- Escaping from Houdini
Someone stepped up beside me, but a lot of people jostled about. I didn’t pay them any mind. “Are you going to pretend to drink that?” I snapped my attention around. Cassie raised her brows. “Or do you need some help?”
“I haven’t pretended to drink anything.”
“Maybe not.” She studied me. “But there are other things you’re pretending, aren’t there?” Her attention left me briefly and I didn’t have to follow her gaze to know she was speaking of the ringmaster. “You might be acting at infatuation, but he’s not.”
I swallowed hard. I couldn’t detect any malice in her words—if anything, there was almost a sense of camaraderie, like we were sisters in battle, fighting against wicked men. I lifted the glass to my lips. “I appreciate your advice,” I said, “but I really am enjoying my time here.”
I went to toss back the drink as I’d seen Jian do several times when a hand shot out and covered the rim. My lips pressed against the crescent moon–stitched glove and I drew back as if I’d been burned. Mephistopheles shook his head. “This might be a little too magical for you, Miss Wadsworth. I’d like to return you to your chambers in one piece. Heaven forbid Thomas Cresswell comes challenging me to a duel.”
He held my stare and I could have sworn there was true concern in his face. I politely removed his hand from my glass, aware of our audience. I had no doubt he was, too. Which was precisely why he shouldn’t have mentioned Thomas. “Have a drink with me.”
I lifted a shoulder. “Suit yourself.”
Before he could utter another word, I gulped my drink down. It was most unladylike and barbarous. I loved it. It tasted of licorice and burned pleasantly on the way down, different from wine in the sense of the warmth that spread from my stomach to my limbs. My body felt as if it was as light as air. Muffled sounds grew louder. Colors richer. Someone laughed close by and I giggled along with them for no good reason at all.
“Come, let’s get you to bed.” Mephistopheles gently took my arm, his brow creased. He really was quite good at all this pretend stuff. He almost had me convinced he cared.
I wriggled out of his grasp, grabbing a handful of my petticoats as I darted away. The coarse material felt amazing beneath my touch and I suddenly wanted to prance around the room, kicking my legs up. No wonder everyone appeared so happy—this elixir was pure magic. A woman wearing a full mask stuck her hand out, waving me over. Several women had their arms linked, throwing kicks in unison. Suddenly, it was the most logical thing to do.
Without hesitation, I hooked my arm around hers and joined in the fun. My heart thundered in my chest, alive and boisterous. I’d never felt so untethered before, so free from judgment and restraint. My entire family would balk at my behavior; for all I knew Thomas would even be puzzled. But I didn’t care. Not about any of that darkness. Murder. Crime. Sadness. Loss. I pretended each emotion was a balloon that needed to be released into the universe, and I let it all go.
I kicked my legs higher each time I switched feet, ignoring the fact I was exposing more skin than I’d ever shown in public before. I closed my eyes, becoming one with the rhythm around me. This was how it felt to truly be free.
Two large hands clasped my waist, lifting me in the air. I laughed and shook my skirts, a thrill going through me. Liza had been right—having a bit of fun didn’t detract from the seriousness of the evening, but it was a fantastic way of coping with it. Death surrounded me, but life did, too. In these stolen moments, I appreciated just how alive I was.
Lips pressed close to my ear and I instinctively arched into the touch, momentarily forgetting where I was and who I was with. I was lowered to the ground and I spun the second my slippers touched down, grinning. Mephistopheles’s eyes widened in shock and he abruptly stumbled back. I was having too much fun to be disappointed he wasn’t who I imagined.
“Would you please do that again?” I asked. He hesitated briefly, then brought me near and twirled me away, his cockiness returning as he lifted me above the dance floor. I held my hands out to either side as he spun us around. “I feel like I’m in a fairy tale.”
He placed me back down, eyes filled with mirth. “If a fairy tale is what you’re after, I’ll put a curse on you and lock you in a coffin or tower of your choosing. Then I’ll kiss you awake and we’ll live happily ever after. That’s how those things work, you know.”
I shook my head. “You’re really charming, aren’t you?”
“That would be Prince Charming to you, Miss Wadsworth.”
We didn’t speak again for what felt like hours, but I danced and laughed and had almost convinced myself that a future in a carnival wouldn’t be the worst fate after all.
