August 13th, 1881:
Hang that vile Parisian adder! He is the cause of my husband’s new corruption, I am certain. Ethan would laugh to hear it, but it is the only explanation.
Perhaps I should tell him, if only because it has been too long since I heard him laugh.
Ethan has been creeping out most nights. I did not mention it the first few times. They were so infrequent, and always precipitated by some unfairness of mine, and he was even more doting and amiable in the morning than he usually is. I told myself he simply needed a quiet walk, a friend, a drink or two at worst. But he was out every night this week, and I smelled more than liquor on him when he returned. Diary, I fear he has taken a mistress.
God, what a dagger to my heart it is to write it out. I did not think him such a man.
I have heard it is common, understandable even, for men to seek other beds while their wives are with child. I am supposed to be glad he honors me by keeping his woman (women? Lord, could it be?) away from here. It is, apparently, a sign of deep respect, an indication that he still views me as special. I am a treasure on his highest shelf, kept far above the reach of his baser instincts.
Yet if he set me on such a pillar here and now, I would spit down at him. It is common, is it? Does my husband claim to be a common man? If not, why does he hide behind their battlements? And if so, why should I give him solace, or warmth, or good cheer, or anything beyond cold and common courtesy?
I do, though. Would that I could stop myself. How I wish to take the hot blood of my heart, stopper it in a vial, and hide it from his power. I suspect that would be easier to do if I had proof of his indiscretions. To that end, I succumbed to desperation today and asked Lavoisier if he knew of Ethan’s wanderings. I even offered to raise his salary if he told me the truth, but the man laughed in my face.
“A thousand pardons, Madame,” he said, as if I should count myself lucky to be given the option, “but it is not my place to police my master. In fact, while I know the English are more, ah, timid about such dalliances, I rather wonder if it is your place either.”
Wretch. Thankfully, I have other options. Dear Fitzpatrick made inquiries for me downstairs, and found a loyal footman to assist me. I shall have him follow Ethan tonight, at a safe distance, and report back to me.
Do I pray that he finds something, Diary, or do I pray that he doesn’t?
“Holmes, come on!” Joshua said as they wound through the dark roads to Baker Street. “Let’s find Saul now. It’s only ten, there’s still time!”
“We must make haste, I agree,” Holmes said, “but barging in without warning or subterfuge has not served us well thus far.”
It was a dry night, yet lightning forked through the smoky sky. Holmes looked similarly electrified, but kept his voice calm. “We need a plan. This is our best lead in some time, and we cannot let it slip through our fingers, but no more should we crush it out.”
He unlocked the door to 221B, and Joshua’s footsteps were childishly audible as he followed his mentor inside. Pippa tried to latch onto that – look at that stubborness, she thought, isn’t he ridiculous, isn’t he entirely too absurd? But it was no use. The effect, to her horror, struck her as rather precious.
It didn’t help that she was on his side, and did a fair bit of stomping herself.
“We will begin early,” Holmes said, turning his back on his protegees, “so I advise you keep your whinging to a minimum, lest it compromise your alertness. Tabak, the half room is available as always, and I will give up mine as well for the night.” He cocked his head forcefully at Pippa and Shekhar. “I imagine you two can figure out a suitable arrangement.”
Was she imagining it, or did he emphasize the word, “two”? She supposed she needed all the discouragement she could get, though. When Holmes and Watson left them in the sitting room, Pippa turned her scrambled mind to new perplexities.
“Does Holmes never sleep?” she asked Joshua, peering quizzically down the hall.
“Course he does,” he said, kicking off his boots and plopping onto the settee, “why?”
“Well, he harped on us about rest,” she said, “but if he’s giving up his room, where is he going to sleep?”
Joshua snorted and looked askance. “You’re kidding, right?”
When Pippa and Shekhar just blinked back, he paled. “Oh. Um.” He leapt up, clapped his hands, and marched out of the room as stiffly as a wind-up toy. “Hungry, anyone? Mrs. Hudson always leaves something out for me.”
They pursued him downstairs. “Tabak?” Pippa said suspiciously. “What’s going on?”
“Hm? Sorry, can’t hear you,” Joshua said, rustling through the cupboards with unnecessary force. A stack of wooden bowls stood beside a fragrant stewpot, yet Joshua dug out three ceramic ones, which he filled with a deafening clatter.
Shekhar ate a spoonful, gagged politely and, when Joshua’s back was turned, poured the beef stock back into the pot. “He’ll probably sleep with Watson,” he said, thoughtfully tapping his spoon against his wrist.
Joshua fumbled, dropping spoon, bowl, and ladle onto the floor. The bowl broke, and stew splashed up the wall like arterial spray. “W-What?”
“You know,” Shekhar said, pointing at the ceiling, “they’ll probably share, to be courteous. They’ve traveled together a lot, I imagine they’re used to splitting a bunk to keep costs down, if nothing else.”
Joshua mumbled something cheery but indecipherable before turning his attention to the spill. Pippa took up a cloth and bent to help, but something still nagged at her.
“He didn’t sleep at Merrimore either, though,” she said. “His bed was always still made in the morning. The maids worried they had upset him. I know detectives keep odd hours, but he’s not a young man, he shouldn’t overexert himse-”
“What should we do about my dad, eh?” Joshua said, attacking the wallpaper. “I’m not gonna sit on my hands and wait for him to hit me first.”
