- Escaping from Houdini
“What else can you tell us about these cards?” I asked. “Why might they be significant?”
Houdini stared at them again, focus turning inward. “Six of Diamonds is known for romantic problems, arguments, and basic lovers’ quarrels, according to your cousin.”
“Liza told you that?” I asked, frowning. I knew my cousin enjoyed the idea of séances and convening with spirits, but I hadn’t known of her talent with reading cards. I could have been seeking her advice on cartomancy this entire time.
“I told her it was a load of crap. She said, ‘So’s flirting with other girls,’ then stormed out.” He picked up the Ace of Spades, turning it one way, then the other. “This one means misfortune. Sometimes it’s also a difficult ending.” He moved the Ace of Clubs and Five of Hearts around. “Not sure about these. If anyone can figure it out, Sebastián, Andreas, or even Anishaa can probably help you, if Liza won’t. But don’t get your hopes up—this stuff don’t really mean nothing. They’re just cards.”
“Anishaa is also talented with cartomancy?” I asked. “I thought she only knew tarot.”
Houdini gave me a strange look. “She’s the one who told Mephistopheles everyone needed to learn—that we could expand our business if we had more fortune-tellers. Andreas was only doin’ that Bavarian magic lookin’ glass bit before her. And to be honest? It wasn’t all that good.”
My thoughts whirled with new possibilities. If Anishaa was that talented with both kinds of cards, then she might be the very person we were looking for. Perhaps her feelings for Mephistopheles weren’t as I’d suspected. I supposed it was possible that he’d entered into some bargain with the families that had been targeted, and she didn’t approve.
Houdini raised his brows, probably wondering at the look of excitement I was sure was showing on my face.
“Thank you,” I said, “you’ve been very helpful.”
Thomas motioned for me to exit the room, then halted, fingers strumming along the doorframe while he studied Houdini. “Why were you initially arguing with Liza?”
Houdini’s gaze strayed to mine, and I hoped he didn’t say to ask me about it. I would have a hard time explaining how I witnessed their fight at one of my secret practices. I was already dreading the Green Fairy explanation I knew was coming. The moment passed and he lifted a shoulder.
“A dead woman’s floating in my tank and all she wants to ask about is who the lady I’m writing to in America is.” Houdini exhaled dramatically. “I told her it was nothing—I ain’t got no sweetheart nowhere. Only woman I love—or write to—in America is my mother. Liza didn’t believe it.”
Thomas was silent a moment, focus drifting over the room. Lord only knew what he’d divined from it and the young escape artist. “No, I suppose she didn’t. Good night.”
It took everything in me to keep from asking a dozen questions as we made our way through the empty corridors and climbed the stairs. When we’d reached the second floor, I stopped. We were secreted away in a stairwell; hopefully no one would overhear us.
“Well?” I asked. “Do you believe him?”
“Yes. Whether or not I believe every word out of his mouth is another matter entirely.” Thomas inhaled deeply. “I know you don’t want to see the truth behind Mephistopheles’s illusion, Wadsworth, but as of this moment, he’s dangerous. He’s secretive, and his playing cards were left with almost every victim.”
“Which seems awfully convenient as far as evidence piling up,” I argued. “You must admit, it sounds as if someone’s going out of their way to make him the obvious suspect. And what of Anishaa? She’s someone who we’ve not fully looked into, but clearly is a valid option.”
“Undoubtedly,” Thomas said, lowering his voice. He looked down, fiddling with a button on his sleeve, and my stomach clenched. “We need to talk.”
I couldn’t deny that I figured a serious conversation was coming, though part of me longed to run off and hide. There were some things I’d rather not face. “All right.”
Thomas folded his arms against his chest and watched me very closely. “You’ve been meeting with Mephistopheles at night?” It wasn’t really a question, though he had the courtesy to frame it as such. I swallowed hard and nodded. I was a coward. “You drank absinthe and danced… with him?”
I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Yes.”
When Thomas didn’t answer straightaway, I finally managed to sneak a peek at him. I expected to see anger and betrayal written across his expression. What I actually found was much worse. Before his face shuttered, I saw a glimpse of the boy who never truly believed he could be loved. The one I had promised to never hurt; a promise I’d just broken along with his tender heart. His eyes were void of emotion when he met my stare.
