Whether his next breath would be his last or not remained to be seen.
But one thing was for sure: if he ever got out of Afghanistan alive—ever got out of this locked room alive—he would find himself a nice little farm and settle down for life. Peace, quiet, and domestic tranquility.
Voices rose in anger behind the locked door, and he banged the back of the chair against the wall in the hopes of breaking it and the bonds that held him captive.
Home, family, a life. They were promises he’d made himself before, many times, too many times to count. But this time was different.
He couldn’t remember his name.
But he remembered everything else. He remembered that he’d been in worse situations before and lived. The danger didn’t bother him, and in fact, made him feel alive. Being a CIA agent was something he fell into, something he had a knack for. After all, he had been running for over thirty of his thirty-five years. By the time he had been at the Farm training to be an agent, he was an expert in working undercover, blending in with his surroundings, and changing identities. Witness Protection had taught him those things as a way of life.
No, it wasn’t amnesia or the haze of the drugs that made him forget his name. Fact was, he’d had so many different names in his lifetime, that he couldn’t make it through his drugged haze to remember which one had been his name: the name given to him by his parents a mere five years before his innocent child eyes had witnessed their murder.
Gunshots fired with alarming rapidity from a machine gun that could, in seconds, take out every one of the twenty-some men who had imprisoned him. Hope that a rescue team had been sent in for him was laughable, with his partner left for dead a week ago when he was taken prisoner. Besides, his mission was a black-op: too top-secret for his life ever to be acknowledged if he failed.
It was no mistake that he was always selected for the most delicate—most dangerous—of missions. He had no family, no friends save his partner, and no one to miss him if he disappeared. His family was the Company, and he risked his life for the ‘good’ and for his country, above all.
When the door broke down with a kick and a shout, he couldn’t raise his tied-up hands in surrender. Instead, he swung his body in a quick circle—the chair along with him—and broke the chair on the arm of his visitor, managing to both free his hands and relieve the man of his gun. Pure instinct and years of training kicked in, and he had the man flat on his back in seconds, foot on his neck and gun pointed at his head.
“Three seconds to tell me why I shouldn’t kill you now.”
The man gasped, “U.S. Marines.”
“My ass!” he said, though he laughed and gave the man a hand up. Agents almost always worked alone. That his partner on this mission was even alive was a shock. “In your dreams, buddy.”
Marines could receive glory and honor for the risks they took for their country; agents only lived or died, but always in secret. Ten days under the haze of drugs, and he had to ask his partner, “what’s my name these days?”
The man—Trevor, the best partner and only friend he’d ever had—whistled low, already leading them out of the bunker. “Mission accomplished. We’re goin’ home.” Shaking his head, he added, “Time for a new name.”
Time for a new life, Jack echoed silently.
“I feel a Telling comin’ on.”
Ellie Yoder spoke quietly while sewing tiny stitches into the wedding quilt. The other seven quilters at the work frolic hushed; everyone knew Ellie had a gift for Tellings, in spite of her mere twenty-one years. She took her time in starting her story and the quilters waited patiently, as custom demanded.
“Back in my Mammi’s time, there were two brothers of courtin’ age in Bellfield, Ohio: Eli and Michael Lapp. They were upstanding Amish men, both having taken the kneeling vow and committed themselves to the church five years beforehand. Both obediently lived the Ordnung—the order of rule.”
“Five years ain’t so long,” Aunt Mattie interrupted with a humph. Her frown lines were so permanently etched into her face, Ellie wondered if the old maid could smile. In all her years, she’d never seen even the slightest smile on Mattie’s lips.
“Hush, Mattie,” Ellie’s mama spoke softly to Ellie’s great-aunt. “Let her tell it.”
Ellie grinned broadly and gratefully at her mama, then gathered her thoughts while poking her needle in and out of the fabric. The circle of quilters had heard the story many a time, but Ellie tended to add a colorful detail or two each time she told it. Only Mattie ever reprimanded her for her exaggerations. But Mattie could stitch tinier stitches than any woman in all of Bellfield, and lightning quick, too; she was invited to almost all the quilting frolics in their Amish district in Holmes County.
