IN THIS EPISODE: …The twins, Opal & Topaz, have a run in with their landlady, Victoria Duprix…
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CHAPTER 2 – Victoria Duprix
Victoria Duprix – Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors
That Same Day
Both girls gaped at Victoria, as if they were codfish or as though the word “rent” were entirely foreign to them.
“But our father…” the brunette one, Victoria thought she was called Opal, began.
“—Is away,” Victoria said, cutting the teenager off, “as I well know. Gone some six weeks now, though I had been under the impression that he would be back within a month.”
“That happens sometimes, when an expedition gets busy,” the blonde—Topaz? Yes. That was it—said.
“He’s in Norway,” the brunette added, as if that made any difference.
“Yes, Norway, or some other far-off place, I’m sure,” Victoria continued. “Always gallivanting around the globe, your father. Always some excuse. Because do you know what he forgot to do before leaving?”
Victoria waited a moment, though she didn’t really expect the twins to answer. Impertinent little vagabonds they were!
Before either girl could reply, she answered her own question: “Your father neglected to pay the rent. That means you’re nearly two months in arrears, now! Two more months of my husband and I carrying your shabby little enterprise on our backs.”
“It’s not shabby!” Opal barked.
“The museum is Father’s life’s work!” Topaz added.
“‘Museum…’ Ha! You call this collection of dusty junk a museum? I’ve never understood why my husband allowed you people to rent the basement of our home in the first place!”
“Because you’ve been squandering your husband’s wealth and needed the mon—” Opal began, but Topaz clapped her hand over her sister’s mouth.
Victoria glared at the two of them. Impertinent little snips! How dare they…?!
“We don’t have much cash,” Topaz, the blonde, admitted quickly, “because visits have been down, and our new exhibit hasn’t opened yet.”
Victoria arched one carefully plucked eyebrow. “New exhibit?”
“Yes,” Opal continued. “A display of Egyptian artifacts—”
“You mean to tell me that your father has been squandering his money on more junk instead of paying the rent?”
“—including several mummies,” Opal finished.
“I’m sure that once we’ve got the display set up, it will bring in more customers,” Topaz added. “Then we’ll be able to pay the rent.”
“Including the back rent we owe you,” Opal concluded.
“With the income from some mummies?” Victoria scoffed. Clearly, both these girls were half-wits. Either that or they’d completely bought into their father’s belief in all this supernatural nonsense. “My dears, mummies were old hat when I was a girl!”
“That long ago?” Opal, the brunette, shot back.
Victoria tried not to let it show, but the barb stung.
Lately, she’d been fighting regular skirmishes against Father Time. Grey hairs seemed to crop up daily, and parts of Victoria had begun to sag that had no right to. And were those crow’s-feet furrowing at the edges of her hazel eyes? Why, she was barely even forty! And here these pert, young nothings thought they could jest about her age!
Despite her best efforts at self-control, Victoria’s eyes narrowed, and she felt sure that—if these little moppets were paying attention—they would have spotted the angry fire burning in the center of her skull.
The blonde must have sensed Victoria’s displeasure, because she shot her twin a withering look.
“We’re sorry we haven’t kept up with the rent,” Topaz said.
“We’re trying so hard!” her sister put in.
“Maybe if you understood our business better, Madame Duprix, you could give us some tips,” Topaz suggested. “After all, you run a successful waxworks, and have a lot more experience in business and such.”
“Topaz is right,” Opal agreed. “With your help, I’m sure our new exhibit would be much more successful—and we could get up to date on the rent in no time!”
Victoria knew that the twins were trying to change the subject, to distract her from her rent-collecting mission…
Yet, the flattery felt good. And what harm could it do to have these scruffy moppets dote on her—if only for a little while—before she lowered the boom on them?
“Very well,” Victoria said. “How should we begin?”
“We could show you around the chamber,” Topaz suggested.
“We’ve never given you the full tour before,” Opal added.
Victoria crinkled her nose; the very idea of plodding about their sordid attraction was distasteful, but…
“Yes. Please, show me around your so-called business,” she told the pair.
Both girls bowed slightly and parted so that Victoria could precede them into the exhibit.
Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors was a dark and dismal place (thought what did she expect?) with occasional glimmering pinpricks of light. In those spotlights, Victoria could make out a collection of strange objects, some familiar—a skull, a shaggy rug framed and hanging on a wall, some weapons—while others remained elusive and unrecognizable.
