IN THIS EPISODE: …Opal & Topaz try to escape the monsters… and the fire…
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CHAPTER 41 – Fiery Choices
Opal Cushing – The Chamber of Horrors
Opal gazed back the way they’d come, into the burning tomb display in the waxworks, her heart breaking.
“What… What about Paul?” she asked. Her eyes were smarting, and not just from the smoke and heat; she could barely hold back the tears.
“We can’t help him, now,” Topaz replied, matter-of-factly.
“But the mummy… Victoria… They could kill him!”
In her mind’s eye, she saw the vampire fastened onto Paul’s neck while the mummy, still burning, held him down. Paul struggled against both monsters in vain as his life ebbed away.
“They want to kill us, too,” Topaz reminded her. “There’s nothing we can do for Paul. Going back would be suicide.”
“Opal, he’s a werewolf. Lycanthropes are notoriously hard to kill.”
The way her sister said it was almost as though she didn’t care about Paul at all. “Maybe hard to kill for normal people,” Opal replied, “but we’re talking about monsters—real monsters—not the kind of flummery and hocus pocus in our museum, and… OhmyGod! The museum!”
“I know,” Topaz said calmly. “The fire is spreading. We can’t stop it. I’m sorry about Paul, but our father’s whole life’s work is about to go up in flames. We have to choose.”
For a moment, Opal stood torn. They’d come so close to helping Paul! If only they’d discovered his true problem earlier. If only he’d confided his secret to her or Topaz, maybe…
“We have to save the museum,” Opal concluded. Her sister was right; even if they wanted to, even if the whole house wasn’t burning down around them, there was nothing they could to do for Paul right now.
Topaz nodded, looking resolute despite the fear in her blue-green eyes; Opal felt that fear, too, and that same determination as well.
“Grab Father’s books first,” Topaz said. “We’ll take them out the back bulkhead.” She rushed to the small library and loaded up her arms.
Opal did the same, and the two hurried to the back of the museum, glad that the chamber had a loading area to escape through, grateful that exit wasn’t blocked, and that the fire hadn’t reached it.
Topaz unlocked the bulkhead, and the two of them dropped the books at what they deemed a safe distance away from the rear of the house, on the sidewalk by the edge of Olde Kennington Park. They’d managed to get the whole library out in one run. (Fortunately, that collection hadn’t been very big.) Topaz snuffed the Torch of Sekhmet and left it beside the books.
“I hope nobody wanders by and steals any of this,” she mused.
As they ran back inside, Opal wished they hadn’t removed the oak doors separating the chamber from the waxworks for the mummy exhibit. If they could have closed those doors, perhaps they could have slowed down the fire. As it was, flames had begun to flicker through the main display room of the chamber, and the whole place was rapidly filling up with smoke. Already, the heat felt almost unbearable.
“Should we save fewer bigger items, or more small ones?” Topaz asked. Her eyes darted meaningfully toward the ice man. The fire must have done something to the refrigeration system, because already a long puddle of water stretched out from under the freezer door.
“There’s no way we can move that block of ice,” Opal said. “I’m sorry.” She tore a strip from her dress and wrapped it around her nose and mouth, to protect against the smoke.
Topaz nodded and imitated her sister’s makeshift scarf. “I’m sorry, too. Let’s rescue as many small items as we can, then we’ll try for the bigger stuff.”
The reddish pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan, hanging in its rustic frame on the wall, caught Opal’s eye. “What about that?” Just looking at it brought thoughts of Paul, and the battle he was fighting upstairs.
“That old thing’s a fake anyway,” Topaz said, a note of bitterness in her voice. “Let it burn.”
Working quickly, the twins gathered as many of the attractions as they could: the skull of the Marquis de Sade; the Tunguska fragment; the scales of the isda-asawa; the fossilized footprint of the Mokele-mbembe; Jack the Ripper’s knife, and several other small exhibits.
Rescuing that much took them two trips, and both girls were hacking and coughing when they returned outside the second time. Unfortunately, by then, several of their prizes had already been consumed by the flames, including the Siamese Mermaid and the noose that hanged Burke, the body snatcher.
As they stood at the edge of the park, trying to catch their breath, a sudden CRASH sounded from the righthand side of the building, and a dark, vaguely human shape raced out of the 1951 Fisher and into the gloom beneath the trees of Olde Kennington Park.
