- Escaping from Houdini
“Hmm.” I blinked down at the card, disbelief dragging my mouth into a frown. It was luck. Stupid luck that the first card held a shred of truth. I was feeling alone and in need of answers. I had to figure out so many mysteries, and because of my bargain with Mephistopheles, I couldn’t even recruit Thomas for some of the problems I had. Things would be so much easier with my partner—I hated retreating on my own.
Unwilling to give anything away, I flipped over the next card. A young masked man danced in a disjointed manner, his outfit crude and clownlike. Clearly my inner spirit was feeling like a court jester. Fabulous. According to this card, the thing I longed for most was to be a fool. Though I supposed it was also accurate. This entire evening was a foolish distraction I could ill afford, and yet here I sat, having my cards read like a gullible mark.
“The Fool. An interesting choice. It is the only card in the tarot that indicates infinity.” Andreas steepled his fingers and stared unabashedly into my eyes. “Is there someone in your life you’re unsure of? Perhaps a beau or potential suitor? This card indicates you might have conflicting feelings for someone… Mephistopheles or—”
I turned the next card over. I did not wish to even step onto that path. “The World. What does this one mean?”
It was another magnificent piece of artwork—a young woman swung two batons, the train of her lavender dress floating on an invisible breeze. In each corner of the card there was a different beast—man, eagle, bull, and a winged lion.
Andreas tapped the card. “This represents your fears. You’re close to giving up because you’re afraid of failure.” I turned over the next two cards—the Empress and the Sun. What was going for and against me. “The Empress is a time of harvesting. It’s a wonderful time to start a family or pursue your passion. The Sun, on the other hand, is causing a few delays. If you can persevere, you’ll achieve what you seek in a blaze of flame and glory.”
I exhaled through my nose. It was all rubbish, but I had to admit it was disturbingly accurate for my current predicament.
“Andreas?” I began, not quite ready to see my last card. “What does the Star card mean?”
He blinked at my change in focus, but then drew his brows together in thought. “The Star is an interesting card. It relates to personal transformation… hope… and being blessed in your endeavors. Though there are many, many other ways it can be incorporated into a reading. Why the interest?”
“Simple curiosity.” Not wanting to get into a discussion regarding the last murder victim, I turned the final card over and scowled down at it. There was no need for me to read the name at the bottom, the artist had done a fine job indeed of painting a self-portrait. Mephistopheles’s likeness smirked up at me, the wicked glint in his eyes a near-perfect replica of the young man in reality.
“The Magician,” Andreas said, never taking his attention off the card, “is the outcome most likely in your future. Beware of making bargains you cannot keep, though. The Devil is a trickster in us all. He often makes you believe one thing, while covering the truth in plain sight.” Chills caressed my body at those words, so similar to my earlier thoughts. Andreas bit his lip, seeming to weigh his next words carefully. “Be cautious with who you give your heart to. And be even more wary of those who seek to steal it.”
A SEVERED CONNECTION
5 JANUARY 1889
Thomas leaned against the wall opposite the music room, finishing off the last bit of his fried pastry. He grinned when he spied me lingering outside the fortune-teller’s makeshift “tent” and held up a second sugar-coated pastry.
“I swear I was going to rescue you from the Amazing Andreas… once I finished my sweet dough. Here”—he handed my treat over—“tell me this isn’t the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted. Aside from me, naturally.”
I huffed a laugh. Thomas was a scoundrel and a horrendous flirt, but I couldn’t deny enjoying it. Despite the unease swirling through my system at the sight of the Magician card and the revelation of how many performers were skilled with tarot, I popped a piece of fried dough into my mouth and nearly groaned. It truly was one of the most delicious things I’d ever eaten.
“Do I even want to know how much butter they used to make it taste that good?”
“Hmm.” Thomas pretended to think on it a moment. “Probably not, Wadsworth. And you most certainly don’t wish to know how much sugar they sprinkled onto it once it came out of its butter bath.” He offered his arm and we slowly made our way toward the saloon. “Did Andreas gift you with an amazing glimpse at your future? I hear his magic looking glass is all the rage. A young woman was speaking very loudly about her future husband. Apparently she saw his reflection in the glass and wasn’t pleased.”
I offered him a bemused look, but didn’t comment.
