Story by Sonny Zae / Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
When Sister Rebekah arrived in the gray windowless storeroom in the basement of the Our Lady of Compassion and Charity Convent, Sister Borgia was already there, lighting a cigarette. “Tonight should be exciting,” Sister Borgia remarked, blowing a plume of smoke at the ceiling. “I have a suspicion we’re going to run up against the Church’s avowed enemies, so we’ll get to show our true colors. I hope to hand out purple gifts—meaning bruises.”
Three more nuns filed through the door and shut it behind them, throwing the deadbolt. Sister Borgia rapped on a box. “Let’s get started. Did you disappear so your absence won’t be noticed?”
“Just tell us what our mission is,” Sister Rebekah replied. “We don’t need the spy mission stuff. Where are we going and whose ass are we going to kick?”
“Have patience,” Sister Borgia growled. “Roll call!”
“Sister Rebekah of the Straight-Edge.” Rebekah, six foot two in height and gaunt, brandished an eighteen inch hickory ruler with embedded steel strip.
“Sister Naomi of the Paddle.” The oldest nun lifted a wooden slab with a handle at one end. Her nose meandered up her face like the nose of a professional boxer.
“Sister Mary Magdalene of the Knee Lift.” The youngest nun snapped a knee up and mimed an uppercut punch. Her youth was accentuated by fake eyelashes, black eyeliner, and peacock-blue eyeshadow.
“Sister Dorcas of the Belt Buckle!” cried a stout nun, holding aloft a leather belt with brass buckle.
Sister Borgia manipulated the rib on the back of her heavy crucifix, revealing finger holes. She slipped fingers through the holes and pumped her fist and crucifix in the air. “Sister Borgia of Brass Knuckles. Sisters of Divine Mercy and Unrelenting Atonement, we are assembled. It’s time to draw on our ninja outfits and perform another sacred task. We venture out into the world to deliver the Almighty’s justice to those deserving of a good smiting.”
“A good smiting!” repeated four voices.
“So what’s our mission?” Rebekah demanded.
“We must stop theft from the diocese.” Borgia scowled. “Funds are missing from our convent, including from St. Celestine’s Reformatory and Obedience Academy and from our own contemplative order, the Sisters of Silence.” Borgia took a long drag on her Marlboro. “The thief is a new, young priest, Jules, working for the bishop. We’ll journey on foot to the bishop’s office, confront the perpetrator, and set his feet on the proper path. We’ll have time to administer a holy beat-down and be back before sunrise prayers.”
“Crap,” Naomi growled. “I was hoping for a good fight, not just issuing some loser a stern warning.”
“Why move tonight?” Rebekah asked.
“Minutes ago, our perp was online again. We must stop him before he transfers more money out of Church accounts. We can’t keep bleeding green.”
“Who’s receiving the money?” Rebekah demanded.
“I don’t know—though I have my suspicions.”
“I hope it’s the Hare Krishna’s,” Naomi muttered. “I haven’t punched one of those bastards in their smiling, dopey faces in way too long. And saffron robes are a fashion crime all by themselves.”
Rebekah caressed her straight-edge. “Who’ll be on the mission?”
“We’ll all go.”
“Yeah, verily!” Dorcas cracked her knuckles. “There’s no better mission than meting out punishment to the deserving. I hope there are quite a few deserving waiting for us.”
“I don’t care how deserving they are,” Naomi said. “I just want to inflict pain. I trust in the Lord’s hand to guide me.”
“You think we’ll get to kick some ass?” Mary Magdalene looked hopeful.
“Only as a last resort.” But Borgia couldn’t suppress a smile.
“It’s time to crack heads,” Naomi asserted. “I haven’t made anyone flinch in over a week. Students just don’t have proper respect anymore, not since our current Mother Superior arrived. I don’t think I can take much more of all this hitting-the-children-is-a-last-resort hogwash. I can’t stand that soft-headed degenerate!”
Borgia sighed. “We share your disgust, Sister Naomi. But God works in mysterious ways. Surely He has sent Mother Superior Felicity as a test. In time, she and her misbegotten ideas of compassion, mercy, and rehabilitation will slink away in disgrace. Nevertheless, a task’s been given to us. We can’t dally any longer.”
