The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden (6 page)

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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Thomas rather thought she should already know, but he hadn't paid her yet, which might explain it. “Thomas,” he said. He wondered if he'd had a different name before, whether someone had wished him good-bye with it as they put him in the grave as a babe. “Where do those letters come from, the ones on the sign? I need to know.”

“Thomas.” Her voice was as rich as the red on her lips. “Do you have money?”

Silas could be right about them. Charlatans, swindlers. But Thomas withdrew his hand from his pocket, a handful of coins clattering on the table at which she sat. She considered him for a moment and selected two of the smallest. Her face paled beneath its paint. “Where did you get these?” she demanded.

“Someone gave 'em to me.” Which was strictly true. Silas had.

“No one living,” she muttered, then seemed to decide any coin was better than none, even one taken from the eyes of the dead. “Sit,” she ordered, pointing a ringed finger at a worn velvet stool by his knees.

Her hand, when it wrapped around his, was soft, powdery as a butterfly's wing, and it flew away just as quickly to rest on her heart.

“Not a young one,” she gasped, black eyes wide. “An
old
one.” Trembling, she reached across to hold his cheeks hard enough to hurt as she stared into his eyes. “Old and
broken
!”

Thomas tried to speak, but he could make only a muffled sound.

“So broken!” the fortune-teller shrieked. “Old one,
what happened to you
?”

CHAPTER SIX

A Fistful of Silver

T
HREE STREETS AWAY, THE POWDER
from the fortune-teller's hands was still on his cheeks, cool against his heated skin. Her last words screamed around his head.

Go back to the grave, old one! Go back to the grave!

After that, she had said no more, had only stared at Thomas with blazing terror in her eyes, the fear burning into him through her fingertips until he wrenched himself free and ran. And ran.

Old? Broken? He was perfectly young and healthy, thank you very much, and she was a fraud, just as Silas said about those people. Hadn't even let him tell her what he needed to know before she put on a performance worthy
of one of those big fancy stages up in the middle of the city. A big fancy stage like he'd seen last evening.

Giving him his money's worth, wasn't she?

Not hardly. Thomas's stomach sank. He'd left every one of his coins on her rickety table—so that was her game. Get the mug to empty his pockets, then scare the daylights out of 'im. He felt inside his pockets, just in case, but he had nothing left, not even the penny Lucy had given him for the onion, and she'd be looking for at least a halfpenny to come back with it.

And him. She'd be looking for him by now.

But he
couldn't
be a mug. He'd seen those letters on her sign, hadn't he? And he'd seen the sign because he'd been standing right there, eating raspberry ice.

With a girl who had appeared from nowhere, and returned there.

He needed to find her again. He could not go back to Silas and Lucy. He hadn't been
planning
to, though now that he thought on it, none of his plans had worked out altogether very well. If he was going to find his family, Thomas was going to have to get a great deal better at plans, and quickly.

There'd never been much need for him to plan anything. He had always done as Silas and Lucy bade him, and that filled all the hours he was awake. Thomas was never certain whether that was because he was a good boy,
or because he had learned young indeed what happened if he did not: sent to bed without supper, or forced to scrub every last speck of dirt from the floor. Didn't much matter either way, he supposed.

But he did know someone who'd always looked after himself, who knew the city where living people dwelled, not just dead ones.

Thomas would find Charley—

“Thomas! Get here, this instant!”

Another plan scuppered. Thomas turned toward Lucy and watched her face shift rapidly from blotchy red anger to something much more gentle.

“Thomas, what's happened? Have you taken ill again? You look a proper state.” She strode up to him and took his hand. “I think you've had too much excitement these few days. It's not good for the humors. Come, poppet. Let's go home.”

Let her think he was ill. Then he could think without her pestering him to talk or do his lessons, or about the onion. Indeed, she did none of those things on the way back to the little house or while she tucked him into his bed. Silas hadn't returned from wherever he'd gone. Thomas knew better than to ask where, even if he'd wished to, and when Silas returned just in time for supper to be put on the table, Thomas pretended to sleep.

He had to roll over to hide his slight, unwilling smile at Silas's complaint that the stew was very bland.

