IN THIS EPISODE: …Dr. Cushing returns home to find his Chamber of Horrors in flames…
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CHAPTER 43 – Final Horrors
Dr. Leigh Cushing – Olde Kennington Park
The First Night of the Full Moon
Dr. Lee Cushing was practically bursting with pride as he drove his canvas-back truck beneath the shadowed boughs of Olde Kennington Park, heading for home.
This expedition had turned out brilliantly. The fabled Organ of Bones rested safely in the back of his ramshackle lorry (the best he could afford, under the circumstances), and the whole venture hadn’t even taken a month—scarcely more than two weeks, in fact.
“Possibly the best I’ve ever done,” he said, chuckling happily to himself. “Just wait until the girls see!”
He would rouse them if they were sleeping, and then the whole family would haul el Organo de los Huesos down into the Chamber of Horrors. It wouldn’t do to leave such a valuable artifact sitting in the truck overnight. Yes, the neighborhood of 1951 Fisher was very safe (with remarkably little hooliganism), but one never knew, these days.
In his mind, Cushing could already imagine the artifact’s resting place, right between the Bathory exhibit and the Bastiti mummies.
Thought of the ancient queen and her small court made Cushing wonder how the twins and Duprixes were doing with their joint exhibit. He probably should have written to them and asked, but since he was chasing down leads about the organ all over Spain and Portugal… Well, where would his daughters have written back to?
Too late for regrets about that, anyway. There would be plenty of time to catch up on things now that he was home.
Until the next expedition, of course.
Dr. Cushing stroked his chin, fuzzy with three days’ stubble. Now what should his next quest be…?
The trees ahead of the lorry parted, and Dr. Cushing glimpsed something strange ahead, something he’d never seen before in the neighborhood of 1951 Fisher. Was it one of those new, moving neon signs?
If so, it was an uncommonly large one. And he didn’t remember any establishments in the vicinity that might benefit from such a gaudy display.
Whatever it was, it was yellow and orange, very bright, and flickering like fire…
“God in Heaven!” Cushing blurted.
The Duprix mansion was burning from basement to rafters. Huge gouts of flame licked from the top of the now-skeletal roof into the early morning sky.
Cushing’s heart pounded, and he broke out in a cold sweat.
The girls! My girls!
He stomped on the accelerator. The old lorry coughed and picked up speed. Cushing fought hard to keep it on the narrow, twisting road through the park. Several times, the awkward truck nearly overbalanced, but Cushing hardly even noticed.
His blue-grey eyes remained focused on the roaring conflagration ahead. He could see now that numerous fire brigade trucks were arrayed around the blazing edifice, but the spray from their hoses seemed insignificant next to the howling power of the inferno.
Please, Dear God, he prayed. Please…!
He’d nearly reached the edge of the park, now, and he could see figures running back and forth in front of the burning building, silhouetted against the fire. Most of them appeared to be firemen.
Please, God… Please!
Now he spotted another group of firemen standing at the edge of the park, huddled around something on the ground, perhaps bodies, or…
“Oh, thank Heaven!”
Cushing screeched the lorry to a halt, leapt out, and dashed across the short distance to the circle of people.
“Girls!” he cried. “Girls! Are you all right?!”
From the middle of the huddle, two slender figures, one blonde the other brunette, rose. They were wrapped in furs, despite the heat of the blaze, and soot had blackened their faces. Their blue-green eyes, however, remained bright and alert.
“Father!” they both cried when they saw him.
And then they doffed the fur ran into Dr. Cushing’s arms.
The three Cushings embraced and kissed each other, tears running down all their happy faces.
“I’m so glad you’re safe,” Dr. Cushing said. “When I saw the fire, I feared the worst!”
“Father,” Topaz said, pressing her blonde head to his chest, “we tried to save everything we could, but…”
“Never mind about that now,” he replied. “Never mind.”
“You wouldn’t believe the things that have happened tonight…” Opal said, hugging him so tight that Cushing feared she might break his ribs. “…What we’ve been through since you’ve been gone…!”
“Plenty of time to discuss that later,” he assured her with gentle pats on her back. “Tell me about the others, though—the Duprixes and that man, Paul… Did they make it out as well?”
The twins exchanged a glance that Cushing couldn’t quite read, as if sharing some secret information. Cushing was used to that with his daughters, though, and knew they’d tell him everything they needed to—in due time.
“We’re pretty sure Paul is okay,” Opal finally said.
