IN THIS EPISODE: …Inspector Dennis ponders the case and gets an unexpected visit…
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CHAPTER 21 – The Hunters & the Huntress
Inspector Harry Dennis – London
The Day of the New Moon
“I don’t care what the papers say,” Sergeant Hoey opined, “the methods in these three sets of murders are nothing alike. Nothing at all.”
“I certainly hope you’re wrong, Sergeant,” said Inspector Dennis, sitting slumped behind his desk at police headquarters. “Because if you’re not, then we’ve got at least two raving maniacs on our hands, rather than just one—and one is plenty for me and this department, thank you very much.” Harry Dennis spoke the words with brave certainty, but in his heart, he feared his sergeant could be right.
“I’ll give you that the murders of these two women and the men on the docks are spectacular,” Hoey continued, “but that’s where the similarities end. For instance, the men’s throats were torn out, and some of those blokes were literally ripped apart.
“And while I will admit that both of these unfortunate women died from neck wounds as well, in each case, those wounds were caused by a single slice of the blade. It’s merely the excessive amounts of blood at the trio of scenes that makes the crimes appear at all similar. Only newspapermen—and not very good ones at that—would conflate these last two murders with the first ones.
“If you want my opinion, Inspector, they’re more interested in selling papers and drumming up panic than in helping to solve these crimes.” Hoey bobbed his head in a quick nod, as if punctuating his theory with a definitive full-stop.
It wasn’t even noon yet, and already a headache had started to build behind Dennis’ eyes. “You’re right about the newspapers,” he said. “Every time some poor girl gets slaughtered, the tabloids declare that a new Jack the Ripper is on the loose. You’d almost think they want these killings to continue.”
“Blood baths are good for newspaper sales, sir.”
“I’m sure they are, Sergeant. Not very good for the police department, though—or our public relations. The commissioner is already breathing down my neck about all this, and the tabloids will only make it worse.”
“Sorry, sir. Me and the boys are doing the best we can.”
“I know you are, Sergeant,” Dennis said. “But the bloody reporters are still camped outside of every precinct house from here to the West End.”
“Newspaper men!” Hoey complained. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t arrest the lot of ’em.”
Despite his headache, Dennis chuckled. “Though God knows I often wish that we could.”
He shuffled some papers around on his cluttered desktop before finding the one he was looking for. He glanced at it, then flipped it back onto the pile and rubbed his temples.
“As to your theory, Sergeant Hoey… It seems that the coroner agrees with your conclusions. This latest victim, Miss Angela Court, died of a single, clean wound to the throat—same as the previous victim—and though she was found nude, there is no indication that she was interfered with in any way.”
“Aside from the throat-cutting, you mean,” Hoey put in.
“Yes, well, obviously. What do you think that might indicate, Sergeant?”
“That it’s not a sex crime, sir. Nor was the other one, Miss Miller.”
Dennis rifled through his papers again. “Yes… Piper Miller, a young lady of similar age, though no other apparent connection, meeting a similar tragic end.”
“One was a whore and the other a model,” Hoey noted. “Me missus considers the two to be very similar—both women of low morals, as it were. ‘Whores, models, and actresses… they’re all a bad lot,’ she says. The fact that Miss Court were found slumped over a chair in a state of total undress might seem to confirm my wife’s hypothesis.”
“Yes, I suppose there could be something there. I wonder if we dug deeper into the two women’s backgrounds whether we’d find some similar connection. Perhaps the Miller girl modeled at one time…”
“Or perhaps the Court girl were a whore.”
“I suppose it’s possible, though preliminary reports did seem to indicate that she was a respected model working her way up in the fashion world.”
“Maybe working her way up a bit too quickly, if you catch my meaning.”
“Are you suggesting that she might have been killed by a jealous rival, Sergeant?”
“Such things do happen, sir.”
Dennis shook his head, which only made it ache more. “No, that doesn’t make sense. If it was a rival—either professional or business—why would she have been nude? I don’t take my clothes off for a rival.”
“I certainly hope not, sir!”
“Whom might I… I mean might one… undress for?” the detective inspector mused.
“A paying customer, sir,” Hoey suggested. Then, as if a light came on in his brain: “Or a lover!”
“Indeed. Perhaps we can connect these girls through a mutual liaison. A former lover might return into one’s life without arousing suspicion. Both women appear to have been slain very quickly, as if taken by surprise—as if they trusted the person who killed them.”
