It was by accident that I and Jonathan, poor, poor Jonathan, unleashed this plague upon our loved and regal London. Though criminals of the most base sort at the end of our association, we meant no harm with our actions. Two gangly street urchins from the East End, having grown to manhood on the other side of society and the law, we were merely seeking fast money; we longed to live in the north, away from the cloying smog and urban poverty that we knew, and were lazy enough to try and step into the clothes of the wealthy as one may don an actual garment. We had seen what fairly climbing the ladder got one; we had shiveringly looked into the sad, haunted eyes of factory workers who couldn't afford to feed their families, and knew of many agonized women forced by cruel circumstance to sell their bodies. We took in our drab, archaic surroundings, seeming a collection of stone tombs standing menacingly since the dawn of eons, with a mixture of terror, claustrophobic oppression, and hopeless despondency.
We had never been the most honest people, but we tried our best to do the least harm possible. We took only from men who looked as though they could afford it, and from shops and stores. God forgive us, we tried, but now there is the blood of seven people on my hands and six on the cold graveyard paws of Jonathan, whose death marked the beginning of the most shocking wave of violence ever seen by this ancient city.
Though wards of the street, we occasionally rented a room at the Avington in Whitechapel, a crumbling boarding house frequented by prostitutes and opium addicts. It was there that we, mostly Jonathan, hatched the nefarious plan that has brought this city so much grief.
It was in the late part of August, and we had just spent three hours outdoors in the heaviest downpour that the old men in the pubs could ever recall. We were soaked to the bone after having aimlessly wandered the city like restless wraiths. Never when it poured were we able to take it lying down, thus we usually walked as much as we could. We had actually known a chap who drowned after going to sleep in an alley during a squaw, and his bloated face when we found him the next morning haunted us every time the sky begot her bits of cold hatred, which is often in Britain.
We had endured too much to be bitter, but I was down and hating things something rotten that one night; Jonathan was his usual over gay self.
"If you want we can get a room at the Avington," he suggested as we climbed another unnamed cobblestone hill winding between tall, dark buildings.
"I suppose that's an idea; this damned rain doesn't appear ready to let up any time soon."
"Sure it is," he replied, "dry bed, lights…it'll be like a warm taste of heaven."
We agreed to part with a small sum of money for a room that night and the next should it be needed. We hiked through the city for another hour in the hissing rain before we made Whitechapel; every time we came upon a gas lamp our eyes stung like those of common nightfeeders.
"Say, what do you think of that Huffington chap?" Jonathan broke the deep quiet between us as we walked down an alley and through an unlit courtyard.
Much in the news that month before…the horror, Dr. Richard Huffington, a well-known and renowned expert of the highest stripe, had been found dead one morning in his study, slumped over a terrible work of satanic origin called the Nekronomikon.
He had recently returned from a long trek on the Continent, where he was said to have visited a number of odd, widely shunned regions in his quest for one supposed medicinal miracle or another. He had written several lengthy letters that appeared in the Times in 1886-7 describing his travels. He pushed ever eastward, and the last letter the Times received before they stopped rather mysteriously placed him in the deserts of Arabia.
He died not a month after his return, and beforehand it was whispered that he was changed from the kind, genteel man who had left in 1885; he supposedly refused to see friends and rarely left his study. One of the housekeepers, an older Italian woman given to superstition, fled the house mere days before Dr. Huffington died, claiming that she heard "weird noises" and inhuman voices murmuring lowly in the dead of night. On the night she ran screaming into the streets, she had distinctly heard a deep, demonic chorus chanting "Yog Sotth" or something to that effect.
While the bulk of her story was rightly dismissed, even some skeptics admitted that it was not uncommon for one passing in the street after midnight to observe queer lights pulsating from the darkened study. And it was undeniably true that animals acted strangely in that section of town after Dr. Huffington's return. In addition to dogs howling from dusk to dawn in frightful harmonies, one young girl says to have watched in horror as her pet Persian kitten desperately knocked its head into the parlor wall over and over until Death replied.
"A shame," I said as we emerged out onto the lane. The Avington was just down the way, the open door blocked by several women talking and laughing uproariously. I didn't really think that much on the subject. It was terrible that a man should die, and especially one who worked so hard to aid humanity, but frankly he was a mere name and face to me; a far removed species of man residing on a different planet entirely.
As for the Gothic aspect…embellishments, coincidences, and penny dreadful sensationalism, all of it.
"Well, I for one don't see it as that terrible, no sir. I have an idea, and a damn good one too."
"Oh? and just what may that be?"
"You see, I read in the paper that he was richer than Rockefeller, or at least he had a handsome sum of money…"
Jonathan trailed off as we reached the lighted doorway into the Avington and passed the women, who, we saw with a pang of apprehension, were talking with a bobby.
