An August Interlude, set in August 1929, takes Cyrus Skeen to a notorious “upper class” brothel, the Turf Club, and to the Catholic convent next door to it , in this twelfth detective novel set in San Francisco. He is on a quest to clear the name of a valued friend accused of a horrendous murder five years go. In the Turf Club he meets Lachlan Figgis, its personable manager, and his alluring twin sister Lachina. In the convent he talks with Sister Mary Joseph, the Mother Superior.
Chapter 6: Misery Loves Company
Well, thought Skeen as he walked up the street to the convent: All I had to do was endure Lachlan Figgis’s hospitality and his sister’s circumspect flirtations, to get an answer to a few questions. The brother and sister were an astonishingly peculiar couple.
He didn’t bother showing Figgis or his sister the photograph of Valda Redfern. He doubted they would have recognized her, if it was true that they didn’t follow the story past the finding of Willowman’s body the next day. He wondered if the newspapers had carried another photograph of her.
He also wondered what he would need to endure now when he visited the convent. Probably expressions of piety, humility, and sanctimony. And reproof. He strode stolidly and determinedly up the sidewalk past his roadster to the home of the Sisters of the Apostolic Faith.
Skeen mounted the brick steps two at a time. Just as he reached the extended portico, the bells of St. Joseph the Carpenter struck twelve. Before he could step into the cloister and knock on the single arched oaken door, from his left a column of nuns in twos came from a door on the far end. He stopped and watched the procession.
It was led by a handful of older nuns – one of them using a cane and being helped along by a much younger woman – with hunched backs and downcast eyes, arms crossed and hands hidden in the oversized sleeves. Next came some younger nuns in their thirties or forties. Following them like a passel of ducklings were the novices, or novitiates. Some of the girls were in their late teens.
One of the girls noticed him and braved a quick glance at him before resuming her humble mien.
The parade passed as quickly as the hobbling, and probably arthritic older nuns allowed. He guessed they were going to some sort of service. The column rounded a corner and disappeared.
There was a brass knocker on this door, too. Skeen lifted it and hammered it three times. After a moment, he heard a latch turn and the giant door creaked open. A little pinched-face woman of about sixty years, not in a habit, but in the drab garb of a housekeeper, looked at him with puckered lips and a furled, disapproving brow. “Yes?”
Skeen removed his trilby. “My name is Cyrus Skeen. I’m here to see Sister Mary Joseph. I believe she’s the Mother Superior.”
“Men aren’t permitted in the convent. And you need an appointment.”
“I think she’ll see me. It’s about Valda Redfern, a missing novitiate.” Skeen took out his wallet and showed her his private investigator’s license.
The woman studied it – longer than did Howard Li – with some comprehension of what it meant, blinking only once. Then she glanced up at him with an even more disapproving look. “Wait here outside. I'll ask if she can see you.”
The door slammed shut and the latch was turned. Skeen lit an Old Gold, twirled his trilby around on one finger, and paced back and forth on the stone walkway. Men weren’t permitted in the convent? No priests, either? Bishops? Cardinals?
He had just pitched the nearly finished Old Gold into a nearby rhododendron when he heard the latch turn again. The door opened and the housekeeper stood on the threshold, glowering at him. But she waved a hand at him. “This way, sir,” she commanded.
Skeen stepped inside. The woman slammed the door shut and turned the latch.
They were standing in what Skeen surmised was a visitor’s waiting area. There were some benches and chairs pressed against a bare cement wall. There was a table with some kind of literature on it, probably, Skeen guessed, about the Apostolic Faith order and the church.
But the first thing that struck him about the place was a dank, lifeless odor in the air. The hall they had entered had the same basic interior layout of that of the Turf Club, except that there were no amenities like couches or chairs or benches. No potted palms. And certainly no ash stands. Half the hall had been partitioned off with a series of unpainted plaster walls. He glanced up. There was a no mezzanine, just a series of unlit chandeliers. If there was anything else up there, it was hidden in darkness. No rotunda. He could not guess the layout of the rest of the building.
