August 5th, 1881:
Uneventful day. Picked out some new patterns with Fitzpatrick, selected curtains and bedding for the nursery as well. Took a walk in the garden, but the heat did not agree with my worsening nausea, so I am retiring early to bed. Ethan had the kitchen send up a special tea for my stomach, but it is terribly bitter, and I could not finish. Hopefully I can sleep my pains off, at least for a time, and have more exciting things to report tomorrow.
Excitement comes earlier than expected, but not the sort I desired. I have seen the strangest thing, Diary! My sickness woke me in the night, around ten o’clock, and I was surprised that Ethan was not yet beside me in bed. I got up and went to his study (searching for coddles and sympathy, I admit, but surely that is no crime). To my surprise, however, he was not alone. He was with Lavoisier! At first, I assumed the Frenchman was merely attending my husband, but as I watched through the crack in the door, I saw them sitting together! Talking together! Drinking and laughing, as if they were equals!
I do not know what this means. My husband brooks no disobedience from any other servant. He is the very pinnacle of protocol! So why this behavior, with this man of all people? I cannot make sense of it. Perhaps I should confront Ethan when he comes to me, demand an explanation.
Then again, that did not end happily the last time. Perhaps I should leave it be. Perhaps I should even hide this diary, lest he stumble upon this and feel even less reason to trust me.
I’ve woken again, Diary. It is nearly dawn, and my bed is still empty. I do not know if Ethan rose early – if he left without telling me – or if he never came to me at all.
The train north was a slow, stuffy, rattling tin can of a thing, but Pippa would have gladly spent a hundred years onboard if it actually took them to Grimsby. As it stood, they’d had to disembark in Scunthorpe, and spend the next 3 hours bouncing around like loose turnips on the back of a passing cart. Watson and Pippa groaned audibly at every lurch, and even Holmes looked a little green by the halfway mark. Only Shekhar and Joshua seemed unperturbed, the former somehow managing to read over Holmes’ case notes without losing the booklet to the whipping winds.
“You could slouch, at least,” Pippa grumbled, flopping against him, half in envy and half in awe. “Just a little, just to make me feel better.”
Shekhar smirked. “From the sound of it, nothing could make you feel better at this point, short of morphine.”
Pippa turned expectantly to Watson, but he shook his head. “Believe me, if I had any, I would not be sharing,” he said. “I used to be a sturdy traveler, but clearly the roads of the Far East are a more distant memory for me than they are for Mr. Deshmukh.”
Shekhar’s eyes narrowed. “No doubt,” he said in a clipped voice, but when Watson did not notice, he turned his attention back to Pippa. “Copying Joshua would probably be more help, he seems to be getting through it on sheer spite.”
Joshua had indeed been the very model of annoying determination on this journey, never taking his eyes from the horizon and speaking mostly in a series of distracted grunts. Pippa kicked his shin lightly with the toe of her boot, but she may as well have hit the hay bale he was sitting on, for all the response she got.
“Are you sure she’ll be up for visitors, this Mrs. Shafir?” Pippa asked. “I mean, she just got back from hospital, and her poor husband’s barely in the ground. Considering our track record when it comes to sneaking up on trauma victims, perhaps we should have sent word ahead.”
“No time,” Joshua snapped, though guilt did race over his features, quick as a thunderclap.
Holmes nodded in pensive agreement. “I have rarely had the pleasure of Mrs. Shafir’s acquaintance, but if those instances are any indication, getting her to talk will not be a problem,” he said, and Joshua chuckled.
The cart stopped suddenly, nearly pitching them all into the mud. Joshua tumbled from his perch but landed, catlike, upright and walking as soon as his feet touched the ground. “She’s down this way, if I remember. C’mon, it’s not much further.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Pippa grumbled, but she disentangled herself from the pile and hurried on ahead, keeping pace with him. They passed a few blocks of ramshackle houses and weed-covered lots before the gray road took them around a bend and over a creek thin enough to hop over. There, Joshua peered out a small knot of houses and suddenly groaned.
“Oh no,” he mumbled, breaking into a jog, “she shouldn’t be on her own yet.”
