Home > Something Strange and Deadly(8)

Something Strange and Deadly(8)
Author: Susan Dennard

I faltered back several steps. I couldn’t be in the newspaper. Someone would certainly see mention of me, and then Mama would find out I’d been with the Spirit-Hunters; she’d know I’d been with people of “low society” and, worst of all, that I’d been there because I needed help dealing with the Dead.

I lifted my hands defensively and shook my head as more of the reporters approached me. Nearby, Joseph fared no better.

A squat, square man with shimmering golden curls had attached himself to Joseph; and despite the reporter’s much smaller size, the Spirit-Hunter somehow seemed the tinier of the two.

When one of my reporters requested my name, I made a decision. I’d had quite enough, and what were a bunch of reporters compared to an army of Dead? I lowered my head, lifted my skirts, and pummeled through.

It wasn’t until I was several blocks away, gasping for breath and coated in sweat, that I realized I stank like the Dead.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Thank the merciful heavens Mama was away when I reached home. She was calling on all our guests from last night—no doubt to explain away the evening’s unusual events.

I bribed Mary to help me wash the dress. Her price was steep: a pair of kid gloves. But a lost pair of gloves was easier to explain than a foul-walking dress. Fortunately, Mary had been so pleased by her payment she hadn’t bothered to ask about my need for secrecy, or my smelly dress.

Several hours later, just as the sun was beginning its descent, Mama returned and cornered me in my bedroom, clucking with joy over Clarence’s invitation for a drive. Apparently Mrs. Wilcox had shared the news—and invited us to the opera the following Saturday.

It was actually the best possible turn of events, for now Mama had to let me leave home without an adult (for how else could I go join Clarence?), she couldn’t be angry over my morning escape with Allison (woo the sister while wooing the brother), and she was so delighted by our opera invitation she seemed unable to think of anything else.

The only thing that didn’t work in my favor was that I couldn’t sneak back to the Spirit-Hunters lab on Sunday morning as I’d hoped. Mama and Mary pounced the minute I’d finished my breakfast. While Mary brushed my pistachio silk carriage dress, Mama tugged the laces of my corset as tight as they would go. She grunted and I groaned, and we sounded like the giant hogs I’d seen at the zoo—except that, rather than play in the mud and eat to my heart’s content, I was forced to sit daintily in the parlor without lunch. For two hours. With my mother for company.

I was so grateful when Clarence finally arrived, I practically swooned with relief. After an awkward reception, he and I left for our afternoon drive. He drove a luxurious carriage with navy bench seats. It was pulled by two chestnut horses, and today he drove it with the top folded down.

My hat and dress were conspiring against me as we traveled past the lavish homes of the neighborhood. I was forced to constantly adjust my position lest I crush the many plaits and ruffles that adorned my gown.

To pile on the agony, once we reached Shantytown—a collection of shacks around the Exhibition that fed off the scraps of rich tourists—the ribbon on my bonnet decided today was the day it wanted freedom. It dangled before my face in a taunting display of rebellion.

I tried to focus my attention on the summer sun and afternoon breeze, the rattle of the wheels and the beat of the horses’ hooves as we crossed over the Schuylkill, but my pent-up tensions and fear would not be rejected so easily.

“So, Miss Fitt,” Clarence said once we turned onto a tree-lined road beside the river, “you are no doubt wondering why I invited you out.”

I swatted the ribbon from my eyes. “And here I assumed it was my unsurpassable good looks.”

He chuckled. “That was, of course, part of my motivation.”

“Only part?” I slid my gaze left and watched him from the corner of my eye. “Well then, the rest of your reason must be that bribe you mentioned the other evening.”

“Something like that.” He smiled sheepishly. “Quite simply, I must beg for your discretion regarding Friday night’s... um...” He seemed to be searching for the right word.

“Rendezvous?” I suggested.

He snorted. “I suppose you could call it that.”

“Well, you needn’t worry. I haven’t told anyone.” I fingered the mother-of-pearl buttons on my gloves. “Though I am curious why you’re so keen to hide a trip for fresh air.”

