A Taste of Madness

The hunger was upon him again. He felt the urge, the need, calling him from the hall of dancers in silks and laces, from the dozens of ladies with their incessant chatter, from the ranks of nobility in their fine suits. Making an excuse about something he needed to do, he left the brightly lit hall where candles and lanterns flamed. He wished they'd use that new invention of the Americans, the incandesant lamp. Brighter, less smoke. Then, into the dark night outside, the smoky streets, or was the smoke just his imagination? He didn't know. Didn't care. Choosing a dark alleyway, he slowed his pace to a leisurely walk. There was the rustle of petticoats in front of him, he saw their owner as his eyes adjusted to the hazy dimness of the alley. Young, slender, yet deathly serious, she beckoned him when she saw the rings glittering on his fingers. He smiled ominously, and took her invitation.

"Another one?" I queried. I stared, disquieted, at the body of the young prostitute. She bore the same marks as we had discovered on the last two victims Ð extensive lacerations, bloody slits on the back from neck down, others following the ribs, one crossing the neck from ear to ear. It was a revolting sight. And as bad as the others had been. This latest one had been found by a very nervous young man, who had run to the police headquarters as soon as he had spotted it.
"Yep. The marks are in the same places, and there's the signature," the chief of police's comment brought me out of that line of thought, as he referred to the set of claw-like tears on the right palm of the victim.
"What's she holding in her other hand?" I reached down and opened her palm carefully, shuddering at the clammy flesh and took what it clutched. It was a ring, with a coat of arms engraved on it. It probably belonged to the killer, since the victim didn't look like she could have afforded anything of that value, or even stolen it. So it was a clue, the only one we had so far.

He'd made a mistake that last time. Let the girl take one of his rings. It wouldn't help the police, though. It was a stolen one, taken when he'd needed to get rid of some prattling heir. But his goal was accomplished: the hunger was quieted for now. He didn't know when it would come again, when that thing inside him would call, but he would answer. As always.

"I've been looking at the records of all coats of arms. The ring matches with that of the Duchy of Clarence," I announced to my direct superior. He looked unmoved, then tapped an envelope on his desk.
"This was slipped under the door during the night," Thatcher, the chief of the London police force, said. "Take a look at it." He handed me the envelope. I took and opened it, hands trembling nervously. Inside was a sheet of badly made paper (probably a factory reject) with several scribbles, one big red scrawl on it and three slash marks drawn, as if made by claws dripping with blood. Deciphering the scribbles took a lot of effort, but I finally figured them out. They said "There will be more," and the big scrawl read "Gentleman ," the last being a short name like Will or Jack. I wondered what it could all mean.
"There's more in the envelope." There was. I took out a piece of lace that could have been torn from one of the prostitute that had been killed.
"I showed it to Cooper. He thinks it's from the one who's been killing the girls on the streets," continued Thatcher
"The killer is sending us messages admitting he did it?" I was incredulous. After thinking it over again, I realized it wasn't so dumb after all. After all, sometimes it seems to me as if half of the males city are named Jack and the other half Will. Unoriginal parents, I suppose. But I still wasn't sure, somehow. I didn't think it was in the killer's personality to send messages telling us what he would do: the ring must have been an act of carelessness, perhaps the girl had been stronger than he'd thought, or someone had almost seen him killing her. It simply couldn't be part of an intricate plan to taunt us. I hoped.

He'd heard what had happened from a friend of a friend Ð who had a friend in the police force. Someone else had sent a note, claiming credit for his work. It was a good turn of events Ð now those poor fools would follow this false lead, leaving him alone when the time came, and the hunger arose once more.

Sitting alone at the main desk of the police station in the middle of the night, I thought long and hard over what I knew about the murders. I have never pretended to understand what goes on through a killer's mind when he performs the ghastly deed. I never could figure out what drove people to such heights of violence. Only, I hoped to find whoever was ripping these women apart and give him some of the same treatment. Except that I wasn't allowed to do that, of course: this man would be executed either by hanging, the guillotine or firing squad. I had night duty that lonely evening, so I was there when the second envelope slipped in under the door.

