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"Lupe, are you almost finished? You've been in there for half an hour already. We can't keep Mother Superior waiting!"
Even though I had the shower on full-blast, I could hear my sister Lourdes pounding on the bathroom door and screaming at me. I had to smile at what she had said. Half an hour a perfect Cuban exaggeration. I had been in there for fifteen minutes at the most. It's a well-known fact that Cubans have no real sense of time. Whenever a Cuban relates a particular time, it's normally wise to add or subtract thirty percent one way or the other.
Still, fifteen minutes had been ample time to clean up. I had soaped myself so many times that my skin had actually taken on a slight pinkish tinge- no mean feat for a Cuban. I had washed my hair twice, and now I was considering a third conditioning treatment. I hadn't spent fifteen minutes in the shower because I was so filthy; the truth was that I wanted to delay my morning meeting as long as I possibly could.
Lourdes stopped knocking for the moment. I knew she was almost as apprehensive as me about our appointment with her mother superior. My sister had never before found herself arranging a between the head of her order and a private investigator. I was almost positive Lourdes knew what the meeting was about, but she wasn't talking.
Every Catholic, no matter how holy and devout, or how worldly and fallen, still gets a case of knocking knees at the very notion of meeting with a mother superior. We all suspect that such a high-level nun can look into our eyes and somehow see all the sins we never admitted at confession. And the Catholic Church is pretty strict about human behavior - a sin committed, as a general rule. It's a miracle anyone ever gets to Heaven.
The pounding started again. Lourdes had been working out lately, and it was starting to pay off. She was able to simulate the sound of a lumberjack beating on the door, trying to get in.
I turned off the water. I couldn't claim to be clean of mind, but I could be clean of body. I would have to be content with a fifty-percent success rate.
"Lupe! One more minute and I'm coming in! I swear it!"
I started to towel off. I was a little disconcerting to have a nun make that kind of oath, especially in the morning. I knew I had better hurry, or else soon I would have company in the shower stall.
"Ten minutes," I called out.
I could almost hear a relief through the two-inch-thick wooden door. Lourdes had known she would have to drag me to the convent, but she probably hadn't counted on nearly having to break down a door first.
"It's exactly eight forty-five," she announced. I could picture her looking at her wristwatch, tracking the course of the second hand.
"Ten minutes," I repeated, louder. "I promise."
"We have to be in the car with the motor running at nine," she said. "I'll go tell Osvaldo to get ready."
I listened to her footsteps receding down the hall. Then I sighed in resignation. She had set the schedule, I would have to follow it. It wasn't easy being the younger sister of a nun, even one as progressive and cool as Lourdes.
So I had ten minutes to make myself presentable for Mother Superior. I wasn't sure what would be considered acceptable attire as I flipped through the racks of clothes in my closet. I had to chuckle at the sight of three pairs of black paten-leather shoes at the front of the closet- those would never do for this morning's meeting. I would never forget Sister Mary Magdalene's tone of voice in parochial school, when she said that no good Catholic girl should ever wear patent-leather shoes because, she had said, a girl's underpants could be spotted in the shoes' shiny reflection. When I thought about it, it was amazing that Lourdes and I grew up to be reasonably well-adjusted adults.
I started to rummage around. Something demure-a high-necked, long-sleeve, floor-skimming outfit? No, it might make me come off as a wannabe nun. Anyway, I didn't think I could carry it off. A mother superior would have the ability to spot me as the sinner I was, even if I dressed in a habit and wimple. Both of which, incidentally, I had packed away in a box in the back of the closet-souvenirs from a particularly memorable Halloween party.
Armani? No, too expensive. Everyone knew what that designer's clothes cost. Another universal attribute of the Catholic clergy is their ability to assess a person's bank account in a single glance. If I wore one of my Armani suit, even the linen ones, Mother Superior would expect me to donate my services instead of paying me. She would figure that I was making too much money already from my other cases, and could forfeit my fee without much hardship. I don't work for free; it's a principle as far as I'm concerned.
