Home > The Ripper (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #4)(4)

The Ripper (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #4)(4)
Author: L.J. Smith

"You one of them newspaper boys?"

I glanced up at the barkeep in front of me. One of his front teeth was gold, the other was missing, and his hair stuck out in wild gray tufts. I shook my head. I just have a taste for blood. The phrase popped into my mind. It was an off-color joke that Damon would have cracked. His favorite game was to almost give himself away, to see if anyone noticed. Of course they didn't. They were too busy being dazzled by Damon.

"Mate?" the barkeep asked curiously, plunking a filthy rag on the bar as he looked at me. "You one of them newspaper boys?" he repeated.

"No. And I think I might not be in the right place. Is the Journeyman nearby?" I asked, already knowing the answer.

"Ha! You 'avin' a laugh? The Journeyman is that right proper supper club. Only admits the toffs. Ain't our kind, and you won't get in neither, even with that fancy shirt. Only option is to drown your sorrows with some ale!" He laughed, displaying one of his gold molars in the back of his mouth.

"So the Journeyman club isn't close?" I asked.

"No, mate. Close to the Strand, near al them shows. Where the fancy folks go when they want to get wild. But they come here when they want to get wicked!" The barkeep laughed again as I glanced away, annoyed. I wasn't going to find Damon here. Unless . . .

"Beer, please. A dark ale," I said, suddenly inspired. Maybe I could get the barkeep to talk and find clues to who - or what - was responsible for Mary Ann's death. Because if it was Damon, either directly or indirectly, I'd final y teach him the lesson he should have learned long ago. I wouldn't kil him or stake him. But if it came down to it and I had him on the ground, at my mercy, would I hurt him?

Yes. I was immediately certain of my answer.

"What?" the barkeep asked, and I realized I'd spoken out loud.

"Just that I'd like that ale," I said, forcing a pleasant expression.

"Al right, friend," the barkeep said amiably as he shuffled to one of the many taps that lined the back of the bar.

"Here you go." The barkeep pushed a glass of frothy brew toward me.

"Thank you," I said, tipping the glass toward me as though I were drinking. But I just barely let the liquid cross my lips. I needed to keep my wits.

"So you're not a newspaper boy, but you're not from around here, are you?" the bartender asked, leaning his elbows on the bar and gazing at me curiously with his bloodshot gray eyes.

Since I spoke to so few people, except for the Abbotts, I forgot that my Virginia accent instantaneously gave me away. "From America," I said briefly.

"And you came here? To Whitechapel?" the barkeep asked incredulously. "You know we have a murderer on the loose!"

"I think I read something about that in the paper," I said, trying to sound casual. "Who do they think it is?" At this, the barkeep guffawed, slamming his beefy fist on the bar and almost causing my drink to tip over. "You hear that?" he cal ed to the motley crew of men on the other side of the bar, who al seemed deep into their drinks. "He wants to know who the murderer is!" At this, the other men laughed, too.

"I'm sorry?" I asked in confusion.

"I'm just having a laugh," the barkeep said jovial y. "It's not some bloke who pinched a purse. This is an unholy kil er. If any of us knew who it was, don't you think we'd go straight to Scotland Yard or the City of London police and let them know? It's bad for business! That monster has al our girls half-terrified!" He lowered his voice and glanced at the cluster of women in the corner. "And between you and me, I don't think any of us are safe.

He's going for the girls now, but who's to say he won't go for us next? He takes his knife and like that, you're gone," he said, drawing his index finger across his throat for emphasis.

It doesn't have to be a knife, I wanted to say. I kept my gaze locked on the barkeep.

"But he doesn't start at the neck. Why, he cut that girl's innards right out. He likes to torture. He's looking for blood," he said.

At the mention of the word, my tongue automatical y slicked over my teeth. They were stil short and even. Human. "Do they have any leads? The murder sounds gruesome." I grimaced.

"Wel . . ." The barkeep lowered his voice and raised his eyebrow at me. "First off, you promise you ain't from one of those papers? Not the Guardian or them other ones?"

I shook my head.

