Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from my new book, A Killer Carol (An Amish Mystery)!
An excerpt from chapter two:
A siren from the direction of town cut short the rest of Diane’s reassurance and sent their collective attention down the stairs, across the driveway, and toward Lighted Way. Bobbing her head to the left, Claire took advantage of the leafless maple trees bordering the northwestern edge of the inn’s property to note the lone gas-powered streetlamp visible from her vantage point. The light, she knew, was the one nearest the mouth of the quaint thoroughfare, a few footsteps from Glick’s Tools ’N More and just two shops away from her own. On a clear, cloudless day, she could make out the front corner of the popular hardware shop if she stepped a bit more to the left and added a jump, but the clouds passing in front of the moon at that moment kept her feet, if not her thoughts, rooted to the porch. “It’s too early in the season for a Christmas tree fire,” Claire mused aloud. “Maybe a space heater?”
“I don’t think it’s a fire, dear,” Diane said, her voice hushed. “Those look like police lights to me.”
Claire glanced back at her aunt, only to be distracted away by intermittent slices of red and blue racing around the same bends and over the same hills she so often walked after work during the summer months. Only instead of the leisurely pace she preferred, the pulsing lights moved at a speed that didn’t fit with the quiet Amish countryside or its people. Sucking in a shallow breath, she silently ticked off each farm in the patrol car’s path—King, Lapp, Stoltzfus, Lehman, Beiler—then sighed in relief as it sped past each and every one. Just beyond the first of three mailboxes she knew bore the name of Miller, the lights broke left, headed south for a few heartbeats, and came to an abrupt stop. Before she could fully process the where in relation with a who, a second set of red and blue lights hijacked her attention, speeding past the same driveways, the same fields, the same farmhouses . . .
“What on earth do you think is going on down there, Aunt—”
“Claire, it’s Annie.”
Her mouth ran dry as she stared into the distance, her mind’s eye swapping the almost melodic rhythm of the lights for a fully formed image of Annie Hershberger, the now seventeen-year-old Amish girl Claire employed at her gift shop, Heavenly Treasures.
The wide-set brown eyes. . .
The curious nature. . .
The infectious smile . . .
The desire to please . . .
Raw fear ripped through her body as the second set of lights drew to a stop behind the first, flashing and spinning in sync with one another. “It can’t be Annie . . . The bishop’s farm is the other way, isn’ t—”
“She sounds upset, dear.”
Confused, she turned to find her phone clutched tightly in Diane’s outstretched hand.
“Wait. You mean she’ s—oh thank God . . .” Relief overtook her and she sagged backward down the last step. “I . . . I didn’t hear it ring.”
“I heard it vibrating against the swing and picked it up.”
Shaking her head, Claire jogged back up the stairs and took the phone from her aunt. “Annie, sweetie? Are you okay?”
Answering sniffles gave way to a heartbreaking cry that sent shivers down Claire’s spine.
“What’s going on?” Diane whispered.
Shrugging, Claire tilted the phone so her aunt could hear, too. “Are you hurt? Is it your dat?”
“N-no. It is not Dat.”
With that ruled out, Claire moved on, her thoughts rewinding to the moment they’d gone their separate ways after closing the shop the previous evening. “I thought you were caroling tonight. With Henry and your other friends from youth group.”
“I am. I mean, I was.”
“Did something happen?”
She looked again at the emergency lights shattering the quiet darkness of the night and willed herself to breathe. “Talk to me, kiddo.”
Another round of sniffles gave way to a cough and, finally, a full sentence, albeit one peppered by brief pauses and even a hiccup. “Henry and I got there first. But it was not by much. Maybe a few minutes.”
“To Daniel and Mary’s farm.”
“Daniel and Mary?”
Annie’s breath hitched, once, twice in her ear. “Esch.”
Something about the name tugged at her memory and she tried to place it to the many Amish faces she’d come to know since moving to Heavenly two years earlier, but she came up empty.
