Discover more from The Neon Church
A brutal murder in a small village. Two investigators come from the city to solve it.
“G’night, Mr. Barber,” Finley Downing says. “Lock up tight.” He lets the door close.
And now it is just Silas Barber standing behind the counter, looking at empty tables. He feels it in the pit of his stomach. But it will wait, he tells himself, wringing a cloth dry. He limps from behind the long oiled wooden bar and begins the nightly routine. Wiping down the tables. Pushing in the chairs. Snuffing out the candlewicks. Turning the keys on the hurricane lamps.
Thinking, ever so much thinking.
The table closest the door sports a gouge in the top and it catches the longer, pointed nail of his left little finger. It pulls back just enough to sting. Silas takes a breath. There’s no one left in the building to hear him, but he does not take the Lord’s name in vain. Nor does he use profanity. He tests the wound with his thumbnail, sliding it into the gap between flesh and dirty yellow. A smudge of blood comes loose in a black clot.
The skin of his hands a little more wrinkled than he remembers it being, this morning. A little thinner, a little weaker. His brown hair streaked with gray and thinning at the crown of his head. His jowls losing their grip on the rough edges of his long face. Silas does not have a paunch—never has he had the time to cultivate such—so instead he has fortified the stoop of his back and the slump of his shoulders.
He has long passed the time when he could be wistful about the distance between his youth and now. But it steals up behind him, these moments where he recognizes the gradual failures of his body.
Mindful not to cut his tongue, he puts the end of his little finger in his mouth.
Finley Downing will be far enough down the road, now. Gathered up with the other young men on patrol.
Silas can take his walk, like he’s wanted to, all night.
Silas Barber’s boarding-house is empty, but he forces himself to climb the stairs to the second floor in silence. His stomach coils and dances inside his skin in crests of nerve and euphoria. He wants to race down the hall, tear open the door, fling back the shutters and cut into the night. The desire overwhelming, consumptive. With sensuous tongues licking the ribs of his self-control.
Sluggish blood thins in his veins.
The hunger churns the more he denies it. Until his body suffused not with ache and dust and regret but with liquid animal lust.
He gives in.
Eyes wide, the night bathes the wooded path with mercury vapor. Shadows hide nothing from his vision. The wind lays back and gives up all its scents. With the breeze whistling in his ears, he can still hear Finley Downing and the other young men walking the village borders. Their every footfall a crash of thunder, their every breath a wild boar’s snort. Fear prickles their odors with musk. It is fear that has them walking in one group, circling the village in a mass, leaving the rest of it undefended.
Silas wants this so badly he cannot think, a fog billowing through his skull. Alive and vital and surging pressure building in him, what he wants is wetness and tender flesh and the confused heat of the young in a tight embrace. Nostrils flared, head swiveling, he finds the trace he wants, the one that sings the loudest—that in defiance of time and gravity hardens him until it hurts.
He comes to the Willoughby cottage from the rear. Their animals, a dog, a few chickens, a donkey with washboard sides and snowed muzzle, their animals shrink from him. The dog pisses where it lays. Tomorrow the chickens will lay eggs fouled with rot. The donkey merely watches, as if resigned, or maybe relieved.
The Willoughby girl—Constance, he thinks, in the back of his turbid thoughts—her scent comes from the corner of the cottage. It leaks from the window sill, red and throbbing and viscous. Silas’s feet barely touch the ground as he picks his way cross the grass to stand at full height against the siding. He reaches up with his left hand and slides that long, pointed fingernail on his little finger between the panes. He drags it slowly, achingly slowly, between the mated edges until he feels it lift the hook from the eye bolt. Baring a yellowed grin he pulls the windows open and lurches into the girl’s bedroom.
Before she can scream, or even wake, he is on top of her. One hand over her supple mouth. The other at the small of her back, arching her toward him.
The Willoughby house sleeps as Silas tears her apart.
The inspector climbs down from the carriage in front of the flat. Unassuming, a little decrepit, half a row house set back from its neighbors as if sulking into their shadows. He takes a deep breath and immediately regrets it. This part of the great city perfumed like a whore.
He raps the knocker once, twice, a third time. He pulls his watch from his waistcoat. The second hand scoots toward the bottom of the watch-face. It reminds him of beetles, or ants, perhaps.
He feels his pockets for his cigarette case, but no luck there. He tries to shallow his breath but the fetid sweetness climbs into his nose regardless. It smells floral, intensely so. Leaking from the flat in front of him. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and covers his nose and mouth.
