Kit dug the crumpled help want ad out of his pocket and checked it against the address on the house sign. The tarnished brass letters agreed; 32B South Tanner’s Street. Kit stowed the ad away again and eased open the wooden gate, attempting vainly to flatten his flyaway hair as he did so. He could have just vaulted it as he would have with his own, but that probably wouldn’t leave a good first impression. And he wanted to make a good impression; he really wanted to prove to his family that baby Kit was just as responsible as his older brothers. Besides, with his driving test just under his belt Kit needed to scrounge up the money for his own car somehow. He’d done odd jobs around the town: walking the neighbour’s ill-tempered lapdog, filling in a few paper rounds while his friend Josh recovered from a broken leg and even a quick stint as a gardener until he’d accidently broken Mr Atherton’s prized birdfeeder. What little money he’d made had mostly been swallowed by repaying the irate OAP. Still, this one sounded interesting to say the least. Not the help that was actually wanted of course – cleaning was probably going to be just as boring as tidying his own room – but the environment in which it was being done. Kit hadn’t known that there were any scientists in the sleepy little town, but evidently he’d been mistaken. Taking a deep breath to combat the creeping shyness that always appeared at these moments, Kit strode up the scuffed gravel path and halted at the door. The faint chime of the doorbell died away in the house. He waited.
Just as he was debating ringing again, the door creaked open. Kit looked up and then looked up again into a long, sweaty face offset with bug-like safety goggles that were too big. Close-cut red hair, only just beginning to grey at the sides, framed his lopsided visage, perfectly complimenting his aspiring-debonair appearance. In his hand he held an empty test tube. Any doubts of his (hopefully) future employer being a scientist vanished from Kit’s mind. “Who are you? If you’re selling tickets to the Spring Concert I already told you that I’m not interested.”
Kit beamed at him and held out his hand, “Dr Marshall? I’m Christopher Gillian; we spoke on the phone yesterday? I’ve come for the job interview.” Dr Marshall stared at his hand as if he expected it to turn into something.
“That was you?” he asked, “You sounded older on the telephone. You are seventeen, aren’t you?”
“Yes sir.” Kit’s smile thinned a little, inwardly cursing his lack of height. “May I come in?” Dr Marshall’s face suddenly broke into a grin and he leaned forwards and enthusiastically pumped the boy’s hand.
“Of course! Do come in Christopher. I’m sorry, I had completely forgotten about this.” he stepped back from the door, waving Kit inside. “I’m afraid you caught me at a bad time. I was just finishing off an experiment and I had to make sure nothing flammable was left unattended. Are you a man of science yourself?” he added hopefully as he offered Kit a seat.
“Yes sir, I’m studying chemistry and physics at school.” Kit said, accepting the chair, “Got straight A’s all last year.”
“Excellent! I can see that we have some common interests. By the way, you don’t need to call me ‘sir’. I rather prefer being indulged with my title of doctor... a mild conceit but everyone has their foibles, don’t they?”
“Err… yes s- doctor.” Kit answered, resolving to look up the word foible in the dictionary when he got home. “The ad said you wanted some household help?”
Dr Marshall waved his hands airily, “Yes, yes. It’s just some minor tidying and general straightening out of the place. I’m afraid I’m a disorganised person. I’ll be working most of the time so you’ll be on your own.” The last note lingered longer in the air than was comfortable.
“I’m not a thief or anything,” Kit quickly cut in, feeling like some reassurance was necessary. Dr Marshall raised his eyebrows at that and Kit blushed. “Sorry, I thought you were…”
“You don’t look like a thief, Christopher. I’m confident I can trust you.” he glanced down at his watch and his face creased with urgency. “I’m terribly sorry, but my experiment is on a strict time limit. I’m sure you understand how delicate these can be?”
“Oh yeah,” Kit leapt up from the seat. “Am I hired?”
