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 judgment in haste."
"Judgment 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.