- Escaping from Houdini
1 JANUARY 1889
New Year’s afternoon aboard the Etruria began like a fairy tale, which was the first indication a nightmare lurked on the horizon, waiting, as most villains do, for an opportunity to strike.
As our cruise liner prepared to leave port, I ignored twinges of unease in favor of the lush fantasy world before us. It was the start of a fresh year, a new chapter, a wonderful opportunity to put dark events of the past behind us and stare ahead into the bright future.
A future that might soon bring a wedding… and a wedding night.
I took a steadying breath and glanced at the stage in the center of the grand dining saloon. Heavy velvet curtains—an ink blue so dark they appeared black—shimmered with tiny sparkling gems whenever light caught them. Aerial performers in diamond-encrusted bodices twirled on silver threads, beautiful spiders spinning webs I was hopelessly caught up in.
Round tables dotted the floor like well-placed constellations, their moon-white linens strewn with flowers in purples, creams, and blues. Among many modern conveniences, the Etruria boasted a hothouse, and the scents of jasmine, lavender, and other midnight notes wafted around, inviting yet dangerous—not unlike the masked performers soaring above us. They swung effortlessly from one trapeze to the next, letting go without fear of falling as they flew through the air and snatched the next bar with ease.
“The long trains on their costumes make them look like shooting stars, don’t they? I should love to have a dress made with as many gemstones one day.” Miss Prescott, daughter of the chief magistrate across the table, sighed deeply. With her caramel hair and cunning brown eyes, she reminded me of my cousin Liza. She set her champagne flute down and leaned close, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Have you heard the legend of Mephistopheles, Miss Wadsworth?”
I tore my gaze from the hypnotic scene above once more and shook my head. “I can’t say that I have. Is that what tonight’s performance is based on?”
“I suppose it’s time for a story.” Captain Norwood, the proud captain of the Etruria, cleared his throat, gaining the attention of our table, including the Prescotts; Uncle Jonathan; my chaperone, Mrs. Harvey; and the wickedly enchanting Mr. Thomas Cresswell, the young man who’d won my heart as deftly as any cardsharp winning hand after hand at his game of choice.
Accompanied by my uncle, Thomas and I had spent two grueling days traveling from Bucharest to Liverpool to board the Etruria before it set out for New York. We’d found creative ways of stealing kisses on our journey, and each secret encounter flashed through my mind unbidden—my hands in his dark brown hair, his lips igniting flames along my skin, our—
Miss Prescott gently nudged me under the table, returning my attention to the conversation.
“… if, of course, legends are to be believed. Named after a character from German folklore, Mephistopheles is a demon in the Devil’s employ,” Captain Norwood said. “Known for stealing the souls of those already corrupt, he’s full of magic and trickery, and he happens to be one spectacular showman. Here, look at these tarot cards he’s made for the tables. Each card features one of his performers.” He held up a gorgeous set of handpainted cards. “I guarantee you’re in for a week of unparalleled magic and mystery,” he continued. “Each night will bring a new carnival performance, never before seen. This ship will be the talk of legends, mark my words. Soon every cruise liner will host similar entertainments. It will be the start of a new era of travel.”
I raised a brow at his near-reverent tone. “Are you suggesting you’ve hired a demon to entertain us and it’s sure to become all the rage, Captain?”
Thomas choked on his water, and Miss Prescott shot me a mischievous grin. “Is there a church or chapel on the ship?” she asked, all round eyes and innocence. “What shall we do if we’re tricked out of our souls, sir?”
The captain lifted a shoulder, enjoying the mystery. “You’ll both have to wait and see. It shan’t be much longer now.” He returned his attention to the adults, when Miss Prescott leapt up from her seat, startling me and earning a disapproving glare from her father.
“One more little clue, please?”
Maybe it was the devil in me, but I couldn’t help adding, “I would hate to be so overcome with hysteria that I abandoned the ship. We’re not too far from port, are we? Perhaps I might swim…”
Miss Prescott slowly blinked in appraisal. “Indeed, Captain. In fact, I feel a bit of a fainting spell coming on this very moment! Do you think it’s Mephistopheles?” she asked, voice rising in pitch. “Does his trickery work from a distance? I wonder how many he can affect at once.”
I peered at her, leaning in as if to medically inspect her. “You do appear a bit pale, Miss Prescott. Does your soul feel attached to your person?”
Thomas snorted, but didn’t dare interrupt this new show taking place. With my deep blue silk evening gown, midnight gloves that extended past my elbows, and sparkling jewels draped over my collarbone, I felt nearly as bedazzling as the acrobats flying above us.
