IN THIS EPISODE: …The mummies arrive… Opal & Topaz juggle work, boyfriends, and Vincent…
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CHAPTER 4 – The Mummies Arrive
Opal Cushing – The Chamber of Horrors
The Day of the First Quarter Moon
Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors was a mess, no doubt about it. The five big crates that had arrived from Egypt must have been larger on the inside than on the outside, it seemed to Opal, because how else to explain the amount of floor space the unpacking took?
And they hadn’t even finished yet!
“We won’t be able to open the museum tomorrow!” Topaz moaned. “Or maybe even the day after… never mind today!”
Opal laughed. She was far more concerned that all this unpacking and sorting might leave her no time for fun tonight—although, she wasn’t having a terrible time, considering the company…
“Where should I put this?” Francis Browning asked her, his brown eyes flashing mischievously. In his long-fingered hands he held what looked to be a golden torch.
A smile tugged at the corner of Opal’s lips, but she resisted saying what popped into her mind. Perhaps her sister was right, and Frank was more interested in Opal herself.
“Oh!” interjected her sister, before Opal’s conversation with Frank could go any further. “The Torch of Sekhmet! Father wrote to us about this; do you remember, Opal?”
“Of course,” Opal replied, though actually, she didn’t. She took the artifact from Frank and examined it. It was a torch, all right, shaped in the form of a papyrus-reed bundle and made of—or at least covered in—gold. The metal felt oddly warm in her hands, and for just a moment, an image of raging fire flashed through Opal’s mind.
“It was used in sacred ceremonies in the temple,” Topaz explained to the well-dressed boy following her around like a puppy. (An occurrence not unusual for her sister, Opal noted. Topaz seemed to attract boys as easily as flowers attracted bees.)
Is it her demure attitude? Opal wondered. I could be more shy… Though, no, probably she really couldn’t; Opal wasn’t patient enough to be shy. When she wanted something, she went after it… usually. With Frank, she was playing a little harder-to-get, which was difficult but seemed to be paying off.
Or maybe it’s her hair, Opal thought, wondering if she should bleach her wavy dark-brown locks blonde.
“The legend is,” Topaz continued, “that once lit, nothing on earth can put this torch out—except, of course, for its cap, which acts as a snuffer.”
“A sacred snuffer,” Opal added jovially. She pulled the cone-shaped cap off of the torch, revealing a blackened wick—or whatever passed for a wick in ancient Egypt. It smelled vaguely of oil and sandalwood.
“Hey, that’s a better guarantee than my Ronson De-Light,” Frank joked. “‘A flip… and it’s lit!’”
“Do you think it could be true, about the torch I mean?” asked the teen who’d been following Topaz, his eyes wide with wonder.
His name was Barry Ripper. He was shorter than Frank and more solidly built, but Opal had to admit that he was rather cute with his mop of brown hair and his big blue eyes.
Not as cute as Frank, though.
“Let’s find out,” Frank suggested, producing a silver Ronson lighter from his pocket and flicking it into flame.
A long-fingered hand seemed to appear out of nowhere and snapped the lighter shut.
“I’ll have to ask you not to casually brandish open flames in the building housing my waxworks,” Vincent Duprix said with a (perhaps overly sincere) smile. “One little bit of fire and… POOF!” He made a gesture of everything going up in a cloud of smoke. “And if that happened, where would these delightful ladies live?”
As he asked the question, Vincent put an arm around the shoulders of both twins—though, since they were standing a bit apart, it proved something of a stretch to do so.
Topaz gave him a sincere smile. “I hope we never have to find out, Mr. Duprix,” she said.
Opal grinned at their landlord as well, but her expression was only a facade.
Though she felt grateful that Mr. Duprix had come to help with the unpacking, she wasn’t too thrilled with the amount of time he seemed to spend gazing at her and her sister, amid the chores.
The sculptor’s glances seemed less fond and paternal than she had remembered and more… predatory.
And to think, I used to find his gaze flattering! Opal thought. Have I just grown up, or has he changed—for the worse?
Whatever the case, her sister didn’t seem to have noticed, or at least, Topaz wasn’t letting it show.
Opal decided to take the same tack. I won’t let him see that I’m uncomfortable, even if he decides to stare down my cleavage. And perhaps there was even some way she might turn their landlord’s lechery to their advantage—playing him off against his wife, Victoria (who didn’t seem to much like them), for instance.
“Yes, we’re so happy to be here,” Opal said. She put the cap back on the torch and handed the artifact to her sister. “And we’re so very grateful that your wife decided to give us—and our father—a break on our rent.”
“She did?” both Barry and Frank blurted, and for a moment it was almost as though the girls’ beaus were twins as well.
Opal suppressed a giggle, and she could see that Topaz was doing the same.
Vincent Duprix arched one dark eyebrow. “How very unlike her.”
“Yes,” Topaz elaborated. “We traded her a mirror from our exhibit in lieu of back payments.”
