Read The Eterna Files Online

Authors: Leanna Renee Hieber

The Eterna Files (25 page)

“Yes, sir,” the driver replied in his usual monotone.

“If you'd like to come, I'd enjoy your company,” Bishop said with a winning smile.

Feeling a little twist in her stomach—one she hadn't felt in a long time— Clara breathed deep against the stays of her corset. Withdrawing a carved wooden fan from her reticule, she used it to cool her face, beads of sweat blossoming on her neck beneath her soft lace collar.

“Why are you doing this, Rupert?” she asked quietly. Surely he wouldn't want to resurrect Eterna, knowing how dangerous it was.

“Men died for this. The least I can do is try to understand it,” he said. “I feel that I ought to follow their lead in a place where I will be unbiased by my own interests and history. This island and the District are too familiar, too tainted. Let me be an objective eye to theory in quiet, charming old Salem.”

“Witch hunting aside?” Clara asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Adds to the charge of the place,” Bishop commented, “and it's an important part of this country's history. The diary says that Smith hailed from Salem originally, which may be part of why he insists on the power of the town.”

“I do want to value those who gave themselves to a little girl's wild idea,” Clara agreed, “but if the compound is dangerous—”

“The ingredients alone can't be toxic,” Bishop interrupted. “It's what was in that house that killed those men. I will go and see what you saw. Whatever experiment was enacted at the time reacted to what was already within. That's a separate issue, I believe. What Dupris and Smith have set forth here as localized magic, we can test in a safe, neutral environment.”

Clara swallowed hard. She needed to bring up Louis, to ask for protection for him. But for some reason when she opened her mouth, his name would not leave it. She remembered the silhouettes bidding her to find the files. Surely she had their number right, and Louis should have been among them? Everything felt confused.

They alighted at bustling, tumultuous Grand Central Depot, the heart of New York, pumping baggage and people into the bloodstream of the country. Clara wondered if any other space was such a nexus of possibility as a train terminal. As always when she was swept through its doors, inside she saw the breadth of New York City on display in the waiting rooms and on the platforms. Tall top hats and long, tailored lines of frock coats next to the gathers and folds of bustled skirts, slim waists, and plumed heads; excited children darting around steamer trunks and waving their caps at uniformed train crew; other passengers in plainer clothing, carrying simple sacks, carpet bags, or cardboard cartons tied with twine.

Soon she and Bishop were seated in a private compartment on a train bound for Boston. Once Clara had shifted the layers of her green skirts until she could sit comfortably and press her corseted, bodice-boned back against the cool wood of the train car, she took the chance to catch her breath and assess her feelings. She discovered that she was thrilled with the impulsive journey, the suggestion of danger—but at the same time, nagging dread crept up her spine like a spider.

The Boston express took only a couple of hours to span the distance between the cities. East Coast trains hummed at top speeds, with brilliant efficiency unmatched in other parts of the country, but it was true that the whole of America could be revealed to a savvy traveler in a matter of days. In Boston, they made a smooth transfer to a smaller line that crossed idyllic open countryside.

Once they neared the historic port town made internationally famous for witch hunting, Clara dared to address one insect in the web of her nagging, spidery concerns.

“Would you resurrect the commission entirely? New theorists, starting over?”

Bishop looked at her for a long moment. She couldn't read his expression. He was maddeningly enigmatic; she could never quite pinpoint him despite knowing him so well.

At last he sighed and said, “The disaster has made me rethink things. Perhaps I've been too hands-off. I'd rather be at the foreground rather than another politician with no hand for the spiritual.”

“Why not leave well enough alone?” Clara asked. “Does Washington even want to continue with Eterna at all? Or do they press because England has come snooping?”

“I think England was always snooping, but they've found something. Or someone.”

Clara's dream of England's warships weighed on her. She worried for Louis. But she agreed with Bishop on this point: if others were sniffing about, and if Washington demanded a continuation, she wanted to help make decisions. Nothing about Eterna should be left to bureaucrats.

