Home > Something Strange and Deadly(9)

Something Strange and Deadly(9)
Author: Susan Dennard

Clarence pressed a gloved hand against his lips for several moments before a soft bark of laughter broke free.

“You’re nothing like your brother, are you? You’re bold—brave even.”

I reared back, all thought of his looks gone at those words. “What did you say?”

His smile fell. The color drained from his face.

“You do know Elijah,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me? You said you only knew of him.”

“Yes, well...”

My temper flared to life. “You lied.”

He lifted his hands in a rigid movement, as if it took a great control to remain calm. “It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like? You said you didn’t know him.”

“I didn’t know him—not well, at least.” He licked his lips and slowly lowered his hands. “He was the year behind me at Germantown Academy.”

“And?”

“And nothing.”

“That’s it? How do you know he’s not like me, then?”

“I-I saw him some during the school breaks and at events. He always looked scared. But honestly, I never really knew him. If we’d been chums, don’t you think our mothers would know?”

I took a long breath and considered his words. Was I being overly suspicious? I am seeing monsters everywhere. I let my stiff posture soften. “Why didn’t you say that on Friday evening? Why lie about something so trivial?”

“It’s... well... it’s quite simple, really. I felt sorry for you.”

“Sorry for me?”

He nodded quickly. “Yes. I was sorry that Elijah hadn’t returned. I-I thought if we talked of him, you might grow upset. I can see now that you aren’t that sort of lady.”

I lowered my arms and eyed him for several moments. I didn’t know if I believed him or not. But really, did it matter if he’d known Elijah?

“Please, Miss Fitt, accept my apology.” He leaned into a bow, his head hanging low.

“Of course.” I nodded curtly. More and more strange confessions were piling up between Clarence and me. If I didn’t watch myself, he would soon be uncovering mine.

Suddenly, something caught my ear—the sound of rustling underbrush. I went to the fence. There was a distant and rhythmic thrashing in the cemetery. I glanced at Clarence. “Do you hear that?”

He frowned, and his eyes unfocused. “Yes,” he said. “It’s getting louder. Closer.”

He was right. I could distinctly make out footsteps now, coming at high speed, pounding along with snapping branches and shaking leaves.

“It sounds like a wild animal,” Clarence said. “Come away from the fence.”

I pushed my face against the bars. “But I hear two feet,” I answered. “Like a person running.” Could someone alive be in there? Could it be Elijah?

Whoever it was, they were close now. The beating footsteps crashed loudly in the forest.

“Come away from the fence,” Clarence repeated.

It was definitely a person running, but what sort of person could race through dense shrubs and trees like that?

“Come away!” Clarence roared. He clasped my arm and yanked me back, wrenching my shoulder.

Then it crashed full speed against the fence. A corpse.

It shook the bars and sent a low clang echoing in the air. Its gleaming skull pressed against the bars where my face had been only moments before. It was the corpse of a Union soldier. Its old bones were clothed in the tatters of a uniform. Its teeth clacked as it bit frantically, while bony arms reached between the bars. It clawed at the air, trying to push far enough to reach us on the other side.

Clarence shoved me behind him. We retreated slowly, our eyes never leaving the frenzied body. We stopped fifteen feet away and watched in dumb horror. This corpse was nothing like the stiff and shambling ones I’d seen doing the necromancer’s bidding. No, this corpse had unbridled energy and moved with the speed of the living—perhaps faster, even.

“Let’s go.” Clarence’s voice was rough and quiet over the rapid clatter of the corpse’s jaw.

I could only grunt my agreement. My eyes were still locked on the bony wrists and empty eyes. Clarence gripped me by the waist and twisted me around. My mind resumed thought, and I needed no more urging to flee.

We galloped down the road, back to our carriage and skittering horses.

“We should tell someone,” I said. “About this.”

“I will.” He hoisted me into the carriage. “You should keep quiet, though.”

“Why?”

