- Escaping from Houdini
“Maybe he couldn’t get it off her finger,” the captain said.
“Then he would have cut it off,” I said, earning a disgusted look from the man. As if I were the one who’d shorn the arm off. “And it’s not a woman’s arm. Our victim is a male. And the ring is a wedding band.”
Thomas wound his way between each cage, kicking stray bits of hay as he went. He knelt down, then gazed up, searching the ceiling for blood splatter, I assumed. I followed where his attention landed and blinked. A torn bit of cobalt fabric was caught on something in the low ceiling. It appeared to be silk. I squinted and just made out the outline of a panel. An idea clicked at once. “Where does that access panel lead, Captain?”
“It’s simply a maintenance portal connecting this room to the crew corridors.” The captain waved it off. “No one aside from select members of the crew has access. And they must first ask me for the key.”
“What’s it used for?” Thomas prodded. “How large is the compartment?”
“It’s mostly for electrical matters,” Captain Norwood said. “A man would need to crouch and fold himself over to pass through it. Not an ideal way to transport a body, if that’s what you’re getting at with this theory of yours.”
I mulled that information over. Given our experience with murderers as of late, I was only too aware that a killer didn’t have to be a man. “A woman wouldn’t have much trouble. It would be unwise to discredit anyone at this point, sir.” Another more obvious suspect leapt out at me. “Sebastián might also be capable of fitting through there.” When they all stared at me blankly, I added, “The contortionist. I’ve seen him fold himself into knots.”
Thomas’s expression was carefully blank. I would have much to explain once we were off the ship.
“Miss Wadsworth, I beg your pardon, but allow me to speak plainly—there’s no possible way it was used,” the captain argued. “As I have just stated, the only set of keys is in my possession in my quarters. No one has been in there for two days. I’m sure of it. Unless you’d like to accuse me of depositing this limb, that panel is out of the question. You must come up with a better theory of how it came to be here.”
I mentally counted to ten. Keys could be lifted, locks picked, and with an entire ship full of carnival performers who made the impossible possible, I felt the captain wasn’t being realistic. Houdini was known in both England and America as the King of Handcuffs. He alone was gifted with lock picking, squeezing into tight spaces, and making a swift escape.
That thought froze all others, my heart icing over with it. I would need to make it my business to seek Houdini out next to inquire after his whereabouts all afternoon. Preferably before Uncle beat me to the task and set Liza off in a cold fury.
“Mmm.” Uncle twisted his mustache, purposely not glancing in my direction. I couldn’t deny the sting I felt. He’d been upset with me plenty of times before, but he’d never ignored me while we were investigating a crime scene. “Why do you believe it was the access point for our murderer, Thomas?”
I pressed my lips together, annoyed to be overlooked when I was the first on the scene. Thomas turned his attention to me. There was only a serious steadiness in his gaze when he replied. “Wadsworth? What are your thoughts?”
For a moment, I said nothing. I appreciated Thomas redirecting their attention back to me, but was perturbed I required assistance in the matter at all. Setting those emotions aside for the sake of staying on task, I pointed to the bit of silk.
“The torn silk is one indication that someone passed through there,” I said. “The second is the promenade deck has been a flurry of activity all afternoon and evening. Between the crew setting the tents up, and the performers and passengers milling about all night, I don’t see how anyone might have smuggled a body or body parts down here without drawing some attention. Unless they used a means other than the main stairwell to come down here.”
“Good.” Uncle motioned to the lion, which had taken to pacing around his enclosure. “Once the cage is empty, we’ll know more.” He faced the captain, gaze hard. “It’s your boat, Captain, but I suggest posting crew members on every deck overnight. If the murderer is still in possession of the rest of the body, he’ll be desperate to rid himself of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried tossing it overboard in the hours before sunrise.”
The captain rubbed his temples with enough force to probably give himself a headache if he wasn’t already suffering from one. “I cannot have men stationed outside the first-class promenade. How will that look to well-paying passengers? This is not a workhouse and I will not treat my passengers like prisoners. They’re not being terrorized with a theatrical murder tonight and I intend to keep it that way. I will not make them suffer.”
I physically had to check to see if my head had exploded from such a ridiculous statement. Gentle prodding of my hair proved my skull was still intact, miracle of all miracles.
