Sister Lou expects some pushback when she invites her friend, Maurice Jordan, to be the guest speaker for the St. Hermione of Ephesus Feast Day presentation. The theology professor is known far and wide for his controversial views. What she’s not prepared for is finding him dead in his hotel room, bashed over the head.
When the local deputies focus on the members of her congregation as suspects, Sister Lou takes matters into her own hands. Against Chris’s wishes, she teams up with a cynical local reporter to delve into Maurice’s life. The unlikely partners in crime-fighting uncover a litany of both devotees and detractors. And though it might take a miracle to find the killer, Sister Lou vows to carry on until justice prevails . . .
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"The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord." Father Ryan O'Flynn shared a beatific smile with the sisters and associates of the Congregation of St. Hermione of Ephesus. They'd gathered in the small chapel in the motherhouse for the four o'clock Mass Wednesday, the thirtieth day of August.
"Thanks be to God." Sister Louise "Lou" LaSalle added her voice to those of the other worshipers.
The recessional song, "Hail, Holy Queen," began.
From the oak pew where she stood, Sister Lou closed her eyes and breathed in the familiar scents of the chapel: candle wax from the ivory tapers near the altar, frankincense burned during the Mass, and the lemon-scented wood polish that made the pews and hardwood floors gleam like glass beneath the recessed lighting. These scents brought almost as much comfort as Father Ryan's words.
Sister Lou continued singing the recessional hymn from memory as her eyes lifted to the stained glass windows crowning the chapel's cream-colored walls. Their vivid greens, blues, reds, and oranges depicted a variety of meadow scenes. The images evoked a sense of peace. She could almost feel the spring breeze that bent the grasses and carried the scents of the wildflowers depicted in the artwork.
Father Ryan had worn a gold chasuble for the Mass. As usual, his thinning salt-and-pepper hair was in need of a trim. He adjusted his emerald-rimmed glasses before stepping away from the altar and following the lectors down the center aisle and out of the chapel.
Once the processional had passed her, Sister Lou stepped from the pew. With her eyes on the crucifix on the wall behind the altar, she genuflected as she made the sign of the cross, touching her fingertips to her forehead, heart, and then left and right shoulders above the beige jacket of her skirt suit. Straightening from that position was hard on her sixty-three-year-old knees.
On her way out of the chapel, Sister Lou dipped two fingers into the holy water font. Again, she made the sign of the cross.
"Are you actually going forward with it, Louise?" Sister Marianna Tuller's question came from behind her. It was an assault to the peace that had filled Sister Lou after the Mass.
She stepped into the lobby before facing the other congregation member. Sister Marianna was tall — at least five inches above Sister Lou's five- foot-four-inch height — and thin. Her snow-white hair was cut short. She had an almost military bearing in her neat, navy blue skirt suit. Her blue, gold, and white Hermionean cross was pinned to her left lapel.
Sister Lou paused to exchange greetings with other members of the congregation before returning her attention to Sister Marianna. "It was a lovely Mass, wasn't it, Marianna?"
The other woman scowled. "I don't have time for pleasantries, Louise."
"Neither do I." Sister Lou noted the hour on her crimson Timex. It was just turning five PM. Her nephew would arrive soon, if he wasn't already in the motherhouse's guest parking lot.
"You know that it wasn't a good idea to invite Maurice Jordan to be our speaker for the Saint Hermione of Ephesus Feast Day." Sister Marianna's chiding tone was as cool as her gray eyes, perhaps cooler. "Both the congregation and the college have received numerous complaints."
The congregation had founded the College of St. Hermione of Ephesus, which had stood on the other side of the motherhouse's employee parking lot for almost one hundred and fifty years.
"I heard there were only two complaints." And if I were a betting woman, I'd lay odds that you were behind both.
"Doctor Jordan is an extremely controversial and divisive figure. By bringing him here, you've opened both our congregation and our college to criticism and suspicion." Sister Marianna did enjoy repeating herself.
What pleased her more, the sound of her voice or the effort of her wit?
Sister Lou prayed for patience. "Maurice is a respected theologian. His opinions are thoughtful, well researched, and reasoned."
"I know you consider him to be a friend." Sister Marianna gave her a skeptical look. "That just makes people question your judgment. Is that really what you want, considering your leadership position within the congregation?"
Sister Lou stiffened at the unsubtle reminder of the congregation's upcoming elections. "It doesn't matter what I think — or even what you think. The sisters will make up their own minds and cast their own votes."
Sister Marianna crossed her arms over her thin chest. "You should be more selective with whom you associate, Louise."
"I associate with you, Marianna." Sister Lou checked her watch again. "I need to go. Chris is waiting for me."
Sister Lou turned away, offering a smile to a group of sisters hurrying across the tiled lobby on their way to the dining hall. These particular ladies were always anxious to beat the dinner crowd. Perhaps they feared the kitchen would run out of food before they arrived.
She swung open the front door. A soft summer breeze, fragrant with the scents of moist earth and cut grass from the motherhouse's lush landscaping, greeted her. She turned west toward the asphalt-surface visitors' lot. Her nephew's bronze sedan stood in the first space. He'd agreed to drive her to Maurice's hotel, which was just a few miles from the motherhouse. Sister Lou was looking forward to having dinner and catching up with her old friend.
