My breath caught. It was unnerving, hearing the entire room move as one. Mephistopheles truly did command them like a puppet master. Everyone was silhouetted in the dim light, shadow people dancing around a devil’s bonfire. I could have sworn I smelled the scent of burning wood, though I knew it to be an impossibility.

I flicked my gaze to the ringmaster as he walked around the crowd and came to a halt before me. The red of his vest reflected in his mask when he tilted his face down, motioning for me to take the seat. I hesitated, recalling the two victims, then forced my feet to carry me over to whatever sinful delight Mephistopheles had planned. I would not lose my life in front of so many witnesses.

“Watch closely,” he said, hardly above a whisper, “or you’ll miss it.”

He circled me now, hands trailing from my bare shoulders all the way around my neck, his touch almost as electric as the lights in the ship. I no longer felt the stares of the women surrounding us—I could only concentrate on his gloved fingertips, never straying from the path he’d chosen while he moved around me, picking up speed with each pass. It was almost scandalous, but not quite, the line too indistinguishable this close to decency. His movements were sure and steady, unlike my pulse.

Except for one slip of his hand caressing the nape of my neck—perhaps a kind gesture of apology—I noticed no change from when he began circling me to when he abruptly stepped back. My skin felt both scorched and ice cold where his fingers had been, as unsure as I was about the entire situation. Women snapped their fans open, the sound drawing me back to the room.

“Did you watch closely?” The ringmaster asked, voice cool and smooth as silk. As if still in a trance of their own, everyone nodded, murmuring, “Yes.” I doubted they could’ve looked away from the charismatic man if they tried. He bent down, placing his mouth dangerously close to my ear. My skin prickled; this time I knew exactly why. “Is something valuable missing, Miss Wadsworth? Something you’d do anything to get back?”

I shook my head, hoping to set my mind straight with the action. “No, I don’t believe so.”

And I meant it. Though his fingers were quite a distraction, I kept my focus on them entirely; not once did they leave my skin. He dropped to one knee, eyes dancing when they met mine. “Strange. I could have sworn I’d just stolen your heart.”

“I beg—”

“As do most young women I encounter, I’m afraid.”

My face flamed. But before I could scold him, he produced the heart pendant that had been one of my mother’s favorite pieces, watching as I blinked disbelief away. I fumbled around my throat, tugging at a chain. “That’s impossible. I’m still wearing—”

In my hand was a pocket watch, one that did not belong to me. Thorns and a Latin phrase were etched onto the back of it, VINCERE VEL MORI. I stared unblinking, trying to understand how it was possible. Somehow, in front of all of these witnesses, Mephistopheles had switched my necklace with his watch. I swallowed my questions down. I had no idea how he’d managed such a thing without being caught, but it had to be luck mixed with sleight of hand. I wanted to know how he had accomplished it and if it could be applied in other ways, such as acting; however, that would need to wait until we were alone. Which I would make sure happened soon. Tonight.

“Very impressive, I suppose,” I said, knowing I was being dishonest. It was one of the most impressive feats I’d seen, aside from Houdini’s Metamorphosis trick. “Now, give it back, please.”

I held my hand out and immediately had the sensation of walking into a trap. It was a well-laid snare, so hidden I’d had no idea it had been the actual trick the whole time. I wanted to curl my fingers back into a fist, but resisted the urge. Mephistopheles swiftly took my hand in his, turning it over so my palm faced down. Still on one knee, he made a ring appear and disappear across his fingers. My heart slowed.

“If you had to choose,” he asked, “would you want your heart or your hand?”

Any whispers that had broken out died. All eyes turned to me once more, making my palms sweat. I could barely think, barely focus on anything other than my mother’s ring and pendant in some stranger’s grasp. Stealing my necklace was one thing—how he’d managed to also remove my ring was too much to process. I felt entirely undone, a dinghy bobbing unanchored in a storm.

“They are both mine.” I drew my brows together. “I don’t have to choose.”

He watched me behind his mask, eyes searching. “Not yet. But I imagine you soon will.” He leaned close, until no one could overhear his next words. “Have I earned your interest in our bargain yet?” My pulse sped up. This choice. I had a feeling it would bring chaos into my life. But the reward would be worth it. I slightly inclined my head. “I’ll meet you where I did last time.”

