Home > Something Strange and Deadly(2)

Something Strange and Deadly(2)
Author: Susan Dennard

“Consider the expense of our party,” Mama continued. She began to pace. “All that money for nothing! We cannot waste such food and preparation. Although... the entire affair was meant for Elijah, which means we must offer our guests some other form of entertainment.”

“We must?” I squeaked.

“Yes, yes.” She drummed her fingers against her lips. “There are too few guests for a ball and too many guests for cards, and literary debates are so dreadfully dull.”

She continued her steps, muttering more solutions to herself.

I squeezed my eyes shut and took the moment to calm my nerves. I had to keep this brittle control in front of Mama or else I would blurt out everything.

“I have it,” she said.

I snapped my eyes open. Mama was stopped midstride with a finger thrust in the air. “We shall have a séance.” Her face filled with pride.

I was not nearly so pleased with her solution. “Why?” I croaked.

“Why not? We used to have them all the time.”

I swallowed and flicked my eyes around the room.

“What is wrong with a séance?” Mama pursed her lips and squinted at me.

“I-I’m still upset by the Dead at the depot. Contacting the spirits sounds...” I trailed off and shrugged.

“Ah.” She tapped the side of her nose. “I see. Well, you needn’t worry. The séances have never worked before, and we won’t have time to hire a medium for tonight. It will be quite casual. Purely entertainment, Eleanor.”

“All right.” She was correct, of course. She’d conducted dozens of séances, but even with a medium, she’d never been able to contact Father. Besides, my chest was starting to ache from my secrets. I needed her to leave before the truth came spilling out. “A séance will be perfect then.”

“Yes, I think so too.” She grinned. “It is cheap, and everyone loves the drama. People still talk of Mrs. Bradley’s séance.” She chuckled.

I tried to laugh with her, but it came out breathy and shrill.

“Are you all right, dear?” Mama asked. “Did the Dead truly disturb you? Did you actually see this walking corpse?” She inspected my face, and I had to fight to keep my body still. Why couldn’t she just leave already?

“N-no. I didn’t see it.” I licked my lips. “I’m fine, Mama. It’s just so... it’s so hot.”

“Yes, and you are sweating.” She stepped close to me and sniffed the air. “I’ll have Mary draw a bath. You smell like a guttersnipe.”

I merely nodded, no longer trusting myself to speak. Fortunately, Mama chose that moment to leave; and in three long strides, she was gone.

I sucked in a shaky breath and collapsed backward onto my bed. My fingers curled around the familiar beige linens.

How could I keep this a secret when I could barely deal with it myself? The Dead had delivered Elijah’s letter. The corpses had my brother!

And before I could stop it, another, much darker thought came. What if Elijah was a walking corpse himself?

CHAPTER TWO

The party around me was a smoky dream. None of it felt real. Not the constriction of my bodice or the poke of my hairpins, not the glittering chandelier or the warm gaslights, and least of all, not the chattering guests.

While our elderly butler, Jeremy, and our young maid, Mary, prepared the drawing room for the séance, the guests and I waited in the parlor. I had successfully deflected old Mr. and Mrs. Moore’s attempts at conversation (discussing church sermons was never my favorite subject, particularly when my nerves were screaming for relief); and fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Cook were wholly occupied by Mrs. Wilcox and my mother.

Meanwhile, the Cooks’ fair-haired daughters, Patience and Mercy—whom I called the Virtue Sisters—were focused on the remaining guests: the beautiful Allison Wilcox and her very rich, very eligible brother, Clarence.

I sat alone on the sofa, avoiding company by feigning a great interest in examining my surroundings.

Mama had drained half our remaining bank account to ensure that our parlor was at the height of All Things Fashionable. The wallpaper had recently been redone; the shelves were littered with peacock feathers, coral shards, and a thousand other knickknacks. The velvet rugs and drapes, recently added for this very occasion, swirled with elaborate patterns.

Mama’s greatest pride was the grand piano. It shone in the light of the gas lamps and told the tale of Fitt taste and wealth. It was no wonder she stood beside it to prattle to the Cooks and Mrs. Wilcox.

