May 8th (9th?), 1881:
I can hardly sleep for terror. I do not know what time it is, only that it is dark and moonless, and I am left writing half by candlelight and half by instinct, my hand being the only thing in my life that now moves as I expect it to. I shall be brief, for Ethan would be upset if he caught me.
Perhaps he ought to be. Good wives should not speak ill of their husbands. Then again, good husbands should not give them cause to do so.
We shall see who is right in the end. For now, the facts:
The police came to search for Mary Ballew today. I say “search,” though in reality they did little more than poke around the garden and ask a few servants where they were on such-and-such-an-evening. Nonetheless, Ethan seemed uncomfortable with their presence. He prattled on and on about Cotton Steel’s latest quarter with the inspector, pulling constantly at his cravat as he did.
At first, I merely thought him concerned for Mary, or worried about gossip. It is hard for us to find staff as it is; a missing employee will hardly help matters. Then I realized Lavoisier was not in line with the other servants. When I mentioned this, Ethan looked at me as if thirty pieces of silver had spilled out of my mouth.
“You are mistaken,” he said. When I insisted I was not, he turned his back and stepped between me and the inspector, talking over me as if I were a yapping dog.
Finally, I addressed the inspector directly. “Sir, our chef M. Lavoisier is not here, and if there is any person you ought to question in regards to this case, it is him. Why, not long after Mary vanished, we found -”
“Do excuse my wife,” Ethan said, taking me firmly by the elbow, “she is an imaginative sort, her fancies run away with her sometimes. Dearest, could you give us a moment?”
With that, he led me away so quickly I nearly fell over, and shut me out on the veranda without another word. After a while he returned, and I admit I showed more claws than was prudent, but can you blame me, Diary?
“How dare you lock me out of my own home!” I hissed. “Oh, you will defend Lavoisier, yes, you can carry that odious old viper to the moon and back, but not your own wife! Not the woman who loves you! No, let us get her a chain and keep her beneath the stairs, that she may not get any further underfoot than she already is!”
“I am not setting him over you,” Ethan sighed, “honestly, do you even listen to yourself? You are simply wrong in this case. I know you are wrong. I thought you trusted me enough to let the matter stop there, but apparently not. You forced my hand.”
“No exaggeration there,” I said, rubbing my elbow and scowling. He looked ashamed and moved to kiss it, but I stepped away.
“Do you think I wanted to?” he said. “Do you think I take delight in your tantrums? Because I assure you, when we married, I assumed I was getting a wife and not a ward.” He bowed his head mockingly. “Forgive me for setting the bar so high.”
A thick fog of emotions rose up in my mind, clouding every impulse save to cry. I turned away and hid my face against my high collar, trying to find my thoughts through the mist.
“Well, it is hard to be respectable when you are not respected,” I said at last. My eyes were dry but my voice was cracked and clotted. “Did you ever consider that? That perhaps it is hard for me to be the wife you want me to be – that I want to be, more than anything in the world – when you do not treat me like a wife at all?”
He wrapped his arms around my waist and kissed along my collar, hushing me. “Sweet girl, my sweet little mouse, whatever do you mean?”
My eyes grew wet and my shoulders shook, though I did not totally surrender to heartache. “You talk of trust, but you do not trust me.”
“I do, I do.”
I brushed him off. “But you tell me nothing! Not even why I must keep that French creature around, when you know how he distresses me! You have been an open book to everyone, all our lives, but now, when we should be as close as any two people can be, you snap shut on me, and only me.”
My face grew hot, and my voice so thick with swallowed tears I was almost unable to speak. “I know you are older and wiser than me, and I try to follow your guidance. But for pity’s sake, I am only a woman! My heart is not hard enough to bear such coldness, at least not without explanation.”
“But this is why, my love! You are too emotional to explain such things to quickly, so I have to usher you away before you embarrass yourself.” He gave me a peck on each cheek. “Still, I do hate to see my kitten so put out. I am sorry if I have been a brute to you, and I promise to be more considerate. Come now, let’s have a smile.”
His words did warm me, so I gave him one, and he kissed me again and turned to leave. I probably should have just let him, but my foolishness got the better of me.
“So shall I tell Lavoisier to pack up today or tomorrow?”
I swear, Diary, I only meant it teasingly, but before I knew it my husband picked up the little stone pedestal by the window, dashed it against the floor, and wheeled on me with a terrible visage. His eyes bulged from his head, and even at a distance I could see the veins in them, redder and rawer than a wild ape.
“Goddammit, woman, this after all your mewling about trust!” Chunks of stone crumbled underfoot, easy as petals, as he approached me. “I am your husband! You heed me because it is your duty to heed me, instead of penning me in like a colt for gelding!”
When I flinched, though, he stopped. Drawing a deep breath, he paced around me in a circle, looking more ashamed with every pass.
“Forgive me,” he said at last. “I hate to see hypocrisy take root in such a flower, you understand. Lavoisier stays because I say he stays. That ought to be enough for you.”
With that, he stormed out of the room. Despite my best efforts, I could not find him for the next two hours. Luckily, just as I was growing frantic, he appeared in the sitting room, as cheerful as I have ever known him. We spoke no more of our tiff, as it troubled him so little you would think it never happened at all.
But it did, Diary. It seems such a little thing now, written out, but it did happen, and it left ripples in its wake. I feel as though everything in the house has shifted an inch further away from me – in Ethan’s case, perhaps two. Maybe tomorrow I can shift him back.
Looking back, Pippa supposed Holmes may have been trying to spare her future turmoil by getting all the big shocks out in one go. Or perhaps he thought the photographs had not been a sufficient test of nerves, and something even more personal would truly propel her into detectivehood, like throwing an eaglet off a cliff. She could not say for certain. All she knew was that, whatever your intentions towards a person, it was a hell of a thing to wheel in their parents’ bones without so much as a whistle.
“Now then,” Holmes said, tucking the mortuary sheet under his arms as casually as a tea cozy, “what jumps out about these?”
Joshua looked uneasily at Pippa, who had her hands clapped over her mouth. “Erm, Holmes, are these…?”
“Ah, right.” Holmes waved a hand from the group to the bones and back again. “Everyone, Ethan and Christina Cotton. Cotton, I presume you are already acquainted.”
Watson braced his forehead against the wall. “Jesus Christ, Sherlock,” he muttered under his breath.
“Pippa, I swear to -” Shekhar started through gritted teeth, but she waved him off.
“It’s fine. Got to be done, one way or another.” Granted, she would have preferred any other presentation – even confetti would have been tasteful in comparison – but truth be told, she doubted it really mattered. All the gentleness in the world would not make anything other than skeletons appear on those trays.
Control. She took a breath.
“Will it be cold, Father?”
“Of course, what of it?”
“I don’t think I’ll make it if it’s cold.”
“You think too much, my girl. I’d rather see you do, and cold water is just the thing for that. Instinct is the truest teacher – only one you ever really need. Now, on three. One…two…”
NO. She exhaled hard. The pond evaporated. Control.
She boxed up her heart, tossed it to the floor, and stepped over it towards the dead.
