- Escaping from Houdini
Liza shot me an incredulous look, but pressed her lips together. Apparently, I was in for a good scolding once we were alone. Despite what everyone in London thought of Thomas and his odd behavior, Liza liked him very much, and my interest in the ringmaster was not right in her romantic book, no matter what my reasons were.
“Mephistopheles is…” Anishaa seemed to formulate her answer carefully. “He’s very gifted at what he does. Many benefit from the lessons he chooses to give. We’re all very grateful to him.”
I sat back, fiddling with the buttons on the side of my gloves. “Did he give such lessons to Cassie?”
Liza suddenly found her tea infinitely intriguing, and Anishaa seemed at a loss for words.
“Would you like to see him as no one aside from his performers do?” Anishaa finally asked. I hoped she didn’t mean naked as the day he’d come into this world. I nodded slowly. “Meet me on the second-class promenade in one hour. Then you’ll understand why we’d all do anything for him.”
GEARS AND GADGETS
AUDREY ROSE’S CABIN
6 JANUARY 1889
“Would you care to explain what that was about, Cousin?”
Liza’s cheeks were splotchy pink, a great indication of how upset she was. Any moment steam might shoot from her ears. I swallowed nervous laughter, knowing she wouldn’t appreciate being told she was her mother’s daughter in this moment.
“I am not one to judge, but you seem awfully intrigued by Mephistopheles,” she continued. “Emphasis on ‘awful.’ What about Mr. Cresswell? Have your feelings for him changed that quickly? Your letters from the academy seemed to indicate some grand romance, though you were upset with him at the time.” She inspected me with sharp-eyed focus, similar to how I’d dissect a specimen with my scalpel. “Has Mephistopheles won your heart so easily? I thought you would see through his lies.”
I pinched the skin between my thumb and forefinger, using it to focus.
“Where is the scandal in speaking with someone?” I asked. “It’s not as if Mephistopheles has declared himself to me. Perhaps I simply enjoy hearing about his use of science. I’ve always been intrigued with engineering. We’re not so different, you know.”
“Is that what he’s told you?” Liza gave me a long, measured look. “That you’re both similar in nature? That you belong together?”
Her tone was drenched in disapproval, though I could see the concern in her face.
“What if he has said those things?” I lifted my chin, doing my best imitation of being indignant and hating myself a little more for it. How many lies would I be forced to tell before this charade was over? “It’s true. We both love science. His is just a bit more flashy. There’s much I could learn from him, though. Things that might help me figure out where, exactly, I belong.”
“Dissecting the dead is much less showy,” she said drily. “Maybe you should borrow one of his masks. Or ask his costumer for a new autopsy gown. I’m sure he could sew something up that would restart any heart. Where you belong is with Uncle and Thomas, solving crimes for those who could not do it on their own. Not dressed up and prancing around a stage in a different city each night on the arm of a man who will always love the show more.”
“Don’t be sour, Cousin,” I said, trying hard not to read too much into her last sentence. “I simply enjoy learning how he engineers his tricks. He is quite… the machines and mechanisms he builds are incredible. If he would focus on creating medical tools…” I trailed off, suddenly not speaking any more half-truths. If Mephistopheles used his brain to craft machines used in surgeries, there were endless possibilities for healing.
Liza searched my face for a moment, not quite convinced. I fought to keep my expression frozen into the mask I’d donned.
“Be careful of giving your heart to men like that,” she finally said, shoulders slumping.
“Men like what?” I reached over and gripped her hand. “Scientists and engineers?”
“He’s an illusionist,” I said, not missing the venom she’d injected into that single word. “A wonder-worker.”
“Exactly.” Liza took her hand from mine and crossed her arms. “A liar. In a fancy frock coat.”
For a heart-grabbing moment I feared that Mephistopheles had acted on our bargain against my wishes, leaving Liza an anonymous letter with information on Houdini. I swallowed hard, feeling the wall of lies crumble in on me. It was time to come clean about one secret. “Is… is everything all right between you and Harry?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?” She examined my face, her lips turning down. There was something in her eyes, though. Something that indicated all wasn’t as well as she’d like me to believe. “What is it? What aren’t you telling me?”
This was it; the moment I’d been dreading. Suddenly, looking into my cousin’s pleading eyes, I couldn’t bring myself to break her heart. She gripped my hand. If she was having doubts about Houdini, I needed to give her all the information I had. We made land in only one more day. Still, I couldn’t seem to make myself take that last step.
“Please. Whatever it is, I need to know.”
