The Detective's Assistant


By Kate Hannigan

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Based on the extraordinary true story of America’s first-ever female detective, this fast-paced adventure recounts feats of daring and danger…including saving the life of Abraham Lincoln!

Eleven-year-old Nell Warne arrives on her aunt’s doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows. If her Aunt Kate rejects her, it’s the miserable Home for the Friendless.

Luckily, canny Nell makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate…and not just by helping out with household chores. For Kate Warne is the first-ever female detective employed by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Nell has a knack for the kind of close listening and bold action that made Pinkerton detectives famous in Civil War-era America. With huge, nation-changing events simmering in the background, Nell uses skills new and old to uncover truths about her past and solve mysteries in the present.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page

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Chapter 1

In Which I Find Myself on the Doorstep of a Pickled Onion

You're expecting me to do what?" snapped a peevish voice from the other side of the heavy wooden door. It opened just a few inches to allow a single blue eye to survey me up and down. "Take in this gangly urchin you claim is one of my kin? One look tells me the child hasn't made the acquaintance of a bar of lye in a good many years, not to mention been in the same two-mile vicinity of a comb."

I quickly ran my hands over my head to smooth down my hair from the center, lest she start commenting on the size of my ears.

"Why, yes, Mrs. Warne," said the Right Reverend, sliding his pointy black boot forward just a hint to keep her door from slamming shut on his petition. "You are the waif's last relation in the world. Without you, the child is destined to a most piteous life in the orphan asylum."

"Surely someone will come and take the, the…"

"Girl," the Right Reverend declared, giving his throat a good clearing.

Could she not tell that for herself?

I studied her eye through the crack in the door just to see if the woman was wearing spectacles. Surely her vision was failing, because I was obviously not some stinky schoolboy standing here before her. My clothes might have looked a bit on the masculine side, what with having to take my brother's best traveling coat for the long journey to Chicago. And the brown trousers might not be something you see every day on a fancy city girl. But what chores could a body get done on a farm while wearing a dress, I'd like to know?

My aunt stared back at me through the inch or so of open door, inspecting me like I was a sack of mealy flour. Then she added, without the least bit of conviction, "She'll make someone a lovely daughter someday."

I decided to win her over with my charm, so I smiled up at her with a powerful grin that showed all my teeth. I squeezed one cheek with my finger and forced a dimple. She was the last living relative I had in this world, and I was not going to let her turn me away.

My aunt recoiled like I'd just presented her with a toad, pinching her lips so tight, they made a straight line across the lower part of her face—or what I could see of her face.

I gave it another try. I licked both my hands and ran them through my shortish hair, slicking down any clumps that were sticking up. Then I batted my long eyelashes at her like a graceful doe. I was going for irresistible, but I might have fallen short.

"What's the matter with her eyes?"

The Right Reverend draped his arm around my shoulder, pretending to appear fatherly. But his skinny fingers pinched my shoulder something awful. I got the hint and quickly stopped my eye-batting. I returned to hair-slicking.

He let out a sigh that was about as deep and long as the whistle on our locomotive. I could tell that the Right Reverend wasn't about to head back to the middle of New York State with me in tow. After our long ride down from Chemung County, him and me had spent enough quality time together to last a lifetime. Besides, that man could smell a sucker from fifty paces away, and he wasn't going to give up easily. He had followed the trail to my aunt's door like a coonhound on the hunt.

"Between you and me and the gaslights, Mrs. Warne," he said, dabbing at a faint layer of nervous sweat that had formed above his lip, "the older mites at the orphanage do not have the same appeal as the babies. I don't share this dreadful perspective, mind you. But as a girl of ten summers, dear Cornelia here doesn't stand a chance of ever getting adopted."

"Eleven," I announced, though nobody had seen fit to ask me. "Or thereabouts."

And then, acting like I'd just spontaneously caught fire, the Right Reverend snatched his hand off my shoulder, pressed some papers in my aunt's direction, and took off down the boardinghouse stairs. She called for him to stop, but he did not. I stared down the hallway after him, wondering if I should feel a pang of worry. But I couldn't muster even a faint hiccup of remorse to see the backside of that man.

