Trafalgar and Boone have been working together for a year, taking small commissions in order to learn how to work together. When a friend and colleague is committed to an asylum following a disastrous mission in the Mediterranean, Dorothy takes it upon herself to uncover the truth. But the secrets of the past have ways of remaining hidden, and trying to uncover them may cost Dorothy her life.
Did I mention I love Edwardian adventures? Cannon returns to his not-quite-our-world steampunk adventure series begun in The Virtuous Feats of the Indomitable Miss Trafalgar and the Erudite Lady Boone for a second adventure among the archeologists and magic-users of his reimagined Great Britain. Our heroines move in a world that is unabashedly woman-centered — they are friends, lovers, rivals, colleagues and competitors, sometimes all at the same time, and it's a joy to read a novel that assumes a vast diversity among its characters. Come for the adventures and the lesbians, and prepare to be delighted by the sheer range of Cannon's imagination. – Melissa Scott
"Adventure and romance mingle with magic in Cannon's strange but eminently readable second novel following the archaeological meanderings of its Jazz Age heroines."– Publishers Weekly
"I found the characters have been given interesting backgrounds and a plethora of feisty attitudes which lets the several female protagonists exceed the limited expectations for women of their time period."– Jo Frankel
"Part science, part historical fiction, part fantasy, part mystery, this tale is filled with adventure and bravery. I cannot wait for the next installment in this series."– Mehek Naresh, for Virtuous Feats...
Early Summer, 1920
It was just a short stroll from the train station to the County Mental Hospital, Wraysbury, which was fortunate as there were no cars for hire when the travelers arrived at their destination. The group took a flight of stairs to a narrow footbridge that stretched over the tracks and went on their separate ways. One of the disembarking passengers was a young gentleman in a bowler hat and eyeglasses shaded lavender. He wore a bespoke suit that fit his slender frame perfectly. His sidewhiskers were neatly trimmed and connected above his lip with a tidy ginger mustache.
The man hummed as he walked, hands in his pockets and shoulders back as he took in the scenery. Wraysbury was perfectly idyllic. It was precisely what people had in mind when reminiscing about the English countryside. It was just over a mile before he arrived at a wall of bleached stone. The road branched off and was blocked by an arch of vertical iron bars. There was a secondary, man-sized gate to one side of the main entrance, and a guard was station between the two points of ingress.
"Good afternoon," the traveler said, his accent revealing him to be from America's east coast. "My name is Alvin Peck. It's come to my attention you've admitted the cousin of my business associate. He's asked me to look in on her while I was in London on business."
The guard took Peck's papers and looked them over. He snorted when he saw the name of the patient. "Oh, her. The 'adventuress.'"
Peck smiled beneath his mustache. "I hope she hasn't been causing you much trouble."
"Pain in the arse, that one," the guard said as he handed the papers back. "She just got back from some expedition overseas, digging around in old tombs or whatever. No wonder she cracked as soon as she got back. No job for a woman, that's for sure. Constitutions can't handle it."
Peck smiled but said nothing.
"Go on. A nurse or an orderly will be at the front desk, they'll show you the rest of the way."
The American touched the brim of his hat, nodded in thanks, and continued through the smaller gate. His shoes crunched on the gravel of the main drive as he followed its curve. The entrance of the asylum was a red-brick clock tower, with wings extending out to either side before they curved back in around a central courtyard. The grounds were rolling stretches of well-manicured green lawn. He saw patients in white waistcoats and drawers moving along the hills under the attention of similarly-attired staff. As he ran his gaze along the arched windows of the building, he imagined he could hear the wails of the incarcerated within.
As promised, a young man named Gerald looked at Peck's information and escorted him for the rest of his trip. The central space of the asylum seemed to be a common area where men and women were allowed to interact. Gerald led Peck through a recreation area and the mess hall before he turned right and unlocked the door to the women's ward.
Peck noted that the floors were polished to a fine gleam. While wheelchairs and gurneys were stationed rather haphazardly outside the private rooms, the linens all seemed crisp and clean. There was a sharp smell of antiseptic and bleach, the odors of institutional health, and it burned Peck's nostrils. He reached up and touched a finger to his nose in an attempt to block out some of the sting. His eyes watered behind the lenses of his glasses.
"The guard seemed to know my friend's cousin quite well," Peck said. "Has she been a hellion?"
