Finding MercyKaren Harper
Hidden in the heart of the Home Valley, a SECRET danger takes root…
Quiet, cautious Ella Lantz has spent her entire life in the close-knit Amish community of the Home Valley. Tending her lavender fields, she finds calm and serenity in purple blooms, heavenly scents and a simple life. But the sudden arrival of a strange visitor to her parents’ home heralds a host of new complications.
Alex Caldwell is unlike any man Ella has ever met— clearly, he’s no “Pennsylvania cousin,” whatever the elders may say. In fact, Alex is a Wall Street whistle-blower under witness protection...and he’s brought a world of trouble to the Lantz doorstep.
As Ella comes to trust—even love—a man so utterly worldly, she realizes her life has already changed forever. When it becomes violently clear that even the Home Valley is no refuge, Ella and Alex are driven into the wider world to hide. And with such a high price placed on their silence, they may not survive to share their love....
For all the Kurtzes who enjoy Ohio Amish country: Margaret, Ruth, Barb, Bev and her friends. And as ever, for everything, to Don.
April 12, 2011
ALEX CALDWELL WAS sick to death of having to hide like a hunted animal trapped in a borrowed lair. How had his well-planned life imploded so fast? From a great career with a corner office forty stories up overlooking the Hudson River to a room in a one-floor Georgia motel with a single, curtained window. From skiing vacations in Vermont and golf in the Hamptons to running in place in front of a TV. From lobster and steak dinners to carryout and fast food that was all starting to taste like cardboard.
Damn his mentor and former boss Marv Boynton and his under-the-radar schemes that had brought down SkyBound, Inc., along with Alex’s career and hopes! He couldn’t stand just hiding and waiting for the trial to start anymore. The Atlanta spring weather shouted to him, and he was going out for a run, no matter what his government watchdog said.
“I’m going to jog a couple of times around the building,” he told Jake, who was slumped against his headboard, staring like a zombie at a cable news show.
“Not on my watch, you’re not. I know you’re going stir-crazy. You think this is my idea of a great assignment? But you’re a precious commodity, Metro Man, and—”
“I asked you not to call me that. Use my name. It may be all I have left.”
“You should’ve taken the offer on the witness protection program. At least you’d be stashed someplace you could see the light of day. We’re both getting bug-eyed looking at these cable news shows, looking for more on the big man’s case. You’ll hear soon enough when they’re ready for you. ’Sides, you snore, and I’m missing my beauty sleep.”
“You should talk. I finally made some earplugs out of toilet paper so I don’t have to listen to you at night too.”
As ever, they tired of sniping at each other, and their conversation trailed off. Alex could think of more than one comeback, including that Jake was no beauty. Jake—no last name permitted—was balding, nearly sixty, with such big shoulders it seemed he had no neck. He had a gun but no personality. A former private security firm employee, he’d been let go recently and had taken a job protecting witnesses. As long as Alex refused to go into the federal WITSEC program, he was evidently stuck with the man until he could testify against his former boss for economic espionage—with the Chinese, no less. His whole life, his climb up the ladder, sabotaged by his decision to step forward as a whistle-blower—one, evidently, who needed protection until he could testify, or so the feds claimed. He was tempted to wear a disguise and go back home to Manhattan. Five weeks of this, no date for the trial yet, and he was going stark, raving nuts.
In a rage silent but for grunts, he did sit-ups and ab crunches on the floor until he broke out in a sweat and his belly muscles screamed as loud as his desperation. Then he realized Jake was snoring. Since he was asleep…
Alex got up slowly, not turning the volume of the droning TV either up or down. As he tiptoed toward the outside door of the motel room, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He looked bad, too thin, almost gaunt. He’d lost his tan. His usual great haircut was shaggy, his once clean-cut skin scruffy with beard stubble. He was down to his last pair of clean chinos and a cutoff sweatshirt.
