- Escaping from Houdini
I was neither merciful nor kind.
I was justice and my blade was cold and swift.
I clutched that persona, forcing it to lend knowledge I could use to our benefit. I grabbed Thomas and swung him around, making him the victim and me the murderer now.
“I’m sorry, Cresswell,” I whispered, “but this is going to hurt.”
Before he could protest, I jabbed him twice in the chest in rapid succession. I didn’t feel as sorry as I’d pictured—more worrisome was the hollow joy spreading like darkness through my core. I was a gifted forensic student, but I was an even-more-talented murderess. All I needed to do was surrender to that undulating dark, get swept up and away in its vicious pull.
As I’d imagined, his hands automatically shot up to his wound. I held my pretend knife at the ready, watching him press his hands to his chest where I imagined a bruise was forming. In a matter of thirty seconds I’d incapacitated him. If Miss Crenshaw had been struck with a knife, she’d be easy to handle from there. I couldn’t recall any stab wounds, but then again, her postmortem was inconclusive because of how badly she’d been burned. Which might be another reason, aside from theatrics, that her corpse had been set ablaze.
Unblinking, I noted every detail as Thomas staggered back. He did not raise his hands to ward off my attack because he was too busy trying to stop the flow of blood. Miss Crenshaw’s lack of defensive wounds thus far were the same.
I lifted my fist and Thomas pivoted away, avoiding the next strike. If he were truly bleeding, it would have sprayed in an arc across the door. Exactly like the evidence left there.
“That’s it… I’ve figured it out!” I nearly jumped in place. Thomas rubbed his chest, eyes fastened to my improvised weapon. I stopped making a fist and tenderly reached over and held a hand to his heart, biting my lip at his grimace. “I truly am sorry for striking you. I got a bit carried away in the moment. Does it hurt?”
“Not much. You may feel free to put your hands on me anytime you please.” He winked, then winced. “Though I’d prefer the touch to be a bit more gentle in the future.”
“Noted.” I led him back toward the bed, where he flopped down. “While it doesn’t lessen the bruise, I do believe I figured out how the blood splatter was caused. The arc and slight smear are indicative of a chest wound. She would have spun slowly, maybe she even fell against the wall a moment after clutching her chest—from there I’m not sure what. But the blood pattern would arc as she turned, then smear if she stumbled against the wall, that much I know for certain. It’s exactly what you did. It’s not too much to assume Miss Crenshaw was struck with a knife.”
Thomas offered me the sort of appraising look that set my blood aflame. There was no greater feeling than being admired for my brain. “Which means there is no doubt that whoever committed this act meant to dispatch her. She’d been targeted, but why?”
“I wonder if it’s—look.” I picked up a playing card that had fallen between the nightstand and bed, holding it up. “Six of Diamonds.”
He took the card and flipped it over, carefully inspecting each inch of it. He handed it to me, frowning. “Perhaps the cards are literal calling cards.”
I stared at the intricate design on the back—a raven with iridescent wings opened against a full moon, and thorns edged in silver around the rim. I traced the double eights near the bottom. “Or maybe it just means this is all part of a larger game. One that’s the ultimate form of sleight of hand.”
DISSECTION OF THE LIMB
5 JANUARY 1889
Uncle peered through a magnifying glass, his nose mere inches away from the severed limb. I knew he remained angry with me over being caught alone with the shirtless ringmaster, but he required my assistance, and nothing else mattered once forensics were involved.
Thank goodness for small blessings.
Thomas grabbed the journal he’d set down while donning an apron, and resumed his note-taking. I couldn’t shake a twinge of sickness when I thought of other notebooks he’d packed along for the journey—some of which contained notes written from Jack the Ripper. I was unready to read in great detail about his crimes, and Thomas kept whatever mysteries he uncovered there to himself. At least for now. I had a feeling we’d need to talk about them soon.
“The toothed forceps, Audrey Rose.” Uncle held out his hand, palm up, waiting. “Quickly now.”
I gathered the medical instruments needed for this dissection—toothed forceps, scalpel, scissors, Hagedorn needle, string—and carried a silver tray over.
“Here.” I swiftly wiped down the forceps with carbolic acid, handing them over to my uncle with efficiency. He grunted, not quite a thank you but not weighted silence, either. I watched him peel back bits of skin near where the elbow should have been, had it not been either cut or bitten off at that joint.
Flesh hung in thin strips, tattered like an old gown left to molder in a forgotten trunk. I rolled my shoulders, allowing the coolness of a scientist to settle over me. I would neither be disgusted nor feel softness. Neither of those emotions would save the victim from his fate.
