“Okay, Becca,” Clisty spoke into her cell phone as she made arrangements the next morning to meet Becca and Clint at the safe house. “It’s,” she checked her watch, “quarter ‘til ten. I’m ready, so why don’t you two stop by here and pick me up?”
“What about arranging a meeting?” Becca asked. “When do you want Faith and Emily to see each other again?”
“It’s not up to me. It’s up to Faith,” story or not, Clisty was certain of that point. “Faith will not be pushed into anything.
“I know ... but it would make great TV,” Becca said.
“Rebecca, that’s a terrible thing to say,” then, she laughed. “I know what you mean. Better yet, meet me at the Sterlings’ house. Say, about 10:30 am. That will give me a chance to break the news to Faith and the Sterling that we brought Emily Stratton back with us. Roma and Ralph lost a lot, too. Faith lost her childhood and her parents lost living that childhood with her.”
“Got ya,” Becca agreed. “Ten thirty it is.”
• • • • •
“Come in Clisty,” Roma opened her front door and gave Clisty a hug. “Ralph’s in the Kitchen getting coffee. You want some?”
“Sure ... always,” she said. She wanted to sound upbeat; after all, they had been to Illinois and back and had gathered a lot of information. But, she couldn’t set a positive tone with her voice.
“I have this small camera,” she said as she pulled it from her bag. “It will record sound as well,” she pressed the “on” button. “With your permission, and of course, Faith’s as well, I’d like to record our conversation. I have turned it on to record your answer to my request to film.”
“Yes, I suppose it’s okay, if it’s alright with Faith.” She stopped and studied Clisty for a second. “Has something else happened?” Roma asked.
“No ... yes, there could be,” Clisty said as she took the cup Ralph offered.
“What’s wrong?” Roma put her hand to her chest.
“Where are Faith and Pooky?” Clisty asked quietly, like she was sharing a secret.
“They’re in the back yard,” Ralph’s muscles tightened and he appeared tense. “It sounds like something’s going on.”
“Jake and the crew and I went over to Illinois yesterday,” she started.
“Yes, we saw it on the eleven o’clock news last evening,” he said, sat down and placed his cup on the table beside him. “What are you not telling us?”
“I’m not going to keep anything from you. Any secrecy you hear or see on the news, is so Faith and Pooky are safe. Any withholding of information is so the perpetrator can’t find out the details.” She sipped her coffee. “We found the Freedom Temple and ... we found Lady, the woman who acted as Faith’s mother. Her name is Emily Stratton.”
“Oh my goodness,” Roma gasped as she covered her face with her hands. Then, she snapped her attention back to Clisty, “And?”
“And ... she’s here. We brought her back to Fort Wayne with us.” Clisty tried to find a way to say it but the truth was all she had. “We had to. She wasn’t safe in Illinois,” Clisty paused and tried to carefully gather her next words. “Of course she wants to see Faith and Pooky, but it is entirely up to Faith.”
“No,” Roma stated fiercely, “it’s up to me.”
“Maybe—“Clisty tried to offer an acceptable scenario.
“I said no. That woman has had her for eighteen years. I only got her for nine.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No!”
“No what?” Faith asked as she and Pooky came in through the dining room. She looked at the three and grabbed the back of a chair and guessed, “Something’s happened.”
Roma looked at Faith’s fear-etched face. “You’d better tell her, Clisty. She’ll only retreat into her nightmares and constant vigilance if she doesn’t know what you found out.”
“Mama,” Faith grabbed Pooky and drew her close. “What’s wrong?”
Roma sat in a wing back chair and gestured to Faith. “Come Honey, you and Pooky sit down.”
Faith slowly sank onto the sofa and pulled Pooky down next to her. “What is it?”
“Faith ...,” Clisty began, “first of all, I have a camera turned on to record our conversation. If you don’t want me to record, I’ll turn it off. What I’m about to say, will greatly enhance your story as I report it on the Stories from the Heartland series, and it could help the prosecutor’s case.”
“Okay, then go ahead and record it. Can I tell you to stop later if I’m uncomfortable with it?” Faith kept her eyes on the camera.
