It’s Hard To Dance With The Devil On Your Back: A 21st Century Serial Killer


The killer had struck again.

London these days was a far cry from the dark and dingy Victorian London streets Jack the Ripper had walked, but his influence was still felt. Murder, gang fights, death – there was no end to the suffering.

Mitch looked down at the body with practiced eyes and tried not to be sick. Viewing this type of thing was his job; that didn’t mean he enjoyed every moment of it.

The body was lacerated, huge scratches cutting deep into the skin in almost every patch of skin, except the face. That had been left untouched by the knife, free from laceration, but something perhaps more horrific had been done.

The killer had taken her eyes.

Not cleanly, either, there were marks of where he’d gouged them with his fingers, and stringy pieces of optic nerve hung grotesquely from the sockets.

He looked away, unable to stomach any more. He signalled to the man beside him, who gently lifted the body onto a stretcher and covering it with a sheet. They’d have a pathologist take a look, but he knew the hope was in vain: the other two hadn’t had any DNA evidence to help them find the killer, so why should this poor soul be any different?

The third in three days. God help them, what was their city coming to? Not since 1888 had they had anything like this – public dissent, maybe, the occasional gang fight or two, and then there were the London Riots – but murder, the same modus operandi, over such a small time scale. It was unheard of. He should be desensitised to the bodies by now, but each new death was a fresh blow, leaving him incapable of steeling himself to the next.

He stopped the other man a moment. From her pocket he drew a dried nasturtium and a thin piece of smooth card, similar in size to a business card. He knew what he would find, two lines of writing in small printed letters:

I danced in the morning when the world was young
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun

– S.C M.L

A song of some kind, from the research they’d done. Lord of the Dance by Sydney Carter. Assumedly, he was the S.C referenced, but that still left the M.L initials.

The flowers had to mean something too – a daffodil the first time, an anemone the second, now a nasturtium. All dried, all found in the pockets of their victims. Just another thing that proved the killer’s involvement. They had nicknamed him “Gentleman Jack”, for the flowers and for the murders.

Now, there was a thought. The media hadn’t quite got their hands on this story yet, and they wouldn’t, if he had anything to do with it. If this got out, the gross incompetency of the London police force would undoubtedly become the latest hot topic of gossip. In actual fact, their competency had nothing to do with it; more that their numbers had drastically fallen in recent years.

He walked home in a slight daze of nausea. He was not on duty now for another three hours; he could sleep, and hope that with time he would forget the bodies. It must have been terrible for the one who found the first body; by now, he knew what to expect. It would have been all the worse for someone totally unprepared.

Five minutes after reaching his house, he had lain down fully clothed, after closing and locking his windows and doors. It paid to be paranoid, and he was well along that line by now. It was not even another five minutes before he had fallen into a restless slumber.

His decade in the police force had not been uneventful, and had left him with some images which refused to go away. In the day, when all was bright and happier, he could blissfully consign them to oblivion; during the dark and quiet nights, the mental chains holding them back came loose.

For once he was rewarded, the horrors of the day cashing out to a more or less peaceful rest. While his circadian rhythms didn’t comply to normal standards – his job required shifts at constantly changing times of day – he did, at least, try for sleep. But his attempt was in vain, for while the tortured souls which tortured him by night were gone, something else took their place.

He dreamed of a field, with flowers as far as the eye could see. He dreamed of laughter, dancing, men, women and children linking arms and frolicking in the tall grass. They turned, offered him their hands, and he joined in the dance.

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

He dreamed he was happy, until the dream became a nightmare. Beneath the sweet scent of the flowers, the creeping odour of rot. Behind the laughter, madness. The dance shifted into a ritual, chanting and droning replacing the joyful shouts. His only peace in months, twisted into a hellish phantasm. His hands breaking the circle, he ran, ran as fast and as far as he could until his legs gave out beneath him and the horde was upon him —

He woke sweating, panting. His legs aching, as if he had been running. A slight breeze came drifting in through his window – open a few centimetres, although he was sure he had left it closed. On its own, that was strange enough, but the killer detail was the flower trapped on the sill. A chrysanthemum, dried as the others had been. Maybe if he’d kept any plants, he could have waved it off as an unfortunate coincidence, but he didn’t. As well as that, the room he slept in was on the second floor.

The killer had left his calling card.

Was he amused at their efforts? Did he sit back and watch them scurrying like ants, laughing in their distress at each fresh body found?

Two hours. He was expected back in an hour, but after that episode, he wouldn’t be able to sleep again today. He changed his clothes, showered, and ate, and headed back to the station with half an hour to spare.

The first thing he did was drop by the pathologist, who had been hard at work since receiving the body. The autopsy was scheduled to take place the next day, but from the tests she had already conducted they both knew they’d find nothing, once again. There were no suspects, nothing to link the three victims together.

He left feeling dissatisfied. By now, they should have some evidence – fingerprints, DNA, even CCTV sighting, but nothing could be found. Whether it was the lack of DNA or the mysterious power outages of the cameras, they had nothing to go on.

All that changed in a heartbeat.

In bed, nowhere near the brink of sleep, he heard a tapping on his window. Forcing himself to believe it was merely his currently hyperactive imagination, he ignored it. He could not ignore it the fifth time, an urgent rap on the glass. He turned to face it, but of course there was nobody there. How could anyone reach the second floor?

