Home > Something Strange and Deadly(15)

Something Strange and Deadly(15)
Author: Susan Dennard

“What does that mean?”

“It’s a warning.” He glanced over his shoulder and then back to me. “I’m almighty scared of Clarence Wilcox, and if you’ve got any sense in that pretty head of yours, you’ll be almighty scared of him too.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Joseph ran a hand over his bare head and leaned against the window of the Spirit-Hunters’ lab. I had followed Daniel to the lab, and then he and Joseph had patiently listened to my rushed explanation of the Germantown Academy boys. Jie was away, though they wouldn’t tell me where she’d gone.

“And you do not think it is merely coincidence?” Joseph asked.

I shook my head. “How can it be? Two boys from the same school as my brother, both decap—” I faltered and swallowed. “Both decapitated. Both walking Dead.”

Daniel scooted a stool out and plopped down with his knees angled out. “I see why a necromancer might be interested in your brother, but what about the other boys? Where’s the logic behind that?”

“I don’t know. I simply came to tell you because it seemed important.”

“Yes,” Joseph said, “and I think you were right to come here. We were not aware of this connection. And perhaps... well, perhaps such information will sway the city officials in our favor.”

“Yeah.” Daniel chuckled, a hollow, derisive sound. “All these rich boys showing up headless? Their families may want to keep it quiet, but eventually someone will notice, and that’ll attract attention from the international visitors.”

“Yes, and so... wait...” I shook my head. “I don’t understand. Why doesn’t the city government help you?”

“They help some,” Daniel said. “I mean, they let us install Dead alarms, and they’ve given us a handful of Exhibition guards to train, but... ”He sniffed and pointed out the lab window, where people in colorful gowns and dapper suits meandered beside the majestic Bartholdi Fountain. “They aren’t as helpful as they could be because of all that.”

I frowned, baffled. “What do you mean?”

“The Centennial Exhibition is a fantasy, Empress. An illusion. It gleams like diamonds and distracts the eye from the rotting parts of America—like Shantytown.” He tipped his head in the direction of the shacks on Elm Avenue. “The amount of money spent to keep this Exhibition spotless reeks of dirty politics to me, and from what I can see, the local politicians aren’t out to help anyone but themselves.”

“Daniel is correct,” Joseph said. “Mayor Stokely and many of the Exhibition board members are focused on the upcoming political elections. None of them wish to draw attention of any kind to themselves. Too much focus on the Dead or decapitations might bring attention to some of their shadier dealings. Every American politician is under new scrutiny now because of the Whiskey Ring.”

“The Whiskey Ring?” I picked at the buttons on my glove. “You mean that group of Republicans, right? I don’t see how that’s related to any of this.”

Daniel pressed his lips into a grim line. “Because those officials were using taxpayer money for their own misbehaving. And your local politicians aren’t any nicer. They rig the votes, keep tax money, and don’t want any of the visiting federal workers or foreigners to notice.”

I pressed my hand to my forehead. “I still don’t understand. If there’s so much danger from the Dead, wouldn’t the whole city want you to have the resources you need?”

“You’d think.” Daniel ran his tongue over his teeth. “But the board’s convinced we can keep the problem contained until the end of the Exhibition.”

“But that’s not for months!” I cried.

Joseph winced. “Wi, but with the elections coming up, the politicians need to downplay the Dead as a minor problem.”

“Plus,” Daniel hastened to add, “they don’t wanna spend precious campaign and bribery money on some worthless Spirit-Hunters.”

Joseph nodded. “Money that is also needed to pay for all this grandeur.” He flicked his wrist toward the window. “We, the Spirit-Hunters, have made progress, for we are training Exhibition guards to disable corpses, and it looks as though Mayor Stokely may also provide some police. This helps, but it is not enough. I am still the only person who can lay hundreds of Dead to rest at once.”

“So what do you need?” I asked, glancing around for a clock. There was none, but I was certain enough time had passed to raise Clarence’s suspicions over my extended absence. “If people aren’t enough, Mr. Boyer, then what is?”

