Book excerpt

Novena for Murder

A Sister Mary Helen Mystery

Sister Mary Helen Mysteries

Sister Carol Anne O'Marie

St. Martin's Press

First Day
They were in the far corner of the Community Room playing pinochle when it happened. Sister Mary Helen remembered that distinctly. As usual, Sister Eileen was her partner. Over the years they had played together so often it seemed like an unfair advantage. That was why she waited for Sister Cecilia. The college president would undoubtedly be as shrewd at cards as she was at managing the college.
Furthermore, it would be good for Cecilia to relax. Mary Helen smiled. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Somehow, Cecilia always reminded her of General Motors. At least, that was the way Cecilia ran Mount St. Francis College for Women.
Sister Mary Helen looked around. The spacious room had a comfortable Sunday-evening hum. The nuns sat in small groups chatting, knitting, playing Chinese checkers. A band of devoted television watchers had gathered at one end. No Cecilia. She must be out at some meeting or other.
Mary Helen felt a twinge of guilt when she snagged Sister Anne for the fourth. The young nun looked nervous, but she’d catch on quickly. Anyone who could master all those guitar chords could certainly remember a few card tricks.
Mary Helen had just taken the bid when it happened. All she needed for a double pinochle was one Jack of Diamonds, and she was positive from the way Sister Eileen’s bushy, gray eyebrows shot up that her old friend had it.
At first Mary Helen suspected Sister Anne of jiggling the card table. She was about to ask her to stop when a low, dull rumble filled the long room. Then a small crack raced along the ceiling and the parquet floor began to undulate. Earthquake, she thought in horror, watching the carved statue of St. Joseph teeter on its pedestal. The hanging lamps swinging in unison added a tinny, clinking sound almost like breaking glass. Both door jambs swayed left, then right, then stopped. Mary Helen held her breath. Suddenly, everything was strangely still.
“St Emydius, preserve us from earthquake.” Sister Therese’s high-pitched scream tore through the quiet.
Slowly, Mary Helen exhaled. As if by some silent signal, the other nuns in the room burst into chatter. Good old Emydius seems to have done his job, Mary Helen thought, glancing at the sisters’ shock-white faces. We may not be very calm, but at least we are preserved!
“We’d better check the main college building. Someone may be up there,” Sister Anne said hoarsely, rushing toward the front door of the Sisters’ Residence.
“It’s Sunday.” Mary Helen prided herself on logic.
“You can never tell. Somebody may be there. And what about Luis?”
Luis! Mary Helen had forgotten about the young janitor. Grabbing her jacket, she followed Anne. Sister Eileen was close behind.
Outside, the trio paused on the front stoop. The night was still and calm, almost balmy. A lone star fell. Its fiery tail streaked the blackness for an instant, then disappeared. Earthquake weather, Mary Helen was about to say, but she remembered that meteorologists claimed there was no such thing.
Anne grinned. “It’s still there,” she said, pointing up the hill.
Several hundred feet above them, crowning the top of the hill, the massive main building of Mount St. Francis College for Women stood intact. Floodlights shot through the darkness, coloring the stone building almost chartreuse.
“And looking like something out of a gothic mystery novel,” Mary Helen couldn’t resist saying.
The interior of the ornate building was dark except for a light on the first floor. Sister Eileen checked her wristwatch. “Eight-thirty, Sunday night. That is exactly where Luis should be cleaning. We’d better make sure he’s all right.”
The three nuns hurried up the moon-flooded driveway. The loose gravel crunching under their feet was the only sound breaking the stillness.
On the top step, just outside the main entrance, a slight young man leaned against one of the lions flanking the doorway. He was trembling. Beads of perspiration wet his forehead.
“Luis, are you okay?” Sister Anne reached out and pried the pushbroom loose from his clenched hand.
“Yeah, Sister.” Thick eyeglasses magnified Luis’s terrified eyes.
