Sister Agatha is one of two extern nuns in the cloistered order at the Our Lady of Hope Monastery near the small desert town of Bernalillo, New Mexico. An investigative journalist before entering the monastery, now, as an extern it is Sister Agatha's role to be the link between her cloistered sisters and the outside world. It is the skills from both her past and current lives that she must bring to the task assigned to her by the Archbishop of her diocese. At a former monastery, closed and sold by the diocese and now operating as a hotel and business retreat, there are a series of mysterious goings on.
Several valuable pieces of southwestern folk art owned by the diocese and left on loan in the retreat have been stolen and replaced by replicas. After an art expert was called in to verify the remaining collection, he too disappeared without a trace. And then, there is the ghost - the restless spirit rumored to wander the halls of the resort.
At the request of the Archbishop, Sister Agatha's must now discreetly investigate the doings at the former monastery and make sure that an unwanted scandal is not about to engulf the diocese. But she soon learns that something even more sinister than a ghost is loose in the retreat and it is up to Sister Agatha to unravel the puzzle before the consequences turn deadly.
Release date: May 2, 2006
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 272
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Thief in Retreat
THE SUN WAS STILL HIGH IN THE CLEAR NEW MEXICO sky as Sister Agatha pressed the candy-apple-red Harley for a little more speed. She was determined to finish her tasks and make it back to the monastery before None, which started at 3:00 P.M. sharp. As an extern nun at Our Lady of Hope Monastery, Sister Agatha wasn't required to celebrate the liturgical hours with her cloistered sisters, but she never liked missing None. The ninth hour of prayer commemorated the Passion of Our Lord, and after all he'd done for mankind it seemed practically sinful not to honor that time with prayer.
With Sister Bernarda, the other extern at Our Lady of Hope, acting as the monastery's gatekeeper today, Sister Agatha had left to run errands in town. As usual, she was behind schedule and feeling the pressure. She glanced to her right at Pax, who was riding in the sidecar. The white German shepherd, her ever-present companion whenever she was away from home, was resting his muzzle beside the small windscreen as he watched the landscape whizzing by. He seemed perfectly content to enjoy each moment as it cameand looked to be completely at peace. Sister Agatha sighed, remembering the Bible quote from Job that read, "But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee." Pax's needs were simple, and he could find peace and contentment no matter where he was.
After a short ride, Sister Agatha pulled into the parking lot of Panza Llena, a family restaurant at the north end of Bernalillo, not far from the main intersection of their small town. The owner, Mrs. Chavez, had placed a collection box near the cash register to help the parish raise funds for Arturo Mendoza, a local boy who needed a kidney transplant. Part of Sister Agatha's job today was to pick up the money raised at the various sites around town.
Sister Agatha climbed off the Harley and removed her red helmet. Once Pax was at "stay" on a patch of grass in the shade of the building, she reached into the pocket of her habit and pulled out a doggie biscuit. "I'll be right back."
As she stepped inside the restaurant, Sister Agatha was immediately struck by the silence. She'd been here a couple of times before on monastery business, and she couldn't remember it ever being so quiet.
She looked around, noting that there were a dozen or more diners seated at the tables. Though most had food before them, none appeared to be eating. As she shifted her gaze, Sister Agatha saw the cook out front by the counter, and the two waitresses standing beside him. No one was making eye contact with the tall Anglo man standing in front of the cash register, not even Mrs. Chavez, who was working as cashier today.
Something was very wrong. As her gaze swept around the room again, Sister Agatha noticed that everyone was watching her--except the man in front of the cash register. He seemed to be watching everyone else.
Sister Agatha took a moment to study him. He had pale blond hair, needed a shave, and was wearing a loose blue windbreaker made out of nylon, and worn jeans. His hands were in his pockets,and he was shifting restlessly from one foot to the other. She was just about to say something to him when she noticed that the cash register drawer was open and Mrs. Chavez had a fistful of bills in her hands. The special collection box for the Mendoza boy was also open, and had obviously been emptied.
She'd walked in on a robbery. Despite the large repertoire of prayers she'd learned as a Catholic--both before and after becoming a nun--the only thing that came into her mind now was the most basic of all pleas--Oh Lord, help!
Sister Agatha forced herself to smile at Mrs. Chavez, then reached into her pocket, pretending to be searching for something. "I was just about to buy myself a slice of your wonderful pie, Mrs. Chavez, but I left my wallet in the saddlebags of the bike. I'll be right back." With an apologetic smile, Sister Agatha nodded at the man in the jacket, then turned to leave. She'd only taken one step when his voice cracked through the air like a whip.
