Ess and Carmen are childhood friends who only met in dreams. Orphaned and destitute, Carmen flees enemies she doesn’t understand. Ess desperately seeks for her friend, knowing their enemies all too well.
Brogan is a creature of the darkness, his music stolen and his face scarred by tragedy. He leads an underground community of people left destitute by injustice and tragedy. Crystal in his flesh and bone allows him to hear Carmen sing in the night. When she takes refuge in his world of tunnels and shadows, she brings him hope that he isn’t going mad after all.
Ess and Carmen finally meet, resolving puzzles more than twenty years old. A future of possibilities open before them, but only if they can defeat the Revisionists who will destroy them all to control crystal’s power, the future, and rewrite the past.
From Chapter 3
Two hundred miles west, with most of the width of Michigan between the Golden Nile and Chicago, Carmen Mackenzie rubbed the condensation of her breath off the window and watched for the sunrise to penetrate the snow-heavy clouds. She prayed as she always did when she woke each morning, asking for guidance, for the miracle of a friendly face, for God’s grace to shine upon her once more and prove that the last year had been some horrible dream. She leaned her forehead against the cold glass and tried to believe that the heavy footsteps in the hallway outside the drafty little boarding house room would turn into her father’s feet, coming to fetch her for breakfast, and then a long day of walking the streets of the city. They would meander wherever the wind blew, stopping for him to say a few words of encouragement on a street corner or for Carmen to sing a few verses of a hymn, and invite people to come to the camp meeting tent set up outside town in the evening.
The rumble of the train on the tracks on the other side of the boarding house shredded her daydream before she could quite convince herself. No, she was still in Chicago, following the shreds of old memories. After yesterday, that had to end. She should have given up long ago and moved on. Whatever friends her mother had known here, either they had died or moved on, or they lived in a part of town that Carmen never saw.
She had grown comfortable enough with her surroundings and her fellow laborers in the enormous hotel kitchen that she had ventured to sing over her work, peeling and cutting and kneading. She had been happier than she had felt since before her father died. Since before Richard Boniface whispered his sweet, false promises of love. Her co-workers liked her voice and requested songs from her. The last few days, other workers came in during breaks, hoping to hear her sing. They didn’t even mind that all the songs she knew were hymns and spirituals and camp meeting songs. Carmen had thought perhaps she had a chance to plant some spiritual seed, and she had felt that sweet contentment she thought she would never feel again.
A man in a slick black suit, with a red silk vest and a pointed black beard came into the kitchen yesterday, while she sang in rhythm with the potato peelings falling from her knife. He didn’t make his presence known until she finished, though she thought she had sensed something, some change in the comfortably steamy atmosphere thick with the smells of good cooking.
“Very nice,” he said, his smile cold when his voice startled a squeak out of her. He came around to stand on the other side of the table from her. “You should be singing upstairs.”
“I’m a cook.”
“Yes, with those clothes, what else would you be?” His upper lip curled as he looked her over. “I’m Gio Frierri. You know who I am?”
“You’re the owner.” Carmen set the knife down on the table and wiped her hands on her apron, then kept her hands on her lap, hidden under the table, so he wouldn’t see them shaking.
When he asked her to sing again, she hesitated. He rapped out the titles of songs she had never heard of, but didn’t look upset when each time she shook her head and told him she didn’t know them.
“That’s all right. You’ll learn them, and right quick,” he said, looking her over again. “Get rid of those widow’s weeds and put on some decent clothes.”
“These are all I have, and I’m still in mourning,” Carmen had said. “Why should it matter what I wear in the kitchen, or what I sing, for that matter? My friends haven’t complained about the songs I sing.”
“Yeah, but my friends will.” He grinned at her, and she shuddered with the momentary illusion that his teeth were pointed. “You’re gonna be the new, private entertainment for special guests.”
“Thank you, but no.” She wished she had held onto the paring knife, even knowing it wouldn’t have done her any good. “I’ll stay here in the kitchen, if it’s all the same with you.”
“It’s not.” He snatched hold of her by her elbow and yanked her up off the stool, kicking aside the bucket with the potato peelings. “You work in the special parlor, or you don’t work at all. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand.”
He left with a chuckle. Carmen waited until the break after the lunchtime rush, then went to the manager to ask for her pay up through that morning. Frierri must have anticipated she would try to run. The manager, who had always been kind to her, looked afraid when he told her to report to Madame Collette. He whispered that if she was smart, she would leave town tonight.
