The house sighed; it breathed in the damp London air, feeling the aches of its age and the ever-present river mist settling into its wooden joints. Expressing its displeasure, it creaked and groaned, but the residents had grown used to the house and ignored the noises, accepting them as part of the cacophony of the city they lived in.
The house, unimaginatively called the Adler Street Boarding House, was owned and operated by Mrs. Mabel Toms, who had suffered the misfortune of marrying beneath her, and to a man whose love of gin left her widowed.
The house cared not for time and its passing, nor for the events beyond its walls, or the fabrications Mrs. Toms told to get a few extra pence out of someone. Even the residents and their daily lives lulled the house into a half-sleeping state, their shared tales of misfortune and bad luck seeping into the very structure.
But the arrival of a new lodger woke the house, along with those already living within.
“Mr. Smith, I’m Mrs. Toms, the owner. I run a clean and comfortable establishment. Lodgers are admitted by the week, payment is per week in advance.”
“I need a place for a few months.” The newcomer glanced around the parlour without moving his head, eyes flitting from one side to the other.
“And what business are you involved in?”
Mr. Smith frowned. “I’m… I’m doing research.”
Mrs. Toms leaned in, nearly spilling the weak tea she’d had the maid prepare. “Ah, a man of science, how interesting.”
“Actually, it’s more the study of… buildings. Yes, I’m researching London’s buildings.” He shifted in his chair, emphasizing the point with a nod.
“Oh. Well, that’s important too I suppose.” She waved toward the stairs. “Would you like a tour of the house?”
“No, it’s not necessary, I’d like to get settled as soon as possible.”
While the landlady discussed the contract with Mr. Smith, the other tenants waited to be introduced. Violet and Faye, done with their clients for the night, left their rooms to peep into the parlour, sizing up the worth of the newcomer. The house appraised the individual. The tall thin frame, the dark hair and moustache done in the current fashion. The clothes were well-maintained but worn; the fabric shiny in places where repeated ironing had left its mark, and the cuffs of the once-fashionable shirt frayed.
Mrs. Toms walked Mr. Smith over to a copy of the rules displayed prominently on the parlour wall. The house knew them by heart: they were posted in every room.
“No gentlemen callers in the rooms. Callers are to be entertained in the parlour only.” The house shook with amusement that Mrs. Toms could read this rule with a straight face. The tremors were blamed on the wind.
“No noise after 8pm.
“No animals or children.
“Laundry is to be left outside the door by 8am.
“The front door is opened at 6am, locked at 10pm.
“No spirituous liquors to be brought into the House or drunk there.”
Once again the house expressed delight at this oft-broken rule, and the fact that the word ‘house’ was capitalised.
“Habits of cleanliness are expected. Any person guilty of filthy or dirty practices or rendering himself offensive to the other lodgers will not be permitted to remain in the House”
“I’m particularly strict with the last rule, Mr. Smith. You’ll find I cannot abide foul smells.” Again the house shook, for East London was nothing but a gathering ground for every noxious odour imaginable. She turned to face the newcomer. “Welcome to my establishment.”
The man’s lips moved, a lopsided grimace confused as to whether it was expressing happiness or regret. Or something else. The house shuddered again and this time there was no wind to blame the groaning on.
The house was early one morning by the hammering of a harried hand upon the locked front door. An angry Mrs. Toms, dressed in a tattered bathrobe and making noises much like those of the house itself, pulled a key from the set she carried and opened the door. Mr. Smith rushed in as the parlour clock struck the fifth hour of the morning, slamming the door closed behind him. The cool air of late summer swept in with him.
“Mr. Smith, do you know the time?”
The man’s eyes darted around but did not meet Mrs. Toms’. He wrapped his overcoat, unnecessary for this time of year, around himself. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t hold with this type of behaviour, Mr. Smith. You know the rules, the door opens at six.”
“I’m sorry, it won’t happen again. I…” he swallowed and looked around once more before continuing, “I got caught up in some research and lost track of time.” With that he rushed up the stairs to his room. Mrs. Toms, in her state of half-sleep and still suffering the effects of a gift of a bottle of gin from a local admiring constable, didn’t think to wonder how a person such as Smith, said to be studying historic buildings, could do so in the dark.
