Our luxurious ship was nothing more than a floating prison.
I pulled a pair of thick stockings on and lay on my bed, knowing sleep was the last thing I’d accomplish with so many thoughts spinning through my mind. I picked up the Ace of Clubs I’d found staked to Miss Prescott’s body and inspected it. What connection did it have to this murder? I mulled over a few potential clues, the most prominent having to do with magic tricks.
Sleight of hand was something I’d not given much thought to before, though I’d seen street magicians roll cards across their knuckles in London. They must practice for long hours to make it appear so fluid a motion, their deception flawless to an untrained eye. Not too different from a cunning murderer.
Crime scenes were filled with their own sort of sleight of hand. Murderers tried fabricating scenes, manipulating them to cover their true intentions and identity. Mephistopheles was gifted in the art of misdirection, something based in fact, not fantasy. He made a person look one way when they ought to do the exact opposite. If he hadn’t been onstage when Miss Prescott was killed, he’d be the most likely culprit.
I sat up, heart racing, as I finally understood my earlier preoccupation with the young ringmaster. I wanted to learn his very particular skills—utilizing that part of my brain while placing myself in the minds of deviants and murderers would be most beneficial. Something niggled around the edges of my mind, some hazy, far-flung idea that would be nearly impossible to pull off. If I could mislead Thomas Cresswell, make him believe the impossible—that my feelings had shifted—then I’d know for certain I was an expert at that art form…
Abandoning that plan, I settled back into my pillows and flipped the Ace of Clubs over, searching for significance. It was sliced through its center and stained with dried blood, but the back had the most interesting design. A raven—dark as ink—opened its wings against a silver moon. Vines and thorns were intricately woven around the card’s edges in thick black strokes. On both the top and bottom center, a strange double eight lay on its side, overlapping itself.
I avoided touching the place where the knife had torn it, still in denial that Miss Prescott had been slain right beside me and I hadn’t been any the wiser. If only Uncle hadn’t—
A soft knock came at the door connecting my room and my chaperone’s, startling me from my ruminations. I pushed myself up, deposited the card on my nightstand, and wrapped an embroidered orchid dressing robe about me. Gooseflesh rose, though it wasn’t from surprise. The watered silk was cool and smooth as liquid against the parts of my skin not covered by my nightgown.
“It’s only me, dear.” Mrs. Harvey opened the door, a small tea service balanced on her ample hip. “Thought you could do with something warm. I also brought my traveling tonic just in case you’d like something a bit warmer.”
I smiled, recalling the clever name she’d given her spirits when we’d traveled to Romania last month. Her engraved flask teetered on the tray. The sharp scent of alcohol was detectable from where I sat and I decided it would indeed warm me quickly. And perhaps burn a hole through my stomach in the process.
“Tea will do for now, thank you.” I went to join her at the small table, but she stopped me with a firm shake of her head. She poured tea, then tucked me back into bed, pushing the steaming cup into my hands. Bergamot and rose immediately scented the air, relaxing me at once. “Thank you.”
“There, there, child.” She plopped down beside me and took a generous swig of her tonic. “No need to thank me. I was simply in need of a bit of company myself. Makes the traveling tonic go down easier.” Her gaze drifted over to the card on my nightstand. “Wealth.”
“Pardon?” I asked, wondering if she’d already been sipping her tonic.
“My husband used to dabble in cartomancy—reading fortunes in playing cards—in his youth. It was how we met.” A wistfulness entered her expression. “He was dreadful at it. God rest his soul. Though he was quite talented in other areas.”
“How are you faring?” I asked, quickly changing the subject. I didn’t wish to find out which talents she was dreamily recalling. “It’s been quite a day.”
“I don’t know how you and my Thomas do what you do and keep your wits about you,” she said, snapping back to the present, “but I’m proud of you both. You make a fine pair, you know. In your apprenticeship and in other ways. Has Thomas made his intentions clear?”
I stuck my face in my cup, hoping the steam could be blamed for the flush creeping onto my skin. “Yes… well… that is, I believe he wishes to speak with my father.”
“He’s not conventional. Lord help him, he’s got much to learn about using those manners of his, but his heart is good.” Mrs. Harvey took another sip, eyeing me over her spectacles. “You will make him very happy, Audrey Rose. But, most important, I believe he will also make you very happy.” She wiped at wetness in the corner of her eye. “It’s not proper… but… here.”
Without saying more, she handed over a folded note. There was no name on it and no envelope. I looked up quickly. “What’s this?”