Ellie pushed a naughty tendril of her unruly hair back under her kapp before she took a deep breath, taking herself back to another time and a different life. Stories gave her the adventure the plain and simple lifestyle of her People—as the Amish called themselves—had not yet allowed.
“Now Eli was a mighty fine lookin’ man, and Mammi always said many a girl giggled at his antics during Sunday night singings. But he had his eye on one particular young girl, Rachel Yoder.”
She paused for effect, knowing her two young cousins were holding their breath. Mary and Nancy were just fifteen, only months away from their sixteenth birthday and their rumshpringa—the time when Amish youth could sow their wild oats while parents looked the other way, waiting patiently for their children to decide to make their kneeling vows, get baptized and join the church. The two first cousins were best of friends, almost like sisters, and could hardly wait until they were of courtin’ age.
Ellie gave them a quick wink before continuing. “Rachel Yoder was a young, sweet girl, and innocent as can be. At sixteen she was already taking baptismal lessons. For her, das alte Gebrauch—” the old ways “—were the only ways.”
Ellie ignored the pointed glare from Great-Aunt Mattie—Aendi Mattie, as she was called—and tried not to let guilty thoughts interrupt the flow of her story. To be true, Ellie had not yet settled down and joined the church herself, nor did she have a beau. At twenty-one, the People would be assigning her to old maid status in only a year or two, if she didn’t get engaged soon.
“Throughout the winter the two competed to be the first to ask to take her home from the singings in their open buggy with its polished black shine. Rachel was always polite and said yes to whomever got to her first. This was surprising to most, for Michael had quite a bit of a hump in his back, and many were skeptical of his ability to farm and provide for a family.
“Well one Saturday night, Michael decided to come calling after Rachel’s parents were sure to be a-bed.” Ellie hid a grin while the two girls giggled and blushed. Courting was a secretive affair amongst the People, and though the rituals were well known, they were not often spoken of in public. “When Rachel heard a ping of a pebble on her window, she looked out to see Michael standing there with a lantern in his hand. She tiptoed downstairs and let him in. If you remember, the church still allowed bundling at that time.”
Bundling was the old tradition that stemmed from the old drafty, cold farmhouses. The warmest place in the house was under the covers, so a courting couple could crawl under the covers fully-clothed, provided a long wooden ‘bundling board’ split the bed down the middle and assured the couple would not compromise their morals. The practice had gone by the wayside decades ago, though a few strict, old-fashioned districts were known to still practice it.
“Now good Rachel ushered him upstairs right quick as could be, not wanting to awaken her parents. Unbeknownst to Rachel, her mother was up a little late writing in her journal, and had left the kerosene lamp on near her window. When Eli snuck up to the house, he saw the light, and thinking it was Rachel’s signal of welcome to him, threw his pebble at her parent’s window.”
Many of the quilters started snickering a little as they swallowed their giggles.
“Of course, as was custom, Rachel’s parents respected their daughter’s privacy, and when they heard the ping on their window, they ignored it, hoping he’d find his daughter’s window.”
Ellie waited a beat. “But Eli was persistent. Not ten minutes later, there was another ping, and another, each time a little louder.” She grinned. “Each time a little bigger. Finally, Eli persisted in sending a stone clear through the window to slap Rachel’s father on the face.”
“Himmel!” guffawed her neighbor Ruth, her jolly figure bouncing in merriment.
Her Mama, quiet as ever, smiled and laughed softly. Her eyes shone with pride over her daughter’s Telling talent.
Ellie grinned over the quilt at her giggling cousins, and continued. “Now her father was in a mighty fine temper, and stomped into Rachel’s room to wake her up and send her out to deal with her suitor. Imagine his surprise to find another suitor bundling with her in the bed.”
The chuckling increased to hearty laughter as she continued. “Now poor Michael was as flustered as can be. For even though bundling was an approved custom at the time, we all know that courting is always done in secret amongst our People. He swished out of the bedroom right quick, red as a beet, and flew right out the back door.”
