IN THIS EPISODE: …Paul’s relationship with Opal gets complicated, and he sees a chance to break his werewolf curse…
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CHAPTER 18 – Paul’s Chance
Paul Shaw (Longmire) – 1951 Fisher St.
That Same Night
Paul pressed his lips against Opal’s, enjoying the taste of her mouth and the warmth of her body next to his.
How long had they been locked in this embrace, whispering sweet words to one another? He wasn’t sure; a long time, probably, he thought.
It had started as an “innocent” late night visit “to see your new room” she’d said. But it quickly turned into conversation and then into… What?
Was this an actual romance?
Paul didn’t intend it to be; he didn’t want it to be. But it had been so long since he’d let anyone get close—since his wife’s death, really.
Sure, there had been a few women during his travels, but never anything serious… or even anything that Paul had imagined might become serious. That had been deliberate.
After Caliso and Judith had perished, he’d had no desire to let anyone get close to him ever again. But the body had needs, and sometimes Paul had taken comfort where he could, though he wasn’t particularly proud of it.
He knew that the Roaring Twenties had brought in the current, modern age—and an ethos of “free love” with it—but, even in his rich playboy days, he’d never been entirely comfortable with casual sex.
To Paul, something as deeply emotional as lovemaking seemed to require some kind of meaningful commitment.
Of course, the chance for any kind of commitment for Paul had vanished with that awful hunt and the advent of The Curse.
Yet, here he was, with his arms wrapped around a girl more than five years his junior… And somehow it felt so right!
But Paul knew it wasn’t. Opal was young, despite her grown-up appearance, and neither she nor her sister seemed very experienced in the ways of the world.
He didn’t want to take advantage of the girl, though she seemed willing—more than willing, actually.
This isn’t what you’re here for! a rational voice inside his head reminded him. But Paul only had ears for the whispers of Opal Cushing.
The two were standing near his bedside in his newly painted servants’ quarters room, still fully clothed. Paul guessed that neither the standing nor the fully clothed situations was likely to last much longer.
“Oh, Paul,” Opal gasped in between kisses. She leaned down and rested her head against his chest.
Paul held one arm tight around her waist and, with his other hand, stroked her wavy, dark-brown hair. Her body… her hair… they both felt so wonderful!
Despite himself, an image of another woman with soft dark hair flashed through Paul’s mind: Caliso, his dead wife.
Paul’s stomach twisted, and he started to pull away, but she held him tight.
“We can’t…” he breathed.
“We can,” Opal insisted. “It’s all right. I want to.” She stepped back just enough to pull the bottom of his shirt out from beneath his belt. Then she began unbuttoning his shirt, from the top down.
He took her hands, stopping her.
“It’s too fast,” he said. “We hardly know each other.”
She shrugged. “Since when does that matter nowadays? We both want to. So what’s stopping us?”
“What about that boyfriend of yours—Frank?”
That brought her up short. She stepped back, the spell of kisses and warm bodies pressed against each other broken, at least a bit.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Opal said. “Not really. It’s not like we’ve made promises or anything.” Then, something seemed to occur to her. “Is there… Do you have someone else?”
Paul shook his head. “No,” he replied. “No. Not now. There was someone once. But she died.” And in his mind he saw the smiling faces of his murdered wife and their infant daughter. He would never understand why they’d been killed—and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to.
Knowing why won’t bring them back. Nothing will.
“Oh,” Opal said, clearly surprised. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Paul said ruefully, “me, too.”
“Were you… was she…?”
Paul wasn’t sure what Opal was about to say, and maybe she wasn’t, either, but he decided to cut off this line of questioning, before it went any further.
“Look, we don’t have time to discuss it right now,” he said, turning away. He couldn’t bear to look at her. He thought that if he did, he might not have the strength to make her leave. “I have to work tomorrow, early in the morning. So I need to get some sleep. It has to be past one already.”
“Past two, actually,” Opal said, her voice sad and quiet.
