- Escaping from Houdini
“You’d deduced all of that before lying in it?”
“Mostly.” Thomas glanced at the tables that were slowly clearing of guests. Soon we’d be the only ones left. “It’s adorable when your nostrils flare so dramatically. There”—he grinned, dodging my swift kick under the table—“that’s the look. One day I’m going to have it captured by a grand portrait artist and hang it above the mantel in my study.”
“I truly dislike you sometimes, Thomas James Dorin Cresswell.”
“Even when I’m being valiantly heroic by sacrificing myself?” He removed the two cards from inside his suit jacket and waved them in front of me. “I’d wager you hate me less now.”
“Marginally.” I plucked the cards from his grasp. One was an Ace of Clubs, the second was a hand-drawn tarot—Justice. I sighed and set them down. “What do you make of these?”
“Well, the scales of justice appear wildly off-kilter. It seems too great a coincidence that Chief Magistrate Prescott’s daughter was slain. It’s worth looking into his background as a judge. Clearly, someone doesn’t find his rulings fair. It might be a good motive.” He tapped the playing card. “And the Ace of Spades is likely a distraction.”
“What about the Ace of Clubs left on Miss Prescott’s body?” I countered. “Maybe the tarot card is the distraction.”
Thomas shrugged. “Perhaps they’re both meant as decoys. Or maybe these simply were misplaced. I believe we ought to search—”
A terrible ruckus interrupted us. It sounded as if a stampede of elephants had gotten loose and was charging through the corridors. Which, given the presence of the carnival, wasn’t entirely out of the question. Confused, I twisted in my seat, watching a few people run past the open door as waiters stuck their heads out.
Dread slithered through my limbs. People running with tears streaming down their faces were never a good sign. Whatever they were terrified of had to be quite bad indeed. They’d just seen a young man cut in half and had barely stopped eating their entrées.
“Hurry,” Thomas said, gently taking my arm and rushing us toward the door. “If it’s what I fear… there might be time to save the person.”
“Wait!” I wrenched free and ran to the nearest table, grabbing a knife. “Better to be prudent.”
Thomas wrapped his hand around mine and we moved as quickly as we could against the tide of passengers heading the opposite way. I kept the knife pointed down and close to my side. I’d never seen the promenade so crowded, and what had felt like a comfortable walking deck now felt like a funnel.
Men in top hats bobbed back and forth, some escorting their families away from the chaos and others diving into it. A few times my hand almost slipped from Thomas’s, but he was right there again, placing his body before mine as a barrier. People jostled him, but he steered us to where the crowd was the thickest.
“Please!” someone shouted, from where I couldn’t quite see. “Return to your cabins. Do not run, and do not panic. I assure you all I will keep you safe.”
“Like you kept her safe?” a passenger shouted back, earning cries of approval from those closest to him. “None of us are safe out here on the water. We’re trapped!”
“Now, now,” the first man called, “everything will be fine. Remain calm and return to your cabins!”
Thomas, using his added height, maneuvered us closer. Captain Norwood stood on a crate, motioning for crew members to disperse the passengers. My gaze traveled around him, searching out the cause for alarm.
Then I saw it.
A woman, strung up by her ankles, hung from the rafters of the promenade deck. Her skirts fell over her head, covering her identity and leaving her underthings exposed for the world to see. That would have been horrific enough, had she not also been run through with multiple swords stuck in a myriad of crazy angles all over her body. Blood slowly dripped onto the deck from each exit wound, the sound akin to water dripping from a faucet. Even with the noise of frightened passengers, all I could hear was that sinister drip. It was the single most horrendous sight I’d ever witnessed, and I’d been present for the discoveries of many of the gruesome Ripper slayings.
I held a hand to my center, forcing my breaths to come in even intervals. Rope creaked as the body twisted like a fish caught on a line. I’d thought Miss Prescott’s death was terrible, but this was an entirely new level of monstrous. Wind barreled down the open-air corridor, sending the corpse swaying serenely above us. I tried to focus on anything other than the blades as blood arced around the floor.
“Oh. Dear God above, look,” I said, pointing to a frayed bit of rope. “If we don’t get her down soon, the ropes will snap.” And the swords would be impaled even deeper, possibly decapitating her before our very eyes. My stomach flipped at the image. This poor victim did not deserve one more ounce of indignity or trauma to befall her.
