Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Fearsome Firebird, Page 2

Lauren Oliver

  Except that Rattigan rarely smiled, as Pippa knew too well. And when he did, there was no humor or life in it. It was the smile of a snake as it opens its jaw to swallow a mouse.

  Dumfrey pushed up from his desk and leaned over, snatching the photograph back from Max and upsetting a collection of pens with his stomach in the process. “Yes, yes. All very silly. Took a trip down memory lane, I’m afraid to say. Can’t blame me . . . having all these old friends around . . . a bit of vanity, I suppose. . . .” His face was the color of a stop sign.

  Kestrel’s mouth flattened into something less than a frown. “Dumfrey here was the star of the show.”

  “Mr. Dumfrey, you performed?” Pippa squeaked. She had seen Mr. Dumfrey onstage, of course. He often made announcements during the performances of the museum’s newest attractions—most recently, General Farnum and his world-famous flea circus. But as far as she knew, Mr. Dumfrey had no special talent beyond his ability to fudge the truth by claiming, for example, that a bunch of dolls with insect wings pinned to their backs was actually a family of Irish fairies; or that an old broomstick decorated with seashells and feathers was in fact an aboriginal Polynesian spear, used in rituals of sacrifice. Faith begets fact, Mr. Dumfrey was fond of saying.

  “Performed?” Kestrel worked his jaw, left to right, moving the toothpick back and forth in his mouth. In the three weeks he had worked for the museum, Pippa had never seen him without one. Even when Kestrel ate, he merely shoved the toothpick to one corner of his mouth and shoveled food into the other. “Wasn’t anybody east of the Mississippi better than Mr. D at what he did, and nobody west, either.”

  “But . . . what did you do?” Sam asked, a little awkwardly.

  “It doesn’t matter now,” Mr. Dumfrey said quickly. He shot a pointed look in Kestrel’s direction, as if cautioning him to stay silent. “It’s all in the past.”

  Unsatisfied, Pippa focused her attention on the scrapbook, closing her eyes. Almost immediately she inhaled the smell of old, sunbaked leather and ink, of tobacco-stained fingers and photographs drying to the consistency of leaves. A second later, various images flashed in her mind: of a young woman, squinting, holding an enormous white cone of cotton candy; of Kestrel and Lash with their arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing; of a dusty circus tent and a bearded lady standing in the entryway (not, Pippa thought critically, as fine a bearded lady as Betty; her beard was much patchier and not nearly so long). It was as though her mind had fingers and could riffle through all the pages, one after the other—she was scanning fliers, hopping over notices advertising the Best Variety Show in America, flipping past a dozen pictures of the Priggs sisters, Famed Contortionists and Human Pretzels, fumbling for some evidence of Mr. Dumfrey’s special skill. Suddenly, an image of the young Dumfrey began to form. He was holding something over his shoulder, a broomstick, or a shovel, or—


  All at once, a dark wall came down in her mind and she could no longer see. Mr. Dumfrey had shut the scrapbook away and, furthermore, wedged an ornate Victorian cabinet directly in front of it. When she closed her eyes now, all she saw was a confusion of papers and a miscellany of objects—rubber bands, paper clips, old bills.

  “I’m sorry, Pippa.” Mr. Dumfrey looked anything but sorry as he returned to his desk and sat down with a little, satisfied sigh. “But it really isn’t nice to stick your mind into other people’s business.” He carefully righted the cup of pens he had reversed earlier, slotting each pen back in its rightful spot. “Thank you, Kestrel. That’ll be all for now. I do believe Miss Fitch may need your help turning out the Bloody Baron exhibit. That old guillotine is terribly hard to maneuver.”

  Kestrel’s toothpick once again hopped from one corner of his mouth to the other, and without another word, he turned and left the room. Dumfrey turned a beaming smile on the children. “So,” he said, “you wanted to see me?”

  There was a brief pause. Once again Pippa wondered, somewhat guiltily, what special talent Mr. Dumfrey might possibly have possessed. In his cage, Cornelius preened his feathers and let out a prolonged squawk.

  “Actually,” Sam said, again apologetically, “you wanted to see us.”

