I was writing a “modern” fantasy story about a serial killer when I came across the nursery rhyme, Jack Nory, and a character was born. I finished the 5000 plus word story, but haven’t really been able to find what is the right market for it, so I felt it was best to simply post it here as a sample of my writing. What the heck, at this point I’m not sure I’ll ever sell any stories, so this’ll be my way of sharing shit that’s unmarketable.
She lay at the edge of the lot next to a warehouse, and none could doubt she was dead the way her head was twisted around, looking behind her instead of in front. It wasn’t one of mine, though, and that bothered.
I kept a description of every life I’d taken in a book hidden in the ruins of the old abbey that lay in the woods outside of the city, its crumbling walls overgrown and lost beneath green growing things, but not dark things other than myself. The abbey was abandoned, but life had taken it back, the forest reclaimed its form and function. The police would love to get their hands on my book and lock me in a hole with iron chains wrapped around my limbs. Or better, let handsome Henry do his work, lop off my head with his dull axe, his pretty face and straw hair hidden under his headsman’s hood. Dull wits and a dull blade made Henry a poor boy. But he was a craftsman, like myself, and had the official backing for his work. He was a hired hand, but I was a necessary evil.
Some kills had names if I knew them at the time that I took them. I liked names, they gave me a sense of person, gave the kill a history to follow. A name is a good thing, it makes it more personal. But name or no I wrote out long descriptions, documented details of the person who had been sacrificed to my needs. Their height and the color of their hair, a distinguishing mark on their neck, their bow legs or a tattoo they had gotten in the harbor of some foreign land when they were a sailor. Every beautiful eye, every twisted birth mark. The entries told how they I had killed them, how the strokes had been delivered and in what order, information only the detectives and the coroner knew. The police kept those details close to their hearts as they sat in their offices and smoked their pipes and cigars and cigarettes. No sharp minds there either, every one of them as dull as handsome Henry’s axe.
She would be part of my book if she were mine, an entry lovingly written in flowing script learned years ago from Nanny Ahls when I was a boy. But she wasn’t in my book, there was no entry for her, and her body was fresh as a newly snipped lily plucked from the garden.
I slipped on soft leather gloves and turned her over, the faint silver light of the waxing moon catching her features. She might have been pretty in life, no doubt there. She would have turned eyes with those high cheeks and full lips, long lashes, though her face was now twisted in a grimace of pain and anguish. A young girl too handsome for the squalor she grew up in, who should have been swept off to exotic places and adventures with a handsome man, should have married him and gone off to see the world with his arm wrapped around her delicate waist, his kisses fresh and hot on her ruby lips. But she stayed one day too long and someone had their eye turned as mine might have been.
I examined her closely. Her limbs were stiff, rigor setting in, which meant her death had been within the last two or three hours. When I lifted her hands I noticed broken fingernails and little bits of flesh and blood under several of them. She hadn’t gone quietly. Much good it had done her of course, she was still dead and her killer gone.
It wasn’t me, and that left me to ponder the possibilities. This might be an accident, a random act of a moment’s rage. An evening liaison, a polite no, an insistent lover who decides to press his demands, a fight, and a death. Even a meek man can turn into Jack when he is pressed, I had seen this myself.
I discarded the thought. No lover would twist a neck like that until her spine snapped and the spark of life faded from her pretty eyes. I was in a position to know of course the way any craftsman knows their trade. He might beat her, or stab her, but twisting her head around so her nose and ass shared the same plane of existence required a cold brutality, not a moment of passion. No, this was contemplated and meditated, a willful act of cold hard logic and need. A planned killing.
That would mean a rival. This was my city, and other than handsome Henry I was its sole dealer of death, whether for profit or for the daemons inside my mind who demanded their equal share of me. I had no rivals, not even the mob. They kept their killings outside the city limits, and if one strayed within the borders, their bosses knew to send the person responsible to me. I made sure they understood the rules. Then I made them dead. There would many hours in between the meeting and the ending for them to learn the lesson, and their screams would be heard by many who would share the news that Jack was getting his due.
