Home > Something Strange and Deadly(4)

Something Strange and Deadly(4)
Author: Susan Dennard

Then, faster than my mind could process, it was gone.

By the time the room was illuminated again, the panic was out of control. Crying, hysterics, mumbling, and shock had taken the guests. My own hands trembled, and I couldn’t keep still. I used my anxious energy to soothe the situation.

“It was all a show!” I yelled. “Just theatrics!”

Some of the guests actually accepted my claims with surprising ease—despite the fact that Mama was collapsed in a dead faint.

She sat limp in her seat, draped across the table with her eyes closed. Though the spirit had scared her, I thought the realization that she wouldn’t see Father was what had snapped her nerves.

I was just grateful Clarence had kept her from injury when she toppled down.

For the next few minutes Mary, Jeremy, and I strained to get everyone else out as quickly as possible. Fortunately, they needed no urging.

Once the house was empty and I had gotten my mother’s unconscious form in bed, I collapsed in my own and cried.

I cried until my abdomen hurt and my nose was clogged. Until I had cried enough to realize tears weren’t making me feel better.

Where was Elijah? Why were the Dead rising in Philadelphia? Why was this happening to me? I just wanted my brother home. I wanted things to be exactly as they were three years ago, when Elijah would teach me his lessons from school or read Shakespeare aloud while we sat in our cherry tree. We’d dreamed of seeing exotic places—such as Venice, Verona, or Illyria—and when we dutifully visited our father’s grave, we would wander the nearby woods and pretend we were in the Forest of Arden.

I shuffled to my wardrobe and found the walking dress I’d worn that morning. From its pocket, I pulled out the wrinkled Philadelphia Bulletin article.

JOSEPH BOYER OF THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS STATED IN AN INTERVIEW: “The Laurel Hill corpses are under the necromancer’s control and do his bidding, but as of yet, we do not know the necromancer’s identity or aim.”

The Spirit-Hunters arrived a week ago to protect the thousands of Centennial Exhibition visitors from the Dead. They have installed alarms throughout the Exhibition buildings in case more corpses appear on the grounds....

The Spirit-Hunters. Hired to protect. That was my answer!

I scanned ahead. They were a three-man team led by Joseph Boyer, and their office was in Machinery Hall at the International Centennial Exhibition.

“Spirit-Hunters,” I whispered. Chills trickled down my back. These people would help me find Elijah. It was their job to help me, and I felt instantly better armed with this knowledge.

I rubbed at my salty cheeks, and my sense of helplessness subsided. I wasn’t lost; I wasn’t alone; there were people I could turn to. People who could help me with my brother and with the spirit my mother had invited into this world.

I lugged myself to bed and slid the paper beneath my pillow. I couldn’t leave the house tonight, but tomorrow... tomorrow, I would see just how good these Spirit-Hunters really were.

CHAPTER FOUR

Saturday morning arrived, and when the sun hit my eyes, yesterday’s horrors flooded my brain. The train station, the letter, the séance—they all crashed in over me.

I hadn’t forgotten my decision to see the Spirit-Hunters, but I also hadn’t worked out a way to do it. It was one thing to run household errands alone, but to go to the crowded Exhibition by myself would raise questions.

As Mary helped me dress, I considered whether sneaking away was worth Mama’s inevitable suspicion.

Mary gripped my corset laces. “Inhale.”

I sucked in, and the corset’s whalebones cinched in. “Too tight!”

“Too fat is more like it.” She gave one final tug before deftly knotting the laces. Then she helped me layer on the petticoats, bustle, skirts, and polonaise of the same gray gown I’d worn yesterday. It was a walking gown, so the train was shorter and allowed easier navigation of the Philadelphia sidewalks. Plus, the smoky color had the advantage of not showing dust.

“Where is it you’re goin’?” Mary asked, her mouth pruned skeptically. “You did the shopping yesterday, and the bank is closed today.” As my mother’s devoted servant, Mary kept no secrets from Mama—or rather, she only kept secrets when the payment was good.

I ignored her probing and focused on pinning my gray, feathered hat at the perfect jaunty angle. As I was pushing in the last pin, a loud knock startled us.

