February 26th, 1881:
Paris is a marvel! I know that is the most predictable statement outside of “water is wet,” but Ethan has opened up parts of the city to me that I never even knew were there. He has an incredible head for directions, you see, so he knows every street like the back of his hand, whereas I only remember the highlights from when Auntie took me as a girl – Notre Dame, the Champs-Elysee, that sort of thing. He has all sorts of friends here, too, though to his embarrassment they are not always the most reputable sort of people. Nobody dreadful, of course, but odd, shabby types that are fun to run with as a youth but less pleasant when they are interrupting your honeymoon. It’s all right, though. I cannot pretend I never had friends like that (and, in fact, nearly bumped into one here! Remember Mary Doehart? I swear I saw her, drunk as a skunk and fat as an abbot, singing THAT song up and down Rue Lafitte). Besides, it is quite amusing helping each other hide from our respective poor decisions. It gives us the opportunity to make new ones.
We did have an alarming encounter the other day though. I am glad it got sorted in the end, but it distressed us both. Ethan was very sweet in tending to me afterwords, and refused to let me look after him in turn, but I fear he may have been the more rattled, and understandably so!
We were browsing the market near our hotel when I broke off to buy plums from this woman on the corner. She was the sweetest little thing to me, all curtsies and “oui mademoiselle, non mademoiselle.” But when Ethan walked up behind me, she took one look at him and completely lost her mind! She even took a swipe at him before the men at the next stall restrained her, all while screaming “C’est toi! C’est lui, il est juste la!” at the top her lungs!
As the others tried to calm her, one of the men begged Ethan’s forgiveness. “Please, monsieur, she has these fits sometimes, she cannot help herself, but I assure you she meant you no harm.”
“Could have fooled me,” Ethan said, rubbing his scratched cheek, but his eyes softened as the girl’s screams quieted into sobs.
“Mais je suis sur…je suis sur cette fois…”
“What’s she going on about?” I asked.
The man hesitated. “There was an attack a few years ago. It was dark, she could not see well, but she swore it was an Englishman from the voice.”
“Oh, the poor thing,” I said.
“Can you not put her somewhere?” Ethan said. “If she is this affected? It seems cruel to leave her in public.”
“She is getting better,” the man said. “It used to be every week with this, now it is almost never. Please, monsieur, they will just throw her in a cell, please.”
Well, of course Ethan was perfectly understanding, and after the girl had calmed down she managed to apologize to the both of us for her outburst (though she was still not quite able to look Ethan in the eye, which seemed to trouble him). Still, we both felt terribly guilty in spite of ourselves, sending that unfortunate creature into a tizzy like that. I cannot get the look on her face out of my mind. Honestly, Diary, you have never seen such terror.
To calm ourselves, we ducked into a coffee shop a few blocks off, where Ethan decided to teach me to play chess “properly” (I KNOW). It is our one lover’s quarrel: he loves chess, I hate it.
“I know it is difficult,” he said as he opened, “it is a thinking man’s game, after all, but if you just applied yourself -”
“Oh, it is not a thinking man’s game!” I said, rolling my eyes and plunking a pawn down on a random square. “Everybody always says that, but any child can learn how to play chess.”
“Not with strategy,” he said smugly, but I laughed him off.
“Strategy, shmategy. It’s just murder. Really boring murder. No skill to it at all.”
He made an incredulous face. “How do you figure?”
“I mean, that is all it comes down to, is it not? Everyone puts all this effort into trying to be clever – studying the board, giving points to the pieces, reading whole books on which pawn to move first – when really all you need do is kill as many pieces as you can as fast as you can.” I clicked my bishop against his knight in illustration.
After carefully looking over the board, he captured the bishop with a pawn. “The point is to kill the king,” he said, “not simply whatever is in front of you. If you are not thoughtful, you shall soon lose far more than you gain.” He dangled the bishop over the board.
I barely spared it a glance, instead taking his pawn with my rook. “But while you are thinking, the enemy is thinking too, so it is best to move quickly and carelessly. They cannot figure out a plan you don’t have, right?”
Ethan chuckled as he moved his queen across the board. “Like how it is hard to argue with reasoning that isn’t there?”
“Exactly,” I said with a grin, taking the other knight. He stopped laughing. “Besides,” I said as his queen dashed back in pursuit of my rook, “the king is essentially useless. Valuable, but weak on his own. So what is the easiest way to make someone helpless?”
My pawn moved into his queen’s square, and his face reddened. “You take away their help,” I said.
He played carefully after that, but it was too late. It only took me a dozen more moves to wipe out all his major pieces and corner his king.
“There, you see?” I crowed. “Hardly even tried. That is why I do not like it. It is not even a clever kind of cruel.”
Still, I must admit I felt a little proud of how well I trounced him. Oh, it was SO funny, Diary! I have never seen him look so furious!
She was eight years old and struggling to hold up a heavy brass telescope. Her grandfather usually helped her, but tonight she was determined to do it herself. It was her birthday, after all. She was practically a grown-up, and grown-ups had to manage their own telescopes, thank you very much.
Grandfather had laughed at that, his booming voice turning to fog in the January air like smoke from a cannon.
“That’s my Capella,” he said, ruffling her hair, “my stubborn little goat. Can you find her up there?”
It was a clear night, but the glass wobbled in her hands, and she had to squint for a while to make anything out. “There?” she guessed, pointing out at a bright speck and nearly dropping her present off the balcony in the process.
“No, that is Sirius, remember the dog’s ear?”
“Come now, that is Venus, you know that. Try again.”
Pippa licked her lips and felt the chapped skin freeze over. Finally, she caught sight of a faint yellow spot, more pronounced than the stars around it. “There it is! That’s got to be Capella, I am sure of it!”
“Right you are!” said Grandfather, patting her on the back with a huge, meaty hand that almost knocked her over.
Pippa beamed in triumph as she scanned the sky. “What’s that, though?” she asked, pointing to a constellation.
Grandfather took up the telescope and followed her arm. “That is the Cup of Pholus.”
“Yes, I remember that was always your father’s fa-”
He stopped, looking out over the snow-covered grounds. After a moment, he slid the telescope shut with a click.
“It is late,” he told her. “You ought to be in bed.”
He brushed the snow off her shoulders with a smile, but there was something unsettling in his eyes. His son, everybody always said, his firstborn son, never been the same since, how sad. But that never sat right with Pippa. He didn’t look sad, really, it was something else, darker somehow. She didn’t yet have a word for it, but if she had, she might have called it shame…
She was seven now, and running down a hospital corridor, the air in her lungs thick as mortar. A doll hung by the hair from her fist, swinging like a metronome.
She can’t die she can’t die not like Father everyone will hate me it was my room they were looking for me it was my window my fault my fault again she can’t die she can’t die she can’t die!
And she didn’t. For the first time that week Folley’s eyes were open when she burst into the room. Oliver was at her side, his bruised face glowing with joy. Her governess looked terrible. She was bandaged so heavily she couldn’t sit up, her arms and neck were dotted with blisters, and her long blonde hair had been cut away unevenly at the chin and frayed out like old, torn curtains around her face. Yet Pippa could not remember a more beautiful sight.