My aunt's entire head was outside the door now, but her body still blocked me from coming into her room. Her face was average-looking, though it could have been pretty if it weren't lined with so much crankiness. I had always envied cornflower-blue eyes like hers, and the lashes framing them were long and brown like feathers on a whip-poor-will. So pinched and prim like she was, I could tell she was on a fast road to becoming a dowdy old matron. I hadn't seen enough of her teeth to be sure, but I figured her age to already be about twenty-five.

I picked up the yellowish papers off the floor and held them out for her to take. She just stared at me and made no motion to invite me inside.

"How did you find me?" she asked.

Her expression was sour with a hint of bitterness, and I was immediately reminded of a pickled onion. Her mouth was pinched so tight again, I half expected her jaw to squeak when she moved it.

"Right Reverend found you, ma'am. Not me."

"I haven't spoken to anyone in your family since…"

"The accident," I said, helping fill the gap. "And Warnes are your family, too, by the way."

She scoffed and gave me a hard look. I could tell she was sizing me up. So I gave her a hard look right back.

"Accident?" she laughed, though the sound that came out of her was anything but joyful. "Is that what they're calling it?"

"There's no 'they' calling it anything," I corrected, a little peevishness coloring the edges of my voice now, too. "There's just me. Ain't no Warnes left in Chemung County except me. I'm the very last one."

"Your mother?"

"Whooping cough."

"Uncle Silas?"


"Aunt Martha?"


"Your brothers?"

"One of scarlet fever."

"The other?"

"Fell off the roof last December. Died the next week."

She made a little hmmph noise, as if that satisfied her. But her eyes didn't go soft or anything like she understood the heavy sack of sorrows I was carrying around. She just kept staring at me until I finally had to look away. My eyes were beginning to sting.

I blinked real fast, but not so I'd look irresistible this time. It was because I missed everybody so much. If any one of them was still back at the farm, filling his or her lungs with deep breaths of fresh air, then I wouldn't have to be standing here right now. But with each passing, my world got smaller and smaller, until they were all gone. And here I was in Chicago.


My eyes were wet as I picked at my fingernails.

"And your father was the very last to go," my aunt said with a little tsk-tsk sound. "Cornelius always did look after Cornelius. Tell me—how did he meet his Maker? Hanged from a lawman's noose, I assume?"

"Shot. But he wasn't doing no wrong. He was helping people," I said. Then added softly, "Some bad men shot him dead. It was a crime."

She went silent, and I was thankful she didn't make hay about my daddy getting himself killed. I didn't know all the particulars of how it happened, but my heart told me he was pure and true.

"It was not your daddy's fault, you say?" Her voice came so low, I had to lean forward against the dark doorframe a bit so I'd catch it. "Just like the day he killed my Matthew, his own brother? In what you call an accident."

"Exactly," I said, trying to match my voice to hers, low and serious. She was a pickled onion, and I wasn't about to let her intimidate me. "If you'd let me explain it, you'd understand. My daddy wouldn't never hurt a fly. He didn't mean to kill your Matthew, Aunt Kitty."

"Don't call me that," she snapped, stepping aside and finally allowing me to leave the dismal hallway and enter her room. Her dark blue skirts rustled as she walked, and her movements were quick. I noticed she was more slender than I thought she'd be, and taller, too.

I looked all around the room. It wasn't the worst boardinghouse I'd seen in Chicago, but then again I'd been in town only one day. A boiled-cabbage smell hung in the air downstairs in the parlor, but up here on the third floor it wasn't so bad. Just stuffy and hot. The sound of a horse's shrill whinny on the street below drifted in through an open window, but no breeze.

"I'm not in Chemung County anymore, Cornelia. Here in Chicago, I go by Kate."

"Well, don't go calling me Cornelia," I countered, pushing a lock of my stringy hair away from my eyes and tromping across the room. My boots were a few sizes too big, and they made a satisfying clip-clomp sound on her wooden floor. I let my carpetbag drop beside me and reached up to touch the angled wall above my head. This room must have been an attic once. "All my friends back in New York call me Cornie."