Fabric rustled as the five nuns replaced white bandeaus and wimples with black ones. Rasping sounds accompanied the removal of ties holding together slits in their ankle-length skirts. They exchanged shoes for black slippers, then pulled on black hose or sweatpants to protect their modesty.
Rebekah glanced at Mary Magdalene and her eyebrows rose. “You’re wearing Victoria’s Secret?”
Mary Magdalene ignored the remark.
Rebekah frowned. “You know vanity is a sin, right?”
“Of course.” Mary Magdalene tossed her head. “But these were a … gift. I discussed it with Mother Superior and she said it was okay.”
Rebekah laughed derisively. “You’re taking spiritual advice from her? She wouldn’t know a sin if it bit her on the—”
“Sister Rebekah, that’s quite enough,” Borgia interrupted. “Concentrate on your own preparations.”
“You’re lucky the old battle-axe is sweet on you,” Rebekah hissed in a voice too low for Borgia to overhear. She elbowed Mary Magdalene. “You need to lose the makeup, sweetie. We’re trying to hide our identities, remember?”
“Piss off, you old bat! I might need to … beguile information from a man. None of the rest of you could do that. Though if you were to undress in front of a man, I’m sure you’d get information out of him—though it would be a Geneva Convention violation.”
“Sister Mary Magdalene!” Borgia snapped.
Borgia gestured with a hand. “Crucifix … your crucifix is outside your tunic.”
“Oh!” Mary Magdalene tucked it away.
“Let us pray.” Borgia ground her cigarette butt on the floor with a heel and bowed her head. “Our Father, forgive us our sins, even as we minister to others in Your name. We are unworthy of Your love. We Sisters of Divine Mercy and Unrelenting Atonement have committed grievous offenses, and pledge ourselves to fight sin and injustice, to make up for our iniquity in some small but earnest way. Forgive those we are about to smite, and give us strength to administer a worthy smiting. Amen.”
“Christ, when will she drop that ‘unworthy’ shit?” Mary Magdalene whispered. “We haven’t pulled a robbery in years.”
Dorcas shrugged. “Maybe you haven’t sinned recently, but that’s not the point. As long as we have sins to atone for, we can deliver His smitings for Him. So shut your trap.”
Borgia pulled the lower portion of her wimple over her nose, obscuring the lower half of her face—and her wispy moustache. The others did the same, and were cloaked in black from head to toe.
Borgia gestured to Rebekah. “Check outside.”
Rebekah pulled a wall tapestry aside and stared through a peephole. “All’s clear.” She unlatched a low door behind the tapestry and hunched over to pass through. The rest followed.
Outside, the moon was a silver crescent, unable to illuminate the five ninja nuns as they moved silently out of the rough stone stairwell leading up from the basement of the Our Lady of Compassion and Charity Convent. In ones and twos they darted toward the convent’s vegetable garden, then jogged into the nearby shadowy forest.
They trotted silently in the deep darkness. Rebekah, having the night vision of a cat, took lead. The other nuns leaped over obstacles in imitation of her jumps.
The nuns ran for a good twenty-five minutes before Rebekah drew to a stop at the edge of the woods. The grounds of the diocese headquarters loomed ahead. They dropped into crouches as Borgia conferred in a low voice with Rebekah. Then they were off again, moving wraith-like around the chapel, leaping over the wall surrounding the rectory, and darting singly across the open space, forming a line of dark shapes along the rectory’s rear wall. Only one window at the front of the building showed light. Dorcas used a lock pick to open the exterior door. The waiting shapes behind her stood like statues. She took a minute to rotate the doorknob and another minute to push the door halfway open. It didn’t creak or squeal. Dorcas maneuvered her considerable girth through the partial opening and disappeared into the darkness inside. After a moment, her hand appeared around the edge of the door and beckoned them in.