Mr. Smith entered his room, still clutching his overcoat around his body, and locked the door. Pacing the room a few times he finally breathed, the exhale sounding both desperate and relieved. When he finally relinquished his hold on the coat, the house saw that he carried something beneath, something red. Placing it reverently on the chair, one of six identical ones that stood in each bedroom, he ran his finger along the object slowly before turning away and undressing. There was blood splattered on his frayed shirtsleeves and collar, and the house knew there was blood hidden in the folds of the dark suit jacket he dropped to the floor. Naked, he went to the porcelain basin and washed in the cold water. The house watched the water turn pink then red with the remnants of Mr. Smith’s evening activities. When the lodger donned his nightshirt, kissed the piece of flesh and climbed into bed with a peaceful look on his face, the house was quiet.
“I’ve come to ask if you heard or saw anything suspicious last night.” Constable Maxwell was in the dining room with Mrs. Toms. Mr. Smith stopped himself from entering, instead remaining within listening distance hidden in the hall.
“No, no, I don’t think so.” Mrs. Toms shook her head then winced.
“No screams? Any unusual activity outside?”
Mrs. Toms again shook her head, the motion turning her pale.
“Are you well?” Constable Maxwell’s concerned eyes stared at the landlady.
Waving him off, Mrs. Toms attempted a smile. “I’m fine, Maxwell, really.” She leaned in close. “I admit I couldn’t sleep last night but found your bottle worked a treat.”
Maxwell smiled. “I’m glad, Mrs.” His face flushed red and he cleared his voice. “But back to business, you understand I must ask these questions. Something horrible has happened you see, not far from here.”
Mrs. Toms knew the value of good gossip; the more graphic the details the better. “Cup of tea?”
Mr. Smith still stood outside of the doorway, listening, his face grey with fear.
“Do tell me what happened, Constable.” She winked at him.
“Well, if you promise not to repeat any of what I’m about to say.” At her nod, he continued. “A body was found early this morning, a young woman,” he paused, lines of anxiety on his forehead, “one of those types that’s friendly with the gentlemen, if you catch my meaning.” He waited for confirmation from Mrs. Toms before continuing. “Now, I must warn you, the details are not for a lady’s ears.”
“Maxwell, we’ve known each other a long time. Have I ever struck you as the faint-hearted type?”
The policeman snorted then grew serious. “No ma’am, I didn’t mean to suggest anything.” At her acknowledgement he continued. “The woman’s throat was cut.” He drew his finger across his own to illustrate. “And her stomach, well, that was cut too.” He motioned above his stomach.
The landlady covered her mouth with her hand in horror.
“Are you all right for me to continue?” His eyes were wide with worry.
“Good God, there’s more?”
Maxwell nodded. “I heard the coroner say that part of her,” he swallowed and took a gulp of tea, “her stomach, part of it was missing.”
At this a small shiver of pleasure shook Mr. Smith and he whimpered so quietly that only the house heard.
A noise outside interrupted them. “I must be going, Mrs. Toms. I’m sorry, but I have to ask once more, you heard nothing last night?”
Mrs. Toms started to shake her head, then stopped and frowned. “Well, there was…”
Mr. Smith’s stomach, which only moments before had felt the most exquisite joy, now cramped so hard he doubled over.
“No, never mind. It’s nothing.” She rose and saw Constable Maxwell to the door, not noticing his puzzled expression, the soft sound of footsteps outside of the parlour door nor the sudden groan of the sighing boarding house.
August turned to September and the season turned overnight, as it often does in London.
“They’ve not got any leads yet, it’s terrible, just terrible.” Mr. Harris Lawford, a rat catcher at Billingsgate market, and Mr. William Gridley, labourer and aspiring writer, were having breakfast in the parlour when Mr. Smith walked in.
“Smith, come and join us. The buns are still warm.” He pointed to a chair.
Mr. Smith reluctantly joined them. “How’ve you been getting on? Few weeks with us now?”
“Yes, yes, I’ve everything I need.”
“We were just talking about this business of the young girl’s murder.” Mr. Gridley shook his head but there was a gleam in his eye. “It’s the stuff of madness, truly. A tale too terrible to tell.” He smiled at his own line.
