Home > Something Strange and Deadly(10)

Something Strange and Deadly(10)
Author: Susan Dennard

Father had died when I was ten. He had been a busy, bearlike man who ran a supply business for the railroad. Whatever the Pennsylvania Railroad needed, he got them.

But six years ago, a dyn**ite shipment he was supposed to provide exploded at our local factory. The railroad company turned to another supplier, and Father lost the contract. It was the start of his ruin, and he died shortly after.

“How I miss him,” Mama whispered. “I will feel much better when Elijah returns.”

My throat clenched. I nodded into her chest. I wanted to say that I was doing everything I could to bring him home. I wanted to promise he’d be back soon and that all our problems would be solved. But I couldn’t, of course.

“Well,” Mama said with a loud exhale, “let us hope Elijah has grown more like your father these past three years—he certainly forgets to write like Henry did.” Her lips twitched with amusement, and she squeezed my shoulders. “We shall see him soon enough, no?”

Tears burned behind my eyes. The sight of my mother’s hope was almost too much. I pulled free from her embrace and turned away. “Yes, Mama. Soon enough.”

Once Mama left my room I rubbed at my eyes, wiped my nose on my sleeve, and set to work. I needed to find every important phrase or word in Elijah’s letters. I needed something to offer Joseph Boyer. Something to force him to take me seriously.

But I’d barely read two sentences when I was interrupted.

“Miss Fitt?” Mary called from downstairs. “I need help with dinner?”

I sighed and hauled myself off the bed. Life still needed living even if there was something strange and deadly going on in Philadelphia.

I met Mary at the bottom of the stairs, and we walked through the hall to the kitchen.

Our kitchen was the one room Mama had not splurged on to redecorate since, of course, no one but our family would ever see it. The floor was worn down into familiar paths. The white paint had lately turned to a gray brown, and the iron stove in the back of the room often smoked up the house. Our icebox was really of no use in the summer—it had a hole from which the sawdust had been slowly leaking for years—and that was why we needed almost daily market trips during the warmer months.

Mary pointed at an assortment of vegetables laid out on a long, wooden table. “You said to make a stew, but there ain’t any meat.”

“I know, but we have to make do.” The party had eaten up our budgeted food allowance, and I’d had to lighten our diets for the rest of the month to compensate.

I took a wide knife and moved to the table. “I’ll take the vegetables. You get the water boiling.”

I set to chopping cabbage. The clack, clack of the knife was soothing, and soon my thoughts drifted.

Clarence—why had he lied about Elijah? And why did he insist upon my secrecy but then constantly divulge more? It was as if he played at some game of intrigue but had yet to learn the rules or get the knack.

The thought tickled my brain—I had heard that phrase spoken before, but by whom? And when?

I stared sightlessly at the cabbage, and a vague memory emerged in my mind.

An argument. Between Father and... and a dark-haired man.

I’d been only a child, but I could distinctly remember the man’s shouts— “We will live like kings!”—and the slamming doors that sent shudders through the house.

“I promise you, Clay,” Father had screamed, “no good shall come of this!”

A dark-haired visitor named Clay and a game of intrigue...

I sliced the last of the cabbage and turned to ask Mary, who peeled potatoes beside the stove.

But no. She wouldn’t remember; she was only a year older than me, and she’d only just started working as our scullery maid before Father’s death.

It was back when my family had a whole houseful of servants. But one by one, all of them had left except for old Jeremy and young Mary. I had always assumed the other servants had found better jobs with more popular families, but perhaps it was merely better jobs with less crazy employers.

When Father’s business and city council campaign fell, his sanity fell too. Father claimed it was sabotage, that his enemies sought to destroy him; but I never knew if his paranoid ravings were true. Either way, a few months after Father was forced to withdraw from the election, he died.

But things would look up again. Soon. Somehow I’d make it right again—I just had to.

I huffed out a heavy breath and moved to the celery. When I finished dicing it and the stew pot had water bubbling, I gave Mary directions for the rest of the meal and then I dashed upstairs to my room.

