IN THIS EPISODE: …The mysterious killer strikes again! Late at night, Topaz discovers an intruder and a friend…
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CHAPTER 14 – Cold Relationships
Piper – Soho, London
That Same Night
The girl smiled when she opened the door of her shabby third-floor walkup, happy to see her unexpected visitor.
“Well, look who’s ’ere!” she exclaimed. “I ’aven’t seen you in a dog’s age!” She giggled and covered her mouth with her hand, hiding sloppily applied makeup. “Oh! Sorry, didn’t mean anything by the ‘dog’ remark—just an expression, if you know what I mean. What’s it been—two years? Three? Come in, come in and make yourself at ’ome.”
The girl was short and very skinny with mousy brown hair and glassy brown eyes. She wore a faded blue flower-print dress, several years out of date, probably because she couldn’t afford anything newer. (Tuppenny whores weren’t known for their fashion sense.) Dog-eared calendar prints and crepe paper flowers decorated her cheap, backroom flat on the third floor. The girl’s smile was genuine enough, though.
“Do you want something to drink? Brandy’s what you like best isn’t it—or was it red wine? Sorry I don’t recollect. It’s been so long, you know?” The girl grinned again.
She smiled too much, probably because she was drunk or stoned, which was likely a regular habit with her. Her body had been magnificent once, but now—like the rest of her—it seemed to be rapidly fading.
She’ll do, though. She’ll do.
“Don’t matter much nohow,” the girl continued with a giggle. “Only got one thing to drink around ’ere.” She fetched a half-empty liquor bottle from a nearby cluttered shelf.
She held it up to the light—a single bulb, suspended from the ceiling—and examined it. The contents sloshed lazily inside the glass container.
“Not sure if it’s gin or vodka,” she said. “Could be something else, I suppose. Not much difference, is there? It’s the effect what counts.” Then, something occurred to her. “Ooh! You ain’t brought your own, ’ave you?”
She looked hopefully at her visitor, and then her face fell. “No. Didn’t expect you ’ad. Nevermind, love. Piper ’ll do right by you.”
That was her name… Piper. How odd not to remember until now; it was almost like living someone else’s life.
Piper poured two fingers of the clear liquid into each of a pair of dirt-smudged glasses. She handed one to the visitor and then quickly drained hers.
“I’ve always done right by you an’ yours, ’aven’t I?” Piper said. And, again, she smiled her sloppy smile.
“So, what brings a swell like you out on a night like this, and it raining cats and dogs, too? Decided you need Pretty Piper’s services again, ’ave you? Now, you know it don’t make no difference to me, but ’s this time for you, or for your…”
“For me,” the visitor insisted in an unfamiliar voice.
“Now ain’t that a twist in the air!” Piper laughed drunkenly. “’Aven’t taken up art yourself, ’ave you?”
“No,” the visitor replied. “There’s just something I need.”
“Something Pretty Piper can supply, eh?
“Well, you know that whatever it might be, Pretty Piper is ready, willing, and able! You got something special in mind?”
“Yes, I have something special planned… something very special.”
Again, Piper’s sloppy, expectant smile.
The knife flashed silver in a quick, straight line.
Piper gasped and clutched at her throat where a second, red-rimmed smile had opened up.
Blood squirted out between the whore’s pale fingers.
She gasped, but her breath had gone, and her life was quickly following—a delicious crimson fountain.
Filled with glee and anticipation, the visitor whispered:
“Not what you expected—was it?!”
Topaz – 1951 Fisher St.
Topaz sat bolt upright, clutching her neck, gasping.
She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t even find her breath.
She groped to her left, fingers scrabbling spiderlike across the bedclothes, trying to find her sister. Opal would help her! Opal would stanch the wound before Topaz could bleed to death.
Her questing hand found nothing; her twin’s side of the bed lay empty, her usual spot on the mattress cold.
I’m going to die alone! Topaz thought.
Then—after what seemed like an eternity—her breath returned.
She gulped in great lungfuls of air, sobbing, still clutching her throat.
My fingers aren’t wet… There’s no blood… It was only a dream!
“Only a dream!” she repeated out loud, just to reassure herself.
The sound of her own voice did reassure Topaz, but she still longed for the warmth of her twin, sleeping beside her.
Where was Opal?
Had she been in the dream? Had she been the one who was ki—?
No. That was someone else. Her twin was fine; Topaz could sense it. But where was she?
