April 30th, 1881:
Diary, do you ever look back on yourself and shudder? I fear that is all I shall be doing for some time. Ethan says there is no need to worry, but frankly, after how he behaved this morning, that only makes me worry more.
Mary Ballew is missing. Until now, I assumed she ran off in the night rather than wait to be fired. I must admit I was quite giddy when Lavoisier informed me that her bed was empty and her bag gone (so giddy that I did not even tell him off for usurping the butler, who ought to be the one communicating staff changes to me). That glee evaporated this morning with the unexpected – and very nearly violent – arrival of Mary’s brother and sister, a Mr. Jonas Ballew and a Mrs. Alice Shelton.
It was the lady who was the more forceful of the pair, shoving through the servants’ entrance and barging upstairs, right into the breakfast room before anyone could stop her. I did not think anything could fluster my husband, but a wild-eyed Cornishwoman suddenly glowering at him over his eggs was too much even for his nerves. We froze, looking to each other for help, our voices heavy as tar in our throats.
“Where the hell’s my sister?” Mrs. Shelton snarled. “What have ye done to her?”
Ethan recovered at once, snapping for a footman. “Get this creature out of here. Send for the police if you must.”
“Please sir, there’s no need for that,” said Mr. Ballew, rounding the corner with his hands raised. “Me sister’s a mite afeared, that’s all, but we mean ye no trouble. Just looking for our Mary.”
“Mary?” I said. “Do you mean Mary Ballew? What of her?”
Mrs. Shelton put her hands on her hips. “As if ye didn’t know. Where’ve ye sent her, eh? Didja lose a spoon and call the Peelers on her? Or didja catch this one making eyes at her and figure outta sight was outta mind?” She cocked her head at Ethan.
“Now see here, do not dare accuse me -” he started, but she cut him off with a contemptuous sniff.
“I know how Mary looks, milord. I know men got eyes and love to use ’em, and the highborn look just as much as the low.”
“Not that we really suspect you, Lord Readham,” Mr. Ballew said quickly, shooting his sister a panicked look. “Honest, she didn’t mean nothing but respect.”
“She has a funny way of showing it,” Ethan said, but I cleared my throat and he calmed himself. “From whom do you seek satisfaction, then, if not me?”
“Well, like Alice said, milord, our Mary didn’t come home for Easter, and she en’t sent word since,” Mr. Ballew said. “We en’t had no money back neither, and it en’t like her to forget family.”
Ethan snickered. “Ah, money. I thought as much.”
“Not for us, sir,” Mrs. Shelton said hotly. “It’s for her…”
Brother and sister exchanged looks. “Cousin,” she finished, and something came together in my mind like key and lock.
“What the devil do I care about your cousin?” Ethan said.
I shook my head and mouthed the word “child,” and his jaw dropped.
“She had a bastard?” He shook his head, raising his coffee cup to his lips. “Not much of a loss then,” he muttered under his breath.
“Ethan!” I hissed, slapping his hand.
“What? It sounds as though abandoning her responsibilities was typical for her. Perhaps it is Providence that she has run off, for she hardly sounds worthy of running after.”
I ignored him and turned to face Mrs. Shelton. “I understand your urgency better now, madam, and I very much wish we could help you. Unfortunately, we know nothing more than you do. Mary left us weeks ago, without notice. We assumed she went home.”
“Maybe she went looking elsewhere for work, didn’t want to tell us before she had something lined up,” Mr. Ballew said, patting his sister on the back. “She knows how ye fret when she’s between jobs.”
Mrs. Shelton considered this. “She ask ye for a reference anywhere, milady?”
“No, never even mentioned she was looking,” I said. “She went to bed one night and the next day the room was bare, that is all I know.”
“Who checked her room?” Mrs. Shelton asked.
“Her roommate,” Ethan said before I could respond. “One of the other maids, though I forget exactly which.”
I stared at him. He did not stare back.
“Did she have a sweetheart by chance?” Mr. Ballew asked. “Someone she mighta run off with?”
Ethan shrugged. “Not that I am aware, but it is possible. We have had higher than average turnover of late. Easy to lose a few people in the shuffle.”
Mrs. Shelton tried to speak, but Ethan beckoned a footman. “Bring these two to Bonneville. I am afraid I cannot assist you further, Mr. Ballew, but my butler will pay you Mary’s severance, plus a small bonus for the sake of the child.”
“Thank ye kindly, sir,” Mr. Ballew said, bowing low, but Mrs. Shelton narrowed her eyes.
“There’s summat off with this. With you,” she said, pointing at Ethan. “Yer a shifty one, I can tell, and yer not telling us the -”
“Thank ye, sir,” Mr. Ballew said, taking her firmly by the arm and wheeling away.
When they were gone, I turned to my husband in bewilderment. “Mary did not have a roommate.”
“Didn’t she?” he said absently, picking up the Times from beside his plate.
“No. We had an odd number of maids, so she took the scullery cot, remember? Lavoisier was the one who checked on her that day, not one of the girls.”
He shrugged again, deep in his reading. I flicked the back of the paper with my spoon until he looked up.
“Why did you say that, then?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I must have misremembered,” he said irritably. “Unlike you, I have more important things to do than stick my nose into the servants’ business.”
That stung, but I pressed on. “We should call them back and correct things. A girl is missing, darling, she could be in trouble.”
Ethan threw the paper aside with a flick of his wrist. “For Heaven’s sake, Christina, you are such a child sometimes.”
I shrank back. “Sorry.”
He leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Do not be. Innocence and trust are great virtues, and I would have you keep them. The sad trade is that you know little of the ways of the world.”
He cocked his head at the doorway. “Those people were just after our money. Why, I’ll bet that Mary is sitting at home right now, waiting for them to come back with her share. I have seen it a thousand times, and goodhearted girls like you are easy prey for such scoundrels. Do not encourage them further.”
I agreed, but privately I think he is mistaken. I am certain that Lavoisier is involved in this somehow, especially after hearing his exchange with the butler a few hours later.
You see, I wondered if Mary really had taken everything with her. Perhaps the poor forgetful girl left something behind, something that would point to where she went. I resolved to check her room, but never got there, for I heard Lavoisier and Bonneville chatting as I descended the stairs.
“Can you believe that?” Bonneville said. “An extra five pound forty for a maid’s bastard? No man should stomach such a price.”
Lavoisier laughed (yes, laughed!). “Perhaps if it is his.”
“Too steep even then,” Bonneville said.
“Ouay, I suppose the price to handle that is quite fixed, non?”
“However much it costs for a rope and a rock.”
He laughed again, and Bonneville joined in. “Oh yes, that old tally. The cost is set in stone, you might say.”
“And you can kill two birds with it, that’s for damn sure,” Lavoisier said. Yet another laugh.
