July 6, 2018

The Devil of Dorset Street - A Thirty-Three Short Story

“This little story is one of mystery, murder, and blind vengeance. It involves three siblings in the East End of 19th century London working for a eccentric doctor to improve the community and do their father proud. History may be missing the details, as it often does, but the truth is much darker, much more... entertaining.”
-Randolph Midian

Wiping the sweat from his brow, John Wallace tried to rush through his otherwise delicate work. It was difficult to see though, as the moon shown barely a sliver and his only illumination came from the ambient gas light several yards away in the nearby street. He wished he had not worn so many layers, but he was not accustomed to working so late and the normal chill of the September London air seemed less so than usual. Perhaps it was the stress of the job getting to him, though.

“That Truman bloke better keep paying like he promised,” John grunted under his breath as he fumbled with his task. He was pressed for time and tried to quiet his panting to avoid being disturbed. Although a butcher by trade, John was not particularly skilled with a knife, despite having been at the business for many years. Nonetheless, his recent night shift assignment carried a promise of significant overtime wages and he was more strapped for money than ever. His younger brother and sister were burdensome, but even into their adulthood, he still felt a deep sense of responsibility for them since their father had died when they were children.

He paused and wiped his brow with his sleeve again, grumbling quietly to himself in monologue, “It’s all for the best, John. The money’s good. Do it for old dad. Do it for Jacob and Jackie. Truman’s good for it.” A fine spatter of blood streaked across his face, sending droplets into his right eye. “Ugh,” he groaned softly, rubbing at his face. The conditions of his night job were far less favorable than the already toiling conditions at the butcher shop. Nonetheless, he continued, quietly reminding himself of his motivations as he worked.

Finally portioning out the cuts of meat his employer had requested after what seemed like hours, John sighed in relief and wrapped them up in paper. He methodically wiped his hand with a rag from his back pocket and packed up his butcher knives into an old leather case that had once belonged to his father. He never knew the case for what it had actually been though, which was a clergyman’s travel case for mass. Though the vessels and altar cloths had long since been discarded by Vicar Michael Wallace after he abandoned his holy orders, the case, which was simply sturdy and practical, had remained in common use for some time, carrying tools and anything else he might have need of.

After John had haphazardly tossed his knives into the case, he carefully laid the packs of meat inside next to them. Though the packs held little value for him, they were apparently of great worth to the eccentric Doctor Bennett Truman—so much so that John estimated he could pay off all the family debts within the next two months. He pulled himself up to his feet, dusted off his knees, tugged his hat down over his brow, and headed off towards Truman’s office. The case gripped tightly in one hand, John pulled his gloves back on with his teeth as he rounded the corner from Hanbury Street to Wilkes, nearly running into Jacob, who had been wandering the neighborhood looking for him.

“Oi, John. I been lookin’ for you all night. Been at the job?” said Jacob at an uncomfortable volume with little discretion to his name.

At thirty-one, he was only about two years younger than John. However, he had always been a good deal slower than most folks, and he was what his older brother often affectionately called “thick.” Even his appearance spoke of an unkempt and inattentive man of much younger and more reckless years. His hair was straw yellow and shaggy, always slightly matted, and his clothing was functionally thoughtless at best—plain trousers and an often-stained shirt. He wore shoes that squeaked and idly parted the front sole with his toes whenever he sat still for more than a few minutes. Although he was not a bad-looking fellow in general, his face did betray his mental handicaps behind a boyish fa├žade with a slight drag that gave away an almost childlike ignorance.

John shoved his brother lightly against the wall. “Shush, Jacob,” he said quietly and with a professional calmness, “I did the job already. Going now to drop off Truman’s packages.” He glanced casually around the street and took a step back from his brother, “These are hard times, you know. If you got a good job, you don’t want to go announcing it to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, now do we?” He leaned in to Jacob with a tired half-smile and whispered with his hand dramatically blocking the side of his face, saying with a comical hush “Besides that, ‘tween you and me and the wall here, I ain’t that good a butcher. All the boss would have to do is talk to another shop across town and we’d be out of a job in two shakes.”

The two men were almost polar opposites in appearance, almost as though John were the father and Jacob the son. While Jacob’s appearance smacked of a young stable hand, which was his part-time job during the day, John was more shabby-genteel, with waistcoat and long-ago-pressed black trousers. He had a slim but respectable wardrobe that he took great care of, but after so many years of wear, now shown several holes and fraying edges.

Although John did value his appearance, his wages allowed only for second-hand, moth-eaten vestiges of gentry. Even his hat was worn nearly through in places and his dark hair was so infrequently groomed that it stuck out from underneath when he failed to maneuver it carefully enough underneath the brim. His face still bore the worn countenance of a patriarch though, with a sculpted nose mounted between chiseled cheekbones and heavy brows that would produce a menacing gaze were it not for his nurturing smile. His labors and stresses had put many more years on his face than the thirty-three he would claim in the next month or so.

Jacob shoved his brother back playfully, chuckling, “Oh, stop it, John. I bet you’re the best butcher this side o’ London.

John smiled contently. Jacob’s kind innocence never failed to comfort him and bring his mood up from whatever concerns weighed on his broad shoulders. He continued to walk, nudging his brother with his elbow to follow. “There’s also the, uh, element of discretion too, remember? Our employer, he ain’t the most up and up, you know?”

Jacob twisted his face in confusion, “But, he’s a doctor, ain’t he? I mean, he needs them cuts o’ meat for his studyin’ an’ such.”

