Chapter Five
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Chapter Five 

 

“Oh, excellent!” Cordelia grins, throwing her hands to her hips and taking in the scene with a glee one might expect from a child in a candy store. 

Annette, however, feels her stomach churn at the sight. Her mouth is dry and quickly develops a noxious, acidic taste. Her eyes remain fixed in an endless staring competition with Bembrook’s corpse and she feels like she is falling through the ground beneath her. Her gaze drops deeper and deeper past consciousness and she can feel herself spinning down and down and down. It takes an enormous amount of resolve to break away from the glassy death stare, and she only succeeds by throwing herself out onto the balcony and vomiting over the side of the railing. 

She takes her time steadying herself. She’s seen enough horrid sights out on the streets on her own, but seeing such a deliberate and violent murder, still fresh, is a different kind of horror. When she steps back inside, keeping her eyes carefully away from Bembrook’s form itself and focusing instead on the surrounding office, it’s clear Cordelia has already gone to work. She wears thin leather gloves and carefully picks her way around the body, analyzing for any small details or clues that might give away his assailant. 

Worse, Cordelia hums while she works, her fingers dangling and dancing as they move, like spiders across a web. Each touch is careful and precise - checking the warmth of his body, whether his blood has dried, poking around the wound itself. Annette feels torn between the two implications of her owner before her; on the one hand, that her comfort and ease indicates that inspecting murders such as this is as casual for her as preparing a meal, and on the other, that she enjoys this activity. 

“Oh, good,” she peeks up, waving for Annette to come closer, “you’re back.” 

Annette struggles to form words, trying to choke out a few syllables through her parched mouth and failing. She shakes her head slowly. 

“Come now, he can’t harm you anymore,” she nudges. 

“I’m… that is not my concern,” Annette eeks out. 

“Respectfully, Miss Baker, this is a moment where I need you to press on. This murder is fresh, no more than an hour old.” 

Annette can feel her stomach gurgle at the statement and forces her attention to keeping it at bay. Cordelia looks up at her again and sighs. She removes her gloves and walks over to the servant, placing a hand on either side of her head and gripping it softly. Annette furrows her brow, confused by the sudden proximity. 

“Take a breath,” Cordelia commands. 

Annette obeys, forcing her lungs to fill slowly and then pushing the breath out for as long as she can hold it. 

“Another.” 

Annette closes her eyes and repeats the breath. 

“And a final one.” 

On the third breath, with Cordelia’s taller form blocking the body behind her, Annette can feel herself steady ever-so-slightly. She reopens her eyes and notices an unusual tenderness on Cordelia’s face, not quite kind or empathetic, but far more comforting than her usual scowl. 

“He is just a body,” Cordelia says slowly, “you are in no danger from him and the murderer is likely long gone by this time.”

“I’ve never been so close to one…” Annette whispers and a shudder descends down her spine. 

“You’ll get used to it. But for now, I need you,” Cordelia continues, placing a little more pressure in her palms against Annette’s head. The increase is comforting, and it helps to focus on that sensation instead of the scene around her. 

“Need me? How could you ne-,” 

“Bembrook is no small assassination,” Cordelia explains. “When word gets out of his death, and word will get out, I am nowhere near first in line to investigate this. The case will be given to one of the other investigators who works more closely with the crown and we’ll lose all access. Right now, we need to work quickly and deliberately to gather everything we possibly can to solve this without disturbing the scene at all. You don’t need to look at Bembrook, but I do need you taking notes for me. Can you do it?”

“Yes,” Annette nods. Cordelia pulls a small notebook and pencil from her coat and folds it into her hands. 

“Excellent,” Cordelia smiles, throwing her gloves back on and returning to the corpse. 

Annette lets herself sit down on the floor where her balance matters less and she no longer needs to worry about fainting. She steadies the notepad and writes a few notes about the scene to begin; a rough written sketch of her surroundings and the location of important details. 

“Things I’ve noticed thus far,” Cordelia begins, returning to inspect the body. “Position of Bembrook’s body: he’s laying out across his desk, not in his seat. He is no small man, and I can’t imagine that he would crawl up like this to be killed.”

Annette jots it down. “Someone moved him here?” 

“I believe so.” 

“Before or after the killing?” 

“I suspect after,” Cordelia muses, poking around the floorboards by his desk chair and squatting to look closer. “There’s hardly any blood here on this side of the floor, but considerably more surrounding his overturned chair.”

“He was killed while sitting and moved after,” Annette completes, letting the state of shock on her body fade towards a numbness and neutrality. She’ll deal with the impacts later. 

“This suggests his death is a statement,” Cordelia notes, her tone practical and thoughtful. “The killers wanted anyone who happened across his body to be shocked and scared. Success on their part, it seems,” she winks at Annette. 

“Killers?” Annette asks. “You think there was more than one?” 

“Can you think of anyone who could lift him solo?” 

“I suppose not,” she concedes. She makes note of it. 

“Continuing this point,” Cordelia stands and leans over the body, carefully touching the jowls around his neck and lifting the flabby skin to reveal dark purple bruises, “Bembrook was strangled to death.” 

“He was strangled?” 

“See these marks?” She traces a finger along the dark spots across the flesh. “Someone strangled him, perhaps while another held him at bay.” 

“So the… the spike in his eye is also for show.” 

“We’ll get to that, but yes,” Cordelia nods. “I’d like to confirm another theory first.”

“Which is?”

“A moment, Miss Baker.” 

Cordelia’s hands float across his body, carefully inspecting every tiny feature she can and digging around the ruffles and pockets of his clothes. After a few moments of finding nothing, she purses her lips and steps away. “No calling card.” 

“Calling card, Miss?” 

“Most of the assassins I am familiar with like to claim their kills. Doesn’t make them easier to track, but it gives us something to go with. There’s no such marker on his body.” 

“You’re familiar with assassins?” Annette frowns. 

“It’s not as though we attend balls together,” Cordelia scowls. “I’m familiar with their work.” 

Annette dips her head in response, relieved. “So he wasn’t killed by a professional?” 

