The Dead Man – Tim Jamieson

19th October, 1891. London     

Marsden stood with his back to the brick wall. His cracked leather boots were caked in mud and sewage, and a dark woollen hat was pulled down low over his forehead. He peeked around the corner and quickly righted himself against the wall after catching sight of the man strolling towards him. He flicked out the blade of his knife from under his coat and it flashed a glint from the waning moon. Not a great time to be strolling down the cobbles, he thought to himself. He waited.

The man walked, not slowly or quickly, but with a purposeful confident stride. The stench of the gutters was rotten but he worried not about the tails of his coat dragging behind him on the floor. A horse whinnied somewhere in the distance and he heard the clack of wheels as it pulled a carriage down the street. He shrugged his shoulders and drew up his collar to keep out the night’s chill. His top hat was not keeping his head warm. It was almost winter but straggling leaves still clung to the trees that lined the street in defiance of autumn’s breath. His cane tapped on the street as he walked past the gated townhouses.

Marsden steadied himself and took long deep breaths. He could hear heels clicking towards him now. They sounded like expensive shoes. He had an ear for expensive shoes. Hopefully this fella was the same size as him. Wishful thinking maybe, didn’t matter; he’d be able to flog ‘em for a decent price down the market the next day. The chill from the bricks was beginning to seep through his coat.

The man approached the corner of the street and noticed his right shoelace was untied. He bent to address the issue.

The sound of the clapping heels stopped and Marsden seized his chance. He steeled himself and jumped out from his hiding place to find the man crouching on the ground in front of him.

“Empty yer pockets or I’ll spill yer guts right ‘ere on the cobbles.”

The man stared at the cracked leather shoes directly in front of his face and slowly righted himself. He was met by the cold stare of a razor sharp blade an inch from his left eyeball. He said nothing.

“Are you deaf mate? Drop that fancy stick of yours and empty yer pockets,” Marsden growled.

Still the man said nothing but he let the cane fall from his hands and drop to the floor. A flicker of recognition passed across Marsden’s face but he couldn’t place the man’s features.

“I ain’t gonna ask you again. Empty your pockets or I swear to God I’ll slit your throat.” He said it with confidence and menace enough to scare the living daylights out of the hardest man, but inside he began to feel a dark shiver ripple through his heart. Still his threats were met with no reply, only the empty black stare of a shark.

The corners of the man’s mouth curled and his eyes narrowed as he stared at the knife inches from his throat. His hands hung by his sides and swayed gently.

This wasn’t going how it was supposed to go. Marsden had done it hundreds of times before. It was the only way he could make money, he never actually hurt anyone. He just took what they could afford to lose so he could feed his family. He gripped his fingers around the knife and despite the chill felt a bead of sweat drip down the side of his face. He was not looking into the eyes of a scared man. He decided to make a run for it and cut his losses; he could find someone else to relieve of their valuables later.

Suddenly the man lunged forward with a speed and power that belied his small stature. A flash of crimson spurted into the air as the knife slashed at his hands. He pulled Marsden into an embrace and wrestled before staggering back, blood shining in the moonlit night. The man stared down at his hands and at the liquid pouring from the wound in his stomach. With glassy eyes he dropped to his knees and fell face down in the mud.

Marsden staggered back with a heaving chest. The man was crazy. The bastard had charged at him. He stared at the knife clutched in his hand, black with blood, and looked down at the dead man in front of him. He was definitely dead.

His hands started to shake. It wasn’t his fault. He’d just wanted to take the man’s money. He didn’t want to kill him. Trying not to panic he looked up and down the street and saw nothing. He bent down and reached into the man’s pockets and found no wallet, no watch and no money, only a gold key. He cursed and rolled the body over into the gutter. He stood and ran around the corner, down the street and into the shadows.

*

Marsden came to a halt as he grabbed at his chest and felt his racing heart try to break free from his body. He opened his palm and looked at the bloodied key in his hand and, holding it up to the scant light, noticed The White Hart and the number thirty-seven embossed on the side. It was a hotel room key. He knew where the hotel was, everyone did. It was one of the finest establishments in London.

He wrestled with his mind. The cold was drawing in, he had mouths to feed. He couldn’t face seeing them wave him off at the docks again. He hadn’t meant to kill the man, it wasn’t his fault. He made a decision.

