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Authors: Jane Haddam

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BOOK: True Believers
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Organized religion is a crutch for weak-minded people.
—JESSE VENTURA, GOVERNOR OF MINNESOTA
It was too long a drive. Gregor knew that by the time he got to St. Anselm's, the worst of the emergency would be over. The police would have the scene taped off. The witnesses would have been rounded up and shunted off to the sidelines somewhere to talk to uniformed officers whose only purpose would be to record whatever they said on steno pads. Of course, there was another possibility, and that was that Roy Phipps had taken to the streets again with his little band of followers—but nothing like that was coming over the radio on the sporadic news broadcasts they were able to pick up as they wound through the hills. It was funny how, living in Philadelphia, Gregor often forgot that Pennsylvania was a mountain state. They were real mountains, too, not as high or as intimidating as the Rockies, and not as new, but not “hills” the way any sane person thought of “hills.” Most of them were rounded at the top and had vegetation all the way up, but for roads people had found it easier to go straight through the middle of them rather than over and around them, and Gregor and Henry seemed to keep getting caught in tunnels. They couldn't hear anything in tunnels. They couldn't even hear each other.
Eventually, the mountains and the tunnels were behind them, and the exits on the turnpike were closer together than every fifty-six miles. Gregor began to relax. The worst of his subconscious fears—that they would never be able to find their way back at all—finally appeared on the surface of his mind and made him feel embarrassed. He played with the radio dial until he got what sounded like talking heads and found that
he had hit on a talk show instead of a news broadcast. The talk show was called
Feels Good.
“Today,” the talk show's hostess said brightly, “we're discussing role reversals. Can women reclaim their power by using prosthetic dildos to show the men in their lives what it really feels like to be a woman?”
“Jesus Christ,” Henry said.
“What's a prosthetic dildo?” Gregor said.
Henry sighed. “It's a dildo. You know, a plastic version of a man's penis. It comes on a strap thing so that you can buckle it on and … and … oh, hell—”
“Right,” Gregor said.
“That's the city,” Henry said.
What he really meant was that that was the suburbs. They had to go through several towns on the Main Line before they reached Philadelphia itself. The traffic was getting thicker by the mile. The drivers were getting angrier. Gregor picked up a real news station.
“There is no word at this time who is dead at St. Anselm's Church, or what weapon was used in the killing,” the announcer said. It was another woman. She was just as sprightly as the woman who had been talking about dildos. “We do have word that the police have cordoned off the entire block, including the cross streets, to prevent a recurrence of the riot that occurred there earlier in the week—”
Gregor turned the sound down. “That isn't very helpful.”
“It tells us that Roy isn't burning down the barn.”
“I suppose.”
“That's the exit,” Henry said.
Gregor looked up and saw that it was true. He'd lost a block of time, playing with the radio, thinking about nothing. Now he tried to pay attention as Henry shot off the turnpike and onto the complicated series of ramps and overpasses that would land them in city traffic. Gregor had actually learned to drive, once, when he was about thirty years old, because the Bureau had required it, but he had never gotten behind a wheel if he could avoid it, and most of the time he had been able to avoid it. The truth was, he was bad. Most people who had driven with him would just as soon do the driving themselves. Eventually, he had ended up behind a desk in the District of Columbia, and there had been no point at all in having a car.
It had been years since he let his last driver's license lapse. He was almost positive he couldn't pass a driving test if he were given one.
Henry had actually made it onto a city street. Gregor saw small grocery stores, and butcher shops, and the kind of store that sold newspapers and candy. Gregor had never understood how those stores made enough money to stay in business. Henry turned a corner and then another corner and then another. Neighborhoods got good and bad in succession, without any pattern that Gregor could see. Then there were police cars and pulsing red-and-blue lights, and Henry pulled over.
“Go,” he said. “They won't let me in in any case.”
“You're a judge.”
“I'd have to create a fuss, and I don't want to. Go. Call me up later and let me know what happened.”
Gregor got out of the car and looked around. He could, he thought, have gotten a police escort to bring him up here—if he'd called Jackman and asked for one, he would have gotten it—but it hadn't even occurred to him, and it didn't matter now. He was at the end of the block on the cross street. At the other end, St. Anselm's sat on the corner, its side to this street. There was a small knot of people pressing up against the barriers. Most of them seemed to be homeless people, winos and bag ladies, not so much curious as confused.