SOMETHING IN THE CARDS
AUDREY ROSE’S CABIN
5 JANUARY 1889
I was up before the sun, peering out the porthole in my cabin, watching the nearly black waters turn gold as it rose and stretched across the horizon. The sea was choppy, promising a winter storm in the next day or so. I turned around and couldn’t stop a smile from forming. Liza slept soundly, her limbs tangled up in the covers and her hair spilling around her like drizzled caramel. I still could not believe we’d sneaked into the carnival’s party, and that I’d actually danced the cancan. It was reckless and the memory provoked worry. Not over what I’d done, but rather how much I’d enjoyed it. I only wished Thomas could have joined us.
Pushing that out of my mind, I quietly moved to the small vanity in my room, leafing through the notes of parchment I’d written out sometime after we’d returned to our cabin. I included every last odd occurrence that had happened since we’d boarded the Etruria.
On one scrap of parchment I had “Miss Arden murdered, likely poisoned, though evidence was indeterminable. Playing card found prior to body onstage: Ace of Spades. Connected? Father a physician. Tarot card enactment: Seven of Swords.”
On another, “Stolen bolts of silk, scarves.”
On a third sheet I’d written, “Miss Crenshaw murdered by poison. No playing card found. Tarot card enactment: the Star.”
From my meager attempt at sorting out the tarot card meanings, the best I could come up with for the Star was “transformation.” How that fit in with the case and murder was beyond me.
The next piece of paper said, “Miss Prescott—first to be murdered, stabbed. Playing card found: Ace of Clubs. Father a chief magistrate. Tarot card enactment: Ten of Swords. Betrayal. Quite literally, stabbed in the back.”
I sat back, fingers tapping over the papers. There had to be something there, something that tied them all together. Or perhaps there were two separate mysteries coexisting. One person was committing petty burglaries; another was murdering women as if they were tarot cards sprung to life. My skin crawled like beetles in a grave. I knew Thomas was correct about criminals using the ships for anonymous passage between continents, but could there truly be two criminals aboard our vessel? I supposed it wasn’t out of the question—two out of a few hundred passengers wasn’t that high a number at all.
What I wanted to do next was gain entry to Miss Crenshaw’s cabin. After the discovery of chocolate cake in her stomach, I wanted to compare a sample from her room.
Someone knocked lightly on my door and, assuming it was either a tea service or an attendant, I opened it. I clutched my dressing gown closed, narrowing my eyes. A quick glance over my shoulder found my cousin still lightly snoring, her breaths deep and even.
“It’s a bit early to be calling on me, Cresswell.” I tugged him inside, peering down the deck to be sure he hadn’t been seen. “People will think you’ve spent the night here.” I studied the curve of his lips and the widening of his eyes. Fiend. “Which is precisely what you’re hoping for.”
“You injure me with that accusation, Wadsworth. Must I always have ulterior motives?” He lifted his hand to his heart, staggering a bit. “Perhaps I was simply bringing you tea.”
“Oh? Is that what you were doing?” I stared pointedly at his empty hands. “Forget it. You’re here and that’s actually perfect. Come look at these. But be quiet.” I indicated the random clues, trying to ignore the fact I was in a dressing robe and we were in a bedchamber. At least we weren’t alone. If he started kissing me, I’m not sure I’d wish to stop. I’d missed him immensely last night. “Do you see any pattern or formula with these?”
Thomas removed his top hat and was across the room in a few short, long-limbed strides. He pushed the papers around the desk, frowning a bit at one. “Miss Prescott was murdered on night one, but Miss Crenshaw went missing before we set sail. The order in which we find the bodies doesn’t necessarily indicate the order in which they were murdered.”
“Thomas,” I said, a new idea sprouting, “will you teach me how to place myself in the mind-set of a murderer? Like how you did the first time we met?”
He strummed his fingers against his thighs. “In your uncle’s class?”
“Yes,” I said, attention shooting over to my still-sleeping cousin, “when you pretended as if you were Jack the Ripper and had gutted the first victim. I want to learn to do that. It’s not much different than all of the magic in the carnival, is it?”
Thomas looked at me strangely. “I suppose they both include a certain level of playacting, but I’d like to think my method is a bit more scientific than the man swinging swords about.”
“Still, I’d like—” Another knock came at the door and I swallowed my words as quickly as Anishaa had gulped down those flames. I started shoving Thomas toward my trunk, not knowing where else to stash him. Liza stirred, but didn’t wake. “Get in there… quickly!”
Without much argument, Thomas folded himself into the trunk—an impressive feat given his tall stature—and I tossed one of my gowns over the top, hoping to hide him under the tentlike skirts. I smoothed down the front of my dressing gown, cracking the door an inch.