- Escaping from Houdini
Mephistopheles tucked the cards back into his jacket, then patted the pocket. His gaze drifted over to where I’d been staring, trying to find the bulge in the material. He tugged his coat tighter and grinned. “Care to look for the cards? I guarantee you won’t find them, but the search would be fun.”
I gripped my hands at my sides. “Perhaps the captain ought to toss you in the brig.”
“That would be most unfortunate,” the ringmaster said. “You see, I reported some objects stolen before the show began tonight. Rope. Tarot cards. And… what were those other things…” He scratched his chin in mock contemplation, then snapped, “That’s it. Swords. A whole bunch of them. In fact, they no longer appear to be missing. Though I doubt Jian will want them back now. Death is bad for business.”
“You’re despicable,” I said, unable to contain myself a moment longer. “A woman is dead, slain in a most brutal manner before you, and you’ve managed to make her a complete mockery.”
Mephistopheles stared at me, as if truly noticing me for the first time beyond surface appearances. “My sincerest apologies, miss. I have no further information to offer other than what I’ve given. It is most unfortunate that another woman has been slain, but my carnival has nothing to do with it. I cannot afford to have people start believing—or fearing—to attend my shows. Many people I employ depend on it to live. I suggest you turn your sights elsewhere.”
He took one last look at the staged body, then strode down the deck. I tugged Thomas’s coat tighter. When someone professed innocence so loudly, it made me contemplate their guilt.
“Come,” Thomas offered his arm. “I’ll walk you to your chambers.”
As we made our way to my room, I glanced out at the water and regretted doing so. At night it was a dark, undulating beast. Light glinted from the sliver of moon—a thousand tiny eyes watching our procession, winking and blinking as we moved along. I wondered what else the silent water might have witnessed tonight and what other secrets it might be keeping. How many other crimes might it have aided by swallowing the bodies whole?
A MURDER MOST BRUTAL
AUDREY ROSE’S QUARTERS
2 JANUARY 1889
Thomas deposited me at my chambers with a promise to return shortly for our postmortem. When I walked into my room, I found Liza sprawled on the bed, her nose crinkled at one of my forensic journals.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, dearest cousin, but how do you sleep at night?” she asked, pointing to a rather graphic dissection. “This is quite gruesome for bedtime.”
“Liza… what on—”
“Honestly,” she said, lifting her brows at the title. “‘A Case Study of Blunt Weapons and Lacerations’?” She thumbed through the book, stopping on the pages with illustrations. “It’s macabre, Cousin. Even for you. Is that someone’s intestines?” She stuck a finger down her throat, doing her best impersonation of gagging.
“Your mother is an absolute wreck,” I said, not commenting on my normal nighttime reading, though I was impressed by her knowledge of anatomy. She deposited the book on my nightstand, then stood. “She and Father have circulated rumors of you being unwell. I believe everyone’s under the impression you’re recovering at Thornbriar. Though my father believes you might be dead.”
“Couldn’t they have at least come up with something a bit more romantic?” Liza made a face. “Your father’s country estate is grand, but makes a dull story. I should write to Mother and offer up a few suggestions of my own.” She picked up the Ace of Clubs from my nightstand. “Did you know that the four suits are also associated with elements?”
“I did not.”
She grinned—a rare, goofy sort of smile that made me think something especially sugary was about to be served. “Harry is a wonder with creating grand tales. I swear, he makes the most ordinary things seem extraordinary. He claims there’s power in how you sell something. Why call something perfume when it can be a love mist?”
“Harry?” I sat on the bed beside my cousin, fiddling with the folds of my skirts. “About that… what in the name of the queen possessed you to run off with a man you scarcely know? I hope he didn’t spin you a story too good to be believable.”
“Most stories are too good to be true. That’s what makes them enchanting.”
“And dangerous,” I muttered.
Liza laid the card down and leaned into me, her head resting against my shoulder as she used to do when we were children playing in the gardens at Thornbriar.
“I have so much to be grateful for—so many opportunities that others will never even know, and yet each time I tried on a new gown for my coming-out ball, it felt as if I were being strangled. Living life, but not enjoying it. I was dressed in silks but might as well have been covered in thorns.”
I sighed. It was a feeling I knew all too well.
