By Adrian Ludens
The moment Edward completed work on his fifth artistic endeavor he sensed the wheels of fate beginning to turn. Ginger, she had called herself, though he doubted that had been her real name. What a filthy, ignorant wretch she’d been at the start. Like the others, she’d been an unwieldy hunk of sculptor’s clay, rough and unfinished. He had carved with his blades until he found her true essence. No masterpiece, he had to admit, but a vast improvement and a strong artistic effort given the resources available at his disposal.
And yet, a mounting sense of dread compelled him to flee Whitechapel in the black of night, while her blood still soaked into the straw mattress where she lay. He’d stowed away in the back of a peddler’s creaking wagon. He couldn’t afford to be seen. Not that he feared recognition; published eyewitness accounts varied. He’d wanted to escape notice because he’d kept his leather apron and knives with him when he’d fled. He could not bear to leave them behind.
Edward smiled in the darkness. Scotland Yard, and the insufferable Abberline, had attempted to place him under surveillance. Though his name had not yet made the papers or the latest edition of Puck, Edward felt the noose closing around him. Abberline, Moore and the others would doubtless be enraged to find that their quarry had escaped. How far would their pursuit extend? When, Edward wondered, could he stop running? A nagging, yet comforting idea came to him. Perhaps others will take up my work. Edward contemplated this as the wagon he rode in reached the outskirts of London with the first gray light of dawn.
The fugitive fought the needling panic that came with the approaching sun. He scanned the empty streets, unfamiliar with this borough’s layout. Edward spotted a small shed and leapt from the still-moving wagon. His boots scraped the cobblestone but he kept his feet beneath him and ran. The unwitting peddler never looked back. Edward could see a frumpy woman inside her shop. The enticing aromas of meat pies and fresh bread invaded his flaring nostrils as he ran. Edward glanced around then stole into the dank confines of the shed. He crouched behind a stack of crates, sending a trio of rats scurrying for the corners.
Ensconced in darkness, Edward tucked his knees under his chin and contemplated his situation as morning broke. Despite the cramped quarters and preternatural knowledge that he’d be discovered soon if he didn’t leave London, he managed to doze. He’d rested for an hour before he received unwanted attention.
“What are you doing in there? And who the devil are you?”
Edward sat up, his mouth parched, pupils contracting from the invading light. The sunshine turned the figure into a black silhouette blocking his only means of escape.
“Why are you in my shed?” The figure’s strong Cockney accent was shrill, grating.
“A trio of unsavory characters beat me and robbed me on Wapping High Street. I remember one of them had a cudgel.” The lie came easy. Edward pressed a hand to his temple and shaded his eyes as if in pain. In truth, he covertly examined his inquisitor, who seemed to be alone.
The woman—whom Edward was certain he’d seen in the bakery window—seemed nonplussed. “Wapping High Street, you say? Then why did they dump you here?”
“I don’t know, mum. I don’t even know where I am.”
“Blackwall. Near the docks.” The wood creaked beneath the woman’s shifting feet. “You can’t stay here.”
Edward nodded, winced, and said, “I think my kneecap’s dislocated. Will you help me stand?”
The woman sighed but moved toward him, skirts rustling against crates. She bent and held out an arm.
Edward took it, twisted it, and drove the woman face-first into the shed’s wall. He maneuvered behind her and snapped the woman’s neck. He staggered to the door and pulled it nearly closed, allowing only the thinnest line of sunshine to reach the interior. Edward crawled back to the woman and withdrew a blade from his leather apron. It felt comforting to touch. So would the woman’s inner workings—once he had arranged them just so. He paused, reflecting. This would not do. He could not leave a trail. Lips pressed together in a tight line, Edward fought against, and resisted the nearly unbearable compulsion to use the woman as his canvas of flesh. Sighing, he put his knife away.
Edward stood and eased up to the crack in the door. He closed one eye and surveyed the street. Horse-drawn wagons passed in either direction; nearly all were filled with goods. Here and there, a carriage held occupants, but most of the traffic here seemed to be commerce-related. Edward thought of the docks, now within walking distance. Did he have enough money for passage across the ocean? He believed so. Perhaps he could pick up work along the way. Edward slipped from the shed and strolled with his hands in his pockets, his treasured knives rolled up in his leather apron tucked in the crook of one arm. He decided upon a destination as he walked to the docks.
