“We’ll be there in a jiffy!” Sister Anne took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed to the mud-spattered road sign. “Santa Cruz County. Elevation eighteen hundred feet.”
Just get us there alive, Mary Helen thought with a frozen smile. When Anne whizzed past the lonely Summit Inn, she heard Sister Eileen suck in her breath. Mary Helen was surprised. Eileen, sitting stiffly in the backseat, was always a bit of a daredevil; the sort who loved a roller-coaster ride. Apparently Anne’s driving was too much even for her.
Mary Helen tried to distract herself. Shoving her glasses up the bridge of her nose, she stared out the car window at the trees and underbrush that grew alongside the twisting Highway 17. Hoping Anne didn’t notice, she closed her eyes at the precise moment the young nun leaned the convent Nova into yet another series of turns for the descent.
This stretch of road, through the Santa Cruz Mountains from the Santa Clara Valley to the coast, was considered so dangerous that Cal-Trans had constructed a low cement divider along most of it to prevent head-on collisions.
Despite its treacherousness, the three nuns breezed along. All the traffic seemed to be on the other side of the highway, coming back from the beach. Any cars ahead of them, Anne simply passed.
“Isn’t Vine Hill Road the turnoff?” she asked her two numb passengers. Before either could answer, a brown and gold sign proclaimed in large, bold print, ST. COLETTE’S RETREAT HOUSE, 3 MILES. The arrow pointed into the hills.
Signaling, Anne made what Mary Helen considered a death-defying left-hand turn. She glanced behind her. Eileen, her soft, broad face wrinkled into a frown and her eyes squeezed shut, fingered her Rosary beads.
Vine Hill Road, which might more aptly be named “Pothole Lane,” had one advantage. It slowed Sister Anne down to a jolting twenty miles per hour.
At first, redwood and fir trees formed a dark tunnel. With bracken brushing against the car wheels, they ascended the hill until the ground at their left fell away and they looked down, much as birds might, on a valley of gigantic evergreens. The only signs of human life were a honeycomb of mailboxes set back in a clump of live oak, and a stumpy telephone pole.
Just when Mary Helen feared they were completely lost, another small sign pointed the way up an even narrower road.
“This is just like being way out in the country.” Eileen’s words bumped up from the backseat.
Mary Helen nodded. Actually, that was exactly why she had chosen to spend a week at this retreat center. Although St. Colette’s was only sixty-five miles south of San Francisco, its brochure stressed the remoteness, the quiet, and the access to all the beauties of the redwood forest.
That and the glorious colored pictures convinced her that St. Colette’s was the perfect place for her annual retreat. She was so enthusiastic about it that Eileen decided to join her. They both needed it. The two old nuns had spent a particularly difficult academic year at Mount St. Francis College, what with their pilgrimage to Spain having resulted in a murder investigation and its aftermath back home. But better not to think of all that now.
Retreat was the time to “come apart and rest awhile.” She had chosen a quiet, beautiful spot in which to greet her God and to realize, once again, His continual, loving presence and the strength of that love.
Mentally, she unpacked her suitcase: her Jerusalem Bible, her book of the Divine Office, a well-worn copy of the Life of Teresa of Avila, hiking shoes, windbreaker, and several cotton skirts and blouses. She’d toyed with the idea of buying a pair of comfortable slacks, the kind that Sister Anne often wore. But a quick comparison of their girths cooled that notion, pronto!
Sister Blanche, the college’s science teacher, had insisted that Mary Helen take along a lovely little book full of photographs entitled Plants of the Coast Redwood Region. “That way you’ll know what you’re looking at,” Blanche said.
These books, plus the retreat master’s conferences, should give her plenty to think about. A Father Percival Dodds was to be the retreat master. She’d never heard of the priest. Lest he turn out to be a bore, just before they left the college she’d tucked The Chartreuse Clue into her pocketbook.
“Isn’t that a mystery?” Eileen had asked with more innocence than was genuine.
“Isn’t religion itself a mystery?” Mary Helen was equal to her old friend. “Aren’t we going away on retreat in part to wrestle with life’s mysteries? Why, this particular book features a Catholic bishop as a kind of Nero Wolfe. And it was written by a former priest. That qualifies it as a holy book of sorts.
