Chapter 2: Jack And The Swell
October 31st, 1875
Whitechapel, London’s East End, England
All right, got Marybelle workin' those idiots at the Flaming Stallion, and Suzanne over in the meat-packer's street. Should pull in a good pound or two – and if Suzie can wrangle me a fresh steak, well, might let her keep sixpence for herself. Now, Josie, she oughta be in the docks – and better not be slippin' any of her pay to that fat cunt Sharpe! Tan her hide good if I catch her doin' that again! Ugh, women – you have a nice little arrangement that suits the both of you, hand in glove, then the bitch shows her true colors and you have to put her back in her place. Can't believe that after half a year of obliging her with my company, Sharpe starts acting like I'm shortin' her with the dough! Only taking my fair share! Uppity whore. . .and I can't even give her another proper talkin'-to 'cause every time I go down Billingsgate way I end up having to slap a wanker over the earhole for asking me about my "favorite swell!" This is rich, it really is – one fucking surprise punch, and my reputation's suddenly ragged 'round the edges! Time was I commanded a bit of respect around here. Now people snort and snigger, and it's all that rich bugger's fault. Worse, I can't even pay him back right and proper for the insult! Slipperier than the fish his pop cans and no mistake! You screwed up good with this one, God. Tell me, what's that piece of shit from the "right" side of the tracks done to get to be so lucky? Oh, if I could, I'd –
Jack Splatter blinked as he was abruptly tugged out of his thoughts. Squashing his first instinct to tell whoever was bothering him to fuck off, he turned his head to spy Dr. Angus Bumby standing by the archway that lead to and from the Whitechapel marketplace. "Could I bother you for just a few moments?" he continued with a pleasant smile, leaning casually against the pitted and crumbling brick.
“What about?” Jack asked, frowning. He and Bumby were only vaguely acquainted – he knew the doctor had a reputation among the snobs of the city as some sort of miracle-worker for the mind, but he was more familiar with the man as a shrewd back-alley dealer in certain fleshy goods. Jack had never partaken of the doctor's stock – not to his taste – but he would gladly admit that the fellow knew how to make a pound. They'd argued once or twice, mostly about territory and that rotten swell, but other than that, Jack couldn't say he held Bumby any particular ill will. Which was more than he could say for most of the East End, honestly.
Bumby glanced back through the arch, in the direction of his base of operations. “I have a gift for you. If you’d care to accept.”
Jack snorted. “Not really keen on your preferred age range, Angus.”
“Oh no,” Bumby returned with a wicked smile. "I can assure you that Master Van Dort is most definitely of age."
Jack's eyes went as wide as saucers. “Master Van – hang on. You’re giving me the bleedin’ swell?!” This couldn't be. After those long lectures he'd gotten from both the police and Bumby himself about leaving Can Dort alone, every missed or squandered opportunity to set things straight. . .was his longed-for revenge being delivered right into his lap? What a day to leave the cleaver at the Elephant’s Elbow! "You told me he was off-limits – that his folks would be able to buy my neck for the noose for sure if I made an example of him. What, you make 'em forget he exists?"
“I've been considering the possibility,” Bumby admitted, standing up straight and brushing a few reddish slivers from his coat. “But not yet – and I'd like to keep him alive myself, so I politely ask you to keep your more murderous impulses in check. But he’s yours in every other way for an afternoon. If you wish.”
Ah. Well, wasn't perfect, but it was better than nothing. “Yeah, I wish,” Jack said, a nasty grin stretching across his mouth as he slapped his hands together. “Where’s the fucking toff, then?”
“Back at the Home – come and I'll show him to you.” Bumby turned on his heel and started down the street. Jack followed, knuckles itching. This was going to be sweet. Ahh, to see the look on that prissy snob's face before I cave it in. . . .
It was only a short walk to the front gate of the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth. Despite his impatience to be inside, Jack couldn't help but note a few changes made to the street. "Finally stuck in that station, huh?"
