I was in Rome when the first attacks took place. There were three in total before I got an email from an old friend in CID asking me to come in for a consultation. I’d been following on the news, so he didn’t even have to tell me what he needed me for. On the flight a little girl – she must have been two but I’m bad with ages – was running up and down the aisle. Her mother was telling her not to but she whined ‘I want to see the people. I want to see the people.’ The man holding the card with my name almost correctly spelt was wearing a kilt. He didn’t offer an explanation so I didn’t ask for one.
‘Thanks for coming Martha.’ Arnold Holdstien was dark enough to pass for some Mediterranean lothario, but was actually a native of Aberdeen. I imagine some Roman centurion sneaking away from guard duty on Hadrian’s Wall to tup with a Celtic maiden a long time ago and his genes leading all the way to Arnold. We were in the closest pub which is where anything of any real importance gets said in Britain. He settled a pint of Guinness in front of me which the barman had sweetly carved a heart in the foam with his spigot. I raised the glass in mute salutation and then drank deep.
‘Good,’ I said. Arnold took a deep breath and asked me what I thought. I’d already spent an hour in his office reviewing the CCTV footage and the material they had already gathered. I had done this without any guidance or commentary. Arnold knew my methods and sat in silence as I went through the files on his computer and leafed through the printed reports, the photographs and maps.
The first attack was on a Thursday afternoon. The city streets were mostly empty. People had gone back to their work, lunch hours over. Caroline Sortington was 34 years old. She worked for a small advertising firm located in Soho which specialized in animation scripts. She was wearing a light white rain coat and a pair of skinny jeans. Her hair, which was light brown, was tied back in a ponytail then twisted around and fixed with a pencil. She usually took the pencil out before she left the office, but today she was feeling poorly. She had trapped a nerve in her back somehow and it was agony. She couldn’t sit at her desk and neither was she comfortable standing up. Walking was also proving painful and all she wanted to do – once she’d told her boss she had finally had it – was get home, make herself a cup of tea and lie on the floor of her living room crying real tears. She walked through the small maze of streets with their sex shops, Chinese grocers and second hand book stores. A man approaches her wearing a heavy great coat and trilby. He seems to pass her but then turns so he’s directly behind her. He opens the coat like an old time flasher in a seaside postcard and steps forward just as she turns. She must have heard him, or he might have said something. He folds the coat around her and holds her in a tight embrace. Her feet are off the ground and a puddle of blood spreads on the pavement to be followed by a slop of eviscera that silent splashes. A bar a video static moves across the image and then the man is gone.
The second attack was a week later, so also a Thursday and happened in Richmond. Mary Steel, in her sixties, was found with multiple stab wounds. There was no footage this time and the only connection to the previous attack was the MO. Mary often visited the park if the weather was fine. Usually with a large print library book in her bag along with a thermos of hot coffee and two homemade sandwiches wrapped in grease paper. The thermos was broken half a sandwich was gripped in her hand, as she fell.
The third and final attack also lacked the evidence of the first. It took place in the bathrooms of the Fox and Hound in Holborn on a Tuesday night about seven o’clock. The pub had not been full, by any means but a reasonable number of people had been there. No one had been witnessed in a coat or trilby. No one had heard a commotion. No one had seen anything. The bathrooms of the pub were sometimes used for sex acts and drug dealing, of a low level. Dave Turnbridge, 23, was a student nurse. The cause of death was the same as the first two.
The public had been warned a series of stills from the CCTV attack had been leaked to the press. The helpline was inundated with useless information. The fact was no one knew. Not the police, not the public. Police holiday was cancelled and overtime stepped up. Patrol cars and officers on the beat. The crime labs had all drawn blanks. The killer – Mr. Knives as he was dubbed – was a very careful killer. He left nothing behind.
‘This has taken time,’ I told Arnold looking into the dark heart of my Guinness. ‘This has been prepared for months, maybe even years. And with such carefully preparation something has been put in. Some pattern, many patterns perhaps. But also, counter patterns, feints, blind alleys.’
‘So far, the psychologists are freaking,’ Arnold said. ‘His victims are all over the map. He kills black and white, men and women, young and old.’
‘But you see, that’s the pattern,’ I finished my drink and ordered another round with a twirl of my finger. ‘An essential element to the truly random is that it clusters. You don’t ever get heads tails, heads tails, heads tails. You get heads heads heads tails heads tails tails. You see?’
