Escaping from Houdini Page 2

Passengers fidgeted, probably wondering at the sort of bargains they might make—how low they might fall in the pursuit of pleasure so far from society’s watchful shores.

“Our tricks might appear sweet, but I promise they are not treats,” he whispered. “Are you brave enough to survive? Perhaps you’ll be another who loses their heart and their head to my midnight minstrel show. Only you can decide. Until then?”

Mephistopheles prowled onstage, a caged animal waiting for an opportunity to strike. My heart thudded wildly. I had the distinct impression we were all prey dressed in our finest, and if we weren’t careful, we’d be devoured by his mysterious show.

“Tonight is the first of seven in which you will be dazzled.” The ringmaster lifted his arms, and a dozen white doves flew from his sleeves into the rafters. A few excited cries erupted, Mrs. Harvey and Miss Prescott among the first.

“And horrified,” he continued, a slight croak now in his voice. From one blink to the next, his tie was no longer made of cloth—it was a writhing snake, wrapping itself about his neck. Mephistopheles clutched his throat, his bronze face turning a deep purple under the filigree mask. My own breath caught when he bent over and sputtered, gasping for air.

I almost stood, convinced we were bearing witness to this man’s death, but forced myself to breathe. To think. To compile facts like the scientist-in-training I was. This was only a show. Nothing more. Surely no one was going to die. My breath came in short gasps that had nothing to do with the corset of my fine dress. This was utterly thrilling and horrible. I hated it almost as much as I loved it. And I adored it more than I cared to admit.

“Good heavens,” Miss Prescott muttered when he dropped to his knees, wheezing. His eyes rolled backward until all I saw were their whites. I held my own breath, unable to release the tension in my spine. This had to be an illusion. “Someone help him!” Miss Prescott cried. “He’s dying!”

“Sit down, Olivia,” Mrs. Prescott whispered harshly. “You’re not only embarrassing yourself, but me and your father as well.”

Before anyone could aid the ringmaster, he pried the serpent away and drew in air as if he’d been submerged in the seawater we traveled through. I slumped back, and Thomas chuckled, but I couldn’t quite pull my gaze from the masked man onstage.

Mephistopheles shoved himself into a standing position, staggered a bit, then slowly lifted the snake above his head—light from the chandeliers caught his mask, turning half his face a furious orange-red. Perhaps he was angry—he’d tested us and found us lacking. What well-dressed monsters we must seem, carrying on with our elegant supper while he fought for his life, all for nothing more than our mere entertainment.

He spun in a circle, once, twice, and the slithering beast disappeared. I leaned forward, blinking as the ringmaster proudly bowed to the audience again, hands no longer occupied by the serpent. A roar of applause went up.

“How in God’s name?” I mumbled. There were no boxes or places for him to have hidden the snake. I sincerely hoped it didn’t find its way to our table; Thomas would surely faint.

“You might even fall…” he called as he somersaulted across the stage, top hat remaining in place without his touching it, “… in love.”

Mephistopheles tipped the hat and it tumbled down his arm as if it were an acrobat vaulting over a trapeze. Like any great showman, he held it out so we could see it was a regular top hat, if not a bit gaudy. Once he’d made an entire circuit around the stage, he tossed it in the air, then snatched it back with a snap of his wrist. I watched, unblinking, as he stuck his arm in up to his elbow and yanked out a dozen ink-blue roses.

His hat had been utterly ordinary. I was almost certain of it.

“I warn you once more—do not get too attached.” Mephistopheles’s voice boomed so loudly I felt an echo of it in my own chest. “While we boast death-defying acts, no one escapes its grip forever. Will tonight be the end for some? Will you lose your hearts? Or perhaps,” he grinned over his shoulder at the crowd, “you will lose your heads.”

A spotlight illuminated a crudely painted harlequin doll—which hadn’t been there a moment before. Pivoting in a single, graceful movement, the ringmaster threw a dagger across the stage. It flew blade over handle, sinking into the doll’s neck with a thwack that hushed the audience. For a taut moment nothing happened. All was wretchedly still. We sat there, scarcely breathing, waiting. The doll’s body stubbornly remained pinned to the board it had been propped against. Another moment passed and Mephistopheles tsked.

“Well. That won’t do.” He stomped his feet. “Everyone… do as I do!”

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Passengers obliged, slowly at first, then sent the dining saloon into a vibrating frenzy. China rattled, silverware scuttled across tables, goblets sloshed merlot onto the expensive linens, our tables now appearing more like crime scenes than elegant spreads. Deciding to let go of my well-bred reserve a bit, I stomped along. Thomas, a bemused expression on his face, followed my lead.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

The pounding drummed into each of my cells, prompting my blood to pump to the beat. It was animalistic and feral, and yet so… thrilling. I could not believe so many lords and ladies and highborn passengers of first class were swept up in the hedonism and debauchery.

