Jack Trump drank his coffee at the dockside café and looked out to London, New Year’s Eve, 1919. The mist was so thick everything appeared in segments; a snatch of a ferry boat departing, the cloth cap of a worker. A group of men stood gathered in the shadows and the only visible part of them was the bottle being lofted high into the air and tilted from one neck to the next. Rats scuttled by, too quick to be seen, only detected by the sound of their claws against the cobbles.
Had the nation forgotten the First World War and all they had lost? The capital was awash with excess, as if the spectre of the dead were just a temporary distraction. Medals of valour hung in pawn shops with alarming regularity and soldiers such as Jack seemed to be the walking dead; unnoticed and forgotten, only to be glimpsed at the back of factories or the dirtiest of pubs. Heroes in Hades, but forgotten back home, as the phrase amongst them went. And all the while the rich went about their lives, oblivious to the plight of the many. It was as if the mists clung to their very eyelids twenty-four hours a day, granting them tunnel vision; clear enough to only seek out the most expensive liquor and the most exquisite of thrills.
“Penny for your thoughts?” The voice drew him back to the table and the girl standing by him. The waitress had served him often enough, though neither had thought it proper to ask each other’s name. Jack smiled and ordered another coffee.
The words, coincidental enough, brought him back to the task at hand. In his pocket sat a penny, bequeathed to him in the battlefields of Flanders by one who knew of all things supernatural. It burned brightly that morning. Much like some put their beliefs in using tuning forks to find oil, the coin sought out all things unnatural. Though he had scanned the newspaper three times, the crimes, though plentiful, seemed rooted in man’s own faults and greed and nothing more. Jack had tried to read between the lines as best he could but found nothing, though he knew the answer was close, but just out of reach. The girl’s voice brought him round again, though it was not directed at him this time, but at another and at a stronger pitch, to boot.
By the time Jack looked over, the girl had prised herself away from the ominous looking fellow in the black bowler hat. Though she appeared calm, her cheeks still flushed red. The man seemed unfazed by it all, as if being dismissed by a young woman was all in a day’s work to him. Jack rose from his chair and walked between the two of them.
“Is there a problem here?” He asked, looking only at the man. His eyes were thin and green, as if they’d been chipped from some precious stone but sullied somehow.
“No problem, mister. I was just offering the chance of some free enterprise to those quick enough to seize it. Clearly, I was mistaken.” His voice was low, as if he’d just recovered from a disease only to start smoking in the next moment.
“I think so, sir,” Jack replied, not taking his eye from the man. In his pocket, the penny glowed. Something told him the man was evil, though not directly dangerous. More that he was an insidious thing, leeching off misfortune and as likely to twist a knife as to remove it if his hand settled on the hilt.
“Really, there’s no problem,” the girl answered, her voice flustered. The man rose and doffed his hat to them both as he left, his gesture ill-fitting and so insincere it was almost obscene. Jack watched him as he walked away; knowing a link to his next task had been made.
“Thank you,” the girl said quietly, gently touching his elbow. Jack looked round, awkwardly half-smiling to offer his re-assurance.
“That man, what was his business?” he asked, looking directly to the girl and waiting for an answer. The girl bloomed at the cheeks but he did not look away, realising this was too important to be constrained by social etiquette.
“He’s a peddler for the place on the Common…” her words drifted away and she waited for him to make the connection; seeing his ignorance, she slipped a card into his palm. It was a mix of lurid prose and gaudy colours, and left little doubt to the eye that it was a burlesque function house.
“I see,” Jack said quietly, feeling his own skin redden. “But he did not lay a hand on you?” he said, glancing back to the girl and glad to no longer be facing the calling card.
“His kind never does. With them, it’s always in the gestures and the way they slant their words, making plain things seem dirty. Like a magician with grubby nails while he’s performing his tricks.” She nodded to him defiantly and for a moment Jack admired her stance and the way she spoke her mind.
