Chapter 9: Splatter Gets What He's Owed
September 13th, 1875
Billingsgate, London’s East End, England
“What’s going – Oh hell!”
“Someone get the fire brigade!”
“There goes my plans for the night. . . .”
“Eva! Are you all right?”
“Yeah, though I lost my best skirt! Lucky I had time to yank up my drawers!”
“What happened? Who did it?”
“Have no idea! Place just went up like a Chinese firecracker! Oi, you! You see anything?”
"No," Victor murmured as he stood in the center of the rapidly-growing crowd, eyes locked on the burning brothel. Around him, people chattered frantically, checking on friends and gawking at the growing destruction. The rain had chosen the absolute worst moment to stop, leaving the flames free to devour the Mangled Mermaid without hindrance. And devour they did – the entire upper level was completely ablaze, glowing a fierce and frightful yellow-orange against the black sky. Downstairs wasn't doing much better, judging by the smoke pouring out every crack it could find. I bet it’ll all be rubble by lunchtime, Victor thought, clamping his hands together. Oh God, imagine if Alice was here to see this! She’d be screaming in her sleep for the rest of the month, I’m sure. I can't believe I'm saying this, but thank God that man was wrong about her coming this way! At least, I’m pretty sure he was wrong. . . . Managing to wrench his eyes away from the hellscape before him, he turned and scanned the crowd. Nope – no sign of her. Hopefully she's well away from this catastrophe, holed up somewhere safe and dreaming of a better world.
“Well, well, well, look who’s here! Finally decided to sample some of the wares? I could have offered you a better price than that fat tit.”
Oh, wonderful. That was just the voice he wanted to hear at a time like this. Victor bit back a groan. “Mr. Splatter, would it do any good to ask you to leave me alone?”
“No,” Jack Splatter, pimp among pimps, said with a terrible grin as he sidled up to him. “I thought you were against women making an honest living. What brings a boy like you over to the Mangled Mermaid?”
“Personal business,” Victor snapped, then slapped his hand against his face. “Oh, I walked into that one. . . .”
Splatter laughed. “Not such a moral crusader now, are you, Van Dort?”
“No! I mean, yes – I mean – I’m looking for Alice!” Victor glared at the man. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen her.” Ugh, it galled him to have to ask Jack Splatter of all people about Alice’s whereabouts, but the fact of the matter was, Splatter was one of the best sources of information on these mean streets. He had the largest web of prostitutes in the East End under his command, after all – and Victor knew all too well how much the pimp enjoyed harassing Alice about joining the ranks. If anyone could give him a lead, it was this tosser.
“Actually, as a matter of fact, I have,” Jack Splatter replied, smirking. “Your favorite girl decided to stick her nose into a private matter between me and my ladybird.”
Victor blinked. “Beg pardon?”
“I told Sharpe to get those fat, good-for-nothing whores out onto the street, but she insisted on making things difficult,” Splatter explained with relish. “Hurt me feelings, she did. So I went up there and gave her a bit of a talking-to.”
Victor, who was familiar with what Splatter’s “talkings-to” consisted of, felt a spark of anger light inside him. “How dare you! Madam Sharpe doesn’t work for you, does she?”
“We had an arrangement – which she decided wasn’t worth keeping up,” Splatter declared with a shrug. “Not my fault if that fat old blower doesn’t know what’s good for her. What do you care, anyway? You don’t know Miss Ladybird.” He suddenly grinned, yellowed teeth gleaming in the firelight. “But maybe you care about me giving Alice a smack over the ear for not keeping her mouth shut.”
Oh, Victor cared. The spark kindling deep within his breast swelled, becoming a fire to rival the one ravaging the Mermaid. He didn’t think he’d been this angry with anyone since Lord Barkis had tried to drag Victoria away to her doom at sword point. “You hit her?” he snarled, his hands bunching into fists.
“Knocked her cold,” Splatter said proudly. “Didn’t even hit her that hard. ‘Course, can’t expect a silly little tail like her to take a few lumps.” He cracked his knuckles and gave Victor a shark’s smile. “Don’t think you’re gonna be upright for more than a minute yourself. Unless you ain’t interested in defending her honor?”