But the truth was, no matter whether I appeared pious or profane, prosperous or poor, I wouldn't be able to bill the Order of the Holy Rosary my usual fee of a hundred dollars per hour plus expenses. I had already decided that I would cut it in half-but that was as low as I would go. I'd give the mother superior her due, but I was no Mother Teresa, and Solano Investigations was no charity.
I fished out a khaki-colored two-piece suit, put it on over a white cotton T-shirt, and examined myself in the mirror. Just right. Had Mother Superior been a nonsigner I might have dispensed with the T-shirt and showed a touch of cleavage. Every good investigator knows that part of the job is understanding people, whether they be clients or marks.
Just a couple of minutes left before I would really be risking the wrath of Lourdes. I jogged back into the bathroom and twisted my long dark brown hair into a braid, hoping hat this would keep Mother Superior from noticing that it was still dripping wet. I didn't want to arrive at the meeting, looking like a loose, painted woman, but I knew that I would feel naked and defenseless without wearing some kind of cosmetics. So I lightly applied a little blush and rouge to my face. I considered mascara indispensable, no matter who the client was, so I brushed some around my lashes until it made my caramel-colored eyes stand out. Then I sprayed myself with a little Channel No. 5-since smelling good never offended anyone's sensibilities, unless you count some hysterical fragrance-free fanatic.
After one last critical look in the mirror I was ready-and, amazingly enough, with two full minutes to spare. Just before I went downstairs I checked my purse to make sure the Beretta was safely tucked away inside. I almost never took it out, but reassuring myself that it was available was a habit I'd never been able to shake in my seven years as an investigator. You could never be too cautious in Miami, as I had learned the hard way more than once.
I had a shelf full of purses and handbags, but my big black Chanel shoulder bag was my favorite. That purse was like an old friend to me since the time it had saved my life. I stopped in the hall and lovingly ran my finger along a patch of barely discernible stitching: a perfect little circle near the bottom, once inch in circumference.
That hole had been another of life's little souvenirs. A couple of years back I had been forced to use my Beretta to shoot a man with the gun still inside my purse. I had since come to terms with that horrible event; I knew it was a clear-cut instance of self-defense but I also knew I never wanted to go through anything like that again. The purse served as a daily reminder to be careful, and to look out for trouble before it found me first.
I often found myself lingering over that little stitched-up hole. Someday I would be able to pick up the purse without thinking about it, but the shooting was still too fresh in my heart. (At one point I considered sending off a letter to Chanel, telling them the story of how on their bags saved my life, but I never did. The French were the French-practical to the core. I worried they might have accused me of Chanel-bag abuse, saying that I didn't know how to appreciate their fine product. They might have tried to extradite the purse back to France, where it could live free of such callow mutilation at the hands of vulgar Americans.)
"Well, good morning," Lourdes said when I found her at the foot of the stairs. I could see she was trying not to look at her watch, not wanting to give me the satisfaction of admitting that I wasn't going to be late after all.
I hadn't seen her yet that morning, and I wasn't prepared for the sight of her in her nun's regulation outfit. My sister seldom wore the navy-blue, mid-calf serge dress the members of her order considered their formal attire. It wasn't a bad look-as far as nun's garb goes- but Lourdes's chief complaint was that it wasn't possible to conceal her cellular phone in its folds without being spotted. She was resourceful, though, and she'd taken the dress to a seamstress in Little Havana who had made clever changes in the basic design. As a result, Lourdes had a secret compartment around her waist, and she could carry her phone without receiving any withering comments from he mother superior or, Heaven forbid, looking wide-hipped. Our mami didn't raise fools for daughters.
"Good morning yourself," I replied. "Where're Fatima and the twins? Are we the only ones up?" It was a well-known fact in our household that I was drastically allergic to the early-morning hours. To me, nine o'clock felt like dawn. It was inconceivable that people could regularly get up and function at such an hour.
I have another older sister, Fatima Mami named each of us after sites of genuine Catholic miracles. Lourdes, being a nun, should have been temperamentally the most distant from me in the family, but somehow we've always been the closest.