Gregor pushed through them to the uniformed officer at the gate. The uniformed officer was very young, and he looked scared to death.
“Gregor Demarkian,” Gregor said. “Talk to Detective Mansfield or Detective Emiliani. They called for me.”
“Nobody can pass the barrier,” the uniformed officer said. Gregor thought for a moment of what he could do—go down a few blocks and use a pay phone to get Jackman to get Mansfield to come out and get him—but all the alternatives meant getting this young man in trouble, and that wasn't what he was here for.
“Look,” he said. “It won't kill you to get on that walkie-talkie and ask Detective Mansfield and Detective Emiliani if they're looking for a man named Gregor Demarkian. If the answer is no, you'll be in no different a position than you are now.”
The young man in the uniform hesitated. Then he nodded
a little, said “just a minute,” and turned his back to the crowd. Gregor watched him punch in a code, talk into the receiver, and then hesitate again. He turned around and looked Gregor up and down. He went back to talking into the walkie-talkie. Then he was done. He put the walkie-talkie into a little holster arrangement at his belt and came back to the barrier.
“You do,” he said.
“I do what?” Gregor asked.
“Look like a sort of out-of-shape Harrison Ford. You ought to think about using some weights, Mr. Demarkian. Weight training can change your life.”
Gregor was of the opinion that his life had already been changed as much and as often as he wanted it to be. He slipped through the gap in the barrier that the uniformed officer made for him. The crowd was nonexistent on the other side, and the light was getting to be that way. Sometime, in all the running around, while he hadn't been noticing, it had started to become night. Why was it, he wondered, that everything that happened on this block seemed to happen in the dark?
When he got up close to the side of St. Anselm's, there was light again, coming across the parking lot from the courtyard. It was artificial light, but there was a lot of it, training on a building on the far side of the space that Gregor was sure he remembered as the rectory. He tried to get through the wrought-iron gate and couldn't find a way. He walked all the way to the entrance to the parking lot and went in there. There was another uniformed officer stationed there, but this one seemed to recognize him. He even nodded.
Gregor crossed the parking lot and walked onto the frozen ground of the courtyard without worrying about finding the pathways. The ruts in the ground stabbed against the slick leather of his shoes and hurt his feet. The rectory door was open, propped back by something he couldn't pick out in the shadows. Policemen were walking in and out. None of them seemed to be carrying anything. No ambulance was parked in the parking lot.
Gregor got to the rectory door and introduced himself to the officer stationed there. The officer nodded slightly and called up the stairs for Mansfield.
“It's all over but the shouting,” he said apologetically.
“They took the body out half an hour ago. Had to. We had hysterical nuns all over the place.”
“We had
one
hysterical nun all over the place,” Garry Mansfield said as he came down the stairs from the second floor. “Hello, Mr. Demarkian. You should come up and see the scene. Not that it means anything. It's just like the last one. No telling where he got the stuff or when he ate it, except, you know, that arsenic kicks in pretty soon so he'd have to have eaten it pretty soon. No vomit anywhere but in his bedroom. Lou Emiliani is so frustrated, he's threatening people with death.”
“Do you know when he died?” Gregor asked.
Garry Mansfield was hurrying back up the rectory's stairs. Gregor was hurrying behind him, except that he didn't find it possible any longer to really hurry up stairs. Maybe the uniformed officer had had a point with that business about weight training.
“This one's fresher than the last one,” Mansfield said. “Sister Peter Rose found him. She said she thought he must have fainted, and then when she touched him he was warm. You can talk to her.”
“Do you think she's telling the truth? About the body being warm?”
“I think she thinks she is,” Garry Mansfield said. “I guess it's not impossible. He wasn't long dead when we got here. But he was on the other side of the bed.”
“On the other side of the bed from what?”
“From the vomit,” Garry Mansfield said simply. “On the side of the bed that you can't see from the door, he'd done a lot of vomiting. There was an ocean of it. But he seems to have come around to the door side before he collapsed. Trying to get out, I'd guess.”
“So would I. He didn't leave vomit anywhere else? Only on that side of the bed?”
“I think there might not have been much of anything left in his stomach to come up,” Garry Mansfield said. “If you know what I mean. Sister Peter Rose said the room smelled funny, if that's any help to you.”
“I think it's perfectly natural.”
“Yeah, so do I,” Garry Mansfield said. “You don't think this is something the nuns are doing, do you? I mean, I'm not
a religious man myself, but I don't have anything against it. But you hear all these stories about convents, and the women go nuts in them, and that kind of thing.”