We paid the man behind the counter, a fat wobble with disgusting muttonchops, and took our key. We remained silent as we stomped up the dark stairs to the chilly hall. We reached our room, one that we had occupied many times before, and let ourselves in. We knew the layout so well that we didn't need an oil lamp.
"Well," Jonathan said as he plopped down onto the bed with a pleasured sigh, "I also heard that he was a bit of a miser when it came to his pocketbook. Such a pound Scrooge that he had them put most of his money in his crypt…"
The meaning of what Jonathan was saying hit me at once, knocking my head askew and ripping the wind from my lungs.
"You're not talking about…?"
"Sure I am, old man," Jonathan said placidly from the dark. "Why not? It's not like he's going to need it."
I shuddered, imagining ourselves as moonlit ghouls digging in the midnight land of the dead. "Who would have money buried with them, really?" I asked, hoping to tarnish his golden image.
"That's what I heard from Chommy Phelps. Said that he himself put a bag of gold in with the body."
"He's a liar and you know it."
"Maybe he is, but I'm checking this out no matter. Just think; what if the old man did have a lot of his money with him? You know how rich we'd be? We'd never have to see this horrible place again!"
"It is a wonderful idea, but it's foolish."
"It's perfect," Jonathan retorted, "had Chommy kept his mouth closed we'd never have known."
"And how many people has Chommy already told? Knowing him, it's gone now if it was ever there. And…why wouldn't he take it for himself?"
Jonathan was grimly silent.
"I'm still going with or without you. It may be a lie, but we can't just sit here twiddling our thumbs if there's even a chance. We've got to at least check."
"Okay," I finally relented, holding out a childish glimmer of hope, "but do you know what they do to ghouls?"
"Huh? Jail?" Jonathan laughed merrily. "Yes; I am simply terrified of going to jail. At least we won't have to live in the rain." He said the last almost bitterly.
"We'll do it tomorrow night, then. We just go in and see. If there's naught, then we come back home none the worse. But if we do find something…"
He trailed off, leaving the unspoken answer heavy between us. On the off chance that Chommy had actually seen real treasure rather than spoils of the bottle, we never would have to see the filthy East End again. We might not find enough to live in luxury forevermore, but surely enough to buy a little cottage in the countryside away from poverty and illicit drugs, smog and starving children. We could eat hot food every night, we could bathe often and we would be dry when the heavens opened up.
The glowing prospect kept me awake and giddy long after Jonathan had drifted to sleep.
The next night we stole into the street not long after the witching hour. The East End never sleeps, and no one took it as strange that two men should be out and about at such times.
"What would you do with your half?" Jonathan asked me dreamily as we strolled along to Chommy Phelps's house.
"I don't know," I replied, the prospect too great to consider. "Get something good to eat, for one."
Chommy was an older man in his early fifties with coarse gray hair and a large nose who lived alone in a small dirty hovel on the outer rim of the East End. We knocked on his door and at once he was there, handing Jonathan a crowbar with the words, "Here; I left the main gate open."
With that he popped back into the house like a trapdoor spider.
"Must be afraid of jail like you," Jonathan figured.
"Or maybe he's tired," I offered.
"Or afraid we'll ask him for some of his dinner."
Thereafter we hiked through the misty midnight streets, unconsciously sticking to the shadows outside of the dancing streetlamps. Many of the grand old shops we passed once we had left the slums were closed and dark, but a few were still lively by the lights within.
A pall of velvet silence pressed over us as we finally came to the wrought iron enclosing Highgate. There were no lights along that section of sidewalk.
We found the gate and stole into the moon-washed tract of hallowed ground. We crept silently along the walk leading past the crooked rows of archaic dead; the tomb was easy enough to find.
"Here, hand me the crowbar," Jonathan whispered as we went through the smaller gate wrapping round the crypt.
I handed him the crowbar and looked deeply behind me. My heart fluttered as I imagined the police finding us at our ghastly work. My stomach rolled as I remembered what some of our friends had spoken of as conventional prison. To see the horror in their eyes as they related brutal beatings, abject starving and…unwanted attention from the other men, was to look beyond the very gates of hell. For a second, as Jonathan at length discovered that he would not need a crowbar, I even entertained the idea of killing a meddling constable to avoid such a place.
"Here we are," Jonathan said happily as he pushed the door in. "Didn't think it'd be so damned easy." A cold gust of ghostly wind escaped the crypt and bathed us in slimy, fetid stink.
"Alright, let's hurry."
"Don't worry, old man; we have all night."
"I don't want this to take all night," I replied, "then there's more of a chance we'll be caught."
Following Jonathan's vigorous lead, I hurried into the swallowing dark of the crypt. The stone interior was bathed in a gothic fashion by the cold, silvery light of the moon falling through a very prison-like barred window on the far wall. In the gloom, we were able to see several concrete slabs arranged in no particular order.
Under the window, like an alter to a dark Old One, lay the incarceration of Dr. Huffington.