Joseph grimaced. “Money, equipment, and when the time comes, more men. Many more men.”

“The time comes?” My eyes flitted between Joseph’s frown and Daniel’s glower. “Time for what?”

“Entering Laurel Hill.” Joseph spoke so low I could scarcely hear the words. “To stop all the Dead at once.”

Daniel huffed out a sigh. “But first I gotta finish my newest invention. And...” He dragged out the word and rolled his hands, as if the next step in his explanation was obvious.

But it wasn’t obvious to me, and I wagged my head. “And what?”

“And I can’t finish it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t have access to research. I need more information on electricity, explosives, chemicals, and the like.”

I wrinkled my forehead. “Why don’t you just go to the library?”

“We don’t have the right subscription.” Daniel scratched his jaw. “Sure, I can waltz into the Mercantile Library downtown whenever I fancy, but it does me no good if I can’t get into the private collections. And the Exhibition board does not seem keen on sharing that sort of subscription.”

Joseph spread his hands, palms up. “The city does not allow just anyone access to potentially dangerous information. It is for the safety of the citizens.”

Private collections. The Mercantile Library. Excitement bubbled through me—I could help! I’d spent many a childhood afternoon in that very same library, squeezed together in a chair with Elijah or exploring endless shelves. It was several miles east of the Exhibition, directly in the center of Philadelphia.

I stepped toward Daniel. “Do you mean the Mercantile on Tenth?”

“Yeah.” Daniel picked at his fingernails and avoided my eyes. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I can.”

“You can what?”

“I can go in the private collections!” I scurried toward him. “My father had a lifetime subscription, Mr. Sheridan, and not just that, but he had special privileges. I’m certain I could use his name to get you into the private collections.”

Daniel’s jaw fell. “Why didn’t you say so before?”

“What?” I recoiled. “How was I supposed to know you needed it?”

“We could’ve gone ages ago!”

My enthusiasm transformed into outrage. “In that case, why didn’t you say you needed it?”

“Because I didn’t know you had a subscription!”

“Aha!” I cried, thrusting a finger at him. “Your argument’s a circle!”

Daniel sprang up. “We wasted all this time—”

“Silence!” Joseph roared. “You are like squawking parrots, and I have had quite enough. Miss Fitt, I would ask that you take Mr. Sheridan to the library immediately. Daniel, I would ask that you keep that big mouth of yours silent.”

My shoulders drooped, and all my indignation washed away. “I-I can’t go now,” I replied meekly. “I’m here with someone, and I’m afraid...” I stopped my words and gulped.

Daniel’s face lost all color. “She’s right. Now won’t do. Tomorrow morning, first thing.” At Joseph’s questioning eyebrow, he added, “I’ll explain later.”

“So tomorrow morning, then?” I twined my fingers around my earring.

“Wi.” Joseph bowed his head. “Though I beg you to come quite early. We lose valuable time as each day passes.”

After a soft good-bye, I shambled into Machinery Hall and struggled to conquer my resisting heart.

Daniel’s words would not stop repeating in my mind: I’m almighty scared of Clarence Wilcox. But I had no reason to fear Clarence, right? Whatever Daniel’s reasons, they were his and his alone.

I tipped my chin up and drew my shoulders back. I merely visited the water closet—I must pretend that. Easy as pie.

Soon I saw the mist from the Hydraulic Annex, and the crashing of its waterfalls grew louder with each step. When I reached the rows of benches surrounding the pool, I scanned about for Clarence.

Then I saw Willis. He slouched against the pool’s rail, but his attention was focused elsewhere. I followed his gaze, and what I saw made me stop.

Clarence was talking to Nicholas Peger, and judging by their dark expressions, animated movements, and close proximity, the men knew each other—very well.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

By the time I reached Clarence’s side, Peger had slithered off into the crowds. It was probably best, for I didn’t want the blond reporter to recognize me. I prodded Clarence with casual questions about Peger, but Clarence insisted the man had only stopped to ask for the time.

