A Darkness Strange and Lovely (3 page)

I set my hand on the door as the carriage slowed to a halt before the entrance gate. “Thank you for the ride.”

Allison’s lips puckered. “I am not finished with you yet.”

I hesitated. “I told you what you wanted to know.”

“And I want to know more. Now shut pan and get out. I’ll come with you into the hospital.”

“No!” I lifted a pleading hand. “It’s dangerous. Please, Allie—”

“Don’t,” she hissed. “Don’t you
ever
call me that. That was
his
name for me.”

Shame seared through my face, hot and heavy. I turned away. Of course I had to use Clarence’s nickname right when Allison’s heart was no doubt aching. But it was too late for apologies or for begging that she stay. I had lost the argument, and Allison was already pushing out the carriage door. I hurried after her.

We strode through the gate, where the guard bobbed his head at me in recognition. I spared a quick glance for the wide, grassy front lawn—sometimes Mama liked to sit there—but all I found were vacant benches and the bronze statue of William Penn standing guard.

“My mother is probably in the back,” I murmured to Allison, waving to a gravel path that circled the huge hospital. Despite more than a hundred acres of gardens and forest to entertain the mental patients, Mama was always on that front lawn or beside the same azalea bush in the back. There was a low fountain there that kept the summer heat away.

We set off, our feet crunching on the gravel.

“So what,” Allison said with carefully flat inflection, “does your mother
do
here? It seems like a holiday resort.”

“It’s meant to be that way.” I glanced at her, but it wasn’t until we reached the end of the white mansion that I added, “My mother needs calm, not violence and straitjackets.”

Allison’s eyebrows lifted. “And has it worked?”

No,
I thought as we passed a wisteria bush.
But I do not think anything will work. . . .
I took in a breath to tell her this, to explain that I had tried
everything
, when a long, throat-rattling shriek rang out—a shriek I knew well.

Fright burst inside me, and I broke into a sprint. My heels kicked up gravel, and I could hear Allison running just behind.

We bounded past azalea bushes when another scream ripped out. With it came shouts.

I skidded around the last bush beside the fountain, only to find struggling figures on the other side of the low pool: my mother, screeching and wrestling with two nurses. I surged to the fountain’s lip.

“Mrs. Fitt, settle down!” shouted one nurse, her uniform rumpled and her hat missing. She held Mama’s hands clasped.

“Let go of me!” Mama shoved and tugged, trying to free her arms.

The second nurse spotted me. “Miss Fitt, thank heavens! Help us get her back to her room! We’ve dragged her across the entire grounds.”

I stepped forward just as Mama whipped around. She yanked once, and her hands broke free of the nurse’s grasp. My mother was a powerfully built woman—it was a wonder the two small nurses had managed to contain her this long.

“You!” Mama thrust a pointed finger at me.
“You!”
Her gray hair was falling from its usual bun, and her walking gown was covered in dust and twigs.

“Mama!” I moved to her. “What’s wrong?”

“How dare you show your face here,” she yelled.

“What?” I turned to the nurses. “What is she talking about?” They only shrugged. I glanced back at Allison; she waited by the azaleas, her face pale.

“Do not look away,” Mama hissed. “Do not pretend you do not
know
.”

“Know what?” I stepped toward her. “I don’t underst—”

“You told me Elijah was a necromancer,” she cut in, her voice gaining in volume and speed. “You told me that he killed Clarence Wilcox and those other boys. You told me he was dead!”

My mouth went dry. “He
is
dead.”

“Do not lie to me!” Her chest heaved, and her fingers curled into fists. “I do not know why I believed you when you had no evidence but a handful of Elijah’s letters. There was no corpse!” Her eyes raked over me, more lucid than I’d seen in months.

“The newspapers were right,” Mama went on. “You
were
working with the Spirit-Hunters to destroy the city. That criminal,
Daniel
”—she spat the name—“murdered Clarence.”

A cry shot over the water. It was Allison, a gloved hand to her mouth. But did she believe my story or Mama’s?

At that moment the nurses broke off and scampered toward the hospital. I forced my attention back to my mother, praying the nurses thought her words gibberish.

