AN OLD PAIR OF WINGS
An enormous black bird swooped through the Sanctuary. Part eagle – part Phoenix, its razor sharp feathers left hissing scratches in the stone as it hooked a corner too close and settled its talons on the Persian rug. It waddled toward the fire, folding its wings up as it squawked.
"It keeps the mice down," Helen curled her lip up in a smirk, as the bird turned its head to her in acknowledgement of its mistress.
The gentleman in the armchair opposite had chosen wine over tea. He sipped it politely, enjoying the warmth that this old relic of a building managed to muster. "I still cannot believe that you named that bird after me," he muttered.
"It's a compliment," Helen insisted.
An amusement, rather. "How so?"
"It just is. Besides, you are the one who woke her up – stumbling in at this hour of the morning."
Nikola Tesla's eyebrows lifted, his moustache catching on the rim of his wine glass. "A female bird? Helen..."
Helen sighed patiently. "Nikola, I swear she was a boy when I named her. James said it was a reaction to isolation after he and Holmes brought it back from India. Besides, the time to be mad was a couple of hundred years ago." There was a slight pause as Nikola considered that. "I hear you have a cat."
Finally, a smile out of the old vampire. "I might."
Helen took that as a sign that he was finally settling down. "Admit..." she extended her leg and nudged him gently with her stocking-covered foot. "You like having your own sanctuary."
"I like the halfway decent lab I built inside of it," he corrected her. "Seriously though, I am drawing a firm line at two Yetis – very firm. They are drinking all of my wine and they smell like a pair of sodden ice wolves." He had her laughing now – that was another thing he missed. When he was lodged away in her guest rooms, he could always hear her laugh. It travelled down the halls and into every room. "Speaking of pets, where's your wolf?"
"Henry?" Helen translated. "He's over with your old friend, the vampire with no sense of humour. He's helping commit the ancient scrolls and tablets into an electronic library for your perusal."
"So that's why you called me all the way over here," he realised. "I'm a replacement tech support."
Helen couldn't deny that. There were a couple of odd things around the Sanctuary that needed fixing. She had a neat list and everything. "Actually, I was going to invite you along anyway. I have acquired something that is more in your area of expertise..."
"Why Helen," Nikola set his wine glass down. "That sounds like a leading statement."
Not leading in the way Nikola Tesla might have liked.
Helen had not bothered to switch on the lights so the halls were lit by original iron lanterns filled with spheres of glowing lichen that Nikola had gifted her shortly after his acquisition of James's London Sanctuary. He had the stuff lying around in his garden but Nikola had adapted it into a system of night-lighting.
"You know, I think you're starting to pick up the beginnings of an English accent..." Helen said, as she walked with Nikola up the marble staircase.
He looked horrifically offended. "I bloody well am not!" he huffed – then cursed at his unfortunate choice of words.
"Declan says the London Sanctuary has never looked better – something about a new security system?"
"Don't dig, Helen. It's in a trial phase only. When I'm happy with it, I promise I'll share."
"I'm sure it'll cost me more than a bottle of wine," she replied, stopping at the top of the stairs. She turned and led him into the grand library. She kept looking intently at his new moustache but he hadn't mentioned it yet. Maybe he was going through a bit of a century-life crisis?
"You're being unusually secretive," he pointed out, as she closed and locked the library door. "What have you got to hide from the contents of your house?"
"I don't want us to be disturbed," Helen shrugged, and then had to dodged a swift leer from the ever-hopeful vampire. "Nikola – " Helen placed a hand on his chest and pushed him gently out of the way. "I called you here tonight because I need an expert – an expert in treasure."
Nikola's eyes went from crystal blue to pitch, vampire-black. The orbs glistened with a sudden, specific interest that his careful tone couldn't hide. "Just because I'm a vampire doesn't mean I'm going to go weak kneed at the first sign of – oh..."
Helen slid a large, flat leather case out of the book shelf, laid it on the table and opened a flap. Revealed beneath was a small fragment of stone with a strange, rare vampire script.
"What – is – that?" he whispered.
Helen bit her lip. "Points for trying but I know you already have one just like this. It fits – here – I think?" she traced her fingertip down one side of the stone.
