IN THIS EPISODE: …Topas adjusts to new realities, and Vincent makes an unexpected proposal…
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CHAPTER 20 – Changes in the Chamber
Topaz Cushing – 1951 Fisher
The Next Morning
The chirping of the birds just after dawn woke Topaz bright and early the next morning.
She rose and stretched, enjoying the feel of the sunshine on her face and body. For a few moments, all seemed right with the world.
Then she noticed Opal, still slumbering heavily, her brunette head thrust deep under her pillow, and Topaz remembered the events of the previous night—well, very early in the morning, actually.
Her sister had fallen hard for Paul Shaw, despite the brevity of their acquaintance, and despite the near-constant attentions of her other suitor, the charming Frank Browning.
Maybe she’ll go back to thinking about boys her own age, now, Topaz thought, and then chided herself for being unkind to her twin.
Opal had cried herself to sleep after the scene in the chamber, and Topaz could hardly blame her. Imagine finding out that the guy you were in love with was only looking to steal from your family! What could be worse?
Nothing that Topaz could think of. She found herself wishing, just for a moment, that their tarot reading for Mr. Shaw hadn’t been interrupted. The cards were clearly trending badly in that forecast. If they’d been able to finish, maybe they would have found some warning—maybe Opal, who was better at fortune telling than Topaz, would have seen what was coming and avoided any romantic entanglement with the man.
Still… How were they to know? The cards weren’t always right, especially when dealing with people you were emotionally attached to.
Topaz sighed (softly so as not to wake her sister).
Then she took a change of clothes into the bathroom, showered (though the water pressure was never very good on the third floor), and readied herself for the day.
First thing she did was to go down into the Chamber of Horrors.
Everything seemed to be in order, including the barricade they’d put up in front of the door adjoining the waxworks.
We’ll have to talk to the Duprixes about installing a lock, if they’ll let us. Her family didn’t want any more untrustworthy types sneaking in from the wax museum, after all.
Since she was there, Topaz decided to tidy up the exhibit and save her sister and father the trouble.
Father! It was so good to have him home! If not for the trouble with Opal and Paul, the joy at his return would have been overwhelming. As it was, his arrival only added to the confusion of the night. And his revelation about the pelt…!
Topaz had always considered everything their father did as above reproach. Yes, he was eccentric, to be sure, but this was the first time she ever remembered him having done something dishonest.
If Paul hadn’t tried to steal the darn thing, would her father ever have revealed the truth?
She stared at the wolf skin, still hanging in its frame (no thanks to Paul) on the exhibit wall. She read the plaque describing it: The Pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan…
But that was a lie. According to Father, it was really the pelt of a Transylvanian dire wolf, but when he’d discovered the truth, he’d been reluctant to change it because the lie had gone on so long.
Topaz didn’t quite understand that. Part of her wanted to take down the plaque that very moment and put up a new, more accurate one. Should she do it without consulting Father and Opal?
Her conscience said “Yes,” it was the right thing to do, but her loyalty to family said otherwise.
Frowning, she went and sat down on the floor next to the Ice Man display. “It’s like if we were telling people you were a cave man or a Viking or something, when we know full well you’re not,” she confided to the frozen figure. “How would you feel about that?”
Of course, the Ice Man didn’t reply; like the pelt itself, the ice-encased giant couldn’t have feelings one way or the other. Both were long past worldly cares—unlike Topaz.
Was it so wrong to put a more sensational title on a display just to boost ticket sales? Certainly, the Siamese Mermaid was a bit of flummery—but everybody knew that, going all the way back to P.T. Barnum’s similar display.
Like the wolf skin, that Far-Eastern chimera was a genuine artifact, even if it wasn’t a genuine mermaid.
“I guess there’s no harm in letting the situation stand,” Topaz announced, though privately she decided that if they ever moved the museum, she would change the plaque to something more accurate, at that time.
The whole incident made her wonder, though:
Has Father lied about any of the other exhibits here? Are even more of our artifacts fakes?
She really had no reliable way of telling.
