The Missing Madonna

A Sister Mary Helen Mystery

Sister Mary Helen Mysteries (Volume 3)

Sister Carol Anne O'Marie

Minotaur Books

Tuesday, May 1
Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker
Sister Mary Helen grabbed the handrail of the Down escalator to steady herself. She peered into the late-night crowd at Newark Airport, hoping to spot their escort.
“Over there.” Nudging her, Sister Eileen pointed at a silver-haired woman holding a large printed sign that read OWLS WELCOME.
Mary Helen adjusted her bifocals. Sure enough, her friend Eileen was right. That was no doubt Mrs. Taylor-Smith, the woman who was to meet them and drive them to New York City.
“I feel downright foolish standing under a sign marked OWLS,” Mary Helen muttered out of the side of her mouth. “What in the world do you suppose people think?”
“I’m surprised you give a hoot.” A grin spread across Eileen’s wrinkled face.
Mary Helen laughed in spite of herself. “You’re beginning to sound just like Lucy Lyons,” she said, looking up the escalator at Lucy and their three other OWL companions, all chatting happily.
Quickly, the six OWLs cut through the crowd and stood in a circle around Mrs. Taylor-Smith.
“Welcome to New York.” She bobbed her beautifully styled head of hair. “And welcome especially to our annual OWLs convention. I don’t have to tell any of you how important our political clout is or how happy I am to see you here. Our San Francisco chapter is one of our most influential.”
Mrs. Taylor-Smith paused, pursed her lips, and tilted her head. Like an expensive cat. Mary Helen had just come across that description in the English mystery she was reading on the plane. The woman fit the description purr-fectly. Good night, nurse! Lucy Lyons is contagious! she thought, patting her pocketbook to make sure she had remembered the paperback. Sure enough, it was there, wrapped in her faithful plastic prayerbook cover.
Their escort continued, “And San Francisco is also one of our most unusual chapters.” Smiling, she nodded toward Sister Mary Helen and Sister Eileen.
Mary Helen could feel her backbone stiffen. It was hard to tell if Mrs. Taylor-Smith was being patronizing or complimentary. Deciding to give the woman the benefit of the doubt, she smiled back.
“I’m sure it is,” Erma Duran spoke up. “And I know much of it is due to the presence of our dear Sisters.” Cocking her curly gray head, Erma smiled first at Mary Helen and then at Eileen. Finally, like a teacher about to present her prize pupils, she addressed their escort: “Why, where else would you find two older nuns carrying picket signs protesting the cuts in social security?”
Mary Helen winced, remembering Eileen and herself walking in a wide circle, freezing cold, in front of the Federal Building, HONK IF YOU LOVE YOUR MOTHER their large signs had read. Secretly, she had to admit she had been thrilled each time she heard a honk.
“And we are so pleased they could come with us,” Erma continued, seemingly unable to let the matter drop. Linking her arms through the nuns’ arms, she gave each a little squeeze.
Mary Helen squeezed back and she suspected Eileen had too.
Good old Erma Duran! Mary Helen couldn’t help calling her that and smiling whenever she did. Watching her now, grinning happily at an astonished Mrs. Taylor-Smith, Mary Helen found it hard to believe that it had been fifty years since the two of them had first met at Mount St. Francis College. It was in the late thirties and they were both taking a history course during summer session. Erma, then Erma McSweeney, was a bouncy, curly-haired student and Mary Helen was a young nun.
They had been assigned a joint history project and had worked together famously. Although Mary Helen remembered feeling a little guilty at the time. Erma seemed to be doing most of the work. Not that Mary Helen was a slouch. But even then she had known there is a certain amount of virtue in letting others do for you. It makes them happy and Erma McSweeney had seemed genuinely happy.
In spite of the fact that she hadn’t seen or heard from Erma since, except for an occasional Christmas card, Mary Helen had recognized her immediately when they met a year or so ago at the annual alumnae tea.
The curly hair was no longer rich brown but wiry and graying. The middle had widened an inch or two and a double chin had been added to the round face. But the trusting brown eyes, though a little myopic, were exactly as she remembered them, and not even time had changed that warm, ready smile. Mary Helen was delighted to have the opportunity to renew their friendship.
In fact, not long after they became reacquainted, it was Erma who had introduced Mary Helen and Eileen to the OWLs.
“OWL? What in the name of God does that mean?” Eileen had asked, her brogue thickening a little, as it always did when she began to get nervous.
“Relax, Eileen.” Mary Helen had tried to calm her friend. “OWL is an acronym for Older Women’s League.”
Eileen’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “We most certainly qualify”—she straightened her blue suit skirt—“although I am surprised, no, shocked is a better word, to hear you of all people admit that we are old!”
“I said older women, Eileen!” Mary Helen cleared her throat, hoping to make a point “Older women,” she repeated. “Not old women!”
Her friend had just chuckled. “And what do these older women do?”
“According to Erma, they meet, discuss current issues, take political action when needed.”
“What kind of action?” Eileen’s gray eyes had narrowed suspiciously.
“Letter-writing, a phone call or two. Whatever.” Mary Helen had dismissed the rest with a wave of her hand, hoping it would pacify her friend. It must have.
