I have stuck closely to reported factual events that took place during the period of the Thames Torso murders, and many of the players in this novel are real people from history, but for the sake of my story, and Murder to follow, I have taken some liberties with the characters, their personal lives and, of course, their personalities. I send my apologies to all of them, and I trust their souls will forgive me. This is, after all, a novel, and not a history book.
Personally, if someone chooses to breathe life into me again, between the pages of a book a hundred years after I die, I hope that whatever is left of me in the wind and the rain will smile a little, and take whatever changes they made to my life with good humour.
These murders, however, did take place. And they were never solved.
Paris. November, 1886
He was quite handsome. A little thin, perhaps, and there was a strange mottled hue to his skin that made her think the consumption might have made a claim on him, but he had his own teeth and the air of a gent – if you could ever call an Englishman a gent – that put him a cut above her normal clientele. He was also paying her well. She smiled at him, even though he appeared less inclined to speak to her now they were alone than when he had first seen her. That did not concern her – he was English, after all, and although his French had sounded good, it might be limited.
She didn’t mind; talking could be more work than the other. There was always the chance of saying the wrong thing and then suddenly your lip was split and your eye blackened, and then there would be no work until they healed. Quiet was fine – and quiet normally meant quick, so even better.
The night was cold and she pulled her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders as she followed him down into the side streets of Montrouge to where his lodging rooms must be. A cold wind with winter on its breath twisted through the narrowing streets and they were left in midnight gloom as the glow of light from the cafés in the square faded. She sniffed, her nose running slightly, and then caught her breath as she tripped on the uneven cobbles. He grabbed her without breaking his own stride and pulled her firmly beside him.
‘You’re stronger than you look, Englishman,’ she said with a smile. There were gaps where a few of her own teeth were missing, but she knew her smile was still pretty enough for a girl in her position. ‘I like that.’ She laughed and leaned into him, as much clumsy flirtatiousness as because she could barely see the ground beneath her feet and her head was swimming slightly. She had a head for wine – in her business you had to – but tonight she had drunk too quickly, needing that inner warmth now the alleyways where she normally plied her trade were getting uncomfortably cold. When your skirt was hitched up around your waist and your cheek was pressed into the rough stone to try and stop them pushing their stinking tongues into your mouth, you felt even the lightest of chill breezes.
He did not react to her laughter, but she didn’t mind. He was lost in his own world somewhere, perhaps feeling premature guilt for the deed he had not yet done. He probably had a wife at home, sitting bolt upright in a dark parlour, her legs primly pressed together, everything between them religiously dry. She snorted to herself.
They rounded a corner and she was surprised when he stopped in front of a small artisan’s workshop. She had not expected he would be taking her anywhere too extravagant – his coat and trousers were worn, though they were still fine clothes. She had guessed he would be staying in one of the nearby lodging houses, not the smartest of addresses, but clean and comfortable. She had been looking forward to feeling the soft sheets beneath her, and if her luck had been in, he might have fallen asleep, and then she could have slept in comfort alongside him until he woke and threw her out.
She frowned as he tugged the wooden door open: it wasn’t likely to be warm in there, though at least it would be out of the wind. She had been fucked in too many strange places to feel any concern, though she was disappointed. Mainly she just felt a weariness that even the wine could not fight. Her English gent had already paid, so no doubt he would take his time. He was not doing it twice, though, no matter how many francs he had already handed over.
‘I like my privacy,’ he muttered, as if in explanation, and ushered her inside. He closed the door and then turned on a small gas lamp that cast long shadows across the dusty floor. Her heart sank further. The place was dirty and looked neglected. She thought she could make out a table in the far corner, but the meagre light fighting its way through the grimy glass housing did not reach that far.
He moved closer until they were standing face to face. He grasped her upper arms. Once again she was surprised by his strength, especially when he looked so sickly. She ignored the purplish patches on his slightly bloated face, instead staring into his blue eyes. He looked nervous, and she warmed to him for that. She was a kind-hearted girl.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll have a nice time,’ she said, smiling and tilting her head coquettishly. She imagined he would like that. ‘Just you leave it up to me.’ She stretched her hand down to rub between his legs and gasped slightly – he fired up fast, this one – but he squeezed her arms tighter and pushed her further into the workshop. She was a little shocked by his sudden roughness, and tripped over her feet, and once again he held her up.