  Mr. Dumfrey struck his forehead with the palm of his hand. “So I did, so I did. Don’t know what’s wrong with my mind nowadays. Old age, children, old age. Never say I didn’t warn you!” His face turned serious.

  “I’m about to entrust you with an enormous responsibility,” he said, lowering his voice, as though worried that the large bust of Thomas Jefferson occupying one corner of his desk might come to life just to eavesdrop. “As you know, the poor Monsieur Cabillaud has taken ill.”

  “Let’s hope it’s the plague,” Max muttered. Pippa elbowed her sharply, trying to arrange her face into a fitting expression of sympathy.

  Monsieur Cabillaud was the museum’s resident tutor, and ever since September 1 had insisted that school was back in session. It seemed he had spent the whole summer brainstorming new ways to torment them with agonizingly boring lessons on every subject, from the correct conjugation of the French verb for somersault, to the proper application of Epsom salts to cure stiff muscles, to the names of all the Chinese dynasties from 2000 BC to the present day. He had even conscripted Smalls the giant, an aspiring poet, to give weekly two-hour lessons on literature, during which Smalls read aloud from his newest unpublished work, “How Sweetly Doth the Pigeons Coo,” and railed against the stupidity of every literary magazine that had rejected it.

  “Normally,” Mr. Dumfrey continued, having failed to hear Max’s comment or chosen to ignore it, “Monsieur Cabillaud takes care of all our expenditures and deposits.” Mr. Dumfrey coughed—perhaps because there were usually far more expenses than deposits, if there were any deposits at all. “But this week I must ask you to take his place.”

  “You want us to go to the bank?” Max asked, in her typically blunt style.

  Mr. Dumfrey looked vaguely irritated to have been interrupted. He coughed again. “I would do it myself,” he said, “but I’m expecting an important phone call. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—a specimen so rare it doesn’t yet even have a name.”

  Pippa and Thomas exchanged a look.

  “I would hope that this goes without saying, but it is absolutely imperative that the money go safely into the accounts”—Mr. Dumfrey emphasized the word safely, peering at each child in turn over the rim of his glasses—“especially in light of recent . . . events.”

  In the past two months—ever since Professor Rattigan had vanished, seemingly into thin air, from a shuttered trolley factory into which he had lured them—the number of bank robberies in New York City had spiked a record 250 percent. There was no doubt, at least in Pippa’s mind, that the two factors were linked. Rattigan had made no secret about the fact that he was planning something big. And something big meant something expensive.

  Unfortunately, there was no way to prove it.

  Half the New York City police department and a whole team of special agents were combing the city for Rattigan, with absolutely no success, and every robbery had so far gone off seamlessly, leaving no indications behind of who might be responsible.

  Pippa, Max, Sam, and Thomas knew that Rattigan must be behind the bank heists. And deep down, very deep down, Pippa was the teeniest bit . . . relieved. Of course she would never admit to it: her friends wouldn’t understand, and most of the time she joined them in hoping that he had simply vanished from the face of the earth.

  But if Rattigan died, then she would have no chance of asking him about her parents. Tom, she knew, felt that the museum was his true home. Max thought having parents sounded like more trouble than it was worth and proudly declared herself an orphan to anyone who would listen. Sam knew that his parents were named Priscilla and Joe and seemed satisfied.

  Pippa wanted more. Not just names, but pictures, and facts, and stories. Knowing that she might have had parents who loved her had opened up a need she hadn’t known existed
, just as the smell of sizzling bacon will awaken a sudden hunger.

  Mr. Dumfrey removed the metal cashbox from a desk drawer and handed it to Thomas. Once again, Pippa couldn’t help herself. The contents of the enclosed metal box floated up to her consciousness, as if the material that separated her from them had been suddenly dissolved.

  “Three dollars and seventy-five cents?” she blurted out, even as Mr. Dumfrey counted the money into a large envelope. “That’s it?”

  Mr. Dumfrey had the grace to look embarrassed. “Ah, yes, well. . . . I might have deducted a certain fee for museum development and expansion. Rare specimens don’t come free, you know!”

  “And”—Thomas took the cashbox and peered into it—“a set of false teeth.” He made a face.