Often, Topaz had a strong intuition about things (and people), but most of the museum’s collection confounded whatever preternatural ability she possessed. She could never quite nail down feelings about these objects.
The pelt felt strange—unnatural, somehow—but that could be said about nearly everything else in the chamber as well… except maybe for the mermaid (which was a known fake), and the meteor and the mokele-mbembe dinosaur tracks and the Ice Man, of course, which were merely natural objects, if unusual and interesting ones.
The only real way to get to the bottom of this was to ask their father. Yet, if she didn’t train her telepathic abilities on him, how would she know if he was telling the truth? And she didn’t want to use those talents on family; doing so wouldn’t be right.
“I guess I’m in a quandary,” she told her frozen companion. “I wish you could give me some advice.”
A shiver ran up her spine and lodged in the base of her brain. For a moment, she almost felt as if someone had answered her, but someone so far away that his whisper might be mistaken for the wind.
“Whoa!” she said, scrambling to her feet. She looked around the chamber, eyes darting quickly from one shadowed corner to the other, but she was—as she’d thought—totally alone. Except for the Ice Man…
She looked at him, her silent “friend and confidant” entombed in ice. Naturally, he didn’t move. He stood frozen with his arms splayed slightly to the side, hands open and fingers stretched wide. His skin was pale and yellow, and his expression forlorn. His black-lipped mouth hung open, as if he were talking or pleading, and showed twin rows of straight white teeth. His pale, lifeless eyes stared back at Topaz.
Opal’s twin could never quite determine the color of the Ice Man’s eyes. They seemed to change depending on the lighting in the chamber. At times, they were almost as pale as the bloodshot whites surrounding them, a dead, cataract-like appearance. When the sun hit them right, they seemed yellowish, or even golden. And sometimes, at night, they almost seemed to glow with a pale-greenish fire. It was odd.
Neither Topaz nor her sister had ever seen eyes anything like those; they looked… inhuman. The Ice Man’s size made him seem more monster than man as well. If not for his eighteenth-century clothing, he might almost have been mistaken for a Biblical giant, or some titanic relative of humankind, vanished before the coming of modern people.
There were giants in the earth in those days…
“Who are you … I mean, who were you?” Topaz asked.
She laid her bare hand on the window of the display. She and her sister had polished the ice block to a smooth surface and, together with Paul (curse him!), they’d pressed the block right up against the glass, so that customers could have a clear view.
But the bluish ice still obscured the giant, somewhat, making him look as though he were hanging suspended underwater. The fact that he seemed to be floating, rather than standing on the ground, added to the eerie atmosphere of the exhibit. And he had proven popular, though he might have been more so if they’d been able to afford real advertising. (Not that she didn’t appreciate having Frank and his friends circulate news of the Ice Man’s arrival via word of mouth.)
Despite staring at the giant’s pale eyes and concentrating as hard as she could, the only thing that Topaz felt through her hand as she touched the glass was… cold. Not surprisingly.
It seemed that, like most everything else in the chamber, the Ice Man defied her powers to get a clear “reading.”
Maybe I should have Opal cast the tarot for him, she mused.
That could come later, though. For now, she needed to get back to work. She wanted to finish tidying up before the rest of the household roused themselves—wanted to give everyone a fresh start, following their rough night.
After cleaning the chamber and straightening as much as she thought necessary, Topaz double-checked the makeshift barricade blocking the door adjoining the waxworks.
As she did, she was surprised—stunned really—to hear several familiar voices on the other side of the portal.
The tones of Victoria Duprix were clearly audible even through the thick oak (though Topaz couldn’t make out what she was saying). But it was the other voice that took Topaz by surprise:
What was he doing in the waxworks with Mrs. Duprix? Didn’t he even have the decency to flee the scene of the crime after trying to steal one of Dr. Cushing’s treasures?!
Any sensible person—a man with the least bit of honor—would have done so. Yet, here Mr. Shaw remained, apparently going about his job in the waxworks as though nothing had happened the night before.
