Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors – Chapter 10

May 1, 2017 No Comments »
Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors – Chapter 10

IN THIS EPISODE: …Our werewolf (in human form) meets the twins and discovers his destiny…

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CHAPTER 10 – Paul Visits the Chamber of Horrors

Paul Longmire – London

The Next Day

Paul Longmire stood in the shadows, watching the entrance of Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors very carefully, waiting for it to open.  He kept himself hidden in the alleyway across the street, between a bakery (already closed until late afternoon, following the morning rush), and an antique store that didn’t look like it was ever really open.

He could have perched himself on a bench beneath the trees in Olde Kennington Park, just down the street, but he would have been much easier to spot there, and after the incident two nights ago, he wasn’t sure whether the police might be looking for him or not.

Thank God he hadn’t killed anyone last night!  But even chained, the beast had still made a shambles of his room above the tavern.  Luckily, Billie the barkeep hadn’t been brave enough to see what all the commotion was about.  Nor had she called the police during the incident, probably because many of her tenants were engaged in other activities even less savory than Paul—in werewolf form—bursting out of the closet and tearing up the place.

Paul had cleared out of the inn as soon as he’d recovered his senses.  He’d even left most of his money to pay for the damages, though he knew it wouldn’t be nearly enough.

Had Billie called the police by now?  Certainly, she should have.  And if she had, and if drink and tuberculosis hadn’t clouded her mind, she should have been able to give the authorities a pretty clear description of “Paul Long,” the bloke who had committed the mayhem.

Are they hunting for me even now? Paul wondered as he stood in the shadows, waiting.

Would they catch him right this moment, just when he seemed so close to the end of his quest?

I can’t let them take me! he thought frantically, every nerve in his body jangling.  All his senses seemed magnified, especially hearing and smell, a phenomenon he’d noticed before, especially during the days after he’d turned into the wolf.

But at least the third night of the full moon had passed.  He had survived, and he hadn’t killed anyone else.  It would be a whole month before the curse took him again, and by then—God willing—he would have found his cure.

Please let this be it! he prayed.

After more than a week of fruitlessly searching every museum in the city, he’d found his only clue in an ancient poster pasted on a battered street kiosk.  The flyer had been largely plastered over with other announcements, but just enough of it had remained to catch Paul’s attention.

He’d quickly torn off the obscuring posters and found himself staring at a flyer for Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors and its list of attractions.  There, among the other tawdry entries, lay the phrase he’d been hoping to find, the thing he’d been looking for ever since meeting the gypsy witch Maria:

The pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan!

The words seemed to leap off of the ratty broadside and sear themselves directly into his brain.

That had been two days ago, just before he’d tried to return to his room by the docks.  Just before those men had tried to mug him, and…

He couldn’t bear to think of it.

Though he’d stuffed the flyer into his jacket pocket, the paper had been badly damaged in the fight.  He could no longer read the name of the exhibit, nor where it was located.  It had taken Paul most of the day yesterday to track down the chamber’s address—Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors wasn’t a very well known, or advertised, attraction.

I was lucky to find it at all.

But he had found it, and once inside, he thought he’d caught a glimpse of the thing he most desired—the wolf skin he needed to destroy.

The exhibit had been crowded, though, far too crowded to try anything rash, or even to be certain that the object of his quest was indeed hanging there, in a picture frame on the wall.

Please let it be true!  Please let it be the one!

He wanted to linger and make sure, but then—thank heaven—he’d had a moment of clarity:

It was getting late!  The sun would set soon, and then the moon would rise, and after that, Paul wouldn’t be responsible for his actions—after that, he’d kill again.

So he had fled the tiny museum as quickly as he could and returned to his rented room.   There, he’d chained himself up and locked himself in the closet.

And those restraints had been enough—barely—but they’d been enough.

He had not killed again.

For once he’d beaten the curse!

And if he could just destroy that pelt, he’d defeat it for good.

But I have to be sure…

So, now he waited in the alley for the museum to open, and shortly before noon, it finally did.

An attractive brunette girl—eighteen perhaps—stepped through the big double doors that led to the exhibit and put out a placard that read: Open for Business.