“That seems to be Holmes’ plan though, for some reason,” Pippa sighed, “and I doubt Watson would sneak behind his back to help us either.”
Joshua suddenly perked up, looked over his shoulder, and dropped his voice. “Well, who says we have to be with them, eh? We can manage some reconnaissance on our own.”
The other two leaned in. “How do you mean?” Shekhar asked.
“Like, nobody’s been jumping to talk to us, right?” Joshua said. “But this place is lousy with disguise kits. What say we sneak back to Spitalfields and listen to what people are saying on the sly?”
“Lord, that is slick!” Pippa said, rubbing her hands. “Let’s try it.”
Shekhar grinned eagerly, but nonetheless stroked his chin. “I have a feeling my face would stick out in the crowd no matter what Holmes has in his bag.”
“You’d be surprised,” Joshua said. “There’s folks from all sorts in Whitechapel, and generally nobody’s stupid enough to say anything about it.” He paused, then admitted, “They’re usually drunk enough, I guess, but if you don’t want to throw your own punches over that, I’m happy to do it for you.”
“Thank you, but I think I can manage,” Shekhar laughed. “Can Pippa, is the question?”
“Oh, that’s in question, is it?” Pippa said, putting her hands on her hips.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” Joshua said, “I know the power of the short and bad-tempered.”
Shekhar snapped his fingers, ducked out of the room, and returned carrying a man’s cap. “It is still probably best we don’t, ah, advertise you too much, my dear.”
“Cripes,” Joshua said with a roll of his eyes, “it’s a pub, we’re not walking her through Newgate, calm down.”
But Pippa ran her thumb across the hat brim in thought. “I can look after myself, sure, but people haven’t been queuing up to help me, have they? Those women had neighbors, children, friends, and there’s a decent chance at least one of them drinks at the Red Lion.” She circled her eyes with her index finger. “And if I were them, I wouldn’t want to give these anything more than a hard poke. Let’s keep to the shadows as best we can.”
With that, she coiled her braid into a high bun and swept the cap over it. Shekar nodded approvingly, which in turn made Joshua look at him like he had sprouted antennae. Climbing up onto the sideboard, he tugged at a small door high in the wall. It opened with a sticky sound, and Joshua reached in to produce a fat, green velvet valise.
“Listen, if we’re gonna do this, we at least gotta do it right,” he said, hopping down and snapping open the case. Inside was a seemingly endless supply of wigs, stage makeup, and bizarre accessories. Pippa unscrewed the lid from a cream-colored jar and frowned.
“Beeswax?” she asked.
“It’s to do boils and dry skin and stuff, you know, if you wanna look crusty.” He took the jar back, then, after a pause, proffered it to her again. “Do you?”
“Pass,” she said, wrinkling her nose. She picked through the choicer false beards, then pulled a chair up to the table and looked expectantly at Joshua, who was already selecting brushes like surgeon’s scalpels. “Other than that, I defer to your judgment. I am putty in your hands, Tabak.”
He chuckled, and Pippa suddenly did feel herself melt. She dug her nails into the underside of her chair. Focus, woman.
Joshua began to work, shading and gluing the various contours of Pippa’s face. “You’re sure I can’t cut your hair?” he asked, desperately trying to pin the hat to her head.
“No!” Pippa and Shekar said it simultaneously, but he did so with an insistence that made her turn, glare, and debate the merits of baldness for some time.
“I mean, not unless you want to,” Shekhar said meekly, and resumed his search for clothing. “Joshua, where on Earth are we going to get trousers for her?”
“Check the spare room,” Joshua said, carefully applying a furry eyebrow to Pippa’s face, “I should have some stuff in the closet. They’ll fit her length-wise at least.”
Shekhar left and returned with an armload of clothes. He picked through them dubiously. “Sure, but she’s going to fall out of them. It’ll be like tucking a grasshopper in the folds of a kite!”
Joshua snatched a shirt out of Shekhar’s hands and stuck his tongue out. “Thanks for that, pal,” he said peevishly, “we can’t all be Adonis. We’ll sew her into it if we have to.” He took a needle and thread out of the box and held them expectantly out to Pippa. “You went to finishing school, right? It’ll save time if you do it while I finish.”
Pippa took the needle in suddenly unsteady hands. “Um, well,” she said, pinching the shirt fabric in random places, “attending lessons and, er, listening to them are very different things.”
Shekhar gallantly took over after the first mangled line, but fared no better. Soon Joshua fitted it to her himself, with many sighs and mutterings about “life skills.” At last, Pippa faced her male doppelganger in the entryway mirror. The makeup, she was disappointed to note, failed to completely hide her soft cheeks or the little, mousy point of her nose, but Joshua had emphasized her square jaw to its fullest, and the slight protrusion of her browbone had been magnified by face plaster, careful shadowing, and inch-thick false eyebrows. He had also added a mustache to cover her prominent lips, but she pulled this off at once, and was delighted by the revelation this produced: Dear God, I do look just like George.
The boys themselves were easier to dress, Shekhar’s only demands being a low, wide-brimmed hat and (ignoring Joshua’s reassurances) a knife, which he belted and hid under the back of his shirt. Joshua simply threw on a faded gray jacket before hustling them out into the night.