“It should surprise no one that the queen wants the cure for death,” Clara said. She, like Mrs. Lincoln, had suffered the premature loss of a powerful spouse. Unlike the first lady, Victoria was a person of power in herself: the empress. Clara could understand why these women desired a route to immortality, yet she was beginning to feel the cosmos should have final say.

“Please, Rupert, you must keep me informed with regard to how Eterna will progress from this point on. I do have a right.”

“You do,” he agreed. “And I will.”

Clara confronted his steely gaze, his eyes as luminous as the shimmering silver of his hair. “Do you promise?”

She could see him sharpening his conviction as he replied; “I do.”

Exiting the little station in Salem, Clara paused to get her bearings. Harbor towns have a charge about them, a heartbeat. She felt a strong thrum here in Salem; it was quieter than the throbbing pulse of the Empire city.

Beneath that rhythm Clara felt an undercurrent, one she recognized immediately. She understood, now, exactly what Barnard Smith had meant. Salem was a compelling place, and she'd wager that there was one thing all similarly compelling cities had in common: the number of spirits inherent to each. Salem—like New York—had a good deal of them.

That made sense. If you were looking to extend life, why not look at places souls refused to quit?

“On, where instinct leads,” Bishop said, offering his arm. She took it, resting her gloved hand upon his black sleeve.

They broached the heart of the town; a mixture of fine homes, the occasional manufactory, and a smattering of civic buildings lay just behind the waterfront. The senator led her first into an apothecary shop where he procured a small leather doctor's bag filled with six small glass bottles, each with a rubber stopper or cork. They were ready for their hunt.

Senator Bishop had the best instincts of anyone Clara knew when it came to power—not the newly created electrical kind, but spiritual and natural power. He knew their sources, their patterns and flow, like he knew the beat of his own heart.

Moving away from the homes that rose in waves along the hills, from the port's wide agricultural and pastoral spaces, Bishop led her out along an earthen pier, one of several jutting into the sea. The mid-day sun was bright, yet Clara felt shadows looming.

At the end of the pier, stood a square brick lighthouse about three stories tall. Its octagonal glass crown was bordered by a railed walk. Beyond the lighthouse, the pier jutted to the left and came to a precarious, sharp point like the prow of a ship. Bishop set the leather bag of vials down by the lighthouse and strode to take a stand upon that point, frock coat whipping in the generous wind of the sea.

In top hat, boots, and sweeping coat, he was a grand vision: an old sea captain, an elder god. Other lives once again blinked past Clara's sight as the seagulls above cried out or laughed. Elder songs sang in her heart. She had often been at sea; so, it would seem, had he.

The port was too shallow for the new steel-hulled ships, so the town had sought other industry. Old shipyards and maritime factories turned away from the language of wood and sail toward more modern industrial fare, though ships' masts, like barren trees in winter, still marched up and down the harbor line, quivering gently with the rhythm of the waters. Grand homes speckled the shore opposite; in the distance, Clara spied islands.

The wind took a sharper turn, knifing through her, leaving a sense of devastation behind. Clara could see Bishop react: he cocked his head to the side as if catching an odd scent. His fine top hat nearly flew off his head in a sudden and forceful gust. Opening her mouth to ask whether the change was more than a shift in the weather, she felt as though a hand abruptly closed about her throat.

Bishop jerked forward as if pushed, nearly stumbling into the water. Clara cried out, past the constriction in her throat and grabbed at his coat. The well-tailored garment held fast though he strained against it. Clara dug her heels in; her slight weight, made greater by urgency, was somehow enough, allowing Bishop to regain his balance and reel away from the suddenly hungry-looking sea.

Grabbing him by the arm, Clara turned and made as if to walk back toward the main roads that led to the heart of the town. The darkness they'd encountered had life; it was ready to pull someone under. Spirits found spiritualists a particularly receptive audience and tended to seek them out. Bishop and Clara both knew that if they were together, it was impossible for spirits not to notice them.