Gently Sister Anne led him to the top step. “Sit down. You look pale.”
Pale! To Mary Helen, his thin face looked absolutely green. As a matter of fact, in this grotesque lighting, they all looked a little green.
“Are you sure you aren’t hurt?” Anne asked, settling down on the stone step beside him.
Luis had just opened his mouth when a scream ricocheted through the blackened foyer. Mary Helen’s stomach gave a sickening lurch. Eileen whirled toward the front door just as a young woman burst through.
“Marina, dear, what is it?” Sister Eileen recognized Professor Villanueva’s secretary immediately.
“Come, please! Quick!” Marina pulled at the old nun’s jacket, urging her into the building. “The professor’s hurt.” As she spoke, her slim body began to shudder.
Eileen grabbed the young woman by the shoulders and eased her onto the top step next to Luis. “Breathe deeply,” she ordered, her chubby face close to Marina’s. “Put your head between your knees. Try to relax. We’ll get some help.”
Marina slumped forward and buried her face in her knees.
Shoving her bifocals up the bridge of her nose, Mary Helen assessed the situation. Anne was busy with Luis, Eileen with Marina. That leaves only you, old girl, she reasoned. “I’ll go inside and see to the progress,” she said. Squaring her shoulders, the old nun breathed deeply and plodded through the front door into the black foyer.
“We’ll be there in a minute,” Eileen called after her.
Turning right, Mary Helen felt along the wall for the light switch, with no success. A light switch, like a policeman, was never around when you needed one. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness.
Slots of moonlight filtered into the foyer and illuminated the curved staircase leading to the second floor. “The moon is a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas” came to her crazily, as she edged her way up the marble steps toward the professor’s office. One of the heavy tapestries on the stairwell hung slightly askew, but everything else looked normal. Not even one Carrara bust had moved on its pedestal. Each stared blankly ahead.
Rounding the corner, Mary Helen caught a slight movement in the upper hall. A shadow, maybe. She stopped. Blinked. Peered into the blackness. Nothing. Gripping the bannister, she steadied herself. She could feel her heart pounding. “Anyone there?” Her question reverberated through the empty building. Silence.
“Are you all right?” Sister Eileen’s muffled voice floated in from the front steps.
Mary Helen took a deep breath. “Fine,” she shouted back, hoping she meant it. It’s just the wind, she assured herself, relaxing her grip. “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.” Deliberately, she marched up the remaining steps to the second floor.
Across the dark hallway, a beam of light came from room 203. Funny we didn’t notice it from outside, Mary Helen thought, pausing in front of the open door. Cautiously, she peeked in. The outer office was in darkness. A second door, the one to the professor’s inner office, was slightly ajar. She craned her neck. The light was coming from the desk lamp. Like a beacon, it spotlighted the toes of two impeccably polished shoes. Mary Helen’s mouth felt oddly dry and parched, strangling the gasp in her throat. Professor Villanueva lay sprawled beside his desk.
Mary Helen crossed the room and squatted beside his body. Thin streams of blood trickled from his ears, encircling his head with a bright red halo. Avoiding his blank, staring eyes, she grabbed his limp wrist. It was still warm. She felt for his pulse. Nothing. His well-manicured hand fell back. Lifeless. She put her fingers on either side of his long, slender neck, sticky with fresh blood. Still no pulse.
She leaned against the edge of his desk. Don’t fall apart now, old girl. She controlled the sob aching in her throat.
Slowly, she reached for the phone and dialed O. They would need an ambulance—and the police.
What next? Be logical. A priest. He needs a priest. Numbly she dialed St. Ignatius Church.
Sister Mary Helen forced herself to look around the office. Everything was as she remembered it. Nothing moved, nothing different, except for the bronze statue that lay on the floor near the professor’s body. The professor’s body! Kneeling beside the sprawled figure, she reverently intoned the ancient Latin prayer for the dead. De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine. Domine. exaudi vocem meam. The words rang through the empty room.
