Home > Something Strange and Deadly(5)

Something Strange and Deadly(5)
Author: Susan Dennard

“Second floor,” Allison chirped. With a shudder, the cubicle began to rise.

I fidgeted with the buttons on my gloves. I’d never been on an elevator—or vertical train, as some people still called it. But when, after several seconds, nothing happened but slow ascension, I heaved a sigh. Outside the grate, I could see the next floor coming nearer and nearer until the great contraption finally stopped. The porter opened the grate.

Allison crooked her arm in mine and guided me down a narrow hall with maroon rugs and shiny mirrors. Before us was an open door from which sunlight shone and voices murmured over the tinkle of silverware.

The Continental Hotel’s famous tearoom.

With each step my insides roiled. Mama may have held a successful séance last night and the Wilcoxes may have befriended us, but I still wasn’t overly comfortable in high society. It was one thing to learn the rules of the well-bred, but quite another to actually use them. All the judging and gossip—I simply wasn’t very good at it.

We passed through the door and into a crowded, pastel room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. The round tables were covered with lacy tablecloths, and almost all of them were full.

A waiter dressed in a prim black suit guided us to a table beside a window, spouted out a long list of items, and then waited for our orders.

My heart plummeted to my stomach. He hadn’t listed any prices!

“A pot of tea,” Allison said. “The fresh fruit platter, a sampling of your pastries, and some of that French bread, whatever it is called.” She glanced at me. “Anything else?”

I shook my head frantically. All the blood had fled my face. What the blazes did etiquette demand when faced with no money?

Allison nodded at the waiter, and he glided off. Then she picked up her earlier conversation, completely unaware of my inner panic.

I slid my hands into my pockets and tried to feel out how many coins I had. Three nickels, four dimes, and a quarter. There was no way it was going to be enough, and this was not the sort of place that would let me pay on credit.

I inhaled deeply, ready to come clean about my “momentary absence of funds,” when Allison’s constant stream of words suddenly broke off.

Her eyes narrowed to vicious slits; her gaze was behind me. “Those lying ninnies,” she said through clenched teeth.

I risked a glance back. It was the Virtue Sisters with two mustached young men.

“They told me they were busy today,” Allison continued. “Why would they say that?”

The sisters noticed us, and though their faces momentarily hardened, they quickly brandished fake smiles and strode toward us.

I twisted back to Allison. “What did they tell you?”

“That they were too busy tending to their mother after last night’s horrors to join us for tea.” She gritted her teeth and then flourished her own false grin.

And in an instant I understood Elijah’s favorite line from Macbeth: “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.”

When the sisters and their two escorts reached our table, Mercy bobbed a curtsy. “What a coincidence seeing you two here!”

“Quite!” chimed Patience with a curtsy of her own. She waved to the mustached boys. “These are the McClures. This is Tom and this is Luis.”

I nodded politely before noticing they were twins—matching dark red hair, olive skin, and perfectly tailored suits. Even their bushy mustaches were identical!

“Imagine seeing you,” Allison said icily. “I thought you were busy.”

“Oh yes!” Mercy twittered, and avoided the comment. “That séance was so amazing, Eleanor! Our mother spent the whole night with a case of the vapors!”

“Where’s Mr. Wilcox?” Patience asked Allison with an arched eyebrow.

Allison’s nostrils flared. “Clarence is at home with our mother. She’s still distraught.”

“And your brother?” asked one of the McClure twins, his gaze focused on me. “Is Elijah still detained?”

My lungs grew too large for my chest, and for a moment I had no response. He had asked the very question I still needed to answer myself.

I tugged at my earrings. “He’s not back yet. From New York, I mean.” I laughed shrilly. “D-do you know Elijah?”

“Oh yes,” said the other twin. “We were all at Germantown Academy together.”

My eyebrows drew together, and my lips flicked down. Elijah had been miserable at Germantown Academy. He’d been tormented every day by a quartet of devils led by one boy: Junior. Were these boys a part of that bullying gang?

