London was different then: the streets narrower, the alleyways darker, the lamps dimmer. The houses shabbier, the slums seedier. The clatter of horse and carriage over cobbled roads, a sound loud enough to mask a scream. Not a place to linger after dark, not even in the more gentrified quarters. The air thick with smoke and mist, most of it drifting up the Thames, the sea-cold fumes and the rolling soupers like galleons of the dead. Ideal cover for a Spring Heel. For the phantom we had all come to dread.
The constabulary was out in force that night (goaded on by a mutinous citizenry) and I was one of their number. Almost younger now than I can remember. Too young for what lay ahead.
Already primed for the hue and cry, I heard the whistles as soon as they pierced the air, strange sounds for a dockyard city, and started to converge on the alarm. Not again. Not another one. Terrified of what I would find, hoping I wouldn’t be the first one on the scene. But I was.
To my shame it wasn’t the body on the ground that caught my eye, terrible though that was, an essay in mutilation written on a butcher’s block. It was the tall figure that was already turning to leave, already half-hidden by the white vaporous air, that brought me to a halt. The Penny Dreadfuls had got it right: a real gent, top hat and cloak, as if on a night about the town, which (god help us all) he had been. A man in black, save for the silver red lining of the short cape.
The eyes I shall never forget, as black as the grave, and the glint of light on the well-used blade. And the moment when time seemed to stop and we looked at each other, eye to eye, no more than twenty feet apart. The fog took him before I could even shout. I gave chase as soon as I had the wits to follow, but he was already gone, back into the Whitechapel maze he knew so well.
I know I saw Jack that day. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only one who ever did.
And lived to tell the tale.
Mark Stewart is very much a champion of the short story in all its forms, including micro and flash fiction. His other literary passion is the essay, and many of these overlap with themes covered in his short stories. The themes include nature and the environment, history and speculative fiction. His website can be found here: https://markdestewart.wixsite.com/thescreamingplanet
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