"The Jingle Bell Bum" (Read The Touching True Story...please!) Comment at patriciahanrion.com

"The Jingle Bell Bum" (Read The Touching True Story...please!) Comment at patriciahanrion.com
Still available on Amazon for Nook and Kindle, hard copy booklett to re-print November 2013

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Murder at the Convent

Murder at the Convent,
Working Readers' Radio Theater script from book

Murder at the Convent
Jessica Stewart Student Nurse Series,
by Patricia Hanrion Copyright pending 2014

Setting:  Phoenix Arizona in the early 1960’s,
Ben Watts: Detective who is reminiscing and tells the story.
Isaiah Irons: Chief of Detectives in the Phoenix Police Department
Dr. Alice Dunn: Coconino County Coroner.
Mother Superior: Sister Mary of the Lamb, Abbes at the Good Shepard Convent
Sister Mary full of Grace: Cook for the Convent
Novice Sister: Josetta Mary of the Rose
Novice Sister: Mary Gabriel the sanctified
Student nurse: Jessica Stewart, first year
Opening Music: theme song…fades as Ben begins to speak

Ben:  Back then when I was a cub detective I cut my teeth on a series of murders across the Phoenix area that would curl your hair and taught me all about the importance of bloodhound research, when looking to solve a crime.  My boss, and mentor at the time was Isaiah Irons, a stub of a man, but in this case size does not matter. He originally hailed from the Chicago area, and was as hard as his name implied.  His thin grey comb-over was slicked across his rapidly balding pate which was in sharp contrast to the bunched muscles under his cheap suit.

I was very young and didn’t even have the money for a cheap suit, so after the promotion wore a white shirt with a frayed collar and the tie my mother gave me when I turned 18.

I answered the call for my first case at seven am one summer day with the innocence of a baby needing a pacifier but was soon shocked into adult hood when I heard the unyielding voice of the Mother Superior at the Convent of the Good Shepard.

Foley (phone rings)

Mother Superior: Please help us.  Detective, please, I didn’t know who else I should call…please…come out to the convent. I know it’s a bit of a drive in this heat but Sister Josetta Mary of the Rose didn’t come to morning mass so I went to her cubicle thinking she was ill with the cold so many have been cursed with in the past few weeks.  But I found her on her cot, not breathing, with no pulse, and as chilled as the winter wind. 

Ben: I told her to take a breath and calm down.  “You’ve done the right thing calling us mam; we’ll leave immediately and should be there within the hour. Don’t touch or move anything.  Don’t let anyone in the room and if there is a window keep the area under the window blocked off until we can collect evidence.  If possible, tell as few as possible.”  I heard her weeping softly, “Do you understand mam.”

Mother Superior: “Yes, I do, and since none of our doors lock, I will close the door and have one of our novitiates sit guard until you can arrange to get here.  (She sniffs) Oh Dear, Sister Josetta was only a young girl and about to take her final vows so could not have died from any age related ailment.  I can’t imagine what has happened, but I fear she has condemned her soul.

Ben:  She hung up and I gave the information to the Chief.  He gave a low whistle.

Isaiah: I heard there was a cloistered convent out a ways on a side road near Surprise but in all my years at this station don’t think we have ever gotten a call from there.  They are in our county jurisdiction so we had best get out there… (laughs)

Ben: He laughed uncomfortably.

Isaiah: And get on with this investigation so we can stay on the right side of the Lord, son.  First of all, I’m sure whatever happened was an accident, or natural.  Growing up in Chicago, there was a church with either a seminary or a convent on every corner and one thing I learned was you can always trust the nuns, though most are tough as nails.  If it wasn’t an accident then we need to find out who else goes out there, and why.  Call Dr. Dunn and see if she can come along with the coroner van.

Foley: dialing phone, vehicles moving…

Ben: It took us an hour to travel across the desert to the remote convent tucked between two dry knolls dotted with saguaro cactus.  The chief spent most of the ride with his head back and eyes closed as if taking a nap.  The air was already beginning to heat up and I heard tower bells chime as we drove up.  The entire convent consisted of several cottages, four large dormitory type buildings and an Abby Church on about fifteen acres of sandy desert, all surrounded by ten foot tall fences with secure gates front and back.  As we drove near, the front gate opened as if by magic and we pulled past a wide green lawn surrounded by an abundance of flowering plants that gave it the appearance of an English garden.  The scene was out of place in this sweltering valley where water was at a premium. 

