False Witness

Sister Agatha Mysteries (Volume 4 of 6)

Aimee and David Thurlo

Minotaur Books

Chapter 1

It was a beautiful, sunny new mexico morning, and Sister Agatha unlocked the parlor doors in preparation for the new day. Standing on the front step, she gazed back at Our Lady of Hope Monastery. Though it was scarcely grand, she liked to think of the reconverted adobe farmhouse with its new bell tower as God’s fortress in a world increasingly determined to forget Him.

Inside, the sisters lived and prayed in quiet seclusion. That blessed stillness, almost always absent on the outside, defined their monastery and became an ever-present companion that drew them closer to the One they served.

Contrary to what some people believed, the locks on the doors and the grille that separated the cloistered sisters from the world weren’t there to keep anyone in. They were a line of defense meant to keep the secular world out.

Soon Sister Bernarda, who’d asked for a few moments alone in chapel again this morning, came into the parlor. Sister Agatha hurried inside, worried about her. She could tell Sister Bernarda had been crying.

“Are you all right?” Sister Agatha asked gently.

“Of course,” she answered briskly. “I’m ready to take over as portress. You have other pressing business.”

As soon as Sister Bernarda took a seat behind the old oak desk, the phone rang. Externs like Sister Bernarda, Sister Agatha, and Sister de Lourdes were not bound by a vow of enclosure. They were a vital link between the monastery and the world.

Knowing her fellow extern was not ready to talk about whatever was troubling her, Sister Agatha left her to her work and hurried down the hall. When she arrived at the scriptorium, Sister de Lourdes was working at the server—the main computer.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Sister de Lourdes said with a grim smile. “I’ve done everything I know to get the computer to work right, but the hacker really messed things up for us this time.”

“You’d mentioned that last night at recreation, but then the bells for Compline rang and the Great Silence began,” Sister Agatha said. She’d been dying of curiosity since then, but the Great Silence couldn’t be broken except in a grave emergency. “You’d said something about letters?”

Sister de Lourdes nodded. “We’ve received two very disturbing e-mails—one yesterday, another just a few minutes ago. They’re both signed by someone named Wilder.”

“First or last name?”

“I’m not sure,” Sister de Lourdes answered, handing her a copy of each. “But the messages both originate locally, according to the ISP address.”

Sister Agatha read the short notes. The first said, “War means casualties. I can deal. Can you?” The next was just as cryptic. “I’m watching you!” Below the signature of that second note was an emoticon stick figure depicting someone looking over a wall.

“He’s certainly no poet . . . or artist,” Sister Agatha said. “But the viruses he keeps sending are going to create major problems for us with NexCen Corporation. We’ve got to put a stop to this. Our work for them is about the only thing that’s keeping our monastery from going completely broke right now.”

“Each virus has been worse than the last,” Sister de Lourdes said. “He’s stepping up the game.”

“We can’t disappoint NexCen. There are very few jobs like this one that won’t interfere with our schedule of work and prayer. Taking computer orders is something we can do at our own time. But if we keep having problems we can’t fix ourselves, NexCen will think we’re unreliable and turn the work to someone else.”

“God won’t let us lose this job. The monastery needs rewiring, and we’re in a financial hole. At least the dedicated lines protect the computers. If only we could get rid of this hacker!” Sister de Lourdes said. “The NexCen representative is coming over soon—a woman. She’s been given permission to come into the scriptorium to check the software and computers so we can be up and running again soon. I’ll see if there’s anything she could teach me so we won’t have to keep calling them.”

“When’s she supposed to be here?” Sister Agatha asked.

“She should be arriving anytime.” Hearing the clapper, a manual device that resembled castanets, Sister de Lourdes smiled. “Sister Bernarda’s calling, so I bet our guest has arrived.”

“I’ll go,” Sister Agatha said.

As she entered the parlor, Sister Agatha nodded to Sister Bernarda, who promptly introduced her to their visitor. “Sister Agatha, this is Merilee Brown, NexCen’s senior computer technician.”

“I prefer ‘head geek,’ ” Merilee said with an easy smile.

The young woman, a brunette barely in her twenties, was wearing jeans and a loose-fitting green cotton sweater. She wore little or no makeup, and her hair hung loosely in a pageboy style that brushed the top of her shoulders.

“I’ll escort you to our scriptorium,” Sister Agatha said. “Please remain silent while we’re walking through the cloister. Once we’re inside the scriptorium and the door is closed, you can speak freely.”

