March 15th, 1881
How strange it is to be back in this place. I am still not sure how I feel about it. Valley House is as beautiful as ever, a sweet little 12-room chateau overlooking the sea and surrounded by a lush forest on three sides. Most of the rooms have been refurnished, of course, but my favorites – the veranda, Father’s study, even my nursery for the most part – are the same as I left them all those years ago. But as delightful as this is, it does lend to the tragedy of the place, does it not? Yes, I can practically see Father in his armchair, reading me Old Mother Goose in those silly voices, but I can also see him slumped across it with a bottle in his hand. I still cannot open Mother’s room. Ethan thinks it would help, and he is probably right, but I simply cannot manage it. Not yet. Thankfully, he has been most understanding. I hope one day I can make it up to him.
In spite of everything, starting out our domestic life has been great fun for both of us. There is ever so much to attend to, and poor Ethan has no head for women’s work. He tries sometimes, oh, bless his heart, how he tries! But soon he gets bored and shouts, “Oh, damn the curtains, the books, the staff!” or whatever I am fretting about, and whisks me off to do something else, usually hunting or riding along the shore. It is a good thing our household is small, because with a husband this lively, I do not know where I would find the time to manage it otherwise!
For my part, I enjoy tending to the little matters. I have just finished sorting out the staff, which will be a great help for all the rest. Granted, it is a small household, and much of them inherited on one side or the other, but I did get to hire the remaining few myself, and am quite pleased with my handiwork so far. To date, we have a butler, housekeeper, cook, gardener, groom, gamekeeper, three maids, a new valet for Ethan (he is very particular about them, the ones at Merrimore apparently never lasted long, poor devils), and of course my own dear lady’s maid Fitzpatrick. I am hoping get a few more people as the months go on. We could use a private laundry maid at the very least, as there is no village for miles and miles so we cannot send it out, and who knows, maybe one day soon we shall need a nurse! Thus far, though, I am satisfied with the state of my pretty little world.
We have not had a proper party yet, even though I am simply DYING to. Here’s hoping the house will be in order sooner rather than later! In the meantime, I have successfully guilted both George and Amelia into staying the week, and I am so grateful for the company. I know I said I wanted to be alone with Ethan for a while, but I had forgotten how “alone” Valley House really is. It is a lovely place, and perfect for starting a family, but in the meantime it is only me and Ethan and the wind in the trees. It disquiets me.
Not that my guests, bless them, have not contributed their share of disquiet! To be fair to Amelia, I think she and Ethan merely got off on the wrong foot, and he admits full fault in that. He has a darker sense of humor than she is used to, especially after a drink, and he made a tasteless joke about poor cousin Robert and the fact that all that kept her from my position was “a bad horse and a black dress.” I took him to task and he apologized profusely, but the damage was done. I do hope they can reconcile eventually.
George is a lost cause on that front. I suppose I must resign myself to the lack of brotherly love in this house. I had hope for it yesterday. George brought Oliver with him, you see, and he and Ethan agreed they ought to use this opportunity to finally teach him to hunt. They left in the highest of spirits, but when they returned last evening the boy was in tears and George and Ethan were shouting to wake the dead. It seems Ethan wanted Oliver to kill a snared rabbit and George did it for him since he was frightened and it all spiraled into some stupid manly nonsense. Lord, they went at it like Trafalgar! Someone up there must be looking out for me, though, because the idiots have blown their voices and can only scowl at each other across the breakfast table. Serves them right. I will not tolerate such outbursts in my house. There has been enough trouble here already.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Shekhar said, looking up and down Baker Street in mild distaste. “I mean, it definitely seems like the place to find a detective, but not a very reputable one.”
“Well, all the reputable ones are either taken, incompetent, or both, so he’ll have to do,” Pippa said as he helped her out of the cab. “Besides, it’s not that bad.”
