Note: This story is largely based on historical fact. One of America's first serial killers was active in Austin, TX, from 1884 to 1885. The 'Servant Girl Annihilator', as he was dubbed by the press, was never caught. The mystery remains officially unsolved.
Chapter One: Murder Most Foul
"Murder most foul, as in the best it is,/But this most foul, strange, and unnatural."
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet -- Act I, Scene V
New Year's Eve, 1884, 12:31 a.m. -- Austin, TX:
Rider Haggard is not what anyone would call literature, but with three inches of snow on the ground outside and more falling from the leaden skies above, it's certainly an enjoyable book to sit with in front of the fire. The coffee - slightly strengthened with whiskey - that I've been sipping for the better part of the last hour merely adds to the pleasure of the evening.
Tomorrow night I'll have to brave the weather to attend the spate of New Year's parties to which I've been invited, but this evening is my own to do with what I will, and I have no wish to be out in the snow. The better part of a century spent in the South has made me soft, so far as cold is concerned. No-one who could see me now, feet towards a roaring fire and with a velvet dressing gown on over my clothing, would believe that I spent ten years captaining a Viking ship in the North Atlantic and points colder, even if they did know me for an Immortal.
Not wanting to be known for an Immortal is the main reason that, when I returned to the South, I chose Austin as my destination rather than Louisiana. I will also confess to the particular cowardice of not wanting to see the damage wrought by the War upon a home that I adopted whole-heartedly as my own. It was a way of life that will never be again, and perhaps the world is the better for the finality of that loss, no matter how much I may personally regret it. I certainly cannot argue otherwise.
Returning to my book with a sigh -- I am glad to be back in the South, but sometimes it provokes a melancholy all of its own -- I am prevented from finding my place by shouts of alarm from outside. Through the window I can see flickering torchlight, which is highly unusual at twelve thirty in the morning. Putting the book aside, I cross the room to look out through the glass.
The source of the commotion is Major Hill's house, immediately next to mine. The side-door is open, light spilling from within, and the Major -- his rank having of course been bestowed upon him by the Confederacy -- is out in the yard in his dressing-gown, a torch in one hand and his service revolver clasped firmly in the other. His Negro servant Walter is next to him, carrying a torch of his own; his other hand is occupied in holding what looks like a bandage firmly to his head. There is a dark trail across the snow that looks unpleasantly familiar. Taking hold of the frame, I push open the window.
"Major Hill! Sir, may I offer my assistance?" The Major turns in my direction, lifting his torch in what is sure to be a futile attempt to see me more clearly.
"McCormick? That you?"
"Then yes, come down here. Bring your pistol -- and send your boy for the Marshal, too. Someone's gone and attacked my servants, damn it all!"
My pistol, like the Major's, is a souvenir of the War. It's a matter of moments to remove it from the top drawer of my desk and pull on a pair of boots. Before descending the stairs, I pause to knock loudly on Josiah's door. He appears after a very few minutes, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
"Mr. Matthew?" he asks. At forty he looks ten years my senior, though when I hired him a dozen years ago we appeared to be of an age. He's never said a word about it to me or to anyone else, and I've never checked his wrists for tattoos. "What's going on?"
"Someone apparently attacked the Major's servants. He's out in his yard with a bleeding Walter and a service revolver I doubt he's cleaned since the War ended, determined to track the culprit down. He's got a nasty blood trail to help him, too."
Josiah absorbs all of this without apparent emotion. "D'you want me to run for the Marshal, then, Mr. Matthew?"
"I certainly do; and for Dr. Hillard as well. I am going to go and ensure that the Major does not attempt to actually fire his pistol." As I turn to go down the stairs, Josiah is already slipping his feet into the boots that he keeps by the door to his room.
It is absolutely freezing outside, and the wind whipping yet more snow through the air only makes things worse. The Major, a short, dignified man whose hair and mustaches are more grey than black but whose eyes are as fierce a blue as ever, meets me at the property line. The aforementioned mustaches are practically bristling with indignation.
"It is absolutely unbelievable," he proclaims, as we head back towards the blood trail outside his kitchen door. The Major rarely just talks. "I was sound asleep when Walter here woke me up. He was absolutely dripping blood; it's all over their room, and Mollie is missing." Walter looks dazed, as if he's not entirely sure what's going on. The cloth he's got pressed to his head looks like it might have been a shirt once. Now it's a blood-stained rag, the white almost entirely turned to crimson. Head wounds bleed profusely, it's true, but in combination with those glazed dark eyes, it's pretty clear that Walter shouldn't be walking around. When I get a good look at the blood trail, it only strengthens my opinion on the subject. Walter is Mollie's common-law husband, and if she's at the other end of this trail he should be spared the horror of coming upon her corpse.