"Stop!" he ordered.
As she turned around, she saw he'd pulled out a small silver pistol. Pointing it at her, he motioned for her to move behind the counter. "Nice try, Sister, but you're a lousy poker player." He then turned to Mrs. Chavez. "Hand over the cash. And don't forget the big bills under the drawer."
Mrs. Chavez, a well-rounded woman in her late fifties with salt-and-pepper hair and large brown eyes, did as he ordered. "That's all we have." Her hand was shaking as she handed him the money. "Now go and leave us alone."
The man jammed the bills into his jacket pocket and glanced at the nervous customers watching him. A big construction worker resting one massive arm on the hard hat on his table had his hand curled into a fist. Lastly, the man focused on Sister Agatha again. "Let's go, Sister. You're coming with me."
"Where, and why? Don't you think kidnapping a nun is a little conspicuous? I'll just slow you down."
He looked over at the construction worker, who had reached for his steak knife. "Put down the knife," he said, then turned back to Sister Agatha. "You're my insurance."
"Do as he asks, Sister," Mrs. Chavez pleaded.
The man glanced at Mrs. Chavez and the others. "If anyone moves, or the police show up, Sister's a goner."
Mrs. Chavez made a sign of the cross. "There won't be a place on Earth you can hide from God if you hurt Sister Agatha."
"I'm not worried about God--just the police." Grabbing her arm and tugging, he added, "Let's go." As he passed by one of the customers, he let go of Sister Agatha just long enough to grab the woman's cell phone off the table and jam it into his pocket.
Sister Agatha led the way outside, prodded by the barrel of the thief's gun. Just as they stepped through the doors, she saw Sheriff Tom Green and Deputy Joshua Riley walking toward them from across the street.
Sister Agatha's heart leaped to her throat. "They're probably just coming over for some pie and coffee," she whispered quickly to her captor. "Didn't you notice that the sheriff's station is practically across the street?"
"If they make a move, you're going to be the first one to get shot. Don't make eye contact, just keep going." He looked around. "Where's your car?"
"I don't have one. I came on the Harley," she said, pointing.
"Then that's our ticket out of here."
"Bad idea. They'll be after us within a few minutes, and a nun on a bright red motorcycle with a sidecar won't be hard to trail."
"All I need is a good head start. And don't try to signal them. I'm watching you like a hawk."
She stopped at the motorcycle, with the robber close behind her, trying to resist not looking toward the sheriff. Tom Green was a very old friend, and she knew he'd never let her leave without coming over to say hello. But that would undoubtedly spook thegunman into doing something really stupid. It was up to her to take action--now. Fortunately, she had a lethal weapon currently on "sit" and "stay."
As she reached into her pocket for the keys, she turned slightly, making sure Pax could see the thief's pistol aimed at the small of her back. A twitch of the dog's ears as they suddenly stood straight up told Sister he'd spotted the weapon.
"Careful, Sister. Act natural," the robber muttered, still watching her instead of the dog, which was exactly what she'd prayed he'd do.
Pax was at least ten feet away, but he was already a tensed-up mass of muscle and fur just waiting to cut loose. Sister Agatha took a half-step to the side and signaled Pax, who launched himself forward like a thoroughbred out of the starting gate. While still in midair, Pax clamped down on the robber's gun hand, teeth sinking in just above his wrist. There was a sickening crunch and the gunman screamed as the force of Pax's attack spun him like a top, then threw him forward onto the asphalt, the one-hundred-pound German shepherd still attached to his arm.
Howling in pain, the robber threw a wild punch with his free hand. He missed as the big dog stretched back, working his teeth deeper into the man's muscle and twisting his gun hand in a frightening game of tug-of-war.
Scrambling to his knees, the man gave up on his weapon and let it fall, lunging forward instead of pulling away. Groping desperately with his other hand, he managed to grab Pax by the collar. "Got you now, you worthless ..."
Sister Agatha had seen enough. Drawing back her fist, she punched the lowlife squarely in the nose as hard as she could.
The robber toppled forward onto the pavement, and this time the one-hundred-pound dog hanging onto his arm kept him down.
Sister Agatha heard approaching footsteps and knew help had arrived.
"Out!" Sheriff Green ordered Pax as he and the deputy came running up, armed and ready. But the dog was growling now and was either too focused, couldn't hear them, or both. "Sister, give him the command."
"Pax, out!" Sister Agatha ordered, cradling her aching hand.
The dog released the man's arm and backed away a step, still growling and barking fiercely.
