LOVE IN THE TIME OF SCIENCE
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Storms and Lecture Notes
Universe in the Lake
The Start of Something
Taking a Turn
The World’s an Experiment
Secrets, Lies and Stolen Truths
Child of the Storm
Rats to the Slaughter
The Invisible Man
Dreamscapes of the Insane
Bloody Nights in London
Trill Mill Stream
A Shot in the Dark
The British Museum
Wild Roses and Empty Boxes
Prince of Blood
Starting From Scratch
A History of the Underworld
Apology in Blood
An Honest Gentleman
Bowing Out Gracefully
Creatures of the Sand
Ruffle of Feathers
Heart of the Storm
A Crypt for the Damned
Pieces of Modern Science
Cities of the Ancient World
Reservoir of Dreams
Returning to Oxford
A Father’s Return
The Age of Light
Daughter of Time
Revenge at its Cruellest
Revelations of Love
STORMS AND LECTURE NOTES
A ruffle of wings settled on the window. Their blur of white faded from the air as the creature turned its elegant head and nestled its beak between the layers of feathers, knocking the rain free.
The storm over Oxford hadn’t decided what to do, so instead it loomed, slowly grazing over the twinkling gas-lit streets. The glow of the city was just enough to light the underside of the storm in the absence of starlight.
A pair of bright eyes watched the sky, scanning the clouds as they rolled through each other. He could feel their friction and smell the droplets of water tumbling – ripping electrons free as they rose and fell in a maddening struggle. It was a scene alive with expectancy, like two lovers drawn apart, desperate to rejoin in what could only be a beautiful disaster.
He breathed in the energy, waiting for –
A river of light cut through the heavens and dove into the earth with perfect silence.
The air around it burnt.
And began reverberating through the sky towards his window.
Nikola felt the world shudder. His shutters rattled and the pigeon hopped onto his outstretched arm in a frightened flutter, clawing its way up his suit.
“Sh…” he cooed, tracing a finger down the back of its neck. It nipped him affectionately. “This is the best part.”
“You’ll catch something from that thing,” Helen climbed into the university’s attic, sitting on the floorboards before swinging her legs up through the hole.
“I thought I told you not to come up here?” he replied, still petting the bird.
“You say that every day, but you never mean it,” she closed the hatch and strolled over to the window, keeping her distance from the stray bird scaling Nikola’s shoulder. There was a storm raging over the city but it had not reached them yet. She could feel its cool wind kicking through the open window onto their faces. “We’ve got evening class.”
Tesla lifted an eyebrow. “You’re here because?”
Helen shook her head, turning her back on the window. Nikola had transformed the attic into a dormitory. A bed had been pushed against the far side of the misshapen room – meticulously made. The rest of the space he had proceeded to fill with whatever he could scavenge from the engineering laboratories. Mostly it comprised a concoction of wire – bundles and bundles of it.
“I’m here because I was the only one our lecturer could convince to come and get you.”
She frowned. “Not if you-” but realised her mistake, Nikola was talking to the pigeon. Helen watched as he cupped the creature in his hands and knelt down onto the floor, as if hiding from something.
A moment later Helen screamed but no-one heard it above the roar that shattered the windows. She fell to the ground, holding her ears and slamming her eyes shut as the small room became a beacon of light. The accompanying thunder pounded through her very soul until she thought it would break.
Suddenly, there was nothing…
She opened her eyes to a ball of light several feet across, spinning slowly in the centre of the room. It shimmered with what looked like shards of lightning branching off in quiet rumbles. The sphere’s surface rippled with burning veins that pulsed in brightness – humming.
The ball-lightning didn’t stay suspended for long. At length it rolled lazily through the air and Helen had to leap out of the way as it collided with a solid wall – dissipated and vanished.
The room was returned to darkness. Helen turned her head to Nikola’s quiet laugh. He opened his palms and the pigeon flew out into the storm just as the first sheet of rain hit the walls.
“Can we go now?” Helen hissed, clearly frightened by his little show.
Nikola nodded. “I’m done…”
“You’ll be well and truly done when they university finds out you put a lightning rod on the roof!”
Night class was easily the most poorly attended of all the physical science classes. A quick turn about the room made its avoidance plain.
The lecturer, stunted and balanced on a high stool at the front of the room, slanted over the black board scratching illegible diagrams in-between a series of annotations that lacked internal consistency.
By default, the front bench was left empty.
It wasn’t that the few students that bothered to show disliked being close to the board, or feared looking too keen – indeed, in different circumstances the front would be an ideal seat if only to have a fair chance at deciphering the board… In this case though, the stench leaching out of the lecturer’s jacket was almost visible on the air. Like a noxious gas, it kept students at a safe distance.
A rumble of thunder woke Nigel Griffin. Snorting, he rubbed a hooked nose on his sleeve and nestled his head back in the warm ditch of his arm. Several of his books were considering a leap of faith from the desk but there was one book the world would never take from him; his diary. It was not because he kept secrets in it – he was not a particularly secretive person – no, this book contained a detailed list of all his appointments and lesson times, observations and ramblings of the world. In his first year, he’d misplaced this book, spent the day wandering around in a lost state and finally ended up locked in a cupboard. Not something he was keen to repeat.
At the back, right corner sat the rigid figure of James. Unlike the others who were either asleep or scribbling madly, James Watson narrowed his eyes and observed his peers. Every so often he tilted his head, changing subjects. The lecture board continued to fill but he didn’t feel the need to lift his feathered pen for there were far more interesting things afoot than the eternal motion of the planets.
The twin doors of the lecture room flew open with a gush of wind, startling those that had been napping. A young woman with a dishevelled mop of golden hair dragged a wiry gentleman behind her, depositing him in the nearest seat. She nodded at the lecturer and then collapsed next to Tesla, opening her book where she quickly set to work copying the board.
Nikola rolled his eyes, spun around so that he was lying lengthways across the bench, and promptly went to sleep with his head irritatingly in her lap. Helen ignored him, brushing her hair out of the way.
“Mr Tesla?” the lecturer had stopped writing to stare expectantly at the empty section of bench hiding Tesla.
“Yes, sir?” came the half muffled, mostly bored response.
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about a bolt of lightning hitting the south end of the building, would you?” his very large, white eyebrows furrowed. The lecturer knew that the young boy was fascinated by the sheer intrigue of raw current – with good reason. He had what could only be described as affection for it; a relationship that was proving dangerous for the integrity of the building.
There was a long silence in response. The lecturer shook his head slowly and returned to the board.
“Let me know if you remember…” he muttered, picking a new piece of chalk.
Nikola, blissfully looking forward to his sleep, shut his eyes and started planning frictionless power systems. He’d just managed a smile when all the air was forced out of his lungs by the sudden impact of a heavy book on his chest. Coughing, he sat up with a start.
“What the…” there was a sizable text book in his lap.
“Niiice of you to join us,” a deep voice undulated over the air. It belonged to a tall, strong-cut face with a square chin and deep brown eyes. Eyes which trailed to Helen, hovered there for a moment, and then returned to the shocked Nikola.
“And who are you?” Nikola dusted off the book and laid it on the bench. He coughed again and then groaned, feeling his skin burn from the impact.
“I’m new,” replied John. “Well, not that new. This is my fourth class but the first one that you’ve attended since I started. Helen said that I should return your textbook and thank you for its use.”
Nikola opened the cover and saw that it was, indeed, his. Not that he’d opened it. His name was written in Helen’s careful handwriting.
“Thank you John,” whispered Helen, risking a glance.
“You leant him my book?” Nikola frowned, lowering his voice so that the ominous student couldn’t hear.
“Don’t worry, I relocated the spiders nesting on it,” she smirked. “It’s not like you missed it, Nikola. Now quiet, I have to get all this down.”
“It’s rubbish anyway,” Tesla shifted the book to the side as he scanned the board. “There’s a new theory about to be published that shows the earth is much older than that.”
“Maybe, but right now I need you to stop speaking.” She prodded him with the tip of her quill, which hurt quite a bit more than she meant it to.
It worked though. For at least two minutes Nikola did not say a word.
“Can I plagiarise your assignment on Inheritance and Mendal?” he inched in a bit, rocking ever so slightly until Helen flicked her damp hair over her shoulder and glared. “That’d be a no then,” he sighed, making the bench back into a bed.
Helen’s essay on Inheritance and Mendal mysteriously made its way into Tesla’s attic accommodation several days later where it was promptly skimmed, re-worded and presented in class where it received a B-.
According to the professor, Nikola had been marked on his ability to acquire answers discreetly.
James Watson, a creature who Nikola rarely spoke to except to taunt, held his own paper up so that its A was glaringly obvious.
“Your motor still bursting into flames?” inquired Tesla casually, ripping his own assignment into a thousand pieces.
James seldom bothered with more than one word, “Presently.”
“Excellent news. Let me know when your life goes up in smoke.” He tipped his hat and headed out the main doors to the garden.
Watson watched the strange man vanish into the morning. “Indeed…”
He was about to waltz off down to the dining hall when something beautiful caught his eye. Miss Helen Magnus, daughter of the currently discredited but once well-thought-of physician, was making her way toward him. At first he thought he must have been inadvertently standing in the way of her target but every time he took a subtle step she realigned her trajectory.
“’scuse me,” she started, quite out of breath.
He’d never spoken to her before now, except when handing out things in class and that one time they’d said an awkward, ‘good day’ in the corridor. James tried to look as pleasant as he could, shaking off his usual icy disposition and general dislike of conversation.
“Yes?” he managed, slipping his brass glasses into a more stable position, higher up the bridge of his nose.
Helen’s hands settled on her hips as she caught her breath. “I’m not wanting to disturb you,” she began, albeit a little suspiciously, “but – I was – wondering. You’re good at anatomy, if I remember?”
Not the first question he thought he’d be asked by the daughter of a doctor. “Presumably.”
“Would I be able to borrow you, for a little while? No more than an hour or so. If you have the time, of course.”
James clasped his gloved hands behind his back and nodded, curiosity getting the better of him.
UNIVERSE IN THE LAKE
James Watson crossed his legs, collecting his things into a neat pile beside the library table.
The university library was a conglomerate of too many years spent tacking buildings onto one another without the slightest nod to style. This haphazard maze was divided into two main sections known to the students colourfully as, ‘old’ and ‘new’. Anything vulgar built within the last fifty years fell into the latter category.
The old section was where James preferred to spend his precious time. He liked the sandstone walls, tinted green from centuries of rain and moss – it wasn’t attractive but they brimmed with character. Its aisles were cave like, dwarfed by thousands of books recording a history of human thought. Gothic chandeliers were strung between the towering bookshelves where a single librarian sorted through a trolley of books, painstakingly ordering them onto the shelves.
Today, however, he had been dragged to the new section of the library. It was bustling with near-sighted students snerching books from the shelves and piling them into towers on their friends’ arms. James raised his nose. The smell of varnish and ink permeated the air and tested his patience as he waited for Miss Magnus to return from the cabinet housing recently published papers.
“Still alive,” he made the observation of himself, when she finally returned.
Helen Magnus held several folders tied together with green and gold ribbon.
“They don’t like us borrowing these,” she began, sliding them onto the dark wood table before taking her seat opposite. “New publications except for this one,” her finger tapped the folder on top, “unpublished work by one of the university patrons. We’re especially not allowed to borrow this.”
His eyes tracked over the name on the cover, ‘Karl Landsteiner – On Red Blood Cells’ James had never borrowed anything from the library before, so this restriction did not concern him.
Helen undid the ribbon and gently spread the folder’s contents into a fan as you would a pack of cards. They were roughly printed on fine tissue-like paper with sketchy diagrams and hand-written annotations scattered throughout the text. Hesitantly, she folded her arms onto the table and leant toward James, searching him for something.
He stared curiously back with mellowed-brown eyes. A casual passer would not guess their sharpness but Helen was no casual bystander.
“I’ve been working on something for a while,” she said softly, “but I am wise enough to recognise my limits. The subject which intrigues me is young to the world and so the information I have been able to acquire is either scattered, incomplete or contradictory. Truth is, I need someone who has spent time on their own investigation of the subject matter.”
He wondered how she had known.
“Like me?” he replied, his voice softening to silk.
“Exactly like you.”
Helen Magnus had surprised James Watson already. His private obsession into the workings of the human body was not public knowledge.
“You intrigue me, Miss Magnus.”
“Helen, please,” she corrected him.
“Helen, then. You have my attention but not my trust. Frontiers of science are often a viper pit and my good sense is telling me that you are a cunning participant in the workings of the world.” James paused. “However,” he added with a smile when he saw that she did not flinch at the accusation, “there are worse partners to be had. I would like to know one thing before I agree to help you. How did you find out about me?”
Her eyes shone.
“That was easy my dear Watson. Someone had been borrowing the campus’s supply of glassware – that, and I cornered your dorm mate, Mr Griffin, in the corridor.”
“Secrets do not become him,” said Watson of poor Nigel. “The universe has entrusted him with the awful burden of honesty and no way to hide it.”
Nikola found himself hovering over a small stream trickling its way around the rocks at the front of the university. He followed it through hedges and encroaching lawns all the way around the side of the building and out into the rear gardens where it ended in a freezing pond.
The back of the university looked like a long, blonde-stone rectangle lounging on the iridescent green slope. Several floors high, it was dominated by a library at its centre with sweeping iron windows and Juliet balconies.
The garden was hemmed in by the city on all sides whose noise and dirt was kept at bay by a cast-iron fence too tall to scale and capped in fleur-de-lis. A planting of plane trees hid most of the city in the warm seasons with their dense branches of soft foliage. It was nothing like home, but Tesla preferred it to the building.
He glanced back at the rock prison with a grin when he saw the shattered windows and singed stone from the lightning strike. It would take them some time to dismantle the lightning rod adhered to the roof above his room.
Nikola Tesla knelt down to the eerie pond. The creek fed into it via a gentle, metre wide channel with a steady current at its centre and slow water lulling by the banks. Croaking in the long grass Tesla could hear his prey – namely smallish green frogs. He would need at least four for his next experiment and he had just the thing to acquire them.
James shook his head to quiet Helen’s constant stream of hushed questions.
“It is not safe, in my experience, to mix the blood of species,” James flipped through Landsteiner’s notes. “This explains why it is even dangerous to attempt transfusions between humans. The success rate is a little under half – not a mortality rate that appeals to me.”
“Damn,” Helen whispered, defeated. She had read the same thing a thousand times but she had been really hoping that the papers had been mistaken. She was about to pack up everything and vanish when James withdrew one of the folders and spun it around to face her.
“With an exception,” he said, enjoying the way her bright hair slid over her shoulders as her head snapped up. “I have found a measure of success in swine. It is an undocumented phenomenon drawn from principles in this report.”
“Could you show me?” her elbows took the brunt of her mass as she bridged the distance between them.
“Of course. I highly doubt that your motivations are sheer curiosity and I guarantee that you’ll find nothing further but mysteries until you start asking honest questions.”
Helen frowned. James Watson would not be as easily manipulated as she had hoped.
“Show me this experiment and you may ask your questions of me.”
Two great minds sized each other up and settled upon a joint disquiet.
“Tonight then,” he said. “My lab is always prepped. If you can stand the disorder, you are welcome to join me.”
Tesla’s frogs croaked to themselves, hopping around the woven basket that he had borrowed/stolen from Helen.
He lay on the grass, staring into the black water with an absent set of eyes. He thought about the rocks of the building grinding into dust, melting and being remade into mountains only to be pulverised at the end of the world. Then they would be a swirling cloud of particles, wandering into energy until even that dissipated – stretched to infinity. As far as he could determine, nothing was permanent in this existence. A life, memory and even the very soul was gone in the whisper of a breath.
Except for this.
Nikola sat up to watch the eddy currents swirl along the bank like tiny galaxies following the tide. He imagined the speckles of dust on the waters’ surface as the endless bank of stars sliding by and the ripples of the insects touching its tension became the endless propagation of gravity waves. Suddenly, what no man could ever hope to see was before him. Nikola looked at it and smiled, blowing a leaf across the water.
The scene was spoilt by a splash.
A muddy ball bobbed in the pond, destroying the subtle patterns of the water with a series of concentric waves. Tesla took hold of a nearby tree and stretched over the water until his cuff dipped into it.
“Urgh…” he muttered, dragging the ball back to the bank where he found a short, untidy student rubbing their nose in expectation. Tesla held the ball up to the snivelling creature who moved to take it, but Tesla withdrew, holding it well out of reach. “And who are you?” he asked.
The boy was visibly out of breath. Behind him, a line of others were assembling at the top of the hill, clearly waiting for the ball.
“Ni-gel,” he puffed, reaching again for the ball. “Com’on, give us the ball back.”
Tesla, who was both slender and tall, had no imminent desire to oblige him.
“I know you,” he said. “Aren’t you the one that snores through late class?”
“Hey man,” Nigel Griffin replied, “at least I bother to attend.”
Tesla considered this but was sure that there was little difference between absence and snoozing. Bored of this creature, Tesla threw the ball over his head, back up to where the others were waiting.
“Run along now,” Tesla shooed the student away from his presence. When he was gone, Nikola sat back on the bank only to notice a trio of frogs hopping happily to freedom. His basket had been knocked open by the ball. “Wonderful…” he growled.
“What is?” A flurry of black lace and blonde hair settled on the grass next to him. Helen lifted her hand out of the path of an escaping frog and soon found her basket upturned and suspiciously empty. “Did you steal my basket?” she raised her accusing eyes at Nikola, but he was engrossed in the stream bubbling along at their feet. “I’m going to pretend that you gave me an eloquent apology and believable excuse,” she picked up her possession, dusting the grass of its lid.
As usual, Nikola had not said a word to her. She liked that. His silence was approval. Had he wanted her gone, Nikola would have made her keenly aware of it.
“You’ll have to find your own way to class tonight,” she continued. “In my opinion, you should make an effort to be there. It’s the least you can do after causing damage to campus property.”
Nikola lost interest in the water and instead, lay back onto the grass, staring at the grey bank of clouds rolling over them. He felt a fleck of rain on his cheek as Helen joined him, stretching onto the lawn.
“Good,” Helen sighed.
The night was thick. Instead of raining, the clouds had fallen to the ground in a cold mist that hid everything but the uppermost level of the university.
Helen rested against the window, seeing nothing but a grey blur from the ground floor. The clock behind her ticked loudly and then chimed. Evening class was starting but Helen had no intention of attending. Instead, she waited by the window for James Watson.
THE START OF SOMETHING
He lingered in the foyer behind, watching her for several minutes. James couldn’t explain it or even reason why, but there was something distinctly sinister about Helen’s silhouette against the arching window that made him hesitate.
“Oh,” Helen was startled when she found James leaning on a doorway. “I worried that you wouldn’t come.”
“I am a man of my word,” he said, offering her his arm in a gentlemanly manner.
He led her up the double marble staircase and around to the main student living quarters. Helen had never been allowed here partly because she was a young lady in Victorian England but largely because she still lived at home with an overprotective father.
“There is nothing to concern yourself with,” James assured her. “The dormitories are as dull as any level.”
She rolled her eyes, far from threatened as he pulled up at his room. He knocked first but as he expected, Nigel was downstairs, nodding off happily in the lecture.
John was surprised by the entrance of Nikola Tesla, gracing the lecture with his presence halfway through. What surprised him more was the absence of Helen.
“Damages to the structure of the university tower have been deducted from your account,” the lecturer informed Tesla as he took his seat. “And the engineering lab would like their coil of copper wire returned as soon as you’ve untangled it from the roof.”
Nikola ignored the lecturer, instead flipping open a journal. Much to the astonishment of the room, he diligently began copying the contents of the board in a tidy font.
John found his eyes glancing at the door throughout the lecture but Helen never showed. There was another conspicuous gap in the bench belonging to an ever observant, rarely spoken James Watson. John narrowed his eyes, no-one had dared to take up Watson’s seat. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Helen held a handkerchief over her mouth and nose as she stepped into James’s room.
There was a bitter smell on the air that slipped down her throat, sticking halfway where it became pure vile. She gagged, bending over in shock as she simultaneously struggled for breath and tried to avoid it.
“You get used to it,” said James, closing the door behind them. He slipped a hand around Helen’s waist and lifted her back to her feet, holding her until she regained her composure. “Please, this way.”
The room was a narrow rectangle, more like a tunnel reaching for the small window at its far end than a proper dormitory. Someone had jammed a cloth in the window’s frame, sealing out all light and air – or maybe, Helen reconsidered, sealing the terrible stench inside.
Two beds, one immaculate and the other a mess of blankets and notes, were pushed as far as possible toward the door in such a way that she hit her leg on one as she followed James deeper into the room. A line of oil lamps burnt along the right hand wall, sitting on a narrow shelf. Each one had a bulb of oil beneath them, glowing in the firelight. She could smell the citronella now. Helen followed a black trail of smoke with her eyes and saw that the ceiling was stained by a series of black circles to match each lamp.
Four desks hugged the back and side walls in a U shape. A single line of glassware spanned them. Beakers, tubes, flasks, burners, heat mats, distillers, stirring devices and scaffolding were joined in a fragile arrangement. Liquids of different colours bubbled, cooled or trickled in their respective containers.
Rats. Filthy, wild, black street rats scurried about in cages stored beneath the desks. She could hear their claws on the soiled newspapers and their teeth testing the strength of the wire. Beside them was a roughly made wooden box open at the top. Helen approached it cautiously, half kneeling on the dusty ground. It was full of hay which, to her great worry, was moving.
“Our lucky winner for today,” said James, sliding the crate out into the open. Something small and pink was moseying about inside, trying to forage for a stray piece of carrot. “Hold this please.”
James handed Helen a slender knife so sharp that it cut through the air as she took it from him. He pushed her back gently as he reached into the box, his hands disappearing into the dried grass.
“Come on,” he muttered, as the animal slipped out of his grip with a high pitched squeal, thrashing its chubby legs. Once captured, Watson expertly wrestled it onto the nearest table, holding it down with one hand whilst waving Helen over with the other. He clicked his fingers at her without lifting his eyes from the piglet.
Helen realised that he was after the knife. She placed it in his outstretched hand, turning her head sharply when he cut down into the creature’s neck.
Paler than usual, Helen moved quietly through the empty corridors of the university. It was almost eleven and far too late to return home. Her father wouldn’t be pleased but he expected it – Helen was often absent on Thursdays after late class. Usually Nikola would drag her back to the attic to bear witness to his latest show. He wasn’t one to enjoy the company of people, but he still needed someone to share the world which he discovered with – someone other than the snowy pigeon that haunted his window sill.
Her stomach was still turning, but she could not deny the excitement she had felt as the first real science in her life began to unfold. This was it, she was doing something of worth; discovering, investigating and it thrilled her in a terrifying sense.
Helen found a small notebook at the foot of Tesla’s attic but no Tesla. That was odd. She had never known him to be anywhere but here outside of class – or perhaps the roof though he always left the stairs down in case she dropped by. Not that he’d ever admit to it.
“You’re drenched!” Helen exclaimed in a whisper, as a decidedly wet Nikola traipsed down the corridor toward her half an hour later, seemingly caught up in his own mind. He didn’t notice her concerned frown until Helen put a hand to his head to check his temperature. He was freezing.
“Did you know that the university has a pool?” he said, louder than was acceptable for the hour.
“No I didn’t,” she eyed him with great concern. “Don’t tell me you went swimming in the middle of the night! Of all the things to do…”
He fished around with a hook for the latch to the attic. Finally he caught the ring and pulled hard, bringing the ladder-like stairs folding from the ceiling in a loud groan. Without a word, he scaled the stairs leaving a trail of water behind him. Helen hitched up her lace skirt and followed him, carrying the book under her arm.
“This yours?” she held the leather bound item aloft as soon as she reached the attic. Nikola was busy lighting oil lamps – most of which were scattered over the floor. The book looked like a possession of Tesla’s – immaculate and generally unused, but the handwriting was conspicuously legible. Out of curiosity, she gave some of the pages a quick read and found that they were lecture notes. Very un-Tesla indeed.
He continued to ignore her, strolling straight over to a tangle of wires she presumed to be his latest experiment, dripping all the way as a stream trickled from his woollen trench coat. Helen shook her head, put the book on the floor along with her bag, and came up behind him. Before he had the chance to protest, Helen had slipped the coat off of his shoulders and hung it by the window to dry. He was left in a white collared and cuffed shirt which stuck to his wet skin. Semi transparent, hints of muscle and skin were visible as he crouched down. His silk tie – blood red with gold oriental patterns, was still snuggling around his neck.
Helen’s own clothes hung around her ankles as her full length embroidered skirt caught a gust of cold wind sneaking in through the now glassless window. Taking a bundle of pins from her bag, she tacked her ringlets out of the way and changed into a spare pair of rubber boots that Nikola left in the corner. It was a necessary precaution when in Nikola’s presence to insulate one’s self from the ground should he take a fancy to a passing electric current. It wasn’t particularly ladylike, but then Helen had never been a typical lady.
Nikola began handing her things as soon as she sat down on the floor as if she were an extension of him. He didn’t ask her where she had been for half the night, but she felt the need to explain herself.
“I’ve got a little project of my own,” she began, though he didn’t stop to listen. “Of a different kind to yours. More in biological sciences – Watson is –”
“Not worth your time,” he interrupted, “and not as clever as he lets on.”
“Yes, I am aware that the two of you disapprove of one another. Do you want to hear my story or not?” she reached out and touched his hand, trying to get his attention. A light jolt of electricity jumped through her skin, dissipating down her wrist.
“Sorry…” he muttered, moving his hands away from her. “It does that. When you’re on the floor the boots don’t –” He had a habit of not finishing sentences.
“I’m going to go,” she said quietly, putting the experiment gently on the floor. “You’re busy and you don’t need me disturbing you with senseless chatter. Goodnight Nikola.”
Nikola felt the layers of her dress ruffle past him, dancing over his skin. The flames of his lanterns dimmed as she walked by them, striding through the room. He stared down at coil of wire in his hands, closed his eyes, and then put it down.
“Stay,” he whispered, just loud enough for her to hear. “Please.”
Helen stopped, halfway through changing her shoes. “You don’t need me,” she said. “And you never wanted me here in the first place. I should have left a long time ago.”
Nikola got to his feet. In the moon and lamp light, still drenched, he looked strangely off guard. He was more alive when he had a brilliant idea, she could see it in his eyes – that glint of something she wanted so desperately to see. A truth on the horizon, revealed in an instant. It was what she searched for, why she wanted to be a scientist and what excited her about Nikola.
“I need you to hold this…” he pointed at an object on the ground but kept his eyes on her. The truth was that Nikola didn’t require anyone to help him, but he needed her. Ever since she had found him at the beginning of the year, staring out from his attic window, he had needed her. “Your experiment, tell me about it,” he offered.
Helen eyed him for quite some time before finally rolling her eyes, deciding to stay.
“Later,” she said, returning to his side. They sat down together, their eyes occasionally flicking to each other but never at the same time.
“Don’t leave me,” he said softly, not daring to look at her in case she disapproved.
Helen didn’t leave. She stayed there all night by his side as he created a motor with a new kind of electricity, one more powerful than any the world had seen. By the time he was finished, Helen was asleep on the floor beside him, resting her head in her hands which still clutched onto the useless piece of wire he had given her to hold. He smiled – something he would not let her see him do.
Finished, he picked her up gently and carried her to the small bed in the corner of the attic, laying her on it. He found a warm blanket and placed it over her, then blew out all the lamps, and reclined against the floorboards for the few hours remaining before day broke.
Helen returned home before breakfast, depositing various items in the foyer before staggering upstairs to change. Her father, Dr. Gregory Magnus, was waiting for her at the breakfast table, reading through a newspaper. He didn’t say anything, but Helen could feel his disapproval glaring at her through the print.
“I have to leave in an hour,” he announced, as Helen sipped a cold cup of tea. “Will you be back this evening?”
“Will you?” Like father like daughter. Gregory was often missing, out on expeditions or simply gone without explanation.
Gregory sighed, folding his paper. “You’re too much like me,” he muttered.
The latch on the front door of the Magnus apartment dropped, crashing into the lock. Shortly after, her father’s shadow tracked over the leadlight windows in the morning glow. A horse drawn cart rattled over the cobblestones, skidding on the dew. An old man with a curved spine hushed the gas streetlights while a trio of feral dogs sniffed the curb, hunting a long vanished mouse.
Helen finished her tea, calmly draining the china cup. Her heart was beating fast as a shiver worked its way across her skin. Finally, she thought, now that she was alone with the house.
Helen’s hand hovered over the brass handle leading to her father’s study. Hesitation – something she was known for. The door would be locked. Her father always locked his study door, mainly to keep prying eyes like hers at bay. Sure enough, upon trying the handle Helen found it stuck firm.
Undeterred, she slipped her fingers into her hair, pulling out one of the pins still nesting amongst her curls. With practised ease, she fed it into the lock, turning it slowly until one of its bent ends hooked over the locking mechanism.
She leant against the door, pushing it open despite the angry squeal unleashed. It was like trespassing on sacred ground – crossing her father’s office. Helen did it quickly, heading straight for his desk. She skirted around the side of it to the front section, nudging his leather chair out of the way. There were three beautifully carved drawers along its front. Helen picked the one in the centre, jiggling it open. The old wood was damp and stuck to the tracks but she wrestled with it until it jarred forward and her eyes fell over its contents.
A dozen or so letters were scattered on top. Digging through them, Helen’s fingers expertly hunted for the silver key hidden at the back of the draw. She held it up to the light and smiled. It was attached to a gold-thread tassel which would hold its own against any respectable treasure.
Watson reclined against the cool brick wall behind his bed. He was seated on top of the covers, fully clothed with his feet hanging over the edge and a silk scarf around his nose to dull the stench. He liked to consider himself an early riser, never wasting a moment of the day, but Nigel Griffin put him to shame, up well before the sun even considered peaking over the cloud banks.
With half an hour before breakfast, James kept himself busy reading through the folders Helen had been so kind as to point out to him in the ‘new’ library. He borrowed them, in the more loose sense of the word. Nikola would call it ‘acquiring’ and Helen might go so far as ‘stealing’ but Watson considered it a necessity for the greater good of knowledge. Besides, he would return them well before anyone noticed their absence.
Helen had been right. The information on the subject of their study was a mess of internal contradictions held back by the technology of the time. Several writers expressed frustration at their equipment while others had spent a good portion of their research time building more sensitive equipment rather than running tests. Work was going slowly. Helen was interested in knowledge at the very edge of the horizon, perhaps even beyond it.
“Awake already?” Nigel Griffin had opened the door tacitly, slipping into the room unnoticed. He headed for his makeshift wardrobe, ducking into it, searching for his overcoat.
“Of course,” James replied, choosing the last folder.
Nigel slung the coat over his shoulders, retrieved a satchel – checking specially for his diary, and then returned to the door frame.
“We need to open that window,” he said, resisting the urge to hurl. After the fresh air of sports field, his dormitory was almost unbearable except for – he sniffed again, more carefully this time. There was a new scent wading through the usual putrid haze. It was a faint perfume – oddly familiar. “Someone’s been in here…” he said accusingly, wrapping his fingers around the door. “That blonde woman – you haven’t…”
James lifted his eyes from the file. Their meaning was clear, but he backed them up with a stern, “Of course not.”
His dormitory companion raised a scruffy eyebrow. “Right…” he decided to leave the subject alone. “Well, four of us are going into town after breakfast to replace our quills. We’ll divert to the river if we can. I’d invite you along to join us but your default answer in cases such as these seems to be an irritated, ‘no’.”
James’s silence confirmed Nigel’s assumption.
The silence was too silent.
Their room was usually a quiet raucous of animals, buried in crates and cages along the far wall yet all Nigel could hear were the rats chewing at their bars.
“What happened to the George?” he asked, worried.
“Can you obtain a new pig whilst you are in town?”
Nigel had his answer, and he was not happy about it. George was a pet, though apparently not to James who seemed to lack affection for anything alive. “I’m no errand boy,” he glared, forever sensitive of his less than privileged upbringing.
Perhaps they should have asked first, thought Watson, but he had not been aware of Nigel’s attachment to the creature. “But you can?”
“Of course I can,” muttered Nigel, slamming the door shut.
Helen climbed the stairs to the attic, ducking under an ill-placed beam. She struck a match and the dark landing flickered into light. With her spare hand, Helen slipped the key into the lock and entered the attic. Before progressing, she lit one of the hanging oil lamps.
The attic was not your typical laboratory. It had a makeshift feel about it, accentuated by the overturned trunks posing as desks and the tightly packed crates lining the wall in a bookshelf of sorts.
She breathed deeply, inhaling the smell of knowledge. It was a heady mix of parchment, ink and burning oil. Helen thought that it was beautiful, in a forbidden manner. Her father never brought her up here. When she was eleven years old she assembled the courage to ask about the room at the top of the stairs. He told her that it was empty. Helen Magnus learnt two important lessons that day. One; Gregory Magnus was an accomplished liar and two; there was something of great value hidden away in the attic.
It was another three years before she found herself standing in exactly the same place, staring out at the room with a flame working its way down her match.
“Ouch…” she dropped the match. It burnt itself out before hitting the floor.
Helen stepped over it, striding to the largest of the trunk-desks. In the low light, she skimmed over its chaos of objects. Her father had never been neat, but this place was an exceptional mess, even by his standards.
It was odd then, she thought, when she saw a cleared segment of desk with an envelope laid out with its writing facing the attic door – opposite to the rest of the items. She bent down toward it, struggling to read its address in the waning light.
‘Helen’, it read.
She jerked backwards, glancing nervously at the door behind to make sure that she was alone. Helen checked the writing on the envelope again. It was definitely addressed to her. She looked more carefully at the way it was presented on the desk and it became clear, it was left there for her to find.
Predicting that she was already going to be in trouble, Helen lifted the letter up, turned it over and then slid her nail under the wax sealing it. It snapped off and the letter unfolded.
To my dearest Helen,
Time was short for us. I imagine that I have become one of your father’s stories by now, woven about in that restless imagination of his. You enjoy his stories I’m sure as it gives him pleasure to tell them well. It was my hope that one day he would tell you our story – maybe that day has passed. It is difficult, addressing a time that will not come for so long and for me, never at all.
It was my instruction that he keep one story in particular from you for as long as possible. If he has given you this letter, then you have already begun to notice the subtle changes within yourself – they said that in time you would.
Helen, you have a gift. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise. It is precious, unique and it is yours alone.
When you were fourteen months old you crawled onto a window sill and fell, three floors to the street. Against all expectations, you lived – unharmed save a scar behind your left ear. Indeed your injuries were mild and what little of them you had, you recovered from in days rather than months. The doctors did not know what to think, and so abandoned your case, putting it down to an act of God but your father and I watched you very carefully from then on.
You never got ill, Helen.
Your father studies, or I should say, has an interest in the extremities of humanity. He has seen variations on our form which test the very definition of what it is to be human. Some of his creatures are beautiful, others frightening.
He learnt that a small percentage of us have an abnormality. In all of his creative genius, he called these people, ‘Abnormals’ and began to devote a great deal of time and money studying them. Soon he discovered that he was not the first to cross this path, and together we uncovered a history of human diversity through antiquity documents up until the present day.
It became clear, like a flash of light across an evening sky, that you too, are one of them.
Time for you, will be an endless walk. It is your gift to move through its ages, free of the fear mortality brings.
Forgive me, for not being there with you.
Helen stood in front of the small oval mirror. She lifted her hair away from her ear, and turned her head to the side. A thin red line curved across her skin. Her fingers hovered over it. Was it even possible? To live forever – Helen refused to believe a word of it.
TAKING A TURN
She stacked her notebooks calmly, tying them together before slipping them inside her father’s leather satchel. Nothing had changed. It was only a letter. A letter from the past which meant nothing. Helen Magnus repeated her thoughts, wanting more than anything to believe them.
The tears on her cheeks had gone cold. She wiped them off, unsure of how they had gotten there without her approval.
It was mid-morning and the city was thick with bodies trying to reach their respective destinations. The university was within walking distance, visible where it rose above the other buildings. She could see its two sandstone spires, reaching up toward the sky with their tops stained, almost like the smoky peaks of mountains.
The sight of its steadfast walls drew her in. She had never felt an attachment to the place that she’d had to fight to step into and even harder to stay, but all of a sudden there was no place that she’d rather be than inside its hostile walls.
Helen joined the crowd of students trailing in through the gates. Aside from the wives of professors taking a turn around the gardens, she was the only lady making her way toward the building. The men noticed this, turning their heads ever so slightly as she walked by them. Most averted their eyes, returning to their conversations, maybe even throwing in an aside about the outrage of allowing a woman to study. It was a select few that greeted her with a smile, tipping their hats.
The truth was, the university had never officially allowed her to study within its walls. She was neither enrolled, nor on any attendance lists. She was just a woman that happened to sit inside the lecture rooms, furiously taking notes and handing in assignments for the interest of the professors who read them, not out of duty but curiosity.
“Helen,” a friendly voice approached. It belonged to Mr. Druitt, the mysterious student she had met several weeks ago, lurking in the hallway outside night class.
“Still lost?” she raised her eyebrow challengingly. They were both supposed to be in class already.