Oliver caught her around the waist as she ran to the bed, arms out. “Careful,” he said, “she’s still in bad shape, you don’t want to hurt her.”
“But she’s going to be okay, right?” Pippa said, shifting the doll in her grip and anxiously rubbing its little hand between her forefinger and thumb. That had always driven Father crazy – left the expensive dolls he brought her blackened with dirt – but she needed all the comfort she could get right now.
“Of course, pet,” Folley said. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Good. Betty was worried,” she added, holding out the doll in an effort to recover her dignity. “You know how she gets. Especially since Father…since he didn’t…well, she thought you might not…”
Folley reached out and took her hand. “I’m so sorry about that, lovey. It’s tragic, it really is. But you have to know that…that your father loved you very much, and he’s with your mother now, watching after you from Heaven.”
Oliver’s mouth twisted, but the couple exchanged a long look and it shifted into a sympathetic smile.
“And we promise to watch after you too,” he said. “You are not alone in this, Pippa, understand? We will be right beside you, no matter what, and we shall love and care for and protect you as long as we live. And we intend to live a very long time,” he added with a laugh.
But even as she gave her uncle a grateful hug, Pippa couldn’t shake that look out of her mind…
And then she was six, of course she was six, and of course they were at the Ludgate Fair, when else had they been this happy? She knew she shouldn’t be so needy. It wasn’t Father’s fault he needed to travel so much. There was just so much business to attend to, and Grandfather was counting on his help. Still, she couldn’t help but get excited every time he walked in the door, nor could she help being hurt every time he kept walking straight past her, without so much as a glance. Uncle said she was imagining things, but she could’ve sworn people whispered wherever she and Father went, and the more they whispered, the less he seemed to like her.
Tonight was different though. Tonight Father carried her on his shoulders as they watched the magnificent contraption in from of them, and laughed at her cries of wonder. The huge, creaking machine made pictures – pictures that moved, all on their own, like magic – and threw them up on a big white sheet. “A cheap trick,” Father sniffed, but she pleaded and he relented with good grace, letting her watch the same grainy black train charge at the screaming audience over and over.
Then, for no apparent reason, he reached up and pulled her down, gently setting her on her feet. “I am so sorry, darling, but I just remembered something very important I have to do. Can you be a good girl and stay right here until I get back? I promise to be back as fast as I can.”
She gave him this, he was a man of his word. Within an hour he was back with a spring in his step and a candy apple in his hand. And with different clothes. She had barely registered it at the time but no, that was definitely the wrong color shirt, the wrong trousers too. She was sure of it.
“For you,” he said, handing her the apple.
Poor Father, she thought, glancing down as she took it, they must have spilled some on him. He’s got it all over his shoes…
Soft hands shook Pippa awake. She was wrapped in her bedding, and sunlight filled the space with a rosy hue. A woman’s voice was calling to her, muffled by the thick down comforter. “Madam, I’m sorry to disturb you, but you need to get up now.”
“Mmf?” Pippa mumbled into her pillow. Her head felt too heavy to lift, overflowing with blood and shadows. “Wha….what’s happen…ing…”
“Begging your pardon, madam, but there’s a man here who says he needs to see you.”
Pippa’s blood froze, and she tore through the sheets so violently her chambermaid jumped back from the bed.
“What man?” she said. “A policeman?”
“No, miss,” Maxine said, “a Mr. Deshmukh, says he’s a friend of yours. I know it’s early, and I can send him away if you like, but Her Grace said she thought it would do you good to speak with him, and he is rather persistent.”
“He certainly is, isn’t he?” Pippa muttered, but she was filled with relief. “Yes, I’ll see him.”
“Very good, miss,” Maxine said, opening the wardrobe and selecting a dark green frock, spreading it out on the bed after her mistress had given it an approving nod.
“How is my aunt?” Pippa asked as the maid helped her out of her nightgown and into the dress. “Is she holding together alright?”
“I think so, madam,” Maxine said, “the lady’s always been a brave sort, but I don’t envy her the madhouse she’s dealing with right now. Mr. Burts has been here since four in the morning and the press was still right on his heels, we’ve had enough telegrams to paper the house, and any minute now those poor children are going to be up and asking where their father is. It’s a right mess, I’m afraid.”
“Has there been any word from my uncle?”
“Not that I’ve heard, miss, but I expect Mr. Burts would know better than me, you can ask him.” She finished up the buttons on the back of Pippa’s dress and gave her a slight pat on the nape of the neck. “I’m sure he’ll be home soon though, don’t you fret.”
Pippa was so far beyond fretting that she could have screamed for twenty years and not gotten it all out of her system, but she gave her maid an appreciative smile. “Thank you. I am sure you’re right.”
The chambermaid curtsied and Pippa turned to leave, but paused in the doorway, drumming her nails along the jamb in thought.
“Say, Maxine,” she said at last, “how long have you been here?”
“’Round fifteen years, miss.”
Pippa counted back in her head and frowned. “So after my mother passed. While Father was on the Continent. I take it you did not know him very well then.”
Maxine shook her head, a few red curls springing loose from under her white cap. “No, madam, I’m sorry. I only saw him when he was home between trips, same as you, and Master Ethan always kept proper distance from the staff. But he was a fine man from what I heard.”
“Is that all you heard, though?” Pippa asked. “Folley told me all the girls downstairs used to gossip together, so did you ever talk about him? Ever hear any strange stories, anything about him that seemed off?”
The maid pulled at her apron uncomfortably. “Strange, miss? I don’t think so. We never really talked about the family. Wouldn’t have been right, you know, wasn’t our place. But when Master Ethan did come up,” she said, relenting in the face of Pippa’s dubious expression, “people mostly just felt sorry for him.”
“Sorry for him?”
“Of course, miss. Terrible thing for a nice young man to lose his wife so sudden like that, and his brother too. Broke him all to pieces, from what I heard, as it would anybody.”
“So you did talk about my mother then,” Pippa said, and Maxine’s eyes widened guiltily. “Or at least about her death. What did people have to say about that? I’m not angry or anything, I just want to know. I need to know.”
But Maxine just curtsied again. “You shouldn’t keep your guest waiting, miss, if you don’t mind my saying. He seemed to be in a hurry.”
Shekhar did, in fact, look more harried than she had ever seen him, practically disheveled (at least by Shekhar standards, which was an admittedly skewed definition of the term). He was pacing up and down the main hall in yesterday’s suit, hands in his pockets and face drawn, a faint wave creeping into his usually slicked-back hair. What little patience he had broke when he saw her on the stairs, and he came bounding up to meet her, taking the steps two at a time.
“I came as soon as I heard,” he said, catching her in a tight embrace. “Are you alright? What happened? The papers are saying your uncle was arrested, is that true?”
“Unfortunately,” she said.