He had to get the hell out of here, even for a few minutes. He wasn’t going to risk being traced by doing anything stupid like calling a friend or either of the women he’d been dating—man, he’d like to import either Marci or Anita right now.
Despite being thirty-two years old, Alex felt like a kid sneaking downstairs early on Christmas morning. Holding his breath, he slowly turned the dead bolt. Jake got to make phone calls—he’d made a private one last night. It really irked Alex to be a prisoner. But he knew the WITSEC program would be worse. There you gave up not only your past but had to create an entirely new present.
Jake snored on, though it didn’t sound deep or regular. Alex opened the door and sucked in a big breath. He took a step out and savored it all. Fresh air! The sound of traffic on the nearby beltway, lined with tall buildings. The splashes of colored flowers in the distance on the hill and in a bed near the motel sign. Open sky with puffs of cumulous clouds and a jet gliding overheard, probably from nearby Dobbins Air Reserve Base or even the huge Atlanta airport. Freedom!
Shaking in anticipation, Alex closed the door quietly behind him and began to walk fast. Just a couple of times around the building, he told himself. Atlanta was hilly with rich, red soil, so different from the flat concrete of Wall Street or even the manicured grassy spots in SoHo. Different too from his grandmother’s terraced lawn overlooking Nassau, where he’d wanted to hide out before the feds nixed it.
Filling his lungs with breeze, he broke into a trot, then a run. He turned a corner, passed cars and U-Hauls parked early for the night. He read license plates from up and down the Midwestern states…Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, what he used to think of as flyover country when he traveled to L.A., heading for Hong Kong.
He turned another corner, kept going, faster. Just get this waiting over, be further deposed, prepare his testimony with his lawyers, then make it through the trial, all the publicity. Find a new job, maybe start a new career. Save some money again, decide on which woman to pursue. “If you can’t decide, man,” a friend had told him, “the answer is neither of them.”
His muscles felt the burn now, his lungs expanded to take in good air, despite an idling black pickup spewing CO2 at the far end of the parking lot. The sun felt so good on his shoulders, so much better than the night that had become his friend. Even with Jake accompanying him, he could duck outside only for a few minutes to gaze up at the vast, black night.
The feds were being paranoid, he thought. He’d complained of overkill but had been told their precautions were so he wouldn’t be “overkilled.” They’d regaled him with stories of witnesses who had been kidnapped or
killed, tortured, some whose bodies turned up and some who just vanished.
Shutting all that out, Alex spotted one of the maids across the parking lot, going from room to room with her cart of mops and brooms. She was either really pretty or he was getting desperate for female companionship.
He ran on. The next time around, the black pickup was still there with its motor running. Its side window was down and the driver was holding up some kind of mirror that snagged a piece of sunlight. No, not a mirror, maybe binocs. A telescope? Or maybe…
A crack resounded, echoed off the building behind him. Stucco and shards of shingles spit at him. He lunged forward and hit the concrete walk on his belly as a second shot sounded. It shattered the window he’d just run past.
Shooting at him! But how—no one knew where…
Somewhere a woman was screaming, then Jake’s voice. “Stay down! Gun. Gun!”
The pickup roared away. Jake, cursing, hauled Alex to his feet by the waistband of his slacks and shoved him toward their car, pushed him into the backseat on his face, slammed the door, got in the driver’s seat and roared away.
“That’s it for me!” Jake shouted as he sped up, then made a screeching turn. “You don’t play by the rules, and somehow they found you, Metro Man! I’m delivering you to the Atlanta cops and then I’m outta here! For them to track and find you, someone wants you bad. I’d bet city hall you got a nice expensive contract on your head!”
Alex felt shaken to his soul—bullets…hit man…contract. Traced hundreds of miles from Manhattan. He hated and feared having to become someone he wasn’t, but he couldn’t live like this or else he was going to die like this.
