- Escaping from Houdini
My voice suddenly seemed to disappear. I wet my lips, pulse speeding. “Yes…”
“One should always honor a lady’s choice.” Mephistopheles grinned. “You may run along now, Mr. Cresswell. I’ll escort our lady back to her cabin soon enough.”
Thomas was the picture of restraint as he ignored the ringmaster and instead met my gaze. I did not want him to go, nor did I want him to feel brushed aside for the ringmaster again. But if we were to solve this crime, I’d need to listen to my head and hope my heart would withstand the pain.
Caught between the two, I did what needed to be done for the greater good of our investigation.
Though it pained me to do so, I took a step toward Mephistopheles. I’d hoped Thomas would’ve deduced the truth, but a look of hurt flashed in his eyes. He jerked his head in an imitation of a nod. My heart wrenched.
“Very well. We’ll finish our discussion later, Wadsworth.”
He eyed the ringmaster another moment, then strode out the door, shoulders stiff and hands clenched. I stood there, unmoving, wondering if I’d just unintentionally changed my future. Fate was a fickle thing.
“Such a pity,” Mephistopheles said. “You’re going to break his heart. Though it will be amusing to watch him cut himself against the blade of your indecision.”
I counted to five, hoping to regain my composure. “Is that so? Would you like to know what I think of you?”
“Enlighten me.” He nodded. “It ought to be amusing.”
“You’re arrogant, deceitful, and think too highly of your own wit.” I ticked off each detriment on my fingers. “Shall I go on?”
He drew his brows together, looking genuinely baffled. “You forgot the most important attributes: handsome and well dressed. When was the last time you saw a tailcoat this sharp?”
“I’m honest.” He smiled. “You’re simply annoyed that you do enjoy my company. I make you think, broaden your scientific theories and ideas. I get under your skin and you loathe it.”
“Yes,” I agreed, nodding, “you do get under my skin. Like a scalpel.”
“Which means I’m smooth and cool as a blade.” Mephistopheles lifted a shoulder. “Should we grab some tea and discuss more of my appealing qualities? Or should we skip straight to the kissing? I must admit, I’ve been dreaming of our almost-kiss nonstop. Next time I see Houdini, I’m going to drown him. Though maybe you’ve found other ways of occupying yourself. I’ll grant you this: Cresswell is handsome, though I still edge him out there. It’s my dark, brooding looks. He also can’t compete with the mask.”
“Honestly?” I rubbed my temples. “You’re the most maddening person I’ve ever encountered.”
“Another distinguished honor.” He bowed deeply. “I’m sure Mr. Cresswell will be vexed by that declaration as well. Second place is, well, not first, is it? Though it’s something he’ll have to get used to, especially the more he’s around me. He might need some coddling to make it through. Poor chap. I’ll have to see if Isabella is up to the task. She’s mentioned him a few times now.”
He watched me like a hawk might eye a potential meal. I silently counted to ten, but said nothing. Mephistopheles was trying to rile the truth out of me. But he’d need to do more than that. “You’re distracting me.”
“A problem shared by most every woman—and some men—I meet.” The humor flicked out of his gaze as if a candle had been suddenly snuffed out. “I warned you about being caught down here, didn’t I? Do you have any idea what sort of trouble you’d have caused if—damn it.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see what had ruffled him enough to swear. Andreas and Jian walked down the aisle, heads bent in hushed conversation. It was odd seeing them in regular trousers and shirts, their glittering costumes saved for the stage alone.
Before I could take in any other details, Mephistopheles hurriedly wrapped an arm around me, dragged me close, then pressed a chaste kiss to my lips. I heard the scrape of wood against metal and realized the ringmaster was slowly moving the trunk of swords back into place, using our kiss as the sleight of hand.
I shut my eyes and tried not to think of how pleasant his lips were—how soft and gentle, so at odds with his sharp-tongued swagger. A moment later Mephistopheles pulled back, his expression a combination of wicked delight along with a smattering of apology. I wondered if I appeared as startled and confused as the thoughts rushing through my head.
He gave his performers a lazy grin, never taking his arm from my waist. Which was a good thing; I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t stumble away. He gently squeezed in warning. “A bit early for you two. As you can tell, I wasn’t expecting anyone down here for a while. Or shall I say we weren’t expecting anyone. I was giving Miss Wadsworth the grand tour.”
“Is that what you were doing?” Jian asked, not bothering to hide the amusement in his tone. “Touring the supplies? I bet next time you’ll tour the toilets.”
