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'The Fiend In The Clouds' by Neil Ayres

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

        - William Blake, London

Death has a scent. Christopher could smell it. He could smell it on the other orphans, and to his dismay he could smell it on his sister. She was still breathing, but her eyes were glazed and she couldn’t answer him anymore. He tried to get her to take the little dirty water he had managed to preserve, but she couldn’t swallow, and the precious liquid dribbled down her grime-streaked cheeks. He heard a key turning in the lock of the entrance to the orphanage’s great hall.
 
Whitechapel
If you stand here long enough, you can feel city's diseased heart beating, ever so slowly.


The rise and fall of it echoed the thrusting hips of the man I had been following, as he pumped his high-class semen into the Whitechapel doxy beneath him.


I had tailed the gentleman all the way from Mayfair, his grimy rendezvous with the prostitute being the climax of an evening's entertainment that saw him and me adopt a zigzag route across London. He strolled through Saint James' Park as a clouded night fell over the city, then made his way to the river's edge for a sight of the newly erected Needle of Cleopatra, taking the opportunity for a puff of his pipe. He hailed a Hackney carriage and I almost lost him, but luck saw me catch sight of him again in Holborn, where some accident had halted the traffic's progress.  


His penultimate digression for the evening was at an opium den in Islington, where I waited almost two hours in the cold before he eventually emerged and set off on foot for the east end. He appeared unperturbed at the danger inherent in walking solitary through these streets at night; no doubt thanks to the addling the poppy fumes or the ingestion of cheap Heaven had treated him to.


I was more wary, a-feared of the ragged residents who haunted, lifeless as ghosts, the sorry passageways we cut through. I struggled to stay close to my mark without him hearing the sound of my footfalls or the tap of my cane on the cobbles.  


As we turned down Brick Lane, both he and I were relentlessly accosted by ladies of the night, pallid creatures one and all, greenish-hued beneath the gas lamps, whether as plump as peas or stringy as runner beans.


My man selected an ample-bosomed temptress whose corset fought a losing battle with her bulk. As they set off together, I hastily made my excuses to the ladies clamouring for my attentions. I followed at a distance as my man and his new companion made their way into a lightless alley. I could hear coarse language and impatient fumbling. Overhead the clouds cleared for a moment, and moonlight framed the good sir and his Jezebel; him with his trousers at his ankles; her with petticoats awry and face-first over a market barrow, her only movements the results of her employer's emphatic shuddering.

Three married men of breeding—Lords Lennox, Stroud and Van Istmond—had been gruesomely murdered of late, in each case after nightfall and in less than wholesome parts of the city, following assignations with ladies somewhat beneath their stations in life.


The third man to lose his life, the Dutchman, differed in one important respect from his unfortunate peers, in that not only was his spouse aware of his engagement, she had actually encouraged it, hoping to take part in the intimate acts in question should her husband find himself able to tempt his new employee away from Whitechapel and back to the marital residence to the West, in Chelsea.


Ludmilla van Istmond’s late husband was a nobleman, whilst she herself is of Bohemian origin and, indeed, persuasion. Both man and wife shared the appetite of sexual predators. Her husband had spent the eve of his death, the Lady Ludmilla revealed to me most frankly, prowling among the lower echelons of London life seeking some poor wench whose charms he could later enjoy with the eager complicity of his wife.


I reveal these facts not from a haughty position of judgement—as it was by my lamented friend Dr Samuel Gull that I was first introduced to the Lady Ludmilla—but merely as points in the case. Although in investigating this mystery I am not entirely comfortable with Lady Ludmilla’s patronage, I am beginning to suspect the Van Istmonds’ depredations are some of the least sinister factors connected to the murders. It is also true that her credit is unquestionable and without it my own addiction for illegal duelling—the fire of it stoked anew in me following my release—would prove untenable.
So I am performing the role of investigator for guaranteed remuneration, and a tainted role it is, as I have these past few weeks been a voyeur of the most offensive vices and insults to liberty.


