Home > Something Strange and Deadly(6)

Something Strange and Deadly(6)
Author: Susan Dennard

I took a weary breath, lifted my hands, and purred, “I’m truly sorry, sir.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Why are you talking like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re a kitten.

“I thought it might calm you.”

“I don’t need calming,” he snapped. “If you’ll just leave, that’ll take care of everything.” He pointed to the door. “There’s the exit.”

I blinked. Part of me wanted to flee his short temper and take refuge in well-bred manners. But another part of me wanted to let my indignation loose. I hadn’t come all this way to let some green-eyed, scruffy-faced boy stand in my way.

Indignation won. “Now see here, I’ve come to see the Spirit-Hunters.” I jabbed my parasol to emphasize each word. “I won’t leave until I speak with them.”

“What would a lady”—he drew out the word like “laaaay-dee” and waved in my direction—”possibly need the Spirit-Hunters for?”

“That is none of your business.” I pushed my shoulders back, bristling at his snooty superiority. “I will speak with Mr. Boyer and Mr. Boyer only.”

“Is that so?” He rocked his weight onto his heels and examined me from head to toe. My face burned under the scrutiny.

He stepped close to me. I had to roll my head back to see his face—he was at least half a foot taller—and he gazed down with barely concealed distaste.

“I have grave dirt to sweep,” he said, “so if you’ll be stayin’ around for Mr. Boyer, could you at least stand somewhere else?” He gripped me by both arms and pushed me backward out the door. I was so shocked to be touched I couldn’t even protest. All I could do was skitter back where he directed. Even if I’d wanted to stop, my eyes were locked on the very near and very disturbing open collar and exposed throat.

With his hands still planted on my arms and with his lips curved in a satisfied grin, he drawled, “I’m Daniel Sheridan, by the way.” He said it so casually, as if all introductions were preceded by manhandling. “Pleasure to meet you, Miss...”

I twisted free. The rascal. The scalawag. I gave him my haughtiest dragon stare. “I am Miss Eleanor Fitt of the Philadelphia Fitts.”

He flashed his eyebrows and doffed an imaginary hat. “Why then, you’re practically royalty.” He whirled around and strode back into the lab. The door slammed shut behind him.

I stood outside the lab. My shoulders and neck were locked with fiery rage, and I felt as if flames might spew from my fingertips and eyeballs.

Royalty? Humbug! I should have quipped, “And that makes you my subject” or “It’s Queen Eleanor to you” or any number of responses more glib than my furious silence.

“Oh dear,” said a rich, baritone voice behind me. “I told him to keep his temper in check.”

I spun around and found my face two feet from the buttons and collar of a black frock coat. I angled my head slowly up and met the speaker’s honey-brown eyes. He was the most elegant young gentleman I’d ever seen. His suit was impeccably tailored, a slick top hat sat upon his head, and his dark skin seemed to glow from within.

“Misyeu Joseph-Alexandre Boyer,” he said with a bow. “At your service.”

I opened and closed my mouth. My composure was thrown at how unlike Daniel this man was.

Joseph opened his hands in a graceful apology. “Please forgive Mr. Sheridan. I am afraid he works better with machines than with people.” He spoke with such poise and his movements were so refined that all I could do was gawk. He cleared his throat and looked decidedly uncomfortable.

“Oh yes,” I mumbled. “I suppose I shall forgive him.”

“Mèrsi.”

“You’re French?” As soon as I asked, I knew my guess was wrong.

“Creole,” he corrected. “There is a difference in how we speak and spell our words.”

My eyebrows jumped. “Creole? Truly? I’ve never met a Creole before.” I extended my hand. “I’m Eleanor Fitt.”

Joseph stiffened, his eyes fixed on my gloved hand, and I realized—too late—that I’d put him in an uncomfortable position. A gentleman simply was not supposed to shake the hand of an unmarried woman without a proper, third-party introduction. I was so used to chaperoned meetings that I had acted on foolish reflex.