"That dog almost tore my arm off! And then the nun punched me! I'm bleeding!" The man raised up from his facedown position, trying to get to his knees with just one arm for support. Pax moved closer, his teeth bared.
"Lie down, or the dog will attack again. Your throat is still intact, so quit whining," Tom Green said, handcuffing the thief. "We'll have a doctor look at your injuries once you're in lockup."
Sister Agatha looked at the robber and struggled not to cringe. There was more blood coming from his nose where she'd punched him than from the arm Pax had bitten, or perhaps his torn sleeve hid most of the damage. Guilt made her insides hurt nearly as badly as her fingers did.
"Nice jab, Sister Agatha," Tom Green said. "Remind me never to get you angry."
Sister Agatha exhaled softly and muttered a quick prayer for forgiveness. "I shouldn't have hit him. I just wanted to protect Pax." She looked down at her sore knuckles.
"Insider tip, Sister. You might want to put some ice on those knuckles before they start to swell," Tom said, a smile touching the corners of his mouth.
Mrs. Chavez came rushing out of the restaurant. "Sister Agatha, you were wonderful! I wish I had a punch like yours. You and your dog stopped him in his tracks."
Sister Agatha gave the restaurant owner a thin smile. Her hand hurt like the devil now. Maybe that was her punishment for resorting to violence.
Forty-five minutes later she and Pax arrived at the monastery. The robbery and its aftermath had made it impossible for her to complete the rest of her errands. She needed to report the incident to Reverend Mother as soon as possible.
Sister Agatha passed through the open iron gates that allowed entry to the walled compound, and drove slowly around to the side of the former barn where she normally parked her motorcycle. To her surprise, she found a long black sedan nestled there in the shade. Curious to see who'd come, she left Pax outside and hurried in through the back door.
When she finally reached the parlor, Sister Bernarda closed the book she'd been reading on the life of Saint Teresa of Avila and met her gaze. "I'm glad you're back, Your Charity," she said. "Reverend Mother has been asking for you. Archbishop Miera is here." Her Marine drill sergeant tone was a little more subdued than usual.
"And they want to talk to me?" She wondered if Reverend Mother had already heard about the incident in town. But then again, that didn't explain the archbishop's presence. His residence was too far away for him to have come to the monastery for that.
"I'll go right now." Sister Agatha handed Sister Bernarda the list of places that had donations for the Mendozas ready to be picked up. "Could you call these businesses and let them know that one of us will be by tomorrow to pick up the money?"
"I'll take care of it," Sister Bernarda said, then, looking worried, added, "Not long after His Excellency arrived, I was asked to pack up your things. Your bag is behind the desk over there, all ready."
"Ready for what? Where am I going?" She didn't like this at all.
"I have no idea, but you'll find out when you see Reverend Mother." When Sister Agatha didn't move, the older nun added, "Right now would be a good time."
Dread filled her as she went down the silent corridor of the enclosure to Reverend Mother's office. In times of need, any sister could be asked to go and become part of another monastery, and their vow of obedience would make refusal out of the question. But even the thought of leaving Our Lady of Hope filled her with sadness. Our Lady of Hope was a vital part of her--and she of it. She belonged here.
As she drew near Reverend Mother's door, Sister Agatha froze, unable to take another step. What if she never came back?
A minute went by before Reverend Mother came out into the hallway. "I thought someone was out here," she said, then added, "Child, what on earth are you doing just standing there?"
Reverend Mother called each of the sisters "child"--the age of the person made absolutely no difference. Elderly Sister Clothilde was "child" to Mother just as much as their young postulant, Celia.
"I heard footsteps, but when no one knocked or came in, I began to wonder if someone had ascended," she said with a smile, clearly trying to put Sister Agatha at ease. "Come in. There's nothing to be uneasy about."
Sister followed and, obeying Reverend Mother's gesture, sat down.
Archbishop Miera had made himself comfortable in one of the larger oak chairs across from Reverend Mother's desk. He seemed very relaxed, sipping a cup of the monastery's special blend of tea. The small plate beside him held several of Sister Clothilde's famous Cloister Cluster cookies.
"I have some very exciting news for you, Sister Agatha. Our archbishop has come here specifically to ask us for your help."
Curious, Sister Agatha's gaze turned to the archbishop. His Excellency was a tall man, around six-two, and he was fit for a man in his mid-sixties. Today he was dressed in a black suit with a clerical collar, but even in this simple, familiar setting, Archbishop Mieraprojected authority easily, like most men who wore the mantle of responsibility with grace.
