Creatures of darkness
Amidst the shadows of the alley, the whore took another sip from the silver flask of whisky. She leaned against the darkness of a building while the alcohol burned through her. She eased her coat from where the toff's cane had struck her shoulder, but nothing would soothe the raw sting. And if the coat wasn't pressed tight against it, it left space for the wind to slip beneath. The cold was worse than the aching cut.
Still, the evening hadn't been a complete disaster. As she'd run from his hired room, grabbing at her clothes from the floor, she'd managed to filch the toff's flask. It was worth more than the money he'd refused to pay her, stinking bastard. The whisky would keep her warm til morning, then she could sell the flask, and find someplace out of the wind to curl up and get some rest.
The slim lane stretched in front her, layer upon layer of black. It was too narrow for carriages, and too fetid for idle pedestrians, so no one had crossed into its borders apart from Hannah. Darkness swallowed her entirely. The only forms visible were those silhouetted against the gas-lit cross street a blocks away. Even the sewer running down the middle of the cobblestones didn't manage to capture the moonlight. It was as if this was a place even light shied away from entering. But, it was safe for the moment.
From the frosty haze of the gas-lit street, a solid relentless coughing preceded a figure's unsteady entrance into the alley. Hannah watched automatically, checking to see if this was a potential customer. The rotting wetness of the cough didn't mean anything to her. Money was money, and tonight, for all her efforts, she had none. It was a fact of life she knew all too well, that beggars couldn't be choosers.
The faint light caught upon silvery thread embroidering a shawl, before the cougher was engulfed in obscurity. Hannah's shoulders slumped: part relief, part disappointment. The cougher was a woman. But as she watched, a shadow slipped round the corner from whence the coughing woman had come. It merged into the general blackness of the coughing woman's silhouette. Their forms froze for a moment, then with a liquid gurgle, the coughing woman sank to the street. There were no more coughs.
Hannah watched, silent, frozen. The shadow sieved through the contents of the dead woman's pockets then flowed up the lane away from her.
He had killed- the shadow, the man, had just killed-
She should do something. Tell someone
There was no one to tell.
If she screamed, if she tried
He would no doubt kill her too.
But to leave it, let a murder of all things, just let it slide-
Her feet began to follow the shadow up the lane. A half formed thought had arisen in her mind. When they got to the gas lit street, where there was traffic, there she could find someone, and they would catch him, and find the knife, and she would take them back-
Engrossed in these wonderings, she didn't notice at first when the silhouette she was following had disappeared. Then, she dared not take another step.
Her breath hissed in and out in the cold, searching the blackness.
A hand gripped her shoulder hard, squeezing a cry from her.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" His voice was low, a grinding of gravel. His hand shook her shoulder hard, stimulating another hiss of pain. "Well?"
"D'ya fancy a lonely girl on a cold night, guvna?" she gasped. "Special for you. 50p."
His hand pushed the coat off her shoulder. Examining the goods. The cut trailing down her back was exposed, her blouse stuck with the ooze of blood. The sight seemed to stall him. She had a moment to gather herself, push down the burn of the squeezed shoulder, push away from him, refasten her coat. She sucked at her flask with shaky hands.
"Nice big man like you needs a bit of lovin, ain't that right?"
Wiping her mouth on her wrist, she forced herself to meet his eyes. In them she found nothing but a void.
"Come on." He strode forward, and after a second she followed. He crossed the gas-lit street, disappearing into the shadows beyond. Her steps faltered.
Now, she thought, now, call out, people will come…
But the promise of 50p had locked its glittering hold on her mind. 50p would get food for her little brother. What was justice for a dead woman in light of that? Dead was dead. Hope only existed for the living. She cast one last look down the street, at the carriage men huddled around flickering braziers, at the lamp light trickling into the mist.
Her soul sinking into a sea of dread, she took one last swig of courage, and followed the man into the blackness.
"Here will do." The man's voice came to her before she had quite become accustomed to the gloom. Blindly, she slipped the flask into her pocket. "Take off your coat."
"Bugger off, it's freezing!" Hannah clamped her arms around her body. But her best intentions quivered and crumbled before the murderer's hollow stare. The coat dropped from her shoulders. She folded it carefully onto a crate, out of reach of the slime of the street.
Her body shivered as he pushed her up against the building's wall. Its bricks were a slap of cold to her stinging back. His hands began to grab and rub at her, and she pressed her cheek to the brick to avoid his lips. Avoid the rough moist reality of them, of his too-closeness, of his unwanted touch pressing deep into her skin. Still, his face raised to hers, searching for her more. She twisted to face the other side, fleeing.
And then she saw.
The crate was bare. Naked in the feeble light of the moon.
"My coat!" she cried. Her hands bunched before her to shove him away. "Someone's taken my coat!" She struggled harder than she needed to, for he was already backing away. Chuckling. His eyes had filled with the oily light of cruel pleasure.
It was then she saw the moonlight tracing silver threads in the shadows opposite.
That shawl -
"You're dead!" Hannah said, breathing hard.
She pushed her hands onto the brickwork behind, steadying herself. "I saw… he killed you!"
The woman's bitter, biting smile pierced through the gloom. "You didn't even check, didya? You walked straight past, you rotten swine."
"But-" Hannah began to shiver hard. She had seen the body lying in the street. Only…
The man loped up to the women, and she passed him Hannah's folded coat.
"Serves you right," the man said, throwing her a twitch of a smile, "doesn't it?" He slipped the silver flask from the furled petals of her coat. The thieves seemed to glow in its glittery presence, their smiles sinking deep into their faces. By contrast, Hannah was fading fast.
"Thank you very much, my sweetie." The man shot her one last glittering look. Arm in arm, the two thieves strolled towards the light, taking turns at swigging from the flask.
"Gimme back my coat, at least!" Hannah cried, clutching at her pimpling arms. The only response was laughter, trailing back through the misty night.
Back aching, teeth clattering, Hannah sank down the wall til she could lay her head on her knees and weep. She hugged her legs hard, trying to squeeze some warmth from them. It was useless. She had nothing left.
A fierce whistle tore apart the night.
"Oi! You two! Stop right there!"
Hannah's head raised like a ghost from a tomb. Hovering. Listening.
"Catch them! Stop, thief!"
Frantic footwork slapped the glossy cobbles. Silhouetted across the mouth of the alley, the thieves and then their pursuers ran. The shadows merged.
"Hand me that flask."
Hannah sat: a stone in the darkness. She could see the flash of the policeman's buttons, six bright beacons lined up straight as straight.
"Been looking for this flask all night," the policeman said, examining the shining treasure. "Mr Goff will be right pleased to get this back." The possie hauled the writhing thieves to their feet. The woman dripped with whines and pleading. The policeman looked her up and down. "50p for that old witch? That's highway robbery if I ever did see it." The possie snickered, faithfully shadowing the master's silhouette. "Come on then. It's down to Newgate for this lot."
The small crowd dragged the thieves away. The mouth of the lane was an empty stage. In its centre, an orphaned pile of ragged cloth drew the spotlight of Hannah's gaze.
She rose to her feet with the grace of an angel, the lead of her soul suddenly light. Her legs moved as if they were floating, her wretchedness fled on silver wings. She knelt, hands curling into the familiar folds of her coat. She pulled it over her shoulders; its hollow arms embraced hers like family. Her body responded with a tender, burning warmth. As her heart began to glow once more, she wrapped her arms around herself and disappeared into the night.