“Opal?” Topaz called into the still darkness.
No reply came.
Oh… That’s right.
She’d gone out with Frank and wasn’t expected home until late. Topaz had gotten so caught up in the nightmare that she’d forgotten. What time was it, anyway?
The light of the last quarter moon shone through her window, giving just enough illumination to make out the face of the clock on the dressing table.
Quarter to midnight.
Late, but not that late. Opal might not be home for a while yet.
A long while, if Frank has anything to say about it!
Topaz wondered what her twin might be up to right now. Sometimes, she got clear images of what Opal was doing and feeling, but—though she knew her twin was safe—this was not one of those moments.
Topaz felt very alone. The big Victorian house loomed nearly empty and silent around her.
She sat on the bed quietly, taking deep breaths and willing her heartrate to calm.
She thought that perhaps, by relaxing, she might pick up some kind of sensation from her twin.
But did she really want to know what Opal was doing? What if Opal were in some type of… romantic clench? Did Topaz want to “look in” on that?
She sighed. Though it was the jazz age, she and her sister remained virgins. Not that they were afraid of boys or sex—far from it! Nor were they so old-fashioned as to believe that sensual pleasures should wait for marriage…
They just hadn’t found the right person yet—not either of them.
It would figure if she found someone first!
Though males in general seemed more attracted to Topaz, there was no doubt that Opal was more comfortable around actual boys. Maybe it was because her sister didn’t seem to feel things as acutely as Topaz, not about other people, anyway.
Sometimes, Topaz seemed to know what other people were going to do or say before they did it—like she could read their minds.
That was proving difficult to take with young men—even well-mannered ones, like their current suitors. Boys at this age seemed to be all nerves and anticipation and lusty energy. Not that Topaz didn’t feel all of those things as well, but…
She tried to keep her emotions under control, though being around randy males made it more difficult.
Topaz wished, sometimes, that she lacked this “gift.” She wished that she were more like her sister, who—though she could more reliably obtain glimpses of the future in her cards—got to at least live day-to-day without knowing what was twisting through other people’s minds.
Except maybe for her sister’s.
Topaz calmed her thoughts and reached out for her twin once more, embarrassing circumstances be damned.
Then she heard something.
“Opal?” she asked aloud.
But no. It was someone else… someone calling to her…
“Someone in the house!”
Rising, she threw on her pale blue dressing gown and cinched it at the waist.
“Hello?” she called softly as she left the bedroom.
Could it be the Durpixes that she’d heard?
But she’d sworn the voice had called her name. Why would her landlords to that?
She crept to the door atop the landing and opened it.
Perhaps he had returned home without any warning. Father often did that.
Topaz padded barefoot down the stairs past the Durpixes apartments on the second floor, and to the mid-floor landing where she could peer at the door leading to the first floor.
She saw no one.
She went down and opened the door. “Father?”
No one stood on the front landing.
But the call came again—her name, she felt sure of it, though she could hardly make out the word.
It was coming from the basement… from the Chamber of Horrors.
Topaz was turning the latch of the chamber entrance before she remembered that she’d left her keys upstairs, on the dressing table.
But the doorknob turned. Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors was unlocked!
Summoning her courage, Topaz opened the door and stepped inside. The chamber remained dark, with only a little bit of light leaking in from the small high windows at street level.
Topaz saw no one.
“Hello?” she called, a little bit louder now.
Who could be in the chamber at this time of night? Could her sister be using it for an assignation?
A sound then—not a call but a clatter—something bumped or kicked or overturned.
“Who’s there?! Come out!”
Fear and anger mingled within Topaz. She groped for the light switch by the door, but her hand shook, and she couldn’t find it.
A single light came on, further in the chamber.
“I’m sorry,” said a familiar voice. “It’s only me.”
Paul Shaw stepped out into the light. “It’s only me, Paul.” In one hand he held an adjustable spanner. He smiled sheepishly.
“What are you doing here?”
“I remembered something I’d forgotten to do,” he said. “Something I didn’t fix right in the freezer. I didn’t want you to come down in the morning and find your Ice Man melted, so I came back. I let myself in from the waxworks. Victoria… I mean, Mrs. Duprix gave me a key. I hope you don’t mind.”
Topaz felt greatly relieved, though Paul did seem more than a little nervous. Was he telling the truth?