Pippa followed his gaze to see an olive-skinned elderly woman hobbling around a fenced yard in front of a cottage. She had a crutch under one arm and a wicker cage hooked over the other, and was trying to corner a fat gray chicken. “Come on, you blasted beast, or I’ll take this here stick and shove it straight up your -”
“Watch it, Florence,” Joshua said cheerfully, hopping the fence, “there are gentlemen present.”
The old woman looked up, and her dark, clever eyes filled with warmth. “Shoshoi? Hell’s bells, what brings you this way?” she laughed, pulling Joshua into a tight hug.
“The doctors said you’re not supposed to be out of bed,” he said, wagging a finger at her, but the woman just blew a raspberry.
“Doctors, pah!” she said, whacking Joshua on the leg with her cane. “Those grave-robbing fat boys think old women can’t lift their own teacups and young women shouldn’t risk the strain. But if your beady-eyed fuck of a father couldn’t take me down, I doubt walking will.”
“Where’s Miriam?” Joshua asked, squinting at the house. “Give her the slip again?”
“Not for long, now you’ve made such a racket. I don’t know what I did to God to make him curse me with sharp daughters. Probably had too much fun being a sharp daughter myself.”
Pippa chuckled, and Florence peered at her curiously over Joshua’s shoulder. “Who’s the gadji?” she asked. “You haven’t come to tell me you’re married, have you?”
Joshua rolled his eyes. “Live in hope, Florence.”
The woman sighed and threw her hands in the air. “You know, if Holmes and Watson are going to keep you all to themselves, the least they can do is set you up with some nice Baker Street girl.” She paused, cocking her head in thought, then added, “Or boy, knowing them, but at this point I’ll take anything.”
“Bibi, we’re here on a case,” Joshua said pointedly, causing Florence to take another look at Pippa. This time her eyes lit up.
“Oh, yes, I know you now,” Florence said. “You’re that Cotton girl. Yeah, I s’pose it was a matter of time before you two crashed into each other.”
“How do you do, madam?” Pippa said, extending a hand.
“Fine, fine, you oughta see the other bloke and all,” Florence said. Though her arms were heavily bandaged, her handshake was as firm as a young man’s. “I’m sorry you’ve come all this way to be disappointed, but if you’re hoping I can back up your aunt’s story, I can’t help you. My opinion is Michael Tabak’s the Ripper, and as the only person to walk away from the wrong end of his knife that oughta count for something.”
“We’re not so sure about that anymore,” Joshua said, to the old woman’s surprise. “That’s why we’re here, to check. You don’t still have that card, do you?”
Florence’s eyes widened. “I knew that damn thing would come in handy!” she crowed. “I’m surprised Holmes never asked for it sooner. Where is the old devil, anyway?”
“Here,” Holmes said, and they turned to see the other three coming up behind them. Holmes tipped his hat to Florence, though this only made her snicker. “A pleasure as always, Mrs. Shafir, and my deepest condolences on your husband’s passing.”
“S’not your condolences I want, sir,” she said, “it’s Michael Tabak. The boy tells me you’ve finally decided to settle that score.”
“Glad to be of service, madam,” Watson said.
Florence’s lip twisted. “Well, would’ve been gladder of it ten years ago, but they say forgiveness is a virtue. Let’s see if we can’t bag this deer together, eh, lads?”
She bumped open her front door with her hip. It collided with a tired, tangle-headed young woman coming through the other side. She had the same sharp eyes and square jaw as Florence, and both set hard as they took the old woman in.
“God, Ma,” the young woman sighed, “most people listen to a broken leg, you know!”
“Mine’s not complaining,” Florence said, hobbling past her into a cramped, low-roofed kitchen. “Only griping I ever here is from you, Miriam.”
“Boy, did you get out in time,” Miriam said, giving Joshua a peck on the forehead. “A whole pack of Holmeses wouldn’t give you as much trouble as this one. I’d say she’s as bad as the baby, but at least he sleeps sometimes.”
