Not a single person would know who I was this night or what had happened. If they did, they would have a very different story to tell, one that would grip the entire city of fear when the word finally got out. I was as sure as Shylock.
“Worried about their babies.”
“I can see it.”
“Fathers up all night wielding a club, a knife, a gun or bat. Sitting in their homes just long enough for their tired eyes to become heavier than the fear they felt.”
“And what about Miss Newberry?”
“What about her?”
“How would she feel?”
“You mean when I deliver her mail tomorrow or the next day?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about anyone else?”
“Like Mrs. Collins?”
“Yes. She’d ask if you’ve read about the horrible thing that happened near Fifth and Vine.”
“What should I do?”
“Stand there and say nothing.”
“How would I be able to stand there, looking into her eyes, knowing what she spoke of?”
‘That you’re a murderer, a killer on the loose, here in New Cross.”
“And she’d know.”
“Miss Newberry would know.”
“What should I do?”
I shook my head because I knew there was nothing else I could do. “Going back isn’t an option.”
I stooped next to the bag and brought the candle next to it, pinching the waxy stem between my forefinger and thumb. I ground the base of the candle against the stone until I was certain the candle would not fall over. Next was the ax I brought out and laid on the cold surface. Then I removed the bourbon, uncorked it, and took a swig.
I sat the bottle on the ground, then shuffled closer and searched his pockets. I found a few coins, slid them into the outer pocket of my coat. I would do well to give these to a charity.
I checked his wrists, his fingers, and his neck. Two rings—one gold, one silver. I pocketed his effects. Waste not, want not.
I stood over him. The body was too close to the rear wall. There wasn’t enough room to work. I stepped around, careful not to trip on his legs, and stopped at his feet. Reaching down, I grabbed his ankles around the patent leather boots he wore. Then I dragged him through his pool of blood, out into the center of the alley.
I was reminded of a scene from Titus Andronicus, a favorite play of my mine and my father’s. One part of the play sticks in my mind where General Titus comes home from conquering the Goths and brings their queen and her three sons back to Rome as spoils of war. In Roman tradition, one son’s life was to be forfeited to the gods, and Titus orders the best of them to be sacrificed. The Goth queen begs for her son’s life but is denied, and Titus’s son Lucius drags the son, Alarbus, off to be slaughtered.
The weight of the body was heavy and difficult to move. I leaned back, gaining leverage, and looked up into the sky, speaking a few lines while I pulled him. “To this, your son is mark’d, and die he must. To appease their groaning shadows that are gone.”
Alarbus in the play was still alive when his body was dragged off. This body, however, was like that of a hickory stump, but I managed to drag his corpse four feet, into the center of the alley. I stood, looking down at the man before me. His head tilted unnaturally to one side, his arms above his shoulders having been pried from their earlier position as I moved his body. A thick blood trail, like the marrow of boiled bones, lay in his wake from where he died to where he rested.
Titus still rang in my head, like when you get a song that won’t leave until you’ve played it through. I saw Tamora, the queen who cries out to Titus, begging him for her son’s life. “Is your mother alive or dead? Would she be like Tamora, asking God for your forgiveness, to wash your sins and to give you everlasting life?” I lowered my gaze upon the man’s corpse, knowing if he’d only left when I said then none of this would have happened.
I reached down and grabbed his head by the hair, pulling it up so I could see his face more clearly.
“Does your mother weep or beg for mercy?” Spit flung from my mouth. “Did she cry out in the night, asking the gods to spare your life?” I looked at his vacant stare.
Those cobalt eyes that once were full of life but now are as vacant as a closed shop’s window. I opened my grip, his hair slipping from my fingers, and his head smacked against the ground. “Why? Why did you do this to me?” I clenched my fists, the nails biting into my palms.
“Get on with it.”
I walked with heavy steps to the bourbon. I grabbed the bottle, pulled the cork with my teeth, and spat it out into my hand. I took a drink, wiped my mouth with my sleeve, and gave a sigh of relief. “Ahhh.” I held the bottle in view. “You help me, and I’ll make sure you are always stocked in my house.” I kissed the bottle, corked it, and placed it on the ground.