Mary and I exchanged wide-eyed glances before racing from the room. We reached the foyer just as Jeremy opened the door to find Allison Wilcox, flushed and beautiful in a sky blue walking gown. My eyebrows rose in a combination of awe and envy as she swept past Jeremy into the foyer.

“What brings you here so early?” I asked. A morning call could ruin my trip to the Spirit-Hunters—what if Mama woke up before Allison left?

“After last night, Clarence, Mother, and I were dreadfully worried.” She clapped her hands and leaned close. “But it was all a grand hoax?”

I tried to murmur an agreement, but all that came out was a strange gurgling sound. If only it had been a hoax.

Allison’s eyebrows shot up. “I knew it! Now come with me to the Continental. I’m just dying to have tea and show off my new gown.”

I blinked rapidly, at a complete loss for words. She wanted to spend time with me? And at the Continental Hotel no less?

Allison, sensing I needed an extra nudge, added, “I heard the Brazilian emperor is staying there! What if we caught a glimpse? Patience and Mercy would just die with envy!”

I forced a chuckle. Emperors? Overpriced tea? This was definitely not how I wanted to spend my morning—to say nothing of my outfit, which was absolutely unfit for luxurious society.

“Um, wh-who would chaperone?” I asked.

She gave a tinkling laugh and shook her head. “We don’t need a chaperone, Eleanor! It’s not as if we’re going to the theater or a party. I go to tea without Mother all the time.” She held out her arm and crooked it, waiting for me to slip my own arm through. “Now, are you coming or not?”

No chaperone? But that meant... My breath caught in my throat. That meant I had an escape! Ugly dress or not, this was a gaping wide opportunity for an unrestrained trip to the Spirit-Hunters!

My lips twitched with excitement, and before Mary could utter a protest, I snatched my parasol from beside the door and scooted outside with Allison.

We scurried to her family’s carriage—a well-made, black coach that could easily fit eight people.

Allison slid across the purple satin cushions to a window, tied back the lilac curtains, and then gestured for me to do the same. As I fumbled with ribbons, the horses clattered to a start.

I leaned close to the carriage window and watched the mansions, elaborate fences, and well-tended yards roll past. Usually I navigated the hour-long trek into the city on foot or sat crammed on a horse-drawn streetcar. To ride without dust, mud, or horse manure flying into my face—no wonder Allison could wear such a brilliant blue dress!

I snuck a glance at her beautiful gown and then stared mournfully at my own. My petticoat hems were frayed from all the scrubbing I’d put them through, and they’d long since evolved from white to a mottled brown. Plus, there was a rather obvious rip from that dratted old man’s boot at the depot.

Allison poked me with her parasol. “So how’d you do it?”

“Do what?” I shifted my body to face her.

“The séance, of course! How’d you get the floor to shake and the air to freeze?”

I lifted one shoulder and said casually, “It was all real, of course.”

“Pshaw! I don’t believe that.” She wagged her finger at me. “Your mother used to throw all sorts of séances—my mother told me so—but they were never so wild as that.”

I frowned. How did Mrs. Wilcox know about Mama’s séances? I thought we’d only known the Wilcox family a short while. Strange...

The carriage pulled onto busy Chestnut Street. Hackneys and wagons rattled by, and as we crossed the bridge with the Schuylkill River glittering below, the first buildings of downtown Philadelphia came into view. Shop after shop—all with enormous signs shouting their wares: BOOTS & SHOES, STRAW GOODS, GLASS & SILVERWARE—were interspersed with saloons, banks, restaurants, and offices.

Allison prodded me with her parasol again. “Clarence wants to know if you’re available tomorrow.”

“Huh?” I grunted.

“He wants to take you for a drive tomorrow afternoon, if you’re free.”

A strange sense of unreality washed over me, and I eyed her with disbelief. No one had ever invited me for a drive before, so why the dickens would Clarence Wilcox want to?

I voiced my question in slightly politer terms.

“He said he likes your company.”

I sputtered a laugh. There was no way Clarence had enjoyed my company. Sakes alive, he’d caught me eavesdropping!