For a moment, Topaz was tempted to press her ear to the door, to listen in on what Paul and Victoria were saying. Was it possible that Mrs. Duprix might be involved in Paul’s duplicity somehow?
No. That didn’t make any sense. Victoria didn’t want the pelt. The twins had offered it to her, in lieu of rent—and since they were behind in the rent again, all Victoria needed to do to obtain the wolf skin would have been to ask for it.
I’d gladly hand it over even faster, now that I know it’s a fake!
So, why was Paul still here?
A new shiver ran up Topaz’s spine, but this time the sensation was the kind that brought one of her telepathic insights. Victoria had never really needed a handyman; she’d always wanted Paul for one reason and one reason alone: his body.
In the instant the idea crossed her mind, Topaz knew that fact as certainly as she knew her own name. Her telepathy made her sure of it.
How long had the two been carrying on? Had Paul been sleeping with Mrs. Duprix all the time he was courting Opal?
But that notion didn’t seem right, either. Topaz had sensed something odd about Paul from the moment Victoria hired him, but she hadn’t sensed any previous connection between the two. Nor had she sensed any deception aimed at her sister, other than the usual type of “best face” that men and women tried to put on for each other when dating.
In fact, the feeling that seemed to emanate the most from Paul was sorrow. Topaz got the feeling it had something to do with that woman he mentioned being killed while he was in the Philippines. She’d sensed Paul’s sorrow so acutely when he told that story, or at least the part he’d shared before he couldn’t go on.
That woman was related to him somehow, Topaz realized. Funny how it hadn’t been clear to her at the time; sometimes distance really did bring perspective. Now that she wasn’t worried about Paul courting her sister, it all seemed so obvious.
She was his lover… or maybe even… his wife?
Yes. Either of those seemed very possible. It wouldn’t be unusual for someone of Paul’s age to be married. In fact, in some parts of the world, it would have been downright odd if he weren’t.
But he’s not married now, she thought, remembering the lack of a wedding ring, or even an impression of one, on his finger. So, the woman, whether lover or wife, had died some time ago, but the anguish still lingered.
Could her death be the curse Paul had been babbling to Father about?
Topaz backed away from the door adjoining the waxworks. The temptation to listen in on Paul’s conversation with Victoria—his new lover—had passed.
Poor man…! she found herself thinking, and then upbraided herself for being too soft hearted.
Her realizations had made Topaz feel more sympathy for Paul, but she still wouldn’t forgive him for his attempted theft. Nor would she let him near her sister ever again—not close enough to hurt Opal, anyway. No more than he already had.
As she locked up the chamber and went upstairs, Topaz decided not to tell Opal about Paul and Victoria. What would be the point? Her sister would discover soon enough that he hadn’t departed 1951 Fisher, and that he was still… “assisting” Victoria. That would be plenty of heartache for Opal to handle, in and of itself.
Her mind made up, Topaz strolled to the third-floor kitchen and made breakfast for the household. Supplies were running a bit thin, but she decided to splurge and use up some of the things they’d been saving. If Father’s homecoming wasn’t a special occasion, Topaz didn’t know what might be.
Soon, the kitchen air was redolent with the sweet smells of a modest feast: back bacon, scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, baked beans, and fried toast. Plus a good, black breakfast tea, of course. She wished she’d had some sausages to go with the rest—it didn’t seem like a full English breakfast without them—but there were none in the house, and she didn’t have the time to fetch any, since she hadn’t noticed the lack until she started cooking. (Nor, truth be told, did they really have the money to spare.)
“This will have to do,” she told herself as she laid place settings for three in the flat’s small dining room and brought the food out in covered dishes.
“Are we expecting company?” her father asked as he entered the room. “It seems you’ve made enough food to feed a whole regiment.”
Topaz wasn’t surprised by her father’s sudden entrance, as she’d heard him performing his morning rituals in the bathroom (which wasn’t very far away; nothing was in this flat) while she readied the food.
“It’s a celebration,” she replied, “of your return.”
