IN THIS EPISODE: … Paul’s efforts to escape before the full moon returns run into a snag…
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CHAPTER 27 – Paul’s Dilemma
Paul Shaw (Longmire) – 1951 Fisher St.
An Afternoon of the Waxing Gibbous Moon
I can do this, Paul thought as he sat in a dim recess of Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors. The joint exhibit’s morning crowds had cleared out, and the afternoon surge of visitors had not yet begun.
I can get out of here before I hurt anyone else.
He could spare everyone a lot of trouble if he left as soon as possible—everyone, that is, except himself. Paul couldn’t run away from his curse, though he dearly wished he could.
I should leave today.
True, he hadn’t finished all the tasks Victoria had assigned to him, but those that remained were simple enough that any handyman could do them. Hell, Victoria or Vincent could finish them themselves.
And the girls didn’t really need Paul anymore, either. Between cold shoulders (which were their reception toward him most of the time nowadays), he’d managed to teach both twins how service the machinery and maintain a constant temperature on the Ice Man exhibit. They’d have to do more cleaning and upkeep of the chamber without him, but…
Better a little hard work than risk being torn to shreds in a week!
Something bothered him about that thought, though—not the thought of the twins’ possible doom, but another nagging sensation in the back of his skull.
Paul took the well-worn notebook calendar—the one he’d been using to keep track of the phases of the moon—out of his pants pocket, and checked it.
No! he realized frantically. Not a week! Only four days!
Could that be right? Yes, it had to be. He’d checked his calendar against the one on the wall near the entrance to the Chamber of Horrors this morning.
At least he felt pretty sure he’d checked today.
Why was it so hard for him to keep track of time?!
But he knew why:
The curse. The curse wants me to stay and kill the things I love—kill everyone here. But I won’t! I’ll beat it this time. I must!
He had to fight down the urge to walk to the exhibit entrance and check the calendar again, right that moment. But what good would checking again do?
There’s still time, Paul thought, tamping down his panic. And I still might learn something more before I leave… Where to go next… Where to find the real pelt of the Beast of Gevaudan.
Paul fingered the spine of the weathered tome in his lap: A True Historie of Werewolfery by Glendon Hull. Dr. Cushing’s library featured numerous books like this one—The Werewolf and the Devil; Man-Wolfs of Transylvania; Werewolf, Vampire, and Ghoul: Satan’s Plague Upon Mankind, and others as well.
Paul had passed by this small occult library, hidden in a corner near Dr. Cushing’s desk (and practically on top of the Ice Man exhibit), dozens of times and never taken note of it. He’d been too focused on the (fake) pelt to realize that the means of his salvation might be lingering so near at hand.
The key to beating this curse may lie somewhere in one of these books…
He’d discovered the precious collection after his dust-up with Victoria two days ago, and it had given him hope—and a reason to stay and work at 1951 Fisher a little longer. He’d even found a book on the Beast of Gevaudan, but it had only been a basic history; it stopped with the beast’s death and completely dismissed any suggestion that the monster might have supernatural origins.
People don’t believe in such things nowadays, he thought. But they should!
He’d been searching the other volumes in the library since then, but he’d yet to turn up any concrete information on what might have happened to the real pelt after the beast perished—if, indeed, it had died at all. Certainly, the killings in France had stopped, but in human form, a werewolf might move across Europe, and even the world, as Paul himself had been doing for more than a year.
Maybe that silver bullet in the stories didn’t slay the beast. Maybe they only killed a regular wolf, not a werewolf.
That would explain why his curse continued. And somewhere out there lived an heir to Gevaudan… Perhaps that was where Count Zarkoff had gotten the werewolf blood he’d used to curse Paul, though the mad nobleman had claimed he’d obtained the sample in China.
I can’t trust anything he told me, Paul mused.
But could he trust the gypsies, either? Certainly, Maria had no reason to lie to him, but the idea that his salvation could rest in destroying a magical pelt now seemed almost too simple.
I have to keep trying, though! What else can I do?
Paul’s head ached, and he closed his eyes, knowing he’d have to put the tome away and return to work soon.
He needed to be cautious in his research, only reading during his breaks, and never daring to take any of the books back to his room. The Cushings were watching him carefully, and so was Victoria—who seemed determined to win him over once more. And he had to admit, Madame Duprix was hard to resist when she turned on the charm.
