Murder in Ordinary Time: Holiday Excerpt

Murder in Ordinary Time by Sister Carol Ann O'Marie is a Christmas mystery and the 4th installment of the Sister Mary Helen Mystery series.

Just one bite of that irresistible Christmas cookie and Christina Kelly, Channel 5's leading investigative reporter, was on the air—dead. The odor of bitter almond told Sister May Helen the cause of the death: cyanide. Somewhere in the studio was the wily killer; it was a person everyone knew.
Had Christina's investigations led her to her dead end? Or was the fatal cookie meant for someone else: the notorious womanizer; the hard-drinking floor manager with something to hide; or perhaps Wicked Wendy, who certainly fit her nickname? Or was the intended victim the intrepid nun herself?
Heaven help her as Sister Mary Helen charges in where angels fear to tread to trap a killer before he strikes again.

January 10

Tuesday of the first week of
Ordinary Time

Sister Mary Helen had a case of the blahs! Sitting alone in her small, cold basement office, she stared into space. These are not your ordinary Monday-morning blahs, she thought, dumping a stack of Christmas cards into the wastepaper basket. This is serious. The cards hit the bottom with a metallic thud.

Furthermore, today wasn’t even Monday. It was Tuesday, the first Tuesday in Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time! Ugh! That was one of the few liturgical reforms set in motion by the Second Vatican Council that she totally opposed. Ordinary Time, indeed! Some liturgist with a sense of humor, which was rare in itself, had called it a “season without a reason.”

Why, in the old days—good grief, she was beginning to sound like a seventy-six-year-old—or was it seventy-eight? No matter, the point was that years ago the thirty-four Sundays of the year belonging to no particular feast were attached to a holy day. In winter they were called the Sundays after Epiphany; in summer, the Sundays after Pentecost. That way you could root these aimless winter months in a celebration.

From somewhere down the empty corridor, a door slammed. Mary Helen jumped. Pushing up her bifocals, which had slipped down her nose, she stared out the narrow slit of a window set high on the wall.

Even the weather was downright dull. The fog just hung there. It didn’t tumble and roll in with any pizzazz or burn off like magic, leaving behind a sparkling winter sky. No, it just sat there all day long, gray and drizzly, wrapping San Francisco in gloom.

And the college itself was no help with its gray-green lawns and borders of black, bare trees and pruned rosebushes. Now that all the students were on semester break and just a skeleton crew on hand, Mount St. Francis College seemed like a ghost college, high on a lonely hill, with the City below hidden in the overcast.

Good night, nurse! Mary Helen shook herself. Maybe what I have is a case of the winter blahs. What had they called it in the San Francisco Chronicle? SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. The morning paper said that the disease was accompanied by a carbohydrate craving.

Actually, right this minute she’d love to bite into a thick, soft slice of sourdough bread, its brown crust crunchy and chewy, smothered in butter. Yum! Mary Helen checked the buttons on her white blouse to see if they were pouching. They were. She tugged at her navy blue suit skirt, which was beginning to ride up.

Actually, her craving was most likely caused by her having given serious thought to starting a New Year’s diet. The very word diet always made her hungry.

“Good morning, Sister. It’s I.” The outer office door shut with a cheerful bang.

Even if Mary Helen hadn’t recognized the voice or the staccato click of the high heels, she still would have known it was Shirley. Her secretary was probably one of the few people left alive who said “It is I” instead of “It is me.”

“What in the world are you doing sitting here in the dark?” Reaching around the doorjamb, Shirley flipped on the fluorescent lights. With a pop they lit up the room, making Shirley’s silvery white hair shine. “Is that better?”

Mary Helen blinked at the sudden brightness. Shirley stood in the doorway wearing a two-piece scarlet dress, a large paisley scarf around her neck. To Mary Helen’s constant amazement, her secretary’s earrings and shoes always matched her outfits perfectly. And, sure enough, she had done it again.

“Are you all right?” Shirley looked concerned.

Before Sister Mary Helen had a chance to answer, the phone rang, its shrill, insistent br-ring echoing in the deserted building.

“I’ll get it.” Quickly, Shirley moved to her own desk, leaving only the faint odor of her perfume wafting through the air.

White Linen! Mary Helen recognized the scent. Bernadette Harney had given her some White Linen dusting powder for Christmas.

The intercom crackled. “It’s Bernadette Harney for you, Sister. Line one.”

“Speak of the devil,” Mary Helen said.

“Pardon me, Sister?” Her secretary sounded puzzled, and it was no wonder. Mary Helen realized she had been thinking, not speaking.

“Never mind, Shirley,” she said. It wasn’t worth explaining. “Did Bernadette mention what she wants?”

“No, just that it was a ‘personal matter.’ ”

Personal? That was odd. Usually, Bernadette’s calls were business. In fact, since Bernadette Harney had become the president of Mount St. Francis’s Alumnae Association, almost all Mary Helen’s dealings with her touched on alumnae business. The old nun was glad, since Bernadette Lally—Mary Helen’s friend Sister Eileen still called her by her maiden name—was easy to do business with.

“A true Mount St. Francis girl,” Sister Therese proudly dubbed Bernadette. And Mary Helen knew that, from Therese, this was no small compliment. As a matter of fact, it would probably be easier to achieve a Nobel prize than to wrest that honorable title from Therese’s lips.

“Good morning, Bernadette. What can I do for you?” she asked, hoping she sounded a lot more helpful than she felt.

“What is it, Sister? You are all flushed.” Shirley dusted a few Christmas tree needles off the edge of Sister Mary Helen’s desk and put a stack of mail in their place. “Is something wrong?”

