Ripper parts 1-9; edited, updated and condensed for your greater enjoyment!
Jed knew everything about the woman. He had been watching over her for almost four months and it felt as though they had been friends since childhood. He knew that she must think he was her guardian angel. One day, he did not know when, Jed would summon enough courage to speak to her.
Every night she stood beneath the same hanging lantern, bathed in a halo of warm amber light. Every night Jed watched her from the shadows, her figure perfectly silhouetted against the waters of the river as they glimmered in the moonlight.
He knew it was not right that she was oblivious to her saviour’s identity. On several nights he had seen her being robbed and beaten by crooks or manhandled by the local constables. He had immediately done all that he could to save her life, praying feverishly for Him not to take her so soon. She had not died yet.
I’ll protect you, my sweetness.
But now a new threat was drawing near. It came beneath a wide-rimmed hat and heavy overcoat, lingering in the shadows at the edge of the circle of light. Jed prepared his mind for the prayer he would soon be offering, but there was no need. The woman turned towards the stranger, laughed shrilly at something he said and threw her arms around his neck.
‘Just business, no need to worry,’ Jed muttered, using his sleeve to stifle a cough.
The pair began to trade fleeting kisses and he felt blood rush to his cheeks. He was not angry or jealous, merely embarrassed to be witnessing such a private exchange.
A rough leather shoe clapped against the hard cobblestones behind him. The sound was faint but it carried clearly to Jed’s ears. He began to turn as the sharp thing bit into his neck. It dragged across and a wave of warmth spread down his chest. A red mist hung in the air. Jed tried to ask what was happening but found he could not speak. He crumpled to the ground.
The crimson blush of life drained out of Jed’s face, replaced with the ashen pallor of death.
Jack pressed his lips to the rim of the rough flagon, took a small mouthful and grimaced. He had never thought a pint of ale could become stale, but that was exactly how the beer tasted. It had the hard, sour taste of bread long since made inedible. Something dark floated on top of the cloudy brew and Jack hoped it was only a head of wheat.
He was surrounded by the low hubbub of tens of voices talking at once. The tavern was dark and musty, smelling like a damp cellar. This was unsurprising considering that they were one floor underground and only separated from the muddy bank of the Thames by a few feet of stone and brick. Black mould clung to the wooden beams holding up the ground floor.
‘Are you drinking that, mate?’ someone asked from over Jack’s shoulder.
‘You have it.’
He turned and pressed the vile drink into the grimy hands of an elderly man with hops and pieces of bread sticking out of his tangled grey beard. Jack shuddered as the wretched man’s hand touched his.
Wretched filth. Some people ought to be thrown in the river and given a good cleaning up.
Every rational part of his mind was pleading with him to leave the tavern. The men who frequented riverside drinking holes were all either vicious or desperate, sometimes both, and the very air was polluting his body.
‘But I have to stay,’ Jack said to himself.
‘What’s that, love?’
A heavy figure pressed itself between Jack and the crowd. He saw a maroon dress almost bursting at the seams where it had been tightly laced over an expansive bosom. A pair of gaudily painted red cheeks wobbled as the woman pressed her pink lips into a wet pout.
‘I wasn’t talking to you, I’m sorry,’ Jack replied.
‘Well, who were you talking to then?’
‘Nobody, you shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here with these men.’ He tried to move away from the whore and backed into a group of men. She tottered after him.
‘Tell me your name, love. Why shouldn’t I be ‘ere?’
Jack leaned closer to the woman and a heady waft of perfume stung his nostrils. He whispered in her ear.
‘These men are all evil. I’m going to kill them.’
Constable Matthews was standing alone on the high stone bank of the Thames. Except that he was not alone. Inside the city it was hard to ever find somewhere truly isolated. There was a hum of noise drifting out of the taverns behind him and tired yellow light glowed in the windows of warehouse offices.
Scribes and sailors alike would be getting little sleep that night, the one hastily finishing the accounts of the day and the rest drinking away whatever demons haunted them. This was to say nothing of the rats. In London you were never far from a rat.
Bugger rats, they’re not the only vermin in this ‘ere city.
The constable was seeking out a different sort of vermin that black night. He lingered as a portly phantom in navy blue coat and helmet under the dark void beneath the shattered street lamp. The smooth cobbles at his feet were still tarnished by the maroon blemish of spilled and dried blood.
‘Good evening, constable.’
Matthews looked up from the old stain and saw a familiar face. The constable’s mind was an impeccably kept and ordered repository of all the names and faces which frequented his beat. It was a catalogue of local knowledge which could have put the national library of any state to shame, if they were in the habit of keeping such records.
Even as his beady eyes watched the fellow pass him by, Matthews was running through everything that he knew of the man.
