Naperville lay in front of them, a sprawling extension of Chicago along the Burlington North Santa Fe Metro line, just thirty miles west of the city. Clisty could easily see it was no longer the sleepy college town her grandmother had told her about when she met her grandfather there as a college freshman. As she watched the sprawling city stretch out its new streets, she wondered what it was like back when her grandparents knew it. Now, red brick sidewalks and streets were enchanting, like something out of an old movie she had seen on TV. Quaint old buildings with overhanging bay windows blended with new stores like Barnes and Noble Booksellers and a fancy Pizzeria with a festive red awning for dining on the sidewalk. She took out her e-tablet and cleared her head by typing in the mental notes she had taken earlier. There was no time for reminiscence.
“Who knows something about Naperville?” Jake asked as he slowly wound through the city streets.
“Nothing really,” Clisty said as she watched for directional clues she knew would never appear. “Faith never left the house and Pooky was outside for only two weeks.”
“We’re wasting a lot of time wandering around. We might not get back to Indiana by the six p.m. news,” Becca reminded them. “I called North Central College on my cell and took them up on their offer to let us use their studio. If we shoot a segment there, they can send it on to WFT, and the station will air it when the six o’clock news hour comes around.”
“Well, okay, maybe,” Clisty grinned broadly. “But they’ll have to take me without professional makeup on.”
“You are beautiful all the time,” Jake patted her knee.
“I have a little blush in my purse and I’m sure you have lipstick,” Becca offered.
“Where is the college, Becca?” Jake asked.
“Well, it’s one-hundred-fifty years old … so it would be in the original part of town,” she offered as she continued to watch out the window. “They gave me the address and I wrote it all down,” she watched the passing street signs. “Here … turn here, Clint. This street sounds right. Let’s hurry. We don’t have much time.”
They stopped in front of the building that housed the television station and all four hurried from the van. Clisty buttoned her jacket as the April breeze caught it and blew it opened. Hurrying in, Becca led the way and introduced the entourage to the station manager who was waiting for them.
“I’m so happy you could help us today,” Clisty said as she followed the man into the studio. She whipped out her lipstick and swished the brush to Becca’s blush across her cheeks.
As they approached the door to the studio, the phone on the station manager’s desk rang. “Yes?” he asked into the receiver. “Oh, no.” Then he placed his hand over the phone and spoke to Becca. “I am so sorry. There is a huge breaking story that will have to take your spot in the studio.” He listened again and then spoke into the phone, “Okay, we’ll send a crew out immediately.”
“What happened?” Clisty asked.
“There is a cult on the north side of the county, the Freedom Temple. Someone is actively setting fires out there. According to witnesses who happened upon the compound, new fires continue to ignite. They’re in various parts of the temple and out-buildings.”
Clisty looked from Jake to Becca. “The Freedom Temple is burning. The Guardian’s Lady could be in danger. We have to get to her right away.”
All four of them put their jackets back on and started for the door. Becca turned to the manager, “Thank you so much for your generous offer. We certainly know how quickly the news changes. The fire at the Freedom Temple may have put someone else at risk. We’ll have to get to her fast. Please, feed the video you have of the fire to our studios in Fort Wayne. We’ll share our information about Naperville’s connection to Fort Wayne when we have it compiled. Okay?”
“Absolutely,” the manager said as he shifted into breaking-story mode and notified his people just as Clisty and the group went out the door.
“Okay, people,” Jake announced. “Now where?”
“Pooky said she watched children as they walked home from school. If that’s the case, we’ve gone too far into Naperville,” Clisty began to realize. “We need to be on that north side again.” Clisty touched her cell phone screen and brought up a map of the north side. “We got detoured by our concern over the early newscast.”
“That’s right,” Becca agreed. “The house can’t be too far from the school. Finding the Freedom Temple out in the country led us away from the residential areas.”
“Somehow, I thought the house would be an old Victorian because of the size,” Clisty felt energized by getting back to the facts of the case. “But, it wouldn’t have to be.”
“That Temple is a mansion. Why can’t The Guardian’s house be a large, new home in one of the northern suburbs?” Becca jumped into the excitement of the hunt.
Clisty searched the passing streets for a clue to the location. “It’s hiding in plain sight.”
Jake coasted the van up and down neighborhoods on the north side of town. They trolled from street to street and subdivision to subdivision. “I hope no one reports us for stalking,” Jake cracked.
