'THE LATENT WITNESS' by Christopher R. Williams
West Coast Eisteddfod Online Short Story Competition 2016
THE LATENT WITNESS
by Christopher R. Williams
It had rained all day. So as I looked from my window, it was no surprise to see a thick fog out to sea, lurking menacingly on the edge of the bay, but I wasn’t about to allow its threat to deter me. It was late evening now with little daylight remaining, and I was about to take my customary stroll to the end of the pier that signalled the end of another day. I’m a creature of habit if nothing else, and the thought of not going was abhorrent to me. I lifted my trusty waterproof coat from its peg on the back of the front door. It had served me well in the past, and as I slipped it on, it’s comfortable and familiar fit embraced me like an old friend. I closed the door and slipped my hands into its warm pockets. The late autumn air was damp and heavy as I took up position on the promenade and began to walk at my accustomed leisurely pace towards the pier with my shoulders slightly hunched against the cold. As I looked across to view my intended destination, the night was winning its daily battle to overcome the day. The old Victorian lamps that stretched out along the pier started to light one by one as if they knew I was coming and illuminated a welcoming and safe path for me. Turning in to the pier entrance, the sounds of the slot machines and video games filled my ears with a cacophony of their distinctive tones, but this is not what I had come for. Further on, I stopped as I always did where the sea was lapping over the shore. I leaned against the blue railing to watch and listen. This is what I needed. The frustrations of life and the weary toil that is modern living faded away to the gentle beat of the waves as they rhythmically lulled my senses into calmness and relaxation. The odours of the beach intoxicated me with their pungent smell and replaced the stench of the smoky office I worked in. This is what I had come for. My eyes followed the curve of the bay to take in the Victorian esplanade that made me glad that I had chosen this soulful place for my home. This nightly ritual always transported me to a happier and peaceful mood that would allow me to sleep deeply and more soundly than I could ever have done without it.
I found it hard to break my dreamy gaze and continue on my walk to the end of the pier as I always did, but as I eventually shuffled my feet and turned, I was met with an eerie site that caused me to pause and doubt my continuance. Whilst my attention had been captured by the beauty of the shore lines rhythmic rapture, the fog that had been out to sea was now only a few yards away. The end of the pier was completely out of sight. Even the lamp light that had provided a timely guide could only just penetrate the ghostly grey vapour that seemed so thick it would choke me if I dared to breathe it in. I felt my back stiffen. The hairs on my neck stood up as a cold shiver cascaded down my spine and I felt each bump as it descended over every vertebra. Something seemed very wrong. Every instinct I had told me to turn back, but almost at the same time, my fear was replaced with childish masculine outrage. This was just a fog, how could I be afraid? The insult to my ego chased away the fear and foreboding that I had felt and forced a foot forward before I had chance to reconsider. I walked into the blanket of grey and felt its ghostly kiss on my face. I could only see a few yards at a time, but so long as I kept the blue hand rail at my side, I would surely come to no harm. Then, as if to test my already strained nerves even further, the security of the lamplight was cruelly taken away as they suddenly went out without warning. An electrical failure caused by the damp air I thought, trying to reassure myself.
The fog seemed impenetrable now that it was surrounded by blackness. Just the eerie glow remained, and yet it enticed me to continue. The wooden boards creaked and flexed under my weight as the still night allowed their sound to reach my ears. My curiosity pushed me on further until one of the pier shops appeared in front of me, but this wasn’t the shop I knew to expect. The souvenir shop full of cheap Welsh trivia for impressionable day trippers was now a Victorian sweet shop. The prices were in shillings and pence and there were newspapers for sale. I looked at the date instinctively and was puzzled to read September 1888. Had the Victorian extravaganza started early I thought still puzzled, but before I could deliberate further, I heard footsteps. The wooden boards creaked quickly and rapidly. Then from out of the fog as I looked down the pier, a man appeared. He tempered his hurried walk as he saw me and I saw him clearly in the eerie glow. He was a Victorian gentleman carrying a small black leather bag at his side. Tall and slimly built, he was smartly dressed in a black top hat, flock coat, a white shirt with studded collar and tie, and a waistcoat that had a watch chain hanging from it. He was immaculate and had a full handlebar moustache, but there was something missing. Something about his attire was missing and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but who was he, and what was he doing there?
