IN THIS EPISODE: …The Mummies make their debut… The twins flirt… Vincent & Victoria bicker…
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CHAPTER 8 – The Mummies’ Debut
Topaz Cushing – The Chamber of Horrors
The Third Day of the Full Moon
“Are we ready yet?” Topaz asked hopefully. “Are you ready yet?” She looked at her sister, who was still adjusting the fit of her rose-pink blouse, trying to make sure that enough bosom showed to be interesting without appearing sluttish.
As usual, Topaz was less concerned about her appearance. Yes, she wanted to look good—especially today—but she’d always felt more comfortable in her own skin than her sister seemed to. Or maybe it was just that Topaz didn’t much care about impressing anyone, not even boys, not even now, in the prime of her teenage years.
But maybe that was because boys seemed attracted to her without Topaz even trying. Or was it because she didn’t try that boys were attracted?
In any case, Opal was in full “knock their eyes out” mode, which Topaz had to admit would probably be good for today’s business.
It had taken the better part of two weeks after the mummies arrived for Topaz and her sister (and their occasional helpers) to get all the boxes unpacked, inspected, sorted, and ready for display. During that time, Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors remained something of a mess, and the twins had only been able to conduct very limited tours.
Naturally, their attendance (and income) had fallen off.
And, of course, neither girl had been surprised when Victoria Duprix began sniffing around the place again, dropping hints about the rent soon coming due.
“I expect she’ll be the first one at the door when we open today,” Topaz told her sister, as they busied themselves with straightening and dusting and other final preparations. “She’ll come just to keep an eye on her ‘investment.’”
“I’ll be happy if that’s all she keeps her eyes on,” Opal replied.
Topaz chuckled her agreement. She, too, had noticed Madame Duprix assessing every young “helper” that ventured into the chamber over the last few weeks, a group that included not only Barry and Frank (as usual) but also tow-headed Charlie Bates (“Bonnie Prince Charlie,” Opal called him) and Frank’s Anglo-Indian friend, Naveen Patil, as well.
The newcomers were schoolmates of the first two, and had become intrigued with all the work being done in the Chamber by Barry and Frank. So, Naveen and Charlie stopped by to help one day, and just kept coming back.
“Pull them in with the mystery; keep them with sex appeal,” Opal had joked when the new “recruits” returned for the third time—and Topaz thought there might be something to that.
Naturally, her sister flirted mercilessly with them all, though Topaz suspected she was doing it more as a pre-emptive strike than anything else. “The best defense is a good offense,” and all that.
Because Topaz did seem to attract boys more easily than her much-more-forward sister. “Like hummingbirds to nectar,” Opal had said—more than once.
So, it wasn’t really surprising that the elder twin kept trying to be “extra sweet.”
There were no boys flitting around the chamber this morning, though. Both twins felt too nervous to share today’s duties with their prospective beaus.
“They’d only stumble all over each other, trying to help,” Opal had noted, and Topaz had to agree with her.
The sisters had been working late last night and all morning for the chamber’s early afternoon “Grand Re-Opening”—and now the hour was upon them.
“Ready,” Opal announced, striding toward the chamber’s locked entryway. “Finally. You?”
Topaz nodded. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Opal took a deep breath and unbolted the big double door that served as the Chamber’s entrance.
Topaz half expected to find Victoria Price waiting to pounce—like a cat on twin canaries—on the other side.
But instead, she saw the beaming faces of all four of their helpers, each dressed in his Sunday best.
“We’ve been waiting all week for this!” Barry enthused, grinning from ear to ear.
Opal gave him a bemused smile and said fondly: “You idiots! You’ve already seen the exhibit! You worked on it every day for the last two weeks!”
“B-but how could we miss opening d-day?” Charlie put in shyly.
“These are for you,” Frank said, thrusting a bouquet of maroon and white posies into Opal’s hands. Opal looked surprised.
“And these are for your very lovely sister,” Naveen said. Stepping forward, he handed a bouquet of yellow and white daisies to Topaz and then bowed slightly.
“Thank you,” both twins said.
“You really shouldn’t have,” Opal added.
“They’re lovely,” Topaz concluded.
The boys all kept smiling.
Opal stepped aside and gestured that they should enter.
“What about ad-m-mission?” Charlie asked.
“Yes, we can’t come in without paying,” Barry said.
“But you helped us…” Opal began.
