Fiction – “The Failed Redemption of Michael Ostrog” by Jacob Edwards
For many years the killer had no name.
I tracked it west-southwest from Norilsk to the Ural Mountains and beyond; past Moscow, Minsk, Warsaw, Prague; always one step behind the setting sun; through Germany and France and then north across the Channel, all the way to England. In those days London Town had no East End, merely a smattering of cottages; a rural pastorage; green fields and sheep – the Good Lord’s most wool-brained flock, bar one.
The killer cut a swathe up to bonnie Scotland. Ripped jugulars and paddocks fleeced of life – its appetite seemed to swell with each turn of the moon. I almost caught it over at Ennerdale, riding on the coattails of the local vicar and farmers who put their faith in the pitchfork; but the beast escaped me and moved on. I shot a dog to hide the truth of our passing.
By the time it crossed over to Ireland the killer was consumed by a bloodthirst never quenched. In Cavan and Limerick and other places where the earth is well-trodden, sheep were sucked dry and people driven mad with fear. I kept to the shadows as they muttered profanities and crossed themselves. Soon, no number of dead dogs would allay their unholy suspicions.
I spent much of the nineteenth century in the saddle, spurred on by rumours of blood-letting. The incidents were manifest but isolated, the beast following its nose through heaths and highlands, marshes and moors. When it crossed the Channel at Saint George and headed suddenly East, I thought it destined for the Continent – back to those vast, docile tracts, each congregation as dogged in its mindset as the last.
But the killer had not tired of the Kingdom; merely of the sprawling countryside and its meagre offering of mud-spattered animals. Through Wales and across the Cotswolds I pursued it, east towards the rising sun, eyes narrowed as slowly the realisation dawned: the beast was changing, its hunger now beyond measure of even the cream of clotted livestock.
From Gloucester to Oxford I spurred my horse, skirting north around the wards of Stonehenge. Hamlets gave way to townships; cottages to castles. Breath lay heavy on the morning air. Soon the killer would attack and bring bleating panic to those who milled around; and so I hurried on, nostrils flaring at the scent of so many people – wisps of the Golden Fleece. From Aylesbury to Hertford the beast led me, heart quickening as it drove south back to-
That was where I made the mistake; awash in the crowded streets and panicked by the beast’s sudden taste for humanity. Everything I’d done unraveled in that single, mad act of theatre. Years of patience and caution fell by the wayside and on the evening of April 2nd 1888 – Easter Monday – I pulled open the curtain and bestowed terror upon London Town. I gave the killer his name.
DI Robert Baxter turned into the car park and sat there, stewing. There was no theatre, damn it; just a bleak, urban conspiracy. He’d driven up and down twice now between the hospital and Mile End, and for what? To add another parking lot to his collection? One more eyesore?
A white Fiat honked its horn behind him and Baxter glared at it, squinting against the headlights in his rear-view mirror. “What do you want, you pillock?” he muttered. “Your own personal welcome to the pleasuredome? Go around!”
But the Fiat showed no inclination to wake up and go-go. Worse, a Morris Minor had joined the queue and was stuttering back and forth between street and pavement, tooting merrily.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Baxter put his foot down and pulled hard towards the nearest bay. There were cars everywhere and he had to squeak a three-point turn, re-mixing his tyres like a DJ rubbing vinyl. He wedged his Rover SD1 between a pair of Ford Escorts and then cut the engine. His Alpine speakers fell silent. The Pet Shop Boys’ Heart stopped beating.
So now what? He was supposed to be at the Pavilion Theatre, not some godforsaken coatroom for cars. He took the invitation from his jacket pocket and read it again:
For One Night Only
THE REDEMPTION OF MICHAEL OSTROG
From 8pm at the New Royal Pavilion Theatre
(191-193 Whitechapel Road)
And then, in copperplate handwriting:
Your Blood’s Worth Bottling!
