IN THIS EPISODE: …Paul gets caught in the act and the twins get several surprises…
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CHAPTER 19 – Caught!
Paul Shaw (Longmire) – The Chamber of Horrors
“Kindly lay down your knife and stand up very slowly. And please, do me the favor of not taking any sudden actions,” the voice told Paul. The tones were high and reedy, but clearly those of a man—a very well-spoken man.
“I am not a violent person,” the voice continued, “and I’d hate to shoot you if I didn’t actually need to. Nevertheless, provoke me, and I will most assuredly fire.” The speaker remained hidden in the dark shadows on the far side of the exhibition room, but the man’s flashlight lit Paul up as bright as day.
Despite being at a terrible disadvantage, for a moment Paul considered leaping at his opponent. The gunman didn’t sound very formidable, and—despite the dire warnings—Paul thought he stood a good chance of taking his would-be captor by surprise.
And even if the man did shoot Paul, would it really do him any good? It took a silver bullet to kill a werewolf, after all, and Paul doubted the man, whoever he was, had come prepared for that eventuality.
But then Paul remembered a warning he’d been given in a gypsy camp in Transylvania: “A werewolf who is slain while a man becomes a werewolf forever. He will then track down and murder all those he used to love, until destroyed in wolf form.”
Could that possibly be true?
It wasn’t a chance Paul could take. If this gunman, whoever he might be, got lucky and killed Paul, then Opal and Topaz wouldn’t stand a chance. The whole of 1951 Fisher would become an abattoir!
Paul needed to find another way out of this fix. “Look,” he said, “there’s been some kind of mistake here.”
“Yes, indeed, young man,” replied the man in the shadows, “and you have made it. Despite what some in the government may think, there are laws against thievery in this country.”
“But I wasn’t stealing anything,” Paul protested. “I happen to work here.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Well, no. Not usually. But I couldn’t sleep. So I came in to do some repairs, you know, to kind of work off my anxiety.”
“And did working off said anxiety include removing a prized exhibit from its frame?” the gunman asked.
“No,” Paul replied. “There’s a problem with the frame. It fell off the wall the other day, and I thought I should take a look at it. I fix a lot of little things around here. I’m the Cushings’ handyman.”
The man with the gun moved closer. At this point, he could hardly miss if he tried.
“I don’t believe you, young man,” he said. “I happen to know that no handymen work here. For you see, I am the owner of this little exhibition you seem intent on pillaging.”
Paul’s heart skipped a beat, and he backed up a few steps. “You’re Dr. Cushing?”
The man stepped forward again, and now a shaft of light from the street revealed his face. He was a thin, well-dressed older gentleman with an angular face, greying hair, and piercing blue-grey eyes.
“None other,” Dr Cushing said. “And I warn you that though I may not look very formidable, I am nevertheless a crack shot.”
“But I’m Paul—Paul Shaw. I work for your daughters.”
“I doubt that very much, unless our fortunes have improved considerably here.”
“No, no. You don’t understand,” Paul said. The revelation of his captor as Opal’s father had him rattled. His heart raced like mad, and sweat beaded on his skin. “Victoria… Mrs. Duprix hired me, but I help the girls out when I can. In my spare time. Look, I live in the old servant’s quarters on the second floor.”
“A fine arrangement for a prospective thief,” Dr. Cushing noted. “Certain unscrupulous collectors would pay a pretty penny for some of these exhibits. I have spent my lifetime amassing them, you know.”
“Yes, I know. But, look… I’m not stealing. I work around the place, fixing things.”
“In the dark.”
“With a hunting knife.”
Paul knew there was nothing more he could say. Dr. Cushing had caught him red handed.
Paul shook his head. “Look… It’s more complicated than that,” he said. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Please do,” Dr. Cushing replied, and he indicated a nearby antique chair by waving the barrel of his gun. “Slowly.”
Paul sat; Dr. Cushing flicked on the main lights and set aside his electric torch.
“That’s better,” Cushing said. “Much easier to have a conversation with the lights on—the better to appraise the man who intended to steal my wolf skin.”
“I…” Paul began, but then he put his head in his hands. He felt exhausted, as if all the weeks of planning and worry and deception had caught up with him. “Yes, I was going to take the pelt, but it’s not what you think. I wasn’t going to sell it.”
