Dozens of costumed performers emerged from each corner of the room, picking their way around tables, silent and ironically frightening in their joker’s hats with dangling bells. Their full masks were white with tarry black diamonds painted around their eyes that dripped down to crimson lips. It seemed no matter what horror the afternoons brought, the evening shows would go on. A symphony composed of Renaissance instruments fiddled an old tune, the violins and harps sounding mournful, giving the impression of having gone back a few centuries in time.

Against my best efforts, I shuddered at the puppetlike performers. If these Venetian jesters were terrifying, I hated to see the plague-mask act come to life. Mephistopheles’s imagination was a dark and treacherous place.

Stiff white tulle ruffles around their collars and hips evoked images of ballerinas who’d broken free from Hades, but at a great cost. Black and gold triangles of fabric completed the collar and skirts, and also made up the waistcoat and sleeves. I didn’t know how these hellions could ever be considered humorous—they certainly didn’t invoke any feelings of levity as they danced and hopped from one nimble foot to the next in quiet procession through the room.

I couldn’t help imagining their costumes being pieced together from a collection of fabrics stolen from victims—a macabre trophy that the killer could secretly admire each night. I knew it wasn’t probable or likely, but it didn’t prevent gooseflesh from rising on my arms.

Thomas eyed them the way one might stare at a horrid accident, his lip curled. I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t find the will to do so after our somber afternoon studying Mrs. Prescott’s corpse. I also couldn’t ignore the tension from our earlier argument—it had been stuffed away in light of the larger issue, but the uncomfortable feeling persisted.

“The flame-tossing jugglers I understand,” he said, “but this? What exactly is their purpose? They’re simply peculiar. Mephisto is losing his touch. Perhaps he’s finally made a bad bargain—which isn’t unexpected. No one’s as perfect as me.”

“This entire carnival is peculiar,” Uncle muttered. “I’ll be glad to be done with it all. One more night after this now.”

Liza lifted a delicate shoulder. She was unable to participate in the show, since Uncle was in attendance this evening, but didn’t appear too upset by it. Her gown was exceptionally gorgeous tonight—beaded crystals sewn onto a rose-petal pink. “That’s precisely the point. Their peculiarity is the draw—you’re so focused on them, I bet you haven’t noticed what’s being hauled out onto the stage.”

My attention snapped to the next act that had quietly come in when all eyes were focused elsewhere. Liza sat back, a smug look on her face. Even Uncle appeared surprised for a brief moment before tucking into his meal again.

“Love or loathe him—you have to admit Mephistopheles is remarkable. He knows exactly what distractions to use.” My cousin’s gaze landed on me for emphasis, and I wished to slowly crawl under the table—she was most decidedly not helping my cause. “Harry has learned so much in just a few short weeks. Mephistopheles is quite the teacher.”

“And,” Uncle said under his breath, “possibly quite the murderous fiend as well.”

Deciding to don bravery like it was my most exquisite accessory, I glanced at Thomas. He looked like he’d swallowed a toad. I politely coughed a laugh away. At that he offered a tentative smile and I did, too—it was good to be back on the same side.

“Yes,” Thomas said blandly, “next we’ll be hearing that he’s walked across the sea.”

“If he attempts that, then I’m sure a Siren or whale will swallow him whole,” I said. Thomas perked up at the thought. I turned to my cousin and leaned close to avoid being overheard by the diners at the nearest table. “Would Harry use theatrics as a distraction to something more serious? What—what if one of his experiments went terribly wrong? Would he tell anyone, or simply try and make the bodies disappear? You have to admit, the trunk is a very Houdini way of disposing of something.”

Liza stared at me as if I’d gone mad. “Missing and murdered women are not the best way of having his performances end up in the papers, Cousin. Harry wants fame, not infamy. Same goes for Mephistopheles. You can’t honestly believe they’re to blame?”

“What if that’s what he wants you to believe?” Thomas asked. “Perhaps fame is the misdirection. Do you really know what he’s after?”

Liza opened her mouth, then shut it. I imagined she was taking her mother’s advice to count to ten before speaking when a kind word couldn’t easily be found. “Harry would not be involved with anyone who was—what? Do you both think Mephistopheles is actually a murderer?” She snorted, forgetting about manners. “If you want to throw accusations around, you ought to investigate Captain Norwood. Have you seen the way he treats his crew? I wouldn’t doubt he’d be capable of tossing people overboard if they displeased him. The man is an absolute nightmare.”