There would be the accidental murders, this was always true of mankind. The jealous wife bashing in her husband’s head with a lamp as he rose from the young whore he had been screwing in his marital bedroom; the man at the bar in the heat of an argument over some meaningless horse race slipping a knife between the ribs of another man until he slumped to the floor with a gurgle. I couldn’t stop people from their passions, but they knew the rules and they all paid the price in the end, either through me or the blade of Henry. My way was quicker and less painful, more artistic if you like. They’d die and leave a good story to tell and what more could you ask of a short, hard life. They’d contribute to the tale of black Jack Nory the mad man.
It was good advertisement.
I glanced around in the fading moonlight as the crescent began to slip below the houses to my west. There were no signs of scuffle, no trampled grass or scuff marks in the dirt. She was dumped here, tossed from the cobble alley a few feet away. The location was infrequently visited by drunks and transients and she would not have been found for several days. I noticed her only because death is my job and I could sniff the signs from a quarter mile away. The salt metal tang of blood, the smell of a fresh body, the buzzing of flies finding the carcass still warm to lay their larvae in.
I heard a bray of noise coming this way from between the warehouses in the near distance. A police car racing to the scene, the Stanley proceeded by the rise and fall of its cranked siren. Too soon it seemed to me, they shouldn’t know already unless someone had reported the body. Who else would know but me so early after her death in a spot so lacking in human warmth and companionship? The killer would know.
I stood and loped off into between the buildings to the north. I passed as quietly as a breeze through the alleys and dark ways. It would be a poor night when old Jack left behind enough clues for the police to corner him, so I had no fear they would examine the body and find evidence that I had molested it. But I did move with haste, that much due I gave the problem.
I walked by that lot every night at almost the same hour, give or take the vagaries of my needs. The killer must know that as well and left her for me to find, hoping I would be caught. I felt my cheeks pulled into a scowl as I realized how I had been set up. Decades of killings and I was exposed as easily as a five year old shoplifting candy for the first time. And that made me angry, and being angry made me very dangerous.
“Fuck me,” I murmured as I disappeared into the darkness.
I sat in Nanna Ahls kitchen as dawn pinked the east, eggs and biscuits on the table in front of me, still warm. She put a plate of honey next to them, and I dipped half a biscuit in the golden sop and ate my fill as she puttered.
“You says you ain’t killed no one, but you says there’s a body,” she said as she placed a kettle on the stove. “And I’m supposed to believe you, Jack Nory? How many has you killed since I known you as a boy?”
I swallowed so I could speak. “More than you care to know, Nanna. And I would admit it if it were mine.”
She nodded. “And you wouldn’t come here, neither. I t’aint got no friendship with the demons inside you, boy. I don’t approve.”
“It’s not for you to say. It’s what I am and what I do.”
“Hmph. So’s I’m supposed to feel sorry for you who killed so many that you might be in trouble for one you h’aint?” She dumped beef and greens into the pot, and bent over with a grunt of pain to light the coal in the bottom of the stove. When she stood, her eyes glittered blackly as she looked at me.
“Too soft a midwife I was to do what I should done, and your mother squalling about you like a sick cow.”
“Shame you didn’t, might have saved everyone a whole lot of pain.”
She snorted. “I doubt you feel any pain. What are you going to do now there’s another like you?” She pulled down jars from her shelves as she spoke, adding pinches and dashes of this and that, all the things she would never teach another nor would I ever learn in a lifetime. I was no cook to be, but a force that was.
“I’m going to do what I always do, Nanny Ahls.”
She looked at me and I could see her eyes working through my skin and muscle and bone. “Then you’ll leaves here and not come back until it’s over and done. You’ll not be bringing your fight to Nanny Ahls stoop, Jack Nory.”
I finished a few mouthfuls of food and pushed my plate away. “You are old, Nanny Ahls. You are old and you forget yourself.”
“I am old, but I don’t forgets. You can’t frighten me, Jack Nory, I changed your diapers when you weren’t nothing but a babe suckling your mama’s fat teat. Yes, I’m old, and yes, you could kill me, but you cahn’t and that’s the truth of it. You dance in the light of the bridges you burn, but you still love Nanny Ahls, if you can love anyone.”
I pushed the chair away and rose and walked over to her bent form. “That I do, Nanny,” I said and gave her a kiss upon her wrinkled brow. “I’ll be away now. I’ll come back when this is finished.”
“There will be split pea soup on Friday.” She turned away and dismissed me as she worried over her pot of stew.