“Before we begin,” Topaz said, pausing on the top step of the exhibit’s entryway, “it is important to note that all the items that you are about to see are genuine paranormal artifacts, collected at great expense by Dr. Leigh Cushing himself, during his world-spanning expeditions.”
Victoria huffed at “great expense.” Great expense at slacking on the rent! she thought. But clearly this was part of the girls’ patter—just as she had a script to greet people entering the waxworks. For now, at least, she would indulge them.
“Some of the supernatural items in Dr. Cushing’s collection are, in fact, dangerous,” Topaz continued. “So please be sure to observe the ‘Do Not Touch’ signs and other warnings. They are there for your safety, as well as the safety of the group.”
“We’ll start with the End of the World,” Opal announced, picking up the tour from her sister. She indicated a fist-sized black stone, spotlighted atop a pedestal. “This is the fabled Meteor of Tunguska, the explosion of which flattened nearly a thousand square miles of Russian forest on the morning of June 30th, 1908.”
“That tiny rock?” Victoria said skeptically.
“Of course, this is only a fragment of the original,” Opal explained. “Most of it was vaporized in the explosion. If it had exploded over London, rather than in the wastes of Siberia, the city would have been destroyed—killing millions.”
Victoria stifled a yawn, though she could see that the girl was impressed by her own story.
The sisters looked at each other nervously.
“Over here, we have the Siamese Mermaid,” Topaz said, pointing to a wizened, three-foot-long oddity inside a glass case. It appeared to be a shriveled monkey with two heads and the tail of a carp. Its skin, what there was of it, looked like leather.
“Like its more famous cousin, now traveling the United States, this creature was collected in the South Seas. Not in Fiji, though. This particular mermaid came from the islands of the Philippines—as did the next item in our tour: the scales of an actual Filipino Fish-Wife. These seductive creatures are rumored to be beautiful women by day, only to turn into fish-like monsters by night!”
Victoria looked at the scales, which rested in a yellowing glass jar near the so-called mermaid. The scales were the size of a shilling coin and greenish blue in color. Probably from a larger carp, Victoria thought, her patience already wearing thin.
No wonder these addle-pated waifs couldn’t pay the rent!
“Yes, yes, yes,” she said, “I’m sure that’s all very nice. But I’ve seen the likes of these things in every sideshow from here to Aberdeen. I hope you have better attractions for paying customers than this lot!”
The girls exchanged worried glances.
“The pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan,” Opal said, pointing to a huge, shaggy black wolf skin framed and hanging on the wall. “In eighteenth-century France, this monster attacked over two-hundred people—and killed more than one hundred! It’s said that no normal weapon could pierce its hide, and that only a bullet blessed by the Pope himself finally brought the beast down!”
“It looks more like a mangy bear rug than a wolf skin,” Victoria observed. “Another fabrication, like the ‘mermaid,’ I assume.”
Opal’s face reddened. “No! This is the genuine artifact! I assure you! Our father says so!”
“Don’t let the size of the pelt fool you into thinking it’s a bear,” Topaz put in. “Look at the long tail! Have you ever seen a wolf that size? It’s Herculean! Bigger than even the largest full-grown man!”
“And that’s why I know it to be a fake,” Victoria said, “stitched together from smaller skins, the way your ‘mermaid’ is stitched together from dead monkeys and desiccated fish. Really, girls, if you want the public to take notice, you’ll have to do better.”
In Victoria’s opinion, the girls would earn more selling their services on the streets than trying to peddle this rubbish to gawkers. Certainly, they were attractive enough to make good money as showgirls or escorts or models…
The thought of models brought Victoria back to the days of her youth. She’d been an artists’ model when she met Vincent. He’d been so handsome back then—and rich, too—and she’d been so beautiful…
Yes, eligible men were easy to catch before the days of greying hair and sagging breasts and wrinkles. Now she had to rely on her wits, or her perceived station, to get what she wanted.
Never let them know how old you are or how little money you’ve got, she reminded herself.
But the girls, clearly panicked, were just babbling now.
“We have so many other interesting attractions…” Topaz said.
“The footprint of a living dinosaur… the iron maiden of Baron von Latos… the knife of Jack the Ripper…” Opal offered.
