The Croydon Ripper by Newton Webb
A Murderous Horror Short Story: The Croydon Ripper's reign of terror casts a shadow over Sheila's life, transforming her daily walk home from the library into a journey fraught with suspicion.
Free Horror Stories
The Croydon Ripper by Newton Webb
Free Horror Stories
Horror Story Compilations
Chilling Reads: 62 horror stories, including ‘Tales of the Macabre, Vol. 1’, ‘Tales of the Macabre, Vol. 2’, ‘Festival of the Damned’, ‘The Horror at Hargrave Hall’, ‘Smoke in the Sewers’, ‘The Ballad of Barnacle Bill’, ‘The Morrígan’, ‘The Black Fog’, ‘The Heir Apparent’, ‘The Platinum Service’
The Croydon Ripper by Newton Webb
1982, Croydon, London
Sheila glanced at the clock on the wall for what felt like the tenth time in the past five minutes. It read 7:47 and was ticking ever closer to the library’s evening closing time and, more importantly to her, moving closer to the hour when she would have to walk alone to the bus stop. The tall, high windows in the grand, old building that was Croydon Central Library were night-black against the high cream walls, lending a sense of security, safety and a warm place of sanctuary to those readers seeking either information, shelter or both from the cold and bitter world outside. There was comfort as well as knowledge and adventure for all amongst the rows of bookshelves and in the quiet reading nooks.
The echo of approaching footsteps yanked her back to reality. Miss Whitmore, the head librarian, was doing her rounds, casting an eagle eye around her domain, checking all was well before the library locked its doors for the night.
“Sheila, it’s about time to start closing up. Have you shelved all the day’s returned books?” A sharp layer of condescension coated Miss Whitmore’s voice, rattling Sheila every time she heard it.
“Almost done, Miss Whitmore. Just a few more books to go.” Sheila avoided eye contact with her pernickety boss. She could feel the critical glare scanning her, assessing her worthiness as a potential library assistant. It was her third day on the job and she was still finding her footing.
Her boss, Miss Whitmore, was a spinster of indeterminate age with unbelievably rigid ideas. For her, the library was a temple of knowledge and within that holy edifice, she ruled supreme, enforcing strict silence. Anyone who broke the thick wall of silence would receive a gorgon’s stare. On the whole it worked perfectly well but if her glare failed to quell the disturbance, she would summon Mr Clarke, their burly cleaner, and instruct him to eject the troublemakers. Sheila had a deep love of books and was happy to share it with others. She felt lucky to have been given a job at the library, but she wondered how long she would last under the shadow of Miss Whitmore.
“Good,” she heard her boss saying. “When you’re done, ensure that any remaining readers make their way to the front doors. We wouldn’t want to imprison any of them in the library, now would we?” she went on in her patronising way.
“Yes, of course. Got it,” Sheila stammered, her voice edged with nervous energy.
Miss Whitmore looked over to where Mr Clarke was emptying the bins. “Look at him,” she said disparagingly. “I tried to get him sacked, you know?”
“What did he do?” Sheila followed the librarian’s gaze to where Mr Clarke was diligently working.
Her boss raised an eyebrow. “Who knows what he’s done? My request was denied; he’s part of a scheme to rehabilitate ex-cons. The council won’t let me fire him without due cause. Keep your eyes on him.” Before Sheila could respond, Miss Whitmore turned and walked away, her solid frame emphasising her status and her footsteps clicking importantly on the polished parquet flooring as they receded into the labyrinth of bookstacks. Sheila watched her go, her pulse quickening.
She glanced at Mr Clarke. He seemed so nice. He didn’t look like an ex-con. Forcing her eyes away, she continued to tidy the front desk in readiness for the next day, before hurrying to collect the day’s newspapers to take down to the archives in the basement. She felt a shiver roll down her spine at the headlines, but refused to read them. She had caught glimpses of the news, and it unsettled her—‘CROYDON RIPPER CLAIMS FIFTH VICTIM.’ Quickly, she filed the papers and tried to force the doom and gloom out of her mind.
Taking a deep breath, she refocused on her tasks. She dimmed the lights to let the readers know that the library was about to close. The disquieting sensation of unseen eyes following her every move refused to fade. In the darker corners of her mind, she feared who—or what—might be watching her, and what they might be planning.
