Authors: Michael Prescott
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
To the memory of my grandfather, Frederick Kleen
Some of the historical interludes in this novel are based on real events. Carrie Brown was murdered on April 23, 1891, in the East River Hotel. Press coverage and police investigation of the crime are presented accurately. The October 1896 letter and other quoted correspondence still exist in police archives.
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
—W. B. Yeats
Edward Hare sat alone at a corner table, nursing a mug of beer and warding off the blandishments of harlots. It was ten o’clock on a Thursday night, and the sailors and migrants who infested the dockside slums were out carousing. He was familiar with their kind. Some things were the same in every country—the smoky taverns, the alleyways scuttling with rats, the hard faces of those who called this cesspool their home.
The barroom occupied the ground floor of the East River Hotel, a faded hostelry three blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge. The clientele consisted of the human vermin that made their living on the docks, manning ships, lading cargo, and, in the case of the women, servicing dockworkers, passengers, and crews.
The ring of a bell drew his attention. One of the hotel staff, whom the regulars called Mary, opened the main door, and two new arrivals entered, hugging themselves, chilled from the April night.
The pair intrigued him. They were so obviously mismatched. The whore was a gray-haired shopworn hag tottering under the influence of liquor. The man on her arm was twenty years her junior, thin, sharp-faced, with a blond mustache and a shabby black bowler, its crown dented. He had the look of a foreigner, but then nearly everyone in this district was from some other part of the world. Himself included, Hare reflected. In England he had often complained about the hordes of pauper aliens invading the city. Now he was the interloper, his boots planted on foreign soil.
Mary exchanged friendly words with the crone, who tossed back her head and emitted a raven’s caw of laughter. The gentleman ducked low, hiding under his battered billycock, as if ashamed. As well he should be ashamed, to consort with a creature of the streets.
After a few moments of these pleasantries, the gentleman dug in his pants pocket and produced a coin. Payment for a night’s lodging, Hare presumed—although in an establishment of this kind, rooms were likely to be let by the hour.
Mary disappeared into the stairwell and returned bearing a key, a candle, and a tin pail rattling with two bottles of mixed ale on ice. The man took the pail in one hand, holding fast to his rented sweetheart with the other, and Mary led them up the stairs.
Hare watched them go, the woman still screeching, the man silent and slow. Whatever intimacy they would find together would carry no significance for either one.
Time passed, and finally his cup of beer was drained. It was after eleven. Hare was customarily an early riser, except for those nights when business required him to work odd hours. He had no business in Manhattan. He decided to take a room and get some rest.
Mary was at work clearing a table. He approached her and asked the nightly rate. “Two bits,” she said pertly.
He paid the coin. As it vanished into her hand, unaccountably he was reminded of Charon, boatman of the River Styx, who must collect his fare.
Mary smilingly told him to wait there while she got a room for him. Hare lingered by the stairway as she ascended to an office on the first floor landing. She poked her head out of the door and chirped, “Forgot to ask your name. Need it for the register.”
He gave the name of Wilson. Surely this was not the first time a man had used an alias in this establishment. Tonight he had no need of subterfuge, but old habits died hard.
Mary emerged with key and candle, returning to the ground floor to ask if he would like a bit of refreshment in his room. No, he said. With a broad smirk she inquired if he was certain. The hotel offered all manner of diversions for the discriminating gentleman.
Her meaning was unmistakable. Now he knew why he’d thought of Charon the ferryman when she palmed his coin. She was one of the living dead who roamed the streets and haunted the taverns. A fallen woman, whose services at the East River Hotel included nightly visitations to the customers’ rooms.
“I require no diversions,” he said.
She smiled, her crooked teeth repulsive in her splotchy face. “You’re a Brit, ain’t you? Plenty of Brits stop in here. Brits and others. People from all over the world.”
This provoked his first extended response. “Yes. The detritus of the earth. The lees in humanity’s punch bowl.”
Her smile tipped into a scowl. She hadn’t quite understood him, but she had caught his tone. “You lookin’ down yer nose at me, mister?”
“I should hope so.”
“Think you’re better’n the rest of us? If you’re so super, what are you doing here?”
It was a fair question. What
he doing here? He had thrown away his former life, voyaged across the sea—Liverpool to New York, seasick all the way—and at the terminus of his travel he had found only a feculent cot in a dockside doss-house for twenty-five cents at night.
He should not have come. But he was past the point of choosing rightly, or at all. He was master of himself no longer.
“Just give me the goddamned key,” he said. He would not engage this wretch in further conversation.
“I got to show you to your room.”
“Room number’s on the key, isn’t it? I can find it for myself.”
Stern-faced, she handed over key and candle. As he headed for the stairs, he heard her say loudly to those around her, “Feller thinks he’s a big man. I’ll bet he ain’t so big where it counts.”