“You seem like a dependable lad so yes, you’re hired. You start tomorrow say… nine o’clock? We’ll talk payment then.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow then!” Kit grinned, delight seeping into his voice. That was easier than he had expected. Dr Marshall smiled wanly at his undisguised excitement then ushered the teenager back outside. Then, with another rushed apology, Dr Marshall disappeared into the house. Kit wandered back up the path, grinning ear to ear. He had a job with a real scientist! Admittedly he wasn’t doing science, and Dr Marshall wasn't exactly Doc Brown, but it was better than nothing. Taking one more glance at his new place of work, his chest practically inflating with pride, Kit hopped over the gate and dragged his bike off the curb. Tomorrow…
His trial week passed quickly and Kit soon settled into the routine: wake up, have breakfast, kiss Mum goodbye, cycle to Dr Marshall’s house, spend five hours tidying and sorting things like his mail and airing the rooms when one of the tests didn’t react as predicted. It was fairly repetitive, but not as boring as he had expected. This was because, occasionally, Kit found that his lunch breaks were joined by the doctor himself who turned out to be pleasant company. His descriptions of previous experiments were always fascinating and Kit found himself warming to his employer. During these conversations Kit learned that Dr Marshall was fifty seven, had never been married (although apparently he had loved unwisely once, although Kit suspected that her beauty had been exaggerated) and was prone to fits of self-congratulations over successful inventions and experiments. He was so friendly, if a little awkward that Kit found himself talking to Dr Marshall about his four talented older brothers, his Mum and Dad and his dreams for the future. The scientist listened carefully, clapping his hands when Kit told him about the university course in Physics he wanted to take, and laughing as he shyly performed half of the Kit and Josh comedy double act. Despite the sporadic moments of arrogance, Dr Marshall was never particularly unkind and was soon holed back up in his laboratory, tinkering away.
At least, that’s what Kit assumed that he was doing. In spite of how much intricate detail Dr Marshall poured into his stories of previous experimentations, whenever Kit asked him what he was working on now he immediately pursed his lips, his eyes glancing side to side cagily, and would say, “All in good time, Christopher, all in good time.”
Then, not taking his eyes off of his assistant, he would reiterate his most important rule: do not go into the laboratory. He was always insistent, every time he made Kit retake the promise that he would follow that rule. Once, the first time, Kit had asked, “Why?”
“I’m working with dangerous chemicals, Christopher, very dangerous ones. They have to be kept in strictly controlled environments. You understand, don’t you? For example, what does potassium have to be stored in?”
“Oil, isn’t it?” Kit said, screwing his face up as he attempted to recall the chemistry textbook sitting on his desk. The page floated tantalisingly in front of his eyes.
“That is correct. It reacts with water and tarnishes in air. Some of the chemicals in my lab are potentially volatile and I don’t want you to get hurt. So promise me Christopher; never ever go down into the lab without my permission.”
Kit sighed, dreams of doing real experiments vanishing, “OK.”
“Do you promise?”
“I promise.” Dr Marshall cracked a grin and leaned over to ruffle Kit’s hair. Kit jerked away in fright and Dr Marshall awkwardly withdrew as if he wasn’t sure how to do it anyway. Kit shot him an apologetic look and hopped up, pulling down his shirt where it had crumpled against the chair arm. “Hey… I’d better get back to work. I gotta feel like I’m earning my keep here.” he shot his employer a wide, lopsided grin.
And that was that. Of course, while he was dusting the ornaments on the mantle place, Kit speculated in the privacy of his mind what the project could be. It obviously involved chemicals since a) it was dangerous for him to go exploring in there and b) the air near the cellar door stank of rotten eggs. It smelt exactly like Daisy’s trademarked stink bombs at his local high school. Curiosity was always scratching at the back of his mind however; what was Dr Marshall doing?
It was nearing the end of the summer holidays when Dr Marshall began acting strangely. At first he was too busy to take his lunch with Kit. Then it became common for Kit to not see him for the whole day. This didn’t bother Kit unduly, by nature he was an introvert, and it was enjoyable to have the time to study Dr Marshall’s knick-knacks and photographs without feeling like a weirdo. The photographs were mildly interesting, but it was the ornaments that really caught his attention. One that he particularly liked was a glass tiger, beautifully painted red instead of orange. He couldn’t explain why this was so fascinating but it definitely was.