With his other hand he reaches for the knocker again but the door opens.
Behind it a narrow-waisted man, barely up to the inspector’s shoulder, face gaunt. His eyes drawn down, rimmed with purple bruising. Four days’ growth on his cheeks but the beard is patchy and spotted with gray.
The inspector pulls the envelope from his pocket and holds it out.
The man grasps it with the thin, dextrous fingers of a surgeon. He raises his eyes to the inspector, and the inspector struggles to hold back a gasp.
“Yes?” the surgeon says. His voice the last landslide of a decaying mountain.
The inspector nods at the envelope. “’S in there,” he says. “Another one.”
“A ripper.” The inspector coughs. And almost gags. “The police would… appreciate… your help.”
“When?” the surgeon says.
“Tonight,” the inspector says, as he turns on his heel. He quickens his step to leap into the carriage and barks at the driver. He doesn’t care if it is unseemly, or if he seems afraid. He just wants gone from this place quick as possible.
As the horses’ hooves clack on the stones, he takes a look behind him. Another carriage comes to a stop at the flat’s door. Its windows covered with black velvet. The driver a fat man with a milky eye and an emptiness inside him.
The inspector’s carriage drives away and he remembers to remove the handkerchief from his mouth, at last.
An hour past dark, the carriage with black velvet curtains pulls to a stop. Its wheels buried in the mud ruts aside the shuttered boarding-house. The driver reaches back and knocks against the wall of the carriage with a meaty fist.
The carriage door creaks open. Thick smoke billows down from the cab to pool in the wheel marks and footprints of the boggy ground. A black leather bag flops down into the mud with the rattle of steel inside. The surgeon picks his way down the running board, clothes wrinkled, hair matted, fingertips stained with a thick botanical tar. He pulls the leather bag from the muck and doesn’t bother to shake it clean.
Behind him unspools a tall man with legs like a grasshopper. His feet go past the running boards to step directly upon the ground. He wears scuffed boots with fraying laces. A stained pair of patchwork pants cinched too tight around his waist with a belt made for a larger man. His waistcoat skewed because he started on the wrong button. Watch-chain dangling because it was not affixed to the waistcoat’s buttonhole. His jacket’s sleeves rolled up to his forearms, shirt cuffs tangled up inside. His tie loose and his collar unfastened. His face a sharp and honed thing, but not one that could ever be called handsome, except in the dark. With the clarity of his features, the limpid depths of his eyes, there is a suggestion of the aristocracy to his countenance. Contraindicated by the clothes he wears, and the way he wears them. Atop ragged-cut brown hair a ridiculous cap with two bills, one forward and one behind, and while some could wear it with authority it is clearly an affectation upon his brow.
The tall man purses his lips. He puffs a baker’s dozen widening rings before his lungs empty of the gray-white smoke.
The driver looks back with his milky eye. “‘Ope you brought enough,” he growls. “Don’t expect you’ll find much of that ‘ere. Unless you fancy drinking it.”
The tall man rolls his head on his neck. His vertebrae crack, one at a time, like branches snapping. The surgeon raises his hand and waves the driver away. “Brought enough,” he says. His attention somewhere else.
“Can’t be arsed, for laudanum.” The tall man looks around. “This where we should be?”
The driver scoffs. “Only boarding-house in the village.” After a moment. “When am I coming back,” he says.
“Don’t like the countryside?” the tall man says.
“’S the night-time.”
“Wipe your brow,” the tall man says. “You sweat too much.” He reaches up to smooth the wrinkles from his jacket, but absently, because they’re not going anywhere. “Nice enough for a short stay. What say, back day after tomorrow?”
The surgeon looks around. “Seems right.”
The driver flaps the reins and the carriage’s off.
“I say, if he’d been as speedy when we departed, we’d have made it before supper.”
But the surgeon, atop the stoop, reaches for the boarding-house door.
“Ah,” the taller man says. “Let’s not, hmm?”
The surgeon turns his sunken eyes to him.
“Just a moment.” He shrugs, and when his shoulders move his whole suit shifts, like there’s nothing inside it.
He’s lost weight, the surgeon thinks.
The tall man looks around. His fingers sneak into his breast pocket, and tap the long pipe secreted there. Just to make sure. Then they reach up, and a long, crooked index finger touches his lips. He whispers, “Never can tell who’s listening.” The taller man looks toward the sky. “Do you mind being John?”
It is the surgeon’s turn to shrug. “Too late now,” he murmurs, more to himself.
“I can’t recall if we’ve been here before.”
