- Escaping from Houdini
Moonlight broke through the cloud cover, offering a glimpse at the young man. He stared over the edge into the ocean, and before I knew what I was doing, I ran for him.
Whether it was to save him or make him pay for his crime of confusing my heart, I couldn’t tell. I simply raced until my arms were around him and we both crashed to the deck, the air whooshing out as I wrestled him to the ground.
8 JANUARY 1889
Mephistopheles rolled away from me, clutching his stomach and moaning. “I think you’ve broken one of my ribs. Was that really necessary? Next time you tackle me, be sure it’s in one of our bedchambers.”
I jumped to my feet, dragging the ringmaster with me. I clutched the collar of his shirt until he sputtered, hands fumbling to remove my fingers. I didn’t care if I strangled him. “Are you quite mad? You almost fell overboard!”
“No.” He dropped to his knees, wheezing, but kept his focus on the deck, refusing to meet my glare. “I’m quite sane. And I was only checking on something.”
“Care to enlighten me?”
“No. Not particularly.” He squinted as he stood. “Have you been crying?”
I stepped back. “Liza has been…” My voice cracked and I nearly lost my hold over myself once again.
“Liza has been… drinking? Knitting children’s socks? Strangling Houdini with his chains, or better yet, his cuffs?” He rubbed my arms, voice softening. “Tell me. Liza’s been…”
I swiped at the tears that had managed to slip out. “Taken.”
“What do you mean, ‘taken’? Has Houdini done something to her?” He glared down the promenade and squared his shoulders as if he’d go marching into battle this second.
I shuddered, though I was no longer sure if it was due to the frosty air. Houdini was talented with cards himself. He might very well have taken my cousin and tortured her because of their fight. Perhaps he was acting back in his cabin; I trusted no one on this cursed vessel. “Someone sent her finger to my chambers.”
Mephistopheles stared at me a moment, then unleashed a horde of curse words that weren’t all in English. If I didn’t feel so ill, I would have been impressed. He pressed his hands over his eyes and then dropped them to his sides. “All right. Start from the beginning. How do you know it’s Liza’s finger?”
“How is this helping?” I tossed my hands up. “Whether or not it’s actually her finger is not the issue. The issue is someone who has murdered several people aboard this ship has taken her.”
The ringmaster reached over and wrapped me in his arms. I was so surprised, I didn’t protest. “There’s more, isn’t there? Why else were you crying?”
I laid my head against his chest, listening to the quick thrum of his heart before pushing back. “I don’t even know who you truly are, and yet you’d like to have my innermost thoughts laid bare.”
“Very well. You want the truth of me?” He sighed, reached up, and—quick enough for him to not change his mind—took his mask off. I stood there, mouth practically agape and held in my gasp. After all this time and his insistence that he remain anonymous, he’d just thrown it all away. His dark eyes were lined in darker lashes, his brows generous and bold, like him. A flop of black hair curled over his forehead and around his ears.
I searched his face, seeking any flash of recognition. I would have sworn we’d known each other from some other life. But he was just a young man, ordinary and charming with a dimple in his cheek. Was this truly who he was, or was it another mask to use to his advantage? His earlier words of not having the luxury of trusting anyone came back, haunting me like specters.
“You’ve been murdering these girls, haven’t you?”
“Not quite the reaction I was hoping for, Miss Wadsworth.” Mephistopheles jerked back and shook his head. “I suppose that’s what keeps things interesting.” He ran a hand through his dark hair, tousling the already unruly locks. “But no. If it’s a confession you’re after, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. I’ve not killed anyone or anything. Except a few mosquitoes. And I don’t feel too apologetic about that, especially after they took off with a hefty amount of blood and left wicked itching.”
“Honestly…” I paused, noting how close we’d gotten again, my attention straying to his upturned lips, the longing in his eyes catching me completely off guard. “I—”
He leaned in and gently pressed his mouth to mine, his touch shocking but not unpleasant. For a moment I didn’t think about every cursed thing that had happened in the last hour, focusing instead on his lips as they slowly parted. He clutched me close, hands gripping the material of my dress as if convincing himself I was no illusion. I thought about running my hand through his curls, they were so lovely, yet… a flash of Thomas’s face snapped me into my senses, I broke away. “You swore you’d not kiss me!”