The housekeeper shuffled ahead of him. He hung back a few steps to look into an open space. He saw pews of raw, unfinished, unvarnished wood and a plain, unembellished altar. Nuns were sitting in them. An older nun was standing at a pulpit, leading them in prayer, in Latin. He guessed this was the convent’s chapel. It was nothing like the glittering French church on Bush Street he had had occasion to visit during the Enoch Paige case in May, Eglise Notre Dame des Malheurs
He felt a tug on his coat sleeve. He turned. The housekeeper was glaring furiously at him. She nodded with her head to continue following her.
Skeen shrugged and obeyed. A chant came from the chapel.
The housekeeper turned left at a detour, then into another long corridor. They came to the end of it. He supposed they were in the vicinity of where Lachlan Figgis’s office was in the Turf Club. A plain wooden sign on a plain wooden door read, “Sister Mary Joseph. Mother Superior. Please knock before entering.”
The housekeeper knocked once, then opened the door and went in. “Mr. Skeen, ma’am,” she announced.
A voice that sounded like crumpled up paper being squeezed into a ball as tightly as possible said, “Show him in, Hortense.”
Hortense stood aside. Skeen went in. The housekeeper waited to be dismissed.
“That will be all, Hortense. Thank you.”
Hortense sort of curtsied, left the room, and closed the door behind her.
Skeen found himself in an office that was about the size of Lachlan Figgis’s office, but it was so sparsely furnished it may as well have been empty. There was a large desk, a bow window almost hidden by a black curtain behind the desk, some wooden filing cabinets, and armless chairs strewn about the room. There was no carpet on the wooden floor. There was a single colored picture under glass of Christ on a wall to the side of Sister Mary Joseph’s desk. It looked like it had been cut from a newspaper’s rotogravure section and cheaply framed.
There was a overly-ornate marble fireplace in one corner, with a large crucifix sitting on its mantle. A cradle-shaped rack holding firewood sat to the side, together with a black iron poker. But otherwise there was no statuary, not a single plant, no tapestries. Not even a plaster statue of St. Joseph. Nothing to absorb the sound of one’s voice in the vast room.
A weak overhead light in the middle of the room fought to dispel the gloom. The rest of the room was in darkness. He could see what there was in the black space in the rear.
Practically the only “luxuries” Skeen noted were a typewriter on a rolling stand next to the nun’s desk, a small desk lamp, and a candlestick telephone on her desk. That was all.
Sister Mary Joseph rose as he approached her desk. She was nearly as tall as Skeen, but seemed taller because of the headdress, which was a wimple that was just a black veil of voile attached to a cornette or kind of curved white crown of some scratchy fabric. A white coif completely enclosed her neck, ears, presumably the back of her head, and her hair. Skeen could detect no strands of it peeking out from anywhere in the gear.
There was a weak overhead light and a lamp on the desk, but the glare from the white guimpe that flowed down from her shoulders clear to her abdomen nearly blinded him. It looked so thoroughly starched that he imagined using it as a weapon, or as bullet-proof armor.
Her blouse and skirt looked like heavy black serge. A crucifix on a rope dangled from beneath the quimpe, and a rosary with another crucifix hung from her waist.
The woman exuded a strange, pungent, and unpleasant antiseptic odor that complimented the dank smell of the place. Perhaps Sister Mary Joseph bathed in ammonia, too, Skeen thought. Or in a tub of mothballs. She must be in her late forties or early fifties, he estimated. She was once a handsome woman. Not pretty, just handsome. She wore round rimless glasses. Her face was sallow, almost anemic looking. He was certain it did not see much sun or even fresh air. When she was not speaking, her mouth and thin lips were set in a prim bitterness. He did not imagine she smiled much, either.
The white fabric of the coif that enveloped her face was fixed high enough to reveal a one-inch scar on her forehead. It looked like an incision, or a burn. Skeen did not think this was the result of a violent encounter with an open door.
And all throughout their conversation, Sister Mary Joseph, Mother Superior and boss lady of all the other wrecked, humbled souls here, never once looked at him directly. Instead, she peered askance at him through her glasses with a glint of pious fanaticism, as though she suspected him of being guilty of the most horrendous sins. It was the look of doubt someone gave you if he was certain you were lying.
