- Escaping from Houdini
“Jian’s the murderer!” I nearly shouted.
Across the stage, Jian cocked his head, spinning a knife in one hand as someone might do with a pistol. “What did you just say?”
A row of cancan dancers emerged from behind him, kicking their limbs high, their skirts in shades of vermilion, chartreuse, and cobalt. They were the only splashes of color in a moonlight palette. And they were currently making Jian’s progression toward me quite difficult. He wove through the line of dancers, ducking back from their kicks, gaze hard as he towered over me.
“You’ve got no proof for that accusation, do you?” Jian demanded.
Mephistopheles somehow managed to tug us behind the dancers and their voluminous skirts, almost as if he’d also predicted this and wanted the scene to be blocked from the audience’s view.
“That fabric you’re wearing? That was stolen days ago,” I said, nodding to his waistcoat. “We believe the murderer is to blame. And here you are, wearing it for the whole audience. Tonight is your big finale, isn’t it?”
Jian stared down at his waistcoat, blinking as if he’d only just noticed it. “This was a gift.”
“A gift from whom?” I asked, unconvinced, although the hurt flashing in his eyes was hard to miss.
He glanced at Mephistopheles while the dancers retreated behind the curtain. “From—”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” an accented voice boomed through the dining saloon. “Please direct your attention to our grandest performance yet! May I present… the Hanged Man!”
Mephistopheles, Jian, and I stared at one another, expressions matching masks of dread as all the lights in the room went out at once.
8 JANUARY 1889
A floodlight flashed on near the end of the stage, illuminating a shadowy corner in a ghostly white blue. Next to the unmistakable, old looking glass, Dr. Arden swung slowly from a noose. His eyes bulged, and a black tongue protruded from his gaping lips. His left arm was missing at the elbow. All sounds in the room ceased, even the mournful violins screeched to a halt at the sight. My attention, however, snagged on something worse, and my blood chilled at the impossibility before me.
Thomas sat facing the magic looking glass, blindfolded, a garrote around his neck. His hands were bound behind his back. The fortune-teller must have lured him onstage—a feat that wouldn’t have been hard, considering how much Thomas had wanted to join me for the finale.
“If anyone moves,” Andreas said quietly, his voice projected from some mechanical device, “this young man dies.”
Mephistopheles shifted beside me, but held his hand up, stalling the performers from making any sudden movements. I glanced back at Jian and the knives he still held. Jaw clenched, he fixed his focus only on his friend. I didn’t know if he was involved, but given the look of complete and utter betrayal playing out on his features, I had a feeling Andreas was the person who’d gifted him the waistcoat.
“You,” Andreas barked at Anishaa, “put the flames out slowly.” The fire-eater glanced at Mephistopheles, eyes wide. “He’s not in charge! Do as I say, or I will kill him now.”
Anishaa didn’t hesitate this time, she stumbled forward, drenching her torches in buckets of water, the hiss of the fire meeting the steam the only sound in the room. Aside from my pounding heart.
“The knives. Drop them, by the blades, off the stage. Now.”
Jian wordlessly did so as Andreas stood behind Thomas, expression guarded as he gripped the garrote around my friend’s neck. I wanted to take a step in their direction, but forced myself to comply to his warning. I had to remain calm, think. I would get Thomas out of this situation, or die trying. There was no other option.
“Andreas…” I said slowly, “please let Thomas go. He’s done nothing wrong.”
“We’re about to begin the divination of Mr. Cresswell’s future, Miss Wadsworth. Fate chooses its mark,” Andreas replied. “Some people have faith in the magic looking glass. It will show him his future bride. He believes in the beauty of true, fated love. As I once did.”
I tried to keep my voice steady, to keep the entire situation calm. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw diners fidgeting in their seats. I hoped their movement didn’t enrage Andreas. His knuckles were turning white. “Thomas’s future is most certainly brighter without the looking glass. If you let him go, we can assist you. I’m sure you had a very good reason for what you did. All you have to do is let Thomas go and we can discuss this.”
He gave a quick, stiff shake of his head. “Afraid I can’t do that, Miss Wadsworth. He wants to know his fate and I will give it to him.”
Thomas made a strangled sound, his fingers tugging uselessly at the restraints on his wrists.
“I already know his fate,” I said, near pleading. “He and I are going to live happily in the country. He’ll have his laboratory and I’ll have mine. We’ll—” I blinked the tears back, angry with myself for letting my emotions get the better of me. “Andreas… please stop. I—I love him.”
