It was late by the time the buggy rolled into the town of Paradise. Nick didn’t have a watch, but he guessed it was around eleven. The service station where they went to use the pay phone was still open, but empty, except for the single attendant standing behind the counter inside. Nick could see his pick-up truck parked on the side of the building.
But there was another car parked at the edge of the lot, behind the air pump. Free Air, a handwritten sign said. Nick leaned forward as the buggy bounced toward the station, studying the car. It was a dark sedan, long and low to the ground. It wasn’t running, but he could see a shadowy figure sitting in the front seat, behind the wheel. Although it was too dark to see his face, Nick could tell by the size and silhouette that it was a man. His heart dropped into his stomach. The sick feeling was strong enough to make him shout, “Stop!”
Startled, Analiese started to look back at him, but Nick quickly said, “Don’t turn around. Don’t say anything. Just face forward and listen.” He sat as far back as he could, hunching down a little, so he wouldn’t be seen through the buggy’s back windows. “You see that car in the parking lot? There’s a guy inside. I think he’s watching us. He might be one of the guys who did this to me.” He rubbed the back of his head, feeling the tender knot raised there by the barrel of a gun. His paranoia escalated, like water rising over his head, and for a few seconds, he was overcome with panic, unable to breathe. “Keep going,” he choked. “Don’t stop.”
He saw Lukas, who was holding the reins, exchange looks with Analiese.
“Please,” he begged.
Without a word, Analiese placed her hand upon Lukas’s. Lukas gave a short nod and flicked the reins, urging his horse onward.
Nick felt a sense of déjà vu as he rode the rollercoaster of emotions that followed another failed attempt at contacting someone back in Philadelphia. Hope had turned to disappointment, nervousness to fear. Yet in the midst of his anxiety, he also felt an odd sort of relief - not the relief he’d expected to feel after placing the call, but relief over an excuse not to make the call at all. No weight had been lifted from his weary shoulders, but at least he’d been granted a reprieve. He wouldn’t have to face his grief-stricken friends that night.
He waited until the buggy was a safe distance down the road to whisper, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Analiese murmured automatically, without turning around.
Lukas was less courteous when he asked, “What now?”
“I don’t know,” Nick admitted, dragging a hand through his hair. “They’re watching for me. They must be worried I’m still alive.” His mind raced, wondering how they could know that. “Maybe they went back to move my body and couldn’t find it,” he theorized. “That creek wasn’t very deep. They used a cinder block to anchor me down, so I couldn’t have drifted downstream. If they went back to check, they’d know I got away.”
“Then you shouldn’t stay here,” said Lukas. “If they’re looking for you in Paradise, it’s only a matter of time before they find you with us.”
“No, I have to!” Nick protested, feeling the panic flare up again. He leaned forward. “Please - you don’t understand. If I go anywhere else, I’ll be recognized. They’ll find me. If I can just lay low at the farm for a little longer, they’ll assume I’m dead and stop looking for me. Please.”
Lukas looked at Analiese again. Nick could tell he disapproved, but the decision was hers to make. “Of course, you may stay,” she said quietly, glancing into the back seat. Her smile reassured him some.
He nodded. “Thank you,” he said again, leaning back with a sigh, as Lukas circled around the block and guided the buggy back towards home.
Home? It didn’t feel like home to Nick, but for now, it was the safest place he could think of to hide.
The man in the black sedan slurped soda through a straw as he watched the horse-drawn buggy trundle by. The best part of sitting outside a gas station all day was easy access to all the junk food he could eat. When he’d explained to the station attendant what he was doing there, the kid had invited him in for free refills whenever he wanted.
He let out a loud belch and loosened the button on his pants, afraid it might pop off. His wife gave him plenty of crap already about the way he ate on the job; there was no telling what she’d say if he came home with a busted button for her to sew back on. Then she’d know he’d been getting fast food with the guys instead of eating the measly little lunches she packed for him. Well, sometimes he ate those, too, as a mid-morning snack. But, seriously, how was anyone supposed to survive on carrots and lettuce? Well, besides a rabbit. He scowled and took another sip of his soda.