However, he did ponder the reasons for his employer’s absences. The most logical conclusion was that whatever tests the man had been running were coming to an end and he was working around the clock to get the last bits of data he needed. Maybe he was doing a joint project with some company and the deadline was coming up. Kit might have been satisfied with this except…
Except, for the weeks that Kit was working, Dr Marshall’s behaviour became weirder and weirder. He came up from the cellar often, his eyes wild, demanding to know if anyone had come to the house. Then he would start muttering under his breath and telling his assistant that if anyone did come to the door then he wasn’t in. These appearances always unnerved Kit tremendously as twice he’d noticed a fine tremor gripping the doctor’s body, making his hands judder like he was clutching a vibrating pen. The door to the cellar remained locked, but now when Kit passed by he thought he could hear Dr Marshall yelling. A few times he had hammered on the door: he was worried that Dr Marshall had hurt himself, but the last time that he had done that Dr Marshall had pulled the door open with such a glaring mad look in his eyes that Kit has hastily apologised and gathered up his bag before leaving early. That was another problem. Dr Marshall began making Kit leave and enter by the back door, meaning that he had to climb over a six foot wall twice a day as there was no way around the house to the road. This extended Kit’s journey home by ten minutes as he had to run all the way along the opposite street to make it back to his bike. Eventually he started leaving it there in the mornings in order to save on the extra time to get home. Items were also ‘mysteriously’ broken during the night which Kit suspected were deliberate.
Finally he decided that enough was enough. He’d earned a fairly substantial amount during his five weeks of work and Kit felt that he’d rather lose the last pay check than stay with someone who was apparently losing their mind.
“Doctor Marshall?” there was no answer. Kit strode into the living room and dumped his bag on the squeaky leather sofa. Still calling his employer’s name, he wandered through the house, anxiety beginning to swell in his stomach. A couple of time he thought he heard the sound of someone moving in the rooms ahead, but each time he was confronted with emptiness. The rooms all held the musty smell of dust and more than the usual hint of eggs. Wrinkling his nose in disgust at the overpowering concoction, Kit crossed over to the window in the bedroom and attempted to lever it open. The chain wrapped around the handles jingled threateningly. Muttering mutinously to himself, he began to try and untangle the links so he could try and open the window. As he was cursing a particularly difficult twist, a flash of movement caught his eye. A man was scrambling over the back wall with some difficulty, blue jeans flashing in the early morning sun and an Indiana Jones style fedora jammed on his head. Red on the man’s jeans caught Kit’s eye. For a moment Kit just stared at this ludicrous image before his brain kicked his limbs into action. He whirled away from the window and sprinted down the corridor, yelling for his employer. Kit skidded into the living room, heading for the phone on the living room table. As he ran he knocked over his bag, his schoolbooks spraying out all over the floor. Swearing futilely and crumpling an essay on the ‘Causes of the American Revolution’ under his scuffed trainers, Kit snatched the phone out of the cradle and began to dial 911.
He’d gotten as far as the second 1 when he realised that the door to the basement was ajar. Kit stopped, staring. The door was open. Dr Marshall never ever left the door open. There was a small squeal as some breeze or disturbance opened it wider like a predator’s jaws ready to snap shut on its prey. The gaping blackness beyond it seemed to leak out towards his shoes, a thick and oily shadow pooling on the floor. A drumbeat began to pulsate in his ears, growing louder and louder with every passing second. Kit swallowed the fear-grown lump in his throat. “Dr Marshall?” he called nervously, his voice shaking. “Dr Marshall, are you OK? I think you just got robbed!”