Merilee gave Sister Agatha an uneasy, wide-eyed look and nodded. “Okay. Got it.”

Sister Agatha gave her a sympathetic smile. “Silence makes continual prayer easier.”

Merilee nodded somberly. “I understand.”

Sister Agatha led the way and, after they’d both entered the scriptorium, closed the door. “May I get you something to drink? We have coffee, but I personally recommend the tea. It’s our own special blend.”

Merilee shook her head, her gaze already on the computer screen. “Thanks, but no, I’m eager to get started. Your problem intrigued me.”

Sister de Lourdes introduced herself. “The second I hit a key, I got a blue screen and a message in a gray box telling me to hit alt, control, and delete all at once, and restart. But when I did that, it just repeated the cycle all over again.”

“Let me give it a try,” Merilee said.

Sister Agatha and Sister de Lourdes watched as she repeated the process, then sat back and stared at the blue screen and error message. “Either your startup files are corrupted or you’ve got a virus. I can get around this with a special boot disk, but debugging might take some time,” she said slowly, reaching into a small briefcase and bringing out a set of CDs. “If that doesn’t work, I may have to reinstall all the software, including your operating system. That means you’re going to lose everything that’s stored on your hard drive, so I suggest you back up all of your data files once I find a way around this error message.”

Once Merilee got into the system with the emergency boot disk, the two nuns worked quickly and efficiently, selecting every data file and then saving it to a separate DVD. Within a half hour they were done. Then, just as Merilee took their place at the keyboard, the lights in the room began to flicker.

“Do you have battery backups in place?” Merilee asked, her gaze never leaving the screen.

“Yes,” Sister Agatha said. “Power to the computers is maintained even if we have a blackout.” Just as she spoke, the lights came back up. “Ah there, it’s all back to normal,” she said with a lot more confidence than she actually felt.

As Merilee began to work, Sister Agatha left her in Sister de Lourdes’ care and hurried down the hall. She had a meeting with Reverend Mother this morning. On her way she saw Sister Bernarda in the hallway inspecting the wall outlets.

“Did the lights flicker in the parlor, too?” Sister Agatha asked, quickly joining her.

“Yes,” Sister Bernarda answered. “This goes to prove what the electrician said—our main electrical panel is overloaded. I decided to check for overheated outlets.”

“I’d intended on asking NexCen for an advance. But with all the problems we’re having making our deadlines because of this hacker, now’s just not a good time,” Sister Agatha said. “I left Sister de Lourdes with Merilee, and I’m on my way to talk to Reverend Mother. Are you okay here?”

“Yes, but would you give Mother a message for me?” Seeing Sister Agatha nod, she continued. “My father was an electrician, and I learned quite a bit from him. I could do the rewiring at the outlets and the light fixtures myself, adding the pigtails and connectors needed to connect aluminum to copper. A licensed electrician would still have to sign off on my work, but maybe Bobby Fiorino will give us a reduced rate if I do the bulk of the work,” she said. “Ask Reverend Mother what she thinks.”

“I will.”

Sister Agatha hurried down the hall to Reverend Mother’s office, then knocked on the open door. “Praised be Jesus Christ,” Sister Agatha said.

“Now and forever,” Reverend Mother answered. “Come in, child.” Reverend Mother called all of the sisters “child” according to their monastic custom. As prioress, she considered them all her spiritual children.

Sister Agatha sat down on the wooden chair across from the desk.

“The lights have been flickering again,” Reverend Mother said with a sigh.

Sister Agatha recounted the conversation she’d had with Sister Bernarda about the electrical work.

Reverend Mother nodded. “That’s a good idea. Go ahead and speak to Mr. Fiorino and let me know as soon as possible if he agrees.” Reverend Mother paused, then continued. “That NexCen contract is turning out to be a blessing for us. I never realized how crucial that income would become. That, God willing, will pay for the monastery’s repairs.”

Sister Agatha started to tell her about the latest problems in the scriptorium, then changed her mind. It was being handled, and she knew that there was something else on Reverend Mother’s mind. That was why she’d originally been called to this meeting.

“The winery next door has been put up for sale by its owner, John Gutierrez,” Reverend Mother said at last. “The Archbishop called this morning to tell me himself. He’d heard that the buyer interested in the property wants to put up apartments or townhomes there. He contacted Mr. Gutierrez on our behalf, hoping to convince the man to give us some kind of buffer zone so we can maintain our privacy . . . and silence.”

