“Fine. Will you accompany me to Miss Crenshaw’s cabin?” he asked. “We might as well look for scientific evidence that this bit of cut fabric, which appears to be hers, is actually from her dress.”

“Breaking into her cabin isn’t the most sound idea, especially as it’s a crime scene.”

“Which makes it all the more appealing.” He stood and offered a hand. “Let’s get on with it. I’m sure the captain will come looking for you soon enough.”

“That was hardly a yes.”

“True. But it definitely wasn’t a no, either.” One corner of his mouth lifted. “I know you’re as hungry to solve this as I am, Miss Wadsworth. I’ve started receiving complaints from patrons that aren’t very promising for the Moonlight Carnival’s future. Now, will you help me break into her chambers or not? As you said, she’s dead. I doubt she’ll mind our investigating.”

I pointed half-heartedly at the stage. “What about the milk-can act?”

“You’ll simply have to wait until tomorrow night and experience it with the rest of the passengers.” He held his hand out again. “Ready for some mild criminal activity?”

I most certainly was not. With a sinking feeling dragging me down, I stood and followed the illusionist to the empty chamber of the murdered woman, already regretting my foolishness.





5 JANUARY 1889

We exited onto the promenade deck, discovering a different type of chaos from the one we’d walked through only half an hour before.

Like a swarm of ants, the crew and performers disassembled tents, folding striped canvas of black, white, and silver, packing it away for another moonlit revelry. Gone were the passengers indulging in all manner of wickedness beyond candy and treats. Scantily clad stilt walkers no longer danced like ghostly snakes in baskets, swaying to the rhythm of both the sea and seductive music. Clowns and fancy ladies smeared their waxy makeup until it looked like torn flesh over their own skin. However, no matter how tired and bedraggled the performers appeared, none of them had removed their masks.

“Why do they all keep their masks on after the show?”

Mephistopheles jerked his chin forward. “They earn twenty dollars a week plus cake with one stipulation: they are never to be seen unmasked. Ever.”

“All you offer to feed them is cake?” I raised a brow. “And they agree to such things?”

“Hardly.” He snorted. “It means food is included in their wage.”

I frowned at the carnival jargon and stipulation; there were an awful lot of rules for a band of people who wished to live without them. “You don’t hold Harry Houdini to the mask clause,” I pointed out. “Doesn’t that cause internal strife? I should think the rules ought to apply to everyone or none at all.”

With a nod to detour around the opposite side of the ship, the ringmaster guided me forward, along the empty starboard deck. Here we were alone with the creaking of rope and slumbering passengers. I tried not to shudder as the wind snapped at my collar, violent and threatening as any disturbed beast.

“Harry is different,” Mephistopheles finally said. “He’s going to be a legend one day, mark my words. A man like him already wears a mask—he’s creating himself from the ashes of what he once was. Why make him wear a disguise when he becomes a new person each night, shedding a bit more of the old Harry?”

“Who is the old Harry?”

I didn’t truly expect an answer, but Mephistopheles was full of surprises.

“He’s a Hungarian immigrant, but you know where he tells people he’s from? Appleton, Wisconsin. Harry’s got so many invisible masks, a physical one would never be as authentic.”

“Is Harry even his real name?” I asked, jesting.

“Nope. It’s Ehrich.”


“Ehrich Weiss. If that’s even true. No one but his mother can really be sure.” He counted off the cabins and slowed. “Here we are.”

We halted outside a cabin two doors down from the stern of the ship. Remembering Uncle’s insistence that murderers often revisit their crime scenes, I spun in place, taking in the surrounding area. Across from us there was the railing and endless sea. On either side of the cabin, rowboats were mounted on the wall like prized animal specimens. There wasn’t much in the way of hiding places, so I wondered how her body had been removed.

“How do you know which cabin is Miss Crenshaw’s?” I asked, suddenly. He hadn’t been present when we’d investigated her room. “Have you been here before? How did you recognize that scrap belonged to her dress?” Another thought crashed into me and I narrowed my eyes. “Were you lovers?”

“Is that jealousy I detect? There’s plenty of me for everyone, Miss Wadsworth. Though if you’d like to be my one and only, we might need to address the Cresswell situation. Once I’ve committed myself, I do not enjoy sharing.”

