Many thanks to Steph and the Academy for the invitation to participate in the annual Halloween Challenge. I'm grateful, as ever, for the motivation!
This story is copyright to the author October 2009.
The knocking at the door had been insistent and loud. At first, we had ignored it, figuring it to be late trick or treaters. Very late, as it was eleven o'clock already and we were deep into the late night film and in no mood to be disturbed. But the hammering at the door had continued, demanding a response.
My father had answered it. Apart from screaming, it was the last thing he ever did.
I had my head tucked well into my heavy woollen coat and my gloved hands thrust deep into my pockets, braced against the frosted evening air as I made my way home from work. October grew wetter and colder every year; this year, it was forgetting to be wet while it concentrated on being cold. My breath threw out wisps of vapour as I trudged along the darkened street, illuminated by the faint yellow glow of the streetlamps and the twin beams of passing cars.
It was early evening, and the everyday hustle and bustle of the rush hour was enlivened by the sound of children's voices and the sight of assorted ghosts, ghouls, spidermen and little princesses as they made their way up and down the streets, plastic pumpkin baskets in hand.
I shivered, and tucked my hands deeper into my pockets. Although dark, the street was busy so I felt reasonably safe, despite being surrounded by miniature Scream killers, vampires and witches. They weren't after my blood, after all - only my chocolate, and the only way they would get that would be to prise it out of my cold, dead hands. Or Tescos carrier bag, to be precise, where my block of fruit and nut gently clinked against the bottle of gin that nestled next to a large packet of maltesers. None of which was finding its way into a child's treat box tonight. I needed all the help I could get to make it through Halloween in one piece.
I always greeted All Saints Day with a thumping hangover and a curious mixture of relief, bitterness and disappointment.
I turned left at the traffic lights, following my usual route home. This road was less busy, but not deserted, so I wasn't overly concerned to hear footsteps behind me. I remained reasonably unconcerned as I made my way along the street, pausing every now and then to glance in the shop windows. I didn't dally too long though - I wanted to be behind the security of a double locked and triple bolted front door, with my second stiff gin and tonic clutched in my hand. I dragged my eyes away from an enticing display of shoes, and caught a brief glimpse of a tall figure behind me, clad in a caramel-coloured coat and bright red boots.
My wristwatch alarm beeped five-thirty pm, and I picked up my pace a little. The footsteps remained constant and at a discrete distance. I was fairly sure they weren't following me. When I took the next right, they did too and I started to become less sure. My heartbeat started to quicken, and my mouth suddenly dried.
Experimentally, I picked up my pace. I couldn't be sure whether my pursuer did as well - the rushing of blood in my ears was blocking the sound, but my brain was starting to convince me that I was being followed.
I started running.
"Shit!" The expletive came from behind me, and I whipped my head around to see the tall figure spring into a run. As I turned to the front again, a burst of movement at my left caught the corner of my eye and suddenly, I found myself grabbed and yanked abruptly into a small alleyway.
I screamed as I stared into fiery orange eyes and a cruel, menacing grin. Long talons raked across the front of my coat, leaving jagged tears in the thick wool. I screamed again.
A commotion behind me knocked me on my ass, and I found myself sprawling on the ground with a heavy body lying across me, a red boot stuck in my face. Both of us tangled limbs as we struggled unsuccessfully to pull ourselves to our feet.
"Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! Where'd he go?"
I think I was still screaming. "Let me go!"
"You've got hold of me!" yelled the stranger, prising my hands off the front of her coat. "Let go, I have to get after him before he gets away." She thrust my hands away and stumbled hurriedly to her feet, looking about in desperation.
Unsteadily, I pulled myself to my feet, swaying slightly. "Oh my God, you attacked me!" My hand fluttered to my chest, where my heart felt like it was banging against my ribcage. "Help - Police!"
"Did you see where he went?" the woman demanded, shaking me slightly. I blinked owlishly at her, and shook my head. "Shit! I've lost the bastard again. I don't believe it!" She slammed her fist into the wall, and kicked it too. She half turned, and I saw her tuck a long-bladed knife into her waistband, then wrap her long coat tightly around her. My eyes widened and suddenly my hands felt clammy and cold.
"Is that a knife? Do you have a knife?" I glanced down at my shredded coat front and grabbed onto her elbow as she was leaving the narrow alleyway. "Did you pull a knife on me?"
Angry blue eyes captured mine. "Talk sense. If I pulled a knife on you, why would I be leaving now? Don't you think I'd want to finish the job?"
I had to admit, she had a point. Besides, now that my head was pulling itself together, I vaguely remembered her launching herself at me from behind whilst my attacker was trying to rip my clothes apart from the front. "What the hell just happened?" My hand went to my forehead; I felt faint for a moment. I must've staggered, because she grabbed onto me and the anger in her eyes softened to concern.
"Are you okay? Did he hurt you?" I shook my head, even as I slid gracelessly down the wall. My legs had given way, their shaking unable to support my weight. She moved aside the shredded material of my coat and gave me a cursory examination. "It's just shock. There's no blood - you'll be fine. Did you get a good look at him? Can you describe him? Did you see where he went?" She was standing in the alley now, firing questions at me whilst patting down her pockets. She pulled a flashlight out, flicked it on and then ran it down the alley. It was deserted, except for us. She shook her head, and heaved a heavy sigh. "I think he went up."
We both looked up. There was only one way out - over a six foot, solid brick wall. "How? How is that possible?"
"He must've climbed it. Maybe he had it rigged up already with some sort of grappling hook." She cast me a sideways look, and I couldn't tell if the next remark was serious. "Or he jumped." She flicked on her torch again and examined the wall. I dragged myself up off the floor and joined her in the inspection. "The bastard. He's probably picked his spot, set it up and waited until someone came past. Like a spider in a web. I refuse to believe that bastard can jump the heights they say he can. He must've had something in the wall, something he could use as steps…" She ran the torch along the height of the wall. It was smooth, unblemished - obviously recently repointed. There was nothing there. "Shit!"
She dropped the torch into her pocket. "He'll hunt again. Probably got a second site set up. I have to go. You'll be okay?"
I raised a shaking hand to my forehead again. "Yes. No. No."
"Sure you will," she said absently as she turned to leave again. "You're just in shock. It'll wear off. You'll be fine."
"Wait - you're leaving me here? What if he comes back to finish me off?"
She paused at the entrance to the alleyway. "He won't. Probably. Not his style." She bent, picked something up. "Just go home, try and forget about tonight. Here - you dropped your bag." She took a quick peek inside before holding it out to me. I swear there was disapproval in her eyes. "Looks like forgetting about tonight won't be a problem after all." She dipped in and removed the bag of maltesers just before I could snatch the carrier out of her hands.
"I wasn't going to drink it all!" I shot back defensively. Three good measures usually did the trick on Halloween, I had found. Seized with more than a sudden impulse - more a compulsive need, really - I grabbed the bottle from the bag, twisted off the lid and took a long swig. "But I'll give it a damn good try. Thanks."
Her eyes kindled. "No need to be sarcastic."
The bottle wobbled in my trembling fingers as I raised it to my lips again. "I wasn't. I meant, thanks for saving my life." I took another swig. She shrugged.
"Well, he might not have killed you."
"Oh, you think?" This time, I was being sarcastic. And shaking badly now, too - it was all starting to catch up on me. "Who is he, anyway? How do you know so much about him?"