I dropped onto the bed, heart thudding slow enough to toll the hour of dread. Without saying a word, I reached over and removed the half-ruined letter from my nightstand. I gave it to Liza, keeping my eyes averted as she sank down beside me.
“That lying scoundrel!” She crumpled the paper, voice trembling when she spoke. “I’ll toss him overboard like the piece of rubbish he is! Where’s my cloak?”
Fearing her temper might lead her to such extremes, I gathered my courage and faced her. “Liza… you cannot confront him.”
“Are you mad?” she cried. “Of course I must confront him!”
“At least wait until we’ve reached port. There’s already so much to contend with, please, I beg of you. Wait. It’s only for one more day, and then, if you still wish to do so, I will help you toss him into the harbor. I swear it.”
Liza marched in a circle around the room, shaking her head. “You want me to act as if nothing is wrong? Would you do the same thing if you were in my shoes?”
“I would do whatever needed to be done,” I said truthfully. “Especially if it came down to putting an investigation first.”
Liza stared at me and I couldn’t quite pick out the emotions that shifted across her face. “Tell me this much, where did you get the letter? Did Anishaa give it to you?”
“Mephistopheles did. I’ve—I haven’t wanted to ruin your trip.”
“This wasn’t simply a trip for me.” Her lips trembled. “He was supposed to be my future. I gave up so much.” She swallowed whatever she was about to say, her voice as hard as diamonds when she spoke next. “Never, ever, give up yourself for someone else, Audrey Rose. The right person will want you just as you are. And if they don’t?” She sniffled, and shook her head. “Forget them. Tipping the scales too far in either direction is nothing but trouble. I gave up my home and family for kisses, playing cards, and empty promises of a future. Houdini is a liar, and I’m glad to be done with him.”
“Liza, I wanted to tell you, I just—”
“I promise I will not say anything to him for now. I’ll act as though everything is well. Heaven forbid the King of Cards have any distractions before his next stunt.” Liza purposely glanced at the clock on my nightstand. “You’d better hurry or you’ll be late for your meeting with Anishaa and Mephistopheles. He’s never alone for long, Harry often meets with him after breakfast. Which will only give you a few minutes with him. Here.” She pulled out the stool by my vanity. “Sit and I’ll braid your hair.”
I stared at my cousin a beat more, wanting to crack the wall she’d suddenly built around herself, but sat instead. She ran a silver-handled brush through my hair, twisting and pulling it into shape. I pretended not to notice the single tear that streaked down her cheek as she fastened tiny red buds into my hair, or the way her eyes purposely refused to meet mine in the looking glass. It seemed I wasn’t the only member of my family keeping secrets on this voyage now.
Ocean mist sprayed over the railing of the boat, forcing me to walk closer to the cabin side of the promenade to avoid catching a worse chill. With Liza’s assistance I’d changed into a more elaborate day dress—a long-sleeved deep burgundy velvet overlaid with delicate black lace. I’d added kidskin gloves and a dark cloak. I looked like a splatter of dried blood. Which was quite fitting, considering what I was about to do. Sacrifice was messy business.
What Liza hadn’t seen me add was the leather belt fastened at my thigh and the scalpel I’d stuck in it. The weapon belt was a design I’d had crafted in Romania for myself, the best Christmas gift to date. My fingers brushed down the front of my bodice, comforted by the knowledge of my blade, though the plan formulating in my head was much less soothing.
It was brash and risky, but the reward would outweigh the peril. I hoped. I hadn’t had an opportunity to speak with Thomas, so I was depending on his ability to glean truth from subtle clues. Hopefully he wouldn’t be hindered by Mephistopheles’s jibes. And hopefully I wouldn’t be distracted by how sick I felt over Liza’s despair.
A young couple passed by, their eyes darting around the deck as they clutched each other a bit too tightly. They were the first people I’d encountered, and their stroll did not appear to be as relaxing as they were attempting to make it. In fact, most of the ship felt too quiet. Passengers were taking more of their meals in their cabins and only venturing out when absolutely necessary. A pretty prison was what this ship had become.
I continued on, thoughts tumbling over one another.
Out this far in the water there were no gulls calling overhead, singing their own songs of woe. Instead there were snippets of conversation that rolled down the wooden deck toward me, too muffled to make out. Women and men in less fine suits and dresses than those of first class, but still quite fashionable, peered out from their cabins as I made my way toward Anishaa. My heart thumped against my chest in warning, but it was too late to turn back now. I was here, and the plan needed to unfold now.