Last name Smithly. Dockyard labourer by trade. No family. Hang on, a widowed sister in Portsmouth. Whore. No church or creed to speak of and frequents the Steady Berth. Villain, most likely, but not proven.
The latter was one of the seedier tumbledown places where criminals of all sorts gathered to conspire and gloat.
‘Stay out of trouble, Smithly,’ Matthews called to the labourer’s retreating back.
It was not long before another regular passed him at his lonely vigil.
Chandler, no association with trade or ship-building. A well-to-do bachelor with apartments in Kensington. Old Anglican stock and patron of some of the less wretched but still morally corrupt alehouses of the docklands. Braggart and womaniser, but no villain.
‘God give you good evening, Constable Matthews,’ the man called with a tip of his hat.
‘Good evening to you also. Be sure I don’t see any of Tapper’s girls sporting sore bruises tomorrow or I’ll be coming for words with you.’
The gentleman straightened his back, turned his chin up at the constable and hurried away with aristocratic aloofness. Those two were not the only men Matthews saw during his watch, but they were of the most note. A career criminal and an entitled philanderer, prime suspects indeed.
His vigil beneath the broken lamp had a determined purpose to it. Experience had taught Matthews much. He had learned that a nation’s worst persons congregated in its ports and the vilest excesses therein were carried on by its docks.
He also knew that men who sung hymns and toiled at honest labour beneath the sun’s glow would rob, fight and worse when the moon was high. But the most important piece of experience he had earned was the realization that a killer’s footsteps always brought him back to the scene of his crime, willingly or not, and invariably on the evening after it was done.
One of the men who passed him that night had wielded the razor in the dark, opened a woman’s throat and painted the cobblestones red.
Master Jeply ripped his loaded quill across the page with a final, furious flourish. It was the end of a very long day during which absolutely nothing had gone well.
All’s well as ends well, as the saying goes, and it’s over now. For a night, at least.
The labourers had unloaded the wrong cargo, his assistant had been late opening the warehouse and just when he thought nothing worse could happen, there was the prior day’s account.
He believed without any shred of doubt that one or all of the accounts men were at the bottle. There was no other way they could have produced such a document, filled with more errors than truths. It almost seemed to him that the brittle pages reeked of gin.
‘Well blast it all!’ Master Jeply cursed.
He was a devout man, a Christian man, but even the strictest believer could be driven to curse like a devil.
Things would not improve on his way home, Master Jeply thought as he packed away his work in a battered leather satchel. He would have to walk some distance down the wharf to make the journey. That meant passing women of debauched profession and men of poor repute.
Ugly, tormented souls to fill an ugly, tormented city. Not for long though. Soon it will be long walks in the countryside and a comfortable retirement. Dorset or Norfolk, I wonder?
If England were still a godly nation, such people would all be hanged, he mused. The thought tickled his mind and a cynical smile curled the corner of his tight lips. There was another gentleman who shared his beliefs.
He had seen the agent of darkness sneaking along the wharf some nights before, a glittering blade in his shadowed hand. The assassin had crept upon an unsuspecting agent of the devil and cut her down beneath the swinging streetlamp.
‘What a sight that was,’ Master Jeply muttered as he stepped out of his office onto the cobbles of the waterfront. ‘Praise be to God.’
‘You saw nothing,’ a voice breathed from the shadows.
Master Jeply wanted to agree. He wanted to take the stranger in a brother’s embrace and tell him of their common convictions. He wanted to swear that he would carry the truth locked in his breast until his dying day.
There were many things he wanted to say and do, but he had no opportunity to act on his desires. His throat was open, letting his words seep out into the air as nothing more than ragged breaths. The lifeblood which had sustained him since birth now blossomed down the front of his starched white shirt.
‘This isn’t right.’
Constable Matthews muttered the words as he stood over the warehouse master’s lifeless corpse, following them with a violent curse.
He could understand waking to find a prostitute lying beneath a broken lamp, her throat cut by some dockside cur. He could understand the boy Jed, who so liked to stalk the ladies of the night, having his neck slit by a jealous lover.
But Master Jeply had been an honest, hard-working and god-fearing man. Far from indulging in pleasures of the flesh, he had treated the harbour women and tavern patrons like diseased mongrels, never letting even a breath of their wickedness touch his pure soul.
‘Who, then? Who kills a whore, a peeping tom and a Christian?’
There was no answer readily apparent. Years of walking his beat by the docks had given Constable Matthews a wealth of experience, but it had also dragged him deeper into the routine until habit overcame intelligence.
As far as his mind was concerned, philanderers killed prostitutes, lovers murdered peeping toms and nobody had cause to harm a godly man.