“Oh!” cried Ruth, tears at her eyes, “I woulda been right mortified!”
“Well now, it gets better—or worse, depending. Both Eli and Michael continued to compete for the honor of driving Rachel home from singings, and Rachel, being the shy, sweet girl she was, always said yes to whomever got to her first. But in the spring, Rachel’s mother planted three whole extra rows of celery in her garden.”
They all laughed, knowing that even though a courtship is a secretive affair until the bishop announces the wedding only two weeks beforehand, the mother of the bride has her work cut out for her to feed celery to all two hundred wedding guests, as tradition demanded.
“The rumshpringa crowd speculated that Rachel and Eli were now a couple, and so all the girls paired up with other boys, leaving Eli for Rachel. But it was Michael who had won Rachel’s hand. So when the wedding season came, the People were shocked that Rachel had chosen hump-backed Michael over handsome Eli.”
“Purty is as purty does,” piped Aendi Mattie. Several of the women nodded in agreement while their fingers flew to complete the wedding quilt.
“What happened to Eli?” asked Mary.
“Well now, that’s a sad story. He was nearly twenty-four by then. Turns out, he’d been waiting for sweet Rachel to reach courtin’ age for nearly five years. He was devastated at the news of Michael’s and Rachel’s engagement.” Ellie shook her head, frowning. “He turned to fancy Englisch ways—” the Amish referred to the non-Amish Americans as Englisch “—and the Bishop had him shunned. When he still didn’t repent after the probation, he put him under the Meinding.”
The room became very quiet while they contemplated Eli’s fate, and a few of the women shuddered. The Meinding—the shunning—was the Amish way of disciplining those who violated the Ordnung and refused to repent. Of course, any member who opened his heart and publicly confessed would be immediately welcomed back into the community with open and loving arms. While he was under the Meinding, though, none of the People could eat at the same table, do business, or even talk with him. The sinner would even be cut off from eating with his own family for life, unless he publicly and humbly confessed. The shunning ripped ragged holes in a family, every bit as painful as a death.
Ellie hated to end the Tellin’ on a sad note, though. “Now Michael, on the other hand, became a good provider in spite of his humped back. He and Rachel had eight children, who all helped on the family dairy farm. Michael could milk a barn of cows faster than any man, woman or child in all of Bellfield. Way he told it, the Good Lord blessed him with a humped back.”
“Really?” asked young Nancy.
“You see, he always said that hump gave him the two greatest blessings of his life. First, he didn’t have to bend down so far to milk the cows, that’s why he could milk so fast.”
“And?” Mary held her needle poised in mid-air while she waited for the rest.
“He was fastest to Rachel’s ear, too, and got the sweetest love of his life.”
Nancy clapped her hands and cried, “That’s a wonderful-gut story, Ellie! For sure and for certain, you’re the finest Teller in the whole district!”
Aendi Mattie only grumbled a humph, but Ellie was sure she saw the tiniest of twinkles in her Great-Aunt’s eye. Ellie bent back down to her sewing, pleased with her cousin’s compliment. Of course, as was the People’s way, she didn’t respond—to do so would be showing the pride of the Englisch.
But inside, her heart swelled with pleasure. How could she ever think of leaving the blessings of family and community she had here in Bellfield? And yet, her heart thirsted for a life she’d never known, and a desire for education far above what the Ordnung allowed. A quick shot of pain sliced through her heart as she looked up at her Mama. Quiet and submissive, mama was a treasure to her family and community as an example of love, faith and obedience.
Ellie’s heart ached for the life she would leave, even while she yearned for the life she’d chosen.
It’s time to tell mama, she thought. Even though it’ll break her heart. She sighed, bending forward over the quilt to hide her tears.
Even though it’ll break my heart.
Jack opened and shut the back door over and over, unable to comprehend that his new farmhouse had no lock. And that was only the beginning. Turning on the lights was not an option. With his alimony—belated compensation from the Agency after completing his extended assignment in Afghanistan—Jack had bought a small farm in Ohio.
