- Escaping from Houdini
If there had been any hope left of this being some horrid part of the show, it withered immediately. A heartbeat later, the audience fully grasped what had startled our entertainers enough to cease their creepy procession.
Knives clattered to plates, gasps went around the room, and, judging from the sound of a body slamming into a surface, at least one passenger had passed out. I could hardly blame them; the sight of Lady Crenshaw floating in that tank with her whitish eyes and long hair winding through the water was straight out of a penny dreadful. A tale almost too wretched to be real.
As if they were star performers accepting their own roles in this horror show, Uncle and Thomas sprang from their seats and rushed to the tank. I tossed my napkin on the table and half stood, ready to run after them, but didn’t wish to leave Liza and Mrs. Harvey unattended. Even with the steady hum of terror pounding through my body, one truth calmed me: I didn’t believe anyone else was in immediate danger. At least, not yet.
Uncle shouted at the frozen carnival crew, “Draw the curtains!”
Almost instantly, the demand was obeyed, and the inky curtains quickly fluttered shut, taking with them the view of the submerged corpse. I stared at the velvet drapery, thoughts churning. If Thomas and Uncle hadn’t acted so quickly, I might have been able to convince myself I’d invented such a morbid sight. Another staged body. It was almost unfathomable.
Last month I’d studied the insides of a drowning victim. I could not shake the image of those blue lips and bloated belly from my mind no matter how hard I tried. Only that man had died as the result of a horrid accident—Lady Crenshaw likely had not.
Captain Norwood appeared from somewhere near the stage and began ordering staff and crew about like a general commanding his army. Within seconds of his arrival, passengers were rushed through the doors. Regardless of how many bizarre murders we’d borne witness to, the patrons didn’t make the evacuation task an easy one.
Chaos and discord raced about the room, dragging people to the floor, crushing them under the fleeing crowd. I blinked, unmoving, at the scene as if I were a mere apparition spying on the goings-on in Hell. Surely if such a place existed, it would appear exactly like this. A small fire flared up near the back of the room—the result of candles falling onto the table linens.
“Go.” Liza clutched my hands in hers, eyes wide but determined. “Uncle needs you up there. I’ll take Mrs. Harvey to our room. Again.” I blinked back a sudden prickling in my eyes and Liza tugged me into a crushing embrace. “Everything is going to be all right. We’ll be in New York by midnight tomorrow. We just need to make it through one more day.”
I nodded, unable to do more, and stepped back. Once they’d made their way toward the exit, I gathered my skirts and ran as swiftly as I could up the stairs and ducked behind the velvet curtains. Mephistopheles stood, hands on his hips, staring at the dead woman.
“I’m telling you, it’s simply not possible for her to have done this alone,” he said. His tone implied it wasn’t the first time he’d shared this information, and he was trying to remain calm despite the floating body in his show’s prop. He pointed to the top of the contraption. “See those locks? Someone slid them into place. It takes two of my men to fit the tank together. Once she’d gone in the water, there’s no possible way for her to maneuver the lid and then lock it. And do you honestly believe she skewered five hearts and then posted the playing card of the same name on the glass?”
“What does the Five of Hearts mean?” I asked, no longer worried about what suspicions I might raise. “You know cartomancy, right?”
Mephistopheles rubbed his brow. “Jealousy. It means ill will of the people surrounding you.”
“It makes sense, given her letter,” Thomas said.
“Letter?” I moved to Thomas’s side and noticed a square of paper in his hand. He glanced over and handed me the note while Uncle moved around the tank, taking in the details. I quickly scanned the paper, pulse galloping as I read the hurried script.
I reread the letter, brows drawn together. “Which girl is she speaking of?”
“That’s the question of the hour, Wadsworth.” Thomas lifted a shoulder. “Perhaps she’s discussing something that occurred off the boat. In fact”—he pointed to the second line—“I guarantee that whatever this refers to happened before any of them boarded this craft. I believe this is our murderer’s motive.”
Understanding dawned bright as the sunrise. “All we have to do is figure out who this refers to and then we’ll have our murderer.”
Mephistopheles sidled up to my other side and snorted. “Oh, is that all? That shouldn’t be difficult in the slightest.”
