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No Absolution

Chapter One

 

 

The sailor wove his way down the gangway of the cattle transport ship once the heaving mass of beef on the hoof was herded off the reeking vessel. The herd made its noisome way along Commercial Road on their way to the slaughterhouses of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

He wiped his nose on the blood-stiffened sleeve of his coat. The stench of cow shit and offal clung to his person as surely as the muck did to his boots. At least the tide was in and they’d been able to discharge the bleeders directly onto the wharf without the bother of messing about with the transport vessels. What a relief to be free of the stinking floating hell, despite the diversion the injured cattle had provided during the long voyage. He headed for the nearest public house, pushing through the thronging crowd of recently landed deck hands and locals.

One of the women put a hand out to slow him before she got a decent look at his excrement covered garments. Jake shoved her as he passed and was heartened at the sight of her wallowing on her arse in the raw sewage of the gutter. Ignoring the screamed curses, he continued on to the Black Horse for a well-deserved ‘arf and ‘arf.

Jacob Winncott elbowed his way to the bar through the seething mass of humanity that frequented The Horse. The scruffy patrons quickly hid their glowers after one look at the broad shouldered man who bulled his way past them. Jake revelled in the fear that flashed across the coarse features of the faces in the mass of humanity as it parted before him. Some he recognised as crew from the Swansea Star. A grim satisfaction surged in his gut when they averted their gazes and pushed back into the crowd in their haste to avoid his interest.

The usual,” he ordered as he slammed a blood stained hand on the bar.

“Aye, Jake, ‘arf and ‘arf it is then. You back with that stinking cattle barge ag’in?” The bartender slid the porter and ale mix across the bar.

Jake nodded and took a long pull on the pint. It would take most of his pay packet to chase the voyage from his memory, at least for a little while. He most definitely needed to get roaring drunk. Throwing his head back, he downed the dregs in the glass and called for another. The voices and press of humanity blurred and swirled around him while Jake busied himself emptying his coin into his gut. Cheap gin seared its way down his throat, the discomfort dragging him back to reality for a second. He peered into the thick walled glass in his hand. Christ, what rot gut. He threw his head back and downed the bilious liquid, allowing his mind to sink into the welcome oblivion it offered.

“Time, gentlemen. Time!” Harley’s voice cut through the comforting, drink induced fog in Jake’s brain.

Tipping the last of the harsh spirits into his mouth, Jake pushed himself away from the bar and made his unsteady way across the floor to the door of the public house. He hunched his shoulders beneath the stiff material of his jacket and stepped out into the noxious fog that was as much a part of Whitechapel as the rats and scavenging children. The stuff was so thick he could hardly see a foot before him, and the gas lamp threw only a thin wavering puddle of light, which did nothing to push back the night.

Moisture collected on the bill of his hat as he set off for his rented room in Spitalfields. He wound his way from the pier area up Dock Street, where he turned right along Cable Street to Back Church Lane. He continued to stagger along the dark garbage filled alleys and narrow passages. Reaching Commercial Street, Jake stopped to vomit in the gutter. Wiping his mouth, he glanced up and down the wider road. He had no wish to run into the bloody Peelers. Seeing nothing through the fog, he made his way to the narrow alley of Plumbers Row. Emerging on Whitechapel Road, just west of the High Street, he turned north almost immediately into Great Garden Street. His tiny cupboard of a room was in a boarding house just south of Hanbury Street and he was relieved to find the doorstep free of drunks or sleeping prostitutes. Pushing open the door, he made his way to his small second story room.

It best be empty or that auld bitch will be right sorry in the morning,” he snarled as he stumbled up the stair. The door to the room at the top of the stairs was ajar. Jake kicked it open and fumbled for a match to light the lamp. After two unsuccessful attempts, the match flared and he held it to the untrimmed wick. The small flame flared sharply before he turned it down. The thin blanket and patched sheet lay in a tangled mess on the pallet. The skitter of retreating rat paws brought a grim smile to his face. Kicking the pallet aside, Jake knelt and pried up the second floor board from the wall. Slipping his hand inside the narrow cavity, he checked the India rubber-soled boots were still secreted there. Withdrawing his hand, he removed the oiled canvas knife safe from inside his jacket. He opened the flap and reverently removed each knife from its carefully stitched sheath. The honed blades gleamed in the wavering lamp light. He caressed each one in turn before returning it to the knife safe in the order he removed it, with the exception of two. His fingers lingered on the small heavy bladed cleaver for a moment. Next to the eight inch knife it was his personal favourite; the solid vibration it sent through him when he split bone with it was exceptionally satisfying in a curiously exciting way.

