Last Writes : A Claudia Rose Novel
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The clock is already ticking when handwriting expert Claudia becomes one of the few outsiders to be invited into the Temple of Brighter Light compound. There, she must hurry to uncover the truth before the prophecy of a secret ancient parchment can be fulfilled and a child's life written off for good.
Release date: April 7, 2021
Publisher: Write Choice Ink
Print pages: 284
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Behind the book
I was raised in a religion that I now view as a cult. I borrowed the most chilling quote from their literature for Last Writes: "Brothers, we would not want to engage in independent thinking."
When the many predictions of the end of the world that I grew up hearing resulted in "not the end of the world," rather than admitting their error, the governing body would say, "the light is always getting brighter." So, for this book, I created the Temple of Brighter Light. Members of that cult will recognize much of what they read.
Last Writes : A Claudia Rose Novel
The angelic face in the photograph gazed past the camera with serious eyes the color of spring violets. Claudia Rose fancied she saw life experience in those eyes that far exceeded the scant two years Kylie Powers had resided on earth. And there was the grown-up wistfulness in the way she rested her chin on her dimpled hand, her rosebud mouth turned down.
An old soul.
Erin Powers took the photo back from Claudia and stuffed it into the battered leather bag at her feet. More saddlebag than purse, its cracked sides bulged with who-knew-what. “We’ve always known that Kylie was special.” Erin choked back a sob. “As soon as we saw those eyes, we knew God had a plan for her. We knew it for sure. I’ve got to get her back. Please, please say you’ll help me.”
In her mid-twenties, she was a pretty but thin girl who, maybe because she wore no makeup, looked younger than her age. Long brown hair framed her face in the style of a Madonna and her eyes were as startling as her daughter’s. After a twenty-year absence, she had shown up out of the blue at the home of her half-sister, Kelly Brennan, pleading for help.
Kelly knelt and slipped an arm around Erin’s slender shoulders, which were shaking with suppressed emotion. She threw a helpless glance at Claudia—her best friend—who was regarding the two sisters, virtual strangers after all this time. “I can’t believe I let myself lose track of you for so long, Erin. It’s ages since I’ve heard anything about you. I mean, years ago, I heard you’d joined a cult, but—”
“It’s not a cult,” Erin shot back fiercely.
Behind her head, Kelly rolled her eyes. “Okay, sorry. New religion. Anyway, I’m still kind of in shock. My baby sister is here, plus I have a niece nobody ever told me about.”
“When we get Kylie back, I promise you’ll get to meet her.” Fresh tears flooded the tissue Kelly pressed into Erin’s hand.
The three of them were gathered around a small table on the plant-filled patio. The heady scent of star jasmine filling the sun-warmed air, but no one was paying attention to the aroma. They gazed at each other in shared distress, the reunion caused—and ruined—by the same terrifying event—the disappearance of little Kylie.
“Tell us what happened,” Claudia said as Kelly slid back into her chair.
Erin nodded slowly and drew a deep breath as if steeling herself for the telling of what had brought her here after so many years of silence. “There’s not much to tell. I’d had a bad night and I woke up with a headache. Rod told me to go back to sleep and said he would take Kylie for a walk. I thought they were coming right back, you know? But they didn’t come back, and when I finally got up and went to make coffee, there was this note on the kitchen table—”
Kelly interrupted. “Rod is your husband?”
“Uh-huh. Can you believe he just took her away while I was sleeping? How could he do that?”
“What did the note say?” Claudia jumped in, her professional curiosity aroused. “Did you bring it with you?”
“Claudia’s a handwriting expert,” Kelly explained. “She’s the best in the world, and I’m not just saying so because she’s been my best friend for ninety-five years; it’s really true.”
“A handwriting expert? But I already know who wrote it.” Erin dug in her bag and came out with a sheet of notebook paper. She handed it to Claudia, watching with a worried expression as she read the words. The note was handprinted in black ink.
DON’T BOTHER LOOKING. THERE MIGHT BE SUFFERING BUT
NOT AS BAD AS YOU THINK. GOD’S WILL BE DONE.
The signature was little more than a scribble.