Allison scowled. “Why’re you laughing? What’s wrong with—”

“It’s not that,” I interrupted. “I’m just surprised is all... but also delighted.” I grinned. It felt false, but Allison didn’t seem to notice.

Handsome Clarence asking me for a drive... It was rather surprising, yet my stomach fluttered at the prospect. And wait until Mama hears this news!

“So I’ll tell him you’ve accepted?” Allison asked.

“Yes, yes. Tell him to come at half past three.”

She squealed and bounced across the carriage to plop down beside me. “I wish young men would call on me! Clarence has some rather handsome chums, you know, but he says I’m not allowed to flirt with any of them. Of course, I haven’t seen them much lately....” Her words faded, and she gnawed her bottom lip.

“Is everything all right?”

She sighed dramatically. “Oh yes, it’s merely curious. They used to come every day because of the election, but I haven’t seen any of them in more than a week.” She paused and looked out the window. “Oh look!” Her face lit up and she pointed. “Just look at those crowds.”

I followed her gaze and saw the Continental Hotel towering over the wide, open intersection of Chestnut and Ninth Streets. The side that faced us was elegant, pale sandstone; and Allison was right: people were everywhere—standing on the sidewalks, meandering around the front columns, and gawking at the top floor.

“They all want to see the emperor too.” Allison flashed her eyebrows at me. “But they can’t get into the tearoom, and I can. It’s so wonderful to be rich, isn’t it?”

Allison and I entered the hotel’s lobby. Travelers marched past us, their poor footmen lumbering behind with trunks and bags. My heels clicked on the marble floor, and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. The last time I’d been here, Father had been alive and Elijah was still a boy. We were on our way to the library, and Father had stopped by for a quick business meeting. Elijah and I had stared, mouths agape, at the colorful, ornate frescoes on the ceiling, the dangling chandeliers, and the white, ionic columns. Then as soon as Father had left us (with orders to sit quietly while he ran up to a different floor), we’d leaped into action, pretending we were a prince and princess trapped in an enchanted palace.

My smile fell. Elijah was in trouble, yet I was here instead of out finding the Spirit-Hunters to help him. I had to get away from Allison as soon as possible, but without offending her in the process.

“Oh, don’t look so wretched,” Allison whined. She grabbed my arm and waved to a glass-windowed storefront. “Let’s shop while we wait.”

Allison had refused to take the stairs, and that meant waiting for the elevator to deposit its passengers above. So I followed her into Charles Oakford & Sons.

The Continental Hotel’s ground floor was filled with expensive shops to entice Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most powerful visitors. This particular store held some of the most dazzling products I’d ever seen. Long tables were covered in delicate straw bonnets, feminine top hats, dramatic wide brims—any hat a girl could ever want was for sale in this store.

For sale, and outrageously expensive.

A gray-haired clerk with muttonchops moved to help us, but Allison bypassed him without so much as a glance. Her eyes were locked on a blue silk bonnet that matched her dress.

“This is just divine.” She swooped the hat off its display. “Let’s each buy a new hat! Then we can wear them to tea and stun all the men with our beauty.”

I blanched. Buy a hat? Just like that with no thought to the cost? “But I already have one.” I waved vaguely at my head. “And I can’t buy things without my mother’s permission.”

Her excited expression froze. “What?”

“I-I’m not allowed to buy anything new without my mother to approve it.” It wasn’t true—not since I’d taken over our family’s finances. All the same, it was the best excuse I could conjure.

Her nose wrinkled. “That’s silly. I’m going to look stunning in something new, and you’ll just look drab in that old thing.”

Heat crept into my cheeks. “Well, if I’m drab, then that means you’ll look all the more beautiful.”

Her eyes popped wide, and a smile flashed on her lips. “True! I hadn’t thought of it like—oh look! The vertical train is here!” She tossed the blue hat onto the nearest table. I barely had time to shoot the clerk an apologetic grin before she whisked me out of the store.

Several breathless moments later, I was wedged in the tiny, gilded compartment beside Allison and a set of somber couples. A porter stepped inside and slid a metal grate over the entrance.

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