“Don’t let him fool you, he’s a ghoul, always looking for grisly things to write about.” Mr. Lawford finished his tea, dregs and all. Wiping his mouth he stood. “I must be away, the rats won’t catch themselves.” With a slight bow he grabbed his hat and left.
“I must be off too, nearly late.” Mr. Gridley. He paused to look at Smith. “You have an interesting face. As I writer I notice these things, it’s my job to notice, you know? To really observe everything around me. You must let me make you a character in a story.”
Mr. Smith nodded at the compliment and watched Gridley turn and open the door. He shivered as a gust of autumn wind blew in, but the house knew it was more than the cool air that had caused the reaction.
“Is that you Mr. Smith? My, you’re getting in very early!” ‘Early’ sounded like ‘orly’ to Mr. Smith’s unexceptional ears. Orna was in the parlour, lighting the fire. The clock had just struck the hour and the light was already filtering into the windows. Orna was the young woman employed by Mrs. Toms to help clean and cook. Mr. Gridley often remarked on her Irish accent and her slim but sturdy Norse features, promising to make her a character in one of his stories.
Mr. Smith started. “Orna, what are you doing here?” Once again he wrapped his overcoat around his body. “I didn’t think you worked on Saturdays.”
“Oh I don’t normally, no, but Mrs. Toms asked me to do a final clean before the winter sets in.” She shrugged. “I can use the money.” Orna frowned. “You found a shop open so early?”
Mr. Smith looked down at the roughly-wrapped bundle in his hand. “Ah, yes, I did. Wait, no, it’s a gift from an, um, friend. Some, uh, drawing materials.” He bowed at Orna and swept by her and up the stairs.
The maid shrugged again and returned to her task of dusting, humming an old Irish tune as she did so.
Upstairs Mr. Smith went into his room and closed the door quickly, his breath coming in desperate pants. The house shifted a fraction and the door opened again, creaking gently on unoiled hinges. Mr. Smith looked, his eyes wide, until the door hung fully open. When no one entered he closed it again, this time pulling the bolt across.
He placed the bundle on his bedside table and undressed. As with before, his clothes were stained and he followed the same procedure: wash himself, wash his clothes. But this time he remained naked. The house watched, disturbed but fascinated. It had seen many things in its time, including the nocturnal activities of Violet and Faye, who both worked as charwomen but who occasionally supplemented their income by inviting gentlemen into their rooms (Mrs. Toms turned a blind eye to this behaviour; rent was king in Whitechapel). But it had seen nothing like this.
Mr. Smith walked over to the bedside table, placing his feet just so on the worn carpet. He reached down and opened the bundle, revealing a piece of bloody flesh, and lifted it with both hands, raising it to his face. With a look of ecstasy he smeared the organ on his face, then continued caressing his chest and stomach, finally reaching his genitals. He groaned as he rubbed the pulpy object the length of his engorged member, his hand moving faster and bits of flesh falling to the floor. With a great sigh he finished, his head held back, eyes closed. After a moment he straightened and looked around, noticing the blood and tissue on the ground at his feet. Remaining naked, Mr. Smith spent the next half-hour cleaning both himself and the room before re-wrapping the organ and placing it in a sealed jar under his bed.
The house was still that night, suffering the early autumn storm in silence.
Constable Maxwell was back the next day. “Same as last time, Mrs. Toms, investigating.”
She waved him in, ignoring the unknown policeman waiting outside. Shutting the door on the man, she pointed to a chair. “Not another murder?”
“Aye, and a nasty piece of business it was. Poor lass had her throat and stomach cut.”
Mrs. Toms’ eyes widened. “How horrible.” She pointed to a cabinet nearby. “Drink?”
The constable shook his head. “Not while I’m on duty, and especially not with him,” he nodded his head toward the door, “around, watching. He’s been brought in from the City, apparently folks don’t think we’re doing enough on our own.”
“Well, I’ve nothing more to report than last time.”
“Another young woman was there, says she saw a man in the area hurrying away. Says he was,” Maxwell checked his notes, “shabby genteel. Know anyone of that description?”
A snort escaped Mrs. Toms’ lips. “Everyone in this neighbourhood. All fallen on hard times, all still in possession of some remnant of their past.” She shook her head. “No, that could be anyone.”