Foley (Gate creeks open…car comes to halt, doors open and close under dialogue)

We parked in the small dirt lot in front of the main building; and were followed closely by the coroner in her van who parked next to our squad car.  Mother Superior, was as crisp as new fallen snow in her blinding white habit when came out of the main building to meet us.  Isaiah took the lead while I recorded notes and scanned the surroundings for unusual circumstances.

Isaiah: Mam,

Mother Superior: (Interrupting) you may call me Mother Mary if you like…
Mother Superior visits Alaska


Isaiah: Mam…uh, (Uncomfortably mumbles) Mother Mary, I’m Isaiah Irons…chief detective and this is Ben Watts my assistant, the man you spoke to when reporting your…um…incident.  We’ve brought with us the coroner, Dr. Alice Dunn, to examine the um…Sister in question.  Now first off; have you discussed this with anyone else here at the convent since you phoned? 

Ben: I noticed the chief sounded unusually formal and stiff as he went through the litany of routine questions.

Mother Superior:  Why, No Sir, Ah, I mean detective, not even the novice sitting at Sister Josetta’s closed door.

Ben: She wrung her hands and spoke so softly I had to lean forward to hear the rest of her response.

Mother Superior: I’ve done as you directed and let none of the sisters, or any of the help, know of the, er incident, although due to my vows I was obligated to contact our Holy Mother home in San Salvador.

Isaiah: And you told them…what?

Mother Superior: Well, um, because of the time change, I could not reach them, so left a message that I would call them back with a matter of immediate importance.

Now… Please follow me. Shhhh. We’ll take the short cut through the Abby chapel where the Sisters are at morning joined prayer.

Foley: (Slight swish of clothing, footsteps door creeks open, chanting prayers in a high pitched melody reciting the rosary or some Gregorian chant. another door creeks open and closes then footsteps are heard echoing down a hall,-under dialogue)

Ben:  Her robes flowed around her and the blue band on the edge of the long cloth over her head was as stiff as a one hour corpse.  She folded her arms over the heavy cross that hung from a narrow ribbon around her neck and placed her hands under the long sleeves of the gown.  She glided in front of us like a sheet covered ghost without a rustle or movement from her heavy clothing.  It must have been over 110 degrees in the building which had no air conditioning.  There was very little help from the few fans pulling-in blasts of hot air from the outside.

Foley: Fan blowing in back ground until they enter the room of Sister Josetta

After rapidly passing through a maze or corridors we reached a young woman sitting on a stool in front of a closed door.  I noticed there was not one bead of sweat on Mother Superior’s creased face, while I had sweat rings to my ankles.  She placed a hand on the shoulder of a great lump of a girl and introduced her.

Mother Superior: Sister Gabriel here…is a Novice who came to our Mother House as an infant from our orphanage in Ecuador.  Her cubicle is just across from Sister Josetta’s.  I set her as guard, so to speak, and instructed her not let anyone in or (clears throat)…echm, out. You see we have no locks on any of the doors within our convent, and all are left open for anyone to enter as they choose.  The only locks are on the gates.  One at the front gate, the automatic electric one we recently had installed with a donation from a relative of one of our novitiates…and the service gate at the back where one must press a buzzer to have someone come out and open the lock.  As far as I know no one entered or left after about five last evening.  And I left all as I found it for you to examine. 

Ben: Even now I remember how intently I observed everything and wrote in my new notebook.  I was trying to appear full of efficiency with spare sharpened pencils on hand to impress my new boss.  My first note stated the novice had her head down as if in prayer.

Isaiah:  Ah, I see. Thank you,… so now…Sister Gabriel, young lady, I’m Chief Detective of Coconino County and need to ask you a few questions…I understand you came from Central America… you speak English?…intiendo Englase?

Sister Gabriel: Sir, although I was left on the doorstep of the orphanage and then passed on to the convent when an infant, I was sent here to the United States when only three, my English is fine…

Ben: Her voice was lilting, hypnotic, as if singing softly as she spoke.

 Isaiah: (interrupts) mmm… good…So you were-are, friends with Sister Josetta?

Foley: (stool scrapes)

Sister Gabriel: Sir, we are not what you would call friends.  Although we began our final training together, I was assigned to kitchen nutrition and chanting as my Divine Calling, while Sister Josetta went to the infirmary, and was given the Sacrifice of silence and recollection.  We never see one another except at meals, and she is usually on assignment during prayers, and anyway, as Sisters of the Good Sheppard we are to have no friendships, except with our Lord.

Mother Superior: Thank you for your little service here my dear… you may go to the kitchen and ask Sister Mary Grace to find you something to eat since you have missed morning meal. Please, stay there and don’t speak to anyone until I come to get you.”