Sounding quite like himself, Bishop said, “If you give it a moment, you can listen past the first wave and hear other music. Unless you've any of your symptoms?”

She shook her head. “The spirit tide is strong here, powerful and full of stories,” she stated. “But momentum is not malevolence. Let's take soil. This place is worth noting. Just … not so near the water, please?” He smiled as they ducked back around the lighthouse to retrieve the doctor's bag.

Clara kept her weight firmly against the ground, carefully positioning her feet so one heel was always dug into the earth. She took a small vial out of the doctor's bag and brushed a tiny bit of soil from the base of the lighthouse into the glass tube. She corked the container tightly before returning it to the bag.

Bishop nodded in approval. “We're done here.” He held out his arm and she again took it. She breathed deep; spiritual upheaval aside, the waterfront, and pleasant company, were invigorating.

“Where next?” Clara asked as they set out upon a road that led away from the harbor.

“To a witch's property,” he replied. “I toured it once. Was profoundly affected. Defined my aims, really.”

“Oh?”

Bishop spoke grandly, gazing about at the town. Clara drank in a story she'd never heard. “I was twenty-three when I came here and heard the stories. I had been drawn to politics in part by those tales. If judges could condemn a woman to death during those trials, if ours is such a puritanical age … what if hysteria reduced us to that again?

“In the case of this particular woman, it seemed to me that the townspeople were shocked she did not remarry after her husband's death, shocked that she wore colored garments, shocked that she wished to control her own destiny. I suspect they wanted her assets as well.” He looked down at Clara; he was a head taller than she and seemed in that moment to tower over her. The fondness in his eyes nearly took her breath away.

“I had recently taken you on as a ward,” Bishop continued. “I already knew your gifts, your strong, bull-headed nature. If you had lived during the witch trials, you might have been deemed a one of them even if none knew of your gifts. Your refusal to be a shrinking violet might have been enough.”

Clara loosed a delighted laugh. “You went into lawmaking so that you could save me from a witch trial?”

“I am sharing something deeply sentimental and you demean my kindness!” Bishop scoffed with mock pain. Clara laughed again, rising on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. This seemed to mollify him.

“I'd like to bring back a little of that poor woman's apple orchard,” he stated. “The land is quite haunted. Her anger lives on. And rightly so.”

After a few minutes' walk, they came upon a few brick and wooden buildings and an open patch of land—an oddly unpopulated spot, still near the main part of the town. There was no marker to delineate the area, but when Clara stepped onto the open grass, sound seemed to distort and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.

“I honor you,” Clara murmured. The feeling that she was being closely watched abated. Sound sharpened to its normal parameters once more. Clara was not surprised by this reaction: all most spirits wanted was to be acknowledged and respected.

They took a bit of soil, then stood there for a long, quietly reverent time before turning away. Clara forced herself to ignore the immense sadness and anger that hung in the air above the field, lest it drag her into empathic despair.

“The witch trials became bigger than one person or one instance. Those transcendent sins became Salem's great penance as the crimes took on immortal consequence. I bet that's the kind of local power that Dupris and Smith came to realize was necessary for Eterna.”

Seeking the next element, Clara and Bishop returned to the bustling town center and strolled along the fine green. Clara bought an edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne's collected works and Bishop procured an eighteenth-century coin from a small museum center. They were drawn inevitably back toward the water.

Rounding a curve, they were treated once again to a view of the sea and the darkening sky beyond. Drawn to a wharf, where the soil shifted to rock from dirt, Bishop bent and gestured for Clara to hand him another of the glass containers within. He knelt at the water's edge. After what had happened before, Clara moved instinctively to his side and took hold of his coat.

“My anchor,” he said over his shoulder with a smile before collecting a vial of harbor water. Clara felt her emotions twisting at his simple fondness. As he set the water sample in the bag, she couldn't hold back any longer, finally blurting the confession.

“Louis Dupris is alive.” She felt the words land heavily between them. “He came to the office, briefly. That's how I knew about the files at Columbia.” This was not the time to reveal their romance.

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