- Escaping from Houdini
Thomas grinned, escorting us all to the table without further teasing. I swore sometimes his manners were so polite, so exquisitely regal, I had a hard time remembering he was the same young man who’d been called an automaton during the Ripper investigation. He leaned in, whispering so only I could hear.
“We had an interesting day. Captain Norwood called us in to discuss a rather delicate matter.” He pulled my chair out, then did the same for Mrs. Harvey. A waiter had come over and assisted Liza. Thomas took a seat next to me. “Apparently, a first-class cabin was broken into last night. Sometime during supper and the show.”
“Indeed. Murdered passengers, a missing girl, a burglary… this ship is a floating nightmare for the captain.”
Chandeliers dimmed. It wouldn’t be long before the show now. Waiters moved around the room with practiced ease, setting covered trays down at each table. I wasn’t sure what was on the menu tonight, but whatever it was, it smelled divine. It helped cover up the slight odor of kerosene coming from the stage. My mouth watered as the scent of butter, lemon, and garlic wafted up, greeting my senses. A carafe of white wine was set at our table, indicating our entrée might be seafood. I hoped for prawns or scallops or even a nice, plump lobster.
I shook myself free from hungry thoughts, returning to the matter at hand. “How did the captain or occupants know the cabin had been broken into?”
“The lady’s trunk had been rummaged through,” Thomas said, lifting the lid of his tray. Half a lobster broiled to perfection and smothered in garlic butter with fragrant green herbs sat in the center of the plate. I nearly groaned when I lifted my own lid. “Her finest bolts of silk were missing, along with a few scarves. As you know, her maid would have taken greater care with those garments. She’d never scatter them about like that.”
“Why was she traveling with bolts of fabric?” I asked.
“She was bringing them to New York to have them made into dresses by a renowned dressmaker. Apparently the pattern on it was designed for a costume ball—it had vines wrapped around trees near what would be the hem, and constellations near what would have been the bodice.”
“So the fabric was stolen but the woman was accounted for, correct?”
“Yes,” Thomas said, pausing to sip from his wine, “she reported it to the maids who came to clean her room.”
“Hmm. Well, if it were to turn up, it would be unmistakable.” It was all so strange. Missing bolts of fabric, young women who seemed to vanish under the twinkling dark skies. Two hideous murders. Surely it had to be connected, but how was the question of the hour. Last night we’d had a respite, though I feared it wouldn’t be long before another body showed up. “What do you make of it?”
Thomas cut into his lobster, stopping to answer me before taking a bite. “Honestly? I’m not sure. There’s not been much in the way of clues, making it difficult to deduce anything. Missing silk isn’t that unusual. We’re aboard a ship with a lot of passengers, most of whom don’t need to sign their true names for the ship log. Expensive fabrics fetch decent coin—it might be the only motivation for the theft.”
“Unless it’s all connected. Then theft isn’t entirely the motivation.”
“Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what’s connected and what isn’t. Thus far we know she’s got no affiliation with either victim.” Thomas sipped from his goblet. “Conjecture and speculation aren’t solid facts.”
He sounded a lot like Uncle. While I agreed that divorcing myself from emotions was pertinent while in the laboratory, I also knew the value of trusting my gut instincts when something didn’t feel right about the theft.
I took a careful bite of my dinner, relishing the savory flavors as the lights turned way down. I turned my attention to the stage, where swaths of silver and pale blue silk hung from the ceiling—stars and snowflakes knotted at their ends. It simultaneously gave the impression of shooting stars and falling snow. Glitter caught the dim light as the stars twirled in place. It was stunning—another masterpiece for the Moonlight Carnival.
I expected Mephistopheles to appear onstage amidst the smoke and cymbals explosion. I did not expect to see a petite young woman twirling twin flames at her sides stride into the room. The scent of kerosene was stronger now, burning my nose a bit with its sharpness. Perhaps they should have waited until after supper before sending her out. The delicate flavor of lobster was all but ruined.
“That’s Anishaa. Her tarot is the Ace of Wands.” Liza broke away from her conversation with Uncle and Mrs. Harvey, leaning in to whisper, “Her costume’s supposed to represent ice.”
I could see how that was true. Silver hair matched sequins sewn across her corset and was braided in thick strands about the crown of her head. Her skin was painted bluish white everywhere it was exposed—arms, hands, face and across the sweep of her collarbone. It was chilling, in a way, seeing how she appeared as a creature born of frost who played so menacingly with fire. Her top hat and corset were a white so pure they almost seemed ice blue.