“Don’t think so.”
“Best to keep up the masquerade, ah? Who will I be, this time?”
Behind the curtains, the guttering yellow of a lit wick.
Wind soughs through the branches. It leaves the woods and squirrels around them, lifting the hems of their coats, trying to steal the heat from their bones.
“Dominic Sacker,” John offers.
“Attached to the letter ’S,’ are we?”
He stops. “That’s…” Clears his throat, and his lungs rattle like dice-cups. “Well done, John,” he says.
It is not a compliment.
John knocks on the door.
Silas opens the door. Even in the thin light of the last two hurricane lamps, he can see the two men are not well. A scent drifts in, intense and—agricultural—and—unwashed—the shorter of the two reaches into his breast pocket and pulls forth an envelope. When he hands it to Silas, it’s hard not to see the stains around his fingertips, and the prints they leave on the paper.
“That should be more than enough for two nights’ stay,” the taller man says. “My name is Willard Treves, and this is my friend and assistant, John.”
Silas narrows his eyes. “I do apologize, gentlemen—”
“No apologies necessary!” this Willard Treves interrupts. “No need to worry about supper, we’ll manage on our own.” He takes a deep sniff, through that hawkish nose. “Though I’m sorry to have missed it, based on that wonderful scent.”
Silas watches him for a cold moment.
“Just keys to our rooms, please.” Willard coughs, just a small tic of his lips, and a puff of that viscid odor. “I’d prefer the north-facing room at the end of the hall.”
The shorter man with the stained fingers, John, pushes the envelope a little further. “Doesn’t matter to me,” he says, and the deep earthen emptiness of his voice is an impossible thing to emit from someone as slight as he.
“I’m not open at the moment,” Silas says at last.
“We’ve been called here on business,” John says.
“Doesn’t matter much to me.”
“From the constable,” John says. “And Scotland Yard.”
“You’ve got the space,” Willard says. “I’d imagine you’d be happy for some custom.”
“How,” Silas begins. He takes the envelope.
“You’ve turned out your lights, but for the two at either side of the door. The fire’s tamped down. The tables wiped, they gleam wetly, as I can see from here. Thanks to those two lights, you see.” The taller man taps his ear with a long finger. “Too early for everyone to be abed, but I don’t hear anyone else in the building. Simple deduction.” He claps his hands together, rubs them vigorously. “I fancy myself a student of the detecting arts, you see.”
“Hmm,” Silas murmurs.
John rolls his eyes.
Treves’ mouth twists and Silas realizes it is an attempt at a smile. “Village constable said no-one was staying here. That doesn’t sound as impressive, though.”
“The keys, then,” Silas says. As he walks to his counter, he opens the envelope and thumbs through it. Too much, entirely too much, for two nights’ stay.
Too much for anything, really.
He pulls two keys, makes an entry in his book. Just a thin line in ink, and another, a little longer. Squint at it and they would look like words written in a palsied hand.
Silas crosses the floor and holds them out. John takes both and they clink into the pocket of his waistcoat.
“North-facing, at the end of the hall?” Willard asks.
“Aye,” Silas says, after a moment.
“Good man!” He turns back to the night, steps from the stoop to the suppurating earth. Silas starts as the man’s full height becomes obvious.
The surgeon raises a hand to his eyebrow, but doesn’t touch it. His dextrous fingers make something like a salute. Before he turns and walks away, he says, “He likes to sleep in, you see.”
“Hmm,” Silas says again.
He watches them pick their way across the mud. Before he closes the door, he calls out.
They both look back, like one creature.
“No smoking in the house.”
Treves, affronted, looks to his companion. “Good sir, your common room smells quite strongly of tobacco.”
“Aye,” Silas says. With a harder edge: “Tobacco.”
The taller man grins. “Very sharp! Very sharp.” He tips his cap. “Understood.”
Silas closes the door.
When he is quite certain they’ve left, he bares his teeth, and hisses. He knew it would be difficult after the Willoughby girl. But visitors—the law—will make it a little harder.
He slides his tongue past his canines.
Silas slips his shoes off and leaves them by the door. He races up the stairs in silence. In the hallway, he rolls his pant legs up past his knees. He enters the room at the end of the hall, opens the window, and lunges into the night.
He can’t let them wander unsupervised.
And some part of him, in his gut, or lower, wants to smell the Willoughby house again.
Their footsteps slurp in the mud as they walk toward the village proper.
“How’s the leg?”
“It’ll be fine,” the surgeon says. Grudge buried deep in his voice.
