The Fearsome FirebirdLauren Oliver
H. C. Chester dedicates this book to his best and most appreciative friend, Trudy
Lauren Oliver dedicates this book to her father, for all his support, inspiration, and creative encouragement
About the Authors
Books by Lauren Oliver
About the Publisher
Startled by the voice thundering through the narrow attic room, Sam accidentally tightened his grip on the small, scale-model Viking ship he’d been holding, crushing it to splinters.
“Great.” Thomas frowned. “Now what are we supposed to use for a Reverser?”
Thomas and Sam were playing DeathTrap, a complex game of Thomas’s own invention that used the swirling patterns of the attic rug as its board and various items pilfered from the museum as its pieces. The Viking ship was critically important: by spinning it and seeing which direction its dragon-headed prow was facing, the player might be forced to move back several spaces or even start over.
“Sorry.” Sam carefully siphoned the wooden shards from his hands into a neat pile on the carpet. “I didn’t mean to.”
“SAM!” Goldini the magician popped up behind the series of interlocking bookshelves that dominated the central part of the attic, looking rather like a deranged jack-in-the-box. His cheeks were a vivid red, and the curled tips of his mustache quivered. “I believe this monster belongs to you?” As he held up Freckles, the fluffy white cat that had once belonged to the famous sculptor Siegfried Eckleberger, his face twisted in disgust, as though he were clutching an old, extremely smelly sock.
“Oh no.” Sam scrambled to his feet. The floor briefly shuddered under his weight. Even though Sam was only recently thirteen and skinny as a beanpole, he had that effect: banisters were pulverized to dust in his hand, doors collapsed from their hinges when he pushed them. It was the decided downside of being the strongest boy in the world. “What’d he do this time?”
In the past two months, Freckles the cat—and, by extension, Sam—had at one time or another made an enemy of nearly all of the permanent residents of Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders. He had chewed Betty the bearded lady’s favorite brush to smithereens, had shed all over Smalls the giant’s bed less than a day after Smalls had declared that he was hopelessly allergic to cat hair, and had clawed to shreds the shawl that the albino twins, Caroline and Quinn, wore slung over their shoulders during their act. He had terrorized Mr. Dumfrey’s pet cockatoo, Cornelius. (Cornelius still shrieked “Murder, murder!” whenever Freckles so much as placed a paw in Mr. Dumfrey’s office.) Freckles had even relieved himself into Danny’s favorite slippers after the dwarf had been overheard loudly discussing the merits of dogs over cats.
“This time,” Goldini said, drawing himself up to his full five foot seven, “that beast has been terrorizing my bird.” He pointed a pale finger to the cage in which a dove was fluttering frantically, eyeing Freckles as though the cat might at any second claw his way out of Sam’s arms and lunge. The bird was an important part of Goldini’s newest trick, the Incrediballoon, in which Goldini popped a balloon with a long sewing needle, revealing to a delighted audience a live dove.
“I’m sorry, Goldini,” Sam said sincerely. He’d never before heard Goldini raise his voice. Usually the magician spoke in a tone somewhere between a murmur and a bad case of laryngitis, even when he was onstage. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“It better not,” Goldini said with an injured sniff. “How can I make a balloon turn into a bird if the bird is passing through the digestive system of your cat?”
Carefully, gently—remembering all too vividly the crack of the little wooden Viking ship in his fist—Sam carried Freckles to his usual spot on Sam’s bed, navigating the clutter of objects that had, over time, found a permanent home in the attic: wardrobe racks and overturned chests of drawers, three-legged tables and broken armoires, even a darkened refrigerator.
It was a perfect Sunday afternoon in early September. All the windows were open, admitting a breeze that carried smells from nearby streets—hot dogs and roasted nuts, motor oil and exhaust fumes, florist-shop perfume and a whiff of uncollected garbage.