"Major, if you don't mind, I'd like to send Walter back to the house." To do him credit, the man understands what I'm driving at almost immediately, and nods.
"Of course. Go on back, Walter, and get Mrs. Hill to look at your head."
Walter hands me his torch, then turns around and shuffles off, moving awkwardly through the snow, his upright stance due only, I suspect, to a combination of shock and adrenalin.
"I fear we'll find the poor girl dead," the Major says quietly, once Walter is out of earshot. "No one could lose this much blood and survive."
Crimson gleams wetly in the light from our torches, and I step in front of the Major. With any luck I will be able to stay between him and the culprit, if the man is still on the scene. I meant what I said to Josiah about the Major's pistol. Mrs. Hill will never forgive me if I let him blow his own hand off.
When we reach the end of the trail, the killer is no longer there -- but Mollie is. The Major mutters something that might be a prayer -- it has that tone about it -- and I add a quick Hail Mary for the poor thing's soul.
"What kind of monster could do something like this?" The Major's voice is rough with emotion, and when I glance at him his face is pale, his lips a thin line beneath his mustaches.
I just shake my head. I've seen worse done to human bodies in my time, but rarely, and not by much. It's not hard to remember that the man I'm supposed to be has never seen anything like this before, or to react appropriately. An axe does horrendous things to living flesh, and even worse is the way both her arms and legs are spread in a parody of welcome, her nightgown hiked up around her waist to reveal the grotesque angles of those nearly severed limbs. The Major starts forward, and I have to force myself to move, to stop him with a hand on his arm.
"Sir, we need to wait for the Marshal."
He blinks at me. "Yes. Yes, of course. I just -- I just wanted to cover her."
"Let's get you inside, sir. The Marshal will be here soon, and he can deal with it." It never fails to stun me, the way that sudden tragedy will seem to age a mortal almost instantly. The Major looks ten years older than he did when I came outside. Mollie had been with the Hills since she was eleven years old; for as long as I've had Josiah, and they were both genuinely fond of her.
The Hills' kitchen is mercifully warm, thanks to the pot-bellied cast-iron stove in the center of the room. Walter is seated at the table, with Mrs. Hill standing over him, tending to his injury as best she can. She is, like her husband, short and slender and filled with an immense dignity. At seventeen she was the most courted woman in Texas, and advancing years have done little damage to her looks. Her dark eyes, her finest feature even in youth, are still temptingly lovely. Her hair, the chestnut-brown barely touched by grey, is pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck and despite the lateness of the hour and the upset in her household, she is fully dressed. She looks up as her husband and I come in, and some of the tension goes out of her face when she sees him.
"William, you need to go and fetch Dr. Hillard. Walter's head is going to need stitching."
"Excuse me, ma'am, but I already sent Josiah to fetch both him and the Marshal -- at the Major's direction, of course."
She graces me with one of her warmest smiles. "Thank you, Mr. McCormick. Forgive me for not greeting you properly, please."
"No excuse necessary, ma'am," I tell her, but she's already turned her attention to her husband, with that sixth sense that married people tend to develop over the years.
"William? What is it? What's wrong?"
"Mollie's dead," he says.
Her lovely face crumples in distress, and Walter lets out a choked sob. Both of them lift a hand to their mouths, the similarity of the gestures from two so dissimilar people providing an odd, almost comical touch to the scene.
"Oh, no," she says. "Walter, I'm so sorry."
He nods stiffly, tears streaming unchecked down his round dark face.
"I knew," he says. "There was too much blood. But I hoped--" He stops abruptly and turns his face away from all of us.
"How the hell did the bastard get in, anyway?" the Major demands. "I locked all the doors myself; I always do."
Before that line of questioning can be pursued, the doorbell rings. The Major and Mrs. Hill glance at each other; then he looks at me.
"McCormick, would you mind answering that?"
"Not at all," I assure him. There was a wealth of unspoken words in the look they exchanged, and it's clear that they need some time alone. "If it proves to be the marshal, shall I take him around the back?"
"Please," Mrs. Hill says gratefully.
The balding, heavyset man waiting on the porch, though, is not the marshal but Doctor Hillard, and I show him into the kitchen where he takes the makeshift bandage off of Walter's head. The Hills have retreated to one corner of the room, and I take advantage of the moment to get a look at Walter's injury.
"Oh, this is nasty," the doctor murmurs. "What happened, boy?"
