We found her in a dark room behind The King’s Head.
“You are late, Grimes,” she said as the door swung open and she retreated into the gloom.
Grimes followed her to a small table beside the grubby window and sat down. “I had to be sure I wasn’t being followed. Dangerous times, my dear.”
“Are you well, Valentina?” I said as I stood, unregarded, behind Grimes.
“I see you didn’t have the sense to flee, Mr Makepeace,” she said, glancing up at me. “Well, you are now part of this, I suppose, for good or ill. Draw up a chair.”
I found a small stool in the corner and brushed the dust from it before sitting down.
“So, what’s the situation on your side?” Grimes asked.
“Dire enough. It seems that you and your associates weren’t the only target. Many of my people now lie dead, killed by their own kind. And by others.”
Valentina shrugged. “Perhaps I am being paranoid, but I suspect our enemies have allied themselves with rogue elements among the minorities.”
“What are minorities?” I asked.
“We don’t have time for lessons,” Valentina snapped, without taking her gaze from Grimes’ face. “Suffice it to say that we vampires, we Nostri, are not the only race humanity has warred against over the eons.”
Grimes snorted. “No, mankind has managed to cheese off just about everyone. Makes you wonder whether it’s worth saving, doesn’t it?”
This was ridiculous. Here we sat, two humans and a vampire, discussing whether my species was worth saving.
“Tell me what happened when you went back to the hospital,” Grimes said.
With a sigh, Valentina leaned back and looked out of the window. “All would have been well if it weren’t for the fact that so many of my colleagues were, at the moment I sent out the call for aid, either dead themselves or fighting for their lives. I was forced to call in support from the police.”
“A code red? Good grief, we really are looking over the edge of the abyss.”
“Fortunately, Mr Pitt is a competent man and managed to conceal the true nature of the detainees from his officers. I imagine it helped that it was an asylum they were securing.”
It was now the turn of Grimes to stare at the filthy window as if exploring the pathways of his memory. “Pitt is a good one, for sure. How many did he manage to round up?”
With a single movement, Valentina struck a match with one hand and lifted her cigarette holder with the other. “Peregrine was gone, of course, and it has been difficult to calculate how many remained after your fire-show, but I estimate that he has at least two or three accomplices.”
“Judging by this morning’s papers, that’s a certainty,” Grimes said. “I guess I’d better go after him, though it’s pretty difficult to hunt when you’re expecting a dagger in your back at any moment.”
Valentina nodded. “You must be careful, Grimes. You are the thread on which peace hangs.”
“You also, old friend.”
“Me? Oh, I can be replaced,” she said, shrugging. “You, on the other hand, cannot. I am somewhat comforted that you have Mr Makepeace here to protect you.”
My temper got the better of me. “Oh I must say! This is outrageous!”
I shivered as her hand brushed my arm. “Peace, John,” she said. “I only meant it partly in jest. You will make a fine accomplice for this old villain, and it is your job to ensure you survive long enough to become useful.”
“You must go into hiding,” Grimes said to Valentina when she’d settled back and was dragging on her cigarette. “We can’t afford to lose you, either.”
She shook her head. “I think not. Unless we stem the flow of blood on the streets of London, we are facing the war to end all wars. Someone wants the peace to be shattered – someone with connections at a high level.”
“McBride is investigation.”
“Your faith in that pompous ass is greater than mine.”
Grimes got to his feet. “And in the meantime, John and I have some vampires to hunt.”
I saw a flicker, just a flicker, pass across Valentina’s face, but then it was gone and she was rising too. “I wish you both success. You know how to contact me when you need my assistance. Do not attempt to deal with this alone – the matter is too important for stupid male pride to govern your decisions.”
She passed me with a brief smile and I felt my male pride swell despite her entreaty. Pausing at the door, she checked the corridor outside before flitting away silently.
“Be careful, John,” Grimes said, his hand on my shoulder.
I didn’t bother to deny it. I had fought alcohol for long enough to know that I was in the most danger when I believed I was in control. And when it came to Valentina, I knew I was utterly lost.
“I knew things must be pretty serious if you asked to see me, Mr Grimes.”
We were in the office of Inspector Pitt of Scotland Yard. A young lady had left a pot of tea which the policeman was now pouring into three cups.
Pitt was a younger man – I would say he was in his mid thirties at the time – of a wiry build and with a mobile face that suggested keen intelligence. Most striking were his eyes – large, widely set, and of a piercing blue so that, when he turned his attention on me, I felt as though I were a specimen at the wrong end of a microscope.
“It’s about the other night,” Grimes said, reaching for his tea.
“Ah, the asylum.” Pitt leaned forward a little and lowered his voice. “I thought so. That was certainly difficult to manage.”
“How many did you detain?”
Pitt reached into his pocket and pulled out a small notebook. “Fourteen. Nine males and five females. We also identified the bodies of five others in the entranceway. It seems they were consumed when the fire started. Do you have any information for me about that, Mr Grimes? The insurers are pressing me for an explanation.”
“This tea is pretty awful,” Grimes said in response. “Can’t the force afford better?”
“So you’re not going to tell me. Well, my instructions are to co-operate fully, so I shall do exactly that.”
Grimes smiled. “Where are they now?”
“Newgate, for now. It was the only place that had room for them.”
“Then you’d better hope the gaolers there can keep them under lock and key. By God, if they get loose in the prison, it’ll be a bloodbath.”