“Would your opinion of me lower if I confessed to it?” he smiled, a few strands of soft hair falling over his eyes. It made her return the smile with a slight flutter in her stomach.
“It would make me suspect of your directional skills,” she confessed, climbing the steps in front of the main doors to meet him. John was hiding in the shade of the overhang, watching the crowds scurry by. It was a favourite past time of his.
“Truth hurts,” he offered her his arm, which she took, wrapping her fingers gently around the stiff fabric of his coat.
Helen rolled her eyes, letting John escort her around the passageway which hugged the edge of the building protected by an outcrop of ornately carved wood. “This is not the way to class,” she noted, to his amusement.
“No it is not,” he admitted. “But I could not resist taking the long way.”
They did not say anything else, content to walk quietly in each others’ company.
Nikola kept a vigil by his attic window, brushing the remainders of the glass from its frame. He didn’t care that the shards tumbled over the roof tiles and onto the passersby below. She had not come to class and Nikola could not understand why it bothered him so much.
He had been alone all of his life, ever since the horse had reared up and pounded his brother from this life. Every time he closed his eyes he heard those hooves and saw his frightened sibling scream, reaching towards him. That had been his life until Helen had appeared, slipping into the back row of night class.
Now, when he closed his eyes, sometimes he saw her smile.
Nikola’s bony elbows dug into the corners of the window, propping his head up as he stared out at the city beyond the university’s gates. A few pigeons played on the breeze, soaring high above, hunting scraps. He watched them wistfully.
One broke from the flock to cruise by his window, buffeting his face with the flap of its wings.
“Not now,” he whispered to it, waving the attentions of the beautiful creature away.
They sat on the seat beneath one of the ancient plane trees. Its limbs spread out over the lawn, decorating it with shadows that shimmered in the breeze, rearranging themselves in an endless tessellation.
Helen’s arm was still locked beneath John’s, kept safe. He wanted to say, ‘You’re very beautiful…’ but didn’t dare. This woman’s reputation preceded her by two city blocks with screams of genuine terror so he settled for, “It’s a beautiful day.”
She agreed, stretching her free arm along the edge of the bench. Neither of them cared about the class going on inside the building. It was a sacrifice worth enduring and it was completely unintentional.
“Oh my,” Helen half-jumped at the chiming of the clock tower as it rang out over the university garden. “I should have been in the library hours ago.” Poor Watson, he would be waiting for her. “I really must go,” she said, freeing herself from John.
He stood with her, still smiling at the way she fussed.
“Would you like company on your long journey?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she replied quickly. “I find the walk reasonably short under normal circumstances. There has been enough diversion for one day.”
“Harsh,” John stepped back, allowing her passage.
She gave him a little wink, “The truth always is.”
James Watson had forgotten all about Helen Magnus.
His nose inched further and further toward the bindings of his latest find – the published journal of Claude Bernard. It was in French, which suited James. Languages were like songs to him. He learnt their rhythm until their lyrics unfolded and he could hum along in tune.
‘Medicine, like any other form of science, can be reduced to its mathematical base. Quantifiable principles, natural laws, predictable results – all of these should be applicable to the natural sciences as readily as to the mechanical world. It is only that the laws of natural things outweigh their counterparts in complexity that we are yet to discover their detail.’
Watson trailed his finger over the lines of text. He agreed. The world around him was full of detail, some of it too small for him to make out. There had to be laws to govern it otherwise the world he knew would fall to chaos.
‘It is possible to observe the crossings of these two worlds. Inside the human body are systems not unlike machinery. Their processes are quantifiable – especially those of the heart and blood. Like a machine, the heart pumps the life source around the body in accordance with a set of laws detailed in the following. Vivisections reveal these internal movements of the body. Pealing back the layers of a living organism such as a frog allows us to study these mechanical phenomena in great detail.’
Watson would copy these experiments, cruel as they were. He had to know about the world – every detail he could pry from its claws. His hunger for it would not rest. The secrets of life, more than anything, satisfied his ravenous curiosity and allowed him nights of peaceful sleep in a world he would one day be able to explain.
“Splendid, you are still here.”
Helen dragged a heavy chair halfway across the floor in a loud screech. The librarian glared viciously at the blonde, but Helen Magnus wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention. She settled her seat beside the window that James had chosen to occupy and collapsed into it, digging through her bag for a notepad.
The dreadful noise of old wood grinding against polished floors shattered the world he had retreated into. James looked up.
“I apologise for the –” she checked the clock hung above the desk where the librarian was stamping a pile of books with more force than was necessary. “It really is getting quite late,” she realised.
“It depends upon the length of your day,” replied James, returning his nose to the pages.
Helen was not used to being ignored, which was exactly what James did every time his head sagged toward the pages of a book. He had more interest in the writings of dead men than her bright eyes and curious mind. This realisation did not distress her, if anything, it intrigued her. Being taken for granted was refreshing.
Without a word, Helen produced a small, loosely bound book and balanced it atop her notepads. She made certain that its title was concealed as she began to read, giving her best impression of intrigue.
It took half an hour before James could bare the secret no more.
“I must know what you’re reading,” he said, attempting to lift the cover. Helen slid her hand over it, pinning it down.
“Nothing that would interest you,” she replied, flicking the page over.
“You are a tease, Miss Magnus,” James closed his own document, holding its cover up for her inspection. “I see that we will have to learn to share if we are to get on.”
She did the same with hers, and the pair exchanged documents.
“How very generous of you, Mr Watson,” she opened the new book dramatically. Her victorious smile shrivelled when she realised that the book was in French. Too embarrassed to confess, she suffered, skimming for equations and trying to make sense out of the few words she could understand.
“Are you unwell?” James touched her hand gently, catching Helen’s attention. She looked pale, though her cheeks had flushed bright pink. The combination made her eyes more blue than any he had seen.
The world blurred a little and Helen realised that she was not well at all. Her head was light, tasting the edges of sleep while her limbs dragged, feeling heavy.
“I don’t,” she stammered, raising a hand to her head as her books slid down her dress to the floor. “I don’t know…”
James lunged forward in time to catch the young woman as she tilted, falling from her chair.
THE WORLD’S AN EXPERIMENT
The students at the table opposite looked up, quills hovering over their pages dripping ink as they watched the woman collapse into the waiting arms of a young man.
Blonde ringlets scattered over James’ shoulder as her head settled on his coat. He was on one knee, easing Helen out of the chair and fully into his arms so that he could lift her. Although Helen was a slender thing, her dress and adornments with their yards of fabric tested James’ strength as he carried her through the library, curled over his shoulder.
Helen wandered in and out of consciousness, sometimes opening her eyes a crack to see the hallway flood past in a haze.
He did not delay, turning and making short work of the staircase leading to the top floor of the university. She mumbled something that he couldn’t make out as he reached the end of the stairwell, reshuffling her in his arms as she began to slip.
James arrived in the narrow corridor, barely wide enough for him to carry Helen through. There was an arched window at the far end, dusty and scratched from centuries of neglect. Above him there was a square opening in the ceiling, blocked by a folded set of stairs. With Helen still in his arms, James wrestled with a hooked rod, stretching it up to the ceiling where its sharp end caught the hoop of metal. He yanked it down and the stairs unfolded, revealing the entrance to Tesla’s attic.
“What in the…”
Watson heard a voice above startle.
“Mr Tesla, your assistance please,” James called out, moving Helen to his shoulder so that he could climb the ladder, albeit awkwardly.
Tesla tripped and fell at the sound of his stairs unfurling. Someone heavy was climbing them, about to peak in through the hole in the floor. Nikola picked himself up and raced over, sticking his head through the attic where he found James heaving an unconscious Helen toward him.
“We cannot both come through. Can you reach her waist?”
Nikola was caught off guard by the intrusion, muttering and spluttering that he could. He reached down and took hold of Helen. Seated at the hole’s edge, together Nikola and James managed to navigate her into the attic. She ended up in Nikola’s lap, laid across him.
“Move your legs, Mr Tesla,” James shoved the dangling legs to the side as he tackled the last few steps of the ladder. He was out of breath but far from broken. “Come on, we need to lay her down properly.”
Nikola stared at Helen’s limp body, struck dumb. He didn’t notice the gentle rise and fall of her chest, or the pink flushing beneath her cheeks – all he saw was her still form, dead in his arms.
“It’s Helen…” he whispered, not able to tear his eyes away.
“Well spotted. Now bring her over to the bed. Today, please!” James added sharply, when the young man refused to move.
Staggering to his feet, Nikola made his way to the bed, laying her onto the carefully folded sheets. James knelt down beside Helen, taking hold of her wrist. Nikola sat on the floor next to James, leaning in toward Helen with a frightened look. He had never seen anyone faint before. Its similarity to death alarmed him.
“She will be fine,” said James, moving to her forehead. She was hot, but not worryingly so. “Do not fuss,” he waved Nikola’s hands away from the sheets he was trying to clear. “She needs air, not panic.”
“I have no idea,” admitted James. “We were in the library talking and she collapsed. It is not an uncommon condition amongst women – there is probably nothing wrong except it being a particularly warm day.”
Nikola shook his head. “She’s not like that,” he insisted.
“Well,” said James, “she is today. Bring me some water.”
That disgruntled Nikola. He was not used to being treated like a common servant but for Helen’s sake, he obliged the brusque man. James took the glass from him and roused Helen with a splash of water. She sat up with a start, gasping for air.
“Steady on,” James tried to calm her as she clung onto his arm with such force he thought it might break.
“Urg…” she coughed, rasping for air as if it wouldn’t go in. James supported her back with his free arm, pushing her ever so slightly forwards.
“Nikola,” he hissed in the young man’s direction. “Take her other hand.”
Nikola’s eyes wandered to Helen’s flailing hand. He reached out and she caught it.
Helen sipped the glass of water, wrapped in an unused blanket Nikola excavated from the cupboard. She had stopped shaking but still looked unwell. James was over by Nikola’s experiment, kneeling down for a closer look at the unfinished motor. Ordinarily, Nikola would have shrieked and chased him off, afraid of intellectual theft but on this occasion all he did was give a disapproving glance in the other man’s direction.
“Where were you?” he asked Helen, taking the glass from her as she finished. She didn’t seem to understand the question so he asked it again.
“Oh,” she had forgotten about John and their time spent in the garden. “I decided not to come. I was running late as it was and I didn’t want to disturb the others.” It was a bold lie, and Nikola wasn’t fooled. He had lost count of the amount of times Helen had pulled him through the doors of late class with no regard toward the other students.
“This motor will never work,” observed James from in front of the small, metal and wooden object. It looked nothing at all like his own project which, incidentally, had a habit of catching on fire.
“Yes it does,” Nikola snapped over his shoulder. “It’s finished – has been for some time now.”
“A certainty, I assure you.”
“Never.” Nikola was on his feet, about to pace over to James and remove him from the presence of his precious motor. “That is the future,” he declared. “Careful you don’t tread on it.”
“It is a school project,” James corrected. “And just like the rest of us, the professor will grade it and send you on your way.”
“Leave it, Nikola…” Helen had reached up and caught hold of Nikola’s coat. “He is just playing with you. James – enough. Nikola is not one for your games.”
Though neither Helen nor Nikola caught it, James had smiled, satisfied. He had proved something about Nikola that he had always suspected. The world was an experiment to James. He showed no distinction between places and people, if there was something worth learning, James would find a way to learn it regardless of the social consequences.
“And what about your little project?” Tesla tilted his head in a bird like manner. He asked Helen, not James.
He was interested now, thought Helen. Jealousy did that to Nikola.
“It’s not your cup of tea, Nikola,” she replied, letting go of him. “Wishy-washy voodoo, I believed you called the science once.”
“Well, now I am interested,” he was speaking to Helen, but glaring at James, following the man’s every movement as he paced around his floor-bound lab. Nikola just knew that he was going to step on something important. Some people had no respect for other people’s property or the delicacies of –
“I can hear you thinking, Nikola.” Helen scorned. Sometimes Nikola’s eyes betrayed his thoughts more loudly than his lips. “You know, if the two of you could get over whatever it was that set you against each other in the beginning, you’d be the best of friends.”
“An event that will never come to pass,” Nikola assured her. James agreed, accidentally crushing a small coil of wire with his boot.
“All right,” Helen spilled out to avert disaster as James kicked the object aside, “we’re investigating blood compatibility amongst species.”
Nikola spun around, running a wandering finger through his moustache. “Why?” That sounded like a perfectly horrid thing to do.
“Why anything…” she retorted, getting a little snappy herself. He was always like this with anything she did, as if she didn’t have as much right as him to possess curiosity. “The topic was raised in one our assignments and –”
“We did an assignment on blood?”
“No Nikola, you didn’t, but the rest of us did. As I was saying, my father helped me a great deal with the research – it’s a passion of his.”
“Blood is a passion of your father’s… now I really am worried.”
Helen shook her head in frustration. “You can be cruel, when you want to.”
“Remind me what he’s doing here…” James stood in front of his dormitory door, unwilling to open it with Nikola so close by. It was night, ten minutes before their lecture but instead of assembling in the corridor they had decided to carry on with last night’s experiment. Helen’s idea, though she had hidden it well, prompting James into the suggesting through a series of calculated questions. He had forgotten though, how he had agreed to have Tesla present.
“He’s going to have a look at your equipment – see if he can fix that electrical system so that we can carry on with the experiment. Remember? It didn’t work last time.”
Nikola grinned menacingly from behind Helen’s shoulder. No doubt the medic had it all wired backwards. Nikola wasn’t thrilled about spending more time in James’ company but he was curious to take a look at what these little Frankensteins had been up to.
“Well, you are responsible for it at all times,” James eyed Helen sternly, unlocking the door.
The professor was somewhat dismayed. He was used to empty seats. It didn’t bother him that students dragged their bored bodies into his lecture at all hours, hobbling and grumbling as they took their seats. He accepted the empty front row as a compromise between knowledge and social standing. Their lack of interest in the natural world would evolve and one day they would all become decent scientists.
He sighed, turning to face what remained of his room. There were four seats in particular that he didn’t like to see empty yet there they were, abandoned. It wasn’t what they were missing that worried him, it was what they were up to. Even though they didn’t know it yet, the professor could already see that the absent four possessed the streak of curiosity at the heart of brilliance – a dangerous thing to leave alone.
John Druitt had been racing to keep pace with the writing on the board when the professor threw a piece of chalk at him.
“Check your hearing,” the professor said, before adding in his soft, wafting voice, “Would you mind finding the others?”
John frowned, “Find who?”
The professor flicked his eyes to the empty seats. “Off with you,” he turned back to the board, picking a new piece of chalk.
John blinked dumbly, waiting in vain for further instruction. He closed his text book and packed away his things. Find all of them?
“You’re late…” Nigel folded his newspaper, throwing it off to the side as the door to the dormitory opened. His eyes widened when a young woman followed James in who in turn was trailed by the horrible man from the pond.
“Urgh…” Nikola held his nose, “It smells ghastly in here.”
“It passes,” said Helen, stepping between the beds as she followed James toward the laboratory end of the room.
Nigel waited for them to settle in front of the desk at the far end.
“I’m not gonna name this one,” said Nigel, pointing at the box of hay.
“Probably wise,” replied James.
Nikola eyed the box, catching sight of a hint of pale pink flesh. “Why aren’t we naming the pig?” he asked, but found no answer amongst the scientists.
“Ouch…” Nikola shook off a large spark that snapped over his skin. It left a nasty scorch mark which he attempted to rub off on his jacket to no avail. “There,” he declared finally, as the tangle of equipment spluttered into life. The room was brighter now, baking under the glow of the arclight. “All it takes is a little bit of love.”
“He’s not bad, Helen,” James muttered, nudging the young Nikola out of the way. “I’ll give you that.”
The four of them closed in on the large experiment table which sprawled along the end of the room. It was creaking under the weight of the new equipment Nigel had been busy setting up for their experiment. Despite his manners and clumsily large hands closer in nature to paws, Nigel was a perfectionist when it came to science. His rough approach yielded reliable results, much to the frustration of James.
“Shall we?” James beckoned Helen closer. She came to his side, followed instinctively by Nikola who squeezed himself in next to her.
Soon, all four of them had arranged themselves into a crowded line either side of James, staring intently as Nigel produced a basket. He reached inside and withdrew a startled creature. Nigel passed over the squirming frog, holding it steady as James wrapped his fingers tightly around it like a clamp. Nikola smiled at the frog, peering back into its dark slit eyes. It was a beautiful creature with two oversized yellow orbs for eyes and extremely long legs which it was using to bat at James’ hand leaving trails of sticky liquid on him.
James flinched, appalled by the creature.
“The book, Helen…”
Helen knelt to a large pile of books on the side wall, scanning down their spines until she dug her fingers between them and extracted her desired victim. She laid the book open on the experiment table next to James.
Nigel unrolled a leather satchel to reveal a sinister arrangement of implements tucked inside its pockets. Nikola’s breath caught as he scanned the faces of James and Nigel nervously.
“What kind of experiment are we doing, exactly…” he asked. Helen was packed in tight beside him, staring on eagerly as Nigel loosened the buckles holding the metal objects in place. The look that laced her eyes frightened Nikola – he had never seen that grin upon her lips before.
James tipped the frog onto its back as Nigel selected four long, tapered needles – holding their slender shafts up to the light.
“Good quality,” commented James, as he unfolded one of the frog’s legs, holding its squirming appendage to the table.
“Only the best,” Nigel replied, threading the sharp metal through the frog’s skin, nailing it to the wood beneath. The creature croaked in protest. Panic rippled through its body as Nigel selected another needle.
Helen gasped quietly, finding Nikola’s hand. He barely noticed the brush of fingers over his skin as he stood transfixed, watching as each of the frog’s legs were secured. Next, James selected a medical scalpel and cut a shallow slit down the centre of its chest. Nigel pulled the skin open, pinning it out of the way to reveal its inner workings.
“Oh my god!” Nikola’s throat clenched over. His stomach lurched as the little creature’s heart beat steady, pumping the lifeforce through its splayed body. It was still alive.
“Now,” said James indifferently, “we inject the sample.”
Nikola’s body convulsed. He broke away from Helen, stumbling halfway through the room before hurling his lunch over the floor.
Nigel’s nose tweaked. “Nice,” he muttered over his shoulder. “Do us a favour Helen, don’t bring your friends along for the show next time.”
“He’s not like us,” she snapped, before venturing toward Nikola who was coughing and shuddering. “Calm down,” she whispered, placing a hand on his back.
“This is wrong,” he rasped, pushing her off. “What are you doing here Helen? God…” Nikola fell to his knees, cradling his head. Helen caught him. Her arms slid to his waist and she held Nikola tightly from behind.
“Get him out of here,” hissed James, trying to ignore the distraction. According to the book, they didn’t have long to complete this experiment before the frog gave up the last of its life.
No one had noticed the door to the dormitory creak open. John, with his hand still clutched around the door’s frame, was taken aback by the scene. The stench of the room was unbelievable, toxic and nauseating as he breathed it in. Helen was over by the wall, clutching a very ill Tesla. His pale face was the first to spot John. Nigel and James stood with their backs to the door, leaning over some kind of table immersed in the bright glow of the electric light.
“What…” John opened his mouth, but no more words came out.
Nigel’s eyes rolled dramatically as he swivelled around, turning to face the confused figure lingering in their doorway. “Another friend of yours?” he accused Helen, clearly displeased by the constant interruptions.
John stepped forward, dodging the beds cluttered in the walkway. There was something struggling on the table. Something small –
“It’s a living creature,” he said in horror, when he saw the tortured body of the frog breathe. Half a dozen elegant needles held it in place, quivering. A set of organs were nestled in its open body on display for the room. “This is the work of demons,” he growled at them, before striding over to Helen. “Come on,” he grabbed her sharply, pulling her away from Nikola. “We’re leaving.”
“John!” she struggled, trying to free herself as she was dragged unceremoniously through the room.
“Take him too, if it’s not too much trouble,” James pointed at Nikola, who had managed to stumble to his feet.
“Let – me – go!” Helen wriggled free, flicking her hair back over her shoulder. “What are you doing here John?”
“What am I doing? Our lecturer sent me to find you. I’ve searched half the university and where do I find the elusive Miss Magnus? In the men’s dormitory with these three!” He pointed at them, angrily.
“That’s not fair,” she replied. “What we’re doing is important.”
John shook his head. “This is not what science is about. That poor creature – what good will it do you other than a passing curiosity? What does its suffering buy you, Helen?”
“I can show you, John,” she said calmly, offering him her hand. “If you’ll let me.”
The carriage rattled to a halt. Its two passengers alighted, stepping into a torrent of rain which had buried the footpath beneath a sheet of rancid water. There was no thunder or lightning in tow, just clouds choked with moisture, alleviating themselves on the city of Oxford.
Helen hid under a hooded jacket, dodging a stray dog as she opened the ornate door to the townhouse and disappeared inside followed closely by John. Dripping, she turned up the gas lights. The hallway flickered into view. John undid his soggy coat and hung it on the hallstand.
“Come on,” she beckoned him down the corridor toward a set of stairs leading up toward the ceiling.
“My father is more than a doctor,” she confessed, taking the steps carefully. Helen held a lamp aloft in one hand and gripped the fragile railing with her other. She ducked under a stray beam of wood at the landing. John only ducked lower, already slouching his tall figure. “His passion for the workings of the human body led him to startling discoveries…”
He watched her slide a silver and gold key into the lock. Its beauty put the old door to shame. Helen turned the key until it clicked. “He likes keys,” she added, “something about the unlocking of secrets.”
“And treasure,” added John, as the door creaked open revealing a dark expanse.
After lighting the hanging lamps, Helen rifled through one of the upturned desks until she found a leather diary.
“My father’s life work,” she said, running her thumb lovingly over the book’s spine. “Treatments and cures to all manner of afflictions. The deeper he dug into the intricacies of humanity, the more disturbed he became. John, we’re not divine beings – humanity is greater than that, more diverse.”
“This is not good for you,” John approached, but she stepped away, opening the journal to reveal a detailed sketch of a frightening form. It was a creature, hunched with hardened skin, cracked like scales with spines of bone along its back.
“What he found shocked him,” she continued. “A world full of monsters.”
“There are more things in this life than we should know,” he replied. John’s voice was low and steady, as if trying to coax a wild animal out of its den. Helen was not one to be lured. “Just leave this,” he said softly, “and come with me.”
“You don’t understand,” Helen replied firmly. “They were not monsters – what my father found. They were people born with anomalous conditions. There is so much to learn – how can I ignore it?”
They made their way back downstairs and seated themselves in Helen’s modest lounge room. The room was dim, lit by the hallway behind. The rain outside fell harder, pounding into the glass windows with such force that Helen could feel each drop pounding through the air. John edged forward beside her.
“Listen to me,” he eyed her sternly, cupping her tiny hands in his. “There is something higher than science –” she was about to groan, “and that is morality. Before every step ask yourself not, ‘is this progress’ but ‘is this right’. That is the mark of a true scientist, something your friends have yet to grasp. You have talent. Do not waste it on these digressions.”
“Hardly a digression,” she protested. “This is the work of lifetimes.”
“But not yours,” John’s hand moved to her cheek, tenderly stroking it. Amidst her vehement defence, a tear had slid down her cheek and was going cold when he brushed it away. “Find a better way to study them, these anomalous conditions. You are brilliant,” he grinned, and she finally smiled. “So prove it.”
Eventually she nodded.
“Will you help me?”
They stood up together. He let go of her and allowed himself to be led to the front door.
“Nothing would please me more,” he admitted, collecting his coat and stepping back out into the storm. He descended the first of the three steps from the door, levelling his height off so that he could stare directly at her. He lingered, a breath shy of her lips. Helen blushed and retreated into the house, ducking behind the door.
It was no easy thing to sell benevolence to the others…
“Absolute absurdity – the woman’s gone mad – women in general,” James had said, snapping his book shut before finally relinquishing it.
“We’re returning this one to the library,” Helen replied sternly.
Eventually they came around. Helen’s talents extended beyond science into the realm of persuasion. As for Nikola, he seemed content as long as they weren’t torturing frogs. They set a regular date to meet and explore the world of science beyond their lectures – every Thursday evening. The unnamed pig became a pet, saved from an unpleasant fate.
Helen set about organising the dormitory into a proper laboratory. She pilfered whatever she could from the old man in charge of the university’s supplies, stockpiling it along the walls of the dorm. The library suffered heavy losses with all of its lost books ending up safely piled in Nikola’s attic except for one casualty, sacrificed in the name of science or as Nikola often insisted, ‘a completely accidental accident’.
Their collective name also came about via accident. As they made their daily strut from the lunch rooms to the garden, one student set to calling, ‘them five!’ as they passed. They travelled in a pack now, and the name stuck. James tweaked it a bit of course, improving on its grammar.
‘The Five’ made them feel like they were part of something. They weren’t really but that didn’t matter.
Nikola’s opinion of Nigel improved, if only because he found the strange man particularly skilled at acquiring equipment. Honestly, Nikola had never had so much wire to play with which resulted in weekly direct hits to the building by cruising lightning storms. Helen had less luck with Nigel, choosing to keep out of his way. He made no secret of his dislike of her; often neglecting to greet her is she arrived in a group of flat insulting her intelligence at every opportunity. James and John – now there was a curious bond. They were never particularly fond of one another, but their intellects delighted in the challenge. Deconstructing the other was an entertainment that they could sustain happily for hours and whenever they got bored with that, they returned to their other favourite past time, a shared dislike of Nikola.
It was another late night. Helen was tucked into a chair, half asleep as she read through a stolen library journal. A loud ‘crash’ startled her when the front door flew open and her father hurried in, slamming and locking it behind him. Gregory Magnus went directly to his study where he collapsed into his chair and began furiously writing a letter.
Helen closed the book on her lap and crept to her father’s study. She hung in the doorway, watching him tilt a candle over the folded letter, letting its wax drip. He pushed a seal into it and sighed heavily, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.
Her father was filthy. His clothing had been torn and soaked in mud. There were scratches across his forehead, some of them bleeding, and a deep gash over his hand which he’d covered with a piece of fabric torn from his shirt. She could smell the remnants of a peat bog and an overpowering dose of kerosene in the air.
“Father,” she whispered, catching Gregory’s attention. He looked up at Helen as if he’d forgotten all about her existence.
“Helen – go to your room at once and lock the door,” he instructed. Gregory undid the lid on one of the crystal vessels containing scotch. He did not bother with a glass, swigging directly from the bottle. “Quickly!” he hurried her, when she failed to move.
Helen hadn’t seen her father in weeks and now he turned up, looking like he’d spent that time crawling through sewers.
“Why?” she asked, stepping into the room. Gregory would have none of this, flaring into a rage uncharacteristic of him.
“This is no time for, ‘why’!” he yelled, swiping the letter off the desk and burying it in his coat. “Do as I say and I’ll come back for you.” Gregory fled toward her, snatching the metal poker from beside the fire on his way. “I am sorry,” he said, calming enough to kiss his daughter on the head. “But you must hide. Promise you will do that for me. Take this,” he added, withdrawing a small package wrapped in damp brown paper and fastened with string. “Hide it. Keep it safe.”
There was a terror in his eyes that halted her questions. Helen simply nodded and let her father vanish back onto the streets, consumed by the night.
SECRETS, LIES AND STOLEN TRUTHS
Helen turned and took the corridor at a run, flinging the door to her bedroom open, not caring as it slammed against the wall. She held the mysterious parcel tightly as her eyes searched the room. Shelves, trunk, lamp-lit desk – all too obvious. Her heart pounded. She had never seen her father afraid before – fearful, yes, before any new experiment his eyes would widen, darken with the wonderful dread that the unknown provoked but tonight he had been truly afraid.
She caught the door as it bounced back and locked it, sliding down its surface until she hit the ground.
“Think…” she eyed the room until a smile flicked across her lips. Cedar drawers; well loved in this and their previous life. Helen crawled over to them, sliding the bottom one open. She buried the parcel deep in the back, concealed by veils of lace and garters where no self-respecting thief would dare follow.
Helen had intended to stay put – hidden safely away as her father had instructed, but as the seconds itched on she couldn’t bare it. Helen unlatched the door and returned to the foyer where she pulled a jacket from the hallstand and wrapped it around herself.
The trees, sparsely placed along the avenue, shivered. Their wet leaves glistened like a thousand mirrors to the moonlight until they broke loose and fell away just as fickly, blanketing the ground. A wind kicked over Helen as she dodged soggy newspapers, tumbling over each other. She stepped between the soft circles of light beneath each lamp post. Her father was ahead, paused at the crossroad, unable to choose between the cracked veneers of stone walls.
Few people had the courage to venture into the streets after dark. Thieves swarmed like rats over the city, driven to desperation by an uncompromising age of enterprise. Even Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, could not escape the modern age with its silent class, rippling through the evening, flickering and dying. Helen knew that she hovered only just beyond their reach, only a few pounds from poverty.
Gregory Magnus chose the side street on his left. Helen closed in, bringing herself to a stop at the corner where she found a shadow and sunk into it. Archways and barred windows leaned over the street, boxing her and her father into a tunnel. The public lighting ended halfway down the cobble stone road leaving a sweeping shadow cutting off the remainder from existence. Beyond that curtain of darkness lurked all kind of street creature. Gregory approached it, tentatively walking along the dark edge.
Helen stepped back, making sure that she was hidden as the forms of several men emerged out of the shadows in front of her father. First, they appeared as a series of ghostly faces but gradually they grew into a set of well dressed businessmen. Her father turned to face them, drifting backwards cautiously, drawing his company out into the light.
“Doctor,” said one of them in greeting, slinking ahead of the others. He was a tall man with a leg that threatened to buckle with every step. He leant heavily on his cane as he spoke, “Trying to escape?”
Gregory chuckled nervously, checking the buttons on his coat before wiping a smear of mud off his neck with a handkerchief. “Of course not,” he replied. “I was – was looking for you.”
The remainder of the ‘pack’ waited behind, never quite making it into view. Helen stretched herself along the wall, inching closer. She was able to make out most of the conversation even though all parties kept their voices hushed.
“I am curious to see what our money had bought,” the man continued.
“You lied to me,” Gregory pointed sharply, white handkerchief still in hand. “I have done some of my own research – run into a few old friends. The Cabal may be a private research organisation but you are also in partnership with one of the most evil businesses this side of the century.” A train rattled past in the distance, screeching to a halt at Oxford’s new station. “You think that people won’t learn what you’re doing? The money that you paid me was no better than blood.”
The man glanced down at the pavement, lowering his voice into a harsh drone that broke intermittently as if his veneer of civility was cracking with it. “Enough of this time wasting.” His eyes returned to Magnus. “Where are the samples?”
“I destroyed them.”
He laughed. “That is your plan, Doctor?” he sneered, with an air of disbelief. “Poorly execute a lie and then expect me to simply let you go? You are a man of science, Magnus. I know what that means. Those samples are too important to your personal agenda to simply destroy. If you hand them over now, I may even let you keep one – as a gesture of good faith for our future business dealings.”
“I already told you, I destroyed them. Our arrangement is finished.”
There was a subtle tap of his cane on the ground. The others jumped forward, taking Gregory by the arms. They flung him against one of the walls so hard that he groaned, jarring in pain. The man rubbed his face, tired of people who fought the inevitable. Progress didn’t pretend to be pretty – it was brutal.
“One more time, Doctor.”
This time, a curl lingered on Gregory’s lips as his weather worn face grinned at the night. “You will never find them…” he whispered in defiance.
The man reached into his coat and brought out a gun, cocking it with a sinister click. Helen gasped loudly, covering her mouth too late to stop the noise reaching the huddle of gentlemen. They heard it, snapping their heads around to see a blonde woman hiding on the corner of the street, watching events unfold with more than a passing interest. Gregory saw her too and his heart sank.
“Bring her…” muttered the man.
Helen turned, hitched up her skirt, and bolted through the street, narrowly avoiding the hooves a a passing night-carriage which skidded to a halt behind her in a cloud of dust. The two men to follow navigated around the whining horse as it reared up.
“Whoa, whoa…” the coachman hushed, as the carriage tilted dangerously.
The park wall’s sandstone ripped her skirt as she half-jumped, half-fell over it, leaving tattered ends of lace flapping in the wind. Her pursuers cleared the wall easily, hitting the grass at a run as they searched and quickly found her not far ahead.
At night, the park was pitch black, protected by walls of trees keeping it well out of reach of the street lights. There were people moving about within it; lovers hiding away from the world, beggars curled up against the cold with animals stealing scraps from the grass beside them.
The ground was soft under her feet, and though Helen was a strong runner, her dress tangled and caught under her feet. Soon she was tumbling down a gentle hill with her arms flailing as wet mud coated her. She was headed for a shallow pond which lay under the only gap in the trees. A perfect reflection of the moon was disturbed by a drifting duck, leaving a wake behind its furry form.
Helen’s world was a blur of cold, pain and blackness until the men plucked her from the ground and held her until she could stand.
“A little ‘thank you’ would be nice,” said one of them, still panting. Helen was trying to scratch her way free of them, shouting to anyone who would listen. “Water that cold, you might be dead.”
They dragged her back to the alleyway where the leader had been prompting Gregory for information, as evidenced by the fresh bruises.
“Claim’s she’s a working girl…” they said in unison. Helen looked the part with filthy, torn clothes, and ratty hair limply blowing in the wind. Her father didn’t dare look at her.
“Bring her with us?” it was a question posed by one of the men that had stayed behind. His knuckles were red.
The leader waved them off. “She’s cheap.”
“So what do we do with her, leave her here?”
Helen averted her eyes as the leader left her father and hobbled toward her, leaning heavily on his stick. “What did you see, sweetie?” he asked her, suggestively.
“Nothin’,” Helen mumbled, wincing as the two beside her tightened their grip.
“We better be sure,” he whispered back, leaning over her. She didn’t see his free hand raised above her head, about to come down sharply.
“Wait,” Gregory pushed off from the wall, stumbling forwards. “Wait,” he repeated. “Let her go – I’ll get your samples back.”
“Back?” the tall man withdrew his hand and eyed Gregory curiously.
“I scattered them so that you would never be able to locate them should precisely this happen.”
“But, if I let this working girl go – you’ll get them for me? Why?”
“That is my business,” said Gregory. “I need two weeks.”
“You try my patience, Doctor. I’ll give you one week and if you don’t present with the samples you promised and we paid for, then our next meeting will be less pleasant.” The man flicked his eyes up and his company threw Helen unceremoniously to the ground.
Helen and Gregory sat opposite each other, staring across Magnus’s desk in silence for a long time. She realised now that the secrets she thought that she knew about her father were pitiful in comparison with the truth.
He had taken hold of his quill, running the white feather through his fingers in an endless pattern. Gregory had no idea how to begin an explanation for his actions – his entire life. He tried several times but none of these attempts reached beyond a small clearing of his throat.
The firelight flickered behind them. Helen could not take her eyes off of her father. She decided to approach the issue from the side, step carefully around the elephant.
“The Cabal, they are a private research facility – research into what exactly?”
This is the conversation that Gregory had spent his life avoiding, ever since the death of his wife Patricia, all those years ago in South America. “I am not certain,” he replied. “Though I suspect their interests are similar to mine.”
“Which are…” he was being intentionally cryptic, and Helen was sick of all the secrets.
“Helen,” he replaced the beautiful quill in its holder. “You have tremendous potential as a scientist. The lecturers must agree, otherwise they would have chased you off long ago –”
Helen stood from her chair, pacing away from the table in frustration. Slowly she turned, approaching once again but this time with an expression somewhere between tears and desperation.
“You,” she started, placing her hands on the table, “are the most talented medical researcher I have ever known and yet you keep your most important work hidden from the world. From me.”
Gregory didn’t know how to respond. Somewhere along the way his daughter had grown up, changed from a little girl with a fascination of the world into a scientist as driven as him. Her questions had simmered for a decade and now they burnt their way past him. He looked away as she continued, unable to face her sharp eyes.
“If you truly believe that I have potential father,” Helen leant even closer, resolute in her plea, “please help me achieve it.”
He had sworn never to do this but he had never been able to refuse his daughter anything. She was intelligent, a little too much so for her own good. If he didn’t share with her his secrets, she would hunt them out anyway. Without guidance – Gregory shuddered to think what she could become.
Gregory took his daughter’s hand. He led her to the far back corner of his office to a door that she had never been through.
“The attic you know about by now,” he said plainly. “I admit, I let it happen but it is nothing but a storehouse for old notes and relatively benign research.”
Helen couldn’t explain why, but she felt betrayed.
“This,” he continued, as he unlocked the door revealing a staircase leading down to an underground level, “is the reason the university will no longer let me step inside its walls. Do you remember, when you were a small child the two men who came to visit me on your fourteenth birthday?”
“They were afraid of you,” said Helen. She remembered the argument.
He nodded. “Maybe. I told them that they had limited their imagination. In truth, I think it was their wallets whose limits I had reached. The board at the university could no longer endorse my research and so I was forced to look for financial assistance elsewhere. The Cabal offered me a grant that I could not turn down. There was no money, Helen. It was the only way that I could continue.”
“I still don’t understand what it was that was so terrible.”
Gregory led Helen down the stairs. She held a kerosene lantern in her hand, lighting the way for both of them. Her father switched keys and unlocked the final door but stopped shy of opening it. Helen thought she heard scratching and crying from behind the door, not unlike the sounds of James’s room that first night.
