- Escaping from Houdini
“You believe Jian or Andreas stole your signet, then?”
“I’m not certain who stole it. They are all dear to me, but I have no idea how deep some of their own scars go.”
“That’s life, my dear.” He lifted a shoulder. “They are the dregs of society—the throwaways and so-called freaks. When that’s beaten into you by others, you tend to stick to yourself and live by your own code. Who can you trust when the whole world turns so savagely on you? And in the name of what? Because we choose to live by our own rules? Because a young woman would prefer to cover herself in ink instead of silk? Or because there’s a person who enjoys swallowing flames in place of mucking out alleys in the East End?” His hands clenched at his sides. “I can no more blame them for biting the hand that feeds them than I can ignore the fact that society kicked them until they learned to strike back at anyone who dared to get close. We might band together, but we will always be apart, too. This carnival is home for now, but it won’t be forever for some. There’s always a grander dream, or larger goal, to achieve. This is the cost of dreaming without limits. This is the dark side of show business.”
I thought of one act in particular. “Like Houdini?”
Mephistopheles retrieved the broken balloon and tossed it into a rubbish bin. “Like him. Like Jian. Like Anishaa. Andreas. Cassie. And even Sebastián. We are all together—brothers and sisters—in this madness, until we’re not. I don’t relish thinking of them as thieves or scoundrels or even murderers, as you might suggest, not when that’s how so many others view them. But the fact remains I do not have the luxury of casting anyone aside. Though I am more inclined to believe it’s someone who’s not part of my troupe. I don’t know much about the captain, but he is… I’m not sure. He seems out for glory. I don’t know what he’d do with my signet or why he’d murder his own passengers, but I also can’t say he wouldn’t have stolen it or killed those people. Or had one of his crew members do the deeds for him. Perhaps he dreams of owning his own ship. My signet would fetch a decent price. And if he ends up ‘saving the day’ by finding the ‘true’ murderer, well, then, he’d be called a hero, wouldn’t he?”
“I thought dreams were good things,” I said, thinking to the start of our conversation.
“Ah, yes, but you cannot forget nightmares often begin as dreams.”
“If this dream has become such a burden, why not quit? You have the ability to walk away. I’m sure your family would gladly welcome you back.”
He gave me a sad smile and I thought perhaps it might be the truest thing I’d ever seen from the illusionist.
“If only it were so easy. You see, you create an escape for someone else, realizing at the last minute that you’ve trapped yourself in a cage of your own design. By then it’s too late—the show has taken on a legend of its own, and you are powerless to overcome those bars, so you submit to your art and allow the world to consume you, knowing the cost. Each performance siphons a bit more of your soul.”
“Sounds… pleasant. But do you still enjoy it?”
“You want me to remove my mask for you, Miss Wadsworth? You want the truth, then it shall be yours.” He stepped close to me, but I didn’t back away. “You both love and hate it, this ravenous beast that feeds until you’re nearly spent and never thinks of giving back. But you cannot fault it, you understand its selfishness—you were once selfish, too. So you make excuses for it, nourish it, love it, coax it into a monster so large it will never be satiated with what you give. You either must end it entirely—at the risk of yourself—or carry on until the last curtain falls and you take that final bow.”
A tear slipped down my cheek. “That’s incredibly sad, Mephistopheles.”
“That is the nature of the show—it never truly ends, only slumbers until it wakes and does it again. The performers you see out there?” He gestured toward the door. “They do not belong anywhere else. They have no home other than the one under the stage lights and striped tents. The show is home. And we are all much too indebted to its shelter to leave it behind.”
“All of you feel that way?”
“The fire-eater? The swordsman? The gentleman who nearly drowns each night… do you believe they’d be welcomed into the circles you belong to?” He shook his head. “Society scorned them, turned them into freak shows and curiosities, and now they are only interested in cheering because of the glamour of those velvet curtains. The allure of magic and mysticism. Should they encounter those same performers on the street, they would not be so kind or accepting. It is a sad truth that we do not live in a world where differences are accepted. And until such a time, Miss Wadsworth, I will provide a home to the misfits and unwanteds, even if it means losing bits of my soul to that hungry, unsatisfied beast Mr. Barnum has called show business.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. There was so much more at stake for Mephistopheles than I’d have thought—so much each and every person involved with the carnival stood to lose. They were a family of discarded souls, lost until they’d found a home with each other. It would destroy them if one of their own was the monster they so desperately tried to keep out of their reality. A chosen family who dealt in dreams and was living a nightmare. My chest ached. I did not want to break any of their hearts, but I couldn’t turn away from the crimes.