I hid in the abbey that day, until the sun had run its course through skies flecked with gray clouds, more somber than serious about the business of rain. The rain would come later.
I made my way back to the city limits, blending and mingling with all the many faces. Some walked, some rode carriages, and one or two went puttering by on a horseless, blasting their goose horns and waving at the poor folks resigned to using the shoes on hooves or feet. In the distance I heard the low blast of a steam engine pulling into one of the stations.
There was method to my madness. Blood can mist, its particles floating on the ethereal currents that wafted between buildings, guiding me to a body. Sometimes a murderer would catch blood on their shoe or clothing, splatter it on their hands, and leave behind a trail.
The lot was empty now, the body removed to be cremated or buried in some paupers grave in the next few days. No traces, nothing to be found about the woman or the killer. Only the faint tang of blood where she had lain yesterday eve. I couldn’t linger long for fear of being observed by someone, someone who might be inclined to find a cop, use a call box to call in a comment. Sure and but I didn’t just see a man over there on Kulkarni Street, officer, where that poor young girl was found t’other night, if’n you remember, and I thought to myself, now what would he be doing there bending over where she lay like that unless he had a part in it, I did surely say to me self. No, I wouldn’t take that risk, my observations last night were enough to inform my senses that this killer left no clues behind to be sussed out. Neat and clean, the way Jack would do it. He had skills, this man, and I knew then that it was a man I looked for, not a woman. A man like Jack Nory.
I walked towards Quincy Market, following the noisy crowd down to the bars and brothels. I admired the ladies leaning out of doorways and windows, showing off their good natures. No matter how many I killed they kept coming and displaying their feminine charms. I tipped my hat at a flouncy redhead, holding the bowler over my head as she grinned at me.
“And where do you be going this evening?”
“I’m off into the bars to have a slip of a drink, Miss Molly.”
She laughed. “Shannon’s the name, and don’t you be forgetting it. And why don’t you come up and have a drink with me, and we can do some other t’ings, too.” She flipped her skirt and turned around to give me a look at her other things, which were charming and lovely.
“Well now, Shannon, that’s a fine proposition, but I’m meeting someone tonight. I’ve got business to attend to, and the devil is in the details you know.” I let my eyes wander over her body and up to hers, and stared at her in the way I do, the way that unnerves people, until she blinked and looked away from me, casting her eyes over the crowds that passed me by. She tipped her head, but said no more and let me walk on. Shannon didn’t like the eyes of the devil it seems, she didn’t try to seal the deal.
The honk of a goose warned me and I slipped out of the way as a horseless drove by, a well-dressed man pressing the bulb of his horn to warn the pedestrians of his course. His face scowled with the angry look of privilege ignored by those he felt were his lesser. He and his contraption disappeared into the bustle and I walked on, inhaling the rich scent of the city around me. The scent of garbage and sewers, of spicy food and hot drinks. The scent of desperate people living small lives that a sharp knife could take in the blink of one blue eye.
O’Hoolihan’s was as busy as ever when I slipped inside, but you’d think I was a hole in the air the way the people parted around me, never looking at me, their eyes slipping off me like feet slipping across ice. They didn’t see old Jack if I didn’t want them to. Their minds whispered there’s black Jack Nory come to take your life and their thoughts went elsewhere, like a veil had come down between us.
I wanted a table. It was easy enough to find one, I picked one out and sat down in a chair and magically everyone got up and left, found something better to do with their time, pushed away from the specter of death that sat with them. I leaned back into the shadows and watched the crowd as they swirled in and out of the room, their smoke wafting in breezes through the thick warm air of the pub. I wished I had my pipe, but I’d left it behind a loose stone in a corner of the abbey.
Boston is a big city, and it was no surprise to me that there were faces I didn’t know, people I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t a specific face I sought, but a look in the eyes, the same look that so many folks found in my eyes. Someone who would stare back at me, a smile buried beneath dead irises, not glancing away with a fear that caused them to wet their pants like puppies who hadn’t been weened. The killer would look at me and I would know him, and I would follow him out of the bar and I would plant my sharp knife at the base of his neck and smile as I let him sink to the ground beneath the brick walls of the alley. It would be a beautiful thing, and my thoughts drifted for a while with the lovely image of it, the perfection of the kill, the warm blood on my hands as they whimpered with the knowledge that they weren’t the best, Jack was. Jack would always be the best.