"We go back a ways. Gotta go." She waved a hand casually at me and took off up the street.
"Wait!" I yelled after her. "Who are you anyway?" She didn't stop, but waved again. "Buffy?" No - clearly too dark a spirit for that. "Angel?" She turned, shot me a grin and then darted off into the dusk. "Bloody Van Helsing." I gulped from the gin bottle once more, hailed a taxi and had it take me home. Once I'd checked all the windows and doors and bolted myself securely in, I drank half the bottle then had a hysterical fit.
A year had passed. It was late October, a couple of days before Halloween, and I was in trouble at work again. For drinking. It had gotten bad enough through the year, but as Halloween had approached I had found myself having flashbacks to last year, unable to sleep or eat. I had hit the bottle even more.
"You're losing it, girl," advised my best friend Pat in her usual soothing way. "You look like death on a plate. How many was it last night?"
I shrugged. "Couple of bottles of wine." She was right - I felt like death on a plate, whatever that was. "I can handle it."
"Oh yes, but can your good looks?" Pat was a pillar of strength, as always. And I particularly loved her ripostes - she was a typical Scouser, quick witted and with a real verbal right hook. Well, I usually loved them but they were hitting a bit close to home today. "Seriously, girl - what's going on? You've been falling apart all year. You're knocking on the door of being a right old mess now."
"Right. So you're gonna tell me you're not dying for a drink right now?"
"Will it shut you up?"
I sighed, closed my eyes and let my head fall back onto the settee. "I'm just going through a bad patch, that's all. At work."
"Don't give me that shite. You're going through a bad patch at work because you're drinking too much. I wanna know why. Normally, I'd say it was because of a man, but I know you haven't had one since Noah was a lad, so I know it's not that."
I raised my head and threw her a dirty glare. "That was a low blow."
She twirled her fingers airily in response. "Oh please, it's been so long you're practically a virgin again. Your hymen's probably grown back by now. Stop changing the subject. What's going on? Look, you know I'm only hassling you because I care about you. I'm worried."
I raised my head again at the unaccustomed softness of her tone. She did look worried - it wasn't a look that appeared often on her. Usually, Pat believed that soppy emotions got in the way of a good life, so she tried to avoid them wherever possible. I dropped my head again and watched the DTs in my hands.
I could admit it to myself - I was scared. More like terrified, actually, and it was getting worse the closer Halloween came. Even I was starting to recognise that my drinking was getting out of hand. Too ashamed to admit it to my friends and family, I had tried to deal with it myself but plainly I wasn't succeeding. Pat was my best friend, and maybe it was time to let someone try and help me. Or at least, to talk some sense into me, because I couldn't do it on my own any more.
I took a deep breath, and made a decision. "Okay. Look, I never told you this, but I was attacked last year. Last Halloween. I suppose I may have lost it a bit since then." I gave her a watery smile.
Immediately, she shot over to my side. "What? You were attacked? Why the bloody hell didn't you tell me? Were you hurt? Were you… oh my God, were you raped? Did you tell the police? Are you alright?" She clapped a hand onto her forehead whilst taking a precious breath of air. "What am I saying - of course you're not alright, look at you. Oh my God!"
I actually laughed a little. "Oh, will you calm down? I'm perfectly fine. I wasn't hurt, he was disturbed before he could really do anything. I was just shaken up. But with Halloween in a few days - probably brought it all back."
"Oh, you poor thing you! Why didn't you tell me, you daft cow?" I shrugged at her. "Did the police catch him?"
"I never reported it. I just wanted to forget all about it. I know, stupid. But no real harm was done. And I never really saw his face anyway. He was wearing some sort of horrible Halloween costume."
She rocked back on her heels, looking quite shaken herself. "I'll make you a cup of tea. You need it for the shock." What she really meant was, she needed it for the shock. She trudged out into the kitchen, followed by me, where she proceeded to tinker about with cups, coffee and kettles. "So what happened?"
"Oh, I was grabbed down Grail Street. Yanked me into an alley. Luckily, Van Helsing came along and rescued me, otherwise I don't know what would have happened." Pat raised an enquiring eyebrow as she loaded two heaped spoonfuls of sugar into her cup. I smiled. "Oh, I didn't get her real name. Luckily, she happened to be behind me when he snatched me. I think having someone else throw themselves in scared him. Anyway, he took off. Just disappeared."
"Sounds like you had a lucky escape." Pat scooped up the two brimming mugs and carried them back through to the sitting room. I trotted after her. "Wasn't it last Halloween that poor girl was found in the park on the other side of town?"
I nodded as I took a sip of my drink. "Stabbed, wasn't she?"
"More like ripped apart."
"Poor thing. Never did find the person who did it."
"True. But they did find the killer's overcoat. Caramel coloured, wasn't it? Unusual choice for a killer. Be a bugger to get the bloodstains out."
Halloween dawned, and I was drier than I had been for years, thanks to Pat. I'd taken the day off, and Pat had decided that I needed a hefty dose of aversion therapy. "First, we're going shopping."
I grinned at her. "Sounds like my kind of therapy."
"And then we're going to a party." She smiled widely, and I immediately got suspicious. Pat only smiled when she was brewing some mischief, or when she was drunk. I knew she wasn't drunk.
I narrowed my eyes at her. "What kind of party?"
"Now, don't get all upset - it'll be good for you. It's at Ken and Mick's and it's a fancy dress Halloween party. Which is why we're going shopping. I've already got my costume - I wear it every year. Morticia."
"You're so bloody miserable about Halloween, you've never been to any of the lads' parties. They're brilliant. You don't know what you've been missing. Well, you will tonight, because that's where we're off to." She twirled her fingers airily.
"But it's not even Halloween till tomorrow!" I wailed.
"I know. But it's Friday night, and it'll get us in the mood. Get your coat and put some lippy on - we've got clothes to buy."
She frogmarched me to my bedroom, sat over me while I put my face on and then steered me into my coat, out of the front door and up the street.
The party, when we eventually crashed it, was great. For everyone else, anyway. The lights were dimmed, the cobwebs fake, food and drink themed, the music suitably corny (if I heard the theme from Ghostbusters one more time, I swear I'd scream) and the crowd of our friends buzzing with a Halloween merriment helped on its way by liberal amounts of alcohol. I had stayed firm about the fancy dress part, and I stood out like a sore thumb as I lounged against the wall in my sweater and baggy old jeans.
"Bucket of blood?" Vlad, otherwise known as Kenny, thrust a glass of red wine in my direction. God, I was so tempted I could practically feel my fingers closing round the stem and I swear they actually twitched in anticipation, until I caught Pat's warning glare. Which was fine for her, as she had a gin and tonic in her hand.
"Thanks Ken," I mumbled, full of resentment and desire. "But I'll stick with the diet coke."
"Oh." He drained the glass. "That's not like you. You driving or something?"
"Yeah, something," I replied miserably before wandering off aimlessly towards the food table. Pat sidled up to me and helped herself to an eyeball, which was actually a lychee with a blueberry stuffed in it. It looked really disgusting.
"Having fun?" she asked, as she eyed up another lychee.
"Not really," I replied. "How can I when I'm on the wagon? Try the jelly with worms in, it's really quite good." Gummy worms, obviously.
