When I said nothing, he lifted a shoulder, but there was a tightness around his mouth that belied his nonchalance. “Life, like the show, goes on whether we agree with it or not. If we stopped living, ceased to celebrate our existences in the face of death or tragedy, then we might as well tumble into our own graves.”

A thought struck me. “Whose idea was it for the torture cell tonight… yours, Houdini’s, or the captain’s?”

“Let’s call it a mutual agreement.” The lion growled, startling Mephistopheles away from the cage. He straightened his waistcoat. “What did you learn regarding Mrs. Prescott’s death?”

That anyone, including him, might have placed her in that trunk. I shuddered—two women, stuffed into a trunk and a tank. Both horrendous resting places. “We’re going to do a postmortem in the morning. Her husband wished for one night to say goodbye.”

“You’re confident you’ll identify the cause of death, though?” he pressed. I nodded, not ready to admit we’d already discovered that she’d likely been smothered. “Interesting.”

“It’s not really that interesting or hard, once you’ve practiced enough.”

“Some would say the work you do is impossible. Think on it a moment, if you will. You take a body, carve it open, and read clues left behind. Sounds impossible to anyone untrained in your field. Reading the dead? Identifying cause of death by sight, by determining which organ wasn’t functioning properly?” He walked in a circle, hands behind his back. “You have to get your hands messy, though, don’t you? To do something others think is impossible—no matter what the arena or circumstance—your hands will get stained in the process.”

I took an unsteady step backward, nearly losing my footing by the tiger’s cage. There was an air of confession to his words, ones that made the little hairs along my arm stand at attention. I knew nothing of this young man, save for his ability at misdirection.

My heart thundered. Was Mephistopheles using me as a sleight of hand this entire time? These midnight meetings might be his way of distracting Thomas—making him believe there was something clandestine happening between us, forcing him to overlook any other sinister acts he could be committing. Thomas might trust me, but no matter how hard he denied it, he was human. His emotions could be toyed with like any other’s. Just as Liza had warned.

And I’d been equally blinded by Mephistopheles. I was doing exactly what he’d asked because I wanted to help my cousin at all costs. A fact he had noticed straightaway. Magicians were trained to find marks in a crowd, and Mephistopheles was among the best.

He watched me from the shadows, the caged lion prowling back and forth behind him. There was something dark and cunning to Mephistopheles—a cat with a full belly who was deciding if the mouse was worth killing yet. Or saving for another day when he truly hungered for it. I never quite knew which he desired more and which thrilled me most. Perhaps I was as twisted and gnarled on the inside as he was.

He didn’t move closer but managed to fill the space between us anyway. I longed for a clever retort, something to prove how unafraid I was to win at his games, but he glanced down at my hands pointedly. “If you wish to accomplish great things, sometimes you must get your hands dirty on the climb up. But you’ve already done that for your pursuits. It’s a bit odd you don’t allow me the same courtesy.”

I noticed the smudge of dirt on my palms. I rubbed my hands together, but the stain refused to lighten. I must have grabbed onto the bars at some point, though the image of stained hands unnerved me; I’d dipped my hands into blood more times than I could count.

“Thanks to rough water, the captain said we won’t make land for one day now, Miss Wadsworth.” Mephistopheles turned to go, then paused, fingers tapping the doorjamb. “I sincerely hope you solve these murders for both our sakes. I’m not sure the carnival will survive another hit. There’s more than one way to make a man drown.”





7 JANUARY 1889

I slipped into my room, relieved to find it unoccupied. Liza must have stayed out with the other performers to work out her annoyance, and Mrs. Harvey was likely asleep. No one would be any the wiser about my midnight meeting with the Devil.

“Maddening fool.” I sat on the edge of the bed, absently tracing the orchids stitched onto my silk skirts, Mephistopheles’s words tumbling through my mind. There was most certainly more than one way of killing a man—whoever had been terrorizing the ship was acquainted with that sentiment.

I pulled the playing cards out from my nightstand and set them on top of the blankets. Half were found with bodies, and the other half were found near the crime scenes. Ace of Clubs. Six of Diamonds. Ace of Spades. Five of Hearts. Yet the murders themselves were fashioned after tarot cards and their meanings.

Five of Hearts correlated to jealousy. Ace of Clubs, wealth. Lady Crenshaw was most certainly jealous over some unidentified young woman. The Ace of Clubs had been staked through Miss Prescott on opening night—perhaps her father had been bribed.

