He was the best man I ever knew, and he was the worst. He was capable of great compassion, and great cruelty; moments of genius and others of utter stupidity.
I would not be the man I am today were it not for him. Indeed, I doubt that there would be any today had Ichabod Grimes not placed himself between the darkness and the light countless times and with little regard for his own safety. And yet he is unknown to those whose very existence he has defended at great cost over so many years.
But now that he has gone where I cannot follow, it is time to set down a record of the man and the monster. I have instructed my representatives that these words are not to be published for one hundred years to protect those whose names appear within.
In truth, there were many times in the years since I first met him that I wished with all my heart that Grimes had remained no more than a nodding acquaintance, a shape I occasionally passed on the stairs or a ghost haunting the upper landings of the lodging house we shared with other working men.
We first met over thirty years ago, and yet my memory is as fresh as if it had happened yesterday. I also have my diaries to refresh my recollection of the finer details. Grimes never understood my obsession with recording everything that happened during our time in partnership but now, as I sit here and compile my notes, I am grateful for the clarity these journals provide. After all, it would be easy enough to dismiss so much of what we experienced together as the fantasies of a deluded old man with an overactive imagination, but when I see these accounts, written in my own hand and in straightforward sober language, I feel the same reassurance as if I were able to witness the events again.
I beg you not to judge me too harshly as you read this account. I was not then the man I am today but I have chosen not to alter the words I recorded, though many of the deeds I did back then shame me today.
I write this in February 1918, as the Great War continues to squeeze the lifeblood from the young men of Europe and around the world. It is ironic that, as the self-styled forces of freedom struggle with an imperialist tyrant, those same forces seek to suppress the hidden war that has raged for centuries; invisible to those who live out their lives above ground. Except when they become victims.
Those who are ignorant of history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it. It is my hope that, if living blood flows through your veins, you will be inspired to resist. And yet it is with a heavy heart that I write these words, and a heavy burden I place upon you. Like me, you will find that what you learn here cannot be unlearned. The future you believed lay ahead of you is as much a lie as the security you feel in the solid earth beneath your feet.
I am sorry.
Perhaps ignorance is bliss for some, but it is also, I fear, likely to be the end of the human race.
These things happened.
4th February 1918
Chapter 1: The Graveyard
I stood in the doorway of my lodging house, wrapped the coat about myself and prepared to brave the weather. The lights of Bow Church shone fitfully, and if there were any sounds of prayer or song, they were drowned in a downpour of religious proportions. As I paused on the threshold, the bell-tower began to sound the hour of ten, fighting to be heard over the torrent.
I hesitated, torn between staying dry and the welcoming embrace of a pint of porter at The Black Dog. The public house lay less than a hundred yards away on the corner of Payne Road, and yet I knew I would arrive drenched and would sit, miserable, in a corner as I cradled my jug.
But that wasn’t the true debate raging in my heart. It would be easy enough to get dry again, but the aftereffects of another night drinking too much and returning to my modest lodgings too late would likely result in the loss of my job. I was a clerk at Sandwell’s Soap Manufactory which lay a half mile to the east and my superior, Mr Cheeseman, had told me only that very morning that one more late arrival or one more numerical error caused by my inebriation and I would be given my papers.
My superior! Had I been a common man, I would have spat onto the grimy street at the very thought. Cheeseman was the son of a farm labourer who had risen higher than any other member of his family, and he missed no opportunity to remind his junior clerks of this. He’d achieved this through sobriety and hard work, he said.
I, on the other hand, am the son of a baronet.
I had fallen so very far.
But I needed a drink. Tomorrow could wait.
Wavering on the threshold, I glanced left and right, waiting until there was sufficient gap in the passing traffic for me to get across without stopping. The last carriage swept past, I took a deep breath, and ran for it.
Reaching the other side, I pressed myself against the wall of a house and pulled my ulster tight. I began to move along the sodden street, my third-hand boots sploshing in the filth as my mind fixed on reaching the hostelry and downing something strong that would allow me to forget for a few hours.
