The streets were full of workers from the factories and dockyards around the area peppered with a few obvious sailors. He had never gotten over the fact that most of the population of the largest city in the world was living in abject poverty, not that he felt bad for them, he hated walking through the filth that was London East End, the stench was overpowering, the gloomy London weather somehow seemed gloomier in this grungy neighborhood, it was as if he had passed through a doorway that opened to a murky version of the city.
He had been watching her for the last one week, a pattern had begun to emerge. She would come down at around 7 PM from one of the hundreds of small rooms in the area and walk slowly down the street heading west. Tonight was no different.
He saw her coming down the stairs and stood up. She started walking down the road and he followed, melting into the evening crowd, if it wasn’t for his thick long coat and broad hat, he would have stood out like a sore thumb, if anyone bothered to inspect the coat and hat, they would have arrived at the conclusion that it was badly weathered and overused, a closer inspection would have proved them wrong.
He didn’t know her name, but she reminded him of someone, probably his mother – or was it his old housekeeper? He did not remember his mother well, she had died when he was a child, but he imagined his mother looked like this woman who walked a few steps ahead. He knew what she did for a living, which was just one of the many things that separated her from his mother – and the many women he knew in the city, she had a pale emaciated face, but her grey eyes glittered with a shine that he had not seen in his part of the city, he knew she was also deceptively strong; he had seen her argue and fight with some men the other day, she had managed to land a few strong blows, good enough to end the fight soon, he wondered if he was in love with her.
It had happened before, so it was not unlikely. The only thing he was sure of was that when he looked at her, he felt peaceful, which was odd, because he did not really know her, in fact, he had never even spoken to her. That would change soon.
He followed her around the street all evening, it began to get difficult to stay unseen as the crowd thinned out for the night, but he had to, he had been mentioned in the newspapers over the last few months, so he was not just trying to hide from her, he had to make sure no one saw him following her, he wondered again if it was time he ended this cat-and-mouse game and confronted her.
He had to time it right.
She stopped briefly at the pub at the corner of an alley, this seemed to be one of her regular haunts, he had seen her stop there every night over the last week. She expertly sifted through the crowd and mentally picked out the most drunken men there, the drunken ones never strayed too far from the tap, she flashed a smile at the men at the bar and received a few smiles and scowls back. He knew she would be in there till she got a client and he waited across the road in the shadows.
She was in there till about midnight before she stepped out, alone and a little drunk, she looked disappointed. Deciding there was nothing more to be done there, she turned back towards her room at the bottom end of the road. Tonight seemed to be his lucky night. He crossed the road and followed her, the streets had cleared over the last couple of hours, he tried to stay in the shadows as far as possible, which was aided by the dim streetlights.
After a block, she turned around and looked at him. He stopped. He was sure she couldn’t have seen much, thanks to his attire and the dark shadows, she had probably heard his footsteps on the cobbled path, turning back she started walking a little faster and so did he, she kept looking over her shoulder and walked faster, almost running. He kept up.
Suddenly she turned right into a dark alley, he stepped in too, it was too dark to see her, he walked slowly and listened. Suddenly, a door opened into the alley throwing a dim sliver of light across his path, two men, probably dockyard workers, stumbled out singing loudly, one of them noticed him and called out to him but he kept his head down and continued down the alley. The two men shrugged their shoulders and walked out to the main street. He turned around making sure there was no one around and then resumed his pursuit.
His eyes had become accustomed to the low light in the area and he saw an empty yard to his right, he heard a rustling sound and turned towards it, opened his coat and lit a match and held it high. He walked around a few boxes kept in the corner and saw her cowering behind them. He felt sorry for her, he knew she must be terrified. She looked up at him, eyes wide with terror and he smiled at her. Somehow, that seemed to calm her slightly.
“Who are you?” she stuttered “Why are you following me?”
He noticed her heavy English accent, it somehow sounded harsh. It irritated him. He extinguished the match and opened his coat.
“Don’t you read the newspapers, love?” he said, still smiling, as he pulled out the large butcher knife.
“I am Jack.”
And he swung.