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?
Here is part 2.
“You’re gonna help me, aren’t you, Kelly?” Erin looked young and
vulnerable as she made her appeal. “Sean said you’re a really smart attorney
and you’d know what to do.”
“He said that because I kept him out of jail when he got arrested for
dealing pot. But that’s another story. I think we have to take this note to the
police. This line about ‘the suffering’ is scaring the crap out of me.”
“We can ask Joel about it,” Claudia suggested. “He can tell us who to
Kelly made a gun finger and pointed it at her. “Obvious choice. But first,
I think we need some more information about what kind of person Rodney
“There’s a lot of information in this handwriting sample,” Claudia said.
“And as I said earlier, some of it is troublesome,” Kelly said. “If you were to write up a report on it, we might be able to get a judge to—”
“Wait,” Erin interrupted. “Who’s Joel?”
“He’s my guy—my—” Boyfriend felt slightly ridiculous at forty. Significant Other was worse. “He’s a detective with LAPD.”
Erin looked doubtful. “I’m not so sure we should—I mean, I don’t want
Rod to get in any trouble. I don’t think he would actually hurt Kylie.”
“Well, pardon me,” Kelly said, throwing up her hands. “But what about
what he wrote in this note? Holy Christ, Erin, if you don’t think Kylie is in
trouble, what the hell are you here for?”
“I didn’t know what else to do.” Erin rubbed her hands over her face,
which was pretty, even without the benefit of any makeup. “He didn’t take
Tickle with them. That’s what really got me worried.”
“Tickle? Who, or what is Tickle?”
Erin leaned down, unzipped her bag again and reached inside. When she
withdrew her hand, she was holding a fuzzy brown stuffed bunny that had
seen a lot of wear. “Kylie never, ever goes anywhere without Tickle. That
means she had to be asleep when Rod took her. She’s probably come totally
unglued by now.”
The three women looked at each other with sober faces, fully
comprehending the importance of the stuffed toy to a small child.
“What the hell was Rod thinking, Erin?” Kelly asked. “Don’t you have
any idea at all why he would take Kylie like this? What do you think he plans
to do with her?”
Erin shook her head. “I don’t know, Kelly, I just don’t know.”
“Why don’t you tell us what led up to it,” Claudia encouraged her.
“Something like this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What’s been going on
lately between you?”
Erin began to speak, slowly at first, drawing the words out as if she were
reluctant to part with them. “We’ve been arguing on and off for a couple of
days. He never said anything about leaving, though. I never guessed he would
take the baby! Can’t you do something, Kelly?”
“Is he Kylie’s father?” Kelly asked.
“Of course he is.” Erin said indignantly.
“And you’re legally married?”
“Yes! We’ve been married almost six years.”
“You got married at eighteen?” Kelly looked as if she was going to
explode, but she forced herself to stay on track. “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 got pregnant.”
“Even missionaries can get into trouble,” Kelly pointed out. “How much
older than you is he?”
Erin answered reluctantly. “He’s thirty-eight.”
Kelly did a quick calculation in her head. “Fourteen years is more than
just a bit older, honey child. Okay, like Claudia said, we’ll start by talking to
Joel about taking the note to the police; see if he thinks they would view it as
a threat since there’s a child involved.”
“I’ll call him right now,” Claudia said, taking out her cell phone.
Kelly rose and stretched her arms high above her head. “Erin, let’s go to
the kitchen while she’s making the call. I could use a cold one.”
Claudia watched them go, hoping her friend was talking about iced tea
or a soda. Kelly had been working hard at staying sober and for the past
several months had been successful. She hoped the stress of Erin’s situation
wouldn’t push her into changing that.
