- Escaping from Houdini
Choreographed to perfection, once they’d invaded the space between the tables, they all stopped, pivoted, and began waltzing around, holding their sleek black cloaks out with one arm. They looked like birds with broken wings. Herbal scents wafted around, no doubt from the fragrant bits placed in their masks. Mephistopheles had gone the authentic route, sparing no detail. I hoped it didn’t mean we’d need the aroma to cover up the scent of decay.
The music took a darker turn, the strings more melancholy and deep in tone, raising gooseflesh down my arms.
“String Sextet number two,” Thomas murmured, brows tugged together. “Another appropriate choice. Though it seems—”
Mephistopheles nearly exploded onto the stage. He appeared behind a wall of igniting fireworks, the white sparkling flares shooting high to the ceiling and remaining that way for several beats of my heart. Smoke lingered before him, grayish tendrils curling about before disappearing. The room now stank of sulfur.
“Ladies. Gentlemen.” He swept his arms out, and instead of simply appearing like wings, his cloak actually had black feathers sewn onto it, so inky and dark it almost looked iridescent. “Welcome to the grand finale. I promised magic, mischief, and mayhem. And this…” He walked around in a wide circle, lights clicking on and illuminating different acts already set up in rings on the stage. “This evening is devoted to mayhem. Prepare to be swept into the space between dreams and nightmares. Welcome to the final night of the Moonlight Carnival.”
Resplendent in her dragon costume, Anishaa stepped into a ring onstage. The pearly lavender scales practically glowed as she blew fire out in long bursts. The audience in front screeched, moving their chairs swiftly back and away, hoping to avoid being burnt.
Another bright flood lamp clicked on, drawing the crowd’s attention skyward, where Cassie shot across the room like a shooting star, tumbling from one trapeze to the next. My heart thrummed. Clowns juggling colorful balls hopped from side to side, making faces. A tattooed woman with a large snake picked her way through the saloon, sashaying as she went, her pet hissing whenever anyone stared too hard. Once everyone was in their spots, it would be my turn. I gripped my napkin beneath the table, focusing on my breath.
Finally, Andreas and Jian made their way into the room, hoisting Houdini upside down on a large wooden scaffold as they went. He was wearing a straitjacket, over which his entire body was woven in chains. I hadn’t seen him practice this trick, and I imagined it was yet another secret the ringmaster had kept to himself.
Once Houdini was strung up like a fish that had been caught, wriggling on the line, Mephistopheles stomped his feet three times, and rings of fire went up around each act. This was it. I sunk my teeth into my bottom lip, watching each performer for any hints as to who might be plotting murder this very moment. Everyone seemed suspicious. And nearly each of them had motive. My pulse sped up—any moment now…
“A volunteer is needed from the audience tonight.” Mephistopheles walked from one end of the stage to the other, gloved hand shielding his eyes from both the flames and blaring lights. “Who amongst you is brave enough to stand before the knight’s blades of fury? Who has the strength to stare into the magical Bavarian looking glass and witness their future?”
The room seemed to hold its breath; not one person moved, lest they were called up to the stage. Understanding dawned brightly. Here was yet another reason Mephistopheles had asked me to participate in the finale—he’d feared this very thing would happen. After the first murder, he’d purchased a bit of insurance for his carnival. The show would go on, and he would have audience participation even if that was an illusion as well.
I slowly stood, my red-and-black-striped evening gown suddenly feeling two sizes too small.
“Audrey Rose, wait,” Thomas’s voice was low and urgent. “Don’t. Something is wrong… where is the contortionist?”
I gestured up to the ceiling as Cassie vaulted from one trapeze to the next, where I knew Sebastián was waiting for his cue to join her in flight.
“You!” Mephistopheles jumped from the stage, his cloak wings spread out intimidatingly. Diners at the nearest table quickly shot up from their seats and rushed to the doors, dodging around the plague doctors who continued to waltz to the same two songs that were being replayed. Apparently the costumes were a bit too frightening, and the sudden movement of the ringmaster wasn’t helping to quell their fears. “Come, sweet lady”—he offered his arm—“let us see what fate has in store for you this evening.”
I squeezed Thomas’s shoulder lightly and accepted the ringmaster’s arm. Once we were onstage, waiting for the target board to be rolled out, the gravity of the night finally struck me. Someone was either about to die, or their corpse was about to be displayed. Of that much I was near certain. Neither of those scenarios would be welcome, especially if my cousin was harmed.
Or if the someone was me.