“Furthermore, it fits perfectly into my plastic prayer-book cover. If that isn’t providential, I don’t know what is.”
Eileen simply rolled her large gray eyes.
Although no living soul was behind them, Sister Anne hit the signal lever for a left turn.
Now she gets cautious, Mary Helen thought as the car slowly descended the steep driveway into St. Colette’s. Gigantic redwoods surrounded a valley of low wooden buildings with bright orange shingled roofs that she recognized from the brochure. The entrance itself was guarded by a terra-cotta statue of St. Francis holding a rabbit and petting a wolf. Although a few cars were in the parking lot, the center was deserted except for two enormous, noisy German shepherds whose clamor didn’t seem to bother the birds swooping down on the brightly blooming flower beds. The dogs, tails wagging, ran up to the car and barked ferociously.
Eileen peered out of the car window. “I never know which end to believe,” she said.
“Where is everybody?” Opening the car door, Anne began to rub the huge animals behind their ears. Before long, romping playfully, they followed her toward a halfglass door marked OFFICE. “I’ll ring the bell,” she said, “to make sure you two get in.”
“You go on,” Eileen spoke up. “You want to get to your father’s house for dinner and you don’t have much time to spare. Wish him a happy Father’s Day for us.”
Anne hesitated, then began to pull the suitcases from the Nova’s trunk.
“We’ll get in,” Mary Helen assured her, raking her fingers through her short gray hair to smooth it. After the ride it must surely be standing on end.
“We are probably just a little early. I didn’t expect you to get us here so quickly. Traffic and all,” Mary Helen added, hoping she hadn’t sounded critical.
After all, Anne had done them a big favor dropping them off. The convent car that Mary Helen signed out for retreat had broken down. Again! Eileen and she would be on the bus, if Anne hadn’t offered to drop them. She could just as easily have driven directly to her parents’ home in San Mateo to celebrate Father’s Day.
“If you’re sure.” Mary Helen recognized a look of concern in Anne’s hazel eyes.
“We will be just fine.” Eileen patted her hand.
“What could possibly go wrong in an idyllic setting like this?” Mary Helen asked. She wasn’t positive, but she thought Anne did a double take.
“I’ll pick you up on Saturday, then. Have fun!” Anne called over the rev of the motor.
“And to think she worries about us,” Eileen said, watching the convent Nova exit amid swirling dust and barking dogs.
With Anne on her way, Sister Mary Helen walked to the office door and pressed a small button doorbell. She waited, then pressed it again. No answer.
The top half of the door was made of what looked like wine-bottle bottoms and was impossible to see through.
“Maybe we are expected to walk right in.” Eileen glanced warily at the dogs who, tired of chasing Anne’s car, were loping down the hill.
“How do?” Mary Helen sang out, pushing back the door. Quickly the two nuns stepped into a lobby of sorts. A sudden draft banged the door shut. The bottle bottoms gave an ominous rattle. That kind of glass, Mary Helen remembered, was all the rage in the sixties. Glancing around, she realized that the entire room had a sixties look: paneled walls, Danish chairs covered in lime-green and orange vinyl, a small swag lamp in the corner.
Beyond was a smaller office with the door ajar.
“How do?” Mary Helen called out again.
An invisible hand pushed the inner door, which closed with a soft click, shutting out all but the low hum of a telephone conversation. Although the words were not clear, the tone certainly was. The speaker was extremely agitated.
“What do you suppose is going on?” Mary Helen whispered.
Eileen set her mouth primly. “Whatever it is, it does not concern us,” she said. “Maybe we should step outside.”
The heavy bodies of the barking dogs slammed against the front door, rattling the glass again.
“Do you want to?”
“Not on my longest day.” Eileen moved closer to Mary Helen.
Without warning the door to the inner office flew open. A short, solid, habited nun with flaming apple cheeks stepped out.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said in a high-pitched, distracted voice. “I am Sister Felicita.”
At the moment you look anything but blissful, Mary Helen thought, introducing herself and Sister Eileen.
Sister Felicita, smelling faintly of lavender, smiled uncertainly. Her large, pale blue eyes blinked behind rimless glasses. “How can I help you?” she asked, tucking her hands beneath the black scapular hanging loosely from her shoulders and covering her black habit.