“Oh, well that explains it,” Vincent said, waving his hand in a dismissive flourish. “Victoria always has been a vain creature.” Then he added in a stage whisper, “And, believe it or not, at one time, she had reason to be.”
“Your wife is a very attractive woman, Mr. Duprix,” Frank said politely.
“I see she has you on the payroll as well, Mr. Browning,” Vincent replied with a grin.
“N-no…” Frank stuttered, “I…”
“Don’t get all flustered, Mr. Browning. I meant nothing by it,” Vincent assured him. “Girls, tell your young admirers that I’m a man of good humor and casual jests.”
Frank looked at both girls, and his face reddened; Barry’s did the same. Clearly, though they were both attracted to the twins, the boys were embarrassed to have it pointed out.
Opal and Topaz laughed. The sisters exchanged a glance, and then, in their best twin-speak, said:
“Mr. Duprix is a man of good humor and casual jests.”
That made the entire company laugh, which (thankfully) broke the tension, and everyone went back to the unpacking.
Opal decided that maybe she’d even been too sensitive about Duprix’s wandering gaze. She’d felt uneasy around him since accidentally stumbling into a nude modeling session in his second-floor studio a few weeks back.
She’d come to ask their landlord to fix a leak in the Cushings’ third-floor bathroom, and had no idea, at the time, that he wasn’t working alone. Vincent had laughed it off, as had his model (whom Opal didn’t know, and whom Vincent had never introduced), but Opal had been torn between being scandalized and thrilled, ever since.
Of course, she’d admired his sculptures; she’d known how those lush nudes were made—in theory. But after the encounter, it seemed so much more… personal.
When she’d told her sister about it, Topaz had merely laughed it off. “That’s just what artists do,” she’d said. “You’ve been to the museums!” How strange that her shy sister should be more comfortable with the “facts of modeling life” than she.
Topaz hadn’t seen, though.
And since that time, Opal couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to pose like that for an artist… What it would be like to be naked in front of any man. Frank, for instance…
“Hey, look at me! I’m a mummy!” Frank moaned theatrically. He was holding a carved and painted mask from one of the crates in front of his face.
“Frank, don’t!” Topaz scolded.
“Why? I’m not hurting anything?”
And while that may have been technically true, something about a the visage of her would-be-beau sporting a red-ochre face and glass eyes sent a stab of pain behind Opal’s eyes. For a moment, she saw Frank wrapped in bandages, and reaching out to her from beyond the grave… Then her vision cleared again.
“Seriously, Frank,” Topaz continued. “That funeral mask is three thousand years old!”
“Yeah, Frank,” Barry agreed. “Quit being a jerk.”
“Frank, please,” Opal added, not quite able to shake her uncanny vision. Had it been some kind of actual premonition, or had she just been unpacking too long?
“Funeral mask?” Frank said, his handsome face going pale. He carefully laid the painted visage back down in the excelsior-filled box from which it had come. “Okay. Sorry.”
“Oh, my!” Vincent exclaimed. “This is really quite remarkable! I think we may have finally reached the core of your new exhibition, my dears.”
Opal, her sister, and the other two teens quickly came to peer into the box he was examining—one of just two remaining unpacked. After an afternoon of un-crating chairs, jars, and other similar items, the youngsters were ready for a break.
Inside lay a beautiful casket, carved and painted in the likeness of a very lovely young woman.
Topaz checked one of the bills of lading and smiled. “This must be Bastiti, one of three mummies our father helped discover and acquired as compensation. Legend has it that she was a queen of Egypt, though details of her dynasty have been lost to the ages.”
“A queen without a kingdom, eh?” Frank mused.
“Good looking, though,” added Barry. “For a girl who’s a couple of millennia old, I mean.”
“Exquisite,” Vincent agreed.
“Father theorized that she was married to King Sethmosis,” Opal said, remembering some of Dr. Cushing’s letters. “But the king wasn’t found in the tomb with her, though several other mummies were.”
“Father thinks one is the royal advisor, Sethhotep, and the other a guard who went by the name of Nekure,” Topaz elaborated. “Their names are carved on their coffins.”
“I can read a bit of Egyptian,” Vincent said. “I was quite the art history buff at school. I’ll just clear away some more of this packing and—Ouch!”
A dark flash went off inside Opal’s mind, and for a moment, she saw a mummified hand reaching for her, again.
“What is it?” Topaz asked.
“I just—” Opal began before realizing that her sister wasn’t talking to her.
Vincent Dupris had withdrawn his left hand from the mound of excelsior surrounding the sarcophagus and was sucking on his middle finger. A little blood tricked out the sides of his lips.
“It’s nothing,” he assured the rest. “I just pricked my finger. There must be a rough edge or something on this coffin.”
“I’ll get some mercurochrome,” Topaz offered.
“No need, no need,” Vincent countered. “I’m all right. And, besides, I wouldn’t want to slow down your work. I’m really anxious to see the entirety of this casket—and the sarcophagi of the other two mummies, of course.”
Carefully, the four teenagers removed the rest of the shipping crate and its packing material, until the sarcophagus inside stood revealed in its full glory.