“Which means the motivation isn’t corporate sabotage or personal revenge…” She touches a finger to her chin as she thinks, and Annette can’t help but worry about the possibility of bloodstains on her gloves. “This is something new, which brings me to the rail spike. Do you remember your first day in my service?” 

“Fondly,” Annette chuckles, “You yelled at me for cleaning and tested my identification of a similar rail spike.” 

“I didn’t yell at you,” Cordelia glowers. 

“As you say, Miss,” she smirks in response. 

Cordelia glares at her for a moment, though continues with her thought. “That spike was attached to a case I was working on; the death of a former middle manager at Pemberley Exports. My investigation was stonewalled by the company, who wanted to keep it under wraps. And yet, in the brief period I was allowed to survey the scene, I located that particular rail spike, lying entirely out of place on his desk.” 

“Pemberley Exports does a great deal of business,” Annette offers, “it is possible it's a coincidence.” 

“No such thing,” Cordelia waves away her suggestion, turning her attention to the iron nail lodged in Bembrook’s eye. “Two deaths of businessmen with a rail spike mysteriously placed at the scene…? I believe it’s a new calling card.” 

Annette wonders how much of a stretch it might be. There’s no way of knowing why the Pemberley manager might have had such an item, and Bembrook’s… impalement might be just as easily explained by an act of passion against a man who was clearly hated. 

“So…” Annette summerizes, choosing to withhold her suspicion. “We’ve a group of killers who have removed businessmen and planted iron spikes at both locations. What might b-,”

“Motivation…” Cordelia mutters to herself. “Murder, Method, Motivation…” 

“Miss?” 

“We know that he was killed and we know how. The question remaining is why?”

“Don’t you suppose the more important question is: ‘who?’”

Cordelia shakes her head quickly, letting out a puff of air. “It hardly ever distinguishes itself from the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why?’”

Annette stands, setting aside her pencil to focus on Cordelia. “I’m not sure that’s correct at all. It was vitally important to know that Lady Wilva was the killer of Sir Lord Hemslem.” 

“Different type of case,” Cordelia rebuts. “That was simple murder. Greed, poison, family members… boring. This… this is something far more interesting.” 

“A man has been killed, Miss Jones.” 

“No sympathy for the devil,” the detective replies quickly. She notices the look of displeasure on Annette’s face and adds, “Come now, Annette. You even declared him wretched yourself, I’m sure there’s no tears shed for him on your part.” 

“That doesn’t mean I want him dead!” Annette complains. 

Cordelia holds up a hand dismissively. “I’ve no interest in another quarrel, Miss Baker. Let’s continue past this, shall we?” 

Annette resigns, stowing away her frustrations and returning to the task of notetaking. “You were interested in assessing motivation…?” She supplies. 

“Indeed. A new group has emerged and assassinated a middle manager at an exports company and a railroad tycoon. They’ve crafted Bembrook’s death in such a way that it makes a statement, yet they’ve left no clues as to the statement itself.” 

“Don’t be such a miserable overlord?” Annette proposes.

“Are you suggesting labor sympathizers?” 

“Unions? No,” Annette shakes her head. “Perhaps a group of vengeful and disgruntled former workers?”

“Disgruntled enough to kill him,” Cordelia thinks aloud, “I’m sure Bembrook had no short supply. The use of an identifying weapon like a spike would further suggest labor involvement.” 

Annette paces away for a few steps. “Interesting that he was killed just as we were coming to speak with him.” 

“I doubt that’s connected,” Cordelia shakes her head, now poking through the filing cabinets and occasionally swiping important documents. 

“So now coincidence does exist?” 

Cordelia laughs, turning to Annette with a bemused frustration. She shakes her head once more, this time in disbelief rather than disagreement. 

“Does Miss Jones take issue with my statement?” Annette smiles.

“Simply appreciating the thoroughness in which you listen to and critique my own speech,” the detective remarks. 

“A third compliment on the case?” She grins wider. “I do believe I now feel as though I could fly, Miss Jones.”

“Perhaps you could perform some reconnaissance then, Miss Baker,” Cordelia jokes. “Nice to have a collar with such versatility in her functions. An aerial view might really crack this case wide open.” 

“I shall begin the task immediately. Perhaps Harold will join me?” 

“He’s not one for work,” Cordelia concludes. “Regardless, help me dig through his files and grab anything useful.” 

“Won’t… won’t that impede the official investigation?” 

Cordelia flashes a mischievous smile. “Who is to say that the assailant was not also a petty document thief?” 

 

– – –

 

A hand slowly slides down Annette’s chest as she lays in her bed, the darkened room cool and comfortable as rain patters against the window. The hand is her own, but for all her desires and desperations it may as well belong to Samantha, who pushes forward through Annette’s mind as though attempting to flood all of her senses. Samantha is always there, the promise of her touch and taste dancing between Annette’s waking and sleeping hours. As her fingers slowly dance across her breasts a sigh leaves Annette’s mouth.

You like how positively forbidden I am, don’t you dear?

Annette’s palm gently squeezes the soft, pillowy flesh, closing her eyes and allowing herself to drift away into a space in her mind where Samantha seemed to live unceasingly. Even if the touch itself doesn't derive from Samantha’s warm skin, she can at least imagine the noblewoman was somehow watching her, rapturously drinking up every sensual movement of Annette’s body. 

She allows her free hand to drift even lower, lifting the skirt of her nightgown to her hips and timidly rubbing at the edges of her panties. Annette’s clit is already hard and straining against the fabric, pushing out for her necessary attention. She sinks deeper into the firm mattress, wishing to feel the weight of another body above her own. 

It helps even more to imagine Samantha is sitting in a chair beside her bed, biting her lip as Annette’s heart pounds through her chest. You’re quite eager, she can hear the noblewoman mutter, aren’t you dear?

Annette nods, looking over to Samantha as though for permission to continue. 