The museum was, for the first time in recent memory, actually prosperous. The matinee performance had been a resounding success. Nearly every patched felt chair in the first floor Odditorium had been full. Goldini had fumbled not a single one of his tricks. Max’s knife-throwing act, which she now performed blindfolded, had earned a standing ovation. Philippa had successfully read all the contents of a spectator’s purse, down to the half-empty roll of peppermint Life Savers. After the show, she had been swarmed by a group of single women who pressed quarters in her palm and demanded to know when and where they would meet their future husbands, even after Pippa patiently explained that mind reading and fortune-telling were two distinct disciplines.
On a day like today, it was hard to believe that less than eight weeks earlier the museum had been on the verge of shutting its doors for good. And even harder to believe that Sam, Thomas, Max, and Pippa had nearly lost their lives to Nicholas Rattigan: scientist, fugitive, and monster, whose crimes included the murder of Sam’s own parents. It was hard to believe in anything other than the beauty of the day and the cozy, shabby comfort of the museum, which was as familiar to all the performers as a pair of ancient slippers, battered over time into the exact shape of the wearer’s foot. Even Caroline and Quinn, the albino twins, were in a rare state of harmony, and sat side by side, their foreheads touching, braiding each other’s long white hair and humming alternating portions of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
For Sam, the pain of knowing he’d once had a mother and father who loved him was tempered by the relief of knowing for sure that he had not been to blame for their deaths, as he’d always secretly feared. Besides, now that they had names—Priscilla and Joe—he could actually grieve for them. And he had, until grief was nothing but a dull throb, as if his heart were a shoe and his parents’ memory a pebble lodged deep inside of it.
In a weird way, it even felt good. Because losing someone meant you’d had someone to lose.
“Whose turn was it?” Sam said to Thomas, plopping down on the rug. Thomas was winning the latest round of DeathTrap. In a brilliant move, he had used the feathered quill pen (supposedly the same one Thomas Jefferson used to signed the Declaration of Independence) to temporarily rewrite the rules, allowing him to capture Sam’s pirate hook with a much less powerful U.S. army pin.
But Thomas had apparently grown bored with the game. An enormous book was now open on his lap. Sam just caught a glimpse of the title: Chemical Compositions and Their Practical Applications. “Forget the game,” Thomas said irritably. “We can’t play without a Reverser. We’ll have to call a draw.”
“Finally.” Max spoke up from the corner. She was sittin
g in her favorite armchair—large and exceptionally comfortable, except for a few protruding springs—and polishing her knives. “If I had to listen to you two squabble about the rules anymore, I might have lopped off my own ears.”
Sam felt his face heating up, as it often did these days whenever Max spoke to him—even though she rarely had anything nice to say. Ever since Howie the Human Owl, who could rotate his irritatingly perfect head a stunning 180 degrees, had arrived and then promptly quit (or more accurately, been kicked out of) the museum, Max had been even more snappish than usual. Sam didn’t know whether Max was embarrassed that she’d briefly had a crush on Howie, furious about Howie’s betrayal of them, or still sad that he had left. He really, really hoped it wasn’t the latter.
“Be quiet, all of you.” Pippa was draped across a sofa, this one covered in a coarse woven blanket that had supposedly belonged to Geronimo. “I can’t hear a thing.” And she reached over to turn up the volume knob on the old radio.
“. . . You’ve been listening to Woodhull’s Music Lover’s Hour,” said a patchy voice from the speakers, “sponsored by Woodhull Enterprises. When you need it done well, you need it done by Woodhull.”
“Did you know,” Thomas said, without looking up, “that the human body contains enough carbon to provide lead for nine thousand pencils?”
“Shhh,” Pippa hushed him sharply. “I’m trying to listen.”
“. . . interrupt the program for a special announcement, coming to you straight from Edward T. Woodhull IV, president of Woodhull Enterprises. On September fifteenth, the company will launch the world’s largest dirigible. The mammoth airship will fly from a factory on Staten Island to midtown Manhattan, where it will be moored on top of the Empire State Building for a full week . . .”
