There’s certainly no shortage of Sherlock Holmes retellings in the world, but I guarantee you’ve never read one quite like this. Claire O’Dell’s A Study in Honor, on shelves this week, is set in a near-future Washington in the aftermath of the second Civil War. A murderer is on the loose, targeting veterans of the war in the midst of a contentious presidential election. Dr. Janet Watson, herself a veteran of the battlefield until she lost her arm, meets Sarah Holmes, a fascinating and frustrating spy, and the two join forces to uncover a conspiracy and hunt for justice.
I’m thrilled to present this excerpt from the first chapter of A Study in Honor – enjoy!
August 20. Almost home. Well, for some definition of almost and home. No thanks to the U.S. Army or Amtrak. We were already six hours behind schedule when we transferred from the military line in Pittsburgh. No sooner did we board the new train than Amtrak announced its own delay. Something about repairs to the switch. Why was I surprised? It was the same as when I shipped out, except the train heading west wasn’t nearly as crowded as this one. Thirty of us from Alton, Illinois, all medical discharges, not to mention the civilians we collected along the way. I’m not the only one missing pieces of myself. I sometimes think . . .
The train rattled around a curve. My pen skipped over the journal page, leaving a blurry green trail. I muttered a curse, softer because of those same civilians, and was about to con- tinue writing when the digital screen at the head of the car switched on and the loudspeaker crackled. “Union Station. Next stop, Union Station. Passengers bound for Raleigh and Charlotte, transfer here.”
The woman next to me, a grandmother returning from a family visit in Baltimore, immediately gathered up her bags from the floor. Others—civilians as well—crowded toward the exit doors, even though we had at least fifteen minutes before the station. Mitchell, a sergeant ending his fourth tour of duty, offered me a wry grin. Civs. No discipline. I shrugged and occupied myself with finishing off my journal entry.
we have five or six wounded coming home from our so-called War in Oklahoma for every one who’s whole and sound. Again, why the surprise? No one ever believed the rebellion would stay put in one state. And I wasn’t the only one who doubted we’d see peace within two years. Or four. These past twelve months, though
I had to pause, to swallow the panic that boiled up when- ever I thought about the war, especially anything to do with this past and most disastrous year. Stop whining, I told my- self. I had volunteered all on my lonesome. I knew what I was getting into. Same as Mitchell over there. Or the hundreds of patients I had operated on. We all had different reasons, some of them honorable, some of them damned practical. Some of us had left because life left us few choices.
Angela had said I only wanted the glory of war.
My sister had stared at me in disbelieving silence when I told her I wanted to make a difference, in the only way I could.
My parents had said nothing. Perhaps they understood they could not change my mind.
Whatever our reasons, none of us had bargained for the shame called Alton, Illinois. I had not bargained that I would face the enemy myself. Stupid belief, really. As if a civil war would draw neat and permanent boundaries between our en- emies and theirs. My hand still trembling with that remem- bered fear, I took up my pen and continued to write.
. . . have been the worst. The ordinary citizen rants about our failed economy. (And you won’t get no argument from me about that.) Congress yammers how we should have conquered these rebels five, six years ago. Oh, yes, and those New Confederacy rebels are angrier than ever, their guns are bigger and badder and scarier than ever before.
Another jolt sent my pen point stabbing through the paper. I gave up and shut my journal. I could finish that entry later, once I settled into my hotel. Once I had adjusted to the idea of coming home at last, if only for a few days.
The train jumped onto another set of rails, then settled into a glide as we passed over Florida Avenue. The gas stations and cinder-block storefronts of Northeast DC, even older and more desolate than before, abruptly gave way to the high-rise office buildings of downtown. The last words on the digital sign slid past, to be replaced by a clock counting down the minutes and seconds to arrival.
Three years ago, I had boarded a train much like this one. My possessions had included several intangibles as weighty as the duffel bag I carried: a medical degree from Howard University, three years’ residency at Georgetown University Hospital, the belief that I ought to serve my country. Now? Now my mother and father were dead, killed in a terrorist attack in the Atlanta airport. My sister had sold our family home in Suitland, Maryland, and used her half of the inheri- tance to move to the opposite side of the country. The woman I had loved had written to tell me of her engagement to someone else. The loss of my arm was simply the last and most visible manifestation of time’s passage.
As if the thing could translate emotions as well as electri- cal impulses, my left arm twitched, sending a ripple along the metallic mesh that covered its mechanics. The prosthetic had been retrofitted from a more heavily muscled soldier, one of the many casualties in the latest assault, and its electronics were less than reliable.
The edge of the platform flashed past my window. The digital sign clicked off. Almost there. My pulse gave an un- comfortable leap. Was there anything left here for me, other than old memories and a chance for the future?
I told my pulse to behave itself and stowed my journal and pen in my duffel bag, then extracted myself from my seat to head after Mitchell, who was already stumping down the aisle with the other veterans. Mitchell had served in Syria and the second Iraq occupation, before the uprising inside our own borders forced President Sanches to withdraw our troops. He would have served a fifth tour on the Illinois front, except for the IED that had taken off his leg.
“Captain Watson,” he said when we reached the exit doors. “Good luck.”
“And to you, Sergeant,” I replied.
A final salute, though we no longer merited one. Then we were each taking turns climbing down the metal steps to the concrete platform.
The dense summer heat poured over me. I sucked down a breath filled with the reek of oil and the hot metallic smell from the tracks. August in DC. No wonder Congress went into recess. I swung my duffel bag over my shoulder, checked my grip on its strap, and let the flood tide of passengers carry me toward the station building. Once inside, I fought toward the nearest wall. I wanted a moment to catch my bearings.
Before I could reach my goal, a blow struck me between my shoulders. I swore and spun around to grapple with my attacker—
I froze. The stranger was a thickset white man in a drab blue suit. Not a rebel soldier, an ordinary citizen. He glared at me—a woman, and a black woman at that, who dared to lay hands on him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought—”
I thought you were the enemy, come with assault rifles and grenade launchers and knives.
Before I could finish my sentence, the man had yanked his shirt free and plunged into the crowd. I gained the wall and a niche between two pillars, where I could recover my breath. I was trembling. I am not a soldier, I told myself. I never was. No matter if the war tried to make me one, I left that war behind.
I dropped my duffel bag between my feet and rubbed my hand cautiously over my left arm, where metal and plastic joined flesh. In spite of the padded sock, the device chafed against my still-tender stump, and my arm ached from hours upon hours in the jolting train. When I flexed my fingers, I felt the ghost of my old hand, as though one overlaid the other, but imperfectly, with my new fingers trailing behind my old and absent ones.
A surgeon needed two reliable hands. Not one of flesh and one of metal and false memories.
I am a surgeon, I told myself. Or I would be again.
The station had emptied out in the past few moments. Several drones passed overhead, very much like the drones that endlessly spied upon the border. Nearby an engine huffed and hissed. Through the grand archway I could see the train that had brought me from Pittsburgh to DC. Two men in canvas overalls lingered next to it, one passing a cigarette to the other. Workmen for the train, or perhaps more discharged soldiers, waiting to depart for home. Half a dozen guards patrolled the platform, with guns at their belts. These days any weapons the police carried would be low-wattage Tasers, but their presence was sobering.
One of the guards glanced in my direction. He whispered into the microphone that looped around his jaw. I saw myself in his eyes—a black woman dressed in baggy trousers and a dusty, sweat-stained T-shirt. A suspicious character, clearly nervous and loitering without cause. I hoisted my duffel bag over my shoulder and headed toward the exit doors.
A Study in Honor is on sale now.