She popped another lychee in her mouth, and stared contemplatively at me. "You know your problem? You've forgotten to have fun, especially if it's not in a bottle."
"No I haven't! It's just not a very good party." It was a terrible lie, because judging by everyone else's enjoyment, it was a fantastic party.
She looked around sceptically. "Right." She patted me consolingly on the shoulder. "You're going cold turkey, girl. It's only natural you'd find it hard."
I nodded my head in agreement. "It is. I'm finding this really hard, all this drink around. Do you have any idea how tempted I am to steal that gin out of your hand? Especially at this time of year - I can't go without a drink at Halloween. Look at my hands…" I held out my hands and we both watched them trembling like a leaf in a gale. "I don't know if it's because of the drink or because I'm so scared."
"And it's not even Halloween proper yet." She tipped her gin into a pot plant. "I've been an insensitive cow, haven't I?" I had to agree with her, so I did. "I thought a bit of aversion therapy would be good for you."
"Maybe if I was scared of spiders."
She shot me a glare through narrowed eyes before wagging a finger in my face. "Your fear of Halloween is just as irrational. Comes of watching too many slasher movies when you were younger. My mum told your mum it wasn't good for impressionable teens."
"Maybe. But remember, last year the slasher movie came true for me. Anyway, you know I hate Halloween. Not exactly the best of memories."
She nodded sympathetically. "I suppose if your dad will walk out on you on Halloween."
"And dressed as Superman. Not really the way you want to remember him. I just wish he'd finished taking me trick or treating first. Bit mean to piss off with your fancy woman and leave your kid happily knocking on strangers' doors. Look, just walk me home will you, or call me a cab. Actually, don't call me a cab - the driver might be an axe murderer."
"Okay. These heels are killing me anyway, and I can't hardly breathe in this bloody corset."
We grabbed our coats, paused in the bathroom so I could undo Pat's stays and she could take her huge false eyelashes off, gave our apologies and then headed out into the frosty night air. For ten minutes we hovered around on the pavement outside, hoping to hail down a taxi, but the road remained empty of them. We gave it another five minutes, then decided to walk to the top of the road, figuring that our chances of hailing a cab would be better on a busier road.
We were ambling along, arm in arm and chatting, when we were stopped dead in our tracks by an ear-splitting scream ahead. It took me a moment longer to spring into life than Pat, but we both dashed towards the sound.
It all flashed by so quickly, we barely had time to register the scene. A youngish woman, her coat ripped across the front, lay against a wall; a dark figure crouched over her. Pat and I yelled out, and the figure turned.
He seemed tall; unnaturally tall - at least seven feet as far as we could tell in the instant that we saw him, and his eyes seem to shine a malevolent yellow in the weak orange beams of the street lamps. He turned his head towards us, cracked a grin and then doffed his hat slowly - almost sarcastically - in our direction. His fingers, clasped around the hat brim, looked preternaturally long, almost claw-like. In the next instant and with one bound, he was gone - up and over the six foot wall and then with another jump, onto the rooftops. Silhouetted against the moon, he paused again, saluted us with his tall hat once more and then leapt out of our sight.
Pat was crouching down next to the young woman. "I think she must've hit her head - she's out cold. Maybe we should call an ambulance?"
My breath was coming in huge gasps. "Oh my God! That was him!" My panting was turning shallow, and I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. "That - it was him!"
"Get my mobile out of my bag, and call an ambulance. And the police," ordered Pat in a firm tone.
Every nerve ending in my body was tingling, and all the hairs on my neck were standing on end. I felt like I had an iron band squeezing my chest, it was so hard to breathe.
"Are you okay?" Pat cast me a short, enquiring glance before reaching over me and grabbing her handbag. She fished her phone out and made a call. Once finished, she flipped the handset shut and tossed it back into her bag. "They should be here in a bit. Give us your coat, we need to keep her warm." She eyeballed me again. "Tell you what, keep your coat - you don't look so hot yourself." All she had on was a wrap, the Morticia ensemble not having run to an overcoat. She unfurled it from her shoulders and wrapped it around the unconscious girl. We then sat - well, she sat whilst I twitched - and waited for the police.
Before they arrived, we had another visitor.
"You!" My mouth dropped open. She had swapped the light brown coat for a chocolate suede jacket, and her hair was shorter, but it was definitely Van Helsing. She still wore red boots, although these were more red wine than scarlet. Obviously chasing the mystery assailant was hard on footwear. She seemed to be tucking something into the back of her waistband when she burst onto our scene.
"What happened? I heard there'd been an incident." She swept the street anxiously. "Is she okay?" She motioned towards the girl, who was staring to stir.
Pat, eyes agog, nodded mutely. I found my voice a little easier. "You! What do you do - follow him around? Or are you a pair, like some sort of weird Bonnie and Clyde?"
She peered at me keenly. "Do I know you? Never mind, tell me what happened here."
Pat gave a helping arm as our poor victim rose unsteadily to her feet. "Are you with the police?" Pat asked. "Or a journalist?"
"A journalist? Yes, why not." She approached the girl again, and swept a hand across her jacket. "Slash marks. But no injuries. Must've been disturbed. That means he'll be hunting again." She straightened abruptly and stared off down the street, and I got a sickening feeling of deja-vue. . "No sign of him. Quickly, we don't have much time. Which direction did he go?" She dug down into one of her jacket pockets and fished out a torch, flicked it on and then cast the weakish beam around. "Oh, bloody thing's running out of batteries." She banged it against her palm a few times, no doubt hoping the thumping would jar it back into life.
"Now wait just one minute, you," I said, grabbing hold of one suede-covered arm before she could take off again. "Who the hell is he?"
She shot me an annoyed glare and yanked her arm out of my grasp. "His name's Jack. He went up, didn't he? Along the wall, or over the rooftops?"
"Rooftops. That way." I gestured in the general direction. In the distance, we could hear the police sirens approaching rapidly.
Van Helsing cracked me a smile. "Thanks. I gotta go, the police are here." She dropped the torch back into her pocket and I grabbed her arm again just as she was turning to leave.
"You don't seriously think we're letting you out of our sight, do you? We should wait till the police get here. They're probably going to want to question you."
Hardened grey eyes locked onto mine. "Didn't you hear me? Disturbed kill here, that means he'll be hunting again." She swept a glance around the street, and a look of resolution crept into her face. "Looking for a new victim, and the next one won't be so lucky. I have to find him." She looked up, gauging the size of the wall he'd leapt over. Briefly, she closed her eyes and cursed under her breath before bursting into a run, vaulting onto a pile of old boxes and then somehow managing to scrabble her way onto the top of the wall. "Jesus, I hate heights," she muttered, before dropping down onto the other side of the wall.
"Bloody hell!" uttered Pat and the attacker's victim in amazed unison.
I wasted no time, grabbing Pat's arm and pulling her towards the wall. "C'mon, we have to follow her…"
"You'll be okay?" yelled Pat to the still trembling woman we were leaving behind. She nodded back her reply. "Here's my card - the police will…"
"Are you crazy?" I muttered whilst trying to lift Pat up the wall - a hard job, thanks to the Morticia outfit. "We don't want the police questioning us. What the hell would we tell them?" I dropped Pat to the ground again, tore her Morticia dress from heel to thigh, and then tried to throw her over the wall again. Somehow, we scrambled our way over the wall, and set off in hot pursuit of Van Helsing.
