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CHAPTER 1 – Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors
Topaz Cushing – 1951 Fisher St., London
The Day of the New Moon
Six weeks had passed since Dr. Leigh Cushing went on his Arctic expedition, leaving his teenage daughters in charge of his Chamber of Horrors.
Topaz Artemis Cushing and her twin weren’t worried about his tardiness; their father wasn’t known for his punctuality. Often he would lose all track of time when engaged in a project, whether setting up a fresh exhibit or searching the world for a new attraction.
And they’d had a letter from him, from Norway, two weeks back—or was it three now?—hot on the trail of his so-called “Ice Man.” He’d been filling the girls’ heads with tales of this mythical creature for years: It had been seen frozen in the ice by a lone half-starved hiker, who could not lead his rescuers back to it. Then it was spotted at the edge of a glacier in Finland, and later drifting on an iceberg in the Arctic Sea… For someone who was supposedly frozen in a block of ice, the Ice Man sure did seem to get around!
So there were a lot of places left for Dr. Cushing to explore and many leads to follow up, which was why the sisters weren’t concerned about their father—or at least Topaz wasn’t.
She had a feeling that Father was all right. Not the kind of feeling that most people get, but a deep-down assuredness that had never failed her in the past.
The twins didn’t like to use the word “psychic,” but there was no denying that each of them seemed connected to the world in a way that eluded most people. Not only were they bonded to each other—frequently feeling one another’s emotions, and even sharing dreams—but they often received other insights as well.
Sometimes, their dreams came true. Usually in small ways—a messenger arriving at the door, a friend falling ill, or a portent of a sudden turn of luck—but the confirmation of what they dreamt happened frequently enough that the girls had learned not to ignore such premonitions.
In fact, the twins had spent a great deal of time honing this eerie sixth sense.
The result was that Topaz proved particularly keen at intuiting the feelings of people and animals—almost to the level of reading their minds—and her sister had an uncanny ability to tell the future with cards.
Which was exactly what Opal was doing now: sitting on the hardwood floor of their chambers on the top story of the Duprix manse and turning the tarot.
With her left hand, Opal deftly laid down one card… two… three… four… and five.
Topaz frowned. “You know, five-card readings aren’t very accurate.”
Opal pursed her lips, her blue-green eyes flashing up at her sister. “I don’t have time for a longer reading.”
Eye color was one of the things the twins shared. They were fraternal, and—to Topaz’s mind—as un-like each other in as many ways as they were similar: she blonde, Opal brunette, she thoughtful and shy, Opal impulsive and forthright. Both had attractive figures, but Topaz’s form was more sleek and slender, Opal’s more muscular and busty. Their body types seemed to reflect their personalities. Topaz liked to think and plan; her sister was always ready for action.
Which was probably why Opal had jumped right into a short, less-reliable card reading rather than opting for a longer and more detailed one.
“What question are you asking the cards?” Topaz inquired, though she had a feeling she already knew the answer. That was part of the trouble with being a twin: you knew, but you had to ask anyway.
“I’m not casting for myself. I’m doing it for Father.”
Ah. As expected.
“You know you’re only supposed to cast tarot for yourself or a legitimate querent,” Topaz reminded her sister, “not for other people—not even Father.”
“Just because you’re no good at casting for other people…” Opal replied. “Besides, who made you arbiter of the rules? I’m the older sister.”
Topaz sighed. “By thirteen minutes.”
Opal shrugged. “Still older. And that means I’m in charge, unless Father says otherwise—which he didn’t.”
Topaz sat down beside her twin. She knew it was pointless to argue. Both girls had spent so much time fending for themselves that self-reliance seemed almost like an inherited trait, rather than a learned behavior.
The sign in front of the building read “Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors,” but it more accurately could have read “Daughters Cushing & Father’s Chamber of Horrors” since the twins ran the exhibition most of the time, while their sole parent was traveling, seeking the latest attractions for his macabre museum.
The chamber was a walk-down storefront in the basement of an aging Victorian manse on the outskirts of London, at 1951 Fisher St., next to the wooded end of Olde Kennington Park. It shared the building with the Duprix Waxworks, run by Vincent and Victoria Duprix, the landlords who lived in the grand quarters on the second floor. The Cushings rented the basement for their attraction, and the third floor—with its eccentric nooks and crannies and gabled ceilings—for their residence.
The waxworks occupied most of the mansion’s first floor, though the building was strangely shaped, so that the waxworks and the Chamber of Horrors abutted each other in the middle, with only a short flight of stairs, a pair of frosted glass doors, and, (when those doors were open for ventilation), a red velvet rope separating the two attractions. Most of the time, customers did not pass from one exhibit to the other, though, with a little work on the part of the Cushings and Duprixes, that would have been possible.
