- Escaping from Houdini
A moment of silence stretched between us, heavy and uncomfortable.
“Would you care to know something interesting about my deductions?” Thomas finally asked, turning to me. “Your gaze drops ever so slightly, then rises when you lie. It’s your signal—I’ve seen you do it to Moldoveanu and to your father.” He searched my face, his own shuttering so I could no longer read the hurt in his expression. “We promised we’d never lie to each other.” He inhaled deeply as if giving himself a moment to collect his thoughts or perhaps utter something he didn’t wish to get wrong. “I’m sure you can find a way to be truthful to me and adhere to the terms of your bargain. We’re partners. Equals. Let me in so I may help.”
I wanted that more than anything and racked my brain for the thousandth time. But I saw no way around Mephistopheles’s terms. If I admitted to any collusion, it would be the end of our agreement. Liza would never give up Harry Houdini on her own, and we were running out of time. We arrived in America in two days, and if I lost her there, she’d be gone to us forever.
I gripped my own fists, hoping the pain of my nails sinking into my flesh would keep my resolve strong. I hadn’t put my gloves back on and could feel the phantom sensation of Mephistopheles’s warm skin beneath my touch.
“I swear that I’ve done nothing immoral.” It was the truth, though by the way Thomas’s gaze grew distant, I knew it had been another horridly wrong thing to say.
“I see.” He took a careful step away, the chasm splitting my chest in half. “I hope you have a good evening.”
“Thomas… please,” I said, stomach twisting. He shook his head, then started walking away. “I—wait!”
Without turning, he paused. “I’m—I need to get some rest before we’re called back to investigate the scene. A cluttered mind makes for messy investigating. Good night, Wadsworth.”
I took a few steps and forced myself to let him go. I wasn’t surprised that he’d studied me so closely while we were at the Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science. Headmaster Moldoveanu was a wretched man whom I’d had to stretch the truth to from time to time. And my father… prior to his acceptance of my passion for forensic medicine, I’d had to hide my apprenticeship with my uncle. Lying had been a necessary evil, one I was not proud of.
I buried my face in my hands. Warranted or not, the fact remained I had lied. Thomas had every reason to question me, though I wished more than anything he could see the truth: I’d never hurt him.
“Ah, the dark prince flees on the midnight breeze.” Mephistopheles held a glass of champagne high before sipping it. “He’s right, you know. You do glance down when you lie.”
BLACK AS HIS SOUL
5 JANUARY 1889
I spun around. “Have you any honor at all? Not to mention, it’s creepy and not endearing when you suddenly appear like that.”
Mephistopheles’s mask was black as the night around us. Black as his devilish soul. And perhaps as black as his eye would be if he ever sneaked up on me again while a confirmed murderer was roaming about.
He tossed back the rest of his drink and pointed to his seat where a box of half-eaten popcorn lay next to an empty champagne bottle. “I’ve been sitting here, it’s not my fault you’re both so unobservant.”
I gritted my teeth. “How long have you been listening to us, then?”
“Long enough to congratulate you on maintaining that illusion of innocence,” he said. “Paltry an attempt though it may be. Let’s both agree that acting is not where your true talents lie. Though from what I’ve seen thus far, your sleuthing hasn’t been much better. At least you are fairly pleasant on the eyes. And your dancing is surprisingly decent.”
“Are you here for any real purpose or are you bored with playing parlor tricks for people?” I asked, face heating. “Or—most likely—are you simply enjoying the trouble you’ve caused between me and Thomas?”
“I never tire of tricks.” He smiled. “Much like you never tire of inspecting cadavers.”
“That hardly gives us something in common,” I said.
“If you say so.” He shrugged. “I disagree, though.”
“By the by,” I said, anger from his lion cage stunt blazing fresh, “I don’t know what the point of your demonstration was earlier, but my uncle will send me back to London if I’m caught alone with you again. If you endanger my future with forensics, I will break our agreement.”
“Perhaps I simply wanted to see if you cared for me or if everything is an act. You’re becoming quite the accomplished show-woman, even if you do look down when you lie.”
