately. The marks were deep. A wound as deadly as the one her father had taken just two years ago.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Hannah whispered the familiar words from Job then fell over the girl’s body and wept.
Elijah Miller, Philadelphia Internal Affairs detective, swung his head in the direction of Captain O’Dell’s deep voice.
“Need to speak with you. Pronto.” The captain gestured toward his office.
Elijah pushed away from his desk. His partner, Mitchell Tucci, stood, too, and started to follow.
“Not you, Tucci. Just Miller.”
Eli jerked his head around to glance back at his partner, who shrugged. It was rarely a good thing when the captain called you to his office. Never a good thing if he called you in by yourself. Elijah crisscrossed his way through the maze of desks and entered O’Dell’s corner space.
“Shut the door. Take a seat,” his captain said.
Eli did as he was told. O’Dell flung a pile of five-by-seven evidence photos across the desk. “The Lancaster police sent these over. Their chief wants your help with a homicide.”
“Why would they want me on a homicide? I’m Internal Affairs.”
When the captain didn’t answer, he looked down at the first picture. A dead teenaged girl. She wore a frock and an apron and a prayer Kapp. A wave of nausea coursed through his veins. This was no normal homicide. This was anAmish homicide.
“Where in Lancaster is she from?” he asked.
His hometown. Elijah’s teeth clenched. His mind raced with the images of old faces, friends and family. He shuffled to the next picture. A stable. And the next. Her slit throat. The next. Bruises and cuts.
When he’d gone through the entire stack, he placed the pictures back on the edge of the desk and tried to keep down his breakfast of toast and black coffee. Silence filled the room. Eli stared at the floor, trying to squeeze the horrid images from his mind. But he couldn’t stop his racing thoughts. Who was this girl? A neighbor?
A friend’s daughter? He pitied the family. Mourned for them. Then wondered at the idea that they encouraged an investigation. Could that be possible? Had things changed that much since he’d left home? The Amish didn’t usually encourage any sort of police aid—or interference, as they thought of it. They liked to take care of their own problems. Eli didn’t imagine this community trait had altered since he’d lived there.
“You okay?” the captain asked.
Eli shook his head. “I don’t want to work an Amish homicide . She could be a relative.”
“She’s not. I checked. Her name is Jessica Nolt.” O’Dell grabbed a page from the tiny file folder and began to read. “Daughter of Peter Nolt. Also deceased. Lived with stepmother Han—”
“Hannah Kurtz Nolt.” Eli’s voice was cold as he pronounced that name for the first time in a decade.
“Oh, you know these people?”
“Yes. My family shares a property line with them. I knew Peter well. He was a bit older than me. I was friends with his younger brother. And Hannah ” His throat closed tighter. “Hannah was my girlfriend.” Once upon a time in a faraway land.
“Girlfriend?” The captain looked skeptical.
Eli swallowed hard. “Yep. I dated Hannah while she worked as a nanny to Peter’s daughter. Peter’s first wife died soon after giving birth to Jessica—a bad case of hepatitis. Peter was devastated. Hannah’s parents sent her to help the Nolt family.”
“Then daddy fell for the nanny?”
Eli shrugged; he did not like having that heartache rubbed in his face even after eleven years. “Something like that. Hannah started working for the family when she was twelve. The Nolts became her family—marriage just made it official. And Jessica was a very sweet girl. I remember her well.” He shook away the memories—both good and bad. “So, how old was she? Fifteen? Sixteen?”
Seventeen. He frowned, thinking how an unexplained death like this would affect all of the community. And especially Hannah. “I see a deep laceration on her throat in this picture, but there’s no blood. Not even on her clothes. This isn’t the crime scene? Or has it been cleaned up?”
“I thought you didn’t want to work the case.”
“I don’t. But I can’t help being a little curious.”
“The notes here explain that the uncle, Thomas Nolt, called Chief McClendon, but by the time he arrived, the family had already changed the girl’s clothes and burned them. They claim there was no blood around her, only on her clothes. If they are telling the truth I think we can assume she wasn’t killed in the stable.”
“They are telling the truth. . What’s the story on the girl?”
“A perfectly good girl, as far as the family tells it. No evidence of drugs or alcohol.”
“But the family wouldn’t necessarily know what she’s involved in. She was probably on Rumspringa. Kids don’t have to tell their parents anything much during that time.” Eli sighed and glanced again at the horrid photos. “There’s bruising on her arms and neck in those pictures. A struggle before death? Abuse? I can’t imagine it of the Nolt family, but there are cases of abuse in the Amish community.”
“I don’t know. This is all we have.” The captain held up the thin file. “The only other information in here is that her stepmother, Hannah, is the one who found her in the milking stable. Maybe you could start by questioning her.”
Question Hannah? The woman who dumped me. No way. No Hannah. No Willow Trace. No investigation. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh, come on. You don’t have to be official about it. Just go and pay respects or whatever.”
“Why me? If you just want someone to figure out what’s going on, why not one of the local guys?”
“Chief McClendon says his own men aren’t always Amish-friendly. He’d heard of you, the Amish cop in the city, and thought the people would respond better with one of their own asking the questions.”
Eli shook his head—that made no sense. Very few people knew he was raised Amish. “They’d be even less likely to answer me—because they’d think I should know better than to ask. The Amish don’t seek revenge or restitution or even answers for unexplained events. They accept it as God’s will and move on. So they would have no reason to seek answers and therefore would have no interest in answering them. I can’t imagine the family even wants an investigation.”
“Well, they don’t. That’s why there was no autopsy. All we have are these pictures. And Chief McClendon took them himself. He thinks there’s something major going on here and that you’re our best shot at finding out what it is.”
Eli shook his head. “I haven’t seen these people in eleven years. I’m not one of them anymore. They won’t talk to me about any of this. They probably don’t even talk to each other about it.”
The captain frowned. “McClendon thinks you’ll have a chance.”
Eli groaned. He did not want to go back to Willow Trace. Not now. Not ever. “I’m sorry, Captain. But I can’t do this.”
“You have to.”