- Escaping from Houdini
In my mind I fancied it a fabulous distraction, but reality was not my friend. The lion paid me no attention; he plodded forward, eyes never leaving his prey.
“Hey!” I smacked the bars now as if I were a cricket player. The result was a metallic clang that nearly rattled my teeth. This made the lion pause at least. I used all my strength to hit the bars again and again, the sound so loud it refused to be ignored. Finally, the lion turned its head, annoyance plain in the twitch of its tail. Both the big cat and the ringmaster stared dully at me, as if waiting for the next bang on the rungs. “Run, you bloody fool!”
Mephistopheles shook himself out of his stupor and got to his feet; he turned his back on the big cat and was nearly to the cage door when the animal whirled around and struck him a second time. I screamed, convinced I was going to see him torn limb from limb. The unexpected shrillness startled the lion—it wasn’t much, but it was enough for Mephistopheles to tumble out of the cage and kick the door shut.
I darted around the cage, fastened the lock, and dragged the ringmaster to safety. He cringed at my rough handling, but didn’t cry out. I had no idea if that was a good sign or not. Perhaps he’d been injured so badly he was going into shock. Corpses were one thing; nursing a living body back to health was not my area of expertise.
“Are you hurt?” I ripped my gloves off, running swift hands over the front of him, searching for any obvious wounds. His clothing was tattered in the front, but I didn’t see any blood. Yet. “Any pain you’re aware of at all? How many fingers am I holding up?”
I couldn’t remember much else to ask, the dead didn’t usually tell me what had hurt until I cut them open and rooted around for clues.
He blinked slowly from behind his signature mask, seeming to consider this. I had no idea if he was thinking about potential pain or if he was about to pass out. “It’s… difficult… to tell. Perhaps my back?”
He struggled to sit up, then winced. With swift medical efficiency, I propped him up against the wall and wrestled his coat and waistcoat off. I knelt beside him and tugged his cravat away in a brisk motion even I was impressed by. My bare fingers were already undoing the buttons at his collar when I paused, suddenly aware of our position and what I was doing—if anyone caught us alone down here with his clothes half off, I’d be in a world of scandal.
Mephistopheles blinked at me. “This isn’t the first time you’ve removed a cravat, is it?”
“It would be the first time I used it to strangle someone, though.”
“So violent.” His eyes fluttered shut and he groaned. I shoved my worries aside. If anyone came down here they’d see an injured man and someone capable of offering medical assistance. Nothing more.
I finished unbuttoning his shirt and pulled it open, quickly inspecting his torso for any signs of damage. There was nothing but unblemished bronze skin. I ran my eyes over him twice to be certain, ignoring the sense of wrongness at his state of undress. I shook my head. He might have internal injuries that would be more worrisome than if his flesh had been torn. Prodding his torso for tenderness might be the best thing to do, though I wasn’t sure if it would hurt.
“You haven’t sustained any outward injuries to your person.” I lifted my gaze to his; we now were very close. Too close. He stared at me, unblinking. “Perhaps you have a concussion. You appear a bit—”
He toppled forward, nearly burying his head in my chest. “Please.” The word was a plea in itself. Arms gently came around my waist. “Please accept my apology.”
“You have nothing to apologize for.” I embraced him back a moment, worried over how hard he’d hit his head. “Come. Let’s stand up, shall we?”
After a wobbly attempt, I finally managed to get him on his feet. I held on to him, afraid he’d stumble back down and do more damage to his brain. I was about to offer him his jacket when he staggered into me, pressing us both into the wall as he stopped himself from falling. At this rate, it would take a lifetime to get him to a real physician. Dr. Arden had refused to leave his chambers, and I wasn’t sure if there was another doctor aboard the ship.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “If we’re moving too fast, then you ought to sit.”
His hands slowly came up to cradle my face and he leaned his forehead against mine. Clearly he was having a delusion. “Remember.”
“Our bargain, Miss Wadsworth.” He slumped against me and I worried there was some injury to his back that I’d missed. Before I could help stand him upright again, the sound of shoes hitting the stairs two at a time reached us. My first thought was elation that someone else would be able to help with the disoriented ringmaster in my arms. But when I saw it was Thomas who skidded around the corner and stopped short, I could have sworn my heart sank down to my toes.
The ringmaster leisurely pushed himself back, attention torn between me and Thomas. His odd insistence that I remember our bargain suddenly made sense. He’d manufactured this. All of it. I gripped my fists as he stood straighter and began buttoning up his shirt, completely and utterly stable on his feet.