It is not a difficult task to find an aristocrat in London with a taste for the flesh of the less fortunate classes; one need only stand waiting on a street corner in Soho or St Pancras for ten minutes to locate one. My initial challenge was to decrease the potential targets of this night-stalker. Other than their class of living and the locations of their murders, the only common connexion between them seemed to be that all three victims had been married, but the wives, other than Lady Ludmilla, were un-reachable and would doubtless refuse to discuss their husbands’ affairs with me. Lennox’s wife had been taken ill following his murder and, contrary to her physician’s advice, had left Hatton Garden for the restorative atmosphere of the countryside, and Lady Stroud was out of the country altogether.


The three murders had all taken place within a restricted radius, the first two, those of Lennox and Stroud, in Chinatown and the third—Van Istmond’s—here in Whitechapel.

After my man had satisfied himself with the prostitute, he swiftly abandoned her. Occupied with thinking over the details of the investigation, I didn’t notice him approaching me until his voice reached my ears.


“Excuse me, sir.” His round and rolling voice was slightly breathy after his alley-bound exertions. “Have you the hour?”


Startled by his sudden appearance before me, I lowered my gaze from his small, watery eyes to the face of my pocket-watch. “It is past midnight,” I said.
He laughed at this. “One would hope we are safe enough now then, eh, post-witching hour? However I sense a certain unseemliness in the air. Would you care to accompany me to the Aldgate?”


We walked and made idle talk along Whitechapel road, my walking cane keeping beat with our steps, my man introducing himself only as The Colonel.
We passed Her Majesty’s Royal London Hospital and carried on up through to Aldgate, where several carriages awaited, the drivers chatting from the fronts of them.


“Where are your lodgings?” the Colonel enquired.
Hoping he would offer to share his carriage, allowing me to gain more time in which to probe, I lied. “Pitkin Street, just along from Marble Arch.”


He accepted the bait with alacrity. “Splendid,” he said, clapping a chubby hand on my shoulder. “I’m in Mayfair. Care to stop by for a night-cap?”


We climbed into the carriage, brushing aside several discarded copies of the evening’s Standard. For a man who had undergone such exertions in a single night, the Colonel was in remarkably fine form. The swaying and jerking of the carriage could have lulled me into a doze were it not for his laboured breathing and constant chatter.


“Brave souls, the two of us,” he noted.
“I’m sorry…?”
“Dangerous place for a couple of gents to be strolling in the early hours, especially what with these recent murders.”
“Murders?” I feigned ignorance.
“Surely you must have heard! Three killings in as many weeks, the victims all gentry. Every one castrated, eviscerated as though by wild animals, and then bled dry. Nasty way to go by any reckoning.”
“I had no idea,” I said, placing my cane beside me and adjusting my cuffs. “I’ve been away.”
“Really? Whereabouts?” the Colonel was different now, leaning forward and strangely eager for my response.
“Ah, the West Indies,” I lied again. It was the first reasonable thing that came to mind.


It seemed to satisfy him. He sat back, his head nodding like a jowly mastiff.
The carriage turned a corner as we remained in silence a moment longer. Then the Colonel surprised me by saying: “Why have you been following me all night?”

Battersea
By the time I returned to Battersea it was close to daybreak, but smoke from the power station hung over the city like infinite night. I walked across the new bridge from Vauxhall, past Mary Tealby’s Home for Lost and Starving Dogs, and to my rooms at the edge of the park. No doubt I remained rooted in the area out of a morbid sense of guilt. Why else would I stay so close to Wandsworth? My body was exhausted, but my mind was like a marketplace, with thoughts bartering, screaming their wares in such a raucous manner that I began to experience the earliest symptoms of a megrim. Thankful for the absence of light, I climbed the narrow stairs to my quarters.


I would have fallen straight into my bed, were there not a familiar figure lying upon it. For a moment it was the most natural thing—that particular body there—and my spirit leapt. Then reality boxed my ears as is its wont, and I realised this must be an intruder, for it could not be Francis. Francis was dead. I saw him shot. And I killed the man who shot him, resulting in my incarceration.
I drew my sword-cane, an unconventional weapon perhaps, but one always to hand. The body sat up, my blade at its throat. “What immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?” it quoted, in my lover’s voice.