He handed her the key. “Once you enter this door, you are on a path that cannot be reversed.”
Helen raised the lantern, extending it into the room. Yards of heavy fabric lined the walls, tacked on to the ceiling and left to hang all the way to the dusty floor. Occasionally there was an outcrop of shelves made of solid, dark wood. Some of them had fine-netted wire nailed across the compartment and locks through their handles. As she stepped toward them, she realised why; rat-like creatures scattered away from her light, huddling in the corners of the bookshelf amongst scraps of food.
She panned the lantern across the laboratory where it caught the edges of a table. It was a bare thing, lonely at the heart of the room. There were networks of grooves carved into it which led to a tin bucket on the ground where dark patterns of a mysterious liquid were layered in stains.
In the far corner, the light picked out a pair of golden eyes which opened slowly, staring back at her. Helen stepped closer, slipping from her father’s grasp. She had gone this far – Gregory could not stop her. All of his secrets were now hers to share.
Two curved horns, half a foot long, tapered into sharp summits. They protruded from scarlet fur, bunched tightly together in uneven tufts. Like a cat’s pelt, it had two layers – a harsh, needle-like exterior with yellow tips and a second, downy coat which kept the creature warm. Except – it wasn’t fur, but feathers.
Gregory lit two of the lamps hanging from the ceiling and the room flickered into light. Helen raised her hand to her mouth to cover a gasp. A pair of wings – fragile sheets of skin, were folded onto the creature’s back. She could see two enormous paws as big as tea-saucers which it used to rest its head on while a tail curled around its body, twitching as Gregory whispered thing to it.
Helen thought that it looked just like a –
“Dragon, yes,” Gregory whispered. “At least, that’s the conclusion I have come to. I found this poor thing four months ago while I was in London. It was, well, smaller then, but how could I leave it in alley? My guess is that it was dumped by a black market animal trader – they swarm around the Cabal, making their pickings on capturing and selling Abnormal creatures.”
“No,” she whispered, unable to get over the ‘dragon’ part of her father’s sentence.
“It is an Abnormal, Helen.” He took his daughter’s hand, resting beside her as she continued to watch the creature. It eventually grew bored of the intrusion, closing its golden eyes and returning to sleep. “The cornerstone of monster stories since man picked up a pen. This,” he pointed in particular at the dragon, “is a species of reptile yet sadly I do not know where to return it. I doubt that it was born in London’s streets… There are hundreds of creatures like him, hidden away or captured by agencies like the Cabal for private research. They – they torture them and destroy whatever’s left. I can’t keep him forever, though,” Gregory added, frowning as he lowered his eyes.
Helen read her father’s journals but this – this was beyond what she could have dreamed. Worlds were unlocking, secrets unravelling and she found her heart pounding against her lungs.
“Helen, the blood samples that I acquired are from an Abnormal that not even I believed could exist. I stumbled across them once, many years ago now and decided that they were too dangerous to approach again. Vrykolakas, strigoi,upír, impundulu, Sanguine Vampiris,” Gregory rolled the words, hushing them as if each syllable was fear enough. “Vampires…” he whispered to her, like a bedtime nightmare crawling into a corner.
“Their blood is one of the most powerful substances on Earth and the Cabal would like nothing better than to get their claws onto it. They paid me exceptionally well to collect samples. You, have one of them.”
Helen guessed it to be the mysterious package her father had left in her care earlier that night.
“I entrust you to study and learn from it in my absence, while I hide the remaining two where the Cabal will never find them. All of this,” he waved his arms over the room, “is in your care. Now, listen carefully, these are resourceful people. They are going to come looking for me after the week is up – but you are a woman, my daughter. Use that, feign frivolity, make them believe that you know nothing more than needlepoint and they will leave you alone.”
She nodded very slowly. That night, her father was gone. He left a half-dried bundle of petals, shrivelled but alive as they clung to the vine creeping out from the pot. The wild rose had suffered from its journey, but its tortured form perked as Helen drizzled water over it.
James and John were displeased with each other after a minor disagreement over the origin of Vampires.
The five of them had found themselves an abandoned corner of the library – the old side, of course, as it was James’s turn to pick a nook for their weekly discussion. He paced in small circles between the shelves, a book resting open in his hand as he read the lines of text aloud to his audience.
Helen was listening, but with an air of discontent. They were mocking her, all of them in their own subtle ways, ever since she had told them of her father’s research. Nikola was at her feet, apparently preferring the floor. He was asleep and snoring quietly with his head balanced uncomfortably between two encyclopaedias of ancient history.
It was John who took the greatest interest in James’s speech. He was reclined in one of the library chairs which they had stolen from the main room and stowed in their private corner. Over the hour, his feet had stretched out on top of the table allowing him to balance a book on his knees which he glanced at several times, awaiting his turn to rebuff James’s argument.
“And as softly thou art sleeping
To thee shall I come creeping
And thy life’s blood drain away.”
James was enjoying this, far more than was reasonable. He had always be a showman, albeit only to a select few. He traced the lines with an outstretched finger –
“And so shalt thou be trembling
For thus shall-”
“Really,” interrupted John, aware of the poem’s conclusion. “Is this appropriate, considering our company?” He deliberately kept his eye away from Helen, knowing that her frown had twisted into scowl. James ignored him.
“For thus shall I be kissing
And death’s threshold thou’ it be crossing
With fear, in my cold arms.”
The book snapped shut, waking Nikola.
“You get the general idea,” Watson laid the book on the table beside John. “And that, my dear John, is the beginning of the Vampire in Literature. Case closed.”
John sighed heavily.
“There are no such things as ‘vampires’ – except perhaps in farm boys’ drunkin’ stupors.” Nigel squeezed between two shelves with a fresh arm of books. “And perhaps your literature,” he conceded, handing James another book.
“I don’t know,” James inspected the man on the floor beside Helen, as Nikola yawned at the room. “Nikola’s pale enough to be one, especially with those sharp teeth he likes to flash.”
“Excuse me?” Nikola replied, sleepily. “Did I provoke you in some way?”
“Your existence provokes me.”
“Your reading bores me,” he retaliated.
“I agree with Nikola, for once,” John added, flipping through the pages of his own book. Stirring the room was the pastime he liked best.
“Enough. Enough. Enough.” Helen rolled her eyes and fell against the wall of books, sliding down it in defeat. She landed beside Nikola in a swirl of dust. He flinched in alarm, holding his breath.
James was not finished with Nikola yet. “I particularly enjoyed cruising through your latest work of poetry-” he said, slipping a scrap of crumpled paper from his coat. Nikola recognised it at once, and coughed in panic, stumbling to his feet – an action which failed as one of his legs had fallen asleep.
“My – what?” Nikola grunted as pain constricted his leg muscle, rendering him useless as James straightened the paper. “How did you – where did you get that from?”
“It was just lying on your floor last time you invited us to that spectacle of yours.” James’s finger still hurt, burnt by an ‘accidental’ passing of current which Nikola had spent hours making certain that it would do precisely that.
“That is private,” Nikola hissed.
James began to read. It was a scant few lines of scattered birds and thunder storms, beautiful enough in construction. Nikola clawed his way back to his feet, his cheeks reddening with every word falling from James’s lips.
He lunged once, but James dodged him easily. John threw his head back in a silent laugh, delight ripping the corners of his mouth into a broad smile. Nigel turned away. It wasn’t that he liked Tesla – more that he didn’t hate him.
“Fine,” Nikola’s voice wavered, his usual pride shaken. “Keep it.”
He left, sidling out between the rows of books and back into the main library where he finally vanished from their sight.
“Excellent,” Helen curled her knees up to her chest, pinning her skirt down beneath her arms. It billowed uncomfortably around her. “Look what the two of you have accomplished – not very clever considering neither can coax a current from a coil… You realise, Nikola was going to help you. He wrote up the notes on his motor, they were in his pocket.” Helen returned to her feet and collected her things from the table beside John. He shifted his feet as she approached. “Enjoy your spoils, gentlemen.”
Before leaving, she approached a stunned James and took the paper from between his fingers.
Nigel had kept quiet, his arms still laden with books. Often, especially at times like these, he liked to think of the other four as elements of nature – as strong in their opposition as their passion. They did not mix but could not keep apart either. It was an impossible system that would eventually destroy itself. Nigel could see that day approaching but he hindered its arrival as best he could by keeping the shaky peace.
Their way of apology was to entertain Helen’s ‘vampire’ tale as truth. Nigel’s idea.
“We’ll have to get a look at it,” James said, lowering his voice though the four of them were alone in the dormitory. “See if this sample really contains special properties.”
Helen had not forgiven them, but was nonetheless keen for their help.
“I won’t move it,” she replied. “The Cabal could be watching the house – you would have to come to it.”
“It is not as if you live in India,” smirked Nigel, hinting that the others should show more enthusiasm. They did, eventually acknowledging that they could probably meet in two day’s time.
“What about Nikola?” asked James, feeding the pig rooting around its box.
“I will speak with him,” said Helen sternly. “It’s been almost four hours; maybe he’ll have forgotten your joke.”
Helen doubted it, but she went to the hallway where Nikola’s attic lived anyway. The stairs were up, pulled well out of her reach.
“Nikola…” she called, loud enough for him to hear. It was afternoon and last classes of the day were drawing to their end. All but one room in his hallway was empty, and it was far enough away not to be troubled by her efforts to catch Nikola’s attention.
He didn’t respond, but she knew that he was up there.
“If you proceed with this, I will be forced to climb out the window and up into your room the hard way,” she threatened, casting her eye over the window to gauge whether it was possible to carry out the threat. To her amusement, it seemed that it was. A latch, not a lock, secured the window and when open, it would be big enough for her to scramble through.
“Nikola?” she tried again.
“Will he come?”
John was packing his things, preparing to leave. It was a decent ride to the inn which he was calling ‘home’ until the university approved his residency.
“Why are you asking me?” John paused, turning to Nigel. “I guess, Helen will probably convince him – she usually does. Tomorrow?” he changed the subject. “The meeting’s on the grass by the oak tree. I’m hoping for a fine day.”
She heard the footsteps first – light and quick across the ceiling. Helen turned as the hatch to the attic rattled, opening out into the hallway. A set of stairs slid down to her. She couldn’t see Nikola anywhere above. Usually, he waited for her with a smile, or outstretched hand beckoning her up.
Nikola was located by the window, brushing fragments of broken glass of the sill. He had been doing that for weeks, but there always seemed to be more of it.
“There you are,” she said, approaching cautiously.
CHILD OF THE STORM
The first soft flecks of rain hit Nikola’s cheeks, lingering for a moment on his pale skin before sliding along the contours of his face. They dripped onto the window sill as Helen paced slowly along the opposite wall, carefully unfurling the scrap of paper with Nikola’s poetry. She placed it on the floor beside his bed before making her way to the window.
“Leave…” he said coldly, staring out at the city. It was growing dark now. The thick clouds quickened the hours, sending Oxford into premature night. For once, he didn’t want the storm. His experiment was not ready, left as an unfinished heap of metal on the roof.
She was going to tell him that the others were sorry but there was little point – it was not true and he would certainly not believe it.
“I know that you need help,” she said instead, “and I already promised.”
Sometimes he hated her memory.
“It’s too late,” he said, staring at the swirling clouds. “The rain is here and next – the lightning.” If it attracted a stray shard of electricity before he could fix it, then there’d be a great smouldering mess on the roof to contend with.
“When did a little rain hurt anybody…” she smiled, crossing the room.
To his confusion and distress, Helen nudged him away from the window and quickly climbed out of it, ignoring Nikola’s protests.
“Helen!” he said, in distress, as she clung to the wooden joins and searched for three stones protruding from the building’s facade. She had seen him use them a dozen times to climb the short distance to the roof. The light drizzle was cold and made the rocks slippery but her grip was firm and in a flash, Nikola was left with an empty window. “Mad, mad woman,” he muttered, stepping onto the sill in pursuit, forgetting his anger.
“Hypothetically,” said Nigel, pulling another blanket around his back. Their room was always cold despite the dozen or so lamps they kept lit. “If this sample of blood really is what Helen says, how are we going to test it?”
James tapped the nib of his quill on the edge of the ink bottle. He was seated at a desk shoved unkindly against one of the walls near their beds, scratching out a late assignment.
“Really, Nigel,” he said, with a measured voice, “I didn’t think that I would need to remind you of Doctor Magnus’s reputation.”
“I don’t follow,” replied Nigel, even though he did. Tales of Helen’s father were colourful and abundant, but he was interested to know James’s take.
That was enough to distract James. He set the feather down and turned up the lamp next to him so that its flame flickered brightly.
“Doctor Magnus,” he began, with a theatrical air, “was head of the medical board here – until four years ago. He drove several colleagues to resign their post and a further to be transferred. Word was that his experiments made the money men squeamish – not an easy thing to accomplish. Officially, he retired into obscurity but a man of his standing and position should have been enjoying his glory years. No one in the industry would touch him after that. Most think that he lost his mind, myself included.”
“You’re a harsh judge of character. Still, I’m curious – hypothetically of course… Is it possible that there could be a shred of truth? Doctor Magnus may have been insane but Helen –”
James shrugged. “If this blood of hers is real, we would have to test it on a living thing.”
“Good luck getting that idea past John, he has a tight grip over Helen these days and Nikola will probably hurl again.”
“I thought that rats might be an acceptable halfway point to all parties.”
“Inject a rat with ‘vampire’ blood. Now there’s a notion for your fiction books.”
“You are enjoying this…” James couldn’t help but smile. Nigel rarely found pleasure in life, so to see his lip curl in wicked plotting was a welcome change. “I guess we shall find out.”
It was higher up that she had expected. The university’s roof sloped sharply and Helen found that she had to slip her hands between the terracotta tiles to steady herself against the wind as she worked her way toward a contraption of wire mounted on a relatively flat rise ahead.
Nikola had been right about the storm. From up here, she could clearly see it brewing over the city – churning into a dark mass of vapour. Every now and then it rumbled.
“Careful,” Nikola muttered behind her, scampering across the roof. He had done this a thousand times and navigated the slippery tiles easily.
“They just let you leave all of this up here?” she said, pointing at his experiment. Helen regretted letting go of the roof, stumbling before Nikola caught her hand and led her to the relative safety of the platform.
“Strictly? No…” he admitted. “But I think that one of the professors is curious so they let it go.”
“Our professor? Maybe he just wants a decent excuse to have you expelled,” she lifted an eyebrow curiously, as she stepped onto the platform with the experiment.
“I am undecided,” Nikola grinned. He handed her several wires and balanced a long antenna on her lap while he dug through his experiment, connecting bits of it. “You’re no help at all,” he said to her, when he tried to retrieve the antenna. Helen had the wires twisted around it in infinite loops which he struggled to undo.
Nikola worked frantically, with the rain getting heavier. She hadn’t meant to, but Helen found the sight of Nikola in a full suit, perched on the roof like a curious bird – dripping wet and tangled up in cords to be highly amusing, especially when he overbalanced. She stifled a giggle, dodging his glare as cold wind made the rain more unpleasant.
Soaked through, they finished setting the experiment. Helen and Nikola took a step back, staring for a moment at the fragile thing reaching up toward the crazy expanse of sky. It was hard not to feel the enormity of the world behind the city – to see civilisation as a small scramble on the landscape sheltering under a sky to which humanity could lay no claim.
“I see why,” she started, “you spend your time up here.”
James jolted, smearing ink over his page as the thunder continued to roll on outside their window.
“That was close,” he said. The walls of the building were vibrating softly, rippling with the thunder. “I don’t think that James is going to get his meeting outside tomorrow.”
“Must be a beautiful show,” Nigel pointed to the only window in their dormitory which remained blocked by cloth and wood. “A shame – I think I may go and watch the storm for a while.”
James shrugged, attempting to salvage the page. “As you please,” he said. “Would you mind,” he nodded at the pile of paper beside Nigel’s bed, “if I skimmed through your notes?”
Three rivers of light appeared from the cloud above and snaked their way in jagged steps toward the ground. Their light cut through the heavy rain as they intertwined, crossed each other and flashed several times in silence.
Nigel watched the shards of light, waiting for the inevitable lashing of air which always coupled the beauty. He held onto his notes tightly, not daring to leave them unattended in James’s company.
After the light, Helen could barely make out the dark lines of the roof. She blinked the rain from her eyes and turned to Nikola.
“Can you hear that?” he said, staring out into nowhere. Helen frowned, all she could hear was the rain lashing at their faces and the occasional gasp of thunder as the lightening approached. “That sound…” Nikola seemed lost to the world as he raised a hand up to the storm, moving it through the rain. He could hear hooves pounding into the wet earth – a distant cry as a horse rose up on a child.
“Nikola!” screamed Helen, as he tilted dangerously forward.
Nikola snapped out of the memory as another flash of light strangled the darkness from the sky.
“We should go,” he said, fearing that he had waited too long. The storm was here and they were still balanced precariously on the roof next to a lightning conductor.
Nigel was on the ground floor, pacing along the protected walkway of the eastern wing of the building. He thought he heard a woman’s voice cry over the thunder of the storm. Frowning, he edged toward one of the archways, leaning into the rain enough to see the opposing rooftop.
He saw two shadows make their way across the rooftop. They looked so fragile, scampering in the face of such a storm.
Helen and Nikola, it could be no-one else. Nigel shook his head as they neared the edge of the roof. Then, from nowhere, a stream of light ripped through the air and blinded him. Thunder, so heavy that Nigel felt his soul take shelter as it beat against his body. He dropped to the ground in a scatter of paper, holding his ears as the ground shook.
The tiles on the roof shattered beneath them. Helen fell first, grasping desperately as she began to slide toward the edge. The world was so bright – she could not see. The air splitting beside her was so violent that the end of all things may have only been a step behind. She couldn’t hear Nikola, falling behind her, his hands forgetting the roof and reaching only for her.
Suddenly there was nothing beneath her. The light vanished leaving only the violent reverberations and the sound of tiles plunging four stories to the ground, exploding on the pavement below.
Her body jerked as Nikola caught her arm. The sudden weight pulled him over the edge with her until he wedged his hand between the guttering and brought them to a stop. They hung there in the rain, swinging gently.
Out of a daze, Helen realised that she would soon hit the ground far below them. Nikola had caught onto her sleeve and fabric was stretching, beginning to rip away from its seams.
There was nothing Nikola could do except grimace through the pain as the sharp gutter edge cut into him.
The rain beat down harder as another wave of thunder brushed over them.
Helen tried to reach the wall with her other hand, but she was too far out to do anything but graze the cold rocks with her fingertips.
Now the gutter protested, snapping two of its bolts sending Helen and Nikola two feet closer to the ground. Nikola hung on, but Helen’s sleeve ripped open. She reached up with her other hand just before Nikola lost his grip.
There was blood trickling down Nikola’s wrist. Even with two hands, Helen could not hold on. Another gust of wind would be enough to knock her free.
“Nikola!” she shouted over the noise.
Nikola swallowed, feeling her slip further. “Helen…” he whispered, as she fell from his hold.
Nigel vaulted over the low stone wall and out into the storm leaving a volley of papers churning behind him.
Every echo of thunder made his body shudder as it continued to rumble in the sky above. The ancient gods were at each others’ throats, tossing bolts of light and snarling into the dark. He could hear their violence – the clashing of swords and procession of Grecian boots through the clouds.
The lawn was partly submerged and Nigel struggled to cross its muddy expanse. Once he stumbled, landing on his knees amidst a blur of water. That’s when he saw it again – a horrible image that he could not shake. Nigel grunted and made it back to his feet. He pushed forward, heading toward the other wing of the building where he had seen a shadow fall.
He raised his arm against the weather, inhaling more water than air. Nigel couldn’t understand why the world moved so slowly or how it was possible to count the heartbeats out of step with his breath while the droplets of rain hesitated, lingering for a moment before striking his face. Whatever tempo the world was supposed to dance to, it had been offset since that lightning strike.
Nigel found her almost at once, laid awkwardly on the cement pathway surrounded by broken roof tiles. The sky flashed again and again, vanishing the world in an eerie light. Nigel paused, water streaming over his eyelashes. Helen’s blond hair had scattered around her head, glistening in the rain as if full of jewels. Beneath this carpet was a dark puddle, diluted by the rain into a general crimson aura.
She must be dead. It was all he could think. Her stillness held back his breath as he bent down to Helen and placed his fingers lightly beneath her chin.
He waited, ignoring another dart of light above as he searched for a faint glimmer of life.
“Oh gods…” Nigel startled, as Helen opened her lips and took a gasp of air. He whipped his hand away when her eyes slowly opened, staring blankly into the night.
“Nikola?” Helen whispered. Her vision was a muddle of indistinct forms but she could sense someone leaning over her, shaking.
“Nigel,” he corrected Helen, reaching behind her head. He wove his fingers through her blood stained hair until he cupped her skull gently and eased her off the ground with his other arm around her shoulders. He searched for the wound responsible for the bloody mess on the pavement but found nothing except an acute tenderness to his touch.
She flinched away from him.
“I feel – strange,” she said, as he forced her to sit.
“I am amazed that you feel anything at all,” he commented, glancing up at the roof of the university. It was a long way up to the damaged pipe, jutting out from the rest of the gutter. Beneath Helen was a sea of blood from a so far phantom wound. He had to get her somewhere safe and dry and inspect her more closely. A fall that large – there had to be repercussions.
“Wait,” she protested, as he lifted her from the ground. It was a struggle for Nigel. He had never been a strong man but in this he was determined. “Nikola…”
Nigel searched the dark walls of the university but the pathways were empty. “He’s not here,” he said, heading for the main gates where the occasional coach hurried past with a crash of hooves.
Helen turned her head, gazing over Nigel’s shoulder back at the silhouette of the building. There was no light in Nikola’s room. She remembered his hand, trembling with her weight as she swung from the building.
“He was…” she started, but Nigel had reached the road. He waved a one of the coaches over and bundled Helen inside of it.
He took her home.
Nigel set Helen onto one of the wooden chairs in the dining room and quickly fetched a basic medical kit from Doctor Magnus’s cupboard by the stairs. He returned to find her inspecting a ringlet of hair, curiously gazing at the red tinge that it had taken on.
“Let me,” he said, pulling a chair next to her. Nigel held a warm washer to her forehead, wiping the mixture of mud and blood off her porcelain complexion. For the first time, he noticed her beauty. He’d always thought of Helen, perhaps unfairly, as a vindictive woman manipulating men to her causes via her obvious charm. John thought that he was crazy, but Nigel held firm to his belief that there was a sinister edge to Lady Magnus. He often saw glimpses of it in the corners of her eyes when James slit his way through another test subject. She had even swayed the impersonal Tesla, coaxing some form of affection from him however reserved it might be.
Nigel wouldn’t go so far as to say that he was entranced by her, as the others were, but maybe he could admit to being just a little curious.
“How perplexing,” he said, running the washer down her neck following a trail of blood. “You appear to be unharmed.”
“Maybe it’s not my blood?” she offered, catching his hand as it dipped a touch too low on her neckline. She would never guess that it had been an honest accident.
“It’s yours all right,” Nigel discarded the cloth in the tray, “but search me as to how.”
They were both soaked and starting to feel the cold. Nigel was the first to rise, unbuttoning his coat as he headed to the fireplace. He busied himself lighting it, preferring to keep occupied as the awkward silence continued between them. Though they had spent many hours in each other’s company, they had never spoken alone and found themselves completely at a loss as to how to behave.
Finally, a flame flickered up through the logs and the first radiations of warmth spread into the room.
“You should change your clothes,” he mumbled at her. She nodded and vanished out the door. He heard her footsteps trail down the corridor until a door creaked open.
So this was the house of the great Gregory Magnus? Nigel had already picked out several unusual ornaments hanging from the opposite wall. He hovered over the fire, drying his shirt and pants until she returned to the dining room looking more like he was used to.
“Thank you,” she said, not taking that last step into the room, “for your help. I shall be fine now.”
“Helen, you are about as far from ‘fine’ as is possible.” Another silence. Nigel stifled a cough with his fist, turning back to the flames. His nose wanted to run, a curse from his childhood that led people to believe him perpetually in ill-health. “Now that I’m here,” he spoke to the fire, forcing Helen to venture into the room to understand him. “Would it be possible to see this mysterious sample of yours? I admit to being curious.”
Distraction – she welcomed it. “Certainly.”
Helen led him through her father’s office and down the stone steps to the basement. She caught him linger at the sight of the lab door, running his eyes over the solid planks of wood sealing its contents away from the world. They both held lanterns to the darkness as she unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The door revealed a black hole not unlike the gaping mouth of a cave. Nigel’s nose tweaked at the musty smell, heavily laden with mould spores. Helen dashed in front of him, wasting no time lighting several lanterns. The room now revealed certainly looked the part of a mad scientist’s den. As James had described Gregory Magnus, this scene suited him well – mysterious curtains, hanging lamps and equipment he didn’t want to know about. He’d almost accepted this as quite respectable – until a creature in the corner of the room growled.
“Holy – you did not mention that,” he raised his lantern in the direction of the frightening creature.
“When I said, ‘Abnormal creatures’,” said Helen, with a smile he had seen used on unwitting victims of hers before, “what exactly did you think that I meant?”
She had him there. In truth, he’d never really taken her stories seriously. “Honestly Helen, what is that?”
Eventually Nigel got over the dragon – even daring to stroke its feathered coat. Finally Helen presented the sample of blood and even his untrained eyes could see that it was special with its silken liquid swirling gracefully, its colour more rich than pure ink and its viscosity something between mercury and honey.
“I – wanted to apologise,” he offered, brushing his fingers over the glass holding the sample. “We did not have the best start.”
Helen nodded, but did not offer an apology of her own.
It was late afternoon of the following day when three gentlemen met in a dormitory, exhausted.
“Did you find him?” said John to the others, holding his side. It pained from running circles around the hundreds of intertwined corridors, ducking into every door in search of the missing man.
James and Nigel shook their heads, equally dishevelled.
“He’s not here,” James folded his arms, “or if he is, he’s lost a good deal of weight. I asked everyone I could find. Granted,” his hidden hand couldn’t help but dip into his coat pocket where a small gold watch nestled. “Most of them had no idea who Nikola was in the first instance…”
“I called him the ‘mad one’,” quipped Nigel. “Mostly they just shrugged. If they did see him, they apparently don’t remember. It’s like he’s completely invisible to other humans.”
“I think that we should try to take this seriously…” James frowned in Nigel’s direction.
“What is there to do?” Nigel retaliated. “He is gone and short of searching all of Oxfordshire –”
“Helen’s not going to be happy,” John sighed, interrupting Nigel. “We’ll never hear the peace of it if he doesn’t show tonight.”
John arrived at Helen’s door first, just on the edge of dusk. The streets were full of business men making their way home from work and small children frisking pockets with nimble hands. The gas-lighters had started their rounds, cruising between the lamp posts with a taper as the smoke of the factories sank back to the earth, tarnishing Oxford’s air with a bitter taste.
The city’s forest of spires prodded at the darkening sky. Their sandstone had blackened in the relentless weather which chose to rain most of the time making them appear sinister against the skyline.
“Did you find him?” was Helen’s first question, as she let John step past her into the house. He shook his head.
“Helen, I am sure that he is fine,” he tried to reassure her.
“You clearly don’t know Nikola,” she replied sharply. “He is never fine.”
“Tomorrow I will speak with the university heads myself if he does not arrive within the hour.”
She seemed to be satisfied with this – for the moment.
“Helen,” he reached down for her hand, which he took gently in his own. “There was something that I have been meaning to discuss with you…” he trailed off, glancing nervously at the floor rather than her confused expression. “Before all of this.”
His skin warming beneath her palm distracted her from John’s words. She found it difficult to focus on anything other than the slightest movement of his fingers and his quickening pulse.
“When I heard about what happened yesterday – I – I realised something – important that,” he ventured a glance at her, regretting it almost immediately as his throat closed over. He coughed, swallowed and tried to continue. “And my timing is – well – regrettable but – James?”
Mr Watson strolled into Helen’s foyer with an air of importance. He had changed his waistcoat, apparently reverting back to his wealthy upbringing outside the university walls. This particular item of clothing was a luxurious shade of red, edged in golden thread.
His sudden arrival caused Helen and John to part, retreating to opposing walls of the entrance hallway.
James tipped his hat at them before removing it entirely.
“Afternoon,” he said in greeting – fully aware that he had just disturbed the pair. “Nigel will be here shortly. Are you certain that you are well?” James tilted his head slightly at Helen. She was paler than usual except for a bright flash of pink through her cheeks.
“Not you as well,” she turned away. “Honestly, I am surrounded by three old women.”
“Only two at the present,” James winked.
RATS TO THE SLAUGHTER
They waited the full hour but Nikola did not show. With the evening well underway and the moon striding above the city, the four young scientists descended the stairs to the underground laboratory.
Settled into various locations around the room – John by the door, Nigel knelt beside the dragon, James in front of the wire-faced bookshelves and Helen leaning on the central table – James theatrically spread his arms as if introducing some great Shakespearean work to his audience.
“I give you,” he bowed low, to the others’ amusement, “Exhibit A.” James Watson lifted the lid of the heavy wooden box by his feet. His surprise was a collection of furry creatures running from wall to wall of the box in a messy clamber.
“Rats…” Helen eyed James warily, leaning over the box with her mouth turned down in repulsion. “You brought me rats?”
James did not understand her dejected tone until Helen held a light to the shelves beside them where five well fed rats, significantly higher in class, were busy devising their escape. He merely waved her off and said, “The more the merrier.”
He rounded hers into his box and placed them on the experiment table. The scratching and squeaking intensified until John had his doubts that the box would hold.
“I still don’t like this,” muttered John, watching Nigel prepare the metal needles and Helen walk the sample of blood over. James dipped the needle carefully into the enticing liquid, slowly drawing it up.
“Rats are a menace,” said James, tapping the shaft of the needle, “the city will be well rid of them.”
There was a rose leaning over the lips of a vase, slowly dying in the softly lit laboratory. It had dropped several petals on the main table but its perfume remained heavy, sweet and intoxicating. It masked the sour smell of the air and had not been there the last time Nigel had called.
John smiled at the wild rose, admiring its fragile and fading beauty. He wanted to hold the delicate thing in his hands but he knew that the slightest touch would destroy it.
Nigel held the squirming rat securely in his hands. It lashed out at him with sharp teeth and knife-like claws, but he expertly clamped down, rendering it still as James pierced its side. The creature screeched unhappily, kicking its toes as James injected a small amount of the source blood into it. Once finished, Nigel carried the rat to an empty compartment on the bookshelf and locked it inside.
The four scientists closed in, observing the shocked creature for several minutes. To their surprise, the rat did nothing – absolutely nothing of interest except clean its ear with a flexible paw.
“That was anti-climatic,” remarked Watson, still brandishing a full needle of blood. “Shall we do the others?”
“Of course,” replied Helen. “One subject is hardly a balanced test. We shall do them all.”
John closed his eyes and rested back against the closed door. He heard them repeat the process again and again with all seven remaining rats and set them in the cage together. When John finally roamed over to the others, he found the rats seated quietly on their back legs, sniffing the air.
“Those are the most docile rats I have ever seen,” he said, staring through the wire. The rats didn’t even notice him trace his hands over their enclosure or feel his warm breath on the air. “Are they in shock?”
“Quite possibly,” said James, handing the empty needle to Nigel who wiped it, wrapped it in cloth and tucked it back in the medical bag.
“Give it time,” Nigel said, joining them. “When we administer medication to animals on my parent’s property it can take up to – did you hear that?”
The others looked at him curiously.
“Hear what?” queried Helen. Her blond hair was hitched out of the way, fastened by dozens of soft metal pins. Every now and then the lamp light caught one, making it flicker.
“Could have sworn I heard some kind of banging.”
It dawned on them as a collective.
“The Cabal?” whispered John, as Helen moved toward the door.
“They watch the house,” replied Helen. “A man in a brown suit, topper and cane stands at the corner in the mornings and late afternoon.”
“Was he there today?” John handed her one of the lanterns.
She shook her head. “No, I thought that it was strange.”
“Let us go,” said James, hinting at John and Nigel. “Perhaps they won’t be so bold.”
“Absolutely not,” she said sternly. “The last thing that I need is to cast suspicion on myself by entertaining three men at this late hour.”
“Very well,” said John, “but we will accompany you to the door all the same.”
Helen waved the shadowy figure she assumed was Nigel off as she approached the tortured surface of the front door. She could see the others, scattered in dark corners ready to pounce on her command.
The door knocked again. It was urgent – demanding and not what she had expected of the Cabal whose figures had always been imposing statues.
She took a breath, holding it in her chest as she unlatched the door and drew it open a crack.
Although the night was clear and the rain of late banished to the edge of the horizon, the first thing that Helen heard upon opening the door was the steady drip of water. She stepped to the side, opening it further to reveal a man shivering in her doorway.
“So,” he started, his voice shaken, “it is true then.”
He had seen her eyes still and glazed, covered in a layer of mist – her hair about her face mingling with flows of blood as she lay there. The sight of her, shattered on the pavement below him amongst the ruined tiles was one that he could not move. Helen Magnus had been dead. He had seen it, felt it – mourned it and, until this point, believed it.
“Nikola…” she said, but he avoided her hand, edging away. “You look as if you have drowned,” Helen observed his state. “We have been so worried, Nikola, where have you been?”
Nikola did not wish to talk about his whereabouts. What he wanted was a very particular answer from the woman glancing nervously behind her at the house.
“I know what I saw,” he said softly.
“We,” she stared, stammering as movement stirred in the house. “We shall talk later, I swear.”
After, Nikola was ushered in and offered a change of clothes – which he naturally declined. Nearly against his will, he was herded to the basement. James managed a vicious aside, sprouting something about ‘wandering souls causing trouble’ to which Nikola darkened his offended temper.
“I take it that I have missed the show,” said Tesla, observing the empty table with Nigel’s bag already packed and stained brown in patches.
“The opening act, perhaps,” replied Nigel, waving Nikola over to the ‘bookshelves’ where the four of them had assembled. “Oh dear…” he sighed, upon arriving. At the edges of the cage were two suspiciously still furry bodies, feet-side up with their mouths left agape from a final breath. “We lost two – not that I can say I’m surprised. They were scrawny things to begin with.”
Though he was positive that Nigel had just insulted his choice of test subjects, James kept quiet and instead observed that there was a drizzle of blood on both the deceased rats’ noses. He deduced, therefore, the cause to be internal bleeding from one or multiple organ failure.
“And what of the others?” Helen asked.
James shrugged. “They seem fine at the present. That one,” he pointed at the rat huddled in the far corner, scratching feverishly at something, “is a bit rabid for my liking.”
“I don’t know,” said John, tapping on the wire near a particularly docile rat. It was plump, seated and staring off into space. “This one looks about ready to depart from life.” It did not bother to flinch as John proceeded to rap beside it. The creature’s beady eyes gazed up at the soft lamplight beyond its bars, considering the world it had never noticed before and reflecting on its captivity.
Nikola refused to come any closer being generally repulsed by rats and all other creatures of the gutter. He did, however, notice the gentle tickle of hairs lifting from the back of his hand, standing erect. Static electricity he mused, though he could not determine its source.
Suddenly there was a snap and coruscation near the edge of the wire where Helen and James were leaning in close. They both jumped back, as did the rat which had grazed the wire with its claws and caused a serious spark of electricity to erupt.
The rat was as shocked as the humans. The action itself had not hurt but it had certainly been frightened by the loud crack.
This time, Nikola rudely parted his way through the others and folded his lofty figure over to bring his eye in line with the rat. It was not fat as John had assumed, but rather ruffled. All of its wiry hairs were sticking out making it appear like a pompom with teeth and a tail.
“Do it again…” he goaded the rat, which to everybody’s surprise seemed drawn to Nikola’s keen eyes.
Slowly, its paws hopped closer – stopping all the time to sniff the air and shake its whiskers.
“What are you doing, Nikola?” asked Helen, bending down beside him.
“An experiment of my own,” he replied. “Here we go…”
Again, the rat touched the wire mesh producing a violent spark of electricity. This time it squeaked angrily, and retreated back beside the two dead rats where it set about cleaning itself.
“Well,” observed James, “it certainly wasn’t doing that before…”
“Incredible…” said Helen. “The source blood must have – I don’t even know how, allowed it to – Nikola, could you help?”
“I am not a naturalist,” he said frankly. “Though I can only presume that it is drawing on the natural potential difference between the ground and air and converting that into static potential energy.”
“But what Helen asked was how,” John grinned menacingly.
“Perhaps you would be so kind as to take a stab yourself … or is your position in this group merely ornamental?”
“Not to interrupt,” said Nigel, “but that rabid one of yours James, is getting rather close to – oh!”
They all watched on in horror as the rat in question flexed its claws, creeping up behind one of the ordinary rats and then, without warning or hesitation, leapt on top of it, sinking its teeth hungrily into its kin’s neck.
“That’s horrible!” Helen held a hand over her mouth as the rat drew blood, crushing its victim with powerful jaws and unusually sharp teeth. Its eyes were jet black orbs, enlarged as if someone had cut a planet in half and stuck them in place between the fur.
