Short Story: A Whitechapel Night
Mist curled around Thomas Bond's grime spattered boots, but it shied away from his hands, smeared with sticky red as they were. The London vapors also avoided the two misshapen piles on the street in front of him. It was like the restless souls of the city had coalesced in the air to watch and rebuke him. He would call it an ill omen, but those thoughts were reserved for folk who still cared, who still saw the gap between sin and salvation. Thomas couldn’t see that gap… not anymore. His hands trembled as he watched the blood drip from the tips of his fingers.
… will find my observations, concerning the connections between the three cases you assigned me, on the other papers contained herein. All three of the victims in question sustained eerily similar mutilations. My conclusions are disturbing at best. I do not wish to imagine the agony these women undoubtedly suffered as they expired. The parallels to the other two cases I brought to your attention earlier are more tenuous. Although I see alarming correlations, I cannot give a definitive answer at this time. I give further explanation in my reports.
Thomas paused in his letter to the inspector. How much more information could he give without becoming too involved? He wanted his name left out of this, at least for now. He glanced over his notes and observations once more and nodded in satisfaction. After scribbling an injunction for the inspector to keep him in the loop, he signed the letter and rolled it together with the reports. He stood, grabbed his coat and bag, and checked his pocket watch. The ticking hands read 8:15; time was running short. With hurried strides, he left his office for the front desk.
Once in the atrium, he left his papers on the desk with a note for the clerk to have a runner dispatched with the papers in the morning. He exited the building quickly then and hailed a passing cab as it trundled along the cobbles outside. The carriage slowed to a stop nearby as the driver tightened the reins and set the brake.
“I’m almost off me shift. Ho’ far ya going?” the coachman asked angrily.
“Miller’s Court, off Dorset street.”
The coachman spit onto the street and gave Thomas an open glare. “I can’t take ya tha’ far. Tha’s all the way over by Whitechapel, tha’ is. Me shift is nearly done. ‘Sides, nothing goods been happenin’ over there of late. Some say there’s a Ripper taken ‘em righ’ off the street.”
Thomas ignored the warning. “I would compensate you for your troubles.” He produced a wad of rolled bills and held it up.
The man’s eyes widened ever so slightly at the money. He glanced around then snatched the payment and shoved it deep into his coat pocket. “All righ’ then, in ya go.”
He climbed into the coach, which leapt immediately into motion as the door shut. Thomas watched the gas lamps flicker in the growing mist as the coach swayed and bounced along the uneven London streets. Midnight. He must be in position before midnight, or the entire day would be wasted.
The coach stopped in the middle of Dorset street long enough for Thomas to clamber out and shut the door behind him. The coachman tipped his hat and snapped the reins to get the horses moving again. They clopped loudly down the street as Thomas began walking into Whitechapel. He checked his watch again: 10:15. Good. He had time to disappear.
Whitechapel lay in a grim twilight. The flickering light from the gas lamps barely managed to cut through the thick smog. On other streets, more important streets, arc lights seemed to all but ignore the vapor as their industrial bulbs nearly burned the mist out of the air. But Jack the Ripper did not hunt near the arc lights, and Jack was why Thomas was in Whitechapel.
Near the center of the district, he spotted an alley between two tall buildings. It was long and dark. Perfect. He glanced around, and, spotting no curious eyes, he merged into the dank darkness, moving quietly. Just inside the mouth of the alley, but far enough to be out of reach of the weak light from the gas lamps, Thomas found a deep recess in the architecture of one of the buildings. He ducked into it and leaned back out to check his view of the rest of the alley. Satisfied, he settled in for a long wait in the dark.
As the cold finally numbed Thomas’s toes and threatened to begin eating through his coat, a muffled giggle echoed off the smooth walls. He started and moved to watch the opening to the street. Indistinct voices reached his ears through the darkness. His heart pulsed in his neck as he waited, muscles tense. Three brutal murders in Whitechapel, five if you listened to the papers, over the last three months. But that didn’t stop the east enders from walking the streets at night. It probably should.
Two figures, arm in arm, passed the mouth of the alley. Thomas reached for the knife in his bag, but the figures did not turn into the darkness of the unlit side passage. He relaxed and leaned back against the wall, calming his heart with slow steady breaths. The air around him felt charged with energy. Something was going to change tonight; he could feel it.
A shadow passed silently by him in the alley. He nearly yelled out but caught himself. Soft footfalls and the swish of loose cloth came to him now. He smelled a strawberry perfume mingling with the musty smell of mold and mildew from the alley. She was still too close, so he waited for her to move farther into the darkness. More footfalls, heavier this time, warned him of another approaching body. He willed the night to enclose him, not that it listened, as the newcomer slunk past. Thomas saw the man’s broad shoulders and Top Hat even in the gloom. The stranger held a long, slim object in front of him.
Thomas slipped his hand into his bag and gripped the knife as he waited for the two figures to move just far enough into the alley. He wondered idly how much blood the alleys of London had seen through the ages. Probably more than enough; how much more would it take before the city broke? The alley refused to answer his thoughts, so he held the knife tightly in his hand and crept out to follow a fresh trail.
Too late. Thomas lowered his quaking hands and looked at the bodies. He was a surgeon, this shouldn’t bother him. But it did. He had tried to prevent this. Hadn’t he? Tried to fix Whitechapel. In the end, his efforts didn’t matter. He was too late. Too late for the girl with the strawberry perfume, too late for the man in the Top Hat, and too late to help Thomas Bonds. He turned away from the bodies and quickly vanished in the mists as he hurried home. He realized now that it had always been too late to help anyone.
Thoughts: This short story was born out of necessity. I was participating in a teacher training, putting together an intensive unit for my eleventh grade English classes. I wanted my students to experience the wonder of creative writing while completing an assignment they had never even come close to before; hence came the historical fiction unit. The only problem was that I couldn't find any free and appropriate historical fiction shorts stories to show my students as the core text.
It wasn't long before I simply decided to write my own exemplar text. We read "A Whitechapel Night" early on in the unit, and I have students research all the details to see how much I actually altered the story. They always find some interesting tidbits related to my story that I didn't know before, like Thomas Bond's mental issues and suicide later in life. My favorite moment of the reading is when they are discussing whether Thomas is meant to be Jack the Ripper or not, and I promise to tell them the answer the next day after they do a bit of research on their own. Someone always asks me how I know the answer.
"Well, I wrote it," I say.
After a moment of silence, their eyes go wide and their mouths drop. Even though I have some of my published books sitting at the front of the class, they still can't believe their teacher wrote this story. I am still not sure if that is flattering or insulting.
So, do you want to know what I intended for Thomas in the story?
As I tell my students, I don't know. I wanted to leave the mystery of the story ambiguous, even for myself. The plot comes close to showing that Thomas could be Jack the Ripper, but it is never explicit and other options exist. Thomas could just as easily be a vigilante, since in real life he was a proponent of behavioral science and investigation. So, when I wrote it, I forced myself not to decide. I know, the students hate that answer, too.
I still enjoy reading this story. I hope you did as well.
Thanks for reading!
Author at Living Words Press
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I see how words surround us every day. Life is a construct and words the vehicles of understanding.