I thought it certain I was dreaming, or at least hallucinating. “Who are you?” I demanded of my unexpected guest.


“Come now, Tiger, don’t play games. Surely you cannot have forgotten me already? It’s been less than three years since we parted.”


My sword arm began to quiver. I lowered my blade from the shadow with the voice of Francis, but kept it unsheathed.


“It is unlike you to keep such queer hours, Tiger. Have you some new bed-mate? I suppose three years is long enough for any man to grieve. Were our positions reversed, no doubt I would have fallen into the arms of some handsome consort long before now. Alas, such pleasures can no longer be mine.”


I sat down in the reading chair. “Francis, it has been a long night. I have been drinking and I am tired. I’m sorry to say I must be imagining you. I saw you dead and buried.”


“Of course you did. It was your fault, wasn’t it? That’s why I’m here, an uneasy spirit. ‘Remorse and shame shall cling to thee and haunt thee like a fevered dream!’”


He got up from the bed and walked to the dresser, where he found my matches and lit the lantern. The sudden flare of light meant my vision took a moment to adjust. When it did, I gasped. Francis was standing by my dresser, completely naked. The flickering light defined his body. As he stood he placed the used match back with its virgin brethren, an old habit that grated on my nerves even in the exceptional circumstances. The thing that made me suck in air though was his colour—he was completely black. Not dark-skinned like the freedmen you saw around the city, or the quadroons and octoroons who plied their trade as paid mistresses to high society, but black: the sky on a starless night, or roof tar.


When he looked up and smiled, I dropped my sword cane in fright. He seemed to realise what had startled me, and picked up the lantern, holding it up so the light illuminated his face. His eyes glistened with moisture, but they were not the beautiful blue I remembered. They were like charcoal, like cindered almonds. The straight, creamy smile that had helped him win my heart was gone, replaced by a set of perfect ebony teeth. Even his hair, long and once the colour of hay, was now pitch. I looked away and rubbed at my eyelids, but when I looked back he was still there, black as death.


“I always told you there was more to the human soul, Tiger, but you could never shake that atheistic conviction Shelley’s pamphlet instilled in you. Perhaps you believe me now.”


I stood and turned away, walking to the garret’s window and holding back the curtain. “Day will be here soon,” I whispered, as if it was night’s trickery that had me imagining Francis.


“Then I must depart,” he said.
“To go where?” I asked, guessing his answer.
“Why back to Hell of course. You don’t believe me do you, Tiger? You don’t believe in me. Look at me. I’m here, for now.” He was standing close enough that I should have been able to feel his breath on my neck.


I turned from the window and looked up into his eyes. I reached up a hand to stroke his black hair and to feel his dark, smooth cheek under my shivering fingers.


“You’re cold,” he said, with my fingers shaking not an inch from his face.
“Surely you are colder?” I said, and leaned forward to kiss him. Our lips touched and suddenly I could feel the heat from him—it burned, like a corpse on a pyre. I recoiled in pain.


“I’m not cold at all, Tiger,” he said.


I reached across to the dresser, looking for the decanter, for a drink to soothe my burnt lips. When I looked back, he was gone. The lantern rattled onto the floor, dripping candle-wax. The flame was out.

Kensington
I drank the contents of the decanter and finally found my way into bed, eventually falling into a fitful, restless sleep. I woke bedraggled and fatigued. A brief wash in stale water and a change of shirt saw me on my way for my appointment with Lady Ludmilla.


The smog to the south of the river is not generally as bad as it is on the north side, and winter sunshine broke through, transforming the water’s surface into a shimmering mirror. I looked at the upside-down banks in the water as I crossed it again. It was Sunday and the area I travelled through was subdued. I saw a few well-dressed families returning on foot from worship, but most were already home. Were it not for the events of the early hours that replayed themselves in my mind, the afternoon would have been serene. As it was, I was grateful for the company of the driver and his horse. I paid him extra for the fact, but did not ask him to wait for me.