“For Heaven’s sake, why?” he said. “I cannot imagine that man ever so much as put a tack on his teacher’s chair, and the Times did not say what the charge was.”
“Thank God for that at least,” she said. “The lawyers did their job. One less headache on our plate.”
“But what did he do? What do they think he did, anyway?” he said. “Nothing serious, is it?”
Pippa bit her lip. “I-I’m not sure I can tell you. The allegations are very distressing, to say the least, and I can barely wrap my head around anything that’s going on, much less explain it. I’m honestly not sure I’m allowed to. So you’ll forgive me if I have to watch my words for a while, even around you. My poor uncle just doesn’t need any more crises tumbling down on his head on my account.” She folded his hands in hers. “But believe me, I’ve never been happier to see a friend.”
“I am glad to be a comfort,” he said, “and if there is anything more I can do to help, it will be done. I have never left a lady in distress yet, and I do not intend to start now.”
Pippa wasn’t entirely sure that was true, but it was a nice sentiment all the same.
There was a cough from the bottom of the stairs, and Pippa turned to see Roger, the first footman, waiting for them.
“Sorry to disturb you, Miss Cotton,” he said, “but Mr. Burts would like a word with you in the sitting room.”
“Of course. We’ll be right down, thank you.”
“He is not the only one who wants a word,” Shekhar warned her as they descended and followed him across the hall. “The grounds are still crawling with journalists. Most of them seem to have been shoved off to the front gate, but I saw at least a couple slip in with me and they will not be the last.”
Sure enough, as they passed the hall windows, Pippa could make out a small crowd leaning against the gate, arguing with the groundskeeper. As she watched, one of the more enterprising members hopped the fence, and while old Mr. Fealy eventually caught up and drove him off with a few cracks of his walking stick, several others had managed the climb in his absence.
“You will have a right mob of them in a few hours,” Shekhar said, “so I would keep inside as much as possible until they clear out.”
“Clear out on a story like this?” Pippa said with a dark laugh. “We would be waiting until Judgment Day.”
Roger held open the sitting room door for them, and they entered to find Mr. Sebastian Burts, one of the family attorneys, seated in a spring green armchair and staring into a cup of tea like it had just insulted his mother. A bedraggled Folley was perched on the window seat. She had a fire poker in her hand and was arrhythmically tapping it against her leg. There was ash along her knees and the hem of her dress, and her fingers were black.
“Hello, darling,” she said, waving weakly at her niece, “did you sleep alright?”
Pippa raised an eyebrow. “Did you?” she asked, with a coldness that surprised even herself.
Folley said nothing, but her face fell, and the tapping became louder.
“He can’t be in here,” Burts snapped, pointing at Shekhar. No rich man worth his trust fund hired pleasant lawyers, of course, but his tone was unusually sour, and even more unusually tense. It worried her.
“Let him be,” Folley said, waving the poker in an idle circle. “Give him twenty-four hours and the evening Times and he’ll know everything you do. Besides, what do we have to hide? My husband is completely innocent.”
Pippa didn’t like the look that flitted across Burts’ face, but she was having a hard time keeping it off her own. “How is my uncle?” she asked as she and Shekhar sank onto the embroidered couch across from Burts.
“In good spirits, though understandably frazzled. My associate Mr. Cromwell has been seeing him through the interrogation, and some of the questions have been impertinent, to say the least.” He shook his head and clucked his tongue as he opened the file on the table in front of him.
“Impertinent how?” Pippa asked.
Burts’ pale brown eyes flicked uneasily over to Shekhar, and Pippa could practically hear the words being re-spun in his head. “Apparently, few lines of questioning have had to do with the fire in 1889. For some reason Inspector Farrier seems fixated on more personal issues. He badgered Lord Hallsbury repeatedly about his marriage, particularly – forgive me – the scurrilous rumors about his wife’s past, as well as her difficulty in childbearing.”
“What,” Pippa said, “is this the Dark Ages or something? God saw wickedness in their hearts, so he pushed the twins out early and chopped off Phineas’ legs? Are they going to be reading in entrails next?”
Folley let out a strange laugh, making them all turn and stare. “Just funny,” she said, but the poker knocked ever harder against her calf.
“Your Grace,” Burts said, pursing his lips, “I fear you may not be taking this quite as seriously as the situation demands.”
“Of course I’m not,” Folley snapped, “because it’s damn ridiculous and everyone knows it. You said so yourself, they’ve barely mentioned the fire, which means they’re building this whole thing on old gossip and thin air.”
Burts fidgeted with his papers, causing Pippa’s stomach to clench. “They are, aren’t they?” she asked.
He sighed and shrugged. “Possibly. Or they could be trying to rattle Lord Hallsbury. His peculiarities are well known, and they may be hoping to trip him into rambling something useful, or just confessing altogether in a panic.”
Folley’s grip tightened on the poker. “Underhanded fucks, trying to spin his head around like that. Cromwell’s gonna put a stop to it, right?”
“He is certainly doing his best to, Your Grace. Nonetheless, I think we ought to operate under the assumption that, while a confession would make their job easier, they have enough evidence to prosecute without one. Especially,” he said, pulling a page out of the file and holding it out, luring Folley off the ledge, “given this.”
She took the sheet and scanned over it, her lips moving slightly as she read. “Lakker-lacer-lacerations incontin-inconsistent with point of impact – sorry, I don’t follow.”
“It is the autopsy report recently conducted on Ethan Cotton,” he said, looking apologetically at Pippa. “The remains are skeletal at this point, of course, and thus difficult to draw any solid conclusions from. But the examiner noted a deep gash along the side of the skull, one that does not seem to be the result of a fall. Naturally we can find an examiner of our own to draw more favorable and accurate conclusions, but it is something to be wary of all the same.”
Folley nodded, looking a little pale. “And Christina? I heard they exhumed her too.”
“Indeed they did, my lady, and the examiner confirmed death by poisoning. However, that too has some potentially troubling implications.”
Pippa and Folley exchanged confused looks. “How do you mean?” Pippa asked.
“The poison in question does not appear to be one on record,” Burts explained. “Or rather, it is not a proper poison at all, but a clumsy combination of various substances, and in concentrations high enough to kill in under a half hour. Given the painful attributes of some of the ingredients, though, I fear it may have been a very long half hour.”
Shekhar took Pippa’s hand, watching her in concern, and she was suddenly aware of her shallow breathing. She did her best to compose herself. “What does this have to do with my uncle, though?” she asked.
“It’s always been assumed that your mother ended her life with the aid of the laudanum she had been prescribed for her postpartum pains. Curiously enough, however, there was a high concentration of arsenic in her hair and bones.”
“Meaning whatever she took wasn’t laudnaum,” Shekhar said with dawning horror.
Burts nodded. “And therefore meaning, in Farrier’s estimation, that she may have been unaware of what she was taking.”
“That still does not implicate my uncle,” Pippa said. “Wealthy or not, I doubt a fifteen-year-old boy could get access to so much arsenic, at least not without my grandfather finding out about it.” The thought hit her like a shovel to the ribs. Then again, maybe he was used to keeping quiet about his sons’ hobbies.
