Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay thithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law.
Mother Winifred had given me a hand-drawn map that led me to the M Bar M, Sadie Marsh’s ranch, a couple of miles north of St. Theresa’s. I pushed the Dodge, but it was twenty to eleven when I pulled into the ranch yard and parked next to Sadie’s blue Toyota.
If I’d been expecting something like the Townsend plantation house, or even the more modest Texas-style ranch house at St. Theresa’s, Sadie’s would have disappointed me. The small frame house was weathered a silver gray that almost matched the gray of the metal roof. It sat in the middle of a square of unkempt, winter-browned grass. The yard had once been graced by a large tree, but there was nothing left of it but a sawed-off stump that served as the pedestal for a five-foot red windmill that turned creakily. Obviously, Sadie didn’t care much for making things pretty.
The wind was blowing cold out of gray clouds, bringing
with it needles of chilly rain. I pulled up the collar of my jacket and stuck my hands into the pockets. If it rained tomorrow, Tom might not want to go riding. At the thought, I felt a prickle of disappointment that caught me by surprjf e. Was I looking forward to it that much?
Sadie opened the door at my first knock. She was wearing jeans and a red sweater and boots, and her steel gray hair was snugged back from her strong face with a red bandanna. “Glad you could make it.” She motioned with her head. “This place is a bitch to heat when the wind’s in the north. Come on-it’s warmer in the kitchen.”
The kitchen floor was covered with scuffed gray vinyl, the wall over the sink was lined with open pine shelves stacked with crockery and canned goods, and the curtains at the windows were plain muslin. Pans and utensils hung on the wall over the gas stove. The only decorative touch was a red geranium blooming on the windowsill and a large Sierra Club calendar on the wall over the scarred pine table. It pictured two paint ponies running across a snowy meadow with mountains in the background. Through an open door I could see into a bedroom, the neatly made bed covered with a striped blanket, a dresser decorated with a lamp and a row of well-worn books between carved wooden bookends. Flannel pajamas and a purple bathrobe hung from wooden pegs on the wall. The house belonged to a ranch woman who didn’t care whether her possessions were pretty as long as they did their job.
Sadie had been working at the table. A sheaf of stapled pages was laid out there, next to a stack of posters advertising an organizational meeting for a local environmental group. “What would you like to drink? Coffee? Tea? There’s peppermint, if you’d rather.”
“Peppermint,” I said gratefully. I’d had enough caffeine to wire me for the whole day.
She turned up the fire under the kettle. “I hear that you and Tom Rowan are old friends,” she said.
I glanced at her. It was a strange opening. “We knew
one another in Houston,” I said guardedly. “Eight or nine years ago.” Who had told her? And why was it important?
“Maybe you’ll strike up the friendship again,” she remarked.
“I doubt it,” I said. “I’ve got plenty else on my plate. And there’s somebody else in my life.”
Did I imagine it, or was she relieved? “I’ll get that deed,” she said, and left the room. A minute later, she was back with a legal-size manilla envelope.
The deed was dated twenty-five years ago, and began with the familiar know all men by these presents. It affirmed that, in consideration of the sum of one dollar, Helen J. Laney herewith granted, sold, and conveyed to the Sisters of the Holy Heart all that certain eight hundred acres of land more particularly described by metes and bounds as shown on the addendum attached, with the restrictions and upon the covenants, dedications, agreements, easements, stipulations, and conditions specified on the attached pages, et cetera, et cetera.
I turned the page, found the addendum with the surveyor’s report, and turned that page too. And there they were, rigged to go off like dynamite in the faces of Sister Olivia and the Reverend Mother General. The first restriction placed a moratorium on all construction except that required by the monastery’s agricultural enterprises for a thirty-year period beginning five years from the date of the deed. The second restriction required that after the moratorium had ended, two-thirds of the sisters in residence at St. Theresa’s must approve any and all construction,
Two-thirds of the sisters? That meant a simple majority couldn’t control the monastery’s destiny.
Sadie put a cup in front of me, dropped in a tea bag, and
poured boiling water over it. The fragrant peppermint scent wafted upward, restoring me. She sat down at the end of the table with her own cup.
“Well?” she demanded. “What do you think?”
“Where were the order’s lawyers when this deed was executed?” I asked. “I can’t imagine why they would accept these restrictions.”