  “Aha!” Mr. Dumfrey leaped to his feet and, cupping the teeth carefully in a palm, transferred them to one of the many glassed-in cabinets that cluttered his office. “I’ve been looking for these everywhere. Do you know these fine specimens once belonged to George Washington? An excellent man, and very careful about his dental hygiene. Really, they’re in beautiful shape, don’t you think? Especially considering his diet—all starch. Really no fresh vegetables or fruit to speak of; I don’t know where that business about the cherry tree came from. Now go on,” he said, turning businesslike again. “Straight to the bank and no stopping. Miss Fitch has threatened to serve my head on a platter if we go one more week on cabbage stew.”

  Max zipped the envelope into her jacket, which was several sizes too large, so as to accommodate the knives and blades she always carried with her. Almost automatically, Pippa counted four of them tucked into various pockets. Just then, the phone began to ring.

  “That’s your cue.” Mr. Dumfrey snatched up the receiver with one hand and waved them good-bye with the other. “Is that you, Sir Barrensworth? Excellent, excellent. Dumfrey here, of Dumfrey’s Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders.” As Thomas, Sam, Max, and Pippa retreated from his office, Mr. Dumfrey pulled his mouth away from the phone and whispered, “Be careful.”

  “Now,” he said, returning his attention to the call and gesturing for Pippa to close the door behind her. “About the price we were discussing . . .”

  A small crowd was gathered just outside the museum, waiting for admission. Hanging over the entrance was a garishly painted banner advertising General Farnum’s World-Famous Flea Circus and showing vastly magnified fleas wearing elaborate circus costumes while bouncing on trampolines, riding tiny tricycles, and performing various acrobatic routines. The eager customers would likely be disappointed by the real thing—the fleas were so small it was hard to tell where they were, much less whether they were actually backflipping—but Pippa was just grateful that the new attraction had taken much of the attention away from the living wonders of Forty-Third Street, as she, Thomas, Sam, and Max had briefly been known.

  For a short time, they had become unlikely—and largely unliked—celebrities, and nearly every day a new article, many of them unflattering, had appeared in the newspapers about them. They had found it difficult to move through the streets without someone shrieking an insult in their direction or whispering or merely staring. But now they slipped into the street happy, unnoticed, and undisturbed.

  It was a beautiful fall day, warm but crisp, with the sun sitting high in the sky like a perfectly cooked egg. Across the street, Barney Bamberg was sponging the windows of his new delicatessen, while the smell of pastrami, corned beef, and sauerkraut issued from the open front door. Jumbled displays of wrenches, nails, keys, and hammers gleamed in the windows of Majestic Hardware. Henry, the day porter at the St. Edna Hotel, was napping on the job, as always.

  “Hey,” Thomas piped up. “Want to hear a joke?”

  “No,” Max and Pippa said together.

  Thomas ignored them. “What do you do with a dead chemist?”

  Sam made a face. “Not now, Thomas. You know science makes my head hurt.”

  “Come on. Just play along.”

  “Leave him alone, Thomas,” Max said. Sam turned so red, Pippa was sure his whole face would combust. When, she wondered, would he ’fess up to his enormous, obvious crush on Max?

  “Barium,” Thomas said. When no one said anything, he sighed. “Bury him. Get it?”

  Sam groaned.

  “I’ll bury you, unless you shut it,” Max said, glowering.

  “No sense of humor,” Thomas mumbled, but fell silent when Max moved a hand threateningly toward her pocket.

  Despite the new, sharp-toothed curiosity that nibbled at Pippa whenever she thought about her past, she was happy. She was happy to be walking here, in the sun, side by side with her friends—even Max. She let her mind wander and skip like a stone across the river of people flowing toward Broadway, skimming through pockets and purses, the knowledge coming to her easily now, with hardly any effort, as if the whole world were an origami figure unfolding itself to reveal its secrets. She could see the melted taffy gummed to the bottom of a woman’s pocketbook and the man with a sandwich in his pocket; she could see card cases and money folds, loose change and gold-tipped pens.