Whitechapel stretched out from East London like a bruise. The shadowy tenement houses tilted over them, closing teeth in the maw of the nighttime city. Pippa found herself sticking closer to Joshua the further they walked, and her eyes kept flitting over to the outlined dagger under Shekhar’s shirt, as if to reassure herself it was still there. Half of her felt as frightened as a child, and the other half felt as foolish as one for being so. It’s not like the Spirit of Dysentery is going to pop up and snatch you off the curb, moron, she thought, pull yourself together. Holmes is never going to listen to a word you say if you can’t even walk through a poor neighborhood without getting the vapors.
They turned a corner up Castle Alley, and Pippa relaxed a bit as the Red Lion came into view. They had passed so many weathered, lean-to stands propped against alleyways, manned by crouchbacked old women who poured gin into your tin work cup if you had one, and into your open mouth if you didn’t. At least this place resembled a pub, in theory if not entirely in execution.
The inside was sparse, bare walls and a few long tables, some with benches and some without. Despite the lack of seating, the room was packed to the rafters, and it took the trio some considerable shouldering to reach the bar, which was overseen by an unkempt, oily-haired lad barely out of short pants.
“I’m looking for Saul,” Joshua said. “Heard he had some trouble, think I can help.”
The greasy boy side-eyed him, then spat a wad of tobacco into the cup he’d just wiped. He flicked it down the counter before walking away. A bum crawled out from under the bench, grabbed the cup, reached over the counter for the gin bottle, and filled his new vessel without a glance inside. Pippa watched in morbid fascination as he raised it to his lips. He seemed to have no complaints. Taking a sip from her own mug, she supposed she would be hard-pressed to tell the difference either.
The greasy boy never returned. Instead, a long-haired, full-bellied man approached their corner, eyeing them like thieves. He cocked his head at Joshua. “Reckon I know you, but we’ll have words if I say how.”
“Words are all I’m looking for, sir,” Joshua said, removing his cap. “I was sorry to hear about Milosh. How’s he doing?”
“Dead,” Saul grunted. “Word just come. Don’t go shouting it all over, though. The bobbies told me to keep it under wraps for now, and for once I agree. Seen enough pitchforks in my day, and my heart’s no better for it, I don’t want a panic on my hands again.”
Joshua flinched. “Right. Damn. I hoped he’d pull through. His family’s in my prayers.”
Saul’s beard twitched. “Dunno if he’d buy that if he was here, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Holmes send you, or were you just feeling sentimental?”
“I want to know where my dad went,” Joshua said. “You were last to see him.”
“Joining the family trade?” Saul said, raising an eyebrow.
Joshua scowled. “Already got one.”
Saul held his hands up. “Just joking, don’t take my head off.”
“So where is he?” Joshua pressed.
“Didn’t leave no forwarding address, just diced up my cousin and bolted.” He shivered, then shot Joshua a curious look. “’Ere, when’s the last time you seen your old man?”
“Not since I was eight, and thank God for that. Why,” Joshua said with a smirk, “you gonna tell me he’s changed?”
“More than you’d think, and not for the better,” Saul replied, shaking his head. “Though that was hard to tell at first. Mick always made an impression. Even before he went bad, you always knew when he’d walked in, and you bloody well knew after. But it took me till close to realize he was here. Found him sitting on the ground inside the back door, quiet as they come.” Saul hunched, and he took a breath. “He never said a word, not through the whole thing.”
Joshua shifted uncomfortably on the balls of his silent feet.
Suddenly, two large hands came down hard on his shoulders with an audible thud. “Not so big wifout that Scotch skeleton holdin’ yer leash, is ya?” a deep voice growled.
Joshua seized a tankard and spun out of the man’s grip, swinging the pint like a hammer. The stranger caught the blow in the air and the two men stared murderously at each other. Then, abruptly, they burst out laughing and fell into each other’s arms like brothers.
“Cripes, Wiggins, you can’t do that to me!” Joshua said, holding his heaving chest.
The other man cackled. He was a short fellow some years older than them, with red-blonde hair, a patchy beard, and striped suspenders covered in more university pins than there were actual schools in Britain. “Ah c’mon, Tabby,” he said, pulling Joshua into a loose headlock and rubbing his fist into his friend’s hair, “you Jews are too jumpy!”
“Can’t afford not to be,” Joshua said with a grin. “Plus I’m on a case, so thanks for the blown cover.”
Wiggins blew a raspberry. “Case, my eye. You’re sneaking behind the old man’s back, you are. Holmes woulda never sent you out in that state.”
“What do you mean?” Joshua said, looking down at his clothes in confusion. “It’s what I normally wear.”
“I’m talking about her,” Wiggins said, pointing at Pippa and shaking his head. “I mean, really, did you dress her in the dark? Pitiful, just pitiful.”
Pippa deepened her voice as low as it would go, which was not much. “But I’m a blo-”
“Takes more than a flat cap and a sock down your pants to pass as a man, sweetheart,” Wiggins said. “But I guess this pretty boy figured he could sleep through cross-dressing training without it ever coming back to bite him.” He squeezed Joshua’s cheeks until his lips puckered like a fish.
Joshua shoved him away and stuck his tongue out. “That was your department.”
“And what of it?” Wiggins laughed, snapping his suspenders proudly. “I did a fine job as a lady’s maid. Got the biggest bonus of my life, and I can embroider circles around any of you.”
