- Escaping from Houdini
Standing there alone with him, I tried not to think about last evening, his hands on my waist, laughing like I was some other person as he twirled me around. How free I’d felt for a moment.
“I’ve noticed you haven’t given Liza the letter yet.” He ran his gloved hands down the side of one cage, inspecting them before brushing them off. “Would you prefer if I did it? Then you might act as if your hands aren’t stained in the nastiness of the matter.”
“Is this why you wanted to talk?” I bristled at his tone. “How is opening someone’s eyes to the truth a terrible thing?”
He stopped walking down the line of cages, facing me. “Sometimes we choose not to see things we know are true, simply because we wish to keep the fantasy of what could have been alive. To see the realness of a thing, well, sometimes that removes hope. An unfortunate side effect. As a scientist you must know that. You cannot always remove a tumor without taking a bit of the surrounding healthy tissues, can you?”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “No, I do not require your assistance. And I don’t wish to wax poetic on how speaking the truth is like removing a tumor, or any other such nonsense. Was there anything else you needed, or did you only intend to irritate me?”
“You anger rather quickly,” he said. “I enjoy chaos, remember? I like studying reactions. You weren’t so quick to be rid of me last night.”
A flush crept along my skin.
“Any other parting words of wisdom, or might I go back to the carnival?”
Mephistopheles marched up to the lion’s cage, a muscle in his jaw twitching in annoyance. “Apologies for interrupting your romantic evening, Miss Wadsworth. But I thought you might want to see what I discovered before I alert the overbearing captain.” He jerked his chin toward the back of the cage. Judging from the strong earthy scent hanging in the air, the hay had been freshly changed.
I doubted he’d dragged me down here to see that, so I carefully leaned closer and jerked back. There were splatters of blood on the floor of the cage. But that couldn’t be right. I inhaled deeply, and exhaled. There was a logical explanation waiting, I simply needed to think like a scientist.
“Don’t you feed the lions fresh meat?” I asked. My brain refused to acknowledge what my eyes were reporting as truth—the basis for all good illusions. “I’m sure it’s simply—”
“The severed limb that’s to blame?” He pointed to something I’d not noticed at first; it was stiff and protruding from the hay. I closed my eyes briefly and cursed.
A pale arm gnawed to the bone at one end.
Unless it was a very detailed prop for the carnival, it was all too real. No illusion or trick. “Yes, I’m quite sure that does explain all the blood. How silly of me to require your assistance with sorting that out.”
I shot him an irritated look. “Don’t be cross with me. I’m not the one trying to destroy your carnival. Perhaps you should have thought of these consequences before carrying on a flirtation with a married woman.”
“My carnival is in peril and there’s a severed arm in front of you, yet you’d like to discuss my sleeping arrangements?”
“When they might be the cause of said issues? Yes.”
I pushed past him, noting the shock on his face, and edged around the back of the cage, trying to get a better view of the arm. With the freshly laid hay, it was difficult to tell if someone had been killed in the cage or if the arm had simply been tossed in after.
“You need to have the lion removed from there immediately,” I said. “This whole cage needs to be secured and scoured for clues.”
I inspected the lion. It was impossible to tell how much of the body he’d consumed—perhaps it was just the one arm, meant to distract us. The large cat lazily washed himself, licking his paws, then dragging them behind his ears in a contented way only a full belly could provide. My own stomach flipped at the implication of such actions. Tonight had been so close to ending without another death.
“Shouldn’t this animal be with the others for the show?”
Mephistopheles stepped closer. “It appears he’s too full to be of use. Which is probably why he was left behind.”
“That means this was deposited prior to the show.”
I swallowed my revulsion down. I could not allow my emotions to surface now—perhaps not ever. I’d witnessed a lot in my uncle’s laboratory—cruelty almost too violent to be believed. But this? This was an entirely new level of horrific. To toss someone to an animal to feed upon… it was monstrous.
“You need to summon my uncle,” I added, noting Mephistopheles hadn’t yet moved. “And Thomas. We need them. Someone is dead. Whoever did this is out to ruin your show—you better hope we can prove it’s Cassie and her husband, or you might be the one held responsible.”
“That is your best deduction?” Mephistopheles crossed his arms and scowled. It was hardly the sort of reaction I expected from anyone who’d stumbled across a dismembered piece of a body. If he was free of guilt, he was doing a terrible job of proving it. “Cassie and I, handsome though we might be together, were never lovers. She wanted to, but I declined. Mixing business with pleasure is never a good idea. Though I cannot tell if you’re simply curious for your own reasons. Perhaps you’re jealous.”