“Yes, well, that is my private affair.” He spoke lightly, but his eyes were hard.

“And,” I continued, ignoring him, “why did you have that newspaper?”

“Miss Fitt, you know curiosity gets men killed.”

I grinned. “Then I daresay it’s good I’m a woman.”

He groaned—an amused sound. “No wonder Allie finds you confusing. You’ve a retort for everything.”

“No, only for Wilcoxes.”

He rolled his head back and laughed. “All right, all right. If you promise to keep my secrets and enjoy this drive”—he opened his hands to gesture at the sun-dappled carriageway before us— “then I will explain.”

I blinked. Really? All it took to get an answer was a witty turn of phrase? If only it were that simple with men like Daniel Sheridan.

“Well, go on,” I urged.

“I sent my footman to fetch a newspaper because...” He clenched his teeth and took in a shaky breath. “Because Frederick Weathers was my friend.”

My eyes widened. Though his response made no sense in the context of the conversation I’d overheard, it was startling news all the same.

“The man found headless?” I gripped at his sleeve. “He was your friend?”

Clarence nodded once, his face tightening with pain.

“Oh, Mr. Wilcox, I am sorry.”

He gently removed my clenched fingers from his sleeve. “Yes, Miss Fitt. Now, if you’ll please keep this information to yourself.”

“But don’t most people know? It’s in the newspapers.”

“Yes, but his family wants it kept quiet. Allie doesn’t read the papers, so she doesn’t know yet.” He gazed into the distance, as if considering what to say next. “And it’s more complicated than just one man... one man dying. There are elections coming up, and Frederick’s father has withdrawn from them.”

“His father...” I thought back to the newspaper article. “He’s on the city council?”

“Yes, and he no longer wishes to hold office. That interferes significantly with my own campaign for city council.” He flicked his gaze to me for several moments, his mouth curved down. But in an instant his lips were back to their fetching smile. “Now, if you would kindly keep this to yourself.”

“I am sorry for the loss of your friend,” I offered. This secret was hardly as sinister as I had expected—or hoped. Perhaps my own curiosity was really no better than Allison’s appetite for gossip.

“Have you spoken with the Spirit-Hunters?” I offered. “Perhaps they can help.”

“No.” He tipped his face away. “I would rather not deal with them. They’re low-life—disreputable, I’ve heard.”

I frowned. Joseph Boyer seemed about as honest as men come—a true gentleman if I’d ever met one. “But,” I said hesitantly, “if they’re so disreputable, then why did the Exhibition board hire them?”

“Because they volunteered? Because they’re cheap? I can’t say.” He lifted a shoulder. “Everything about the situation is worrisome, Miss Fitt.” He glanced at me, assessing. “Worst of all, I hear all the corpses in Laurel Hill have come to life.”

I shivered and hugged my arms to my stomach. Laurel Hill, Daniel had mentioned, was a graveyard on the steep, rugged hills beside the Schuylkill River. Because it was several miles north of Philadelphia, it had always been undisturbed and peaceful. Though, if all the corpses had risen... Well, that meant hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of Dead.

And if the Dead came from Laurel Hill, then it seemed likely the necromancer was there as well. And if Elijah was trapped with the necromancer, then... then he could be in the cemetery.

And he might be a corpse too. My skin crawled, and I heaved the thought aside.

“Take me to Laurel Hill,” I said.

Clarence whipped his face toward me, his expression revolted. “Why? What a horrible request.”

“Please, Mr. Wilcox.” I scooted closer to him. “It is not so great a detour to go there—it’s on our way into the countryside. I just want to peer through the gates.”

“Give me one good reason to comply with such a morbid desire.”

What could I say? I didn’t want him to know about Elijah. “My... my father is in Laurel Hill Cemetery,” I muttered at last. “You said all the bodies have risen, and I wonder if he is among them.”

My words were not entirely false. My father was buried in Laurel Hill, and I was curious if his corpse had risen.