"You just can't get trustworthy staff these days," he complained.
"Well... You can't tell me you're surprised. Kavanaugh may work for you but Ashley's my child."
Nikola looked puzzled, tilting his head like that great big bird downstairs. She blinked at him.
"Really – Nikola you're meant to be the genius."
"But I thought that Henry and -"
"Them?" Helen swatted him on the shoulder. "No. Apparently she likes a man with a badge."
"I – told him all sorts of things."
Helen found his dismay highly amusing. She even shifted closer, standing shoulder to shoulder with her old friend. That seemed to calm him a little. "Do you really mind me knowing all your secrets, Dr Tesla?" she teased.
Nikola's response was a dismayed sigh. "Well, I'd rather you not possess the entirety of my collection and I'm going to be much more careful about what I tell that detective."
"That's why I thought I'd share one of mine. This stone did not come from the same excavation site as yours. While your team has been sifting through the extensive caves at the Sanctuary of the Moon, I was following up an unrelated abnormal in the Karlamilyi National Park."
"Where on Earth is that?"
"Western Australia – there's a newly discovered species of giant sand ray skirting around the salt lakes up there. Terrified a few freelance photographers. Needless to say, I was surprised when I came across the ruins of a pyramid."
"Wrong continent for pyramids..." Nikola pointed out.
"That's what I thought but it's authentic – early vampire and quite the hatchet job. I think they were trapped in the desert – dying."
"And that's where you found this?"
"They went to great lengths to make sure it wasn't eaten by the sands. It must have been important."
"It's knowledge," Nikola whispered reverently, leaning over the tablet fragment. "There was nothing more valuable to them. I suppose you brought me all this way to ask the obvious question..."
"No," he shook his head. "I don't know what it says at least, not yet."
Nikola leaned against the door of his old room. He wasn't sure why she kept it for him – always the same little cubicle tucked away in a forgotten part of her house with a view out a slit of crumbling stone window. His desk was untouched with a lamp, scattering of books neatly piled and a few trinkets in the drawers. Silk sheets on the bed were freshly washed – he could smell the faint perfume coming off them. He couldn't place why but the idea that she did this all herself for him gave him the strangest feeling of safety that he didn't get anywhere else, not even in his newly beloved London Sanctuary.
He slipped off his shoes, folded his jacket and placed it over the arm of a chair and then laid down on the bed. From here he could see a few stars through the window – only the ones that were bright enough to make it through the glow of Old City. The stars were the only true link that he had with his ancient relatives. They might have moved around a little bit since the time of the vampires but most of them were all still there, gazing down at the world. Every star, world and moon had a sound beating out from it. Nikola used to listen with his first radio devices, curiously recording Earth's nearest friends. Ever since then he'd always imagined a song streaming down from the evening sky – a chaotic rhythm of vast bodies spinning and dying.
A sudden, distinct feeling that he was being watched came over him. Nikola turned his head sharply and found Helen at the door, peering in.
"Sorry – I knocked but..."
He sat up slowly and beckoned her in. "It's fine. I was just thinking."
Always thinking, she thought. "I was going to say – you really don't have to keep the Yetis if you don't want to."
He shook his head. "You shouldn't take my complaining to heart."
She smiled and closed the door quietly. Helen perched on the bed beside him, observing her very dear friend. She pointed to his moustache questioningly.
"Oh this?" he grinned, only serving to make it bigger. "What can I say – it's cold in London."
"It reminds me of our Oxford days. I half expect you to waltz in wearing one of your silk cravats surrounded by a flurry of pigeons."
Maybe he would... "What if I can't translate this tablet of yours?" Nikola asked. "I'm guessing you already know that I've had mine for a while – to no success."
"I'm not an idiot, Mr Tesla... You've been distracted by that government project you think no one knows about. I'd wager if you turn your attention to this instead, you could solve it. Languages are your talent, Nikola. Come on..."
"I'm still thinking..."
"What if I put it another way... You could help me or I might just let a few important politicians know that you're hacking into the government databases while engaging in their pet projects."
"Blackmail," he actually looked aroused by her threat. His words were silken in reply. "Now I'm listening, my dear."