Except for a horseshoe-shaped white coif circling a tuft of ash-colored angel hair and a small pointed collar, everything Sister Felicita wore was black: her shoulder-length veil, the nylon stockings filling the gap between her mid-calf skirt and her sturdy black shoes. She’s a little “sixties” too, Mary Helen noted wistfully. How easy her packing must be!
Rifling her pocketbook in search of their confirmation letter, Mary Helen tried to determine Felicita’s age. The habit, the almost entirely covered hair, and the full face made it hard to pinpoint.
Something about the way gravity was already pulling Felicita into a pear shape made Mary Helen place the nun in her late fifties.
When Felicita’s left hand fluttered out from behind her scapular to take the letter, Mary Helen knew she was right. Hands are a dead giveaway.
Just a kid, she thought, congratulating herself. She always considered anyone twenty or more years her junior a “kid.” And she fully intended to keep right on doing so, although there were more and more “kids” around these days.
Without warning Felicita’s face turned the color of Brie cheese. “You’re a week early!” she blurted out.
Mary Helen grabbed back the letter and shoved her bifocals up the bridge of her nose. “It clearly says June twenty-seventh. Isn’t today the twenty-seventh?”
“No, old dear,” Eileen whispered. “It is the twentieth.”
Mary Helen bristled at the “old dear.” This was not an age issue. It had nothing whatsoever to do with age. It was a mistake that anyone with a busy schedule could easily make. God knows, her schedule was busy enough to confuse someone half her age.
“Now you tell me!” she snapped at Eileen.
“Now you ask me!” Eileen snapped back. “But, no harm.” Always optimistic, Eileen had obviously hit upon a solution. “We can still make whatever retreat we are on now.”
“That’s impossible.” Red splotches returned to Felicita’s cheeks.
“Nothing’s impossible!” Mary Helen frowned. That was the trouble with “kids”; they couldn’t see the options. “What retreat are you having?”
“A diocesan priests’ retreat.” Sister Felicita said, then giggled. “And frankly, I could use some company!”
Over a cup of coffee in a tiny collation room off the kitchen, Mary Helen explained that Sister Anne had dropped them off, and since they didn’t have her parents’ phone number and didn’t want to disturb her until morning anyway, they were for all practical purposes stranded.
Thoughtfully, Felicita traced small circles on a plastic tablecloth. “Maybe it’s providential,” she said. “The retreat actually starts tomorrow, but a few of the priests have already arrived. And just as you pulled up I received a phone call from Bakersfield.”
“Oh?” Mary Helen perked up. Maybe they’d find out why Felicita was so upset when they arrived.
“The other four nuns . . . There are only five of us here to run this huge place. But that’s another story. They went to the funeral of one of our benefactors in Bakersfield. A fine, generous man. . . .”
That’s another story, too, Mary Helen thought, hoping she wouldn’t get sidetracked.
“Someone had to stay home because of the priests’ retreat.” Felicita pursed her lips. “They were to be home late tonight. Sister Timothy assured me that the car was in perfect working condition.” Red splotches reappeared on her cheeks. “And . . .”
“The blasted thing broke down.” Mary Helen finished the sentence. Nuns are the same the world over, she mused. In coifs or out of coifs, Franciscans or Presentations or Mercys, teachers or retreat directors. We all have a Sister Timothy, and at least one sick car.
The loud, persistent clang of what sounded like an enormous gong filled the room and spread down the mountainside.
“That’s our bell,” Felicita explained unnecessarily. “Do you hear it?”
If I didn’t hear that, the next thing I’d hear would be Gabriel’s horn, Mary Helen thought, waiting for the noise to die out. It didn’t.
“A benefactor gave it to us. It came from the old Berkeley ferry,” Felicita shouted above the din. “A little nautical for a mountaintop, but it does the trick. We use it to call our guests to prayer, to the retreat conferences, to meals. Although sometimes Beverly overdoes it.”
“Beverly?” In the distance, Mary Helen heard the dogs howling.
“Beverly is our cook. A wonderful chef, really, but a bit on the temperamental side.” Felicita’s pale blue eyes blinked rapidly. “Something must be wrong in the kitchen. You can always tell by the way she rings.”