But, Victoria—Madame Duprix—spent most of her time running the waxworks or taking tea with her friends, while Vincent labored endlessly in his second floor studio loft, which vaulted up into the space that otherwise would have been occupied by the third story. (He was a sculptor—and quite a good one.) The house also contained servant’s quarters with a separate entrance in the back of the building, near the seldom-used kitchens.
Perhaps the Duprixes had once employed domestics, but Topaz and Opal had never seen any staff since they and their father had moved in. And if there had been any servants there recently, the twins would have noticed some indication. The girls—often alone for the last ten years—had plenty of time to look around and discover all of the old house’s secrets.
But the secrets of other human beings and the world outside…! Those remained largely a mystery to both girls. Though lately, there had been a boy or two…
“All right,” Topaz said to her sister, “if you’re so good at absent readings… What do the cards say?”
Opal flipped up the first card on the right. “The distant past… I’d rather skip this and just look for the future…” she said.
“But that’s not the way it works,” Topaz agreed. “Assuming you can get it to work at all.”
Opal stuck out her tongue at her twin.
The picture on the pasteboard showed a woman in an elaborate robe wearing a crown topped by an orb.
“The High Priestess,” Topaz noted.
“Our father’s past, surrounded by mysteries and hidden influences,” Opal read.
“Which only makes sense, since he’s been collecting occult artifacts all of our lives.”
“And before we were born as well,” Opal noted. She flipped the second card; it showed a trio of swords piercing a stylized heart. “Three of Swords, inverted.”
“Father’s more recent past,” Topaz said. “The loss of something dear to you—I mean, to Father. I’m guessing that would be Mother.”
Opal grinned at her sister. “Who said you weren’t any good at this?”
Topaz tried, unsuccessfully, to fight down a blush. Her sister was so good at nettling her! But then, Opal undoubtedly felt the same way about Topaz.
Opal turned the next card—the one in the center of the reading. “The present…”
Topaz nodded. “The key card.”
The illustration showed the face of a bright moon beaming down upon two animals, a dog on the left and a wolf upon the right. The beasts were flanked by two solid-looking watch towers.
“The Moon,” Opal intoned, “a time of loved ones in peril and tricky choices. Choose your companions well, or they may betray you.”
“Father, you mean,” Topaz said, fighting down a nervous flutter. She felt certain that Father was all right, that nothing bad had happened—or was about to happen to him—and yet… “Do you think that he chose the right people to go on the expedition with him?”
“Father is always careful about such things,” Opal replied, but Topaz sensed the worry in her. “Let’s see about the future…” She flipped the next card.
It showed eight wooden staffs laid diagonally across a rural landscape.
Opal smiled. “Soon: The Eight of Wands. A journey leads to your—I mean Father’s—desired goal.”
Topaz couldn’t help but grin as well. “He’ll find the Ice Man, then? Oh, good! He’s wanted to for so long!” She felt better now. Whatever present troubles Opal had foreseen, clearly they would soon pass.
“And one thing more…” Opal said, obviously feeling better now, too. “What comes after that…”
She turned the final card, the one all the way on the left.
Topaz gasped. “The Tower! Disaster!”
Opal put her hand on her sister’s arm and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “But it’s inverted, a warning that we need—I mean Father needs—courage and to be watchful for danger.”
Opal was right; the card did not mean the querent’s fate was hopeless, just that she—or he—needed to be on guard against dire circumstances. They would have to be wary, for both their father and themselves.
“But what danger could there be?” Topaz asked. “We haven’t had so much as a bad dream since that night six weeks ago. And I’m sure that I would feel it if Father were in trouble.”
“It’s the future, remember?” Opal said. “And probably a long way off. Whatever’s coming, we still have plenty of time to avoid it.”
Topaz took a deep breath. “I hope so.”
“It must be a long way off,” Opal said. “If you don’t feel it, and I don’t feel it…”
Just then, a bell rang—long and hard—throughout their chambers.
“Someone at the front door,” Opal announced, quickly rising and straightening her skirt.
“It could be Father,” Topaz said, rising as well. “Or something from Father.”
Quick as a flash, the twins bolted out of their bedroom and down the two flights of stairs leading to the house’s main door.
They pulled both sides of the huge portal open.
On the top step of the front stairs stood a gruff-looking, burly man wearing a poor-boy cap and chewing on the stub of a cigar. In one thick hand, he clutched a well-worn clipboard, and a pencil was tucked behind his right ear. Behind him, several other burly men were unloading some large crates from a truck and setting them onto the curb.
