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Chapter Four



The day was perfect---bright and clear with a gentle breeze. The sky was azure blue and speckled with lines of wispy clouds. The morning radio personalities noted that Gotham City's one perfect spring day was occurring on a Wednesday, when the ordinary people who needed it most were least able to destroy it. But to Sister Theresa Carmel, carefully twining a new ivy sprig around its older siblings, a beautiful day was a divine gift whenever it arrived.

Forty years ago, when the Order sent her to the mission they maintained here in the East End, Sister Theresa started scratching in the cement-hard dirt of the tenement courtyard. The heavy forged-bronze crosses that had been nailed to the front doors then were long gone---stolen some twenty years ago when a new breed of souls began moving in. Now everything had changed. The front doors themselves were made from steel, and there were bars over the dormitory windows. Those bars were the last things Sister Theresa saw each night before she fell asleep. She was as grateful for their protection as she was disheartened by the need for them.

But Sister Theresa's garden endured. The soil beneath Gotham's debris wasn't dead; it had merely slept until a gentle, knowing hand awakened it. Now there were crocuses and daffodils by the dozens, with a dense mass of tulips rising behind them. The lilacs were budding with color. And the roses---Sister Theresa stepped carefully from one old cobblestone to the next, bent down and scattered the mulch with her large, knobby hands---had all survived the winter.

The rose she examined had been lifeless just yesterday, but was now showing crimson growth. It was a Peace rose, her favorite. She allowed herself the luxury of remembering the girl she had been when a young man gave her a single Peace rose with a diamond ring circling its stem. The years had eroded the pain; only the happiness was left, the warmth like the spring sunshine spilling down on the coarse black cloth of her veil.

She was surrounded by memories and light, but not lost within them. She heard the sparrows chirping and the distinctive click of metal against metal telling her that someone had entered the chapel where she, herself, was supposed to be. Something of the headstrong, romantic young woman remained with Sister Theresa as she dusted off her hands and left the garden for the chapel.

A young woman knelt before the altar. Her chin was pressed down to her breast. Her long blond hair fell in untidy loops and tangles across her slumped shoulders. Even at a distance, Sister Theresa could hear her anguished gasps of prayer. For a moment the older woman remembered herself. It was possible that this child had lost her beloved in a war---the constant war that was waged here in the East End.

With an unconscious smoothing of her veil, Sister Theresa Carmel pushed her memories out of her mind. She walked down the aisle armored with weary compassion and prepared for the worst.

"May I help you, child?"

The young woman sobbed with renewed despair, but did not move. Sister Theresa studied her profile. Her cheek was swollen with a fresh bruise. An older, darker one mottled her forehead, and there was a half-healed gash puffing out her lips. Not the worst battering the nun had witnessed, but that didn't help. She lowered herself into the pew and reached for the girl's hand.

"Tell me what happened. We're here for your welfare. For the welfare of your body as well as your soul."

The woman clutched her hands against her stomach. Fresh tears streaked her cheeks and were absorbed by her already damp sweater. She stared into a hidden place far below the floor and would not look up. She cringed when Sister Theresa touched her arm.

"Tell me, child," Sister Theresa said, hardening her voice. Most of those who came to the chapel were convinced that nuns were agents of divine authority who must be obeyed and who rendered judgment before they showed compassion. It was myth, of course, but useful at times. "You came here to tell me, and now you must do so."

"Sister Theresa... ?"

The young woman's head came up slowly. When their eyes met, and the nun recognized her, the battered woman lost the last shreds of her composure. Wailing, she flung herself facefirst into Sister Theresa's lap.

"Rose... Rose..." Sister Theresa stroked the dirty blond hair. "Rose, what happened? How did it happen?" Her own tears leaked onto her wrinkled cheeks. "Rose, why did you wait so long? You didn't have to suffer this. There's a place for you here, always. Always."

The girl didn't answer. She couldn't answer. The sound of Sister Theresa's voice---the almost forgotten but now remembered strength of it---allowed her to feel safe, but the illusion would be shattered if she moved. If she moved, she'd have to think. She would have to feel the terror and pain that had driven her back to this sanctuary. She'd have to answer Sister Theresa's questions.

Sister Theresa sensed the change as mindless despair gave way to denial. She knew the process too well not to recognize it. She stroked Rose's hair a few more times---for sentiment's sake---then took a deep breath and shoved the girl away.

"Tell me, Rose. Tell me the whole story. From the beginning. Don't leave anything out. Our Heavenly Father knows you can't tell these old ears anything they haven't heard before."

Rose drooped like an unstrung puppet. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them slowly. She'd run out of tears. A palpable aura of shame settled over her.

"Rose..."

Shiny sweat bloomed around the bruise on the girl's forehead. Her hands trembled no matter how tightly she clutched them together. Sister Theresa had seen it all before.

"What have you been using? How long since the last time?"

"It's not drugs," Rose whispered hoarsely. "I don't do drugs. Never. Ever." She tried to swallow, but choked instead and doubled over coughing.

