Home > Something Strange and Deadly(14)

Something Strange and Deadly(14)
Author: Susan Dennard

I gave the burly man my fiercest glare before turning it on Clarence. “I’m going back inside, Mr. Wilcox.”

“Why?”

“Your rude behavior. And also your...” I twirled my hand in the air, searching for the word. “Your thug over there.”

Clarence turned to Willis and nodded, and though the footman doffed his derby hat and relaxed his stance, he did not depart.

Clarence rubbed his neck, and his chest heaved as he pushed out a long sigh. “Please stay, Miss Fitt. I... I’m sorry.” He pointed again at the bench. “I promise to be civil.”

“Civil enough to explain your mood?” I arched my eyebrow.

“Yes, yes.” He offered his arm, and I hooked mine in. We shuffled awkwardly to the bench, and he helped me sit before easing himself down. He leaned exhaustedly back and then laid a limp hand over his eyes.

“You’re right,” he murmured. “I haven’t been sleeping.”

I straightened. “Why not?”

“I have... things... on my mind.”

“What sort of things?”

He dropped his hand and gazed at me. The tightness of his lips showed none of his usual charm, and the rest of his face showed a bone-deep weariness. He shook his head, as if to say he was too tired to even deal with his own emotions.

After several moments, he finally said, “Another friend of mine passed away, and I’ve been having a difficult time with it.”

“Oh,” I breathed, suddenly wishing I had let the man be. As usual, I had pestered in the precise spot I could do the most damage. “I... I’m sorry, Mr. Wilcox.”

“Hmmm.” He let his head roll back. I thought for a moment he’d fallen asleep, but then he stirred and rubbed at his eyes. When at last he faced me again, I saw a fresh redness tingeing them.

“A close friend from Germantown Academy. James.” He drawled out the name, as if savoring its taste. “James Sutton. A good man. The funeral was quite small—he deserved more.”

I flinched as Joseph’s exact words came flooding back to me: The Sutton family has been uncooperative on all levels.

I stared at Clarence, a new sort of pity in my chest. It had to be the same Sutton—there was no way it was just coincidence. The poor, poor man. He’d lost two friends to gruesome deaths—what were the chances? Two former schoolmates from Germantown Academy taken and murdered.

My stomach turned to stone, and I fell back against the seat. Elijah was also a schoolmate. Elijah was missing. It was connected—the two decapitated men and my missing brother were connected. The necromancer hadn’t just targeted Elijah, but other boys from their academy as well. Boys who were now men... men who’d met grisly deaths at the hands of a necromancer.

Oh God.

My recent helping of buttered toast churned its way out of my stomach and into my throat.

I threw my parasol on the grass, clapped my hand to my mouth, and bounded dizzily toward the hibiscus beside the front porch.

Clarence jogged to me, his expression horrified.

No doubt I resembled a toad: eyes bulging and chest ballooning with each desperate gasp. In and out, in and out until the revolt in my stomach subsided.

I wiped at my sweaty face with my sleeve.

“Let me get your mother,” Clarence said. He held my parasol in his hand, and I snatched it away.

“No.” I shook my head frantically. I needed to speak to the Spirit-Hunters—they needed to know this connection between the headless men and Elijah. Such news could not wait. Or rather, I could not wait with the knowledge boiling in my brain. “No. I... I must go.”

He reared back. “Where?”

“The Exhibition,” I mumbled, dabbing at the moisture at my hairline. I staggered away from the porch.

“Why the devil do you need to go there?”

“Fun.”

“Fun?” He grabbed at my elbow. “Enough of this nonsense. You’re ill!”

“No.” I slipped from his grasp. “I’m going to the Exhibition. Now.” I headed toward the street. I swayed with each step, but my legs were sturdy by the time I left my front yard. I opened my parasol and held it high.

My feet pounded a quick rhythm on the road. My stomach’s rebellion had passed as quickly as it had come, and the only remaining effect was the acrid taste of bile in my mouth. My first reaction of sickening fear had been replaced with relentless determination.

