Read an Excerpt of HER LAST BREATH
When it rains,
it pours. Those words were one of my mamm's favorite maxims
when I was growing up. As a child, I didn't understand its
true meaning, and I didn't spend much time trying to figure
it out. In the eyes of the Amish girl I'd been, more was
almost always a good thing. The world around me was a
swiftly moving river, chock-full of white-water rapids and
deep holes filled with secrets I couldn't fathom. I was
ravenous to raft that river, anxious to dive into all of
those dark crevices and unravel their closely guarded
secrets. It wasn't until I entered my twenties that I
realized there were times when that river overflowed its
banks and a killing flood ensued.
My mamm is gone now
and I haven't been Amish for fifteen years, but I often find
myself using that old adage, particularly when it comes to
police work and, oftentimes, my life.
I've been on
duty since 3:00 P.M. and my police radio has been eerily
quiet for a Friday, not only in Painters Mill proper, but
the entirety of Holmes County. I made one stop and issued a
speeding citation, mainly because it was a repeat offense
and the eighteen-year-old driver is going to end up killing
someone if he doesn't slow down. I've spent the last hour
cruising the backstreets, trying not to dwell on anything
too serious, namely a state law enforcement agent by the
name of John Tomasetti and a relationship that's become a
lot more complicated than I ever intended.
during the Slaughterhouse Murders investigation almost two
years ago. It was a horrific case: A serial killer had
staked his claim in Painters Mill, leaving a score of dead
in his wake. Tomasetti, an agent with the Ohio Bureau of
Identification and Investigation, was sent here to assist.
The situation was made worse by my personal involvement in
the case. They were the worst circumstances imaginable,
especially for the start of a relationship, professional or
otherwise. Somehow, what could have become a debacle of
biblical proportion, grew into something fresh and good and
completely unexpected. We're still trying to figure out how
to define this bond we've created between us. I think he's
doing a better job of it than I am.
That's the thing
about relationships; no matter how hard you try to keep
things simple, all of those gnarly complexities have a way
of seeping into the mix. Tomasetti and I have arrived at a
crossroads of sorts, and I sense change on the wind. Of
course, change isn't always a negative. But it's rarely
easy. The indecision can eat at you, especially when you've
arrived at an important junction and you're not sure which
way to go—and you know in your heart that each path will
take you in a vastly different direction.
doing a very good job of keeping my troubles at bay, and I
find myself falling back into another old habit I acquired
from my days on patrol: wishing for a little chaos. A bar
fight would do. Or maybe a domestic dispute. Sans serious
injury, of course. I don't know what it says about me that
I'd rather face off with a couple of pissed-off drunks than
look too hard at the things going on in my own life.
I've just pulled into the parking lot of LaDonna's Diner for
a BLT and a cup of dark roast to go when the voice of my
second shift dispatcher cracks over the radio.
I pick up my mike. "What do you have,
"Chief, I just took a nine one one from Andy
Welbaum. He says there's a bad wreck on Delisle Road at CR
"Anyone hurt?" Dinner forgotten, I glance in my
rearview mirror and make a U-turn in the gravel lot.
"There's a buggy involved. He says it's bad."
ambulance out there. Notify Holmes County." Cursing, I make
a left on Main, hit my emergency lights and siren. The
engine groans as I crank the speedometer up to fifty. "I'm
I'm doing sixty by the time I leave the corporation limit of
Painters Mill. Within seconds, the radio lights up as the
call goes out to the Holmes County sheriff's office. I make
a left on Delisle Road, a twisty stretch of asphalt that
cuts through thick woods. It's a scenic drive during the
day, but treacherous as hell at night, especially with so
many deer in the area.
County Road 14 intersects a
mile down the road. The Explorer's engine groans as I crank
the speedometer to seventy. Mailboxes and the black trunks
of trees fly by outside my window. I crest a hill and spot
the headlights of a single vehicle ahead. No ambulance or
sheriff's cruiser yet; I'm first on scene.
yards from the intersection when I recognize Andy Welbaum's
pickup truck. He lives a few miles from here. Probably
coming home from work at the plant in Millersburg. The truck
is parked at a haphazard angle on the shoulder, as if he
came to an abrupt and unexpected stop. The headlights are
trained on what looks like the shattered remains of a
four-wheeled buggy. There's no horse in sight; either it ran
home or it's down. Judging from the condition of the buggy,
I'm betting on the latter.
