Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Nameless by Chris Castle

The Nameless

Jack Trump felt the coin burn in his pocket just as the midnight shift began in the factory. The penny, given to him in the trenches of Flanders by a dying soldier who understood magic, almost glowed in his palm. As the other men stumbled onto production line, Jack glanced out into the misty docks of London. Someone or something was inside those streets, touched by dark arts and once again besmirching the cobbles of the place he had fought so hard to defend. The manager called his name and he returned to the crew, his mind already working furiously at possibilities and plans.  
“What a place, eh?” his boss said, handing Jack his meagre wage packet. “Sometimes I look up from the invoices and play a game: which of them are drunk and which of them are hung-over. Two lines, except for you, Jack. Why is that?”
London prices don’t allow for many vices,” he said, smiling. His boss, a fellow soldier in World War One, was a good sort, even though he had a little too many luxuries in his life to ever fully trust.
“Apart from your trusty newspapers, eh Jack? Here, fresh off the press. Think of it as a bonus,” he said, pushing it over the table. His finger pointed to the story in the right hand corner.
“Another night, another murder in the streets.” He looked up to Jack and for a moment his eyes looked sad and tired, as if he were an old man and lost. “Sometimes, I wonder if London will lose as many citizens as we did over in the trenches. It seems to me like murder is as common as life these days.”
“Perhaps,” Jack said, lofting the paper up in lieu of waving. He left the man to his own sad ruminations and looked for a seat and a table at the nearby café. The penny glowed anew and he agreed with the idea of murder becoming almost a part of the routine in the capital; though in this case, he knew, it was anything but common.
The situation was almost as grim as the deed itself. A man, or something like it, was preying on the homeless of the city. Jack had heard such rumours for a long while and had the idea the crime may well have pre-dated the report. On his night-searches he had seen them, gathered around lit bins, rubbing their hands, hunched over the flames and saying nothing. It was their faces he recalled the most, how drained of life they had all seemed and defeated. The parallels to his own experiences abroad in battle were too close and he had looked away. How had this once great nation let so many become destitute, he wondered? And all in the shadows of palaces and parliament, for shame, he thought bitterly.
            The police had put the number of disappearances at nine, though locals voiced concerns the number was far greater. A politician had stood in-front of the press and given a statement, before bemoaning the sadness of their plight and the sadness the government felt at the unfortunate underclass. Several hacks noted how his gold cuff-links shimmered as he expressed his empathy and one actually asked how much the minister’s frock jacket cost before the press conference was swiftly drawn to a close, to an echo of muffled laughter amongst the associated press.
            Jack sipped a second cup of coffee as he noted the details of the case itself; how the men simply disappeared, without so much as a drop of blood. It was, one earnest street sweeper remarked, as if they had simply vanished. Upon interview, fellow vagrants shrugged at the idea of details or clues. They were, after all, strangers to one another, the nameless and unknown, smothered in the mists and kept at a safe distance from the respectable classes. He thought of the soldiers he had known, uneducated souls dismissed by all and sundry, who had fought like tigers on the battlefield, while former Oxford prefects cowered behind their maps and masks. As he paid for his drink, carefully slipping the one coin that mattered back into his pocket, Jack vowed to solve the mystery, as much for the boys lost in days gone by as for the poor souls of the streets.
Saturday night, Jack’s solitary night off, was when London came alive. All human life was here, he thought. From the gentry to the freaks, often together, each marvelling at the other in the back streets and the bars; one safe in the knowledge of escape at the night’s end, the other guaranteed at least a little weight to their purse and their pockets. He buried his hands deep into his pockets and stood to the edges of the revelry, his eyes wide open and his body coiled to repel any danger. Women, and then men, beckoned him and then taunted him after he waved them away. Smoke from the dens mingled with the fog, to make it seem as if all of London was a patchwork quilt formed of filth and debauchery. The occasional minister mingled amongst the depraved, extolling the virtues of the good book before succumbing to the painted nails of the women of the night, their ankle chains shimmering as they slunk into the supposed privacy of the dingy alleyways.
            At the fringes of all this were the homeless, collected around the burning steel drums, their hands cupped, what clothes they had drawn close. Jack stepped into the enclave and saw one or two of them flinch at his presence. He drew out his hands to placate them, though it did little to dislodge the weariness in their eyes. What had been done to these wretched souls, he wondered? The sorrow he felt ran alongside the rage that bubbled underneath his skin. As he plunged further in, Jack noticed another sensation inside of him; for the first time that night, he felt a certain peace, as if amongst his own.    
