Long Lost
written by Linda Castillo and narrated by Kathleen McInerney

 

There are some things that never grow old. The brilliant autumn foliage that blankets the rolling hills of Ohio’s Amish country is one of them. It’s mid-October and the Northeastern part of the state is a shimmering collage of orange, rust, and red. I’ve driven this road countless times in the years I’ve lived here, but I never tire of it. Every pilgrimage differs in some profound way so that I drink it in with a perspective that’s breathtaking and new. The way the light slants across the trees, turning the foliage to fire. The way the morning mist hovers like smoke over the forest floor. The unexpected sight of an Amish farmer and his team of draft horses harvesting corn. The spectacle of fallen leaves caught in an eddy and scattering across the asphalt like small creatures trying to escape the impending winter.

My name is Kate Burkholder and I’m the chief of police of Painters Mill, Ohio, a small farming community nestled in the heart of Amish country. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of state agent John Tomasetti’s Tahoe and we’re bound for two days of R & R at a small bed-and-breakfast an hour from where I live. I should be relaxed and looking forward to some much-needed downtime and the chance to spend some quality time with the man I love. If only life was that simple.

I’ve lived too many years to suddenly come down with a case of nerves over spending the weekend with a man I’ve known for almost three years now. I’m not prone to bouts of anxiety or angst. Tomasetti is, after all, my best friend. He’s my lover and confidant, and a man I admire greatly. We’ve worked some difficult cases together—murder and kidnapping and all the depraved things that go along with those kinds of crimes. Still, inexplicably, the thought of spending two nights at a cozy bed-and-breakfast without the buffer of work scares the living daylights out of me.

Perhaps because deep inside I know the tension running up the back of my neck has little to do with the weekend ahead, and everything to do with the evolution of a relationship I value more than my own life. The next two days promise to take that relationship to the next level, a new level I have little experience with, and I’m not sure I’m up to the task.

“You’re brooding awfully hard about something.”

His voice draws me from my thoughts. I glance over at him and I’m moved not only by the sight of him, but by the depth of my feelings.

“I’m not brooding,” I tell him. “I’m contemplating. There’s a difference.”

“If I didn’t know better, I might jump to the conclusion that you’re having second thoughts about this.”

“You’re not calling me chicken, are you?” I ask.

He slants me a smile. “I would never disparage a woman who can outshoot me.”

The words elicit a grin. “I think I can handle a weekend alone with you. I’m just…”

“Nervous?”

The word sounds juvenile and makes me feel just a little bit foolish. I want to tell him nerves are for schoolgirls, something I haven’t been for a very long time. “I’m not used to taking time off.”

He cuts me an amused look. “Or sharing your bed with a man for an entire weekend.”

“There is that.”

“If it’s any consolation, Chief, this is new ground for me, too.”

“So at least we’re on an even playing field.”

The banter is like gentle fingers kneading the back of my neck and I feel myself begin to relax. “I’m glad I have you to help me keep things in perspective, Tomasetti.”

“Anytime.”

We crest a hill overlooking a lush, forested valley, and we’re met with a shimmering ocean of red and yellow and gold. Maples and black walnut trees shimmer like faceted gems as they rush by my window. We reach the valley floor and cross an old steel girder bridge tattooed with graffiti that spans the Rouge River. We pass an Amish buggy and then a rustic sign directs us toward the Maple Creek Inn.

“Here we go.” Tomasetti makes a left onto the narrow gravel lane.

Ancient trees close over the Tahoe, blocking the bright afternoon sun. To my right, the slow-moving water of the river keeps pace with our vehicle. I glimpse tendrils of wood smoke above the treetops and then the old farmhouse looms into view. It’s a large, two-story Victorian with a redbrick chimney and tin roof. A porch adorned with hanging ferns and clay pots filled with cheery yellow mums wraps around three sides of the house. Pretty red Adirondack chairs beckon one to sit and watch the river. There’s more seating on a paved patio just off the porch where several benches surround a huge bronze chiminea.

Tomasetti parks in a gravel area at the rear marked with a battered wooden GUEST PARKING sign. “Might take awhile to get used to all this peace and quiet,” he comments.

“Spoken like a true city boy.”