Topaz concentrated on him, but her telepathic powers—if that’s truly what they were—couldn’t seem to focus on the handyman.
She frowned. “Paul, did you call me? I thought I heard someone calling.”
“No,” Paul replied. “I didn’t call you. I didn’t want to disturb anyone. I thought probably everyone was asleep.”
Topaz narrowed her eyes and peered around the dimly lit chamber. “Is there anyone else here?” Though Opal wasn’t having an assignation in the chamber, perhaps Paul was. Perhaps that’s why he seemed nervous.
“Nope. Only me. Unless you count our friend in that block of ice.” He shrugged.
She pulled her robe tighter around her, suddenly aware of how little she was wearing in the hired man’s presence. She liked Paul, but…
“I guess you better finish fixing the freezer, then,” she said. “It’s late.”
“That’s okay,” he replied. “I’ve finished. I was just about to leave.”
“Oh. All right.” No matter how she concentrated, she couldn’t get a reading on him. Maybe she was just tired. “You can use the front door.” She stepped out of the way so that he could exit.
“Thanks.” Paul hopped up the steps jauntily and came to a stop beside her. “Is everything all right?” His concern seemed genuine.
“I’m fine. I just thought I heard voices. That’s all.”
Paul smiled warmly at her, not seeming at all nervous now. “Maybe I was talking to myself. I’ve been told I do that sometimes.”
She returned his smile. “Maybe that was it.”
“Well, good night then, Topaz. See you in the morning.”
“Good night, Paul.”
He nodded goodbye to her and then left by the front door, vanishing quickly into the foggy London night.
Topaz made sure the door was locked behind him.
Then she went down into the chamber, turning on lights as she went, and checked the other doors as well: all locked.
Had Paul really come in through the adjoining door to the waxworks? And if he hadn’t, how had he come in and what was he doing here?
Topaz pondered that for a while, but couldn’t reach any conclusion. So she went to check on the Ice Man.
Everything seemed to be in order there, too. Paul had done a wonderful job of modifying the freezer to display her father’s latest prize. The big slab of blue-green ice rested right next to the large pane of glass the handyman had installed. Once she and her sister had finished dressing out the exhibit, customers would have a fine view of the entombed figure.
Like a fly caught in amber, she thought.
But at the same time, so much more terrible. This was a human being, after all—a real person who had, through design, chance, or misfortune, come to such an awful fate.
Once he had been a living man with thoughts and emotions and desires just like anyone else.
A wellspring of pity formed within Topaz’s breast, and she placed her hand against the cold glass.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “So sorry you came to this.”
“Sorry…” a voice echoed in her mind.
Topaz blinked. Had she imagined it, or was she just tired?
Peering through the ice at the frozen giant, she almost felt as though he were peering back at her—but of course, that was impossible.
Her gaze wandered over his body—huge, gangly, and pale, and dressed in ragged colonial-period clothing—before settling on his face. The features were bony and rough-chiseled with an almost cruel cast to them. The rough-cut long black hair didn’t do that face any favors, either. With those features and that size, surely the folk of this man’s time must have seen him as a monster.
“No matter who you were,” Topaz said, her hand still pressed against the glass, “you and I are going to be friends. My name is Topaz… Topaz Cushing. I don’t know how other people treated you in life, or how you came to be frozen like this, but—even though you’re going to be on display in our museum, and even though you’re dead—I will treat you with the same respect I would give any other human being.”
She smiled, and she felt—for a moment—as though the Ice Man understood.
But of course, that was impossible.
Tearing her eyes away from him, she said, “Well, after all this excitement, I can’t sleep, and I bet you can’t, either. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll read for a while, to settle down.”
A stack of her father’s old books stood on a disused butcher block nearby—all things they’d have to find new storage space for, now that the freezer area would be joining the chamber’s exhibits.
Topaz picked up the nearest volume and blew the dust off the cover.
Paradise Lost, by John Milton.
A notion seized her.
“You know, I bet it’s been a long time since anyone read to you,” she said to the Ice Man.
Smiling, she plopped down next to the freezer window, opened the book and began reading.
“Book One: Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste brought Death into the World, and all our woe…”
And as she read, despite the strangeness of the evening and the horror of the nightmare and the absence of her sister and the grim poetry scrolling down the book’s pages—despite all that and all of life’s other uncertainties—for the first time in ages, in Topaz Artemis Cushing felt content being alone.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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