I stepped out from the stairwell. Bonneville jumped up in horror, but Lavoisier took his time, uncoiling from his seat like a snake rising out of a basket.
“I will not tolerate such crude talk in my house,” I said. “If I hear it again, you will be dismissed.”
Bonneville stammered apologies. Lavoisier, though, only smirked and tipped his head.
“Mai oui, madame. I live to serve.”
I will not have that foul reptile in my home a moment longer, Diary, whether he is involved in this mess or no. If only there were a way to make Ethan see sense! I do not understand why he protects him so, even to the point of lying. Perhaps if I told
Forgive me for leaving off so suddenly, but my need to replace Lavoisier has become frightfully urgent. One of the footmen knocked on my door just now, quaking with fear. He found a book in Lavoisier’s room and said that, given the man’s words about Mary earlier, he thought I should see it. The servants are allowed to use our library for their betterment, of course, but I cannot see what betterment could come from this text.
It is called “Aqua Tofana and Other Evils of the Natural World.” It is a book of poisons.
The courthouse was bedlam. Even at nine on a rainy morning, the front steps were teeming with people. Lacey shrank back as they approached the crush.
“There must be a back way or something, yes?” she said, catching Pippa by the arm. “For the children’s sake, and yours? You shall be swarmed the moment they see you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Pippa said, though she turned up her collar and pulled her scarf over her head as they walked. “Most of them probably have no idea what I look like.”
“I don’t know about that,” Frank said, nodding at the row of cabs lined around the building. Unassuming black hansoms all, but there was not a normal cabbie in sight. Instead, they were all being driven by well-scrubbed, overdressed private servants. Pippa recognized the Cotton liveries at once.
Lacey followed her husband’s gaze and scoffed. “So they’re too proud to turn up at a trial themselves, but sending spies out to get all the gossip, that’s not beneath them. I swear, those people found Oliver in a bloody basket somewhere. And you, dear,” she added hastily, patting Pippa on the head. “Dunno where you got your decency. Must be your mum’s side.”
“I doubt the odds are much higher there, but we can hope,” Pippa said, smiling as stiffly as a corpse.
Lacey frowned but knew better than to counter her. Instead, she ushered the children into a little pod in the center of the group. As they reached the courthouse, the adults tightened the outer circle, shielding the young Cottons behind their overcoats.
“Where’s Holmes?” Frank snapped, checking his watch.
Without even waiting for a command, Pippa scurried up the wall like a spider and perched on a ledge, squinting out over the crowd. Finally, she caught a flash of red hair on the far side of the steps.
“Got him.” She jumped down from her post, making Lacey squeak in horror. “I’ll fetch him, shall I?”
Before anyone could protest, Pippa slipped away into the crowd as easily as mist. As she navigated the morass, she pushed past a group of young anarchists skulking around a column.
“Remember that wage reform they pushed through the House of Lords in September?” one of them said. “Hallsbury broke the tie. The toffs are out for his blood.”
A fishwife a little ways off echoed the sentiment. “Bigwigs can’t stand it that Lady Folley got ahead. Wanna shove her back in the gutter, damn the lot of ’em. Hope she did chop up the little peacock, it’s no more than any of ’em deserve.”
“But Jack the Ripper?” her friend said. “I dunno, smells a bit off to me.”
“Oh, that’s bull’s pizzle for certain,” the first woman agreed. “Still, well struck, I say.”
Further on, some bank clerks and their wives stood back-to-back in segregated clusters, speaking in tandem like mockingbirds.
“I tell you, old chaps, this is what comes of marrying beneath your station.”
“His Grace should never have turned his back on his family, and now the poor man shall pay the price for it. I can only hope a woman like that never gets her claws into my little Johnny.”
“Shameless woman, dragging a dead man’s name through the mud to save herself. Utterly disgraceful.”
“Good Lord Readham slain, and replaced by whom? Some feeble-minded player and his foreign floozy. Abominable. Atrocious. Pray God justice will be done.”
Then there was a trio of low gentry, and lower blows.
“Lying whore. I knew Ethan Cotton from the time we were knee-high, and he never did a thing to disgrace his family name. He had a horror of dishonor.”
“Which is more than one can say for the brother. Already a mad freak even in boyhood, as I recall. His father nearly had him institutionalized.”
“I bet he wished he had, in the end. Two sons gone, and a daughter-in-law, not to mention the dignity of his house.”
“Surely you don’t think Oliver had a hand in all that?”
“Oh, the harlot definitely killed Ethan, God rest his poor soul. That much is a given. The others, though…well, Oliver was never quite right, was he?”
“Monsters, the two of them.”
“May they both go down. Let the title pass to more deserving men.”
“And the money, do not forget that. Folley certainly didn’t.”
Laughter all around.
On the lower steps, a large circle of laborers sat playing dice. Their children danced in the street, holding hands and singing.
“Oh lads, be careful lifting up my cotton dress so red.
The last young man who tore it lies beneath us, cold and dead.
Oh lads, play nicely with me, and swear you will be true,
For if you take my head too rough, I’ll take your head off too!”
“I was sure Jack was a Spitalfields man, though,”said one of the men.
An older man shrugged. “Eh, you know what these rich blokes are like. Never hearing ‘no’ does funny things to your head. Makes sense to me.”
“Yeah, I can see it,” said a rough-looking woman, slapping down the cup. “I think the ‘usband done ‘im, though. Ripper or no Ripper, Lady Folley en’t stupid enough to raise a hand to a lord.”
“You think she left it to that beanstalk husband a hers?”
“Cor, really, you seen that picture of Readham they got in the papers?” the first man said, raising an arm above his head. “Six foot if he was an inch, got shoulders like a plowman and hands the size of a trout.”
“Hallsbury’s six foot.”
“And no heavier than a dead cat.” said a woman in a patchwork smock. “’Sides, he’s too yellow to fight.”
A redheaded youth behind her scratched his head. “Maybe he got the drop on ‘im.”
“Love can make a man capable o’ many a wondrous thing,” said the old man.
A bearded man beside him nodded sagely. “Good pussy too.”
“Feh,” said the youth, as the others laughed, “you heard how many gents spent the night in that inn. Can’t be very good no more.”
A remonstrating cry went up from the rest of the circle.
“Come off it,” said a young woman, shaking her head, “you see how many kids they got? She must still have something nice down there.”
“Nah, that don’t mean nuffink,” hiccuped a drunk a few feet away, who turned and leered at the girl. “I gots nine kids, and my wife’s saggier than cheese on a windersill. A man’ll eat outta any bowl you give ‘im.”
The laborers hooted, but a wiry-haired beggar a step below just frowned, scratching at his ear like he was trying to peel it off.
“Still think it was the Jews,” he muttered, “or the Masons. Maybe both.”
