Home > A Dawn Most Wicked (Something Strange and Deadly 0.5)

A Dawn Most Wicked (Something Strange and Deadly 0.5)
Author: Susan Dennard

PROLOGUE

PHILADELPHIA, 1876

I perched on the edge of Eleanor’s hospital bed. My fingers twisted and twined in my flat cap as I ransacked my brain for something clever to say—anything to break this silence. Anything to make this good-bye easier.

But after everything we’d been through, I couldn’t find a damned thing to say.

Stray beams of moonlight flickered on Eleanor’s face. She looked beautiful, even with all those scratches and bruises. Even with the pain that lay just beneath the surface of her glassy-eyed gaze.

I knew about pain. I knew about loss too, and the black hunger that could live in a man’s gut forever. . . . She’d lost her brother, her hand, and her entire life in only a few days.

And now I sat here, about to take myself away as well. But the Spirit-Hunters and me? We couldn’t stay—though dammit if I wished otherwise. If the three of us hadn’t been wanted for murder—if the people of Philadelphia weren’t crying for our blood—I would’ve stayed.

I picked at a threadbare patch on my cap. The initials sewn on the inside—SQ—were barely visible anymore, the navy and red thread having long ago dulled to gray.

SQ. Sadie Queen. A steamer and a job from a lifetime ago.

And another girl made of grit and sunshine.

Another girl I’d loved.

Cassidy. The name whispered through my brain, and my jaw clenched. I hadn’t been good enough for Cass, and I sure as hell wasn’t good enough for Eleanor.

My fingers dug into my knees as Eleanor stared at me expectantly. Finally I stood. “I should go now.”

But Eleanor reached forward and grabbed my sleeve. “Wait.”

I stopped and forced my eyes to meet hers. I wouldn’t look away—not when her fingers squeezed my sleeve with such desperation. Not when I might never see her again.

Never was a long time.

“Daniel,” she said, her voice rough, “you don’t . . . or, that is to say, you’re not . . .” She licked her lips. “You’re not in love with me, are you?”

It was exactly what I’d hoped she wouldn’t say. I twisted my face away. “It’s not that simple.”

“It’s a yes or no,” she replied with surprising strength. Like she believed what she was saying.

I clutched my cap in a death grip until the SQ vanished into the folds of wool. I used to believe the same: that love was simply a matter of feelings. But it wasn’t. It was circumstance and timing. Money and support. I knew that now—so I forced myself to say what needed saying.

“Then . . . then no. No, I’m not.” I slapped my flat cap on my head and, rising, gave Eleanor a final stare. Her face showed hurt, but also a resigned acceptance. For some reason that made this whole thing worse.

I guessed . . . I guessed, deep down, I’d hoped she would fight me. Hoped she wouldn’t let me go.

I swallowed. “Please, Empress. Take care of yourself. I won’t be here to rescue you.”

“Of course. I’ll be careful.” She smiled sadly. “Best of luck to you, Mr. Sheridan.”

Mr. Sheridan. It cut like a knife. No more Daniel. No more feelings. No more nothing.

My mouth bobbed open, and I inhaled to ask her . . . what? What could I possibly say? Me and the Spirit-Hunters were leaving. I would never see Eleanor Fitt again. It was just like Cassidy. I was the one who had to be smart. I was the one who had to say good-bye.

So I forced myself to shake my head. To press my lips together and doff my hat. “Take care, Empress.” Then I sucked in air until my chest was too full to feel anything else, and I strode from the room.

I didn’t look back.

But walking down the empty hospital hall, with trapped air burning in my chest, I couldn’t help but second-guess myself. I couldn’t help but grit my teeth in time to my clicking heels.

And I couldn’t help but think back to the first girl who’d taught me to love.

To Cassidy Cochran of the Sadie Queen.

CHAPTER ONE

NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, 1873

This was not how best friends hugged.

Maybe best friends of the same gender could get away with this, but Cassidy and I were definitely not the same gender.

In fact, should anyone walk into the Sadie Queen’s engine room right now and see us, they would not notice how brightly I’d gotten the brass machinery to gleam. Nor would they notice how doggone tired I was after four hours of engine scrubbing. They also wouldn’t notice that my greasy shirt was halfway unbuttoned.

