by Roderick Gladwish
The praying never stopped at St. Barbara's convent and
Mary couldn't stand it any more. She had joined the convent
in February and now during an oppressive August night the
rhythmic verses were boring into her mind releasing all
she had been suppressing.
Waking Mary wanted to dash her throbbing head on the rough
brick walls of her cell. Staggering into the corridor she
groped in the half-light toward the nearest barred window.
Beyond the bars were the industrial shadows of London's
East End. For all her need to escape the relentless pressure,
Mary couldn't face what awaited her in the outside world.
Resting her head on the cool bars eased the pulsating pain.
Rubbing her forehead on the coarse metal distracted her
enough for a moment's peace. Maybe she was going down with
the fever that had been afflicting the nuns. Each day there
was another woman missing. The thinning numbers had become
noticeable, even to someone new like Mary.
A candle glow appeared at the end of the corridor. Mary
flopped to the ground hoping her white nightgown wouldn't
The candle bearer passed.
The novice wondered why she had hidden. Guilt probably,
a legacy of her past life, like the slight trembling of
her hands. It made Mary follow the light.
Three nuns shared the candle. They walked in silence descending
from the dormitory floors through the living spaces and
into the cellar. A Victorian pile St Barbara's sat on a
huge cellar; a vaulted area of heavy columns divided with
brick walls into rooms. The party stopped near the stairs
by some disused cells.
Hiding by a column, Mary could finally see enough to identify
Sister Rachel, doctor for the convent's clinic for 'fallen
women', pulled a heavy bolt on one of the cells. Sister
Beatrice, the mother superior, was revealed by the light
coming from the cell. She rested her hand on Rebecca; the
only person Mary would call a friend.
An innocent girl of twenty, Rebecca had seen none of the
world and didn't want to, unlike the thirty-year-old novice.
She'd found her calling early seizing it with a single-minded
focus Mary was jealous of. Rebecca who took it upon herself
to help novices. She and Mary always breakfasted together.
Sister Beatrice ushered her into the cell. The bolt was
thrown, padlocked in place and the remaining women left.
Mary held herself tightly to the shadows allowing the others
to pass before creeping to the cell door. Ear pressed to
the door Mary thought she could make out Rebecca praying,
then there was a gasp.
* * *
Mary sat in Sister Beatrice's office opposite the full
authority of the mother superior. She had been summoned
the next morning after breakfast, which Rebecca had missed.
Sister Beatrice was in her early forties with clean striking
features. There was cunning in her eyes and a thin smile
as if she knew what life could offer and had enjoyed experiencing
"You left this behind," the mother superior
stated holding up the tip of a broken knife. "Before
you deny it, I had your cell searched during breakfast.
This was found." The remainder of the knife appeared
in her hands. "I would prefer a confession Victoria."
When the cutlery broke in the lock on the cell the novice
knew she was caught, but how had Sister Beatrice found out
who she was?
"You know who I am?" Victoria alias Mary replied.
"Do you think when a woman goes missing the police
don't contact us? They know we collect girls who need help."
"You haven't told my parents? Not about the baby."
"Of course I haven't, but the police know you are
safe and they will have passed the news on to your parents.
You can contact them if you want to or not. Nothing has
been said about the abortion. That is for your conscience.
Now, Mary or Victoria, are you going to confess?"
"I'd prefer Mary, I'm not proud of who I was."
"Victoria still seems to be present. Was it her who
was breaking into the drugs store?"
"It's the drugs store?"
"Are you denying your actions? I had so hoped you
had freed yourself from the addiction to intoxicants."
"I haven't touched any drugs since I came here. Not
even the communion wine. I'm certain I saw you lock Sister
Rebecca in that cell."
"Why would I do that?"
Victoria was aware the older woman looked straight at her
hands which she held tightly to stop them disobeying her.
"Are you still having the nightmares? I remember the
delusions you suffered when we first found you." Sister
"No I'm not delusional, I saw a light, I followed
you and I saw you lock Rebecca in that cell."