Sister Theresa tightened her hands into fists until the closely trimmed fingernails dug into palms. "Then what? Look at yourself! Your hair's dirty. Your clothes are dirty. You look as if you slept in the street. What have you been doing, if not drugs?" The nun waited a moment before answering her own questions. "Is it a man? Is it men? Is it, Rose?"

Rose swung her head silently, emphatically, from side to side.

The nun sat back in the pew. She cast her glance upward at the crucifix---a simple one of painted plaster now, but even that bolted to the wall so it could not be easily stolen---then brought it to bear on Rose's heaving shoulders.

Four years ago Rose D'Onofreo had come to the mission, a runaway from the routine horrors that passed for family life in the East End. Healing her body had been the easy part. Regular meals and undisturbed sleep worked the obvious miracles. But Sister Theresa's sorority thought they'd wrought a deeper miracle by healing Rose's soul as well. She went back to school, graduated, took secretarial courses. She got a nice job---a dress-up desk job---working for an East Ender who'd made good without forgetting where he'd come from. The sisters told themselves Rose was proof that their work was worthwhile.

To remind Rose that she was family, they pooled their meager allowances and gave her a golden rose on a delicate chain and gave it to her the day before she began her new life. Rose was all smiles and hope, but she never came back to visit. The sisters made excuses for her: Why should she come back? No decent young woman should walk these streets at any hour, day or night. They were experts at swallowing disappointment.

Sister Theresa couldn't keep herself from looking for the necklace, or realizing that it was gone. She couldn't keep herself from noticing that Rose's sweater was much too tight for anyone working in an office---though it was also much too expensive for anyone working the streets. The same was true of the skimpy skirt and lacy tights. In the dusty corners of her heart, Sister Theresa had disapproved of fashion since she, herself, had begun wearing a nun's habit---but she could tell street cheap from its fashionable uptown imitations. For the cost of Rose's clothes, the nuns could run the mission for a week. Sister Theresa Carmel shivered involuntarily.

"Where have you been? What have you been doing? Your job? Your apartment---?"

Rose reminded curled over her knees, swaying back and forth. "I did... I tried..." she sputtered before succumbing to another spate of sobs.

The faint click of the opening door echoed in the chapel. Sister Theresa pressed her finger to her lips as another black-robed veteran of these little wars hurried down the aisle.

Rose? the newcomer mouthed, as surprise and dismay tightened her features.

Sister Theresa nodded, shrugged, and made room on the pew. Sister Agnes knelt instead, and wrapped her arms around the disconsolate young woman. Rose looked up into another dark, worried face.

Why had she come here? Whatever made her think that these women---these wives of the church---could understand her world? She wished she hadn't come. She wished she was back in the bathroom, naked and staring at the battered stranger reflecting in the mirror. The bruises were the least of it. Couldn't they see that? Couldn't they see the shadow hanging over her, blacker than any bruise? She had thought that the shadow would be visible here. That the holy sisters would make the sign of the cross and drive it out. But they looked at her face, not the shadow. There was no help here. No hope.

Rose knotted her hand in her hair. She pulled until strands ripped loose and tears began to flow from her eyes again.

Sister Agnes recoiled in horror. "What's wrong with her?"

"She was at the altar when I came in. I asked her what was wrong. It's been all downhill since then."

"Is she hurt? Do you think we need an ambulance?" Sister Agnes asked.

"It's not the bruises hurting her. She's been beaten before---God help us all---and didn't come to us. No... something's struck her soul. It's still there."

Rose heard the words she longed to hear, the words confirming her darkest fear and shame. The voice of her God-given conscience wanted to confess everything, but when she opened her mouth a single, scarcely human scream came out instead.

The two nuns swiftly crossed themselves, glanced at the crucifix, then at each other.

Sister Theresa got unsteadily to her feet. "In the garden." She got a hand under Rose's shoulder and motioned for Sister Agnes to do likewise. The mission walls were echoing with the footfalls of the other nuns responding to the crisis.

Fresh air and sunlight helped a bit, but it was the sight of unfamiliar faces that restored Rose's sense of self. She tamed her hair and restored order to her clothing with expert gestures. She faced all of them, and none of them.

"I---I---I don't know what came over me." Her voice, ragged at the start, was impenetrable by the end.

Knowing looks flashed among the nuns. This, too, was familiar and expected. East Enders could hide the most profound despair in a heartbeat; it was their survival camouflage. They had skills a professional actor would envy. Rose's performance might have worked on the streets, or on stage, but it failed to impress her audience in the garden. And she knew it.

"I haven't felt too good for the last few days," she said lamely, brushing her forehead as if checking for a fever. "I guess I got the flu. The flu can make you crazy. I saw it just last week on television---"

"Rose."

The new voices made all of them---Rose and the avowed sisters alike---swiftly examine themselves within and without. Mother Joseph rarely came downstairs. She lived on the phone, dealing with the morass of Gotham's so-called Social Services Department and wrangling the donations that kept the mission alive. She seldom left her office while the sun was shining, and it was never good news when she did.

"What's going on here? One minute there's a banshee in the chapel, the next you're all dawdling in the garden."

"Rose came back," Sister Theresa admitted in a small voice.