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Ten years later and half a world away, Edward still fled fears of detection and incarceration. He also fled his own reckless urges. Edward had traveled in a restless zigzag across America in a fruitless attempt at leaving suspicion of his previous crimes—and tempting new flesh canvases for his blades—behind him. He sought only solitude.
Edward had taken notice of the newspaper reports detailing the discovery of gold in the Klondike region of the Yukon. This region appealed to him. There, he thought, he could avoid the slatternly women who too often caused him unbearable temptation. With no small amount of luck and a great deal of hard work, Edward might return reinvented, a wealthy man.
This morning, however, Edward lay silent, listening to the sounds of betrayal.
“Hurry up and get the other dogs harnessed. The more ground between him and us when he wakes the better.”
“It doesn’t bother you to leave him?”
“Edward’s a monster. I won’t be the one to stop him, but I won’t be around when they hang him, either. They might want to string us up just because we’re with him.” The man grunted with exertion as he hefted something onto one of the sleds. “Besides, once we’re home, won’t half of the gold spend a lot nicer than a third?”
Though the other man did not respond, Edward knew his Klondike prospecting partners meant to abandon him, to leave him starving, feverish, and alone against the elements.
He lay in his tent, wakened by their stealthy movements as they broke camp. His partners, Sheldon Winslow and Morgan Lynch, expected him to die—and soon. Edward meant to prove them wrong.
He’d paired up with Sheldon in Portland at the start of the trek north. They’d met Morgan in the Alaskan port city of Skagway. The trio formed an alliance marrying their fortunes, literal and figurative. The prospecting and survival supplies, the food and rations, the cold weather clothing, the purchase of good sled dogs, and a hundred other expenses they hadn’t counted on had depleted their existing funds. Yet they’d been lucky. Edward and his partners had been among the first to stake a claim on the newly christened Eldorado Creek, and had mined more gold than those earlier arrivals who worked claims on the famous Bonanza Creek. Most of the other fortune seekers found nothing at all, save for frostbite on the Yukon Trail and syphilis in Dawson City’s brothels.
Because of the brothels, Edward came face to face with what he loved, and loathed, most. He should have known. Wherever men and money were found, there too would flocks of soiled doves congregate, feeding off the men like parasites. Poisoning the men with disease and insanity. These women needed reshaping. Edward knew he was the perfect man for the work. No one else had his experience, his pedigree.
He’d removed his leather apron from where he had kept it hidden deep in his pack. The blades sang to him as he picked each one up in turn, examining them for sharpness. One artistic endeavor led to another, and soon he had equaled his Whitechapel output.
Recently, Edward had been battling a fever. Now his prospecting partners meant to take advantage of his situation, meant to leave him behind.
The pounding headaches, the burning throat, and the muscle stiffness he could bear, and had. Fever dreams plagued him at night, but he’d felt sure recovery was imminent. It had now become obvious that his partners disagreed.
Edward regretted last night’s outburst. They’d just crossed the Yukon River. Fort Yukon lay behind them. Dawson City lay ahead. The trip south across the river had seemed endless—to Edward. His illness, apart from taking a toll on his body, had begun to take a toll on his mind. Every few minutes, he felt convinced that he could hear the river’s ice cracking beneath their feet. He fought the waves of panic, letting the dogs find their way. At last, they set up camp on the other side, nestled amongst the spruce timberland. Sheldon and Morgan had wanted to go on, but Edward insisted on stopping. Once the tents were pitched, he had crawled inside his, legs dragging, body shaking with exhaustion.
When Sheldon brought in strips of bacon on a tin plate for him some time later, Edward mistook the food for strips of human skin. “You’re supposed to leave those whores to ME!” he shouted. “It’s my blades that cleanse, not yours!”
Sheldon had withdrawn from Edward’s tent, thin-lipped and glowering.
Fever dreams and jumbled recollections plagued his sleep. He had started awake, only to find he’d left one nightmare to enter another. The sounds of their furtive movements drifted into his dark tent. He lay there hearing so much, but seeing so little.
Now, driven by equal parts fear and fury, Edward finally threw off the clinging blankets and crawled toward the tent opening. He tried to shout through the walls of his tent but his throat only made a dry clicking. One of the dogs whined. One of the men grunted as he lifted something heavy. The sounds all had a muffled quality, as if already fading from memory. He tried to call out but all that escaped his mouth was a cracked whisper. He fumbled in the darkness for the opening of the tent.
