Forty-eight hours missing
In the early stages of a case, a cop never really knows if the premise they’re operating on is right or wrong or somewhere in between. The longer I’m here in Crooked Creek, the more pronounced the feeling that my time might be more wisely spent in Painters Mill. Every minute that passes is one more minute that Elsie Helmuth is gone, that her life is in jeopardy. My gut is telling me I need to be there, at the heart of the investigation, looking for her. Not here where facts are scarce and no one seems to know shit.
The theory that two Amish bishops and a midwife transported a baby to Painters Mill, perhaps against the wishes of the baby’s mother or without her knowledge, seems outlandish. The Amish are not in the business of stealing babies. Certainly not the bishops or elders.“They brought her to us. In the middle of the night. This screaming, red-faced little baby.”
But as I pull onto the county road and head south, Miriam Helmuth’s words replay in my head. They brought her to us. In the middle of the night. This screaming, red-faced little baby.
A baby that may have come from Crooked Creek.
Shoving my doubts aside, I plug the address for Sadie Stutzman into my GPS, but quickly discover that some of the roads aren’t on the map. Half a mile from the river, I realize why. The road isn’t really a road at all, but a narrow dirt track crisscrossed with tire ruts. The ground is muddy, so I put the Explorer in four-wheel drive and press on.
The first property I pass is an abandoned mobile home that was apparently swept off its foundation at some point by floodwaters and never put to rights. It’s green and white, striped with rust, and sits at a cockeyed angle against a huge tree that prevented it from being carried downstream. As I pass by, I realize the power of the current bent the mobile home nearly in half.
Mud pings inside the Explorer’s wheel wells as I approach the neighboring property. I see a small frame house covered from foundation to roof with vines. At first, I think the place is abandoned—another casualty of hard times and a river with an insatiable appetite for anything bold enough to stand too close. Then I spot the loafing shed at the rear; a horse and several goats graze in a tumbling-down pen someone has slapped together with stock panels and wire. An Amish buggy sits at the back side of the shed. It doesn’t look as if it’s been used in a while.
The mailbox slants at a precarious angle, as if the water encroached and tried to push it downstream. There’s no name, just two numbers someone smeared onto the post with a finger and some paint. I glance at my GPS. The two numbers match, so I pull in and park next to a big clump of pampas grass, its golden spires jutting six feet into the air.
I take the cracked sidewalk to the steps. Stepping onto the front porch is like entering a cave. Vines cover every surface, climbing up the wrought-iron column like snakes. A storm door hangs by a single hinge, so I ease it out of the way and knock.
I wait a full minute, but no one comes. No voices or the sound of footfalls from inside. Thinking of the animals out back, I resist the urge to check the knob to see if it’s locked and I descend the steps. I’ve just started toward the Explorer when a sound tells me there’s someone in the backyard. Pulling up my collar against the wind and drizzle, I walk around the side of the house.
I get my first good look at the river, a vast expanse of shimmering brown water that slides along the muddy bank. A few yards away, a diminutive figure is at work on some earthen project. A woman, I realize. I start toward her.
She’s Amish. Small in stature. White kapp. A charcoal-colored dress
that reaches nearly to the ground. Gray barn coat. Black muck boots. No gloves, even though she’s got a shovel in hand.
“Hello?” I call out. “Mrs. Stutzman?”
The woman shovels dirt from a wheelbarrow onto a pile of earth that’s about three feet high. Her coat and head covering are soaking wet and spattered with mud, telling me she’s been outside for some time. Upon hearing my voice, she stops working and turns to me.
“Who might you be?”
She’s barely five feet tall, with a voice like rusted iron. Her face is deeply wrinkled and dotted with age spots, a good bit of facial hair on her chin. Gold, wire-rimmed glasses cover viscous eyes.
I introduce myself. “I’m from Painters Mill. I’d like to talk to you about something that may have happened here in Crooked Creek a few years ago that involves a child.”
“Painters Mill, huh? Never heard of it.”
She’s standing so close I can see the silver glint of the pins she used to close the front of the dress. Her eyes are cloudy with something yellow in the corners. The left side of her face sags slightly and I recall Mrs. Fisher telling me this woman suff red a stroke a few months back.
“Are you sure about that?” I ask.
“If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t say it now, would I?” Hefting the shovel, she jams it into the dirt in the wheelbarrow, and dumps it onto the mound. I’m not exactly sure what she’s doing; it’s the kind of project a woman her age shouldn’t be taking on. That said, she’s strong for her size and her age.
“What are you working on?” I ask.
“Levee,” she tells me, ramming the shovel into the wheelbarrow. “Storm comin’.”
I was raised to respect my elders. You don’t talk back to them. You don’t let them exert themselves to exhaustion while you stand there and do nothing. “Big job.”
“That’s why God gave us hands, now, isn’t it?” She’s breathing heavily as she upends the shovel, dumping dirt onto the pile. Her face is wet. I can’t tell if it’s rain or sweat.
I watch her work, uncomfortable because a levee is an impossible feat without heavy equipment and I remember Adam Fisher’s muttered description of Sadie Stutzman. Narrisch . . .
“Can I help you with that?” I ask.
“Only got one shovel.” She hands me the aforementioned tool and grins a semi-toothless smile. “Don’t mind if I take a breather, though.” I take the shovel, jam it into the dirt-filled wheelbarrow, and toss a glob of mud onto the mound. I’m aware of her stepping back, bending, setting her hands on her knees.
I keep working. “I understand you’re a midwife.”
“Was till the stroke got me. Don’t do too much anymore. There’s a new one down to Portsmouth. A nice Mennischt girl.” Mennonite. “Gotta have all them certifications and paperwork for the government these days. I ain’t got the patience for such things.”