The victim rat expired. Its final kicks died silently while its plight went unnoticed by all but the blasé rat which backed away when the murderous gaze of the rabid one fell upon it.
“Christ,” said Nigel, “did you see that? Ferocious furry bastard. Sorry, Helen…” he apologised, for swearing in the presence of a lady.
“Amazing –” began James, but he was interrupted.
“Not my first choice of words,” John said, as the violent rat set its eyes on the electrically charged one.
“Well, if you would allow me to finish,” he turned away and roamed over to the experiment table as if in some kind of enlightened trance. “Amazing how it displayed characteristics reminiscent of rumoured vampirial behaviour. We can only assume that there is some truth in the myths and that, more importantly, this is indeed a pure sample of vampire blood.”
“Two results,” said Helen, “two deaths, one uncertain and three nil results, then.”
“No…” James pointed at one of the previously unnoticed rats. “Not uncertain. I don’t know what it is but this specimen has changed.”
“So what do you think?” Helen joined Watson at the table. She laid a hand on the satchel of equipment, stroking the leather suggestively.
“I’m in…” James could hardly contain his grin.
“In what?” Nikola shifted his gaze between the pair, trying to make them out as they began to pace around the table.
“Helen, you cannot be serious,” John came up behind her, reaching for her hand. “See sense.”
“My decision, whatever it may be,” shot Helen coldly, “does not require your consort.” Her interest returned to James, “The possibilities are wondrous.”
“Excuse me,” Nikola began to pace from person to person, “what are we discussing?”
“Helen has a point,” admitted Nigel. “What we have just discovered, it is an opportunity that may well pass us by in a hurry. With the Cabal due on your doorstep,” he turned to Helen, “we are not guaranteed possession of this sample indefinitely.”
“I do not want to spend my whole life wondering…” James carefully picked up the vial of source blood, holding it to one of the hanging lanterns. A thing this beautiful had to be dangerous but there was more to its silken liquid than horror, he was sure of it.
John’s temper rose. “This might be your whole life,” he pleaded with her, “if we get this wrong. It would be unwise to make our judgement in haste.”
“Judgement on what?” Nikola slammed his fist down on the table, causing the vase with the rose to shudder and fall, crashing to its demise in a storm of petals.
Three of the petals skimmed off the edge of the table, caught in a swirling current of air and then, after several graceful tumbles, they were laid to rest on the dusty floorboards.
Helen and James’s shoulder’s brushed. They stood united in feverish curiosity. The source blood had ensnared them with promises. It was a trap carefully laid with delicate snares that shuddered every time their eyes wandered in its direction.
James tilted the vial. He watched as the blood moved in luscious currents. Inside he saw a shimmering universe of stars, hidden places and secrets yet missed the darkness which crept out of sight.
While James’s motivations may have run to his physical advancement, Helen sought only knowledge. She wanted to know how far the human blueprint could be pushed – where the boundary between us and the beasts lay – why she was different and if, as her father had hinted, this blood posed a cure for her condition.
“They are going to experiment on themselves,” said John, pulling away from Helen. He was deeply disappointed in her lack of self restraint. Maybe he was foolish, but he had believed her to be different from the others.
Nikola’s face faded even further to a shade approaching pearl.
“That’s right, isn’t it?” John directed his accusation at Nigel, who looked away and muttered something that sounded like, ‘yes’.
John waited for Nikola to break into objection – dissolve into one of his fits of logic declaring Helen and James to be insane. Instead, Nikola clasped his hands behind him, catching his damp cloak so that its violet silken lining quivered elusively in the candle-light.
“Why?” Nikola asked calmly, as if inquiring on the nature of two chemicals reacting.
“What kind of a question is that?” snapped John fiercely.
“A valid one,” replied Nikola in a sudden sharpness, “which was not directed to you.”
“If we go around calling ourselves ‘The Five’, pretending to be a unified group, secret society or whatever it is we’re calling ourselves this time, then the question was directed at the room.” John raised his finger accusingly in Nikola’s direction. “The proposal is preposterous! Inject ourselves with something rumoured to be the most dangerous substance on earth – after watching several of the test subjects die and another turn murderous? No – it should not be done. We make fools out of ourselves, not scientists. The sacrifice,” he looked especially at Helen, desperately seeking for the woman he remembered from the park in her cold blue eyes, “is too great.”
“Everyone makes sacrifices for their profession,” said Nikola simply, sensing that Helen had begun to sway to John’s passionate words. When it came down to it, that was all the man was – one of words. John had never had any scientific credit in the group. He was always the organiser, liaison or walking map to the various towns he had travelled through. His contacts had been useful but now he was beginning to see the other side of science and its practitioners – the side that stood on the cusp of white cliffs, pondering the fall.
“Your coat is a beautiful weave,” Nikola observed. “Tell me, do you often think of those who cowered in the half-light, spinning its cotton into delicate patterns before giving out their breath?”
“To know…” said Helen simply, in reply to Nikola’s question. Her answer was elegant but true – the answer that she should have given him the first time he had asked her about her work.
“And you – Nigel?” Nikola was not surprised when he reluctantly agreed with Helen. Nigel always sided with the majority, like a swing voter trying to not to get swept away by a rip tide. “Then we are in agreement?”
Four of them nodded but the fifth shook his head angrily. “Certainly we are not!” shouted John.
“You want to know about Flash,” said James, highly amused by the way Nikola had been courted by the biological sciences. ‘Flash’ was the name he had decided to give to the electrically charted rat. “Morality is not a question you care to consider, then. You prefer old fashion intrigue.”
“Begging your pardon, but my morality is in a better stead than yours at the present.”
James frowned. Nikola couldn’t possibly know about… James’s eyes searched Nikola’s but he would have had more luck with a lump of coal. No-one had seen him leave those nights, escaping over the university lawn in the soft moonlight except perhaps for Nikola, whose window faced the gates and – and James had to admit that it was possible.
“And yes,” Nikola finished, “naturally the behaviour of the rats intrigues me. I consider it my duty to discover the unknown,” smiled Tesla, “and I suspect that Helen would proceed with this experiment whether we were present or not, gentlemen.” He was right, she would have. “Which leaves us little choice.”
“The rats?” Nigel asked, as he unwrapped his medical bag once again and prepped the equipment.
“No change,” replied James, who had isolated the vampire rat and was now watching it tear at the bars. It was a feisty thing. The others were disturbed by its constant, high-pitched squealing and gnashing of its teeth over every surface.
“Not here…” said Helen suddenly, stopping Nigel. “Hidden away like this, it is not a fitting setting for what we are about to undertake.”
“She doesn’t want to die in a cellar,” winked Nigel. “Not classy enough for the lady. Where then?”
They settled on the lounge room. James arranged the chairs, Helen lit the lamps, Nigel prepared the equipment, Nikola drew all the heavy drapes shut against the night and checked the locks on the windows while John made a nuisance of himself, sulking in one of the lounges.
Helen strode through the room. Her ornate dress dragged behind her, shifting the dust while her golden hair trailed down her back in soft ringlets, some of which had been messily pulled out of the way. All of them watched as she took her place on the chair. Her breath quickened, rising and falling with her chest as hear heart thrust her own blood faster.
She heard the scratch of material on the chair’s back as John knelt beside her. He had not said a word to her since the decision, instead choosing to bow his head so that his face hid beneath several stray strands of hair.
“What are you doing?” inquired Nigel, as Nikola paced over and relieved him of the needle.
“Forgive me,” he said, “but if anyone’s going to be injecting this into Helen, it is to be me.”
“We can’t very well let John do it as he would likely waste the blood to vex us,” Nikola was satisfied when John’s head snapped up in scorn. “There’s a strong possibility that James would splay Helen’s arm for entertainment and you, I apologise for saying, have a heavy hand. No – I shall do this and that is the end of it.”
By the light, Nikola drew the heavy needle from the vial, twisting it slowly in his fingers. It brimmed with blood. A spare droplet formed on the needle’s sharp, metallic tip, fattening until gravity tugged it free. He turned slowly with the needle held aloft. The room had grown silent. As he moved slowly toward Helen, the sound of his shoes over the floor seemed to pound in their ears. Nigel shifted behind her chair, hawking the experiment eagerly.
She was frightened.
“And fury shall become us,” said James, “knowledge, burn us and the world scorn us for the truth.” He moved respectively out of Nikola’s way as if he were carrying a newborn rather than a syringe.
“It’s ready,” said Nikola, coming to rest beside her. She stopped her breath entirely, desperate to appear calm. The colour in her face betrayed her to the others.
“You don’t have to go first,” Nigel offered. It was, after all, strange to let the woman place herself in danger ahead of the men, of which there was a considerable number present. “John or I could have a go to start…”
John lifted his eyes disapprovingly as he was yet to decide upon his own fate. Still, he would allow himself to go first if it would save Helen.
“He’s right,” said James, “no need for unnecessary heroics. The side effects are completely unknown.” In humans, at least.
“Thank you gentlemen,” she finally took a breath. Her voice remained steady as she spoke, “But this experiment was of my design. I should be the one to prove its worth.”
“Helen,” John took her hand urgently. “You are certain?”
“We’ve risked too much to turn back now. We need to know. You may precede, Nikola.” She looked down and took another breath as Nikola ran his finger over her arm, nudging her sleeve out of the way. The pit of her arm trembled as the needle poised above her naked skin and his thumb slipped into position, resting on the plunger.
She could feel his heartbeat through their touching skin. It was raging, tumbling blood around his limbs but apparently not into the hand that refused to move. Nikola’s eyes flicked up. They were large and clear, giving her this final, silent chance to withdraw. He waited but she held her gaze fiercely.
Nikola slowly lowered his eyes to her arm and, with a hesitation of his own, brought the needle to her skin.
Nikola did not wait. Immediately he pushed it through her skin and began to expel the blood. Helen flinched. It was freezing – like icewater flowing into her – seeping through her veins as Nikola’s thumb pushed down determinatively on the plunger. As soon as he was done, her body shook. A sharp pain pulled her arm muscles tight and she heaved in shock, reaching blindly for Nikola and John’s hands. They both held onto her as the muscle contractions worsened and she fought to keep the pain at bay.
Nigel shifted, unclasping his hands and circling round the chair and over to his bag where he hunted through it. James did not move, instead he committed every detail of her reaction to memory. Nikola hastened a glance at John, both were lost for action as the pain turned to agony too extreme for Helen to bear.
“We’ve got to make it stop,” said John, as Nikola threw the needle to the ground and placed his other hand behind Helen’s back, forcing her forwards. “What are you doing?”
“She cannot breathe,” he replied. “Help me…” his elegant fingers had begun unlacing the back of her corset. John tried to protest but Nikola raised his voice angrily, “She’s dying, Druitt!”
“Here,” James pushed through them and set about undoing the thousands of layers of ribbon with more skill than the others would give him credit for. He muttered halfway through about the absurdity of female attire until the bodice loosened and Helen gasped. “She looks better,” he said, when Helen’s breathing settled.
“Are you all right?” John lifted a hand to her face. She nodded.
“The pain is stopping,” she said. “Ah –” she closed her eyes, trying to concentrate on what she was feeling, “slight tingling in my arm and it was cold, very cold…”
“Metallic,” whispered Nigel. “Look at the way it glistens in the light.” He pushed the vial of blood aside next to the smelling salts which he had unnecessarily excavated.
“I am fine,” she let go of both men by her side. “It was just a shock. Well…” she flicked her hair back over her shoulder. “Who’s next?”
Nikola’s head fell into his hands as he collapsed to the ground beside the chair in relief. “A moment, please,” he begged her, as he leant against the chair.
“I shall go next,” James volunteered himself. “If you please, Nikola…” he pestered the man on the ground.
The others followed in quick succession, with John falling last – still muttering his disapproval as the needle sank through his skin. Their reactions were all the same – nothing. Aside from the initial prick, the four men had no supplementary side-effects to the injection. Much like the rats, they stood dumbly, inspecting their arms for irritation but found nothing except a small hole.
“That’s it then,” said James. “Whatever is done is done.”
“Now we must wait,” said Helen quietly. She still felt uneasy – ill even.
“We will stay with you tonight,” said John, and the others quickly agreed – as much for their own sakes as for her. Nobody wanted to be alone, for fear of what they had done and what they might become.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
“Urgh…” Nigel stumbled, dropping the books tucked under his arm as a sharp pain stabbed through his gut. It lasted for several minutes, pounding in ever-increasing waves. “Damn…” he whispered, kneeling down for his books once it had passed. Briefly, he wondered if it had been his ill-looking lunch but soon the dread sunk in and he realised the horrifying truth.
“Oh, it’s you – not a very polite entrance,” James commented, returning to his book as Nigel took his seat in one of the abandoned chairs. The screech of its wood over the floorboards was still busy reverberating off the tightly packed bookshelves when Nigel swallowed and rubbed his forehead.
“There’s something wrong with me,” said Nigel hurriedly, as his stomach turned again. “Are you listening to me?” he added, when James continued pacing disinterestedly, stopping only to pull another book free.
“I heard you,” he replied serenely, “I am only surprised by the length of time it took for you to reach this conclusion.”
“This is no time for jokes,” Nigel leapt up and snatched ‘Rights of Man’ from him. “I think I’m in serious trouble,” he added solemnly, “and I don’t know what to do.”
“They’ve been no more fatalities,” whispered Helen under her breath to her neighbour, as the lecturer scratched various instructions on the board for them to copy. James, who had never sat in the second row before, shifted uncomfortably. “However…”
“‘However’ is not good,” he replied, knocking his quill from the inkpot. “Great god…” he grabbed for it and then promptly shifted out of the way of the ensuing ink trail. “Would you mind moving up a little?”
The lecturer cleared his throat, scratching the chalk harder on the board as the students re-arranged themselves noisily.
“You’ve got it everywhere,” scorned Helen, as she inspected the black stains on her fingers.
“There are reasons why I sit alone,” he admitted. “The rats though, they are all still alive?”
“Yes,” she nodded, and then paused. “Except for the one that’s missing. Its health you’ll have to guess on.”
James mouthed, ‘escaped’ as Helen went on to explain that one of the rats had levered open the bars with a spare scrap of wood allowing a mass exodus. She had rounded them up by hand with John’s help but one of them could not be found.
“That’s not encouraging, on both accounts.”
“It scratched the floor of its cage up for the wood. I may not claim a great deal of knowledge on vermin behaviour, but it does seem out of the ordinary.”
James’s face twisted into discontent. He leant against the sloped desk, propping up his head with one arm. “And the macabre one?”
“Isolated,” she rolled her eyes and made a brief effort to copy the board’s notes. “Though it hasn’t touched its food. Why all these questions? You’re usually difficult to coax into speech.”
“Nigel…” he lowered his voice, doing his best to evade the pair eavesdropping from behind. “He didn’t feel well so I had a friend of mine examine him and they found a small lump growing in the left of his stomach.”
This time the lecturer did not attempt subtly. In an elegant sequence, he snapped his chalk in two and threw both pieces at James and Helen. The first they knew of this was the sharp impacts and white marks left on their foreheads.
“If you’re not going to listen,” he said to them, “at least keep yourselves to a hush.”
“Don’t move…” Nikola instructed.
Against her usually rebellious tendency, Helen froze at the top of the ladder. Nikola rarely joked and she had cause to fear his experiments. This particular contraption had all the marks of sinister device with its wiry limbs trailing onto the floor beside him and one particularly thick wire stretched between two structures like a bridge.
“Watching?” he asked her, without turning around or stopping his fiddling. Her silence was taken in the affirmative. “There’s a switch on the floor beside you, would you be so kind?”
Helen, still perched on the ladder, reached forward to the switch and flicked it. A snap of light gave way to an explosion of sparks. Nikola’s hands were caught on a live circuit which pushed raw current into him at such a rate that he couldn’t feel the pain. He jolted, shook and then fell backwards when Helen finally turned the switch off.
The blackened skeleton of the experiment smoked innocently as Nikola rolled over with a groan.
“I – never – said,” Nikola gasped between waves of muscle spasms, “to turn – it – on… argh!” he held his hands up for inspection. They were intact but lightly burnt around the tips.
“You need to be more specific!” Helen climbed into the attic. She swept the cords away from him as he sat up. The usually immaculate man was in quite a state with his mop of dark hair stuck out in a dark halo, black smudges of carbon highlighting his strong features making his eyes more clear than she recalled and he had acquired a slightly burnt smell to his person. “A right state…” she said, trying to clean him up. He merely removed a pristine handkerchief from his pocket and saw to it himself.
“That was a little too exciting for my liking,” he said, shaking off the incident. “Twenty kilo-amperes and I lived, that must be a record of some form.”
Helen shook her head in disbelief. Near death incidents seemed to be a frequent occurrence when in his presence. “I’ve come about Nigel,” she started, helping him to his feet.
He seemed surprised. “Oh,” he let go of her, “I presumed it was about that other matter. I have not forgotten your promised explanation, you see.” Indeed, Nikola did not forget anything that passed through Helen’s lips whether he desired to or not.
The roof, her fall – the thunderstorm. Yes, she did owe him an explanation. “It will have to wait,” she said, slinking over to the window which was still without its glass. “You really must see to this,” she added quietly, before giving the details of Nigel’s condition.
“No…” Helen caught him, before Nikola could speak again, “he’s not imagining it. I am aware of his tendency to accentuate his many varied medical conditions, but James had him inspected and there is a definite growth.”
“Nearly overnight…” Nikola said, slipping into deep thought. “There are creatures,” he started after a period of pacing from end to end of the room, “that have extra organs. A correspondent of mine has a certain interest in natural science. She has sent me several detailed drawings of –”
“She?” Helen raised an eyebrow curiously.
Nikola ignored her. “We know that these vampires or whatever you wish to call them, possessed abilities beyond our human grasp. It is natural then, that their internal structure may differ from our own.”
Helen turned her head and eyed Nikola keenly. A spark of truth flashed over her and she pointed in his direction, “You’re good…” she said, “exceptionally so.” Then she rushed past him, disturbing a cloud of black dust at his feet as she vanished into the manhole as quickly as she had come.
Nikola inspected himself, horrified at the filth accumulated around him. He had always been a clean person but today he found the concept of dirt intolerable to the point of absurdity. This morning the feeling had been so strong that he had made his bed three times and spent an hour washing.
“I’m evolving?” Nigel had been sat down in a remote corner of the library. Helen and James lurked off to the side, stealing looks at each other as their captive fought another wave of pain. “Am I dying?”
“It is impossible to tell,” said James. “There is no precedent for one species changing into another.”
He thought on this for a while, mentally cursing his situation. Helen interrupted, stopping at first to re-order her words.
“There’s another –” her voice trailed off, “explanation…”
“Which is?” Nigel prompted, ignoring the beads of sweat forming on his hair line. “Dammit woman, tell me what it is!”
“Uncontrolled mutation,” she shot back. “Cancer.”
“I’m afraid our only choice is to wait,” said James, “wait and see.”
Nigel threw his head back in despair and then said, “I want to look at the rats.”
After half an hour of intimate staring, James Watson was convinced that the intelligent rat was trying to communicate with him. The scruffy ball had run repeatedly back and forward inside the cage, pausing on each pass at the ominous lock holding the cage shut.
Next, it took its sharp claws and began to scratch and rustle about in the right hand corner of the cage. It became quite obsessed with this activity, repositioning itself, squeezed tightly against the wall. Finally James heard it – the quiet click of something as the rat dug.
James bent down, scanning under the edge of the cage door. There, at the underside of the corner was a brass pin holding the door in place. The rat scratched again and James watched as its claws brushed over the pin, knocking against it.
“Clever boy…” he whispered to it, placing his nose to the wire-fronted cage. The rat scampered over to him, staring back with huge black eyes. “But I’m afraid that I cannot help you. She…” he nodded over his shoulder in Helen’s direction, “would lock me up beside you if I tried.”
“James,” Helen had been watching him for some time now, out of the corner of her eye, “please – people will talk…”
He departed the cage with a wink and roamed back over to the experiment table which was now lit brightly by a huddle of candles around its far edge. Two of them were large and old, congealed with layers of dirty wax. Their wicks were rough, trimmed low to the wax and their flames danced wildly with the slightest passing of air.
“Research, gentlemen,” Helen unfolded a series of private correspondence and laid the envelopes on the table. “Courtesy of Nikola.”
They were elegant sketches. Drawings of creatures, layer for layer through their workings right down to the cleaned bones.
“There are pages missing,” noted James, sorting through the elegant numbers at the corners of each page.
“This is all he gave me,” Helen said. “I believe that these might help us understand your condition, Nigel.”
“Fine hand, decorative curves on the tails and ever so slight pauses between sentences. A female – I would go so far as to say that the author is a lady.”
“It is not a mystery to be solved, James,” she warned. “Would you be so kind as to put your observational skills to the matter at hand?”
Nigel leant over the papers as if to inspect them, but diverted at the last moment to blow sharply on the mountain of candles, expiring several of them. “Bright…” he said simply, and then took several of the letters away to study. “I think that I shall write my family, just in case.”
“Have – you thought about a will?” James put carefully. Helen made a scornful sound beneath her breath, but Nigel was not offended – indeed, he was smiling more brilliantly than she had seen in weeks.
“Yes, James,” he grinned, “you can have the books but you’ll have all of hell to answer, namely my brother, if you try and strut off with the shelves that match.”
The pair of gentlemen left late that night. She lingered in the door, watching Nigel brave the softly lit street and James hail a coach from the corner beneath a streetlight. The seasons were changing, and the cold of the evenings was beginning to show a glint of tooth.
Exhausted, she fell into a deep sleep with the curtains drawn and her bedroom door locked. The windows rattled all through the night, jarring against the inconstant gusts of wind ripping the last Autumn leaves free.
They came for it that night. When she woke in the morning, the doors had been undone and the steps to the basement tainted with muddy footprints. She was not surprised to find the heavy wooden door kicked in, the lanterns overturned and the source blood absent.
The rats assembled themselves in a line along the cage, keenly observing as Helen stepped around the broken lamps and headed for the chest of drawers at the far end. There, she searched feverishly for Nikola’s letters but they were gone.
Nigel woke up screaming. The dormitory was dark – well before the approach of dawn into the window that Helen had cleared. James stirred in the bed opposite. He fumbled into action as the screaming subsided, fetching a match and striking it to the wick of the lantern on the floor beside his bed. He picked it up and blinked back sleep with bleary eyes.
“Nigel?” he asked worriedly, as shapes began to form in the soft light. Nigel’s bed was empty. Its sheets and pillows were piled oddly in a mound and as he inspected the rest of the room, he found that nobody was there.
Figuring it to be a reverie, James roused on himself and went to blow the flame out when Nigel’s voice spoke.
“Sorry to have woken you – bad dream, ‘been having them since that night.”
James sat up straight and took a second, closer look at the Nigel’s empty bed. After a few quiet minutes, he whispered to the room, “Nigel?”
“No…” came the sharp, half mocking reply at once. “Karl Marx – of course it’s me.”
“Where what?” replied Nigel, shrugging at the confused James.
Some truth dawned on James as he saw the sheets of Nigel’s bed stir, apparently of their own accord. “How are you feeling?” he inquired delicately, of the empty room.
“Much improved,” Nigel had not felt pain since he had gone to sleep that night.
James’s eyebrows furrowed. “Interesting…” he mused.
James tilted the wood-framed side mirror in Nigel’s direction. “You seem to be lacking a reflection…” he said quietly, as Nigel shrieked again.
James tightened the cord of his dressing gown and then lit all the lamps in the dormitory. Next, he strode up to Nigel’s bed and prodded the air approximately where his friend should be. The ‘thin air’ yelped and then scowled loudly, lashing out with stubby fingers until James stepped back, hands raised, and apologised.
“Just checking…” James excused himself, retreating from Nigel’s grasp. “I-” he tried to speak but eventually settled on, “I am speechless.” He wasn’t quite sure what else he was to think. His friend’s skin had taken on the patterns of its surrounding, constantly shifting to match either the bed sheets or the paint-stripped wall behind. About the only thing remaining to prove Nigel’s existence was the shadow stretching out over the floor.
Nigel was taking the progression of his condition poorly. He had James’s mirror clasped tightly in his hands and persisted in moving it about, analysing himself from every angle. No matter how many ways he tried to see himself, Nigel had to admit that he simply wasn’t there.
“This is terrible!” he declared, tossing the mirror across the room where it hit the floor and shattered. Nigel looked expectantly at James but quickly realised that he would have to speak if he wanted attention.
“What do you expect me to do about this?” James replied, tucking his hands into his dressing gown pockets. “It is the middle of the night – sleep on it, and we will think of something in the morning.”
“You aren’t serious,” Nigel tucked the sheets around his legs. It had become cold of a night now – bitterly so. “I can’t just forget about it and go back to sleep!” he protested. “I’m in-god-damn-visible!”
“Then you best get used to it,” snapped James sharply.
Nigel’s resemblance to the background was not perfect. Whenever he moved it took a fraction of a second for his skin to catch up to the change which meant that when moving the wall seemed to lag. However, when perfectly still as he was now, you could not pick him even when you knew where to look.
“We wait ‘till morning,” James insisted, folding himself back into bed. “Then I will provide you with all the assistance you require. I swear it; you shall have my undivided attention.”
It was an exceptionally long, awkward silence. None of them were sure what to say or do and it seemed that James’s idea of ‘help’ was simply to deliver Nigel to Helen’s doorstep and absolve himself of the matter.
“He looks fine,” said Helen, finally. It was true – Nigel sat in the oversized armchair with both hands clinging onto the leather arms like grim death. His clothes were oddly pulled about him as if he had dressed in a hurry and he was a bit pale – Helen would admit to that.
“Well it’s stopped now, ‘asn’t it…” Nigel scolded. He knew that he should be pleased with the sight of his skin but he knew that this present state would not last.
“It’s true,” confirmed James, standing by the fireplace. There were a few hot coals left glowing from the previous night. “I swear, when we set out this morning he was a walking suit – nothing more.”
“She doesn’t believe us,” said Nigel, reclining into the chair. “I told you this would happen. We should have come when it first started.”
John was alarmed by the sudden turn of his head as a hurrying passerby caught the edge of his shoulder. He scowled at once, looking for an apology which he realised would never come as the short man hurried off down the morning street, weaving between the high-hats.
He was about to turn and continue on to his lodgings when he felt his breast pocket and found it light. The miscreant, whomever he was, had taken his purse and papers. With no choice, John dodged two old gentlemen calmly and then launched into a pursuit of the creature he could just catch sight of in the distance.
It was a noble pursuit – spanning many Oxford blocks. At times John felt that he was within arm’s reach of the man and could make out the flurry of heat to his cheeks, perspiration sticking his hair to the broad forehead and the darkening collar of his coat. The hat had long ago departed him, lost somewhere in the street behind as the pair took a turn around the busy corner and found themselves directly in front of the university gates.
“Stop!” John cried out, as the assailant pushed through the iron gates (which were as yet unopened) and dashed along the path leading to the main doors. John could not understand the man’s sense, for surely the university was a trap for any thief to enter.
In the straight, the man was quick and reached the door with extra time to breathe. The heavy wooden things, ornately carved and difficult to open had just begun to close when John slammed his hand firmly into them and heaved them open once again.
To his great distress, the foyer was empty. Without students pattering through it, the room felt harsh and cold with little love shared by the swirls of marble. He had all but lost hope of pursuit when a distant slamming door set him back on the trail. The thief had run up the main staircase and along the passage to the old section of the library – which was also shut up at this early hour. The doors had been forced and were easily re-opened. Once inside John’s eyes trailed across the intricate networks of shelves that were lit only by the morning sun coming through the windows. This effect cast long shadows through the room where one could easily sneak.
He spent the next two hours – until the librarian shrieked in horror at the damage, trying to find the thief but there was no trace of him unless he had made himself into a book.
A great plane of sand stretched out in front of him. It was neither brown nor red but some shade that couldn’t settle in the morning light. His body was freezing. The cold twisted into his limbs and turned his sinews rigid. It wasn’t until he felt the rising sun behind him that he felt his joints shift and his legs able propel up over the ridge and down the other side of the dune.
There was a line of shadows following him. As they drew closer – gaining on him, he realised that they were caused by a struggling group of woman and children. Their exhaustion had wrenched their faces into soulless masks which traipsing endlessly toward the horizon though it always seemed to stretch out of reach.
They were running from their past. An entire civilisation had taken foot and fled and he was among them – leading them. A great sorrow washed over him. The only thing that awaited them was a slow, drawn out death which he moved them ever forward toward.
Nikola gasped – awaking in a fit of tears and despair. He had been there – marching across some wasteland with a child clinging to his shoulder.
“God…” he whispered, catching sight of the first weak beams of morning light through the open window. His breath swirled up through the air, condensing in the cold. It had been more than a dream – it was as if he had actually been standing in the desert, conscious that he would die soon. That desperate sense of hopeless determination took a while to shift as he gathered up the blankets and buried himself, trying to return to sleep
Eventually he gave in. Dressing quickly, he washed his hands again and again before making to the library where he sneaked a few books under his arm.
The librarian, old lady that she was, watched him suspiciously – craning her neck every now and then in his direction. Nikola fitted himself into the rock-lined window sill which looked out across the oval and onto the main gates. The grass was starting to die off and its brown threads had a pink lustre about them in the early light. Two pigeons picked over the expanse, fluttering at each other in jealous love.
He had a heavy book in his lap. Toward the end of it, he found a passage on the great ancient land of the early rulers. His finger slipped along the map from the old city of Cairo west, toward Minqar Abd an Nabi. Where expired rivers baked to dust, the old map showed nothing but unnamed desert – poorly drawn. Still, he could not shake the feeling that he had been there, touched its sand and watched the sun rise over its horrid scene.
“To ne može biti…” he whispered. ‘It cannot be!’
“What of this other complaint,” offered Helen, unsure of how to proceed with no symptoms apparent, “is it possible to examine you again?
Nigel was reluctant at first, but did not desire to be turned away. As much as he despised the fact, he suspected Helen to be the better medic of them all. Her father’s blood was strong in her veins and sometimes even, he could see a bit of him in her eyes. His own father, Professor Samuel Griffin, had been a great friend to the elder Magnus. They shared a friendship whilst on the Oxford board but Griffin, like all Griffins throughout their generations, were wise with money and reluctant to watch it drain into endless pits. Nigel did not know of Helen’s knowledge on the matter but it had been Professor Griffin who first suggested that Magnus’s funds be cut in favour of the more lucrative organisation – the Cabal.
They laid him out on the table in the lab – a thing which disturbed Nigel greatly given the morbidity of the object. It was cold and hard beneath his bare back and brought alive all the hairs of his skin so that they stuck up against the air. Helen did not seem to take much note of him as she approached with her hands covered by a pair of cotton gloves. In so many ways, she looked like a magician about to conjure secrets from the world before their eyes.
“Lay still,” she cautioned, as she pressed down on his chest, feeling his ribs one by one before moving to his stomach. Soon he noticed that she was counting, carefully inventorying his innards in a manner that would have disturbed him had he not expressly allowed this.
Then she paused, feeling again and again the same area of his side. As she prodded, he felt a sharp pain.
“Intriguing,” she said curiously, digging further into his side creating great, stabbing, violent pains that racked the centre of his body.
“Careful – Helen,” James lifted a hand towards her arm, but she avoided him easily muttering, ‘Yes, yes, James – don’t fuss around me.’
Then she did something that surprised the others. Without explanation, Helen ducked out of the room and hurried through her father’s office and into the main hallway where she quickly began the ascent of the stairs toward the attic. Since its uncovering, she had not bothered to lock it. It had become another dead secret between her and her father which no longer required breath or keys.
Once inside the dark room, and after lighting a single lantern, she fetched a single precious letter from beneath a heavy book. It was the sole survivor of Nikola’s collection. On it was an impressive piece of ink-work. Stretching to the very edges of the page, which were of the thinnest paper, was detail of a sea creature. The hand that had written details along the margins was not the same as the one whom had written Nikola the letters. This was a piece from a coveted collection – which is why Helen chose to protect it.
A small life-like sketch in the bottom corner represented the octopus in its pre-autopsy glory with the ever-so-slightest humour in its eyes and twist of its tentacles which curled into a border. Beside it was the signature, W. Dampier.
She returned to Nigel who had now straightened and begun engaging in harsh words with his companion. Helen interrupted them, presenting the document.
“It is as I suspected,” she said, thoroughly pleased with herself. She drew them to a detail of the creature’s skin which under extreme magnification showed sacks of something which the detailed key explained were responsible for the animal’s camouflage. She directed them further to an addendum which wrote, ‘other examples of this cause are the contractions of specific muscles which can alter the pigment of the skin’.
Without warning, Helen sharply stuck her hand into Nigel’s stomach. He winced, contorting his face in sudden pain – though the others couldn’t see it. With a wicked grin upon her lips, Helen surveyed the bodiless suit which writhed about on her table.
“Do you require a repetition, or are we convinced of the lump’s purpose?”
“Quite convinced,” hissed the air where Nigel sat.
“Indeed, indeed…” repeated James, finding a new sense of respect for the woman.
“And they have taken the rest of the letters?” Nigel asked, as the pain grew less and his skin gradually found its form, first in waning patches but eventually settling into a solid covering.
“Everything, I am afraid,” she lied. Helen had saved the smallest of samples – a single vial, once fluid ounce; practically nothing…
“Am I dying?” asked Nigel. He replaced his white shirt and began latching it closed. Helen shook her head kindly. He didn’t think that he would ever see compassion drip from her in his direction but in this case it overflowed and spilled into the corners of her eyes.
“No,” she said firmly. “You are very much alive.”
“What is it, exactly, that you are doing?” Nikola finally looked up from his leather-bound book. John was on his stomach, attempting to see under a set of shelves pushed flush against the back wall.
John withdrew his hands from under the shelf and propped his sizable figure onto his knees. “Nothing,” he replied evasively, clawing his way up the shelf to stand. A large cloud of dust flew off him, wafting into the air where several beams of light cut through them. “Shouldn’t you be up in your attic, playing with the birds?”
Nikola was prepared to ignore the insult. It was John’s usual custom to construct as many of them as possible until one stuck and this morning he would have to do better if he wanted a reaction.
“It is not like you to wander from your domain…” John continued, wiping his hands on his trench-coat.
Nikola inspected his unwanted company with disgust and then said, “I don’t have a ‘domain’.” He turned the page of the fragile Atlas calmly, “You make me out as some kind of bat kept to its cave.”
“Ah but Nikola,” John grinned, “you cannot fly away.”
“True, but I am uncommonly good at sprinting from harm. Give me walls and I shall scale them, have no fear. Good morning,” his tone changed as his eyes flicked away from John and travelled over to the clutter of desks beginning to fill with nervous students. Amongst them, Helen Magnus weaved her way through until she arrived at Nikola and John.
“I hoped to find you here,” she said to the both of them without preference. “I have news that you must hear at once – but not here…” she added quickly. “Nigel has inadvertently made a discovery that I think shall intrigue you.”
Nikola had already closed his book and laid it on the stone windowsill with no intention of returning it to its proper place but John bowed his head and said, “I’m sorry, but you must excuse me. I have an urgent matter to attend to that cannot wait.” Without further explanation, he hastened past them and vanished out of the library, trailing a hand over the side of the doors as he went.
“Urgent matter?” asked Helen curiously, as Nikola slid off the sill.
“No good asking me,” he said. “John shares only what he thinks will injure me.”
“Perhaps it is best that we are alone,” she stepped to the side, hinting that they too, should leave the library. “As we have that other matter to discuss.”
Nikola did not appreciate the crispness of the morning until he found himself strolling through it with Helen by his side. Added to his usual attire was a warm white scarf that hung evenly over his buttoned coat, a set of black gloves and a tall hat which made him appear unnaturally lofty and ever so slightly elegant. He had not offered his arm, so instead Helen stayed close with her hands clutched in front of her.
The limbs of a beautiful oak bent in front of them, infringing on the path with red leaves. Some of them had fallen loose and scattered over the stone. Nikola ducked, reaching up to his hat as they navigated it.
“I have practised so many ways of telling you the following,” she started, “but in the end I decided that it would be best just to show you this-” Helen fetched an old letter from somewhere in the folds of her dress. She offered the sad looking envelope to Nikola until he took it from her.
Without any discernible change in his countenance, he removed the document from its casings, unfolded it carefully and read it through. He handed it back to her as they disturbed the pair of pigeons he had seen earlier – they were still playing in the dew laden grass, fetching each other gifts.
Although he did not say anything to her, Helen could tell that he believed every word that he had read.
“Your letters,” she offered, after it was clear he would not make a comment, “I am ashamed to say, have been stolen.”
This time Nikola stopped and dipped his head. Helen was not sure if it was anger or despair that ripped a sigh from his chest.
“I am sorry, Nikola,” Helen said earnestly. “They took everything, including the blood.”
For the first time since the night of the experiment, Nikola caught her in a fierce gaze. The curtains that hid others’ souls were absent from his steel eyes. Whenever they chose to look, they betrayed every flickering desire he had ever dreamed.
“It is of no great matter,” he replied, even though she saw a kind of torture wrack his heart. “I fear that there is worse awaiting us.”
Helen shivered with the turn of breeze.
