One glance around the noticeably smaller crowd confirmed I wasn’t the only guest who worried about what might happen next. Empty seats stuck out like missing teeth in a forced grimace. One more night of terror and the audience might disappear altogether.

“I can’t believe your uncle insisted we spy on this show,” Thomas whispered. “Not that I’m complaining. This entrée is infinitely more pleasant than spending an evening with my nose in a severed limb. Or listening to Norwood bark at crew members.”

I sighed. Leave it to Thomas to break the heaviness of the night by comparing our supper to a postmortem. He hadn’t mentioned a word about my morning activities, and I decided to let it go for the moment. I was also grateful Uncle would miss possibly seeing Liza onstage again. Once she’d discovered he’d be sitting dinner out, she’d quickly made plans to assist with Harry’s act. Worry wedged itself between my shoulder blades. I hoped she wasn’t planning on creating her own theatrics tonight. Thomas cleared his throat, and I shook myself free of thoughts.

“Yes, well, when one must choose between herbed squab and putrid flesh,” I said, “it’s such a difficult decision.”

“Don’t worry.” Thomas flashed a mischievous grin. “There’ll be plenty of time for rotting flesh after dessert. I promised your uncle I’d assist directly after the show. You’re more than welcome to join, unless you’ve got more nefarious plans to attend to.”

Thomas’s tone was light, but I still saw shadows of doubt creeping across his expression. I did my best to smile, though I suddenly felt as if I were drowning. I had to practice for the finale and meet with the ringmaster for yet another lesson. Hopefully I’d gather more information regarding the murderer to make it all worthwhile. “Of course I’ll assist tonight.”

Uncle seemed to have forgiven me for rebelling against his one rule, his focus now entirely on the mystery of this ship. He believed—though others in his profession scoffed at the idea—that murderers frequented their crime scenes. Since someone was targeting members of the first-class passengers, he’d instructed us to continue being social. Take note of anything even slightly amiss. We were to be spies and apprentices and detectives in one—a challenge we were both eager to accept.

Mrs. Harvey cut into her roasted squab, either purposely not listening to our less-than-savory dinner talk or happily lost in her own thoughts. I sipped from my water goblet, focus straying to the stage as the lights dimmed and stayed that way. A moment later Mephistopheles appeared, rising from the dark pit beneath center stage, surrounded by the usual cloud of smoke. Against my better judgment, my heart gave an excited jump.

For the first time I realized he was similar to a phoenix rising from the ashes. While I’d been working to unravel the mystery surrounding the murders, I was no closer to unearthing any clues about him or who he’d truly been before taking his stage persona. Perhaps he had burned his old life to the ground and emerged into something untouchable.

“Welcome to the sixth evening of the greatest show from sea to sea,” Mephistopheles said. “Tonight you will bear witness to the most magnificent escape of our time. Or perhaps… perhaps you will see a young man’s life ended before your very eyes. I make no guarantee that the next performer will survive. Victory will make him a legend, but failure means a drowning death.”

The silence that followed his opening statement was palpable. No one wanted to witness a man drown, especially after the last few nights. I knew the importance of carrying on after death, but this seemed a bit crude considering the circumstances.

Mephistopheles clapped his hands twice, and assistants rolled something onto the stage hidden by a velvety curtain. It took a great effort by my cousin and Isabella to push the massive object to the center of the floor. Trepidation wound its way through my body.

“What you see here is a galvanized-iron vessel filled to the brim with water.” Mephistopheles nodded toward Isabella and Liza. They yanked the curtain off, revealing the large milk can. “Not only will Houdini submerge himself in this milk can, we will secure it with massive locks, ensuring that not even he can escape.”

Murmurs broke out, and the room seemed to take a collective breath. Climbing into a can full of water was dangerous enough, but locking it was a new level of madness. Mephistopheles allowed worry to simmer, enjoying the bubbling torment of the carnival’s patrons. I could have sworn his eyes twinkled a bit more at their distress.

“There, there, everyone,” he said in a soothing tone. “I’ll allow Houdini the honor of announcing the rest.” Mephistopheles threw his hands out to either side, welcoming his star to the night stage. “Behold the incredible, the impossible, the intoxicatingly terrifying escape artist of the nineteenth century! Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Great Houdini!”