‘You don’t strike me as the rough type, cheri.’ She laughed a little, wanting to lighten the sudden tension. ‘Why don’t we slow it down? Why don’t you—?’
‘Do you see it?’ He shook her slightly. ‘Behind me – can you see it?’
For the first time that evening, something unpleasant unfurled in her stomach, hinting at bad choices made – the worst kind of choices. She looked into those blue eyes again. They were wide, intense, and she realised she had misread them. This wasn’t nerves, or shy fear of sex, this was something else, something completely other. This was madness. Her heart thumped loudly and the last warmth of drunkenness dissipated into cool dread.
‘Why don’t you let me—?’
‘Can you see it?’ he hissed, spraying spit onto her face. She flinched, both from him and the sour stench of his breath. He was sick, she was sure about that. The chill in her gut spread into her limbs and suddenly she was trembling.
‘You can have your money back. Just let me go.’ She tried to wriggle free, but his hands were clenched around her arms like vices. The splintered edge of the table behind her dug into her thighs. Metal clanked against metal and she saw tools spread across the tabletop. What were they for? Tears pricked suddenly at the corners of her eyes and she sniffed them away. She was being foolish. He was mad, she could see that, but that didn’t mean he was going to hurt her. The rush of blood in her ears and the panic loosening her bladder made her thoughts unconvincing.
‘You must see it,’ he continued, ‘behind me – right behind me! You must see it!’
She stared into the shadows over his shoulder. Maybe if she placated him then he’d calm down. She focused on the closed door and the lamp. They were so close, and yet so far away. She needed him to relax – if he relaxed, then she could get away. She was sure of it.
‘I don’t know,’ she stuttered, her mouth dry. Her eyes flicked from his face to the door behind him. ‘There’s something there . . . I think . . . maybe if we get closer to the light – maybe then I could see properly?’ She licked her lips. ‘Please, if we go near the door – where the light is – then I can look. I’m sure I can see something.’ She was speaking quickly and she wondered if he even understood her. She saw her own terrified face reflected in his dark orbs as he stared at her.
A frown crept across his face and settled in a ripple of wrinkles on his forehead. After a moment it twisted into a sneer.
‘You cannot see it,’ he whispered, eventually. ‘You cannot.’ He smiled at her, and she found that she was sobbing. ‘But I will tell you a secret,’ he whispered into her ear. There was a moment’s pause, and in it she held her terrified breath.
‘It can see you.’
Dawn was merely a grey chill when screams tore through the still-sleeping town. Montrouge rose early that day, both sleep and tranquillity lost to them. Within an hour of the discovery, police were examining the remains that had been left so callously – so sacrilegiously – on the steps of the church, the town’s quiet place of sanctuary from the everyday toils of life. That morning there was no quiet. Even in the silence, the horrors of the crime disallowed peace.
The torso – the head, right arm and both legs were missing – belonged to a young woman. One breast had been brutally cut off, but it was quite clear from what remained that the victim was female. The police and surgeon talked amongst themselves before declaring that she could not have been murdered where she had been found; there was not enough blood. The townsfolk had become almost one in their appalled shock, and somehow this detail disturbed them even more than if the poor woman had been cut to pieces on the church steps. If he hadn’t killed her there, then in whose barn or outhouse had he committed his heinous crimes? A thorough search found no evidence, and neither did it find the missing body parts. The town did not sleep well that night, nor for many more to come. The townsfolk prayed that the wickedness that had come to their town had simply been passing through.
Later, when the torso had been taken for further investigation, it was discovered that the woman, suspected to be a missing local prostitute, was also missing her uterus.
The town prayed harder after that.
The Times of London May 16, 1887
On Saturday the coroner for South Essex, Mr. C. C. Lewis, opened an enquiry at the Phoenix Hotel, Rainham, into the circumstances attending the death of a woman, a portion of whose body was discovered in the Thames off Rainham on Wednesday last, wrapped in a piece of coarse sacking.
Essex Times – South Essex, London June 8, 1887
On Sunday morning great excitement was caused on the Victoria Embankment on its being made known that a portion of the mutilated remains of a female had been picked up near the Temple Pier. The Thames Police were immediately communicated with, and on their rowing out to the pier a portion of a human leg was handed over into their possession. It appears that at ten o’clock on Sunday morning the attention of J. Morris, pierman at the Temple, was drawn to a large parcel that was floating near the lower side of the pier. On opening it Morris discovered the thigh of a human person wrapped in a piece of canvas and secured with a piece of cord . . .