‘It’s like he’s ticking boxes.’
‘But he fucks up the first one. He forgets the cameras.’
‘No, the first one is high risk but it isn’t a mistake. It’s a theatrical entrance. He wants your attention. The other two are more safe. He’s building up. The next one will be an escalation.’
The hotel room was lonely and sad. I watched a panel comedy show, which was at least useful in topping up my misanthropy levels.
I hadn’t given Arnold much of anything but he was grateful for the little he had. He didn’t like the idea that all we could do was wait and see. My assumption was this was going to run and run. There was confidence to Mr. Knives. He had killed mostly in daylight, always in public places. These were rife with risk of mishap. These were uncontrollable environments and yet he controlled and seemed confident of that control. No one walks through the city streets in oversized great coats and wearing trilby hats. That was a costume to be donned for the moment. Perhaps he wasn’t wearing those things for the other two; perhaps he would never wear them again. I’d like to tell you I dreamt strangely relevant dreams but I didn’t and I woke up feeling sick from the air conditioning I’d forgot to turn off.
The next day Arnold couldn’t come with me but the man with the kilt – now wearing trousers – drove me again. His name was Omar Piet. He was Afghan. Joined the police when he was 18 and had risen swiftly. He enjoyed reading Andy McNabb novels and secretly longed to kill someone. He had a very high pitched voice and, because of it, preferred not to speak unless he had to. He sat in the car while I walked around Soho and the site of the first murder. It now looked like always had. A passage of unrevealing pavement. Chewing gum trod in, cigarette filters, the detritus of urban living. A kebab shop across the way, next to it a Chinese owned shop which sold everything. A lucky cat waved at me. I mapped the criss-cross of camera perspectives. The cameras themselves were easy to spot. He would have seen the one he was caught on, though his face was so obscured by the hat and the high collar that we couldn’t even tell his ethnicity. Or for that matter definitively if he was a man. The assumption was as much statistical as anything else. It was still hard to believe no one had witnessed the attack. The street was busy at nine o’clock in the morning. There would be a low buzz of activity the whole of the day was my guess. Maybe in the early hours of the morning it would be empty, but the afternoon? Not really.
In Richmond, visibility seemed if anything more pronounced. The bench where Mary Steel habitually sat was open to a good two-hundred-degree arc of possible observers. Joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, truant school children, a couple of homeless with the jerky walk of junkies deep in their own Joneses. There was no reason to believe the park would be much emptier. And yet no one had come forward and the body had been found by a bicycle courier while the blood still steamed from the ground.
We were on our way to The Fox and Hound.
‘Is it true?’ Omar asked from the front.
I had been reading through the reports again on my iPad and hadn’t fully heard him. He repeated the question.
‘What they say about you? Is it true?’
‘They say all sorts of things about me,’ I said. ‘And they’re all true.’
My phone buzzed and it was Arnold. There’d been another slaying and he wanted me to come straight away. ‘I’m going to Holborn first,’ I said. We were almost there and at this time – lunchtime – it would be hell crossing the city to Greenwich. ‘I’ll see everything this afternoon when the hullaballoo has died down. But Arnold…?’
‘Was the victim in a wheelchair?’
‘Yes. As a matter of fact, yes.’
The Fox and Hound was a nice inner-city pub. Craft beers, dark traditional furnishings, old photographs of what London used to be like and they served food with what was also fast becoming a traditional tour of international cuisine on the menu. ‘Fusion,’ they called it. To me it looked more like indecisiveness. I chose the chili con carne with naan bread and a pint of Cumbrian beer with filthy name. On the television, the Sky news team were slavering over helicopter shots of Greenwich parks and emergency vehicles parking.
The bathroom gave me little. The cubicles were narrow. There was no soap in the dispenser there was a caged window and a red candle on the windowsill, half eaten by a sooty flame. Dave Turnbridge had been in the cubicle for no nefarious reasons, despite the reputation. He had Irritable Bowel Syndrome and had been forced to rush into the pub to use the gents for the purpose of shitting, and groaning. There was no lock on the door, just the feint memory of one where a small bar of unpainted wood showed where it had been. The killer had probably forced the door open with a powerful shove. Dave had a wound from where the door had hit his face and would have been forced sideways which accounted for the asymmetry in the knife wounds.
‘I’ve been told to take you to Greenwich, Ms. Arthur.’ Omar was at the door. There would have been a lot of blood. They must have had to scrub and scrub. It was a wonder the place was even open. It had happened less than a week ago.