“I think it very far-fetched too, madam,” Burts said, “and much of the poison’s composition remains a matter of guesswork. However, the few ingredients the examiner is certain of could be found in any number of household items, and could easily be cobbled together by a child.”
“But why would he?” said Folley. “What reason could he have to kill that poor girl?”
“That is a leap I cannot make, I am afraid. I merely know that Farrier has, and we ought to be prepared for it to come up.” As Folley handed the report back, he suddenly narrowed his eyes. “Speaking of preparation, we ought to go over your statement once more.”
Folley’s lips thinned and she rapped the poker against her shin again. “I already told you everything that happened, Mr. Burts.”
“I am sure you did,” Burts said, in the least sure tone Pippa had ever heard in her life. “All the same there are a few points I would like to go over. So would you mind telling me what happened on the night of February 25th, 1889?”
Folley shot Pippa a concerned glance, one Pippa found herself unable to return. “Very well,” she said. Taking a deep breath, she sat down on the arm of the couch, folded her hands primly in her lap, and took up the same mechanical affect she had worn the night before.
“Oliver and I had our engagement party. Most folks there had just come to scream at us, of course, so at some point he and our friend Pierce Darney went off to deal with a problem and Ethan pulled me aside. Said he needed to talk. I knew he wasn’t wild about us either, but he said if I was straight with him on a few things, he’d gimme a fair shake. So we went off to the sitting room to discuss his concerns.”
Burts frowned. “The sitting room? Not the parlor?”
“So you weren’t there when the fire started?”
“No, sir. We smelled the smoke soon enough though. Peeled out of there and ran upstairs, me looking for Oliver and him looking for Pippa. Her grandfather had let her go off with her cousins for a drive in the new car, but he didn’t know that, thought she was still in her room, see? So I finds Oliver soon enough, but Ethan’s still tearing around looking for his daughter. By then the main stairs had burned up, so we tried to get Ethan to come with us down the back stairs before they went too. He was at the nursery window when it happened. I think he was worried Pippa had jumped, or maybe he was thinking about it himself, I dunno. I was coming up behind to grab him and all of a sudden the floor gave out. I got snagged bad on something on the way down, but Oliver managed to catch me. Ethan, though, he was just too far away. Saw him fall just before I passed out. Woke up in hospital a couple days later and they told me he died.”
The mask slipped a little, as Pippa expected it would, and Folley’s eyes gleamed like a child presented with a large sweet. “Awful,” she said, not altogether convincingly, “just awful.”
Shekhar once again reached for Pippa, but this time she shook him off with a warning look, making him furrow his brow in confusion. When she also twitched away from Folley a second later, the crease grew deeper still.
Burts, meanwhile, was looking back and forth between his papers and Folley with similar suspicion. “I see. If you don’t mind my asking though, Your Grace – you said you went upstairs looking for your fiance, which aligns with Lord Hallsbury’s recent statement as well as the account the two of you gave at the time of the incident. The late Lord Reginald Cotton, too, later stated that, through the courtyard windows, he saw you and the deceased running across the hall.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Then why,” he said, pulling a sheet out of another, yellowed file and laying it down on the table, “in his first statement did he say that he saw both his sons in the hall, and not you?”
Folley blanched but recovered quickly. “Confusion, I’m sure. It was a big distance, and by the time the police arrived he wasn’t exactly pulled-together.”
“Certainly, Your Grace, but all the same, the jury may find it strange that someone as shrewd as Lord Reginald would not be able to distinguish a woman of five foot five from a man of six foot one. Even if he did, and it was you running up the stairs, that doesn’t explain why your husband was already waiting when you got there.”
“I told you,” she said, rolling her eyes, “someone was trying to cause trouble and he went to handle it.”
“He and Mr. Darney, yes. Now, Mr. Darney reportedly survived by jumping from the interior balcony to the courtyard and managing to make it out through the kitchen, while your husband carried you down the back stairs and out the same door. That all follows. But what happened to the person they went to deal with in the first place? There was no other body found on the property. Everyone remarked on it, how miraculous it was that a fire of that size only had a single causality. So where did this third person go?”
This caught Folley off guard. Her mouth hung open for several seconds as she fumbled for a response. “I…well, I…”
Mercifully there was a knock at the door, and Folley and Pippa sprang up as one. “Come in,” Pippa said, before Burts could object.
The door opened and in came a breathless, smartly-dressed boy carrying a telegram.
Folley pinched the bridge of her nose and winced. “Colin, I told you, just keep the them all downstairs and I’ll sort them out later.”
“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” said the page with a bow, “but it’s from a Miss Eddleson, and you said you wanted -”
Her expression brightened and she snatched the message out of his hands.
“Thank you, Colin, thank you so much. You can go now. As can you, Mr. Burts,” she added, nodding at the lawyer. “I’m terribly sorry to cut this short, but this is urgent. Please try to find some way to keep this out of the courts, and see to it those dogs treat my husband properly from now on.”
For a moment Burts looked like he was going to yell at her, but he composed himself and swept his papers back into his briefcase. “Very well. I will confer with Mr. Cromwell and will return with more information for Your Grace. Expect me in a day’s time.”
He moved to follow Colin out of the room, but as he passed Folley he paused and gave her a pointed look. “I can only help you as far as you will help me,” he said in a low, sad voice.
“Until tomorrow, Mr. Burts,” Folley said.
They exchanged hard stares for a moment, then Burts sighed and bowed out of the room.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Folley tore open the folded telegram. She read it slowly, then suddenly cried out.
“What is it?” Pippa said, grabbing the letter before Folley could stop her.
ON WAY STOP P MIA STOP DO NOTHING SAY NOTHING TILL ARRIVAL STOP M
“Who is this now?” said Shekhar, reading over her shoulder and looking punch-drunk. “What are they on about?”
But Pippa’s breath had stopped along with Folley’s, and for the first time that day, as her aunt sank onto the couch like a reed in the heat, she reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s Matilda Eddleson. An old friend of the family,” she explained, “who runs with Pierce Darney a lot.”
“Who’s missing,” Folley interjected in a hollow voice. “Pierce is missing. I should’ve known something was wrong, he would have sent a wire back right away otherwise. What am I to do now? He’s the only one who could…who knows…”
Her eyes flicked over to Shekhar and her earlier trust dissolved.
“If you two will excuse me, I have a lot on my plate right now. Could you please see to any household issues, pet, just for a little while? I imagine Vaughn has it in hand, but if anything comes up, do you think you could manage while I deal with this?”
Pippa’s gaze dropped to the poker. She wiped her thumb over the black fingermarks on the telegram.
“Certainly,” she said slowly. “No problem.”
“Are you sure?”
A jagged, hysterical laugh coursed through her head. Sure of what? Sure of you? Sure of my father? Of my safety, my sanity, of literally any part of this nonsense story that’s the only thing standing between my uncle and the grave? Am I sure?
