Home > Something Strange and Deadly(12)

Something Strange and Deadly(12)
Author: Susan Dennard

Embarrassment flamed through me. “Yes.” I stared at the dusty path. “I-I’m sorry, Mr. Sheridan.”

He grunted.

“I thought...” I paused and peeked up at him. “Well, I thought perhaps—”

“I know damn well what you thought.” He dropped to the earth and yanked at the spool of copper wire. “You’re all the same in this blasted city—you want our help but don’t trust us. You think we ought to save you just because. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the Dead can have the whole lot of you.”

“So why help us then?” I frowned. “Why don’t you just let the Dead kill us all?”

“Because...” He shut his mouth, and for several moments, he twisted the wire off the spool with more force than needed. At last he spat on the dirt and tried again. “Because Joseph won’t let the Dead kill you. He does the right thing, so I do the right thing with him.”

“But why? Why do you work for Mr. Boyer?”

“What’s with all the pestering, huh?” He shoved out his lower jaw. “Listen, I got... Well, I got a lot of making up to do, and there ain’t a nobler man than Joseph Boyer.”

My mouth fell open at his gruff confession.

He wagged a warning finger. “Don’t think I’ll look after you, though—the world would be better off with one less princess.”

“I’m not a princess,” I huffed, beating my brain for some worthy retort.

“A queen then?”

“No! That’s not what I meant—”

“Oh, an empress. I see. Pardon me, Your Majesty.” He swooped into a crouched bow, and when his torso sprang back up, a smile floated at the edge of his lips.

“N-no, not an empress either. I-I’m just...” The more I stuttered, the more pompous his smile became. “You’re exasperating,” I finally groaned.

“Look, you don’t have to like me, and I don’t have to like you. But Joseph? Well, he’s the only man around who can help you, so you’d best start trustin’ him.”

“I never said I didn’t,” I muttered. I was grateful when Daniel didn’t contradict me. “So will Joseph—er, will the Spirit-Hunters help me?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Daniel waved at me as if brushing away a fly. “Your letter was covered in spiritual energy. Joseph was gonna offer to help, but you... well, you got there at a bad time.” He dragged a thumb slowly across his neck. “Another one was found.”

“A headless man?” I squeaked.

“Yeah.”

My chest constricted, squeezing all the air from my lungs. A headless man? Elijah—what if it was Elijah?

I stepped dizzily to Daniel and grasped at his shoulder. He flinched.

“Land sakes, Empress.” In a single, fluid movement, he sprang up and slipped a sturdy hand beneath my elbow.

“D-do you think,” I tried to say. “Is it my—is it m-my...”

“It’s not your brother.” He lowered his face toward mine, and although his grass-green eyes were hard, his words were soft. “This boy’s family found him.”

“But...” My fingers dug into his bare forearm. “It could still... it’s possible that h-he could, Elijah could show up like that...” I knew the answer, but I searched Daniel’s face for some other reply.

“Yeah, it’s possible, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

I clutched at my belly and forced myself to swallow. It wasn’t Elijah—my brother was still all right. Certainly I would know if he was dead. I would sense it. The part of my heart that belonged to him would somehow know... wouldn’t it?

Daniel drew me closer. “Don’t worry. If your brother’s got even half the grit you’ve got, then he’ll be fine.”

I nodded, moving my head a fraction of an inch. Elijah was fine. I would save him.

“Yes,” I breathed. “Yes.”

Daniel’s eyes went distant, and his lips parted. With his free hand, he stroked the rough skin of his jaw, where new hair broke through. It made a scratching sound, like walking on dry sand.

Did his face smell like machines too? Or his neck? My gaze flicked to his white collar and exposed skin, then back to his face. For a moment, despite the stubble and the angles of his jaw, despite the mocking air and belligerence he always wore, Daniel looked vulnerable.

And there was something else in his eyes—a glint of interest I’d seen in other men’s stares (though never directed at me). Perhaps even... but no, he couldn’t possibly be attracted to me...

Could he?