"Dunno," Walter says, wincing as Hillard pulls at the edges of the wound. "I woke up bleeding. There was blood everywhere."
"Shock," Hillard says. He always keeps a sort of running commentary going as he works, something many of his patients find comforting. "You'll be all right. We'll just put a few stitches in this wound of yours."
The wound itself is, as the doctor said, nasty. To my eye, it looks like it came from an axe, which would match with what was done to Mollie's body. It takes twenty-five stitches to close completely, and Hillard is putting in the last one when the doorbell rings again.
Marshal Grooms Lee is, like Doc Hillard, a heavyset man with a broad, lined face. His blond hair is starting to thin at the temples, and his blue eyes look perpetually sleepy, but his air of lazy complacency is a facade. Lee is a hard, almost brutal man, with a temper that's always simmering just below a boil. I've heard more than one rumour saying that he's quick with his fists where suspects are concerned, and that when the suspect is a Negro he doesn't bother asking questions before beginning the beating. He is not a part of what Austin considers its high society, and he resents his exclusion. Josiah is behind him, and from the careful blankness of my servant's face, Lee has been making himself unpleasant.
"Where's the Major?" he demands. Manners are not Lee's forte.
"The Major is comforting Mrs. Hill," I tell him. It should not be this much of an effort to be polite to this man, and I cannot quite help feeling guilty that it is so difficult. "He asked me to show you to the body." Lee looks me over with those deceptively sleepy eyes of his, and nods.
"Lead the way, Mr. McCormick," he says. There is a trace of mockery in his voice, but not so much that I can say anything. It does have the effect of lessening my guilt.
I take him through the house to the side door, but once we get there it becomes clear that we need to start our investigation upstairs, in Mollie and Walter's bedroom, as the blood trail that I saw outside leads up the back stairs. Lee shoulders ahead of me without excusing himself and goes up the stairs at a pace that belies his bulk. I follow more slowly, hesitant to walk into the bedroom of a couple whose lives have just been so cruelly shattered. The world that Walter and Mollie had made for themselves in their little room is gone as irrevocably as any of the worlds I've lost in my time, and I cannot claim to be comfortable with poking through its wreckage.
The Marshal clearly feels no such compunction. By the time I reach the bedroom he is already inside, and if he isn't rummaging through drawers it is only because the story is written plainly across the walls and furniture.
The bed itself is a bloody ruin, crimson staining sheets and blankets and pillows alike. The now-ruined quilt was beautifully made, most likely by Mollie herself: one very like it, purchased on my behalf by my housekeeper no more than three months earlier, is on my bed at this very minute. There are spatters of blood on the walls, and bloody hand prints on the door sill -- a woman's hands, the marks smeared as if she were dragged from the room. She probably was.
"Where's the husband?" Lee asks, his voice startlingly loud.
"Downstairs. Dr. Hillard just put twenty-five stitches in his head."
"So he probably got hit first. Our killer put him out of commission to give himself a free hand with the woman." He shakes his head. "All right. Let's go look at the body."
It turns out that even Lee can be shaken. He looks at Mollie and clears his throat, hard. She's cooled enough that the snow has begun to cling to her, and there is a thin layer of it covering her battered flesh and open, staring eyes. "I -- well," he says. "I'd say she's been violated. Dr. Hillard will have to make the final determination, though. Would you mind sending your boy to tell my deputy to bring the hounds?"
"Not at all. Would you like me to send Dr. Hillard to you?" He nods, and I turn back towards the house, glad to leave Lee, the cold, and the corpse of what used to be a pretty, vibrant young woman behind me.
Walter and Dr. Hillard are no longer in the kitchen, but the Major and Mrs. Hill are, and she directs me to the living room. I do them the courtesy of failing to notice her tear-stained face, or his shaking hands. Someone committed murder in their house tonight while they slept. They have every excuse for grief and fear.
The doctor has Walter lying down on one of the sofas, his head neatly bandaged. It's a shame no one can do the same for the man's heart. He looks empty, as if the person behind his eyes has simply gone away. It's a look I recognize, and it speaks clearly of the depth of his feelings for his wife, and of the pain inflicted by her loss. Hillard is sitting in a chair next to him, talking to him in a low, soothing murmur. I like Dr. Hillard, and this is one of the reasons why. Most doctors wouldn't bother to take the time to comfort a Negro patient. Compassion is an admirable trait in a man.
Seeing me, Hillard gets to his feet and comes over. Walter doesn't seem to notice that he's gone.
"How is he?" I ask.