“The name sounds familiar. John Gutierrez . . . hasn’t he donated funds to us in the past?” Sister Agatha asked.

Reverend Mother nodded. “Yes, and he’s consented to meet with one of our externs to discuss the issue. I’d like you to go. I’ll have the time and place for you later today.”

Sister Agatha left Reverend Mother’s office with a heavy heart. Between the wiring, their finances, the hacker, and now this, it felt as if their monastery was under siege . . . and maybe it was.
Fortunately, the rest of the day proved to be less stressful and, except for a few more power fluctuations, the work in the scriptorium proceeded in a timely manner.

After Compline, the last liturgical hour of the day, the Great Silence began. Sister Agatha had remained with Sister Bernarda in the small chapel, kneeling near the altar in private prayer. Sister Bernarda had been troubled about something all week. Knowing her prayerful support was needed, Sister Agatha stayed with her sister in Christ. Attending to the needs of another was at the heart of the second most important commandment—to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Although she’d come with the best of intentions, as time passed, Sister Agatha had to force herself to stay awake. Duty was paramount, yet the stillness in the monastery after Compline was absolute, and it made remaining alert a monumental challenge.

Sister Agatha took a deep breath. Although she had no idea what was bothering Sister Bernarda, God did, and He’d know how to fix things. Better to pray this way—without knowing. But she would make one plea—Blessed Lord, don’t let me fail her and you by falling asleep during my watch.

Suddenly a thunderous crash shook the entire building. For a moment, the possibility that she’d received an instant answer to her prayer left Sister Agatha dumbstruck. Then she heard the ragged rhythm of a car motor somewhere close by and saw a light shining through one of the back windows of the chapel.

There’d been an accident. Sister Agatha jumped to her feet and hurried toward the door, Sister Bernarda a few steps behind her. Almost immediately Sister Agatha detected the smell of motor oil. In the glare of a bright light, she saw a cloud of dust around the twisted metal and adobe bricks that had comprised the monastery’s wall and gates. In the haze, jammed into the ruined barrier, was a big sports utility vehicle, one of its headlights still working.

“We need to help whoever’s inside,” Sister Bernarda said, hoisting her long skirt and sprinting toward the vehicle.

Sister Agatha saw the SUV’s driver’s side door burst open. A tall, shadowed figure in a hooded sweatshirt jumped out of the vehicle. Shielding his eyes with his forearm, he ran away from them, quickly disappearing into the dark beyond the scene of the crash.

“Did you get a look at his face?” Sister Agatha asked, catching up to Sister Bernarda.

“No, but don’t worry about that now. We need to see if there’s a passenger,” Sister Bernarda said, racing around to the open door and checking inside.

A moment later she eased back out of the SUV, shaking her head. “There’s no passenger, but there are a bunch of empty beer cans scattered on the floor,” she said disgustedly. “The emergency airbag was set off, but I didn’t see any blood anywhere, so the driver probably wasn’t badly injured.”

“I’ll call the police,” Sister Agatha said. “Maybe you should switch off the ignition and light in case there’s a fuel leak.”

Sister Agatha hurried back inside the monastery’s parlor. Although she was sure that the cloistered sisters had been awakened by the crash and would be worried, the Great Silence made its own demands. She couldn’t exactly run around making an announcement now.

Wondering how to handle the situation, she walked quickly through the chapel. Then, at the entrance to the corridor, she found Pax, the monastery’s large white German shepherd dog, pacing nervously back and forth. Although alerted by the noise, Pax had learned not to go into the chapel or make any sounds after Compline.

Pax stayed with her as she hurried to the parlor and dialed the county sheriff’s office. Since there weren’t any victims at the scene, the desk sergeant warned her that it would be at least twenty minutes before a unit would respond. She wasn’t surprised. The sheriff’s department had been forced to implement new budget cuts and was chronically understaffed these days.

Sister Agatha grabbed a flashlight from the desk drawer. She was about to go back outside when she heard a light rap on the grille that separated the cloister from the monastery’s front parlor.

Reverend Mother was standing there, silently waiting for an explanation. After living with her for more than a decade, Sister Agatha could almost hear the thoughts that reverberated behind Reverend Mother’s silences as easily as she could her spoken words.