“Speaking of a pack of Holmeses,” Florence said, gesturing at the group, “this lot are hot on Tabak’s trail, so let’s not slow them down. Be a dear and grab the box, would you?”
Miriam frowned. “The box?” she asked, then, with dawning revulsion, “Oh, God, you still have that? What on earth for?”
Florence flapped her hands irritably and sank into an old rocking chair in the far corner of the room. “Just get it, it’s under my bed somewhere.”
“Ugh, isn’t everything?” Miriam grumbled, but she stomped off through a flimsy door leading to the only other room in the cottage. Joshua took the kettle from the stove and passed out mismatched cups as his companions all took whatever passed for seats around Florence. They were packed in so closely all their knees touched.
“I knew it was Tabak from the start,” Florence said, scooting her rocking chair closer to Pippa. “Violent man, even before the pox. Whitechapel’s no stranger to screams in the night, but we heard things from that room I can’t bring myself to repeat.”
Holmes’ fingers tightened sharply around his cup, and a shadow crossed Watson’s face. Both men shot fleeting, almost guilty glances at Joshua.
“He truly lost the plot when Emily died. Raving in the street at all hours, bursting in on people in their homes, picking fights with anybody who looked at him funny, all in the name of whatever demonic nonsense he cooked up in his head,” Florence continued. “Didn’t make much of a difference in his personality, really, just, wossname, magnified it. Then the street girls started going missing.”
“Missing?” Pippa said. “But they found the victims’ bodies almost immediately.”
Florence shook her head. “That wasn’t the start of it, though. First he just got rough with them. When none of the brothels would have him anymore, and none of the part-timers were dumb enough to look him in the eye, he started grabbing them off the street. Nobody ever found the bodies – the river don’t always spit up what you want it to – but we were sure he was behind it, or at least I was.”
“Ma must’ve rallied a dozen mobs that winter,” Miriam said, shaking her head as she reentered the room. She was carrying a small, grubby package. “Even tricked Dad into moving to Grimsby just to keep an eye on him. Nobody ever had the guts to actually fight Tabak though. Remember when he killed that wolf? Dunno how that thing got into the city, but Tabak came out of the butcher’s shop and cleaved its head in half with one swing. Cool as ice he did it too, it still makes me shiver.”
Florence sniffed contemptuously. “So he’s big. Three men would’ve taken him down easy, if we could’ve found any with balls in those days.”
“You nearly did take him down when we came here,” Joshua said.
“Nearly and nothing are the same word in the end, lad,” Florence said, but there was a nostalgic twinkle in her eye. “Still, I’m glad we ran him back to his circle of hell or wherever he disappeared to, and got you out of his hands.”
“Which brings us to this, I imagine?” Miriam said, rattling the box. “This the right one?”
“You could open it and check,” the old woman said peevishly, “it’s not done up in irons.”
“Hell no, I en’t touching that thing if you paid me. Catch.”
She tossed the box to her mother, who caught it with remarkable dexterity. “Joshua lived with us that summer,” she told the company as she undid the knotted twine, “and we planned to keep him on, he’s a good boy. But he got the post one day while I was out, and it changed everything.”
“I wasn’t supposed to open the door when I was alone, in case it was Dad come back,” Joshua said, “but I’d never gotten a letter in my life, so I got excited and accepted the package.”
“What was inside?” asked Shekhar.
Florence opened the box and tipped a grimy playing card into her lap. The group huddled tight around her, wide-eyed. It was a blood-spattered knave of spades. The word “GUTLESS” was scrawled in jagged black letters across the front, so hard that the final S cut through the paper.
“It was wrapped up in about a meter’s worth of sheep guts,” Miriam said with a shudder.
Florence harrumphed. “Sheep guts, my fanny. Harvey Cooper said they didn’t look like sheep anything to him, and he’s the biggest mutton man in town.”
“Harvey Cooper’s blind, Ma,” Miriam sighed. “You see what I have to put up with, Joshua? You need to stop writing her about your cases, she already sees murderers behind every hedge.”
“Don’t you listen to her,” Florence said, patting Joshua on the hand. “Bored people die faster, and you don’t want my ghost on your conscience.”