I was a ghost and specter to these people, the bogeyman. Come and listen, young children, of the tales of Jack Nory and the sharpness of his blades and the bodies he leaves behind in the darkness of the night when all good children should be asleep in their beds dreaming upon their wishing stars.
Round the mid of night I stood and stretched, and quietly let myself out the back door. No one turned as I whispered past on silent feet, pulling the shadows around me like a warm blanket. The alley was empty but for a scuttling rat and pieces of trash that stirred on a breeze.
It came to me then, that scent again, and I’m not ashamed to admit my heart beat a little faster. I could smell the blood as fresh as it was, and I walked along the alley, my eyes adjusting to the dusky light that seeped down the length of it from the gas lamps on the street further away.
I saw the feet first, jutting out from behind a heap of piled garbage. He wore brown shoes, nearly new, still shiny from the polish where they weren’t splattered with dirt and mud. He had on a fine suit and tie, and his throat was slit from ear to ear. He looked familiar to my eyes, and I closed them for a moment and pictured him standing, made his features move into a smile, then a frown. The frown brought the recollection, and I remembered the car and his goose horn and the scowl of the rich man who thought less of those who trod the streets before him and his horseless. They were his betters, as he had now learned.
“Shit,” I swore quietly. I tugged my gloves on and moved his limbs. He was flexible, and blood trickled from his mouth and from the long wound across his neck, pooling beneath his hair and trickling along the grooves in the stones. My eyes caught a glimpse of something shiny tucked beneath the edge of his hair against his neck. I slipped it out, finding a slim, sharp dagger soaked in red blood. It was the twin of the one I had hidden on me, and I wiped it on his clothing and quickly slipped it into a pocket.
I heard a tumble of feet from down street ways of the alley, and I slipped deeper into the dark creases, moving along the walls, my feet as light as a feather as I worked over and around the garbage dumped in rotting heaps that assailed my nose. I’d been in smellier places though, hiding after a kill. Once I had jumped down into a privy and hidden amongst the night soil and piss, and one of the good coppers took a leak right above me. I still taste that vinegar of his from time to time, though I wore his face like a mask when I killed him a few weeks later. No one pisses on Jack Nory, not even by accident.
Several men entered from the street. Two wore police uniforms and carried truncheons in their hands. A third wore a long coat that fell down to his knees, and a bowler cap not unlike the one perched on my head. The fourth man was big, a head taller than any of the rest, with wide shoulders and hands balled up into fists. That man I knew, there weren’t many of his size and bearing in the city, not working with the police force.
It took them only a moment to find the body, and once again I had to smile wryly at how simply I had been positioned as the murderer. Nanny Ahls had the right of it, I had no place to complain that these were not my own lovely children, the dead that I birth on black nights in dark corners, but it still chapped me that another would draw me in and run rings around my careful plans, then turn me out to the cops like a common thief caught pilfering from the market stalls along the water.
“That bastard Jack Nory has been at his devil’s work again,” the big man said, his name being Kingsley. I knew him well and we had run a merry dance around the city, I dealing my wares and he trying to stop me. He lacked imagination, but he was determined and his brute strength was a thing the young coppers whispered about quietly. He wouldn’t shy away from old Jack’s eyes, he would stare into them while we tried to kill each other. He was a killer, too, in his own way.
“You two,” he said, pointing at two of the men who stood nearby, “go into the bar and see if anyone has seen him or if he’s still around.”
He knelt next to the body. “Sharp knife. I don’t see any signs of the weapon. If we can find him quickly, we might find he still has it on him.”
Kingsley stood and walked down the alley, drawing a pistol from inside his jacket. His eyes peered into every dark nook and corner, searching for me, and I cursed the stupidity I had shown so far in this affair. Thirty and three years I had been at my work, and not once had anyone come close to discovering me, though deep down they all knew who I was and what I was, and they all feared me. The rumors and songs of my dark deeds were legion, but there was no evidence to make a case, and the police hated me as much for that as for the murders.
“I know you’re here, Jack,” he said quietly as he grew nearer to my hiding place, pressed back against the wall in the shadows, crouching beside a mound of refuse. “I can feel you watching me, you scabby little shit. Why don’t you come out and talk to me?”