The drunk grinned and whistled at the laborers.“Well, why don’t we start a pool on it? Whaddya say, ladies and gents? You putting money on the Knights Templar, or on our lass’s proper Leeds what-for?”
There was more laughter, but as the rough woman threw her head back she caught sight of Pippa and the smile died on her face. She nudged her neighbors. Pippa pulled the scarf tighter around her head and darted back into the crowd.
She did not get far, however, before someone pulled hard on her coattails. When she turned around, a notebook hit her in the face and she stumbled back, eyes watering.
“Jesus!” she cried, cupping her nose. “Watch yourself!”
“Miss Cotton, is it true that you witnessed your father’s murder?” said an American voice, sounding supremely unconcerned with the injury. “Do you intend to testify to this effect?”
“What are you talking about?” She blinked hard, and a shabby man came into view. He was young and slender, or perhaps all of his fat simply resided in his oversized head, which gave him the appearance of a human semicolon. His hair looked like moldy straw, and his blue eyes were so pale they were almost white.
“Are you being called by the prosecution or the defense?” he asked, still shoving his notebook at her like a switchblade. He spoke so quickly she could barely understand him, but without any sign of nervousness. If anything, he seemed bored with the whole affair, looking over the crowd as though they were flies he could not muster the energy to swat.
“I’m not being called by anyone. I am here to show my guardians support.”
“In exchange for the deed to Merrimore House, yes?”
“What?” Pippa cried.
“Or because you saw your father die?” the man continued, steamrolling over her. “In which case, why did you wait so long to come forward with the truth?”
“I was seven!” she said. “And I didn’t see anything anyway, I wasn’t even there. What are you talking about?”
“They say Lady Folley confessed to you, why didn’t you report her? Was it because she offered you a deal, or because you knew she was telling the truth? How can you trust her testimony? Your uncle killed your mother already, why defend him for killing your father, hm? Hm?” He shook the notebook ever more insistently, until Pippa half feared it would decapitate her.
“That,” she sniffed, “is family business, and of no concern of yours.”
Instantly she knew what a stupid thing it was to say, but it was too late. A ravenous gleam appeared in the man’s eyes, and there was no putting it out.
“So murder is a family business, huh?” he said, almost giggling. “Miss Cotton, what business are you hiding from the British public?”
“Leave the girl alone, Spellman,” Watson said, coming up behind her. “Don’t you have a funeral to crash? Some factory fire or starving street urchin out there to gawk at?”
His tone was biting, yet Spellman beamed at him as if they were brothers. “Ah, come on, Doc, like you aren’t the same way. Say, is it true that you and Holmes are on the case? How much did Hallsbury pay you? Holmes think he can pull it off this time, now that Lady Folley’s given him a running start?”
“Over the ice and away from the wolves, Miss Cotton,” Watson said, turning her about by the shoulders and whisking her into the crowd.
“Lord, who was that awful little spider?” Pippa said, craning her neck to be sure he hadn’t followed.
“Peter Spellman, of the New York Herald,” Watson said, “and ‘spider’ is a generous description. ‘Blowfly’ may be more appropriate, seeing as whenever a corpse turns up, he is inevitably hovering nearby. Avoid him as best you can, madam. There is nothing he loves more than getting beautiful girls to say dangerous things, and, if you’ll pardon me, I fear you may be his white whale in this regard.”
“What did he mean, ‘does Holmes think he can pull it off this time’?” she asked, but the doctor simply shook his head.
Holmes stood at the base of the furthest column, flanked by Shekhar and Joshua. He nodded once at Pippa before peering into the distance again, his hawkish eyes narrowed in frustration.
“There they are,” he said, before she could speak. “Finally.”
Pippa followed his gaze. A black carriage was coming up the street, slowing by degrees.
“It certainly took them long enough,” Holmes said.
Shekhar rolled his eyes. “They’re in jail. They cannot simply jump into a cab.”
“It’s probably Farrier,” Joshua said, “fighting down to the wire to keep you off the case, Holmes.”
“Not that he’ll be able to,” Pippa said, hoping against hope it was true.
The carriage stopped at the curb. Head by head, the crowd turned to watch as two constables got out, followed by Folley and Oliver. There was a collective gasp, then, like swallows launching from eaves, everyone rushed down the steps towards them.
More constables appeared and the crowd broke against their batons like surf against a reef. They formed a triangle around Folley and Oliver and wedged their way through the throng.
“Come,” Holmes said, rapping his cane once against the ground. “We will not be able to reach them in this crush. It would be wiser to get into the courtroom ahead of everyone else. I know a quicker way inside, follow me.”
That, Pippa realized as she started to move, would be easier said than done. She had barely taken five steps before the crowd shoved her to the right, and she fell off the top step. The others disappeared from view, and she was pushed along in a confused zigzag, her feet dangling in the air. Faces flashed as she moved – Frank, Lacey, Shekhar – and she called out to them, but they never caught sight of her before she was jerked away again.
At last, a calloused hand pulled her from the tide, and she found herself standing beside Joshua. “Beginner’s mistake, Cotton. Gotta learn when to weave in and when to weave out. Don’t worry, just keep hold of me and we’ll get through.”
Pippa nodded, grabbing his lapels, and he locked his arms behind her back before shouldering through the crowd with surprising speed. In a moment they were through the front doors, and he ducked through a small archway on the left, which led to an empty, low-ceilinged side corridor.
“You’re in courtroom six,” he told her. “Holmes and Watson are probably already there, and if I know anything about sneaky bastards, I’ll bet those ugly-named, snot-nosed relatives of yours have made it in too.”
They arrived in a gigantic circular room, ringed halfway up by a flimsy white balcony and a row of lime-sealed windows that turned the sunlight a sickly green. The Blackwoods, Fosters, and Henry Van Den Burg were already seated behind the prosecutor’s bench. Holmes, Watson, and Shekhar were clustered on the defense’s side. Burts and Cromwell stood between the two groups, talking two a wiry, bespectacled barrister. All three were shooting Holmes increasingly dubious looks. A full squad of policemen were lined against the far wall, and Farrier was at the head, watching Holmes like a hunting hound. Roberts stood beside him, but he was decent enough to flash Pippa a microscopic smile, and bobbed his head towards his boss as if to say, ‘Well, what can you do?’
“That’s Streeter, the prosecutor,” Joshua said, pointing at the barrister. “Not the worst bloke they could’ve given you, but nobody to get chummy with neither.” He pulled her towards one of the benches. “Here, we oughta get a spot quick, before the rest of the circus rolls in.”
Before they could move, however, there was a rumbling sound from the hall, and the bailiff opened the great oak doors for the mob. The courtroom quickly filled with sound and bodies, but Pippa caught a glimpse of Folley’s orange dress and rushed towards her.