Being “not that bad” was about all Baker Street had going for it. It was a standard middle-class neighborhood, its windows pitted but not broken, its shops cluttered but open, and the plaster of its buildings only slightly discolored by the London fog. But the road itself was a horror. Despite the early hour, Baker Street was already flooded with runoff traffic from Marylebone Road, and, if the constant shouting was any indication, all of them were having an even worse day than Pippa was. Twice Shekhar had to pull her out of the way of a galloping horse, and the second time nearly pulled her into a large pile of manure instead.
“At least we should be able to do this without the whole damn city breathing down our necks,” he said, when they finally managed to cross.
“Don’t count on it,” Pippa said, looking around as if expecting reporters to come crawling out of the storm drains. She wouldn’t put it past them. It was a wonder she and Shekhar had even gotten there in one piece. The crowds that morning had been enormous, and so frenzied they’d nearly tipped the car over. Luckily, they had managed to turn down an alley and jump into a passing hansom without the mob being the wiser, but Pippa knew they couldn’t count on that for long.
“Come on,” she said, steeling herself and rapping the small brass knocker on the door to 221B. “Let’s get this sorted.”
A round-faced old woman opened the door. “Yes dear, what can I -?”
She trailed off, her mouth falling open in recognition. “Oh…oh my goodness, you’re…oh, please do come in, madam,” she said, recovering herself.
“Thank you,” said Pippa. “And this is my associate, Mr. Shekhar Deshmukh. We would like to speak to Mr. Holmes, if you please, and as quickly as possible. The situation is dire.”
“Of course, milady. I’ll fetch him right away. If you would just follow me?”
She led them up the stairs to a large, messy drawing room. After a feeble attempt to tidy up, she threw her hands in the air and bustled off into the hall.
“Wish she would have kept it up,” Shekhar muttered, turning over a heap of papers with his toe.
“I know, I know,” Pippa said, eyeing the stack of letters jacknifed into the mantelpiece, “but we need him. No reason to turn tail now.”
In response, Shekhar swept a handful of shell casings off the nearest seat and dropped them, one by one, onto the floor.
“Oh, behave!” Pippa said. She could hear footsteps approaching, and the sounds of a hushed argument.
“Alright, alright,” one voice said at last, “but if one more of these snub-nosed, presumptuous storks turns up after this, we are dragging them out by the hair!”
A reedy, hawk-faced man stomped into the room, followed by a broad-shouldered gentleman with a thick mustache and kindly blue eyes.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Cotton, Mr. Deshmukh,” said the second man with a bow. “Dr. John Watson, at your service.”
The first man, meanwhile, breezed past them without a glance, flopped down on the couch, and turned a discarded slipper over in his hand. Watson sighed before gesturing to him. “And this, of course, is my eminent friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”
Holmes did not look up. “Get out, you devil, for God’s sake,” he muttered, tapping the toe of the slipper against his wrist. Finally a small silver tobacco tin fell into his lap. He tossed the shoe over his shoulder, sparing Pippa a brief, disdainful look as he did.
She made an identical face before handing the card to Watson. “I have come here on very urgent business, as I am sure you are aware. My family wishes to resolve this matter as soon as possible, and Mr. Holmes and yourself will be rewarded handsomely for your work on our behalf.”
Watson passed the card to Holmes, who suddenly perked up.
“Good lord,” he said, sounding a little amused, “there is an ancient one for you! Where did you get this?”
“Your nephew, Mr. Pierce Darney. He is an old acquaintance of my aunt and apparently gave it to her in case she ever found herself in trouble.”
Holmes let out a snort. “He must keep a full chequebook of these, especially considering Roisin has yet to settle on a crest for longer than a month.”
Seeing the surprised look on Watson’s face, he tapped the seal on the card with his first finger. “My sister’s son. I am afraid delusions of grandeur run rather strong down that line of the family. As do delusions of family, it would seem.”
He flicked the card into the fireplace. “I do not play favorites, Miss Cotton, and if I did, my nephew would not be among them. If he wants my help, he had better do something about those 86 grand larceny charges first.”
