Chapter 6: Seeking Out A Mangled Mermaid
September 13th, 1875
Billingsgate, London's East End, England
"Alice! Oh dear. . . ."
Victor hugged himself as he stumbled through the maze of docks and warehouses that clustered around this stretch of the Thames. This had to be the most miserable morning to be out and about in a decade. The air was as cold as the grave, the sky shrouded in clouds as black as midnight, and the rain was just pelting down, drenching him from head to toe. Why didn't I borrow Alice's umbrella before coming here? he thought, rubbing his arms rapidly to try and force some warmth into them. At least then I wouldn't be soaked on top of everything else.
Well, it was too late for such regrets now. He blinked the water out of his eyes, then turned in a circle, checking every nook and cranny for any sign of life. "ALICE!" he called again, stretching his voice to its limit. "WHERE ARE YOU?"
No answer. Thoroughly dejected, Victor squished his way over to a nearby building, taking what shelter he could under its overhanging roof. Almost a week with no sign of her, he thought, watching the rain pour down in sheets as he wrung out his tie. How did she manage to get herself so lost? I know her mind's in shambles right now, but really. . . . Maybe I shouldn't have scared off Witless – she knew Alice in the asylum, she could have been a lead into this labyrinth. Then again, it's rather more likely she would have plied me with information I already knew in exchange for a fresh source of drink money. . . . He wiped his face with a soggy sleeve. Dr. Bumby's not going to be pleased with me.
Of course, it wasn't like he was in the doctor's good books right now anyway. Dr. Bumby was probably the only person in the Home taking Alice's disappearance worse than himself. His initial report on her vanishing had been met with a look of shock so intense that he'd half-expected Bumby's jaw to unhinge itself. And with each day that passed without her returning, the psychiatrist got angrier and angrier. He was sharper with the children, more irritable with strangers, and particularly nasty to Victor. The young man got the feeling that Dr. Bumby considered Alice heading off to parts unknown to be somehow his fault – like he'd encouraged her to run away simply to spite the doctor. As if wandering the streets of Whitechapel was any better a cure than your pills! Victor thought with a frustrated groan. They'd been snapping and sniping at each other all week from mutual anxiety, making life at the Home even harder to bear than usual. Things had at last come to a head yesterday afternoon after tea:
"You still haven't found her?"
"No, sir," Victor said reluctantly, eyes on the floor. "I went all through Dorset Street, Thrawl, Berners, Wentworth – nothing."
"For God's sake – I thought you cared about the girl!" Dr Bumby snapped, chair squeaking as he stood up. "Don't you know the danger she's in? If she's just wandering off to Wonderland, instead of being guided there under controlled conditions, there's no saying what might happen to her. She needs to be found before all my hard work is undone!"
"I do understand, sir!" Victor replied, clapping his hands together before him. "I'm just as worried about her as you are! Why do you think I'm spending my days walking what feels like the entire length and breadth of the East End? I'm t-terrified that one day I'm going to come across her lying grievously injured in some trash heap – or worse, find her d-d-ddd–"
"Oh come now, Master Van Dort – a man of your particular delusions should be able to say the word 'dead!'" Bumby snarled, slamming a fist on his desk. "Why are you so worried about finding her in that condition, anyway? According to you, all that means is that she's going to be walking around with blue skin!"
Victor's jaw dropped, but only for a moment. Then his eyes narrowed almost to slits. "Sir! You know very well that I don't believe the dead can get up and walk whenever they like!" he snapped back, folding his arms. "If she's d-died, then I'm going to be dealing with a corpse, just like the rest of you! One that just l-lies there and. . .and. . . ."
He stopped, unable to continue. The image conjured up by his brain was much too sad. Dr. Bumby's face softened slightly. "My apologies, Victor – the stress is getting to me," he said, dropping back into his chair. "But there are worse fates for her than death lurking out there, if we can't get her back into my pos – my care soon. We're at the very edges of a major breakthrough regarding her Wonderland. She's almost ready to finally let go of the past and embrace the future! To see all that time and effort go down the drain because she's lost control of her mind. . . ." He clucked his tongue. "It would be tragic."
All that time and effort might be what's responsible for her having lost her mind, you horrible man, Victor thought, but bit back the impulse to actually speak it aloud. Things were unpleasant enough between them already. "Dr. Bumby, this would be so much easier if you'd let me involve the police," he pleaded instead, clasping his hands under his chin. "I don't understand why you don't think them necessary."
"Victor, you must have seen the local officers in action," Dr. Bumby said, rolling his eyes. "They're nothing more than incompetent brutes. The East End is not the favored beat for policemen of any intelligence. All they would do is throw Alice into a cell and traumatize her more. Do you want her to retreat back into catatonia?"