Thomas eyed him in a way that had me already shaking my head. “Perhaps not to someone such as yourself,” he said. “However, someone with a bit more wit and intelligence can make connections. Observe.” Thomas gently took the letter back and cleared his throat. “‘While she might have been pretty for a street wretch…’ Based on this line, one, with a semi-intelligent slant, might deduce that the ‘girl’ in question worked a profession that would be below Lady Crenshaw’s station, but not so low as to prevent them from interacting. Which leads one to consider a few possibilities.”
“You’re unbearable,” Mephistopheles muttered.
I smiled. “He’s only just beginning.”
Thomas ignored the commentary and ticked off probable jobs on his fingers. “Selling food. Selling trinkets. Selling ribbons or silks. Given Lady Crenshaw’s status, I doubt she’d be the one doing any shopping for food supply. It would be too far beneath her. That task would be left to the kitchen staff. Next, I cannot picture her buying a trinket that didn’t come from a more ‘suitable’ shop. Exempli gratia, she would not bother with anything that didn’t cost a significant coin to boast about with the ladies at her weekly tea. Flowers, ribbons, or silks might be the key. It would show her wealth and ability to spend money on frivolous things.”
Mephistopheles shook his head. “You’re quite smart, aren’t you?”
“Of course I am,” Thomas said. “Is that supposed to be insulting? Whatever will you comment on next; the golden flecks in my eyes? The sharpness of my jaw?”
“The extraordinary size of your ego?”
An impish grin slowly spread across Thomas’s face. “It’s not the only prodigious thing I can boast about.”
“Ignoring that sentiment, you’re saying if this were a story, you’d be the hero, correct?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Thomas said, appearing truly offended. “I’m dark and mysterious. And as likely to kiss or kill you on a whim. Does that sound heroic to you? Not many heroes are good-looking masterminds. I, however, have harnessed my dark talents for the greater good.”
“Ah. I understand now.” Mephistopheles’s lips twitched. “You’re a lunatic.”
“I prefer ‘unpredictable.’ It’s got a nicer ring to it.”
I cleared my throat. “Honestly, you’re both infantile. Can we please focus on the poor woman in the tank?”
Blessedly, Jian, Houdini, and Andreas picked that moment to come backstage. Each of them blanched at the sight of the corpse but, to their immense credit, managed to tear their gazes away and not be sick. I noticed Anishaa huddling just behind the curtain with Sebastián and Cassie, on their faces matching expressions of shock and terror.
Harry gave Mephistopheles a steady look. “Everyone’s talkin’ about layin’ low until New York, then leavin’ for good.”
The ringmaster’s face set into a grim expression. He seemed almost resigned to the fact that his dreams were beyond salvaging. Something tugged deep within my center, longing to fix this whole situation. Before Mephistopheles could comment, I stepped forward.
“We’re close to solving the murders,” I said, raising my voice so they’d hear, hoping I sounded much more confident about that fact than I felt. “We’ve already discovered the profession of the girl Lady Crenshaw described in her letter. It shouldn’t take too much longer to connect more pieces.”
I glanced at each performer, then flicked my gaze to Mephistopheles. It was hard to discern anything for certain behind his mask, but I could have sworn I saw gratitude in his eyes.
“The show must go on,” I said. “It’s what you all do. Give the passengers a bit of hope and distraction—they need it, and you—more than ever. Let’s make the finale something worth remembering.”
7 JANUARY 1889
“No, no, no.” Anishaa shifted my ungloved hand down several inches. “If you hold the baton too close to the flame, you’ll set yourself on fire. The skirts of our costumes are highly flammable with all the tulle. You need to hold it near the end. Good. Now just move it around slowly, pretend you’re painting the sky with flames.”
I quirked a brow. “‘Painting the sky with flames’? Sounds like a dramatic canvas indeed.”
Anishaa slowly cracked a smile. It had only been a few hours since the discovery of Lady Crenshaw’s body, and tensions were still high. “I used to paint back before my life became this.” The grin faded. “My family encouraged my creativity, though they never approved of the circus.”
A few moments of silence passed between us, broken only by the soft crackling of the fire. If I wasn’t holding a torch, I’d give her a hug. “Well, now you’re a living bit of artwork. And that’s an incredible—”
“I read the letter! How are you going to deny it?” Liza’s piercing voice rang out. I briefly closed my eyes, not surprised but dreading the fact my cousin was unleashing herself now. We were so close to New York, if only she could have held off for a bit longer. “This is over, we are over! I do not wish to see or speak to you again!”