- Escaping from Houdini
“Oh, Andreas.” Mephistopheles slowly shook his head. “I never meant… that wasn’t the point of my story. I was speaking of living well as the best revenge. And getting your hands dirty—that’s just stage talk. Not something literal. My hands are usually covered in grease from engineering new mechanisms. Not the blood of innocents.”
“‘Innocents’? Haven’t you been paying attention? None of them was innocent!” Andreas shook his head. “What world could I ever live in after they killed my love? The only thing keeping me going is the thought of vengeance, making those men pay. My hands are no more stained than the hands of those who are in supposed good standing in society. How many others have they killed, and yet they still walk free? How many lives destroyed by their whims?”
Murmurs went up from the crowd. With Thomas gasping for breath, I’d again forgotten the audience was watching every moment of this. I was focused on two things: the steady war-drum beat of my heart, and the realization that I’d fight a thousand battles and die a thousand ways before I allowed any harm to befall my love. Andreas would be revealing his spectacular spectacle soon, especially now that his whole plan had been laid bare.
“But… you didn’t kill those men,” I said, maneuvering closer. “You murdered their daughters, and Mrs. Prescott.”
Andreas barely flicked his gaze in my direction. “I hurt them where it did the most damage. Once each of those men has lost everything he’s ever loved, that’s when this will be made right. Leaving Prescott and Lord Crenshaw alive is the best form of torture for them. Let them live out their days in misery. As they did for me.”
“You cannot take justice into your own hands,” Mephistopheles said. “You should have told the detective inspectors.”
Andreas snorted. “If you believe they would investigate the death of a poor, sick flower girl from the slums, and put the rich men who killed her behind bars, then you’re as bad as they are. Justice is only given to the powerful, and that’s not really justice, is it?”
Thomas’s eyes rolled back and he began to go limp. The audience gasped, and I involuntarily took a step forward, then halted at Andreas’s command, brimming with anguish and frustration.
I cried out as Andreas released the garrote, but my relief was short-lived when his knife flashed in the bright lights. Someone screamed behind us, but I shut out all distractions, my focus set only on the blade. He’d swiftly removed the new weapon from his boot, eyes trained on Thomas, who was struggling to draw in breath. He was going to kill Thomas, then do the same to me and Mephistopheles as his grand finale.
Soft whistling from the rafters drew my attention; I glanced up beyond the maimed body of Dr. Arden as it twisted on the rope, where Cassie and Sebastián stood near their trapezes. They pointed to Andreas and a large bag of whatever they held, signaling their plan. Mephistopheles and I wouldn’t be alone in our attack. We’d likely tackle Andreas before any true harm could be done to us, or Cassie and Sebastián would drop the sack and knock him out, but Thomas…
Sounds of diners crying faded into one throbbing pulse—the beat of my heart, the only rhythm urging me on. Andreas was going to slay Thomas right before my very eyes. He saw him as just another wealthy elitist, one more problem in a broken system.
I would never allow Cresswell to become the final showpiece in his warped finale.
For a moment, all of us were frozen in a horrifying tableau. Then Andreas drew his leg back and kicked Thomas halfway across the stage. I knew he was giving himself room to show off his knife skills. My entire body felt as if it had been dunked in ice, then immediately set ablaze. In that moment, watching Thomas stagger and fall to his knees, I understood with startling clarity what Andreas had been through watching Liesel die needlessly.
There was no world I wanted to live in where Thomas Cresswell wasn’t a part of it. No matter the odds stacked against us, I’d fight for him until I drew in my last, shuddering breath. Even in death I’d never stop coming for those who threatened my family. Because that’s what Thomas had become. He was mine—I’d chosen him just as he’d chosen me, and I’d defend him with everything I had. Our friendship had caught fire and blazed with something powerful and untamed. Something I’d been foolish to ever doubt.
“No!” Cries and shouts went up around me, and I could have sworn I heard the performers charging their friend. A bag of resin missed its target and smashed onto the stage, the powder puffing out like one of Mephistopheles’s smoke entrances. I ignored it all, my focus as sharp as a bone saw.
Andreas raised his knife, and I knew he’d fling it into Thomas’s chest. He’d been practicing with Jian all week, and his aim had gotten frighteningly true.
I didn’t think. I didn’t need to. I simply needed to act. I’d been practicing sleight of hand all week, never realizing that I would apply those tactics in a moment such as this. My body was in motion without a second thought.
I slipped my hand under my skirts, seized the scalpel strapped there, and threw it as hard and fast as I could. I didn’t bother aiming, there was no point. I wasn’t a marksman, nor did I possess Jian’s skills. I would not hit a moving target. But the smashing of the precious looking glass would land the deepest blow anyway. Just like murdering the wives and daughters of his enemies inflicted the most pain.