The clanging stopped as suddenly as it had begun, leaving its echo dying slowly among the trees.
“We had better go before she starts again.” Avoiding the kitchen proper, Felicita led Mary Helen and Eileen out a side door and onto a wooden sundeck.
“If Beverly cooks as well as she rings, we are in for a treat,” Eileen remarked cheerfully.
If she cooks as well as she rings, Mary Helen thought ruefully, she wouldn’t be cooking here!
Although each building was separate, they all seemed to be connected by the sundeck. At least the main ones did. Felicita paused long enough to give them a taste of the panorama.
Drawing in a deep, woodsy breath, Mary Helen gazed out across a valley of redwoods, beyond the gorge to where ridge after ridge of the Coast Range rolled purple in the distance.
A hot sun falling just below the treetops on its slow descent into the Pacific, created a tranquil sky full of lavender and pink. Directly below the sundeck, long blue shadows stretched like fingers over the lawn and drew dark stripes across a sparkling swimming pool. An evening silence covered St. Colette’s Retreat House. The heavens were declaring the glory of God. Mary Helen stood rapt in the beauty until the raucous call of a jay perched on the deck rail broke the spell. Apparently he had heard the dinner bell, too.
“Right this way.” Felicita, plainly used to being immersed in all this loveliness, seemed anxious to get to the dining room. “We call it St. Jude’s,” she said, swinging back the heavy door. “He’s the patron saint of desperate and impossible cases, as you know.”
Eileen shot Mary Helen a warning look. Mary Helen stared back innocently. She had no intention of asking if its name had any connection to the food served, if that was what was worrying Eileen. After all, Mary Helen realized full well that, as hard as Felicita was trying to be hospitable, they were at best uninvited guests.
“When we first began this building, it seemed an impossible feat, so we prayed to St. Jude and—see!”
The two visitors looked around. St. Jude had outdone himself. The dining room was airy and spacious with walls of windows letting in the breathtaking view. Twelve, or maybe fifteen, brown Formica-topped tables were positioned around the room. Each had place settings and orange vinyl chairs for eight. Cylinder-shaped lights hung from the ceiling in groups of three.
“Looks as if a couple of the boys are already here,” Felicita whispered.
Sister Mary Helen followed her glance toward the table in the far corner. The “boys,” who were seated and sipping what appeared to be red wine, were two grown men in sport shirts and black slacks.
Mary Helen never understood why priests in “civvies” neglected to change their trousers. Black pants were such a telltale.
“Ah, Sisters, join us.” One of the priests, the older of the two, rose and pulled out a chair.
Although Mary Helen did not really know him personally, she recognized him as Monsignor Cornelius McHugh, pastor emeritus of St. Patrick’s Church in downtown San Francisco. The monsignor was a senior statesman of sorts, confidant of archbishops past and present. With his regal posture and a full mane of hair the color of winter wheat, his picture at ground-breakings and other official affairs appeared frequently in the San Francisco Catholic.
“I’m Father Con McHugh,” he said unnecessarily. “And this bright-looking fellow is Father Ed Moreno.”
Moreno scrambled up from his chair.
“These two Sisters—” Felicita began the introduction, but Con McHugh interrupted.
“Anyone who reads the Chronicle knows who these two are. As a matter of fact, when we saw you come in, Ed said, ‘I hope we’re going to be safe.’ Didn’t you, Ed?”
“You’re full of it, old man.” With a hearty laugh, Ed Moreno shook hands with Eileen, then turned to Mary Helen. She was surprised that the short, wiry fellow had such broad shoulders, big hands, and an almost painfully strong grip. He must lift weights or squeeze clamps or something, she thought.
They had just settled down at the table when the kitchen door was flung open. A large woman in a grease-spattered apron stood there, grim-faced. Her hair, pushed unconvincingly into a net, lay on top of her head like an untidy haystack.
“Are they all here yet?” she asked. Her impatient eyes strafed the room for hidden diners.
“They are on their way, I’m sure.” Felicita looked toward the monsignor.
“Just give us five minutes, Beverly,” he said with the ease of one used to being in charge. “Then, ready or not, here you come.”
Without a word or even a change of expression, the woman disappeared back into the kitchen, leaving the door swinging in her wake.
