Inexorable: Part 1
"May you live like a rat, with your ambitions never beyond survival, the scramble for sustenance with a look of terror writhing in your eyes."
I heard those words hanging in the air, their pungency evoked with a thick, rumbling slur of an even voice swathed in slow confidence. When I breathed, I felt that familiar stench of nightmares foul on my body, and so went to mask it, the way each of us masks the endless machinations of our innermost fears. I tucked the night terrors behind a high collar, I knotted them with a loose tie, and hid them beneath a faded pair of trousers and waistcoat.
In the reflection of a straight razor, I frowned at the expression of trepidation looking back before tucking the edge against the peppered stubble on my jaw. After wiping away the shaving cream, the loose strands, and disinfecting the crisscrossed cuts on my cheeks, I left the morning ritual to fade in the same light which then began it, now burning it away
At my doorstep, dozens of parcels of various size littered the path with the furthest dates reaching almost six months past. As always, or since the oldest deliveries, I strode by with the same hollow promise of opening them upon my evening's return. And, as always, the crows whom had a habit of toying with the unswept debris in my walkways, cawed in frustration as I interrupted their play.
Low clouds and smoke from fires in the countryside covered the walkways of Rudmoore Avenue in thick exhalations of endless murk that had been rolling through for three days now. Despite the normal hour, there were no silhouettes to be seen through the haze, no clattering coaches, no shop windows hollering with bargains and fresh goods. Even the street lamps were still burning from last night.
A hand grabbed mine. I drew back with a gasp, mistaking the hunched figure for another sack tucked between the crates crammed against the Rudmoore Bank.
"The lamplighter," a beggar wheezed up at me with a broken nose encrusted with snot and dried blood. Her bloodshot eyes looked to me as if I could bring some divine clarity to her senseless greeting.
"Lamplighter," she repeated, looking as if she might scramble to retrieve my hand once again, were it not for her apparent state of post-opiate exhaustion.
"I'm no lamplighter. I ... good day," I replied, just as the four chapels in the city began their morning tolls. I flicked a coin onto the ground to distract her and moved on. My heart was beating too small from the nightmares this morning to have any room for sympathetic conversations with the destitute and deluded.
When their final reverberations ended, I overheard the murmurs of a crowd up ahead, rising to their own kind of din, subdued only by what I imagined was some imposing obligation to reverence.
"What's happened here?" I asked a passerby who had the look of someone with satiated curiosity, the look of someone who'd just seen something memorable and was prepared to go about their day without a second thought. You could say I aspired to be like him. Each of his fists were stuffed with fishlines heavy from their catch.
He just grunted, nodded his head toward the gathered crowd, and continued on his way.
"What a charmer," I murmured and continued toward the gaggle of citizens, now congregated in the middle of the street's intersections. Over their heads, the rounded tops of police caps bobbed with nods and shakes. And all around us, crows gated us in like black posts on eves, eyeing what everyone else was goggling at with doubled fascination.
"Back away! Give us some room to breathe, for heaven's sakes!" one of the officers called over the murmurs.
I politely, quietly refused and continued forward, shoving through someone whose eyes had clearly had their fill by then.
" 'Oi' yourself."
Circled by dusted, black boots and empty speculations was the decapitated remains of what appeared to be little else than a boy. Both his pinkie and his middle finger were missing from his hand. In the other, a rod for snuffing and lighting lamps was clutched by rigor mortis' grip.
"How long has this been here?" I asked no one in particular.
"I found him not half an hour ago," a woman responded, her voice recognizable from the pastry stand that typically opened on the street's corner every morning.
"The body is fresh, but where's the blood?"
"Blood?" She looked at the body again, her dumbfounded expression now matching the officers'.
"There's hardly any ..." I murmured.
"May you die like a memory, faded and forgotten for what little worth it was, without comfort of innocence or a martyr's pity. A failure of expectations. A neglected trophy of refuse. A burnt page amongst millions in a raging fire."
The voice trailed like cold acid from my ear.
"Who said that?" I turned and stared at the bewildered gentleman behind me, whose hand went from shielding his child's eyes to instead protecting his own head. The woman beside him backed away from me, and the others followed suit. Somewhere in the throng, a baby began its best imitations of a banshee.
I hadn't meant to shout, but now the crowd was hushed and facing me with indignant and confused stares.
Too deep in embarrassment to stop there, I continued. "Go on then, who made that vile threat? Show yourself!"
"Has somebody threatened you?" one of the officers asked. "Who? Was it the man who did this?"
Some of the crowd disjoined themselves from the spectacle, to allow the dialogue between me and the officer to continue.
"I ... I heard someone."
"Who was it? Quickly!"
I searched the faces of the crowd in a sudden desperation to find somebody to accuse. Shopkeepers, coachmen, a barber, a tailor, a baker, mothers and their children, and all of them with a look of unmistakable surprise and innocence. My fingers wrung themselves together before the expression of doubt reached my face. Looking back at the officer, he recognized the paranoia in my expression, that of a madman, or even a drunk, offset by an otherwise normal and clean-shaven face. When only stutters came, they shook their heads and continued investigating the body.
Like swatting at a swarm of flies, the crowd was dispersed by my outcry, leaving only me, the lamplighter, and the officers.
"I know who it was," someone whispered behind me. "I saw."
Her stench, if not her voice, gave her away.
The fog in the beggar's eyes was cleared away by eagerness and excitement. For that, I listened.
"Who was it?" I asked.
"Come with me. He went this way."
And before I could question her anymore, she hurried past the body and down the street. I followed, with the air just then beginning to smell of decay.