July 3rd, 1881:
To my dearest, treasured child and greatest love in all the world!
Forgive me for being so saccharine, but surely a mother has the right to be embarrassingly doting? It is what I am most excited for, out of a long list of excitements!
We had a party for you yesterday, and you are already a very popular little fellow. Nearly a hundred people filed through Valley House to congratulate us, and we are practically drowning in gifts. Your father offered to help me with the thank-you cards, but the poor thing overindulged and I think it would be best if I did not trouble him with that today. Do not fault him; he is just so happy to be a father.
Admittedly, I do wish he had shown a little more of that happiness yesterday. His friends were thrilled to carry on with him in their usual way, of course, but women are so judgmental, and I fear a few of their wives got the wrong impression of Ethan’s enthusiasm. I know it is customary, and all in jest, to behave as though a man has been enslaved should he wed or sire a child. I can laugh along with the best of them. But at the same time, how I wish I could take those sour-mouthed shrews back to last month! I wish I could show them how your father carried me in his arms for hours without tiring, insisting each servant thank me for the new young master I was bringing them. How we rode up the coast at midnight, and he stuck his head through the open roof and cried, “By the grace of Heaven’s greatest angel, by my sweet Christina, I have a son!” How he washed my feet and legs as if I were Christ. How we danced. How we made love.
(It occurs to me that my plan to pass this diary on to you may not be wise. Perhaps I shall wait until we are both too old to be scandalized.)
Anyway, back to the party. I was especially pleased that my old teacher Mrs. Ashcroft could attend, and she gave me the sweetest gift. It is a book called Pippa Passes, by Robert Browning. I used to check it out from the library so many times, she said it was practically mine already. Oh, the happy hours I used to spend in her office discussing poetry with her! I cannot wait for you to have the same opportunity, my joy.
That is, assuming you are a girl. I do not know why, but something already does incline my mind that way. Ethan insists you are a boy, of course, and everyone tells me I must focus all my hopes on producing a son, lest idle thoughts turn you soft in the womb, but…would it be so terrible, to have a little girl? I am young, boys will surely come in their time. Whatever you are, you have my heart in your keeping, and it always shall be so no matter what.
Eight more months until we meet! I am breathless!
The journalists led them to a small, smog-stained office building a few blocks away. Pippa burst in the warped interior doors with trademark flourish. Inside the central room, a red-nosed old man who she dimly recognized as Dr. Abberley was seated at a rickety table. Farrier, sitting across from him, rose when they entered, and motioned to Roberts to stand down (though the latter, leaning against the far wall, had done nothing but wince upon their arrival).
“Inspector, I insist on being present for any further questioning of this man,” Pippa said, hands on her hips.
To her surprise, the inspector smiled and proffered his chair. “By all means, Miss Cotton.”
Had he waved her onto a giant mousetrap, Pippa could not have been more suspicious. “Awfully obliging today, aren’t we?” she said, gingerly approaching the seat.
“Let it not be said that I need to withhold information to get ahead,” Farrier said. “Though I’m sure Mr. Holmes will say so anyway.”
“I would not, Inspector,” Holmes said, “I would simply remind Cotton that curiosity should never get in the way of sense.”
Farrier smirked. “Well, if my work this far has proven anything, she wouldn’t be much of a Cotton if she listened to that.”
“Fancy that,” Conway muttered, and Spellman laughed sharply.
“Of course, if you’re going to impugn my honor, you can leave,” Farrier said, examining his grimy fingernails. “In fact, I insist, you and your dogsbody.”
“And Pippa?” Shekhar said, bristling.
Farrier shrugged. “Miss Cotton is a lady. As long as she conducts herself as such, I doubt my witness will have anything to fear.”
Holmes’ stinging gaze locked on Pippa’s and he shook his head, once, tightly.
She sat down anyway. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Holmes’ eyes rolled fully into the back of his head, and he and Shekhar swept from the room without another word. After a moment’s contemplation, Farrier shooed Conway out after them, but allowed Spellman to stay, plastered to the back wall like a centipede.
“Now, Dr. Abberley,” Farrier continued, “you were just telling us why the Cotton family declined your further services.”
“You can say ‘put boot to arse,’ you know,” Abberley yawned. “No need to be polite, they certainly weren’t.”
“And why was that?” Farrier asked.
Abberley shrugged. “Ingratitude, if you ask me. I delivered Lord Hallsbury’s youngest, a high-risk birth with serious complications. Neither he nor his concubine had any appreciation for my efforts.”
“You tried to steal the baby,” Pippa snapped.
The doctor narrowed his bloodshot eyes and sniffed. “I tried to relieve an ancient house of the burdensome level of care necessary for a cripple.”
“By. Stealing. A. Baby,” she repeated incredulously.
“How did Lord Hallsbury react to that?” Farrier asked, suddenly facing Pippa.
