Coal Town is home to working class neighborhoods with upper-middle class homes all the way down to the tenements of the working poor. The street gangs of the south side are the proving grounds of the future members of Titans organized crime families.
Josh could hear the stacatto of light feet skipping down a set of tiled stairs from within the building and sliding up to the door.
The brass doorknob by Josh's fist rattled lightly and then a young voice asked, "Who is it?" in a childish sing-song.
As the door opened Josh looked down at the young boy, not commenting on the streaks of dirt across his face that young boys attract.
"I'm Josh, I was wondering if I could speak to the Mother Hen?"
Josh grinned down at the boy as he used the nickname the boys have always used for Mother Henrietta, the headmistress of the home for as long as anyone could remember, let along Josh.
"Why don't I wait here and you can go tell her I'm responding to her letter."
Dropping his battered duffel down next to the door Josh sat down on a nearby bench and stretched his legs, drawing attention to the unique shoes that most Patchers wear, rubber and leather slippers that leave the toes covered yet singled out to allow for better grip.
"And while you're at it wash your hands before you get to her office or you'll get a smack with that ruler of hers." Josh called out as the boy ran off, his own knuckles throbbing from remembered smacks echoing from the past.
"Sure thing, Mister. Can you just stay here while I get her? We're not supposed to let strangers in the building without a sister around."
In absolute silence, a woman in a robin’s egg blue habit stepped behind the boy. He turned, bumping into her, more surprised at her sudden appearance than the lack of noise she made entering the lobby.
"Oooph," she exclaimed as the young boy bumped his head into her stomach, but whatever discomfort she felt immediately melted under the light of a warm motherly smile.
"Joshua, please be more careful of where you are going. You cannot walk in Jesus’ footsteps if you don’t know where your feet are."
"Yes, sister," he replied, a twinge of embarrassment in his voice.
"Now, go and fetch Mother Henrietta," she asked gently, putting the boy back on his train of thought.
"I’m sorry about that."
She gathered her white apron and wiped the edges together, trying to clear away the perfectly shaped black handprints that had just appeared. As she did so, she looked up and studied Josh with an inquisitive squint, trying to place the man’s eyes under the beard.
"Mother Hen? Never let her catch you saying that, or she will have you mowing the lawn for the rest of the summer no matter who you think you are. I am Sister Magdalene of the Order of Mercy. Perhaps there is something I can help you with?"
She dropped the apron, resigning it as another casualty of war, and opened the door to the orphanage.
Josh nods to the errand boy before meeting Sister Magdalene's appraising look.
"I see the Home still names it's more...spirited children Joshua." He comments before remembering his manners.
With good sense Josh looked sheepish as he stood up from his seat, hands nervously running over his shirt trying to smoothen out the wrinkles acquired from travel.
"Oh umm...ahem I mean I'm Josh Leets, Mother Hen...er Henrietta asked me to stop by when I was done my last tour of duty, I believe her exact words were "It is time to stop galivanting atop those infernal contraptions and come home to do the Lord's work."
He hands over the well read and many folded letter that was written to him, fighting the urge to look for an oncoming ruler as childhood memories bubble to the surface. Josh hurriedly takes off his cap and stands up straighter, not wanting to push his luck any further with Sister Magdalene. While she read the letter Josh let his eyes wander around the dimly lit foyer and hallway, occasionally stepping aside to let children hurry in or out of the house.
"So...How many boys are currently in the Home?" Josh says to fill the silence, rocking on his heels as it's always been a bit difficult to stay entirely still.
"Mmm hmm... oh my..." The nun's eyes glanced over the letter and she seemed a little embarrassed to be reading such a personal note.
"This is certainly something the Mother Superior can help you with. I'm afraid she's been very busy of late, what with all the new arrivals coming in each day. Even with the new wings being built, we can barely find space for everyone. At last count, we had 217 in this building alone, not including the boys helping in the rectory at Mother Mary's. Thankfully, the number of sisters has increased as well, so at this point it is simply a matter of space."
"Titan has become a beacon of sort, drawing in the lost, the hungry, and the needy that New York has forgotten to shelter during this storm. Fortunately, the Order had the forethought to act before things became worse. It certainly is a whole new world out there."
"Can I offer you something to drink? Tea perhaps?"
"As you can see I may have left a...lasting impression on Mother Henrietta, luckily I think I've matured a bit since I was a ward of the state." Josh smiled as he took the letter back and returned it to his pocket.