Dr. Cushing regarded him skeptically from beneath bushy eyebrows. “Why take it, then?”
“Because I had to,” Paul said. “Because I…” How much should he tell? Cushing collected mystical artifacts from all over the world, but did he really believe in the supernatural? Paul had seen some strange things during his travels—including a man-like amphibian in the Congo—but even he had thought werewolves a myth… until he became one.
He decided to go for something close to the truth, but not quite so outlandish.
“Because I have a rare disease,” Paul confided.
“Yes, and I need the pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan to effect a cure.”
“Who told you that?”
“Maria the gypsy,” Paul said, the truth spilling out before he could come up with a better alibi; he was nearly exhausted, not thinking straight.
“A cure recommended to you by a gypsy?” Cushing scoffed. “I’m surprised you didn’t try to tell me that you’ve been cursed!”
“So you do believe in curses?” Paul asked, almost frantic now. If he couldn’t convince Dr. Cushing—if he couldn’t do what he’d come to do…! “Look, whether you believe in curses or not, you have to help me. I need to destroy that pelt. It’s the only way I can reclaim what’s left of my life, the only way I can ever hope to be normal again!”
“You do seem quite abnormal at that,” Cushing remarked. He took a seat in a nearby chair but kept the gun trained on Paul.
“Please! You must believe me.”
“I must believe that you are cursed by gypsies?”
“No.” How had Paul cocked this up so badly? “Not by gypsies. Just cursed.”
“And you believe that to break that curse, you must destroy the wolf skin that hangs upon my wall?”
“Yes—the pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan. The gypsy Maria told me it’s the root of my… problem. Destroying it will free me.”
“You asked if I believe in curses, young man,” Cushing said. “I have seen many strange things over the course of my travels, heard many tales even stranger, but I have never seen anything that would convince me that such things as witchcraft or curses exist. However, I have met many people who believe in supernatural powers of all kinds. And I do believe that you think that you are cursed.”
Paul leaned forward in his chair. “Then you must help me. Please!”
Dr. Cushing shook his head and chuckled skeptically. “I wish I could, young man, but even if everything you’ve told me is true, I’m afraid that I have some disappointing news for you… That wolf skin you were attempting to steal is not the pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan.”
“What…?” Paul’s heart felt as if it had fallen into his shoes.
“Yes,” explained Cushing, who put down his gun and started polishing his wire-rim glasses. “I’m ashamed to admit that the pelt we’re exhibiting is a fake.”
“What?” echoed a crestfallen feminine voice.
“What’s going on here?” asked Topaz’s voice, so similar to that of her dark-haired sister.
If Paul had thought he couldn’t feel any worse, he had been wrong. He turned and saw both girls, in their nightgowns, standing at the entryway to the chamber. Topaz clutched a flashlight in her hand; Opal looked as though she’d just been struck by lightning. Both of them stared at Paul.
“Oh, hello,” said Dr. Cushing. He rose from where he’d been sitting, hidden from the twins’ view.
“Father!” both girls blurted, and in a flash they rushed down the stairs and threw their arms around him.
“We’re so glad you’re home!” Topaz said.
Dr. Cushing hugged them back, smiling and chuckling approvingly to himself. “It’s very good to see both of you again, too. I’m sorry I didn’t write and tell you when to expect me, but you know how these things go.”
But Opal had broken away from the little family reunion; she was staring at Paul. “Paul,” she said warily, “what are you doing here? What’s going on?”
Paul couldn’t think of anything to say. His tongue felt like sandpaper.
“I caught this young man skulking about in the dark,” Dr. Cushing explained. “It seems he was intent on stealing and destroying one of our artifacts.”
Opal gasped. “Paul!” Her voice held a world of disappointment.
Paul plunged his head into his hands, unable to look at any of them. “I wasn’t going to steal it,” he moaned. “I just had to… destroy it.”
“Oh, Paul!” Topaz said. “How could you?”
“Why, Paul?” Opal asked. “Why?”
Paul just shook his head.
“The young man seems to believe that he is cursed,” Dr. Cushing explained, “and by destroying the pelt, he will break the curse.”
“But you said the pelt is a fake!” Paul exclaimed. “Now I’ll never be free!”
