- Escaping from Houdini
The young man who’d spoken sank into his seat, the weasel. Apparently he was one of those dogs who was all bark and no bite.
The audience kept its attention on the stage, likely hungry for the same sort of drama that unfolded the night before. Two men took Houdini up on his offer and added another length of rope around his bound hands for good measure. This seemed to satisfy the crowd, though it was a bit duller compared to the tension the Knight of Swords drew out.
I glanced around the room, unsurprised that no other performers were in the crowd, except for the stilt walkers, who still picked their way among our tables, silent and eerie as ten-foot ghosts.
“And now…” Houdini wriggled in place. “My cuffs!”
The second assistant, Isabella, brandished the handcuffs that he’d crowned himself king over. Houdini showed us his back once more, standing perfectly still as the cuffs clicked into place with finality. Houdini strode over to the trunk and climbed inside, folding himself in tight as any bolt of fabric. Seemed he’d taken some contortion lessons from Sebastián.
Thomas set his glass down when the lid was dropped and locked into place. Liza tied another length of rope around the trunk, then snapped a padlock and chains around it. We’d likely sit here all evening waiting for him to pick his way out of all those locks.
Diners slowed their chatter. Without prompting, both assistants skipped behind the stage, reemerging with a rolling cabinet that was taller than a person, the portable curtain fabrics a deep charcoal. They secured it around the locked trunk, keeping it from view. To my utter shock, Liza stepped forward, mask shimmering as lights flickered overhead, before retreating behind the portable curtains with a grand flourish of her hands.
“When I clap my hands three times—behold a miracle!”
She clapped once, and diners shifted in their seats. Twice, and talking dropped to mere whispers. She clapped a third time, and the room was a held breath, ready to gasp.
Out burst Houdini from behind the curtains Liza had disappeared through, free as anything. He swept his arm out: “Behold! Metamorphosis!” He yanked the curtain back, revealing Liza cuffed in the trunk.
Thomas and I exchanged glances as the crowd sprang to life. The trick had literally taken three seconds—how they’d accomplished such a thing was indeed magical. I wondered if there was anything Harry Houdini couldn’t escape from.
Or any trap he couldn’t set for someone else. Our last victim had been hung up from her ankles; perhaps we’d just found the young man who’d accomplished that difficult feat.
HEART OR HEAD
3 JANUARY 1889
“Look, Cousin,” Liza whispered, an expression of awe upon her face. Up this close, the wax of her heavy makeup showed its cracks like a porcelain doll whose paint had flaked from age. “There he is. My truest love.” She admired Houdini across the crowded room, and the power of her emotions crashed into me like a wave. I wished I could muster up the same level of excitement, but something I couldn’t quite identify kept me skeptical about his intentions. “Isn’t he the most amazing young man you’ve ever seen?”
“He is intriguing,” I admitted, eyes straying to Mephistopheles before flicking back to Houdini. My own cheeks warmed when the ringmaster’s gaze fell on me and remained there. I pretended not to notice—it seemed a dangerous sort of thing, having a young man like that interested.
Oblivious to who had captured my attention first, my cousin nodded. “Just watch the way he moves about the room. Every eye is upon him. I swear he truly does possess escape magic.” I followed her gaze but was once again caught in Mephistopheles’s snare. “I am most certainly bewitched in all ways and see no way out. It’s the most horrid splendor of all!”
I looked sharply away from the ringmaster and studied my cousin. Two petal-sized spots of pink bloomed across her cheeks. It was obvious that she was quite taken with the escape artist. Though one glance around the room—filled with women fanning themselves—had me raising a brow and staying my tongue.
Houdini seemed to have an entire garden of blushing roses to tend to. He buzzed from one flower to another, laughing and kissing gloved hands as he went. Liza appeared utterly enchanted, while I felt my face scrunching into a most unpleasant scowl. He paused a bit too long near some women, his touch lingering well past the point of decency.
I turned abruptly at the sound of that deep voice, heart knocking about my ribs. Mephistopheles stood in all his costumed glory, filigree mask curling about mischievous eyes. The very ones fixed upon mine. This close I could see the hair that fell across his brow was black. It was silky with subtle waves, the sort of soft curls that made your fingers wish to run through it on their own.
“Seems I haven’t yet had the pleasure of properly introducing myself,” he said. “Liza? Who is this beautiful creature and why have you kept her from me?”
“This is my cousin.” Liza smiled proudly. “Miss Audrey Rose Wadsworth.”
