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Former Pinkerton Agent Nessa Donnelly has nearly forgotten life before trading in her skirts for her brother's suit. She's left her impoverished past behind to become Kentucky's most prominent detective. Now a charred body discovered in the ashes of the Phoenix Hotel, and its connection to the schoolmarm who has charmed both her and Doc Haydon, threatens her house of lies.
Rival forces are threatening to pull the city apart as the murder ignites old hatreds. Klansmen attack a local police sergeant with family ties to O'Brien. The vigilante Red Strings steal O’Brien’s body from Doc Haydon’s basement and murder a policeman. The arrest of a colored boy sparks racial violence. Nessa’s investigation uncovers O’Brien’s involvement in the Red Strings and a multitude of other motives for his murder.
The lad had ample reason to murder O’Brien, but his benefactor, the quirky inventor Professor Percival Pettijohn, is certain of his innocence. Nessa is tempted to ignore his pleas until she discovers that Pettijohn's assistant is the grandson of her beloved housekeeper. Nessa refuses to choose between protecting Mary Katherine and saving Beulah’s grandson. Instead she, Haydon, and Pettijohn put their lives on the line to find the real killer and stop the violence.