“Oh, my gosh, is he dead?” Sister Anne whispered. Mary Helen jumped. She had not heard Anne coming. No wonder. Anne was wearing her blasted Paiute moccasins.
“I think so,” Mary Helen answered in a flat tone. Behind her, she heard Anne retch, then bolt from the room.
Mary Helen struggled to her feet, and sank into the professor’s high-backed leather chair. Almost every mystery novel she read mentioned “rubbery” knees. She had wondered how they felt. Now she knew.
White-faced, Sister Anne reappeared in the doorway. “Sorry,” she said. Her large, hazel eyes avoided the floor. The old nun just nodded. In the silence, Mary Helen could hear the younger woman swallow. “What happened?” Anne asked, hardly managing to get her tongue around the words.
“It looks as if that statue may have fallen on him.” Mary Helen pointed to a large, bronze figurine of a medieval nobleman. It lay on the blood-drenched carpet several feet behind the professor’s head.
“Where did it come from?” Anne asked, without looking down.
“Up there. I noticed it the other morning when I was here.” Mary Helen swiveled her chair toward the bookcase. A small space at the end of the third shelf was vacant. “The quake must have knocked it off the shelf.”
“What a freak accident! Nothing else seems disturbed!”
“We’d better not touch anything until the police arrive,” Mary Helen warned her, unnecessarily. They always said that in all the mysteries she’d read.
Anne looked at her. “That’s for murder. This was just an accident. A freak accident.”
The whine of a siren filled the small office. A black-and-white patrol car rolled up in front of the college. Its rotating light threw long shadows in the semidark room. A police radio could be heard in the distance, and two doors slammed shut.
Heavy footsteps clambered up the marble staircase. The outer office lights flipped on. Two of the burliest policemen Mary Helen had ever seen filled the doorway.
“Evening, Sisters.” Both officers removed their hats.
Good Catholic boys, Mary Helen observed, watching Sister Eileen sandwich her way between the men. Sister Eileen was leading a small ascetic-looking Jesuit carrying the holy oils. Somberly, the priest knelt beside the professor’s body and began the sacred words of anointing.
The three nuns sat quietly on a bench in Professor Villanueva’s outer office. “Just in case we have any more questions,” one of the patrolmen had said. Mary Helen could hardly believe that it was only three days ago that she had first set foot in this room.
San Francisco had been hot. It was one of those October days in the city which make the natives sweat, swear, and bless the fog they had cursed the week before. Already the radio predicted another day in the upper eighties.
Trudging up the driveway from the Sisters’ Residence to the main college building, Mary Helen stopped to catch her breath. Sisters’ Residence, indeed! Nothing but academia for “convent,” she thought, staring back at the plain, squat structure. It looked like the college’s poor relation. She didn’t know if she’d ever get used to calling that unpretentious square anything but a convent. As long as she was living on the hill, however, she figured the only decent thing to do was try.
Shielding her eyes against the glaring sun, the old nun admired the imposing building ahead. Its majestic stonework shimmered against the cloudless sky. All its windows, like so many slits in a castle turret, were flung open to catch the morning coolness. Even the gargoyles seemed to be sweating.
It’s going to be a scorcher, she thought, checking her watch. Nine-thirty. Plenty of time. Her appointment with Professor Villanueva wasn’t until nine forty-five.
As she approached the side of the building, voices tore through the quiet. Stopping, she looked up. The sounds were coming from one of the first few tiny windows on the second floor. Although at first she could not make out what was being said, the tone was unmistakable—anger.
“Bastardo!” a furious voice shouted.
Mary Helen hurried around to the front of the building. No matter what the language, there are some words you can always understand.
“Morning, Sister.” A student passed her on the front steps of the main building. Mary Helen hesitated before the ornate double doors. Above them, rococo lanterns framed gold-leaf letters proclaiming: Mount St. Francis College for Women, Founded MCMXXX.