Safe and sound, they are. See, Father? None the worse for that cursed sea voyage. I have kept them from harm and I’ll use ‘em how ye taught me.” He lifted his gaze from the hypnotic play of light on the eight inch knife and raised his head to look up into the shifting shadows of the corner of the room. Father’s face slipped in and out of focus and Jake blinked in an effort to see the features clearly. Death had been kind to Father; he looked no different than the man Jake remembered from his childhood.

The knife is thirsty for the blood of the sinners. Go now and slake that thirst, cleanse the sins of the whores. Absolve them of their heinous sins of the body, their preying on the weakness of the men they rob of their manhood.” The command echoed in Jake’s ears, though the apparition did not speak aloud. The occupants of the house slumbered undisturbed around him.

“Aye, Father. I’m knackered, but the work must be attended to. I’ll go now and let your knife lead me to a hoor what desp’rately needs fer to answer fer her sins.”

Shaking his head, Jacob took his coat from the hook on the wall and shrugged it on over his working clothes. He retrieved the rubber-soled boots from the hidey-hole and slipped them on. Time enough tomorrow to wash the stink of the cattle boat from him, and if some whore’s blood joined the mess, well no one would be the wiser, would they? At any rate, tomorrow morning he would go to Fleischer’s where his land job waited for him. There would be cattle and horses from the boats to slaughter. He flexed his fingers in anticipation.

He tucked the knife into the carry case and snugged it under one arm where it was concealed by the folds of the coat. Weariness fled as he drifted silently down the steep stairs and out the unlocked door. It was a good night to hunt; the swirling sulphurous fog clung to the buildings and hugged the slick cobblestones. The rain did little to dissipate the greenish mess.

Moving north, he reached Hanbury Street. Lightning flashed overhead and the growl of thunder reverberated from the huddled buildings. Pulling his hat lower to avoid the deluge, Jacob slogged on through the downpour. The weather did not make his quest easy, but he persevered. There would be some whore about who had squandered her doss money and was out looking for punters to replace it, he reasoned. Sooner or later, he would find one. Presently, the rain let up as he passed the Fying Pan Public House at the corner of Brick Lane and Thrawl Street. A woman staggered out the door of the public house and reeled off into the shadows.

Jake followed her for a bit, waiting for a chance to grab her and allow the woman to atone for her sinful ways. She turned into the door of a Thrawl Street doss house and Jake continued down the street. There would be others out seeking a three penny toss now the bloody rain had let up. There never seemed to be a shortage of sluts ready to lift their skirts. Flames lit the skies, and Jake turned in that direction out of curiosity.

“Sommat big must be afire. It’ll draw any hoor who’s about, sure as it’ll bring men hoping to skive what’s left.”

Hurrying along the narrow lanes, he strode in the centre of the cobbles to avoid the overflowing effluence of the gutters. Before too long, he found himself at the Shadwell Dry Docks which were engulfed in flames. A woman left the outskirts of the crowd. Jake marked her progress, and slipping into the welcoming shadows, he followed her. At the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street the woman stopped to chat with a drunken ladybird who leaned on the wall for support. Using the chiming of a nearby church clock to cover his footsteps he moved close enough to realise the stewed woman was Polly Nichols, and probably the same woman he had followed from the Frying Pan. It was fate, putting her in his path twice in one night, so it was. Father’s knife, which seemed to have a mind of its own, danced across his vision, the weapon shining and slick with the blood of inequity. One of Father’s favourite words — inequity. He waited impatiently while the two women finished their discussion. He thought briefly of taking the first woman he followed from the dry dock fire, but he couldn’t ignore the coincidence of running across Polly earlier in the night and her showing up under his nose again. No, it must her. Look’it her. Blowin’ about leading another pur sod inta sin so she can pay fer a spot to lay hersel’ down in a doss house. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. I mun let His hand guide mine in this.