“Our ages past are full of blood,” Nikola continued, “so much that the ground must be stained by it and rivers flow below the earth in gushing torrents of sorrow. Life approaches like an ocean stirring in the distance. Its crests mark our suffering and the next wave is arching up to meet us, I can feel its icy spray on our necks.”
She reached out for his hand but instead he took hold of her wrist and stepped closer.
“The answers are inside us now,” he held on to her tightly. “Their manifestations will either be salvation or destruction.”
“And me?” she asked, combating his imposition by lifting her free hand and laying it on his cheek.
“I can’t make you out,” Nikola leant slightly into her touch. There was warmth beneath the leather gloves and a gentle comfort.
Two sets of wings brush past them, grazing their clothes in a white blur as the pigeons scattered into the greying sky. The morning’s beauty had passed and now the clouds revealed their true, solemn shapes as they lapped at the city.
John waited patiently for his coach to wrestle through the traffic. The horses fidgeted at the long stops, pulling at their leather reins and shaking their heads as if in despair at the line of carriages in front of them. The street itself was soft from the past rains. Wheels venturing too near the gutters found themselves digging great grooves or veering violently.
It was well after ten when John was jerked forward. The coachman alighted and opened the door. A storm of discarded newspapers scraped past him, churning against the buildings in a filthy storm.
There was a crowd in front of the police station’s doors, with at least a dozen officers reaching over their colleagues to retrieve some form of handout. Once they obtained this document they retreated along the front wall, reading it intently with fingers brushing over their moustaches.
“Excuse me,” John said, merging into the seething crowd. He was taller than them and easily located the front desk. “I would like to report a theft,” he announced loudly. The chatter of the crowd was overbearing.
One of the crowd’s elbows accidentally stabbed into his back as they swelled, knocking John into the desk where he dislodged a tower of paper. The pages slid over each other as the fanned out over the bench in front of the disapproving secretary. John muttered an apology, quickly straightening the paper when their heading caught his attention. While the secretary processed his theft report, John plucked one of the pamphlets free and began to read.
31 August 1888
HORRIBLE MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL.
WOMAN SHOCKINGLY MUTILATED.
HEAD NEARLY CUT OFF.
A tragedy, even more revolting in its details than that of George-yard, and surrounded apparently with circumstances fully as mysterious, has just occurred at Bucks-row, a low class neighbourhood, adjoining Whitechapel-road. Passing the Essex Wharf, in Bucks-row, at about 4.30 this morning, Constable Neale, 97J, found lying on the pavement there the dead body of a woman. On further examination her head was found to have been very nearly severed from her body. A horrible gash, fully an inch in width, extending from one side of the neck to the other, completely severing the windpipe. The lower portion of the abdomen also was completely ripped open, causing the bowels to protrude. The woman was at once conveyed to the mortuary, where she now lies. She is apparently about five and thirty years of age, with dark hair, of medium height, and with small features. Her clothing, which was examined by Inspector Helson, is scanty, consisting only of a threadbare cloak with a hood, a brown dress, and a petticoat, which bears the mark of Lambeth workhouse. The woman has not yet been identified.
It is thought that the woman was assailed by some man with whom she had been in company. Her front teeth had been knocked out, the woman probably having received a kick in the mouth from her assailant.
“Horrid, isn’t it?” said the secretary, handing him a form to sign. Momentarily stunned, John stared at the story.
“Yes,” he finally said, setting the paper back down with the others.
“When is your father coming home?” John asked Helen, later that day.
Helen was seated opposite him at the dining table, sorting through armfuls of notes while he quietly sipped a cold cup of tea.
“Lord knows, he doesn’t tell me,” she replied, as another pile of papers were deposited in the box on the floor – successfully sorted.
“It is not good for you to be alone,” he continued, finishing his tea. “A young woman, by herself – there must be some relative with whom you could stay?”
“John,” a grin crept in, “you wouldn’t be worrying over me, would you?” He was silent to her accusation. “The Cabal have been at my door for weeks, sometimes beyond it – what has brought about this sudden sentiment?”
“Nothing, only – well I read of a terrible thing that happened in London yesterday and it just made me think.” He didn’t know why, but Helen’s house never seemed safe to him. The windows were too high with easily broken glass, the doors were not set with heavy hinges and any man of reasonable fitness could manage to climb the outer wall to the unprotected windows above.
She set aside her work and reclined in the chair. “John…” she cautioned.
The dune fell away with every step, sucking in his feet and allowing them to be lost in the unbearable heat of the sand. In the distance he could hear the steady approach of drums.
“Stop it!” he yelled, hitting the wall fiercely with his hand. Nikola forced his eyes to see the empty room around him rather than the shimmering expanse of desert sky that refused to shift from his sight. It was like another reality was trying to creep into his world and take over. He felt anger with every part of his body – overbearing hatred that wasn’t his, and thirst, the likes of which he had never known.
A hot trickle of blood rolled over his wrist. Its heat snapped Nikola back into the real world. He inspected where he had cut himself on a sharp protrusion of stone. The scarlet changed course as he turned his arm, spiralling around him. He tilted his head. Light refracted through its various layers giving it a jewel-like appearance. There was even a smell to it that he had never noted before – some kind of metallic underlay that infected the very rivers and towns of the modern world.
There was something else…
Nikola brought his wrist up to his mouth. He could feel his skin creep and a shudder through the edges of his fingertips – “No!” he jerked backwards, slamming against the floor.
Helen frowned wearily at her rat. It was laid out on the table of the basement, wheezing and twitching its whiskers with no real interest in life. Its features were skinny and sharp with numerous bones protruding from its fur which itself had become patchy. The murderous rat – which had hastily dispatched of its kinsman, was now barely able to draw breath.
She had provided it with a buffet of food but it refused to touch any of it. Fearing for its survival, she had even set it free but it would not leave her care. She sat with it through the afternoon and into the evening. Eventually it stirred and with great effort, crawled over to her hand, for she had fallen asleep on the table with it not far from her, and curled up against her skin then fell asleep. There they stayed, one asleep and the other, for eternity.
John opened the door quietly. The candle Helen had left burning was now a decorative mound of wax with a small flame. She was awkwardly sprawled between the chair and the table with her arm outstretched. Her face was obscured by a mass of golden hair but the gentle rise and fall of her figure told him that she was peacefully asleep.
He should have woken her, but he didn’t have the heart. Instead, he crept quietly to the table and gently quashed the candle.
“Does anyone else notice that we’re losing all the rats? I’m sorry to say it,” continued Nigel, during another uncontrolled fit of invisibility, “but that nagging fact does not bode well for us.”
“Well, so far – only you,” James pointed out.
Nigel shook his head, “Don’t tell me that you haven’t felt it – James…”
“I will admit,” said James after several struts around their dormitory. It was several days after the death of the last rat and Nigel’s invisibility had become more frequent and prolonged. His unexpected disappearances had frightened a maid, causing her to faint and to their great fortune, forget the reason. “That after the initial prick I had the strangest sensation. My mind was full to the point that I thought my scalp would give way to the pounding of my brain against it.”
“And then?” Nigel prompted.
“Then, something snapped. A floodgate opened and there was room for thought. Since then ideas which have been held stagnant for so long have evolved and spun themselves into tapestries ready to be written out.”
“You – are – so – full of it.”
“It’s Helen I’m worried about,” Nigel changed the topic. “She seems – indifferent to the whole affair.”
“Are you certain?” James grasped a nearby quill and ran the feather through his fingers. “She suffered worse than all of us in the start.”
“Like a fever,” Nigel continued, “and fought it off.”
“A natural immunity to the blood. I wonder if she knows?”
“A woman always knows their body better than a man. I only question why she hasn’t told us yet.”
“Neither of us have been particularly kind to her. I often wish we’d started differently.”
James scratched the nib of the quill across the desk without ink. It left a single, slender mark from one end to the other. Nigel frowned at it, nudging closer for a better look. James made a second stroke, which crossed over the first in an elegant, two sided curve.
“Sanctuary,” James said, hinting at the design. “It was on the cover of the book I have just finished. I don’t know,” his voice seemed to linger slightly, “the thought appeals to me, of this place as a form of Sanctuary we can retreat to when the world fails to understand us. A house of knowledge.”
“Or a cramped, poor smelling dormitory,” Nigel corrected. “I think that you’ve been left alone with your books too long.”
“I find the need to guard them – you have heard, I suspect, of John’s theft. He lost a wallet and his travelling papers.”
“He’s not the only one to suffer a thief. I was down visiting my mother – she is regrettably ill at the present, and I turned to help her from the park bench when some shadow made off with my best knife from the medical kit – father will have me for that.”
“The age!” sighed James dramatically. “We shall have to bolt the doors and release the hounds…” He couldn’t help it if there was an eager glimmer in his eye.
“I think that it’s time we took you out,” said Nigel, hauling James from behind the desk.
London was bleak.
An unpleasant level of cold crunched his joints together in protest and forced James to retreat into the corner of the carriage where he enticed the little warmth that could be found between the worn leather and tattered curtain.
“See…” said Nigel enthusiastically, opening the window and sticking his head into the rush of air.
The coach made a sharp turn and in amongst the narrow streets they caught a glimpse of the Houses of Parliament – almost new with their cream sandstone blocks standing proudly. Only a few scaffolds remained, tangling at the far corners.
While there remained evidence of the 1834 firestorm in the approaching streets, the official grounds of the state had scrubbed and rebuilt diligently, burying the tragedy. The ruined buildings had been substituted with those of the modern age. Strong, tall and impressively intricate – these replacements were meant to represent the new era of humanity – the Victorian era. James thought them vile.
“You should not be doing that in your condition.”
“Nonsense,” replied Nigel, defiantly, ducking back inside with flushed cheeks. “I’m in agony – which means I won’t be vanishin’ into thin air anytime soon.”
“Is that your professional opinion or Helen’s?” James said, rubbing his hands together for warmth. It was rash to be acting on such whims at times like these. For all they knew, their altered state of health could present a danger to others and themselves – and he wasted no time reminding Nigel of it.
Just as James’s stomach decided that it had had enough of the constant rocking, their ride ended abruptly in front of a line of shops with people milling quietly about, ducking from door to door. The instant that he stepped down from the coach, James decided that he desired nothing better than to be back in Oxford, sitting quietly behind his desk with a book or two.
“Can I leave you here for a moment?” Nigel inquired, shepherding his friend toward one of the coffee houses nestled between the cold brick façades. The bitter smell was almost enough to turn James to the gutter. “I have a moment’s business to attend to and then we shall have the day to explore. You won’t – wander off… or get into trouble, I trust?”
James ignored the accusation – which hardly instilled confidence in Nigel.
“Go – if you will,” James stretched his arm out to the street in front. His warnings be damned. Nigel slowly took a few steps forward, apprehensively joining the crowd. “Fool…” he muttered under his breath, after Nigel disappeared.
James pulled his coat in tight as another gust of wind ripped through the street, funnelled by the narrow lanes. ‘Grey’ was about the best compliment he could pay London. Compared to the seasonal mood of Oxford which melted between green and amber all the way through to snowy white depending on the season, these streets were inherently dull. The mess of the horses and the ever-present drizzle of rain made him sigh loudly with disapproval.
Bored, James slighted the coffee shop and instead began to pace down the street in the opposite direction, ambling into nowhere.
The pile of books in Nikola’s room grew. Documents that he had scoffed at, slept through or shunned now lay open on the floor where he sieved through them, nose to their pages which turned with such hurry that they disturbed the candlelight.
What was left of the morning had now passed over his window and sent his den into shade and cold. He lay across the floorboards, sheltered in this half-light. His mouth pained and, as children do, he had set to chewing things to quell the irritation as his teeth became more and more protuberant. Like a glistening row of knives, they grinned at him whenever he caught his reflection on a piece of broken glass from the window. The sight horrified him. His sullen cheeks and pale skin recoiled in fright and if he was not mistaken, there was a darkening of his fearful eyes with shadows as if he had stolen them from the room.
Nikola struggled with reality – sometimes he felt the hot sand slide beneath him, scorching through his stomach and tearing his skin away in vicious gusts but then at other times, the cold boards of the room in which he lay returned. It was a never ending reverie, a flickering mirage which could not settle – a disturbing place between two lives in which he felt tangled and yet further removed than ever.
His fingers slid over another paragraph as he tried to read its words again. It told of horrible stories and dark places of the earth’s soul where creatures of the twilight crept, kept alive by the blood of the living. Nikola’s body shook. Icy waves ran over his skin, draining its colour further. Somewhere in the distance there was a pounding of hooves, separate to these other dream worlds. Their rhythmic thunder bound his thoughts together as he shook his head and the pages of the books returned to sight as the candle burnt out.
There was a commotion at his window as a set of wings stirred, hopping along the sill. The pigeon ruffled its feathers and let out a gentle cooing as it danced around for his attention. Nikola did not detect the intrusion, and instead shook off another wave of pain until he noticed an unnatural taste on his tongue. Horrified, he felt a warm trickled down his chin and realised that his teeth had pierced through his gum.
“Hush – away, away!” Nikola waved his hand at the pigeon when it pecked him sharply.
Finally James made it out of the cluttered streets and into an open square. A bell nearby tolled, announcing the morning hour. Several people perked up and scurried away, realising their lateness as James strutted over the pavement.
He was halfway though, in the very centre of the square where two Peterhead granite fountains bubbled happily, when he felt the hairs on his neck twitch.
An enormous blur of grey, dirty looking pigeons flocked at his feet but refused to take flight as stepped through them. They bobbed their heads en mass and a few flapped as they skipped away. Filthy creatures, thought James, he could not understand the old women throwing seed at them from the edge of the fountains – but no amount of walking could shake the feeling off. Eventually, James was compelled to stop turn around where he found a sight that startled him.
“Excuse me, do you mind?” he said, to the tall man bent double with his nose almost grazing James’s shoe.
The strange man who had been casing James down the street and into the square stopped and, ever so slowly – like the wheels of a train first seeking motion, righted himself. He had at least a foot on James’s height but was so slender that a strong enough breeze would more than likely have been his demise. He wore a simple brown coat, sturdy shoes and carried a sharp gentleman’s stick which at present tapped threateningly on the ground.
“And you are?” James inquired, when the man did nothing but tilt his head and stare intently.
“I am not here,” he replied, with a scratchy voice.
James wrote the creature off as a poorly skilled thief. He eyed the man in warning and then continued on his way. He thought he was free until the tall man’s shadow sauntered up behind and resumed its pursuit. This time, James did not stop. He spun around, continuing his motion as he stepped carefully backwards. His, for lack of a better term, ‘stalker’ was not only following him, but mimicking his step in length and pace but all the while keeping his eyes locked on the muddy leather travel shoes.
Suddenly, the man’s head snapped up and he went to speak. James though, felt his heel catch in a misplaced stone and before he knew it, he was tumbling backwards. The ground was solid and cold. It dazed James for a moment when he found himself sprawled over it. A few Londoners grinned smugly as they passed to which James angrily glared.
“Are you all right?” said the thin man, not offering his hand.
James muttered under his breath as he staggered back to his feet and began dusting off his jacket. “Who are you?” James repeated sharply.
“The bigger question is not who I am as the answer to that is apparent to me, but rather, who are you, sir?”
“Someone who finds you intensely irritating,” James replied, deciding to step past the thin man and return back the way he had come. He had had enough of this city, and its inhabitants. This time though, the man extended his cane and tripped James who snarled fiercely as he landed on the ground again.
“Mind your step,” said the man, innocently drawing his cane behind his back, out of sight.
James didn’t bother getting up. “Fine, you have my attention,” he said, sitting on the pavement. “I am James Watson, soon to be a doctor in trade – now what is it that you want?”
“Oh yes,” the man replied, “I know that you a doctor. How long have you been in London?”
“This morning, but I assure you, I shan’t be back in a hurry.”
“From whence did you come?”
“Sorry –”James shook his head, wondering why on earth he was answering this rude man’s questions. He returned to his feet in a huff. “Good day to you sir, whoever you may be.”
“Sherlock Holmes…” the man offered, extending his hand before James could flee. “But you’ll excuse me if I don’t shake on it.” His hand trembled as he withdrew it and Sherlock quickly hid it in his pocket. The man’s fragility was not only due to his height – there was a definite fracturable quality about his features which, like a mirror, were sharp in their reflection but easily shattered.
“Oxford…” replied James, still wary of him. “Are those all your – where are you going?”
Sherlock Holmes had nodded at James’s answer as if some great truth had spread its wings before him. Now, he was making a speedy get away through the square, sending large flocks of birds into the air.
When Helen could not find Nikola, she retreated to the one place she could always trust to keep him.
Though it was mid-morning, she found his attic consumed by shadow. The candles he usually kept lit and the lamps that burned sweet, foreign oil had all been snuffed or burnt to the floor where they sat in sad yellow puddles.
From the darkest corner of the room, she heard a soft pigeon coo.
“Nikola?” she whispered, stepping through the scattered books littering his floor like some great ocean. He was there, curled up against the wall with a giant book held open in his lap. Nikola was reading intently when the pigeon scared and alerted him to her presence. “How can you read in this darkness?”
“I do not know,” he replied quietly, not leaving the page. “But I can.”
The sight of him brought her to a pause. He was half dead – drawn out and pale looking. Had it not been for the steady breath leaving his chest and movement of his lips, she would have assumed him lost. “You are ghostly…” she said gently. “Please, come down with me before you make yourself ill.”
“I fear,” he replied after a moment, “that it may be too late for that. In these matters, knowledge will be our greatest ally – and I must seek it out.”
She saw it now – it was a neither a mood nor a fever that had taken hold of Nikola these past days, but some dark force. “And what do you know?” she asked carefully.
Nikola’s especially dark eyes closed, blocking out the room as he spoke. A great curve of sand stretched across his vision and in the distance, he thought he saw a fleck of green nestled between the rises of glaring heat.
“Lives that are not my own…” he started. “I have been living these dreams for days now. They are too real – disturbingly so. I cannot shake them even in the daylight hours and they are full of approaching dread. My head is consumed by hatred but I cannot place its cause. I am thirsty and starving yet I cannot bring myself to eat because the thought of it sends me into fits.” He opened his eyes. “Where are your thoughts?” he asked her, when he saw that Helen had turned her head to the open window. A soft breeze was blowing her golden hair across her face, caging her features behind its ringlet bars.
“That the impossible is true,” she replied, “that you have lived these things before. I have seen accounts like these written in my father’s journal.”
“Either you are correct,” Nikola said, beckoning her closer, “and these memories will turn me mad…”
Helen sensed that he had not finished. “Or?” she prompted.
“Or you are wrong, and I am mad already. Will you sit with me a while? Maybe my grip on this world will be stronger if you are nearby.”
Helen hesitated. “Only if you let me light the lamps,” she whispered.
This time it was James who did the following. He tracked this, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ through the bustling crowd and down a main street where a smaller crowd of police officers were occupied with pushing back onlookers. They seemed to part as Sherlock approached. Two officers in particular nodded their heads at him.
“Holmes…” they said quietly together.
As this mass divided, James discovered the cause of their congregation. There lay at their centre a ghastly sight.
“Oh … Christ in hell…” James turned his head over his shoulder in horror. When he dared look back to the body on the pavement he had to fight the urge to collapse. In plain sight was the naked remains of what he could only assume had been a woman. She was laid open, sliced apart like a slaughtered animal. Dark pools of blood had dried around her form in a kind of grotesque halo. Parts of her were separate and others entirely missing.
Sherlock Holmes was not fazed by the atrocity of the sight. Calm as you like, he paced in circles round the corpse paying particular attention to the boot tracks left through the blood. He measured their spacing with his own step and shook his head solemnly in disappointment. There were a few muddy stains accompanying the footprints to which he paid particular interest.
“You are a police officer,” noted James, tapping Sherlock on the shoulder.
Sherlock had quite neglected to notice that his suspect had followed him. “Certainly not,” he scoffed at the idea. “My trade is private.”
James shrugged and returned to the body. “This is truly the most horrid thing I have seen,” he said kneeling close to the body. Several of the officers warned him away, but Sherlock appeared over his shoulder and hushed at the others.
After a great while, Sherlock spoke quietly, no longer able to bear the intrigue. “You have a thought,” he said, “I see it pacing about your mind.”
“These are not the incisions of a mindless violence,” admitted James finally. “They are purposeful strokes executed with patience and proper tools. I fear that you have here something more sinister than a crime of passion.”
Sherlock Holmes was not a man to grin. His features were too drawn for joy, his lips too thin to smile and the lines on his face unable to do justice to the mood – still, there was a flash of something across his eyes that betrayed his passion. There was nothing better for a man of observation than to catch onto the first scent of the hunt.
“Very good,” said Sherlock. “My conclusion also.”
“And for reasons I have yet to learn, earlier you suspected me of the crime but now – now you have learned something of the killer and of me.”
“You observe keenly.”
“As do you…” The air seemed to thicken with dark grit. Instead of grey – the streets felt decidedly dark and threatening.
“Come,” Sherlock beckoned James to his feet, “we shall speak more of these dark things.”
“You are particularly smug…” noted Nigel, when he finally found James lounging at the back of a coffee house. Granted, it was not the one which he had left him in but Nigel appreciated the gesture.
“Smug?” James raised his well kept eyebrow, “Surely not…”
His dark hair, usually swept neatly over his head and around his ears, was out of place. Several repressed curls had broken free and twisted at will, acquiring odd angles with the side of James’s cheek. Nigel spied patches of dirt on James’s jacket which also bared the glaring addition of a gold pocket watched pinned to his breast pocket – very unlike the Watson he knew.
Nigel collapsed onto the chair beside him. The room was pleasantly dark and warm, quite ‘den-like’ and full of swirling clouds of cigar smoke. He was feeling moderately better and quite enjoyed the dim light.
“What did you do?” he asked with an air of suspicion, placing a small parcel on the table and calling for a drink.
“Nothing that would interest you,” James replied. “Your work is done, I presume,” he said, observing the brown paper item tied half-heartedly with ribbon, “but I am sorry to say that I cannot leave London yet.”
Nigel frowned, taking a second look at his friend. His drink clinked down on the table as he leant forward and replied, “Come again?”
“Business of my own will delay me for several days. I will catch the train back to Oxford when I am finished.”
A quick breath of laughter filled the room as Nigel raised his hands aloft in cheer. “Nice try,” he grinned, hunting out a glass of water lingering on the edge of the table and taking a sip. “Nice try… Time we left I think, this London air’s getting to you,” but James was sincere and merely matched Nigel’s glass with a wink and drained it – ignoring his bewildered companion.
“And where is he now?” John and Helen sat in a quiet corner of the garden.
The sun was high but its weak sphere lacked the warmth of the months past. It hung over them wearily as the Earth spun ever away from it in a constant slight. Everything was gradually going quiet – the trees turning to skeletons, crickets silencing their calls and the dogs of the street retreating to their hovels in the bleak patches of thicket behind the town.
Helen adjusted her white gloves and then pulled her shall in tight around her shoulders. It kicked up in the breeze as she turned to John with her soft reply. “In his room,” she said, “I cannot wake him.”
“Call the doctor-”
“I daren’t,” Helen replied quickly, taking hold of John’s arm as he went to stand. He looked back at her, confused. “If you could see the state of him – Nikola scarcely looks human. Anyone we call would ask too many questions.” She was quiet for a moment, “I do not believe his life is in danger,” she added.
John slowly settled. “He is sleeping, that is all?”
“A deep sleep from which he can’t be stirred.”
“You should have James attend to him. He is the best doctor of us all.”
Ordinarily she would take offence but as much as it vexed her, there was more than common skill in James’s touch so instead, she nodded.
“I agree, but both he and Nigel are in London.” This time it was Helen who left her seat and began to pace across the fading lawn. John followed, coming to her side where he felt for her hand. “I have blocked out the light from his room as best I can and wrapped a blanket over him. The darkness seems to calm his sleep.”
John tangled his fingers in hers, stopping her progress towards the path. She was leaving him already, heading back to the main building. Worry was draining her complexion of all its beautiful colour, sucking the very life from her. He feared that she would wilt and die like the flowers had around them and fall back to the earth one petal at a time.
“Then we must wait,” he lowered his mouth to her hand and kissed it affectionately. “Please, do not worry – all will be well,” he insisted.
She caught him by surprise, dragging him toward her and draping herself over his shoulder in a desperate embrace. Helen wove herself around him, clinging passionately until he gave in and dipped his head toward her neck.
“I wish that I could believe you,” she murmured, as his arms tightened, “but this is all my doing. If I had not insisted that night –”
“Hush,” John drew away enough to see her face. He had always known Helen to be a strong force, fearsome even as she traced her way through the university halls like she owned their marble floors, but what he saw scant inches from him was a frightened girl. “I give you my word, Helen, everything will be fine. We will fetch James as soon as he returns and he can see to Nikola. For now – let him sleep.”
She pulled away. “Still… this has gone too far. Our rash actions are starting to exhibit consequences that we’re not prepared for. Nigel – I can’t even begin to understand what is happening to him. He may not show it but he endures hideous pain and James is disturbed by the heightened state of his senses. He sees things, smells them and hears them long before the rest of us. The minute details of the world are overwhelming him and unless he finds a use for his gift it will drive him mad.”
“Are…” he stammered, cleared his throat and started anew. “Are you all right, Helen?”
Helen nodded. “And you? I see so little of-”
“Do not worry, I am fine,” he insisted.
John waited with Helen as long as he could but as afternoon came and went, he was called away by an insistent professor and had not returned. It was now early evening and she was seated behind James’s desk in the dormitory. The room was much cleaner now that his animal captives had been let loose. Even the unnamed pig had been freed to Nigel’s farm where, she had heard, it played alongside her dragon – Helen could see that relationship ending in tears…
James had not given away his obsession with chemistry though – glassware littered the benches and if anything, had grown to plague proportions. Their bubbling contents released heavens knew what into the air whilst she was certain that he had left something growing in the Petri dishes nearest to her. The combination left her drowsy as she stared blankly at the wall in front of her.
She was startled when the door shuddered. It creaked open then closed and locked on its own without a soul passing through it.
“Helen?” exclaimed the empty room in fright. “What are you doing here?”
Blinking back sleep, Helen made out the faint outline of Nigel moving toward the cupboard where he promptly fished out a coat and wrapped it around himself causing a peculiar sight.
The bodiless coat approached.
“Not again…” sighed Helen. “That’s three times in a week.” His spells of invisibility were becoming more frequent.
“I know,” he replied. “And I had to leave my best clothes in London. People tend to stare at floating outfits. Had a hell of a time catchin’ a ride home like this.”
“Where is James?” she asked, setting the feathered pen which she had been using down on the desk.
“As always, I am glad to see that you desire my company.” If he hadn’t been transparent, she would have seen him avert his eyes to the floor in real despair.
“It’s not like that…” she insisted.
Nigel and Helen stood against the far wall of Nikola’s attic. Their backs were pressed painfully against the cold stone as they shivered, unnerved by Nikola.
He was awake and seated on the floor between two oil lamps. The curtain over the window had been pulled back to reveal the swelling moon, creeping into the sky above clouds. Layers of mist worked their way up the walls of the university, hiding the grounds in undulating river of cloud. Some of it had settled inside the room and snaked around Nikola, almost affectionately.
Nikola was reading from an old scroll which tumbled onto the floor with its unread end curled up. He had not given any indication that he was aware of their presence, nor had he spoken since they had begun watching him.
Helen and Nigel were speechless. If Nikola had appeared inhuman before, he was positively fictitious now.
His skin had sunk away from his bones and lost its colour. As he finger trailed along the lines of handwritten text it was followed by the scratching sound of his overly long fingernail which tapered into a claw-like hook. By far the most frightening change in Nikola’s appearance was his eyes. They were large expanses of jet black where his pupils had consumed the whole eye leaving only pits. They bared no expression as they diverted from the page to the faces of his audience.
Nikola lowered the scroll.
“You must leave,” said Nikola, in an impassionate voice that sent cold chills over the necks of Helen and Nigel. It was not a request, but a warning.
Nigel, who had been visible for a while now, stepped protectively in front of Helen. “We need to examine you, Nikola. I believe that you are experiencing a side effect of –”
“You must leave,” Nikola repeated.
Nigel hastened a glance at Helen before replying, “Why?” He knew his question to be unwise the moment he had asked it, for Nikola’s eyes expanded slightly while his head tilted to the side. If he was not mistaken, there was a row of sharp teeth glittering beneath the man’s lip two of which extended well beyond the others.
“Because I can hear your hearts thumping in my ears,” Nikola lifted a taloned hand, pointing at them. Though he kept his voice steady, it peaked ever so slightly with urgency.
A strong breeze through the window upset the lanterns. The room hovered in and out of darkness. Nikola was now standing as a single shadow, imposing on the room as he lingered by the wall where a couple of feathers tumbled by. They had not seen him move there.
Helen’s eyes strayed to a dark stain on the floor. Great streaks of crimson were smeared over the floorboards in front of Nikola, and, as the lights brightened and the chill-laden air settled, Helen saw a bundle of feathers in amongst the shadows.
Nikola remained deathly still.
“You best hurry…” he insisted. “My reading of our condition disturbs me but there is nothing we can do this deep in the night.”
“What are you on about?” Nigel progressed cautiously into the room. Helen had been right about Nikola, his body was riddled with something foreign – a dark spell or ancient curse.
Nikola ignored the dangerously close Nigel.
“Helen,” he did not look at her, instead choosing to turn his back on them and speak to the empty wall, “lock the hatch and don’t come back here until the first light of morning.”
“Com’on now,” Nigel was barely an arm’s length from him, “you’re scaring her, Nikola, let us take a look at –”
John stirred. The room was dark and empty save for a destroyed mirror resting against the wall and an odd collection of specimen jars. He rolled over, clutching his head as it throbbed in his hands. John swore, certain that he could feel his skin peeling back and laying itself over the dust-ridden marble.
He was in the spare classroom where he had met the professor only it was much later in the evening and all the lights were out. The professor too, had left long ago and now there was only John writhing on the floor in agony.
These headaches had worsened over the last week. At first he had thought them to be a side effect of the large volumes of wine he had taken to consuming but then they began appearing at all hours, increasing in severity. Two days ago he had had his first blackout – a complete wipe of his memory. He had found himself alone in Oxford’s park, asleep on the grass near the lake with no idea of how he had arrived there.
The truth literally hurt – he was suffering ill effects of the experiment. Like the others, pain seemed to be a common feature in their reactions. So far John was hoping it would be the only thing that he would have to endure.
Eventually the pain subsided and he was able to pick himself up off the floor. He headed to the double glass doors and leant against them, staring out at the evening. The moon lit the heavy fog and a few skeletal branches criss-crossed the star patterns. The nights were getting longer as winter edged its way in. Before long twilight would be the new day and the stars their main light.
Sherlock had brought his new companion to an empty room. There was nothing particularly special about the barren expanse of floorboards or single window that broke the otherwise grey walls, but the tall man retreated to an abandoned corner and puffed away expectantly on his pipe, motioning for Watson’s opinion.
James Watson waved away a thin trail of smoke and eyed the room carefully. The centrepiece of the room was a very obvious streak of blood smudged into the thickly layered dust.
“There has been no-one in this room,” added Sherlock, as James remained fixated on the floor, “since I followed the man whom I believed to be the killer here.”
“You’ve seen him?” James snapped his head around as his companion puffed another cloud into the room.
“After the first murder I took to lurking through London’s streets after dark. I was ready to give up my new hobby when I heard the poor lady’s screams. By the time I reached her, the man had completed his hideous business and was fleeing through the side streets. This townhouse has one entrance – down the stairs and through the door we entered. When the man did not reappear after many hours, I risked a peek inside and found things as you see them. He, whomever he is, vanished.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a criminal has evaded capture.”
“No…” Sherlock replied, amused. “But I do believe it may be the first time that one has literally vanished into thin air…”
James followed Sherlock’s sharp eyeline and realised the reason that he had been brought here. The deep sheet of dust in the floor told the story of the night’s events. Like a book, it could be easily read. The man, the killer, had entered the room hastily with long strides and come to rest by the opposing window. He had lingered there, no doubt watching the sky until he stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. There were slide marks and great sweeps of clean floor near the blood stain where someone had sat and then – that was it. There was no more to the story. No tracks returning to the door or body in the room. The man had vanished, simple as that. Which was impossible.
“I see…” said James, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his forehead.
Sherlock lifted his head and exhaled a long trail of smoke. “I thought you might,” he replied.
DREAMSCAPES OF THE INSANE
They were not far now. The ground beneath the desperate human convoy had begun to thin, giving way to grey stone beneath. Glimpses of sapphire stole their eyes where hints of water blinked in the dips of the horizon. This great river system which waned in and out of flood, spurned the people into a final surge despite its desperate salt encrusted banks.
The strongest of the group overtook Nikola as they clawed up a ridge of sand then stopped, gazing out over the sunken land beneath. There was a long, distorted mirror of the sun in the snake-like tract of water which ran as far as they could see from curve to curve. A small port waited for them somewhere on its edge and beyond the white sails – the promise of freedom.
It was a long way to those ships.
Nikola let the others pass him. He turned away from the beautiful scene back toward the desert they had just survived. The sound of drums and marching feet was still creeping closer. Even through the sharp wind that kicked at his ears, he was able to make out the distant clink of swords and shouted words from the fearsome commander.
He set down the child in his arms. It smiled and ran off in chase of the other children tumbling down the last dune with cries of delight. Nikola searched the sand, whispering curses into the air until a blinding point of light burst into life like the sun itself, rising to greet the day.
His body froze and for a moment all he could do was watch as more and more flecks of light emerged until they formed a definite line backed by a darker smear of men. It was an army.
Nikola ran his tongue through his sharp teeth and out across his cracked lips. The deep pits of his black eyes erupted with a flash of red as he snarled and dropped everything save his knife to the ground.
“Don’ – don’ touch me,” Nigel retreated from her, falling toward the dormitory wall where he collapsed, shaking and clutching his shoulder. Several deep gashes cut through his skin which splayed out in horrific sheets. It was difficult to see the extent of the damage as his body shimmered, rippling in and out of focus.
Loud crashes barely made it through Nigel’s haze of pain as Helen rooted through James’s possessions in search of the medical kit, scattering its contents in her careless haste. Nigel wasn’t sure how much time had passed but there was a large pool of sticky blood forming on the ground by the time she returned to him with a bottle of whisky.
This time, he did not fight her off. He groped for the bottle, held it to his mouth and gulped the raw liquid until the fire in his throat distracted him from the lacerations on his chest. When he woke he found a somewhat untidy track of stitching tying him back together. The bottle of whisky rested half-empty beside him so he reached over but it was snapped away.
“No,” said Helen firmly, shifting it out of his reach. “When I’ve finished, you can drink the remainder.” She unfurled several strips of ripped sheet, frowning – they were not as clean as she would have liked.
“Doctor?” It was a request, not an observation.
This distressed her. “I can’t,” she whispered, sloshing the alcohol over him. He groaned and fought back a cry when she silenced him with a gentle hand over his mouth. “You mustn’t,” she cautioned. “It is late and they will hear you.”
“Give m’that!” he muttered, snatching the bottle. Disgruntled neighbours were the last of his worry. Helen wound the bandages tightly around his girth as best she could, fastening them with pins. “I’ll lie,” Nigel continued, “tell ‘em it was an animal or somethin’ – nobody has to know it was’im…”
It was too much for Helen; kneeling, she bowed her head to the ground and choked back several deep sobs.
“Helen…” prompted Nigel finally. She raised her head and he was taken aback by the tear stains down her furiously red cheeks. “We don’t have a choice. You have to find him.”
Helen wiped her face with the hem of her skirt only to find it soaked through with Nigel’s blood. There were rivers of it over the floor, staining the timber.
“I don’t know where he is,” she replied quietly.
“Your father is the only one tha’ can help us,” he continued, watching in despair as the fresh bandages turned a violent red. “Abnormals, they’re his life, Helen. We’ve had this knowledge for a few short weeks an’ look at the mess we’ve made of it. There is no choice – he is the only person who will believe us.”
“Except for the Cabal,” she had already begun tearing new bandages. “I kn – I suspect that they have found him, why else would he have not returned?”
“Oh, dear Helen –” Nigel stopped, frowning as the alcohol blurred his vision so that two Helens approached, shifting next to him. “You do not understand the first thing about hunting. A dear must be invisible from everything if it is to survive, including the grass.”
John locked the door behind him, lit the lamps and collapsed onto his bed. The first light of morning was threatening to topple over the horizon when he turned over, fully clothed, and fell into a deep sleep. It was to his great surprise then that he awoke on the floor, curled into a foetal position with his jacket doubling as a blanket.
“Good gracious!” the lecturer exclaimed, with a look of bewilderment. Helen led him over to Nigel’s bed and pulled back the sheets so that he could see the extent of the wounds crisscrossing the young boy’s chest.
“I didn’t want to move him,” she said hastily, stepping back. “When I found him I-”
“Miss Magnus,” the lecturer interrupted, “to save the asking of awkward questions like, ‘what are you doing in the gentlemen’s dormitories at this hour?’ I’m going to pretend that you aren’t here.” Helen paused. Nigel was asleep – or too intoxicated to open his eyes. “Which means,” continued the lecturer over his shoulder, “that you shouldn’t be here…”
Finally she took the hint and quietly left. Once the lecturer heard her safely down the stairs, he placed a cold hand on Nigel’s shoulder.
