IN THIS EPISODE: …While (werewolf) Paul plans to move in, the twins ponder his mysterious past…
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CHAPTER 16 – Changes & Portents
Opal Cushing – 1951 Fisher St.
A Day Later
“Is it true, Paul? Are you really moving into the old servant’s quarters?” Opal asked.
Paul Shaw, standing on the landing just inside 1951 Fisher’s front door, smiled at her. “It’s true. Though, really, I don’t have much to move.”
Topaz poked her head out of the Chamber of Horrors entrance. “Oh?” she asked skeptically.
Paul looked uncomfortable, which made Opal prickle. Why did her sister always have to be looking gift horses in the mouth?
“I’ve been traveling a lot,” Paul explained. “You can’t accumulate a lot of stuff when you’re traveling; it holds you back.”
Topaz glanced at her sister before ducking back inside to tend the exhibits. “Holds you back…” the look seemed to say—a reminder that maybe a man like Paul didn’t want to be tied down by anything.
Which Opal was to assume included romantic entanglements, as well.
So subtle, sister dear!
She was tempted to stick out her tongue at her twin, but resisted.
“I’ll bring all my stuff over at lunch time,” Paul continued, apparently unaware of the sisters’ byplay. “Even Mrs. Duprix can’t complain if I move in during lunch hour.”
“Well, even if she does complain, I think it’s great,” Opal said. Spontaneously, she threw her arms around his neck, leaned up, and kissed him on the lips.
Paul looked startled. “What was that for?”
“For all the help you’ve given us,” Opal replied, though really she’d just wanted to kiss him.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you were sort of… spoken for.”
A prick of guilt wheedled at Opal’s brain. Was it wicked of her to be kissing another man while dating Frank? She didn’t think so. Not very wicked, anyway. It wasn’t like she and Frank had exchanged promises or anything.
“What’s a little kiss between friends?” she said coyly.
“What indeed?” he asked. And he took her in his strong arms and kissed her again.
Opal put her arms around his waist and kissed back, luxuriating in the muscular warmth of his body. As their lips met, a tingling sensation started down at the tips of her toes and spread all the way to the top of her head.
The kiss didn’t last long, but the glow lingered even as Paul disentangled himself.
“I should be getting to work,” he said, seemingly embarrassed by the sudden passion of their embrace.
“Me, too,” she replied, noticing that her face had reddened as well.
And with that, he ducked through the door to the waxworks, and Opal stepped into the Chamber of Horrors.
She expected to find her sister waiting for her just inside the doorway, but Topaz wasn’t there. Instead, she was puttering around the exhibit floor, dusting the Iron Maiden of Baron Latos.
“Bathory’s tub could use a good rubdown,” Topaz noted, without looking away from her task.
“Somebody been filling it with blood again?” Opal asked.
Topaz laughed—a light, musical sound—though Opal knew it wasn’t entirely spontaneous; her blonde sister had other things on her mind.
“Nope,” Topaz replied. “Nor bathtub gin, either.”
“More’s the pity.”
“It’s just collecting a lot of dust,” Topaz continued, “like everything else since Mr. Shaw began working on modifying the freezer.”
“I think he’s done now.”
“Yes,” Topaz said. “He told me the other night.”
A cold chill ran down Opal’s spine. Was Paul making time with her sister, too? “The other night?”
“Yes, I found him working late, after I woke from my nightmare.”
“In the chamber… just you and him… alone.”
“Yes. Well, I wasn’t working. I just came down because I thought I heard something.”
Opal tried hard not to frown, though her stomach was twisting in jealous knots. It wasn’t like her sister to withhold information. “You told me about the nightmare, but you didn’t tell me about Paul.”
“Didn’t I? It must have slipped my mind. Sorry.” Topaz stopped dusting. “Look, Opal, you don’t have anything to worry about on my account. I’m not interested in Mr. Shaw. Really, I think both of us should be careful around him—you especially.”
Opal’s pangs of jealousy quickly turned to annoyance. “What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
“Well, he’s too old for us, really.”
“You said that before. And I’m not sure that you get to determine who’s too old for me in any case.”
“And there’s something odd about him. Something sad… almost tragic. Can’t you feel it?”
“I feel something tragic all right,” Opal replied. “It’s tragic you mooning over that block of ice in the other room.”
Topaz blushed. “Stop trying to change the subject.”
“I’m serious,” Opal continued. “Why do you come down here at all hours of the day and night and just sit there, reading to that thing as if it were alive?”
“It… He was alive… once.”