The college! The one place she had been trying to avoid for fifty years, and now—here she was. Before she could reach out to grasp the fluted handle, the heavy door flew open and a tall, curly-haired, apparently angry young man, burst past her. Shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, stained kitchen apron covering faded jeans, he hardly fit his opulent surroundings.
Adjusting her bifocals, Mary Helen watched him take the front steps two at a time, then disappear around the corner of the building. Whoever he was, he was in a hurry.
The tomblike coolness of the foyer gave her a sudden chill. Dark tapestries covered the walls and stairwells. Pale marble busts of saints and scholars stood on equally pale pedestals. Each stared at her with cold, vacant eyes. Stiffening her back, the old nun let the door swish shut behind her.
Life goes on with or without you, old girl, she reminded herself, so you might as well go with it. Turning right, she started up the curved staircase to the second floor. She half expected to see a knight in full armor clank down the marble steps toward her.
Sister Mary Helen took another quick look at her watch. Right on time. Lightly, she tapped on the wooden door marked 203.
“Come in, it’s open,” a pleasant voice called over the clicking of a typewriter. “Just push.”
As she entered, a well-dressed young woman, her thick, black hair clipped back severely, looked up from the typewriter. Mary Helen was struck by the young woman’s beauty. Not by her features so much, although they were delicate and well-proportioned, as by the eyes. The young woman’s eyes were such a clear, deep blue that they looked almost turquoise against her translucent skin.
Smiling, she rose and extended her right hand. Her hand was large for a woman’s, and her grip was firm. A good sign, Mary Helen noted. “Welcome, Sister,” the young woman said, with the hint of an accent. “You must be Sister Mary Helen.” The old nun nodded.
“I’m Marina, Marina Alves. Professor Villanueva’s secretary. The professor expects you. I’ll buzz him.” With one long, slim finger, the young woman pushed the button of the intercom. “The sister is here,” she announced.
Almost immediately, Professor Phillip Villanueva opened the frosted glass door separating his office from his secretary’s. Mary Helen was shocked at how perfectly he fit the stereotype of the successful college professor. Tall and slender, he came complete, even in all this heat, with a brown tweed jacket, turtleneck pullover, and a sweet-smelling pipe. Yet there was something about the professor’s narrow face that Mary Helen and Shakespeare referred to as that “lean and hungry look.”
“Welcome, Sister.” He ushered her inside. “We are so glad to have you.” He ran his hand over his straight hair. “Your wisdom will be a real asset to our history department.”
Mary Helen knew bunk when she heard it. Why, the man had just met her. How in the world would he know whether she was wise or not? Unless he thought it came with age. She wanted to tell him that someone had once said, “The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.” Instead, she threw back a little bunk of her own. “I’m looking forward to working in your department, Professor.”
Professor Villanueva dropped into the high-backed swivel chair behind his desk. “Please, be seated.” His smile was broad and practiced. Mary Helen sat on the edge of a small, brown chair facing him. His eyes remained untouched. After fifty years in the classroom, she considered herself an expert on eyes.
She glanced around the office. Like everything else about the professor, it was a study in perfection. Polished oak desk, elegant, yet understated desk set, a ficus-benjaminus flourishing in a muted ceramic pot, an oil painting of three mallards flying into a soft sunset.
Macho, down to the last neatly housed paper clip! She looked through her bifocals at the leather-bound volumes lining the bookshelves. Only a large bronze statue precisely placed at the end of the third row broke the symmetry.
Rapidly, the professor outlined several research projects. She might be interested in pursuing one, he suggested. She wasn’t, but he didn’t pause long enough for her to reply. As he spoke, he nervously clicked his pencil against his front teeth and swiveled his chair toward the small window behind the desk. Obviously, the young man had other things on his mind.
