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, would had 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.