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Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain the foul deeds are the work of the kind of creature whose very existence the local police seem adamant to deny.
While Abigail finds herself drawn to Jackaby’s keen intelligence and his sensitivity to phenomena others barely perceive, her feelings are confused by the presence of Charlie, a handsome young policeman willing to help Jackaby and Abigail on the case. But is Charlie’s offer a sincere desire to be of service, or is some darker motive at work?
It was late January, and New England wore a fresh coat of snow as I stepped along the gangplank to the shore. The city of New Fiddleham glistened in the fading dusk, lamplight playing across the icy buildings that lined the waterfront, turning their brickwork to twinkling diamonds in the dark. In the inky black of the Atlantic, the reflected glow of the gaslights danced and bobbed. I made my way forward, carrying everything that traveled with me in a single suitcase. The solid ground beneath my feet felt odd after so many weeks at sea, and looming buildings rose up around me on all sides. I would come to know this city well, but in that cold winter of 1892, every glowing window and dark alley was strange, full of untold dangers and enticing mysteries.
It was not an old city--not by the standards of those I had seen along my travels--but it bore itself with all the robust pomp and granite certainty of any European harbor town. I had been to mountain villages in the Ukraine, burgs in Poland and Germany, and estates in my native England, but still I found it hard not to be intimidated by the thrum and pulse of the busy American port. Even as the last of the evening light faded from the sky, the dock was still alive with shadowy figures, hurrying about their business.
A storekeeper was latching the shutters as he closed up shop for the night. Sailors on leave sauntered down the harbor, looking for wild diversions on which to spend their hard-earned money--and women with low necklines looked eager to help them spend it faster. In one man I saw my father, confident and successful, probably strolling home late, once again, having devoted the evening to important work rather than his waiting family.
A young woman across the dock pulled her winter coat tightly around herself and ducked her chin down as the crowd of sailors passed. Her shoulders might have shaken, just a little, but she kept to her path without letting the men’s boisterous laughter keep her from her course. In her I saw myself, a fellow lost girl, headstrong and headed anywhere but home.
A chilly breeze swept over the pier, and crept under the worn hem of my dress and through the seams of my thick coat. I had to throw up a hand to hold the old tweed cap on my head before it blew away. It was a boy’s fashion--my father called it a newsboy--but I had grown comfortable in it in the past months. For once I found myself wishing I had opted for the redundant underskirts my mother always insisted were so important to a lady’s proper dress. The cut of my simple green walking gown was excellent for movement, but the fabric did nothing to hold back the icy chill.
I turned my wooly collar up against the snow and pressed forward. In my pockets jingled a handful of coins left over from my work abroad. They would buy me nothing but sympathy, I knew, and only if I bargained very well. Their foreign faces told a story, though, and I was happy for their tinkling company as I trudged through the crunching powder toward an inn.
A gentleman in a long brown coat with a scarf wound up nearly to his eyebrows held the door for me as I stepped inside. I dusted the fresh flakes from my hair as I hung my hat and coat beside the door, tucking my suitcase beneath them. The place smelled of oak and firewood and beer, and the heat of a healthy fire brought a stinging life to my cheeks. A half-dozen patrons sat scattered about three or four round, plain, wooden tables.
In the far corner stood a box piano, its bench unoccupied. I knew a few melodies by heart, having taken lessons all through grammar school—Mother had insisted that a lady should play an instrument. She would have fainted at the notion that I might someday put her fine culture and training to such vulgar use, especially unescorted in this strange, American tavern. I quickly turned my thoughts away from my mother’s overbearing prudence before I might accidentally see reason in it. I put on my most charming smile, instead, and approached the barman. He raised a bushy eyebrow as I neared, which sent a ripple of wrinkles to the dome of his bald head.
“Good afternoon, sir,” I said, drawing up to the bar. “My name is Abigail Rook. I’m just off a boat, and I find myself a bit short on cash, at present. I wonder if I could just set up a hat on your piano and play a few--”
The bartender interrupted. “It’s out of service. Has been for weeks.”
I must have shown my dismay, because he looked sympathetic as I turned to go. “Hold on, then.” He poured a frothy pint and slid it across the bar to me with a nod and a kindly wink. “Have a seat for a while, miss, and wait out the snow.”
I hid my surprise behind a grateful smile, and took a stool at the bar beside the broken piano. I glanced around at the other patrons, hearing my mother’s voice in my head again, warning me that I must look like “that sort of girl,” and worse, that the drunken degenerates who frequented these places would fix their eyes on me like wolves on a lost sheep. The drunken degenerates did not seem to notice me in the least, actually. Most of them looked quite pleasant, if a bit tired after a long day, and two of them were playing a polite game of chess toward the back of the room. Holding the pint of ale still felt strange, as though I ought to be looking nervously over my shoulder for the headmaster to appear. It was not my first drink, but I was unaccustomed to being treated as an adult.
I peered at my own reflection in a frosty window. It had been scarcely a year since I had put the shores of England behind me, but the rugged young woman looking back from the glass was barely recognizable. The salty sea air had stolen some of the softness from my cheeks, and my complexion was tan--at least tan by English standards. My hair was not braided neatly and tied with ribbons, as my mother had always preferred it, but pinned up in a quick, simple bun that might have been a little too matronly if the wind had not shaken loose a few curving wisps to hang free about my collar. The girl who had fled the dormitories was gone, replaced by this unfamiliar woman.
