Even the most powerful enchantments can’t always protect you from the ghosts of the past…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Undertakers, book two in Nicole Glover’s Murder & Magic series of historical fantasy novels—published by Mariner Books.
Nothing bothers Hetty and Benjy Rhodes more than a case where the answers, motives, and the murder itself feel a bit too neat. Raimond Duval, a victim of one of the many fires that have erupted recently in Philadelphia, is officially declared dead after the accident, but Hetty and Benjy’s investigation points to a powerful Fire Company known to let homes in the Black community burn to the ground. Before long, another death breathes new life into the Duval investigation: Raimond’s son, Valentine, is also found dead.
Finding themselves with the dubious honor of taking on Valentine Duval as their first major funeral, it becomes clear that his passing was intentional. Valentine and his father’s deaths are connected, and the recent fires plaguing the city might be more linked to recent community events than Hetty and Benji originally thought.
The Undertakers continues the adventures of murder and magic, where even the most powerful enchantments can’t always protect you from the ghosts of the past…
Hex, curse, or charm?” Hetty asked as they strode down Barclay Street. “Don’t say that hex and curse are the same. There are nuances, you know.”
“Of course there are,” her husband replied. Benjy took a moment to consider the question before replying. “I think it’s a jinx.”
“That wasn’t a choice!”
“Should be. There’s got to be a reason that place is still standing.” Benjy pointed to the only house on this end of the street. Despite its neighbors being reduced to piles of rubble, this home was untouched by the fire. A state that was quite unnerving given that even the still-standing homes of the street had shown some signs of the fire.
Since the end of May, news of a fire had reached their ears twice a week, and sometimes more. While small fires around a single home or a building were not uncommon, these fires were different. They engulfed both sides of a street, and once they started they raged until they burned themselves out. Such fires led people to craft charms and potions to keep their homes safe.
And the ones that didn’t make their own bought them from charlatans who touted fire-proofing potions that could barely quell a candle’s flame.
While reports of this fire would have brought them to this street anyway, Hetty and Benjy got word of it in a somewhat different matter.
Just after midday, Hetty had found a card left in their postbox. A card with a sun and a crescent moon drawn on one side, and on the other a brief message:
Last night a fire took eight homes on Barclay Street and scorched more than a few, but one home stands untouched by the flames.
Such a message wasn’t just odd. It was downright peculiar.
And peculiar was their business.
Although the day was still young, the fire itself was a distant memory, with only traces of smoke left in the air. What it left in its wake was still evident.
Buildings here were mostly made of wood, and were home to several families both large and small. While this wasn’t the slums, neither were the people rich. Some homes were divided so that as many as six families occupied a building, and most people rented out a spare room to any interested boarder.
While only eight houses had burned down, every building on the street, save the one miraculously spared, was damaged. This meant of course the street was filled with people. There were those who lived on this street, making light repairs to their home and casting spells of protection. There were people tending to the dead and wounded, people checking on neighbors to see what survived the fire, and others jealously guarding piles of recovered possessions.
As Hetty and Benjy walked the length of the street, several people called out to Benjy for help. This was not unusual. The blacksmith shop Benjy used to work at was not far from here, and he was generous with his time and repairs. It wasn’t surprising that so many recognized him on sight as the person likely to lend a helping hand. Not that he was hard to forget, in Hetty’s humble opinion. He cut a handsome figure, even in plain attire of shirt-sleeves and suspenders. Although, more appealing was the easy air of competence and unsatiable curiosity in the world. While Benjy often pretended that other people’s problems held no interest to him, they had gotten involved in mystery solving because deep down he couldn’t help but care.
“You take this end of the street, and I’ll take the other,” Benjy said to Hetty. “We’ll meet at the still-standing house.”
“Why not go there first?” Hetty asked.
“Because there are plenty more interesting questions to ask before we do.”
With that, Benjy crossed the street to assist a man dragging a trunk out from the rubble, already asking about what had happened last night.
Hetty should do the same, but she was a bit reluctant. It was never easy asking questions about the fires.
People lied to her face, or were too wearied to give a proper answer. A handful were rude, and quite a few were wondering why she even cared.
A fire was a fire.
A tragedy that ruined what strangled hopes they had for a better tomorrow. A fire that pushed them to move in with friends, with families, with strangers, or finally convince them it was time to leave the city. What caused the fire and why mattered little to people who had more than their fair share of things to grieve.
However, not all fires were accidents.
Something more than a mere fire occurred here. She could feel it in her bones.
At the end of the street, two dozen bodies were stretched out in neat lines. Most were badly burned and bearing mortal injuries that no healing magic could cure. The rest were people who died from breathing in too much smoke and fell unconscious. The group was mostly adults, and the youngest person was on the edge of adulthood. No children. Good fortune, one would think, until you remembered what happened to orphaned children. Babies and the very young would find new homes easily, but the older ones would have a much harder time of things.
Hetty saw a handful now, huddled on the corner, and she wondered if any of them had lost family in the fire.
As Hetty looked on, she found a trio of elderly women sitting on the steps of a nearby building, watching her closely.