 “Who goes there?” A voice cried out from the mists. Jack spun round and saw a figure unlike the others come out of the smear of fog. The man was quickly upon him, eyeing Jack suspiciously. His body was rigid and firm, unlike the others.
“I mean no harm. I’ve come to investigate the disappearances,” Jack said, holding the man’s eye. The man flinched, as if at war with himself and then cleared his throat. His voice was commanding and yet there was no effort in it and Jack recognised a soldier, or at the very least, a leader of men.
“Yet, you wear no uniform nor strut like a peacock, like those other fools. You are not a member of the constabulary; I’ll credit you with that, at least.” He broke his stare long enough to direct one of the other men to a stove, where soup bubbled enthusiastically.
“I am…a concerned citizen,” Jack said carefully, aware he was not in danger but also confident secrets were being concealed in this place. Sure enough, the penny roared in agreement against his thumb.
“I see in you what I’m sure you see in me. Aye, I do. You’ve walked through the backstreets and the cobbles to reach here, no? You’ve seen what goes on in the early hours of this, ‘our great nation?’ And what do you make of it, friend?” His eyes lit and pierced any clouds around them. He appeared almost like a preacher, with some manic glint in his eye.
“I see no great nation, just a country all at sea,” Jack answered, weary of becoming embroiled in debate. For as long as he could remember, Jack knew only one undeniable fact about politics; it cultivated many questions but delivered few answers.
“Aye, we are at sea and the rich walk on water because the bodies of our boys who died on foreign shores float just under the surface. The downtrodden suffer while the rich indulge. Tell me, is that what we fought for?” Another gaunt man came close and was directed to the tureen. When he looked back to Jack, his eyes glowed even more furiously.
“I fought and I survived. I will not speculate on any other outcome or theory.” Jack waited until the man nodded, seemingly satisfied with his response.
“A rare man in London, indeed. Not only do you speak the truth but you hold a man’s eye as you do so. My advice to you would be to never pursue politics; they would have you committed for such acts of principal.”
“The lost men?” Jack said, feeling the white heat from the coin almost searing his skin now. For a moment the man almost flinched but regained himself in the blink of an eye.
“Were lost long before they disappeared and you mark me on that, sir. I keep watch as best I can but I am alone; charity is much like maintaining your principals, I fear: A solitary pursuit.”
“I could stand with you,” Jack said and again saw a momentary flicker around the eye. The guilt radiated from him, as it did with so few souls. It was a noble man’s curse.
“I appreciate the sentiment but I work alone with these fallen men. It suits us as well as can be. I will try to stop the disappearances as best I can. I thank you all the same, sir.” He drew back, the conversation ended. Jack extended his hand and the man took it.
“And if more do disappear, sir?” Jack asked, as he gripped tight. The man gazed around before looking one final time into his eye.
“Do you honestly think they would have gone to a place more infernal than this?” 
Sunday night was the most farcical at work, not that it could ever be considered a tight regime at the best of times. Coming at the fag-end of the weekend, men were strewn along the floor, some still clutching their barely concealed bottles, while others tried to smoke away the last lingering feelings of their crazed nightly pursuits. The boss himself was to be found slumped over his desk, the office cabin a haze of smoke. Jack worked for a solitary hour and then edged out into the London night. Once or twice a fellow crew man had seen him slip away and had done little more than wink; safe in the knowledge Jack was pursuing some ill-gotten gains, the same as the rest of them. Jack winked back, thinking-if only they knew.
While the others kept their bottles of housewives-ruin gin, Jack held his book of dark arts. The penny was burning with a ferocity he had rarely known and by the time he had reached the homeless men, Jack had drawn out into his hand and noted it burned brighter than the steel drums. He noted too, that the men seemed to have dispersed into corners, almost cowering around the bins cast to the side. Before he had time to think more on it, a great mass of darkness shambled into plain view, it’s body a stack of bones, it’s head lolling to one side. Wincing briefly, Jack steadied himself and walked toward the creature, the penny high in his hand, the book withdrawn and clenched against his heart.