“A big passenger vehicle crashed through the front gates, Mother,” Sister Agatha whispered. The Great Silence could be broken in case of emergencies, and informing Reverend Mother of the crisis at hand was not only justified, it was imperative. “We think the driver was drinking, but he’s run off. Fortunately, there were no passengers. I called the sheriff’s department and now I’m going to join Sister Bernarda outside to wait for an officer to arrive.”

Reverend Mother nodded. “Benedicemus Domino,” she said, praising God before breaking Silence. “Will you be able to close the gates once the car is removed?” she asked softly.

“No, Mother, the gates are in pieces. But I’ll make sure Pax has free run of the grounds tonight, and I’ll sleep in the parlor until everything’s fixed. He’ll bark if he sees a stranger, and I’ll be able to hear him clearly from here. We’ll be safe.”

With a nod, Reverend Mother slipped away into the cloister as silently as she’d come. Their alpargates, rope-soled sandals, made almost no sound on the brick floors.

Sister Agatha flipped on the floodlights that illuminated the gate area and parking lot, then hurried back outside to join Sister Bernarda, Pax at her side.

“Twenty minutes,” she told Sister Bernarda, who understood without further explanation. “Reverend Mother’s been told.”

“The driver won’t get away. They’ll track him down easily enough from the registration.”

“Unless the SUV was stolen,” Sister Agatha replied. Using the flashlight, she moved farther down the road, beyond the gravel, examining the footprints the driver had left in the dirt.

“I think we had a visit from Bigfoot,” Sister Agatha said, pointing.

Sister Bernarda glanced down and nodded. “Drunken Bigfoot.”

“But he didn’t run like someone who was that drunk. . . . He never staggered or stumbled as he raced out of here,” Sister Agatha said, recalling what she’d seen.

Sister Bernarda shook her head. “Don’t complicate things. Take one sniff inside that SUV and the smell of beer will tell you the whole story. If the driver hadn’t been drunk he wouldn’t have lost control of the car.” She paused then added, “What we have to do now is figure out a way to restore the gates. The next drunk that comes along might end up in our parlor. Have you thought of that?” she added brusquely.

The harshness of Sister Bernarda’s tone surprised Sister Agatha. She looked over at her fellow extern nun, trying to figure out if it was just a reaction to the shock—or something more. To her, Sister Bernarda, their ex-marine, had always been the toughest of the tough—unbreakable. But the truth was that, lately, she hadn’t been herself.

Pushing those thoughts aside and concentrating on the problem at hand for now, Sister Agatha added, “Do you think that the hacker who has been harassing us is somehow responsible for this? Maybe he decided to go for a more hands-on approach.”

“But how would he even know that the monastery’s handling NexCen’s orders?” Sister Bernarda countered.

“There was a notice in the business section of the local newspaper right after we got the contract,” Sister Agatha answered, then shook her head. “No, you’re right. I’m just complicating things. This was undoubtedly just the work of a drunk.”

Sister Bernarda remained silent for a moment, then gestured to flashing lights in the distance. “Looks like we got lucky. There’s the police.”

Sister Agatha glanced back at the monastery, worried. “They’re all awake in there now, praying their hearts out.”

“That’s a good thing. Heaven knows prayers are needed now, not only for the person who did this, but for our monastery, too,” Sister Bernarda said, walking to the crumbled wall and staring at what was left of several dozen big adobe bricks. Both sections of the steel gate were on the ground—bent or snapped in two. Welds had parted and bare metal was showing in several places. The locking mechanism in the center had been mangled and was now useless.

“How are we ever going to get the money to fix this, on top of everything else?” Sister Bernarda added, not really expecting an answer. “We got a new roof last year, but now the rest of the place is falling apart. That electrical fire we had in the kitchen wall was just a wake-up call. Dealing with this mess on top of getting new wiring is going to take far more than we have available in our sinking fund.”

“Aluminum wiring . . . all the time we’ve been here it’s worked for us—until now. Who knew it was a potential fire hazard?” Sister Agatha replied with a sigh.

“We might have gotten away with it for another twenty years if we hadn’t overloaded the system by adding computers, printers, work lights, and the air conditioner in the infirmary.”

“The air conditioner was a necessity now that Sister Gertrude’s heart condition has worsened. As far as the scriptorium equipment—well, what choice did we have? We have to support ourselves by the work of our hands. That’s part of our Rule,” Sister Agatha answered. “But there’s no sense in worrying about this. We’ve done all we possibly can. Now the rest is up to God.”

“You’re right. He’ll provide whatever we need.”