As the hands of the library clock moved round to 8 o’clock, Sheila fetched her coat and scarf from the cloakroom and went to say ‘Goodnight’ to Miss Whitmore and Mr Clarke. She heaved open the great library door, drew a deep breath and stepped out into the thick darkness of night.
The cold autumn blasts of wind swirled around her, causing the rubbish-lined streets to dance and the few late shoppers to pull their buttoned-up coats even tighter around their bodies as they hurried home. Sheila began her solitary trek through the streets of Croydon. The towering concrete buildings loomed above her, a stark contrast to the thatched houses and lush gardens of her upbringing in the West Country. Here, the architecture was as unforgiving as the chill wind which funnelled through the brutalist structures, cutting through her inadequate coat.
Each day, another shop seemed to be boarded up. Each day, the walls of the underpasses bloomed with more and more vibrant graffiti. Seeing that her bus was already waiting at the bus- stop, Sheila stepped up her pace and began to run towards it. The last thing she wanted was to be left standing at an empty bus stop at that time of night. Just three stops but it was worth it. She jumped aboard the warm, brightly lit bus and fell gratefully into the nearest seat. Tonight was not a night to be loitering in the streets.
A band of punk rockers drifted by, their hair jutting out and stained in audacious shades of neon pink and radioactive green. They sneered at everyone they passed, yet Sheila thought she recognised a kindred fear in their eyes. Street vendors were still peddling their counterfeit attire and bootlegged cassette tapes, their desperation evident in their discounts, drawn on white cardboard with lurid colours.
Further down the road, a dishevelled man staggered out of a pub. He leant into a corner, and Sheila looked away grimacing at the sight of urine splashing against the soot covered bricks.
As the bus turned the corner, she spotted the flickering neon sign of an adult cinema. A trench-coated man lurked outside, his gaze fixed intently on something—or someone—across the street. Sheila shivered. She patted her coat, and a brief wave of relief flowed through her as she felt the comforting hardness of her steel paring knife. She looked at the chip shop, packed with sinister-looking individuals. Inside the cosy safety of the bus, she passed them all without incident and was soon able to ring the bell for her bus-stop.
She jumped off and walked briskly down the road. She exhaled deeply and with great relief as she rounded the bend and saw the welcome front door of the tall, rambling, red-brick Victorian building that was her temporary home while she worked her way up through the ranks at the library. She climbed the creaking stairs which led to her claustrophobic attic bedsit. Her formidable landlady, Mrs Brannigan, had a reputation for two things: never missing a Sunday church service and always knowing when her tenants were up to no good. Tonight, however, she was grateful for the woman’s watchful eye. It made her feel a fraction safer.
As she fumbled to put her keys away, she cast a final look over her shoulder. The TV was on as Mrs Brannigan kept her watch on the front door. When the next advertising break came on Mrs Brannigan would bring her up a cup of tea and a biscuit. This she did without fail. It was her sour-faced way of checking that you had come home at a reasonable hour and that you had come home alone.
Sheila’s room was oppressively cramped and shrouded in gloom, yet it offered her sanctuary from the outside world. She bolted the door and sank onto her worn-out mattress, letting out a long, shuddering breath. Safe now, she was enveloped in the familiar smell of second-hand books and surrounded by the creaking sounds of the ageing house below her as the wind tried to creep into its cracks and crevices.
A gnawing hunger gurgled in Sheila’s belly, but she dared not venture out again for chips, not with Croydon’s streets teeming with danger. She had an apple in her coat pocket left over from lunch. She carefully retrieved both it and her paring knife, slicing a piece off with the sharp blade and munching on it as she rummaged in her bedside cabinet. She found two pieces of shortbread and a square of chocolate to go with it. That would have to do until the morning when she could get tea and a bacon sandwich from Dean’s Bean, the cafe off the High Street. When she’d finished the apple, she wiped the blade with a tissue and placed it back in her inside coat pocket.
The wind howled as it tried to force its way under the roofing tiles. Sheila pulled the sheets tight around her as the cold air invaded her clothes. With undisguised relief, she heard the kettle whistle downstairs and awaited the heavy tread of her landlady.
The next day at the library, Sheila was standing at the main counter, working with quiet diligence, hoping to keep clear of Miss Whitmore’s hawk-like gaze.
