Helen turned and took the corridor at a run, flinging the door to her bedroom open, not caring as it slammed against the wall. She held the mysterious parcel tightly as her eyes searched the room. Shelves, trunk, lamp-lit desk – all too obvious. Her heart pounded. She had never seen her father afraid before – fearful, yes, before any new experiment his eyes would widen, darken with the wonderful dread that the unknown provoked but tonight he had been truly afraid.
She caught the door as it bounced back and locked it, sliding down its surface until she hit the ground.
"Think..." she eyed the room until a smile flicked across her lips. Cedar drawers; well loved in this and their previous life. Helen crawled over to them, sliding the bottom one open. She buried the parcel deep in the back, concealed by veils of lace and garters where no self-respecting thief would dare follow.
Helen had intended to stay put – hidden safely away as her father had instructed, but as the seconds itched on she couldn't bare it. Helen unlatched the door and returned to the foyer where she pulled a jacket from the hallstand and wrapped it around herself.
The trees, sparsely placed along the avenue, shivered. Their wet leaves glistened like a thousand mirrors to the moonlight until they broke loose and fell away just as fickly, blanketing the ground. A wind kicked over Helen as she dodged soggy newspapers, tumbling over each other. She stepped between the soft circles of light beneath each lamp post. Her father was ahead, paused at the crossroad, unable to choose between the cracked veneers of stone walls.
Few people had the courage to venture into the streets after dark. Thieves swarmed like rats over the city, driven to desperation by an uncompromising age of enterprise. Even Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, could not escape the modern age with its silent class, rippling through the evening, flickering and dying. Helen knew that she hovered only just beyond their reach, only a few pounds from poverty.
Gregory Magnus chose the side street on his left. Helen closed in, bringing herself to a stop at the corner where she found a shadow and sunk into it. Archways and barred windows leaned over the street, boxing her and her father into a tunnel. The public lighting ended halfway down the cobble stone road leaving a sweeping shadow cutting off the remainder from existence. Beyond that curtain of darkness lurked all kind of street creature. Gregory approached it, tentatively walking along the dark edge.
Helen stepped back, making sure that she was hidden as the forms of several men emerged out of the shadows in front of her father. First, they appeared as a series of ghostly faces but gradually they grew into a set of well dressed businessmen. Her father turned to face them, drifting backwards cautiously, drawing his company out into the light.
"Doctor," said one of them in greeting, slinking ahead of the others. He was a tall man with a leg that threatened to buckle with every step. He leant heavily on his cane as he spoke, "Trying to escape?"
Gregory chuckled nervously, checking the buttons on his coat before wiping a smear of mud off his neck with a handkerchief. "Of course not," he replied. "I was – was looking for you."
The remainder of the 'pack' waited behind, never quite making it into view. Helen stretched herself along the wall, inching closer. She was able to make out most of the conversation even though all parties kept their voices hushed.
"I am curious to see what our money had bought," the man continued.
"You lied to me," Gregory pointed sharply, white handkerchief still in hand. "I have done some of my own research – run into a few old friends. The Cabal may be a private research organisation but you are also in partnership with one of the most evil businesses this side of the century." A train rattled past in the distance, screeching to a halt at Oxford's new station. "You think that people won't learn what you're doing? The money that you paid me was no better than blood."
The man glanced down at the pavement, lowering his voice into a harsh drone that broke intermittently as if his veneer of civility was cracking with it. "Enough of this time wasting." His eyes returned to Magnus. "Where are the samples?"
"I destroyed them."
He laughed. "That is your plan, Doctor?" he sneered, with an air of disbelief. "Poorly execute a lie and then expect me to simply let you go? You are a man of science, Magnus. I know what that means. Those samples are too important to your personal agenda to simply destroy. If you hand them over now, I may even let you keep one – as a gesture of good faith for our future business dealings."
"I already told you, I destroyed them. Our arrangement is finished."
There was a subtle tap of his cane on the ground. The others jumped forward, taking Gregory by the arms. They flung him against one of the walls so hard that he groaned, jarring in pain. The man rubbed his face, tired of people who fought the inevitable. Progress didn't pretend to be pretty – it was brutal.
"One more time, Doctor,"
This time, a curl lingered on Gregory's lips as his weatherworn face grinned at the night. "You will never find them..." he whispered in defiance.
The man reached into his coat and brought out a gun, cocking it with a sinister click. Helen gasped loudly, covering her mouth too late to stop the noise reaching the huddle of gentlemen. They heard it, snapping their heads around to see a blonde woman hiding on the corner of the street, watching events unfold with more than a passing interest. Gregory saw her too and his heart sank.
"Bring her..." muttered the man.
Helen turned, hitched up her skirt, and bolted through the street, narrowly avoiding the hooves a a passing night-carriage which skidded to a halt behind her in a cloud of dust. The two men to follow navigated around the whining horse as it reared up.
"Whoa, whoa..." the coachman hushed, as the carriage tilted dangerously.
The park wall's sandstone ripped her skirt as she half-jumped, half-fell over it, leaving tattered ends of lace flapping in the wind. Her pursuers cleared the wall easily, hitting the grass at a run as they searched and quickly found her not far ahead.