Victor sighed, gaze dropping to his shoes."No, of course not," he mumbled. Much as he loathed to admit it, Bumby had a point. He had seen the local bobbies in action – gossiping over greasy lunches, taking bribes from pimps and prostitutes, and beating up those unfortunate criminals who didn't pose much of a threat to them. Hardly the sort of legal authority you wanted to put your trust in. But. . . . "I'm only one man," he reminded the doctor, glancing up. "I've been doing my best, but – I can't do this on my own. I need help. Wouldn't the risk of a few hours in a cell be worth knowing she was safe and sound?"
"I wouldn't expect someone not trained in my field of expertise to understand how delicate her mental state really is," Bumby replied, waving a hand dismissively. "Especially not someone whose own mental state is in question. Besides, I can assure you that you're not my only searcher. I've built up quite a web of connections in this neighborhood, and I'm putting them to good use. I'd just expected you to be the most competent, given your – affection for Alice."
Did he really have to say "affection" like it was a dirty word? "Still, sir, it's been almost a week," Victor pointed out. "We can't keep this matter from the police forever. It could reflect badly on the Home if they hear about this from someone else."
Bumby sighed. "An unfortunate truth," he allowed. "If she's not returned in the next couple of days, I suppose we must allow those layabouts to do their duty." Then he glowered at Victor. "But I'm hoping you'll prove yourself useful and find her before then!"
Well, Doctor, it looks like I'll be getting that help after all, Victor thought as the memory dissolved. I'm sorry I wasn't useful enough, I really am. He pushed his limp hair back from his forehead. Ugh – why did everything have to take such a sudden, sharp turn downhill at the end of August? I thought she was doing well! No need for pills, or extra sessions, or anything else like that. Yes, she saw things, but she had a good sense of what was real and what wasn't! She could function amongst society – and probably do a better job of it than me. I wanted things to go on as they were – or better yet, for her to conquer the worst of her delusions, for me to finally exhaust Bumby's patience and find a job and a place of my own, and for both of us to march straight out of that Home hand in hand.
Now there was a happy daydream. Victor closed his eyes for a moment and allowed himself to indulge. They'd make their goodbyes in the front foyer, luggage by their feet – a couple of suitcases for him, a small bag for her. The children would see them off with a bevy of smart remarks, coupled with grudging admissions that they would be missed (if only for their entertainment value). Dr. Bumby would shake their hands and wish them Godspeed, even as he muttered under his breath how he was sure he could still "cure" them given more time – and Alice would probably overhear and reply with something politely mocking his skills as a psychiatrist. Then they'd open up the big double doors and pick up their things, giving their former 'roommates' some final farewells. . .he'd offer her his arm as they proceeded down the steps, and she'd take it with a smile. . .and then he'd help her into the cab before directing the driver off to their new and wonderful life. . . .
Victor sighed deeply, opening his eyes. Oh, he wanted that to be reality more than anything else in the world. But he knew deep in his heart such a scene would never come true, even if Alice miraculously reappeared fully recovered and ready to go. The Home was a special place, where the rules of society were considered a bit more flexible on account of the residents being mad. "Normal" men and women simply didn't live together unless they were married, related, or ready to be called nasty (and possibly hypocritical) names by the rest of the populace. The very thought of him rooming with a young single lady (especially one like Alice) would send his mother into a fit of hysterics. He and Alice already had enough trouble with the residents of the East End throwing insults and suppositions at them – they didn't need any further annoyance from those of the upper crust as well. And he didn't dare ask her to marry him. He'd already seen how horribly things went when he was betrothed sight unseen by his parents – how much worse would him actually proposing go? London would likely vanish into a sudden sinkhole, or be reduced to rubble by meteors before he could get more than the first few words out. Besides, he knew that Alice didn't – couldn't – feel the same way about him as he did about her. She was brave and vital, survivor of a thousand agonies, a warrior in her own mind, and he – he was the rich man's son who'd never suffered a day in his life before the incident with Emily. They were just too different.
But even with all that, his heart couldn't help but hope. She was his best friend, after all – the first woman to tolerate his company since Victoria had been dragged away. Perhaps, one day, her feelings would deepen much like his had? After all this madness had been chased from her mind? He closed his eyes again and pictured her as she'd been shortly before "radical treatments" had seemingly stripped away her sanity. Those bright eyes, like glowing emeralds. . .that dark hair, falling in tangled waves to her shoulders. . .those pink lips, so often home to a sly smirk. . .and, rarely, that more genuine smile she seemed to give to him and him alone. . . .