Borgia gestured for Naomi to stand guard outside. Black-slippered feet made no sound as the four nuns flitted down the main hallway to the front of the building. Rebekah paused at the bottom of the stairs to signal for Mary Magdalene to move forward and check out the ground floor rooms. When Mary Magdalene returned, Rebekah slid along a stairwell wall as she ascended the stairs, placing her feet as softly and carefully as a cat, with the remaining nuns following. A tread of the wooden stairs creaked and black shapes froze, then moved again when no reaction occurred. At the top of the stairs, Dorcas moved off to check the rear rooms. Three remaining shapes edged forward toward a door where yellow light shone underneath. Rebekah and Mary Magdalene flattened against the wall on either side as Borgia opened the door, flooding the hallway with light. They eased through and Borgia glided up behind a man sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen. She laid a firm hand on his shoulder. He leaped up, exclaiming in fright. Borgia shoved him back down and spun his chair around.
“Ah! Who are you? How’d you get in here?” The man was young, with a face not yet lined by the stresses of a life dedicated to the service of others. He stared wide-eyed into Borgia’s covered face. “What’s this about?” he quavered. “If you’re looking for money, you’re at the wrong place.”
“I know who you are and what you’ve been doing. Your name is Jules Bonnard. You have been working in the bishop’s office for four months.” Borgia made a clucking noise. “You’ve been a very naughty boy, Jules, embezzling money from the diocese!”
Jules glanced at Rebekah, then his eyes lingered on the exposed portion of Mary Magdalene’s face. She batted her eyes under his appreciative gaze. He flinched when Borgia slapped his cheek. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, Jules! I know how much money you’ve taken.”
Jules paled. “I … I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Jules. You’ve stolen five thousand dollars of the Lord’s money.”
He drew in a sharp breath. Borgia pulled open a slit in her wimple. She smiled humorlessly and watched Jules with steely eyes as she put a Marlboro to her lips and lit it.
“Do you mind not smoking in here?” Jules fanned the air with a hand.
“I could put it out,” Borgia offered, leaning closer. “Hold out your arm.”
Jules drew back. “I … could you please stop? You’re making me really uncomfortable.”
Borgia blew smoke in his face. “Let’s try again. Have you been stealing from the Mother Church?”
Jules’ eyes darted from Borgia to Rebekah and then to Mary Magdalene. “Umm, I need to…” Jules lurched to his feet and started toward a bookshelf, then spun toward Borgia and threw a punch. She ducked and Jules’ fist whistled over her head. Jules grunted in surprise, then tried to shove her down. Borgia grabbed his arm and twisted it behind him, throwing Jules face-first onto the floor. With her free hand, she put her cigarette to her lips.
“It’s pitiful, really,” Mary Magdalene observed, arms crossed. “Not much of a challenge.”
Jules tried to scramble to his feet, but Borgia was ready. Her fist (and Bride of Christ ring) caught him on the jaw. Jules went down like a sack of potting soil, loose and crumbly.
“Nice right cross for an old broad,” Mary Magdalene observed. “I hope he learned his lesson.”
“I hope he didn’t,” Rebekah countered. “If he comes up fighting, can I have the honor?”
“Sure,” Borgia answered.
Jules groaned, but didn’t try to get up.
“What now?” Mary Magdalene asked.
Borgia scratched her expansive rump. “We’ll persuade him to confess and convince him of the error of his ways.”
Rebekah smiled wolfishly. “Beat a confession out of him? Yeah, the old ways are best.”
“Not fair!” Mary Magdalene moved forward. “You got to beat the confession out last time. It’s my turn!”
Borgia held up both hands. “You’ll both get a chance.”
Jules leaped to his feet and with blood streaming from his nose, dashed between the nuns and raced down the dark hallway. Rebekah and Mary Magdalene glanced at Borgia. “Well?” Mary Magdalene asked.
Borgia allowed herself a small smile. “Let’s play with him, like cats with a mouse.”
“Hallelujah!” Rebekah turned, but Borgia grabbed her sleeve. “Sister Mary Magdalene practices first. There’s time for a little catch-and-release.”
Mary Magdalene darted off into the darkness. There was a thump, then Jules screamed. This was followed by rapid bumping sounds, like someone sliding down the stairs on his back. Hands and feet scrabbled on hardwood flooring, then silence, followed by the sound of a body being slammed against a wall.
Borgia put out her Marlboro and leaned over the railing. “Let him go outside. I want to see if Sister Naomi’s on her toes.”
