- Escaping from Houdini
I shifted the deck around, trying to get a better feel for it. “How do I cut the deck with only one hand? It feels like I might drop a few cards if I move.”
“Ah, excellent observation.” Mephistopheles gently tapped my index finger and then my pinkie. “These two fingers will be what actually hold the cards in place. It takes some getting used to, but once you practice enough, you’ll find that your thumb is free to flip the cards, and your ring and middle digits assist with cutting the deck in half and rotating them. Here, allow me.”
Forgetting about the eyes I still felt boring into us, I leaned in. He pressed the top half of the deck with his thumb, allowing it to drop open in the middle, as if it were a yawning mouth. Next, his index finger came off the top as the bottom portion slid into a ninety-degree angle, forming an L shape with the cards. Both his middle and ring fingers loosed the upper deck as his index finger pushed the lower half forward, completing the shuffle. My eyes crossed.
“The mechanics of it are quite complicated,” I said, watching as he repeated the steps much faster. “You make it appear so easy.”
“Once you get the movements down, it’s simple body memory.” He handed me the playing cards. “You won’t even have to think of what you’re doing, it’ll come naturally.”
It wasn’t dissimilar to some of my forensic practices becoming body memory. I set my attention on the cards in my hand and slowly, painfully, went through the motions. I’d gotten to the part where I cut the deck in two, permitting myself a whoop of accomplishment, when the cards dropped out of my grasp and littered the table and floor. I cursed, one of my more colorful offerings, and the ringmaster threw his head back and laughed.
I glared. “I’m glad my suffering is such a joyful experience for you.”
Still laughing, he retrieved the cards and handed them over. “You’re taking this quite seriously. It’s only magic, Miss Wadsworth. It’s supposed to be fun.”
I tried a few more times, ending with mostly the same horrendous results. The cards slipped from my gloved grasp, I swore in foul ways, and Mephistopheles practically wheezed with delight. I hated him.
Just when I thought I might march over to Jian Yu and steal one of his knives to slash apart the cards, an accented voice calmly asked, “May I show you another trick?”
I twisted in my seat, eyeing up the performer brave enough to interrupt and recognized him from Liza’s earlier introductions. Andreas, whose tarot card counterpart was the Fool. His hair and skin were nearly the same pale shade—a blond close to white. Constellations dotted his velvet suit jacket, another not-so-subtle ode to the Moonlight Carnival.
Mephistopheles raised a brow. “Andreas. This is Miss Wadsworth, my newest protégé. We’re finding where her talents are best put to use for the grand finale. Miss Wadsworth, this meddlesome creature is Andreas.” I hid my surprise when the ringmaster pushed back from the table and offered his seat. With a lingering look at me that might singe someone with its heat, he bowed. “Excuse me. I’ll go find us some champagne.”
Remembering my role, I sunk my teeth into my lower lip and watched the ringmaster pick his way through the performers. I hoped my expression appeared like longing and not constipation. When he’d made it halfway across the large room, he paused, as if he’d forgotten something. He pivoted slowly on one heel, halting once he faced me again. Grinning, he blew a kiss in my direction and then continued on his way.
This time the flush in my face wasn’t faked.
Andreas cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable. Which made for two of us. I shook myself out of my mortification and forced my attention on the young man before me. It was time to get to work on my part of the bargain.
“What magic do you have to show me?” I asked, trying to sound as interested as possible. “More card tricks?”
A smile twitched across his lips. Unlike Mephistopheles, there was no trouble or heat behind it. If anything, he appeared quite shy. My mind immediately churned with suspicion.
“It was the first trick I did well and it’s not difficult to learn.” He held a playing card up with one hand, a Queen of Hearts. With his other hand, he flicked the card, and before my very eyes, I now stared at the King of Spades. I blinked. “It’s called a snap change. Mephistopheles says ‘trick the eyes, convince the mind.’ What you need is two cards, and you hold them right over each other.”
I nearly groaned. “Every time one of you claims something is easy, I’ll know you’re lying. How on earth is this simple?”
His smile deepened, revealing a dimple. “My Liesel used to say something very similar. She hated card tricks, but she loved this one.” He repeated it and I still couldn’t identify the trick. “Place the two cards on top of each other. Then all you need to use are your thumb, index, and middle fingers. The middle finger pulls the top card under, revealing the back card. The flick is the misdirection. There’s something about an audible distraction that tears attention away for that one critical moment.”