Unbidden, thoughts of their lovemaking rose up in his mind, and he absentmindedly rubbed the shoulder where she’d bitten him during their last session. You could still see the mark, and Paul was careful to keep his shirt on when working now, despite the summer heat. He didn’t want anyone else to suspect what the two of them were up to.
But she was some woman!
Enthusiasm…! He thought with a careless smile.
“Not going to steal that, are you?”
Paul sat up with a start and found Opal standing before him, hands on her hips, her brow furrowed and her blue-green eyes flashing with disapproval. “None of these is very valuable, you know,” she concluded.
“I wasn’t going to steal it,” Paul said, a bit more curtly than he intended. “Can’t a guy do a little reading on his break?” He slid the book back onto the shelf, aware that her gaze followed his every move as he did so.
She doesn’t trust me, he thought. She never will. He couldn’t blame her.
He got up out of the antique chair and dusted himself off. “But don’t worry. You won’t have to keep an eye on me much longer. I’ll be leaving soon—leaving for good.”
That seemed to surprise her, and for a moment, the stern look faded from her eyes.
“How soon?” she asked.
“Soon. Maybe even today.”
“B-but you still have work to do,” she said, looking torn between anger and confusion. She brushed a stray lock of dark, wavy hair out of her eyes.
She looked very beautiful, despite her anger.
“It’s nothing that you and Topaz can’t handle,” he said. “The place is pretty ship shape now.”
“But what about Mr. Duprix? And Mrs. Duprix?”
Did she know something? Did she suspect? Or was there some other reason for her asking?
“You know, I don’t have to go, if you don’t want me to,” he said—and then immediately wondered why he was teasing her. What if she did forgive him and asked him to stay?
You do have to go, fool! The moon will be full in a week, and then you’ll kill again!
“Come or go as you like,” she said haughtily. “I’m sure I don’t care what you do.”
So, she still cares for me, even after all I’ve done.
He resisted the urge to take her in his arms and kiss her.
“Just don’t take any of Father’s books—or anything else—with you when you go,” she said.
He sighed and gazed directly into her blue-green eyes. “Look, Opal,” he said, “I know you and your sister will never believe me, but I have—I had—good reasons for what I did… for what I tried to do.”
“Most thieves think they have good reasons for stealing.”
If only she knew!
“But I didn’t steal anything,” he countered.
“You meant to.”
“But I didn’t. I… I’m not even sure I could have gone through with it. If only you could realize how desperate I am…!”
“Desperate enough to break my heart!”
He felt like she’d kicked him in the chest. “I never meant to do that.”
“No, you just meant to steal our father’s artifact.” She glared at him, her eyes narrow. “Tell me, Paul, if you’d actually managed to get the pelt out of its frame, if you’d stolen it… Would you have stayed, or would you have left for good?”
“Left, probably,” he admitted.
“I thought so.”
“But not because I don’t care for you, or your sister. It’s just that my… this curse is a death sentence to anyone I care for—”
“Ha! I guess that leaves us out.”
He ignored the jab and kept going. “—anyone near me. And until I can cure myself, every person I’m close to is doomed.”
Her eyes widened, as if she’d just thought of something.
“Oh my God, Paul… Did you kill you wife?”
“No, of course not! That was before I… Wait… How do you know about my wife?”
Opal crossed her arms over her generous bosom. “So, it’s true. Topaz told me you were hiding something like that, but I didn’t want to believe her.”
This conversation was swirling out of control, and it was making Paul’s aching head swim as well. “How did she know?”
“My sister is good at sensing connections like that,” Opal said. “She’s much better at reading people than I am. So, you are married.”
“I was,” he confessed. “But she died—a little more than three years ago.”
Opal’s whole body tensed now, and she spoke through gritted teeth. “And you murdered her.”
“What? No! How could I…? I loved her! It was the villagers… the Filipino villagers, those superstitious fools! They set fire to the hut we lived in. I tried to save my wife and daughter, but they…” Paul sank to his knees and buried his head in his hands, unable to go on.
For a long moment, he wept silently.
…Until he felt a soft hand on his shoulder. “Paul…” Opal said softly. “I… I’m sorry. Is… Is that why you think you’re cursed?”
He shook his head and tears dropped to the flagstone floor of the chamber. “No,” he said ruefully, “that came after, when Count Zarkoff… Oh, what’s the use! It doesn’t matter! No one but the gypsies believes me, anyway!
“The important thing is that I’ll be gone soon, and you and your sister—and everyone else here—will be safe… Safe from me, anyway.”