Little sparks of pain flew from his palms as his nails bit into the flesh, but Victor barely noticed. He was well and truly seething now, vision as red as the burning timbers. Just once. It’ll be worth all the bruises in the world to punch this disgusting Haymarket Hector in the face just once, he thought, his arm already starting to tense for the blow. Alice might lecture me on not getting into it with him, but even she –
Wait. He just admitted he saw her. Confessed to knocking her senseless, in fact. Inside the Mermaid.
And I haven’t seen hide nor hair of her in the crowd.
Icy horror extinguished rage as surely as a bucket of water on a flame. Victor spun to face the brothel again, forgetting Splatter’s presence entirely. She’s still in there. She’s unconscious or trapped or simply too frightened to move. Or maybe even – she might – might be – “ALICE!”
His legs exploded into motion, propelling him through the crush of people. “Hey!” Splatter yelled, lunging for his arm. “We ain’t done here, you stinking toff! Bleedin' coward – nobody runs from–”
Victor whirled, letting sheer momentum carry his fist straight into Splatter’s jaw. The crack of bone against bone sent shockwaves up his arm and left his fingers stinging red, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. He'd dueled an enraged lunatic wielding a stolen sword with a barbeque fork, after all. A mere punch was child's play. He whipped back around and started running again as the astonished Splatter stumbled backward, not wanting to give the man a chance to recover and return the swing. Behind him, he heard Splatter curse – then a crunch of something hitting wood. Glancing back for half a second, he saw the pimp lying unconscious next to a packing crate, with a bunch of fisherman gaping in a half-circle around him. "That swell just nobbled Splatter!” one yelled, pointing. "Knocked him clean over!"
Victor grinned madly. Oh God, he had! He'd just sent Jack Splatter flying arse over teakettle! Fantastic! But it would all be for naught if he didn't get to Alice in time. Swallowing back the near-hysterical giggles trying to escape, he shoved his way through the mass of people before him, dodging and weaving into whatever gaps he could find. Cries of shock and indignation followed him: “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
“What the hell is wrong with you?!”
“No respect for ladies! World’s getting worse by the minute, Maxie.”
“What’s a swell like him doing here?”
“Idiot! If I ever get my hands on you–”
“Where are you going? Wait, you’re not – stop! Get back!"
“You can’t go in there! You’ll be killed!”
“Yeah, one less rich boy in the world, that’s a real loss. . . .”
Victor ignored them all. His world now consisted of one thing – the front door to the Mangled Mermaid. Ducking under someone's attempt to grab him, he broke free of the crush, racing to the entrance. The door smoldered dangerously as he neared, but he ripped it open regardless.
Hot air blasted him in the face, forcing him to recoil a step. "Aaaah!" Inside, he could see nothing but eye-searing red and orange. Paradoxically, he found himself thinking of the icehouse he'd just traversed. This place was that's infernal opposite – and if he got stuck against anything here, he'd almost certainly see Downstairs again much sooner than he'd like. For a moment, his resolve wavered as the animal urge to run away made itself known.
Then, piercing through the crackle of the flames and the chatter of the crowd, came a high-pitched scream. Terror throttled instinct. "Alice!" Yanking his soaking jacket over his head for a shield, Victor plunged into Perdition's pit.
If the exterior of the Mangled Mermaid was a glimpse at Pastor Galswells's favorite vision of Hell, the interior was the full Time-Of-Judgment-Featuring-Dante-And-Virgil experience. The fire was all around here, slurping up every last scrap of wood it could find with a multitude of orange, red, and yellow tongues. A charred privacy screen crunched beneath Victor's shoes as he ventured further into the main room, white steam hissing off his clothes and mixing with the charcoal-colored smoke to paint black streaks across his face. "Alice?!"
