There are many skills I hoped to master in my professional career. Scrubbing chamber pots was not one of them, and yet here we are. Oh, I don’t need to scrub chamber pots anymore, in recognition of the fact that I’m not a nineteen-year-old Victorian housemaid but a thirty-year-old modern-day Canadian police detective. A detective who found herself, through some inexplicable whim of the universe, stuck—temporarily, I hope—in that maid’s body.
Having learned and accepted the truth, my employers have made it clear I don’t need to scrub chamber pots or scour coal grates or even polish silver. I still do, at least when I don’t have the excuse of being busy acting as an assistant to my undertaker/forensic-scientist boss, Dr. Duncan Gray. Believe me, I am much happier studying wound patterns. But I’m in the body of his maid, living in the house he shares with his older sister, and I’m damned well going to earn my keep. That means perfecting the art of scrubbing a toilet in a world that hasn’t discovered the wonders of latex gloves.
“Mallory!” Gray’s voice echoes as his boots clomp up the stairs.
Those boots had better be clean. We’ve had a talk about some people walking in from the horseshit-laden streets and expecting other people to clean the floors behind them.
“Mallory! Where the devil are you?”
Before I can answer, Gray rounds the doorway and stops short to glower at me. He’s really good at glowering, and will I seem like a swooning Victorian maiden if I admit he looks really good doing it?
Duncan Gray is a year older than me. With wavy dark hair, piercing dark eyes, and strong features, he’s about six feet tall, which puts him above most Victorian men, particularly the lower classes. Wide-shouldered with an athletic build, Gray is a far cry from the stereotypical undertaker. His brown skin also makes him, unfortunately, a far cry from most Victorians’ idea of a physician with multiple degrees, an upper-class Scottish accent, and a town house in Edinburgh’s New Town.
“I thought we agreed you did not need to do that,” he says, lowering his voice so the other staff won’t hear.
“It’s Alice’s half day. Who else is going to do it? You?”
To his credit, he pauses at that. Most Victorians would sputter at the idea, at least those wealthy enough to hire a servant, which in this world means anyone middle-class and above. This is what staff are for, and even when that staff person has a half day off, well, chamber pots aren’t going to clean themselves, are they? Doing it yourself is a twenty-first-century concept, and when I suggest it, I see the wheels turning in Gray’s mind.
“The next time Alice has her half day, I shall empty it when I rise in the morning,” he says. “I am not certain it needs to be scrubbed daily, but I can at least empty it myself.”
I push the pot back under his bed and rise. “Is there something you needed, Dr. Gray?”
He strides to the door and shuts it. I open my mouth to say that’s not a good idea. I don’t want Mrs. Wallace hearing the murmured voices of her boss and housemaid behind his closed bedroom door. Gray can be oblivious to such things. He intends nothing untoward, so surely no one would imagine anything untoward.
“Do you have any experience conducting police work in disguise?” he says.
“Pretending to be someone I’m not?” I wave my hands down my maid’s dress.
“Yes, but can you do it well?”
“Hey!” I say, and there might be a squawk in my voice. “You bought the act.”
“I am hardly the most perceptive audience.”
True. Gray was the only member of the household who didn’t question my performance. His maid suffered a head injury that transformed a scheming thief into an industrious young woman with a keen interest in his studies? Huh. Well, the brain is a mysterious thing, and since he was in need of an assistant, he saw no problem with Catriona’s transformation.
“You want a Victorian housemaid?” I change my tone to a sweet voice and lower my gaze as I curtsy. “Please, sir, might I know what you had in mind for this police work? I do not think I can help, being only a simple girl, but pray permit me the opportunity to distinguish myself.”
I straighten. “Better?”
“If you are playing a maid in a theater melodrama.”
I roll my eyes. “Fine. What sort of undercover work are we talking?”
“You’d be visiting a public house with Hugh. It is in the Old Town, and not in one of its best districts. Hugh would be a workingman, and you would be his…” He clears his throat. “Companion for the evening.”
“His doxy? Please tell me I get to play a doxy?” I hike up the hem of my skirt. “Why, hello, good gentleman. Note that I am exposing a very fine pair of ankles, which can be yours for the small price of a few shillings. Pox included at no additional charge.”
Gray shakes his head.
“I’m joking,” I say. “With Isla gone, I’m bored and a little giddy.”
And it’s been weeks since you had any non-maid work for me.
A month ago, Gray learned the truth about me … and discovered that I’d told his sister Isla first. I’d withheld it from him even after he tentatively cracked open the door for me as an investigative partner. I might have had good reason, but he still felt the sting of it.
There have been times over the last month where I’ve glimpsed the real Duncan Gray, passionate about his work, brimming with enthusiasm, relaxed and confident, and as quick with a teasing jab as I am. But those moments are rare, and then he seems to remember himself and shut that door. Not slam it. Just quietly close it and retreat into being my dignified and aloof employer.
“Okay,” I say. “So I’m going to a pub with Detective McCreadie as part of an undercover assignment. Is this a new investigation? You haven’t worked with him since the raven case.”
He hesitates. When that hesitation stretches disappointment slams through me.
“Ah,” I say. “You have worked cases together.” You just haven’t brought me in.
Gray rubs his mouth. “This one is still in the early stages. It is not entirely Hugh’s investigation, and there are … complications.”
“Yes. You cannot tell Isla of tonight’s adven—assignment. If you join us, I must be assured of your full discretion, particularly when it comes to my sister.”
I stare at him. “You’re kidding, right?”
He straightens. “Certainly not. Hugh agrees.”