As a handwriting examiner, anything to do with the handwritten word piqued Claudia’s interest. In the case of a missing child, she hoped she might be able to contribute something helpful to the discussion. The red flags that sprouted from the brief note made it hard to find them. “Let me look at it for a minute.” she searched for diplomatic words that wouldn’t add to Erin’s distress.
“Claudia can tell you what you need to know—whether this guy is dangerous,” Kelly said.
“Of course he’s not dangerous,” Erin protested. “He’s my husband.”
“Then what are you worried about? I thought you—”
“What did you do when you found the note?” Claudia interrupted before they could get into an argument. She was well acquainted with her friend’s short fuse. Kelly was a successful family attorney who was good at mediating between other people. Not so much for herself.
Erin turned to her. “We’ve been staying up in Big Bear Lake for the last few weeks. After I realized Rod really wasn’t coming back, I didn’t know what to do. We don’t know anyone around there. So, I called Sean.”
Kelly looked hurt. “You stay in touch with our brothers, but not me?”
“Just Sean, and that’s once in a while—a couple times a year maybe. He lets me know when he hears from Mom.”
“That would be when she wants money.” The topic of Kelly’s mother tended to set her off like a rocket, so Claudia avoided it whenever possible. Erin, not noticing the sudden flare of hostility that charged the air, bristled. “Look, I get that you hate Mom, but she’s not—”
Kelly stopped her. “Let’s not go there, Erin. Neither you nor Sean was around when I was a six-year-old doing my best to raise Mickey and Pat while Mom was out hurling herself at whatever seedy bar was happy to take the grocery money. If it hadn’t been for Claudia’s parents and some of the other neighbors pitching in, the rest of us would have either starved or been split up and put into foster care long before you were ever born.”
Erin’s eyes widened as her sister spoke. “But—oh boy, I didn’t know it was going on that long.”
“That’s right, you didn’t. So, don’t tell me that Mom is not so bad when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
An ancient memory dropped into Claudia’s head. The day the Brennan family moved into the ratty house near the end of the block. The hand-lettered cardboard ‘For Rent’ sign, which had stood there since the previous Christmas, disappeared from the front yard of the old Drew house. Mr. Drew had suffered a debilitating stroke, after which his daughter moved him into a skilled-care facility. Now, nine months later, on the Saturday before kindergarten was to begin, the weeds were taller than the flowers they choked, the concrete driveway cracked and stained with the oil of the 1952 Dodge Coronet that, until Mr. Drew’s departure, had been parked there since before Claudia was born.
The day the Brennans arrived, Claudia, hiding behind an ancient elm in her front yard, had watched two sweaty men in t-shirts unload a decrepit-looking moving van stacked with furniture shabby enough to match the house. A little girl her own age was running around the yard in a futile attempt to corral two younger boys. Standing on the doorstep, a cigarette dangling from her nicotine-stained fingers, was a tall woman with long, red hair.
The mother, Claudia later learned, Georgia Brennan.
“Kelly Ann Brennan,” she screeched, oblivious of curtains twitching in disapproval in windows all along the street. “Can’t you do anything right? I swear, you’re as useless as your old man. I told you to watch your brothers, didn’t I? Didn’t I?” The mother’s voice reached a pitch that could set dogs howling. “You get those boys inside right now and wash them up. And don’t you let me see or hear from any of you ‘til dinnertime. You hear me, Kelly Ann? Do you hear me? What did I just say?”
Claudia could still remember being more impressed by her neon green halter top and shorts that showed off long, tanned legs than by what Claudia’s own strait-laced mother would later describe as “that unladylike caterwauling.”
The following Monday, the two girls met while walking to school. Excited to have a playmate her own age nearby, Claudia invited her new friend to play dolls with her after school. She had not understood what it meant when Kelly grudgingly said she wished she could, but she had to ‘go straight home and take care of her brothers because her mother would be passed out on the couch.’ Over the years, Claudia came to understand too well.
By the time Kelly was sixteen, two more fatherless Brennan kids—Erin and Sean—had been crammed into the two-bedroom dwelling. Kelly spent most of her time at Claudia’s parents’ home, so when they took pity on her and invited her to come and live with them fulltime, she was thrilled to make her escape.
