- Escaping from Houdini
“Would you cease with the fortune-telling advice, already?”
“Be even more careful with how much you dispense.” He looked pointedly at Thomas, ignoring my jibe. “Good evening to you both.”
DEDUCTIONS AND DECEIT
MISS CRENSHAW’S CABIN
5 JANUARY 1889
I cringed. The ringmaster certainly hadn’t done me any favors by uttering that as a parting gift. Once the door clicked shut, Thomas sat back on the bed, the tension seeming to go out of him at once.
“It was a simple question, Wadsworth. Not an accusation. I’ve said it before—I will always respect your wishes on whomever you choose to spend your time or your life with.”
I sighed. “I understand why you’re upset, I do. And I believe you’re entitled to being angry—”
“I’m not angry.”
His response came a little too quickly for it to be the truth. I let it go. It was something we could address once we made it to America. “Another person is dead, Thomas. Our work must come first.”
“Technically, we don’t know that he’s dead. Perhaps his arm was properly amputated.” He tapped his fingers along his thighs, drawing my attention. “Until we examine the limb in detail, we cannot be sure he’s not alive somewhere.”
“Do you truly believe that?” I asked. “If his arm hadn’t been amputated properly, he’d have bled out.”
“It’s unlikely he’s living, given the three other murders, but it remains possible.” He ticked off reasons like numbers to add up or subtract. “We’re aboard a ship with a traveling carnival. The engineering equipment they have is dangerous—he might have been trying to operate something and mangled his arm. Perhaps whoever had been showing him a demonstration panicked. The ship itself has any number of places where a person might be injured. Do I believe any of those to be the actual events that occurred?” He shook his head. “Unfortunately, I do not. Which is why I’m trying to piece the puzzle together. I believe this is the scene of the first actual murder. Logically, first crimes ought to hold the potential for the most mistakes made. It’s where a murderer puts his dark fantasies into practice, though it rarely goes as planned. I’m hoping to find a clue to how this all began.”
“In the dark?”
“I’d just sneaked in myself. I heard someone coming and shut off the lights.” He narrowed his eyes. “You thought I was sitting here in the dark, staring at a wall? Is that why you appeared so surprised?” He gave me a dry look. “That’s a bit eccentric, even for me.”
“Thomas, I… we weren’t—”
“Please”—he patted the bed next to him, no trace of impropriety on his face—“let’s sit here a moment. There’s something I’ve been meaning to—” He shifted uncomfortably. “Would you still like me to walk you through my method?”
I had an inkling he’d changed his mind halfway through his sentence, but didn’t press the issue. What he was offering now was an olive branch—an extension of peace for both of us to move past the things that didn’t matter to the case.
I walked to the bed and sat beside him. “I’d enjoy that very much. Tell me, how does Mr. Thomas James Dorin Cresswell apply his deductions to a scene such as this?”
“The incredibly handsome and talented Thomas James Dorin Cresswell, you mean.” A faint smile ghosted across his face. “Start with obvious scenarios. Basic truths. What do we already know about the scene?”
“Well,” I started, trying to recall the room as it had been. “There were two champagne flutes. A half-eaten cake and a discarded dress. The poisonous berries weren’t found, so they must have been eaten before the cake.”
Thomas nodded. “And yet, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what actually killed her, or if they had only rendered her incapable of fighting someone off. Which might mean…”
“Which might mean there was more than one person involved.”
My pulse sped up with this theory. It was another strong indication that, perhaps, a husband-and-wife team had been working together to commit these acts. But then…“Mephistopheles claimed to have spent time with her before the ship left. Someone sent him pieces of her cut dress.”
Thomas considered this. If I expected to read any emotions on his face after learning of the ringmaster’s prowling, I was sorely disappointed. He was as cold and analytical as ever. “He might be lying. There’s a strong possibility that he cut pieces of the dress himself, hoping to use it as sleight of hand.”
“But what would be the point?” I asked, unconvinced. “Wouldn’t it only throw suspicion on him? He just as easily could have pretended to not know her or have been in her room. Who would have known?”
“Secrets never stay buried for long. Someone could have seen him and he might be covering for that potential.”
I sighed, hoping his personal dislike of the ringmaster didn’t interfere with his normal deductions. We sat in silence, each mulling over our thoughts.
