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Sands of Time(10)
Author: Sidney Sheldon

The nightmare was real.

Other cell doors were beginning to open, and nuns were appearing, with looks of total confusion on their faces. There had never been anything in their experience to prepare them for this extraordinary happening.

Colonel Acoca pushed the Reverend Mother away and turned to Patricio Arrieta, one of his key aides. "Search the place. Top to bottom."

Acoca's men began to spread out, invading the chapel, the refectory, and the cells, waking those nuns who were still asleep and forcing them roughly to their feet through the corridors and into the chapel. The nuns obeyed wordlessly, keeping even now their vows of silence. The scene was like a motion picture with the sound turned off.

Acoca's men were filled with a sense of vengeance. They were all Falangists, and they remembered only too well how the Church had turned against them during the Civil War and supported the Loyalists against their beloved leader, Generalissimo Franco. This was their chance to get back some of their own. The nuns' strength and silence made the men more furious than ever.

As Acoca passed one of the cells, a scream echoed from it. He looked in and saw one of his men ripping the habit from a nun. He moved on.

Sister Lucia was awakened by the sounds of men's voices yelling. She sat up in a panic. The police have found me, was her first thought. I've got to get the hell out of here. There was no way out of the convent except through the front door.

She hurriedly rose and peered out into the corridor. The sight that met her eyes was astonishing. The corridor was filled not with policemen but with men in civilian clothes carrying weapons, smashing lamps and tables. There was confusion everywhere as they raced around.

The Reverend Mother Betina was standing in the center of the chaos, praying silently, watching them desecrate her beloved convent. Sister Megan moved to her side, and Lucia joined them.

"What the h - what's happening? Who are they?" Lucia asked. They were the first words she had spoken aloud since entering the convent.

The Reverend Mother put her right hand under her left armpit three times, the sign for hide.

Lucia stared at her unbelievingly. "You can talk now. Let's get out of here, for Christ's sake. And I mean for Christ's sake."

Patricio Arrieta hurried up to Acoca. "We've searched everywhere, Colonel. There's no sign of Jaime Miro or his men."

"Search again," Acoca said stubbornly.

It was then that the Reverend Mother remembered the one treasure the convent had. She hurried over to Sister Teresa and whispered, "I have a task for you. Get the gold cross from the refectory and take it to the convent at Mendavia. You must get it away from here. Hurry!"

Sister Teresa was shaking so hard that her wimple fluttered in waves. She stared at the Reverend Mother, paralyzed. Sister Teresa had spent the last thirty years of her life in the convent. The thought of leaving it was beyond her imagination. She raised her hand and signed, I can't.

The Reverend Mother was frantic. "The cross must not fall into the hands of these men of Satan. Now, do this for Jesus."

A light came into Sister Teresa's eyes. She stood very tall. She signed, For Jesus, then turned and hurried toward the refectory.

Sister Graciela approached the group, staring in wonder at the wild confusion around her.

The men were getting more and more violent, smashing everything in sight. Colonel Acoca watched them approvingly.

Lucia turned to Megan and Graciela. "I don't know about you two, but I'm getting the hell out of here. Are you coming?"

They stared at her, too dazed to respond.

Sister Teresa was hurrying toward them, carrying something wrapped in a piece of canvas. Some of the men were herding more nuns into the refectory.

"Come on," Lucia said.

Sisters Teresa, Megan, and Graciela hesitated for a moment, then followed Lucia toward the huge front door. As they turned at the end of the long corridor, they could see that it had been smashed in.

A man suddenly appeared in front of them. "Going somewhere, ladies? Get back. My friends have plans for you."

Lucia said, "We have a gift for you." She picked up one of the heavy metal candlesticks that lined the hallway tables and smiled.

The man was looking at it, puzzled. "What can you do with that?"

"This." Lucia swung the candelabrum against his head, and he fell to the ground, unconscious.

The three nuns stared in horror.

"Move!" Lucia said.

A moment later Lucia, Megan, Graciela, and Teresa were outside in the front courtyard, hurrying through the gate into the starry night.

Lucia stopped. "I'm leaving you now. They're going to be searching for you, so you'd better get away from here."

She turned and started toward the mountains that rose in the distance, high above the convent. I'll hide out up there until the search cools off and then I'll head for Switzerland. Of all the rotten luck. Those bastards blew a perfect cover.

As Lucia made her way toward higher ground, she glanced down. From her vantage point she could see the three sisters. Incredibly, they were still standing in front of the convent gate, like three black-clad statues. For God's sake, she thought. Get the hell out of there before they catch you. Move!

They could not move. It was as though all their senses had been paralyzed for so long that they were unable to take in what was happening to them. The nuns stared down at their feet. They were so dazed they could not think. They had been cloistered for so long behind the gates of God, secluded from the world, that now that they were outside the protective walls, they were filled with feelings of confusion and panic. They had no idea where to go or what to do. Inside, their lives had been organized for them. They had been fed, clothed, told what to do and when to do it. They had lived by the Rule. Suddenly there was no Rule. What did God want from them? What was His plan? They stood huddled together, afraid to speak, afraid to look at one another.

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