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Authors: Rick Mofina

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Chapter Forty-Two


A
n e-ticket will be waiting for you at the Air Canada counter. Take your passport, it’ll make things easier,” Maggie in travel told Jason over his cell.

He was driving to his apartment, eye on his rearview mirror because he was speeding. Before he’d left the
Mirror,
Maggie had given him four hundred Canadian dollars and a company credit card.

“You’ve got over two hours to make your flight,” she said. “I’ll get a cab rolling to your place to take you to the airport.”

At his apartment, Jason packed fast.

He grabbed his laptop, extra batteries, files, and enough clothes for two nights. Traffic was choked due to a wreck on I-5. By the time he arrived at Sea-Tac International, got his ticket, got wanded through security, and cleared Canadian Immigration, preboarding was commencing.

As the queue formed, Jason called Grace Garner. He had to smooth things over, he thought, as her line rang. If something broke on the story while he was away, he’d need help. And if he uncovered critical information on this trip, he might need to broker a deal. He got her voice mail. The sound of her voice resurrected memories of them together. He pushed them aside and he left her a message.

“Grace, it’s Jason. I know things have been tense lately, but call me.”

The jet to Vancouver was three-quarters full.

Jason had a window seat with no one beside him for the forty-minute flight. In the air, his stomach tightened over the story. What if he struck out and something broke back home while he was away? Not much he could do about that. Chewing gum did not ease his tension.

Things looked gray outside.

A gentle rain was falling when he landed in Vancouver, British Columbia. Before connecting to Calgary, he checked his phone to see if Grace had returned his call.

Nothing.

He tried calling his old man. Maybe his dad had something. More important, Jason was concerned about how his father was holding up.

No answer.

His jet to Calgary departed on time. When the plane leveled off over the mountains, he put his files, recorder, and laptop on the tray table and began working. He scoured the photocopied pages of Sister Anne’s journal, studied her graceful handwriting. The bulk of her entries were mundane notes or reflection on experiences of delivering hope in Third World countries. But scores of excerpts hinted cryptically at her past. Jason captured them into a story file, highlighting those that leapt from the page, such as:

Oh heavenly Father, can I ever be forgiven for what I did, for the pain I caused? Although I am not worthy, please forgive me.

Regret and remorse were the underlying tones, he thought, as he read an excerpt written near the last days of her life:

I deeply regret the mistakes I have made and will accept your judgment of me.

What the hell happened? What could a nun have done that would compel such tortured soul-searching? It wasn’t clear. She doesn’t spell it out here. And he considered what Sister Denise told him about Sister Anne’s odd revelation about “destroying lives.”

What does it all mean?

Jason gazed out his window for the answer. Was it out there among the Rockies, reaching up from the earth below? All he could see was an ocean of snowcapped peaks that stretched to the edge of the world.

The key had to be in her past life.

And his best shot at finding it would be with the hermit nun, he thought, closing his laptop and his tray as the plane made its descent.

As the jet banked, its wing tipped. Suburbs wheeled by, along with a web of expressways and buildings. When the plane lined up for its final approach, Jason’s stomach quaked in time with the hydraulic groan of the landing gear coming down.

Man, he could fail on an epic scale.

Or break this story wide open.

Chapter Forty-Three

J
ason didn’t have a second to waste.

On the ground in Calgary, he rented a compact car and got directions to Deerfoot Trail, a multilane expressway that sliced through the city.

Heading south, he glided by Calgary’s skyline with its gleaming skyscrapers jutting before the Rockies to the west. On his left, perched on a hilltop, he saw the glass- and-brick rectangle that was the
Calgary Herald,
the city’s dominant paper. Nice-looking building.

Jason checked his precision-folded map and the blue-inked line the rental clerk had made to guide him south along Deerfoot Trail and out of the city to Highway 2, which was the main provincial road. It ran north-south like an incision through much of Alberta to the Montana border.

About an hour from Calgary, as he passed High River he heard the intro to Led Zepplin’s “Rock and Roll” and he cranked the radio’s volume and marveled at how the prairie plains met the Rocky Mountains.

Glorious.

