Kippie caught Sister Mary’s eye, and had to try desperately hard to suppress a giggle as Sister Millicent berated the moral fibre of today’s young people. In the end, the two of the managed to duck down a side passage, leaving the old nun ranting to herself as she continued down the corridor oblivious to their absence.
Mary ushered her friend into a small classroom. (One of the form rooms for the house of St Quentin, patron saint of grapefruit. After reading about the activities of the protestant William of Orange, St Quentin believed all citrus fruit to be anti-papist, heretical and evil. His life turned around during a long sea voyage to the Americas when his life was saved by the ship’s supply of limes, the only food they had been left with following a raid by the infamous pirate, Scurvy Graham. St Quentin was martyred protecting a sacred lemon tree from Don Huan del Monte in 1839.)
Sister Mary shut the door behind them. As soon as it clicked shut, both of them burst out laughing.
“I can see she hasn’t changed!” chuckle Kippie, wiping a tear from her eye.
“Tell me about it!” smirked Sister Mary. “She doesn’t seem to have aged since I’ve been here, either.” She leant close to Kippie and whispered conspiratorially. “We think that she really died years ago, but St Peter didn’t want to let her in, so he sent her back!”
Kippie nodded. “I could imagine her telling the Heavenly Hosts to keep the noise down!” Mary took and deep breath and, with some effort, composed herself. “So, I presume this isn’t just a social visit?”
Kippie shook her head, and was suddenly serious. “No.”
“Is it about the robbery?” May asked quietly.
“No, but I heard about that.” Kippie looked at the friend in concern. “Are you OK?” Mary laughed again and tried to make light of the situation but the laugh was fairly hollow. “I’m fine. But it’s not the normal way I’d chose to get tied up. Garden hose gives you bad friction burns!”
Kippie could see through the façade and remained silent, giving Mary the space to say what she needed. Sure enough, the young nun soon dropped the smile.
“Actually, it was horrible,” she confessed. “I could swear that it had been a snake that wrapped itself around me and not garden hose.”
Kippie had read the report, and the official psychologist line was that the stress of the robbery had cause Mary to think that the textured hose she had felt was actually the scales of a snake. After all, as a young welsh nun, Mary was not exactly an expert on snakes. (Not unless you included the one-eyed trouser snake of Bishop Plum. Now, there was a bishop that had really needed to be bashed.) Furthermore, some of her personal habits did leave her prone to hallucinations. Kippie could see the fear in her eyes, though. It was a look she had often seen in the eyes of numerous punters, usually just before Cassidy sank his teeth into their private parts.
Mary dropped her gaze to the floor. “Seems like an awful lot to put someone through just to get hold of a couple of tortoises, some newts and a gerbil.”
Kippie also stared at the floor and nodded sympathetically as her brain processed the information. Then she looked up suddenly as the penny dropped. “What?!”
Mary looked up, slightly dazed. “That’s what was stolen – a couple of tortoises, some newts and a gerbil. I thought you’d know that.”
“I must have skimmed over that bit when I read the report,” explained Kippie, somewhat distantly. “I don’t really do robberies. Well, not unless they’re in progress, anyway.”
She chewed her bottom lip as he made the connection. Two tortoises were stolen from St Mildred’s. (The house mascots of St Percy, patron saint of shelled animals. St Percy died trying to rescue terrapins from the sewers of Cardiff City.) Then one turns up dead in a field with a former employee. Coincidence? Maybe. “In this case, though, there may be a link with my assignment.”
Mary snapped out of reliving her ordeal. “So, why are you here, exactly?”
Kippie tried to push the thoughts of tortoises to the back of her mind for the moment. But tortoises can be stubborn animals with strong little legs, so she resorted to tempting them to the back of her mind with two sticks of celery and a dandelion.
“Mary,” she said. “I need some information about an old caretaker.”
Mary frowned. “Not old Bob Bob?”