So did Mary Helen. Nonetheless, she folded her hands in her lap and forced herself to look attentive. It was all she could do to fight down her schoolmarm urge to tell him to sit still and stop fidgeting.
Abruptly, the professor stood. “You think about these ideas, Sister. Perhaps you have some of your own, as well. We’ll talk more later.”
Meeting adjourned. Ushering her out of his office, the professor gave her a big smile and a handshake. But the smile still didn’t reach his eyes.
The college bell gonged out the hour. Ten o’clock. Perfect timing for her coffee break, Mary Helen thought. For fifty years she had considered her morning and afternoon coffee breaks essential. She regarded those few quiet moments she took twice daily to blow and sip and think a contemplative experience. At this stage of her life, she had no intention of changing that habit.
Turning right, she moved down the long corridor leading to the back of the building and the kitchen/dining-room area where both the students and the nuns had their meals. Separate but equal dining rooms, her friend Eileen called the arrangement.
“Glad to see you’re finding your way around.” Sister Anne’s voice startled Mary Helen. Curious, she had not heard the young nun pad up behind her. She glanced at Anne’s feet. They were shod with laced moccasiny-looking affairs.
“Paiutes.” Anne wiggled her toes.
“Humph!” was the only comment Mary Helen could think of to make.
“It’s ten o’clock,” said Sister Therese, who preferred her name pronounced “trays,” rushing by. Loose tiles clinked under her busy feet. “You know how the kitchen staff likes us to get our coffee and get out so they can get on with lunch.”
Sister Therese did not wait for a response. In addition to being slightly high-strung, Therese was slightly deaf.
Anne spoke out of the corner of her mouth, just in case. Apparently, she had learned from experience that it was difficult to predict when Sister Therese’s hearing would suddenly improve. “I know what young Leonel likes,” she said. “He wants us to finish coffee so he can have some time alone with his girl friend before starting lunch.”
“Who’s Leonel?” Mary Helen asked.
“Our assistant cook. Sweet young man. I’ll introduce you.”
“Does this girl friend go to school here?” The idea of a cook-wooing coed appealed to her.
“She works here. Villanueva’s secretary.”
“Marina? I just met her a few minutes ago. She’s a lovely child.”
“Right. Leonel and she came from the same village, or at least the same province, in Portugal. Villanueva helped them both to emigrate. Marina has been with us a couple of years. Leonel, almost a year now.”
Sister Anne swung the kitchen door open and held it for Mary Helen. “We’ve had a lot of Portuguese here,” she said. “Those two. Marina’s sister, Joanna. She’s a graduate student. The college gave her a full scholarship. But most of them work around the place. And they are very good workers, too. You’ll meet Tony. He’s the gardener. Probably the best we’ve ever had. Have you noticed the grounds?”
Mary Helen hated to admit she hadn’t, so she just cleared her throat. Anne didn’t seem to notice.
“There’s a lot of ground to keep up. We’ve had four or five fellows who started to work here, to give Tony a hand. Next thing, they leave for better jobs. Can’t blame them. Then there’s Luis. Does janitorial work. He’s brand new, but, so far, very conscientious.”
Rummaging around, Sister Anne unearthed two clean coffee mugs. “Villanueva sponsors them all,” she said, answering the next question Mary Helen was about to ask. “I guess he must have a good heart to take such an interest in these kids.”
Mary Helen was about to comment when Anne pointed across the kitchen to a black, curly head protruding from a row of stainless steel pots. “That’s Leonel.”
Wiping his hands on his apron, Leonel came toward the two nuns. He held one hand out to Mary Helen. She was so surprised, she nearly neglected to shake it. This mild-mannered young fellow was the same young man who, not twenty minutes before, had burst from the main college building in a rage.
“Hi, Sister.” A toothy grin broke across his face. A dentist’s delight, Mary Helen thought, running her tongue over her own front teeth, which overlapped slightly.