“Mama,” I said, clenching my skirts with my left hand. “I told you the truth.”

“The truth! The
truth
?” She shoved her face in mine. “I will tell you the truth,
Eleanor
. A truth I was too blind and heartbroken to see. You are a licentious, lying daughter. A harlot!”

My jaw dropped, and outrage coiled in my chest. “How can you say that to me? After all I’ve done to keep our family alive—”

“By consorting with criminals? By sneaking from the house?” Mama’s eyes thinned. “You were seeing that criminal boy, were you not? You planned to run away with him, but then he and the Spirit-Hunters left
you
.”

“Stop.” My voice cracked out like a whip. “You have no idea of what you speak. I could have left the city—could have abandoned you—but I
stayed
. I sold all of my things to pay your hospital bills because you spent our entire savings.”

“I will not listen to this!” She threw her hands over her ears.

“Then don’t listen.” I advanced on her. “But Elijah
is
dead, Mama. You have to accept that. I
saw
him die—”

“Lies! Elijah is not dead. He’s not, he’s not! I saw him today, and he was most assuredly
alive
.”

I stared at her, speechless. It couldn’t be. . . .

“He came to see me,” she went on, clearly pleased by my horror, “dressed in the latest Parisian fashions and wealthier than you can even
imagine
. Yet most importantly, Eleanor, he was alive—
alive
!”

No!
I clutched at my chest, suddenly unable to breathe, unable to think. Marcus had found my mother, and that meant it wasn’t simply me or the Spirit-Hunters he was after.

“Oh God,” I wheezed as the gravel blurred before my eyes. I staggered to the fountain rim and dropped to a seat. Allison was nowhere to be seen, but I was too stunned—too horrified—to care or even consider.

Mama stalked toward me, puffing out her chest. “It was only a matter of time before Elijah came to save me, and he will return for me again. He has promised to take me away as soon as I help him.”

“Help him?” I gaped up at her. “Help him with what?”

She crossed her arms. “Help him find the things you stole.”

“Stole?” I repeated, startled.

“Oh, do not pretend you do not know. You stole his book—and wherever you have hidden it, I intend to find it. Elijah has promised to take me away if I do.” She stomped closer to me. “Tell me where you put it, Eleanor. Where did you hide his book and his notes?”

I backed away from her. If Marcus wanted a book, then there was only one it could be: the missing pages in a grimoire called
Le Dragon Noir.
The one thing Marcus hadn’t been able to take from me before he’d fled Philadelphia three months ago.

“I will find them,” Mama shrieked. “And I will return them to him, Eleanor! And then—
then
—you will wish you had treated me more kindly.”

I stood as tall as I could and fixed my eyes on hers. “Mama, did you say ‘notes’? You are certain he asked for a book and notes?”

She hesitated, her posture wilting slightly. “Yes. A book and notes.”

I turned away, pressing my left hand to my lips. I knew Joseph had destroyed the pages from
Le Dragon Noir
—Jie told me in one of her letters that he had done so—but before the Spirit-Hunters had even left Philadelphia, they’d found an envelope of Elijah’s unsent letters tucked in the grimoire’s pages. But those messages, as all Elijah’s letters were prone to be, were filled with nothing more than random ramblings and random names. . . .

But perhaps they weren’t so random to a necromancer.

Cold gripped me. Thank goodness I had put the letters in my carpetbag. Marcus had come to Philadelphia for
Le Dragon Noir
, and he knew that I could lead him to it—or at least to the letters within.

Footsteps sounded nearby. I whirled around. But it was only a male orderly marching toward us with the nurses at his heels.

Mama saw them, and her chin lifted high. “You may try to lock me in this place, Eleanor, but Elijah will come for me.” Her eyes locked on mine. “And if you know what is good for you, you will never show your face to me again. You are no longer worthy of the Fitt name.”

Then she pivoted elegantly around and faced the Kirkbride attendant as if he were nothing more than a dance partner. “I will wait for my son in my room, thank you. My daughter is now dead to me.”