He did it a few more times, moving slow enough for me to pick up on the mechanics. Basically, the front card slid underneath the other and rested between the thumb and middle finger, hidden from view by the second card. There wasn’t anything simple about the trick, but it was easier for me to attempt—more like a snapping motion. Andreas handed me the cards and watched as I fumbled along. I wasn’t sure how my mastering a card trick would lend authenticity to the Moonlight Carnival, but it was fun, and my true goal of learning about the performers was being met, so I continued to practice.
“What does Liesel do for the carnival?” I asked, attention straying to him. “Is that how the two of you met?”
He shuffled the deck, removed two more cards, and continued demonstrating the trick while I mimicked him. “No, she didn’t work for the circus. Mephistopheles had sent me into a village in Germany one day for roses. I took one look at her and knew I was forever lost. She actually gifted me with the looking glass I use for my divinations.”
“Are you two married?”
Sadness descended into his shoulders, weighing them down. “Betrothed. Were betrothed. My Liesel… she passed away.”
My thoughts flashed to Thomas. I could not fathom carrying on without him and saw a different sort of strength in Andreas when I looked upon him now. “I—I’m so very sorry for your loss.” I wanted to ask how, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
He absently flicked the cards, snapping one over the other in rapid succession. “Jian tells me it gets easier, though I’m not certain that sort of loss ever fades away.”
I set my own cards down. “Has Jian lost someone he loves as well?”
Andreas glanced over at his friend, unblinking as Jian practiced his sword tricks. “His entire family. They were murdered. The swords?” He nodded as Jian hefted one and sliced through a stack of wood. “I think he imagines using them on the men who did it.”
“How… do you know any details?”
Andreas’s gaze darted around. “Only that soldiers stormed his village while he was away. They killed everyone and burned their houses. When he returned it was to charred bodies and smoking ashes. There are rumors that he hunted them down and slit their throats while they made camp, but I don’t think that’s true. He took up practicing with blades after their deaths—he didn’t want to be unable to defend anyone again.”
“Dear God in heaven,” I said, feeling as though I’d been kicked in my center. “That’s horrid. How—”
“—did it get to be so late?” Mephistopheles appeared in my line of vision, holding a pocket watch up to his masked face. “I believe it’s time for us to say good night. You have an early morning lesson and you need your beauty rest.”
I was too saddened by Jian’s history to form annoyance at the snipe. I stole one last glance at Jian before standing. I made to leave when Andreas jumped up. “Don’t forget your cards, miss. You’ll need to practice as often as possible. We all do.”
I smiled and accepted the playing cards. Mephistopheles paraded us out in front of all the performers, his hand never leaving the small of my back. Once we’d made it to the darkened corridor, he stopped and removed a letter from his jacket. “Here. Houdini had started writing this before the manufactured accident.”
“Accident? What do you mean…” I opened it up, brows raised. “Most of it’s covered in ink!”
“I know.” He grinned. “You ought to have seen him carry on about how clumsy I was after I bumped into him. Thought for certain he might have gutted me right there if he could’ve.” He leaned over my shoulder, tracing the opening line. “‘To my dearest’…”
I batted him away. “I can read, thank you.” I scanned what remained of the ink-splattered letter, stomach clenching.
It was as he’d said: Houdini loved another. I longed to crumple the paper but tucked it into my bodice instead. On the surface my bargain might have appeared to benefit Mephistopheles more, but I suddenly felt much better about protecting Liza from Harry Houdini and his lies.
ACE OF WANDS
MOONLIGHT CARNIVAL PRACTICE ROOM
4 JANUARY 1889
“Like this?” I asked, looping my legs over the bar. Even with the safety net below I did not feel an ounce of comfort. And I didn’t think my costume—a mere boneless frost-blue corset and thick white stockings—was entirely to blame. Though I was slightly concerned the added weight of the excessive beading might ensure my death should I fall.
Cassie snorted, but didn’t make fun. “You’ll only swing back and forth. With your legs hooked over the bar, you’ll be able to grip it tightly enough that you won’t fall.” She held the bar steady, brown eyes fixed to mine, not in challenge but curiosity. “Don’t worry, this isn’t what your role in the finale is going to be. This is just for fun.”