As the others laughed, Wiggins eyed Pippa wolfishly. “She’s not a bad sight though,” he said, elbowing Joshua and waggling his eyebrows. “Exactly what kind of covers are you getting under here, mate?”
Joshua turned the color of day-old fish, and begged Pippa for mercy with his eyes. “It’s not like that. Erm, everybody, this is Tom Wiggins, a fellow Irregular. Wigs, this is Shekhar Deshmukh and Pippa Cotton.”
Wiggins’ eyes widened. “Wait, like those Cottons, Cotton?”
“Depends on the tone of ‘those,’ I suppose,” Pippa said wryly.
“I didn’t know she was actually on the job with you! Well, there’s more than socks in your trousers after all, milady!” He pumped her hand heartily. “Cor, you dirty up nice, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Pippa shrugged. “It’s a bit late to start minding, frankly.”
Wiggins guffawed, clapping her on the back so hard her knees buckled. “Ol’ Tabby always did love a girl with hair on her chest. But they never loved him back much, poor devil, much less put up with him through a whole case.”
“Well, it gets easier with time.” She smirked at Joshua, who looked ready to melt through the floor. “I imagine it’ll get even easier now that I know he’s called, ‘Tabby.’”
Joshua’s groan was swallowed up by Wiggins’ laughter. “He never told you? Cuz he’s small and springy, y’see, like a little tabby cat!”
“Goodness, Joshua,” Pippa said, taking a sip from her cup, “I don’t know why you never introduced us to your other friends, not when they’re such inventive wits. I’m sure they have nothing but heroic stories to tell about you, too.”
Joshua looked mournfully at Shekhar. “Can you give me that knife, please?” he asked. “Right in the throat, if you would.”
“I don’t see why you need it,” Shekhar said, “you’ve already got one in your back.”
“So what’s the caper?” Wiggins asked. “Come tell the lads, maybe we can help.”
“We were trying to do reconnaissance,” Joshua grumbled, but Wiggins just took them all under his massive, ape-like armspan and herded them towards a long table in the back of the pub. About fifteen people were already there, ranging from burly men in their twenties to scrawny girls as young as seven. All of them were filthy but bright-eyed, and they rose to cheer Joshua as he approached.
“Well, if it isn’t the non-prodigal son?” said a thick-necked, bare-armed girl, smacking her lips as she drained the dregs from her cup. “Little bird told me you’ve been out in the country the last few weeks. Don’t tell us you’ve gone respectable on us!”
“I wonder which little birds those were,” Joshua said, ruffling the young children’s hair and frowning playfully. “And it’s the same as before, Channing. Keeping on my dad’s trail.”
“Any news on that front?” asked a pimply, dusty-eyed young man across the table. “Me ma’s told me stories about your old man, I wouldn’t want to run into him down a dark alley.”
The three stared into their drinks, drowning the urge to look back at Saul. “Sorry Scuz, nothing solid,” Joshua mumbled, gulping down half his cup in one go. “Maybe you lot can help us with that, though. Know anybody who uses playing cards for symbols? Any cathouses, smugglers, gangs, something of that nature?”
Even the children gave that a world-weary chuckle. “Come on, Tabby, everybody and their mother uses playing cards,” Channing said. “It’s getting old hat, to be honest. If I see another no-name bully with four kings on his fingers, I’m gonna chop them off myself, just to encourage some bloody variation.”
“But are they ever used as a threat?” Pippa cut in. “Rather than a badge of honor?”
Wiggins cocked his head. “How do you mean?”
Joshua hesitated, then bent low to the table and took the bloodstained card from his breast pocket. He cupped his hands over it, like the eyeslit in a mutoscope, and the Irregulars climbed over each other to get the first peek.
“Bit overkill, if you ask me,” Wiggins said. “People round here don’t really do the ol’ Black Spot routine. If they’re mad at you, you find out when the brick connects with the back of your head. But the slick micks in the West End wouldn’t have grimed up a card like this, they like their death warrants all clean and elegant-like. You’re either subtle, or you blast the guy’s face off yourself.”
“Subtle or no, I don’t envy the chancer who tried putting this into Mikey Tabak’s palm,” said Scuz.
Channing nodded. “Probably squeezed the fucker into orange juice the second he read it.”
“He never did read it,” Joshua said, “it was sent to me, back when I was little.”
“And not just to him,” Pippa said, pulling out her own card.
This set the table muttering. “Why would you both get a warning?” Wiggins asked, scratching his head. “As kids, no less?”
“Beats the hell out of me, Wigs,” Joshua said. “Did Dad ever run with anybody, ever part of a crew at all?”
Everyone shrugged. “Your pa didn’t make pals easy at the end there, and definitely didn’t keep ’em from what I’ve heard,” Scuz said. “But that was before all our time, I’ve just got what my ma remembers, and she weren’t exactly making Mick’s business her own.”
“How about anyone with a similar reputation?” Shekhar asked. “Surely between you lot, you must know every boogeyman in Whitechapel history. I doubt Tabak was the only person the locals learned to be afraid of.”
Channing pondered this, then turned around, stuck two fingers in her mouth, and whistled at a cluster of scantily-clad girls at the next table. “Junie!”
