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 spin hushed the gas streetlights and 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 and a shiver working 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 Gregory'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 draws 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 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 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 ruckus of animals, buried in crates and cages along the far wall yet all Nigel could hear were the rats chewing at the 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 he 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 anything, 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 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 past. 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.