The Van Istmond residence was a new and splendid townhouse. I walked up the steps to its entrance and rapped the eagle-headed doorknocker twice. An aged, stoop-backed butler promptly answered the door.


“Lady Van Istmond will be with you shortly, sir,” he said.
I followed him through to the drawing room, where I was surprised to find the Colonel.


“Well met, dear chap,” he coughed, rising to his feet from one of the drawing room chairs. He grasped my free hand between sweaty palms. The colour of his skin put me in mind of joints of mutton.


“The lady of the house is just refreshing herself,” he informed me with a wink.
The butler left us to one another’s company, returning to whatever duties occupy such men.


“Did you know the late Van Istmond spent time on the subcontinent too? I wonder, is that how the two of you became acquainted? Through his business?”
Whether I was made paranoid by my sleep-deprived state or daylight illuminated the Colonel’s flaws, I took a sudden dislike to him. His questions seemed designed to lead me down the dark alleys he favoured, and I felt truth to be a consumptive harlot waiting to entrap me. The Colonel released my hand.


I decided not to lie: a tactic of a small truth revealed to conceal the larger one.
“I never made Lord Van Istmond’s acquaintance. His wife and I met after his untimely death. I thought I explained last night.” I remained standing, my cane planted between my feet.


“Of course, my apologies. My recollection of last night’s events is a little fogged.”


The Colonel shoehorned his bulk back into the chair. “A fine day.”
I looked from the drawing room window. It gave a view over the spindly shrubs of the garden. I failed to notice the butler reappear, only heard him announce the presence of his mistress. Lady Ludmilla stood in the doorway, dressed in the bohemian manner, with loose jewellery and a flowing, embroidered dress of scarlet fabric.


“Gentlemen, how kind of you to come. Solomon, fetch tea for my guests.”
Tea was brought before Lady Ludmilla had remarked on anything more than the weather and a planned trip to Wessex. “Indian or lemon tea, Colonel?” she enquired.


“The Indian, if you please,” the Colonel said, his jowls bobbing enthusiastically.
“Tell me then, of your adventures last night. Have either of you made progress in uncovering news related to my husband’s demise?


“Why the look of surprise, Christopher? Surely you cannot expect me to place all my eggs in one basket, charismatic though it may be?” The Colonel is a well-practised investigator.”


It appeared that Lady Ludmilla was an even wilier woman than I had gauged her to be. She had tipped me off about his nocturnal habits and suggested him as prime prey for the killer, hence my tailing of him. No doubt she employed him and furnished him with expenses in advance in order for him to slake his deviant desires, and thus hopefully unwittingly uncover her husband’s murderer. For his part, the Colonel gave a colourful rendition of his night, involving footpads and peelers and other unsavoury encounters. I could not fault his facility for deception.


After a verbose fifteen minutes he excused himself, claiming some other engagement, and Lady Ludmilla dissolved her act of attentive excitement at his exploits.


“Barely one true fact did the Colonel reveal in that tale, my lady.”
“Thank you, Christopher. I am aware well enough the only investigative digging the Colonel undertook last night was of whore’s slits. His reputation precedes him. A shame then that the killer chose not to strike at such obvious prey”
Not only was Lady Ludmilla wily, her soul seemed as cold as her marble-pale complexion. “I have an engagement this evening, Christopher, but would you care to dine with me beforehand?”


I accepted the invitation as enthusiastically as my hunger dictated, but what followed caused my appetite to dwindle.


Lady Ludmilla tugged on a cord attached to the wall and a small bell jangled faintly from somewhere downstairs. “Solomon will have cook prepare us something, but first, let me tell you more about the circumstances surrounding my husband’s death and my suspicions of its cause. Perhaps it will help if I show you something first.”


Lady Ludmilla led the way up the stairs, first the flight to the living quarters, then further up through the bedchambers, where I noticed a room set aside for growing citrus fruit. The glow emanating from the lamps and reflecting off the foil was a contrast with the gloomy corridor. Past the fruit room we reached a thin, winding staircase leading to the attic, the door to which was closed before us.
“Other than Solomon, whose quarters are downstairs, my help does not live in. My husband and I preferred to put their traditional living area to… alternative use. Besides, you know how servants gossip. With my husband gone however, I may be required to revise this arrangement.”
Lady Ludmilla produced a key from the folds of her gown. “I hope you will not be offended by what lies beyond this door, Christopher.”
Before I had a chance to answer, she was turning the key in the lock. As the door opened, I smelled death.