“Good condition, considering the passage of time,” she said, looking over the smaller of the pair. Her mother, no doubt. “I’m surprised at how much hair she has left.”
“Courtesy of the Cotton family mausoleum,” Holmes said. “Decomposition slows considerably when a corpse is properly entombed above ground, and hair is remarkably hardy to start with. Keratin, the substance that makes up hair and nails, takes a great deal of time to break down. Unfortunately for you, Cotton, it is also an excellent retainer of heavy metals, so Farrier has ample proof of your mother’s arsenic poisoning.”
“Couldn’t she have picked that up somewhere else?” Pippa said. “From wallpaper or a cosmetic or something? They’d put it on toast these days if it was sweeter. How can they be sure arsenic was in the vial she took, specifically?”
“Anything else of note?”
Pippa scanned the body and squinted when she came to the feet. “The right foot looks…off.”
“Fractured, you’ll find,” Watson said, jumping in. “As if by a sudden fall or twist. The bone is barely knit, too, meaning she was injured shortly before she died.”
Holmes beamed. “Thank you, John, for once again demonstrating that self-deprecation is the beastliest of sins.”
Watson rolled his eyes, though there was a smile in them. “Even fools get lucky, Holmes, and like a true fool I doubt I can do it twice. Here, for instance.” He scurried up along the slab and pointed at the skull. There was a small chip in the bridge of the nose. “I cannot make hide nor hair of this.”
“A premortem break, surely,” Holmes said, pulling his glass out of his pocket, “given the rounded edges. There are no signs she was mishandled at burial, nor in transit here, which for Coroner Floyd is something of a miracle. Her nose was broken at some point in life.”
“Yes, but at what point?” Watson said. “And how? With what degree of force?”
Holmes did not answer, so engrossed was he in his examination. Finally Pippa cleared her throat.
“Any ideas?” she said.
“Many.” He pocketed the glass. “What of the other body?”
Pippa turned her attention to the larger skeleton. Here the signs of trauma were obvious: nearly every bone was broken, if not shattered. It looked like more like a dropped tea tray than a body, and probably could have been swept into the same pan. Yet the skull was remarkably intact. Pippa reached out for it, then hesitated, shooting Holmes a questioning glance.
“Gloves, please, if you intend to touch anything,” he said. “Unlike Farrier, we have nothing to gain by tampering with the evidence.”
Pippa pulled a set of pale-colored kid gloves from her pocket and put them on. It was remarkably easy to pick up her father’s skull after that; the soft hide around her hands made it easier to imagine they were acting of their own accord.
“The base of the skull is badly cracked, almost flattened,” she said, laying her palm along the depression to illustrate. “That must be from the fall. That alone would have killed him.”
“But it did not,” Holmes said.
“No,” Pippa agreed, turning the skull a quarter to the right. “I imagine this did instead.” She pointed to a deep crevice along the upper left temple. “This would be from the ax, yes?”
“Indeed. Now, how did you determine that?” Holmes asked.
Shekhar rolled his eyes. “Goodness, perhaps because her aunt and uncle are on trial for killing him with a battleaxe. Just a theory.”
“And naturally, one can count on such a convenient supply of data in every decade-old homicide,” Holmes snapped. “I know the angels are usually courteous enough to write the cause of death across our foreheads when we pass, but humor me, Deshmukh, in case they should ever forget. Cotton, how do you know this is an ax wound?”
“Well, obviously it’s long and…and deep, and, um…” She turned crimson, searching for the right words to spin hunch into proof. “Sort of sharp-looking,” was the best she could do.
“Long, deep, and sort of sharp-looking,” Holmes repeated, but there was no mockery in his voice, and he knocked his cane lightly against Joshua’s calf when the boy smirked. “Correct in essentials, at least, if not in execution. Come, observe.”
He motioned for her to lean in, then pointed to the wound. “The edges of the cut are smooth, and there is no outward fracturing, such as you see in the crushing blow on the back of the head. The top of the wound is triangular, but slims to a point at the base. A sword or cleaver would create a more uniform line, but tapering wounds are peculiar to axes, daggers, or point-thrust knives. Given the length of the gash and the physical difficulty of shoving a kitchen knife four and a half inches through a human skull, we can safely conclude that this is an ax blow. Saxon replica, roughly 30 inches long, weighing approximately five pounds, swung two-handed by someone standing at least three inches higher than the victim.”
Watson and Shekhar gaped at Holmes, who in turn looked expectantly at Pippa. She slowly reexamined the crack, mind churning.
“There’s only one cut,” she said carefully, “so they must have swung hard, with urgency. My uncle is not especially strong, and my aunt is athletic but small, so the ax probably would not have gone in so deep unless it was heavy.”
“A fair assumption,” Holmes said. “But could not the same thing be accomplished with a light, sharp ax?”
Pippa hesitated but stood her ground. “I imagine that would have decapitated him.”
Holmes’ lip twitched. “You may be overestimating your guardians there, but it is a possibility.”
“And,” she added, determined to up him, “we can tell that he must have been leaning forward at the time he was struck, and the killer must have been standing a full foot behind him, at least.”
At this, Joshua nudged between her and Holmes, staring quizzically at the skull. “How do you reckon?”
She ran a proud finger along the curve in the break, where it wrapped back over the ear. “Like I said, they only hit him once, but it’s not a straight cut. If he were standing with his head level, Oliver would have hit him straight down through the top of the skull, and Folley wouldn’t have caught him in the head at all. He was either leaning forward or kneeling.”
“Leaning if Oliver killed him, kneeling if Folley did,” Joshua translated quietly, taking the skull from her and carefully circling it through his fingers. “What about the distance?”
“It’s a 30 inch ax with a heavy blade. It’s going to slip in your hands a bit as you swing, since the weight on the end will pull it forward.” She grabbed Holmes’ cane, backed up, and swung in demonstration, narrowly missing the wall. “Besides, you’ll naturally want to grip it no higher than halfway up the handle. That gives us at least a foot’s worth of swinging room.”
“And you determined the handle was 30 inches long how?” Holmes asked.
All her reason trickled away like air from a balloon. “Because you said it was,” she mumbled.
Holmes tisked. “’Admirable but incomplete’ seems to be the order of the day with you, Cotton,” he said, snatching back his cane. “For the record, it is because a hatchet is only around twelve inches in length, and while a lumber ax is at least twice that, neither has a long enough blade to produce such a gash. Your father and guardians were confined upstairs during the fire, where it is unlikely Lady Hallsbury would have found a more utilitarian ax to defend herself with. Country estates typically have forty inches of space between mantelpiece and ceiling – a convenient spot to place a dull-bladed, ostentatious, false heirloom.”
“You cannot possibly know if it’s fake,” Watson said, in the glowing tones of someone keen to be proven wrong.
Holmes extended his cane theatrically. “True warfare favors the swift, the brutal, and the unencumbered,” he explained as he mock-lunged at Joshua, catching him in the stomach. “A 30 inch, five pound battleaxe is not ideal and no self-respecting Saxon smith would have bothered to forge one. As such, any weapon of that size and style is undoubtedly a romantic replica.”