She had crossed a few gardens and skipped up an alleyway back onto the main road. We followed as quickly as we could, and caught up with her just as she was ducking into a white van. I made Pat stand in front of it so she couldn't drive away. After much swearing - from all three of us, and I have to say, Pat's was the worst - she eventually unlocked the doors and we bundled ourselves in.
"Bloody hell!" exclaimed Pat, gazing around the interior with disbelief. "It's like the bloody Scooby Doo van in here."
Van Helsing was twiddling various dials and knobs on the dashboard with one hand whilst she manoeuvred us away from the kerb with the other. Tinny little voices intermittently sparked into life; she listened intently, then punched something into her Satnav. "Police scanner," she grunted, throwing the van into third gear and tearing around a corner.
By the looks of it, she also had a hook up to the CCTV network as well as various short wave radio hacks. Never mind the Scooby Doo van, it looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. "So this is how you're tracking him?" I mused, peering into the tiny TV monitors.
"Yeah," she replied. "Pick up on all emergency calls, police and fire frequencies, trucker and cabbie chat and I have a hook up to the internet through my blackberry. It's the only way I can get ahead of him. Sit down and belt up, please?"
"How rude!" shot back Pat, incensed.
Narrowed grey eyes shot her a look. "Belt up, as in put your seat belt on."
"Oh. Sorry." Meekly, we took seats next to Van Helsing. "So tell us about this guy."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Try us. We did see him, remember. And not for the first time."
She regarded us curiously, but with a furrowed brow. After a brief moment, her brow cleared and she almost smiled. "Ah - thought you looked a bit familiar. Last year, right? The maltesers and bottle of gin."
"I'm on the wagon," I said, unaccountably feeling defensive.
"She is," agreed Pat. "And she's doing really well. But I'm not on the wagon, and I could bloody well use a drink after the evening I'm having." Van Helsing grunted, rummaged around in her glovebox and drew out a smallish, half drunk bottle of single malt. "Oh God, yes." Pat looked like she was about to kiss either Van Helsing or the bottle. "That'll do nicely."
Seemed like it was Van Helsing's turn to get defensive. "It gets cold out here sometimes. I just have the odd nip." Her eyes flicked towards me, then back to the road again.
"Uh huh. You were telling us about him."
She took the bottle off Pat and took a quick swig. "Spring-Heeled Jack, they call him. Nobody really knows who he is, or where he comes from. Some say he's a myth, a bogeyman; a tale told to scare children into being good from years gone by. His victims find him real enough though." She took another nip, then handed the bottle back to Pat. "Others say he's a serial killer, or at least, a succession of serial killers - as one disappears, another takes over the mantle." She fiddled with a few dials again. "God knows how they recruit. I've never seen an ad for it."
"And what do you say he is?"
"I say he's the devil himself." Pat and I stared at her with saucer-like eyes, fascinated, horrified and disbelieving at the same time. Tyres squealing, Van Helsing slammed us up onto the kerb and threw the gear stick into neutral. "We're here."
"Where's here?" we both gabbled excitedly.
"Your house. Halloween is no night to be abroad when the devil walks. Get in, lock your doors and be careful." She pointed a finger at my chest. "Especially you because he knows you now. But you should be okay, he only attacks pairs and groups for fun - he prefers a solo kill. Just stay together, and stay indoors for the next week or so."
"Week or so?" squealed Pat. "Are you crazy? That's all very well for her, but I have an active social life!"
My mouth had dropped, and not at Pat's insults. "You mean he might come after me?"
Van Helsing gave me what she obviously thought was a reassuring smile. "He almost never does that. Just make sure that you're safely locked inside by dusk. That way, at least I'll know where you are and it'll be one less thing for me to worry about."
She leaned across us and opened the door. Reluctantly, we disembarked, Van Helsing snagging the whisky bottle as we left. The last we saw of her was her arm poking out of the window as she poured the whisky out onto the road. With another squeal of the tyres - she sure did like burning rubber, or was it grand entrances/exits? - she was off.
We were buzzing when we got into the house, even more so after the cup of industrial strength coffee that Pat brewed up. While she brewed up a second lot and stuck a pizza in the oven, I fired up the computer. While we munched on pepperoni deep pan, I googled 'Spring-Heeled Jack', downloaded all the material we could find and then ran off hard copies. Pat and I split the reading between us.
I picked off a piece of pepperoni and popped it in my mouth. "There's so much material about this guy. How come we've never heard of him before?"
Pat shrugged. "Most of these reports seem to date to the 19th century. Maybe he was eclipsed by Jack the Ripper? Mind you, he seems harmless enough - I'm just getting stuff about jumping over haystacks and peering through windows at naughty kids."
"Seems like he got fed up with peeping." I sucked mozzarella off my fingers and shuffled back a few pages. "I've got reports of a masked man who terrorised women by jumping out at them and ripping their clothes, then bounding away."
"That sounds more familiar." Pat tapped her teeth with a pencil. "Here y'are - in 1837, Mary Stevens was walking home through Clapham Common when a strange man leapt out at her from an alleyway, grabbed hold of her and started ripping her clothes off with his claws."
I looked up with interest. "What happened?"
"She screamed and he ran off. Bit of a wimp, this fella so far."
I continued leafing through my pile of papers. "Hey, listen to this. Jane Alsop answered a knock on the door and opened it to find a man claming to be a policeman, asking for a light. When she turned her back to fetch a candle, he grabbed her around the neck and then - oh, God. Assaulted her with his huge claws."
"Claws?" guffawed Pat. "Perhaps they didn't have manicures in the old days."
I cuffed her with my sheaf of papers. "Probably poetic license. He spat fire into her face too. Sounds like someone had an overactive imagination. Anyway, he ripped her clothes and flesh, and grabbed a chunk of hair off her head. It was only when her sisters came out and dragged her away from him that he ran off."
We both sat in momentary silence. Pat crinkled her nose in distaste. "Nasty. I really don't like the idea that he comes knocking at your door."
I felt shivers run up my spine as I recalled Van Helsing's warning. "But this is ridiculous. It can't be the same guy - that would make him almost two hundred years old!"
Pat nodded thoughtfully. "It's probably some sort of folk legend. Probably our guy found it on the net, and decided to do a bit of copy catting."
I nodded thoughtfully. "And anyway, our modern day Jack is not just a bodice ripper. I think he murdered that woman last Halloween. The coat the police found was Van Helsing's; I remember her wearing it. And we know she isn't a killer. If he is Spring-Heeled Jack, then the bad news is - not only is he still alive, he's evolved."
We had gone to bed when the weak sun's rays started to creep through the kitchen window and slept late, our bodies crashing with the amount of adrenalin coursing through them. Well, adrenaline and coffee.
Pat disappeared home to clean up and do her usual weekend chores, but promised to remain on Halloween-Drink-Watch for me later that evening. I settled in front of the internet with some tea and a bar of chocolate, ready for some more surfing. Van Helsing was my target this time, although I didn't have a clue where to start. I didn't even have a name. I spent a few pointless hours flicking through websites, my search totally fruitless.
Pat turned up again around 2pm, waving a bag of doughnuts and the local paper. "What are you doing here? Checking up on me?"