As he drew close, Jack could make out the monster with more clarity. It had artlessness to it, as if it moved without drive or rhythm. Even though it towered over him, Jack noted there seemed to be little real power to it. Rather than coiled energy, it seemed to permeate a sense of lethargy, as if the bones were piled together haphazardly in the shell of it’s body and could collapse inward at any moment. Jack confronted it, the coin fizzing with power and for a moment the beast’s head was illuminated, though at no moment did it react, not even to the white heat. The face again was almost a collective; a half dozen wane features, as if composed of a battalion of rotten, defeated expressions.
“Stop!” The man said, stepping into the clearing. His hands were raised and for the first time, Jack thought he looked vulnerable. The creature stopped at the sound of his voice, as if under his command.
“This is what has claimed your men, surely,” Jack said, not for a moment lowering the coin, nor adjusting the book. Both were his shield and his armoury.
“Aye, it is,” the man sadly. As he reached them, he placed a hand onto the flesh of the monster and for the first time it seemed to react, the riot of flesh on its head tightening into a single look of peace.   
“You know?” Jack whispered, incredulously. He allowed a glance over to man and saw the sorrow and the guilt in his eyes. “Then what sort of abomination goes on here?”
“No abomination, sir, just…necessity.” He dropped his hand from the creature and concentrated on Jack, his face suddenly blooming with the idea of confession. “He’s one of us. We were here when he was born and we take care of him. We hide him and we…feed him.”
“Born?” The horror dawned on him. “The men…” Jack could barely manage to force the words out of his throat. He looked back to the mass of skin around the face and for a moment thought he saw dozen different souls swimming inside it. The truth drew up on him with a slow, rising terror.
“That’s right. We feed what we gave to birth to in this sorrowful place.” The man pinched his eyes and then seemed to summon an internal strength to continue. “He changed while under my wing. No doctors could cure it, no reason could define what he’d become. And I’d be damned if we took him out there, to the gentry, to become another freak to entertain the rich in their midnight circus shows.” The blood rose in him, the veins in his neck thickened like tubers.
“But how did he become…like this?” Jack darted his eyes back to the creature, dimly aware that it was passive now, little more than a servile pet. He looked over and saw the man swallow.
“The supplies…” he muttered, so low it was almost under his breath. He gestured with his hand to the huge soup tureen, bubbling in the distance. “No-one else had the same…symptoms, just him.” The wave of shame rode through him and his eyes watered. Jack made to speak and felt his throat dry. He took one step back and then a second.
“You fed them on…” he couldn’t finish the sentence. The man nodded solemnly and then found his voice.
“In the beginning, it was those who had succumbed to the cold or illness. Later…they volunteered, either for supplies or for…it.” Suddenly, the man looked impossibly aged, almost corpse-like and Jack wondered if he would fall there and then, into the dirt.
“This is madness,” Jack said, looking around to the cowering men, the burning bins, then back to the wavering man and beast. “This must end.”
“And then? What would you have us do then, sir? The book you clutch is yours and you believe in it. The corrupt preachers’ hold the bible and pretends to put their trust in that. The Koran says ‘let us draw a veil over our sins.’ That passage is the one I live by.” He looked up, hardened for a moment, the old strength returning to his eyes. “Tell me, what would you have us do?”
“But to eat the flesh…I must end this…thing. It threatens the safety of the nation,” Jack stuttered, feeling the hollow nature of his words. The man stepped back, as if distancing himself.
“And may Queen Victoria turn in her grave,” he said, fresh tears in his eyes as he turned away and walked over to the corner to find the other men.
Jack drew breath and gripped the coin harder in his thumb and forefinger. He pressed it against the forehead of the creature and felt a brief, all powerful scream from the dozen souls trapped inside the flesh. The book fluttered open, independent of him and fell open to the necessary page. Jack forced himself to read, the coin pluming sparks into the night sky as he did. After a time it was over and nothing was left bar dust on the ground. Finished, he turned and walked away, not glancing back to the men in the shadows, his head throbbing not with the act but lengths men would go to survive. The question swam in his head, repeating itself and gnawing on Jack’s conscience; what would you have us do?
As he made his way back, Jack drew his eyes down and away from the grotesques and the rich. He had no desire to bear witness to the luxuries the upper classes took at the expense of the poor. Once, he glanced ahead and saw a young woman, beautiful, between two fat men, famous from the stage. Her eyes were as sorrowful as those who swam inside the creature’s flesh and the men were more ghoulish than the selfsame beast had ever been. Jack Trump walked on aware the London fog was a cloak and a quilt to all that was devious and sorrowful in the world today. The penny did not burn, though he knew he walked among monsters.


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