Evie Barnum is in charge of her brother’s museum, a place teeming with scientific specimens and “human prodigies” including a bearded woman and the lizard man. In this weird and whacky workplace, Evie hopes she can bury her secrets.
But when an old friend shows up and begs for her help, she does all she can to stay away. The next time she sees him, he is dead in front of the exhibit of the Feejee Mermaid. Suspicion for the murder falls on Jeffrey, known as the Lizard Man, but Evie knows it isn’t possible.
When Jeffrey also goes missing, Evie becomes determined to solve the mystery of her friend’s murder, even if it brings her face to face with her past…
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They came in droves, the gullible and the curious, the naïve and the trusting and those who wanted so badly to believe they were willing to deny their suspicions and abandon their common sense. Some arrived at the urging of their neighbors who had already seen what the journalists – bought and paid for by my brother, Phineas T. Barnum – called an exhibit of wonder and astonishment. Others yielded their twenty-five cents for more prurient reasons: they were eager to see in person the glorious maiden pictured in newspaper woodcuts, hair loose around her shoulders and her breasts bare.
They stood in long lines out on Broadway, and when the doors of Barnum's American Museum opened at eight each morning, many of them ignored the exhibits downstairs and hurried here to the second floor. I had seen it a thousand times in the months I had been in the employ of my brother; no sooner were their feet off the stairs than their voices became hushed and their breaths suspended, as if they were entering a church.
'And it is all because of you.'
Alone in the Picture Gallery at this early hour, I looked toward the exhibit that stood behind glass in front of me and, for a moment, saw only my own knowing smile reflected back in the soft glow of the whale oil lamps.
'The Feejee Mermaid.' I exhaled the words written on the nearby placard as I had heard so many of our patrons do.
She was surely a fantastical creature, or so my brother had led the world to believe. A freak of nature similar to those living human oddities who were also exhibited at the museum. But rather than a giantess, like our seven-foot-tall Rebecca Cromwell, or a diminutive genius, like Phin's newly discovered sensation, General Tom Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid was neither fish nor human being. She was, in all fact, a strange combination of both, and according to the stories my brother had put forth, she had been captured in the Pacific near the island of Feejee many years previously.
She was no more than three-feet long, a blackened, dried-up specimen whose ribs showed one after another beneath her desiccated skin. Her mouth was open in what always seemed to me a silent scream. Her tail was luxurious and covered with fish scales. Her arms were thrown over her head, and though Phin had told me time and again that I was altogether too imaginative, I was convinced she had the appearance of having died in great agony.
She was surely astounding.
And, it is only fair to report, a complete humbug – the product of a taxidermist of some great skill who had managed to create a flawless compound of the tail of a fish, the head of a monkey and the body of an orangutan.
The Feejee Mermaid had created quite the sensation here in New York City and, as a result, she had made my brother very rich.
I did not hold this against him, no more than I looked down on those who were credulous enough to believe such a creature might actually exist and pay their hard-earned money to see it. But being a more practical person than my brother, more orderly in mind and habit, or so he says, I was more inclined to take a pragmatic approach to the exhibit. As I did every morning, I made sure it was clean and neat and that the light shone upon it just right, so that when the crowds gathered the Feejee Mermaid would be ready to receive them.
Thus satisfied, I made my way toward the Waxworks Room just beyond the Portrait Gallery. I was nearly there when a man's voice called out from the stairway.
For one terrifying second, I imagined I recognized the voice and froze.
It was one second too long.
'Miss Barnum, it is you! I did not think I could be so fortunate to locate you so quickly.'
I swallowed hard and turned to face my old friend, Andrew Emerson.
Was my smile enough to convince him that I was pleased by the chance meeting? I couldn't be sure, but I kept it in place and raised my chin. 'Mr Emerson. What on earth are you doing —'
'I must apologize for arriving unannounced, and so early in the morning, too.' Andrew raced up the last of the stairs at the same time he swept his tall top hat off his head. He closed in on me, his blue eyes ablaze with excitement.
'But how did you —' As if it might explain my confusion, I glanced at the stairway.
'I know it's early and the museum doesn't open for another twenty minutes. I hope I haven't caused trouble for the man at the door. I explained that I am an old friend of your family, that we were all acquainted back in Bethel, Connecticut.'
The one topic above all others I did not wish to discuss.
To be sure I would not have to, I lifted the skirts of my brown dress, the better to sail into the Waxworks Room and the refuge of my office beyond. 'It's very nice seeing you again. But I really must be going, Mr Emerson. I have duties to attend to and —'
'I understand. Truly, I do. I have much news of home to share.' He dangled the words like a fat worm on a fishhook, and when I did not respond because all I could feel was panic and all I could think was that I needed to get away, he presumed I was interested. 'Abigail Ross – you remember her, the girl with the squint eyes – married Parson Thompson's son, Ezra, in the spring. And the mill burned just a month ago. Did you hear the story? No one could talk of another thing for weeks after.'
