Scotland Yard knocks on his door on the last day of the worst year of James’s life.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, sir,” says the young police constable. Out of habit, James idly notes a fresh nick on the man’s jaw line. Clearly caused by the slip of a razor, but why would such a fresh faced young man need to shave when his skin is smooth and unmarred by the harsh bristles of manhood? James takes in the overly starched uniform, brightly polished shoes, shining metal buttons, unnaturally stiff posture – the way the boy tries not to bounce nervously on his toes. A new recruit to the force trying to make a good impression. Probably looks in the mirror every morning stroking his chin just begging for a bit of stubble, anything, to enter into manhood with that sacred rite of passage of shaving – “Really James, you ought to take a good look at yourself. Do you rather enjoy looking like a shaggy dog?”
“What?” His voice comes out hoarse. He tries to clear his throat, but it feels like he’s swallowed bits of gravel that are scraping his vocal chords raw on the way down.
“Inspector Lesner was wondering if you could come take a look at a body we found yesterday.”
“No. I’m done with the Ripper case.” The case is solved, no thanks to his supposedly legendary powers of observation. The case is closed, despite his disbelief and his denial and his pleas to a God he doesn’t even believe in.
“It’s not a lady, sir, it’s a man.”
“What are the fine gentlemen of Scotland Yard good for if they’re always calling on me to solve their cases?” he snaps.
“James, who is it?” Helen enters the foyer, pulling a wrap tightly around herself. The constable looks over James’s shoulder, takes in Helen’s half dressed state. Helen defiantly stares back. James has to give her credit - the sheer gall she has to stand tall in the face of her shredded reputation and in the wake of tragedy.
The constable shifts uncomfortably.
“It’s personal, sir.”
“Spell it out for me. My deductive skills are somewhat lacking today.”
The constable lowers his voice.
“The inspector thinks it’s a friend of yours.”
“We’re not quite sure, which is why –”
Helen tries to shove past James to throttle the man. James grabs her wrists and pulls her back.
“For the love of god, who?”
“Your friend, Mr. Druitt. They found him floating in the Thames.”
One dismal and dreary day, John convinces James and Nigel to ditch Professor McCall’s physics class to go fishing on the shores of the Thames. It’s not even that James enjoys fishing – it’s just that McCall can’t teach to save his life and really, doing anything but going to class is a more productive use of time. Helen comes along ostensibly to investigate rumors of the Feejee mermaid, even though James reasonably points out that the source of said rumors was so high on cocaine that if you showed him a lump of coal he would have said it looked like the Feejee mermaid. Even Nikola, who loathes such interactions with nature, decides to accompany them.
“McCall’s grasp of Newtonian law is flimsy at best,” sneers Nikola. “And how seriously can you take a man who can’t even get his Latin right? Corpus omne perseverare in statu -”
“Do shut up,” John says. “We didn’t maneuver an escape from McCall just to deal with another academic arse.” He adjusts his fishhook and casts his line into the water.
“Why are you even here?” asks Helen.
Nikola shrugs. “To see if I can manage to get Nigel struck by lightning again.”
Nigel starts frantically grabbing at his clothes. When he comes up with nothing, he rips into the satchel he’s carrying and finds a miniature lightning rod.
“I’m going to kill you, you bloody wanker!”
James strolls away from the others’ bickering and John’s roars of amusement, content to breathe in the thick air. The clouds are dark and heavy with unshed tears - perfect weather for fishing. He stares into the murky depths of the Thames, mesmerized by the eddies and swirls. The water quells the gnawing in his gut that’s been there ever since Helen announced her most ambitious project to date.
His reverie is broken by a large splash and when he looks up, Nigel has a spluttering Nikola in a headlock and is dragging him into the river while John goads Nigel on.
“I can hear you thinking from 5 metres away,” says Helen. She gently rests her hand on his lower arm. “What’s wrong?”
It’s on the tip of his tongue to tell Helen all his concerns about the project. But it’s not like Helen is unaware of the risks involved, and besides, once that woman has her mind set on something it’s impossible to divert her course. The five of them had made a pact to explore the boundaries of the physical world and he refuses to be the weak link in the chain, the coward that bows out.
Especially since Nikola bet Nigel ten pounds that James would be the first to crack.