By all means, Annie, she purrs, far be it from me to deny you such necessity. Do continue, darling…

Annette’s fingers crawl underneath the waistband of her undergarment, slowly caressing the sides of her stiff organ. She presses her fingertips into the soft skin, carefully massaging it and immediately relishing the soothing feeling. She takes a deep breath, allowing the memory of Samantha’s scent to fill her lungs, and increases the pressure. 

The next time I get you alone, Samantha whispers suggestively, leaning forward in her seat, and there will be a next time, perhaps I’ll let you feel more than just my hands…

Annette gasps, tightening her grasp on her clit and adding extra speed to her movements. She flattens her palm, resting it on the underside of the shaft and circles it around, loving the feeling of the skin pulling and tensing against the flesh around it. 

You were already so precious, dear, shivering and moaning from just my fingers. Imagine if I took you into my mouth… imagine my tongue lapping up every drip of your excitement… 

Her finger’s drop lower, pushing against a firm place on her perineum as her palm continues its rotations above. Her legs bend at the new feeling, now blossoming into a hot sensation across her chest as her other hand continues squeezing and massaging her breasts, occasionally plucking her hard nipples. 

Better still, Samantha teases, perhaps I even take you inside me. How long could your delightful organ last as my hips rock against yours? 

Annette increases her speed, entranced by the idea of feeling Samantha ride atop her, her wet lips pulling her inside as she moans and cries out for more. Her breaths heave out of her mouth as she fights to remain quiet. She doubts Cordelia would hear anything from her room upstairs, but there’s no sense in risking such an awkward encounter. 

Still, her face flushes pink as a moment later Annette whispers out to her empty room, “Kiss me…” 

Samantha smiles, delighted by the desperation of Annette’s speech. She promises that if she were here in this moment, she would do nothing but kiss Annette, forever and ever until the world was forced to pry them apart. 

Annette twitches as a burst of pleasure surges through her skin. It washes over her rapidly, and while it quickly diffuses into a warm comfort it is soon after followed by another wave. She increases her speed even further, her wrist growing tired from the exertion but pushing through for the promise of release. A timid trickle of precum lathers across her skin and she lets out another restrained sigh. 

Patience, dear, Samantha coaches as Annette races towards climax. Annette nods, forcing herself to slow down briefly and allow a moment to recover. The building pressure inside herself fades, though Annette rapidly returns to the task as soon as it disappears, bringing herself just to the edge once more before retreating. 

Should I be despicable and deny you? Samantha taunts. What would you do if I forbade you from release until my next visitation?

Annette shakes her head desperately, a little surprised to feel the thought make her heart twitch excitedly. Surely if Samantha denied her this moment she would make it worth Annette’s commitment, would she not?

How proud might I be if you saved this feeling only for me? She suggests, grinning mischievously. Why not cede such control to my embrace?

Please, Annette can feel herself beg inside, her clit tightening at the scenario. Perhaps Samantha would truly reward her for such restraint… 

I would spend hours teasing you, only to deny you again and again… Samantha’s voice drips with lewd satisfaction. I’d only let you release once you earned it an-

Annette gasps as the orgasm consumes her. Her hips buck upwards and her toes dig into the mattress, her shoulders pushing back deeper and deeper into the soft cushion. A burst of pleasure rocks through her skin, sending wave after wave of warm delight with each shaking breath. Her hand is wet and slightly sticky from the remains of her cum shooting out across her abdomen. After a few long moments she collapses back into the bed, breathing heavily and trying to savor the feeling for as long as it would allow her. 

The guilt follows soon after to spoil the fun. Samantha’s lavishious breath in her mind is harshly replaced by the agitated scorn of the Sisters, glaring down at her as though she was guilty of something far worse than murder. Annette rolls over to face the wall, pretending that Sister Pullwater couldn’t see her if she wasn’t looking. 

She doesn’t need to hear or imagine words from Pullwater to know exactly what she would say. Pullwater would ramble on about the need to realign her desires properly towards men to be a righteous woman. Even just one man would do. She needn’t even love him; the commitment to his matrimony would be enough, according to the Sisters. Commit to one man and restrain the rest of her unkindly desires. 

She can feel herself complain back just as easily, her muted voice rising just over her shoulders. It isn’t as though she could bear children, and wasn’t that the point of why women were supposed to marry men in the church? As much as she found the idea detestable, she’d only actually be able to procreate with a once-born woman anyway; shouldn’t that mean that was holier?

Pullwater would slap her for that comment, and she had many times before. God made man and woman for each other, she would argue. Separate roles, separate duties. Annette’s decision to be reborn, according to Pullwater, had moved her from one side to another, and therefore she was responsible for all of the same things any other woman was. It was about the spirit of womanhood, not necessarily the mechanics. Inability to give birth simply relegated Annette to the rules of women who had suffered blight or some other reproductive complication. She could never be considered a true marriage candidate for a man who required an heir, but perhaps one could be convinced to adopt, or was a widower whose first wife died in birth so that the baby might live. Annette suspects that the latter was Pullwater’s ideal situation for her life, that she might still encounter the burdens and responsibility of motherhood. 

 Annette sits up in her bed and resigns herself to the fact that sleep would evade her attempts if she remained here. There were too many ingrained habits in her mind that pushed her nighttime hours towards incessant rumination of her guilt, so she may as well remain awake until she could no longer keep herself so. She slips out of her bed and removes her nightgown, trading it for a buttoned shirt and casual dress that didn’t contain an indecent stain. 

She slowly creeps downstairs and sets the kettle on the burner for herself, resolving to watch it carefully and remove it before its whistling grows loud enough to threaten Cordelia’s rest. However, as she quietly pours herself a warm cup of tea a few minutes later, it seems the concern was unnecessary. Cordelia strolls into the nearby dining room, furrowing her brow as she notices Annette awake so late. 

“Miss Baker,” she steps forward, “It’s nearly eleven o’ clock. Shouldn’t you be asleep?” 

“Should you not be sleeping as well?” Annette smiles politely in response. “Unless you have suddenly developed nocturnal abilities and failed to notify me in the change of your daily schedule.” 