Bloody Dave Cohen. Why couldn’t he go to his own naffing show? But no. He’d dumped it on Baxter instead – gave him the five-thirty nod and then frowned, deep in afterthought: “By the way, Bobby. I went to give blood the other day and they’ve sent me this. Not my cup of tea but it wouldn’t do to leave the seat empty. Front row. Would you mind? Thanks.” Out, in and out again. He’d never even taken his hand off the door.
Baxter slapped the invitation onto the dash and reached for the ignition. As if he didn’t have better things to do than doppel for DCI Cohen. Kosminski versus Kaminski, for example, or the Fulham estate murders; and besides, there was nothing here, so it was all just a naffing great waste of time, sending him half way across town in the rain, cold as an Ipswich tom; and now the frigging car wouldn’t start.
“Oh, that’s just great.” The engine made a pitiful attempt at turning over – blood gurgling from a slit throat. “Wonderful. Thanks a bunch, guv.” A broken timing chain and a night in the spittle-fields – that was all he needed; and it was Easter, so there wouldn’t be a garage open anywhere between here and bloomin’ Mayfair.
Wrenching his keys from the ignition, Baxter gave the door latch a dislocating tweak and leaned over into the back seat; twisting; finagling for the street directory. The latch snapped back into place and he stretched out blindly with one foot, arresting the door before it could close; but he kicked too hard – excessive force, they’d say – and the door swung open onto one of the Ford Escorts; metal upon soft metal; a jarring scrape. Half wincing, half snarling at this aggravation, DI Baxter grabbed hold of the doorframe and hoisted himself up, out into-
“Thatcher’s bollocks…” The street directory fell unnoticed from his fingers as he stared around, gobsmacked. The carpark was gone. His car was gone. Instead, there was darkness spun with soft light and a candy floss fog; a seeping, heavy chill; and yet, clamminess; a foul stench. Baxter felt his stomach rise up in panic. Hell’s bells and what the devil-?
“Bang on, my Dickey Dazzler!” A short, scratchy-faced man stepped briskly from the shadows; bandy legs and breeches to the knees; his frayed jacket flapping weakly. “She truly is. But forget all that. Tonight is about theatre. Magic. Did you bring your invitation?”
Baxter turned and almost fell; lost in the murk; his world in grey-tone. He caught an eyeful of flank and a whiff of sweat and hair.
“Lipski! Your horse has eaten it.” The man combed his hand through high-spirited curls, then shrugged and extended it to Baxter. “Oh well. Have to expect some shenanigans on opening night. I’m Mickey Ostrog, by the way, and you must be Detective Whatsamathingy. Am I right? Bang on? I can smell a peeler from halfway down the street, I’ll tell you.”
Baxter shook the man’s hand and peered around once more. Where his car should be, there stood instead a threadbare horse tethered to a hansom cab, scuffing the ground with one hoof, its mane downcast. Buildings rose moth-eaten on either side of a narrow street – decrepit, indentured old crones – and there was no traffic noise; just a clanking, rickety sort of half-silence. Baxter sniffed tentatively and reeled. Nausea. He must have banged his head on the doorframe when he pulled himself out of the Rover.
“Mind your step here,” Mickey Ostrog cautioned, strutting through the filth past three identical doorways. “…and here, and here. We all make choices, you see, and usually there’s no difference. But sometimes there is at that, and if you’re not careful you’ll get it all arseways. Banjaxed, like.” Ostrog stopped and toyed with his bow tie, which was a poorly pinned specimen. He shook his head and looked down at boots worn lamentably thin. “Ah, feck.”