“Are you going to tell me what really happened?” he asked Nigel. The boy replied with a defiant grunt, gradually opening his eyes. They were bloodshot and began to weep as the soft light pierced his irises. “I guess not,” the man sighed. “Your father,” he muttered, as he cut through Helen’s makeshift bandages, “would have my soul if he knew the trouble I’ve let you get into. You’ll forgive me, but this is going to hurt.”
They came on them like thunder – first a violent crack of sound and then a succession of ever more powerful waves that shook their bones and eventually, broke them.
Nikola ducked as a bronze figure lept over him, slicing through the air with a hooked sword. It hit the stone ground and turned, glaring back at him with a victorious grin. A thousand more of his kind rushed past, storming toward the screaming flock of vampires on the final flats before the river. The soldiers cut them down as easily as running through them. Nikola felt every sickening blow as the children grew silent and a pink foam formed in the water.
The commander spun his sword menacingly as he approached Nikola. His necklace of lapis and gold glimmered like a giant, godly sundisk as his chest heaved.
“You cannot run,” he hissed at Nikola. “Your evil will know the dust before this day is out.”
“And yours will endure,” replied Nikola, lunging.
The battle was swift.
The last woman to fall stood in front of a group of children brandishing a sword that she had stolen from one of the soldiers. She screamed at them, cried and finally fought them off until her throat was slit and she collapsed in a lifeless mound.
Nikola was the only vampire that they left alive. For three weeks they carted him across the desert bound to a camel. Eventually he saw a rise of frightening mountains loom out from the sand. Their black edges were sharp and jagged as they stretched in the sun.
“No…” Nikola whispered.
As they approached the sound of chisels and workman roared up in his ears. An entire civilisation crawled, pulled and swore as they dug deeper into the mountain. Nikola was transferred to the ground and forced to walk into entrance of the tomb surrounded by the commander and his men.
“You’ll live – it surprises me to say.”
Nigel thanked the lecturer. His father’s old friend tucked him back into bed and went to leave as morning stumbled into the sky.
“Whatever it is,” he said, with his weathered hand paused on the door, “that the five of you are up to, it ends – you understand? Rest, and then I want you back in class where I can keep both my eyes on you. Feel free to pass that along.”
They brought him to a black slate room, deep under the mountain range. A line of priests, gilded and half dead in a collective trance, had their eyes rolled back in their head as they chanted spells into the air.
What frightened Nikola most was the stone coffin rising out from the floor. Its lid rested on the ground beside and seemed to wait for him – beckoning him toward it. At the edges of the room, between the enormous columns, were the caskets of his friends. They were all dead. He guessed it long ago, but to know it sent racking sobs through his heart. The Priests of Amun were entombed and awaited him in whatever life might succeed this one.
“One day,” sneered Nikola, to his brother, “far from this one, I will find you. It does not end here.”
The commander ignored the cursed creature as it was wrestled into the sarcophagus, chanting and screeching. He gave the order and the slaves moved forward, sliding the lid over the coffin.
Nikola gasped, his eyes snapping open as the bright sunlight burnt into his face. He was on the floor of his room, staring out the open window. A ratty curtain had half fallen down and flapped in the freezing wind. It was day and Nikola had had the most terrible dreams.
It was mid-morning when the lecturer nearly died of shock. His white hair fell across his astonished face (which had not slept) and his piece of chalk snapped in two as Helen, Nigel and John presented themselves for class. His surprise paled in comparison to the look on Helen’s face when Nikola strutted in, immaculate as usual and slipped in next to her. For a solid ten minutes she did little but stare at Nikola, quite unable to believe his serene figure scribbling notes from the board.
“Come Miss Magnus,” said the lecturer, catching her attention. “He won’t bite.”
She wasn’t so sure.
Nigel grimaced. It was a struggle to stay upright but he’d rather be out here than suffocating in his room. Still, the slender figure of Nikola calmly seated next to Helen was almost more than he could handle.
Nikola wasn’t copying notes from the board. Instead, he was engrossed in a letter which he ripped from his book and folded several times before sliding it across the desk, sneaking it under Helen’s hand. Her eyes flicked up as he pushed the note further under her palm.
“Don’t make me beg,” he whispered to her, in a familiar, warm tone.
“Leaving, so soon?” Sherlock perked up from the couch where he had spent the previous day in a delirium of sorts. The pipe smoke was still thick in the room, clasping at the furnishings and choking the room with its scent.
James shooed the courier away and set the letter down on the desk. He frowned and shook his head, taking a seat by a cold tray of tea and biscuits. “I should, but I’m not going to. A friend of mine is ill, but it has all been taken care of. They can do without me for a time.”
“Excellent, as I have planned for us tonight a mission of sorts – an experiment in chance. Care to partake? Ah – don’t bother, for I already know your answer. You would not be here unless you felt the heat of the chase. Perhaps and if we’re lucky, the moon will be bright and the dark figures which prowl the streets, easy to pursue.”
“You think the killer is going to kill tonight?”
“Come Watson, he has a proper name now. ‘Jack the Ripper’ he professes, in poor English I might add, and his need for blood has returned and so too, shall we.”
They met outside the class, darting away from the main stream of students to lurk in a corner with Nigel cruising ominously in the background, never lifting his eyes from Helen and Nikola.
“Do you remember?” she asked him, as soon as the roar of footsteps had tapered off. Helen had her books clasped protectively across her chest. She leaned over them, balancing her chin on their worn spines.
“Not everything,” he confessed, “but enough to understand your –” Nikola instinctively reached toward her but she backed away, “fear…” he trailed off. “Is he going to be all right?” Nikola and Helen glanced at the pacing Nigel, who glared firmly back at Nikola.
“He almost wasn’t…”
“Helen,” Nikola quickly changed the subject, “as bad as things are now, they’re about to get a lot worse.”
“Worse than last night?” she shot, angrily. She didn’t mean to – it wasn’t his fault but still…
“Our bodies are only beginning to adapt to their new, should we say, skills. Given a few more weeks even the lesser of us will be a powerful and alarming creation. Be assured,” he said, in a hushed voice, “we will lose control.”
John, delayed by the professor, finally made his way out of the classroom and into the foyer where he found Nigel waiting. The other man purposely rolled his eyes over to the far wall where John caught sight of Nikola and Helen locked in tight conversation.
“What happened to you?” John asked. He had been staring at Nigel’s prominent bandages throughout class trying to decide if Nigel had been hit by a coach or thrown under a train.
“Tell you in a minute,” he said, as Nikola and Helen made their way towards them, weaving around a few straggling students. Helen pointed to the stairs and the four of them headed off in a clump.
They reconvened in the sanctity of the library, hunting out their favourite haunt in a forgotten corner of knowledge. The layers of mould over the shelves were challenged only by the encroaching dune of dust that dulled everything with an eerie coat of grey. It got all over their clothes as they shuffled into their usual positions and waited for Helen to finish the horrific story of the previous night.
“You did what?!” John leapt from his chair toward Nikola.
Helen stepped in front him, pacing backwards as John continued to lunge forward, raising his fist at Nikola’s head.
“Sit’own John,” Nigel pointed to the overturned chair. “We’re supposed to be scientists, let’s at least pretend to act like’em.”
Helen, hands resting on John’s collar, pushed him gently off her. John wanted to crush Nikola into a thousand pieces but was eventually convinced to back off and retake his seat, albeit with a dangerous look. “This better be good.”
“Just to clarify,” Nikola strolled the length of the bookshelf with his hands clasped behind his back. He looked taller like this, ever so slightly more gentlemen-like as he surveyed the other three. “Am I the only one who has seriously researched the history of vampires?” There was silence. “So start from the beginning then – okay.”
John was deeply displeased, Nigel was in more pain than usual and Helen was nauseated by the very memory of what Nikola had been last night – all the same, they held their tongues and listened.
Nikola pulled a book from beneath one of the shelves and placed it, open on the floor, in front of them.
“Egypt,” he said, “first known occurrence of an Abnormal race known to us as vampires. After their brief mention they vanish from all record until they reappear in Europe, thousands of years later subject to a mass slaughter. Some must have survived because several hundred years after, your father arrives with a pure sample of vampire blood.
“It may surprise you all to learn that we are not the first fools to taste the temptation of vampire blood. Those in the ancient world thought of it as a river of youth – a glimpse of godly immortality.
“Fifth century BC – Herodotus writes of Ethiopians with exceptional long life. As it turns out, the last colony of vampires left in Africa settled the areas nearby and fell prey to frequent native attacks. The tribes that ingested their blood made extraordinary claims of being, ‘faster than the wind’ and ‘stronger than the lion’. I think,” he continued, “from our own experience, we know the cause.”
“But we inject’d it…” said Nigel, “straight in our arms – not the same as drinkin’ it.”
“No,” Nikola agreed with him. “We’ve reached a whole new level. I can only assume that our symptoms will not be temporary but permanent and more pronounced.”
“Christ,” Helen swore. “If the Cabal find out they’ll want us for their labs. They collect creatures like us.”
“That too,” Nikola closed the books and returned them to the shelves. “Are they are already watching us.”
“Especially you…” she caught Nikola’s eye.
“And what,” John stretched his arm across the table. The white lace sleeve peeking out from his coat trailed across the wood. On one of its beautiful edges was a tiny fleck of red. “Are we to do? They are sure to work out what we’ve done eventually.”
“We end it,” said Nikola. “We find your father,” he moved to Helen, and then returned to his pacing, “he will know of a cure, and then we finish this cursed business. Do you have something to add, Nigel?”
Nigel cleared his throat, tucked the edge of one of his bandages in, and then spoke, “It’s just –” he stopped and went quiet, thinking better of his comment. It wasn’t until he was prompted by the others that he continued. “Only that, well it is a unique opportunity,” he said.
“NO!” John hit the table with his fist, sending the glasses of water bouncing into the air. “We’ve been down this road before and look where it leads.” He looked deliberately at Nikola, as if he were the source of all that was evil in the world of Abnormals.
“It’s easy for the three of you,” spat Nikola. “Nigel vanishes every now and then and John’s temper’s worse than ever, but I am the one who is becoming a monster – don’t try to pretend it’s anything else.”
“’scuse me, did I imagine having my chest ripped open?”
“Apologies,” Nikola quickly snapped back at Nigel, “I must have missed it while in a murderous trance.”
Helen raised her hands aloft and, as loudly as she could within a library, hushed them.
“This is not a game of, ‘whose worse off than whom?’ gentlemen,” she said sharply. “Urgh!” she collapsed into one of the empty seats, moving John’s arm off Nigel’s diary. The day was already beginning to wear on her – and it seemed as if it were ending too soon with the heavy rain clouds clogging out the sun leaving little to filter in through the gothic windows and around the cluttered library to their den.
“I know that we must find my father,” she said, “but he has either hidden himself away from the world or been captured by the one organisation we must steer clear of so what are we to do?”
“Eliminate our options,” Nigel’s waves of pain were getting stronger. It was a strange phenomenon – the more his wounds healed the more pain he felt. His body had things backwards. “I could have’a snoop and no-one would be the wiser for’it.”
Night – Nikola’s room was boarded up – the attic stairs strapped closed with belts and his sole window and lonely square of sky, hastily covered by planks. Helen, too nervous to sleep, kept herself busy in her father’s study, sifting through the few loose field notes she found in forgotten draws. The rose he had brought for her survived by a few ill looking leaves which wept toward the lamplight.
Nigel though, cursed the season for its cold. While walking the poorly lit streets, he dressed himself in a trenchcoat, winter pants, hat pulled low to the collar, gloves and a neck scarf. So long as he didn’t lift his head, the average passerby would not notice the absence of his neck and face.
His wounds were mostly healed. Even that had surprised him. Just under twenty-four hours to heal major injuries could not be written off as co-incidence. He risked removing the bandages. The grating of his clothing over the scars hurt, but did no further damage.
According to John, who’d been able to get his hands on some property development papers, the Cabal owned a large cotton mill on the other side of the river – one that worked all through the night, churning out exquisite garments. Oddly, they were one of the few factories not to change their workload over from human to machine as the trend had set. It was a glaring contradiction for the Cabal who seemed to take the future of human technology as a personal challenge.
In his present state, he could not risk a coach so he walked the distance briskly. The black smog that fell to the earth, compressed by the cold air of the evening, was even thicker between the towering walls of the factories. Mounds of earth on the side of the road, kicked up by passing traffic, had already begun to whiten with frost.
It was a desperate and heartless place whose score was the steady click of machinery behind the tin walls. The occasional infant screamed for its mother but she would not be home until dawn.
The Cabal’s factory, misleadingly labelled, ‘Empire Cotton’ was not quite as impressive as the name promised. All its windows were alight but there was no movement behind them, not even a lonely factory worker staring out at the other side of the city.
When Nigel reached the corner where the building reared up, flush with the pavement, he ducked out of the lamplight and into a narrow alley where he de-clothed and hid his belongs under a scramble of weeds. Now he really was cold. The only danger of detection were the shadows he left, so he clung to the walls, grinding up against their filthy surfaces as he approached one of the entrances.
There was no door to the alley at all – only a poorly lit hole in the wall of the building through which Nigel scampered, not wanting to linger in the narrow passageway. It felt more like descending into a mine than a factory as the passage continued, twisting around several times until it came to a set of stone stairs. These led both up and down.
Nigel hesitated. Surely down, he thought at first, would be the most natural place for any untoward activity that they might be carrying out for if you were going to hide someone, you wouldn’t do it on the main factory floor. Then again, he glanced up at the staircase leading up several flights, there was something very wrong about the factory itself.
He still didn’t have very good control over his invisibility, and he most certainly didn’t want to get trapped in a place like this – naked.
“Goddamn!” he muttered, and then began to climb the steps.
“That boy stole your purse,” said Sherlock calmly, as he and Watson pushed their way through the evening crowd. It was the night shift of workers swarming to their twilight labour.
“It wasn’t my purse,” Watson corrected him, “it was a folded piece of fabric with two shillings I keep in my pocket that masquerades as my purse.”
“Paranoid – good, it shows the proper sense of fear for one’s existence.”
“Says the man leading an expedition through London’s most dangerous streets at night on the hunt for a murderer…”
“Point,” Sherlock whirled around, raising his cane dramatically, “taken…”
Eventually the streets quietened and London’s famous rains let go over them. The horrid downpour was on the verge of sleet when Sherlock caught hold of Watson’s cloak and yanked him into a shadow.
“What do you see?” he whispered, as a thirty-something woman sauntered down the opposite side of the road.
It took Watson a moment to see her. She was so used to blending into the background that even when keen eyes were after her, she failed to register as little more than a watermark. Elizabeth Gustafsdotter was tall for a woman of her age, but she hid this blessing under long black garments and a crepe bonnet. It was her checked scarf that gave her way, knotted loosely around her neck.
“Only a working girl,” replied James, pulling his arm free of Sherlock, who was still puffing away on his pipe. “Hold on a minute – where are you going?”
Sherlock merely winked and stepped out into the light.
A spotted rat scurried past him, leaping over onto his bare feet – a move which started them both. It squeaked in surprise at finding itself aloft before resuming its escape back down the stairs. He probably should have followed the rat…
It took three floors to reach the first landing. Up until this point it had been so quiet that Nigel didn’t think his invisibility would be enough to hide him if someone did happen along.
Finally, the low drone of hushed conversation leaked out from the walls. He could have just broken into an accounting firm for all the enthusiasm in their voices. The door at the top of the landing was slightly ajar with a bright band of light gushing out of it, spilling into the stairwell. Stepping into that would be as good as screaming.
He approached cautiously, one step at a time until he was beside the landing. From here he could glimpse through the door into the large warehouse floor.
There was a reason no-one was at the windows – they were all huddled in the centre of the room, congregated in a kind of ring around something that Nigel couldn’t see above their bobbing heads. Gentlemen and women, dressed in white, craned their heads and struggled on tip-toes until a frightening shriek silenced them.
Like a wave, they rippled back and promptly re-shuffled. Nigel risked another inch along the wall, edging his nose around the corner and into the room. He retreated instantly – for standing on a platform above the group was a man glaring down into the circle’s centre with cold eyes.
Nigel slammed his eyes shut. He felt his skin ripple uneasily and his wounds seer but it was nothing compared to the evil of the aging man, balanced by a black and gold cane, addressing the crowd with his soft but persuasive voice.
Professor Samuel Griffin was displeased. The creature writhing on the crowd in the centre of the circle of scientists was dying in pain.
“Another…” was all Professor Griffin said. He waved at the pack then turned and dismounted the podium. A young boy rushed forward into the circle and injected the deformed creature with a clear liquid that killed it.
BLOODY NIGHTS IN LONDON
“Evening, young lady,” Sherlock Holmes announced himself, falling into step beside her.
Elizabeth, well accustomed to the manners of men after dark, eyed him with disapproval and hurried her pace discreetly.
James watched on from the other side of the road, struggling to keep sight of the pair as the rain beat down harder and harder until the street became a miserable blur. The entire city of London was vanishing beneath a dark cloud which filled the air with restless rumbles and the occasional flash of light as if it knew the hideous events unfolding beneath.
Eventually Sherlock brought her to a stop. She spoke for a while, waving her arm vaguely at the road behind her as if giving directions. He bowed low, thanking the lady, and then kissed her hand and let Elizabeth pass.
“And?” James prompted, upon his return.
Both men were drenched and suffered streams of water pouring off the rims of their hats and the trims of their equally long coats. The smell of wet dog stuck in the air as the animals of the street sought shelter, scurrying past them in frantic dashes before hiding under weed beds or discarded crates.
“Naturally, she is suspicious of strange men,” Sherlock replied, “but she did mention that there was word of a tall, cloaked gentleman lurking about the area, sinister kind of creature that none of the other girls had seen before. He tried to enlist the services of a few working girls but they all refused him.”
“Turned away by a prostitute – that would rub.”
“Indeed it – Christ,” Sherlock spun elegantly and peered intently down the street, “did you hear that?”
The rain poured down in an impenetrable wall until all James could make out was the pounding sheets of water against the cobblestone. He wiped the water out of his eyes bit it did no good.
The intense gaze of Sherlock’s eyes could have split silver glass in two. The ordinarily reserved man screamed something at James that it was indistinguishable from the roar of the rain, then he threw his pipe to the ground and broke into a desperate sprint in pursuit of the woman who had vanished into the night.
Nigel pressed himself against the cold wall until even the smallest groove of the old brick surface dug painfully into his skin. He could still hear his father’s voice inside the room, occasionally rearing above the drone of the others, directing them – controlling them.
He should have left then, when the first flickers of light bounced off his skin betraying his presence – but he didn’t. Professor Griffin was inside that laboratory pacing from corner to corner like some kind of predator casing his territory and Nigel felt more like a child than ever. He could have been five years old hiding behind the barn door as his father killed the chickens, completely petrified, his arms and legs immobilised and heart shaking with every hushed word uttered.
“That’s it everybody,” announced another, softer voice. Nigel didn’t have to see its owner to know that they were a born underling, the kind of creature that liked to lurk around the seat of power feeding off the scraps. “We’re done for the night.”
Chairs moved at once quickly followed by a shuffle of shoes heading for the door amidst the swish of thirty lab coats thrown into the corner.
“What a night – I’m getting too old for this shit,” said the first scientist to reach the door. The rest of the group swelled behind him in a flood funnelled directly to the place where Nigel had chosen to hide.
“Won’t be gettin’ old,” replied another voice, “if we keep this work up. If they didn’ pay like they do…”
It was too late for Nigel to move as the crowd rolled past, bumping and nudging against him. His breath caught as the first elbow caught his side and stuck there for a moment. A shoulder clipped his chest, shoes crushed over his feet and clothing brushed across his naked skin but not a single one of them noticed as they filed down the stairs. When the final stragglers trickled into the stairwell, he let himself breathe.
“Professor…” said the soft voice again, just shy of the doorway. “He is waiting for you downstairs.”
“It must be urgent if he is unannounced,” replied Professor Griffin, gradually making his way towards the door, flicking off the panels of lights as he progressed. “Word on the source?”
There was a slight pause and the glow from the room diminished again.
“No… I believe he has come about your son.”
Nigel’s eyes flicked open so fast they nearly rolled back into his head. There was no time to creep along the wall. Shocked into action, Nigel pealed himself free and began his silent flight down the stairs before his father reached the door. By the time his father’s cane clicked out of the room, Nigel was off the landing and had started on the long corridor toward the black hole at the end streaked by the driving rain.
He was almost there, so close that he could smell the rain, when a cloaked figure stepped into the tunnel, swearing at the weather and completely blocking Nigel’s escape.
Nigel stopped and slammed himself against the wall as the man rung out the bottom of his cloak onto the floor where a sizable puddle was busy forming. His father’s voice, which had followed him down the stairs, was rounding the platform and entering the corridor. It was a narrow stretch and Nigel was hemmed in on both sides by the approaching parties. Though he was invisible from a distance, he wasn’t sure he wanted to test his ability in close quarters.
“Evening Bill,” Professor Griffin raised his hand in greeting as he and his assistant closed in.
To Nigel’s horror, ‘Bill’, not content to wait in the entrance, began pacing forwards.
“I came as soon as I could get away,” Bill replied, reaching to remove his hat. “It’s not easy getting coaches in this weather.” He pulled the soggy item on his head free to reveal a cluster of damp, white hairs. Nigel had to stop himself from gasping as the sleepy face of his college lecturer glanced meaningfully back at the rain.
The two encroaching parties were almost on each other now, neither more than a few yards away from Nigel.
“It’s not all good news, Samuel – your boy was hurt. He’s – he seems to be recovering fast but you asked me to watch over him and I have.”
“And I am grateful for the favour.”
“But it is not why I came all this way…”
“It isn’t?” Griffin’s eyes widened.
“I must confess, when you raised this other matter with me I doubted that I would be of any assistance to you. There have been a lot of years go by since those days at Oxford and I had my doubts.”
“Gregory asked your help?”
“I have not seen Gregory since the night we dismissed him. As for the object you desire, I have not come across that either, not directly, but I believe I have learned its fate.” He ran a nervous hand through his hair, unable to hide its subtle quiver. “I am quite certain of my suspicions.”
Griffin’s eyes flared dangerously.
“I don’t know how they did it,” continued the lecturer, with a touch of jealousy, “but a group of my students have had the source in their possession and have –” it took him a moment to garner the courage to make the accusation as its content was so filthy – so despicable even to the dark workings of the Cabal that he feared uttering it, “ingested it.”
Samuel couldn’t stifle the laugh cracking through his throat. “A group of school children in possession of one of earth’s most powerful substances?” he shook his head, whipping his cane against the wall beside where Nigel was hiding.
“Not just any children,” the college lecturer went on, “sometimes they frighten me – more than you,” he added, not quite in jest. “One of them is Gregory’s child. There’s something wrong with them – something different since all this started. I’ve spent my whole life watching children grow into adults but these kids, they grew up overnight.”
Griffin turned and whispered to his assistant.
Bill’s hearing was sharp. “You’re going over there now?”
“At once,” Griffin snapped, breaking into as much of a stride as he could given his bad leg. “And you shall accompany us.”
Watson and Sherlock hit the warehouse door at a run. The horses on the carriage storming up behind them startled – throwing their heads back in shrills, pulling against their reins as they veered and slammed to a halt on the side of the poorly lit street.
“Whoa, whoa girls!” the driver tried to calm them, as the creatures reared again. They stamped their hooves and backed away from the small alley beside the main road where two men pounded on a large factory door.
“Open the door, open the dooooor!” screeched Sherlock, rattling the large iron handles furiously before moving onto the hefty bolts attaching the door to the wall. Watson leant his knee, Sherlock climbed onto to it and stretched up to pull the top bolt free. Together, Watson, Sherlock, and the owner of the carriage took a run at the door.
It squealed and fell inwards, still attached via the lock. All three men spurned forwards into the lamp-lit shed which turned out to be a grain house full of machinery grinding and packing in the background.
The rain became a dull presence in the background and Sherlock was finally able to explain why they were breaking into private property.
“There’s a woman in here,” he said to the two gentlemen, who were struggling to catch their breath. “And we have to find her before…”
The carriage owner stepped forward and knelt down to the dusty floor where a dark smear of blood was glistening, still fresh. There was a crack – like lightening but inside the shed, accompanied by a quick flash of purple light.
“There…” Watson pointed to the sound, and the three of them darted around a giant set of grinding stones to find nothing but an empty corner.“Nothing,” whispered Watson, shaking his head. “He was right here, I know it.”
“He was here,” said Sherlock, creeping around the churning stones where he stooped to examine the elegant knife cast aside by the killer. Its blade was coated in a jewel-like liquid which trickled off its sharp surface.
Watson’s face lost all of its colour. “I’ve seen that before,” he said slowly.
A rush of frightened whispers filled the room as the carriage driver backed away, crossing his chest at the sight of Elizabeth, strewn across end of the room beyond the churning stones.
The carriage roared off into the night and Nigel followed, dashing out into the storm clear forgetting his clothes. His skin may have been mimicking the dreary surrounds of the derelict streets leading to the bridge, but the rain gliding over his body was just enough to create a shimmering outline like a mirage streaking through the dark.
He had no hope of catching his father and the lecturer on foot, so when Nigel came across an unattended horse tethered to a garden fence neighing irritably, he freed it and rode bareback through the night.
The horse galloped down the streets, over the bridge and back into the main city where the few people left outside parted in fright as the ‘unmanned’ horse tore madly past them. Once at the university gates, Nigel swung his leg over and fell down the side of the stallion and onto the muddy street. As far as he could tell, he had preceded their arrival but they could not be far behind. Terrified, Nigel made it through the main doors and flung himself up the marble stairs and along the corridor to Tesla’s attic.
The ladder was down and a soft glow lit the entrance to his room. Nigel had not expected that after the horrific and terrifying events of the previous night.
“Tesla?” he called, between gasps of breath. There was a shuffle in the ceiling and shortly after Nikola’s perfectly preened head popped into view looking quizzically down at the empty corridor.
The only thing out of place was a streak of water that ended at the base of the stairs put there seemingly by magic.
“Is Helen with you?” the empty space asked hurriedly.
Nikola narrowed his eyes and took a closer, more careful examination at the corridor. “Nigel,” he trailed off with an air of displeasure, “a sight for sore eyes I presume…” he snipped.
The ladder rattled as something grabbed on and started climbing. Nikola ducked out of the way of Nigel’s well camouflaged body as it protruded into the ceiling and caught sight of Helen seated by a rather mangled experiment.
“Who is it, Nikola?” she asked softly, still unaware of Nigel surveying the room.
Nikola straightened and leant his hand to the vacant air which took a hold and pulled itself into the room. “The great, invisible man,” replied Tesla lazily.
“We have to leave right now,” Nigel jogged over and took Helen by the arm, pulling her roughly from the floor. He dragged her toward the exit amid her protest until Nikola intervened.
“Steady on, Nigel!” he hissed, unable to detach him completely. “What’s all this about?”
“There’s no time to explain,” he whispered, reaching out to take hold of Nikola’s arm as well. “But if we don’t leave this building right now, we’ll be pets of the Cabal inside the hour. They know ‘bout us, what we did, and they’re comin’ to collect. Personally, I’d rather not be their latest attraction but it’s up to you.”
Nikola broke away and ducked over to the open window. He had a clear view of the front gates and soon after saw the carriage lights pull up at the gates. Nikola threw himself away from the window and nearly tripped as he pushed the others toward the ladder.
They were trapped.
The three of them had planned their exit through the lower levels and out the kitchens but as they had begun their descent of the stairs, the front doors were thrown open and three gentlemen hurried across the marble, coming to a pause in the grand foyer. Instinctively, Nikola, Helen and Nigel had recoiled and backtracked to the side of the stairwell where they could peer over the balustrade.
Nikola instantly recognised their natural sciences lecturer but couldn’t place the other two. Beside him, Helen had frozen and gone pale, glaring at the man tapping his cane over the stone.
“It’s him,” she whispered, hiding in the shadows at the top of the stairwell. “The man from the street. He is the one after the source blood and my father.”
Nigel was bitterly ashamed of himself, of his connection to the work of his father, so much so that he kept quiet as the gentlemen whispered to each other and the lecturer finally pointed at the stairwell where they were huddled.
“You will find the Magnus girl and Mr Tesla this way,” said the lecturer.
“Our lecturer works for the Cabal?” Helen whispered.
“We have to go,” Nikola took hold of Helen and pulled her away down the corridor, flying over it as the gentlemen took to the stairs behind them.
“This way,” Nigel said, opening one of the doors along the corridor for the others to slip into.
Their pursuers heard the click of the door and followed easily, coming to a stop at the library doors several minutes later.
“Strange,” whispered the lecturer, pushing the doors open quietly, “there is no way out from here – it is a dead end.”
“Stay here…” Griffin directed his assistant to guard the doors, and then snuck into the dark library with the lecturer at his side.
TRILL MILL STREAM
“I thought you were ‘aat home, Helen?” Nigel squeezed himself into the narrow space, lowering his rough, country voice to a hush.
They were huddled in a non-descript corner of the library, well out of sight of the entrance way, taking shelter where two bookshelves didn’t quite meet leaving a space for them to slip through against the wall and peer out from between the books. The thunder and rain outside hid the sound of their breath which, between them, was like a hoarse chorus behind the thudding of their hearts.
“I was…” she replied, nudging one of the old books to cover a hole in the shelf. Helen felt Nikola’s sharp intake of breath beside her and stopped short of elaborating.
“Your father is not their prisoner,” Nigel continued, as a few slender shadows streaked across the room. His own father and their lecturer were hunting about the reception area of the library, quite a distance from them. Still, their ghostly forms flicking through the room turned Nigel’s invisible skin cold. The others were blissfully unaware that this was the cruel face of his father, a man he had endured and feared. “They are still searching for him.”
Helen could not decide if she felt relieved or more concerned for her father than ever. It was very unlike Gregory to go without contacting her for this long. He must be in trouble.
“And there was somethin’ else,” Nigel added, somewhat nervously. Helen could see a slight mist coming from where she presumed his mouth to be. His talent could hide many things, but not everything. “I doubt very much that it was the Cabal that robbed your house that night. They are still searching, quite desperately, for the source blood.”
“What?” Helen whipped her head around, covering his face in a soft curtain of golden curls.
“They do not have a sample of the source blood, which they would if it had been them.”
“Who else could possibly know? Who else would –”
“He’s still in Oxford,” said Nigel, solemnly. It had to be true. Helen’s father was somewhere within the city’s walls, scurrying in and out of the Cabal’s reach.
“Hate to interrupt…” Nikola had been anxiously watching their own lecturer wander worryingly close, stooping down to check underneath the research tables. “But I think we should discuss this later, perhaps where there aren’t people trying to capture us…”
“He has a point…” Helen whispered back.
“We could overcome three men…” Nigel offered.
“No,” Nikola replied sternly, louder than he had meant to. Their lecturer flinched and briefly glanced in the direction of their hiding place. They fell silent for several minutes. “Best not to give them a demonstration,” Nikola continued, once the lecturer was out of sight, “as they’ll be back with things we can’t fend off – like bullets.”
“Can’t hit what they can’t see,” none of them could see Nigel’s grin.
“Congratulations on your luxury,” snapped Nikola, quickly losing patience with the man he’d never particularly liked in the first place. “And on that note, what was the second part of your brilliant, ‘escape through the library’ plan, or are you intentionally trying to get us trapped?”
“You forget, this is my home,” Nigel shifted beside them. “My father –” he hesitated, he couldn’t tell them that it was his father currently hunting them, so he settled for, “worked here. Come on, follow me,” he tapped Helen’s arm lightly.
Nigel crept round the end of the bookcase and crossed the short distance to the opposing wall. Unable to see him, Helen and Nikola frequently had to hunt for shadows or swipe at the air to get a grip on Nigel’s location. Once, Nikola even whispered, ‘Steady on Nigel, remember we can’t see you!’ after completely losing him behind a bookshelf.
Finally, after escaping a close call with their lecturer, the three faced a wall in the old wing of the library, just short of where they usually chose to haunt.
“I don’t get it,” said Helen, her face laced with concern with their pursuer’s footsteps audible in the background. “We’re still trapped…”
An invisible force took hold of her hand and pulled her toward the wall, just before she hit its unfriendly surface, she noticed a gap between the shelf and the wall just big enough to slide through. The darkness of the library gave way to a spiral stairwell – open to the sky. The rain poured in from above, creating gushing torrents down the unsafe looking stone steps that led infinity downward. Nikola appeared behind her, ducking as soon as he felt the cold rain on his head.
Nigel stepped back and pulled Helen down a few steps in front of him before she stumbled, reached for the wall and swore.
“Nigel – what are you doing?” she hissed, balancing herself. Nikola followed, carefully navigating the slippery staircase that lacked any barrier on the right hand side, it was simply open to the dark hole with rain falling into nowhere.
“Keep going down,” the air around where Nigel stood muttered. “Then follow the tunnel, it will take you outside the university walls.” He reached through a spider web into an alcove in the wall beside them, dragging an oil lantern out. Using one of the old matches left there with it, he struck it under the protection of the rock and lit the wick. A small flicker of warmth suddenly revealed his shadow. He handed Nikola the lantern and said, “Look after her.”
Then Nigel scrambled past them, back into the library to delay his father and the lecturer for as long as possible.
For a moment Helen didn’t move, staring back at the entrance with the rain falling over her cheeks and hair.
“Come on,” Nikola said softly but firmly, taking her hand and leading her down the treacherous stairs.
“We can’t just leave him to-” but she was interrupted by Nikola, holding her more tightly as if he were frightened that she would vanish.
“Yes we can,” he said.
The rain poured down harder, clinking on the protective glass around the lantern and drenching Helen and Nikola. Nikola was hardly dressed to begin with, in only his white shirt, tied loosely at the top, and dark brown slacks and so he felt the coldness of the rain draining him. He was sure though, that Helen felt it worse with the heavy layers of her dress dragging on the ground, water logged and threatening to trip her at every step. Although she was now following him obediently, he daren’t let go of her hand in case she fell. Not that it would kill her, he reminded himself.
John threw himself against the wall of his apartment, gasping for air, his eyes running wildly over the room. Warm blood trickled from his clothes onto the floor, pooling in dark stains. It wasn’t his. His memory was a blur, a streak, a turbulent mirage that glinted in a sinister fashion but revealed nothing.
One moment he had been reclined in his chair with a book ready for sleep and the next he had stumbled through the door, soaked and panicked covered in someone else’s blood.
His head burned. John groaned and cupped his hands around his scalp, crumbling to the floor in confused agony. For some reason the flash of the crazed rodent’s teeth entered his mind. This vampire blood was sending him crazy.
James Watson leant against the shaking glass window of the train as it rattled violently against his head. He couldn’t see anything out of it with the heavy rain streaking across its surface other than the occasional gas light yet he couldn’t bring himself to sleep. There was something brewing in the air outside telling him that he had to return to Oxford as soon as possible. More than their lives depended upon it.
He twisted the item in his hands, turning the cold metal over and over. Nigel’s knife might be beautiful but it had done terrible things this night – and others. James wondered if its owner had done the same.
So many beautiful young women, torn and mutilated, left for the world to find, cast aside like rubbish. It had to end. He had sworn to Holmes that it would.
They flew off the last step and found themselves face to face with a low tunnel exhibiting an arched ceiling made of ancient bricks. It was the most foreboding sight either of them had ever laid eyes on and even Nikola, who often sought out the darkest corners to lurk in, hesitated.
He held the lantern out in front of them, temporarily letting go of her hand as he took a few cautious steps forward.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” he said, and tentatively entered the tunnel, ducking his head.
It smelt stale, dank and abandoned. He heard her join him, treading out of the rain into the tunnel. There was just enough room for them to walk side by side, something that neither of them objected to.
“What is this place?” she said, noticing the age of the bricks. “It doesn’t look anything like the rest of the building.”
“If I were to guess,” he started, running a finger over the tunnel’s surface as he moved through, “I’d say that the college has been built on top of Roman ruins. Not an uncommon practice in this part of the world.”
The thought made her shudder as she wondered how many other places there were like this under the city she lived in, forgotten remnants of the ancient world slumbering underground.
“That’s – a little eerie,” she confessed.
He smirked, “It never ceases to amaze me the disquiet your culture has with its past.”
Sometimes she forgot that he was so different to her – brought up far away in some part of the world she would never see – one that enjoyed its distant past.
“I can’t help it,” she said, letting go of her dress so that it dragged over the filthy floor. It could hardly make a difference, it was already well beyond ruined. She must have looked a frightful mess – all her curls hung limply by her face, dripping onto her clothes which were several shades darker. Her makeup was at best, a few sorrowful streaks down her cheeks.
Nikola turned his head to her, looked her up and down and said nothing.
She nodded, her suspicions confirmed. Yes, she was positively wild – something the great Nikola Tesla abhorred.
Then he did something very unexpected – he stumbled.
“Nikola?” Helen frowned in concern, stopping with an arm on his back.
He shrugged whatever it was off, including her hand.
“Let’s keep going,” he said, “I feel like one of your rats trapped in this tunnel – and we all know what happened to them, Helen.”
Nigel waited patiently, invisible against the wall.