“And a magnificent fete, too, it seems,” Dr. Cushing observed. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation and then took a brief peek into every one of the covered dishes. “Ah!” he exclaimed after inspecting each. “Grand! Very grand, indeed!” He seated himself and pulled into the table.
Topaz smiled. The fact that all three members of her family were together once more filled her with tingling warmth. She sat down and tucked in, too.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” her father said, half standing again. “I should have done that for you. I’m afraid my time in the wilds has affected my manners once again.”
“Don’t worry about it, Father.”
“Well,” he said, placing his napkin on his lap, “at least I shall hold the chair for your sister. I assume she will be joining us?”
Topaz paused in fiddling with her napkin. Because of the cooking, she hadn’t had time to check on Opal. Now she took a deep breath and emptied her mind.
“She’s still sleeping,” Topaz said, a moment later. “I think we’d probably better let her. The food will keep.”
“I suppose,” her father agreed. “Though it seems a shame not to enjoy such a repast when it’s piping hot!” They took turns exchanging dishes until both their plates were covered with food.
“Tea, dear?” Dr. Cushing asked, proffering the pot.
He poured, and then the two of them clinked cups.
“To happy reunions,” he said.
“And successful expeditions,” she added.
“Yes, indeed. I was very impressed with the display the two of you have mounted for our Ice Man. Quite a feat of engineering!”
Topaz felt her face redden. “We had some help.”
“Oh? From whom?”
“Well, Frank and Barry and some of their friends.”
“Ah. Those would be the young men you wrote to me about.”
“Yes,” Topaz said. “But mostly from… Paul.”
Her father’s brow furrowed. “Ah.”
Uncomfortable silence hung between them for a moment as they ate.
“He seemed like a really nice guy at the time,” she finally said.
“Most of them do—at the time.”
They ate again for a little while, until he ventured: “So… How long had you… had your sister known this Paul fellow before becoming… attached to him.”
“Not long,” Topaz said. “We only met him about two weeks ago, right before Mrs. Duprix hired him as a handyman.”
“Quite handy in several ways, it seems,” her father quipped.
Did he know, or had he guessed, Paul’s current connection to Mrs. Duprix? No. That wasn’t likely; he probably just meant handy in both mechanics and in breaking Opal’s heart.
“At least until he wasn’t,” Dr. Cushing finished, confirming Topaz’s guess.
“He’s still here, you know,” Topaz remarked, feeling her father should be given at least that much information, if not the scandalous details.
Her father arched his greying eyebrows in disapproval. “Oh?”
“Mrs. Duprix couldn’t pay him much,” Topaz explained. “So she’s letting him stay in the old servants’ quarters.”
Dr. Cushing frowned and put down his knife and fork. “A fox in the henhouse, it seems. Not what I would call an ideal situation.”
“He only moved in a few days ago,” Topaz said, determined to forge on until she’d gotten all the painful background information out in the open. “He and Opal quickly got more… serious, after that.”
“I see. And do you think this gentleman—and I use the term loosely—has any genuine affection for your sister, or has he merely been using her to further his larcenous ambitions?”
Topaz shook her head. “I don’t know. He seemed genuine enough… until last night.”
“Yes. Well, I’m just glad I arrived home when I did. Otherwise, we’d be out one valuable exhibit.”
“Even if it is a fake.”
Her father grumbled repentantly. “Well, it is a genuine beast,” he finally said, “just not the genuine beast, as it were.” And he chuckled at his own jest.
“Father,” she said, “are any of the others that way, too—fakes, I mean?”
“What? Why, certainly not!” he replied. “I may have made some mistakes in my youth, my dear, but I have tried not to repeat them as I’ve gotten older and wiser.” He extended his hand across the table to her. “This I promise.”
She took his hand and squeezed it; her father’s grip felt warm and powerful, despite the fact that he looked to be nothing more than skin and bones.
“I’m so glad to hear it,” she said, feeling confident that he was telling the truth (and very relieved for it).