On that much we were agreed. I could see the captain shoving someone over the railing in a fit of rage. He was an odd character—at once completely pleasant and docile and, when angered, fierce and nasty as they came. But I did not believe he had an ounce of theatrical violence in that well-structured suit of his.

Mrs. Harvey leaned across the table, lips still trembling from the shock she’d received earlier. I wished to reach over and embrace her. Shaken though she was, she refused to sit alone in her chambers. Thomas had offered to stay and dine in with her, but she’d have none of it. I had an inkling it had to do with the rumor of Houdini sporting his underthings once again that gave her an extra push to attend the show.

Though most other passengers must not have felt the same—the dining saloon was even more empty tonight than it had been yesterday. The ship was slowly turning into a ghost vessel, places once filled with life now seemed haunted and silent.

“What do you think is behind that curtain?” she asked. “I hope it’s not another milk can. I didn’t care for that act one bit. Too much tension isn’t good for your constitution. I don’t think I can handle another fright so soon.”

“Cousin? What secrets can you offer?” I turned to Liza, ready to lighten the mood with a joke when the lights flashed, then went out, leaving us in darkness broken only by candles flickering on our tables. Uncle muttered something about not being able to see his entrée, but I decided not to comment.

“Esteemed guests.” Mephistopheles’s disembodied voice hung in the air like fog. “Tonight we ask you to turn your attention skyward, as the Empress puts on her most heavenly show. Note there are no nets, and should she fall, well, let’s not worry on that now.”

A single light illuminated Cassie as she sat on her trapeze, staring out at the crowd. On her head was a crown with twelve glittering stars at the points; her bodice had pomegranate seeds sewn across it—to represent her ruling over the earth, according to Mephistopheles’s lesson on tarot card meanings—she was regal and elegant, haughty and proud. With her hair in golden ringlets cascading down her back tonight, I could see how she embodied an ideal angelic figure. Though I knew better than to be fooled by her innocent appearance.

Her act started off slowly; she swayed from one end of the room to the other. Swinging from one trapeze to the next, seeming to delight whenever her fingertips left the safety of one and grabbed onto the other. I recalled longing for that sense of freedom when my brother and I had attended a circus during the Ripper murders. There was something beautiful about letting go.

A second floodlight announced another performer joining her ranks. The young man twisted and flipped, crisscrossing over Cassie as their tricks became more intricate.

“That’s Sebastián,” Liza whispered. “He uses the contortion angle quite well for this act.”

I watched the contortionist with renewed interest. Was he capable of killing the women aboard this ship and staging their bodies so horridly? I hadn’t gotten to speak with him and noticed he’d shy away each time I’d get close. As he flew back and forth above us, tumbling across the sky, I could certainly imagine the hidden strength in his lithe body.

What remained of the dining saloon politely enjoyed the show, though there was a considerable feeling of subdued awe present. I wondered if it was fear of things turning deadly, or the lack of that very essence. These passengers were the most unaffected by the crimes. Though they might be putting on an act of their own until this nightmare ceased.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Mephistopheles’s voice echoed, though he was nowhere to be seen. “Prepare to be enthralled. Our stage has been set, and this next act is sure to dazzle and stun. Please contain yourselves as the great Houdini attempts to escape death once more in his infamous torture cell!”

Thomas made to open his mouth when a third light suddenly flashed on, and the curtain hiding the object onstage was lifted away by invisible hands. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the intake of breath or the subsequent screams as people began piecing together what they were looking at.

Suspended inside the torture cell—a glass tank filled with water—a woman stared out at us with milky-white eyes. I would believe her to be a mermaid of legends if not for the obvious fact she was very real and very dead. What appeared to be five anatomical hearts were skewered with long rods through her limbs, discolored from being submerged. On the front of the glass, a playing card was posted, too small to make out from where I sat.

Someone vomited near us, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from the tank. It took a few moments to snap myself free of my own terror and realize this victim was familiar to me.

The woman in the tank was none other than Lady Crenshaw.





7 JANUARY 1889

Venetian jesters near the stage faltered, their disjointed steps no longer part of their roles but from their fear that felt thick as tar permeating the room. They stood still, openly gaping at the dead woman, their silence more frightening than it had been while they pranced about from foot to foot.