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Authors: Tamara Thorne

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BOOK: MOON FALL
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They walked up the step
s
and John tried one of the massive
oak doors. It swung silently open and they stepped into the
cool interior
.
His stomach protested; he continued to ignore it.
The entryway was lit from high above by sunlight streaming
in through a stained-glass skylight which cast dancing colors
across the polished wide-plank oak floor. On each side was a
closed door, one with a brass plate reading ''Administrator,"
the other blank. Twenty feet farther, the main corridor crossed;
then the entry hall dead
ended at another stained-glass window,
this one an arched starburst of dark colors barely touched by
the sun. A
Madonna
-style statue stood before the window. A
single ray of muted crimson light fell across the alabaster face
like a bloody gash. Fascinated, slightly repelled, John took a
step toward it

''May I help you?"

John turned and saw the administrator's door had opened
and a tall elderly woman in a long black habit was staring at
them from the doorway. Cutter stepped forward and extended
his hand, introducing himself. She nodded curtly and looked
to John, who swallowed bile and introduced himself.

''Mother Lucy said you would come," she said, without
bothering to give her name. "Follow me."

With that, she turned to the wide entryway, approached it,
then looked back at them, raising an eyebrow. Cutter stepped
forward and held one of the doors for her. She exited like
royalty and the men had to move quickly to keep up with her.

She led them across a walkway toward the dorm building.
As they passed the windows of the main building, John caught
glimpses of students and nuns in classrooms-no summer vacation
for the orphans. Farther along, he heard a sonorous voice
droning in what he assumed was Latin, and as they reached
the comer and turned, girls' voices raised in song. It was Monk
Music, as he used to call it, and it raised the hackles on the
back of his neck. A moment later they reached the dorm, and
again the nameless nun waited while Cutter opened the door
for her.

The dormitory was long and dimly lit, the paint old and
yellowed, the walls dotted with paintings between closed doors,
ugly pictures of suffering saints. John barely noticed them as
the nun approached a stairwell and led them up. The second
floor
landing was the same, murky light coming through small
colored glass windows and twenty-five-watt bulbs. The place
reminded him of a run-down WPA apartment building on a
grand scale, but at least his nausea had abated.

One more flight-the last
-
and the nun turned right, her
black robes fluttering behind her. Toward the end of the corridor
she halted and peered into an open room. Yellowish light poured
through the doorway and a voice issued from the room. ''Hello,
Sister Agatha." A second voice echoed the greeting.

Irritated-he'd told them to stay out of the room-John
stepped briskly into the doorway and silently groaned as he took
in the buckets, rags, and mops.
Christ, why me?
He surveyed the
rest of the room: the walls were pinkish and
·
red-streaked with
watery blood, the small bed stripped, not only of its linen, but
its mattress as well. Only a circular rag rug that extended
beneath the bed and spread across most of the floor remained
intact, and despite its multicolored braiding of
autumn
reds,
oranges, and browns, John could make out a number of blood
spatters, an especially heavy one near one edge of the bed.
That was, at least, some testimony to the site of the incident.

He started to open his mouth, but Sister Agatha cut him off.
''This is Sister Bibiana," she said, as a short, round nun pulled
rubber gloves from her hands and came forward, her face dimpling
in a cheerful smile.

"Just Bibi," she said. "I'm sorry the room's so messy, Sheriff,
but we're working hard." Color flooded her cheeks as she
spoke. John wondered if she was embarrassed that two men
were standing in a woman's bedroom.

Again he opened his mouth, and again he was cut off by the
administrative nun. "And this is Sister Mary Oswald."

"Sheriff," she said, not bothering to put down her mop or
come forward. She was blond, he assumed, since the black
cowl covered her head. Of average height and weight, her skin
almost white against the habit, she had pale everything-lips,
eyes, and eyebrows, the last so pale that he wasn't sure if she
actually had any.

''Ladies. Sisters," he amended, ''I asked your Mother Superior
not to allow any one in this room until Dr. Cutter and I
arrived."

"Oh, well." Sister Bibi started to giggle nervously, then
stopped, putting one hand to her mouth. "We were already
working when Mother returned, so she said to go ahead."

John glanced at Cutter, who looked as annoyed as he felt.
"Please stop now and leave us to our work. We need to take
photos and samples." He turned to Sister Agatha and ignored
her sour expression. ''Please tell your Mother Superior that I'll
need to speak with her and the rest of you when we're done
here. Also, make sure that your resident physician will be
available."

