Chapter Twelve

Wilde Rue is much more vehement both in smell and operation, and therefore the more virulent or pernitious; for sometimes it fumeth out a vapor or aire so hurtfull that it scorcheth the face of him that looketh upon it, raising up blisters, weales [welts], and other accidents…

John Gerard The Herbal, 1633

The infirmary was housed in two small connecting rooms at one end of Hannah’s first floor. I thought the place was empty until I heard the thump of a metal pail in the other room.

Maggie went through the connecting door and almost bumped into a heavyset, powerful-looking woman on her hands and knees, energetically scrubbing the floor with a soapy brush. The single bed had been stripped to the bare mattress and pushed against the wall, and the window was flung open. The smell of pine oil disinfectant was heavy on the chilly air.

“Sister Rowena?” Maggie asked. “I’m Margaret Mary, and this is China Bayles. I hope we’re not interrupting.”

Still on her knees, Sister Rowena straightened. Her face was flushed with exertion, her veil was askew, and the hem of her navy skirt was pinned up with a large safety pin, showing thick calves and navy stockings pulled up past her knees. Her pale thighs bulged out over the tight elastic tops of the stockings.

“Interrupting?” she snapped. “Of course you’re interrupting. Thank God. I am sick of scrubbing this floor.” She dropped her scrub brush into the bucket with a splash. “Give me a hand, will you? These knees aren’t as young as they used to be.”

Stepping forward to help her up, I recognized her. Sister Rowena was the woman who had taken charge of Sister Ruth the night before. She was a woman of sixty, perhaps, although it’s hard to judge someone’s age when you can’t see her hair. Hers must have been dark, though. Her intimidating brows, almost a man’s brows, were nearly black, and I could see faint traces of dark hair on her upper lip. The hard, square hands she held out, one to Maggie and one to me, were reddened by the hot water and detergent.

We tugged and Rowena clambered heavily to her feet. She unpinned her skirt and adjusted her veil, muttering.

“The next time we have a clothing vote, I’m voting no on the habit, regardless of what Olivia says. Really, in this day and age, we ought to be able to-“

She broke off and looked at me with a scowl. There was a large dark mole to the right of her mouth and another beside her nose. Her shoulders were broad, her arms stout. Standing, she was the shape of a fireplug, with just about as much grace.

“China Bayles, eh?” Her voice was rough, no-nonsense, and she barked her words like a cadet commander. “You’re the one Mother Winifred brought in to get to the bottom of the fires.”

“That’s right,” I said. No wonder John Roberta had been in such a tizzy. Rowena’s scowl alone was enough to send a nervous person into an immediate fright.

She took a towel from the doorknob. “Well, I can tell you right off that I don’t know anything about any fires. Haven’t seen anything suspicious, haven’t heard anything.” She wiped her hands and slapped the towel back on the doorknob with a And-that’s-all-there-is-to-it gesture.

“You were at last night’s fire.”

“I was there at every fire. I live here, like it or not.” She glanced down her nose at Maggie. “I understand you’re coming back.”

Maggie nodded.

“I hope your vocation’s stronger than it was last time,” she said firmly, as if she were speaking to a young girl. “And I hope you don’t expect things to be the way they were before you left.”

I cleared my throat. “I’d also like to ask you about Per-petua and John Roberta.”

Rowena gave me a dark look. ‘ ‘John Roberta has nothing to do with either the fires or the letters,” she snapped. “She doesn’t have the imagination to do anything sinful.” She glanced at Maggie, then back at me. “Excuse me. I’m going to sit down.” She walked heavily through the door, limping, one hand on her hip. ‘ ‘Next time these floors need scrubbing, one of the younger sisters can do it.”

There was one bed in this room, two chairs, and a small desk. Above the desk was a built-in cabinet with a lock on the door, and above that, a shelf filled with medical reference books. Maggie sat on the bed, I took one of the chairs, and Sister Rowena sat at the desk, painfully stretching her leg out. She began to massage her right knee through the fabric of her navy serge skirt. After a moment, she looked up at me.