That’s what Paul had been waiting for.  As the girl retreated into the building, he checked left and right, looking for police, one last time.  He didn’t see any, so he stepped out of the shadows and walked briskly across the nearly deserted street and up the short flight of steps to the entrance.

He opened the door and quickly slipped inside the eight-by-ten-foot entryway.   A small chime affixed to the top of the door sounded as he came in.

To Paul’s left stood short flight of stairs up leading to a glass-paned doorway marked “Duprix Waxworks” with a sign hanging on it that said “Closed.”   Ahead lay a solid oak door that, he assumed, must lead to a stairway and the living chambers he’d noticed above the street-level shops.  To his right a pair of grand double-doors opened up onto a landing atop the stairs that led down into the Chamber of Horrors, which lay partially below street level.

A sign on the landing read: Admission – Sixpence.

Paul fished into his pockets.  He thought he had just enough to pay his way inside and then perhaps get a meal and a cheap room later.  If he was lucky, he might stretch what he had a few days longer.  He would have to act quickly though, before his money ran out.

I’ll come back tonight, after they close, and steal it, he mused.

At least, that was the plan if the place really did contain the beast’s pelt.  If fate wasn’t playing another terrible joke on him.

Paul closed his eyes and tipped his face up toward the ceiling.

Please…!

“May I help you?” asked a pleasant voice.

Paul opened his eyes and tried to relax, but every fiber of his being remained tense.

Before him stood the brunette girl he’d seen opening the shop a few minutes before.

“I’d like to take the tour,” he said, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his trench coat, so that she wouldn’t see him trembling.

The girl’s blue-green eyes sparkled, and she held out a smooth-skinned hand.  “You’re our first customer of the day,” she said.  “Sixpence, please.”

She was very beautiful—so young and full of life—but Paul hadn’t come here to flirt with pretty girls.  He forced his hand to stop shaking and gave her the money.  She dropped it in the admission box resting on a stand at the top of the stairway.  The coin made an empty thunk when it hit the bottom of the box.

“Do you want me to run the tour, Opal?” someone called from deeper inside the little museum. Paul caught a glimpse of blonde hair flashing between the exhibits.

“That’s all right, Topaz,” the brunette—Opal, Paul deduced—said.  “I’ll take this one.  You can tend the gate.”  She looped her slender arm around his.  “Right this way, sir.  Mind the step.”

“I’ll be there after I dust the Marquis’ skull!” the other girl, Topaz, now hidden around a corner, called back.

“Opal and Topaz, eh?” Paul said, interested despite himself.  “Quite a pair of precious stones.   Are you sisters?”

“Twins, actually,” Opal said as they walked down the stairs to the exhibit floor.  “I’m the older one.”

“Only by thirteen minutes!” Topaz called from the hidden nook where she was working.

“And you’re Opal?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Paul.  Are you related to the doctor—Dr. Cushing, I mean?”

“We’re his daughters,” Opal explained.  “We run the place while he’s off on expeditions—which is most of the time.”

She smiled at him, and for a moment Paul’s troubles seemed to slip away.  In that instant, he was just a young man talking to a pretty girl in the heart of a thriving city.

“Does your mother work here, too?” he asked.

The girl’s face darkened.  “She’s dead.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.  It happened a long time ago.”  She sighed away the sadness and smiled at him again.  “But listen to me, Paul, talking about family when I’m supposed to be giving you a tour!”  She took a deep breath, her eyes flashing playfully again.

“Welcome to Dr. Cushing’s World-Famous Chamber of Horrors,” she said, “home to an exciting new exhibit: The Accursed Mummies from a Forgotten Dynasty.  We’ll get to the mummies near the end of our tour, but I have a lot to show you before then.  For our first stop, we come to the End of the World.  This is the fabled Meteor of Tunguska, the explosion of which flattened nearly a thousand square miles of Russian forest on the morning of June 30th, 1908…”

The girl, Opal, was charming, and Paul supposed that the information she was relaying to him about the museum’s exhibits must have been very interesting, but he couldn’t concentrate on any of it.  Meteors and sea monsters and iron maidens and mummies… none of it mattered to him.

