Saturday morning, an ear-piercing scream could be heard throughout the grounds of the convent in South Pickstock. Eleven nuns all ran in the direction of the shrilling scream only to find Sister Anna Gunter kneeling at the side of Mother Elizabeth Rhinehart’s lifeless body on the floor of her room.
There was a collective gasp.
“Mother!” Angelica Gottlieb hurried over to the horrendous scene before them. “What happened?” she demanded of the twenty-three-year-old postulant who’d only been a member of the convent for approximately two months.
Anna’s face was drenched with tears. “I don’t know! I met her here like this,” she replied, frantically.
Then Angelica’s eyes widened as she noticed the bloody knife in Anna’s hand.
“I…I…just picked it up!” Anna exclaimed as she sensed what the nun was thinking. “Someone did this to her.”
Gertrude, a tall, heavyset, no-nonsense woman went over to the nightstand and emptied out the contents of a small grocery bag. She then approached Anna and holding the bag said, “Put it in here.” Gertrude was as cool as a cucumber.
Anna quickly dropped the knife into the bag.
“We must call the police now!” Angelica said.
“No police just yet,” Gertrude replied. “We must notify the archbishop first.”
She left the room and, in the hallway, picked up the handset from the wall. Rosa Perez, a nun in her late forties, around the same age as Gertrude, and who’d entered the convent around the same time as she had, looked on at Gertrude as she made the call, her eyes darting back occasionally at their fallen mother.
The conversation was brief and Gertrude’s demeanor had not altered.
“The archbishop is on his way,” Gertrude stated upon reentering the room. “His secretary will be calling the police.”
Anna was now standing in another nun’s embrace. They all, except for Gertrude, were weeping and looking somberly at the shocking sight at their feet.
“Who could’ve done this?” Angelica exclaimed.
“This can’t be possible!” Sarah Robinson, the eldest nun who’d finally made her way there by means of her walking cane cried. “This is a convent, for goodness’ sake!”
Claire Hans, a sixty-year-old who’d just celebrated her thirtieth year in the consecrated life, hurried over to her to offer a helping hand. “Someone must’ve broken in,” she said.
“And if that’s true, it’s possible that they’re still here,” Angelica noted, approaching the door.
“Where are you going?” Gertrude asked.
“I’m going to take a look around. Perhaps, the rest of us are in danger too.”
“Well, you’re not going alone. I’m coming with you.” She looked back at her sisters. “Lock this door behind us.”
Claire hurried over to do just that.
The women walked out into the hallway together, sticking within inches of each other. They both felt a knot in their throats as they cautiously proceeded. The convent was large with long hallways and the walls echoed with each step. The sisters were unarmed, felt like easy prey, and hoped that at the end of their unwanted tour, they would arrive back to their former location safely.
“Slow down!” Angelica told Gertrude.
Gertrude looked at her. “How much slower do you want me to go? If we go any slower, it may take hours to check this place.”
They made their way to the kitchen and Gertrude looked around as Angelica checked the back door.
Twisting the knob, she said, “It’s locked—from the inside, of course. And the latch is still in place.”
As they came upon the sitting and dining rooms, one of them went inside while the other kept watch in the hallway in case there was any movement. The end of the hallway led into another which curved right and on both sides were the individual cells.
“I’ll check my own room,” Gertrude said, gruffly.
“Be my guest,” Angelica answered, as Gertrude went in.
Angelica barely blinked while keeping an eye on the hallway, hoping that no one would spring out in front of her from one of the rooms.
“Hurry up!” She whispered loudly in Gertrude’s direction.
“All clear.” Gertrude returned.
They continued along and a few doors down, Gertrude gave her the nod to go and check her room.
Angelica went inside and within moments, she was out of there.
“Let’s keep going,” she said.
“You checked that quickly?”
“How big do you think my room is?”
Gertrude rolled her eyes. Sighing, she replied, “We need to check the bookstore.”
“The bookstore?” Angelica grimaced.
“But what, Sister?”
“The bookstore is quite spacious and I’m afraid to go in there without the police being present.”
Gertrude thought for a second. “Okay, I’ll go in and make a quick inspection. You wait here.”
“I don’t think that’s a wise idea,” Angelica told her. “I wouldn’t want you to risk being harmed.”
Gertrude sighed again. “We came this far and the bookstore is right through that door just ahead. It only makes sense that we check there too. If it’s clear, then we know the killer has left. Got it?”
Reluctantly, Angelica nodded. “Okay.”
Gertrude continued toward the blue door which was the side entrance to the bookstore. She never appreciated that the store was adjacent to the main building where their rooms were located. However, everyone else agreed the deadlock on the inside provided adequate security for them. As she approached, she could clearly see that the door was still locked.
“I guess this is a waste of time,” she muttered as she opened the door and stepped inside the store.
Angelica was looking on nervously and making the sign of the cross.
The bookstore was closed for business every Saturday so that the nuns could unite for a midday meeting, do extra charitable work, and accomplish other duties before evening Mass.
Having a bookstore on the convent grounds had been Mother Elizabeth’s dream. She insisted that literature played an important role in spreading the Gospel and she wanted people to feel comfortable coming there and exploring the many books available to the public. Gertrude loved reading as well. Her mother used to be a librarian and had always brought home books for her brother and her to read which were quite often their only form of entertainment. The family could not afford a TV until Gertrude was already in her late teens. After school and on weekends, she spent hours engrossed within the pages of a novel and often felt at the end of the good ones like the characters and entire atmosphere by which she’d been enlightened were real.