“I see Heavy Bevy is her usual happy self.” Ed Moreno lifted the wine bottle from the floor beside his chair. He filled three more glasses.
“Drink up.” Con McHugh pushed a glass toward each of the nuns. “From the looks of things, we might need it.”
Mary Helen was not surprised to see Felicita take the first sip. From the tense expression on her face, she needed it. “Salute,” Felicita said after the fact.
“Ed, here, works at Juvenile Hall in the city,” the monsignor began. Before he went any further, the door to St. Jude’s opened and three more men in sport shirts and black slacks sauntered into the large room.
“Get over here, you guys, before Heavy Bevy and her cleaver arrive,” Ed called.
Felicita’s cheeks blazed. “Shh, Father! What if she hears you?”
“I’ll pretend Tom said it.” Ed pointed to a tall, curly-haired priest with a crooked grin.
Mary Helen recognized Father Thomas Harrington, the articulate and much televised director of the Archdiocesan Communications Center. “Happy Harrington,” he was called because of his easy grin.
“That man could charm honey from the bees,” old Sister Donata said whenever she saw him on television.
And how will he fare with Beverly? Mary Helen wondered crazily while the monsignor made the formal introductions.
“This is Father Andrew Carr.” He nodded toward a balding priest with a scruffy graying beard.
“We call him ‘Handy Andy.’ ” Apparently Ed Moreno had a nickname for everybody.
“Why is that?” Eileen took the bait.
A flicker of annoyance shadowed the monsignor’s face. Obviously he did not like to be interrupted. “Because he’s always handy when the archbishop has a chaplaincy to dole out,” he said. “Andy is now chaplain to the Police Department, the Fire Department, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Knights of Malta, and the whole Port of San Francisco.”
“The guy is so busy he doesn’t have time to shave,” Ed Moreno quipped.
Ignoring him, Andy smiled at the nuns. “Jealousy is a sad thing, especially in a clergyman,” he said.
“Last, and definitely least,” the monsignor said, winking, “may I introduce you to Father Michael Denski.”
A red flush began at Father Denski’s jaw and spread quickly up his cheeks to his too-long sideburns.
“Father Denski is newly ordained. Right, Mike?”
With his smooth, unwrinkled face and wide, almost topaz-blue eyes, he reminded Mary Helen more of an altar boy than of a priest. How new? she wanted to ask. Again, Con McHugh supplied the information.
“It will be two years next week. Right, Mike?”
Father Denski nodded.
“Where are you stationed, Father?” Eileen asked kindly.
“He’s got one of those cushy suburban jobs as associate pastor at St. Dunstan’s in Millbrae,” Moreno answered for him.
“Dunstan’s a fine Irish saint.” Eileen filled the tense silence that followed. “Nobly born, he became a monk and went on to reestablish monasteries, counsel kings, advise popes, teach at Canterbury. Besides that he was a noted musician and metalworker. And he illustrated manuscripts.”
“How long did he live?” Mike Denski asked in amazement. It was the first time he’d spoken.
“If I remember correctly, he died at about seventy-eight,” Eileen said, astonishing everyone but Mary Helen with her memory for trivia.
“You better get busy, Con,” Ed Moreno teased.
Before anyone else could comment on Eileen’s brief hagiography, a stainless-steel serving cart hit open the kitchen door. Beverly, her plain face red and damp with perspiration, launched it toward them like a guided missile.
With an angry thud, she flung down platters of beef stew, plates of steaming corn bread, and a tub of butter.
“If you want dessert, it’s here.” She pointed to the bottom of the cart, where individual Pyrex dishes full of lemon cup pudding steamed like a row of six-ounce volcanos. “Coffee’s in the kitchen. And I’m done for today.”
“Thank you, Beverly. This smells and looks delicious,” Felicita said politely. “We’ll see you then, tomorrow.”
“I hope so,” Beverly said ominously, leaving Mary Helen wondering if the cook was not coming or if she expected one of them to be missing.
Suddenly the loud, insistent barking of the German shepherds filled the room. “She’s gone out to feed Rin and Tin-Tin, the two dogs,” Felicita shouted over the din. “The noise won’t last long.”
