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It has been argued by those who have so far flattered my attempts to chronicle the life and career of Mr. Sherlock Holmesas to approach them in a scholarly manner that I have often been remiss in the arena of precise chronology. While nodding to kindly meant excuses made for me in regards to hasty handwriting or careless literary agents, I must begin by confessing that my errors, however egregious, were entirely intentional. Holmes' s insistence, not to mention my own natural discretion, often prevented me from maintaining that exactitude so highly prized in a biographer; I have been forced to change the dates of marginal cases to disguise great ones, alter names and circumstances, all the while diligently preserving the core truth of the events, without which there would have been no object in writing anything at all. In this instance, however, any obfuscation would be absurd, as the facts are known not only to the people of London but to the world. I shall therefore set down the entire truth, as it happened to Holmesand to myself, omitting nothing that pertains to the most harrowing series of crimes my illustrious friend and I were ever called upon to solve.
The year of 1888 had already proven significant for Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for it was in that twelvemonth that he performed valuable services for one of the reigning houses of Europe and continued forestalling the activities of Professor James Moriarty, whose hold over London's underworld grew ever more apparent to my friend. Several highly publicized investigations that year displayed Holmes' s remarkable skills to the public, including the appalling affair of the faulty oil lamp, and the matter of Mrs. Victoria Mendosa's mysteriously vanishing thimble and its consequences. My friend's talents, which had once languished in obscure specialism, in that year flamed into the most gratifying notoriety.
Despite the busyness that accompanied Holmes's ever-increasing reputation for omniscience, we found ourselves at home on that evening in early August, the day after Bank Holiday, Holmesperforming chemical analyses of an American snake venom which had recently proven itself a nearly untraceable poison, and I engaged in a perusal of the day's papers. To my delight, the skies above the buildings burned with that most elusive of all elements, the London sun, and a brisk breeze fluttered about the windows (one of which I'd opened as a safeguard against Holmes' s chemical efforts), when an item in the late edition of the Star caught my eye.
"I cannot begin to understand," I said to no one in particular, "what could drive a murderer to such total desecration of the human body."
Holmes, without looking up from his work, remarked, "An argument could be made that the ultimate desecration of the human body is to end its earthly usefulness, which would imply that all murderers share equally that specific charge."
"This is rather beyond the pale. It states here that some poor woman, as yet unidentified, was found stabbed to death in Whitechapel."
"A deplorable, though hardly baffling occurrence. I imagine that she worked the area for food, drink, and daily shelter. Such pitiable unfortunates are particularly likely to inspire crimes of passion in the men with whom they associate."
"She was stabbed twenty times, Holmes."
"And your unassailable medical assessment is that once would have been enough."
"Well, yes," I faltered. "Apparently the villain continued to slash at her long after she was dead, or so the pattern of blood indicates."
The detective smiled. "You are a gentleman of the most sympathetic character, my dear Watson. While you would possibly for I have seen you do it condone a crime of passion committed in the throes of despair or of vengeance, you can see nothing permissible about such morbid abuse."
"I suppose that expresses it."
"I confess I cannot imagine myself in such a rage as to batter my victim beyond all sense either," he admitted. "Is there anything further?"
"The police know nothing yet."
Holmes sighed and pushed aside his scientific materials. "Would you and I had the power to make all of London safe, my good man, but for the moment, let us leave our musings upon the depths to which our fellow citizens can sink and instead explore whether or not we have time to make a seven-thirty curtain for Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E Minor at the Royal Albert Hall. My attention was directed to the second-chair cellist by my brother Mycroft, and I should be grateful for your company while I observe the gentleman in his natural habitat."