'That is ... thank you.' I stepped back. 'Perhaps we might meet another time and chat about it all. But for now —'
'Please, Miss Barnum. Evangeline. Please. I have come the seventy miles from Bethel, and I would not think to bother you if it wasn't essential. It is why I went to your home in Bethel and talked to your mother and —'
'My mother?' Even to my own ears, my words sounded as if they had been formed of ice. I thought to clear the chill away with a cough but decided against it. Andrew and I had known each other since childhood. He was not the type who would notice the coldness of my words, or if he did, he would be too polite to mention it. And I was not the type who could so easily put so raw a wound behind me.
'What exactly was it my mother told you?' I asked him.
'Well, that's the deuce of it, isn't it? If you'll pardon the expression, dear Evangeline. You left Bethel so quickly two years ago, and I didn't know how I might get in touch with you again, so I went to see Mrs Barnum to inquire after you. I thought she would surely help me, knowing that we have long been friends. But your mother —'
'My mother?' Tears sprang to my eyes, and I blinked rapidly to hide them while at the same time cursing myself for my weakness.
'Your mother told me she had absolutely no idea where you'd gone! It made no sense to me. No sense at all. You have always been a loving and devoted daughter and your mother —'
When Andrew shook his head in wonder, his coppery hair – combed slightly forward and long over his ears as was the fashion for young men – fell against his brow. He pushed it back with one well-shaped hand. Since his father's death, Andrew had taken over the running of TheIntelligencer, the newspaper in Bethel, and he was a reliable, steady sort of fellow with a gentle nature and a generous heart. He believed the best of people. Even when they didn't deserve it.
'Your mother must have been having a turn of some sort. I thought it was important for you to know. Perhaps she needs the services of a doctor.'
I exhaled a breath of relief. If all Andrew wanted was to tell me my mother's mind was not as clear as it once had been, then our business was concluded. 'Thank you,' I said and turned away.
The childhood name brought a wave of memories crashing over me, and for the sake of our long friendship, I paused.
'I've come all this way,' Andrew said, his words spilling out, one over top of the other. 'I took the chance of coming here to New York City, thinking I might speak to your brother of your whereabouts, but now that I've found you, well, it really is a miracle. I must talk to you, Evie. I haven't been able to eat. I haven't been able to sleep. I will not be able to, not until we talk. Not until you help me.'
I looked over my shoulder at him and knew he was telling the truth. On close inspection, I saw there were smudges of sleeplessness under Andrew's eyes that looked particularly gray against his white linen shirt and especially ghastly considering he was wearing a gay charcoal, red and cream bow tie. He wore tan sit-down-upons (even here in the city, no one dared be so libertine as to use the word trousers), a black, calf-length frock coat and, even as I turned to him, his fingers worked over the brim of his stovepipe hat.
'I ... I can't help you,' I told him.
'But you can. I am certain of it!' There was a catch in his voice. 'You're the only one who can, Evie. Please. If you'll give me just a minute or two —'
'I wish I could, but I have my duties. The museum is about to open, and when it does there will be hundreds of people here in the gallery in a matter of moments.'
'Then we must talk quickly.'
'No. I wish I could, but I can't. I must ...' I fingered the white silk reticule I'd brought with me that morning from the home I shared with Phin and his wife, Charity, and was grateful I needn't lie. 'I must pay our human oddities their weekly wages,' I told Andrew without bothering to add I had planned to do it that afternoon, not that morning. 'It would be rude of me to keep them waiting. In fact ...' From habit, I glanced over my shoulder toward the Waxworks Room. I knew that often, Jeffrey Hollister, the man we were so bold as to advertise as the Lizard Man of Borneo, spent his free hours there because the light was good for reading and he invariably had a book with him. 'They are waiting for me. I must ... Really, Andrew, it has been wonderful to see you but I must be going.'
I cannot say what happened first, or how it happened at all, seeing as I didn't realize Jeffrey Hollister was at that moment in the Waxworks Room. But when Andrew stepped forward yet one more time, clapped a hand on my arm and said, 'Evie, please, I beg you,' Jeffrey flew out of the shadows and, like the half-man half-beast we purported him to be, he went straight for Andrew's throat.
For a moment, I was unable to do anything but watch in horror as Jeffrey's hands closed over Andrew's windpipe. In keeping with his wild-man persona, Jeffrey's fingernails were grotesquely long and his skin was a dull green thanks to the combination of ground coffee, henna and spinach he rubbed over it each morning, the better to fascinate the adults who came to observe him and to frighten their children. The color added a gruesome accent to the natural texture of his skin, coarse and scabrous from birth, as did the fact that he wore nothing more than a loincloth and roughly made sandals.