In fact, upon closer inspection, I could see pale blue threads shot through with silver trimming the entire ensemble. Even her eyes—exposed by larger holes in her mask—had been edged in blue and gold and her lashes were pure white. She looked like a frozen star.
She lifted a wand of fire and exhaled, flames streaming out as if she were a dragon. Gasps went up around us as she strutted to the opposite end of the stage and repeated the trick. I couldn’t help but stare as she took the same wand of fire and swallowed it as if it were a delicacy.
“It’s magnificent, isn’t it?” Liza asked, eyes following the fire-eater as she cartwheeled across the stage, stood tall, and swallowed another torch of flames. A stagehand ran another set of flaming wands out and she tipped her head back, spitting flames skyward. “Their acts might be a lie or an illusion, but they live honestly. They don’t hide who they are, or pretend to play by society’s rules. Not like the nobility, who smile to your face while sticking a dagger in your back.”
I dropped my gaze to my plate—the food tonight truly was exquisite, though I found my appetite to be suddenly uncooperative. If Liza knew I was the one holding a dagger to her dreams of wedding Houdini, she’d never speak to me again. I spent the next few moments with my head half in the conversations around me, and half on the guilt that kept piling up.
It wasn’t until the first screams began that I jolted back into the here and now.
4 JANUARY 1889
A fire erupted onstage, turning the fantastical winter setting into a hellscape. Flames roared at fleeing guests, jumping from one silk thread dangling from the ceiling to the next. Now instead of snowflakes and shooting stars, fire and ash rained down. Anishaa frantically shouted for assistance behind the curtains, and buckets of water appeared. As the acrid odor of smoke drifted through the air and black soot sloshed over the stage, the screaming increased. Another almost familiar scent wafted around. It smelled as if it were—
“Merciful God above… what is that?” Liza grabbed my arm so hard I yelped. “Up there! I think—I think I may be ill.”
I dragged my focus skyward and felt the blood drain from me. Tied up in exquisite silks cocooned about each arm, a person shrouded in black gauze swayed spread-eagle above the stage, a black crown of stars fastened about its head. Flames engulfed the figure from its feet as if it were a human torch sprung to life. I stared, frozen with disbelief as chunks of roasting flesh began splattering down. The person had been hung upright, the flames traveling from the feet toward the head at a fierce pace.
Surely this couldn’t be real. It hadn’t been so long since my last delusion—I’d been plagued by them while in Romania. That’s what this horror was: a trick of the mind.
Only it wasn’t.
“Don’t look.” I clutched my cousin and pulled her head to my shoulder, allowing her to sob. Thomas met my gaze and held it, offering me his strength and allowing mine to fortify him in return. I ran my hands over Liza’s hair, hoping to soothe her and myself with the action. “It’s all right. It’s going to be all right.”
“Everyone remain seated. And calm. The flames are mostly contained to the body.” Uncle swept his attention over our table; his first priority was to ensure our safety, though I knew he’d want to get to the victim quickly. He looked to Thomas and nodded, silently passing along responsibility before he disappeared into the exiting crowd.
“It isn’t alive,” Thomas said, his voice calm despite the fiery inferno and Mrs. Harvey’s wails. “Look.”
The last thing I wanted to do was stare at the nightmare before us. But my brain slowly slipped into the coolness of a scientist.
“How…” I forced myself to ignore the scent of burning flesh and hair. To look beyond the clumps of Lord knew what that slopped to the ground. I rocked Liza gently, registering the lack of screams or movement while the fire turned the person into a living star. Thomas was right—whoever it was had already been dead before being set aflame.
A kindness, if one could call being murdered, then having your corpse torched, kind.
With a jolt, the body above the stage jerked downward, and those who hadn’t yet made it out the door to safety screamed in horror.
“Lower the ropes again!” Mephistopheles rushed onto the stage, shouting at crew members who must be hidden in the rafters. “Cut it down! Cut it down now!”
Two men wielding swords ran under the burning body, hacking at the disintegrating fabric and dodging burning ashes that rained down on them. It might have been Jian and Andreas, but I was seemingly only capable of rocking Liza and trying to keep my own tears from escaping. Narrowing my world to that one comforting motion held me together.
Waiters and staff shouted for order, but the patrons were beyond their control. Tables turned over. Women swayed and men shoved. It was an absolute horror show as people fought to squeeze through the only two exit doors.