Last Writes: Chapter 1 Part 3


Sheila Lowe is a forensic handwriting analyst and award-winning author. Her ‘Last Writes’ is the fourth novel in her Forensic Handwriting Mystery series.

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 3.

“Don’t worry about it, Kelly,” Erin said. “You and the older boys were
all gone by then, so it was pretty much just Sean and me. Mom kept taking
off for days at a time, but nobody knew, we never told anyone. At school they
said I was a delinquent, so I decided to become one.” Her laugh sounded
hollow. “Unfortunately for me, living on the streets of Banning was even
worse than being home, so I ended up hitchhiking to Hollywood.”

Kelly turned away from them and started layering slices of turkey and
provolone on the French rolls, assembling sandwiches as if her life depended
on it. But not before Claudia noticed the tears of regret that brightened her
eyes.

“I’m so sorry, Erin,” Kelly said in a trembly voice. “I abandoned you,
too. But after I got out of that house I didn’t want to ever look back. I wanted
to believe you were going to be treated better than I was. I made myself think
that way. I’m just so freaking sorry I failed you.”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to feel bad. It all worked out for the best.” Erin
gave a weak smile. “It was actually exciting and fun for a while, but I got
tired of that life really 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 exactly
conventional, but they sure are effective.”

Kelly was busy getting plates out of the cabinet, so Claudia asked, “Dare
I ask what happened next?”

“God sent me to the TBL shelter, Teens for the Lord.” Suddenly, Erin’s
face was shining and her prettiness became more apparent. “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.”

“Tell us about this Brother Harold. You mentioned him earlier.”

“He’s our spiritual leader at TBL. He and Sister Grace—she was in
charge at the shelter—they talked to me about the end of time, 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 her head an impatient shake. “No, it doesn’t look like the Bible
ark. It’s the best! Sort of our own little world that keeps TBL separate from
the outsiders. In Bible 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-time
days, which is coming soon.”

“Back up a minute,” Claudia said. “This Brother Harold took you there
to live when you were fifteen?” She did her best to look neutral, but she knew
her skepticism must show on her face.

“Brother Harold and Sister Grace—she was his wife, but she had cancer
and the Lord took her to be with him about five years ago.” Then Erin’s
mouth dropped open as she got the implication. “Hey, wait a minute, there
was nothing inappropriate going on. It’s just, I wasn’t going to go back home,
no way, no how. So when they invited me to the Ark, I said I’d go with them
and try it out. Right away, 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, at the Ark we
eat all our meals together—real food, not Chicken McNuggets or a box of
macaroni-and-cheese every other night.”

“It’s okay, hon.” Kelly looked unusually chastened. “I understand. Our
family wasn’t exactly Leave It to Beaver.”

For the first time, Erin seemed to relax a little as she extolled the virtues
of her substitute family. “The brothers and sisters at the Ark couldn’t have
been more kind and loving. They were willing to work with me and help me
clean up my act, get off drugs. I started going to school again—we have our
own private classes at the Ark. There are regular school lessons, plus I trained
to become a missionary. They taught me how to talk to other people about
what we believe in, to help them be saved, too. It was really hard at first,
talking to strangers who didn’t want to listen. But now I can talk to just about
anyone.”

“A minute ago, you said something about the end-of-time days,” Claudia
said. “What’s that about?”

Behind her sister’s back, Claudia could see Kelly shaking her head,
discouraging her, but Erin’s face lit up as she jumped at the chance to explain
the beliefs that she had adopted. “We’re living in the End of Time days right
now!”

“End of Time daze,” Kelly muttered.

Erin ignored the jibe and continued. “The earth is about to be destroyed–”

“What does that mean?” Claudia asked. “Destroyed how?”

“We’re gonna see a whole series of natural disasters. Everyone who
doesn’t know how to be saved will be destroyed with the earth, and it’s gonna
happen really soon. 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 now, the alarm is about to go
off. If you want to be saved, you have to pay attention right now, and wake
up.” She nodded in earnest as she spoke, as if encouraging her listeners to
think hard about what she was saying.

Kelly brushed aside the sermon. “Look, Erin, I want to know what
happened with Rodney that would make him do something so drastic and so
rash as to take Kylie?”

Erin’s beatific look faded fast. Her lower lip quivered and her eyes filled.

“I told you, we’d been fighting.”

“Yes, you did. So, what was the fight about?”

The tears dried as fast as they’d started and Erin’s tone sharpened. “What
does it matter what we fought about? It’s personal. The important thing is, he
took my Kylie away, and I want her back.”

“Erin,” Claudia said. ”If you want our help, we need to know what
happened. Why don’t you want to tell us what you were fighting about?”

“Because you won’t understand if I tell you, I know you won’t. Why
isn’t it good enough just to know we had an argument?” Erin said it like a
petulant child, peeved about not getting away with avoiding something
unpleasant.

“We can’t help you if we don’t have all the facts,” Claudia pressed.

“Just tell us the truth,” Kelly added. “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 of them with the distrust of a wounded
animal in the forest. When she realized that neither was going to back down,
she shrugged, giving up on the debate. “Okay, fine. But don’t say I didn’t
warn you. I know how you outsiders are; your minds are totally made up and
closed.”

Kelly and Claudia exchanged a surprised glance, their eyes telegraphing
the same message—What’s going on here?

“Like I told you, we were in the mountains,” Erin said. “We were there
because we enrolled Kylie in a super-special TBL program. It’s called
Jephthah’s Daughters. It’s one of those things that comes up only once in a
lifetime. It was getting to be time for her to go into the program and we were
there in the mountains, getting her ready for it.”

“Let’s go back to the patio,” Kelly suggested, picking up her sandwich.

“This is getting interesting.”

When they were settled around the table once again, Kelly said. “Okay,
whose daughters?”

Claudia said, “Jephthah’s. I remember the story from Sunday school
because at the time, 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, he
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 nodded, looking gratified that Claudia was familiar with the name.
She took up the story. “The Lord 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.”

“Holy shit.”

Throwing her sister a glare of disapproval for her use of profanity, Erin
continued. “Jephthah was devastated. He told his daughter about the promise
he’d made, but she was, like, You have to keep the promise, 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.” Then she hastened to add, “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. But the longer we stayed there,
the more I knew I couldn’t do it. When I told Rod I’d changed my mind, he
wouldn’t listen to me. He loves Kylie, but he’s been working toward
becoming an elder since he was a kid, and putting her into the program would
seal the deal for him. It’s a really prestigious thing for a TBL member. This
is a rare opportunity that only comes up once every few years.” Erin huffed
a big sigh. “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 potato chips into her mouth as
if to gag a comment that she knew would be left better unsaid.

Claudia said, “Why couldn’t Rod wait until she’s old enough to have a
say in the matter?”

Erin’s eyes went to 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.”

An awkward silence fell over them, and Claudia knew that Kelly was
thinking the same thing she was. When no one spoke, she put the question
into words. “When is Kylie’s third birthday, Erin?”

Erin buried her face in her hands. Her words were muffled as she spoke
through her fingers, but Claudia had no trouble understanding her.

“It’s on Saturday.”

‘Last Writes’ can be purchased on Amazon.com. You may be enticed to check out the first three books in the series.

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