Shots at Sea: A Houdini & Nate Mystery (Houdini and Nate Mysteries)

Shots at Sea: A Houdini & Nate Mystery (Houdini and Nate Mysteries)

by Tom Lalicki

ISBN: 9780374316792

Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Published in Children's Books/Transportation, Children's Books/Mysteries, Espionage, & Detectives

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Sample Chapter


Standing at the foot of the gangplank, Nate finally believed they were going. He had made a dozen trips to the tailor, accompanied his mother on numberless shopping excursions for travel necessities, and endured three bon voyage dinners with his aunt's elderly friends. He had even sent a note to Ace Winchell, his onetime partner in crime fighting.

Suitcases, trunks, and hatboxes with enough clothes for his mother and great-aunt Alice — a whole year's worth — were already stowed in the first-class cabin Nate would share with them. At this point, they simply had to climb the narrow, steeply angled wooden gangplank — the first-class gangplank — and follow a ship's steward to their cabin.

But Nate had learned enough about life — the hard way — to value a warning Houdini had given him: "We can never really tell what is ever likely to happen." Nate had climbed only a few steps when he heard his great-aunt's voice below.

"I should not be here, Deborah," she told her niece-in-law, Nate's mother.

"We should go to our cabin. You will feel much better when we settle in," Deborah Fuller replied.

"That is not true. I am far too old for foolishness like this." Aunt Alice shook her head dramatically. "I should never have allowed myself to be bullied and badgered."

"It's just last-minute nerves, Aunt Alice. I have them myself."

"It is not nerves, Deborah, it is clear thinking," Aunt Alice insisted. Nate's mother sighed slightly, searching for the right thing to say.

"Pardon me, ladies," a portly, well-dressed man standing behind them said. "May I be of assistance? If you need help boarding, I will gladly go first and send a steward to aid you."

"I do not need a steward, sir. I need to return to my own home," Aunt Alice said decisively.

"Aunt Alice, let's step aside and let others board while we discuss this," Deborah suggested. "Nate, go ahead and send a steward to us."

"In a flash," Nate said, turning and climbing the gangplank quickly enough to escape his aunt's protests. Touching foot onboard the enormous ship made him quiver with anticipation. He was incredibly eager to explore the length and breadth of every deck of the enormous vessel, but a uniformed officer purposefully blocked his path.

"Your name, sir?" the officer asked in a polite, accented voice. The ship was owned and mostly staffed by Britons.

"Nathaniel Fuller. I am traveling with my mother, Deborah Fuller, and my great-aunt."

The officer flipped through the papers on his clipboard. "And your great-aunt's name is ...?"

"Mrs. Ludlow, Mrs. Alice Ludlow."

"Yes, I have the Ludlow-Fuller party in B-6, a three-person saloon-class accommodation on B-deck forward ..."

"I thought that we were in first class," Nate said. "My aunt can't bear the thought of saloons. She certainly isn't going to sleep near one."

"And she will not, my young American gentleman," said the British officer, choking back a laugh. "Our saloon class is the height of luxury, far exceeding your expectation of first class."

"So saloon class doesn't mean saloon, it means first?" Nate asked. "Why not call it first class?"

"Some people think that Americans and British are one people separated by the sharing of a common language," the officer said, as if that answered Nate's question. "But are those two ladies standing by the side of the gangplank your mother and aunt? Why haven't they boarded yet?"

"My aunt is ... reconsidering the trip."

"A bit late in the day for that, wouldn't you say? Let's go down and sort things out."

"I don't think my going is the best idea. I could never convince my aunt to do anything. Certainly not to change her mind. But I don't think she will let me sail to England by myself."

"I'd take a flyer on that," the officer said, winking for emphasis. Nate was unsure what precisely "taking a flyer" was, but translation could wait.

"You said we are in Cabin B-6?"

"Yes, quite a spacious forward cabin. It's toward the bow on the starboard side — that is the right side, you know — of B-deck," the officer said.

"And port is left and the rear is the stern," Nate said.

"Jolly good. Now, when I return with your mother and aunt, this steward will guide you."

"No need for that. I can find it myself, after I attend to some business." Nate hotfooted it away, happy to let a stranger lock wills with his great-aunt.

"Business!" an eavesdropping steward whispered skeptically to himself. "The bairn's hardly old enough for long pants. Business indeed!"


Having spent his entire life — so far — in the company of Aunt Alice, Nate knew that disappearing from view was the smart thing to do. Every second he lingered near the gangplank, he ran the risk of his aunt digging in her heels. If she had waved her arm and cried, "Nathaniel, come down this instant. We are going home," he couldn't have defied her.

Ducking out was really doing a kindness for his aunt, Nate reasoned. He was just as certain that his mother would not resent his disappearance. She wanted to make this trip as badly as Nate did.

And Aunt Alice needed to make the trip. At least that was what her lawyers and friends urged. She had still not completely gotten over the shock of being hoodwinked by a murderer turned medium. Small wonder! The charlatan had convinced her that the spirit of Nate's dead father had come back to denounce Nate's mother and demand that Nate be disinherited. Aunt Alice nearly went insane — and she would have been murdered, if Nate and Houdini hadn't saved the day.