“No.” He held an arm out. “You do not deserve him, running around with the ringmaster, forsaking his love. The looking glass will show him a different fate, one that is free of hurt. I insist that you sit down and watch the show.”
“Enough, Andreas.” Mephistopheles stepped up beside me. I could clearly read the panic in his expression, though his voice held that familiar edge of authority. “Put the garrote down. The captain and his men are on their way. The dining saloon has been locked and there is no escape. Crew members are standing guard outside—we had them as a precaution.”
“Escape?” Andreas snorted, his grip tightening on Thomas’s bindings. If he pulled any harder, Thomas was going to die. I clenched my fists. “I never imagined I’d escape from this, Ringmaster.”
Thomas, lips just beginning to turn blue, made a sudden movement to stand, and Andreas shoved him down, eyes flashing as if he could take all of us on at once and win. I went to charge forward, but Mephistopheles snatched the back of my skirts, keeping me in place and probably saving Thomas’s life.
“You all have two choices,” Andreas said. “Either handle this civilly and with dignity, or I will have to make this much harder and more painful.”
“Where’s Liza?” I asked, hoping to distract him. “Is she still alive?”
He turned unfathomably cold eyes upon me. “For now.”
It was hardly comforting, but it was better than her being dead. He set his attention back on the garrote, tugging it a little tighter. Thomas wheezed and I nearly lost my mind.
“I know why you’ve murdered those women,” I shouted out, ignoring the gasp from the audience. I’d nearly forgotten them. “Revenge. Correct? You said Liesel sold roses. Lord Crenshaw paid her a compliment and Lady Crenshaw falsely accused her of theft. Out of nothing more than jealousy.” A simple story of a broken love turned lethal. “The Crenshaws. The Prescotts. They conspired to put Liesel in prison, didn’t they?”
I closed my eyes. Suddenly a new image sprang into my head. I felt as though I were Thomas Cresswell, traveling into the mind of a murderer once more. In my mind I saw a girl with a sweet smile and kind eyes. A girl who didn’t have much but made the most of her simple life. A girl who’d captured the heart of the young man before us.
“Lord Crenshaw had your betrothed arrested, didn’t he?” I asked, venturing a step closer. Andreas didn’t answer. “Mr. Prescott is the chief magistrate who sentenced her without a fair trial.” I shook my head. “Conditions in prisons are atrocious. Your betrothed got sick there. Something that could have been treatable, but Dr. Arden refused to tend to her in the workhouse.”
“It all started with that horrible woman.” Andreas clenched his teeth so hard he all but growled the words. “Confessed right before drinking the poison I’d laid out. Said she couldn’t live with what had happened to her daughter. She’d overpaid for the flowers, even though Liesel tried to refuse.” His expression turned colder than the winter sea slapping against the ship. “Her husband confronted her over missing money and she claimed it must have been that thieving flower girl. The one with the funny accent. Lady Crenshaw knew how her husband would react—apparently he’s got a history of locking people away.”
Andreas turned his furious gaze in my direction, grip lessening. “They killed her. All of them.” A muscle in his jaw ticked. “They took my beloved from me, so I took what they cared about most in return. An eye for an eye. I will not stop until they’ve tasted from the well of despair that I’ve been drowning in these past few months.”
A noble family. A doctor. A chief magistrate. Six of Diamonds. Ace of Spades. Five of Hearts. Ace of Clubs. Their roles, laid out. Seven of Swords, the Star—punishments fitting their crimes. A story of jealously, love, loss, betrayal, and revenge.
He wrapped the garrote more tightly around Thomas’s neck, and I could have sworn I felt the phantom sensation of losing my own breath. My world seemed on the brink of annihilation.
“Each of them murdered her. All of their hands are dirty, stained in blood. Everyone gets their hands dirty in this business, right, boss? You taught me that. Even you betrayed me. You sent me out to fetch those flowers that day. Without you I wouldn’t have met Liesel and she’d still be alive in Bavaria. This cursed carnival should burn. And after this voyage? After this I don’t think even you can recover, Mephistopheles. Though I do thank you for that money; without it, none of this would have been possible.”
“Money?” I asked, glancing between them. “What money?”
Andreas looked at me, eyes narrowed. “I arranged for them all to receive paid first-class passage on this ship. Our glorious ringmaster felt so bad about Liesel, he agreed to give me a handsome sum for her grave marker. Being as she is dead, I didn’t think she’d mind me using the money to avenge her. See?” he said, momentarily letting up on the garrote. “My hands are filthy now, boss.”