“Nonsense,” Frank said, digging in his pockets. “How much is it—a quid?”
“Only sixpence,” Topaz said, blushing despite herself.
“Well, it’s worth a quid,” Frank replied. “Here’s a bob, then,” and he tossed the coin into their coffer. “I guess I’m paying for Barry, too.” Then he proceeded into the exhibit’s entryway.
“The devil you are!” Barry said, shoving his hand deep into his own pocket. Topaz had noticed that while he wasn’t as rich as Frank, he would never let anyone pay his freight. He, too, tossed in a whole shilling and followed after Frank.
Charlie grinned wordlessly and did the same, though Topaz noted he had to dig slightly harder to come up with the coin. Charlie’s family was well off, but not nearly so much as the other three. Probably he couldn’t entirely afford it, but he wasn’t about to let his friends embarrass him.
Naveen stopped and nodded a polite bow to each of the twins. “I was going to give you sixpence each,” he said. “But I find myself short on small change, so a shilling each it will have to be.” He tossed the coins in the admission box and joined his friends inside. The other boys laughed convivially at his extravagance.
Topaz smiled. She knew that outspending his fellows was Naveen’s way of fitting in, and the others gladly tolerated it. Sometimes the rest, even Barry, would let Naveen pay for ice cream and such when they were out and about. Last week, after a hard day’s work, he insisted on buying “American-style Malted Milkshakes” for everyone. (As near as Topaz could tell, the only difference from the usual malted was the higher price.)
More paying customers waited beyond the quartet of young men, though, to Topaz, none appeared likely to be as generous as the twin’s prospective beaus.
There was a slender man in a bowler hat, carrying a newspaper and umbrella under his arm (though today’s paper had not predicted rain). Then came a sour-faced woman—nanny, Topaz thought—with two boys about half Topaz’s age. After that, two dapper middle-aged fellows chatting non-stop as they waited.
Art critics, said something in Topaz’s mind. Though she wasn’t quite sure where such thoughts came from, she had learned to trust her instincts; they seldom failed her, just as the cards seldom failed her sister.
And, last night, the cards had been propitious for today’s opening, which put both girls more at ease.
The pair smiled and took a sixpence from each customer, ushering them into the foyer of the exhibit space.
As each stepped over the threshold, Opal gave them the standard greeting:
“Welcome to Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors. Our first tour will begin in a few minutes. Please feel free to look around the exhibits until then.”
Soon, quite a number of people were standing and admiring the exhibits, waiting for the next tour.
“Not the swarm I was hoping for,” Opal whispered to her sister, “but…”
“But hopefully enough to give us a leg up on the rent,” Topaz whispered back. She flashed her dark-haired twin a smile.
Opal returned it, her blue-green eyes flashing playfully. “At least our ‘willing victims’ have given us a head start on that.”
Both girls laughed quietly for a moment. Then Topaz asked: “Who’s conducting the first tour, you or me?”
“You go ahead. I’ll stay here and enjoy the jingling of cash in our coffers.” Opal gave the till a little shake. “Ah! Music to my ears.”
“And biscuits in our bellies,” Topaz added. “Be back soon.”
With that, she joined the small crowd in the foyer.
“Welcome to Dr. Cushing’s World-Famous Chamber of Horrors,” she began. “We’re so glad that you could join us on this very special occasion. Today, we’re opening a brand new exhibit: The Accursed Mummies from a Forgotten Dynasty!
“These three mummies were acquired at great expense—and considerable peril—by our father, Dr. Leigh Cushing, during his most recent trip to Egypt. Three members of his expedition perished during the recovery, and Dr. Cushing himself only barely escaped a hair-raising death.”
This last was only partly true. The worst that had happened to their father was a bout of tropical fever, which had been life-threatening, if not actually hair-raising. But a porter and a guide had been slain by devilish traps secreted within the tombs, and (later) a young Egyptologist had perished under mysterious circumstances. Though this death was likely caused, like their father’s fever, by an unknown malady, the locals had said it was the curse of the forgotten queen buried in the tomb.
“So, before you enter the exhibit,” Topaz continued, “be warned: Not all who have looked upon the faces of these mummies have survived.” She pointed ominously toward an unlit space in the exhibit hall where the new display rested.
