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The Potrero Complex by Amy L Bernstein Banner

The Potrero Complex

by Amy L Bernstein

August 1-31, 2022 Virtual Book Tour

Synopsis:

The Potrero Complex by Amy L Bernstein

Journalist Rags Goldner is battle-scarred and heartbroken after covering a devastating pandemic that rages in Baltimore for five years. She leaves the city with her partner in search of a simpler life in small-town Maryland—only to discover nothing in Canary is simple. A teenager is missing, and it falls to Rags to fight the forces of apathy, paranoia, and creeping fascism to learn the shocking truth about Effie Rutter’s fate—and the fate of thousands like her.

Praise for The Potrero Complex:

“Anyone immersed in the experience and possible outcomes of social change after this pandemic will find The Potrero Complex frightening and hard to put down, presenting thought-provoking insights on the progress and erosion of freedom in the name of safety and social preservation.”

D. Donovan, Sr. Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“Bernstein sets us in a post-pandemic time just the barest bit beyond our own, on the way to a dystopia that feels too frightening and too familiar. A thoughtful, complex, well-executed novel—not a who-done-it? but a much scarier what-in-the-hell-is-happening?”

Robert Kanigel, author of Hearing Homer’s Songand The Man Who Knew Infinity

“An intelligently conceived tale of an unthinkable yet credible future. A novel of dark deeds in dark times.”

Karen S. Bennett, author of Beautiful Horseflesh

“A complicated tale of post-pandemic times in the not-so-distant future, where share cars, data phones, and respies figure into a plot that is scarily believable.”

Avery Caswell, author of Salvation

“Richly textured, with many evocative threads [that] explore the culture of a post-pandemic small town—a town that camouflages its disturbing secrets. A cautionary tale.”

Kathy Mangan, Professor Emeritus, McDaniel College, author of Taproot

“A scarily prescient novel that deftly explores the fraught connections between individuality, society, public policy, and technology.”

Courtney Harler, Harler Literary LLC

“An emotional, haunting tale leaves you with more questions than answers, and that’s a good thing. A memorable and timely reminder that there are no easy solutions when fear and conspiracy feed like hungry beasts and the innocent exist simply for the taking.”

PJ McIlvaine, screenwriter, author of My Horrible Year

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Published by: Regal House Publishing
Publication Date: August 2nd 2022
Number of Pages: 270
ISBN: 1646032500 (ISBN13: 9781646032501)
Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads | Regal House Publishing

Read an excerpt:

MISSING: A teenaged girl with lanky, blonde hair and a sunburst tattoo on her cheek.

The holographic posters, brighter than day itself, lit up the air on every block of Main Street. They were the first thing Rags Goldner noticed as she and her partner, Flint Sten, arrived in Canary.

The girl’s name was Effie and she was sixteen.

Effie’s pixelated image beamed down at Rags like a celebrity unaware that her fifteen minutes of fame were up.

Rags refused to give a damn about the missing girl who, after all, she didn’t know. Nor did she know much about the town, Canary, where the driverless ShareCar she and Flint had leased for their move had brought them. But missing kids make news, and as Canary’s newly imported one-and-only newspaper editor, Rags knew she’d be expected to do something about it. Which meant she wouldn’t control the news hole on day one. Which meant all kinds of people would come at her to do one thing or another.

Rags hadn’t been in town five minutes and already she could tell things were going to get complicated—and complicated was the very thing she and Flint were trying to get away from. Damn all the politicians and peacekeepers and their gatekeeping bullshit, she thought.

As the car made a final turn toward its programmed destination, Rags’s twitch flared up: the muscles in her upper left cheek and the outer corner of her left eye performed an uncontrolled little dance. “Ah, crap,” she said. “Turning Main Street into Times Square won’t help them find the girl. What a waste. And all that light pollution.” She stretched her face, willing the twitch to stop.

Flint held up his dataphone and aimed it at one of the digital posters as they cruised by. The static image of Effie sprang into augmented-reality motion: she turned her head, blinked, and laughed.

“Stop doing that, Flint,” Rags said. “Just don’t.” No way that girl, out there somewhere, is smiling.

“Don’t get spun up so fast.” Flint looked over at her for the first time in hours. Their connection was like a faulty wire, fritzing on and off. “Give yourself some room to ramp up,” he said, putting his hand on top of her head in a familiar gesture: simmer down. It helped. The twitching nearly stopped. “We haven’t even come to a full stop yet. Pace yourself.”

“Well, look,” Rags said. “They’ve plastered her face everywhere. Probably been like that for weeks.”

“You think the story about this girl has gone cold, right?” Flint said. “What do you call that?”

“Beat up. I’m guessing the story’s beat up. The first thing I’m going to hear is that they want me to flog it some more. Remind me, why are we doing this?”

“Let’s not,” Flint said, looking back down at his screen. “Anyway, it was your idea.”

As the ShareCar rolled noiselessly down Main Street, Rags saw just one person hanging around the deserted downtown: a woman standing on a corner who appeared to be waiting. For what? Rags wondered. As they slowly passed by, Rags caught a dead look in the woman’s eyes. A block further on, Rags watched a man and a woman, both in shabby coats, as they appeared to argue, their faces contorted with anger. The man handed the woman a bicycle pump. She handed him in return a loaf of bread. What kind of town is this?

The ShareCar parked curbside at 326 Main Street. For well over a century, the little brick building, sandwiched between other little brick buildings, had housed the Canary Courant. A chatty little newspaper, the Courant, as Rags knew from her research, printed anything and everything within the bounds of what people once called ‘common decency’ about the town of Canary, a tiny hamlet in the northwestern corner of Maryland, not far from the Pennsylvania border. The kind of town that flew under the radar for anyone who did not live there.

The fact that the Canary Courant was still a going concern in 2030 was astounding, even mysterious, and a key reason that Rags was here. Though perhaps not the only reason. The paper’s survival was even more of a puzzle when one considered that the town itself, which had been shriveling for decades, was now skeletal. The pandemic, which everybody called The Big One, had raged for nearly five years. It hollowed out an already hollowed out place, killing off over two-thirds of the elderly population living out their days in Canary. Those folks never knew what hit them—their dreams of slipping into gracious idleness on their front-porch rockers, eating breakfast on the cheap at the town diner, destroyed in an agony of fever and blood.

On Canary’s rural outskirts, on their way into town, Rags had seen the crematorium, a hulking cinderblock rectangle erected for one single purpose: to incinerate the infected dead into piles of decontaminated black ash. She was sure Flint missed it— though it was very hard to miss, rising up from a flat expanse of undeveloped land—just as he’d missed seeing Effie until she pointed it out. Like I’m his goddamn tour guide.

Now, nearly two years after The Big One had been officially declared over, Rags suspected that Canary’s survivors were like a mouth full of missing teeth—families broken by a plague that took not merely the elderly but also children and their parents with a seemingly vicious and terrifyingly random determination. With an emphasis on random. Survivors everywhere were known as “Luckies,” though Rags only ever used that term in its most ironic sense.

And yet, even in a near ghost town like Canary, in a still-brittle economy, in a world where print media was a rare novelty, the ink-on-paper edition of the Canary Courant lived on, as quirky and creaky as Miss Havisham in the attic, each folded issue tossed at sunrise every Wednesday and every other Sunday into doorways and onto walkways by a young father and son living on gig income.

Rags deliberately suppressed her own journalistic instincts when it came to figuring out how this newspaper managed to keep going years past its natural expiration date. Turning a blind eye to its improbable existence was both expedient and convenient for her. She knew that income from print ads—about as old-fashioned as you could get—was the sole reason the paper was able to keep going. It surely wasn’t due to subscription revenue. But she didn’t know why anyone would buy print ads in a tiny newspaper serving a dying community in a digital world. There’d be time, she figured, to get to the bottom of that.