Before I could think further, and slightly startled at seeing me, the man slowed his pace even further to a calm walk and pulled out a gold watch from his waistcoat pocket. In an accent I didn’t recognise and struggled to understand, he asked me for the time. It was quarter to seven I told him. He thanked me before moving on and out of site, disappearing through the fog towards the town. I had no idea who he was and continued my walk less concerned about the lack of lighting and the fog as my thoughts were concentrated on making sense of what I had seen. The shop. The man. What was going on? I kept the blue rail to my right and quickened my pace towards the end of the pier keen to complete my walk and return home. Then, as if to confuse me further, the bar and amusements at the pier end were changed to a Victorian style tea room and cake shop. I walked around the back as I normally did to be greeted by a horrifying and shocking site. A woman was lying on the wooden floor covered in blood, her body and limbs set at a twisted and hideous angle that repulsed me and caused me to place a cautionary hand over my mouth. My heart almost stopped as the stomach wrenching site met my eyes, and again, the sight confused me further as she was dressed as a young Victorian woman. A large hat, dark jacket, long flowing skirt and black boots, and by her side a white silk scarf. Of course! A scarf. I thought back to the man I had seen and realised that a white silk scarf was the item missing from his otherwise immaculate attire. I stepped closer and wished I hadn’t. The poor girl’s throat had been slashed open deeply from side to side exposing the flesh. Blood soiled her clothes and pooled on the decking.
My senses reeling, I instinctively reached for my mobile phone and dialled 999, but to my frustration there was no signal. It had never failed to pick up a signal on the pier before. I turned and ran through the fog as fast as I could to the amusement arcade at the pier entrance. Curiously, just as I passed the point where I had been standing to look at the shore, the lamp lights suddenly came on again. My alarmed state caught the attention of the people playing the slot machines as I rushed in and demanded the use of their telephone saying that a woman had been murdered. Questions were suddenly fired at me from all directions. I pointed down the pier and gestured to appease them, but as I looked back, the fog had completely gone and retreated to the limits of the bay where I had first seen it that evening. I starred in utter disbelief and incomprehension at the site and was only broken out of it by the voice of a policeman at the other end of the phone. They would come quickly, but my story was starting to fall apart already.
On their arrival, I accompanied them to the end of the pier. As we walked, all the lamps were working and there was no trace of the Victorian shops and tea rooms I had seen just minutes earlier. As we approached the exact spot where the poor unfortunate woman had lain, there was nothing. Not even one drop of blood. Why hadn’t I used my mobile to phone instead of running to the amusements the policemen asked, obviously doubting my story. As I pulled it from my pocket to explain, the display showed full signal strength. Nothing I had seen was the same, my story looked and sounded implausible with not one single fact substantiated. I pleaded and protested but my story was dismissed and sneered at. I knew what I had seen, but what had I seen? The policemen departed with sarcastic references to drink as an explanation for my nonsense. I slept little that night. Over and over the events on the pier played in my head like a looped video recording. Why had I seen these things? What did they mean? Was I meant to see them?
The next morning, I woke tired and drained after dozing for just a few hours. I had to try and make sense of what I had seen, but what facts were there to go on? No solid piece of information to relate to, nothing physical or tangible. I wracked my brain for some small detail, a foot hold that I could firmly hang on to. It was then I remembered the first shop. The shop that had mysteriously appeared and then as quickly disappeared. The newspaper. I had looked at the newspapers date. September 1888, and the time I knew as well from the man dressed in Victorian clothes. Quarter to seven and as he did not attempt to adjust it, his pocket watch must also have shown the same. I now had two solid pieces of information to anchor my story with, but how to use them? I was down the stairs and reaching for my trusty coat before I had chance for self praise. The library archive. Old newspapers. I smiled to myself as I hurried through the streets, my heart beating fast with excitement at the possibility of finding something.