“Oh, how do you think? He was furious. I’d never heard him scream like that, most terrifying thing I ever saw in my life, we thought he was going to kill that nurse -”
Snap! There went the trap. She couldn’t keep the panic out of her eyes as Farrier grinned.
“So in your expert opinion, Miss Cotton,” he said, “your uncle would be capable of violence if he were angry enough?”
Pippa folded her arms.
“I wonder if the same is true of your aunt?”
She bit her lip, then smiled as sweetly as she could. “Dear Inspector, I would never presume to intrude on your investigation.”
Spellman chuckled, scribbling on his pad. Even Farrier and Abberley smirked at each other, albeit bitterly. Only Roberts kept his usual passive, pitying stare.
“I hear you examined Lady Hallsbury after her twins were born premature,” Farrier said, focusing again on Abberley.
“My assistant did.” The doctor sniffed. “That woman would never let me touch her – wouldn’t have kept me on at all if it wasn’t for the old duke.”
“Did your assistant find anything to explain her childbed troubles?”
Abberley laughed harshly. “Up that cavern? You bet your boots he did. So much scar tissue it’s a wonder she could conceive at all.”
Pippa ground her teeth. “Hearsay.”
The men ignored her. “Mind you,” Abberley continued, “not conceiving was likely the point.”
“Meaning?” Farrier said, unable to keep from smirking.
“Meaning the scarring is consistent with multiple abortion,” Abberley said.
“Liar,” Pippa snapped.
Abberley bristled. “Young lady, I am a well-respected member of the medical establishment.”
“Oh, forgive me,” she sneered. “A drunk, thieving liar. I should have specified.”
“Do you have any proof of this, Doctor?” Farrier said, before the man could retort.
“My assistant wrote up a detailed report, which I verified,” Abberley said, “but Lord Hallsbury insisted on retaining all the copies. I expect they were destroyed.”
“Miss…Cotton…expressed…no…surprise…whatsoever…” Spellman muttered as he wrote.
Pippa turned to shoot back, but a cold realization stopped her. Bad responses alone don’t sell papers, bad revelations do. This thing about Folley is his whole story for the day, and he’s counting on me to verify it, one way or another.
He didn’t need to verify it, of course, she knew that. One should never let truth get in the way of a punchy headline. But she didn’t intend to give him anymore satisfaction than she would Farrier, so she kept her face blank and turned back to Abberley without a word.
This did not go unnoticed by Farrier, who immediately raised the stakes. “How old did your assistant estimate this scarring was?”
Abberley screwed up his face in thought. “Somewhat over fifteen years, I believe.”
“Hm,” he said, looking over Pippa. “When were you born, Miss Cotton?”
Pippa’s jaw dropped, and Spellman’s pen picked up speed. “Are you – Lord, are you actually implying – ?”
Farrier cut her off with an idle wave. “No, you’re right, I should not have mentioned it, even if the timeline does match up. I am curious whether or not you noticed anything unusual about any of the other Cotton children though, Dr. Abberley, while you were their physician.”
“Especially the oldest girl,” Spellman added. “She was born not long after your father died, right, Pippa?”
“A year and a half later,” Pippa said, shaking her head incredulously, “and she’s the spitting image of her father, everyone says so.”
“Yes, well,” Abberley muttered, “they would, wouldn’t they? For the sake of decorum if nothing else.”
Pippa scoffed. “Dr. Abberley, correct me if I’m wrong, but I always assumed to practice medicine, one needed to have a grasp on basic maths. From February of 1889 to June of 1890 is rather longer than 9 months.”
“She could have fudged the date,” Spellman said with a shrug.
“It would explain why the girl has none of the physical problems shared by all her siblings,” Farrier said. “Hardier stock.”
“Are you hearing yourselves?” Pippa said. “Is there something in the water?”
“Well, you must at least admit, it wouldn’t be beyond the woman,” Abberley said. “I mean, who knows what she’s willing to lie about? She covered up her abortions, didn’t she?”
Pippa slammed her hands on the table. “And so what if she -?”
She choked on the last words, but the damage was done. The men rounded on her with shining, wolfish eyes. Dammit.
“What was that, Miss Cotton?” Farrier asked quietly.
She jumped up and hurried to the far door. “I said I need a smoke.”
Roberts went to open the door, but she crashed through it before he got there, and it slammed behind her with a metallic clang. She wanted to scream. Perhaps she did, and the sound just wouldn’t come.
You idiot, she thought, you really are just a smug, stupid little girl after all, aren’t you? Playing detective, telling yourself, ‘control, control,’ what a black bloody joke you are. You knew their plan. You always see what’s coming at you like a freight train, and you lie on the tracks anyway.
Hands shaking, she fumbled through her pockets and swore. Come on, I can’t have forgotten them, not now of all times.
