Home > Something Strange and Deadly(7)

Something Strange and Deadly(7)
Author: Susan Dennard

Before fear could paralyze me, I tore open the lab’s door and scrambled into Machinery Hall. For once my legs and skirts worked in concert, and I didn’t trip over hems or lace. I just ran. I knew that the spirit was followed by the icy sheen that formed over the machines I raced past.

I reached the east entrance and pummeled into the door, expecting release, but I was thrown back. The door shook but remained solidly shut. I was locked in!

I twirled around and scanned frantically for an escape. The spirit had blocked my path.

“Go away,” I shrieked, my throat snapping with the words and strength tingling through me. I swung my parasol at it—“Leave!”—and somehow that worked. I didn’t understand how or why, but now was not the time to question my luck.

The spirit slithered away. I forced my feet to run back through the hall, and I had almost reached the center when the reek of decay alerted me to the corpses. I could sense the cold behind me, though, so I didn’t slow. It wasn’t until I reached the giant Corliss engine towering in the hall’s center that I actually saw the first body.

It shambled south, leaving a rain of dirt behind it. Most of its skin was gone, and the tattered remains of bone and muscle barely clung together.

I observed all this in a flash, but I did not pause. The piercing chill that followed gave me no choice but to move forward. Logic told me that following the Dead would lead to the Spirit-Hunters. I veered around the engine in pursuit of the skeleton but then skidded to a halt.

Corpses were everywhere, stumbling like drunks in a thick mass toward... I blinked in surprise. They were heading for the Hydraulic Annex, an extension of Machinery Hall that housed a giant, fountained pool. Even from here I could see the hazy mist that meant the fountain’s pumps and waterfalls still ran. But why would the Spirit-Hunters go there?

The closest corpse, a skeleton of gleaming bone and shredded flesh, tottered to a stop. Its exposed skull rotated toward me, and though its sockets were empty, I knew it sensed me. Four more Dead, each in varying stages of decomposition, slowed and turned to face me. My chest convulsed at movement crawling on a fresher one’s skin. It even wore a dress like my own.

I lifted my parasol defensively before me. The corpse of the woman staggered closer. It was recently dead and more coordinated. When it was only three feet away, it lunged, both hands outstretched.

I swung with all the power I could muster, and the parasol connected with the corpse’s arms. It sent a shock up my limbs but hardly affected the Dead. I stumbled back, the urge to scream rising in my chest, and I swung again.

This time its elbow cracked inward and drove into the other outstretched arm. The corpse was momentarily slowed, but did not stop its attack. And now the other corpses were near and approaching from different angles. With the Corliss engine at my back, I knew I was trapped.

A small figure snaked through my vision. Bones crunched and flesh slapped as the Dead crumpled around me. The corpses continued to grab and claw, but they couldn’t reach me. Their legs were shattered, and they could gain no ground.

An Asian boy stood before me, his fists at the ready and stance low. He was Chinese, judging by his long, black braid and half-shaved head. Yet he wore clothes like an American boy: brown knickerbockers and a waistcoat.

He jerked a thumb toward the Hydraulic Annex, and though his lips moved, his words were lost in the clanging of the alarm.

When I did not move, he reached out and wrenched me along with him. In five long strides, we reached the end of the Dead parade.

The boy reached the closest body, kicked the side of its knee, and pushed it over in a fluid, flat-palmed movement. He was a blur of feet and hands, repeating the same maneuver with each corpse. The key, I saw, was in destroying their legs, so I rushed forward and hurled my parasol at a corpse’s knee. The joint splintered and rolled inward; and before the Dead could grasp at me, I shoved it with my parasol. Down it went.

Then the alarm stopped. Only the vibrations hanging in the air gave any indication that it had sounded. My ears adjusted in moments, only to be filled with the scrape of bone on bone and the rip of straining flesh. Beyond that was the crash of waterfalls.

It was at that moment that I noticed the oppressive weight of summer heat. No more icy air or steaming breath. The spirit had left.

“Jie!” a male voice bellowed. “Hurry!”