My steps faltered. If the Germantown Academy boys were in danger, then that meant Clarence could be too. Did he realize? Should I say something?

No. I ought to wait. I should hear the Spirit-Hunters’ opinions first. No need to frighten the man unnecessarily—he looked stressed enough already. Besides, he had the bulky Willis to look after him. Elijah had no one.

Clarence trotted up behind me on the street.

“Who will tell our mothers where we’ve gone?” he asked, his voice breathy. My pace was beyond his current physical capacity.

“You could tell your footman.” I tipped my head backward, certain the man trailed behind.

Clarence made a gurgling sound, and I gaped at him in surprise. Somehow his pale face had gone even paler. “No. Willis cannot go,” he insisted. “H-he must stay with me.”

“Why?”

Clarence fidgeted with his necktie. “Reasons. Personal ones.”

I compressed my lips in a tight line. Maybe he had already sorted out that he was in danger. Perhaps that was why Willis always hovered nearby. The man was not a typical footman—following his master around, glowering at young damsels, and no doubt doing all sorts of other bizarre duties.

“Then you could go back,” I suggested.

“To our mothers’ shocked disapproval? I think not. And you can’t get rid of me that easily, Miss Fitt.” He lengthened his stride, a new glimmer in his eyes. “Whatever mischief you’re up to, I’ll be there for it. Besides, someone must ensure that you behave like a lady.”

I skittered to a stop. “Like a lady? Which is how exactly?” My voice was shrill. He had picked a poor moment to antagonize me.

“Biddable.”

“Biddable? Biddable!” Somehow my pitch was even screechier than before. I kicked my bottom high and dipped my chest low—a perfect display of the Grecian pose. “If it’s a camel you wish to have, sir, then you are on the wrong continent!”

I straightened, pleased by his astonished expression. Then I swiveled on my heel and resumed my race to the Centennial Exhibition.

I must have set a personal speed record, for it felt as if only minutes of half jogging and half walking had passed before Clarence and I reached the Exhibition. It was likely a personal sweat record as well, for my hair was painted to my face and my gloves were soaked straight through.

We entered Machinery Hall through the east entrance. Willis wasn’t too far behind, and when we paused at the locomotive display, the footman paused nearby.

“What’s in here?” Clarence moaned with no attempt to hide his annoyance.

“I want to see the fountains. I thought it might be pleasant on such a hot day.”

“It is devilishly hot in here.” He waved a hand at his face. “Let’s get an ice cream soda, shall we?”

“Oh yes! There’s a place that way.” I pointed toward the Corliss engine. “I... I need to use the necessary. Perhaps I can meet you in the Hydraulic Annex?”

Clarence’s lips quirked up slightly. “Yes, all right. Use the water closet and then meet me in the annex.” He bowed slightly, then stepped backward and moved into the crowd.

I waited until he was out of sight before I pivoted right toward the Spirit-Hunters’ lab. I had only made it two steps when a shiny blond head caught my eye. Crouched behind the nearest steam engine, exactly as I had hidden the day before, was Daniel Sheridan. I reached his side in less than a second.

“Why are you hiding?” I demanded.

He rose and craned his neck, his eyes darting around the exhibit. “I’m not hiding.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“I was... I was heading back to the lab, and I dropped something.” He tried to move past me, but I sidestepped and cut him off.

“What did you drop?”

“Nothing. Stand aside, Empress.”

“So you were hiding.”

He set his jaw, and I noticed his face was freshly shaved. It made his skin look soft.

“I’ve places to be,” he growled. “So if you don’t step outta my way, I will move your imperial figure myself.”

I had no doubt he would, so I skittered aside. He stalked past, but I chased close behind—we were headed to the same place, after all.

He lengthened his stride. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?” I picked up my pace too.

“Follow me.”

“But I’m going where you’re going, Mr. Sheridan.”