The more I moved around, the more confining my coat became. I could feel how stiff I moved, and how the fabric seemed to smother me. “Can’t do this all bound up.” I started to take off my coat, looking down to undo my buttons, and I saw a spot about the size of a silver dollar on my front. In the flickering candlelight, I could see my coat was stained with blood. “Damn. That’s no good.” I was trying to avoid any stains that might be noticeable, anything that would show on the coat.
“Should have taken it off before even touching his body.”
“That makes sense,” I said then paused for a moment. “Wait, am I talking to myself?”
“You’re not talking to yourself. Only crazy people do that.”
I couldn’t let the stains worry me now. The stain would likely go unnoticed by others if I kept to the shadows. I let out my breath and finished taking off my coat. I set it near the wall, away from everything.
I took a few steps toward my mailbag, from which I produced the knife. I twirled the blade by its handle, the tip against my finger while I stared at the body. It was a habit I’d formed when I was young, just after a hunt.
I walked toward the body and stooped next to it, the knife in one hand, then gripped the man’s coat near the collar with my other hand. I tightened my grip on his coat. I felt the soft fabric, yet firm, sturdy.
“Shame,” I said. “This is a very fine coat, and if I were a different man and it was less bloody, I might keep it.”
I thrust the blade into the coat, near the top, and sliced off a button.
“You had only a few coins, no bills.”
I sliced another button.
“Miss Newberry was paying for your drinks earlier.”
“It tells me a few things—you aren’t a wealthy man though you are wearing finer clothing than most. Which I find a bit confusing.”
“Your coat is similar in style to my own, an English walker, but not the sort you find for $12.50. Yours is the sort of fabric and stitching of a fine coat worth over $100.” I lingered a bit more, thinking it over, hung up on the idea of who he was. “Maybe you were of wealth or pretended to be.”
The buttons were off and the coat open.
I reached over to his waist and pulled his shirt away from his body, then inserted the blade at the top and sliced the fabric all the way to the bottom. I opened the shirt, and underneath he wore a white linen undershirt.
“Miss Newberry isn’t wealthy.” I grabbed the undershirt twisting it with my hand, making the fabric taut.
“I know because she works at one of the law offices downtown.”
I stopped a moment to rest. “I thought she received gifts from her admirers?” I gripped the fabric tighter.
“She does, but that doesn’t mean she’s wealthy.”
Taking the blade, I drove it into the fabric, slicing it open, pulling the blade down to his crotch. “She’s not far from the postal office. Wilkins and Sons. The People’s Lawyer.”
I pulled the shirt away exposing his chest. There were several scars. One ran across his chest at a diagonal, another near his belly—it looked to be a single gunshot wound—and another.
The last scar was just under his belly button. I stopped to study it because it was a brand, not a wound scar. The sort of mark you might find on cattle. It was raised, had two semicircles with a circle between and a line through all three, or was it a sword. It was hard to make it out.
The scars created a new problem. They would make it easy to identify the man, which would lead back to Miss Newberry and back to me.
“I’m sorry my deceased friend – I can’t leave these on you,” I said to the dead man.
I moved to his waist where I undid his belt, then inserted the blade into his thigh, slicing the inner left pant leg. My sharp knife cut it easily, like opening a letter. I repeated the same on the right leg. His two legs were now exposed, the dark fabric slit open, lying to the sides.
My thoughts were still on Miss Newberry, and what she was doing with this man.
“Since I know she worked and she needed an income, maybe you pretended to come from wealth, and perhaps you lied to her. You might have fooled her into believing you came into a fortune, but instead you intended to beat and rob her.” That sounded right but felt wrong. There had to be a better reason, I just couldn’t find it.
I took off his boots, his hosiery. Layer by layer, a slice here, a tear there, until I had exposed his arms, his legs, his chest and torso, leaving the rest of the fabric intact under his legs, buttocks, back, and shoulders. I piled the torn clothes a foot away. He appeared odd, his beautiful garments in shreds, leaving the underside of his body covered and his front side unprotected.
