- Escaping from Houdini
Pulse speeding, I reached over and tentatively pulled the box onto my lap. It wasn’t very large, though I still hesitated to open it. A dark, wretched feeling settled around me. Whatever this box contained, it was not going to be pleasant. I stared at the tarot card, allowing a moment to pass to steal myself against this new task. A blindfolded woman stood prisoner in a cage of swords. Her entire body had been tied with silks, indicating there was no escape. Seemed like a good metaphor for this ship.
I jerked my attention back to the box, breathing harder. I ought to run to Uncle’s cabin and open it there, but it was late and what could he do other than offer moral assistance? Surely, if he or Thomas received the box, they’d not wait to tear into it. Still, I gave myself another moment to focus on breathing steadily, and slowly, carefully, pulled the ribbon apart. Before I lost my nerve, I removed the lid.
Inside, on a bed of crushed velvet, lay a finger.
I blinked as the sounds in the room amplified. Suddenly I could hear every last tick of the clock. Each ocean wave that quietly lapped against the hull of the ship. I even heard creaks coming from next door where Mrs. Harvey seemed to have awoken. All of it was too loud. I focused on inhaling and exhaling. I wanted to throw the box out of my room, but it would be both careless and extreme. A severed finger couldn’t hurt me.
A folded scrap of paper was wedged beneath the finger, a bit of blood splattered across the creamy card stock. If I’d been disturbed by the finger, a whole new wave of trepidation crashed through me. A note from a killer was never a jolly good time.
My own hands shook as I plucked it from the box, careful to avoid touching the new bit of evidence. I unfolded the note and was thankful I’d already been seated. Had I been standing, I was certain I’d have collapsed on the spot.
I reread the threat, heart pounding faster than my thoughts.
Liza was in danger.
The murderer had her and I knew with every last fiber of my being that he meant every word. He’d already mutilated her poor, innocent hand. He would kill her and turn her body into another spectacle. And it was all my fault. I pressed my hands against my eyes until all I saw were white flashes behind my closed lids. I could not simply sit and wait for Liza to be returned, unharmed. It went against everything I held dear. But I also could not make it obvious that I was searching for her.
I stood, pacing around the small cabin, never feeling more as if I had been a bird trapped in a metal cage. How a ship could contain so many nooks and crannies and darkened places to commit nefarious deeds was beyond comprehension. I rushed over to the service wall and rang for an attendant. I needed to send for the one person who could help in this situation.
I scribbled a note with instructions on where to meet and had already donned my overcoat and pulled on thick gloves by the time the maid arrived.
“Take this straightaway. Please let him know it’s urgent.”
She nodded and left as swiftly as she’d arrived. Unable to wait any longer, I slipped into the night and ran toward the only place left where I felt free from the metal walls closing in.
8 JANUARY 1889
I examined the vast expanse of ocean, watching as its nothingness grew into a monster so large I had no hope of ever evading it. My heart rate jumped into a full-on trot. It was hard to fathom that I’d thought this voyage would be fit for daydreams at the start of the week.
Now Liza was taken, her finger sitting in a velvet box, and there was an entire ship full of mysterious people who each possessed opportunity and motive. Surely the answer had to be there, glinting like a shard of broken glass reflecting moonlight, waiting to be discovered. If only I could grasp it before something unthinkable happened to my cousin.
I felt his presence before he spoke, and faced him. In the dark he was nothing more than a silhouette before he stepped closer. “H-have you found anything out?” I stammered.
Thomas wrapped his coat around my shoulders and gazed out at the sea. “Captain Norwood has the entire crew searching the ship. They’re combing every inch—your uncle’s wrath is more motivating than anything, I believe. If Liza…” He drew in a sharp breath and exhaled loudly. “They won’t stop searching for her.”
He held me close, though it didn’t stop the internal shudders from racking my body. Liza was being tortured. I had done that to her. My wretched affinity for getting involved with crimes now placed her into the heart of one. Father had been correct all those months ago. Decent people didn’t expose themselves to the underbelly of the world.
I looked out at the undulating black waves, tucked beneath Thomas’s arms. We stayed that way for a few moments, though the majority of me was buzzing with a need for action. I wanted to rush from room to room, screaming, until Liza was found. If I didn’t gain control of my emotions and clear my mind, I’d be of no use to my cousin. They’d likely haul me off to the brig and that would only complicate things.
