IN THIS EPISODE: …Victoria continues to seethe as Vincent worships the new queen of his heart…
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CHAPTER 15 – Artists & Models
Vincent Duprix – The Studio at 1951 Fisher
A Night of the Waning Quarter Moon
“So, Vincent,” Victoria said as she prowled through the artist’s studio like a hungry cat, “which of your current harlots is this waif?”
Anger rose up within Vincent; he’d had quite enough of his wife’s needling—more than enough, actually. And now, with his left hand nearly healed, he was making great progress in his work. Couldn’t she see that?
“Jealousy is unbecoming of you, my dear,” he replied, keeping his temper in careful check. Part of him longed to take one of his sculpture knives and plunge it straight through his wife’s black heart. Instead, he decided to try a more subtle form of cutting. “These little fits exaggerate the lines around your mouth and eyes, which completely offsets any youthful benefits to your appearance that you might have gained since starting to dye your hair.”
“I haven’t dyed my hair,” Victoria said coldly. “I’ve never dyed my hair.”
Vincent shrugged, secretly pleased that his dig had worked. “If you insist. You needn’t worry, though; I wasn’t going to tell anyone.”
“Who would you have to tell?” she countered.
“Oh! Splendid! Nice riposte!” he said. “If I had a heart, you might have pierced me to its very center.”
“If you had a heart, I might have cut it out already.”
“Touché! But, since you insist on prying… This figure I’m working on is neither waif nor harlot.” He ran his hands lovingly over the sculpture, now nearly finished, and so much better than the torso he’d been working on previously. “This lady is royalty of the highest order—a queen in her own time, and, if you must know, the current ruler of my dreams.” He grinned and theatrically clenched his hands over the center of his breast.
Victoria’s hazel eyes narrowed. “But who is she?”
“That, my dear, is for me to know and you to wonder endlessly about.” He walked past Victoria on his way to fetch more clay, pausing only long enough to give her a peck on the cheek as he passed. He knew the brief kiss would further infuriate his wife, and felt pleased when the buss had its intended effect.
“Vincent…!” she hissed, smoldering.
He waved off her rebuke as well as her lingering question. “All in good time, my dear. All in good time.” He returned to his sculpture with the new clay and began filling out her buttocks; those delicate cheeks needed to be rounder…
Victoria, apparently flustered by his cavalier attitude, merely stood there, steaming.
“You know my dear,” he told her has he worked, “I was thinking about what you said—about changing the exhibits to bring in a larger segment of the public… Perhaps my Wax Museum…”
“Our wax museum,” she corrected.
“Yes,” he replied drolly, “our museum… I was thinking that perhaps it should focus on more lurid themes as well as on beauty. Life is not all mimosa and roses, after all.” This, too, was a dig at his wife, tweaking at her favorite beverage and flower.
Her eyes remained narrow. “Nor is it brandy and trollops.”
“More’s the pity.” He gave the newly-rounded butt cheek of his sculpture a little slap; Victoria flinched, whether from the sudden action or some form of artistic sympathy, Vincent couldn’t tell.
“In any case, I was thinking that I might solve two problems with one fell swoop.”
“Two birds with a single stone, as it were,” she said, her voice low and deadly.
Vincent understood the birds pun, but chose to breeze right by it.
“Yes. And why not?” he said. “It occurred to me that if we were to combine exhibits with those of the Cushings, open the doors connecting the two display floors, and use some of my sculptures alongside their artifacts—in an expanded Egyptian motif, for instance—then perhaps that might increase the customer flow for both businesses.”
“You want to marry our museum to the tawdry exhibits of those… girls?” she asked contemptuously.
“Well, not to the girls specifically,” Vincent replied, “but to their father’s collection, yes. We could each show off our wares to the others’ customers, that way and maybe even have a ‘special combined admission’ price for both attractions. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect such a joint venture might prove very popular.”
“Or it might be like hitching their dead horse to our already struggling team,” his wife replied.
“Oh, really, Victoria… Don’t be so melodramatic. What harm could it do?”
She turned away from him, as if not wanting to face his gaze, and paced to the broad bank of greenhouse-like windows occupying the studio’s north side. “Better to ask yourself what good it could do. And the answer, I fear, would be ‘none.’”
“But aren’t you the one who suggested that we try something different to perk up business?” he asked. Despite his best efforts to needle her, and not the other way around, her blasé attitude was beginning to get to him.
Victoria didn’t look at her husband, but instead gazed out the studio windows toward the street below. She seemed to be looking for something—or perhaps someone.
“Really, Vincent,” she said, “if you can’t tell the difference between a sensible idea and another of your wild flights of fancy…” Now his wife turned haughtily and settled her cold, hazel eyes—they looked almost blue in this light—upon him. “…Well, then I don’t see any point in discussing it any further.”