Cordelia pauses, eyes flicking over the servant with mild suspicion. “My business is my own. You should be asleep.” 

“I will once able. My mind contains too many thoughts to do so.” 

“Am I supposed to ask whyever for?” 

“Not unless Miss Jones is particularly captivated by the inner workings of her servant,” Annette jokes, hoping it’ll discourage her from prying further. She’d rather not explain the incriminating guilt of lesbianism. “Might I enquire instead as to your destination? You’re quite well-dressed for eleven o’clock.” 

Cordelia pauses, glancing down at her button-up, slacks, and suspenders. “No.” 

“Should I at least prepare another dressing for your wounds upon your return?”

“You think I’m off to box?” 

“I’m sure Conrad or Quickens or Travor aren’t going to best themselves,” she smirks, taking a long sip of her tea and savoring the warmth. “It’s raining, you should take an umbrella.” 

“I’ll take an umbrella if I so please to do so, Miss Baker,” Cordelia frowns, “not under the orders of a collar after hours.” 

“It will make care of your laundry easier for me, Miss Jones,” Annette rebuts. 

“Perhaps I wish to make it more difficult.”

Annette feels a bubbling pride push forth inside of her chest and she grins. “Then I shall have less capacity for detective work, Miss Jones. Unless you’d like to take up cooking for yourself as a hobby to alleviate my domestic burden?” 

Cordelia scowls and tilts her head incredulously. “I daresay you’re far bolder with your words past sunset, Miss Baker. I don’t envy any future husband of yours.” 

“Nor do I,” Annette utters in a low voice, hiding behind another sip of tea. “Would you appreciate something to eat before you depart? I can prepare something, if you like-,” 

“Not necessary,” Cordelia waves her away. “I’ll take my leave now, Miss Baker, lest I run the risk of invoking further scorn from my collar.”

“Somewhere across Bellchester, I’m quite sure Penny just smiled with satisfaction.”

“Good night,” Cordelia chips bluntly. 

“And how long might you be gone?” 

“A while.” 

“Which could be enumerated as…?” 

Cordelia huffs. “At least a few hours, Miss Baker. Good night.”

She turns and marches away from Annette, pulling her coat from the rack and slamming the front door behind her. Annette quietly smirks to herself, hearing the sound of Cordelia removing an umbrella from its place beside the front door as she departs. She turns about the kitchen, pondering what she could do to occupy herself whilst waiting for sleep to finally greet her. 

Eventually Annette decides the nighttime hour may as well be productive, so she strolls into the dining room and pulls out the various case files they’ve collected regarding Henry’s death and Bembrook’s murder. She flips through the pages aimlessly, simply attempting to get a sense for why Cordelia had recovered these particular documents. For the past two days since Bembrook’s killing they have poured over the papers, struggling to determine if they could establish any sort of paper trail that might lead to a suspect. Annette doubts they’ll be successful, but now that a crown investigator has taken over the official case there isn’t much else they can do. 

She flips through expense reports, personal correspondence, stray business papers… nothing particularly interesting or captivating. Bembrook was surprisingly meticulous with his personal finances and apparently had little shame; he logged every visit to a brothel in the last year, most of them to Elenore’s Gallery. Apparently he was quite the regular, and Annette shudders with sympathy for the workers there. 

Otherwise, business at Bembrook Rail & Steam appears fairly straightforward. He owned a significant amount of the rail infrastructure in Bellchester and the surrounding county; enough so that he was wealthy by local standards, yet still a fairly small fish in the business of the entire country. For all of his greed and vice, his company practices are fairly standard from what Annette can deduce. 

After a few passes, she eventually notices a letter sent to Mister Bembrook from Mary Rosen herself, seemingly sent a day after Henry’s death. It reads:

 

Dear Mister Bembrook,

I hold no hate in my heart. I never could stomach it. My mother and my mother’s mother always taught me to refuse corrupting myself with an emotion such as that. But I cannot imagine you are above hatred. Henry was a good man and a good worker. You could survey a thousand men and not find any who could compete with his integrity and skill. But you, Mister Bembrook, never listened to him or his concerns, regardless of whether or not they would improve your business. You must have hated him. 

My family would want me to petition your kindness to assist us in our mourning. Are you even aware of what it costs to bury your oldest son? Have you so exported your compassion that you could never relate to a pain like this? We have no body to bury and I’m forced to begin my mourning already. I’ll ask no kindness of you. I don’t suspect you have any to give. Does a fowl ask kindness of its hunter? 

Instead, I will pray unceasingly that you meet an unfortunate ending that is befitting of the suffering your hands produce. In many ways I hope you believe there is a God above. I hope you live in fear of what that God will do to you for your sins. I hope you spend every waking moment running from his inevitable judgment, and that every dream you have is a nightmare. You deserve no rest, no recovery, no peace. 

Mary Rosen

 

Annette’s heart breaks softly reading the letter. Mary’s handwriting is rough and tense and Annette can feel her raw emotion in every spot of ink. Her hands were clearly shaking while she wrote and she must’ve been crying. She allows a grim smile to creep onto her lips, amazed that Mary’s prayers seem to have come true - Bembrook’s death was quite fitting for all of the harm he had done. 

But as Annette turns the letter over, she’s surprised to find another letter sticking to the back of it. A tear stain on Mary’s letter seems to have smudged the ink of the letter behind it, fastening the two together with a weak seal. Annette gently pulls them apart, gazing at the newfound correspondence with a curious intention. 

 

Bembrook, 

 

I know what you have done. I’ve seen the maps and I have spoken with the governor. To imagine that you fancy yourself rising above your pitiful station fills me with an incandescent rage, most especially that you have done so in such a manner that your attempted ascension must come at my expense. Trenchton Hall belongs to my family and my family alone, not some kniving, gruesome bastard with a locomotive and audacious personhood. 

