Read The Prodigal Nun Online

Authors: Aimée Thurlo

The Prodigal Nun

Also by Aimée and David Thurlo

The Sister Agatha Series

Bad Faith
Thief in Retreat
Prey for a Miracle
False Witness

The Ella Clah Series

Blackening Song
Death Walker
Bad Medicine
Enemy Way
Shooting Chant
Red Mesa
Changing Woman
Tracking Bear
Wind Spirit
White Thunder
Mourning Dove
Turquoise Girl

The Prodigal


St. Martin’s Minotaur
New York

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

. Copyright © 2008 by Aimée and David Thurlo. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Design by Dylan Greif

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Thurlo, Aimée.
   The prodigal nun: a Sister Agatha mystery / Aimee and David Thurlo.—1st ed.
      p. cm.
   ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36731-2
    ISBN-10: 0-312-36731-7
    1. Agatha, Sister (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Nuns—Fiction. 3. Catholics—Fiction. 4. New Mexico—Fiction. 5. Monasteries— Fiction. I. Thurlo, David. II. Title.
   PS3570.H82P76 2008


First Edition: July 2008

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To Laura, who helped us find our faithful office companion, Gabriel,
and to the Carolina Poodle Rescue folks, who helped us bring him
to New Mexico. Thank you all for bringing Gabriel into our lives.


With special thanks to Phillip and Diane Uzdawinis for sharing their time and knowledge with us whenever we needed them. Job had nothing on you guys!


got up before sunrise
day of the week. Sister Agatha took her customary place in the last pew of the old adobe chapel at Our Lady of Hope Monastery. The voices of her cloistered sisters behind the partition rose in an angelic blend of altos and sopranos, praising God with one heart.

Extern nuns like Sister Agatha were the monastery’s lifeblood. Sisters who had not taken a vow of enclosure, they kept the monastery running smoothly by handling necessary duties like shopping and greeting visitors.

The externs worshiped in the public section of the chapel where she was this morning. Looking around, Sister Agatha noted that the uncloistered section of the chapel was nearly empty. Only five of their regulars from town had come to six-thirty Mass this Sunday. Masses in town started at eight—practically midmorning to Sister Agatha—and those services
were far more appealing to those who wanted a leisurely breakfast before venturing out.

Sister Agatha made the sign of the cross and whispered “Amen” as Father Rick Mahoney ended his greeting. Knowing that one of their regulars was missing but would soon arrive, Sister Agatha glanced back at the tall entrance doors. One thing that could be said about Jane Sanchez was that she had perfect timing. The woman always came in right before the first reading—the last possible minute that still allowed her to meet her Sunday obligation.

In her midfifties, hardworking, and devout, Jane seemed to be a good wife to her husband, Louis. Although they were usually together whenever Sister Agatha met them in town, Jane normally came to Mass alone.

As the reading from Acts began—Jane had cut it too close today—Sister Agatha heard a car outside, then a door slam. She listened for the sound of heels on the steps outside but instead heard a hollow snap, like someone with gum blowing a bubble.

Last Friday, Jane had called the monastery and spoken to Sister Agatha briefly. Something had disturbed her deeply, but she’d been reluctant to discuss it on the phone, afraid she’d be overheard. Too busy to meet with her that day, Sister Agatha had convinced her to stop by the parlor on Saturday, but Jane hadn’t shown up.

A former journalist, Sister Agatha was always energized by cryptic calls, and she was
curious now. Jane’s problem probably had something to do with her relatives. She didn’t get along with her daughter or son-in-law and had recently sought out counseling from Father Mahoney. Sister Agatha had speculated that Jane had been dissatisfied with Father’s take on whatever had happened and now wanted a woman’s perspective.

Sister Agatha glanced back at the doors. She was looking forward to finally resolving the mystery of what Jane had seen. With effort, Sister Agatha pushed all distractions from her mind, faced front, and focused on the Eucharistic celebration. Soon Jane faded from her thoughts.

Early morning Mass tended to have very short sermons, and Father Mahoney used shorter Eucharistic prayers then, too. Since there were few at Communion besides the nuns, Mass usually lasted forty-five to fifty minutes.

Once Mass had ended, Sister Agatha stepped outside, and as she stood on the front steps, Mrs. Lenzi joined her.

“Good morning, Sister Agatha. I just wanted to say goodbye. I’ll be returning to Italy with my daughter this week, so I won’t be coming back to Mass at Our Lady of Hope.”

Mrs. Lenzi had been a regular for the past year, and she’d be missed. Sister Agatha was about to say so when a shrill scream pierced the air. Her heart hammering wildly, Sister Agatha looked around quickly for the source.

Before she’d even taken a step, Sister Bernarda shot past her and ran across the parking lot toward the cries. As an ex-marine, her soldier’s instincts always gave her the edge in emergencies.