The sound of glass shattering caused the moment of distraction I’d hoped it would, a moment I pressed to my advantage like any magician worth her salt in tricks.
Andreas screamed, guttural and unhinged. I’d taken the last of his Liesel from this earth. Mephistopheles yelled my name, perhaps in warning, but I was already aware of the danger as he ran at the fortune-teller, barreling into him. I didn’t cry out as I crashed into Thomas, wrapping my arms around him, knocking us both to the ground, nor did I make a sound as Andreas’s knife sank deep into my flesh.
It struck exactly where I’d imagined it would. In that moment, I felt darkly victorious. I’d gone up against the monster and protected the one I loved. I’d banished my doubts. At first there wasn’t any pain, and I foolishly believed he’d missed hitting anything vital. That Thomas and I were both going to escape from this nightmare whole and unharmed. That the two of us would live out our days in the country, exactly as I’d said we would. That I’d spend as long as it would take to make things right between us, to earn back his love and prove mine.
But that blissful nothingness didn’t last. A moment later a sharp, searing sensation tore through me, wrenching a scream from deep within. The sound was more animalistic than human, and I’d no idea I could emit such a terrible, feral noise. Tears streamed down my face and dripped into my mouth, salty and warm.
“Thomas!” Everything became hot and sticky, though shudders simultaneously racked my body. Fingers slick with blood gripped mine. “Thomas,” I said again, more softly.
“Wadsworth”—Thomas’s voice was strained—“stay here. Stay here with me.”
“I’m not… going… anywhere.” There was nowhere in the entire world I’d rather be. Though the part of me not consumed by the searing heat in my leg worried I’d just told another lie… that wishing to or not, I might leave Thomas Cresswell yet. I wanted to cry or laugh out, but the pain was overwhelming. Blessedly, bits of darkness sneaked in, dulling some of my agony.
My medical deductions were slow in coming, but in and out of the blackness throbbing through me, I became aware that I was dying. That warm sensation rushing down my stocking was blood. And there was a lot of it. Too much for a person to lose.
“Thomas…” My voice was barely a whisper, but he heard me. He gripped my hand tighter, and leaned in. “Don’t leave me.”
“Never.” Something dripped onto my face, but I was too tired to open my eyes. My head felt as if I’d swallowed too much champagne too quickly and little white stars clustered around the edge of my vision. The more warmth I lay in, the colder my body became.
It seemed like sweet justice, that a blade would be the end of me.
“Wadsworth…” Thomas sounded as if someone held a knife to his throat, but the danger must be gone. The thought comforted me as I drifted off to sleep. A hand clapped my cheeks, slowly at first, then more steady. It should have stung, but I felt too far away. A beautiful dream was beginning—one where Thomas and I were waltzing around a ballroom that reminded me of a star. Everything was white and pure and smelled of peonies and magic.
“Audrey Rose! Look at me.” Thomas’s face came into view, hovering above mine. He swore like the Devil, but in this moment he might have been an angel sent to guide me somewhere. His lips, no longer tinged blue, were moving, but sounds drowned out as waves of white and black crashed around my vision. I stared into his wide eyes. He was alive. He was whole. Death was not victorious. The thought carried me further into a peaceful nothingness.
Words melted into one another and I could no sooner listen to Thomas than I could command my wound to stop bleeding. My pulse was a quiet refrain as the beat slowed. Warmth flowed freely around my body, dragging me further and further toward the promise of a blissful rest. I now had two pulses, each warring with the other. One in my leg and one in my chest. Both seemed to fade the more they fought. Which was all right by me; I wanted to drift off and succumb to the darkness. It was much more pleasant than the wild pain unleashing itself upon me. I wanted to fall back into that wonderful dream where we could dance amongst the stars.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
One moment there was euphoric calm, an acceptance of release; the next there was a pressure on my leg, heavy and uncomfortable. It jolted me from that serenity. I wanted to shriek again, to make the suffering go away, but I was too tired. I wriggled away from the pain, blinking up at whoever was torturing me, but my lids grew heavier, more unwilling to obey even as the beast of agony ripped into my body again and again.
The pressure mounted and I finally managed to scream until I tasted blood in the back of my throat. Part of me knew I had to fight as viciously, had to try to live, if only to shove off the person inflicting the pain on my leg. I barreled my focus and squinted through the impending dark. Thomas’s hands were a vice on my bare thigh, tears dripping down his face onto mine. I had the impression of him shouting orders to someone nearby, though I couldn’t hear them or be sure. I was too fixated on his tears. In my mind I reached up to wipe them away, though it must have been another dream.