As Felicita predicted, the uproar stopped as unexpectedly as it began. “Beverly really loves those dogs,” she said apologetically.
In the distance Beverly’s car door slammed. Everyone, especially Felicita, visibly relaxed. Like London after the Blitz, Mary Helen thought, watching the plates and platters being passed.
Although the cook’s attitude had been unpalatable, her stew and corn bread turned out to be delicious. The priests and Sisters ate leisurely, enjoying good humor and good conversation.
Tom Harrington, quoting Benjamin Franklin, Mary Helen thought, announced a little thickly, “Wine is a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy,” and refilled the wineglasses.
While they talked, a slim girl with a nervous face and auburn hair done up in a French braid walked in and out, quickly gathering up the dishes. Felicita introduced her as Laura Purcell.
Long after Laura’s last trip, the group continued to talk about their ministries, about the people they knew in common, about new trends in theology, world affairs, and the latest doings of San Francisco’s rather autocratic archbishop, Norman Wright, whom Ed Moreno irreverently called “Absolute Norm.”
The kitchen was quiet and the sky was filling with stars when Mary Helen, no longer able to stifle it, yawned.
“You’re tired,” Felicita said—too quickly. Obviously she was waiting for any excuse to call it a night. She looked relieved when Mary Helen admitted that she was.
While the priests talked on, the three nuns excused themselves.
“Sorry you’re leaving us,” Con McHugh said with a gracious nod. He sounded as if he really meant it.
Outside the sky was navy blue velvet pierced with stars that looked close enough to touch. Gravel crunched beneath their feet as Felicita led them across the deserted parking lot toward the dormitory buildings. “Be careful out here,” she cautioned, “it’s easy to turn your foot on a fallen acorn or a loose stone.”
Slowly the three nuns moved across the dimly lit pavement. The German shepherds, like sentries, flanked them on either side, panting as if they’d just finished a long run.
The stillness surrounding them was so profound that Mary Helen heard a single pinecone fall to the ground. From somewhere a screech owl trilled and, as though on cue, thousands of crickets began wildly rubbing their tiny legs together.
“Is it always this peaceful?” Eileen asked, sucking in the cool night air.
As if in answer, a door slammed and someone ran across the parking lot. The dogs, alert, began to bark.
“Oh, shut up!” an angry voice shouted.
“Laura?” Felicita recognized it. “Is that you, dear?”
“Yes, Sister. It’s me.” The young woman stopped beneath one of the parking lot lights and waited for the nuns to reach her.
“I was in St. Agnes’ Hall using the bathroom,” Laura offered, although Felicita hadn’t asked. Her thin face was still pink, and soggy. From recent tears, Mary Helen conjectured. A sprinkle of freckles stood out on her red nose. Straggly pieces of auburn hair, escapees from her French braid, hung in her face.
Sister Mary Helen hardly recognized her as the same quiet, intelligent-looking girl who had removed the dinner dishes. Laura looked as if she’d fought a decisive battle.
“What in the world are you doing here so late? I thought surely you’d have gone by now,” Felicita said. “You must be exhausted.”
Laura gave no indication that she had heard Felicita. “I have something to say to you, Sister.”
“Yes, dear?” Sister Felicita blinked nervously. From Laura’s tone of voice one knew that what she intended to say was not good.
Instinctively, Mary Helen and Eileen stepped back to give Felicita a little privacy.
Laura’s green eyes were as hard as glass. “I quit!” she said, and with a stiff arm, pushed her folded apron into Felicita’s unsuspecting hands.
Poor Felicita reeled back as if she’d been struck. “You quit? Oh, no, Laura. Why?”
“Why? I’ll tell you why, Sister. I cannot . . . no, I will not, take one more moment of Beverly.” Unexpectedly, she exploded like a boiler into furious sobs.
“There, there, dear.” Felicita led the girl toward a wooden bench. “What happened?”
“I’m sorry, Sister,” Laura hiccuped, “but I am so mad I can’t stop crying. She’s awful. She’s just plain mean. Tonight, she used every pot, pan, and skillet in the whole place on purpose. I’ve been here, Sister, three months now, and I really need the job. I’ve tried, but I just can’t take her.