“I’m taking it that you’re stunned into silence by how adorable our children are. I bet they take after me the most. My Cresswell genes are quite impressive. Though you will make fine little ones yourself.” He patted my hand lovingly. “Try not to be too hard on yourself, though. We cannot help who is the fairest of us.”
I stopped walking, mouth dropping open. “Our children?”
Thomas cocked his head. “You know… smaller-sized humans who spit up on things and require an indecent amount of attention until they’re grown? I imagine we’ll have an entire brood of them.”
“You can’t be serious, I—”
Mephistopheles strode down the corridor with Jian and Anishaa, lips twitching into his signature smirk when he glanced up and noticed us. He broke away from the performers and shook a few eager hands of passengers as he drew near. I silently prayed he wouldn’t mention our dancing last night.
“What a fortunate surprise, Miss Wadsworth.” He took my hand in his, pretending to kiss it, and pulled an ink-blue rose from the air. “A rose for the lovely Audrey Rose.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Thomas said. “Satan has decided to claw his way out of Hell and join us. I had no idea he did subpar tricks, though.”
The ringmaster turned his attention on my companion as if noticing him for the first time. “Satan. The Devil. Prince of the Underworld. Let’s not forget that Lucifer was a fallen angel—I imagine he was quite handsome. If the role fits…” Mephistopheles shrugged. “Anyway, it’s always interesting to see you again, Mr. Cresswell, but if you’ll excuse us, I need to speak with your”—he purposely stared down at my empty ring finger—“friend, isn’t it?” Mephistopheles didn’t smile again, but satisfaction oozed off him when Thomas clenched his jaw. “Don’t worry. I’ll return her to you shortly. If she cares to return, that is.”
Thomas stood there, fingers tapping his sides. I wasn’t sure if he was waiting for my refusal or considering how angry Uncle would be if he discovered I’d wandered off unchaperoned with someone he didn’t approve of. I glanced at Mephistopheles and bit my lip. I didn’t wish to abandon Thomas, but something large must have happened for the ringmaster to want to talk before our scheduled meeting. I took a step in his direction, then stopped.
Thomas inhaled deeply. “If I come across your uncle, I’ll tell him you needed a bit more time to get ready. Meet me outside your cabin in half an hour.”
“Thomas.” I made to reach for him, but dropped my arm. “Thank you.”
“Thanking me is unnecessary.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek, unconcerned with our scowling audience. “You are always free to do as you please. Even if you choose to follow a strange man in a gaudy suit into the bowels of a steam cruiser while someone in his show is murdering women.” Delight flashed in his eyes when the ringmaster exhaled loudly. “I’ll see you in a bit.”
“If my suit is so gaudy then why are you staring at it like it’s your one true love?”
“Thomas,” I warned. “Do not comment on his jacket. He missed his evening nap and is cranky.”
“Yes, well, there was only one spot available in the nursery and I thought Mr. Cresswell should take it.”
I hid my smile as Thomas stared down the ringmaster like he was a reanimated corpse.
“Miss Wadsworth?” Mephistopheles asked, tone lacking any decorum or patience. “Shall we?”
He offered his arm, but I ignored it and hauled off toward the promenade deck without assistance. I was already in a rotten mood thanks to the tarot reading, and now the sudden appearance of Mephistopheles, the Devil himself, turned my disposition even more sour. Confused over my feelings indeed. I’d show Andreas how faulty his cards were.
Once we made it to the end of the deck free from passengers and performers alike, I whirled on him. “You’re trying to irk Thomas and it’s not fair to me. When I agreed to help you it was also supposed to benefit me, remember? This”—I motioned between us—“is not beneficial. What is so important that you require my assistance this moment? You seemed to be having fun with Jian and Anishaa, not searching for me.”
“Not here.” Mephistopheles pointed toward the corridor leading a few floors below. I tried to hide my shiver as we entered the dimly lit hall and walked swiftly down the flight of narrow stairs. Our footsteps echoed along the metal stairs, alerting anyone below of our arrival. I wanted to ask about the playing cards and how cartomancy might play into the killings, but didn’t wish to do so when we were so far from other people.
We came to the end of the stairwell, and I was amazed when it opened into a vast storage space that must have taken up at least a quarter of the entire hull. Cage after cage of iron bars and exotic animals lined each side of the cavernous room. Monkeys and tigers, lions, elephants, and wolves whiter than snow. I paused near the zebras, admiring their contrasting colors.
“Well?” I faced the ringmaster, hands on my hips. “What urgent matter do you have?”