"The twins are at school," Lourdes said. "Papi's at the office already. Fatima's out shopping, hunting for specials at Costco. You were the last one out of bed this morning."
My sister made it seem as though it were mid-afternoon. I was and, I supposed, would always be a sinner. But I was a cheerful one, with a good heart. Lourdes had pretty much given up trying to reform me, limiting herself to praying for me instead. That had been a turning point in our relationship that improved it dramatically. That's not to say she gave up on everything: she still made me pin three medals (one gold, one silver, one mother-of-pearl) to my brassiere. Each represented the Cuban Virgin la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre and ostensible were supposed to keep the Virgin close to my heart at all times. I think Lourdes wanted them to serve as a passion-killer to any man who might find himself in the privileged position of seeing them. In fact the medals seemed to have the opposite effect, but I never told Lourdes that. Who knew what she might come up with then. At least she gave up on making me wrap rosary beads around the muzzle of my Beretta even she had to admit that was ridiculous. Thank God she didn't make me hang them from the rearview mirror of my car, alongside the little plastic bottles of holy water Mami had brought back from a pilgrimage to Lourdes. There were limits to how much protection from above I was willing to have pressed on me.
"And you look tired," she said, lightly touching my chin and looking into my eyes.
"Oh, come on," I said, instantly a little girl in the light of her scrutiny. "I'm fine. I just need to get going."
It had been a very late night. I had been with my friend and lover, criminal-defense attorney Tommy McDonald, and we had celebrated on South Beach until morning. A client we shared-Tommy had defended him, I had conducted the investigation-had been freed from jail yesterday afternoon. It was so late by the time I had gotten home that I considered by the seven-o'clock service at St. Hugh's in the Grove, just so I could tell Mother Superior that I had recently attended Mass.
But there was no way I could take Communion during the early-morning Mass. I would have needed to schedule an hour-long appointment with the priest to run through my confession before receiving the holiest of Sacraments. Besides, confessing my sins would not only reflect badly on me, it would also blot my family's good name. There were few secrets in our parish. Since attending the service without receiving Communion would have only gotten me halfway to a state of grace, I figured there was no point. By then I had been bleary-eyed and dreaming of bed; I had opted for an hour of sleep and headed back to Cocoplum.
So, as usual, Lourdes was right. I was tired, maybe a little hungover. My mouth was dry and my temples throbbed. I wasn't in the best state of mind to confront Mother Superior.
"Well, I suppose that's true," Lourdes agreed. "You always bounce back quickly."
I kissed her cheek. "Buenos dias," I said. "I'm here. I'm ready. Everything will be great."
"Osvaldo has the car ready," Lourdes said. She chewed on her lip, an uncharacteristic slip showing her nervousness. She took a step toward the door. "It's time to go."
"Let me grab an orange juice," I said. My mouth was a desert, and orange juice was just about the only thing I could inflict on my stomach that morning. Well, other than the four Advils that were already in there, hard at work even if I wasn't.
Lourdes shrugged and stepped outside into the hot morning. I looked out the open front door from the kitchen and saw that I'd better hurry. Osvaldo was already there, holding the car door open for Lourdes. That gave me a couple of minutes. Lourdes was Osvaldo's favorite of the three daughters and he would want to chat for a couple of minutes before sending her on her way.
Osvaldo had been with our family for more than a half a century, along with his wife, Aida. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the situation in Cuba became intolerable for them and our family. They went into exile with my maternal grandparents and their children, the only members of our household staff to do so. Upon my grandparents' deaths, Mami had taken responsibility for employing them.
Aida and Osvaldo were now both in their eighties, a fact that could easily slip past the undiscriminating eye. They were still nearly as active as when they first worked for our family in Havana- the day that they returned to the city after their honeymoon. Aida was crotchety and cross, but without a doubt the best cook in Miami. Osvaldo, butler and gardener, was as sweet-natured as his wife was crabby. Together they had kept our household functioning when Mami died eight years before. They had suffered during that sad time as much as anyone in the family because they had known and loved my mother since she was a little girl.