At some point during his busy show of being asleep, Thomas actually did drift off, head filling with jagged dreams of hands on his face, then two pairs of hands on two faces exactly the same.
Old ones, old ones, old ones,
screamed the fortune-teller's rich voice.

When he opened his eyes, the room was empty and Silas's boots were gone from beside the door. So was his shovel. It was late, then. As the days grew longer, Silas—and usually Thomas as well—waited an extra few minutes every evening for night to fully fall, for the darkness to cover their wicked deeds in whatever graveyard had been chosen that day.

One of Lucy's soft snores rattled from the other room.

Thomas wasn't going to get a better chance and, beneath the curiosity and oddness of the past days, he was simply fed up. He was going to find out what was happening and who was behind all of this.

For a brief moment, he wished to be back in the few minutes before he had chosen that fresh, unmarked plot of earth, just so as he could turn away from it and choose a different grave. He would have come home with Silas, hopefully a few trinkets richer, and still thought of them as Mam and Papa. He wouldn't see a face like his own each
time he shut his eyes, as if they were lined inside with mirror glass.

But it was far, far too late for that now, and everything that had happened since had put his thoughts through one of them fancy mangles he sometimes saw in shop windows as he and Silas crept to work and home again.

No, Thomas could not go back to the way things had been, but he could go back to the spot on which he had stood two nights previous.

Go back to the grave, old one.

There wasn't much hope it would give him any blasted idea what to do next, but it was something. It would get him out of this room that no longer felt like home. Silas wouldn't be there; he always left at least a fortnight before returning to any given one, enough time for caretakers and policemen to get tired of waiting for the thief to return, what with so many other crimes to occupy the latter and exhaustion to overwhelm the former.

It worked, because they had never been caught. The previous day was the closest Thomas'd ever come.

Surely the body would be gone, thanks to the caretaker who had chased him off and most certainly discovered the disturbed grave that was never meant to be there to begin with. Surely Thomas wouldn't have to go near it, dragged there by the temptation to gaze upon it just one more time.

A cracked, faded satchel sat in the corner, cast there by Silas when he'd found a better one, in the way Silas
found
anything. Quiet as he could, Thomas packed every last scrap of clothing he owned, and Lucy's spare shawl besides.

The door creaked. They always do, just when a person's trying to be quiet as a breath.

The graveyard gates were cold iron in his hand, the metal sucking the last of the chill from the air. They were locked, but it had been many years since such a problem had stood in Thomas's way. Getting into graveyards had almost been the first thing Silas taught him—for, as Silas had rightly said at the time, without that, there wasn't much point in teaching Thomas anything else.

Moonlight turned small white stones to glowing paths. Thomas didn't need to watch where he was going. He knew, and all was silent. No one would disturb him now.

A branch creaked.

Rats skittered, kicking the pebbles.

“Hello?” Thomas whispered, for one could never be too careful. Only the wind whispered back, rustling its greeting through the brand-new leaves on the trees overhead.

Perhaps there were ghosts. Thomas never felt alone in graveyards, and this night he felt more imagined eyes on him than ever. They prickled the hairs on the back of his neck and turned his breath shallow.

There he was, right where he'd first spotted the easy pickings that'd turned out to be anything but. Thomas could picture Silas nearby.

Find your bones
, the trees whispered in Silas's voice.

But, as Thomas had guessed, his bones were gone. The shallow grave had been emptied, but it was not yet refilled with the pile of earth that sat beside it. He could only wonder what the caretaker had thought, discovering it. Likely the police had been called in, though perhaps not. One less urchin on the street, one less mouth to feed, might be nothing for anyone to worry about.

Perhaps only Thomas wanted to know the truth.

He inched toward the uneven hole, slowly, slowly. No, there was no boy in there, looking like Thomas or anyone else.

There was
something
, however. He climbed down and picked it up, surprised at its weight, unsurprised by the gentle clinking noise that came from within.

“Hello?” Thomas called, too loud to be careful, just in case whoever had left the bag had stayed to watch him collect it.

That was real silver, that clink. None of the shoddy stuff.