“You cannot be serious.” Thomas tossed his hands in the air. “It would seem an awful lot better to have crew members posted along the decks than to see dismembered body parts floating about while first-class patrons made their way to breakfast and tea. ‘Oh, look, Miss Eldridge, there’s a mauled torso. Won’t you pass the cream and sugar?’”
“Don’t be absurd,” the captain said, aghast.
“Apologies,” Thomas said, not sounding at all sorry, “I’m only following your lead.”
Uncle took his spectacles off and rubbed out imaginary smudges. “I beg your pardon, Captain. My assistants and I mean no disrespect, but you cannot pretend as if something sinister isn’t happening. Station crew outside as a precaution, or this won’t be the last time we’re having this conversation before reaching New York. How many bodies must we discover before some safety measures are enacted?”
Captain Norwood gripped his hands tightly at his sides. “You are one of the most sought-after men in your field, Doctor. Show me what you and your assistants can do. I will post crew on the second- and third-class decks. You want to put your fellow gentlemen and ladies under the microscope? Then do so on your own. I will not give the command to insult them, especially not after the horrors they’ve been subjected to this week. There are only two days left at sea.”
The captain turned to go, then glared over his shoulder. “After midnight—once the carnival is closed—I’ll have the lion removed. Then you’ll be free to investigate as you see fit. Until I send word, which may be after midnight or in the morning, you’re to do as you like. So long as you don’t mention this unfortunate event to anyone. I will have an evening free of murder and terror, and I will send each of you to the brig should you incite any panic.”
Captain Norwood ushered us back up to the carnival and posted a guard outside the stairwell, allowing no one entry to the animal cargo. We were to wait until the show was over, heaven forbid we disrupt the entertainment of the rich and powerful. At least I hoped he’d send word for us after midnight; there was still a possibility he’d change his mind and not allow us back down in the crime scene until the early morning hours.
“You and I will be having a serious discussion,” Uncle said, expression icy as the arctic wind blasting around us. “Until then, you are to remain with Thomas. Do we understand one another?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
Without acknowledging me further, Uncle marched off toward his chambers.
Thomas remained silent beside me, though I could tell he was battling his own feelings. I rubbed my arms, watching a crew member hoist a carrying bag up and hold it to his chest. He’d been the lucky one tasked with transporting the severed limb to the icebox. I tried not to cringe as I thought of all the ways the scene and limb had now been contaminated. Our job had just gotten that much harder.
“I cannot fathom why Captain Norwood is so opposed to setting out a few night watchmen in first class,” I said as we stood at the far end of the promenade. Revelers were still enchanted by the carnival tents that had been set up bazaar-style down the deck, laughing and milling about from one billowing striped stall to the next. Though I also noticed quite a few people who glanced over their shoulders or didn’t quite laugh as hard or smile as widely as their companions. The atmosphere was muted, almost as if it was the calm before the storm. “You don’t believe he’s covering up for someone, do you? It’s quite odd that he’s less concerned over another murder.”
Thomas stood near me, careful not to touch my arm as he stared out at the midnight ocean. I tried telling myself I was unaffected by his rigid stance, but knew it was yet another lie I could add to the tally. Finally, he lifted a shoulder. “I must admit that I’m struggling here, Audrey Rose.”
I swallowed my immediate response, knowing instantly by his use of my Christian name that we weren’t speaking of the captain. A breeze whipped sea mist into my face—stinging my eyes almost as much as the sadness in Thomas’s tone. “I swear things will be back to normal soon. I need you to trust me, Thomas.”
“I do.” He sighed, then scrubbed a hand over his face. It was very un-Thomas-like. His dark hair was tousled in a way that hinted at his inner turmoil. “Which is part of the issue, I believe. What sort of bargain did you make with Mephistopheles?”
I tensed, glancing around to be sure we were alone. A stilt walker in ghostly shades of white and gray tottered down the promenade, her disjointed movements an eerie sight against the darkness of the ocean. We were straying too close to the terms of my agreement, and issues with Thomas or not, I could not jeopardize Liza’s welfare.
“I’m not sure I understand your accusation,” I said, finding a spot on the railing to buff with my sleeve. “I haven’t accepted any deal with the ringmaster. You’re losing your touch with deductions, Cresswell.”