“Ah, good, a stealth operation. We’re dressed perfectly, then.”
I was in hard-soled shoes that made every footstep sound like a hammer blow, she was in a dress yellower than a hazard sign, and I’d only recently found the energy to stand on my own two feet—and yet I agreed. She was often right about these things, and I had come to depend on her instincts.
“If someone spots us, so be it,” she said. “The man’s waited eons to meet you, apparently. He’s not going to kick us out now for giving ourselves a little tour.”
She opened the window and climbed onto the ledge. I stuck my head out cautiously. We were two stories above an empty street in the “good” section of Devil’s Acre. I recognized a stack of firewood: it was where we’d been hiding when Sharon exited the abandoned-looking storefront. Directly below us was the law office of Munday, Dyson, and Strype. There was no such firm, of course. It was a front, a secret entrance to Bentham’s house.
Emma offered her hand to me. “I know you’re not a great fan of heights, but I won’t let you fall.”
After being dangled above a boiling river by a hollow, this little drop didn’t seem so frightening. And Emma was right—the ledge was wide, and decorative knobs and gargoyle faces protruded everywhere from the masonry, making natural handholds. I climbed out, grabbed on, and shimmied along after her.
When the ledge turned a corner, and we felt fairly certain that we were paralleling a hallway out of Sharon’s view, we tried opening a window.
It was locked. We shimmied on and tried the next one, but it, too, was locked—as were the third, fourth, and fifth windows.
“We’re running out of building,” I said. “What if none of them open?”
“This next one will,” Emma said.
“How do you know?”
“I’m clairvoyant.” And with that she kicked it, sending shattered glass into the room and tinkling down the front of the building.
“No, you’re a hoodlum,” I said.
Emma grinned at me and then knocked the last few shards from the frame with the flat of her hand.
She stepped through the opening. I followed, somewhat reluctantly, into a dark and cavernous room. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust. The only light came from the window shade we’d just broken, its puny glow revealing the edge of a packrat’s paradise. Wooden crates and boxes climbed to the ceiling in teetering stacks, leaving only a small aisle between them.
“I get the feeling Bentham doesn’t like to throw things away,” Emma said.
In reply, I released a rapid-fire triple sneeze. The air was swimming with dust. Emma blessed me and lit a flame in her hand, which she held up to the nearest crate. It was labeled Rm. AM-157.
“What do you think is in them?” I said.
“We’d need a crowbar to find out,” said Emma. “These are sturdy.”
“I thought you were clairvoyant.”
She made a face at me.
Lacking a crowbar, we ventured farther into the room, Emma enlarging her flame as we left the petering window light behind. The narrow path between the boxes led through an arched door and into another room, which was equally dark and nearly as cluttered. Instead of crates, it was crammed with bulky objects hidden beneath white dust covers. Emma was about to pull one away, but before she could I caught her arm.
“What’s wrong?” she said, annoyed.
“There might be something awful under there.”
“Yes, exactly,” she said, and tore away the cover, which scared up a cyclone of dust.
When the air cleared, we saw ourselves reflected dimly in a glass-topped case of the sort you find in museums, waist high and about four feet square. Inside, neatly arranged and labeled, were a carved coconut husk, a whale vertebra fashioned into a comb, a small stone axe, and a few other items, the usefulness of which wasn’t immediately obvious. A placard on the glass read Housewares Used by Peculiars on the Island of Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, South Pacific Region, circa 1750.
“Huh,” Emma said.
“Weird,” I replied.
She replaced the dust cover, even though there was little use in covering our tracks—it wasn’t as if we could unbreak the window—and we moved slowly through the room, uncovering other objects at random. All were museum displays of one type or another. The contents bore little relation to one another save that they had once been owned or used by peculiars. One contained a selection of brightly colored silks worn by peculiars in the Far East, circa 1800. Another displayed what appeared at first glance to be a wide cross-section of tree trunk but upon closer inspection was in fact a door with iron hinges and a knob made from a tree knot. Its placard read Entrance to a Peculiar Home in the Great Hibernian Wilderness, circa 1530.
“Wow,” Emma said, leaning in for a closer look. “I never knew there were so many of us in the world.”
“Or used to be,” I said. “I wonder if they’re still out there.”
The last display we looked at was labeled Weaponry of the Hittite Peculiars, Kaymakli Underground City, no date. Bafflingly, all we could see inside were dead beetles and butterflies.
Emma swung her flame around to look at me. “I think we’ve established that Bentham’s a history buff. Ready to move on?”
We hurried through two more rooms filled with dust-covered display cases, then arrived at a utilitarian staircase, which we climbed to the next floor. The landing door opened onto a long and lushly carpeted hallway. It seemed to go on forever, its regularly spaced doors and repeating wallpaper creating a dizzying impression of endlessness.