But she pushed these thoughts back and, looking over Folley’s head, walked out of the room without a word.
“So,” said Shekhar after a moment, “was that as bizarre for you as it was for me?”
Pippa cringed. “Oh God, I’m sorry you got thrown in like that, but I appreciate you keeping your head anyway. Here, I might as well fill you in, but we can’t do it here.”
Taking him by the hand (her stomach did a little flip at this and she cursed its timing), she lead back upstairs and took a right. As she put a hand on the door to her bedroom (there was another flip), it suddenly opened to reveal Maxine, who jumped.
“Goodness, madam, you startled me!” she said. “Beg your pardon, I was just cleaning up that broken…the glass, I mean. That shelf’s not the most stable, I’m not surprised it gave way again. I’m afraid one of the books might’ve been damaged though.”
She handed over a thick brown volume. Several pages had come loose and were stuffed haphazardly in between the others.
Pippa turned the book on end and groaned. The Odyssey was printed in faded gold along the spine. Despite her uncle’s best efforts, Pippa was not one for literature, at least not the kind one could leave lying around in the company of relatives. So who…?
“I figured it was one of your schoolbooks, miss,” said Maxine.
“No, I threw my copy into the canal at the end of last term,” she said. “Besides, it’s much too old.”
The book did indeed appear to be at least forty years old, with peeled corners, a spotted cover, and a spine that had withered away to almost nothing. A puff of dust went up when Pippa opened it, and her cough blew the first several pages onto the floor. She was about to tell Maxine to pitch the damn thing when a small note on the inside cover caught her eye. With a jolt, she read it aloud.
“This book is the property of George E. Cotton, Year Three, Winchester College.”
“There is something here, too,” Shekhar said, stooping to pick up the fallen pages. “Notes, it seems. He must have left them in there.”
He passed her a sheet of paper, smaller than the others and folded in threes. On it, in faded blue ink, was a list of names written in a practiced hand.
“I don’t think so,” Pippa said, holding the letter underneath the inscription for comparison. “It doesn’t look like the same handwriting.”
Shekhar shrugged. “He was pretty young when he got it, maybe his hand just changed.”
Pippa bit her lip and tapped the list against the inner spine of the book in thought. “Maybe, but…”
“What’s going on?” said a small voice, and they turned to see the children clustered outside the nursery room door. Their governess, Miss Baxter, was trying to usher them down the back stairs. The twins looked less interested in what the grown-ups were doing than in whether they would make breakfast, while Phineas merely drooled happily into Miss Baxter’s sleeve. But Kate was planted in place, staring up at Pippa with round, frightened eyes, like a rabbit on the end of a gun.
“Where’s our parents?” she asked. Her chin quivered as she spoke
“Downstairs, pro’lly,” Elizabeth yawned, pulling on her sister’s skirt. “Kate, I’m hungryyyy, let’s goooo.”
Kate shook her off. “Are they?”
“Your mother is downstairs, yes,” Pippa said, “but try not to disturb her, she…she’s very busy this morning.”
When no one replied, the twins too began to look nervous.
“Where is my father?” Kate said, voice climbing in terror. “What happened to him? Why won’t anyone tell me anything?”
It was a sentiment the rest of them would come to share during the next three days. Waves of people, well-wishers and stone-throwers and oglers alike, surrounded the house, but none of them had anything useful to say. The servants sent out to query detectives returned home alone, Burts was running out of ways to shake his head, and every message to every one of Pierce Darney’s hideouts and aliases was met with silence.
All of Pippa’s correspondence, too, seemed to disappear into the wind. The only letter she’d received was a notice from Ashcroft informing her (she could practically see the old hag skipping as she wrote) that she was “temporarily advised” not to return to school. She didn’t care, of course, but Folley had taken it remarkably hard.
“Just another thing wrong, innit?” she said when her niece tried to comfort her. “Just somebody else I’ve knocked out of the corner.”
Pippa couldn’t quite follow her, but after several sleepless nights she no longer had the energy to penetrate her aunt’s black mood. She left that up to Folley’s gentle sister Lacey when she arrived, though her efforts were no more successful.
Shekhar, too, struggled in this department. Pippa appreciated his presence (though it filled her with more conflicted feelings than she had space for at the moment), and he was the epitome of compassion every time he visited. All the same, his attempts at distraction grew less and less successful with time, and what little cheer he coaxed out of her was always dashed by the news at the end of the day. Frankly, Pippa was starting to hope he’d give up on her. She knew she ought to appreciate having any friends left at all, but seeing the distress in his eyes every time he saw her made her want to hide under the bed and never come out. She was tired of him – of everyone – looking at her with such pity. But then, she was tired of most things now.
Then, that Tuesday, life suddenly returned to the house with a knock at the door.
“Hurry up!” came a stern female voice from the other side. “You’ve got a real nest of vipers out here, Folley, and soon I shall bite back!”
In her chair by the sitting room fire, Folley perked up. “Mattie,” she breathed, smiling for the first time in days. Pippa followed her as she jumped up and ran out into the hall, where the hall boy had just let in a tall, strangely-dressed woman.
Matilda Eddleson ought to have been a laughable sight. The simple men’s travel suit she wore would have been tolerable, had it not been such a dreadful shade of puce, but it was coupled with a rubber Mackintosh two sizes too big, a knit seaman’s cap, and knee-high brown boots laced so tightly that her trousers puffed out the tops like mushrooms. Her beady green eyes and lipless, ratlike face didn’t help matters, no more than the coarse black braid that ran down her back.
Yet whatever Mattie lacked in appearance, she made up for in bearing. She had a sober, military air about her, and a haughty tilt to her head that stopped laughter dead in the throat. No eccentric lifestyle or mysterious occupation would ever change the fact that this woman was the daughter of giants, and she knew it. It was said that the Penwickes could trace their line back to William the Conqueror, and looking at their current heiress, no matter how bizarre her taste, you did feel a strong urge to kneel. Even Folley, who took titles about as seriously as palm reading, waited deferentially for her friend to open her arms before embracing her.
“Thank God you’ve come,” she said. “It’s been hell in here. They won’t let me see him – won’t even let the children see him – and I can’t be sure what they know.”
Mattie shot a questioning look at Pippa, and Folley nodded. “Yeah, I told her. She knows everything now.”
“And she believes it?” Mattie said.
Folley hesitated, her eyes moving back and forth between Pippa and Mattie in dimming hope. “Well, I…I would think that…it’s, um…”
“Yes,” Pippa said in a quiet voice. The churning in her head had not gone away, but she was starting to find a rhythm in it.“I believe her.”
Her aunt fell silent, looking at her like she was the eighth wonder of the world.
“There is no reason Folley would lie to me, not like this anyway, and I can’t see her or my uncle killing anybody in cold blood. My father…”
His laugh rang out in her ears. She hesitated, but pressed on. “Nobody wants to think badly of their parents, but I barely knew my father. I can’t speak to his character, not as well as an adult could. I know my aunt and uncle’s, though, and they would never do what they did without reason. I accept their story.”