"Yes, and about damn time too," Bumby said, the gate creaking under his hand. "Though I think there's been a mistake with the name – the workers call it Moorgate, but I'm quite certain I've seen another station by that name on the map. . .well, whatever. It'll make ferrying my patients to and fro much easier, that's for certain." He gave Jack a calculatedly bland smile. "So many good homes, and so few children to service them."
Jack chuckled. "Why I stick to havin' my girls walk the streets," he commented as they mounted the steps and entered the front foyer. "Sales block ain't worth the bother to me. Though while we're on the subject, where's the little stinkers, then?"
"Oh, most of them are out playing in the courtyard," Bumby said carelessly, straightening a sampler as they went past on their way upstairs. Jack snorted as he read it – "Home Safe Home." Really go in for the irony, don't you Doc? "A few are in their rooms, but they shouldn't bother us. I've made it quite clear we are not to be disturbed."
"Good." Jack shook his head. "I don't know how you stand 'em, Angus. If it was me, I'd be for the looney bin before I ever got 'em off my hands."
"They do have a talent for trying my patience some days – Charlie and Abigail in particular," Bumby confessed as they reached the second floor landing. "But I've always had a way with children. And their eventual worth on the market more than makes up for any annoyance they may inflict on me beforehand." He rounded the corner and opened his office door. “Here we are.”
Having never been in the doctor's home before, Jack took half a second to give the place a once-over. It wasn't bad – wallpaper was shabby as hell, and one of the windows was cracked, but the furniture looked good and solid, and it didn't smell like stale beer or piss. Certainly better than the one-up one-down he called home most nights. And sure enough, there was Van Dort, standing by the desk, staring off into space. Jack cracked his knuckles, then started toward him, ready to give him a smack in the gabber he wouldn't soon forget. "All right, swell, you and me got a score to – to. . . ."
His feet slowed to a halt about the same time his voice did. Something was wrong here. For starters, Van Dort hadn’t reacted to them coming in at all. Jack had expected him to yelp and make a break for it, like he did most times they tangled. But no – he'd just stayed where he was, as if the pimp wasn't even worth his attention anymore. His face was also eerily blank – not a lick of expression in it. Jack squinted at him, puzzled. He wasn't even staring into space, really – more just – staring. Like he'd died suddenly and Bumby had decided to stuff and display the corpse. Jack gave him a poke. “Swell?”
Van Dort didn’t even blink. “Ah – yes,” Bumby chuckled. “I would have warned you, but it's not prudent to discuss these things too openly on the street. Ears everywhere you look, after all. . . . But it’s Thirteen now, Jack.”
“Thirteen?” Jack stared at Van Dort in astonishment. “You mean – he’s like the kids you shove out onto the street? Ain’t got nothing in his head but cobwebs?”
“Exactly," Bumby said, relishing Jack's surprise. He walked around the pimp and caressed Van Dort's cheek. "My greatest triumph. He fought me – oh, he fought like no one else has. He made me sweat. But all that struggle, all that irritation, all that cursing of his name just made his final shattering all the sweeter. Oh, if only you'd been there when he finally broke. . . .” He grinned at the young man’s expressionless face. “No matter. You'll get what you want. Consider it an act of apology for my earlier words forbidding your interference with my patients." He patted the young man's shoulder. "Thirteen?”
Van Dort finally moved, turning his head slightly to regard the doctor. “Mr. Splatter here is allowed to do whatever he wants to you. Beatings, bloody nose, broken bones – whatever he desires. You treated him quite abominably before, and now he’s going to have his revenge. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Bloody hell, not even Van Dort’s voice sounded the same. It was like he was some sort of wind-up doll. Jack did his best to hide a chill.
“Very good.” Bumby stepped back and extended a hand. “All yours, Jack.”