There was a cage nearby, an exhibit my brother liked to call the 'Happy Family,' and the animals in it did not take kindly to the commotion. The dogs barked. The hawk wheeled through the cage and screeched. The seven monkeys that lived therein flung themselves at the steel bars, screaming.
Through it all and the ferocious racket of my pounding heart, I heard Jeffrey grunt and growl and saw Andrew's eyes goggle out of his head, and I knew I had to do something quickly.
'Mr Hollister! No!' I raced forward and put a hand on Jeffrey's bare shoulder. In my time at the museum I had seen him nearly every day and, as with all the other oddities, I had become immune to the freakishness of his physical qualities. But I had never, of course, touched him, and the texture of his skin – like that of sand – repelled me. Taken aback, I dropped my hand and pulled away. That is, before I realized I did not have a moment to lose. Not if I was going to save Andrew, who was now backed against the glass case that contained the Feejee Mermaid and whose cheeks were a particularly horrifying shade of maroon.
I rushed forward and closed a hand on each of Jeffrey's shoulders, pulling him as firmly as I could to my side, and by the time I was done the ringlets that cascaded down from the central part of my hair hung in loose spirals.
'Mr Hollister, it's fine. Really.' I hauled in a breath and steadied myself, the better – I hoped – to calm Jeffrey when I wrapped an unyielding arm around his waist. 'Mr Emerson is an old friend. He meant me no harm.'
Jeffrey tore himself out of my grasp but, fortunately, when he scuttled away it was toward the Waxworks Room and away from Andrew. 'He touched you, he did.' His eyes were small and dark and they shot a look of pure hatred at Andrew. 'I saw it myself. I saw Miss was in trouble. He ... he shouldn't have done that.'
'I didn't mean ...' Andrew pulled in a breath and steadied himself, one hand flat against the mermaid exhibit. He tugged his waistcoat back into place. 'I'm sorry, Evie. I didn't mean to ...'
'No need,' I told him and, with one hand out – stained with the green color that dyed Jeffrey's skin – I stopped him when he tried to step nearer. Though I thought Jeffrey had possession of his temper, it was difficult to say for sure. Of all our oddities, he was the most likely to lash out when provoked, and he was often provoked for very little reason. Though I could not in any way approve, I did understand. He had spent his life as an outcast and a misfit. He had endured years of mistreatment and abuse simply because he looked peculiar. Before my brother discovered him and paid him more than a living wage to be part of the museum, poor Jeffrey had performed in the circus and lived on the streets. He was a bitter man and unpredictable, though he had proven himself a quick study when it came to learning to read and had demonstrated – surely not in quite the right way this time – that he had a noble heart and a courageous nature.
'Mr Hollister thought I might be in danger.' I smiled at our Lizard Man as a way of conveying my thanks. Later, when he was calm and when my lungs weren't on fire and my blood wasn't racing, I would remind him that though I appreciated him coming to what he thought was my rescue, violence would not be tolerated inside the walls of the museum. 'I am very fortunate, indeed, to have him here looking after me.'
Just as I'd hoped, this comment elicited a small smile from my protector.
'Thank you very much, Mr Hollister,' I told him and stepped back so he might return to the Waxworks Room. 'I am grateful for your care and concern.'
Jeffrey mumbled something that might have been 'You're welcome,' and disappeared back into the room from which he had come.
Andrew's stovepipe hat was on the floor and, gulping down breath after breath, he bent to retrieve it. 'You know I didn't mean anything of it, Evie. You know I would never hurt you.'
There was no truth to the rumor that I had once given Andrew Emerson the mitten. We were never engaged to be married and, had we been, I never would have broken it off. I wasn't in love with Andrew. I never had been. But he was a good man and there was honor in him. For all the world, I could not have broken my promise to him and risked breaking his heart.
Just because I did not love him did not mean I wasn't moved by the softness of his smile.
Drat it all, he saw the softening of my resolve and his eyes pleaded with me. 'Please give me a few moments. For the sake of the friendship we shared. For the sake of everything that happened back in Bethel.'
If only he knew! It was what had happened back in Bethel that worried me so, and what would happen – to me and to my family – if the truth of the matter became public. Two years previously, I had convinced myself the only way to assure secrecy was to never let down my guard and to never reveal my secrets.
I had never loved Andrew Emerson, but I valued our friendship.
I knew if I took the time to talk to him, both my safety and those secrets might be put at risk.
I inched my shoulders back. 'I am grateful Mr Hollister didn't injure you and I hope you will forgive him. As you might imagine, he has not had an easy life. He is well-intentioned in spite of his temper. For reasons I cannot explain, he feels proprietary when it comes to me.'
Excerpted from "Smoke and Mirrors"
Copyright © 2017 Connie Laux.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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