The main thing was that this improbable job as the Canary Courant’s editor came her way at a time when she and Flint were looking for an escape hatch that would take them away from the exhausting hysteria and suffocating autocracy that made post-pandemic, big-city living unbearable in countless ways. They came to Canary in search of a simpler life—though Rags, if pressed, could not readily have defined what that would look like. Freedom from fear? Freedom to forget? She kept these notions to herself because she did not think Flint would admit to any of it—let alone acknowledge the possibility.

Rags had worried before they arrived that an out-of-the-way place like Canary might have borne an influx of people seeking—or imagining—that this place would prove to be some kind of oasis. But from the little she’d seen so far, there was nothing oasis-like about this town. The garish and intrusive billboards of the missing Effie radiated an anxious thrum, nothing like a small-town welcome.

Rags and Flint left the ShareCar with programmed instructions to continue on and wait for them at the house they were renting a few blocks from Canary’s minuscule town center. The entire move, including Rags’s new job, had been planned remotely, so this was their first time actually in Canary. In the grand scheme of things, given the terrifying and unpredictable upheavals they’d already lived through, moving hundreds of miles away to a new place sight unseen didn’t feel at all risky.

From the outside, the newspaper office mimicked the virtual reality images Rags had already seen online. A plate-glass window with old-fashioned gold lettering rimmed in black spelled out Canary Courant. Since 1910. Rags doubted there was anything very “current” about it; the very name advertised its status as a relic with a pretentious echo of French. Rags wondered who else knew that courant in French had more than one meaning— not just “current” but also “ordinary.” Someone must have had the lettering on the window repainted many times over the years—and who even knew how to do that sort of thing, anymore?—but this was a line item Rags wasn’t going to worry about. She was here on purpose yet still felt faintly ridiculous about the whole thing.

All this ye-oldy feel-good yester-year crap, she thought. Some kind of amusement park for blinkered folks. A post-apocalyptic Disneyworld? Or maybe Westworld—a place where you could trick yourself into relaxing, just for a moment.

Yet here she was, along with her IT-guru partner Flint, a software developer steeped in AI arcana, who was definitely not the ye-oldy type. Fitting in, for both of them, was beside the point. Rags figured they’d both settle for some kind of new equilibrium. She waved her dataphone in front of the digi-lock and the heavy front door swung open. The newspaper office was a step up from the threshold because, Rags learned later, the floor had been reinforced a century ago to support the heavy metal printing presses that used to take up a third of the space with their loud, clackety racket.

As Rags entered the square-shaped newsroom, the old floor creaking, a woman likely more than twice Rags’s age—a surprise in and of itself, in this day and age—stood up quickly from a battered wooden desk, her chair scraping against the floor. Rags knew only her first name, Merry. She was tall with broad shoulders, like a swimmer, dressed in loose-fitting wrinkled clothes, her hair silver-gray and so long it touched her buttocks.

“You’re here,” Merry said with a slightly accusatory edge that did not escape Rag’s notice, as though she’d been doing something she shouldn’t.

“Yup,” Rags said as she scanned the room. She made a quick mental list of all the things she intended to change. Rags hated clutter the way healthy people hate cancer: it was offensive, invasive, and should be eliminated quickly and surgically. The heavy furniture would have to go, and the old-fashioned filing cabinets, and the shelf of tacky journalism awards—the fake-gold winged angels, the stupid quill pens mounted on blocks of glass. Rags guessed that most if not all of the people who’d won those awards were long dead, one way or another. She’d call someone as soon as possible to haul all this crap away. The place looked like a mausoleum, for chrissakes. And that told her all she needed to know about Merry, who radiated the territorial energy of a fox guarding its cubs.

“I’ve got tomorrow’s front page made up on screen,” Merry said, standing rigidly by her desk. “I suppose you want to see it.” Rags saw Flint make a tiny, familiar gesture: flicking on his ear discs (he’d insisted on upgrading from old-school earbuds), so he could drown out the voices around him and listen to the soundtrack of his choice. With this personal sound cushion enveloping him, Flint glided around the room like a restless ghost, ignoring the two women, fingering every piece of tech there was, and there wasn’t much. Rags turned her attention to Merry—watching her watching Flint, to see how much this invasion of Merry’s claimed space unsettled her. Rags didn’t bother to introduce them, as Flint wasn’t likely to visit the newsroom again.

“Is it all about the missing girl?” Rags asked.

“Is there another big story in town I’ve missed?” Merry asked, her blue-gray eyes staring icily at Rags. “Because if so, be my guest. You’ve got two whole hours until we send the file to the printers.” Merry stepped away from her desk, as if inviting Rags to step in. Rags read the gesture as it was intended: What the fuck do you know?

Well, this wasn’t going to be pretty. In that moment, Rags had to admit to herself that while she thought she longed to live in a place where she could pursue small stories of no consequence, instead of big ones that traded in life and death, she was never going to check her personality at the door. She wouldn’t look for trouble, but she wouldn’t back away from a fight, either, especially if she knew going into it that she had the upper hand. She was editor-in-chief, after all, not Merry—a holdover from a previous regime with an ill-defined job, as far as Rags knew.

Rags sat down at a battered desk nearly identical to Merry’s and began opening drawers, which contained random bits of long-obsolete office junk: Post-It notes, ballpoint pens, paperclips, a box of peppermint Tic-Tacs. Rags popped a Tic-Tac in her mouth and bit down hard; it was stale and tasteless.

“That’s Freddy’s desk,” Merry said. “You mean it was,” Rags said.

“For a long time, yeah. He was a damn good copy editor.

Nothing got past Freddy. That’s what everybody said.”

“Except The Big One, I’m guessing,” Rags said, without an ounce of sympathy. “Snuck right up on him.”

“Yeah, it did,” Merry said flatly, turning back to her screen.

“So what’s your plan, Polly?”

“Don’t call me Polly. Call me Rags.”

“I was told the new editor-in-chief is named Polly,” Merry said, as if trying to catch Rags in a lie. “I wasn’t told anything about somebody named Rags.”

“Yet here I am,” Rags said, rising from Freddy’s chair. She stood behind Merry and looked at the screen. “How many stories on this girl, Effie, have you run this month, Merry?”

“We try to post something every week.” “Why?” Rags asked.

“Why? Because we’re trying to flush out new leads, Pol—

Rags.”

“Are there any?” Rags asked, scrolling around the digital home page of the Courant. Merry hovered over her, as though she feared Rags would break something.

“Not in over a week,” Merry said.

“So it’s a beat-up story but you keep milking it for, what, sympathy?”

“No!” Merry said, turning red. “You don’t have any children, do you? Because if you did, you’d—”

“Bury it,” Rags said.

“You want me to bury the lead story? And replace it with what?” Merry’s cheeks flushed. She bit her lower lip. Rags noted how little it would take to get her really and truly riled up.

By this point, Flint had found an ancient PC from 2010 sitting on a dusty windowsill and he was taking it apart, down to the motherboard and its old components. Rags knew he was going to wait her out, and this would keep him happily occupied until she was good and ready to leave. He was patient in this type of situation, which Rags appreciated; his tolerance of her own need to press on, push hard, was essential to balancing them out. Maybe here, finally, she’d find a way to press less, though the situation was not promising in that respect.

Rags touched Merry’s screen to scroll through the pages of the main news well. It was only a couple of pages long before you hit sports, the crossword (unkillable), and then those unaccountably robust print ads listing everything from flying lessons to bizarre personals. She told Merry to make the lead a story she’d spotted about a leaking septic tank and to bury the Effie story right before the sports section. The need for the switch was obvious. The Effie story had had its day, and anything that remotely threatened public health, like a septic tank problem, belonged well above the fold. It was a thin fold, in any case, despite the ads.

“And when the next kid goes missing, you want us to bury

that too?” Merry asked.

“What do you mean, the next kid?” Rags asked. “It’s going to happen,” Merry said, biting her lip. “You don’t know that.”