“And a spurned lover might just suddenly appear to settle an old score,” Hoey elaborated. “He comes in all nice and friendly like, and then…” He slashed his index finger across his throat as though the digit were a knife.
“Yes,” Dennis agreed. “The single cut on both victims tends to indicate calculation, rather than a crime of passion—as does the lack of other evidence at both scenes.”
“And the fact that both killings took place at the victims’ flats indicates that they knew the killer, sir, as well as trusted him.”
“Killer or killers, Sergeant. We still haven’t ruled out that there could be separate murderers in each case.”
Hoey took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead, though it wasn’t excessively warm in Dennis’ office. “Three killers, sir? Won’t the tabloids have a field day with that?!”
“Which is why we’re not going to suggest it to them, Sergeant. Let them keep chasing their stories down the ‘single maniac’ rabbit hole. It may give the perpetrators, whether two or three, a false sense of security. With luck, that might be enough for us to trip them up.”
“Let us hope, sir. We could use a good break on these cases.”
A knock sounded at Dennis’ door, and the police receptionist’s face poked in.
“Someone to see you, Inspector,” she said.
“I’m busy right now, Doris,” Dennis replied.
“Says she wants to talk to someone about the murders on the dock,” Doris continued.
“Get someone else to take her statement, then. The sergeant and I are trying to sort through some leads.”
“But it’s a Lady, sir.”
Dennis’ headache throbbed. “I don’t give a whit about her gender, Doris…”
“No, I mean a Lady, sir—with a capital ‘L’—Lady Kathryn Ashton, from Lancashire.”
“All the way from Lancashire?” Hoey asked. “What’s she doing down here in London?”
“I couldn’t say, Sergeant,” Doris replied. “She said she had to talk to someone urgently—about those slayings at the docks, two weeks back.”
Inspector Dennis rubbed his temples harder. God help them all if members of the peerage started taking an interest in these cases! Still, he couldn’t very well turn a titled woman away; doing so might cause… repercussions.
“Show her in, Doris.”
Harry Dennis wasn’t exactly sure what he’d expected Lady Ashton from Lancashire to look like—a grey-haired busybody matron, probably—but the woman who stepped through his office door a few moments later didn’t fit his expectations in any way.
She was tall and sinewy with a tanned, angular face and flashing blue eyes, which instantly seemed to take in everything in the office, including Sergeant Hoey, slouched in a chair, and the considerable clutter on Dennis’ desk. The inspector estimated she was in her mid-twenties; not a doddering matron in any way.
The young Lady Ashton wore tan slacks, a white silk blouse with the sleeves rolled up, and tan driving gloves. Her dirty blond hair she kept tied in a ponytail, which draped down just past her shoulders. Her stern expression stated plainly that here was a woman who put up with very little nonsense.
Hoey stood quickly as she entered, knocking over his chair; Dennis rose with considerably more dignity.
“Lady Ashton,” he said, extending his hand.
She shook it with a firm grip. “I understand that you’re the man in charge of the ‘Dockside Ripper Slayings,’ as the papers are calling them, that your rank is Detective Inspector, and that your name is Harrison Dennis.”
“You understand correctly. But most people call me ‘Harry.’”
“Perhaps—as our relationship progresses, assuming it does,” she replied.
“And this is my sergeant, Bruce Hoey,” Dennis said.
Hoey bowed slightly. “Pleased to meet you, milady.”
“How can I help you today, Lady Ashton?” Dennis asked.
“I’ve read in the papers that the dockside slayings were committed by the same fiend that perpetrated two more recent killings,” she said. “I can assure you that they were not.”
“Oh?” said Dennis, suddenly interested.
“And how would you be knowing that, milady?” Hoey asked.
“Because I have been tracking this man since he slew my sister, Nina, two and a half months ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Dennis put in, so taken by surprise that he wasn’t sure what else to say.
“I assume that he is a man, though I have no actual proof,” Lady Ashton continued, “because it seems unlikely to me that a woman could, or would, commit an attack of such ferocity.”
“I remember hearing about that incident, sir,” Hoey offered. “It even made the London papers: ‘Young Lady Ashton killed in the woods by an animal.’”
“I recall that now as well, Sergeant.”
“It was no animal, I assure you,” Lady Ashton insisted. “I’ve hunted all my life—first picked up a rifle when I was four—and there are no wild beasts in England that could perpetrate this type of mauling. No, it takes a human animal to cause such depraved carnage. You did not see the state of my sister’s body, but if what I’ve read in the papers of the dock massacre is even half true, it would seem to match the butchery done to my younger sibling.”