In the recesses of each entry rested a pair of heavy, wooden doors, each with glass panelling and bordered on both sides by two-fingered columns of white-grey brick. The wood was dark and the glass frosted, and so there seemed at first to be three giant monkeys – caged by pomp and circumstance and peering grimly out at the world. Looking up, Baxter could see a stone coronet running along the second storey above all three entryways; but the building itself was truncated at that level and did not extend beyond the middle set of doors. The overall effect was of unfinished symmetry – an elaborate deconstruction that spread up to a combined third and final storey and culminated in-
“Gordon Bennett!” DI Baxter choked on the pungent night air. High above him, implanted like a black pearl within the classically sculptured facade, was an enormous round window of the darkest glass imaginable. Easily the height of a person, it peered down at him through the fog; unblinking; cycloptic. Alabaster flowers wrinkled its corners, as if the glassy eye had long held vigil over odysseys and evils unknown. The night crowded all around but Baxter could not look away. That inky black pupil drew him in. Everything else was eclipsed.
“Bang on,” Mickey Ostrog agreed. “It’s right Janey Mack. Sort of catches you, doesn’t it? Holds you there so that you can’t move. Like a clock with no hands and no numbers. No time. So there it is,” he gestured grandly. “Welcome to the Pavilion.”
By 1888 Old London Town was rent by poverty and crying out for a killer.
The East End squatted amidst tanneries, breweries and glue factories downwind of Central London. Spent affluence drifted thickly down the Thames alongside the unfortunates and the poorest of the immigrants – homeless vessels who cut a squalid passage from Execution Dock through the Chinese quarter and up to Bethnal Green. Little wonder that the beast had found its way here – to the swollen abscess of slums and rookeries; lodging houses and underground cellars let at three shillings per week, dark with mould and chewed over by rats; whole families packed into hog pens, their eyes unnaturally dull or sometimes cast wildly in search of asylum. Here the beast would be free to satiate its bloodlust. I covered my nose against the rank smell and plunged deep into the Spitalfields.
The streets were dirty and narrow and crowded along their edges by a lean-to ramshackle of terraced houses. At one time the silken heart of Huguenot enterprise, these now were charred and frail, clinging to each other like worldly-wise monkeys; badly taxidermised; held together only by a rancid stuffing of human mishmash. Countless vagrants had been driven over the years into this social cul-de-sac, their dosshouses torn down to accommodate an ad hoc expansion of the railways and docks. I passed a shambling drunk over by Christ Church and he called out to me, his voice not yards from the grave:
“See no evil on Dorset Street,
Hear no evil on Flower and Dean,
Speak no evil of Itchy Park,
Soak ’em with mecks and wash the streets clean!”
Some people – mostly Oxford graduates and clergymen – made a choice to live in the East End. For everyone else it was a case of Devil’s candle; a cruelly dull flame but, nonetheless, a flicker. In 1917 German bombs would achieve what the reformers could not, overshadowing the peaceable doublethink and wiping at last the blight from Old Blighty; but for now people herded together in tenements too entrenched to break; too piecemeal to offer protection from a killer. I stopped for a moment to check the time, my thoughts bleak, my back to the wall of-
The Pavilion Theatre.
If only I had moved on a few more paces and not stood there beneath that dark, unblinking eye, then perhaps I’d have no need now of redemption; but fate led me to the theatre and I caught a whiff of opportunity even through the heavy stench of indigence. Do no evil, the drunkard might well have cautioned me, but I overlooked the danger. I decided to act.
For one night only, the show was billed – a murder mystery of genteel temperance; but the script was poorly written and the killer escaped his curtain call. Old London Town then held its breath, enthralled. Everybody had a theory, yet none came close to guessing that cardinal truth. The beast had slunk into Whitechapel under the pressing downweight of a pea-souper. It emerged from the fog an everyday Jack, knife in hand.
The Pavilion Theatre was dimly lit; but even so, DI Baxter should have noticed the shadow. Thrown back in time, concussed, whatever – he was still a Detective Inspector. He had eyes, brains, a copper’s instincts. Thatcher’s spotted spatchcock! What had he been thinking?
Nothing. That was the problem. He’d somehow been taken in by the experience; caught up in anticipation. His mind wasn’t ticking over. His senses weren’t alert. Hell, he’d barely even glanced at the scores of people he edged past as Mickey Ostrog directed him to his seat.