I wiped my palms down the front of my bodice. The stage lights were hotter than I’d thought. Or perhaps standing before the crowd—though it was a fraction of what it once had been at the start of the week—was more unnerving than I’d imagined it to be.
I subtly glanced from Jian’s blades—glinting each time he swung them around—to Anishaa spitting fire to Houdini already half freed from his constraints. He’d escape these new bonds and make yet another legendary story of himself. Andreas, in full plague-doctor costume, stood before his looking glass as if standing guard over the future. All I needed to do was step up to the target board, and the true finale would start. I hoped it would not be my death march.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Mephistopheles crooned, “let the mayhem… begin!”
Fireworks burst off in the corners of the saloon like fountains of sparkling water. It might not have been the best idea, considering how jumpy everyone already was. One woman collapsed onto her table, squishing the lobster and sauce across her bosom. Another man shoved back from his seat so quickly, he fell over. Plague doctors nearby assisted them, which might have been more frightening than the loud noise.
Even amongst the stirring crowd Thomas drew my attention as he always did, his sharp gaze stuck to something behind me, brows knit. I half turned, but only saw the looking glass. No one was lurking behind it. No bodies hanging, set ablaze, or submerged. It was just as it always had been, except it appeared as if the ringmaster had finally convinced Andreas to clean it up a bit.
“Miss Wadsworth?” Mephistopheles whispered. “It’s time.”
I took a deep breath and picked my way around the rings of fire until I stood before Jian’s target board. A woman’s silhouette had been painted onto it, allowing the audience a hint as to what was to come. I went to reach for a blindfold, but Jian gave one jerk of his head. “Not tonight. Here.” He handed me an apple, his taunting smile softening into something that almost looked like respect as I took it without so much as a tremor in my hands. “Place this on your head. And don’t. Move.”
I swallowed hard, eyes darting around the saloon in search of a bit of strength. A nod of support. What I needed was my best friend. Except Thomas was nowhere to be seen. “I…”
“Miss Wadsworth,” Mephistopheles said, briefly taking my hand in his and squeezing it in comfort, “be brave.”
In a haze, I slowly walked to the target board, mind moving faster than the silver-clad stilt walkers who’d just entered the room, spinning teacups on sticks. For Thomas to have left…
I reached the board and brought the bloodred apple to the top of my head, only half thinking about my safety. Liza. He had to have figured something out about my cousin, or was he too angry to sit and watch me onstage? Perhaps he worried Mephistopheles and I might have been practicing our own act and the thought made him ill.
Jian barked commands at the audience, but all I felt was the heat from the lights, the sound of the crackling flames nearly drowning out the string sextet as it lurched into the next melody, and the general cacophony ringing in both my ears and my chest. A bead of sweat rolled between my shoulder blades. Something was wrong.
I stared unseeingly at Jian’s waistcoat—it was unusual for the Moonlight Carnival. It was made of cloth stitched with an enchanted forest from a fairy tale, complete with vines and trees and constellations. I’d seen it before…
A knife sailed through the air, landing near my ear. Another rapidly followed, sinking deep into the wood on the opposite side. My pulse roared. I’d missed something. Something that had caught Thomas’s attention. I could have sworn my makeup was melting down my face under the burning lights. Another knife struck near my skull. Thomas had been staring at the looking glass, but Andreas couldn’t be the one who’d stolen my cousin and severed her finger. He was right there, doing card tricks with the now-free Houdini.
Apple pulp sprayed down around me, the juice sticky and sweet as it stuck to my face and neck. The crowd surged to its feet, bringing their hands together. The knight had dazzled them with his blades once more. I couldn’t concentrate on the here and now, however. Andreas lifted his plague-doctor mask and stole a quick sip of water. Jian took a slow, deliberate bow, eyes fixed to mine. Cassie smiled down from above, her mask glinting like a blade. I swallowed hard, attention straying to Anishaa, who swung twin ropes of flames and then spit them perilously close to where I stood. Each of them was beautiful yet deadly. And perhaps they were all guilty.
I stumbled across the stage, thoughts circling clues like crows circling a carcass, when an arm came down around my shoulders, tugging me near.
“Everything all right, Miss Wadsworth?” Mephistopheles asked. “If you don’t smile and take a little bow, you’re going to frighten the audience.”
I went to comply when recognition finally struck me. “The stolen fabric…”
“Later,” Mephistopheles said. “Please bow and take your seat.”
“No,” I whispered. “Jian’s the murderer. We have to get him off the stage. Now.”