“To ward off any bad omens or evil spirits still attached to these mummies, I will now light the Everburning Torch of Sekhmet, the lion-headed warrior goddess who was daughter to the sun god Ra. The torch was discovered in the tomb of Rahotep—master tomb builder, and the first mummy I’ll be showing you today.”
Normally, Topaz and her sister would have saved the mummies for the end of the tour, but today they had decided to do the new attraction first, to reduce crowding and increase traffic flow.
Topaz picked up a lit candle that they’d placed on a small table by the torch’s wall sconce for just this moment, so they wouldn’t have to fiddle with temperamental lighters and ruin the exhibit’s atmosphere.
She took down the torch and held it near to the flame.
“It is said,” she intoned gravely, “that once lit, the flame from this sacred torch is unquenchable. It will burn forever unless snuffed by its golden cap, seen here connected to the base of the torch by a gilded chain. Behold!”
And with that, she lit the torch.
It flared up immediately, producing a brilliant almost-white flame.
The small crowd gasped appreciatively.
Topaz was impressed, too, every time she lit it. And, so far as she knew, the claim she’d made was true. She and Opal had not managed to extinguish the torch by any means other than using its special snuffer, though they’d tried water and smothering with a wet rag (which caught fire) and several other non-destructive means.
“What craft of the ancients may have constructed this amazing artifact remains unknown, but neither Dr. Cushing nor we, his daughters, have been able to extinguish its light other than by the prescribed means. And now, with the light of Sekhmet protecting us… Let’s visit the mummies!”
Topaz carried the torch into the unlit space while, at the same time, Opal flipped the switch and the lights came up in that tiny section of the room, revealing the three mummy cases, one unadorned (the guard), one covered with curses (the tomb builder/architect), and one painted in fabulous colors (the queen).
The first tour went well, and though the exhibit space was small and somewhat cramped, those visiting did seem to appreciate the artifacts, especially with Topaz spinning (mostly true) tales of the ancient past and the perils braved to recover the items in the display.
The four young men seemed suitably impressed (though they’d seen all the pieces during the unpacking), as did the nanny’s youthful charges. The art critics buzzed appreciatively, and lingered with the mummies while the tour moved on through the rest of the museum.
The suitors continued wandering around the chamber as further tours commenced—even though they probably knew the Chamber of Horrors like the backs of their own hands at this point.
That made a happy glow spring up in Topaz’s chest. They really are quite wonderful fellows… all four of them.
The second tour, which Opal conducted while Topaz tended the till, also went well, as did the next, which Topaz took, again.
Topaz was just finishing up with that third tour group when a commanding figure appeared at the chamber’s entryway.
There stood Victoria Price, dressed very stylishly (and fashionably late, as usual). She flashed a bright smile, which Topaz took as insincere, and said, “Good afternoon, ladies. Let’s see what all the racket you’ve been making for the past weeks has been about.”
“There’s sixpence admission,” Opal told her flatly.
Topaz swooped up the short steps to the entryway quickly. “But for you, Madame Duprix, admission is always free.” She curtsied and tried to put more genuine warmth into her smile than Victoria (or Opal) had managed.
Opal stepped back and theatrically bowed their landlady into the entryway, “Welcome to Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors. Our next tour will begin in a few minutes. Please feel free to look around the exhibits until then.”
“What’s all this mummy frippery you’ve been fussing about since those dreadful boxes arrived?” Victoria asked. “Such a clamor! Do you really think it will bring more customers?”
“See for yourself,” Opal replied through gritted teeth.
“Yes, they’re here now, darling,” Victoria said, “but will they return, day after day, week after week?” Her eyes glinted darkly as she glanced around the newly rearranged chamber. Then those hazel orbs lit upon something they liked…
“Still,” Madame Duprix said, “there may be some things here worth looking at.” And with that, she wandered over toward the handsome young suitors.
“It’s gonna be hard to ogle our boyfriends with two black eyes,” Opal muttered, rolling up the sleeves of her blouse and girding the belt of her maroon skirt.
“Don’t let her bother you,” Topaz whispered. “The boys won’t be interested in her. She’s just an old bag of bones.”
“It’s what she wants to do with those bones that worries me,” Topaz shot back. Her face reddened as Victoria took Charlie’s arm. “Bonnie Prince Charlie” seemed more than willing to show the older woman around.
“Easy, girl,” Topaz said as Opal growled under her breath.
“Sorry to be so late,” said a pleasant voice. “Have I missed anything?”