‘And what if I resist?’
The publican told me the crime boys did a lot of the cleaning for them, but it worried him. ‘It isn’t the sort of reputation one needs,’ he said, as he handed me my food.
‘I’m to carry you into the car.’
I shook my cane at him. ‘I am armed.’
‘Please Ms. Arthur.’
I relented. Omar Piet was not a bad person. Like most men, he just hadn’t wept enough. There was all this pent-up sadness inside of him. At some point in his life, he would have the drama that would rescue him from boredom and if the drama was traumatic enough, he would weep all the tears he had failed to weep the rest of his life. I hoped there wouldn’t be the body of a dead child or broken woman in front of him while he was weeping. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But I couldn’t guarantee it.
Greenwich was the waste of my time I presumed it would be. The flashing lights and the sirens, the scientists wondering who I was and the other higher-ups wandering around looking dazed. In the movies, they would all be callous and making jokes but in a city like London real horror happens rarely and usually not to the same people. No one is ever ready for this when it happens. The body had been examined and photographed and had already been taken away by the time I arrived. I was glad. I had no wish to look upon the horrified face of Ali Kuus. I could see enough from the ground that was still boggy with his blood, the splashed wheelchair, the shreds of clothing.
Ali was thirteen years old. He was visiting Greenwich as part of a school trip. But he had a headache and moaned and complained until the teacher had taken him outside to get some air, away from the naval museum. A man had approached them. And had fallen on Ali.
‘Literally, he fell on him,’ Sara said. ‘First I thought it was an accident. The man just seemed to topple over. Some people do that. They’re so busy they don’t look where they’re going and the wheelchair is below their eyeline, but then I realized the man was doing something … It was horrible.’
‘What was he doing?’ the investigating officer asked.
‘Squirming. It looked sexual, but it was over in a second, five seconds. I had time to grab his sleeve and the coat came off in my hand. Like it was made of paper or something. It just tore.’
Sara is crying. The angle is terrible. From the corner of the room. Her face is half in shadow and there is too much of the top of her head. She is 29 years old and she is struggling with the fact that she doesn’t feel as upset as she thinks she should. She is wondering why she is thinking about the trip to the theatre tonight and whether it would be inappropriate to go. She is also wondering if there is anything she should have done before and after. She is wondering how much sympathy Dermot, her boyfriend, will give her. The answer, I’m afraid, is none. He will see the whole incident as another drama that Sara will milk to keep him from doing what he wants to do. She will be better off without him. But she won’t know this for another six months. She will bitterly hate how stupid she has been all this time. She is also wrong about how she is feeling right now. She is in shock and will need years to get over this day. Actually, the day is like a large spike driven into the tree of her life. She will grow around it. But it will always be there. It will define the shape of things years ahead.
‘This is horrible,’ Arnold said. He had been to the bathroom and been sick twice. He was not happy and he felt a sense of failure. He picked up the Sub that someone had brought it. Tuna and sweetcorn with too much mayonnaise. He put it back down without even trying. He would bin it in a second. ‘Horrible.’
‘Some physicists believe that the whole of existence, everything that ever happened, is happening of is going to happen all exist, in a slab, and we’re experiencing it through the sliver of time we call now as we move through that slab of existence. This idea used to bring me comfort.’
‘It gave me a sense of permanence. Immortality. Yes, now has passed, but it’s all still there. The way the road behind you and the world is still there when you turn a bend. Manchester is still there up north, though we aren’t experiencing it. I’ll always exist. You see?’
‘You said it used to give you comfort.’
‘Yes,’ I said, watching Sara talk about the worst day of her life and not knowing that that was what it was. ‘She’ll always have this. There is a moment in the universe, in the slab of time when Ali Kuus is always being stabbed, is always realizing he’s about to be stab, is always realizing that he is about to die. He will always feel the pain, the blood drain, the lights go out, knowing he can’t say goodbye to his mum, or watch the soccer on Saturday which his dad was going to take him to see as an early birthday treat. He had that thought as he felt the heat of his own blood splashing on his hands, wetting his clothing.’
‘Excuse me.’ Arnold got up and pausing only to bin the sandwich, headed for the bathroom.
I continued my thought to the empty room.
‘Plus, knowing that Manchester is there when you are not is no comfort at all.’
