The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden (4 page)

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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“Upstairs, quickly,” she said, eyes wide at the poshness of the place. “Thomas, take your cap off; now, there's a good lad.”

Their seats were in the darkest, most shadowy corner of the theater, high at the top at one end of the very last row. Far below was an ocean of jewels, and in the boxes that lined the walls too. Thomas caught Lucy staring into one of them for a long time.

“My word,” she whispered, but said nothing more.

A chap in a scruffy suit stood as they neared the velvet chairs whose numbers had been printed on those fancy bits of paper. He had been seated in the one at the very end and jumped to his feet at the sight of them.

“Madam, may I help you and your sons get settled?” he asked kindly. Thomas scoffed. What kind of fool needed help sitting down? Lucy, however, nodded.

“That's very kind. Thank you, sir.”

“Whitlock Jensen, spiritualist, at your service. These are yours?” He gestured to the three beside his own and, at Lucy's second nod, took her arm and led her along the row. It had been a bit of a walk from south of the river; Lucy sank into the chair with a sigh.

“Spiritualist, eh? So you know all about this, then?”

The man frowned. “I wouldn't say I know all about
this
, madam. Now, lads, you take these two.” Charley hopped onto the one next to Lucy, and Thomas shook the man's hand away as he took his own. He didn't need help sitting. Standing, perhaps, after a long night of digging, when his whole body ached, but sitting never posed any difficulty.

“Oi, feel this, Tom,” said Charley, running his finger across the back of the seat in front. “Ever known anything so soft?”

Thomas hadn't. Not felt anything so soft, nor seen
anywhere so packed to the brim with diamonds and gold. The walls themselves were lined with silk, and an enormous chandelier hung from the ceiling, looking like winter, so heavy it was with glittering crystals, clear and sharp as ice.

“Always puts on a show, does Mordecai,” murmured the man next to Thomas. Every seat was full. The stage was hidden behind a wall of plush, mustard-colored velvet curtains. Candles flickered in their sconces.

It was proper grand, no question, but that wasn't the only thing Thomas was looking at.

There were doorways there, and there, and there. If he could lose himself in the crowd after the performance, he could slip away, find someone of whom to ask his questions.
Him.
The bearded man in the topper who had just stepped out onto the tiny lip of stage before the curtains. He might know about the boy in the grave and why Thomas had been left a note and the tickets to come here. His appearance spoke of a man who knew things, though from this distance, Thomas could make out no more than the beard, the suit, the silver-handled walking stick, and the hat, of course.

And the man opening his mouth. The theater fell silent as if a spell had been placed upon it.

“Welcome,” he boomed into the utter quiet. “Welcome,
esteemed and invited guests. Such a pleasure to see you for this magnificent occasion.”

Loud applause rang out. He waited for it to cease, a wide smile on his face. “Thank you. You are too kind. Now, many of you who have visited my Society know that things are done a bit differently there, but tonight, well, tonight is a time for a proper show, don't you think? So, let us begin.”

“Yes, Mordecai, let's,” muttered the man, Jensen, beside Thomas. “Let's see what tricks you've got in store.”

He did not sound happy. Thomas spared him a glance, noted his creased brow, but Thomas's attention was drawn back to the stage as the curtains began to part. The audience gasped, though to Thomas's eye, there was nothing much to see, just a huge, polished table. It was empty, hung around the edges with more curtains of the same mustard yellow.

“Who,” thundered Mordecai, “shall we invite to sit at our table? Shakespeare? A king? Cleopatra or Caesar?”

“How do we know he won't just make the whole lot up?” whispered Charley. “Even if it is possible, he could just be pretending.”

They were much too far from Mordecai for him to have heard Charley, but it was as if he had.

“Perhaps,” Mordecai said, “we shall start with a bit
of proof. You, there, in the second row. What an elegant dress, madam. I'm quite partial to that shade of green. Is there someone with whom you wish to speak?”

“Y-yes,” said the woman. Thomas squinted, but he couldn't make her out. “M-my husband.”