Whenever she went into the convent’s bookstore, she felt like she’d entered a new world of possibilities, with hope and faith for fellow parishioners and for those seeking deeper spiritual fulfilment.
The area was approximately eighteen hundred square feet with rows of shelves each situated five feet apart. The walls had been painted a light peach hue that Mother Elizabeth felt gave the place a lighthearted sort of vibe. Gertrude tended to agree. At the front, near the entrance, was the cashier’s desk and a few feet away from it was a small showcase where various medals were displayed, some attached to stainless steel necklaces encased in plastic wrapping. At the rear of the bookstore, close to where Gertrude had entered the room, was a glass cabinet stocked with both metal and wooden crosses. The nun in charge of the bookstore—Martha Wingate—found that the cabinet at the back needed regular restocking as people often came in looking for crosses to hang in their homes or offices. Some claimed their house or apartment was haunted and needed them for protection. Martha had heard many of the strangest stories in her day, but never doubted that those sharing their experiences with her wholeheartedly believed in what they were saying.
Gertrude started through the aisle nearest to the access door, then as she made it nearly halfway through, she asked, “Is there anyone in here?” She wasn’t expecting or hoping for a response as the very thought of receiving one made her cringe. She figured some nuns wouldn’t know how to defend themselves if the situation were to arise, but she knew she wouldn’t hesitate to use the martial arts training she’d received many years ago in her late teens. She was not one to fold up in fear and take whatever came her way. She had the philosophy that as a nun she could be pious, but tough whenever she needed to be.
Just as she’d expected, no one answered her. And when she made it to the front of the store, she quickly checked the front door which happened to be locked. She then slowly crossed each aisle, looking to her right to see if there was, perhaps, someone hiding out. After she took a turn through the last aisle on the southern end of the store and realized the coast was clear, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Reentering the hallway of the convent, she locked the door behind her. Angelica was still standing there looking as if she’d held her breath the entire time she was gone.
“No one’s in there,” Gertrude said, approaching her.
Angelica smiled, resting her hands on her chest. “Thank heavens!”
“Let’s go back to the others,” Gertrude said.
As they headed back to Mother Elizabeth’s room, Gertrude looked at Angelica. “Do you realize that each of the doors were locked?” she asked.
“Yes, I do,” Angelica replied, feeling rather uneasy with the direction in which she feared the conversation might be going.
“I would hate to think…”
“Don’t say it, Sister Gertrude! Just don’t say it because it can’t be so.”
“If you don’t hear it from me, Sister, we’d all likely be hearing it from the police anyway. So, you’d might as well face the reality of what might have happened here,” Gertrude replied, matter-of-factly.
“You can’t possibly think that Anna…”
“How well do we know her?” she interjected. “We all know how hard Mother Elizabeth can be on us for the slightest things and Anna was no exception to her short temper. I imagine it was tough on her during her transition here and she probably even wondered if this was truly her calling.”
“Mother was seventy-three years old. I think she had a right to be a bit crotchety sometimes,” Angelica replied in Mother Elizabeth’s defense.
“A bit?” Gertrude grimaced.
“Well—a lot, to be completely honest. Besides, she had an array of health issues to contend with which could not have made wearing a smile most of the day any easier.”
“We all understood Mother and loved her nonetheless with all her flaws just as she loved us, but Anna is such a young, naïve girl who knows nothing about the world and who hasn’t yet developed the virtues of wisdom, patience and longsuffering. Perhaps, Mother said something to her which caused her to lose her temper and do the unthinkable.”
Angelica stopped in the middle of the hallway. Several more steps and they would be at Mother Elizabeth’s door. “How could you possibly suggest that someone who decides to honor God with her life could have it in her to commit such a terrible deed and right inside this convent?” She’d lowered her voice. “In spite of how things look, Gertrude, let’s give Anna the benefit of the doubt. There’s nothing more terrible than being accused of something you had absolutely nothing to do with. You, of all people, should know better than that!”
Gertrude’s countenance fell at the mention of the false accusation once made against her. She had put it in the back of her mind and sealed it off so as not to be plagued by unpleasant memories. However, Angelica had brutally brought it to the surface again.
“I see your point, Sister, but also see mine…” she replied. “If Mother Elizabeth’s killer isn’t Anna Gunter, then it must be one of us. I suggest you always have eyes in the back of your head because no stranger came through any of these doors or windows.”
She marched ahead of her and knocked at the door while Angelica remained paralyzed for a few moments in the hallway by the gravity of her words.
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3 thoughts on “FREE EXCERPT: MURDER AT THE CONVENT”
I have always tied to give people the benefit of the doubt – but sometimes all the circumstantial evidence adds up to guilty.
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A long time ago when my now adult daughter was a child I had accused her of lying. I will never forget the look of hurt on her face. I had come home to silly putty dried on all my clothes in the dryer. Ruining hundreds of dollars worth of clothes. I had told her time and again to put the silly putty away when done. I accused her of putting it in her jeans pocket. She was grounded and placed in her room until her daddy came home. When daddy got home he felt horrible because it was actually him that put the putty in his pocket and placed his jeans in the wash. Many years later I still feel that guilt of accusing me child with circumstantial evidence.
I can certainly understand how you feel. I believe many of us parents do because as much as we try, we can’t get everything right because we’re human and have imperfections. It’s tough to know we were wrong about a punishment dished out or whatever it may be, but don’t be too hard on yourself; I’m sure your daughter realizes it was an honest mistake and how sorry you are about it.
But yes, circumstantial evidence in some cases – as tight and logical as they seem – may have some loose ends that are not easily apparent.