Then his features relaxed, and a smile passed over his lips. He shook my hand firmly before guiding me back into the cramped lab.

“Come in, come in, Mamzèi.” Joseph removed a stool from under the table and gestured for me to sit. “Please excuse the mess. As you know, we are busy people.”

I glanced uneasily at Daniel’s back. He was bent over the table and occupied with something I couldn’t see. I took the offered stool.

“How’d the meeting go?” Daniel asked without turning around.

“Mr. Peger was there.” Joseph’s voice was a soft growl.

Daniel spat, and the spittle landed beside my feet. Droplets splattered on the hem of my gown, and I recoiled. Had the man never heard of a spittoon?

Joseph chuckled, apparently in full agreement with Daniel’s reaction. “Yes, and I will give you three guesses as to what was decided.” Joseph placed his hat on top of the alarm’s telegraph.

Daniel grunted, hammering at some unseen metal. “My three guesses are no, no, and no.”

“Exactly.” Joseph squinted at the floor. “You do realize there is soil everywhere?”

Daniel barked a laugh and whirled around to look smugly at me. My whole body ignited with embarrassment. Daniel flicked his gaze to Joseph. “I’m well aware of the soil, but back to the meeting. What did they give as a reason this time?”

“The usual. They listened with much more attention to Mr. Peger, and so they do not believe we need more reinforcements. They also insist no men can be spared.”

“They’re gonna regret that,” Daniel muttered. “When they see what’s in the cemetery, they’re gonna wish they’d listened to you.”

“Yes, but I think that is enough talk about that.” Joseph glanced at me slantwise, and I got the impression that whatever topic they were discussing it was not for my ears. He turned toward me. “Tell me, Miss Fitt, what brings you here?”

“Oh.” I swallowed and sat up straight. “It’s two things, actually. One... well, one has to do with the walking Dead, and the other is about a spirit.”

Joseph raised an eyebrow and gestured for me to continue, so I described everything that had happened. I rambled, backtracked, and fought off tears, but soon information about the corpse, the letter, the séance, and the spirit had all rushed from me. Throughout the speech, Daniel and Joseph shot concerned glances back and forth.

When I had finished, Daniel’s lips compressed with distaste. “You held a séance?”

I nodded hesitantly. “Yes. Why do you ask?”

Daniel ignored me and turned to Joseph. “I thought you told the reporters to print warnings against séances.”

“I did, but it would seem they chose not to listen.” Joseph rubbed his hand over his head and leaned against the worktable. “Miss Fitt, if what you say is true, then I understand your worry.”

My mouth fell open. “If what I say is true? What do you mean?”

“People take advantage of us,” Daniel said. “More than a few have come here with false or overblown tales. But we’re not here to take on their family’s two hundred-year-old haunting—we’re here to stop a necromancer.”

“But I don’t have a haunting! I have a missing brother and—”

“And we don’t have time.” Daniel’s lips curled up, challenging me to argue.

Joseph intervened. “Miss Fitt, what Daniel says is true. We are extremely busy. This necromancer first raised the Dead in New York, and the police called us in several weeks ago. Several opium addicts were found, well... let us just say they were in a rather gruesome state.”

“There’s no need to censor yourself.” I sat up straighter. “I can handle the details. I grew up with stories of the Dead like everyone else.”

Daniel choked out a laugh. “Go on then, Joseph. You heard the lady. Might as well tell her the men were decapitated sacrifices.”

Joseph sighed. “Daniel, you have the manners and tact of a gorilla.”

“Ha.” Daniel shot me a wide grin. I spun my gaze to my shoes. The ruffian.

“Continue, please,” I mumbled.

“Well, the manner of their deaths”—Joseph flourished a gloved hand toward his head—“suggested the men were killed as a sacrifice for power. The fact that the corpses were also found as reanimated corpses proved it was the work of a necromancer. But then as suddenly as the bodies had begun appearing, they stopped.

“Or so we thought. We soon heard about a Philadelphia man found dead but walking, and judging by the similarity in... well, the similarity in sacrificial methods, we knew our necromancer had moved. Here.”

