Read Plain Murder Online

Authors: Emma Miller

Tags: #Mystery

Plain Murder

BOOK: Plain Murder
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Chapter 1
Stone Mill, Pennsylvania
Rachel Mast was the most unusual person in town, a party of one. She had one foot firmly planted in her Amish youth, the other reluctantly planted in the “college grad, Phi Beta Kappa, Wharton MBA, corporate-ladder-climbing junior partner” of her adulthood. This morning, the Amish girl won out as she walked barefoot across the wide lawn and jammed the
flag into the grass. Satisfied that the flag would not block the modest wood sign—
, 1798
& B
Rachel gave herself a minute to simply enjoy her leap of faith . . . her B&B.
Built from fieldstone, the house was a nearly square, solid, gabled two-and-a-half-story structure with a wide center doorway, eleven windows, and two perfectly matched stone chimneys. There was a recessed two-story addition in the back, and attached to that, the stone summer kitchen, with its tiny windows and its own enormous chimney.
Approaching the house, she couldn't help but admire the Federal-blue shutters and black door that tied everything together. It had taken her days to scrape those shutters down to their original 1798 color and several hours of mixing paint to match it, but every minute had been worth it.
Two years earlier, nearly eleven months had gone into work on the main house, which still wasn't a hundred percent done. It had turned out to be a huge money pit. Her 401(k) was empty. All the stock options used up. Nearly every penny of her savings—along with the traditional blood, sweat, and tears—had gone into the building, which had been neglected for thirty years.
This was not just a house, however; it was artwork, worthy of the finest canvas. The huge oak trees framing the home stood like ancient sentinels, their broad branches forming a canopy of green leaves that shaded the house, the thick lawn, and the cobblestone drive. No one knew if the property got its name from the town or the other way around, but both the house and the historical village now shone like new pennies.
Off to the west, mist rose off the rolling farm fields in ghostly shrouds. A cool breeze coming down the mountain would dispel them soon enough. Mountains surrounded this valley of rich, loamy soil. Those same mountains had both protected the farmland and shielded the inhabitants from the outside world for generations too many to count. This morning, the May air smelled of climbing roses and jack-in-the-pulpits.
By the time Rachel was seventeen, she had no longer felt at home here in the world of the Amish that she'd been born into. She'd thought there was too much to do, too much to see, too much to learn beyond the valley. Now, after fifteen long, stubborn years trying to fight the ties that bound her here, she was back home. Not Amish, probably never to be Amish again, but home nonetheless.
Rachel walked back toward the house, the cool, damp grass under her feet. She had plenty of work to do, but the first hour or two of her day was always hers alone. There'd be plenty of time later to see to her guests and wait on the customers in the gift shop—tourists she hoped would come.
She had eight guest rooms. She was happy that she'd never had to turn someone away, but it would have been nice to be full, at least once. She'd welcomed a young priest yesterday afternoon, then two middle-aged sisters from Bayonne, New Jersey, later on. None of them had come down for breakfast yet, but Ada Hertzler was already in the kitchen, brewing coffee and sliding a cast-iron pan of cinnamon rolls into the oven.
The coffee and rolls would be just the first course. Ada would follow that with scrambled eggs, sausage, scrapple, and blueberry pancakes with the fresh, warm blueberry syrup Rachel had spotted simmering on the back of the stove when she'd grabbed her first cup of coffee at six. Her stomach rumbled just thinking of Ada's pancakes.
Taking the granite entrance steps two at a time, Rachel swung open the heavy front door. Gooseflesh rose on her arms and she, involuntarily, glanced over her shoulder.
she chided herself.
She had every right to use this entrance. She wasn't a barefoot Amish child with skinned knees delivering eggs and butter. She
barefoot, but there was no one here, Englisher or Amish, to scold her and send her around to the kitchen door. She owned Stone Mill House. Or, at least, she and Bank of America owned it.
She was learning that the values one grew up with were hard to shake. The Amish didn't borrow money from banks. An Amish member of Stone Mill never bought anything—not a house, not a horse, not a jar of jam—unless he or she had the cash to pay for it. “The borrower is a servant to the lender,” any one of her friends, family, or neighbors would gladly quote.
Taking the mortgage on the Stone Mill House and property had set tongues wagging for months. No matter how many times she tried to explain to her father, her siblings, her uncles, her aunts, or her cousins that mortgages were sometimes necessary, no one bought it. Of course, her mother wouldn't discuss it with her. Her mother didn't discuss anything with her.
Starting a B&B in a nontourist town in depressed central Pennsylvania during an economic downturn would have distressed her Wharton professors as much as the mortgage did her family. But she was convinced that her clientele would grow as the tourist trade found its way to this secret Brigadoon. With large families and the scarcity of farmland for sale, the town had found itself forced to transform from a strictly agricultural area to a tourist destination. Business had already picked up over the last year at Wagler's Grocery, Elijah's Furniture, the Seven Sisters Quilt Shop, and Russell's Hardware and Emporium.
Stone Mill was a picturesque Amish village with none of the commercial ugliness of Lancaster—no strip malls, no outlet stores, no neon signs proclaiming
Gut Food
Dutch Miniature Golf
. There were no twenty-foot-high plastic Amish figures luring tourists into T-shirt marts or big-box discount stores. The nearest Dairy Queen was twenty miles away.
The Old Order Amish of Stone Mill were strongly conservative, and had been reluctant to listen to Rachel when she had told them that they needed to change or see their way of life disappear, along with their children. Eventually, both Amish and Englishers, over the course of more town meetings than Rachel could recall, agreed that this was the only way to keep the town from dying out. People didn't have to leave their farms and their businesses and move away. They could change what Stone Mill was without changing themselves or their values.
The citizens of Stone Mill gave visitors what they had to offer and that was a sliver of the idyllic life of yesteryear. For a few hours, a few days, or even a week, guests could buy homemade crafts, visit a farm that had been run the same way for the last hundred and fifty years, and taste food prepared the way their great-grandmothers had made it.
Rachel walked across the original wide-plank flooring of the spacious center hall with its ten-foot-high plaster ceiling and broad walnut staircase. She hung a left into the onetime parlor, now a gift shop.
Here, she displayed authentic Amish crafts: hand-stitched quilts and braided rugs and delicious jams, jellies, relishes, and candies. There were also a few carefully chosen pieces of pottery, hand-woven reed baskets, and traditional, faceless Amish dolls. Along one wall, she displayed books on the history of the area and Amish culture, written by a professor at Penn State University. There were no T-shirts, no sunglasses, no bobblehead Amish farmers. Nothing made of plastic and nothing made in China.
Golden rays of sunlight spilled through one of the two tall, deep-set windows. Bishop, a large seal point Siamese, was stretched full length on the wide windowsill. He was pretending to be asleep, but Rachel knew better. “Admit it,” she said. “You think the gift shop is a good idea.”
She went to the window to open it and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the wavy glass. She had few mirrors in the house—another throwback from her childhood—but she couldn't resist taking a peek. Her straight strawberry-blond hair fell well below her shoulders, framing her fair-skinned, freckled face. Her hazel eyes were very green this morning.
Was she attractive? It was a question she'd asked herself many times, a question that she'd once asked her Grandmother Mast.

