“Smother the flames!” Captain Norwood emerged into the chaos, tossing horse blankets at the people onstage. “Stamp them out!”
Mrs. Harvey held a hand over her mouth, but the lines of wetness streaking down her face betrayed her fright. I wanted to obey Uncle and remain seated and calm, though I also longed to take my loved ones from this hell and shelter them from all the horrible things the world could bring forth. I wanted to bury my face in my pillows and scream until my throat felt raw and my tears had dried up. I could stand dissecting bodies, but watching a person burn was entirely different. Whoever had done this was a monster, the likes of which even Jack the Ripper and Vlad Dracula would hesitate to emulate.
“Oh, God… that smell.” Liza buried her face farther into my shoulder. My own emotions reared up, trying to overtake me, but I grabbed them and shoved them deep within. I could not succumb to them now. Possibly not ever. Everything around us became mechanical in my mind—the only way I could process what was happening and not crumble with grief.
The body finally fell to the stage, the sound like an eight-stone sack of oats crashing to the floor. Most of the damage in the room had only been done to the corpse and the silks that had tied it up. Aside from the sooty water spilling over the stage and puddling on the floor, the dining saloon escaped ruination. My macabre gaze returned to the charred remains. I did not wish to examine it up close. I did not want to believe this was real. But wishes and wants had no place in my heart.
Thomas patted Mrs. Harvey’s shoulder, doing his best to be comforting, though I could see the strain in his own expression. It was hard to shift into that cold calm when the scent of burnt flesh stung your nose and eyes. “Mrs. Harvey? Are you able to bring Liza back to your chambers?” The older woman’s lip trembled, but she nodded sharply. “Good. Everyone’s almost gone and the fire’s out now. You should be all right. I want you both to go straight to the cabin and lock the door. I’ll check on you when I escort Audrey Rose in a little while. All right?”
He spoke calmly, but there was a strength in his voice that made my senses slowly come to. It seemed to have the same effect on Mrs. Harvey. She blinked a few times, then held her arms out to Liza. “Come, dear. Let’s get us some water for a bath.”
Liza loosened her grasp on me enough to look into my face. I’m not sure what she saw there, but she quickly blinked back fresh tears. “You ought to come with us. Please. Please don’t go near that… that stage… please come with me.”
I wanted to. More than anything I wanted to clutch my cousin’s hand and run from this room, never looking back. I’d only ever questioned my love of forensic science once before, and this was testing my resolve again. “I’ll join you in a little while. I promise.”
“No! You have to—”
“There is a blade in my nightstand.” I hugged her close. “I want you to get it and keep it with you until I return. Do not allow anyone in unless it’s either myself, Thomas, or Uncle. Not Mephistopheles, nor anyone from the carnival. Not even Harry. Do you understand?”
I’d meant for my speech to be fortifying, but Liza’s tears spilled down her face, dripping onto the collar of her bodice. “Are we unsafe? Do you believe we’ll be attacked next? I—”
“It is a precaution,” I said. “Nothing more.” I gripped her hand tightly. “Take care of Mrs. Harvey, all right?”
Liza pressed her lips together. I could see the molten core of her harden into steel. She might have bent a little, but she was too strong to break. She gripped my hands back and nodded. “I’ll do my best.” She faced Mrs. Harvey and, though there were traces of fear in the way her hands shook, she straightened up. “Let’s hurry.”
With a final glance over her shoulder, Liza guided our chaperone out of the smoky room. I watched the door a few seconds after they’d gone, gathering up my own inner steel. A gentle touch on my arm indicated it was time to don my own mask—now I would perform the role of forensic scientist. I took one more deep breath, immediately regretting it as smoke singed my nose. I coughed, which only made it worse.
“Here. This might help a bit with the smell and the smoke.” Thomas handed me a damp napkin, then dabbed one into a water goblet for himself. He held the cloth to his face, allowing it to act as a barrier. I did the same, and the itch in my throat eased. Thomas kept his attention on me while I steadied myself. “Better?”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
Without uttering another word, we made our way to the stage and smoking remains. Uncle was already standing over them. “Captain, I need this stage clear of people for the rest of the evening. We must salvage what we can as far as evidence is concerned. No crew.”
Norwood dragged a hand down his face. There were bags under his eyes, indicating he hadn’t slept well. Which was understandable—his magical voyage had diverted from Heaven sent to Hell bound. “Anything you need, Dr. Wadsworth. But we must clean up the tables and linens and—”
“Not now. This entire room must be cleared out immediately.” Uncle crouched beside the blackened corpse. He flicked his gaze up to me. “We will perform the postmortem here.”