Skeen said, “Thank you for seeing me.”
Sister Mary Joseph nodded and said, “The only reason I’m seeing you, Mr. Skeen, is because you have some notoriety as a detective. We read the newspapers here. You were the one who got that atheist rogue acquitted last May, weren’t you?”
Skeen replied, “He wasn’t acquitted. The charges were dropped.”
Sister Mary Joseph frowned. “Regardless. He was the devil.”
Skeen said, “He was a kind of Prince of Darkness, ma’am.”
“He was something like Hamlet, too morose at times, but with a happy ending.”
“I don’t think I appreciate your humor, Mr. Skeen,” Sister Mary Joseph scolded.
So much for her sense of irony. “That’s all right. I don’t think I’d have much of a career in vaudeville, either.”
“Then please confine yourself to the purpose of your visit, sir.”
She sat down and folded her hands over some papers on a brown blotter and waited.
“May I sit down?”
“I’m not stopping you, Mr. Skeen.”
Skeen shrugged. He grabbed one of the armless chairs and sat it in front of the nun’s desk.
“Hortense gave me to believe that you mentioned a person by the name of Valda Redfern.”
“Yes,” said Skeen, sitting down. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a photograph of Valda Dilys had taken from the model’s portfolio. “To make sure we're speaking of the same person, is this the Valda Redfern who apparently was a member of this convent?” He handed the photograph over the desk to the nun.
The nun took the glossy image and studied it for a moment. Her mouth bent in distaste. It was a head shot of Valda in a strapless gown smiling a toothy, friendly, almost “come-hither” grin. Then she handed it back to Skeen and refolded her hands on the blotter. “Yes, that is the same person. That was Sister Clare Lawrence. What about her? She left this convent and abandoned Christ under the most disgraceful circumstances, and without any notice to me or to Father Brendan.”
“The pastor of St. Joseph the Carpenter church, with which this order is affiliated. It is just down the street.”
“I noticed it,” said Skeen. “It doesn’t look like a Catholic church.”
This remark surprised Sister Mary Joseph and opened up the conversation, and Skeen led it in virtually any direction he chose.
“It was once a Unitarian Universalist place of worship. I would never have called it a church. It did not have much of a flock and the people who ran it decided to sell it. Father Brendan’s predecessor bought it for a fraction of its worth. Before then his parish met in a less commodious church elsewhere in this district.”
“How long has your order occupied these premises?”
“For the last eight years. The order moved here from its convent in the Mission district. But it seemed it was built over what eventually became a sinkhole. The convent had to be demolished. We had to move, and applied to Father Brendan to have a new convent built here. He bought this building from its former owner, some sort of oil plutocrat who decided he did not like it enough to live in it.”
Skeen said, “It’s a fine looking building, ma’am.”
“That is your opinion, sir. When it was bought, it was renovated to remove all the temporal facilities that would appeal to people in the clutches of material wealth. According to Father Brendan, all the furniture, artworks, and other ostentatious and wicked items of comfort and convenience fetched a sum that helped to reimburse the parish for the price paid for the building.”
Skeen feigned concern. “I hope that didn’t include bathtubs and plumbing, ma’am.”
Sister Mary Joseph would neither confirm nor deny the idea. “I sense you are mocking the Apostolic order, Mr. Skeen,” she said. “But you must understand that we Sisters of the Apostolic Faith are in many respects much like Amish women. We place God’s wishes, the spiritual integrity of our order, and the community of Christ our Savior far above the needs and comforts of the flesh. We disdain any instrument, device or practice that relieves us of the stain and guilt of our original sin.
“Our moral code is apart from and opposed to that of the temporal world beyond our doors,” continued the Mother Superior, as though Skeen needed a better explanation.” Our sisters are taught to strive daily to minimize their individual needs, spiritually and physically. As daughters of God and brides of Christ, we are committed to asceticism and the hermit’s life in the midst of this modern Babylon.”
Copyright © 2015 by Edward Cline
Copyright © 2015 by Edward Cline