He shook his head hard, dismissing the image. Stop that, he scolded himself. You do not have time to get lost in romantic daydreams. You need to find Alice. His shoulders slumped. If she's even findable at this point.
The main trouble was, Alice had proved to be a master at giving people the slip. Most of the residents of the East End he'd accosted for information hadn't been able to help him at all. And those who had seen her hadn't given him promising reports. Like Mr. Hardwicke, the local butcher, who'd said Alice had wandered by his stall and regarded him suspiciously:
"Accused me of wanting to eat her, then asked me why I didn't season my own pig parts. Before I could ask what in the devil's name she was going on about, she grabbed something invisible off the counter, said it seemed a serviceable grinder indeed, then ran around the chopping block and off behind our little shack. Didn't see where she went after that. Sorry, Master Van Dort. Fresh pork pie? Guarantee it's all meat!"
Or the owner of Brann's Beans coffee shop, who'd complained that Alice had caused quite a mess in his store:
"Yelled at me, 'I won't be boiled today, Dormouse!' and then proceeded to smash two of my teapots! I tried to order her out, but she declared she wouldn't leave without 'the Hatter's arms,' whatever that means. So I threw her two old loaves of bread I had in the display and told her, 'here, you win, now get lost!' She ran outside, dumped them in a nearby garbage bin – bloody waste of good food! – and was off again. Haven't a clue where she is now, and I don't care either. And unless you're here to pay for the damage she did. . . ."
Or the Scottish factory worker he'd bumped into coming out of the Elephant's Elbow, who'd told Victor he'd had to stop Alice from running into the steel mill where he worked:
"She gave me a look and said she would have the Hatter's legs no matter what I did. Damned if I know what she meant – thought maybe she worked in a millinery and the mercury had gotten to her head – but she didn't protest when I turned her round back toward the street. Funny, though – the way she was running, all stops and starts, it was like she was avoiding something trying to crush her. No, she vanished after she rounded the corner. Why should I follow her? I'm not her keeper."
Add all that to what Witless had told him, and the implications were clear as daylight: Alice was so lost in the depths of her mind that she had completely forgotten she was even in London – and she was close to getting herself killed because of it. I guess all I can be thankful for is that she hasn't yet tried attacking anything with the ability to fight back.
He opened his eyes and scanned the area once more, trying to figure out where he should go from here. The Billingsgate docks were hardly welcoming to people like himself – but back at the Home there was nothing for him but long, sleepless hours punctuated by the occasional heart-stopping nightmare. He'd much rather be out and about, feeling like he was doing something useful. Anyway, the horrible weather and early hour meant that the area was largely deserted – just a few sailors unloading their catches, and a handful of warehouse men chattering to each other about this and that. None of them had paid Victor more than a moment's attention so far, which he considered a blessing. Every last one of them was as thickly muscled as a professional boxer. Why oh why must Van Dorts be built like stick insects? I don't even have the pleasure of camouflaging myself like they do.
Abandoning his poor shelter, Victor started wandering between the various buildings again, keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of his friend. He and Alice didn't usually come this way when they walked together – in fact, Victor could only recall them visiting twice. Being here now, picking his way through the tangle of crates and nets littering the cobbles, was a good reminder as to why. Not only were the docks full of the kind of people who could snap him like a twig, the entire place stank of sweat, grime, and of course fish. On their first visit, he'd wondered if they might see any of his father's workers – not that he expected any of them to recognize him, but he'd thought it might be nice to see the familiar logo of Van Dort Fish on their crates. Alice had replied that he'd better hope they didn't – all the fish that came from this reach of the Thames were just short of lethal. "It's so polluted that you can't get anything edible out of it – or, at least, you shouldn't," she'd declared, making a face at a pile of smelt. "But then again, perhaps some people have grown to like the taste of sewage." If he hadn't already hated seafood from years of overexposure, Victor would have given it up right there and then.
Still, it was an area he hadn't searched before – and Alice, in her current state, was liable to wander anywhere. Although I hope she's kept enough of her mind not to come down here, Victor thought, just catching himself from tripping on a net. Scowling, he shook his foot free of the knotted ropes, sending out a little spray of slime. Ugh, how on earth can Father enjoy coming to places like these? Though I doubt even he would like this harbor –
"Well well, will you look at this! A swell wandering round our lovely docks! What brings you down to Billingsgate, kind sir?"
Victor froze. Oh no. . . . With extreme reluctance, he turned around. One of the burliest men he'd ever seen was standing behind him, with arms as big as tree trunks and a voice as gruff as a bulldog's. He regarded Victor with a nasty smile. "Not often we see toffs down here," he continued, sauntering forward with that sort of friendly swagger that everyone knows really means someone's going to take a fist to the face soon. "You're far out of your neighborhood, aren't you?"
