When Emma Sharpe is summoned to a convent on the Maine coast, it's partly for her art crimes work with the FBI, partly because of her past with the religious order. At issue is a mysterious painting depicting scenes of Irish lore and Viking legends, and her family's connection to the work. But when the nun who contacted her is murdered, it seems legend is becoming deadly reality.
Colin Donovan is one of the FBI's most valuable assets--a deep-cover agent who prefers to go it alone. He's back home in Maine after wrapping up his latest mission, but his friend Father Bracken presents him with an intrigue of murder, international art heists and a convent's long-held secrets that is too tempting to resist. As the danger spirals ever closer, Colin is certain of only one thing--the very interesting Emma Sharpe is at the center of it all.
A ruthless killer has Emma and Colin in the crosshairs, plunging them into a race against time and drawing them deeper into a twisted legacy of betrayal and deceit.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
August 31, 2011
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Saint's Gate by Carla Neggers
Emma Sharpe steeled herself against the sights and sounds of her past and kept up with the nervous woman rushing ahead of her in the dense southern Maine fog. They came to a tall iron fence, a folk-art granite statue of Saint Francis of Assisi glistening with drizzle among purple coneflowers and cheerful golden daylilies by the gate.
The little bird perched on Saint Francis's shoulder still had a couple of missing tail feathers.
Sister Joan Mary Fabriani stopped at the gate. On the other side was the "tower," the private work space where the Sisters of the Joyful Heart performed their restoration and conservation work. In violation of convent protocol, Sister Joan had escorted Emma onto the convent grounds without having her first stop at the motherhouse to register as a visitor.
And a visitor she was, in boot-cut jeans, a brown leather jacket, Frye boots and a Smith & Wesson 442 strapped to her left calf.
"The gate's locked," Sister Joan said, turning to Emma. "I have to get the key."
"I'll go with you."
"No. Wait here, please." The older woman, who'd spent the past thirty years as a member of her order, frowned slightly at the gate, which crossed the meandering stone walk two hundred yards from the main gate at the convent's entrance. "I thought I left it unlocked. It doesn't matter. I'll only be a few minutes."
"You're preoccupied, Sister," Emma said. "I should go with you."
"The shortest route to the tower is through an area restricted to members of our community here."
"The meditation garden. I remember."
"Yes. Of course you do."
"No one will be there at this hour. The sisters are busy with their daily work."
"I'm in no danger, Emma." Sister Joan smiled, her doe-brown eyes and wide, round face helping to soften her sometimes too-frank demeanor. "It's all right if I call you Emma, isn't it? Or should I call you Agent Sharpe?"
Emma noted an almost imperceptible bite in Sister Joan's voice. "Emma's fine."
With a broad hand, Sister Joan brushed a mosquito off the wide, stretchy black headband holding back her graying dark hair. Instead of the traditional nun's habit, the Sisters of the Joyful Heart wore plainclothes; in Sister Joan's case a dark gray hand-knitted sweater and calf-length skirt, black tights and sturdy black leather walking shoes. The simple silver profession cross hanging from her neck and the gold band on her left ring finger were the only external indications that she was a Roman Catholic nun.
She looked pained. "I've already broken enough rules by having you here without telling anyone."
Sister Joan hadn't given any details when she'd called Emma in Boston early that morning and asked her to make the two-hour drive north to the convent, located on a small peninsula on a beautiful, quiet stretch of rockbound Maine coast.
"At least give me an idea of what you want to talk to me about," Emma said.
Sister Joan hesitated. "I'd like to get your opinion on a painting."
As if there could be any other reason. "Do you suspect it's stolen?"
"Let me get the key and show you. It'll be easier than trying to explain." Sister Joan stepped off the walk onto the lush, wet grass, still very green late in the season, and looked back at Emma. "I want to thank you for not bringing a weapon onto the grounds."
Emma made no comment about the .38 tucked under the hem of her jeans. She'd left her nine-millimeter Sig Sauer locked in its case in her car outside the convent's main gate but had never considered going completely unarmed.
Without waiting for a response, Sister Joan followed the fence into a half dozen mature evergreens. The evergreens would open into a beautiful garden Mother Superior Sarah Jane Linden, the foundress of the Sisters of the Joyful Heart, had started herself more than sixty years ago in a clearing on a rocky ledge above a horseshoe-shaped cove. The sisters had added to it over the years--Emma herself had planted a pear tree--but the design remained essentially the one Mother Linden, who'd died almost twenty years ago, had envisioned.