“And if I want it?” she said. “Believe me, I am not one to beg, but my family needs your help more than you can possibly understand.”
“Then I sincerely hope you are a better salesman than the rest of your brood,” he said with a shrug. “We have had a veritable army of Cottons banging on the door this week, and not one has presented me with work worth taking.”
Something about that didn’t sound right, like a pianist missing a note, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. Dammit, could I have one bloody person in my world who isn’t hiding something?
“Do not waste your time here, Pippa,” Shekhar said. “We certainly do not have to settle for this second-rate banavata.”
Holmes’ eyes flashed. “Young man, this second-rate banavata can tell that you are a first year Cambridge student out of Raigad, that you switched from a car to a hansom on 5th and Gerard, that you stress smoke Chesterfields, and that your wife would strongly disapprove of your use of that coat. This is not a matter of incompetence, but disinterest.”
Shekhar looked taken aback, but Pippa looked her companion up and down and scoffed. “Mr. Holmes, we are not here for parlour tricks, especially when any child could spot his tie pin and the fresh marks on his trousers. I commend you for picking out the right street, of course, but the rest is all very self-explanatory. You can tell a lot from a single word, as you can from glove tips and smell. But we aren’t here for that, so could we please end this little dog-and-pony show and get back to the matter at hand?”
There was a mad gleam in Holmes’ eyes, like a gambler with a fresh hand. “And the coat?” he asked, leaning forward.
“Mr. Holmes, this isn’t – ”
She hesitated. “Buttons, maybe?”
The gleam disappeared. “Obviously not. The embroidery. That style of coat does not come with it except by commission, yet the hem stops at the sides. She wanted to do it herself and ran out of time. A parting gift, was it not?”
“Yes, sir,” Shekhar said, sounding cowed.
“There, you see? Simple. Still.” He gave her an appraising look. “You are quite right of course, Miss Cotton. Would you rather I deduce your purpose instead? That would probably be more conducive to your ends.”
“It would not require much deduction,” she said.
Holmes smirked. “Fair point. I have heard the case against your aunt and uncle, as has most everyone in the developed world. After the charge Lady Hallsbury laid against your late father this morning, I imagine you are eager to clear his name.”
“No, sir!” Pippa said, the bile rising in her throat. “Not his name.”
Holmes’ face lit up, and he and Watson exchanged astonished looks.
“You mean you believe her?” the detective asked, springing from his chair like a jack-in-the-box and standing three inches from her face. “You actually believe that cock-and-bull story?”
“It is not a cock-and-bull story!” Pippa and Shekhar snapped in unison.
Their anger only seemed to encourage him. He leaned closer, looming over Pippa like an overgrown mantis. His light eyes burned into hers. “Why?”
“It is quite a thing to think of one’s own father,” Watson said, reaching out and nudging Holmes back a step. “Surely you must have cause?”
“Surely in your line of work you have seen enough monstrous fathers not to be surprised by one more,” Shekhar said.
“More than enough,” said Watson. “Nonetheless, we would prefer something a little more substantive to go on. Can you provide that, Miss Cotton?”
“Only my aunt’s story,” she admitted, “but the whole of it, not whatever garbage Farrier has let slip to the press.”
“So it is Farrier’s case, eh?” Holmes said, rubbing his hands together and looking like he was trying not to skip. “They have been so damnably tight-lipped about it, but I was positive it was him from the start. I swear, that man is a born Calvinist. Never saw a pedestal he did not want to knock down.”
“Well, he is not knocking down this one,” said Pippa. “And though I do not have much information myself, I can get you more. I am still a Cotton, and still heiress to the Hallsbury lands, so whatever evidence you need, whatever documents or properties you will require access to, I can give into your hands. My name may be growing more tarnished by the hour, but it still opens doors.”