The young man’s dark, round eyes smiled down at her. There was something simple and almost sweet about him that she liked immediately.
Anne poured Mary Helen coffee from the urn, brewed herself a cup of camomile tea, and headed back to her campus ministry office.
Cradling her mug, Mary Helen settled into the nook right off the kitchen. She had just begun to blow and sip when Marina came in. Shyly, she moved toward Leonel. One peek at the couple, and Mary Helen knew Anne was correct. Definitely courting!
Well, more power to them, she thought.
That morning in that nook, Mary Helen often said afterward, she had her first glimmer of an idea for a research paper: The plight of today’s immigrant. Why not? There were plenty of them in San Francisco, and she had two lovely “primary sources” in Marina and Leonel. She peeked again. The kitchen was empty.
Turning, she stared out at one of the college’s well-tailored gardens. At the far end, by a low hedge, she spotted Leonel. He was talking to a young man in overalls and a blue denim work shirt. In fact, Leonel, arms waving, was doing all the talking. He seemed to be angry again.
That Leonel can surely switch from a lion to a lamb in a hurry, Mary Helen thought, watching him stomp back toward the kitchen, fists still clenched. Or maybe it’s this awful heat. Refilling her mug, she started back to the Sisters’ Residence to finish the morning paper.
By late afternoon, the radio was predicting a record high. “Today’s temperatures in the city soared into the high eighties,” the newscaster reported, “topping all previous . . .”
Mary Helen snapped off her transistor. No need being reminded of how hot you were. She rummaged through her narrow closet and pulled out a short-sleeved cotton blouse. Only one sensible thing for this hot, retired nun to do, she reasoned, buttoning up her front: head for a cool, shady spot and finish her murder mystery. Snatching the latest P.D. James paperback from her nightstand, Mary Helen shoved it into her faithful paperbook cover—one with ribbon markers and all. It was the kind seen in every religious goods store. This piece of plastic had served her well. For years it had decorously disguised her mystery novels.
Quietly, she shut the door of her small bedroom.
The tropical fragrance of jasmine wafted down the convent corridor. Mary Helen sniffed her way along until she reached Sister Anne’s bedroom. The door was ajar. She caught a glimpse of Anne seated on a round, green pillow set on a square of blue rug. Eyes closed, legs pretzeled, open palms resting on her knees. Thin curls of smoke rose from a brass incense pot on her desk.
“Good Lord, Anne. What on earth are you doing?”
“Meditating. This is my lotus position. Very relaxing. You should try it.” She opened one eye to catch Mary Helen’s reaction.
Mary Helen studied Anne wreathed in wisps of white smoke. The only thing that looked relaxing to her was that hard little pillow bulging below Anne’s faded blue jeans.
Inwardly, she thanked God she was in history and not campus ministry. Outwardly, she said, “No thanks, Anne. Getting down would be one thing. Getting up would be something else again. I’m going outside to read.” She patted her paperback.
“Prefer spiritual reading, huh?” Anne winked.
Mary Helen checked the young nun’s face to see if she knew. She knew. “St. P.D. James,” Mary Helen said.
“The cover’s a nice touch.” Anne wriggled on her pillow.
“Late afternoon . . . old gray-haired nun . . . sitting alone with book in lap. Everyone expects a prayer book. Right?” Mary Helen asked.
“Then, why blow the stereotype?”
Anne’s low chuckle followed Mary Helen down the corridor. At the head of the stairs she met Sister Therese. Therese simply held her nose, rolled her eyes, and pointed toward Anne’s bedroom.
Oh, oh—a generation gap right in the convent corridor, Mary Helen thought, heading out the front door into the sun-baked campus.
The heat formed wavy lines just above the asphalt. Squinting into the sun, groups of bare-armed, barelegged students dragged themselves up the hill. Mary Helen joined them until, about two-thirds of the way up, she noticed a narrow dirt path leading off into the wooded hillside below the campus. She’d take it.