Sister Agatha struggled to catch up to her fellow extern. Drawing near, she saw Mrs. Brown, who’d been the first to leave chapel, on her knees, sobbing. A figure was lying on the ground beside her.

Hearing running footsteps behind her, Sister Agatha turned and saw Sister Jo rushing up. “Go back and call the paramedics. Someone has been injured.”

“Right away, Sister Agatha!” Sister Jo turned around and raced toward the parlor.

Uncertain if the parking lot was now a danger zone, Sister
Agatha realized that the best place for the worshipers was inside.

“Everyone, please return to the chapel now, for your own safety.” She watched as Mrs. Lenzi and the rest stopped, saw that something was wrong, then complied.

Sister Bernarda glanced back at Sister Agatha and shook her head imperceptibly. She then focused on eighty-two-year-old Mrs. Brown and led her away, speaking calmly.

Sister Agatha took an unsteady breath. Based on Sister Bernarda’s cue, the person sprawled on the graveled parking lot was beyond help. Taking a step closer, Sister Agatha realized that the body belonged to Jane Sanchez.

Sister Agatha made the sign of the cross. Shock numbed her senses, and for a moment she stood frozen to the spot. Their monastery was dedicated to the Lord, and a sin of this magnitude was an affront to everything they stood for—charity and love, based on a deep reverence for all of God’s commandments. Reaching out to God for courage and the wisdom to accept what she couldn’t change, she said a prayer for the repose of Jane’s soul.

When she opened her eyes again, her gaze fell on the earthly remains of the woman they’d all known. Sister Agatha forced herself to study the scene with the practiced eye of an investigative reporter. Though that had been a lifetime ago, those skills would remain with her forever.

She crouched beside the body and, making sure not to touch anything, blinked back a tear. There was blood—Jane had either been shot or stabbed, and her purse lay open on the ground beside her. Scattered about were her keys, an empty-looking billfold, an embroidered handkerchief, a ballpoint pen, and her prayer book. She had been robbed and killed…or vice versa.

Sister Agatha took a deep breath, tearing her gaze from the body. She glanced around to avoid having to look at it again. It was then she realized that the doors of at least two of the cars in the parking lot were open. Maybe Jane had caught the robber riffling through the vehicles and confronted him. Robbery had then turned into murder.

Sister Agatha suddenly noticed that the driver’s door of the monastery’s old station wagon, the car they jokingly referred to as the Antichrysler, was also open. It had been vandalized with big scratches.

Hearing running footsteps coming toward her again, Sister Agatha turned her head. Sister Jo could have been her twin in size and shape, though there was a lot more bounce in the younger nun’s step. Sister Jo, the latest addition to their family, was gifted with a sharp mind and immeasurable amounts of energy. Pax, the monastery’s large white German shepherd, had followed but now rushed out in front of her.

“Pax, wait!” Sister Jo ordered, grabbing the dog’s collar.

Pax dropped his haunches into an immediate sit but slid several inches. Sister Jo wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck, making sure he went no farther.

“No need for that, he’ll stay,” Sister Agatha said. “Did you make the call?”

“Yes, but Sister Bernarda said I should call the sheriff as well. She said that Mrs. Sanchez had either been shot or stabbed and was already dead. So I called the sheriff and told him what had happened. He said to keep everyone away from the scene and make sure no one touched anything. He also asked that everyone stay inside the chapel until he and his team get here.”

“All right,” Sister Agatha said. “Do as he asked and make sure everyone remains inside. I’ll stay out here, guard the area, and make sure no one approaches.”

“What if the killer comes back?” Sister Jo asked, standing on tiptoes, trying to look past Sister Agatha to get a glimpse of the body.

“That’s not likely, but Pax will protect me,” Sister Agatha answered, moving to block her view. “Go back and help Sister Bernarda and Sister de Lourdes keep everyone calm. Nobody can be allowed to leave until the sheriff says it’s okay.”

Just then Sister Bernarda come down the chapel’s steps and strode briskly toward them. “The paramedics are on their way. As soon as they arrive, please send them inside. They need to check out Mrs. Brown,” she said. “She’s as pale as a ghost, and I think she’s going into shock.”

“Poor woman,” Sister Agatha murmured.

“I know the sheriff will want to speak to her, but I have a feeling he’s going to have to wait,” Sister Bernarda said softly. “She’s barely coherent at the moment.”

“Did Mrs. Brown mention having seen someone leaving the parking lot in a hurry?”

Sister Bernarda shook her head. “She just rambled on about how nice Jane had been to her. She’d always make sure that Mrs. Brown had a hot dinner. That was before the Good News Meal Program got started.”

“Jane always said that no one in her neighborhood would ever go hungry while her two hands still worked,” Sister Agatha said quietly.

“There’s something I need you to pass on to the sheriff,” Sister Bernarda said. “When Mrs. Brown saw Jane on the ground, she hurried right over to help. There’s no telling what she might have touched.”

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