The news conference did not go well. There were no leads. And people were beginning to talk about the possibility that the police were somehow bungling the investigation. Fortunately, my presence had yet to be leaked but it was only a matter of time before Omar or someone like him spoke to a scribe and then everything would be raked up. I was sure that when this happened I would likely be asked to leave. A divisive figure, they call me. Controversial. A fraud.
Saturday I went to see the football game at the Emirates which Ali Kuus would have seen. It was a boring goalless draw. It told me nothing resolved nothing. People were beginning to panic. A murderer was ‘on the loose’, ‘at large’ and the police had no clues. When the Yorkshire Ripper had been killing women with a hammer and a screwdriver, the Leeds United supporters would chant his tally as if it was a football score – ‘Ripper 4 - Police 0’ – something I never fully understood. Were they teasing the police at the expense of the women? Were they trying to shame the police?
The problem with the police is exaggerated expectation. They rely on other people’s stupidity, or bad luck more than they admit. It’s the same thing with medicine. We know a lot, but death knows more. Here ends the homily! I was bored. I had nothing to do. Mr. Knives was on the television. On posters in the tube, on the streets. There were apps touted to keep you safe. But it was becoming increasingly obvious that no one was safe. And no one had been killed at night yet. No one had been killed in some strange psycho den. They were killed on the street, or in a public house, or in a park. And it didn’t matter if someone was there. Sara had been unable to protect her ward. Ali was dead before she knew what was happening.
I decided to read deeper and try and anticipate. I read the forensics over and over as well as the coroner’s report. There were multiple stab wounds (23, 26, 19 and 27) on each corpse. But these were not frenzied attacks. A variety of blades were used. All of them sharp. The media speculated a doctor, or a chef. They were spit balling, as the Americans rather disgustingly call it. A dramatization of a Jack the Ripper film starring Johnny Depp was cancelled from BBC 1 on Sunday evening. ‘And in a change to our scheduled film, we have a comedy starring Robert deNiro and James Brolin Midnight Run.’ It was ludicrous, but I liked Midnight Run so I didn’t mind.
On Monday morning I met Arnold in his office. He was wearing a very similar shirt to the one he had been wearing on Friday. He smelled powerful of Lacoste aftershave. I once had a girlfriend who worked for Lacoste and went around the world smelling things.
‘Please tell me you have something Martha,’ he said.
The witnesses had given him nothing useful. The theories of the forensics were accurate enough on the how. The psychologists were burnishing their reputations as feeble guessers. The whole of their science had been founded on topography via fog.
‘I can tell you some stuff but it’s what you already know.’
‘Anything Martha. Anything at all.’
‘Mr. Knives is a hunter. And he is a hunter who wishes to vaunt his skill. He’s intelligent. Possibly very. Though with Wikipedia it’s hard to tell. Every murder is a statement of some kind. The first killing was in Soho. The name derives from a hunting cry, similar to Tallyho. The second was in a deer park, Richmond. The third in a pub…’
‘The Fox and Hound.’
‘Yes. I don’t think he needs to tell us again. The difficulty of each murder is obviously part of it. They must be very well planned. A getaway vehicle of some sort and plenty of opportunity for him to stake out his victims and the locations. Mostly the locations. So I would imagine a taxi driver might be a perfect occupation. What do they call that exam all London cab drivers need to pass? Memorizing all the routes?’
‘Yes. That would give the killer a distinct advantage. I would also suggest he might have help.’
‘It’s not absolutely necessary but there’s a chance. He probably prepares everything very carefully. Oh, who am I trying to fool? This is obviously some supernatural agent.’
‘Oh, please Martha no.’
‘Why did you call me? You already knew this was where we were heading. Look, four murders, no physical evidence, no witness identification worth a green spit, even when they actually see him. Appearance, disappearance. If we keep to physical laws of the universe, we have one slender possibility that this is a man who is rich, who has the resource to devote himself to this.’
‘You said he was a taxi driver.’
‘No, I said that would be a good job to have, training etc. But this man does not need to work. This is his work. This is his full-time occupation.’
‘Thank you, Martha,’ Arnold said. ‘This is… very helpful.’
‘You’re not happy,’ I said. ‘You’re British so you’re saying the opposite of what you mean. It isn’t a difficult code to decipher.’
‘I need something… actionable.’
‘The knives are attached to his body. He wears them as a suit of some kind. Then he embraces his victim, or in the case of Ali simply falls on them and lets gravity to its work.’
