- Escaping from Houdini
My gaze drifted back to my cousin, who was still smiling behind her mask. Angry though she might be with Houdini, if there was even a hint of this act going wrong, she wouldn’t be able to maintain her cool stance. I hoped.
Unease crawled along my thoughts. If anything were to go wrong, it would be easy to claim faulty equipment. However, would that be too quiet of a murder for a killer who enjoyed theatrics? Or would the thrill of taking out a legend in the making be enough of a draw?
Houdini held his arms up, waiting for the cuffs. Liza clapped them onto his wrists a bit too exuberantly, the sound near echoing in the quiet. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but lifted the cuffs up proudly.
“These are regulation police handcuffs.” He tugged on them, proving how real they were. “Once I submerge myself underwater and my assistants have replaced the lid, I ask that you all hold your breath along with the clock.”
A long look passed between Houdini and Mephistopheles, and the ringmaster finally nodded. Despite logic telling me all would be well, my palms tingled when Houdini maneuvered himself into the vessel. Either for our benefit or his own, he took a large breath before submerging himself. Liza and Isabella were on the can in an instant, securing the lid in place. At the same moment the lid clanked down, Mephistopheles started the clock. It seemed they’d practiced quite well. This was one science experiment they could not get wrong. Not only for Houdini’s sake, but for the fate of the carnival.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Once more, I dragged in my breath along with the crowd, holding it until I convinced myself my eyes would burst from my skull if I didn’t release it.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The second hand echoed like a gong, all the while Houdini remained below water.
Tick. Tick. Tick. More gasps burst forth from people in the dining saloon. Forty-eight seconds had now passed with the escape artist still submerged. Liza and Isabella shifted, their pretty smiles frozen in place.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Mephistopheles called out, “One minute.”
Thomas tapped along to the ticking of the clock, the sound setting my nerves into more of a tizzy. I clamped my jaw together until it ached. At the minute-and-a-half mark, Liza and Isabella casually lifted the domed lid. Houdini burst upward, hands still shackled, and drew in a ragged breath. Water splashed onto the stage, the sound not even close to as lulling as the waves outside.
Houdini drew in a few more deep breaths, eyes twinkling. “This time, instead of just a demonstration, my assistants will also padlock the lid, making escape nearly impossible. I'll either set myself free…”
Mephistopheles walked over and patted his shoulder. “Or we shall set your corpse out to sea.”
A few patrons stood and quietly left the room. Light from the corridor flashed each time the door opened and closed, the illumination adding to my twisting worry. Houdini dunked underwater, and Liza and Isabella secured the lid, this time padlocking it in two places. While they did that, the ringmaster started the ticking of the clock—it took nearly thirty seconds for the lid to be locked. Surely Houdini would be exhausted after already demonstrating the act. It was beyond madness to do it again so soon; this was a death wish.
My heart knocked frantically, searching for a way out. There had to be an explanation for the trick, but I couldn’t locate one. This time, Liza and Isabella covered the milk can with a curtained screen. It was midnight-blue velvet with a thousand silver stars embroidered onto it.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I couldn’t decide if Thomas’s tapping or the incessant ticking was worse. Mrs. Harvey twisted her napkin in her lap, eyes fastened to the starry curtain.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I moved about my seat; there were so many more-pressing things to be concerned with. The severed limb. The slain women. The identity of the murderer who might be in this very room… yet my pulse roared at the possibility of what was happening behind that curtain.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
“One minute, thirty seconds,” Mephistopheles said. I had no idea if I’d imagined the strain in his tone. Passengers grumbled as the clock ticked on. What had started as good fun was turning into panic. A few people pushed back from their seats, fists clenched at their sides.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
“Two minutes.” Mephistopheles’s foot tapped faster than the clock. Both Liza’s and Isabella’s arms began trembling, the curtain wavering with them. “Two minutes thirty seconds.”
“Help him!” a man cried, followed by another. “Release him!”
“Something must be wrong!” another passenger yelled. The crowd grew uneasy. More pleas cropped up. Still, the ringmaster kept his focus stuck to the ticking second hands.
“Three minutes!” he nearly shouted. Sweat beaded his hairline. Either he was the most talented actor the world had ever known, or something was going dreadfully wrong.
I stared at my cousin, noting the way her eyes kept darting to the clock. By now almost everyone in the crowd was on their feet, yelling, demanding action. I was about to jump onstage and open the bloody can myself when Mephistopheles yelled, “Check him now!”