Abruptly, a customer materialised before her, his pronounced forehead looming and made even more prominent by his rapidly receding hairline. She recognised the pair of unblinking, bead-like eyes that bored into her with a spine-chilling intensity. “Hello love, care to guide me to the microfiche.” There was an urgency in his voice. “I need the newspaper archive for these specific dates.” He thrust a hastily jotted list at her before casually wiping away the saliva from his thin lips.
“Of course, Mr Wallis,” Sheila replied, forcing a polite smile onto her face. “Allow me to lead the way.” She ushered him towards the microfiche, excusing herself to fetch the relevant reels.
She caught Miss Whitmore watching him, her lips tightly pursed.
Sheila nodded politely at her manager as she passed, hoping to avoid a conversation.
Her hopes were dashed when Miss Whitmore said to her, “He is a very noisy man, Sheila. Given the frequency of his visits, I’d have expected him to have learnt the proper decorum by now.”
“He certainly seems very passionate in his research,” Sheila agreed.
Miss Whitmore responded with a narrowing of her eyes, a clear indication that the conversation was over.
As Sheila returned with the microfiche, Mr Wallis launched into a conversation about the recent spate of murders. “It’s fascinating, isn’t it?” he said, his eyes gleaming with morbid curiosity. “The Croydon Ripper, they’re calling him. Five victims so far, all found in dark, isolated places. The papers call him a serial killer, but he isn’t, do you see? They just don’t get it.”
Sheila looked around nervously. “I wouldn’t know; it isn’t a subject I care to think about.”
Mr Wallis remained undeterred. “A serial killer adheres to a distinct pattern or modus operandi. Typically, the victims share a connection. This, however, is utterly random. The Croydon Ripper strikes on a whim, don’t you see?” He grasped her arm, leaning in with an intensity that made her skin crawl. “That’s what’s so brilliant. His methods are entirely unpredictable.”
Sheila felt a chill shiver run down her spine and she pulled back, freeing her arm from his grip. The familiar fear was growing in her once again. The fear that haunted her.
Mr Wallis seemed hell-bent on discussing the grisly details of the murders. She was trapped, unable to escape the gruesome conversation without seeming rude.
Just as she was starting to feel desperate, Sheila felt a firm hand on her shoulder. She turned to find Miss Whitmore standing behind her, her lips pressed into a thin line. “Sheila, I believe you have some work to attend to,” she said, her tone icy. “Mr Wallis, I’m sure you can find what you’re looking for from here.”
Mr Wallis blinked, looking taken aback, but the determined authoritarian’s stern gaze never wavered. With a nod, he turned away. “Yes, yes,” he said, his voice laced with disappointment as he continued to work the microfiche. Miss Whitmore kept her hand on Sheila’s shoulder, her gaze tracking Mr Wallis until he was out of earshot.
“Remember, Sheila,” she said, her voice rigid. “Deliver the information and then leave the reader to it. Our patrons are here to read, not to gossip. This is a library, not a public house.”
Sheila nodded, her cheeks warm. “Yes, Miss Whitmore. I understand.” Despite the stern reprimand, she was grateful for the intervention. Her boss gave her a further stern look, her eyes locking onto Sheila’s. “Oh, and Sheila, make sure you leave on time. Nights in Croydon are becoming more... unpredictable, don’t you think?”
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Sheila watched as her boss stalked away.
Left to her own devices once again, she returned to the desk and busied herself with her tasks. She couldn’t help but glance back at Mr Wallis, who was still absorbed in the microfiche, and scribbled furiously into a battered notepad. A shiver of unease rippled down her spine.
As the library’s closing time approached, Sheila found herself stealing glances at the windows, her heart pounding as each passing minute brought closing time and the threatening outside world closer to her. Finally, she heard the call that she’d been dreading.
“Sheila,” Miss Whitmore's sharp voice echoed through the library’s hush. “It’s time to close up.”
Sheila swallowed her nerves and approached the last customer. “Mr Wallis, it’s closing time. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
Mr Wallis looked up, annoyed at the interruption. “Not yet. Ten more minutes. I need more time.” Dismissing her, he returned to his work. “I just need to finish these notes.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Wallis,” Sheila said, trying to keep her voice steady. “We have to close. You’re welcome to return tomorrow.”
“Yes, yes. Ten more minutes. I’ll hurry.” Mr Wallis remained stubbornly in place. Sheila’s heart pounded in her chest as she returned to Miss Whitmore. “He won’t leave,” she whispered.