He heard the Nichols woman refuse to accompany her friend back to the boarding house, complaining she had squandered the cost of her night’s lodging three times that night already. She made a further idiotic comment about the ridiculous hat she wore, now bedraggled with rain. The woman moved unsteadily east along Whitechapel Road and Jake flitted through the shadows behind her, the rubber-soled boots making no scrape on the cobbles. Without pausing, he reached into his coat, opened the oil cloth package and felt the knife fairly leap into his hand. Patience, ye’ll swim in ‘er blood soon enough. Gotta bide me time. Make sure there be no chance o’ being interrupted like until she is blessed by Your mercy. The church clocks chimed three-thirty before he got his chance. As the woman staggered along Durward Street, approaching Buck’s Row, Jake increased his pace. He came alongside Polly who drew back in surprise and almost fell. She clutched at his arm and a sly smile lifted her lips.

“Aye, it’s only you, then Jake. You put the heart across me, coming up out of the dark like that. Have you got a fancy for a toss? I need the cost of me doss. It’s a bleedin’ miserable night, so it is.” She peered up at him in the gloom.

“‘Tis not your body I am interested in, but your soul,” he informed her.

A puzzled frown creased her forehead. “What the hell are you blethering on about? Do you want a toss or not?” She pulled away from him and swayed unsteadily on her feet.

Jake took her by the arm and pushed her into the gateway of the nearby stable yard that served the Brown and Eagle Wool Warehouse across the way. He stepped behind her and freed the shining blade from its hiding place. Polly leaned forward, placing one hand on the wall to steady herself, while the other fumbled to raise her skirts to allow him access to her privates. Her skirts hitched high enough, she demanded her three pennies and stuck a hand back toward him. He shoved her forward, forcing her to use both hands to support herself. Jake grabbed her by the shoulders and exerted force just below the collar bones to cut off the blood flow. Polly’s body crumpled as she lost consciousness and he lowered her to the ground. One hand gripped her throat, the fingers of his hand digging into her chin. Her mouth opened in attempt to draw breath and he jammed his fist upward. The whore’s tongue protruded through the gap of her missing teeth and the woman grunted. With one swift movement, he drew the knife across her straining neck from just under her ear and slashed deep across her throat. Violently, he freed the instrument of salvation from her neck and plunged it back into the flesh beneath his hand. Jake was careful to turn the head and cut so the arc of blood from the large artery was away from him and didn’t splatter on his clothes. The cattle blood was dry now, no need to attract attention with fresh blood all over him. The blade cut deeply, severing the large vessels on both sides of her throat. The knife skittered a bit in his hand as it hit the vertebrae at the back of her neck. Blood spurted from the wound, the hot metallic scent brought saliva to his mouth and he licked his lips. The woman’s body convulsed as the knife freed the blood and the evil from her soul and body. Careful to avoid getting any new blood on his clothes, he left her head and spread her legs, bending the right one upward at the knee and moving it to the side. She lay almost under the window of the nearest cottage, her hand by the gate post to the yard, but no sign of life came from within the building. Jake allowed a small smile to escape his lips. The Almighty was looking out for him as he went about his sacred duty. Surely the ease of his victory was proof of that. He kicked the black straw bonnet aside and noticed absently how the puddled water soaked into the cheap velvet trim. He knelt between her legs and held the knife up before him; the blood ran down the shaft mingling with the rain.

“For you, Father. Does it please ye that I carry on yer work? I just want ta please ye and the Almighty,” he intoned and closed his eyes. He only spared a moment before turning back to the job at hand.

Working with quick precision, he set about finishing the actions necessary to save the miscreant creature’s soul. The large brass buttons on the brown coat glimmered wetly in the rain as he shoved it upward and lifted the linsey dress beneath it. The knife sliced cleanly through the undergarments and left the lower abdomen obscenely bare. His hand trembled with the effort to control his rage and when the point of the blade pierced the skin of her belly he gave himself up to the holy anger within. The wound gaped blackly in the dim light and the stink of human excrement stung his nose. Several cuts appeared across the lower abdomen and then he ripped the instrument of her salvation into her body and slashed upwards. He observed the knife slice the flesh as if seeing it from a great distance. The first deep incision veered to the right, cutting through the groin and skittering over the left hip. Jake lifted his arm again and plunged the weapon into the centre of the body just above the pubic hair and reefed it upwards along the middle line of the belly, until it ground against the breastbone.