“Yes, of course. You can get up and step out of the room if you need a break. Faith, you are free to do anything you want to do,” Clisty said.
“Then, let’s go. You three were talking when I came into the room. Something has happened. What?” Faith was quietly assertive and pointed in her question. She soon ignored the camera.
“Jake, Clint the cameraman, Becca and I went to Illinois yesterday,” Clisty began.
“Illinois?” Pooky grabbed Faith’s arm, squeezed her eyes shut and hung on. “My school was in Illinois.”
“Yes, Pooky,” Clisty said. “I know. We visited your school. Your principal, Mr. Mitchel, said he remembers you.”
“Clisty, why?” Faith questioned with an accusation in her voice. “Why did you go there?”
“Please, listen to me. You both need to hear it all.” Clisty explained the entire previous day, all that they saw and all they heard. “Faith, I don’t think Lady knew that you had been kidnapped. She told us she believed that Ezra had adopted you. She seems to believe everything he says.”
“Ezra?” Faith asked. She looked confused again. “Who is Ezra?”
“The Guardian, Faith. The Guardian’s name is Ezra Stratton.” Clisty watched Faith’s expression change from intent listening to confusion. “We snuck into the Freedom Temple and heard Ezra and a couple of other men, talking about the Freedom Temple’s crash and how everyone else had left the cult.”
“The Freedom Temple?” Faith asked.
Clisty tried to pull together all the details she had dumped on Faith. “Remember, I told you—“
“I know,” Faith admitted. Her eyes were down like she was escaping inside herself. “I just wish I didn’t know.” She looked up. “I’m not damaged, Clisty. I’m only confused because I’ve been isolated for so long. I knew nothing of the world around me or beyond my walls. A few times I saw the local news but usually, they cut off the electricity to my room during the news hour. I never knew why, until now.”
“Faith, we brought the woman, Lady you called her, back here with us.” Clisty watched as Faith’s face drew up in pain as the news of her own life wounded her over and over. “Her name is Emily Stratton. She’d like to see you and Pooky. I told her you would decide if you want to see her.”
“Faith Stratton,” she repeated slowly. “I didn’t know my name.” Her eyes filled with tears.
Roma wrapped her arms tightly around her own body and rocked back and forth. “You never knew your own name?” Roma choked between her tears.
“They said I wasn’t going anywhere so I didn’t need to have a second name.” Faith whispered.
“When you got married,” her father asked, “didn’t Steven tell you your name, or call you, Mrs. Somebody?” His jaw worked in anger; his fists clenched.
“He didn’t disobey his father ... ever. He wanted to be able to leave the house, go to work and school. Freedom would have stopped if he had done anything The Guardian forbad.” Tears rolled down her face.
Pooky started to smile, “Mama, I didn’t know we had another name.” Then, suddenly her joy fell to the floor and panic took over. Her gaze followed something that moved slowly outside, from left to right. Her eyes grew large and full of alarm.
Faith was not facing the front porch directly. She jerked around to see what had frightened Pooky and screamed a terror stricken sound that filled the house. Roma and Ralph jumped up, turned and looked to the front door. The beveled glass window could not keep out the evil that lurked there, as Ezra Stratton burst through, welding a Glock 27. He waved the firearm in the air erratically; the red laser dot flew from forehead, to wall, to floor. His eyes blazed with rage and then, Clisty remembered. She knew exactly who he was, even after eighteen years. He had stabbed a permanent tattoo of horror on her mind. She jumped to her feet.
“Sit down, now!” Stratton shouted, pointed the weapon at each one and took a few more steps into the house. “I said sit down—do it!” he growled again.
Clisty sat down, fearfully sitting on the edge of her seat. Each one never took their eyes off the raging bull in their midst. Clisty’s mind raced. How could she get word to Jake, to anyone? Becca and Clint would be there soon. They would be in danger, too. She felt her phone in her pocket. If she tried to save them all and pull it out, a bullet might be her reward. She caught Ralph’s eye but saw no remedy there.