"Shit." I brake hard. My
tires skid on the gravel shoulder. Leaving my emergency
lights flashing, I hit my high beams for light and jam the
Explorer into park. Quickly, I grab a couple of flares from
the back, snatch up my Maglite, and then I'm out of the
vehicle. Snapping open the flares, I scatter them on the
road to alert oncoming traffic. Then I start toward the
My senses go into hyperalert as I approach,
several details striking me at once. A sorrel horse lies on
its side on the southwest corner of the intersection, still
harnessed but unmoving. Thirty feet away, a badly damaged
buggy has been flipped onto its side. It's been broken in
half, but it's not a clean break. I see splintered wood, two
missing wheels, and a ten-yard-wide swath of debris—pieces
of fiberglass and wood scattered about. I take in other
details, too. A child's shoe. A flat-brimmed hat lying amid
brown grass and dried leaves …
My mind registers all
of this in a fraction of a second, and I know it's going to
be bad. Worse than bad. It will be a miracle if anyone
I'm midway to the buggy when I spot the
first casualty. It's a child, I realize, and everything
grinds to a halt, as if someone threw a switch inside my
head and the world winds down into slow motion.
"Fuck. Fuck." I rush to the victim, drop to my knees. It's a
little girl. Six or seven years old. She's wearing a blue
dress. Her kapp is askew and soaked with blood and I think:
"Sweetheart." The word comes out as a
The child lies in a supine
position with her arms splayed. Her pudgy hands are open and
relaxed. Her face is so serene she might have been sleeping.
But her skin is gray. Blue lips are open, revealing tiny
baby teeth. Already her eyes are cloudy and unfocused. I see
bare feet and I realize the force of the impact tore off her
Working on autopilot, I hit my lapel mike, put
out the call for a 10-50F. A fatality accident. I stand,
aware that my legs are shaking. My stomach seesaws, and I
swallow something that tastes like vinegar. Around me, the
night is so quiet I hear the ticking of the truck's engine a
few yards away. Even the crickets and night birds have gone
silent as if in reverence to the violence that transpired
here scant minutes before.
Insects fly in the beams
of the headlights. In the periphery of my thoughts, I'm
aware of someone crying. I shine my beam in the direction of
the sound, and spot Andy Welbaum sitting on the ground near
the truck with his face in his hands, sobbing. His chest
heaves, and sounds I barely recognize as human emanate from
I call out to him. "Andy, are you hurt?"
He looks up
at me, as if wondering why I would ask him such a thing.
"How many in the buggy? Did you check?" I'm on
my feet and looking around for more passengers, when I spot
I don't hear Andy's response as I
start toward the Amish man lying on the grassy shoulder.
He's in a prone position with his head turned to one side.
He's wearing a black coat and dark trousers. I try not to
look at the ocean of blood that has soaked into the grass
around him or the way his left leg is twisted with the foot
pointing in the wrong direction. He's conscious and watches
me approach with one eye.
I kneel at his side.
"Everything's going to be okay," I tell him. "You've been in
an accident. I'm here to help you."
His mouth opens.
His lips quiver. His full beard tells me he's married, and I
wonder if his wife is lying somewhere nearby.
my hand on his. Cold flesh beneath my fingertips. "How many
other people on board the buggy?"
"Three … children."
Something inside me sinks. I don't want to find any more
dead children. I pat his hand. "Help is on the way."
His gaze meets mine. "Katie…"
The sound of my name
coming from that bloody mouth shocks me. I know that voice.
That face. Recognition impacts me solidly. It's been years,
but there are some things—some people—you never forget. Paul
Borntrager is one of them. "Paul." Even as I say his name, I
steel myself against the emotional force of it.
tries to speak, but ends up spitting blood. I see more on
his teeth. But it's his eye that's so damn difficult to look
at. One is gone completely; the other is cognizant and
filled with pain. I know the person trapped inside that
broken body. I know his wife. I know at least one of his
kids is dead, and I'm terrified he'll see that awful truth
in my face.
"Don't try to talk," I tell him. "I'm
going to check the children."
Tears fill his eye. I
feel his stare burning into me as I rise and move away.
Quickly, I sweep my beam along the ground, looking for
victims. I'm aware of sirens in the distance and relief
slips through me that help is on the way. I know it's a
cowardly response, but I don't want to deal with this alone.
I think of Paul's wife, Mattie. A lifetime ago, she was
my best friend. We haven't spoken in twenty years; she may
be a stranger to me now, but I honestly don't think I could
bear it if she died here tonight.