Picking up my pace, my left leg slipped from under me and, with a cry, I fell backwards. I landed in a wet heap then leaned to one side to rescue my hat as it rolled towards the gutter. I was about to put it on my head as the inner band caught my eye. I screwed up my eyes in the dim yellow light and read the owner’s name written there in permanent ink. The Hon. John Makepeace.
Quite suddenly, an image of a drunk beggar lying in a dirty and wet London street popped into my head. It had been so long since I’d cared what anyone thought of my appearance but imagining how I must look—though no one else had been desperate enough to venture out in this weather—was enough to have me haul myself to my feet. My hands climbed the slimy bricks and I brushed the worst of the dirt and water from my trousers before looking right to where The Black Dog lay a hundred yards further. I look right, but I turned left.
I was halfway back across Bow Road when a sudden impression of movement distracted me. My vision was blurry as my spectacles were wet, but I was certain I’d seen something. To this day, I do not know why I didn’t dismiss it as yet another minor mystery in a city of mysteries, but I turned and headed to the path. The movement had come from the direction of the Baptist Chapel but I could see that the place itself was dark.
The rain renewed its efforts to wash me away, but I pulled the hat further down my forehead and followed the street to the foot of the stairs leading up to the chapel. To the left was the alley that led to the graveyard. I’d passed it dozens of times on my way to work and had paid it no heed, but tonight, in that deluge, I felt drawn to the dark patch of ground.
A howl of pain rent the air and I was certain it had come from the graveyard. I looked along the street, hoping to find someone to accompany me into the presence of the dead, but the other residents of Bow Road had remained in the dry, so I was quite alone save for the passing traffic.
What is it that compels a man to plunge into the unknown guided by nothing but animal instinct and curiosity? Whatever it was, reason or sheer lunacy, I found myself groping along the side-wall of the chapel, feeling my way brick by brick, until I reached the iron gate of the graveyard.
Over the pounding of the rain I heard another cry—but whether of pain or triumph I couldn’t tell. I fumbled my way through the gate and out among the gravestones. I tripped, barely managing to stifle a cry as I fell onto a stone slab, my hands slipping on the slimy moss. At least, I hoped that’s what it was.
The cry went up again and the rain eased enough to show a light shining from a window in the wall behind the graveyard. By its feeble illumination, I could see two shapes wrestling desperately—the one beneath squat and round, the one atop him lean and angular.
I felt in my coat pockets for any weapon but turned up nothing. Cursing myself for my stupidity, I nevertheless stepped forward.
“Stop this! I said stop it! Do you want blood on your hands? Do you wish me to call the police?”
The figure on top, who seemed to my feeble eyes to be smartly dressed in black with patent leather shoes, paid no heed to me. The one beneath, who was obviously losing the battle, called out, “Help me!”
There was nothing else for it. Abandoning the last vestiges of reason, I ran across the remaining few feet and lunged at the thin man. Pulling on his shoulders, I succeeded in giving the underdog the opportunity to kick away, roll over and get back to his feet. Quite suddenly, the man I was attempting to restrain spun around and threw me bodily across the graveyard.
My intestines turned to ice as he ran at me, his face contorted with rage. A face that seemed to me in that moment to be nothing but pointed teeth and a ravening mouth.
He was upon me before I could recover, snarling like a rabid wolf. Desperately, I tried to push away the hideous jaws from which saliva fell in viscous curtains. Inch by inch he overcame my strength fuelled though it was by terror.
With a last heave, his jaws were around my neck and I felt his teeth puncture my skin. I cried out in pain and then shrieked again as my body crumpled under a sudden weight.
Then the teeth loosed their grip and I felt my attacker rolling from me.
“Are you unharmed?”
The squat man was silhouetted against the wan factory light. He looked down on me before pushing my head to the side and examining my neck. “I reckon you’ve been lucky, my friend. Another half inch and he’d have nipped your jugular.”