Thinking of Houdini reminded Nate that he had a goal in mind: confirming his skills of observation. He had five days before docking in Liverpool, England, to sight all the Pier 54 spectators he had decided were "sailing." Of course, he could never satisfactorily prove the negative. If he failed to see some of the people he had guessed were "not sailing," it did not prove they were not on the ship. It proved that he didn't see them. Sighting the "maybes" would teach him the most.

The word teach stung. This was all just an exercise in observation and deduction. Nothing like his life-or-death experiences escaping from a kidnapper and tracking down a murderer before he could strike again. Nate actually missed the fear and panic and sheer excitement he lived through only months ago. It wouldn't ever happen again. Not unless he made hunting criminals his career — a choice he knew his mother would hate.

Even though Nate hadn't seen him since July, he knew that Houdini understood. Why else would Houdini have loaned Nate his own heavily annotated copies of Professional Criminals of America and Recollections of a New York City Chief of Police — two great basic textbooks about crime and deduction? And all the Sherlock Holmes novels Nate bought at the used book stalls on Fourth Avenue were instructive.

But Nate's favorite was Houdini's own book The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals. Nate had read it at least five times, learning scads about burglars, pickpockets, jewel thieves, and swindlers of all sorts.

Deep in thought, reviewing the entries in his journal, Nate was oblivious to the hurly-burly surrounding him in the grand hallway of the Lusitania's main deck.

"Beggin' your pardon, sir," a strongly accented voice broke in, "this isn't the best place to have a quiet read."

Nate looked up, around, and finally down before locating the speaker. He was a boy probably no older than Nate himself — twelve, maybe even thirteen — but quite a bit shorter. In his tight-fitting blue uniform with two collar-to-waist rows of shiny buttons, the boy clearly was a crew member.

"I could guide you to your cabin or point you to the proper reading lounge, if you like," the boy offered.

"Are you a steward? Your uniform isn't like the others," Nate remarked.

"I hope, one day, sir, to be a steward. But that's years away. I am a bellboy at present."

"You carry people's bags to their rooms? That's what bellboys do at hotels," Nate said.

"We do what is called for. 'Men of all work,' you might say. Keep the ship running, really. We deliver wireless messages from the radio room, carry messages between passengers, hunt up extra blankets for people sitting in the deck chairs. We even walk dogs — that's the best tipping," he added confidentially.

Nate wanted to hear more. He wanted to tell the bellboy about his job last summer as a dogsbody for Bennett & Son, Gentlemen's Hatters, of Fifth Avenue. But he didn't do either. He'd been told — time and again — not to be familiar with the crew.

"English servants are different," Aunt Alice had repeatedly said to him. "They know their place, and they expect you to know your place. Be dignified and authoritative, Nephew."

"Is B-6 this way?" Nate asked lamely, already knowing the answer.

"Facing the bow, sir. Starboard."

"Thanks. That's all I need to know."

"I can show you the way," the bellboy said while gesturing toward the gigantic double stairway in the center of the room. "We could take the lift."


"The electric lift, there in between the stairs," the bellboy said, pointing to an open-air cage made entirely of wrought iron.

"Oh, the elevator," Nate said. At just that moment the full passenger compartment came into view and glided silently down to floor level. "So you call it a lift?"

"That's what it does, sir, lifts people," the bellboy said matter-of-factly.

"It does, but not me. I'll take the stairs," Nate said happily.

"Suit yourself, sir."


It pleased Nate to be on his own, exploring the ship. By the time he passed the crowded windows of the Enquiry Desk and climbed one of the wide stairways up to D-deck, he realized that there were just too many passengers sightseeing for his purposes.

To Nate's right — toward the ship's bow — the narrow passageway was frantic with activity. As passengers moved themselves and their baggage into cabins, earlier arrivals were milling about, peeking into open cabin doors and making introductions to their neighbors. To Nate's left was the entrance to the first-class dining room. A look around the vast room revealed dozens of circular and rectangular tables, each with six to twelve matching chairs. Looking upward, Nate realized that the room had a second dining level on the deck above. High above, three decks up, was an enormous white dome covered with gold woodworking and oval paintings.

With no particular aim in mind — other than not finding his cabin until after the ship was safely out of New York harbor — Nate wandered from deck to deck. He passed a generously sized library with dozens of writing desks. There were both men's barbershops and ladies' hair salons already doing a brisk business. He passed a typewriter room, in which several men were dictating to female typists, and a radio room, where passengers could compose messages to be sent wirelessly at great expense — seven dollars for ten words, said the sign. It also gave the price in British pounds and shillings, and in other foreign money symbols that Nate didn't know.

Having reached the top deck, A-deck, Nate strolled onto the grand first-class promenade, a walkway at least fifteen feet wide that seemed to run the entire perimeter of the ship, a great elongated oval shape. On the inside were the exterior walls of passenger cabins and other public rooms. On the outside — the edge of the deck near the water — there was a four-foot-high metal railing.