June 20, 2011
ELLA LANTZ’S FIELD of lavender, edging toward full bloom, stretched as far as her eyes could see. But, she admitted, peering out from under her bonnet brim, that was only because the humped, wide-set rows of the fragrant purple plants went up the hill and disappeared from sight. She had almost an acre of the sweet stuff and, as Grossmamm Ruth put it, with no man or marriage coming down the pike, her little garden of Eden here in Eden County was her future.
With her curved hand sickle, Ella cut an armful of the earliest, hardy English lavender, then rushed down to where her widowed brother, Seth, was loading the wagon with his household goods. Beside him in the wagon sat Hannah Esh, Ella’s good friend, whom he was going to marry this Friday, in just four days.
Even though Amish weddings usually avoided the farming months, everyone agreed they’d waited a long time. Their borrowed wagon was filled with the rest of Seth’s furniture, which was going into storage in the Troyer barn until his and Hannah’s house was done. Meanwhile, the newlyweds were going to live in the big Troyer house while Seth would build first his and Hannah’s home, then one for the youngest Troyer son, Josh, and his wife, Naomi. So many weddings, Ella thought, but none of them hers. Both Naomi and Hannah were her friends, and she wanted to send enough lavender with Seth to scent the Troyers’ house, then later the wedding itself at Hannah’s family home.
Ella was grateful to the Troyers for hiring her oldest brother in these tight times. And, she was getting a house of her own in the bargain. Seth was giving her his two-story home on this property. She planned to live upstairs and make the downstairs into a lavender workshop and store where she could oversee a small staff to make potpourri, candles and soap.
“Here, for Mrs. Troyer,” Ella said, and lifted the big bundle of blooms up to Hannah, who cradled them across her knees. On the wagon seat between her and Seth perched three-year-old Marlena, Seth’s little girl, who adored her new mother-to-be. The child smiled and waved down at her aunt Ella, who had helped to care for her since her mother died two years ago.
One of the four big Belgians hitched to the wagon snorted and stamped a huge hoof. They were anxious to be off. Ella knew Seth and Marlena were only going four miles away, but she would miss them. Suddenly, the small home she was inheriting here seemed miles from the big Lantz farmhouse where her parents and two younger siblings lived.
“Oh, they smell so good!” Hannah said, sniffing the spiky blooms with their purple tips. “Remember, I’ll help you when I can at your new store.”
“When you can won’t be much,” Ella told her with a playful punch on her leg. “Not with taking care of Marlena. Besides, you have a lot of catching up to do since you’ve been helping Ray-Lynn manage her restaurant.”
Ray-Lynn Logan was their Englische friend who owned and operated the Dutch Farm Table Restaurant in the nearby little town of Homestead. The kindly woman, who was recovering from an accident and a coma, shared ownership of the popular eating and meeting spot with Jack Freeman, the county sheriff and Ray-Lynn’s close friend. Hannah had been living with Ray-Lynn for a while, after Ray-Lynn’s accident, and would stay with her until her wedding.
“Gotta go now, Ella,” Seth called down to her. “Enjoy the house. If you need help building the shelves, just let me know.”
“Oh, ya, I’ll just get on your waiting list, you mean!” she kidded him. She smiled through her tears and bit her lower lip as he giddyapped the horses. To lose little Marlena from her care made her so sad… Before that last wagonful of Seth’s household goods rattled down the gravel driveway, the rest of the Lantz family, who had helped him load, came out into the front yard to wave goodbye. Ella wondered where they’d disappeared to while she’d picked the lavender.
Her parents, Eben and Anna, waved goodbye as did her sprightly grandmother Ruth, age 80, who lived with them. Mamm and Daad shouted advice in their Deutsche dialect as if Seth and Hannah—and their only grandchild, Marlena—were leaving for the ends of the earth.