I scrambled away from him, raising myself against a gravestone. “What sort of madness is this? Is he a lunatic?” Grove Hall, a notorious asylum, lay not far from us.
“Yeah,” the squat man said.
In a flash, I recognised where I’d seen that shape before. “You’re Mr Grimes, aren’t you?”
He nodded and I noticed how pale he looked. I stood and went over to him, making sure not to look at the lean man with the caved-in skull lying on the ground. Even in the weak light of the factory lamps I could see that Grimes’ left arm was soaked in blood.
“We should get you to the infirmary,” I said.
He shook his head so violently I was forced to wipe the water from my face. “No! It is a mere scratch and I will attend to it myself.”
“And what of him? Should I contact the asylum and have them claim him?”
Grimes swayed a little before steadying himself and looking down at the prone figure. “No.” He regarded his attacker thoughtfully for a few moments as we stood in the mercifully easing rain before looking up at me. “Do you wish to be helpful?”
“If I may,” I said. I didn’t feel compelled to commit myself until I knew what he had in mind.
“Will you help me back to my room so I can clean myself up and treat my wound?”
I nodded. “Yes, of course.”
“And then I would like you to deliver a message, so that this … situation can be dealt with.”
“A message? At this time?”
Grimes’ pock-marked face widened into a smile. “There’s some who don’t sleep, my friend. Those who keep watch when decent folk like you are dozing in their beds or nursing a pint yonder in the Dog.”
“How do you know where I drink?”
His grin turned into a tired chuckle. “It’s not such a task to work out, but I’m getting the shivers and I’d be grateful to be beside a warm fire if you don’t mind, Mr Makepeace.”
“You know my name?”
“I make it my business to know all I can about those who share my roof. You can call it professional curiosity if you like. Come on now, give me your arm.”
So, with difficulty, I helped him out of the graveyard with many a missed step. I cast my eyes to where the attacker lay unmoving and, as the square face of Grimes emerged into the gaslight, I found myself wondering whether I was entirely certain that Grimes had been the intended victim. Then I remembered the teeth and hastened my footsteps towards the warmth of the lodging house.
The rain had finally ceased as we paused for breath outside the factory that was next door to our accommodation. In other circumstances, I would have enjoyed breathing in air washed clean of the smoke and smog of London and the peculiarly insipid aroma of rubber that pervaded the waterproof clothing warehouse we had stopped in front of.
“Just a few more steps,” I told Grimes. He had half sat on the railed wall and looked up at me. My breath caught as, in the yellow glow of the streetlamp, I finally saw his face. “By God! Your face is lacerated, Grimes—let me fetch a medical man, I beg you.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want a doctor. Just help me upstairs and do me the favour of delivering my message. Then I shall ask no more of you.”
I grabbed his arm and we staggered along the street. He was a solid man with a low centre of gravity, and I was struggling to keep us both upright. When we finally arrived at the door, I was forced to lean him against the wall of the porch while I found my key.
There was a window to the left of the door, and I used the light escaping from a gap in its curtain to find the correct key before feeling for the lock and turning. The door swung open revealing a dark entranceway. The home manager, a drunkard called Derricks, took a perverse pleasure in making it difficult for his tenants to navigate the halls and stairs, especially when they’d downed a few pints at the Black Dog. So it was that we swayed our way along the corridor and up the two flights of stairs. We must have looked like two old soaks coming home from a long drinking session even though we were both stone cold sober.
Grimes and I had rooms on the top floor—above us were lightless garrets that were never used. I wondered why Grimes had chosen to live here among the matchbook stampers, general labourers and marble polishers. He didn’t strike me as being a typical working man, for all his rough and ready appearance. There was a rugged intelligence about his features and the sense that he had seen much and knew many. As for myself, I was there because I was practically penniless and living among working men was preferable to sleeping on the streets or in a workhouse.