She shook her head and brandished the newspaper in front of my face. "Have you seen the news?" It was my turn to shake my head. She tossed the newspaper in front of me. "Another local woman attacked last night, her clothes and flesh ripped. Lucky she wasn't killed by the sound of it. Eyewitness reports describe a tall man, dressed in a black overcoat, with a top hat kind of thing on. With fiery eyes. They say he made his escape over an eight foot wall, then taunted them from the roof of a neighbouring building."
I'd just been about to shove a piece of doughnut into my mouth; my hand was frozen in mid-movement. "Last night? What time?"
"Late; after Van Helsing dropped us off here. And by the way - the police reckon that he might have had an accomplice. They're looking for a woman who was seen running from the scene. Short, dark hair, brown jacket." Pat paused, clearly uncertain. "And red boots."
My hand holding the still untouched doughnut dropped to the table top. "Van Helsing! But she's not involved…"
"But she is involved. Not in the murders, but wherever he is, she seems to be."
I narrowed my eyes as I thoughtfully chewed on a mouthful of doughnut. "Have the police drawn any links between this and any other murders?" I pulled the newspaper towards me, but the report was sketchy. "What about the murder last Halloween?"
Pat's hand crept towards the doughnut bag and drew one out. "Oh, I remember that! Nasty business, that one. Not as bad as the one the year before, though. She was ripped from pillar to post, that poor girl was. They started calling him Jack, after Jack the Ripper… Oh my God! Jack!" We gazed at each other with widened, horrified eyes.
"The last two Halloweens?" I scrabbled around on the table top and pulled my laptop towards me. A quick google later, and we had page after page of Halloween attacks. Narrowing down to those in our vicinity helped to reduce the volume a little; another google with a few characteristics of Spring-Heeled Jack also helped.
In almost all, the attack had resulted in a murder.
Most of the survivors had reported a dark-haired woman who had arrived on the scene, disturbing the attacker and probably saving their lives. They never got a name. Needless to say, the police were always extremely interested in speaking to this mystery woman.
"Van Helsing keeps a very busy Halloween," remarked Pat as she read the screen from over my shoulder.
"Only recently. Look - most of these have only happened in the last five years or so. Before then, they are sporadic. Some of these go back years. There's one report here in Liverpool - that's a heck of a way from London."
"It's not the back of beyond, you know!" retorted Pat hotly, springing to the defence of her old hometown.
I cracked her a grin. "It's North of Watford Gap, isn't it? Looks like even Spring-Heeled Jack doesn't like to venture too far out of London. Typical of Liverpool, making up their own story to get in on the action."
My wisecracks earned me a punch on the arm. "But that reminds me, Oh Disbelievin' One," continued Pat whilst persisting with her pinching and prodding of me. "My Mam said her Grandma told her that her Grandma had seen Spring-Heeled Jack."
"That's a lot of Grandmas," I observed.
Pat ignored me, as she usually did my flippant comments. "Originally, my family comes from round the Everton area of Liverpool, as you know."
"Hence your loyal but sad allegiance to the Everton Football Club."
Pat pumped an arm into the air. "Come on you Toffees!" It was the battle cry of the Evertonian, and I'd heard it many times, particularly during Match of the Day highlights on Saturday nights. Satisfied that her tribal loyalty had been re-affirmed, Pat carried on with her story. "He climbed the spire of their local church. Gathered himself quite a crowd. Then he jumped off, landed in a street and when the crowd ran off to have a look, he laughed his head off and then jumped away over the houses."
"Drink a lot did they, your family?"
"Didn't everyone in them days?"
I sighed. "Wish I could now. What I wouldn't do for a G&T."
She patted me consolingly on the shoulder. "I know. You can't have one. But I can. And I will when I get home."
"Thanks for the support," I observed, wryly. "You better get off, it's starting to get dark, and it is Halloween. Van Helsing did warn us, remember."
Pat flicked a glance at the window; the light was beginning to leak out of the day. "Yes, she warned us to stay together. Make the spare room up, and get your secret Halloween stash of chocolate out. I'm stopping here tonight. You haven't got a secret stash of booze too, have you?" I shook my head; I really hadn't. "Good. I'd've bloody killed you if you had. Right, you can get the kettle on an' all."
Nervously, we sat and watched the remaining daylight creep from the sky, leaving behind a cold, inky blackness marred only by the thin slash of a sickle moon. Pat had dialled a Chinese takeaway and as we waited for it to be delivered, I nervously fluttered about in the kitchen with plates and drinks whilst she flicked through the TV channels. She eventually settled on 'Most Haunted Live', and we sank onto the sofa and nibbled on a Toblerone until dinner came.
"Wonder what Van Helsing's up to right now," I mused, getting bored of the non-events on the TV. The ghosts weren't biting for the Most Haunted team, it would appear.
"I dread to think," replied Pat. "But I'm sure it's hectic, cold and probably terrifying. Either that, or she's at home, wrapped up in a duvet and eating soup."
"It's Halloween. I should imagine she's huddled in that Scooby Doo van of hers, rushing round the city trying to find a maniac who wears a Victorian Freddy Kruger outfit."
Pat paused, a triangular piece of Toblerone poised at her mouth. "Good analogy. Certainly needs a manicure, dunno about a facial. Hard to say with the mask on. So, have you settled on a human maniac rather than a supernatural fiend?"
"Well, all that supernatural stuff's hard to believe, isn't it? I'm sure the police'll catch him sooner or later, anyway." I reached down to grab a triangle myself. "Can't keep knocking women off each Halloween. Maybe they just haven't made the connection that it's the same killer? We only did by accident."
"True. But Van Helsing seemed to know all along. I wonder what her real name is?"
"Mabel?" We both giggled as we finished off the Toblerone. The 'Most Haunted' crew were bravely venturing into a spooky cellar in their never-ending quest for denizens of the spirit world. "God, can we not turn this rubbish off, please? They never find any ghosts anyway - they just end up squealing every time a breeze hits them."
Pat, pulling a face, leaned over to pick up the remote when the doorbell rang. "Oh goodie! Must be the Chinese!" She leapt up and went to yank open the door, forgetting in her excitement that the security chain was on.
A hand crept through the gap; it was clutching a substantial paper bag which was giving out beautiful aromas. It shook the bag meaningfully. "Your order?"
Pat looked at me enquiringly; I nodded, and she pulled back the chain. A red boot stuck itself into the gap, followed quickly by a suede-covered arm. It was Van Helsing, with our delivery order.
"I didn't know you worked for the New Century Takeaway," I remarked dryly, plucking the bag out of her hands.
"Yeah, well - I've been on lookout opposite your place, keeping an eye on you." At our raised eyebrows, she blushed slightly. "Quietish night, no sign of Jack yet."
I headed off towards the kitchen to collect plates and cutlery. "Maybe he's having a night off. Even Evil needs a rest - just look at 'Most Haunted'. Not a sniff tonight."
She grimaced, stuffed her hands in her jacket pocket and lounged nonchalantly against the doorframe. "Well, there's only so long a person can watch you two stuffing chocolate without feeling a bit peckish..." The hint was so heavy, it practically knocked me unconscious.
I gave her a smile. "Would you like to join us for dinner?" I figured we would be safer if she was around, and anyway, she was quite an intriguing character. Maybe she'd open up. Maybe we could learn more about Jack. Maybe we'd even learn her name. "We probably ordered too much anyway; we usually do."
"That's very kind of you," she replied. "You definitely ordered too much; I intercepted your call and added sweet and sour chicken balls to your order. So there should be plenty to go round."