Ben: I saw Sister Gabriel, head down with her face covered by her loose scarf go slowly down the hall… but before she turned the corner she lifted her head to give a questioning look at Mother Superior.  When the cloth fell away from her face I could then guess why she was at the convent.  She was horribly deformed with puffy strawberry marks covering it on one side from chin to forehead.  She had very small eyes so close together they appeared crossed. Her large crooked shoulders crowded into the grey novice habit which fell to her substantial ankles and she walked with a limp. Wisps of damp stringy hair escaped from her head covering.  However, her strange face and demeanor was quickly forgotten when I recalled her hypnotic voice, much like the melodic tinkling of a bell.  

Foley: scrape of stool, latch lifted, door opens

Isaiah: Are all the rooms alike?

Mother Superior: Yes, captain, we only need a small personal space as there is naught a need to store personal items.  We only have what we need, and no more.

Ben: The captain stood there blocking the doorway for a moment silently observing and when he finally entered with the others following I could finally see in the room.  The sparseness was what I expected.  Plain, with everything beige or some shade of tan, a bed, table, stick lamp, a chest, and a small high window which had no glass with crossed bars imbedded into the thick adobe walls. The room was so small it seemed like a closet and barely held the few pieces of furniture. After I maneuvered my way to the end of the bed around the wall of warm bodies, I could see there was no life within the girl before me.  She was prone; and had a white rose clutched tightly in her right hand and a bible in her left.  My first thought was of a photograph advertising a perfume in Life magazine; like a set stage for what I saw on the bed surprised me; the tiny and very shapely young lady dressed in novice attire had an absolutely enchanting face.  Her headscarf was on the bedside table so her long fair hair was loose and framed her face like a halo.  She looked like an angel. Yet underneath the skin was the unnatural waxy grey of death and her closed eyes were circled with dark lavender.  If I didn’t know better I would have thought her sleeping; she looked so much like a figure frozen in time.  My first thought was “What a shame.” Not because she was dead but because such a young and beautiful girl had entered the convent without experiencing life.  My second thought was about the queasy feeling in my stomach, and the thickness of the air. And then, I noticed something out of place; peeking out from under her skirt; a tiny scrap of pale pink lace.

Isaiah: Mother um…Mary, can you tell me about this young woman?  Was she having any problems, with other sisters or second thoughts about taking her final vows?  This feels like a suicide to me, and looks like one too;  I’m quite sure it was not a natural death considering her tender age and what I see, but we need to rule out both suicide and murder.

Mother Superior: OH! My no…I don’t see how that can be, it must have been something else…a fright, or from the cold we all have had, pneumonia perhaps, but I must admit, when I entered the room it felt wrong, like a light had been put out.

Ben:  Inspector Irons took a pen from his lapel pocket and carefully pried the flower from the dead girls’ stiff fingers placing the evidence in an envelope and passing it to Dr. Dunn. I took the camera from around my neck and began taking photos of the scene from every angle including the furnishings and walls.  After dusting for fingerprints, I opened the drawers of the chest and took photos of the meager contents, noting two of the underthings in the bottom drawer were edged with the same delicate pink lace I had seen under Sister Josetta’s skirt.  Since everything within the convent was without adornment I considered the garments unusual and wrote down these thoughts to convey to the Inspector when we drove back to the precinct.  Dr. Dunn began her work and pulled out a thermometer, soon after I saw her write the time of death as between two and three AM.  After concentrating on taking two rolls of film, I finally began to pay attention to the questioning when Mother Mary was halfway through her description of the deceased.

Foley: (Mother Superior is heard speaking under last few words of Ben, and then gets louder)

Mother Superior: …and her family was also from Central America.  Her mother died of malaria when she was young which is why she believes her calling is to the sick.  Many feel the call to a vocation in our order from that area although we have now gathered some to our nest all the way from Europe.  And, um… Well now, I must admit Sister Josetta has had a difficult time in transition to our life since she arrived three years ago, and I believe still clings to the memory of her father, who is a lace maker by placing small scraps of his work in places where she thinks it can’t be seen.    I know the bits of froth give her comfort. It is such a small transgression that I have turned my head, especially since she can only serve in the infirmary due to her disability…which keeps her from devotional service elsewhere. 

Ben: I wondered what that disability could possibly be as I looked once more on the still and lovely body of Sister Josetta.

Mother Superior:  I’ve assisted her to keep it a secret for her years with us as a postulate and then a novice, but it has now been revealed.  You see…

Ben: She leaned forward as if to tell a tremendous secret.