“This really is exquisite,” Vincent said. “Notice the subtlety of the carving… the almost lifelike quality of the face…”
“That’s quite a compliment coming from an artist of your caliber, Mr. Duprix,” said Frank.
“Oh?” Vincent asked. “You’ve seen my work?”
“I’ve been through your wax museum a few times,” Frank replied.
“Me, too,” agreed Barry. “We think your Joan of Arc is quite a dish.”
“Though Barry’s favorite is Lady Godiva,” Frank put in.
“Well, thank you, boys. Thank you very much,” Vincent said. “It’s always nice when young people today admire the arts.” He’d bandaged his injured finger in a white handkerchief, now, though a spot of blood had managed to stain all the way through. “My humble efforts are but mere shadows of the genius of these ancient craftsmen. Why, looking at this… this queen depicted here, I almost feel as though she’s still alive, standing right before us.”
“It’s pretty good work, that’s for sure,” Barry agreed.
“Why don’t we open the casket and take a look at her,” Topaz suggested.
Something inside her—maybe the vision of that bandaged hand—made Opal want to say “Stop!” But she didn’t.
“Can we?” Frank asked skeptically.
“Well, it’s our exhibit,” Topaz replied.
“Our father’s,” Opal stressed, still feeling wary.
“But we have to know what we’re exhibiting,” Topaz reminded her. “And if the old girl’s worth exhibiting, so…”
“Excellent!” Vincent declared. “Help me loosen this lid, all of you—and do be careful with your fingers!”
The other three teens stepped forward and carefully began prying at the top of the sarcophagus, alongside Vincent. But Opal hung back, unable to shake the disquieting feeling seeping through her.
For a moment, there was a groan and scrape as ancient wood and painted linen grated against each other, and then suddenly, the lid came free and Opal’s sister and the rest gently set it aside.
The smell was the first thing that struck Opal, the aroma of old linens, as well as cedar, myrrh, cinnamon, and other ancient perfumes that she couldn’t identify.
As she stepped closer, the form of the mummy came into view. Bastiti was shapely, or must have been in life—even the desiccation of her linen-wrapped figure couldn’t hide the feminine swell of the late queen’s hips and breast. Her face was covered with a painted wooden mask, resembling the visage on the casket.
Carefully, Topaz removed the mask to reveal the mummy’s face.
Opal gasped. For just a moment, she thought she’d seen a living person beneath that painted façade. But no. It had only been an illusion. (Happily, none of the others seemed to notice her momentary surprise.)
Bastiti’s face was leathery, her dark skin pulled tight over a well-formed skull with high cheekbones and gleaming white teeth. Her eyes lay closed, and black wiry hair—what little remained of it—covered her wizened head.
She must have been relatively young when she died, Opal realized.
Vincent gazed upon the mummy’s shriveled face and sighed. “It’s almost as if she’s only sleeping.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Frank said.
“But she is amazingly well preserved,” Barry added.
“How old did you say she was?” Frank asked.
“At least three thousand years,” Topaz replied. “Though Father’s not really sure—yet.”
“She could be much older,” Opal added, feeling—somehow—as if that were true.
“Well, whatever her age, she’s lovely,” Vincent said. “If she got up out of her coffin right this minute, I’d ask her to model for me.”
“If she gets up out of that coffin, I am leaving,” Frank put in.
“Me, too,” Barry agreed.
Vincent turned to the twins. “I don’t mean to sound like my wife—who has always been overly concerned with money—but it amazes me, girls, that your father can travel the world collecting such objects and still have trouble scraping together enough money to pay the rent.”
“Our father has doctorates in history, archeology, and mythology—with a specialty in occult artifacts,” Topaz said. “The research, the collecting of these things—this exhibit—is his life.”
“Surely you understand the pursuit of one’s passion to the exclusion of all else, Mr. Duprix,” Opal added. “You are an artist, after all.”
Vincent cocked his head and pursed his lips, as if letting the notion seep in. “Yes,” he finally said. “Yes, I suppose I do. The pursuit—and creation—of beauty in all its forms has long been a driving force in my life.” He smiled at both twins.
A shiver ran through Opal.
“And what does it matter about the rent,” Vincent continued, still gazing at the mummy, “when there is beauty such as this to be found all around us?”
“Just so long as we can keep your wife happy,” Topaz said.
“Yes,” Vincent replied thoughtfully. “Yes. We’ll have to keep at that. But with your assistance, girls, I’m sure we can work something out—even if your father is off tramping the farthest reaches of the world.”
“He’ll be home soon,” Topaz said.
Both twins gave their landlord a smile—Vincent’s heart did seem to be in the right place, after all—but, again Opal didn’t really feel the face she’d put on.
She wished that she could be as confident as her sister that their father was all right and would soon return.
Opal longed to know… Was he facing peril, as the cards had predicted, even now?
Why can’t these “visions” show me something useful? she wondered. Like… Why hasn’t Father come home to us yet? And where is he, right now?
TO BE CONTINUED…!
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