It took Sherlock Holmesexactly five days to complete the affair of the second cellist, and once concluded, my friend had the thanks of the premier branches of the British government, of which his brother Mycroft was a pivotal member. My own knowledge of Mycroft Holmes' s exalted occupation was at that time a closely kept secret, for he occasionally engaged his brother upon nationally vital inquiries about which neither Sherlock Holmes nor I ought to have had the slightest inkling. I regret to say, however, that when nothing but the most pedestrian of wrongdoing took place in the following weeks, my friend lapsed into that melancholy torpor which made my own life, not to mention that of our landlady, Mrs. Hudson, taxing in the extreme. Holmesever maintained the opinion that we should abandon him entirely when such a fit was upon him, but as a medical man, I dreaded the sight of his tiny, impeccably kept hypodermic syringe and that momentous stop at the chemist's which promised that my friend would commence to ruin himself for a matter of days or weeks if I did not take any steps to circumvent him. In vain I scanned the papers, and in vain I attempted to convince Holmesthat a woman ought not to be stabbed so very many times, Whitechapel or no. At length I found myself longing, fleetingly and against the dictates of my conscience, for the advent of some sensational misfortune.
I rose early that fateful Saturday, the morning of September the first, and as I sat smoking a pipe after breakfast, Holmes strode into the sitting room, fully dressed and in the process of reading the Daily News. The warmth of his pale complexion announced he had been out, and I noted with relief that his keen gaze betrayed no glimmer of the drug I had come to despise. His chiseled brow furrowed in concentration, he laid the open paper on our dining table and within moments had opened seven or eight other editions to which we subscribed, quickly locating the same story in each and then draping the paper over an article of furniture.
"Good morning, Holmes," I remarked, just as our sitting room seemed in danger of disappearing under the crackling storm of newsprint.
"I've been out," he replied.
"Yes," I returned dryly.
"I hope you have already broken your fast this morning, Watson."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"It appears that the defilement of corpses is a growing industry in Whitechapel. They've found another one, my dear fellow. Abdomen apparently slashed after she was murdered."
"What was the cause of death, then?"
"Her neck was nearly severed."
"Good heavens. Where was she found?"
"In Buck's Row, it seems, which arrested my interest immediately. I imagined the other matter a bizarre aberration, but here is another on its heels."
"The first was bad enough."
"That girl's name was Martha Tabram, and the early report had it wrong: she was stabbed a grand total of thirty-nine times," he stated dispassionately. "Yesterday morning's victim, whose name was apparently Mary Ann Nichols, by all accounts was partially eviscerated."
"Dare I hope you shall look into the matter?" I asked.
"It is hardly within my purview to do so when no one has consul "
At that moment, Mrs. Hudson entered and surveyed our newly adorned furnishings with silent cynicism. Our landlady was not in the best of spirits, for Holmes in his devil-may-care humour had used the berry spoon to dissolve chemical elements over his burner, and the disagreement this activity had caused had not yet resolved itself to her satisfaction.
"Gentlemen to see you," she said from the doorway. "Inspector Lestrade and one other. Will you be requiring aught from my cupboards, Mr. Holmes, or have you everything you need?"
"Ha!" Holmes exclaimed. "Lestrade occasionally evinces the most impeccable timing. Indeed no, Mrs. Hudson, I've sufficient cutlery for my purposes. I shall ring if I want anything in the way of a pickle fork. Do show up the inspector, if you will."
With studied dignity, Mrs. Hudson exited. A few moments later Inspector Lestrade and an associate entered the room. Holmesoften had occasion to bemoan the intellect of our hatchet-visaged friend, the lean and dapper little inspector, but Lestrade's diligence commanded our respect even when his utter lack of imagination strained the independent investigator's nerves. On this occasion, Lestrade looked as rumpled and anxious as I had ever seen him. His companion was dressed in dark tweeds, his beard modestly trimmed beneath a more impressive moustache; he had a pale, retiring aspect, and his eyes darted shyly between Holmesand myself.
My friend took them in at a glance. "How are you, Lestrade? We should be delighted to offer you both coffee, or something stronger if required. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Doctor...?"
"Llewellyn. At your service, sir," our visitor replied with evident disquiet.