Mud sucks at my
boots as I cross the ditch. On the other side, I spot a tiny
figure curled against the massive trunk of a maple tree. A
boy of about four years of age. He looks like a little doll,
small and vulnerable and fragile. Hope jumps through me when
I see steam rising into the cold night air. At first, I
think it's vapor from his breath. But as I draw closer I
realize with a burgeoning sense of horror that it's not a
sign of life, but death. He's bled out and the steam is
coming from the blood as it cools.
I go to him
anyway, kneel at his side, and all I can think when I look
at his battered face is that this should never happen to a
child. His eyes and mouth are open. A wound the size of my
fist has peeled back the flesh on one side of his head.
Sickened, I close my eyes. "Goddammit," I choke as I get
to my feet.
I stand there for a moment, surrounded by
the dead and dying, overwhelmed, repulsed by the bloodshed,
and filled with impotent anger because this kind of carnage
shouldn't happen and yet it has, in my town, on my watch,
and there's not a damn thing I can do to save any of them.
Trying hard to step back into myself and do my job, I
run my beam around the scene. A breeze rattles the tree
branches above me and a smattering of leaves float down.
Fingers of fog rise within the thick underbrush and I find
myself thinking of souls leaving bodies.
A whimper yanks me from my stasis. I spin, jerk my beam
left. I see something tangled against the tumbling wire
fence that runs along the tree line. Another child. I break
into a run. From twenty feet away I see it's a boy. Eight or
nine years old. Hope surges inside me when I hear him groan.
It's a pitiful sound that echoes through me like the
electric pain of a broken bone. But it's a good sound, too,
because it tells me he's alive.
I drop to my knees at
his side, set my flashlight on the ground beside me. The
child is lying on his side with his left arm stretched over
his head and twisted at a terrible angle. Dislocated
shoulder, I think. Broken arm, maybe. Survivable, but I've
worked enough accidents to know it's usually the injuries
you can't see that end up being the worst.
of his face is visible. His eyes are open; I can see the
curl of lashes against his cheek as he blinks. Flecks of
blood cover his chin and throat and the front of his coat.
There's blood on his face, but I don't know where it's
coming from; I can't pinpoint the source.
Tentatively, I reach out and run my fingertips over the top
of his hand, hoping the contact will comfort him. "Honey,
can you hear me?"
He moans. I hear his breaths
rushing in and out between clenched teeth. He's breathing
hard. Hyperventilating. His hand twitches beneath mine and
he cries out.
"Don't try to move, sweetie," I say.
"You were in an accident, but you're going to be okay." As I
speak, I try to put myself in his shoes, conjure words that
will comfort him. "My name's Katie. I'm here to help you.
Your datt's okay. And the doctor is coming. Just be still
and try to relax for me, okay?"
His small body
heaves. He chokes out a sound and flecks of blood spew from
his mouth. I hear gurgling in his chest, and close my eyes
tightly, fighting to stay calm. Don't you dare take this
one, too, a little voice inside my head snaps.
urge to gather him into my arms and pull him from the fence
in which he's tangled is powerful. But I know better than to
move an accident victim. If he sustained a head or spinal
injury, moving him could cause even more damage. Or kill
The boy stares straight ahead, blinking. Still
breathing hard. Chest rattling. He doesn't move, doesn't try
to look at me. "… Sampson…" he whispers.
I don't know
who that is; I'm not even sure I heard him right or if he's
cognizant and knows what he's saying. It doesn't matter. I
rub my thumb over the top of his hand. "Shhh." I lean close.
"Don't try to talk."
He shifts slightly, turns his
head. His eyes find mine. They're gray. Like Mattie's, I
realize. In their depths I see fear and the kind of pain no
child should ever have to bear. His lips tremble. Tears
stream from his eyes. "Hurts…"
"Everything's going to
be okay." I force a smile, but my lips feel like barbed
A faint smile touches his mouth and then his
expression goes slack. Beneath my hand, I feel his body
relax. His stare goes vacant.
"Hey." I squeeze his
hand, willing him not to slip away. "Stay with me, buddy."
He doesn't answer.
The sirens are closer now. I
hear the rumble of the diesel engine as a fire truck arrives
on scene. The hiss of tires against the wet pavement as more
vehicles pull onto the shoulder. The shouts of the first
responders as they disembark.
"Over here!" I yell.