“He does look strange.”
“A bit of a fool.”
“Yes, he is.”
I got near to his face, knelt on one knee, and looked into those vacant eyes. “What a fool,” I breathed. “You had lured your prey out into the midst of night but never suspected my coming along.”
“He was cunning.”
“But a fool.”
I pulled away from him, viewing his body, which was strong and lean, though I still did not know who the man was. I crossed one arm over my waist, holding the other and using it to prop my chin up, the blade still in my hand, the edge near my cheek.
“No, you are something else—a stylish nomad sporting fine linen, attracting unsuspecting women and then taking them to places where you could do as you willed.” I thought a moment. “A killer.”
I shifted my weight to my right rear foot. The air stung my nose as I breathed. My pulse was even, my heart beat one after the other, neither quick nor slow.
“What makes us different?” I poked his shoulder with the tip of the knife. “Do you think we are the same?”
I pushed off the ground and stood over him.
“In some ways we are, but not in all ways.”
I circled him like a mortician might a corpse, investigating, gathering knowledge of how to proceed. I came to a stop at his feet, knelt again, and adjusted his right leg by grabbing hold of his big toe, then I did the same to his left leg, making his stance wider. I was slow to get up, and I moved around to his right side, taking his right arm and moving it outward in an angle, then I walked around to his left side and did the same to his left arm. When I finished, I circled him once more, then came to a halt at his feet.
“He looks like the Vitruvian man.” I had seen the picture at a doctor’s office and asked about. It always stuck with me.
“He also reminds me of what happened in Titus. How they must have positioned Alarbus’s body before they began.”
“What words do you recall that was said?”
I looked directly toward his face, watching it, tilting my head to one side.
“O cruel, irreligious piety!” I breathed out. “Those are the words Tamora cried when the Romans took her son away to be butchered.”
“Seemed appropriate.” I drew a breath, and let it out.
I walked to his right side, lowered myself to the ground. I took his right arm into my hand and lifted it.
“And now we began with the words uttered of Demetrius from Titus Andronicus.” I arched my back and spoke as if speaking to an audience. “Alarbus goes to rest, and we survive. To tremble under Titus’ threatening looks.”
“After Alarbus was gone.?”
“And now we must continue.”
I nodded, and moved closer to his shoulder, and sliced into his flesh, cutting upward into the joint. Blood, thickened by the cool weather, seeped out. The blade went as far as it could, his arm still attached by ligaments and flesh.
I lifted myself and stood next to him, then walked to his left side. I got lower and did the same on that side, cutting from under the armpit into the joint, letting it hang.
I went to his left leg, lifting it, but the leg was heavy and too much to deal with. I slid my hand down his front leg to his knee where I put the blade’s edge against the soft, supple flesh behind the joint. I cut into him, finding the bone, then working the blade into the joint as much as I could. The blade stuck. I worked it back out, knowing it wouldn’t finish this job.
Next, I walked to my bag and put the blade inside, pushing it into the sand, then gripped the handle of the ax and removed it. I brought it to waist height, holding it in both my hands before letting it slump. The axe head smacked against the stone alley.
I dragged the ax’s head across the stone where I stopped next to his left shoulder. I’d never done this before, but I needed to save time. Usually, when I butchered deer, I used the knife to cut through the joints. It worked, but not as quickly, and I needed to hurry. His body was cold and the joint thick—I’d need to swing hard. I stood over him, placed the blade against the shoulder joint.
I heaved the ax high and swung swiftly.
The blade sank into his shoulder, wedging into the joint. I pulled the axe out and hit the shoulder again, and it popped. I wrapped my fingers around his wrist, pulling his arm back and over the shoulder until the joint cracked. It was disgusting, holding that man’s arm in my hand, his cold flesh against my fingers. It wasn’t anything like butchering a deer, not even close. I felt sick, and I wanted to stop, but I knew I couldn’t. I’d come too far, and this had to be completed. Even if I wanted to leave now, there’s too much here for the police to track, to find out it was me. That was bad news, and there was no stopping now. I tossed his arm to the side like a piece of wood. I could see the audience in front of me, watching me play out my character’s story for them to see.