Christopher heard the key turning in the lock. All around him was the smell of the dead and the dying. Orphaned children, the weakest of whom would receive no burial. The stronger children, the ones like Christopher, were also taken, intermittently. He heard rumours that they would go to serve in the new factories—many of these could still expect nothing more than death within a year.


The door opened and Professor Gull entered the great hall. His birdlike eyes swivelled in their sockets, above a large, crooked nose and thin-lipped mouth. White hair was barely visible under his cowl. Then his gaze fell on Christopher, and Christopher was saved. The Professor picked the boy up in deceptively strong arms and carried him away from the stench of death and decline. As his saviour strode from the great hall, Christopher heard the key turn again, locking in with death a thousand children less fortunate than him.

Slumped in chains on a stained blanket against the far wall of the room was a young woman. In the dark I could see that her wrists were bleeding and the blood dripped to pool and congeal on the blanket.


“She is dying,” I said.
“You can smell it, can’t you, Christopher?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“My husband and I did nothing to oppose or offend them—we pay our staff well, we look after the whores we employ too, feed them, give them comfort and tenderness for a night. Why, Christopher, why did they take him from me? I care nothing for politics; it produces only bloodshed and bureaucracy, but I want my husband’s death to be avenged.” Lady Ludmilla’s voice had grown terse and high-pitched.


The girl continued to bleed. I could smell the metallic tinge to her blood. “Lady Ludmilla, why is there a girl chained to your wall?”
“She is the one he wanted. She knows who killed my husband.”
“She has told you this?”
“She will tell you.”
“She can tell us nothing. I am sorry, my lady, but she cannot recover these injuries. I promise this though; I will uncover the killer and satisfy your need for revenge.”


I unsheathed my sword cane and crossed the room. I stabbed the girl through the throat with a practised thrust. Lady Ludmilla did not flinch, just watched with curiosity as blood seeped from the girl’s wound.


I told myself the girl’s misery was ended. I could not dwell on my meeting with Francis. After death, I am certain, there is nothing.


“Thank you, Christopher. If you are certain, so be it. You have my complete faith. Now I am hungry. We should dine.”
In my right mind I would have chastised Lady Ludmilla for her lack of concern for the dead girl in her attic, but my hunger was almost frightening in its aggression. I was happy to feast on a meal of spiced ham, pheasant, quail eggs and salmon. Then I left Lady Ludmilla to prepare for her ‘engagement’ and went to find a carriage.

Sailortown
“To Ratcliffe,” I instructed.
The driver looked slightly perturbed by my choice of destination, as if considering whether the fare was worth the risk, but in the end the promise of money won out.


Ratcliffe, or ‘Sailortown’ as it was known, was busier than the more genteel areas of the city on a Sunday, but it was still quiet, as liverish from over-indulgence the night before. The docks were littered with the effluvia of a hundred ships’ crews. Dogs roamed the wharves in packs with little regard for the people around. I walked along the Tobacco Dock and found myself at the Prospects of Whitby. This predominantly Catholic area enjoyed a drink to the Lord on any day of the week. Gin palaces are temples that do not hold the Sabbath sacred. The tavern sang with voices of Cockney, Irish and Romany alike, along with many visiting sailors, and as the evening progressed so too did a number of brawls.


A young woman sat down opposite me. “’Evening, gentle sir. I can see you’ve a troubled soul. What ails you?”
“Please excuse me, I’m in no mood to talk.”
“You can tell Mary, gentle sir. She knows you’re living in a world you shouldn’t be.”
I looked up then.
“A world tied to a wife and a life of duty, gentle sir. Why not let Mary ease your troubles? If you’re in no mood to talk, there’s no need to.” The woman reached beneath the table and began to move her fingers between my legs.
“I will ask you once more politely to please excuse me.”
The woman shrugged and stood. “Please yourself, gentle-sir. It’s your loss.”
I ordered another drink and scowled at the grooves in the table.