An Amish farm.
The elderly Amish couple had kindly left a kerosene refrigerator and a battery operated water pump, but until Jack had the place wired for electricity, he’d be using candles and flashlights. He looked out over the field—his field—and grinned. He’d signed the papers at nine a.m. sharp, waiting outside the realty office for a full hour before they opened. Then he’d gone to his new home, taken off his shoes, and walked around that field for two hours, stepping on every slope and in every ditch until his bare feet had memorized every nuance of the land.
No more running, no more chasing. His days of international espionage were over. No more sliding into characters he made up, no more pretending to be someone he wasn’t. From now on, he was Jack, and he could just be Jack.
If only he could figure out who that was.
He took in a deep breath, devouring the sweet farm air like one drinking that first swig of beer after a hot, long hard day’s work. His farm smelled good and homey, the sweet honey smell of flowers mellowing out the sharp green smell of freshly cut grass. The pungent smell of fertilizer wafted across the field, and even the manure smelled sweet to his nose.
With a startling ring, the cell phone called him out of his reverie. Only one person had that number: Trevor, his old partner and best—only—friend.
“Jack here.” Before Trevor could respond, Jack continued, “No, I’m not coming back to the Agency.”
“Well damn, you’re missed.” There was a pause of desperation. “We could really use you on this.”
“No.” Contrary to his curt reply, he grinned, missing the Agency more than a little.
“Word is, Uday has handed the leadership of the terrorist organization over to his nephew, temporarily.”
Jack rambled out to the porch, settling himself down on the porch swing. “Well, maybe he wants a vacation,” he joked. “Aren’t religious fanatics and crazy terrorists entitled to days off, too?”
Trevor let out a short bark of laughter and quickly cleared his throat. “The Director’s worried. Thinks Uday might be lookin’ for revenge.”
“Yeah well, I’d be too.” Jack breathed in the warm country air, rocking back and forth, while he contemplated Trevor’s words. Killing three of Uday’s sons on that last mission had generated more than a threat or two of revenge, but it had also kept him alive in the bunker. The terrorists would have killed him upon capture, except Uday had ordered Jack live until he could come in person and pay Jack his own special brand of revenge.
“The Director preparing for possible terrorism?”
“He wanted your take. You knew Uday, got closer to him than anyone ever did.”
Jack pulled at a stray dandelion in the grass. Evil didn’t exist here, not in the warm, sweet smell of June fields. But evil did exist in the world, of that Jack was certain. “I’d say this betrayal would hit him personal. He had big plans for his son. If he’s thinkin’ revenge, he’ll come after me, not the country.”
Trevor let out a sigh. “Well, that’s good. No way he can find you out there in Amish country.” Trevor chuckled. “You wearin’ a big black-brimmed hat yet?”
“Got fitted for one this morning.”
“Keep it low, buddy.”
“I intend to.”
Jack shoved the phone back in his pocket, taking a few minutes to rock back and forth on his porch swing. A cute little whisper of a bark sounded from the field, and a happy little pup came bounding towards him. The pup’s big brown eyes pleaded for play, while he bounced up and down, tail wagging in unrestrained excitement.
“Well, little boy. Where’d you come from?”
Jack laughed as the pup yipped in reply, leaning down to scratch the pup’s ears. The little thing—no bigger than Jack’s rather large, calloused hand—rolled over on its back gratefully, bouncing up seconds later to playfully tug at the hem of his old jeans.
Something sparked to life way deep in his heart. A little light of childlike wonder and pure pleasure; a flame of childhood that had been snuffed out too soon. For most of his childhood he had dreamed of a stable home with a family and a dog—mostly the dog. Jack grinned and rolled in the grass with the pup. Without a single flinch, he let the little cutey lick every inch of his face in loving affection.
Home, he sighed on a whisper of happiness. And if this wasn’t the happiest day of his life—the happiest in a long, long time, well … he’d be damned if this wasn’t the beginning of the rest of his life. The good life, far away from the likes of Uday Assam.
Far away from intrigue and evil.