“Ah,” Gregor said. “Well. I think you'll find that that's mostly an urban legend.”
“Yeah? Well, I think it's weird anyway. Shutting a bunch of women up together like that and telling them they can't, you know, have any. It would make me nuts.”
Gregor was about to say that Sister Scholastica was one of the sanest women he knew, but they had reached the top of the stairs and Lou Emiliani. What Gregor assumed must have been Father Healy's bedroom was cordoned off from the rest of the empty building, and full of men in lab coats. He stood aside a little as one of the technicians brought a clear plastic bag full of something out the door.
“Shit,” Lou Emiliani said. “I mean, excuse me, Mr. Demarkian, but—shit.”
“I take your point exactly,” Gregor said.
“You know what I want to know?” Lou Emiliani said. “What was this nun doing in the Father's bedroom to begin with? I mean, what was she doing there? Do they run back and forth to each other's rooms like a bunch of college students?”
“Did you ask her?” Gregor said.
“She's the one who's having hysterics all over everywhere,” Garry Mansfield said.
Gregor went to the door of Father Healy's room and looked inside. From where he stood, he couldn't see where the vomit had been. The bed was made and unrumpled. The single chair was a straight-backed wooden one he couldn't imagine any visitor wanting to sit in. He went back to Mansfield and Emiliani.
“What about food?” he asked. “Was there any food in there?”
“Chocolate chip cookies,” Mansfield said. “But I wouldn't pin your hopes on that. They were as stale as rocks.”
“But you sent them to be analyzed,” Gregor said.
“Absolutely.” Garry Mansfield sighed.
Gregor went back to the door of the room and looked inside again. It was a plain room, with a crucifix on one wall and a religious painting on another. There was a wooden kneeler in
front of the crucifix. It was the sort of thing Gregor knew people had, but didn't know why. He went back to Mansfield and Emiliani.
“Well,” he said, “why don't we go talk to Sister Peter Rose.”
The convent parlor was smaller than the rectory living room—smaller and plainer, even though it housed eight nuns when the rectory housed only two priests. All of the nuns seemed to be in attendance when Gregor knocked on the door. Sister Thomasetta let them in. Sister Angela Marie ran back and forth with tea and cookies. Sister Scholastica was sitting with Sister Peter Rose, making the kind of shushing noises a mother makes to a child who has had a bad fall, but not really done himself any damage. Well, Gregor thought, it's true enough that Sister Peter Rose hasn't done
herself
any damage—but then, he didn't believe she'd done damage to anybody else, either. Sane people had motives when they committed murder. Even half-sane people did. Unless he was terribly wrong about Sister Peter Rose, she was as sane as a rock.
Garry Mansfield and Lou Emiliani wiped their shoes carefully on the indoor mat. They'd already wiped them carefully on the outdoor one. Sister Scholastica looked up as Gregor and the two detectives came in and called out,
“Angela Marie? Do you think you could get these three gentlemen some coffee? They're probably going to need it.”
Gregor nodded politely to the young nun hurrying out, and sat down on the couch across from the chairs where Sister Scholastica and Sister Peter Rose sat.
“Well,” he said.
“I'm sorry,” Sister Peter Rose said. Then she buried her face in the oversize handkerchief she was holding and started to cry again.
“I keep telling her not to worry about it,” Sister Scholastica said, “considering the way I behaved yesterday. Then I get to thinking about the handkerchiefs.”
“The what?” Gregor said.
“The handkerchiefs.” Sister Scholastica reached out and
touched the one Sister Peter Rose was holding. “It's been a regulation in the order at least since I entered. We carry men's plain white linen handkerchiefs. I don't think I realized, before this week, just how large they were.”
“Ah,” Gregor said.
Sister Peter Rose put down the handkerchief and blinked.
“You know,” Gregor said, “you're wrong. You'd make an excellent Mother Superior.”
“Mother General,” Scholastica corrected him.
Sister Peter Rose looked startled. “Oh, yes,” she said. “What a wonderful idea. Not right away of course, because I wouldn't want Mother General to be ill, but in the long run—”
“Let's try to remember I haven't even been elected a provincial yet,” Scholastica said. “Are you ready to talk to Mr. Demarkian, Sister?”
“Oh,” Peter Rose said. “Yes. I'm sorry. I know I'm acting like a child.”