Several more people from the Cabal entered the library, accentuated by the slamming door and grunted instruction to ‘search!’
Resisting the urge to swear aloud, Nigel sidled his way along the endless rows of shelves toward his lecturer who was unwisely still checking the study desks alone, out of sight of the others. It was the perfect, and possibly his only chance to even the odds.
Though Nigel did not make a sound, some primordial reflex twitched inside the lecturer and his eyes shot up, scanning the rain stained gothic windows, following the dim light to the bookshelves opposite. He could have sworn – but there was nothing there. Nothing but rows of silent books, so why couldn’t he shake the feeling that he was being watched?
Begrudgingly, Bill resumed his task of searching the endless forest of desks and chairs for any sign of the students. Frankly, he was beginning to doubt that they were still in here. Perhaps they had doubled back behind them and they had … had missed them? Mind you, that was about as likely as Professor Griffin getting his hands on the source blood. It never ceased to amuse Bill how easily his old colleague underestimated him. Acquiring the source blood was a dangerous game, and he was playing for keeps, old friendships be damned.
The lecturer’s world went blank as he cascaded to the ground, hit from behind by a single, heavy hand. Nigel could not believe that he had just done that. If he lived through this, he was definitely expelled.
His luck was short lived as two of the extras brought in to assist heard the lecturer’s demise and rounded a nearby corner to investigate. Nigel knew that they couldn’t see him, but he was keenly aware of his long, slender shadow cast across the room mingling with the tables. If you didn’t know where to look you would have missed it but should he so much as breathe the wrong way he was gone.
The two men, roughly the same size and shape except the closest to him had a long mess of straight hair, took a few steps forward toward the fallen lecturer.
“Heck!” exclaimed one in a whisper. “Quiet little buggers, then, aren’t they?”
The other man replied in a low, gruff slur of words.
“Leave him,” the first man finally decided, “keep searching, they are not far.”
“Nikola, Nikola – stop!” Helen fumbled for the sleeve of his shirt, catching the damp material in her hands, pulling him to a stop. He was not well and she could feel his skin trembling beneath her hands as she stepped in front of him and forced him to bring his eyes up to hers. She gasped. So that is what he had been trying to hide – two dark, glossy orbs belonging to something far from human.
Nikola didn’t say anything, he just turned away from the lamp’s light and lowered his head to the ground.
She let go of him and took a fearful step back. Not here, not now – he couldn’t.
“That’s correct,” he murmured against the wall as another violent wave took hold of him.
It took a few moments for reason to outweigh her fear.
“No…” Helen replied firmly, pushing the lantern back toward him and lifting his face so that she could see it better.
His eyes had returned to normal and his shaking had ceased – for the moment. She had no idea how long it would take for the transformation to take place but it could not be long.
“I am not leaving you,” she continued, seeing the fear welling up behind his steel eyes. “Now – come on.”
This time it was Helen who took the lead, clawing at the thick, sticky webs that littered the arched tunnel as darkness encroached both in front and behind them. Without warning, the floor of the tunnel took a turn downward and they had to use the walls to stop them from sliding over the mossy floors. There were constant rivers of water pouring past them, and they were getting larger – no doubt as the rain pounded harder down the distant stairwell.
“Oh…” Helen’s breath caught as freezing water seeped through her shoes and she realised her feet were submerged. She stepped backward, bumping into Nikola who had been uncommonly quiet.
The tunnel in front was still slowly heading downward, but the way ahead was flooded with a black expanse of water – one that they would have to navigate if they wanted to make it out.
“Don’t stop,” Nikola suddenly said behind her. He looked almost normal in the soft light, his hair a dripping fright of black and his cheeks flushed. It was a demeanour so far from what she was used to that she couldn’t stop the smile curling across her lips.
He frowned at her.
“You find our predicament amusing?” he queried, trailing his hand up the wall beside, straightening his posture so that he positively loomed. That was more the Nikola she remembered.
She thought about that for a moment. People hunting them so that they could perform horrendous experiments on them – vampire blood trickling through their blood transforming them into things she didn’t even want to think about – her father lost, missing somewhere on the run from a murderous organisation that would stop at nothing to find him and her own lecturer in on the whole thing – a man she had trusted with Nigel’s life.
“No,” she quipped, “I don’t think amusing is the right word.”
“Then let us get on with it,” nudged her forward, and her feet hit the cold water again. She nearly slipped, barely able to maintain her balance.
His heavy leather boots entered the water first and he felt nothing except a slight skid of his sole over the bricks. Finally though, as they progressed further and deeper, the water rose up over his ankles accompanied by a few green sparks.
Helen’s eyes widened as the water flickered and a tingle rippled over her skin.
“What…” she started, but Nikola’s sarcastic tone had returned.
“Water and electricity,” he drawled, “rarely mix.” When she continued to look confused he added, “Another gift from our experiment. It should worry you,” he added, “we don’t have much time.” And as if to prove it, a glossy sheen returned to his eyes.
Nigel had dodged his pursers for about as long as he could. They were smart, caging him into a corner by carefully sweeping and securing each alcove until he was left hiding in plain sight beside the entrance to the secret passageway. He really didn’t want to be here – it was stupid, they would find it this way but they had not given him a choice.
Now he could see all three of them, no more than ten metres away, whispering and signalling to one another.
This is it, he told himself, flexing the few lean muscles he had. He would make a run for it, head toward the library doors, draw them out, away from Nikola and Helen.
He was about to make his move when the unthinkable happened – the beautiful interlude from the pain that he had been enjoying, abruptly ended. He knew it before he saw it – his body stirring into view and the gaze of his pursuers suddenly settling on him with surprise.
The water only got deeper as they ventured further until Helen had to hold the delicate lamp aloft, scant inches from the arched ceiling. She convulsed, seeing the curtain of spiders – all black – tangled legs, as they hung out of the water’s reach. She felt a few of them fall onto her shoulders and neck but had long ago given up on removing them. They showed up worse on Nikola’s white shirt which was translucent as it dragged through the chest high water.
Oh god, she thought, it better not get any deeper.
It wasn’t just the cold – it was the stench of stagnant water that drove her to ill. They had slowed down, ploughing rather than hurrying until they heard a splash in the distance and several voices shout.
A SHOT IN THE DARK
The Cabal were in the tunnel.
Nikola clenched his fists together, trying to fight the pain of the transformation that had begun its hostile hold on his body. He could feel the ancient memories returning. The world around him had begun to blur between water and sand – a surreal landscape that he shook off with a sharp turn of his head.
Focus, he had to breathe slowly and concentrate. The water in the tunnel lapped at the top of his shoulders and beside him, Helen could barely keep the lantern from its surface. This was no time to falter.
“They’re coming,” she managed, thrashing about in the water beside him.
There were at least two Cabal pursing them through the tunnel – gaining on them. Neither carried a light and instead seemed to be drawn to the solitary glow of Helen’s lantern.
“I hope Nigel wasn’t lying about this tunnel meeting the river,” Helen peered into the blackness in front. At the moment it looked as if they would drown – lost in its depths. The water was quickening, enticing – luring – freezing around her.
“You have reason to doubt him?” Nikola’s hand was permanently clasped around Helen’s waist, hooked under her small belt– helping to keep her afloat with all her endless yards of fabric.
“Truthfully,” she risked a glance at him and was relieved to find Nikola there – rather than the creature taking hold of him, “how well do we really know him?”
“The only person I trust,” he replied, looking deeply into her, “is you.”
Nikola was quite serious causing her to look away at once, her cheeks blushing. Nikola had never been forthcoming – with anyone, but when he chose to be his confessions had more weight than open declarations of love.
It wasn’t that the water in the tunnel was getting shallower – more that the roof was getting higher. All of a sudden, the archway over their heads gave way to an enormous underground room.
They were wading through some kind of drainage system – a series of tunnels and chambers that channelled water from under the city back out into the river. It was an endless mess of dead ends and water.
On both sides of them, three or so metres away, were a series of floods steps onto a narrow pathway that ran along both walls and ahead of them was an old stone bridge, precariously traversing the water.
It was impossible to make out the ceiling now. Helen held the lantern high so that its glow on the dark water stretched far in front of them.
There was a strong current down here, and it was dragging them along almost against their will. Another foot of depth and they would be helpless.
“We should try for the side,” said Nikola, trying to drag Helen closer to the safety of the stone edge, but she shook her head and pulled him back.
“No – this water leads out, it must,” Helen protested. “It is the fastest way out.”
Nikola didn’t seem to agree. His skin was shivering again – and not from the cold. He had already bitten through his gum trying to stop the transformation but his will was breaking, faltering as the cold water weakened his resolve.
“There they are,” said a breathless voice behind them. There was a loud splash as one of the Cabal henchmen crawled up onto the footpath and helped the older man up beside him.
“Get them,” was all the Professor said, staggering to the wall for support.
Helen and Nikola turned to find their pursuers horribly close behind them. A man plunged into the deep water after them while the other slowly progressed along the walkway at the side, hissing instructions. Helen recognised him at once – it was the man from the street – the man that had threatened her father – and the moment he laid his eyes on her there was a flicker of recognition.
“Oh God,” Helen swore, and then threw the lantern into the water, throwing the underground world into total darkness.
The train pulled into Oxford’s platform – screeching against the water drowning the tracks. It was nearly morning when Watson dipped his head and raced through the downpour towards a lonely coach but not yet light enough to see without the gas street lanterns.
“James Watson?” the drenched man, wrapped in several layers of heavy fabric shouted. His hands kept a tight hold on the uneasy horses tied to the carriage.
James nodded, “The University, please – fast as you can!”
The driver whipped the horses as soon as Watson slammed the carriage door shut and slid across the leather seats.
Nigel beat against the small box containing him, thrashing about like a snared fox. They had him in a container no larger than a coffin – barely room to breathe as he pounded away at the lid, hoping to break the locks or hinges.
His efforts were repaid with a loud crash as one of the Cabal watching him slammed his fist onto the crate.
“Enough!” a low voice growled.
Not on your life, Nigel thought defiantly, kicking and punching at every surface but it was too late. There was a strange lurch followed by a not-so-gentle rocking and he realised that he was being carried. He was vaguely aware of doors closing and the tilt as steps were descended until finally his body slipped sharply and he slammed into the top of the box.
The transport crate was thrown into the back cart and quickly began soaking in the rain. Nigel, dazed from the impact, whispered again and again.
He had seen what became of Cabal test subjects. Should he make it to the factory, he would be lost forever.
The Professor pulled one of the waiting lanterns from the tunnel wall beside him and struck a match.
Despite her best efforts, Helen was awkward in the water. Her garments dragged endlessly behind her and she felt herself sinking whenever her feet lost contact with the ground. Nikola was a short distance in front – one of his hands held onto hers, pulling her as best he could. They could both hear the Cabal agent as he lashed about in the water, growing ever closer and see the approaching solitary light of the Professor as he observed the capture.
Suddenly Helen felt a sharp tug on her dress, dragging her briefly under the water. The Cabal agent had her now. She slipped from Nikola’s hold and he frantically grasped at the water for her, shouting her name.
“Nikola!” she screamed, water flying in her face as the Cabal agent worked his way closer – pawing his way up her dress, strengthening his grip.
He pulled a knife and brandished it for Nikola’s benefit, warning him to let go but the violent movement of the three bodies lurched them sideways – Helen’s arm falling against the blade.
She felt it instantly – the unsettling tingle as the nerves were sliced and then, in a wave, the searing pain. Hot red blood trickled over her arm and the knife, dripping into the water she gasped.
Another Cabal agent entered the tunnel with a second lantern, sliding along the tunnel to the Professor.
Nikola finally caught her flailing, uninjured arm and Helen became the centre of a deadly tug of war.
“Help him,” said the Professor to the second Cabal henchman. “I need them both.”
The Cabal agent nodded and waded into the water toward the fray.
She was slipping from Nikola again as they drifted under another stone bridge.
“Nikola…” she reached her other arm out to him. It was bleeding profusely but the constant gushing of water over it disguised all but the diagonal tear, “Please…”
Nikola knew what had to be done. He could not hold onto her against the two men. They would both be captured, killed – tortured. It had to be this way.
“Don’t stop,” he instructed her – his face wild with a mix of fear, hope and desperation.
At first she did not understand – but then she saw it – the dark veil fall over his eyes.
“No…” she pleaded, as Nikola’s human features faded and twisted. Helen could see him giving into it – the pain of the other world inside him.
He did not fight the transformation. With every moment his strength grew, the tunnel brightened and his fear was replaced with something quite unexpected – hunger.
The Cabal agent watched in mute fear but did not relinquish his hold.
In a surge of strength, Nikola ripped Helen from the other man’s grasp and threw her into the deep water at the centre of the tunnel where she was quickly caught in a torrent of gushing water, whisking her away.
“Nikola!” she shouted back, struggling to stay afloat. “Nikola no!” but it was too late. The soft light of the two lanterns faded quickly to black and she was left alone, caught in the dark water. For many minutes there was nothing but her ragged breath and the churning of water.
Helen felt lost in some form of after world as she was taken along with the current. The water got deeper – the tunnel wider and the darkness more silent until a gunshot rang out – and shattered it.
“Nik-ola…” her voice broke into a sob, as she realised that it was too late to save him.
James Watson stormed through the university gates, his light travel case lifted above his head as an attempt at protection against the rain. He pushed past an old man, nearly knocking him to the ground in haste.
“Apologies,” James muttered, laying a hand on the man’s shoulder to steady him. “So sorry…”
Professor Samuel Griffin recovered quickly, nodding at the young man that he was okay before continuing to the road where his carriage awaited with the box in the accompanying cart.
“Did you get it?” Professor Griffin asked, before stepping out of the rain.
One of his henchman nodded, shaking some of the water off their face.
“Yes sir, just the one. Tricky bugger, knocked your associate out cold. Do you want us to go get him?”
Professor Griffin thought on it for a moment before, fixing his gloves before answering, “No… he is alive?”
“Oh yes, alive – unconscious but alive.”
“Then we leave him.”
Helen gave up fighting against the water. She let allowed the darkness to pull at her, the cold numbing her body of everything as she thought of Nikola’s lifeless body, following her. Or perhaps they would have recovered it – to experiment on him – it was just – too horrific – she could not think of it without shuddering.
She did not notice the exchange of the darkness of the tunnels to the darkness of night. With a gush of fresh air, she was propelled into a narrow stream bordered by weeds and long grass.
A man, pacing along the bank startled at the site of the woman floating by and ran along in front before sliding down the bank and plucking the sobbing woman from the water.
She gave no protest – barely acknowledging the gesture until she heard the soft word.
Helen blinked away the tears and tilted her head up to the face of the man whose arms she is protectively encircled in.
“Father?” she whispered, looking on his wearied but loving face.
“Yes,” was his quiet reply. He lifted one of his large hands to cup her face, wiping away a line of tears from her cheek.
Gregory Magnus had waited all night on a gamble, stalking the banks of the Trill Mill stream for the students. He had watched the Cabal storm the school but could do nothing but wait. It more than worried him that it was only his daughter to emerge from the tunnels.
“What happened?” he asked her, even though it was clear by her tears that many terrible things had transpired since his departure.
She wanted to tell him everything. The experiments, the blood, her condition, the Cabal but in the end all she managed was, ‘Nikola…’ before falling against his shoulder.
Gregory’s arms enveloped his daughter and held her as they sat together, strewn over the bank, the water still brushing over their feet. They stayed like that for several minutes – Helen burying herself in her father’s jacket, him, stroking her matted hair – his eyes falling to the trail of blood dripping from her arm. He knew, all too well, that no injury would kill her – and now she knew it too.
“Helen!” Gregory’s voice suddenly jarred, and he pushed her gently away, freeing himself – his eyes locked on the river behind where another body floated by.
It was Nikola – unconscious in the current, his vampire teeth protruding over his lips and his shirt a pale red from blood.
Gregory stumbled down the bank, catching hold of Nikola’s arm, pulling him to the edge. With great effort, he and Helen hauled the vampire up onto the bank and laid him out flat on the grass. Helen held her hand over her mouth. She was shaking with shock and cold at the sight of Nikola’s hollow eyes staring into nowhere. His shirt was ripped open in the front – slashed in several places.
“Is he…” she whispered, but couldn’t finish the sentence.
Gregory knelt down beside Nikola and searched for a wound but could find nothing.
“Helen,” he started, as he felt for a faint heart beat on the body. “Tell me the truth, did you experiment with the Source Blood?”
She nodded slowly.
“And Nikola, did he ingest – or…”
“We derived a serum from it,” she interrupted him.
If he wasn’t so horrified, Gregory would have been proud.
“We all took it, Nikola, John, James, Nigel and myself.”
Gregory’s eyes fluttered closed in horror.
“He is not dead…” he finally said, his hands reaching inside his coat. “Nikola is like you now.”
James Watson flung open the door to his dormitory so hard that one of the hinges snapped clattered to the floor leaving the door to scrape over the floorboards. The room was empty.
“Nigel?” James asked the empty space, but he was not there.
If Nigel had been in London and slaughtered that poor girl, it would have been difficult to arrive first. Nigel’s absence only made James more suspicious of his roommate. The man was invisible – he could vanish without a trace – commit crimes and no-one be the wiser. In short, Nigel Griffin was the perfect profile for a murderer – but how was James to prove it? Not even Mr Holmes would entertain such a notion.
Whatever the case, he had to warn Helen of his suspicions. If she was still in the building, she was to be found in Tesla’s attic, so that’s where he headed. When he arrived, he paused at the sight of the stairs unfolded. Nikola never left the stairs down at this hour and though there were lights burning in the room, there were no soft voices accompanying it.
James stepped closer, eventually climbing the ladder. As his head emerged in the attic he saw that the lanterns were reaching the last of their oil and the room was abandoned and had been for some hours.
There was someone going on tonight – and it wasn’t good.
The carriage shook and rattled its way back across Oxford with haste – its precious cargo in tow. Professor Griffin sat resolute, like some kind of marble statue – his hands folded in his lap. Though he did not show it, his strength was failing fast. It took all Samuel’s strength to maintain his composure.
“Only one, one out of five,” observed one the Cabal agents, inspecting a vicious set of claw marks along his arm. The scars beneath burned like nothing else. “They are fast, and strong.”
“Of course they are,” replied Griffin, glancing out the window at the weak lights of the town.
“He’s – ” the Cabal agent hesitated before finishing, “your son…”
Griffin flinched with regret. He could hear the box on the cart behind rocking about, smashing against its prisoner.
“I know,” he said slowly.
Gregory Magnus was not dressed in his usual gentlemanly attire. Instead his simple olive coat – worn and patched, was buttoned over a cotton shirt. During the months he had grown a thick grey beard which stuck out from his chin in a three inch carpet matted against the oncoming cold. He looked both well travelled and bedraggled – like someone that had been living on the outskirts of society.
Kneeling on the soft, wet ground beside the ghoulish body of Nikola Tesla, Gregory carefully trailed his eyes over the claws, protruding teeth, pale skin and pitted eyes. The likeness was uncanny.
Sanguine Vampiris, in the flesh – or near enough.
“Extraordinary…” he exhaled, shaking his head slowly. “Are the others – like this?”
Helen had one hand over her stomach and the other across her mouth to stop herself from crying.
“No,” she replied softly, “it’s – different. Nigel is –” Helen had to think for a moment. What exactly was Nigel? What were any of them? “He’s a chromataphore,” she eventually settled on, “but he suffers terrible pain. Watson and John are changed also – but in more subtle ways I –” Helen could not bear to look at her father, “whatever their bodies are doing – they are not finished yet.”
“And you are unchanged,” Gregory added, when she neglected to mention herself. He knew that she would be – her abnormality was very specific.
Instead of rain, a few flecks of snow took to the air, tumbling helplessly around them before melting on the grass – but not Nikola’s cold skin – which suddenly flinched beneath one of the tiny crystals.
“Helen,” Gregory spurred into action, reaching into his jacket pockets as Nikola’s skin shivered and breathed. “There is much to tell you but this is not the place.”
“What is that?” Helen watched her father produce a small, corked glass bottle with a thick, silky liquid swirling like perfume. As the stopper was removed, perfume is exactly what Helen could smell. It invaded her senses with its bold floral scent – something that she faintly remembered from childhood but could not place.
Nikola was stirring again – his clawed fingers flexing against the mud, chest rising higher and his pitted eyes beginning to search the void of night above.
Gregory wasted no time. He took a needle from his coat, dipped it into the liquid and drew it into the syringe. It swirled lusciously like some kind of gold in the half-light. Next, Gregory re-stoppered the bottle and tapped the needle lightly against his fingers. He ignored Helen’s whispered questions, bringing the tip of the needle to Nikola’s skin and forcing it through in one quick motion. A moment later the liquid had vanished into Nikola’s body, caught up in his crimson currents.
“What have you done…?” Helen went to lay her hand on Nikola’s forehead as he began to shudder but Gregory grasped her wrist and stopped her.
“Don’t touch him,” he cautioned, as Nikola’s body sweated and shook more violently.
Nikola’s limbs pounded against the ground, his neck jarring sharply as a high-pitched screech left his lips. It was over as soon as it started. The black consuming Nikola’s eyes faded out revealing his frightened grey irises while his claws shrank back to nails. His teeth flattened and returned to their normal state until all that remained was Nikola, lying on the ground, raising a hand to his forehead awakening from a recrudescent dream.
Gregory fell back onto the ground, relieved while Helen rocked forward, catching Nikola’s flailing arms.
“Nikola!” she breathed, her fingers trailing over his body and face, searching for the injuries she knew he must have. They flitted over his collar bone, down his chest and dipped under the edges of his open shirt and then back up to his face as Nikola tried to sit up, questions brimming on his lips.
“Stop – stop,” he begged, finally seated with both Helen and Gregory bookending him. “H-h-how?” Nikola stuttered, struggling to regain control of his body. He remembered the tunnel, the dark freezing water and the horrible moment when he had allowed the transformation of his body. Beyond that, the world was a blur of screams and pain.
Gregory swallowed the lump in his throat and held the glass bottle up for Nikola to see. “This suppresses the effects of the ancient blood.”
Helen’s warm arms wrapped themselves around Nikola’s waist and back, holding him upright. Her arm was still bleeding but it had already begun to heal from both edges in an unnaturally fast manner.
“It is not a cure,” finished Gregory, letting Nikola take the bottle from him and examine it. “Little more than the beginning of an idea, but it will have to do as it is all we have.”
“Then – I will always be like this,” Nikola said slowly, licking his dry lips and handing the bottle back.
“This has always been part of you. A reaction this extreme…” Gregory had heard of such historical lineages but never seen one himself. Mr Tesla’s history was intrinsically linked to the vampire race, of that much he was certain.
Nikola felt overwhelmingly ill but the tight pair of arms around his waist kept him steady.
“I am sorry,” Gregory meant it, gazing down at the ravished body of the young man, barely alive, “but there is no time to delay. The Cabal grow bolder with every moment we waste. Nikola…” he waited until the man’s pale grey eyes returned to him. Then, Gregory withdrew a set of crumpled notes from his pocket, folded and tied together with a brown length of ribbon. They are Nikola’s notes – supposedly stolen.
His sister’s notes. “Where did you?”
“I stole them, from my own house. Nikola – they are incomplete. I must have the rest…” Gregory’s eyes were quite desperate. “I can fix this – I can but I must have your help.”
They couldn’t know that what Gregory needed to fix wasn’t the effects of the blood but the genetic curse bestowed upon his daughter. He had been searching more than twenty years and now he was within arm’s length. He could save her – he could – even if his own life was the price.
James Watson poked the library door with a single, elongated finger. The door squealed as it swung open, crying out at the night. All the lights were off but a crack in the storm-ridden sky allowed a few strong beams of moonlight to strike at the floor.
He edged in warily.
James’s eyes were caught by a couple of upturned chairs in the study area to the side. The heavy wooden things had been thrown out from their table and now lay strewn over the floor. Criss-crossing lines of moon-light lit the way in front of him as he moved around from the new library into the more familiar old section. Despite this alcove having become a second home to him, James Watson felt a prickle run along the hairs at the back of his neck as he looked around the deserted area. It too was littered with open books, thrown onto the floor and left like corpses.
“God above,” James whispered, carefully stepping around the books, his eyes scanning the room for any sign of Nikola, Helen or Nigel.
He was about to lose hope – one hand brushing over his clean shaven chin in bafflement, when he heard a low, pained groan come from the floor behind him.
James spun around, his overly long travelling coat flaring out. There it was again – the rumbling of air through someone’s throat.
“Hello?” James offered tentatively to the room. It was unlikely that someone here to harm him would have announced their presence.
He backtracked to the clutter of tables and chairs – surprised to find a man writhing on the floor – something that he had completely missed on his first pass through the room.
“Sir!” he breathed out, kneeling to the floor beside the grey-haired man.
John emerged from a bowl of freezing water – hands clasped closely to his face, rubbing away the hazy tangle of memories. He had passed out on the floor again – awoken sprawled awkwardly over the scuffed floor surrounded by dried tracks of blood – someone else’s.
His dreams were terrible. They were vast stretches of darkness filed with an overwhelming desire – a lust of sorts. An insatiable urge to prey upon the innocent and even in waking it was creeping up on him.
He tried desperately to wash it away – to shock himself with the cold water into believing it to be just that, a dream but the tainted water, sick with blood, defied his will.
John’s hands shook, dripping with the pale red water. The only question on his lips, “What have I done?”
James held a handkerchief to the lecturer’s head, dabbing at a trail of blood working its way down the side of his face before dripping onto the shoulder of his jacket.
“Sir…” James began, helping the man into one of the nearby chairs. They sat there in the fractured moonlight. His continued silence was an invitation for the professor to elaborate.
A choice. Whatever had happened, it was clear that the lecturer’s old friend Griffin had abandoned him – left him for dead on the floor. Whatever business arrangements they had had in the past were clearly at an end.
“Someone – I heard voices shouting,” the lecturer lied, closing his eyes in pain as James pressed firmly on the wound, cleaning it. “It was that woman-”
“Helen?” James prompted and was met with a nod. He felt his stomach turn – unable to shake the image of all those slaughtered women in London.
“Yes,” the lecturer continued. “And men – several of them. I don’t know I – I dressed and came into the library. It was dark and then someone hit me from behind.” He was very convincing in his lie – a talent of his. “That is all that I remember.”
James collapsed back into the chair opposite, lost in worry. What could be done? He knew very well that there was nothing to be done at this hour of the morning except maybe – the thought occurred to him – John – yes, perhaps he could find John.
“Sir,” James started, leaning toward the old man who was busy inspecting the injury on his head. “We must find John Druitt – do you have his current residence?”
The urgent knock at the hotel door roused John from his tumultuous sleep. He quickly struggled out of the chair, striding past the fireplace which had burnt down to glowing coals. Looking more human in his dressing gown, he unlatched the door and opened it a crack. He was met at once by James Watson’s alert expression.
“John – thank god,” said Watson, pushing open the door and letting himself into the room. He had left the professor back at the university.
“James?” John said sleepily, closing the door behind them. Though they had known each other for many months now, he had never met with James outside the university walls and certainly had not disclosed the details of his residence. “How did you find me? Why have you found me? God, is that the hour?” the questions rolled out on top of one another.
“There is no easy way to tell you this, John,” James paced about the room anxiously, never settling for more than a moment on any one place. “It’s Helen,” he let her name linger before adding, “and Nikola and Nigel. They are all missing.”
Nikola clutched the bundle of papers lovingly – eventually folding them and stowing them inside his new jacket. Less than five hours had passed since his transformation. Gregory Magnus had wasted no time ushering him and Helen back to the house where he rustled up some clothes for Nikola and ushered them out of the house and into a waiting coach that was now shaking and lumbering down the morning road en-route to the train station.
Helen was beside him and Gregory opposite. No-one could bring themselves speak – instead they were lost in their own worry and plans at the enormity of the task ahead of them for which they were ill-prepared.
Despite the desperation of their situation – the utter hopelessness of it all, Nikola could not banish the flicker of comfort that he would see his family again – his mother and the youngest of his sisters still waiting at home. The notes were in her handwriting – Milka had always been the most like Nikola.
Nikola shifted and turned his head, glancing at Helen. She had drifted off to sleep, leaning against the leather interior of the carriage with a mess of golden hair tumbling everywhere.
ONE WEEK LATER
As they progressed further north the air grew colder and winter took foot. Permafrost made the ground hard underfoot while passing clouds dusted the steam engine with snow. Their windows were hidden beneath sheets of ice making the view outside a blur.
The world here was slowing, frozen under layers of white. Lines of trees stood bare against the world, stripped down to blackened tangles of twigs. Jagged hills and farmed valleys became part of the endless curtain of winter beyond the train window.
Nikola, wrapped in freshly bought clothes – a simple grey gentleman’s suit with a muskrat fur coat that was soft to the touch and long enough to bury your fingers in, was unbuttoned. He wore black, fur lined gloves and sturdy warm shoes with thick soles. Where they were going, his home, the cold was unforgiving. He had not been there in several years, not since leaving to further his education. He had missed the wildness of the place – the way it lingered at the fringe of civilisation, listening closely to the whispers of its past.
He felt the train take the slow turn as the tracks crossed one of the unmoving rivers and turned south. It was the final leg of the long journey.
Helen had been pacing through the compartment, travelling it end to end like a pendulum swinging back and forth. Her long gown of brown and black brushed against the walls as she passed, rustling. She lingered at the open door to Nikola’s compartment, her eyes watching him as he watched the world chug by.
“You are home,” she observed, crossing her arms over her chest. Despite her attire, she was cold. When Nikola did not reply, Helen eased into the compartment and seated herself opposite him. Her dress fanned out, settling in layers of lace and fur at his knees.
He did not move or acknowledge the world – so Helen reached forward and rested one of her gloved hands on top of his.
“Nikola…?” she said softly.
His eyes flicked first to her hand and then gradually roamed to her face. Her cheeks were flushed red from the cold but her eyes remained wild and blue – clear like the ice around them. He placed his other hand atop hers and was alarmed at the cold he felt through his glove.
“You are freezing,” he said, rubbing her hand between his.
The door of the compartment rattled as it was closed. Nikola and Helen turned to find Gregory Magnus, also dressed warmly, standing by the edge of the single bed. His expression was one heavy with regret at the task that awaited him at the same hour every day.
“I know…” said Nikola, before Gregory could say anything.
THE BRITISH MUSEUM
“Give him a minute,” Helen murmured, her hand still securely between Nikola’s.
“I daren’t.” Gregory moved over to them. “It is nearly twenty-four hours,” he said, “if we wait…”
The last time had been nearly as bad as the first. It appeared the longer they held off Nikola’s natural instincts, the worse their manifestation became. Four days had now passed since his last transformation and now the moon was high and the night approaching, they could not risk it. The injection had to be administered regularly and without fail.
“Helen…” Nikola untangled his hands – her cue to leave.
“This isn’t right,” she said, as she moved past her father, her hand resting on the brass door handle. The two gentlemen didn’t look at her and remained silent until she left.
Gregory withdrew the glass container holding the remainder of the rose-oil. There was less than half remaining. The train shook as Gregory took Helen’s place in front of Nikola who was already shrugging out of his heavy coat and rolling up the sleeve of his shirt.
“How long?” Nikola asked calmly, extending his bare arm out. How long until the bottle was empty?
With a needle in one hand, Gregory expertly undid the seal of the bottle and the pungent fragrance filled the air.
“A month,” he replied, “if we’re careful.”
Nikola nodded. A month of humanity left. A month before he became a monster. A month before he would end it all.
“Does she know?” Nikola flinched as the needle went through his skin. He couldn’t help but think of that night, long ago, when this had all begun.
“No,” Gregory answered.
Neither of them would tell her.
The old man sat by the cage – staring for hours at the emptiness behind the bars. His years had advanced horridly in the short week – disfiguring his face with deep creases and sagging layers of skin that hung under his eyes. White hair – too long for his face, hung limply by his ears while his wrinkled hand resting on the smooth top of his walking cane – continued to shake.
“Coward…” jeered the empty cage. “Kill me, if you’re goin’ t’ kill me.”
There – a flicker – an imperfection in the air.
Samuel Griffin didn’t respond to the taunt. It had been the same for days now. Pacing – endless pacing and sneering like some kind of animal. Mostly, that was all Professor Samuel Griffin saw – when he could, an animal.
“It is not in my interests to kill you,” Professor Griffin eventually replied, as the outline of his son rippled in and out of view. The underground vaults at Empire Cotton were mostly bare rooms burrowed out of the earth and lined with concrete. Water stains down their bleak interiors broke up the otherwise grey expanse while oil lamps around the room made the air heavy with smoke. Occasionally the wailing of some other creature could be heard.
“Then what?” Nigel shot back, seated at the opposite side of the small enclosure with his knees pulled up to his chin, rocking with the cold.
“What you have done to yourself is…” Professor Griffin’s words faltered, weighed down by an insidious hatred, “is monstrous.”
Nigel’s skin rippled wildly until his figure reappeared. His eyes were bright red at their centres – a frightening contrast to his pale skin which was stretched thinly over his bones like tissue paper.
Professor Griffin breathed sharply. His son – no – this creature was a travesty of nature.
“Do you know what the Cabal are?” Professor Griffin composed himself. “Ten thousand years ago humans were enslaved by an abnormal race known as Sanguine Vampiris. We were the cattle of civilisation – preyed upon, slaughtered and used to build their sparkling empires but now,” Griffin’s voice lowered, “we shall have our revenge. We shall hunt them down – every last one of them…” His tone suggested that this now included Nigel. “This is a war,” he continued, “there is bloodshed, there is sacrifice – do not mistake me for a weak man because my body has failed me.”
“Father…” Nigel moved to the bars of the cage, curling his fingers around them, desperation taking hold. “Please.”
“You stopped being my son when you became one of them,” Professor Samuel Griffin spat back. “My whole life – do you have any idea what-” but there was no point explaining the history of their family – the suffering that they had endured. It was over now. The Griffin lineage had ended – when Samuel died – and he knew that it would be soon – they would enter the pages of history and live no more.
A slamming door startled them both as several men entered, one of them grunting, “We’re ready, sir,” to Professor Griffin. Griffin merely nodded, and the men descended on the cage, unlocking its door and grabbing roughly at Nigel.
“Where are you takin’ me? Answer me!” Nigel screeched as cold hands wrapped around his naked body and something was injected into him, at once making his limbs numb and heavy. He didn’t remain conscious long enough to hear their answer.
The roof of the train carriage arched over Helen, ornately decorated with brass and wood fixtures. A deep red carpet underfoot matched the colour of the walls which were broken periodically by windows, oil lamps and silk curtains with oriental scenes hand sewn into them. She would have appreciated the luxury of her surrounds more had she not been able to hear the retching coming from Nikola’s compartment. The wild rose oil made him ill, horribly so. She cursed herself, raising the eyebrows of the few passengers scattered around her.
Helen ignored the young gentleman opposite her, pretending to read his paper while trying to catch her eye every so often. Her father had spoken to him several times during the week. He was a wealthy individual, well schooled and was presently interested in funding scientific enterprise. Her father was courting his finance but Helen didn’t trust him at all. The man couldn’t be more than twenty and was far too at ease with the world for her liking.
Half an hour passed in silence until her father stepped out into the lounge area and nodded in her direction meaning that Nikola was finally asleep. Instead of joining her, Gregory Magnus wandered over to the young gentleman and took a seat beside him.
“Mr Fort,” Gregory said politely.
The man lowered his newspaper, dragging his attention away from the article entitled, ‘MANSION HOUSE – A FOOLISH FREAK’ and the exert that had been of particular interest;
‘Clerks must have their jokes apparently, and there is reason to suspect that the Whitechapel murders may have prompted them to the making of some grim ones lately. The Lord Mayor, however, has widely laid it down that if stupid practical jokes are inevitable so should be their punishment. It had pleased a warehouse clerk, who came before him yesterday, to extinguish a lamp and so darken the access to houses in Upper Thames street at a time when all East end people are specially sensitive as to the necessity for abundant light.’
“Charles – please,” the man corrected Gregory. Though the man was clearly American in origin, his accent and physical features were Dutch.
“Is it the sense of adventure that finds you on this train or something else?” Gregory enquired lightly, making conversation.
Charles Fort folded his newspaper away.
“A woman,” he declared finally, his eyes drifting but never settling in Helen’s direction. Charles was endowed with a thick moustache and a firm build covered by an expensive suit that made him appear suave but adventurous. It was fair to say that Charles was handsome in the classical sense and charismatic to the point that a room would turn to his smallest gesture.
“From America, it is a long way to come,” observed Gregory. “She must be beautiful.”
“Very,” Charles quickly cut in – his dark brown eyes warm and friendly for someone his age. “Though it is her wit that I cherish,” he added. “She is a scientist, like myself.”
Gregory seemed to find this admirable and the two continued chatting for several hours. Helen meanwhile, excused herself and vanished into the adjoining compartments, inevitably finding herself lingering beside Nikola’s bed, watching him sleep.
He was turned awkwardly on his side like he had fallen there. His face was pale and his breath shallow and sharp.
“I’m sorry,” Helen said quietly, moving wayward strands of hair from his sleeping face.
