Return to GraceKaren Harper
In the shadows of a graveyard, a SHOT rings out…
Hannah Esh fled the Home Valley Amish community with a broken heart, throwing herself into her worldly dreams of a singing career instead. But as much as she tries to run from her past, something keeps pulling her back. On a whim, she brings four worldly friends to the Amish graveyard near her family’s home for a midnight party on Halloween. But when shots are fired and one of her friends is killed, Hannah is pulled back into the world of her past.
The investigation into the shooting uncovers deep-buried secrets that shock the peaceful Amish village to its core. Determined to prove her value to the community she left behind, Hannah attempts to bridge two cultures, working closely with both handsome, arrogant FBI agent Linc Armstrong and her former betrothed, Seth Lantz, now widowed with a young daughter.
Caught between Seth and Linc, between old and new, Amish and worldly, Hannah must choose her future. Unless a killer, bent on secrecy, chooses it for her.
Return to Grace
For all the friends and family who love Ohio Amish country,
especially to Don for all the great trips there.
October 31, 2010
HANNAH ESH HAD spent time in this Amish graveyard but never to host a party. She would have given anything not to be here now, especially with her four goth friends, who didn’t even have to dress for Halloween to look weird. But she should talk, because she’d been one of them for nearly three years. Yet more than ever she wanted to go home, and home was the farmhouse just across two fields from here.
“Awesome!” Liz Bartoli, her roommate, said with a shudder as she saw how dark it was without car or neon city lights. There weren’t even electric lights from the nearby Amish properties. “Maybe after we have a bash here, we can all go through that corn maze down the road. An amazing maize maze,” she added with a snorted giggle. “It wasn’t fair of you guys to run through it without us.”
“Kevin and Mike have already seen that. Besides,” Hannah said, “the sign said it’s closed after five and you have to make special arrangements with the owners to go in there after dark.” She’d been upset when Kevin had driven right up to the entry of the corn maze. Then he and Mike had gotten out to tear a ways into it—and come crashing back through one wall of it when they got lost. “And each of us would have to leave a donation,” Hannah added as she opened the unlocked, squeaky gate in the wooden fence surrounding the hillside acre of graves and grass.
“Listen to you!” Tiffany Miles, who worked with Hannah at the recording studio, scolded as she got a blanket out of the trunk. “You can take the Amish girl out of the country, but you can’t take the Amish out of the girl. Rules and regs out the wazoo!”
Kevin Pryor, Tiffany’s guy, found that really funny as he and Mike Swanson, Liz’s friend, hauled the cooler from the trunk of Kevin’s black car. But Hannah wasn’t laughing. Ever since her family’s barn had burned last spring, she’d been more than homesick. She missed her folks, even her daad, the local bishop she’d had a huge falling-out with. She longed to see others, too, but she couldn’t think of that now. Somewhere she’d heard the expression “You can’t go home again,” and it scared her to death that it might be true.
Oh, why had she let her friends talk her into this tonight? Worse, Halloween fell on the Sabbath this year, and that bothered her, too. She should have just given them directions but she figured she’d better keep an eye on them. Since she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend, she’d tried to get out of coming along, but they’d insisted they could cheer her up. Yet being back here, all she wanted to do was cry.
“Perfect place,” Mike said with a tip of his velvet top hat, “for a booze and boos party. Boo! We goths have finally gone ghosting!”
“There are no ghosts here,” Hannah insisted, feeling defensive as they passed her grandparents’ simple tombstones. “Everyone buried here is at peace.” But the truth was she felt haunted by all she’d loved and left behind.
Mike cranked up the volume on his MP3 player. Deathrock music spewed out, heavy drums and synthesizers to a tribal beat, pulsing but sad, so different from the music Hannah had in her head of singing a country song or a hymn, her own voice blending with Seth’s, now as lost to her as all the Amish.