Holmes picked up the card and furrowed his brow. “I assume you thought this was from your father?”
“Yeah,” Joshua said, “like a warning not to snitch. I took of for London that night, and you know the rest, sir.”
“But I did not know about this,” Holmes said, flicking the card with his thumb. “Why did you not tell us sooner?”
Joshua looked embarrassed, and for some reason, so did Holmes. Florence, though, just snorted.
“Oh, what did you need it for, you old bloodhound? Personally, I’ve always wondered why you never went after the bastard yourself!” she said. “Even if the boy wasn’t ready to talk – and who could blame him – you’re telling me you never came across the name ‘Michael Tabak’ in all those ghoulish records of yours? I mean, you’re a little late to this whole Jack the Ripper dance, en’t ya? You who by all rights should have been first through the door?”
Shame clawed across Holmes’ face, and though it was gone from his expression in an instant, it remained settled in his eyes. “I suppose it would not have appeared particularly relevant until Miss Cotton’s discovery, but nonetheless, it is clear we must all be more vigilant going forward.”
“What discovery?” Florence asked.
Pippa pulled the knave of diamonds from her inside pocket and held it out to the old woman. Florence stared down at it for a full minute, then abruptly clapped her hands and cheered.
“Fuck me, this is getting good, innit?” she cackled. “Where’d you get that, missy?”
“Someone left it in my aunt and uncle’s window years ago,” Pippa said, “around the same time Joshua got his.”
“Why would Michael send anything to your people, though?” Miriam asked.
“They must have both been in on it,” Shekhar said. “Or killing at the same time, perhaps, and Tabak caught Cotton in the act? Maybe it was a blackmail attempt, or a threat?”
Joshua shook his head. “Dad didn’t go in much for blackmail. Took what he wanted, didn’t leave room for artifice.”
“Besides, no one ever contacted my family about the card ever again,” Pippa said. “Surely if they were after money, they would have followed up with some demands.”
Holmes steepled his fingers, deep in thought. “It is also possible that the sender of the playing cards is a separate entity altogether. Our mysterious false Watson, perhaps.”
“There was that man on the trellis, too,” Shekhar said, nudging Pippa, “he left a diamond mark on the window, didn’t he?”
Holmes and Watson exchanged beleaguered looks. “You know, Watson, at this point I think it would be wise to carry flags reading, ‘PLEASE RELATE ALL STRANGE HAPPENINGS’, because clearly they will not remember on their own,” Holmes said. “Who is the man on the trellis?”
Pippa relayed the story, and by the end Holmes looked like he would have drowned her in the kettle if only he could make her head fit.
“So what you’re telling me,” he said through gritted teeth, “is that we have had reasonable evidence of a third party being aware of the identity of the murderer – a possible outright conspiracy – for at least two weeks, and you three, in your infinite teenage wisdom, decided I did not need to hear about it?”
The trio shuffled awkwardly, each trying to cower behind the other. “Yeah, that about sums it up,” Joshua finally mumbled.
Holmes and Watson grimaced, pooling their patience until they had enough to stand without screaming. “Then we have a great deal of work to do,” Holmes said. “Mrs. Shafir, have you heard any news of Michael Tabak’s whereabouts since his attack on you and your husband? I imagine you must being keeping tabs on such things.”
“Course,” Florence said. “Ask for Saul at the Red Lion, he’s the last to run into him, poor devil.”
“Thank you.” The detective tipped his hat to her, then rapped his cane once on the floor and left, Watson and the three youths at his heels.
The trio quickly hurried ahead of their mentors, avoiding Holmes’ glares and trying not to giggle in spite of themselves. “So what do you think?” Shekhar whispered, eyes gleaming. “Things have taken quite a turn, haven’t they?”
“No kidding,” Joshua said. “Holmes is right, that bloke what’s been tailing us has to be involved somehow.”
“But who could he be?” Pippa said. “Spellman? Conway? Did your father have any associates, Joshua?”
“Your father did,” Shekhar said. “My money says it’s Lavoisier.”