Chapter Three

“Don’t let anyone meet her,” I ordered the nurses
. My blood pounded in my ears, but I clung to the moment’s excitement—for if I did not . . . if I let Mama’s words sink in . . .

“Lock her in her room. . . . I-I fear it’s the only option we have for protecting her.”

“We’ll keep her safe, Miss,” promised the hatless nurse before I turned to leave. After three months of a sluggish, dazed existence, my mother had suddenly returned to her old dragon self.
My daughter is now dead to me.
My only remaining family member saw me as licentious and deceitful. I would not think of it. I would push it aside with everything else, and I would keep walking with my chin high and my shoulders back.

There was truly nothing left for me in Philadelphia now. So with my jaw set and my blood burning, I marched back to the street. Alone.

Yet once there, I found Allison’s carriage waiting with its door swung wide. She leaned out, her eyes rimmed with red. “Are you coming?” Her voice was thick, as if she’d been crying.

“You . . . don’t mind?”

Her lips curled back. “Oh,
get in
.”

I squinted, my heart picking up speed again. “Does this mean you believe me? Despite what my mother was raving about?” I wanted Allison to believe me. Needed someone else to know my story.

She sniffed. “Your mother is clearly unwell. And as ludicrous as it all may sound, your story is more believable than hers.” She waved to the seat beside her. “Now get
in.

I obeyed, and moments later we were rolling down Market Street toward the Delaware River. I watched Allison for several moments before working up the courage to ask, “Have you been crying?”

“Of course I’ve been crying,” she snapped. “This is a lot of new information, and . . . and seeing your mother act like that. It’s just awful.” She wiped at her nose. “I know how you care about her. And Elijah.”

I didn’t know what to say. Everything about her response was unexpected. So I gnawed my lip and waited for her to speak.

Except she didn’t. She simply stared out the carriage window as storefronts and people blurred past. I was grateful for the silence as we rattled through Philadelphia’s downtown, for despite my desire to leave all this behind, I had never expected to do so on such short notice.

I had been planning to leave Philadelphia eventually, but now it had become my duty—to protect my mother, I
had
to leave. Marcus wanted my letters, so it was my job to bring them to the Spirit-Hunters.

Lost in my musings, I didn’t notice how quickly we reached the Delaware River until we were suddenly upon its panorama of puffing steamers and white ship sails. Allison still hadn’t spoken to me, but she did manage to rouse herself from her grief long enough to order her driver to take us straight to the ledger office.

While much of Philadelphia was lined with clean streets and elegant buildings, the wharves along the river were dingy and crowded.

My nerves jumped back into action. Marcus could already be here, waiting. I scanned every face for Elijah’s, for yellow eyes; but for each person who passed, I missed four. With the horses and cabs rushing about, searching the crowded wharf was nearly impossible.

Nonetheless, as we pulled to a stop in front of the brownstone ledger office, I couldn’t keep my gaze from darting around. Or my ears from straining for howling hounds.

Allison cleared her throat, and I turned my attention to her. “Thank you,” I said. “I . . . I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. Perhaps one day I can repay you.”

She scoffed. “Don’t worry. I intend to call in my debt one day.”

“Of course.” I blinked, again struck by her unpredictable moods. But not wanting to waste another moment on her fickleness, I nodded once and climbed out of the carriage.

As the driver handed me my bag, Allison slid to the carriage door. “Send me a telegram from Paris. Let me know you have made it alive.”

Now I was truly startled. What did she want from me? Friendship or enmity?

With the hope that it was the former, I said, “Yes. I promise to write.” I bowed my head. “Good-bye, Allison Wilcox.”

She pulled back into the carriage. “Good-bye, Eleanor Fitt.” Then, with the abruptness that marked all of her movements, she yanked shut the carriage door and left.

And so it was that I found myself standing at the harbor with nothing more than a carpetbag and a drumming heart. The area stank of fish and river—that muddy smell of turbid waters—while the wind I’d missed in the city’s center swept over me with full force.

Before me was the brownstone ledger building; behind me was everything I knew. Sure, I had read of places all over the world and dreamed of one day seeing them, but I’d never actually left Philadelphia before. I had no
idea
what was out there.

