The Rhumb Line
Standing atop a chair from the corner of the room – an angle which afforded Tesla an… interesting view – Magnus gradually worked the vent free and passed it to him.
"Do you have a light?" she asked, realising just how dark it was down this deep, metallic hole.
Nikola glanced around hoping to find a candle or something, to no avail. Sighing a little dramatically he removed another light bulb, and stepped up to join her on the wooden chair.
"Nikola!" if she sounded panicked it was because she could feel the chair give just a fraction. She grabbed his shoulder, instantly giving at him a remonstrating look that made it clear she did not approve.
He merely stared back, a smirk tucked away in his otherwise practical, neutral expression, "It's fine Helen.” To say he wasn't enjoying being shoulder to shoulder with her would've been a lie. Presenting the light bulb he made it flicker to life, and they both settled to assess the inside of the vent. "At this rate I'm going to become your personal lamp," he chided dryly, though he didn't sound half as insulted by the prospect as she would've expected.
"Well, it does come in handy."
"Mmhmm," he looked at her, as she gamely attempted to offer some consolation to soften the somewhat derogatory observation with a smile, "not just any old parlour trick huh?"
"Oh I don't know," she started softly, beginning to turn from that oddly intimate moment back to the problem at hand, "it's still redundant when someone actually remembers to bring a lamp."
Nikola stared into the mid-distance, a little put out, as she craned her neck towards him in order to get a better look down the vent.
"Whatever tore at the cover's left scratch marks behind…" she slipped a small, dextrous hand to feel the floor of it and noted the depths of the grooves nearest the opening. Whatever it was wasn't living in this section, the entire run of piping was clear – except from the damage marks and whatever Helen had just accidentally shoved her fingers into. Retracting and looking at the horrible, fibrous mess, she realised it looked rather a lot like owl pellets; the hacked up remains of fur, bone, and other indigestible objects from something's lunch. There were beetle carcasses too, further down in the dust. Picking up the pellet as evidence she pulled it out of the little tunnel and Nikola instantly pulled back to avoid it going anywhere near his face.
"Eugh…" the repugnance was clear in his expression, "dinner?"
"I think so. I wouldn't expect any regular indoor-dwelling pests to produce pellets on this scale. Maybe we can figure out a lure, or make sure it's not acting out of sorts because of its food source. Either way, this will provide us with valuable information."
She had that brilliant look of inspiration on her – entirely at odds with the disgusting heap of leftovers lodged between the tips of her fingers. It illuminated her eyes with the glint of something new and extraordinary: a problem that needed to be solved, a quest to unravel the mystery. Above all else it made her smile glow. Tesla's brilliant grin was somehow dim in comparison – only Dr Helen Magnus could be this thrilled by the regurgitated remains of something's dinner.
They probably should have looked into this earlier, Magnus thought to herself as they approached the reception desk. It was high time they found out the identity of the first victim, and if there was any chance of checking his rooms, they might just find the evidence to prove they were on the right track.
"Good morning," she smiled politely, heaping on the patented Magnus charm, "I was wondering whether you might be able to help me?"
The man at the desk stared at her a second, already on guard, "Of course ma'm, how may I be of assistance?"
"Two days ago there was a terrible accident on the road just in front of the hotel." He grimaced at the mention of it, but Helen carried on reassuringly, "I wondered whether you might tell me the identity of the man who lost his life – I wished to offer my condolences to his family."
The receptionist dragged his gaze from the lady for a moment, flicking to Mr Tesla and back, wondering why, precisely, they had chosen to concern themselves with that particular debacle on their doorstep. The hotel had narrowly avoided becoming front page news, and why now, when that lady on the twelfth floor had jumped out of her window not an hour earlier?
"That was Mr Kent, I believe ma'm," he answered nonetheless.
"Was he and his family staying here?" She tried to ask guilelessly.
He hesitated in replying, overtly suspicious now that her question regarded the hotel directly.
Sensing the man's prolonged reluctance might form into an outright objection, Tesla flashed a less than friendly smile in his direction, "Or…" he spread the tips of his fingers across the top of the desk, "we could just go and ask the journalists at the bar… see if they know."