“Hey, Sam.” Max’s mouth was hooked into a smile. Sam ducked, trying to conceal a new, furious round of blushing. It felt as if someone had lit a fire underneath his skin. “What’s wrong with Freckles? He’s scratching like crazy.”
She was right. Freckles was furiously scratching his left ear, meowing, whining, and craning his neck to nibble his fur.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with him.” The door to the attic slammed, and Danny the dwarf came stomping in from the hall. The tall cowboy hat he had recently taken to wearing—a gift from William “Lash” Langtry, the museum’s world-famous rodeo star—was just visible over the bookshelves. “It’s those fleas!”
And he rounded the corner into the small common area where the children were gathered.
Instantly, Pippa gasped. Thomas dropped his book. Even Max stopped polishing her knives and instead stared at him, gape-jawed.
“Wh—what happened to your beard?” Sam stammered.
“What happened to your eyebrows?” Thomas blurted out.
Danny, who for as many years as the children had known him had sported a long red beard, thick as copper wire, and a pair of bushy eyebrows so pronounced they looked like russet caterpillars tacked to his forehead, was completely and totally clean-shaven. He looked like an overgrown baby.
“Enough!” General Archibald Farnum stomped into the attic behind Danny, panting a little and leaning heavily on his cane. “I said enough, you hear me? I won’t have you mouthing nonsense about my highly trained, highly intelligent—”
“Vermin!” roared Danny, spinning around to face General Farnum. “Awful, bloodsucking, itch-crazy vermin!”
“Vermin? Vermin?” Farnum’s long white beard wiggled, as if it, too, were enraged. “You listen to me, you sprout. I should have you thrown into jail for slander. I handpicked each one of those fleas myself, and every one has more intelligence in its speck of a brain than you have in your fat skull!”
“Say that again, you big windbag, and I’ll bop you right in the nose,” Danny cried, waving a fist—which, unfortunately, only came up to Farnum’s kneecap.
“You,” General Farnum said, his face by now so red he looked like an ancient, wizened tomato, “are not fit to be a flea on the back of one of my fleas! You are nothing but a—an ear mite! You are a vicious, lying dust mite!”
“Hey now, enough hooting!” Lash Langtry appeared and stepped between the two men only a fraction of a second before they could come to blows. “There are ladies present, don’t forget.”
Both Caroline and Quinn popped off the bed in unison. “Hi, Lash,” they crooned. And then, glaring at each other: “Jinx.”
Lash tipped his hat to them and returned his attention to Danny. “What’s all this about, anyway?”
“What this is about,” Danny huffed, “is our so-called General—”
“So-called! I’ll have you know I commanded a platoon of Rough Riders while you were still in diapers—”
“—and his collection of miserable skin-feeders! Look at me! Just look at me! I haven’t slept a wink in a week.”
“All one hundred and two of my fleas are present and accounted for,” General Farnum said. “I did roll call just this morning.” He gestured with a sweep of his cane toward the miniature circus set, equipped with tiny balance beams, swings, and trapezes, in which his performing fleas were kept. Even from a distance, Sam could see the tiny dark shapes darting between various pieces of equipment.
“Then why”—Danny’s voice was cresting again dangerously—“can’t I stop ITCHING?”
General Farnum let out a noise that sounded suspiciously like a growl. “Have you considered the possibility of lice? Oh, during the war we saw plenty of lice. The dirtiest soldiers were always the most affected.”
“You rotten scoundrel, I bathed not four days ago—”
“My point exactly. You stink!”
“Fellas, fellas.” Lash once again intervened. “No reason to get so riled up. Danny”—he turned to the infuriated dwarf—“I hate to say it, but General Farnum’s got a point. You don’t exactly smell like a bouquet of daisies. And General Farnum”—Lash turned to the general before Danny could burst into a renewed round of fury—“ain’t it possible that one or two of your, er, specimens may’ve made a break for it?”
“No,” General Farnum said stiffly. “I do not lose men, Langtry—or fleas, as the case may be.”