Kelly’s mother made no objection to foisting her eldest off onto another family, and when she informed her daughter that she was taking her four younger progeny and moving to Banning, where housing was cheaper than L.A. County, Kelly expressed nothing but relief. Banning was a ninety-minute drive but the town might as well have been a thousand miles away, and that was fine with her.
Their last sight of the Brennan family was the three boys waving goodbye from the back of a pickup truck piled high with boxes and furniture. Erin, a shy four-year-old, sucking her thumb, stared out the window as their mother drove them away, leaving Kelly behind. Not all that much older than Erin’s own child, Kylie, was now, Claudia realized, returning to the present. “Let’s get back to the most important subject at hand,” she suggested. “The missing child.”
Kelly’s cheeks puffed as she blew out a long breath. “Yeah, you’re right, Claud. The most important thing is to make sure my niece is safe.”
“Sean told me you would know what to do.”
“That’s because I kept him out of jail a while back, which is a whole other story. Look, Erin, we have to take this note to the police.”
“The police? No way.”
“Why not? This line about ‘the suffering’ is scaring the bejezus out of me. Doesn’t it scare you?”
“Let’s ask Joel,” Claudia suggested. “He can tell us who we need to talk to.”
“No police.” This time, there was more than a hint of defiance in Erin’s refusal.
Ignoring her, Kelly made a gun finger and pointed it at Claudia. “Obvious choice. But first, we need more information.”
“There’s a lot of information in this handwriting sample.” Claudia glanced again at the words Rodney Powers had penned on the sheet of paper. The deliberately controlled block printing told her that the writer could be opinionated and more than a little self-important. It wouldn’t be easy to get to know him, or to break through his defenses. It would be hard to convince him to change his mind once it was made up. She kept these thoughts to herself for the moment.
“If you write a report on it, we might be able to get a judge to—”
“Wait,” Erin broke in. “Who’s Joel?”
“He’s my, er—” Boyfriend felt on the edge of ridiculous at forty. ‘Partner’ was worse.
“He’s her lov-er.” Kelly drew out the word with an arch smile.
“He’s a detective with the LAPD,” Claudia said, speaking over her.
Erin looked doubtful. “I don’t want Rod to get in trouble. I don’t think he would hurt Kylie.”
“Well, pardon me.” Kelly threw her hands up in disgust. “What about what he wrote? What about the fact that he took off with your child? Holy Christ, Erin, if you don’t think Kylie is in trouble, what the holy hell are you here for?”
“Please don’t use that kind of language.” Erin rubbed her hands over her face. “I just didn’t know what else to do. The one thing that scares me is, they left Tickle behind.”
“Tickle?” Kelly repeated. “Who, or what is Tickle?”
Erin reached into her bag again and pulled out a brown stuffed bunny that had seen a lot of wear. “Kylie never, ever goes anywhere without Tickle. I don’t know how Rod forgot it. She must be totally coming unglued by now.”
The three women looked at each other with sober faces, fully comprehending the importance of the woolen bunny to a toddler.
“What the hell was he thinking, Erin?” Kelly asked. “Do you have any idea at all why he would take Kylie away? What does this note mean?”
“I don’t know, Kelly, I just don’t know.”
“Something like this doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Claudia said. “What led up to it? Has something been going on lately?”
Erin spoke slowly, as if reluctant to part with the words. “We’ve been arguing for the past couple of days. But he never mentioned that he was leaving. He’s never made any kind of threats. I never, ever thought he would take Kylie. Can’t you do something, Kelly?”
“Is he Kylie’s father?”
“Of course he is.” Erin looked insulted. “What do you think I am?”
“And you’re legally married?”
“Yes. We’ve been married almost six years.”
“Has he ever abused her or you? Hit you or…?”
“No, of course he’s never done anything like that. We’re God-fearing people. He’s a little older than me, but Rod’s been a good husband. We did missionary work together for three years before I ever got pregnant.”
“Missionaries can get into trouble,” Kelly pointed out. “Just how much older is he?”
Erin hesitated. “I’m twenty-four, he’s thirty-eight.”