“You don’t know anything,” Merry said.

“Then tell me, Merry. Tell me what I don’t know.”

Rags could see Merry’s chest rising and falling, as if she was struggling to hold something in. But Merry said nothing.

“Switch the stories,” Rags said. There was no way she’d back down and let Merry have her way. And besides, if there was nothing new to report on the Effie case, then there really wasn’t a compelling reason to give the story the banner headline for the week. Rags had no qualms about her decision. “Flint, let’s go find our new home.”

Flint had his head deep inside the guts of the old PC he’d found. She called to him again. He straightened up, dusted off his hands, and followed Rags out without a word to Merry, leaving the deconstructed computer in bits and pieces on the desk.

***

Excerpt from The Potrero Complex by Amy L Bernstein. Copyright 2022 by Amy L Bernstein. Reproduced with permission from Amy L Bernstein. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Amy L Bernstein

Amy L. Bernstein writes stories that let readers feel while making them think. Her novels include The Potrero Complex, The Nighthawkers, Dreams of Song Times, and Fran, The Second Time Around. Amy is an award-winning journalist, speechwriter, playwright, and certified nonfiction book coach. When not glued to a screen, she loves listening to jazz and classical music, drinking wine with friends, and exploring Baltimore’s glorious neighborhoods, which inspire her fiction.

Catch Up With Amy L Bernstein:
AmyWrites.live
Goodreads
BookBub – @Amy5705
Instagram – @amylbernstein
Twitter – @amylbernstein
Facebook – @AmyLBernsteinAuthor
TikTok – @amylbernsteinauthor

 

 

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Wolf Bog by Leslie Wheeler Banner

Wolf Bog

by Leslie Wheeler

July 1-31, 2022 Virtual Book Tour

Synopsis:

Wolf Bog by Leslie Wheeler

Praise for Wolf Bog:

“Wheeler’s deep sense of place—the Berkshires—illuminates a deftly woven plot and a quirky cast of characters that will keep you glued to the pages until the last stunning revelation. It’s always a pleasure to be in the hands of a pro.”

Kate Flora, Edgar and Anthony nominated author

“When a long-lost teenager turns up dead, a cold case turns into hot murder. A deliciously intriguing Berkshire mystery.”

Sarah Smith, Agatha Award-winning author
of The Vanished Child and Crimes and Survivors

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery/Amateur Sleuth/Suspense
Published by: Encircle Publishing
Publication Date: July 6, 2022
Number of Pages: 336
ISBN: 164599385X (ISBN-13: 978-1645993858)
Series: A Berkshire Hilltown Mystery, #3
Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Read an excerpt:

Charlotte’s brow furrowed as she stared at the bog. “There’s something down there. A dead animal or…?” She raised her binoculars to get a better look.

“Where?” Wally asked. She pointed to a spot on the peat at the edge of the water. Wally had barely lifted his binoculars when Charlotte cried, “Oh, my God, it’s a body!” And took off toward it.

“No, don’t go there!” Wally grabbed at her, but she eluded him. When Charlotte was almost to the body−−if that’s what it was−−she began to sink into the bog. She waved her arms and twisted her legs, trying desperately to get out, but her struggles only made her sink deeper.

Kathryn’s heart seized. They had to rescue Charlotte, but how without getting stuck themselves? Brushing past Wally, Steve started down the slope. Wally caught him, pulled him back, and handed him over to Hal Phelps. “You stay put. Everyone else, too. I’ve had experience hiking around this bog, and I think I can get her out. Stop struggling and try to keep calm,” he called down to Charlotte. “Help is on the way.”

Wally made his way carefully to where Charlotte stood, caught in the mire. He tested each step before putting his full weight on it, backtracking when he deemed the ground too soft. When he was a few yards away, he stopped.

“This is as far as I can safely come,” he told Charlotte. He extended his hiking pole and she grabbed it. Then, on his instructions, she slowly and with great effort lifted first one leg, then the other out of the muck and onto the ground behind her. Wally guided her back to the others, following the same zigzag pattern he’d made when descending. Charlotte went with him reluctantly. She kept glancing back over her shoulder at what she’d seen at the water’s edge.

Kathryn trained her binoculars on that spot. Gradually an image came into focus. A body was embedded in the peat. The skin was a dark, reddish brown, but otherwise, it was perfectly preserved. Bile rose in her throat.

Charlotte moved close to Kathryn. “You see him, don’t you?” Her face was white, her eyes wide and staring.

“See who?” Wally demanded.

“Denny,” Charlotte said. “You must’ve seen him, too.”

“I saw something that appears to be a body, but–” Wally said.

“So there really is a dead person down there?” Betty asked.

“It looks that way,” Wally said grimly. “But let’s not panic. I’m going to try to reach Chief Lapsley, though I doubt I’ll get reception here. We’ll probably have to leave the area before I can.”

“We can’t just leave Denny here to die,” Charlotte wailed.

“Charlotte,” Wally said with a pained expression, “whoever is down there is already dead.”

She flinched, as if he’d slapped her across the face. “No! I’m telling you Denny’s alive.” She glared at him, then her defiant expression changed to one of uncertainty. “Dead or alive, I’m to blame. I’m staying here with him.”

***

Excerpt from Wolf Bog by Leslie Wheeler. Copyright 2022 by Leslie Wheeler. Reproduced with permission from Leslie Wheeler. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Leslie Wheeler

An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written two mystery series. Her Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries launched with Rattlesnake Hill and continue with Shuntoll Road and Wolf Bog. Her Miranda Lewis Living History Mysteries debuted with Murder at Plimoth Plantation and continue with Murder at Gettysburg and Murder at Spouters Point. Her mystery short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Leslie is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of the New England Crime Bake Committee. She divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Berkshires, where she writes in a house overlooking a pond.

Catch Up With Leslie:
www.LeslieWheeler.com
Goodreads
BookBub – @lesliewheeler1
Twitter – @Leslie_Wheeler
Facebook – @LeslieWheelerAuthor

 

 

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Among the Innocent

by Mary Alford

July 1-31, 2022 Virtual Book Tour

Synopsis:

Among the Innocent by Mary Alford

When Leah Miller’s entire Amish family was murdered ten years ago, the person believed responsible took his own life. Since then, Leah left the Amish and joined the police force. Now, after another Amish woman is found murdered with the same MO, it becomes clear that the wrong man may have been blamed for her family’s deaths.

As Leah and the new police chief, Dalton Cooper, work long hours struggling to fit the pieces together in order to catch the killer, they can’t help but grow closer. When secrets from both of their pasts begin to surface, an unexpected connection between them is revealed. But this is only the beginning. Could it be that the former police chief framed an innocent man to keep the biggest secret of all buried? And what will it mean for Leah–and Dalton–when the full truth comes to light?

USA Today bestselling author Mary Alford keeps you guessing as two determined souls plumb the dark depths of the past in order to forge a brighter future–together.

“Among the Innocent is no buggy ride BUT A RACE TO STOP A KILLER”
– DiAnn Mills, bestselling and award-winning author

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery
Published by: Fleming H. Revell Company
Publication Date: June 7th 2022
Number of Pages: 297
ISBN: 0800740262 (ISBN13: 9780800740269)
Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Christianbook.com | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

Prologue

He drove by the house again. The second time today. All because of her.

The sight of his car rolling down the dirt road in front of her isolated farm filled Beth Zook with thoughts not proper for an Amish girl. A cloud of dust followed the car, instantly covering the freshly washed sheet she’d hung out to dry minutes earlier. Despite the sweltering July heat, he’d put down the window. Was it because he wanted her to see him as he eased by?

He waved when he saw her looking, and she reacted like a moth drawn to a flame. Beth had never met anyone so unpredictable before. One minute he teased, the next his eyes smoldered with such intensity that it frightened her.