“How can you be sure it was Saxon-styled?” Pippa asked.
Holmes tapped his cane impatiently against his toe. “Merrimore House is the centuries-old seat of an aristocratic English family that would rather see their current patriarch dead than married to a woman slightly darker than tallow,” he said. “They are hardly going to be hanging up katanas.”
Pippa flushed again but jerked a shoulder in agreement. “So what do you think? Was he kneeling or standing?” she asked, leaving the respective outcomes unspoken.
“Kneeling would be my guess,” Joshua said. He himself was suddenly on his knees, squinting at Ethan’s ribcage. “Somebody stuck him twice.”
Holmes was unperturbed, but Pippa nearly knocked bones to the floor in surprise. “What?” she said, crouching down beside him.
Joshua pointed in between the lowest sets of ribs. Sure enough, there were four tiny fractures, two on the upper bone and two below, like fangs. “See? Got him right in the gut, one after another. Probably short-bladed, so he might have been able to shake it off, but not forever.”
Pippa bit her lip. “Could he have lasted nine minutes?”
Joshua thought a moment, then puffed like a horse. “Breathing, maybe, but standing? Fighting? Even if they didn’t nick any organs, that’s a lot of blood.”
“His arm may also have been dislocated prior to falling,” Holmes added, turning over Ethan’s shoulder blade with a frown. “There are some syphilitic lesions on the upper vertebrae and the femurs as well. Early ones, but still possibly enough to throw his fitness into question.”
“Farrier’s bound to jump on that,” Shekhar said nervously. “If it looks like he was too weak or too battered to defend himself, it will be easy to pin it on Lady Hallsbury, to say nothing of her husband.”
“It will hurt their self-defense claim too,” Watson said. “Even if he did attack them first, if he was already incapacitated when the final blow fell, then it is murder in the eyes of the law.”
Pippa shook her head urgently. “No. Father was strong. Almost freakish. A couple jabs in the side wouldn’t have done any more to him than a fly bite.”
“A pint of blood’s a pint of blood, Cotton,” Joshua said, but she wouldn’t hear it.
“I saw my father lift two hundred pounds of steel over his head. I saw him put his finger through an apple and knock a charging horse over with one hand. I saw him -”
Suddenly there was a distant roar in her ears and a sharp pain in her head. She felt small, terribly small and shaky, and she smelled blackberries. The pulp oozed from her thumbnail as she dug into a dandelion, until the head flew off with a crack.
“Pippa?” Shekhar asked. “Are you alright?”
The dandelion disappeared, though the crack still echoed somewhere in her mind. What was that? she wondered, a little dazed.
“He would have fought,” she insisted, “and nobody fought like him.”
Holmes considered her for a moment, then threw the tarps back over the bones. “We should set out for Merrimore at once. I wish to devote the first leg of our campaign to interviewing any staff who interacted regularly with Ethan Cotton. Servants are always the best judges of a man’s true self, and I will need to know more of this man before I can decide between his two most probable ends.”
“Cuz if it turns out he was all poxy and flabby and crippled by the end, he likely wasn’t in any shape to to be the Ripper either,” Joshua said.
“A possibility, yes,” Holmes said, “but the evidence could point to the opposite conclusion.”
“Which is?” Watson said.
Holmes glanced down at Ethan’s shroud, brow furrowed. “That this was a man who would not be stopped by anything short of destruction.”
A blank face was a butler’s best asset. No matter what Life emptied over his head, a good butler must remain as stagnant and passionless as a septic tank. Walton Vaughn was a great butler. So it was a testament to Holmes’ grating presence that Pippa could tell he was seething.
“We are quite preoccupied, Mr. Holmes,” the butler said, “so I am not sure my staff and I can spare you much time.”
Holmes looked contemptuously around the kitchen. Not one servant dared look back. “I cannot imagine why. I doubt your master and mistress will be entertaining any time soon.”
“Nonetheless, it is a large household. Their daily needs must still be attended to,” Vaughn said. “I’ll keep it brief,” Holmes said, pulling a distressingly un-brief packet out of his satchel and dropping it on the table. “How did you come to work for Reginald Cotton?”
“I was offered a position as his valet in 1855,” Vaughn said. “I had served in similar capacities for several gentlemen of note in years prior.”
“Including Captain Clement Strachan, your most recent employer at the time,” Holmes said, folding back a page, “who you attended even in Australia, where he was overseeing a penal colony.” “I take pride in my work, sir. Distance is no great handicap for the determined.”
“Yet you returned separately, without his reference.”
The butler sighed. “Regrettably so, yes. I am not one to speak poorly of past employers, but Strachan’s situation was…less than optimal.”
“Is that so? I expected a more refreshing experience,” Holmes said, smirking, “considering that, according to your passport, you returned to England three years younger than when you left.”
Pippa started at that, but Vaughn merely shrugged. “A typographical error, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” Holmes repeated sarcastically. “You are not a man for errors though, from what Cotton tells me, and I have never met a man who returned from the penal colonies under any circumstance who was not the harder for it. You must be quite an imposing figure to the rest of the staff. I hear even Lady Hallsbury dares not cross you.”
“An exaggeration at best, sir,” Vaughn replied.
“A potentially useful one,” Holmes said, “depending on one’s intentions.”
Vaughn’s lips thinned almost imperceptibly. “Meaning, sir?”
“Meaning I find it curious that few Merrimore servants have come forward in Their Graces’ defense. Servants always know their masters’ secrets, and with so much on the line I wonder why they do not share them. Perhaps someone encouraged otherwise.”
“Or perhaps they noticed nothing alarming during their tenure here,” Vaughn said.
“Including you?” Watson said.
Vaughn did not look guiltily at Pippa, but she had a feeling he had to restrain himself. “Master Ethan was not unusual in his family, and did nothing out of the ordinary for a young man of standing, at least not in my presence. All the same, I wholeheartedly believe and support my master’s account of him. Lord Hallsbury is a man of honor, and would not stain his legacy without good and true cause.”
“That’s an awful long ‘no’,” Joshua said.
“To the point one wonders if it’s a ‘no’ at all,” Shekhar added.
“Forgive me, Mr. Deshmukh,” Vaughn said, with impeccable gravitas. “I recall that you struggle if a ‘no’ is not delivered with absolute clarity.”
Watson and Pippa both clapped a hand on each of Shekhar’s arms before he could rise from the table. “Be that as it may,” Watson said, “surely there must have been something out of place over all those months.”
“Master Ethan did seem increasingly agitated the longer he stayed at Merrimore,” Vaughn agreed, “but we all chalked that up to restless spirit. He rarely stayed here longer than two or three months at a stretch.”
“How about during the fire?” Joshua asked. “Or after? Anything weird about the scene, anything that could have been moved or taken or tampered with?”
“Heaven knows,” Vaughn said, “considering how many people were coming and going. I nearly collared a thief myself one night, I am sure of it.”
“A thief?” Pippa said.
Vaughn pondered for a moment. “Yes, I suppose that might fit your parameters, Mr. Holmes, though I am not sure it has anything to do with my poor master’s predicament. The night after the fire, a young man came down to help clean up the rubble.”