You are not, and never will be, gentry. You will never be accepted. In your last letter, which seemed as though penned by an adolescent schoolboy, you suggested I might meet you at dawn to decide the fate of the property. Never have I been graced with such a humorous laugh with my colleagues as when I read these words aloud to the room. You are not worthy of receiving a bullet from my gun. You are not worthy of the opportunity to bleed at my hand. The fates of lecherous bastards such as yourself are best exported to some common criminal, who might run you through with a rusted knife in a back alley. 

I look forward to returning to the governor this afternoon and once again appealing my case, whereby you might witness what tools exist at the disposal of gentlemen such as myself. Bring a lawyer, bring an army, you will never receive a single acre of my property so long as I live and breathe upon thi-

 

The letter ends abruptly at the page turn, and it appears as though the second page is missing. Annette shuffles back through the papers they’ve gathered, scrambling to locate the reminder of the letter, only to conclude that it isn’t here. She sits at the table in frustration, reading the first page over and over again while something tickles in the back of her mind. 

Annette can’t explain it. She feels a stirring in her gut. The second page is the key, it must be, and her mind buzzes with possibilities. Bembrook was a clearly hated man by an unknown number of parties, but what if she and Cordelia were misguided into believing that disgruntled workers would be responsible? She ponders every interaction she’s had with the world of nobility, through Samantha, through Lady Wilva, through the scattered moments at St. Bartholomew’s… they played by a different set of rules and they were fiercely possessive. It sounds as though the author of this letter was concerned Bembrook was somehow muscling into his property, and now Bembrook was dead. 

She rubs a palm against her face and glances at the staircase. It wasn’t likely that the second page could be upstairs in Cordelia’s study. She’d been surprisingly content to work in the dining room. And the first page had been accidentally hidden because of Mary Rosen’s letter, so it’s possible Cordelia hadn’t noticed it at all. 

She scrambles to remember which family might own Trenchton Hall and the surrounding land and comes up blank. Samantha would likely know, but Annette quickly shies away from the suggestion. Thinking about her longingly in bed was one thing. Tonight, the dreadful weight of Annette’s guilt quashes any possibility she would risk seeing her again. Besides, it wasn’t enough to simply know the family. She’d need to know the specific member of the family. 

Her heart plummets at a pair of twin revelations. First, that the second page could possibly be in the hands of the crown investigators already. Second, that the crown’s investigators would be paid by the nobility, and as a result, would not be likely to prosecute a gentleman who was responsible. If Annette and Cordelia were to solve this, they needed the rest of that letter; which might only be in Bembrook’s office for a little while longer, if it was there at all anymore. 

Annette sighs, contemplating the unnerving plan taking hold inside of her. This was their only chance to find the answers, and it might slip away and leave them behind. Cordelia would be gone for a few hours and will likely be drunk by the time she returns, hardly in any state to poke around a crime scene carefully. Annette takes a breath, wondering if she really had the stomach to attempt to recover it so late at night, right out from under the crown’s nose. 

It would be dark, and she knew her way around the streets well. She’d be able to hide from the police for the most part. But… then again, a collar and a dress was sure to attract unwanted attention so late at night. She glances up the staircase once more, dreading the plan that she was crafting. She’d need pants and a shirt, something that would be far less conspicuous than her current attire, and at this hour, there was only one place to get them. 

Annette had only been on the third floor of 167th Mill Street for a few minutes at a time, and usually just to knock on Cordelia’s door to wake her, bring her dinner, or deliver her laundry. It’s a smaller space than the rest of the house, featuring only a narrow hallway and the wide doors of her study, which had a side room attached that Cordelia used as her bedroom. Annette walks quietly on the hardwood as though her owner might actually somehow sense her, tensing all of her muscles with each step. She holds her breath at the double doors, steeling her courage before carefully sliding one open and creeping inside of the dark room.

 Rather than risking a light being seen from outside the house, Annette waits for a few moments to allow her eyes time to adjust. Once they finally do, she stumbles forward, only making out the vague shapes of a heavy desk, bookshelves, and piles of scattered items on the floor. She steps carefully towards the side room, hearing her heart pound in her chest with each trembling movement. 

While she’d never been in Cordelia’s bedroom itself, Annette is lucky to find the closet quickly, its sliding doors just to the left of the entryway. She unlatches the handle and hastily retrieves a pair of slacks, a vest that she hopes would match it, and a hat that seemed to be a complimentary color. She throws the door closed and races out of the room, descending down the stairs towards her own bedroom with her stolen outfit. 

Cordelia is a little taller than Annette, and has hips that fill out more than her own, so the pants are a loose fit. She cuffs the legs up a few inches and uses a pin to keep them in place, tightening her belt at the waist and hoping it would fit well enough. She keeps her own collared shirt on, throwing the borrowed vest over it and buttoning it all the way to the top. She stares into her small mirror, seeing her leather collar peak out through the fabric, circling her neck and declaring her servitude. With a nervous pit in her stomach, she closes the final button, using the collar of the shirt to hide the leather band underneath. It’s a little tight around her neck, but it’ll keep her from being spotted as a runaway servant. 

She stares in the mirror for a moment and marvels at the outfit, surprised to find it feels so homely on her. It doesn’t quite fit, a little baggy in places and awkward in others, but there’s something deeply satisfying about the way the pants hug her hips. The vest accents her chest and waist well, too. Pullwater had been so constantly insistent that Annette only wore dresses that it feels alien to once again don trousers and a shirt alone. It’s liberating. 

Annette smiles in the mirror and pulls her hair up into a tight bun. She adds the hat she recovered to the assemblage, maneuvering it in such a way that it obscures the presence of long hair. It’s a strange feeling, seeing herself like this. She’d always been pretty and feminine, and for the most part she liked it. But in Cordelia’s clothes she feels powerful and comfortable. With a large coat over her outfit she wouldn’t immediately draw the attention of the men around her, and only her smooth face would give away her womanhood. 

She grabs her boots and umbrella and strolls out of the house with an unexpected amount of satisfaction. The suit fills the void in her confidence that her plan leaves, bandaging her nerves and giving a much needed boost to her resolve. This will work, she tells herself, and actually believes it. 