Looking at his handsome face sent the butterflies in her stomach scattering. A flash of a smile revealed white teeth, perfect like everything else about him.

Beth waved back, then glanced over her shoulder. What would Mamm and her sister say if they noticed? She covered her mouth to suppress the giggle. She’d been giggling a lot lately.

Too soon . . .

Her head warned it was too soon for these emotions, yet

her heart threatened to explode from her chest each time they were together.

Heat flooded her cheeks as she recalled his kisses from the night before. She’d been so afraid her parents would wake and hear her slipping out of her bedroom window. A sense of fear and adventure had followed her each step of the way as she’d crossed the yard in the pitch-black dark of night to the old Miller barn where he’d waited for her.

At first, she’d been afraid to go there after what had happened all those years ago. Four members of the Miller family had been found dead inside that barn. Leah Miller, the oldest daughter, was the only survivor. Whispers around the community about the unspeakable evil that had transpired that night could still be heard.

When Beth told her suitor about the murders, his eyes gleamed with excitement. While he seemed to enjoy envisioning what had happened back then, the barn gave Beth the creeps. But she kept that to herself because he made her feel special. Beautiful. Important. For the first time in her life, she longed for things not found among the Plain people of St. Ignatius. A life of pretty things. Like he promised.

Last night when they’d met, he’d asked her to run away with him. Her heart had overflowed with eagerness until reality tamped down her happiness, and Beth realized she wasn’t ready to leave her home. Her family. While she remained torn between staying Amish forever and leaving with him, he’d told her he would drive by her house every day until she said yes. Part of her was thrilled—intrigued at the consuming way he watched her. The other part was scared. Beth did not understand his almost feral wildness.

She took the dust-covered sheet down and reached for the next one, pinning it to the clothesline with unsteady hands. When Mamm wasn’t watching, she’d sneak inside and rewash the soiled one. That way there wouldn’t be questions to answer. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the car slowing.

Brake lights flashed. She picked up the next sheet and hung it. When he honked, she whirled toward the sound while praying the family wouldn’t come to investigate. He slid out and leaned against the rotting fence post near the Miller property. Many times, Beth wished she could be as daring. He did not live by the same rules as the Amish. In his world, anything was possible. She still couldn’t imagine why he wanted her. A man so handsome could have his choice of any girl, Englisch or Plain. Why her?

When he realized he had her attention, he motioned her over. Beth felt obliged to shake her head, though she’d thought about him throughout the day. Was eager to see him again. She anticipated his kisses with every beat of her heart.

She touched her hands to her burning cheeks. Such thoughts were not gut, but she couldn’t help how she felt. With him, Beth felt truly alive. The hardest part was she had no one with whom to share how she felt. Her friend Eva listened, but Beth sensed she might be jealous.

She’d almost told her older sister Colette about him last Saturday night before the biweekly church service, but she’d lost her nerve. Married and ten years older, Colette had three kinner of her own.

Besides, her sister was always so serious. She would not understand this reckless feeling.

Until her sixteenth birthday, Beth hadn’t either. She’d loved everything about the Amish way of life. Then, she’d started her rumspringa and had gotten a taste of the freedom of the Englischer world. She liked it. Before him, she’d planned to join the church and eventually marry Caleb Wagler, but not before enjoying every minute of her running around. Now, Beth was not sure she wanted to spend the rest of her life in St. Ignatius, living on a farm like her sister with a house full of kinner pulling on her apron. He offered her excitement. Adventure. Love. How could she not accept those gifts?

She hung the last of the sheets and picked her way across the patches of grass in the bare yard to where he stood. The glint in his eyes as he watched her wasn’t anything like the way Caleb looked at her.

Beth stopped a few feet away. With the fence separating them, she snuck a peek over her shoulder. “You should not be here.” She tried to sound stern but failed miserably.

Without warning, he jumped the fence. Beth giggled as he grabbed her hands and tugged her closer. “Yes, I should. You belong to me, Beth Zook.”

Her heart skipped a beat at his proclamation, and she couldn’t help imagining what their life together would be like.

Foolishness, Beth. You waste the day with all your imprudent thoughts, she could almost hear Colette saying.

“Mamm will notice I’m gone soon. You must leave now.” She tried to tug her wrists free, but he tightened his grip to the point of pain, and a flash of anger glittered in those deep dark eyes. “You are hurting me,” she murmured, tears forming. This was a side of him she hadn’t seen before. A cruel side she didn’t much like.

He let her go. Smiled. Everything became right again with the curve of his lips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, Beth.” The gentleness in his tone soothed her worries away. “You’re just so pretty.”

“You are such a flatterer.” She playfully swatted at his arm but secretly loved the way he spoke.

He leaned close and planted a kiss on her lips right there in broad daylight. Her legs turned to gelatin. A sigh escaped as warmth coursed through her limbs. After another stolen kiss, he released her.

“It’s true. Don’t be coy. You know you’re pretty.” His gaze skirted past her to the house. “And you deserve more than this life. Come away with me now.”

More than anything she wanted to, but when she thought about her mamm’s pained reaction to her middle daughter forsaking their faith, she couldn’t do it. “I told you, I cannot run away with you. And I have to go back to my chores.” She turned. Then, emboldened by his claims, she swung around, framed his face with her hands, and kissed him earnestly.

He chuckled at her brazenness. He snatched her hand once more. Though she secretly relished his desire to be with her so badly, she pretended differently. “Please, you must let me go. Mamm will see.”

“I don’t care.” A second passed before he finally relented. “Only if you promise to meet me tonight at our place.”

The eagerness in his eyes sent a shiver through her body. It made her hesitate. This was the man she adored. Surely, there was nothing to fear.

“I have something special planned for you,” he added with a cajoling smile when she wavered. “Something you’ll like.”

“If I can,” she whispered and pulled her hand free. They both knew she’d be there. As she ran across the scorching earth, Beth peered over her shoulder. He still stood next to the fence, grinning when he noticed her looking. She stumbled over the uneven ground. Heard him laughing.

As she stepped up on the porch, the front door opened and Mamm stood in the doorway, hands on hips. Her wrinkled brow furrowed at her daughter’s labored breathing.

Komm, help your sister prepare supper.” Her mother studied Beth with narrowed eyes. Took in her flushed face. Her nervous hands. Had Mamm ever felt this way about Daed?

“Who is that out on the road?”

Beth struggled to keep her face blank. “Someone passing by, I suppose.” With one final glance his way and a secret smile, she hurried to go inside.

Her mother cast another disapproving stare at the car as Beth entered the house.

“I have something special planned for you.”

It was hard to keep the excitement to herself. She couldn’t wait to see the mysterious surprise he had in store.

ONE

Heat rose in waves off the blacktop where Leah Miller had parked her police cruiser. Recent statistics showed that the crime rate in St. Ignatius, Montana, was at an all-time low. Today, Leah shot radar at the occasional passing vehicle to occupy her shift until something more challenging came along.

Leah looped her raven hair into a bun at the nape of her neck, seeking relief from the record-breaking hot spell the county was suffering through this July. Her uniform clung uncomfortably to her skin while her thoughts wandered to the things she planned to do when her shift ended. She’d need to check in on Kitty before heading over to have dinner with Marge.

A few years back, Leah had bought her tiny house on Pope Lane. It had taken all her savings, but it was worth it because it represented a huge milestone: putting down roots for the first time since that horrific night. She’d even brought home the stray tabby cat that hung out behind the police station. They were still adjusting to each other, since Kitty had been on her own for a while. In the six months Kitty had lived at Leah’s house, Kitty mostly stayed in the laundry room except at night, when she preferred the foot of Leah’s bed.

Since Chief Ellis Petri’s death, Leah had been spending as much time as she could with her adoptive mother, Marge. Losing Ellis had been hard on both of them, but Marge had been struggling with health issues as well.