“Maybe I can save us some time if I tell you exactly what I know,” she said brusquely. “Number one, I’ve never received a poison-pen letter. Number two, I’ve never written one. So you can scratch me off your list.” She snapped her mouth shut as if she had said the last word on die subject.

“I’m not suggesting that you have a direct knowledge of the letters, Sister,” I said quietly. “I thought perhaps someone else might have spoken about them to you, or in your hearing. John Roberta, for instance. She stopped me yesterday morning, shortly before she fell ill. She was ur-

gent about wanting to see me. We agreed to a time later in the day, but she didn’t come.”

“She didn’t come because she was in the hospital.” She began to knead the other leg, working her powerful fingers into the muscle. “John Roberta doesn’t have any more idea about those letters than I do.” Her fingers stopped moving for an instant. “Of course, she may have convinced herself that she does.” She began kneading again. “In my opinion, John Roberta is a very sick woman.”

“I’m told she suffers from asthma,” I said.

“Her asthma is real enough. But it’s her emotional excitability that’s making her sick. She’s paranoid, to put it bluntly.” She straightened. “She’s hysterical.”

“I see,” I said. An alarm was buzzing in my head. It would be very easy for this woman, a registered nurse and the monastery’s resident expert on nervous complaints, to brand a sister hysterical. Once that happened, the hysterical sister would be completely discredited. Nobody would believe a thing she said. It was a pernicious strategy.

Sister Rowena folded her heavy arms. “So what was John Roberta’s story this time?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We didn’t get that far.”

A look of relief ghosted across Rowena’s face, and she turned away. “Well, don’t bank on her to solve your mysteries for you. You can’t trust a thing she says. She’s totally unreliable.”

Maggie spoke up. “I heard she might be moving. Is it true?”

Rowena made a clucking noise with her tongue. “Why sisters waste energy gossiping about other sisters, I’ll never know.”

“Is it true?” I asked, more sharply.

Rowena straightened. “Sister Olivia and I have located a house where John Roberta can get counseling, in a desert climate that will relieve her asthma. If Reverend Mother General would give her permission-” She paused. “But that’s another story.”

The buzzing was louder. Render the troublemaker untrustworthy, her story unbelievable, and send her away. It was an ancient trick, much used to silence difficult women. Was that what was going on here? Or was John Roberta really a paranoid hysteric suffering delusions of persecution?

Rowena was continuing. “At the moment, John Roberta is on her way to St. Louis to attend her mother’s funeral. By the time she returns, I hope Reverend Mother General will have agreed to reassign her.” She paused, putting an emphatic period to this part of the conversation. “Now, what else would you like to know?”

I took a deep breath. Talking to this woman was like questioning a hostile witness. I was out of practice, and not doing a very good job. ‘ T understand that you were with Sister Perpetua when she died. She received one of the letters, perhaps the very first one. Did she say anything that-“

Rowena smoothed her skirt over her knees. “Perpetua said a lot of tilings, Ms. Bayles, none of them very sensible. Even when she had her wits about her, she was a babbler. Toward the end, she babbled a good deal. Quite senile.”

“Did she babble about anyone in particular?”

Rowena pulled her dark brows together. “I don’t think I could report, in good conscience, what Perpetua said. She wasn’t in control of her faculties.”

Same song, second verse. John Roberta was paranoid, Perpetua was senile. There was nothing I could do to force this woman to give me information, just as I could not force Father Steven to tell me what I suspected he knew. I changed my tack. “Do you know why Dr. Townsend has ordered an autopsy?”

“Of course I know.” She was scornful. “He wants people to think that Perpetua did not die a natural death. He’d like to discover that somebody brewed up some of Mother Winifred’s foxglove and dosed her with it.”

“Is that what happened?”

She gave me an acid smile. “I have told Mother Winifred repeatedly that it is dangerous to maintain that still-room. It is entirely possible that one of the younger sisters-they’re not at all supervised, you know, no matter what Mother Winifred says-made some sort of terrible mistake.”

“Did anyone other than you administer medications to Perpetua?”

Her chin snapped up. “No, of course not. And all my medicines are in that cabinet right there, locked up.”

I let her think about the implications of that for a moment. “I see,” I said.