The nuns slipped down the stairs and gathered at the rear door. Mary Magdalene met them, breathing hard. “Get control of your respiration,” Borgia chastised.
“Sorry, but I love dealing a hard slam to a sinner.” Mary Magdalene’s exhalations slowed and deepened. “It makes me feel so … alive.”
Outside, there was a squeal like a rabbit caught in a snare. Then silence.
Borgia opened the door and thrust her head out. “Release him,” she called softly. “Give him five seconds lead.” Borgia turned to the three nuns waiting behind her. “Follow me and spread out.”
Borgia tapped her foot several times, waiting, then loped away from the door in a straight line. Mary Magdalene went to the right and Rebekah circled to the left, like shadowy wolves intent on running their prey to exhaustion in the night. Dorcas raced toward the garage between the rectory and chapel. She leaped up to balance on a trash dumpster, then scaled a support post to disappear onto the roof.
Jules made it to the chapel without seeing any pursuit. He darted inside and slammed the door, then wished he had been more circumspect. He braced himself against the inside of the door, expecting an impact. He looked up toward the ceiling high overhead, cloaked in darkness. Had he heard footsteps? Impossible! Jules dropped to all fours and scrambled under the nearest pew, then decided it was better to put some distance from the door, scuttling from pew to pew.
He heard a scraping sound at the stained glass windows near the door he’d entered. A tree branch moving in the wind? Jules crawled out from under the rearmost pew and ran to another outer door, pressing his ear to the crack. He pulled it open. No movement could be seen in the darkness. Jules dashed toward the garage and the bishop’s car. Dorcas dropped from the chapel roof and her soft, fast footsteps followed him. Jules zigged behind a bush, then zagged in the other direction, making it to the prayer garden. He ducked around a large arbor to find several nuns already there. He stepped back the way he had come, bumping against Borgia, as unyielding as a pillar of salt. Jules held up his hands. “You’ve got me.”
Borgia brought her covered face into a faint ray of light. “Don’t run again. My companions will bring you down hard.”
“How many of you are there?”
“Enough to handle twenty men,” Borgia said grimly.
“You call him a man?” Rebekah countered.
Borgia thrust her face closer to Jules. “Are you ready to admit your sins?”
Jules yanked down her wimple, exposing her face. He flinched at her headgear and thin moustache, barely visible in the dim light. “Whoa! You look like a nun in my grade school. ‘Sister Father,’ we used to call her. What convent are you from?”
Borgia’s face darkened. “You won’t be able to determine who we are, so don’t even try. When we return to … uh, Rome … it would be unhealthy to ask questions, if you get my meaning. Now, let’s try again. Do you have something to confess?”
“No.” Jules’ breathing became steadier and slower. “You’ve got nothing on me.”
Borgia put a hand inside her tunic and withdrew a sheet of paper. Jules squinted at it in the dark. “What’s that?”
She handed it over. “A spreadsheet showing your unauthorized withdrawals.”
“I had … expenses. I’m going to repay it.”
“Yes, you are.” Borgia snatched the paper back. “But that isn’t all. You’ve been committing another, greater sin.”
Borgia shook her head and made a clucking sound. “You know what I mean. Masturbation. Self-gratification!” She spat out the words like a curse. “We might have let the theft slide, but this—”
“What’s your proof?” Jules demanded, defiant again.
Borgia’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve seen your browser history and all the porn sites you’ve visited.”
“Oh, God, you know about those?” Jules wailed.
“Of course He knows,” Dorcas said primly. “When you’ve been very bad, He orders us, His faithful servants, to pay you a visit. We afflict the wicked and unmask the unrighteous.”
Jules trembled in fear. “I confess my sins. Please don’t hurt me! Show mercy to a wretched sinner—even though you’re heartless nuns.”
“What should we do with him?” Naomi asked, her voice low and menacing. “He surely deserves punishment.”
“Theft, lying, and self-abuse, all significant sins,” Rebekah intoned. “They warrant severe punishment.”
“You advocate death?” Naomi replied, a note of enthusiasm in her voice.
“No!” Jules squealed. “That would be far too harsh for my sins. God is merciful—and life is sacred, is it not?”