It had come again, that yearning for the acrid scent of another's fear, mixed with the salty scent of blood. Obliging, he took to the dark alleys and side streets of London once again, passing the murky Thames, in search of one who could assuage his hunger. When he came upon the young, innocent-looking bar maid, clad in a tight-fitting dress with a low collar and high skirt, he knew he had found what he seeked.

We found yet another body that morning, obviously killed by the same person. This convinced Thatcher even more that the murderer was sending us the messages, because the bar maid had been slain the same night as we got the second letter, but I thought the timing was fishy. After all, if the guy was out killing someone, where did he find the time to write and deliver that note? I knew there was something very, very wrong.
"Oh come on William Thomas Wenton. You have to go to this reception! Your aunt hasn't seen you in years and this will be her first opportunity! Besides, all of your relatives are getting suspicious because you didn't come to the last wedding," my mother scolded.
"I was sick!" I argued.
"Well, you aren't now, so you're going even if I have to drag you there," she declared. Obviously I was going to have to attend my second cousin's wedding reception. I have always hated family reunions, if only for the fact that there's so much family to remember! They're not very interesting either. I sighed, trying to think of a wedding present within my price range, and not really succeeding. This was going to be a long day.

An invitation to a wedding at St. Paul's Cathedral with a reception at one of the better manors had appeared at his door. He would go, of course. The groom was an associate of his, obviously expecting him to attend, and he also had to keep his social standing. Make sure no one suspected him. Ever.

The wedding was as boring I thought it would be, though there was a high point. I met this gentleman who was the friend of someone else who'd been invited, and he was very interesting. Most fascinating eyes Ð they looked almost like frosted steel. An unusual color for eyes, and the gentleman was somewhat unusual himself. While we chatted, I kept getting these very uneasy feelings, though the conversation was good. He was rather cold to me, though as I watched him he was rather cold to everybody, so I supposed it was just his nature to be cold. A modernist of sorts, he wanted technological progress. He mentioned it several times while we talked, especially mentioning that we should follow more closely in the Americans' footsteps. Also, it seemed like he was trying to hide something from me. A very weird sort of chap, but I kind of liked him. After the reception, I was unable to remember his name.

The wedding reception had proved most interesting. He had met one of the policemen investigating him, although this one had not known it. A very nice fellow, though if he ever found out who was the criminal, he would have to be silenced. In any way necessary.

My sleep was troubled with dreams the night after the reception. Voices and images flitted in and out of an inky void surrounding me, images of cold eyes staring into my soul, of bodies drenched in their own blood, cold laughter echoing through my head. For a long time I could not wake and exit the nightmare, as it seemed to gain control over me, through the flashes of blood-red candlelight, the swirling images and flitting voices. When I finally escaped, I heard Big Ben's deep bong in the distance. I was drenched in cold sweat and unable to go back to sleep.

I arrived at work very tired and with a terrible headache. I knew I looked horrible because everyone at the station stared at me when I walked in. Unluckily, the psycho who went around slaughtering prostitutes and the like had struck again, and I had to go with Thatcher to investigate. The sight of the body was too much for me. I ran to a nearby corner and relieved myself of my scanty breakfast, then sat down and panted. I was starting to feel faint and I hoped I wouldn't black out because then Thatcher would have my head for certain. I did, but for some reason he just sent me to my mother's house for a sick leave. When I got there, my mother fed me a very nice soup and put me straight to bed, with orders to sleep. The soup definitely had some sort of sleeping drug in it, and so I dozed off. The nightmares came again, and I awoke only to my mum's shaking. She was obviously very worried about me, because it was the first time I'd been seriously ill. I was kept in bed for a week.