Madame Collete informed Carmen that her pay was being applied to the dresses Frierri wanted her to wear when she entertained. She smiled warmly enough, but the warmth never reached her eyes. She added that if Carmen did well, she would be offered a room at the hotel, so she wouldn’t have any expenses to worry about besides “making pretty.” Carmen complied with the fittings for the dresses and tried to calculate how much money she had saved. If only she hadn’t bought new boots last week, and a cloak to replace her threadbare shawl. Precious little remained of her pitiful savings, compared to the distance she had to travel to evade Gio Frierri’s reach.
“Cleveland certainly isn’t far enough,” Carmen whispered now, staring at the condensation on the window.
She stood up straight, frowning. When had the idea of Cleveland come into her head? If anything, she should head west, maybe try to reach her father’s friends in Denver.
Carmen shivered, hearing Essie, her make believe friend, insisting she had to go to Cleveland. Perhaps the strain of her circumstances had become too much for her and she had broken, at long last? She was losing her mind, imagining a friend who came to her in the darkness and shadows and promised help and whispered advice. Yet what if she weren’t losing her mind?
Her mother had always told her to pay attention to her dreams, and to never dismiss the impossible when it happened in front of her. Anna had taught her to search for details and patterns and think about the why and how of things. Otherwise, how would she have realized that wonderful, small, helpful things happened when she sang?
Granted, her singing in the kitchen hadn’t led to something wonderful, but Carmen had to be honest with herself and admit that she had left out an important piece of the pattern. Wonderful things happened when she sang while she wore her mother’s crystal rose. She had no idea how, she only knew that when she sang for the children who came to the camp meetings, especially when she held them in her arms, she saw pictures of their fears and dreams, their skinned knees and sore fingers, and knew what to say to encourage them. After she held and sang to them, pain vanished. Carmen could only attribute the incidents to being used as a vessel of Almighty God’s power to do good in the world. A lamp didn’t boast over the light it produced. After all, it was only the receptacle of the oil and a resting place for the wick.
She hadn’t worn the crystal rose and the cross in months. She hadn’t worn it when she worked in the hotel kitchen. Perhaps if she had worn the cross while she sang today, God might have worked through her song to protect her, just like the Almighty used her song to help the children. Last night, when she returned to her room from the hotel, Carmen had pulled the cross out of its hiding place in the slot under the windowsill, where the wallboard had rotted away. She had curled up with it and cried herself to sleep, in between praying for answers.
Thinking back, she decided that she hadn’t dreamed of Essie, her make believe friend, until she wore the cross again.
Before she fell asleep, she had pondered how much money she needed to go out west, and how much money she could get by selling the cross. If only she could remember the name of the man who offered her so much money for it last year. Then Essie burst from the shadows, begging her not to sell, and most certainly not to him. Whoever he was.
“How do you know who he is, when I can’t remember?” she whispered, and leaned back to study the clear spot on the glass where her forehead had rested. “I wish you could talk to me when I am awake. We could understand each other better. I’ve never been much good at remembering dreams once I wake up.”
Sighing, she stepped back to sit on the edge of her bed. Raising her hands to be even with her nose, she stared into the sparkles of light and hints of color within the crystal rose.
“Mother, I wish I could remember what you taught me. How can my memories be stored inside the rose? Even if I had a jeweler’s tools, I wouldn’t be able to write all my thoughts and memories on the petals. Certainly not so they could be read, to remind me.” Carmen sighed a bit of laughter at her moment of whimsy.
Common sense would dictate that she pack up her few possessions, find the pawnshop six blocks away, and wait on the front step until it opened. Then she would offer her last few worthwhile possessions until the man in the shop gave her enough money to head west. The wind moaned past her window and she shivered, feeling the chill touch through the drafty window before it actually reached her. Maybe go south? Certainly Texas was warmer than Colorado at this time of the year. Had any of her father’s friends gone to Texas? She knew no one in Cleveland.
“Why do I keep thinking of Cleveland?” she murmured, staring into the crystal petals of the rose, trying to follow the play of pink and green and even a few pale blue sparkles.
If only she had been able to remember the people her mother had met when they visited Chicago. She never would have taken the job at the hotel, if she had had someone to advise her. Who were her mother’s friends? Where were they hiding?
Carmen gasped as an image of her mother seemed to swirl among the crystal petals of the rose. She saw Anna walking past this very boarding house. That made no sense. Carmen knew she should pull herself out of the images dancing before her eyes, among the sparkles of color and light. Yet she couldn’t.
She was twelve years old, and had awakened before dawn, disturbed by the sound of a train whistle howling so mournfully a dozen blocks away from the hotel. She had dressed with the intention of finding the hotel parlor and practicing the new piece of sheet music Reverend Darlington had given her at the society meeting last month. When she stepped out of her room, into the parlor of the suite she shared with her parents, she saw her mother at the door of the suite, swinging her cloak around herself. Without thinking, she had darted back to her room for her own coat and bonnet and hurried to follow Anna.