"The Mother told me you were dealing with an influx of orphans though I had no idea it was at such heights, I'll be sure to keep that in mind when I see the Mother Superior, I'm not entirely sure what she expects of me."
Josh again pressed himself against the wall to let a group of boys pass, this time deftly reaching out and catching a ball out of the air before it struck Sister Magdalene.
"Some tea would be wonderful Sister, speaking of which..." Josh undid the snaps of his duffel and rooted about, pulling out a sealed tin of strong British tea. "I figured the Sisters would enjoy this, I picked it up last time I was going through England. It's a bit strong and I wouldn't drink it too late at night." Giving the Sister an easy smile Josh reclosed his bag, looking up when he saw the younger Josh coming down the hall.
"Michael Joseph, what did I tell you about playing ball inside the building?"
"But, Sister Magdalene, class hasn't started yet, and we can't go out because of all the mud," a boy replied.
"Then maybe you should be praying for forgiveness for almost hitting me. If Mr. Leets here had not caught the ball, I would be terribly sore right now."
"Sorry, Sister Magdalene."
"I am going to give this ball to the Mother Superior. If you want it back, you can tell her what happened. Confession is good for the soul."
"But, Sister Magdalene..." He turned and pouted in that way only young boys and hungry puppies can, then disappeared down the hallway. As Josh's eyes followed the boy, he noticed an intricate series of small metal tracks woven into the flooring between the woodwork and marble tiles.
His curiosity didn't last long, as the high-pitched whisper of an electric motor began echoing down the East Wing. The source was a small woman, dressed from head to toe in the traditional black habit of the Sisterhood, hands folded neatly in her lap, and sitting in what looked to be a cross between a wheelchair and squared-off throne. The size of the chair overshadowed the frail figure that rode it as it glided towards the lobby.
"Joshua Leets," the old woman asked, squinting her face into a lemon-pucker, "is it you, sweetheart?"
The chair, possessed of an alien motion followed the thin metal rails and slowed to a stop near to where Sister Magdalene and Josh were standing.
"Good morning, Mother Superior," Sister Magdalene said with a bow of her head.
"And a good morning to you as well. Please prepare the girls in East Five for today's lessons. I may be tardy." The voice of the old woman was thin and didn't carry the thunder that Josh remembered from his years under her care. While he was away at war, time had not been kind to his former headmistress.
"Joshua Leets, it is you. Darling, you're all grown up now, and a beard. Oh my. It has been so long since we last spoke that I feared the worst. Please allow me to hold your hand for a moment so I can be sure I am still awake."
Josh does his best to look stern as Sister Magdalene reprimands the boy, enjoying seeing the scene play out from the outside for once.
"ummm...yes...shameful..." He mumbles along with the scolding nun, coughing occasionly to hide a few chuckles.
As Mother Henrietta glides down the hallway in the humming contraption he does his best not to stare or gasp, almost unable to line the image of the aged and frail nun to the looming woman full of vim and vinegar from his childhood.
"Yes M'am...I mean Mother Henrietta, the "Terror of Titan City" returns." He smiles as he crouches down, delicately taking the Mother Superior's hands in his callused work-cracked palms.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to get a reply out to your letter and get home Mother Superior, the ship I was on had to resupply in London then drop supplies and workers off in the Big Apple for that Empire State Building they just finished." Josh takes a knee so he can look the nun in the eye, nodding a thank you to Sister Magdalene as she hurries off before turning back to Mother Henrietta.
"Your letters were a bit brief Mother Superior, what exactly can I do to help?" He gets right to the point, happy to help the nuns and the orphanage that kept him out of the street gangs but not quite sure what a free spirited working class Patcher can do.
"London? Oh my, Josh. You really have seen the world, haven't you?"
"So many of our wards were drawn off to fight, and with Canada so close, I guess it was inevitable they would be shipped overseas. I'm so sorry, Josh, but I am glad to see you back safe and sound."
"As you can see, we're more than a home now. When the major construction projects started three years ago to help with the growing pains of the city center in the Northwest, I reached out to all of our wayward boys. With money so tight all over the country except Titan, I thought you might have wanted a good job fixing up the old house. Never knew where you picked it up, but you always were handy, even when you were younger."