Marge and Ellis Petri had been Leah’s rock since that night ten years ago when her world changed forever. Several years earlier, Marge and Leah’s mother had struck up an unlikely friendship, and Marge had become a frequent visitor at Leah’s home. Sometimes Ellis came along. After what happened, Leah had left the Amish community, despite her neighbors offering to take her in. To survive, she’d had to let that part of her life go. Ellis and Marge had taken her in. They’d become her world.

And now Ellis was gone.

Let it go. The past is written and done, but you’re not.

In the distance, dark clouds gathered over the Mission Mountains. A storm was on its way. Despite the sweltering heat, a cold shiver sped down Leah’s spine. Something bad was approaching. She could feel it moving in.

It’s just the time of year, she told herself. The anniversary of what happened always churned up stuff.

She’d seen plenty of terrible things in her four years on the force. Yet, at sixteen, Leah had become personally acquainted with the devastating effects tragedy had on the living. Her grief had wrapped its spindly limbs around her and took up residence in her soul. That night in the barn—the things she’d witnessed—had imprinted itself in her DNA.

The woman staring back in the rearview mirror was an older version of that frightened Amish girl whose life had changed forever with a flick of a knife. The scar on her neck was a constant reminder of how close to death she’d come and of those who hadn’t been so lucky.

Leah dragged in a deep breath and dropped her eyes from the mirror. Better to keep that door closed. Too many bad things hid behind it. For Marge’s sake, she needed to stay strong.

Leah shoved her dark aviator sunglasses into place like a defensive shield against the world. She focused on the upcoming car cresting the hilltop.

“Leah? Are you there?” Dispatcher Sugar Wallace’s voice came through the police radio, immediately drawing Leah’s attention from the approaching vehicle.

“Yes, Sugar, I’m here. What’s up?” The car spotted Leah and crawled past. Its speed registered twenty on the radar’s screen. “Henry needs your help on a call out in the Amish community.”

Leah’s stomach knotted.

“Josiah Zook called from the Mission General Store. He said his daughter Beth is missing.”

At the mention of her former neighbor, Josiah Zook, Leah was immediately transported back to that barn again. Watching as a psychopath slaughtered her entire family.

Their deaths came at the hands of a masked stranger who had entered their house, tied everyone up, and forced Mamm and Daed, her sister Ruth, and brother Elijah into the barn. Then, he’d systematically slit each of their throats in front of Leah, saving her for last. She remembered him standing over her. His hot breath whispering against her ear, “You’ll always belong to me.” Even now, the words had the power to reduce her to that terrified young girl, so certain she’d die along with her family.

“Leah? Did you hear me?” Sugar repeated.

With her heart racing, Leah struggled for calm and failed. “Sorry, yes. I know the family.” She’d been friends with Josiah’s older daughter, Colette. “I’ll head over and assist.”

“Thanks, Leah. Let’s hope the girl shows up soon. I don’t want to think about something bad happening to one of those innocent people.”

Sugar’s words fell like knives in her heart. The Amish were peaceful, God-fearing folks. Violence in the community was a rare thing, yet not unheard of. Leah was living proof. Former police chief Ellis Petri had worked hard to help her achieve closure, yet the suspected killer’s end had been just as messed up as his heinous massacre of her family. Even to this day, Leah wondered if the wrong man had died in that fire.

She whipped the cruiser out onto the road and headed toward the Amish community.

The only time she went back there was on a call, and on those occasions, she did her best to avoid her family’s homestead. Yet there would be no avoiding it today. The Zook home was a stone’s throw from where she’d grown up.

Leah couldn’t imagine what her life would have been like without Ellis and Marge. They’d become her entire world. Marge would hold her and assure her everything was going to be okay when Leah woke up in the middle of the night screaming after reliving the nightmare. Yet despite Marge’s tender loving care, it was Ellis whom Leah chose to be like. She’d joined the St. Ignatius Police Department after college because she wanted to do good for people, like Ellis.

The sparse community spread out before her. A horse and buggy passed her on the road heading to town. The Amish man waved. Leah returned his greeting. Rolling hayfields spread out toward the stunning vistas of the Mission Mountains. Overwhelming memories came pouring from her heart. Most of them good. All contaminated by that day.

Leah slowed her speed out of respect for the buggy and others that might be traveling the road. A familiar darkness pressed in. Her breaths came quick. Straight ahead, her former house appeared through the haze of summer.

Leah couldn’t take her eyes off the old place. She’d lived there until a few months after her sixteenth birthday. In her head the house was as she’d left it that night. Yet the harsh reality was it had sat vacant all those years. Its white paint had faded to gray and was peeling from too many brutal Montana winters. The barn, some distance from the house, hovered over the place like some ancient gargoyle and just as frightening.

A lump formed in her throat that she couldn’t swallow. Tears scalded her eyes. Leah’s grip tightened on the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. She wouldn’t cry. Hadn’t since the funeral. She’d built a wall of stone around her heart no person, including Ellis and Marge, had been able to fully penetrate. It was best that way. Her past had taught her stones could break apart and thrash her heart to pieces at a second’s notice.

She shifted her attention to the Zook farm and let the past return to its tenuous resting place.

Officer Henry Landry’s patrol vehicle was parked in front of the house beside a second cruiser. As soon as Leah turned onto the drive, another vehicle captured her attention. A familiar one. Ellis’s old police SUV. A glaring reminder of more change coming.

A new chief was scheduled to take over the helm of the St. Ignatius Police Department, though no one expected him so soon. Why was Chief Cooper on this call? She leaned forward and peered through the dusty windshield at the vehicles while resisting the desire to call Sugar for answers.

The small police department was still reeling from the intentional shooting of one of their own. Chief Ellis Petri had died on a deserted stretch of mountain road almost a year earlier to the date from a point-blank gunshot wound. With no leads, Ellis’s case was dangerously close to turning cold.

Now, someone else would sit at his desk. Drive his SUV. Take his place. Leah did her best to quell her resentment. It was bad enough they’d lost Ellis in such a violent way. That he could be replaced so easily was like twisting the knife in the wound. Henry had obviously been watching for her. He stepped out onto the porch as Leah pulled up alongside his patrol car. By the time she got out, Henry was standing by her door with a flustered expression on his face. Leah often wondered if a good strong wind might blow the Barney Fife–thin officer away. “Boy, am I glad to see you. They’ve been asking for you.”

Henry pointed to the house and lowered his voice. “He’s in there too.” He wiped sweat from his forehead and cast a nervous glance back to the Zook home.

“Why’s he here anyway? I thought Cooper wasn’t coming in until later in the week.” Leah didn’t even bother to hide her disapproval.

Henry shrugged. “He was at the station when I arrived. He heard the call come in.”

“What’s he like?” The question was out before she could stop it. Gossiping about the new chief was not her finest moment. “Kind of intense,” Henry said with the same amount of anxiety that had consumed Leah since the announcement came through from the mayor. “Sam sure was mad when he didn’t get the job, though you’re the one who’s practically run the force since Ellis passed. I’d hoped you’d take over as chief.”

Henry had been on the job only a few years and had made his fair share of rookie mistakes, but Leah had liked him from the beginning and had done her best to help him whenever possible. For that, Henry seemed determined to put her on a pedestal.

“I appreciate the compliment, but I’m just an officer like you. We’ll leave the big decisions to someone with a higher pay grade than us.”

“Yeah, right,” Henry confirmed with a nod. “We’d better get inside. I can’t explain it, Leah, but I have a bad feeling about this.”

Did he mean the case or the new chief? With those uneasy words hanging between them, Leah followed Henry into the simple Amish home that belonged to people she’d once loved like a second family.

As Leah stepped foot inside the living room, it was like going back to her youth. The simple furnishings hadn’t changed much. Same threadbare sofa. Same two functional rockers near the woodstove. A chest in the corner held the quilts Miriam and her daughters had crafted. Hooks adorned the walls near the door for coats and lanterns. A scenic calendar on one wall was turned to the current month. Behind the sofa, a framed picture of the Ten Commandments had been there for as long as Leah could remember.