“You may be one of the few who do,” said Mattie.
“You were there!” Folley said. “Maybe you didn’t see it, but you still -”
“I know, I know,” Mattie said soothingly, “but you must realize how bad this looks! It is not exactly the most plausible story in the world. It is true, I know it is true, but it does not sound true, and I am afraid that is all that matters.”
Folley’s face crumpled. “That’s why we need Pierce,” she said. “He’s the only one who could back us up. Have you heard anything?”
Mattie shook her head. “Nothing. We split up about a month ago. Mother wanted him to handle something in Minsk. We were supposed to meet in Paris by the 1st, but he never showed. I had been looking for him for a week when I got your message. Even Mother has no idea where he is.”
Seeing the terror in Folley’s eyes, she tried to give her a reassuring smile. “We will keep looking, of course. You know Pierce, this is hardly the first time he has gone off-map, and he always turns up in the end. He is probably shaking off some trouble. He of all people would not desert you and Oliver in your hour of need.” She smirked. “Nor pass up such a fine chance to show off.”
Folley chuckled, but her face was lined with worry. “What should we do in the meantime?”
“I can’t honestly be sure at the moment,” Mattie said. “Too many variables, too many gaps. It is damned hard to plan around what you do not know, especially when you cannot even trust what you do.”
“Well, Mr. Burts should be here soon for dinner,” said Folley, wringing her hands. “He ought to have some more information for us. That should help, right?”
Mattie shot a sidelong glance at Pippa, who tried to keep her opinions of Burts’ information off her face. Judging by the sinking look in Mattie’s eyes, she did not succeed.
Still, she rubbed her friend’s hand kindly between her own. “I am certain it will. For our purposes, any news is good news.”
Even in the moment it had seemed an exceptionally stupid phrase, like waving a scythe in a thunderstorm, so Pippa was not surprised when consequence struck. But the timing could not have been more cruel. In addition to Burts and Shekhar, some of Folley’s fellow players had joined them for dinner, laying heroic siege to her misery. Being raised around actors does tend to give one a revulsion for the whole species, but Pippa had to credit them for making her aunt laugh again. She had almost forgotten what it sounded like. It was as if they had re-lit the sun.
And then, right in the middle of her warmest laugh of the night, there was a frantic knock at the dining room door.
“Who’s that?” Folley asked Walton, looking like a blown-out match.
“I have no idea, my lady, but I assure you they shall be dealt with promptly,” he said.
He snapped his fingers at the footmen and Roger immediately backed towards the door. Giving the party a quick, sharp bow before he turned, he cracked the door open just wide enough for them to see Colin waiting outside. The footman slipped out and there was a loud swat and the sound of dragged feet.
“Idiot,” they heard him say before the voices faded into a hum, “you’re never to interrupt…”
A long squabble was followed by an even longer silence. Finally Roger shuffled back into the room, looking like he’d been kicked in the chest.
“What is it?” Folley said, rising from the table with wide eyes.
He raised the small card in his hand in answer. “He’s confessed.”
Pippa had never seen someone actually faint before. It was surprisingly frightening. There was no grace to it. Folley just closed her eyes and dropped like a felled deer. Mattie only barely caught her before she hit the floor.
“That idiot!” she hissed, lightly slapping Folley on the right cheek. “What possessed him to do a fool thing like that?”
Burts pulled the telegram out of Roger’s hand and read it in disbelief. “Mr. Cromwell says Farrier finally threatened to bring Lady Hallsbury in for questioning. After that, there was nothing he could do to talk His Grace out of it. He signed whatever they put in front of him, without even bothering to read it.”
“Tricked him,” Folley mumbled, her eyes fluttering open. “The skeeving bastards tricked him. I knew this would happen, I told him! You know how confused he gets under pressure, how easy it is to talk him into things! Oh, my poor angel!”
She buried her face in her hands and took a deep breath, then braced her arms on Mattie’s shoulders and rose up with a look of grim determination. “I’ve got to fix this.”
“Your Grace, I urge you not to be hasty,” Burts said. “Mr. Cromwell may yet be able to convince your husband to retract his confession, whereas your presence would only increase Farrier’s -”
“Thank you for your service, Mr. Burts, but you can go.” She snapped her fingers. “In fact, all of you go, if you please.”
After a moment’s hesitation, everyone filed out of the room. Shekhar clasped Pippa’s shoulders as he stood.
“I will be back first thing in the morning, I promise. If you need anything at all in the meantime, you have only to ask. I am your man to the end of this, no matter what happens.”
“Thank you,” Pippa said, patting his hand absently. With a quick, comforting squeeze he departed, leaving her, Mattie, and Lacey still camped in the room.
Folley’s eyes narrowed. “Lacey,” she said, picking out the weakest link, “go fetch the kids, would you?”
Lacey fiddled with her hem. “Dora,” she said, “you’re not gonna -”
“Please, Lace,” Folley said, voice cracked with emotion. “Please, I need my children now.”
Her sister was no match for this. Hanging her head, she got up and shuffled out the door.
“Now, Mattie,” Folley started, but her friend cut her off with a snort.
“If you think I will skip along with whatever lunacy is boiling away in that bleached head of yours, you have another thing coming,” she said, folding her arms across her chest like an admiral.
“What do you want me to do, eh? Just sit here?”
“That is precisely what I want you to do. What Oliver would want you to do, for that matter. You heard Burts, running in there with your sword raised and your tongue wagging isn’t going to help this time.”
“And what if he dies?” Folley said, banging her first on the table.
Pippa got up and touched her aunt gingerly on the elbow, as if she might break into shards. “They would never kill him,” she said, trying to sound more certain than she felt. “They are trying to lure you out, you’re the one they’re really after. No judge sitting would ever execute a peer of the realm.”
Folley scoffed. “London’s built on the heads of peers of the realm. And if they want me, well, that’s the first rule of theater, right? Give the people what they want.”
“And what about what your family wants?” Pippa said. “What about those children you want to see so badly? Haven’t they lost enough this week?”
“The girl has a point,” Mattie said. “It is not just your neck on the line here, you have little ones to look after now.”
“And how long do you suppose they’d let me look after them if Oliver’s convicted?” Folley said. “It’s like you said, Pippa, they’re after me, and if they can’t get me they’ll come for my kids, and for you, mind!”
She jabbed Pippa in the chest with her first finger. “You need your uncle’s protection more than you realize, and I don’t have his power! If I give myself up, the Cottons will insist Oliver’s charges get dropped, and we all know that if anybody can weasel their way out of a noose, it’s me.”
“And if you can’t?” Mattie said.
“I won’t throw my family on the mercy of these buzzards, Mattie! They must be safe and they must stay together. For that to happen, Oliver needs to come home, no matter what it takes.”
Angry tears welled in Pippa’s eyes. “But you need to come home too,” she said.
There was a flicker of real fear across Folley’s face, but she smiled and kissed her niece softly on the forehead. “No matter what it takes,” she repeated.