I rubbed my temples. None of it made sense. Unless, perhaps, whoever was perpetrating these crimes was indicating he or she was laying their cards out for all to see. It was a stretch, but it might be a good place to start.

I leafed through the other notes I’d jotted down and spread them next to the cards. Uncle believed sometimes a pattern might emerge or our brains might pick up on something after having written it down. His methods rarely failed me. I added a few new notes.

Tarot card found in Jian’s act—Justice.

Body impaled with seven swords. (Dr. Arden’s daughter, tarot Seven of Swords)

I paused, recalling that Mephistopheles had said it was called a reversed Seven of Swords. And its meaning… its meaning was… something about a person who believed they’d gotten away with something. Or so he’d said. So did that indicate that Dr. Arden’s daughter had been in trouble? Might she have believed herself to be free from whatever crime she might have committed? I hadn’t a clue where to go about locating that answer—Dr. Arden still refused to leave his chambers or answer the door, and the captain was growing antsier the closer to America we got. Moving along, I added the next bit of information.

The Star tarot (body burned onstage)—emerald ring found, confirming Miss Crenshaw as deceased. Tarot meaning “transformation”?

Six of Diamonds found in her cabin. Meaning to be determined.

Poisonous belladonna found in stomach contents—cause of death.

Severed arm found in lion’s cage—still unidentified, likely male based on examination. Wedding band left untouched.

Mrs. Prescott found suffocated in a trunk, no tarot. Connected how?

Lady Crenshaw deceased in a tank, Five of Hearts instead of tarot. Note left detailing her perceived crimes. She could not have placed herself in that tank, however. Card meaning: jealousy.

I sat back and rolled my head one way and the other, stretching out my muscles. There was most certainly a consistency with the crimes, with the exception of the severed limb and the body found in the cargo hold. They did not appear to be connected with the other murders. Unless they had been unfortunate victims who happened upon the crimes and could report them to someone. And potentially identify the murderer…

“What am I missing?” I asked aloud. “What connects you all? What story do these cards tell with their meanings?”

I thought of Dr. Arden’s odd behavior, of how he’d kept us from speaking with Chief Magistrate Prescott, how he openly lied to us. What might he be hiding both the Prescotts and himself from? And after his daughter’s murder, why was he still unwilling to talk with us?

A chief magistrate and a physician. A noblewoman with a guilty conscience. Two possible witnesses. Two different styles of cards, both holding secret meanings to be deciphered. I nibbled on my lower lip, concentrating hard as an idea slowly niggled around the edges of my brain. If Thomas was correct, then Lady Crenshaw had likely encountered a girl who sold something worthy of the Lady Crenshaw’s attention. Ribbons didn’t quite seem to have boasting factor over tea, though. Were I hosting a lavish party, or one that I’d like to seem as such, I’d purchase as many flowers as I could afford. That would make quite a statement of wealth, especially if the flowers were from a hothouse. My pulse picked up. It was the most plausible scenario.

The Crenshaws and the Prescotts each received free passage on the Etruria and knew each other before setting sail. If Lady Crenshaw upset her husband enough, it might stand to reason that he’d gone to his friend, the chief magistrate, and filed a complaint against the flower girl. Did they not offer her a fair trial, instead sending her off to the workhouse, whose conditions were likely more deplorable than the streets she fought to survive on?

But how did Dr. Arden fit into this theory? I pulled a tarot deck out that Mephistopheles had given me, tracing the filigree edges of the Death card, thoughts churning. A man of medicine would be tasked with seeing patients, even those who’d committed crimes. Perhaps he’d been the prison physician and had administered a tonic that killed instead of saved. Maybe it was no accident. Maybe one of his powerful and rich friends asked him for this favor and he obliged. Might each of them be involved in some larger plot to cover their own crimes? It would explain why Dr. Arden wished to keep everyone from talking. The less they said, the less they could implicate themselves in a murder of their own doing.

I glanced around the cabin. It was starting to get late enough that Liza ought to return soon, and the last thing she needed was to be surrounded by more trauma. I straightened the mess of evidence I’d collected and swept it into the nightstand, saving my tarot deck for last. My cousin had been through quite enough and—as I went to close the drawer, a small box with a ribbon closure caught my eye.

My blood felt as if it cooled several degrees when I noticed the Eight of Swords tarot card that sat tucked beneath it. My initial reaction was to pick the box up and toss it across the room, screaming until someone was alerted. But my logical and curious self couldn’t bear the thought of destroying any clues. Someone had purposely left this inside my nightstand and I didn’t believe it was out of kindness.