- Escaping from Houdini
“It’s not about romance,” I said with sudden certainty. “It’s always been about revenge.” I flipped the card over and traced the double infinity symbol. “Two paths. Two different types of cards. Two fates. One infinite, everlasting loop for justice.”
“And who might the murderer be, then?”
I thought of Jian and his short temper—Andreas had mentioned his entire family had been slain. The details of that crime had been impossible to wrench from either of them. Then there was Cassie and Sebastián and the people they owed money to. Might those people be the Ardens, Crenshaws, and Prescotts? Did they find some means of extorting money from the performers, and they stood to lose everything? Anishaa and Andreas also couldn’t be taken from the list of suspects—each of them had reason for vengeance and knew the cards’ meanings. Though from everything I’d gathered, most every performer had a base knowledge in tarot. Even I had been instructed to learn and practice with both tarot and the playing cards. Harry Houdini didn’t strike me as a criminal, but then again the murderers I’d encountered hadn’t, either.
Then there was the ringmaster, the person who’d created an entire carnival that hid behind new masks each night. The young man who’d taught me everything about sleight of hand and sleight of word—and could not ever be fully trusted to reveal his true hand.
I gazed out at the sliver of moon, appearing more like a scythe ready to strike than anything else, unable to stop seeing it as a portent of new horrors to come.
“Tonight is the last night,” I finally said, shifting my attention back to the ringmaster. He was free from a mask right now, but that, much like the sudden stillness of the sea, wouldn’t last. A flash of Liza’s finger lying in the velvet box crossed my mind. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them. Clouds slowly crept across the sky, lining up in formation. A storm would break by morning, but hopefully I’d have my cousin back before then. “One more performance.”
If only there was just one suspect left before the finale.
8 JANUARY 1889
Captain Norwood twisted in his overstuffed leather chair, his gaze stubbornly fixed on the glass half filled with amber liquid sitting on his mahogany desk. It was hardly past sunrise, though judging from the whiskers on his face, he hadn’t yet been to bed.
“Chief Magistrate Prescott hasn’t heard from Dr. Arden in days, and mentioned arguing over whether to come forward with certain… information they’d received, so I told the chief mate to enter the doctor’s chambers.” Norwood sipped from his glass, then winced. “There wasn’t any blood, but the room was a mess. I don’t think his is a story that’s going to end well. Especially given that note.”
At my raised brow, Uncle walked over to where I stood and handed the crumpled paper to me. I recognized the handwriting as the same from the note I’d received regarding Liza, and my heart picked up its beat.
I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat and discreetly handed the note to Thomas, stomach churning. The postmark was the first of January, the very day we’d set sail. If Dr. Arden had only brought this to the captain then, perhaps he might have secured the passengers before anyone had lost her life.
I exhaled. “If only” and “what could have been” had no place here now. Although, if Prescott and Arden were arguing over this very thing the day after Miss Prescott was murdered, they were likely too frightened to say anything else, lest the murderer make good on his threats. Which he did anyway.
“It’s highly possible, given the threat laid out in that note, that his arm is the one that had been severed.” Uncle walked over to the porthole and inspected the water running down the glass in thick, frantic rivulets. The storm broke just prior to daybreak, and the rest of our journey would not be an easy one. “It was male and had a wedding band. Though without a body, it’s all conjecture. He might very well be holed up in another cabin. Have you contacted his wife?”
Norwood swirled his drink. “He was a widower.”
Thomas and I exchanged glances from our post near the wall, our problems from the night before pushed aside in light of our work. We were to be present, but Uncle had wanted us to remain silent and study the captain. Everyone was suspect at this point.
A sharp rap on the door finally drew the captain’s gaze upward. “Yes?”
A wiry man in uniform stepped in and promptly removed his cap, nodding to us before addressing the captain. “We checked all the performers and their trunks and didn’t find anything unusual, Captain. Seems like everything is ready for the show.”
Thomas pressed his mouth into a flat line. He needn’t say so out loud, but there was no way the crew could be certain what was and what wasn’t a murder weapon. The performers had swords and daggers and ropes and handcuffs, and countless other oddities that might be used.
Uncle looked at me and Thomas, then turned his attention back on the captain, twisting his mustache in the way that set my nerves on edge. “With all due respect, you ought to cancel the finale altogether. There’s no way this is going to end well for anyone.”