"Good. I'm Alfred, by the way," the barkeep said, reaching out his hand to me. I shook it, not offering my name in return. He continued, hardly noticing. "I know the life we live here doesn't seem prim and proper like what you might be used to across the ocean," he said, taking in my brand-new Savile Row outfit, which made me wildly overdressed for this establishment. "But we like our way of life. And our women," he added, waggling his salt-and-pepper eyebrows.

"The women . . ." I said. I remembered the article had said that the victim had been a woman of the night. Just the type of woman Damon had enjoyed at one point. I shivered in disgust.

"Yes, the women," Alfred said grimly. "Not the types of ladies you're going to meet at church, if you know what I mean."

"But the type of women you pray to meet in bed!" guffawed a ruddy-complexioned man two seats down, holding up his whiskey glass in a mock toast.

"None of that talk! We're a respectable establishment!" the barkeep said, a wicked spark in his eye. He turned his back to me and fil ed two glasses with several inches of amber liquid. He then turned and ceremoniously placed one in front of me.

"For you. Liquid courage. You need it around these parts, what with the murderer walking the streets," Alfred said, clinking his glass with mine.

"Although my best advice is to stay here until sunrise. Maybe meet a nice lady. Better than meeting the Ripper."

"'The Ripper'?"

Alfred smiled. "That's what they're cal ing him. Because he doesn't just kil , he butchers. I'm tel ing you, stay here for your own protection."

"Thanks," I said uneasily. I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay. The smel of iron hadn't lessened in my time in the bar, and I was growing increasingly sure it was emanating from the wal s and floor. The man in the corner kept staring at me, and I found myself staring back, trying to see any glimpse of fangs or blood-flecked chins. I could hear the women behind me whispering, and I wondered what they were discussing.

"Did Mary Ann . . . the most recent murder victim . . . did she ever drink here?" I asked hopeful y. If I couldn't find Damon, then I'd just do the next best thing and find out al I could about Damon's victim.

"Rest in peace," the barkeep said reverential y. "She was a good girl. Came in from time to time, when she had enough pennies for gin. This ain't a charity, and the girls al knew they needed to pay the proper fee in order to spend time here. It was a system that worked out. The locals left the girls alone while they were out on the streets, unless they were striking a bargain. The girls respected the rules of the bar. And now, everything's fal en apart. If I ever find the bloke who did it, I'l rip his throat out," Alfred said savagely, pounding his fist against the table.

"But did she leave with anyone, or was there ever a man you saw her with?" I pressed.

"I saw her with a lot of men over the years. But none that stood out. Most of 'em were the blokes who worked down by the docks. Rough types, but none that would do that. Those blokes aren't looking for any trouble, just a good pint and a good girl. Besides, she left by herself that night.

Sometimes, when there's too many girls here, they go out to the streets. Less competition," he explained, noticing my confused expression. "But before she left, she'd had a good night here. She had some gin, a few laughs. Was wearing a new hat she was so proud of. Felt like it drew the men over to her. The good kind, too, not the ones who only pretend to have money. I wish she'd stayed, God bless her," Alfred said, raising his eyes piously to the ceiling.

"And her body . . ." I asked.

"Wel , now, the body was found in Dutfield Park. It's where the ladies sometimes go when they can't afford a room. I don't say nothin', whatever goes on outside the premises ain't my business. But that's where he got her and slit her throat." I nodded, my mind racing back to one of the many overgrown squares of grass that dotted the area. The weeds, garbage, and peeling paint of the iron fences surrounding the parks al made the area seem more dismal than simple city squares.

"And if you are one of them newspaper boys, then I didn't say nothing. What's your name anyway, boy?" Alfred asked.

"Stefan," I said, taking a huge swig of whiskey. It did nothing to calm the dread in my stomach. A soul ess kil er was loose, and he would stop at nothing.

"Wel , Stefan, welcome to Whitechapel," he said, raising his second glass. "And remember, better whiskey down your throat than the murderer on it."

I smiled tightly as I held up a glass to my new friend.

"Here, here!" one of the drunk men at the other end of the bar said. I smiled at him, fervently hoping that too many whiskeys drunk at the pub wouldn't lead them al to their doom.