He was in the front row – just like Dave Cohen had said – pressed up against the musty, wooden stage; transfixed by the curtain’s velvety folds. Above him to his left and right were three tiers of privileged box seating, their status marked by Corinthian columns that stretched up like long, stone vases on either side and terminated in a tangle of acanthuses. Less ornate enclosures spanned the arc of the first two levels, while the third was packed like a modern-day football stadium. It could have been the Colosseum for all DI Baxter was concerned, wide-eyed and staring like a naffing great tourist.
He should have realised from the outset that of the hundreds of faces strung like pale moons around him, none were distinct, save for those of his fellow oglers in the front row. He should have seen beyond the dinner jackets and cocktail dresses; the pinstripes and shoulder pads – and with his wits enfolded about him, he’d doubtless have noticed the outlying blurriness; the fuzzy, intangible nature of the crowd. But Robert Baxter wasn’t himself that night; wasn’t who he was supposed to be. He’d craned his neck briefly to take in the frescoed ceiling – barely stopping to consider the off-colour chandelier, which flowered dim like a bulbous weed in a hanging pot, its lights pointing not down, but up, like so many tarnished street lanterns – then he’d turned his eyes back to the stage; unthinking; senseless as a bowl of sago pudding.
When the show began – the curtain hoisted suddenly into the air; the crowd noise fading to quiet murmurs and then silence – DI Baxter was caught completely unaware. He blinked several times and looked around for Mickey Ostrog – an instinctive reaction; illogical, although he thought he caught a glimpse of the little man disappearing out back towards the cobblestone carpark for horses and ne’er-do-well junk-jockeys. But-? Baxter shook his head. He must have lost track of time. Crazy thoughts. Saturday night nana, that’s all it was. It had to be, because Mickey Ostrog – cleanly scrubbed and now dressed the genteel – was nowhere near the back of the Pavilion. Instead, he was making his way with dignified, dapper little steps toward the middle of the stage, where he stopped, heels clicking together as he swivelled to face the auditorium.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ostrog enounced, head downcast, his opening address to the floorboards. “My story begins a long time ago in a country far, far away.”
This drew from the crowd a ripple of expectant mirth, which lapped at the stage but did nothing to wash away Baxter’s frown. Gone from Mickey Ostrog’s voice was the lilted pride of free-spirited Ireland; in its place: a thick-coated drawl – the cultured precision of the USSR. The Queen is deaf and long live Prince Charles’s ears! What was going on?
“Thank you all for joining me here tonight, people of the front row, blood-givers, descendants and evil-doers alike. My name…” – he paused; sniffed; turned sombre features to the maddening crowd – “…is Mikhail Ostrog. This is my redemption.”
And with those simple words, he stepped forward a pace and into-
DI Baxter had seen some of what evil the world had to offer. What CID man hadn’t? But the bashings and killings and rapes and everything else that gave evidence of homo sapien‘s manifest degradation – well, their effect was as of nothing compared to the chill that assailed him when Ostrog entered that spotlight of darkness. Crime – that was one thing; but at least it was alive; in some way human; whereas what he saw now was devoid of anything – husked; frozen; in every meaningful way, dead.
Ostrog stood and quietly talked and Baxter found himself unable to look away. He was bound; hypnotised. His eyes fluttered – drawn helpless as a butterfly to the ray of non-light that enshrouded yet illuminated Mikhail Ostrog. The little man’s words cut into Baxter – precisely inflected; puncturing his physical awareness – yet somehow he did not hear them; did not feel them. Though physically enthralled, Bobby Baxter’s thoughts were free, his brain still at large to plod the pulse’s slow, coagulated beat. What was this power that Ostrog held over him and – presumably – the rest of the audience?