“Well, yeah. That’s what he says, and it ain’t our business past that. And, the work itself is good work. But,” John said, slapping his brother affectionately on the shoulder, “you know the bobbies won’t see it that way. They got rules against this kind of, well, stealing.”

The brothers chatted casually while walking for several blocks. While Jacob had a bad habit of neglecting where he was going and subsequently getting lost, even after growing up in the streets of the East End, John very carefully studied his surroundings at all times. They were heading for Doctor Truman’s office to get paid, but it was a rather secluded location, looking only like a modest home to the casual observer. The doctor claimed to need his privacy and that not having a public practice allowed him more time for research.

They stopped in the street at the first flagstone of a short walkway that led to an old two-story house whose exterior was so neglected that most passersby assumed it abandoned. John turned to his brother, saying thoughtfully, “Now, you just wait outside here, okay?” Jacob started to protest, but John swiftly cut him off, as if expecting an argument, “It’s just for the business, Jacob. It ain’t anything personal, honest. The doctor’s a strange bird and I don’t want to risk getting him jittery.” Jacob nodded sheepishly and planted his feet on the sidewalk. John patted him on the shoulder with a smile.

After John knocked a special code rhythm, the front door opened abruptly and he was greeted by a cold and accusing face with dark eyes peering sternly at him from behind gold-rimmed, amber-tinted spectacles. The doctor was a comely man, by general standards, of perhaps a well-preserved middle age and of an always stiff posture and unforgiving countenance. His skin was almost unnaturally perfect, free from crease or blemish, as if his aversion to public activities and nearly unmoving features sustained his statuesque appearance.

Doctor Truman jabbed at John with a sharp and insincere greeting, “Good evening, Mr. Wallace.” The corners of his mouth quivered almost too subtly to notice as he made a futile attempt to alter his expression to match the social convention of his words. “Please, come in,” he said flatly, as he stepped aside and gestured his guest into the sitting room. His blue-gray suit was finely pressed and looked like it was fresh from the tailor, totally unmarred by fade or wear. With every movement he seemed to effortlessly adjust his posture and garments like each passing moment was carefully rehearsed and flawlessly executed. Although his manners were technically impeccable, his presence was painfully unnerving and his stare both chilling and discomforting.

Meanwhile, Jacob, still out in the street, had drifted into idle pacing in short order. His attention span seldom allowing for more than a few minutes of committed watchfulness, he was already kicking loose stones idly around the sidewalk and clicking his tongue impatiently. A while later, the sound of the front door closing brought him back to soldier-like attention. “John!” he thoughtlessly exclaimed while waving.

John sighed, rubbing his forehead, and hurried out to the street to quiet his simple-minded brother. He carried his tool case in his left hand, now somewhat lighter, and a small leather bag in the other. “Come on, Jacob,” he said in a hushed tone, “let’s go home.”

Jacob, finally remembering the discretion his brother had urged, forced his voice lower, “You get paid?”

John held up the bag and shook it to make the coins inside jingle and smiled to reassure him.

With an exaggerated frown, Jacob replied, “It don’t look like much. Did he shortchange you?”

“Oh, no, dear brother,” John said in a comically erudite manner, unable to suppress his excitement as he opened the bag to show Jacob his spoils. “M’lord hath indeed paid handsomely… for a job well done of course.” From the small opening shown several gleaming gold sovereigns.

Jacob’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped as he stammered, “Th- that ain’t what he promised… i- is it, John?”

“Way more than he promised,” John replied proudly, tucking the bag into his jacket, “But, the good doctor says he’s got some more jobs for me and he called this a ‘retainer’ of sorts. And,” he clapped his arm over Jacob’s shoulders, “he said he’d like you and Jackie to help out too.”

Jacob grinned, but then wrinkled his brow and said, “Oh, that’d be great. But, we don’t know nothin’ great ‘bout butcherin’. I don’t even know how to pack the meat up proper, and Jackie… well, you know she’s so excitable.”

“I know, I know,” said John, with calming reassurance. “I told the boss that too. But, he insisted that I have help, to ‘spread the work around’ he said. I’m not sure why, but for this much coin, who’m I to ask? Besides, I’ll teach you everything you need to know, and the doctor ain’t too particular as long as he gets the cuts he’s looking for and we keep it all under wraps.” John paused for a moment, then cautiously added, “I, uh… I also already brought Jackie along on the first job, you know, last week.”

“What?! You took her, and you didn’t tell me?” Jacob exclaimed, genuinely hurt by the exclusion. He was the middle child after all and naturally had always felt somewhat alienated in one way or another, despite his brother’s best efforts to the contrary.

“I know,” John continued, “I’m sorry. We weren’t sneaking behind you or anything, and I didn’t want to leave you out. Honestly, I didn’t plan on taking her at all. It just turned out to be in a different part of town, one Jackie knew better, and she begged to go. You know how it is when she gets something into her head.” He gripped Jacob by the shoulder firmly, “I promise though, you can do the next job.”

John’s younger brother lit up as his frown turned instantly upward, “Really? All by myself?”

“Well,” John answered, “I’ll have to go with you, show you the ropes and all. But, yeah, you can do the work yourself. It’ll be just like portioning a pig, like I showed you in the shop a while back.” He patted the lump of coins in his inside breast pocket, “It ain’t exactly honest work, but I think you’ll enjoy it.” Nudging Jacob with his shoulder, he added, “And, aside from the coin, you’ll be doing old dad proud, won’t you?”

Jacob grinned wider, excited to think of working with his brother and of all the money they would make, “Yeah, dad would be proud, wouldn’t he?”