Not wishing to leave, she retook her place in the seat by the window with the collection of Nikola’s papers. She flicked through them even though she had already read every word. How Nikola’s sister had acquired originals of William Dampier’s notes was a mystery. They were coveted and hard to come by. The great explorer had died nearly two-hundred years ago yet still his research and discovery of the natural world was mostly untouched. At times like these – with scores of people venturing out into the world to discover its secrets, there was a sea of information building up and not enough eyes to understand it.
Though James Watson had scoured the newspaper every day for news from the London about the killings, he had heard nothing for weeks. It seemed that the world was eerily quiet – as if waiting for something. Even Sherlock Holmes had dropped out of contact, not bothering to wire him for many days now.
Eventually, James discarded the paper on John’s drinks table with an exhausted, “Nothing…” following it closely. The afternoon had settled into the beginning of night and a crisp breeze worked its way in through the partly open curtains.
“James,” said John sternly, picking lint off his trench coat, “do not wish them dead.”
“You are right – as usual,” James replied. “Though the longer the quiet the worse I fear the storm will be.”
With the others missing, James and John had taken to each other’s company, attempting to unravel the terrible mysteries around them. John in particular had been affected by Helen’s sudden absence.
“Maybe it is over,” John offered, buttoning his coat, preparing to leave the house on business, “and The Ripper has lost his taste for the sport?”
“No…” James folded his hands in his lap. “Insanity like that – ravenous hunger for violence? It ends when his blood joins the floor. Whoever he is, he will return – and soon, I think.”
John paced across the room, collecting various items before waiting at the door with a serious expression.
“I hope you are wrong,” he said solemnly, and headed out.
James was left with the approaching night and the wall of newspaper cut outs pinned to the back of John’s hotel coach like a drawing board. He stared at it for hours on end, trying to find some kind of method amongst the brutal acts. So far, the only anomaly that he could make out was that the murders had stopped abruptly when Nigel Griffin had disappeared from the world.
It would be so easy to believe the worst and often he wanted to but there was something lurking at the back of Watson’s mind that didn’t add up – an irritating question that would not rest. Why? Why would Nigel kill?
James needed help. He would write to Sherlock Holmes and confess everything.
The British Museum of Natural History lounged out over London like some great ruin from a forgotten world. Its wings, held up by rows of white ionic columns and capped by elaborate freezes, stood out from the night with an eerie glow. Gas lights flickered along its exterior walls, flaring in the night air while the sheer size of the building dwarfed the streets and parks surrounding it.
It was formidable, in every sense of the world. This was a place that warned all who entered it that ‘hic iacet vostra historia’ whether you accepted it or not. There were things within its walls that had been scavenged from the furthest reaches of man’s exploration, excavated from time and dirt to be studied and wondered at.
The evening was well underway when the coffin-shaped crate was carted through the entrance foyer of the British Museum by two men. They trampled over the marble floors, passing by the brand new display of Pantheon Marbles that were still being unpacked. A few special collection handlers waved the pair of men on, directing them through to the private offices at the far end of the building where they found a door labelled, ‘Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan’.
They set the crate down and knocked.
“He’s not here,” said a voice, as the door opened to reveal a young, oily faced man. He was a student, left to look after the department during the long hours that researches spent either in the vaults or sensibly asleep.
“What do you mean, ‘he’s not here’?” replied the larger of the two Cabal men.
“Our specialist has chosen to spend some time abroad. I was instructed to tell you that your appointment has been delayed until next month. There is nothing I can do I am afraid.”
“What are we supposed to do with this?” the man pointed at the crate containing Nigel Griffin.
The man leant over the wooden box for a cursory inspection of its labels. “What is it?” he asked but received no answer. “We have an excellent storehouse,” he offered.
The men did not look convinced.
“This is not acceptable,” said the second Cabal man, stepping toward the greasy boy in an intimidating manner. “Cargo like this is fragile – difficult and expensive to move.”
“I am sorry,” is all the young man could say. “The Cabal are exemplary patrons and we extend to you are deepest, most sincere gratitude but the situation cannot be helped. Mr Fort is out of contact and will return by the end of the month.”
Nikola awoke to a pair of bright blue eyes.
“How long?” he asked, moving to sit up.
Helen pushed him back down firmly, preventing him from moving too soon.
“Four hours,” she replied.
“And I didn’t…” his voice trailed off, leaving his questioning eyes to finish.
She shook her head. “No Nikola, you did not hurt anyone. I promise.”
His eyes closed briefly in relief. Helen was sitting on the bed beside him. He could feel the slight depression of the mattress and the soft fur of her dress against his hand. The sickly-sweet smell of the oil had been replaced by her and he could feel his strength returning.
Something dripped onto the bare skin of his hand. It was warm and instantly shattered over his skin. Nikola opened his eyes to find Helen quietly crying. There was a sheen to her eyes which was shedding tears whenever she blinked.
“No…” said Nikola quietly, lifting his hand up to her cheek, sitting up as he did so. “You must not,” he insisted, wiping his thumb over her cheek as his hand cupped her face.
“Nikola…” another pair of tears fell and rolled over his hand.
He pulled her slowly toward him until their foreheads lightly touched and he could feel every shudder running through her.
“It will be all right…” he whispered.
“If I could take it back, I would,” she said quietly.
“I would not let you,” Nikola turned his head slightly, and she slipped onto his shoulder. She turned into his neck, trying to bury herself there. “Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, we are no more.”
Eventually Helen nodded against him.
“Helen, you did not fail,” he continued firmly, lifting her up and pushing her back so that he could look on her tear stained face. A pain, worse than anything his vampirical transformation could cause, ripped through him when he saw the unnecessary sorrow in her features. Nikola did not need her pity – he needed her. “Your virtue is your desire for knowledge. It must never be separated from you.”
The brick buildings loomed, walling in the paved streets that criss-crossed the inner city of London with their bleak facades. Webs of wire choked their way from rooftop to rooftop, sagging and rocking in the occasional breath of wind. Rubbish, scattered in the gutter, joined in – waltzing endlessly with itself in sad spirals.
A line of soft gas lights appeared like a string of lustrous pearls on dusk, accentuating the blue on a lady’s dress as she knocked on one of the non-descript doors. She waited, tilting her head up to the sky as it blushed pink.
He has watched her for several nights – always on the same doorstep when the evening begins. Then, half an hour later, she returns to the street and embarks on the short stroll down Miller’s Court, under the filthy curve of a small bridge before disappearing into the Ten Bells.
John slipped in amongst the other patrons of the bar, indulging in a drink. He sipped it slowly.
She was beautiful.
Her lightly curled blond hair was pulled up and then left to scatter over her shoulders and down her back. Whenever she caught John’s gaze, it was with piercing blue eyes that always seemed to smile. By all accounts, she was the superior of the room, somewhat of a breeze drifting through the dreary setting.
While the others drank, she chatted, courting several of the better gentlemen. It wasn’t until this particular night that she approached the tall man perched at the counter of the bar, quietly observing the room.
There was a peace around him and Mary liked that – it reminded her of someone she used to see back in Oxford.
Helen, Gregory and Nikola braced themselves against the cold as they stepped off the train and onto the small platform.
There was a light snow falling around them, dusting their fur trimmed clothes with white flakes. The air was cold but clean, buffeting them in occasional gusts as it ripped through the river valley, guided by the edges of the pine forests and cliff faces.
The dramatic scenery was like a drug that wooed the party forward toward the carriage that awaited them with four black horses and a rather intoxicated driver clutching a bottle of whisky protectively to his chest.
Having never been outside Oxford since she was a child, Helen took a moment to graze her eyes over the jagged black mountain range disappearing beneath a layer of low lying cloud. It was positively wild, a land free of the modern harnesses that cities imposed upon the earth. Then Helen realised – she had seen this place before, every time she looked into Nikola’s eyes. He carried it with him.
She sighed, her cheeks turning red with the cold.
“Helen, we’re late,” her father said quietly, nudging her toward the carriage where Nikola extended a hand to help her up.
The wire came for James Watson mid-way through morning. He was still at the university, shuffling through the piles of research and unreturned library books that Tesla had left behind when there was a knock at his dormitory door. His lecturer appeared and handed him a slip of paper.
“It came through my desk directed to you,” said the lecturer. He still had a bandage taped to the back of his head from the attack more than a week ago in the library.
It has started – Holmes
James folded the paper into his pocket. “Thank you, I shall join you in a minute,” he said, and closed the door.
So, it wasn’t over yet.
Though James knew it was morally ambiguous at best, some part of that message filled him with a rush of excitement – there was still a chance to solve this case, to outwit another human being – a monster in all regards. There was no choice, he would away to London at once and offer his assistance (and suspicions) to Holmes.
Before he could leave the city, James went to collect his research from John’s hotel room. They had spent most nights in each other’s company since the sudden disappearance of the others, sharing theories, trying to see through the chaos of the Ripper’s actions. John would bring home as many newspapers as he could find in the evenings and then James would rip them apart and pin articles of interest to the back of the couch. Their shared passion for the hunt had inadvertently sparked a friendship neither of them really understood.
James fumbled for the key and then slid it into the lock of the rather battered and sticky hotel room. It creaked open.
“Evening, James…” said John’s voice almost at once. He was waiting in his armchair with a larger than normal pile of newspapers on the table beside him. “You’re early.”
“Have you heard?” James slipped into the room and closed the door.
John raised an eyebrow and then purposefully glanced at the sheer volume of newspapers he had spent the better part of the afternoon collecting. “Evidently,” John drawled. “It appears the subject of your obsession has re-appeared.”
James crossed the room, collapsing behind the couch where he threw his briefcase to the ground, snapped it open and started filling it with the newspaper articles from the couch. This caused a flurry of paper, which John observed serenely, making no move to assist.
“You are going then, I knew you would,” said John.
“I can’t stay here and be a silent observer like everyone else,” replied James, with his fists full of paper.
“And you’re going to catch him?” James added, with his relaxed air of amusement. “Don’t forget these…” he tapped the newspapers beside him.
James muttered something and shifted the pile into his case, making it bulge unnaturally at the seams.
“This too…” John leant across the arm of his chair toward the coach, stretching out an envelope in Watson’s direction between his two long fingers. “It came for you an hour ago.”
With no time to spare, James snatched the letter and threw it in his briefcase with everything else.
“You could come,” offered James, closing the lid on the case and rising to his feet. His heavy trench coat swelled around him – it was the last of many layers of clothes.
John averted his eyes and shifted further into the warmth of his chair. “I have work, unlike you, I cannot abandon my life so easily. Be careful,” John added, before James could leave the room, “this killer is a nightmare in his own mind, mocking you from hell.”
James nodded earnestly, and left.
The snow continued to fall, turning the road into a dangerous, ice-ridden indent that the horses struggled to navigate. Their driver was on his feet, leaning forward to investigate the road ahead, carefully tapping the rumps of the beasts with his whip.
It was a slow, nervous journey that was taking more than twice as long as they had planned. The world around them was dimming – disappearing…
“Do not worry,” Nikola said to Gregory and Helen. “He has passed these roads in much worse.”
Eventually the weather cleared. The snow stopped and for the first time since arriving in Smiljan they could see patches of blue sky.
Nikola’s house comprised of two white buildings perched on a gentle rise, pushed up against the encroaching wilderness of thickets and low trees. The smaller of the two was the family church, no more than twenty paces from the front door of the main house.
The carriage pulled up on the flat between the buildings and released its travel-wearied passengers. Burdened with luggage, they trampled through the snow toward the house. One of the old trees strewn in the snow caught Helen’s attention. It was a large, gnarled creation that had been split into two and left in a blackened, horrific state for all to see.
“Nikky?” a small voice poked out from behind the front door, pushing the heavy thing open.
Nikola dropped his cases to the ground and strode forward to meet the young woman who threw herself into his arms.
The sight startled Helen, she was not accustomed to seeing him show such open affection.
“Missed you,” said Nikola, lifting his little sister off the ground, spinning her before returning her safely to her feet. “God, you have grown,” he added, she was nearly as tall as him.
“Come inside,” Milka beckoned. “Introductions can wait until you are all warm.”
“I received your letters,” explained Milka, as soon as the party was settled around the open fire. The letters in question were piled on the table beside her. “You were most adamant about the urgency, so I wrote to my trusted friend. He shall be here presently.”
Nikola stoked the fire with a large iron poker before returning to his seat on the couch beside Helen and Gregory.
“I do not intend to sound forward,” Gregory set his cup of tea down on the table in front of them. He couldn’t help his eyes wandering to the glass jars resting on every available surface. They were full of the preserved remains of creatures, yellowed with age. “But time is against us.”
Milka glanced at her brother who nodded discreetly. “You want to see the rest of Dampier’s notes,” she said. “As you wish – but first,” she flicked her clear, sharp eyes up at them. They were the mirror of Nikola’s and matched her pale, delicate skin. “You will tell me everything.”
Watson waded through the sea of navy policemen. Their faces were sombre enough to drown in London’s miserable grey as they relayed orders to each other.
“James! Let him through,” the tall, thin figure of Sherlock Holmes stuck out from the crowd like a giraffe, brandishing his cane. He pushed people roughly aside, allowing James Watson to claw his way to the entrance of the building.
“I’ve never seen such a fuss,” said Watson, as he was pulled into the shadow of the narrow hallway of the small terrace.
“It is warranted,” replied Sherlock in a tone that near froze the air around him. “Never, in all the long years I have spent on this earth, digging through the worst of humanity – and believe me James, I have dug, have I seen anything like it.”
They approached the bedroom at the back of the house. There was nobody in there except the crime scene photographer, folding up the tripod of his camera.
“Can you finish it in time?” Helen roamed around the small room at the back of the house. Her father was at the centre of a sprawl of papers on the floor, carefully leafing through them.
“I think so,” he replied after a few long moments. “Exquisite…” he whispered at the notes.
Helen leant against the wall beside the solitary window, bowing her head in the candlelight. “He’s getting worse,” she finally said. “Since we crossed the border he’s been paler – more withdrawn and sometimes I think he’s hovering on the edge of –”
“It’s the countryside,” Gregory replied, not letting his eyes leave the coveted notes. “I had wondered if bringing him back to this ancient place would have an effect.”
“And yet you let him come?” she snapped, surprised that her father would do such a thing.
“He has to be here, Helen,” this time, he did look at her. “Mr Tesla is the closest thing to Sanguine Vampiris that we’ll find in the time remai-”
Helen was shaking her head in disbelief, “You’re risking his life for your research? Father….”
“Helen,” Gregory worked his way to his feet, “I am only going to ask you this once. Are you a scientist? Not long ago you stood in my study and demanded that I share this world. You have to make a choice but know this, if I can complete my research I can help him but without him, it can’t be done.”
Her eyes fell closed.
Gregory sighed softly. “Now you understand. We cannot know where knowledge will take us or who it will sacrifice.”
“It’s time for his treatment,” she pushed off the wall and crossed the room briskly. Helen couldn’t stand to entertain the thought of Nikola as some form of ‘price’ to be paid in the quest for knowledge. “I’ll fetch him,” she added, closing the door more heavily than was necessary.
So this is how John had felt – that night he had discovered her with the others.
Helen shook her head sharply, flicking her long curled hair back over her shoulder as she checked the rooms lining the narrow hall, eventually ending at the empty sitting room with its raging fire burning alone.
“Nikola?” she offered the room, but found no answer. Aside from the fire, it was near dark, so Helen lit the lamps sending a warm glow through the room, playing off the specimen jars that cluttered every corner and shelf.
A bright flash of light through the window caught Helen’s attention. She had not noticed the storm lingering overhead, sitting mute over the nearby mountains. It was neither raining nor snowing and the wind was quiet against the plate glass windows. What struck her was a dark silhouette against the sky – a figure standing outside the window, staring out at the storm.
Helen paced down the hall and pulled open the heavy front door, stepping out into the night. She smelt a thousand foreign things on the air. Trees – the late fallen snow – the stables at the base of the small hill where wild roses clawed their way over headstones, they all mingled together as she padded through the snow.
“Nikola…” she announced herself.
The sky ahead was flashing silently with pink and green. Like far off sparks, the lightning played in the clouds.
“Can you feel it?” he asked, his body facing the storm. Every hair on his body was prickling, alive with the electric potential energy in the air. Nikola could literally feel the pull between the sky and the ground – like standing under a waterfall, threatening to drown him in its power. There had been no time to explore this particular change in his biology, indeed, he wasn’t exactly sure what it was – but there was a definite affinity with electrical force developing inside him. Nikola wanted to understand it and to do that, he had to experience it – share it.
The small house was aglow behind them, each of its windows hurling forth yellow light into the evening.
“I can’t feel anything,” Helen replied softly, swaying on her feet.
“It’s beautiful,” Nikola murmured, as a branch of light spilt through the inky space above them.
“No,” Helen corrected him, her voice dragging unnaturally. “I can’t feel anything,” she finished, as the world faded to black, slipping away from her as it had done back in Oxford.
Nikola turned in time to see Helen collapse into the snow, splayed out like a fallen angel.
At first James didn’t see the body.
The bedroom was small, barely more than four brick walls with a table and bed pushed against the far side. There were blood-soaked sheets strewn from one end of the room to the next, sitting in deep crimson puddles that were yet to be soaked up by the floor. A particularly large bundle had been left on the bed and on the wall behind there was a fan-shaped spray of blood that could have only be made in the initial attack.
James was about to ask after the body when the full scope of the scene struck through him. The pile on the bed was the body.
He stepped further into the room, careful not to disturb the evidence on the ground. James tilted his head to the side and found himself staring at the mutilated face of a woman.
“Christ,” he exhaled. “Christ – Christ…” James repeated.
“He’s getting bolder,” said Sherlock from behind, letting James make his own impressions of the scene.
Sherlock could have imparted the initial police report – explained what they already knew, but the more that James Watson came with on his own, the more valuable his input into the investigation would be. Sherlock was walking a fine line as it was. He was not officially a police officer. He was, at best, a self employed investigator that the police force tolerated – allowing yet more unknown guests wander through a crime scene was definitely stretching the line thin.
“We have to talk,” ventured Sherlock, after a good hour spent inside the room, “about this…” he produced the long letter Watson had sent him a few days ago detailing the experiment The Five had engaged in – and its consequences. “You are incorrect, my friend.”
“Do we know who she is?” James was still crouched by some of the woman’s remains. Most of her internal organs had been removed and placed with purpose around the room as were large portions of her skin. The stroke that killed her was undoubtedly the large gash across her neck, severing several of her major arteries.
“Yes,” replied Sherlock. “Mary Jane Kelly – she appears to have been well kn – James?” Sherlock launched himself forward in alarm as James staggered backwards, about to fall.
It was Nikola who ventured into Gregory’s temporary study this time, closing the door purposely behind him. He had left Helen asleep on the living room couch under Milka’s care. She was unconscious but breathing normally exactly as he had seen her the day Watson had brought her to his attic.
Gregory looked up and saw at once that Nikola had not come for an idle chat.
“What are you keeping from Helen?” Nikola asked seriously.
Gregory tilted his head, examining the young man. “She showed you her mother’s letter?” his question was answered with an affirmative silence. “I don’t know what you mean…” said Gregory.
“Helen may believe you blindly,” said Nikola, “but you know more about her abnormality than you let on. She is immortal – what else?”
The older man had to swallow hard. Since Gregory had discovered the truth, he knew that he would have to share it with Nikola eventually.
“Nature’s Balance – have you heard of it?” asked Gregory, seating himself behind Nikola’s father’s desk. “It is a contemporary theory which states that just as physical forces come in pairs, so too do biological systems. For every species on this earth there is a counter – every predator has its foe.”
Nikola moved in front of the desk, standing rather than sitting in the opposing chair.
“You are a predator Nikola,” Gregory continued. “A divergent species of human that branched off from humanity leaving you a cut above our natural enemies. Nikola, you may not be aware of this yet and, believe me, it hurts me to tell you,” Gregory motioned for Nikola to take his seat which he eventually did. “My research has led me to believe that Sanguine Vampiris are an enduring life form. Now, I realise that you are not a pure blood vampire but judging from what I’ve already seen of your healing abilities, you have inherited their signature gift of immortality.”
“I can’t die?” Nikola replied, unsure of what he felt.
Gregory moved his journal into view, opening it. “Nikola, what I’m about to tell you, no-one knows but me. I need your assurances that you will keep it that way, especially from Helen. It is for her own safety.” Satisfied by the quick nod of Nikola’s head, Gregory continued. “Some time ago, I managed to track down the last living pure blood vampire. It had isolated itself in a cave in South America, hidden away from the world. It is only a guess, but I believe that vampire was nine thousand years old. I won’t lie to you – he was a weak and broken creature but I that is likely due to the vow he made to never take human blood.”
“It is a choice, then?”
“There is hope for you yet, Nikola.”
“But that is not why you are telling me this story…”
“No,” Gregory confessed. “What the vampire confided in me was something worse than I had feared. Helen is – she is an immortal – but it is not a benign gift. She is your balance, Mr Tesla, designed in every way to hunt and destroy you. Helen is still young, there is some biological process going on inside her, transforming her. She is drawn to you, I can tell but soon Nikola, very soon she will try to kill you and you will do the same.”
“The vampire described it as an irresistible urge to feed,” Gregory interrupted. “Her blood will kill you, Nikola – and likely not a lot else will but you’ll crave it beyond all reason, resolve and love.”
Several hours later, Nikola moved through the darkened house, striding silently down the corridor of his childhood as the sky flared outside. Its occasional rumbling sent shivers of electricity down Nikola’s spine, forcing his shoulders to shudder in response.
He stepped into the faint glow of the lounge room, averting his eyes to the source of flickering light. A single oil lamp was fading in the corner – its oil run dry leaving an empty vessel and smoking wick about to burn out.
The rest of the household had retired in his absence. Nikola could hear the harmony of sleep around him – the gentle rises and falls of delicate breath accompanied by the deep rumble of Gregory Magnus rising through the walls in waves.
Lurking in the doorway, Nikola could see the back of the leather couch and peeking out from one end, a curtain of golden hair. He closed his eyes, considering the gravity of what he was about to do.
Watson collapsed back into Sherlock Holmes, nearly bringing the wiry man to the ground but Sherlock was stronger than he looked and had braced himself for the sudden weight.
“What in God’s name…?” Sherlock uttered, dragging the man out of the crime scene before any evidence fell victim, shocked at two thick streams of hot tears pouring down Watson’s cheeks. The man was inconsolable, breaking apart in a most un-gentlemanly manner.
“Decorum, I beg of you,” pleaded Sherlock, but his words fell to the ground unheard.
Watson could not speak. He failed to notice that he had been half-led, half-carried to the back of the house and deposited roughly in a chair. He didn’t even acknowledge Sherlock Holmes backing away, observing him clinically with his clear, hard eyes better suited to the murderous mysteries of the world. All James Watson could think of was that room and what remained of his lover, Mary Jane Kelly.
James’s head rolled back and suddenly he was off the chair, knees hitting the ground sharply as he hurled onto the floor, rasping again and again until his ragged breathing turned back into desperate sobs.
It was just – too monstrous to conceive – he simply could not.
She was peaceful now. Whatever force had taken hold of Helen earlier had dissipated. However, if Gregory was correct – and he had an irritating habit of being so, they would be seeing a lot more of this ‘new’ Helen.
Nikola didn’t want to think about that…
Finally he mustered the courage to open his eyes and sweep around the couch – his fingers running over the cracked leather. Helen was laid uncomfortably between its divided cushions and – Nikola hesitated, he had not expected that – his sister was knelt on the floor beside the bed, also asleep. Milka was just like their mother, a healer of souls.
It did not matter, this had to be done and there was not likely going to be another chance.
Gregory’s words weighed heavily on him as Nikola moved up beside Helen’s outstretched arm. Her sleeve had been caught and pulled up out of the way leaving an expanse of delicate, bare flesh growing cold as the fire lost its heat. His fingers brushed over the soft surface causing his breath to catch. Nikola’s own cold hands seemed to draw warmth from her. It was almost intoxi-no… He lifted the metal needle he had been carrying and steeled himself, bringing its sharp tip to her skin. Nikola placed his other hand over the top to steady the shake of his first.
It had to be done.
So Nikola did it in a fluid movement. The needle slipped through Helen’s skin and at once Nikola began to draw a sample of her dark blood up into the syringe. It wasn’t long before the vial was full and Nikola withdrew the needle, capping it and stowing it in his large jacket pocket just before she stirred.
He bent down, concealing his purpose for being there by disturbing the blankets covering Helen. She was waking now, her eyes fluttering open and closed thick with sleep. Nikola manoeuvred his arm under her back then his other roughly beneath her knees and suddenly he was lifting her gently from the couch. Instinctively Helen curled into him with a soft murmur – a natural reflex.
“It is beyond my manners to allow you to sleep on the couch,” he explained, when she woke enough to eye him questioningly. He felt her arms tighten around his neck as he carried her through the narrow hallway.
Helen mumbled nothing in particular, apparently choosing to slide back into whatever world she had been immersed in. She was sound asleep before he made it into his room.
He settled her on the bed, letting her fumble blindly about for covers and pillows until she stilled and returned to her deep, steady breathing.
Another brief current of white light flitted through the room, streaming in from the large window above his desk. He could see the mountain ranges from here. Often he had sat on his bed and watched the storms roll through like peaceful beasts grazing the sky but it was different now that he could feel them. He had never truly appreciated the frightening power suspended in the air but it was there, tantalisingly close.
His eyes drifted back to her a she shifted, her hair falling across her face, covering it in messy ringlets. Nikola’s lip twitched in a half-smile. She was his only friend; he didn’t want to live in a world where that wasn’t true.
He hadn’t realised that she was awake again, quietly watching him as he watched her.
“Yes?” he replied, moving slowly over to her. After a brief hesitation, he dipped his hand down to her face, catching some of her wayward hair and gently lifting it so that he could see her bright blue eyes.
Helen leant onto his hand as it trailed along her face and then unfolded her free arm to catch hold of his sleeve.
“Thank you…” she said quietly. Thank you for taking us to your home, for trusting us with your work – for not hating me for what happened back in Oxford.
Nikola looked at her deeply. It was obvious that sleep had affected her sense of propriety but he could not ignore the truth that mingled with her words – cutting them into his soul.
“Good night, my lady,” he stated firmly, escaping her hold as he stood and left. Nikola hurried back to the main room which was now empty, where he reclaimed the lounge and fell asleep as the last life in the lamps expired.
Reality rippled like a strip of muslin on a lady’s skirt. Violet and Indigo flashes poisoned the air around John where passing beams of light were captured and split apart. The hairs running down the back of his neck prickled in expectation. He could not stop this – life had been ripped away from him enough times for him to understand that he had to let it happen.
John was seated in his hotel with a book open in his lap. He exhaled as colour filled the room, preparing himself for the torture that would surely follow.
It was swift and brutal, crippling his limbs and thoughts as pain seared through every facet of his being. John’s eyes slammed shut in agony as the sensation continued. It was like dying – every time. His consciousness was evaporating – stretched out too thin until it finally breaks.
The book fell to the floor in the empty room – its handwritten pages teased by a current of air that vanishedwith the purple light.
‘I followed the last of our party today…’ the page read, in Nigel’s untidy scrawl. ‘Most of the secrets I have learnt were unintentional. James and his lover, whom he visits when he thinks I am asleep – Nikola and his trips to the Hinksey Heights to watch the storms – my father and the many hell houses where he keeps his monsters locked away – but Montague… it was no accident when I glanced over and saw something I fear to even write … the very world shuddered and in a moment he had vanished more completely than I ever will.’
A few more pages flipped over and then back again, ‘I remained there in the street for hours in the rain and wind until I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. It was near eleven when the night was lit once again with muted tones of purple and green and there he appeared. His face was obscured by thick blood. I don’t know how or what I shall tell the others – but it is clear now that the vampire blood we injected does more than change our physical bodes – it permeates our mind, taints it and twists it into something that is not us.’
‘My pain returned to me and I became visible again – standing naked in the alley way. He saw me – and he knew… he knew…’
Sherlock Holmes guided Watson through the main streets of London as they wove between the swarm of top hats. It was a short walk from Miller’s Court to their accommodation but Sherlock decided to draw it out as much as possible, slowing his step as they roamed out of the heavy smog into the commercial district with its marble buildings and iron lamp posts.
“How…?” James choked, as they skirted around London’s park. A rush of dead leaves tumbled at their feet. He is still shaking – the image of Mary feeding a pool of rage inside him. “How can someone do that to another human being? Why her… She was -” that summarised her now – she was.
“You knew her…” for once, it didn’t take a genius. “You loved her… Who was she?”
James was about to reply when his eyes locked onto a grey-haired figure stepping out of handsome carriage. He knew that man – he had literally run into him the night everyone disappeared, outside Oxford university in the rain.
“Do you believe in co-incidence?” James quickened his step in pursuit. “I don’t…”
Ordinarily Sherlock liked to know who they were following and why but he was willing to let Watson have some liberty given the circumstance.
As a pair, they slinked along the streets, never encroaching on the old man as he swung a right past a grand fountain and hauled himself up the marble steps to the front door of the British Museum.
There were tourists and researches everywhere, crowding the lobby as Sherlock and Watson dipped their heads into the foyer – searching for the balding top of the man but he was gone.
The early morning brought with it a light snowfall, one that fell silently against the windows of the cottage. Nikola turned on the couch. It was freezing now that the fires had reduced to ash-laden coals and yellow milieu of candles replaced by the sickly white glow from the sun.
Nikola was only vaguely aware of the crunch of snow beneath the carriage and the quick trample of hooves outside. A moment later a quiet knock at the door finally woke him from sleep. As always his dreams were stained with places he’d never been to and fragments of blood-soaked lives.
Sitting up too fast, Nikola held his head for a moment – wondering why he was awake. The man at the door knocked again and this time Nikola found it within himself to leave the couch and cross the room muttering his disapproval in Serbian.
He unbolted the door and pulled it open.
“…Mr Fort?” Nikola said at length, astonished to find the man from the train standing in his doorway. Charles Font was dressed in heavy, dark furs and carried a bag in either hand. What had been an elegant moustache was now laced with ice from the journey and his cheeks red from the cold. “Whatever brings you here?” and how did you find us?
“Mr Tesla…” Charles nodded politely at the gentleman he’d scarcely met on the train. It was his understanding the Mr Tesla was taken ill for the majority of the trip and he could see evidence of it in his paleness. “I apologise for the earliness of the hour,” he began, “but I am in actual fact, unforgivably late.”
Late? Nikola mused to himself. He wasn’t even invited.
Nikola eyed the man with an air of suspicion.
“Gregory Magnus invited to you…?” Nikola eventually offered as a plausible excuse. It would be unwise to turn away a possible investor.
“Actually,” Charles looked very much as if he wanted to come inside out of the cold, but Mr Tesla was standing firmly in front of the door. “My invitation precedes the pleasure of making Gregory’s acquaintance…”
“Ch-arles?” a lady’s voice behind started in delight.
Nikola glanced over his shoulder to see his sister fully – no – over dressed for the hour of the morning standing behind him.
Charles tilted his head to see around Nikola – an unabashed smile shaking off the cold.
“Miss Tesla…” Charles replied, mimicking her tone.
“I am have been abroad for several months now,” Charles had stripped down to the suit he had worn on the train. Milka set a tray of tea in front of him with a warm smile before seating herself on a chair to his right. The two Magnus’s and Tesla watched on – Nikola with a piercing look that would have burned a lesser man.
“It took weeks of work, but the Accademia dei Lincei granted me access to their vaults. You have never seen anything like it – thousands upon thousands of prints, Milka, hundreds of volumes of the world’s natural history from the Roman era onwards tucked away in bundles. I wanted to look at them all…” he paused to take a sip of his tea.
Milka, it was now clear, was the woman Charles Fort had crossed continents for. He was her contact that had been acquiring rare documents like Dampier’s Notes to answer Nikola’s questions. It was also plain to see that they were very much in love.
“I wasn’t permitted to make copies but I kept diligent notes – everything I could remember.” Charles set his tea down and reached into his briefcase, opening its worn leather and fishing out a hefty pile of hand written journals. “Sanguine Vampiris though recorded history…” he said, presenting the notes to Milka.
Charles’s eyes wandered over to the figure of Nikola – running up the man’s pale features. “Really…” he near-whispered. Here sat before him a remnant of Sanguine Vampiris. Charles ached to see him come alive – reveal the abnormal that ran within their entire family. When he looked at Milka, Charles could see those same, clear eyes – eyes that held all the ancient mysteries of the earth. “Abnormalities,” Charles’s voice was low in wonder as he spoke to Nikola, “shed light on the true character of the normal…”
Nikola though, remained more concerned about his sister’s hand settling on Mr Fort’s knee than anything else.
Gregory, sensing trouble, cleared his throat and spoke up.
“I – I remember you mentioning the Cassiano dal Pozzo’s Museo Cartaceo … the ‘Paper Museum’,” George shuffled forward on his chair. “Their vaults are locked – I have tried myself for many years but my letters remain unreturned – did you…?”
“I enjoy the benefit of contracting to a very persuasive organisation,” Charles replied but stopped short of mentioning it by name. He reached once again into his briefcase and this time withdrew a set of heavy paper sheets, tied loosely together. On each one was a detailed collection of ink strokes, illustrating the various terrifying aspects of a vampire. “These are copies,” Charles said, “but they are yours – Nikola…” he finished, turning to hand the pile to Nikola as a form of peace offering. “Your sister is very persuasive – I fear that I cannot refuse her anything.”
Helen tilted towards Nikola as the papers changed hands.
“Remarkable…” said George. “You cannot know the honour that you show us, Mr Fort, or the profound difference your research will make.”
Professor Samuel Griffin easily evaded the crowd in the British Museum as it swelled around the newly acquired Greek marbles. Instead, he darted away down one of the unassuming corridors that led to department offices.
He was not pleased. When he lifted one of his wrinkled hands to knock on the door, it was with sharp – unfriendly strikes.
“Is he here?” Griffin growled, leaning heavily on his walking cane as the door opened to reveal a ratty, young man.
“Professor…” the young man nodded in nervous respect. “I regret to inform you that he has not yet arrived…”
“Not – yet – arrived?” Griffin repeated slowly, with an air of disbelief. His eyebrows crept up higher with each word. “What exactly is it that he is doing with my money?”
“I – I,” the man stuttered, he was only minding the office.
“I am a patient man – but there are limits. Feel free to pass this along,” Griffin shifted in the doorway. “Young Mr Fort will be back in this office by this time next week or we will take our business elsewhere.”
John collapsed onto the ground – his knees sinking into the foul smelling mud. He was in a marsh lit by the white glow of the full moon suspended high above, drowning out the stars. John’s face crumpled in disgust when he saw the sickening rises over the ground accentuated with spears and arrows.
Hundreds of bodies lay rotting around him. John pushed off the ground, stumbling to his feet. The smell of war was strong but it didn’t belong to his time.
The unsheathing of metal behind him, snapped John’s head around. Glistening armour on a man’s torso twisted and a blade came down on John’s face – slicing through his cheek.
John growled in pain, stumbling back before the world tore and vanished and he found himself returned to his hotel room.
John held his face as warm blood streamed through his fingers and down onto the floor, following him in a sickening trail as stalked through the apartment, seeking out a mirror. In his reflection he found a wretched creature gazing back – a stranger lurking in his brown eyes. Once soft, they had been ruined by misery – sick from the thirst of blood.
He tilted his head, raising his muddied fingers to a long arch sliced across his cheek where the sword had grazed him. The pain was nothing compared to the agony of ripping through the universe but it still stung fiercely, severing his nerves and leaving his face limp.
John groaned as he dipped his hands into a basin of water, cupping the cool liquid in his grasp before bathing the wound. The water beneath him turned red, spilling over the sides of the china bowl and onto the floor in scarlet tides.
Eventually, his eyes returned to the mirror. He prodded and pulled at the torn flesh. How many times had he dragged a knife over another’s skin – cut right to the bone, quartering them like animals in a slaughter house? How many had he killed through the centuries that he jumped across? John could not remember.
“What is wrong with you?” he asked himself sternly – searching for something in his destroyed face. Why did this thing – this creature inside him take hold? Where did its anger for the world come from?
It was definitely a remnant of some ancient world that lived within him. If this was what it did to him – what then, had become of the others?
Nikola’s cat wandered in tight circles around the base of Helen’s skirt, leaving a trail of short black hairs on the fine lace. She found it difficult to scorn the affectionate creature that was purring so loudly she could feel the vibration in the air.
“Macak…” she bent down, lowering her fingers to the feline who padded forward and sniffed at her hand before rubbing against it. “You are a mischievous thing,” she shook her head, unaware that she was being watched.
Her father, Nikola and Mr Fort had been in conference all morning – no doubt discussing the particulars of a business settlement. Milka, meanwhile, was somewhere in the church opposite the house or walking through the snow which had been falling all night. This left Helen all alone except for the persistent feline which took the bold move of leaping onto her lap.
“Macak…” this time the cat’s name was said with practiced reprimand, causing its paw to hesitate.
Helen startled to see Nikola hovering in the doorway, relaxed against the wood as if he had been there some time.
“Is – the meeting finished?” she asked tentatively. They had not spoken since last night – since she had awoken in his bed. Her memory of the evening was fragmented at best but she