‘Yes, we thought something along those lines.’
‘So, he ordered those knives from somewhere. Bought them somewhere. And I imagine he wanted them to be the best. None of them are broken. And if he is rich, he will buy the most expensive out of sheer habit. Shipping address will have been provided. And while you’re at it, look at anyone who took the Knowledge but is not working as a cabbie. There won’t be many. Then cross reference.’
Arnold didn’t look very convinced, but he would accept anything which wasn’t about demons or alternative dimensions.
Mr. Knives lived in a tall town house at the top of Telegraph Hill. The house was unusual in not being split into flats or maisonettes. There was a long garden at the back, but at the front only a railed in front yard with two large municipal wheelie bins. One purple, one slightly smaller and brown. Most of the house was normal. Books lined the walls. Ornaments. Knick-knacks. Family memorabilia. His travels. His studies. Knowledge always leaves a trace his uncle told him. There were plants. The kitchen was sizeable and got beautiful sunlight in the morning. The garden was well tended and the flowers looked glorious in the spring.
Mr. Knives wanted to confine his passion in a small room at the very top of the house, made smaller by the slanting of the ceiling. A garret window looked out over London and sometimes he would stand at night in the darkness wearing his suit of knives and watching the streetlights flash from the blades. He had worked out a mechanism using electromagnetism. The knives would lie flat under his coat so that as he walked down the street, he looked ‘normal’. Maybe slightly on the large side, but in Bake Off Britain that didn’t turn any heads. With the press of a button on his wrist, the magnets holding the blades in position would release and the springs would cause the knives outwards. Like a porcupine, but with the blades on the belly not the back. The belly, the groin, the thighs, the knees, the throat, the forehead, the cheeks. Blades everywhere. Shining directly at you. Come and be embraced by Mr. Knives. In the morning, in the afternoon, in the early evening. In the open air. Anybody might walk by. Mr. Knives will hold you tight. Don’t wriggle. You’ll only make things worse. You’re hurting yourself now. Stop hurting yourself. Just let me in. Let me in.
On the wall, there were four suits hanging. The knives were dirty with blood and in some cases gouts of flesh. He had sprayed them with resin so that the blood would not rot. He dreamed, day-dreamed sometimes, about taking a more substantial trophy, but it was excessive. He had the memories. He didn’t need to take a selfie to know that it happened.
The first resignations were on the horizon. The first questions asked in the Houses of Parliament. A special taskforce was formed and Arnold found himself kicked aside. My presence was known and I was invited to sit in on the first few briefings, though I was told discretion was essential. I was hurried in and out of New Scotland Yard via a back-alley entrance, which did little for my professional standing. Fortunately, I didn’t care. It was Arnold’s suggestion of certain search criteria which had the first results. A trace of false identities which was ingenious but at the same time evidence that someone was behind them. Someone nearby. The absence of evidence began to align with evidence of an absence, but a present absence. If you care to unpick that.
We were expecting things to pick up. The smartest thing for Mr. Knives to do would be to move, or failing that to stop for a nice long period. That’s what a real hunter might have done. Sat in a human-shaped hide and waited for the animals to return to their former carelessness. But there was an asymmetry here. Mr. Knives was killing with the ease that had seen the Anthropocene dominate the Earth at the expense of all the great fauna. He thought himself a different species and I was beginning to feel that his belief was entirely consistent with the facts. Who was I to give Mr. Knives advise about killing? I hadn’t killed for years. Years and years.
I was spending practically all my time in the National Gallery. Sitting in front of the most beautiful paintings and watching as people struggled to take them in. Understand them. Children, tired. Couples nervous. School children participating in some sort of interactive task, because, Lord knows, existing in the world isn’t interactive.
Arnold came to pick me up this time. He met me beside a lion’s plinth on Trafalgar Square. Our roles ‘Britain likes her losers. Nelson, Captain Scott, Eddie the Eagle Edwards.’
‘Arnold Holdstein?’ he said.
‘I want to go back to Rome.’
‘What were you doing in Rome?’
‘I was studying.’
‘A man has been killed.’
‘A big man. A big strong man. Some man who has used his strength for his living.’
‘Dmitri Tanner. A nightclub bouncer. And petty criminal. A boxer once. A quite good one by all accounts.’
‘He had form?’
‘Nothing to nasty, but he knew how to handle himself.’
‘Mr. Knives is telling us “none of you is safe. Not one.”’