Throughout the rest of the month the Wallaces enjoyed the spoils of John’s new night job. He still toiled away at the butcher shop while Jacob worked as much as he was allowed at the stable, and Jackie working as a part-time maid at a lodging house. While John still felt responsible for them ever since losing their father in ‘sixty-eight, the three of them actually looked after each other quite well and even managed to keep each other out of trouble, which was no small feat in those days. Attractive young women like Jackie were often pressed into working the streets, but John always did everything in his power to see that they had at least enough money to keep a bit of bread on the table, and Jacob had quite literally beaten off with a club more than one aggressive advance to his younger sister over the years.

Jacqueline Wallace herself was no delicate creature though. Despite her thin and graceful frame, she was lithe and energetic and within her burned a roaring passion that, on calm days, manifested as an almost theatrical flair for the dramatic and, on particularly tumultuous days, showed itself in rebellious, if not violent, expressions of temper to those that crossed her. She always managed to hide her willful passions behind a demure mask of femininity—an easy thing to do with her creamy skin, smooth bone structure and long, dark curls that were prone to fall playfully over her bright and welcoming eyes. She had always been the baby of the family and still owned the title at the age of twenty-four, with her older brothers always wrapped around her delicate yet deft little finger.

Doctor Truman requested three other night jobs during September and they were outside the district, further south of the East End. Expenses were paid in advance, and the good doctor always paid more than he had promised on delivery of the product. On one occasion, John attempted to find out a bit more about his employer. However, the only information he could cautiously extract from the stoic figure was that he was a physician from Devonshire that had left his practice there, coming to London to research the “ailments and pathology of the unfortunate urban commons,” as he himself phrased it. Given his generous wages and the Wallaces’ current living conditions, that was enough to satisfy John’s curiosity.

Although the Wallaces had heard spotty rumors of their own wealthy relatives, most of which had immigrated to America, they themselves lived in the manner typical of the “unfortunate urban commons.” The three of them shared a very small residence that was owned by the butcher who employed John. It was a minimal and shared space, but it was more than some others had. Life generally hung by a thread until Doctor Truman seemed to appear out of the fog like a specter.

John did not know why he chose him in particular, but as he had already told his brother, he did not consider the details to be any of his concern past delivering the orders and getting his wages. In those days, an honest day’s work for a good wage was too valuable to question, even if it was technically a night’s work, and not terribly honest either. The Wallaces thought it for the greater good though, considering what had happened to their father, and John tended to dissuade any rousing doubts from his brother and sister with his patriarchal influence and touting the credibility of Truman’s dignified title.

One night, towards the end of September, as the autumn chill was starting to set in, Jackie burst in to their common room, her face alight with mischief and the day’s paper waving about in one hand. “Look it, boys! We made the paper!” she squealed with wicked glee.

John, who had just gotten off work at the butcher shop and was still changing out of his stinking work clothes, walked over confused and grabbed the paper out her waving hand. He murmured out loud as he read the headline, “What? They printed a letter. Who wrote this?” Continuing down the page, he began to read a letter that was sent in to the paper and reprinted for the public, “Dear Boss, I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they won’t fix me… I am down on whores and shant quit….” His eyes grew wide and flamed with rage as he flung the paper across the room, nearly smacking Jacob with it.

John rushed upon Jackie like a mad beast, grabbing the giggling young woman by both arms and screaming, “What the hell have you done, girl?! You wrote in to the paper? What were you thinking?”

Jackie stifled her impish laughter into an intimidated whimper, “I- I didn’t give any names up. It was just a bit of fun, you know? They keep printin’ about how active them stupid coppers are and I jus’ wanted to….”

“Do you know what you could’ve done?!” John roared at her as his grip tightened and he shook her. Her hair fell over her face and he flung her back to look her in the eyes, “You gave them Jacob’s name! And, you used the word ‘doctor’! That could give away Truman and we could lose the job! Are you daft, girl?”

Jacob, who shrank into the corner as he often did during any argument amongst them, picked up the paper, mumbling, “She put my name in the paper?” He sheepishly spoke up, pointing at the print, “Oh, it’s ok, John. She didn’t write my proper name, just my nickname.” As he looked back at the paper, he mumbled to himself, “Can’t say I fancy the title though…”

Jackie smiled innocently at John, “See? Jack don’t care none,” and tried to wriggle out of his grip. “Jack” had been Jackie’s nickname for Jacob since they were children. Although John never used it, Jackie called him by that name exclusively, both as a term of endearment and with a subtle edge of sibling mockery.

Just beginning to come to his senses, John loosened his grip on her arms. He shook his head, frustrated, and growled through his teeth, “Jackie, why would you do this? Do you even understand what you’ve done?”

“I jus’ wanted to shake the police up a bit. They been so puffed up over these jobs of ours, sayin’ they’re ‘gettin’ close’ and they’ll ‘catch him any day’ and all that rubbish,” Jackie proclaimed, waving her arms around mockingly. “They don’t have no idea,” she shouted defiantly, with the spark of madness in her eyes that flared up any time she became overly excited. She calmed herself again in an attempt to look apologetic, “Please don’t be cross with me, John. It’s only a bit of fun. It don’t give them nothin’ to work on, after all.”

Jacob, who had slowly and without any notice of his siblings shrank back into his corner in a seated position, added softly, “If dad were here, he’d say the Wallace devil would come for you, Jackie.”

Jackie scoffed and stuck out her tongue, “Oh, come on, Jack. Don’t you think we’re a wee bit past dad’s old stories?”