I opened my mouth, then shut it. He gave me a knowing look. “If your uncle would send you home because of that, perhaps studying under someone else would benefit you. You might consider studying my brand of science for a while.” He waved off any further rebuttals with a flick of his wrist. “While we could chatter on endlessly over our personal dramas, I have news. Your cousin is meeting Houdini onstage after midnight. Alone. Quite scandalous for a runaway society girl traveling with a troupe of misfits.”
I rolled my eyes. “She’s been traveling with you for more than a week, and now you’re concerned about the scandal?”
“I recall mention of your uncle threatening to commit her should she be alone with Houdini again. See? I’ve been sitting here, patiently waiting for you to finish with your investigation, so I might pass the news on to you immediately.”
I nearly groaned. At the rate Liza and I were going, we’d both end up in adjacent cells in the asylum. “What are they doing?”
“They’re working on Harry’s new performance for tomorrow’s show, very secretive but I’ve seen a preview. Now that one is tricky. And death defying. If he gets the timing down. Might just be death for whoever enters the milk can, though.”
If ever there was a time to consider swimming back to England, this was it. Not only was Liza meeting with Houdini, but now she planned on assisting with another stage act after she’d sworn to Uncle she’d never do so again.
“The milk can?” I finally asked, knowing he was baiting me into inquiring further. “That doesn’t sound very death defying. What about the handcuff act? Seems he ought to focus on being the king of one thing at a time.”
“You didn’t expect Harry Houdini to sit back, content with wearing one crown, did you?” Mephistopheles narrowed his dark eyes as if I might have honestly hit my head on something. “Why simply be good when you can be great? If he’s going to claim the name ‘the Great Houdini,’ he’d better put on a show to match. People don’t remember mediocre shows. To truly win the minds and memories of the audience, greatness is needed. That’s what turns stories into legends and builds empires.”
“Finding new ways of barely escaping with one’s life isn’t greatness. It’s foolhardy and dangerous,” I said. “Involving someone else in such stupidity is reckless and ought to be a criminal offense. If anything happens to my cousin, it will be his fault. Then he’ll discover that kings fall like anyone else.”
“Ah. I must disagree with you on one thing. Greatness lies in being driven, in not settling simply because you’ve reached one goal. It’s a state of perpetual climbing and striving to best yourself. He will be the Great Houdini one day because he worked to earn that title, doing one impossible task after the other, never settling for simply being good.”
“Seems he doesn’t enjoy being content with what he’s accomplished.”
“Contentment is the root of complacency. Your cousin chooses to follow him because he is not content to sit back and be just mediocre. Does ‘the Good Houdini’ or ‘the Adequate Houdini’ have the same ring to it?” He shook his head. “I think not. Just like a good tailcoat is not as eye-catching as a great one.”
“Is that why you abandoned your family name?” I asked, fishing. “You weren’t all right with living in contentment and luxury—it was just good, not great.”
Mephistopheles turned his attention on the well-dressed men and women walking through the carnival stalls on the promenade. There were far fewer of them, and they appeared to have lost that earlier glamour. “Why live in a cage when you can make a show of escaping from it?”
“Tell me that life doesn’t sound appealing to you.”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Mephistopheles gave me another knowing look, but didn’t press the issue.
“Shall we go check on Liza and Harry?” He pulled a pocket watch out, swinging it back and forth as if he hoped to hypnotize me from prying into his past. “In a few minutes the curtain will drop for the public, but the private show will begin.”
I glanced at the thinning crowd, hoping I’d spy one tall gentleman in particular. One to whom I’d reconcile all this as soon as I could. Unlike the wonder-worker before me, Thomas seemed to have disappeared for good this evening. I gave up searching and let go. I’d see him soon enough when we investigated the lion’s cage.
A star shot across the sky and I prayed it wasn’t a sign of how fleeting love or friendship could be.
Eerie silence greeted us in the dining saloon now that the Moonlight Carnival had taken its leave of the night. My cousin and her dashing escape artist beau huddled together onstage, their heads bent in whispered conversation. My steps faltered as I watched them work out the details of the act. There was no doubt that conspiring against Liza was treacherous, conniving behavior, and I was the ringleader of the sideshow of my own creating. I hoped she’d forgive me once all was said and done. Though I wasn’t sure how long it would take to forgive myself.
Houdini’s affections might be an illusion, but she seemed perfectly content with the act.