I blinked for a few moments at the sheer gall of the woman. "We hate sweet and sour."
"Great!" She spooned a couple of chicken balls onto a plate, piled a load of rice next to it and drizzled the lot with sauce before settling happily at the table. She started fiddling with a pair of chopsticks. "Never could use these damn things to eat with." She tried picking up a chicken ball, but with limited success. "Always handy to have around though."
Pat's face was a picture of puzzlement. "What for, if you can't eat with them?"
Van Helsing speared a chicken ball with one chopstick; the other was a blur as it flew across the room, onto the kitchen counter and embedded itself with a thunk into a bag of food. I picked up the bag and peered inside; the chopstick had run through the remaining chicken balls. "Come in handy for a few things," Van Helsing observed casually before popping the chicken ball into her mouth. "'Specially if you sharpen them."
"Wow." The light of adoration was starting to shine in Pat's eyes. I stuck a couple of plates in her hands and nudged her over to the table, where I'd laid out the rest of the food.
"So what is this - your night off?" I enquired. "Or do you usually do house calls?"
Shrewd grey eyes captured mine for a moment, before they went back to her plate and chopsticks. "Like I said, quiet night so far."
"I thought Halloween was peak time for you?"
She reached in her pocket and dug out a small transmitter. She flicked a switch, and tinny little voices almost drowned out by static crackled out of it. "It's still early."
Pat gave a nervous laugh. "What is this, the Spanish Inquisition? Leave her alone for a minute, let her eat." We all ate in grumpy silence for a little while, until the tension became too much for the gregarious Pat to bear. "So, Van Helsing," she chattered brightly. "What's your name, where are you from?"
Van Helsing stared at us suspiciously. "What is this, a date? Do I have to tell you my hobbies and interests too?"
"We already know those," I replied drily. "And anyway, don't you think you owe us an explanation?"
"Or at least," interjected Pat eagerly, "satisfy our curiosity. Two years on the trot you've run into us - well, her. People will start to talk. And we can't give 'em any answers."
"That's the general idea." Van Helsing put down her fork and patted her lips with a napkin briefly. "The less you know about me, the safer you'll be. Or the safer I'll be."
I picked up a spare rib. "How can you say that? Twice I've run into Jack, and now you tell me he may be targeting me. I fail to see how having a bit more information about you or him will put me in further danger. It might even help me to protect myself. Don't you think?" Finished my speech, I began to nibble on the rib.
She seemed to consider for a few moments. "Maybe." She picked up a rib and tore the meat from the bone in one quick movement. "I suppose," she said reluctantly before patting her lips with a napkin again. It was a surprisingly gentle gesture. "But I'm not telling you my name. I need some privacy, after all. You can keep calling me Van Helsing - it's kinda cool."
Pat and I nodded at each other, absurdly pleased at our tiny victory. I pushed the remaining chicken balls towards her, and Pat heaped a pile of rice onto her plate. That done, we smiled encouragingly at her.
She rolled her eyes, then spooned the chicken balls and sauce onto her plate. "Fine, I get the message. I've been following him for twelve years now. It's hard, not knowing where he's going to turn up next. I've been all over the place - London, Birmingham. Shropshire, even. But he always seems to turn up back in the East End, like he was drawn here, somehow."
"Maybe he lives here?"
She snorted. "He doesn't live. He kills. What he does for the rest of the year is anyone's guess. I've never been able to track him back to a house, crypt or any kind of lair."
"Crypt?" Pat and I were agog. "Is he some sort of vampire?" I'm sure we both were having rabid visions of capes, fangs and elegant men hanging upside down from the rafters.
Van Helsing cast us a disparaging glare. "This isn't Buffy. It's not fantasy, or someone's idea of entertainment," she remarked, her tone sharp. "All I know is I've followed Spring-Heeled Jack for many years now, and I'm no closer to knowing who or what the hell he is. And I know him better than anyone."
She was clearly trying to shock us with her tales of supernatural murder. I wasn't having it; I'd seen him. I'd felt his claws raking down my front, and I knew he was real. "Yes, but how? How do you know so much about him? If I didn't know better, I'd say you were his accomplice."
She stared at the table for what seemed like an age and her already pale face turned even more so. Eventually, she broke the silence, her tone strangely detached. "Twelve years ago, to the night. The knocking at the door had been insistent and loud. At first, we had ignored it, figuring it to be late trick or treaters. Very late, as it was eleven o'clock already and we were deep into the late night film and in no mood to be disturbed." She paused for several long moments, staring off into the distance. A sigh broke the silence, and she continued quietly, "But the hammering at the door had continued, demanding a response. My father had answered it. Apart from screaming, it was the last thing he ever did."
We all remained silent for quite a while.
Eventually, she raised her eyes from the table and I felt pinned by their fierceness. "But I had seen him, you see. I'll never forget it - those yellow eyes, burning as he ripped my father's throat out. I was young and there was nothing I could do. Nothing the police could do either. As soon as I was old enough, I got a job and put all my wages into tracking equipment. Every night, I would roam the neighbourhood, but I never caught up with him. Not for years. And then one Halloween, I got incredibly lucky." She shuddered, and I suddenly felt sympathy for her. Because I don't really think she meant 'lucky' at all.
Silence settled on us again, expectant for myself and Pat, God knows what for Van Helsing. "I'll make some coffee," I offered, getting to my feet.
I don't think she even heard me. "I wasn't in time, and that wouldn't be the first time. But at least I knew where he was, and how he worked. I held the woman in my arms as she died, same as I did for my father. Small comfort, really. And in the years that followed, I started to learn his pattern."
She nodded. "About a week before Halloween, he shows up. Gets going with a few harmless attacks - like he's doing warm up exercises, stretching his muscles out. Gets his confidence back, or maybe enjoys prolonging the fun - I don't know. But he graduates from that and the night before Halloween, he draws his first blood. Not a kill, just whetting his appetite, almost. Once he's drawn blood, it's like he can't stop himself and he'll go on multiple hunts through the night. But he saves the best till Halloween night itself - the full kill. Not before, and only rarely after."
I paled, and felt my stomach recoil. "You mean, he would've killed me last year?"
"Undoubtedly. You were very lucky. Plus, I am pretty good."
"Modest, too," I snarked, still shaken by the news that I could've been dead right now. I guess I never really understood just how much danger I had been in. Thanks to her, I'd been okay. "Not good enough to save his victims though." Val Helsing's eyes pierced mine again, and I felt quite shitty. Maybe that hadn't been an entirely fair comment. "Sorry," I offered meekly.
She shrugged before turning her face away. "Why? You're right. I'm nothing more than his shadow. He kills before I can do anything about it, and then he disappears off the face of the Earth."
"How can that be?" queried Pat, who seemed just as shaken as me.
She shook her head. "I don't know. You have no idea how frustrating it is." She made to bang her fist against the table, but moved instead to sink her head in her hands. "I just can't figure out how to catch this guy."
"Have you never gone to the police?" asked Pat. Van Helsing shot her a look. "Hey, don't evil-eye me, madam. You're the one with all the insider knowledge. You shouldda been to the police, they mighta caught him before now."
Van Helsing's eyes fired a little. "I tried, once. But they tried to arrest me, so I skipped. Wouldn't you? Besides, they've had less luck than I have. Half the time, they can't even make the connection between the different murders."