“Not wrong, really.” Mary Helen’s head was reeling. “It’s just that Bernadette asked me to do her a favor.”

“Oh?” Shirley didn’t say anything more. She just stood there. Behind her oversize glasses, her green eyes looked both curious and sympathetic. It was the sympathy that always undid Mary Helen.

“As a matter of fact, Bernadette asked me if I would be on TV. The noon news, to be precise.” Mary Helen pronounced the words deliberately, as if hearing them aloud would make the request seem like nothing out of the ordinary.

Shirley frowned, but was too polite to say “Why you?”

“You remember her daughter, Danielle?” Mary Helen started to explain.

“Class of eighty-six, wasn’t she?” Shirley knew very well she was, but not being a know-it-all was part of her charm.

“Yes, I guess. Bernadette tells me that Danielle has a brand-new job helping to produce the noon news on Channel Five. What with the Tony Costa trial coming up, and my part in the—what did the media call it?—the Holy Hill murders, well, Danielle thought a short interview with me would make a good show.”

“When?” Shirley always went straight to the point.

“Day after tomorrow.”

“Why didn’t Danielle call you herself?”

“I suppose she was afraid that I’d turn her down. She knew I’d never say no to her mother.”

“That kid’s smarter than I figured,” Shirley remarked. “Don’t worry, Sister, whatever you say, you’ll be a welcome relief to all the hype about the 49ers and the Super Bowl.” She turned on her high heel, leaving Sister Mary Helen to figure out how she was going to break the news to the rest of the nuns.

At lunchtime, Mary Helen spotted her friend Sister Eileen in the Sisters’ dining room. Alone at a corner table, Eileen was huddled over a bowl of steaming soup, reading.

Hooray! Mary Helen thought, choosing a grilled cheese sandwich for herself. This would give her the chance to tell Eileen about Thursday’s interview before the other Sisters came in for lunch. Test the waters, so to speak.

When Mary Helen approached the table, Eileen was so absorbed in her book that she scarcely looked up.

“Busy morning.” Mary Helen sighed for effect and sat down.

Eileen grunted.

“I received a very unusual request this morning.” Mary Helen pulled the grilled sandwich apart and put a couple of pickle chips on the oozing cheese.

Another grunt, but this time, at least, Eileen glanced up at her.

“Bernadette Harney wants me to be interviewed on the noon news.” Mary Helen watched Eileen’s bushy gray eyebrows arch.

“Good for you,” her friend said.

Crossing her fingers under the table, Mary Helen wished away the question she was sure was coming, although she could tell by the look on Eileen’s face that her wishing was in vain.

“And will they be asking you about the college and the wonderful work of the Alumnae Association?” Sister Eileen’s eyes lit up and her pudgy, round face wrinkled into a smile.

For a split second Mary Helen toyed with the idea of feigning deafness. The ploy never failed for Sister Therese.

“No, not that.” She bit into her sandwich and chewed slowly, leaving Eileen to wait for her answer. No one, especially Eileen, would expect her to speak with her mouth full.

“What, then?” Eileen’s gray eyes narrowed.

Patting the sides of her mouth with her paper napkin, Mary Helen muttered, “You remember Tony Costa?”

Eileen grimaced. “Glory be to God! Who could ever forget him? But what has that to do with you?” Her voice rose a tone and a bit of the brogue began to slip in, as it always did when she was agitated. “Oh, no! When is this interview?”

“Oh, yes. Thursday.” Mary Helen took another bite.

“Poor, dear Cecilia—wait until she hears about this!” Eileen nodded toward the door. “And here she comes now.”

Sister Mary Helen turned and watched the college president enter the dining room. Tall, with rimless glasses and a poker face, Sister Cecilia gave the illusion of being unflappable. But having flapped her several times in the recent past, Mary Helen knew it was just that—an illusion.

“I suppose I should tell her about the interview.” Mary Helen shrugged. “Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.”

“You suppose you ought to tell her? Of course you should! And the quicker the better, if you ask me,” Eileen added for good measure.

Mary Helen knew that her old friend was trying to sound more aghast than she really was. If the truth were told, she was sure that Eileen enjoyed having the college pot stirred occasionally. And who could blame her? Without a little excitement, life in the ivory tower could be deadly dull. Or, at their ages, just plain deadly. And she also knew, from over fifty years of friendship, that Eileen might fuss a little, but that in the end she could always be counted on for support.

“By the way, what are you reading?” Mary Helen asked, stalling. At least she’d give Cecilia time to find a place at a table.

Eileen held up the green and white paperback. “It was a Christmas gift from one of my library staff entitled So You Think You’re Irish?” She popped open the book. “ ‘Trivia that every knowledgeable Irish person should know,’ ” she read. Leaning forward, she patted Sister Mary Helen’s hand. “But enough procrastinating, old dear. I am quite sure that Cecilia will understand.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Is it your fault if people keep dying all around you and the media wants to ask you about it?”

“You’re right.” Mary Helen rose from the table with more bravado than she felt. “By the way, see if that little book can answer this question: Why do you Irish always answer a question with a question?”

Eileen winked. “Oh, do we now?” she said, then quickly returned to her reading.


Copyright © 2007 Carol Anne O'Marie.

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Sister Carol Anne O'Marie (1933-2009) was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for the fifty years. She ministered to homeless women at a daytime drop-in center in downtown Oakland, California, which she co-founded in 1990. She wrote eleven novels featuring Sister Mary Helen.

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