Feb. 1, 11:45 p.m.

Maeville, Illinois

The wheels of the SUV crunched the ice beneath its tires—the beams from its headlights reflecting off the snow-packed road. As the heat in the SUV reached a comfortable level, he unzipped his parka and relaxed into his seat. He glanced up at the crescent-shaped moon that dominated the sky—it gave the night an eerie glow.

He turned off Greasy Creek Drive, where Marcy had a two-story red brick house that sat beyond the meadow. It was well hidden from curious tourists who often traveled through the quaint town of Maeville, Illinois, in the summer and fall.

A few seconds later, he gripped the wheel as the car skidded over a patch of ice as he made a right onto Barger Road. The SUV fishtailed and plowed into the snowdrift that had formed off the shoulder.

He groaned and pounded the steering wheel with his hands. “This is all your fault, Marcy!”

He took a few deep breaths.

He stepped out of the SUV and pulled a shovel from the back seat. With a grunt, he stabbed his shovel into the crusty snow and began digging out his car. As he hefted the snow, a police cruiser pulled up, its lights flashing.

“Need a hand?” the gray-haired police officer with a buzz-cut said from his rolled-down window.

“Thanks for the offer, sir. No need for both of us to get wet.” He was gripping the handle of the shovel so tight his hand cramped.

“Nasty night to be out, especially if you don’t have to.” The officer’s gaze traveled to the SUV and back.

“Just heading to the twenty-four-hour pharmacy in town.” He scooped up one more shovel full of snow and tossed it into the snowbank.

“Everything okay?” the cop asked, his eyes narrowed on him.

“Yeah.” He coughed. “Caught the bug that’s going around. Throat feels like I’m swallowing glass. Picking up an antibiotic.”

The officer nodded and settled back against his seat. “Well, drive safely. Feel better.”

He kept scooping up snow as he watched the cop from the corner of his eye. The officer shifted his car in reverse and headed back down Barger Road. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. He let it out in one big whoosh. Waiting until the police car was gone, he opened the back door of his SUV and set the shovel on the back seat. He got back in, removed his gloves and blew on his hands. “That was too close.”

Instead of taking a right turn that would get him to the strip mall and pharmacy in town, he made a left on Covered Bridge Road. The one-lane, unplowed country road led to an isolated area. In the spring and summer months, the trees, bushes, and foliage gave it the appearance of an enchanted forest. Except for the mailboxes at the end of the long laneway, the three bungalows nestled in these woods were impossible to spot from the road.

The snow fell so hard, he slowed down to a crawl so he wouldn’t accidentally hit a tree. The three homes huddled close together. All three were empty, shut down for the long winter. Mr. and Mrs. Davenport who lived at Number 1 were in Florida until the end of April. Mrs. Ferguson across the street at Number 2 was in Arizona with her daughter and grandchildren until May. Mr. Clement at Number 3 had moved into an assisted living apartment last November. His three sons decided to wait to sell the house in the spring when there would be more buyer interest.

He came to a stop and turned off his headlights. Grabbing black leather gloves and ski cap, he attached the special flashlight to his wrist. Heaving a satisfied sigh, he exited the SUV. He scanned the area, searching for the rock that had been chosen as a marker the previous fall. It was an odd shape, almost like a little mountain with a sharp peak. It overlooked a steep incline.

Walking to the rear of the SUV, he pulled up the black tarp in the cab area. He shivered as a sudden gust of wind blew up a swirl of snow. He uncovered the clouded plastic that served as Marcy’s burial shroud.

Her green eyes were wide open.

Chapter 1

May 1, 11:00 a.m.

St. Joseph Parish Life Center

Smithtown, Wisconsin

Sister Marie Bernadette is about as subtle as a middle-aged man with a comb-over cruising in a red Corvette with the top down,” Sister Maggie quipped.

Forever sharpening your one-liners,” Sister Mary Grace said with a chuckle.

“Black coffee and the New York Times Crossword every morning.” Sister Maggie grinned.

They stood on the side of the field watching Sister Marie Bernadette’s sixth-graders in a soccer match. It was such a warm, sunny day, after such a long, harsh winter, that the sisters couldn’t resist taking the children outside. Sister Marie Bernadette blew her whistle as Jaime Hill and Jeanette Williams began hollering at each other over a missed goal kick.

“So, tell me, what did our crusading sister get herself into now?”

“Billy Kovacs’s father said he wants to serve as an officer in the P.T.O. He wants to reinstate corporal punishment. He even tried to bully Sister Marie Bernadette into admitting that liberal-minded sisters account for the decline of discipline in the parish school.”