Victor gulped, then straightened up to his full six feet three inches to see if it would help his nerves. It didn't. "Less than you think," he replied, clamping his hands together behind him to prevent him strangling himself with his tie. "Um – c-could I ask you a question?"
The man's eyes narrowed. "Why?" he demanded.
"It c-concerns a young lady I'm looking for. . . ."
The man burst out laughing. "Oh. The Mangled Mermaid's that way," he said, jabbing a beefy finger past Victor's shoulder. "On the other side of the icehouse. Don't cost much to rent a bed."
An unwelcome blush flooded Victor's face. "N-no! I'm not – look, have you seen a woman with dark hair about this length–" he slashed his hand along his shoulders "– and bright green eyes? Should be wearing a black-and-white-striped dress with a rather tattered apron?"
The man frowned thoughtfully. "Huh. Yeah, I have, actually. That sounds like the bird me and Horatio just pulled out of the Thames."
Well, at least he didn't have to worry about blushing anymore. That announcement had sent all the color rushing out of his cheeks. "What?! Was she all right?"
"Yeah, and none too grateful either," the man said, scowling. "Would have drowned if it weren't for me, but as soon as I start talking about how she could thank me, all she does is shove me off and walk away! Would have gone after her, taught her a lesson, but Horatio said she's friends with the madam who owns the Mermaid. Something about her being the bird's old nanny. Little slip of a girl like her ain't worth never being able to hire a decent whore again."
"Oh." Yes – Victor remembered Alice telling him about that. She'd been talking about how Nanny had pretty much been her only visitor while incarcerated in the asylum, and Victor hadn't been able to help asking why she wasn't living with her then. The resultant explanation had left him with a sick feeling in his stomach, and both of them with the inability to look each other in the eye until dinnertime. Even now the knowledge made him feel rather off-balance – from children's nanny to brothel madam was just such a disconnect. But then again, you do what you must to survive on these streets. . . . They'd passed close to Nanny's place of business on both their trips this way, but Alice had never introduced him – "It's a rough and tumble place, to put it mildly – a swell would leave missing a couple of teeth at the very least. Besides, I can't guarantee Nanny won't encourage you to have a turn with one of her girls. And if you think the whores on the street are bad about wanting a look inside your wallet. . . ." Victor had been content to leave Nanny to her own dealings until now – but if there was even the slightest chance Alice was with her. . . . "Do you think she might have visited the Mermaid then?"
"She wandered off in that general direction, yeah," the man said with a shrug. "Wouldn't waste my time with her, though. Unless she only takes rich boys like yourself. Some of those gammy haybags are fussy like that."
Victor's better instincts were drowned out by a surge of protectiveness toward his lo-friend. "She's not a 'gammy haybag,' nor any form of a 'woman of the night,'" he growled, eyes hard and shoulders stiff. "And that's not why I want to find her."
The man moved forward a step, arching an eyebrow. "So why do you want to find her, swell?" he asked, his tone indicating that he did not appreciate Victor's look.
Victor shrank back. Ninny – how many times has Alice told you not to make trouble for yourself on these streets? "S-she's my friend," he said, swallowing. "That's all." Pulling out his wallet, he extracted about half a pound in shillings. "And I'm very grateful for the information, sir," he added, extending the money. Please, please don't decide it's a better idea to just rob me. . . .
Luck was with him – the man's lumpy face lit up at the sight of the banknotes. He snatched them out of Victor's hand and counted them. "Now, see, if more people were like you, the world would be a better place," he said, now all smiles and goodwill. "Like I said, Mermaid's right past the icehouse. Pleasure doing business with you, sir. And good luck finding your bird."
"Thank you." Victor shoved his wallet back in his pocket and hurried off in the direction the fisherman had indicated. Although he certainly didn't like what the man had been implying about Alice – the very thought of the kind of "gratitude" that kennetseeno demander had been expecting made his fists clench – the fellow had given him a lead, and that was worth a few shillings. Well, that and avoiding getting his face caved in by a fist practically as big as his head. Being a rich man's son in this area is both blessing and curse, he thought, passing more barrels and crates that overflowed with half-rotted eels, green-tinted oysters, and scale-flaking trout. You can make friends with money, but you never know when one of those "friends" will want more than what you're willing to give. . .fortunate I've yet to run into my own Witless! Oh, poor Alice – I wish you'd told me about her. I would have helped you.
