Mephistopheles whistled to Houdini, lifting a hand in greeting. A look flashed between the two young men—there and gone too fast to decipher its meaning. Perhaps it was simply a warning from the ringmaster to not fail at this new and dangerous stunt. With women murdered almost every night and the discovery of the severed arm, his carnival was teetering on a tightrope of its own. One slip and the entire life Mephistopheles had constructed for himself would be gone.

Liza smiled and hopped off the stage, dashing up to my side in a way that made me feel all the more terrible for going behind her back.

“Cousin! What a lovely surprise.” She kissed both my cheeks and gathered me into the sort of hug that lifts a person’s spirits as much as their feet from the ground. “I wasn’t expecting you out so late. Is Mr. Cresswell coming along, too?”

“He’s off brooding,” Mephistopheles said as he moved toward the stage. “He’s jealous of my suit. Not everyone can get away with decadent patterns and silver fringe.”

She craned her neck around, searching the dark shadows of the saloon as if not believing the ringmaster. I shook my head. “He wasn’t feeling quite himself and went to bed. We’ve had a bit of an intense evening.”


Liza subtly flicked her attention between myself and Mephistopheles. I could see questions brewing behind her gaze and knew I’d have much to answer for once we were alone. She blinked and the suspicion disappeared. Liza read the living as well as I read the dead.

“I’m sorry he’ll miss this”—she motioned to the stage—“but I’m sure he’ll be charmed tomorrow evening when he sees it. It’s truly magical—I swear there are forces at hand here, guiding Harry in an otherworldly way.”

I released a breath, relieved to have the conversation shift to Houdini. Captain Norwood had made it quite clear that we weren’t to discuss the severed limb, and even though I trusted my cousin, I didn’t want to burden her. “You know magic is simply the union of science and trickery. It’s just dressed-up lies.”

“And there ain’t no such thing as ghosts!” Harry called from the stage. “Spiritualism is a hoax.”

“So you keep telling me. Again and again.” Liza sighed in the way of the long-suffering and looped her arm through mine, leaning in as to not be overheard by the escape artist. “But it’s also fun. Being caught up in make-believe is grand and romantic and you cannot honestly say you aren’t a little intrigued by the impossibility of it all. Hope is the true magic—it’s the spark and draw. I know ghosts aren’t real, but should I ever wish to speak to a loved one who’s no longer here, I hope they are.”

“Hope is a strong force,” I agreed.

“Indeed. I swear I’d clutch that feeling like a tether, never letting go. Same for every one of these acts. The crowd hopes for the impossible to become possible. It shows them dreams don’t belong only in our heads—with hope those fantasies can become real. Taking hope away is like taking life from someone. We all need to believe we can achieve the impossible.”

I felt a smile coming on. It was a good thing Liza had so much hope; she certainly needed to hope Uncle didn’t discover she was the second young woman to disobey him this evening, else we were both doomed. “You’re not planning on actually assisting Harry onstage tomorrow, are you?”

Liza flashed a mischievous grin. “Of course not. I wouldn’t dream—”

Harry clapped his hands a few times, stalling our conversation. I managed to tear my focus from my cousin and faced the young man. “Ladies! Time’s the only boss I obey and he’s gettin’ impatient.” He beckoned to Liza. “I need your help now. I’ve got to prove it to Mephisto that this ain’t a death trap. I got the timin’ down good.”

I offered a startled glance at my cousin. “Death trap? What does he mean?”

“You’ll see.”

With a final squeeze of my hand, Liza bounded back up the stage stairs and offered a dramatic bow before disappearing behind the inky curtains. My stomach twisted. Liza had never interfered in my passions, no matter how much society looked down upon me for my scientific pursuits.

During the Ripper investigation she had been the one who’d stood by my side, needling our friends at tea when they’d made fun of Thomas, accusing him of the violent crimes because of his love of science and lack of outward emotion. She was also the one who played the role of perfect daughter, pretending to take me out to dress shops so I might actually sneak about London with Thomas to investigate. And this was how I thought to repay her. Lies and manipulation and midnight bargains with a devilish young man.

Suddenly I was unsure I could go through with my agreement. Somehow on this voyage, I’d turned into my father—caging those I loved instead of setting them free. It was a terrible truth to swallow, and I nearly choked on its bitter taste.

“Deviousness doesn’t suit you, you know. Much to my dismay.” Mephistopheles flashed a smug grin. “It might be a fun mask to try on from time to time, but I suggest staying true to yourself. Honesty is best for a reason. If you’d like to revisit the terms of our agreement, say the word.”

