top of page

Newly Dead

Updated: Apr 1

by KJ Fieler (excerpt: SHADOW HUNTER)

If you only own one dress but need to go unnoticed, pitch-black moire is the ticket. Innocuous, somber, off-putting, such a dress could pass as mourning attire, even without the veil. And no one wants to talk to a grieving woman, especially one they don’t know. Comforting the bereaved: that’s what relatives are for. Only, Ada didn’t have any family—not officially—for which circumstance she was oddly grateful.

In her inky ensemble, she strolled the hazy stone-set streets of London unmolested, even at night, visiting her past. Here was the house where she was born. There was the bench where she sat with Mum, and later with Nadine… the very spot where she was told that Papa sold her into servitude.

Each scene reminded her that she was exactly where she had chosen to be; that people had died to buy her independence. She was free at last… But, to do what? She'd never thought to get this far. Her goal was to escape. Now, she had to figure out what society would allow a free woman. Not much, so far.

The widow’s getup simplified her wardrobe, assured her anonymity, and sometimes got her temporary leeway to do business without a husband or father.

Unable to purchase a house without a male representative, she commissioned a burial chamber and above ground structure in an obscure little graveyard. To the casual eye, the tomb appeared to do what most did: protect ostensibly dead occupants from body snatchers. If only the usual suspects knew, things much more valuable than a body for dissection lay below.

She paid cash directly to the vicar who, to her good fortune, was routinely tipsy. She bought his ongoing blind eye with a weekly stipend of whiskey. In case he wasn’t sufficiently indebted–and because a chimney might be difficult to explain on a mausoleum–she purchased a coal fueled steam boiler to heat his cottage and hired gravediggers to pipe half the steam to her unusual quarters.

“For the days when I visit,” she told the foreman. “I like to sit and pray, but you know how cold the stones get.”

“Do you want us to lower the casket, too?”

“No, thank you. We have a family crew doing that. Just the mausoleum and crypt. And your discretion in the matter, of course. I paid the pub on market street for one pint a week for you and your men. It’s in your name but I'll pay the tab in advance. As long as I’m alive….”

The man practically swooned. He pulled his hat over his heart and held up his hand as if to hail God. “Bless you, Miss! If ever you need a thing…”

Beer, brass, and batting lashes. Very effective.

If only the vicar could conduct financial transactions on her behalf. He was in her pocket all the way up to his receding hairline, but a man of the cloth had no plausible excuse to buy dresses or townhomes.

No mind. However humble, Ada's new home was gently appointed. The main level contained a leather library chair with fluted legs and anthemion decoration, one hand-carved walnut Windsor side table, and a green leather footstool, all pilfered from the attic of her former family.

A small butler’s pantry, complete with a tiny iron stove for heating water, served as a makeshift kitchen. The tiny larder held a single loaf of bread, tins of dried fruit, and a supply of water. Currently, the aroma of sweet buttery cinnamon combined with the floral and orange scent of bergamot, sparking rumors of a lavish tea just finished: Chelsea buns and Earl Grey.

The child-size horsehair mattress and six grey wool blankets were for her lone servant, an orphaned boy of about nine. He served as general laborer, guard, and porter. He alone, besides Ada, knew of the secret tunnel that connected the faux house to the basement hideaway on the other side of the road. He’d dug it for her in the months after the gravediggers left, distributing the dirt from the job a bit at a time in the wee hours; spreading it around the grounds and dumping buckets onto the graves of freshly buried residents.

The new quarters were quite a perk for a street waif. Less comfortable than a house, but he was no consumer. As he described it, his birth home was a fifth floor flat: a single room with no water or heat; shared by mother, father, siblings, and sometimes a male boarder or two to help cover the rent.

She’d found the urchin in a doorway, days from his last crust of bread but still meaty enough to work. A mysterious woman in a hooded cloak and goggles was offering him a meal if he went with her. Ada knew what she was and why she was there, and she was determined to spare him that fate.

“Hello, stranger,” she said. “Why are you talking to my son?”

The woman stepped aside and regarded her with suspicion. “Some mother you are. He’s been here a week. Besides, he’s a bit undernourished and underdressed.”

“I ain’t your son,” said the boy.

“Quiet,” said Ada. “I’ll deal with you in a minute.”


Ada grabbed his collar and pulled him to his feet, then turned to the woman. “It’s none of your affair. If anyone needs reporting to the Bobbies, it’s you.”

The woman retreated several steps, hands in the air. “Oy! No need to get coppers involved! Just thought he was on his own is all.”

Ada grabbed the boy by the ear. Over his wailing, she said, “Well, he’s not.”

The hooded figure slipped around the corner of the building and disappeared.

The child wrenched free and held his throbbing ear. Sapphire blue eyes played hide and seek amid a tussle of chestnut curls, yet his stare was keen. “What come over you, Miss? I ain’t yourn.”

Ada wanted to comfort him but was afraid the woman might still be nearby, watching. She was, no doubt, a Shadow. The boy was just old enough to be recruited to the tortuous life and inevitably violent death of a disciple. She wanted to tell him but was afraid he’d ask how she knew.

With a practiced smile she said, “How would you like to come and work for me? There’s a warm bed and meals in it if you do.”

He continued rubbing his ear while he summed her up.

Please say yes, she thought. I need you. And, although you don’t know it, you need me. She’ll be back.

“The other ‘n offered me the same, but she ain’t yanked my ear. Why should I go with you?”

