IN THIS EPISODE: …We glimpse our werewolf’s mysterious past. The twins flirt. Victoria is jealous…
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CHAPTER 13 – Monsters, Real & Imagined
Paul Longmire – The Philippines
The Dark of the Moon
The bright orange glow of the burning house lit up the darkness, and the smell of smoke—sweet, like burning hay, and yet horrible in its implications—filled the humid night air.
For a moment, Paul stood staring at the blaze, caught between shocked bewilderment and fear. Then he ran, screaming, straight into the heart of the fire.
As he plunged through the door, the flames shot up around him, hissing their deadly intent, roaring their anger. Heat scorched Paul’s skin, and smoke choked his lungs and stung his eyes. He found it almost impossible to see; everything around him was a blur of orange and yellow with sudden bursts of blinding white and smothering red.
He staggered, his body reflexively trying to turn back the way he’d come.
But he had to continue! He had to find…
“Caliso!” he cried. “Judith!”
He hadn’t seen them outside; they had to be here in this inferno, somewhere.
Wreathed in flame and smoke, the living room was unrecognizable, but their house wasn’t that big—barely larger than most native huts—and Paul knew it well; he could find his way through all of it in the darkest night without so much as a candle to guide him.
He stumbled toward where he knew the bedroom must lie—and beyond it, the nursery.
“Caliso! Where are you?!”
The bamboo and thatch construction made the whole place like a tinderbox; nearly every inch of it was burning now.
The only sound that came in reply was the crackling laughter of the conflagration.
Hands blistering, he seized the bedroom door and wrenched it open.
A gout of flame and heat burst through the doorway, a huge fireball. The impact of it knocked him backward, and for a moment, the whole world became keening, white nothingness.
When Paul’s eyes cleared, he was outside—somehow—and strong hands were dragging him away from the burning structure.
“No!” he cried. “You don’t understand! They’re inside! My wife and daughter are inside!”
But the hands kept pulling, and he couldn’t find the strength to resist.
Filipino faces, grim and determined, stared down at him.
Paul tried to talk again, but all that came out was a croaking cough. He tried to take a deep breath, but found he couldn’t. It was as though someone had taken a Brillo pad to the inside of his lungs.
“P-please…!” he finally managed.
The natives stopped dragging Paul. They stood in a circle, staring down at him, exchanging worried glances.
“Please!” Paul gasped again, and then coughed out: “You have to h-help me!” And he pointed back toward his blazing house.
“Isda,” one older man said, shaking his head.
They were speaking Tagalog, and though Paul had a working knowledge of the language, he couldn’t make sense of what they were saying.
“My wife and child are in there!” Paul said, still gasping for breath.
All the Filipinos, there were six men as well as three of the local women, gazed fearfully toward the burning house.
“Isda-asawa,” the eldest man insisted.
“Oo. Isda-asawa,” the women whispered to each other, in agreement.
“Isda-asawa. Isada-anak,” muttered another of the men.
Paul had seen some of these people in the time he’d lived here, but he did not know them personally; his wife, a native Filipino, handled most of the family’s interactions with the locals.
After another coughing fit, Paul tried again. “You don’t understand: Caliso, my wife, is in there! And our daughter, Judith! You have to help me save them!”
Mustering every ounce of strength he had remaining, he staggered to his feet.
The Filipinos blocked his way.
“Hindi!” said the eldest man. “No!”
“Isda-asawa,” added a younger woman. “Mapanganib! Dangerous!”
“Isda-asawa. Isada-anak,” the rest echoed.
What were they trying to tell him? That his wife and daughter were some kind of monsters? Paul remembered now that the locals had always been suspicious of his wife, something to do with her family…
“No!” he cried. “You superstitious fools! They’re not monsters! Why can’t you understand? They’re my family! You must help me!”
He started lumbering back toward the blazing building.
Then something hit him on the back of his head, and the world swam and faded toward black, and for a moment, Paul thought he imagined the wail and clang of a fire engine coming… Coming to help…!
And he woke up.
The fire engine, at least, was real—here and now—screaming down the narrow street outside of his London flop. Its emergency lights painted the crumbling plaster walls a flickering red.
Red… like that long-ago fire, Paul thought, though he would have much preferred to forget.
But how could he?
That was the moment when his whole life went to hell—and, since then, it had only gotten worse.
In the flophouse hallway, the pay phone rang, echoing the headache ringing in his head. The walls were paper thin in this place, but it was all he could afford—ironic considering he had grown up heir to a vast fortune.
But then came the Philippines, and the fire… And later, the wolf.
Paul checked his watch:
He doubted he’d get back to sleep tonight.
