The man looked in the cracked mirror and adjusted his cloak.
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He straightened his top hat, smoothed down his lapel, pulled tight his gloves. He was wearing a thick greasepaint moustache under his nose, and his face had been daubed with pancake make-up in an effort to make him more ghostly, more corpse-like. He adjusted the straps on his chest holding the spotlight, and made sure the unit that allowed him to breathe jets of pure flame was in proper working order. It was a spectacular effect, when taken altogether, and would do nicely this evening, he was sure of it. He was a man that was sure of a great many things. He was a professional. ‘
Lastly, he bounced on his heels to make sure that the spring action was in proper working order. He had designed this costume himself, and he was quite proud of it; altogether it effected a transformation in him that was quite remarkable.
He looked deeply into the cracked surface of the mirror. He put on his red spectacles, the ones that served him for new, more penetrating eyes as he wandered the alleyways of London, looking for fresh meat. Finally, he took up the handle of the metal claw that he carried, waved it about in front of the mirror, struck several poses, and waited for the timeless spirit of madness to descend upon him like a dove. After a few more minutes of examination, he knew that he was ready to hit the streets. Springheel Jack.
He walked out into the night wind. It was damp, and sent a chill through his bones that he quite liked. That chill reminded him of the fear he was bound to spread this evening, the fear that kept him returning, again and again, to this particular role. Of course, as an actor, there was any number of parts he could have played: Hamlet, Macbeth, Faustus–but it was this role that called to him, that entranced him, that evoked a transformation so deep in his personal psyche that it was only after many hours that he could dispel the trance that settled over him during his intermittent appearances.
Jack had been created whole cloth, but Jack had a ferocious appetite, and Jack took every once of energy one could muster while he was in control. It was in the skulking demeanor, the air of being one possessed of inhuman passions, the gleaming red gaze of the weird spectacles, and, of course, the sharp and intense pain of being raked with the claw, that Jack truly came to life in a frightening blast of fiery breath and rancid odor, bloody pain and hopping madness.
Jack Was, and for the time being, it was enough.
He left by the back entrance, across the yard and out through the gate, into an alleyway, and into the darkness. He could feel his blood pressure begin to rise. Tonight, flesh and bone would meet steel, and the fire inside of him, the Fire of Jack, would be at peace for a little while.
A drunken whore.
She was carrying a basket of flowers down the alley. Jack wasn’t quite sure, but he thought that they were probably all dead.
She was singing some dismal tavern song. Something to do with a rose and mother’s grave when she was but a boy.
As she walked, she took a few of the dead flowers and tried to stuff them in her hair. They inevitably fell out and she left a trail of them in her wake. Her eyes were twin moons of apprehension, and her boots seemed to clack unsteadily against the cobbles. He watched her from around the corner of a green grocer’s shop. In the display window an announcement had been hung depicting a man in the middle of a transformation into an elephant. Apparently, this “Elephant Man” was on display inside during the day, for a few pence. He wondered for a moment what it would be like to take on the role of such a creature, and then thrust the matter from his mind. Here was an interesting prospect coming his way.
He waited until she was almost to the street before he sprang, whipping his cloak about himself theatrically, and hopping up to her with a macabre giggle that was like the raking of nails against a slate. She stopped in her tracks, stared for a moment, dropped the basket, picked it back up in nervous, fumbling fingers, and stood there, too dumbfounded with fear to make a move.
He flicked on his spotlight. It fell across her face, painting it a ghastly yellow in the gloom. He was standing a few feet from her still, but she could see the weird red spectacles, the ghastly pallor of his face, and the dark clothes which hid his body and made it seem as large and grotesque as that of an ape, and the effect on her was one of hideous astonishment. She began to step backward slowly as he moved in, her hands going to her cheeks, her eyes wide diamonds of glittering shock. He suddenly was upon her.
He roared, flicking on the gas jet.
The tube by his mouth spit flame, and she fell backward, her eyebrows singed. He then bent, clawing her across the face with the rake in his left hand, and fled, cackling madly. It was then that she let out a piercing scream.
He went as deep and far as the alley would go, heard the piercing wail of a police whistle and the running of boots in the distance, and came out between the buildings into a vacant side street. He could hear, far back in the darkness, the sound of a policeman and the woman he had just assaulted crying hysterically.
The woman seemed incoherent with fear and pain, and the policeman must have stopped for a moment before running forward, still blowing his whistle. The crunch of his boots on the cobble was getting closer, and Jack suddenly realized he would have to beat a hasty retreat. Laughing, he ran into the darkness of another alley, past a derelict laying drunk in a box, savoring the delights of the evening.
He had been a success. He was always a success. After all, he was a professional.
Ah, here he was, hidden away in a dark corner, breathing hard, his heart hammering with joy in his chest. The sound of the officer’s boots on the street had disappeared, but Jack listened intently all the same, hearing only the drip of water and the rattle of a cab somewhere up the street. He would lose himself, he decided, in the back alleys and forgotten courts until he coulkd safely make his way home. Then he would strip from his sodden costume, wash the stink from his bones, and luxuriate in bed. The next morning he could read all about his exploits in the Times. My, wouldn’t he have a chuckle over breakfast at the foolish gullibility of the common herd?
He began to walk, almost leisurely, wondering if he should risk one more appearance before the night was over, to really solidify his presence on the street for the benefit of the police and newspaper writers. He heard some sort of commotion in the distance, in the night, and thought better of it. No, far better to quit while he was ahead.
He came out of an alley and turned down Hanbury St., coming across a slum dwelling and opening a door that he knew led out to a small court he sometimes used as a shortcut.
He paused. The courtyard was occupied.
He stepped out onto a scene that, even in his most heated imaginings, he could scarce have visualized. A woman was lying in the yard in a spreading pool of blood. The butchery was unimaginable. Her guts had been ripped open and pulled out with an expertise that seemed maddeningly precise, almost ritualistic. Her apron was soaked through with gore, and at her feet he noted that, whatever maniac had perpetrated this deed had taken special care to place her few personal possessions and some coins at her feet, for whatever reason.
“Hallo there! May I say what a pleasure it is to have you join us this evening.”
He reeled backward. Before him, a man in a deerstalker cap and an old cape was breathing noxious fumes into his face. The man smelled like he was rotting from the inside out, and his face was a grim mask of smiling insanity.
“My but you look as if you’d seen a ghost, my friend. Here now, you’re not going to let a thing like this,” and he motioned to the corpse at his feet, “trouble you unduly, I hope. After all, by the look of you, you strike me as being a professional in our particular field. I also am a professional, as I’m sure you can tell by the quality of my work.”
There was a moment of silence, then the man in the deerstalker stuck out one gloved hand and said, “Pardon me, I didn’t get your name.”
Jack looked down. The gloved hand was dripping with blood.
He gasped again, barely able to catch his breath and said, “I’m…I’m…Springheel Jack.”
“Oh, well, my, that is a coincidence. Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Jack the–”
And the gloved hand flashed out with a single silver slice.