The constable sighed and nodded. “I thought so myself, but had to ask.” Another nod toward the door. “I must go, other houses to visit.”
He rose and allowed himself to be shown out. Mrs. Toms poured herself a glass of gin and sank into a chair in the parlour. A second glass followed and soon the landlady’s snores could be heard. Only the house knew that the in the kitchen, Mr. Smith had been listening.
The house shifted as Mr. Smith hurried up the stairs, causing him to stumble. He recovered and raced to his room, bolting the door behind him. Scurrying nearly along the floor, he reached beneath the bed and brought out a jar, the same one containing the object that had provided such ecstasy only a day ago. The look on Mr. Smith’s face suggested it was now an object of fear.
Grasping the jar, Smith opened his door slowly, peering out and listening. The other residents were out and the maid was running errands. All that could be heard were the landlady’s gin-infused snores and the house’s groaning. He winced at one particular wooden crack, worried the noise would wake Mrs. Toms, and made his way to Mr. Gridley’s room. Finding the door unlocked, he slipped into the room. Few of the sun’s rays managed to squeeze through the grime on the window and Mr. Smith waited until his eyes adjusted to the gloom, listening for approaching footsteps. Falling to his knees he pushed aside the bedside cabinet and pried up a board from the spot. The house grew angry at the violation and Mr. Smith turned toward the door at the great groan that came from the staircase. He froze as the landlady snorted, muttered something inaudible and returned to her sleeping state. He remained that way for a number of minutes, praying that the house would remain silent, and then continued his work. The board finally came loose and with a final longing gaze at the jar, he placed it beneath the floor next to another of similar shape and size, and whose contents were just as disturbing.
Three weeks went by with no further news or event. The house breathed a sigh of relief, for surely it was over; whatever reason Smith had for these mutilations, he must have found his resolution. But the house was to be disappointed.
Mr. Smith was bloodier than previously; washing over and again only produced pink water and grey fabric. The house knew blood never fully washed out; it had been witness to a number of harsh attacks on Faye and Violet. But this seemed not to bother Smith as he completed his own ablutions and performed his perverted, shabby ritual once more, this time with two organs. When he had finished, both organs were forced into another jar; where once they had their own space in a living body, now they enfolded each other as if in sympathy.
“I’m off, we should get a drink later Smith.” Mr. Gridley smiled at Mr. Smith.
“Um, sure.” Mr. Smith took a sip of coffee. “Oh, Mr. Gridley, before you go, may I borrow some ink from you, I’ve run out and must, um, note something down before I forget it.”
Mr. Gridley turned, frowning. “Of course, maybe I could get it for you later, I’m late this morning.” He faced the door again.
“It really is important…”
The labourer and part-time writer stopped. “Well, I could let you get it yourself, if you need it.” He thought for a moment. “Why not. It’s next to the basin, close the door after you.” With that he swept out.
As the floorboards opened, revealing the contents of the space beneath, the house watched as Mr. Smith groaned and rubbed his crotch. Refocusing, he placed the third jar with the others and carefully fitted the boards back in position.
Without a greeting three policemen marched into the house. One was Maxwell, who looked embarrassed by the behaviour of his colleagues.
“We’re here to interview everyone in the house. Please get them together.”
It was just after dinner and everyone was in the parlour, having a drink. “What’s all this about?” Mrs. Toms stood abruptly. “Who are you? What do you want?”
Constable Maxwell stepped forward. “There’s been another murder, Mrs. Toms, in fact two. We’re going house-to-house, the maid let us in.”
Only slightly mollified by the explanation, Mrs. Toms was still angry. “I run a respectable place here, I’ll have you know. Surely you don’t think I’d allow a murderer to stay under my roof?”
Maxwell stepped forward again but was stopped by the arm of his colleague barring his way. “Madam, I’m sure your establishment is well-run,” he looked around the room, sneering at the worn furniture and motes of dust in the air, “but I must insist you permit us to do our job.”
The house shivered, causing a shutter to rattle. The residents, including Mr. Smith, were all gathered, their faces turned toward the police.
