Home > Something Strange and Deadly(16)

Something Strange and Deadly(16)
Author: Susan Dennard

“So...” I frowned. “Does that mean you’re not a woman yet?”

“Yep.” She flashed her eyebrows and pointed down to her boots. “My feet are still big and ugly.”

I cringed. Foot-binding was a practice that seemed barbaric to my Western sensibilities. Breaking one’s foot and wrapping it so it stopped growing? Of course, if one paused to consider, was binding a woman’s waist and forcing her to stand like a camel any less barbaric?

“Why haven’t you had your feet bound?” I asked. “You’re older than me, aren’t you?”

“If I were still in China, I would’ve.” She cracked her knuckles against her jaw and stared out the window. “See, when I came to America, I was real young. My uncle had to pretend I was a boy. It was safer that way, yeah? Things here... they aren’t good for people like me, and it’s even worse out west. As a boy, my chances were better. And that way my uncle and I could both work.”

But what had happened to her uncle? I wanted to ask. In fact, I had a thousand questions I wanted to ply her with—about her past, about her culture, about her strength—but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not when her face looked so distant.

“So how did you meet Joseph?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.

“We were all three at the same saloon.”

My eyelids shot up. “A saloon?”

She chuckled and waved in Daniel’s direction. “He got cheated at cards, yeah? And a fight broke out. Joseph saw the whole thing, and when the police came, he vouched for Daniel.”

I rolled my eyes, amused. The story definitely fit with what I knew of Daniel—and I almost wished I could have seen it.

“And you?” I prodded. “What were you doing there?”

She grinned wickedly. “I was the one who cheated Daniel.”

I barked a laugh. Now I really wished I could have seen it.

“So now you see?” she asked. “With my hair like this, I’ll be free forever.” She poked at my bodice. “Why would I ever want to put this on? Squeeze my guts and deform my ribs? It’s not natural.”

I snorted. “You wouldn’t want to wear it. I certainly don’t.”

“Then why do you?”

I scrunched my forehead up at the absurdity of the question. “Because I don’t have a choice.”

She shook her head and gazed at me with sad eyes. It made me uncomfortable.

I turned away from her disappointed scrutiny and watched the Schuylkill River flowing beneath the Girard Avenue Bridge.

“Eleanor, you have a choice,” she said softly. “You always have a choice.”

Half an hour later, the Spirit-Hunters and I paraded through the arched doorways of the Mercantile Library. The moment my foot crossed into the cavernous room, calm blew over me.

Before me, the high, curved ceilings of the library rose over aisle after aisle of bookshelves. The morning sun poured in from windows spanning the entire length and height of the walls. It layered shadows over the western half of the room. A small fountain bubbled at the entrance, and the soft murmur of the library’s patrons traveled over it like a melody.

I hadn’t visited this place since Elijah had left, and I couldn’t imagine why. So many happy days had been spent here. My chest clenched with regret. I had been Elijah’s outlet from his bullies, and he had been my escape from Mama’s expectations.

Yet without Elijah in my life, I’d bowed to Mama’s demands. I had done no studying, and most of my intellectual thinking had involved coin counting and haggling.

I guided the Spirit-Hunters to a circular desk at the center of the room. After verifying my father’s subscription, the pretty, black-haired librarian slipped a brass key from her pocket.

“The entrance is there.” She pointed to a chestnut door at the back of the room. “If you wish to take any documents home, you must sign them out first.”

I took the key, and we moved through the people and shelves toward the back room. Once I’d unlocked the door, Joseph turned to Daniel.

“Take these.” Joseph slipped the brass goggles from his bag and thrust them into Daniel’s hands. He swiveled to me. “What year was your brother at school, Miss Fitt? And what was the name?”

“Germantown Academy, and he started in the mid-sixties.” I wrinkled my forehead. “Why do you ask?”