Giving me a wry smile, he shuts down the engine and we get out. I’m met by crisp fall air and a cacophony of birdsong. There’s not a cloud in the sky, but the thick canopy overhead turns the light murky. I smell the river now, a pleasant mix of moist air, wet earth, and foliage.

Tomasetti picks up my overnight bag and then slings his own over his shoulder. We cross the gravel lot and take a pavestone path to the front of the house.

“I’m told there are trails along the river,” he tells me. “And a couple of restaurants down the road. I thought we’d explore the woods and then drive into town for some lunch.”

“Sounds great.”

The scent of the wood smoke pleases my olfactory nerves as we take the steps to the porch. Tomasetti opens the door for me and we enter a large front office that looks more like the living area of some 1890s farmhouse. The aromas of hot cider and cinnamon lace the air. A braided rug that looks Amish-made covers distressed hardwood floors. To my left is a good-size room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the dark water of the river. A fire crackles and pops from within a massive stone hearth.

A gray-headed woman in a blue dress, white apron, and gauzy kapp stands behind a counter, an old-fashioned landline phone wedged into the crook of her neck, a hotel register open in front of her. The kapp tells me she’s Mennonite. She makes eye contact with me and smiles, raising a finger to let us know she’ll be right with us.

Tomasetti sets our bags on the floor. A man with a full beard that reaches his waist comes in from another room, his arms filled with firewood and kindling. I guess him to be about sixty years old. He’s wearing dark gray work trousers with suspenders, a gray work shirt, and a black barn coat with a flat-brimmed hat.

“Ah, customers! Didn’t see you come in.” Kneeling next to the hearth, he stacks the wood on a wrought-iron rack. “Welcome to Maple Creek.”

Tomasetti introduces himself and the two men shake hands.

“I’m Harley Hilty. My wife and I own the place.”

I extend my hand and he gives it a solid, friendly shake. “It’s beautiful.”

“Fannie and I love it here. She inherited it from her grossdaddi thirty years ago and we’ve been fixing it up ever since.” He brushes wood dust from his coat, chuckling. “It’s a full-time job,” he says and addresses the woman behind the counter. “How long have we been running this place now, Fannie?”

She hangs up the phone and comes around the counter. She’s a plump woman of about sixty with ruddy cheeks and the chapped hands of a hard worker. “Oh, I’d say going on twenty-three years now.” She crosses to me and we shake hands. “I’m Fannie.”

“Kate Burkholder.”

She tilts her head and eyes me with curiosity. “Now there’s a nice Amish name for you.”

“I used to be Amish.” I say the words in Pennsylvania Dutch.

“I see.” She arches a brow, and I can’t tell if it’s in judgment or if she’s merely acknowledging my words. “You left the fold?”

I nod, wishing I hadn’t said anything. This weekend is about Tomasetti and me. I don’t want to worry about our hosts condemning me for my choices. To my surprise, she nods and offers a smile. “We were Swartzendruber, you know.”

“Too strict for our liking,” Harley puts in.

“We’re Mennonite now.” Fannie crosses to a small coffee station and pours cider into four mugs.

I nod, letting that bit of information soak in. The Mennonites and the Amish share a long and complex history that goes back over three hundred years. Today, the two groups share many similarities with regard to theologic views and cultural heritage. But the differences, particularly between the Swartzendruber Amish and the Mennonites, are profound. The Swartzendruber group is the most conservative, with stringent rules against technology. All but the most conservative of Mennonites—the Old Order Mennonites—utilize modern conveniences, including cars, electricity, and even computers and the Internet.

“Don’t recall seeing you folks here before,” Harley says. “This your first visit?”

Tomasetti nods. “I was out at one of the travel Web sites and one of your guests mentioned something about this place being haunted.”

The couple exchanges a grim look I don’t understand. The Mennonite man covers the awkward moment with a chuckle. “Well now, we don’t really talk about that too much.” His eyes flick to his wife and he lowers his voice. “But there have been a dozen or so sightings of her since she went missing.”

“Her?” Tomasetti asks.

“Harley Hilty, don’t go scaring the guests already.” Straightening, Fannie turns and carries two mugs over to us. “All that talk of ghosts. That’s just a load of horse feathers.”

“Fannie doesn’t believe in ghosts.” Harley points out the obvious.

“You just hush about all that.” The Mennonite woman shoves a steaming cup at me. “I’ve got a cinnamon stick if you’d like.”