“Nothing I do is ever right, no matter how hard I try. When she is nice, it’s worse. It scares me, like she wants something from me.” Laura shuddered and Felicita put her arm around the thin, rigid shoulders.
“When Greg came to pick me up, she told him to come back in two hours. She knows my car is dead and that he was going to pick me up for the show.” Laura’s green eyes blazed. “She makes me so mad, I could clobber her with one of her precious pots.”
“Who is Greg?” Felicita asked, obviously trying to distract her.
“My boyfriend. Actually, he is—almost—my fiancé.”
For the first time, Felicita seemed to remember Mary Helen and Eileen, who were standing a little apart. “Why don’t you Sisters wait for me in St. Agnes’?”—she nodded toward the far redwood building with an alpine roof—“until Laura and I get this settled.”
“It is settled,” Laura said, her lips set in a thin line.
Before Felicita could protest or the other two nuns could move, tires screeched and a pair of headlights swept across the parking lot.
The dogs pitched forward, barking and nipping at the wheels of a sporty white Camaro. When the driver switched off the motor, they seemed to lose interest and, with a perfunctory bark or two, went chasing after another supposed intruder in the underbrush.
“It’s Greg,” Laura said, standing up and smoothing her hair from her face. She forced a smile.
The door swung open and a broad-shouldered young man unfolded himself from the driver’s seat. Although it was difficult to tell much in the dim light, Mary Helen thought him good-looking in a blond, sun-bleached, surfer sort of way.
“Are you okay, Laura?” he asked.
Quickly, Laura went to him, buried her face in his leather bomber jacket, and began to sob again.
“What’s wrong, babe?” he asked. “Are you hurt or something?”
“Hurt?” She pulled herself away. “I am not hurt. I am furious. I am so mad I could scream.”
“Sounds like you are,” Greg teased.
“This is not funny, Greg,” she said, although the anger was already seeping out of her tone.
“Beverly again?” he asked.
“Again! Still! Always! But I’m not taking it anymore, Greg. No matter how much we need the money, I quit!” Laura nuzzled her face back into the front of Greg’s leather jacket.
Greg enveloped Laura with his arms, pressed his chin onto the top of her head, and smiled helplessly at Felicita. “She ain’t a redhead for nothing, Sister,” he said.
The door of St. Jude’s opened and a beacon of light spread across the parking lot. “I thought the priests’ retreat started tomorrow,” Greg said, staring at the laughing clerics framed in the doorway.
“A couple came early,” Laura muttered, without ever moving her face from his chest. “That’s what started all the trouble, I think.”
Ed Moreno raised his hand in a wave and the group strolled across the blacktop.
“Let’s go,” Greg said quickly, “or we’ll miss the last show.”
“Maybe tomorrow, when Laura calms down, she and I can talk,” Felicita appealed to Greg.
“I’m sorry, Sister.” Laura’s back stiffened. “I have had it.”
With a stiff plastic smile, Felicita watched the car disappear over the hill and the five priests disappear into their building before she sank down on the bench. “She’s had it?” Felicita sighed. One tear ran down her soft, round cheek and splashed onto her scapular. “What about me?”
A distinctive buzz reminded Mary Helen that, sitting on the bench, they were nothing more than the entree for the mosquitoes’ main meal. “Is there someplace inside we can sit?” she asked.
“There’s a small kitchenette in St. Philomena’s Hall.” Felicita removed her rimless glasses and dabbed her eyes with her snowy white handkerchief. She pointed to the nearest dormitory building.
“St. Philomena? Didn’t the Church declare her persona non grata?” Mary Helen asked, more to distract Felicita than anything else.
“Don’t tell her.” Felicita nodded toward a statue of the saint illumined by one of the overhead lights. Philomena, dressed in her native toga, held a palm frond in her stone hand as a symbol of her martyrdom. “She’s the one we prayed to for Beverly.”
“Be careful what you pray for.” Mary Helen smiled, paraphrasing the old Chinese proverb. “You just may get it!”
Over steaming cups of herbal tea, Felicita spilled out the whole story. “For years we had nothing but trouble finding a decent cook. We were desperate. Then Beverly came along. She had excellent recommendations. And lives not far away, over in the Bonny Doon area.” She shrugged. “And so we didn’t hesitate when she asked for a two-year signed contract. Actually, we were delighted.