“That’s more than just a bit older, babydoll. Claudia’s right. We’ll start by talking to Joel and see what he thinks about taking the note to the police. He’ll know how to get the ball rolling.”
Claudia got out her phone. “I’ll call him right now.”
Kelly rose and stretched. “Erin, let’s go to the kitchen while she’s making the call. I could use a cold one.”
Claudia watched them go, hoping the ‘cold one’ her friend was talking about was iced tea or soda. Kelly had worked hard at staying sober for the past several months. She would hate to see anything interfere with her progress.
Jovanic’s answer threw cold water on the question.
“I asked him whether they would issue an Amber Alert,” Claudia told the sisters, feeling let down. “He says they can’t. Since Rod is her father, he has a legal right to take her. The wording of the note is ‘ambiguous.’ It’s not a direct threat, so there’s no evidence that he intends to harm her.”
“Damn.” Kelly handed Claudia a glass filled with ice cubes and Diet Coke, then began taking sandwich fixings from the fridge. Claudia had a feeling that it wasn’t because she was hungry as much as she needed to do something active to contain her growing agitation.
“What’s up with Rod’s handwriting?” Kelly liberally slathered mayo and mustard on three French rolls. “You saw danger signs, didn’t you?”
“There are some problems. I’d like to enlarge it on the computer so I can look at it in more detail.” Claudia hesitated. There was no point in offering a hasty opinion that could lead to mistakes. “If you could scan it and email it to me, I’ll take a closer look when I get home. Six-hundred DPI is high enough resolution to show the fine points.”
She still had the note in her hand. Flipping it over, she ran her fingers across the back of the paper. The pen had dug hard ridges into the other side. She glanced at Erin, who was watching her closely. “Do you know what kind of surface he wrote this on? Do you think he might have put a magazine under the paper, or something like that?”
“We don’t read Outsider magazines.” Erin’s expression of disdain drew a frown from her sister. “He probably wrote it on the kitchen table,” she added.
The considerable pen pressure pointed to frustration, possibly anger. Without comparing the writing to other samples of Rodney Powers’ handwriting, there was no way to know whether it was his habit, or caused by the emotion of what he was writing about. One thing was certain. At the time he wrote the note, he was laboring under powerful emotions.
“He’s stubborn,” Claudia mused aloud. “Has a strong need to be in control. He would have planned this out, not acted on the spur of the moment without knowing what he was going to do and how he was going to accomplish it. He’s not the type who caves under pressure.” Erin was twisting her tissue to shreds. “Who might he have gone to for help?” Claudia asked her. “It would be hard for a man to handle a small child on his own.”
“Not Rod. He’s crazy about Kylie, and she’s the same way about him. He spends a lot more time with her than I do. He knows how to handle her.”
“Still. Think of anyone he knows that—”
“He was raised TBL,” Erin interrupted. “He doesn’t know any Outsiders.”
“TBL? What’s that?”
“Our church. The Temple of Brighter Light. We don’t associate with anyone who’s not a member. Well, unless it’s for a good reason, like this. That’s why I’m sure Rod doesn’t know anyone on the outside well enough that he could ask for a favor.”
Kelly left her sandwich preparation for a moment and turned to her sister. “Erin, if you’re both so involved in the church, have you talked to your pastor? Wouldn’t Rodney would listen to him?”
Erin’s face crumpled as though she might weep again. “Brother Harold would be so disappointed in him. I don’t want to tell him. I have to do this myself. With your help, I mean.”
“Okay, then,” Claudia said, “if you don’t associate with Outsiders, can you think of anyone inside the church he might have turned to? Someone he’s close to?”
“All the TBL members are close. It’s the most supportive, wonderful bunch of people. I’ve been a member since I was fifteen.”
“I was in the middle of a divorce back then,” Kelly said. “I was pretty messed up myself, but I remember Pat telling me you ran away from home.”
That was a period Claudia remembered well: Kelly, on a months-long bender, then another three months in rehab. The stress levels had been high and Kelly so out of it, that Claudia would be surprised if her friend remembered any of the details of Erin’s split from the family.
