The Malford Police have identified a mentally unstable homeless man as the killer, but Rosaria wasn’t trained to settle for the easy answer. With help from a close childhood friend, Nuncie DiStephano, now losing the struggle with an aggressive cancer, her investigations unravel a much larger, more sinister story.
Working sometimes as an adversary, sometimes as a partner with Malford Police Detective Leo Gelenian, she pieces together the motive, method, and identity of the murderer through confrontations with a powerful real-estate developer, a vicious Boston crime boss, and an autocratic monsignor with passionate ambitions for his prestigious Catholic high school.
The Immaculate is a complex murder mystery with a deep sense of place, a compelling storyline, richly developed characters, and a satisfying surprise ending.
“Marian McMahon Stanley’s The Immaculate draws the reader in with a haunting murder victim, Sister Mary Aurelius, who is as widely beloved as she is feared. A taut, character-rich whodunit.” —Hallie Ephron, New York Times bestselling author, Night Night, Sleep Tight
“Marian McMahon Stanley leads us deep into a well-written web of secrets, past transgressions, and interwoven relationships in her debut Boston-based mystery. Protagonist Rosaria O’Reilly is a smart amateur sleuth determined to unearth the true killer of her beloved Sister Mary Aurelius.You’ll be a faithful fan of Stanley’s work when you finish this tale of ambitions and betrayals, powerful figures with something to hide, and enduring childhood friendships. This is a story which grows more compelling page by page.” —Edith Maxwell, Agatha-nominated author of the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries
“Each discovery is linked to the next until an edifice of lies and deception crumbles, leaving nothing for the villains to hide behind. Tightly plotted with satisfying twists, the story ends with an unexpected revelation.” —Susan Oleksiw, author, Mellingham Mysteries
Sister Mary Aurelius walked with slow, steady steps as the massive brick buildings around her gathered shadows in the winter dusk. A deliberate, sharp-eyed crow in her black habit, she crossed the wide emptiness of the shuttered Immaculate Conception school complex.
Time was short now, and her health wasn’t all it could be. When she’d taught here long ago, they’d secretly nicknamed her Spike because she could be tough as nails. She prayed she still had it. Just enough for one last unfinished task, one more mission. God give her the strength. Once that was done, she could depart this world, if not with a peaceful mind, then at least with the knowledge that she’d done everything within her power to bring justice.
But for now, just to walk in her old schoolyard once more was a gift. She’d slipped away from the party at the Irish-American and come here to revisit her memories at the school. Someone would notice her absence soon. Nuns weren’t supposed to travel alone like this in her day. You always had to have another sister with you.
She’d come down from the Motherhouse on the North Shore with Sister Bernard, who never broke the rules and would worry about her wandering off to the Immaculate alone. Aurelius grinned. Can’t cage the wily blackbird. She could take care of herself.
She was getting old, so there were ghosts. The ghosts of children at recess as she walked across the schoolyard. She could almost hear the voices, the laughter, the rhythm of the jump ropes, the sound of balls bouncing against the pavement. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the way the boys’ white shirts, carefully ironed by their mothers, escaped their navy blue slacks and flew in the wind, the ties askew. And the girls’ long legs in their pleated skirts—blouses out, hair wild, braids loosening.
She pulled her shawl against the wind as she approached the southwest corner of the girls’ grammar school. Taking off one of her black knit gloves, she felt the red brick. Still slightly warm from the late winter sun, though it was getting to be nightfall. She shivered at the sharp chill in the air. Did she imagine she still saw chalk dust on the bricks where the erasers used to be knocked and cleaned? Ah, that was such an honor. To be chosen to clean the erasers for Sister. Only the best girls and boys.
Aurelius laughed quietly as she turned the corner. Then, she stopped. Stopped in the cold and sudden silence. In the partial darkness, back by the wall and the benches where the nuns used to sit, stood a tall figure. Hearing her steps, the man slowly turned his face from the shadows. Mother of God, she must be having a strange dream. For a moment, she could see the face the world knew. Then in the dim light, a face all wrong.
No words were spoken. The man stood very still. Then he nodded once, only a small nod, just the barest gesture. But with that she knew her time had come. Her heart froze and she called up her courage. The old nun reached her hand out for the wall again, feeling the familiar red brick, touching the children’s presence one more time even as she met his eyes and murmured the Confiteor in preparation for death: Qua peccavi, opera et omissione, orare pro me. I have sinned greatly in what I have done and what I have failed to do, pray for me.
She hadn’t completed her mission. But she knew who would.
