Published by Penguin, Sheila’s mystery series features forensic handwriting expert, Claudia Rose, whose work mirrors her own. In Last Writes, the question is answered: What does an old stuffed bunny have to do with a religious cult and a missing three-year-old?
I will be posting the entire first chapter of ‘Last Writes’ in three segments. So, I present you part one of chapter 1.
The angelic face gazed past the camera with serious eyes the color of spring
violets and a rosebud mouth turned down. The child in the picture was hardly
more than a toddler—around two, two-and-a-half, Claudia Rose guessed—but there was a grown-up wistfulness in the way her chin rested on her dimpled hand.
Studying the photograph, Claudia fancied she could see life experience
in those eyes, experience that extended far beyond the scant few months the
little girl had been on earth. An old soul, she thought as she returned the
photograph to the child’s mother.
Erin Powers replaced the photo in an envelope and stuffed it into an
inside pocket of the battered leather bag at her feet. More saddlebag than
purse. Its faded sides bulged with unseen items. “We’ve always known Kylie
was special. As soon as we saw those eyes, we said God has a plan for her.
I’ve got to get her back.” Erin’s head was bowed, her slender shoulders
shaking as she choked back a sob. “Please, please tell me you’ll help me find
Claudia’s friend Kelly Brennan leaned over and put an arm around the
half sister she hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. It had been only a couple
of hours since Erin had showed up without warning at her door, and Kelly
wore the bemused expression of one still getting used to the idea. But the
surprise of her sister’s arrival was soon supplanted by an even greater one:
Kelly learned that she had a young niece, Kylie. A niece who was missing.
Claudia’s eyes returned to the sheet of notebook paper in her hand. “The
handwriting is a little disturbing,” she said. “I’m glad you asked me to come
and look at it.” She searched for diplomatic words that wouldn’t add to Erin’s
distress, but they weren’t easy to find. Red flags sprouted from the brief note.
Hand-printed in black ink, the note read: DON’T BOTHER LOOKING.
THERE MIGHT BE SUFFERING BUT NOT AS BAD AS YOU THINK. GOD’S WILL BE DONE.
Below the words, the signature was just a scribble, which Erin identified
as that of her husband, Rodney Powers.
The three women were gathered around a small wrought iron table on the
plant-filled patio of Kelly’s condo. But no one was paying attention to the
lush colors of morning glory or the scent of star jasmine filling the sunwarmed
“I thought he’d just taken her for a walk.” Tears welled up in Erin’s eyes
and spilled onto her pale cheeks. “I had a bad night and I woke up this
morning with a headache. So I slept late because I thought they’d be right
back, but they didn’t come back, and when I got up and went into the
kitchen—” Her voice broke again and she buried her face in the tissue Kelly
pressed into her hand.
“It’s okay, honey.” Kelly gave her sister’s arm an awkward pat and threw
Claudia a helpless glance. “The only family news I ever get is from my
brothers, and you know how rarely I hear from them.” She turned back to
Erin with a regretful sigh. “I can’t believe how completely I lost track of you.
It’s been ages since I heard anything.”
The sisters shared a genetic history, but there the relationship ended.
Claudia had been there when Kelly said goodbye to Erin, to her family. It was
a memory that she found could still produce a sharp pang: Erin, four years
old. A shy little girl sucking her thumb. Their three brothers madly waving
goodbye from the back of an old pickup truck piled high with boxes and
furniture. Their mother driving away without a backward glance, leaving her
eldest child behind to live with Claudia’s family.
Kelly added, “The last I heard was that you’d joined a cult—”
Erin pulled away from her. “It’s not a cult!”
Behind Erin’s head, Kelly rolled her eyes. “Okay, sorry. New religion.”
“Why don’t you tell us what happened with your husband,” Claudia
interjected before an argument broke out. Kelly’s emotions could flare
unexpectedly, and she would rather not find out whether Erin had inherited
the same trait.
Erin began to explain how she’d found the note from her husband on the
kitchen table. “Rod left it propped against my coffee mug,” she said, sniffling
miserably into the tissue. We’ve been staying at a cabin near Big Bear for the
last few weeks. I—I didn’t know what to do; we don’t know anyone around
there. I called Sean.”
“You’ve stayed in touch with our brothers?” Kelly asked. “I guess I
shouldn’t be surprised. You’re a lot closer in age to the boys than to me.”