  She could even, occasionally, slip into other people’s minds. These images came to her in brief bursts, like camera flashes that left a lingering image, a quick impression of shape and meaning. There! A pair of darned socks strung from a wash line. And there! A memory of a little girl whose fingers were sticky with jam. There! A narrow office space in a tall gray building; the smell of ink and paper. They bubbled up to her consciousness and then vanished again, like items bobbing on a tide.

  Then, suddenly, a new image intruded: the breath went out of her, and she felt as if she’d been hurled against a rock. A factory, dimly lit, and someone screaming . . . Rattigan’s face, twisted into a cruel smile . . . an arm pinning a wide-eyed girl to his chest . . . pinning Pippa to his chest . . . .

  She let out a short cry of pain, spinning around, searching the teeming crowd.

  Someone—one of the men and women on the street—had been there that night at the factory, the night they had last confronted Rattigan and Pippa had been sure she was going to die.

  Almost immediately, however, she began to doubt. She saw no one who looked suspicious or even faintly recognizable: just the usual mass of scowling businessmen and street vendors, women herding their small children, theatergoers craning their necks to look at the billboards. Had she imagined it? Maybe her own memories had intruded—it was hard to distinguish, sometimes, between her mind and other people’s, as though they were two sticky masses that sometimes gummed together.

  “Move it.” A fat man elbowed her roughly, and she realized she’d stopped walking in the middle of the sidewalk. She hurried to catch up to her friends, who had just reached the corner.

  “Hey.” Sam pointed at the far corner, where a boy with straw-colored hair sticking out of his hat was squatting on an overturned milk crate. “Isn’t that Chubby?”

  It was. There was no mistaking Chubby’s thatch of unruly hair, his nose as thin and long as a pencil, or his bizarre style of dress. Today he was wearing battered boots, unlaced, tongues lolling out; red-and-green striped socks; pants several inches too short for him; and several shirts layered over one another, all of it topped with a floppy woolen cap, so he looked rather like someone who had selected his outfit by diving headfirst into a laundry basket.

  They crossed the street, dodging a clattering trolley car. Chubby was sitting with his elbows on his knees, surrounded by various pots and brushes. A sign written in shaky black letters on cardboard next to him said: SHEW POLISH OR SHINE.

  “Hello, Leonard,” Pippa said sweetly. Chubby scowled at her. For years, Chubby had been tormenting her by using her full name, Philippa, which she hated. But she had recently learned that Chubby had been born Leonard and wasted no occasion to remind him.

  “What are you doing?” Sam asked, surveying Chubby’s various materials.

  “What’s it look like I’m doing?” Chubby said, scrubbing
his nose with a finger and leaving behind a large streak of black shoe polish. “Read the sign.” He gestured to it proudly.

  “But what about selling papers?” Thomas asked.

  Chubby was an orphan, and proudly so. For years he had ruled all the corners between Herald Square and Forty-Second Street, selling papers and also collecting bets on everything from whether or not the Yankees would win their next home game to the quantity of pigeons that would roost on the Pepsi sign at any time. For a short while he’d even lived with a group of petty thieves and had made his living picking pockets.

  But after Rattigan had kidnapped Chubby to try to blackmail Thomas, Pippa, Sam, and Max into cooperating with him, Chubby had vowed to change his ways.

  Chubby waved a hand. “I gave Tallboy my corner,” he said, pronouncing the name Tallboy the way someone might say President Roosevelt or Mickey Mouse, as if everyone should know him. “I got tired of slinging news all day for peanuts. I make twice as much right here, plus I don’t got to stand all day.”

  “Don’t have to stand all day,” Pippa corrected him.

  “Will you lay off?” Max said. “You sound like Cabillaud.”

  “Cabiwhat?” Chubby scratched his head. “So what do you say? Ten cents for a polish, five cents for a shine.” He brandished a filthy brush in their direction.

  “What’s the difference?” Thomas asked.

  Chubby grinned and hawked a wad of spit onto the toe of his shoe, then rubbed it in with a thumb. “See?” he said proudly. “Good as new.”

  Max laughed. Pippa shot her a dirty look. “You’re disgusting,” she said, turning back to Chubby.

  Chubby seemed to take that as a compliment and only shrugged. “Who wants to go first?”