“He… he wasn’t working when the fire broke out,” Topaz elaborated. “We’re not even sure he was in the house.”
“No,” Opal confirmed. “No, we’re pretty sure he wasn’t.”
“And Vincent and Victoria…”
Both girls shook their heads.
“They’re dead,” Topaz said.
“Pretty sure,” Opal added. “Pretty sure they are.” And the twins exchanged another mysterious glance.
Dr. Cushing took a deep breath and smeared the tears from his cheeks with the back of his sleeve. “What a pity,” he said. “Of course, I never cared for her much, but he was an artist of great talent. Ahead of his time in some ways, I think.”
Another twin glance.
“And behind it, in others,” Opal commented.
“We’re pretty sure he was working in the waxworks, on the mummy exhibit, when the fire broke out,” Topaz said.
“We think his wife was home, too,” Opal added. “Maybe they were… working together,”
Dr. Cushing shook his head. “Such a great loss of artwork! And the artist, too, of course. What a pity!”
As the three of them spoke together, a fireman with a white helmet (clearly some kind of officer) broke away from the crews working the blaze and approached them.
He came directly to Dr. Cushing, but did not extend his hand, as it was covered with soot and grime.
“You live here, sir? With the girls?” the fireman asked.
“Yes. When I’m not traveling,” Cushing replied. “In the apartments on the third floor. I’ve just returned from a trip abroad.”
The fireman nodded. “Lucky you weren’t home at the time. Mighty lucky that your girls got out.”
“Yes, very lucky indeed.” Cushing hugged the twins close. “I gather that the Duprixes were not so fortunate.”
“We don’t hold out much hope for them, sir,” the fireman said gravely. “If they were inside of that… Well, something that hot, we’ll be lucky if we even find any bones. I’m afraid the rest will be a complete loss,”
“No, not a complete loss,” Cushing, glancing at his daughters, said. “Nothing near. Nothing near that, at all.”
“I take your meaning, sir. Like I said, lucky your girls got out. Even luckier that they saved some of the objects from your… exhibit.”
“Yes, I take that as a stroke of immense good fortune,” Cushing replied. “Though far more providential, though, that my children have escaped such a catastrophe unscathed.”
“Indeed, sir. Well, I better get back to it. Someone will drop by soon, make sure you have someplace to stay while we search the wreckage for anything that might be salvaged—after the whole thing cools down a bit, of course.”
“Indeed. And how long do you think that might take?” Cushing didn’t dare hope that any of their other possessions might have survived. Still, one could never tell…
The iron maiden, perhaps, unless the fire got hot enough to melt it.
“End of the day at earliest,” the fireman said. “Maybe longer. Depends on how much in there is left to burn against how much water we can put on it.” He tipped his hat. “Well, like I said: Back to it.” With a bob of his head and a smile, he returned to fighting the fire with the rest of his crew.
Cushing took the twins on either arm, and they all walked back to where he’d first spotted the girls, an area which he could now see held numerous items from his collection.
The fact that anything at all had survived warmed his heart.
“We saved all your books,” Topaz said proudly.
“We knew they’d be hard to replace,” Opal added.
“Not as hard to replace as you, my dears,” Cushing said, giving the pair another hug. Then his eyes lit upon something peculiar amid the collection. “I see you even saved my old ‘rug!’” He indicated the reddish-black pelt slumped on the ground nearby.
Again, the twins exchanged their “secret” glance.
“Actually, it saved us,” Topaz said, “you might say.”
“It sheltered us as we… escaped,” Opal told him. “We don’t know why, but it didn’t catch fire. Not even a bit.”
Dr. Cushing smiled. “I’m not surprised at all. I’m sure I mentioned that the pelt of a Transylvanian dire wolf could not be harmed by blades, arrows, or possibly even fire. Now we have actual proof of that legend. Remember, I told you it wasn’t the real Beast of Gevaudan, but I never said it wasn’t extraordinary.”
Both girls hugged him again.
“Lucky that old fake was good for something,” Opal noted.
“I guess we should have listened to your explanation more carefully,” concluded Topaz.
“Speaking of listening…” Dr. Cushing said, sitting down on the warm grass next to their artifacts. “I imagine you have quite a story to tell me.”
Once more, that mysterious twin glance.
“You can say that again, Father,” Opal replied.
Topaz took a deep breath. “And parts of it… even you might not believe…”
TO BE CONTINUED…!
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