“This the Cushing residence?” the burly man asked.
Both girls nodded.
“I got some boxes for Mr. Cushing,” he said.
“Doctor Cushing,” Topaz corrected.
The man looked at a sheet of paper on his clipboard.
“Yeah… Doctor,” he said. “I got that. Anyway, I need him to sign for these. Come all the way from Egypt, it looks like.”
“He’s away right now—” Topaz began.
“—But we’re his daughters,” Opal finished. “We can sign for them.”
The man looked from one girl to the other. By silent agreement, both twins flashed their winningest smiles.
The burly man rubbed his head. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Address is right, anyway: 1951-B Fisher St.”
“That’s here,” Opal said enthusiastically.
“The ‘B’ is for the basement—where our business is,” Topaz added. Her heart was pounding with excitement, now, and she could tell Opal’s was, too. The mummies were finally here!
The man looked up, seeming to notice the business sign for the first time.
“Chamber of Horrors…” he said, and then frowned. “Doesn’t seem right for a couple of pretty girls like you.” He grinned, showing several missing teeth.
“It’s our father’s business,” Opal replied, returning his smile with a far better one.
“And he’ll be back very soon,” Topaz put in.
Opal batted her eyes at the man. “Won’t you please help us get the boxes inside, before he returns.”
“Yeah. Alright,” the burly man replied. He summoned his companions, and the three of them began moving the crates inside and down the stairs, into the lobby of Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors.
It took the men the better part of an hour to wrestle the five large crates inside, and when they were done, Opal tipped them each a shilling and sent them on their way.
“Three shillings?!” Topaz moaned after the delivery men had left.
“Stop worrying,” her sister told her, shutting the door to the Chamber of Horrors behind them. “Six admissions, and we’ll have made it up.”
“But we won’t be able to open at all today, with these huge boxes sitting here—and maybe not for a couple of days after that!”
“Unpacking won’t take that long. I’m sure we’ll be able to find some young, strong bodies to help out, like those two that seem to be chasing after you… What are their names? Francis and… Bernie? What those two young swells see in a shy girl like you, I’ll never know.”
“It’s Barry,” Topaz replied, a bit miffed. Her sister was teasing her now! She knew the boys’ names just as well as Topaz did—even if they hadn’t seen the pair in a while. “And you know that Frank is more interested in you than in me, anyway.”
Opal grinned. “That’d be nice… if it were true.”
“It is true, and you know it,” Topaz said. “Frank hasn’t paid me any attention for nearly a month now.” She took a deep breath. “But you still shouldn’t have tipped so much. A sixpence each would have been more than enough.”
Opal shrugged. “It’s only money. And besides we don’t want to appear stingy like old lady Duprix, do we?”
Topaz laughed. “I guess not. Sometimes I think she was born middle-aged. How old do you think she is, anyway?”
“Ancient,” Opal replied. “At least thirty-five. Older than her husband, at any rate—judging by the way he looks at you.”
“Looks at us you mean. And what about it? He is a sculptor, after all—as you’ve reminded me every time he gawks at you,” Topaz said. She primped her blond hair. “As you’ve said, it’s his job to look at beautiful young ladies.” She giggled, despite herself.
“I’m not sure his wife feels the same way about his wandering eye,” Opal replied.
“Then maybe she should spend more time in the studio with him, rather than frumping around their waxworks,” Topaz said. “You know, I think they could make twice as much money if they’d just hire someone more… engaging to tend the admissions.”
“Someone more attractive, you mean,” Opal said thoughtfully. “Though I’m sure she was quite the dish in her day.”
“Oh!” Topaz gasped, anticipating the knock on the business’ door a moment before it happened.
Opal shook her head and chuckled. “I may be better with cards,” she said, “but you always know when something’s coming.”
“Not always,” Topaz replied. “I don’t know who’s on the other side of the door, for instance.”
“Well, open it and find out!”
On the other side of the threshold stood a middle-aged woman in a posh burgundy dress. Her stern hazel eyes looked from one twin to the other.
“Madame Duprix!” Topaz blurted. She almost added “We were just talking about you,” but then thought better of it. So, instead, she said, “How nice to see you,” and gave a slight curtsy.
Victoria Duprix swept into the room with the authority of someone who owned it, which, in point of fact, she did.
“My dear young ladies,” she said in her proper English tones, “I have something vitally important to say to you…
“The time has come… to pay your rent!”
TO BE CONTINUED…!
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