Back then, she and Colette Zook had done everything together. They talked about what their lives might be like in the future. A husband. A houseful of kids. Their enduring friendship foremost in every part of their lives.

Regret seeped into Leah’s heart. She’d left the community and Colette and never looked back, even though her dear friend had tried to reach out to her many times. It wasn’t right, the way she’d cut Colette out of her life. In her defense, at the time it seemed like the only way to keep from losing her mind.

“Leah, oh Leah!” Miriam Zook spotted her and immediately pushed to her feet. “I am so glad you came.” Miriam sobbed inconsolably. “Our Beth is missing. Josiah checked the entire property, but there’s no sign of her. We’re afraid something has happened.” The show of emotion was out of character for the woman, who rarely expressed her feelings.

Leah patted Miriam’s arm. “We’re going to do everything we can to find your daughter and bring her home to you.” She did her best to comfort Miriam while praying her words wouldn’t come back to haunt her.

Miriam seemed to latch on to what Leah had said as if it were a lifeline. Her dark, red-rimmed eyes searched Leah’s face. She sniffed twice and squared her shoulders.

Leah guided the woman back to the sofa, where she sank beside her husband and a young girl who appeared to be around eight. The Zooks had another child. She hadn’t realized the family had expanded. Her last contact with the family had been at the funeral.

“This is our daughter Katie.” Josiah made the introductions. Katie was a younger version of Colette. Same silver-blond hair and deep blue eyes.

Josiah placed his arm around his weeping wife. He’d aged in the ten years since Leah had last seen him. The Amish way of life was not an easy one. His hair, now almost entirely white, matched his neatly trimmed beard. The worry on his face drove home the reason they were all here. Josiah was an honest, trusting man who kept his faith in Gott and his attention on hard work. Worry wasn’t part of his subsistence. Until now.

Another man who had been seated in a rocker near the woodstove had risen when Leah entered the room. Leah’s attention latched on to the new man in charge as he came her way. Tall and fit, he was probably former military if the way he carried himself was any indication. He wore his dark hair cut short. Brown eyes captured hers as he closed the space between them. Henry’s description of the man came to mind. “Intense” seemed fitting. He extended his hand. “I’m Dalton Cooper, the new chief.

Sorry to have to make the introductions this way.” He kept his voice low enough for only her to hear. “Sam and Ethan are searching the property and surrounding area.”

Leah shook his hand and forced words out. “It’s nice to meet you, Chief Cooper.”

“Dalton,” he said with a brief smile. He glanced past her to where Henry stood in the doorway still. “Why don’t you run through what we have for Leah?”

Henry snapped to attention and opened his notepad. “The call came in around 7:15 a.m. Mr. Zook phoned from the Mission General Store to say his daughter was missing from her room. She’d gone to bed at the same time as the rest of the family the night before, but when she didn’t come down for breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Zook checked in on her and discovered her bed was empty. That was at 6:00 a.m.”

Around the time when the morning household chores were ending. Leah looked around the familiar room, mulling over Henry’s statement.

The stale aroma of that morning’s breakfast, probably still uneaten, wafted out from the kitchen. She remembered the many times she’d spent the night here growing up. At daybreak, the family gathered around the table. A flicker of a smile touched her lips as she recalled Miriam bustling about to make sure everyone was fed and ready for the day.

“Beth is around sixteen, correct?” Leah asked Josiah. No doubt going through her rumspringa, a period when Amish youth enjoyed more freedom to go out into the world and experience what it felt like to not be Plain. Most returned to join the faith. Some did not.

Images of Leah’s own rumspringa came to mind. She and Colette had committed only small acts of defiance. Colette did her best to keep Leah on the right path, but she didn’t know about him. He’d turned Leah’s head away from the path chosen for her and she’d regretted it ever since. Calling himself John, he’d induced her to do things she wouldn’t normally have done, like slipping away in the middle of the night to meet him in her family’s barn . . .

Jah, that is correct.” Josiah’s firm response intruded into Leah’s regrets. He adjusted his glasses on his nose, brows slanted together in a familiar frown. Josiah had always been a solemn man. Leah cleared her throat and posed the question she knew would not be well received. “Is it possible Beth may have gone out after everyone fell asleep? Maybe to a friend’s? Perhaps she spent the night there?”

Miriam’s head shot up. Anger ignited in her eyes. “Nay. It is not possible. Beth is a gut girl. She would not go sneaking out of the house. She is happy with the Plain life and is going to be baptized soon. She and Caleb Wagler will marry one day. Beth would not do such a thing.” Miriam collapsed against her husband, deep sobs racking her body.

Most Amish parents did not question their children about what they did during rumspringa. It stood to reason the Zooks wouldn’t know everything going on in Beth’s life, yet Leah had obviously touched a nerve. She let the matter drop.

“Would you mind if I checked Beth’s room?” She addressed Josiah again as Miriam continued to weep. The man stared at her blankly. Josiah’s simple world had been sent into a tailspin and he was clearly struggling to understand.

Leah focused on the little girl seated beside her mother. “Do you share a room with your sister?”

Katie nodded slightly while keeping her attention on her clasped hands.

“Would you mind showing me around your room?”

Katie twisted her skirt in her hands and snuck a peek at her father. Leah suspected she had information about her sister’s disappearance she might not wish to share in front of her parents.

Josiah gave an approving nod. Katie rose and headed for the stairs without a word. With a glance at the new chief, Leah followed.

The little girl clutched the railing as she slowly climbed the stairs and headed down the hallway to the same room that Colette once shared with Beth.

A wealth of memories waited inside the room. She and Colette had been like sisters back then. Once more, guilt pierced Leah deep. She should have reached out to Colette. Kept in touch. If she were being honest, she’d missed her friend through the years, missed their girlish conversations. Colette had stood at her side, clutching her hand, at the cemetery. And afterward, her friend had reached out to her through visits and letters. Leah had been the one to shut her out. Because remembering the life she’d left behind was just too hard.

She focused on the child. “Do you enjoy sharing a room with your sister?”

Katie’s huge eyes found hers. The little girl’s bottom lip trembled. Was Katie’s reaction due to worry for her sister or guilt over harboring Beth’s secrets?

Jah, she is a gut big sister. She brings me sweets from the store where she works.”

The news surprised Leah. She had had no idea Beth had worked outside of the farm. Leah made a mental note to check with the owners of the store if Beth wasn’t found soon. She glanced around the small, tidy space. “Which is your sister’s bed?”

Katie pointed to the one near where Leah stood while her eyes darted to the open window, where the morning breeze whipped the curtains around.

Leah searched inside the drawer of the nightstand. Nothing but an extra prayer kapp. Where would Beth keep things she didn’t want her parents to see? Leah’s had been under the mattress. A search there produced nothing. Whatever deep, dark secrets Beth might have been keeping, she’d hidden them well. “Was Beth excited to be going through her rumspringa?”

Leah did her best to make Katie feel at ease.

“I guess so.” Katie’s words were vague, offering little, while her gaze kept returning to the window. Leah swung toward it. Did the girls open the window to cool the room against the oppressive heat, or had Beth left it that way when she slipped out the night before?

“Katie, did Beth sneak out to meet someone last night?” Leah’s direct question struck a reaction in the little girl. Tears glistened in her eyes.

Leah moved to Katie’s side. “You’re not in trouble,” she said gently. “I’m just trying to find your sister.”

Katie hiccupped several sobs. “Jah, sh-she snuck out last night. Beth thought I was sleeping, but I wasn’t. I told her Mamm and Daed would be mad when they found out. She begged me not to tell . . . and I didn’t.” Katie scrubbed at the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. “I did not tell anyone but you.”