"Well, that's true," agreed Pat. "It took us a while to see the connection."
"Yeah," I snarked again. "The police don't have much time to spend on the net."
Pat shot me a warning glare. "Wind yer neck in. You should be thanking Van Helsing, not having all sorts of pops at her. She did save your life, after all." I couldn't argue with that, even though I felt like it. "Ignore her," Pat continued, tipping her head towards me whilst speaking to Van Helsing. "She doesn't cope well with stress. Gets her knickers in a right twist."
Our visitor took the opportunity to shoot one back at me. "It's okay. Guess it must be hard going cold turkey at a time like this. I'm sure booze really helps to relieve the stress."
Pat's reflexes were top notch, luckily for all of us - she grabbed hold of me before I could react. "Behave yourselves, the both of yez. This is not helping." She motioned us all back to the table again. "Now, let's get back to Jack. What are the odds of him striking again tonight?"
Only bristling slightly, Van Helsing parked herself back at the table, where Pat and I joined her. "It's a cert. I've only known him take one Halloween off in all the time I've been following him, and I have no idea why."
"So - and please don't take this the wrong way, yer a bit touchy after all - how come you're here with us instead of out in the Scooby Doo van?"
She was silent for a few moments before fishing in her jacket pocket. She paused thoughtfully for a few moments, and then placed a small, handwritten note face down on the table. The red ink of the chunky handwriting had bled through to the underside of the note, but I couldn't tell what it said. She tapped her chin, again clearly debating something within herself, before placing a forefinger onto the note and pushing it towards me.
Somewhat redundantly, I asked, "What's this?"
"I found it underneath my windscreen wiper this evening." The finger changed course, and she pushed the note to Pat. "Read it," she invited.
Pat hesitated for a fraction of a second before finally unfolding the note. Her jaw dropped as she read it, and she flicked a terrified glance towards me. "Oh no," she uttered. "Oh no!"
The note was short, and definitely not sweet:
"We have had fun haven't we? I've enjoyed our time together.
But it's time to move on. You're just not challenging enough.
One more chance to catch me."
Underneath, written in the large red scrawl was my address.
I shot up from the table, and immediately collapsed back onto my chair. "That's my address! How does he… why would he?" I bounced up out of my seat again. Van Helsing was up as well, her hand on my shoulder, pressing me back down again.
"This isn't about you," she cautioned. "It's about me."
I stared at her incredulously. "I don't see him making house calls on you!"
She sighed. "Don't you see? He's issued me with a challenge. It's the first time he's made direct, personal contact with me."
"But it's not as if he doesn't know you - after all, you've been following him around for years now," Pat observed, her own hand on my other shoulder. I felt like I had ton weights pressing me down on both sides, forcing me to resist the urge to bounce off the walls.
"Sure, he knows me. It's been like a game to him - he's taunted me for years with my inadequacy. Even posted me the occasional souvenir of his kill. Sorry, I didn't want to mention that. But nothing like this. He's never written to me before."
I looked up into Van Helsing's eyes. "Maybe it's not him?"
She returned my gaze, but there was no reassurance in it. "Maybe. But it's a hell of a coincidence, isn't it?"
I gathered all my reserves of strengths, and tried a shot at comforting sarcasm. "Did he have to be so stereotypical? I mean, red ink. What's that all about?"
Van Helsing shot me a swift look, before reaching out and crumpling up the paper. "It's not ink." She tucked the balled-up note back into her pocket.
Pat was wide-eyed. "What do you think it means? He's not really going to come here, is he?" Van Helsing shrugged.
I tried to rise again, but Pat shoved me down again. "You should go, Pat. Get a taxi and get out of here. If he's coming after me, there's no sense you being caught up in it." Pat didn't reply; she merely turned a stubborn stare onto me, and I knew I'd be wasting my breath pushing her to go. "Or you could stay. And get killed."
"Nobody's getting killed," declared Van Helsing. "He probably won't even show up. It's just part of his sick game. Probably a decoy - he's probably out there right now, ripping some poor soul apart." We all looked at the radio transmitter. It had chirruped into life a couple of times, mainly for traffic problems and the occasional robbery call-in. It stayed obstinately quiet right then. "Or maybe he's taking Halloween night off."
"Right," said Pat, all decisiveness. "This is ridiculous. I'm not staying here waiting for him to make up his mind what he wants to do." She got up, stomped off to the kitchen and came back with two cartons of Hagen-Daz and three spoons. "If in doubt, stuff yerself," she declared, ripping off a lid and tucking in.
"How can you eat at a time like this?" I asked, pulling over the last barbecue rib and tearing into it absent-mindedly.
Van Helsing rose to her feet, trying her hardest to look nonchalant. "I might do a circuit, check everything's alright out there," she said, her tone casual and her face non-commital.
Pat paused, spoon halfway to her lips. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You're not pissing off and leaving us here!"
Plucking her jacket from where she'd draped it over the back of her chair, Van Helsing tossed it casually over her shoulder. "Look, it'll be fine - I'll only be gone half an hour. I'll come straight back, I promise. Just make sure you lock up behind me, and don't open the door for anyone." She shrugged herself into her jacket before picking up her transmitter with one hand and pulling out her car keys with the other.
"No way," declared Pat, throwing herself into a body block. "You're not going anywhere, lady!"
Val Helsing opened her mouth ready for an onslaught, just as the radio transmitter crackled into life. Reports of an attack were coming in. Just around the corner from where we were.
We all froze.
"It's a trap. He's luring us out," declared Van Helsing. "You two better stay here."
"Not bloody likely," I declared. "What if it's a decoy, and he wants to get you out of the way so he's got a clear run at me?"
"For the last time, it's not you he's interested in!" yelled Van Helsing as she ran towards the door. "It's me he wants - you're just the bait. So stay put, and don't be the bait!"
Of course we didn't stay put. Pat was straight on Van Helsing's heels. I dashed out shortly after, pausing only to slip a small paring knife into my pocket. If Van Helsing could go out tooled up, as I was sure she would be, then I was damn sure I was going to be too.
We hurled ourselves out of the door and tumbled onto the pavement. Van Helsing headed towards her van, which unfortunately was parked halfway up the road. Parking was pretty tight in my street.
"By the time you get that started, we could've run round there," gasped Pat, already out of breath.
"No point. If it's already on the police transmitters, he's gone. It's more a case of where he's gone to." She held the transmitter up to her ear. "Yeah, see - they're already on the scene."
"And his victim?" I asked anxiously.
"Still alive," she replied, a tinge of surprise in her voice. "Maybe he was disturbed?"
Pat grabbed my arm, her eyes saucer-wide. "Maybe he has other ideas in mind." She pointed up, her hand trembling.
The moon was a sliver of silver, enshrouded with wisps of greyed cloud. Its rays were weak, but just enough to silhouette the stick-thin and preternaturally tall figure of Jack, perched on the roof top. He doffed his top hat at us, his face splitting with a skeletal grin, and then sprang away.
We all blinked, as if our vision was blurred. Or we were seeing things.
"Did you see that?" I checked with the others, half believing the figure had been a trick of the moonlight. Pat nodded, motionless. Van Helsing had whipped out her torch and was sweeping the road with it.