A pink cigarette suddenly appeared under her nose, and she followed it to see Roberts hugging the door. An identical cigarette poked out of the corner of his mouth, the only speck of color on his face. “I guess you need one too, huh?”
She accepted it with a weak chuckle. “Thanks. It’s been quite a week.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said, taking out a small book of matches and lighting his cigarette and hers in turn. “Least I could do.”
Pippa took the longest drag of her life, nearly sucking down half the thing in one go, before examining the thin, rosy paper curiously. “God, you even smoke Sobranies too!” she said, fingering the gold band around the filter. “You’re my hero.”
He smiled and bowed awkwardly. “My one indulgence. And even then I can only afford the cheap ones, sorry. Silly pink smokes don’t look good on a Peeler.”
Pippa waved him off, whirling smoke around her head. “Anyone worried about the shade of paper they’re going to stick between their teeth and burn needs to reconsider their priorities.”
He laughed, and she was surprised by its depth, a full octave lower than his speaking voice.
“Point, but since when have detectives been good at keeping out of other people’s business?”
Pippa snorted, but Roberts’ face fell, and he tapped his first finger against his cigarette as if sending a telegram. “Erm, listen, I’m…I’m really sorry about all this. About him,” he said, cocking his head at the door. “I wish Inspector Farrier would take a different path with this whole thing.”
“Sounds like something you ought to tell him, not me.”
“Easier said than done, I’m afraid,” he sighed, “and easier done than heeded.”
She bobbed her head begrudgingly. “I suppose it is a tall order, asking you to tell that one off. Probably goes through subordinates like flypaper.”
Roberts’ mouth puckered, as if biting into unripe fruit. “Actually, I’ve been his partner for the last five years.” The P on “partner” popped, a tame Christmas-cracker snap but still audible.
“Yeah. He’s a good sort, really, great detective. I just know how he comes off.” He eyed Pippa and the glowing head of his cigarette in turn, comparing dangers, then added, “Especially since the Mitchell Affair.”
Pippa knew bait when she saw it, but that never stopped her from taking it. “What was that, exactly? Tabak mentioned it once, and Farrier lost his head.”
Roberts sucked his teeth but began almost immediately, his voice low and urgent. “Last year, Sir James Mitchell killed his secretary in a hotel on Church Street. Farrier was first on the scene, but not ten minutes later, in walks this crew of guys in black. From the Home Office, they said.”
“Horseshit,” Pippa snickered.
Roberts’ eyes widened at the word, but his laugh sounded almost relieved. “You are full of surprises, Miss Cotton.”
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said with a wink. “It’s grand to be yourself, but it’s no fun if people expect it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. “Anyway, Farrier thought it might be a trick, and left some new blood in charge while he went to check their credentials.”
“Easily bullied new blood?”
“Very easily. Farrier came back ten minutes later and the body was gone. Within weeks Mitchell had fled the country and sold military secrets to the Germans, leaving a trail of corruption, bribery, and scandal in his wake. Dozens of departments cleaned house in the aftermath, including Scotland Yard.”
Pippa whistled. “And Farrier was right there at the heart of it. How is he still working?”
“Got through by the skin of his teeth,” Roberts said, shrugging. “They couldn’t prove he was involved in the conspiracy, just that he made a mistake. He was tipped for department head before, though, which went up in smoke. He’d do anything to restore his reputation.”
He shot Pippa another sad look, then turned away, coughing. “So, erm, yeah. I’m sorry you got caught up in it all. You’re a nice girl, you deserved better. Things just got…you know…out of hand…” When her expression didn’t shift, he trailed off, flushing.
Pippa blew a thin white jet high into the air, lost in thought. “You could make it up to me,” she said at last.
Roberts finished his cigarette in one puff and lit another. “How?”
“Farrier knows what I’m up to,” she said, “so I want to know what he’s up to.”
The inspector held smoke in until his face was red. “I’m sorry, Miss Cotton, but…well, just because I feel for your family doesn’t mean I think they’re innocent.”
Pippa flicked the butt to the ground and crushed it underfoot. “No, that would be inconvenient, wouldn’t it?” she snapped.
“But I could get on Spellman’s case for you,” he added quickly. “Is that good enough?”
It was, but she let him squirm a while anyway before she nodded. “I suppose that would be a fair trade.”
The inspector beamed, then pulled a sly face. “Hey, watch it, never tie me up in anything fair!” he said, in an uncanny Brooklyn brogue.
“God, don’t do that, it’s too eerie!” Pippa laughed. “How do you do that? It’s remarkable.”
“Remarkably annoying, maybe,” he said, waving her off. “And it’s nothing. I have cousins in New York, and one East Coaster sounds the same as any other.”
Pippa wagged a finger at him. “Don’t sell yourself short. Why, my aunt and uncle might have a spot for you in their company, if you manage to get through this without killing them.”