“If the murderer is a performer…” I sighed. “It would be better if the carnival didn’t hinder the investigation. And I don’t mean better for me or my uncle,” I added at the flash of incredulity in his face. “I know you take care of your own, but if word spread of you harboring a murderer—it will destroy everything you’ve built. Beast or not. This show will come to an end.”
Mephistopheles took a shuddering breath. “If I tell them to turn on each other, it will end badly no matter what.” He shook his head. “Enough of all that. Is Mr. Cresswell planning on returning my signet anytime soon, or is he prancing around at night wearing it, wishing he were as handsome as me?”
I blinked at the abrupt change in subject, but didn’t press the issue. “I will make sure you have your ring back.”
“I knew I liked you with good reason.” With that, he offered his arm. “Come. It’s almost time for breakfast. I’m sure Mr. Cresswell would enjoy spending time with you before the show tonight.”
I hesitated before taking his arm. “I was under the impression you’d want to keep me from Thomas as often as possible.”
“Don’t think I’ve gone and done the valiant thing, now, Miss Wadsworth. I’m still the same scoundrel you met a few days ago.” A bit of mischief was back in his eyes. “I simply want to steal you right out from before him.”
I didn’t bother responding. Let Mephistopheles believe he could pull off the biggest sleight of hand. I knew there was no one who possessed enough magic to spell me away from Thomas Cresswell. At least, I believed that to still be the truth. But in a world where illusions were hard to distinguish from reality, it was getting harder to tell.
METHOD OF DISTRACTION
7 JANUARY 1889
Jian tossed jewel-encrusted daggers into the air, handle over blade, in rapid-fire succession, juggling them as if they were no more dangerous than apples or oranges. It seemed far too early to be so cavalier with a weapon like that. He watched my reaction from the corner of his eye, mouth pressed into a flat line. He’d made it perfectly clear he did not care for me or my presence in his carnival, though my only crime thus far had been to exist. As far as he knew, anyway.
“Is that what you’ll be teaching me this morning?” I asked, hoping I sounded as unaffected as he looked. “Or will I be playing a different role in the finale? No one’s told me what, exactly, I have to do.”
Andreas glanced between us, sinking his teeth into his lower lip. “Actually”—he held a long, thick ribbon up, his expression a bit sheepish—“you’ll be standing against that board, wearing this for now. I’m not sure about the finale. Mephistopheles hasn’t told anyone what we’re doing yet.”
I followed where he pointed and shook my head. “No. Learning how to throw a knife or wield a sword is one thing, standing blindfolded against a board as a target is quite another. That’s sheer madness.”
Jian quirked a brow. “Are you scared?”
I whipped around to glare at him. Clearly he was either under the influence of the Green Fairy again or he was utterly insane. “Of course I’m scared! Any person with an ounce of logic would be. You want to throw daggers at my person. And you don’t like me.”
“I have very good aim.”
I pointed to myself to accentuate the point. “And I ought to simply trust that you won’t miss on purpose?”
Andreas shifted beside me. “Would you like me to go first?”
“You’re going to blindfold yourself and let him throw knives at you?” I shook my head. “You’re all mad. Absolutely, uncaringly mad.”
As crazy as the idea was, however, it was hard not to recall the precise way Miss Prescott had been slain. How the knife had unerringly found its target and severed her spinal column and pierced her internal organs. If Jian was as good as both he and Andreas claimed, then there was truly no way I’d stand there and offer myself up like a sacrificial lamb.
I blew a breath out. Logic told me it was dangerous and to run from the room, but I needed to do this. If not for me, for Miss Prescott. Time was running out and I had to gather as much information as I could—if we didn’t discover who was behind these murders, he or she would slip into the bustling New York streets and get lost within the cacophony forever. Witnessing Jian’s throwing abilities firsthand would benefit my research. “Fine. But if you miss, Mephistopheles won’t be pleased.”