Gerald laughed. "Oh, no. She just likes telling stories about all her travels. She's an explorer, did you know? Treasure hunter. Did all sorts of incredible things. Sometimes she gets the patients a little riled up when she gets carried away. She doesn't mean any harm."
The American nodded. When they reached room 183, Gerald rapped his knuckles on the doorframe and waited for a response before he turned the knob. He stopped just over the threshold, and Peck followed to stand behind him. The room wasn't large, but it seemed comfortable. A neat and tidy bed next to a window that looked out over a small pond, a shelf of books, and a sitting area with two chairs separated by a table. The table bore the trappings of a tea service. The room's occupant was standing by the window with her back to the room.
"You have a guest."
"I haven't the time nor the inclination for guests, Gerald."
Peck said, "Come now. Not even for your cousin's favorite business associate?"
The patient turned slowly at the sound of the American's voice. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously and then chuckled under her breath. She turned back to the window.
"It's all right, Gerald. Leave us."
Gerald looked at Peck. "You'll be able to find your way back out?"
"Oh, I'm certain."
Content the guest wouldn't end up wandering the halls unescorted, Gerald closed the door behind him as he left. As soon as the latch clicked, the woman at the window laughed out loud and shook her head.
"You make a beautiful man, Dorothy Boone."
"I thought I was quite dashing." Dorothy took off her glasses, the Alvin Peck persona dissipating like fog as she moved into the room. Cora was round about Dorothy's age, give or take a few months, with black hair and eyebrows men had often called severe. She was the sort of woman who could quell a storm with a stern look and a wave of her hand. Dorothy was accustomed to seeing her old friend in suits, in the turtlenecks and wool skirts of academia. To see her clad in what amounted to pajamas, with her fine silken hair haphazardly pinned back, was quite shocking. She put past her alarm and tried to retain her calm.
"So what did you think of the accent?"
"Passable. But it could use some work."
Dorothy nodded and took a seat in one of the chairs. "Needs must, I'm afraid. The flatness of it forces me to lower the register of my voice. It's easier to pass as male that way."
Cora took the other seat and leaned forward to check the teapot. "Ah, splendid. Plenty to offer you a cuppa, if you're so inclined."
"While I pour, you can tell me the meaning of this ruse."
Dorothy said, "Why... your emancipation, of course. I took stock of the premises when I entered. I can arrange for a boat to be waiting on the shores of the river, but we must get there first. I have some thoughts about the kitchen. You've probably had more time to determine the layout, so I'll defer to your judgment on some of my plans."
Cora paused in her pouring. "You mean to free me? Dorothy, I... I'm sorry, I thought I was quite clear in the letter. I admitted myself to Wraysbury."
"I thought that was just a ruse. Your brother—"
"Lawrence is dastardly as ever, yes. I've made arrangements so he can't get his grubby hands on my assets while I'm here. Oh, dear, I do apologize for the miscommunication. For you to have wasted all this time on an unnecessary rescue."
Dorothy said, "I suppose it wasn't a complete loss. It is wonderful to see you again."
"And you!" She took Dorothy's hands. "I know the letter said I didn't want guests, but to see your face is simply the best surprise. Even if it is hidden behind those whiskers."
"But why here? Why would you lock yourself away in an asylum?"
Cora said, "It's not as bad as you're thinking. I know we've all heard stories of women who were institutionalized for the high crime of thinking or having lewd thoughts. I did my research before choosing this place. The patients are well cared for. The staff is knowledgeable and compassionate. I am here for the very reason these hospitals were built in the first place. I needed... time. I needed a rest."
"Was your latest expedition so harrowing to require this?"
Cora began to answer but, instead, sighed heavily and fell back into her chair. Dorothy could see now that her skin was pale and gray smudges had taken up residence below her eyes. "What do you know about Khirokitia?"
"Not even how to spell it."
"Cheeky," Cora said, allowing a small grin. "It's on Cyprus. It was the site of a sudden and unexplained vanishing event. Nearly four hundred people suddenly gone without a trace. There are countless examples of things like this happening throughout prehistory. No one wrote anything down. They could have been victims of a flood or a drought, there might have been a virus, or an epidemic of child deaths that depleted the population. My goal was to discover which event caused the abandonment of Khirokitia."
She reached up and pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose. Dorothy moved to the edge of her chair and touched her friend's arm.
"I'm sorry. I came here without warning. You must be overwhelmed..."
