- Escaping from Houdini
I bit down on my tongue. Part of me wanted to say I didn’t understand at all, to talk sternly about the importance of ferreting out any clues before they were lost to memory. However, I knew that was a harsh viewpoint given the circumstances. Their only daughter died brutally in front of them. If they needed time to mourn, it was the least we could offer.
A door creaked open down the corridor, yet no one stepped out. I caught Thomas’s eye and jerked my head in the direction. He took a small step toward the room and paused, nodding in assent. Someone was eavesdropping. I tuned back into the conversation between Dr. Arden and my uncle, hoping they’d hurry it along.
“Very well,” Uncle relented. “Please let him know I stopped by. I’ll return again later this evening.”
I dropped a polite curtsy, but before Dr. Arden could tip his hat, I was moving swiftly down the corridor. I was about to raise my fist and knock, when I noticed Mrs. Prescott staring blankly ahead, eyes rimmed in the red of the grief-stricken.
“Mrs. Prescott…” I moved slowly into her line of vision. “Do you need me to fetch—”
“I told him we shouldn’t accept the offer,” she said, eyes fixed on the ocean. “It was his pride that doomed her.”
I felt Uncle and Thomas hovering behind me and held a hand to stall them. “What offer made you uncomfortable? Was it something you received prior to boarding the ship?”
She blinked at me, as if realizing she wasn’t speaking into the void after all. “A letter. We’d received an invitation. As did the Ardens.” She laughed, the sound anything but amused. “‘Esteemed guest,’ indeed. Robert enjoys believing his own press—that his opinion is one to aspire to attain. There wasn’t any way he’d miss an opportunity to show off. Vanity is a sin.”
“Does Mr. Prescott know who sent the letter?” I pressed. “May I see it?”
A tear slipped down her cheek. Then another. She turned her attention on me and her emotions punched me in my very core. “What good will it do? My Olivia is gone.”
Thomas shifted, fingers tapping his sides. He reminded me of a hound who’d scented a promising lead and wanted to hunt it down no matter the cost. I made to grab him, but he carefully sidestepped my reach.
“Mrs. Prescott, if I may offer my opinion?” he asked. I closed my eyes. Thomas was many incredible things, but subtle he was not. “You have suffered a tragedy most could neither imagine, nor endure. Yet here you stand, breathing, living. Which is the most difficult thing to do. People often admire physical strength, but I believe it’s the simple things one does after a tragedy that defines them. There is no greater show of power than continuing to live when you’d like nothing more than to lie down and let the world fade. Your strength and conviction are needed now—to assist us in capturing whoever did this to your daughter. Miss Olivia might be gone, but what you do next will help her seek the justice she deserves.”
I blinked back the stinging in my eyes, completely and utterly speechless. Mrs. Prescott seemed equally dazed, but recovered swiftly and disappeared into her room. I stood there, mouth agape, not knowing who this Thomas Cresswell was. He flashed a quick grin. “A lifetime full of surprises, remember, Wadsworth?”
“Indeed.” I could not imagine a future that didn’t include unwinding each secret he possessed. Mrs. Prescott finally made her way back to where we lingered in the doorway.
“Here,” she said, sniffling. “For Olivia.”
Thomas took the letter with great care, holding it to his chest. “We will find who did this, Mrs. Prescott. And they will be made to pay.”
I glanced sharply in Thomas’s direction. His tone sent a creeping chill across my skin. I did not doubt that he would fight with everything he had to solve this case.
Mrs. Prescott swallowed hard. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to lie down again.”
We bid her goodbye and continued down the promenade. Uncle glanced over at us while we walked, expression shuttered. I wondered if he was thinking about Aunt Amelia, worried that she might be in an equally horrid condition, going mad with panic over Liza’s disappearance. So often we were only tasked with cutting open the dead, searching the aftermath for clues. Speaking with the living during their time of grief was much harder. It was nearly impossible to turn emotions off and disconnect from the gruesome work that needed to be done.
Once we were far enough down the promenade deck, Thomas stopped and handed the invitation to me. It was quite decadent as far as envelopes went. The paper was a shiny ink blue and the letters were a swirling silver and gold. Little stars littered the border as if someone had blown glitter across the page. It reminded me immediately of the Moonlight Carnival.
I traced my finger over the glossy finish and opened the letter up.
“What do either of you make of this?” Uncle asked. “First impressions.”