“I talk with Sean a couple times a year maybe. He lets me know if he
hears anything from Mom. She calls him once in a while.”
Claudia sensed Kelly stiffen. Erin didn’t know that she had just
wandered into dangerous territory. She was unaware of the tacit agreement
that Kelly’s mother was a topic to be avoided if at all possible.
“Those would be the times when she wants to hit him up for money,”
Erin made a sound of distress. “Fine, Kelly, I get it that you hate Mom,
but she’s not—”
“Let’s not go there, Erin. You and Sean weren’t around when I was
raising Mickey and Pat. Mom was out hurling herself at as many bars as
would take the grocery money. It’s only thanks to sheer luck and the good
will of people like Claudia’s parents and some of the other neighbors pitching
in that the rest of us didn’t starve or get split up and put into foster care long
before you were ever born.”
Erin’s eyes widened. “But she’s— I didn’t know it was going on that
“I’ll just bet you didn’t.”
The sudden burst of hostility charged the air and Claudia found her neck
and shoulders aching from the tension. Reaching up to massage the taut
muscles, another flash of memory washed over her: the day the Brennan
family moved into the rattiest house on the block.
The hand-lettered cardboard For Rent sign had finally disappeared from
the front yard of the old Drew house across the street and a few doors down
from Claudia’s parents’ home. The sign had stood there since the previous
Christmas when the widowed Mr. Drew had suffered a massive stroke. His
children, who apparently had their own busy lives and couldn’t be persuaded
to take him in, had moved him into a nursing home, where he died six weeks
later. A realtor hammered the For Rent sign into the grass the day after the
On that Saturday, the weekend beforeClaudia was due to enter
kindergarten, the weeds in the yard of the Drew house were taller than the
flowers they choked. The concrete driveway was cracked and stained with the
oil of the 1952 Dodge Coronet that had rested there, probably since before
she was born.
Squeezing herself behind an ancient elm in her parents’ garden, six-yearold
Claudia watched two sweaty men in sleeveless T-shirts unload a moving
van stacked with furniture shabby enough to match the house. A car pulled
into the driveway. She could still remember being impressed by the woman
who climbed out of the driver’s seat. Ruby red halter top, shorts that showed
off long, tanned legs. Georgia Brennan, Claudia later learned. The mother.
Three children spilled out of the car. Two small boys and a little girl
around Claudia’s own age. They had been out of the car only moments before
the girl was running around the yard in a futile attempt to corral the boys.
“Kelly Ann Brennan!” the mother screeched, oblivious of curtains
twitching in disapproval in windows across the street. “Can’t you do anything
right, you lazy girl? You’re about as useless as your father was. Didn’t I tell
you to watch your brothers?” 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 let me see or hear a peep from any of you till dinner. You hear me,
Kelly Ann? Do you hear me? What did I just say?”
That night, Claudia’s own mother held forth over dinner about what she
termed “that unladylike caterwauling.” It was the first of her many
commentaries on the Brennan family matriarch.
On Monday, when she and Kelly met on their way to the first day of
school, Claudia had invited her new friend over to play with her Barbie dolls.
Kelly looked like she desperately wanted to say yes, but instead she told
Claudia that she had to go straight home and take care of her brothers because
her mother would be passed out on the couch. At the time, Claudia didn’t
understand what that meant, but over the years there were many occasions
where she saw for herself.
Before Kelly turned sixteen, two more fatherless Brennan kids—Erin
and Sean—were crammed into the two-bedroom house. But by then, Kelly
spent most of her free time at Claudia’s home anyway. She made her escape
from the sardine can with great relief when Claudia’s parents invited her to
live with them full-time until the girls completed high school.
When Georgia Brennan informed her eldest daughter that she was
moving her four younger children to Banning, where housing was far
cheaper, Kelly had said nothing. Banning was only about a ninety-minute
drive from their current home in Santa Monica, but it might as well have been
a thousand miles away.
Returning her attention to the present, Claudia realized that the
uncomfortable silence between the sisters was unbroken. She cleared her
throat and prepared to mediate. “Why don’t we get back to the little girl
who’s missing. That’s where we need to focus our attention.”
Kelly’s cheeks puffed as she blew out a long breath. “You’re so right,
Claud. The only thing we should concentrate on is making sure my niece is
Stay tuned for part 2.