So closely that even when they realized Hetty had noticed them, they kept on staring. They reminded Hetty of a gossiping trio that was the bane of her existence at church. But gossips weren’t all bad. Gossips always had the most interesting news and were more than willing to share. It was no surprise at all that when Hetty approached the small group, they started talking before she asked a single question.
Their home had not been impacted by the fire. Not by luck, they quickly assured Hetty. The building was owned by someone who knew his magic. Spells were put in place to repel flames, and were replaced regularly. The other buildings didn’t have that in their favor.
“What happened here was an accident,” one of the women, Paula, assured Hetty. “Started from a candle that got knocked over. No mystery here.”
“Not even that we had to deal with the flames ourselves,” grumbled Emmeline.
“No fire company showed up?” Hetty asked.
“Nobody showed up, legitimate or otherwise!”
Until last December, volunteer fire companies had the run of the city. They put out fires, but usually for a fee, and they often took their time arriving. And more than a few were aligned with gangs to such a degree that the only difference between the groups was access to hoses and water. Which was why when the city finally set up their own fire company there was great rejoicing. But the volunteer companies were not going away quietly, especially not when elected officials didn’t mind them running amuck in Black-majority neighborhoods. While some, such as Moyamensing Hose, were notorious for sparking riots and violence, the worst group in Hetty’s opinion was Beatty Hose, which targeted magical practitioners. Rumor had it that Beatty Hose was behind most of the fires that had sprung up without a clear cause, and used Sorcery to ensure that flames did not die easily.
“How do you know a candle started the fire?” Hetty asked.
The gossipy air of the trio changed then, as they looked over at Hetty rather keenly.
“What it’s to you?” Iola asked. Her lips, already thin with suspicion, flattened even more with undisguised scorn. “You don’t live on this street.”
“And you don’t look like you will anytime soon,” Paula added, eyeing the delicate embroidery on Hetty’s pale green dress.
With ease Hetty replied, “I make it my business to know about odd things. Have you heard about the sparrow that lives on Juniper Street?”
While Paula and Iola blinked on in confusion, Emmeline’s eyes widened.
Hetty hid a smile. There was always one.
Emmeline sputtered as she addressed Hetty with new admiration in her eyes.
“I’ve heard the stories. You take care of things. Clean up messes. Make sure the dead aren’t forgotten,” Emmeline said. “You’re the Sparrow!”
“And my husband is the Finch,” Hetty said. “We’ve been looking into these fires and hope to do something about them.”
These words got Hetty more stories from the trio. They were similar to what they’d already told Hetty, but the missing details that Hetty suspected earlier had now quietly been slipped back in.
Overall, nothing tugged at Hetty’s curiosity, except for one thing:
“You saw a stranger last night?”
“Yes,” Iola said. “My hip was bothering me again. I was up trying to find something to settle these old bones. Then I heard it.” She rapped her knuckles against the steps she sat on. “A knock on the door. At that hour I wasn’t opening the door for anybody, not even kin, but I peeped out the window. There was a man out there I hadn’t seen before.”
“As I told you,” Emmeline interjected, “that was the new neighbor!”
“Ain’t nobody new on this street!”
As the women began to argue between themselves about the veracity of this fact, Hetty gently cut in.
“What can you tell me about the house that didn’t burn down?”
The arguing stopped midsentence, and Emmeline answered: “A fellow owns it. Haven’t seen him much lately. Although I don’t think it’s the man going inside right now.” Hetty spun around to look.
She didn’t see whoever stepped inside, but she saw a door slide shut. While that was fine on its own, less so was the ripple of magic that followed.
“You look like somebody stole the flowers off your grave. Something the matter, child?” Iola asked. “What do you know about the house?”
“Not much, but I plan to find out more.”
Leaving the trio behind, Hetty crossed the street, taking care to go slowly to avoid drawing any more attention than she already had.
Standing on its own, the house appeared much like a lost, lonely duckling missing its siblings. Although from a distance it seemed untouched, as Hetty climbed the front steps she saw she was wrong in that regard. Soot dusted the exterior of the house, turning the house gray, and left the windows looking dusty and forlorn. Even the flower box, devoid of any growing things, had a fine layer of ash. The door had scratches along the doorknob and scuffs on the lower portion as if someone had kicked in the door when they couldn’t unlock it.
“Aren’t you going to come inside?” Benjy’s voice called out to her.
Hetty pushed the door open and found Benjy standing in the hallway frowning at the florid wallpaper before him.
Hiding her relief that the stranger the old women had seen was only her husband, Hetty jabbed a finger at the door.
“Did you do this?”
He looked over at her, barely glancing at the doorway. “Why would I do that?”
“Because no one lives here.”
Hetty gestured around the hall, not bothering to point to any specific spot. The evidence was all around. From the debris that stirred as she walked in the hall, the musty air of a room that had been shut up too tightly, and the old water stains in the corner. Not to mention the chandelier above their heads that held sunlight in the cobwebs stretched between its candle posts.
“Someone does,” Benjy corrected her. “They just haven’t been around in a while.”
Excerpted from The Undertakers, copyright © 2021 by Nicole Glover.