Sadie chuckled. ‘ ‘What could they do? Helen and Hilaria weren’t the kind of women who could be pushed around. Helen knew exactly what she wanted and she wasn’t going to let a passel of lawyers get in her way. Anyway, they didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when the horse was known to bite. Helen made it clear that the order wouldn’t get an acre if they didn’t take it on her terms. At one point, she even threatened to give the land outright to Hilaria, screw the order.”
“But Hilaria couldn’t accept it,” I objected. “She had taken a vow of poverty.”
Sadie’s smile was sly. “You didn’t know Hilaria. Independent as a hog on ice. By the time this thing was signed”-she tapped the deed with her knuckle-“she’d had a bellyful of church politics. She was ready to pull out and establish her own community. Mother General either agreed to the deed restrictions or the order would lose the whole ball of wax. And all this was happenin’ on the heels of Vatican Two, you know. Things were changing everywhere. Orders were breaking up. Communities were going their own way. Mother General decided to take what she could get, restrictions and all.”
“And now,” I said, dipping my tea bag up and down, “nobody remembers.”
This situation happens more often than you might think. There are plenty of old deeds whose odd restrictions and covenants lie buried and forgotten in a courthouses and safety-deposit box willing. This kind of thing is the stuff of litigation, of course. It makes real estate lawyers skip all the way to the bank, rejoicing.
“Amen,” Sadie said comfortably. “That particular Mother General has gone to her reward, and the order’s changed law firms. And now that Hilaria is dead, and Per-petua, nobody remembers.” She sipped her tea, her eyes bright over the rim of her cup. “Nobody but me. I’ve got a memory like an elephant.”
I put my cup down and folded the sheets of stiff paper. “Your position is a bit precarious, wouldn’t you say?”
“You’re thinkin’ that somebody in the hierarchy might offer to slip me a little payola to forget what I know?” Sadie snorted through her nose. “I didn’t just fall off the watermelon truck.” She slapped the stack of environmental posters. “I’ve had my share of battles. I know how bidness is done. I wouldn’t take a nickel of their money.”
That wasn’t what I meant, of course. Hilaria and Per-petua had both known about the deed restrictions. Both were dead, and the local JP had questioned both deaths. Sadie’s knowledge might make her vulnerable in a different way. But the Church wasn’t the medieval Cosa Nostra it had once been, riddled with conspiracy and skullduggery. It had become more civilized since the days it had sponsored the witch burnings-hadn’t it? Still, if I were Sadie, I’d watch my back.
“The current Mother General didn’t get where she is by being anybody’s fool,” I said. “Before she commits St. Theresa’s capital to a building program, she’s going to take a look at that deed.” I could imagine what she’d say when she actually read it. “One glance will tell her she can’t turn the monastery into a vacation resort without risking a lawsuit.”
Which made me stop and think. In this case, who would have standing to sue? Members of the Laney Foundation Board, collectively and individually, of course. Members of the St. Theresa community. Even the Townsends, who might claim that the order’s violation of the deed restrictions constituted fraud and that they should get the land back, as Mrs. Laney’s heirs. Not that they would do any-
thing of the sort, judging from Carl Townsend’s boasts. It sounded as if he and the Mother General were anticipating a long and lucrative partnership. Still, I could picture dozens of lawyers gleefully contemplating the thousands of billable hours it would take to shepherd the potentially large flock of unruly litigants through the courts.
“You’re right about the Big Mama in El Paso/’ Sadie said. “That’s what Hilaria always called her-Big Mama. But just ’cause a chicken has wings don’t mean it c’n fly.” Her hawk-nosed face wore a look of smug satisfaction. “That’s what I told her on Saturday. Big Mama, I mean.”
Sadie thumped the table with her cup. ‘ ‘I sure as shootin’
I blinked. “How did Big-how did she respond?”
Sadie’s mouth was wry. “Said she’d take it under advisement.” She pushed her cup away. “Next thing I heard, Olivia was flyin’ off to El Paso faster’n a prairie fire with a tail wind.”
Of course. A roadblock of this size would require extended discussion, not just with legal counsel, but with the person who was expected to head St. Theresa’s. I wondered whether Olivia had learned about the deed before she left, or whether it had been stuck under her nose when she got to El Paso.
Sadie pulled out another chair and propped her feet up on it. “You ask me, we’re talkin’ war. Trouble is, though, Winnie isn’t keen on a fight. She says she’s too old, but it’s not age that’s holdin’ her back. She’s a sweet old gal, and I love her, but she does toe that line.” She sat back and clasped her hands behind her head. “I figger that’s why the Mother General put her in Hilaria’s job. Winnie will do what she’s told and when it comes time, she’ll step down and keep her mouth shut.”
