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 vial.
"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 flock 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, beckoningly 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."