It was late afternoon, and I had to use what remained of the day’s sunlight to read Elijah’s letters.

I settled onto my bed and started with the first letter. For the beginning of Elijah’s travels in 1873, he’d been in London. He had scoured ancient texts before traveling to a bookseller’s in Paris, and so his letters had focused mostly on these old books. Next, he’d explored sunny Egypt (sending few letters), and then in July of 1875, he’d traveled to New York City.

In each of his letters I underlined his scratchy words to note the parts I thought strange. Such as, the old man in the pyramid or Honorius. Who were they? Authors of the ancient texts, I supposed, but still no one familiar.

In France, Elijah kept referring to some soldier, but who he meant, I couldn’t even begin to guess. And in one of his letters from Egypt, Elijah had mentioned “missing pages,” but he never named the text or why it mattered.

And what the blazes was the Gas Ring? In a letter he’d sent from New York, he mentioned, “The Gas Ring will see its errors, and Father will be most proud.”

Except Father was dead—would be proud was what he’d meant. Elijah never really got used to referring to Father in the past tense.

I mopped my brow with a handkerchief and set the letter in the growing stack of marked pages. The moist summer heat was suffocating in the room. And reading these letters one after the other made all the strange references more obvious than when I’d read them with months in between.

I skimmed the next letter in my hand; it had been sent several months ago from New York.

... The missing pages from Cairo are in a museum here, but the curators are not cooperative. These are such exciting times, my dear sister! I have begun experiments which I believe will impress you. Unfortunately, they have impressed others as well, and they are not the sort of people I want around....

People. He’d attracted negative attention from people—plural. Necromancer... or necromancers.

Curious, and quite a coincidence, though, don’t you think? Mr. Peger had said to me only hours ago. These Spirit-Hunters leave New York, and the trouble ends. They show up here, and the trouble begins.

I swallowed over a tight lump in my throat, and with trembling hands I yanked up the next letter. It was dated May 20, 1876.

I am coming home on the train scheduled for next Friday (May 26). These people continue to harass me, and I feel my research will run more smoothly in Philadelphia....

Oh no. What had I done by overlooking these words? I had whooped with joy and tossed the letter in the air after the words I’m coming home.

It was the last letter in my stack, but there should be one more correspondence: a telegram we’d received that I had never read. Mary had relayed its message to me; and without a doubt, I knew, knew this telegram mattered.

I shot off the bed and scrambled to the door. My feet banged full speed down the stairs, and I raced to the back of the house. I burst into the kitchen to find Mary hunched over the stove and stew.

“Elijah’s telegram from a week and a half ago! Do you still have it?” In three long steps I crossed the old wooden floorboards to stand next to her. Salty steam billowed up from the pot, mixing with the sweat on my face. “Well, do you?”

“Maybe,” she said slowly, her gaze distant. “It’d be in the calling card bowl, if we—”

I didn’t wait for her answer. I rushed to the foyer and lunged at the bowl beside our front door. It held those rare cards left when we had callers. Beneath two elegant envelopes, I found a wispy scrap of paper.

It was a crumpled telegram dated May twenty-fifth, 1876.

Delayed. Will arrive June 2. Much love. Elijah.

And in a scribbled mess on the Received From line was written: Philadelphia.

He’d already been in Philadelphia when he sent this. A fresh wave of heat washed over me.

Then another horrifying realization hit. I staggered to the front door and heaved it open, gasping for air and leaning against the frame for support.

May twenty-fifth was also the day the Spirit-Hunters had arrived in Philadelphia.


The next morning I rose at dawn to help Mary with breakfast. I worked quickly and snuck away again before Mama awoke. Simply because I had her tentative permission to wander the Exhibition alone did not mean I ought to tempt her.

I reached the Exhibition right as the gates opened and all the church bells rang nine o’clock. It turned out I could use my ticket from days before and the frazzled men at the turnstiles didn’t even notice, so I marched in, more determination in my posture than was actually in my heart. I reached the Spirit-Hunters’ door and hovered nervously outside.

Oh, don’t be a coward.