The dark thing squirmed in Thomas again. A tingle ran up his spine.

“Rest his soul,” said Mordecai, voice dripping with sympathy. “What is his name? What is yours? And is there something, some secret the two of you share that I would have no chance of knowing?”

Whispers rippled through the theater. Thomas couldn't hear the answers she gave, but Mordecai did.

“Mr. William Harkness, late, beloved husband to Ella. Come forward, please, through the doorway that divides our worlds, and tell us how she signed her letters to you during those sad months you were forced to be apart.”

Thomas's head began to ache and his teeth to chatter. Suddenly, he did not want to hear whatever endearment it was.

A voice came, from nowhere and everywhere, filling the theater. “Ella, my darling,” it said, but Thomas could think of nothing but the hundreds of graves he and Silas had dug up over the years, each one containing a person who had once lived.

And who could, apparently, still speak.

So many, whose sleep he and Silas had disturbed, as they were being disturbed now.

A hot swath of nausea coursed through Thomas. His eyes rolled back in his head.

And he heard and saw nothing more.

CHAPTER FOUR

Gifts

B
ENEATH THE TABLE, BEHIND THE
mustard curtains, Deadnettle writhed in pain. He was not alone.

Twenty-six others—all that were left—were crowded into the cage with him, locked inside as Mordecai strode free around the stage, calling out names, each older than the last.

That was simply cruel. The longer a soul had been dead, the more difficult it was to reach them. The more exhausting. The fog of effort took over Deadnettle and the rest as they focused on the names, and more as Mordecai called them out. Oh, it was wearying, even as Deadnettle knew they were being successful, his mouth open and
speaking with a strange voice that joined a chorus of others. Deadnettle was barely himself as he spoke, allowing his body, his mind to be overtaken by the person speaking through him. His lips parted and his tongue moved, but these were not his words.

He liked to believe he would never say anything so silly. Some of these ancient, revered kings and queens and artists were not half as clever as people held them to be.

The roar of the audience was enormous and Deadnettle could no longer see or hear or think as he concentrated on keeping the door between the land of the living and the dead wide-open, when it is a door that likes to stay slammed shut.

Time passed. Deadnettle could not say how much, only that it was much too long before Mordecai rapped sharply on the wood and shouted, “Good night, friends!” over the clapping.

The spirits left them, vanishing like candle flames in a breeze, and Deadnettle sucked in a long breath. Every bone hurt, every muscle, and the near-silent whimpers around him told him he was not alone in his pain.

“I thank each one of you for joining our delightful supper,” said Mordecai when a hush had fallen again. “Should you wish to speak to a loved one, perhaps, or ask your great-aunt Nettie where her lost ring is, do not hesitate to
call upon me at the Shoreditch Spiritualist Society. I will be more than pleased to use my talents to assist you in making contact with the beyond.”

His
talents. Deadnettle did not miss that.

“You did well,” he whispered to the others. Beside him, Marigold clung to his arm, her lips thin and white.

They'd known what to do; it was not the first time. “Take your positions, and do not shame me or you will suffer the result. And I do mean suffer,” Mordecai had said, managing to smile and hiss at once. His eyes were wild, lit with madness and excitement. “I have fed you today and rested you in preparation. You will bring your greatest strengths to this greatest performance.”

They had arrived at the theater in the same huge, covered cart with which he had taken them to the Society moments after the Summoning, precisely thirteen years before, to the very day.

At the time, they had been disoriented, afraid, unaware of what would be asked of them, of why they had been dragged from their homeland and brought to this horrible place.

Now Deadnettle wished for one more second of that beautiful ignorance.

Each year since, on this night, they had been brought here. And each year, on this night, but every other day as
well, Deadnettle wondered to himself just how Mordecai knew of its significance.

But he would not ask. To do so would anger Mordecai. That much was certain. It would also be an admission that the date meant something of significance to Deadnettle and the other faeries. That they were stronger, more powerful now than at any other time of the year. Any admission, even of strength, was one of weakness.

