Home > Something Strange and Deadly(3)

Something Strange and Deadly(3)
Author: Susan Dennard

“Two hundred,” drawled a male voice with a Cockney accent.

Someone sputtered—Clarence. “That’s outrageous.”

“Hmmm. Well,” said the Cockney man, “if you want his word, you’ll ’ave to pay.”

“Yes, yes,” said Clarence. “And have you had any news on Sure Hands?”

“No, but I brought you this. It’s a picture of him—quite old. He’s only a boy in it.”

“But you’re certain the man you saw was he?”

“Aye.”

“All right, then.” There was a rustling sound, like paper being handed over. “Same time tomorrow night,” Clarence added. “I’ll be at the Arch Street Theatre.”

“Yes, sir.”

Suddenly, footsteps drummed toward me.

I reeled back. Clarence hadn’t even said good-bye, and now he was coming back inside? The door handle turned, and I scrambled around to flee to the parlor. I only made it four steps.

“Miss Fitt.”

I whirled around. “M-Mr. Wilcox. Hello.” I bobbed a curtsy.

“What the devil are you doing here?” His eyebrows were angled so far down, they practically reached his nose.

“I was l-looking for you.” I gulped. “The entertainment is about to begin.” I glanced at his hand. He held a rolled-up newspaper and, at my gaze, he stuffed it into his jacket pocket.

Clarence strode through the foyer and peered down his perfect nose at me. “How long have you been standing here?”

“Only a moment.” I fluttered my lashes. I am as innocent as a baby bird, I tried to say with my eyes.

“Really.” He spoke it as a statement, and frowned. “You know, eavesdropping is most unladylike.”

My jaw dropped. “Eavesdropping? I was doing no such thing.”

“No?”

“Certainly not, Mr. Wilcox. And false accusations are most un... most un-manly-like.” The retort was a stuttered failure, but I puffed out my chest anyway. “What were you doing outside?”

“Getting fresh air.”

My eyebrows shot up as if to say “Really?” He squinted at me, and I glowered back.

At last he cleared his throat and donned a tight smile. “Miss Fitt, while I am delighted to have your company at present, I would ask that you keep our current meeting to your—”

Footsteps clicked on the wood floor, and someone bustled into the foyer. Clarence and I jerked our heads around to find Mary, her eyes practically popping out of her skull. She bowed her head, her chestnut bun bouncing with the force of the movement.

Clarence and I sharing an interlude in the hall? How inappropriate, and how very suggestive of an intimacy that did not exist. I was sure Mary salivated at the thought of telling Mama.

Mary looked back up, her lips twitching with the effort not to smile. “Your mother sent me to find you. The séance is beginning.”

“Of course. Thank you.” I glanced at Clarence.

He started, and then—as if realizing he was expected to act—he gracefully took my arm and hooked it on his. Together, we marched past the maid and down the corridor toward the drawing room.

“Miss Fitt,” he murmured over the whispers of my skirts and the clack of our heels. “I would greatly appreciate it if you would keep our conversation in the hall to yourself.”

“Of course,” I said primly. “Though I want some explanation of your behavior.”

“How about a bouquet of roses instead? Or a new hat?”

“Are you trying to bribe me?”

He chuckled, his cheeks reddening slightly. “I suppose I am. It always works on Allie.”

“Well, I am most definitely not like Allie.”

He smiled. “Yes, I can see that.” He whisked me into the drawing room.

Mama, who hovered at the room’s center, gave me a look of utter joy. No doubt, like Mary, she assumed my arrival with Clarence suggested a budding intimacy.

My family’s drawing room was as lush and bedecked with patterns as our parlor. At the moment, the sofa and armchairs had been pushed to the walls, and an enormous oval table with eleven seats was in the center of the room, ready for the séance. The table’s polished surface shone from the three candles at its center, which were meant to attract the spirits. There was also a bowl of bread as an offering.

All the other guests were seated. Mrs. Wilcox beside Mama; Allison beside her mother; the Virtue Sisters next, followed by their parents; and finally the Moores. That left two seats vacant and adjacent.