“Are you still straight enough—?”
He waves his hand through the dim night.
They walk. Clouds obscure the stars and leave the sky a matted blue-black.
The tall man claps his hands together. It echoes through the trees. “John,” he says, coming to a stop. He draws a sharp breath.
“Shall we?” He removes the pipe from his jacket. The pipe-bowl stuffed and ready. “To prepare.”
John looks to either side. Then, a hurried nod.
Willard pulls a match from somewhere, and it’s already lit as he raises the pipe to his mouth. “Rather do this laying down,” he mumbles around its stem. He draws an enormous pull.
John takes the pipe. Only sips on it, really. Enough left from the black coach to keep him loose, but another few sips will top him up.
Willard blows smoke like a steam engine into the night. “What do we know?” he asks, a little slower, a little sloppy. Hints of a buried accent peeking through the soil.
The surgeon grunts. “Young girl, fourteen. Willoughby was her family name. Three days ago. In her bed.” He looses the smoke in short exhalations. Better for his lungs. And it won’t make his mustache smell quite so strong, later.
“Yes. Willoughby. Upstanding family, here?”
“Constable thinks so.”
“What’s that worth?”
“As much as we paid for it.”
Willard cocks his head at the pipe. “Hope it was less than we paid for that.”
John levels him with a cool look.
But Willard doesn’t notice. He scratches his chin. “How many before that?”
John sucks his teeth. “How far back should we go?” He hands the pipe back. “Good?”
Willard nods, his whole frame shivering, and it’s like his legs grow longer, his reach widens, as he relaxes with the help of the smoke. He puts his thumb over the bowl to snuff the burn.
“Just in time,” John says, nodding at the bobbing circle of light that approaches.
The constable brings the lantern up. “Identify yourselves,” he barks, or he attempts to, fear wrenching his voice up an octave.
“Willard Treves,” he says. He taps John on the shoulder to hold out the letter. “We’ve come on request to assist with the… incidents… of late.”
The constable’s bushy mustache turns down as his lips curl. He takes a step forward and snatches the letter. “The inspector said someone else’d be coming.” Awkwardly unfolds it with one hand and holds it up to the lantern. “One mister—”
“Willard Treves,” he says again.
“Aye,” the constable says. His gaze unfocused. “Mister Willard Treves. Right.”
Willard sighs. “Mesmer invented quite the party-trick, didn’t he, John?”
But the surgeon just waits.
After a moment the constable’s eyes straighten. “You’re a welcome sight, Treves.” He reaches to the brim of his cap. “Constable Merrison.” He hands the letter back. “And you’re…?”
“John,” the surgeon says.
“Aye.” Merrison stares a moment longer. “Bit late for a walkabout.”
“We do our best work at night,” Willard says. “And since your perpetrator does the same, we thought it prudent to begin immediately.”
Merrison blanches. “Hellish,” he whispers. “Hellish thing.”
“How many bodies?” John asks.
“Just the one,” Merrison says. “The Willoughby girl.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“What do you mean, Treves?”
“A quick look turned up eight people, all of which were headed through your village. None of which made it to their destination.” A phlegmy cough. And then another, and it rolls into a hacking bout.
When he can talk, he says, “I would be most surprised if the count stopped at eight.”
Merrison tugs at his collar. “Well. We couldn’t be certain it weren’t the work of animals, you see. There was a body, in the eastern wood.” He swallows. “Not a whole body.”
“No-one wants to think they’ve a ripper on their hands.”
John nods, slowly.
“We aren’t the city,” Merrison protests. “We’re good folks.”
It hangs there, in the night.
“The girl,” Willard says at last. “Anyone courting?” He looks to the surgeon, who looks away. “Nine times out of ten, it’s the, ah, perpetrator of the romantic entanglement, you might say.”
Merrison, blank, stares back.
“Wives and husbands,” John says. “’S always the lover.”
Merrison scoffs. “I’ve been leading watches with the lads. We were all accounted for, that night.”
“So you know when it happened?”
“Because the inspector said the corpse was discovered at sunrise.”
“You can’t think one of them was what did it.”
“You haven’t been thinking,” Willard snipes. “Did you patrol all night?”
“Did you remain with the young men until sunrise?”
“You haven’t found your ripper because you haven’t bothered to look.”
“See here,” Merrison says, drawing himself up.
John rounds on him. Though the surgeon half a head shorter, the constable takes a step back. “People are dying,” he says. “People are being eaten.”
The constable’s hand dashes to his mouth. “For God’s sake.”