"Mr. Tesla from Niagara sponsored the new electrical system. You should see the place at night. Every lamp, even on the outdoor walk, comes on at the same time. He finished his work last Winter and it truly was like seeing a chorus of angels surround the building. He even built me this sled so I could get around better after the diabetes took my feet. Several other crippled children here can use these sleds as well. It's a miracle of genius. Such a shame Mr. Tesla couldn't stay much longer, but he said he couldn't sleep well in the country. I guess Coaltown was just too far off the beaten path, right?"
"But, as you can see, there's still plenty of work to be done, and we can offer room, board, and a steady paycheck if you are willing to work for it."
"Well London was after some time in Africa and a bit in India, I signed on with some trading companies after my tour of duty...and spread out on either side of that." Josh stated simply, stating it as fact and modestly. Standing up he turned and picked up his battered duffel as well as a small leather satchel.
"Well I suppose I owe a year or so of service at least for all the windows I broke as a boy." He smiled to Mother Henrietta with a smirk and a wink as he finally stepped to the side and pressed himself to the wall. "Do you mind if I ask if the neighborhood is still...colorful?" Josh asked as he kept meandering down memory lane, remembering the rougher boys from the Home as well as some of the thugs that loitered around Calloway's Dance Hall.
"Umm...I don't have to stay in the dorms again do I?"
“Joshua dear, you may stay wherever your heart desires. If you wish to stay in the rectory, we can provide you with the same accoutrements as the rest of our boarders. You will have access to clean water, three square meals, electricity, and a warm bed at night. Thanks to Titan’s influence on this little burb, you’ll be safe and sound in God’s hands. And if anything ever did happen, Tog and his men would make sure things didn’t get out of control.”
A man, ten or twenty years (and pounds) Josh’s superior looked up from his work.
“Yes, Mother Superior? Did you need me? Everything okay with the sled?”
“Of course, dear,” she patted the arm of the chair. “Couldn’t be happier with it.”
“I was just telling Mr. Leets here that The Home isn’t the same place he grew up in years ago. He’s been overseas for quite a while and is back to help.”
“He is, is he?” The man put a hand to his knee and pushed himself up from the floor. At his feet was a coil of copper wiring and what looked like a modified German pistol with some sort of silver arrowhead peaking from the tip of the barrel. The handle of the weapon had a cloth wrapped cord attached to it, which was then plugged into the wall a few yards down the hallway.
As he walked towards the pair, he set a heavily gloved hand on his back which saluted with a series of pops and clicks. “Ahhh… feels good to stand up once in a while.”
Josh sized up the man at a glance. Definitely Eastern European, probably Ukrainian from his build and the way he missed his W’s. His wide eyes were hidden under a heavy brow and his deep brown tan betrayed a lifetime of labor under a harsh sun. His outfit was a strange combination of flight suit and diver’s uniform, and Josh could tell he was uncomfortable wearing the heavy leathers in the summer heat.
“My name is Mr. Bula.” He loosens the belt keeping the heavy gauntlet attached to his forearm and offers a sturdy hand to Josh. “Where were you serving overseas?”
[Josh Leets] Coal Cirt June 12, 1931 Early Morning
"Well I certainly appreciate it Mother Henrietta, spending all that time on airships gave me a deep appreciation for a space to call my own where I can't touch all the walls at once. I promise to only impose until I find a place of my own, it's about time I get my own place and set down some roots."
Josh took the nun's hands gratefully and smiled warmly before standing back up to look to the man who just spoke. His eyes immediately went to the gun shaped tool, a reflex from his travels. Being a Patcher Josh only barely recognized the tool and leather's as equipment for high voltage work, his own vocation keeping him well away and wary from anything that generates open sparks.
"It is nice to meet you Mister Bula, please address me as Josh." This was said in badly accented Ukrainian, one of the few phrases Josh hadn't picked up from airship docks or taverns and appropriate for mixed company especially around nuns.
"I spent my tour of duty on the U.S.aS Annastacia as a Patcher. We stuck mostly to the supply lines running through Europe. After that I signed up with some privately owned trading companies and such and got to see most of India and Asia." This was stately simply as a fact, Josh never having thought it out of place to have traveled mostly around the world or enroll in the service.
"Mother Superior is right, when I was a ward of the Home Coal Town wasn't a safe place for a rowdy kid like me to wander through the streets and such, I'm told a Mr. Tog is responsible for that?"