“But… Maybe we could help,” she offered warily.
He stood, anger rising up inside. “No one can help me! Don’t you see that? No matter what I try, it goes wrong! I’m a danger to everyone around me. You and your sister should just stay out of my way. It’s the only sensible… the only safe thing to do.”
Paul thought she might have reached for him as he stormed toward the front door, thought there might have been tears in her pretty eyes, too, but he couldn’t bear to look; he didn’t want to know.
I don’t need her pity. If she and her sister try to help, they’ll just end up getting killed. I have to get out of here! I only need to throw a few things in my bag and leave.
He bounded up the short flight of stairs to the building’s main entryway, and nearly bowled over a tall blonde woman exiting the waxworks.
“Oh!” the woman cried, startled, coming up short.
“I’m sorry,” Paul said, recognizing her as Lily Carlson, one of the Duprix’s friends and a frequent visitor to the waxworks. “I should be more careful where I’m going.”
“You should be, Mr. Shaw,” Lily said. She straightened the fashionable sun bonnet on her head, and then tugged down the hem of her knee-length blue skirt, which had ridden up her silk stockings during the near collision.
“Visiting Madame Duprix?” Paul asked, not wanting to seem impolite, despite his hurry. He didn’t need any complications with Victoria’s friends slowing him down.
“I’d thought she might go for tea with me,” Lily said, “but apparently she’s busy.”
“She’s in the waxworks, then?” Paul asked. If Victoria was working, he’d have an easier time sneaking out.
“No,” Lily replied. “I spoke with Vincent… Mr. Duprix. He informed me she’s taking a nap.”
Better still, Paul thought.
“Well, I won’t keep you,” he said, giving a little bow. “Enjoy your tea, Miss Carlson.”
“I will,” she replied, opening the front door. “And do be careful where you’re going, Mr. Shaw.”
As soon as she closed the door, he shot up the stairs to the second floor and through the servants’ hallway to his small room.
As he shut the door behind himself, he pulled the battered calendar out of his pocket and checked it against the one he’d pinned to the wall, the one with large, black “X”es marking off the nights until the next full moon.
Yes. Four more days left, as he’d thought. Now is the perfect time to leave.
With any luck, between now and that fourth day, he’d have time to find somewhere to lock himself up securely, a place where he couldn’t hurt anyone.
I should travel with my own cage, he thought, remembering all the animals he’d captured for circuses and traveling exhibits during his years as a big game hunter.
How he regretted that now!
Now I know what it feels like to be hunted… to be trapped in a cage of my own making.
Maybe a cage was what he deserved though. If he turned himself in to the police…
But they’d never believe him. And, if they were even a little bit careless with him during the cycle of the full moon, he’d turn the precinct house into an abattoir, kill them all.
I can’t risk it!
Far better to get out, away from everyone. To trust to his own devices.
He pulled out his valise, feeling the reassuring weight of the stainless-steel chains hidden in the bottom.
Opening the drawers of his rickety dresser, he began stuffing his clothes into the bag haphazardly.
“Where do you think you’re going?” asked a sultry voice from the doorway.
Paul whirled as Victoria crossed the room, seized him in her arms, and kissed him.
For a moment, the whole world was her warm body, her hot lips, and her tongue dancing with his. Paul’s skull ached, and everything spun dizzily.
Yes! thought one part of him.
No! cried another.
It took all his willpower to break the embrace.
“Victoria, no…” he muttered. “Your husband…”
“Has his head buried in his exhibits,” she said. “No need for you to worry—never mind actually leave.” Her hazel eyes gleamed at him, glowing almost red in the late-afternoon light leaking in through the room’s small, high window.
Paul found it hard to look away from those eyes. Something about her stare made his head throb.
“I…” he began, “…I can’t. I thought we agreed this had to end.”
“You agreed,” she purred. “I never did.”
She kissed him again, pulling his shirt down around his shoulders as she did so, and then kissed across his neck to his right shoulder and bit him there.
“Hey!” he said, startled, drawing back. A glance at that shoulder showed a faint trickle of blood rolling down onto his deltoid. “That hurt!”
Victoria licked her lips. “I wanted your shoulders to match.”
“How the hell am I supposed to explain these if anyone sees?” He mopped his shoulder with his handkerchief, and then pulled his shirt up again. Like the other wound, it was really no more than a pinprick, but…
“I’m the only one who will see,” she said, her eyes still locked on him. She looked… hungry. “I’m the only one you’re taking your shirt off for, aren’t I?”