"Where'd he go - did you see?" she asked. A movement caught her eye to the right and swiftly she swept the torch over the area. It caught Spring-Heeled Jack as he vaulted over an eight-feet wall, landed and sprung over the width of the road, almost on one smooth movement. He moved so fast, we could barely follow him.
He was on us in an instant.
I don't know whether I felt his actual movements or the swirling air he left behind, as he spun around the three of us, slashing and carving and grinning like a death's head as he did so. I heard the ripping of my coat, the yells of Pat and then the sharp, stinging burn as his fingers slashed down through the wool of my jumper. Livid orange eyes seized mine, and I froze in fear. I saw a quick glimpse of yellowed teeth, sharp and thin, poised above my neck. He bit me, and I cried out in pain.
I fumbled in my coat pocket for the knife I'd brought with me, but as I half dragged it out, he'd already reared away, knocking a screaming Pat onto the floor and then used her as a springboard to vault over Van Helsing. Before she could whip round, he'd dragged her to the ground by his hair, hacking at her clothes and flesh. I could see the blood staining her jacket arm and side as she struggled and fought to be clear of him.
Pat heaved herself to her feet and hurled herself at the pair of them, knocking Jack off balance enough that Van Helsing was able to roll out from underneath him. Jack turned his attention to Pat.
"Van Helsing!" She turned her bloodied face towards me, and I threw her the small paring knife. She plucked it out of mid air, and hurled it at him. It sunk to the hilt into his raised arm, sending rivulets of blood racing down towards his wrist. His fingers were long and twisted, their claw-like nails thick and sharpened - almost like his fingers were tipped with blades. He raised them again, his teeth bared.
Simultaneously, I hurled myself at him whilst Van Helsing scrabbled in her pockets and pulled out a long hunting knife with a sharp, serrated edge. Before she could do anything with it, he was on top of her again; slashing and hacking. The knife was dropped, and knocked aside.
It all happened in a flash, all of it - from the moment when he leapt down from the roof, to the moment when my fingers grasped the handle of the hunting knife and plunged it between his shoulder blades.
I pulled it out, waited for him to turn to face me, and plunged it into him again.
He roared, a peculiar sound that was both high-pitched and growling. His flaming eyes burned into mine, and his face seemed to swell and grow as he bared his fangs at me, and for a moment I could've sworn it was a wolf's face snarling at me. I pulled the knife out, and stabbed him again for a third time.
He reared away, grasped the knife and with a smirk, slid it from his chest.
"Shit!" I half-rose, but before I could really move away, the knife skewered my side. The pain burst through my insides and I shrieked with it.
He moved to finish me off, and then stopped abruptly. Van Helsing stood behind him, her hands wrapped around an ivory knife hilt. The blade was embedded in his back, and I could see the thin tip, smeared with blackened blood, coming through his chest. God knows where she'd had that hidden.
He gave an agonising, ear-splitting scream, his death-white face distorting with rage and pain.
And then he was gone. The knife clattered to the ground, echoing in the sudden silence. Van Helsing and I stared at each other, gasping and stunned into speechlessness.
Pat lay motionless on the ground, blood spreading beneath her.
Van Helsing and I had spent hours with the police, ostensibly under arrest or at least under close police supervision whilst in hospital. Of course I'd given her an alibi. Needless to say, they hadn't believed our supernatural story for a moment but with no real evidence, they had to release us eventually.
I'd spent most of my brief stay in hospital sedated or sobbing and definitely in shock. I hadn't seen Van Helsing since that evening; she'd slipped out after her wounds had been treated, mysterious and evasive to the last. I hadn't seen her since.
Not until today, anyway. Months had passed, and eventually they'd released Pat's body to her mother. They'd brought her up to Liverpool for her funeral as she had wished. She'd wanted to be cremated, and her ashes scattered on her grandparent's graves in Anfield cemetery - a family tradition, apparently.
So here we were, gathered around the O'Leary family grave, Pat's family sobbing and me dry-eyed. If I closed my eyes, all I could see was Pat lying on the street, her life slipping away. I'd told her we'd killed him, and she smiled at me before she died in my arms. If I kept my eyes open, I could just about remember happier images of her and that's what I wanted. I had barely closed my eyes in weeks. At least I wasn't drinking again - Pat would've haunted me like a shot if I'd started again.
Pat's mother lifted the lid on her urn and started scattering pat's ashes, and that's when I saw Van Helsing, standing to one side, head bowed and obviously praying. The chocolate suede jacket had been shredded in the attack, so she was wearing a smart black, full length woollen coat - it was a funeral, after all. The boots were dark red though.
The ceremony over, and people started drifting away. Pat's mother had said they were holding a wake for her at her sister's house - she was staying up there for a while - and would I come? I smiled non-committally, already knowing I wouldn't.
I hung back. Van Helsing appeared silently at my side.
"How are you?" she asked, her voice gentle.
I shrugged. "You?"
She gave a shrug of her own.
"Is it over?" I enquired hesitantly. "Has he really gone?"
She shot me a glance. "We stabbed him five times. Skewered him."
"Yes, but is he dead?"
She didn't reply, and we both stood listening to the sounds of the cemetery; the breeze rustling through the yew trees and the rooks cawing and flapping, murmurs of mourners and the low hum of traffic from the neighbouring road. "I don't know," she said eventually, almost in a whisper. "I don't know." She turned desolate eyes towards me.
I reached out and took her into my arms, and the pair of us started crying, there amidst the silence of death, remembering those who we had seen die.
Eventually, we broke apart. She gave me a watery smile and mopped at her eyes with a spotless white handkerchief. I swiped at mine with my sleeve.
"Guess we won't know till next year," I said, matter-of-factly. "How can we be sure? It should've been enough to kill him, but he wasn't human, was he? He couldn't have been. Where was the body?"
"I always knew he wasn't human. But that's the first time I've ever managed to lay a finger on him, never mind getting a knife into him. Maybe he is dead. I hope he is."
I wiped my eyes again. "What will you do if he is dead?"
She smiled a little. "I don't know. Have a normal life? Go on holiday? Fall in love, even." The latter was said with a hint of wistfulness.
"Let's hope he's dead then." We both started to walk towards the exit. "So what will you do?"
"Wait. Like I always do. Get some crap job that I can throw in around October, and then start the hunt all over again."
I nodded. "You'll need help - you can't do it alone. You said it yourself, you've never got anywhere near him on your own. And besides, if he is still alive then he'll probably come after us both. If he even waits till next year."
She regarded me quizzically. "He's disappeared into thin air - I checked around as soon as I got out from under the police. But maybe you're right. I'm tired of doing it on my own." I was surprised by the admission, coming from someone who seemed to pride herself on her strength and independence. "You do know what you're getting into though?"
"I've had a brief introduction."
"There's one condition, though."
"Your dress. You have to sort yourself out. Something smart, durable yet stylish. None of this baggy sweaters and jeans crap I've seen you in. We're fighting the evil supernatural - we have an image to keep up. I'm thinking, black leather?"
My mouth fell open. "For you?"
"God, no - I've already got my image. Understated and mysterious. You on the other hand… we need to do some serios work on yours. Come on - the PatMobile is parked just there."
I stopped dead in my tracks. "The PatMobile?"
She gave a wry grin. "Well, she did seem to love this van." She flicked a switch on her remote and the van beeped as it unlocked. "C'mon - get in. We've got plans to hatch, and a killer to find."
We climbed in, and headed off.
The end - for this year.