The Pickled Onion laughed. Only it sounded joyful this time and not, as I expected, meant to hurt my feelings. Her laugh was the bouncy kind that starts somewhere in the pit of the stomach and leaps up the body like a jackrabbit, finally coming to rest around the eyes.

"What arrogance," she finally said. "How could Cornelius saddle you with such a dreadful name? Especially when you're already marked with his looks—you are the spitting image of that man. But Cornelia? Sounds like a fungus that plagues a vegetable garden."

I opened my mouth to protest, but I had not one word at my disposal. For a girl who'd spent her whole life perfecting the art of arguing—with my brothers, my mother, my mule, and until just a few months ago with my daddy—suddenly I was caught short.

And the reason why was simple. It was because every single, solitary day that I'd been walking this good green earth, I'd been complaining about the name Cornelia.

"And Cornie?" she continued. "That's no better. Are you sure those were friends who called you that?"

I scrunched up my eyes and gave my aunt a look. She was starting to put me in a mood. I couldn't tell if she was poking fun at me or flat-out handing me an insult.

Either way, I'd just about had enough of her.

"I shall call you Nell," she said, stepping over to a straight-backed chair and perching there. She folded her hands neatly in her lap as if she were Queen Victoria herself on the throne. "It sounds much less ridiculous than either of the other options."

My own hands, which seconds ago were balled up and ready to start swinging, dropped to my sides like a couple of overripe apples from a tree. And my jaw did the same thing, hanging open wide enough to catch a dragonfly.

Because Nell Warne was just about the prettiest name I'd ever heard. And suddenly it was all mine.

Chapter 2

In Which I Share My Woe with My Best Friend, Jemma

Dear Jemma,

By the time you read this, I will be gone from these parts. As I write, I have packed my bag and am sitting in the tree out front of Right Reverend Abernathy's door. You might recall him, or if you're smart, you might not want to. He is the preacher who runs the Chemung County Home for Orphans and Pathetic Souls. I believe that's the name of this place, though I might not have it exactly right. It's where I wound up living these past months.

I am sorry to break the news to you, but my dear daddy, Cornelius Jeremiah Warne, has died. This might come as a shock to your mama and papa, since your family was friends with us Warnes for so long. That is, before you had to move so far away from us. Your papa, so thick and strong like a maple tree, he never made a fuss about helping my daddy split logs or round up cattle when they strayed. I recall our fathers were good friends because of it. But now my daddy, Cornelius J. Warne, is splitting logs with the angels.

I hope my letter does not cause anyone to shed tears. I believe I have done enough of that for the whole town, what with Daddy's dying coming so soon after my brother Zeke's funeral last Christmas. And the others, but I've told you about them already.

There is no sound like the one an empty house makes. You know the lonesome call of the whip-poor-will, I am sure. And I imagine that plenty of times you have sat and listened to the wind rustle leaves at night. But nothing reminds a body of how alone they are in the world than footsteps in an empty house. At first I didn't mind when the Right Reverend showed up and took me to the Home for Orphans down here in town. I was just happy not to be haunting that old house like a teary-eyed ghost.

But I will not be staying in this orphan asylum another day, and for that I am eternally grateful. Did I already mention there was not even a bed for me to sleep on with all these hungry children packed in here? That might take a whole seperat editional nother letter to describe. Let me just say the Right Reverend found me a long-lost Warne kin who lives in Chicago. I do not recall her well, since she left some years back.

But family is family, and I'll stick with her like a tick on a fat dog.

Very truly your friend,


Chapter 3

In Which My Aunt Wants Nothing to Do with Me

I awoke in the morning with a crick in my neck. That's what sleeping curled up like a cat in a lumpy parlor chair will do for a body. The wooden armrests had seemed a comfortable place to lay my head last night. But as I got to my feet, I was as stiff as a hitching post. And sleeping in my dusty clothes hadn't helped much either. But Aunt Kitty said it would be best—she wanted to get an early start this morning, and that would save us time.