She regarded me narrowly. “Well,” she said, with rather less truculence, ‘ ‘the autopsy report will settle all this nonsense. Perpetua was an old woman. She died of natural causes.”

Rowena might be lying. And even if she were telling the truth as she saw it, she might be wrong. Somebody else might have helped the old woman along without Rowena knowing anything about it.

I stood up. “Who visited Sister Perpetua toward the end?”

“Several of her friends. Mother Winifred. Olivia, Ruth, Ramona. Father Steven, of course. He was here when she died. There may have been others.” She shifted on her chair. “Now, if that’s all you have to ask-“

“Where is the hot plate?”

The question caught her utterly off guard. Her eyes widened as she looked up at me. “The… hot plate?”

“Sister Ruth says that the hot plate from Mother Hi-laria’s cottage has disappeared from the storage room. Did you take it?”

She squared her shoulders and managed a scoffing smile. “Did I take it? What in the world would I want with it? It’s… it’s dangerous.”

“You haven’t answered my question, Sister.”

Her expression was half-defiant, half-apprehensive. ‘Does Ruth say I took it?”

“She says it was in the storage room from the time Mother Hilaria died until you spoke to her about it. When she went to look for it, it was gone.” I stood over her, keeping my eyes fixed on hers. ‘ ‘Did you take the hot plate, Sister?”

Her lips thinned and pressed together. She seemed to be wrestling with something inside herself-the truth, perhaps. Her glance slid to Maggie, who was sitting very still. The silence stretched out. Finally, in a low, resigned voice, she said, “Very well, then. Yes, I took the hot plate.”

“Why?”

She didn’t look up. “Because… I was asked to take it.”

“Asked? By whom?”

Her chin was trembling and her voice was scratchy. “Mother Winifred directed us to talk to you about the letters.” She brought her chin under control with an effort. “She didn’t say we had to talk to you about anything else. I don’t want to answer any more-“

I leaned down. “Who asked you to take that hot plate, Sister?”

She pressed herself back in her chair. “What you’re thinking is wrong, you know.” She swallowed. “You really don’t have any idea what you’re-“

“I need to see that hot plate, Sister Rowena. This is a very serious matter, you know. If the sheriff’s office gets involved…”

“The sheriff? But why should-” She blinked rapidly. “Well, you can’t see it. Not just now, anyway. Not this minute. Maybe later.”

“When?”

Her head drooped. There was a long silence. “When Olivia gets back,” she said at last.

“Lord deliver us!” Maggie said as we left Hannah. “Amen,” I said. “What do you think? Was she telling the truth?”

She hesitated. “I wasn’t sure, in the beginning, anyway. That business about John Roberta being paranoid and Per-petua babbling and so on-it’s all very convenient, isn’t it? But she did tell, after all. About the hot plate, I mean.”

Yes. It had taken an effort for Rowena to tell us who had the deadly hot plate, but she had told us. Which suggested that what she had said about John Roberta and Per-petua had also been the truth, at least in the narrow way she had framed her reply. People usually don’t he about small things and then tell the incriminating truth about something much more significant.

Maggie turned to me. “Who’s next? Who else are we going to interrogate and intimidate?”

“If that’s what you think we did to Rowena,” I replied tartly, “you’re dead wrong. / was the one who was intimidated.”

“Oh, yeah? Didn’t sound like it to me,” Maggie said in a wry voice.

I consulted my list. “Sister Rose is next, and after that, Ramona.”

Maggie’s head tilted. “Rowena, Rose, Ramona-do I see a pattern?” She frowned thoughtfully. “And John Roberta too. What’s going on?”

“It’s a long story. Let’s find Rose and Ramona first. If there’s time after we’ve talked to them, I’ll tell you.”

There was plenty of time, because our conversations with Rose and Ramona were fairly short. We found Rose in Mother Winifred’s herb garden, bundled up in a red wool jacket, pruning back an unruly horehound. She was a shy, fragile, fortyish woman who spoke in a feathery voice and kept her eyes cast modestly downward.

“I’m afraid I’m not a very good source of information,” she murmured apologetically. “I stay to myself, mostly. I work in the laundry for four hours every morning. Whenever I can, I come here.” She glanced around. “This is much nicer than our little garden at St. Agatha’s. Whatever changes Sister Olivia and Reverend Mother General are

– .inning, I hope they’ll keep the herb garden. Although, of;ourse,” she added hastily, “it is up to them.”