“For God’s sake, Folley, be sensible!” Mattie pleaded, rushing forward as her friend started to move towards the door. “There must be a thousand ways out of this that do not require your confession. Give Cromwell time to make him see sense, it can’t take more than a few days, be reasonable!”
Pippa, meanwhile, elected to abandon all traces of being reasonable herself, locked her arms around Folley’s waist, and sank to the floor, hanging off her like a human bustle.
Folley rolled her eyes and strained to escape, waddling towards the exit as if through two feet of mud. “Christ, Pippa, get up, stop this childishness!”
“You first!” she sniffed.
“Believe me, I’m not gonna swing for Ethan Cotton if I can help it,” Folley said, trying to pry apart Pippa’s interlocked fingers at her back. “But I’ll be damned before I let my husband do it for me! Now let go!”
“No! You’re not leaving, I won’t let you!”
Giving up and dragging her niece along the floor, Folley flung the dining room door open, only to be greeted by Walton, filling the frame like an obelisk.
“No, Miss Phillipa,” he said, “I do believe that is my job.”
Folley buried her face in her hands and groaned for several seconds. “Chrissakes, you people just don’t quit, do you?” she grumbled. “Look, Vaughn, this doesn’t concern you, so let me by.”
“Forgive me, my lady, but anything to do with the Cotton family welfare is my concern,” said Walton, looking a little affronted. “Besides which, I cannot allow you to undertake any potentially dangerous endeavor, and given Miss Phillipa’s condition -” he gestured at Pippa, still clinging to her aunt’s skirts “- I would hazard this is one such endeavor.”
“I am lady of this house,” Folley said through gritted teeth. “You will do what I tell you, and I’m telling you to move.”
Walton raised an eyebrow and Folley wilted. Grand dame had never fit well on her, and she still held Walton in a special place of terror.
“Of course, madam,” he said coolly, “but in this instance I am afraid I take my instructions from one who outranks even yourself.”
Immediately Folley scowled down at Pippa, who tried to look innocent (a considerable task, considering how little practice she’d had). “Vaughn, Pippa is still a child and won’t be heir apparent to so much as a teapot without her uncle here to sign the place away. You’ll have to do better than that.”
To Pippa’s surprise, he did. Pulling a small, folded card out of his breast pocket, he flicked it open and read aloud.
“W DON’T LET WIFE OUT OF SIGHT STOP FORBIDDEN FROM STATION STOP FEAR WILL TAKE DRASTIC ACTION STOP USUALLY DOES STOP F WYBO QUERY”
He folded the message along the crease and handed it to Folley. “It arrived with Mr. Cromwell’s. I am bound to do His Grace’s bidding, even ahead of yours.”
With a stiff nod, she opened the paper, let out a short, bitter laugh, and pressed her lips to the last line. Her eyes were closed, but the candlelight gleamed around her eyelashes, exposing the tears creeping through.
“This isn’t over,” she said, the paper snapping between her fingers as she gestured to each of them in turn.
Walton’s lip twitched. “I would be very concerned if it was, my lady.”
“I assume I’m allowed” – she made a disparaging noise “-to contact him at least? To respond?”
“Certainly, madam. What shall I tell him?”
“Tell him ‘good luck with that,’ obviously, and then…” Her lip quivered slightly. “And ‘SWM.’ That’s all. Please get that to him as soon as you can.”
With a deep bow, Walton departed down the darkened hall.
“There is bound to be a way out of this,” Mattie said, putting a hand on Folley’s shoulder, “that doesn’t require you dying for each other.”
Folley chuckled, sounding a little mad. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
The next two days passed like an unwelcome guest, slowly and with great tension. Folley could barely turn around without being accosted by either nervous staff or eager journalists.
“Honestly,” she told Pippa as they sat in the back garden with the children, “they act like I’m a lemming or something! It’s not like I’m trying to get -” she looked down at Phineas in her lap, covered his ears, and mouthed the word “hanged” as soon as Kate wasn’t looking. “I’m just better at wriggling out of messes like this than Oliver is.”
“But you might not have to wriggle out of it is the thing,” Pippa said, taking a handful of berries from the twins and dumping them into the small woven basket at Folley’s side. “Cromwell thinks he’s making progress and so long as Uncle recants, I doubt they have enough to prosecute him.”
Folley shook her head. “He’s a damn fool if he thinks that. Oliver’s a sweet man, but he’s just as stubborn as I am.” She stroked her son’s dark curls fondly.
“Besides,” she added, screwing up her mouth in thought, “I’ve met Peelers like this Farrier before. Most are just lazy crooked bastards, of course, but once in a while you get one that twists the other way. The kind of crooked that tries, ya know? Look at you like a rat looks at its babies in the dead of winter. Don’t matter who gets eaten as long as he makes it to spring. He’s got that feel about him, like teeth on bone, and I don’t think he’s gonna drop this one any time soon.”
He wasn’t the only one, as that night would prove.
“Looks like it’s just us four, Vaughn,” Folley said as the women sat down to dinner. “Might as well serve everything at once, give the staff an early night.”
Pippa looked at the glum faces circled around her, then down at the equally miserable pea soup in her bowl, and sighed. “I doubt anyone will be up for seconds anyway.”
“Very well, my lady,” Walton said, he and the footmen filling the entree plates from the large silver platters in their arms.
“Not so much for me, thanks,” Folley said, holding up a hand. “I’m sure it’s lovely, but…well, I haven’t felt…”
She trailed off with a weak shrug, and for a moment Walton almost looked worried about her. “Certainly, madam, if you are sure.”
“You really ought to keep your strength up, Dora,” Lacey said, taking her sister’s hand.
Folley shook her head. “Believe me, Lace, I’m trying, but I just can’t tonight. Tomorrow. I promise. You all eat though, our chef is quite good.”
Mattie ate a spoonful and her lips puckered. “I will have to take your word for it,” she muttered into her water glass.
“Don’t be rude now,” Folley chuckled, wagging her finger. “Getting to the market in one piece has been a real chore for the kitchen staff this week, show some respect.”
She waved Walton and the footmen off. “Please give them my compliments. Oh, and don’t give the children anything extra,” she added with sudden urgency. “They’ve had supper already, and I don’t want them spoiling their breakfast, so if they come down looking for midnight snacks, don’t give in.”
A different sort of worry crossed over Walton’s face. “Of course not, my lady, but that has always been the case. We have never fed the children anything without express permission.”
“I’m sure you haven’t. Even my kids can’t weasel around you. Them though?” Folley said, winking at the footmen, who reddened. “Piece of cake. So I’m just giving ’em a reminder, that’s all.”
The suspicion faded from Walton’s eyes, though it did not entirely disappear. Bowing, the servants departed, leaving the four women to pick at their plates in silence. Folley made a few halfhearted attempts at eating, but her spoon never made it all the way to her mouth. Frankly, Pippa couldn’t blame her. She’d never cared for pea soup, but this batch was unusually bad, sour as old milk and with a strange, prickling aftertaste that was almost dizzying.