She strode toward the studio door and paused at the threshold. “I’m sure you’ll do what you want, anyway. You always do.”
“Where are you going?” he snapped.
“Out,” she shot back, slamming the door as she left.
His wife was off to see her coachman lover, no doubt, or some other new peasant that she’d lured, black-widow-like, into her embrace.
Vincent clenched his fists, realizing only after he’d done it that he’d crushed the lumps of clay he’d been holding in his hands. Their wet mass oozed out between his fingers, like cold grey entrails.
He shook his head and chuckled.
“We really are quite a couple, aren’t we?” he said to the statue he’d been working on. “Well, if my wife wants to expand her stable of lovers… Two can play at that game!”
His mind flashed to the lovely girls working downstairs. So close at hand!
The middle finger on his left hand, injured more than two weeks ago, throbbed. He’d taken the bandage off, and it was nearly healed, but it still looked a little purplish and withered. It wasn’t hampering his sculpting anymore, though. In fact, he was doing some of the best work of his life.
Maybe he would ask the twins to model for him, just to vex his wife. The pair were teenagers… impressionable… they shouldn’t be hard to lure into his studio—and out of their clothes.
Yes, it would serve Victoria right, if he did that. He would even pay the girls, which would annoy his wife further.
And if one thing led to another—as it had many times in the past—well… So much the better.
Twins posing for a twin conquest!
Vincent grinned at the thought.
Then the early morning sunlight reflecting in through the big studio windows caught the face of his new sculpture, and he noticed something he’d missed before—something he didn’t like.
“Heavens!” he exclaimed. “I am so sorry, my dear! I haven’t gotten your cheekbone quite right, have I?”
He leaned toward the clay visage and examined it closely. “Yes, I’ve definitely missed the loveliness of your left zygomatic arch,” he told the sculpture. “I do apologize.”
Vincent stepped back and rubbed his chin, heedless of the fact that he was smearing himself with clay. “It’s not right… but what exactly am I missing?”
He stared at the sculpture for a good ten minutes, but just couldn’t figure it out.
“Well,” he finally said, wiping his hands on his work smock, “I guess I’ll just have to go and check.”
He paused briefly at the sink and washed the clay off his hands, arms, and face before removing the smock and laying it aside. Then he hurried downstairs into the waxworks and opened the door adjoining the Chamber of Horrors.
It was early in the day, well before opening, so he didn’t expect to find either Opal or Topaz in the exhibit, and even if he did, he was their landlord, after all, it was his right to inspect the place from time to time (especially considering all the changes they’d been making lately).
Maybe I’ll be inspecting them as well, soon, he thought, leering. Who would he start with first: Topaz, the willowy blonde, or the well-rounded Opal? Whom should he first persuade out of her clothes to sit for a bit of sculpting? Hmm…
Vincent wondered which one would annoy his wife more. She’d always seemed more jealous of blondes; though it was redheads who really set her off. Such a pity Victoria had lost her shape—and developed such an annoying personality.
The sound of the voice in his head gave Vincent a start, instantly shattering his reverie.
He’d grown used to hearing the voice since injuring his hand, but not so accustomed to hearing it out of the blue. Usually, it crept into his mind while he was working, purring to him softly like a cat, or hissing secrets like a serpent in his ear.
And, of course, it wasn’t the voice he really wanted to hear; it was the man’s voice, not hers.
“What is it?” Vincent whispered back, though he didn’t really expect an answer. The voice was good at telling him things, and not nearly so forthcoming with responses.
Then he realized he wasn’t alone. Someone was in the Chamber of Horrors with him.
Vincent froze. The basement chamber lay dark, dappled only by spots of sunlight leaking in from the narrow street-level windows. There was more than enough light to see by, but still plenty of shadows to hide in.
And standing at the edge of the gloom on the far side of the museum lurked a figure, facing away from Vincent.
It’s a man, Vincent realized, though not the familiar lanky figure of Dr. Leigh Cushing. Francis, or one of the girls’ other suitors, perhaps? The sculptor peered into the dark shadows, but couldn’t quite recognize the intruder. What’s he looking at?
The trespasser seemed to be staring at that huge reddish-black rug that the girls had framed and mounted on one wall.
Then, as if sensing Vincent’s presence, the man suddenly wheeled. In his hand he clutched a large spanner, holding the wrench as if it were a weapon.
“Who’s there?” he barked.
“Shaw?” Vincent said, stepping from the shadows.
Paul Shaw peered at him from the darkness. “Oh, it’s only you, Mr. Duprix. Yes, it’s me, Paul.” He stepped into the light and smiled.
“What are you doing here at this hour, Mr. Shaw?”
The handyman looked a bit sheepish. “I came to check the work I’ve done on the freezer for the new exhibit,” he said. “I know your wife gets mad at me if I come down here to help out the girls when I’m on break, so I thought I’d do it now, before the waxworks opens.”