“Don’t worry about it.” Erin shrugged with elaborate casualness. “You and the older boys were all gone by then, so it was just Sean and me. Mom kept taking off for days at a time, but nobody knew. At school they thought I was a delinquent, so I decided to become one.” She gave a hollow laugh. “It turned out that living on the streets of Banning was even worse than being home, so I hitchhiked to Hollywood.”
Kelly’s eyes brightened with tears of shame. Her shoulders were stiff and tense as she turned away and started layering thick slices of turkey and provolone on the rolls, building sandwiches as if her life depended on it.
“I’m so sorry, Erin. You’re right, I abandoned you too. After I got out of that household, I never wanted to look back. I wanted to believe you were going to be treated better than I was. I made myself think that you were. I’m just sorry.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to feel bad. It all worked out.” Erin gave a bleak smile. “It was kind of exciting and fun for a while, but I got tired of that life real fast. There are hundreds of runaways in Hollywood. They have this amazing network, sharing what they’ve got with each other and helping each other survive. Their methods may not be strictly conventional, but they sure are effective.”
Kelly was busying herself getting out sandwich plates and potato chips, so Claudia asked, “What happened?”
“God sent me to the TBL shelter, Teens for the Lord. It was so awesome. It was a day that Brother Harold ‘just happened’ to be preaching there. But I know that was no coincidence; it had the hand of God written all over it. They do so much good at the shelter.”
“You mentioned ‘Brother Harold’ earlier. Who, exactly, is he?”
“He’s our spiritual leader at TBL. He and Sister Grace—she was in charge at the shelter back then—they talked to me about the End of Times, which was pretty terrifying until they showed me how I could be saved. They invited me to go back to the Ark with them—”
“You mean like Noah’s Ark?” Kelly interrupted. “You live on a boat?”
Erin gave an impatient shake of her head. “No, it doesn’t look like the Bible Ark, it’s a metaphor. It’s sort of our own little world that keeps TBL separate from the Outsiders. In biblical times God told Noah to build an ark to save his family from the flood. Our Ark is to keep the TBL family safe until the End of Times, which is coming very soon.”
“This Brother Harold person took you there to live when you were fifteen?” Claudia did her best to look neutral, but she knew her skepticism showed on her face.
“Brother Harold and Sister Grace—she was his wife, but she died five years ago.” Erin frowned. “Hey, wait a minute, I don’t want you to think there was anything inappropriate going on; there wasn’t. It’s just, there was no way I was going back home. So, when they invited me to the Ark, I said I’d go with them and try it out. The minute I got there I knew I was in the right place. I finally had a real family.” She shot an uneasy glance at her older sister. “I mean, we eat all our meals together—real meals, not Chicken McNuggets or mac and cheese every night.”
“It’s okay, hon.” Kelly was uncharacteristically chastened. “I understand. We weren’t exactly ‘Modern Family.’ More like ‘Schitts Creek.’”
“I don’t know what that is, and I don’t care for the profanity.”
“Seriously, Erin? Schitts Creek is a very popular show. It won—”
“Not the point, Kel,” Claudia interrupted.
“The Brothers and Sisters at the Ark couldn’t have been more loving. They were willing to work with me and help me clean up my act, get off drugs. I went back to school there—we have our own private classes at the Ark. There are regular school lessons, plus I trained to become a missionary. I learned how to talk to other people about what we believe in, to help them be saved too. It was hard at first, but now I can talk to anyone.”
“A minute ago, you mentioned the ‘End of Time,’” Claudia said. “What is that referring to? The end of the world?”
Behind her sister’s back, Kelly shot a rude face at Claudia for encouraging her sister, but Erin’s face shone with zeal as she jumped at the chance to explain further. “We’re living in the End of Time days right now. The earth is going to be destroyed by a series of major natural disasters and everyone who doesn’t know how to be saved will be destroyed with it. It’s going to happen really soon, too. This time we’re living in, it’s like, well, it’s like just before your alarm clock goes off in the morning. You know how you wake up just before the alarm? That’s where we are right now; it’s time for the alarm to go off. If you want to be saved, you have to pay attention right now, and wake up.” She nodded in earnest at the other two, encouraging them to consider what she was saying.