* * *
Outside the window of the Lufthansa Lounge at Boston’s Logan Airport, planes lined up for departure on the Terminal E international runway, their wing lights flickering steadily in the darkness.
Rosaria O’Reilly had already moved into her personal travel bubble. Soft travel clothes, a black cashmere wrap, and light canvas ballet flats. She’d packed a change of wardrobe in the carry-on bag beside her for the inevitable travel emergency in her current business territories—Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
The pink Financial Times peeked out of one corner of the bag, along with the Journal, and quarterly sales reports for the high-end athletic shoe business she worked for. A faint sound of Urban Mandolin jazz escaped the earbuds tucked under her dark hair. Sitting as far away from the CNN monitor as she could, Rosaria was annoyed to see another monitor installed behind the bar, this one tuned to local news. Frowning at the intrusive screen, she felt her cell phone vibrate and pulled one earbud out to answer the call.
“O’Reilly.” She reached for her mug of tea on the side table. “Hi, Dimitri.” Rosaria could feel a little headache starting above her left eye. She listened for a few moments before responding.
“Yeah, I heard the pricing he wants. Not going to do that.” She raised her voice briefly to head off what was clearly an objection by her regional sales manager at the other end of the call. “Dimitri, he can’t move that much product in his territory. He’ll just let it flow over into the Russian gray market and kill our pricing there. Stash is a big account, but you know, a trader—it’s in his blood. He won’t be able to resist it.”
Rosaria closed her eyes, leaned her head back and listened, mandolin jazz soothing her nerves through one earbud, keeping her grounded. “Yes, yes. Big order. New York calls me every other day for the numbers—but we’re not doing this for him.” She stopped talking to listen for just a moment, then interrupted. “No, he is not Genghis Khan. He’s just a big distributor for Central Asia looking to score by taking advantage of our pricing structures.” She hesitated and laughed. “Okay, maybe he is kind of Genghis Khan, but he’s workable.”
The voice on the other end was insistent.
“Look, Dimitri. It’s a business problem. It will have a solution.” Rosaria rubbed her forehead. “Maybe there’s another way to satisfy him. Add a piece of territory to keep him busy and out of trouble. I’ll be in Istanbul tomorrow for the day with Ergun, and then I’ll meet you in Almaty. We’ll deal with it then.”
She took a deep breath and glanced over at the TV monitor behind the bar. The weatherman, standing in front of colorful graphics, was predicting temperatures in the twenties, with a wind chill factor in the teens, as a developing news story crawled across the bottom of the television screen. Elderly nun murdered on grounds of shuttered Immaculate Conception School in Malford.
Rosaria stiffened for a moment. She cocked her head and turned to face the monitor. Then, tea mug still in hand, she rose from her seat, leaving her cell phone on the table. She walked behind the bar to the front of the television, gently moving the startled young bartender out of the way as she reached up to raise the volume. A real-time video feed appeared under the angry slash of a red Breaking News banner. A young man in a blue Channel Four down jacket stood on the street in front of the Immaculate Conception schoolyard.
Malford Police Chief Nicolo Cullen appeared in uniform, looking reassuringly bulky and determined, surrounded by reporters. “The nun is identified as Sister Mary Aurelius, a retired sister of the Jeanne d’Arc order, the teaching nuns that staffed the Immaculate Conception School when it was active. As of now, we are not aware of the reason for Sister’s being on the school grounds at that time. We do know she was killed at this location.”
The words from the television seemed to be coming from a far distance, through some vast, watery space, before reaching Rosaria and hanging suspended in the small airport lounge. “Bludgeoned to death.” She stretched her fingers toward the headline on the television as if she could touch the words to feel their strangeness, their awfulness. She heard a soft, low keening sound. Was that her?
“A person of interest, a man of no known address but with links to the neighborhood, is now being questioned.”
Rosaria couldn’t absorb the rest of the report as she stood, a frisson of shock, confusion, and fury moving through her body. She had dropped her mug of tea, the brown liquid splashing her slacks and those of the bartender, also transfixed, perhaps more by Rosaria than the news on the screen.
“Christ,” he said. “Who would do something like that?”
Rosaria was not sure how long she stood there.
“You okay, ma’am?”
She raised her hand to him to signal she was okay, even though she wasn’t. Turning from the television, Rosaria walked to her seat where she collected her travel bag and her cell phone. The phone still had Dimitri’s name on the screen. She could hear his bewildered voice asking for her. Rosaria shut off the phone and walked out the door of the lounge.