He sat back to steady his breathing and admire his handiwork. As his breathing settled, he became aware of the distant scuff of leather boots on cobbles and the muted sound of two men conversing. Bloody hell! There was still work to do here; reluctantly Jake rose to his feet. The sound of horses’ hooves splashing through the puddles in the road and the rumble of cart wheels brought his head up sharply. Bloody hell! He wasn’t finished yet; the organs that gave women their hold over the weakness of man were still intact. The sound of hooves came closer and a man mumbled something to the creature. Jake straightened and slid the knife back into hiding. With a regretful look at his unfinished work he slipped into the shadows. He hesitated a moment longer as Father stepped out of the deep shadows and stood looking down on Polly. His eyes glittered in the dim light and held Jake in thrall. The voices came closer and shapes appeared in the fog. Jake shook his head, when he looked back, Father was gone. Wasting no more time, he left the gateway and melted into the welcoming shadows.

Moving swiftly along the narrow street he flitted through the rainy night into a narrow back alley. There was barely enough room to walk without sidling sideways, but the cobbles beneath his feet would leave no tracks. He emerged finally into the narrow lane of Wood Builders and moved quietly to Little North Street headed toward the brewery.

The shrill of police whistles split the relative quiet of the early morning as he moved further away from the stable yard and he allowed himself a triumphant smile. Let them admire his work; let them wonder who performed the service of releasing the evil from the woman’s body. They would never catch him while God Himself protected the servant in His work. Jake continued to wind his way through the stinking alleys and lanes until he arrived at his boarding house. Letting himself in, he climbed the stair, taking care to avoid the creaking boards. Once in his room, he removed his clothes and replaced the special boots in their hiding place. Next he opened the knife safe and painstakingly cleaned Father’s knife. He made sure to wipe each of the blades in turn, even though he had only used the one. Finished with his ablutions, he sank thankfully onto the bed. The night was moving on and he needed to be ready to work at the slaughter yard before dawn. He sank into the sleep of the righteous.

The black veil wavered and billowed, obscuring his vision. Ineffectually, he tried to brush it from his eyes. His stomach curdled into a sour lump of fear at the realisation the coalescing darkness was part of the air around him, not a blowing veil he could easily sweep aside. Even with his eyes closed, the blackness danced across the inside of the shuttered lids, shot through with sulphurous yellow and sickly green lights. Mam’s voice, soft with the Irish brogue, whispered his name and it seemed fingers stroked the matted hair from his brow.

“What has he done to you, a storin? God forgive me for not being strong enough to save you,” Mam’s ghost whispered in his dreaming mind.

“Whore!” Father’s face pushed the vision away.

A loud shout brought him bolt upright in bed. His gaze wildly searched the dark corners of the room. Was it Father’s voice that woke him or someone on the street? Sweat broke out on his brow and he shuddered at the image of Father’s face suffused with rage.

“Mam?”

The hoarse whisper of his own voice startled him as much as the loud shout from the street had minutes before. Wavering between exhilaration and panic Jake padded to the window to see what the raised voices below were about. A ragged newsboy stood in the pre-dawn gloom screeching the news of Jake’s late night task. Frustration tormented him. He hadn’t had the time to finish the job properly. At least Polly’s immortal soul was free. It was the least he could do for the pur bitch.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

The floorboards were cold and damp on the soles of his stocking feet. He fumbled in the dark for the packet of matches and lit the lamp. It was a gift sent direct from the Lord that his pay from the cattle transport and the slaughter yard job, along with the small legacy left by Father, afforded him the luxury of a rented room all to himself. It allowed him to avoid the crowded sour atmosphere of the doss houses. True, the room was barely more than a closet, but it was private. Well, as private as a place could be when the walls were paper thin.

Dressing hastily, Jake was soon hurrying toward Fleischer’s in Butcher’s Row on Aldgate High Street. The bastard was a hard taskmaster, but it was the only work Jake could find that allowed him the freedom to sign on with the cattle boats and make the transatlantic crossing to New York when the mood stuck him. New York … another city full of sin and avarice. Perhaps if the heat in Whitechapel got too intense he could continue his mission in America once the summer months descended on him. It was always wise to have a fall back plan.

The pre-dawn dark was damp and heavy with fog. The leaden skies promised more rain. Jake turned up his collar against the wind coming up from the Thames. Jamming his hat further down over his eyes he trudged down Great Garden toward Whitechapel Street. The news of the murder in Buck’s Row seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Jake kept his head down and wound his way through the miasma of sewage, unwashed bodies, and sulphur fog. Reaching Aldgate High Street at last, he turned into the small slaughter yard at the back of number forty-eight.

