Escaping From Houdini: Preview Kerri Maniscalco's devious new murder mystery
Audrey Rose Wadsworth is back in action in Escaping From Houdini.
In the third installment of Kerri Maniscalco’s best-selling series that began with Stalking Jack the Ripper, Audrey Rose and her partner in crime Thomas Cresswell have reteamed to solve another bloody mystery. This time, it’s aboard the glitzy RMS Etruria, which is voyaging across the Atlantic. Young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship, leaving it to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. And the most terrifying twist of all: All signs point to someone Audrey Rose loves as the killer’s next target.
Escaping From Houdini follows Hunting Prince Dracula as the latest tantalizing mystery in Maniscalco’s series. The book is due Sept. 18, but to give you a little taste of what’s to come, EW can exclusively reveal the Escaping From Houdini cover, as well as an intriguing excerpt. Read on below, and pre-order the book here.
Excerpt from Escaping From Houdini, by Kerri Maniscalco
One: Moonlight Carnival
1 January 1889
New Year’s afternoon aboard the Etruria began like a fairytale, which was the first indication a nightmare lurked on the horizon, waiting, as most villains do, for an opportunity to strike.
As our cruise liner prepared to leave port, I ignored twinges of unease in favor of the lush fantasy world before us. It was the start of a fresh year, a new chapter, a wonderful opportunity to put dark events of the past behind us and stare ahead into the bright future.
A future that might soon bring a wedding…and a wedding night.
I took a steadying breath and glanced at the stage in the center of the grand dining saloon. Heavy velvet curtains — an ink blue so dark they appeared black — shimmered with tiny sparkling gems whenever light caught them. Aerial performers in diamond encrusted bodices twirled on silver threads, beautiful spiders spinning webs I was hopelessly caught up in.
Round tables dotted the floor like well-placed constellations, their moon white linens strewn with flowers in purples, creams and blues. Among many modern conveniences the Etruria boasted a hot house, and the scents of jasmine, lavender and other midnight notes wafted through the air, inviting yet dangerous — like the masked performers soaring above us.
“The long trains on their costumes make them look like shooting stars, don’t they? I should love to have a dress made with as many gemstones one day.” Miss Prescott, daughter of Chief Magistrate Prescott, sighed deeply. With her caramel hair and cunning brown eyes, she reminded me of my cousin Liza. I liked her immediately. She set her champagne flute down and leaned close, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Have you heard the legend of Mephistopheles, Miss Wadsworth?”
I tore my gaze from the hypnotic scene above once more and shook my head. “I can’t say that I have. Is that what tonight’s performance is based on?”
“I suppose it’s time for a story.” Captain Norwood cleared his throat, gaining the attention of our table, including the Prescott’s, Uncle Jonathan, my chaperone Mrs. Harvey, and the wickedly enchanting Mr. Thomas Cresswell; the young man who’d won my heart as deftly as any card sharp winning hand after hand at his game of choice.
Accompanied by my uncle, Thomas and I had spent two grueling days traveling from Bucharest to Liverpool to board the Etruria before it set out for New York. We’d found creative ways of stealing kisses along the way, and each secret encounter flashed through my mind unbidden — my hands in his dark brown hair, his lips igniting flames along my skin, our…
Miss Prescott gently nudged me under the table, returning my attention to the conversation and warmth to my cheeks.
“…if, of course legends are to be believed. Mephistopheles is said to be a demon who’s in the Devil’s employ,” Captain Norwood continued. “Known for stealing the souls of those already corrupt, he’s full of magic and trickery, and he happens to be one spectacular showman. I guarantee you’re in for a week of unparalleled magic and mystery. Each night will bring a new carnival performance, never before seen. This ship will be the talk of legends, mark my words. Soon every cruise liner will host similar entertainments. It will be the start of a new era of travel.”
I raised a brow at his near reverent tone. “Are you suggesting you’ve hired a demon to entertain us and it’s sure to become all the rage, Captain?”
Thomas choked on his water and Miss Prescott shot me a mischievous grin. “Is there a church or chapel on the ship?” she asked, all round eyes and innocence. “What shall we do if we’re tricked out of our souls, sir?”
The captain lifted a shoulder, enjoying the mystery. “You’ll both have to wait and see. It shan’t be much longer now.” He returned his attention to the adults when Miss Prescott bolted from her seat, startling me and earning a disapproving glare from her father.
“One more little clue, please?”
Maybe it was the devil in me, but I couldn’t help adding, “I would hate to be so overcome with hysteria that I abandoned the ship. We’re not too far from port, are we? Perhaps I might swim…”
Miss Prescott slowly blinked in appraisal. “Indeed, Captain. In fact, I feel a bit of a fainting spell coming on this very moment! Do you think it’s Mephistopheles?” she asked, voice rising in pitch. “Does his trickery work from a distance? I wonder how many he can affect at once.”
I peered at her, leaning in as if to medically inspect her. “You do appear a bit pale, Miss Prescott. Does your soul feel attached to your person?”