“The curse is in your own mind,” Dr. Cushing said. “Your cure must be found there as well. If you like, I can recommend a good psychiatric practice near Covent Garden. I hear they’re doing wonderful things with insulin shock therapy.”
“But, wait…” Topaz said, confused. “The pelt of the beast is a fake?” She seemed stunned by the very idea, as if her father had never done anything wrong or even told a lie before.
“Yes, I’m afraid it’s true,” Dr. Cushing admitted. “I’m terribly sorry for deceiving you both this whole time—but I didn’t think letting you in on my little secret would do any good. You see, I’ve had this old wolf skin a long time; it’s one of my earliest exhibits.”
“I don’t ever remember it not being in the museum,” Topaz mused quietly.
“No. You wouldn’t, either of you. I obtained it when you were quite small, but I was, I’m ashamed to say, ‘sold a bill of goods.’ By the time I discovered that the pelt was not what I believed, it had already been on display for a number of years. Admitting the mistake at the time would have caused a scandal, and probably doomed our little enterprise before it had barely begun. I feel bad about mislabeling it all this time, but it’s far too late to change it now.”
“But father,” Topaz said, “how can you display a fake? The chamber is supposed to be a museum of genuine supernatural oddities and artifacts.”
Dr. Cushing put one long-fingered hand on her shoulder. “But it is a genuine artifact, my dear. It is! It’s the genuine skin of a Transylvanian dire wolf—a beast thought to have gone extinct in the Ice Age. Legends say that its hide is so tough that it is proof against blades, arrows, and even fire! And, from a few small tests I made—once I discovered the thing’s true identity—those claims are actually true. So, our ‘friend’ here would have had a devil of a time destroying it, even if he had managed to steal it.”
“You were going to destroy it?” Opal said to Paul, as if she could still barely believe his confession. She hadn’t spoken at all since asking Paul “Why?” and tears welled in her blue-green eyes. She looked more angry than sad, though.
Paul gazed up at her, feeling pitiful. “I…” he began, and then couldn’t go on. How could he have cocked up this whole situation so badly?
“That’s why you came here, isn’t it?” she accused. “That’s why you went to work for Madame Duprix, and took the room upstairs, and…” Weeping, she spun away.
Paul’s heart ached for her. He hadn’t wanted to hurt the girl, but… “Opal, I…” he began. “That wasn’t the way it was at all! What you and I had… what we have…”
She slapped him hard across the face. “The cards were telling me not to trust you!” she said. “They were saying tragedy followed in your wake! I should have listened to them!”
Tears streaming, she dashed up the stairs and vanished from the chamber.
Paul’s heart broke as she left. He hadn’t felt this awful since his wife and daughter died. Right at that moment, not even the curse mattered.
“Opal, wait!” he cried, leaping from his chair.
Dr. Cushing fumbled for his gun.
“No, Father,” Topaz said. “Let him go.”
As Paul ran after Opal, Dr. Cushing set aside his revolver.
“Well,” he said, “it seems things have gotten a bit complicated since I went away.”
That was the last thing Paul heard as he fled the Chamber of Horrors.
He ran up the stairs to the twins’ third-floor room, but found their door closed. Adrenaline coursed through his system, urging him to action. He almost put his shoulder to the door, to burst in, but then he heard Opal sobbing on the other side.
He stopped and knocked gently. “Opal…?”
“Opal, I know you’re hurt, but the pelt… It didn’t have anything to do with you.”
“I said, go away!”
“Opal, I love you, no matter what you think.”
“I think you should go away! Leave, Paul! I don’t ever want to see you again!”
Paul hung his head and staggered down the back stairway, heading for his quarters. What else could he do? He couldn’t have fouled tonight up any worse if he’d tried!
The pelt was a fake! After all the time and trouble he’d gone through—all the lies he’d told—so he could gain access to it…!
And worse, he’d fallen hard for Opal amid all his schemes. He hadn’t meant to—and he certainly didn’t want to—but it had happened, and over the course of just a few short days. He hadn’t felt that deeply about anyone since his wife died. But despite his feelings for the girl, he’d still acted like a complete idiot.
How had he never fully considered what destroying the pelt might do to his budding love affair with Opal? Why had he ever thought that he could steal the artifact and then just come back to her and carry on as if nothing had happened? Had he gotten so used to hiding his true identity and motives that he couldn’t even be honest with himself?
