- Escaping from Houdini
People in the crowd laughed at the ridiculousness of Thomas’s disembodied arm fluttering the card about, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from the enormous saw both assistants walked over to the knight. Metal teeth on the blade glinted, ready to sink into the wooden box—and Thomas’s flesh—should anything not go according to plan. Or perhaps his murder was the plan.
A bead of sweat rolled down my spine. All it would take was one false move and his lifeblood would spill—
“There, there, dear.” Mrs. Harvey patted my hand. I let my breath out and she smiled. “It’s only an illusion. What happened yesterday was terrible, but the odds of murder happening a second time, well, it’s simply not probable. Our Thomas knows what he’s doing. Hmm?”
I swallowed hard and nodded. I knew she was correct, but my heart didn’t want to listen to reason. It quickened at the thought of all the horrible things that could happen. Thomas knew what he was doing, even if what he was doing was an awful idea.
Liza shot me an unreadable look over her shoulder. I tensed all over again as Jian lifted his saw above his head. I nearly ran for one of the kneeling performers, ready to seize one of their swords should Thomas be hurt.
“You can see the blade is very real. Isabella, if you would. Demonstrate.” He nodded toward the second assistant. Isabella stepped forward and hacked at the saw with a sword she’d picked up from the table, the metal clanging for all to hear. I gritted my teeth at the noise. A young man at the next table covered his ears. “It is also very sharp. Liza?”
My cousin flourished a filigree mask hidden on her person and set it on top of the box. Jian carefully sawed back and forth until it snapped in two. I tried not to dwell on the fact it had only taken three passes for the blade to break the metal in half—it was much too sharp to be anywhere near my beloved Cresswell.
I took a deep, steadying breath as Jian prowled around the box, saw lifted proudly above his head. He stopped near where Thomas’s center would be, then motioned to Isabella. She picked her way across stage, grinning widely, hands planted firmly on her hips like a ballet dancer. She stood opposite the knight—apparently the sawing bit required two people. I twisted the napkin in my lap as Jian fit the blade into one side of the box and pushed it over to Isabella.
“On the count of three,” he ordered. “One. Two. Three!”
Metal on wood screeched in a scritch scratch, scritch scratch pattern, the blade sinking deeper and deeper into the box.
SAWN IN HALF
2 JANUARY 1889
I wanted to cover my eyes, run from the room, and toss myself overboard, but forced my body to sit and be still. Meanwhile, on the stage, Thomas’s hands and feet waved frantically as the saw got ever closer to his person.
A few people turned away from the show, snapping their fans out and calling for smelling salts. Should this act fail, it would likely be the most gruesome sight anyone here would ever witness, myself included. The aftermath of death and murder was difficult business, but actually watching it happen? I shut my eyes for a moment. I did not want to imagine the darkness that would be unleashed from myself if Thomas died on that stage.
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Harvey took a generous swig of her own wine. “It’s terribly lifelike, isn’t it? I would swear that blade was really cutting into him.”
I clamped my jaw so tightly it ached. There were only a few more inches left and the saw would go through the center portion of the box. And through Thomas.
Scritch scratch, scritch scratch.
I mentally tallied where my medical bag was, how long it would take for me to sprint to my cabin in my evening gown and retrieve it, and if I’d have the skills necessary to sew him together. I hoped there was a surgeon on board. Someone more skilled than Dr. Arden, who was still sanctioned away with Chief Magistrate Prescott.
Scritch scratch, scritch scratch.
I held my breath as the saw struck the bottom of the wood, waiting for blood and viscera to gush out beneath the crack. Thomas stopped moving. My heart might have ceased as well. Murmurs went up around me, but the voices were indistinguishable noise as I stared, waiting to see Thomas bleed out.
Thomas’s hands and feet suddenly moved about as if a blade hadn’t sliced through his middle. I partially stood, ready to clap and have this be done, but apparently this nightmare wasn’t yet over. Jian and Isabella repeated the performance with another blade. Once it sawed down to the table, each of them took one side of the box and pulled it apart.
I don’t remember having decided to do so, but I screamed. It was loud and terrible enough to make Uncle drop his fork and Mrs. Harvey fumble for her wineglass. The Knight of Swords laughed, the sound dark and ominous like a storm rolling over the sea.
“A man sawn in two!”