But I did not look back.

As soon as I was firmly inside the ledger office, black and white tiles led me to a wall of ticket counters. However, planted directly in my path was a middle-aged woman in an olive dress that was at least five years out of style. She stood unfolding bills and counting—
aloud—
as I strode toward her.

Sympathy flashed through me as I circled around her. She wouldn’t get far with only ten dollars. Worse, she was going to get robbed if she wasn’t more careful. Why, she had her steamer ticket dangling halfway out of her pocket!

With a final cringe at how loudly she advertised her naiveté, I marched to the nearest counter, where a bearded clerk waited. I dropped my bag at my feet.

“I need to buy passage to Paris.”

“Can’t go to Paris direct,” he said, his voice gravelly. “It’s not on the coast.”

“Obviously.” I glared in my best Mama impression. “But I need to go to France.”

“So to Le Havre, then.”

“How far is that from Paris?”

“It’ll be half a day’s train ride.” He consulted a booklet of timetables. “There’s only one direct steamer to Le Havre, but it’s full. Obviously.” His eyes rose to mine. “What with the Exhibition, we got foreign travelers everywhere. You won’t be able to get a cabin for two weeks.”

I grimaced. I’d forgotten about the Centennial Exhibition. It had been running so long now—four months—it had blended into the background of Philadelphia for me. “Two weeks absolutely won’t do,” I declared. “I must leave
now
. What else is there?”

“Well, C.G.T.’s
Amérique
to Le Havre leaves in two hours.” His eyelids lowered, as if I was wasting his time. “But that lady over there just bought the last second-class ticket.” He motioned to the olive-clad woman, who
still
stood organizing her pitiful funds.

“Now,” he went on, “there’s only one cabin left, and it’s the most expensive.”

“How expensive?”

“Seein’ as the
Amérique
is the first ship in the world t’have electric lights, that it don’t take on steerage passengers, and that it includes every meal, the answer is
very
.”

“I didn’t ask for a history lesson,” I growled. “I asked for the blasted price.”

“Two hundred dollars.”

“Ah,” I breathed, rocking back. That
was
expensive—certainly more than my emergency money of a hundred and twelve dollars and forty-seven cents. But I kept my face blank because confound it if I would let
this
man know my financial woes.

“And how much does a train from Le Havre to Paris cost?” I asked.

He glanced at his booklet. “Average cost is . . . fifty francs.” His gaze rose to mine. “Which is about ten dollars.”

Ten dollars
. An idea hit me—a reckless, desperate idea. An idea so low that if I thought about it too hard, my morals would come barreling in to interfere.

I glanced back at the middle-aged woman. She was finally putting away her money, and I could only assume she’d be leaving at any moment.

I spun back to the clerk. “And you’re absolutely certain there’s no other boat leaving today?”

“Nothin’, Miss.”

“And what is the cost of a second-class ticket?”

“Why d’you ask when there ain’t one—”

“What. Is. The. Cost?”

“Seventy-five dollars.”

“Thank you,” I said through gnashing teeth. “And which steamer is the
Amérique
? I’d like to . . . observe it before I decide on that first-class ticket.”

He jerked his thumb to the left. “The big one with the wheels. You can’t miss it.”

“The big one. Very clear,” I muttered, and before my temper or conscience could get the best of me, I twisted on my heels to leave.

As I’d feared, the woman in olive was gone. So I hefted my carpetbag onto my shoulder, gathered my skirts in my fist, and darted for the street. By the time I stepped outside, it was to find her on the opposite sidewalk and almost to the municipal pier.

I surged after her, my mind racing as fast as my feet and with my scruples flaring to life.
You shouldn’t do this,
they said.
This isn’t like you
.

“But,” I whispered in response, thinking how aptly Shakespeare had said it: “Diseases desperate grown. By desperate appliances are relieved.” If I wanted to protect Mama—protect myself—then this was what I had to do. Marcus had come for me because I had the letters. Now I was leaving Philadelphia, and I prayed that he would follow me to Paris. Follow me to the Spirit-Hunters.