“Aunt Folley!” she called. “Uncle Oliver!”
Folley raised her head but did not spot her. Oliver did not even twitch, instead staring so fixedly at the floor you would have thought his nose were tied to it. After a moment, Folley held him closer and did the same, and the crowd swallowed them up again.
A high little voice hung in the air, and though it was so muffled Pippa couldn’t make out any words, she knew it was Kate. She circled the center knot around Folley and Oliver like a shark, scanning the fringes for her young cousins. Finally she spotted them, mere paces away, just as Kate broke free of Lacey’s grip, climbed onto the back of a bench, and spread her arms as if about to take flight.
A pocket opened up between them, and when Oliver turned to face her, Kate leaped into his arms. He held her stiffly at first, surprised. Then he fell to his knees, cradling his child so tightly it was as though he was pushing his own heart back into his chest. Folley too fell into the embrace, and an anguished howl went up from the trio.
“Fantastic,” Spellman muttered as photographers jockeyed for position. “Goddamn magnificent.”
Lacey approached with the other children, making Folley snap out of her despair and take a deep breath. The pain was visible on her face as she pried Kate’s arms from around her neck.
“Go to Aunt Lacey, love, it’ll be okay,” she said, but Kate latched on again and shook her head.
“They can’t take you!” the little girl wailed. “No, they can’t take you away again!”
Her sister took up the call as well, rushing forward and clinging to her father, while Phineas shrieked, “Mama!” over and over, swiping the air with his little fist. Elliot cried silently, watching with wide, shining eyes as his parents stood up, holding each other under the forearms.
“Lord Hallsbury!” called a deep voice from the front. “You are summoned!”
“We are coming, sir,” Oliver said in a quivering voice.
“Take them out of here,” Folley said, passing Elizabeth’s hand to Lacey. The twins went quietly, but Kate put up a fight, until Frank finally picked her up and slung her over his shoulder.
“Stop it!” Kate begged, kicking and screaming all the way out. “They’re gonna kill them! Please, we can’t just leave them, no! MUMMY! PAPA!”
Folley stumbled against her husband, hand over her mouth, but she did not look back as the courtroom doors slammed on her children. After a moment Frank reentered, alone and shamefaced.
The couple approached the defense table, hands clasped as tightly as a keystone. The rest of the room took their cue to sit, Holmes and Watson squeezing in between the front row reporters, and Pippa and the others taking the bench behind them. There was a frenzied scuffle for the seat directly behind Pippa, but after a moment a shiver ran up her spine, and she knew without looking that Spellman had won.
“All rise for the honorable Justice Bertram Horne,” said the bailiff.
An enormous, white-wigged man rolled into the room, waving them back down, and climbed the steps to the judge’s bench as if scaling a mountain. His face was as pink and lumpen as shrimp, and his eyelids were so baggy it was a wonder he could see at all. Perhaps that was why he squinted so long at the great book before him before motioning to Oliver.
“Court is now in session,” he said, tapping his gavel’s handle instead of the head. His voice sounded less like speech and more like a prolonged belch. “You are Oliver Langdon Cotton, Duke of Hallsbury, Earl of Readham, and Lord of Lyle, correct?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Hm, Langdon. Named for your grandfather, no doubt,” Horne said with a warm smile.
Oliver looked taken aback. “Er, yes, Your Honor.”
Horne nodded at nothing. “Good man. Fine statesman.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Horne squinted down at Folley and his tone cooled. “And you are Theodora Agatha Cotton?”
“Theodora Agatha Folley-Cotton, Duchess of Hallsbury,” Oliver said rapidly under his breath, but his wife put a hand on his arm and he merely mouthed the rest of the title.
“Yes I am, guv – er, milor – Your Honor,” Folley said, tripping over Cromwell’s warning looks.
“Born to Alfred Folley of Leeds and Elisavet Sko – Scour – Sker -” He frowned down at his book.
“Skourletti,” Folley said in a small voice.
“Yes, milord,” she said. She looked tanner than usual in the green light.
“Textile workers, yes?” Horne asked, and Lady Foster and Lady Blackwood giggled.
“How is that relevant?” Oliver said, glaring at his cousins over his shoulder. “Are you calling them as witnesses? There shall have to be another exhumation.”
Horne pursed his lips. “It is standard procedure, Your Grace,” he said, all familiarity gone from his voice.
Oliver sniffed, then resumed mouthing things at the ground.
Horne raised an eyebrow, but after a pleading look from Burts he shrugged and gestured to Streeter. “State the charges.”
“Your Honor, Lord and Lady Hallsbury are hereby charged with the murder of Ethan Anthony Cotton,” Streeter said. “Lord Hallsbury is additionally charged with the murder of Christina Jane Cotton.”
At this, Oliver spat on the floor. Holmes clapped a hand over his forehead.
“Well, we certainly have our work cut out for us,” he muttered to Watson.
“How do you plead?” Horne asked, after a moment of stunned silence.
“Not guilty by reason of self-defense,” Cromwell said.
“In Ethan’s case,” Oliver said. “Not guilty whatsoever in Christina’s. I did nothing to that woman, Your Honor, I did…” His voice faded. “I did nothing at all.”
“Very well, the court shall enter your pleas into record,” Horne said. “Now, on the matter of the defense’s request for bail, we have –”
Before he could finish the sentence, however, Blackwood scrambled to his feet.
“Your Honor, if I may, there is another matter that ought to be settled first!”
Horne gave him a withering look. “More pressing than a double homicide?”
The words were sharp, but Pippa could almost hear them whistle as they zoomed over Blackwood’s head. “I should think so, sir. We are here to defend innocent lives, after all, and to that end I put you this.”
He waved a piece of paper in the air. “As Lord Hallsbury’s nearest adult relative, my wife and I would like to petition the court for custody of his ward and children, for the duration of the trial at least.”
“NO!” Pippa shouted, leaping up as if she were on fire.
The rest of the room erupted with her. Oliver stared slackjawed at his cousin. The lawyers struggled to restrain Folley, who was red-faced and screaming at Blackwood. In the din, Pippa couldn’t make out what she said, but it made the reporters by the defense table scribble like it was the end of the world. Even the other Cottons looked stunned; Van Den Burg clapped a hand over his mouth and the Fosters whispered furiously among themselves.
“Order! Order, I say!” Horne said, banging his gavel, and the room settled to a dull boil. “Lady Hallsbury, control yourself. Such language is unbecoming of a lady of your station, especially in a court of law.”
“Beg pardon, milord,” Folley said through gritted teeth, “but there are no words foul enough for the sort who would steal children from their mother.”
“We simply wish to ensure they are provided for during these troubled times,” Blackwood said without even glancing at Folley. “It would be best for them to remain with family.”