The handle of the shovel is muddy and wet. I’m not wearing gloves. But the woman is talking, so I keep going. “I understand you knew Bishop Schwartz,” I say as I toss another shovelful of earth onto the mound.
“Everyone knew the bishop.” “You were close?”
“Close enough.” She straightens. “He was the bishop, after all.” “Did you ever travel with him to Painters Mill?”
An emotion I can’t quite identify flickers in her eyes. “Can’t say I did.”
Despite the cold and rain, I’m starting to sweat beneath my coat from the effort of my chore. “Are you sure about that, Mrs. Stutzman? I understand you and Bishop Schwartz transported an infant to Painters Mill.”
“Don’t recall anything like that.” She holds out her hand for the shovel. “Give it here.”
I ignore her, keep working. “How long have you been working on the levee?”
“A few weeks now.” She doesn’t seem to notice that her efforts have garnered little more than a pile of earth that will likely wash away with the next downpour.
“The river floods?”
“Every few years. It’s the way things are here.”
“Do you know Bishop Troyer in Painters Mill?” I ask.
She looks at me over the top of her glasses. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, Kate Burkholder? Coming down here and asking all these nosy questions.”
I set down the shovel and upend the wheelbarrow, dumping the remaining dirt and mud onto the mound. “I’m asking you questions that need to be answered.”
“Go get me some more dirt then.” She motions toward a section of the yard that’s been inexpertly excavated. The place from which she’s getting dirt for her levee.“A seven-year-old little girl is missing,” I tell her. “She’s Amish. Innocent. Someone took her two days ago. I think it’s related to something that happened here seven years ago.”
Holding her gaze, I bend and lift the wheelbarrow, roll it over to the shallow hole. “A seven-year-old little girl is missing,” I tell her. “She’s Amish. Innocent. Someone took her two days ago. I think it’s related to something that happened here seven years ago.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
I bank a rise of irritation, and put the energy into filling the wheelbarrow. For the span of several minutes the only sound comes from the grate of steel against wet earth, the birds in the trees along with river, the din of rain against the barn roof a few yards away.
“They killed him, you know.”
I stop digging, turn to her. “What? Killed who?”
Another flash in her eyes, an unexpected wiliness, a cognizance of exactly what we’re talking about and what she’s saying. But there’s fear there, too. “Bishop Schwartz. That’s who we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
I pick up the shovel and cross to her. “Bishop Schwartz was killed in a buggy accident.”
She stares at me as if I’m some dense child. As I regard her, I’m reminded once again of Adam Fisher’s words. Narrisch, he said. Insane. Considering the project we’re working on, I suspect this woman may be well on her way. I don’t believe she’s arrived at that destination just yet.
“Was it an accident?” she asks.
“Are you saying you believe someone did that to him on purpose?” “I’m saying I knew something wasn’t right all along,” she whispers in that rusty-steel voice. “Knew it for a long time. Everyone did. Kept their mouths shut like good Amish. Such a terrible thing. Sin piled
atop of sin. I couldn’t abide by it.”
The old woman hobbles to the wheelbarrow, realizes the shovel isn’t there, and returns to where I stand. “He said I was never to speak of it. So I held my tongue.”
“Mrs. Stutzman, do you know who was driving the vehicle that struck Bishop Schwartz’s buggy?”
“The English police said it was druggies that killed him.” She hefts a harsh laugh. “That ain’t who done it and it wadn’t no accident. I told them, but they wouldn’t listen. I’m just a crazy old woman after all.”
“Who killed him?”
A light enters her eyes, like a smile, only she’s not smiling. “The father of the child.”
The earth seems to tremble beneath my feet. The doubt I’d felt earlier about being here flees. “Give me a name.”
“I may be old, Kate Burkholder, but I still value my life.” She looks around, motions toward the river, her eyes scanning, seeking something unseen. “He listens through the water, you know.” The old woman lowers her voice. “If he finds out I’m talking to you, he’ll kill me, too. Just like the others.”
“I need a name,” I say firmly.
She tries to take the shovel from me, but I don’t release it. “I can keep you safe,” I tell her. “I’m a police officer.” “The way you kept that girl safe? The bishop?”
I relinquish the shovel. “I need your help.”
“You can’t stop him. No one can. It’s in God’s hands now.”
I’m losing her, so I try another tactic. “Tell me about the baby. Who is her mamm?”
“They shamed her. She couldn’t handle it. And just look what happened.”
“Tell me. Please.”
“Those poor babies.” The woman makes a sound that’s part grief, part disgust.
“What babies?” I ask, the words spiraling in my brain. “Who are you talking about?”
Ignoring me, she jams the shovel into dirt, pushes it deeper with her shoe.
“What about Marlene Byler?” I ask.
“They shamed her to death. That’s why she jumped. They shamed her. Shamed her.” Repeating the words like a mantra, she begins to dig, frantically. “Like mother, like daughter. One and the same—both were bad eggs.” Jamming the shovel into the dirt, tossing it into the wheelbarrow. Again and again.
When I can stand it no longer, I go to her, try to take the shovel, but she won’t release it. “Why did they take the baby?” I ask.
The woman tightens her mouth, doesn’t look at me.
“Who are the parents?” I wait a beat. When she says nothing, I add a resounding “Please, all I need is a name.”
She raises a shaking hand and wipes rain from her face, slings it to the ground. “You speak the devil’s name too often and you’ll hear the flap of his wings. You’d be wise to remember that, Kate Burkholder.”
Throwing down the shovel, she turns away and starts toward the house.