A pretty redhead emerged from the circle, beamed, and skipped over. As soon as she was within arms reach, Channing clapped both hands on her backside and pulled her close. Pippa started, then quickly raised her drink, high enough to shield her eyes.
“What were you telling me the other day about the Red Death?” she heard Channing purr.
Junie snickered. “Which one?”
“Which one?” Pippa repeated. “What do you mean, which one?”
“Meaning there were two of them, obviously,” Junie said, speaking to Pippa as if the latter had just hit her head particularly hard. “The old and the new, and the new model didn’t hold a candle to the original, from all I’ve heard.”
“Who is the Red Death?” Shekhar asked.
“Just some old boogeyman the madams made up,” sneered the oldest woman at the far end of the table. “You know, ‘if you don’t eat your peas and say your prayers and suck your cocks, I’ll send you to the Red Death, and then won’t you be sorry,’ that sort of thing. He’s not real.”
But Junie emphatically shook her head. “The old girls swear they saw him. Swear anybody who went with him never came back. If you were stupid enough not to run the second you saw red leather, you deserved what was coming to you.”
A chill went down Pippa’s spine, somewhere between dread and excitement. “Red leather?”
“The mask,” Channing said, pulling an exaggerated face. “That was his whole thing. A tight, red leather mask over his whole head. Guess that made it easier for the next bloke.”
Junie scoffed. “He probably thought so, but from what I hear, everybody knew right away he wasn’t the genuine article.”
“How come?” Joshua said.
“So, the Red Death wasn’t a regular, you know, didn’t keep any kind of schedule like the real particular johns usually do,” Junie said, fanning her hands out as if unrolling a calendar. “He’d show up all the time, sure, but always out of the blue, and then he’d be gone, sometimes for a day, sometimes for months. Plenty of times people thought he was done with us, or that he was never really there to begin with, and then a working girl would cut down a sidestreet and guess who was waiting at the end.”
“And then one day, poof.” Channing snapped her fingers. “No Red Death, and some new clown behind the mask.”
“I only ever met the new one,” Junie said, “and just the once, when I first started. I near fell for it too, cuz of the mask, before the old gal walking with me asked him why the fuck he was calling himself the Red Death now.”
Pippa picked at her lip thoughtfully. “He hadn’t done that before?”
“Didn’t need to!” Junie said. “The mask kind of did all the talking for him, you know. You don’t call attention to yourself when you’re sure everybody’s too scared to look you in the eye anyway.” She scratched her head. “I think that’s what tipped the old gal off, to be honest. She said there was other stuff wrong, of course – too small, cheap clothes, you know, tells like that – but the first giveaway was that this one had to try. Some people got the devil in ’em, and some people gotta put the horns on themselves, and you can always tell the difference.”
“Is the new one still around?” Shekhar asked, glancing around the room as if he might spring through the doors when summoned.
Junie waved him down. “Nah, nobody’s seen him in, what, seven, eight years? He popped up a lot around the start of the nineties, but eventually I think he got the hint and gave it up.”
“Jumping into other people’s ready-made shoes is a hard habit to break though, once you start doing it,” Pippa mumbled, frowning. She stretched her neck to see the youngest Irregulars, all fuming at being edged out of the mystery by the big people. “I say, have any of you lot run into Dr. Watson’s brother? Or somebody who’s saying they are?”
Four children gasped in unison, and began tugging at a fifth, a small dark-skinned girl sitting in between them. “Ginnie! Ginnie, the bloke with the nightstick, tell her!”
Instinctively, Ginnie clutched her left shoulder, and Pippa’s heart panged. “Did someone hit you?” she asked.
The child nodded, her elfin face twisted in a scowl. “Yeah. On Marylebone, um, couple weeks ago? It was the last real big rain.”
“That doesn’t exactly narrow it down, in London,” Shekhar said with a twitch of the lips, “but go on.”
“I was supposed to bring Mr. Holmes some addresses. There were a lot, so I had to write them down, and I put them in my kerchief to keep them dry.” She tugged on the faded yellow cloth around her neck. “I was gonna turn onto Baker Street, but this man on the corner called my name and came running up to me, all sweet-like. He puts his hand on the kerchief and tries to take it away, and says he’s Dr. Watson’s brother and he’ll be helping Holmes out while he’s away in France again.”
“Only Dr. Watson wasn’t in France!” exclaimed the curly-haired boy on her left, unable to contain himself! “She knew cuz Dr. Watson had come by the Stacks to get Tabby just that morning!”
Ginnie nodded. “So I pulled away, and said, ‘Mister, you en’t his brother, and you’re no a doctor, I can tell by your coat you’re not!’”
“A doctor’s gonna wear something with fur inside, in that weather,” said the little girl on the fair right sagely, “even the cheap stuff. But this man was just wearing oilskin.”
“Working gear,” Joshua mused, “something that won’t get wrecked by spending all your time on the street.”
“I turn to split,” Ginnie continued, “and then wham! Gets me all across the back with a nightstick.”
“A proper nightstick,” the curly-haired boy emphasized, “like what coppers and soldiers and stuff got.”
“You’re sure that’s what it was?” Pippa asked, leaning in. “You saw it?”
Ginnie’s wide brown eyes went hollow, and she was suddenly terribly old. “I didn’t see it,” she said flatly, “but I’m sure. I know.”
The pain in Pippa’s chest doubled, and she moved to squeeze the little girl’s hand, but the child backed away, staring at her as if she were a cobra.