Funny, because now jutting from Willis’s pocket was a rolled newspaper—the same sort of newspaper Clarence had acquired during his mysterious rendezvous on my front porch.

I let the subject drop, though, and I drifted into my thoughts. Clarence seemed focused on his own sad musings, and we spent the remainder of the hour wandering the rows of Machinery Hall in somewhat companionable silence.

When I arrived home later that afternoon, Mama cornered me, her mouth spewing questions. They weren’t angry questions, though. She wouldn’t stop clapping her hands and demanding specifics on my conversations with Clarence. It seemed it was all right for me to misbehave and run off with no warning so long as I did so with a wealthy bachelor.

The next morning I woke early and rushed to the Exhibition. As Joseph had said, there was no time to waste.

The three Spirit-Hunters awaited me at the Exhibition turnstiles. They’d been forced to abandon their lab when Peger had arrived demanding interviews.

Joseph pointed to the horse-drawn streetcars that clattered to and from the Exhibition. We clambered through the throngs to reach the concourse.

“I do not like leaving the lab.” Joseph fidgeted with the rim of his top hat. He held a black leather case in one hand much like a doctor’s bag, and it swung with each of his gliding steps. “Peger is like a spider who spins my words against me.”

“Aw, it’s good we’re all going,” Daniel said. “Three can work faster than one, and when we get back, the spider will be gone.”

“Four,” I corrected. I had to pump my legs to keep up with the team’s trotting gait.

“Huh?” Daniel glanced over his shoulder at me.

“There are four of us,” I said.

His stride slowed until he walked beside me. “I’m not sure you count, Empress.”

“Why not? I can scour the library as well as any of you! I have a brain and am perfectly...”

He was grinning wide. The rascal was teasing me! And before I could summon a worthy retort, he whistled brightly and sauntered ahead of me.

Blazes, he was cocky. And entirely too dashing for his own good—or for my own good, rather.

Moments later, and with no time to dwell on Daniel’s easy smile, I clambered onto the streetcar.

“Fare?” the mustached driver demanded.

“Oh, what is the—” I shut my mouth as he plucked a coin from my gloved hand. It was like magic! I had no idea how it had appeared there.

Jie gripped my now-empty hand and towed me to an open-air window. I was squashed by the other passengers, but at least I could breathe.

“Two for the price of one.” She snickered. “I gave you my quarter. The driver didn’t even see me get on.”

“Really?” So it wasn’t magic, then. Just Jie’s unnatural dexterity. I huffed out a jealous sigh. “So you managed to sneak on and slip money into my hand? How do you do it—move like that, I mean? Where’d you learn it?”

Her dark eyes crinkled with pleasure, but she didn’t reply. I inhaled for a dejected sigh, but gagged on the stench of people and horse. I thrust my head out the open window and sucked in air.

The horses heaved, and the streetcar rattled to a start down Elm Avenue, east toward downtown. Jie swung out the window beside me. Over the trotting hooves, squeaking wheels, and crunching gravel, I shouted, “You’re nothing like any girl I’ve ever met.” I couldn’t keep the envy from my voice, and my face was likely as green as my words.

But honestly, I hadn’t ever met anyone like her. She could go where she pleased, do whatever she wanted, and no one was scandalized by it. And most impressive of all, she could fight.

She rubbed the bald half of her head. “It’s because I have no hair. In China we say, ‘The girl with the full hair is not as free as the girl with the bare head.’“

“What?” I tried to ask, but the dust plumes from the road flew into my mouth. All I could manage was a wispy choke. I pulled back into the streetcar and coughed my throat empty. I tried again. “What does that saying mean?”

She twisted back into the car too. “It means that as long as I still shave my hair, I’m free. See, in China, girls keep their heads bald like the boys, yeah? Then when we’re the age to become a woman, we bind our feet and grow out our hair.”

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