“You lecture us on mercy and justice?” Borgia clucked again. “Our Heavenly Father despises onanism above almost everything else. It is a repulsive, self-centered act. If you read scripture, you’d know only procreation is sacred.”
“Let me lay hands on him,” Mary Magdalene of the Knee Lift interjected. “Cooperate, or you’ll receive a kick to the sacred jewels, Jules!”
“No, no!” Jules sagged to the ground, his hands upraised.
At a signal from Borgia, Mary Magdalene and Rebekah seized his wrists. Borgia led the way around the outside of the chapel. Dorcas picked a lock and they dragged Jules inside, the nuns propelling him down basement steps and into a back room. They shoved him into a storage cellar, closing the door behind them. Rebekah pulled a string hanging from the ceiling and a bare light bulb illuminated.
Jules sank to his knees. “I didn’t intend to steal,” he blubbered. “It wasn’t even my idea. Men approached me and ordered me to siphon off money. They said if I didn’t do it, they’d make my life miserable! I didn’t have a choice.”
Borgia crossed her arms. “Forced to embezzle? I don’t believe that.”
“It’s true!” Jules put hands over his face. “I had large debts, student loans that were eating me alive. Then while at another diocese, I loaned my savings to a friend who disappeared. In desperation, I invested the church’s pension money in risky stocks. But the stock crashed and I wasn’t able to pay the Church back.”
“Who forced you into crime?”
Jules shook his head. “They didn’t tell me who they were. But they knew everything about me. Then I was transferred to this diocese and things were going well—until someone contacted me, saying he’d tell about my past troubles if I didn’t pay up.” Jules voice rose. “I never used the money on myself! I only did it to spare the Church any embarrassment.”
Rebekah slapped her eighteen-inch hickory ruler against her hand. Naomi lifted her thick slab of oak. Dorcas reached under her tunic and pulled her belt loose. She flicked her wrist and cracked it in the air.
“No, no!” Jules pleaded, his hands upraised. “I’ll do anything to make it right.”
Borgia opened her mouth to speak when a dark shape leaped into the room, knocking her down. Two more shapes attacked, one pouncing on Naomi and one leaping on Mary Magdalene’s back. Jules scuttled sideways as combatants crowded closer, black-clad nuns grappling with shadowy attackers.
Borgia rolled as she went down, bringing hands and feet up and driving fingers into her attacker’s eyes. The attacker released her and back-pedaled, knocking over a stack of boxes. Borgia leaped across the store room, veil streaming out behind as her outstretched leg drove him against the wall. When he bounced back, she swung a gnarled fist and her brass knuckles crucifix snapped his head back. The attacker slumped to the floor.
Two combatants crashed against an empty wooden wine rack, splintering it. Naomi, one of the two, ended up beneath her attacker. Naomi grabbed a piece of broken wine rack as she rolled him over, planting her feet on his back and pulling the board against his windpipe as he thrashed.
Mary Magdalene windmilled her arms in an attempt to grab the attacker on her back. The figure pulled the coif over her eyes. Mary Magdalene spun, but couldn’t dislodge the figure. Dorcas’ belt cracked and the attacker fell off, holding his face. Mary Magdalene slammed a knee into his nose and he toppled over.
The three attackers were dragged together at the center of the room. Borgia put her fists on her hips. “Let’s see who we have here.” She yanked the hood off the figure kneeling in front of her, a mousy man with brown hair and a bloody nose. She lifted his chin to inspect her handiwork, a dark red crucifix shape stamped on his forehead by her blow. “Well, well, looks like you’ll wear the Church’s brand for a few days. Now at least a small part of you’ll be holy.”
The Sisters pulled hoods off the other two figures. Naomi put a hand under the collar of one of them and pulled out a compass-and-square symbol on a chain. Naomi chuckled. “If it isn’t the Freemasons, meddling in the Church’s affairs again. Don’t you tire of being on the losing team?”
The bloody-nosed assailant scowled but said nothing.
Jules’ eyes bugged out. “They’re Masons?”
“What should we do with these scum?” Borgia asked, glancing at the others.
“Let me teach them a good, solid lesson.” Naomi hefted her heavy paddle.
“No, I want to teach tonight’s lesson in humility.” Rebekah forced the metal strip of her straight-edge ruler up under the nose of another captive.