"No. No, it's quite all right." She sandwiched Dorothy's hand between hers. "We were there seven weeks before a member of my team discovered the entrance to a cavern running below the main village. It was a crevice so narrow that half the men with me were unable to join us on the descent. I went with three other women. We measured the depth to approximately three hundred yards before we found ourselves in a wide cavern. There were a series of archways in the stone. Too perfect to be natural formations. One of the women with me..." She looked down at their hands. "Her name was Ada. She was a brilliant and brave young girl. She offered to explore one of the tunnels and report back. We let her go into the darkness with a rope around her waist. To help prevent her from getting lost."
She fell silent. Dorothy patted her friend's hand, willing to give her as much time as necessary.
"There was something down there with us. We've seen creatures before, as I know you have. The Minotaur..." She smiled weakly, but the expression died as soon as it was birthed. She swallowed a lump in her throat and pulled her hands away from Dorothy. "This was something different. I could hear it in my head. In my soul. This was something darker. We never saw it. We never even heard it, not out loud. We only knew it was there because of a creeping dread in our chests. We called for Ada, but she never responded. So we started pulling on the rope. After several seconds, there was a vicious tug. And then the rope went slack. When we got it back to us, the loop was still tied. And it was bloody."
Dorothy said, "My God, Cora. I'm so sorry."
"None of us were brave enough to venture into the darkness. We knew it was a lost cause. The worst part was that we could only ascend one at a time. The girls insisted I go up first. I was stronger, you see, and they felt I could assist pulling the others up. Once I was on solid ground we sent the rope back down. The other two... the other two girls never took it. They never responded to us when we called down to them."
"Did anyone go back down to find out what happened?"
"I was the only one on the expedition slender enough to make the descent. I couldn't... I couldn't bring myself to..." A tear rolled down her cheek. "I knew it would leave us without answers but I-I..."
"Of course not," Dorothy said softly. "Hush. Anyone in your position would have done the same thing."
Cora said, "None of us could sleep that night. Not that we tried very hard. And to be honest, I haven't slept very well since. We stayed near the crevice in case anyone called for help. But it was utterly silent. We left in the morning and came home. I started looking for this place right away. I knew I needed something to... forget... or... move on..." Her voice trailed off, and she looked toward the window.
"If you should need anything, Cora, all you need do is ask."
"Thank you, Dorothy. For now I believe the only thing that will help is solitude. And perhaps medication." She bit her bottom lip. "I apologize, since you came so far to see me, but it's easier to try sleeping during the day."
"Of course." Dorothy stood and bent down to kiss Cora's forehead. "No distance is too far. If you need anything, even someone to sit beside you and silently serve you tea, you have my number."
Cora nodded her gratitude, then gripped Dorothy's hand. Her fingers were trembling, but her gaze was steady and focused. "The thing in the caverns below Cyprus. It's just one of many strange occurrences and encounters being reported in recent years. We both saw monsters under the earth in the Mediterranean. I fear this is only the beginning. There is a world beyond this one, a veil that conceals wonders and horrors we can't even imagine. I believe every time magic is used, we pierce that veil just a little bit further. During the War... so much magic was spent on the Continent. Spells cast every hour of every day on both sides. I fear we may only now be seeing the consequences of those actions. Be careful, my friend."
"And you as well. I'll come back to see you again as soon as you're ready. I'll dress more appropriately then."
Cora managed a smile. "It would be appreciated. I'm finding myself oddly attracted to you in this garb, and I'm confused enough as it is."
Cora winked and stood to escort Dorothy out of the room. Though she hated leaving her friend behind, Dorothy trusted that Cora best knew her own needs. If she said solitude was required for her peace of mind, then Dorothy would let her have it. She adjusted her hat and glasses as she walked back through the asylum, nodding a farewell to the desk clerk and the gateman as she passed. Once she was back on the road she peeled away her beard and removed her hat to let down her hair. She didn't care if anyone on the train was scandalized by the sight of a woman in a suit; she was more concerned about her friend's welfare.
She couldn't help but think Cora was right. Since the end of the War, the world seemed more unsettled than ever before. There had always been mysteries and creatures that should only exist in nightmares and fairy tales. But Dorothy knew the occult had been on the rise in recent years. The texture of reality did seem more fractured than ever before.
If there was a preternatural threat in the offing, she could take some comfort in the knowledge that she wouldn't have to face it alone.