Part the First
Death of a Stranger
What a skein of ruffled silk is the uncomposed man.
Owen Felltham, Resolves (1623), ii, Of Resolution
After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinns for an
It had been surprisingly almost laughably easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening. I had been walking for an hour or more in the vicinity with one purpose: to find someone to kill. Then I saw him, outside the entrance to the Bank, amongst a huddle of pedestrians waiting for the crossing-sweeper to do his work. Somehow he seemed to stand out from the crowd of identically dressed clerks and City men streaming forth from the premises. He stood regarding the milling scene around him, as if turning something over in his mind. I thought for a moment that he was about to retrace his steps; instead, he pulled on his gloves, moved away from the crossing point, and set off briskly. A few seconds later, I began to follow him.
We proceeded steadily westwards through the raw October cold and the thickening mist. At length he turned into a narrow court that cut through to the Strand, not much more than a passage, flanked on either side by high windowless walls. I glanced up at the discoloured sign Cain-court then hung back, to make sure the court was deserted.
My victim, all unsuspecting, continued on his way; but before he had time to reach the steps at the far end, I had caught up with him noiselessly and had sunk the blade of my knife deep into his neck.
I had expected him to fall instantly forwards with the force of the blow; but, curiously, he dropped to his knees, with a soft gasp, his arms by his side, his stick clattering to the floor, and remained in that position for some seconds, like an enraptured devotee before a shrine.
As I withdrew the blade, I moved forwards slightly. It was then I noticed for the first time that his hair, where it showed beneath his hat, was, like his neatly trimmed whiskers, a distinct shade of red. For a brief moment, before he gently collapsed sideways, he looked at me: not only looked at me, but I swear smiled, though in truth I now suppose it was the consequence of some involuntary spasm brought about by the withdrawal of the blade.
He lay, illuminated by a narrow shaft of pale yellow light flung out by the gas-lamp at the top of the passage steps, in a slowly widening pool of dark blood that contrasted oddly with the carrotty hue of his hair and whiskers. He was dead for certain.
I stood for a moment, looking about me. A sound, perhaps, somewhere behind me in the dark recesses of the court? Had I been observed? No; all was still. I dropped the knife down a grating, along with my gloves an old pair, with no makers label and walked smartly away, down the dimly lit steps, and into the enfolding, anonymous bustle of the Strand.
Now I knew that I could do it; but it gave me no pleasure. The poor fellow had done me no harm. Luck had simply been against him and the colour of his hair, which, I now saw, had been his fatal distinction. His way that night, inauspiciously coinciding with mine in Threadneedle-street, had made him the unwitting object of my irrevocable intention to kill someone; but had it not been him, it must have been someone else.
Until the very moment in which the blow had been struck, I had not known definitively that I was capable of such a terrible act, and it was absolutely necessary to put the matter beyond all doubt. For the despatching of the red-haired man was in the nature of a trial, or experiment, to prove to myself that I could indeed take another human life, and escape the consequences. When I next raised my hand in anger, it must be with the same swift and sure determination; but this time it would be directed, not at a stranger, but at the man I call my enemy.
Excerpted from The Meaning of the Night, copyright (c) 2006 by Michael Cox. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton and Company. All rights reserved
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