“As you cling to life, so you cling to death.”
“Is that from the play?”
“No. It’s what I see unfolding before me.”
I wasn’t sure if I was talking to the dead man or if I was talking to myself. I stopped, trying to think, recalling my actions, what was said.
“You already know the answer.”
“I’m not sure.”
“It’s pointless to look back.”
It seemed that way, there was nothing to gain from the past, but then didn’t the past dictate the future? Or was the future created from what we hadn’t done yet?
“We need to finish what was started.”
I went to work on his other arm, this time making sure I cut deeper by using a full swing like digging into dirt with a pickaxe. The force caused a pop, then suction. It was free. I tossed his arm next to the other arm.
“This is taking too long. We need to save time.”
I thought about what I could do next, how I could finish the job quicker. It came to me.
“I’ll leave his legs, from the knee up.”
“Good. Now get to work.”
I chopped off both his lower legs at the knee. I heard a crack, then a crunch as the edge cut intact tendons and joints.
I threw the two bottom portions of his legs next to his arms.
His sightless eyes stared at me as I placed the ax blade against his neck. I felt that the lack of focus in his eyes was his way of calling me an ass for cutting him into pieces.
“You’re the ass,” I smirked then stretched out my muscles. Arching my back, I brought the ax above my head. I heard voices, coming from the street. I moved in front of the candle to block its light. I turned my ear toward the alley, listening. A light winter breeze passed through, and then it died. “It’s nothing,” I said under my breath. “Only the wind.”
It felt colder, and I wondered if I should put my coat on. Instead, I turned around, looking down the alley toward the street, then back toward the end of the alley at the rear of the hardware store.
“I know I heard something.”
I extinguished the candle, stooping low, snuffing out the flame. I moved into the shadows far from the body, then watched the opening for anyone who might be coming this way.
My hands shook, and my breath quickened. “It’s not the wind I hear.”
“No, it’s not the wind.”
A voice, deep, like a man’s voice. It was distant, but it didn’t sound like it came from anywhere, it was just there. “I’m paranoid.”
There was the voice again.
I searched the immediate area trying to see if anyone were hiding in the shadows, someone who had been watching, listening and is listening now. As I scanned the dark patches of the alley, I thought maybe it came from the street. It had to have come from the street, near the opening, my only exit. I had to be sure no one was coming. I gripped the axe handle, never letting my eyes off the exit. A gust burst into the corridor and brushed over us.
I wanted to flee, that was my thought. I had to get out while I could before whoever was spying on me came around that corner.
“But they’ll be waiting,” I whispered.
I thought I might hear a response, but I didn’t. It made me wonder if what I’d heard was even real or just my imagination.
“That’s it. It’s all my head.” I kept my voice low.
I walked quietly toward the opening, keeping my body close to the building, in the shadows, ready to run if I had to, ready to fight if it came to that as well.
I was close to the opening, just steps away from the corner.
Whispers… like scratching, rasping words permeated my ears…
The whispers died away as sudden as they had arrived. I covered one ear to listen, to be sure what I heard had been real or if my mind was playing a terrible trick.
Again, sudden, and without any warning, the whispers flooded my ear. I halted my progress and tried to make out the words. I couldn’t discern any individual vowel or consonants, and the intonation was monotone – a droning of continuous hisses. It sounded like a small room crowded with dozens of people speaking at the same time or possibly speaking the same thing but not in sync.
I jerked my head around.
There it was again, but this time it continued.
I threw the axe, vaguely noticing the lack of metallic clank as the voices got louder. I slid to my knees and cupped my ears for the whispers grew, multiplying and intensifying. It was coming in, a swarming cone of a thousand buzzing hornets. It crushed the thoughts in my mind, replacing them with tiny fragments of sound, each different than the next—the wind, an ocean wave, a thundering storm, a raging fire. All distorted, altogether, all as one.
I didn’t know where it was coming from?