There was no answer. Kit stood rooted to the spot, shaking. Something had happened to Dr Marshall. A surge of adrenaline hit him between the collarbone and his chest, blood thumping in his head. Kit took a step forwards, inhaled shakily, put his hand on the door before backpedalling and grabbing the first weapon that he saw; one of Dr Marshall’s large scientific dictionaries – ‘Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein’. Wrapping his hands around the worn leather and feeling satisfied with the weight, Kit began to creep down the stairs and into the basement.
His first impression was that the laboratory was small with deep, dark shadows. From what he could see it looked almost exactly like the cellar at Josh’s house where last Halloween they had camped for a night hoping to catch paranormal activity on camera. Stumbling a little in the dark, Kit held the book out in front of him like a shield, inching down the stairs. No matter how softly he tried to place his feet, the clink-clink-clink of his steps rang out like a gong in the stillness below. Reaching the ground came as a surprise, the lack of another step throwing him off balance and nearly causing him to drop the heavy book on his feet. Kit grabbed for the wall, feeling the cold stones under his fingers. His heart was hammering now and he glanced longingly behind him towards the open door a flight of stairs above him. He could run out – escape – and call the police like he should’ve done five minutes ago. No, he thought firmly, if something’s happened to Dr Marshall then you need to be able to tell the ambulance what his injuries are. Kit forced himself to take another step. The light from the living room spilled down the stairs and rolled out like a carpet across the ground, illuminating the space around where he was standing but not penetrating the rest of the room. Edging forwards, Kit fumbled with the book, only glancing down for a split second.
It was in that second that someone burst out of the shadows and tackled Kit, knocking him off his feet. A hand gripped the front of his shirt and Kit screamed, swinging the book. It caught the shadow a glancing blow on the shoulder, but the physical size difference between Kit and his attacker meant that Kit’s blow were shrugged off. An arm tightened around his throat and Kit kicked out, rasping for air. “Stop that!” the voice was high-pitched and breathless, afraid, but unmistakably male. “Shut it!” it sounded like the man had been fighting or running and Kit obeyed, terror pumping through his veins. The man began to haul Kit back towards the stairs, one arm clamped around the teenager’s neck and the other wrapped around his waist. Kit was lifted off the ground. He was too frightened to do much else but squeak. “You work with the scientist here?” The question had an edge to it. Kit shifted, unable to force enough air into his lungs to confirm or deny the accusation. “Are you his assistant?”
Clawing desperately at the grip keeping him prisoner, Kit finally managed to gasp, “Just cleaning… not supposed to be down… here…”
The man’s breath was sour and rough on his cheek and he dragged Kit back onto the first step. “You shouldn’t be here,” he hissed. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I’ve… called the – the police…!” Kit tried to turn his head, tried to look at the man. Maybe he could convince the man to leave him alone, to let him go. “They’ll be here… any minute now… please…” To his muted embarrassment, tears were dripping down his face, trickling salt into his open mouth. He was so scared. Maybe he could break the man’s grip… black spots were dancing in front of his eyes and he was choking, gagging – dying.
Whether he intended to kill Kit or not, the man’s grip was so tight that in a few moments that was what he was going to do.
Kit took one last, tiny, sobbing breath and, summoning strength he never knew he had, lashed out his captor. His heel struck the man just under his kneecap, forcing his leg to buckle. An involuntary bark of pain deafened Kit, but the man’s hold on him slipped. The man still had him around the waist, but now Kit could breathe. With each painful lungful of air came new strength – strength born of fear and desperation. Twisting around in the man’s grip, Kit balled his fists and prepared to fight for his life…
But the face he saw made him hesitate.
The man holding him wasn’t a moustache-twirling villain, nor was he some grandiose hulking brute with scars down his chin. He was mousey and pale and sporting a scraggly beard that smelt like it hadn’t been washed for several days.
It wasn’t the face itself that shocked Kit. It was the expression.
The man was terrified.
