- Escaping from Houdini
Despite how exposed I felt, I smiled. Aunt Amelia would most certainly collapse onto a fainting couch should she see us in our current states. Liza’s costume was similar to mine; we both wore red-and-black-striped corsets—cinched tightly to show off our décolletage, as Mephistopheles had pointed out—and black tights, but somehow the ringmaster had managed to make me into his gaudy equivalent by adding extra embellishments.
Sequins covered my risqué bustle and drew the eye to parts of my physique that were desperately close to being bare. My white undergarments had ruffles and lace edged in silver, the only part of my costume that hinted at the Moonlight Carnival. Which no one would ever witness as I refused to lift my skirts and show off my limbs. My silk top hat was black with red bullion—nearly identical to the hat he’d worn on opening night.
Harry gave Liza an amused grin. “I can’t wait to meet your old lady.”
“‘Mother’ would suffice,” Mephistopheles said primly. “‘Old lady’ is crassly American of you.”
Liza waved off the correction. “Can’t we go in already? If we’re only staying for an hour, I want to make it count.” She batted her lashes at me. “Please? You look stunning, Audrey Rose. Let yourself go a little bit tonight. Have some fun. We could all do with some lightness.”
I didn’t think “fun” was the most appropriate thing to focus on, what with the burnt corpse we’d seen earlier, but I let it slide. I needed to figure out which performer might be taking his—or her—theatrics to a murderous level, and a drunken soirée might be the perfect venue to garner information. Though judging from the vibration of the music, the party might be a bad idea. I glanced down at my exposed bosom and exhaled. Thomas would certainly be mad he missed this little act of mine, especially since he was always teasing about drunken debauchery.
“Behold.” Mephistopheles pushed the doors open. Unlike the organized practice session from the night before, the room was in utter chaos. Music thumped off the walls, masked performers danced to the hedonistic beat, lines of women in cancan clothing similar to mine kicked their legs high, exposing their frilly underthings.
“Is this the mischief you warned patrons about?” I asked, trying to gain control over my racing thoughts. Lights pulsed overhead, dangerously close to flickering out.
Milky green drinks sloshed onto the floor and down people’s chins, but they either didn’t notice or didn’t care. My attention moved from one scene to the next, heart pounding along to the drums. I’d never seen so many bodies in motion before; so many people dancing against each other in shocking ways. Clowns jumped over barrels, then tumbled to the ground, clutching their stomachs and laughing until their makeup smeared. Cigar smoke went up in different intervals throughout the cavernous room, the scent heavy and thick in the air. I had walked directly into the Devil’s Lounge.
This had been a terrible mistake. I took a step backward, right into the ringmaster’s waiting arms. He leaned close, raising his voice above the clamor and, despite the heat of the crowded room, chills wound their way down my body.
“This, Miss Wadsworth, is the mayhem portion of the show.” We stood so close I felt his chest rise and fall with breath. “This is also a time to remember the first rule of thumb—do not lose your head.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t—”
Jian, performing a cartwheel, landed close to us, and I jumped back, nearly knocking Mephistopheles over in my haste to get out of harm’s way. Jian was equally impressive as the women who were doing the cancan. Instead of the usual glare he wore for me, he fixed us both with a sloppy grin. “Welcome to the real show!”
He tossed an arm about my shoulders as if we were the best of friends, pulling me away from the ringmaster. I glanced behind me to where Mephistopheles still stood, trying not to laugh. So much for relying on him to help. My attention darted around, but Liza and Houdini had already slunk into the fray. It seemed no assistance would be coming.
“Let’s see what you can do,” Jian slurred. “Dance with me!”
“Oh, I-I don’t think…”
“Exactly!” he shouted over the drums. “Don’t think. Just dance.”
Before I could politely decline his offer, he spun me around, skirts flying upward as I twirled out and bumped into another dancer. She tossed her head back and laughed, spinning into her partner. I practically fell over myself, trying to shove my petticoats back down. Jian dropped to the ground, his legs split to either side of him.
“Are you all right?” I yelled. Dear heaven above, that had to have hurt. He hopped back onto his feet, then kicked one limb up and clapped his hands below the knee, his grin wicked and wild and… free.
“Come on! Try it out—you’ll like it!”