The description fit Mother Winifred pretty well. “Given that attitude,” I said, “I’m surprised that she’d ask me to look into the fires.”
“My idea,” Sadie said. “She does sometimes listen to reason.” Her grin got wider. “Tell the truth, it wasn’t a half-bad idea. You turned out better’n I hoped.”
“How do you think the board will react to the news about the deed?” I asked.
She made a shrug with her mouth. “We’ll see. But that’s not the only bidness I mean to bring up.” She pulled her strong brows together, her expression darkening. “That’s why I want you there, Counselor.”
“Me? At the board meeting?”
“That’s what I said.” She swung her boots off the chair and planted them on the floor. “All hell’s gonna break loose, China. I want somebody there as an independent observer. Somebody who knows the law and can come up with an opinion, fast.”
“There must be other lawyers in this county you could call,” I said. “Anyway, you want somebody in civil law. I was a criminal lawyer.”
“I don’t care what kind of law you know or don’t know. A quick, sharp mind is what I’m after, one that ain’t muddied by local politics. I want somebody who can see the issues.”
“What kind of business do you expect to bring up?” I asked warily.
Sadie hesitated, studying me, as if she were deciding how
far I could be trusted. Finally she stood, walked to one of the cabinets, and opened a drawer. She took out a fat white envelope, sealed, and dropped it on the table in front of me. “It’s got to do with the trust assets,” she said. “The information is in this envelope.”
“You’re talking about the foundation’s seven million?” I corrected myself. ‘ ‘No, that was only what went into the kitty. The total must be up to fourteen or fifteen million now.”
Her lips thinned. “You know as well as I do, China. What goes in don’t necessarily come out.”
“You’re suggesting that something’s wrong with the investments?”
Her grin had a knowing edge. “Be there tomorrow, ten o’clock sharp. That’s when I’m openin’ this envelope. I guarantee you, it’s goin’ to cause one hell of a ruckus. That board’s goin’ to be dizzier’n a rat terrier pup at a prairie dog picnic.”
“Are you going to let me look at it?”
“There’s nothin’ you could do about it today,” she said. She put the envelope back in the drawer and closed it. “Now, how about another cup of that tea?”
I shook my head. “I have to talk to Mother Winifred.” I stood up too. “I’ll see you at the board meeting tomorrow, then.”
“Right,” she said. Her look became fierce. “And you keep this under your hat, d’ya hear? I don’t want you givin’ away any secrets. There’s a few people would give plenty to know what I’ve got planned for tomorrow so they could figure up a way to stop me.”
“Who?” The Reverend Mother General, Sister Olivia? And Carl Townsend, of course. Who else?
“I’m not going to say.” She looked straight at me. “It’s like my daddy used to tell me. What you don’t know can’t hurt you none.”
I’ve had plenty of clients tell me that, and when they did,
I tended to agree with them. But there was something else I wanted to know.
“I wonder,” I said, “what you can tell me about Father Steven.”
She sighed. “You know, sometimes you’ve just got to ask yourself why the Church tolerates these guys.”
“What do you mean?”
Her tone was sour. “Go listen to him preach. Hellfire-and-damnation stuff. Confess your sins or burn.”
“I didn’t think Catholics were big on that sort of thing.”
“This one is.” She laughed raspily. “He glowers over that pulpit like the congregation is nothing but toads and vipers, and then he lets ’em have it with both barrels. Fire and brimstone.”
“Has he been in the parish long?”
“Three or four years. He came here from Houston.”
From Houston. “From the congregation at St. Agatha’s?”
She nodded. “But he didn’t come here directly. He was out of the priest business for a year or so, while they patched him up.”
“Patched him up? Oh, you must mean the scar on his face. What happened?”
She cocked her head. “You didn’t know? He was in a fire.”
I stared at her, making the connection. ‘ ‘What kind of a fire?”
think I ever heard,” she said. “But whatever it was, it seems to’ve twisted his mind worse than his face. The sisters won’t confess to him unless they just have to.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
‘ ‘He puts real teeth in his penances. Tell somebody a lie? Forget the Hail Marys-he makes you go back and tell them the truth. Borrow somethin’ that doesn’t belong to you? He has you put it back
who cheats on his taxes.” She chuckled mirthlessly. “Or diddles the company books.”