Sucking in a fortifying breath, I tapped my knuckles against the door.

It swung open a heartbeat later.

“Miss Fitt.” Daniel looked at me blankly. His sandy hair stood at all manner of bizarre angles, while his green eyes were sunken in.

“Mr. Sheridan.” I bobbed a curtsy. “I’ve come to see Mr.—”

“Me.” Joseph stepped in front of Daniel, his top hat on and his gloves in hand. “Bonjour, Miss Fitt. I am afraid you have come at a bad time. I must leave.” He spoke quickly and without meeting my eyes.

“Oh.” I swallowed. “I just wanted to know if you’d found my letter. I left it, and I wasn’t sure if you knew it was mine.”

“Naturèlman. We figured it out.” He slid on a glove and flexed his fingers. Daniel lounged behind him, his gaze darting from the clock to Joseph to me.

“Did you...” I swayed and swiveled my head, trying to connect Joseph’s eyes to mine. “Did you discover anything?”

“Some, but we have not yet had time to examine it properly.” He pulled on the second glove.

“And what of the spirit my mother—”

“Come back later,” Joseph interrupted. “This evening perhaps.”

This evening, when there were fewer people. I winced and tried to pump some assertion into my voice. “I don’t see why you can’t discuss it now. I’d like to have my letter back.”

His nostrils twitched, and he finally stared at me full-on. “We need more time to inspect it, Mamzèi, and I haven’t the time to talk. I must go.” He glanced back at Daniel. “You have your orders.”

“Best hurry,” Daniel said, tipping his head toward the clock. “Jie’s probably already there.”

Joseph nodded once, and then in a rush, he stepped from the lab and flew past me. I turned to Daniel to plead my cause, but the door swung at my face. I jumped back as it banged to a close.

What excuse did they give you? Those had been Mr. Peger’s words, and now here I stood in a cramped hall after the Spirit-Hunters had yet again fobbed me off with an excuse.

My eyes widened. Maybe they were the necromancers, and they’d taken my letter to destroy the only evidence I had of Elijah’s disappearance.

I shook my head, and my curls bounced against my neck and face. I had to stop this foolish paranoia. I had no evidence of anything. Yet.

I pushed my feet into action. My hand automatically reached for the amethysts at my ears, to feel their delicate shapes. I still needed to go to the market—Mama had complained about last night’s bland stew, and I’d promised to splurge on pork cheeks.

I reached the end of the aisle where it intersected with Machinery Hall’s main transept and lifted my skirt to join the flow of visitors.

But something whispered in the back of my mind. The nagging sense of eyes watching me from behind.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Daniel, his face now shaded by a gray flat cap, and a full, lumpy satchel leaned against his legs. When our eyes met, he spun his face away and focused intently on locking the laboratory door. I whisked my head around, scurried into the crowd, and moved from his view.

That had been an enormous bag—it had practically reached his thighs. What was in it? And where was he going with it?

I can follow him. I can find out.

I swerved from the throng of visitors and pressed myself against the nearest exhibit: a sleek locomotive. It gleamed in the morning sun and bathed me in ethereal light. A boiling thrill at my decision tingled over me. Sweat beaded on my skin.

I slunk left along the locomotive and craned my neck to peer around the shiny engine. Daniel marched into my view, hunched over with the sack hoisted on his back. And something poked from the sack—something that made my heart slam into my ribs.

It was the tip of a boot.

I lurched back. A boot. A heavy bag. I pressed my hands to my face and tried to breathe over my heart. It felt as if it rammed against my lungs with each beat. Oh God—what did I just see?

I inched around the engine once more, and this time Daniel was at the exit. He trudged through the building’s eastern door while people parted and streamed around him. It was now or never. I had to go while I still held a chance for pursuit.

I steeled myself and then surged through the oncoming people. They weren’t as willing to move from my path as they’d been for Daniel, but soon enough I reached the entrance and scrambled into the bright sun. I saw no sign of the sandy-haired boy in the crowded plaza. I scanned for the bulky sack and his gray flat cap. Nothing.

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