No. They’d only see the captain’s daughter bouncing excitedly on her toes with her arms flung around my neck. And trust me when I say that my body was noticing it too—and it was letting me know exactly how different our genders were.

Best friends, I told myself as I gazed into her smiling face. Her freckles blended into her rosy flush and her dark eyes shone. You’re the striker, the apprentice engineer, and she’s the apprentice pilot. Best friends—nothin’ more. But no matter how many times I shouted at myself, it was damned near impossible not to pull her just a little closer. Not to dig my fingers ever so slightly into the supple shape of her waist.

But then movement flashed at the corner of my vision—at the entrance to the engine room. I lurched back, panic flashing over me . . . but when my eyes latched on the door, I found it empty.

You’re being paranoid, I chided. Ain’t no one there. Fortunately Cass didn’t seem to notice the speed with which I’d detached myself from her. So I tried to salvage the moment as best I could with a rakish grin.

“Why, Miss Cassidy,” I said, “we’ve only been docked a few hours, but you look like you ran clear across Natchez and back.”

“Because I did run.” She spoke in a breathless way that made my blood stir. “I was at the Natchez telegraph office waiting for the news, and it came, Danny!” She dug around in her gray uniform’s pocket—a match for mine but with skirts instead of trousers and looking fresh instead of grimy. Then she whipped out a newspaper and shoved it at me. “It’s today’s Picayune.”

I took the New Orleans newspaper warily from Cass’s hand. Sure enough, a glance at the top showed, “June 16, 1873.” I scanned the headlining article as fast as my meager reading skills could get me.

Haunted Steamer to Race

New Orleans is alight with news that Eric Dunlap, captain of the luxury steamer Abby Adams out of New Orleans, has accepted a race challenge from his longtime rival, Captain Robert Cochran of the Sadie Queen. Once the most popular steamboat for Mississippi cruises, the famous Sadie Queen recently lost all business due to a series of hauntings that began in April of this year.

“Apparitions or no, we are the fastest ship on the Mississippi,” claimed Captain Cochran to this Picayune reporter three weeks ago. “We will prove it once and for all, if Dunlap is man enough to accept my challenge: A race from New Orleans to Natchez.”

Racing steamboats, a long tradition on the Mississippi, can bring captains and their ships great fame or great failure. Early yesterday, Captain Dunlap accepted Cochran’s challenge, declaring that “the Sadie Queen is about to taste the bitter tang of loss.” Such a highly publicized rivalry and race have not been seen since the Great Steamboat Race of 1870, in which the Robert E. Lee raced the Natchez from New Orleans to St. Louis. Already bets are being placed on who will win this latest competition.

According to Kent Lang, heir to the Lang Company, which operates out of New Orleans and owns the Sadie Queen, “We hope that winning this race will prove to potential passengers that the integrity of the Lang Company’s fleet has not been affected by the hauntings.”

Yet even with a win for the Queen, this Picayune reporter speculates nothing can bring back the steamer’s glory days.

I reached the final line—a line I was inclined to agree with—and noticed that a familiar clack-clack-clack, thwump!, clack-clack-clack had filled the room. I lifted my eyes to Cassidy. She held her tarnished old spyglass and was extending it. Clack-clack-clack. Then snapping it shut. Thwump! Open, shut, open, shut—she always did that when she was nervous.

The electric lamplight flickered on her hair, making the mahogany color shine red. Her eyes met mine, and a grin spread over her lips. Clack-clack-clack, thwump! “Well?” She dropped the spyglass in her pocket.

“It wasn’t an optimistic article,” I said cautiously. “The reporter said we’re doomed no matter—”

“I don’t care what the reporter said.” She grabbed my wrists, rocking back and forth on her heels. “Dunlap accepted Father’s challenge. That means we’ll go back to New Orleans tonight to get as prepped as we can before the race next week. If we win—and by God, we have to, Danny—then the Langs won’t shut us down.”

Won’t shut us down yet, I thought. But I kept the sentiment to myself. What the Sadie Queen needed was passengers, and if she didn’t get some soon, the Lang Company was going to take her—and all her crew—off the river. I didn’t think a race would change that.

Cass must’ve realized the direction of my thoughts because her smile faltered . . . and then fell. She released my wrists. “You don’t think we can win?”