“My goodness. What did Sister Bernie say?”

“She told him that he reminded her of a quote by Seneca the Younger, who said, ‘All cruelty springs from weakness.’” Then Sister Bernie told him, “Wise man, wasn’t he, Mr. Kovacs?” 

“Oh dear, and what did Mr. Kovacs say to that?” Sister Mary Gracie asked.

“Nothing. He turned beet red and harrumphed his way to the refreshment table. I’m fairly certain he couldn’t figure out if he’d been insulted or not. Needless to say, Sister Bernie is going to keep a close eye on Billy’s wellbeing. If she spots a suspicious bruise, she told me she’ll make sure Kovacs understands just what an Adorer of Divine Love is capable of.”

Sister Mary Grace nodded in the direction of the tall, slender sister, who’d just given both girls a yellow card warning. “Sister Bernie is a gem and a great protector of children. As much as I’d like to hear more about her adventures, I need to talk to you about something.”

“Of course.” Sister Maggie led the way back inside to her office at the far end of the building. The sisters sat in matching blue armchairs. A Tiffany-style lamp atop a round table was set between the chairs. When Sister Maggie had arrived at St. Joseph’s six years ago as the new director of religious education for the two-thousand member parish, she took one look at her industrial-style office furniture and headed for the local flea market. There she found the cozy gems that now graced her surroundings. Although Sister Maggie had a flair for decorating, she was nothing if not frugal.

Sister Margaret Mary, better known as Sister Maggie, adjusted the rectangular, black-rimmed eyeglasses on the bridge of her nose and sat back in her armchair. She adjusted the silver crucifix that hung around her neck. The crucifix gleamed against her immaculate white scapular. Her royal blue tunic matched her veil and was trimmed with a white border. All the Adorers of Divine Love dressed in the same habit.

Sister Maggie had been expecting a meeting with Sister Mary Grace since St. Joseph’s Convent was next on the list for her superior general’s visitation in the Midwest. During these special visits, Sister Mary Grace spoke privately with each sister and expected frank and honest discussions. It served as a way for her to discern the personal and professional needs of the sisters that needed to be addressed by her and the community’s leadership, especially when it came to deciding future assignments.

It was well known to the entire community that Sister Maggie and Sister Mary Grace were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Best friends since childhood, Maureen Donovan and Josephine Amato had lived on the same block, went to the same Catholic parish and schools, and entered the Adorers of Divine Love immediately following college in 1972.

Sister Mary Grace, feeling comfortable with Sister Maggie, let her regal accent slip as they chatted about their families back home. Sister Mary Grace once had a very distinctive New York accent, but over the years she’d worked hard to lose it—even taking free elocution lessons from an acting coach who happened to be a parishioner.

Sister Maggie had teased Sister Mary Grace when they were both at a Catholic conference back in NYC. Sister Mary Grace’s elegant accent had become quite noticeable. “What’s with the refined tone in your voice?” Sister Maggie had asked after the luncheon.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Suddenly you’re all, ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’”

Sister Mary Grace had chuckled and waved her hand. “Oh, well, it’s important to exude a more genteel tone so that people don’t make assumptions about our intelligence. After all, we weren’t raised by illiterate gangsters.”

“Well, aren’t you the queen of hyperbole.” Sister Maggie had rolled her eyes at her friend. “Josie, never forget that your blood type is NYC.”

Sister Maggie had always used Sister Mary Grace’s given name when she wanted to make a point and remind her of their roots in Bensonhurst, a multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. No time for fancy talk in the 1980s when they were serving the poorest sections of the city.

Sister Maggie sighed as she pulled out her photo album and they flipped through old photos. They giggled at some of the silly pictures from childhood and smiled at photos of their early years at the convent. 

As they went through the album, Sister Maggie’s thoughts wandered back to 1972 when she’d packed her suitcase and was driven by her parents, John Sr. and Louise (Lulu) Donovan, to the Adorers of Divine Love motherhouse upstate in Portsville, New York. Becoming a nun had not been Sister Maggie’s first choice. No indeed. Sister Maggie had had a passion to join the police force after high school. Born and raised in a family of cops, her late father had been a homicide detective and a revered captain before he retired. Three of her younger brothers had also gone into the force, while the fourth had joined 

the priesthood.

