This story was originally posted on Bill Willingham’s since-defunct Patreon Christmas project in 2016. We hope you’ll enjoy it as a prelude to 2018’s new Cushing Christmas story, “Krampus vs. the Werewolf!”
“A SHADOW OVER CHRISTMASTIME”
A Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors™ prelude
by Stephen D. Sullivan
In the time between the two Great Wars…
Topaz Cushing – Primrose Hill Park, London
The Evening of the New Moon
“C’mon, Topaz! Run! It’s nearly sunset, and we don’t want to miss it!”
Topaz Artemis Cushing frowned as her impulsive sister, Opal, darted off in yet another unexpected direction. So much for their plans to return home to a nice warm fire! How could two people be both so similar and yet so totally different?
“Miss what?” Topaz asked, though already her twin was dashing up toward the top of the snowy crest of Primrose Hill.
Knowing that Opal wasn’t about to stop her headlong rush in order to reply, Topaz hurried along after.
Topaz’s well-worn boots crunched through the top layer of snow and down into the inch or two of soft powder beneath. Her breath came out in frosty puffs, and the evening air smelled crisp and clean (a benefit of nearly all of London shutting down for the holidays).
“If you think you’re going to catch the New Year’s fireworks…” Topaz called, “…you’ve got the wrong night!”
Naturally, her sister paid no mind and kept running; Opal had nearly reached the top of the hill now.
A slight warning tingle buzzed in the back of Topaz’s head:
What’s she up to…?
Their excursion via bus and Underground to do a bit of festive post-Christmas shopping in Camden Town had taken the seventeen-year-olds far afield from their residence at 1951 Fisher St., but the trip was an adventure Topaz relished.
After all, why not get out of the stuffy old manse and enjoy the holidays? Their father, Dr. Cushing, was away (as usual), and business had been too slow to be worth keeping the family’s Chamber of Horrors open today.
Of course, given their lack of funds, the pair had done more window shopping than actual shopping, so it seemed only natural to extend their sojourn with a few more low-cost attractions before heading back across the city to home. Opal had suggested taking in the London Zoo’s holiday display—which they’d done—and, though they’d planned to retreat to home and hearth afterward, now she was leading her twin pell-mell up the snowy slopes of Primrose Hill.
Clearly their little sightseeing trip had transformed into something more, and that tingling in Topaz’ skull suggested that this little detour was secretly what her sister had planned all along.
“So…” Topaz said as she finally caught up with Opal at the hilltop, “why are we really here?”
“What do you mean?” Opal replied coyly. She panted from her “impromptu” run, and her breath hung above her like a tiny angelic cloud. Her innocent demeanor wasn’t fooling Topaz, though; her sister had always been the more mischievous one.
“Just look at this view!” Opal said. She spun in a circle, her arms thrown wide, as if showing off the vista. “The red and purple of the sunset… the lights of the central city twinkling below like stars on a winter’s night… the fresh snow frosting the ground and bare trees… the crescent of the new moon hanging like a silver Christmas ornament just above the western horizon… Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Beautiful, yes,” Topaz replied, “but it’s also bollocks. What were we going to ‘miss?’ Not this lovely sunset, I’ll wager. What’s your real motive in dragging me up here tonight?”
Opal chuckled and shook her wavy dark-brown hair, a lovely mane which looked completely black in the twilight. “Sometimes, it’s no fun, you being able to read me so easily.”
“Twin hazard,” Topaz noted, “and it goes both ways. So… Stand and deliver!”
Opal twisted the toe of her boot (just as careworn as her sister’s) into the snow. “All right… There might have been some good portents for us coming here at this particular time tonight…”
“What kind of portents?” Topaz asked. “You haven’t been turning the tarot for your own future again, have you?”
Topaz sighed. “You know that casting fortunes for yourself is tricky and usually inaccurate! Did you use the full spread, or just go for a quick five-card read?” She already suspected the answer; Opal was usually too impatient to lay out a detailed forecast.
“Um… Neither,” her sister replied. “I just wanted to see what my… I mean our prospects might be for the rest of the holidays…”
“And by ‘prospects’ you mean romantic prospects, I suppose.”
“…So, I just turned a few cards…”
“And The Lovers came up. So, the cards said that tonight was the best chance for romance this week,” Topaz concluded. “According to you.”
“The best night for this whole next, month, as a matter of fact,” Opal explained. “So I really didn’t want to miss it.”
Topaz propped her hands on her hips. Honestly, the way Opal acted sometimes, you’d think that Topaz were years older. Though, in fact, Opal was her senior (by a mere thirteen minutes).
“Sister dear,” Topaz said, “for someone who has a true talent for reading the tarot, I often think you’re wasting your gift. You and I both know that turning a single card for each day or event is a totally rubbish way to forecast!”