“It’s hard to say.” I drew in a deep breath, my mind turning over the words. “On one hand I understand Mrs. Prescott’s distrust—why seek endorsement from a judge? Surely there are more influential members of the aristocracy to target for that sort of thing.” I scanned the letter again, then handed it to Thomas. “I’d claim it was highly unlikely to have been sent by anyone associated with the carnival. Which of them could afford to purchase passage for four first-class passengers?”
“But?” Thomas urged, brow raised. I had the impression he’d come to the same conclusion and was giving me an opportunity to shine.
“It’s very close to the opening statement Mephistopheles made.” I pointed to the one line that was practically identical. “‘You might lose your life, your very soul, to this magical traveling show.’ Who else would be privy to that speech, if not a carnival worker?”
Uncle twisted his mustache, focus turned inward. “Perhaps someone who’s attended the carnival before. This isn’t the first time the Moonlight Carnival is performing.”
“True,” I said, unconvinced. “It still doesn’t explain why they’d wish to frame the circus. Thus far there are no witnesses that we know of, no motive as to why Miss Prescott was targeted, and no decent reason to orchestrate such a tangled web to commit one murder. Why not simply wait until the lights are out, strike, then slip back to wherever they emerged from?”
Thomas paced the deck, his movements quick and precise, much like I imagined his thoughts to be. He stopped abruptly and moved to the railing, staring out at the endless sea. Uncle and I glanced at each other, but didn’t dare interrupt him while he traveled into that dark, twisted part of himself. A few moments later, he half turned, shoulders stiff.
“The murderer is likely someone who enjoys the spectacle. He isn’t interested in quietly committing his dark deeds—he wants drama, the thrill of seeing people recoil. I…” The wind blew a section of hair across his brow. He turned to us, expression hard. “Next time the victim will be revealed in a grander fashion, one that cannot simply be thought of as a performance. Wherever he is right now, he’s seething. Enraged that more people weren’t afraid of his opening act. When he strikes again, every passenger aboard this ship will be imprisoned by their fear. I guarantee he means to turn this cruise into a fantastical nightmare.”
After a prolonged pause, Uncle motioned for us to be on our way. “Be on guard at all times, both of you. The last thing we need is any more trouble for this family.”
While dressing for the evening show, I replayed Thomas’s dire proclamation in my mind. By the time the attendant finished pinning the last rosebud in my hair, my stomach was completely knotted. If Thomas was correct, and I had no doubt he was, then another person was about to die.
Uncle had warned us to be on guard, so I’d taken his advice rather literally. In my silk off-the-shoulder gown, dyed a dark purplish black, I felt as if I were a figure that could easily blend into the shadows and observe the dining saloon if needed.
I removed my mother’s heart-shaped locket from the jewelry box and handed it to the attendant, immediately comforted as its weight settled on my breastbone.
Once the attendant left, I carefully perched on the edge of a chair, mulling over facts. According to Mrs. Prescott, both Chief Magistrate Prescott and Dr. Arden received invitations to experience the Moonlight Carnival, all expenses anonymously paid. They knew each other outside of the Etruria, but I needed to investigate their relationship further. Which might prove difficult, as Dr. Arden had the welcoming personality of a slug. He’d taken to staying in Mr. Prescott’s chamber and refused to speak with anyone for at least another day or two.
Letting that lead go for the time being, I focused on what I already knew. Miss Prescott was slain as soon as the lights went out, a coincidence, perhaps, but I didn’t believe so. Someone who knew precisely when it would be dark in the dining saloon had waited to strike. Another indication that whoever committed the heinous act was somehow involved with the carnival. Or someone who might have observed any rehearsals. I made a mental notation to speak with the captain again. He’d have names of crew members on duty.
Then there was the matter of the Ace of Clubs; its connection was still unclear. Although that might be the point. Maybe the card was nothing more than a distraction. Though cartomancy was another avenue that might prove beneficial…
Someone knocked on the connecting-room door, tugging me from my thoughts. I stood, smoothing down the front of my gown. “Yes?”
I expected Mrs. Harvey, fetching me for supper. Instead Thomas waltzed in as if being alone with me in my bedchamber was not utterly scandalous. I scanned him from head to toe in his dress suit; surely looking so handsome had to be a criminal offense.
“Where’s Mrs. Harvey?” I both hoped and dreaded that she would join us.
Thomas slowed his pace, inspecting me as if to gauge my emotions. Whatever he saw in my expression made his lips twitch. “In the dining saloon with your uncle, waiting for us.”
“How did you manage—”