"I've got an injured child!"
I stay with the boy
until the first paramedic comes up behind me. "We'll take it
from here, Chief."
He's about my age, with a crew cut
and blue jacket inscribed with the Holmes County Rescue
insignia. He looks competent and well trained, with a trauma
kit slung over his shoulder and a cervical collar beneath
"He was conscious a minute ago," I tell the paramedic.
"We'll take good care of him, Chief."
take a step back to get out of the way.
He kneels at
the child's side. "I need a backboard over here!" he shouts
over his shoulder.
Close on his heels, a young
firefighter snaps open a reflective thermal blanket and goes
around to the other side of the boy. A third paramedic trots
through the ditch with a bright yellow backboard in tow.
I leave them to their work and hit my lapel mike.
"Jodie, can you ten seventy-nine?" Notify coroner.
I glance over my shoulder to the place
where I left Paul Borntrager. A firefighter kneels at his
side, assessing him. I can't see the Amish man's face, but
he's not moving.
Firefighters and paramedics swarm
the area, treating the injured and looking for more victims.
Any cop that has ever worked patrol knows that passengers
who don't utilize safety belts—which is always the case with
a buggy—can be ejected a long distance, especially if speed
is a factor. When I was a rookie in Columbus, I worked an
accident in which a semi truck went off the road and flipped
end over end down a one-hundred-foot ravine. The driver,
who'd been belted in, was seriously injured, but survived.
His wife, who hadn't been wearing her safety belt, was
ejected over two hundred feet. The officers on scene—me
included—didn't find her for nearly twenty minutes.
Afterward, the coroner told me that if we'd gotten to her
sooner, she might have survived. Nobody ever talked about
that accident again. But it stayed with me, and I never
forgot the lesson it taught.
Wondering if Mattie was
a passenger, I establish a mental grid of the scene.
Starting at the point of impact, I walk the area, looking
for casualties, working my way outward in all directions. I
don't find any more victims.
When I'm finished, I
drift back to where I left Paul, expecting to find him being
loaded onto a litter. I'm shocked to see a blue tarp draped
over his body, rain tapping against it, and I realize he's
I know better than to let this get to me. I
haven't talked to Paul or Mattie in years. But I feel
something ugly and unwieldy building inside me. Anger at the
driver responsible. Grief because Paul is dead and Mattie
must be told. The pain of knowing I'll probably be the one
to do it.
"Oh, Mattie," I whisper.
ago, we were inseparable—more like sisters than friends. We
shared first crushes, first "singings," and our first
heartbreaks. Mattie was there for me during the summer of my
fourteenth year when an Amish man named Daniel Lapp
introduced me to violence. My life was irrevocably changed
that day, but our friendship remained a constant. When I
turned eighteen and made the decision to leave the Plain
Life, Mattie was one of the few who supported me, even
though she knew it would mean the end of our friendship.
We lost touch after I left Painters Mill. Our lives took
different paths and never crossed again. I went on to
complete my education and become a police officer. Mattie
joined the church, married Paul, and started a family. For
years, we've been little more than acquaintances, rarely
sharing anything more than a wave on the street. But I never
forgot those formative years, when summer lasted forever,
the future held infinite promise—and we still believed in
Dreams that, for one of us, ended tonight.
I walk to Andy Welbaum's truck. It's an older Dodge with
patches of rust on the hood. A crease on the rear quarter
panel. Starting with the front bumper, I circle the vehicle,
checking for damage. But there's nothing there. Only then do
I realize this truck wasn't involved in the accident.
I find Andy leaning against the front bumper of a nearby
Holmes County ambulance. Someone has given him a slicker.
He's no longer crying, but he's shaking beneath the yellow
He looks at me when I approach. He's about forty years old
and balding, with circles the size of plums beneath hound
dog eyes. "That kid going to be okay?" he asks.
don't know." The words come out sounding bitchy, and I take
a moment to rein in my emotions. "What happened?"
was coming home from work like I always do. Slowed down to
turn onto the county road and saw all that busted-up wood
and stuff scattered all over the place. I got out to see
what happened…" Shaking his head, he looks down at his feet.
"Chief Burkholder, I swear to God I ain't never seen
anything like that before in my life. All them kids. Damn."
He looks like he's going to start crying again. "Poor
"So your vehicle wasn't involved in the
"No ma'am. It had already happened when I
"Did you witness it?"
looks at me, grimaces. "I think it musta just happened
though. I swear to God the dust was still flying when I
"Did you see any other vehicles?"