Only the trees replied, but Thomas was certain.

Someone was watching him.

Someone was
helping
him.

•   •   •

Why, he could buy a palace with this. The coins glittered in the light, like a handful of stars. Two handfuls. Three. He let all but one slide back into the leather pouch and held the last between his fingers. It was strange, the face etched on one side utterly unfamiliar, and he'd no hope of identifying what was on the other. Thomas had never been much good with plants and herbs.

The markings around the edges . . . those, he knew. He saw them when he closed his eyes, etched not on silver but on paper and wood.

Queen Wintercress
, Thomas read as the letters wriggled and his eyes watered.

The trees shivered, and so did Thomas.

Something very odd indeed was going on. His head swam with what he had seen and heard since the first time he'd stood right here.

Climbing from the grave for the very last time—any grave, of this he was resolved—Thomas peered around, slowly at first, then darting his head back and forth, trying to catch glimpses from the corners of his eyes of anyone who didn't want to be seen.

There was no one there, but Thomas was coming to believe that didn't mean they
weren't
there. To be safe, he crept around the graveyard, even down into the dark, old
bit where the moonlight didn't shine and the gravestones had crumbled to dust along with the people they named.

No one.

A thought struck, and he tucked the pouch inside his satchel, with Lucy's scarf wrapped twice around it. Any London rake worth his salt would have Thomas by the throat at the first
clink
. He let himself out the same way he'd come, turning his little metal tools in the lock until it snapped closed. Shadowy figures moved around the night as he walked home, none paying the slightest bit of mind to Thomas, their business as dark and nefarious as his own, at least.

Thomas's stomach growled. His hand fished in the satchel and closed around the sack of silver. Oh, the things he could eat now! Strawberry tarts and jellied eels and a whole pie if he liked, dripping with gravy.

A bundle of rags woke when nudged with Thomas's toe, and a grubby hand seized his ankle.

“I'll 'ave your guts for—oh, it's you. Whatcha doing waking me up for?”

“Need your help. There's breakfast in it if you do.”

That got Charley up jackrabbit-quick. “What can I do for you, my lad?”

Thomas checked over both shoulders, twice, before showing Charley one of the coins. “Someone left these
for me. Think the same folks as buried my brother, in the same place. Need to sell 'em for something that won't get me nicked for spending.”

“Too right,” said Charley, who'd spent more than one night with a bruised ear from a copper sure he'd thieved the coins in his pockets. Of course, Charley usually had. “Look foreign. Wonder what it says. I know just where to go. Used to be a friend of Silas's.”

Such places were never officially open, and thus, they never closed.

“No beggars!” snarled the toothless, straggly man who answered at first sight of Thomas and Charley. “Got nuffink here for your ilk. Get away.”

“What'll you give me for this?” Thomas asked, drawing out one of the coins as the door painfully hit the side of his foot.
That
got the chap's attention, though he tried not to show it, eyes widening, shoulders shrugging in a disinterested sort of way. His fingers betrayed more interest, darting up to grip the edge with long yellow fingernails.

Thomas held fast. “Try to take it, and I'll set Silas on you. He's pretty good at digging graves, if you'll recall.” It was an empty threat; Thomas wouldn't tell Silas they'd come here, and far as he knew, Silas'd never killed more than a fish for supper, but the chap likely didn't know that. There were rules down here about thieving from your own.

“Hmmm. Prob'ly tin in the middle. No good even melted down. Maybe worth a guinea.”

“It's real,” said Charley. Thomas nodded. The coin was worth at least five times that, or more. “Four quid. We'd melt it down ourselves, get even more, but we're in a hurry.”

“Two.”

“Three.” Charley's eyes glittered.

Now Thomas knew how the people in the graves felt, robbed almost blind.

“Two, or I'll shout for a copper to ask where you got your grubby 'ands on it.”

“Three,” said Charley, “or
I'll
shout for one and tell him to have a proper good look 'round your house.”

“Hmph. Stay there.”

Thomas smiled at the man's back as it disappeared down the corridor. “Good one, mate.” Charley grinned, a job well done.

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
13.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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