“I just mean... I don’t know,” Jacob mumbled, “Anytime you put family in the way of it. That’s why dad told them stories.”

Fuming, his mind racing through possibilities and trying to regain his paternal composure, John sat down in his rickety wooden chair and rubbed at his forehead. The creaking of the chair coupled with the mention of the “Wallace devil” brought back memories of his father sitting him down in in his old chair and telling him stories. John believed it had always been merely some old folktale that his father had twisted up a bit to be a family legend, likely just to scare the children into sticking together and minding their parents. The story went through a slightly different iteration every time his father told it, almost as though he had a hard time remembering it himself. The basic premise of the stories, however, always remained the same.

The Wallace family was said to have a devil, a sort of boogeyman, that always watched them, waiting to snatch up any unsuspecting victims. As most stories went, a witch or some other villainous character (the stories varied on who exactly) had sent this devil as a punishment for the sins of some distant ancestor. It watched every child as they grew up, remembering their deeds, and when they became an adult, at a certain age, it would take them and eat them if they had been bad. Being “bad” usually was represented in the tales by acts of disobedience to parents, being cruel to one’s siblings, stealing, and other mischievous things that were painfully commonplace for most children.

John’s mother, who had died giving birth to Jackie, never knew much of the stories as they were unique to their father’s side of the family, but apparently went quite far back in history, as his father claimed. Where the stories differed though, and the reason John was particularly put off from the mere mention of them, is in the passionate way his father told them to him specifically, as well as the personal details he included. He seemed to have left such disturbing details out of the stories he would tell Jacob and Jackie, saving them in earnest for John, being the oldest and most responsible of the three. According to Michael, especially when his children would misbehave and scoff at stories of the Wallace devil, he himself did not believe the stories when his parents told them to him either—that is, until the day he supposedly met it himself.

Michael claimed to have encountered the Wallace devil in 1858 when he was thirty-three years old. He was the vicar of a small church on the outskirts of the Whitechapel district at the time and John was barely three years old. As the story generally went, he was heading down to the river to bless a newly constructed cargo ship, although occasionally he thought he might have been going to the shipyard to administer last rights to an ailing laborer—his memory of the details had always been dodgy. Regardless of what sent him there, he always rushed to the more frightening parts of the story, when he was attacked on a moonless night by a large, diabolical monster, with huge arms, long claws like a lion, a head like a great crocodile, and eyes like death, black and lifeless, like a doll’s eyes.

Michael said the beast killed two other men and nearly destroyed a small warehouse trying to get to him. He claimed to eventually escape it by luring it to a large loading wench on top of a roof, which the beast became tangled in and swung off in a ravenous fit of rage, sending it plummeting into the waters of the Thames. It splashed and howled, but being entangled with the thick cargo rope bonds and weighted with the heavy wench pulley, quickly sank beneath the surface while being carried away in the current.

As John became older and more skeptical, he began to question the more fantastic elements of the story, asking if it could have been a wild animal that somehow got into the city or perhaps a person trying to scare him. The more his son dissected the story though, the more Michael seemed to swing to extreme, superstitious explanations, almost as if the memories haunted him with some obscene guilt. He claimed it was a devil sent from hell itself to take him, and that it was the encounter, shaking him so violently to the core, that caused him to give up his collar and exile himself from the Church. He had believed himself unworthy and that the beast was proof of God’s judgement of his sins.

John came back to his senses, having fallen into a bit of a stupor thinking about the possible damage Jackie had done with her dramatic indiscretions. Jacob and Jackie were still arguing, she with her fiery temper alight and gilded with mischief and he with a simplistically base grasp of language and rhetoric unsuccessfully trying to take up John’s side of defense. Their older brother pushed himself up from the creaking chair and said, “Wait now, just hold on.”

The two childlike adults stopped mid-breath and looked at their brother. John, having regained his composure, continued, “Jackie, this letter is totally off, foolish beyond what I can even say.”

Jacob pointed at his sister and cut in, “See, Jackie! I told you, you was out of line.”

Jackie slapped his hand away in an instant like a cat swatting at a bird and sneered at him, “Oh, shut it, Jack. Let me...”

Waving his hands calmly downward, John interrupted again, “Hang on, Jacob, just hang on. Yeah, she was out of line.” He picked the paper back up and straightened it out to look at the printed letter again, saying, “But, this letter’s got folks and the police thinking there’s some single bloke out there running around like a madman, not us three doing good work for a doctor,” he paused for a moment and looked back up at them, “and for old dad.”

Jackie smiled wide and gleefully launched herself onto Jacob, wrapping her arms uncomfortably around his neck from behind, “See boys? I do have brilliant ideas!” She squeezed her arms together as Jacob’s face reddened and his eyes bulged. He pulled at her wrists, but Jackie playfully held him tight without regard to his breathing, adding, “And, see there, Jack? You’re famous now! How ‘bout that?”

John sighed and dropped the paper into his chair. His judgement on Jackie’s mischief was only half genuine. He was really still quite anxious about the whole ordeal, but also understood that the damage had been done and there was little to do but turn his siblings’ energies to a more productive ideal. As long as no disapproval from the good doctor fell on them, they should be safe.

The next day, John received a telegram from Doctor Truman asking for his “immediate audience,” in his typical manner of formality. John, assuming the worst repercussions from the newspaper incident, rushed to the doctor’s residence, fully prepared to issue the fullest and most sincere apology and do anything to provide reparations and keep his lucrative night job. He was shocked upon entering Truman’s office though, when he was unusually well received.