“As did every young man in Hallsbury, no doubt,” said Shekhar.
“True, but this one had a bound-up arm. We tried to turn him away for that, but he was so keen to assist that we eventually agreed to let him. As expected, he did little, but he did not even seem to be trying. He shuffled from station to station, shifting brick this way and that and cursing all the while.”
“Sounds like he was looking for something,” Pippa said.
“My thoughts precisely, Miss Phillipa,” Vaughn said. “So when I caught him trying to enter the home proper, I threw him out.”
“A damaged country home always attracts thieves, though,” Watson said.
Vaughn inclined his head. “Granted. But not a week later, I received word that the same prowler was caught skulking around Valley House.”
Holmes perked up. “You are certain?”
“Reasonably. He was also bandaged.”
“Can you describe him further?”
Vaughn waved a hand through the air. “Not well, it was ten years ago, and a dark night to boot. Young, definitely, no more than twenty. Standard laborer’s dress, with a cap.”
“Big fellow?” Joshua asked eagerly. “Bearded?”
Vaughn shook his head. “Slight. Clean-shaven, from what I could tell, or no more than boy’s whiskers.”
Joshua leaned back, looking disappointed. “Right. Any clue what he was after?”
“The possibilities are endless,” Vaughn said. “As you said, Dr. Watson, with wreckage inevitably comes looters.”
Nonetheless, Pippa could swear he had a different answer hiding under his tongue. Holmes evidently sensed it too, for he snuffed like a charging horse and pounded his fist on the table.
“Mr. Vaughn, your masters are not well served by silence!” he snapped. “If you truly wish to keep them from the gallows, you must play straight with us!”
“I will do anything to protect the Cotton family,” the butler said. His voice was so cold Pippa could practically see his breath. “Their welfare and standing are my highest priority.”
“Theirs or yours?” Holmes said. “Because from where I stand, it appears your stubbornness would shield your own future prospects far better than Lord and Lady Hallsbury’s.”
“I am sure I don’t know what you mean, sir,” said Vaughn, cutting each syllable shorter than the last.
Holmes tented his hand over his notebook as if fingering a gun. “You have an odd history, Mr. Vaughn, and I doubt you want it to become any odder. So if you keep quiet about your involvement in any family scandals – if you bully your subordinates into doing the same – you can still find work if the Cottons go down, yes? Whereas no one wants a talkative butler, do they?”
“Holmes, really,” Pippa warned.
Still he plowed on, even as Vaughn’s face stiffened into a vacant mask. “Or perhaps your reasons are more personal? If you are truly such a paragon of decorum, then tell me, what do you think of Lady Hallsbury? Hardly the sort of mistress one can be proud to serve.”
“Lady Hallsbury is a devoted wife and mother,” Vaughn said, albeit quietly. “She is not required to be anything more.”
“But she is something more, a great deal more, and respectable people have noticed.” He gestured at Pippa. “What was it Van Den Burg said? You must know Henry Van Den Burg quite well, Mr. Vaughn, having been employed here his entire life. Cotton, do tell him what your cousin told Farrier about Lady Hallsbury, though I suspect he already knows.”
Her fists clenched as she recalled it. “You were supposed to get rid of her.”
“Get rid of her,” Holmes repeated, staring at Vaughn with crackling intensity. “Now perhaps I leap too far, sir, but I cannot help but think your life would also be more to your liking if you got rid of her.”
Vaughn rose and bowed to Pippa, not a feature out of place. “Madam, you have my fullest cooperation, and that of the entire staff. Unless you require anything further at the moment, however, I should return to my duties.”
She scrutinized him, but eventually sighed and waved him away. “Yes, I suppose. Thank you, Vaughn.”
“Way to sink that ship in the harbor,” Shekhar said, nudging Holmes irritably as Vaughn left.
“A miscalculation, I admit,” Holmes said. “Even on the best days, I cannot abide accomplished liars.”
Shekhar sniffed. “Then you may be in the wrong line of work.”
“We got something out of him, at least,” Pippa said, “and we’ll get more out of the other servants. He said he wouldn’t interfere, and I’ve never known Vaughn to break his word.”
There are first times for everything, however, and Pippa soon believed the next few days to be proof of that. None of the staff would say more than a sentence to them. If they cornered someone without warning, there was always an emergency downstairs only that person could solve. If they scheduled interviews, everyone was inevitably called away on errands, none of which could be put off for an instant. Three footmen were suddenly needed to fetch the post. The kitchen maids could only get cheese in the next county. Despite having no one to drive, the chauffeur made more trips than ever, and all of them required overnight repairs. Pippa had never seen a house more frantically desolate.
“Come on, Toby,” she begged the cook one day, having spent the last twenty minutes trying to get him to look up from his cutting board. “Can’t you help me out? You like my aunt and uncle, don’t you?”
“Yep,” Toby grunted, slicing chicken with a rhythmic thunk.
“You even came with them to their London house, and your mother too. Folley gave her a pretty handsome pension, as I recall.”
“Yep.” Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“You must remember something valuable in all that time. You were there when Folley was attacked, weren’t you?”
“Yep.” Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“When she heard about Mary Kelly and lost her head, you saw that too? And when she got Rose Mylett’s hair in the post? And when Father fell out the window, you were watching from the grounds with everyone, right?”
“Yep.” Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Pippa pulled on her bangs and groaned. “Then for God’s sake, can’t you tell us anything about those times? About Father, about the family, about anything at all that might help us?”
He shrugged. “Told it before, years ago. Don’t think I’d remember good enough now. Hate to muss things up.”
For them, or for you? she thought peevishly as she slid off the counter and turned to go. As she did, however, her thoughts took on a soft, raw form, and she hesitantly looked back at Toby over her shoulder.
“Do you know what I remember?” she said. “I remember Jenny Drake.”
“Nice girl, used to slip me lemon drops when I was cross.” She laughed fondly. “Said, ‘if you’re gonna make that face, Miss Pippa, ya best have cause to.’ She told you the same, sometimes.”
Toby’s finger curled back along the knife’s spine.
“Did you ever find out where she went?” Pippa asked.
There was a long pause, then Toby scraped the chicken into a pot with one stroke. “Nope.”
Only one person would speak to them with abandon. Unfortunately, that person was Colin, the page boy, and it was as difficult to extract anything important from his chatter as it was to make him stop.
“So I went down to get the box from Roger, who was supposed to get it from Mr. Vaughn, but Mr. Vaughn said it had gone out already, so I started to go, but then Mr. Vaughn sent Roger back to tell me would I please fetch the bills from all the fellows on this here list, as well as please bring this letter to Mr. Blair at the playhouse – which I was right quick to do, cuz I love the playhouse, and Mr. Blair always lets me catch the last act free if it’s not too wicked – OH! And specially, and this was from Lady Folley specifical, specially could I please bring her card to Mr. Holmes at Baker Street after, since it’s just a block over and she’d been waiting on him ages, only Mr. Holmes was very busy on a case abroad and wouldn’t be back for weeks and weeks maybe, so I oughta leave the card -”
“Hang on,” Joshua said, shaking himself back to life, “you thought Holmes was abroad?”
