“Is this seat free?” the question surprised the man sat on the far side of the table hunched over his bowl of stew.
He looked up from under beetling brows and grunted a response which was taken as assent. The questioner - a plain looking man around thirty years of age, of medium height, with pale blue, watchful eyes, set in a thin face - hooked an ankle around one of the stools on his side and dragged it out from under the table. He placed his bowl of stew and tankard of ale on the table and sat down. He nodded at the man opposite who had not paused in spooning stew - thick with vegetables and unidentifiable lumps of meat - into his mouth. His left arm was curled protectively around the bowl and a heel of coarse dark bread was clutched in that hand.
The newcomer lifted his tankard and swallowed a mouthful of the thin bitter liquid it contained. He grimaced and returned it to the table and grasped the spoon sitting in his bowl and tentatively tried the stew. He chewed for a moment on the stringy lump of meat he had lifted to his mouth appraising the man opposite.
The subject of his study was methodically working his way through the bowl of stew, halting the motion of the spoon every now and then to take a swallow of ale or to dip his bread into the gravy then bite on the end only slightly softened by the liquid. Almost sucking rather than biting the bread before going back to his spoon.
He was powerfully built, with broad shoulders and thickly muscled arms which strained the seams of his dirty black coat. His hands were large, thick fingered covered in black coarse hair. Long greasy strands of black hair streaked with grey reached his shoulders and framed a brutish coarse pockmarked face. A sloping slab of a forehead rose above a protruding eyebrow ridge decorated with thick bushy eyebrows beneath which small deep set dark eyes regarded the world suspiciously. The nose was a large beak like protuberance with a definite bend to the left where at some time in the past it had been broken. Beneath it, an untidy salt and pepper bush of hair hid the lower half of his face. The deep lines in his forehead and crows feet around his eyes put his age somewhere in his late forties or early fifties.
He paused in his eating for a moment and glared from under his brows as he became aware of the other’s scrutiny but he didn’t speak, just chewed what was in his mouth before grunting and returning his attention to the bowl his arm was guarding as if it might be stolen from him. The younger man toyed with his spoon pushing stew around the bowl with little interest in eating any of it. He picked up his tankard and sipped again from it, lips pursing at its thin sour flavour. He looked around the tap room of the low ceilinged inn with its drifting swirls of smoke from pipes and the fireplace. A log smouldered on the hearth, desultory wisps of smoke rising up the chimney or into the room to show it was still alight.
The bar ran down one side of the room, kegs of ale racked behind it and pewter or tarred leather tankards stacked by them. Most tables in the room had two or more men - labourers or farmers by the look of them - sat nursing tankards or eating from bowls of the stew. No one seemed to be paying him and his table companion any undue attention and he returned his gaze to the man across the table who was using his bread to mop the last of his stew from the bowl.
He pushed his own bowl to one side and nursing his tankard in both hands, elbows on the table, he held the vessel in front of his lower face. Finished with his mopping, the older man chewed for a moment on his bread and then lifted his tankard and took a couple of large swallows before returning it to the table. He belched and rubbed his arm across his mouth adding another greasy streak to those already there.
He eyed the full bowl of stew that had been pushed to one side and spoke for the first time.
“Be ye gonna eat that?” his voice was surprisingly mellow and light, not the sort of voice one would expect to issue from one of his build and appearance.
“What?” Oh no, no, help yourself if you want it, I find I’m not hungry after all,” and the younger man pushed the bowl towards him.
The bowl was swept closer with a grunt of thanks and the spoon was soon busy transferring the stew to the mouth that was presumably hidden within the unkempt thatch of hair. The younger man watched as the stew was consumed with apparent relish - with an occasional swallow of ale to wash it down - sipping from his own tankard from time to time. When he had finished his ale he stood and gestured to the other’s tankard.
“Get you another?” he inquired.
“Eh? Aye, kind of ye, thankee kindly,” the spoon paused in its progress and the voice was full of surprise at the offer.
The younger man stood chatting to the innkeeper for a moment after that worthy had filled the two tankards, his back to the man at the table. When he returned to the table he sat and pushed the tankard in his right hand across the table. He received another grunt of thanks, the spoon barely pausing between bowl and face.
A few minutes later the second bowl of stew was finished and the older man sat back with a sigh and drank deeply from his tankard. As he lowered it to the table he belched once more and then wiped his sleeve across his mouth again.
The younger man kept his face impassive despite his inner disgust at the man’s manners as he sipped on his ale.
“You really shouldn’t have left her like that,” he said casually, his voice pitched to carry to the man opposite him but no further.
“What?” the sloping forehead creased in puzzlement.
“When you finished. You shouldn’t have left her like that, left her lying there naked on the floor.”
“What be ye talking about man?”
“It’s taken me three months to find you, you were right to keep moving you know?”
“Ye be daft man. I dunno what or who ye be talking of,” the frown had deepened, the wrinkles deep and close together.