The Times of London June 13, 1887
THE RAINHAM MYSTERY
. . . careful examination of the remains (those of a woman), and was satisfied beyond doubt that they formed part of the body to which the pelvis, recently found on the Essex shore, belonged. His (Dr. Galloway) theory that the dissection was performed by a man well versed in medical science was more than strengthened. The sacking in which the trunk was enclosed was exactly similar to that found at Rainham and off the Thames Embankment.
The Times of London July 21, 1887
The various human remains, which have been found from time to time at Rainham, Essex, in the Thames off Waterloo Pier, on the foreshore of the river off Battersea pier, and in the Regent’s canal, Kentish Town, the remains comprising the arms (divided), the lower part of the thorax, the pelvis, both thighs, and the legs and feet, in fact the entire body excepting the head and upper part of the chest, are now in the possession of the police authorities.
London. October, 1888
‘How much further?’ The shafts of bright sunlight filling the building site above were finally petering out and leaving us in a cool, grey darkness that felt clammy against my skin.
‘A little way, Dr Bond,’ Hawkins said. The detective was grim. ‘It’s in the vault.’ He held his lamp up higher. ‘We’re lucky it was found at all.’
Huddled over like the rest of the small group of men, I made my way under the dark arches and down stairways from one sub-level to the next. We fell into a silence that was marked only by the clatter of heels moving urgently downwards. I’m sure it wasn’t just I who found the gloom to be claustrophobic – especially given what we knew to be waiting for us in the bowels of this building – and I’m sure part of our haste was simply so we could face what we must and get back to the fresh air as quickly as possible.
The workmen above had downed their tools, adding to the eerie quiet. We were a long way down, and with the walls damp and rough beside me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a tomb rather than the unfinished basement of what was to be the new Police Headquarters. But perhaps I was – an unintentional tomb, of course, but a resting place of the dead all the same. I shivered. There had been enough death of late, even for someone like me, who was trained in all its ways.
Recently I had begun to think that soon this city would be forever stained in cold, dead blood.
Finally, we made our way down the last few steps and arrived at the vault. It was time to work.
‘They moved it over here before they opened it,’ Hawkins said, standing over a lumpen object nearby, ‘where there was better light to see it.’ The foreman and the poor carpenter who had found and unwrapped the parcel were keeping their distance, shuffling their feet as they stayed well clear of what lay at the detective’s feet. As I looked down, I found I did not blame them.
‘Dear Lord,’ I muttered. After the slayings of recent weeks I had thought we must all be immune to sudden shock, but this proved that was not the case. My stomach twisted greasily and I fought a slight tremble in my hands. More gruesome murder in London. Had we not seen enough? The parcel the workmen had found was approximately two and a half feet long. It had been wrapped in newspaper and tied with cheap twine, the ends now hanging loose where they had been cut open to reveal the horrific secret inside.
‘We’ve not touched it since,’ the foreman, a Mr Brown, said nervously. ‘Fetched the constable straight away, we did, an’ he stayed with it while we fetched the detective. We ’aven’t touched it.’
He didn’t need to repeat himself to convince me. Regardless of the sickly stench of rot that now filled the air, who would choose to touch this? The woman’s torso was lacking arms, legs and a head, and across its surface and tumbling from the severed edges was a sea of maggots that writhed and squirmed over each other as they dug into the dead flesh. In the quiet of the vault we could hear the slick, wet sound made by the seething maggots. Here and there they dropped free to the black ground below.
I fought a shiver of repulsion. Whoever this woman was – and despite the physical trauma it was clear this was the torso of a woman – her death was no recent event.
I crouched lower to examine the damaged body more closely, and held the light close as I bent down to the floor in order to peer into the largest cavity. What was left of her insides was a mess: whoever had done this had not been content with just amputating her limbs. Much of her bowel and her female internal organs had also been removed. This killer had taken his time.