“Well, that’s enough business and tawdry discussion for now,” he said. “No sense letting the troubles of last night entirely ruin this wonderful breakfast you’ve prepared. Assuming, of course, that those troubles will not continue forward?” The way he arched his eyebrows at her conveyed his worry plainly enough. He was asking:
“Is your sister pregnant?”
“No need to worry on that account, Father,” she assured him. “Things never got that serious between the two of them, thank goodness! I think we can enjoy our breakfasts in peace for the foreseeable future.”
Just then, a knock sounded on the flat’s main door.
“Come in!” Dr. Cushing called before Topaz could get up or try to use her gift to figure out who was on the other side.
A moment later, Vincent Duprix’s smiling face appeared at the kitchen threshold. “Dr. Cushing,” he said, “I heard from my wife that you’d come home—though God only knows how she knew. Ears of a bat, that one, I guess. In any case, Doctor, it’s so good to see you again. And my…! Something smells scrumptious!”
“Topaz has made the most marvelous breakfast,” Dr. Cushing said. “We have plenty. Join us if you like. But please, Mr. Duprix, call me ‘Leigh.’ I insist.”
“Only if you will call me ‘Vincent,’ Leigh,” Duprix replied. He took a chair and sat down between Topaz and her father. “With you away so much of the time, Leigh, it’s so easy to fall into old habits of formality.”
“I’ll get you a place setting,” Topaz said, starting to rise.
“Don’t bother,” her father told her. “He can use Opal’s. We’ll fetch her another if she decides to join us.”
Duprix cocked his lead like a curious bird. “Still sleeping? Well, I suppose that’s to be expected. Victoria said she’d had some kind of falling out with our handyman?”
Dr. Cushing forced a quick smile. “Something like that,” he replied.
“All of us have,” Topaz added frostily, and then thought: Except your wife.
She knew it best not to mention that, though. The various flings that both Duprixes had conducted over the years were nobody’s business but their own. (Topaz had tumbled to their “little deceptions” as soon as she was old enough to understand “the birds and the bees.”)
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” Duprix said. “He’s seemed a very useful fellow to have working on the exhibits—for both of us.”
Dr. Cushing went back to eating. “So my daughter informs me.”
“And, in a round-about way, that brings me to the reason I’ve stopped up this fine morning…” Duprix noted, stuffing a forkful of bacon into his mouth.
“Oh?” Topaz’s father said.
“I can’t help but notice that attendance in your Chamber of Horrors is not what, shall we say, one would like it to be…” Duprix replied.
Here it comes, Topaz thought with dread, the part about the rent, and how far behind we are.
“…And truth be told,” Durpix continued, “the same could be said for my waxworks.”
What? This was not what Topaz expected; she tried not to audibly sigh with relief.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Vincent,” her father said.
“As am I. But that got me to thinking: Perhaps we’ve been going about this the wrong way. We both have excellent exhibits, but there’s not enough crossover business between the two.” Duprix grinned his cat-like grin. “Suppose, though, that we were to team up—to use both of our extraordinary talents to mount an exhibit that only a blind idiot could overlook.”
The idea took Topaz by surprise, but her father appeared interested.
“What did you have in mind, Mister… I mean, Vincent?” Dr. Cushing asked.
“Well, it could be anything,” Duprix said with a shrug. “We could build on something one of us already has—take your mummy display, for instance. Here you have three of the finest mummies this side of the British Museum, but after spiking attendance for a few days…”—he made a “Poof! Up in smoke!” gesture with his hands—“…nothing. Why do you think that is, Leigh?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Vincent.”
Topaz had no idea why, either. While her family seemed to have a great ability to find and mount exhibits, apparently none of them possessed the gift of attracting attention to their work.
“No sex appeal,” Duprix proclaimed. “And it’s the same with my waxworks. Everything in our respective museums is top notch, but we both lack that sensational fire that will bring the public through the doors on a regular basis.
“So, my thought is that we mount a series of joint displays every year combining your artifacts with my sculptures. We could start with the mummies… Do a display that will be the envy of royalty, recreate the actual tomb where the mummies were found with wax figures to represent how they really looked when they were alive.”