As she lost sight of Sister Joan in the fog and trees, Emma stayed close to the tall gate. Even the breeze drifting through the evergreens and the taste of the salt in the damp air called up the longings of the woman she'd been--the possibilities of the woman she'd never become.
She pushed them aside and concentrated on the present. The morning fog, rain and wind would have attracted passing boats into the protected cove, one of the well-known "hurricane holes" on the Maine coast.
Watching guys on the boats when she was supposed to be in deep reflection and contemplation had been an early clue she wasn't cut out to be a nun.
Sister Joan, honest and straightforward to a fault, had always known. "You're an art detective, Emma. You're a Sharpe. Be who you are."
Emma touched a fingertip to a raindrop on Saint Francis's shoulder. The statue was the work of Mother Linden, an accomplished artist who'd have considered the absent tail feathers part of its charm as it aged.
The Sisters of the Joyful Heart was a tiny religious order, independently funded and self-sufficient. The twenty or so sisters grew their own fruits and vegetables and baked their own bread, but they also ran a shop and studio in the nearby village of Heron's Cove--Emma's hometown--and were skilled in art restoration, conservation and education. During the summer and early fall, the convent held retreats for art educators and conservators, as well as people who just wanted to learn how to protect family treasures. Various sisters were dispatched to Catholic schools throughout the region as art teachers. Hope, joy and love were central to their work and to their identity as women and religious sisters.
All well and good, Emma thought, but hope, joy and love hadn't prompted Sister Joan's call early that morning. Fear had.
"It's a personal favor," she had told Emma. "It's not FBI business. Please come alone."
Emma felt the cold mist gather on her hair, which she wore long now, and sighed at Saint Francis, the beloved early-thirteenth-century friar who had given up his wealth to follow a life of poverty. "What do you think, my friend?" She peered through the gate and made out a corner of the stone tower in the gray. "I know."
Sister Joan was afraid, and she was in trouble.
Sister Joan reached the meditation garden and took a breath as she entered the labyrinth of mulched paths, fountains and native plants. Bright purple New England asters brushed against her calves as she shivered in the damp air and tried to let go of her fear, pride and resentment. She envisioned Mother Linden out here as a very old woman, the hem of her traditional habit wet and muddy and her contentment complete. She'd understood and accepted that each sister brought her own gifts and frailties to their small community.
Lately, Sister Joan was more aware of her frailties. She often pushed herself and others too hard, and she had a tendency to probe and question when standing back and letting events unfold would have been better.
Too late to stand back now, she thought as she veered past a weathered brass sundial onto a narrow path that would take her through dwarf apple and pear trees, back to the fence. A large garden and a dozen full-size fruit trees were on the other side of the convent grounds, away from the worst of the ocean wind and salt. With the long New England winter ahead, the sisters had been canning and freezing, making jams and sauces, since the first spring peas had ripened. They were as self-sufficient as possible. Nothing went to waste.
Sister Joan was acutely aware she hadn't been pulling her weight recently in her community's day-to-day work. Art conservation was her particular area of expertise, but every sister participated in cooking, gardening and cleaning. No one was exempt. Every task was God's work. She hoped, with Emma's help, she would soon resume her normal routines. She was accustomed to sharing everything with the other sisters and regretted not being open with them, but what choice did she have?
It was for their sake that she was being circumspect to the point of sneaking an FBI agent onto the grounds.
Sister Joan picked up her pace. She had to learn the truth. Then she would know what to do.
She came to the fence again and followed it a few yards to where it ended at the edge of a rock ledge that dropped almost straight down to the water. She could see the outline of at least a dozen sailboats and yachts that had taken refuge in the cove and wondered if anyone was looking up at the one-time estate and imagining what life was like in the secluded convent.
She had as a child, sailing with her family. Her parents hadn't been particularly religious, but even as girl, she'd felt the call to a religious life stir within her. Only years later, after much study, contemplation, prayer and hard work, had she fully embraced her vocation and become a member of the Sisters of the Joyful Heart.
Holding on to a wet, cold cross-member for balance, Sister Joan eased around to the other side of the tall fence. She was mindful of her footing on the ledge, especially in the wet conditions, but she'd taken this route from the meditation garden to the tower countless times and had never come close to falling.
