Chapter 1: The Case of the Cunning Linguist

Completely unedited, this is what I’ve got for chapter 1 of my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel, The Case of the Cunning Linguist, which logs in at 1,694 words according to my iPad word processing program Daedelus. Enjoy!

It was a slow day at the office when the dame with the funny habit walked in. It wasn’t just that she was a nun, done up in the black and white penguin suit, but the headpiece – the wimple – was askew in a manner that suggested she’d been either furiously scratching at her scalp or had hastily thrown it back on just moments before entering my office. Either way, I thought it was odd. Downright peculiar, really. What kind of a nun goes around messing with her clothes? Isn’t that why they’ve got the uniform in the first place? No fuss, no muss, just full-on prayer and heavenly thoughts all day long. Wash and go once a week, just like the gals on the airplanes.

"Smoking nuns" via Flickr user Christophe Becker
“Smoking nuns” via Flickr user Christophe Becker

No, something didn’t add up. Not from the get-go, and certainly not once she started talking.

“Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto,” was what she said. Not “Hello,” or “How do you do?” or “Oh, Ms. Delmar, I really need your help!” What kind of a fine how-do-you-do is that?

“Beg your pardon?” I asked, accepting her small outstretched hand and answering her limp offering with a firm shake. “My Greek’s a little rusty.”

“It’s not Greek, it’s Latin,” she smiled. “It means ‘I am a human being; nothing human is strange to me.’ I was just remarking to myself about your… unique choice of office space.”

“Ah, yes, La Tour Eiffel. Horrifying, isn’t it? That’s why I took the space. It’s the only place in Paris where you can’t see the damn thing.”

I grinned and sat back in my chair, steepling my fingers while observing the nun. She glanced around my room as if taking inventory of the dusty stacks of papers, tiny window papered over with brown grocery bags, and the shabby, mismatched furniture that cluttered the tiny space. As far as detective agencies go, mine wasn’t much to look at, but at least there was evidence of my work in progress, and it was pretty clear I worked alone, judging from the single desk. A woman could feel safe and secure talking to one of her own, or at least that was the idea behind the setup. Bring in the big boys after this little girl sorted out the mess for ’em.

The bird finally deigned to perch upon the wooden chair in front of the desk. She looked both befuddled and haunted, as if she wasn’t sure how to proceed in a place like this – dirty, secular, beyond the confines of her comfortable cloister.

“So, sister, what brings you to Delmar Investigations? Lost your sacristy wine? Misplaced your Bible?” I lit up a cigarette and blew a smoke ring her way. She winced, just like I knew she would.

“Please, Ms. Delmar, this is a very serious matter. I can’t imagine joking at a time like this.”

“A time like what, sister?”

“The name’s Mary Gloria, but since I’m not yet officially a member of the sisterhood, you may require my given name of Edna Folderol. I’m a novitiate with the Carmelite order at Notre Dame.”

“Edna, eh? Well, Edna, what’s the big mystery? Lost lamb like you could get eaten up my us wolves pretty quick. Out with it already.”

“It’s Father O’Malley. He’s… why, he’s dead!”

At this, the nun burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably into my desktop.

“Father O’Malley, you say? And how did you come upon this information, Edna?”

“I was the one that found him,” she finally managed, still sniffling and snuffling. “He had asked me to meet him for matins – that’s morning prayers – at 4, and when I reached the church it was still dark and empty. I went ’round to his chambers, and when I knocked there was no answer. I thought he must have slept through his alarm, so I opened the door to wake him, and there he was, face down on the floor with a knife in his back!”

Before she could commence with the wailing once more, I interjected, “You entered the man’s chambers? Did you touch anything?”

“Oh no! I saw all the blood and the knife and I screamed. Mother Superior found me there, screaming hysterically, and took me away to the infirmary. I think she must have given me a sedative, because I blacked out, and when I came to she told me I’d been out for about an hour. I told her I would be in my chambers, praying for Father O’Malley’s soul, but instead I came straight here. Oh, Ms. Delmar, isn’t it awful?”

“Straight here, you say? How did you know about Delmar Investigations? I thought all of you ladies kept to yourselves at the nunnery, nothing but prayer and good deeds all day long?” I jotted a quick note on the pad on my desk. This story was getting fishier by the minute, and I don’t mean halibut.