Butcher’s Row was already bustling with activity, even at this early hour. The agitated lowing of the cattle set Jake’s teeth on edge. His fingers itched for the killing knife and his nostrils dilated in anticipation of the spill of coppery smelling hot blood. Slipping in the rear door of the shop, he pulled a leather apron from the hooks by the open entrance. Fleischer’s blonde daughter was busy at the front of the shop laying out waxed brown paper in readiness for the chunks of butchered flesh to come. Her ample hips and blue eyes drew his attention and he harshly extinguished the attraction.

As if feeling his gaze on her, Aggie looked up and met his eyes with a smile of welcome. Jake dropped head and turned away to where the cattle awaited their fate. He pulled the knife safe from the inner pocket of his jacket and spread it open on the one clean place on the gore spattered floor. He narrowed his eyes against the brightening light that spilled into the small, dark room where he did his work. A few steers milled in the holding pen outside the narrow doorway. He motioned for the street urchin employed for that purpose to herd the first beast through the narrow door. As the steer squeezed through the opening Jake pole-axed it and stepped back as it collapsed onto the stone floor. His breathing increased in anticipation of the killing stroke that would allow the blood to flow. He knelt behind the head, back by the shoulders, and pulled the big chin up and back. As he raised the selected knife, a movement from the open doorway caught his attention. From the corner of his vision he was aware of three small ragged bobchen peering in, their expressions both terrified and fascinated by the impending violence. Choosing to ignore the urchins for the moment, Jake allowed himself a small grin.

With a swift movement he slashed the steer’s throat with the cutting edge of the well-honed instrument. Bright, rich blood leapt out in a fountain that quickly pooled in the shallow gutter by the wall. Working quickly, he slit the carcass from stem to stern and plunged his hands and arms into the steaming cavity. A deft flick of the wrist freed a handful of the entrails, and with a wild shout, he leapt to his feet and hurled the bloody handful at the three barefoot lads watching him as if mesmerised by the violence before them. The horror and revulsion on their grimy faces as the bits of gut and offal splattered onto the cobbles at their feet sent him into peals of wild laughter. His voice echoed in the enclosed space and followed their flight out through the holding pen. Still chuckling, Jake bent back to his work. He allowed himself the sensual pleasure of pausing to run the smooth slickness of the internal organs through his hands, still warm and viable from the beast’s recent demise. There was something so intimate about fondling flesh from which life had so recently fled. It didn’t provide the same holy thrill that his real work did, but it helped to quell the constant urging from Father to carry out his demands. Although, if he was to be believed, it was the Lord’s demands.

 

* * *

 

As usual, Jake was the last employee to leave the yard. His stomach growled with hunger, but he ignored it. The familiar fingers of darkness curled around the edges of his vision. A little over a week had passed since he had claimed Polly for God’s absolution. His dream of killing and eviscerating had passed into the realm of reality. Slipping a shaking hand into his pocket, he stroked the handle of Father’s knife, as always, it reacted to his touch, pulsing faintly against the pads of his fingers. Lost in thought, Jake wandered through to the front of the shop, the sound of loud voices in the evening twilight jolted him out of his reverie.

What the hell am I doing here? His steps had taken him through the twisted warren of boxes and odds and bobs separating the slaughter yard from the front of the shop. Aggie was just finished tidying the counter, she turned with a gasp and regarded him with rounded eyes in her startled face. Ignoring the stab of something he’d rather not name that set his penis to twitching beneath the blood-stained apron he still wore, Jake turned on his heel and hurried back to the yard. Aggie called after him, but he only strode faster, giving his shoulders a shake as he crossed the cobbles and slipped out into the narrow alley behind the slaughter house.

 

* * *

 

After a simple supper accompanied by his usual pint at the Ten Bells, he made his way through the gathering darkness to his small room on Dorset Street. It was more private than the old place near Hanbury Street. He’d moved only the week before. The place was located in a dingy close entered by a brick archway. McCarthy, the bastard, charged through the nose for the dump, but it suited his needs much better. Slipping in unnoticed, Jake freshened the fire in the small hearth in his room. The conversation of the boarders on either side leaked through the thin walls and he grimaced at the rhythmic thumping accompanied by grunts and groans coming from one side. Revulsion and anger drove him to his feet and he opened his door a crack to peer into the gloomy rickety stairwell.