Determination and a hardened heart would bring justice, though.
Uncle waved me closer, brows creased. He pried away a bit of torn flesh, exposing a familiar streak of off-white. “Do you see the radius and ulna?” he asked. I nodded, doing my best to focus only on those bones and not the outer layer of graying meat surrounding them. “While I peel back the muscle and tendons, describe what you see. Thomas, write down everything.”
I bent until I was eye level with the limb, taking note of every detail. “There’s splintering on the radius, but not on the ulna. On that I see a nick in the bone—I’d wager it was made by a sharp instrument. Likely a knife.” I swallowed my revulsion down. “Splintering on the radius is most probably from the lion gnawing on the arm and is unrelated to how the limb was severed.”
“Good, very good.” Uncle pushed the skin back farther, hands steady. “Were the wounds received postmortem?”
I bit my lip. There were no marks on the skin of the forearm, no signs of trauma sustained during a struggle. I glanced up at Thomas, but he was focused on writing. I took a moment to appreciate that I was trusted—by both of these men—to locate forensic information on my own. Pulling my shoulders back and standing taller, I allowed confidence to fall about me like a cloak.
“I believe the wounds were created postmortem. They’re most likely the result of the limb being severed.” I pointed to the rest of the arm. “There are no abrasions or cuts, both of which would be present in a victim who was fighting back against a knife attack.”
Uncle turned the arm over, inspecting the underside of it. The flesh was paler than most cadavers, having lost so much blood, but not as pale as the more recent bodies I’d studied at the academy. Postmortem lividity was present—the slight staining visible on the underside where blood had pooled due to gravity. It indicated where a body had lain after death, and could not be altered after several hours even when the cadaver was moved into a new position. Except in a strange case when all the blood had been removed… there had been no staining then.
“Lividity is present,” I added, noting the flash of surprise and pride in my uncle’s eyes. I’d learned much at the academy. “I imagine he was already positioned on his back, lying down, when the murderer began hacking him apart. The evidence aligns with it.”
“So it does.” Uncle sounded pleased as he inspected the lividity on his own, his former annoyance with me erased. We were an odd family.
Thomas crinkled his nose. “Even without arterial splattering, wherever this dismemberment took place must be saturated in blood. I’m not sure anyone would be able to clean all of it away without leaving evidence behind.”
“Very good point.”
Uncle picked up a scalpel, using it to neatly cut away more of the mauled flesh. I swallowed hard. No matter how often I witnessed it, it was always a gruesome sight to behold. Carving flesh as if it were fine meat was repulsive.
“The bones were cut cleanly,” Uncle continued. “Whoever removed this limb didn’t use a saw or serrated blade.” He set the scalpel down, then walked over to the water basin. Neither Thomas nor I speculated while he washed his hands with carbolic soap. Once he finished, he turned to us, face drawn. I had an inkling it wasn’t the late hour that made him weary. “We need to concentrate on those who have access to strong, smooth blades. Kitchen staff. Crew members.”
Dread, heavy and unyielding, clunked into my empty stomach. “Or most likely, based on their skill and proximity to such weapons, carnival performers who specialize in blades.”
For a moment, no one spoke. There were a few obvious choices—though any one of the performers could stab someone.
“You believe Jian did this?” Thomas dragged his attention away from the severed limb. “A wonder it didn’t make it as part of the stage act. Tossing melons, pineapples, severed arms. Seems quite fitting for the other theatrical murders.”
“I believe he’s someone we should at least consider,” I said, ignoring his forced light commentary. “We also need to thoroughly research who else has access to his blades once the show is over. Does he lock them in a trunk at night, or sleep on them?” I lifted a shoulder. “If they’re locked away, then we could expand the search to those who are gifted with picking locks.”
I met both Uncle’s and Thomas’s gazes, seeing their worry mixed with my own. It was all speculation, of course, but if those swords were locked up, then there was only one young man on this ship who’d crowned himself king of escaping any cuff and picking any lock.
I ignored the scuttle of fear as it moved across my spine. If Harry Houdini kept reinventing himself, wearing new invisible masks in each city, I supposed it was possible that he wore the most convincing disguise of all: an innocent man, incapable of committing such heinous acts of murder. Maybe Cassie and her husband weren’t exacting revenge. Perhaps it had been someone obvious yet not. If Houdini had a secret lover in America Liza didn’t know of, there was no telling how many other secrets he had.