When he saw a car approaching from the east, he hastily put his cup back in the holder and hunched down a little in his seat. Headlights splashed over him as the car turned into the station parking lot, but rather than stop at one of the pumps, it pulled up alongside him. He sat up straight and rolled down his window. The driver of the other car did the same, and he recognized Jim DeWitt, a fellow detective from his district. “Evening,” he said, tipping his Phillies cap.
“Evening,” echoed DeWitt. “Seen anything interesting out here?”
He laughed. “Nothin’ but a whole bunch of Amish buggies. Between you and me, I think Malcolm’s grasping at straws, sending us way out here on a stakeout. But hey, speaking of straws-” He picked up his cup and gave it a shake; it was mostly just slushy ice now. “-you’d best get your butt in there and get yourself some sustenance before this place shuts down for the night. I think the kid said they close at midnight. If you play nice, he might even let you have a free drink, Officer Friendly.”
DeWitt laughed. “Sounds good. Thanks for the tip, Ax.”
Detective Dave Axelsson smiled and said, “You have a good night now, Jim. Stay safe.” He chuckled to himself as he rolled up the window and started the engine of his unmarked car. Who was he kidding? There was nothing dangerous in these parts, not unless you counted the odd cow that wandered into the road. He flicked on his headlights as he pulled out of the parking lot. Once on the road, he reached for his police radio to report back to the station. “Yeah, this is Axelsson. DeWitt just arrived to relieve me, so I’m heading home. No new intell to report.”
He replaced his radio and sighed as he stared out the windshield at the stretch of two-lane road in front of him. It was going to be a long drive back to Philadelphia.
Nick kept peeking out the small back window of the buggy on the way back to the farm, afraid the dark sedan was following them. Only once did he see a glimmer of headlights on the horizon, and he held his breath until the vehicle - a white SUV, not a dark-colored car - passed them. There were no other vehicles on the road that night. People in Paradise seemed to roll up the pavement after dark, and it occurred to him what a risk Lukas and Ana must have taken to bring him into town so late. Not only were the streets unsafe for an Amish buggy in the dark, but Nick doubted Ana’s parents would approve if they knew where she was.
“Hey, thanks again,” he said sincerely, leaning forward into the front seat. “I hope you won’t get in trouble for being out so late.”
“As long as our parents think we’re still at the sing, it’s fine,” said Analiese.
“How late do you usually stay at those things?”
“Some stay past midnight, but Lukas and I don’t usually stay that long.”
“But your parents would be okay with it if you did?” Nick asked incredulously. Midnight seemed like a late curfew for a teenage girl - not that he would know. He’d never had a curfew, but her parents seemed a lot stricter than his own.
Analiese shrugged. “Perhaps not ‘okay,’ but they won’t permit me from going. I’m sixteen now, so I’m allowed to run around and court whomever I choose.”
Nick suppressed a smile. She made herself sound rebellious, but he imagined her definition of “running around” was much different from the English one. “That’s cool of them,” he said.
“They know I will follow the teachings of the Ordnung - the rules of our church,” she explained.
Nick supposed he would be expected to follow the same rules if he were going to stay. Was he going to stay? What other choice did he have? It was too dangerous to go back, not only for him, but for his family and friends as well, and even for his Amish rescuers. If he’d been spotted in the back of their buggy that night, the men who had killed Kevin would no doubt kill all of them, too. They wouldn’t want to leave any witnesses. Wasn’t that the whole reason they’d come after Nick in the first place?
As long as they were still out there, he would never truly be safe, but if he kept his head down and stayed hidden among the Amish, Nick reasoned, he might last long enough for them to either forget about him or get caught. Once they were locked up, it would be safe for him to return. There was no telling how long that would take, though.
Sitting in the back of the buggy, watching the endless farmland crawl by, Nick sighed to himself. For the time being, he was stuck there.