Mother Joseph folded her arms in front of her. She had the patience of a saint, or a stone, and by the angle of her head let Rose know she was prepared to wait for the Last Judgment, if necessary, for an explanation.

A wave of guilt and shame broke over Rose. She felt naked and worthless---but she was used to that. If Rose had allowed feeling worthless to stop her, she'd never have made it to kindergarten. "I made a mistake," she said flatly. "I shouldn't have come here."

You couldn't lie when you were naked, but there were a thousand kinds of truth. Squaring her shoulders, Rose started for the street. She hadn't gone two steps when Beelzebub, the mission's battle-scarred tomcat, streaked past. Anyone might have been startled by the sudden movement. Almost anyone might have yelped with surprise. But Rose was wide-eyed, stark-white terrified.

Beelzebub yawned and stretched himself across a sun-warmed stone, looking for all the world like nothing had happened. Sister Theresa became aware of someone staring at the back of her neck. She turned to face Mother Joseph. After so many years together, the veterans didn't need words. The set of Mother Joseph's features, the subtle movement of her right eyebrow, all conveyed a very clear set of orders.

Sister Theresa slipped her arm gently, firmly around Rose's waist. The young woman blinked, but her eyes were as wide and frozen as they'd been before.

"You haven't forgotten our old midnight caller, have you?"

Rose closed her eyes. The acute phase of the panic attack ended; she began to shiver. "I want to go home now," she whispered.

Sister Theresa felt Rose's heart pounding through their combined clothing. "You should sit in the sun a moment and get your breath." She tried, and failed, to turn the grief around.

"No. I want--- I'll feel better when I'm back where I belong."

Scowling slightly and getting a solid grip on the waistband of Rose's skirt. Sister Theresa held her back. "We'll call you a cab. You're in no condition to be walking or taking buses. Second and Seventy-eighth, isn't it?" Mother Joseph would be doubly unhappy if the girl got away before they knew where to find her again.

Rose began to struggle. The sisters had no qualms about subtle coercion, but they drew the line at overt restraint. Sister Theresa's arm fell away.

"Don't be a stranger," she said, staring into Rose's haunted, gray eyes. "We care about you. We want to know how you're doing. We want to help. Come back and talk to us, Rose. Open your heart, then you'll truly feel better."

Rose looked at the ground, but her feet did not move. Sister Theresa knew it was time to set the hook.

"Saturday. Come for dinner. Roast chicken with corn-apple stuffing---just the way you always liked it..."

Eyelashes fluttered, but there was no answer.

"Say yes, dear. Make us all happy---"

Rose said yes without lifting her eyes from the ground, then she bolted. Her footfalls echoed on the chapel floor. She struck the fire bar on the outer door without pausing. They heard her race down the steps, then the door shut and she was gone. The chirping of the sparrows was the loudest sound until Mother Joseph found her voice.

"There's something seriously wrong there."

"But what?" Sister Agnes asked. "She's not ready to tell us or God. Should we follow her? Should we try to keep her here?"

"We've done all we can. Maybe she'll come Saturday. Maybe she'll tell us then."

"We should have kept her here," Sister Theresa grumbled. "I shouldn't have let her go."

"No," Mother Joseph admonished. She felt the same compassion the others did, but she answered to the city bureaucracy as well as to God and the diocese. Her options were limited. "We can do nothing against her will, not even for the good of her soul. We will pray that she comes on Saturday."

Another nun entered the discussion. "Did you see her look at that cat? I haven't seen a look like that except in the movies."

Mother Joseph adjusted the starched wimple beneath her veil, snatching an extra moment to consider what had been said. Cats had special privileges at the mission. They found sacutary in every nook and cranny. Food and water were laid out for them each day. Sister Magdalene, who'd begun the tradition, wasn't here any longer. The Order was an army. The sisters went where they were told---although Mother Joseph had had a hand in getting Sister Magdalene out of Gotham City. But the cats continued to gather at the kitchen door and, from time to time, an envelope would appear in the poor box filled with untraceable currency. Mother Joseph understood that the money was for the cats.

"Perhaps we could invite another old friend to dinner on Saturday," Mother Joseph mused. "We haven't seen Selina in a while. Beelzebub's people-shy, but if Selina brought one of her kittens---she's always got a kitten or two---maybe we could get to the bottom of this."

"We haven't seen Selina since her sis---since Sister Magdalene left," Sister Theresa corrected herself quickly. "I don't think they parted on..." She paused, choosing her words carefully. The stories about Sister Magdalene and her sister, Selina, were long, complex, and seldom told. "... in good faith with each other. I don't think Selina's even in the city anymore. And I don't think any good would come from getting her and Rose in the same room."

A murmur of agreement rippled through the black-robed flock that Mother Joseph squelched immediately. "I would like to know why Rose was frightened by a cat. And I'd like to invite Selina---to see if she'll come. Maybe she won't, and maybe nothing will happen if she does. But I want to see for myself. An unreasoning fear of cats has become much more widespread in Gotham City of late."




Chapter Three | Catwoman - Tiger Hunt | Chapter Five