“Well, now,” Lash said quickly, before the argument could resume, “what say you both go ahead and shake on it? Come on,” he added, when neither man moved. “We’re all family here, right?”
After a long second, Danny extended his hand with a grunt. General Farnum clasped it quickly, then immediately turned away, muttering.
“Well, see?” Lash said cheerfully, even as the general stomped off. “All’s well that ends—”
“Thomas. Pippa. Sam. Max. Dumfrey wants you in his office.” Gil Kestrel, the museum’s new janitor, had materialized in the doorway.
It was as if the voice carried with it an arctic chill. Instantly, all the lightness and ease was blown from Lash’s face. Slowly, Lash pivoted to face Gil. Everyone was frozen, as if stilled by the sheer force of electric tension in the room.
Gil’s eyes flicked to Lash. “Langtry,” he said shortly.
“Kestrel,” Lash said tightly. As far as Thomas could tell, these were the only words the two men ever exchanged. Langtry. Kestrel. And they would pass each other in the hall sticking as close as they could to opposite walls, as if convinced the other one carried an infectious disease.
Lash and Gil had known Mr. Dumfrey from the old days, back when they all traveled the country together, performing for massive crowds in towns across America. But whereas Lash was always telling stories about that time, Gil hardly spoke at all, unless it was to give orders or ask whether anyone had moved the mop. Thomas knew no more about him than he had on the day Gil first appeared at breakfast, clutching a weathered rucksack and moving his ever-present toothpick back and forth in his mouth, like it was an idea he’d been chewing on for decades.
One time, Max had worked up the courage to ask Dumfrey about why Gil and Lash hated each other, but Dumfrey had merely waved off the question.
br /> “Bygones, my dear, bygones!” he’d said cheerily. “Old bones laid long ago to rest.”
But it was obvious that whatever the reason for the tension between them, it was anything but gone.
Finally, Gil turned away, and the electric spell that had bound them all in place was broken. Instantly, the air came whooshing back into Thomas’s lungs.
“Some family,” Max muttered as they followed Gil out into the hall and down toward Dumfrey’s office.
Mr. Dumfrey’s office was accessible only from the performers’ staircase, which corkscrewed up the back of the museum before belching its travelers into the attic. As usual, his door was closed, though even from several feet away Pippa could hear Dumfrey’s deep, rumbling chuckle emanating from within.
“Well, now, look at that,” he was murmuring. “Would you believe I’d completely forgotten . . . and Miss Annie Priggs! How time flies. What a dear she was, what an absolute dear. I wonder whatever happened to Miss Annie Priggs, and whether she ever got the solo act she wanted. Perhaps I ought to . . . no, no.”
Kestrel rapped once and, without waiting for a reply, swung the door open. “Delivery for you, Mr. D,” he said.
Seated at his desk, his small round spectacles perched on the end of his nose, Mr. Dumfrey was bent over an enormous book so overstuffed with pamphlets, photographs, and loose papers, it looked like an accordion. Instantly, Mr. Dumfrey jumped, slamming shut the book. But as he did, a yellowed photograph was expelled from between its pages and floated down toward Pippa’s feet. She snatched it up and nearly choked.
“Mr. Dumfrey,” she said. “Is this you?”
“Let me see,” Max said, and grabbed the photo from Pippa’s hands.
In the picture, Mr. Dumfrey was standing in front of a peaked circus tent between two lean, tall men: Kestrel and Langtry, both instantly recognizable, although Kestrel’s face was transformed by a dazzling grin, so different from his usual scowl.
Mr. Dumfrey had a dark mustache, a full head of dark brown hair—somehow, Pippa had just assumed he’d always been as bald as a newborn baby—and, most incredibly, most unbelievably, was about sixty pounds lighter. With one hand raised to his eyes to shield them from the sun and a corner of his mouth quirked into a smile, it was almost, almost possible to see the resemblance between him and his half brother, Nicholas Rattigan.