As I said good-bye, I was thinking about Father Steven’s fire-scarred face and his insistence on penance, and wondering just why he had appeared at the fire the night before.
By the time I got back to St. Theresa’s, the noon meal was over and the refectory was empty, except for a sister sweeping the floor and another wiping off the tables.
“I know I’m late, but do you suppose I could get some lunch?” I asked the sister wielding the broom. She smiled in the direction of the kitchen and went on with her work.
The kitchen was clean and roomy, with a light green tile floor, open pantry shelves along one wall, two large gas cookstoves along another, and a couple of sinks along a third. The middle of the room was taken up by a long stainless-steel worktop with shelves under it, neatly filled with nested bowls and pots.
“Well, hi, China. I was hoping you’d get back before I finished.”
I turned around. It was Maggie, straightening up from a large commercial dishwasher. She was clad in khaki pants, a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up, and a large white apron that enveloped her from knees to shoulders. She looked happier than I’d ever seen her and less subdued, as if she had tapped into a new source of energy, as if she had started to come to life again.
“I thought you were on retreat,” I said.
“I’m back.” She pushed in the rack, shut the door, and turned a knob. The dishwasher began to make a gargling hum. She was smiling.
I leaned a hip against the work counter. “I’ve been out making inquiries, as we say in the detective business.”
“Mother told me.” She gave me a wide grin. “So. I
understand that congratulations are in order, Sherlock. When are they going to arrest Dwight?”
“They’re not,” I said shortly. “I screwed up. Big time.”
“You mean, you couldn’t make them believe he really did it?”
“No. I mean he really
Her mouth fell open. “Then who did?”
I ran cold water into a glass and took a couple of gulps. “Royce Townsend says that he’s the one who was doing the shooting. He wasn’t shooting at
Maggie’s face was sober. “What about the fires? Dwight didn’t do that, either?”
“Nope. He was sleeping off a drunk in the county hoose-gow when the rocking chair was torched last night.”
She stared at me, sobered. “You mean, whoever did it is still-“
“-out there somewhere,” I finished.
Her eyes glinted. “Well, if it wasn’t Dwight, it could have been the Townsends. They-“
“I met Carl Townsend this morning,” I said. “He didn’t show a hint of recognition when he heard my name.” It was true. Thinking back over the conversation with Town-send, there wasn’t a single clue that he was involved with the fires. Anyway, he had no motive. He was hoping to make some sort of cooperative development deal with the Mother General. What’s more, lighting little nuisance fires didn’t strike me as Carl Townsend’s style. If he was going to put a match to something, he was the type who’d burn it down and brag about it afterward.
“Who says it has to be
“That’s right.” I shook my head. “But I don’t think he had anything to do with the fires.” Royce was too much
like his father. He wouldn’t condescend to something as trivial as a small fire.
Still, it made me think. Yesterday, Dominica had asked whether the person who wrote the letters had also set the chapel fire that burned her guitar. I’d said no, because I was so sure that Dwight was the arsonist. But I’d been wrong about Dwight. Maybe I was also wrong about the connection between the fires and the letters.
And then I suddenly thought of something else-Sister Miriam’s portrait of Mother Hilaria, burned the night before.
“Of course!” I exclaimed.
“What is it?” Maggie asked.
“I’ve just revised one of my basic assumptions,” I said. ‘ ‘I think our arsonist
“I saved you a little something,” Maggie said. She opened the refrigerator and took out a plate. ‘ ‘Lasagna, raw veggies, and applesauce. Will that do it?”
“Sounds great.” While Maggie was heating a large serving of lasagna in the microwave, I added, “John Roberta checked out of the hospital this morning. I need to talk to her. Did she show up for lunch?”
“Nope.” Maggie poured milk into a glass. “She’s gone.”
“Gone!” I was suddenly apprehensive. “Where did she go?”
“Home.” Maggie handed me the glass. “Her mother died last night. Her sister picked her up at the hospital and the two of them are driving back together. She’ll be back, but Mother isn’t sure when.”
Her sister. Maybe I could stop worrying. Maybe. “Where’s home?”
“St. Louis, I think. Somewhere in the Midwest.”
I sat down at the table, not quite satisfied. ‘ ‘Mother Winifred is
“What? What are you talking about, China?”