“Even worse. It’s hard enough dealing with Victoria when I’m well rested and on my game…”
“And do you?” she asked, a flash jealousy sparking in her blue-green eyes.
“Do I what?”
“Deal with her… with Victoria?”
“You know what I mean,” he snapped. “She’s hard to work for in the best of circumstances.”
“Like a cat, always on the prowl.”
“Yes. I suppose. Anyway, I need my rest.”
Opal nodded, but he could see moisture welling at the corners of her eyes. “I understand. Paul… I’m sorry.”
Despite himself, he grabbed her and held her tight.
“Me, too,” he said. “I… Maybe we can talk about all this some other time.”
“But not tonight.”
“No,” she said, sniffing back a tear. “Not tonight.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Good night, Opal.”
“Good night, Paul.”
She left without looking at him; he closed the door behind her.
Liar! accused his conscience.
“Shut up!” Paul whispered, clutching the hair at his temples. “What else could I say?”
He couldn’t tell her the truth, certainly—that he might be gone tomorrow, that she might never see him again.
Though if his plan succeeded, maybe she could. Maybe they…
But no. It was crazy to think that way. Either his plan would succeed, his curse would be lifted, and she’d despise him for what he’d done, or his plan would fail, and the doom of the wolf would still be hanging over him, and he’d kill again during the next full moon.
Maybe even kill her!
Paul couldn’t bear the thought. True, he hadn’t seen the mark of the pentagram on her hand or face, as he’d seen in his first few victims, but that didn’t necessarily mean Opal was safe. With the wolf, nobody was safe.
And even if he didn’t kill Opal, he might kill her sister, or her boyfriend, or one of the Duprixes.
Won’t this torture ever end?
He needed to stick to the plan. That was his only chance.
He hadn’t come here, hadn’t agreed to room in this house above the Chamber of Horrors just to get closer to Opal—or to anyone else for that matter. He’d come here for a specific purpose.
And tonight was the night he’d carry out that objective, whatever the outcome might be.
Paul turned off all the lights in his room, in case Opal hadn’t gone, in case she might be lingering, watching quietly outside his door.
He didn’t want to take any chances, so he waited half an hour longer before opening the door and peeking into the hall connected to the stairway beyond. He neither saw nor heard anyone.
The servants’ stairway stretched through all three stories of the 1951 Fisher, and down into the basement as well. The doors adjoining the second and third floors—where the Duprixes and Cushings lived—were kept locked, as there were no actual servants to wait on the tenants’ needs. (Though Paul suspected that Opal might have left the third floor unlocked, in case he changed his mind and came to visit her tonight.)
The servants’ door exiting into the basement was blocked by packing boxes, luggage, books, and other things that didn’t fit in with the Cushings’ exhibits. There was an outside bulkhead door into the basement as well, though that was padlocked, and Paul didn’t have a key.
That left Paul only two avenues of approach: the main entrance to the chamber and the door that joined the chamber to the waxworks. The main door would surely be locked from the inside. He could use that doorway to make his escape, later, but first he needed to reach his objective.
Paul ducked back into his room, closed the door, and made certain he had everything he needed. He couldn’t chance coming back to the second floor, once he’d obtained his prize. He’d have to leave directly after stealing it.
His heart pounded, though he wasn’t sure whether it was the prospect of stealing from people he liked or the anticipation of finally being free of the wolf that caused his palpitations.
Everything seemed to be ready. He needed to take action now or chance being discovered—or risk losing his nerve.
Taking a final deep breath, Paul stepped out of his room and into the hallway.
He stopped and listened, every fiber of him alive, every sense keener than those of a normal man, though not yet (thankfully) wolf keen.
Almost three weeks left, he thought. Three weeks…! Was that true, or was it shorter—tomorrow, maybe? He couldn’t be positive. Either way, he needed this to end tonight.
Silently he descended the stairs and entered the waxworks on the first floor. He crept through the frozen tableaus, making for the adjoining door that was his only way to enter the Chamber of Horrors.
Chamber of Horrors… Ha! A metaphor for my life!