Without being able to look, still he knew, with the instinctive certainty that had underpinned many a criminal investigation: from somewhere above him, through the dark filter of the Pavilion Theatre’s glass eye, the night itself shone down: not the moon or the stars, but rather an anti-light – blood and tar – casting its blackness beyond the pallid yellow glow that permeated elsewhere; and yet, in no way did it conceal Mikhail Ostrog. Rather, it lent him a darkly phosphorescent, inky presence that flickered seductively; calling to the centre of Baxter’s eyes; widening his pupils until they, too, began to glass over with a spreading cloud of darkness.
“…the Drury Lane of the East,” Mikhail Ostrog was saying. “I thought I could trap the beast here and confine it to a work of fiction – bound forever by the curtain of theatre!” Ostrog lowered his eyes again. “But I failed. The mistake was mine.” He fell silent.
Baxter’s head was spinning, his mind but a mouse on a treadmill. His nose twitched. Cigar smoke and oranges. Outside, a horse neighed.
Suddenly, Ostrog looked up. “But it was your doing as well! You, your ancestors, all you people who made Old London Town into a festering sore. You drew the beast here!” He paused; let the words rattle and fade; continued in more subdued tones. “For one hundred years I have tried to make amends. Now, finally, the time is right. Tonight, I present my new play – ‘The Redemption of Michael Ostrog’. For one night only, it is billed, but the beast will not escape me this time. I shall tell his story and he will be drawn here, his knife sharp, his hunger awakened. Through the power invested in me I shall cage him and at last know peace.”
DI Baxter could not move. He ground his molars together and willed his shoulders to respond; clutching at straws, his hands like sea anemones. If only he could reach his phone and dial 999.
Ostrog spread his hands to encompass the front row. “You will help me, Jack’s children, for you have given yourselves to me, your sins revealed. You have no choice! It is in your blood.”
Then he smiled – an intense sharpening of expression; his teeth gleaming dark. “Tonight’s show will last forever!”
I followed the killer out of the Pavilion and into the fog of ages. He kept to the shadows, away from the dim-wick’d lanterns; the constables with their helmet heads and shrill whistles. A slinker by nature, he turned his new face from passers-by.
I could see that he was uncertain at first – left foot full; right foot half; left foot half; right foot full – shuffling drunkenly down Whitechapel Road as if two legs were somehow not quite enough. He stopped at the Methodist Chapel in Osborn Street and stood swaying by the sundial there, drawn perhaps to the plaque upon the building’s brick facade:
We are shadows. I watched, helpless, as he turned and made his unsteady way back down the street – back towards Emma Smith.
What happened next I could not prevent, nor any of the butcherings that followed. What power I possessed had been thrown to the dark eye – used up in one dramatic act of futility – and who knew how long it would take for me to build my strength again? Decades, perhaps centuries. For now it was all I could do to keep up; to track the beast as it ventured anew into the world.
We passed by the White Hart, its oak floors heavy with the smell of hops and glories spent; then through the arch leading to George Yard. The killer moved quickly now; panting; nose favouring the ground; and by light of the feckless moon I caught sight of Herne the Hunter riding awkwardly through the filth towards the back of Toynbee Hall. Whether or not the killer was following Herne’s beckoning glow – well, who can tell? – but for one poor unfortunate the omens did not bode well. Martha Tabram hurried inside and up the stairs of the George Yard Buildings, away from the Hunter and the demon hounds Barnaby and Burghs. An owl hooted through the fog as the killer lurched in after her.
The newspapers thrived with every attack – ink like blood; obituaries pressed from the gutter as the East End rose in fevered excitement from its apathetic malaise. From Whitechapel to Baker’s Row and back, the killer spread his coat: Mary Ann Nichols by the board school in Buck’s Row; Annie Chapman in Hanbury Street; looping around towards the Brick Lane Brewery; past the Women’s Social Workhouse with barely a glance. I tracked him as best I could – down Brick Lane and Osborn Street; along Church Lane, crossing Commercial Road; into Fairclough Street; Dutfield’s Yard. Too slow; too weak to save Elizabeth Stride. “Lipski!” I cursed – and even that was fodder for the horseflies.