Leah squeezed her arm. “It’s okay. You’re doing the right thing. Beth needs our help, and this will hopefully let us bring her home safely. Do you have any idea who she was meeting?” Katie vigorously shook her head. “Nay. She did not tell me, but I’m positive it was a boy. An Englischer.” The last word came in a whisper. “I saw her with him once before when she didn’t know. He drove a car and he smiled a lot. Beth did too. She had a funny look on her face when she came back inside.” Beth had let an Englischer into her life. What kind of ideas had he put in her head? Leah thought about her own forbidden romance with John, and her concern for Beth intensified.

“Can you tell me what he looked like, Katie?”

“I did not see him very clearly.” Katie gulped back fresh tears. “They talked over at the Millers’ barn, and I only saw him for a moment before he pulled her into the barn. He was taller than Beth and he had dark hair. That’s all I remember.”

Beth had met the stranger in her old barn. Too much of a coincidence to dismiss.

She grabbed her phone and called Sam. “Where are you?” she asked the second he answered.

“The pasture behind the Zook house. So far, there’s no sign of the girl.”

“Check the barn next door.” Trembles ran through Leah’s frame, and her bad feeling doubled. Was it just the memories of what happened to her family bleeding into this case because of the approaching anniversary? Or something far more deadly? Sam’s silence confirmed he understood the significance. He’d been on the force back when it happened. “We’ll head there now,” he said quietly.

Leah punched End and stuffed the phone into her pocket. The little girl beside her watched her with huge, worried eyes.

More than anything, she wished to reassure Katie everything would be okay, but her gut wouldn’t allow it. The mention of the barn amped up her concerns to a whole new level.

“Katie, do you remember anything about the car the Englischer drove?”

The little girl stared at her for the longest time. “I-I think it may have been black. But it was dark, so I cannot be sure.” “You’re certain it was a car and not a pickup truck?” Leah pressed. They needed answers. Now. Every passing minute reduced Beth’s chances at survival.

Jah, I am positive it was a car.”

“Good, that’s very helpful,” she assured the girl. “Thank you, Katie.”

The room’s window faced Leah’s old homestead. As she peered out at the barn, goose bumps sped up her arms despite the oppressive heat. The rickety door stood wide open. While she tried to process the few details they had so far, Sam and Ethan entered her line of sight. Both men paused in front of the open door, staring at something she couldn’t see before they went inside.

Leah’s pulse ticked off every second they were out of her sight. Twenty beats passed before the men rushed from the building, their stricken faces chilling Leah’s blood.

“Stay here,” Leah told the little girl and crossed the room. Descending the steps as fast as possible, Leah was certain they’d found Beth Zook. And she wasn’t alive.

***

Two of his uniformed officers ran past the Zooks’ front windows. Seeing the terror on their faces catapulted Dalton to his feet.

“Henry, stay with the family,” he said as he hurried to head the men off before they came inside. The small four-officer St. Ignatius police force hadn’t dealt with many serious crimes in the past. He sensed that was about to change.

Before he reached the screen door, Leah Miller pounded down the stairs. Their eyes connected briefly. The same wave of emotion swept over him that had hit him when he’d first introduced himself to her. Fear lived in the depths of those green eyes. A deep red scar on her throat flared despite her attempts to hide it with makeup. No doubt a constant reminder of what she’d been through.

He and Leah were kindred spirits. Though she’d lost so much more than he could ever imagine, they had both been affected by the same crime. Only she had no idea of their connection. Leah broke eye contact, yanked the door open, and headed outside. Dalton caught it before it slammed in his face. She’d seen her fellow officers’ reactions as he had.

“You found her.” Leah addressed the senior officer, Sam Coeburn. It wasn’t a question.

Sam was silent for a moment. “I didn’t think I’d ever see something like that again,” he muttered, his face ashen.

“Let’s take this conversation away from the porch,” Dalton told his officers. He didn’t want the Zooks to hear the fate of their daughter like this. Once the group moved away from the open windows, he asked, “What did you find?”

Sam dragged in several breaths and struggled to get the words out. “The girl, Chief. She’s dead. Her throat’s been cut and there’s blood everywhere . . .”

“Where is she?” The thought foremost in his mind was how devastated the family would be when he had to deliver the news of their daughter’s death.

“In the old Miller barn.” Sam looked anywhere but at Leah. The similarity to what happened all those years ago clearly was not lost on him.

In an instant, Dalton’s worst nightmare materialized before his eyes. When he’d agreed to assist with the missing persons call earlier, not in his wildest dreams did he imagine they’d be facing a homicide with ties to the past. His past.

“We do this by the book,” he told them. The town of St. Ignatius was unique in that it resided on the Flathead Indian Reservation, as did this Amish community. The Flathead police would need to be brought into the investigation along with the sheriff’s office. Since the original call was to the St. Ignatius police, they would take the lead.

Dalton hit the radio on his uniform. “Dispatch, have the coroner come out to the old Miller place right away and contact the tribal police and the sheriff’s department in Polson. Have them send the crime scene investigations unit here as well.”

“Yes, sir.” The tremor in Sugar Wallace’s tone confirmed she understood what had happened.

He’d met Sugar earlier. The fifty-something woman had dyed-red hair piled high on her head. Sugar wore too much makeup and called him “hon,” and he was pretty sure she’d checked him out. But he believed behind that in-your-face abrasive exterior beat a heart of gold. Still, her personality would take some getting used to.

Dalton ended the transmission and faced his waiting officers. “We secure the crime scene right away. Everyone glove up but try not to touch anything unless you have to. When CSI arrives, they can take over and we’ll assist.”

Henry stepped out on the porch, his gaze ping-ponging between the four. “What’s going on?”

Dalton sensed the young officer might still be green. He’d read all his people’s files. Henry had served under Petri’s watch for a short time before the chief had died from a gunshot wound while out on a call. “Close the door,” Dalton told him. Until they had more to go on, he wasn’t ready to break the news to the family.

Henry glanced back inside before he shut the door and came down the steps.

“Sam and Ethan found the girl.” Getting the next part out proved harder. “She’s dead. I need you to stay with the family and keep them inside and away from the windows until we’ve had time to investigate.”

Henry’s mouth flopped open. He repeatedly shook his head. “I can’t. They’ll see the truth on my face.”

“Yes, you can,” Dalton insisted. “Do your job, Officer. This will be hard enough for the family as it is. Be strong.”

Henry’s hesitation confirmed his lack of confidence. He slowly nodded, hitched his thumbs in his belt, and adjusted his pants, then swung toward the door. Dalton watched him disappear inside the home before turning to Leah. “Did you get anything useful from the girl?”

Her attention fixed on him, and Dalton tried not to get sucked into the storm going on inside those tumultuous green eyes. Some of her raven hair had escaped from its restraint, and she tucked it behind her ears. “I did. Katie told me Beth snuck out last night. She said she’d seen her sister with an Englischer over near the barn once before.”

The past slapped him in the face. Had the real killer returned to take up his old games? The time of year was not lost on Dalton. Stuffing down the resentment flowing through his veins proved hard because it was always there whenever he thought about Harrison’s death. Dalton had known Harrison since he was just a child. Knew he wasn’t a killer. “Can she identify this man?”

Leah shook her head. “She thought he had dark hair, and he drove a dark-colored car, but that’s it.” She shrugged. Like him, Leah had to be comparing the details of this murder to the ones that had taken place in that same barn ten years earlier.

A vague description of the perpetrator was all they had to go on. It could fit any of a dozen men around the area. And it fell on his shoulders as the chief of police of little more than a few hours to solve Beth Zook’s murder. His stomach churned. Dalton didn’t believe for a moment the killer would stop with her. He had a bloodlust and he’d just begun his deadly games again. More bodies would follow unless they apprehended him soon.