"Dr. Llewellyn, I assure you I am at yours. You will excuse my use of your prefix you have recently sustained some slight injury to your right hand, and the way in which the dressing is fastened leads me to believe it was secured entirely by the aid of your own left appendage. And yet, the cloth is not of a variety to be found outside a medical facility. I should be shocked to learn our local surgeons have grown so slovenly as to require a gentleman to secure his own bandages."
"You are correct on all counts, sir how very extraordinary."
Holmes nodded briefly. "This is my friend and colleague Dr. Watson."
"I am glad to meet you. I am glad to meet anyone willing to get to the bottom of this horrid affair."
Holmes waved Lestrade and our nervous new acquaintance to their seats, the backs of the furnishings still entirely wreathed with newsprint. My friend then threw himself into his own armchair.
"You are here about Buck's Row, I imagine," he remarked. "You were knocked up yesterday, Dr. Llewellyn?"
"My surgery is at one fifty-two Whitechapel Road, some few minutes' distance," he acknowledged. "I was summoned at slightly before four yesterday morning. I completed a postmortem examination just now."
"One moment, if you please. Lestrade, while I am delighted to see you, as ever, why in God's name have you waited an entire day to consult me?"
"I've only just been reassigned two hours ago!" Lestrade protested. "Inspector Spratling began it, then Helson. I wasted no time in bringing Dr. Llewellyn round."
"My abject apologies, Inspector." Holmessmiled. "Your haste was not lax; it was unprecedented."
"No more unprecedented than the corpse. If you had seen what I did at the morgue this morning, what Dr. Llewellyn here saw yesterday..." Lestrade shook his head. "Your methods may be unconventional, but we need an end to this case as quick as is possible. There's something about it that's very queer, Mr. Holmes, and correct me if I've the wrong end of the stick, but that's where you tend to come in."
Holmes settled back in his chair, half closing his eyes. "Very well, then. The story, as it happened to you, Dr. Llewellyn."
"Well, Mr. Holmes," Dr. Llewellyn began hesitantly, "as I have said, I hold a medical practice in Whitechapel Road which I obtained after I finished my studies at the University of London. That main thoroughfare is quite respectable, and to a great extent, the same ailments parade across my consulting room from day to day influenza, rheumatism, agues the most peaceful of maladies. However, living in London's East-end as I do, I occasionally find my work to be of a more unsettling nature. A regular patient of mine once burst into my offices with a nasty knife wound, as he'd forgotten himself and wandered into a corner where some roughs thought his pocketbook worth trying for. I suppose that the immediate proximity of the slums would be all too obvious if I ever had cause to treat any of my poorest neighbours, but I fear they haven't the means. In the case of disease, they consult quack street doctors for penny compendia of gin or of laudanum. And in the case of injury, as their wounds were often got through misadventure, many deem it safer to suffer in anonymity than to risk dealing with police.
"That terrible murder in George Yard Buildings three weeks ago left a strong impression on my mind. We all were shocked by the ferocity of it. I cannot convey to you my horror at what I was called upon to witness yesterday."
Holmes held up a cautionary hand. "Please," said he, "everything just as you saw it."
"Buck's Row is one of those sordid pitch-black byways of which Whitechapel boasts so many once the main road is abandoned. The body was situated at the entrance to a stable yard beneath a decrepit gateway. I saw nothing out of the ordinary save the body, but the inspector may have more to say on that subject."
"I wish I did," sighed Lestrade. "As you say, the body was the only thing out of the ordinary, as it were."
"And the body?" prompted Holmes.
"Something over thirty years of age," said Dr. Llewellyn, mopping his brow with a handkerchief. "She had brown hair and was missing several of her front teeth, but that characteristic did not seem to be a recent development. Nearly all of her was still warm, save her extremities. Her throat was savagely slashed two times. She may as well have been decapitated. Apart from her throat, I found her upper body to be completely intact, but the lower she was ripped apart, Mr. Holmes. Her skirts were raised up to reveal the torso, and savage cuts penetrated her lower abdomen, exposing the internal organs."