It was Daniel, but there were still many Dead blocking our path to him. So we worked faster, a frenzy of attacks. We targeted the corpses directly in our way. My muscles protested and my elbows popped under each impact. Our progress through the rancid Dead was a surreal blur of flesh and bone.

Then the first misty droplets brushed at my face. We had reached the pool of the Hydraulic Annex.

I stared, momentarily surprised by the view before me. The pool was as wide as my house and twice as long, with a wooden guardrail surrounding it. At its back, a giant waterfall crashed. Along the sides, smaller pumps and cascades rocketed water in an amazing display of hydraulic art.

But what stunned me was that in the middle of it all stood Joseph. His arms were outstretched, his eyes were squeezed shut, and the water reached his waist.

A hand grasped at my skirts. I spun around, and in the same movement, my parasol connected with something. It made a jellylike thud. I had toppled the body of a child dressed in a blue gown, and it was now clawing at me from the ground.

The burn of bile rose in my throat, and I staggered back until I hit the fence surrounding the pool.

The Dead shuffled forward. They were impeded by rows of benches that surrounded the pool, but there was something else—something more. These corpses moved as if they slogged through waist-deep mud. The corpses I’d first encountered hadn’t been nearly so slow.

“Joseph needs the machine,” Daniel rushed to tell the Chinese boy. “You have to hold ’em off while I get it running.” He spared a quick glance for me before dashing to a bench on which sat the glass machine.

“Time to fight,” the Chinese boy said to me. Then he moved to intercept the nearest Dead.

I stood, momentarily lost. What was about to happen? We couldn’t smash kneecaps indefinitely—there were just too many.

A sharp pop sounded beside me as blue flashed in the corner of my eye. It was the machine, its wheels spinning and electricity sparkling.

“Joseph!” Daniel roared. “The machine is ready.”

So there was a solution, and that machine was somehow it. The realization spurred me to move.

I swiveled back toward the pool. Joseph moved to the edge, swaying dangerously with each step. His hand reached out as if grabbing for help. I rushed to the guardrail, my hand extended; and with much heaving, I dragged his sopping figure from the pool. The instant his feet left the water, the stampeding sounds of the Dead grew louder.

The corpses were no longer slow. In fact, they shambled forward at a brisk walk—too quickly for the Chinese boy to stop them. I raced to help as Joseph ran to the popping machine.

But there were too many. Fingers and teeth and waxy flesh were everywhere. I swung and shoved and swung and shoved.

Daniel’s voice howled over the fray, “Now!”

The Chinese boy whirled around, seized me, and lugged me behind a bench. Just before I dropped, I saw Joseph shove his hand directly into the machine’s electricity.

A bright, blue light exploded overhead, and a thunderous boom cracked through the annex. Then came the thud and slap of corpses as they hit the ground.

I craned my neck and peered over the bench. The walking Dead had collapsed where they stood.

It took several moments for me to comprehend that it was over and I was safe. I eased painfully onto the bench. My muscles screamed their exhaustion and had already begun to stiffen from overuse.

The Chinese boy rose from our spot on the floor. He looked down at me. “Thanks for helping.” His voice was high and soft. He poked his thumb at his chest. “I’m Jie.”

“Eleanor,” I answered, gesturing wearily to myself. “Wh-what do we do now?”

“I get people to help us clean before the flies come. You help Joseph, yeah?” He bounded off without a glance back, and with no regard for his feet hitting flesh and bones.

I winced, glad that the roar of the water blocked the sound of his footsteps. The cool mist also kept some of the rotten scent at bay. I pushed myself up and shuffled toward Daniel and Joseph, who both lay in a heap on a bench nearby.

“What just happened?” I asked. “With the machine? And why were you in the fountain?”

“Now’s not the time,” Daniel grumbled. He rose, slid an arm under Joseph, and helped the bedraggled man rise. I lurched forward and added support to Joseph’s other side.

“Mèrsi,” Joseph murmured. His eyes were glassy and his breathing rough.

We shuffled from the pool and benches and approached the first of the collapsed Dead.

“Hold your nose,” Daniel said. “And you probably don’t wanna look down.”