Abel, age twenty-six, Ella’s second-oldest brother, not wed yet, who farmed the fields with Daad, looked sad. He would miss their oldest brother too. Barbara, sixteen, and Aaron, fourteen, the youngest, who was aching for his running around rumspringa time to begin, both turned quickly away and headed back toward the big farmhouse. Ella, at twenty-four, was the middle child of the five of them. She’d felt that way too—stuck in the middle, not quite companions of the two oldest boys or her two much younger siblings. That was probably why she’d made two close friends over the years—Hannah and Sarah, who had gone to the world and been shunned.
Ella was surprised to see an outsider watching from the porch as everyone hurried back inside. So when had he arrived, and where was his car? Who was he? Maybe that’s why everyone had disappeared inside for a while.
Yet she hesitated to follow her family back inside the house. Despite living with so many people, she often chose to be alone, especially when she felt the drowning darkness swirling toward her. No good to have someone see her that way, especially since an Amish girl, who trusted in her faith to pull her through, couldn’t escape its clutches. Going off on her own when that inner darkness came, she’d managed to keep her terrible secret from even those closest to her. Ever since she’d almost died ten years ago, she’d felt not only blessed but cursed....
“Ella, come here!” Her father’s voice pulled her from her agonizing. “Something for the whole family to hear!” Holding the porch door open, he windmilled his arm. As she hurried toward the house, she saw her mother’s white face in the window, peering out at her—or else watching the road, even though Seth’s wagon was out of sight. What was going on? It surely had something to do with that stranger.
Taking a shortcut down the row with her late-blooming French lavender, she broke into a run.
* * *
Alexander Caldwell was really a wreck. This area reminded him of an old Clint Eastwood Western rerun. He saw horses and buggies, people in hats and bonnets, big barns and farmhouses with no phone or electric wires, no satellite TV dishes. And he was to be a part of all this, he marveled, as the black buggy clip-clopped along at such a slow speed he could actually see what usually blurred past beside the road. Hopefully, somewhere up ahead, Gerald Branin, his link to the outside world, was laying the groundwork fo
r this huge deception that could mean life or death to him, especially since the shooter in his attempted Atlanta assassination had not been caught.
Gerald, his WITSEC manager, had sounded so certain that the heart of Amish country was the best place for him to hide out until the trial. This was a one-eighty from his own life in Manhattan. This was Podunk, the boondocks, the sticks, aka Homestead, Ohio, in Eden County. Soon enough his testimony at the trial would splash his name across the country and the world. But since the attempt on his life and at the urging of his lawyer, Logan Reese, he had finally admitted he needed to hide out. The feds had convinced him to try Amish anonymity.
He could, he thought perversely, envision the headlines now: Former NYC Exec Exposes Corporate Espionage by CEO of Tech Firm Skybound, Inc.… Investors Left Devastated and Furious… Chinese Businesses Involved… Atlanta Assassination Attempt Financed by—Why, You Name It: Alexander Caldwell’s rich and powerful former boss? The Chinese who want to shut Caldwell up to avoid sanctions? Irate investors? Place your bets on who would most like to shut the whistle-blowing witness up for good.
“Best put that hat back on,” Bishop Joseph Esh, who was driving the buggy, told him. “It’s to wear, not bend in your hands. Make you harder to pick out among our people, ya, it will.”
“Oh, right,” Alex said, smoothing and replacing it on his head. He couldn’t get used to his Amish hairstyle, either, or the lack of zippers on his broadfall-style pants, the suspenders, or the five hundred dollars Branin had given him in small bills, when he was used to credit cards. No smartphone, which he missed horribly. Like an idiot he kept lifting his wrist to check his Rolex for the time when he didn’t and couldn’t wear a watch—and did time even matter in this place? At least he was playing a younger, unwed man, so he didn’t have to grow a beard. This elderly man had a long, white one.
“I do appreciate everything, sir,” he told his host.
“Sir is too worldly. Bishop or just Joseph is good for me. Be careful not to talk much in front of strangers and just nod when we speak the Deutsche but for those few words I told you. Too bad you got to use lies to protect the truth. Learned it the hard way myself, but the ends sometimes justify the means. You got your story straight?”