Author´s note: This story was written for the Fourth Morbidity Writing Contest on POL. Itcame ninth.
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters from "The Phantom of the Opera". They belong to Gaston Leroux / Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Finding the cure
The amount of money one had to pay for a decent prostitute nowadays was ridiculous. But then, the whole idea of a ´decent prostitute´ was ridiculous, so it didn´t matter. The girl standing in front of me, a redhead who couldn´t be older than twenty-five years, seemed to misinterpret my amused smile. "That´s my price, sir," she snapped. "If you want it cheaper, go to Betsy over there." She gestured vaguely at a very thin woman a few feet away. "But if your wife complains about that strange itching in some weeks´ time, don´t say I hadn´t warned you."
She was remarkably self-assured; my first ones hadn´t been like that. Yet as she was younger and prettier than the other ones selling their bodies out here, she could afford this attitude. The girl reminded me of someone… Carlotta. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, but her picture was still in my head. It was like a memory from a past life. Had it really been just seven years ago that I had made her croak?
The girl´s squeaky voice brought me back to present. "I haven´t got all day," she informed me, tapping her foot onto the cobblestones impatiently. "Will you come with me now?" I had no choice. This time I needed one with her own room; it was very unsatisfactory to perform my task in the street. So I nodded slowly.
It was then that she stopped checking her surroundings for other potential customers and took her first proper look at me. I could see her struggle to maintain her composure, but it only lasted a second. Years of working among the most wretched creatures of London had probably shown her worse things than a man wearing a mask. "Will you remove that?" she inquired, her pale blue eyes darting over its smooth surface curiously.
"Will you remove that?" I gave back. I lifted my cane to the level of her head and let the tip come to the ground in a swift movement. It included her whole appearance, the neatly combed, but unwashed hair, the colourful make-up which tried in vain to disguise the lines in her young face, the worn-out black dress that revealed bony knees and skinny legs. All this was her mask, the sign of a life filled with lies. Yet the girl merely laughed and replied: "Of course I´ll do that." She seemed to think I had been referring to the dress. I hadn´t expected her to understand the true meaning.
"Let´s go now!" she went on, looking around with a sudden edginess that contradicted the earlier snappiness she had shown. "The streets aren´t safe these days. All those stories you hear about him…" she muttered, shivering slightly. In a pitiful attempt to appear cheerful again she said almost defiantly, "But he only attacks in public. Nothing can happen to me." I couldn´t bring myself to destroying her delusion. It would make the last time she´d see this street much more pleasant for her.
We walked the short way to her room in silence. She didn´t seem to notice the mass of beggars and street-sellers we had to fight our path through. It was easier for her than for me, though. The elegant tailor-made suit I wore under my open cloak made me the target of a lot of unwanted attention. I tried my best to ignore them as well. This was not the right moment for being generous.
When she led me up a dark and narrow staircase I asked, driven by a sudden impulse, "What´s your name?" It took her a few moments to answer. "Marie Jeanette," she finally said. "Most people call me Ginger." Following her into the room I couldn´t help thinking that it was a much nicer name than the one the press would doubtlessly give her in some hours´ time: victim number five.
The stench of urine and rotting food that invaded my nostrils was nauseating, and I could hardly keep myself from turning around on my heel. Only the thought that it was necessary to finish what I had begun made me stay. The girl lit a candle and I saw a bed in the corner. The formerly white sheets were grey with dirt, and there were stains all over, probably derived from several types of bodily fluids.
"Do you want me to make it a little tidier? It won´t take long." Apparently Marie had understood what my gaze could mean and was afraid of losing her customer at the last second. Nodding briefly, I rushed to the small window and pulled it open. The air of London was far from clean, yet today it resembled the breath of life. I inhaled deeply, my stomach calming down.
But what was that? Peering through the semi-darkness I could make out a girl in the street. She was maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, and her hair had the colour of a ripe wheat field. "Christine…" I whispered longingly, my hand clutching the cane more tightly as my heart contracted. The rational part of my mind told me that it couldn´t be her. Christine was older now. She was a married woman and mother of two little boys. And above all, Christine Countess de Chagny was a liar and a traitor.