“Your Honor, my children are currently in the care of my sister-in-law,” Oliver said. “Surely they have a stronger ‘blood bond’” – he shot Blackwood a scathing look – “with the aunt who delivered them than with some cousin by marriage who has never expressed a lick of interest in them in their entire lives.”
Blackwood reddened, but his wife motioned for silence as she stood.
“If I may, Your Honor, my cousin is most unfair,” she said, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief. “We are forever trying to see the little ones, even for a moment, but their mother prevents us at every turn. She is as jealous as a dragon. The rift she has driven through our family…it breaks my heart.” She looked longingly at Oliver and burst into tears.
Folley rolled her eyes. “What bollocks.”
“Lady Hallsbury,” Horne warned.
“Sorry, Your Honor. What nonsense is what I meant. Our door was always open, I didn’t keep nobody from no one.”
“Oho, is that right?” said Van Den Burg. “You had me frogmarched out of your very wedding!”
“You were trying to stop it!” Oliver said.
“Order!” Horne cried. “Regardless of personal conflict, we cannot see much reason to move children from the care of a close relation to a distant one, Lord Stanhope.”
Blackwood sagged, but Lady Blackwood jumped up at once. “Pippa isn’t Lacey’s blood relative, though. Given her sister’s hatred of my late cousin Ethan, how can we be sure Lacey would not take out her resentment of the father on the daughter?”
“Women will always favor their own blood ahead of another’s,” Lady Foster said with a nod. “And Folley has never balked at putting Pippa in danger for her own ends. Right from the start, I remember -”
At this, Folley rose with a thunderous expression. “That’s. A bloody. Lie. I love that girl like my own life, and you know it.” She pointed to the Blackwoods. “Meanwhile, you people only want her so you can marry her off!”
“What?” Pippa cried.
“You heard me,” Folley said. “They turned up at the Pirrocchi six months ago, tried to get Oliver to sell you to their specky brat. Thought it’d make his claim to the title stronger, no doubt.”
“And look where saying ‘no’ has landed me,” Oliver said. “Your Honor, please, you cannot trust such vengeful people with my children.”
Lady Foster sighed. “Your Honor, Lord Hallsbury’s assets have been frozen, and if he is convicted, his estate will remain in the Crown’s possession until his son comes of age. Correct?”
“Indeed,” Horne said.
“In the meantime, how will Mr. and Mrs. Mahoney support them? Most of their income is the result of Lord Hallsbury’s charity.”
Frank scowled, but Horne looked dangerously swayed. “A fair point, madam. And Lord and Lady Stanhope certainly seem committed to caring for them.” He looked to the Blackwoods, who nodded so hard their necks nearly snapped. “It would need to be revisited, but perhaps temporarily…for the sake of stability…”
“Your Honor, may I ask Lord Stanhope a question first?” Pippa said. Her heart was in her throat.
Blackwood turned to her, frowning. “Yes, my dear?”
“What are their names?”
The Blackwoods exchanged lost looks.
“Pardon?” Lady Blackwood said.
“My cousins. The children. What are their names?” Pippa smiled sweetly. “Surely if you care so much for them, and if you’ve tried so hard to be in their lives, you must know their names.”
The silence was deafening. Holmes idly covered his mouth, but Pippa could practically feel him grinning. Joshua punched her supportively in the hip.
“Elliot’s the boy,” Blackwood said after a full minute.
“Yes, the heir to the title,” Pippa said, giving Horne a pointed look. “I thought you might remember him. What about the other three?”
Further silence was eventually ended by Horne. “Yes, I think I follow you, Miss Cotton,” he said. “Request denied. The Cotton children shall remain in the Mahoneys custody for the time being, as shall Miss Cotton.”
The Blackwoods returned to their seats, looking shell-shocked. Lady Foster glared at Pippa with enough venom to kill an army, but Van Den Burg simply shook his head and gestured for her to turn around.
“Now, on the matter of bail,” Horne said, taking some papers from under his book and laying them across the top, “I understand that Chief Inspector Farrier advised against allowing the defendants to post bail. However, after much careful consideration, Mr. Streeter sees no significant risk in doing so, correct?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” Streeter said, and Farrier’s expression soured. Van Den Burg, however, looked oddly pleased. A faint alarm went off in the back of Pippa’s mind.
“Therefore, bail for Lord Hallsbury is hereby set at £150,” Horne said.
“Which I will pay,” said Van Den Burg, rising from his seat.
Oliver looked moved, but Folley’s eyes narrowed, and Pippa drummed her fingers in thought.
“A hundred and fifty quid?” Joshua whispered. “Just saw off his leg, why don’tcha, it’s cheaper.”
Pippa shook her head. “It’s not a lot. Not for them. Frank could swing that, and Van Den Burg knows it. What’s he playing at?”
“It is rather standard bail for the circumstances,” Holmes said. “Unusually usual. I wonder…” His lips twitched and he leaned in with an eagerness that could mean nothing good.
Horne turned the page, gave Streeter a questioning look, then shrugged and read out, “Due to extenuating circumstances, however, Lady Hallsbury’s bail is hereby set at £850.”
Folley sprang out of her chair so fast it spun into the wall. “Catesby, you snake!” she roared at Van Den Burg. “You whoreson jackal!”
A few people hissed, like flame down a line of powder, but for the most part everyone remained frozen, staring at Van Den Burg. He was pale, and for a moment Pippa thought he might have the decency to look ashamed. But the expression disappeared in a flash, replaced by cold satisfaction.
“Glass houses,” he said quietly.
The spark found the powder keg, and the room exploded. Oliver got to his feet, shouting alongside his wife. The Fosters and Blackwoods screamed back, rising protectively around Van Den Burg like thorns. Onlookers jeered and cursed according to team; even Joshua hopped up on the bench, yelling, “Bribery! Dirty rotten bloodsuckers!” which Watson did little to hush.
Only Shekhar, Holmes, and a stunned Pippa remained seated. Shekhar fidgeted with something in his breast pocket, and Holmes hummed along to the chaos. He caught Pippa’s eye and tipped his hat.
“Welcome to the wonderful world of crime, Miss Cotton.”
A thousand pounds, she thought. More than most people make in a decade. Granted, her guardians were not most people, but even they didn’t carry half their monthly income in their back pocket.
“Bite the bullet,” Oliver told Cromwell as Horne struggled to control the uproar. “Just get us out of here.”
“Your Grace, your assets have been frozen,” Cromwell said, “and besides which you cannot bail out a co-defendant.”
“No need,” Folley said, shooting Van Den Burg a vindictive look over her shoulder. “I can pay it myself. Thank God for theater, eh?”