It wasn’t far but he didn’t have much time. Dawn would break soon and it wouldn’t be long before someone noticed the body that had already turned to ice in the gutter of Windsor Street. He hurried on his way.

*

The night manager adjusted his tie in the mirror behind the counter in the foyer of the White Hart Hotel. He grimaced and checked his teeth for any stray flakes of pastry that might have made an embarrassment of his appearance, not that it really mattered at this time of night, but he hadn’t much else to do. He regarded the short, balding man to his left wearing a yellowing chefs uniform.

“Thank you for my late night snack Kingsley. That my friend was a mighty fine pie.”

“You’re quite welcome.”

“You know it can be rather boring at this time of night. Fancy sneaking a quick snifter of cherry from the bar? I won’t tell if you don’t old boy.”

“I’m sorry sir, but I really must be getting back to the kitchen. I need to continue my breakfast preparations.”

“Oh yes, yes of course.”

Kingsley smiled but was really dying inside. Secretly he thought the night manager was a self important loser who spent most of his days and all of his money at the brothel down the street.

At that moment a man walked in through the front door, looked up, noticed the stairs, looked back down, and strode towards them.

The night manager checked his pocket watch and said, “Good morning sir.” The man ignored him and carried on straight past the counter and up the stairs.

“How rude,” the manager said to himself and stared after him.

He turned to the chef and said, “Well what do you make of that Kingsley? I do say he looked rather unsavoury. I’ve got a knack for remembering faces as you know, and I’m certain I’ve not seen that man before.”

Kingsley raised his eyebrows as if they were pulled up by strings. He didn’t mention the fact that the night manager wouldn’t even remember his mothers face if she slapped him round the head. He did however think that the man who came in looked a little off.

He shrugged his shoulders to himself and said, “Well sir, unless you need me for anything else I’m going to return to the kitchen.”

“Yes, yes of course,” replied the night manager not really listening, he was staring up the stairs.

Kingsley walked past him towards the kitchen.

*

Marsden clicked the heavy lock open and pushed the mahogany door inwards. There was a faint smell of roses. He struck a match and lit the lamp by the door. It was the most beautiful room he had ever seen before in his short and miserable life. It was massive. His boots left stains on the carpet and the floral rugs on the floor which, unknown to him, were worth more money than had passed through his hands this past year. Heavy drapes were open either side of a balcony that looked over tiled rooftops glistening with the last of the moon. Under other circumstances the view would have taken his breath away.

He collected himself and started his search. He picked up a silver pocket-watch that was exiled to the coffee table. There were suitcases on the floor, God only knew how much they were worth but he decided only to take what he could fit in his pockets. He rifled through their contents and pocketed a wallet and a purse without looking inside them.

He pushed open the door to the bathroom and caught his breath. There was a floor to ceiling mirror framed in blue crystal. The bathtub was huge and white and standing on its own legs. He’d never seen one like it before. Why rich people would want to stew in their own filth was anyone’s guess. On the countertop, among various bottles, he found a gold cigarette case, matching lipstick holder and a locket. He quickly shoved them into his pockets.

He walked back into the main room and decided it was about time to leave, he could hear the faint chirping of rising birds that hadn’t yet left for the warm. The city would wake soon. As he made ready to leave he noticed for the first time the door to the bedroom was closed but he could see a faint glow of light coming from the gap underneath. He pulled out his knife and flicked open the blade as he stepped cautiously towards the door.

He placed his heavy hand on the doorknob and turned it slowly without making a noise. It was very dark, a candle flickered by the open window, almost spent. The lace curtain fluttered in the breeze. It was cold and a chill rippled down his spine.

He held out the knife in front of him and stepped forward into the room. It smelt of copper and rust. His eyes widened in the gloom. There was a woman, or rather, what was left of a woman. Blood was everywhere, sprayed on the walls, on the sheets, all over the floor. She was in pieces.

“Well what the heck have we got here then?” Boomed a voice from the entrance.

Marsden turned with a start to see two policemen standing in the doorway, the night manager’s face poking up from behind their shoulders.

“I… I didn’t…it wasn’t…” Marsden muttered in barely a whisper.

The knife dropped from his hand and stuck fast in the floor. He turned and ran for the open window.

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