The boy nodded. “Uh-huh. ‘Swot Dr. Watson told me.”
“But Watson and Holmes were both at Baker Street,” Shekhar said. “You must be confused.”
“No, no, not that Watson,” Colin said, “the other one. His brother.”
The three teenagers exchanged wary looks.
“Dr. Watson doesn’t have a brother,” Joshua said slowly.
Colin pulled at his toes, unperturbed. “Don’t he? Maybe a cousin then. I dunno, but he was real nice, took all our cards for us and said he’d give ’em to Holmes and Watson when they got back from their adventure.”
“All the cards?” Pippa said.
“Sure,” Colin said, “Lady Folley sent out four or five, and all the other boys had the same thing happen. He knew the crest on our bags, said they had a lot of letters from Merrimore piling up at his brother’s place.”
“And he was at Baker Street?” Joshua said. “Not inside the house, was he?”
“No, at the Pirrocchi,” the page said. “He works next door, he’s a doctor too, and he likes to come in on his lunch time and see shows.”
“So you lads went out every day around lunch with these cards?” Joshua asked, but Colin shook his head.
“All hours, sir.”
“And this fellow was in there every time,” Shekhar said dully. “Awfully strange lunch hours, don’t you think?”
Colin pondered this, then shrugged. “He’s not a very good doctor. Not a lot to do.”
Pippa rubbed her head and sighed. “Colin, how old are you?”
“Seven,” he said proudly. “Lord Hallsbury won’t take anybody younger, they’re not clever enough.”
“He might want to bump the number up,” she muttered under her breath. “Do you remember what this man looked like?”
For once, words failed him. “Normal, I guess? Tim said he had no beard when he met him, but he must’ve growed it back by the time I come.”
“Would you be able to show us this man?” Shekhar asked. “If we took you to the theater?”
The boy’s eyes lit up at the prospect. “Sure, but I dunno if he’ll be there. He was gone last time, and the lady at his office said she didn’t know who the blazes I was going on about and I should take my naughty self outta her sight.” He laughed. “Funny, innit? All that time the two of them shared the same building, and she never cared to learn his name!”
“Dear Colin, I think we should talk about what a ‘red flag’ is sometime,” Pippa said, giving him a worried smile. “Thank you for your help, though. Off you pop.”
“Oy, and no plays for a while, you hear?” Joshua called as Colin bounced past him. “A long while,” he added as the parlor door clicked shut. “Cripes, kids’ brains better be like their teeth. The little ones fall out quick so’s the big ones grow in. Otherwise we need to get him removed from the voting pool in advance.”
“What do you think?” Shekhar asked. “Should we ask around the Pirrocchi? Maybe one of the staff or actors noticed more than the boys did.”
“Maybe,” Pippa said, “though in my experience, getting actors to notice anything besides themselves is a rather tall order.”
“Either way, we’ve got to tell Holmes,” Joshua said.
“Gracious,” Holmes said pensively, drumming his long, mottled fingers on the smoking room table as the three recounted Colin’s story. “A point of grave concern, to be sure. Rare is the man who can trade on our names without my hearing of it.”
“Could it have been Farrier?” Watson said. “Or some agent of his?”
“That would be an awfully preemptive strike,” Holmes said. “No, Farrier would not want to draw my eye over any of his cases, and inventing false Watsons would only serve to entice me. The fellow is not known for his foresight, but even he knows better than that.”
Pippa’s eyes fell on the penpad beside him. At once, Spellman sprang up in her mind’s eye like some grimy phantom.
“Nor would he seem to be a reporter,” Holmes said at once. “Yes, Cotton, Peter Spellman has many abominable qualities, but restraint is not one of them. He would have published those letters immediately, and would have prodded the boys for more details about your family, perhaps even followed them back to Merrimore on some pretense. Instead, this man’s focus was on preventing me from coming to your family’s aid.”
He took a long drag on his pipe, lost in thought. “And yet how weak!” he exclaimed abruptly. “What an artless, flim-flam ploy on which to rest such tremendous stakes! He could not have hoped to maintain his facade longer than a few weeks. Too many people saw him, spoke to him at length, and in the Cottons’ own workplace. Any one of them could have alerted Lady Hallsbury at a moment’s notice. Even if they did not, she may have come to Baker Street in person, and he could not have stopped her.”
“Perhaps he only hoped to delay you for a time?” Watson suggested.
“Possible, but then to what end? And why invoke your name to that purpose?” he said, puffing hard. “It must be intentional. A poorly calculated risk is still calculated. He does not hide well because is already hidden somehow, either by high status or else no status at all.”
The detective leaned back in his chair and blew a thin stream of smoke at the ceiling, a smile opening across his face as he did. “It almost circles into brilliance. He is so obvious, so arrogant, and yet I know nothing of him, save that he is either a mountain or a passing mist. And he knows something about the case,” he added, “something critical. That much is certain.”
He knocked his pipe against his heel, then, ignoring Pippa and Shekhar’s glares at the little black lump smoldering on the rug, he turned to Joshua. “You are positive it could not have been your father?”
Joshua cocked his head. “Pretty sure, I guess. Dad’s all scarred in the face, even before the pox. He’s hard to miss, and not the sort to pass out sweets to the kiddies.”
“At any rate, why would he?” Shekhar said. “What would that lunatic care who Lady Hallbury hires?”
Holmes did not answer, merely spun his pipe around his thumb and muttered, “Branches, such branches!” There was an intense, impish delight in his eyes.
“Now, what did you two find out?” Pippa asked. “I assume it must be something, considering how pleased you look with yourselves.”
Holmes and Watson did indeed exchange smug glances. “A fascinating tale, I must say,” Watson said.
“And a very pretty piece of evidence,” Holmes added, “albeit a small one, courtesy of Mrs. Alice Harvey.”
“The lady’s maid?” Pippa said. “Yes, I’d hope you’d get something out of her. She and Folley have been friends for years.”
“Your aunt is fortunate to have such an attentive companion,” Holmes said, “even if it did take some effort to convince her to speak with us.”
“Mrs. Harvey did not interact much with your father,” Watson told her, “being only a chambermaid at the time, but she did recall that he was highly irritable in the months before his death, and was particularly snappish to his brother and Lady Hallsbury.”
“No surprise there,” Joshua said.
“Quite,” Holmes agreed. “What is surprising is that he took to standing outside of Lady Hallsbury’s bedroom in the middle of the night.”
Shekhar’s jaw dropped. “Really?”
Holmes nodded. “Mrs. Harvey caught him at it thrice, though of course she did not alert him to her presence.”
“What was he doing?” Pippa asked. “Just standing there?”
“In the first instance, yes,” Holmes said. “Shortly after your father returned to Merrimore in the fall of 1888, Alice Harvey was woken in the night by a strange creaking noise. A mercifully light sleeper, you see. When she went to investigate, she saw Ethan Cotton at the far end of the hall, his hand on the knob to Lady Hallsbury’s room. There he stood, quite composed, for some five minutes before walking off. She could not hear clearly at that distance, but she believes he was humming.”