I didn’t deign to respond to such idiocy. Though it did add another layer to the mystery of Miss Crenshaw’s last hours. If she’d been with the ringmaster, might someone have been watching his movements? It made me think of Cassie again—had she been jealous of his late-night escapades? Or did her husband follow him here, hoping to set him up for the crimes?

Mephistopheles patted down the front of his waistcoat, frowning. He turned out his pockets, felt along the rim of his top hat, and then bent down to fumble around the soles of his boots. “Just… another… moment.”

“Honestly?” I asked, rolling my eyes skyward once I figured out what he was searching for. “How do you of all people not have a lockpick?”

“Do I look like Houdini to you?” He bristled. “He’s the King of Cuffs.”

“Obviously, else we’d be inside investigating by now instead of dawdling.”

I removed one of my hatpins and nudged the ringmaster out of the way with my hip. He whistled in appreciation when I stuck the pin into the lock, jiggling it around until I heard the faint sound of tumblers clicking. Houdini wasn’t the only one blessed with that skill. Perhaps if I did run off with the circus, I might practice and call myself the Queen of Cuffs. Saying a silent thank you to my father for the trick, I took one quick breath and pushed the door open.

“Look who’s a wonder-worker now,” I called over my shoulder. “Perhaps I’ll assist Mr. Houdini with his next daring escape.”


I swept into the cabin and stopped short. Though the cabin was unlit, moonlight spilled from the open doorway across the threshold, and I was able to make out a silhouette sitting upright in the bed. Either someone had stacked their pillows into a human shape, or we’d broken into an occupied room by mistake.

Mephistopheles bumped into me and cursed. “We ought to close the door—”

“Good idea. It’s a bit drafty otherwise,” the silhouette said, then unfolded itself to a standing position. “Perhaps you ought to lock it, too. Wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression of what you’re both doing here. Unchaperoned. After midnight. Doesn’t look very good.”

It had taken a few seconds to register that the voice was not at all who I’d expected it might be. “Thomas.” My heart nearly leapt from my chest in its haste to escape this dreadful situation. “What in the name of the queen are you doing sitting here in the dark?”

In answer, a light flared to life on a bedside table. Thomas held his lantern up and motioned to the room. It was perfectly intact—not a thing out of place. Corners of the bedsheets were pulled taut, the vanity carefully arranged with jewels and makeup. All seemed perfectly ordinary, with the exception of the three of us. Someone had obviously cleaned up the room since the last time we’d been here.

I opened my mouth, but words failed. His behavior was always somewhat peculiar; however, this was strange even by his standards.

“Sometimes I find it helps to place myself in the victim’s last known location. If I sit quietly, I can re-create a scene.” Thomas cocked his head. “What, exactly, brings you both here? Did you discover something about Miss Crenshaw or…”

His tone was composed and cordial enough, but the flash of whatever that was in his expression immediately set my teeth on edge.

“We were out for a romantic stroll and decided to cap off the evening with a visit to a dead woman’s room. Stolen kisses around rotting carcasses are all the rage. I’m surprised you haven’t given it a go yourself.” Before he schooled his features, I saw the hurt in his expression. “Honestly. What sort of question is that, Cresswell?”

Thomas drew back so suddenly I forgot my ire. He crinkled his nose. “What in God’s name is that foul scent?” he asked. “It’s awful.” He swatted the air in front of his nose. “Putrid, even.”

“What?” I leaned forward, annoyance forgotten. Last time we’d smelled something terrible it was back at the academy, and the discovery of a decomposing body had been close behind. I shoved that memory away, not wanting to think about the bats in that wretched chamber. I sniffed around, expecting the worst. “I don’t smell anything unusual.”

“Oh. Never mind.” Thomas leaned back. “It’s simply your attitude, Miss Wadsworth. It stinks.”

Mephistopheles actually bent over, wheezing with laughter, and I flashed him a glare that promised sudden death should he utter one more sound. He straightened and slowly backed away, hands up in surrender, though his chest shook with suppressed laughter.

“Well, now. This has taken quite a dramatic turn.” Mephistopheles pulled out his pocket watch as if he was only now remembering an appointment with Satan. “Miss Wadsworth?” I glanced at the ringmaster as he strode toward the door and wrenched it open. “Truth is poison. Beware how much you ingest at once.”