“You know that Mother has asked me to see what I can earn about the fires that have occurred in the last few – onths. And the letters several people have received.”

“I don’t know anything about the fires,” she said _.ickly. “Like everyone else, I find them very frightening. Last night was awful. If Mother hadn’t smelled the smoke, Sophia might have burned down.”

“And the letters?” I asked quietly. “Do you know any-±ing about them?”

She bit her lip. “No, I really don’t. I mean-“

“Father Steven suggested that I talk to you about them. He seemed to think you might have a special concern.”

She glanced up quickly, then away. She seemed to have trouble meeting my eyes, but that might be a normal behavior for her. “Did he? Well, I suppose-I mean, I did speak to him.”

“Do you have a special reason for being concerned?”

She looked down again, and pulled a dead leaf off the plant. “You’re asking whether I’ve received one of the letters?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping for an answer. “Have you, Sister?”

She shook her head fervently. Too fervently? Her pale hand seemed to be trembling.

“Do you know someone who has?” Maggie asked.

Another headshake.

I frowned. “Then why did Father Steven think you might-“

Her face was suddenly fierce. ‘ ‘Because I told him what happened to me!” She sank down onto the stone bench beside the path, as if her knees wouldn’t support her.

“Can you tell us about it?” I asked gently.

She was fighting back tears. After a moment, she swallowed and choked out, ‘ ‘When I was a novice, someone in our class wrote… notes.” Her voice grew stronger. “She

slipped them into our books or left them for us to find under our pillows or in the bathroom. I guess it started out as a prank, because the first ones were rather silly. Amusing, even. But then they began to say accusing things, hurtful, virulent things. And then-” She pulled in her breath.

“Go on,” I said.

She shook her head. “I know this is hard for you to understand. Little notes, pranks, jokes-you must be thinking it’s all very trivial. A tempest in a teapot.”

To tell the truth, that’s exactly what I was thinking. But trivial incidents can loom large and threatening in a community that’s closed off from the outside. If you live in the teapot, the tempest fills your entire world.

“Please,” I said. “I want to hear.”

She firmed her mouth and went on, haltingly. “One of the other novices-my cousin Marie, and dearer to me than a sister-got several of the letters. She began to question her vocation, and a few months later, she asked to leave. Once she got out in the world, she…” She stopped, swallowed, tried again. ‘ ‘She lost her bearings. She got involved with drugs. Three years later, she was dead.”

Maggie dropped down beside Rose and put an arm around her shaking shoulders. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured sympathetically. She fished in her jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of tissues. “Did you know at the time who was writing the letters?”

Rose took a tissue and blew her nose. “At the time, I preferred not to know, and I’ve been glad ever since. If I knew who she was, I don’t think I could… I might have done something that…” Her eyes were swimming with tears. “Those poisonous letters killed Marie! If it hadn’t been for them, she would have remained in the order. She’d be happy and content now, safe in the service of God. That’s what I told Father Steven. Whoever is writing these letters is breathing out the same poisonous air. It can infect all of us!”

I wanted to say that Marie’s vocation must have been

pretty shaky to start with, but it would have sounded heartless. And Rose was living with the truth as she believed it. There was no point in questioning her version of the story.

“I suppose someone spoke to the novice mistress about the letters,” Maggie said.

“I believe so. I didn’t feel it was my place, of course. All I could do was pray. I pray now, for Marie’s soul and for the soul of this hateful person.”

I studied her: a shy, quiet woman who spent time by herself, who worked in the herb garden where she could pluck a rue leaf or two to tuck into her letters. But Sister Rose’s guileless distress hid nothing darker than her own sorrow. There was nothing to connect her to either the fires or the letters. Maggie hugged her, I thanked her, and we left.