After a disappointing chat with Jovanic, Claudia joined the sisters in the
“He said that as Kylie’s father, Rodney has a legal right to take her. I
asked him about the possibility of issuing an Amber Alert, but he said under
the circumstances, they can’t. 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.” The ice cubes clinked against the glass as Kelly handed Claudia
a diet cola. She turned to the refrigerator and got out a bag of French rolls,
mayonnaise and mustard, sliced meats and cheese, arranged them on the
kitchen counter. Claudia had a feeling that it wasn’t because Kelly was in the
mood for lunch; she just needed something to do, to help her contain the
agitation that her busy hands telegraphed.
She returned to the refrigerator, dug in the crisper drawer and found a
tomato and lettuce. Went back for a jar of pickles. Went back again, but
found nothing more. “Let’s talk about the handwriting,” she said, busying
herself with her sandwich-making preparations. “You saw danger signs,
didn’t you, Claud?”
Claudia chose her words with care. “There are indications of some . . .
problems. But I’d like to enlarge the note on the computer so I can look at it
in more detail.” There was no point in offering a hasty opinion that could lead
to mistakes. She added, “If you would scan it and e-mail it to me, Kel, I’ll
have a proper look at it when I get home. Six-hundred DPI would be high
enough resolution to show the fine points when I blow it up.”
She asked Erin to let her see the note again. The block printing Rodney
Powers had penned on the scrap of lined paper told her that the writer had
high control needs. He could be opinionated and more than a little selfimportant.
It wouldn’t be easy to get to know him—or to break through his
defenses if he didn’t want to believe something, regardless of how hard one
tried to convince him.
Flipping the paper over, she ran her fingers across the back, feeling
ridges where the pen had dug hard into the paper on the other side. She
glanced over at Erin, who was watching her closely. “Do you know what kind
of surface he wrote on?” she asked. “Do you think he might have put a
magazine under the paper, or something like that?”
“We don’t read outsider magazines,” Erin said, disparaging. “we just
took our Bibles. I’m pretty sure he wrote it on the kitchen table. That’s where
I found it.”
Without comparing the note to additional samples of Rodney Powers’s
handwriting, there was no way to know for certain whether the degree of
emotional depth indicated by the considerable pen pressure was his habit, but
of one thing Claudia was certain: when he wrote the note Rodney had been
laboring under powerful emotions.
“He’s stubborn,” she mused aloud. “Needs to feel he’s in control. I
believe he would have planned this ahead. This is not the type of person who
would act on the spur of the moment without first knowing what he was
going to do and how he was going to accomplish it. He’s not someone who
easily caves under pressure.” She glanced over at Erin, who was twisting her
tissue to shreds. “Who do you know that he might have gone to for help? It
would be hard for a man to handle a small child on his own.”
Erin shook her head. “Not Rod. He’s crazy about Kylie. He spends more
time with her than I do. He knows how to handle her. Anyway, he was raised
TBL. 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, of
course. That’s why I’m sure Rod doesn’t know anyone outside well enough
that he could ask for help.”
Kelly left her sandwich-making for a moment to wipe her hands on a
kitchen towel. She tossed the towel onto a small washing machine in the
corner and turned to her sister. “Erin, if you’re both so heavily involved in the
church, how about your pastor? Wouldn’t Rodney listen to him?”
Erin looked as though she might begin to weep again. “Brother Harold
would be so disappointed in him. I don’t want to tell him about Rod leaving.
That’s why I have to find him and Kylie myself. With your help, I mean.”
“If you don’t associate with outsiders, can you think of anyone inside the
church he might have turned to?” Claudia said. “Someone he has a close
“All the TBL members are close. It’s the most supportive, wonderful
bunch of people you could ever meet. I’ve been a member since I was
fifteen,” Kelly said. “I was in the middle of a divorce back then. I was pretty
messed up, but one of the boys told me that you’d run away from home.”
It was a period in their lives that Claudia remembered well. Kelly,
inconsolable when her second brief marriage ended, had gone on a bender
that lasted months; a month more in rehab. Surprising that any of the details
of Erin’s split from the family had stuck.
Stay tuned for part 3.