Billi checked the address. Corner of Commercial and Fournier. The building in front of her was boarded up. Posters covered the walls and windows and the roof had partially collapsed. Derelict but this was the place for the party.
They were knocking down, at last.
About bloody time, too.
She checked up the street but this time of night even the muggers were in bed. The area had never been posh, exactly, but over the last few years the East End of London had become trendy and attracted the overspill from Canary Wharf, the financial heart of the city.
Well, until the credit crunch had hit.
Now the streets were lined with closed shops and houses all under the hammer. Repossessions were rife and the only thing booming here was misery.
This was Whitechapel. Misery was in the bricks and cobblestones. Billi could sense it now, the undercurrent of despair, the stain of things evil, and cruel. Once she’d visited a South London playground and felt the malevolence that seeped in the soil, a desolation. But the place had been small, lonely, abandoned and the site of murder.
The years had passed, but it was still in the stones. The torment would last here until London sank under the waves.
The padlock opened with little effort. Who’d want to break in here, anyway? Billi slipped her lock-picks back into her pocket and slung her bag over her shoulder.
They came every year, to honour their promise. It was Billi’s turn.
The door to the pub groaned as she heaved it open. Dust fell from the loose plaster. Coughing, Billi swept her torch over the pub’s interior.
A juke box sat in the corner. The chrome shone and the red and gold plastic panelling seemed to glow with life as the torch beam passed over it. Billi stepped over a crate of empty bottles and made her way to the bar. Dusty glasses hung over her head and a mouse scurried across the oak bench.
She dropped her bag onto the wooden top and then wiped a patch clear of dust with her coat sleeve.
She unhooked a wine glass and cleaned it before settling it on the counter. That one down she did the same again until there was a line of five.
Unzipping the bag she pulled out a bottle of wine. Fresh out of the catacombs beneath Temple Church. The knights own personal wine cellar. The cork was wrapped with cobwebs.
The label had faded but it was the oldest bottle they had and Billi shone the light onto the date.
A bad year.
With a flick of her wrist she drew out her multi-tool and its corkscrew. A couple of twists, a pull and the bottle popped open.
This is it.
She’d faced worse, much must worse, but there was something about this task that made her skin crawl.
But why? It wasn’t their fault, what had happened. No, the failure wasn’t theirs. It was the Templars who’d failed.
Billi poured up the dark red wine. A few drops stained the dust like blood on ash. Maybe she should have brought white.
The bottle chimed against the last glass as she emptied it.
Above her head was a small brass ship’s bell. Traditional pubs had rung it, calling time.
Billi’s fingertips paused against the cold metal. Time had stood still for these guests.
She flicked the metal ball suspended beneath the bell and the chiming metal echoed loudly in the dusty darkness. The vibrations seemed to resonant in Billi’s heart, but maybe it was just the creeping dread, the fear, that made it tremble.
A breath of air carried with it the scent of perfume. Billi’s nostrils pricked at the stinging, lemony odour. She forced herself to let go of the bottle and leave it on the counter. She wasn’t here to fight.
The dust swirled and voices whispered, breaking the dead silence. One by one they came. The floorboards creaked as the first indistinct phantom solidified. Billi stepped back and her hand rose to her throat, to her crucifix as first eyes peered from the ghostly haze in the centre of the bar. Then it took shape, a torso, limbs, a head. A woman, middle-aged, care-worn with heavily layered clothes and her hair drawn in a tight bun and pegged in place with wooden pins. A thread-bare shawl sat over her rounded shoulders and she rubbed her wrinkled, bony fingers together.
“Hello, Mary,” said Billi.
The woman looked her, confused.
“Where’s Percy?” she said.
Of course. The last one they’d seen was her godfather. Ten years ago.
“Shame. I liked Percy.”
A second woman stepped out of the cold fog of ether. Billi recognised her form the old photos. True, she was a carved up slab of meat in the pictures, but there was enough of the old flower seller for Billi to put a name to the victim. Billi took a glass and handed it to her.
“Annie,” Billi said.
The woman frowned but took the glass. She glanced at Mary and the two exchanged a barely civil nod of acknowledgement. This was going to be a fun evening.
The tall skinny woman ignored Billi and went straight to the bar and emptied the glass in a single gulp. She smacked her lips and peered into the now empty bottle. She sighed them looked at the other two women, and finally Billi.
“They sent a girl?” she said.
“Stop complaining, Lizzie, I think that’s nice,” said the fourth woman. Like the other three she was middle-aged, tired and dishevelled. Her chubby fingers bore broken dirty nails but her bright hazel eyes were warm and clear. She put an arm around Billi and she tried not to flinch at the frosty chill that seeped through her skin. The plump woman seemed not to notice and smiled as Billi gave her a glass. The woman’s eyes sparkled. “Cheers,” she said.
The fifth woman was youngest. Her deep red-coloured hair hung loose around her shoulders and her bright blue eyes sat, burning in a pale, soft face. A wrinkle of anxiety appeared on her smooth brow as she saw Billi.
“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “She’s just a child.”
“I’m old enough, Mary Jane,” replied Billi. The young woman shrugged, but took her drink.
