An excerpt from Piper Houdini: Nightmare on Esopus Island

This scene takes place the morning after Piper and Sal overcome the reanimated corpse of the recently deceased film icon, Rudolph Valentino, and have concocted a gruesome plan to dispose of it . . .


The Whole Ball of Wax

Lillie Santangelo stepped out of her apartment building and plodded down the sidewalk. Despite her twenty-five years, the spring in her step had vanished weeks ago. It was already a half hour later than the sign on her storefront door said she would open. Still, Lillie didn’t rush. She knew that nobody would be clamoring to get in.

Photo by Abe Feinstein

When their wax museum opened back in May, Lillie and her husband Ralph had been brimming with anticipation. Ralph had given the museum to her as a gift for their first anniversary, naming it Lillie Santangelo’s World in Wax Musée.

The newlyweds thought that by catering to the tastes of the bizarre, their museum would set itself apart from Sam Gumpertz’s Eden Musée around the corner. The Eden Musée’s biggest draw was its recreations of historical events and its lifelike wax tableaux of famous people like Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford—all dressed in opulent eveningwear.

Lillie wanted her museum to be different. No exhibition devoted itself more fully to the celebration of domestic trauma than the World in Wax Musée. That’s because the World in Wax specialized not in replicas of the famous or the sublime but in particularly morbid displays of gruesome events ripped from the pages of recent history—a knife-wielding murderess, bathtub dismemberments, and gagged nurses pleading for their lives.

The museum, however, did not focus only on death. It also showcased strange births. The two-headed baby had a starring role. As did Mum-Zi, a Nigerian harem girl who gave birth at the age of eight.

Despite their best efforts, however, the Santangelos’ business model had failed to make an impact on the hundreds of thousands of visitors that flocked to the boardwalk on any given day. The couple had talked about adding familiar political figures or celebrities to their collection. But they had already invested everything they had in the museum. Ralph had even taken on another job just to make ends meet.

It was the end of their first season. If Lillie’s fortune didn’t change soon, the World in Wax wouldn’t survive for a second.

She crossed the Bowery and came to a three-story brick structure on the corner of Stillwell. With its corniced Italianate façade, decorative panels, stone window lintels, and stepped parapet, it still looked like a music hall rather than a museum.

Poker-playing chimps were displayed in a window at the Bowery entrance to Lillie Santangelo’s World in Wax. The display of animated chimps was called “Cheating Cheaters,” because all the simian players had extra cards hidden up their sleeves!

Lillie walked past the side entrance where a display called “Cheating Cheaters” greeted her from behind a large glass pane. The display featured three animated chimps playing poker and it always made her smile. All of the simian players had extra cards hidden up their sleeves and under the table.

She made the left down Stillwell and stopped. A line had formed against the wall and ended at the corner. Most of the line was composed of giddy teenage girls who had way too much energy for Lillie at this hour of the morning.

She casually walked past them trying to see where the line began. What in the world could be so compelling that it would drag a teenager out of bed in the middle of the week?

Lillie approached the entrance to her building and paused. Young girls swarmed open-eyed and open-mouthed around the ticket booth. Hanging above the entrance in chicken-scrawled handwriting was a sign that announced, “Inside…Valentino Lives Again!”

Lillie’s jaw dropped. Someone had played a terrible joke on her. How would she be able to tell these anxious girls that they were the victims of a cruel hoax? It was exactly the type of negative publicity that the World in Wax could not afford.

She considered walking away and calling the police. Then one of the girls noticed the keys dangling in her hands and shrieked.

“Are you the owner?”

“Let us in!” cried another.

They all held out their dimes and pressed against her, vying to be the first one inside. Lillie had to squeeze between the frenzied throng to get past the ticket box to the door.

She inserted the key and opened it a crack. Then she wedged herself through the opening, slammed it behind her, and quickly turned the deadbolt before any of them could follow.

Ignoring their desperate pleas and their incessant pounding, Lillie slumped against the door and wiped the sweat from her brow. Then she looked up and saw something that hadn’t been there the day before.

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian actor and a sex symbol of the 1920s. His premature death at the age of 31 caused mass hysteria among his female fans and further propelled him to iconic status.

She hesitated to leave the door for fear that the mob would break it down. Mustering her resolve, she slipped across the floor to the center of the room where she inspected a wax figure that had somehow invaded her museum during the night.

Lillie found herself staring into the glass eyes of an otherwise perfect replica of Rudolph Valentino. The wax model was dressed in robes like the ones the actor had worn in Son of the Sheik.

“It’s so real,” Lillie said softly.

She looked around for a note, or something to explain the presence of the waxen sheik. There was nothing.

A gift from Ralph maybe? she wondered. If so, she wished he had told her so she could have prepared for the onslaught of viperous vixens that were still banging at the front door.

Lillie reached her hand out to touch Valentino’s face but then pulled it away for fear of damaging the fine craftsmanship. She quickly set up a perimeter of velvet rope around the waxen effigy. Then she returned to the door where the frantic hammering of nail-polished fists threatened to demolish it.

Before unlocking the door, the owner of the World in Wax paused to admire her exhibits of serial killers, domestic violence, and freakish births. Despite the grisly subject matter of her displays, however, Rudolph Valentino was somehow the ghastliest one of all.

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