“Mush!” Morgan’s voice commanded. The sound of one of the sleds began to diminish as it moved away from camp and found the trail. Edward heard more whining. He wondered if it came from Iluq. The squat, gray malamute with the missing tail had always preferred him to the other men. Perhaps Iluq would be his ally now, refusing to budge until Edward had joined them. He felt a flicker of hope.
A whip-crack pierced the air, extinguishing Edward’s short-lived optimism. The jingling of leather traces were enough to convince him that the second sled had joined the first in their exodus of betrayal. He still had his knives, always kept them nearby in their leather apron. If they came back now, Edward vowed to slice them both open out of spite. Take a blade across their throats and another across their bellies. Let their steaming entrails flash-freeze in the sub-zero conditions. And all that gold! That, too, provided Edward with incentive to survive.
He fumbled with the tent flap and winced at the burst of frigid wind that slapped his face when he pushed it through the opening. The air felt so cold it burned. He hadn’t appreciated the comparative warmth of the interior of his tent until now.
No clouds floated in the Arctic sky, yet no sun shone either. Except for the spruce trees, the world seemed to exist in shades of gray. Steeling himself against the cold, Edward crawled on his elbows the rest of the way through the tent opening.
“Morgan! Sheldon!” This time he had mustered a feeble cry, but nothing close to an actual shout. He spat in disgust and his saliva cracked before it hit the snow. He realized that meant it was colder than fifty degrees below zero.
The sled tracks led down a deep ravine. Terror at the prospect of spending his final minutes helpless gripped him. He cursed his former partners. They’d left him. He still had his blades, but what good could they do him now? He had no means of escape. How long could he survive in fifty-degree-below-zero conditions without food or supplies? Edward let the thought go. He squinted across the ravine and saw no dogs or men, only a serene landscape of spruce trees and snow. He crawled into his tent, deciding it would be his sanctuary until death came.
“Our father in heaven, hollow is thy name,” he croaked aloud. “Now I lay me down to sleep in a frozen tomb, dark and deep.” He closed his eyes. Strange how cozy his hiding spot now felt. After all he had witnessed, he decided death itself wouldn’t be so bad as long as he met it on his own terms. Edward considered stripping naked and laying outside on the snow but couldn’t summon the strength he needed to execute his plan.
He concentrated on the drifting sensation that now buoyed him, curled in his murky womb. A womb or a tomb? Perhaps they were the same.
He drew his knees up to his chest. He felt safe. White surrounds me, yet I see only darkness. Edward smiled at the gentle incongruity.
Time passed. Edward slept but did not die.
“You in the tent. Are you awake?”
Edward struggled into a sitting position, his mouth parched and his pupils contracting from the invading light. Someone held the tent flap open. The sunshine turned the figure standing before him into a black silhouette. A sickening sense of déjà vu swept over him. For one moment, Edward thought himself back in the shed beside the bakery in Blackwall—the past ten years a dream. Then he realized the truth. A wiry, dark-skinned man crouched, looking into the tent.
No sound of breaking branches or inhuman roars came to his ears.
He glanced back at the newcomer—an Inuit. He seemed to be melting, his substance fluid. Edward’s mouth went dry. He shook his head, as if willing his mind into coherent thought.
“Sick. Fever,” he rasped. “Need help.” He collapsed again and allowed darkness to cradle him.
His companion seemed to fade in and out of sight as he told the tale of a vicious and violent demon named Kigatilik. When the apparent shaman referenced The Claw People, his gnarled hands twisted into hideous pincers. He said he had once encountered a pair of prospectors lying naked in the snow, entwined in each other’s arms, and frozen stiff. These stories and more replayed themselves with feverish repetition on a stage in Edward’s mind. He tried to tell the strange man to stop but couldn’t find the words. The faces and forms of his victims interspersed themselves in the scenes of mythological depravity and carnage. Blood-soaked figures contrasted with endless white mountains in Edward’s nightmares. Had the demon, Kigatilik, wreaked this havoc?
“No, Edward,” said a pulpy red maw that once anchored a face. “Not Kigatilik, but you.”
Edward awoke from this most recent dream with a start. It had felt more like a visitation. Like the long-ago Sunday school story of Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales had fallen from his eyes. He’d been going about it all wrong. Nevertheless, the great god Kigatilik had come to him, had demonstrated for him.
“My god has taught me how to prey,” Edward marveled.
“You’re awake. Good.”