Nate couldn't get a clear view of the water everywhere because huge lifeboats hung from metal arms near the bow and stern. He counted the lifeboats and tried to imagine thousands of people in them. Even though math was his worst subject in school, Nate was pretty sure that everyone onboard couldn't fit in these.

Nate was on the side of the promenade facing Pier 54. He looked down, scanning the gangplank area for his mother and great-aunt. Unable to find them, he happily concluded they were both onboard.

Bonggg! Bonggg!

"Final call to go ashore," announced a steward strolling by. He struck the small gong he carried twice more with a padded mallet and continued spreading his message. "All visitors and guests begin to disembark now. The Lusitania will depart in fifteen minutes."

Previous announcements had caused little stir, but upon hearing this final call, visitors flooded toward the gangplanks, saying their final goodbyes to passengers with kisses, embraces, and handshakes. On the pier, thousands of well-wishers were waving upward. Passengers were jostling Nate for space at the railing, eager to wave back to family, friends, and total strangers.

Since Nate had nobody to wave to — his entire family was onboard — he squirmed through the pressing throng and walked sternward, toward the less crowded section of the promenade.

He was surprised to discover that the promenade deck did not actually loop the ship uninterrupted. The last portion of the walkway, at the stern, was intentionally separated from the much larger part he was standing on. It was as if someone had sawed the deck into two unequal pieces and pulled them away from each other.

As he leaned against the rail, Nate guessed that the distance to the rail of the smaller stern section was six or seven feet. Looking over the rail, he saw that the deck really was interrupted. Separating the two promenades was a drop of at least twenty feet. He realized that if you fell over the railing on A-deck, you would land on C-deck.

The smaller section of the promenade deck was intensely crowded. Passengers were standing five and six deep, craning to wave at friends on the pier. Wondering about this curious division, Nate thought he heard a familiar voice calling him.


"Will wonders never cease?"

Nate recognized the woman's voice, high-pitched and giddy, cutting through the clamor. It had to be Mrs. Houdini. He scanned the much smaller promenade area.

"So, Mr. Nathaniel Greene Makeworthy Fuller the Fourth, you do not recognize your old friend Bess Houdini?"

Looking away from the crowd, he saw her: a tiny, slim woman about the same age as his mother. A wide-brimmed hat festooned with artificial flowers shielded her face from the sun but did not hide her affectionate smile.

"Mrs. Houdini, what are you doing here? Is Houdini here, too? Why are you over there? How can I get across?"

"So many questions! Stay right there. I will send Phineas to fetch you."

"Phineas?" Nate asked. That was a name he had never heard.

"No more questions now," she yelled as the earsplitting horns of the Lusitania announced that the ship was finally leaving New York Harbor. Mrs. Houdini made a series of hand gestures — a regular pantomime — indicating that Nate should stay put, and then she vanished into the crowd.

Wondering who Phineas was, Nate recalled that it took Mrs. Houdini no time at all to turn strangers into friends. Last summer, Nate had first gone to the Houdinis' Upper West Side brownstone to collect an unpaid Bennett & Son bill and moments later found himself telling Mrs. Houdini his family history.

Nate couldn't stay put as the great ocean liner slowly slid out from the pier. It was exactly three o'clock, Tuesday, October 10, 1911, when the ship eased out of its berth. Dense, grayish black smoke billowed from only one of the ship's four tall smokestacks at first. Then smoke shot up through two more, and the ship began to make a hard left turn. The Lusitania eased to the left until it had made a full one hundred and eighty degrees. The bow now faced down the Hudson River, toward the ocean. The crowd on deck thinned considerably. Nate surmised that those who had left were experienced sailors, no longer interested in watching a ship maneuver into open water.

"Mr. Fuller, are you?" asked a boy while he touched Nate's arm lightly. It was another bellboy, this one about Nate's height and age, he thought. His innocent, watery green eyes and densely freckled face were offset by a posture and expression Nate recognized — street tough, possibly street mean, too.

"Are you Phineas?"

"Ow!" he said with a wince. "That's the name me mum gave me. Mrs. 'Oodini dragged it outa me."

"What should I call you?"


"Well ... I'm not sure I want to call you by your last name, either. And I don't want to call you Bellboy."

"It's a situation you'll 'ave to noodle on, ain't it, sir? Now, follow me an' I'll lead you to Mrs. 'Oodini."

"Lead on," Nate said enthusiastically. "Where are we going, by the way?"

"To the second-class stairway," Newborn said as Nate followed him toward the center of the ship.

"But we're walking away from Mrs. Houdini."

"Unless you want to jump the gap, that's what you 'ave to do," Newborn replied scornfully.

"I don't understand," Nate said.

"You are a saloon-class passenger, sir, and the 'Oodinis is second-class." As they descended the grand stairway, Nate waited to hear more, but Newborn's statement seemed to have settled the matter to the bellboy's satisfaction.

Excerpted from "Shots at Sea: A Houdini & Nate Mystery (Houdini and Nate Mysteries)" by Tom Lalicki. Copyright © 2007 by Tom Lalicki. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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