It’s easy enough to weave her way through the night time streets to the railyard, and she moves with an extra security she didn’t often feel. When she looks over her shoulders for potential followers, it is for a reason other than personal safety; and after years and years of gruesome stares from men on the streets she finds the experience refreshing. She walks with her chin up, only ducking into the shadows when spotting an officer on patrol. Each step in her boots, lightly slashing in the puddles between cobblestones, gives her a sense of invulnerability. 

At the railyard she finds a comfortable place to hide and watches for a few minutes, trying to get a sense for the level of patrol tonight. It isn’t unusual for the police to keep watch of the area to prevent stowaways on trains, but they mostly did so by occasional shows of force. If you were careful, quiet, and not a fool, it wasn’t impossible to slip between patrols and make your way through the yard. Tonight is no different, and it only takes a short while for Annette to find her moment, closing the umbrella and darting out from her place in the shadows. 

Inside the yard there is significantly less presence. She hardly sees anyone as she slips between train cars and towards Bembrook’s office in the center. However, her plan meets its first resistance as she comes into view of the central building: a duo of officers guard the front entrance on the ground floor. One of them is smoking, standing out on the platform, while the other leans up against the wall. They’re chatting casually, clearly without much concern for the possibility of a break in tonight. 

Annette scours the area, trying to see if she can work out a secondary entrance. She circles the entire building and doesn’t locate a single backdoor, frustratedly making her way back to the front and attempting to strategize. The rain might obscure her from a distance, and the pattering of drops on the metal machines does help to disguise the noise of her movements, but that would do little good once she made her way closer. 

For a moment, she considers attempting to make a loud noise somewhere farther away and hope to draw them out. Then while they’re distracted, she could attempt to slip inside. But, she quickly abandons that plan. First, there was no telling that both or either of them would investigate, and it might actually draw the attention of some other patrol nearby. Second, that was only a way in; Annette would still need an escape plan. 

She recalls the layout of Bembrook’s office and drafts a plan that feels even worse. The first floor was a typical factory setting for mechanics and general laborers, but there was a small staircase up to the second floor where Bembrook’s office was. She’d assumed the stairs were the only way up, but then again, the door to his office wasn’t the only way to get inside. His office also had a balcony. 

Annette skirts around the left side of the building and locates it from the ground. There’s no ladder or rope or anything, and she wasn’t expecting there to be one. However, a track runs directly alongside the building, and with a train car on those tracks she might be able to leap up to it. She would have to hope that the balcony door was unlocked. 

She’s just about to start climbing the nearest car when a noise startles her from the front entrance. Annette ducks back into the shadows, ignoring the rain pouring down from above and resolving to find a way to properly dry out the clothes once she returns; with luck, her coat will bear the brunt of it. A light pours out from across the yard and a man steps out from the front door. Annette doesn’t recognize him, but from the way that he stops to chat with the officers, she suspects he must be the investigator from the case. She breathes out a sigh of relief that she had waited to scope out the balcony; had she attempted her first plan, she would likely run directly into him. 

She waits longer for him to clear the area, which takes a long time. He shares a cigarette with the police officers, laughing and talking for what feels like a quarter hour. But he does eventually leave, and once Annette determines he isn’t heading her direction she returns to the task at hand. There weren’t any cars directly aligned with the balcony, but there were a few close enough to risk an attempt. She scrambles up a ladder on the side of one, gripping each rung as tightly as possible to avoid slipping in the rain. Her hands are freezing and she wishes she had brought gloves. 

The train cars are taller than she expected, or so they felt from standing on top of them. The ground didn’t seem as though it could be that far when she was down there, but now that she stands above it seems treacherous. She keeps to the center of the roof, walking as slowly and quietly as possible. There is a gap between the car she was currently on and the one closer to the balcony, so Annette forces herself to take a deep breath and steady herself. She leaps across it, easily clearing the distance but landing with a heavy thud against the metal. The sound echoes out across the yard, and in a moment of fear she quickly drops to her knees and lays down in the center of the roof, hopeful that she would be invisible from the ground if an officer came to investigate. 

A few tense breaths pass with no sign of the guards and she rises again. The leap to the balcony is worse; she’d have to jump a few feet out and at least a foot up to stand a chance at gripping onto one of the banisters, and then she’d have to manage to pull herself up. It was the sort of thing she might have gleefully attempted as a young kid, full of the invulnerability of childhood, but in the dark, in the rain, as an adult… she stops to ponder the option before her. 

Does this case truly mean this much to me? She wonders. It wasn’t as though she was a detective. Annette could easily return home and never worry again about anything other than her usual duties and the occasional investigatory errand with Cordelia. And yet, something inside her balks at the suggestion of quitting. It feels important. Not just for Mary Rosen or the satisfaction of solving a murder. 

Annette feels that combative, rebellious side of herself that has so often quarreled with Pullwater push forward. She was tired of being the perfect woman. Even when she was forced out onto the streets she couldn’t even bring herself to find employment at Elenore's Gallery, despite their offers. Somehow Pullwater’s lectures bore deep into her soul and made her feel as though there was a holier way to be homeless, convincing her that there were some things she should never do. Pullwater, if she were present in this moment and bearing witness to Annette atop the car, would scold her to descend immediately. The thought provides all of the necessary motivation to continue. 

She leaps forwards, throwing her arms desperately around the nearest metal pole of the balcony and clinging on for dear life. Her feet swing forward and leave her dangling above a twenty-foot drop, and she’s quickly overcome with panic and adrenaline. She closes her eyes and grips the banister as tight as she can bear, but quickly realizes she can only hold on for so long. The muscles across her arms and upper back are already straining with tense complaints. 

Annette first attempts to pull herself up directly, only to realize she lacked the strength needed to complete the task. She only rises a half foot before losing her resolve and nearly falling. Instead, she swings a leg out as far and high as possible, trying to hook an ankle onto the platform. She nearly succeeds, only to have the sole of her boot slip from the water pouring down, causing her to panic and tighten her grip once more. Her second attempt is more successful, sliding for a brief moment before narrowly locking her foot in place against a further banister. She heaves herself upwards, using the remaining strength in her arms and the added muscles in her legs to crawl upwards, awkwardly shuffling under the railing and plopping down onto the balcony itself. 