am I pretty?” she'd asked, knowing that just saying it was evidence of pride, or
one of the worst traits a well-brought-up Amish girl could exhibit. She must have been nine or ten, and she'd run home from the one-room schoolhouse in tears because sixth grader Jakob Peachey had called her a “beet-headed puddin' face” and everyone had laughed at her.
Her grandmother hadn't admonished her. Instead, she'd pulled Rachel close to the porch rocker where she'd sat shelling peas and studied her face. Even now, Rachel could remember how her cheeks had burned. She'd tried to pull away, but
had held tight to her sleeve and inspected her features carefully.
Finally, when Rachel had thought she would die of embarrassment, her grandmother had said, “Your forehead is high like your
's, and you have her nose. Not too big, not too small. Your mouth is wide, a Mast mouth, but you will grow into it, and you have your
's eyes.
I would not call yours a beautiful face, but beautiful never lasts. Yours is
—strong. It is a face that people will trust.”
had tapped her on the forehead. “You have a
brain and a pure heart. Better to be smart than beautiful, Rachel.” Her grandmother had smiled, showing small, even, perfect teeth. “So, dry your tears. It is a face that men will like, and of that, you must be ever watchful.”
A strong face,
had declared. And better than beautiful. Rachel looked at herself again and shrugged. It would have to do. She reached over the cat and pushed up the window, letting the fresh air into the room.
Bishop deigned to open his slanting eyes and stretched, but made no comment. The cat had no opinion on business matters. It simply wasn't his way. Mundane, petty commerce was beneath Bishop's dignity. He concerned himself with eating, sleeping, and finding the most comfortable spots in the house to perch and observe the goings-on of Stone Mill House.
“I know I'm right.” Rachel paused to scratch behind the Siamese's ears. He didn't consent to actually purr, but he did give what could only be described as a tiny rumble of pleasure. “This place is special,” Rachel murmured. “People who want a genuine experience will come.”
“Excuse me.”
Rachel turned to see one of her female guests, either Ms. Baird or her sister, Ms. Hess—Rachel wasn't sure which—surveying the room from the open doorway.
“Good morning,” Rachel said, hoping that the woman hadn't heard her conversing with a cat. She assumed her best hostess smile. “Were you looking for the dining room? Coffee's on. But you probably already knew that by the heavenly smell.”
Not even the slimmest of smiles.
The woman peered at her through pink, rhinestone-studded glasses. “I rang the desk, but no one answered.”
“Sorry, I was outside.” There was a wall phone in the kitchen, but Ada wouldn't have answered it. As far as Rachel knew, Ada had never gotten within three feet of the abomination called a telephone. Phones were against the Old Order rules, and Ada never broke the rules.
Ms. Hess—Rachel thought this was the younger of the two women she'd welcomed last night—was tall and thin with short, spiky hair that was an unnatural shade of rhubarb. Her yellow capris, peppered with oversized blue flowers, clung to her like a second skin. Her nearly transparent orange peasant blouse, over a tiger-stripe bra, matched her four-inch-high wedges. “Is this the gift shop?” she demanded in a nasally tone that had all the comfort of fingernails grating on a chalkboard.
Rachel glanced at the open door.
she reminded herself. Her
Gift Shop Open
sign still hung there. Her business permit and her MasterCard/Visa placards were plainly displayed. “Yes,” Rachel answered pleasantly. “You're welcome to come in.”
“I'm a guest here.”
Rachel nodded. “It's good to have you. I checked you and your sister in last night.”
The woman stared pointedly at Rachel's bare feet and then slowly lifted her gaze, taking in Rachel's worn blue jeans and her raggedy T-shirt that read
Penn State 5K Buggy Run 2012
. “Are you
-ish?” she asked. “You don't look
-ish. I thought the pamphlet said this was an
-ish B&B.”
BOOK: Plain Murder
12.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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