The Dead Man’s Knock

They hung Mathew Kopek on the 3rd, ten in the a.m., sharp. He didn’t dangle long – he was a big fella, sure, but more importantly he’d been nothing but polite to his jailers, so they put in a good word and got him a tight noose and a short rope so his neck would break fast and he wouldn’t have to suffer unduly. He’d knifed his landlord to death, a brutal scene by all accounts, but who hasn’t wanted to kill his landlord from time to time? All in all, he wasn’t the worst they’d seen, not by a long shot, and they got him off the rope by five after ten, the certificate signed by ten after, and then the mortal remains of Mathew Kopek were sent on to the morgue. He was sewn into his shroud by noon, and sometime tomorrow they’d send him on to the Potter’s Field on the edge of the city, and that’d be the end of Mathew Kopek.

There was one brief interlude, however.

Around ten at night, no later than ten fifteen, Sgt. Doug Paulson strolled by the morgue’s desk, whistling. He didn’t bother to sign in; there was no one there to make sure he did anyway. The orderly was in the break room watching a soccer match with the janitor and besides, who cared if a police sergeant was in the morgue? He had a badge, after all.

Sgt. Paulson, still whistling, went down the hall to the coolers, florescent lights flickering overhead, his black soles adding their own scuff marks to the cheap tiles. He checked the inventory sheet clipped to the wall just inside the door. “Kopek, M. – No. 6.” He counted down from the left, four, five, and six. He opened the locker and slid the body out. A snip of the scissors opened the shroud, and Paulson was met with the lifeless stare of the late Mathew Kopek. Paulson tsked.

“No respect around here,” he said, closing the dead man’s eyes.

He then lifted Kopek’s left arm out of the shroud, laid it carefully on the metal gurney, and then sawed the hand off, just above the wrist.

He wrapped the hand in newspaper and tossed it into the lunch pail he’d brought with him. He gently laid the arm back inside the shroud and, with a heartfelt prayer of thanks to his mother for teaching him how, deftly sewed the bag shut. A few stains, and the thread was the wrong color, but he knew how the graveyard detail was; no questions, get’em planted quick so they could all go home.

He helped himself to a peppermint from the orderly’s desk as he went out.

***

The crosstown bus bumped along, over the river, heading south. He’d changed out of his uniform, but he still had his gun in its shoulder holster and his badge on his belt. It was a rougher part of town he was going to, and he didn’t want any trouble, especially not after he’d delivered the hand. He pat the lunch pail on his lap, and smiled out the window.

It was an hour across town, and then a fifteen-minute walk up 118th, where every other street lamp dead and dim figures lurked in the shadows of doorways and under stoops. A few considered following him, but decided against it when they realized just where he was heading. The old bar on the corner had been called Mack’s once, though it was long dead, shuttered and dark. But there was still an apartment above it, and in the apartment there was still a tenant, an old woman who everyone in the neighborhood had gone to see, but who they always pretended not to know.

Old Janet Horne answered the door. She was bent, not by some deformity, but with eagerness. Her huge blue eyes glittered, and her mouth was twisted into a wide toothy grin.

“You got one for me, Sergeant?” He nodded. She cackled, and led him into her rooms.

Somewhere there must’ve been a bed, but all he ever saw was the kitchen next to the entryway and the low-ceilinged living room that Horne, with considerable ingenuity, had transformed into an impressive laboratory. Alembics bubbled, titrates dripped. She’d transformed a range cover, harvested from the defunct bar below, into a powerful fume hood, installing it right into the frame of a front window. There were burners, retorts, and what looked like a thousand feet of delicate twisting glass pipes winding their way across benchtops and tables. It smelled sharp, like burnt herbs, and the lights were always too dim.

He handed her the pail and she squealed with delight as she pulled the severed hand out to examine it. She tapped the tendons on the back of the hand, peered close at the nails, and traced the lifelines on its palm. Satisfied, she nodded.

“Hand of a killer,” she pursed her lips. “Knife, was it?”

“Mm-hm,” he said.

“And it’s fresh?”

“No more than twelve hours since he died,” he said, glancing at his watch. She sighed happily.

“Good, good,” she tossed the hand down on a table and hobbled over to one of the cabinets in the corner. “Let me get this curing, and then I’ll pay you, Sergeant.”

He didn’t mind the wait, and he’d learned that it didn’t do to rush Janet Horne. Besides, he was fascinated by the work, the strange alchemical procedures and magical rituals by which she transformed some murderer’s dead paw into a Hand of Glory.