A woman was bent over in front of a short ragged man who was pushing himself against her bare buttocks. Hoor! Feckin’bloody hoor! He steadied his breath to keep from calling out and pressed closer to the door, drawn by a morbid fascination to spy on the lewd act. With a final thrust and grunt the man stepped back and straightened his clothes. The woman straightened and Jake fought the dizziness that threatened to buckle his knees. Unlike the haggard face he was expecting, the woman was young and pretty. She twitched her skirts back into place and twisted her long red hair into a loose bun. With a quick glance, the woman disappeared into the gloom of the ill-lit passage, her footsteps light on the splintered boards of the stairs.

Jake drew a shaky breath. Mam! She’s the spittin’ image of Mam. How can that be? Who is she? I need to find ‘er, I have to absolve the bitch of her sins. He closed the door and stumbled back into the room, collapsing on his narrow bed. With shaking hands he fished out the ginger beer bottle filled with rot-gut gin and took a healthy swallow. When the bottle was empty, he leaned back and watched the play of light and shadow on the walls. Lifting a hand, he turned it to and fro, marvelling at the intricacies of the bone, muscle, tendon, and ligaments, which allowed so many movements. It was so easy to separate the flesh from the bone, release the blood from the body as life fled quickly along with it. Pulling the tattered leather-bound book from under the thin pillow, Jake thumbed it open to the passage of Leviticus, his gaze running over the lines, even though he knew them by rote. His lips barely moved as he muttered the verses aloud.

A small shudder shook him as he acknowledged that he himself was unclean now from his contact with the sinners. Though he fought to ignore the twitching of his penis as it reacted to the memory of the whore’s bloody entrails, slick in his hands, he couldn’t control the lust that threatened to overtake him. He chanted the Bible verses louder, but the images on his inner eye were stronger than his will. The satisfied look of the red-haired harlot he had spied on earlier flashed before him and was his undoing. The brief glimpse of her naked buttocks was enough to spill his seed onto his thighs in the confines of his trousers. He gasped the holy words and his fingers curled convulsively on the book in his hand. In a moment he had recovered himself and found a rag to wipe the mess up. The words in the holy verses comforted him. Once his work was done, they held the key to his own salvation and the cleansing of his immortal soul.

No matter, there are enough hoors on the streets of this hellhole to satisfy my needs. Whitechapel, now thet’s a bleedin’ joke, if ever there was one. There ain’t nuttin’ white, nor sacred, in these filthy alleys.” A short bark of derisive laughter escaped his lips at the thought.

A flare in the hearth drew his gaze. An image of Father’s blade wavered in the firelight. The vision sucked the light and warmth from the blaze and threw a veil of darkness across his sight.

“Soon, we must not let our purpose lapse. Soon, you must cut again soon.” The dark voice crooned in his inner ear.

“Yes, soon.” Jake promised, his sight filled with the brightness of the cleansing fire and the dark vengeance of the knife.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

September eighth—nine days since the knife last tasted blood. Nine days during which Jake had not acted on his holy duty. Darkness swirled across his vision, black with the colour of dried blood. Jake set his pint down on the scarred table and surveyed the smoky interior of the Britannia Public House. On a Friday night like tonight, it was full of working men drinking their week’s wages, and whores willing to offer them a ‘four penny touch’. A quick bit of sex, in exchange for the four pennies it took to buy the dolly mop a bed and a safe place to sleep for the night. He lifted the pint to his lips, observing the clientele through the distortion of the glass as he drank. Filth, filthy hoors, not one of them deserves to be drawing breath.

The knife whispered in his mind from its hidey-hole in his room, streets away from where he sat. He remembered the way the lamplight glittered on the thin sharp blade the night his father wielded it and cleansed the soul of his whoring mother. Although, thinking back, Jake could never remember seeing his mother with another man, either at home or in the street. Still, his father had been a surgeon and a reverend, his word was law, just as the Lord’s was law.

“All women are daughters of Eve. They are an abomination and must be destroyed. Their mere existence is an insult to the Almighty.”

Jake shuddered involuntarily as the power of his father’s words reached beyond the grave and spoke afresh in his mind.

“Aye, Dark Annie you bitch!”

The screech of a woman’s voice jerked his attention to two women glaring at each other by the bar. The whore who spoke glared down at a shorter stout woman with the typical pallid complexion of the undernourished working class. Her lips were drawn back in a snarl revealing surprisingly excellent teeth rather than the rotting stumps so often revealed by both men and women in this be-knighted part of London. After a moment he recognised the women, having shared a liaison or two with both of them in the past. He repressed a small shudder of self-revulsion at the memory.