Thomas snorted, but didn’t dare interrupt this interesting new show taking place. With my deep blue silk evening gown, midnight gloves that extended past my elbows, and sparkling jewels draped over my collarbone, I felt nearly as bedazzling as the acrobats flying above us.
Miss Prescott wrapped her gloves around her throat, eyes going wide. “You know…I do feel strange. Lighter, even.” She swayed on her feet and clutched her center. “Should we call for smelling salts, Captain?”
“I don’t believe it’s necessary,” he said, inhaling deeply, no doubt regretting pairing the two of us together. “I assure you, this Mephistopheles is harmless.”
“I swear my soul is getting weaker. Can you tell? Do I look more…transparent?” Her eyes grew nearly to the size of saucers as she dropped into her seat and glanced around. “I wonder if there’s a spirit photographer aboard. I’ve heard they can capture such things on film. My clothing isn’t becoming indecent, is it?”
“Not yet.” I bit my lip, trying to keep the smile out of my voice and off my face, especially since Mrs. Prescott seemed ready to burst from fury at her daughter’s act. “We might be able to weigh you to see if there’s any difference.”
Uncle paused his conversation with Thomas, shaking his head ever so slightly, but before he could comment, an attendant hurried over and handed him a telegram. He read it, twisting the ends of his pale mustache, and folded the paper up, shooting me an inscrutable look.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Uncle said, standing. “I must tend to this at once.”
I half-rose, unsure if I should follow, when Mrs. Harvey patted my hand. “I’m sure everything is fine, dear.” She nodded toward the stage. “It’s about to begin.”
Tendrils of smoke unfurled around the inky curtains, the scent strong enough to evoke a few coughing fits throughout the room. My nose burned, but it was a minor nuisance compared to how quickly my pulse now raced. I wasn’t sure if it was Uncle’s swift departure or the quiet anticipation of tonight’s performance that was to blame. Perhaps it was both.
“Ladies. Gentleman.” A deep male voice intoned from everywhere at once, forcing passengers to twist in their seats. I craned my own head around, searching for the man behind the disembodied voice. “Welcome to the show.”
A buzz shot through the room as those few words echoed. In the silence that followed, symbols trilled lightly, building into a crescendo that clashed as servers lifted silver cloches from our plates, revealing a meal fit for royalty. No one seemed to notice the mushroom gravy topped filets or fried potatoes that were arranged in a grand pile, our hunger no longer for food, but to hear that mysterious voice once more.
I peeked at Thomas and smiled. He moved about in his seat as if hot coals had been placed randomly and he had to shift or remain still and get burned.
“Nervous?” I whispered as the aerial performers gracefully descended, one by one.
“Of a performance that boasts of causing arrhythmia, according to this program?” He flicked the black and white striped show-bill he held. “Not at all. I cannot wait for my heart to burst. Really livens up an otherwise monotonous Sunday evening, Wadsworth.”
Before I could respond, a drum thundered and a masked man emerged from a cloud of smoke in the center of the stage. He wore a frock coat the color of an opened vein and a starched shirt and trousers that were an endless black. Scarlet ribbons and silver bullion trimmed his top hat and a burnished filigree mask covered everything from his nose up. His mouth curved in wicked delight as every eye in the saloon went to him and each jaw dropped.
Men jumped in their seats, women’s fans snapped open, the sound akin to a hundred birds taking flight. It was unsettling, witnessing a man materialize, unscathed by the tempest raging about him. Whispers of him being the devil’s heir reached my ears. Or Satan himself, as Miss Prescott’s father would have it. I nearly rolled my eyes. As a chief magistrate, I should hope he’d have better judgment. This was clearly the ringmaster.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” The masked man bowed, mischief sparking in his eyes as he slowly drew himself back up. “I am Mephistopheles — your guide through the strange and magnificent. Each night the Wheel of Fate will choose your entertainer. I warn you, though, beware of midnight bargains…taking your fate in your own hands is poorly advised.”
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 on stage, 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 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.
“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 bulged 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.”
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 on stage.
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 entertainment.
He spun in a circle, once, twice, and the beast disappeared. I leaned forward, blinking as the ringmaster proudly bowed to the audience a second time, 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 somersaulted across the stage, top hat remaining in place without 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’ voice boomed so loudly I felt an echo of it in my own chest. “While we boast death-defying acts, no one escapes death 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, holding our breath, 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 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 ground, 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. Like 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 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.
“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.”
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’ Magnificent Minstrel Show, or as it’s better known…the Moonlight Carnival!”
Lights flashed on, the brightness stinging as I blinked 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, her voice barely audible over the din. “M-murder!”
I followed her gaze and bit my tongue hard enough to taste copper. Miss Prescott — the young woman clapping with delight moments before — lie face-down, unmoving, in a pool of blood; a dinner knife stuck deep in her velvet covered back.
I stared, waiting for Miss Prescott 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 dead.