“We shouldn’t be here.” His words were sharp, and his hands shook as he lifted the reins. He was scared. “I don’t want anyone—especially our mothers—finding out.” He gave me a slit-eyed glance. “Can you please keep quiet, Miss Fitt?”

I gulped and nodded. Though I didn’t understand Clarence’s panic or his secrets, I knew he would tell no one what we’d seen. Yet someone needed to know—at the very least the Spirit-Hunters. It was their job to deal with such horrors.

I could keep quiet. But that didn’t mean I would.

CHAPTER EIGHT

First thing the next morning, before Mama was even awake, I trekked to the Exhibition to give Joseph the letter from Elijah and tell him of the rabid corpse at Laurel Hill.

Other than some questionable streaks on Machinery Hall’s floor, I could see no signs of the recent Dead attack. All those corpses—where were they now? And how had the hall been cleaned up so quickly?

Perhaps with so much money spent on the event, the city could afford to keep it running like clockwork no matter the interruption. Or perhaps it was the other way around: the city couldn’t afford any interruptions when thousands of international visitors were clamoring to get in every day.

I made my way through Machinery Hall to the Spirit-Hunters’ laboratory. Except the Spirit-Hunters weren’t there. Their door was shut, and this time no note was on it. I hesitantly tried the handle, but it didn’t budge.

After considering my options—Come back later? Leave Elijah’s letter?—I crouched in an awkward mass of skirts and bustle and slipped the note through a crack between the door and floor.

Wait—will they even know the letter was mine? Did I mention Elijah’s name to them? Well, too late now. I’d have to sort it out tomorrow. Besides, I wanted to go home and read through all of Elijah’s letters. In light of everything that had happened, his words might contain a critical clue.

Yes, I could come back tomorrow and offer everything I knew about my brother’s predicament. I rose stiffly, my dress rustling back to its full expanse.

“Won’t help you, will they?” said a man’s voice in an affected Cockney accent.

I whirled around to see the speaker exiting the men’s water closet.

He was a short man, no taller than me, but barrel-chested and solid with muscle. Beneath his derby hat gleamed blond curls that matched his broad, wax-tipped mustache. Something about him struck me as familiar, but I couldn’t place where I knew him from.

“They never seem to be around when people need them,” he said.

“Pardon me?”

“They”—he jerked his thumb toward the Spirit-Hunters’ door—“can’t help you. I’ve seen you here before, and I suppose they have refused to do their job. They’ve done that with everyone so far.”

He sauntered toward me, inspecting his tan coat cuffs. “What excuse did they give you? Too busy? Not enough money?” He flicked his gaze to mine. “Or is there a new reason I’ve yet to hear?”

I hesitated, intrigued by his accurate prediction. Joseph did say he would look at my letter, but where was Joseph now?

The man brushed his cuffs and then folded his arms over his chest. “I thought as much. These Spirit-Hunters are here to help, but aren’t actually helping anyone.”

I squinted. “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Well, Mr. Boyer and his team have been here since May twenty-fifth; but rather than solve the Dead problems, the problems have been getting worse.” He lifted a hand and fingered the tip of his mustache. “Seems to me they could march into Laurel Hill and end the whole situation once and for all—but they don’t. Why?”

I gulped nervously and glanced around to check for listeners. I hoped the din of the hall drowned out our conversation. “I thought it was because they had no means. No one to help them.”

“Perhaps.” He lifted his shoulder in a lazy shrug. “Curious, and quite a coincidence, though, don’t you think? These Spirit-Hunters leave New York, and the trouble ends. They show up here, and the trouble begins. Maybe there’s a valid reason the Exhibition board is unwilling to hand over men or money.”

I blinked. That was a different spin on the same tale Joseph had given me. “Who are you?”

He swooped off his hat and swung into a bow. “Nicholas Peger, with the Philadelphia Bulletin.”

Now I remembered where I’d seen him. He had cornered Joseph after the Dead attack. “A reporter,” I said blandly.