Some time later, as he continued south, he was intrigued by the signs for Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump, the ancient site where natives would drive the great herds over the cliff to their deaths for food and clothing. Farther south, after he turned west toward the Crowsnest Pass, he saw the massive wind turbines, giant white windmills harnessing energy.

Cool.

Some four thousand people lived in Pincher Creek, a town nestled amid the ranch country and foothills of the Rockies. Jason got a second-floor room at the Big Wagon Inn Motel, a stucco building with a small, clean restaurant with tables covered with red-checkered tablecloths.

He got a clubhouse sandwich and while paying for it at the cash register, he got directions to Painted Horse Road from the cook, a large, kind, woman whose eyes vanished amid her rosy cheeks when she smiled.

“Sister Marie lives in the Jensen cabin on Whisper Creek Ranch. You go for maybe twenty minutes, turn toward the mountains. Look for the two huge white rocks near the road at the crest of a hill. Got WCR on the gate. You can’t miss it.”

It was late afternoon and black clouds churned in the sky as Jason’s rental ripped along the twists, turns, and dips of Painted Horse Road. Pebbles pinged against the undercarriage and dust plumes rose in the car’s wake, disrupting the tranquillity.

No other buildings or signs of civilization were evident.

The dash clock told Jason he’d been traveling some twenty minutes when the landmark rocks appeared. He slowed to turn and his car was swallowed by the dust he’d kicked up.

A long stretch of tired, weatherbeaten fencing led to the pine gate bearing
WCR
. It was open, inviting Jason to take a grassy path into solitude.

His rental car crept along through a stand of spruce until he glimpsed the red tin roof of a log cabin, sitting perfectly amid a clearing, overlooking a rugged creek and the mountains beyond.

He killed the engine. As it ticked down, the gurgle of creek, the chirp of darting birds, and the cheerful flit of monarch butterflies underscored the serenity. The glazed logs of the cabin gave it a sturdy, clean look; its window frames and edging had been painted a fresh buttery yellow. He came to the door.

His knock was received in silence.

“Hello, Sister Marie!”

Nothing.

He called again only louder and in all directions. The echo of his voice was still in his ears when he heard a faint response, stepped around the cabin, and saw a woman in the distance, farther along the small terraced hills. She was in a chair, working at an easel, beside a patch of garden, overlooking the creek.

She waved to Jason and he waved back.

As he neared her he saw that she’d used a cane to stand. She was dressed in jeans, a gingham shirt, and wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. She lifted her head, revealing thick glasses and a kind, ascetic face that met him with a healing smile. Her painting of flowers and trees was nearly completed. It looked good.

“Sister Marie Clermont?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Jason Wade, a reporter with the
Seattle Mirror.

“Seattle. Oh my, you’re a long way from home, dear.”

He noticed she had an accent and guessed it was French.

“Yes,” Jason fished for his identification, to reassure her.

She nodded at it, then passed it back.

“Sister, I’m researching the biography of a nun who was with the Order, the Compassionate Heart of Mercy. I understand that before retiring, you were the senior council member who oversaw the screenings of many sisters.”

The old nun nodded. Behind her glasses, her eyes were alert.

“Sister, my trip here concerns, Sister Anne Braxton. I’m sorry to tell you that she was murdered in Seattle.”

“I know.”

“You know?”

“Yes. An old friend in Olympia saw it on the news and sent a fax to the church in Cardston. We held a Mass for her.”

“Well, I have something with me that belongs to her.”

The nun leaned on her cane, shifting her weight, listening.

“Her journal.”

“Her journal?”

“Yes, and if you’d allow me, I’d like to show it to you. Sister, I’ve come to ask you to help me understand Sister Anne’s life before she became a nun. I’d like to write about it for the
Seattle Mirror.
And I’m afraid I don’t have much time.”

Sister Marie considered Jason’s request for a long moment.

Her eyes took stock of the darkening sky.

“We’d better talk inside. Looks like a nasty storm is coming.”

Chapter Forty-Four

T
he air in Sister Marie’s cabin was sweet with the light fragrance of potpourri and soap.

A crucifix, adorned with a rosary, and a print of the Blessed Virgin hung on one of the walls. Jason noticed a tiny bathroom and small bedroom. He could see a narrow bed, crisply made, and thought it looked like one in a monk’s cell.