At night, the park was pitch black, protected by walls of trees keeping it well out of reach of the street lights. There were people moving about within it; lovers hiding away from the world, beggars curled up against the cold with animals stealing scraps from the grass beside them.
The ground was soft under her feet, and though Helen was a strong runner, her dress tangled and caught under her feet. Soon she was tumbling down a gentle hill with her arms flailing as wet mud coated her. She was headed for a shallow pond which lay under the only gap in the trees. A perfect reflection of the moon was disturbed by a drifting duck, leaving a wake behind its furry form.
Helen's world was a blur of cold, pain and blackness until the men plucked her from the ground and held her until she could stand.
"A little 'thank you' would be nice," said one of them, still panting. Helen was trying to scratch her way free of them, shouting to anyone who would listen. "Water that cold, you might be dead."
They dragged her back to the alleyway where the leader had been prompting Gregory for information, as evidenced by the fresh bruises.
"Claim's she's a working girl..." they said in unison. Helen looked the part with filthy, torn clothes, and ratty hair limply blowing in the wind. Her father didn't dare look at her.
"Bring her with us?" it was a question posed by one of the men that had stayed behind. His knuckles were red.
The leader waved them off. "She's cheap."
"So what do we do with her, leave her here?"
Helen averted her eyes as the leader left her father and hobbled toward her, leaning heavily on his stick. "What did you see, sweetie?" he asked her, suggestively.
"Nothin'," Helen mumbled, wincing as the two beside her tightened their grip.
"We better be sure," he whispered back, leaning over her. She didn't see his free hand raised above her head, about to come down sharply.
"Wait," Gregory pushed off from the wall, stumbling forwards. "Wait," he repeated. "Let her go – I'll get your samples back."
"Back?" the tall man withdrew his hand and eyed Gregory curiously.
"I scattered them so that you would never be able to locate them should precisely this happen."
"But, if I let this working girl go – you'll get them for me? Why?"
"That is my business," said Gregory. "I need two weeks."
"You try my patience, Doctor. I'll give you one week and if you don't present with the samples you promised and we paid for, then our next meeting will be less pleasant." The man flicked his eyes up and his company threw Helen unceremoniously to the ground.
Helen and Gregory sat opposite each other, staring across Magnus's desk in silence for a long time. She realised now that the secrets she thought that she knew about her father were pitiful in comparison with the truth.
He had taken hold of his quill, running the white feather through his fingers in an endless pattern. Gregory had no idea how to begin an explanation for his actions – his entire life. He tried several times but none of these attempts reached beyond a small clearing of his throat.
The firelight flickered behind them. Helen could not take her eyes off of her father. She decided to approach the issue from the side, step carefully around elephant.
"The Cabal, they are a private research facility – research into what exactly?"
This is the conversation that Gregory had spent his life avoiding, ever since the death of his wife Patricia, all those years ago in South America. "I am not certain," he replied. "Though I suspect their interests are similar to mine."
"Which are..." he was being intentionally cryptic, and Helen was sick of all the secrets.
"Helen," he replaced the beautiful quill in its holder. "You have tremendous potential as a scientist. The lecturers must agree, otherwise they would have chased you off long ago –"
Helen stood from her chair, pacing away from the table in frustration. Slowly she turned, approaching once again but this time with an expression somewhere between tears and desperation.
"You," she started, placing her hands on the table, "are the most talented medical researcher I have ever known and yet you keep your most important work hidden from the world. From me."
Gregory didn't know how to respond. Somewhere along the way his daughter had grown up, changed from a little girl with a fascination of the world into a scientist as driven as him. Her questions had simmered for a decade and now they burnt their way past him. He looked away as she continued, unable to face her sharp eyes.
"If you truly believe that I have potential father," Helen leant even closer, resolute in her plea, "please help me achieve it."
He had sworn never to do this but he had never been able to refuse his daughter anything. She was intelligent, a little too much so for her own good. If he didn't share with her his secrets, she would hunt them out anyway. Without guidance – Gregory shuddered to think what she could become.
Gregory took his daughter's hand. He led her to the far back corner of his office to a door that she had never been through.
"The attic you know about by now," he said plainly. "I admit, I let it happen but it is nothing but a storehouse for old notes and relatively benign research."
Helen couldn't explain why, but she felt betrayed.
"This," he continued, as he unlocked the door revealing a staircase leading down to an underground level, "is the reason the university will no longer let me step inside its walls. Do you remember, when you were a small child the two men who came to visit me on your fourteenth birthday?"
"They were afraid of you," said Helen. She remembered the argument.
He nodded. "Maybe. I told them that they had limited their imagination. In truth, I think it was their wallets whose limits I had reached. The board at the university could no longer endorse my research and so I was forced to look for financial assistance elsewhere. The Cabal offered me a grant that I could not turn down. There was no money, Helen. It was the only way that I could continue."
"I still don't understand what it was that was so terrible."
Gregory led Helen down the stairs. She held a kerosene lantern in her hand, lighting the way for both of them. Her father switched keys and unlocked the final door but stopped shy of opening it. Helen thought she heard scratching and crying from behind the door, not unlike the sounds of James's room that first night.
He handed her the key. "Once you enter this door, you are on a path that cannot be reversed."