Edward recognized the speaker but tensed when he realized he didn’t know where his leather apron and knives were. Without them, he felt naked, exposed.
“Who are you?” Edward asked the stranger.
The old man sat down across from him. Between them a campfire blazed. “I am Sawaya, a Yupik shaman.”
“What do you want?” Edward’s eyes darted around, taking in his surroundings. He’d been moved, he saw. His location had changed and the absence of his knives troubled him.
“Have no fear,” the older man said. “If I wanted to kill you, I would have already done so, using a ceremonial ivory-bladed knife given to me by Tagish, one of the tribe’s hunters in exchange for healing his sick child.”
“Or you could have bored me to death with another story like that one.”
The shaman leveled his gaze on Edward. “I have kept you warm and safe as you thrashed and sweated. The stars have appeared and danced their dance in the sky five times, and I have watched over you. The caribou hide blanket you have curled under I have brought for you. I hunted to keep you fed; not a simple task since you scared away most of the wildlife with your ravings.”
Sawaya rose and approached him. The old man fingered his carved-stone orca amulet with one hand and withdrew an ivory blade with the other. He crouched beside Edward, brandishing the weapon.
“Better put that thing away,” Edward said. “Or I’ll take it—and the entire arm holding it—as a souvenir.”
The Yupik paused, considering. Then he sheathed the weapon. “You do not understand. I act as a go-between, serving my people, the Yupik, and the spirits of the sea animals.”
“What do you want me for, a ritual sacrifice?” Edward felt his lips pulling into a humorless smirk. “I’ll never let it happen. I’ve walked away from much worse.”
“No. I dragged you away from worse. That is the truth. I mean you no harm. That also is the truth.”
“How is it that you speak English?”
“I interact with those in the white people’s village.”
“Dawson City?” the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Edward winced; he didn’t know if his description had made the rounds.
“Yes. The place you have fled.”
An icicle of fear slid down Edward’s spine. “How do you know that?”
“I’ve been watching you since you arrived. The first time you arrived,” the old man said pointedly. “I witnessed your violent actions toward the woman on that first night and toward the others on nights that followed. I hope my silence, despite my knowledge, has helped build the level of trust between us.”
“You saw the things I did. And yet you sought me out. You said you wanted to test me. Why?”
“I consult dreams. I listen to the spirits. I often know more about people than they themselves know.”
“If you’re trying to get me to pay you for your silence, your minutes are numbered, old man.”
“You radiate a power unlike anything I have experienced. The only word I can use to describe it is otherness. You wish to feed your dark instincts.”
“I fought against them,” Edward admitted. “But then…”
“You had a vision,” Sawaya finished.
“You saw Kigatilik.”
Edward remained silent.
“Few see him. Fewer still see him and live. This is why I believe you can help me.” Sawaya knelt and stirred the campfire with a stick. “There’s someone else nearby who would interest you.”
The shaman had piqued his interest. “Tell me.”
“He is powerful, like you,” the shaman said. “Mumetaq is the largest and strongest of our tribe. He towers over all others by two heads. But he attacks his own people. He was once a man, now he is a monster.”
Edward felt his nostrils flare, his eyes narrow. He couldn’t tell if he felt insulted or intrigued. A mix of both, perhaps. “Why is he like me?”
The shaman flushed. “Alike, yet different.”
“He wanders, but can often be found near the seal camps. It’s where he preys, where he eats.”
“He kills seals? That is of no concern to me. You’ve wasted enough of my time.” Edward cast the caribou pelt aside and stood.
The Yupik raised both hands in a warding gesture. “Mumetaq kills members of his own tribe. He eats them. He eats us.” Sawaya grimaced. “He went hunting but returned possessed by the demon spirit we call the Wendigo. The transformation was instant, his hunger relentless. I tried everything I could to heal him. Nothing worked.”
“And this Mumetaq; he still terrorizes your tribe?”
“Yes. He is a monster, with the strength of a polar bear. He does not protect us, does not honor our ways. Only a monster attacks, kills, and eats his people.”
“Why tell me?”
“You can save our dwindling tribe.” The Yupik clutched his orca amulet.
“You alone have the expertise needed to do the job. I’m asking you to spare me and kill him instead. Consider it a challenge.”
Edward grinned. “First, you will return to me my leather apron and knives. Next, you will lead me to your cannibal giant, old man. And then you will leave us alone.”