“He’s propositioned girls from around here before?” Jack went on. The card itched in his finger and he slipped it into other his pocket, weary of slipping it anywhere near the penny. The thing gave off such a stench of desolation and spitefulness he feared even contact with the coin would launch it into flames.
“I’ve seen him speaking to them but I don’t ever see them down this way again. Enough people round here know the stories but none of them want to raise their voice about it.” She wiped down the table where the man had sat, as if trying to wipe the very essence of him from the wood. Her cheeks blanched again but this time there was only anger in them.
“You spoke up, though and I thank you for it,” he said quietly and nodded to her. “Those girls, the missing girls, they were you’re friends?”
“I wasn’t close to any of them, but I still cared when they vanished, unlike the rest of them round here. My mother didn’t raise me to turn a blind eye or not speak up.” She drew herself up from the table, satisfied with her work.
“‘Course, she didn’t raise me to wipe down tables, either but there you go,” she said and smiled sadly to him.
Jack wondered about that smile; though she was young, it was a gesture of sadness and tales well beyond her years. He reached out and lightly touched her elbow, as she had done so before.
“I think you’re mother did a fine job with you, Miss and should be proud.” He nodded once and walked away, mindful not to doff his cap the way the lecherous man had done minutes before. Jack resisted the urge to follow the same path and instead made his way to the fruit stall, the plan afoot and his mind racing into overdrive.
The other dock workers would either be drunk, absent or both and the boss, a pragmatist as well as an addict, knew folly when he saw it and promptly declared the warehouse closed for two days. Jack returned back to his modest bed-sit and ran his eyes back over the newspapers from the last few weeks. Sure enough, a series of young women had gone missing, though not in quick enough succession to be linked to a single cause.
Jack sighed at the uselessness of the police force and wondered if it were ineptitude or something deeper, perhaps more sinister than simple malaise. He had long heard the rumours of coppers turning a blind eye to the excesses of the landed gentry and wondered if this was one of those times. As long as there was money there would always be the possibility of corruption. Jack wondered if the debauchery had grown larger and the need for silence greater. He opened the book of spells and waited for the veil of the night and New Year’s Eve to set him free.
Jack pawned a pocket watch and made his way to the burlesque club. He dressed as best he could and found his way into the queue as the stars built up in the sky. The men gathered at his shoulder sickened him; it was a collection of rich men slumming it and criminals trying to climb above their station. Though their social status were light years apart, all of them wore that same red tinged glint in their eye; a base passion, a need for extremity that a good wife or respectable girl would not provide.
He was stopped at the door and on the verge of being turned away until he opened his wallet, the notes fanning the proprietor’s face and wafting the veil back for Jack to step inside.
The club itself was more squalid than gaudy; the ornaments were rusted and cheap, as if claimed from a burning house than purchased over a counter. The bar itself was puny, the glasses smudged and the waiters glassy eyed with opiates. Everything about it was tainted, the cigarette smoke almost seeping from the tired wallpaper.
No, the only reason for the fat wallets and the thick queues were the women that were dotted throughout the place. As finely dressed at the place was downtrodden, they stood, almost frozen, one step away from a mannequin, all of them glazed as the men pored over their figures. The more leery they became, the more detached the girls seemed to appear; the tracks on their arms and their dead-eyed stares told Jack why. He reached into his pocket and drew the coin into his palm; it led him through the dark arches until he found a red velvet curtain hanging from a brass pillar. Sure enough, the man with the bowler hat man appeared in front of him.
“I thought you may have been intrigued,” he said, his venom green eyes flashing. “I’ve seen that stale routine, ‘the dashing gent,’ played out a thousand times before. On it goes and when they leave empty handed they always ends up here with their tongues lolling and their palms waiting to be filled.”
“Behind the curtain,” Jack said, affecting embarrassment and shame, even as his fists coiled. He looked up long enough to appear to accept his admonishment. The man licked his lips.
“Behind the velvet is an import that beggar’s belief. Only those who are willing to gamble their souls run the risk of stepping beyond.” He winked, a jade flash darting under the lids. Jack slipped his wallet out and showed him the cash.
