Benjamin January, free man of color, leaves New Orleans for the iniquities of Washington City.
Desperate for work, Ben (Ran Away, 2011, etc.) agrees to accompany Henri and Chloë Viellard north to search for their vanished friend, mathematician Selwyn Singletary. Also included on the trip are Henri’s mistress (and Ben’s sister), Dominique, her daughter Charmian, her maid and many trunks of silk petticoats. Upon landing in Washington, the blacks settle into a rooming house while the Viellards establish themselves at a whites-only hotel. Nobody, however, has seen hide nor hair of Singletary for the months since he arrived from England. Not Oldmixton, the British embassy secretary; not Luke or Rowena Bray. But Bray’s valet, Mede, admits that the man entrusted him with a ledger, though he can’t decipher what it says: It's just a series of numbers that make no sense. While trying to puzzle out matters, Ben must avoid the Fowlers, notorious slave snatchers, waylay grave robber Wylie Pease and learn a rudimentary form of baseball, which is illegal for blacks to play. Edgar Poe, a Baltimore gentleman come to Washington in search of work, is staying at Ben’s boardinghouse. Poe, who thrives on solving codes, joins Ben in pursuit of Singletary. They end up combating a spy ring that plots trouble for Canada and visiting a private mad asylum where doping is the rule of the day. Before all is resolved, Ben will be wounded in a skirmish with the slave snatchers, Dominique will be kidnapped, Mede will have his throat cut, and a woman will try to murder her husband and claim his death a suicide.
Mid-19th-century sexism and racism galore, presented with Hambly’s usual verve and historical accuracy.