“Why was your aunt even down there, though?” Shekhar asked Pippa. “Don’t governesses usually sleep in the nursery?”
“She did at first, but Father made her move. Said it was time I learned to sleep on my own.” A chill passed through her. “And downstairs servants aren’t allowed to lock their doors.”
There was a long, prickling silence. “Did he ever go in?” Pippa finally asked.
“Oddly enough, he did not,” Holmes said, “not in that case nor in the next, some months later, though he appeared much more agitated in the latter. It is interesting to know that the downstairs doors do not lock, however, because Mrs. Harvey reported that he did try to force the door the third time she saw him, without success.”
“When was this?” Joshua asked.
“The night before the fire,” Watson said, unable to contain himself.
Joshua whistled. “Cheers. All we need is a few more breaks like this, and we might have this case in the bag.”
They would get none. This did not mean they had time to breathe, however, for Holmes filled every spare moment with crash courses in deduction. Some weren’t too bad. After all, Pippa had sat through six years of floral arrangement lectures thus far, so a switch to blood spatter physics and the stages of wound recovery was hardly going to be a step down attention-wise. A few subjects, like chemistry, were even gripping, lighting kindling in her brain she didn’t know was there.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Pippa groaned, pushing the monograph away. “Cigar ash?”
“And cigarette, pipe, and hand-roll, yes,” Holmes said, arranging a small set of vials on a rack in front of her. “Tabak, you should also focus. This is not your strong suit, and I will test you both.”
Joshua sighed and crossed out the game of hangman he and Shekhar had started on the corner of his manuscript.
“There’s got to be fifty bottles there, though,” Pippa said.
Holmes nodded. “Correct, and 200 types of ash. We are starting small.”
Pippa scoffed. “When are we ever going to use this? Who smokes during a murder?”
“The larger the scope of your knowledge, the wider the variety of circumstances you will be prepared to tackle,” Holmes said.
“There comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones,” Pippa shot back.
Watson chuckled, and Holmes shot him a dirty look. “While I know from personal experience that none of this will pass through your ears at the moment, occasionally one reaches their twenties without accumulating all the knowledge the world has to offer. It is best to admit it, before life sets about gleefully proving you wrong.”
“Speaking of which,” Watson said, putting down his newspaper, “perhaps we have stalled here for the time being. It may be time to find new walls to chisel at.”
Holmes inclined his head. “Quite.”
“Any walls in particular?” Shekhar asked.
Holmes nodded, though he screwed up his mouth in frustration. “The victims’ families, ideally, though I doubt Farrier will leap to provide us with addresses. Still, it should not be difficult to track them down on their own.”
“Yeah,” Joshua mumbled, “most of them are still in and about London. Sure I could find them.” He looked as though he would rather stick his pencil through his ear, though, and quickly snatched up Watson’s newspaper and buried his head in it.
“Do they have many surviving family?” Pippa asked.
“A considerable number, actually,” Holmes said. “All were claimed for burial, save Kelly, and all but Kelly left children as well, to say nothing of ex-husbands and extended family.”
“Hold up,” Joshua said, peering up over the top of the paper, “didn’t one of them have kids in the circus? Like in Paris or somewhere?”
Holmes thought. “Yes, Chapman had a daughter in L’Anneau des Merveilles, out of Lyon. Why do you ask?”
Joshua creased the page and stood it up, showing a half-page advertisement. Silhouettes of lions, clowns, and acrobats spelled out L’ANNEAU DES MERVEILLES, while block text listed star attractions in each corner. He tapped the one in the lower left, which read, “ASTOUNDING! The Lovely Mlle. Anne Marchande – TRAPEZE!”
“What’s ‘Chapman’ in French?” he asked.
Had his apprentice brought him a flagon from the Fountain of Youth, greater pride could not have shown on Holmes’ features. “Cotton, call for our hats,” he said. “It seems we must take in a show.”
The circus was splattered across Itchy Park like a spilled drink. Pippa stumbled ahead of the others, passing canary yellow lean-tos and grinning, bearded women’s faces peeling from shriveled posters. The boys paused behind her to stare at a caged lion. The grate was merely bound with cord, but the beast was so skinny and sad-eyed, she was sure the two youths could take him if push came to shove. The glowering clowns they had to shove past seemed bigger threats.
Yet Annie Chapman’s act in the main tent still took Pippa’s breath away. Watching her flip and twirl overhead like a petal in the wind made Pippa forget all her questions, all her troubles, everything that had brought her here in the first place. Even Holmes seemed momentarily mesmerized. The woman was a human comet.
When the show was over, Pippa shook the spell off and chased after Chapman when the woman ducked out of the tent. “Miss Chapman? Miss Annie Chapman? Please, if I could just have a moment of your time.”
Finally the trapeze artist noticed her. The smile slid off her face like mud scraped from a shoe. Pippa hesitantly pulled one on herself.
“I am sorry to interrupt, but I am -”
“Know who you are,” the woman grunted, spinning on her heel. “Know why you come, too, though there weren’t no point in it.”
“Please, Miss Chapman, I know this must be hard for you, but I swear, I will not rest until I get justice for your mother, and you can help me.”
Chapman threw her head back and laughed bitterly. “Justice? Bit late for that, innit?” She propped her foot up on a barrel and unlaced her high boots. “Don’t seem I’d get much out of it ‘cept trouble.”
“How about peace for your mother?” Pippa said. “Isn’t that something?”
Chapman spat into the dirt at Pippa’s feet. “Mum’s been at peace a long time now. Your dear old daddy saw to that.”
She paused, coiling the laces tightly around her fingers. “Now if I could watch him drop, that’s one thing. But Lady Folley done spared us the taxes there, I guess, so t’aint much left for me to do but move on with my life.” She nodded at Pippa, and for the first time there was a shred of sympathy in her voice. “Reckon you should do likewise.”
Pippa’s eyes itched. “They could die.”
Chapman slid the boots off and shrugged. “Waya the world.”
“But you could help them!”
“Funny thing is, I en’t too keen on helping your family.” She threw her boots over one shoulder and felt up and down her jacket, cursing. “Now where the hell did that cig go?”
Pippa immediately produced a pack of Sobranies and a matchbox. Chapman grabbed them, examining the first black, foil-tipped cigarette with an appraising nod.
“Flash,” she said, striking a match off the barrel’s metal rim. Some note in her voice gave Pippa an idea.
“I can pay you,” she said.
Not all ideas are good ones, though, and Pippa realized just how bad this one was the second Chapman looked up.
“Well,” the woman hissed, “the apple don’t fall far from the tree, do it?” The match was still lit, and she looked as if she would like nothing better than to put it out in Pippa’s face.
The girl backed away, hands raised. “I – I didn’t mean it like – I’m so -”
“A little money’ll solve everything, eh?” Chapman said, advancing on her. “Buy a woman, buy a life, and after that, don’t worry, you can buy yourself a clean conscience too. It’s all about money for you, so surely we, us low-down trash folk, we can’t have any higher standards than that.”