‘Message received and understood.’
When we entered the cordoned street, there was a flurry of activity as if something else had just happened. The police were talking among themselves. Arnold went over to some of his colleagues and then came back to me where I was leaning on my cane looking down at the body. Dimitri had a child who he saw every second Sunday. She was a little girl. His daughter. He had been angry when her mother had told him she was pregnant. He had left her and had refused to see the child for almost a year but had then met them out on a walk by chance and had fallen in love with his daughter. It had surprised. He had become a better person, because of her. He felt something like redemption, but not redemption. Obviously not. He looked surprised now. His eyes were wide open and his mouth was slack. Blood laked around him. ‘I’m sorry too, Dimitri,’ I said. Whenever he thought of his own death, a heart attack brought on by the steroids he took, or liver disease from the booze, or a stroke from the cocaine. Or violence. Whenever he thought about it, his regret and fear was how Marjorie, his daughter, would learn the news, would feel about it, how it would grieve her. He had even thought that he could save her the pain by perhaps distancing himself from her. He decided that if he ever got some long-term diagnosis – something like what happened to Terry at the club (the gave him a year and he died on the day a year later) – he would engineer some rift, so he could go away and die in peace and she wouldn’t know or care. But he loved her too much. He hadn’t thought any of this when he met Mr. Knives though. He had just felt an instance of sharp surprise and then he was as good as dead, the whole world fading to the pavement in front of his eyes. In front of his front door.
‘There’s been another one,’ Arnold said.
‘I keep thinking of myself in the third person,’ I said. ‘I keep thinking, Martha listened. Martha walked.’
‘Must be annoying.’
‘Not really. Where?’
The two attacks had happened simultaneously. A homeless man called Steve Macmillan had been killed in the Arndale Centre. People had witnessed the attack and there were video cameras, store security guards, police close by and still Mr. Knives had escaped. At the exact same time that Dimitri was feeling his life drain away. I was now being taken more seriously. Embarrassment was no longer going to be as much of a problem as a citizenry which felt unsafe on the streets. People were not going out unless they had to and the panic was spreading. Already there had been a number of fights when someone was suspected of being Mr. Knives. Long coats were not encouraged. Even as a late winter cold front came in and something called “thundersnow” happened. The television was obsessed by the weather and Mr. Knives as if the confluence of the two was somehow causal. The news paraded an array of experts. All of whom speculated and wild theories were shared across the internet with immigrants, Jews, the superrich, Neo-Nazis and psycho-geeks all being blamed at some point or other. With my vantage point at the centre of the investigation, I could see how the investigating team often bounced the latest internet theory off each other in lieu of anything else they might have to offer. The leads which came from the knives and the cabby crosscheck had led to a list of names, some of which panned out a little further than others. But there was one particular trail that had been discarded which I came across while reviewing the work of the week. I called Arnold because I felt guilty that he had been shunted to one side and I wanted him back.
‘Frederick Sutcliffe?’ he said on Skype his home life a golden blur behind him. ‘We looked into that. He was not involved. Cast iron alibi. Normal guy according to the report.’
‘If you follow up, you’ll find he doesn’t exist. Go and talk to him and ask for his National Insurance Number and his passport. He’ll have one fake ID, but he won’t have gone that deep. Who interviewed him?’
Alison Tony, 27, was ambitious, fiercely dedicated and utterly incompetent. Her notes were patchy and her memory unfocused. Her observational skills were so poor it made me believe she probably saw the world through some kind of gauze. Towards the end of our conversation she had decided to become decisive at which point she was worse than useless because she was basically giving me false information. Our conversation lasted thirteen minutes. Of course, when we got to the address in Camden, there was no sign of Mr. Frederick Sutcliffe. A woman in a hijab was astonished to hear anybody else lived in the apartment since she’d lived there with her family for fifteen years.
‘His name was another joke – Frederick West and Peter Sutcliffe combined – I imagine if you go through some of the other leads you’ll find other similar quick crossword puzzles.’
‘He’s not exactly subtle, is he?’ Arnold said.
‘He murders people with a suit made of knives. I suppose you go far away from something you always end up coming at it from behind.’