“He always has and He always will,” Sister Agatha said.

Sister Bernarda scrutinized the immediate area. “Right now you and I have to find a way to secure our perimeter,” she added, sounding very much like a marine again.

“I’ve got that covered,” Sister Agatha answered. “I’m going to sleep in the parlor tonight, and Pax’ll stay outside. If anyone wanders into our grounds the dog will let us know.”

“Good plan,” Sister Bernarda said. “But I should be the one to sleep in the parlor,” she added, glancing down at Sister Agatha’s hands, which were swollen from rheumatoid arthritis. “You did something for me by joining your prayers to mine in chapel earlier. Let me do this for you.”

“I’m okay. This looks a lot worse than it feels,” she said, glancing down at her hands. “But I sure wish you’d tell me what’s been troubling you. Maybe I can help.”

“We’ll talk later. Here comes the deputy now,” Sister Bernarda said as a patrol car came up the road.

Seconds later, a woman in her late twenties, with brown hair tied back into a ponytail, climbed out of the squad car. She left the engine running and the headlights on to illuminate the crash scene. Clipboard in hand, she approached them. “Sisters, I’m Deputy Susan James. Did either of you see what happened here?”

Sister Bernarda briefed her in clipped sentences. “You’ll notice the smell of beer and the empties in the SUV. The driver’s gone—ran off as soon as we came outside. He left the key in the ignition, and I switched off the power and lights,” she said, and gave her a description of the man.

“I’m going to call it in, then take a look around,” Deputy James said, picking up her handheld radio and making her report.

“It won’t be hard to figure out who this SUV belongs to once you pull out his registration. After that, we’d like the man arrested,” Sister Bernarda said in her usual no-nonsense style. “We need our gate fixed on the double, and the person who did this has to make things right.”

“You may have trouble collecting if he has no insurance. One out of three New Mexico drivers still aren’t covered.” As her radio came to life, Deputy James held up a hand, then answered the call.

To Sister Agatha and Sister Bernarda the transmission sounded garbled and virtually incoherent, but the deputy appeared to have no trouble deciphering it.

“Did ya’ll get that?” she asked, looking at Sister Agatha and Sister Bernarda.

Sister Agatha shook her head and looked over at Sister Bernarda, who shrugged. “Sorry,” Sister Bernarda said. “It’s been a while since I’ve tuned in on radio chatter. You better translate for us.”

“This particular SUV was reported stolen earlier tonight.”

“Terrific,” Sister Bernarda muttered sourly. “Guess I shouldn’t have touched the key.”

“At the time it was the right thing to do,” Sister Agatha said. “Besides, the beer cans in there can also be checked for fingerprints. And that air bag, too. He had to push it away to get out. We found his footprints, too, Deputy James,” Sister Agatha added, pointing to the ground. “They’re distinctive because of their size.”

“A man’s shoe, size twelve or bigger. I’ll take some photos.” Deputy James brought out a camera with flash attachment, put her pen alongside for scale, then took several photos. She then took shots of the interior and exterior of the SUV. Finally she gathered all the cans, handling them by the edges, and placed them into evidence sacks, labeling each.

Deputy James cut away the deployed air bag from the center of the steering wheel with a big folding knife, rolled the bag up, and placed it into a large grocery bag, labeling it with the time, date, and her initials. She then slipped behind the SUV’s wheel and took a quick inventory of the interior at a glance. “No key ring. The thief must have found a spare hidden on the vehicle.”

“When are you going to tow the vehicle away? It’s blocking our entrance,” Sister Bernarda said.

“The department will send a wrecker over, but probably not before morning.”

“We’ll need our driveway cleared as soon as possible,” Sister Bernarda said. “What if, God forbid, we have an emergency and can’t get out in our own vehicles? We have a few elderly sisters here, and all the commotion might have upset one or two of them. We should at least try to push the SUV to one side so our station wagon can get out.”

Deputy James nodded. “I understand, Sister. Let me see if I can get this hunk of junk running,” she said, then moved the seat forward. The seat had been set so far back that her feet barely reached the pedals.

The engine started on the first try and, although it sputtered all the way, they succeeded in getting it to the side of the road.

“Expect the wrecker in the morning,” Deputy James said, taking the key and bagging it as evidence. Moments later she drove off.

Sister Bernarda glanced at Sister Agatha. “We might as well go back inside. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.
Copyright © 2007 by Aimée and David Thurlo. All rights reserved.