Duprix’s enthusiasm was building now, and even Topaz found herself being swept up in it.
“Imagine if you will, Queen Bastiti reclining on her couch, attended by her lover, Sethotep.”
“I should remind you that it is only a theory that the two were romantically linked,” Dr. Cushing said.
“But it’s a sensational theory, the kind that will bring the public streaming through our doors. Imagine the two of them together, plotting her husband King Sethmosis’ death, and then carrying out their dastardly plan! It has everything people nowadays want—something even the movies can’t give them: real life and death, in three life-like glorious dimensions!
“Of course, patrons would have to buy a joint-exhibit ticket to get the full story. It would start in my waxworks and then climax in your tomb display with the actual mummies themselves.”
“The mummy of King Sethmosis has never been recovered,” Dr. Cushing pointed out.
“That doesn’t matter,” Durpix said. “Who’s going to know what three mummies you have on display?”
“We won’t lie about our exhibits,” Topaz said, flashing her father a look that admonished “not again.”
Duprix waved away the suggestion. “Who said anything about lying? We tell our visitors that the conspirators did their jobs so well that the king’s body wasn’t recovered—and may never be. That kind of story is better than having his actual mummy there, anyway.”
Dr. Cushing chuckled. “You seem to have considered all the angles, Vincent.”
“Well, I confess I have been giving it a little thought. I’ve even started work on some of the wax figures. They will be my greatest work to date!” Duprix’s blue eyes gleamed with the fires of inspiration, and he rubbed his hands together as if preparing to count the money flowing in.
“There is one thing you haven’t taken into account, though,” Topaz’s father said.
“Yes, you have failed to consider who will mount this exhibit.”
“Why, we will—you and your family, and me and my wife.”
Dr. Cushing shook his head. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to assist you,” he said. “For you see, I’m leaving on another expedition almost immediately.”
Topaz’s heart sank. “Oh, Father! Must you?”
“I’m afraid I must, my dear. I’d hoped to break the news to you and your sister later, but Vincent’s most excellent plan has forced my hand. I’ve obtained a hot lead on de Organos de Huesos, the legendary Organ of Bones, an occult musical instrument said to be able to call the dead from their graves and, once summoned, control them.”
“What a gruesome thought!” Duprix exclaimed. “I can’t imagine why one would want to bring some poor soul back to life. Let the dead stay buried, I say.”
“Amen,” agreed Topaz.
“That’s as may be,” Dr. Cushing said, “but this is an artifact I’ve sought for many years, and I can’t afford to let this opportunity pass. You remember how long it took me to track down the Ice Man, Topaz.”
She sighed. “Ages, Father.”
“Yes, because I once let a good lead go cold, as it were. I will not squander this opportunity.”
“Nor should you,” Duprix said with a smile. “I would no sooner keep you from your expeditions than you could keep me from my sculpting. I’m sure that your daughters, my wife, and I can handle this on our own. And we have our workman, Paul, too. He’s been very handy around the waxworks, and your exhibits as well.
“I don’t see any reason that excellent arrangement should change just because of a shattered teenage crush, do you?”
Dr. Cushing pursed his lips. “I suppose not,” he said. “Yes… Perhaps that’s the least he can do. So long as he is strictly supervised and keeps his hands off of exhibits that he is not working with.”
“And keeps his hands off my sister, as well,” Topaz added.
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” Duprix told them.
“Additionally, I would insist that all doors leading to our exhibits be securely locked at night, and that only your family and mine should have keys,” her father said.
“That seems a wise enough precaution,” Duprix agreed.
Dr. Cushing rose and extended his hand. “Very well, then. The Cushings and Duprixes will embark on this venture together, and with luck, it will increase both our fortunes.”
Duprix took the proffered hand and shook it. “I’m sure it will. Here’s to our grand new venture!”
Both men grinned, and Topaz forced a smile as well, though something about this “grand new venture” felt wrong to her.
No… Working with both the Duprixes and Paul Shaw didn’t feel right at all…
TO BE CONTINUED…
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