Clint offered a plausible excuse. “You can call it surveillance.”
“I could if I carried a Naperville Police badge,” Jake said and then slowed to a stop. “Look up there in the next block.”
“Where?” Becca reached for the back of the front bucket seat and searched the block ahead of them.
“Right there,” Clisty whispered. Her voice caught in her throat. She wasn’t sure if she was the hunter or the hunted. She had the persona of a victim hidden in the secret corner of her mind. Most of the time she had been able to keep it locked away from view. Faith’s return, the presence of the bank robber, and the voices of the men at the Freedom Temple were too much for the guards at the gate of her secret thoughts to keep her fears at bay.
Ahead and to the right, a mammoth black stone edifice rose up out of the ground like an ancient giant, imposing and menacing. The windows had some sort of opaque coating that glowed black in the high day sun. Window wells beneath the foundation revealed the obvious presence of a basement. “Complete with dungeon,” Clisty gasped.
“First and second floors, plus an attic,” Jake ticked off the enormity of it. “I’m surprised it sits as close to the sidewalk as it does. Mansions usually hide from traffic, back long paved driveways. This one would invite visitors if it weren’t so menacing.”
“Jake, look,” Clisty pointed. “Along the front fence at the end of the sidewalk, there’s a rock garden, all polished and sparkling. Pooky said, ‘She would leave a note for me under a rock near the end of our sidewalk.’ Jake, she gave us a clue she wasn’t aware she had.” Then Clisty began to remember something else as she pulled another fragment from what Pooky had said. “Leenie Lambert, 1221 W. Benton Avenue.”
“The cross street we just passed was W. Benton,” Jake said with a thumb pointing back over his shoulder.
“What?” Becca asked. “Benton and the rocks?”
“The rocks at the end of the sidewalk. I have to investigate.” Clisty turned and looked through the back window. “The coast is still clear. We’d better hurry though. The Guardian can come at any time. He’s burning all bridges behind him. His Lady may be his beloved wife, but my guess is, she’s totally expendable.”
“The Guardian could get here as quickly as he set those fires. He may not even know that we found him there. But, he seems to believe his cult-kingdom has been threatened with exposure and he’s blaming his home situation,” Jake warned.
“Clint, you get out and get your initial shots of the house from up the street at our present location. Use the zoom lens in case there’s a chance of finding someone in an open window or at the door,” Becca started setting camera angles immediately.
Clint got out and shouldered the camera. “The street is clear,” he observed. “You guys get closer and I’ll start shooting from here. I’ll be able to capture your approach to the house.”
Jake rolled slowly toward the house, watching in every direction, windshield, back and both side windows. He parked in front, where a short wrought iron fence identified the property line. At the corner, the rocks piled on both sides, inside and outside of the marked off area. “I know we look obvious from inside. Even the neighbors can read our station number and logo plastered on the side of the van. We can’t help it. If we have to run to the van, some of us may not be able to keep up.”
“Hey, Detective Skinny,” Becca corrected, “I can run just as fast as the rest of you. I’ve been working out, ya know.”
“I’ll jump out and check the rocks.” Clisty had the door open before anyone could respond. She quickly looked up and down the rock garden that sparkled with an occasional quartz stone. Bending down, she hurriedly lifted a three inch round stone and slowly pulled a small piece of paper from beneath it, careful to touch only the extreme corners.
Becca and Jake had gotten out and had gathered around her. “What does it say?” they asked in unison.
“Where are you Pooky?” Clisty read. “Are you OK?” She handed the paper to Jake. “For the evidence bag.”
Jake pulled a small zip lock plastic bag from his shirt pocket and held it out for Clisty to drop the paper in. “Good start,” he said but kept looking out the back for any signs of danger. “Keep your eyes open.”
As she watched Jake zip the bag closed, she thought about Leenie Lambert, who had wondered where Pooky had gone, just as she always wondered where the kidnapper had taken Faith. “I don’t think I’ll close my eyes again until this whole case is solved,” she pronounced.
“Now what?” Clint asked as he walked up beside us as we stood by the rock garden.
“Put the camera in the van and take the segment inside the house, if we can get in, on your smaller one.” Clisty suggested. “You’re a great cinematographer. You would be able to get great video with a child’s toy camera.”