Old London Town was parched and thirsty for news; the killer keen to imbibe. He took Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square, constrained not at all by the ghostly remnants of the Holy Trinity Priory; and yet her death did nothing to muzzle the beast. Instead, he moved quickly back along Whitechapel and north into Commercial Road; stumbling in his haste; drunk upon blood. Christ Church loomed sombrely through a deadening fog up ahead; restless at night; its cemetery lousy with vagrants. I hurried to keep up as the killer reeled away into Dorset Street, past the seething doss houses and through the archway into Miller’s Court. The East End convalesced around me; infested; tossing in its sleep as drunken refrains wafted incongruously from the Blue Coat Boy:
“I went into the chandler’s shop,
Some candles for to buy,
I looked around the chandler’s shop,
But no one did I spy!”
Events were escalating, as inevitably they would have to when the beast came to terms with humanity. Seven months had skulked by since I made my fatal mistake. The Pavilion Theatre now lay empty; its triple set of doors closed to me – no magic there – shut fast like the thousand-plus hearts of Dorset Street or the lockjawed grocery opposite Miller’s Court. Bile rising in my throat, I pushed forward through the archway and came belatedly to number thirteen; turned my eye to what dark remains of Mary Jane Kelly lay scattered within.
In days thereafter I discovered sparks from Prometheus; depravity unbound – for the beast’s hunger, it seemed, was matched only by man’s thirst. It was from the New Pavilion that the killer had begun his timeless journey – the world his stage; Miller’s Court merely spotlit as the ochred cup runneth over – and it was to the New Pavilion that he must be returned.
And so was written a most bloody tale indeed – for one performance only. Tonight.
“You who have taken lives,” intoned Mikhail Ostrog, “each of you will play your part – from the victims to the suspects, from the baffled constabulary to the elusive killer himself. Pandora’s box is still open. Old London Town still twists in the throes of fever, but tonight we shall lure the beast here and end at last his murderous spree. Here, behind the eye of the storm. Here, where I made my mistake. Ladies of the night – show yourselves!”
Seven women rose from their seats and circled up around onto the stage – three in one direction, four in the other; tie-dyed; zombified – an eye-catching mix of big hair and banana clips, shoulder pads and ruffles; rolled-up sleeves and add-a-bead necklaces, ponytails to the side; Members Only jackets over polka dot cocktail dresses; leggings, ugg boots and a rainbow parade of iridescent jelly shoes. Never had the streets of Old London felt such a tread.
“Behold!” Mikhail Ostrog held his arm out, encompassing the drugged-out, pouting line of unfortunates – a colourful mooch against the Pavilion’s drab backdrop; canaries in a coal mine. “They have come, those first seven drops, the maddening taste of humanity. They have come for you, now you must come for them, as you did before, as you will again. Show yourself, beast – take centre stage once more!”
Fog rolled thickly from the wings; cold like liquid nitrogen – and with it came slooping a dark revenant of the East End’s sordid past: ash-black top-hat; coattails like batwings; knife blade exposed in a slash of grey – a primitive rutting tool. It drifted along past the row of women; paused alongside each. Though blind to its presence, nevertheless they looked around nervously; heeding the chill, perhaps; their blood slowing; pulsing torpidly.
“Yes,” urged Mikhail Ostrog. “Here they are, each one as before. Taste them. Drain them. Yes! And now you, DCI Cohen, killer that you are – stand, stand so that the beast may flow into your cold blood!”
Baxter tried to speak; tried to resist; but there was nothing he could do. At Ostrog’s command he straightened his knees and stood; unfolding like a wobbly marionette. “I- My-”
“Hold up your murderous right hand, Dave Cohen – allow the Ripper to take your corporeal form!”