He’d thought she was just some lunatic when she’d approached him outside Carlo’s a year ago. He’d just had his ass kicked by some of Carlo’s goons, his first and only warning that the money he owed was expected, and soon. She’d stepped out of the alleyway while he’d been scraping himself off the floor, and she’d had that same predatory grin she always got when she saw good material.

Money? Yeah, he’d wanted to make some money, and he didn’t care too much how either. So when she’d asked him about the bodies of the executed, about the morgue, and if he could stomach the kind of work she had in mind, he’d just nodded. She wanted him to saw off the left hand of a hanged man, a murderer? Fine, how much?

He’d done it without blinking. He was a cop, after all – he’d seen what Carlo did to people who didn’t pay. And it’s not like he was hurting anybody. He’d clipped the guy’s wing, and brought it to the batty old woman.

“What do you want it for?” he’d asked, counting out his ten thousand dollars. It was a third of what he owed, but he could buy a little more time with it at least. She’d rolled one of her eyes in his direction, pinpoint pupil shaking with mirth. She’d show him, if he wanted to see. Oh yes.

He’d watched as she pickled the hand, wrapped tight in rags and dunked in a foul-smelling fluid for an hour, all the while stirring pinches of herbs and strange, shimmering dusts into the big brass vat. Then she’d pulled the hand out, hissed words that made his hair stand on end over the thing, and unwrapped it. It came out dark and leathery, the fingers outstretched like the damned clawing for salvation.

“Hand of Glory,” she’d whispered.

Then she showed him what it could do, and why certain people would pay so much for one.

They’d walked a few blocks up the street and turned a corner. There was a seedy little hotel there, a by-the-hour place that served the itinerant middle managers that wandered down after work looking for negotiable companionship. She’d hobbled over to the side door, and made him try the knob. It was locked, of course, and she’d just grinned all the more when he shook it loudly in annoyance.

“Grip my shoulder,” she said. “And don’t let go.”

A match flared, and she touched it to one of the fingers of the dead hand. There were a few sparks, and then the finger was wreathed in pale blue flame. There was a noise, a lock undoing itself. The door opened. She grinned and, his hand on her shoulder, they entered the hotel. In the dark hallway, the Hand of Glory emitted a ghostly light, bright as day, that followed them where ever they went, illuminating their path.

The doorman and the bouncer were both fast asleep, heads down and mouths gaping. Horne had cackled and pointed, not even bothering to keep her voice down.

“They’re in the Hand’s grasp!” she’d said. “They’ll not wake, so long as the Hand burns. And it’s the same throughout the whole building. Come!” They walked up the stairs, doors clicking open as they passed. “All doors, all locks, open to the Dead Man’s knock!” In each room they entered, the occupants were completely out, like they’d been hit by a dart. No matter what they’d been doing or how rigorously they’d been doing it, they were, all of them, unconscious and snoring peacefully.

Back out in the street she’d blown out the finger. He’d looked in through the glass door, saw the doorman and the bouncer waking, rubbing their eyes and yawning.

He’d practically lost his mind then. To see something like that, to discover that the world you thought you’d lived in was a lie, a thin shell of respectable rationality over a roiling core of madness? She’d grinned and nodded and answered all his questions.

“Aye, powerful relic, the Hand of Glory. Thief, assassin, spy, all of them will pay for one, pay well too, give me the money I need to do my work, to continue my researches. But the materials needed are special, very dear, hard to come by, least of which is not the hand itself! A murderer’s hand it must be, their left, and from their corpse cut within twenty-four hours of the hanging.” She’d cocked a glimmering eye up at him. “Used to be they’d leave ‘em on the gibbet by the roads for any and all to take. Now, they’re harder to come by. Not for some, though – you had no troubles, did you?”

He hadn’t, not at all actually.

And there was a hanging scheduled for next month, too.

So they’d gone into business together, him doing the butchering, her doing the cooking. She’d talked to Carlo for him, and when he’d learned for whom Paulson was working, old Carlo had kept a wide berth, and got real polite, real fast, let him pay back what he owed at his convenience. No one wanted to cross old Janet Horne, or get in the way of her work.

They’d made seven hands in the past year. He didn’t know what she charged for them. How much would you pay for something like that, a key to any door, a light in any darkness, absolute security on any job? He didn’t know and didn’t ask, accepting his ten thousand in cash happily, good pay for pathetically little work.

The current hand was busy fermenting, and Horne limped her way into the kitchen, reaching for a huge cracker tin above the refrigerator. She undid the lid and reached inside, pulling out a wad of bills.