Thomas scanned the crowd. “Your uncle is over there, we ought to go to him.”
We stood near the railing, the wind thrashing about in fury. I rubbed my hands over my arms, only just realizing I’d not only forgotten to grab my cloak, but had also lost the knife. Thomas dropped his suit jacket over my shoulders, though he never took his gaze from the murder scene. Once the crew had managed to remove most of the passengers, Uncle motioned for us to head over.
“Please go back to your rooms.” A deckhand blocked our path. “Captain’s orders.”
Thomas ran his gaze over the young man. “We’re to assist with the body.”
The deckhand’s focus flicked to me. “Both of you?”
“Let them through, Henry!” Norwood barked. “And someone fetch that bloody ringmaster for me. If one of his damned performers did this, I’ll string him up!” The captain turned on my uncle, hands fisted at his sides. “We can’t leave her here indecent all night; I’ll give you twenty minutes, then you can do the rest inside.” He started moving down the line of crew. “Go to the cabins and see if anyone is missing a relative. This young woman didn’t travel alone. Someone has to be worried by now. Oh, and make sure to send brandy to those who seem the most distraught. We don’t need a full-fledged panic on our hands. Go!”
Uncle caught my eye before walking around the body. For a horrifying moment I imagined it was Liza hanging there, run through by the very blades she’d helped wield earlier. Then my logical senses took control, and I actually looked at the facts before me. The woman wasn’t wearing a carnival costume. I couldn’t see her face, but she appeared to be larger in height and weight than my cousin.
I took a deep breath, but it did nothing to steady my pulse as I moved toward the victim. Up close, the rope creaked as the body twisted in the breeze. The sharp scent of copper mixed with the brine of the sea, a smell I’d not soon forget.
Thomas walked around the body, face cold as the winter air around us. It was hard to imagine how he was the same person who’d been filled with such heat a few hours before. He pointed to a lifeboat that was half lying on the ground. “Someone cut the rope off one end and used it to haul her up. See?”
I moved forward and crouched down. “That might indicate this wasn’t planned. If it had been, I imagine the murderer would have brought rope with him.”
“I respectfully disagree, Wadsworth. That’s what he hoped to portray. But look there… he used another length of rope and looped it through the piece he’d cut and then threw it twice around the rafters. There would have been plenty for him to cut the length from.” He nodded to where the rope pooled on the ground. “Why go through the extra hassle of cutting the lifeboat down, and risk drawing attention?”
That was a question I had no answer to. I turned my attention back on the horrific detail of the swords. One thing was certain, whoever had run her through had to have a decent amount of strength. An oddity struck me about the whole scene.
“Why didn’t anyone hear any screams? Surely she had to have cried for help. I cannot imagine standing quietly by while being impaled with a sword, much less…” I counted them, stomach souring. “Much less seven of them. There has to be a witness.”
Uncle took his spectacles off and buffed them on his sleeve. I imagined he was anxious to bring the body into our makeshift laboratory. “I’m sure our examination will answer some questions. I’d like each of you to change and meet me in the laboratory.” He turned, then hesitated. “Thomas, please see to it that Audrey Rose is accompanied. And be sure to leave Liza under Mrs. Harvey’s watch. I’d have everyone accounted for this evening.”
“Yes, Uncle.” I took one last look at the scene.
“Seven of Swords,” a cool, deep voice said, startling me. Thomas and I both lifted our attention to the new arrival. Mephistopheles stuck his hands in his pockets and whistled. “Reversed. Never a good sign. Then again, that’s quite apparent, isn’t it?”
“What are you on about?” I asked, already annoyed by his presence. He hadn’t even bothered to take his mask off, heaven forbid the world see his true face. “What does that mean?”
“Honestly, have none of you noticed she’s been made to look exactly like the Seven of Swords tarot card?” At our blank stares, Mephistopheles dug around inside his coat and removed a deck of cards. He flipped through them, then snatched one out with a flourish that didn’t belong at a crime scene. “Does this appear familiar to anyone? Wait. Something’s not quite right… oh… here you are.” He turned the card upside down. “The Seven of Swords when reversed, or turned upside down, is a tricksy thing. Deceit. Shame. It can also mean someone thought they’d gotten away with something.” He jabbed a finger toward the body. “Someone fashioned this scene very carefully.”
Thomas narrowed his eyes. “You’re awfully flippant when your carnival boasts of using the tarot for its acts.”