“God, what is in this?” Mattie said, taking a long drag of water and pushing her bowl away. “I am sorry, Folley, but something…” Her breath suddenly became hitched, and she swallowed hard between words. “Something’s rather…rather off with that.”
The dizziness intensified. Pippa heard her own breath grow ragged. It was hard to keep her eyes open.
Mattie’s face went white, and her head lolled on her shoulders. “Spiked,” she gasped. “Folley don’t…dun toush it, nobody tusssh any…anythinnn…”
But Folley hasn’t touched it, Pippa thought. Didn’t even sip her glass, that was lucky. That was…lucky?
“Fff…fsshully, I dun…ah don feel…” Words tumbled in her mouth like marbles. Her head felt twenty pounds heavier than it did when she sat down. What on Earth was going on?
There was a great clatter to her left. Lacey had dropped her glass into her bowl and was staring at Folley in horror. The glass had shattered and the bottom of the bowl was cracked up the center, so that glittering green lines of soup seeped into the tablecloth like thorns.
“You didn’t,” she said. “Dora…you sssshuldn…”
Mattie tried to stand, but barely lifted herself more than an inch before toppling to the floor. Lacey raised two fingers to her mouth, but Folley grabbed her before she could get them down her throat.
“Stop it, you’ll choke!” she said, pinning her sister’s arms behind her back and looking ashamed. “You know it’s too fast for that. Just go along, that’s a good girl, ‘twon’t hurt you none.”
“Wha won?” Pippa said. The world was going black. “Wha’s in…whadyu…?”
There was an orange flash as her eyes closed, and then everything was gone.
The darkness buzzed like bees in water. She wished it would stop. Couldn’t she have one dreamless night, please, it had been so long, she deserved a break. Yet the hum kept going, punctuated occasionally by faint smells, why smells, where was she, it sounded like a factory floor, but what sort of factory would smell like cardamom and cinnamon and –
Her eyes flew open as the next scent passed under her nose, and she sat bolt upright, letting out a thunderous half-sneeze, half-scream. Crowded around her were the four Cotton children and a terrified Shekhar, who was holding a small vial in his hand. Ceramic spice jars were scattered across the floor.
“Told ya!” Elliot said, pumping his fist in the air.
Shekhar braced his hand against her upper back. “Thank God for that,” he said. “Are you alright?”
“I-I think so,” she said. Her head was swimming, and the early sunlight seemed harsher than normal, but her bearings were coming back to her.
“Here, try these,” he said, turning around and tossing the vial to Lacey, who was bent over the still-unconscious Mattie a few feet off, passing jars under her nose.
Pippa cupped her hands around her own nose and winced. “What was that? It’s still burning!”
“Crushed Siamese peppers,” he said apologetically. “I would have gone with something easier, but your chef keeps a profoundly useless spice cabinet. You have no idea how long it took us to find that.”
“Good thing you did,” Lacey said as Mattie spluttered back to life. “I’ve seen folks stay out all day on rust elm, especially a big dose like that. It’s what she spiked the food with,” she explained, seeing Pippa’s blank face. “You’ve got one out in the garden. Got little berries on it that’ll knock a grown man flat. En’t poisonous or nothing, just makes you real sleepy. We used to call ’em the Ladies Ladies, dead useful if you’ve got an ugly john or want to add a couple hours to a fee. Never thought she’d use ’em on me, though,” she said, shaking her head.
“That makes two of us,” Mattie groaned, struggling to sit up. “So where is she? I have a sudden need to kill something blonde and loud, and I really think she could help me with that.”
“Gone,” Kate said, hugging Phineas to her like a teddy bear, tears pouring down her face. “She came in last n-night to check on us and sat up w-with us for a while, a-and I k-knew something was wrong, I knew it, she l-looked so sad, but I didn’t s-say anything and in the m-morning everybody was like this and she was g-gone.”
“Oh hell,” Pippa said, getting to her feet and raking her hands through her hair. “Please tell me she didn’t…”
But Shekhar shook his head and picked up a folded newspaper off the arm of a chair.
“It is why I came,” he said, handing it to her. “This arrived about an hour ago, and I left straight away.”
There, in huge block letters, was the headline:
MERRIMORE MURDERESS: “I KILLED JACK THE RIPPER!”
ACTRESS NAMES VICTIM AS BUTCHER OF WHITECHAPEL – LORD AND LADY EACH CLAIM THE KILLING BLOW!
Pippa weaved like a ninepin, leaning against Shekhar for support. “Oh God, what are we going to do? What am I supposed to do?”
Elizabeth, who had been quietly whimpering beside her brother for the last few minutes, suddenly lit up. “The lists! She left you Mummy Lists! Kate, you have them! Mummy Lists always say what to do.”
“Stupid, they’re not…” Kate started to say, but the desperation on her sister’s face made her stop. Turning Phineas over, she pulled out four envelopes that had been tucked into the back of his gown (a change the red-faced baby looked immensely pleased with).
“They were pinned to your shirts when we found you,” she said. “Walton’s got one too, for when everybody downstairs wakes up.”
Pippa shot the others an alarmed look, and Mattie nodded, took two of the letters and the pepper jar, and hurried off towards the kitchen. Kate handed Lacey the third envelope and Pippa the fourth. Her name was printed clumsily across the front, and something rustled inside when she shook it. The top was already peeled open.
“You leave everything in here?” she asked Kate, who blushed but nodded.
Inside was a letter, again in Folley’s rough printing, and a small card bearing a message in a prettier hand. There was a strange red stamp on the back, almost like a house seal, but Pippa knew of no family with such a tacky crest. Three eagles pranced across a field of stars, encircled by a crowned, winged snake. “Patientia Enim Mortuus Est” read the scroll beneath, making Pippa do a double-take and hope her Latin was significantly worse than she thought it was.
Tossing the card to the side, she turned back to the letter.
My dear Pippa,
I’m sorry it came to this, but I have to help your uncle. You know I’m right about this, I can tell. I hope you can forgive me for going about it in such an awful way.
I hope you can also forgive me for roping you into this too, but again, I need all my ducks in a row here, and you’re the only duck who can help us with this. I’ve left a card in here that Pierce gave me once, in case I was ever in trouble. It’s pretty old by now, but it ought to still get you in the door. Go to 221B Baker Street and insist on seeing Mr. Sherlock Holmes. INSIST. Even if he won’t take the card, you MUST make him see you, you MUST make him take our case! Get him to prove Ethan’s guilt, and our just cause!
This is why I’m leaving this in your hands, pet. I don’t know why he hasn’t responded to our other messages. I know you’re very young and probably very scared, and I’m sorry to do this to you, but if anyone in this house can break him down, it’s you. Do whatever it takes. Bribe him, threaten him, pitch a tent on his doorstep and throw rocks through his window, I don’t care, just get him on our side!
Pippa, he is the only detective in London who the Cottons haven’t bought off yet. Everything depends on this. Everything depends on you.