The doctor not only praised John’s most recent deliveries with singular enthusiasm, but also commented on the outstanding work of his sister in “public misdirection” with her letter to the paper. John, somewhat dazed by the unexpected turn of approval, chose not to tell the others, for fear of them taking it as glowing encouragement and pushing Jackie in particular to further carelessness. Not only did Truman offer his approval, but he also gave John and his associates another job to be completed as soon as possible, even going so far as to recommending that he give his brother more chances to put his hand to the trade. So, John took the doctor’s word to heart and hurried home to discuss the matter with Jacob before getting straight to work that night.

The next weary morning, the two men came home after the night’s work, both somber and somewhat defeated. “Jacob, I don’t know what to say,” John sighed, following his little brother into their modest room. Jacob was silent, ashamed, as he shuffled to his bed and sat down, staring at his feet. John was always easy on his brother though, in part because of his dullness, but also simply because he had always been protective of him since they were children.

“I’m sorry, John,” Jacob forced out in a meek voice, “I got nervous, and didn’t know what to do.”

Rubbing the back of his neck while lowering himself into his chair, John was mostly glad Jackie was out at that moment, as she tended to rib Jacob harder than he could sometimes tolerate. “It’s… it’s probably fine,” he said in resignation, “The first one was... well, I don’t know. At least you didn’t get caught. And, the second one will probably be acceptable.” John lifted his tool case and set it on his lap as he patted it, “I’ll just have to see what the doctor says about the product. Leaving the apron, though... that was real thick.”

The next day, the doctor did reluctantly accept the Wallaces’ delivery. Although he was not terribly pleased with Jacob’s skill at butchery, he claimed he could make use of the meat in his research nonetheless, making the strange comment, “I suppose the spirits are always willing, even if the flesh is weak.”

The doctor’s next job though, would be the last and, oddly enough, he required that it be done specifically by John on the night of November eighth. His reasons, which were not very forthcoming, supposedly had to do with certain chemical compounds that he was preparing and something regarding planetary alignment. The date carried no immediate significance to a simple butcher at first, and the ambiguous explanation seemed unusual for medical science, but John’s mind was simply more fixed on the matter of his employment. He was particularly concerned that the doctor’s real reason for it being the final job was due to his brother’s sloppy work and thought of little else except trying to get back in Truman’s good graces, at least until he arrived home with the news.

“The eighth?” Jackie exclaimed, with a gasp of dramatic desperation, “You can’t do a job on the eighth, John. That’s your birthday.” She stomped her foot and slammed down the hairbrush that she had just been dragging through her dark curls, “You know I always do somethin’ special on your birthday! And, it’s your thirty-third too.”

John, remembering the date that held little importance to him personally but was always auspicious to Jackie for some reason, replied apologetically, “Right, I forgot. Sorry, Jackie. But, you know how the doctor is. He’s very specific. And, after the last job, we’re lucky to get any work from him at all.”

Jackie argued and pouted over the issue for a few minutes, but the reminder of little to no extra wages during the month of October put the issue to rest. Things were always tough in the city, and winter was the toughest. The autumn chill was steadily wrapping its boney fingers around the East End. The poor and the hungry only stood to get poorer and hungrier, and Doctor Truman had offered to pay double his usual wages for the final delivery of meat specimens. So, the Wallaces all agreed that John should handle the final job and hoped the doctor might have more of his strange work for them in the future.

A few weeks later, John found himself packing his tool case and wrapping himself in hat and scarf for a cold night on the job. Jackie, who had just come in, stopped him, “John, are you sure I couldn’t come ‘long with you? I know it’s a delicate thing and all, but I’d like to have a hand in makin’ dad proud, you know, one last time.”

“No, Jackie,” replied John, sympathetically, “we already talked about this. It is a delicate thing, and we don’t want extra hands in the job that don’t need to be, just in case.” He patted her on the shoulder and smiled, “Don’t worry, you’ve already made old dad plenty proud. I think we all have.” Looking back at Jacob, and still holding Jackie’s shoulder, John added sternly, “Just see to it that neither of you go writing anymore letters, though. That last one nearly did us in.”

Jacob looked down at his hands that had been fidgeting with his dilapidated shoes and murmured, “Sorry, John. I just wanted in on the fun is all.”

John shook his head and tugged his hat down to his brow. He sighed and headed out into the alleyway. It was just after midnight and the night was bitingly cold with a light rain having just started to prick his face like frigid needles.

He had already chosen a mark for the job. John though, had stretched the truth for his siblings, telling them that the doctor had specifically ordered them to target the unfortunates for his research. John thought it lent credibility to the job and served the purpose of convincing Jacob and Jackie that the work was “good work.” In truth, the doctor had issued no such particularities. In fact, Truman made a strict point of nondisclosure between the two of them—he made the orders and John filled them, and that was the extent of the information they exchanged.

The largest source of nagging guilt for John—while he believed without question that the work itself was an upstanding project—was what Truman might actually be doing with the deliveries. While it was true that he did use the phrase “ailments and pathology of the unfortunate urban commons,” it was in no way in a compassionate context. The doctor was always cold and distant, almost spitefully stoic in a way, although his manners, in a strict sense, were impeccable. Nonetheless, if ever John were to begin to question the doctor’s motives or agendas, he would simply remember his father and that the end justified the means.

Michael Wallace, although once a respectable clergyman in a small parish, fell on desperately hard times after Jackie was born. He had already given up his collar a few years prior to his wife’s death, supposedly stricken by a kind of mania after his encounter with the “Wallace devil,” which he told no one of save his immediate family. Whatever it actually may have been that drove Michael from his faith, he could barely enter a church from that time on and took to doing odd jobs as a general handyman around town for his meager wages.