My palms tingled as I stood at the foot of the stage, eyeing our temporary laboratory. Silks that hadn’t burned entirely hung in tatters, smoke rose from the body, and ashes covered much of the scene like gray snow. It seemed the most wretched of places to carve open a corpse, but was actually quite fitting given the theatrics of it all.
A crew member rushed over to Uncle, handing him his medical satchel. Uncle must have sent for it as soon as he’d left our table. I had no idea how he always remained calm during the worst of storms, and could only hope to emulate him one day. The young man backed away from the scene, his eyes wide and unblinking. A few moments later, the dining saloon was empty and we were ready to work. Mechanically, I took aprons from Uncle’s bag and handed them out, then tied my own about my waist. The flowers on my gown bulged and the hem would most certainly get ruined with soot, but I didn’t care. I removed my gloves and folded them neatly. They would affect my grip on the scalpels.
Thomas helped me up onto the stage, and I somehow found the will to slow my heartbeat, to clear my mind. I stood over the body, pressing the dampened cloth to my nose.
“The fire started at the feet,” I said, voice cracking. Uncle and Thomas jerked their attention from the corpse to me. “The gauze melted there, but not on the face. Same with the burnt skin. It’s charred on the legs, but the head isn’t as bad. Thomas was correct earlier—whoever she was, she wasn’t alive when the fire began.”
Thomas stalked around the body, fingers tapping his lips as he glanced from the ceiling to the floor and all around. His face was a mask of ice. When he switched into this role, I understood why others were sometimes frightened of him. Except now I no longer thought their taunts of him being an automaton were correct—when he transformed into a deductive scientist, he looked more like an unforgiving god, sent to mete out justice.
A muscle in his jaw flickered. “An emerald ring. Looks to be an heirloom.”
I ripped my attention off of Thomas and stared at the ring, heart pounding. A memory struck me at once.
“Miss Crenshaw,” I blurted. “Her mother said she had an emerald ring. And she never took it off.”
Thomas knelt beside the body. “Victim has auburn hair. Lady Crenshaw has a similar shade, though it’s not definitive proof.”
“No, but it’s a start.” Uncle twisted his mustache. “We’ll need to collect physical descriptions and see if the Crenshaws can confirm height and weight. It’s not impossible to identify the body, but let’s not traumatize anyone by making them inspect it if we don’t need to. I’d also like to know if Dr. Arden has ever treated any member of the family. Perhaps the victims are all connected to him.” He nodded toward the ring. “Once we complete our investigation, we’ll also see if this is indeed the ring they’d mentioned.” He set his mouth into a grim line. “Hand me my scalpel, Audrey Rose.”
I did as I was told. Normally, the bodies were already without clothes when I assisted Uncle in his laboratory. Removing the clothing was a bit harder in this case; Uncle had to carefully cut away what fabric he could, doing his best to not accidentally carve off burnt flesh. Instead of risking harm to the lower half of the body, he focused on cutting away material from the torso up. I noted that she’d been stripped to her underthings, and from what was left, the lace appeared to be of a fine quality. She was likely another first-class passenger, our murderer’s preferred victims. Uncle moved briskly and efficiently, his years of training and practice showing.
In a few moments, he had the body ready for our inspection. After performing a quick external examination and finding no obvious outward causes of death, he brought the scalpel to the flesh and made a Y incision, swiftly parting the skin. I handed him the rib cutters and stood back as her inner cavity was exposed. Uncle wiped his hands down the front of his apron, smearing the cream fabric with rust-colored liquid. I imagined he longed to wash in carbolic soap, but couldn’t worry about contamination now. He leaned over the body, sniffing. Previous experience told me he was looking for signs of poison. Often a scent could be detected near the stomach if it had been ingested. I tried not to think about the victims of our last case in Romania.
I handed him another blade and he carefully opened the stomach, searching through its contents. He rooted around for a bit, then stepped back. “If she ate chocolate cake, sugared berries, and champagne before dying, then what does that indicate?”
“She must have had an awful stomachache,” Thomas said blandly.
“Thomas!” I shot him a look of horror. “Be serious.”
“I am.” He held his hands up. “All of those are sweet. And are more than likely to hide poison in them. I imagine her stomach must have hurt immensely. It probably started slowly, and she’d thought it was simply from the overindulgence. Then she would have likely figured out something was wrong soon after, when the pain increased and the perspiration began in earnest.” He pointed to her hands, red and splotchy from where they’d been burned. “Her nails are broken, but the cuts are on her palms, not from fighting the murderer. A fine indicator that she clutched herself, trying to dull the pain.”