My cheeks flamed, but I didn’t dare to contradict him. Jian let his dark gaze fall to mine, and I could only guess at what he saw. Another foolish young thing caught up in Mephistopheles’s web of illusions? Or was he sizing me up as another victim to add to his list? My attention slid to Andreas, whose face was nearly as splotchy with color as Liza’s had been earlier. I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed for me or for the indecent show the ringmaster and I had put on. Perhaps he was disappointed I’d ignored his tarot reading and hadn’t stayed away from the Magician.
“Semantics.” Mephistopheles took my hand, making a grand show of escorting me out of there. “I expect you both in the saloon by eleven. Tonight’s show requires extra hands. And keep practicing what I showed you for the finale. We need to help these people forget murders and simply remember the Moonlight Carnival.”
Without saying more, we left the performers to gather their things. As we entered the corridor, I thought about both young men, deciding that either one of them could be the murderer we sought. Andreas appeared quiet and shy, but in a group filled with wonder-workers, that might be his own illusion.
“Well?” Mephistopheles said once we were well into the next corridor. “Did you at least find anything worthwhile, or was that a giant waste of time? Not that our kiss wasn’t worth the trouble. That was quite nice. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Depends on whether or not this belongs to you.” Thomas appeared from around the corner, holding a signet ring in his palm. A lion’s head surrounded by thorns with bloodred rubies set in its eyes. It was stunning. And its arrival certainly seemed to stun the ringmaster; he went very still. I didn’t believe his reaction was from the surprise appearance of my friend. “Strange that your swordsman would keep this in his trunk. Stranger still that you sent Miss Wadsworth directly to it, then followed her there.” Mephistopheles appeared as if he would tackle Thomas to the ground in order to retrieve it, but managed to remain in place. “This is your family crest, it is not? Or is it another stolen identity that you’ve taken on?”
“It’s mine,” he ground out. “And I’ve not stolen anything, Mr. Cresswell.”
I removed my arm from Mephistopheles’s. I didn’t question how Thomas had sorted out whose ring it was; I knew if he was certain, then I was as well. “Did you place your signet there for me to find? What sort of game are you playing?”
“I may play the role of villain,” he said quietly, “but that does not make me one. Perhaps you ought to ask yourselves this: If not me, then who? Who else would wish to set suspicion on me? Who might benefit from the carnival being cast under scrutiny?” He shook his head, light glinting off the mask. “Making up your mind about a person before getting to know them makes you susceptible to true evil. I am not the villain of this story, no matter how hard you try to cast me as such. My signet was stolen at the start of the week. I didn’t wish to share the information.”
He was right, regardless of how much I wished to dispute him. We were quick to blame him, think the worst of him, based on our emotions, not facts. It was the first rule of being a decent scientist and investigator, and we’d broken it.
“Can either of you think of someone who might seek revenge?” he pressed. “I certainly can. But then I’m not the one wasting time crafting a narrative to explain away evil deeds. I’d suggest you turn your critical lens on the upper class. Where is Dr. Arden? He disappears for the majority of the voyage, and yet all you do is knock on his door a few times? And what of Miss Crenshaw’s father? Would a man that powerful simply accept his daughter’s fate? Would a lord sit politely back, knowing his precious girl had chosen a lowly carnival performer over her family and paid the ultimate price for it? Or would he destroy that which had destroyed him?”
“So you did carry on a secret affair with her?” I asked, troubled by the uncomfortable feeling in my center.
“She was a lonely girl in want of a friend, and I, too, was tired of being alone,” he said. “I listened to her fears. But that’s all that passed between us.”
He eyed his signet but didn’t make a move to take it back. Another surprise. Without saying another word, Mephistopheles brushed past Thomas, leaving us both to silently rethink our list of suspects. It was a passionate speech. The sharp words chosen with the eye of an expert marksman, one who knew how to both aim and strike his target. Whether it was a shot meant to distract or disarm, I couldn’t be sure.
Harry Houdini with wife, Bess
6 JANUARY 1889
Chandeliers flared brightly, then dimmed, our not-so-subtle clue the show was about to begin. Most of the chatter in the saloon halted, though the din of conversation never fully stopped. My heartbeat nearly tripled, though I couldn’t tell if it was fear of what might happen. The murderer hadn’t announced his last victim in a grand way, and I knew deep within my bones it was only a matter of time before horrific carnage was unleashed in sinister fashion.