“Here, get my key out,” he said as we finally reached the door to his room. I clenched my teeth and felt in his coat pocket before pulling out the key on its small chain and turning it in the lock.
By the dying glow of the coal fire, I navigated him to his bed and helped him as he dropped into it, pulling the coat from his shoulders as I did so. Together we removed his bloody shirt, working wordlessly together as I then squinted at the exposed wound.
“There’s a candle on the mantle,” he said. I found it, lit a taper from the embers of the fire and carried it across.
Holding the flame up to his arm, I wiped away the dried blood to expose a long gash cutting into the point of his shoulder.
“That’s where he grabbed me, the sneaky devil,” Grimes said, wincing as he tried to look sideways. His neck, I noticed, was so wide and so thickly covered with stubble that he looked as though his head, with its unkempt grey locks still dripping with water, had grown out of his broad shoulders.
I dried the wound with my handkerchief and held the candle close.
“Careful, man!” he said, recoiling from the flame.
I pulled the candle away. “I am sorry,” I said, though it didn’t seem to me that I’d got very close at all. “But look here—this wound looks as though it has been made by the talons of a ravening beast.”
“You’re a detective now, are you?” he said with a grunt of derision. “Whatever your profession might be, I suggest you stick to it.”
I stood up and returned the candle to the mantelpiece. “For your information, Mr Grimes, my profession is teaching, and my vocation is writing, though I am, at present, working as a clerk at the soap works. And I know a claw mark when I see one.”
Grimes looked across at me as I stood, heated more by rage than the meagre fire, torn between leaving him to sort out his own affairs and my promise to deliver a message.
“Forgive me,” he said. “You have been of uncommon aid to me this night and without your intervention there is no doubt that I would be dead now.”
I nodded curtly, my anger and pride not quite ready to accept his apology with the grace it deserved.
“But you must understand that if I rebuff your questions, it is because of my gratitude for your help and my concern for your wellbeing, not in ignorance of them. Mr Makepeace, I am involved in matters that are dangerous to know and I urge you to keep me at arm’s length, once you have done me one final favour. I’m afraid it is obvious now that I cannot leave this room tonight.”
As he made to lie back, I lifted his legs onto the bed. “Thank you,” he said. “Now, will you be good enough to take down this message. It will mean little enough to you, and that is how it should remain.”
I took the candle from the mantelpiece again and placed it on a small table by the window. I pulled a sheet of rough paper from the stack and, finding no ink or quill, made do with a somewhat blunt pencil.
“This is to be taken to Mister Jasper Doyle and you’ll find him in the King’s Head on the corner of Marshgate Lane.”
“I know it,” I said. Indeed, I had an enviable knowledge of the public houses of this part of London and, regrettably, those of most other neighbourhoods also.
He smiled at me as if reading my thoughts. “Good. Here is the message. RE- BOW BC. Have you got that?”
I read the message back to him and readied my pencil so that I could write down the remainder. “Yes, please proceed.”
“That is the message. Make sure to deliver it by hand to him and no other. Mr Doyle will know what it means and will take the necessary action.”
“He will contact the asylum? And then the police, presumably?”
With another wolfish smile, Grimes laid himself down and his coal black eyes gazed up at the equally dark ceiling. “He will take the necessary action, Mr Makepeace. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to sleep.”
I got up rather too quickly and sent the chair flying. Grimes didn’t move and neither did he react when one of the lodgers in the room beneath began to bang on the ceiling. I picked the chair up and crept past his slumbering form as quietly as I could.
As I opened the door, I turned to look back, as if reassuring myself that these events had indeed happened and that I was truly about to go out into the night and find a stranger in a public house to hand a cypher to. I had blown the candle out and the air in the room, fetid enough at the best of times, now smelled of the dying coal fire and tallow smoke. There he lay in the dim glow of the coals.
I went through the door and, as I passed the threshold, I heard him say, “Thank you.”