So much for this being our “proper” introduction. I all but rolled my eyes. “Creature? You do flatter me too much with such compliments, sir. It’s no wonder that so many lose their hearts to your traveling minstrel show.”
He stared at me, brows raised above his mask. Apparently sass wasn’t what he expected, though he honestly should have with an opening such as that. Creature, indeed. As if women were mere animals to be fancied when it suited a gentleman.
“Such sharp words,” he said. “Your tongue ought to come with a warning.”
“Truth is often compared to a blade,” I said. “I question those who marvel when it pricks.”
Liza stood behind him, subtly shaking her head, but the smile on her face told me she approved of my comment. She was my partner in all things equality. We women could be called creatures, if only the men who said such careless words accepted our claws were fearsome things when we decided to scratch.
Much to my utter amazement, he laughed. “Miss Wadsworth, I—”
A young woman squeezed between us, a glass of champagne in each hand as her two friends pushed in beside her. She nervously stuck a glass out, offering it to the young ringmaster. He politely took it but did not sip from it—he still appeared a bit amused by my response.
“You were incredible opening night, Mr. Mephistopheles. Absolutely marvelous, even,” the young woman said, taking a long pull of her champagne. She winced, likely from drinking the bubbles too quickly, her cheeks flushing bright. “A few of us were wondering if you might try a new trick just for us. Surely you can’t best all of us.”
Giggles erupted from the small crowd around us. Liza grinned. It was quite a scandalous offer, one I couldn’t help smiling over myself. I liked these girls. There was something bold about them that reminded me of my friends Ileana and Daciana. A twinge of sadness pinched my core—I wished they were on the ship with us, but they were settling things in Romania after the Dracula case. They promised they might board another ship and meet us in America next month if they could, something I hoped for dearly.
The ringmaster’s lips curled up at the edges, though his eyes were stubbornly stuck to mine while he considered their offer. I quirked a brow, waiting. He turned toward the young women and bowed deeply. “Of course. But only if I get to choose my next victim.”
One of the giggling friends broke off her laughter. “Victim?”
“Indeed,” Mephistopheles said. “I can think of no better term for the crime of seduction about to be committed, can you?”
“No, I suppose I cannot.”
She shook her head and stepped closer to her friends. The handsomely dressed girls all exchanged glances; it wasn’t quite what they had hoped, but it was an interesting bargain nonetheless. Two of them nodded, and the one who’d conducted the exchange bit her lip, seeming to consider accepting this or trying a counteroffer but finally assented.
“Very well, sir. Which of us do you choose?”
He indicated his prey. “Her.”
I nearly choked on my own sip of champagne when I realized he was pointing at me. No good could come of this interest, indeed. I didn’t know what game Mephistopheles was playing, but, I supposed, whether I wanted to or not, I was about to join him.
There was no denying the thrill that sparked through me at being chosen for this next act, though it wasn’t because of the enigmatic masked man leading me to the center of the women’s parlor. This was a remarkable opportunity to observe his sleight of hand up close—to dissect his performance and witness the tactics he used to distract both victim, as he called me, and audience.
“Ladies, I have been requested to perform for you.” Mephistopheles held my gloved hand in his, raising it shoulder level for all to see. “Miss Wadsworth will be playing the role of willing victim. If you please, I’ll need everyone to gather in a circle around us. Pretend as if we’re about to hold a séance. I’m sure you’ve all attended one or two of those.”
He snapped his fingers, and a liveried waiter produced a small chair from one of the side tables and set it in the center of the newly made ring. Women whispered excitedly, gazes hungry for more scandalous magic. Or perhaps they were simply happy to feast on the young ringmaster a bit more. I felt the power of their stares drift from Mephistopheles and settle on me as I stood there, unsure of where to go. Of all evenings for me to wear a sleeveless gown, I felt exposed and vulnerable.
I twisted my mother’s ring about my finger, then stopped. I focused on the room, hoping to calm my growing nerves as Mephistopheles adjusted his top hat and suit. I didn’t care for such scrutiny, as if I were nothing more than a slide under a microscope. Houdini slowly made his way toward Liza, his focus drifting over to the ringmaster only occasionally as he took leave of several young women.
“Next, I request the lights be dimmed.” A moment later, the chandeliers pulsed with brighter light before trickling down to a dull, golden glow. “I ask that you all take one large step back on the count of three. One. Two. Three.”