Trembling, straining against the impulse, Baxter slowly raised his arm; fist wrapped tightly around the hilt of the knife; knuckles white and criss-crossed with red. “I’m not-” he rasped. “My name-”
“Come forward, Dave Cohen – the stage is set. Old London Town awaits your show! Yes… Yes…”
Baxter drifted unwillingly to the left; staggering as if manacled; pulled along in the wake of the knife. The apparition floated behind him, its pose identical; elongated, but shortening; a detached shadow about to join up.
“Now!” Ostrog exclaimed. “Now, the killer is born!”
So said, the spectre surged forward and melded. Baxter spasmed as if electrocuted – possessed. His body writhed but inside he froze, overwhelmed by something beyond mere temperature: a primal darkness; inescapably cold – the singular, icy heart to whose fading beat entropy marches.
Then, as if enfolded within a never-ending contraction, he felt the hunger – struck by its base enormity; experiencing it as if it were his own: blood; full of fading life; flowing thickly from the neck; sweet and sticky – wine of the carotis communis. He found himself desperate to taste its warmth, not by and of itself but rather for contrast – a dying spark that would enhance his enshrouding; a drop of heat expended, all the better to feel the unfathomable cold.
“Arise, scourge of the East End, Nemesis of Neglect – commit your murders here for us tonight!”
“No…” Baxter mouthed, his Adam’s Apple like a sinker in a hooked fish. “My… name… is-”
“You have no name! No longer Dave Cohen, not a DCI nor even a man – just an everyday Jack. Behold, the Ripper!”
Baxter wretched uncontrollably, vomiting phantom globules of blood; dragged his legs forward, one after the other, mounting the stage in jerky, faltering steps. He held the knife like an icepick. Somebody screamed.
“Yes!” Mikhail Ostrog agreed, pointing across-stage. “A cry of, ‘Oh, murder!’ was heard, but it was faint, and such utterances were common. Nobody came forward to help her – this wretch, this Unfortunate. Kill her again tonight, as you did before and will again. Raise your blade. Bring the story to life. Bring it to an end!”
Ostrog made a cutting motion across his neck. The knife twitched in Baxter’s hand as he lurched towards the nearest woman. “Not a… killer!”
“Not a killer? You are the killer! Smith, Tabram, Nichols, Chapman! Stride, Eddowes, Kelly! Bring the legend full-circle. Kill them – now!”
Ostrog’s eyes shone dark with zeal. The Smith woman swooned and raised an arm over her forehead.
“Not Dave… Cohen.” DI Baxter set his jaw; fought against the blade. “Not a… murderer.”
“Ah, but you are a murderer, Dave Cohen. You’re Jack. You’re Jack the Ripper!”
“No!” Baxter lashed out with the knife; sent its edge scraping across the frozen darkness between him and Emma Smith – a fallen angel; flesh and blood; a woolly-scarfed sacrifice to Ostrog’s final act of redemption. “No!”
Eyes closed, tears streaming in defiance, Baxter wrenched his elbow down; howled at the tearing pain in his shoulder. Smith fell to the stage in a dead faint and the other victims followed suit, like painted dominoes, their lives piling up, still to be lived.
For a moment, nobody moved. Broken silence filled the Pavilion. Then, breath heavy, each exhalation a puff of ice, Baxter turned his chin and set baleful eyes upon Mikhail Ostrog. “My name is… Baxter… DI Robert… Baxter!”
He straightened; threw his head back; and like a fountain of ice the beast erupted from within his chest. Upwards, it sped, back from whence it had come – through the cold, unblinking eye of the Pavilion and out into the world, leaving dark glass to cut its jagged rain on the audience below.
“No…” Mikhail Ostrog shook his head, staring in disbelief. “No!”