Her last words were more growl than purr, as if she was daring him to admit that he had another lover.
“Yes, of course,” he said, frustrated. Wasn’t it bad enough that he was sleeping with a married woman without her being jealous, too? “But it’s hot working in the summer, even with the waxworks having air conditioning. It’d be nice to be able to take off my shirt sometimes without any embarrassing questions.”
“I don’t think the air is working quite right,” she noted, still predatory. “I thought you were going to look into it before you packed off. You wouldn’t want our exhibits to melt, would you?”
“Of course, not,” Paul replied. “But I’ve done enough here—in every sense of the word. It’s time I should go.”
“But I don’t want you to go.”
Then her arms were around him, and she was kissing him again.
Without even wanting to, Paul found himself kissing back.
What was this hold she seemed to have on him? It couldn’t just be the sex. Yes, that was nice after being lonely for so long… But it was hardly worth the risk, or the heartache, or the other complications it would cause if anyone found out.
She was kissing him harder now, as if she wanted to devour him.
As her pearly white teeth pulled on his bottom lip, he pushed her away.
“Stop!” he said.
“No,” she replied, and came back at him very quickly.
She tried to seize him in a passionate embrace, but he grabbed her wrists.
She wriggled her right hand free and slapped him hard across the face.
“You’d deny me my fun, after all I’ve done for you?” The sunlight caught her eyes, and, for a moment, they looked like blazing coals. “Most men would risk their lives for what I’ve given you!”
Her open hand streaked toward his cheek again, but he caught her wrist, twisted her away from him, and pushed her toward the door.
The shove wasn’t hard, but Victoria fell to her knees.
“I’m sorr—” he began. He hadn’t meant to knock her to the floor.
She wheeled on him, eyes furious, crouching and ready to spring.
In that instant, she didn’t look like Victoria any more, but rather like an enraged animal—a panther he’d cornered once in Africa. Part of Paul wished he had a rifle, as he’d had during that safari.
“How dare you?!” she growled.
Then Victoria seemed to master her anger. Slowly, she rose to her feet, transforming back into Madame Duprix as she did so.
“I could have you arrested for that, you know,” she said through clenched teeth. “Men don’t get to bully women that way in this day and age.”
“I didn’t mean to knock you down,” he said. “It’s just that this has to end—and both of us know it.”
“All I know is that you have secrets… Secrets that you’d rather not reveal to the police, if I were to call them about this or any other little… incident.”
A chill shot through him. What did she know? Surely, she couldn’t have guessed…
“I don’t have anything to hide,” he said, hoping that a strong bluff would get him through this. “I never stole that pelt from the Cushings—or anything else from either them or you or your husband.”
Victoria blinked at the mention of the word “husband,” and some of the fire drained from her hazel eyes. “But you were going to run off just now, like a thief in the middle of the night.”
“But it’s not even night,” he said, fighting to keep his composure. “It’s Saturday afternoon. A man has the right to quit his job and find a new one, doesn’t he?”
“Not when his… job remains unfinished,” she said, cool and collected once more. “Not when there’s still a temperamental air conditioner to repair. Not when he’s shoved his employer’s wife to the floor of his bedroom and would rather the police not find out about it.”
Paul pursed his lips, trying not to let his frustration show; she’d only be pleased with herself if she saw how much control over him she had.
“I’ll fix the air conditioner before I leave,” he said.
Her eyes glimmered with satisfaction. She knew she’d won—for now. “And the other things you promised, too.”
Paul glanced at the calendar, trying—despite the curse—to do the mental calculations necessary. He felt pretty certain that the full moon was Wednesday.
“I’m giving notice,” he said. “I’ll stay three more days, at most. I’ll work on the air conditioner and whatever else I can get done in that time. But, come Tuesday, whatever happens, I’m leaving.”
She cocked her head at him, like a cat regarding a tasty bird, and smiled. “Very well,” she said. “You see? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“No,” he said, feeling relieved. “I guess not.” Part of him felt like he’d fallen into a trap, but another part was happy that he now definitely had an agreed-upon date to leave. No more trying to sneak out. Now he could just finish his obligations and go.
“And you’ll fix whatever I want… do whatever I want, between now and then?”
Reluctantly, he nodded. “Yes. So long as I leave three days from now, on Tuesday.”
“Good,” she said, triumphant. “Then take off your clothes and come here. I have a job for you.”
TO BE CONTINUED…!
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