“Maureen, you have a mind that seeks the truth and a will that demands justice, but you have a tender heart that melts when confronted by the cries of the weak and vulnerable,” her father had told her in a gentle tone. The family had just sat down to dinner one Sunday evening in March of 1973 when Maureen had blurted out that she wanted to apply to the police academy. She’d been rather impetuous back then. 

“Police work means dealing with the dregs of society,” her father had explained. “The criminals out there have no interest in truth or justice. What’s more, they routinely exploit the weak and vulnerable just because they can. Sweetie, the police force is nowhere for a girl. At seventeen, you’re too young to know what it’s really like. I know that your true nature is to want to help people but you don’t have to be a cop to do that.”

“Dad—times are changing, and I’m not too young!” a passionate Maureen had countered. “Women police officers have been on the force for years and Gertrude Schimmel was appointed Deputy Inspector two years ago. What you describe as my ‘tender heart’ is what I call compassion,” she countered. “Besides, you always say, you need compassion when you’re a cop.”

“Yes, but you can’t let every case tear you apart,” he replied.

Maureen had argued that her father was being an over-the-top macho man. 

He’d grinned and told her that he gladly accepted the label and he’d wear it as a badge of honor. He encouraged her to attend the college of her choice and consider another vocation in life.

“Dad is right. You’re too soft,” Johnny had said, rolling his eyes at her. Her fifteen-year-old brother was named John Jr. after their dad but everyone called him Johnny. 

Thirteen-year-old Matt and twelve-year-old Dennis, had snickered. Then again, they’d always gone along with big brother Johnny.

It was only ten-year-old Andrew, their youngest brother, who stood up for her. “That depends on who you ask,” Andrew had piped up. “Clancy is as tough as nails.” Maureen had given him a grateful smile. Even at such a young age Andrew had known his own mind. He’d declared he would break with tradition and become a priest instead of a cop. Then again he’d declared at the age of eight that he was certain to become a fireman when he grew up.

John Sr. had waved his hand as if to dismiss Andrew’s show of support. “Lulu, what do you think about all this?”

“I think Maureen will choose the path that is right for her,” Lulu, had said with a firm nod, getting up to clear the table. Maureen stood to help her mother as did the boys. 

“She’s been accepted to some of the best colleges in the country with full scholarships,” Lulu went on, “And I want her to be the best at what she does, and for the right reasons.” She went into the kitchen carrying the empty platter with her, but not before giving Maureen a wink over her shoulder.

Maureen eventually let go of her desire to become a cop, since she hadn’t wanted to cause a rift with her father, whom she adored, but in her last year of college, she finally made up her mind about her future. A few weeks before she graduated, Maureen had decided to tell her father what her future plans would be. She’d already talked it over with Lulu, who’d promised not to say anything about her vocational choice. Maureen had suspected Lulu had let it slip in any case because John Sr. had been delighted at the news that she was no longer interested in carrying a gun but would prefer to carry a rosary instead. She’d decided to join the Adorers of Divine Love. She’d informed her father that the community staffed parishes, schools, and hospitals through a variety of ministries.

John Donovan had laughed heartily. “Johnny, Matt, and Dennis are determined to follow in their old man’s footsteps — against my strong objections, mind you. While Andrew is studying to be a priest, and now our only girl wants to be a nun.” He paused and added comically, “You were never too thrilled with our house rules or the discipline we needed to administer to you from time to time. I guess God has a sense of humor.”

Sister Maggie smiled at the memories of her dear father.

“What are you smiling about?” Sister Mary Grace asked.

“Oh, just about my dad and the discussion we had before I started college about my wanting to be a cop. Just like him.”

“Ah, yes, I remember it well. Your dad didn’t want any of his children to become cops.”

“No, he didn’t. But he was proud of Johnny, Matt, and Dennis just the same.”

“He was proud of all of you,” Sister Mary Grace said firmly, patting Sister Maggie’s hand.

“Yes, that’s true. Mom and Dad never faltered on that front. They always told us how proud they were of all of us.” Sister Maggie cleared her throat to chase away the sadness. She took a deep breath and turned to her lifelong friend. “All right, out with it. What do you want to ask me?”

“How do you know I need to ask you something?”

“Because you’re fidgeting with your rosary. You always fidget when you have something on your mind.”

“True enough.” Sister Mary Grace sighed. “Sister Maggie, you are being assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe Convent in New Hope, Indiana, as of June 1.” Sister Mary Grace held her hand up as Sister Maggie leaned forward to speak. “I know that it will be hard for you to leave here, but I’m sure that you will make the transition graciously.”