I forced my attention past the reflection to the flurries of white flakes somersaulting in the lamplight beyond. As I nursed the bitter drink, I became gradually aware of a body standing behind me. I turned slowly and nearly spilled the pint.
It was the eyes, I think, that startled me the most, opened wide and staring with intense inquisition. It was the eyes--and the fact that he stood not half a pace from my stool, leaning ever so slightly in, so that our noses nearly bumped as I turned to face him.
His hair was black, or very dark brown, and nearly wild, having only enough civility to point itself in a tousled heap backward, save a few errant strands that danced about his temples. He had hard cheekbones and deep circles under pale, cloud gray eyes. His eyes looked like they could be a hundred lifetimes old, but he bore an otherwise young countenance and had a fervent energy about him.
I pulled back a bit to take him in. He was thin and angular, and his thick brown coat must have been as heavy as he was. It fell past his knees and sagged with the weight of several visibly overstuffed pockets. His lapel was bordered by a long, wooly scarf, which hung almost as long as the coat, and which I recognized as the one I had passed coming in. He must have doubled back to follow me.
“Hello?” I managed to say, when I had regained balance atop my stool. “Can I help--?”
“You’re recently from the Ukraine.” It was not a question. His voice was calm and even, but something more . . . amused? He continued, his gray eyes dancing as though exploring each thought several seconds before his mouth could voice it. “You’ve traveled by way of Germany, and then a great distance in a sizable ship . . . made largely of iron, I’d wager.”
He cocked his head to one side as he looked at me, only never quite square in the eyes, always just off, as though fascinated by my hairline or shoulders. I had learned how to navigate unwanted attention from boys in school, but this was something else entirely. He managed to seem both engrossed and entirely uninterested in me all at once. It was more than somewhat unsettling, but I found myself as intrigued as I was flustered.
With delayed but dawning comprehension, I gave him a smile and said, “Ah, you’re off the Lady Charlotte as well, are you? Sorry, did we meet on deck?”
The man looked briefly, genuinely baffled, and found my eyes at last. “Lady who? What are you talking about?”
“The Lady Charlotte,” I repeated. “The merchant carrier from Bremerhaven. You weren’t a passenger?”
“I’ve never met the lady. She sounds dreadful.”
The odd, thin man resumed examining my person, apparently far more impressed by my hair and the seams of my jacket than by my conversation.
“Well, if we didn’t sail together, how did you ever--ah, you must have snuck a peek at my luggage labels.” I tried to remain casual, but leaned away as the man drew closer still, inspecting me. The oak countertop dug into my back uncomfortably. He smelled faintly of cloves and cinnamon.
“I did nothing of the sort. That would be an impolite invasion of privacy,” the man stated flatly as he picked a bit of lint from my sleeve, tasted it, and tucked it somewhere inside his baggy coat.
“I’ve got it,” I announced. “You’re a detective, aren’t you?” The man’s eyes stopped darting and locked with mine again. I knew I was onto him this time. “Yes, you’re like whatshisname, aren’t you? The one who consults for Scotland Yard in those stories, right? So, what was it? Let me guess, you smelled salt water on my coat, and I’ve got some peculiar shade of clay caked on my dress, or something like that? What was it?”
The man considered for a moment before responding. “Yes,” he said at last. “Something like that.”
He smiled weakly, and then whirled on his heels and away, tossing his scarf around and around his head as he made for the exit. He crammed a knit hat over his ears and flung the door open, steeling himself against the whirling frost that rushed in around him. As the door slowly closed, I caught one last glimpse of cloudy gray eyes just between the wooly edges of his scarf and hat.
And then the man was gone.
Following the curious encounter, I asked the barman if he knew anything about the stranger. The man chuckled and rolled his eyes. “I’ve heard lots of things, and one or two of them might even be true. Just about everyone’s got a story about that one. Isn’t that right, boys?” A few of the locals laughed, and began to recall fragments of stories I couldn’t follow.
“Remember that thing with the cat and the turnips?”
“Or the crazy fire at the mayor’s house?”
“My cousin swears by him, but he also swears by sea monsters and mermaids.”
For the two older gentlemen on either side of the chessboard, my query sparked to life an apparently forgotten argument, one that burst quickly into an outright quarrel about superstitions and naivete. Before long, each had attracted supporters from the surrounding tables, some insisting the man was a charlatan, others praising him as a godsend. From the midst of the confusing squabble I was at least able to catch the strange man’s name. He was Mr. R. F. Jackaby.
- “Ritter’s debut skillfully blends science with the supernatural and balances whimsy with violence. The smartly paced plot wraps up neatly, but the rich world of this debut demands sequels.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- “Holmes crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”—Chicago Tribune
- “Toss together an alternate 19th-century New England city, a strong tradition of Sherlockian pastiche, and one seriously ugly hat, and this lighthearted and assured debut emerges, all action and quirk.”—Publishers Weekly
- “We honestly couldn’t put it down.”—Nerdist.com
- “Fans of Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase will appreciate Ritter’s initial foray into the realm of supernatural. . .avid lovers of fantasy will enjoy this quick read.”—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Aug 22, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Algonquin Young Readers