I had little fear of Kingsley. He was one man, even with the gun. But there were others with him, similarly armed with weapons, and more on their way no doubt. Killing Kingsley would only kill me, and the devil inside me told me I needed to remain alive a little longer.
I felt along the smooth cobbles damp and slick with god knows what vile substances, and my hand found a loose rock a little smaller than my fist. I waited with the same patience long learned from hunting victims, and when Kingsley turned to look at a dark doorway near across from where I rested, I lifted up slightly and heaved, casting the stone far beyond the heads of the men behind the big man.
The clink of the rock against the road beyond the mouth of the alley was a satisfying sound, almost as dear to me as the way Kingsley turned with a grunt and bolted towards the street, his men sweeping along in his wake, lodestones pulled by the big magnet. I waited bare a heartbeat before I scurried away further into the alley and wound my way through many turnings and curves, losing myself in the maze of Boston streets and ways. The grand old city embraced me, hugged me with her brick and mortar warmth, took me to her bosom, and I left the body and the police far behind as I disappeared, holding my laughter down. Handsome Henry and his axe waited, I knew this. Unless I found the killer first and gave him up to the men who hunted me. The men who hunted death.
I slunk through nearly empty streets now, far away from the crowded harbor and its seedy bars, off into the places where few decent men or women went. I crossed the train tracks and moved out into the forested areas outside the city limits and made my slow, cautious way back to my abbey.
The abbey was the home of death, and was my home. A place to fade away from the world. The dirt track which led from the road to the buildings grew over in a few years, and they were lost and forgotten by all except the animals of the forest, and the predator of the town. I found the buildings when I was sixteen and exploring the forest, lost myself for days wandering through the maze of brambles and stone, and made a home deep in the labyrinthine cellars beneath the soil.
I was tired. More than a full day I had been on the move, and felt no closer to finding the one I sought and bringing an end to my rival. I walked through the tumbled, overgrown stones of the gateway, the creepers and vines cloaking the rough blocks in green and brown living skin, and stumbled over the rough footing, a hundred years of leaves and dirt blown over a floor once trod by the naked feet of ascetics, building new earth over the crumbled remains of old religion.
Had I not been tired, I would have known, I would have taken the care that all predators do even in their own lairs when danger pricks the fine hairs of our ears, dilates our pupils, makes our breathing shallow and slow. I would have smelled his body, his unwashed sweat seeping over the fine earthy scent of my home.
Instead, it was the snick of a noose that woke me, but too late to avoid it. The loop of vines grabbed my foot and the trap sprung, a springy tree rebounding towards the sky, the thick creeper sweeping me off my feet. The jerk dislocated my hip with a pop, and I screamed with pain as branches whipped at my cheeks and brow.
The agony was hot in my hip and leg, but I reached for the knife under my hair and tried to twist as I swayed back and forth in the low branches. He moved faster, and in a blink of my lashes he was there, a darkness that threw more vines around me, pulling my arms tight against my side, the sharp edge of my blade pressing against my own flesh, useless now.
When I was trussed he cut the rope that held my leg and I crashed to the hard earth, my head ringing with pain. I squirmed against the soil, feeling the grind of the bones in my hip, muffling my groans of pain with a mouthful of leaves, their musty scent filling my nostrils. His boot met my ribs and then I did scream again, and for a brief few moments I lost consciousness and thought and drifted in some haze of agony.
When awareness returned I was on my back, look up at a dim figure who blotted out the few stars that straggled through the foliage above. “Hello Jack Nory,” he said, his voice a low whisper. My throat was dry and I felt a trickle against my wrist, something warm and wet, and became aware of new pain now, that thin little pain, the smallest of pains, the cut that you don’t feel for a while until it stings.
“You slit my wrists,” I said.
“Of course, Jack. You know how this story plays out. I could have easily have slashed your throat if needed, but I wished to talk to you first so you understand me.”
I tried to laugh, but it broke into a cough. Several ribs were broken. “I know how this plays out. I’ve played it out enough times from the other side.”
“Thirty and three years, Jack. How many have you killed so far?”
“You know my name. You already know that answer, too, I’d wager.”