The aromas of cider and nutmeg tease my senses as I take the mug. “This is perfect. Thanks.”

“There’s an apple orchard behind the old barn,” she tells me. “My grossdaddi planted all those trees fifty years ago and they’re still producing the best McIntosh apples I’ve ever had.”

“The couple that was here last weekend saw her in the orchard,” Harley says.

Fannie makes a sound of annoyance.

“You mean the ghost?” I ask, trying not to feel foolish.

Tomasetti picks up the pen and begins filling out the registration form. “Everyone likes a good ghost story.”

“Pure silliness.” Fannie shakes her head. “And disrespectful of the dead if you ask me.”

Harley picks up his mug of cider. “I seen her myself a time or two.”

I look from husband to wife. “What happened?”

Looking a little too excited, Harley explains. “A young woman by the name of Angela Blaine stayed here not long after we opened. She was a sweet, pretty thing. But I knew she was running from something. Or someone. Had that scared look about her. You know, in the eyes.” He shrugs. “Anyway, she checked in for two nights. Paid cash. And never checked out.”

“Disappeared into thin air.” Fannie grimaces. “At first we didn’t know if the poor thing left or if something happened to her. A couple of days later Harley was out walking by the river and found her clothes.” Shaking her head, the woman crosses to the counter and steps behind it, as if she wants nothing to do with what will be said next.

“They were blood soaked,” Harley whispers.

“That was when we called the sheriff’s office,” Fannie puts in.

“A few days later Angela’s mother filed a missing person report.” Harley slurps his cider hard. “What kind of mother waits that long before reporting her daughter missing?”

Despite my efforts not to be, I’m intrigued by the mystery. “Did they find her?”

“Not a trace,” Harley responds. “Aside from those bloody clothes, anyway.”

“Did the sheriff’s department search the property?” Tomasetti asks.

“The entire hundred acres,” Harley replies. “Brought in bloodhounds and organized volunteer search parties. Folks went out on horseback. No one found a trace.”

“We followed the story through the weekly newspaper.” Fannie looks down at the register before her and scribbles something. “Saved all the articles.” She opens a drawer, pulls out a frayed manila folder and sets it on the counter. “She was pretty as a movie star.” Sighing wistfully, she peels open the cover and looks down at the yellowed clippings.

I find myself staring at the grainy photo of a fresh-faced girl with brown hair, huge brown eyes, and an engaging smile. A mole on the left side of her chin only adds to the allure of her face.

I glance over at Tomasetti, but I can’t tell if he’s intrigued or indifferent or somewhere in between, like me.

“I see you’re a policeman.”

I glance over at the counter to see Fannie looking down at the registration form Tomasetti just completed.

“I’m with the state,” he tells her. “BCI out of Richland.” He looks at me. “Kate is the chief of police in Painters Mill.”

Harley nods. “I bought a horse there a few years back.”

“We’ve never had policemen stay here before.” Looking intrigued by the notion, Fannie opens a drawer, pulls out a set of keys, and dangles them at her husband.

“Oh. Right.” Harley grabs the keys, crosses to me and picks up my overnight bag. “If you’re ready I’ll show you to your room.”

I set my mug on the counter. “The cider was wonderful, Fannie. Thank you.”

Harley takes us up a steep and narrow staircase to the second level. We pass three rooms with tall, paneled doors. He stops at the fourth and bends to use the key. “It’s our nicest suite,” he says, opening the door and stepping inside.

The first thing I notice is the fire crackling in the hearth and the faintly spicy scent of potpourri. An intricate Amish quilt of red and blue and green covers a king-size bed. The headboard and furniture are antiques, the mahogany-brown stain contrasting nicely with beige-colored walls.

“It’s a lovely room,” I say.

Beaming, Harley goes directly to the closet, removes a luggage rack, and sets my overnight bag atop it. “We usually charge more for this one, but since we’re not busy this weekend, we figured you should have it.”

“We appreciate that.” I wander to the window and discover a breathtaking view of the river.

Tomasetti sets his bag on the bed and I catch a glimpse of his shoulder holster and pistol beneath his jacket.

“You folks going to want some lunch?” Harley asks as he starts toward the door. “Fannie’s quite the cook.”

“Actually we were going to check out that steak house in town,” Tomasetti tells him.