No reply but the roar of the flames and a twisted, garbled noise that nevertheless Victor recognized as a popular tune. He peered through the screen of grey to find a player piano burning in the corner, still determinedly providing a soundtrack to the chaos even as its internals melted into slag. And near it – was that a woman's head? "Alice!" he cried in relief, stumbling through the maze of upended chairs and tables. "I'm so happy to see – oh. . . ."
The head of the mermaid statue stared back at him with soot-blackened eyes. Victor turned away from her judging gaze, coughing. Damn it. . .he couldn't afford to make stupid mistakes like that! The danger was far too great! Clamping his handkerchief over his face to hide it from the smoke (and the smell – cheap varnish stank even worse when you set it alight), he edged around a crackling table, trying to orient himself. The bar seemed to be directly ahead, covered with abandoned cups and bottles. They glowed cherry-red as the fire caressed their fragile bodies, providing a kind of beacon in the haze. Victor started toward it –
Only to have to throw himself to the ground when the heat-strained glass abruptly popped, sending a shower of foul-smelling beer and sharp jagged edges across the room. He lay there for a moment, trembling. This was by far the most terrifying thing he'd ever done in his life. Could Alice really even still be alive in this mess? And if she was, was it actually in his power to rescue her?
You'll never know unless you try – and you do know the guilt of not trying will haunt you forever if you give up now, he told himself. He pushed himself back to his feet, wiping his eyes clear with his hanky. One foot hit something hot and runny, and he looked down to see himself leaving a trail of wax from a liquidized candle. He wiped it off on what remained of the rug, lest his shoe get scorched beyond wearing. “Alice!” he called, pausing a moment to cough again. "Are you in here?!"
“Mocking, blubbery glutton! You’re not half the thespian you think you are! Not a quarter! Not an eighth!”
“I ain't claiming to be, you daft girl! You want to end up cooked just like your parents and sister? Stay with me, Alice!”
The voices came from above his head, though how anyone could survive up there was beyond Victor. Gathering his nerve, he made a mad dash for the stairs, taking the sizzling steps two at a time. At the top, he found a middle-aged, rather heavy-set woman with an old peacock feather stuck in her hair wrestling with Alice. The woman – Madam Sharpe, Victor guessed – was attempting to drag her away from a room completely consumed by flame, while Alice clawed and kicked like a cornered alley cat. Victor recognized his friend’s wide, unseeing gaze from the incident with the wardrobe. Oh no – why hallucinate now? “Alice!” he cried, stepping forward.
Sharpe's head jerked his way. “What the – where did you come from?” she demanded.
Alice, however, took advantage of the distraction to slip out of her arms. “Wicked thing! Feasting while Wonderland is destroyed!” she shouted, jabbing her finger at a burning loveseat.
“Bloody forget about Wonderland! It’s you who’s about to be destroyed!” Sharpe yelled.
Victor darted forward, grabbing Alice by the shoulders and giving her a hard shake. He hated to handle her so roughly, but desperate times called for desperate measures. “Alice! No one here is your enemy! Please, wake up!” he begged.
Alice looked through him, green eyes glinting with rage. “Appeasement? As if you don’t share in the spoils!” she snapped, fists clenched.
“Are you an idiot or a practiced fool, my girl?” Madam Sharpe groaned. “Shouldn't fire be the one thing that sends you running, mad or no?”
“Nobody’s sharing in the spoils today,” Victor said, hoping that by playing along a bit he could convince her to at least go down the stairs. “Alice, we’re in terrible danger! We need to escape this place before it comes down around our ears!”
Alice glared at him a moment longer, looking ready to twist free – then, suddenly, her face lost all color. “Oh, no – who set that bloody train in motion? Where has it come from?!” she gasped, pressing her hands against her mouth.
“Train?” Victor stared at her, baffled. What in God’s name did that mean? What did a train have to do with anything? What on earth was happening in her Wonderland?
A loud creak from the ceiling made him look up. The cheap plaster above them bulged and cracked, dripping flame. Running on pure adrenaline, Victor yanked his friend into his arms and whirled them both away – just as a massive beam came smashing down, landing right where they'd been standing. Panting, Victor pressed Alice close to his chest, trying to shield her from any further danger. Is this what you went through, Mr., Mrs., and Miss Liddell? he thought, yielding briefly to the desire to hack up a lung. What an awful way to die.