“ ‘How long can a two-year contract be?’ I asked Mother Superior at the time.” Felicita scowled at her own foolishness. “Now I know!
“From her first day here, she began to alienate the other members of the staff. First, the women in the kitchen. Then the housekeepers. The ladies in the office. We can’t keep a living soul! She even bothers Mr. King, the caretaker.” Felicita’s eyes blinked in disbelief. “And Mr. King is almost stone-deaf! The only ones who seem to like her are Rin and Tin-Tin. Maybe it’s because she feeds them.
“And now, Laura. She’s our fourth dishwasher since Beverly came. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a dishwasher?”
Eileen shook her head.
“Worse than a cook. Next to impossible,” Felicita sighed. “I had great hopes for Laura. She’s a graduate student in drama here at the university and, as she said, she needs the job. When she didn’t quit in the first few weeks, naively I thought she was happy. Actually, I thought Beverly rather liked Laura. She seemed to talk more to her than she talked to any of the others. In a friendly way, I mean.”
“Why don’t you simply fire the woman?” Eileen’s dander was up.
“Our lawyer says she could sue. And Mother Superior fears a suit more than sin itself.” Felicita caught herself. “Not that I blame her. We have so little and we’ve worked so hard for it, it seems silly to risk it all because we can’t reason with one woman. That is, unless you’ve tried yourself.”
“I take it you have.”
Sister Felicita’s pale blue eyes sparked. “Might as well spit in the wind. Pardon the expression. It just comes back at you. She knows she has us over a barrel.”
“What exactly does she do?” Mary Helen was curious. The woman sounded like something right out of a gothic novel.
“It’s like putting your thumb on mercury. No one who quits ever says exactly why. Most of them try to be kind. Saying such things as ‘I need more hours,’ or ‘the commute is too hard,’ or some such thing. And if you ask Beverly what happened, she falls into a rage, slamming pots. You saw her act tonight.”
“Calling her on it does no good?” Eileen asked, obviously unable to believe it.
“It only makes matters worse.”
“Monsignor McHugh seemed to know her. Maybe he could reason with her.”
Felicita sighed. “Many of the priests know her. They come here with their parish groups. Believe it or not, she’s worse to priests than to anyone. It is almost as if she hates them.”
“How much of the contract is left?” Mary Helen asked, shuffling through her mind for the name of a Mount St. Francis alum who was a sharp contract attorney. She’d call Shirley, her secretary in the Alumnae Office, first thing in the morning.
“A year and two months,” Felicita said. She made it sound like a lifetime sentence to Devil’s Island.
Wearily, Felicita rose and rinsed out their teacups. “Nothing is up to par,” she said, straightening up the counter. “I am continually training new help. No one knows how to make square corners anymore and, I swear, they don’t see dirt. Even our staunchest supporters have mentioned it. Nicely, of course. But no one, however staunch, expects to come to retreat and begin by cleaning up the bathroom sink.
“That, plus the priests’ being insulted every time they bring parishioners—how long will anyone continue to come?” Felicita suddenly looked very old and very tired. “It’s taken us years, decades really, to build up our clientele. And once they are gone . . .”
Silently Mary Helen and Eileen followed Felicita across the deserted grounds. Their hostess insisted on showing them to their rooms in St. Agnes’ Hall, although Mary Helen felt reasonably certain that, given the room numbers, they could find their own way.
Suddenly, she felt almost as tired as Felicita looked. Maybe it was the time of night or the herbal tea or just the pressure of preparing for retreat, leaving Mt. St. Francis College, and driving to Santa Cruz. Whichever, she was one guest who did not intend to examine the square corners on the bed, or the bathroom sink, for that matter. She doubted that she’d even get through the first few pages of her new mystery before sleep took over.
The gentle night wind rustled the leathery leaves of the bay trees, almost like wind chimes. The soft hum of the insects rose in the stillness. Ancient redwoods formed a dark, protective rim around St. Colette’s, their thick, soft bark producing a profound quiet. Overhead the sky was awash with stars. Mary Helen found the bright North Star and marveled at its nearness.
No one would ever suspect, she thought, yawning as Sister Felicita fumbled with the door keys, that such turmoil could possibly exist in this citadel of peace.