"I'm not sure she'd fit in the store, it's full of
shelves. Delirium tremens produces vivid hallucinations.
Perhaps you're not clear yet. How many nights did I sit
with you screaming about demons and murder?"
Victoria's hands began shaking for a different reason.
The eternal chanting coming from the chapel was hammering
into her skull like nails. "I've never said anything
about demons. I'm sure I didn't say anything about demons."
"You are troubled Victoria. You are still not at peace.
I forgive you. Go and pray in the chapel, take time to organise
your thoughts to know what is real and what isn't."
Victoria left without a word. Not to the chapel, but to
search for Rebecca.
* * *
Lying on her bed fully clothed Victoria waited for darkness
to cover her escape. She had decided to leave before she
too vanished. Evading Sister Beatrice's lieutenants as she
searched Victoria had failed to find her friend. Victoria
knew she had to be in the cellar. It remained the only place
yet to be examined. Victoria did find more empty cells than
she expected. Each one like Rebecca's, Spartan and clean
readied for the nun's return except some had dust thick
enough to grey what it covered.
Victoria decided she would search the cellars and escape
by them, through the coal cellar's hatch. It was a matter
of waiting for the convent to sleep.
While dusk turned to night, and the river traffic of the
world's greatest port quietened, Victoria tried to remember
every night in the clinic's wards. Victoria was sure in
all the nightmares, all the pain, she had said nothing about
the night that had left her lying in an ally. Perhaps she
had called her best friend's name. Maybe she repeated the
pleading in her fever. Never would she have mentioned demons.
Ceaseless Latin verse cycled through the fabric of the
convent. Voices rebounding in her head, steady and unending
grew clearer as all other sounds faded. An oppressive heat
rose with the night, she sweated and feared until finally
Along the empty corridors Victoria travelled quietly. All
the while there was an urge to run, dash wildly and keep
running until she was as far from the echoing halls and
sounds in her mind.
At the top of the stairs to the cellar Victoria stopped.
Fearful of bringing a light the windowless void below was
as black as blindness. Her hands were shaking again. Memories
of another cellar and a gunshot. Perhaps she could save
a friend this time.
Into the cellar Victoria felt for every tread the memory
of the layout turning in her mind as she approached the
locked cell like it was the edge of a cliff.
"Victoria," Sister Beatrice's voice softly rang.
An oil lamp was uncovered its dazzling light froze Victoria.
The mother superior and Sister Rachel were blocking the
stairs. She must have walked between them.
"Victoria," Sister Beatrice began.
"No!" Victoria shouted and a second knife stolen
for attacking the padlock was in her hand. "Get back."
"Victoria, we want to help."
"Rachel, if you'd be so kind," Beatrice said.
With practiced skill the doctor lunged catching and twisting
Victoria's wrist. A thumb in the correct joint and shooting
pain forced Victoria to drop the blade. Rachel continued
to twist the arm forcing it behind Victoria's back.
Victoria screamed defiance and dived for the floor pulling
free almost dislocating her limb in the process. Scrambling
up Victoria bolted for the coal store door, shouldering
it open she stopped.
Lying on pallets hands crossed over their chests were nuns.
There were at least thirty women with spaces ready for a
dozen more. A lighted candle at the head of each made their
cold white skin glow.
Sister Rachel grabbed Victoria from behind.
Victoria threw herself backward arms flaying.
Rachel lost her grip.
Victoria snatched up a brass candlestick ignoring the hot
wax spilling on her hand. Rachel recovered and came for
Victoria again. Wheeling Victoria hit Rachel with all her
weight. She felt and heard Rachel's skull crack. The nun
crumpled. On the floor a thin line of blood, black in the
poor light, flowed lazily from her head.
Staring at what she had done for once Victoria's thoughts
were louder than the praying.
Sister Beatrice arrived.
"Get back," Victoria warned, preparing for another
Ignoring the blunt instrument wavering above her, Sister
Beatrice bent down to check for pulse and breathing. "Her
breath is regular; the bleeding is not as bad as it looks."