“That isn’t what I was saying, I swear,” Pippa said, but Chapman plowed on. The flame was nearly to her fingertips.
“Listen, scrag,” she snarled, “I didn’t sell my mother out to that snippy little muckraker yesterday, not when he promised me my weight in diamonds, so I’m sure as fuck not selling her out to you!”
“What muckraker?” Pippa asked, a new sort of dread creeping over her.
“I dunno, some American bastard, what’s it to you?” Chapman said. “Point is, he knew when to take a hint, and you still need to learn.”
She shook the match out, but before Pippa could even sigh in relief, the woman pushed the cigarette into her collarbone. Pippa’s scream attracted no attention at all.
Chapman clamped the stubbed cigarette between her teeth and turned away, kicking up dirt with her back heel like a tunneling dog. “Get stuffed, yer highness,” she said, and then she was gone.
Wincing, Pippa clapped a hand over the new hole in her dress and stumbled off in search of her comrades. Shekhar paled when he saw her, and he rushed to her at once.
“What on earth happened to you?” he said, taking her gingerly in his arms. “You’re smoking!”
Pippa grinned in spite of it all. “Thanks. You aren’t half bad yourself.”
“Dr. Watson, come take a look at this!” he called over his shoulder. “Please, Pippa, let me see.”
Reluctantly, she let go. The burned skin stuck to her palm, peeling as it pulled away. She and Shekhar drew the same sharp breath.
“Lord above,” Watson said, taking a small leather case from his inside pocket as he approached the pair, “we certainly have learned the five foot rule, haven’t we?”
“The five foot rule?” Pippa asked.
“Always keep a minimum of five feet away from an agitated subject,” said Holmes and Joshua in unison (Joshua rather more duly than his mentor). When he saw Pippa’s injury, however, the young man perked up.
“Ah, cigarette burn,” he said, nodding sagely. “The classic. Yeah, those are nasty, I’m sorry you caught one. At least she didn’t do your face, though,” he added with forced cheer. “That’s downright thoughtful.”
“Good to know,” Pippa hissed. “I’ll send her a card.”
Joshua waved her off. “You’ll be fine, Dr. Watson’ll patch you right up.”
“If you could please try to pull the fabric away from your chest as best you can,” Watson said, taking out a gauze strip and a pair of tweezers.
Pippa smirked. “If I had a penny for every time a man told me that,” she muttered, then saw Shekhar and Joshua’s raised eyebrows and quickly added, “I’d have, um, maybe three pence. Tuppence, really. Well, more like two and a half, but only if you want to get technical.”
“I most assuredly do not, Miss Cotton,” Watson said, shooting a warning look at the snickering Joshua.
“What did you learn?” Holmes asked. “Besides when to duck?”
“Spellman’s been here,” she said, “and I’d bet my eyeteeth he’s going to question the other victims’ relatives as well, if he hasn’t already.”
“Funny how he beat us here, and in so short a time. That advertisement has only been in the paper a day or two,” Shekhar said. “It’s almost like he knew where we would go first.”
“Indeed,” Holmes said. His eyes lighted on a pair of bobbies chatting across the street, and his lips pursed. “And how would that happen, I wonder?”
He struck his cane lightly against the ground and turned heel. Shekhar and Watson fell into step beside him, but Joshua lagged behind with Pippa, grinning.
“Strictly metaphorical tuppence, Tabak,” Pippa sniffed, though she too couldn’t help smirking. “Don’t you get any ideas.”
“Ah, I wouldn’t be interested anyway,” he said, with an elaborate little wave. “You know me, I’m a quality-over-cost kinda man. Some things just aren’t worth the discount.”
Chuckling, Pippa unpinned her hat and twirled it around her finger. “Congratulations, Tabak. I’ve whacked a lot of clods with this hat, but you’re the first one to make me laugh while I do it.”
Their levity was short-lived, swiftly crushed under the weight of a great gray wall of silence that permeated the whole city, ubiquitous as smog. At best, they were greeted by tired, dusty people with tired, dusty answers, who joined them in awkward huddles against factory walls and pub counters and fire escapes just long enough to realize that none of them really knew anything about what everyone wanted to know. Pippa could give them a name now, and they supposed that was something. At the end of the day, it was nice to name your devil, to cry out, “May Ethan Cotton burn in hell!” and feel like that blow might have landed somewhere. But then they would always peer at her, scanning her features like astronomers hunting after a whispered, shifting planet, their eyes hungry for explanations she could not give them.
Why did he do it? Why was it her? After all these years, why can’t we put these coffins down?
She always froze in these moments, and they always left when she did. It got to where she was almost relieved when windows were shuttered and heels turned at their approach. Perhaps she was doing more harm than good. The idea had certainly been floated before, often accompanied through the air by heavy objects.
“Mr. Kidney,” she cried, ducking behind a shed to avoid a hammer, “I know the police haven’t helped you in the past, but we’re not them, so if you could just stop throwing things and listen -”
“No, you listen!” Michael Kidney roared as he fought to pull a stevedore’s hook out of Watson’s remarkably iron grip. “I told you fucking people! Told you ten fucking years ago, I did, a toff done it. A toff done it and that’s why nobody cares, cuz who gives a damn about some foreign whore when there’s a sick cocksucking little princeling out there to protect!”
“We’re not here to protect Ethan Cotton!” Shekhar said, stepping out between a knot of barrels with his hands raised. “We’re trying to help you! To get justice for Elizabeth Stride!”
“TEN! YEARS!” Kidney screamed again. The cry was so long and loud it seemed to sap him of all strength, and he fell to his knees, panting. “Ten years. And now you come? When some other rich jackass is in the docket?”
He buried his face in one fist, and Pippa could not tell if he was laughing or crying. Ignoring Holmes’ mimed warnings, she approached him. He glared at her across his knuckles, but did not attack.
“She had a daughter too, ya know,” he spat. “Be about your age if she’d lived. Where’s her pity, eh? Why’s all I hear, ‘oh, poor Miss Cotton, can you imagine, oh, how she must suffer!’ Weren’t none of that for Liz, was there? No, just, ‘she shoulda known better, shoulda held her liquor better, shoulda found a better job, shoulda been so much fucking better if she wanted anybody to care about her one little fucking speck!”
His eyes flashed and he grabbed Pippa by the collar, though only hard enough to pull himself up. “Well, I cared. Cared a damn sight more than you, and it near fucking killed me. So take your sob story to somebody who don’t know it’s bollocks.”
An angry claw swiped across her tongue, and she couldn’t help adding, “Is that why you hit her so much? Because you cared?”
The interview ended abruptly, with Holmes sweeping Pippa over his shoulder like a rag doll and running off at top speed, reminding her in no uncertain terms about the Five Foot Rule all the while.
Edward Nichols, Polly Nichols son, was gentler in his wording but not in his tone. “Look, I’m real sorry about your family, ma’am, honest,” he said through his cracked front door, “but I got a family of my own to consider. My little brother, he’s too young, and he’s not well to begin with. You’ll drive him over the edge with this talk, and frankly, it sounds like your aunt weren’t willing to make that trade when it was your head on the line, was she?”