Of course Mama had seated Clarence and me beside each other. Fabulous. The man had caught me eavesdropping, for heaven’s sake, and the last thing I wanted at that precise moment was more time in his company.

Once we were seated, I opened my mouth to beg him for answers, but Mama spoke sooner.

“Let us begin,” she commanded.

She gave me a regal eyebrow arch, and I flashed my brightest, sweetest smile. Clarence adores me.

She stood in front of her seat, and her hands flourished gracefully as she spoke in a low voice. “Tonight we shall try to commune with the spirit world, so let us use our combined energies to call forth the ghosts of our loved ones.”

Since the séances never succeeded in contacting spirits, all of the entertainment was in the presentation. And Mama was an excellent presenter. Shadows billowed from the lone candles and flickered eerily across her face.

“As is customary,” she continued in a somber tone, “we must hold hands and chant together in order to summon the spirits’ attentions.” She lowered herself gracefully into her chair, her head held high. She extended her arms to grasp at her neighbors’ hands, and soon each person was locked, gloved hand to gloved hand.

“I would like to begin with my dear husband, Henry,” she proclaimed, “and once we have visited with him, we can move to any other spirits you may wish to see.”

A wave of nods moved around the table. Allison and the Virtue Sisters twittered.

Mama closed her eyes. “Henry, it is your wife, Abigail. I call to you in heaven. Commune with us, Henry, and move among us.”

The guests and I repeated her words and waited, our eyes closed.

The scent of the fresh-bread offering wafted into my nose, and my stomach bubbled with hollow hunger. To fit myself in my corset, I’d had to forego most of my supper. Perhaps I could steal a slice while our guests’ eyes were closed.

Several silent moments passed, and then Mama led everyone in another chant. I wondered who would be the first to tap the table. On the third round of chanting, I decided it should be me.

I lifted my slippered foot as silently as my skirts would allow, and with a gentle thrust, I kicked the table.

“Henry!” Mama exclaimed, her face a dramatic mask of pleasant surprise. “Is that you?”

I kicked twice—two knocks meant “yes.”

Around the table, guests giggled or gasped, though I was certain no one believed it to be real.

“Have you any message for us?” Mama asked.

Someone else knocked once for “no,” and everyone twittered.

“Are you certain there is no message?” Mama pressed. Two knocks this time, and I suspected she’d done the tapping herself.

“Do you miss your wife?” Allison cooed. “Or how about—”

A loud whack resounded in the room and cut her off. It was the heavy, hollow bang of a fist on wood. I stopped breathing. It hadn’t been the wood of the table—I’d felt the vibrations through my whole body. It had rattled my bones and teeth.

The knock had come from beneath the floor.

CHAPTER THREE

Whack! Another insistent knock on wood, and my whole body flinched. Was this real?

“Henry!” Mama exclaimed, her eyes enormous and filled with shock. “Is that you?”

Whack, whack!

A strangled yell of joy broke through Mama’s lips. “My darling!” Her eyes glittered with tears. “My darling, you have never come to my call before.”

Whack, whack!

Clarence flinched, squeezing my hand. It startled me, and my breath hissed out. This couldn’t possibly be real—Mama must have enhanced the theatrics somehow. But... the joy on her face was genuine, as were the shaking floorboards.

The guests’ eyes darted around the table, but no one broke the chain.

“Mama,” I said. “How do you know it’s Father?”

“Because he says so,” Mama replied.

Whack, whack!

My breaths came faster. In the candlelight, I could see steam puff from my mouth. When had the room turned so cold?

“B-but,” I quavered, “couldn’t the spirit be lying?”

Whack! The whole room shuddered, and the lamps rattled.

“Why would he do that?” Mama’s voice was high and quick with elation. There was something else in her tone. Fear. But was it fear that it wasn’t Father? Or fear that she might lose her only chance of meeting him again? Either way, all her concern for presentation or entertainment had vanished. “Of course it is your father.”

Whack, whack!

“Great heavens, Henry, I’ve missed you.” Her smile gleamed in the candles’ glow. “Who would like to invite Henry into our realm?”