“But he’s dead now. He’s been frozen in that block of ice for at least one hundred years.”
“But he’s not like our other exhibits,” Topaz countered. “He’s a human being—at least, he was, when he was alive. And when I’m near the exhibit, I… I can’t help it; I feel sad. He seems so lonely. Haven’t you felt it, when you look at him?”
Opal shook her head. “He feels creepy to me. There’s something about him that doesn’t seem human. It’s not just his size, either. Something about the Ice Man just feels… off.”
“Like Mr. Shaw feels off?”
“Don’t drag Paul into this.”
“You know that’s not his real name—Mr. Shaw, I mean,” Topaz said.
“What?” Opal blurted, genuinely surprised.
“He’s not who or what he’s pretending to be,” her sister continued. “I feel it every time I’m around him. I mean, he seems nice enough, but a lot of things about him just don’t add up. I mean, he’s an American. You can tell by his accent, right?”
“But he lived in the Philippines, and some things he’s said make it obvious he’s done a lot of traveling, but at the same time, he doesn’t have any money.”
“Father does a lot of traveling,” Opal countered, “and we don’t have a lot of money.”
“But Father’s money is all wrapped up in our exhibits,” Topaz said. “How does Paul have enough wherewithal to travel from America to the Philippines to London, and yet he has so few things that he can move into the servants’ quarters over lunchtime?”
“Maybe he works odd jobs—pays his way as he goes.”
“Have you looked at his hands, Opal?”
“What about them?”
“They’re too smooth for a seaman or day laborer.”
Opal didn’t want to admit it, but her sister was right. Paul’s hands were very smooth. There was no way he’d been working at manual labor all his life. “Maybe he had money, but he’s lost it.”
“That’s what I think,” Topaz agreed. “But how—and why?”
Opal threw her hands in the air angrily. “Well, how should I—?” Then an idea hit her. “I know; we’ll use the cards.”
“You want to do a Tarot reading for Paul?”
“Why not?” Opal replied. “It worked when we tried it for Dad, didn’t it? How much time do we have before opening?”
“About half an hour.”
“That’s plenty of time,” Opal said. “Stay here; I’ll get the cards.” And, without waiting for Topaz to reply, she dashed out of the chamber and upstairs to their bedroom.
It took her only a few minutes to dig the tarot cards out of their nightstand and return to her sister.
“Do you really think this is a good idea?” Topaz asked.
Opal opened the case containing the deck.
A sudden rapping sound echoed through the Chamber of Horrors. “Excuse me, ladies,” said a familiar voice.
It was Vincent Duprix, poking his head through the door connecting the chamber to his waxworks.
“Could I have a few moments of your time before you open for the day?” he asked.
“Sure,” both twins agreed.
Opal was annoyed, though; she’d already gotten in the frame of mind to do a reading, and she didn’t want to break concentration. Doubly annoying, she suspected that her sister was actually relieved by the interruption.
Vincent strolled down the steps, looking (as always) very dapper, and walked up right next to the sisters—almost uncomfortably close. He smiled his showman’s smile (the one he seldom used around his wife).
The hairs on the nape of Opal’s neck stood up, just a bit.
“I have a proposition for you,” Vincent began. “No, wait… That’s the wrong word… A proposal?”
Opal doubted that he’d misspoken. Usually, it was her twin who got stronger sensations of people’s motives and thoughts, but Vincent seemed far less subtle than usual. The smile he was sporting this morning barely hid the lascivious leer lurking behind it.
“What kind of proposal?” Topaz asked. Opal felt sure that her sister was picking up their landlord’s less-than-savory signals, too, but her twin didn’t show it. (She was always better at hiding her feelings—at least in social situations.)
“It’s about the rent…” Vincent said.
“I know we’re behind again,” Opal blurted, “but we—”
“Oh, I’m not here to badger you about it,” Vincent said, cutting her off. He turned away from the girls and began looking around the exhibits, casually running his fingers over many of the intervening surfaces.
Opal noticed that his middle finger, which he’d hurt during the mummy unpacking, was no longer bandaged. The digit still looked a little purplish, though, and something about the color made Opal shudder.
“I thought that we might be able to work out something to… ease your burden,” Vincent finished.
A series of unpleasant carnal options flashed through Opal’s mind, but she kept her lips buttoned. No need to verbally pounce on the old lecher… yet.
“What do you have in mind, Mr. Duprix?” Topaz asked innocently.
“It was my wife’s notion, really,” Vincent said, now casually running his fingers over Bastiti’s mummy case.