Kelly brushed aside Erin’s sermon, which to Claudia sounded thoroughly programmed. “Look, Erin, I want to know what happened with Rodney that would make him do something so rash as to take Kylie?”
Erin’s look of beatification faded fast. Her lower lip quivered and her eyes filled. “I told you, we’d been fighting.”
“Yes, you did. It must have been something pretty big for him to take that kind of drastic action. What were you fighting over?”
The tears dried as fast as they’d started. “What does it matter what we fought over? It’s personal. The important thing is, he took my daughter away and I want her back.”
“Erin, if you want our help, we need to know what happened,” said Claudia. “Why don’t you want to tell us what you were fighting over?”
“Because you wouldn’t understand; I know you wouldn’t. Why isn’t it good enough just to know we had a disagreement?”
In Claudia’s view, Erin was acting like a petulant child. “We can’t help you if we don’t have all the facts.”
“Just tell us the truth,” Kelly urged. “We’re not going to judge you. You don’t have to hide anything, just tell us what happened. And don’t bother to bullshit a bullshitter, Erin. Believe me, there’s nothing you can say that I haven’t said or done a thousand times over. Maybe if we know what we’re dealing with, we can come up with a plan to get my niece back.”
Erin looked from one to the other with the distrust of a cornered animal. When she realized that neither was going to back down, she huffed a deep sigh. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I know how you Outsiders are; your minds are totally closed. You’re not willing to listen to anything outside of what you already think you know.”
Kelly and Claudia glanced at each other; neither spoke.
Erin’s chin went up, telegraphing her defiance even before she began her story. “Like I told you, we’ve been staying in the mountains. We went there because Kylie is enrolled in a super special program called Jephthah’s Daughters. It’s one of those things that come up literally once in a lifetime. We were there, getting ready for her to go.”
“Whose daughters?” Kelly asked.
Before Erin could answer, she picked up her sandwich and gestured for them to follow her back out to the patio. When they were settled around the table once again, Claudia remarked, “I remember the story from Sunday School. It scared the hell out of me. Jephthah was a judge in ancient Israel. He asked God to help him win a big battle, and in return, offered to sacrifice the first person who came out of his house to greet him when he got home.”
“Oh, hell no,” Kelly said. “I don’t like the sound of this.”
Erin took up the story. “God gave Jephthah the victory. When he got home, the first person to come out of the house was his only daughter who he loved with his whole soul.”
“Jephthah was devastated,” Erin continued, with a glare of disapproval at Kelly for the profanity. “He told his daughter the promise he had made, and she was like, you have to keep the promise, father; you gave your word to the Lord God. So, she asked if she could have two months off to mourn her virginity, because of course, she would never get to be married and have sex or anything. At the end of the two months, she was ready to let herself be sacrificed. Of course, the way we do it is more like a symbolic sacrifice. Like going to a convent.”
Both Claudia and Kelly stared at her. “You’re sending your three-year-old baby to a convent?”
“Well, that was the original plan. That’s why we were in the mountains; we had the two months to get ourselves ready. The longer we stayed there, the more I knew I couldn’t do it. When I told Rod I’d changed my mind about giving her up, he wouldn’t listen to me. He loves Kylie, but ever since he was a young kid, his goal was to be made an elder. Putting her into the program would help seal the deal for him. It’s a super prestigious thing for a TBL member. This is an opportunity that comes up once every few years.” Erin looked from Kelly to Claudia, her face fillet with conflicted emotions. “Look, I know it’s a great thing to give your child to God, but I just wasn’t ready to do it.”
“Good choice,” Kelly mumbled, stuffing a potato chip in her mouth.
Claudia said, “Why not wait until she’s old enough to have a say in the matter?”
Erin looked down at the bits of sodden tissue that dotted her jeans. She picked at the pieces, not looking up as she spoke. “It’s not like that. It has to be done at a certain time. She has to go into the program on her third birthday. That’s the requirement.”
Silence fell over them, and Claudia knew that Kelly was thinking the same thing she was. At last, she put the question into words. “When is Kylie’s third birthday?”
Erin buried her face in her hands. “A week from Sunday.”
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