“Did you look at her eyes?”

“Couldn’t see ‘em through the ‘ead gear.”

“Right. Who wears goggles, except autocarriage drivers or pilots?”

“Got me there. I guess she were a bit off now that you mention it.”

“So, do you want the job? I could use a porter. I’ll pay for your keep and perhaps a bit of pocket money.”

“I could do worse,” he said. “Better ‘n the slag heaps. Sure, I’ll be yer boy if you like.”

Today, they stood together admiring their shared secret.

“Looks good,” said the boy. “I’d never know if I hadn’t dug it me-self.” He brushed the dirt off his trousers with both hands.

“It’ll do,” said Ada. “Don’t track dirt into the house. Remember, we live here.”

“Oh, right. Sorry Mistress.” He swept the dirt into a little pile and shooed it out the door. “Why do you live in a graveyard? A lady like yourself could have a house on the main, with a husband and a garden.”

“The grounds are beautiful here,” she said. “And I don’t have to pay for a gardener.”

He closed the door, lit the oil lamp in the corner, and held his hands up in front of the radiator to warm them. “Seems odd though. I ain’t sure what to make of you.”

She eyed him sharply. “We had an agreement.”

He shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. “We did. I ain’t goin’ back on me word. Just curious.”

“Care killed the Cat.”

He nodded. “I keep me thoughts to me-self. You be the only one I says anything to.”

She scrutinized him for a few seconds. Satisfied he was sincere, she said, “From now on, keep them entirely to yourself.”

“Yes, ‘ma'am.”

“This arrangement isn’t forever. If you remain loyal, you’ll have a room of your own one day. In a real house. With its own fireplace and a bed.”

The boy hugged himself. “Wouldn’t that be glorious! Not that I’m complainin’ now.”

Her gaze softened. She imagined someone tousling his curly brown hair. Another woman might do that. “You’re a good lad,” she said at last.

He beamed at the unusual praise.

“You need a name,” said Ada. “Is there one in particular that you fancy?”

“I’ve got a name. I told ya. Me mum called me Tom.”

“Tom’s dead. We talked about this. You and I were born when our partnership went into effect.”

“Please, ma’am. It’s all I have left of me mum. I’d like to keep it if it’s all the same.”

Ada’s heart skipped a beat, and her hand went to the locket she always wore. Inside were pictures of her mother and grandmother, her last connection to her birth family.

“Fair enough. How about we call you Thomas? It’s probably your given name anyway. Your mother would have shortened it.”

“Thomas! I quite like that.”

“Master Thomas,” said Ada.

He blushed. “I ain’t born high enough to be a master.”

“You will be. I’m recreating you. That’s what the ciphers and reading lessons are all about. You’ll brush elbows with aristocrats before you die. What's more, they’ll count you as one of their own.”

“Aw, go on!” He toed the ground in front of his feet.

“But remember who put you there. I’ll set you up for a good life, Thomas, but the price is your undying allegiance.”

He nodded. “I'll always remember ya. I know which side of my bread is buttered. Besides, you been right nice to me since you left off boxin’ me ears." A grin spread, bit by bit across his face.

She smirked, then leaned over and straightened his neckerchief, and immediately regretted the gesture. He's not a son, she thought. He's a means to an end. Don't get attached.

“Who were Nadine?” Thomas pointed at the lid to the sarcophagus. “I know nobody’s in there, but the name. Were she real?”

Ada was surprised he could read the inscription. She’d been buying penny dreadfuls as primers and teaching him to read. She hoped to pass him off as a son or nephew, to serve as her male representative when he was old enough. She hadn’t realized how quick he was.

Better keep an eye on him. Maybe up his salary. Snitches sometimes play both sides.

“She was my everything.” Ada clapped her hand over her own mouth. Why had she said that? Out loud? Must be feeling nostalgic. But secrets are secrets for a reason.

Thomas removed his hat and bowed his head. “Yer mum?”

“Something like that.”

“I lost me mum too. Me da put me on the street the minute she were cold. But I done alright. Got a job pickin’ buttons and coal from the heaps ‘afore you came along.”

Ada traced the newly carved letters with an index finger.

Nadine Draven

1801 - 1847

Mother by deed if not by birth.

Nadine would have disapproved. Waste of money. Why spend coin on stone if there’s no corpse? Anyway, strip and ditch, that’s what really happened to her. All dead Shadows ended up in the Thames, even if clergy could be paid to overlook their unholy deeds. Under normal circumstances a Shadow had no kin, or at least none with money enough to pay for a plot.

Truth be told, Ada had money twice over: once from Nadine’s little ill-gotten vault of treasures, once from the birthright she refused to claim. Her pedigree came with privileges—such as never having to worry about a home or money—but there was a tradeoff. She’d be forced to marry a man her father chose, regardless of whether he was pleasant to look at and live with, or not. Moreover, her husband would oversee everything: her property, her person, her very life.

Ada had already thought this out and, to her mind, it was better to employ the boy and live in a graveyard than declare her birthright and become someone’s chattel.

No thank you, she thought. I’m free at last. Not about to trade one prison for another. Besides, Thomas needs me.

“Wash up and put the kettle on, Thomas,” said Ada. “We could both do with another cup of tea.”

*COPYRIGHT KJ Fieler 2024

50 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Wonderful read! This is very exciting! Looking forward to reading more of Ada's (and "Master Thomas's") adventures.

bottom of page