Mrs. Houdini

Written By: Victoria Kelly

Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly

For my dad

The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.




January 9, 1898

“Where is my brother, John Murphy?” Harry held the card to the light. “I have not heard from him in nineteen years.” He returned the note to its envelope and surveyed the audience. Outside the hall, the winter roared over the cracked-earth streets, the horses stamping at their posts.

“It’s my question.” A woman’s small voice rose from the back of the theater.

Bess was seated in a wooden chair in the middle of the stage, a black lace veil draped over her head. She glanced at Harry, then peered into the darkness. This was not routine.

“The cards are meant to remain anonymous,” Harry said. “It is what the spirits prefer.”

The woman stood up, her face in the shadows. “But how are you supposed to answer without knowing me?”

Bess began to cough. The hall was filthy, the clay floor kicked up by hundreds of feet, and the dust hung like an iron around her neck. The words wouldn’t come. For these types of questions the answer was always evasive, he is on the way to you, he is coming; for others, the answers apprehended ahead of time—recent deaths, small-town gossip—she could be more specific.

“Mrs. Houdini.” Harry rushed to her side. “Are you all right? What is coming to you?”

“It’s—John Murphy,” she stammered, abandoning her heavy, affected stage voice. “I think you will find him at East Seventy-Second Street in New York.”

“New York?” the woman said. “Why would he be there?”

Bess broke protocol again and looked directly at Harry. Another fit of coughing overtook her. The veil slipped to the floor.

Harry stood up. “My wife is ill. The spirits are accosting her. We shall have to conclude here.” He ushered Bess backstage and placed his hand against the back of her neck. “My God, are you all right?” He searched her face. “What’s the matter?”

Bess shook her head. “It was the dust. I couldn’t breathe.”

“The dust?” He pulled away, irritated. “You shouldn’t have done that. We go by the plan, Bess. You know that.”

“I don’t know where it came from. I kept thinking of John Murphy who owns the ice cream parlor near your mother’s apartment, and the words just came out.” She wiped her face. “I’m sorry.”

“And what happens when the real Murphy turns out to be dead, or in jail?”

“What does it matter? By then we’ll be halfway to Milwaukee.”

Harry frowned. “I suppose. If the storm lets up.”

She took his hand. “It’s all a trick one way or another, whatever we say.”

In the frigid gray of morning, the trunks packed and the bill settled, Bess was stopped outside the hotel by a small, agitated woman, wrapped from ears to feet in a heavy wool coat.

“Mrs. Houdini,” she said, her breath white as smoke. “It’s Mary Murphy.”

“Mary Murphy?”

“You told me about my brother.”

Bess feigned innocence. “I’m afraid I don’t remember.”

Harry came up behind them. “If it’s about last night, Mrs. Houdini isn’t entirely conscious during the readings,” he explained. “It’s not really her who’s speaking. She can’t be held accountable.”

The woman pressed her hand against Harry’s arm, urgently. “Your wife was right. My brother works on Seventy-Second Street in New York.”

Bess froze. “Pardon?”

“I wired a friend of mine last night and asked her to investigate. She found him. He’s alive and well.”

Bess saw Harry’s jaw go tight. “I’m so glad,” he said coolly, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her toward the hotel. “But I’m afraid we’re very late.”

Mary Murphy stood in the snow, startled, and watched them leave.

In the crowded lobby, Bess pulled free of Harry’s grip. “My God,” she said, trembling. “What have we done?”

Harry ran his hand through his hair. “Clearly it’s a matter of coincidence.”

“Harry—have we sold our souls for a little applause?”

“It was an innocent enough answer.”

Bess took a ragged breath. “This is what we’ve been looking for, though, isn’t it? This is real magic.”

“What does that even mean?” He bent over to pick up their bags, but she could tell he was frightened. “You know I don’t put stock in religion.”

“It’s not religion. It’s . . . knowing more than we should. Connecting with the other side. We’ve been pretending all this time to speak with the dead—what if we really can?” She lowered her voice. “How do we know what—or who—is really over there?”

Harry’s eyes glistened. “Isn’t that what everyone wants—to know what is beyond?”

“No. Not me.” She shivered, remembering her childhood fear of darkness, the shadows that assembled themselves into gruesome shapes on her bedroom ceiling at night, and the hours of prayer it took to dispel them.

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