- Escaping from Houdini
“You’re abandoning me for sweets,” I said with a slight shake of my head. “How magnanimous indeed.”
“Don’t be jealous of pastry, my love. Its golden crust and buttery taste cannot compare to your delectable personality. Much.” Thomas eyed the sign once more, lips twitching upward. “All right… let’s make a bargain, since those things seem to be all the craze here. I’ll give you five minutes to get settled and another ten for the Amazing Andreas to call forth the ghosties and convince them to stay for a spot of tea and a chat. Then I’ll return.”
“How is that a bargain?” I asked.
“It’s not, really. I was seeing if you were paying attention.” I leveled a severe look at him, and he held his hands up in mock surrender. “A joke. You know… those things I’m horrid at but am practicing nonetheless?” When he leaned in, his lips grazing my ear, there wasn’t anything humorous about the desire that shot through me. “Perhaps I’ll bring you back a treat, too.”
I smiled sweetly. “Here I thought simply being in your presence was treat enough.” Before he could entertain himself with another of his witticisms, I swept open the striped drapes and stepped inside the fortune-teller’s lair.
Inside, a crystal chandelier hung from a ceiling that seemed to reach forever. Layers of lush black-and-white silk gathered around the light fixture, pinned back in a way to give the appearance of being under a huge tent. Silver candles dripped wax onto wrought-iron candelabras evenly spaced throughout the interior of the room.
From the shadows Andreas emerged. I took a sharp breath. His mask was the color of fresh blood and reminded me of a skull that had been recently boiled of its flesh. He stood there a moment, not moving at all, allowing me an opportunity to drink him in. He wore a navy tailcoat embroidered with silver constellations and black trousers and gloves.
He bent at the waist, blond hair pale enough that it was almost white. “Pardon my entrance, Miss Wadsworth. My soul travels the in-between, restless and wandering,” he said in accented English. “In constant search of the past, present, and future, I find time to be an idle wave.” I tried puzzling that out and failed. “I am the Amazing Andreas. Welcome to my chamber of divination.”
“It’s good to see you again.” I bobbed my head in greeting and fully entered the room. Pillows edged in silver fringe sat piled in clusters, though there were also stools and chairs and tables. Elaborate incense burners hung in tiered layers in one corner, filling the room with a spicy and enticing scent. It reminded me of Mephistopheles. I bit my lip, unsure of where to go. Lounging on the floor felt too indecent, though I supposed being alone with a masked man was debasing enough.
The Amazing Andreas gestured to a rather large looking glass. It leaned against the wall, tall and somehow slightly foreboding for such an unassuming piece of furniture.
“The looking glass is infused with magic from Bavaria,” he said. “It is no ordinary glass—this has the ability to show your future.” He ran his hands down the front of his very nice waistcoat, puffing out his chest a bit. “To my knowledge, it has near one hundred percent accuracy with showing who your husband shall be. Most young women leave here quite satisfied.”
How extraordinarily disappointing.
“Is that all it does?” I asked. “I thought it showed one’s future. What if there is no marriage in mine? Will it not show my career or any other part of my life, then? There are those who prefer to not marry anyone. What does the looking glass show them?”
Andreas gave me the sort of look one made when passing a foul chamber pot. To his credit, his tone was still quite cordial when he spoke. “In order for me to work the spell properly, I’ll need to secure your hands with a bit of ribbon behind your back.” He produced a thick, black satiny ribbon from his coat, allowing its end to flutter down in dramatic fashion. “And place a cover across your eyes. Spellwork is very fickle, you see.”
I pursed my lips, hoping to contain the unpleasant retort that had sprung to mind. Now I understood why they called him the Fool. He’d have to be one to think I’d agree to being tied up and blindfolded while alone with him. Was there any young man in this carnival who wasn’t a miscreant? After a minute, I said, “Indeed, I imagine it is fickle.”
He sighed, the first unscripted sound that he’d uttered. “Mephistopheles thinks it will be good practice for the finale. He said the blindfold provides the right amount of flair.”
I stared at the foggy-looking glass, unconvinced such a dingy thing could possess any flair. “Well, since Mephistopheles isn’t here, I think we’re safe from listening to his demands.” I glanced around, focus falling to a deck of cards. I pointed them out. “I’d prefer to have a tarot reading. It might be useful in our investigation.”
Andreas didn’t seem very keen on disobeying the ringmaster, but smiled. “As you wish.”