"He would like you to travel to the former Monastery of Saint John in the Pines," Reverend Mother continued. "There's a problem there that requires your unique background and skills."
"I would be honored to help His Excellency," Sister Agatha answered formally. "But I'm not familiar with that monastery. You said it closed down?"
"Yes, Sister," the archbishop answered. His clear, demanding voice made a person want to listen. "The few remaining brothers there were sent to another community, and the Church sold the monastery property two years ago. The new owners subsequently turned it into a private inn called The Retreat, which is becoming a popular site for hosting workshops. But the Church retained one connection to the place.
"The owners, you see, wanted to maintain the feel and look of an old monastery, so although the amenities have been modernized, the place hasn't changed much to the casual eye. And that, in a roundabout way, is why I'm here. You helped the monastery and the diocese a few months ago with a very serious matter. I'm told you have excellent investigative skills, and I now need you to put those skills to work for the Church again." He looked somberly at Reverend Mother, then at Sister Agatha. "Everything I say from this moment on has to be kept in the strictest of confidence."
"Of course, Your Excellency," Reverend Mother replied quickly.
Sister Agatha nodded and waited. What an interesting day this was turning out to be!
"Ernesto Luna, the owner of The Retreat, is having a problem--which has become ours as well. Statues and folk art of a religious nature, some made by the monks who used to live there, have apparently been disappearing--and reappearing--at The Retreat."
"I'm not sure I understand. Why is this the Church's problem? And did you say 'apparently'?" Sister Agatha asked.
He nodded. "Although we sold the monastery, the Church has allowed Mr. Luna to rent the artwork and display it because some of the statues were objects of great devotion for the parishioners in that area. We kept up the insurance costs, of course, but those have risen dramatically in the past few months, so we'd made plans to donate the collection to the local college's museum. But Ernie thinks that some of the art has been replaced with very good copies, and now isn't sure which of the pieces are authentic. We discussed the problem, then decided to call in an expert and verify the authenticity of the entire collection. Professor Richard Lockhart, who's the curator of the museum, asked for permission to take a few pieces back to his lab for testing. But he disappeared, along with the items in his possession, after leaving The Retreat. His car was found abandoned by the side of the road not far from there and he hasn't been seen for two days."
"The police are searching for Professor Lockhart, I assume?" Sister Agatha asked. Then, seeing him nod, "Do the authorities know about the problem with the art collection?"
"Only that Lockhart had two pieces with him when he disappeared," the archbishop said. "But Sheriff Barela, who's handling the case, apparently has his hands full just trying to locate the missing professor. He hasn't mentioned the collection to me at all, so I don't know what's on his mind.
"At this point, I'm not sure what to think," he continued. "While the sheriff searches for the professor, we need to find out what's really going on at The Retreat. We have to protect the remaining artifacts, and if Ernie's suspicions are right, we have to recover the pieces that have already been stolen. Barela is concentrating on finding Professor Lockhart. That's the reason I'd like you, Sister Agatha, to look into this and see if you can learn something about the missing art."
"But will Sister Agatha be safe?" Reverend Mother asked, concern wavering her voice slightly. "A man is missing. He may have been kidnapped--or worse."
"Sister will be staying among the guests, not driving down a lonely mountain road at night. But I'd like her to take the monastery's police dog with her for protection. There'll also be an undercover officer there on site as well. He'll make himself known to you when circumstances permit."
Sister Agatha nodded, glad that Pax would be able to go with her. Undercover officer or not, Pax was a good ally to have close by.
"Does Mr. Luna know I'm coming to investigate the thefts?" Sister Agatha asked.
Archbishop Miera nodded. "Yes, he, his wife, and the undercover officer. To the staff and guests you're there solely to catalog and evaluate the contents of some crates that were recently discovered at The Retreat. They appear to have been left behind by the monks when the monastery closed."
"What's inside these crates?" Sister Agatha asked.
"I have no idea, but we do need those items inventoried, so the timing's perfect," he answered. He remained silent for a moment, as if still trying to make up his mind about something.
"I've got a feeling there's more ... something you're reluctant to mention ... ," Sister Agatha prodded softly.
"Your journalistic instincts are right on target, Sister," he said with a weary sigh. "It's time for me to tell you about--the ghost."
Reverend Mother and Sister Agatha exchanged wary glances. "Excuse me, Your Excellency," Sister Agatha said. "Did you say ghost?"
"That's what I've been told, but you can consider me a skeptic. Personally, I think that the stories of a resident spook at The Retreat have been--shall we say enhanced?--by the staff in order to book more workshops. Still, you need to be aware of the story. A shadowy young woman is supposed to wander the corridors atnight, moving objects around and frightening guests and staff. You'll hear all the hair-raising details, I'm sure, within a half hour of your arrival."