“Nothing at all, my dear. I just thought I saw something moving in the water. It bore a remarkable similarity to that mer-creature of yours.”
“Really?” Helen eagerly bends over the water and peers into it.
“No. You’re far too gullible for your age.”
Helen huffs and straightens up.
“I’m open to all possibilities.”
They watch as Nigel shoves Nikola’s head underwater.
“Shall we go rescue poor Nikola?”
James laughs. “What kind of question is that?”
A heavy hand presses down on his shoulder.
“What kind of friend are you?” says John.
“A rather terrible one.”
James catches the wicked gleam in John’s eye, and so does Helen.
“John Druitt, don’t you dare –”
He dares. John grabs Helen around the waist and with ease, tosses her into the water as she shrieks.
James tries to make a run for it, but it’s half hearted at best. John quickly catches up and shoves him, and he stumbles and falls into the cool depths of the water. Helen sneaks out of the water and tackles John from behind and he goes flying with a spectacular splash. And with a loud crack, the heavens let loose.
Nigel finally lets of Nikola, who surfaces with such a disgruntled and half drowned look that it causes the other four of them to burst into peals of laughter.
“Definitely better than McCall’s class,” manages John between laughs.
“Well, maybe for you,” mutters Nikola.
Nigel jumps and swats at something. “Ow, Helen, I think your Feejee bit my arse.”
“There aren’t any predators in this river, despite what Helen may have told you,” says James.
“Then what was that?”
There’s a mad dash and splash as everyone frantically gets out of the water. Nigel pulls out the gun he’s taken to carrying ever since he was attacked by a particularly brutal Kellas cat in Scotland. They spend the rest of the afternoon surveying the shore for any sign of the Feejee mermaid, but are forced to call it a night when Nikola refuses to go any further due to lack of victuals (“A serious oversight on your part, Johnny”) and Nigel almost shoots James in the foot due to mishandling of the gun (“Give me that gun or I will happily let you fail anatomy”).
Nigel catches a chill and is in bed for a week with a bruised arse, and everyone else has a touch of sniffles, but it is one of those days that fondly goes down in the annals of foolish college escapades, even if they never do figure out what bit Nigel in the arse and Nikola is still a bit sore over the whole thing.
James will always remember it as the last time they were truly themselves, for the following week they use the Source Blood.
The room is dim, with only one tiny window for the fading afternoon sunlight to shine through. There are six tables neatly arranged in three rows, with six lumpy prone figures that were once human beings but are now sacks of meat covered in sheets. James tries to ignore the stench of slowly rotting flesh, the low buzzing of the flies, a pale hand that has slipped and dangles over the edge of the table - but he can’t. He sees the broken nails on the hand, notes the specks of blood under the fingertips, the stain of ink on the palm. For the first time, he doesn’t want to notice the minutiae. He wants to be like other people, to be blissfully unaware of the details. He doesn’t want to know all the answers anymore.
The inspector says something and gestures, but the heavy thump of his heart drowns out the words. He doesn’t need the inspector to tell him where to go – he tightens his grip on Helen’s waist and walks towards the table with the largest body. The person had been tall, so tall that the feet almost dangle off the table. He can see the tips of leather boots.
Helen seems to have lost the ability to move. He drags her along, pulling her tightly against him as he maneuvers them around the other tables in an attempt to avoid contact.
“Dr. Watson, this really isn’t the place for a lady.”
Usually a remark like that would set Helen off like a firecracker, but today she has no words. James speaks them for her.
And they’ve finally arrived at the table. Together they stare at the shrouded figure. Wordlessly, he turns to Helen, asking her with his eyes if she wants to do the honors. Imperceptibly, she shakes her head. And without further ado, because the waiting has gone on for so long and James cannot take it any longer, he grabs the sheet and with one swift move, yanks it down.
“They found the latest girl under a bridge near Wapping. Looks like the Ripper tossed her into the Thames,” James says, sipping at his brandy and stroking his beard thoughtfully.
John lazily relaxes into his chair and extends his feet towards the roaring fire.
“Why move her from Whitechapel? The Ripper has a specific modus operandi, almost a calling card if you like. Why taint that?"
John takes a long swig of brandy.