“As does mine, sirs,” said Shekhar. “Different ones, to be sure, and not as many, but whatever resources I have that may be of use in my…dear friend’s defense are at your disposal.”
“Not to mention a case like this would make your name. You’ll forgive me, Dr. Watson,” she said, bowing her head at him, “but the Strand magazine is not particularly regarded by the higher circles. Solving a case of such magnitude, however, would raise your reputation exponentially, Mr. Holmes, as well as the caliber of your clientele.”
Holmes shot an amused glance at Watson, who also bit back a smile. “Yes, I suppose nothing would endear me more to the society pages than putting a turncoat and a red woman back among their ranks,” he said.
He turned and walked to the door, and Pippa’s heart dropped. “Oh, please sir, I did not mean to offend, don’t leave!”
“Leave?” he said. With an incredulous laugh, he opened the door and called down the hall. “Mrs. Hudson! Send a boy out to get Tabak, would you? Tell him there’s been a development on his case, and be quick about it!”
Slamming the door on the old woman’s distant grumbling, he bounded back to the couch, swung his legs over one armrest, and crossed his arms over his eyes. “Start,” he said.
A moment of confused silence passed before the detective raised his head, looking back and forth between Pippa and Watson like he had missed a joke. “Please start?” he said, glancing at Watson as if for encouragement.
“Do take a seat, madam. He does this for everyone,” the doctor said, swatting Holmes on the sole. “It helps him visualize things. He is being perfectly attentive, I assure you.”
Pippa and Shekhar pursed their lips but took the proffered chairs, and she began.
“My father started seeing my aunt the year before I was born. Aunt Folley was used to a certain level of savagery from her clients, unfortunately, most women in her line of work are. But my father was by all accounts -” here she clenched her fist so tightly a seam popped in her glove – “unmatched. She only got away with the aid of your nephew.”
“Ah!” Holmes barked suddenly. “So that is how he knows her!”
“You didn’t know?”
Holmes raised his wrist just high enough above his eye to roll it effectively. “Young lady, yours is not the only family with baggage. I have spoken to my nephew twice in the last ten years, and neither of those conversations were about what woman he docked with when.”
“How dare you, sir!” Shekhar cried as he and Pippa leaped to their feet.
Watson rushed forward, standing between them with his hands raised. “Please, madam, sir, forgive him his coarse edges. His assistance is worth his demeanor, I assure you.”
Pippa’s skin burned and her heart was pounding in her ears, but she nodded.
“Fine,” she growled, sinking back into her chair. “If you say so. But I have little patience for rude bastards.”
“You must have real trouble getting up in the morning, in that case,” Holmes muttered, but after a withering look from Watson he cleared his throat and let it drop. “Pray continue, Miss Cotton.”
She related all that Folley had told her, and to Holmes’ credit he remained silent even when she faltered, eyes closed and hands folded on his chest. When she finally finished he stared up at the ceiling for a moment, as if working out a math problem, then rolled over and fixed Pippa with a probing stare.
“But why the Ripper?” he asked. “As your friend so elegantly put it, there is something of a national surplus of beastly fathers these days. A jury would not declare him a murderer purely based on his abuse of your aunt, however horrifying. In fact, they may not even consider that a crime, given that the unfortunate lady was a prostitute at the time, and above the consensual age of twelve. Yes, what is legal is often several steps behind what is right, in my experience,” he said as Pippa and Shekhar exchanged revolted looks. “You stated that he claimed credit for the murders on the night of the fire, but apart from my nephew, who is frankly the last person your aunt ought to put on the witness stand, there is no one to corroborate your guardians’ story. Are there any firmer connections here?”
“My aunt knew several of the victims,” she said. “She and Polly Nichols worked in the same area, and Polly even drove my father off once, albeit accidentally. And Aunt Folley and Mary Jane Kelly were close friends. I suspect that’s why Kelly was the victim of particular brutality. Apparently she was killed right around the time my father found out about my aunt and uncle’s relationship. He attacked my aunt shortly after the killing – the staff can attest to her injuries – and promised an even more terrible punishment.”