“Did this man take the addresses from you?” Shekhar asked.
“He opened them,” Ginnie said, “but just looked at them for a second and dropped them in the mud and ran off. Wrecked the paper,” she added petulantly, “I had to go find a bunch of addresses all over again. Didn’t see him again, so I don’t think he was looking for those places.”
“Do you remember what he looked like?” Pippa said.
Ginnie hemmed and hawed. “It was raining a lot, like I said, it was kinda hard to see. White, normal-sized. Had a gray mustache, but it didn’t look right, I think it was pretend.”
“Sounds like Colin’s man,” Joshua said to Pippa in an undertone.
“Who’s ‘Colin’s man’?” Channing asked, eyes narrowed. “You’re sitting on something, Tabak.”
The three scooted closer together on the banks, silently circling the wagons. “Nothing I’m about to let fly early, mate,” Joshua said.
He reached for the bottle on the table, but Wiggins got there first, and generously topped all three of them up. “We’ll see about that,” he said with a wink.
Gin flowed freely as the night moved, then staggered, then lay down and crawled along. Soon they forgot secrecy. They forgot their jackets as well, along with some of Shekhar’s shirt buttons and Pippa’s left shoe, but their restraint would prove the most difficult to recover.
“Ish me dad,” Joshua mumbled. “En’t no third man at all, ish all him.”
Pippa shook her head, though it made the room wiggle. “No evi…evishen…ebeedent…”
“Proof!” Shekhar supplied, with surprising volume considering he was face down on the table. “’N why’s he bothering our Pippa if it’s just him?”
Joshua huffed into his beer, then sat bolt upright, his eyebrows full of foam.
“Cotton,” he said, seizing the giggling girl by the shoulders and shaking her, “you gotta be real, real, I mean, real careful. Out for ‘venge, he is, out for…for blood! For Cotton blood!” He threw his arms around her neck and patted her protectively on the head.
“Nuffin will happen to her,” Shekhar said, nudging his head under her forearm. “Shh, ‘s good, ‘s fine, we’ll protect you.”
“Yeah, ‘s the Regular Code an’ wotall,” Wiggins hiccuped. “All for one and one…something.” He blinked hard. “But Tabby’s right, why would your dads gang up anyway? Don’t sound like they liked sharing.”
“An’ they only killed five people?” said Scuz incredulously. “Twixt the two of ’em?”
A different woman, now firmly planted in Channing’s lap, clicked her teeth. “Bad numbers. Kid stuff.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen Mick Tabak fight,” said a bearded man behind them, another stranger. Pippa was dimly aware that there were an awful lot of strangers crowded around them, and more dimly aware of an alarm in the back of her mind, but could not link the two for the life of her.
Another fellow stretched his arms out, bearlike. “Bloke like him, coulda took five girls out in a sitting, and still mopped the floor with any one of us on the way home.”
“Polly was a champ, though,” said an old, half-toothed woman at the bar. “Big, tough warhorse of a woman, I remember. Martha Tabram too.”
“Who?” Shekhar said, rubbing his face. “So many names, too many names…”
“She got killed in George Yard, couple weeks ‘fore Nichols,” Joshua said, “but she weren’t a ripping.”
Pippa perked up. “Maybe she was, though. Maybe there’s more than five.”
“Lossa people die in Whitechapel,” Wiggins yawned, “just happens.”
Most of the crowd, though, leaned in. “You really think there’s more victims?” asked Saul in a hushed voice.
“Why not?” She was twenty feet tall and full of fire. “I mean, how many women die here usually? Dozen a month?”
“Ah,” Channing said dreamily, “you gotta love an optimist.”
Pippa plowed on. “It’s a question of maths. Take the murders from summer to winter of 1888, subtract the average, and voila! The leftovers could be more rippings.”
“Or robberies,” Joshua said.
“Or domestics,” Wiggins echoed.
“Or the unsung victims of a deeper, intricate, and altogether nefarious royal conspiracy,” Shekhar finished.
Pippa stared at him, then flapped her hands irritably. “Whatever, it’s worth investigating.”
The crowd exchanged worried looks. “More victims, more killers?” a young man said, looking around as if expecting blades in every dark corner.
“Not more, really,” another man murmured to his wife, “they’re all old killings. Cotton’s dead, and Tabak’s got to be nearly sixty now, he can’t do much anymore.”
“Actually, he cut up an old lady a few weeks ago,” Pippa said, circling the gin in her cup in messy swirls.
The room went quiet, save the trio, who were too busy topping up to notice everyone had taken a step back from the table. “No,” came the collective whisper. “Who?”
“Old Mrs. Gassman,” Joshua said, burying his face in his elbow. “Poor dear, never had a chance.”
Shekhar shook his head. “Terrible way to die, truly terrible. All in pieces like that. Monstrous.”
“That was a ripping?” hissed a woman in the back. “The bobbies just cleaned her place out and never said a word, I figured it was robbery. Why didn’t they warn us?”
“Prolly didn’t wanna mass panic,” Pippa said, head lolling. “You know how it goes sometimes, when some damn fool just goes on and on and whips everybody up into a…a whipped thing.”
The silence was tense and brittle, a span of nilas on a dark sea. “It’s definitely Tabak doing it, then?” a big, redheaded man growled.