"Perhaps the old boy's losing his taste for the sport."
“But why the river?”
“It’s an easy method of disposal.”
“This is a man who cares not about disposal – he carelessly leaves the bodies out in the open in Whitechapel, rather unconcerned about hiding them.”
“Well,” says John. “Perhaps a more symbolic approach, then.”
James taps his glass thoughtfully. “River Thames,” he says, letting the words roll off his tongue. “Thames, from the Middle English Temese, originally derived from the Celtic word Tamesas, meaning ‘dark.’ Dark water, darkness of the soul, hidden secrets, buried treasures...”
“An ironic commentary on the river as a source of life and death,” suggests John.
“Baptism,” counters James, “the cleansing of his sins.”
They both pause, thinking.
“Maybe he was just really fond of the Thames,” John says.
“That has got to be the stupidest thing you’ve said to me all week,” says James, suddenly irritated. He pushes his glass away, gets up and paces. With each twist and turn, the Ripper evades him. What started out, to James’s shame, as an exciting new case, almost a game, to exercise his intellectual skills has ultimately turned stale, frustrating and, if he looks into his psyche deeply enough, a bit frightening. He almost blames himself for creating this monster – he had wished for an unsolvable mystery, a brilliant mastermind and a worthy opponent…
Be careful what you wish for. James certainly is.
“I’ve never seen you this put out before,” says John. “Are you telling me that you, the great James Watson, are truly and finally stumped by old Leather Apron?”
James slumps back into his chair.
“I’m not willing to admit defeat quite yet. But there’s something so odd about the Ripper case that I just can’t pinpoint. Something I feel I should know, some knowledge just floating out of reach and if I can just stretch my arm like Bithiah and reach for that reed basket, I should know what it is.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out, old friend. All good things, etcetera.”
John speaks in an odd tone of voice, one that James cannot interpret. Anger, frustration, regret, possibly even affection? It’s a question that haunts James for years, but in the end, it doesn’t change the outcome at all.
The face is bloated and lacks eyelids – clouded dead blue eyes stare back at James. Dead white skin with layers flaking off here and there, a leaf stuck to the side of his face. The long brown hair is thick and matted, like a tangled rat’s nest. In his mind, James reduces the bloating, restores the color to the cheeks, untangles the hair and ties it with a bow at the nape of the neck. He remembers the way John looked wet and cold, merrily laughing in the Thames surrounded by the people he loved best.
The corpse bears a remarkable resemblance to John. But it’s not John. Despite the bloat and decay, the body is too slim, the nails unkempt and ragged, and John would never have been caught dead in those boots.
Most importantly, James knows John. John has too much of an ego to die a coward’s death. No, if John really wanted to die, he would have gone out fighting, preferably after taking Nikola out as well so he couldn’t try to seduce Helen after John was gone. This is an attempt to throw the coppers of his scent and to take his leave with one final taunt for James.
“Yes,” James says. “It’s him.”
“Are you sure?” asks the inspector.
“No,” says Helen. “No, it’s not –”
“I’m sorry, inspector. Could we have a moment alone please?”
“I’ll go get the contents of his pockets,” says the inspector, and takes his leave.
Helen pulls away from him.
“It’s not him, James. You know that.”
“And what good will come out of us telling the truth? The killings have stopped. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of John in weeks. Perhaps this is his final message, his curtain call. Maybe it’s all over.”
He picks the stray leaf of the corpse’s face.
“Even if it’s not, at the very least he’s planning on moving on. And if at all possible, we can try to do the same.”
Scotland Yard hasn’t yet made the connection between John and the killings. James wonders if they ever will, and if he should bother to enlighten them. If they ever do figure it out, then the lie of John’s death will protect Helen and him – no one will suspect them of harboring a murderer.
The inspector returns with a small sack in his hands and hands it to James. James sticks his hand inside and encounters something razor sharp. With an exclamation, he pulls the offending object out and hands the bag to Helen.
It’s a fishhook. And with a sudden burst of clarity, James realizes what John was trying to tell him that night at the Reform Club - that those happy, golden days are no more. That the river has come full circle – from life and love to death and decay. That yes, the Ripper really did just like the Thames.
And that maybe - just maybe - John is sorry.