- Escaping from Houdini
Uncle removed the stomach and motioned for a tray. I held it steady as he deposited the organ on it with a slick thud, doing everything in my power to not picture the broiled lobster the tray had held earlier. With forceps, he pulled a few undigested berries out. “We’ll need to run tests, naturally, but these appear to be belladonna.”
I mentally flipped through lessons on poisons. Belladonna was a nightshade, sometimes called the devil’s berries. An uncomfortable feeling slid through my bones. She would have suffered greatly after ingesting that many berries—her heart rate likely sped up, her breathing and muscles unable to work properly. Whoever had fed this dessert of death to her was heartless. I could not fathom what it must have been like, sitting there, watching her body convulse as death claimed her. This murder was slow and deliberate, the staging of the body extreme.
I placed the berries in a vial for further inspection, watching Uncle sew the corpse together again. His stitches were neat and precise, exactly as he’d taught me.
“Have the captain show Lord and Lady Crenshaw the ring. See if they’re able to identify it as their daughter’s.” He turned his attention on the body, his expression sad. “It’s the least we can offer as far as peace goes.”
Thomas went to do the gruesome task of sliding the ring off her finger, but I stopped him. I didn’t want to be so cold and clinical in this moment. It felt much too solemn for that. I bent down and gently lifted her arm, taking great care as I removed what had once been a treasure to her, according to her family. I sat on my heels a second more, then laid her arm over her chest. She had been tortured, murdered, then had her body turned into a spectacle of fear.
“The Star,” I said, mostly to myself. Thomas and Uncle wore similar expressions of confusion. “The tarot card most likely associated with this staged death. I’ve…” I didn’t want to tell them I’d gotten hold of a deck of tarot cards along with my playing cards, so I shrugged. “I borrowed Liza’s cards and studied them last night. This body looks like that card. We need to figure out what it means. Combined with the others, it might lead us to our murderer.”
Uncle looked skeptical, but nodded assent. I pushed myself to a standing position, the ring clasped tightly in my hand. Gone were my feelings of horror and sadness. In their place a spark of anger ignited. Whoever had done this had gone too far, and I would not rest until they paid for their crimes.
“Cover her with a cloak before they take her away,” I said, my voice like ice. “I’ll bring this to the captain now.”
I spun on my heel and strode toward the door, determination pounding through me like a second heartbeat. This ship might be turning into a floating nightmare, but I refused to give in to fear.
AN INDECENT SITUATION
LORD CRENSHAW’S CABIN
4 JANUARY 1889
“That’s Elizabeth’s.” Lady Crenshaw’s gaze never left the ring Captain Norwood held out. “Wh-where did you find th-this?”
Captain Norwood drew in a deep breath. “I’m so sorry to be the bearer of bad news, madam. But Miss Crenshaw’s body was…” He glanced down, seemingly at a loss on how to describe it.
“No. It cannot be.” Lady Crenshaw shook her head, eyes glistening. Lord Crenshaw clutched her arm and she sunk back. “Elizabeth is back in London, I’m sure of it. She must be back home by now. We’ll write her and see as soon as we’re in New York. There cannot be truth in this.” Her voice broke.
“I’m so very sorry for your loss.” Norwood’s mouth snapped shut as Lady Crenshaw fell to her knees. “We are doing everything to locate her murderer—”
“Get out.” Lord Crenshaw’s tone was low and dangerous.
“Very well. If you need anything, come directly to m—”
“Damn you and this accursed ship!” he shouted, startling both the captain and myself back. “Forget the ringing endorsement you sought. A workhouse would be better recommended. I will see both you and that circus destroyed.”
He slammed the door so hard the lifeboat hanging outside smacked the wall. Captain Norwood’s shoulders heaved with breath. “I’m not fit for this sort of work. Dr. Arden didn’t take the news much better. Can’t blame either of them—losing a child is a pain no parent should ever suffer.”
“Uncle needs to speak with Dr. Arden,” I said slowly, not wishing to be insensitive. “Will you send word and have him meet with Uncle soon?”
The captain nodded, though his attention was set on the dark sea. “It was supposed to be a legendary voyage. Now it will simply become infamous. Mephistopheles promised the moon. He swore if I allowed them free passage that cruise liners with nightly entertainments would become the height of fashion. That our names would be written amongst the stars. He is nothing but a liar.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. The entire evening had already spiraled into darkness and I didn’t think it could all be blamed on one person. Witnessing the Crenshaws’ grief and now the captain’s was too much. And I had more work to do before locking myself away in my own cabin.