Eileen had shrugged. “It sounds safer, I suppose, than some of the actions one of us has been taking recently.” She leveled her eyes at Mary Helen, who chose to ignore the remark.
After all, how could she have known, when she’d come to Mount St. Francis College three years ago to retire, that she would find the dead body of the chairman of the history department or that, a year later, she would become involved in the stabbing death of her secretary, Suzanne? Poor Suzanne. Mary Helen still missed the young woman. So much so, in fact, that she had readily agreed to turn the alumnae office over to a recent graduate and simply act as a resource person.
As a resource person, her main occupation, Mary Helen and the convent bathroom scale were beginning to realize, consisted chiefly of meeting people and going out to lunch.
That was why she had been especially thrilled when Erma Duran had suggested she join the OWLs. In addition to doing some good, she’d be keeping her mind active and maybe even her waistline thinner.
“With your history background, you’ll be a wonderful asset,” Erma had insisted.
Mary Helen had been impressed. After all these years, how had Erma remembered her major? She couldn’t recall if she had even declared one yet, in that long-ago summer session.
“And, of course, we want Sister Eileen too. With her vast knowledge of reference materials.” So, it wasn’t memory at all! She had pumped Eileen.
* * *
“If that’s all right with you, Sister?” Erma’s voice brought Mary Helen back to the present.
Mrs. Taylor-Smith, pewter eyes unflinching, looked at her expectantly.
“Oh, yes,” Mary Helen answered. If good old Erma said something was all right, she’d bet even money that it was.
Everyone smiled pleasantly—everyone, that is, except Eileen, who looked puzzled. Mary Helen would ask her what she had agreed to as soon as they were alone in the hotel room.
Meanwhile, she watched while Erma introduced the other OWLs to Mrs. Taylor-Smith.
Beside her, Caroline Coughlin removed a glove and extended her hand. The feather on the wide-brimmed hat covering her champagne-colored hair quivered ever so slightly as she inclined her head. Caroline’s deep blue eyes smiled, but she curved her lips just barely, so that not a wrinkle creased her subtly made-up face. In Mary Helen’s opinion, this woman was the closest the OWLs would ever come to meeting a royal princess or, at Caroline’s age, a queen dowager.
Rumor had it, though, that when provoked, the genteel Mrs. Coughlin, who had outlived two husbands, could sing a song of swearwords guaranteed to make a stevedore blanch. Whenever she had accidentally let one slip in front of the nuns, Mary Helen noted, she had the uncanny knack of making it sound like the height of refinement. Yes, indeed, she thought, observing her charm Mrs. Taylor-Smith, Caroline Coughlin was, as they say, “to the manner born.”
Lucy Lyons, whom Erma introduced next, was blessed with another attribute. Born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad. That inscription over the door of Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies fit Lucy perfectly. These two qualities had been her only patrimony, yet they had served her well. Short, plump Lucy Lyons probably had more money than all her other companions put together.
Mary Helen watched their escort’s pewter eyes examine Lucy. They began at the top, where a hastily plaited braid coiled around her head like a thick gray snake. With disdain they wandered from her horn-rimmed glasses down her jersey off-the-rack suit to her sensible black pumps. They flickered only for a moment when they focused on the diamond in its Tiffany setting on Lucy’s left ring finger. The stone was the size of a small marble. Her husband, Jimmy, had given it to her a year or so before his death.
“A token of his affliction,” Lucy always said when asked about the ring. Jimmy was the type, Mary Helen had been told, who could sell snow to the Eskimos. As a matter of fact, he had started out selling purses. “There’s a lot of money in purses,” Lucy often quipped.
With his ability and her sense of fun, the couple had amassed a fortune, bought a palatial home in San Francisco’s St. Francis Wood, and sent four children through college. Yet Lucy never lost her simplicity. Her one flaw was her terrible addiction to corny jokes and puns. She just couldn’t seem to resist them. Mary Helen sincerely hoped she would not be able to think of one until Mrs. Taylor-Smith had safely deposited them at their hotel.
“Hello. I’m Noelle Thompson.” Looking over her half glasses, Noelle extended her hand before Erma had the chance to introduce her. Noelle, a spinster, was probably the most intelligent or at least the best-educated member of the group. Surely she was the most assertive. The woman had held several important positions with the federal government and often acted as its spokesperson. Noelle Thompson had been the OWLs’ unanimous choice for president of their chapter.
“It’s nice to meet you, Alice,” Noelle said. Mary Helen had forgotten that Mrs. Taylor-Smith’s name was Alice. From the way the woman was blinking, she wondered if Mrs. Taylor-Smith might have forgotten too.
Adjusting her blue leather shoulder-strap purse, Noelle picked up her matching blue carry-on case. She straightened the jacket of her blue-plaid wool suit. Everything about Noelle Thompson was blue or had a touch of blue, even the light rinse in her white hair.
“The color picks up and intensifies her blue eyes,” Eileen had commented when Mary Helen first noticed it. “I read about it in Vogue,” she said with authority. “Many women choose a color to highlight their eyes. It commands attention.”