“God is not here,” John says.
“But,” Willard says. His mouth drawing wide. “We are.”
Merrison enters the Willoughby house alone. Murmurs slip through the cracks.
“John,” Willard says. “Her room was at the rear of the cottage. I’ll have a look, we can wrap this up in one, eh?”
The taller man’s footsteps are whispers against dewy grass.
John is alone in the countryside night. The hoot of an owl, somewhere in the woods. The rustle of wind through damp leaves. The back of his neck prickles, and
The door opens and Merrison stands with a tall, barrel-chested blonde man with a full face of whiskers. The whiskers yellow and orange and speckled with white, like a watercolor of a campfire.
Mister Willoughby looks down from the porch. His eyes are pits in his angular face. “What good can you do?” he says, and despite everything, his voice is rich and musical.
“Our condolences,” John says. He reaches up and taps the brim of his cap.
“Nothing, then.” Mister Willoughby turns to Merrison. “You’re out of your depth, Abney. But you showed up, I’ll give you that. If you see the vicar before I do, tell him to watch his God-damned back.”
“Get off my land.”
Merrison looks, helpless, at John.
“Mister Willoughby,” John says. “We are here to look for the criminal who did this.”
“And who asked you?”
Mister Willoughby—Benedict—glances at Merrison. “City police?”
“We’re not police.”
“Then I’ll say it again. What good can you do?”
“We can find the person responsible.”
Willoughby’s deep eyes flash. “Arresting the monster won’t bring her back,” he chokes.
John lets the weight of it settle on him. “We don’t make arrests.”
“Then what good—”
Merrison touches his arm. “Benedict,” he says, quiet.
But not gentle.
Benedict Willoughby’s shoulders relax. It broadens his already sizable silhouette. “Find him.”
John nods, and Benedict Willoughby closes the door.
The surgeon and the constable both pretend they don’t hear the sobs coming from inside.
Willard reappears from the side of the house. “Finished?”
The evening light, what little gleam to be had, bleeds through the curtains of the Willoughby house, shines in Willard’s eyes.
Shaken, Merrison leads them away, down the mud road to the village proper. For a time, the only sounds the pull and slurp of their shoes against the slick earth. Their steps make a rhythm. Living and hypnotic.
“What did you turn up at the Willoughby house?” Willard asks Merrison. Timing his words to the beat of their falling steps.
“Mister Willoughby’s not in a talking mood,” the constable says, tight.
“At the scene,” Willard says.
Merrison slows. Puts a hand to his brow. “Blood. Everywhere. Near enough to paint the ceiling. Pieces of her, Constance, the bits splashed elsewhere, we couldn’t tell they were human. Gobs of meat and bone splinters. He left her face alone, except for a bruise over her mouth. The bruise looked like a hand.”
“If’n it had left that hand-mark, with the rest of it, he had to have been strong. Too strong.”
“What did you find outside?”
“Was…” Merrison stumbles. “Wasn’t this in the letter…?”
“Tell me,” Willard says, freezing over.
Merrison gasps, and the hand around his brow tightens. His fingertips whiten and the flesh of his forehead reddens. “We didn’t. Didn’t even find footsteps. If we hadn’t seen what the loss done to Benedict, I would think he’s the perpetrator. But what man could do that to his own daughter?”
“Any kind,” Willard spits, quiet and acid. “John?”
The surgeon takes a moment. “It’d be easier if it were someone else.”
“If the constable doesn’t believe it, no-one else will.”
“Understood.” Willard clears his throat, and breaks ranks. Disturbs the susurration of their footsteps, and its subtle spell. “Thank you, constable. No, it wasn’t Willoughby—Benedict, you say. The mark was faint, but the window bore a scratch on the outside. As if someone inserted something thin, to lift the latch.”
Merrison murmurs, from deep inside his own personal fog.
“You’re right about the footsteps.” Willard catches the constable’s elbow, steers him forward. “Someone trod lightly, and barefoot. The turf here too forgiving to leave a print like that for long.” He glances sidelong. “Thoughts, John?”
The surgeon knows that look. He mouths, “Attacking one of the villagers is a bad idea.”
Silently, Willard replies, “Borders on the desperate.”
John coughs, then says, “No-one’s traveled through here in a grip. D’you think it’s for the hunger, or the thrill?”
Willard rubs a hand against his smooth, pointed chin. “They’re the same, aren’t they.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Not even in—”
“The rule.” John doesn’t look at him.
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Willard shakes Merrison, hard enough his hat almost lurches from his skull. “Which of the young men has—had—their eye on the lass?”