Sister Maggie settled back in her chair. She knew this moment had been coming. The sisters were normally assigned to a mission every six years or renewed for an additional six years. Even though Sister Maggie was sixty-four years old, she had no desire to retire anytime soon, so a new assignment wasn’t something that surprised her. It would be difficult to leave, though. She adored the children, parishioners, and her fellow sisters, especially Sister Bernie.

“I’d like you to be the vocation directress for the community,” added Sister Mary Grace.

“Vocation directress? But I’ve always been an educator and administrator, not to mention my mature age. Wouldn’t it make more sense to choose one of the younger sisters to serve?”

“No, Sister Margaret Mary. I want you.”

Sister Maggie rolled her eyes. “I doubt that young women interested in religious life today want to talk to a senior citizen about their vocations.”

“Senior citizen?” Sister Mary Grace flicked her wrist. “You have more energy and vigor than people half your age. Seriously, we need someone like you to evaluate potential candidates.”

“You mean shrewd and blunt?”

“You’re darn tootin’. You can’t be too careful these days. Anyway, Sister Mary Felicia, who recently took her final vows, will be your assistant. She is young and enthusiastic but quite inexperienced. You can teach her a lot about life and human nature.”

Sister Maggie stared at her old friend. “Where is Sister Mary Felicia hanging her veil these days?”

“She recently completed her master’s degree in theology at Mater Dei College. She is being assigned with you at Our Lady of Guadalupe Convent in New Hope. She’ll be the assistant vocations director and work part-time at the parish school as the seventh-grade and eighth-grade religion teacher.”

“That poor girl has been through so much in her young life.” Sister Maggie shook her head.

“Which is why I think you and Sister Mary Felicia will do well together.” Sister Mary Grace reached for Sister Maggie’s hand. 

They sat in silence for a moment. No words were necessary. Their lifelong bond of friendship had seen them through tragedy and loss.

“All right, you got me. When will I meet with Sister Mary Felicia?” Sister Maggie asked.

“Her graduation ceremony already took place. She’s going home to spend a weekend with her family. As you know, they have a farm in rural Wisconsin. After her home visit, she’s going to sub for the eighth-grade teacher here at St. Joseph’s School for the rest of the month.” Sister Mary Grace’s lips twitched, and her eyes danced with mirth.

“What’s so funny?”

“When I mentioned that Sister Mary Felicia was going to be subbing, you sighed in relief.”

Sister Maggie chuckled. “I was wondering if I was going to be asked to sub for Megan Faulkner. She goes on maternity leave this week. Those eighth graders are a handful.”

“More of a handful than we were at that age?” Sister Mary Grace said with a chuckle of her own.

“Hm, you’re right about that.” Nevertheless, Sister Maggie was indeed relieved the school principal, had not asked her to sub for Megan. The energetic young teacher had resorted to carrying a whistle to get the attention of her rambunctious students.

“I’ll arrange a video conference meeting with Sister Cecilia, the outgoing vocation directress, and we can begin to plan your integration.”

Sister Maggie’s brows knit as she pondered this upcoming change in her life.

“Okay, spill it,” Sister Mary Grace said. “What’s bothering you?”

“What makes you think something’s bothering me?” Sister Maggie shrugged.

“I can see that look you get in those sharp blue eyes of yours.” Sister Mary Grace leaned forward and tapped the table with her finger. “The look that tells me you intend to dissect everything I’ve said.”

Sister Maggie crossed her arms over her chest. “Why me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you really want me to be the vocation directress for the community? Sure, with age comes wisdom, but it takes a lot more than that to relate to young women today. Sister Mary Felicia is young, smart, and can keep up with the long hours. I can see her grow into the role well enough on her own.”

“Listen. You’re one of the most determined people I know. You’re intelligent, tough as nails, and most of all you care deeply. 

You’ve devoted your life to helping men, women, and children become the best they can be. Also, you can spot a phony a mile away! For these and other reasons, I and the Council decided to appoint you as the vocation director, capish?”

“Capish.” Sister Maggie laughed. “I don’t often get such effusive compliments.”

“It’s the truth, Clancy.”

Sister Maggie grinned at Sister Mary Grace’s use of her childhood nickname. “I’m touched, Josie,” Sister Maggie replied. Growing up in Brooklyn, they were known as the dynamic duo by their neighbors.

Sister Mary Grace rose from her chair. “Let’s get some lunch. I’m starved.”

“And I could sure go for a strong cup of kawfee?” Sister Maggie said in an exaggerated Brooklyn accent.

“Kawfee sounds great to me.” Sister Mary Grace winked.

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