He saw no phone, computer, or TV. One wall of the living area had a floor-to-ceiling shelf crammed with books and papers. He saw a large reading chair with frayed fabric. Next to it were a worn Bible and a magnifying glass. The small kitchen area had a woodstove and a wooden table with two chairs with spindle legs that did not match those of the table. The mismatch and the austere style suggested everything was secondhand.

“This is a special place, Sister, I like it.” Jason set his files on the table after returning from the car.

Thunder rumbled outside as the old nun lit the stove to boil water for tea and coffee.

“This section of Whispering Creek Ranch was donated to the Order by an oil family whose matriarch died of cancer in a Calgary hospice the sisters administered.”

“And how do you handle it, being out here all alone?”

“God takes care of me, dear. Parishioners check on me every day and my neighbor, half a mile down and across the creek, drops by often. I’m never lonely finding God in the quiet.”

A cat emerged and nudged her leg as she prepared the tea and coffee.

“And I’ve got Sassy here, to protect me from mice.”

“You’re doing just fine.”

“I am.” She set Jason’s coffee down in a chipped mug. “I’ve thought much about Anne since I learned of her death. How can help you?”

“I’m trying to complete the story of her life. She was loved by Seattle and it’s my job to offer the city a full account of what it lost. We know nothing of her life before she joined the Order.”

“But does that matter, dear? She gave herself completely, unselfishly to God and to others. And she gave it without vanity, without seeking credit. I think that’s all that needs to be said.”

“That is virtuous, but there’s an overriding factor.”

“What could that be?”

“Sister, the person who murdered her remains at large and could easily harm others. There’s strong speculation that she knew her killer. Consequently many people feel that perhaps something in her past could help the police in their investigation.”

Sister Marie glanced at Sister Anne’s journal and the clippings, suggesting to Jason that the old nun knew something about Anne’s past.

“Tell me, Jason, how did you obtain a copy of her diary?”

“Sister,” he smiled, “you’re not trying to get me to reveal my sources?”

“Is that what you think?” she returned his smile.

“It came to me through channels by those concerned that the truth be known; that everything that can be done to help find Anne’s killer is done. Even if it means revealing her inner thoughts, even if it means revealing the mysterious parts of her past that seem to have tormented her.”

“And what do you ask of me?”

“Would you please read everything here? It’s not a lot, really. I’ve highlighted the important parts. Afterward, would you please allow me to interview you on your reflections on her journal and your memories of screening Sister Anne into the Order, for a feature I’m writing?”

Sister Marie considered the documents.

“And if I refuse, I suspect you will go ahead with your report based upon your acquiring her personal, private diary?”

“Most likely. Sister, my job is to publish news, not suppress it.”

She nodded.

“Give me a little time alone to look them over first, then I’ll decide.”

Jason nodded to the fire crackling in the woodstove.

“I’ve got plenty of copies of everything, Sister.” He smiled.

“I’m sure you do, dear.”

Jason left her for an hour, passing the time by walking along the creek bed, mindful that a storm was brewing. He was amazed by the fact that he’d started the day in the metropolis of Seattle wondering where the story would take him, and now here he was, in some hidden corner of Canada, staring at the Rockies, trying to uncover the truth about the murder of a nun who’d buried her deepest secret.

He glanced back to the little cabin.

Sister Marie knew something. He felt it in his gut.

The afternoon sky had darkened with threatening clouds and lightning flashes when he returned. Sister Marie had finished, but was flipping through the journal.

“I will help you,” she said and made him a fresh mug of coffee.

“I don’t know how much this help will matter.” She leaned hard on her cane and went to her bookshelf and searched along a long section containing several identical notebooks, a collection as expansive as a set of encyclopedias.

“May I record the information and take notes, for accuracy?”

“You may.”

After checking the battery, Jason set up his recorder and opened his notebook.

“You know, I helped establish the Order in Paris,” Sister Marie began. “We came into existence after World War Two. We broke away from a larger, more established group with the aim of being more progressive, more relevant to everyday lives of Christians. We were ahead of Vatican II. After a fire destroyed our early records, our Mother House was moved to Washington, D.C., then Chicago. We have about seven hundred sisters worldwide.”

“Yes, I’d read some of the background.”