I came out of the house clutching a carton of orange juice (somehow it just didn't seem right to call it OJ anymore) in one hand and a chunk of Aida's homemade bread in the other. Sure enough, Lourdes and Osvaldo were laughing at some joke together.
The laughter stopped when they saw me. "Hey," I said. "I don't look that bad."
"It's a good thing your sainted mother is not alive to see your manners, Lupe," Osvaldo said, pointing at the carton of orange juice and the bread, which had left a trail of crumbs all the way back to the kitchen.
The old man stepped back from the car and, with a practiced theatrical flourish, crossed himself and rolled his eyes to Heaven. He then actually held his arms upward, as though shielding Mami from such a horrific sight.
"We're late, Osvaldo, and I'm hungry!" I protested. It didn't help; the old man shuffled back toward the house, shaking his head, each step heavy with dejection.
Lourdes gave me an accusing look. "If you'd gotten home before the rooster crowed, you might have time to fry your hair and eat a proper breakfast!"
Nothing got past my sister the nun, no slip, transgression, or little white lie. When you had God, the Virgin, and all the Saints in your corner, you presented a tough team to go up against. There was no point telling Lourdes that her knowledge of barnyard animal habits was limited to the wildlife found around the multimillion-dollar homes in Cocoplum - and that those, knowing the relentlessly rigid laws in Coral Gables, were bound to be tagged and licensed.
Instead I meekly got behind the wheel. When Lourdes had buckled her belt in the passenger seat, I eased the car out of the driveway. It was nice and cool inside the car, since Osvaldo had turned on the air-conditioning when he had started it a few minutes before.
I munched on the Cuban bread and drove slowly. Then I glanced at Lourdes. She seemed to have forgotten she was mad at me, because she looked out at the with a placid expression, her hands folded in her lap.
"So, anyway," I said between bites of bread. " What's this meeting going to be about? Come on, we'll be there in a few minutes. At least give me a little hint."
I hated-no, detested- going into a meeting unprepared. It was my habit to, at the very least, have an idea what the problem was, why my client might possibly need a private investigator.
Lourdes shook her head. She had the same look as I'd imagined on her face when she called me the day before at my office, informing me that her mother superior needed to see me as soon as possible.
"I can't," she said in a flat voice. "Mother Superior asked me to wait until our meeting. I gave her my word."
I drove on, the wheels of the Mercedes spinning. Then I thought of something.
"Hey, she isn't going to ambush me, is she?" I asked. "Do you need recruits so badly that you're going to try to draft someone like me?"
Lourdes looked over, frowning. "Women entering hold orders are not recruits. They have a calling. Lupe, do you have any respect at all for the Catholic Church?" She bit her lip again, seeming disgusted, then raised he hand to silence me before I could tell her I had been joking. "No, don't answer. Please, just drive."
Wow. Lourdes rarely lost her sense of humor. I knew then that this had to be serious. I slowed down as we reached the security checkpoint for the enclosed development where we lived.
"Come on, it's me," I cajoled. "You can give me a little hint."
Lourdes smiled sweetly at the guard, who tipped his hat in a courtly, old-fashioned way. Lourdes could always bring out the gentility in people. Except for me. I somehow always managed to worry and infuriate her. Just as I had apparently done again. As soon as we pulled away from the guard station her smile disappeared and I saw a familiar tightening in her jaw.
"Lupe, you have to promise me you'll behave," she said. "And don't - I repeat, don't you dare - get into an argument with Mother Superior about your favorite issues within the church."
I tried to give her an innocent look as I said, "Who? Me?"
"You know what I'm talking about," she said. "Women priests. Birth control. Excommunication for divorced people who remarry. Homosexuality. All of it. Promise me. Please."
She had enumerated each issue on her fingers, finally making a tense fist. She didn't seem to realize she had done this.
"Don't worry, don't worry." I washed down the last of the bread with a mouthful of orange juice, feeling a little better. "I won't embarrass you, I promise."
I drove on Douglas Avenue toward the Grove, where the convent was located.
"Tell you what," I added. "I'll just limit my editorializing to same-sex marriages performed by divorce woman priests. Is that OK?"