Beyond my obvious disgust, I tried to muster some other emotion, empathy of some kind for this poor creature’s fate, but I could not. It was the madness of it all that haunted me, not the deeds themselves. Further to that, this woman no longer had a face with which to plague my sleepless nights – unless that was somewhere else in this dark pit, lying as yet undiscovered. But I doubted that someone would go to the lengths of removing the most personal item of the body if they intended to simply leave them close by. From beyond the vault came the sound of vomiting. One of the younger constables, no doubt. I felt a slightly weary envy at that: oh, to still be so easily affected by the macabre acts of others.
‘You’re the man who found the parcel?’ I looked up at the carpenter.
‘Yes, sir. Windborne’s the name, sir.’ The gentleman in question shuffled from foot to foot, nervously picking at his cap. Even in the unnatural light, his face looked pale. He was in his thirties, perhaps more, and had the hands of a man who had worked hard and honestly for the better part of his life.
‘We thought it were just a bit of old bacon. I should maybe ’ave said something yesterday, but I thought nothing really of it. I didn’t even notice the smell – ’ard to believe that now.’
‘If it were wrapped tightly, the smell would have been less, and if you were focused on your work . . .’ I shrugged. ‘Show me where you found it, if you would.’
‘Yes, sir.’ The carpenter gestured towards the dark space behind us that yawned like pitch-black night. ‘You’ll need some light.’
‘What in God’s name brought you down here?’ Hawkins asked.
‘It’s where I ’ide me tools. I don’t trust a lot o’ the new men up there, sir,’ Windborne said. ‘I’ve been in me trade a long time; they ’aven’t. I can’t afford to ’ave me tools stolen. I know the way, but it’d be a puzzle to anyone who didn’t know the place, so me tools are safe ’ere.’ He stopped several feet away from where the torso now lay. ‘I use that nook, behind a plank of wood. The parcel was stuffed in beside it.’
Hawkins raised the lamp, and his arm immediately wavered slightly. ‘Dear Lord, look at that.’
The wall at the back of the alcove was black where the rotting flesh had soaked through its wrapping, and maggots teemed across it almost as thickly as they did across the torso itself. ‘Well, that answers one question,’ I said, almost to myself.
‘Which is?’ the detective asked.
‘Our victim has been here much longer than good Mr Windborne knew her to be.’ It was cool in the vault, but I was sweating slightly. The damp air and consuming darkness beyond the small pools of light was becoming oppressive and I suddenly feared that if I stayed down here much longer I would not be able to breathe. I stepped back. My heart was starting to race unpleasantly and an anxious tingle prickled at my skin. It was a sensation that had become all too familiar over recent months.
‘I think I have seen all I need to see here,’ I said. ‘If you would be kind enough to arrange for the body and its wrapping to be sent to the mortuary, I will clean her up tonight.’ I was glad of the poor lighting as I turned back towards the stairs, sure that my face would no doubt look unhealthily pallid, were someone to study it. I quietly drew in a deep breath and silently counted each of the rough steps as we climbed until my racing heart had calmed.
These strange moments had come upon me more frequently in recent weeks, and as much as I blamed my cursed inability to sleep, I knew too that the wash of blood that was flooding London’s streets this summer was equally responsible. I had suffered as a child with these fleeting moments of surreal anxiety during which I was sure my heart was about to be crushed in my chest, but as I grew into adulthood, they began to fade into a memory almost forgotten. Even during my time on the battlefields with the Prussian Army they had not returned – not until this past summer. They filled me with a terrible dread, and I was left tired and drained when the spell had passed. Of course, this did nothing to help my insomnia, and I knew that on some level the two had to be linked. I prayed that sleep would soon return, and with that these strange fits would be dispelled.
I took the stairs with vigour, and by the time we reached the street the combination of my brisk pace and concentrated breathing had cleared my head and I was once again myself. I lit my pipe, and Detective Hawkins did likewise. Evening was falling, and London was sinking into the gloom that existed between day and night before the streetlights flickered into life. There was a chill in the air, and as we both shivered and smoked, I felt certain that the young detective was as glad as I that we were free of the vault.