1951 Fisher St., London
The Day of the Last Quarter Moon
“Paul! We’re so glad to see you!” Opal enthused as Paul came through the main entrance of 1951 Fisher. The brunette hopped up the steps from the Chamber of Horrors and gave him a quick hug.
“Hi, Paul!” Topaz called from the bottom of the short flight of stairs leading to the chamber.
“Well, I’m glad to see you, too,” Paul said. “Both of you.” He’d grown fond of the twins—especially Opal—in the short time he’d worked here, though he also suspected that a greeting this enthusiastic probably came with a price tag.
Still, the brief press of the teenager’s body against his had been a nice sensation. If only he weren’t six years her senior… He smiled, deciding to play along with the girls. “What, no hug from you?” he asked Topaz.
“Nope. Hands full,” she explained, holding one of the exhibits—a large glass jar—in her hands as she mounted the stairs. “You can have a kiss, though.” And she pecked him on the cheek.
Now Paul knew the pair of them were up to something.
But before he could ask, the label on Topaz’s jar caught his eye.
Paul’s body went stiff, and his heart skipped a beat. The label read:
Scales of the isda-asawa.
He grabbed Topaz’s wrist. “Where did you get these?” he demanded.
“Paul, you’re hurting me!” Topaz said, fear clouding her blue-green eyes.
Paul let go. “I’m sorry, it’s just that… That word, isda-asawa… I’ve heard it before.”
Opal looked concerned. “Probably when we took you on the tour.”
“No. I didn’t see it on the tour. I would have remembered.”
The twins stood side-by-side, eyeing him warily, their flirting abruptly ceased. Topaz clutched the jar with both arms.
“What does it mean?” Paul asked. “Please. It’s important. I mean… It might be. It might explain something.”
“Um,” Opal began, “these are the scales of an actual Filipino fish-wife…”
“The fish-wife is a near-legendary, siren-like creature,” Topaz continued. “By day, she appears to be a beautiful woman, but by night she becomes a hideous man-eating monster.”
Paul collapsed onto the bench atop the stairs, next to the admission stand. He shook his head. “Well, I guess that explains it—as much as it can ever be explained.”
“Explains what?” the twins asked simultaneously.
“I used to live in the Philippines, years ago,” Paul said. “I had a… I knew someone who was killed. When she died, the natives kept saying that word: isda-asawa. I guess they though she was…”—he choked up for a moment—“…some kind of monster. But they were wrong. She was…” He trailed off, unable to say anymore.
His life was filled with terrible irony. The natives had thought his wife and child were monsters, while he was the actual monster—at least, now he was, anyway. Would his suffering never end?
Into Paul’s mind came the image of a silver bullet, the final way that he might end his misery.
The coward’s way out!
But was it really? Was it cowardly to kill yourself so that others—your future victims—could go on living?
The curse won’t let me kill myself, he thought, suddenly sure of that fact. If he couldn’t even keep track of the full moon, what chance did he have of ending his own life?
I just have to go on killing until someone kills me!
He bowed his head and clutched his temples, momentarily unable to bear the terrible burden.
Topaz set down her jar, and both twins knelt beside him. All traces of fear had left the girls; they looked… sympathetic.
Paul could hardly stand it.
“We’re so sorry,” Opal said, running one smooth, warm hand down Paul’s cheek.
“I can put the exhibit away for a while, so you don’t have to see it,” Topaz offered.
Paul forced himself to smile at both girls. He couldn’t give up now. Not when he seemed so close. He stood, taking a deep breath and glanced at the wolf skin, barely visible, hanging on the far wall of the exhibit. “No. That’s all right,” he said. “It was a long time ago now. I should be getting to work.”
The twins stood as well, exchanging a glance that said that maybe they didn’t believe him—as well as exchanging some other like-minded communication that Paul couldn’t quite figure out.
“About that work…” Opal said.
Ah! That was it; their ulterior motive.
“We’re worried about the Ice Man,” Topaz began. “We can’t afford to keep having ice brought in every day, so he doesn’t melt—and besides, we need to be able to display him, to help attract more customers.”
“We’re hoping that maybe you might be able to fix the freezer, and also maybe cut an opening and put a window into it—so people can see the exhibit,” Opal continued. “Like you said you would.”
“Did I say that?” Paul asked, some of his playful spirit returning. It was hard to stay morose around the twins. They were so full of life! Perhaps that was why he liked being with them so much.
“Please, Mr. Shaw,” Topaz said. “A more permanent display of the Ice Man could be a real help to our business.”
“And, yes,” Opal added, “you did say that you would.”
Paul shrugged theatrically. “Well, if that’s how I said I’d help… I guess today is the day.”
He grinned at both girls, and they came and hugged him.
That was plenty of reward for Paul. For a moment, it made him feel almost… human.