“Business is good, huh?” he said, stuffing the bills into his lunch pail. She shrugged and cackled.

He whistled to himself the whole bus ride back.

***

They hit a dry spell over the summer – plenty of murders and plenty of hangings, of course, but all the bodies had families waiting for them, people who were going to bury their dead in family plots and all that, not the sort of situation where a missing hand would be overlooked. It put Paulson in a bad mood. He’d gotten use to the extra money.

Which was why he got so excited about the Varney Park Ripper, more so than even the most morbid lover of lurid crime stories. He had a perfectly reasonable economic interest in the case; the Ripper’s crimes were so terrible, so violent, that when he got caught he’d certainly be hanged, and of course no one would ever want to claim the body. All they had to do was catch him.

The Ripper had been stalking Varney Park for a couple of months now. Old glacial lake clay underlay the poorly drained park, meaning it turned into a swamp with the slightest bit of rain. Unusable, therefore, as a building site, the three hundred acres of semi-wild woodland had become a big park on the East Side, with trails and pavilions and a cheap bandstand. The East Side was pretty tony, well gentrified and with a well-heeled voter base, so when joggers and dog walkers and nice rich people started getting their throats torn out, the police were responded in force. Even Paulson, a desk cop, had been sent out on a few of the beefed-up patrols. The mayor wanted the Ripper off the streets, as quickly as possible.

The attacks of the Ripper were so savage that, after the first one, people assumed a mountain lion was responsible. The third one had a witness though, and what she saw hadn’t been a wild animal. She’d described a pale, naked man, thin and rangy with long, lank black hair and terrible staring eyes. He’d leapt out of the trees to sink his teeth into the throat of her fellow night-jogger. When the cops got to the scene, the body was practically bloodless, the throat horribly mutilated.

There had been two more since then, with witnesses who all saw the same thing, a pale figure that would rush out of the bushes or trees or undergrowth, biting and tearing his victims, leaving them drained of blood.

They’d filled the park with cops – horse cops, bike cops, foot cops. They’d parked prowlers on all the roads; they flew helicopters day and night. They sent plain clothes cops disguised as runners into the park, and all that got them was a sixth victim who was one of their own. It was getting ridiculous, and the city was on edge, ready to explode with fear.

Then, one day, there was a break in the case. A homeless man who had had his camp in the park came forward with a story. Before the rich taxpayers have been made victims, apparently the homeless community in the Park had suffered several losses under similar circumstances. It had gotten so bad that they’d all eventually cleared out, but not before a few of them had tried to enact justice on the murderer who had been stalking them. They’d tracked their tormenter deep into Varney Park, a thickly overgrown patch of old forest right in the heart of the East Side. There, high up in a hollow tree, they’d seen the Ripper, folded like a bat in the dark interior of the tree trunk. The man’s story became confused after that, and it seemed like their punitive expedition had met with tragedy, but at least one of them had lived to spread the tale: The Ripper lived in the middle of the park, high up in a tree. No wonder he hadn’t been found!

With that news in hand, the police moved quickly, three hundred officers forming an ever-constricting circle that, eventually, closed in around a huge, half-dead oak in the geographic center of Varney Park. Eighty-feet up, they spotted a cleft in the tree, probably from a lightning strike. And with the aid of binoculars, they saw a pale, white shape, wedged inside. As he looked, the Captain of Police saw the shape shift and squirm, and a face emerged, a long narrow head with a wide, blood-stained mouth and huge, owlish eyes that didn’t blink, but looked directly back at him, down the binoculars.

Getting him down was an ordeal. They couldn’t bring in a cherry picker, as there were no roads. They opted to climb up, fully harnessed, and armed with nets and tasers and tear gas. They were eventually able to bring him down, wrapped up and slung between two officers. He was curiously sluggish, and simply blinked stupidly in the sunlight as they hauled him out. As night fell, though, he became active, agitated, and almost succeeded in escaping, his frail and emaciated body hiding a surprising strength that sent several police officers to the hospital with broken bones or terrible lacerations.

The trial was swift – he offered no defense, and refused to cooperate with his court appointed lawyer. He was languid and dreamy in court, refusing to answer questions, and merely laughing horribly at the mention of murders. He seemed to doze most of the time, although it was said that, at night in his cell, he would become terribly, furiously active, hurling himself at the walls and bars and screaming monstrous blasphemies, things foul enough to make even the most sadistic among the correction officers blanch with fright. But as day approached, he would grow quiet and still, almost passive.