The curtain dropped in an instant, revealing a soaking wet, unshackled Houdini. He bowed deeply as the crowd went utterly wild with applause and whistling.
“I don’t believe it,” I muttered. “How on earth did he manage to get the padlocks back onto the can?”
Thomas opened his mouth, but Mrs. Harvey silenced him with a look. “Not a word out of you, dear. Or I swear I’ll finish my story about poor Mr. Harvey and his underthings.”
I’d never seen Thomas snap his jaws together faster. I wanted to smile, but found it nearly impossible as my gaze caught on Houdini’s. There was something in the gleam of his eyes that made all the hair on my arms stand at attention. I’d thought for certain he’d be the next victim, and I had a troubling feeling he knew it.
A FRIGHTFUL DISCOVERY
7 JANUARY 1889
Wind bit at my face, stinging my eyes and making them water as I hurried along the abandoned deck of third class. At this hour, the sun was a mere gash on the horizon, tinging the water a crimson black as it spilled across the waves. I shut images of bloodbaths from my mind, moving as quickly as I could to the temporary laboratory. A noticeably pale servant had delivered a note from Uncle that had stated “You’re needed in the laboratory. Straightaway.”
I’d thrown on a simple muslin dress and stuffed my feet into the first shoes I could find—dainty little silk things that would have to do, though Thomas would certainly raise a brow at them as he’d done in the past. His teasing didn’t matter; swiftness did.
There was an aura of urgency in the air, and I couldn’t help but inhale it in great gasps, setting my limbs in motion. I didn’t need to possess Thomas’s skill in deductions to know a body had been found. Uncle wouldn’t send for me this early if it were about the severed limb. A thorough dissection had already been completed, and in truth, there wasn’t much else we could do with it.
This was something worse. Much worse.
Another blast of arctic air barreled through the corridor, forcing me to bury my nose into my fur collar. The storm that had been threatening was almost ready to wage its assault. My steps rushed over the deck, the wooden slats cold as the winter air frosting the railings. A prickling sensation between my shoulder blades brought me to a halt, glancing back down the empty deck. At least I believed it remained vacant. This early in the morning, before the sun actually rose and the sky was somewhere between blood and shadow, it was hard to tell who might be lurking against the wall.
I stared a beat more, then turned and continued on. When I came to the entry to the stairs, I paused again, listening for any sound of pursuit. Waves steadily lapped the side of the ship. Wind howled low through the tunnel-like deck as it gusted. Steam hissed far above from the funnels, or smokestacks, as Thomas called them. No footsteps, though. I was alone with my conjurer of an imagination.
Without thinking, I touched the blade hidden on my thigh. No matter how tired or in a hurry I’d been to forgo finding proper shoes, I’d made sure to not leave without a means of protecting myself. One fact remained: a person on this ship was snatching victims as if they were pearls plucked from oysters and stringing them up in horrific ways.
I’d not be taken without a fight.
Satisfied I was alone, I plunged into the dim lighting of the narrow stairs, beads of perspiration already beginning as I descended deeper into the overly warm belly of the ship. New sounds emerged. The loud machinery of the boiler, constantly being refilled to power our journey across the sea. A horribly familiar scent also unfurled its fingers, beckoning me to the source the closer I drew. The sweet stench of human rot permeated the space, made worse by the heat of the boilers. I thought of Mephistopheles’s plague masks, wishing I had some herbs to smell now.
Anything would be better than a nose full of decomposition.
I finally reached the bottom of the stairs and nearly ran down the corridor, slipping as I swung into the laboratory. Uncle glanced up, his face grim. As I’d suspected, a shrouded body lay on the examination table before him.
“Uncle,” I said by way of greeting. I took a breath to steady myself and entered the room. Thomas hadn’t arrived yet, though I imagined he’d be joining us soon enough. It took a moment, but the strong odor of death settled into an uncomfortable backdrop, hardly occupying space in my thoughts.
“Prepare for the postmortem. I want to examine the heart, stomach, intestines. Or what’s left of them, at least.” Uncle handed me an apron. “We’ll begin soon.”
I strode over to Uncle’s medical bag, removing the tools needed for this full examination one by one and laying them out in a row on a tray. Bone saw, toothed forceps, rib cutters, scalpel, enterotome, skull chisel, just in case, and a Hagedorn needle to sew the corpse together.
“The hammer with hook is in the side pouch,” Uncle said, tying his own apron and rolling up his shirtsleeves. I nodded, setting about retrieving it while he scrubbed his hands and arms with carbolic soap. We were creatures of habit, he and I, both finding peace in our postmortem rituals.