Sister Ramona seemed a more promising informant, not only because Father Steven had mentioned her, but because she was one of the few people who had visited Perpetua before her death. After a short search, Maggie and I found her with several sisters in the craft room, working on the wreaths, swags, and braids that had helped to support St. T through the lean years. While they worked, they were listening to a Gregorian chant on a cassette player. I looked around at the quietly industrious group, surrounded by beautiful materials and intent on their crafting, and wondered how long they’d be doing this. At least some of them, I was certain, would prefer it to running a conference center or cleaning up after church bigwigs. I know I would.

Sister Ramona was a tall, elegant sister with flawlessly beautiful skin and long graceful fingers, the nails carefully shaped and nicely manicured. She might have been in her forties. She wore a denim apron over her habit, and she was standing in front of a heavy wooden easel that held a large straw wreath base in the shape of a heart. She had covered the heart-pretty skimpily, I thought-with dried artemisia and clumps of small heads of garlic. Beside her were boxes of red strawflowers, pink and red globe ama-

ranth, and bright red celosia, and a spool of red twist ribbon.

Sister Ramona stepped away from her work, studying it unhappily. “I tell Sister Miriam that I’m not very good at making these things, but she says I have to keep trying.” She spoke petulantly, in a carefully modulated voice that sounded as if she might have had dramatic training. “It’s crooked, isn’t it? Maybe I should stick some more of those red things on the left. Would that help?”

I thought she should take it apart and start over again, but I didn’t want to say so.

Maggie lowered her voice so she wouldn’t be heard by the others. ‘ “This is China Bayles, Sister. Mother has asked us to help her answer some questions.”

“Oh, yes, the investigator.” She gave up on the wreath and began folding the twist ribbon into uneven loops. “Well, all I can tell you about the fires is that they frighten me to my very bones. The thought of somebody burning the place down around our ears is enough to keep me awake all night.” She shook her head, sighing dramatically. “And how anybody could write those horrible letters-“

“What can you tell me about them?” I asked.

“Me?” Her eyes widened. “Well, I’ve never gotten one myself, if that’s what you’re asking. And of course I have absolutely no idea who’s writing them. Not a clue, as Jessica Fletcher would say. But I have a theory about the bigger picture.”

“The bigger picture?”

She looked down at the bow she had made and clucked crossly. “There, do you see? I’ve got it crooked again. I am so wretchedly clumsy at making these hateful things. I’d almost rather work in the kitchen than-“

“What bigger picture?”

She pulled the bow apart and began to loop the ribbon again. I wanted to take it out of her hands and show her how, but she probably wouldn’t have thanked me. “Well, there’s something awfully odd going on here, wouldn’t you

say? I mean, there was Sister Anne’s swimsuit hanging on the cross, just dripping with blood. They tried to tell us afterward that it was ketchup, but I know better.” She held up the bow, examining it critically. ‘ ‘And of course nothing like that ever happened at St. Agatha’s. Life was much different there, much more varied. We had access to the theater and music and-Oh, blast]” She glared at the bow. “But it’s the best I can do. Really, I’d rather work in the laundry than try to please Sister Miriam.”

I tried again. “What about the bigger picture, Sister?”

She picked up the glue gun. “The blood was a sign, wouldn’t you say? A portent, like all these terrible fires. And Mother Hilaria, dying in such a cruel way, and Sister Perpetua being taken. Who knows where it’s going to end? I go to bed every night wondering if Hannah will burn to the ground before dawn.” She dropped a large dollop of melted glue onto the bow.

“I understand you visited Sister Perpetua before she died.”

“That’s right.” She thrust the bow onto a bare spot in the wreath and held it for a moment. “She was my novice mistress at the motherhouse in El Paso. I thought I should say something encouraging in her last illness.”

Maggie tilted her head. ‘ ‘Excuse me for interrupting, Sister. Were you in the same novice class as Sister Rose?”

Sister Ramona straightened the bow and stepped back, cocking her head. ‘ “There. I hope Sister Miriam is satisfied. Of course, she’ll tell me there’s not enough artemisia and that the loops aren’t even, but-” She paused, frowning. “What did you ask?”

“About the novice class,” I prompted.

“Oh, yes, Sister Rose. Yes, we were in the same class.”

“Then maybe you recall the letters,” Maggie said. “Poison-pen letters, Sister Rose said they were.”