When his wife died, he was desperately afflicted with grief. John, who was only nine years old at the time, had to grow up quickly just to help the family survive. Their father took to drinking to escape his grief, occasionally screaming out in a drunken stupor from nightmares about the devil. With his drunkenness, his work suffered and so did the family. What little money they had went first to the bottle, then to prostitutes, which their father began to frequent in the hopes of filling the desperately empty hole left by the death of his wife.

John remembered well the night his father was killed. He was thirteen and Jackie was barely four. He was at home looking after his brother and sister, already exhausted from the work of keeping the house. Their father came in stumbling drunk with a woman holding him by the arm. She was completely sober and seemed to be leading him rather than the reverse. Although he had often come home with women, John would never forget that particular one, a strangely enchanting, if not haunting, image.

She was dangerously beguiling, even to a thirteen-year-old, like no other woman he had ever seen in the city. Her long, black hair seemed to dance around her shoulders like wine pouring from a bottle. She wore a spotless, scarlet red dress that her body moved seductively under, like a snake gliding insidiously beneath a silk sheet. Her face was exotic and tanned, like no Englishwoman he had ever seen, with dark eyes and a seductive smile that she mockingly tilted in John’s direction one final time before sequestering into their father’s room with her staggering benefactor.

The next morning, John went cautiously into his father’s room to wake him, hoping he would be sober enough to go to work. What he walked into though, was a sight that gripped his soul and would be burned into his memory for the rest of his life. His father lay, still half clothed, spread out lifelessly on his bed. The sheets were soaked red with his blood that had poured from a nearly perfect, razor edged gash across his neck. His eyes were still open, glazed over, and staring blankly upward, fixed in a look of terror. The pockets of his trousers were turned out, all the drawers in the room dumped onto the floor, and the window left open with a cold breeze blowing in through the dingy curtains.

John thought of that image from his childhood every time he set out to work for the good doctor. Truman asked for certain parts for his medical research—research that had something to do with curing what plagued the struggling people of the East End. For John, there were no plagues worse than drunkenness and whoring women. That was the good work he knew he had to do, and it took little convincing to also talk Jacob and Jackie into the idea. Any doubts they had about it were even more easily resolved with a minor distortion of the facts involving what the doctor had specifically asked for and what he hoped to achieve with his research.

As John passed the butcher shop where he toiled in the daytime hours, he saw something inside the darkened window out of the corner of his eye. Stopping only briefly out of unconscious reflex, he nearly dropped his tool case at what he thought he saw. There was a woman in a scarlet red dress standing inside at the huge chopping block where the owner kept a cleaver embedded and ready for use, her long, black hair draped gracefully over her shoulders as she stared out of the window. He pressed his face against the glass, straining to see, but suddenly realized that it must have been a trick of the shadows in the rain. There was only the block and cleaver, behind which hung a red-stained butcher’s apron and pair of dark gloves.

John shook his head and rubbed at his eyes. He assumed it must be nerves and fatigue getting to him. Ever since late that afternoon things had been peculiar and confusing. He had heard noises that no one else heard and glimpsed deceptive figments out of the corner of his eye. Embarking on that final and most important job, it was no wonder his nerves would be shaken and whatever minor disturbance tugged at his mind during the day would only be exacerbated. He resolved to ignore the phantom along with any other illusory distractions that might arise and press on unhindered.

The job itself turned out to be easier than John had even intended. His mark lived just off Dorset Street in a single-room flat and was known for being loud and a heavy drinker. When he arrived at the corner of Dorset and Crispin, John used a vantage point that he had already staked out to watch for passersby. He saw her in the street talking to a neighbor for a few moments, then she headed towards her room alone, presumably for the night. Like clockwork, John casually strolled down the street and into the courtyard. He spoke to her in his most unassuming and friendly tone, offering to pay her the money she had just asked to borrow from her neighbor in exchange for her services. She accepted his offer and the two were safely inside her room in no time.

Shortly after John set to work on the hapless woman with his sharpest knife, a light scratching came from outside. His victim had already been silenced by a swift slash across the throat, but he paused for a moment to make sure they were alone. There was an old coat hanging over the window as a makeshift curtain and John pulled it aside to peek through. There must have been a strange fog that came in with the rain that night, because the foul smell of sulfur suddenly crept in, singing his nostrils. As John looked back at the woman laid out lifelessly on her bed, he felt an unexpected surge of energy rise through the core of his being.

He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists as sweat broke out all over his face in an instant. “You’ll never do it again,” he growled instinctively through his teeth. John was normally a well-composed and pleasant man, seldom losing his temper nor even speaking without thoughtful consideration. But, the meticulously woven curtain of his composure fell away in that moment and revealed the animal lurking underneath the kind face of John Wallace.

Launching himself across the room, John became a ravenous vulture landing on a carcass, his knife a vicious beak tearing through still-warm flesh, his fingers the rending claws holding his feast tightly, pulling pieces apart. “You’ll never do it again!” The words erupted from between the gaps in his stained teeth sending spittle in a mist over his quarry. Unlike the previous jobs, which he executed methodically, if not necessarily skillfully, this was an act of passion. He ripped and tore apart what once was the resident of the tiny room, painting its walls and soaking the bedsheets with crimson spray. The delivery requests of the doctor were little more than a nagging suggestion in the back of his reeling mind as it spun wildly out of control.