The icehouse wasn't more than a dock away from where he'd gotten his directions, easily visible in the gloom thanks to a couple of lamps mounted by the entrance. Three workers were lingering outside, but none of them noticed his approach – two busily chatting away about the weather and the incoming boats by the water's edge, and the third, perched on the open end of a wheelbarrow, dozing amid his workload of barrels. Stepping as lightly as possible, Victor crept up and peered through the wide doorway. The building was filled with a soft white haze, but he could still discern the huge blocks of ice stacked in small columns and stocky pyramids all over the rough wooden floor, with just enough space left between them to allow for footpaths. Slippery, chilly footpaths – even from where he was, he could feel the cold seeping into his clothes. Goodness – if I go in there, will I end up being used to cool someone's icebox?
On the other hand, freezing as it might be, the icehouse was at least dry. He turned and looked around the side of the building. Darkness loomed up before him, wet and menacing. Victor shuddered and shook his head. Better a brief trip to the Arctic than plunging back into the night that would not end. With one last glance at the idling workers, he slipped inside.
He almost immediately regretted his decision as the chill attacked him, taking full advantage of his wet clothes. Maybe it would have been better to risk the other way, he thought, hurrying through the maze of ice and avoiding the little drips falling from the ceiling. I was just so tired of stumbling through that gloom. . . . Still, I made my choice – and with luck, going through instead of around will get me to the Mermaid quicker. He hugged himself as a particularly hard shiver racked his body. So long as I don't trip and shatter myself on the floor – oh, what is this?
Victor slid to a stop as he came to a flight of stairs surrounded on all sides by piles of ice. Past the cubes on the left he could see light, and the gaping square that served as a second entrance, but no way to get to them. "Did they really block off the only way through the bottom?" he grumbled. "How stupid do you have to – hello? Is anyone in here?"
Silence met his call. Frustrated, Victor shoved his shoulder against the nearest block, trying to push it out of his way.
It barely budged. Victor huffed and pulled away – only to find himself frozen against the cube. "Oh, for. . . ." He tugged ineffectually against the ice a couple of times, then threw himself in the opposite direction.
A loud "RRRIPPP!" signaled his freedom as he fell against the floor. Turning himself over, he took a critical eye to the damage. Jacket shoulder torn open, and a bit of sleeve missing – no worse than when he'd torn his rehearsal suit running from Emily. Though this time, I won't be able to rely on a friendly spider to mend it for me, he thought, fingering the burst seam. Ah well, maybe it makes me look less like a swell – and less like a target.
He got to his feet and tried kicking one of the blocks. Moments later, he was back on the floor, having nearly cracked his head open on a chunk behind him. "Upstairs it is, then," he mumbled as he peeled himself off the frozen planks. "Oh, this had better be worth it. . .how do men work in these places? I suppose it's nice in summer, but in winter. . .what on earth is that?"
Victor stumbled to a stop halfway up the stairs, staring at the block of ice next to him. Beady eyes peered out from behind a screen of white frost, and he could trace the lines of a gaping, fang-filled mouth caught in the translucent depths. "It's a fish!" he gasped. "One of those deep-sea ones, I think. . .how'd it get stuck in there?" He reached out toward the cube, then thought better of it and pulled back. He didn't want his skin to suffer the same fate as his sleeve. "Well, someone's getting a free meal with their next delivery. Oh Alice, I wish I could show you this. I can only imagine the kind of monster you'd make out of it. Some sort of extra-vicious cold-water Snark, perhaps?" Chuckling at the thought, he continued up.
The icehouse's upper floor was little more than a glorified walkway, boasting more stacks and pyramids of ice – and a bright light to his right, much like the ones he'd seen outside. Heading toward it, Victor was relieved to see it served much the same purpose – marking a door out of the building. He darted onto the tiny, rough-hewn landing, drinking in the suddenly-much-warmer air of early morning and barely even noticing the rain. "Ahhh. . .remind me never to do that again!"
Rubbing his hands together to get his blood moving, he looked around. Most of his vision was taken up by the back of some mysterious structure (probably another warehouse), with piles of garbage lying all around its base. But directly in front of him, not far off, was another building – this one looking rather better kept, with glowing windows and a bright yellow sign. Victor hurried down the outside stairs and through the little alley formed by the towering brick walls, nearly tripping in his haste. Could it be –
It was. Up close, the words on the sign were unmistakable: The Mangled Mermaid. And hanging right next to it, as if to dispel any possible lingering doubts, was an appropriately desiccated-looking statue of a half-woman, half-fish. Despite the rather horrible imagery shoved in his face, Victor smiled. Perhaps his journey was finally at its end!
Then the flames burst from the far side of the roof.