I’d much sooner enjoy stabbing my hand with a fork. I shook my head and pointed to a table lined with fountains of what appeared to be ice water. A refreshment was a much better idea, and the cold water might help alleviate some of his drunkenness. “I’m thirsty.”
His gaze stumbled over to the general direction I’d indicated, his brows tugged close. He squinted a bit, then smiled. “Ah. Excellent idea. I’m starting to understand Mephistopheles’s admiration.”
I could barely hear him over the music and decided it wasn’t worth pursuing. If he believed the ringmaster was truly infatuated with me, it simply meant our act was working. We made our way through the crowd, most of whom parted as Jian cut his way through. I stayed close behind him, both out of necessity and worry that I’d get swept up in another lurid dance.
He marched right over to the first spigot and prepared a drink. I subtly shifted, taking in the people kissing in dark corners. My brows shot to my hairline when I noticed Cassie wrapped around a young man who most decidedly wasn’t Mephistopheles. In fact, I believed it might be the contortionist, though it was hard to be sure since they were so entwined.
Jian handed me a cloudy drink and followed my gaze. “Don’t worry about her, there’s nothing going on with her and Mephistopheles. Not for a while now.”
I accepted the drink and sniffed. It didn’t smell very strong, but I didn’t want to chance impairing my own deductive abilities. “Was she upset when she—”
“—found out he was actually interested in you?” He laughed. “I’ve never seen someone so small throw such a fit. She trashed her costume, and nearly tossed a shoe through Andreas’s magic mirror.” His attention turned to my untouched drink. I handed it over and he gulped it down in one greedy drab. “Now that would’ve been something to see.”
“Would Andreas get violent?”
Behind his mask, I could have sworn his eyes dilated. “I mean it would have broken his heart.” He fixed another drink and swayed in place. “Anyway, Cassie’s not mad at you. If she’s angry at anyone it’s Mephistopheles. He’d better watch himself—she’s the type to teach lessons. You should have seen that last guy.” He shook his head. “He’d have been better off with the lions.”
I tried not to watch her too closely. She was now backing the same young man against the wall, kissing down his neck. It was much too intimate a moment to intrude upon, even though she had no qualms of making a show of it.
“That and he’s her husband.” Jian chuckled at my stunned expression.
Someone chose that moment to shoot a light out. I threw myself to the ground, hands over my head as glass rained down and the room got that much darker. Performers whooped at the dimmer lighting. My pulse thrashed about as I slowly stood. This was madness. Completely unfazed by the growing debauchery, Jian tossed his next drink back, then staggered over to the fountain. I feared if he drank anything else, I’d not get any useful information from him. Shoving my own nervousness aside, I hurried after him.
“Cassie and Sebastián are married?” I asked. “He must have been furious about Mephistopheles.”
A motive to destroy the carnival if ever there was one. Might they be a murderous duo? I stared as they clawed at each other’s clothing. Jealousy was a powerful motive for anyone. And each of them might be suffering from it. Sebastián because his wife had so openly pursued another man, and Cassie for so openly being cast aside. I wanted to rush to Thomas and tell him every last theory sprouting up in my mind, but the cursed bargain prevented me from doing that.
“They both do as they please and it works for them.” Jian looked at me through half-lidded eyes. “Hey… you haven’t finished your drink.” I didn’t bother pointing out that he’d done that for me twice. “Lesss make a toasss.”
“Maybe we ought to hold off until next time,” I suggested. His slurring was much worse. He waved me off and went about making two more drinks, concentrating as if the fate of the world depended on this potion. I would have been more amused if I wasn’t worried the persons responsible for three deaths were passionately embracing in the corner.
Jian poured a knuckle of green liquid into each glass, then managed to place slotted spoons over them without knocking the glasses over. A miracle, considering the state he was in. Next he placed sugar cubes on the spoons, set them ablaze, and maneuvered everything over to the water fountain after the flame extinguished.
Lining the spigots up with the sugar, he twisted them on. Ice water dripped slowly, disintegrating the sugar as it fell into the awaiting liquor. The pale green color shifted to an opaque smoke, reminding me of a forbidden brew. It finally clicked what it was. Absinthe.
Intrigued, I accepted the glass, holding it up to the dim light. It was all the rage in both upper-class houses and bawdy clubs; some claimed it offered hallucinations, but that was only true if extra wormwood had been added to it. I bit my lip. I wanted to try it very badly, but I also needed to act responsibly and gather clues.