Alice hit his shoulder with a loose fist, squirming in his grasp. “Stop it! Let me go! You’re not allowed to hug me like Victor, Carpenter!”
“I am Victor!” Victor cried, pulling away to look her full in the face.
Alice blinked – then, finally, her eyes focused on him. “Oh, so you are,” she said, a smile flickering across her lips. “Good.”
And with that, she slumped over, dead to the world. Victor grabbed her before she could hit the floor. “Alice? Alice!” he cried, shaking her. Her limbs flopped about like a rag doll's. "Alice!!"
“Don’t bother,” Sharpe said, coming up behind him. “Probably better this way. Can't try to escape.” She laid a meaty hand on his shoulder, pushing him toward the stairs. “So – you’re Victor then?”
“Victor Van Dort, yes,” Victor said, scooping Alice into his arms. Another flaming beam took out the far end of the upstairs hall, making him jump. “And you’re her nanny?”
“Nan Sharpe,” the woman confirmed with a nod. “Pleasure to meet you at last, though I wish the circumstances were better."
"Me too," Victor said as they hurried down the steps, trying to ignore the way the wood groaned under their weight. A third crash from behind signaled the probable end of the wicked loveseat. "Alice’s told me a lot about you. How you helped her get back–” he paused to cough again "–on her feet after the asylum."
"Yeah, she let me know about you too," Sharpe said as they reached the ground floor. A fiery splinter landed on her shoulder and was flicked away. "Said you were rich, and kind, and handy with a pen.” She smiled at him through a bruised and blackened face. “Never said you were so brave and so stupid.”
“I couldn't just leave her – not after Jack Splatter said he'd knocked her silly – cah cah – in here,” Victor protested, edging through the broiling maze to the entrance. God, this smoke was choking his lungs. . . . “She's my – ahem – my best friend!”
The look Madam Sharpe gave him, sharper and more probing than he'd like, seemed to last forever. “Brave and stupid,” she repeated at last, shaking her head. “Come on, let's get some fresh air. Maybe the cold will bring her round – and force her to speak sense.” She frowned at her former charge, limp in Victor’s arms, as she squeezed through a gap in the greedy flames. “I really thought she was doing better. Gotten past that asylum nonsense.”
“Me too,” Victor whispered, gazing down at Alice’s face. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing steady, as if she were just having a little nap. Even with the fire casting odd shadows across her features, she looked completely at peace. You’d hardly believe she’d just had a psychotic episode. “But she’s–" hack, cough "– excuse me – been wandering around in this state for a week, and I – I d-don’t know what to do.”
“Well, you just saved her life,” Sharpe said, shoving open what remained of the front door. “And probably mine too. That’s got to count for something.” Grabbing his shoulder, she gently steered him out into the light.
The crowd had swelled since Victor had seen it last, joined by a number of men with buckets – what passed for firemen in this part of the city, he supposed. A smattering of spontaneous applause broke out as the pair stumbled out onto the street. “Save it!” Sharpe yelled, wiping her face with the back of her hand, as Victor busied himself with sucking as much clean (well, cleanish) air into his chest as possible. “Where’s that scumsucker Splatter?”
“Arse over teakettle and not getting up anytime soon, thanks to the swell,” a voice called. Victor straightened to see the bulldog-faced man he'd spoken to before standing over the pimp's unconscious form, new respect in his eyes. “Wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with me own eyes! You secretly play rugby, you twig?”
“No – just lucky,” Victor admitted, pride suffusing through him.
Sharpe stared at the man, then turned her shocked face to Victor. “You–" Victor nodded and beamed before succumbing to yet another coughing fit. "Hell, there’s more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there?” She glanced back in Splatter’s direction. “Wish I'd seen it myself. . .but best be off before he wakes. Don’t particularly feel like trying to deal with him after this mess – and besides, some of my girls need to be warned they ain’t got a place to sleep tonight.”