I returned your bit of soap, Eliza, and well you know it.” Dark Annie replied pushing her unkempt wavy brown hair away from her blue eyes.

Didn’t!” Eliza bellowed, striking the dark-haired woman in the face and again across her chest.

Annie shoved her face close to Eliza and said something Jake couldn’t make out over the catcalls of the crowd, taking bets on which whore would win the battle. Apparently, having made her point, Dark Annie swept from the establishment into the night.

Jake took note of which way the woman turned as she left. The urging of the knife was growing stronger. He hadn’t slept for three nights now. What a disgrace, a woman brawling in a public place. It’ll be a favor I’m doing her immortal soul by releasing it from that stinkin’ body. I cain’t ignore me duty to the Lord fer too much longer. Father has been demandin’ my attention these past few days. Killin’ the hoor will serve both ends.

A woman plunked herself down in the chair across from him. Jake looked up darkly at the unwanted intrusion. To his surprise it was the Judy who chased Dark Annie from the public house.

“Would you be after a bit of business then, lad?” Eliza smiled exposing broken and black teeth.

His gorge rose in his throat and he swallowed hard to control it. This child of the devil could perhaps tell him where the other stupid bitch had gone to. A fine trick to play on Satan; use information from one of his minions to destroy another. A false smile spread across his face.

“Who were that you was haranguin’ wi’ earlier? Seemed like you was ready to have a right barney.” He showed no interest in her veiled reference to a fumble and touch in the back alley.

Aye, that was black-hearted Annie Chapman what stays most nights at Crossingham’s doss over on Dorset. A right bitch she is, borrowed me last bit of soap and refuses to replace it or pay for it.”

“Ye seem to have gotten the best of the blows in, ’Liza. Ye chased yer opponent from the room.” Jake took a sip of his pint.

“She’ll be back that one, mark me words. She ain’t got the price of her bed for the night yet, heard her say so ‘erself. Making eyes at my man, looking to share his sheets instead, she was. That one will be out looking for a punter or two now, sure as I’m alive.” The woman’s eyes gleamed with menace, her upper lip curling like a snarling dog.

“Drank it again, did she?”

So she did. I could use me some coin meself….” Eliza hinted again, none too subtlety.

Jake drained the dregs from the bottom of his pint and pushed back from the rickety table. He shoved some coins deeper in his pocket before slinging his rough coat over his shoulders.

“Time is moving on, I’ve places to be.”

“Bastard! Bloody waste of time…” She leaped up but tripped on the hem of her ragged skirt and fell. By the time she struggled to her feet to the accompaniment of rough catcalls Jake was well away.

The night air was comforting on his hot face. The knife heated his blood making it hard to think. Sleep, I need to sleep. He found himself in the close outside his lodging without remembering how he came to be there. Entering the cold room he shed his jacket and locked the door. Studiously refusing to look toward the knife’s place of concealment, and thereby acknowledge its presence, he splashed cold water from the pitcher on his face. The shock of the frigid water served to quiet the insistent voice in his head. Jake threw himself down on the narrow bed and willed sleep to overtake him. Preferably dreamless sleep.

 

* * *

 

Phantoms and disjointed scenes whirled across his inner eye. Father preaching to the assembled congregation, fire and brimstone rolling from his tongue. Mam, with her coat collar buttoned tightly up to her chin despite the heat of the sanctuary, gloves masking the bruises on her hands and wrists. Sally Murphy, the pretty red-haired daughter of the butcher, blue-eyed and smiling. She had waltzed out of his life and married a farmer. His breath came faster and caught in his throat, the visions turned bleak and unfriendly. The sharp smell of mouse turds stung his nose and he shrank away from the scraping of the rats in the wall behind the cupboard where he hid. His small limbs folded around his quaking stomach while Father’s voice rose and fell in time with the blows he rained down on Mam. Her tear-smeared face covered in snot and blood, only tiny whimpers escaping her broken lips where she lay inches from his hiding place. The frantic urge to squeeze his eyes shut was overwhelmed by the mesmerising splatter of blood that flew from Mam’s battered flesh. There won’t be any hidin’ the damage this time, the thought crept across his adult mind.

“There was no need to hide it in the end, was there?” The knife spoke comfortingly in his dreams.