She nestled closer to me, voice catching. “Haven’t you ever wanted to be someone else? If only for a short while. Or maybe not someone else, maybe you longed to be your true self. To live exactly as you pleased without consequence or judgment. I know this might all be a terrible mistake—an illusion more elaborate than those in this carnival, but for the first time, I am the master of my fate. I feel as though I’ve been freed from a cage and I can finally breathe again. How can I give up this freedom?”
Guilt sank its crooked teeth into me. I knew exactly what it was like, feeling chained by expectations set upon me by someone else. Everyone deserved to live freely and in honor of themselves. A basic right should not be a luxury. I wrapped an arm around my cousin and leaned my head against hers. “So… tell me about the King of Cards. I want to hear all the details while I get ready for the postmortem.”
“Well, then I suppose I ought to start from the beginning.”
I could hear the smile in my cousin’s voice as she recited all the ways Mr. Harry Houdini had made her senses disappear. I was thrilled for her, though worry gnawed unpleasantly the more she spoke. I did not share her sentiments about a man who’d potentially ruin her on a whim, especially since no promises of marriage had been made. It seemed Houdini had nothing to lose, and my cousin had much to forfeit. I tried pushing my unease away, wanting to be as supportive as she was of me. She talked and talked until Thomas arrived and promised to finish her tale once I’d returned.
I made to leave, then turned around. “It’s good to have you back.”
“Of course it is, silly. I’d wager life was utterly dull without me. Now go on.” She smiled, lifting my anatomy journal as if she intended to study it. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I moved to the door, then froze. “Liza? Have you noticed anyone in the carnival troupe acting oddly?”
“You’re not implying one of my new friends is to blame for these atrocities, are you?” She sat up straighter, eyes narrowed. “No. I haven’t heard or witnessed anything except their own terror.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“Go solve this horrid mystery for all of our sakes. I swear I’ll be here when you return.”
She crossed her heart and I hoped she’d actually keep her word.
I couldn’t help but think the light above our makeshift postmortem table sounded like a dying bee. The slight buzz and flicker did nothing to improve my mood as Uncle folded the shroud down, revealing the victim.
I studied her wheat-blond hair, the peaceful look upon her face. It was hard to imagine she’d died in such a violent manner—that was, until my attention dropped lower. There were a total of fourteen holes in her body, two in each arm, two in each leg, and ten throughout her torso. Entry and exit wounds from the swords. I wanted to close my eyes, but hiding wouldn’t change anything. She’d still be deceased and I’d still need to find any clue that might lead to why. I shuddered a bit, recalling how her death had been staged after a tarot card.
“Begin your examination now, Audrey Rose.” Uncle had already finished washing his hands and handed Thomas the journal and a pen. “Start with wounds this time, please.”
“Yes, sir.” I cleared my throat, then walked around the body, observing. “Skin around both ankles has a slight rash, though there’s no indication of rope burn. If it had been present, that would indicate she’d been alive and struggling against her bonds. Since it is not, it is likely she was not struggling and therefore already deceased.”
“Good. What else?”
I stared at her face again, biting my lip. There was something too serene about her. She had kohl around her eyes, but there weren’t any smudges. Odd for someone who’d been murdered in a heinous way to not have shed any tears. I pointed to the clue.
“Victim’s kohl is perfectly intact,” I said. “Either the perpetrator applied it postmortem, which I do not believe, or we might find an elixir in her system. I doubt this woman was conscious when she was attacked.”
“Brilliant.” Thomas lifted his attention from his note-taking, and looked at me. “Her nails are also unbroken. There are no signs of any defensive wounds.”
“Which also explains why she hadn’t screamed,” I said, building off our examination. “She was already either deceased or incapacitated when she’d been hung upside down.”
Uncle hovered above one of the wounds. “I believe the facts are lining up with that theory. Look at the cuts. What story do they tell?”
I joined my uncle, leaning in to get a better look. At first I was unsure… they were horrendous cuts, then it hit me. There was blood, but no bruising. “The swords were likely inserted after death.”
“Very good. Cause of death?”
I stopped seeing a deceased young woman. Before me lay a puzzle waiting to be put together. I pulled her eyelids back. “There’s no petechial hemorrhaging. No bruises on the neck.” I moved around the table. “She certainly wasn’t strangled. Until we open her up, I’m afraid we can’t be sure of cause of death. Though, given the lack of other signs, we might be looking at a poisoning.”