She ducked past the sweeping branches of a white pine and sloshed through a puddle of mud and browned pine needles, emerging onto the expanse of lawn in the middle of which stood the squat, rather unattractive, if impressive, tower. Why it was fenced off was just one of the many mysteries and eccentricities of the sprawling property the order had purchased in a dilapidated state sixty years ago. As near as anyone could figure, the tower had been modeled after a lighthouse and served as a place where the owners and their visitors could observe the ocean, passing boats and marine life. Now it was the center of the convent's work in the conservation, restoration and preservation of art.
I've dedicated my life to this work, Sister Joan thought, then shook her head, amending herself. For the past thirty years, she'd dedicated her life not to herself and art conservation but to the charism--the unique spirit--and mission of her community. She'd freely chosen to enter the convent and commit herself to the rigorous process of discerning her calling before professing her final vows. She'd done her best to live according to the example and the teachings of Mother Linden.
It was in that spirit that she'd called Emma Sharpe.
Her wet shoes squishing with every step, Sister Joan circled to the front of the tower. The entrance overlooked the ocean, barely visible now in the fog. Even so, she could feel the freshening of the breeze, signaling that the promised cold front was moving in. The fog would blow out quickly now and be gone by evening vespers.
She mounted the tower steps and noticed a cobweb in a corner of the leaded-glass panel window, as if it were there to remind her she'd been neglecting her basic duties. The gate key would be just inside. She seldom bothered with the gate and most often came and went by way of the meditation garden, but she'd have sworn she'd left it unlocked. Perhaps, she thought, it was just as well she had this time to think after seeing Emma. She was the same Emma Sharpe as ever and yet she'd changed. Of course, she'd come as an FBI agent, not as a friend.
Sister Joan pushed on the heavy, varnished oak door and paused, thinking she'd heard a sound. She couldn't tell if it was behind her or in front of her in the tower.
Was it just the creak of the door? Had she picked up a rock in the sole of her shoe that was now scraping on the stone step?
She stifled a flash of annoyance. Had Emma ignored her instructions and refused to wait by the gate?
She glanced behind her but saw no one on the lawn or in the trees back toward the fence. She heard only a distant seagull and the wash of the tide.
A window rattling in the strong breeze, maybe.
No matter. She'd grab the gate key and head straight to Special Agent Sharpe.
Involving Emma was an enormous risk if, in fact, the convent turned out to be even an unwitting partner in a scandal or, worse, illegal activity. Emma wouldn't cover for anyone, nor would Sister Joan ask her to, no matter how sorely tempted she might be. She simply wanted answers.
Had the Sisters of the Joyful Heart--had Mother Linden herself--helped hide an original Rembrandt?
Had they stood back as a troubled woman self-destructed?
Had they kept her secret for the past forty years?
Not actively, Sister Joan thought, ignoring the noise and pushing open the door wider. Passively, naively, accidentally, perhaps--unable to see what was happening in front of them.
Or because they'd been duped by wrongdoers.
She would like nothing better than for Emma to assure her that all was well and any suspicion to the contrary was an overreaction.
Holding the door open with her left elbow and foot, Sister Joan reached for the gate key on a hook to her right.
There it is again.
Definitely a scraping sound coming from inside the tower-- wet gravel, possibly, grinding against the stone tile floor. The tower had no alarm system but it was surrounded by the fence and the cliffs, making access by outsiders difficult.
"Emma? Is that you? "
Sister Joan didn't like the fear she heard in her voice. This was her home. She'd never been afraid here.
She clutched the key, her foot still in the door. "Sister Cecilia?"
It would be just like Sister Cecilia to thrust herself into a situation where her help wasn't required. She was a novice as impetuous in her own way as Emma had been, but Sister Joan had never questioned Sister Cecilia's calling, only her ability to integrate into communal life. She had a multiplicity of interests--painting, pottery, music, writing--but she especially loved teaching art to young children. Sister Joan had never been good with children. As much as she loved the idea of them, she lacked the patience required to be a truly dedicated teacher.
She listened, but heard no further sounds.
She felt a twinge of guilt at her unkindness toward Sister Cecilia. Her tension over the mysterious painting and now Emma's presence wasn't an excuse. She liked to think that her insight into Sister Cecilia's frailties as well as her virtues--her cheerful, tolerant nature, her irrepressible curiosity, her deep spirituality-- arose from love, but Sister Joan knew she had to guard against being overly critical and judgmental.
The door pressing heavily against her arm and foot, she resisted the urge to leap down the steps and race to the gate. After all these years, she'd never felt uneasy about being alone in the tower. She'd overseen the installation of a state-of-the-art conservation lab on the second floor and had spent countless hours there.