Mrs. Harvey gathered her flask and moved toward the door, lifting a shoulder. “I haven’t the slightest notion what you mean, dear. I’m simply an old woman who came to say good evening. I sleep like the dead, so you’ll have to shout if you need me. I most certainly wouldn’t hear if your door opened and closed.”
With a wink, she closed the door to our chambers, leaving me gaping after her. Clearly she hadn’t been as unaware of Thomas’s flirtations last month as she had appeared. Without thinking too hard on how he’d convinced her to take part in this new scheme, I unfolded the paper. A short message in neat script greeted me. I wondered who’d written it until I read it.
My pulse thrummed at the proposition contained in one small line. It wasn’t the first time Thomas had requested we meet somewhere at such an indecent hour. Unchaperoned. This time, however, we weren’t in a mostly empty boarding school in Romania, far from inquisitive eyes. If we were to be caught alone here amongst the upper class—I’d be deemed a trollop, my reputation destroyed. Then again, perhaps Thomas had deduced a new theory or discovered another clue that might unveil Miss Prescott’s murderer. My wretched curiosity whirled with possibilities.
I stared at the note a moment more, biting my lip, surprised Thomas would have an attendant take down such a personal message. I could pretend as if I’d never received it. Do the polite and decent thing expected of me. But that path was so utterly dull. I thought of Thomas’s lips on mine, imagined his hands tangled in my dark hair, our breath coming in short gasps as his hands slowly traveled over me, exploring and teasing.
Acceptable or not, I craved his touch.
My eyes snapped to the small clock ticking away on my nightstand. It was nearly midnight now. I glanced down at my silk robe and lace-trimmed nightgown, the ruffles on my sleeves falling across my fingers. There wasn’t enough time to get dressed and rush all the way to the starboard side of the boat without being seen. Yet showing up in my current state would cause embolisms should I run into anyone else who’d decided on a midnight stroll. Which sounded precisely like the sort of deviant plan Thomas would make.
“Scoundrel.” I smiled, then tossed my winter cloak on, grabbed a scalpel from my medical bag just to be safe, and hoped for the best as I crept out my door.
During daylight hours, the Etruria inspired feelings of grand travel and frivolity, what with its massive masts and large steam funnels. Hardwood floors had been buffed and polished until sunshine gleamed like diamonds from them, and the roof above the promenade deck was a beautiful addition to the pearly corridor of first class.
At night those same features felt haunted, dangerous. The overhang was more akin to an open mouth, waiting to chomp down on guests; the same shining floors were now reminiscent of a salivating tongue. Lifeboats secured to the wall were actually perfect hiding places instead of quaint miniatures. The immense sails snapped around as if they were wings of some enormous sea creature hunting fresh meat. Smokestacks exhaled, the fog lingering around the railing, watching. Anything might be lurking in the mist. Or, more appropriately, anyone.
“Foolish,” I whispered, pulling my fur-trimmed cloak tighter as icy fingers meandered down my skin. If Miss Prescott hadn’t been murdered, I’d blame my overactive imagination for morphing the boat into a gargantuan creature. But there truly could be something hiding in the shadows, hoping to sink its claws into my back next. I decided I didn’t care for sea travel one bit.
Thomas would do better to choose a more reasonable place for any future clandestine meetings. Preferably indoors, near a fire, far from empty corridors and thrashing waters. Teeth chattering, I hurried down the promenade, attention snagging on anything that seemed out of place, though it was hard to know exactly what didn’t belong. I’d never traveled on such a vessel before.
Wind whipped down the open corridor with a low warning howl. Ropes creaked. Each new sound was like a needle pricking my veins. I held my scalpel tightly at my side, not wanting to strike out at anyone by mistake. I needed to rein in my emotions, or someone could get hurt. I longed to kiss Thomas, not accidentally eviscerate him.
As I neared the front of the ship, I slowed my pace. I didn’t see my future betrothed, but surely he had to have arrived by now. I strained to see around benches and slatted chairs that had been bolted to the ground. It was hard to make out anything more than silhouettes in the cloud-covered night; the dim lanterns lining the promenade were either turned off or didn’t extend this far. I swallowed my fear down. No one was out hunting me.
“Thomas?” I whispered, inching toward the prow. On this part of the ship, the wind was merciless. I tucked my chin to my chest, though that hardly helped. If Thomas didn’t appear soon, I’d—
He strode toward me, a silhouette in human form. My heart raced.