Then he blinked, and the spell was broken. I squirmed away, instantly hot and unsettled. How had I fallen into such easy closeness with a boy I barely knew?

“Right. Well...” He cleared his throat and fidgeted with his cap. “Right.”

“Yes.” I shifted from foot to foot.

He flexed his arms and turned away. “Well, if you’re gonna stay here, you might as well help—especially seein’ as you owe me and all.” He pointed to a glass jar. “I need some more grave dirt.”

I choked. “Grave dirt? You can’t possibly be serious.”

“I’m always serious.” He swooped down and picked up the jar. “There’s a nice little spot near the river—that’s where I got my sample last time.”

“No.” I laughed hollowly. “No.”

“After all this,” he drawled, opening his arms wide, “you don’t wanna go into the cemetery?”

“No.” I bustled over to my parasol, still lying in the dusty path, and I bowed down to retrieve it. Then I brandished it at Daniel. “Going into Laurel Hill is certain death.”

“Why, Empress, that’s the first logical thing I’ve heard you say.” He grinned, baring all his teeth. “Maybe next time I won’t have to rescue you.”

“Rescue me?” I squawked. “Rescue me from what?”

“From yourself.” He drummed his fingers against the jar and then shoved it in his pocket. “If you interfere in my affairs again, I’ll personally feed you to the Dead.”

I scoffed. And if you ever get in my way, I’ll personally feed you to my mother.

I shoved my chin as high as it would go. “Good day, sir.”

Then I stalked past him and toward civilization. I might have to trust Daniel Sheridan, but I didn’t have to like him.

What had been a brief hackney trip along the Schuylkill was a much longer journey by foot. By the time I reached Girard Avenue Bridge, my feet were screaming for mercy and my petticoats were suffocating from the dust. To pile on the agony, my arm ached from holding my parasol aloft.

Well, at least I knew a bit more about the Spirit-Hunters. I wasn’t entirely convinced I could trust them, but I was willing to give them a chance.

When I finally reached the Exhibition, I barreled through the entrance. I was becoming quite adept at navigation by force, and soon I stood before the lab door.

It was open. Joseph was within, his back to me. His hat was on as if he’d just returned—or was about to leave. Words rushed from his mouth, and he spoke to Jie, who lounged on the windowsill.

“The Sutton family has been uncooperative on all levels. They refuse to print this in the papers.” He lifted his hat and ran a gloved hand over his scalp. “Not that I blame them, naturèlman. Losing a son, especially in such a horrifying manner...” He tapped his hat back on. “All the same, the public should know the danger they face. Listen: if Daniel has not returned by four, you must retrieve him. He must finish plans for the pulse bomb so I may propose it to the mayor.”

Jie’s dark eyes locked with mine, and he cleared his throat. He pointed to the door—to me—and Joseph whirled around.

“Miss Fitt.” Joseph glided toward me and swooped an elegant bow. “You are back so soon, yet I am on my way out once more.” Sweat glistened on his skin, and his face hung with exhaustion.

“It will only take a minute,” I said, stepping into the lab. “It’s about—”

“Your letter?” His eyebrows flicked up. “Speak with Miss Chen, then—she can help you. I really cannot stay. I have a meeting with the mayor and Exhibition board.”

“Speak to whom?” I tilted my head sideways.

“Miss Chen.” He pointed to Jie. “Did you not meet her the other morning?”

“Oh, w-well, I... “ Heat rose through my neck and face. Jie was a girl? Blazes! “We, uh, we weren’t properly introduced,” I finally managed to stutter.

Jie slid off the windowsill and addressed Joseph. “I can introduce myself. You should go.”

“Wi.” He doffed his hat, his feet already carrying him away. “Orevwar, Miss Fitt.” He bolted into Machinery Hall and was gone.

I gulped and turned my attention to Jie. Now that I knew he was a she it seemed obvious—the soft curve of her face, the grace in her tiny hands, and the definite roundness near her bosom. But then why the dickens did she dress like a boy?