Christian "Chris" McMillan LaSalle, her deceased brother's only child, climbed out of the driver's seat as she approached. He sent her a warm smile.
He served as the College of St. Hermione of Ephesus's Interim Vice President for College Advancement, but he looked more like a professor. He wore dark casual slacks and a white shirt under a lightweight brown tweed jacket complete with elbow patches.
"Hi, Aunt Lou." Chris circled the trunk, then opened the passenger door for her.
"Hi, Sweetie. I'm sorry to keep you waiting." Sister Lou kissed her nephew's cheek before climbing into his sedan.
Chris settled behind the steering wheel. "I just got here."
"Good." Sister Lou buckled her seatbelt. "I hate inconveniencing you like this. I'm getting my driver's license back on Saturday so you won't have to chauffer me around anymore."
"I don't mind, Aunt Lou." Chris backed out of the parking space, then followed the winding path of the motherhouse's driveway onto the main road. "Frankly, I'd rather be your chauffer than worry about you speeding around Briar Coast. This isn't the Indy 500, you know."
Sister Lou winced. "Don't worry. I've learned my lesson. From now on, I'll follow the rules of the road."
Having her driver's license suspended for a month, because of her tendency to drive faster than the posted speed limit, was a tough consequence of her actions. She wasn't keen to repeat the punishment.
"I'm glad to hear that."
"You don't sound convinced that I've learned my lesson." Sister Lou eyed her nephew with suspicion.
He looked so much like his father: tall — several inches over six feet — and fit, with close-cropped dark hair. His sienna features were perfectly proportioned: broad forehead, strong nose, squared chin and high cheekbones. His onyx eyes were honest and compassionate, quick to smile and slow to anger. But he'd inherited his bossy nature and conservative driving from his mother. Sister Lou fought against the blanket of grief that tried to smother her whenever she thought about the fact that his parents hadn't lived to see the admirable man he'd become.
A ghost of a smile curved Chris's mouth. "I don't think you can resist driving fast."
"Of course I can."
"All right, convince me."
Sister Lou shifted her attention to the windshield. Her gaze skimmed the rolling hills and rich foliage of Briar Coast. The quiet upstate New York community, population less than one thousand, lay nestled against Lake Erie. August was ending. Fall and football were around the corner. Their conversation touched on the school year, which had just started, their day, and significant events planned for later in the week, including Maurice's St. Hermione of Ephesus Feast Day presentation.
"Do you want me to pick you up later?" Chris turned right onto Main Street and steered his sedan through the heart of town. It was a short trip to Maurice's hotel from here.
"No, thank you. Mo offered to drive me home."
"You've been friends since graduate school, but how long has it been since you've seen him?"
"I attended one of his lectures a couple of years ago. We've kept in touch, though, mostly through emails and letters."
"Letters? I didn't know people wrote those anymore."
"We old folks do."
Her life and Maurice's had taken different paths. She'd earned her doctorate in philosophy, then joined the congregation. Maurice received his doctorate in theology, got married, and raised a family. Life was funny that way.
"I hope you enjoy your visit." Chris changed lanes to pass a slower-moving vehicle.
Why was it OK for him to speed? Others broke the rules without consequence. For some reason, I always get caught.
"Thanks, Sweetie." She'd addressed him by that endearment since the day he'd been born, thirty-three years ago. "Now enough about me. Have you heard anything more about the vice president for advancement position?"
"The president's still considering how to move forward." His shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh. Waiting had never come easily for him, another trait he'd inherited from his mother. "It's encouraging that the administration hasn't started an executive search, but I don't like being in limbo."
Chris's tension was palpable in the close confines of his Toyota Camry. He'd served as director of the college's Office of Advancement for more than four years. He'd been serving as its interim vice president for more than four months.
"You've been doing a wonderful job." Sister Lou strained to keep the irritation from her voice. "I'm certain your efforts have been noticed and appreciated. The administration would be foolish not to reward your work."
"Thanks, Aunt Lou. I appreciate your encouragement." Her nephew's features eased into a slight smile. "My greatest fear is that they'll hire someone from outside and expect me to train him or her."
"That would not be acceptable." Sister Lou felt her blood begin to boil at the suggestion of such an injustice.
"No, it wouldn't." Chris used a dry tone.
He turned left onto Town Street, and then drove through two intersections before stopping in front of the entrance of the Sleep Ease Inn Hotel.
Chris studied the building through the windshield. "Are you sure you don't want me to pick you up later?"
"I'm sure, Sweetie. Enjoy your evening with your friends." She exchanged a kiss on the cheek with him before getting out of his car.
Sister Lou paused in the hotel lobby, taking in its ivory-and-orange carpeting, walls, and furniture. She straightened her beige skirt suit and smoothed her chin-length bob.
The restaurant where she and Maurice had agreed to meet was across the spacious lobby to her left. It was a cozy little eatery. Its dimly lit interior and polished maple and red-velvet décor were a throwback to the 1970s. The savory scents wafting toward the entrance reminded Sister Lou that she'd only had a salad for lunch.