Suddenly, she wanted to strip off the heavy, draped chain necklaces she wore, the fishnet stockings under the ankle-length, purple ruffled skirt and black velvet jacket. To wash off her heavy eye shadow and black lipstick, to hide her spiky, red-dyed hair under a black bonnet.
The guys plunked their stuff down pretty much in the middle of the graveyard before she read the name on the closest tombstone. Oh, no! Not Lena Lantz’s grave, but it was too late to make them move and no way was she going to explain why. Lena had died almost a year ago, so Hannah had not been here then and had only heard indirectly about the tragedy. It was so hard to believe she’d been away from the Home Valley for nearly three years.
Kevin passed around wineglasses and poured. Clumps of clouds hid the moon, but he pretended to howl at it. They clinked glasses and drank the bloodred wine.
“Vampires got nothing on us tonight,” Mike teased, and pretended to bite Liz on the neck while she screamed and giggled. Tiffany got to her feet, twirling the parasol she always carried, even after dark—what an attention-getter, as if goths needed that. She did a jerky dance around the low, matching stone markers with only the deceased’s name, birth and death dates.
“Stop that. Not funny!” Hannah protested when Tiffany pretended to be digging up Lena’s grave with the closed parasol as a shovel. Kevin got up to cavort with her. Suddenly, it was too much. Hannah pictured herself standing nearby with her family and friends when they buried her grandparents…and here lay a young mother, even though she was the woman Seth dumped her for. Hannah hated herself for bringing her friends here where they didn’t belong—and neither did she.
She stood and yanked the parasol out of Tiffany’s hands and shoved her back from Lena’s grave. Then, ashamed that she’d used violence, she turned her back on her friends as tears spilled down her cheeks. Hands on her hips, lifting her gaze up the hill, she stared at the dark woodlot, trying to get control of herself. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence comes my help? The words ran through her head.
“Chill out, Hannah!” Kevin protested. “We’re just kidding around.”
“Sorry, Tiff,” Hannah told her friend, turning back to face them, “but please don’t even pretend to do that—disturb the dead. We—we shouldn’t be here.”
Hannah sat back down and took a big swig of their bitter wine—another mistake, for she soon felt sick to her stomach and her very soul. She flopped back on the grass, wondering if she was going to throw up, wishing again they were not so near Lena Lantz’s grave as her four friends whispered and stared at her.
Then… Was that sound a clap of thund
er? No, there was no storm. A shot?
The music—the voices—another sharp sound! Tiffany flew back, fell at Hannah’s feet, holding her shoulder, screaming. Everything happened at once. Bang, bang! The gravestone Hannah had been lying near splintered, exploded, peppering her with stone shards. Kevin shouted, “Gun! Someone’s got a g—” before he threw himself back flat on the ground so he wouldn’t be hit. No, he was hit, right in his forehead, where blood bloomed. Tiffany kept screaming as she lay flat on the ground, and Liz and Mike cowered.
On and on went the beat of the music and a new staccato of shots. Ignoring a sharp pain in her wrist, Hannah belly-crawled for her black macramé bag a few feet away. Cell phone. Get help. Tiffany hurt. Kevin staring at the sky. So dark. Loud blackness.
She found her phone, punched in 9-1-1, thinking the shooter would come closer, but no more shots. Pulse pounding. In shock? Still alive, still moving, thinking. Terrified but energized. Her own voice frenzied, answering the calm questions on her phone. “Yes, that’s what I said. Some people have been shot at—shot… Yes, with a gun!… The Oakridge Road Amish Graveyard northwest of Homestead. Send help quick!”
It was only then she saw the left sleeve of her velvet jacket was torn and wet and that her wrist was ripped open and slick with blood.