“It’s very sensible of you to avoid Victoria’s wrath,” Vincent said. “That’s something I try to do myself. I suppose you’d better get back to your work, then.”
“Oh, I’ve finished,” Paul said. “I was just about to head upstairs.”
“When you stopped to admire that pelt,” Vincent observed.
“Yes, I guess so. Opal says it’s a wolf, but it looks more like a bear to me.”
Vincent crinkled his brow. “I haven’t given it much thought before, Mr. Shaw, but I suppose you could be right.”
Paul shrugged. “I’ll be getting to work, then. By the way… Why are you down here, Mr. Duprix?”
“I’ve had a notion for a new sculpture—an Egyptian sculpture,” Vincent explained, “and I thought I’d drop down for a little inspiration before business hours.”
“That’s a good thought,” Paul said. “If you had an Egyptian display, it might help draw customers from one attraction to the other.”
“That’s just what I was telling my wife,” Vincent said, “though she didn’t seem to think very much of the idea.”
“Speaking of your wife,” the handyman began, “I assume you know that she’s invited me to take a room in the old servants’ quarters of the house, as partial compensation for the work I’m doing.” He smiled again—something he seemed to do almost as readily as Vincent. “Easier than giving me a raise, I guess.”
“Yes,” Vincent mused, stroking his chin, “far easier, at the moment.” Though looking at Shaw, from broad shoulders to narrow hips, Vincent suspected that his wife might have other motives as well.
“So, you’re okay with that?” Paul asked eagerly.
“Yes, yes. It’s fine. I heartily approve,” Vincent said, though a headache was forming just behind his eyes. He rubbed his wounded finger, which had begun throbbing again, too.
“I suppose I should get to work then,” Paul said. He nodded and headed for the short stairway joining the two exhibits.
“And I as well,” Vincent said as the handyman passed him. When Paul reached the stairs, Vincent asked: “Oh, are the girls around this morning?”
“No. They’re not here right now.”
“Funny, you working here without them.”
“They went out to fetch some items to dress up the new exhibit,” Paul told him. “I’m sure they’ll be back shortly. I’ll see you later, Mr. Duprix. Enjoy the mummies.”
“Yes,” Vincent replied. “Yes, I will.”
Paul went into the waxworks and closed the door behind him.
As soon as the meddler had left, Vincent strode quickly to the mummy exhibit.
He sighed as he stood before the queen’s mummy case, enraptured. He gazed at the carved face, so vital and lovely that she might almost be alive. He drank in the delicate cheekbones (that he couldn’t quite capture—yet), luxuriated in the warm ochre skin, and gazed at the gleaming onyx eyes.
It was almost as though the queen were here with him…
“Oh, Bastiti, my love, how will I ever do you justice?” he asked. “I’ve attempted to sculpt you faithfully, just as I saw you in the studio mirror that day—but try as I might, it’s no use. I may never be able to capture your true loveliness! Why won’t you appear to me again, that I might complete your sculpture and recreate your beauty for all to see?”
“Why try to recreate my queen’s beauty, when you might revive it?” said the voice in Vincent’s mind, a voice that—over the past week—he had come to realize belonged to Sethotep, one of the other mummies in the exhibit. Sethotep was the man Vincent had seen standing in the shadows of the mirror, behind the queen, that night.
During her rule, Sethotep had been Bastiti’s confidant, high priest, and chief architect. It was he who had constructed her fabulous tomb as well as the lost crypt of her husband, Sethmosis.
Or so Vincent gathered from his mental conversations with the ancient builder.
While Vincent had glimpsed Bastiti that one time, it was Sethotep who whispered to Vincent in quiet moments, telling him about the glories of the queen’s all-but-forgotten dynasty. The high priest-cum-architect also revealed secrets from the Book of Thoth, a tome that he claimed could resurrect the dead.
But were such things actually possible?
“Yes,” Sethotep hissed, replying to Vincent’s innermost thoughts. “All things are possible, if one is willing to pay the price.”
Vincent looked from the mummy case of his beloved to that of the priest; Sethotep’s obsidian eyes, carved into the casket lid, stared back at the sculptor.
“What must I do?” Vincent asked. He needed to see that astounding woman again—that slender, dark-skinned Venus—and he was willing to pay any price… to do whatever it took.
He crossed his arms over his chest, bowed his head, and knelt before the ornate coffins of his queen and her honey-tongued advisor.
“I’ll do anything!”
In the shadowed light of early morning, it almost seemed as if the carved face of Sethotep’s sarcophagus smiled.
“To revive my queen,” the high-priest purred in Vincent’s mind, “a sacrifice must be made… A human sacrifice!”
TO BE CONTINUED…
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