“Murder or no, I’m not going down that alley in the dark,” Constable Barnes insisted. “And you shouldn’t either.”
Inspector Cranford glared up at the man. “In-sub-ordin-ation,” he said, drawing out the word, rain running off the brim of his bowler. Having just returned from her Majesty’s service he’d been newly assigned to this latest in a series of brutal murders in White Chapel Alley.
“Begging your pardon, Inspector, no one who goes into that alley after dark has come out alive. You’ll not be get anyone to go in there tonight. Best wait for daybreak.”
“I’ll have your pension, man!” He turned to Constable McBurn, who shrank back toward the street lamp.
“Inspector, I have four children,” McBurn begged. “We can go when it’s light and no harm done.”
“No harm done,” the inspector thundered. “Why, the rats will have been at the remains by then. This downpour will wash away evidence.”
“Please, Inspector,” coaxed the taller constable. “Sunup is in less than two hours. We can wait inside that tea shop, where it’s nice and dry, with an eye on the alley.”
By now the rain-soaked inspector was beginning to long for a hot cup of tea and allowed himself to be led through the puddles and into the shop.
The proprietress greeted them with a toothless grin. Without waiting for their order, she placed three steaming cups of strong tea on one of the small tables.
“Thought for a mo, you were actually goin’ down that alley,” she chortled.
“I fail to see the humor,” Cranford snapped.
“Oh, no one ever goes in there after dark. Not if they want to come out alive.”
The inspector grabbed her skinny wrist. “Tell me about it,” he demanded. “Who’s responsible for these deaths?” She twisted frantically, but he held her fast.
“All right,” she moaned. “Something in there. After dark. Like the Ripper it is, but not human.”
“What does this murderer look like?”
“Oh, sir, the only ones who’s seen it is dead.”
He released her. “Clap trap!” He started for the door. The constables blocked his path. The old woman began keening softly.
“What is the matter with all of you?” Cranford demanded.
“Begging your pardon, inspector,” Barnes said, “when you see the body... after the sun comes up... you’ll understand.” Cranford would have ordered them to stand down, but their eyes told him more than their lips ever could. Reluctantly, he took his seat and picked up his tea, wondering if the cup had been properly washed.
With the first rays of sun, the men returned to the alley. They went deep inside, poking amongst the garbage and human waste until they came to the corpse. It was a man, lying on his back. His eyes were staring, mouth wide open as if he’d seen something horrible.
The Chief Coroner’s examination revealed no wounds other than the marks on the victim’s left wrist, as if Death itself had gripped him with one bony hand. The coroner announced all those found in White Chapel Alley had met the same fate. “As if these poor blokes had been frightened to death. Not like the Ripper at all.” And although the good inspector tried valiantly to uncover the person responsible, matters did not progress.
Then a royal summons came to this former colonel, a welcome diversion, asking him to take part in an affair of state, replete in dress uniform and sword. After the affair, he departed for home. Despite the thick fog rolling in from the river, he decided not to hail a cab. He soon found himself in the White Chapel section. And he felt compelled to visit the alley.
It was one in the morning as he hurried along in splendid dress, his sword at his side. His footsteps echoed in the empty streets as he located first the dirty, little tea shop and then the alley. Cranford unbuckled his sword and strode up to its mouth. Made confident by Scotch, he shouted to whatever might be lurking inside.
“I am Inspector Cranford and a former colonel of her Majesty’s Service. Come out now! Let’s have a look at you!”
At first only silence greeted his shouts and he felt foolish. But then he heard it. A rustling. As if someone small and feeble, was shuffling towards him. He froze in fear, under the street lamp, waiting.
To his surprise, a tiny, old woman draped in a shawl crept closer in the dark, stopping just inside the alley and held out one hand. She wore a long dress, with an apron. Her head and face was covered by a ruffled, white-cotton bonnet. She didn’t speak, but Cranford thought she needed help. He took a step closer and still she didn’t move. She motioned for him to come to her. And so he did.
He had no sooner stepped inside the alley, when the creature’s hand lashed out. Just bones it was, without flesh, and it gripped his wrist. He gasped, but couldn’t break free. She began dragging him into the alley. Into the darkness. The darkness from which no one had ever returned.
With a mighty shout, he swung the sword, cleaving the bonnet free. She had no head, no face, and the bonnet fell limply, back into the alley. But still that skeletal hand gripped him, dragging him, step by step, into the darkness. In desperation, he lashed out again, severing her hand at the wrist. As her body reeled backward, Cranford took to his heels. He didn’t stop until he reached the coroner’s office.
It took all the coroner’s skill and several trusty instruments to pry that dead hand from Cranford’s wrist. Within 24 hours, White Chapel Alley was ordered bricked solid and Cranford announced he was done forever with soldiering and criminal investigations. Inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he became an author. His first story for the Penny Dreadful was “The Curious Case of White Chapel Alley.”