“Ah, The Oak is an excellent choice.” He lowers his voice. “Just between us, their prime rib is better than my Fannie’s.” He goes to the window and opens the drapes further. “When you leave, just make a right on Rouge Road. The Oak is about two miles down on your left, right next to the bowling alley.”

He starts toward the door. “Let us know if you need anything.”

“Thanks,” I tell him, and then he’s gone.

Across the room, Tomasetti begins to unpack. “You know we’re not going to get involved in that, right?”

“You mean the missing girl thing? Of course not.” I unzip my own bag and begin putting my clothes into the bureau. “We’re here for some R&R, not a twenty-two-year-old cold case.”

“Exactly.”

* * *

Tomasetti and I opt for a walk along the river before driving into town for a late lunch. Donning our hiking boots and jackets, we find the trailhead behind the house and within minutes we’ve been swallowed by thick woods. The calls of cardinals and the chatter of sparrows follow us as we make our way down a wide dirt path. The smell of fallen leaves, and the muddy scent of the river hang in the still air.

I glance at Tomasetti and I see he’s as caught up in the beauty of our surroundings as I am.

“Nice idea, Tomasetti,” I tell him. “It’s beautiful here.”

He casts me a half smile. “You’re not feeling stressed out by all this serenity, are you?”

“Not a chance.”

Taking my hand, he pulls me around to face him and kisses me. It’s a small thing, the slightest brushing of lips, but my heart begins to pound, and I’m amazed that even after three years of knowing him, he still does that to me.

After a moment, he pulls away and stares down at me. “Every time I look at you, the things that happened three years ago … it gets easier.”

He’s referring to the murders of his wife and two children by a career criminal. It was a horrific tragedy that nearly killed him, too. He’s come a long way since then, but sometimes the rage and the grief still eat at him, like a cancer that’s fooled him into thinking it’s gone into remission only to flare up when he least expects it.

“You’re healing,” I whisper.

“You’ve been a big part of that, Kate.”

“Thank you for saying that.”

He grimaces. “I don’t know if this makes sense, but there are times when I can’t remember their faces or the sound of their voices. That scares me because there was so much good. I mean before … I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want them to disappear.”

“They’ll always be part of you.”

“One of the hardest things to accept when someone you love dies is that life goes on. It’s like a river that never stops.”

“Tomasetti.” I set my hand against his jaw and turn his face toward mine. “They’d want you to be happy. You know that, don’t you?”

He gives me a wry smile. “I think they’d approve of you, Kate.”

The words warm me with unexpected force and for a moment I have to blink away tears. For the first year or so that we were involved, he kept that part of himself—that dark, killing grief—locked away inside a place I could never reach. I know it was wrong, but there were times when I felt as if I could never compete with the kind of love he had for them or heal the gaping wound left on his heart. Sometimes I felt like an interloper.

“I hope so,” I whisper.

“I mean it.” Never taking his eyes from my face, he brushes his lips across mine. “I know this hasn’t been easy for you. I know I haven’t been easy.”

“I’ve never been one to walk away from a challenge,” I tell him. “Especially when I want something.”

He smiles at me, then takes my hand and we start down the trail. We’ve walked about a quarter of a mile when I realize the path is now running parallel with the river. Another hundred yards and we’re walking along the riverbank.

Tomasetti’s stride falters. “What’s that?”

I follow his gaze. Next to the trail, something yellow and red snags my attention. “Not sure.”

We approach the object. Nestled within the tall yellow grass between the trail and the river is a small shrine of sorts. I see faded silk carnations and fern leaves tucked into a vase. A good-size stone has been set partially into the ground. The façade is etched with a simple inscription: In loving memory of Angela Blaine.

“Maybe this is where they found the clothes of that missing girl.” Tomasetti looks out across the churning black water as if expecting to see her standing on the opposite bank.

“I wonder who put it here,” I say, thinking aloud.

“Someone who cared about her.” He tosses me a wry smile. “Or maybe Harley put this here to keep the legend of their ghost alive.”

I elbow him. “Has anyone ever told you you’re cynical?”

“Just about everyone.”

It’s a silly, charged exchange. But it’s fun and we grin at each other like a couple of idiots. “What do you say we get back to the B and B and then grab some dinner?” he says after a moment.

“I think that’s one of the best ideas you’ve had all day.”

* * *

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