The remark was met with drunken laughter from the hags and hang-abouts in the saloon. He flushed but kept walking. Let the mob howl.
The room number on his key was thirty-two. He thought it would be on the third story, but it surprised him by being on the fifth, the top floor. He wandered down a dingy flyspecked hall and let himself in. His candle illumined a narrow cave with a bare floor, a washbowl in one corner, and a single window framing blackness. The room, it appeared, had once been part of a larger space, which had been subdivided with thin plywood walls in the name of economy.
He had no baggage with him, having left it in a storage locker until he could get settled. He was shrugging off his jacket when he heard noises through the plywood board. A creak of bed springs and the familiar screeching laugh.
The gray-haired whore’s lodgings were adjacent to his own.
Her consort’s voice came through also. He spoke in German, or was it a Scandinavian tongue? Some continental jibber-jabber.
Hare didn’t want to listen to them. Didn’t want to picture them together, flesh against flesh.
He sat on the bed, head in hands, while the awful noises went on. He thought of his London life, the quiet evenings, the civilized atmosphere. His favorite walks and haunts. His books.
Gone now. Here he was, in a new country, with no employment and little money, and himself not so young anymore. Maybe he didn’t have the strength for it, this starting over. And yet there was no turning back. He was like Macbeth, caught in midstream ...
“Stepped in so far,” he whispered, “that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
There was no more speech from the room next door, only the rhythmic rise and fall of the bed, playing as an undercurrent to a medley of groans and gasps—the whore earning her pay, which she would spend on gin or beer. Whores were no different in any land. Unlike Mr. Darwin’s finches, they exhibited no territorial variations. They were always and everywhere the same.
Hare felt a slow, steady pounding at his temples.
And when he rose from bed, he knew what he would do.
He rummaged in his jacket until he found the knife—a black wooden handle and a sharp blade, ground to a deadly point.
Knife in hand, he left his room and stepped along the empty corridor to the door nearest his own.
His blade, inserted between door and jamb, made quick work of the latch, springing it silently. He eased the door ajar and peered inside.
The room was lit by a single guttering candle on the nightstand. Its glow reached the bed but not the farther corners.
Amid the tangled sheets, his back to the door, the foreigner was humping the crone. The hag had not even troubled to undress, had merely lifted her copious garments over her hips to expose the devil’s mouth between her thighs.
Preoccupied with carnality, neither of them had seen him.
Hare swung the door wide and burst into the room. A crashing blow with the knife handle caught the foreigner on the back of his skull and sent him tumbling to the floor. Hare scrambled over the fallen man onto the bed where the whore, dazed with drink and lust, had only just registered his arrival. He seized her disheveled clothes and jerked them higher, covering her face, then twisted the loose folds of her chemise into a knot and wound it tight. She was both strangled and smothered, her fists beating on the mattress until they could beat no more.
He climbed off her, leaving her as she’d died, her face shrouded, her body nude below the armpits.
Her death had been quick. He hadn’t wanted her to suffer. She could not help being what she was. She was no more responsible for the despoliation she caused than was a toxic bacillus. She must simply be eliminated, cleanly and swiftly, in the name of preserving health.
Hare checked the hall. Still empty. No alarum had been raised. No one had seen or heard. He shut the door and locked it, then took stock of the situation.
The foreigner was his most immediate concern. Half dressed, hatless, he lay outstretched and inert. Dead? No, blood ticked in the carotid at the side of the neck. The man lived.
Hare returned his attention to the harlot. His gaze settled on the forbidden area, the deep hollow of her sex. She had used that secret place to lure men astray. Even in death, it was the source of her power. But not for long.
He stripped to his underwear, neatly folding his clothes. He meant to do the job carefully, methodically, but he was out of practice and the first incision was clumsy, missing the central part of her abdomen and slip-sliding along her left side in a long curling gash that opened her up from the breastbone to the base of the spine. Her insides were hot—he could warm his hands over them—hot and reeking with the charnel-house odor that drove him mad. His twitching hands plunged inside her and found the slick ropes of her intestines, and he was unpacking her corpse, opening a path to her inmost female parts.
He turned her inside out, found one of her ovaries, tore it free. He would unsex her. She had been a cunt, nothing more. Now she would not be even that much.
“Not even that,” he whispered as sweat slimed his face.
His blade took savage bites out of her. He jabbed again and again, perforating her body, then rolled her onto her side and slashed a furious X into her left buttock.
X marks the spot
, said the treasure maps. There was no treasure in her. X marked only her bloody rump.
Finally, exhausted, he threw down the knife. Breathing hard, he gathered himself. The room was suddenly hot and close. He propped open the window with one of the whore’s shoes. A moist breeze seeped in, carrying distant drunken cries.