“I’m… terribly sorry to hear that,” Dennis replied.
Lady Ashton took a cigarillo out of her breast pocket and put it to her lips. She brought out a lighter, struck it, and then paused. “I beg your pardon,” she said. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Go right ahead,” said Dennis, still a bit nonplussed. Usually, he didn’t like smoking in his office—having had a terrible time giving up the habit after the war—but this brash and forward woman was like no Lady he’d ever met before; he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her.
She took a few puffs on her slender cigar. “As I was saying… Since my sister’s death, I have spent considerable time and resources trying to ferret out the perpetrator of this dastardly crime. To date, I have not found him.
“I have, however, traced what I believe is his progress across Europe as well as through England itself. His murderous spree has continued for at least the last six months, and possibly extends even longer than that. I did not look any further back because I am far more concerned with the slayings he may yet commit, rather than those he has committed previously.”
“You’re telling me that this man killed not only your sister, but also those men on the docks?” Dennis asked.
“Yes, and numerous others, as well, including—ironically—a butcher in Hamburg and a stone-cutter in Derbyshire. All those and more fit this maniac’s pattern. But these two recent slayings touted by the newspapers do not.”
“And what pattern would that be, your ladyship?” Dennis asked.
“Ah,” she said. “I suppose that since you did not know of these other cases, you haven’t yet detected the connecting thread. Am I right, Inspector?”
“We may know more than we’ve let on,” he said, “but humor us. Pretend we know nothing about any of these cases you’ve mentioned.” At the moment, such a supposition didn’t seem terribly far from the truth to Dennis. Right now, he felt like a fish out of water. Could these cases be much deeper than he and Hoey had supposed?
“Why, the dockside killings and the others I mentioned—including that of my sister—have taken place during the three days of the full moon,” Lady Ashton proclaimed.
“What?” responded Dennis, shocked once again.
“I thought there was only one day of the full moon,” Hoey said.
Lady Ashton blew a smoke ring. “The days before and after that single day are near enough to full for the human eye,” she explained. “And apparently near enough for our killer to fulfill his fiendish lust for blood.”
“So, you’re telling me that you believe that this man, whoever he is, is an actual lunatic,” Dennis said, “someone driven wild by the full moon? I hope you won’t be offended if that seems a little farfetched to me, Lady Ashton.”
“Farfetched or not, it does fit the pattern of the murders, which is why you need to find this maniac as quickly as possible. In a mere two weeks, the moon will be full, and he will kill again, mark my words. Ten weeks ago, it was my sister; a month after that, the stonecutter; two weeks ago, those men on the docks—and before those unfortunates, the butcher and who knows how many more? It’s possible there could be others we don’t know about, too, perhaps one victim for each of the three nights of the full moon… Though I pray to God that one slaying per cycle is enough to sate this fiend’s perverse bloodlust. We can’t be sure without digging much deeper, but in any case, we need to track this monster down before he can do any more harm.”
“That’s quite a theory, milady,” Hoey said.
“Excuse me,” Dennis put in, “but did you say ‘we’ need to track this man down?”
“Indeed, I did, Inspector. Because if you and your force will not root out this maniac, I am determined to do so myself.
“I have brought my rifle and my other hunting equipment to London with me. I am going to find the person who killed my sister and put that gun to good use.”
Dennis stood, anger coursing through his veins. How dare this woman, whatever her title, suggest such vigilantism?!
“Not in my city, you won’t!” he barked. “The police—and the courts—take a dim view of people, even Lords and Ladies, taking the law into their own hands.”
“I’m aware of that, Inspector,” Lady Ashton said, looking for an ashtray to stub her cigarillo out in. Finding none, she snuffed it between two leather-gloved fingers. “That’s why I have come to you first, in hopes that we might work together.”
“My superintendent frowns upon collaborations with civilians,” Dennis said, trying not to let his temper show any more than it already had. “We thank you for your information, though.”
“And we hope that you will come to us with any further information, rather than doing anything rash on your own,” Hoey added stiffly.
Lady Ashton regarded them both, her blue eyes steely with determination. “I hope that you catch this fiend, gentlemen,” she said. “But I will see justice done, one way or the other.”
With that, she turned and swept out of the office without so much as a “goodbye.”
Hoey shut the door behind her and let out a long sigh.
Dennis shook his aching head. “Just what we need: a titled kook thrown into the mix!”
TO BE CONTINUED…
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