Seth Lantz couldn’t believe someone was hunting after dark—or had a car misfired…more than once? It was rolling country here; maybe a car would come roaring over the next hill. No, a woman was screaming. A hunting accident? Maybe Englische kids were playing some sick Halloween prank on the Amish because they ignored this worldly holiday. It was the Sabbath, and he wouldn’t even have been hunting today if it didn’t help to keep meat on the table. In this far-reaching recession, big building jobs were hard to come by, and he’d been doing pickup repair work lately.
He reined in his horse as he approached the fenced-in graveyard on Oakridge. His mare, Blaze, tossed her head, upset to be stopped in the middle of nowhere while heading home. That screaming and loud noise: it was from the graveyard.
He giddyupped Blaze to the gate and saw a black car parked there, though this was an all-Amish graahof. His young wife was buried here, as were his grandparents, including his dear grossdaadi Gideon, who had taught him to build barns. He threw Blaze’s reins over a hitching post and, hunched low, went around the outside of the fence instead of through the gate.
Some sort of loud-beat music thudded on. Amid other voices, the woman’s screams had turned to gasping sobs. He put one hand on the wooden fence and vaulted it sideways. No place to really hide in here, no tall monuments, trees or bushes like in English cemeteries, but at least the darkness hid him.
Then, despite the noise, he picked out a voice he thought he knew, the one that sometimes still danced through his dreams. If it was Hannah Esh, who was she talking to in a one-way conversation?
“Yes, in the head. He’s not moving, not breathing.... Pulse. I—I’m not sure.... Two others wounded—losing blood, a lot.... Her shoulder and my wrist.... Yes, just visiting.... I—yes, I said my name is Hannah Esh, and I used to live near here. I’m dizzy—faint.... Yes, thank you, please hurry because Kevin might be dead....”
Seth rose to his full height and strode forward, nearly tripping over a prone body. A scarlet cape was splayed out under him, matching the blood that covered his face and white, ruffled shirt. He saw one woman, her arm and chest soaked in blood—a woman with dark-lined eyes. A horror movie he’d seen once in his rumspringa days darted through his mind: ghouls robbing graves and feeding on corpses.
He saw another woman sobbing, bent over on the ground. And then the one he sought, though he hardly recognized her, hadn’t seen her for more than three years, had only heard what she’d done to herself after what he’d done to her.
“Hannah,” he choked out, “it’s Seth. Are you hurt?”
Tears streaming black lines down her ravaged face, the woman who had once been the love of his life looked up at him. “Seth? Sorry. I—we—I called for help. He’s dead, I think, and I just want to die from pain and shame.”
She looked like something from the depths of hell, as he bent to rip the purple velvet ruffles off the bottom of her long skirt. Using his pocket knife to cut the material, he made a tourniquet for her arm and wrapped her bleeding wrist. He made a pressure pack for the other girl’s shoulder and told the unharmed girl to keep her hand on it, even though it hurt the one who had been shot. He put two fingers to the blood-slick side of the young man’s neck, then flipped up the edge of the blanket over the lifeless body.
Striding back toward the huddled group, he asked the man who had not been shot, “What happened here? Did one of you do this?”
That man’s eyes were wide, his face expressionless. He, too, wore dark-eyed makeup and was dressed fancy, old-fashioned. After a moment, as if it took time for the question to sink in, the man shook his head. “From out there,” he said, pointing up the slant of hill toward the back of the graveyard. “From the dark.”
“Turn that music off,” Seth said. Looking dazed, the man fumbled with the MP3 player, and silence finally descended. Seth hurried up the hill, ran the entire fence line, seeing no one, though someone could be hiding, watching in the woods higher up. It made the hair on the back of his neck prickle.
He heard distant sirens and went back to hold the blood-soaked velvet to Hannah’s wrist. “Why are you all here? What in the world…?” he started to ask, then bit off the rest when he saw that Hannah lay almost on his wife’s grave and that her marker had been blasted to bits.