Blood began to saturate John’s coat and pants and the spatter began to mix with the sweat that poured from his face. His eyes burned like fires from hell as every thrust of the knife ripped deeply into the woman in red that haunted his memories. It was an act of violent retribution against a phantom of John’s mind enacted on an innocent, one that continued in grueling ferocity until his actions were halted suddenly by a raucous banging on the door.

The sound was strangely arrhythmic, like an odd number of monstrous clubs pounding on the old wood planks, nearly breaking them in. John panicked silently as he knelt over the bed, blade in one hand and a fistful of mangled flesh in the other. Then, the knocking moved with an inhuman swiftness, up along the outer wall, to the roof, over the window, and around the back until it was over the bed, just above his head. It paused for a moment, then there was an enormous crash from the outside that sent dust and debris trickling from the ceiling.

John’s breath was rapid and although he kept his body frozen still, his mind raced and he panted uncontrollably. All in an instant he wondered if the police had found him out, if the letters had given him away, or if maybe even the doctor had set him up. But, he also tried to process the wild nature of the attack on the structure—sounds that could not be human, perhaps that were not even physically possible. A low growl rumbled through the air itself, like the hissing of a crocodile and rolling snarl of a lion echoing from every direction. The stench of sulfur enveloped him like thick fog and his instincts drove him to a mindless urge to run.

Knife in hand, he leapt to his case, carelessly dumping everything he had into it, and dashed to the door, thrusting it open and almost ripping it off its rusty hinges. John held his hat down with one hand, running at full speed, and slammed into a figure that was lurking just outside. She cried out in a loud shriek as they both fell to the cold, damp ground. John quickly pushed himself up and saw Jackie under him, stricken with a look of fright.

“What are you doing here?!” John bleated out.

Jackie, just realizing that her brother had knocked her down, started to laugh and said, “Getting’ a bit messy this go ‘round, eh brother?”

John threw himself to his feet and looked back over his shoulder. Throwing a wild-eyed gaze back at Jackie, he asked again, “What the hell are you doing here?! Did you follow me?”

“I just wanted in on the fun,” she asked, raising to her feet and trying to knock the dirt off her dress. “Looks like you did that whore a dirty one,” she added with a grin and a fiendish glint in her eye.

Jacob also emerged sheepishly from the shadows a few feet behind her, “Sorry, John. We just wanted to see you work this last job, maybe help out again.”

John wiped the sweat from his eyes as he panted, “No, no... you don’t understand. There’s some- someone or something out here.” He looked around the otherwise empty courtyard frantically.

Jackie looked around, but saw nothing more than he did, “What are you on about, John? You lost your nerve?”

A wisp of smoke curled upward through the light mist of rain from behind Jackie. John leaned around her to see the stones of the courtyard seeping up a thick, black ichor that sizzled and seemed to corrode the ground. The sulfur smell again permeated the air and Jackie twisted her face in disgust as she spun around to see what her brother was staring at, “What’s that awful smell?” Jacob too stepped back and snorted in disgust.

In a matter of moments, the sludge and spreading decay ate away at a large section of the ground, stones crumbling like caked sawdust in a fire. Jackie had to jump away to avoid the blackness that consumed the footing underneath her as an enormous, twisted limb erupted from the acrid debris. It was like the arm of a huge ape with long, sickle-shaped talons that came crashing down on the solid ground just before another like it came slinking up through the black corrosion. The terrible appendages dug deeply like iron spikes into the stone blocks of the courtyard and hoisted the massive bulk of an inhuman head and shoulders.

It was already difficult to make out what the thing was in the flickering gas lights from nearby Dorset Street. But, as it wrenched itself from whatever hellish void it originated from, the lamp flames wavered inside their glass hoods from an inexplicable wind and snuffed out, leaving only clouded moonlight to illuminate the dreadful scene. Jackie was petrified with shock, groping behind her for Jacob’s arm, and tried to mumble something to her brothers through quivering lips. John squinted and desperately tried to focus on the thing.

John strained his gaze to see what his eyes were fixed on, but the thing only became harder to look at. As it climbed to a vaguely bipedal position like a lumbering primate, its whole form seemed to oscillate and pulse, like it was blurred, a phantom seen just out of the corner of the eye. The harder he tried to make it out, the more unfocused his eyes became, straining in a pained effort as one looking at a bright source of light. It was a half-real specter, fully present, as the ground cracked under its immense weight, only not fully observable, like a diabolical flitting shadow in the misty rain.

Under the dim crescent of moonlight, they could just barely make out the grotesque and hulking form. The gaping maw full of sharp teeth dripping foul ichor, like a monstrous crocodile, the bulging eyes, black and hollow like death—like a doll’s eyes. The air was choked with a terrible, burning sulfurous stench that assaulted every sense, even invading their mouths with an acidic sting. All in a moment, years of skeptical disbelief fell away in crumbling shambles under the impact of the spectacle that loomed over him and John whimpered softly, “The Wallace devil...”

The beast’s jaw drooped open slowly and let out a long rolling hiss that again echoed from every direction and seemed to scrape at the inside of their skulls. John, finally freeing himself from shock, grabbed a stupefied Jackie by one arm and darted down the alleyway, calling Jacob to follow. He was pulled in the opposite direction and nearly knocked off his feet as Jackie resisted. Turning his head to call out to her he looked back just in time to see the beast’s huge claws already clamped down on her arm. She screamed for just an instant until it swung its other gargantuan arm around and clasped a hand that was almost vaguely human in shape over her entire head, the force knocking the breath from her chest.