Faster, more repetitively now, he let out a sigh and looked out of the window. Standing on his doorstep was a peculiar man. He wore a ragged coat that might have been grand once, the sleeves torn and his eyes screwed tightly shut. His head turned up to the window to face him, his eyes, while closed, still boring into him. In the buttonhole of his coat a single chrysanthemum flower was threaded.

Instinct and common sense told him this man, whoever he was, was important. Common sense told him to stay put and call for help; instinct told him to investigate.

Instinct won every time.

The bedroom door was unlocked with ease, but he took more care with the front door. If this was truly the man they were looking for, he would need to stay alert. He had armed himself with a metal baton, a suitable self-defence weapon against most drunks and crazies.

As he stared out the open door at the strange man, he could see that his eyes were not closed: they were sewn shut. It did not seem to affect him, however, as he looked closely into his own eyes. He began to speak.

“My name is Marquis Lester, and I believe I have something you have been looking for.”

Marquis Lester – M.L finally explained.

The stranger drew the flower from his button and held it out to him between finger and thumb. Mitch looked at it, no intention of taking it.

“You are the One, I can feel it.”

The sense of glee in the stranger’s voice was palpable.

“What do you mean?” Mitch asked. His suspicions grew by the second.

“You’re not like the others – daffodil, anenome, nastursia. You know the Dance and the Dance knows you. Chrysanthemum found you but you rejected it, and now you must accept chrysanthemum. I knew I wouldn’t have to go far, didn’t I? Not like the others. They couldn’t, wouldn’t see the Dance – but the Dance must go on.”

He appeared to be talking to himself now. The flowers he had mentioned – each at the scene of the murders, but anyone who did their own investigations could have found that out. Perhaps this was just a prank, someone’s idea of a joke. Mitch decided to find out.

“I danced in the morning when the world was young
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun”

The man stiffened.

“You know the Dance!” He declared. “A perfect match, indeed.”

He crumpled over in pain, righting himself moments later with a look of terror on his face.

“The Dance – it needs to feed, it needs to pass – “

He bent over again, the look of terror replaced by the previous expression of mild joy.

“I am the Dance and the Dance goes on.”

Again, he offered the flower. Again, Mitch refused it.

“Don’t refuse. The others refused the Dance. The Dance refused them. Let the Dance in. This body is weak, but the Dance goes on.”

At that, Mitch closed the door and locked it. When he looked back outside a few minutes later, the man was gone, leaving him to puzzle over what had just happened.

When it was light enough to see, he dressed and left the house. He hadn’t been able to sleep yet again. As he stepped out, his foot crushed a dried chrysanthemum.

At the station, there was surprising news. Late last night, presumedly after Mitch had seen him, a man going by Marquis Lester had turned himself in, moments after another body having been found – similar to the others, but with a chrysanthemum this time. It looked like Mitch had narrowly avoided the same fate as the others, but the fourth murder would be the last. Lester was locked away in a cell now, not imprisoned but ready to go on trial in the next few weeks.

The pathologist beckoned him over after he’d heard the news, and spoke to him.

“There was… there was one request he made in return for turning himself in. He wanted to talk to you, when you came in.”

Filled with foreboding, Mitch found the cell he was in and rapped on the bars. The sound at his window flashed through his mind before he forcibly pushed it away and concentrated on the matter at hand.

“I heard you wanted to talk. Go on.”

His briskness hid his apprehension.

“I have a few things to say to you, while I am not caught up in the Dance. It won’t be long until it must go again, for the Dance must go on, you know.” He rambled. He turned his back on Mitch and fiddle with something on the ceiling, his body blocking Mitch’s view.

“The main thing is this:

I danced on a Friday when the world turned black
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body, they thought I was gone
But I am the dance, and the dance goes on

Do you understand now, why the Dance goes on?”

“What is this… Dance?”

Lester chuckled.

“The Dance is the Dance, the song of death. At times, we must all Dance. Do you understand? Let the Dance go on, Sir. The Dance must go on.”

He threw a small object through the bars – an edelweiss. Before Mitch could react, he reached for the ceiling and drew his neck through the rope loop.

Mitch stood frozen as the life drained from Lester, but Lester’s mouth twisted into a huge smile as he choked. When he shuddered and hung still, Mitch bent and picked up the Edelweiss.

“The Dance,” he mused. “Merely the delusion of a psychopath?”

The suicide of Marquis Lester went undocumented, his body just so much insect fodder. But before the body was taken away, Mitch noticed the fingers were raw and bleeding, the nails torn to ragged pieces. Inspecting the inside of the cell, he found two lines, scratched faintly into the cement wall:

They cut me down and I leapt up high
I am the life that will never, never die

And the night terrors built up in him again. The dancing, the putrid smell of rot that wafted past his nostrils – realised again.
He picked up the Edelweiss and placed it in his pocket.

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

Slowly, helplessly, he began to Dance. His baton, clean from the morning, was stained beyond cleaning. He scratched at his eyes. Too much, too much to see, for the Dance. He sat, upset, in the quiet station, waiting for the Dance. For the Dance had to go on.

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