Mrs. Harvey brought her gloved fists down on the table, adding a new fervor to the sound thrumming in my ears. Miss Prescott did the same. A breath later the doll’s head thumped to the floor, rolling toward the ringmaster’s gleaming boots.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. It seemed no one was quite ready to give up the devil’s rhythm once it had started. Mephistopheles was the conductor of this wicked symphony, his hand punching the air as the stomp stomp stomping reached a fever pitch.

“Silence!” he shouted, voice booming above everything else. As if he were a puppet master snipping strings, the clomping of feet ceased. Some in the crowd stood, cheering, while a few men in silk top hats whistled loudly.

Miss Prescott rose from her seat, face flushed and eyes bright, completely unaffected by the glare her parents leveled at her. “Bravo!” she called out, clapping. “I said bravo!”

Mephistopheles gazed at the severed head with a thoughtful expression, as if he was reliving a memory that haunted him, something wretched enough he’d never escape it, no matter how far he’d run. I imagined, like his elaborate illusions, nothing was quite as it seemed where he was concerned. To my astonishment, he picked up the doll’s head and kicked it into the air, where it exploded in fireworks that sprinkled down like fallen stars, burning out before they reached the black-and-white-tiled floor. Silence fell upon us all.

“So, I inquire once more, which will you lose before the week is through? Your heart? Your head? Perhaps,” he drawled, face cast in shadows as the chandeliers dimmed slowly before winking out, “you will lose your life, your very soul, to this magical traveling show.”

I gasped and held my gloved hands up, but could only make out the barest hint of them. My heart pumped faster as I glanced around the pitch blackness, enraptured yet terrified of what monster might be lurking. Seemed I wasn’t the only one intrigued. Excited murmurs rippled through the darkness. The promise of death was as alluring, if not more so, than the prospect of falling in love. What morbid creatures we were, craving danger and mystery in place of happily-ever-afters.

“For now,” he continued, his voice a smooth caress in the dark, “enjoy an evening of magic, mischief, and mayhem.” My palms dampened and I couldn’t help sitting forward, needing another word, another clue, another bit of the surreal. As if he’d heard my inner longings, Mephistopheles spoke again. “Esteemed passengers of the Etruria… please indulge your senses in the greatest show from sea to sea,” he crooned. “Welcome to Mephistopheles’s Magnificent Minstrel Show, or as it’s better known… the Moonlight Carnival!”

Lights flashed on, the brightness stinging as I blinked dark spots away. A moment later, Mrs. Harvey shoved away from our table, face as pale as a specter. Thomas reached out to steady her, but she raised a shaking hand.

I followed her gaze and bit my tongue hard enough to taste copper. Miss Prescott—the young woman clapping with delight moments before—lay facedown, unmoving, in a pool of blood with nearly a dozen knives stuck deep in her velvet-covered back.

I stared, waiting for her to gasp out or twitch. To toss her head back and laugh, having fooled us with her performance. But that was an illusion of my own making.

Miss Prescott was truly dead.





1 JANUARY 1889

For a moment, nothing happened except for the growing ringing in my ears. Thomas might have been calling my name, but I couldn’t focus on anything other than forcing myself to breathe. I needed to be rational and analytical, but my emotions weren’t quite ready to comply. I studied the dead, but sitting beside a person who’d been murdered was incomprehensible.

The room twisted as I stood and everything became scorchingly hot. I tried convincing myself it was a terrible dream, but Mrs. Prescott’s guttural scream erupted, drawing a hundred pairs of eyes our way, and I knew it was real.

Passengers at other tables gasped, their expressions filled not with repulsion but… delight as they spied the young woman lying in her own blood with ten dinner knives following the length of her spine. I slowly blinked at the people who were starting to clap, stomach churning, until the truth hit me: they thought this was another act.

To most in the saloon, Miss Prescott’s “murder” was simply part of the dinner show—and what a magnificent one it was, according to a man at the next table. Thomas was already out of his seat, his attention torn between his sobbing chaperone and me, all the while scanning the perimeter for threats. I wanted to assist him, to be productive and useful, but I could not stop the shrill ringing in my ears or the fog that had descended over my thoughts. Everything seemed to move slowly. Everything except for my heart. That thundered against my ribs in frantic bursts. It was a warning beat, urging me to action, begging me to flee.

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