The crowd was mostly quiet whenever Mephistopheles took the stage, but when Houdini entered the room this evening, the hush that descended was a living, breathing thing. Darkness and density and the throbbing beat of one’s own blood pumping in the void of outward noise. I’d heard people remark on being able to hear a pin drop, but the truth of Houdini’s presence was so much more than that. I could have sworn I heard each contraction of my heart, each molecule of oxygen I barely breathed in, all of it so loud within my head it had to be heard across the sea to London.

Mephistopheles was correct once again: Harry Houdini was destined to become a legend, if only for the magnitude of his presence. He was a man of modest stature and extraordinary might. At least on this night, after we’d all seen death made into a spectacle.

“A bit dramatic for my taste,” Thomas whispered, leaning in. “How many adjectives can one use in a sentence? Mephisto might be in want of a thesaurus. Perhaps I’ll gift one to him.”

“Hush,” Mrs. Harvey scolded, her attention riveted on the dark-haired young man wrapped in a plush robe. Without preamble, Houdini dropped the robe. Heat flooded my cheeks; women and men gasped around the room. I’d never seen a man in his smallclothes, and Houdini was practically naked.

“Oh, my,” Mrs. Harvey said, then took a long pull of ice water. “It’s been a moment since I’ve seen a man in his underthings. Poor Mr. Harvey, Lord rest his soul. He—”

“Please, I beg of you, do not elaborate,” Thomas interrupted, giving her a look of pure dread. “Some things are better left to our imaginations. And even then we might not wish to go down that creative route.”

“Humph.” Mrs. Harvey picked up her fan, waving it steadily about. I’m sure it had nothing to do with being upset and everything to do with being once again riveted by the young man parading around in his smallclothes. He seemed to soak up the attention.

Liza, ever the daring assistant, kept the smile on her face, though I could see the strain. I hadn’t yet spoken to her to see how she was faring, interacting with Houdini after the love letter revelation, and would do so immediately following the show. If she made it through this act without letting on how upset she was, she might make it to New York without dunking him in the ocean yet.

“The clock, if you please!” Houdini’s voice boomed out with the command. The assistants rolled a massive timepiece a few feet from the milk can. His gaze strayed to Liza, then quickly moved on. “Now,” he addressed the audience, “I need a volunteer. Who will come up and inspect my prison for any defect?”

Thomas’s arm shot into the air. I kicked at him under the table but missed, judging from the way he waved his arm around. The escape artist passed over my friend in favor of a robust man of around forty-five years. The man banged a cane on the side of the can, the clang proving it was no fake. He did a thorough job of walking around, tapping each side of the milk can. He even lifted the lid, inspecting it for who knew what. Satisfied, he gave a curt nod, then returned to his table.

“As you have witnessed, there are no tricks involved,” Houdini called out, voice clear and loud. “I want you all to hold your breath and watch the seconds tick by.” He motioned toward the stopwatch. “Begin the count… now!”

Mephistopheles hit a button on the side of the clock, setting the second hand in motion. He’d never remained onstage to assist before, and I wondered if he was only here tonight to watch for anything amiss.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Everyone inhaled deeply, then held their breath for as long as they could. Most exhaled by thirty seconds.

Tick. Tick. Tick. A few more after forty. Almost all were dragging in breaths before a minute had passed.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Thomas’s cheeks remained puffed out, and he seemed no more distressed over the lack of oxygen than he did by the sight of the half-naked young man onstage. Houdini grinned when my friend finally released his breath.

“Now, I ask that you all hold your breath once more. But first…” He strode across the stage, completely unconcerned about the death trap lurking behind him. Without further discussion, he climbed into the milk can. Water sloshed over the sides, forcing his assistants to back up or stand in the growing puddle. “I wouldn’t feel right being called the King of Cuffs without my bracelets, now, would I? Liza, please bring my handcuffs.”

His use of proper manners brought on the ghost of a smile to Mephistopheles’s otherwise blank expression. He was a quick learner, something highly valued in this business.

Liza, smile still in place, stepped forward, cuffs in hand. At this the crowd turned indignant. Someone yelled out, “This is madness! No one wants to see a man drown. Where’s the fire act? Bring out the fortune-teller!”

Mephistopheles, still posted near the giant stopwatch, cocked his head. “If you’re afraid of death, you ought to leave now. Neither Houdini nor I can guarantee his survival. Smelling salts are available to any and all who may require them.”

“People have died! This is unacceptable.” The man shook his head at his table and stormed from the room. No one else protested the idea of witnessing a man possibly drown before their eyes. Which was unnerving. Any one of these passengers, eager for death, might be involved with the murders. Or become the next victim.