Kit reared backwards, breaking the vice around his middle. The man didn’t want to let go, he lunged for the teenager and powerful hands closed on Kit’s shoulders, closing in on his throat…
Kit didn’t see what happened next – it was too fast, too sudden. All he knew was that he was torn out of the man’s grasp and hurled to the floor. A high pitched scream assaulted his ears and he clapped his hands to the sides of his head, squeezing his eyes shut in panic. Something warm splashed near his hand and he recoiled abruptly, nearly smacking his head into a table leg behind him. The scream had died now and had been replaced with a kind of squelching moan. Then that too faded away. Kit crouched in the darkness, too scared to move. Was it over? Should he make a break for it?
“Christopher?” Dr Marshall’s voice was filled with worry and Kit almost sobbed in relief. “Christopher, are you alright?”
“Y-yeah.” Trembling uncontrollably, Kit managed to climb to his feet, using the table beside him to balance. Dr Marshall’s face loomed out of the darkness, a smear of black on his cheek. “Who – who was that guy?”
Dr Marshall’s hand closed over his, the palm sticky. Kit allowed himself to be pulled to his feet although he was sure that his trembling knees were going to send him back to the cold floor. “You don’t need to worry about that,” Dr Marshall assured him briskly. “He’s not going to get away.”
Kit nodded and began to stagger towards the stairs. He could feel the bruises burning around his throat and his mind seemed to be drifting in and out of logic, glazing his eyes. “We should call the police,” he whispered as Dr Marshall guided him around the prone body on the ground. “We should call the police… call an ambulance.”
“An ambulance will be unnecessary,” Dr Marshall said.
“Unnecessary?” Kit pulled out of Dr Marshall’s grasp, “You mean you killed him? Did you kill him? You killed him!” With each repeat his voice climbed an octave. Kit was hyperventilating, scrambling away from the man.
“Get out of here, Christopher,” Dr Marshall advanced towards the teenager, his tone casual. The darkness clung like a cloak behind him. “Those men knew too much. They were sent here for my invention, do you understand?”
“This can’t be happening,” Kit muttered, pressing his hands to his head, trying to drown out the death moans that had reawakened inside his head. “We got to call the…”
But self-preservation kicked in before he could finish. Those men, Dr Marshall had said, those men. That meant more than one. Horrified, he recalled the terrified expression on the dead man’s face and the frenzied way he’d demanded to know whether Kit was working with the scientist. He remembered his employer’s paranoia. He remembered the red on Indiana Jones’ leg.
Ice-cold fear suddenly gripped Kit. He was on the bottom of the stairs now, with Dr Marshall still advancing on him. Kit backed away, slipping and sliding on the steps. Grasping for the handrail, Kit instead hit the light switch.
The darkness of the cellar was blasted into oblivion. For a second either of them moved, Kit’s gaze locking onto the two bodies on the floor, Dr Marshall’s onto Kit. Then Dr Marshall lunged forward, his fingers snagging the hem of Kit’s jeans. Kit screamed and lurched away before pounding up the stairs, Dr Marshall hard on his heels. He rolled through the cellar door and back into the living room, tears streaming down his face. Twisting around, Kit grabbed hold of the heavy door, meaning to swing it back on Dr Marshall’s face. Maybe he could buy himself some time…
It was a mistake. Dr Marshall was bigger, heavier and stronger. As Kit slammed his full weight against the door, Dr Marshall stepped through the gap before he could close it and yanked Kit towards him, tearing his collar. Kit staggered back. He opened his mouth to scream. Dr Marshall lifted him bodily into the air and hurled him back into the cellar, with enough force to break bones. He stopped, panting. From the cellar he heard Kit’s beseeching shrieks of pain. Carelessly, Dr Marshall cast his gaze around for a suitable weapon. He spotted the heavy glass tiger on the mantelpiece and picked it up. The smooth glass was cool against his palm and he weighed it thoughtfully. Perfect.
Then Dr Marshall went down into the cellar to finish the job. In his own mind he was protecting his legacy, hiding his genius.
But the last thing Kit ever saw was an empty room and the mad expression of a man who sincerely believed he was a scientist.