“Poison-pen letters?” Ramona began picking glue off her fingers with a distasteful look. “Yes, of course I remember. It was a sad affair. One of the novices left because

of it, and others got their feelings hurt. But I never saw any of the letters myself, and it was a very long time ago. Years and years. You might ask Sister Regina. She’s bound to remember. She was always in the diick of things.”

“Sister Regina was in your class?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” Ramona said promptly. “She’s older, of course, because she was a nurse before she took her vows. Sister Olivia was in the same class. She and Sister Regina were friends. We called them the Bobbsey Twins because they were always bobbing up here and there, wherever you least expected them. They seemed to know things the rest of us didn’t.” She stepped back and wiped her hands on her apron. “Well, it’s done, for better or worse.”

“How about the other sisters here at St. T’s-were any of them in your class?” Maggie asked.

“Oh yes, several. Sister Allegra and Sister Ruth and Sister Rachel. Oh, and Sister John Roberta, too.” She pursed her lips. “Of course, we were all quite devoted to Sister Perpetua, God rest her soul.”

Olivia and Regina, the Bobbsey Twins. Questioned Sr. O about Sr. P’s letter, Mother Hilaria had written. And later, she had questioned Sr. O and Sr. R about the letter to Sister Anne.

“You said something about a bigger picture,” I said. ‘ ‘What did you mean by that?”

Ramona shook her head. “It’s just a theory. You probably don’t want to hear it.” She picked up a whisk broom and began brushing bits of dried flowers into a little pile.

I frowned. “If you have information-“

“Well, it’s not exactly information. It’s more like an explanation.” She swept the flowers onto a piece of paper and dumped them into the trash can beside the table. “It’s about the children of Israel, you see.”

“The children of Israel?”

“God punished them by making them wander in the desert for forty years.”

“I’m afraid I still don’t-“

She gave me a pointed look. “This is the desert. And we’re the children of Israel. We’re being punished, although for what I don’t know.”

“I gather you don’t like it here,” Maggie said dryly.

“Like it here?” Sister Ramona gave a short laugh. “Like it here? Let me put it this way, Sister. I do not enjoy sweating in the sun in the fields in July. I detest the smell of garlic. I have no talent for making wreaths. I am not cut out for desert living.”

“Why not ask for a transfer?” I asked.

“I already have,” she said. “As soon as Reverend Mother General approves my request, I’m to go to our sister house in San Francisco.” Her eyes took on a faraway look. “San Francisco. Can you imagine? It will be heavenly. Simply heavenly.”

I didn’t need to ask when she expected her request to be approved. Mother General might not know a thing about garlic, but she obviously understood a great deal about carrots and sticks.

‘Now,” Maggie said as we left the barn. ‘ ‘I want to hear everything.”

I told her what I had learned from the journal, including the fact that Mother Hilaria herself had received a letter.

“So,” Maggie said when I finished, “all roads lead to Sister O and Sister R.”

“The Bobbsey Twins.” An odd nickname. I wondered how much animosity-and perhaps fear-might be behind it.

Maggie paused, frowning. “You don’t suppose this poison-pen thing goes all the way back to the novitiate, do you?”

“I’m beginning to think it might.” I looked at my watch. “I need to talk to Mother Winifred and let her know about Dwight. And I really have to talk to Olivia before I go any further-but I can’t do that until tomorrow. That’s when Mother expects her back from El Paso.” I wondered what

kind of mood Olivia would be in when she returned. Not good, I guessed.

Maggie thrust her hands into her jacket pocket. “A few of us are getting together this evening to talk about the way things are going here. Would you like to come? We’re meeting in Miriam’s room. There’ll be wine and munch-ies.”

“The way things are going here-the changes, you mean?”

“Yes. There doesn’t seem to be much we can do as long as the Reverend Mother General has her mind made up. But we’re going to brainstorm anyway.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m having dinner in Carr tonight”

Maggie eyed me. “With Tom Rowan, I’ll bet.”

“And his father,” I said quickly. Too quickly, maybe.

A smile quirked at the corner of Maggie’s mouth. “Want me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why? Do you think I need one?”

“Why not?” she countered briskly. “A little prayer never hurt anybody.”

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