Bob Jacobs, known as Bob Bob due to his tendency to repeat himself, was the white-haired old caretaker of St Mildred’s when Kippie was a student there. It was hard to conceive what he could possibly have done to warrant police interest. He would frequently fall asleep in the middle of mowing the lawns or sweeping the corridor. Once he even fell into the fish tank when he fell asleep feeding the fish.
Kippie smiled at the memory but shook her head. “No. I’m interested in a guy called Edwards. Patrick Edwards.”
She watched as Mary opened the classroom door and peered out, alert for the signs of Sister Millicent. Satisfied that they were safe, she returned and sat close to Kippie.
“I do remember Patrick,” she confided. “Lovely fella. I suppose you know that he left in a bit of controversy.”
Kippie consulted her notebook. “Yep. Arrested for possession and then forced to resign, according to my notes.”
Mary glanced nervously at the door and dropped her voice to a whisper. “He was a pagan, you know.”
Kippie nodded. “Yes, I know.”
“It caused a few problems here, I can tell you. I’m sure you can imagine. I mean, I didn’t really mind, and neither did Blow Jo – pagans can get the best gear – but it didn’t go down well with Mother Superior. Or Millicent, for that matter.”
She looked round at the door again before leaning closer to her friend.
“I think that it was Millicent who tipped off the filth, sorry, the police about Patrick’s marijuana,” she whispered, even quieter than before. She sat back straight again. “What’s he done?”
Kippie opened her mouth and then shut it again. She was sure she could trust her friend but the explosion was not yet in the public domain. “He’s been involved in some, er, cult activities.”
“Oh, that.” Mary smiled. “Indecent exposure, was it?”
She leant forward once more. “He asked me along to his cult, once. I must admit I was tempted by the naked frolicking.”
She sat back and shook her head wistfully. “I would definitely lose my job if that came out, though, so I didn’t risk it.”
Smiling again, Mary looked at Kippie. “So what do you need? Character witness?” She frowned. “He was perfectly safe around kids, if that’s the concern?”
Kippie looked at her feet. She did not realise that Mary had known him so well and felt that she was going to have to tell her the truth now. Mary would not spread it around. She took her friend’s hand and took a deep breath. “Mary. I’m not sure how to say this but, er, I’m afraid something’s happened to Patrick.”
Mary frowned. “He’s not got himself arrested again has he? Look, I’d love to help but I’m not exactly in Sister Millicent’s good books as it is.”
Kippie shook her head. “I’m afraid it’s worse than that. Mary, Patrick’s dead.”
“What?” The colour drained from the young nun’s face. “Dead? Wh… how?”
The WPC squeezed her friend’s hand before releasing it. “It was an explosion. We think it was a cult suicide. Please – you’re not to tell anyone. We don’t want the press getting it until we’ve contacted next of kin.”
Mary was still in shock. “Suicide? He never mentioned anything to me about his cult committing suicide. Tended to concentrate more on the naked frolicking, as I recall. And the, um, mind expansion, so to speak.”
Kippie had her pencil out now and was scribbling a few things down in her notebook.
“What did he say about the cult, Mary?” she asked, gently. “Think. It could be important.”
Mary shrugged, the tears slowly welling up in her eyes. “Nothing, really. Just the frolicking really. Getting out into nature for some ‘good cult vibes’, as he used to call them.”
“Did he ever mention anyone else?”
“Not really,” Mary frowned. “There were other people but he never said how many, or who they were.”
Kippie sucked the end of her pencil briefly but quickly withdrew it when she tasted the rubber on the tip. “What about next of kin?”
Mary sagged forward, her head in her hands. When she looked up, a lonely tear was running down her right cheek. “I really don’t know.”
Kippie put her pencil down and placed a hand gently on her friend’s arm.
Mary wiped the moisture from her eyes and took Kippie’s hand up in her own once more. “Come on. Sister Enid keeps all the records. If anyone knows, it would be her.”