“Why, yes, but all of us know you’re the best female detective in town. We love to read write-ups about you in the paper.” She blushed and looked down at the floor.

Was this woman pulling my leg or just buttering me up?

“Sure, but I’m also the ONLY female detective in town. No wonder it still makes headlines,” I huffed. The boys hated that I was always swiping work out from under them, especially when it paid in dividends, as most of my casework did. Heiresses murdered, double indemnities faked, housewives’ fancy jewels stolen… I’d seen it all. Not to mention the more sordid affairs, complete with gigolos, gangsters and burlesque stars. But what on earth did a murdered priest have to do with any of this domestic violence, my stock in trade?

“I know it’s not your typical case, Ms. Delmar,” Edna broke in, as if reading my mind, “But I know Father O’Malley was murdered, and I’m worried about my safety. Will you help me find the killer?” Her pleading eyes and trembling lower lip were silent communiqués I knew well. But were they the look of a truthful novitiate or the fraudulent facsimile of a cold-blooded killer?

“You nuns take a vow of poverty, don’t you? Exactly how do you intend to pay my fee?”

At this Sister Mary Gloria leaned in for a confidential whisper. “Oh, Ms. Delmar, I’m sure Mother Superior will be happy to pay you for your services. She commands quite a full ledger, as she’s the order’s Parisian attaché to Rome. Unlimited spending, courtesy of the Pope.” She sat back again with a confident smile.

“I see. And what if, god forbid, your Mother Superior is somehow involved in this sordid slaying?”

Sister Mary Gloria’s face went white, and she began to shake her head violently. “Oh no! Mother Superior could never… I mean… it’s just impossible! Oh, Ms. Delmar, how could you imply such an awful thing?”

“Stranger things have happened, Ms. Folderol. I am merely speculating aloud. Also, I’m leery of taking on a case in which the client may be unable to pay, due to the possible entanglements of friends, family or church caretakers. Would you mind if I spoke with your Mother Superior about the matter before making up my mind?”

The little nun seemed quite taken aback at this suggestion, and opened her mouth to speak, but quickly closed it again. She rocked back and forth in the chair, as if trying to decide whether or not to reveal any further secrets about her order’s order – or lack thereof. I smoked the remainder of my cigarette and calmly stubbed it into the glass ashtray to my left before she appeared to make up her frantic mind.

“Well, you see…” she began.


“Mother Superior… the whole Carmelite order, really… we… well, quite simply, we do things a bit differently than the rest of the Holy Roman Empire.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, and I shouldn’t like for us to get into any trouble, much less Mother Superior, as she might lose her position due to such a scandal.”

“And you might step in to take her place?” I asked, trying to fit the pieces together.

“Oh no, nothing like that,” she refuted. “It’s just… the Pope allows us certain leeway when it comes to our activities, but I fear his leniency may be compromised if he hears of any… outside probing, if you see what I mean.”

I gave her a hard look. Her wide-eyed innocence seemed plastered onto her face. It was hard to imagine a bride of Christ – or this bride-to-be – telling anything but the truth. And yet stranger things have happened, including this damn odd nun walking into my office and asking me to solve a clergyman’s murder.

“I’m not sure I follow you, Ms. Folderol, but I’ll take the case on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“I must have complete access to both the priory and the church itself, along with full cooperation of the sisterhood concerning my investigation.”

“I’m not sure I can promise the latter, Ms. Delmar, but I’ll do my best. When can you begin?”

“Consider my timecard punched,” I replied. “Go tell your sisters that I’ll be in to speak with them each in turn this afternoon, and take note of any that have a strong or strange reaction, will you?”

“Oh, yes, Ms. Delmar. Anything to help you solve this dreadful murder!” She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, just like a lost widow. Was there more to her relationship with the dead priest than she let on? Another note scribbled onto my pad as she got to her feet and crossed to the exit.

“I’ll see you this afternoon,” I said, as she opened the door.

“Thank you, Ms. Delmar. I look forward to seeing you in action.” She gave me a wave and blushed again before closing the door behind her.

I sat back in my chair once more, steepling my fingers in thought, and wondering how on earth I was going to drag the mystery of this murderer’s identity from a bunch of women who’d sworn a vow of silence.