"Thanks for letting me know, Your Excellency," Sister Agatha answered. "This sounds like a challenge I'm going to enjoy. When would you like me to get started?"
"You're to leave right away, child," Reverend Mother added. "Your bag has been packed."
"Then will you give me your blessing, Mother?" Sister Agatha asked, and when the abbess nodded, she knelt.
Reverend Mother took out a vial of holy water she kept in her pocket and, moistening her fingertips, blessed Sister Agatha with a sign of the cross.
Sister Agatha looked at the archbishop. "And yours, Your Excellency?"
The archbishop stood up and made a sign of the cross over her. "I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
As she rose to her feet once again, the archbishop spoke. "Work with Ernie Luna, Sister, but remember to be very discreet. It's for your own safety."
"Is Mr. Luna expecting Pax?" Sister Agatha asked, almost as an afterthought.
"Normally The Retreat allows only service dogs, but if Mr. Luna objects, just tell him that I requested that Pax accompany you for security reasons. He'll understand," Archbishop Miera assured.
Sister Agatha went to the door, then stopped and turned around, suddenly remembering the incident that had brought her back to the monastery ahead of schedule. "Before I leave, Reverend Mother, may I have a moment with you?"
Reverend Mother stepped out into the hallway with her. "I've already heard about what happened in town, if that's what's onyour mind. For the most part, you did a good thing, child--but we're supposed to turn the other cheek, not punch someone in the nose."
"I know," Sister Agatha mumbled guiltily. "I would have gladly accused myself at our weekly Chapter of Faults, but I won't be here," she said referring to their regular meetings.
"Say a rosary and ask Our Lady to help you. Now go and do what the archbishop has asked--without resorting to any more violence."
Sister Agatha breathed a silent sigh of relief, bowed to Reverend Mother, then hurried away.
"I was wondering how long you'd be in there," Sister Bernarda said as Sister Agatha joined her in the parlor. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, but I have to leave right away on business for the archbishop. Pax will be coming with me, so I'd better stop by the kitchen and get his food and dishes."
"How long will you be away?"
She shrugged. "As long as it takes, I suppose," she said, wishing she could say more.
Sister Bernarda nodded, understanding.
Just then Sister Clothilde came rushing down the hall and placed a small paper sack in Sister Agatha's hands.
Sister peeked inside and saw a half-dozen cookies. "Oh, Your Charity, thank you!"
As Sister Clothilde smiled and walked away, Sister Bernarda remarked, "She must have taken those from the stash of Cloister Clusters she keeps on hand for Reverend Mother and special guests like the archbishop."
"She's such a dear woman," Sister Agatha said. "We're very lucky to be part of this community," she added with heartfelt emotion.
"Yes, we are."
"Sometimes people think that just because we take vows of celibacy we live loveless lives. But that's so off the mark! There're so many ways other than the physical to show love," she said, holding up the bag of cookies as an example.
"Take care of yourself," Sister Bernarda said with a nod of agreement. "I'll be praying for you every day until you return."
Bag in hand, Sister Agatha went outside, found Pax, and gave him a hug. "You're going with me, pal. Ready for a road trip?"
Pax barked, then walked at heel with her to the Harley. Sister Agatha placed her bag in the faring, the nose of the sidecar, then went to retrieve Pax's kibble bag and dishes while he waited by the motorcycle. She'd be taking the bike today, since the aging station wagon, known by the sisters as the "Antichrysler," would have to remain at the monastery. Pax jumped into the sidecar, then barked, signaling that he was ready to leave.
Sister Agatha said a quick prayer that Sister Bernarda would remember all she'd taught her. Skill, prayers, and a well-equipped toolbox were all needed to handle the minor repairs the old car would need daily just to keep running. Placing her thumb on the electric starter, Sister Agatha gave the Harley a little gas. The powerful engine sputtered to life, then rose to its characteristic low rumble.
Even with Pax sitting proudly in the sidecar he'd come to think of as his, leash, bag of kibble, and food and water dish in a zippered barracks bag on the floor, leaving the monastery was difficult for her. Fastening her helmet--adorned with the white outline sketch of a nun on a motorcycle and the words "Heaven's Angels" above it--Sister Agatha put the bike in gear and roared through the entrance and down the gravel road.
Copyright © 2004 by Aimée and David Thurlo. Excerpt from Prey for a Miracle © 2006 by Aimée and David Thurlo.
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