Opal’s blue-green eyes, mirrors of Topaz’s own, flashed angrily. “Well, at least I’m trying to do something about our love lives besides waiting for ‘Mr. Right’ to wander into our Chamber of Horrors!”
The words hit home; Topaz’s heart sank, and she bit her lip. Don’t be such a bully! she scolded herself. She’s only trying to help!
“I’m sorry,” she said, putting her arm around her sister’s shoulder. “This afternoon has been a lovely adventure—even if you lured me out here on false pretenses.”
Opal reached up and fondly twisted a lock of Topaz’s golden tresses. (Hair color was one of the things the fraternal twins didn’t share.) “You do need to get out more, sister dear.”
“And you need to be more patient. So… How did you decide that Primrose Hill was the place we needed to come this evening?”
“I did a bit of astrology.”
Topaz almost bit her tongue. “Sis! You know that astrology stuff’s all codswallop!”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be codswallop if we worked on it more—like we practice with the cards.”
“All right, maybe. But I still think we should stick to what we know—what we’re good at.” She gazed around, her eyes taking in the tree-dappled snowy hillside, the cityscape in the distance, and the new moon just kissing the rapidly darkening horizon. “Because from the looks of things, Mr. Right isn’t showing up. In fact, I haven’t seen anyone since we passed that small troop of die-hard sledgers on our mad dash to this frosty summit.”
Opal squeezed Topaz’s upper arm—hard.
“What?” Topaz blurted, startled.
“Look!” Opal whispered.
“Surely not your Prince Charming…” Topaz moaned, following her sister’s gaze. As expected, she saw no dashing young man ambling up the hill…
Instead, a furtive black shape darted between the shadowy skeletons of the nearby trees. A gleam of hungry, blood-red eyes flashed in the descending darkness.
A chill shot down Topaz’s spine, and her breath caught in her throat. Opal tensed beside her.
“Stray dog, do you think?” Topaz whispered.
Opal shook her head. “Too big,” her sister replied. “More like a… wolf.”
“Can’t be. There aren’t any wolves in London.”
“We are near the zoo… Maybe they had a mishap…” Opal suggested. “Maybe one escaped.”
Topaz swallowed hard. “Were there wolves in our future when you turned the tarot?”
Opal nodded. “The one on The Moon; it came up twice… But I thought it was metaphoric!”
“Well… What did the cards say we should do?”
“Run!” Opal replied. She grabbed Topaz’s hand and began dashing down the hill, and this time, Topaz didn’t resist her sister’s headlong flight.
The snow skidded and slipped beneath the twins’ well-worn boots, threatening to betray them with every step.
Opal kept her eyes focused straight ahead, toward Primrose Hill Bridge and Regent’s Park at the bottom of the hill, but Topaz couldn’t resist stealing a glance behind them.
What she saw made her blood run cold: a huge lupine body as black as death, blazing red eyes, and steaming jaws, gaping wide.
“It’s gaining on us!” she cried.
“Run faster!” Opal urged.
But they were both already going as fast as they could on the slippery surface; any more would surely send them tumbling to the ground, leaving them at the mercy of the pursuing beast.
“Look out!” someone—not Opal—cried.
And then both sisters fell, arse over teakettle, and crashed down hard in the snow.
Icy crystals stung Topaz’s eyes, and snow smeared her face and clogged her mouth and nose. Every part of her body ached from the impact, but she spat the snow out and shook her head to clear her vision.
Propping herself on her elbows and knees, she saw Opal lying beside her, groggy, also trying to rise.
But where was the animal?!
Topaz looked around, and her bleary eyes picked out a large dark shape to her left… and another to her right!
Were there really two wolves?!
She whispered a curse and clenched a fistful of snow in each mittened hand. Maybe she could scare off these animals, whatever they were, with a few well-thrown snowballs. If the hungry beasts wanted a real fight, though, she and Opal were doomed.
“C’mon, you bloody bastards!” Topaz hissed, struggling to regain her feet.
“Are you all right?” said a voice—not her sister’s.
“We are so sorry, Miss… Misses, I mean,” said another deep, unfamiliar voice.
Then Topaz felt strong hands taking hold of her shoulders and helping her up.
As her head cleared, she saw someone else assisting Opal.
Topaz blinked, chasing away the last of the snowy cobwebs, and found herself staring into the face of a handsome young man. He was tall and well dressed, with refined features and dark eyes and hair—though the moonlight made it impossible to tell the exact color.
“You ran right in front of us,” the tall man explained.
“Didn’t see either of you until you were practically under our sledge,” said his companion. He was good looking, too, though shorter and more muscular than his friend. Both young men seemed about the same age as the twins.
Topaz noticed now that a toboggan, tipped onto its side and half embedded in a snow bank, lay nearby.
But what had happened to…?