Damn the confounded absurdity of it. Who kills a godly man?
Watching from the shadows beside the warehouse, Jack’s sharp eyes caught every twitch of frustration on the constable’s furrowed brow.
Routine made for a fine constable, but a poor detective. And habit was the best friend of a dockside ripper. Jack stepped out of the shadows, fingering the razor blade in his pocket.
‘Good morrow, Constable Matthews,’ he called. ‘Bloody business that.’
The lawman’s hard gaze searched Jack’s face for a moment, no doubt drawing everything he knew about him from the dusty shelves of his mind. Jack wondered what bright nuggets of information lay there.
A good man. An honest man. Perhaps even a godly man. No killer, good old Jack.
‘Good morning to you,’ the constable said. ‘See anything strange the past few nights?’
‘Not a peep, constable. You know I’m not one for going out after dark.’
The judge sat high above the accused on a towering dais of polished mahogany. His front was guarded by the ornately carved royal coat of arms, an insistent reminder that his word was the Queen’s law.
If this ornamented threat was not enough, the plush red robes billowing around his body and powered wig on his head were a powerful symbol that, in this court at least, a man was judged by his betters.
Next to this mountain of imperial authority, be it in the lowly Southwark Crown Court which sat only a short distance from Whitechapel, the two accused men seemed as small as ants.
Constable Matthews did not feel much larger. A fifteen minute walk had brought him there, but he felt many miles away from the familiar stomping ground of his dockside beat.
And now the full weight of English Law, which stretched from London to Calcutta, Montreal to Sydney, was about to fall on his head and crush him beneath the judge’s black-polished heel.
‘Constable, would you kindly tell me why these two men are standing before me?’ the judge asked, his tone every bit as severe as the expression on his sharp face. ‘Why are they charged with the same crime but not as accessories? Why have you provided no evidence of their guilt?’
Matthews felt naked without his navy blue uniform and helmet. He wished he had not worn a simple grey suit, but he could not have known his actions would be called into question.
If I close my eyes, will I be back on my beat? Will I have been dreaming this? Bugger it all.
The prosecutor caught his desperate glance and shrugged his shoulders. That was how it was going to be, it seemed. Matthews would never have brought charges against the two men if the prosecutor had not been leaning on him.
‘Smithly and Chandler are the most likely suspects in these murders, and-‘
He broke off his explanation. Surely that reed-thin, wavering voice could not be his, Matthews thought. It was nothing like the proud constable’s bellow which usually echoed across the waterfront.
The judge’s paunchy hand crashed into the top of the dais in front of him, making Matthews jump. Both prisoners lowered their gaze.
‘You make a mockery of this court, constable, and the Crown it represents. Are you seriously asking us to investigate this crime for you?’
He was interrupted by the sound of frantic steps rattling down the hallway outside. To Matthews’ relief, they drew ever closer, promising him salvation.
Flood or fire, I don’t mind. So long as it gets me out from under that pompous devil’s stare.
The courtroom doors flew open to reveal a red-faced constable’s clerk in a black shirt streaked with sweat. Like a vicious snake preparing to pounce, the judge rose to deliver a verbal assault against the intruder.
‘Begging pardon, Your Honour. There’s been murder in Whitechapel, near the docks.’ the clerk gasped.
Constable Matthews felt his vigour return. He would serve his penance with the judge later. Now there was a killer to catch.
‘Who was it, man?’ he demanded of the clerk. ‘Who was killed?’
‘So many of them, sir. It’s a bloodbath, a massacre. A whole room of people near wiped out at the Black Flagon. Men hacked to ribbons, women with their throats cut, blood-‘
The clerk doubled over and began to retch. At the far end of the courtroom, the judge’s dais seemed to shrink as he held a perfumed handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Smithly’s rat-like face was twitching. Many of his villainous friends frequented the Flagon, Matthews remembered. Even the philanderer and abuser, Chandler, had turned somewhat pale. Perhaps he had a favoured mistress or two there.
Either way, that was two suspects crossed off the list, and more bodies piling up with every passing day.
It really is a bloodbath.
Constable Matthews had travelled up by cab from Southwark Crown Court fully expecting to discover the clerk was exaggerating. You simply did not find massacres happening in the heart of London. It was absolutely unheard of.
But here he was, standing near up to his ankles in the gore strewn across the Black Flagon’s floor. There were smears of drying black blood running up the walls and in loose splashes on the roof beams. It was like the backroom of a slaughterhouse, men and women sprawled underfoot like pigs waiting for the butcher’s block.
He could see clearly enough how the thing had been done. A short wooden bar lay by the door where it had been used to seal the exit. Matthews had passed a woman, plump and with an expansive bosom, resting in a bloody heap against the wall of the alley outside. No doubt she was a witness, swiftly silenced.