The two younger nuns bustled by, Sister Mary Oswald giving
John a shy smile as she passed. Sister Agatha only nodded
before following them.

 

Ten

 

 

''I guess that's the best we can do, under the circumstances."
John Lawson put the lens
cap on his camera and turned to Frank
Cutter, who was sealing an envelope containing fibers he'd
scraped from the rug. "Did you find anything in the lavatory?"

''It's spotless. Not a drop of water or a dirty towel anywhere.
We'll have to check the laundry facility on the way out, but I
don't think we'll find anything." Cutter put the envelope in his
bag. "What's next?"

"You wished to speak with me?"

John looked up to see a tall, elegant man in a charcoal suit
standing in the doorway. He raised his eyebrows. "Who are
you?"

''Richard Dashwood, M.D.," the man said, stepping into the
room.

As John introduced himself and Cutter, he couldn't stop
studying Dashwood's face. The man was between thirty-five
and forty and almost too handsome, with thick, dark hair, high
cheekbones, a strong jaw, and a hawk nose. But it was his eyes,
long, hooded, and dark, that captured John ... and made him
uneasy. Uncomfortably familiar, Dashwood's gaze seemed to
pierce through to his soul. He took an instant dislike to the
man, and that was something that rarely happened. It intrigued
him.

''Dashwood," Cutter said, as he removed his latex gloves.
"The name's familiar." He walked up to the other doctor,
peered at him. "You're too young to be-"

"My father was St. Gertrude's physician before me." Dashwood'
s
manner, the serenity in his appearance and voice, combined
with a slight British accent, reminded John of Basil
Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes relaxing with his violin. ''Dr.
Cutter,"
Dashwood
continued, ''I've heard of you as well, and
I'm sorry to make your acquaintance over such an unfortunate
incident." He turned his attention to John. "Haven't we met
before, Sheriff?" A Mona Lisa smile crept across his lips.

"It's possible," John said. "I've lived here all my life." The
eyes drew him in. Something about them flickered through his
memory but was gone before he could identify it. "You don't
sound like a native, though, Doctor."

''I was schooled in England." One eyebrow arched slightly.
"Poor Miss Tynan," he murmured. "She never should have
come here, didn't have the temperament for it."

John walked over and pushed the door shut, then moved to
a round dinette table and indicated one of the chairs. "Have a
seat, Dr.
Dashwood
." He waited for the physician to seat himself,
then sat opposite him while Cutter leaned against the cold
radiator on the wall between them.

"Tell me about her," John began. "What didn't she have
the temperament for? Teaching?"

"She didn't have the kind of personality that could thrive
in a school, especially a girls' school. She was very sensitive,
very soft-hearted." Dashwood leaned forward slightly. "Some
of the sisters are, well, rather harsh. There'
s
only one other lay
teacher, our gym instructor, Esther Roth, and she isn't the
easiest person for a young woman like Miss Tynan to get along
with, either. Then there are the girls, and, well, you know how
they are."

"No," John said, "I don't. Please tell me."

''Miss Tynan was very good with the younger girls, but she
taught at the high school level, and adolescents-especially
young women
-
can be very difficult to handle. Miss Tynan
wasn't suited to the job."

''Did she talk to you about her problems?"

"Yes, a little. She came to me for something to soothe her
nerves. She requested Valium, or at least Xanax."

"Did you give her something?" Cutter asked.

“Af
ter examining her, I suggested herbal tea. Chamomile,
actually. And I gave her advice on some simple relaxation
techniques. We talked, and I realized that she was young, inexperienced,
and really just needed to, ah, tough it out, as they
say. I told her these things
-
in much kinder words, of course
and
tried to build up her self -esteem."
Dashwood
looked down
at his hands, then back at Lawson, his expressive eyes filled
with regret. ''I'm afraid I underestimated her mental instability.
If I'd realized, I would have referred her to a psychiatrist.
Perhaps she would still be with us."

"You believe it was a suicide, then?" Lawson asked.

"Depression?" Cutter asked simultaneously.

"Yes to your question, Sheriff, and no to yours, Doctor. Or,
more precisely, perhaps depression was part of why she took
her life, but I've been thinking about something she mentioned
a few times. She said it lightly and I didn't take her seriously.
After all, she was a grown woman."

"Go on," John prompted. There was absolutely nothing to
dislike about this man, but his aversion was growing by the
second. Maybe he was simply responding to Dashwood the
same way he'd seen his ex-wife react when she encountered a
woman she perceived as more beautiful or intelligent than
she.
That’s
not important; concentrate.
"What did she say?"