“Stephen Vaulk,” the constable says. “Younger of two. Timothy’s the big brother, does most of the providing. Their mum’s ill.”
“Passed, last year.”
John, the surgeon, asks, “From what?”
“Wasted away, something in the blood took him. Half the time he’d be pale and tired, half raving and burn with fever. When he succumbed, he weighed all of seven stone.”
“How long ago?”
Merrison harrumphs. “Ah, must have been six, eight years or so.”
“Anyone else get the same sickness?”
“No, just Vaulk.”
Willard looks back to John. “One of them will do.”
“Which?” John asks.
Treves shrugs. “Target of opportunity.”
The constable slows his pace, still somewhere else. They stand before a two-storey home, its northern face covered with a crawling ivy. The building lists eastward, paint flaking. A blanket of thatch struck through with peat at the top of the roof. “The boys’re in here,” Merrison says.
“The Vaulk sons?”
“The other young men, who patrolled. Any of them have their eye on this Constance?”
“No,” Merrison coughs into his fist. “I couldn’t believe one of them—”
“Vaulk!” Willard shouts. Booming into the woods. “Constable’s here to make your arrest!” He turns away from the house. Reaches inside his jacket with one hand, into a pocket with the other. He pulls a match out first.
The door opens, banging against the siding. Onto the stoop bursts a strapping young man, clean-shaven, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, hands dripping water. Trousers held up by one suspender, the other dangling like a tail from the back. He rolls down the steps past John and Willard, arms raising, as Merrison backs up.
“Get out of here, you fat bastard,” the young man says. He cocks his hand back.
John snatches the suspender strap. The man lurches back with a shout, feet slipping, and his arms reel to help him balance. Willard watches him. Vaulk moves fluidly, turning on his heel to loom over the surgeon. John stares up into his red and maniac face.
“See here,” the young man growls.
Willard steps forward. He lowers the pipe from his lips and breathes a stream of smoke into the young man’s face, a hand’s width away. Vaulk pulls back, or tries to, but John has him rooted. The tall man emits a locomotive’s lungful of the floral, sticky smoke.
“Let it in,” John says. His long, thin fingers wrap around the boy’s wrists.
The Vaulk boy’s chest shudders. His eyes expand into black circles.
“Run along, constable,” Willard says, the pipe in his teeth. “Mister Vaulk has lost his appetite for violence, hasn’t he.”
“Oh,” the Vaulk boy says.
“I don’t,” Merrison starts.
“Run along,” Willard says, with steel. The constable turns away and marches off. “Limehouse?” he asks John.
The tall man coughs. “It’s definitely worth what we paid for it.” He pulls the pipe from his mouth and snuffs it, covering the bowl with his thumb. “Tell me, Mister Vaulk.”
“Timothy,” the young man says, dreaming.
“Timothy. I’d like to talk to you. Are you listening?” Willard’s voice sinuous, slippery, unavoidable. The tall man leans forward. Their noses almost touching. His eyes, like awls, piercing in the dark.
“I’m listening,” Timothy Vaulk says. Helplessly.
“Timothy. I’d like to talk to you. About what you did, when Constance Willoughby was murdered.”
“About what I did,” Timothy Vaulk says.
And there’s tears in his eyes already.
By the time the constable returns, it’s over.
Timothy Vaulk sits on the front steps of his cottage, hands tied behind his back with the loose strap of his suspenders. His head lolls on his neck, weighted with guilt.
“What,” Merrison begins.
Willard puts his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Tell him, Timothy.”
“Was me,” he mumbles, and gone is the voice he used to have, the shouting and the violence, the fire and the vim. Here now is the voice of someone lost. “I did it. Snuck into her house. Savaged her. I was jealous, you see. My brother…”
Merrison looks around. “Where is your brother, lad?”
“Stephen’s gone off,” John says. “Sent him to old Missus Bowditch’s house.”
“Understandably, he’d rather not be involved in all this.” Willard squeezes Timothy’s shoulder. “His brother, the second loss in as many days, isn’t it.”
“’S been half a fortnight,” Merrison says.
John reaches down and hooks a hand through the young man’s crooked arm. Stands him up and persuades him over to the constable’s side. “Lock him up for the night,” the surgeon says. “It’s for his own protection.”
“You’ll be all right to release him in the morning.”
“Why would we—”
John, now, turns the full force of his gaze on the constable. “A happy town, is it.” Merrison opens his mouth but before he can speak, the surgeon continues. “What everyone thinks. But the sun goes down everywhere, doesn’t it. Put the boy in a cell, lock the door, and keep watch. If you have any desire for the bleeding to stop.”