“You're doing fine,” Gregor told her. “You're not supposed to take finding a dead body in stride. Even people who are paid to do it don't take it in stride. The question, at the moment, is why you went up to Father Healy's room. That's what you did, isn't it? You went up to the second floor of the rectory and into his room.”
“That's right,” Sister Rose said. “I'd never been there before.”
“So it wasn't something you usually did.”
“Oh, no,” Sister Peter Rose said. “I wouldn't think of it under ordinary circumstances. We've got very strict rules about that sort of thing. The whole archdiocese does. Well, most archdioceses would frown on a nun going to a priest's bedroom for almost any reason, except, you know, if he were dying and she was needed to nurse him, which would be an entirely different thing, of course, because—”
“Sister,” Scholastica said.
“Oh,” Sister Peter Rose said. “Sorry.”
“That's fine,” Gregor said. “Don't worry about it. So it wasn't your habit to go up to Father Healy's room, and ordinarily you would never have thought of it. That's as I'd thought. But you did go up to his room. So you must have had a reason.”
“Oh, yes,” Sister Peter Rose said. “It was because of the pounding.”
“The pounding?” Gregor asked.
“I could hear it all the way down in the rectory living room,” Sister Peter Rose said. “It was like he was trying to throw furniture. Things seemed to be smashing into the floor, except it was the ceiling over my head. So I went out into the hall and called up the stairs. And he didn't answer me. That's when I started to be worried.”
“When he didn't answer you,” Gregor repeated.
Sister Peter Rose rubbed her hands together. “I thought I'd catch him before he had a chance to go upstairs, you see. I mean, when I come in from outside I always spend a couple of minutes in the parlor or I go to the kitchen before I go upstairs. So I thought he would be on the first floor. But then I couldn't find him, and the pounding started, and he wouldn't answer me—”
“Wait,” Gregor said. “When did you think you could catch him?”
“Oh.” Sister Peter Rose took a deep breath. “Well, you see, I was at the school, and I'd had a conference with this parent, and that was over. And I looked out the window of my classroom and Father was standing in that little arched side doorway that goes into the Mary Chapel. You know the one I mean.”
“Yes.” It was the one Gregor had been going in and out of on a regular basis since he first started coming to St. Anselm's.
“Well, he was standing there, talking to someone—”
“Who?” Gregor asked.
Sister Peter Rose shook her head. “I don't know. I couldn't see. But it wasn't an angry talk, or anything. It didn't look confrontational. Father was just sort of bopping along and talking full tilt. I mean. You know what he was. He was such a naif really.”
Gregor bit his lip. Standing at the doorway, Garry Mansfield and Lou Emiliani bit theirs, too. Gregor took a deep breath.
“So,” he said, “Father Healy was standing at the side door talking to somebody. Do you have any idea what he was doing before then?”
“I do,” Scholastica said. “I was there. He was in the church, leading a Chaplet of the Divine Mercy.”
“A what?” Gregor asked.
“A Chaplet of the Divine Mercy,” Sister Angela Marie said, putting a tray with coffee things down on the small round coffee table at Gregor's side. “It's a devotion, with a set of repetitive prayers, to the Divine Mercy. It's been televised endlessly on EWTN over the last few years—”
“Eternal World Television Network,” Sister Scholastica said. “Mother Angelica and those people. It's very popular in this part of the country.”
“Yes. So there were requests for us to do the Chaplet here, and Father liked devotions of that kind, so he led them. Once a week, every week, at this time.”
“How long does it take to pray a Chaplet of the Divine Mercy?” Gregor asked.
Sister Peter Rose wiped her eyes. “About half an hour, if you get really fancy with it and chant. Father loved to chant.”
“He did that,” Sister Scholastica said. “He had a beautiful voice for plainchant.”
Gregor thought about it. “Tell me something about this devotion. Does it require anything else besides praying and plainchant—”
“It's not praying and plainchant,” Sister Angela Marie said, “you pray
in
plainchant.”
“All right. You pray in plainchant. But does it require anything else, like Communion, or any other thing that might require Father Healy or anybody else to eat anything?”
“Oh,” Sister Peter Rose said. “Oh, no, it's nothing like that. And the only thing you'd ever have to eat in a Catholic church would be the Body and Blood, anyway. But it was just prayers, like the rosary. You didn't receive Communion.”
Gregor turned to Scholastica. “You said you were there. There was nothing to eat while the Chaplet was going on?”
“Of course not,” Scholastica said.