He coughed guiltily but managed a small smile. “In that case, Miss Cotton, I will certainly try,” he said, shaking her hand.
The back door opened, and the five men inside poured into the street. Shekhar’s eyes narrowed when he saw Roberts holding her hand, and he pulled her towards him as soon as the inspector let go.
“What was that about?” Pippa asked him as they followed Holmes away from the building.
“I could ask him the same thing,” Shekhar said, jerking his head back. “Honestly, how old is that man? You’d expect him to behave.”
“Behave?” Pippa repeated incredulously. “He shook my hand, that’s all! Lord, do you really think we were flirting or something?”
“No, I don’t think you were flirting,” he said hastily, “but him…I don’t know, it was something about the way he was laughing with you. It seemed wrong. It made me…” He trailed off.
Pippa smirked. “Jealous?” she supplied.
“Nervo – wait, what?” he said, gaping at her. “I am not jealous!”
“Am not! Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Is it ridiculous,” Pippa said, stretching her arms over her head with a yawn, “to assume you have a vested stake in which men receive my attention?”
She let the stretch go past its time, rolling her shoulders back and pushing her chest forward as she did. Shekhar’s steps slowed to a shuffle. Finally, Holmes coughed irritably, and they returned to the present.
“Children,” Holmes hissed under his breath. “How did I ever get stuck with children?”
Leaving the others to their investigations at Baker Street, Pippa and Shekhar returned to Merrimore at twilight. The pair barely managed to sneak a few ledgers out of the safe before Folley could catch them, and carefully indexed the women’s names in fragments, hurriedly sliding books under the parlor sofa whenever a curious Cotton poked their head in the room. Finally, when the moon was high in the sky and Shekhar could no longer hold his head up, Pippa sent him off to a guest room, the ledgers in his satchel clumsily covered with other books’ dust jackets.
Sleep did not come for her, though. The journal in her coat pocket called to her from the other room, and sat as heavy as a hammer in her hand when she fetched it. Yet the contents refused to tell her anything of value, refused to even hint at it. Her mother’s words went into her eyes like a camera flash: pure, bright, blinding.
She ran her thumb down a red stripe thoughtfully. What were you hiding?
Someone ruffled her hair, and she looked up to see her uncle smiling down at her. “What do you have there?” he asked, crouching down to look over her shoulder.
“My mother’s diary, or what’s left of it,” she said, holding the book out for him. “I don’t suppose she said anything about it to you, before she…?” Seeing his expression, she trailed off.
“No, I don’t – I don’t recall that, I’m afraid,” he said, clearing his throat. “There was not much…you see, she…it was all very sudden.” He took the journal and leafed through the pages as gingerly as if they were cobwebs. “What do you mean, ‘what’s left of it’?”
Pippa pointed to the margin marks. “Holmes thinks she removed some entries, possibly to save as evidence against Father, and noted them with a color code. Do you remember any of Christina’s codes from when she was a girl? I hear she was quite brilliant at them.”
Oliver shrugged. “I shall have to take your word for it. I did not get to know Christina well until a few months before her death, and I fear any puzzles would have been lost on a slowbrained, colorblind old fool like me.”
“I doubt that very much, Uncle,” Pippa said, but he waved her off with a bitter smile. “At any rate, I’ve got to find them one way or another. I’m just not sure where to look.”
“Her friends, I imagine?” he said, returning the book and scratching his head. “Assuming they’ll talk to you. Teachers, relations where they exist – she’s got a cousin in Kent, though I doubt even she was desperate enough to trust Eric Lopshire with a secret. Beyond that, I have no idea.” Another sad smirk. “I wasn’t very good at investigating the first time around. Folley and I could have used a mind like yours.”
“You have me now.”
Oliver inclined his head. “Indeed, and we thank you for it,” he said, albeit hesitantly. “Don’t work too hard, though. It’s past midnight, a growing girl needs her sleep.”
She grumbled something obliging, and he clapped her on the shoulder with a laugh. As he turned to leave, though, Pippa blurted out, “What did she say, then?”
“My mother. When she died. She must have said something. If not about the diary, then what?”
Oliver cleaned his glasses on his sleeve for a long time without speaking. “Well, she talked about you, of course,” he said at last. “How she wanted us to take care of you, give you our love and protection…and keep you at Merrimore.” He bit his lip. “She was quite emphatic on that point. ‘Promise me she will not leave this house.’”
Pippa cocked her head. “Did that not raise any flags?”
“Well, I wasn’t in any frame of mind to really register it at the time. It stood out to me more as time went on, of course, but not right then, when we thought…”
He sighed, then added in a smaller voice, as if ashamed to be heard, “And he was my brother.” He clicked the arms of his glasses against each other. “Do promise me something, won’t you, my dear?”
“Try not to love anyone who doesn’t deserve it.”