“You’re not needed for this, Maxwell. Take the landlady into the kitchen. Details may be revealed she won’t want to hear.” He nodded at Mrs. Toms.
“They think I’m an idiot, some junior who doesn’t know what’s what. Bloody City police thugs.” Constable Maxwell accepted the offer of gin this time and gulped it down. “Details may be revealed, just who does he think he is?”
“Hush, they’ll hear you.” She refilled Maxwell’s glass. “Now tell me what’s happened?”
Maxwell looked down and shook his head. “More death, Mrs. Toms. Another two women.” The landlady nodded at him to continue. “Shocking, it was. Saw the bodies myself this time. The first was found early this morning, had her throat cut. The second only an hour later, this one was worse.”
A throat clearing made them both jump.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in there, Mr. Smith?” The landlady pointed toward the parlour.
“I’m sorry to bother you, the policeman said I could come in here for some matches.”
Mrs. Toms rose quickly and grabbed a box from the stove. “Here, here, take them.” She shook the box at Smith.
“Were you discussing the murders?”
“That’s none of your business. Now away with you.” The landlady waved him off while behind her Constable Maxwell nodded. Mrs. Toms followed her tenant, ensuring he was firmly ensconced in a large armchair before returning to the kitchen.
“Where were we?” She offered Maxwell another drink but he declined.
“No, thanks, I’m still on duty and I’ve a long night ahead.” At the landlady’s nod he continued. “The second victim, young woman, throat opened, stomach torn, face mutila…”
“Please, that’s enough. I’ve changed my mind, I don’t wish to hear anymore.” She held up her hand.
The constable nodded, eyebrows raised. Even Mrs. Toms had limits to the information she could use. “I apologise, shouldn’t be sharing details like that.”
“I’m fine, really.” Mrs. Toms’ face said differently.
A raised voice in the parlour interrupted them.
“It IS my real name.”
“Sir, no need to get angry, we’re just doing our job.” He scribbled something in a notebook, the same size and shape as the one Maxwell used. “Where are you from?”
Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. “Kent.”
“You’re a long way from home, what’s your purpose in London?”
“I’m here researching buildings of interest.”
Mr. Smith frowned. “Why? Why what? Am I researching? Because I hope to one day become an architect.” He spoke quickly, his voiced hitching.
The house shook. It had heard Mr. Smith practising those very lines late at night in his room when everyone else was asleep.
The two City policemen whispered to each other as the tenants, Mrs. Toms and Constable Maxwell looked on. Finally one nodded and turned to Mr. Smith.
“Tell us where you were last Sunday evening.”
Looking around the room but finding no sympathy, he replied. “I went to The Pavillion.”
The room erupted in hypocritical gasps; the venue, known for its bawdy entertainment, had been patronised by them all, including Mrs. Toms.
The policeman addressed the room. “Please.” He turned back to Smith. “And who were you with?”
The room leaned forward to hear his reply, so soft was his voice. “A young lady.”
The house groaned again but the noise was ignored by Mrs. Toms, who decided at that moment that she’d had enough. “Stop harassing my tenants.” She stomped over and stood before Mr. Smith, waving an arm at him. “Obviously this man has done nothing wrong, and who he keeps company with is none of your business.” The tenants were used to their landlady’s voice but the men’s faces told another story. “Leave. Now.”
But they weren’t finished. “I’m afraid not. We’ll be searching the rooms now.”
“Whatever for?” Even the house shuddered at her voice.
“We’ve had a witness come forward and say the killer wears a cloak.”
Mrs. Toms sniffed. “A cloak? Bit posh for around here.” She looked around the room smugly.
“We’ll still be searching the rooms. If we find nothing of interest, we’ll leave. The sooner this is done the sooner you’ll be rid of us.” The policeman’s tone was firm, his stance rigid.
Mr. Smith’s room was the last to be searched. They looked at him, eyebrows raised, when they found books on architecture and a few poorly-drawn and unrecognisable sketches of buildings. “Did you do these?”
Sweat was now rolling down his face. The house noticed, if no one else did. The house had seen Smith take these same drawings out again and again, masturbating over them the way Mr. Lawford did with the risqué photographs of scantily clad women he thought were a secret.
“You’re not very good, are you?”