However, at least we had the beginnings of the thread and something to put into the computer. At which point the boys and girls from GCHQ turned up with some of their excavations from the Dark Net. Mr. Knives support groups had been taken off Facebook and some of the more explicit videos had been taken down from YouTube, but on the Dark Net a whole subculture of Mr. Knives hinted not only at voyeurism, but facilitation and perhaps even participation. There were detailed instructions on how to make a suit of knives and the three-person team that was required for the murder to be brought off in the correct Mr. Knives fashion. Two drivers – one for the drop off, one for the pick-up – a well-researched location, a random victim. ‘Happy hunting!’ The blog post ended.
Immediately the cyber forensics team set about hunting through the IP addresses and through the swamp of proxies to try to get to something actionable. Software was being written and undercover users were logging onto the sites and participating in the message boards to try and get more information. What soon became apparent was that there were many, many people involved. To exactly what extent and what degree was as yet unclear but I soon found myself heading the team and coordinating the cyber infiltrates and there was a week when I didn’t see the sky. Not even the night sky. My world was reduced to a windowless series of rooms in the basement of New Scotland Yard. My soul became strip-lighting and vending machine cappuccino, carpet shampoo and air-conditioning, the whirr of computer fans and the spinning of discs in hard drives, the ratty clitter-clatter of fingernails on keyboards and the snap of clicks on mice. We ordered the ingredients to make our suit of knives to a safe house in Kensington which was usually used to hide confidential informants. We got plans and goals and started to speak with the Mr Knives community about our possible location. Back came hints and tips, practical advice and admonitions to go for it. Encouragement. It struck me how, even here there seemed to be a moral imperative to do what we had begun. We were hoping that there would be some ruffle of guilt, some static coming back from another source, someone out there feeding this back to the police but when I asked upstairs about the location we were scouting, they said there had been no information, no chatter. No one was giving us up. What was that feeling? Relief?
They arrested Mr Knives while we were still playing Dungeons and Dragons downstairs. It was a dawn raid on the house on Telegraph Hill. They found his trophy room. And Saul Ephingham in bed, crouching and blearily squinting into the powerful torches shone into his face. The suits were enough evidence to condemn him five times over. The DNA of the blood matched that of the victims and there were plans and notes. His assistants turned out to be twins, his nieces, top students at the local Sixth Form. They were pretty and that also made the news and succeeded in leeching away some of the guilt from Saul Ephingham. He was an ordinary looking man. No horns, no tail, no red eyes or foaming gnashing mouth. A little overweight. Watery eyes behind prescription lenses. Freckles on his head: bald only up until the midpoint of the crown at which point a halo of light brown curly hair sat up abruptly. Their faces dominated the news for two weeks. Each day the newspapers found another twist. The girls played volleyball. A boy claimed to have had sex with both the girls in ‘Sick Sisters Orgy’. Speculation was rife that their Uncle was abusing them in some salacious way as well. Their parents – apparently totally ignorant of what was going on despite a drop in performance at school – were huddled in their beautiful home, avoiding the windows and sometimes crawling across the floor to get from one end of the room to the other without being photograph by the lurking telephoto press.
I went around to the house in Kensington to pick up our supplies and Omar helped me take them back to the hotel. We had been told to close everything down, write our reports, with recommendations of arrest where necessary and I was asked to prepare my invoice. Which is always the nicest way of being told to fuck off.
No arrests would come of our work. The dark net was for exactly that and the police were way behind. Adults trying to catch the cleverest children. Omar drove me back to the airport and Arnold didn’t even show up to say goodbye. I felt I had offended him in some way, but I’m not sure how. He felt muscled aside. He felt I lacked loyalty. He should have known who I was from all our years, but apparently not. Never underestimate how little a man will see what he doesn’t want to see.
Sitting in the airport watching the news spool silently from televisions sets in the departure lounge the first copycat killing had already taken place.
“Breaking News: Mr Knives Strikes Again!” scrolled the message while a shot showed an ordinary suburban street with a blue forensics tent set up over a savaged corpse. By the time I landed in Rome, there had been three more all over England. A remote walkers’ spot in the Yorkshire Dales, one in Hull and another in London. All timed to coincide.
Mr Knives would soon appear in Europe with slight changes in his identity, personality, behaviour. And then there was almost an Old World pride when reports came in that Mr Knives had attacked in New York and Chicago on the same day.
The truth is it wouldn’t end until it wanted to. Like skateboarding or disco. It would disappear for a while and then there would be a resurgence. Books would be written, people arrested, body split apart and Mr Knives just became something else that could happen to you, but probably, hopefully, wouldn’t.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.