Horne looked remorsefully out over his freshly calmed courtroom, sighed, and lit the fire again. “The court reminds Her Grace that she has no income apart from her husband’s.”
“Ridiculous,” Oliver said, “Folley’s accounts have always been in her own name.”
“Nonetheless, under marital coverage, your wife’s accounts are your property. You are a married woman, Lady Hallsbury,” he said, nodding at Folley, “and as such you forfeit legal personhood for the shelter of your husband’s standing. His Grace may allow you to treat his earnings as your own -”
“Allow?” Folley said. “His earnings?”
“ – That is his prerogative,” he continued. “However, the court is not obliged to recognize this independence, and it does not do so now.”
“Unless I kill a man myself,” Folley said through gritted teeth. “That independence you’re happy to recognize.”
Horne frowned. “Lady Hallsbury, are you questioning the integrity of this court?”
Burts tugged on Folley’s sleeve, looking suicidal, and she backed down. “No, milord. Pardon me.” She forced a tinkling laugh. “Literally, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
The gallery tittered, and Horne smirked in spite of himself.
“My brother-in law, then,” Folley said, craning her neck and beckoning Frank. “Will you let him pay for me?”
“Not through your account, Your Grace,” Horne said.
Folley cocked her head. “I thought you said I didn’t have any accounts, sir?”
“You do not. Nonetheless, Lord Hallsbury’s money is allocated under your name, not Mr. Mahoney’s. He cannot access it.”
“Even if I give him permission?” said Oliver.
Horne shook his head. “You cannot give such permission, Your Grace. It is not your account.”
“What the Christ?” Folley moaned, clapping a hand over her face.
“Lady Hallsbury, again, mind your language or I will have you removed,” Horne said, wagging his gavel at her.
Oliver laughed bitterly. “We are trying to get removed now!”
“The same to you, Your Grace!” Horne snapped. “Unless you would like to pay a contempt fine on top of your bail? If Mr. Mahoney can produce the funds from his own resources, then Her Grace is free to go. Otherwise she will remain in custody.”
The couple turned to Frank, who furrowed his brow. “Barely, I think.”
Van Den Burg’s eyes flashed. “In which case, Your Honor, I rescind my offer to post for Lord Hallsbury.”
Oliver spun to face him, but after a stern cough from Horne he held back his curses with a face like swallowing ink. “How about the rest?” he asked Frank.
His brother-in-law shook his head.
Oliver kissed his wife’s hand. “Go. I shall manage.”
“Not a chance in hell,” Folley said. “You take it. I’m not leaving you behind.”
Her husband started to protest, but he was cut off by Shekhar, who stood up and cleared his throat. Every head turned as he pulled a checkbook from his inside pocket.
“It was £150 for Lord Hallsbury, correct?”
Gasps rippled through the court, and so many flashbulbs went off that Pippa was nearly blinded. Holmes leaned into Watson’s shoulder, shaking with laughter and clapping his hands between his knees. Van Den Burg turned purple, while Folley and Oliver stared at Shekhar like he was Christ walking over the waves.
“And you are?” Horne asked.
“Mr. Shekhar Deshmukh, Your Honor,” Shekhar said, bowing. “Son of Vikrama Deshmukh, proprietor of Karwan Mining. I will gladly post bail for Lord Hallsbury, without condition.”
“Bless you, sir,” Folley breathed.
Horne pinched the bridge of his nose. “Most irregular,” he muttered, but beckoned Shekhar and Streeter up to the bench regardless. Shekhar winked at Pippa as he passed, and Spellman’s face lit up.
Joshua leaned towards her and whistled. “Nice fish you caught there,” he said. She didn’t correct him.
After a brief, huddled debate, Streeter threw his hands up and returned to his side, and Shekhar bounded over to Van Den Burg with a grin.
“Perhaps this is optimistic,” he said cheerfully, “but I am sure Lord Catesby is generous enough to at least lend me a pen?”
There was nervous laughter as Van Den Burg glowered at him, but after a beat the marquis produced a fountain pen.
“Lord above,” Lady Foster muttered, crossing her arms, “they will call anyone a gentleman these days.”
“So it seems,” Shekhar said, looking Van Den Burg up and down.
He returned to the judge’s bench, signed the check with a flourish, and strolled back down the aisle just slowly enough to permit another round of photographs.
“Your father will kill you for that bill,” Pippa said, though she squeezed his hand gratefully as he sat down.
“Please,” he said with an airy wave, “you act like he sent me away for being too responsible. £150 is a good week for me. Baba will probably throw a parade.”
“Now, if we could finally move on to the last matter at hand,” Horne grumbled, “I understand the defense wishes to approve an expert witness and propose a trial delay.”
Cromwell called both Holmes to the bench. After a gesture from the baliff, Farrier followed suit. Pippa clenched her fists nervously, but to her surprise, the pair answered Horne’s questions with relative decorum, if not enthusiasm. In fact, the exchange was so by-the-book that she completely drifted off.
“ – not the sole investigator,” she heard Farrier say after a while, and the sudden harshness in his voice snapped her back to reality. “Your Honor, even if you accept Mr. Holmes’ unconventional methods, I urge you not to give free rein to his duplicity.”
Holmes sniffed dismissively. “Any man of science periodically requires assistants. I have utilized trained apprentices on numerous cases, and the courts have never taken issue with the evidence they helped uncover. I fail to see why employing them here should be any different.”
Lady Foster looked from Holmes to Joshua and made an impressive deduction of her own. “Such as that lout,” she said, pointing at him, “who called us bribing bloodsuckers not ten minutes past? What sort of impartial examination can we really expect from him?”
Holmes’ lip curled. “A most honest and objective one, madam,” he said, unable to resist. “Why, there is nothing I have emphasized more in Mr. Tabak’s training than the importance of accurate description.”
Lady Foster’s jaw dropped. “How dare you, you…you inflated, second-rate, bourgeois -”
“That is quite enough of that,” Horne said. “The same goes for you, Mr. Holmes. I am beginning to see why you do not grace the witness stand more often. Nonetheless, we grant you permission to use apprentices.”
“But sir!” Farrier said, but Horne silenced him with an icy look.
“How long do you estimate this investigation would delay the trial?” Horne asked, turning back to Holmes.
“Two weeks,” Farrier jumped in. “Anything more would be a waste of state time and resources.”
Holmes snorted. “You expect me to catch Jack the Ripper in two weeks? When your department could not turn up so much as a footprint in ten years?”
“I don’t expect you to catch anybody, Mr. Homes,” Farrier spat. “Frankly, I’m shocked you can find your own shoes in the morning.” A malicious smile spread across his face. “And you are the last person who ought to point fingers about the handling of the Ripper case.”
Holmes scowled but did not return the barb. “I require two months if I am to put together an adequate case, Your Honor.”