Hannah’s pain got worse, worse. Cold waves, then sizzling hot in her wrist, hand, arm. Twirling now, floating. Seth could not really be here. Had her thoughts summoned him? Had he come to be with Lena? His handsome face sported a blond beard now. Well, of course it did…married man, even if widowed. And with a child, a girl, Lena’s child, must be two years old now, named Marlena. How it had hurt to hear all that, but she’d asked her friend Sarah to keep her informed, anyway.
What in the world? Seth’s words kept revolving through Hannah’s head. She had gone to the world, left her people. Seth’s fault? Lena’s? Her own? Because of the terrible argument she’d had with her father? Forgive Seth? She could not. She’d jumped the fence, left the Plain People, tried to have a singing career, tried to fit in, but really didn’t.
Bright blinking lights, a siren that went silent. People to help, medics. A little beam of light in each eye. Voices, words flying by she tried to grab. Seth’s voice, then these strangers’ words.
“…Can’t transport him…deceased…bled out. Bullet to the head. Crime scene. Sheriff Freeman should be here soon. He can call the coroner.”
“Wooster, E.R., we’re going to transport two females with gunshot wounds, shoulder, wrist…starting IVs…sending vitals…”
“Did you see what happened here, Mr. Lantz?”
Muffled words in and out of her head…
Lifted onto a gurney, carried, made the pain worse. IV in her arm, wrist bandaged. Two emergency vehicles, bloodred lights piercing the night, but so bright inside where they lifted her, slid her in. The sound of a buggy, a single horse’s hoofbeats coming fast, a voice she knew. Daad! Mamm, too! Was she dreaming?
“We saw the blinking lights from our house. Did a car hit a buggy? Can we help?” her father asked in English.
In their German dialect, her mother said, “Seth, Naomi’s with Marlena, so don’t you worry for that. Ach, what happened here?”
Before Hannah could hear an answer, with great difficulty, she lifted her head to look out past her feet. If she was going to die, to bleed out or never be allowed back here again, she was going to get a glimpse of her parents.
“Bishop Esh,” Seth was saying, “Hannah was here with worldly friends. She’s been hurt—shot, and she’s inside that one, right there.”
Her mother peered into the E.R. vehicle. It had been so long since Hannah had looked into her pale blue eyes. More wrinkles than Hannah re
membered. Mamm looked grieved. Grieved for her.
“Oh, Mamm,” Hannah got out before bursting into tears.
Her father, white beard, intense stare, squinted into the brightness at her, and choked out his childhood nickname for her. “Hanni!”
Mamm climbed right up, came in and bent over her, holding her other hand. “I’m going with her,” she called out to Daad with Seth standing so tall behind him, though Hannah could barely make out their silhouettes in this brightness. “You tell Naomi to take care of things, Joseph.”
“Naomi,” Hannah heard herself repeat her younger sister’s name. “How is…Naomi?”
“Planning her wedding to Joshua Troyer in two weeks,” Mamm said, close to her ear. “You can help her with things when you come home and let that painted scarlet hair grow out to your real blond.” She stroked Hannah’s forehead, brushing her gel-spiked hair back. With her unhurt hand, before she remembered it was tethered by IVs, Hannah seized her mother’s wrist and held tight. If she did die, she thought as she began to slip away, she could at least go grateful: she’d seen Seth and he had helped her; Mamm and Daad at least still claimed her; and sweet Naomi was going to be married…going to be married.
Someone slammed the door and her thoughts went black.
HANNAH SWAM INTO the light, then plunged to darkness again, thinking, Naomi’s going to be married, going to be married.
Hannah had been certain she was going to be married, too. Seth Lantz was the only man she had ever loved. They’d been scholars together at the one-room schoolhouse. He had been her come-calling friend for years. They’d survived their rebellious rumspringa years and had planned to be baptized into the church at the same time. Whether they sang duets of the old hymns or “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” their voices blended beautifully, and their lives would, too. Hannah’s best running-around friends, Sarah and Ella, knew she and Seth were privately promised to each other. And then…and then…