“You’re not really going to help those girls with their ridiculous exhibit, are you?” Victoria asked Paul. She tried to make it sound playful, but Paul detected notes of bitterness and envy in her pleasant, contralto voice.
“I thought you wanted them to be able to pay your rent,” Paul replied. “They need help getting the display set up, so they can make more money.”
Victoria paced the waxworks like a hungry cat. “Of course they need to be able to pay the rent,” she said, “but I’m not at all amused by the time and effort you’re expending. These little ‘tasks’ for them seem to be taking you away from your job here, in the museum.”
“I’m getting my work done. The repairs I’m doing, fixing up that old freezer for them, won’t have any effect on what I do here at the waxworks.”
“You say that now, of course,” she noted, “but I mean… As I told you before, they can’t afford to pay you.” And she gave him a disapproving glance that said: “..At least not with money.”
“I mean,” Victoria continued, “work on their wretched display if you feel you must, but you’re not going to do it for free, certainly!”
Even though it was a long while until the full moon—three weeks if he remembered right—Paul felt his blood rising.
The jealousy flowing from Mrs. Duprix was almost palpable. She hated the twins. Was it because they were younger and prettier than she? Paul had seen the sculptures in the waxworks that she’d posed for—she’d taken great pleasure in showing them off—and she’d been a real beauty in her day. Even now, she remained a handsome woman… or she would have been if not for the green-eyed monster riding on her back.
“What I do on my own time is my own business,” he told her, keeping his temper under tight control.
“But I’m the one that’s paying you,” Victoria said, “not those little… girls.” She actually stamped her foot—not dramatically, but audibly. She’d only raised her heel an inch or so, but when she brought it down it almost sounded like a gunshot when it hit the oak floorboards.
She looked chagrinned, clearly not intending to have made such a display.
Paul smiled at her as disarmingly as he could. “Yes, you’re paying me,” he replied, “but not very much.”
Victoria looked flustered and turned away. She paced over to the Joan of Arc display, and then turned.
“Well,” she said, far more calmly, “you know that we… I can’t pay you more than I am until business gets better…”
Paul knew it. The depression made business tough all over right now, with not much chance it would improve anytime soon. Of course, he wasn’t actually working here for the pay…
“But perhaps I could make our little arrangement more worth your while,” she mused.
“How do you mean?” For a moment, Paul thought she might be propositioning him.
“You know we have a servants’ quarters in the rear of the house on the second floor?” she asked. “It’s not being used, because we have no servants right now.”
He’d noticed the disused rooms when helping her move some furniture, so he said: “Yes.”
She continued pacing, but more calmly now, as though she was thinking, making this up as she went. She didn’t look at him as she spoke.
“Well, I can’t offer you more pay, Mr. Shaw, but if it would help, I could let you stay in one of those rooms—as part of your compensation, so to speak.”
The suggestion took Paul by surprise.
“The rooms available aren’t much, I’ll admit,” she continued, “but you can pick the one that seems best to you and fix it up to your liking. Use the leftover materials from your work here in the waxworks, if that will help.”
It was a generous offer—too generous, in a way. Paul wondered what kind of strings might come attached to it. He couldn’t very well ask about those, though.
“Thank you, Mrs. Duprix,” he said.
“Victoria,” she insisted, looking at him with her hazel eyes.
Those eyes were really lovely, now that Paul noticed.
“Thank you, Victoria. I’ll think it over.”
Her eyes sparkled at him, and then she turned away once more. “You do that, Mr. Shaw.”
“Paul,” he said. “If I’m to call you Victoria, you must call me Paul.”
She smiled, now—genuinely—and Paul thought that, indeed, she must have been very beautiful in her prime.
“Very well, Paul,” she said. “Please consider it while you go about your work. No rush, but the offer won’t stay open forever.” And again, she smiled.
He nodded. “Thanks.”
He picked up his hammer again, to resume work on repairing a display cabinet, and she whisked out of the room, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Should he take her offer?
He certainly needed a place to stay, and even in its present state, the room here must be better than the flophouse where he was crashing currently.
No sense paying rent when you can live somewhere for free…
But he wasn’t really here to live, or to make a living; he’d come here to steal the pelt of the beast and break his curse, once and for all.
The next full moon was three weeks away; he had to destroy the thing by them.
As yet, though—even while becoming fairly chummy with the twins—he hadn’t found the chance.
Living here would give me more opportunity…
That was certainly true.
At least, it seemed to be. Though with the curse holding so much sway over his life, it was hard to tell when he was thinking completely rationally.
Would living in this house—under the same roof with the girls and the pelt and Victoria—really help?
Or would it just bring more danger and destruction into his life and the lives of everyone closest to him?
TO BE CONTINUED…
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