Pippa and Joshua exchanged dubious looks, and Shekhar rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine, laugh at the non-detective, but I swear, you’ll eat your words before this case is over.”
“I’ll take that bet,” Pippa said, tossing her head proudly.
They reached the bridge over the little creek, and Shekhar lifted her into the air as easily as picking a flower, swinging her up past the rotting bottom planks. “And what do I get if I win?” he asked as he set her down beside him on the middle of the walkway.
Joshua pinched Pippa’s crimson cheek. “I’m sure she’ll think of something.”
The three all laughed, but Shekhar’s was strained, and Pippa’s hands went stiff on his arms. He quickly stepped away from her. “I, uh…I shall fetch us a cart back, one moment.”
With that, he ran off the way they had first come. Joshua watched him go with his head cocked, then turned to Pippa in exasperation.
“What is with you two, anyway?” he asked, shaking his head. “You ever gonna put that poor man out of his misery?”
Pippa folded her arms defensively. “How do you mean?” she said primly.
He gave her a look that was decidedly not prim. “How do you mean, is more the question, don’t you think?”
She wrestled with propriety, remembered it did not suit her, and kicked it to the curb with a sigh. “Trust me, I’d like to. I’d really like to.”
“Course you do,” he laughed, “look at him. Helen of Troy wouldn’t have launched a bloody dinghy if he’d been around to compete with. So c’mon, Miss Tuppence, can’t be dignity holding you back. Why not grab for that brass ring?”
“Because somebody else grabbed it first,” she said. “He’s married.”
“Ah,” he winced, “that is a snag, innit?”
“Hell of a snag,” Pippa said, watching Shekhar disappear into the distance with baleful eyes. “And it keeps on snagging, no matter what I do to make it stop.”
Joshua frowned sympathetically, then tapped his chin and chuckled a little under his breath. “Maybe you could just ask her.”
Pippa burst out laughing. “Over the post, you mean?” She mimed writing on her hand. “’Dear Mrs. Deshmukh, hope you are well, the weather’s lovely, by the way, would you mind terribly if I had my wild way with your husband right here on the floor?”
“I mean, nobody likes a braggart,” he said, wagging a finger at her, “but it’s the turn of the century, you might be surprised what people are willing to turn a blind eye to, especially half a world away.”
“And you’d be surprised what they don’t let go,” she said. “Not ever, no matter what you do. My aunt taught me that, the kind of words that stick to a woman. You can cover yourself up in all the titles, all the accomplishments, all the truth in the world, but if you step over the wrong line, the world will paper over all of it with whatever kind of vile words they choose.”
He looked askance at her. “You’re no coward, though. I didn’t think you’d care about that.”
“Neither did I. I didn’t used to, but this case, it just…” The wind picked up, and she shuddered, but not from cold. “It’s kind of hammered home what that really means, you know? To be hated? A woman can tell the world she doesn’t care what they think of her, but the world is going to make damn sure she still knows.”
They walked in silence for a moment after that, then Joshua put an arm comfortingly around her shoulders. “Cheer up, it’s not all doom and gloom,” he said with a wink. “Push come to shove, you can
always fall back on Lord Ponce Whatsit.”
Pippa cocked her head. “Who?”
“Your cousin. Blackwood’s twerp.”
“Ransom?” She shuddered. “Please. I’m already trying not to be sick, don’t make it harder.”
Joshua laughed, then pulled a wounded face. “Aw, you’re heartless, you are! Why, the poor lad
deserves a chance, doesn’t he? Sure, he’s barely out of short pants and his parents ruined your life and he’s probably so inbred his lip sticks out like a mail hook, but I’m sure he’s got his charms.”
“Good sell, Cyrano,” Pippa said, “but I’m afraid he’s not my type.”
“Figures,” Joshua said, nodding sagely. “No decent fancy man’ll get anything out of you besides
spit in his hat.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What exactly does that mean?”
“No insult, honest,” he said, holding up his hands. “Just mean you don’t go for prim-and-proper sorts. You’d be bored stiff with a gentleman.”