Prickly junipers lined the path. Just a few feet from the main driveway and it was like being in the woods. Mary Helen avoided stepping on two tiny pine cones that had fallen. The faint, antiseptic odor of a eucalyptus grove mingled with the pungent, Christmasy smell of Scotch pine. Several hundred feet up the path, hidden behind a clump of trees, she discovered a clearing with a lovely, carved stone bench.
Now here’s where I could use Anne’s pillow, she thought. Settling herself on the bench, she drank in the view. Before her, the tall spires of St. Ignatius framed a patch of sky. Brightly colored houses with clumps of lawn zig-zagged up the Buena Vista hills. The huge television tower atop Mount Sutro, like a giant orange-and-white mantis, gave a futuristic touch to the scene.
To her left, the copper-green cupola of City Hall stole center stage. Behind it, the sun played on the waters of the Bay and bounced off the rolling Oakland hills. Beautiful—what did Herb Caen call it?—Baghdad-by-the-Bay.
As much as she had fought coming back to the college, Mary Helen had to admit the place was beautiful. She had made her novitiate here in an old building long ago demolished when the Mother-house had been moved. In those days, she had been one of the few young women who had entered her Order with a master’s degree. Rather than flaunt her higher education, she had rarely even alluded to the degree, admitting it only when someone asked her directly.
It wasn’t that she was terribly humble, or even anti-intellectual. Far from it. The truth was, Mary Helen was afraid she’d be sent to the college to teach. She dreaded the idea of being perched on this “Holy Hill,” as generations of students had dubbed it. The college had always seemed too remote, too sterile, too academic for her.
Even as a young nun, she had known she would feel most at home and do the most good in a parish where there were real people with real problems. And, to her way of thinking, she had been right. Her entire religious life had been spent in parish schools. Her list of assignments was long and impressive. Sometimes she had served as the principal; most often as an eighth-grade teacher. Yes, every one of her fifty years as a nun had been spent in a parish, and she had loved it. Right up until this week, when she had officially retired.
Somehow, Mary Helen had managed to avoid retirement or even the thought of it for the last five years. At least, she figured it was about five years. At that time she had begun to lie a little about her age. Now, quite frankly, she wasn’t so sure just how old she was. In a pinch, she reminded herself, I can always subtract my birthdate from the current year. She hesitated to do it because the difference always came out an absolute seventy-five.
This fall, however, the Superior of the Order had been adamant, initiating several meetings with Mary Helen. When Mary Helen had told Eileen about the meetings, her friend had christened them “Leisure Lectures.” Secretly, Mary Helen referred to them as “Senility Sessions.”
“It’s time you slowed down,” the Superior had said. “Why not return to the fountainhead? Move up to the college. Relax, Rest. You’ve an M.A. in history you have never really used. If you must do something, do some research.”
Well, here you are, old girl—Mary Helen watched a solitary freighter pass behind a miniature Ferry Building—one of the drips returned to the fountainhead. And nothing would do, she scolded herself, but to inflict yourself on a history department chairman who probably thinks your old M.A. and all those years of eighth-grade teaching have prepared you for nothing at all. This afternoon, however, it was too hot to do anything but rest and relax. Tomorrow, weather permitting, she’d worry about Professor Villanueva and research.
Opening her P.D. James, she flipped back the marking ribbon of her prayer-book cover. This spot was so secluded, so cool and quiet. She must remember its existence. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply. Against the silence she heard the muted city traffic, the faraway echo of a girl’s shrill laugh. Gradually, she began to notice another sound—a rhythmic scraping she couldn’t identify.
Eyes still closed, she cocked her head and tried to concentrate. What on earth was it? First a crunch, then a pause, then a plop. Crunch, pause, plop. Over and over. The rhythm never changed.
Digging! Her eyes opened. That’s what it was! Something about only mad dogs and Englishmen being out in the noonday sun leaped into her memory.