DI Robert Baxter dropped like a snowball; hollow mush; thawing himself against hallowed floorboards as the theatre proceeded to collapse around him. Distorted screams. A panicked exodus. Somewhere outside, a whistle blew; then another. Marbled columns came crashing down; broken white pillars; salt in the wound. Mikhail Ostrog strode off-stage; scratched around and came back; disappeared like Chicken Little beneath a falling hail of masonry. “Ah, feck!” came a lilting voice from far away across the auditorium.
Michael Ostrog’s redemption had failed – the killer still at large; the terror dispersed – and no longer did Old London Town hold its breath. In/out – shuddering wheezes. In/out – factories for lungs. The city now crawled with pimps and psychos – gutter vampires; yellow, Cheshired teeth gleaming while their switch-blades faded in and out. Stabbings ruled Britannia – everyone knew that. It was a nightly salute, almost; the red swathe of the Union Jack; and what of it if he’d let the Ripper free? Why pillock around with the past anyway, when tomorrow would be history enough?
Let the tabloids scream, Baxter decided. He had crimes to solve; murderers to catch; and as the Pavilion Theatre crumbled away to ashes and dust, it revealed behind its facade a grimy carpark. Tyres screeched on the road outside. Bass music pounded through the night. The city was throbbing in his temples – take it or leave it; for better or worse – an uneasy marriage, perhaps, but a union nonetheless.
DI Baxter closed his eyes and embraced that warm, familiar darkness.
They found him in the early hours, mobile phone clutched in his right hand; so tightly that it was broken – And this despite a dislocated shoulder, they said. Must have been some show.
Baxter sat in the back of the ambulance and coughed. His face was ashen; sooty. His coat reeked of Contreau and dope. Is the Pavilion Theatre somewhere around here?
The Pavilion? Never heard of it. Hang on a minute. Bill might know. Hey, Bill… Yeah, Bill says it was torn down years ago. Some joke, eh, Detective Inspector? Come on – we’d better get you up to the Royal London.
Baxter shook his head and grimaced – teeth like liquorice; a smile without warmth. For a minute there he’d been Jack the Ripper. He’d felt the bloodlust; the madness; a cold purpose that settled over him like frost. So much power – and yet still he’d fought. But why? Wasn’t it his duty to embrace the evil? Whatever it takes, the Commissioner said, and if the Ripper could be caught; imprisoned…?
Baxter found his lips twisting. Bollocks to that. Bollocks to noble gestures and self-sacrifice. If Michael Ostrog wanted to chase serial killers through the viscous fog of legend; well, let him do it. DI Baxter had several good years left on the force and already more arrests than the Ripper had top-hats and false moustaches. Shaking off the last of the thaw, he threw a glance in the direction of his dislocated shoulder. Just pop it back in place and I’ll be fine.
While the paramedic set to work, Baxter fingered the invitation to Michael Ostrog’s redemption and stared past his feet, meditating on the cracks in the pavement. London was a big city with death enough to go around: from Buckingham Palace to the Old Bailey and beyond; from the skyscrapers to the sewers; pimps and prossies, pushers and policemen; killers old and-
The paramedic stepped back and DI Baxter slipped down from the ambulance; feet landing on age-hardened cobblestones; hand to his shoulder as slowly he windmilled his right arm. A cruel wind cut through the streets of London Town that morning – the anonymous knife, rusted with blood but sharp along time’s edge; bringing with its passing the rankling stench of murders unsolved. A dark smile scythed across DI Baxter’s face and he walked grimly towards the Rover SD1. Jack the Ripper might still be free, but so was he, and so too at least one killer to whom he could place a name. Drained of life, Michael Ostrog’s invitation dropped to the ground; parched brown like an autumn leaf. Baxter stepped past it and into the future – it was time to pay a visit to bloody Dave Cohen.
About the Author
Jacob Edwards graduated from the University of Queensland with a BA (English) and an MA (Ancient History) and only left when somebody took away all of the good old photocopiers. He spends his time writing academic articles, fiction and poetry. Recently, he edited #45 of the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Jacob lives in Brisbane, Australia, with his wife and son.