Mary Kelly’s lover, Joseph Barnett, cut even closer to the bone. “Folley had a chance to save Marie, and she chose to save herself,” he said with a wintry snarl. “I told her so, before it happened, I told her so at the funeral, and I’ll tell her so right before the drop if I am given the pleasure.”
Only Annie Phillips, Catherine Eddowes’ daughter, offered Pippa anything even approaching assistance. The group had lain in wait for her outside the Bermondsey church that Sunday (which even Pippa felt a little squeamish about, but desperate times called for desperate measures).
“She looks just like her mother, apparently,” Joshua told her as they scanned the crowd.
The image of the gutted woman loomed in Pippa’s mind. “I don’t think that’s going to be much help.”
“There,” Holmes grunted, pointing at a stoop-shouldered woman in a worn blue bonnet. Watson and Pippa rushed her at once.
“Mrs. Phillps,” Watson called, “please, a moment of your time.”
Annie cringed. “Sorry, Mr. Spellman, I’ve said all I’m gonna –” But she caught sight of Pippa and her protests ceased. “Oh. Oh, Lord, I’m sorry, sir,” she said, rubbing her eyes as she looked back and forth between the two of them, “I though you were someone else.”
“You’ve been talking to Spellman too?” Pippa asked, looking around as if afraid the name would summon him out of the ground. “The reporter?”
“Trust me, ma’am, I didn’t mean to,” Annie said with a bitter chuckle. “He came by the other day, said he was a lost tramp and hadn’t eaten in almost a week. I shouldn’t have let him in, but that’s me all over, innit?”
“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Watson said. “I am sure this is a difficult time for you, madam, be we were wondering if – ”
“If you could ask me a few questions about my mother,” Annie recited with a sigh. “On account of which I gave a new statement to the police. You can ask them.”
“They’re hardly going to share anything with us,” Pippa said, “at least not quickly enough to be of any use. Please, is there anything you can tell us, even briefly? Anything unusual you’ve remembered since?”
Annie started to leave, but then paused and furrowed her brow. “Well, I suppose there was the…”
“Oy, what’s all this then?” A large man in a beaver hat came up behind Annie, clapping his hand on her shoulder, and she fell silent. “Who’re you lot?”
“It’s nothing, Louis,” Annie said, but the man pointed a blunt finger in Watson’s face.
“Hang on, you’re that bloke from the Strand, you pal around with that detective!” He turned his glare on Pippa with particular contempt. “And you, you’re a Cotton! You’re the Cotton! Are you bothering my wife?”
“Really, love, it’s not important,” Annie said in a small voice, “Miss Cotton was just saying sorry.”
“Well, that better be all she says,” Louis snapped. “I’ve had it with snoops since that other fellow. Bastard picked at poor Annie till she cried! He’s lucky he got out of my house with all his teeth in his head, and if you come poking around too, well, I might not be so generous.”
With that, he wrapped his arm around his wife’s waist and ushered her away.
The five finally returned to Baker Street after a late interview with Rose Mylett’s mother, a woman who could provide only incoherent sobs. Watson generously surrendered his bed to the youths (never acknowledging Pippa’s questions of where this left him to sleep). After a long three-way gallantry spectacle ended with Pippa threatening to remove the “man” section of whoever kept trying to be a gentleman here, the boys agreed to split it, at least until she came to her senses. An hour later, though, Joshua crept back into the sitting room.
“Christ alive,” Pippa said, when she finally saw him in the chair across from her, “you really are quiet, aren’t you?”
“Part of the trade, can’t turn it off,” he chuckled. “I think my mouth makes up for my feet though.”
They stared each other down for a moment, then she sighed. “We’re never going to get anywhere with this, are we?”
“Pestering folk, you mean? Probably not for a while, but that’s normal,” he said. “Watson trims a lot of fat in his stories, a good investigation takes more time than you’d think.”
Pippa shook her head. “We’re running out of people to pester, though, and we have nothing to show for it. Like maybe, maybe, we could have worked something out of Annie Phillips eventually, but there’s no chance of that now, is there?”
“Yeah,” Joshua said, rumpling his hair with a yawn, “shame Spellman got to her first. Real bastard, pulling on her poor heartstrings like that.”
Pippa sat up, arms halfway in the air, like a deer preparing to bolt.
“Yes,” she said slowly. “Yes, he did do that, didn’t he?”
“Oh, hello,” Joshua said with a grin that consumed most of his face, “what’ve you got then?”
She held on only a moment longer, for the sheer drama of the thing, then she hopped out the door, grabbing her coat so quickly she nearly took the whole stand with her. “Don’t wait up.”
“Sure, sure, just leave me dangling at half-mast, it’s not like we’re partners or anything!” he said peevishly.
He tried to follow her into the street, but the rain was so thick and the fog so high that they immediately lost sight of each other. “Chrissake, woman, what can I do?” she heard him cry.
“You can draw me a bath,” she called over her shoulder as she sprinted down the block. “I’m going to need it.”
I liked this dress, she thought as she intentionally snagged it on the chicken wire behind the Phillips home. But you can’t get something for nothing, I suppose.
She widened the rips in her hem as best she could before examining her reflection in the puddle at her feet. Suitably bedraggled. Granted, the rain had stopped early in the walk to Bermondsey, so she had arrived less drenched than intended, but it was nothing a brisk roll in the mud couldn’t solve. She’d tried running through a thistle patch as well, to complete the look, but quickly decided there were less painful ways to be pitiful. This would have to do. She knocked on the door and tried to look as waifish as she could muster.
As predicted, Annie Phillips’ eyes widened in sympathetic horror when she opened the door. “Oh, good Lord, you poor thing! What happened to – ?” She squinted at Pippa, then gasped. “Wait, Miss Cotton?”
“P-Please,” Pippa said, “I b-beg you, M-Mrs. Phillips, just t-talk to m-me.”
“Did you walk all this way?” Annie said in a hushed voice.
Pippa nodded, and Annie stared at her in awe, her face warming by degrees.
“I w-will be qu-quick, I p-promise,” Pippa said.
Annie glanced back, nudging the door open with her hip. “Erm, well, maybe for just a mo…”
“What’s all this then?” came Louis’s gruff voice, and both women jumped as he came into view. He screwed up his nose when he saw Pippa, like a bull in the ring.
“The hell you doing here?” he said. “Told you we en’t having none of ya. Now piss off!”
He reached in front of his wife to grab the doorknob, but Pippa wedged herself in the frame.
“Madam, please!” she said, never taking her eyes off Annie. “You saw your mother the day she died.”
“Leave. Us. Alone!” Louis snarled, but Pippa didn’t move.
“There was nothing you could have done to save her. You didn’t know what was coming, but what if you did?” she said. “What if you knew the danger your mother was in? Wouldn’t you do everything in your power to save her?”
Annie was pale and watery-eyed, but she managed to nod.
“Then you know why I’m here,” Pippa said.
Annie contemplated her for a long time. Finally, when her husband moved to shove Pippa away, she stayed his hand.
“Let her in.” Her voice was firm and clear. “We have a lot to talk about.”