“Two months?” Streeter said, agog.
“Yes, Mr. Streeter, for unlike you I do not take half-remembered gossip and a week’s worth of graverobbing to be the end of my deductive line,” Holmes snapped.
Horne banged his gavel before Streeter could retort. “30 days,” he boomed. “You have one month to conduct your investigation, Mr. Holmes, on the condition that you leave my presence as fast as your feet can carry you, and do not trouble me again until the case resumes. Agreed?”
Holmes nodded, but Pippa did not like the nervous shadow that crossed his face.
“Wonderful,” Horne said, banging his gavel a final time. “Then court is adjourned until ten o’clock, the morning of May 12th.”
There was a great rustling as everyone got to their feet. Holmes retreated to the defense table and bent his head to Cromwell’s ear. After a moment’s consultation with his clients, the lawyer stepped aside to let Folley and Oliver pass. Holmes motioned to Watson and Joshua in turn, then he and Pippa’s guardians departed through a side door.
“Cor, that’s new,” Joshua said, looking delighted. “C’mon, he’s letting us in on the interview. Hurry up before he changes his mind.”
They caught up with Watson outside a small gray room, then heard footsteps and a slight panting behind them. Pippa spun on her heel, but it was only Roberts, jogging after them and looking like he would rather be doing anything else.
“Inspector Farrier says there has to be an officer present for this,” he said, thumbing sheepishly over his shoulder, “at least since it’s on federal property.”
Watson huffed so hard his mustache bristled. “Exactly how many ridiculous rules is the inspector planning to pull out of thin air this month?”
“Didn’t ask, sir,” Roberts said, then blushed. “Sorry. I’ll play fair, though, won’t get in your way or anything.”
Pippa could hear the unspoken, ‘Unless my boss makes me, which he definitely will,’ hanging in the air, but there was no time to fight that now. Instead, she opened the door and (after she silenced their chivalrous protests with a glare) all four men filed into the room ahead of her.
Holmes stood just inside the door, talking in hushed tones with Burts and Cromwell. In the center of the room stood a flimsy metal table and four rickety chairs. Folley and Oliver sat on one side, their chairs pushed up against each other, seemingly oblivious to the outside world. Folley was holding her husband’s face in her hands, brushing his hair back as if to soothe him. However, as the lawyers left, slamming the door, she looked up as if taking in the dark, bare walls for the first time. All expression abruptly fled her face, like a chalkboard being wiped down at the end of the day. She took her hands from Oliver’s cheeks and locked them on the back of his neck, and he pulled her close, hushing her.
Pippa nudged Holmes in the ribs. “For God’s sake, don’t be an ass this time,” she hissed, but Holmes barely seemed to notice her. Instead he watched Folley with an inscrutable expression before approaching the table and offering a handkerchief.
“Madam,” he said softly, “please accept my sympathies for the shameful manner in which you have been handled.”
Roberts shifted awkwardly in the corner but said nothing. Folley took the handkerchief with a smile.
“Thank you, Mr. Holmes. It is good of you to say so,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “I’ll be okay though.”
“If you do not mind, I would like to ask you a few questions before you return home,” he said. “Are you feeling up to it?”
Folley steeled herself and folded her hands on the desk. “Sure. Fire away.”
Holmes took a seat across from the couple and took a small notebook out of his inside pocket. “How did you come to be in your previous occupation?”
“My folks died when I was 12, during the cholera outbreak in Leeds,” she said. “Me and Lacey were supposed to go to some uncle, but Mrs. Baker picked us up instead.”
Holmes tapped his chin in thought. “This would be Moll Baker, the former Gower’s Walk madam, I presume? Middle-aged, burned hands, missing her lower teeth?”
Folley looked surprised. “Yes sir.”
“I know of her. She was entangled in the Richardson Case last year, though sadly they were unable to secure her conviction,” he said. “She was the one who sold you to the deceased?”
“Yes sir. Dunno if she saw anymore of his face than I did, though.”
“I doubt my brother did his own procuring, at any rate,” Oliver said. “He had a man for that, a Frenchman named Lavoisier. Ethan was not one to fraternize with staff, but Lavoisier went everywhere with him, and they seemed at ease with each other.”
Holmes jotted down the name. “Do you know where I might find these people?”
The couple shook their heads. “Haven’t seen Mrs. Baker since I went off the game,” Folley said, “and Lavoisier disappeared a few weeks before the fire. Coulda run off, coulda died, no idea.”
The detective looked disappointed but moved on. “How did you come to work at Merrimore House?”
Oliver smiled slightly, and he and Folley exchanged fond looks.
“Bit of a sneak, to tell you the truth,” she laughed. “Picked up somebody else’s recommendation letter – y’know, totally innocent accident,” she added, inclining her head at Roberts, who looked scandalized, “and figured I could use an extra three pounds weekly, so I made a few alterations.”
“Badly,” Oliver chuckled, and his wife ruffled his hair.
“Yeah, yeah, and en’t you the luckier for it? This one saw through me, but Pippa had burned through so many nannies at that point that he…” She trailed off, lacing her fingers through her husband’s. “He played fair. He gave me a chance.”
Oliver kissed her behind the ear. “So did you,” he murmured.
Holmes cleared his throat and the couple came back to Earth, though they were still grinning. “So you had no idea that Ethan Cotton was your former assailant?” he asked.
“Were you ever suspicious of him? Especially after this masked man began stalking you?”
Folley scratched her neck, looking ashamed. “I don’t…I mean…maybe? Look, I know I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer about this whole thing, but that’s how you had to deal with Masque!” She cupped her hands around her nose and mouth and blew hard, wincing. “I learned real early not to ask questions, not to even think ’em. To just keep my head down and do what he said. Maybe if I looked harder, I would’ve seen something before the fire, but I didn’t. Sorry.”
“That is quite alright, Lady Hallsbury,” Holmes said. “At some point, though, you did plan to kill your attacker, correct? Regardless of who he was?”
“Who wouldn’t?” Oliver snapped. “He killed her friend. He sent body parts through the post, for God’s sake. Someone had to take action.”
“I am aware, Your Grace, and would like to examine this particular piece of evidence if you can still provide it,” Holmes said, and Folley agreed. “However, I do have to ask plainly which of you did ‘take action’ against Ethan Cotton.”
“Me,” the pair said in unison.
Holmes smirked in spite of himself. “Well, that went about as neatly as expected.”
“For Chrissake, Oliver, don’t lie!” Folley said, slamming her palms on the table. “There’s no point!”
Oliver started to protest, but Holmes held up a hand. “If I may, Your Grace, I believe I have a yet more important question for your wife.”
The duke look surprised but backed down. Holmes turned to Folley.