“Mr. Cresswell, I assure you things aren’t what they appear,” he said, not sounding at all convincing as he donned his tattered jacket. He indicated the tears. “I was under attack and Miss Wadsworth rescued me. It was terribly valiant on her part and quite embarrassing on mine.”
Thomas didn’t so much as breathe from what I could see, but his sharp gaze was falling all over the room, likely reconstructing the scenario in that astounding way of his. With sadness, I realized he’d looked at everything in the room except for me. My uncle and the captain rounded the doorway a moment later with Cassie and halted.
“What on earth is going on?” the captain asked. “You have a performance to give. And this one”—he jabbed a thumb in Cassie’s direction—“wouldn’t say what the urgency was about. Only that you needed us straightaway.”
Mephistopheles stepped away from me and nodded toward the cage. “Miss Wadsworth and I were investigating the mystery of the severed arm. But you’re right—the show must go on. At least this murder won’t be the main attraction tonight.”
With that, he offered a mock bow, signaled to Cassie to follow, and disappeared up the stairs, leaving me alone to deal with the chaos he’d unleashed. I took a deep breath and met Uncle’s furious glare. Facing the lion in its cage would be mildly less intimidating, even after its attack.
“I can explain everything, Uncle.”
A FINE DEDUCTION
ANIMAL CARGO HOLD
5 JANUARY 1889
“What in ten hells does he mean by ‘mystery of the severed arm’?” Captain Norwood’s voice was a boom of thunder in the tense quiet. A monkey near the end of the cargo hold screeched, and I did my best not to flinch from either outburst. The captain was as temperamental as the sea he navigated. “Tell me it’s not an actual human arm.”
“I’m afraid there is a human specimen in the lion’s cage,” I said, never imagining I’d be stringing those words together. I tore my gaze from the captain and focused on Thomas, hoping to do my best to explain to him—as well as the captain and my uncle—what had just transpired… aside from me wrapped in the arms of an undressed man.
“Mephistopheles was trying to remove the lion when it attacked him,” I said. “I haven’t been able to fully inspect the scene yet, so I’ve no further details. From first glance, however, someone has changed out the hay. It’s possible it was done in an attempt to tidy up the murder scene, but I won’t know for certain until I’m able to get into the cage and have a proper look.”
Thomas strode toward the cage and severed limb in question, his focus moving from the large cat to the gnawed arm to God only knew what. He strummed his fingers along the metal bars, the sound dulled thanks to the leather gloves he wore. The captain opened his mouth, but my uncle silenced him with a raised hand. No one ought to interrupt Thomas while he lost himself in those equations only he could see. Not for the first time did I wish to possess a fragment of that particular skill of his.
“This isn’t the murder scene,” he said, and I knew him enough by this point to not doubt his deduction. “This is simply where the body was left. In fact, I don’t believe the rest of the body was ever here. It’s likely overboard by now, or the murderer is planning on dumping it soon. Robbery or theft wasn’t the motive—see the ring? This crime was either premeditated or done out of convenience.”
“You seem mighty confident,” the captain muttered. “Perhaps you ought to let Dr. Wadsworth speak, boy.”
Thomas closed his eyes, and I could only imagine the sort of things he might be stopping himself from saying aloud. It was incredible, truly, that he’d harnessed himself. A breath later, he pulled his shoulders back and affected a tone that brooked no arguments to his authority on the matter. Despite the current circumstances, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. Thomas was magnificent when he used his talents on a case, his confidence well earned. He was maturing from the arrogant young man I’d met last summer.
“Thomas?” Uncle asked. “Care to elaborate for the captain?”
He nodded. “Note the shade of the blood smear on the padlock and the bit of rust color on the keys.”
“Get on with it, then,” the captain said. Clearly he was in no mood for pleasantries this evening. “Why should I care about the color of blood?”
“Mephistopheles wasn’t bleeding, so the smearing on the padlock and the keys did not come from him.” Thomas paused a moment and walked around the cage, but I swore I heard an accusation in the silence.
“From that alone it’s safe to assume that the blood is either the murderer’s or victim’s,” he continued. His tone was professional, cool, perhaps I’d imagined the tinge of agitation. “It’s dark, indicating it wasn’t fresh when it was transferred to the lock. I imagine it was almost dried when the murderer touched those things. If this had been the scene of the crime, then there would be blood splatter and massive stains present on the floor. A limb was removed from a person—it would have been a nasty affair. Even with the straw changed, there would be blood on the floors, walls, and ceiling. Have you been to a slaughterhouse, Captain? Messy business, that is. As for the ring? If that was the motive behind the attack, then that would have been the first thing to go.”