Liza. My heart contracted. I longed to shatter myself against the ship and sink to the ocean floor. Instead I set my jaw. “I cannot shake the feeling of a connection we’re missing. What do the cards have to do with everything?”
Thomas glanced at me from the corner of his eye. “At this point, I’m not sure it matters.”
“Everything matters and you know it.” I sighed. “Jack the Ripper chose women who were forced to sell themselves, the Dracula case targeted mostly members of the House of Basarab. What of these women? There has to be some tie that binds them together in the murderer’s mind. How do these puzzle pieces fit? Better yet… who knew them before they set foot on the Etruria? And why take Liza? What does she have to do with it?”
“Well, they seem to have known each other prior to boarding the ship. That is a fact between Dr. Arden and the Prescotts, at least. As for your cousin?” Thomas inhaled deeply. “She’s likely only a bartering piece. We’re gaining ground on the murderer, and he isn’t pleased. A nerve has been struck and he or she is lashing out.”
I huddled into Thomas’s overcoat as a particularly icy blast of air whipped along the promenade. “There’s something about the cards that bothers me and I can’t quite figure out why.”
He raised a brow, eyes sparkling. “You’ve got an idea, don’t you?”
“Come,” I said, tugging him toward the cabins, finally able to put my energy into action. “I know just who might have an answer for us.”
Houdini opened his door and cast a weary glance at us. I was surprised to find him alone—no Jian or Andreas or even Mephistopheles.
On a small table near his bed lay a book with drawings and diagrams. Most of which appeared to be contraptions that would make Death shudder.
“Are you going to go through with the torture cell trick?” I asked, moving fully into the rather large space as he swept his arm in welcome. Several trunks and tables were stacked around in messy piles. Cards and cuffs and chains all spilling from them.
“I ain’t quitting this business. No matter how many bodies show up, I won’t be intimidated by nothin’.” He narrowed his eyes. “Did Liza send you here?”
Hearing her name sent needles spiking through my system. He hadn’t yet heard she was the newest victim. I couldn’t bring myself to respond. Thomas moved forward.
“No”—Thomas’s voice was cordial enough to be a warning—“but Miss Wadsworth will gladly send you overboard if you keep that tone up.” At Houdini’s confused expression, he added, “She’s the muscle. I’m clearly the charm.”
Houdini shook his head as if to free himself of the absurdity of the idea and moved over to the bed. “If Liza didn’t send you, then why are you here?”
“I have questions about playing cards.” I interrupted Thomas before he could provide any more charm. “As the King of Cards, I figured you’d be the perfect person to answer them.”
He eyed me warily but finally nodded. “What do you wanna know?”
I pulled out the cards found with—or near—the victims and laid them on the table, feeling only marginally terrible at having kept them. Normally, I’d never consider tampering with evidence. I hadn’t a clue if the order in which they were found mattered, but I did my best to set them down in the time period they were first discovered.
“Five of Hearts, Ace of Clubs, Ace of Spades, Six of Diamonds,” he said, glancing up. “Where’s the rest of the deck?”
“That’s all there is,” I said, pointing to the first card. “Do they mean anything?”
If he noticed the slight hesitation in my statement, he didn’t let on. He picked up the cards, inspecting them carefully on each side. “For starters, these are Mephistopheles’s personal set.”
Thomas went very still beside me. “How can you be sure?”
Houdini flicked something on the card with his pointer finger. “See that?” I leaned in for a better look at the thorns woven around the edges of each card. “And these?” Houdini showed us tiny cursive making up the circular shapes on the back of the cards. “Vincere Vel Mori.”
“‘Conquer or die’?” I asked, silently thanking Headmaster Moldoveanu for forcing us to freshen up on our Latin.
“If you say so.” Houdini lifted a shoulder. “What it means doesn’t matter to me.”
“Why does this lead you to believe Mephistopheles is the owner of these cards?”
“He’s got the thorns and Latin all over most of his things. Surely you noticed it all over the practice rooms.” Houdini grinned. “It was also etched onto the fountains the night you danced with the Green Fairy. You might not recall that, though, seeing as you’d partaken in spirits.”
I felt Thomas’s attention on me, and realized he was slowly piecing the puzzle together of what that statement meant. Clearly, I had been keeping things from him, and he was not looking pleased. Knowing him though, he was likely more annoyed that he’d not deduced it first.