He told Mordecai nothing unless he asked.

So Deadnettle clenched his long, pointed teeth and bore this travesty, as he did every other day, but magnified a thousand times by the candles and the glittering chandeliers of the theater.

When they arrived, he spoke only to repeat the words he said to them every year before climbing into the cage, while Mordecai was making his way to unlock the front doors.

“Remember,” Deadnettle had said to the others, so many others, and yet so many fewer than there used to be. He always tried not to think of that, and always failed. “If we work together, combine our gifts, it will go smoothly as ever. Please Mordecai”—those words were like claws at Deadnettle's face—“and we have nothing to fear.”

The younger ones, for they were all, now, younger than Deadnettle, had nodded. They hadn't been spared the
vision of Mordecai's displeasure in the past, and it was an ugly sight. Mordecai might not keep iron in their home, but a lump of the stuff was never difficult to find.

“We are the gateways, never more than when the calendar reads this, the final night of the month of April. This is our most sacred night, and I know we would rather spend it elsewhere. We are altogether too far from our home. But we must do our best and take what small comfort we can from the knowledge that Mordecai could not achieve this without us. He needs us. That is
his
weakness.”

It was not, however, the only one. With his excellent hearing, Deadnettle made out the thump of a walking stick and pictured the gnarled, black hand that held it. Covered by a glove in public, naturally, but Deadnettle had seen it often. Mentioning the injury was one way to raise Mordecai's ire. Deadnettle had not done so in many years, but he noticed it constantly.

On the other side of the curtains, the theater was emptying, but slowly. Naturally, everyone who had witnessed the spectacle wanted to stop and speak to the great spiritualist, or at least to shake his hand and congratulate him. It would be several more minutes at least before it was just Mordecai and the faeries, not another soul left in the whole place. Mordecai always arranged that it should be so, ushers and sweepers and ticket takers given a day's holiday. It added
an air of mystery to the whole affair, which Deadnettle was certain Mordecai would have enjoyed even if there were no good reason for it, but more important, it meant that no one saw them arrive or leave.

Mordecai took great care to protect his secrets.

Or, rather, his twenty-seven secrets.

Finally, only two voices remained from what had been a crowd of hundreds in the theater.

“Deadnettle—” someone began from the other side of the cage.

“Hush!” Deadnettle said, listening to the conversation farther away.

“A fine display once again, Mordecai,” said a man, just a hint of frost overlaying the warmth to his tone. “The rest of us do so wonder how you do it.”

Mordecai laughed. “Hard work and a natural gift, Jensen, same as yourself. You are keeping well, I trust?”

“Well enough,” said the man Jensen. “Though, clearly, not as well as yourself. Better, however, than one of your guests.”

“Oh?”

“A young boy beside me was frightened to the point of fainting. Do not worry. I provided smelling salts and escorted the family out to a hansom. Paid for it too, since it was clear they hadn't the coin.”

Marigold tugged on Deadnettle's arm, and he nodded. He wondered . . .

“Then I thank you for doing so without disrupting the performance,” said Mordecai. It was clear that he had neither noticed the episode nor cared about it now.

“The kindness wasn't done for you.”

“Now, now, Jensen, your jealousy is showing. Success has been good to me. I will not deny it. Of course,” he said, and Deadnettle could just picture the wink, “it could always be better.”

Behind the curtain, Deadnettle's fingers curled to fists.

“Better than to be personal spiritualist to the queen herself? Oh, yes, I spotted her, Mordecai, behind her veil in her box.”

“She is a supporter of my work, indeed, and one can hardly blame her! Such a tragic tale. If I offer her some peace and solace, well, that is just a good service, don't you agree?”


Indeed.
Perhaps I and some of the others should come to you for lessons in . . . benevolence. You can teach us your ways, so that we might also provide such comforts to the citizens of Britain.”