I sighed. I was probably grasping at straws, trying to make a mystery where none existed. “Oh, nothing,” I said. It was too bad that John Roberta’s mother had died, and too bad that I couldn’t ask her who she was afraid of. But if I couldn’t reach her, neither could anyone else. And if she were truly afraid for her life at St. Theresa’s, she’d probably feel a whole lot safer in St. Louis.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling I’d run up against a stone wall. I couldn’t talk to my two most promising informants, John Roberta and Olivia. I was down to the three Rs- Ramona, Rose, and Regina-and Sister Rowena, the infir-marian, all of whom Father Steven had mentioned.
Maggie took the plate out of the microwave and put it in front of me. “Don’t burn yourself,” she said.
The lasagna was bubbling and fragrant with basil and thyme. I picked up my fork. “Father Steven,” I said. “What do you know about him?”
Maggie leaned against the counter. “I don’t really
“What have you heard?”
“Just gossip.” She shifted uncomfortably. “You know how it is in a place like this. Sometimes I think you can never really get to the truth of anything. Everyone’s got opinions, and no facts.”
“So what’s the gossip?”
Maggie hiked herself up on the counter. “That he’s on probation with the diocese.”
“But he’s been here three or four years.”
“That’s a long time to be on probation.”
She gave me a straight look. “What I hear is that he’s on probation for life. The bishop is supposed to be watching him. If he screws up again, he’s-” She made a slitting motion across her throat.
“No kidding?” I thought of Father Steven’s bitter, sardonic face, his fire-and-brimstone sermons. “What did he do that was so bad?”
“Choirboys,” she said, and let me think about that while she swept the floor and wiped the stove.
I finished the lasagna, ate my applesauce, and took my plate to the sink to rinse it, still considering whether someone who messed around with choirboys might turn to writing accusatory letters and setting fires. ‘ ‘Are you busy this afternoon?” I asked, putting the plate in the drainer.
“It depends,” Maggie said. She hung up her apron, took a jacket from a hook, and shrugged into it. She glanced around the kitchen to make sure that everything was in order. “I need to be back here by three o’clock. I’m making apple strudel for dessert tonight. But I’ve got time to help you, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I gave her a grateful look. Maggie had lived in this place for a long time, and people trusted her. ‘ ‘How about going to the infirmary with me to talk to Rowena?”
‘ ‘You think
“She’s certainly a possibility,” I said, and on the way to the infirmary, I filled Maggie in on what I’d discovered the day before. She listened soberly, until I got to the part about Anne hanging the ketchup-stained swimsuit from the cross.
She smiled. “Anne would love to radicalize St. T’s.”
I wanted to tell her that Anne was planning to leave, but I wasn’t sure whether I should. “Do you think that could happen?”
“It could. Reformers aren’t isolated any longer. There’s a network, and moral support. When you’re under the gun, support counts for a lot. Anne could make a change.”
“What about you?” I asked. “Do you want to make changes?”
She gave a little shrug. “Right now I just want to find my way again, be quiet and listen for a little guidance. Of course, if Reverend Mother General insists on building a retreat center here, I suppose I’ll have to take a stand.” She lifted her chin. “Somehow I feel that God’s rooting for the garlic.”
And God had Sadie’s help. But Maggie would hear all about that tomorrow, after the board meeting was over and the news leaked out. “What can you tell me about Row-ena?” I asked.
“Not much, actually. She managed St. Agatha’s infirmary for the last ten years or so. Somebody told me she used to be a registered nurse.”
“I wouldn’t think there’s much need for an infirmary in a place like this-not anymore, anyway.”
She nodded. “In some ways, it’s a relic from the days when monastic communities were more closed off. Still, sisters need a place where they can be looked after when they have the flu or a bad cold. A lot of them aren’t exactly young anymore. And then there are the little things-cuts, bruises, poison ivy, things like that.” She gave me an oblique look. “It happens less often now, but nuns-especially novices-used to have quite a few psychosomatic ailments. The infirmarian was supposed to be able to tell whether a sister was really sick or suffering some sort of nervous complaint.”
I didn’t ask what happened to the sisters with the nervous complaints. “Does Rowena have enough patients to keep her busy full-time?”
“I doubt it. Word has it that if Olivia becomes abbess, Rowena will be her administrative assistant. The infirmary will be phased out.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. I remembered John Roberta’s flurried, frightened whisper, and the panic on her pale
“Yes,” Maggie said. “From what I hear, Rowena and Olivia make a good team. They think alike.”