By the window, where the dour-faced Moores stood, was the mahogany bookshelf built to house all of Elijah’s theology books. And behind me was the chess table. Our chess table. The one Elijah had gotten so he could teach me to play—and then beat me nearly every day.

My thoughts vanished at the sound of a bubbling laugh.

Through lowered lashes, I peered at Allison Wilcox. She sat in a mauve armchair nearby, and the peach silk of her gown made her pale skin glow and dark hair gleam. In comparison, my white skin looked pasty. Or perhaps Allison’s exceptional beauty came from her obvious joy—she basked in the happy warmth I had envisioned for myself.

Her brother, Clarence, had recently returned to Philadelphia after two years at college, and he lounged elegantly against her chairback. He was just as handsome as his sister in his perfectly tailored black suit. The Virtue Sisters no doubt agreed with me, for they hovered nearby. Lanky Patience on one side and squat Mercy on the other, giggling at every word he spoke.

At each of Allison’s laughs and smug glances in my direction, I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep jealous tears away—and to keep from hurling the nearest knickknack right at her. I wanted my brother here; I wanted Elijah safe.

Catching my eye, she bounced up and waltzed over to me.

“Where’s your brother?” she asked.

“He’s in New York,” I mumbled. She plunked down on the sofa beside me.

“Yes, I know—your mother already said that.” Allison rolled her eyes. “But why didn’t he come? I thought this party was for him.”

Clarence strolled over and settled beside his sister.

“Yes, well...” I fidgeted with my lavender dress and avoided the pair’s gaze. “I believe he ran into some friends and decided to visit.”

“Do you know the friends?” Clarence asked. He slid out a shiny, golden watch from his waistcoat pocket. After glancing at its face, he flicked his eyes to mine.

“No,” I said. “I do not.”

He was undeniably handsome. The delicate curves of youth still clung to the strong angles of his jaw; and when his eyes met mine, I caught my breath. They were so dark it was as if they sucked up all the light.

I’d never met Clarence before this evening. He was twenty and, with the recent death of his father, had inherited the Wilcox business and immense fortune. Mama had mentioned something about political ambitions, too, but I couldn’t recall.

Though I knew the pair expected me to continue the conversation, I kept my mouth clamped shut. Mama would be horrified at my wasted chance to impress Clarence Wilcox, but I didn’t want to talk about Elijah.

Seconds passed in awkward silence. Clarence’s head swiveled about as he studied the room. Allison eyed me, and I fidgeted with my amethyst earrings—a nervous habit I’d acquired ever since Elijah had given them to me on my thirteenth birthday.

At last Allison sighed and scooted closer. “So, what’s wrong with you tonight?”

I scowled. “Nothing.”

“Humbug!” She narrowed her eyes and wagged a finger. “You don’t want to talk to me, you’ve avoided the other guests, and you haven’t smiled the entire evening.”

“Not now, Allison.” I gave her what I hoped was a pleading expression, but I could feel the muscles in my jaw twitch with anger. Ever since Mrs. Wilcox had unexpectedly, and rather abruptly, befriended Mama three months ago, I had been forced into Allison’s company far more than I wished.

“Allie,” Clarence said wearily, “leave her alone.”

“No.” Allison straightened in her seat and planted her hands on her hips. “Why are you so dour? Be nice to me. It’s not my fault your brother didn’t come home.”

That was too far.

“Enough,” I hissed, grabbing at her. “Shut pan, Allison.”

She leaned out of my reach, but Clarence laid a gloved hand on her arm. “I think you’ve done sufficient harm for one evening, Allie. Go talk to Mother.” He tipped his head toward the other side of the room.

To my astonishment and relief, she actually obeyed. For a moment, the heavy plumes of depression cleared from my chest. I could breathe.

“I can’t believe she listened to you.” I turned a wide-eyed gaze on Clarence.

A grin tugged at his lips. “Yes, I imagine I’m the only person she’ll listen to.”

