It’s that time again. Only happens once a week, creates a wealth of excitement and isnever, ever disappointing. What day is it? It’s Friday. And that means (because we actually remembered – go us) that it’s time for Friday Reads.
This week we’re highlighting Mayhem, the first in a two part series by the bestselling author of Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough. We’re also incredibly pleased to announce that the omnibus edition of Mayhem and its follow up, Murder, will be available at the month and is already up on Amazon for preorder – so if you love what you see here, go go go!
Delve into a gaslit London, where Jack the Ripper is making headlines, but another, much more dangerous, madman is on the loose.
When a rotting torso is discovered in the vault of New Scotland Yard, it doesn’t take Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, long to realise that there is a second killer at work in the city where, only a few days before, Jack the Ripper brutally murdered two women in one night.
This is the hand of a colder killer, one who lacks Jack’s emotion. And, as more headless and limbless torsos find their way into the Thames, Dr Bond becomes obsessed with finding the killer. As his investigations lead him into an unholy alliance, he starts to wonder: is it a man who has brought mayhem to the streets of London, or a monster?
Paris. November, 1886
He was quite handsome. A little thin, perhaps, and there was a strange mottled hue to his skin that made her think the consumption might have made a claim on him, but he had his own teeth and the air of a gent – if you could ever call an Englishman a gent – that put him a cut above her normal clientele. He was also paying her well. She smiled at him, even though he appeared less inclined to speak to her now they were alone than when he had first seen her. That did not concern her – he was English, after all, and although his French had sounded good, it might be limited.
She didn’t mind; talking could be more work than the other. There was always the chance of saying the wrong thing and then suddenly your lip was split and your eye blackened, and then there would be no work until they healed. Quiet was fine – and quiet normally meant quick, so even better.
The night was cold and she pulled her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders as she followed him down into the side streets of Montrouge to where his lodging rooms must be. A cold wind with winter on its breath twisted through the narrowing streets and they were left in midnight gloom as the glow of light from the cafés in the square faded. She sniffed, her nose running slightly, and then caught her breath as she tripped on the uneven cobbles. He grabbed her without breaking his own stride and pulled her firmly beside him.
‘You’re stronger than you look, Englishman,’ she said with a smile. There were gaps where a few of her own teeth were missing, but she knew her smile was still pretty enough for a girl in her position. ‘I like that.’ She laughed and leaned into him, as much clumsy flirtatiousness as because she could barely see the ground beneath her feet and her head was swimming slightly. She had a head for wine – in her business you had to – but tonight she had drunk too quickly, needing that inner warmth now the alleyways where she normally plied her trade were getting uncomfortably cold. When your skirt was hitched up around your waist and your cheek was pressed into the rough stone to try and stop them pushing their stinking tongues into your mouth, you felt even the lightest of chill breezes.
He did not react to her laughter, but she didn’t mind. He was lost in his own world somewhere, perhaps feeling premature guilt for the deed he had not yet done. He probably had a wife at home, sitting bolt upright in a dark parlour, her legs primly pressed together, everything between them religiously dry. She snorted to herself.
They rounded a corner and she was surprised when he stopped in front of a small artisan’s workshop. She had not expected he would be taking her anywhere too extravagant – his coat and trousers were worn, though they were still fine clothes. She had guessed he would be staying in one of the nearby lodging houses, not the smartest of addresses, but clean and comfortable. She had been looking forward to feeling the soft sheets beneath her, and if her luck had been in, he might have fallen asleep, and then she could have slept in comfort alongside him until he woke and threw her out.
She frowned as he tugged the wooden door open: it wasn’t likely to be warm in there, though at least it would be out of the wind. She had been fucked in too many strange places to feel any concern, though she was disappointed. Mainly she just felt a weariness that even the wine could not fight. Her English gent had already paid, so no doubt he would take his time. He was not doing it twice, though, no matter how many francs he had already handed over.
‘I like my privacy,’ he muttered, as if in explanation, and ushered her inside. He closed the door and then turned on a small gas lamp that cast long shadows across the dusty floor. Her heart sank further.
The place was dirty and looked neglected. She thought she could make out a table in the far corner, but the meagre light fighting its way through the grimy glass housing did not reach that far.