Later, she couldn’t remember walking through the terminal and getting into a cab. She did dimly recall telling the cabbie to drive to her apartment at Trinity Wharf, and then calling her assistant to make sure her bag got off the Frankfurt/Istanbul flight and that the Turkish distributor knew she wouldn’t be in his offices the next day.
She also remembered texting Dimitri the message that he had to handle Genghis Khan by himself. She could almost hear the cry of despair across the time zones.
Riding through the lighted Ted Williams Tunnel and down Atlantic Avenue, Rosaria felt outside the flow of time, that odd stasis we experience when the world has been altered in some fundamental way.
Aurelius. Spike. Her teacher. More than that. Her life’s anchor, meeting a brutal end in her own schoolyard.
Rosaria’s chest rose slowly and regularly with full, even breaths, and her hands rested on her travel bag as the cab sped through the Boston streets along the waterfront. She felt nothing different except for a gentle tingling. A tiny electrical current coursing through her body, a light charge carrying the message that something was changing. And in the far distance, a low, almost imperceptible roar of something larger, something darker coming toward her at its own pace across the flat, wide, wet sand.
The cab slowed for a light and some late night diners crossing the street from Tia’s on the Waterfront. Couples arm in arm, probably headed back to the suburbs after a night out in the city. Rosaria’s fingers traced the lock on her bag as she gazed out the side window of the cab at the arches of Christopher Columbus Park, glittering with thousands of fairy lights. She felt her eyes smart, but—no—no weeping.
Rosaria’s apartment at the end of the wharf, in a refurbished granite block warehouse from the 1800s, had always felt like her fortress. Now, she dropped her bag inside the door of the apartment, and stood for several minutes in front of the large windows facing the harbor. She watched planes taking off from Logan into the night sky, hers among them.
After some time, she poured a glass of Jameson neat. Drink in hand, she lowered herself into a large green reading chair in front of the long windows and put her feet on the chair’s ottoman. Her hands felt cool on her forehead as she rubbed them back and forth, eyes closed, sipping the Jameson and feeling its familiar warmth in her chest.
Rosaria ignored her cell phone for ten minutes or more before reaching into the pocket of her sweater and pulling it out. Multiple calls from Dimitri and one from Nuncie. Maria Annunciata DiStephano, the baker’s daughter, her childhood friend from the Immaculate. Nuncie and Rosaria bonded early in school because they’d both been given weightily devout names by pious mothers, one Sicilian and one Irish. Names cherished by the nuns and a continuous source of amusement to their classmates. Rosaria punched return call and Nuncie picked up immediately.
“Can you believe this? Jesus Christ.”
“What do you know?” Rosaria asked.
“Not much. They’re holding Joey Mucci. But he says he just found the body.”
“Joey Mucci. God.” Rosaria leaned back and closed her eyes.
“I’d like to kill the son of a bitch with my own hands.”
Yes, Rosaria thought it likely that Nuncie could, with her delicate, terrifying frame, kill the son of a bitch who murdered Sister Aurelius. “Kill Joey?”
“Whoever did this,” Nuncie said. “You think it’s really Joey? I can’t see him doing this.”
“Remember Joey? He was a harmless little guy, even if he was weird as sin.”
“He’s not a kid anymore, Nuncie. He’s a man. A big man. Maybe he’s not so gentle anymore.” Rosaria stopped to sip her drink and could feel the whisky smoothing the edges so that she could function. She wanted to function. “Anyway, who’s got the lead here? Who’s got the case?”
“Gelenian. Leo. Remember him?”
“Yeah. Isn’t he, like, twelve?”
“We all used to be twelve, Ro. He’s grown up and I hear he’s pretty good.”
“We’ll see. Where are you?”
“Still in Gloucester.” Nuncie, unmarried and early retired, lived about thirty-five miles north of Boston in a waterfront home always filled with craft projects and the smell of something mouthwatering cooking on the stove.
“Do you feel well enough to drive down to Malford in the morning?”
“Of course. I’m fine. I’m not an invalid, you know.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll meet you in the Square. What’s good there now?”
“Place called The French Connection across from City Hall. About 9:30. I can miss the traffic coming down. But what do you think you’re going to do when you get there?”
“I don’t know. Something.”
Rosaria closed the phone and refreshed her glass before returning to the chair. A ragged tennis ball sat near the foot of the chair’s ottoman. Archie, her West Highland White Terrier and owner of all the ragged tennis balls that littered the apartment, stayed with Rosaria’s ex-husband, Bronson, in the South End when she traveled. Right now, she could have used the comfort of the shaggy little dog beside her.
Or someone, something.