"No, no," the receptionist sprang back immediately, visions of malicious headlines flying through his head whilst attempting to fake an awkward grin, "it's, not a problem." He cleared his throat, "Mr William Kent was booked with us for the duration of, of the enquiry. His brother perished on the Titanic… he had taken a long term suite with us. Just him. Never mentioned a family."
Helen surreptitiously gave Nikola a censorious look for purposefully intimidating the man… and managing to get the information out of him before her. Their eyes met, lingering slightly, communicating wordlessly. That sly irrepressible smirk on his face – Helen could only shake her head incredulously. Any excuse, she thought to herself.
"And," she managed to shift her attention back to the more malleable employee, "has anyone taken up his rooms?"
"No... no ma'm," The receptionist looked slightly desperate at the determined expressions now staring back. He just knew he wasn't going to like the next question, not one little bit.
After a little… negotiation Magnus and Tesla were granted access to Mr Kent's old rooms, as well as those of Miss Marino who, like many of the hotel servants were still housed on site. The former had revealed the same tell-tale damage to the vent grate in the bedroom, scratches and remains – though disappointingly, no beastie. Miss Marino's room, among the servant’s quarter on an upper floor, was much the same story.
Taking off their shoes they perched upon the bed to reach the loosened grating and Magnus wrenched it away. Nikola swiftly illuminated the darkness with a hand-held torch he had picked up from his rooms. Upping the strength of the beam with his abilities, they could see right down to the bottom, where a shadowy creature darted into a side-tunnel so fast they might've missed it had the torch been a little weaker.
"Oh yeah, we've got a pest problem."
"Did you see anything distinctive?" Helen asked, aware that even de-vamped his vision was marginally better than hers in the dim light. All she'd managed to discern was its size, being that of a rabbit, its surface being dark and skin-like in part.
Nikola shrugged, "It was kinda rodent-y." He replied, pulling a face at her which clearly indicated his distaste for the idea of it running around between the rooms… near his rooms. He shuddered inwardly at the thought.
"Well," She sighed, eying up the scratch marks and remains littering the tunnel. These ones were almost as fresh as the ones in Mrs Cabot's vent, and still slightly sticky with digestive fluid, "it headed left… whatever it was."
"Back towards the north of the building."
"Right," she looked at him, still trying to stir up her memory banks into providing some useful information and coming up a blank. "I wish we had the library right now. Or my journal…" her voice went softer at the thought of that missing item from her Titanic inventory.
"London isn't infested with vent-dwelling rodents possessing a psychosis-inducing bite?"
"Not so much, no," she replied distractedly.
"Though James may still be able to help us with this."
He raised an eyebrow, all ears.
"Would you mind sending a message to him? Give him all we've got so far and he might be able to find some reference to it, or a likely candidate at the very least. He knows the library practically inside out… almost better than my father ever did."
Tesla paused for the briefest moment; the length of a long blink to assess the tone of her voice for any hint that the mention of Gregory had unsettled Magnus. He knew her father's disappearance weighed heavily on her. Even now he cast a long shadow, and she felt more than responsible for his legacy; pressures which, in light of the last week, might open up a whole world of anxieties. To his relief what Nikola found did not merit any real concern, and before you knew it she was explaining her part in this plan, happily collecting up pellets into an empty sugar bowl.
"I, meanwhile, shall contact Mrs Marino; ask her to watch over her daughter so we can hunt down these little creatures. We can't expect Miss Florie to spend all day caring for her. She has her own work to be getting on with after all. When you get back, we'll need the architectural map of the building… I dare say if you pull a few strings with the Astors…"
"Aha, architectural map – got it," he waved off, stepping down from the bed and offering her a hand in order to follow him. "I'm sure I'll figure it out."
Magnus rolled her eyes a little at the gallantry. Though it was only politeness, his ironic smile was more than testing her belief in the honesty of its origins.
"Good," She smiled coyly, brushing down her skirts matter-of-factly, "Just don't spend all day doing so."