“Of course I do.” I slung off my flat cap and scrubbed at my scalp. “You’re the best apprentice pilot on the Mississippi.”

“Damn straight.” She stomped one heel and set the command bells—an array of all sizes that hung on a column between the engines—to ringing. “And you’re the best striker on the Mississippi. No engineer is as fast as you.”

“So there you have it.” I spread my hands. “We’ll whip Captain Dunlap and the Abby Adams. Me and you. A team.”

“A team,” she repeated. Then she punched the air and gave a loud whoop. “We’ll whip ’em, all right.” But almost instantly her arm dropped . . . and her smile crumbled. “I wish Ellis could see it.”

Ellis. Cassidy’s little sister. I’d only met the girl once, but it had burned her image in my brain—a neck swollen wider than her head and a life confined to a hospital bed.

“Hey now.” I tugged my cap back on. Winning a race wasn’t going to change Ellis’s fate, and I wasn’t about to let Cassidy lose hope already. “What was the very first thing I told you when we met?”

Her forehead bunched up, replacing her frown. “I don’t know. That was a year ago, Danny.”

I took a step toward her. “I said that if anyone could tame the Mississippi, it would be you.”

She gave a sly, satisfied smile—my favorite kind. “How could I forget that? I usually catalog all your compliments up here.” She tapped her temple. “I’ll just file that one under M for ‘Mississippi.’ Or should I make it T for ‘taming’?”

I laughed, but before I could summon a worthy response, her eyes widened. “Why are you half dressed?”

“Are you just now noticin’?” A blush warmed my face, and I tugged my shirt collar closed. “I’ve got to put on my coveralls and clean the boilers.”

“But didn’t you just clean the entire engine room? Where’s Murry? Or Schultz?”

“Schultz is seein’ his family today, and Murry’s old and half blind.”

She frowned. “That doesn’t make it all right to shirk.”

“It ain’t shirkin’, Cass.” I swatted the air. “I’m the striker. It’s my job to keep everything clean and running smooth.”

“You may be the apprentice, but you do the same work as the full engineers.” She pushed out her chin. “In my book that means the full engineers should help you from time to time too. I’m only the cub pilot, but Father still shares the work with me fifty-fifty. We have to since we’re only a skeleton crew these days.” She planted her hand on her hip. “Should I say something to Father?”

“No.” I shook my head quickly. The last thing I wanted was for Captain Cochran to lose his temper. Especially at Murry. The rumor was that all the burn scars around Murry’s eyes—and the reason the Chief Engineer could barely see anymore—was because Cochran had shoved the man’s face in a boiler furnace.

I didn’t know if that was true, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. The captain had a temper, and as a rule, I avoided that temper at all costs.

“All right,” Cass said slowly. “I won’t say anything. . . . But don’t let Murry overwork you. This team”—she motioned between us—“won’t work if one half is broken.” She twirled around to leave, a whoop already bursting from her lips. “We’re going to race, Danny Sheridan, and we’re going to win!”

I watched her go, hair falling from her bun, and prayed she was right. Because if we didn’t, then the Sadie Queen and all her crew really were doomed.

Once I’d donned my coveralls and snagged a chain from the blacksmith’s office beside the engine room, I stalked out to the Sadie Queen’s Main Deck. My mind was still on Cass. On the hug. On the way her h*ps had felt beneath my fingers . . .

I swallowed and cleared my throat. Cassidy Cochran was my best friend—no matter how much I might’ve wished otherwise. She was the captain’s daughter; I was a lowly engineer’s striker. Trying to make more of that would only ruin the friendship we had. One day I might be a full engineer—no more scrubbing boilers or following Murry’s orders—but that day was a long ways off.

I stepped into the midmorning sun and took in the Sadie Queen. Everything about her catered to the lap of luxury—from the filigreed, whitewashed balustrades and elegant windows to the lush, costly interiors. Four floors of opulence: the Main Deck, with the engine room and space for cargo; the Passenger Deck above it, with the enormous saloon and sixty-one (now empty) passenger cabins; the Hurricane Deck, with a nice area for viewing the river and fifty more, empty cabins; and finally the Texas Deck, with the crew’s staterooms. It was no wonder we normally needed hundreds of crew—from waiters to footmen to cooks—to serve all those hundreds of passengers.

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