Coming to him for help would prove to be the worst mistake the Yupik shaman had ever made. Of this, Edward felt sure. He sneered at the old fool’s sincerity as he tracked his quarry. He had to give the old man credit, however, for the herb-infused stew he’d prepared for him. Edward had wolfed it down and his fever had broken. He felt like a new man as he took a deliberate step into Mumetaq’s field of vision.
The giant lunged and swiped at him with polar bear-like ferocity. Edward dove into the sparse scrub cover provided by the tundra. His attacker lumbered toward him but Edward darted out of harm’s way.
Edward studied the other man’s enraged visage. Bulbous tumors pushed out from his head in every direction. This was certainly the murderous outcast, Mumetaq. The shaman had described him well. His arms were enormous, his fists like limestone blocks. His sinewy legs looked like they could carry him a hundred miles before tiring. The giant focused on Edward, bellowed, and charged.
Knowing he faced imminent danger, Edward reached into his leather apron and withdrew six blades, three wedged between the fingers of each hand.
Mumetaq’s brutish eyes widened. The big man slowed, stopped, and then drew back, not out of fear but apparent reverence. Edward gave his first convert a beatific smile. He flicked the blades, quick and effortless, and saw how the mad cannibal admired how they reflected the starlight.
Edward had decided to serve his own purposes by not complying with the shaman’s instructions. He offered Mumetaq’s his largest knife. The other man received it and an immediate change came over him. The perpetual look of rage drained from the big man’s face. A look of malicious glee replaced it. The Yupik outcast sat down and looked at Edward, eyes agleam.
Edward flicked his wrist. He mimed approaching someone and slitting their throat, their chest. He showed the giant cannibal how to carve a body, and the important role the blades played. Edward pointed at himself. Then he pointed at Mumetaq who now trembled with excitement. Edward pointed in the direction of the mining camp.
The giant grinned. A slaver of drool from his mouth caught the starlight. Edward realized the cannibal was literally hungry for action. Come to think of it, Edward thought, I could go for a bite, myself. A special variation of steak tartare perhaps. Or fresh tongue. Why be afraid to try new things? He turned and began walking across the tundra back toward Dawson City. Mumetaq rose to his feet and followed.
Gladys Beasely bundled against the night’s bitter chill, marched along the all but deserted road on the edge of Dawson City. She’d been out late, speaking with other like-minded citizens about cleaning up the town’s vices: the gambling, the dance hall girls, the drinking. Someone had inferred that some of the dance hall girls did more for the miners than just dance. For Gladys, that had been the last straw. She meant to confront these women of ill repute immediately, and either drive them from town or compel them to kneel and pray for forgiveness. She’d learned of the location of one of the largest brothels from a red-faced man who had quickly clarified that he’d overheard some other men talking about it, but had never visited the location himself.
Gladys knocked on the door of the establishment but no one answered. She vowed not to give up. She hammered on the door. Still no one came. “I know you’re in there!” she called. Her skin prickled with anger. When they opened the door, she’d be ready with Word and the wrath of God. She gazed at the door. Nothing happened.
Then she heard approaching footsteps. They rounded the corner of the building. Gladys flushed and turned to face the street, ready to explain. Two men, obscured by the night, approached. One towered over the other. Something hovering near the smaller man’s midsection glinted in the starlight.
“On your way out, mum? I know this place,” the shorter man said, “and I must say it is an affront to your better nature which, I’ve no doubt, lies hidden deeply within. Fortuitously, I am just the man to help you find it.”
Gladys’s knees threatened to buckle. She found herself unable to speak, unable to breathe. The giant savage intimidated, yes, but the shorter man with the English accent infused her with deep, penetrating dread. His eyes glittered maniacal, monstrous. He wore, she saw, a leather apron. In each hand, he held two menacing blades. He twirled the knives with ease and tossed them each aloft in turn, like a juggler at a carnival. It was quite a feat. One, she realized belatedly, that she’d never have the chance to see again.
Gladys fell to her knees on the frigid, muddy ground. Movement had become impossible. She gazed straight ahead as they approached, until all she saw was the monster’s leather apron.
Photo: Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay
Adrian Ludens is an afternoon rock radio host, a hockey public address announcer, bartender and writer. He’s published fiction in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Women’s World, and several dozen anthologies. (Favorites include The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, Gothic Fantasy Science Fiction Stories, Blood Lite III: Aftertaste, and Terror Politico.) He enjoys exploring abandoned buildings. Adrian lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota with his family.
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