‘You don’t think it’s him, do you?’ The detective spoke quietly. I didn’t need to ask for clarification: there was only one him being spoken of across London, and he even had a name now, after the letter of five days ago. Jack the Ripper. It had a ring to it, I had to admit. Whitechapel’s fear now had an identity.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so.’ It was barely forty-eight hours since the deaths of the last two women, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, and in homes across London, and in Whitechapel in particular, the bubble of hysterical chatter that was becoming a vocal demand for the killer to be caught would become hard for the men of H Division to control, should those residents decide to take matters into their own hands. ‘And you would do well to perhaps be loud in those assumptions yourself, Detective. There is enough fear on these streets, and Jack is getting enough publicity without our help.’
‘Yes,’ Hawkins said, ‘but it won’t be me talking to them. I’ll be passing this case on.’ He sounded relieved. ‘They’ve sent two inspectors over from Scotland Yard – Moore and Andrews – to help catch this Ripper. Experienced detectives, they are. CID. I’ll give this to them, just in case.’
Behind us two men emerged from the building site, carefully carrying the pitiful remnants of the body and the newspaper in which it had been wrapped, both now swaddled in sacking. One of them was the reserve officer, Constable Barnes, who had been called in to help mind the new building site; he had been the first among them to see the contents of the gruesome package earlier that afternoon. He had certainly got more than he had bargained for on this assignment.
We watched silently as they climbed into the waiting cab.
‘How the hell did it get down there?’ Hawkins asked. ‘And unnoticed?’
‘That, my friend,’ I said as I dampened my pipe and stared into the darkening street, ‘is for your inspectors to fathom. My part of the puzzle will meet me at the mortuary.’
I had fully intended to go home when my initial work with the remains was done, for I would need to be back in the morning to start the post mortem examination, and had already sent a message to Dr Hebbert to meet me no later than half-past seven in order to get the procedure underway. I myself would be there well before that, but Charles didn’t suffer with my sleep affliction, and I felt no call to drag him out too early simply because my own bed was my enemy.
Alone in the quiet mortuary, I had cleaned the torso and placed it in alcohol, both to preserve it and to kill off the teeming maggots. There was no urgency for an accurate time of death – and no way of giving one, other than death clearly occurred weeks before – so there had been no cause for me to work through the night, not when a fresh mind in the morning would work better.
A fresh head had been my hope, at any rate, so I had been determined to go home to a light supper, and then take myself straight to bed with a book, in the hope of getting at least six hours’ sleep, though I would happily have settled for four or five. I had felt exhausted as I had prepared to leave, but yet again I found myself waking up, as I had done most evenings during this past three months. The exhaustion had sunk too far into my bones to disappear, but still my grainy eyes widened and my brain refused to quieten.
Without making any real conscious decision, instead of reaching for my overcoat, I rummaged behind the medicines cabinet for the clothes that I kept hidden there: a less expensive coat and a rough hat, the kind that would disguise my normal gentlemanly appearance and allow me to blend in more anonymously at my chosen destination. I pulled them on, and once outside the mortuary, I dirtied my face a little. It would do. People tended not to pay attention to others in the dens, but I would rather not take the risk of bringing disrepute to my name.
‘Thank you, good man,’ I said, aware that however I roughened my voice, it was still educated, and at odds with my clothing. The cabbie who dropped me in the heart of Whitechapel either didn’t notice or didn’t care as he took my money, and that suited me perfectly well.
I took in a deep breath of night air, and then let my feet take me through the main thoroughfares to the back alleys of the human warren that made up this rough and dangerous part of the city that now had all eyes turned on it. The hour was not overly late, but an eerie quiet hung like smog over the deserted streets, an unnatural stillness. My heels clicked against the cobbles as I sank into the sordid atmosphere of the slum.
Under the pale light of a flickering streetlamp I caught sight of a solitary female face. Her cheeks were bloated from the drink, and although she smiled slightly, just in case I might be a gent looking for a moment of relief, her eyes, glazed as they were, were wary. I didn’t blame her for it. There was no point in warning her to stay away from these wretched alleyways; her very appearance dictated that her need for liquor would make her risk the dangers. And here, as everywhere, people would always believe that the fate of poor Catherine Eddowes and the others would happen to others, and not themselves.
Stairwells and doorways yawned in the darkness around me and in one or two I could make out the shapes of men, lounging and smoking as they talked quietly. They fell into a wary silence as I passed and it was with a mild relief that I soon found myself on the main highway, with its lively gin-palaces and noisy shows, where little groups of people gathered under the gas lights to listen to some enthusiastic soul expounding on the mysteries of the universe or the miraculous benefits of some such pill or another.