"No." He says the word with some heat. "I suspect that
sumbitch hightailed it."
"What happened next?"
"I called nine one one. Then I went over to see if I
could help any of them. I was a medic in the Army way back,
you know." He falls silent, looks down at the ground. "There
was nothing I could do."
I nod, struggling to keep a
handle on my outrage. I'm pissed because someone killed
three people—two of whom were children—injured a third, and
left the scene without bothering to render aid or even call
I let out a sigh. "I'm sorry I snapped at
"I don't blame you. I don't see how you cops
deal with stuff like this day in and day out. I hope you
find the bastard that done it."
"I'm going to need a
statement from you. Can you hang around for a little while
"You bet. I'll stay as long as you need me."
I turn away from him and start toward the road to see a
Holmes County sheriff's department cruiser glide onto the
shoulder, lights flashing. An ambulance pulls away,
transporting the only survivor to the hospital. Later, the
coroner's office will deal with the dead.
I step over
a chunk of wood from the buggy. The black paint contrasts
sharply against the pale yellow of the naked wood beneath. A
few feet away, I see a little girl's shoe. Farther, a
tattered afghan. Eyeglasses.
This is now a crime
scene. Though the investigation will likely fall under the
jurisdiction of the Holmes County Sheriff's office, I'm
going to do my utmost to stay involved. Rasmussen won't have
a problem with it. Not only will my Amish background be a
plus, but his department, like mine, works on a skeleton
crew, and he'll appreciate all the help he can get.
Now that the injured boy has been transported, any evidence
left behind will need to be preserved and documented. We'll
need to bring in a generator and work lights. If the
sheriff's department doesn't have a deputy trained in
accident reconstruction, we'll request one from the State
I think of Mattie Borntrager, at
home, waiting for her husband and children, and I realize
I'll need to notify her as soon as possible.
my way to speak with the paramedics for an update on the
condition of the injured boy when someone calls out my name.
I turn to see my officer, Rupert "Glock" Maddox, approaching
me at a jog. "I got here as quick as I could," he says.
I tell him what little I know. "The
"Shit." He looks at the ambulance.
"One," I tell him. "A little boy.
Eight or nine years old."
"He gonna make it?"
"I don't know."
His eyes meet mine and a silent
communication passes between us, a mutual agreement we
arrive upon without uttering a word. When you're a cop in a
small town, you become protective of the citizens you've
been sworn to serve and protect, especially the innocent,
the kids. When something like this happens, you take it
personally. I've known Glock long enough to know that
sentiment runs deep in him, too.
We start toward the intersection, trying to get a sense of
what happened. Delisle Road runs in a north-south direction;
County Road 14 runs east-west with a two-way stop. The speed
limit is fifty-five miles per hour. The area is heavily
wooded and hilly. If you're approaching the intersection
from any direction, it's impossible to see oncoming traffic.
Glock speaks first. "Looks like the buggy was southbound
on Delisle Road."
I nod in agreement. "The second
vehicle was running west on CR 14. Probably at a high rate
of speed. Blew the stop sign. Broadsided the buggy."
His eyes drift toward the intersection. "Fucking T-boned
"Didn't even pause to call nine one one."
He grimaces. "Probably alcohol related."
Craning his neck, he eyeballs Andy
Welbaum. "He a witness?"
"First on scene. He's pretty
shaken up." I look past him at the place where the wrecked
buggy lies on its side. "Whatever hit that buggy is going to
have a smashed up front end. I put out a BOLO for an unknown
He looks out over the carnage. "Did you
know them, Chief?"
"A long time ago," I tell him.
"I'm going to pick up the bishop and head over to their farm
to notify next of kin. Do me a favor and get Welbaum's
statement, will you?"
"You got it."
I feel his
eyes on me, but I don't meet his gaze. I don't want to share
the mix of emotions inside me at the devastation that's been
brought down on this Amish family. I don't want him to know
the extent of the sadness I feel or my anger toward the
To my relief, he looks away, lets it go.
"I'd better get to work." He taps his lapel mike. "Call me
if you need anything."
I watch him walk away, then
turn my attention back to the scene. I take in the wreckage
of the buggy. The small pieces of the victims' lives that
are strewn about like trash. And I wonder what kind of
person could do something like this and not stop to render
aid or call for help.
"You better hide good, you son
of a bitch, because I'm coming for you.