“Mr. Duprix, please,” Opal said, with a glance to the sarcophagus.
Duprix withdrew his hand and looked chastened. “Oh, I’m sorry! I wasn’t thinking. Such lovely, sensual things, they almost beg to be touched, don’t they?”
Like some other lovely things in this chamber, I bet, thought Opal.
“As I was saying, as you know, I am in continual need of models for my work, but—as you certainly have noticed, the economy could be better in terms of sales and attendance at our attractions. My dear wife recently mentioned the perhaps-fortuitous coincidence that while I am short on funds to hire models, the two of you are short on funds to pay the rent…”
Here it comes…
“So it occurred to me… to us, I mean… that perhaps we could help each other out. The two of you could model for me, and in return, I could ease the burden of your rent.” He smiled at the twins, like the cat ready to eat the canaries.
Opal was about to tell him where to stick his offer, when Topaz said:
“That’s very generous of you, Mr. Duprix. It certainly would seem to be an arrangement advantageous to all concerned.”
“We’ll have to think about it,” Opal put in, afraid that her sister might—for the sake of the business—accept the offer out of hand.
“Could you give us a few days?” Topaz said, picking up her sister’s hint.
Vincent looked at his wristwatch. “Of course. Take as long as you need. I’ll try to keep my wife from… pestering you until you can make a decision.”
“Thanks,” said Opal.
“We appreciate that,” Topaz added.
With a wave of his fingers and a final, predatory smile, Vincent swept across the room and mounted the stairs, pausing only briefly once he’d reached the top. “Good luck with today’s business,” he said, and with a bow of his head, he existed and shut the door.
“I bet he hopes business is bust, so we have to model for him,” Opal said, fuming. “You weren’t really going to take up his offer, were you?”
“No, of course, not,” Topaz replied. “Not unless we really have to.”
“You don’t mean to say you’d actually consider taking off your clothes for that old lech, do you?”
Topaz shrugged. “The human body is a beautiful thing, certainly nothing to be ashamed of—”
“I know. I’ve seen yours ever since we were born.”
“—but I have a feeling that things might not stop with just sketching and sculpting,” her sister finished. “And I have no desire to give up my virtue to Monsieur Duprix.”
“Nor do I,” said Opal. Truth to tell, she had several more attractive possible candidates for that honor at the moment. “I wonder what our landlord’s really up to—besides the obvious.”
“If you’re curious, turn the tarot for him and find out.”
“Maybe I will. After we find out a little bit more about the mysterious Mr. Shaw.” She uncased the tarot and began to shuffle.
“Or whatever his real name is,” Topaz said. She pulled a seat for herself and another for her sister around a small round table in the exhibit room.
In her mind, Opal formed the question she wanted the tarot to answer—“Who is Paul Shaw?”—and then dealt the five cards, face down, onto the table.
She flipped up the first card, Paul’s deep background and origins.
“Ten of Pentacles,” Topaz announced.
Opal grinned. “So he was rich, but he lost his fortune.”
“But how? And when?”
“Maybe the next card will tell.” She turned it up: Paul’s more recent past. “The World, inverted.”
“Someone in power had it out for him—and maybe still does,” Topaz interpreted.
“Whoever it was, it shook up his life,” Opal agreed. “Let’s see what the present holds.” She flipped over the card.
Topaz gasped. “Death!”
Both girls sprang to their feet. Opal’s hand caught on the edge of the tabletop as she leapt up, overturning the table and spilling the entire deck of cards to the floor.
She cursed. “What was that?”
“Something fell,” Topaz replied. “The pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan—its frame came off the wall.” She moved quickly through the displays to where the fallen artifact lay, its frame face-down on the floor.
Opal frowned. “What could have caused that?” she asked. “Is the display all right?”
“The glass isn’t broken,” Topaz told her, tipping up the heavy frame. “I guess the rest of it is all right, too.”
Indeed, despite the fall, the artifact seemed undamaged. “Hard to hurt an old wolf skin, I guess,” Opal observed. “Odd that the glass didn’t break—but thank heaven it didn’t!”
“You bet,” Topaz agreed. “We don’t have any extra money to spend on repairs, right now.”
She and Opal examined the wall where the frame had hung; the hangers seemed to be in place; nothing looked broken or amiss.
“I don’t understand it,” Topaz mused. “There’s no reason it should have fallen off the wall.”
Opal shook her head, and chill of worry ran through her heart. “It’s almost like someone—or something—didn’t want us to finish reading Paul’s fortune.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
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