“We don’t want him hurting himself,” Willard says.
“Or anyone else.” John, unfocused, his eyes on the woods.
Somewhere, a deer or a fox, some night-time thing dashes through the leaves.
“Who the devil are you two?” Merrison says.
“We solve problems,” Willard says. Two fingers to the brim of his ridiculous cap.
John pulls his watch from his waistcoat, and scratches a match alight with his thumbnail. “Best be off.”
“Yes, we haven’t even seen to our rooms, have we?” Willard says.
The two men turn and walk into the fog. Their pace hard and driving, and it is only a breath before they disappear. Merrison stands there, holding Timothy Vaulk’s clammy skin, and he listens to his own heartbeat for several moments.
“Come now,” he says. Not ungently.
Timothy Vaulk doesn’t respond. He obeys, with all the darkness in his eyes.
John knocks on the boarding-house door for the fourth time, his knuckles red. “Mister Barber,” he says, and when his voice is loud it may as well issue from the depth of the grave.
Scrabble of the latch as it’s opened with fumbling hands, and then light bathes them. “Gentlemen,” Silas Barber says. A bloom in his cheeks, sweat on his brow. His shirt untucked.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Willard says, “but we’d like to come in and see to our rooms.”
The old man swallows whatever barb he had ready. “All right, all right. Didn’t hear you, is all.”
“Foot bath?” the taller man asks.
Silas takes a step back. “What?”
“Your feet are wet,” Willard says. “And red, just scrubbed.”
The surgeon dips his head. “The gout,” he says. “Not uncommon, in gentlemen of your…” A quick glance, not bothering to hide, just precise, and measuring. “…disposition. I can write you up orders for a tincture, if you’d like.”
“Yes,” Barber says, slowly. “Yes. Just a touch of the gout.”
John strides past him into the common room.
Willard taps his heels against the risers as he climbs the steps, knocking the clods loose. “A change of itinerary, Mister Barber.”
“We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning,” John says.
“Simple thing, this one. Childishly simple,” Willard adds. He crosses the threshold and looms his way toward the stairs.
“’S a shame,” Barber says. “So young.”
“Only fourteen,” Treves agrees.
“The Willoughby girl,” John says.
“Of course.” Willard looks at him.
“You paid in advance,” Barber says.
“And keep it, if you don’t mind.” The tall man looks around. “Put it to, ah, material improvements.” He starts up the stairs, and then his retreating footsteps stop.
Barber closes the door. Locks it, twisting harder than necessary.
“Good night,” he says, with his back to his guests.
“Good night,” the surgeon says.
As the two men climb the stairs, Silas stands perfectly still, his hands against the wood of the door. He controls his breathing, slows it, as deep and measured as the breath of a cave. He works to slow his pounding heart. Lightning shoots through his limbs and blood races. He almost vibrates, with the excitement, the giddiness. He can’t stand it. He must! But it is so, so difficult. He wants to race up the stairs. Fling open their doors, surprise them as they ready themselves for bed, tear open their throats with his lengthening fangs, hold them down and pull them to bits, he wants to feel them struggle under his hands, he wants them to struggle and know it is useless.
Just beneath the thunder of his heartbeat, he listens to them get ready. He listens to the creak of floorboards as they move about. The subtler groan as they shift their weight to undress. The rustle of the sheets and the sighing mattress as they climb into their beds.
Silas doesn’t move. Presses his hands against the unyielding door. He holds himself there, despite every straining desire near shredding his clothes with the urge to move. He stands there for an hour, and then a half, and then another quarter, listening to them upstairs. He listens to them change positions. Roll over. Adjust their bedclothes. He listens to their shallowing lungs, and their supple, slumbering hearts. He listens to every liquid gush and he knows that muscle will feel strong and smooth and wet as he runs his fingers over it. He burns to feel it give under his lips.
When he no longer hears them move—
—when it is only the sound of sleeping breath, and stillness—
Silas Barber turns from the door.
His mouth split wide in a delighted grin. A string of saliva drips from the point of his canine tooth, sticking out past his lower lip. The common room lit with the silver-white that lets him navigate in the dark. He takes a step, ever so thoughtful, and lets the ball of his foot rest against the wood. Must be careful, must be careful, if he runs and by God does he want to run but it will be too loud, it will wake them. He doesn’t want to wake them. He takes his steps slow. His stomach quivers. He ascends the first step. Can he still hear them? He can, they are quiet, so quiet. So deeply asleep. So vulnerable. Their bodies softened. They are hard men and Silas knows this will be the only time they lower their guard. The only time their limbs are loose and their skin surrendering.