There was only one display that he really needed to know about, but he didn’t want to arouse suspicion by asking her to skip all the rest and go there directly.  After all, if the pelt went missing after he demanded to see it above all the other items in the Chamber of Horrors, who would the police come looking for?

And the police were the last thing Paul needed—even if by then he had broken the curse.

Please, let this be the one!

Just when his anticipation had built to nearly the breaking point, they came to it:

“And this,” Opal said, “Is the pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan.”

The words shot like fire through Paul’s nervous system.

It was true!  It was here!  He’d found it!

“In eighteenth-century France,” the girl continued, “this monster attacked over two-hundred people—and killed more than a hundred!  Legend has it that no normal weapon could pierce its hide, and that only a bullet blessed by the Pope himself finally brought the beast down.”  She smiled at him, pleased with her presentation.  “Quite a beauty, isn’t it?”

The reddish-black scruffy pelt hung on the wall, framed in rustic wood and pinned behind a thick sheet of glass.  It was at least nine feet long and half that wide.

“Are you sure that’s a wolf?” Paul asked, his mouth dry.  He could hardly believe that his quest for a cure might be coming to its end.  “It looks more the size of a bear.”

“Don’t let the size fool you.  Note the point of the snout and the long tail—both clearly indicating that this pelt belongs to a wolf.

Paul could barely breathe.  “Not an ordinary wolf.”

“No, sir,” Opal said.  “This monster terrorized the French countryside for three years before a lucky hunter felled it.”

“Yes,” Paul mused.  “You’d have to be lucky to kill such a beast.”

“Are you a hunter, sir?” the girl asked.

Painful memories of being both hunter and prey flashed through Paul’s mind.  “Yes,” he replied.  “Yes, I was.  Once.  A long time ago.”

“Then you can imagine what it must have taken to bring down such a brute—a lucky shot, and a silver bullet, blessed by no less than Pope Clement XIII.”

“…A silver bullet…”—the one sure way to bring down a werewolf.  But, if the beast had been properly killed, why had the werewolf line continued?  Had the gypsy been wrong, or…?  What exactly was it that she’d told him…?

Paul felt a black cloud descending over his brain, and knew that the curse was fighting him again, confusing his mind, trying to keep him from the cure.  He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to concentrate.

“Are you all right, Paul?” Opal asked.

“What’s going on?  Is something wrong?” asked a new voice.

No!  He couldn’t let anyone see anything was wrong!  He had to appear normal!

Paul opened his eyes and saw Topaz, her bright blond hair seeming to glimmer in the dim light of the exhibit hall.  She stared at him with her gem-like blue-green eyes.

Something about those liquid eyes seemed to peer right into the blackness at the center of Paul’s soul.  He felt as though his heart were being squeezed by an invisible fist.

“No, I…” he began.  “I don’t feel well, all of a sudden.  I need to get some air.”

And with that he dashed to the nearest stairway and through the door at the top of it, out of the exhibit hall.

“Wait!” Opal cried after him.  “That’s not—!”

But by then he was through the door and had it closed tight behind him.

“Oh!” gasped an unexpected female voice.

And then… CRASH! Something large clattered to the floor.

Paul looked around, the cloud of panic clearing from his brain.  He wasn’t outside at all; he was in another exhibit space, one filled with strangely costumed people.

It took him a moment to realize that only one of the people was moving, a handsome middle-aged woman with slightly greying hair.   As Paul gaped at her, she stooped and tried to pick up the display cabinet she’d apparently knocked over when he arrived.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, going to help her.  “Here.  Let me get that…”

The woman looked at him, sternly at first, but then her expression softened.  “It’s quite all right,” she said.  “I’m sure you didn’t mean to.”

“No, I didn’t,” Paul replied.  “I just got somewhat dizzy down in the Chamber of Horrors.  I needed a little air, but I guess I stumbled out the wrong door.”

“Well, I can’t say I blame you,” the woman said, putting her hand on his shoulder as he stooped to pick up the cabinet, “all those dreadful things they’ve got down there.”

Her fingers felt warm, even through his shirt.

Behind them, the door he’d come through swung open, and Opal appeared at the threshold.  “Paul,” she said, “are you all right?”