“Amen to that,” Becca agreed. “We can’t waste any more time. The neighbors will start wondering what a TV crew is doing on their safe, quiet street. Soon, the Lady inside will see us and might even call her husband. She doesn’t know that things have changed.”
“Okay, let’s do this.” Clisty squared her shoulders, “We aren’t going to doubt ourselves, or be nervous about anything. We’re the news and we’re getting our story. We’re going right up to the front door,” Clisty stated with determination.
They all approached the home in silence as they surveyed the house with the heavy eight foot front door. Clisty took the lead and lifted the brass knocker. Each looked at the other as they waited with rehearsed calm, trying hard to control their impatience.
“Yes?” a tired looking, middle-aged woman said when she opened the door a few inches.
“Good afternoon,” Clisty began slowly as she thought fast. “Is Joselyn home?”
The woman’s eyes grew large as she closed the door to a crack. “How do you know Joselyn?”
“We talked one day ... in the back yard ...,” Clisty stammered as she tried to find an answer that would sound plausible to the woman. “Ah ... I’m Amanda Lambert. We talked about my daughter, Leenie. She wants to find a time to play with Pooky.”
“Pooky?” the woman asked and opened the door a little more.
“I’m in a bit of a hurry. My friend and I would love to come in your lovely home. I ... ah work for a TV station and we’ve considered a show in which we would tour beautiful homes in the Midwest. Perhaps you would allow the cameras in here. May we come in? I’d like to take a few notes, in case you think you might be interested in the near future.”
“Well, I don’t know,” she hesitated but slowly stood back and let them in. “I am very proud of our home. But, I don’t know what my husband will say.” The entry and grand staircase in front of them had flooring and treads of the same marble that graced the floor of the Temple. A crystal chandelier hung suspended over the foyer from the ceiling and reached the full height of the two stories. Clisty marveled at the polish and shine on every surface, free from dust and smudges.
“Come into the parlor,” the woman said. “You’re not going to film anything now are you? I’ll have to ask my husband first.”
“Clint left the big TV camera in the van,” Becca told her. “He does have a very small one with him and he’ll probably get a few shots.”
Lady, as Faith had called her, directed them to the large, thickly carpeted room to the right of the entry hall. “Please take a seat,” she offered as she sunk heavily into an overstuffed chair beside the fireplace.
“I’m Clisty Sinclair,” she introduced herself, “and this is my producer, Rebecca Landers. Clint usually handles the camera, and this is my friend Jake Davis. I’m sorry, Ma’am,” Clisty began as she sat on the sofa. “I have forgotten your name.”
“Emily Stratton. That’s okay, I forget a lot too.”
“You and Dave have lived here ... “Clisty laid out a prompt for the next answer.
“No, Ezra,” she corrected. “Not Dave.”
“Oh, my goodness, I forgot again.” She apologized. “Of course ... Ezra. Is he home? I haven’t met him yet.”
Emily’s eyes darted back and forth, frightened, tense. “No, he’s not here. You can’t meet him.”
“That’s okay,” Clisty quickly answered and smiled calmly, hoping Emily would catch a little of the peace for herself. “We first stopped at the Temple,” she began cautiously, with no seeming concern.
“You got inside the Temple?” the woman questioned. “How is that possible?”
“Everything seemed fine to us,” she turned to the others. “Didn’t it? Calm, mostly quiet.”
“Oh yes,” Jake said casually, “the front gate was open and welcomed us. The front door, too.”
Clisty continued as if there was no cause for worry or fear at all. “No one seemed to be around though. At first we thought the place was empty.”
“Empty?” Emily asked again.
“Then, we heard a man talking, two others referred to him as The Guardian. They sounded really angry. We didn’t stay long enough to hear all of what they were yelling about,” Clisty said.
“You said no one else was around? But, there should have been hundreds, all over the church, the school and the grounds—janitors, secretaries, teachers ... and all the children.” Emily’s brow creased in worry.
“I remember, one of the men was shouting something about his wife leaving and taking his son,” Becca offered.
“Which one?” Tears formed in Emily’s eyes. “Oh ...” she moaned like one in grief. “It’s all falling apart isn’t it?”
“What Emily? What’s falling apart?” Clisty hoped she wouldn’t frighten her. She needed a lot more information.
“Everything. Ezra said it might happen someday. He said ... if someone escapes ... if the truth gets out, it’ll all fall like building blocks.” Wiping tears from her eyes, she asked, “Who, who got out?”