“He was a year ahead of us,” he added. He smiled kindly, and my frown vanished. Elijah’s tormentors had been older boys—not younger.

And honestly, even if I did meet Junior one day, what would I do? What could I do? Nothing more than what Allison was doing right now: fume silently with a veneer of cold politeness.

“We ought to all sit together,” Tom said. His gaze was unabashedly focused on Allison.

Peeps of disagreement broke from the Virtue Sisters’ lips. They’d lost the attention of their gentlemen. No doubt this was the precise reason they’d avoided Allison’s company in the first place.

“Our treat,” Luis added.

“Yes!” I blurted. “Join us!” The Virtue Sisters shot me fierce glares, but I stoutly ignored them and waved the waiter over. If these mustached McClures were so intent on impressing Allison with a show of generosity, I had no problem with that!

Soon enough, another table had been shoved next to ours, and the twins had dropped down beside Allison. I was left to chat with Patience and Mercy; and despite the sisters’ disgruntled disappointment and my pressing errand, I found myself enjoying them. Maybe it was simply because Mama wasn’t there and I could speak uncensored, or maybe it was because, when they smiled, the Virtue Sisters were actually rather fun.

Plus, Mercy ate so many croissants, I didn’t feel guilty indulging in a few extras myself.

When the church bells rang noon in a thunderous clamor, I knew it was time to go. I needed to find the Spirit-Hunters and face this situation with the Dead and Elijah’s absence.

I convinced Allison I could make it home alone, thanked the McClure twins profusely, grinned broadly at Patience and Mercy, and bid the entire group a good afternoon.

Once I reached the hotel’s lobby, I bought a streetcar ticket at the front desk before scampering into the hot sun and boarding the first horse-drawn streetcar that rattled down Chestnut Street.

Free brunch, no chaperone, and a few new friends. Life was the shiniest it had been in years. All that remained to make it perfect was bringing Elijah home.


Despite the morbid motivation for going to the Centennial Exhibition, it felt wonderful to be alone—to finally do what I could for Elijah.

When the streetcar reached Lancaster Avenue and the towers of the Exhibition hit my eyes, I hopped off the car. My home was within walking distance, and since my remaining coins would be spent on the Exhibition entrance fee, I would have little choice but to use my feet.

The newspaper had said the Spirit-Hunters were to be found in Machinery Hall at the Exhibition. Like the first world’s fair in London, our International Centennial Exhibition was meant to unite the world in a display of technology, culture, and progress.

Iron spires and colorful flags rose up along the Schuylkill for ten blocks, making the Exhibition look just like a fairy-tale. Enormous buildings housed the world’s wonders, and not even a whole slack-jawed, wide-eyed week of exploring the gardens and halls would be enough time to see everything.

The sun scorched down and the wind whipped my parasol as I joined the throngs that poured through the turnstiles, paid my fifty cents, and strode into the enormous entrance plaza. It was like a field of daisies with all the parasols twirling and bobbing in the breeze. Bartholdi’s bronze Fountain of Light and Water rose from the plaza’s center and towered over the thousands of visitors. I paused before it to let the mist spray over me.

I had already seen the Exhibition. I had gasped and twittered with all the other visitors, but even the greatest feats of man lose their luster when one’s head is filled with storm clouds.

Feeling cooler, I lowered my parasol and turned. Before me was the most popular building at the Exhibition: Machinery Hall, a long, narrow structure made entirely of wood and glass, and I had to crane my neck to see the top.

I entered the building to find sun pouring in through windows that spanned the walls. Sharp beams of light flew from the metal machine surfaces that packed the hall.

Engines, furnaces, sewing machines, locomotives—every example of man’s newest creations hummed with life. The hall resounded with the whirs and clicks of a mechanical symphony. Singing with it was the chorus of people’s laughter and chatter, and above it all was the percussive boom of a massive steam engine.

It was the Corliss engine, sitting in the center of Machinery Hall and soaring more than forty feet up into the rafters. Two monstrous cylinders spun a thirty-foot wheel, and the energy it generated was enough to power almost every machine in the building.