“Maybe,” Shekhar said, “but there’s likely another chap running about, either killing or knowing about the killing.”
“Knowing, maybe, but not killing,” Joshua insisted. “’M still not sold that your dad even did any of ’em, Cotton. Real low-life, sure, but we got no proof he killed nobody.”
Pippa choked. “Oh, come on, you think he’s gonna attack every woman from here to Italy and never end up killing one?”
“Coulda had his servant do it,” Shekhar said, picking his teeth. “His little Frenchman henchman, Lavoy – Lavasa – well, he’s still on the loose.”
“Or dead,” Pippa said. “Father’d never let him go. Knew too much.”
Shekhar’s eyes gleamed. “He would if Lovasir killed him!” he exclaimed, miming a slit throat with gusto.
His companions considered this, then Joshua frowned. “But he didn’t. Lord ‘n Lady Hallsbury did. That’s why we’re here, mate.”
The glow faded. “Oh yeah,” Shekhar mumbled, leaning back into his seat.
“Dad’s definitely out there, definitely dangerous, definitely chopping people into bits,” Joshua said, slapping the table for emphasis. “We’ve got to catch him ‘fore we do anything else, if we wanna get anywhere.”
“But why?” one of the workmen burst out.
Pippa cocked her head. “Why?”
“Why is he still killing?” he said. “What does he want?”
Here, too late, the trio found themselves at a lost for words. The wind cut audibly through the cracked walls, and the patrons huddled together against the chill.
Finally Channing cleared her throat and clapped her lover on the back of the thigh. “Well, gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” she said with forced cheer. “Let’s dance the devil outta town.”
Frightened whispers gave way to weak cheers. “Right you are, mate,” Wiggins said. He cupped his hand around his mouth and called, “OI, TANNER! LET’S HAVE A JIG!”
A fiddle played in the back of the room, and was joined by an accordion, harmonica, and pipe, all unseen. Wiggins rose and bowed to Pippa with such flourish he almost knocked her hat off. “Milady, do me the honor?” he said, rolling the R past breaking point.
She took his hand elegantly, and got up rather less so. “The honor is all mine, Master Wiggins.”
He was a dreadful dancer, but Pippa was in no place to judge. Shekhar and Joshua laughed uproariously, but soon Shekhar quieted and stood. Nimbly, he whirled her out of Wiggins’ arms and into his own.
The fit seemed made for her. He was as fluid as spring water, as dazzling as a comet’s tail. By all rights, she should have been fumbling in his wake, yet he held her as if she matched him in every way. Every repressed grace rose up within her as they moved.
But then he released her in a twirl, and she spun into Joshua instead. The tune changed, gliding notes jumping to staccato life as drum drowned out fiddle. Joshua’s palms were sweaty, and he kept looking down at his feet, saying sorry whenever he stepped even though he never put a foot out of place. It made her giggle, and so did he, and soon steps were forgotten and they were running as much as dancing, tumbling pell-mell through the laughing melody.
Then it was Shekhar again, then Joshua a moment later. Were the songs really so brief? Or had she simply lost track of the music entirely? The two men’s faces blurred together as she spun, and she could not tell one hand from the other.
The music changed again, and she came to a sudden halt. Shekhar had her by the left arm, Joshua by the right. They looked on the verge of shouting. Pippa pulled away from both, and their anger morphed into guilt.
“Sorry,” she said, cupping her forehead, “can’t seem to keep steady.”
The men nodded. “We should get back,” Shekhar said.
They returned to the table to hunt down their missing clothes. Then, still unable to look at each other, they refilled their cups, knocked them back, and staggered out into the night.
They walked separately for a while, but that last shot soon pushed them back together, and they loped down Gower’s Walk draped over each other like three-legged racers.
No wonder nobody saw the killer, Pippa thought. It was so dark she could only see her friends in silhouette, and then only if they passed one of the few, sputtering candles still in a window. There were no visible street signs – barely any visible streets – only an inn sign cut crudely into the shape of a gang of horsemen. For some reason her eye latched onto it, and her footsteps began to slow.
Why playing cards? It was probably the least important question on the list, miles behind the false Watson and the second Red Death, even further behind the shadow of Michael Tabak still stalking the streets. But it felt connected, somehow, like the delicate clasp on a necklace. The cards were messages from someone who knew about the murders, that much was obvious. Anger screamed out of both of them, but not a vigilante anger – “gutless” didn’t exactly ring like a warning to stop. And besides, her father was already dead by the time his card was sent, and judging by the slash through the knave’s head, the sender had known that before making his delivery. Why bother? And why escalate with the next one? Why had the dead killer merited a clean card, tucked discreetly in a windowpane, while the one who merely skipped town got a box of shredded organs, and a card that looked like it had been through someone’s teeth?
He had to know who they were, to send the card, had to know what they were doing. But Michael Tabak was never pursued by anyone but the Shafirs’ mobs, and her father’s name hadn’t come up in connection with the Rippings until Folley’s confession. Whoever the sender was and whatever he’d witnessed, he hadn’t turned them in. Was that a control thing? Holding power over the two murders, and for what purpose? Did the sender like what they were seeing, as the attacks dropped off? Or were they expecting – insisting – on seeing a lot more?
She shuffled the pair of knaves in her head, spade and diamond, diamond and spade. Why only those two? Where were the other faces, the other suits? Cards, cards, what do you need cards for, what do you do with – ?