Mother Superior: She cannot carry a tune, not one wit!  Has no ear for music, so to speak and has been excused from choral prayer until now.  But…for final vows one must participate with the other novices in song so she has recently begun to join in…and now everyone knows of her ungodly curse.  You see…A good part of our worship has to do with harmonic prayers…singing.  We strive to have the most angelic of all voices so the Lord will listen to ours first, but Sister Josetta has been a trial and often ruins an hour of lovely prayer with some very sour notes.  Such a pity.  Even with lots of practice her voice is grinding, and as flat and sour as a miner’s pancake and I do believe she IS a bit deaf…or, oh dear…was…a bit deaf….

Ben:  Her voice trailed off and her eyes filled with tears.  I looked over at the still lifeless girl while Inspector Irons droned on with questions that buzzed in my head like a hive.  I began to look more closely at my cramped surroundings and started to feel claustrophobic. When my vision blurred I stepped into the hallway to gulp at the still heavy air but found no relief from the feeling of being closed in.  My head began to spin so I leaned against the wall and slid down to sit on the floor.  Then… I heard a voice…

Isaiah : Watts, what’s wrong, are you Okay?

Ben: My first murder case and there I sat, on the floor like a swooning little girl.  I would never live it down.  I told him I was fine…as I watched the body roll past me on its way to the Coroners van, and said I thought it was the heat and stammered the excuse that I didn’t have time for breakfast.  So…as a result…got a full hour of lecture on the way back to the station about always, without fail, having something in my stomach before going out on a potential death call. 

Isaiah:  Even if it’s not a murder call, if it’s some bloody accident you could lose your lunch or pass out and look like a fool to staff, and the public you need to question.  No low blood sugar is permitted! And if you must faint…fall backwards so you don’t contaminate the crime scene.

Ben: Never NEVER do that again was his mantra, repeated several times.  And finally he said;

Isaiah: Son, (yelling) I will not speak of this, do you hear?  And thank goodness I know Alice is closed mouthed. You could lose all credibility if you pull that kind of a stunt in front of someone less considerate than I…young man!

Ben: He blustered along like an old pirate.  I kept silent all the way back to the station and vowed not to disappoint him again because if this was him being considerate, I’d hate to see him angry…my eardrums would most likely be blown out…

(this is logical time for station break…if needed)

Foley: car parking break set, doors open and close, footsteps and then office sounds.

Isaiah:  I’ll go over these staff and vendor folders, and you can review the backgrounds of the others including the elderly nuns and the priests living in the nursing home building.  We’ll meet with Dr. Dunn at five for preliminary reports so make sure you have your review completed by then.

Ben: I watched him go into his office with a small stack of papers, while I was loaded down with a huge box bulging with folders.  Sitting at my desk surrounded by the hum of police activity I set to work.

Foley: sound of office activity rises louder…then softens

Ben: Four hours later I headed toward the conference room with my cursory report and saw Dr. Dunn sitting at the table tapping her finger on a single sheet of paper. This time I made sure my belly had one of the stale ham and cheese sandwiches from the hallway vending machine and I carried with me a large bottle of my life liquid…Coca-Cola.

Isaiah:  I’ve called the convent and told the Mother Superior we would be there by 9 tonight and ‘ave given her a list of person’s I need to interview.  Hmmm, my investigation has resulted have a few twisted facts that could lead somewhere, But let’s hear yours first, Dr. Dunn, then you Ben.

Dr. Dunn:  After a complete autopsy I found this was basically a young healthy virginal female.  There was evidence of some unusual joint deterioration in her long bone extremities. My final results were inconclusive but I have a suspicion she was somehow poisoned.  Large amounts of oleander were found in her urine and blood and a small amount in the contents of her stomach.  I also found strychnine in her blood.  The rest of her body was unremarkable except for what appeared to be several bee stings on her legs, and I think cat scratches on her legs and hands then there were the puncture wounds on her right hand, from the thorns of the rose she held. I cannot tell you if the cause of death was accidental or intentional; suicide or murder. 