Mordecai laughed again, colder this time. “Oh, I think not. We must find our own path in this business, and I have found mine. Yours . . . I couldn't presume.”

“You are hiding something,” said Jensen, and though Deadnettle couldn't see his face, the man's rage seeped through the velvet and brushed Deadnettle's skin. “If you are doing anything to bring our good works into disrepute, I will discover it. You may have the respect of the others, but you have yet to earn mine.”

“I wish you luck in that, as in all your endeavors. Good evening to you, sir,” Mordecai answered mildly. Heavy footsteps stomped away, up the aisle and out the door at the back of the theater. Mordecai wandered down toward the stage, where the faeries waited, the smoke from his celebratory pipe swirling lazily up to the high, gilded ceiling.

•   •   •

In the small hours of the morning, Deadnettle woke Marigold, who complained, but not for long. She followed him out of the cellar and up into the street, their aching bones protesting at the climb.

“Where are we going?” she asked when they were well away from the building.

“We have several errands to run. We must check on Thomas, for I fear, as you do, that it was he who took ill last night.” Jensen, the other spiritualist, hadn't sounded overly concerned, but Deadnettle was. He didn't know how much of the performance the boy had seen, and thus,
how much of the truth he would understand when it was told to him.

There was nothing that could be done about it now. For the moment, Deadnettle would console himself with the fact that Mordecai obviously hadn't seen or spoken to Thomas, and that was—as Deadnettle had said in the note left in the grave—essential.

“We must give something to the boy to help him on his way,” Deadnettle continued, “and we must fetch it first.”

“Oh! Do we get to introduce ourselves?”

“Not quite.
You
will speak to him, but only if you promise—
promise
, Marigold—that you do not tell him who you are.”

“Why not? What is the
point
of all of this, Deadnettle? I don't understand.”

Deadnettle sighed and tried to think of the best way to explain it to her. The only one he could come up with sickened him to use. But these were desperate times, for him, at least.

“You have heard, in your times beneath the table, those who come to the Society but don't believe, or don't believe enough, that what is done there is truly happening?”

“Yes, of course, but—”

“But they are drawn in the first time, just a bit. And so they return, and the next time, they believe more. More the
time after that, and so it goes until they tell all their friends what a gifted spiritualist Mordecai is and how everyone should visit him.”

“What has this to do with Thomas?”

“We have shown him that there is something strange in his past. That there existed a boy who looked just as he does. That the people who raised him are not his true family, or not by blood. I wouldn't question the care they have given him as parents. We have shown him that speaking with the dead is possible. We are making him curious, Marigold. We are opening his mind to possibilities it would never have occurred to him to consider. We are preparing him so that when the truth comes, it is less frightening and more plausible than it would have been otherwise. And most important, we are doing it without risking ourselves, until I know he can be trusted.”

“You think he'll run off and tell everyone in London about us?”

“I can't be certain he won't. Not yet. If it soothes you, today he will begin to learn what he is.”

“How?”

“You will see. On Saturdays, he goes to the market with his mother. We're going to ensure he speaks to someone.”

“You have been watching him.”

Deadnettle nodded. Not much, but enough.

“Not yet.” He did not tell her the other part of the errand, but she'd see for herself soon enough. He despised admitting even to himself that he needed her assistance, that he wasn't strong enough to do some things on his own any longer. Especially after the theater, which had sapped them all.

He led them out of Shoreditch, and every step away from the Society brought both pain and relief. Iron pressed in from every direction, where there was none in their cellar, but it soothed him to be a distance from Mordecai. In the ancient faery tongue,
captor
and
benefactor
were utterly different words, but in human English, they sounded eerily similar.

“Deadnettle?”

“Yes?”

“You heard Mordecai and that other man speaking . . .”

“I did.”

“Why
don't
we go to one of the other spiritualists and tell them what Mordecai's done to us? You heard him. It doesn't sound like they'd be pleased. And if Mordecai was the one to open the gateway and bring us through to start with, maybe one of the others can open it again to send us home.”

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
9.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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