I searched the street, nothing was there. I searched the alley, nothing there. I arched back, my head toward the sky, looking into the dark, and nothing was there. I raked my hand across my face, over my arm, pulling at my sleeve, touching my hand, tugging at my fingers. I sank lower and then lay like a baby in a cradle. I curled into a ball, feeling disoriented, the building appearing to spin around me, a constant image of dancing stone, spinning and spinning until it blurred into a mixture of swirling sand.
I cupped my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. The sound remained. My heart pounded against my chest, my lungs expanded and shut as quickly as a bellows stoking a fire. Something was happening to me.
“See, lord and father, how we have perform’d,” I said it without thinking like I was a character in the play, but no one told me.
The sounds left as a trickle of a spring sprung from the hillside.
I drew myself to my feet, crouching, surveying the street. It was hard to breathe. Little grey spots were forming in front of me like I was about to faint. That’s not right, only frail women faint. I gathered my bearings, and took in short breaths, and let them out slowly. I did it again, and again watching as the spots gradually disappeared.
“We must continue.”
“There’s still a problem.”
“I’m taking care of it.”
“Not that one. The other one.”
“Let me remind you.”
I took in a deep breath, held it, let it out like a puff of smoke, waiting, and then it came.
I had a thought. I had a terrible thought.
I forced stumbled back toward the body and resumed my route to the bottle of bourbon. I snatched it by its top, pulled its cork, and poured it into my mouth, sucking down as much as I could between gulps of air. Half spilled out onto my clothes, yet half made it into my gullet. The bottle was two-thirds empty when I stopped myself, knowing I had to finish and I couldn’t do it in a drunken stupor.
I shook my head to shake off what had happened.
“No, no, no,” I said to the bottle. “I can’t….” And then I looked at my bottle. “You are my friend.” I kissed the bottle and …promptly threw up.
After I ejected what I had in my gullet, I checked to see if I managed to keep it off my shirt. I did. And then I also checked to see if I managed to not drop the bottle. I did. The bourbon I placed on the ground, next to my bag, after I’d taken careful steps around the steaming mess I’d made.
My body strained with effort, moving toward the dead man, an ever-present gnawing in the back of mind telling me I needed to finish what I started and that I needed to finish it before the sun appeared over the top of New Cross and exposing me to the world.
“Luc, come on,” I said more calmly. I guess it was instinct or reaction to a defiant child who would rather take a beating from his pa than do what he was told. I was to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable, to finish the terrible thought I had just conjured.
I straddled over his torso, hunching. I took the knife out of my pocket, and slid the blade into the soft tissue of his neck and slit him from chest to groin. I took a second pass, going into the chest, cutting away the ribs to create an opening. His innards smelled almost sweet yet spoiled at the same time—like someone had placed fresh mint on top of a chamber pot.
I reached under his ribs and up into his chest, my knife shoved inside. Normally I’d cut the windpipe, if it were a deer, and work my way down, but instead, I cut through his lungs and just above the heart. Blood leaked out into his cavity. I put the knife to the side, reached into his chest with both hands, and raked out his insides. His entrails resembled a bag pipe’s bladder, filled with air and stained red from the copious amounts of blood. They were smooth, slick feeling on my hands as I put them on the ground before returning to the body.
My skin prickled while I reached down and picked up his heart. Holding the muscle, I found some cloth, a piece of his torn shirt, and wrapped his heart, then carefully placed it on the ground between the man’s limbs and the pile of clothing.
After retrieving the axe, I stood perpendicular to his body. This was the final act, one I felt like I was avoiding, but now, “we are one.” I placed the axe’s edge against his neck. I raised the axe, brought it down, and chopped off his head. It made a schlump sound.
I rubbed my nose with my finger, more from nerves than an actual itch. There was a coarseness to my finger, sand from the bag. I paced around like a wild animal. “Try not to panic, try to remember what you’re doing, why you’re doing it.” I looked to my hands, to the ground, all around me and everywhere I’d walked, where I had stood, where I was pacing. It was as if I were in a lion’s lair who’d torn its prey into pieces, leaving tremendous amounts of blood everywhere.
“No, no, no.”