It's not that I expected Aunt Kitty to give up her bed in the back room last night. So I can't quite blame her for the lack of hospitality she supplied. And maybe the kitchen was closed in the evening when she gathered up food for my supper. That meager bowl of cabbage broth—so bare, I wouldn't even call it a soup—failed to satisfy my hearty appetite. I planned to make up for it at breakfast today, and I could already smell the heavenly aroma of coffee summoning me downstairs to the table.

"Let's get a move on, Aunt Kitty," I said, tapping on her door. Her sleeping quarters in the second room weren't much bigger than a closet, but I already knew where I'd fit my bed. I had peeked in yesterday, when she was off scrounging up my sad supper. And I figured I could tuck a mattress and pretty iron bed frame right next to the tall wardrobe. Then we could stay up nights talking and reading together like chums.

I knocked again, a little stronger this time. "There's probably a mountain of boiled eggs in the dining room with our names on them. And biscuits with jam, too."

I expected Aunt Kitty to still be snuggled under her covers tight like a caterpillar in a cocoon, but she was not. She suddenly pulled open her door and swept right out of the bedroom, her hair perfectly arranged and her dark blue skirts swishing as she passed.

"I am ready to go, Nell, but not to breakfast," she announced, giving one of the gloves on her hand a firm tug. "We will proceed over to Wabash Avenue, where there has recently been built the Home for the Friendless. I believe it might make a more appropriate environment for you than what I can provide. I will leave you there. It is that simple."

Simple? It was that simple for her to give me over to strangers?

Her words made me stagger backward a few steps. I knew better than to believe the sound of that place—Home for the Friendless. It might seem like a shelter from the storm, but it really was another asylum packed with a bunch of mangy orphans ready to filch my last possessions while I slept. There was no way I was letting my aunt abandon me there.

"Your place is plenty big—" I began. But she didn't want to hear a thing from me. She just pointed at my carpetbag on the floor near the door and marched off. So I grabbed the handle and followed after her down the staircase, squeezing past a few boarders heading up from the breakfast table and trailing a mouthwatering smell of bacon.

We reached the street and headed east toward Lake Michigan, where the sun had just climbed out from under its thick, purplish-pink covers. I hoped the folks over at the Home for the Friendless might still be under their covers, too. If they were, maybe they wouldn't hear our knocking. Or maybe my aunt had no plans to knock—maybe she was just going to sit me down on the front stoop to wait until some sorry caretaker opened the door and found me there.

"Aunt Kitty," I protested, clomping my brown boots behind her through the dusty August morning. "I'm trying to tell you that your place at the boardinghouse is fine enough for me. I don't take up too much space—"

"It is not about space, Nell. It is about what's right. And I do not think it's appropriate for a young girl like you to live in a boardinghouse."

"Then why don't you and me just move? Get a farm somewhere, or a house?"

She stopped her fast walking and turned to face me, her eyes flashing. I had to draw up short to keep from smacking right into her.

"Buy a house? With what money? I can't imagine Cornelius left you a vast inheritance. More like a few poker debts to settle. And I have my own life to lead. It cannot involve caring for a helpless girl."

I couldn't tell if she'd said helpless or hopeless. I told her I could find myself a job, earn a few coins to cover the cost of things. But she only let out a bitter chuckle and told me I was naive.

I didn't know what that word meant, but I suspected it was no compliment.

"Besides, you and me are all the family that's left, Aunt Kitty," I said, hitching my wool trousers up a bit. "We've got to stick together."

"We have to do no such thing, Nell. We hardly know each other. Am I supposed to alter my entire life in order to accommodate you? I think not. I apologize if the truth hurts, but let's face it: family is something you make; it is the people you choose to be with. Not the ones you're stuck with."

She might as well have elbowed me in the stomach, the way her words took my breath away. I watched her walk on down the street and turn south on what must have been Wabash Avenue, and so I made my feet follow along behind. But it was like I was moving through a haze, my senses having turned numb.

We went on that way, with her crisp footsteps tip-tapping down the wooden sidewalk and my boots shuffling along after her, until we reached another intersection. There was a great commotion up ahead that was causing people to gather in clumps and crane their necks for a glimpse. I heard a few shouts and hollers from the street, even the shrill protesting from a horse, but couldn't see what was happening.