“You know them, dear. They’re one of Nancy Warren’s regular customers. Brings them into town a few times a month,” Aunt Diane whispered, only to grow quiet as Annie began to speak once again.
“Since it is Sunday, and there are no Englishers there, Daniel’s buggy was outside the barn and his horse inside, I am sure. When the rest of our friends came in their buggies, we began to sing. But the curtain did not move. That is when I waved to everyone to sing louder in case Daniel and Mary could not hear.” Annie’s inhale echoed in Claire’s ear. “Sometimes, at church, Dat asks me to sit next to Mary and be her ears. And later, after church, I fill Daniel’s plate with the things he likes to eat because he cannot see very well, anymore.”
“Wait.” Two kind faces emerged, fully formed, in Claire’s thoughts. “I think I know who you’re talking about. They’re elderly, aren’t they? In their mid-eighties, maybe? Mary has white hair, right? Big round cheeks? And pretty blue eyes that seem to laugh when she smiles?”
“Yah, that is Mary.”
“And Daniel . . . He’s tall and slender? Gets around on a cane? Long gray beard that reaches nearly to the top of his pants?”
“Yah, that is Daniel.”
“Ruth mentioned something about them when we last spoke but the names didn’t ring any bells at the time. But now, talking to you, I realize I’ve seen them going into Gussmann’s General Store on occasion— usually with Nancy Warren in tow to help carry their groceries.” Claire leaned against the closest upright, her eyes on the flashing lights, her thoughts rewinding back a few weeks. “In fact, if I’m picturing the right people, I spoke with them a little at Ruth and Samuel’s wedding last month. I found them to be very warm and welcoming—especially Mary.”
“When my mamm died, it was Mary Esch who let me cry without saying it was God’s will. When I could not cry anymore, she told me to look and look until I found things to make me happy. She said the sadness would not go away, but happy things would make it a little lighter.” Annie exhaled a breath into the phone. “That is why I wanted everyone to sing louder. Because I knew the carols would be a happy thing for Mary.”
“ Okay . . .”
Annie’s breath hitched again. “But still they did not come to the window. When I stepped closer, I saw that it was open.”
“The window?” At Annie’s strangled yes, Claire added, “But it’s cold and the temperature is only dropping.”
“That is what I thought, too. So I showed Henry and he walked up to the window with me while the others continued to sing. When he bent down to pick up a worker’s glove, I called to Daniel and then to Mary through the open part of the window. But they did not answer. That is when Henry handed me the glove to hold while he got the lantern from his buggy and shined it inside. At first we did not see anything but a chair that was tipped over, and a dish. It was on the floor. Chicken and potatoes, too. Henry said it was a good thing that Mary and Daniel did not have a cat or it would be big and fat because of such food on the floor.”
A glance at her aunt yielded a visual of the growing fear she felt snaking up her own spine. When Diane’s eyes traveled back to the flashing lights in the distance, Claire closed her own and waited.
“It is then that I saw her foot. And soon, his boots . . . and his legs. Henry climbed in. He looked at Daniel and then moved the pillow to see Mary. It is then that he knew they were”—Annie’s voice broke— “dead.”
To find out what happens next, pick up your copy of A Killer Carol by Laura Bradford today.
**This excerpt from A Killer Carol is the exclusive property of Penguin Publishing. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.**
Laura Bradford is the national bestselling author of An Amish Mystery series, as well as the Emergency Dessert Squad Mysteries, and the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries (the latter written as Elizabeth Lynn Casey). In addition to her work in mysteries, Laura also pens women’s fiction novels. Her latest, A Daughter’s Truth, released in May and is a Fall 2019 Book Club Pick for Mary Janes Farm Magazine. To learn more about Laura and her books, visit her website: laurabradford.com. On Facebook? So is Laura: https://www.facebook.com/laurabradfordauthor/.