Van Dort turned to face him again. Jack forced himself to meet those dulled eyes. This felt like a scene out of one of the more "mystical" dreadfuls, the kind with vampires and shit. The bugger certainly looked like he'd been drained of all his life. Which was actually not a bad way to describe what Bumby did to those little rotters in his care. . .but it was one thing to see snot-nosed brats on the block, or being dragged home by an eager customer. It was another to have one of them – somebody a lot closer to your own age – just watching you. To see up close what happened when you took all the thoughts out of a fellow's head and replaced them with empty fluff. Damn, if only he'd blink. . . .
Remember what he did to you, Jack, the pimp told himself, trying his best to ignore that empty gaze. Remember how he showed you up in front of all of Billingsgate – and got a hero's cheer for it. Remember how he made you look like an idiot on your own bloody turf. Remember how he convinced that cat to nearly rip your face off. Remember how he got the damn police to actually throw a nasty word in your direction! You used to be the king of these streets, and now –! He got off for all of it too, without even breaking a sweat. Think it's time we broke a lot more than that! “Fucking toff,” he spat, shoving the young man's shoulder. Van Dort wobbled, but stayed where he was. “Fucking cocksniping spunk bucket!" He slammed his hands into Van Dort's chest, this time knocking him back a couple of steps. "Egg-suckin' duded-up gutter trash, that's what you are! Swanning around, thinkin' you're the prince of these streets! Well, you're not – you're just a goddamn pretty boy who threw sixes a few times!" He stomped, and just missed the swell's absurdly tiny foot. "I should kill you for what you did to me! By the time I'm done, you'll be wishin' I did! Nobody fucking nobbles Jack Splatter!”
Van Dort didn't say a word – just stared at him with those doll-dead eyes. With a growl, Jack drew his fist back, prepared to knock all the bastard’s teeth out –
And stopped, his fury petering out just as quick as it had come. This wasn't right. This wasn't what he'd wanted at all. He sighed and dropped his arm. “Sorry, Angus,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s – it’s no good if he just stands there. Feel like I'm beating up a dressmaker's dummy.”
Bumby frowned. “Ah – I'm afraid I didn't consider that," he confessed. "I could have him react, if you like. It wouldn't take long to implant the suggestions.”
Jack thought over the offer. It would certainly help the heebie-jeebies he was getting from those eyes (blink, damn you). . .but. . . . “Nah, I’d be able to tell it was just play-actin'. He wouldn’t really remember, and that’s no good.”
“Hmmm.” Bumby drummed his fingers against his chin. “Well – he’s available to service you sexually, if you wish. I haven’t had him long, but he’s a very fast learner.” The doctor winked. “That mouth of his is brilliant. You won’t be disappointed.”
Jack shook his head again, rather more rapidly. “Never had a thing for blokes. Won't say he doesn't look kind of like a girl, but – ain’t the same.” And like hell am I sticking my cock in anything that much like a corpse. He shrugged and tipped his hat. “Sorry, Angus. Appreciate the thought, though. And hey – if you want to give him an extra smack or fuck for me. . . .”
Bumby smiled lecherously. “I’d be delighted to. Sorry it didn't work out like I'd intended. But that is the way of the world.” He wandered over to his desk. "I suppose I should let you get back to managing your whores. Goodness knows I have plenty to do myself. Do you mind seeing yourself out?"
“Not a problem,” Jack said, amused. Funny how someone who held a candle to the Devil – and sold him nippers for his pleasure – could turn around and act like he lived in the best toffken of the West End. "Have fun with the paperwork."
"Oh, thank you," Bumby replied, words oozing with sarcasm. "The price one pays for respectability."
"Why I've never bothered." Jack turned to go, then thought of a question. After all, he hadn't seen one of his other favorite people hanging around this shithole either. “Hey – you ever find Al–”
Bumby slashed his finger across his throat with a hiss, cutting him off. “Don’t say that name around him,” he whispered, glancing at Van Dort. “For some reason, it weakens my hold. Charlie, that worthless little bugger, discovered it not long ago. Cost me a good plate and a couple hours' lost time I could have used fixing up Reginald a bit more." He drummed his fingers on the desk. "I’ve been working on destroying the trigger, but he’s being a stubborn bastard about it. I haven't even dared clear out her room yet, for fear seeing something of hers will set him off.”