“What?” He twisted around, his hands snaking out, and he grabbed my wrists—not hard, yet tightly enough that I had no alternative but to go where he led. He slung me into a narrow space between two locomotives and released his grip.

He blocked my exit, and his shoulders were hunched practically to his ears. His usually tanned face was bloodless and white.

My pulse quickened. I inched back, trapped between the gleaming machines. I inhaled a proper lungful of air—I would scream if I had to—but then he spoke.

“Does he know where you’re going?”

My scream died. “Huh? Who?”

“Wilc—” He broke off and swallowed. “Your beau. The man you came in with.”

I narrowed my eyes. Why did Daniel care about that? “No. He doesn’t know I’m here.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I was going to the water closet. Why are you asking—”

“That’s it?” Daniel interrupted, his shoulders dropping an inch. “That was all you said?”

“Yes.”

“He doesn’t know about me? About the Spirit-Hunters?”

“No—not from me, at least. He does know about the Spirit-Hunters, though. Everyone does. You’re in the newspapers.”

He ran a hand through his hair and eyed me warily. “If it’s just the papers, then it’s fine.”

My heart slowed, and intense curiosity supplanted my fright. “Why do you care if Mr. Wilcox knows about you?”

“That’s none of your affair, but don’t you ever mention my name to him.” He dipped his chin and looked at me from the tops of his eyes. “Got it?”

“No.” I was wretchedly tired of men declaring what I could and could not do. “I don’t ‘got it,’ Mr. Sheridan. You can’t act like this and not explain yourself. So... so unless you answer my questions properly, I’ll make a special point to tell Mr. Wilcox exactly—”

Daniel clamped his hand over my mouth and pressed me against the engine. “You’ll do no such thing.” He spoke softly into my ear. It didn’t frighten me, but had my full attention.

“For your own safety and mine,” he continued, “you will keep that tongue of yours still.” He slid the hand from my mouth and planted it on the engine beside my head. His mouth still hovered beside my face, and his breath tickled along my ear.

All the hairs on my neck and arms pricked up.

Then the reality of the situation hit me. He was entirely too close—both for proper etiquette and my composure. I punched the inside of his elbow with all my strength.

“Ow!” he howled, stumbling back.

“Varmint!” I spat out the first word I could find and prayed he couldn’t see my scarlet flush. “You rude, low-class varmint! Don’t you ever touch me again.”

He gripped his elbow to his stomach, massaging the joint and muttering under his breath.

“What’s that?” I demanded. “What are you grumbling about?”

His lips curved into a frown. “I said I ain’t a varmint, and I ain’t gonna hurt you.”

“Aw,” I simpered, pouting my lower lip dramatically and trying to hide my own discomfort. “Did I hurt your feelings? Well, you shouldn’t take it personally, Mr. Sheridan. No one cares about my opinion.”

Daniel’s frown vanished, and the angles of his jaw eased into a gentle sadness. “Maybe I care.”

His words astounded me, and a strange flutter whirled through my chest. Had he just complimented me?

For several moments I was too flustered to speak, and the air was thick with our silence—as if the words I wanted to say were there, but invisible. Daniel shifted his weight, his eyes still on mine.

At last he flashed a grin, and the strange moment passed. He gave a mocking bow, but he was too near me to go far. When he lifted his head back up, his face was somber once more.

“Empress, you must not tell Clarence Wilcox that you know me.” His voice was low, and he inched closer. “Please. That man can’t know I’m here.”

The sincerity in his face and the quiet desperation in his words convinced me to keep his secret. “I wasn’t going to tell anyway,” I said primly, tilting my head away. “I don’t exactly want him to know I’m working with the likes of you. I’ll keep your secret, Mr. Sheridan, though I expect an explanation one day.”

He nodded. “And maybe one day”—he reached out and flicked my chin playfully with his thumb—“I’ll tell you my explanation.” He sauntered backward until he reached the edge of the machine. Then he leaned out and scanned the area.

“Oh, and one last thing, Empress.” He turned his light eyes on me once more. “You might want to reconsider your suitors.”

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