At this Mrs. Toms’ ire rose to new heights. “Now see here, we’ve done as you wanted, now leave this place you ill-mannered little man.” She gave a small nod to Smith, who was holding himself up with the bed frame.
The man returned the drawings to the table and allowed themselves to be pushed from the room, all the while glaring at Constable Maxwell. The man received a look of sympathy from the landlady before being shoved out of the house by one of the other policemen. Mrs. Toms reserved a special frown for certain occasions, and decided this was one of them. Glaring at the men she gave them a mocking curtsy and slammed the door behind them.
No one but the house noticed that Mr. Smith, rather than accompany the rest of the tenants in ridding the house of the policemen, had stayed behind and was now in Mr. Gridley’s room, his hand in the space beneath the dresser. He heard sounds more keenly and the house took advantage of his panic by shifting the floor outside the writer’s room, causing footstep-like sounds. But it was no use; Mr. Smith retrieved the jars and fled back to his own room, frantically opening the lids and throwing the contents onto the small coal fire. The house allowed more air to enter the chimney, causing the fire to spit angrily.
“Mr. Smith, what is going on?” Mrs. Toms was in the doorway, waving a hand in front of her. “And what is that smell?”
Smith quickly grabbed the poker and turned the coals over, hiding the burning organs. “I’m sorry, I think a rat died in the fireplace.” He poked the fire again, mixing the quickly disintegrating flesh with coals.
“And you didn’t think to take it out before lighting a fire?”
“I didn’t see it.”
“Well at least open the window, for God’s sake man.”
The house was certain, after the events of that evening, that Mr. Smith must surely stop his unnatural behaviour. The house was wrong.
The heart lay in the wash basin, illuminated by sunlight filtered through a grimy lace curtain. Mr. Smith dragged the chair to the basin and sat in front of it, staring at the organ that even the house recognised. After a quarter of an hour he reached over and put his finger in the aorta, drawing it out slowly. The sucking sound made the house shiver, rattling the window, but Smith didn’t notice. He just stared.
Night found Mr. Smith in the exact same position as he had been in all day. He’d remained immobile for hours, despite the house’s attempts to move him. But now, finally, he stood. All was still, save for the usual noises of the fitfully sleeping tenants, their dreams as impoverished as their lives. Smith passed silently by their rooms and went down the stairs, turning into the kitchen. Kicking aside a matt he opened the small door in the floor leading to a disused cellar; he lowered his head and entered. The small room smelled of earth and mold and as Smith crossed to the far side he held his breath as long as he could. Reaching into his pocket he withdrew a knife and used it to dig a hole in the earth beneath the long-rotted floor boards. When he was done he replaced the knife and brought out another object. The bundle was small and soft, blood dripping from the folds of the cloth.
Mr. Smith placed the heart in the hole and quickly refilled it, smoothing the dirt over before replacing the floor boards. Backing out of the space he took one last look before leaving, carefully closing the door and replacing the matt.
“You’re an early riser, Mr. Smith.” Smith had thought he might encounter Orna but he didn’t care. Peering at the bags beside his feet, Orna’s brow wrinkled. “You going someplace?”
“Actually, I’m leaving.”
“Oh.” Orna had made friends with Faye and Violet, despite Mrs. Toms’ disapproval, and was treated like a little sister by the men but she rarely got involved with the short-term tenants. “Well, I hope you liked it here.”
“I did, my dear, thank you.” He reached into his pocket. “Can you please give this to Mrs. Toms? It’s a letter thanking her. Tell her I won’t be asking for the return of any excess rent I’ve paid, I’m aware I’m leaving mid-week.”
Orna nodded and, along with the house, watched the man known as Smith pick up his cases. He took a step toward the door and stopped, turning to look at the maid.
“Here. I want you to have these.” He withdrew an envelope from a side pocket of his leather case and handed it to her.
“Can I open it?” Orna’s eyes glinted and a small smile played on her lips.
“Please do.” He watched her intently.
She carefully opened the envelope and pulled out a small pile of papers, all with drawings on them. Her face fell. “You did these?”
Smith nodded. “Yes. But you may have them.” He adjusted his travelling items and turned back to her from the doorway, which shook at his touch. “In case I become famous someday.”
Copyright Kelly Evans