What should she say? Clisty had run out of pretenses. “Emily ... Joselyn got out.”
“You know where Joselyn is?” The woman drew her shaking fingers to her lips. “Tell me. I won’t tell Ezra.”
“We can take you there if you want to go with us,” Jake offered. “But, we’d probably better hurry. Clisty has a deadline.”
“I’ll have to call Ezra and ask permission to leave the house,” she responded with a timid, mousey voice. “I don’t go anywhere without asking first.”
“Would you like to see Joslyn and Pooky?’ Clisty asked.
“Pooky too? Yes, yes!”
“I’m sorry, Emily,” she added. “Joslyn and Pooky don’t want to see Ezra, absolutely not!” She looked into Emily’s eyes with a firm and resolute gaze. “And, we‘d better get going.”
“Alright, yes,” Emily rattled on excitedly yet confused. “Let me remember. Ezra said if there’s ever any trouble, I should get out and take all the papers with me.”
“What papers?” Jake asked. “Are they easy to get to? We’ve gotta leave.”
“They’re in Ezra’s office, in his safe.”
“In his safe?” Clisty asked. Her eyes flashed to Jake’s for silent confirmation. “They must be really important.”
“Yes, they’re the Temple records, financial papers and our own personal finances,” she shared openly as she led the way into the office. “He said no one should get their hands on any of it.”
The large black safe sat inside a closet in the walnut paneled office. Everything about the room revealed Ezra’s desire for control and power. Emily spun the dial carefully to the right and to the left several times, then pulled the handle down and opened it. The black, heavy steal-plated box was stuffed full of folders, portfolios, record ledgers, and papers. She pulled them all out, handed the tall stack to Jake and then reached to the back of the safe.
“Ezra said to be sure that I take every piece of gold and silver, every bank account book, and each off-shore banking record. My jewels are in the back.” She pulled it all out. “I can’t forget all of our credit cards and the passports.” She grabbed a large black leather valise from the cabinet next to the safe and piled it all inside.
“Let’s get out of here now,” Jake ordered.
“Wait, I’d better count,” Emily said as she reached into the case. “Ezra would be furious ...” she looked at Clisty, “... and he could be dangerous if I don’t have them all.”
Clisty smiled and tried to move her along with her hand to Emily’s elbow. “I understand. Let’s hurry.”
Emily pulled out five passport folders, and double counted. “Yes, three for Ezra and two for me.”
Clisty and Jake just looked at each other, nodded and helped Emily with all the materials. Move, move, move, Clisty kept repeating to herself.
Becca picked up an armload of ledger books and as many loose papers as she could hold. “I’ve got these,” she spoke out loud to those around her.
“Lock the safe again Emily,” Clisty reminded her. “Straighten everything up quickly.”
Emily closed the safe, made sure everything was off the floor, and double checked again. When she seemed satisfied that she had taken care of everything as her husband would want her to, they all hurried out the front door and onto the porch.
“You’d better lock the door,” Jake warned. “You can’t be too careful.”
Clisty knew the closed safe and locked door would slow Ezra for a few minutes. Perhaps he wouldn’t suspect anything if all seemed in order. At least, it might stall him long enough for them to get out of sight before he realized what had happened.
Hoping to seem causal, Becca opened the double doors in the back of the van and all the papers were quickly stowed. They walked around to the side doors and piled in. Jake drove; Clisty rode beside him with the other three in the back. Jake didn’t slam the van into gear or squeal the tires as he pulled away from the curb. He wanted no eyes on them. He turned the key in the ignition, looked over his shoulder and slowly eased the van into the street. To anyone who might have seen them, it would look like a small group of friends on an afternoon outing—no hurry, no worry.
Once the van began to roll, every head inside the vehicle turned and watched the street behind them. Jake drove the speed limit and watched for anyone in the rearview mirror. Hushed tones revealed the tension in the van that no one admitted. As they slowly turned the corner onto W. Keystone Avenue, at the next cross street, an expensive SUV drove rapidly into the Stratton driveway. A man jumped out and nearly stumbled as he hurried toward the door. He didn’t test the doorknob first. He tried to jam the key in the lock with shaking hands. Then, he dashed inside.
Emily stared out the window and gasped loudly as she and all those in the van disappeared around the corner. “He’s back!”