“Fine by me,” Victor assured her. "I really need to get Alice back to the Home anyway."
"You stick with me for now," Sharpe said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Might need a helping hand if she wakes up a mess again."
Victor had no objections to that either – especially after seeing Alice nearly burn herself alive. He gladly followed her as she went round the back of the burning building, leaving the gawkers to gawk and the firemen to throw their buckets at whatever they could salvage. The back of the Mermaid looked no better than the front, with flames shooting out the upstairs windows and more of the roof disappearing with every minute. Victor watched it for a moment, quietly stunned. And I ran straight into that without a second thought. . . . “I’m very sorry about your business,” he said, wincing at the sound of shattering glass.
“Better the business than me," Madam Sharpe remarked philosophically. "Kind of you to say, though – especially since Alice has told me you don’t think much of the girls around here." She waved at a man unloading a cart nearby. "Hey, you! Get over here, I got hiring to do!"
It was a good thing he was already pink from his adventure. “I just want to be left alone when I say no," he mumbled as the man ambled over. "That doesn’t mean I want any of you to die in a fire.”
“Ungh. . . .”
Victor's head snapped down. Alice was beginning to stir, flexing her body like a hungry caterpillar trying to reach a leaf. Her eyes fluttered open as he watched, glazed and unfocused. "Alice?" he inquired anxiously.
She glanced up at him, then looked left and right, her expression confused. She groaned loudly. Then her eyes slid shut again, and her head thunked against his chest. Victor sighed. Maybe it's better though; she didn't look quite herself.
Madam Sharpe tched sadly as she watched the scene. “Almost like she was back in Rutledge, poor girl. She tell you about that?”
“A little,” Victor said, shuddering as stories of leeches and electric chairs danced through his memory. "Not much, though."
“Yeah, not surprised. She don't like to think about – and really, she wasn't around for most of it. Headwise, I mean." She touched Alice's hair, brushing it back from her face. "If she wasn’t comatose, she gaped, eyes like pinwheels. Drooled, screeched, but almost never uttered a sensible sound – until they tried fixing up her rabbit, what I hear.” She shook her head. “At least she’s not spewing out what she kept screaming when they first brought her in – ‘My past is dead,’ ‘I killed them,’ ‘I should have saved them,’ ‘I should have died. . . .’ Poor thing. Her mind was in shambles.”
“I fear it is a-a-again,” Victor mumbled, hacking out some last wisps of smoke caught in his throat. “Ugh. . .I just want her to be well – to stay with us in the real world for longer than a few minutes. Is that really too much to ask?”
“Not for me to say,” Sharpe sighed. “You just keep a close eye on her – make sure she can’t run off again before we get out of here.” She turned back to the man, who was watching the scene with cautious interest. “That cart for rent? Three of us need to get over to Threadneedle Street in the West End. . . .”
Victor looked back down as Madam Sharpe negotiated with the driver. His friend was frowning now in her sleep, as if she disapproved of whatever was playing in the theater of her mind. Now and again she muttered and groaned. Victor's heart gave a painful twist as he watched her. What torments were her brain delivering to her now? Why couldn't it let her be? Her hallucinations had just nearly made her commit inadvertent suicide – wasn’t that enough for one day?
And there was still the question of the train. He furrowed his brow, considering. Alice had mentioned a railway in Wonderland before – the Looking-Glass Line, under the command of the Mock Turtle. But that couldn’t be the train she’d been talking about. She’d know where that one came from, and who'd set it in motion. So from what mysterious railroad had this new locomotive sprung? And what was it doing to her? She'd been so frightfully pale when speaking of it, eyes shining with terror. . .was it responsible for her decreased mental state, somehow? Was it rampaging through her skull, tearing her psyche to pieces – forcing her back into insanity? God, he hoped not. The very thought made his stomach knot up. “Please, Alice – fight the train,” he whispered to her as the weak sun finally broke through the clouds. “Stop it, crash it, derail it. Just–” He closed his eyes, cradling her close. “Just don’t leave me.”