The realization came as snow began to fall from the sky. The bag might leak, and the blood would leave a trail on the snow.
I searched the ground, looking at the bag, sweeping to the
body, to the pile of limbs, to the torn clothes. I stopped, staring at the
clothes. I could leave his body here—who
would know it was me? They would think it was a deranged man.
Was I deranged?
“You’re talking to yourself.”
“We are one.”
“You’re not deranged.”
“We must remove what we can and leave the authorities guessing.”
Axe in tow, along with the knife, I walked to the bag.
Near the bag, I placed the tools beside each other.
I grabbed the bottle of bourbon and poured the brown liquid onto my hand, then rubbed my hands together. The air made my skin bitter cold. The scent of liquor lingered. The slickness of the blood drained through my fingers, and the coarseness of the sand scratched at my skin.
I returned to the pile of torn clothing, found a clean part of his shirt. I wiped my hands as much as I could with it, though there was still a sticky feeling on the back and sides. I went back to the bag, grabbed it by the strap, and brought it closer to the body. In the weak light, I scanned the ground for blood before carefully setting it down.
Rummaging through the pile of discarded clothes, I found what I believed to be part of his undershirt. I that piece of fabric, picked up his head and carefully wrapped it like a head of cabbage in cabbage leaves. I placed the gruesome parcel into the bag, pushing it into the sand like I’d done with those potatoes in the barrel of my cellar.
Shuffling to search the man’s shredded attire, I located the sleeves of his coat I’d cut off at the seam, and placed his arms inside each. Next, I used the bottom portion of his trousers to cover his legs, and I placed those along with his arms into the bag. The ground held a few more items, his liver, his guts, his heart. Did I want to bring those?
“We have enough.”
His torso, waist, and upper legs were still there on the ground in the candle’s flame. His chest was open to the sky as if to invite his Roman sacrifice. I recalled the play, the scene where they’d prepared Alarbus.
I gave a slight bow at the waist, as though I were addressing an audience, picked up the kerosene, and held it high above what was left of the man with no name.
“Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d and entrails feed the sacrificing fire.”
Dousing him in kerosene, pouring it into the cavity of his chest, it flowed down to his hips. I pulled a few rags from the scrap pile of clothing and stuffed them into the empty corpse. Then I repeated, soaking the rags in kerosene. When I finished, I placed the kerosene can into the bag.
Taking my bag over to where I’d left the ax and knife, I cleaned the tools with bourbon and then placed them into the bag. I retrieved my coat and pulled it over my body, quickly buttoning the front.
I pulled the bag’s strap over my shoulder, shifting my weight for balance, and walked past his body, thinking to myself this was it.
“I had come to do what I needed to do. Now it’s time for this to end.”
The snow had grown thick and started to cling to the cobblestones. The gust died down and left air that reeked of sulfur, liquor, kerosene, and the dead.
I walked out into the center of the alley, facing the road, my only exit out. I did an about-face, watching the white flakes drift to the ground, putting a thin layer on parts of the body the kerosene had not touched. It was almost magical in a way, how he looked. It reminded me of van Gogh for some strange reason. I couldn’t pinpoint why. Van Gogh died last year from shooting himself.
I reached into my inner coat pocket, I brought out my matchbox, never taking my eyes off the body. I opened the box and pinched the wood end of a match between my forefinger and thumb. It came out easily, and I closed the matchbox with a snap. I ran the match over the rough strip on the bottom of the box. A flame erupted and burned at its end.
I watched the flame giving myself time to change my mind, but I knew it was far too late for that.
I tossed the match onto the open cadaver, and it burst into flames. The fire flowed, running down his left side, then across his chest, coming back on the other side. Bright oranges and yellows uncovered the hidden brick walls to all sides of me. The flames grew hot, and the flesh sizzled and popped. The smell of charred meat filled my nose. The wind howled as it blew across my shoulders. Shadows danced around the alley as though to cheer on my deceitful deed.
Black rolls of smoke drifted in swirls against the white flakes falling. A line from Titus once again came to me. Like an animatronic setup to repeat what it’s told I spoke the words.
“Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky.”
And I left.