I called the head gardener at the convent who resides in one of the dormitory cottages.  He told me the back hedge of the convent is oleander. He’s familiar with the poisonous properties of the plant, as he was originally from the Philippines where the plants are native.  I also inquired about any bees on the premises.  Evidently there are three retired priests in the ambulatory care area of the small infirmary and all three have become hobby bee keepers.  They have several hives behind the back fences and gave the kitchen staff their first harvest of honey about a month ago.  Honey made from the nectar of the oleander flowers can cause some severe symptoms not from the pollen or the blossoms, but from the leaf oil on the pads of the bees which can contaminate the honey.  I have only heard of death from eating the leaves, or steeping them into a tea.  There is an urban legend of a family that died because they roasted their hotdogs on branches from an oleander, but that has been proven a myth.  Ben called me to investigate an unusual stickiness of the rose which I found to have been immersed in strychnine, whose origin is a tree.  There are three strychnine trees in the back orchard surrounded by orange and apple trees.  I need to find out more about the combination of those elements as neither one had enough in her body fluids to cause death, but combined… I’m just not sure. 

Before we left the convent this morning I spoke with Sister Gabriel again and she told me Sister Josetta thought she had some disorder of the bone and that she chose not to complain of the pain and used silent prayer as solace.  Also of note is the appearance of the room, the bed and the body, none look as if there was any thrashing or restlessness which occurred before death.  Her body wasn’t contorted, her clothing was smooth, not twisted or undone, and her face was serene as if she had fallen asleep.  Most poisons cause cramping and pain.  And, thank you Ben for all the pictures you processed and sent to me as they confirmed my memory of how the body was positioned, and showed no evidence of distress.  Then also there was the unusual bluish, pale tone under her skin, but then…I’m more used to seeing tan bodies here in the Valley of the Sun.

Isaiah:  Thanks Alice, you’ve done your usual through job and your thoughts go along with my theory of a poison, not a natural death.  I agree the serene position of the body doesn’t fit with any kind of distress and I’m not sure about a suicide as that would put her in a bad position with her sacred vows… sooo anything else?  No, Okay….Ben? shoot…

Ben: The first thing I noticed at the scene out of place was… um… her undergarments. (I don’t know why, but the fact that I noticed the lace embarrassed me and I continued on with a red face) I explained the lace seemed out of place, when everything else was so plain and disciplined, but then realized it was an innocent reminder of her home after the Mother Superior’s description of her childhood. I agree the way the body was positioned seemed like a set-up, flowers in hand, it seemed like she was sleeping, or ready for a funeral viewing. It simply felt wrong. 

Anyway, did you know every sister takes on the name of Mary in this convent, and adds another of their choosing; their old name is left behind and discarded.  For some reason that fact fascinated me and by looking at their entrance records I made a list of the original names of each sister to see if that would give us a clue.  One thing I discovered was that Mother Superior, and the sister guarding the door; Sister Gabriel Mary, and Sister Josetta had the same surname as one of the gardeners, but then Garcia is such a common name, it most likely means nothing.  But then again…there were no other duplicates.  I also found out Sister Josetta has an older brother who immigrated here and became a citizen of the US six years before she was sent here.  He recently returned from Viet Nam and was hired here at the convent as a general handy man and custodian.  We should have him on the list to question as he lives with some of the other workers on the premises.

As far as the priests go, I could never find out much about them, one had recently arrived from South America.  They live in the long term conservatory; I guess that’s where some of the frail retired priests live.

After I examined the flower sample, I could easily identify it as a rose, from the smell alone, but there was a particular sweetness, and the stem and thorns were sticky.  So I sent it on to Dr. Dunn, and you heard about it being coated or dipped in a strong solution of strychnine.  

Most of the work is done by the nuns, laundry, cooking and such, even a lot of the gardening.  One of the custodians who doubles as a gardener came from the same orphanage in San Salvador as Sister Gabriel and lives at the conservatory also. The total number of persons at the facility is 48.  7 retired priests, 34 nuns including 5 novices, and 7 other staff.  I saw on the record there are 3-4 others who come in from time to time for repairs who live in a nearby town of Surprise Arizona.  They keep a record at the front gate and the back one of persons who enter so we know during the evening before the death the only ones at the facility were the 48 full time residents. I agree with Dr. Dunn about a poison which still leaves the question, Murder or Suicide.

Irons: Well good work, Murder or Suicide.  Suicide is unfortunate, sad and a waste, but no danger to the rest of the living out there, but if its murder we have to find out quickly, because one murder could lead to more.  And the convent is so isolated; all those ladies are basically trapped out there, and needless to say unprepared to defend themselves.  I checked the small shed toward the back gate and the only means of transportation for the sisters is an old station wagon.  Good work everyone.

Ben:  At that point a 911 dispatcher ran in to say there had just been a call and a hang up from the convent, and when they tried to return the call, all the lines were dead.  The three of us snatched up our papers, ran out to the squad car, and took off with lights flashing.

Foley: Doors slam…Police car sirens start up and fade to, music and

Commercial break


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