“They know their business, Mr Grimes,” Pitt said with a touch of asperity, “you may rest assured that they are safe.”
Giving a doubtful grunt, Grimes took another sip of his tea as if gathering his thoughts. “How many of these … special … inmates were on the books at Grove?”
“Twenty-one,” Pitt said after referring to his notebook again.
“So that leaves seven unaccounted for.”
Pitt gave a non-committal bob of the head. “Well, it is likely that we weren’t able to find all the bodies in the foyer, it was quite the conflagration you know. Although why it took place and what exactly happened remains a mystery.”
“I think we must assume that Peregrine now has seven associates,” Grimes said with a sigh. “That is bad, very bad. It’s the makings of a gang, I’d say.”
“We don’t tolerate gangs on our streets, Mr Grimes. You can rest assured that we will track them down and apprehend them.”
Shaking his head, Grimes said, “I’d call your men off if I were you, Inspector, unless you want to live with their fate on your conscience.”
The inspector gasped and his face flushed. “I can assure you, Mr Grimes, that my men are highly trained professionals and quite capable of dealing with this matter!”
Grimes got to his feet. “Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Now, could you let me have the investigative report on this latest so-called Ripper murder. My friend and I have some work to do.”
Grimes pulled a small box from beneath his bed. “Here, have this.”
“A service revolver?” I said, marvelling at the weight in my hand.
He sat at the table beside the window and looked out onto the grey London street. The spire of Bow Church could be barely be seen in the mist. From outside our door came the thump, thump of boots going up and down the stairs as Derricks decamped his family to the ground floor.
“It has seen action in Afghanistan and India,” he said, “and London, of course.”
“Do you not need it?”
He turned away from the window to face me, a look of surprise on his face. “Me? No, my dear fellow, I have never needed a gun.” Noticing the confusion in my expression, he continued. “It has had many masters, and now it belongs to you. There’s some ammunition on the bed.
I had, of course, handled weapons during my brief time in the army, though all my training had been with the Martini-Henry rifle. “Is it easy to use?”
“Just point and squeeze – you’re not likely to use it at long range. In fact, it’s a weapon of last resort as firing it gives away your position instantly. I tend to prefer murder by stealth.”
“Grimes!” I cried, “You must not talk of killing that way.”
He gave a laugh and shook his head. “You are right, of course. So many years, so much death, has made me quite unsuitable for polite company. Now, take a look at this.”
Grimes handed me an open manilla folder. “It’s the coroner’s report. What do you make of it?”
I scanned the report. “It makes for gruesome reading, does it not?”
“Indeed, but we must gird ourselves and look for the data within.”
Moving over to the window to take advantage of what little light this grey London afternoon afforded, I read the account carefully and, as far as I could, dispassionately. “The throat was cut,” I said, “as with the Whitechapel Murderer. And it appears that the victim was a woman of the night.”
I became a little flustered as I felt he was toying with me. “I don’t know, Grimes! She looks like a Ripper victim to me.”
He shook his head slowly and returned his gaze to the window. “She has too many parts.”
“The Whitechapel Murderer delighted in removing the organs of his victims, particularly the uterus.”
I returned to the bed and sat down, the folder on my lap. “Ah, I see.”
“Your mind recoils from such details, John, but it must not. You must shut down your emotions and focus on the facts or you will miss them entirely.”
I forced myself to read the report again and this time I could see what he meant. The victim’s throat had been slashed, but no organs had been removed. “Perhaps the attacker was disturbed?”
Grimes nodded solemnly. “That’s better. Now you’re thinking rationally. Yes, that is a possibility, though the balance of likelihood suggests that this is not so.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because there appears to be no evidence that the attacker hurried in any way. Nothing was dropped at the scene, there were no half-made incisions and, as the report said, the body was quite drained of blood.”
I said nothing and we sat there – he in his chair – me on the bed, as we listened to the slow thudding of Derricks and the other tenants he’d no doubt roped in to help him move.
“Why did you insist on the landlord moving his family out of the top floor?” I asked.
“What? Oh, because I – we – need somewhere we can make absolutely safe and that means having a substantial door at the top of the stairs with only two keys. And we need more space to plan. You must understand, John, that we are all that’s left to keep the peace. We are the most deniable of unofficial policemen, and we have been betrayed by someone from our own side. So we must regroup, bring our trusted allies closer to use and keep our enemies away.”
I looked around the bleak interior of his grubby bedroom. “But why here? I have seen that you have access to considerable wealth, you could set yourself up anywhere in London.”
“Baker Street, perhaps?” he said with a smile. “No, I have good reasons for being here in this exact spot.”
Though I don’t think he realised what he was doing, I noticed his gaze flit over to the church across the road.
But any opportunity to press him on this was lost as the steady footsteps outside were suddenly replaced by cries of anger and, moments later, a rapid thump on the door.
“Your revolver, John,” Grimes said as he stood up, thrusting apart the curtains and opening the window. A dagger appeared in his hand. “Open the door, if you please, but carefully.”
I hefted the pistol and cocked it. With my back to the door, I took hold of the handle and twisted it. The door swung open and there stood Inspector Pitt, his face white.
“Mr Grimes, it has happened again.”
Grimes relaxed a little and gestured the man to come in.
I shut the door and he slumped onto the bed. “I should have listened to you and called my men off, or at least cautioned them. But, because of my pride, two of them are now dead, their throats ripped open and their bodies left in a London alleyway.”