Miss Prescott wrapped her gloved hands around her throat, eyes going wide. “You know, I do feel strange. Lighter, even.” She swayed on her feet and clutched her center. “Should we call for smelling salts, Captain?”
“I don’t believe it’s necessary,” he said, inhaling deeply, no doubt regretting pairing the two of us together. “I assure you, this Mephistopheles is harmless. He is just a man pretending to be a legendary villain, nothing more.”
“I swear my soul is getting weaker. Can you tell? Do I look more… transparent?” Her eyes grew nearly to the size of saucers as she dropped into her seat and glanced around. “I wonder if there’s a spirit photographer aboard. I’ve heard they can capture such things on film. My clothing isn’t becoming indecent, is it?”
“Not yet.” I bit my lip, trying to keep the smile out of my voice and off my face, especially since Mrs. Prescott seemed ready to burst from fury at her daughter’s act. “We might be able to weigh you to see if there’s any difference.”
Uncle paused his conversation with Thomas, shaking his head ever so slightly, but before he could comment, an attendant hurried over and handed him a telegram. He read it, twisting the ends of his pale mustache, and folded the paper up, shooting me an inscrutable look.
“If you’ll excuse me.” Uncle stood. “I must tend to this at once.”
Miss Prescott’s eyes sparkled. “Your uncle must be off on secret forensic business. I’ve read stories in the papers regarding your involvement with the Ripper murders. Did you and Mr. Cresswell truly stop a vampire in Romania from slaying the King and Queen?”
“I—what?” I shook my head. “People have been writing about me and Thomas in the papers?”
“Indeed.” Miss Prescott sipped her champagne, eyes following Uncle as he exited the room. “Most everyone in London has been whispering about you and your dashing Mr. Cresswell.”
I could not focus on the spectacle my own life was taking on. “Pardon me. I must get some… air.”
I half rose, unsure if I should follow Uncle, when Mrs. Harvey patted my hand. “I’m sure everything is fine, dear.” She nodded toward the stage. “It’s about to begin.”
Tendrils of smoke unfurled around the inky curtains, the scent strong enough to evoke a few coughing fits throughout the room. My nose burned, but it was a minor nuisance compared to how quickly my pulse now raced. I wasn’t sure if it was Uncle’s swift departure, the information regarding Thomas and myself being known for our forensic skills, or the anticipation of tonight’s performance that was to blame. Perhaps it was all three.
“Ladies. Gentlemen.” A deep male voice intoned from everywhere at once, forcing passengers to twist in their seats. I craned my own head around, searching for the man behind the disembodied voice. He must have engineered some mechanism to project himself around the room. “Welcome to the show.”
A buzz shot through the saloon as those few words echoed. In the silence that followed, cymbals trilled lightly, building into a crescendo that clashed as servers lifted silver cloches from our plates, revealing a meal fit for royalty. No one seemed to notice the mushroom-gravy-topped filets or fried potatoes that were arranged in a grand pile, our hunger no longer for food, but to hear that mysterious voice once more.
I peeked at Thomas and smiled. He moved about in his seat as if hot coals had been placed randomly and he had to shift or remain still and get burned.
“Nervous?” I whispered as the aerial performers gracefully descended, one by one.
“Of a performance that boasts of causing arrhythmia, according to this program?” He flicked the black-and-white-striped show bill he held. “Not at all. I cannot wait for my heart to burst. Really livens up an otherwise monotonous Sunday evening, Wadsworth.”
Before I could respond, a drum thundered and a masked man emerged from a cloud of smoke in the center of the stage. He wore a frock coat the color of an opened vein and a starched shirt and trousers that were an endless black. Scarlet ribbons and silver bullion trimmed his top hat, and a burnished filigree mask covered everything from his nose up. His mouth curved in wicked delight as every eye in the saloon went to him and each jaw dropped.
Men jumped in their seats; women’s fans snapped open, the sound akin to a hundred birds taking flight. It was unsettling, witnessing a man materialize, unscathed by the tempest raging about him. Whispers of him being the Devil’s heir reached my ears. Or Satan himself, as Miss Prescott’s father would have it. I nearly rolled my eyes. I should hope he’d have better judgment as a chief magistrate. This was clearly the ringmaster.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” The masked man bowed, mischief sparking in his eyes as he slowly drew himself back up. “I am Mephistopheles—your guide through the strange and magnificent. Each night the Wheel of Fortune will choose your entertainer. However, you may barter with performers after the main show and indulge in any of our acts. From flame swallowers to lion tamers, fortune-tellers, and knife throwers, your wish is our command. I warn you, though, beware of midnight bargains, taking your fate in your own hands is poorly advised.”