He crosses the half-way point and cannot help himself, he dashes light as a feather on the pads of his clawed toes up the rest of the stairs.
The threshold dark, but not to him. He can see their scents now, even clouded with the fugue they brought with them from the ports of the city. Who should he start with? Who first? The little man, with his long pianist’s fingers? With the voice, deep and cobbled? He swallows a mouthful of spit. The thought of that voice crying out from beneath Silas’s hand. It is almost too much.
He glances to the other man’s door. At the end of the hall. Yes, that’s where he’ll start. The wait will make it more delicious. Already Silas is full to bursting. He wants to let it all out.
He makes himself wait. He times his step to each of the taller man’s slow exhalations. The boards do not creak under his careful step. With the silver-white in his dilated pupils he watches his own shadow stretch down the hall, a figure of angles and points and tightly-coiled hunger.
He closes his eyes as he places his hand upon the knob. He empties his lungs. As the taller man inside breathes out, Silas slides his too-long fingernail through the lock and lifts the latch. He pushes the door open in silence as his tongue slides out to flick across his lips.
Treves sits, his back against the headboard, a pistol in his hand.
“You should be asleep,” Silas says. “I heard you—I listened—you haven’t moved in hours—”
The man pulls the trigger.
The one calling himself Willard Treves lands the shot in the ripper’s spinal column. The thing collapses with a gurgle to writhe in the door frame. It moans.
“It’s not solid silver,” Willard says.
The creature wetly gnashes its fangs, faced pressed against the wood of the boards. Chews its lips to pieces. One hand grasping at the hole in its chest, the other pinned beneath its head.
John opens his door. A moment later the surgeon stands above the injured monster. “Good shot,” he says. Barely audible above the thing’s bubbling agony.
“Would you?” Willard asks. Points the barrel down.
John steps on the creature’s neck, pins its skull to the floor. He wrangles the thing until it lies supine, and then he stabs those narrow fingers into the bullet hole. The thing gibbers through its self-inflicted mutilations, spit and blood foaming together through its ground-sausage lips. A second later, John lifts up, the bullet in his grasp.
“You’re welcome,” the surgeon says. He drops the bullet into the pocket of his trousers and walks back down the hall. His door closes.
Willard kneels in front of it. Looks into its eyes, those wide circles of oceanic black.
The silver removed from its body, the creature regains some function. “How.” Its lips healing already. “How?” the creature spits.
“You really should try harder to cover your scent. It gave you away immediately.” Willard sniffs the air, his eyes half-closed. “You smell just like opium.” He sighs. “You just had to follow us, hmm? Most disappointing.”
“Follow…” the thing whispers.
“Now we have to clean up tomorrow. And that’s always a bother. But you have to perform, when you have an audience.”
Treves watches it. He swallows.
The monster says, “You. Were still. For hours.”
“Mister Barber,” he says.
Willard opens his mouth.
And shows his own fangs.
“I told you we’d manage supper on our own.”
In the morning, John walks to the gaol, merely a single spartan cell inside the constable’s house. From outside, anyone passing by might hear shouts, and curses, and recriminations. Until a strange and immediate silence reigns. Then this hypothetical observer might hear a young man struggling to contain his tears, and a rotund constable retching into the dry-sink.
John walks outside. He squints against the sunlight, peering from behind a hump of cloud threatening rain. He shakes his fist—it rattles like dice—and he drops two yellow, decaying teeth into his jacket pocket. They are too long to be a man’s.
John starts down the road toward the village proper.
He might have a smoke before it rains.
The black coach pulls up to the boarding-house shortly after sundown. The driver wipes his forehead with a stained rag. He notes the look on the master’s face—on both the masters’ faces—and he keeps his tongue to himself.
Halfway back to the city, the surgeon draws an enormous lungful from his pipe. He lets the smoke stream from his nose like a dragon in one of those woodblock prints.
The taller man says, “The next time I need a name, I can be Silas Barber.”
“The next time,” John says. Sinking back into the plush cushion of his seat. “There’s always a next time, isn’t there, Holmes.”
The smoke whorls around Holmes’s severe face.
“Until I’ve eaten them all, John.”
John raises his pipe. In a salute, or a toast. “To your appetite, my friend.”
Sherlock grins, with a mouthful of razors.
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