Miss Whitmore sighed, her brow furrowing with annoyance. “Very well,” she said, crossing the room to where Mr Clarke was finishing his cleaning duties. “Mr Clarke, your assistance is required.”
Mr Clarke looked up, his eyes flicking to Sheila before they landed on Miss Whitmore. “What do you need?”
“Mr Wallis is refusing to leave,” Miss Whitmore said. “Kindly remove him from the premises.”
Mr Clarke nodded, rolling his muscular shoulders as he approached Mr Wallis. The cleaner towered over the hunched figure. “Sir.” His deep voice echoed in the quiet room. “You need to leave.”
Mr Wallis glanced up at Mr Clarke, locking eyes with him. For a moment, Sheila thought he would refuse again, but after a tense moment, he sighed and gathered his notes. He shot Sheila a venomous glare that made her shiver, then shambled towards the exit, Mr Clarke following closely behind him.
Miss Whitmore watched the scene unfold, her arms crossed over her chest. “Sheila,” she said, turning to the shaken girl. “I have an appointment to attend. Mr Clarke will be locking up. Please, keep an eye on him.”
Sheila’s heart dropped. “But Miss Whitmore,” she stuttered, her mind racing with thoughts of the recent murders. “It’s already late and… I have a bus to catch.”
Miss Whitmore cut her off with a stern look. “We all have our duties, Sheila,” she sniffed. “You’ll be fine. Just wait until he locks the doors and then go straight home.”
With that, Miss Whitmore swept out of the library, leaving a terrified Sheila behind.
Her hands were trembling as she watched Mr Clarke lock the library doors. The street outside was dark, half the streetlights were broken, shrouding the pavement in darkness. Revellers were already loud and raucous as they made their way to the pubs, a tribute to the enthusiasm of their pre-drinking.
She clutched her coat tightly, her hand reaching into her pocket to grip the familiar comfort of her paring knife. She took a deep breath, bolstering her courage.
She jumped, letting out a gasp as she did so. Eyes wide, she saw Mr Clarke.
“I overheard you saying that you were worried about walking home in the dark. I’ll make sure you get back okay, if you would like me to?”
Sheila looked at him suspiciously.
What was he imprisoned for? Murder? Theft?… Rape?
“I’ll be okay. I don’t want to be a bother.” She smiled awkwardly and turned away shyly.
He matched her stride as she walked away towards the bus-stop and home.
“It’s no bother, I insist.”
He insists? Oh no.
Sheila didn’t say anything. She looked around for an escape as they walked down the high street. She could hear his breathing next to her. She glanced at him. His muscles seemed to swell in the dark, his form grew taller. She blinked.
It is all in my imagination. He is just being a gentleman.
As they continued walking, the panic rose within her. Her mind whispered, warning her of his dark intentions.
You can’t stop him. He is too powerful.
Once a convict, always a convict.
It’s too late, you’ll never make it to your front door.
She saw an alley on the right-hand side. It was dark and secluded. She suddenly ducked and ran into it, straight into a dead end. She shrank into the shadows beside a Biffa bin and shook with terror as she heard his measured tread approaching her.
“Sheila, are you alright? What’s wrong?” Was he feigning confusion?
Taking a deep breath, she stepped out. “I’m so sorry. I was just being silly. You must think me awfully daft.”
He looked at her, seemingly bemused. “Ah, no it’s okay, I was just worried.”
She painted a smile onto her face. Her eyes locked onto his as she stepped closer.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Her hand shot out and she plunged her paring knife into his chest. Tears pricked at her eyes as she stabbed in a frenzy, the blade easily cutting through the cheap cloth of his shirt.
He cried out at this unexpected betrayal. One of his huge hands gripped her knife hand and she panicked as she looked at him in shock. “Wha?–” he coughed and blood foamed from his lips.
Sheila didn’t hear his next words as he slumped to the pavement beside the Biffa bin. She wiped the paring knife clean. She would have to dispose of it along with her clothes. The fear that had nearly overwhelmed her dissipated, if only temporarily. Tears of relief ran down her cheeks.
This was the sixth time that she’d had to defend herself.
It was getting too dangerous in Croydon. Soon she would have to move on again.
If you enjoyed this free short story, then please consider Tales of the Macabre, Vol. 1. My first collected works on Amazon containing sixteen short stories and novellas by Newton Webb.