Dumbfounded, Mary Helen had stared at her friend. “What in the world were you doing reading Vogue? Don’t tell me, at our age, you’re going glamorous on me!” She smoothed her own navy-blue skirt, wondering just how out of style it was.
“Glory be to God, Mary Helen.” Eileen’s eyebrows had shot up. “It will take more than one article in Vogue to make a pacesetter out of the likes of me. If you must know, the truth of the matter is that Vogue—and an old issue, to boot—was the only magazine in the dentist’s office.” She paused to let that sink in. “I did, however, find it an interesting idea. Don’t you?”
Mary Helen had mulled over the idea briefly and decided against ever trying it. Her own hazel eyes showed such a myriad of color that choosing a hue to highlight them would be more trouble than it was worth.
Sister Mary Helen didn’t realize how tired she was until the six women had finally snuggled into Mrs. Taylor-Smith’s stretch Cadillac, hired, Mary Helen suspected, for the occasion.
Her eyes burned. She closed them. She’d be glad to get to New York City and into bed. Let the other girls carry on the chitchat on the way there. She would just rest her eyes. She took a deep breath. No wonder she was tired. It was just a little more than two weeks ago, right before Easter, that she had unexpectedly run into Erma Duran at the college.
“What in the world are you doing here?” Mary Helen had blurted out the moment she saw Erma. “I’m surprised to see you,” she had added quickly, realizing just how rude her question sounded.
Apparently good old Erma hadn’t noticed. “Not as surprised as I am to be here,” she had answered. “A couple of weeks ago Lucy talked me into signing up with her for one of your Senior Enrichment classes. She thinks it will be good for both us. Luckily it’s on Monday, my day off.”
Grimacing, Erma had unfurled the college brochure in front of Mary Helen and pointed to a blurb about an intensive journal-writing workshop.
Mary Helen was just about to say that she never thought of Erma as the journal-writing type, intensive or otherwise, when Lucy rounded the corner.
“Hi, Sister,” she had called. “I’m so glad we ran into you. It saves me a phone call. Jimmy used to say that when I died they would have to get the damn thing surgically removed from my ear.”
Mary Helen had laughed. Although she had heard Lucy say that at least two dozen times, she still enjoyed it. “What’s up with you two eternal coeds?” she had asked.
Lucy had demurred in favor of her friend.
“Well, we’ve been talking among ourselves . . .” Erma’s brown eyes had sparkled with the excitement of finally being able to tell a secret. “And the four of us—Noelle, Caroline, Lucy, and me”—she had counted the names off on her chubby fingers—“are going to New York for the OWL convention. We would all be delighted if you and Sister Eileen would come along with us. Actually,” she had said with a quick smile, “it wouldn’t be the same without you.”
Surprised by the invitation, Mary Helen had hesitated.
“Now, Sister, if it’s the expense, don’t you worry for a moment.” She cocked her curly head toward Lucy. “We talked about that, too, and the trip will be our treat.”
Mary Helen had gulped. She had a hunch that Erma had done most of the talking, and her good friend Lucy would do most of the treating. Not that Lucy would mind. And not that Erma wouldn’t do what she could—perhaps even more than she could.
In Mary Helen’s opinion, Erma Duran was sometimes generous to a fault. For example, since they had become reacquainted she had discovered that after graduation Erma McSweeney had forgone her own plans in order to take care of her aging parents. She was more than thirty by the time she felt free to marry Tommy Duran.
According to Eileen, who had been at Mount St. Francis for so many years that she was considered the walking Who’s Who, Tommy had been a handsome devil. According to some others, he had been one of those dashing fellows who meant well but never seemed able to do as well as he meant. It was believed by all that, to his dying day, Erma had supported him as well as their three children. In fact, she was still working.
At first Mary Helen had felt a little sad for her old friend. Yet as far as she could tell, despite or maybe because of what life had dealt her, Erma had aged into one of those salt-of-the-earth women.
“To look at her, you’d think she had the world by the proverbial tail,” Mary Helen had remarked to Eileen after one OWL meeting.
“Erma’s made of sturdy stock.” Eileen had nodded her head knowingly. “She’s full of faith, a real survivor.
“Besides’—she winked at Mary Helen—“she has a touch of the lace-curtain Irish in her, so she would never let on otherwise.”
* * *
Eileen nudged her. Mary Helen opened her eyes with a start. She must have been dozing.
“We are about to enter the Lincoln Tunnel.” Mrs. Taylor-Smith sounded like a high-class tour guide. “But before we do, ladies, over there.” She tilted her head.
“Look, Mary Helen.” Eileen pointed across the darkness to the magnificent skyline. Mary Helen drew in her breath.
On the horizon New York looked like a clear, well-taken photograph. Thousands of lights blinked. A phrase from a Hopkins sonnet popped into her mind—“O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air.” She wanted to pinch herself. It didn’t seem possible that she and Eileen were actually here. It had been so unexpected.
After meeting Erma at the college—yes, that was exactly what she had been thinking about when she dozed off—after Erma’s invitation, they’d barely had time, what with Holy Week services and Easter Sunday, to make the necessary arrangements at the college, pack a small bag each, and purchase a few traveler’s checks.