Fuck… she mutters internally, laying down across the grated metal floor and trying to catch her breath. Annette’s hands tremble, bouncing slightly with each pounding beat of her heart. But the feeling soon washes into a glimmer of pride in her accomplishment. She rises, feeling a soreness in her muscles as she finds her footing, and glares at the balcony door before her. Moment of truth. 

She extends a nervous hand to the door handle, grasping it timidly and resolving that if it were indeed locked, she would find some way to break in, damn the consequences. She turns slowly, holding her breath as it lazily revolves… it opens. She lets out a sigh of relief and steps into the darkened room. 

Bembrook’s body has been removed, much to Annette’s relief. The detective must have been at work cleaning up the scene, as the room looks politely restored. She fiddles around the room, hunting for a small light to use without any luck. She sighs and pulls a small candle from her breast pocket, along with a match, grateful she had the foresight to procure one for this very reason. It takes a few swipes against the paper before the match lights, but thankfully the rain had yet to douse its capacity to light. She ignites the candle and holds it out before her face, slowly moving her way through the room in search of the second page. 

Annette scrambles to remember the specific places the Cordelia had either searched directly or commissioned Annette to search, but the memory is too foggy to recall. Instead, she searches Bembrook’s desk, trying to deduce where he would store personal correspondence. She pulls open drawer after drawer without success, eventually turning her focus to the nearest cabinets and shelves. Luckily enough, the crown’s detectives hadn’t yet removed his files, and it seems as though the office has been mostly kept intact. 

She eventually locates a promising pile of papers tucked away in a small standing table on the far side of the room. It contains a small, tiny drawer, fit for letters and small items, and was the sort of item you’d easily ignore. She pulls open the compartment and finds a small knife, a letter opener, and is relieved to see a stack of opened correspondence. She rummages through it quickly, scrambling to make out the words of each enough to recognize the handwriting. 

A noise sounds out across the empty factory below and Annette freezes in place, heart suddenly racing. She waits for a tense breath, trying to pinpoint its origin. Another quickly follows it, a quiet thud on metal, followed by another, and another. Someone was coming up the stairs. She blows out the candle in her hand and throws it into the drawer, snatching up the entire stack of letters and racing onto the balcony. 

She wonders for a moment if she might be able to hide on the balcony until they depart, but the idea is quickly dashed as she realizes the door had a pair of windows and the balcony was hardly large enough to completely hide herself. It wasn’t a guarantee, but if they looked in her particular direction for more than a second or two they would see her. She shoves the letters deep into her breast pocket and gulps down her fear, throwing a leg over the railing and glaring down at the train car below. 

The drop looks far worse from this angle, and as the second leg swings over and she grips the railing behind her, Annette can feel herself trembling. With the rain pounding down around her, she wouldn’t be able to hear the sound of the door to the office opening, and the fear of being caught forces her bravery out of her. She leaps down to the nearest car, hopeful that she’d be able to arrest her momentum quietly. 

She underestimated how slippery the roof would be from the rain, and as her first boot lands onto the car it immediately slides. Annette tumbles, falling and landing hard onto her side, sending a massive crashing thud across the trainyard around her. There’s no chance the sound wouldn’t be heard by police on patrol, or even whoever just entered Bembrook’s office. Indeed, a second after she lands a burst of light shines out above her, illuminating the office as the visitor strode inside. Annette scrambles to find the nearest ladder, only to realize there wasn’t one on this car; she’d have to make the leap again and risk another loud bang giving away her position. 

Instead, Annette makes a worse decision. She creeps towards the edge of the car and attempts to lower herself down the side of it, hoping the fall wouldn’t be nearly as far as she feared it might be. But, before she can even make the choice to lower herself, her hand slips and sends her plummeting down to the graveled floor below. She lands hard on one leg and feels a burst of pain shoot through it, falling down onto her side and feeling her body smack into the rocks beside the track. She lets out a low groan, regretting her decision. 

The fear of the cops nearby reignites her flight, and Annette pulls herself up from the ground, wincing as she places weight on the particular leg. She rests a hand on the side of the car to steady herself and releases a long breath, forcing herself to push through the pain. She breaks out into a careful jog, hoping to vacate the area as quickly as she possibly can with her stolen papers, desperately pleading to the tiny version of God she would allow herself to believe in that the letter she needs was now tucked safely away in her pocket. 

 

– — –

 

Annette trips up the steps of 167th Mill Street, grumbling through the cold and through the pain. The rain had ceased about ten minutes prior, prompting her to throw a curse to the sky for its wretched timing. She fumbles her key into the door’s lock and stumbles inside, shutting the door behind herself and collapsing down onto the ground, wet, tired, aching, and exhilarated. 

“So you’ve decided to return,” Cordelia’s voice calls out from the dining room and Annette’s heart sinks. She was supposed to be gone for at least another hour. 

“Yes, Miss,” Annette calls back, trying to hide the weariness in her voice. 

“Where did you go, so late in the night?”

Annette is quiet for a moment, thankful Cordelia couldn’t yet see her in the foyer. She wonders if there is any way to hide her stolen outfit, to sneak upstairs and throw on a dress. Her eyes scour the nearby coat rack to see if it might somehow house something suitable, but it doesn’t. 

“Out thinking about the case, Miss,” Annette says simply. She’d rather inspect the papers before telling Cordelia. She would never be able to bear the look in her owner’s eyes if she had taken such a risk for nothing. “I quite like the rain.” 

“I take it you had an umbrella?” 

Cordelia’s voice is light and playful, and Annette is surprised to find her joking. Perhaps she had a few drinks and was in pleasant spirits? Maybe that would make revealing Annette’s deception less deplorable. 

“Yes, Miss,” Annette laughs lightly. “Though it did little good, I’m afraid.” 

“Are you sitting on the floor, Miss Baker?” 