Without further comment, I situated myself on the cushioned stool and kept my attention fastened on the cards he shuffled. I only saw the backs of them, but they were beautifully done—painted by a skilled artist. They were darker than night and had silver filigree flourishes at each corner and a black full moon with a pearly crescent on one side. Silver stars were placed above, below, and to each side of the moon within a moon.
Andreas caught me admiring them and held one up. “May I present the one and only Cirque d’Eclipse tarot.” He smiled shyly at my raised brows and added, “Mephistopheles wishes for the Moonlight Carnival’s theme to be present in every detail, even something as small and insignificant as tarot cards.”
He turned the card one way, then the next, showing off the magnificent shine of the silver lines, but never revealing the image on the front. Two interlocking eights lay at the top and bottom of the cards, reminding me of something else I couldn’t quite place.
“Did you paint those?” I asked, doing my best to keep my hands to myself. I longed to flip them over and see the fine artwork I knew had to be present on the other side. “They are absolutely magnificent. I’ve never seen paint shimmer like that before.”
“I did not,” he said, shaking his head. “Mephistopheles made these himself. He prefers to—Mephistopheles teaches everyone cartomancy and tarot. We’re unable to join the carnival until we’re proficient.” He chuckled and continued shuffling the cards, leaving me to wonder at what he didn’t say.
“So every performer is well versed on both playing cards and tarot?”
Andreas nodded, but didn’t elaborate. “Is this your first experience with tarot?”
Aside from the bodies that were being staged, though I didn’t feel it was the appropriate response. Instead I nodded absently, as a new thought wedged itself into my brain. I watched the fortune-teller shuffle the cards, thoughts spinning. If Mephistopheles was into crafting cards, could he be the person leaving them with the bodies? I shook myself out of that nonsensical thought. He was no murderer. I watched Andreas again; he obviously was proficient with tarot and the various meanings. But so was every other performer, thanks to Mephistopheles.
“If you’re the fortune-teller, why does everyone need to know the card meanings?”
Andreas scratched the back of his neck. “People pay a decent sum for their futures. When we’re in a new town, we often set up multiple tents that feature tarot readings or go to different pubs. Sometimes Sebastián plays the role, sometimes even Jian. We can triple our income. It’s good business. Now.” Andreas set the cards facedown before me. “It is your turn. Shuffle the deck until you feel the first one speak to you. Beware—it might only be a whisper, so listen closely.”
I reached for the deck, then drew my hand back. “What if the cards don’t say anything?”
“They will. Closing your eyes and focusing on a single question helps,” Andreas said. “How do you feel about yourself and your path? Think of only that and close your eyes and shuffle. The answer will make itself known.”
I did as I was bid, unable to help feeling ridiculous as I shuffled one card to the next, concentrating on a multitude of emotions. That the cards could possibly tell me something about myself that I didn’t already know was foolish. How I’d been taken with the idea of visiting the fortune-teller was a testament to how much this silly carnival was affecting my best judgment. Maybe Andreas was called the Fool after the people he attracted to his tent, like myself.
Suddenly, I felt a slight pull in my center… a strange bit of resistance to shuffling to the next card. My eyes flew open, how in the—
“See? Spirits speak in whispers and tugs.” Andreas smiled his patient smile and tapped the table in front of him. He certainly didn’t look like a killer when he wore that expression, but I’d not rule him out based on that. “Place the first one here, lay it facedown. We’ll do a six-card spread and then flip them over once they’ve all been pulled. All right?”
“All right.” I inhaled deeply, unsure of the validity of it, but the alternative was watching Uncle spear his vegetables and bicker with Mrs. Harvey over the dessert course.
“This time I want you to focus on your heart’s deepest desire. What is a truth you hide even from yourself?”
I closed my eyes tightly, unsure of how I’d find something hidden from me. Once I felt that same odd resistance I pulled another card. The next four questions I needed to concentrate on were my fears, what was working with me in life, what forces were conspiring against me, and what the outcome of it all would be. Satisfied that I’d taken my part seriously, Andreas flipped the first card over, revealing a gnarled, bearded man standing alone at the top of a frozen mountain peak, the sky a swirling black and gray behind him.
“Ah. The Hermit. Since this card indicates how you feel about yourself, I’d wager you’re struggling with an internal conflict. You likely have many questions, are feeling alone, and perhaps have run out of patience. Now is the time to retreat until you find answers to what troubles you.”