August 31, 1888
When I cut the woman’s throat, her eyes betrayed not pain, not fear, but utter confusion. Truly, no creature can understand its own obliteration. Our expectation of death is real but highly theoretical until the moment is upon us and so it was with her.
She knew me but she didn’t know me. I was of a type, and having survived on the streets for years, she’d cultivated the gift of reading for threat or profit, deciding in a second and then acting accordingly. I knew in an instant I’d passed beyond the adjudication and represented, in her narrow rat brain of what once was a mind, the profit, not the threat. She watched me approach, along a dark street that had subtended from a larger thoroughfare, with a kind of expectant resignation. She had no reason to fear, not because violence was rare here in Whitechapel (it was not), but because it was almost always affiliated with robbery, as strong-armed gang members from the Bessarabians or the Hoxton High Rips struck a woman down, yanked her purse free, and dashed away. Crime, for the working population of the streets, meant a snatch-purse with a cosh, and he would be some kind of brute, a sailor most likely, or a large Jew, German, or Irish Paddy with a face like squashed potato. I had none of these defining characteristics but appeared to be some member of a higher order, to suggest service in a household or some low retail position. I even had a smile, so composed was I, and she returned that smile in the dimness of a crescent moon and a far-off gaslight.
I know exactly what she expected; it was a transaction as ancient as the stones of Jerusalem, conducted not merely in quid but drachmas, kopeks, pesos, yen, francs, marks, gold pieces, silver pieces, even chunks of salt, pieces of meat, arrowheads.
“Want a tup, guv’nor?” she’d say.
“I do indeed, madam.”
“It’s a thruppence for what’s below, a fourpenny for me mouth, darling. My, ain’t you a handsome bloke.”
“Jenny in Angel Alley offers her lips for a thruppence flat,” I would dicker.
“Then off to Jenny in Angel Alley and her fine lips, and don’t be bothering me.”
“All right, we’ll rut front to back. A thruppence.”
“Suppose you run?”
“Ask ’em all, Sweetie don’t run. She does what she’s signed for, fair and square.”
“So be it.” And with that the coin would be granted, a niche against the wall found, the position assumed, the skirts lifted, and I was expected to position myself suchways and angled so as to achieve fast entry. The system was not designed to accommodate finesse. Of foreplay, naught. The act itself would resolve into some sliding, some bucking, some in-out–in-out in the wet suction of the woman’s notch, and I’d have a small but reinvigorating event. I’d feel momentary bliss and step back.
“Thank you kindly, sir,” she’d say, “and now Sweetie’s off.”
That would be that—except not this night.
If she had words to speak, she never spoke them, and that half-smile, in memory of a woman’s comeliness, died on her lips.
With my left hand a blur, I clamped hard on her throat, seeing her pupils dilate like exploding suns—that to steady her for the next, which was contained in the strength and power of my stronger right hand. At full whip, I hit her hard with the belly of the blade, the speed, not any press or guidance on my own part, driving the keen edge perfectly and carrying it deep into her, sundering that which lay beneath, then curling around, following the flow of her neck. I hit my target, which Dr. Gray has labeled the inner carotid, shallowly approximated in the outer muscle of the neck, not even an inch deep. It was good Sheffield steel, full flat-ground to the butcher’s preference, my thumb hooked under and hard against the bolster for stability. There was no noise.
She meant to step back and had more or less begun to sway in that direction when I hit her again, the same stroke driven by full muscle, with all the strength in my limb against it, and opened the second wound near perfect upon the first.
Blood does not appear immediately. It seems as if it takes the body a few seconds to realize it has been slain and that it has obligations to the laws of death. She stepped back, and I gripped her shoulder as if we were to waltz, and eased her down, as if she’d just fainted or grown a bit dizzy from too much punch before the spin upon the floor among the lads and lasses.
Meanwhile, the two streaks that marked my work reddened by degrees, but not much, until they each looked like a kind of unartful application of a cosmetic nature, some blur of powder or rouge or lipstick. Then a drip, then a drop, then a rivulet, each snaking slowly from the lip of the cut, leaving a track as it rushed down the tired old neck.
Sweetie—or whatever, I didn’t know—was attempting to say something, but her larynx, though undamaged by the anatomical placement of my strikes, would not cooperate. Only low murmuring sounds came out, and her eyes locked all billiard-ball on infinity, though I do not believe she was yet medically dead, as she had not lost enough blood from her brain as yet.
That issue resolved itself in the next second. The severed artery realized what its interruption required and at that point, at last, begin to spurt massively. Torrent to gush to tidal wave, the blood erupted from the full length of each cut and obeyed gravity in its search for earth in which to lose itself. I laid her down, careful not to let the surge flow upon my hands, even though, like all gentlemen, I wore gloves. In the moonlight—there was a quarter moon above, not much but perhaps just a bit—the liquid was dead black. It had no red at all to it and was quite warm and had a kind of brass-penny stench, metallic, as it rose to meet my nostrils.
She lay supine, and her eyes finally rotated up into their sockets. If there was a moment of passing or an actual rattle, as the silly books claim, I missed it clean. She slid easily enough into a stillness so extreme it could not but be death.
In the fall of 1888, Jack the Ripper slaughtered five prostitutes in London’s seamy Whitechapel District. He did not just kill—he ripped with a butcher’s glee—and then, after the particularly gruesome slaying of Mary Jane Kelly, he disappeared. For 127 years, Jack has haunted the dark corners of our imagination, the paradigm of the psychotic killer. We remember him not only for his crimes, but because, despite one of the biggest dragnets in London history, he was never caught.
I, Ripper is a vivid reimagining of Jack’s personal story entwined with that of an Irish journalist who covered the case, knew the principals, charted the investigation, and at last, stymied, went off in a bold new direction. These two men stalk each other through a city twisted in fear of the madman’s blade, a cat-and-mouse game that brings to life the sounds and smells of the fleshpot tenderloin of Whitechapel and all the lurid acts that fueled the Ripper headlines.
Dripping with intrigue, atmosphere, and diabolical twists, this is a magnificent psychological thriller from perennial New York Times bestseller Stephen Hunter, who the San Francisco Examiner calls “one of the best storytellers of his generation.”