Norwood tossed back the rest of his drink, the rain now pelting the side of the ship. It sounded like hail. “I’m afraid it can’t get much worse, Dr. Wadsworth.”
A tingle raced down my spine. I knew by now that no amount of arguing would alter the captain’s abysmal decisions. I wish I possessed the same sentiments, but knew this finale would be the spectacle the murderer had been waiting for, his epic ending of revenge.
Tonight’s stage reflected the overall feeling of the ship—the inky curtains were overlaid with tattered gray gauze, giving the appearance of a moldering tomb. Even the roses, which had been painted black, seemed foreboding and on the brink of decay.
Passengers sat so quietly at their tables they might as well have been corpses in a grave. Food remained mostly untouched, though it appeared to be edible artwork the way the lobster claws reached toward the heavens and the filets were sliced to perfection.
I pushed English peas around my plate, unable to eat, either. Tonight was the last of our treacherous voyage, and everyone seemed as if they were perched upon needles, waiting for the final celebration or funeral. It would be another sort of death, in a way, one that determined the fate of the Moonlight Carnival. Mephistopheles was determined to make it memorable, though I could not shake the sense that the murderer had the same sentiments. This was the moment he’d been waiting for—the grandest unveiling of all. He’d carefully plotted his revenge, and I feared nothing would prevent him from seeing it through. I prayed that Liza was all right, that she would not be the star of our show.
I felt Thomas’s gaze on me, calculating and methodical. He hadn’t attempted to continue our talk from last night, and it both relieved and worried me.
“Are you all right, Wadsworth?”
“Of course.” I flicked my attention to him, then back to the doors. The plague doctors would be entering any moment now. Shortly after that, I’d be called up to the stage. A lucky volunteer, chosen to brave Andreas’s magical looking glass and then stand against Jian’s daggers. It seemed as if my random training sessions would be useful after all.
“You’re not planning anything scandalous without me, are you?” Thomas asked, voice low enough to avoid Mrs. Harvey hearing. Uncle had excused himself to direct the search for Liza, and it had taken every ounce of self-control I had to not chase after him and forgo the finale. “That would be unfair, you know. I’m quite good at improvising, especially after some wine.”
He held his glass of white wine up, a crooked smile easing onto his face. The calculation remained in his gaze, however, telling me he wasn’t about to believe the next lie that spilled from my mouth no matter how well its delivery was. Things were still tense between us after our midnight conversation, and would likely remain that way until we could truly talk. Though I was not convinced it would go any differently—perhaps I wasn’t the marrying kind. Maybe I’d always seek freedom from any perceived cage, real or imagined, no matter how often Thomas assured me otherwise. He deserved someone who could banish their doubts. Perhaps he and I were only meant to be work partners.
I sighed. “I’m to participate in the finale, and no,” I whispered as his face partially lit up, “you are not permitted to assist me. I didn’t interfere when you volunteered to be cut in half.”
He drew back as if I’d slapped him. “Is this what you’ve been doing at night with Mephistopheles?”
“Thomas,” I warned. He sounded so hopeful, but a flash of my kiss with the ringmaster reminded me how tired of lies I was becoming. I hadn’t initiated it, and it might have only lasted a second, but the kiss still happened. I would not tell him that was all we’d been doing when it wasn’t the entire truth.
He swallowed hard and stared down at his plate. Apparently he’d lost his appetite now, too.
A string quartet entered the room, their violins and violas playing a soft and dangerous tune. Suddenly lights fell upon two cellists sitting with their instruments near the edge of the stage, their half masks glinting in the blue hue that washed over them.
“Ah. Brahms’s String Sextet number one in B-flat Major.” Thomas closed his eyes as if soaking in the deliciously played string music. “Opus eighteen is one of my favorites. And a fine choice for the finale. It’s slow to start, then listen to that there… the melody goes faster, more frantic, the piece builds to a crescendo, and then”—he sat back—“and then it goes back to a sweet warning. Danger is on the horizon.”
“Yes, well,” I began, when the doors burst open and the truly macabre and bizarre entered the dining saloon. Audible gasps went up around the room as rows of plague doctors made their silent procession, filing in one after the other, their birdlike white masks even more disturbing against the backdrop of the woeful cellos and violins.