“Paul!” Opal gasped, hoping she could believe what she was seeing. She began to wave, and took a deep breath to call to him.
“Don’t!” Topaz warned, clamping a hand over Opal’s mouth. “Let him go…”
Topaz might have said more, but just at that moment, she was overcome with a fit of coughing.
Opal gazed at her sister, not understanding at first. Then she realized that Topaz was right. The last thing they needed just now was a werewolf in their midst.
Slowly, she nodded, and Topaz removed her hand. “I’m sorry…” her sister finally gasped. “But…”
“I understand,” Opal said, her tone making it clear no further explanation would be necessary.
“Okay. Let’s try for a bigger artifact,” Topaz suggested between coughs.
“Do you think we have time?” Opal asked, eyeing the smoke pouring out of the bulkhead door. Unfortunately, 1951 Fisher was isolated at the edge of the park. And while that made it easier for a werewolf to slip away from the calamity, having nearer neighbors might have ensured that someone would have called the fire brigade by now.
Opal heard no fire bells, or sirens, or other sounds of impending rescue.
Topaz nodded wearily. “We can save one. Maybe two,” she said. And she dashed back inside.
“What should we try for?” Opal called as she followed.
“Baron Latos’ iron maiden, maybe,” Topaz replied. “Though I thought I saw Bathory’s Mirror near the old exhibit, as well.”
Opal frowned. “What’s that doing downstairs?”
“I think Victoria may have brought it down to use in some ritual,” Topaz said, and then blurted: “Whoops!”
She skidded on the puddle from the freezer, which had now spread all the way across the floor in front of the bulkhead landing.
Opal caught her twin before she could tumble onto her rump.
“Thanks!” Topaz said.
“Don’t mention it. Are you telling me Victoria used the Bathory artifacts to become a vampire?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I guess so.” Topaz was practically yelling, now, so that Opal could hear her above the roar of the fire.
“Let’s save the mirror, if we can,” Opal shouted back. “Nobody knows who Baron Latos is, anyway.”
“Okay. Besides, I doubt Victoria will be using mirrors in her present state,” Topaz noted.
If the situation hadn’t been so grave, Opal would have laughed.
The Bathory exhibit lay closer to the wax museum than the iron maiden, but the path to it seemed clear, so the twins hurried to rescue it. The bath and mirror of the Bloody Countess stood in their usual places, though there seemed to be some kind of reddish stains on the rim of the tub. Strangely, a burning strand of rope dangled over the display.
“OhmyGod!” Topaz said, backing away from the bath. “Don’t look in the tub!”
“Why not? What’s wrong?” Opal asked.
“With everything else… I… I’d forgotten about Lily. Her body is in the tub.”
Opal swallowed hard and kept away from it. As she approached the standing mirror, though, a wicked laugh, audible even above the crackle of the blaze, permeated the chamber.
Despite the heat, Opal’s blood ran cold.
She seized Topaz by the arm. “Screw the mirror,” she said, and dragged her sister back toward the iron maiden.
“What? Why?” Topaz asked. Pieces of the ceiling were falling around them now, and they were both coughing between breaths.
“I saw someone in the mirror!” Opal explained. “Some woman. She was laughing.”
“I-I thought I imagined hearing that,” Topaz confessed.
“I think it must have been her—the countess. Bathory.”
Topaz shuddered. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Screw the mirror.” She put her arms around the iron maiden. “Ow! Watch it! It’s hot.”
Opal wrapped her arms around the big, human-shaped sarcophagus as well. “Are you sure we should do this?” she asked, coughing. “Maybe we should just… leave.”
Topaz kept coughing as she gazed into her twin’s eyes. “Maybe you’re right,” Topaz agreed.
A huge, flaming beam fell between the sisters and the bulkhead stairs. One end of it struck the floor first, and the other careened into the ice-man exhibit, shattering the viewing glass and the ice remaining behind it into a million pieces.
A deluge poured out of the broken display, but the surge of water didn’t put out the fire on the timber, which now blocked the twin’s best escape route.
Dammit! I hate being right! Opal thought frantically.
“We’re trapped!” Topaz cried.
“Look out,” Opal shouted, and pushed her sister out of the way, just as another burning beam fell.
Opal tried to dodge the falling timber, too, but it smashed into her forehead, and all the world went black.
TO BE CONTINUED…!
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