With a handkerchief she made up a pad for the wound. "She'll
survive, but she'll be of no use tonight."
"I want out of here," Victoria demanded. It was
happening again. Violence seemed to be part of her soul,
bubbling up with tragic uncontrollability. To survive she
had to escape and to do that she would have to brain another
victim. Hands shaking as if eager to move in a fatal downward
arc she gripped the candlestick with two hands holding it
"I cannot let you leave here, you are too dangerous."
Sister Beatrice said standing.
"Me? I am too dangerous? What about these women you've
"I've hurt no one. I will never hurt a living soul."
"What about them?" Victoria's wild eyes flicked
about the room yet her impromptu weapon stayed ready to
"The sisters here are in coma. They will recover,
but will sleep for several weeks. It is the penalty for
donating more blood than is safe to do so, but the cause
is vital." Sister Beatrice edged closer, "You
have killed. I know of two, but there are more."
"The praying still hurts you doesn't it? It burns
in your head, getting worse each day?"
"Let me out. Please let me out," Victoria begged,
her grip on the candlestick wilting.
"I had hoped we could help you because this convent
is a protected place. Evil cannot enter here, but you are
cursed and bound to it. You are doomed."
"It's not true."
"Cursed by the friend you killed and too quick to
violence to stay here."
"I'm not damned," Victoria whispered, after months
of repression, a tear finally escaped.
"The incantations of faith bring peace, but not to
those who are already lost." Beatrice took the candlestick
and placed it on the floor. "While you live you can
still do good."
"I'm cursed. I bring death," Victoria said. "Not
even my own child was safe."
"Change that tonight," Beatrice urged. "We
shelter those who work against the darkness. One was tracking
a new evil to the city. He was trapped in the open when
dawn came. One of my patrols found him like they found you.
For once I offer you a chance to save a life."
The mother superior took Victoria's hand and led her to
the locked cell.
Sister Beatrice unlocked and opened the door.
An oil lamp filled the room with light.
On the bed was a man. His once handsome face had been burned
with a terrible heat, a shadow of his hand held up to shield
him from the fire was clearly visible. Those hands lay outside
the bed fingers charred stubs.
Victoria was drawn to the man. She sat on the stool by
His eyes bandaged, mole-like he turned to Victoria, sniffing.
"Why's he sniffing?"
"It's the tiny droplets of Rachel's blood on your
habit. It's exciting his baser nature."
"One can't smell blood."
"That poor wretch can," the Mother Superior said.
"He needs it to survive. Normally he can live on substitutes,
but if he is to recover from these injuries he has to take
human blood and the essence of our souls it contains."
Victoria felt her world shifting from the reality. She
wondered if this was a trick of her drug-damaged brain.
Was she in fact lying in some gutter her mind spinning stories
as life finally ebbed away?
"What are you saying?"
"The truth." Beatrice paused before sighing.
"His Christian name is Paul. Given to him by St Martin
of Tours. Paul has fought evil ever since, but his own crimes
fill centuries. He has no soul yet works for redemption."
"What is he?"
"Someone in need of help. In need of your help."
Paul's deformed fingers were reaching for Victoria. She
stood up backing away.
"I can't help anyone I destroy everything I touch."
"Here is where that can change. No one else is ready.
I need you to help him. You simply have to stay with him
and let him feed."
Victoria looked back. Paul was growing in activity. Although
bandaged, his eyes tracked her.
Sister Beatrice continued. "He will only take what
he needs, but don't struggle. His animal hunger is close
to the surface and behaving like prey would not be safe.
He could kill you or worse."
"He is waking will you do it?"
Victoria thought of her disintegrating life and how death
was always in her hands. She sat down. Victoria took Paul's
nearest hand. Corpse-cold it tightened on her fingers.
"Perhaps I might do good for once. Perhaps this is
all a lie and this is my end. Perhaps for one night I won't
Sister Beatrice shut the door and threw the bolt home.
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