His defense, obviously, was predicated upon an insanity plea, but when this was broached by his lawyer, he roused himself enough to stand and, chains straining, proudly declaim in his terrible hollow voice, that he whom they named The Ripper had certainly killed all those people, and that he would happily kill again, indeed was eager to kill, and that there was nothing they could do to stop him. In fact, he would throw himself on the mercy of the court and make only a single request – that he be executed at night.

Strangely enough, and though the court didn’t plan to indulge him in his request, this is exactly what came to pass. He had been scheduled to die at three in the afternoon, though when they tried to take him out of jail and to the place of hanging, they found that the electrical wiring in all of the police vans had been chewed clean through by what must’ve been an army of rats. It took hours to arrange for alternative transport and then, when they passed under a bridge, a blinding cloud of bats had erupted from the shadows, causing the driver to swerve and crash into a support pylon. A second van had to be dispatched to complete the journey, and by the time that had happened, it was seven thirty and the sun was just sinking below the horizon.

They say he had a horrible look of triumph as they led him up the stairs to the gallows at nine o’clock. They say he laughed hideously as the noose was put around his neck. They say it took half an hour for him to stop kicking after they dropped him. They say it took three strong police officers hanging from his legs to finally strangle him.

***

He arrived at the orderly’s desk just before midnight. The man kept reading as Paulson scribbled an unreadable and false name on the sign-in sheet, nodding as the Sergeant walked by, down the hall. He’d have to hurry if he wanted to catch his bus.

They’d put him in lucky number thirteen, labelled on the inventory as “John Doe AKA Varney Park Ripper.” Paulson slid him out, slit the cloth bag open, and gasped. The eyes were wide and staring, and the pale face was twisted with a horrible rictus grin. He’d seen lots of dead bodies, of course, but there was something especially awful about this one, a fiendishness in the expression that made his shudder. Hands trembling slightly, he gripped the cold wrist, and sawed.

That was bad too, the worst he’d seen. The arm had seemed almost slippery, like it wouldn’t stay still, and he’d had to press hard to get the blade to cut though the clammy flesh. When it was done, he was sweating, and he felt sick. Shockingly, the face seemed to have changed – the sardonic smile was gone, or subtly changed, replaced by a look of furious, satanic rage. He quickly sewed the bag up and practically ran out of the morgue, the heavy thing in his pail rattling with each step.

***

She grinned, as she always did when he stopped by, but her expression changed when she saw the hand. She frowned at the thing, holding it delicately, and her examination went on much longer than before, her blue eyes hard and appraising as she looked at the severed stump, plucked at the fingernails, stroked the fine hair growing on its palms.

“Where did you get this from?” she asked, finally.

“It’s the Ripper’s,” he gasped. He had been holding his breath for some reason. She nodded.

“Strange one,” she said. “Oh, lots of death. Terrible violence, steeped in blood. And old hand, too, but strange. Very strange indeed.” She shrugged. She tossed it down and walked to the cabinet.

He watched her, as always, but he kept getting distracted. As she rummaged in the cabinet he thought he heard the window rattle, as if a sudden gust of wind had struck it. It made him jump, and he realized his mouth was dry, his throat tight. She poured the strange pickling brine from a pitcher into the big brass vat. Just under the sound of her mutterings and the ringing metal, he thought he heard the door at the foot of the stairs open quietly. He felt the weight of his gun in its holster under his jacket and felt better.

She was adding the preliminary mixture of herbs. The hand was still on the table, pale and with splayed fingers, like a huge, hairless spider. He shivered. He wished he could just get his money and go.

The stairs outside creaked. He jumped, reaching for his gun.

“What is it?” she asked, annoyed at the interruption.

“I think someone is out there, on the stairs,” he whispered. As he spoke, there was a heavy slow knocking.

“I haven’t got all night!” she barked. “If someone is out there, they should come in!”

The door swung open, and Paulson stumbled backwards, fumbling for his gun.

In the doorway was the pale naked body of the Ripper, huge round eyes brimming with hate, his fanged mouth wide, and the stump of his left arm pressed close to his chest. He moved like striking snake, rippling through the intervening space to grip Paulson with his one good hand, pulling his throat to the fanged maw of the vampire. There was a gush of blood and Paulson’s terrified moan, and then a prolonged, heavy silence, broken only by the hurried lapping of the vampire’s tongue against the wound.

When he was finished, he stood up, face bloody, eyes smiling, and looked at Janet Horne. She offered him his severed hand, which he took happily.

“A pleasant evenin’ to you, your Lordship,” she said with a curtsey. “You wouldn’t be interested in a bit of collaboration, would you?”

END

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