I regarded the doctor with dismay, but for Holmes, shock remained secondary to professional absorption. "Her chest was unharmed, you say? Surely her garments, at least, were soiled with blood?"
"She was wearing a brown frock, and I assure you it was entirely free of stain."
"If that is the case, she was prostrate before the wound to her neck was administered. Where is she now, Lestrade?"
"At the morgue. Name of Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols, identified by a friend from Lambeth Workhouse who calls herself Mary Ann Monk. Mark of the workhouse was on the petticoats, which led us to seek identification there. Shabby clothing, black bonnet, and she had on her person a comb, pocket handkerchief, and a piece of mirror. Morethan likely it's all she had to her name."
"What do you imagine the time of death to have been, Dr. Llewellyn?"
"I arrived at three fifty a.m. She could not have been dead more than ten minutes."
"And the gruesome discovery was made by whom?"
"One Charles Cross, a carman on his way to work," said Lestrade as he consulted his notes. "In my opinion, he's merely a passerby. Poor chap was terrified. Constable Neil arrived on the scene shortly after and sent for Dr. Llewellyn here, hoping to save her. It was too late by that time, of course."
We sat silent as the wind picked up. I wondered briefly whether Polly Nichols's family knew of her hideous fate, and then whether she had any family to tell.
"Lestrade," Holmessaid finally, "has the force had any luck in clearing up the murder of Martha Tabram early this month?"
Lestrade shook his head perplexedly. "The inquest has just been reopened. I was not myself working on the case, but we're all of the mind it was a tryst gone terribly wrong. Good Lord, Mr. Holmes, you don't think these events could have been connected in any way?"
"No, certainly not. I've merely the professional certainty that two such outrageous crimes committed ten minutes' walk apart from each other is remarkable enough to note."
Dr. Llewellyn rose and reached for his hat. "I am very sorry I have not more to tell you gentlemen. I'm afraid I must return to my practice, as my patients will be wondering what has become of me."
"Be so good as to leave your card, Dr. Llewellyn," said Holmes, shaking his hand absently.
"Of course. The best of luck to all of you. Do let me know if I can be of any further assistance."
After Dr. Llewellyn's departure, Lestrade turned a grave face to Holmes.
"I don't like your harping on Martha Tabram one bit, Mr. Holmes. Surely the same man couldn't have fallen out with both these women? More likely Polly Nichols was killed by a jealous lover, or a gang, or one of her clients who'd fallen into a drunken rage."
"You are probably right. However, I beg that you will humour me far enough to fill me in on the details of both crimes."
Lestrade shrugged. "If Tabram is of interest to you, of course I've no objection. It shouldn't be difficult for me to gather up the papers. I can have them for you this afternoon."
"I shall cast an eye over the evidence immediately."
"You have full access, Mr. Holmes just mention my name at the morgue or at the crime scene. I shall see you both at the Yard." The inspector nodded and made his way out.
My friend crossed to the mantelpiece, shook a cigar out of an empty bud vase, and commenced smoking with the deepest absorption. "This Tabram murder is a very curious affair," he commented.
"You mean the Nichols murder?"
"I mean precisely what I say."
"You thought little enough of it before, Holmes."
"I expected every morning to read that they'd solved it. Men do not often stab helpless females thirty-nine times and then disappear into the ether. The motive behind such an outrageous act would necessarily be sensational."
"And such women necessarily have a great many associates, most of them untraceable," I pointed out.
"That is obvious," he retorted. "It is also obvious that the district of Whitechapel offers a great many natural advantages to the predator. Once the sun has fallen, you can hardly see your hand before your face, and the slaughterhouses allow blood-spattered men to pass without remark. What is less obvious is whether we have anything to fear from the proximity, in place and in time, of the two deaths."
"It is certainly a distressing coincidence."
Holmes shook his head and reached for his walking stick.
"One viciously maimed corpse is distressing. Two is something else entirely. I fear we have not a moment to lose."
Copyright © 2009 by Lyndsay Faye