Then the killer had moved through the tavern proper. He had begun with the gambling men, who still had playing cards and dice clasped in their rigid, cold fingers. Then he had forged a path of slit throats and hacked limbs through the evening crowd.
But that’s not right. It’s impossible.
The place must have been packed. Even the sharpest blade would have become thick with blood, useless. Then the patrons would surely have defended themselves. Beneath hair matted with gore and faces twisted in shock or agony, Matthews recognised hard men who would not hesitate to crack a man’s skull to save their own skins.
So this is no ordinary killer. Some demon, perhaps? Folly. Keep a straight head, damn it.
A pair of boots rapped the flagstones and another constable entered the tavern. He was not a man Matthews knew, and he remembered every face he met. The man was tall, unsurprisingly, and had an added briskness to his step which marked him out as someone who had seen military service.
‘The Commissioner wants this kept quiet,’ the stranger said. ‘He wants no word getting out of what happened inside.’
Matthews’ brow furrowed and he felt a vein pulse in his temple.
‘How does the Commissioner expect me to investigate this crime then?’
‘You can mention the whore outside, nothing else. There’s this as well.’
The constable handed Matthews a folded note, turned on his heels and marched out of the tavern. His gaze did not even chance on the corpses sprawled around them as his boots clipped the stone floor. Matthews heard a cab door slam closed and the clop of hooves on the cobblestones outside.
He unfolded the note and read.
‘Dear Constable Matthews,
I am a great admirer of your work, and hear that you are investigating some of mine.
Meet me under the broken lamp tonight, 9.00pm.
Matthews stood on the Thames quayside and breathed in the night air. The stench coming off the river was foul, so thick in his nostrils that he could almost taste the raw sewage and refuse floating on the surface. He gagged.
There would be no more Constable Matthews, the riverside bobby. The judge had come through on his threat that afternoon and seen him stripped of his uniform, dismissed from the London constabulary.
Heavy boots tapped the cobblestones behind him and Matthews turned. The lamp above his head was broken so it was not until the person was within arm’s reach that he could see their face.
What caught his attention first though were the bright silver buttons reflecting points of moonlight on his navy blue overcoat. It was the constable, the one who had handed him the note earlier that day.
Could it be? How could a constable commit such ungodly crimes?
Matthews nodded to the man and he did the same, but neither one of them spoke. His hand slowly reached for the stout wooden truncheon stuffed into his belt.
But he was interrupted by the arrival of another man, one he recognised. It was a clerk from one of the trading companies, a studious and timid man.
A third arrived, this one unknown to him. He had the burly figure of a labourer, but a keen intelligence in his sharp black eyes.
More men came to join the group, from all manner of backgrounds. There were dockhands, overseers and academics. Some had grey hairs on their head and others had yet to grow their first stubble. A few were in rags, a couple in top hats.
Matthews felt the hand which gripped his truncheon grow cold and clammy. He could not hope to fight so many men if they intended him harm. But he still needed to know which was the murderer.
‘Which of you men is Jack?’ Matthews asked, fighting back a stammer.
‘I’m Jack,’ the constable replied.
Damn. That complicated things.
The labourer spoke up. ‘Me, I’m Jack.’
‘I’d be Jack.’
‘I. I’m Jack.’
Thirty or more voices spoke the name that Matthews dreaded to hear. As they said it, his mind turned back to the bodies in the Black Flagon, heaped together and mired in blood. He heard the sound of thirty or more sharpened razors snapping open.
Matthews remembered the sharp glare of moonlight on the edge of thirty or more drawn razors. The taste of London smog, smoke and dust thick in his mouth. He’d seen grimy grey water spreading out as he fell towards its surface, or else it had fallen towards him.
Whether he standing, lying or still falling he didn’t know. He could feel the whole of his world spin around and stay deathly still all at the same time. His eyes were not opening, and that was a concern, but Matthews felt relaxed in spite of it.
It’s like sleeping. Or waking from a long sleep. Am I dying? Am I dead?
He groped towards his chest and his movements were sluggish in spite of his desperation. One finger met with coarse fabric and found it damp. Relief washed over Matthews with the realisation that he was bleeding. It answered some of his questions and at least the doubt was gone.
Now he did open his eyes, groping through the clouded darkness for some sign of light or life. An object swam towards him, a crumbled deck sprouting a decayed mast of brackish timber. Matthews tried to breathe sweet, crisp night air and inhaled foul Thames water. It burned in his lungs, but brought with it a certain peace.
So that’s where I ended up. It isn’t so bad. What was I afraid of? Constable Matthews, retiring from his beat.
Light shone blinding in his eyes.