“You’re partially correct,” he said, breathing hard and holding his palms out in surrender. “I said if you appeared as if you never wanted me to. But sometimes the way you gaze at me—I shouldn’t have done it, Miss Wadsworth. I’ve told you from the start I’m not honorable or good.”
“Liar. Fiend. Second son. Thief.” I stared down at my slippers. “Who are you really, Mephistopheles?” He opened his mouth and I silenced him with a raised hand. “No games. Tell me who you are and why I ought to believe anything more you say.”
He inched forward, hands still up where I could see them and sighed. “My name is Ayden Samir Baxter Thorne. My father is an earl, and my mother is an angel from Constantinople. As is evident by my exquisitely good looks.”
When I didn’t return his smile, he lowered his hands.
“As you just kindly noted, I am the second son—the spare heir. I could either stay in England and spend money frivolously, or I could give it all up and pursue my dreams. Debaucherous and lowly though they may be. I needn’t get into which I chose. I put my engineering skills to use and my flare for theatrics—and thus the Moonlight Carnival was born. A safe haven or sanctuary for other unwanteds. Ones who’ve had it much worse than I have.”
Something about his name kept dragging my attention back to it… then I recalled the cards in Houdini’s room. “Vincere Vel Mori.”
“‘Conquer or die.’ Our family motto for generations. My great-great-great—I’m not sure how many times over, but one-of-many-greats grandfather was granted knighthood by King Richard the Lionhearted. That’s where the crest and motto come from, though I don’t think we conquer much other than hearts and card games these days.” Mephistopheles’s eyes grew reminiscent before he collected himself. “It seems you’ve been much better at your sleuthing than I’ve given you credit for.”
Chills erupted like the undead from their graves and raced along my spine. I pulled out the card I’d taken from Houdini, watching the ringmaster’s expression carefully. “Your calling cards, I believe. Very crass, but certainly a showy way of leaving a signature mark at the crime scenes.”
Mephistopheles looked more confused than guilty. “Those cards, my love, might have been left at the crime scenes. But it wasn’t done by me. They were stolen around the time my signet went missing.” He raised his brows. “Speaking of priceless family heirlooms, where is my signet now, still with Cresswell?”
“It’s in a safe place until I sort out all the truth from lies.” I flipped the card over, ignoring the twinge of guilt. “Is there anything special about these cards? Anything at all that might contain a hidden clue or meaning? No matter how obscure, anything might help.”
“Let’s see.” He took the card. “You see these?” I nodded. The little flourishes were lovely, but judging from the annoying slant of the ringmaster’s lips, they held meaning. “This is an infinity symbol.”
“What does a double infinity mean?”
“Oh, some romantic nonsense about two fates being forever tied together.” He shrugged, then took in my expression, the levity leaving his voice. “What’s wrong?”
“I think that… I believe that might mean something to the murderer. How do they all fit?” I took the card back from him, turning it over and over while fragmented thoughts slowly pieced themselves together. “Nobility. A doctor. A justice of the peace. What is the common link? Two fates, forever combined. Each playing card has an infinity symbol and each tarot a deeper meaning of the same.” I paced near the railing, ignoring the clapping of waves against the hull. “Ace of Spades. The Ace of Spades and the reversed Seven of Swords. What ties them together, two fates, two stories, coming together as one?”
“Perhaps you need to sit for a moment,” Mephistopheles said, no longer sounding like the tease he was. “All this talk of romance has taken its toll.” He held a hand to his forehead, expression serious. “I feel the same.”
“In cartomancy, what does the Ace of Spades mean?”
Mephistopheles searched my eyes, likely believing me to be as mad as the murderer. He rubbed his temple. “From what I can recall off the top of my head, it means misfortune or a difficult ending. Are you sure you’re feeling quite well?”
Exactly what Houdini had said. I waved him off, knowing I was onto something, and yet it was still slightly out of reach.
“Lady Crenshaw was the catalyst. She set this whole thing into motion.” I tapped the card. “Six of Diamonds. Houdini said this card indicates arguments. Lord and Lady Crenshaw fought about something—an attractive girl. The cards that have been left are telling us exactly what sin the victim committed. The tarots are their fates, the ones they brought upon themselves.”
Mephistopheles scrubbed a hand across his face. “This is a bit far-fetched. And if I’m saying that, you can be certain it’s a stretch. If they had some lovers’ quarrel or fight, why would it have been left with their daughter?”