“I—” Before I answered, Liza rolled a large milk can onstage, shifting so it was dead center. Harry hopped off the stage and ran backward, a feat in itself as he didn’t plow into any tables or chairs as he peered at the contraption.

“A little more to the left… another inch… stop! Ain’t that perfect?” He crossed his arms and studied the room. “Mark an X at each corner—make sure it’s small enough to be missed from the seats. Go on and grab the portable curtain. Everything needs to be in working order—we ain’t gonna have another chance to make our first impression. This one’s gotta be great.”

“‘Please,’” Mephistopheles added. When Harry raised a dark brow, the ringmaster elaborated. “If you bid your assistant to do something, have the courtesy of using manners. And have a care about using ‘ain’t’—it’s atrocious and distracts from your skill.”

“I ain’t worried about it,” he said. “You shouldn’t be, neither. Who else can do the stunts I pull off?” He exaggeratedly glanced around. “No one, that’s who.”

“You might yank rainbow-colored unicorns from purple clouds and I’d be distracted by your horrible grammar.” Mephistopheles smiled. “If not for me, do it for the poor unicorns. Magical creatures deserve proper speech.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Last I checked, this arrangement worked because we stay out of each other’s methods. I don’t critique your magic or engineering, you don’t comment on mine.”

“Let’s call it a bit of friendly advice from one wonder-worker to the next, then,” Mephistopheles said, drifting forward to take a seat. He spilled onto a chair and propped his feet up as if he were lounging in his private quarters and hadn’t staged an attack by the lion only an hour before. “You won’t win many admirers in this setting if you’re rude to young ladies. Do you think Prince Albert ever addressed a crowd like that? If you’re going to dress in a tuxedo and starched collar and call yourself a king, complete the gentleman act convincingly. Your New York street vernacular belongs where you picked it up, like a bad case of lice.”

An awful smile twitched across the escape artist’s lips. “I won’t be wearing a tuxedo for this act, boss. But I’ll see about adding some pleasantries for the gentry.” He turned to Liza with a deep bow. “Will you please fetch the portable curtain? We aren’t going to have another chance at our milk-can debut. We need to show them something with some razzle-dazzle.”

Mephistopheles looked faintly amused by Houdini’s proper use of manners and grammar, but didn’t rise to the bait. While Houdini and Liza set up the rest of the stage to his exact measurements and demands, I allowed my mind the freedom to drift over the evening’s events. I couldn’t stop imagining the horror the man had endured, leading up to his death. I hoped he hadn’t suffered much.

As I took a seat beside Mephistopheles, I did my best to not recall how uncomfortably similar the arm in the icebox was to Jack the Ripper’s laboratory and the organs he’d harvested. The ringmaster looked me over, a frown tugging his signature smirk away.

“Have you been in the woman’s room, the one who was burned?” he asked, suddenly serious.

Not quite what I thought he was about to say, but I nodded slowly. “Once. When we initially got word she was missing.”

He tugged a square of fabric from an inner pocket of his coat. “Anything familiar about it?”

My blood seemed to freeze as I took in the rich scarlet. I recalled the beautiful dress that had been discarded on Miss Crenshaw’s floor. I hadn’t inspected it closely, but I had been near certain it hadn’t been cut up. “Where did you get this?”

“It was left in my cabin two nights ago. No note, no reason why.” He took it back, folded it, and secured it into his coat once more. “I thought an attendant must have dropped it while cleaning my room, but now I’m not sure.” From a second pocket he flourished another bit of red fabric; this one had spots of rust. Blood. “Same silk. This was delivered last night.”

“It appears to be the same silk from Miss Crenshaw.”

“‘Appears to be’?” Mephistopheles huffed. “Why not say with confidence that it is fabric from her dress? I might play at sleight of hand, but you, Miss Wadsworth, are quite adept at sleight of word.”

“As a scientist it’s imprudent to say something with certainty when I cannot be sure from first glance,” I said coolly. “Therefore, it appears to be the same fabric. Unless I had her dress to inspect, I cannot say with absolute authority it is the same. Similar, definitely. Exact?” I lifted a shoulder. A muscle in his jaw ticked. “Be annoyed as much as you will, but memory is an even-better illusion worker than yourself. What of your notions regarding ‘trick the eyes, convince the mind.’ Isn’t that the same concept at work?”