The morning was rainy and overcast. Carmen lost her mother several times in shadows and walking down alleys between buildings. They had passed the boarding house Carmen stood in now, and walked four more blocks, then turned and walked several more blocks. Then Anna had gone to a narrow, tall wooden house shoehorned between two other buildings. The door opened immediately after the first knock. Carmen had been afraid to linger, and hurried back to the hotel. She had never told her mother what she saw, and never asked what she had done that early, gloomy, cold morning.
Now, though, when it was too late to ask, Carmen wanted to know. Could she remember the way? If she could find the house, would the woman who had answered the door that morning still be there? Would the strong resemblance between Carmen and her mother help her, or hinder?
Hands shaking, Carmen slid the cross down the neck of her dress and blinked rapidly, trying to regain her focus on the present moment and place. Had the vision been an answer to her prayers for help? Despite the losses and betrayals she had endured, Carmen still believed in prayer and the guidance of the Almighty in her life.
“Doesn’t really matter, does it?” she whispered, refocused her gaze, and looked around the room. “I need to leave. I need to be gone before he sends someone looking for me. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll just keep moving.” She got up on unsteady legs and gathered up her few possessions, folding them carefully almost without thought.
Mrs. Blomfield didn’t seem to know how to smile, but she had a warm heart and looked out for her boarders well as she could. Carmen regretted not saying goodbye to her landlady, but at least she was paid up for three more days, so Mrs. Blomfield wouldn’t suffer while she looked for a new boarder. If Frierri was as much a danger as she feared, telling her landlady she was leaving would just get the old woman in trouble. Carmen left a note in her room, with the bedding pulled off the bed and folded by the door, the room neatened as best she could. She tried to say her thanks and apologize without revealing anything her pursuer could use.
Carmen calculated she had perhaps an hour of leeway before her failure to arrive at the hotel sent someone hunting for her. Hopefully, her cooperation yesterday, being fitted for the new dresses, fooled Frierri into thinking she wouldn’t run, so he wouldn’t have anyone watching the boarding house to make sure she showed up for work. There were plenty of people leaving for work in the darkness before dawn, and she could blend in unnoticed. Snow or sleet would have been welcome, to help her fade from notice even more.
She remembered the way to the odd, narrow house as if she had walked it many times since she followed her mother here. Carmen shivered whenever her vision doubled and she saw a ghostly image of the streets and buildings as they had been years before, overlaid on the present streets and buildings. Often, the only changes were a touch of shabbiness. Some places, the buildings were painted a different color, or the shutters, or the signs for businesses had changed. The narrow little house was a comfortable brownish-red now instead of the weathered gray with black shutters it wore in her vision.
Walking up to the front door, Carmen’s steps slowed. She wanted to turn around before she reached the door. A moment after she knocked, she considered running. She counted her heartbeats as she waited for someone to respond. This was utter madness. Most likely everyone in this house was still asleep in bed. How rude was she, to come at such an early hour? She was a fool to hope–
The door opened, and the same woman, her dark gray hair now completely white, stared at her. She pressed both hands to her generous bosom.
“Child, they told me you were–” She choked on the words.
“I’m Anna’s daughter,” Carmen hurried to say.
“Ah, the little one.” The woman blinked rapidly, as if she fought tears. Then she went up on her toes and looked past Carmen, out onto the street. “Come inside. Quickly now. They likely haven’t seen you, but better to be cautious than sorry, yes?”
Carmen let the strong, thin fingers pull her inside. She stepped past the heavyset woman and down the narrow hallway that extended all the way to the back of the building.
“You’re in trouble, aren’t you?” Gesturing for Carmen to follow, she pushed a door open and led her into the kitchen, just as long as the hallway. They settled at the table that appeared to be anchored to the wall, and the woman poured coffee into battered tin cups.
“Please, I don’t even know your name. And no, before you ask, Mother never told me about you. I followed her here on one of our last visits to Chicago. That’s how I knew the way.” Sighing, she slid her bonnet off the back of her head and let it hang by the strings from around her neck. “And yes, I am in trouble.” She cradled the tin cup of coffee, welcoming the heat. “How do you know my mother?”
“When someone is in trouble, and needs to hide and flee, they find us, or we find them.” She chuckled. “I’m Harriet. Just Harriet. I worked with the Abolitionists before the war. That’s how your mother and I met, and then when she needed help, well…” Harriet spread her hands, as if the explanation didn’t need to be spoken.
“I don’t understand. Did she need to hide with you? Why did she come here? She came here every time we came to Chicago, didn’t she?”