The older women’s eyes grew cold once more.  “Everything’s fine, silly girl,” she said.  “We had a bit of an accident, but it’s all better now.  Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Paul replied.  “Yes, I guess it is.”

Opal didn’t look convinced, but the older woman glared at her until she closed the door anyway.

“Those Cushing girls!” the woman said with a tsk.  “Never far behind when something goes wrong.”

“I don’t think that’s very fair,” Paul replied.  With a mighty heave, he righted the cabinet.  Fortunately, the items inside it—books, mostly—seemed neither breakable nor damaged.  “She was only trying to help.”

“Well, Paul…” the older woman began.  “Paul… That was your name, wasn’t it?  Or had that Cushing girl got it wrong?”

“Yes.  It’s Paul.  Paul… Shaw.”

“Well, Mr. Shaw, I’m sure you’re probably right, and the girl didn’t mean any harm.  But it’s such a trial living with teenagers underfoot!”

“Oh, do you live here as well?  I thought Opal had said her mother was dead.”

“I’m not her mother, per se—though sometimes I certainly feel like it, despite the fact that I’m obviously not old enough to be.”

“Obviously.”

She extended her hand, and Paul shook it.  “I’m Victoria Duprix.  My husband and I own this building, including the space we rent to the Cushings, as well as this waxworks that you’re standing in currently.”

Now that his heart had started beating regularly again, Paul took a better look around.  The room they stood in was very large and filled with tableaus of wax figures: Joan of Arc, Richard III, Helen of Troy, Napoleon, Lady Godiva on her horse, and numerous others that he didn’t recognize immediately, as well as more than a few classical-looking nudes.  The figures seemed to be expertly sculpted, though the displays were somewhat bland compared to the lurid exhibits in the Chamber of Horrors.

“It’s very nice, Mrs. Duprix,” he said.  “I’m sure you and your husband must be very proud.”

“Oh yes,” she said, “but do call me ‘Victoria.’”

“Very well, Victoria.”

“My husband is a sculptor, as you might guess.  He spends most of his time working in his studio, while I run the business.”

“That must be a lot of work.”

“It is,” she replied.  “More work than one person can handle, at times.  And Vincent…!  Well, you know, his head’s in the clouds most days; he’s not much for cleaning up and rearranging the displays.  I shouldn’t even have been trying to move that cabinet by myself, but…”  She shrugged.

“Well, it’s lucky I stumbled in, then.”

“Yes.  Lucky,” she said, and a gleam came to her pretty hazel eyes.  “You know, Mr. Shaw…”

“Call me Paul. Please.”

“You know, Paul, you seem like a strong, vital fellow.  You wouldn’t by chance be looking for work, would you?”

With the current state of the economy that was almost a silly question—many, many people were looking for work, not just in London but worldwide, nowadays—but her query still caught Paul somewhat by surprise.

Was he looking for work?

Yes, he was nearly out of money, but could he even think about such things with this curse hanging over his head?

When he hesitated, she smiled and batted her eyes at him.  “Of course, I couldn’t pay much, but it would be steady employment…”

“Working here?  With you?” he asked, more to buy time to think than anything else.

“Yes, with me and my husband,” she replied, “here in the waxworks—cleaning and fixing and moving things and such.”

Here, in the waxworks… Right next to the Chamber of Horrors that held the key to his salvation!

Yes!  Why not?  It was almost as though, after daunting him for years, God was finally giving Paul the opportunity he needed—the opportunity to be free!

He would work in the waxworks and find out everything he could about the operations of it and the chamber.  Then, when the time was right, he’d steal the wolf skin and destroy it.  That’s what the gypsy had said—he remembered it now—he had to destroy the pelt.

“How soon can I start?” he asked.

“You can begin tomorrow, bright and early, and I’ll pay you every Friday, after closing.  Will four shillings a day be enough?  It will be hard work, but it won’t be full-time.  You’ll have plenty of moments to relax.”

She smiled winningly at him.

The money wasn’t much, but Friday was only three days away.  He could stretch his pocket change to last until then—if he was careful.

“Yes.  Yes, that would be fine.”

And maybe by then he’d have figured out when and how to destroy the pelt.

And once he did that, he’d be free.

Finally free!

TO BE CONTINUED…

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