“I am,” she exhales. “I… it appears I may have sprained my ankle.” 

Annette hears the sound of a chair scraping against the wood floors and drops her head. Cordelia gingerly walks out of the room and steps into the foyer, gazing down at the injured servant before her. Annette looks up, grimacing, and watches as Cordelia’s face flashes through a quick presentation of emotions. 

At first she appears sympathetic to Annette’s pain and overall condition, though the expression is soon after replaced with vexation, then frustration, back to curiosity, and ending somewhere around amusement. 

“I do believe I am doubting your story, Miss Baker,” she says at last. Cordelia drops into a casual squat, hovering over Annette. “Might I inspect your leg while you tell me how you’ve come to be drenched in rain, injured, wearing what appear to be my clothes, and looking somewhere between excited and frightened?” 

“It wasn’t a lie,” Annette chokes out as Cordelia slips the boot from her foot. She groans as the leather leaves her, feeling a new pain shoot out across the limb. The adrenaline had carried her from the railyard, but now that it was leaving her system she could feel the pain throbbing with each heartbeat. “You’re not mad?” 

“I’m not yet sure I have reason to be, Miss Baker,” Cordelia replies simply. 

“I stole your clothes,” Annette confesses, flinching and preparing to be scolded. 

Cordelia smirks, removing Annette’s wet sock. “They fit you rather poorly.” 

“I quite like them, actually.” 

“I am curious as to why a thoughtful walk required such costuming,” the detective says. “Did you believe my abilities somehow reside in the fabrics I don?” 

“No, Miss,” Annette smiles. 

“Then out with the story, Annette, and we’ll see if you will require any further discipline than a swollen ankle.” 

Annette nods, removing her grin and staring down at the floor. “I was studying the documents after you left, and I found a suspicious letter.” 

“Mary’s? She’s not the killer, I assure you. She’s not the sort.” 

“It was affixed to the back of hers,” Annette explains. “It seemed to imply that Bembrook was muscling in on a noble’s land claim, and the gentleman then threatened him in response.” 

“Quite typical behavior from their sort,” Cordelia shrugs. “Who was it from?” 

“I’m not sure, the second page was missing. Though it referenced Trenchton Hall,” Annette winces as Cordelia carefully pokes at the swelling, inspecting her response to the touch. 

“Trenchton Hall…” Cordelia furrows her brow. “Is that the Brimwell family?” 

“I couldn’t recall, Miss.” 

Cordelia pauses, thinking to herself for a moment while her energy shifts. When she speaks again, her voice is slow and deliberate. “And did you attempt to recover this missing page?” 

Annette sinks back into herself, nervous. “I… I did, Miss.” 

Cordelia takes a long breath, releasing it slowly. “And you felt you might convey more authority by wearing trousers,” she guesses. “Please tell me you didn’t attempt to speak with anyone.” 

“I did not.” 

“And please tell me you scoped out the scene, saw that it was guarded, and went home empty-handed to report your findings to me…” 

Annette winces, “... I… I did not.” 

Cordelia sits back down onto the floor, holding her hands to her face. “Annette…”

“I’m sorry-,”

Cordelia raises a hand to silence her. She sits in the quiet for a few moments, shoulders rising and falling with careful breaths. “Do you have the letter?” Her tone is quiet, with a fearful apprehension hiding below. 

Annette reaches into her soggy coat and pulls out the stack of papers she’s collected. Some of them appear to be a bit damp, though thankfully they appear to be mostly intact. “I truly hope so,” she whispers. 

Cordelia takes the stack from her and sets it on the ground beside them. She is quiet for a long time again, though now she spends the silence staring down Annette, eyes peering deep through her. She sighs. “You won’t go along with a plot to prompt a murder confession, and you won’t give a horrible man a playful smile for compliance… but you’ll sneak past the police to break into a crime scene?” 

“I leapt from a train car onto the balcony and back again,” Annette says quietly, a little proud of herself. 

“Explains the ankle,” Cordelia huffs. “What am I to do with you, Annette?” 

“Perhaps you should inspect the letters before you decide.” 

Cordelia shakes her head. “Do you have a spine or don’t you?” 

“Miss?” 

“Do you have a spine or don’t you?” 

Annette furrows her brow. “I thought you would be angry with me.” 

“Answer my question, Miss Baker.” 

“I’m not sure,” she replies quietly. 

Cordelia closes her eyes for a moment before reopening them. “I… I can’t keep hoping you do, Annette.” 

“I don’t understand.” 

The detective shakes her head and shifts her body over to the nearest wall, leaning back into it and staring up at the ceiling. “Stop getting my hopes up.” 

“You aren’t making sense, Miss Jones. I don’t understand what you mean.” 

“First you aren’t afraid of me,” she explains, folding her hands tightly into her lap, “and then you’re even clever enough to solve a case. But then… then you can’t stomach the confrontation, and once again I’m frightful to behold. And then, you stake your entire position out for some woman you’ve just met and you have a backbone again, only to fold when the moment requires you to manipulate an idiot with a smile.” 

She tilts her head to the side, her voice wishful and filled with emotion as she continues. “And now you’ve gone and done something reckless, and clever, and frightening… and you’ve even succeeded.” Cordelia’s eyes flick over to Annette, who watches quietly, unsure of what to make of her words. “I need you to commit, Annette.” 

“Commit to what?” 

“If you wish to be Penny, be Penny,” she waves a hand dismissively. “But you’re so close to being Annette that I can’t bear it. And this,” Cordelia grabs the stack of letters and points them at her, “this is what Annette is capable of.” 

“It almost sounds as though yo-,” 

“Just pick one and be done with it,” Cordelia frowns. “I’ve no stomach for being disappointed further.” 

Cordelia rises from the ground, bringing the letters up with her. She paces for a few steps as Annette stares at her, unsure of how to reply to her words. “Excellent work, Miss Baker. Good night.” 

She nods politely, turning from Annette and rising up the staircase, quickly ascending out of sight and leaving her behind to think. 

48