In a small room away from the main hall, my request for newspapers of the time was rewarded, but not with a pile of yellowing paper neatly tied up with string, technology had moved on. Instead, I trawled through endless computer files that somewhere contained what I was looking for. I sat transfixed for some hours. September 1888 had been a busy month and large headlines filled most of the front pages. An earthquake in New Zealand, murdered women in London, Queen Victoria, India and the commonwealth. Eventually though, my patience and persistence paid off as I read with satisfaction that a local incident had been recorded. “Woman’s body found on pier” the headline read. Florence Watkins, a hotel maid, had been found murdered at the rear of the tea rooms on Llandudno pier at approximately seven o’clock in the evening. The article described her in perfect detail just as I had seen her with my own eyes. What was happening I thought, open mouthed and holding a hand against my forehead. She had been discovered by a man, who like me, was taking a stroll along the pier but had seen no one else there. The police were summoned and duly attended. An investigation would begin. Then a piece of information that told me what I had seen was not an aberration. No trick of the mind. No fog enveloped enigma. It was noted that a gentleman’s silk white scarf was found next to the body. A request for any information closed the article as my thoughts turned to the man who passed me, passed me without the key element of his apparel. A white silk scarf that was so obviously a part of his outfit, but who was he?
It would have been easy to walk away at this point believing that there was nothing more to this story, but for some reason, I felt I had to continue looking. As I did so, and scanned the subsequent editions for further information, another headline caught my eye. Something I had seen previously. “Whitechapel murders remain unsolved” This was a report on the series of murders that terrified Victorian London for weeks and then suddenly stopped as abruptly as they began. It had been big news then and deservedly appeared in the local papers of the time, but no one was ever caught. I hoped for the sake of Florence Watkins that at least her murdered was caught as I read on. She looked so young and pretty to have suffered such a premature and horrific death. On through the pages I continued hopeful of a happy conclusion to this mysterious vision I had been thrust into by the fog that had transported me back in time. Back to late September 1888. Who was going to believe me though, who would accept what had happened to me as fact I thought as I flicked the front pages across the screen before me like cars flashing past on a busy road.
Then one word pricked my senses and alerted me to a relevant article. I scrolled back looking for the word ‘pier’ that I had just seen if only for an instant. Yes, there it was. Another headline a week later. “Suspect released in pier murder enquiry”. I don’t know how I was able to breath, how my heart didn’t explode, how I was able to stop myself from screaming out for all humanity as injustice and outrage raced though every sinew in my body. I read the lengthy article. Now I knew why I had been meant to see all that I had. Why the past had visited me in the present. Why I was chosen to know the truth. The restless and aggrieved spirit of Florence Watkins had compelled time and space to change. Someone had to see what no one else could have seen at the time. I was the only witness, the only justice, the only truth. Only one thought spoiled this otherwise perfect re-enactment from the past. Who would ever believe me, even though the facts spoke for themselves? The final newspaper article revealed the injustice that I could never put right, although I was the perfect witness that had developed too late. I was the latent witness.
The investigation told that a Dutchman had been arrested on suspicion of the murder. He had been staying at the hotel where the murdered woman had worked and had been seen in conversation with her just after five o’clock on the fateful night. Guests in the hotel remembered his unusual accent that they struggled to understand, but they were sure it was him. His immaculate dress and the white silk scarf that he always wore identified him to the exclusion of all others. His belongings and bags had been searched, and in particular, a small black leather bag that had been found to contain a selection of knives, some of which were blood stained. The Dutchman explained these as he was in fact a surgeon and this was his medical bag containing medical instruments and surgical knives. He had arrived in London at the beginning of August and had been there for the past eight weeks giving medical lectures at the request of the London Hospital. Now that the lectures were completed, he was returning home and he had left London towards the end of September, but wanted particularly to visit Llandudno before returning back to Holland. Suspicion further fell on him as a check with the Metropolitan police revealed that he had been briefly detained by them in connection with the Whitechapel murders of the time but released without charge. He had explained this saying it was merely because of his foreign accent and the fact that he was a surgeon, but one fact he was not able to explain was his missing white silk scarf. Police at the time asked him to produce it as it wasn’t amongst his personal possessions. He was unable to, and asked them to accept that it had been lost somehow. With no other evidence or eye witness accounts to place him at the scene, he was reluctantly released whereupon he immediately left for his home country never to be heard of again.
The murder of Florence Watkins, and the Whitechapel murders have never been solved, but there was one fact at the end of the article that has caused me sleepless nights ever since. The Dutchman’s name. Dr Jacob de Reepur, known to his friends as ............ Jack.