There was no thermometer outside the door of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Monastery, but Sister Maria Beata of the Incarnation didn’t need one to tell her that the temperature was well below zero and getting worse. She reached through the heavy wool folds of her habit for the leather sack purse she had pinned to the pocket of her skirt. The pocket was pinned, too, rather than sewn on, and for a moment she found herself thinking the kind of thought—Why in the name of God can’t we at least force ourselves into the eighteenth century?—that had kept her doing penance in Chapter for most of her formation. Behind her, Sister Mary Immaculata of the Child Jesus was unwinding herself from the bowels of the cab. There was a wind coming down the dark street, whipping stray pieces of litter into the air and then sucking them out of sight, heavenward. The old men who materialized out of nowhere to sleep in the monastery’s barn on cold winter nights were already lined up at the door. One of them was wearing a bright red cap that was not only clean but looked new. Beata found the correct change and enough of a tip not to embarrass herself, and paid the cabbie.
“Sister,” she said, as Immaculata came around to the curb, shaking out the folds of her cape against the wind.
Immaculata didn’t say anything, but Beata didn’t expect her to. Immaculata was a very old nun, old chronologically and old in the order. She didn’t approve of much of anything. Beata didn’t think she ever spoke unless she was spoken to, and even then she seemed to hate it, as if the act of speech had been taught to her as the one necessary element of any mortal sin. And maybe it had, Beata thought. It was hard to know what people had been taught in Immaculata’s day.
Beata went up the stone steps to the monastery’s front door and rang the bell. Sister Marie Bernadette of the Holy Innocents opened up and stepped back to let them pass, holding out her hand for the briefcase Beata carried in the process. Beata shook her head, and Marie Bernadette retreated.
“You must be frozen,” she said. “I’ve rung upstairs for Mother. She left word you were to meet her in the office as soon as you got back. Immaculata, you ought to go somewhere and have a cup of tea.”
Immaculata inclined her head. Beata bit her lip to keep from laughing. “I’ll go on through to the enclosure,” she said. “The Cardinal asked us all to pray for him. I told him we already did, every day. I didn’t tell him we prayed for him to retire. Somebody ought to open up for the men out there.”
“Are they out there already? We’re not supposed to open until six o’clock.”
“It’s cold,” Beata said.
Marie Bernadette had her keys out and was fumbling with the door to the enclosure. It had an old-fashioned lock, the kind that took a heavy iron key with a little cutout square hanging at the end. The door swung back and Beata went through it.
“If we don’t get someone out there soon, we’re going to have at least one corpse before morning,” she said. “Their bodies can’t handle this cold.”
The enclosure started with a hallway, long and narrow, with a crucifix in a wall niche at the very end. Beata unhooked her cape and pulled it off her shoulders. It was as hot in here as it was cold out there. She put the cape over her arm and went down the hall, genuflecting quickly when she got to the crucifix. Then she turned to the right and went down yet another hall to Mother Constanzia’s office. At least the ceilings were high, she thought. It was odd that it had never occurred to her that enclosure could cause claustrophobia.
Mother Constanzia of the Assumption of Mary was already waiting, standing at the window that looked out onto the enclosure courtyard as if there was something she could see out there that she hadn’t seen a thousand times before. Beata cleared her throat.
“I knew you were there,” Constanzia said. “I was just thinking. I tried to talk you out of becoming an extern sister, didn’t I?”
“You threatened not to admit me to Carmel if I insisted on becoming an extern sister.”
“It’s another example of how God knows better than we do what we need. I’ve got to admit that I never did think we’d need a lawyer.”
“We have lawyers.”
“I mean a lawyer we could trust.” Constanzia turned around. “I’m not going to say that I don’t trust the Cardinal or his lawyers, or that I don’t trust the order and its lawyers, but—”
“You don’t trust either.”
“Something like that. You did well in law school, didn’t you?”
“Tolerably well,” Beata said. “I was only ninth in my class, but it was a fairly big class, and it was Yale.”
“Sorry.” Constanzia motioned to the chair in front of the desk. “I’m a little on edge. This hasn’t been the best month of my life, let me tell you. Are we in as much trouble as you thought we were?”
“Pretty much.” Beata let her cape fall over the back of the chair, put the briefcase on the desk, and sat down. “First, let me confirm what I thought this morning. The Justice Project is taking this very seriously. They’re bringing in Kate Daniel herself to handle it—”
“Good grief. That woman.”
“She’s a very smart woman. She’s a brilliant attorney.”
“She’s an anti-Catholic bigot.”
“I don’t know that she is. She does see this as an opportunity, and I don’t blame her. But the game she’s after isn’t the Catholic Church.”
“It’s the game she’s going to get.”
“Then she’ll count it as a loss. What she wants is Drew Harrigan, stuffed like a turkey and served up for Thanksgiving dinner, and if you ask me, she’s going to get him. In the process, she may drive us into bankruptcy, or worse, but I don’t think that’s what she’s after.”
“She won’t mind if she does.”
“Maybe not,” Beata said. “But Reverend Mother, the issue here is procedural, really. It’s a matter of timing. Mr. Harrigan deeded the Holland Street lots to the monastery two weeks ago Wednesday. That was after he’d been indicted for illegal possession of prescription drugs, along with about two dozen other things, and after Sherman Markey filed suit against him for defamation and false accusation. After. It’s the after that’s the problem.”