I set my bag down and scrambled up a small hawthorn tree so as to get a better view of the scene. And I saw right away what was going on. Two colossal brutes were fighting in front of a stone building just ahead of us, blocking the route in either direction. And the crowd was growing thicker as the wrestling match heated up. I saw Aunt Kitty try to squeeze by on the right, but there was no getting through. Then she stepped to her left but was pinched in from that direction as well.

What I noticed next came as a jolt, and I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn't seeing things. A long-armed street thug was reaching his hands into every coat, bag, and pocket he could find as the folks in the crowd, distracted as they were by the two sparring hooligans, stood there unaware. He had his own bag, a deep thing of stained black fabric, into which he was tossing all his ill-gotten loot. And if I didn't act fast, this sly picker of pockets would be helping himself to my aunt's money at any second.

"Aunt Kitty!" I hollered, swinging out of the tree like a crazed squirrel and racing to her side. She turned just in time to see the tattered sleeve of the thief emerge from her bag, dirty hand clutching her coin purse. And as Aunt Kitty grabbed for his arm, the scoundrel pushed her down and tried to run off.

"Give that back," I snarled. And with one swift stomp of my foot, I crashed the heel of my big brown boot onto his toes. "Pickpocket afoot! Pickpocket afoot!"

The bandit let out a howl and began hopping on one leg, which allowed me to snatch Aunt Kitty's coin purse right from his hand. I quickly helped my aunt to her feet, and we pushed our way back from the crowd. Our timing couldn't have been better, because in those few moments when all eyes turned from the brawny brawlers to our yelping thief, the crowd suddenly realized they'd been had. Hands frantically slipped into pockets and bags and coats, only to discover wallets gone. And they pounced on the skinny pickpocket like a pack of wolves.

"Nell, how did you know what he was doing?" gasped Aunt Kitty as she leaned heavily on my arm. "Though I've injured my knee, you have spared me a great loss. All my savings were in that purse."

I shrugged my shoulders and stared down at my feet, my heel still tingling from the stomping I'd given that thief. My old boots had sure come in handy when I needed them.

Aunt Kitty gazed down on them, too, then lifted her eyes to meet mine. She studied my face for a moment or two, which made me feel a good deal uncomfortable for the fuss, and then she finally spoke.

"That was very brave, Nell. And I thank you."

I wasn't expecting a kind word from her, and suddenly my cheeks felt hot with embarrassment. So I quickly retrieved my bag and looked over to see what was happening to the pickpocket. He was sprawled pathetically on the wooden sidewalk now, propping himself up on one elbow and seeming to reflect on the scene before him. The brawling brutes had run off. And his black bag was ripped open and empty, the contents probably recovered by their owners.

As the crowd wandered off, the stone building ahead of us came into view. I saw a few scrawny boys leaning out the open upstairs windows, hooting and whistling at the fallen pickpocket on the street below. Some more of them—these appeared younger and somehow dirtier—were jeering from behind a black iron fence that surrounded the yard. A few appeared skinny enough to slip through the bars. I read the wooden sign beside the front door and felt my heart clench in my chest:



I couldn't move my gaze from the carved lettering. And I knew that Aunt Kitty, who was leaning on my shoulder beside me, was reading it, too.

I'd already done my time in one of these places, just after my daddy died. The Right Reverend had told me I should be grateful to live there, a girl with no relations left in the world. But that orphans' home inspired no inklings of thankfulness in my heart. In fact, I could say with stone-cold certainty that I was never going back to such a place. Too many children crammed into rooms, never enough food to go around. And at night cries of such sadness, I had to plug my fingers in my ears to keep from joining in.

The heavy front door pushed open, and I watched a girl as pale as milk step outside, blinking in the sunlight. She let out a hacking cough and pulled her thin coat tighter around her shoulders, despite the August heat. When she turned to me, I recognized the wretchedness on her face. I knew it so well, it made me shudder. She spat on the sidewalk between us, then stared back at me with hopeless eyes. She was a candle that had been snuffed out.