“You have everything of mine!” he growled and paced back and forth. He grabbed the top of his head like he was afraid it would explode and waved the gun wildly. “You have my wife, my daughter, my granddaughter, and all of my personal papers, I want them ... all,” he ordered. “Pooky, come over here,” he yelled and reached out an arm for her.
“No, Grandpa! No!” she sobbed and buried her head in her mother’s shoulder.
“No, Guardian! You’re terrifying her,” Faith yelled back and clutched her daughter.
“This is your doing, Jocelyn!” he ranted, his large body puffed out and menacing. The gun wobbled in his panic-driven hands. “You were nothing but trouble from the day I brought you home.”
Pooky raised her head; her angry eyes flashed as she jumped up and lunged in Ezra’s direction. “Maybe she didn’t want to stay with you,” she screamed. “You’re mean!”
Ezra raised his left hand and, with a wide sweep, smacked Pooky across the face and knocked her to the floor. She flew across the tile, four feet away. Turning, he pointed the Glock at her, the laser beaded on her chest, “You little brat! Haven’t you learned anything yet?”
His frantic flailing about caused his entire body to follow his aggression. Faith jumped to her feet the minute Ezra’s eyes no longer locked on her. With his focus on Pooky, Faith picked up Roma’s heavy, leaded crystal vase from the table and swung it up the side of Ezra’s head. He fell to the ground like downed timber, cracking his head on a bookcase on the way down. Faith frantically stepped over him and picked Pooky up, soothing her hysterical sobs.
Faith!” Clisty shouted in fear and apprehension and pointed to Ezra.
“He’s still moving. Hit him again,” Ralph yelled and jumped up, his arm making phantom jabs in the air.
“No,” Faith refused, but could not take her eyes off him. “I’ll get his gun,” she said as she dropped Pooky in Roma’s lap and moved in Ezra’s direction. She let the vase fall to the floor.
“No!” they all gasped. “It’s too dangerous! Stay away from him.”
Clisty lunged, jerked up the vase and held it in striking position over him. “You better not move,” she hissed.
Faith yelled, “I am free and I’ll stay free!” She stepped past the moaning body of The Guardian and toward the Glock.
The gun, knocked out of Ezra’s hand, had slid across the entry tile. Faith dove for it, rolled on the floor, picked it up and shuddered. With trembling hands she pointed the weapon at her tormentor and captor, the laser focused a red beam on his head.
“I’ve got him, Faith,” Jake said firmly and calmly as he burst through the door. He took Stratton’s gun, slipped it in his belt and pulled out his handcuffs. They all watched in stunned silence.
“She was only protecting us,” they all said.
“These cuffs aren’t for Faith. They’re for Stratton,” Jake growled. He forced the man’s hands behind his back and slapped the cuffs on him. “We have many charges for this guy,” he said roughly and inspected Ezra’s head for the wound he had received.
“Some of us went over the files Emily gave us. This man will have a whole list of charges against him, some in Indiana and some in Illinois.”
As Ezra started to come to, Jake checked his pupillary reaction for responsiveness. “Ezra Stratton, you are under arrest for the kidnapping of Faith Sterling and the attempted abduction of Clisty Sinclair.” He got the man to his feet and continued. “And, that’s just for a start. You have the right to remain silent,” he continued quoting Stratton his Miranda rights.
Clisty saw Clint filming through the porch window and wondered how long he had been standing there. Becca waited beside him, her hand over her mouth, fear on her face. Squealing tires and the sound of pounding shoes on the porch announced a heavily armed police back-up force had arrived.
“Take him in,” Jake directed the uniformed officers. “He’s been mirandized. Do everything by the book.” He glared at Stratton. “You’re not getting out of anything.” The officers took custody of him and led him out of the house.
“Jake, how did you know?” Clisty jumped up.
“You told Becca to meet you here. They arrived in time to see Stratton burst through the door. Becca called me while Clint filmed.”
“That will be our News at Eleven,” Clisty said. “Maybe not tonight, but it will make the cut for the full story in the news magazine.” It didn’t matter to Clisty if they held the video for several days or used it that evening. Stratton had met his match. She and Faith were no longer two little nine year old girls, but independent women who had waited eighteen years to capture the monster of their nightmares.