I stared at her linen trousers and matching blazer. She even wore a cherry-red necktie at the nape of a white shirt. And if that wasn’t masculine enough, her hair was braided down her back while the front half of her head was shaved completely bald.

“You done admiring me?” she asked. Her voice was a sweet soprano, and only the faintest accent clung to her words.

“I, uh—”

“You never seen a Chinese person before?” She shoved her hands in her pockets and scowled.

“W-well, I...” I shook my head. “Not like you.”

She narrowed her eyes, and I had to fight the instinct to cower back. She was like a wolf with hackles raised and, merciful heavens, she was scary.

“You dress like a boy,” I blurted. “But you’re not.”

“It’s easier this way.” She sauntered over to me. “In case you hadn’t noticed, Chinese girls aren’t popular in this country.”

It was true they were rare. I’d never seen a Chinese woman before—Jie was the first.

Jie coughed and waved a hand in my face. “You still here?”

I turned sharply away. “Yes,” I mumbled. Heat ignited on my cheeks once more.

“So you want my help or not?” she asked.

“Yes. Please.” I bowed my head and gazed at the ground.

“All right.” She jerked her thumb to a stool. “Sit.”

I swept my petticoats and skirt aside and then lowered myself onto the stool. My corset creaked like ancient floorboards.

Jie snickered and flung herself back on the windowsill. “That’s another good reason to wear trousers.” She gracefully swung one leg up and squeezed her knee to her chest. “Can you do this?”

My jaw tightened, and I fought the urge to glower. She could taunt me all she pleased. Mobility was probably overrated.

At Jie’s not-so-subtle cough, I reeled my mind back to the matters at hand. “Mr. Sheridan told me my letter was covered in spiritual energy.”

“Yep.” She nodded once. “And you said that a corpse delivered it?”

“Yes, that’s right.” I relayed my experience at the train depot to her. Then I slid Elijah’s messages from my pocket, excluding the one I’d left with the Spirit-Hunters. “I’ve read all his letters, and I think he was researching something important. He mentions books by Solomon and Honorius. I don’t know what books, but I thought...”

Jie’s eyes were wide, and her lips parted. “Solomon and Honorius,” she repeated to herself. “Grimoires?” She pressed her fingers to her face, and the knuckles popped loudly. Then her eyes focused on me, and she dropped her hands. “Your brother, was he studying grimoires?”

“I don’t know. What are... grimoires?” The word rolled off my tongue, strange and unknown.

“Books of power. Black magic—like necromancy.” She sighed. “I don’t know much—Joseph could tell you more. What I do know is that grimoires can be bad.” She rose and stepped to Daniel’s worktable.

“What do you mean ‘bad’?” Ice spread through my chest.

She lifted a hand to silence me. Then she opened a wooden box and removed the bizarre brass goggles Daniel had worn at our first meeting. She slid them on her head and inspected the packet of letters I’d brought.

“Yep,” she muttered. “Spiritual energy. Not much, but it’s there.” She pulled the goggles back off and flashed a warning look in my direction. “If you tell Daniel I used these, I’ll kill you, yeah? He doesn’t like it when people touch his inventions.”

At my rapid nod, she returned the goggles to their box and strode back to the window.

“Please.” I leaned urgently toward her. “You said bad. What did you mean?”

“Those names—Solomon, Honorius. I know those names. They wrote grimoires for dark magic.” She hugged her arms to her chest and squinted at me as if considering how much to say.

Finally, she licked her lips and began. “Joseph had a friend once. Marcus. They studied with the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.”

“Voodoo?”

“Yeah. Like magic to ward off spirits and methods to contact the spirit realm. But Marcus wanted more, yeah? He wanted to know magic that stops illness—that raises the dead.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He wanted the magic that kills people.”

I pressed a hand to my stomach. “What happened?”

“From what I remember,” she said, her gaze hazy as though she rummaged through her memory, “he used grimoires. He used them to learn the magic, and he started to kill people—same thing this necromancer is doing. He grew stronger and turned to darker and darker magic.”

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