I felt the urge to run for the train station and climb onto the next locomotive headed for Chemung County. But I could not go back there, with nobody but a few chickens to keep me company. The echoing emptiness of that old house left a gloom on me, like a layer of dust. If I went back, I knew my bones would turn dry and crumble away.

But what else was I to do? The hollers of those skinny orphans at the fence, with their hateful, mocking laughter, pounded in my ears. If Aunt Kitty left me here, pressed in with hundreds of other unwanted souls, I could no longer complain of being alone. But I would be every bit as lonesome.

And each day my candle would burn down a little more, until it was nothing.

"Come along, Nell," Aunt Kitty finally said, gingerly turning herself around on her sore knee. "I will need your help getting back to the boardinghouse. And as for this Home for the Friendless, well, I believe we've had enough excitement for one day."

Chapter 4

In Which the Rent Is Inflated, and So Is My Sorry New Dress

I kept my chatting to a minimum for the rest of that day, lest I drove my aunt crazy with conversation until she marched me back to the orphan asylum. I think I tidied up our two rooms, not to mention changed and rechanged the pillow beneath her swollen knee at least six times before she finally suggested I go to sleep for the night. Even this morning, after rising again from my parlor chair, I decided not to join Aunt Kitty as she hobbled downstairs to breakfast. I was afraid my sizable appetite might scare her off.

"If your niece is to stay with you, Mrs. Warne, I will have to raise your rent to fifteen dollars," came a high-pitched voice from the other side of the door. I opened it only to discover the enormous landlady, Mrs. Leticia Wigginbottom, filling the doorway. Dabbing at the sweat on her forehead with a lace hankie, she pushed into the room and collapsed dramatically into a rocking chair near the empty fireplace. She continued to talk as if my aunt were standing in the middle of the room, not me.

"I know you say the girl won't be staying but a few days. But should you decide to leave with her and find other accommodations, it would be a tragic loss, Mrs. Warne. You're one of my best tenants—nothing coarse about you, so tidy. You give the place a bit of class."


  • A Booklist Editors' Choice
A Chicago Public Library Best Book
A Nerdy Book Club Award Winner
A Bank Street College Best Children's Book
An SCBWI Golden Kite Winner
An ALA Amelia Bloomer Project List for Feminist Books Selection
A Mighty Girl Top Books for Tweens and Teens Pick
  • * "Accessible and captivating...With skilled writing that conveys the excitement of detective work, the appeal of history, and Nell's authentic, good-humored personal growth, this is one for the ages."—The Bulletin (starred review)
  • * "Hannigan keeps a strong narrative hand on the several stories she has going on simultaneously: the mysteries surrounding the deaths of Nell's father and uncle; Nell's correspondence with her best friend, who traveled the Underground Railroad to safety in Canada; and several Pinkerton adventures that involve chicanery, American history, and lots of excitement."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "Hannigan makes skillful use of period details, bringing the novel's threads together in a nail-biting conclusion. Nell is a fearless, no-nonsense heroine, and her dry-witted narration drives this rollicking historical escapade."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A rousing fictional account of the remarkable career of a pioneering woman."—Kirkus
  • "Nell is an irrepressible character: spirited, thoughtful, and intuitive...Recommend to readers who enjoy adventure, history, and stories featuring independent, strong-minded girls."—SLJ
  • On Sale
    Apr 5, 2016
    Page Count
    368 pages

    Kate Hannigan

    About the Author

    Kate Hannigan loves to test new recipes on her husband, three kids, and even the family dog. When she’s not creating disasters in her Chicago kitchen, she’s usually at her desk writing fiction and nonfiction for young readers. Kate is also the author of Cupcake Cousins, Cupcake Cousins: Summer Showers, and The Detective’s Assistant. Say hello online at

    Brooke Boynton Hughes grew up in Loveland, Colorado, where she spent lots of time drawing cats, mermaids, and tree houses. Today, she lives in Washington and holds a BFA in Printmaking from Colorado State University and an MFA in Figurative Art from the New York Academy of Art. Brooke is also the illustrator of Cupcake Cousins, Cupcake Cousins: Summer Showers, Baby Love, and Henry Wants More! Visit her online at!

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