“She had a gift, and she was determined to use it for the right cause.” Harriet shrugged and then seemed to deflate a little into her chair. “I think maybe she was trying to atone for the sins of her ancestors. Whenever she found a new piece, she brought it to me and I passed it along to those better suited to deal with it. We always agreed that she couldn’t come to see me for at least three, four months after she gave me one, just to make sure that anyone trying to figure out my source wouldn’t spot her. I always waited for a month after one of her visits, before I passed it along.” A sigh escaped her. “In the end, we weren’t nearly clever enough, or careful enough. Not even being married to a preacher-man could provide her enough protection.”
“From whom?” Carmen said, her voice dropping close to a whisper.
“If you don’t know, child, then Anna didn’t pass on her burden or her knowledge to you. If you didn’t wear her face, I’d be willing to wager you were safe, but…” Another sigh. “Why hasn’t your father told you anything? Anna told him everything about her past, about her burden and her mission in life. He should have at least given you her journals, or told you what she told him. Are you sure you don’t know what your mother used to be, the horrible people she escaped?”
“My father is dead. All I was left of my mother’s legacy is this.” She reached into the collar of her black dress and pulled out the cross. The color fled Harriet’s cheeks. “I’m ready to sell this for enough money to go somewhere safe. Except for a cache of books and some mementos and photographs, this is all I have.”
“If you have to, sell the cross for the silver, but don’t let that rose out of your sight. That is…” Harriet shuddered, her gaze fixed on the cross now lying on the table between them. “Well, if your mother didn’t tell you about your heritage, then maybe you don’t have a heritage. Doesn’t matter six days from Sunday… I could take all the other pieces for Anna, but not this. If the wrong person saw this, they’d know and then wouldn’t I have hellfire to explain?” A weak chuckle escaped her. She finally blinked and tore her gaze away from the rose.
“What is so special about the rose?”
“It has a twin. The woman who made both roses befriended your mother when she escaped her terrible heritage. Anna referred to her as her lifeline, a true sister of her soul.”
“Can I go to her? Will she help me?”
“I truly wish you could, but she’s been dead longer than your mother. Near to tore Anna’s heart out. She was that sure Vivian had died protecting her. No, and that’s the reason you can’t let that rose out of your sight. Or at least, not until you hand it over to the right people,” Harriet added, her voice slowing. She nodded once, like a punctuation mark. “Anyone who knew Vivian would recognize that rose. What you need to do is go to someone who was close to Vivian, someone with the connections to protect you and dispose of that tricky little trinket properly. Ah, if only Vivian’s in-laws were still… well, it’s no use crying over spilled milk, is it?” She thumped both hands flat on the table. “Give me time to think on where you need to go and who you need to talk to for help. In the meantime, let me feed you good. If you don’t mind my saying, you do look more than a little down on your luck.”
Harriet scurried around the narrow kitchen with agility that was amazing for her size, and put together a breakfast Carmen hadn’t seen since the glory days, before her mother died. Her hostess told her a few stories of when she had known her mother, before Anna met Reverend Mackenzie and dedicated her life to God’s service. Carmen refused to divulge the heartbreaking way her father’s associates had turned on him. She merely said that he had slowed his travels as old age crept up on him. She had lost contact with many of his friends and associates, so when they were robbed, there was no recourse but to sell personal property to pay her father’s outstanding debts after his death. Harriet’s sympathy and her outrage nearly loosened Carmen’s tongue, to spill the reservoir of hurt that sometimes threatened to drown her soul.
One way to describe this book and series, is it’s very intelligently written. It draws you in almost immediately and even though it’s not jam packed with action, the story is interesting and original. I did not read the first books in this series, but I was lucky enough that the author was kind and sent me detailed sypnopsis’ for the previous books knowing my time was limited. So I wouldn’t recommend anyone going into these books without starting at the beginning. And you won’t be sorry. This is a nicely written story, with the characters racing to find the final pieces of the Time Machine. Ess and Carmen have been connecting through the crystals trying to find each other. But there is danger lurking at every street corner, and the race is on to defeat the Revisionists who want full power, and all hope relies on Ess, Carmen and their team.
There is wonderful history woven with the alternate steampunk, and it’s so cleverly done and I’ve never read anything quite like it before. The characters are easy to like, including Brogan, with the disfigured face with the crystals embedded in his bones, being able to hear the music through the crystals giving us the Phantom of the Opera feel. Ess and Carmen are strong young women who you can easily get behind. So if you are looking for a good steampunk series, dashed with scifi, history and a playwrite’s drama, you won’t be disappointed with this series. And who doesn’t like crazy inventions?
Reviewed by Cyrene