“Were you the only woman Ethan Cotton assaulted?” he asked. “The Whitechapel victims were not raped, yet your description of him makes this sound rather out of character. I wonder if he reserved that depravity only for women he did not intend to kill, and would like to speak with any surviving victims.”
Folley paled. “He, um…he said it was just me. As long as I d-did what he w-wanted…guess he could’ve lied, though, I should be surprised.” Nonetheless, she looked shaken, and Oliver covered her hands with his.
“But you do not know any names?” Holmes asked.
Folley shook her head. “Pierce told me he killed people in Europe too, but I don’t know any of them either.” She laughed unsteadily. “Once again, shoulda asked more questions, right? But I couldn’t…I didn’t want…”
She took a sharp breath and stood. “Sorry, Mr. Holmes, I don’t think I can help you with this one.”
“Madam, I do believe –”
“She said no, alright?” Oliver said. “If you have other questions, you know where to find us.”
Holmes took the hint, though he did not look pleased. Folley and Oliver stepped away from the table and embraced Pippa.
“We’re going to find proof, I promise,” she said.
Her aunt and uncle exchanged suspicious looks. “What do you mean, ‘we’?” Folley asked.
“Oh, I allowed Miss Cotton to join the investigation,” Holmes said absently, stowing away his notes. “She has the minimal level of skill required, and it is most expedient to have her at hand.”
“Oh it is, is it?” Folley said, looking from Holmes to Pippa in horror. “Well, I’m sorry, but you can’t have her. Absolutely not.”
“What?” Pippa said. “Folley, no, listen to me, I can -”
“Your aunt is right,” Oliver said, cutting her off. “This work is far too dangerous for a child.”
“Tabak is my age,” she said, flinging an arm back at him, “and Mr. Holmes has brought him on dozens of murder cases. He’s still in one piece.”
“Mr. Tabak is dead lucky then,” Folley said, “and he’s also not our niece. You are, and we forbid it. You aren’t gonna go wandering around Whitechapel brothels or poking through every crime den on the Continent, not while I draw breath.”
“Folley, I can do this! I’m good at this!”
“You are not a detective though, Pippa!” Oliver said. “You have no idea what that demands, and we will not let you traumatize yourself attempting to learn.”
“Uncle, I can help,” she insisted.
“I am sure you could,” he said, “but you must understand that we -”
“If you really are sure, then let me.” She folded her arms and braced her feet. “I’ll do it either way. You know I will.”
“And you know we’ll stop you,” Folley said.
“How many times?” Pippa asked. “Every day? Every hour? For God’s sake, you only have a month’s reprieve. Are you going to spend it putting bars on the windows, never turning your back on me for an instant? Because that’s what it’ll take.”
Her guardians exchanged beleaguered, but amused, looks. “If we must,” Oliver said. “We have the practice.”
“All we want is to protect you, pet,” Folley said. “It’s all we ever wanted.”
Pippa flung her hands up, gesturing around the tiny room. “And how did that turn out?”
“Phillipa,” her uncle said harshly.
“I know, I know, you didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” she said, holding up her hands. “But it is happening. I am not safe. That won’t change whether I’m in Hallsbury or Spitalfields.”
The pair still mumbled protests, but their resolve weakened.
“Ten years ago, you took a risk to save our family,” Pippa said. “A graver risk than mine. Since then, you have done everything possible to protect us, but you’re out of options now. I’m not.” She clasped her hands. “Please. I have a right to defend what is mine.”
Her aunt and uncle stared at each other for a long time, then Folley bowed her head. “Mr. Holmes, your eyes are precious to you, right? You need them to work?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Right-o. Then that’s what I’ll take if my niece is harmed in your care.”
“That is a touch extreme,” Oliver said, but Folley ignored him, spitting into her palm and holding it out.
“Standard insurance,” she said. “Fair enough?”
Without missing a beat, Holmes spat into his own hand and shook. “A sensible contract if ever there was one, Lady Hallsbury. I would sign it in blood if you wished.”
“Oh, trust me,” Folley said with a grim smile, “if Pippa’s hurt, you will.”
Her guardians turned to go. Pippa stuck her hands in her pockets and felt the sharp sting of paper catch between her fingers. The list, she realized.
“Wait,” she called out. Folley and Oliver paused as she took out the sheet. “Do you know what this is? I found it in one of Uncle George’s books, but it doesn’t look like his hand.”
Oliver squinted at the list and his mouth fell open. “It’s Christina’s.”
“Really?” Pippa asked. “You’re sure?”
Her uncle nodded, looking pained. “Ethan made me read her suicide note many times. I am afraid Christina Cotton’s handwriting is quite seared into my mind.”
“Do you know what it is?” Joshua said.
Oliver shook his head apologetically. “That I cannot say for certain. Initials and abbreviations, but I’m not sure for what. Nor can I explain the numbers at the bottom.” Still, he kept pondering the sheet. “You said you found it in a book?” he asked Pippa at last.
“Yes, Uncle George’s copy of the Odyssey,” she replied. “Why, does that mean something?”
Oliver cocked his head back and forth. “Perhaps. It’s just an idea, and a morbid one at that, but it might be a draft of her will.”
“Christina Cotton left a will?” Roberts said, furrowing his brow. “That was never mentioned in the reports.”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly an official one,” Oliver said grimly. “She left instructions in her suicide note. Mostly pleading for Pippa to remain at Merrimore rather than live with Ethan, of course, but there were a few odd addendums. She was very particular about who received which of her books, for instance.”
“And this might map that out?” Pippa asked, tapping the list. “But why did that matter so much to her?”
Oliver shrugged. “She was about to die. One’s priorities tend to shuffle in such circumstances.”
“It may still be worth looking into, if only to prove she did indeed die by her own hand,” Holmes said. “I presume you still have the note?”
Oliver started to nod, then shot Pippa a worried glance and stopped his head mid-shake. “I…I’m afraid not, no.” His voice was pitchy. Holmes narrowed his eyes.
“I thought you said your brother used to make you read it,” the detective said, “so surely he must have kept it on hand.”
“Only for a time,” Oliver said. “He burned it one day, out of nowhere. Pulled it right out of my hands and chucked it in the fire. Nothing left. Nothing to it.”
Folley looked at her husband in bewilderment, but when Holmes turned to her she simply raised her hands. “Don’t look at me, mate. I dunno nothing about it. Makes sense to me, though.”
Holmes turned back to Oliver with a sigh. “Your Grace, it is hard to defend a hidden truth. My skills will be of little use to you without your complete disclosure and cooperation.”
“You have it, sir,” Oliver insisted. “Believe me, if I had the note, I would give it over most readily, but it is gone. Completely and utterly lost.”
They stared at each other for a long moment before Holmes exhaled again. “Then for your sake, Lord Hallsbury, I pray it is all that you lose.”