Feeling better, I went to the station and was greeted with cheers as soon as I opened the door. It seemed that I had more friends than I thought on the police force, because there was a small party for me. We got down to business quickly, of course, because there was another victim, the first in a week. As if the killer had been waiting for me.

The pleasant policeman he had met at the reception had nearly recovered. This was what the hunger had been waiting for, it seemed. He was compelled to venture through the city's slums in search of suitable prey. As always, it was easy to find a young woman, alone and unable to defend herself. As always, the hunger was sated.

Looking at the body, I thought of that strange gentleman I'd met at the wedding reception about a week ago. There was nothing around to remind me of him but I thought of him anyway. Carefully inspecting the site, I noticed that, like the third victim, this one had something in her hands. Cautiously, I opened her fist and took what was inside. It was a crumpled piece of paper, with something written on it in a strange language that I could not decipher. Again I was reminded of that gentleman whose name I could no longer remember, though there was no reason I should have been. Finally, we left the site having observed all we could.

"Wenton! Come over here! I want you to look at this!" Shouted Thatcher from the next room. He'd been playing with mirrors and the note, and evidently had found something. I hurried through the door and nearly bumped into him. The chief of police was holding a mirror to one side of the note and another at about a thirty-degree angle above that and was peering excitedly at the second mirror. "Look at this: all the words are the same length in the second reflection. It's obviously a code of some sorts. Could you figure it out for me?" Of course, that was what he'd called me for, because I was something of an expert in cryptography. It was an extremely hard code to break, but after several tries I finally did.
"It says something like 'There is a master stricter than the most cruel of lords, and that is mine. Always I must obey, and can do nothing else. Each bloody deed demanded of me I must carry out, without resistance. I know I shall never be free from the horrible, I can't read the rest of it," I said, wondering what the note was talking about. It sounded really bad, like the writer was a slave to some terrible, bloodthirsty lord. Or thought he was: the note could have been by someone who'd gone completely 'round the twist. Then I wondered how on earth the author could have written it in that way. I was starting to feel very uneasy with everything pertaining to this case.
"That's a strange thing to write. Maybe it was just a joke on the part of the killer," remarked my boss, interrupting my thoughts.
"I don't know. I have a really uneasy feeling about all of this. I keep thinking that there's something I've missed that could solve this whole matter," I stated. The note made me anxious, somehow reminding me of the nightmares I'd had while I was sick.

Undoubtedly the policeman whom he'd intended the note for had found it. It had been damnably hard writing in that mirror-handwriting, but he'd managed. A new compulsion drove him now, and he must follow.

That night I had more dreams, as if suggested by the contents of the note. They were of being controlled by an incessant hunger, demanding always to be fed with blood, of murder after murder in the night in the smoky streets of the city, the hunger being the most cruel of all masters, shaping me in its image so that it and I were one, and would be forever. I awoke shivering with cold though I was under four thick blankets. And now I felt it, that hunger which had been in my dream now real, urging me to go out, to feel sharp knife-blade on tender flesh, while I fought the urge as hard as I could. And lost.

The next morning the full realization of what I had done the night before hit me. I had killed an innocent woman, slit her throat and cut her body in the same way as the other victims had been slashed. She would not be found, either, hidden away in a dark corner of the slums where the rats would nibble away at the body. I thought again of that man with the cold eyes and cold manner, wondering if if I told myself it couldn't possibly be, that just because the dreams had started after I'd met him, it didn't mean he was the murderer, the man in the night with the blade who ripped his victims apart. I decided to meet him.

Both hungers were now satisfied: he no longer felt the need to taunt the policeman or to kill, though he did not know how long that would last. He was very surprised when that agreeable young man came to visit.

Now I know the full story. Why he had killed those women -- oh yes, I was right that it was the gentleman with the cold gray eyes -- though I felt, when he started to speak, that I hadn't really wanted to know the story. How long it had gone on. The hunger's strength, its complete control. And now, I had had a taste of it, too.