“I meant what I said about you being free,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “If there’s a chance you might be… if you think your heart—” He blinked quickly enough that any hint of wetness was gone before I could be certain. He cleared his throat. “I won’t ever tell you who to choose or which path to take. But I would ask that you tell me one thing; do you have feelings for him?”
“I…” My heart thudded against my ribs. I wanted to cry out that that was an absurd question, but for some reason the words failed to rally past my lips. Thomas could spot a lie as easily as one could spot the sun on the horizon. And I had no intention of lying to him. The truth was complicated and messy, but he deserved to know every doubt lurking inside me. I held my hands out, palms up. “I-I’m not certain what I feel.”
He scrubbed his hands over his face. I reached out, hating myself for the conflict bashing about within me. I clasped his hands and drew them away, searching for some way to comfort him, to quell his fears, but anything I said now would ring false.
The truth I hadn’t been wanting to face was simple. Somehow—I wouldn’t remotely call it love, it had been far too soon for that—but somehow I’d realized that my heart might be capable of finding interest in another. I could deny it, try pretending it away, but I was starting to care for Mephistopheles. It was like a small, fragile bud. Given enough care and attention it might bloom into something beautiful. I didn’t know what that meant for Thomas and myself. He deserved to have someone love him wholly and without doubt.
Neither of us had ever formally courted anyone, what did we know of ourselves or relationships, let alone marriage? I could not in good conscience relieve him of his doubts when mine could not be reasoned away. This might simply be a momentary lapse in judgment—a reaction based on fear, or it might be an indication I wasn’t quite ready for that sort of commitment. At least not until I could slay my doubts.
“Please. Don’t.” He held a hand up. “I never really—” He shook his head. “For all of my bravado and ability to read a situation, I never could calculate what you saw in me.”
“Thomas, you mustn’t—I do love you, I just—”
“If you wish to go, I’ll never make you stay. I might not do and say the proper thing all the time, but I do know that I love you enough to set you free.”
I was about to argue that I didn’t want to be free, but that wasn’t true. All my life I’d longed for freedom—freedom to pick and choose every detail of my life. To make good decisions and horrible ones. Decisions that would break my heart and remake it ten times over. I just never knew having choices could be so hard, or hurt so much. A tear slipped down my face.
“I love you, Wadsworth. No matter what or who you choose, I always will.” He leaned in and pressed his lips to my cheek. “If you’ll excuse me, I must try and sort out the playing cards.”
With that, he turned and hurried down the corridor. The blast of cold wind that blew in when he pushed the door open finally snapped me from my daze. Whatever strength I’d had vanished and my knees gave out. I put my head in my hands and sobbed, not bothering to hide the sounds of my despair. My life was a tattered mess. Liza was in mortal danger. Thomas was heartbroken. A murderer made our ship his deadly playground. And I was filled with more turbulence than the ocean we traveled through.
I permitted myself another moment to cry, allowing the tears to freely slip down my face, dripping onto the floor. It felt as if something in my chest had permanently cracked. I gripped my fists until the pain was all I could focus on. Then I pushed myself up, brushed down my bodice, and took a deep, shuddering breath. Liza was missing. A murderer was taunting me. No matter how much it pained me to think it, I could not focus on Thomas and our relationship now.
Not wanting to waste another moment stunted by my emotions, I exited onto the first-class deck and almost ran down the darkened promenade on the starboard side of the grand ship.
Wind howled, the sound reminding me of a man who’d lost the world in a game of cards. I clutched at my hat, keeping my face turned down against the breeze. Winter was reminding us that there were more fearsome things to worry over than simply men with agendas, or girls with broken hearts on this boat.
I gave up on walking swiftly and ran as fast as I could, my mind focused on the pattering drum of my feet, the beat of my pulse, the fear clawing its way down my spine. I needed to hurry—to scour the ship until I found my cousin…
Movement toward the bow caught my attention and I paused outside my cabin door, listening for any signs of struggle. Visions of bodies being tossed into the hungry ocean crawled their way into my sensibilities. I stared into the shadows, waiting for the darkness to lazily blink back at me, bringing all of my fears to life. Sounds of sails snapping in the wind drew my attention upward and I staggered back. Someone was standing up on the icy railing, his tailcoat a whip snapping behind him. All it would take was one slip and he’d be plunged into the deadly waters.