“Is Isla a suspect?”
He sputters before saying, “Hardly.”
“Then you’re putting me in the same position she put me in last month, when she asked me to keep a secret from you. We all saw how well that went over.”
He pulls at his cravat. “It is not the same.”
“No? Look, if it’s a gory case, while Isla does have a weak stomach, you need to let her make those decisions herself. Otherwise, you are treating your older sister like a child. I know that’s how things are done in this world, but I thought you and Detective McCreadie were better than that.”
It’s a low blow, one that strikes hard, Gray pulling back, his color rising even as his eyes harden.
“I would not do that,” he says, enunciating each word. “I am keeping her out of this investigation because it touches on a delicate subject.”
More sputtering, and his color rises higher.
I lift my hand against his protest. “If it is sex, then I’ll tell her about it. Otherwise, you really are putting me in a position I won’t let myself get into again. Isla asked me to keep my secret for your own good. You didn’t see it that way, did you? You saw it as a sign that your new assistant couldn’t be trusted.”
He glances away, leaving me with a hard profile. When he looks back, his jaw stays set, and he says nothing.
“What if I have a valid reason?” he says. “And if I am only keeping her out of it temporarily.”
“Temporarily because she should eventually know? Or temporary because she’s bound to find out?”
He doesn’t answer.
“I will help you tonight because Isla is away,” I say. “However, at the point where taking part in this investigation requires me lying to her, then you have to tell her.”
He sighs. “How can I refuse when you are fair and reasonable? Go back to being silly. It is much harder to remain angry when you are in that mood.”
“Ah, so you have been angry.”
“Occupied, not angry. Come along then. I will explain the case on the way.”
I need to change out of my work clothing. When I’d first arrived, I’d thought it was a uniform. I know now that this time period predates standard domestic staff uniforms, so what I wear is simply one of two outfits provided by Isla, which is not so much about appearances as having an excuse to provide us with working clothes rather than expect us to buy our own.
Changing in my time would have taken five minutes. Triple that here, and that’s with leaving on my chemise, corset, corset cover, petticoats, stockings, and drawers. We’re in the age of cage crinolines, but that doesn’t apply to housemaids, and I prefer the layers of petticoats, mostly because it keeps me warm. June in Edinburgh is not exactly my idea of hot summer weather, especially when the wind is blowing, as it often is.
I don’t mind the corset as much as I expected to, but it does take some getting used to, especially when I’m accustomed to bending easily. I keep it as loose as I can while still fitting into Catriona’s dresses. Tonight, I put on my outdoor boots upstairs. Then I tighten the corset to fit my going-out dress, which is tricky without Alice’s help. When I can barely breathe, it’s ready for the petticoats.
Finally, I don Catriona’s most fetching going-out dress: wine-colored wool satin, brushed to a shine. Even with the fancy—and obviously secondhand—dress, I’m not really dressed for the role of doxy. While Catriona wasn’t shy, her middle-class Victorian upbringing kept her from highlighting her assets to an unseemly degree. Or perhaps it wasn’t so much her upbringing as her own nature. Flashing her cleavage to distract a man was one thing, but she didn’t want him thinking he might be able to buy a few hours—or even minutes—of her time.
Catriona doesn’t have any makeup, and I’m not sure whether anyone in the household would. It’s not like the modern world, where we’re so accustomed to seeing women in makeup that if I go out bare-faced, people tell me how tired I look. Isla doesn’t wear any. The other options would be Alice—the twelve-year-old parlormaid—and Mrs. Wallace. I know Alice won’t have any, and I’m definitely not snooping around Mrs. Wallace’s room.
I don gloves and tweak my dress to be a little more revealing—which mostly just means rearranging the already low neckline. Then I arrange Catriona’s honey-blond hair with more dangling tendrils. Mostly, though, it’s going to have to be the attitude that sells it.
Gray is already in the coach when I arrive. I stop to greet Simon, the stable hand and coach driver. It’d be more efficient to just wave as I climb in, but waving—as I have learned the hard way—is not a thing yet. So I walk around to the front for a quick hello before hoisting my ankle-length skirts and climbing into the seat across from Gray.
The coach is a business asset. It’s not the hearse—I’ve seen that, which is a carriage enclosed with glass so people can see the corpse within. I’m kidding. It’s so they can see the casket, which presumably contains a corpse. This coach serves as a conveyance for grieving relatives, which means it’s entirely black, with no metal or other flourishes. Gray would say that using it as his private coach is pure practicality, but it also suits his style, simple and utilitarian.
Once inside, I arrange my skirts on the leather seats. Then I peer out the window as the coach rolls forward. The stable is located in the mews, which is the land behind the row of town houses. It’s an interesting setup, similar to ones in big cities where the garages are along a road in back. I imagine that in the modern world these have been converted to houses, probably priced far above my income bracket.
It’s late June, and a wonderfully warm evening, still nearly full light, from the northern latitude. It’s nearly ten, but looks like a summer’s midevening, with residents enjoying the gardens and strolling along the roads to visit friends.
Gray lives in the New Town, with its gorgeous town houses and wide roads and gardens in bloom. Oh, there’s still shit in the streets, but you can be sure most of it is equine, if that’s any consolation, and while the air reeks of coal smoke, it’s not the thick blanket that stifles the Old Town.
The Old Town is where we’re heading. For centuries, it was the whole of Edinburgh. As the capital of Scotland—with a castle once occupied by a king or queen—the city is a walled one. When the population grew, the wealthy did what they always do: abandon the increasingly crowded and filthy town center to the less fortunate.
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