Dalton stared across the short distance to the barn. Rising heat appeared like a vapor between the two properties. Though it was not even midday, the temperature had already reached the sweltering point. What appeared to be a bloody handprint on the barn door grabbed his attention. He hadn’t noticed it before because the door was open. Now, the crimson blood appeared a stark contrast to the weathered gray exterior of the barn. It served as a warning that the horror of the day had just begun. He remembered reading about a handprint found on the same barn during the Millers’ murder investigation. It was determined to be left by Leah as she fled to the Zooks’ to get help for her family.

When Dalton first heard about Ellis Petri’s murder and the subsequent vacant chief of police position, he’d immediately contacted the hiring committee even though it meant leaving behind a promising detective position in Denver. Not to mention the suggestion from his commander that he was making a mistake by chasing ghosts. When he’d received the call to set up an interview, he tried not to get his hopes up. But Dalton soon learned he was the only outside candidate to apply for the position. The committee had offered him the job the same day. In Dalton’s opinion, the offer came by God’s own hand.

After ten years, he had the chance to find out the truth beyond the story Ellis Petri had given. He would stop at nothing to know what happened to the Miller family . . . and to Harrison. “Let’s take two patrols over and park on the road near the barn. It stands to reason Beth and possibly the killer may have crossed the same path as Sam and Ethan to the barn. There might be evidence left behind we can’t afford to disturb.” Dalton turned to Leah. “You’ll ride with me.” As the only surviving witness to the original murders, she might remember something useful to the case now. And he wanted her close.

Adrenaline shot through his veins. He’d expected it to take months if not years of going over the murder files—chasing down leads missed by Ellis—to have answers. If this was the work of the Miller family’s killer, was the timing an accident or deliberate in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of that crime?

Leah clutched her arms tight around her body. Her troubled eyes seemed to confirm her mind had traveled down the same dark road as Dalton’s.

A tragedy such as hers changed a person. It had certainly changed him. He’d grown up with Harrison. As kids they’d played together. Toward the end of his mother’s life, he spent more time with Harrison’s family than at his own home. Though Dalton was Englisch, neither Harrison nor his family treated him differently.

In the years since Harrison’s death, the mystery of what really happened chased him through his tour of duty in Afghanistan and into his college years as well as his marriage.

“Are you ready?” Leah’s voice intruded into his pain. Dalton’s attention went to her face. She shoved her dark sunglasses in place and climbed into the passenger seat of his SUV without waiting for his answer. Though he’d only met her a short time earlier, he had the feeling she did her best to keep people at a distance. Something they had in common. Since Harrison’s death and the devastation that followed, he’d done the same.

Let it go . . . Give it to me. That small voice whispered in his head.

“Sam, you and Ethan follow me.” Dalton rounded the front of the SUV and climbed behind the wheel. In the passenger seat, Leah stared straight ahead.

Dalton fired the engine, reversed, and then headed down the dusty dirt road. His curiosity about the woman beside him grew. Ellis Petri and his wife had adopted her shortly after the grisly tragedy that had befallen her family. She’d excelled in school and had worked on the force for several years now.

He pulled off the road near the Miller place. He and Leah got out. “Go slow,” he told his people as they headed for the barn. “Keep your eyes open and disturb nothing.”

Leah’s full attention remained on the barn. This investigation would no doubt reopen old wounds. From Sam’s account, Beth Zook’s injuries matched those of Leah and her family. Dalton’s instincts wouldn’t let him accept they had a copycat. Which left one other option. The killer had returned.

He glanced past the structure to the crumbling house while a quick prayer ran through his head. Please be with Beth’s family, Lord. Give them your strength.

After today, the Zooks would never be the same again. The Miller house and barn sat some distance off the road. According to what he could ascertain, the property had remained vacant since the night of the murders. But he was familiar with every inch of it. He’d come here many times after Harrison’s death without anyone knowing. Desperate to understand why Ellis Petri would go after someone as innocent as Harrison for such a heinous act. Especially without iron-clad proof.

“Tire tracks.” Leah stopped and pointed to the dusty earth nearby.

Dalton knelt and studied them. “Sam, get photos of these. We’ll have CSI make molds. Maybe they can match them to a particular make of vehicle.” He rose and glanced at the woman at his side. Her tension was almost palpable.

As they neared the barn, he saw two sets of footprints that came from around the side of the building. One much larger than the other.

“Which way did you and Sam enter the property?” he asked Ethan.

The former marine picked up on what he was asking right away. “Those aren’t ours.”

“The smaller set probably belongs to Beth. It’s possible the second is the killer’s,” Leah said, her voice scratchy.

Without words, they moved to the barn’s entrance, which faced the Zook farm. Up close, the blood-red handprint acted as an omen of what they’d find inside.

Dalton eased open the door and went in first while Leah trailed behind him. Shadows clung to everything despite the time of day. The scent struck him head-on. Metallic and overpowering. Even in the dim light, there was no mistaking the brutality that had taken place within these dilapidated walls.

Beth lay in the middle of the barn on the dirt floor, dressed in a simple white nightgown, blood covering the front of it.

Someone gasped. Dalton’s attention shifted to Leah, her face as pale as the white gown.

“Do you need to step outside?” he asked gently. The reminder of that night long ago had to be crippling. He’d certainly understand if she needed to take a moment.

Leah swallowed repeatedly and visibly collected herself. “No, I’m fine,” she mumbled and moved to the dead girl’s side. Dalton pulled in a ragged breath before joining her.

They faced each other across Beth’s body. Her sightless eyes stared into space. Beth’s throat had been slashed.

Upon taking the police chief position, Dalton had read the report of the Miller murders. He’d seen the crime scene photos. They matched what he witnessed here almost perfectly. However, for reasons only the killer could explain, he hadn’t shown the same vengeance toward Leah as he had the rest of his victims. It appeared the perpetrator had some type of connection to her, whether real or made up in his twisted mind.

A noise broke his concentration. Dalton realized Leah was struggling to keep from being sick.

“Go outside, Officer. That’s an order.” Without answering, she rushed from the barn.

Dalton stared down at the lifeless young woman. Terror and excruciating pain had undoubtedly filled Beth’s final minutes on this earth. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” he whispered. Beth Zook had had her whole life ahead of her. She didn’t deserve this. Blood spatter spread out around the body like a halo. The attack had been a violent one. Most of Beth’s nails were broken.

She’d fought her attacker. It was possible they’d recover some trace DNA from underneath her fingernails.

Someone entered. Dalton turned his head as Ethan came his way.

“This is a terrible thing, Chief. A terrible thing.”

Dalton didn’t respond as he concentrated on Beth’s body. He saw that she clutched an item in her left hand. He freed the paper from the girl’s lifeless hand.

“What is that?” Ethan asked.

Leah had quietly returned to the barn. She and Ethan peered over Dalton’s shoulder at the note.

As carefully as possible, Dalton unfolded the paper. “What’s it say?” Ethan asked.

Dalton glanced at Leah. Her haunted expression solidified his own suspicions. The nightmare that had taken place in this barn ten years earlier had come calling again.

Bright red words jumped out at him from the page. There was no doubt in his mind the killer used Beth’s blood to pen the note. The message written here was intended for one person alone.

“Tell Leah I’m back.”

***

Excerpt from Among the Innocent by Mary Alford. Copyright 2022 by Mary Alford. Reproduced with permission from Revell. All rights reserved.

 

 

Mary Alford

Author Bio:

Mary Alford is a USA Today bestselling author who loves giving her readers the unexpected, combining unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots that result in stories the reader can’t put down. Her titles have been finalists for several awards, including the Daphne Du Maurier, the Beverly, the Maggie, and the Selah. She and her husband live in the heart of Texas in the middle of 70 acres with two cats and one dog.

Catch Up With Mary Alford:
MaryAlford.net
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BookBub – @MaryAlford
Twitter – @maryalford13
Facebook – @MaryAlfordAuthor

 

 

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