"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 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 serious 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.