The Living Girl
His face appeared to them in the labyrinthian dark. Those cold, soulless eyes stared back into theirs, his white flesh creasing as he laughed with a hollow chasm of a mouth. He was grotesque, hideous in his uneven yellowing grin, his lips ripe with greed and a sadism that marked him out as cursed. He was a man the gods had shaped of clay and forgotten to give a soul.
All of Philip Penchand’s girls were the same. Long dark brown hair parted down the middle, pale white fresh faces, studious types. They earned him more, that way. He lured them, all of them, with the same hushed tones of glamour and excitement. The best prey, his father had reasoned as he rolled a cigarette, were the type you didn’t have to guard. The best prey was too terrified to run. You could open the doors and demand they fled, but they would beg you to stay.
And the girls did.
He broke them, until their bodies rotted to fear and terror, their ribs protruding, their hair unwashed, their nights sleepless. He worked them as ruthlessly, passing them from client to client under the gables of Knightsbridge and Mayfair until they could take no more. His father watched over him, thin and sallow, silently folding each note into his pocket. There was nothing that mattered but the next high, the next sell, the next win. He’d doff his cap at the sour aristos and red faced noveau riche and tempt them to his prey with oiled charm.
“Pretty, Molly, isn’t she sir?” he’d say, as the girl blushed, desperate to avoid another beating if she failed in netting him a client. “Good company too, sir. And not just horizontally!” At this he would crack open his mouth and laugh, his mouth wide, but never once did any emotion cross his face. He never felt anything. He was a strange creature to watch, monstrous in his endless pursuit of wealth. Every line he spoke, every joke he uttered, and every thought in his head was stolen from someone else, observed and mimicked perfectly to create the illusion of a personality, a soul, a conscience.
But there was nothing there. Just dark hard eyes that showed nothing and felt nothing.
The bodies swung on their own, and he liked it that way. Only the dead stayed silent, and the dead that became so on their own saved his own neck. The girls made their own gallows from bedsheets and satins, or choked on pills and sweet wine. That was the only way to escape him, by that point. They were dead women walking, useless to the world and useless to him. It was no matter to him. They were faded by then, rough from callouses and blooming with bruises, minds stung with his cruelty and abuse. When a girl stopped making him money, he got rid of her. “Pity isn’t business, son,” his father remarked, as he walked from a widow’s grave with a con in his hand. “A conscience is for fools who don’t deserve success.”
He chose a wife, of course, to cover the hole in the gaping emptiness in his chest. A pretty, wordless and mindless young woman with blonde curls, happy enough in her gilded cage and distracted with trinkets to ignore his crooked dealings and emotionless ways. He lied and manipulated as easily as his father, reeling off remarkable falsehoods with a slickness that left the girls staring. Falsehood he could never keep up, never sustain the illusion of. “It doesn’t matter,” he hissed, when one girl thought to ask. “Get his money and ask questions later.”
And so it would have continued, the graveyards of London filling up with one hundred and seventeen bodies across three years, pale faced girls fed raw to the beasts of the hunting set, from the hands of a man who felt nothing inside.
It would all have been fine, if she hadn’t talked.
That girl had become a problem for him, in the end, too brazen to comply to his slow crushing cruelty. It was a shame, he reasoned, because she made him money, keeping the most loyal clientele in his balance sheet. But pity cost money, and he ordered her onto the streets. No matter, he thought, gentlemen will be sated by a new pretty thing. Everyone is replaceable. Everyone is disposable.
But the girl didn’t fade silently into poverty or a shallow grave. The girl lived, and lived with an open mouth. “Will you care to look at Sallie, governor?” he said flippantly to his clientele, having sadly told the tale of how his former woman had gone mad, pressing his handkerchief to dry eyes. “She’s a fair thing. Clever, too. Cleverer, I bet.” But the man had said nothing, getting his coat and his hat.
“It’s strange, Mr Penchand,” he had said, unfolding his gloves. “I had heard she lives fine and well in the north of the city. And not mad at all. Doing good business from your men, by all account.”
For the first time in his life, Philip Penchand had felt a twinge of panic. The girl was not frightened of him. The girl wasn’t going to hide from him, hoping he wouldn’t come after her with a bulldog and cane to thrash her for seeing a former client. The girl wasn’t going to bend at her knees and beg him to forgive her, if only to save her right eye. The girl wasn’t going to be found in her nightgown, drowned from Crabtree Bridge.
The girl, it seemed, had lived.
“Well,” his father had said, locking the doors on Fleet Street for the night. “You’ve got yourself a nuisance there, son.” He sat down heavily, lighting a match and blowing the smoke up in a straight line until it flew into the dark nothingness. “Fancy a girl betraying you like that.” Philip stared at him, nodding slowly.
And so it was that he took his cane, and marched out into the dark.
He found the girl’s address, easily enough. He charmed the local madams north of Hampstead and hung around the inn until her name flickered up drunkenly between patrons. Smiling, he slipped into the blackness and up the winding cobbled roads that were still, save the shadows of washing overhead. She lived in a small room, three floors up at 11 Cavalier Street, her gaslight pale against the glass.
He could see her sillouette in the dark, alone, the curve of her strong chin as she went to draw the curtain. Grinning, he took a moment to relish how she would beg him. How he would grab her hair and wrench her face against the wall. How no man would come near her with a face broken with his revenge. His father had taught him how to pick locks, that was easy enough. Slowly, he moved through the door and walked loudly up the stairs. He wanted her to hear, to fear him. To know what was about to happen to girls who lived.
He pushed the door to her room, slowly. Her wash basin was full, ready for bed, her sheets pulled back for the bedpan. “Susie,” he called softly. “There’s no way out. I know you betrayed me. Confess it, and maybe I won’t kill you.”
A laugh came from behind him. “You think I betrayed you?”
“You’ve been a bad girl, Suze,” he said, turning to face her. “Taking my clients from me, like that. I’ve heard all about it. I’ve got evidence, Susan. Just admit it. You’re a liar, a little cheating bitch. A pathetic, manipulative little bitch.”
This is where the girls always started to shake, panicking, begging for him to stop, to forgive him, admitting any number of things they were guiltless for. But the girl just stood there, her eyes shining. She smiled, leaning against the wall, her eyes hard with hate.
Philip watched as a shadow moved over her face and his shoulder. A great thin man, six foot or more, a knife in hand. He didn’t turn, staring at her, stick still raised, his wide mouth twitching.
“Sorry son,” said the man. “Pity isn’t a business.”