Yet among all the vibrancy, the alarms hung solemnly on the walls at regular intervals. Fire alarms and the new, but necessary, Dead alarms. I shivered as the horrible clang I’d heard in the train depot played in my mind.

I pulled the newspaper article from my pocket, careful to keep the print off my gloves—dirty gloves would incite Mama’s ire—and verified the way to the Spirit-Hunters’ office. It should be near the east entrance through which I’d just passed.

I glanced to a narrow aisle between the wall and a locomotive exhibit. It was also the path to the men’s toilets. Scarcely the sort of place a lady should see. For that matter, scarcely the sort of place I wanted to see. Hesitantly, I continued on, keeping my gloved hand to my nose. The stink of urine was strong in the morning heat, and I fumbled for my handkerchief.

I slunk past the water closet door, cheeks aflame and eyes averted, until I saw a narrow door with a small handwritten note fixed to it.


I took one last stifled gulp, returned my handkerchief to my pocket, and gritted my teeth with determination.

I knocked. As the moments ticked by and no one answered the door, my determination faded and frustration wormed in.

I pressed at the handle to check if the door was locked. It flew open and promptly hit something—presumably glass, judging by its spectacular crash.

This was followed by a furious bellowing, sounding much like I imagined an enraged bull would.

Steeling myself, I stepped inside and peered around the door.

“Didn’t you see the sign?” shouted a lanky man with tousled, corn-blond hair. He stood beside a table, his shirtsleeves rolled up and the top buttons of his shirt undone. All his exposed skin sent an embarrassed warmth through my face.

As if he wasn’t frightening enough with so much profanity, he also wore the strangest set of goggles I’d ever seen. They covered half his face and were made of shiny brass with thick, clear lenses that made his eyes look like grass-green croquet balls.

And he was looking at me as if he expected an answer.

“P-pardon me?” I asked.

“Didn’t you see the sign?” he snapped.

I glanced behind. “Well, yes.”

“So?” He rolled his hands in a quick, wheel-like movement as if to say “Now what?”

“I knocked,” I said sheepishly, “but no one answered.”

“Because I’m busy.” He stomped toward me, and I shrank back, ready to retreat through the open door should his expression turn any more menacing.

“S-sorry,” I stammered.

“You should be,” he said. “You’ve contaminated my grave dirt—look!” He thrust a finger toward the floor. I flicked my eyes down. Soil and glass covered the ground.

I opened my mouth to apologize but clamped it back shut at the sight of his blinking, goggled eyes and sharp frown.

“See that?” he barked. “D’you know how hard it is to get dirt from Laurel Hill? I ought to make you get more! Make you face the Dead and...”

I stopped listening. His hands flailed up, down, and side to side as he declared me reckless, thoughtless, and I even think I heard rude mentioned.

I took his foulmouthed moment to examine the room, which was no bigger than my bedroom, all the edges crammed with books, flasks, and trunks. There was just enough space at the center for several people to move about (albeit closely). Light shone from a single, tall window at the back. Behind the goggled young man, a table stood covered with wrenches, screws, wires, and other equipment one might find in an inventor’s lair.

My breath caught as my eyes rested on a telegraph like the telegraphs at the fire stations—telegraphs that spring to life when a fire alarm sounds. This one must be connected to the Dead alarms.

“And,” the young man said, interrupting my thoughts with a forceful fist in the air, “I needed it to calibrate my goggles!” His chest heaved as if he’d just fought a boxing match, and I decided silence remained my best response. After several empty seconds, his hand dropped and he cleared his throat. He slid off the goggles’ strap and gently eased the lenses from his face.

I blinked in surprise. The lenses were no longer clear but a murky brown. How had the glass changed color? My surprise grew when I noticed that, with his face fully exposed, the blond man was quite young—perhaps only a few years older than me. He had red dents on his face from the goggles, and his formerly bulbous eyes were now normal and entirely too predatory.

He folded his arms over his chest. “You’ve ruined my experiment.”

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