“Is that brave enough?” he asked. The man sneered and smacked his lips loudly, as if insult and treachery were ingrained onto his every expression.
“Not really but I’ll let you step inside, just to see your shame,” he said quietly and tugged the curtain back long enough for Jack to slip inside.
The room gave off a fetid smell of desperation that reminded Jack of the men back in the battlefields. He looked around and touched the bare walls; they were damp, as if neediness were secreting itself from the very pores of the stone.
In the darkness something flickered into life and then, moments later, a woman drifted from the shadows. Yet, it wasn’t a woman, not quite. Though perfect in every conceivable way, there was something in her, a hollowness to her that was pure darkness. As she sashayed towards him, Jack felt his throat tighten. His body shook, not with desire but something else, something like an infection. As she drew closer her whole visage appeared to be a second skin, the beauty outside little more than a cloak over what lay deeper inside.
“You came here,” the voice whispered. It was melodious but slightly off kilter, like a birdsong with blood in the gullet. She appraised him and glowed ferociously. Once, he had seen a kite burn on the battlefield on Christmas day; her eyes were the colour of those spiraling flames.
“You want me,” she went on. For all the salaciousness of her form, the tone was oddly sexless, as if the need of both sexes had been crammed too tightly into one tongue. Jack edged a step backward and was aware the man had crept into the room to witness the performance.
“What do you want to see?” she drawled, the tongue flicking too far across the space between them and onto the lobe of his ear. As sickness threatened to overwhelm him, Jack drew the coin from his pocket and thrust it onto the forehead of the creature.
“I want to see what you have taken!” he roared, his voice dwarfed by the revelry outside their room. The penny seared onto the flesh and instantly all pretence of beauty fell away to depict the ugly landscape of its flesh.
As Jack plunged into his coat for the book of spells, he saw the transformation take place in the beasts’ form. In its face a riot occurred, as the half-dozen girls it had consumed in order to assume their beauty fought to the surface of its skin. He saw the innocence of each girl and saw how it had been slowly warped for the dark needs of the creature.
The page fell open and he began to recite the incantation; the Chameleon bucked against the words but Jack’s hand held firm, the coin burning deeper as it flayed flesh from its shell. The chameleon withered with each verse; its body, built on layer upon layer of lies, was stripped bare until only the bones remained.
The skeleton flamed into dust and the ashes sparked into the corners of the room. Jack staggered back, turning to see the man cowed in the corner, his face melted by the truth, his words little more than jabbering noise. Jack reached down and drew out the wallet, the gold and silver trinkets he had stored in seemingly endless pockets. As the flames spread, catching the red velvet curtain, he flung the loathsome wretch to the wall, not caring if he made it out of the room or not. Jack heard the chimes of the clock and the hollow laughter of the floor outside and stepped outside through the side door, as the first cheers turned to screams with the advent of the fire.
The newspaper reported the incident in muted terms, neglecting to mention the names of the governors, preachers and ministers he had seen inside the club and instead referred to them as ‘shell-shocked revellers.’ The building had burned down to embers and one on-looker remarked how the smoke seemed to take on a red hue, as if the perfume and beauty of the place itself was alight. Jack wondered sourly what beauty had ever existed in such a place, where suffering and servitude pandered to the basest of affluent men.
Jack had collected embers from the club and scooped them into a small jar. He scattered the ashes into the Thames, watching them disappear into the water and hoped the souls of the poor girls were finally at peace. As he walked back to the café, he saw the girl come out with her broom. She smiled at him and Jack smiled in return. It was busy that morning and they had little chance to speak. Instead, as he left his money on the table, he sought her out briefly and handed her a small satchel. Jack left without a word, not looking back until he was at a respectable distance, by the fruit stall. He smiled at the shocked expression on her face as she held the money and noted the tinge of sadness that rode over her upon discovering the girl’s rings and bracelets. As she looked around, he stepped out of her view, wishing her good fortune in the future, on this, the first day of the New Year, 1920.