The host station stood empty, but Maurice wasn't hard to find. He sat at a booth at the front of the restaurant. Same old Mo. For him, to be on time was to be late. He habitually turned up for appointments twenty or thirty minutes early.
Maurice smiled as he stood to greet her. "Lou!"
Sister Lou grinned as she walked into his outstretched arms. "Mo, it's so good to see you."
"It's been too long." Maurice stepped back, letting his arms drop to his sides. "You could have waited a few minutes to visit with me after that last lecture you attended."
"As I remember, you were swarmed by a throng of admirers at the time. But we're catching up now." She settled into the red padded seat.
It had been a couple of years since she'd last seen Maurice, but he hadn't changed much. He'd retained his modest good looks although he appeared older than his age. At sixty-three, he'd picked up a few more wrinkles and a lot more gray hairs. He was of average height and build. His fair skin was almost translucent, and his cheeks were curiously ruddy for someone who spent most of his time in libraries.
With the money Maurice had inherited from his very wealthy parents, he didn't have to work, but he loved to. And it showed in the way he talked about his projects. He enjoyed the research and the lectures he attended as well as the ones he gave.
He sat across from her. A manila envelope lay on the table beside his left arm. "You're right. We have the whole evening to get caught up. So tell me what's new."
Sister Lou wished she had something exciting, or even interesting, to tell her jet-setting friend. She racked her brain, but in contrast to his adventures, her life was routine.
"I'm looking forward to your presentation tomorrow." It was the best she could come up with on short notice.
"Me, too, especially since I don't have to get on a plane."
Sister Lou smiled. "The reception we're hosting before your presentation is scheduled from eleven-thirty to one. Your lecture starts at one-thirty. Could you arrive early, perhaps at eleven? I'd like to give you a short tour of the motherhouse before we greet our guests."
"I'll be there." Maurice paused as their server asked for their drink and dinner orders.
Once the young man had left, Sister Lou picked up their conversation. "You'll be speaking to a nearly packed auditorium."
"Packed, huh? It must have been the free tickets you offered." Maurice's smile almost reached his tired blue eyes.
"You're underestimating your celebrity, Mo."
"I don't know about that. Sometimes I think my work will be the death of me." His laughter sounded like an afterthought.
A chill crawled down Sister Lou's spine. What an odd thing to say. "What do you mean?"
"It's just a figure of speech, Lou." Maurice waved a hand. He'd been biting his nails, a nervous habit she'd noticed when they were in graduate school.
"You seem a little tired. Perhaps you're pushing yourself too hard." Sister Lou felt a stir of concern.
"I've been traveling a lot. Much of it's been overseas: research, conferences, presentations. And more research."
"That sounds exhausting." Just thinking about it drained her.
"Speaking of which, this is the draft of an article I'm writing for a theology journal. I haven't shared it with anyone." He slid the large manila envelope toward her. "Could you read it? I'd really like your impression."
"Of course." Sister Lou accepted the package with a thrill of anticipation. His topics were always fascinating. "I have to review a report tonight, but I can read this tomorrow."
"That'll work. I'll be here through the weekend."
Sister Lou frowned. Why wasn't he going home after the presentation? "Hopefully, you'll be resting."
"If I don't fall out from exhaustion, Jess will probably smother me in my sleep." Another forced laugh. Maurice and Jessica, his wife, had recently celebrated their thirty-third wedding anniversary.
Their server returned with their drinks, iced tea for Maurice and ice water for Sister Lou.
"How are Jess and Nestor?" It had been years since she'd seen Maurice and even longer since she'd seen his family: Jessica and their twenty-nine-year-old son, Nestor.
"Everyone's healthy. Jess is looking forward to retiring in three years, and Nestor earned a promotion at the bank."
"That's wonderful news." Sister Lou took a drink of her water. The glass was cold and wet against her palm. "I thought they might be here with you. You don't usually lecture this close to home. It's a rare chance for them to see you in action."
Maurice seemed to avoid her eyes as he stirred sugar into his unsweetened drink. "It didn't make sense to pay for a hotel for the whole family. Buffalo's just an hour away."
Then what are you doing here, Mo?
Sister Lou tried another smile. "Why do I have the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"
"I'm just tired. My traveling's taken a toll, not just on me, but on my family."
"Then maybe it's time for you to slow down. Neither one of us is young anymore."
He gave her a much more natural smile. "I'm not, but I think time has a particular fondness for you."
Surprised laughter rolled out from Sister Lou.
Their server returned with their entrées. Maurice had ordered pork chops with mashed potatoes. She'd asked for chicken with a baked potato, just butter and chives. They paused to say grace before diving into their meals.
"Put your family first for a while." Sister Lou sliced into her potato. "Life is too short. We don't have time for regrets."
Maurice nodded as he swallowed a bite of pork chop. "I know. That's the reason I'm taking time off from the lecture circuit. I'll be able to spend more time with my family — and on my finances. I'm going to work on that video series I've been telling you about."
Excerpted from "Mayhem & Mass"
Copyright © 2017 Patricia Sargeant-Matthews.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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