The four riders seemed to glow through the mist. Pippa braced one hand on each boy’s arm, nearly knocking them over.
“Hang on, hang on,” she slurred, rubbing her face into Joshua’s sleeve, “how d’ya play the thing again?”
“The whanaw?” he said.
She flapped at Shekhar to lift her head and he obliged, tugging her braid just hard enough to make her thighs sweat. “The thing. With the…the flat, you know, play things. For money. Got ‘m in pockets.” She mimed slapping a table.
The lights turned back on in Joshua’s eyes. “The playing cards?”
“YESH!” Pippa said with childish glee. “And you do the counting, right? What’s the counting, inna…inna game, there’s four people but wazzit called?”
“What’re you talking about?” Joshua said, struggling to listen and stay upright at the same time.
Pippa tried to do the same, then yielded to the inevitable, pulling the boys down with her onto the nearest stoop. “The murders. They were a game to them. And somebody’s still trying to win.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Joshua said, wincing, “by them, you mean our dads, right?”
“Not just them though,” Pippa said. “Four. Gotta be four.”
Shekhar gaped at her. “There’s four killersh?”
Pippa nodded. “Four faces each in four suits. Four kings, four queens, four knaves -”
“And knaves is called jacks sometimes,” Joshua said with dawning terror. “Like in ‘Merica and stuff.”
“Yeah, yeah, I like this,” Pippa said. She drummed her fingers across her forehead. “Gotta be a real game then, something with knaves. Knaves high? What’s a game with knaves high?”
Shekhar perked up. “Maybe it’s…nah, that’s too…too…” He slumped against the wall, giggling uncontrollably.
“What?” Pippa asked.
“Well,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes, “it could be whist.”
Pippa and Joshua, too, collapsed into fits of laughter at this.
“Whist?” Joshua said. “Thassa old lady’s game. En’t nobody running ’round stabbing people over bridge, mate.”
“You never seen grannies play cards, have you?” Shekhar said. “Gets brutal. My dadima plays pique, and I always assumed there’s bodies buried under that tea table.”
His compatriots still smiled skeptically, so Shekhar jumped to his feet, staying upright on the third attempt. “Look, I’ll prove it, alright?” He ripped some climbing weeds off a nearby wall and tumbled down again, spreading them before him in the dirt.
“You take tricks in the game, right?” he said, laying four leaves on top of each other in a cross. “Aces and face cards high, and the last card dealt is the trump – the suit that everyone has to match,” he explained, snapping his fingers before their glassy eyes. “You play in pairs, working with the person across from you, but some people cycle teammates at the end of every round, like you do with the dealer.”
“And whoever takes the most tricks wins the game, I take it,” Pippa said.
“No prizes for guessing who’s the trick in this equation,” Joshua said with a shudder.
“Naturally,” Pippa said, screwing up her mouth, “but how’d they count points? How many you’ve killed?”
Shekhar rocked his head back and forth. “I don’t think so. In the game, you only start counting points after you take six tricks. Like if I take nine,” he said, laying out nine leaves, “I’ve still only got four points, and I’d need five to win.”
Joshua rubbed his face. “This seems like a lot of maths for a bunch of maniacs.”
“It’s certainly a lot more bodies,” Pippa said, “too many.”
“Might not be that many more,” Shekhar said, craning his neck to examine the leaves from different angles. “Like I said, you play in teams, and you claim your partner’s points too.” He pushed four leaves in front of Pippa, and 2 in front of Joshua. “If your dad had four victims, and yours had 2, that still counts as a complete trick.”
Pippa nodded. “Plus the game may not be over yet, which could explain why Tabak’s still killing,” she realized. “His partner left the game early, and he himself was driven off. He’s got to play catch-up.”
Joshua squinted down at the leaves, and his face fell. “And if your dad and my dad were a team, Pippa, they had to be playing against someone.”
Pippa nodded. “Which means there’s two more killers, like I said.”
“Two more out here, in Whitechapel,” Shekhar said, paling. “Could be anywhere. Anyone.”
“And at least one of them has been watching us,” Pippa said, pulling her collar up against an imagined wind, “which means -”
“Maybe they know that we know,” Joshua finished.
They were suddenly, terribly sober. The trio huddled close, like birds flung too early from the nest.
“We’ve got to tell Holmes,” Pippa said at last, getting to her feet. “The sooner the better, come on.”
“Do you think he’ll believe us, though?” Shekhar said, tripping after her down the street.
“Yeah,” Joshua said, pulling up beside them and scratching his head, “I mean, I’m right with you, Cotton, but it’s bound to be a hard sell, innit?”
“So be it,” she said. “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the – AIEE!”
As she rounded the corner onto Cable Street, shadows closed in, and iron arms seized her around the waist. She kicked and screamed as she was hoisted into the air, but to no avail. The man tossed her into a waiting hansom as easily a a toy soldier. A moment later, Shekhar was dumped at her feet. Joshua gave their assailants (for, Pippa saw with a chill, there was more than one figure in the mist) more of a fight. But before Pippa and Shekhar could unbar the cab door, he too was flung inside.
“Go!” one shadow hissed to the driver, and the youths stilled. The voice was unmistakable. A whip sounded, and the hansom rolled off into the right.