Watching the life around me, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about this city, that its residents felt the urge to harm each other so? Ever since sleep and I had parted company so many weeks before, I had sensed a shift in the mood on the streets and behind the closed doors of homes of both the well-to-do and the slum-dwellers. There was a wickedness in the air. I might laugh it off in broad sunlight, but now, in the grip of night, it was almost palpable. It wasn’t the frequency of death that disturbed me – murder had always been a part of London’s personality. It was the nature of the killings: the intent. Poisonings, strangulations, and now Jack.
My feet led me steadily towards the river. This meander around Whitechapel had been merely a distraction, perhaps a way to fool myself into believing I would not be seeking out the opium this evening; that I would simply walk myself into tiredness. It was a lie, of course, and that I had only halfheartedly believed. By getting the hansom cab to drop me at Whitechapel I had avoided the embarrassment of going directly to Bluegate Fields and the various establishments that served my needs in that vilest of areas. None of the dens were salubrious, but there were slightly less venal places than Bluegate. My choice of location would be clear for analysis, should anyone discover my new pastime and wish to pass comment upon it: if I was going to be low, then I might as well be low with the lowest. It would not take a scholar to reach that conclusion. My shame, I hoped, was my ally: it would prevent these still not entirely frequent visits from becoming a noticeable habit.
There were many in my position who would think nothing of self-medicating, of course. Laudanum would certainly be a more private way of relaxing my exhausted mind, but I feared that my will might not be as strong as I might wish it if I were to go down that path. I knew several medical men for whom that liquid was a daily necessity, and I had no wish to count myself among their number. This would do for me. As the Chinaman opened up the door and the warmth and heady scent from within embraced him, all I truly cared about was a few hours of blissful release.
Unlike the descriptions of the Chinese opium houses that filled the pages of the Penny Dreadfuls, this den, for want of a better word, was well-swept and clean. The clientele – mainly sailors who had learned to prefer the smoke to alcohol on their travels, but also various other Orientals, the occasional shopman or steward, and here or there a beggar or thief come into a few pennies – did not normally arrive until half-past ten or eleven at night, as I had done, and so the old Chinaman (known to me only as ‘Chi-Chi’, the same name I used for many of the old man’s counterparts in other establishments) had several hours to clean or change whatever rags and coverings required it.
I found the dens to be calm and peaceful places, with none of the restless aggression of the bawdy public houses where men and women drank too much and talked too loudly and then found any excuse to be cruel to one another, or to seek a moment’s feigned affection in the arms of another stinking unfortunate. The Chinamen’s opium houses had a serene quality, a hush that hung in every full room as if noise and irritation were captured and trapped by the pall of blue smoke that curled up from the pipes and hung there indefinitely. Even those small groups who talked quietly amongst themselves did not linger on the topics of politics or war or even the terrible fates that were befalling the women of Whitechapel, but let their conversation go this way and that as the smoke dictated, until, for several minutes at a time, they would stop speaking completely, and then, after a stretch of silence, one or another would eventually pick up a new thread.
Faces and bodies blurred under the glow of the oil lamps dotted here and there, and in the pipe-bowls, glowing embers twinkled like stars in the gloom. Time drifted in the thrall of the pipe, and as I lay back on the small cot, my immediate surroundings faded as my conscious floated away to pleasanter times – to fields of vivid green beneath sparkling blue skies, and the sticky heat of the den became a glorious summer sun. Somewhere Emily, so long ago lost, was laughing. I smiled as my eyes half-shut and the familiar warm rush flooded through my veins. This night, however, it was hard to hold on to such pleasant thoughts; instead, dark flashes of Whitechapel’s streets plagued my mind: slashed throats, terrified eyes, brutalised bodies torn open with so much rage, the images all enhanced by the power of the smoke.
I turned slightly on my cot, no doubt muttering nonsense, as I heard the slice of the blade and the clamour of talk in public houses across the East End, almost as if I were flying across it all, my spirit free of this body and swooping down here and there to see so many strangers’ faces, flushed with both excitement and too much gin, recounting the details of one grisly death after another. Those five women had been ripped apart by Jack, and now they were being torn apart some more by gossip, delivered by those with shining eyes, even more alive for their loss. This was a cruel London.