“There’s still time to set everything right,” I finally said. “We’ve got three more nights.”
Captain Norwood moved away from the door and led me toward my cabin. “Three more opportunities for murder, Miss Wadsworth.”
We walked silently after that, and I couldn’t help but fear he was correct.
“Are you quite mad?” Liza exclaimed, jumping off the bed as I changed into a plainer dress. “How is it all right for you to seek Mephistopheles at this hour, yet if I go to Harry it’s out of the question?”
“Must we really go over this again?” I rubbed my temples. I was exhausted and wanted to crawl under my covers and not emerge until we were pulling into New York Harbor. “Uncle has already banished you to this cabin and threatened the asylum. And if that isn’t enough of a reason, there’s always the murderer that’s running about this ship.”
Liza got that defiant gleam in her eye as she stood and crossed her arms. “Which is why we ought to walk down together. Their rooms aren’t far apart. Isn’t there safety in groups?” I opened my mouth to argue, but she’d brought up a valid point. Sensing my hesitation, she pressed on. “Not to mention, do you even know where Mephistopheles’s cabin is? How do you plan on finding him? Who will go to their grave, lying to defend you, should either of us be caught?”
I gave her an exasperated look. “I have questions regarding the murder. It’s hardly a clandestine affair you need to lie about. And I am not going to get caught.”
“Oh? And what if Thomas finds out you’ve been visiting another young man? At night. Alone. To simply discuss murder in his chambers without either Uncle or Thomas present. He will think you’re—”
“Liza,” I said, interrupting before she could finish that scandalous thought. “Thomas would never be so foolish. We trust each other.”
“He’s human, you know. No matter how clinical and intelligent he may be, he’s got human emotions. I think you forget that sometimes. He buries them, but they’re there.”
Part of me wished to give her the letter Houdini had written to his secret lover and see if she was as eager to visit him after seeing firsthand what a scoundrel he was. I drew in a few deep breaths. Tonight wasn’t the time to divulge that misery. With any luck he’d reveal that through his own coarse actions, and I’d never have to give her that terrible letter.
After offering an exaggerated long sigh, I threw a cloak at my cousin. “I only need to speak with Mephistopheles for a few minutes. You’ll need to leave when I do.”
Liza tossed the cloak about her shoulders and grinned. “This is what it’s always like for you, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Always pushing forward, pursuing truth.” Her smile faded, turning into something tinged with sadness. “I always imagined your work with Uncle as an adventure, but it’s also quite difficult, isn’t it? The things you see…”
Murder victims flashed through my memory in rapid-fire succession. Victims from Jack the Ripper, torn apart and discarded like rubbish. Bodies drained of blood from just last week while Thomas and I had been studying in Romania. Everywhere I went, death trailed behind. I hoped tonight would not follow suit. I shook those thoughts free. “Come on. It’s getting late.”
Ropes creaked, the sound evoking images of giants lifting their old bones and gazing at those who dared disturb their centuries-old slumber. Even traveling arm in arm with Liza, I couldn’t deny the promenade was an eerie place at night.
Liza clutched me closer. “We need to go into that corridor. The stairs will take us down to the next level.”
Wind whipped pieces of hair from my braid, adding to the chills that were already running rampant down my body. I truly did not wish to enter a darkened corridor at night with a murderer running about, but saw little choice. At least Liza and I were together. There was small comfort in that. I swallowed hard and followed my cousin as she pulled the door open and glanced over her shoulder at me.
The corridor lights flickered, the buzz from the bulbs like a swarm of bees defending their hive. Liza moved swiftly down the metal stairs, and I plunged after her, trying to ignore the rapid beat of my heart or the third set of footsteps I was certain I’d invented in my imagination.
We descended for what felt like an entire century, but in reality was only a moment or two. Without hesitation, Liza pushed the door open and peeked out onto the deck of second class.
“Everything is empty,” she said, grabbing my hand. “Let’s move quickly, though.”
She didn’t need to tell me again. We raced down the deck, stopping only periodically to glance over our shoulders. Though I still swore we were being followed, no figure appeared. I was certain I wasn’t the only passenger aboard this ship who was starting to invent midnight monsters. We hadn’t encountered anyone since supper, and the rooms all appeared to be shut up tight, as if they could barricade the evil away.