"The injury to his soul is worse than the injury to his body," Hillard says gravely. He considers himself a philosopher, and he does have some interesting ideas on occasion. He's certainly one of the better conversationalists in Austin, at least as far as I am concerned. "The weapon -- I suspect an axe -- glanced off of the curve of his skull. Luckily for him; it was swung with enough force that he is severely concussed, and was unconscious for some time after being struck." He sighs heavily, blowing out the ends of his white mustache. "Given time, he will recover from both wounds. You young men are remarkably resilient in that respect."
If it were anyone else making that last comment, I would be hard-pressed not to smile. Hillard, though -- well. When he says things like that, he says them with a look on his face, one that's hard to describe but that makes me wonder if he doesn't perhaps know what I am. It's a foolish thought -- he's only known me for three years, and I've seen his bare wrists, neither of which bear a tattoo -- but I still wonder.
"We need some compensation to help us survive until we acquire the wisdom of age," I tell him blandly -- and there's that look again.
"Marshal Lee requests your presence outside. Also, if you could take a sheet out with you to cover her, that would be appreciated."
"By the Marshal, or by you?" His dark eyes are as sharp as the Marshal's are sleepy.
"You found me out," I admit.
"It's not the sort of thing that the good Marshal would think to ask for," he says. I glance involuntarily at Walter; he doesn't even blink.
"He did think to send for the hounds," I say. "Rather, he will have done as soon as I find Josiah."
"That bad?" He grimaces. "I appreciate the warning." He'll have seen worse -- he served as a battlefield surgeon during the War -- but not much worse, and probably nothing like this. The intent behind this kind of killing extends the horror beyond the damage done to the body. With one last glance over his shoulder at the unmoving Walter, Hillard goes past me and heads out into the night.
Josiah comes in a moment after Hillard leaves. "I thought I heard your voice, sir." He glances at Walter, and lowers his voice. "Is he all right?"
"He will be," I assure Josiah. "I need you to run down to the Marshal's office, though, and tell his deputy to bring the hounds."
"Yes, sir. Don't think they'll track in this snow, but I'll tell him." Josiah turns on his heel and is gone as well, leaving me alone in the room with Walter.
"We will get the man who did this," I say after a moment. The promise of justice is the only thing I can think to offer him. It gets no reaction, and after a moment I, too, take my leave, returning to the kitchen where the Major and Mrs. Hill are partaking of a restorative cup of coffee. I'm willing to bet that their coffee is much the same sort as that which I was drinking before all of this began.
"The Marshal's sent for the hounds," I tell them without preamble, and the Major nods, looking dubious.
"Will they track in this weather?"
"I suppose we'll find out, sir." He gestures me to a seat and I take it gratefully. It's getting late, and I'm starting to get tired.
"My wife and I appreciate your help this evening, McCormick," he says gruffly.
"We really are very grateful," Mrs. Hill assures me.
"It was no trouble," I tell them both. "I'm glad to have been of assistance." The Major smiles -- it's just a twitch of his lips behind his mustaches -- but it's definitely a smile. His wife's smile seems to light up the room.
"Would you like a brandy?" the Major asks, and when I accept he gets up and pours me a cup of coffee before adding a liberal helping of the aforementioned liquor. When he hands me the cup the liquid is warm rather than hot, though the coffee in the pot is still steaming, and the first sip almost makes me cough.
"Thank you," I say. Now that I've been warned, my second sip goes down much more easily. "The Marshal will want to talk to you both after he's finished outside, and to Walter if he's able to speak."
"Poor Walter," Mrs. Hill says. "He loved Mollie so very much. And she was such a nice girl."
"Do you have any idea who might have wanted to hurt her?" I ask. "The Marshal will want to know."
"None," the Major says, at the same time that his wife says, "Maybe." He looks at her in surprise, bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows lifting.
"Oh?" he asks. "Who?"
"Lem Brooks. You remember him, William. He was always hanging around Mollie before she finally settled down with Walter."
"Surely not," the Major says. "He's a hard-working enough sort. Relatively clever, too. Besides, that was eight years ago now."
"He was awfully upset when Mollie picked Walter instead of him," Mrs. Hill says, and despite her husband's protestations, that is exactly what she tells the Marshal when he and Dr. Hillard come back inside. The questions the Marshal asks her about Mollie's relationships with both Lem Brooks and Walter make the Major bristle -- understandably. There are some things that one does not ask a lady; not if one has any manners at all. Despite their rudeness, however, Mrs. Hill answers the Marshal's questions evenly and politely, seemingly much less upset by them than is her husband. The dogs arrive shortly after, and the Marshal goes off to direct operations.