John dug his heels into the cracks between the stones of the street, yelling as he pulled, “Jackie, no! Come on!” Jacob fearlessly launched himself onto the beast’s great arm. He felt her body jerk and twist as she tried in vain to pull free of the thing’s iron grip. The beast looked down at her, tilting its head in animalistic curiosity. Then, it lunged forward with inexorable force and flung Jackie aside by the head, ripping her arm from the socket and sending her body crashing into a nearby brick wall effortlessly, like a child tossing a ragdoll. It swung its other arm, flinging Jacob in the same direction and sending him into the wall headfirst with a loud crack of his skull against the bricks.

John fell to his feet in horror, watching his beloved family crumple to the ground in lifeless heaps. The beast dropped the Jackie’s arm into a puddle and slowly turned its misshapen head towards the cowering figure on the ground. While it had flung Jackie as one would carelessly toss aside a discarded garment, it now peered at John from the abyss of its dark eyes with a singular and thoughtful intent. He kicked madly, still struggling against the paralyzing shock, and scrambled to his feet. A predator seeking its prey, the beast leaned forward and lunged towards him hungrily with its hideous maw agape, bellowing noxious, acidic fumes. John turned and ran.

Turning the corner onto the desolate street, John grabbed a lamp post to avoid slipping on the wet stones. As he fled, he looked around hopelessly for anyone who might be passing by. But, it was late, and even the whores he would have pleasurably cut down were no longer walking the streets. He shoes beat down hard on the sidewalk and he looked back just in time to see the beast bounding after him, running half on its enormous front claws and half on its hind legs, but almost shifting violently in and out of focus. In the distance, John heard a woman scream at the sight, but the spectator obviously fled as soon as she had uttered the sound and was nowhere to be seen.

Halfway down the block, John spotted an alleyway and turned down it, the soles of his shoes skidding on wet stone as he nearly lost his footing. There was a ladder that led up the tall building with no other perceivable means of escape. He flung off his coat in the hopes of better maneuverability and jumped up several rungs of the ladder to grab the highest one he could. The sound of plodding footfalls pursued close behind as he clamored with all his strength up the cold, wet iron bars.

Clawing his way desperately to the roof and struggling to hold on by the tiles slicked with rain, a crashing noise erupted from below. The thing was climbing up after him, digging its powerful claws into the bricks and twisting the iron ladder as it pulled itself upward towards it prey with focused intent. Stone and iron seemed to crumble under the beast’s touch rather than break, instantly rotting away under its corrosive presence. In seconds, it vaulted its huge form up onto the opposite neighboring roof, peering at him menacingly against the dark of the night sky. Before John could think of what to do, the thing launched itself clear over the alleyway at him. Without a conscious thought, he let go of his grip on the tiles and slid off the roof, just catching himself with one hand on what remained of the mangled ladder, dangling two stories up.

The beast crashed through the roof entirely, plummeting through the ceiling and the second floor, sending a plume of dust and wreckage into the misty air above. It howled, not an anguished cry from the fall, but a frustrated roar of mad voracity. John knew the thing was probably not dead, but merely slowed down, if he was lucky. Using the slick wetness of the iron to his advantage, he clumsily slid down the twisted bars while rust scraped and sliced his hands open along the way.

When he got down far enough, John let go and fell on the hard, stone ground. His ankle folded over sideways under his weight, making a horrible crunching and popping sound as bones broke and tendons snapped. He choked back an agonizing scream, clapping his hand over his mouth in an attempt to not alert the beast to his location. Leaning against the wall, soaked and limping as the intense pain shot up his leg like lightning, he tried to pull himself to his feet to get away. Able to do little better than a half-crawling limp, John dragged himself moaning out to the street and was greeted by two figures a few yards away standing rigidly statuesque side by side under an umbrella.

John wiped the sweat and water from his face, straining to make out who it was in the dark, when a familiar voice spoke to him. “Good evening, Mr. Wallace,” the sharp and cold voice of Doctor Bennett Truman ripped through the chilled air like a knife.

As he clamored to his feet as best he could, confused by the encounter, John made out the stern outline of the good doctor in his usual perfect, blue-gray suit and ever stoically accusing face. One hand was comfortably in his pocket and he held the umbrella in the other. At his side was a strangely familiar, inexplicably young and attractive woman holding his arm, stroking it lustfully. Her long, black hair draped elegantly around an exotically beautiful face and over her scarlet red dress that flashed against the blackness.

“It was only a matter of time, you know,” the doctor continued in his unnaturally flat tone, “Your work was good enough. And, the product was, as you can see by tonight’s results, quite suitable for my special work.” Truman cracked an unnerving half-smile for the first time, saying, “Your father was right, though,” he casually motioned towards where the beast had crashed through the building, “My hand reaches all the Wallaces in the end, when they’ve served their purpose.” The woman at his arm grinned maliciously with bright crimson lips as he spoke, “Call it a birthday gift—all of your deeds repaid in kind, and perfectly on schedule.”

John stood limping, his mouth agape in muddled fear and bewilderment. He almost did not notice the sound of breaking glass showering down to the nearby sidewalk as the beast slowly emerged through the window of the downstairs shop it had crashed into. Ignoring the pair of onlooking figures completely, it lumbered towards its prey with heavily plodding steps. Out of the corner of his eye, John saw it raise a giant clawed arm silhouetted against the softly moonlit sky.

The doctor and his companion turned together and began to slowly walk away, their footsteps tapping sharply on the street and echoing through John’s mind, as Truman said, “Happy thirty-third birthday, John.”