But he couldn’t think about that now. He had to concentrate on his task…
He swiftly crossed to the door, opened it without a sound, and descended the short flight of steps into the chamber.
Paul paused and willed his heart to stop pounding; his pulse calmed, but only slightly. He needed to keep his head, to stay alert, get the deed done and then escape before anyone found out. He couldn’t make any mistakes, couldn’t do anything that might rouse the Cushings or the Duprixes.
He would steal the pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan, flee the house, and destroy the cursed thing.
He wasn’t sure exactly how he’d manage that destruction, or where he’d do it, but first things first…
Get the damned thing off the wall; then destroy it.
Burning seemed the most likely method; that’s what he’d try first. He’d tucked a lighter and a can of extra fuel in his shirt pocket, and if that failed, he’d brought his Bowie knife as well. That long blade had been with him through all his travels, back even to when he’d been a teenage big game hunter, and it hadn’t failed him yet. If somehow it did fail, if somehow the accursed hide couldn’t be burned or cut, he still had a whole month to figure out some other method.
No. Not a month. That was the curse, clouding his mind.
Two weeks, he reminded himself. Three at most.
He’d find those gypsies again, if he had to. They would know how to destroy it. Surely Maria would help him once more, if he asked—though finding her might prove tricky.
I have time. There’s still time.
But first, he had to steal the wolf skin…
Paul had grown familiar with the layout of the exhibits during the time he’d worked with the girls, so he moved through the darkness quickly and efficiently. His curse-enhanced eyes were keen at night, and the wan illumination leaking in through the narrow street-level basement windows provided more than enough light to see by.
He stopped, brought up short by something he’d noticed: those damned fish scales. They glistened wetly in their jar, in the dark.
Scales of the isda-asawa, he remembered, the Filipino fish-wife.
Why had the villagers been calling that phrase—isda-asawa—when they’d burned his house down? Did it have something to do with his wife or her family? Did the villagers think Caliso and their daughter were cursed somehow, just as Paul was cursed now?
Keep moving, he chided himself. Finish the job!
He reached the pelt. It hung on the wall above a plaque describing the thing’s history for the tourists. “The Pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan…”
The inscription didn’t say anything about Paul’s curse, however—about this wicked artifact siring a line of wolf-men. But why would it? Nobody believed in werewolves these days.
With cars and telephones and electric lights and even airplanes, Paul couldn’t blame people for their skepticism. The modern world was ruled by science, not superstition. Paul himself had never believed in such things until Count Zarkov and his terrible “game”…
But he couldn’t think about that now. That way lay distraction… and madness.
Paul grabbed the rustic wooden frame containing the wolf skin and lifted it off its hooks.
The damned thing was cumbersome, heavier than he expected, but Paul was strong and in good shape; he lowered the frame to the floor with little trouble.
Now he had a decision to make. He doubted that just plunging his knife into the reddish-black fur piece would break his curse, so there was no point in even trying that here.
If he took the wolf skin out of the building in its frame, it would be easy for anybody—the police, for instance—to spot him; the frame was ten feet long and almost as wide as Paul was tall. So, he needed to get the pelt out of the frame.
Smashing the glass would be quicker, but someone might hear him. Cutting it out from the back of the frame would be quieter, but take longer.
You have the time. Just don’t make any mistakes!
Paul got out his knife and flipped the frame around to cut away the paper backing. There would be some kind of mounting board behind that—maybe Masonite or plywood—but his knife should make short work of those obstructions. He’d either pry out the staples holding the board or, if he had to, cut straight through it. (Though doing that would take even more time.)
He drew back his knife to start cutting.
Suddenly, everything went white.
Paul gasped and blinked, momentarily blinded.
When his eyes cleared again, he found himself crouching in the beam of a very bright flashlight.
Just beyond the edge of that beam, light filtering through the basement window glinted off of a gun barrel.
“Don’t move!” commanded a voice from the darkness. “I have a revolver aimed precisely at your heart.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
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