“Well, I’m impressed.” A warmth eased through my body. Despite his perfect features, he was not so difficult to talk to.

“No doubt you’d do the same with your brother.”

“Not precisely.” I smiled ruefully. “To be honest, I don’t take orders well.”

“Then I shall be sure I never give you any.” He winked before whipping out his pocket watch again and glancing at its face.

I arched my eyebrows, and my grin grew wider. “Are you bored?” I teased. “Or do you have some late-night appointment you can’t miss?”

He jerked his head up, and my breath caught. His pupils had grown until there was no iris left.

“Neither. Of course.” He dropped the watch back into his pocket and slouched leisurely against the sofa. He gave an unruffled smile. “So tell me, Miss Fitt, do you know when your brother will return?”

“No.” I wet my lips. “Do you know Elijah?”

He looked off to the right. “I know of your brother.”

“Oh?”

“Of course.” He folded his arms over his chest and returned his gaze to me. “Everyone knows of the Philadelphia Fitts. I even know of you.”

“You mean Allison told you about me.”

His lips twitched. “Certainly.”

I stroked my amethysts and made my expression passive. I didn’t care one whit about her gossip—though I did wish she wouldn’t talk about me to Clarence. I’d prefer if eligible young men learned my faults after meeting me.

He flashed his eyebrows playfully, as if knowing where my thoughts had gone. “You needn’t worry. She’s said nothing unkind. She finds you amusing—she likes to talk, you know?”

“I hadn’t noticed,” I said flatly. Saying Allison loved to gossip was like saying birds enjoyed flying. It was not so much a hobby as a part of her physiology.

Clarence’s smile expanded, and his eyes crinkled. “Apparently there was an insult you gave her a few days ago, though.... She had to ask me what it meant.”

My face warmed, and I looked away. “I believe I might have called her a spoiled Portia with no concept of mercy.”

He laughed and hit his knee. “That’s right. Portia’s speech on mercy in the final act of The Merchant of Venice. Allie had no idea what you meant.”

“In my defense, she was taunting me—”

“With no mercy?”

“Something like that,” I mumbled, embarrassed he’d heard about that.

“Oh, I have no doubt. One of Allie’s charms is her childish teasing.” He laughed again and shook his head. “Next time, though, I suggest you use less obscure insults. They might hit their mark better.”

I didn’t know if I ought to laugh with him or stammer apologies, but at that precise moment, the subject herself saved me from my confusion. Allison bustled up and glared down at us. “What’s so funny?” she demanded. Clarence only shrugged, putting his hand in his pocket, and shot me a conspiratorial wink.

“Fine,” she said. “Keep your secrets. I don’t care.” She lifted a perfect eyebrow. “Scoot over. I want to sit between you.”

“Take my seat, Allie.” Clarence rose and slung a smooth bow. “If you’ll excuse me.” Then he sauntered away.

“Where is he going?” Allison asked.

I didn’t answer. My attention was focused on Clarence’s hand, in which gleamed the golden pocket watch. He strolled through the parlor door and disappeared.

The minutes ticked past, and Clarence did not reappear. Either something at dinner had disagreed with his digestion or the man had sneaked off for some other purpose. But what?

When I was a child, Father used to say, “My daughter’s biggest vices are curiosity and a fondness for buttered toast.” He was right, of course, and that curiosity was now piqued to its fullest.

Clarence was up to something, and I intended to find out what.

I left Allison on the sofa and crossed to the window, where I slid the velvet curtain aside. The parlor lights glared on the window, so although I could make out a few hazy shapes in the garden—the old cherry tree to the left and the bench beside it—I could distinguish nothing more.

I let the curtain fall back. The séance would begin soon, but I still had enough time to peek outside. I casually strolled across the room, darted through the doorway, and softly closed the door behind me.

I crept down the dim corridor that bisected our house and into the high-ceilinged foyer. Voices, deep and low, permeated the front doorway, and I would wager that one of those speakers was Clarence. My heart picked up speed. I gathered my skirts, tiptoed pass the main staircase, and pressed my ear to the front door.

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