“Investigative journalist,” he corrected. “And in charge of all stories pertaining to the Dead.” He popped his hat firmly atop his head. “Also an occasional detective, and also at your service.”

“Yes, well, a pleasure to meet you.” I nodded my head and turned to go. In a blur of speed, he pounced in my path, and I reeled back.

“I failed to catch your name,” he drawled.

“Because I did not offer it.” I scooted back several steps and pulled my parasol to my chest. “Please stand aside, sir.”

He cocked his head. “Do you perhaps need a detective? Missing persons are my specialty.”

“I-I beg your pardon?” How did he know about my brother? I glanced around, and my eyes lit on the water closet nearby. My jaw dropped, and I spun back. “Do you eavesdrop on the Spirit-Hunters? From the men’s water closet?” My voice was high-pitched with disbelief.

“Nay, nay. I can’t hear a thing in there.” He twirled his mustache and smiled pompously. “I simply made a good guess, and then you confirmed. Detective, remember?”

I swallowed a cry of indignation, yanked up my skirts, and, with my fiercest glare, strode toward him. “Good day, sir.”

He sidled away, and I stormed past, my chin held high and my focus straight ahead.

“You can’t trust them,” he called after me.

Though I hated myself for doing it, curiosity got the best of me. I slowed and glanced back.

He doffed his hat. “If you decide you need my help, just find Nicholas Peger at the Philadelphia Bulletin.”

“Where have you been?” Mama demanded. She was standing in the center of my bedroom when I walked in. My cheeks were still pink from heat and exertion.

I reached up to unpin my hat. “At the Exhibition,” I said, trying for nonchalance. Rather than pretend to run long errands each day, I had decided evasive honesty was my best tactic. As such, I had prepared a story for this eventual question.

I laid my hat gently in its box and turned to face Mama. She wore her silk dressing robe, and her hair fell loosely down her back.

“And what, pray tell, brought you there?” She lowered herself onto my bed and stared stormily at me.

“The Women’s Pavilion.” It housed inventions by modern women—and she knew it was one of my favorite buildings.

“Women’s Pavilion?” Her frown faltered. “Whatever for?”

“They needed volunteers for one of their exhibits.” The words sounded tight. Why is it that no matter how realistic or rehearsed a lie is, it always rings false in the teller’s ears?

She gasped, pressing her hands to her cheeks. “Eleanor,” she hissed. “You cannot work! What will people say? They will think you belong to the lower class!”

“But Mr. Wilcox,” I blurted, ignoring her question. “He loves charitable women. In fact, he told me that on Sunday.”

“Really?” She sucked in a pleased breath and puckered her lips. “Did he say that on your drive?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I nodded.

Her lips curved up. “Clever girl.” And with those two words, all my anxiety washed away.

She patted at the bed. “Sit.”

I moved to the bed and plopped beside her. To my surprise, she opened her arms and pulled me into an embrace.

“Mama?” I said. What was this? I couldn’t remember the last time she’d hugged me.

“My dearest daughter has found a rich man.” She stroked my hair. “I am so pleased. Your brother may have abandoned us to poverty, but you can still save us.”

I kept my lips tightly together and my eyes screwed shut. What the dickens was I supposed to say? That no, in fact, the rich man was only bribing me for silence; and no, Elijah was detained by walking corpses? Hardly.

And how long was she going to squeeze me?

“I thought,” Mama continued, “we could receive the Wilcoxes on Wednesday. Perhaps for cards or tea.” She twirled a finger in my hair.

I paused only a moment before saying, “All right.” I could stand Clarence’s glower a bit more for Mama’s sake.

“You know,” she said, “your father would also be proud of you. A rich man to marry and a charitable use of your time. He was such a generous man himself. He used to give all sorts of money to the hospitals, the schools, the poor.... That was why he wanted to run for city council, you know. To revitalize our government.” She sighed, and I could hear the tears that hovered in her throat.

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