“You were seen, so I know it was you. They described you very well. You are hard to miss so I was able to follow you from village to town to village. I knew I had to catch up to you before you got to the city. There it would be too easy for you to disappear in the crowds. I know what the city is like, every one minds their own business, not like in the villages and towns,” the voice was still casual as it spoke of following the trail of the older man who was sat still, fists clenched, arms resting on the table as he stared intently at the man across from him.
“I was the one who found her you see. When I got back to the shop, it was me who found her. I was not gone long or went far you see. Just a short distance away, taking some medicine to an old lady. I was only thirty minutes or so. Not long really was it?”
The older man’s stare was intense, fixed on the owner of the casual voice, even as his tankard was raised and it’s contents swallowed.
“She was still alive when I got back, but I could not save her. She’d lost too much blood you see. It was all around her, so much of it. I didn’t think her little body held so much blood. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t. My potions didn’t stop it, the bandages I tried couldn’t stop it they just turned red straight away. She tried to speak but she was too weak. I held her in my arms and felt her leave me,” there was a long sigh.
“I begged her not to go, not to leave me. I told her I loved her as I rocked her. Told her over and over that I loved her but still she left me. Left me because of what you did,” for the first time there was an intensity to the voice, an element of anger showing through.
“I dunno what ye be talking of man. I aint gonna sit here listening to ye,” the burly man stood up abruptly but stopped and placed his fists onto the table as he wobbled slightly on his feet.
“You should sit back down, it will work slower if you are sitting down you see.”
The older man dropped unsteadily back onto his seat and stared perplexedly across the table.
“It works quicker if your heart beats faster because you’re moving about, so if I was you I’d sit quietly.”
“What have ye done to I?” growled the older man.
“It’s a little concoction I made, especially for you. A little digitalis, a little laudanum, a pinch of belladonna and another of henbane and lastly powdered horse chestnut,” said the younger man with a slight smile.
“You felt a little dizzy just now didn’t you? That’s the belladonna working. Your pupils are quite large, that’s the henbane and the digitalis, you might start seeing things as well. I expect your heart is skipping as well, the digitalis does that. Your hands are starting to twitch a little, that’s the chestnut. The laudanum will keep you calm and help with the headache. You are starting to get one aren’t you? Belladonna again. You’ll start to slur your speech soon and become confused. Then the chestnut will start to paralyse your muscles. The heart’s a muscle you know and your muscles in the chest make your lungs work,” as the younger man recited the symptoms and effects of these poisons his voice was calm, conversational.
The older man’s eyes were red rimmed and slightly bulging and his whole body was beginning to twitch.
“Hhhhoooooowwwww.” his voice was slurred and the word took great effort to utter.
“How? In the stew,” came the simple reply. “My bowl of stew. I was fairly certain you would eat it. The small piece I ate wouldn’t have enough poison on it to hurt me. I might have an upset stomach for an hour or so, but that could be this ale as much as anything else. You’re chest is getting tight isn’t it? Your heart is thumping and missing a beat? I can tell you can’t move, the chestnut is doing all of that, along with everything else,” the younger man smiled coldly and stood up looking down at the other man who was only able to slowly move his eyes to look up at him.
“Don’t worry too much, it won’t be very long, maybe ten minutes and then you’ll be on your way to hell. I’m certain there is a place set aside there for you. I don’t think my Jenny was the first was she? I know you’ve raped and murdered three more women since then, while I’ve been tracking you so she wasn’t the last unfortunately. I should have you arrested I suppose, but… well I wanted you to feel a little of what she… they… must have felt.
“The fear, knowing you’re going to die, helpless to stop it happening. I’ve been more generous than you were to them. You’ve had your last meal, that’s traditional for the condemned man isn’t it? I know with the laudanum you aren’t feeling the same pain that she felt when you used your knife on her, but that would cause too much of an uproar in here and I’d prefer to just walk away quietly.
“I’m going to do that now, I’m going to go out of that door and you are going to sit here and feel your body shutting down. Unable to move even a finger, unable to cry out. Sitting here in silence as your lungs slowly stop working, as your heart gradually beats slower and slower then stops. Your hearing and sight will be the last senses to go as you die. When you can’t see or hear then you are… anyway, I’ll tell the innkeeper that you are just sitting digesting your meal and to bring you another ale in a little while so you won’t be disturbed. I’ll even buy the ale for you. You’ll sit here and wait for the end and I hope that every second, every heart beat is agony for you.
“If I have condemned my own soul to hell for doing this then I am content. Maybe we can have a meal together again… there in hell. Who knows?” he turned from the table and after a quick word with the innkeeper left without looking back.
At the table sitting stiffly, unmoving - unable to move - with the remains of his meal, the bowls and tankard on the table before him, the unkempt older man sat waiting. In his head he screamed and yelled, called out for help that could not hear him, help that was not going to come. Just as the women had screamed for help that would not come. A single tear trickled from the corner of his eye as the sight and sounds of the inn around him faded away.