It had happened years ago, but since I was forced to re-live it every moment I slept the memory was still fresh, much fresher than the air coming through the open window. I barely noticed my mind gliding into the past. Three weeks after letting Christine go I had send a letter to my dear friend Nadir, asking him to arrange for my obituary to be published in the Epoque. I had settled all my affairs and was certain I´d die within hours. Yet I simply hadn´t been able to, not without seeing her one last time. It might sound a little peculiar, but I had wanted to make sure that she mourned properly.
Everything had been prepared. A beggar, unfortunate enough to come to the opera in his search for a place to sleep, had been killed quickly and dressed in my clothes and one of my spare masks. Then I had begun to wait in my hiding place. Christine had never come. Instead she had sent her husband and two of their servants. Naturally they hadn´t realised who they had been burying. They had merely wrapped the body in a sheet, dug a hole and threw the corpse into it. At the end the boy had placed the ring on the grave and sighed in relief about having gotten rid of me at last.
I had sat at ´my´ grave for weeks, expecting Christine to show up at least once, to cry and say that she´d miss me. I still didn´t know what I´d have done if she had really come. Would I have demonstrated that I wasn´t dead or stayed in hiding? I couldn´t tell. The only thing crystal-clear was that the woman I loved had broken her promise. She had been so sincere when swearing that she´d bury me. How was it possible that she had looked into my eyes and lied to me? I had seen hundreds of men lie, but none of them had appeared as honest as this girl. I had tried to protect her from the evils of the world, not including myself, yet she had turned out to be a liar. After months of pondering I had come to the conclusion that it had to be something in the female character. I had ended up here to find out what exactly it was.
"I´m finished, sir," Marie announced in the same moment I turned around. I noticed that she had actually bothered to change the sheets. That wouldn´t have been necessary; they´d become dirty again soon. I approached the girl, who held open her hand. "First I get my money," she said. Willing to play this farce a little longer, I rummaged under my cloak for the required item. Unfortunately, it was a dagger that fell to the floor before I could find what she wanted.
Her eyes grew wide as realisation dawned on her. "It´s you," she breathed. "You are—" "Don´t say that name!" I interrupted her, placing the dagger on a table and pulling out the Punjab Lasso. I had spared her long enough. Every illusion had to end sooner or later – no one knew that better than I.
"It is such a vulgar name… Jack the Ripper." Merely speaking it aloud made me shudder. "I´d have never picked it myself. Yet the press chose to believe in the letters of a madman claiming to have done my work. Strange, isn´t it?" The girl ran to the door, but the handle didn´t move. Of course I had locked it the moment I had entered the room. Marie seemed to understand it herself now for she sank to the floor and crawled toward me. "Please, sir!" she whispered urgently. "You can do anything with me, anything. Just spare my life! Please… I don´t want to die yet."
There was something in her words that made me hesitate for a moment. Yet it seemed to be enough for her to find new hope. Looking up at me with her large eyes she said, "Sir… I´ve heard that actually you´re only searching for love. Is that true? Were the other girls not able of loving you the way you wanted? But I could do it, I´m sure. I could love you. Please give me a chance!" Now she was cowering at my feet, trembling like a dog that had been beaten.
My voice sounded hollow in my ears as I commanded: "Get up!" I didn´t pity her. In my present state I was no longer capable of feeling anything. My soul had been buried together with the beggar´s corpse. But in my memories, I could still feel. Marie´s helplessness reminded me of Christine, of the way she had begged me to free her Vicomte.
"Christine?" I only realised that I had spoken the name aloud when the girl repeated it. "Was that someone who hurt you?" she asked as she came to her feet. Her hands sneaked around my body, and she pulled me against her. I inhaled her scent, sweaty, but oh, so feminine! It clouded my senses, and I nearly let go of the Punjab Lasso I was still holding. Marie´s weight was heavy against my chest when she whispered into my ear: "She must have been a dreadful person. I could be much better than her. I bet she was afraid of you because of that mask, eh? I wouldn´t be. I´d love every inch of you. Just let me try…"
Lies, lies, lies, LIES! Nothing but filthy lies were coming out of her mouth. Nobody would ever love me. Instantly I pushed her away from me, and she landed on the floor a second time. "Thank you," I said coldly. "Thank you for reminding me of why I´m here. I´m not looking for love, no matter what your stupid little harlot friends might have told you. I´m looking for an answer. And I´ll find it in your body, not in your wretched soul."