He stumbled into his second-floor room, closed the door, and leaned heavily against it. His head pounded. The air inside the apartment still smelled of fresh paint, but that didn’t make the place feel any more like his home.
Paul realized now how good his life had been—at least until tonight—living here, having some kind of regular work, and helping the twins on the side. The combination of all those things had almost made him feel human again, like he could have a life outside of the curse.
And he’d actually dared hope that it might be over…!
“I suppose that’s why I let my guard down,” he mumbled to himself.
In a daze, he wandered over to the dresser, pulled out the middle drawer, and found the bottle he’d hidden in the back, behind his underwear.
He unstoppered it and took a long swig.
The whiskey burned like fire all the way down. It felt like both penance and redemption.
Part of him knew the liquor wouldn’t help—not really—but sometimes it was the only thing that took away the pain, that allowed him to forget all the horrible things that had happened to him, and the even more terrible things that he’d done.
Though he didn’t remember much from when he became the wolf, the faces of the beast’s victims still haunted Paul’s dreams nearly every night.
Would he see Opal’s face among those people tonight?
No! He’d hurt her feelings, but he hadn’t actually harmed her—not like what he’d done to that girl in the woods… or that poacher… or those muggers on the docks.
But despite the comparative paucity of this “crime,” Opal’s pretty brunette face swam before him, even now, her blue-green eyes staring at him accusingly.
Paul continued drinking.
He didn’t stop until the world swirled to grey and thoughts of Opal—her touch, her smell, her kisses—were only a dim, pleasant memory in the back of his cloudy brain.
Finally, he set the bottle—now more than three quarters empty—down atop the dresser. His fingers fumbled with the slick glass as he did, and the whole thing almost toppled over. He only caught it just in time, and, with fingers feeling thick as sausages, he somehow managed to shove in the stopper.
He plopped down heavily on his bed, more of a cot, really; the metal slats beneath the thin mattress squeaked in protest. “Shut up, you,” he said, punching the pillow. The cot creaked in reply, the sound like fingernails on a blackboard to his ears.
If only his head would stop pounding!
But he knew the headache was his fault, too, and… No… Wait…
It wasn’t just his head. Someone was rapping on his door, very softly.
Despite the spinning room and his throbbing head, Paul’s heart leapt at the sound.
It was Opal! She’d come to talk… Maybe even to forgive him!
“Come in,” he said, fumbling for the light switch, not really sure when he’d previously turned the lamp off.
The door opened and a lithe figure entered and then silently shut the door behind her.
Paul finally wrangled the lamp atop the dresser into his fist and twisted the switch on. The lamp was old and the bulb dim and covered by a red, paisley patterned shade. The circle of light it shed barely reached the foot of the door.
But in that circle, Paul saw long, slender legs framed by a silken burgundy robe and a figure only slightly obscured by a purple gossamer nightgown that left little to the imagination. Paul couldn’t see his lover’s face in the shadows, but he could imagine her disappointment in him.
“Opal…” he began, his bleary mind groping for the right words. He didn’t want to blow this chance. If only he hadn’t had so much to drink!
Fool! the tiny, rational part of his brain chided.
“No,” said a woman’s deep voice. “Not Opal. Someone better.”
Victoria Duprix stepped into the pale circle of light. She looked like a Greek goddess, tall and slender with her long black hair piled up atop her head. Paul did not remember her ever looking this good before.
“Trouble with your young friend?” Victoria asked, her voice almost a purr. “I’m not surprised. Teenage girls like that… They never really know what they want. I, on the other hand, know exactly what I want.”
She stepped forward and let the robe drop. Even the dim light from Paul’s lamp was enough to reveal everything beneath her flimsy nightgown.
Without meaning to, Paul licked his lips as he tried to think of what to say. He knew he should tell Victoria to go, but he sat dumbfounded on the edge of the bed.
Before he could form even a single word, she straddled him and kissed him hard on the lips.
She tasted hot and sweet.
And then their hands were roaming over each other, tugging off clothes, exploring.
Victoria’s body felt so good next to his… warm and surprisingly soft for a woman of her age.
Locked in her embrace, and with the booze still sloshing in his head, for a while, at least, Paul forgot everything.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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