From the stone bench, Mary Helen peered down among the trees, trying to pinpoint the noise. At first she spotted nothing. No one. Then, below and to her right, she noticed several wooden flats of sparkling ice plant. Someone was rooting ice plant on the hillside. She hoped it was the kind with the featherlike, magenta bloom. That was her favorite.
Tiptoeing to the edge of the clearing, she stretched her neck to get a better look. A ray of sun flashed against the spoon of a shovel. Sure enough, she could see the blue-denim back of a man, two large mounds of dirt on either side of him. He was planting, probably to keep the shale from slipping during the rainy season. For a moment, Mary Helen closed her eyes and visualized the hill aflame with bright, magenta blossoms. No wonder Anne claimed this gardener was the best they’d ever had. How many gardeners would be thinking about the rainy season on the hottest day of the year? And how many gardeners would have solved the problem so aesthetically?
Abruptly, the young man stopped and leaned his shovel against the rough trunk of a pine. Pulling a large handkerchief from his back pocket, he turned and began to wipe sweat from his face and hands. Mary Helen recognized the profile. It was the same young fellow Leonel had been talking to this morning. So this was Tony, the gardener. Good. Another name with another face. Mary Helen was pleased with herself. She held the theory that the sooner you could attach names to faces, the sooner you felt at home. And as long as this place looked as if it were going to be home . . .
Mary Helen was just about to shout a greeting down the hill when below her and to the right she heard the crunch of dried pine needles. Someone was coming up behind Tony. He must have heard it, too. Swiftly, he shoved his handkerchief into his back pocket and grabbed for the shovel.
A young woman emerged from between two low shrubs. She faced Tony. Mary Helen could hear the murmur of their voices, but they were too far away for her to catch the conversation. There was something familiar about the woman. She was tall and slight, with a delicately carved face. She looked like Marina, Professor Villanueva’s secretary. She must be the sister, Joanna. She would ask Anne about it at dinner. Then she’d have another name with a face. Good.
From below, the tone of the conversation took a higher pitch. The old nun still could not make out what was being said. She strained for a better look. For several moments, the two faced one another. Then, flinging his shovel aside, Tony grabbed the girl and planted a firm, hard kiss on her lips.
A bit too passionate for my taste, Mary Helen thought, still staring down at the young couple. Then, unexpectedly, Tony pulled away. Shielding his eyes against the glare, he scrutinized the hill. Embarrassed, Mary Helen drew back. Good night, nurse, she chided herself, you are getting to be a regular Miss Marple! At least, Agatha Christie had the good manners to let Miss Marple be bird-watching. You’re just plain gawking! The decent thing to do, old girl, is to let young love have a little privacy.
Back on her bench, Sister Mary Helen flipped open her book. In the distance she heard the sounds of four feet on dried pine needles. There were no more digging noises.
The flat clang of the bell from the college belfry tolled dinner. Tucking her book under her arm, Mary Helen tramped down the path and onto the driveway.
The parched campus was deserted. Long shadows played across the buildings and the formal gardens. With most of the faculty and students gone for the day, the stately college buildings crested the hill with an aura of peace. Sweet peace, she thought, and stopped for a moment to pull in a long, deep breath.
The sudden shriek of tires warned her that someone was taking the service road too fast. A dark green sports car shot from behind a shield of trees and squealed onto the driveway. Looks like the Devil himself is chasing whoever that is, Mary Helen thought as the car sped past her. Two men were in the front seat. She caught a quick glimpse of the driver. Professor Villanueva! Why was he driving so fast? And at this time of day? What business did he have on the service road?
That was the last time Sister Mary Helen ever saw Professor Phillip Villanueva alive
Sister Carol Anne O'Marie has been a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for the past fifty years. She ministers to homeless women at a daytime drop-in center in downtown Oakland, California, which she co-founded in 1990. She has written ten novels featuring Sister Mary Helen.