“The wolf…!” Opal gasped, mirroring her twin’s thought.
“We’re no wolves, Miss,” the shorter man replied sheepishly. “It was just an accident, is all.”
“You ran right in front of us. Are you all right?” the taller man repeated.
“Didn’t hit your heads or anything, did you?” asked the second.
“Yes, we’re all right,” Opal said, dusting the snow off her clothes as Topaz did the same. “No lasting harm done.”
“We didn’t mean to crash into you,” Topaz explained, “but we were being chased by a wolf.”
The two young men gave each other a glance that indicated that they thought maybe she had hit her head.
“No, honestly!” Topaz insisted, a bit peeved. She’d seen the animal just as clearly as she saw the boys right now.
“Or something that looked like a wolf, anyway,” Opal added; her tone implored her sister not to make the pair of them look insane in front of these handsome young men.
“Maybe a stray dog, then,” the shorter man offered.
The taller man scanned their surroundings. “No sign of it now,” he said. “Must have scared it off. I’m Frank, by the way—Francis Browning. And my companion in this sledging near disaster is Master Barry Ripper.”
“Charmed,” Barry said. “Though just ‘Barry’ will do.” He and Frank bowed slightly.
Both twins dipped into a clumsy curtsey.
“I’m Opal and this is Topaz.”
“Opal and Topaz Cushing,” Topaz elaborated.
“Cousins?” asked Frank.
“Sisters,” replied Opal.
“Twins,” added Topaz.
“Ah,” said Frank. He and Barry exchanged another skeptical glance.
“Fraternal,” Topaz explained. She noticed now that the fine clothing of both young men—much newer than the careworn togs that she and Opal wore—was still covered with snow from their sledding collision.
Nice that they’ve thought more about us than fixing themselves up, she thought.
“Now,” Frank said, brushing himself off as Barry did the same, “let’s see about that worrisome hound of yours…”
“We wouldn’t want him nipping around again,” Barry noted.
Together the four of them tramped around the hill for the better part of ten minutes, but found no sign of the beast.
“Not even a paw print…” Frank mused, rubbing his chin.
“Perhaps you were mistaken?” Barry suggested.
Both twins shook their heads.
“We definitely saw it,” Opal said.
“Both of us.”
“Some trick of the moonlight, then,” Frank offered.
“Or…” Barry said, his voice dropping low, “…maybe it was the Black Shuck.”
“Black what?” asked Frank.
“Black Shuck is a ghost dog said to stalk people in East Anglia on lonely nights,” Topaz explained.
“So, if it was him,” Opal continued, “he’s a bit out of place in North London.”
Barry’s mouth dropped open. “Strike me dead! They’re right. My people are from East Anglia, originally, and my gran used to frighten us with tales of the Shuck when we were kids. But how did you girls know?”
“Not mind readers, are you?” asked Frank.
Topaz and Opal exchanged a look that said neither of them felt any need to divulge whatever paranormal powers they might—or might not—possess to these boys; not until they knew them better, at any rate.
“Our father owns an attraction about the strange and unusual,” Opal explained. “Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors.”
“It’s our business to know about supernatural things,” Topaz elaborated.
“Really?” Frank asked, arching one eyebrow.
“Sure,” Topaz said brightly. “For instance… Similar to northern England’s barghest, the Black Shuck is often an omen of impending doom…”
“So, naturally, right after we saw it, we ran into the two of you. Literally,” Opal concluded with a laugh.
Topaz and the boys laughed as well.
“Perhaps we could visit your exhibit sometime,” Barry suggested.
“Any time!” Opal enthused.
“But first…” said Frank. “Let’s get you back to ‘civilization’ and get you something warm to drink. That was quite a tumble you took.”
“It was,” Topaz agreed, still aching; she noticed that her twin was rubbing a bruised arm as well.
“We could even give you lift to the bottom of the hill on our toboggan,” Barry offered. “Happily, our conveyance appears undamaged.” He shook the snow off and set the toboggan to rights.
“That sounds like fun,” said Opal, and she let Frank seat her on the sledge, aft of him.
Barry took the next seat and then helped Topaz settle in behind him.
“Now, hold on tight, you two!” Frank said as Opal wrapped her arms around his waist.
Topaz did the same with Barry. But as they pushed off down the hill, she couldn’t help but glance back the way they’d come.
Opal’s cards had been right about the twins meeting someone—two someones, as it turned out—and apparently about the wolf omen, too.
But was the twins’ sighting merely a trick of the moonlight, as Frank had suggested? Or was it something truly supernatural? Was the Black Shuck encounter foreshadowing things to come?
The toboggan hit a small mogul, jarring Topaz from her reverie.
She hugged Barry more tightly; his body felt warm and strong in her arms.
Plenty of time to fret about tarot decks and omens later!