“Because it looks like Drew was trying to shield his property from the lawsuit.”
“Because it looks like an arrangement,” Mother Constanzia said. “It looks like the whole thing is fake. That Drew deeded us the property so that Mr. Markey couldn’t get it in a court settlement, and then we’d give it back to him when Mr. Markey was taken care of and had gone away.”
“That’s it, yes.”
“Does it matter that none of that is true?” Constanzia said. “Oh, I’m not saying Drew didn’t deed it to us out of spite against Mr. Markey. Drew is Drew. But there isn’t any arrangement. The fact that we want to sell the properties ought to be proof that there isn’t any arrangement.”
“We might want to sell them, keep the cash, and turn the cash over to Drew after his legal troubles were over.”
“Does the general public actually think that nuns are that Machiavellian?”
“It’s not the general public we have to convince. It’s one sitting judge, and he’s going to side with Markey. He has to, really. The fact of the timing looks bad. The fact that the buyer insists on remaining anonymous looks bad. The fact that Mr. Harrigan is your brother looks worse.”
“I ought to go in there and tell that idiot that Drew may be my brother, but I’ve been a registered Democrat all my life.”
“I think that would break enclosure.”
“I’d wear a veil. And it can’t break enclosure any worse to testify in a court than to vote, and we always vote.”
“I’m trying to get a handle on what it would look like on the news. You sitting on the witness stand with your face covered by an exclaustration veil—”
“Be serious,” Constanzia said. “Where are we now? What can we do?”
“Not much,” Beata said. “We can’t sell those properties as long as the court forbids us to, and the court is forbidding us to. We’re going to have to find some other way to solve the problem.”
“There is no other way to solve the problem. We have a bank note coming due in six weeks.”
“And if we don’t pay it, there’s going to be a first-rate dustup about this monastery’s finances, and it’s not going to be confined to the screaming fit the Cardinal is going to subject us to.”
“The Cardinal doesn’t usually scream, does he?” Beata said. “I’ve always thought of him as a go-stone-cold-silent type.”
“The distinction is too fine to excite my interest.”
“Possibly. But Mother, seriously. It’s time to tell the Cardinal, and let him straighten this out. Maybe he could talk to the mystery buyer, or the buyer’s lawyers. Maybe he could advance us enough to make the payment or countersign to roll over the loan. The Archdiocese does that kind of thing all the time.”
“It used to.”
“Mother, it’s going to be a lot more willing to do that kind of thing than it will be to go on the legal defensive against Markey, who’s going to be very easy to portray as a poor, downtrodden, unjustly harassed homeless person. It’s going to be easy to do that even if it turns out Markey did sell Mr. Harrigan the drugs.”
“Procured them,” Constanzia said automatically. “Is he really homeless?”
“Not now. The Justice Project has him in a hotel. He was homeless when Mr. Harrigan says he was paying him to pick up the drugs for him.”
“You’ve got to wonder how a person like that could keep himself together long enough to do all this nonsense he’s supposed to have done to pick up the OxyContin and whatever else there was supposed to be. You read all these things in the papers. Going to a different pharmacy every time. Going to different doctors’ offices. It’s like a spy film with James Bond.”
“The Justice Project doesn’t think Markey did do any of that. They don’t think he’s capable. They think Mr. Harrigan is accusing him because he’s handy.”
“Because Drew doesn’t want to admit that he did it all himself?”
“Because Mr. Harrigan is shielding somebody else, somebody he has more—respect for. Somebody whose life he doesn’t think is a waste.”
“I’d like to get my hands around Drew’s throat and squeeze until he turns blue.”
“Well, you can’t for the next forty days. He’s in rehab. The enclosure there makes the enclosure here look like wide-open access. Do you want me to try to get in touch with the Justice Project people?”
“Would it do any good?”
“Probably not but I wouldn’t mind meeting Kate Daniel.”
“Then go do whatever it is you do at this time of night.”
“I go out to look at the barn.”
“I remember when we had sheep in that barn,” Constanzia said. “It’s strange, really, the way things have changed since I’ve been in Carmel. I thought when I came here that if things changed in the outside world, I wouldn’t know about it. But I do.”
“I thought that if I came to Carmel, I’d find nuns who were all actively engaged in an ecstatic union with God. That was why I didn’t want to make a solemn profession, did you know that? I’d read St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa, and I couldn’t see myself in the throes of that kind of, that kind of—”
“We have to assume that that isn’t what that was, don’t we?”
“Get something to eat before you go out to the barn,” Constanzia said. “I have to think. And thank you for everything you did today.”
“There’s nothing to thank me for. I’m a member of this community.”
“I know. Go now. You look exhausted.”
Beata hesitated for a moment, and then turned and left the office, back into the hallway, back down the hallway to the niche where the crucifix was. She genuflected again, absentmindedly. Around her, the monastery was silent. Even the clocks didn’t tick.
“Everybody who comes to Carmel has a different story,” Mother Constanzia had said, the day Beata had shown up at the monastery door, dressed in an Armani power suit and carrying a burgundy leather SoHo briefcase from Coach.
She didn’t miss the power suit, but she missed the sound of music, all kinds of music, even the bad kind. She kept listening to hear the voice of God.
Copyright © 2006 by Orania Papazoglou. All rights reserved.