I gritted my teeth and kept my chin raised high. Like Jie, I didn’t—couldn’t—avoid stepping on the corpses. My ankles and heels rolled and sank as we progressed forward.

Daniel tipped his head around Joseph to peer at me. “What are you doin’ here, Miss Fitt? We told you to stay in the lab.”

My heel poked through skin with a rip and a thud. I pressed my lips firmly together and forced my eyes to remain up and forward. “I couldn’t stay,” I said.

Joseph cleared his throat. “There was a spirit.”

“Yes.” I glanced at him, my eyes wide. “How did you know?”

“I could feel the cold.”

“You could?” I asked. “How? You weren’t near.”

“When I stand in water, I can connect more easily to spiritual energy.”

“T-to what?”

Daniel answered. “It’s like electricity. Everything that’s—” He broke off and flinched. His foot was tangled in a corpse’s dress. He shook his leg free, wrinkled his nose, and then continued. “Everything that’s alive has spiritual energy. You call it soul.”

We reached the giant Corliss engine, and though the air still stank of putrid flesh, the ground was clean. Joseph paused our slow trudge forward and straightened. “I can go alone now, thank you.”

Daniel wiped his brow. “Like I was sayin’, souls are made of electricity.”

His words clicked with something Elijah had taught me. “Water’s a conductor,” I said slowly. “Is that how it works?”

“Right.” Daniel flicked his eyes toward me, and I thought I saw a glint of respect. “So when Joseph stands in it, he can connect to the spiritual energy.”

“And so,” I pressed, “when he was in the water, he could control the bodies?”

“Not control,” Joseph said, “but affect. You might have noticed a difference in the corpses’ speed when I stepped from the water. My ability to affect the corpses weakened when I left the water, so their speed and coordination improved.”

Daniel nodded. “We’re lucky the Hydraulic Annex has such a big pool. We’re even luckier the corpses followed us there.”

“Wi. It makes me think we were the target of the attack.”

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad.” Daniel glanced toward the annex. “I should go back and get the machine.”

“What is that thing?” I asked. “It made sparks.”

“It’s called an influence machine. It makes static electricity from spinning the glass wheels. And when Joseph touches the spark, he uses it to blast all that corrupt soul back into the spirit realm. Kinda like a cue ball smashing apart all the other billiard balls.”

“Oh,” I said, not entirely sure I understood.

“But that machine wasn’t easy to make, and it can sell for a pretty penny. So I ought to retrieve it. Jie can help me carry it to the lab.”

Joseph bowed his head, granting permission, and then he turned to me. He tugged at his dripping vest—as if his messy appearance was somehow the fault of his own poor taste.

“Shall we?” He gestured toward the lab, and we resumed our march through Machinery Hall. “You see, Miss Fitt, I could feel the spirit while I stood in the water—it is quite strong.” He swallowed and fidgeted with his cuffs. “What was most worrisome was that it knew my range—how far I can reach to affect soul—and it hovered just outside.”

I sucked in a breath, and the hairs on my neck stood on end. Was that why it stopped following me? But how would it know something like that? And for that matter, why had it even come here?

“Mr. Boyer,” I said, “that’s the spirit my mother let out last night.”

His lips compressed. “You are certain?”

“Positive.” I shuddered, and hugged my arms to my chest. “It smells... it smells like dirt, and it’s so cold.”

“Ah.” Lines etched their way over Joseph’s brow. “Then it is a very powerful spirit indeed.”

“Mr. Boyer!” a Cockney voice shouted. I glanced down the nearest aisle of machinery and saw a cluster of men striding toward us.

“Reporters,” Joseph spat, his nose curling. “Even worse, Mr. Peger. He only writes half of what I say, and never the important half.”

My mouth went dry. I shrank behind Joseph. “I’m not sure I want to see reporters.”

Joseph gave me a concerned glance and opened his mouth to speak, but the men were upon us.

“Hello, ma’am,” said one of them, tipping his hat. “Were you trapped in the building during the attack? Did you see anything? Are you connected with the Spirit-Hunters? Did they rescue you?” He sang out question after question, leaving me no time to answer.

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