"But… but…" she stammered until the lasso landed around her neck and she became unable to speak. Moving my arm with the perfect amount of strength, just enough to make her pass out, I couldn´t help thinking that I´d have chosen more memorable last words. But then, it was not as if the other ones had been more creative. Just like Marie they had wasted their and my time with futile pleas.
When the girl stopped struggling I picked her up in my arms and carried her over to the bed. Feeling her warm body pressing against mine, I threatened to grow weak again. Why couldn´t I – just this once – bury myself in a woman´s soft depths and forget everything else? A slight stirring of her hand brought me back to my senses, and I placed her on the bed, cursing under my breath. When would I finally learn that I´d never experience this kind of physical affection? I hadn´t had it with Christine and I´d certainly not have it with victim number five. All I could do with women was studying them. And for this purpose they had to be dead.
Telling myself that the truly exciting part was yet to come I removed the Punjab Lasso and fetched the dagger. My hand was steady as I brought it to her neck and cut her throat in a swift movement. There had been times when I had preferred the short and relentless way of killing with my precious rope of catgut. But this had been before I had known how prettily the blood shot out of such a fatal wound, the stream going up and down like a fountain in perfect unison with her slowing heartbeat. Besides, I needed her to bleed out a little before continuing.
Had I really ever felt the urge to join myself with this being? As the blood became less and I removed the tasteless clothes I paid no attention to her breasts and other typically female parts. My interest for the fair sex went deeper… much deeper. Briefly I felt her pulse to make sure she was dead. There was nothing to feel anymore; for someone who seemed to have clung to her life she had died surprisingly quickly. Oblivious to the by now blood-soaked pillow and sheets, I took out a second knife and made a vertical cut, starting just below the ribcage. Several smaller horizontal cuts enabled me to peel away the layers of skin almost effortlessly. Having done this I was greeted with something other men could only dream of: the full insight into a female being.
For a moment I looked at it in awe. It was simply beautiful: the many shades of rose, pink and red of the organs. It looked like a colourful bouquet of the prettiest flowers. Remembering how much time I had to complete my task I smiled brightly, feeling like a happy little boy on his birthday. Just a few hours´ work lay between me and the answer to my question.
Without haste, I removed the liver, the kidney and the spleen and put them neatly on the bedside table, one next to the other. They were not my target. All these were organs men possessed as well; they could tell me nothing I hadn´t already known. I was still angry about how much time I had lost with my first two victims. They had been quite useful to gain more experience in this new method of killing, but I hadn´t even removed organs from them.
Separating the lungs from the tissue surrounding them, I thought back to number three and four. At that time, I had been of the opinion that the solution could be found in the organ that defined femininity. Yet although I had made dozens of tests with the women´s uteruses, I hadn´t come one step closer to the answer to the question which had caused all those murders: What enabled women to lie without as much as blushing? There had to be a disease, an abnormality in their anatomy. If only I could find out what it was! I´d be able to go to Christine and cure her by simply cutting out the offending organ. She´d be so grateful.
By now, I had removed the lungs as well and put them aside. Finally, I could take out the heart. The solution had to be here. It was common knowledge that this organ was the seat of all emotions, good as well as bad. Yet looking at it and squeezing it here and there I soon discovered that there was nothing, no mysterious change in colour, no surprisingly soft or hard pieces, nothing. Groaning in frustration I threw it out of the still slightly open window. Stray dogs could devour it for all I cared.
I wrapped my knives in old pieces of cloth and placed them under my cloak again. Noticing that my gloves were covered in blood, I sighed. Now I´d have to buy new ones. But I knew that this wasn´t the true reason for my bad mood. I had picked these girls so carefully, assuming that the disease had to be obvious with them. After all, prostitutes lied all day long. Yet there had been nothing extraordinary about their bodies. So I had been mistaken. But did this make my whole thesis wrong?
No. That couldn´t be. My thesis was the only thing that kept me alive, that made me stand up, consume food, kill and fall asleep again. It had to be right. It had to-- I nearly laughed as I realised what had been wrong: choosing the girls by their profession. Why had I thought that all women suffered from the disease? It was much more likely that it had to do with the fact that Christine came from Sweden.
Feeling perfectly calm again I unlocked the door and left the room, without a backward glance at Marie. She had been utterly useless. Taking a side exit out of the building I could hardly keep myself from whistling merrily. Now I knew what I had to do. I´d travel to Sweden and study the girls there. I had heard that the area of Norrköping was lovely at this time of the year.