“Ah,” Clarence said. He clenched the reins in one hand and massaged his forehead with the other. “I have asked myself that same question. About my own father, who is also buried there.” He narrowed his eyes a fraction and studied me. “All right, Miss Fitt. You win. But consider this your bribe to keep my secrets.” He shot me a half grin. “We will only stay a moment.” Then he flicked the reins, and we picked up our speed.

Minutes later we rounded a shady bend in the road. The long, white-columned gatehouse that marked the entrance to Laurel Hill Cemetery moved into view. The gates were closed, and there was no one around. This was usually a place of wandering couples, visiting families, and rattling carriages, all there to view the forested cemetery grounds. Now it was silent and empty—no, not empty. Empty of the living.

“We stop here,” Clarence said. “I don’t want the horses getting skittish.”

We jerked to a halt, and I lurched forward in my seat. Clarence hopped to the ground and offered me his hand. “I do not wish to stay long, Miss Fitt. We shouldn’t be here, and...” He swiveled his head left and right, reminding me of a frightened squirrel. “Well, the Dead are reason enough.”

“Yes,” I murmured, clumsily climbing down. My lips were dry, and my heart thumped against my ribs. I had seen the Dead twice now, and they didn’t scare me anymore. No—what scared me was the possibility of seeing Elijah. Of seeing him dead.

Soon, Clarence and I stood inside the gatehouse’s archway. My fingers were gripped around the gate’s iron bars, and my face was pressed against them. Upon the hill that rose quickly before me were the statues of Old Mortality and Sir Walter Scott. But beyond those stone men, I detected no signs of the Dead.

“There’s nothing here,” I said, accusation in my voice.

“You’ve got to be patient. We haven’t been here long.” He glanced at me. “Trust me. The Dead are in there—I saw them from the river a few days ago.”

“Oh.”

“Be grateful. What I saw was horrifying. I instantly regretted my curiosity.”

I sniffed haughtily and wished etiquette didn’t force me to bite my tongue. One would think, after Friday evening, he would know I was not prone to hysterics.

Clarence swallowed. His eyes were locked on some distant point. “Look.”

I followed his gaze. At the top of the hill, a figure shambled by. I knew that gait. The stride of long-dead bones.

I clutched at the iron bars. “Where do you suppose it’s going?”

“I don’t know.”

“North,” I murmured. “Perhaps we can see it through the fence.”

“No. It’s overgrown.” Clarence waved toward the nearest stretch of bars. Though the outer edge of the fence was bare of brush, the inside was bordered by thick forest.

“But there might be a break somewhere. Come on. Let’s follow it.” Before Clarence could stop me, I gathered up my skirts and hurried out of the gatehouse. I sped along the road until I reached the iron fence traveling north.

Clarence’s footsteps were close behind, but he made no move to stop me. It would seem Mr. Clarence Wilcox wanted to see beyond the fence as much as I. Yet, just as he had declared, I could find no opening in the shrubs within the cemetery.

“Miss Fitt,” he said after several minutes of searching. “Our risk of being noticed by the Dead rises each moment we linger.” His tone was friendly, but there was a harsh edge to his words. “I have fulfilled my end of the deal. Let’s return to the carriage.”

“But we’ve seen nothing.” I smacked my hat’s ribbon from my face. “Just a bit more. Please.”

“No.” He planted his feet and shook his head once. “Was the spirit on Friday not enough for you? You don’t want to see a corpse. I can promise you it’s a horrible sight, and I don’t want to carry you home in a faint.”

His words rankled me. I wasn’t like the silly girls he was used to, and I was tired of him treating me like... like Allison.

I stepped toward him, my chin tipped high. “Mr. Wilcox, I have seen plenty of corpses. I’ve been present twice when the Dead alarm rang.” I thrust up two fingers. “I want to know how many Dead walk in this cemetery. I want to know if... if...” My words faded.

Clarence wore an entirely unexpected expression: amusement. His mouth turned up in a smile. It wasn’t his usual polite grin—this one was completely genuine, and it transformed his already handsome face into a beautiful one. All I could do was stare, mouth hanging open like an idiot.

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