"Hey, old boy," Jonathan said as he approached, unconsciously wringing his hands, "and how're you tonight?"
"Shut up and let's get this over with," I whispered, looking behind me and through the threshold into the cemetery. I saw with something like horror that a man with a walking cane was strolling along the gate. He seemed oblivious to us, but if he were to turn his head…
"Okay, come and help me."
I went to Jonathan's side and at once we began to push the stone slab from the top with staining grunts and gasps. "I feel like a little child," Jonathan grunted as the slab slid a bit with a horrible stone-on-stone scratching.
"We've got to exercise more often," I agreed, my arms quivering and my shoulders afire with exertion.
Finally the covering slid off and crashed to the floor, exploding with the rocky blast of masonry.
"What in the name of God?" Jonathan drew from beside me, wispy air pluming before his mouth.
I looked into the coffin…
…and gasped. There were indeed no burlap bags brimming over with gold. There were no strongboxes enshrouding bundles of banknotes.
And there was no body.
I and Jonathan looked at each other. I was moving to speak, when from behind me came a heart stopping noise from the fieriest chasm of hell. My blood ran cold when I heard the soft shuffling footfall; we had been discovered!
I spun woodenly to face whoever had come upon us, and was greeted with a forceful slam to the face. The world was filled with a bright white fireball as I reeled backwards. The small of my back connected with the tomb and I tumbled into it head first.
"Hey!" Jonathan cried indignantly.
And then I heard a meaty smack and a grunt. "Bastard!" Jonathan screamed in agony.
My face throbbing and splattered in warm fluid, I struggled out of the coffin and to my feet where I reeled back and forth. Now, from a darkened corner near the threshold into the night, came the sounds of a scuffle.
Unthinkingly, I flocked to the broad, bent back of the attacker and rained down my fists upon it. Like an American cowboy I jumped on and threw my forearms around his neck. Jonathan was an abstract form on the floor panting harshly.
The fiend reared back, but I held on for dear life, my legs iron around his waist and my arms steel clamping his cold throat.
"Jon, get up!" I screamed as the beast stumbled back in an attempt to smash me into the wall as one would a pestering fly.
But before this could happen, the attacker stumbled over one of the other coffins and crashed down, pinning me beneath him. His weight was crushing, pressing me like a Salem witch. My arms and legs flailed and the beast was up.
Wasting no time, my surging adrenaline sprang me to my feet…and abruptly chilled to ice when I beheld the thing before me.
The towering fiend regarded me with two black, fiery eyes dancing with mindless, malicious glee; from its open mouth, framed by jagged yellow fangs shimmering cold in the dusty moonlight, radiated a hot, foul cemetery fetor. My heart leapt agonizingly when I saw in the moonbeam washing its face that it bore a stomach-churning likeness to Dr. Huffington; but with throbbing horror I saw that the gaunt, kind face was now twisted in a mocking parody of ravenous humanity. The corners of its mouth twitched up, and a shining sliver ribbon oozed down its ashen chin.
Though I loved Jonathan as a brother, thoughts of him fled from me along with whatever courage I may have had. I must have only seen the beast fleetingly (no matter how engrained onto my mind his terrible features are), for I was out in the night wailing like a lost soul in almost a literal snap. I cannot recall much through the fogbank God was good enough to allow me, but I can recall, in an abstract, far away fashion, leaping over the Highgate fence, so careless in my fear that it is only a miracle of Providence that I didn't impale myself.
Thereafter, there is nothing.
The first full memory I have after that night is of sitting in a Spartan room on a thin cot, talking to a short man with a beard. He was standing by the door with his arms crossed over his burly chest. The noises of the day began to assert themselves; from without I could hear the pleasant chirping of delighted birds and from within the clamor of many voices.
It was not like waking up; I did not suddenly find myself in a cold, frightfully unfamiliar place. It was more like…bleeding to the surface of a body of water. I knew the man to whom I was talking, but only in a primal way; I could not recall his name or who he was. I didn't even know what we were talking about.
"We've taken care of it," the man said, and sighed, seeming to sag. "I'm thankful that he did not do more damage. God knows he could have done much worse."
"Dr. Van Helsing really got him?" I heard myself asking through numb lips. My head swam, and I felt as if I were a metal and the bed a magnate. It was a titanic struggle to keep myself upright.
"Yes. He still doesn't know how Dr. Huffington…achieved the state that he was in. He says that there are cults still hiding in the forests of Europe who claim to have transcended death."
There was a long, awkward pause filled the sound of many muffled voices from the world beyond the threshold.
"I would say Dr. Huffington bought "immortality", but wasn't fully aware of the price."
"It's all our fault," I said shakily, my heart aching. I put my face in my hands to hide the tears spilling down my cheeks.
"Don't be foolish, he would have gotten out anyway," this man, Seward, I wanted to say, pointed out. "A daemon cannot be detained within a crypt. And had you not gone in there, we would never have stopped Jack the Ripper."