Both twins turned to find Vincent Duprix at the entryway. The sculptor beamed at them.
“Sixpence, isn’t it?” he asked, and dropped his coin in the box before waiting for a reply.
Topaz noticed that his left hand was bandaged, and for a moment, it reminded her of the mummies they were displaying. She shuddered.
“I see you’ve already got the party started,” the sculptor said. The gaze from his bright blue eyes wandered around the chamber before settling on his wife, now hip-to-hip with Charlie and clutching the boy’s arm tight. Vincent’s eyes narrowed. “Well,” he said, “at least some of us are having a good time.” He gave the twins a slight bow. “Pardon me, ladies, I think I’ll go have a look at a mummy.”
“I wonder if he means his wife,” Opal whispered as he left.
Topaz giggled. “He can look at her any old time.”
“But I don’t think he cares to!”
Indeed, Vincent barely spared a glance at Victoria and instead went directly to the new mummy exhibit. Victoria flashed him her insincere smile as he passed.
“I have a bad feeling about those two,” Topaz said. “We don’t want them quarreling in the exhibit. Do you want to keep an eye on them, or should I?”
“You,” Opal replied. “I don’t think I could without punching her.”
So Topaz wandered the exhibit answering questions and conducted the next tour as well. And it was a good thing she was out and about, as it didn’t take long for the Duprixes to “bump into” each other. When they did, the sparks began to fly, and Charlie quickly (and wisely) beat a hasty retreat.
“I won’t have you hanging around, bothering these girls and pooh-poohing their new exhibit,” Vincent was saying as Topaz came within earshot.
“But I’m not bothering them, dearest,” Victoria replied. “I was just talking to one of their friends.”
“More than talking, it looked like to me.”
“Can I help it if young men find me charming?” Victoria asked.
“With a little encouragement from you,” Vincent said.
“Just as you’ve encouraged a model or two in the past—and perhaps even now. Who is your current model, dear husband? Is it one of the twins? Is that why you haven’t pressed them about their rent?”
“Don’t be absurd! Why should we continually nag our tenants over a few shillings?”
“Because we need the money, dear Vincent. Your waxworks makes even less income than the twins’ pathetic displays.”
Vincent stepped closer to his wife, blue eyes blazing. “Perhaps if you took better care of our finances and fewer trips to the theater…”
Just when Topaz thought she was going to have to step in, up swept a blonde woman in a fashionable green ensemble. She smiled at both of the Duprixes.
“Victoria, darling! Your new exhibit is ghoulishly delightful!” the woman said, seeming actually delighted. Topaz now recognized the newcomer as Lily Carlson, one of Victoria’s best friends. She visited the waxworks frequently, and often had dinner with the Duprixes.
“It’s not mine, darling,” Victoria replied. “It belongs to our charming tenants.”
“Close enough,” Lily said. “They do pay rent to you, after all. Their success is your success.”
Victoria frowned. “Vincent and I were just discussing that.”
“Were you?” Lily asked drolly.
“Lily,” Vincent said, giving her a slight bow to acknowledge her arrival.
“Vincent,” she said, bobbing her blonde head in return. She held out her hand, and he kissed it.
A wave of relief washed over Topaz. With their friend here, there was no way the Duprixes would make a scene. She could go back to conducting tours and answering questions.
As she slipped back into the crowd, though, a man brushed past her.
“Excuse me,” he said and continued walking, with his head down, until he’d swept past Opal and out the exit.
Topaz gasped, and a chill shot through her entire body.
She felt dizzy for a moment—though not long enough for anyone, even the suitors, to notice. When she recovered, she hurried to her sister, still tending the door.
“That man who just left…” Topaz said. “Do you know who he was? Did you get a good look at him?”
“No,” Opal said. “Why?”
“He bumped into me, and—”
Her sister’s eyes blazed angrily. “Are you saying that creep groped you?!”
Topaz shook her head. “No, no. Nothing like that. He was just trying to get to the door. But when he brushed past me, I got the most awful feeling, like he’d been involved in some terrible crime… murder, or—”
“I usually don’t doubt your intuitions, sister dear, but he just seemed like a normal person to me.”
Topaz shuddered. “Opal, I’m certain of it. There’s something dreadful hanging over that man’s soul. Either he’s committed a terrible crime recently… or he’s going to very soon. Maybe even tonight!”
TO BE CONTINUED…!
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