I could see him nod in the starlight above. “Ninety seven, Jack. Ninety seven souls sent to hell by your knife. Ninety seven, that is, until the evening before last, when you killed a young woman. She made ninety eight. And now this evening you murdered a rich man who offended you with his horseless. Ninety nine, my dear friend Jack. Ninety nine people who will never go home again.”
I shook my head. “No, those last are yours.”
“Are they?” He leaned closer and I could see more of his features in the light that filtered down from the starry heavens as he turned his head to look at me. Black as a dead star was Jack’s blue eyes in the night, and his nose long and sharp as his knife, his grin a wolfish slit in his dimpled cheeks. His bowler hat sat rakish upon his greasy black hair, and I could smell the rotting teeth in his head.
“How?” I asked, and I struggled in useless fear against my bonds. He knew it, and I knew it, and still I made like prey and tried to free myself. It’s the fight, you understand, the fight that makes it all worthwhile. The demons don’t want a sacrifice, they want a hunt. For the first time I was scared, and I believe I may have soiled myself, though mercifully Jack didn’t bring this fact up. We don’t tease our prey, we give them a sweet, quiet death.
He patted my cheek. “That’s a good lad, Jack. I think how you done the girl was best, truly. She was a pretty one, and you should have seen how she looked as she lay down on the ground and let you have your way with her, thinking it was love. Love? Jack doesn’t love no one, does he Jack. You were wed to her, Jack, do you remember?”
“Married? I’ve never been married in all my years.”
“She was your wife, Jack. You slept with her for many long months, happy in your bliss. Until the night you walked with her in the moonlight and you twisted her pretty head around so’s she could see her arse end from her front.”
My body went rigid and I felt sweat beading on my brow, evaporating in the cool night air. Every muscle was taught but the bonds held firm, and I fell back to the hard turf beneath me, panting with the effort and nothing more to show for it except the pain of my wounds.
“And that poor sod at the bar. You slipping him a fin to meet you out back, the sad sorry asshole thinking you were going to give him a little tug and tickle in the alley. I’ll wager even his wife don’t know that he thinks of other men when they lay together in bed. You drove that knife into his warm, soft throat and lowered him to the ground as he gurgled his last, then you went right back inside and sat back down as though nothing had happened. You’re a cold one you are, Jack my brother.”
A headache rose behind my left eye. I knew this pain, the throb, the way it felt as though someone had slipped a knife through my eye socket and twisted it around and around. I heard the murmur of voices, and I could see now the warm light of the fire in the bar, see myself walking out the back door with the man in his suit in front of me. I felt the warm gush of his blood on my hand, and smelled the stench of his piss and shit as he died, soiling himself with fear and pain and the blackness of forever.
“No,” I whispered, and Jack laughed at me, slapping my cheeks again.
“Yes, my brother, it’s true. You remember now, do you?”
I remembered. I remembered Prissy in my arms, the way she lavished her kisses upon me as though kisses were rare blessings and must be given freely or be lost forever. I remember the way she would cook me breakfast in the kitchen, naked but for a flower over her ear, her young buttocks flexing and shifting until I could no longer stand the sight of it and would take her on the table, slake my lust on her willing flesh. I remembered thinking I could be happy now, I no longer needed to kill now that love had become mine, and how sad I was when the devil inside me told me she must die, and how I fought back tears as I took her for a walk along the streets we had walked so many times close to our little room in the boarding house. I remembered the look in her eye that brief moment before she died after her neck had snapped like a twig and before the spark faded. She looked betrayed, surprised, a human being who realized that no one could ever be trusted, not least of all Jack Nory.
“That’s a good lad, you be remembering now. You sleep now, Jack, and I’ll take over. And one day, my brother will take over, and his, and so on until the bleak end of time when all that is left is Jack Nory and his snickety snackety sharp little blade, laughing his way into the darkness.”
Sleep stole over my eyes and I let them close as a cold weak feeling took my limbs. Jack Nory patted my arm, and I felt the warm breath tickle my ear as he whispered, “I’ll go ahead and add them to that book of yours, shall I? Then I’ll add you to mine, just like you done for your brother when you killed him and took his place. You sleep now, brother of mine.”
“Nany Ahls said to see her on Friday, it’ll be split pea soup,” I said. “Go tell her a story, Jack Nory.”