Another few people in the crowd screamed. I clapped a hand over my mouth, trying to keep any more of my own shrieks from escaping. The two wide blades covered each end of the box, obscuring any spilled viscera from the audience’s view, though I logically knew there wasn’t anything to hide. My emotions won against logic, and panic settled under my ribs. Thomas’s hands. I focused on them and the card he still waved about. They were moving. He was moving. This was an illusion. A terrible trick.
I blinked tears back, hating Thomas for doing this. Jian wheeled the two halves of my whole heart around the stage, proudly showing off his skill with a blade. After they did a complete turn, they pushed the box back together, then removed both saws. I gripped the edge of my seat, tethering myself to it to keep from flying up there to rip the coffin open and run my hands over Thomas.
Liza brandished a black canvas sheet large enough to conceal the box. They covered it, walked around it once more, then ripped the sheet off with a snap. They lifted the lid and… nothing. Thomas didn’t emerge and his arms and legs were no longer visible. My heart thudded dully, the sounds in the room slowly becoming loud and silent at once. Part of me wished I’d thought of calling for smelling salts. Liza and Isabella exchanged worried glances that I didn’t think were part of the act. I stood, heart hammering.
Jian sheathed the swords he’d been swirling about and stalked over to the box, hands fisted. Something was wrong. As he approached Thomas popped up like a jack-in-the-box, holding a second card, and Jian startled back.
The audience cackled at the expression on the knight’s face—it was as sour as if he’d been sinking his teeth into tart lemons. Without warning, he yanked a thin sword from the sheath on his back, and plunged it directly through the center of the card, cutting off any more laughter.
Thomas hopped out of the box, offering a quick bow before bounding down the stairs, his cheeks pleasantly flushed.
“He looked rather annoyed by my performance,” he said, breathing a bit hard. “I thought it was a brilliant touch. A little laughter to balance out the fear.”
Jian and his assistants exited the stage, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than a bit of frayed fabric on Thomas’s waistcoat. My blood felt as cold as ocean water as it surged through me. “You were cut.”
Thomas brushed a piece of dampened hair back, but didn’t comment.
Mephistopheles reemerged from the smoke like the devil he was. He smirked out at the passengers, then motioned behind the velvet curtains. On command, they pulled back, and Jian, Liza, and Isabella swept into deep bows and curtsies. The crowd whistled and cheered, some even took up stomping their feet again, while others removed the hothouse flowers from vases and tossed them onto the stage floor. I couldn’t find the will to join them.
Instead, I watched the fire flash in the knight’s eyes. My friend had annoyed him and he did not seem like the sort who enjoyed being made to look foolish. A muscle in his jaw twitched when his attention settled on Thomas. I swore there was some silent promise that passed between the two of them when Thomas noticed his scrutiny.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Mephistopheles said. “Seems no one has lost their heads tonight. But will you be as fortunate tomorrow? We shall consult the Wheel of Fortune and see. Good night!”
Each performer stepped back just as the curtains drew to a close, disappearing from sight.
I turned on Thomas, hands wrapped around my goblet to avoid strangling him. “Are you quite mad? You could have been hurt!”
His gaze swept from my grip on my goblet to the tension in my jaw. He held his hands up, surrendering to my anger. “Easy now, Wadsworth. Perhaps we ought to move away from the cutlery and glass. I assure you I was perfectly safe.”
I snorted. “Of course you were. Who wouldn’t be perfectly safe while being sawn in two? Especially after someone was murdered yesterday! How very foolish of me to worry.”
“Audrey Rose,” Uncle warned. “Please control yourself until after dinner. I have enough to contend with after Liza’s performance.” He stood, tossing his napkin down. “In fact, I’m going to fetch her now. She’ll be joining you in your chambers.”
With that, he strode out of the room. Mrs. Harvey promptly picked up her empty glass, staring into it as if it might transport her from the table. “Would you look at that,” she said, calling an attendant over to pull out her chair. “I find myself suddenly overcome with exhaustion. If you’ll excuse me.”
I watched her go, too annoyed to contemplate being without a chaperone once more.
“Well?” I asked. “What sort of deductions did you come to before climbing into that box to deem it safe?”
He reached for my hand, then caught himself. While we were alone at our table, we were not secreted away in my chambers. His touching me in public would be most inappropriate.
“That box had a false bottom. I noticed the slight seam in the wood, an extra few inches that weren’t necessary. Once I’d gotten a better look at it, I saw that I’d actually be lying directly below the box in a sub-box in the table.” He smiled tentatively. “It’s really quite ingenious. The design allows the box to be cut in half while my hands and feet protrude from the holes. Whoever engineered it is brilliant. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”