''She said she thought she saw one of our alleged ghosts.
That it spoke to her."

"And what did
it
say?" John tried to cover his skepticism.

"It told her she was going to die. Her phrasing was cautious;
she sa
id she had probably imagined it,
and she tried to laugh
about it."

"I would take it seriously," Cutter said, "if a patient told
me that. Joking or not,
it's important."

"I would have, Doctor, except for the fact that she asked
me to prescribe sleeping pills, or at least, the Valium or Xanax
she'd requested earlier. I knew from her history that she had
used these drugs for extended periods, and as I'm sure you're
aware, they can be quite habit-forming. I believed that she
probably concocted the ghost story in order to get the drugs I
had previously denied. I thought it likely she had a substance
abuse problem."

"So you gave her nothing?" Cutter asked, in a much calmer
tone.

"In addition to the tea, I eventually gave her some over-the
counter
antihistamines. Completely safe, and they make most
people sleepy."

"How long ago did this ghost business begin?" John asked.

''She began to complain about her nerves about six months
ago-only a few weeks after her arrival. The ghost stories
began about two months ago."

"I see," John said, thinking that drug abuse really was a
definite possibility. "I'd like to see her medical files."

"Dr. Dashwood," Cutter began. "Just out of curiosity, was
it the ghost of a headless monk?"

John wondered about that. too-the headless monk tale supposedly
dated from the earliest days of the monastery.

"No, our monk has only been reported in the chapel and in
the cemetery behind it."
Dashwood
cleared his throat. “
This
ghost is one of our 'ladies in white.' " To show he was a
nonbeliever, Dashwood forged a wry smile. "This building
the
living quarters-has only one, but it's said she wanders
every
floor. Sometimes sobbing is heard in conjunction with
her visitations. There have even been a few reports of doors
opening or closing by themselves; as with all good ghosts, she's
often invisible. The main building, which contains the school,
has two; one that haunts the janitor's storeroom, and another,
commonly known as 'The Screamer.' "

"Sounds delightful," Cutter said dryly.

Dashwood sat back and folded his long-fingered hands. "I
thought that Lenore Tynan was at most trying to obtain drugs,
and at the least,
merely a little anxious. The ghost stories have
that effect on some of our students and even an occasional
teacher, and as I said, she spoke of it jokingly. In retrospect, I
realize that she must have been genuinely delusional, and that
she was experiencing a nervous breakdown. I wish I'd realized
it sooner, but she was a quiet girl who kept to herself. Her
conversations with me were very stilted. Cautious, you might
say
.
"

"I see," John said, after a brief but heavy silence. The queasiness
was returning and the longer he looked into Dashwood's
weird, dark eyes, the worse it became. He wanted to end the
interview. Now. ''I appreciate your cooperation, Doctor. Rest
assured I'll return your records as soon as possible."

"Of course."
Dashwood
glanced up as someone rapped
sharply on the door. "That will be the Mother Superior," he
said, rising as the knob turned. "If there's nothing else, I'll
fetch Miss Tynan's files for you."

"Thanks, I'll be in touch." Lawson and Cutter stood and
followed Dashwood to the door, which opened to reveal Mother
Superior Lucy Bartholomew, whose expression implied she
was wearing the tightest panties in town. She entered the room
and the odor of mildewed cinnamon clinging to her made nausea
worm more deeply through John's gut.

Dashwood stepped forward and took Lucy's hand in both of
his. Instantly the woman melted, her face relaxing into something
resembling beauty. Color blo
om
ed in her cheeks as she
beamed at the man. ''Doctor, thank you for cooperating with
the sheriff's investigation," she purred without a glance at John.

"I'll see you later, Mother Lucy." Dashwood let go of her
hand and glanced back. "Gentlemen."

John nodded and Dashwood left them to Mother Lucy, whose
expression hardened to cement as soon as the physician was
gone. "Sheriff, Dr
.
Cutter, follow me, please. The sisters are
waiting."

"John," said Cutter, looking at his watch. "I have to get
back. Baptist bellyaches," he added for Lucy's amusement, but
s
he only scowled.

"I'll run you back right now," John said quickly. "I'll be
back soon, Mother Lucy. Actually," he added, relief flooding
him, "I'll send two of my deputies, and they can complete the
questioning in half the time."

"Very well." Lucy clipped off the words. She pulled the
door closed behind them, then escorted them briskly out of the
dorm and off the property
.
When the gargoyled gate slammed
shut behind them, John actually began to feel good for the first
time that day.

BOOK: MOON FALL
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