“I am writing a history of the Order, to leave behind when I’m gone.” She plucked a notebook from the shelf and returned to the table just as the rain started coming down hard and the afternoon turned as dark as night.

Sister Marie lit several lanterns, which bathed the cabin in dark golden light, then began flipping though the yellowed handwritten pages of a notebook. From what Jason could see it was all in French.

“Your information is correct. I did oversee assessments and screenings of candidates for the period during which Sister Anne came to us as a candidate.”

As lightning flashed, Sister Marie paged through her book and Jason took notes.

“As I’d mentioned, many completed files were lost years ago in a fire. I took some notes, a summary if you will, on many of those that came through me. Sister Anne was approximately twenty-three years old when she came to us in Paris. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, given up for adoption by her fifteen-year-old mother. She was adopted by a Kansas City bank manager and his wife, who were a childless couple. At age seventeen she was sent to private boarding school in Switzerland. Four years later her parents died in a car accident while en route to see her in Geneva. She was kept on at the school where she studied art and helped younger students. That’s what we were told.”

Sister Marie stopped, then resumed talking as she returned to the bookshelf for more notes.

“Our screening process was similar to that of many orders. The young candidates submit to psychological and medical tests, background checks, letters of reference.”

“Where is that file for Sister Anne?”

“Lost, I believe.” The old nun pressed a finger to her lips. “No. Maybe not. Now, as I recall, she didn’t go through all that. Just a moment.” Sister Marie found another notebook; its pages crackled as she leafed through it.

In the lamplight, beautiful French handwriting reflected in her glasses.

“Yes, it’s coming back now. The late Sister Beatrice Dumont made the discovery. Yes. It’s here.”

“What is it?”

“Sister Anne was first encountered in the back of a small church. A young woman, praying and crying, begging to be allowed to join the Order. At first, there were concerns about her psychological capacity. She was invited to volunteer at one of our missions. Over time, as she became known to Sister Dumont, it was understood that she was grieving the loss of her parents. The young woman was alone in the world and desperate for guidance. It seems that she bore the guilt of her parents’ deaths, as she had desired to attend the school. Later she wanted to leave it and had summoned her parents to come and arrange it.”

Jason weighed the revelation.

“Do you think this would account for the agonizing guilt she expressed in her diary?”

Sister Marie thought that it would.

“We gave it time and saw that she truly had felt a divine call to devote her life to helping others.”

Jason ruminated over the information.

“She was accepted eventually as a postulant for something like a year, as I recall. Then she became a novice and dedicated herself to her studies and went on to take her temporary vows. I think, in her case, it was close to five years before she took her final vows. And then she went off to various missions around the world.”

So that was it, Jason thought, a mundane explanation. Nothing at all that would point to her killer. No deep, dark secret. The part about “destroying lives” must’ve been her anguish and guilt at the loss of her parents.

“Is that everything, Sister?”

The old nun raised her head from her notebooks as the storm’s intensity decreased with the whisper of soft rain.

“No.” She turned to her bookshelf. “How could I ever forget? Please forgive my brittle mind.” She went to another book but failed to find what she was looking for, as Sassy threaded his way through her legs. She checked another, then another. “Oh, I’m sure it’s in one of these blessed books. I’ve got letters and notes scattered all over. I can never find anything.” She tapped her cane to the floor in frustration, sending her cat to the corner.

“What is it, Sister?”

“In the process of becoming a nun you take your vows, which include the big ones, like chastity and poverty. In practical terms, candidates divest themselves of all their worldly goods and come to God, poor in material wealth. It’s common for candidates to donate whatever they have to the Church or Order.”

“And this was the case with Anne Braxton?”

“Oh, yes, indeed. In fact her donation was critical to the Order’s initial success. It seems her father had made several wise investments, the proceeds of which she inherited from her trust at the age of twenty-five. It was held for her in a bank in Zurich, and she arranged to turn it over to the Order.”

“She turned her inheritance over to the Order?”

“Yes.”

“How much was it?”

“As I recall it was over two million Swiss francs.”

“Was that a lot, at the time?”

“At the time, that worked out to over one million U.S. dollars.”

Jason stared at the old nun.

BOOK: A Perfect Grave
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