I slowed only once in my pursuit, to yank out seventy-five dollars, and then I marched directly for the woman. Fortunately, she was as scattered in her walking as she had been in her money counting.

And even more fortunately, her steamer ticket still dangled dangerously from her pocket, flipping this way and that in the breeze.

“Pardon me,” I called. “Ma’am?”

She hesitated beside a stack of crates around which dockers buzzed like bees.

Perfect,
I thought, hurrying to her side. My heart was lodged far into my throat, pounding hard, but I still managed to don my most charming smile. “I believe you dropped this.” I held up the seventy-five dollars and let the wind flutter it enticingly.

Her forehead bunched up. “No, I don’t think I did, Miss.” She spoke with a heavy Irish accent.

“Were you not just counting your money in the ledger office?”

A pair of burly dockers trudged past, and I took the opportunity to shimmy closer to the woman—and to her ticket.

“I am certain I saw this fall on the floor beside you.” I pushed the cash toward her, and her eyes locked on the money.

Her lips moved as if adding up the bills. “I-I don’t think this is mine, Miss.”

“Well, it isn’t mine either.” I gave her a warm smile. “And it was on the floor where
you
stood. You must take it. I insist.”

She lifted a quivering hand and slowly closed her fingers around the money.

My pulse quickened. Now was my moment. Keeping the rest of me perfectly still, I slipped my left hand over her ticket. Then all it took was a flick of my wrist, a reangling of my body, and that second-class ticket was mine.

I bit back a smile, my chest fluttery with triumph. “So you’ll keep the money?” I asked, sliding the ticket into my own pocket and making a great show of readjusting my carpetbag. “It
must
be yours,” I added.

“Y-yes . . .” She swallowed, her eyes darting to mine. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Ma’am.” I positively beamed at her as I bobbed a little curtsy, wished her a lovely day, and trotted as quickly as I could around the dockers and crates.

I did it! Jie would be proud!
I’d been just as sneaky as she. I couldn’t wait to tell her, and now, here I was, on my way to actually
seeing
her. . . .

But a tiny ball of guilt wound into my belly. I scowled, picking up my pace. It was done; I’d taken her ticket, and I was leaving. The end. Now all I had to do was shove the guilt aside and find the
Amérique
.

Surprisingly, once I passed all the local ferries, the “big one with the wheels”
was
rather hard to miss. Twice as tall and three times as long as any other boat at the pier, it blocked out all view of the river. I had to crane my neck to see the white sails billowing at either end. Two red smokestacks stood proudly at the center, and most obvious of all were the gigantic paddle wheels, one on each side.

My bonnet ribbons swatted my face as I approached the ship and made my way around the swaggering sailors and ogling passengers. I checked for any olive-clad women, but my mark was nowhere in sight. No doubt she was still by the stacked crates, counting out her newest funds.

A quick scan ahead showed two gangplanks, one near the street and one all the way at the end of the dock. At the closer plank, stacked luggage outnumbered people, and the women’s colorful gowns shimmered like butterflies. Clearly this was the
first-class
line.

The more distant line, however, showed men and women dressed like me: well-made but well-worn clothes. So after a final search for the woman in the olive dress and finding she was nowhere about, I trudged on.

But I only made it a few steps before my right hand—my missing hand—started tingling. Then the hair on my neck sprang up.

I froze midstride.
Marcus, Marcus, Marcus
—he was all I could think of. My eyes slid left and right, but I could find nothing unusual.

Yet the buzz in my hand did not dull, and now my breath was quickening.

Stay calm, Eleanor. Focus.
With forced cool, I looked over my shoulder toward land and searched the area. But no light flickered or energy sparkled.

If Marcus or something Dead was nearby, it wasn’t showing itself.

So I made myself turn back around and resume my steps. My movements were clunky and rushed, though, and my heart refused to settle.

Then from nowhere, a gust of wind knocked into me.
Hard
.

I swayed, and the air flipped around me, tugging at my skirts like a riptide. I spun around and frantically checked the dockers’ and sailors’ reactions. Except that none of them seemed affected by this gale.

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