“Oh." Jack was half-tempted to say it anyway, just to see what would happen, but refrained. Bumby was no threat on his own, but he knew enough well-to-do and important people to make Jack's life a living nightmare if he wanted. No sense jabbing a poker in the dragon's eye. "Can't say I'm too surprised. Blind man could tell he was in love with her.”
“Don’t remind me," Bumby grumbled. "The way he looked at her, touched her, carried on about her – sickening. Worse than his stories about that corpse bride." Was it him, or did Van Dort blink just once upon the mention of his old flame? Maybe it was his imagination, trying to do something with that stone face. "You know, I once caught them dancing in the front foyer? Where anyone could come in and see? Disgraceful! I was tempted to slap them both silly."
Jack smirked. "Somebody sounds jealous. Wanted her to fuck for yourself, huh?"
"Of course!" Bumby snapped, slamming his hand against the desk. "You've seen her, haven't you? And Thirteen. . . ." His eyes slithered over the young man's still form, a disturbingly hungry look in them. Jack had only seen that sort of desperate craving in opium addicts before. "I desired him almost from the moment I met him. I wanted them to be mine. Oh, I don't really have any objections to sharing them, especially if I can make tuppence for it, but – not with each other. Not with the way they – ugh." He picked up his papers and straightened them. "And no, to answer your question, I haven’t found her. Thirteen here was my main searcher, and – well, while I was always hoping to bring him under my control, parents or no, a certain incident forced me to do it earlier than I'd have liked. Not that I can truly complain, given his talents, but. . . ." He shrugged, then rolled his eyes. "And those twins from the asylum were utterly worthless. They couldn't even locate her rabbit after I had them search Thirteen's room and hers top to bottom. Though I confess, I'm not sure where he hid it either. . .no matter," he said with a shake of his head. "It's gone, and so are they now. As for our missing girl, I’m half-certain she’s gotten herself killed at this point. Or she’s retreated so far into insanity she’s been recommitted without me having to lift a finger. Either way, she’s out of my life.”
“Eh – shame," Jack commented. "Would have made a fine whore.”
“Don’t I know it. I was so looking forward to seeing her destroyed once and for all.” Bumby sighed, then reached out and caressed Van Dort's arm. “Still – I’ve picked up a fine consolation prize, wouldn't you say?”
“Would indeed,” Jack agreed, smirking – partially because he didn't dare do anything else. This whole situation had gotten much creepier than he'd signed up for. Van Dort now a walking flesh doll, and Bumby showing that he didn't have all his screws in as tight as he ought. Gonna have to be careful as hell if we have any dealings. And never, ever get between him and someone he wants to fuck. Sheesh, who knew the crow had it in him?
Despite the shudders inherent in the mess, however, Jack had to admit he was genuinely quite satisfied with everything that had happened. Yeah, he hadn't gotten to beat the tar out of his "favorite swell," or bury his cleaver in the toff's brain, but Bumby's therapy had proven itself just as much murder as that. Knowing that Van Dort wasn't ever going to have a thought of his own again – and was gonna get Nebuchadnezzer up his nancy on a regular basis – would do nicely for revenge. Guess money can't get you out of everything, can it, swell? he thought, sparing one last look for the breathing taxidermy Van Dort had become. And hey – if I'm lucky enough to spot Alice around, maybe I can get a favor off Bumby here for dragging her back around. Wouldn't mind having Sharpe forget she ever had a quarrel with me. . .or wanted anything 'cept to give me a good roll in the hay. “I'll let you get around to enjoyin' it." He tipped his hat again, and headed for the door. "See you around, Angus.”
“You too, Jack.”