Through child’s eyes, Jake’s gaze followed the glitter of the blade in the lamp light, experienced again the rush of horror underlain by a strange thrill of excitement at the flood of blood as it opened Mam’s neck from ear to ear. Father’s hands hard on his shoulders, pulling him from the cupboard and sitting him on a chair. He explained in detail how to sever muscle from bone and how to remove internal organs without damaging the lower intestine and releasing the stench which gathered there. Meticulously, Father removed parts of Mam’s body and placed them in an orderly fashion about her corpse. Jake sat immobile with terror, heart hammering so he felt it would leap from his chest. Reverently, Father built the fire in the hearth to a roaring blaze and placed Mam’s parts into the white heart of the flames.

“She is cleansed now, Jacob and worthy of entering Heaven’s gates.” Father’s voice sounded strange, his movements somehow languid and slow.

 

* * *

 

He woke with a start, the bedclothes wrapped about his limbs binding him to the bed. Freeing himself, Jake struck a match and lit the bedside lamp. Four-thirty, the hands of his battered clock told him. The sky outside the window was still dark, no glimmer yet of dawn. His head pounded unbearably, the voice of the knife vibrating in his skull.

“It’s no use. I can’t ignore it any longer. The hoor has to be cleansed tonight if possible.” He spoke into the silence of the room. Today on the anniversary of Mam’s death.

He pried up the board, took the rubber-soled boots out and slipped them on. Gathering up his knife safe, he tucked it under his arm. Moments later, Jake let himself out the door of the squalid squat in Miller’s Court and set off toward Dorset Street. The rain did little to disperse the thick mist, if anything; it seemed to add to it. If Eliza was correct, Annie might still be out looking for a punter to give her the price of a bed, or a drink. He walked with a quick purposeful step, eyeing the alleys and shadows for any trace of the woman he sought. Forty-five frustrating minutes passed with no sign of any whore, let alone the one he pursued. His footsteps brought him to the corner of Hanbury Street where he stopped in the pale light of a street lamp and considered the possibility of returning to Miller’s Court and continuing his search the next evening.

A movement in the shadows across the street caught his attention. A short stout woman approached the corner on the opposite side of the street. A smile crossed his face as he recognised Black Annie; luck was with him after all this morning. He crossed the street with long strides and grasped her by the arm propelling her up against the shutters of 29 Hanbury St. The numbers hung askew just above her left shoulder.

“What is it you want with me?” The woman’s voice was harsh and desperate.

“You’re soused again, Annie. Any luck getting your doss for the night?” Jake smiled, his fingers tightening on her arm.

“Oy, Jake, it’s only you. Are you lookin’ for a toss? Do you have a crib?” The woman relaxed a bit under his hands.

“I haven’t time, around the back here is good enough. Will you?”

“Yes.” Annie replied though there was a thin thread of uncertainty in her voice.

The sound of footsteps nearby drove him to propel her quickly down the narrow passageway into the back yard of the building. It was dark in the enclosed yard. A high fence separated it from its neighbours. Jake steered her into the sheltered corner between the back steps and the fence. The whites of Annie’s eyes showed as they widened in fear with the realisation there was no way out without getting past him first. She put her hand out, silently demanding her payment in advance. He passed her the thruppence and waited while she turned around. The woman gathered her voluminous skirts in her hands and raised them up past her hips. She leaned forward with her hands on the wall of the house for support, her garments bunched around her waist. The pale flesh of her nether regions gleamed in the shadows. He reached out and untied the red and white neckerchief from around her neck, his left hand gripped her chin.

“Here now, no need to do that,” she protested. The woman attempted to push away from the wall but his fingers tightened and pulled her head back.

“No!” She managed to force the word out before he cut off her wind.

It was all his victim had time to say before he twisted the neckerchief and pulled it tight. Her hands scrabbled on the wall for a moment before she went limp and he caught her weight against the house and fence. It took only a moment for him to crush her windpipe. He let her slide down the fence and laid her on the ground in the confined spot between the steps and the fence. He stiffened and remained motionless at the sound of movement in the yard next door. Jake waited until the sound of the door closing again told him whoever ventured to the outhouse had returned to the lodging. He knelt by the woman and closed her eyes.

Jake drew the knife from his pocket and held in front of his eyes, the sharp edge gleaming dully in the murky light. Righteous rage and exultation filled him. Father would be so proud of him for continuing the holy work of cleansing the sin-filled women, those deceitful creatures who worked their wicked wiles on unsuspecting males, leading them into the hellfires of sin. Pulling her head back, he neatly slit the throat from ear to ear, slicing left to right.

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