The devil you know is better than the devil you don't. The phrase floated into my mind. It was one that Lexi would often invoke, and it was one I'd only found to be more and more true as time passed. Because as horrid and soul ess as the crime was, if Damon had done it, at least I wouldn't have any other vampires to worry about. But the longer I stayed at the bar, the more another thought tugged at my brain: What if it wasn't Damon, but another vampire?

Down at the other end of the bar, Alfred had drifted into conversation with a few of the other customers. Rain pelted against the windows, and I was reminded of the fox den at the far side of the Abbotts' farm. Entire families of beasts huddled there, waiting for the moment when they thought it was safe to head into the forest. The unlucky ones would be hit by a hunter's bul et.

I glanced around again. A woman in a lilac dress al owed her hand to slide down a man's shoulder. The real question was, who were the foxes and who were the hunters? Al I could hope was that I was a hunter.

Chapter Four

The longer I spent at the pub, the more crowded it became - but there was no sign of Damon. I told myself I was staying to try to find more clues.

But the truth was, I didn't know what I could do. Stand outside the supper club? Plod up and down the streets of London until I happened to run into Damon? Sit in Dutfield Park myself until another attack happened? The last was the one idea I kept toying with. But it was ludicrous. For one, why would the murderer strike twice at the same place? For another, what would I do if I saw the murder? Scream? Cal the police? Find a stake and hope for the best? None of the options seemed ideal. And if the murderer wasn't Damon . . . wel , then I could be dealing with a fiend from hel . I was strong, but not that strong. I needed a plan.

I watched as customers poured in. Each seemed seedier than the last, but al were reassuringly human. Some men, the ones with cracked nails and dirty shirts, had obviously just gotten off their construction jobs, while others, reeking of cologne and furtively glancing at the women at the corner tables, were clearly there to consort with ladies of the night. And indeed, I couldn't help but notice each time a garishly garbed woman stepped into the tavern, the crowd surveyed her as if they were gamblers at the racetrack sizing up the horses.

These women stood in stark contrast to the serving girl who seemed in charge of the entire room. She couldn't have been older than sixteen or seventeen, and skinny as a jaybird, but every time I saw her, her arms were laden with plates and pint glasses. At one point, I watched her hurry toward the kitchen, but before she got there, she paused to clear the plates from a nearby table. Al that remained on one plate were a few scraps of meat, some potatoes, and a half-eaten rol . She stared hard at the plate, before cautiously grabbing the meat and slipping it into her pocket.

Then, she crammed the rol into her mouth, her cheeks puffing like a chipmunk's, before scurrying back to the kitchen.

I closed my eyes. I'd long ago given up praying, and I didn't think any sort of God would want to hear my requests, but I did wish that no matter what happened, that this helpless seventeen-year-old would stay far, far away from Dutfield Park. Or, for that matter, any bloodthirsty vampire.

"Lookin' for a good time, love?" A woman with blond curled hair and crooked teeth perched on the wooden seat opposite me. Her white bosom was overflowing from her bodice.

"No. Sorry," I said roughly, waving my hand away. A memory from New Orleans flooded back to me. It had been in my first few weeks as a vampire, when I'd been bloodthirsty and bul headed, and had dragged Damon to a house of il repute. There, I'd feasted on a young girl, sure that no one would notice or care that she'd disappeared. I couldn't even remember her name now, and I wondered if I'd ever even bothered to learn it in the first place. It was details like those that would cause me to sink into the depths of misery, and here, in this dank tavern, I couldn't escape these split-second flashbacks. Al of them were reminders that no matter what I did, and no matter who I helped, I'd never do enough good deeds to wash away al the blood I was responsible for - and would be for eternity - off my hands. Al I could do was try. And I would do anything to ensure that these women would not die at the hands of a demon.

I glanced back down at the paper, now creased and smudged from my hands. I could almost recite every word of the article, and none of it seemed to make sense. Why had the kil er just left her like that? It was almost as if he'd wanted her to be found. But if the kil er had wanted her to be found, he had to be very, very careful to cover his own tracks.

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