On the table were arranged various scientific apparatuses. Glass tubes and vials and iron rods to clasp them. Professor Gull sat opposite Christopher who was strapped with chains and leather bonds to his chair, which was fixed to the floor with steel brackets. He watched the professor fill a syringe.


“This may prick a bit Christopher, but I gather from Francis you’re not averse to a pricking.” Professor Gull inserted the needle of the syringe into Christopher’s arm and as the liquid flooded into him, Christopher felt the memories begin to seep away—first he was swimming in them: night-time, moonlight, passion, aggression, warm meat, blood, slaked hunger, calm—as if in a whirlpool, then he could only wade as they washed away like an ebbing tide—Francis finding him in an alleyway, washing his naked body clean of blood. Professor Gull coming to make him forget: forget the orphanage, forget the smell of death; forget the killings. But one memory always returned, that of his sister, dying, her life taken by them, by the slave-traders. The men he sought and killed, men like Lennox and Stroud, the aristocrats he tracked to Limehouse, who made their wealth upon the bodies of the dead, and Van Istmond, who took children from the orphanages for reasons of an unspeakable and unforgiveable nature.

Someone else sat opposite me. I stood; ready to leave, thinking it another prostitute.


“’There is a smile of smiles…’ Do I offend you so very much, Christopher?”
Francis wore a heavy, hooded jacket. His hands were gloved but his black eyes shone in the gaslight.


“I am a fiend, Francis,” I said.
“My love, that makes two of us.”
“Why was it kept from me?”
“Would you have agreed to Samuel’s experiments had it not been?” No one else in the tavern appeared to be paying much attention to us. I looked over to the door to see the prostitute leaving with a drunken docker.


I sipped at my drink. The memories were so fresh.


“It was never motivated by greed, Christopher. Samuel and I wanted to bring to market something that could oppose the decaying effect of the poppy, and strengthen the Empire; strengthen its stretched military. Something home grown, to help the country, from its underbelly up, as it were, and if we could profit in the process, all the better.


“Samuel heard rumour of a boy at the orphanage, who survived happily enough on the flesh of his less fortunate brethren. Seemed to thrive in the presence of death. Was a beast. Ah to bottle that, Christopher—to be able to sell not only a lack of conscience but a love of killing and a disregard for one’s own mortality. In the years we were together, that is what we lived on, the scraps of Samuel’s crown-funded research. As you well know, those scraps were gold-plated. No wonder I loved you so dearly. Samuel and I were little better than paupers before we found you, as he squandered nearly all we earned on opium.


“But oh, those same scraps have sent me straight to Hell.”
“I must have run mad, sitting here talking with a ghost.”
“With me dead and not around to tame you after your rages and keep my brother’s addiction under control, it’s no wonder you both began to unravel at the seams. The God that has forsaken me alone knows what has become of Samuel. No doubt he is dead in a gutter somewhere. But if he is, why has not yet his warped soul sought me out?”
“Goodbye, Francis. Possibly I will see you again soon.”


When I reached the door and looked back, he was gone. I stepped to the riverside and walked along to the spot where the gallows stood and the hangman’s rope had until only recently swung and, keeping my promise of retribution to the Lady Ludmilla, I stepped off the platform to fall to the water below, to let the Thames flood me, with memories and with death.

 

 

Neil Ayres is an author and digital producer. He has had more than 30 pieces of fiction published, including stories in two award-winning anthologies for Elastic Press and an audiobook read by Christopher Eccleston for Tate Modern. He shares - and even occasionally contributes to - a blog with sometime collaborator Aliya Whiteley, who's a far more successful novelist than him: http://veggiebox.blogspot.com 

 

Neil's enhanced ebook app, The New Goodbye, featuring the novel of the same name, plus a music video, illustration and photography, can be downloaded from iTunes for free: http://bitly.com/newgoodbye
 

Read the Run Riot Interview with Neil Ayres, where he talks Science Fiction, Social Media and eBooks.