Finally, I broke the quiet. “All right. Let’s start somewhere else. Say Mephistopheles did simply come over, have some champagne, and they…” I blushed, not wanting to go into detail of what might have transpired after that drink. “Then he left. Maybe someone had the cake and berries sent to her, pretending it was a token of love from him. There was only one plate and one fork. Then, after enough time had gone by and she’d gotten ill, the murderer made his move.”
“Interesting.” A spark of intrigue lit in Thomas’s gaze. “Where would the point of entry be for the potential murderer?”
“That’s quite easy,” I said, motioning in front of us. “The door. It’s the only way in or out of this room.”
“Precisely. We ought to check it for any pry marks or”—he went rigid—“look.”
I stared toward the closed door. At first I didn’t see anything at all—then I squinted. Tiny spots of blood arced over the back of it. “That’s an odd pattern, don’t you think?”
In two long strides Thomas was examining the door with me right behind him. He rubbed his chin, probably to keep himself from touching potential evidence. His eyes darted over everything, calculating and deducing in ways I wished to bear witness to from the inside.
“Let’s playact a murder, Wadsworth.”
Despite the dire circumstances and the horrid story the blood splatter told, I smiled, and Thomas did the same. Perhaps we were both as devilish as the performers of the Moonlight Carnival. “I’ll play the part of the victim,” I said. “You’re a much-better murderer.”
“True.” He opened the door and stepped outside. “I haven’t been caught yet.”
“Heathen.” I rolled my eyes, but shut the door after him, waiting. A moment later he knocked and I pushed all distracting thoughts aside. It wasn’t hard to imagine how Miss Crenshaw felt as a soft knock came at her private chambers. Had the effects of the poison already begun? Did she stumble to the door, hoping to find help?
Heart racing as quick as a mouse, I cracked the door. Had she been expecting her visitor or was it a surprise caller? That would likely remain a mystery.
Thomas stood with his top hat tilted forward, casting his sharp features in shadow. Even though I knew it was him, a shudder crept along my spine. He lifted his head, but I couldn’t make out his eyes. This part of the promenade was exceptionally dark even with the moon near full capacity.
“Listen,” I whispered.
Waves lapped at the hull, the noise rhythmic and dulling. Steam churned and hissed from one of the nearby funnels. White noise. It might have assisted with covering up the muffled sounds of a struggle, should anyone have been awake in neighboring cabins.
“I imagine she must have known her attacker,” he said, running his hands along the doorframe. “There are no scratches or marks outside the door to prove it’s been pried open.”
“I agree. Or she might have been too sick to refuse any assistance.”
I opened the door wider, granting him entry. Once he’d stepped back inside, I remained close, studying the blood splatter. There were only a few inches between us and I could feel the heat of his body. I wondered if Miss Crenshaw had felt the same way before she’d been attacked. Did she stand as close to her murderer? Did she feel the warmth of him before he’d struck that fatal blow?
“There’s no sign of a struggle in here, either,” I continued, “so the attack must have happened shortly after she’d let the person in.”
Thomas nodded. “Her ring was still on her finger, so it wasn’t a theft. And if I recall correctly, though it was only a brief inspection, there weren’t any defensive wounds on her hands. Aside from the cuts she made while clenching them. Why might that be?”
I thought on it a moment, staring directly at Thomas’s chest as an idea unfurled in my mind. “Because, as you said, he struck her almost as quickly as she’d invited him in. If she was ill, her reflexes wouldn’t have been quick enough to react.”
For once I knew what Thomas experienced while he transported himself during our forensic cases. Instead of being prey, I became predator. My own darkness glittered like the eyes of a starving mutt at a feast, and I didn’t try to stop or control its every ravenous whim.
It was both glorious and terrifying, knowing how the mind of a murderer worked, what it desired, and how it felt to hold someone’s life in your hands. Sure and steady as my scalpel, I had the power to choose how to end it all with a swift flick of my blade. How to end him.
Power was as heady and intoxicating a feeling as the champagne Thomas and I had drunk together at the Christmas ball a fortnight ago. One teeny movement and I decided his fate. Thomas’s destiny was no longer written in the stars or by any god the heavens might possess; it was my judgment to make.