“Nonsense. I like Shekhar, don’t I?” She pointed at him, standing further up the road beside a sturdier, smoother-wheeled wagon.
“Sure, but he’s no flinching lapdog, is he?” Joshua insisted. “Got a wild streak, loves a good dust-up, same as you.” There was a knowing spark in his eye, and when Shekhar moved around the front to talk to the driver, he leaned close and whispered in Pippa’s ear. “And frankly, nice ladies don’t lock tongues with foreign playboys unless they can stand a bit of drama.”
Pippa sniffed derisively, though her cheeks grew hot. “You have quite the imagination, Tabak.”
He shrugged. “Just saying, I think you take after your Uncle Oliver.”
“How so?” she asked, stepping up to the cart and trying to clamber aboard.
Before he could reply, her boot caught on a nail, sending her tumbling backwards. Suddenly she found herself in Joshua’s arms, looking up into his sharp, tanned face. His arms were around her waist, and she was flush against him, to the point where she heard his vest buttons catch on her own. For a moment he too was flustered, then he grinned. Her heart went into freefall, pulsing all the way down.
“You like a bitta rough,” he said.
She wriggled away with a nervous laugh. Immediately, her arms hungered for his. Oh no. “Ah, well, I don’t really know about that.”
“Know about what?” Shekhar asked, appearing around the other side of the wagon and making her jump. When she didn’t reply, he gave her a quizzical look, but then shrugged and climbed into the cart. “He’ll take us as far as Brigg, but then we’ll have to find another ride.”
“Fine by me,” Joshua said, following him up. “Brigg’s a small town, though. Say, if we can’t find a big enough lift for all of us, why don’t you and Cotton go on ahead? I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, would you, Cotton?”
He smiled down at Pippa, but she did not reply. The sun shone over the two young men, making them look taller, heartier, almost glowing. It was all she could do to keep her mouth from going slack.
Joshua held out his hand, looking puzzled. “You’re coming, aren’t you?”
“No!” she exclaimed, then flushed. “Um, I mean, yes, of course I am, uh, right away.”
She took his hand with a damp palm, then quickly pulled away when she saw Holmes and Watson coming. Watson, Shekhar, and even Joshua himself did not notice, but Holmes paused, his boot hanging in the air for a fraction of a second, before coming down with a hard thump as he climbed into the cart. Pippa scuttled away from the trio, sticking to Shekhar like an extra rib, trying to concentrate on the more familiar pang of longing that the warmth of his body always sent through hers. She caught Joshua’s eye by accident and he winked at her again. Her stomach fluttered; the wagon hadn’t moved, but she still told herself it was the potholes.
As the boys chatted merrily with each other, Pippa gave her heart a stern talking to. Look at them. Look at how well they get on, what good friends they’ve become. You’re all good friends, remember? You and Joshua – hell, you and Shekhar, too! Just very, very good friends, and we wouldn’t want to spoil that, now, would we?
We would if they pulled our hair in the right spot, her heart replied, having never heeded a lecture before and not prepared to start. Like Shekhar did that night in the library. And did you feel the way Joshua’s hands sat on our waist? A soft grip, but God, you could feel the strength in him, couldn’t you? He’s a boxer, I’ll bet you money, if we can only get that shirt off him to check…
Pippa felt Holmes’ eyes on her and broke out in a cold sweat. No doubt he could read her like a book – or perhaps not a book in this case, more like the sort of magazine you have to order from overseas, wrapped in brown paper along with a book of matches for easy disposal. She pulled her collar up and shifted a potato sack closer towards her, putting a makeshift shield between herself and the detective’s palpable, icy judgment.
Joshua looked from her to Holmes in confusion. “You okay?” he asked his mentor.
“Trying to plan,” Holmes assured him, though his voice was curt. “We have much to do when we return to London. I hope you three are prepared to put some real work in. There will be no time for distractions.”
Pippa felt like her insides were being wrung out to dry. “Of course,” she said quietly. Her hands were slick, her legs twitching. “No distractions. No time.” But her heart pounded on. Oh no. Oh no. OH NO.