Those of us left behind in the kitchen exchange glances, but no one gives voice to what we are all obviously thinking. Instead, the Major offers Hillard a brandy, which he gladly accepts, and we sit and drink companionably in relative silence. We can hear the dogs yelping and barking outside, and men's voices lifted to curse, and I'm sure that there is a cluster of neighbors outside watching the proceedings despite the bitterness of the weather, but the kitchen is warm and the brandy and coffee are both excellent.
Our returning peace is suddenly shattered by an onslaught of canines. The dogs, with Deputy Mueller frantically clinging to their leashes, burst through the side door and run yelping to the pantry. Mueller, a rabbity-looking man with watery blue eyes who is half the size of his superior, really should have given those leashes to the Marshal -- though to do Mueller justice, I doubt the great man would have been willing to sully his hands with them.
With the deputy's frantic apologies and the dogs' constant commentary in the background, Mueller, Dr. Hillard, the Major, and I manage to remove the canine flood from both pantry and kitchen. We are standing about attempting to recover when the Major, who was furthest into the pantry during the struggle, says: "McCormick? Will you go and get the Marshal, please?"
It turns out that the killer left his axe in the Hills' pantry. It is a piece of information that treads on Mrs. Hill's last nerve, and she and her husband retreat upstairs to their bedroom, leaving Walter and the first floor of their house to the tender mercies of Lee and his deputy. The dogs, after refusing, to track anything but the axe, are sent home in disgrace with Deputy Mueller trying frantically to get them them to actually go home. They might well drag him halfway around the city before he manages to get them back into their kennels.
Lee makes an abortive attempt to interview Walter, then corners me in the hallway. "He's still too out of it to talk," he says derisively. Fortunately for him, he continues before I have a chance to say anything. "Have him come down to the office and talk to me when he can talk. Since the Hills went to bed, I'm relying on you to tell them." The Marshal enjoys throwing his weight around, particularly when dealing with those of us who are a part of what Austin terms its 'high society'. It won't do any good to argue with him, though, and if I cooperate with him he will be gone all the more quickly. I agree to pass the message on and the Marshal finally takes his long-awaited leave.
Dr. Hillard is the next to require my attention.
"I took the liberty of sending your boy for Obaugh's hearse," he tells me. "I want to get Mollie out of the yard before it starts to get light out. There's a crowd outside, the vultures, and I'd like to deny them even a glimpse of her."
"That's certainly not a problem." Though I'll have to give Josiah a little something extra for all of the running around he's done in the snow tonight. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty.
"They should be here soon." He pulls his watch out and examines it gravely. It's a lovely piece, a good hundred years old and beautifully engraved. It reminds me of something, though in three years I've never been able to figure out what. "Very soon."
Indeed, it's not long before we hear the rattle of wheels in the street, and Dr. Hillard hurries out to supervise the removal of the body. I wait until they've gone, and the crowd of onlookers has started to disperse, before returning to the living room to check on Walter. He's asleep, which is the best thing for him at the moment, and there's nothing more that I can do here.
Josiah appears at my elbow with a blanket, which he proceeds to spread over Walter. Mercifully, it's not one of Mollie's quilts.
"If you don't mind, Mr. Matthew, I'm going to stay here and clean up the mess in the bedroom," he says quietly. "No man should have to face that when it's his wife who died."
"I should have thought of that myself," I tell him. "Thank you." I pull the keys out of my coat pocket and hand them to him. "I'm going to lock the doors when I get back; make sure you lock them behind you."
"Yes, sir," he says, and moves silently off towards the back of the house. I am debating going upstairs to tell the Major of Josiah's continued presence when the man solves my dilemma and comes down himself.
"Thank you," he says again.
"Don't mention it," I tell him. "Josiah is going to stay and clean up the -- and clean up in Walter's room and the hall."
"All right," he nods. "McCormick, really, I -- "
"Don't mention it," I say again. "Really. We're neighbors, and I'm glad I could help."
He nods again and escorts me to the side door. From there it is only a short dash through the steadily-falling snow to my own door; fifteen minutes after that, I am comfortably ensconced in my own bed. Sleep comes quickly, and I fall gratefully into a dreamless darkness.
Feedback? Is always a good thing.
As In the Best It Is by auberus
A huge thank-you to everyone who helped with the actual writing process – to marauderswolf for proofreading, and to lferion for proofreading, hand-holding, prodding, and advice. This thing would never have gotten off the ground without you, babe. Any remaining errors -- historical, grammatical, or otherwise -- are my own fault.