Without another word, he handed both pieces of jewelry over and stood, clapping his hands generously. “Please offer a round of applause to my latest victim, Miss Audrey Rose Wadsworth. She survived this time, but perhaps she’ll lose her heart to me yet.”

Liza beamed beside Houdini, bringing her hands together the loudest of everyone while he leaned in and chatted with one of the girls who’d prompted this show. I wanted to return Liza’s elation, but couldn’t shake the essence of trouble that hung like a mist in the air.

If Mephistopheles was that talented with pilfering objects, perhaps he was gifted enough to steal a person’s sensibilities. He swooped down, kissing hands, and earning the admiration of the women in the parlor, and I wondered if I’d made a fatal mistake by agreeing to meet with him tonight.





3 JANUARY 1889

I retrieved my fur stole and left the women’s parlor as soon as I could extricate myself from conversations on how it had felt having the ringmaster’s searing touch on my skin. For members of upper-class society, they certainly were not shying away from such devious talks. No one even cast an accusatory or judgmental eye on me, either. It was as if they’d been spellbound.

I held the fur close around me, trying to ignore the bite in the air as I exited the corridor and hurried down the empty promenade. Tiny snowflakes began falling, neither promising nor denying a storm was on the way. A figure leaning against the wall of rowboats came into view.

Mephistopheles tipped his hat back. “I’m pleased you’ve decided to meet me.”

“Why did you choose me for that performance?”

“Truth or a lovely version of it?” he asked.

“I do not require soft versions of reality, Mr.—”

“Ah. Let’s deal with one truth at a time, all right?”

He moved to the railing on the deck, canting his head toward me. Snow danced and twirled between us, though he gave no indication of being affected by the cold. I, however, nestled deeper into my furs, wishing I also had an overcoat.

“I chose you because I believe you search for the truth hidden in the lie. Others enjoy the magic and spectacle. You are fascinated with the how. I don’t think you’re taken with me or the illusion I offer… the distraction.” He looked directly into my eyes, searching for what, I couldn’t tell. A moment passed and his expression didn’t change. “What is it you do for that old man you travel with?”

I didn’t know what harm could come of admitting my chosen path. “I study forensic medicine with my uncle. Mr. Cresswell and I apprentice under him.” I opened my mouth, then shut it, hesitant to speak about either the Ripper or Dracula case. Both were too raw and personal to share with a stranger. “We’re going to America for a new case, actually.”

“You study the dead?” He raised a brow above his mask as I nodded. “Which means you’re aware of the darkness and seek to bring about the light. I cannot help being equally intrigued by that. I create chaos, and you fabricate order from it. We’re not so different, you and me. We both have a core that’s built of science, only different outward expressions of it.”

It was eerily similar to my own thoughts. I did not wish to find commonality with such a scoundrel, but couldn’t deny his assessment. Despite inner warnings to stay far from this young man, my curiosity about his mechanical inventions was piqued.

“Why did you choose the path of an illusionist?” I asked. “You might have become an impressive chemist. Don’t you wish to help people?”

“Some might argue that entertaining people is helping them.”

I rolled my eyes. “Producing smoke in looking glasses does not equate with creating scientific or engineering advancements that could eradicate disease and save lives.”

“I politely disagree, Miss Wadsworth. There are many ways to assist people. Laughter and distraction are sometimes things people need in conjunction with medical diagnoses and treatments.” Mephistopheles studied me. “You might want to explore other avenues of possibility, since you’re such a gifted student of science. I may only offer a few hours of distraction, but for some that is enough to press on through dark times. Hope is an invisible yet mighty force. Don’t dismiss its power.”

I blinked, stunned by both how correct he was and how ignorantly I had viewed things. A long-ago memory emerged from the grave I’d buried it in. I’d often read stories to my mother as she lay dying, hoping to transport her from her pain, if only for a few moments. Part of me bristled at being schooled by such a devious young man, but mostly my cheeks burned with shame for not understanding his point sooner. People did need to be entertained, to have their minds occupied with thoughts other than a constant bombardment of negativity. Mother’s spirits certainly seemed lifted whenever I’d open a book and take her on a new adventure.

“I am—”

Mephistopheles suddenly grasped my hand in his and pressed a chaste kiss to it. Words of apology died on my tongue as I took in the fire in his eyes and the way they shifted just over my shoulder. He was putting on yet another show, and it was not for my benefit. I yanked my hand away, but it was too late. He grinned.