“They’ll learn more than humility.” Borgia scowled fiercely. “You have corrupted Jules, one of our own, so we must teach you a lesson. And in doing so, we will teach our wayward lamb a lesson, too. After that, we will let you three infidels slither back to your den of Freemason snakes and carry a message.”
The captive kneeling in front of her wiped blood from his lip. “What’s your message?”
“Holy hell!” Jules pointed at the Freemason who’d spoken. “That’s the voice! He’s the one who called and forced me to do things.”
Borgia flashed a crocodile smile. “Our message has no words. We’ll spell it out in bruises on your flesh.” She raised her voice. “Freemason scum understand only one thing—pain.” She turned to Jules, kneeling beside her, as the nuns kicked, punched, and beat the three captives. “Observe the swift vengeance of the Lord.”
Jules trembled. “I had no idea there was a … a … group like yours. How often do you punish wrong-doers?”
“Whenever we’re needed.”
Jules shook his head in disbelief. “Here I thought I’d found a quiet, safe career. I never thought I’d be attacked by ninja nuns in flying color. No, no color, I guess.”
“You were correct the first time,” Borgia replied. “Nuns wear white for purity and black to signify secrecy. But we also represent red for the righteous anger of the Lord, yellow for the fear of God we inflict, and purple for the hands-on lessons we teach. So, yes, we are in flying color, even though we only dress in black and white.”
“What’s black and white, and red all over?” Dorcas asked. “Give up? A nun in a bloodbath.”
Jule’s eyes widened. “That’s … that’s not funny!”
Naomi tossed the Freemason she was holding onto the concrete floor. She lifted her paddle to strike as he pulled himself up to all fours. “Whoa, hold on now.” Naomi let her paddle drop and seized a nearby bottle with her other hand. “Blessed Mother, the bishop has a bottle of 1990 Romanée-Conti!”
“He does?” Borgia gestured toward the remaining wine racks. “Check for other bottles of ambrosia, that we miss not the Lord’s bounty.”
“Oh, ho, you’ll like this.” Mary Magdalene held up a box. “Look—Cohibas!” She took out a cigar and wiggled it provocatively.
The Marlboro dropped unheeded from Borgia’s open mouth. “Throw me the box!”
“I want some, too,” Naomi interjected. “Hey! They’re getting away!”
Dorcas and Mary Magdalene leapt to block the Freemason’s escape, but the captives made it to the door and vanished.
“We’ll catch them the next time!” Borgia snarled. “And I know there’ll be a next time.”
Naomi shook her paddle. “Those damn Freemason loan sharks!” She smashed an empty wine rack in anger.
Dorcas pulled back a sleeve and glanced at her expensive gold wristwatch. “It’s almost five AM. We should get back for silent prayers.”
“There’s still the matter of you, Jules.” Borgia put a finger to her lip and assumed a thoughtful expression. “You’ll confess your thefts to the bishop and pay back the money.”
“But…” Jules looked puzzled. “Nuns don’t hear confession.”
Borgia gave him an unpleasant smile. “True, it isn’t our job to hear confessions—but that doesn’t mean we can’t coerce confessions.” Borgia thumped his chest with a finger. “What’s more, you’ll work for us, gathering information and doing whatever tasks we give you, else you’ll find your … ah … Jules in a vise.” Borgia made a cupping and squeezing motion with her hand. “Then you’ll confess the use of church computers to look at porn, so the bishop can decide how your access will be limited. Last, you’ll confess that your porn addiction caused you to go temporarily insane and caused you to smash up this wine cellar, understood? That way, no one will know about our little counseling session with those Freemason scum.”
“I’ll do it, but…” Jules stared up at Borgia with wide eyes.
“But … but that would be lying, and lying is a sin!”
“Jules, Jules.” Borgia seized his earlobe and twisted until he yelped. “Masturbation is a sin far worse than lying! I’m trying to save your eternal soul, so you’d better do as I say. Remember, from now on it won’t be just our Heavenly Father watching you. The Sisters of Divine Mercy and Unrelenting Atonement will be watching you, too!”
“Three On A Match” by Robb White
Illustration by Jihane Mossalim