Billi took out her vial of holy oil and undid her crucifix. Both sat on the now clear bar top. Then she faced the five women.
Mary Ann Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Cathy Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. They were pale, ethereal shadows, drifting back and forth between the mortal realm and the shadow realm they’d come from.
The pain lingered in their eyes, those hollow mirrored orbs. Billi had experienced the restless dead up close once before and these five woman bore the same weary misery. The cuts were dark groves, along their necks and faces. The stains on their dresses and skirts dark brown where he’d taken his ragged blade and made these five women immortal, in their own way.
“Well,” asked Lizzie. She up ended the glass again, hoping to sip any last lingering drops. “You got him yet?”
“Of course they ain’t,” said Mary. “We’re still here. Ain’t that so?”
The temperature had dropped and Billi’s fingers were numb. You couldn’t hang around ghosts too long. They were a tear in the wall between life and death, and the realm of the dead was nothing but coldness. Billi watched the frost spread across the glass in Mary’s hand, decorating it with tiny cracks and patterns.
“We were hoping you might be able to help us in the search,” said Billi. She’d talked this over with Elaine and Arthur earlier in the evening. “Anything you might remember about him?”
“Saucy Jack? What’s there to remember?” Annie Chapman took off her hat and put it on the bar, idly fiddling with the silk roses fixed to the brim. Then she raised her eyes towards Billi. “I could show you, if you wanted.” Her fingers crept towards Billi’s hand. At each step they left a minute frozen fingerprint. “You want a taste of it, little girl?”
Billi’s hand touched her crucifix and Annie stopped. Her thin white lips puckered into a frown and then into a fake smile, only partially full as she’d lost a few teeth and what remained were crooked and brown.
Billi had been possessed before. It hadn’t been nice.
Cathy Eddowes slapped the woman’s shoulder. “Give over, Annie. You’re frightening the poor lass.” She smiled at Billi. “Now, what’s your name?”
“Billi SanGreal. My father is-”
“We know all about Arthur. We know,” interrupted Cathy. “Now, thank you very much for the drink, but now to business.”
The five women gathered at the table. They each stood erect and straight and while they’d been alive, they’d been very different in shape and appearance. Mary Jane was in her mid-twenties, the others all in their early to mid –forties. But in death, each wore a similar mask. The grinning skull was just visible beneath their misty visages, and in death all were the same.
“My father wishes to know if any new memories may have arisen, since our last meeting.”
Lizzie laughed. “New? What’s new to us? We’ve been like this for Lord knows how long. You promised us you’d find him. And you ‘aven’t.”
Billi narrowed her gaze. “Do we know he’s still alive? After all this time?”
“He’s alive alright,” said Annie, the hat now on her lap. “And he’s as busy as ever.”
Billi shivered. “Where?”
Annie shrugged. “Where there are women.”
“What did he look like?” Billi asked.
The women looked at each other. Mary shook her head but Lizzie spoke up.
“A face like an angel. Beautiful, but frightening. You know what I mean?”
“Yes.” Billi put her hand to her neck, feeling the scar there. The one the angel had given her. The Templars had paid a steep price in stopping him.
I hope he’s rotting in Hell.
“You don’t remember it clear, your own death. There’s too much else going on.” Lizzie touched her belly. Her fingers gently drew a line from lower abdomen up to her breastbone. “His knife, all I could think about was how shiny it was. It being so dark an’ all, but not his knife. Pure silver, bright like it had a life of its own.”
“Where’s he now?” Billi asked.
Lizzie’s attention came back to the question. “Across the sea. He’s been lots of different places.”
Billi sighed. This was getting them no-where. She looked at the cross and holy oil. “Our offer still stands, ladies. We can give you your freedom. You just need to ask.”
“No. We’re not ready yet. You’ve got your bargain to fulfil and, I don’t know about you,” said Mary as she gazed around the table. “But I want to be there, when we get him. I’ll even hold the door open for him. All friendly-like. And I’ll say, with a curtsey, ‘Hallo, Jack. It’s been a long time, but do you remember me? We met just twice, at Ten Bells the first time when you bought me a glass of gin, then again, at Durward Street when you put your knife across my throat and up through my pretty skirts and my guts.’ Then I’ll give him my sweetest smile and watch him burn in Hell.”
“You think he’ll remember the likes of you?” Snorted Annie. “With all the others he’s done?”
“I’ll make him remember.”
A glass crashed to the floor. Cathy looked at her hand, watched it begin to fade. “Already?” she said. She looked at Billi with sad, forlorn eyes. “No, not so soon.”
Mary Jane went next, evaporating before Billi’s eyes with just a sad shake of her head. Annie and Lizzie were fading but Mary, her essence was stronger. She stared at Billi, her teeth gritted with effort. When she spoke, her voice was distant and faint.
“Look out, Billi SanGreal. His tastes have changed. He likes the pretty ones and you’d just up his alley.”
Billi shivered. “Where can I find him?”
Mary laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about that. He’ll find you.”
“Soon.” Mary was little more than a misty shadow now. “He’s coming home, Billi. Home.”
Billi stepped forward and reached out at the fading mist. Mary’s face waved and her voice was brittle and faint.
“Jack’s coming home.”