“Are you entirely mad? You wish I were jealous.”
He seemed to think on it. “Yes, actually, I do. Regardless of that, if I wanted to involve your uncle or that arrogant assistant of his immediately, I would have done so. What I want is for you to investigate first. Then I will fetch those two. I need discretion—the carnival cannot keep withstanding these blows. I’m doing everything I can to keep the acts going, to distract patrons, but even I cannot produce miracles. I need you to help me.”
“Thomas is my partner,” I argued. “We each have skills that complement the other’s.”
“And? Are you incapable of simply looking at something without either of them?”
We stared at each other, each holding our ground for an exaggerated moment. It was a battle of wills, and if I was selfish, I’d not surrender simply to spite him. Since there was a slain person involved, I took the higher ground.
“Fine,” I spat. “But someone needs to get that lion out of the cage now. I cannot properly investigate the scene and worry about being mauled by that beast.”
“Fine,” Mephistopheles echoed, brushing past me and snatching the ring of keys from a hook on the wall. “Glad to see there are things you’re able to do without assistance.”
He stuck the key in the lock and yanked the door open with a screech that made the big cat growl, low and dangerous. Apparently he wasn’t as full and docile as I’d thought.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Mephistopheles swiped a leash from the inside of the cage and held it up as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Removing the lion from the cage like you asked. Have you been drinking the Green Fairy again this evening? I thought that was our special thing.”
“Why are you the one getting the lion?” I ground out. “Shouldn’t you fetch an expert?”
With a disgusted grunt, the ringmaster turned his back on me and marched toward the lion. Now that I was looking closely, I could see bits of blood stained around its pale muzzle and fleshy parts near its whiskers. Mephistopheles either didn’t notice the gore or pretended it wasn’t there as he made his way toward the animal. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or horrified as the large cat slowly put his paw down and eyed the intruder.
No matter how well trained the lion was, there was a part of him that would forever remain wild. The intelligent gleam in his golden eyes sent gooseflesh skittering along my body. The effect seemed lost on Mephistopheles entirely. He was moving a bit too boldly for his own good.
“Have a care, would you? You’re going to get yourself killed,” I said, drifting forward, “then I’ll have to sort out your blood and entrails from the victim’s.”
“If that happens, then consider it a test of your immeasurable skill.”
I took a steadying breath. “I will not watch this madness.”
“Sometimes, for the greater good,” he said over his shoulder, “it’s necessary to get your hands dirty. Do you trust me, Miss Wadsworth?”
Only a fool would put their faith in someone they didn’t know and who prided themselves on illusions. “What on earth is that supposed to mean?”
Instead of responding, Mephistopheles snapped the leash like a whip, setting the other animals chittering in their cages. My gaze fell to the severed arm once more and I quickly looked away. The time would come soon enough to dissect that bloody fragment.
I moved forward, gripping the bars to give myself something to do other than fret as the ringmaster drew within reach of the lion. Unlike the quiet calm of the cat, my pulse was a constant roar I couldn’t settle. Dealing with the dismembered arm was horrendous, but bearing witness to an animal attack would be even worse.
Sensing the growing tension, the lion sniffed the air, tufted tail twitching across the blood-splattered hay behind him. He was a coil ready to spring an attack at any moment. I clutched the bars until my knuckles ached.
“Be careful. Please.”
I’d whispered barely loud enough for me to hear, so I was surprised when the ringmaster stumbled over a clump of hay and glanced at me. Everything happened too quickly after that. The lion, already suspicious of the masked gentleman inside the cage, sprang up from its hindquarters. Mephistopheles jumped back, but he wasn’t fast enough. The lion swiped the front of his waistcoat, tearing the material with no effort. I could only imagine what those claws could do to bare flesh. If he didn’t escape soon, I was going to find out.
“Run!” I yelled. “Hurry!”
Mephistopheles fell, scrambling backward like a crab scuttling away. Without a doubt, he was going to die. My heart pounded a battle cry. I scanned the dimly lit chamber, searching for something to use against the lion. My attention fell on a cane—without thought, I grabbed it and raced for the side opposite Mephistopheles, running the cane across the bars, creating the most dreadful racket.