No one answered. All of the guests sat stiff and wide-eyed.

“Eleanor, why don’t you invite your father in?”

“No, Mama,” I said. I freed my hand from Clarence’s grasp. Could the spirit still enter if our hands were not connected? Did a spirit’s entrance actually hinge on invitation? The rules of the séance were probably all dramatic nothing, but either way, I didn’t think the spirit had entered the room yet. Maybe there was still a chance to send it away.

I gulped. “You must listen to me, Mama. Make sure it’s Father.”

Whack, whack, whack!

Mama blinked at me, her eyes like empty holes. I knew the hollow desperation she felt. What if it was Father? What if this was our only chance to see him, to talk with him?

But this was not Father. He was love and warmth; he would never turn the room so cold.

I pushed to my feet. “Mama, please, this isn’t Father. We must not let it enter!”

“It is Henry,” Mama shouted over me.

“Make sure!” I leaned over the table, my hands reaching for her. “Ask him a question.”

Clarence sprang up, and his chair toppled behind him. “Mrs. Fitt, you must listen to your daughter.”

“No!” Mama rose and lifted her head high. “I know when my husband is near. I was his wife for fifteen years, and this is my house and my séance. I will invite him in if I wish.”

Whack, whack!

Around the table, the other guests watched us, but frightened, amused, or entertained, I didn’t know.

“Beloved Henry,” Mama called, “know that you are welcome in this house.”

“Help me!” I shrieked at the guests. “Stop her!”

“You are welcome to our bread,” Mama continued.

“Mrs. Fitt!” Clarence yelled.

Mama clasped her hands to her chest. “You are welcome to move among us.”

An icy wind blasted through the room, and with it came the smell of dark, moist, ancient soil. Grave dirt.

The air and the smell cloyed at my nose and slid into my throat. I wanted to gag, but I couldn’t breathe. Time had frozen, and it was as if I viewed the room from some distant place. Even the flames of the candles stood still. Then my breath returned with such force that I crumpled back onto my seat. Cries and whimpers burst out around the table.

The spirit had joined us.

Breaking the chain of clasped hands had done nothing, and this spirit felt strong—evil.

I lunged forward and grabbed a candle. What had Mama done? I should have stopped her.

I lifted the flame high and scanned the room.

“You’re not welcome here. Go back!” I waved the flame this way and that in search of the spirit’s location. “Go back!”

And then I saw it, crouched beside the door, an unnatural clot of black in the darkness—shapeless, sentient, and waiting.

Everyone was paralyzed. My own mind screamed, though no sound escaped. All I could do was stare.

Until it moved. The darkness elongated into the rough shape of man, but thinner and taller, with arms that stretched to the floor. I forced my body to move, my nerves refueled by terror. I brandished the candle toward the evil, and the flame almost sputtered out.

“Leave,” I rasped. “You’re not welcome here.”

The shape undulated forward—one moment like a man, the next like a gaping shadow.

And it was moving toward me.

A woman screamed. And then another and another until the whole room was a chorus of fear. People began to wiggle and tumble, and chairs groaned with the movement.

“My love!” Mama screeched. “Henry, oh Henry!” She moved forward, but Clarence bowed over the table and seized her by the arm.

“No!” He held her back, half his body sprawled across the table.

I felt a tingle in my ears, through my temples, and down my neck. A shivering, powerful pulse. Was the spirit doing this to me? I grabbed at my ear with my free hand, but the feeling only intensified.

“You must leave!” I shoved the candle forward. The spirit paused.

The shrieks of terror drowned me out, but I shouted again—“Go back!”—and stepped toward the spirit. My strength grew with each inch I gained.

I reached the end of the table. The terrible mass was only feet away, a shadow of death hanging motionless. For a moment I thought I was victorious. But my relief drained right back out as the spirit rushed at me in a furious streak of black, and the cold consumed me. It was the harshest chill I’d ever felt, a deeper ache than I thought possible. My mind, my bones, my soul were devoured by this cold.

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