Daniel picked up the story, “People can handle one or two walking Dead—just burn ’em or blast ’em to smithereens—but a whole cemetery’s worth? And a necromancer decapitating the living? Not too many chaps are comfortable dealing with that.

“So we offered our services to the Exhibition board. Most folks with Joseph’s skills”—he cocked his head toward the Creole—“don’t leave New Orleans.”

“No,” Joseph said, “they do not.” For a moment his face sagged, but in an instant the expression passed and he gave me a curt nod. “Thus far the Dead have only harassed the Exhibition, and fortunately, these corpses have only been moderately dangerous. The rest of Philadelphia is untouched.”

“But it won’t stay that way.” Daniel slumped against the table, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“No.” Joseph’s lips thinned. “And though the board has hired us, it is a constant battle to prove the investment is worthwhile. The members cannot see the danger of the situation, and there are politics involved. We have only been hired for show—to soothe visitors’ nerves.

“Nonetheless, we have a job to do. We must first protect the Exhibition, and in our available time, we must train the Exhibition patrolmen to fight the Dead. Fire will not do in a place that ignites easily.” He waved his hands toward the Main Building, which could be seen through the window. “But most important of all, we must stop this necromancer.

“And so, Miss Fitt, if the corpses and the spirit are not directly threatening you, then I see no reason we should strain ourselves further.”

“No threat!” I jumped to my feet. “What of my brother? They have him!”

Daniel scoffed. “There’s no proof of that.”

“What about the spirit? It was evil.” My voice came out loud and filled all the space in the tiny lab. “I know it—it touched me!”

“Miss Fitt.” Joseph stood stiff and straight, his jaw clenched. “There are many spirits free in Philadelphia. Hauntings happen all the time, and most are harmless. My job is here, where the most danger exists for the most people.”

“Besides,” Daniel inserted, his lips pressed into a grim line, “if the Dead do have your brother, he’s probably dead himself.”

My stomach flipped. It punched the breath from my lungs. I toppled forward, grasping for the table. Both men jolted. Joseph, who was nearer, caught me and slid a supportive arm under my elbow. He eased me back onto my stool.

“Just because a corpse delivered your brother’s letter,” he murmured gently, “does not mean the Dead have him.”

I nodded, unable to speak. Daniel’s words repeated over and over in my head. Probably dead himself. Elijah. Dead. No—I couldn’t believe it. It was too soon to give up.

Joseph must have understood my thoughts. “Ignore Daniel. Please, Mamzèi. Perhaps if you bring us your brother’s letter tomorrow, I will see what I—”

A rapid clanging erupted outside the lab and cut him off. The telegraph leaped into action.

It was the Dead alarm.

CHAPTER SIX

Daniel reacted instantly to the peal of the alarm.

He dropped to the floor and dragged a machine from under the table. It looked like a spinning wheel attached to a wooden platform, and it was as tall as my knees. Rather than wooden wheels for making thread, though, this machine had two glass wheels for making... I hadn’t the faintest idea. The glass wheels were connected by gears and a handle, and at both ends of the platform, metal spindles shot up over the glass.

Joseph flung off his coat and gloves and then turned a hardened face to me. “Stay here.” He knelt at one end, and Daniel crouched at the other. They lifted the apparatus and rushed awkwardly from the room. The door slammed shut behind them.

I scrambled up and clutched my parasol to me like a weapon. The banging of the alarm masked all other sounds. I peered through the lab window to find people fleeing the building.

I stepped to the door and pressed my ear to the wood, straining to detect something—anything—through the alarm. I felt the hum of machinery more than I heard it. No other sounds came through.

How long would the Spirit-Hunters need? Should I help? And what was that machine they’d taken for?

The air in the room shifted suddenly.

The hairs on my neck shot straight up. In the next instant, the damp scent of soil hit my nose, and my heart hurled into my throat.

It was last night all over again, and I forced myself to turn around. To face it. And then there it was: the clot of black oozing in front of the window and consuming all light.

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