“Yearbook. I’d like to see a list of all the boys who attended, if possible.” He spoke with no hint of command, only a straightforward efficiency. Joseph had a job to do, he expected us to help, and he tolerated nothing but obedience. The Spirit-Hunters worked together like the gears of a clock—orderly and focused.

Joseph inclined his head toward Jie. “You heard Miss Fitt.”

Jie nodded and stalked off toward the bookshelves in the main room. Joseph went into the private room, and I followed.

Daniel was already inside, his lanky form draped on a ladder as he scanned the highest shelves. The square room that housed the library’s private collections was also lit by enormous windows, and the walls were lined with colorful book spines, newspapers, scrolls, and loose pages. In the center were tables and studious-looking, straight-backed chairs. It was a haven of knowledge.

I cleared my throat and moved to Joseph, who was systematically plucking books from the shelves. “Mr. Boyer?”

Joseph did not move, but his eyes slid sideways to peer at me. “Yes, Miss Fitt?”

“Do you need me?”

“No, I think not.” He looked back at the shelf and flourished his gloved hand toward the door. “We have enough hands on deck. You may relax, if you wish, and we should be finished quite soon.”

I curtsied, but hesitated to leave. “Um... have you learned anything about the spirit yet? There’s been nothing in the papers about it, so I wondered if perhaps... it has vanished?”

“Non. I doubt that it would leave—not if it tried so desperately to enter the earthly realm.” He waved to the shelves. “I intend to search for a history of Philadelphia’s hauntings, but there is little else I can do. Unless this spirit appears before me, I cannot possibly find out what it wants—or hope to stop it.”

I inhaled slowly. I supposed he was right. What could one possibly do about an absent, faceless spirit?

“We have not seen it since Saturday,” Joseph added. “Let us hope its business with us is finished.”

After a murmured thank you, I left the private collections room and bustled back to the circular desk at the center of the library. I had my own research to conduct. I now knew to whom the strange names in Elijah’s letter belonged, but the meaning behind the other odd phrase in Elijah’s letter still eluded me.

“Do you know anything about the Gas Ring?” I asked the pretty librarian sitting at the desk. “Or where I can research it?”

She narrowed her eyes. “I’ve never heard of it. Do you mean the Whiskey Ring?”

“No.” I gave her a tight grin. “Thanks.” I strolled back toward the private collections room, but when I reached the door, I turned right and headed down the hallway for a red velvet armchair—a chair I knew well.

I took my time adjusting my petticoats, fidgeting with my bustle, and squirming in my bodice. Then I eased down and set my parasol on the pine floor. This had been the chair Elijah and I had shared when we waited on Father. It was just as I remembered it.

Sunbeams pierced the air around me, illuminating the hidden world of dust that floated like the finest of snow. I grinned and tapped the armrest. A fresh army swirled up. The first time Elijah had shown me that trick, I’d been seven and he ten. We’d snuggled here, and he’d read aloud from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A figure moved at the corner of my eye. It was Daniel, leaving the private collections room. He held books and papers in one hand and the goggles in the other. He stared at the floor, either inspecting the wood grain or deep in thought. I presumed the latter.

“Mr. Sheridan.” I stood, my gown rustling. “Did you find what you needed?”

His head snapped up. “Empress.” He hunched his shoulders. “Yeah, I got some books for my invention.”

“And those will help?” I angled my head and read a title. “Annalen der Physik und Chemie. Do you speak German?”

“Some. I’ve had to figure it out, Germans being the masters of engineering and all.”

“Oh.” I was impressed.

I gestured to the goggles. “And is that one of your inventions?”

He grunted his acknowledgment.

“What do they do?”

“Well, uh...” He swayed from foot to foot, as if he wasn’t sure how to proceed. “Land sakes,” he finally grumbled. “Just take ’em. See for yourself.”

My eyebrows shot up. “You want me to wear them?”

“Yeah. And tell me what you see.” He set the books on the ground against the wall and, taking my hand, he put the goggles in my open palm. His face tightened. “But do be careful.”