He moved closer until they were standing face to face. He grasped her upper arms. Once again she was surprised by his strength, especially when he looked so sickly. She ignored the purplish patches on his slightly bloated face, instead staring into his blue eyes. He looked nervous, and she warmed to him for that. She was a kind-hearted girl.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll have a nice time,’ she said, smiling and tilting her head coquettishly. She imagined he would like that. ‘Just you leave it up to me.’ She stretched her hand down to rub between his legs and gasped slightly – he fired up fast, this one – but he squeezed her arms tighter and pushed her further into the workshop. She was a little shocked by his sudden roughness, and tripped over her feet, and once again he held her up.
‘You don’t strike me as the rough type, cheri.’ She laughed a little, wanting to lighten the sudden tension. ‘Why don’t we slow it down? Why don’t you—?’
‘Do you see it?’ He shook her slightly. ‘Behind me – can you see it?’
For the first time that evening, something unpleasant unfurled in her stomach, hinting at bad choices made – the worst kind of choices. She looked into those blue eyes again. They were wide, intense, and she realised she had misread them. This wasn’t nerves, or shy fear of sex, this was something else, something completely other. This was madness. Her heart thumped loudly and the last warmth of drunkenness dissipated into cool dread.
‘Why don’t you let me—?’
‘Can you see it?’ he hissed, spraying spit onto her face. She flinched, both from him and the sour stench of his breath. He was sick, she was sure about that. The chill in her gut spread into her limbs and suddenly she was trembling.
‘You can have your money back. Just let me go.’ She tried to wriggle free, but his hands were clenched around her arms like vices. The splintered edge of the table behind her dug into her thighs. Metal clanked against metal and she saw tools spread across the tabletop. What were they for? Tears pricked suddenly at the corners of her eyes and she sniffed them away. She was being foolish. He was mad, she could see that, but that didn’t mean he was going to hurt her. The rush of blood in her ears and the panic loosening her bladder made her thoughts unconvincing.
‘You must see it,’ he continued, ‘behind me – right behind me! You must see it!’
She stared into the shadows over his shoulder. Maybe if she placated him then he’d calm down. She focused on the closed door and the lamp. They were so close, and yet so far away. She needed him to relax – if he relaxed, then she could get away. She was sure of it.
‘I don’t know,’ she stuttered, her mouth dry. Her eyes flicked from his face to the door behind him. ‘There’s something there . . . I think . . . maybe if we get closer to the light – maybe then I could see properly?’ She licked her lips. ‘Please, if we go near the door – where the light is – then I can look. I’m sure I can see something.’ She was speaking quickly and she wondered if he even understood her. She saw her own terrified face reflected in his dark orbs as he stared at her.
A frown crept across his face and settled in a ripple of wrinkles on his forehead. After a moment it twisted into a sneer.
‘You cannot see it,’ he whispered, eventually. ‘You cannot.’ He smiled at her, and she found that she was sobbing. ‘But I will tell you a secret,’ he whispered into her ear. There was a moment’s pause, and in it she held her terrified breath. ‘It can see you.’
Dawn was merely a grey chill when screams tore through the still sleeping town. Montrouge rose early that day, both sleep and tranquillity lost to them. Within an hour of the discovery, police were examining the remains that had been left so callously – so sacrilegiously – on the steps of the church, the town’s quiet place of sanctuary from the everyday toils of life. That morning there was no quiet. Even in the silence, the horrors of the crime disallowed peace.
The torso – the head, right arm and both legs were missing – belonged to a young woman. One breast had been brutally cut off, but it was quite clear from what remained that the victim was female. The police and surgeon talked amongst themselves before declaring that she could not have been murdered where she had been found; there was not enough blood. The townsfolk had become almost one in their appalled shock, and somehow this detail disturbed them even more than if the poor woman had been cut to pieces on the church steps. If he hadn’t killed her there, then in whose barn or outhouse had he committed his heinous crimes? A thorough search found no evidence, and neither did it find the missing body parts. The town did not sleep well that night, nor for many more to come. The townsfolk prayed that the wickedness that had come to their town had simply been passing through.
Later, when the torso had been taken for further investigation, it was discovered that the woman, suspected to be a missing local prostitute, was also missing her uterus.
The town prayed harder after that.