I wanted some peace, but the smoke was wrestling with me this evening, enhancing the black thoughts that plagued me, taking me deeper into my fears and forcing me to face them. Maggots crawled behind my eyes and suddenly I was back in the vault of the new police building, this time alone in the dark with only a match burning between my fingers for light. I could feel the rough ground beneath my feet and my breath rushed loudly in my ears. I turned this way and that, taking hesitant paces forward and back in order to seek out the stairs. I must get out. I must get back to the light. Something shuffled in the darkness and I spun around, the light flickering in its death throes as the match burned close to my fingers. I let out a yelp of fear and disgust, finding myself suddenly facing the rotting torso, the corpse held high above the ground. Held. There was something there, behind the corpse . . . a vast shadow . . . it was leaning forward. The match went out.
I sat bolt upright, woken from my terrors by my own scream, which thankfully manifested in the real world as a tight-chested yelp, as shrieks in dreams have a tendency to do.
Chi-Chi appeared beside my cot with a damp cloth, and I took it gratefully from him and wiped my sweating face. My head swum with the opiate high and my heart thumped with relief that the hallucination was done. After a few deep breaths I muttered some thanks to the old man, whose dark eyes peered out like raisins from a thin, cadaverous face half-hidden by his long beard. There was no judgement in his expression, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many such terrors he had witnessed during the long nights of supervising so many lost souls?
I drew deeply on the pipe and let the heady smoke eradicate the remaining stains of darkness. I felt cleaner now that the vision was done, as if I had needed to purge the day’s work from my imagination. I leaned back once more and this time, thankfully, the opium was gentle with me. I drifted for an hour or more, perhaps even came close to sleep, when the heavy tread of boots moving past me disturbed my reverie.
I had been so far lost in my own head that it took a moment to recognise my surroundings, and by the time I did, the figure had moved further away. I frowned as I stared at the small alleyways the Chinamen used to scurry here and there, replenishing a bowl or gently evicting a customer who had run out of time and pennies.
The tall man, dressed in a long black waxy overcoat and hat, moved between the cots, his feet thumping on the wooden floor, pausing here and there to study the occupants before progressing to the next. As he turned sideways to peer down at one sleeping sailor, I could see a withered arm and crooked hand that he kept bent at his waist, the disproportionately tiny fingers curled in like talons.
Despite the heaviness of my limbs and the haze that coated my vision I dragged myself slightly upright, so that I was lying on my side, propped up on one elbow. The den had been only half-full when I had arrived, but in the time I had spent in my private haze, the cots and divans had filled, and a low cloud of smoke hid the ceiling from view. The stranger moved through the dreamers, apparently in no hurry, studying those lost to the opium, just as I had seen him do in several such establishments over recent weeks. I had come to find myself slightly intrigued by him and his strange examination of the poppy-smokers. Had he been standing over my cot only moments before? What was he looking for? Did he even exist, or was he merely an opium dream himself?
Chi-Chi had returned to replenish my pipe, and as he did so, I pointed at the figure almost lost in the gloom.
‘Who is that man?’ I asked. ‘I have seen him here before, I think, and in other such places.’
‘He come. He go.’ Chi-Chi shrugged his narrow shoulders. ‘He look.’
‘Who is he looking for?’
‘He don’t tell Chi-Chi.’
‘Does he smoke?’ My words were thick, struggling to form against the lethargy that gripped me.
‘Yes: smoke first, look after.’
The strange man was almost at the far end of the room, where stairs led down to the small lower level where Chinamen came to gamble. Extra beds, for busy nights, lined the area.
‘Have you noticed, Chi-Chi,’ I muttered, ‘that he looks at them strangely? I don’t believe he’s looking at their faces – around them, perhaps, but not at their faces. Why might that be, do you think? What is he hoping to see?’
Chi-Chi said nothing more but shuffled away as if he had not heard the questions, and as the stranger disappeared downstairs, I turned again to the pipe. I had perhaps two hours more until five o’clock, when I would have to head home to wash and change for the post mortem examination. I did not want to waste them. As I lay back down on the couch and looked up at the cloud I had created with my night’s indulgence, I wondered about the man. I had seen him before – before these strange visits to the opium dens. I was sure of it. But where, and when?
Excerpted from Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough. Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Pinborough.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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