“Were you watching him at all times? Could you say for certain that he didn't eat anything or drink anything while the devotion was going on?”
“Of course not,” Scholastica said. “I wasn't looking at him at all. I was looking at my beads, or I had my eyes closed, which is what I was supposed to be doing. But I can almost
guarantee that he didn't eat or drink anything during the Chaplet, anyway.”
“Why?” Gregor asked.
“It's because of the format,” Sister Thomasetta said, coming in from the foyer. “It's a proclamation and response format. One person said the first half of a sentence, then the congregation said the next half. Over and over like that. In sentence fragments.”
“What Sister is trying to say,” Scholastica said, “is that Father Healy wouldn't have had time to eat much of anything. To swallow something small like an aspirin, maybe, but other than that he would have been caught up short the next time he was supposed to speak, and we would probably have noticed the break.”
“Probably but not definitely,” Gregor said.
Scholastica fluttered her hands in the air. “It's hard to say definitely about anything. But I didn't notice any hesitations. The devotion is very hypnotic, in a way. Nothing broke the rhythm that I noticed during the whole half hour.”
Gregor looked at Garry Mansfield and Lou Emiliani. Lou Emiliani shrugged. It was weak, but if they could trust it, they would know that Father Healy had to have been poisoned after the Chaplet devotion. Half an hour was far longer than it would take for arsenic to start to make him sick.
Gregor turned to Sister Scholastica again. “What happened after the Chaplet? Did he stand around talking? Was there a coffee hour?”
“No, nothing like that,” Scholastica said. “We do that sort of thing sometimes, when we have devotions or meetings in the evenings, and after the early Mass on weekday mornings, so that people can have some coffee before they go to work—”
“Because they've been fasting,” Sister Angela Marie said. “For Communion.”
“Right,” Scholastica said. “So we've got that. But with something in the middle of the day like this, no, we don't do any coffee or refreshments. It's mostly older people who come. I think they go off to a diner a couple of blocks away and have something on their own.”
“Did Father Healy stand around in the church after the Chaplet and talk to the people who had come?” Gregor asked.
“He said hello and how are you to a couple of them,” Scholastica
said, “but he didn't get involved in conversations.”
“And then he left.”
“Yes.”
“And you saw him leave,” Gregor said.
“Yes,” Scholastica said. “Well, to be exact, I saw him go out behind the Mary Chapel in the direction of that door. There's a little buffer space or something back there, the actual door is hard to see from the center of the church. But he went that way and he didn't come back and there's no place else to go.”
“Did you go out that way, too?”
“No,” Scholastica said. “I went out the front of the church. I had to go over to St. Stephen's and tell Chickie George that Mary McAllister wouldn't be able to pick him up until seven. She'd been held up at school.”
Gregor thought it over again. “What about the other people who had been at the devotion. Did they leave by the Mary Chapel door?”
“Some of them might have,” Scholastica said, “but most of them wouldn't have. Like I said, we get mostly older people. The Mary Chapel door comes out on a stoop—well, you've been on it. A concrete-block stoop. It ices over this time of year. We should take better care of it. But the way it is, most of our older people prefer to go out the front, where we've got salt down when it ices and the going is relatively flat.”
“But you can't say that one of them
didn't
go out that door,” Gregor said.
“No,” Scholastica admitted. “But do you really think one of our older people poisoned Father Healy, and Bernadette and Harriet and poor Scott Boardman from across the street? I mean, I know they get cranky sometimes, but—”
“I'm just trying to determine if we can rule out that part of Father Healy's day,” Gregor said. “So it was most likely one of your older parishioners he was talking to when Sister Peter Rose saw him.”
“Well,” Sister Peter Rose said, “yes, I suppose so. I just didn't think it was. If you know what I mean. I mean, none of the other people from the Chaplet were around, or coming out that door, or even in the parking lot. So I just assumed, you know, that it was somebody else.”
Gregor let it go. “What happened then?” he asked. “He came back to the rectory?”
“That's right.” Sister Peter Rose nodded. He came across the parking lot and then across the courtyard, and I called out to him, but he didn't hear me. So I ran around to the back door—I was at school, you see, I couldn't go right out the way I could have if I had been here—and just as I got outside, I saw him go into the rectory. So I ran up to the rectory and rang, but nobody answered. Well, I mean, I didn't wait for him to answer, really. I mean, there's no need. I rang to let him know somebody was coming in, then I came in.”
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