“Didn’t one of the other victims give her name as Mary Kelly the night she was killed?” Watson asked Holmes. “Could be a sign that she was targeted.”
“Yes, Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim, though I believe she was released from jail that night under the name Mary Ann Kelly. Remember, she was also one of the ‘double event’ victims. Two women, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, were murdered by the Ripper on the same evening on opposite ends of town,” Holmes said, seeing Pippa and Shekhar’s blank expressions. “Really, you must refresh yourself on these details if we are to proceed with this case. Anything else?”
“Rose Mylett was another acquaintance. My father sent Aunt Folley a lock of her hair after the killing. She still has it, you can see for yourself if you like.”
“But Rose Mylett was not killed by the Ripper,” Watson said with a frown. “It’s not entirely clear if she was murdered at all, actually.”
Holmes scoffed. “Lord, Watson, do not tell me you believe that nonsense about the woman somehow choking on her own collar. The examiner could not find a drop of alcohol in her system, and yet everyone and their mother seems convinced she simply passed out and shuffled off the coil. Please do not tell me you are one of them, I am not sure I could bear it.”
“I am not saying that. But assuming she was murdered, she was not stabbed, which was the Ripper’s consistent means of killing.”
“True. Such a dramatic change does seem unlikely so late in the game. At this point it is also probably far too late to compare hair samples with any degree of accuracy. As far as the jury will be concerned, Lady Hallsbury could have cut a lock off anybody.”
“How about a scalp?”
Watson’s mouth fell open. “What?”
“A piece of the victim’s scalp is still attached to the hair, apparently” Pippa said, trying not to shudder. “I imagine my father left it to let her know he meant business, or perhaps it was just neater that way, I don’t know. But I don’t think any court would assume my aunt cut off part of a woman’s head for the sake of a more convincing story, do you?”
“Miss Cotton, you would be astounded at what a jury will assume of a woman in the docket,” Holmes said with a grim smile. “Especially a woman like Lady Hallsbury. You ought to prepare yourself for that. We cannot have you cracking under pressure once we get the investigation underway.”
“Once it’s underway? You mean you’ll take the case?” Pippa asked.
Watson gave Holmes a strange look and the detective almost faltered, but nodded. “Naturally. First lead in ten years on the most important case of the century? It would be the height of foolishness to turn it down. But this story may not be as open and shut as you think, Miss Cotton – and unless I am very much mistaken, I think you will see why in a moment.”
The swish of an open door had just echoed up the stairs, followed by rapid footsteps.
“Excuse me,” Holmes said, getting up and hurrying out onto the landing. They heard his steps meet the others, and a man’s voice rang down the hall.
“You got him, didn’t you? Thank God!”
“Try not to get ahead of yourself, Tabak. I am afraid it is not that simple.”
“Then why -?”
“You had better come in and hear it for yourself,” Holmes said, reentering the drawing room with a stocky, raggedly-dressed fellow in tow.
He was young, no older than Pippa herself, and exactly her height to boot. Tight black curls peeked out beneath his cloth cap, and he had large doe eyes and a full, Cupid’s bow mouth, almost like a girl’s. Despite the delicacy of his features, there was a hardness about him, accentuated by a rough green coat, scarred hands, and a nose that had been broken at least twice. All the same, Pippa felt a strange comradery as their eyes met, the quiet bond between two people at war with the world.
“Miss Phillipa Cotton, Mr. Joshua Tabak,” Holmes said. “Mr. Tabak here is the son of one Michael Tabak, aged about 50, previously a Whitechapel day laborer, present whereabouts unknown.”
“Charmed,” she said, shaking the young man’s hand, who seemed just as lost as her. “But what does any of this have to do with my case?”
A sharklike smile unfurled on Holmes’ face. “Because his father was also Jack the Ripper.”