I slid them on and scanned around me. The lenses were heavy and thick. They pulled at my ears and pressed on my nose. I studied my hand; the white of my gloves was barely visible. “It’s so dark,” I said. “And blurry. It feels as if I’m staring through muddy water.”

“That’s good. It means there is no spiritual energy here. If there was something Dead around, the lenses would clear up.”

“Why?” I tried to examine his face, but all I could make out was the general shape of his head.

“The goggles operate on a simple principle. They rely on magnetic energy—electromagnetism, to be precise.” He spoke much like Elijah would when explaining his latest theological find: animated and articulate.

I slid the goggles down and peered over the tops. I watched the curve of Daniel’s lips—delicate, round, and at odds with the angle of his jaw. I caught glimpses of his tongue as he spoke.

What was it about mouths that made them so fascinating? I had read of kisses (Shakespeare was fond of them in his plays), but I’d never seen one. And I’d certainly never experienced one. Did people merely touch lip to lip... or was there more to it?

Has Daniel ever kissed anyone?

My whole body stiffened when I realized the direction my thoughts had taken. I scrunched my eyes shut. This was not the sort of curiosity I should indulge.

When I lifted my eyelids, I realized I’d missed Daniel’s entire lecture.

“Could you repeat that last bit?” I prayed he wouldn’t notice the strained tremor in my voice.

“I said there’s fluid between two pieces of glass.” His tone was disapproving, as if my lapse in attention was an insult. “That fluid has a magnetic powder in it.”

“And?”

“And since electricity is magnetic, the magnetic powder moves within the lenses according to the energy around. Come on—the particles are easier to see in the sunlight.”

He pushed the goggles up my nose and over my eyes again. Then I felt his hand clasp my elbow. He guided me toward the eastern wall on the right. We walked, my footsteps careful and controlled, as he continued to explain.

“All free energy leaves a residue behind—something traceable. I calibrated the goggles with grave dirt, so now the magnetic particles are attracted to spiritual energy. That way when something Dead has been in the area or touched something—”

“Like the letter the walking corpse delivered?” I interrupted. “You said it was covered in spiritual energy.” I strained my neck this way and that, scanning everything we passed. We turned around and walked back toward the armchair and private collections room.

“Yeah, like your letter. The magnetic powder moves toward the residue, and the fluid clears up.”

“Does it work?”

He sniffed. “Of course it works.”

I stopped walking. “Then why don’t I see you?” I squinted and tried to make out his features. “Don’t living people make the powder move since we have spiritual energy too?”

“Good question,” he said. “The general principle is that our spiritual energy is attached—it’s woven into our bodies. When we die, the spirit and the body split apart. One half heads to the other realm while the other half goes into the ground.”

The hairs on my arms pricked up beneath the faille of my gown. “So that spirit my mother let in, it’s just pure spiritual energy?”

“Exactly. And the walking Dead, they’re mostly just rotting corpses with a bit of energy to animate ’em.”

I lowered the goggles and gazed at him. “And that energy isn’t attached, so it leaves a residue.”

“Right again.” He measured me with a narrow-eyed stare, and then his lips quirked up with pleasure.

My mouth went dry. I shoved the goggles back up. That smile was unnerving.

I stepped hesitantly back toward the private room, searching around as I’d done before and taking comfort in the blurry darkness of the lenses. At least now I couldn’t see Daniel’s face. Except the darkness wasn’t so dark anymore. In fact, the fluid wasn’t muddy at all. I could distinctly make out the bookshelves to my left, the wall to my right, and the velvet armchair ahead.

But no—I couldn’t actually see the armchair. All the magnetic powder had clumped where the chair should have been in my vision. The more I gazed at the fuzzy blob where I knew the chair stood, the more everything else came into focus. Something magnetic was pulling the powder toward the chair.

“Mr. Sheridan.” My voice came out husky with shock. “Mr. Sheridan, come quick.”

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