“The guillotine that beheaded Marie Antoinette… The noose that hanged Burke, the body snatcher…!” added Topaz.
Victoria rolled her eyes. “What’s this then?” she said, pointing to what looked like a bathroom set in the middle of the exhibit space. “The bath where poor Marat was killed by Charlotte Corday? Alas, pauvre Marat!” She meandered toward the gilded bath tub and matching mirror, just more chintzy flummery pretending to be extraordinary.
“No!” Opal cried. “That’s one of our best pieces!”
“That mirror belonged to Elizabeth Bathory, the Bloody Countess!” Topaz explained.
“She believed that she could restore her fading youth by bathing in the blood of virgins!” Opal put in.
“Really?” Victoria asked drolly, arching an eyebrow. She glanced in the mirror.
And the most extraordinary thing happened!
For a moment, what she saw reflected in the mirror was not herself—not the drab surroundings of the Cushing displays—but utter blackness and an elegant dark-haired woman wearing an elaborate dress and flashing jewelry. The woman smiled at Victoria.
And then she was gone.
Victoria gasped and blinked her eyes.
“What is it?” Topaz asked.
“Are you all right?” Opal chimed.
“I’m fine,” Victoria said, though her heart was pounding. She blinked and looked in the mirror again.
But all she saw now was herself—her plain, middle-aged self—and the dingy surroundings of the Chamber of Horrors, and the twins, standing nearby, gawking.
“I nearly tripped on one of these dratted floorboards,” Victoria elaborated. She stubbed the toe of her shoe against the floor, to make her point. “That’s all. You should have them fixed!”
“Yes, ma’am,” the twins replied in unison.
That sent a chill down Victoria’s spine to join the fright she’d just had with the mirror. When the girls spoke at the same time, it was almost like they were one person—a single soul—though they were obviously two, very different looking young women.
Victoria wondered, for just a moment, whether they were virgins.
Then her common courtesy and hard-won breeding reasserted itself.
Seeming to sense their impending doom, Topaz put herself forward again. “And over here, you’ll find the genuine skull of the Marquis de Sade—possibly the most wicked man who ever lived!” She pointed to a bleached and grinning skull, under glass, on a pedestal.
“All men are wicked,” Victoria observed, “as both of you will no doubt discover, in due time. But I’m afraid this is not enough, girls. There is nothing here that makes me think that the two of you—or your wastrel father—will ever be able to keep this business afloat and repay what you owe me… and my husband.”
“B-but…” Topaz began, tears budding at the edges of her stunning blue-green eyes.
“We can trade you something for the rent,” Opal interjected.
“Yes,” Topaz agreed. “There must be something you want.”
Victoria looked both girls up and down. Aside from their youth—which they obviously couldn’t give her—she couldn’t imagine what they had to trade.
“We could give you the pelt of the beast,” Opal offered. “You said it looked like a bearskin. It would make a fine rug. Think how good it would look in front of the fireplace in your living room!”
“It would look shabby,” Victoria replied.
“What about a mummy?” Topaz said, going to the boxes that occupied most of the chamber’s main landing. “We have three. You could take one, and we’d exhibit the rest. I’m sure we can keep up with the rent once the mummy exhibit opens—even with just two mummies!”
Victoria frowned. “Tosh! What would I do with a mummy?”
Both girls looked crestfallen.
“Although…” Victoria’s eyes roamed around the exhibit until settling on the thing she wanted. “I could use a new mirror.”
“Bathory’s mirror?” Topaz asked.
“But that’s one of our best exhibits!” Opal objected.
“Take it, or leave it,” Victoria replied. “And if you leave it, I assure you that I will have the constable visiting forthwith to either collect the rent owed or turn you urchins—and your flea-bitten exhibit—out onto the street.”
Anger burned behind Opal’s blue-green eyes, and it looked as though she might say something nasty.
Then Topaz stepped in: “We’ll take it.”
“Good,” Victoria said—but, really, what other choice did the girls have. “Perhaps my husband can help you with the unpacking of your mummies later, if he ever deigns to poke his head out of his studio. Until then…”
And here she smiled sweetly at the twins.
“You two can help me take my new mirror up to my bed chamber.”
Victoria ran her hand over the gold filigree surrounding the dark pane of glass.
The woman in the mirror smiled back.
TO BE CONTINUED…!
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