Chapter 10: Ride of Reconnection
September 13th, 1875
Billingsgate, London’s East End, England
The scent of smoke was deep in her nostrils, and her head ached like she'd had a few dozen nails pounded into it. Alice groaned, eyelids fluttering as she tried to make sense of it all. Had Carpenter attacked her in the end after all? Had the Train run her over despite his best efforts to shield her? And why did it feel like she was moving? “Uhhh. . .what?”
“Alice? Are you all right?”
The slow return of consciousness abruptly leaped forward upon hearing that voice. Alice jerked her head up, blinking. “Victor?”
It was indeed her friend, leaning over her with wide, anxious eyes. The poor man looked as if he'd been through a war – hair sticking up at odd angles, skin stained with smudgy patches of black and irregular splotches of pink, and clothing ripped and charred. And I thought I was having a hard time of it in Wonderland. What in God's name has he done to himself? “Alice?” he repeated, swallowing. “You – cah, ahem – you are w-with us, right?”
“Where else would I – no, don’t answer that, I know far too well. Yes, I’m here,” Alice confirmed, rubbing her eye. Not that she knew where “here” was. Back in London, of course, that was obvious enough, but she didn't recall having sky overhead when she collapsed. She gave a little cough of her own to clear the smuts of the Infernal Train from her lungs. "Did you find me in the Mangled Mermaid?"
"What's left of it," another familiar voice said. Alice glanced up to see her nanny looming large (not that a woman so heavyset had a choice) above her, not looking any better than Victor. Alice winced as she noted the circle of purple around the woman's left eye. "Splatter ain't one to welsh, that's for certain."
It was on the tip of Alice's tongue to ask what Nanny meant by that, when suddenly the pimp's voice entered her ear again. "You won't give me what I want, I'll burn this dump of yours down to the ground!" Horror seized her, and she scrambled to her feet for a better view of her surroundings. "Be careful!" Victor cried, flinging out an arm to guard her against falling.
Alice paid the injunction no mind, head swiveling like an owl's. She and her friends proved to be the passengers of a rickety wooden cart, clip-clopping its way down one of the East End's many back alleys. Around them, houses and businesses leaned toward each other, their lopsided attics nearly kissing. Before them, the early risers milled about, preparing for the business of the day. And behind –
Her heart stopped beating for a moment. Behind them, the Mangled Mermaid glowed yellow-pink against the light gray sky, black smoke pouring from every crack as if it sought to replace the recently-departed rain clouds. There was a small crowd of people gathered around, gawking much like her at the flames slithering out the windows and sneaking their way up onto the roof. A man in a laborer's cap tossed a bucket at the back door, and was rewarded with a hiss of steam. It was all far too familiar a scene, and it took every ounce of willpower Alice possessed not to let her mind overwrite the dying building with her family's destroyed homestead. Oh God. One lamp did all that. . . .
“Your friend here raced right into the thick of that mess,” Nanny said, her voice miles away in Alice's ears. “Came at just the right time, too, given the way you were carrying on. Might have been able to get you out myself, but he was a big help." A hand Alice had once seen crack a walnut pushed her into the seat opposite Victor. "Now sit before you smack your head on the cobbles and make it all for nothing. How are you, Alice?”
"I don't know. . . ." With an effort, Alice tore her gaze away from the blaze to do a self-assessment. Like Victor, her skin was a brilliant pink in spots, but she recognized the shade as more the kind of burn you got from a day at Brighton than like anything she'd picked up from her mad dash down to her parents' room eleven years ago. She'd be no worse for wear by the end of the next day, which was a distinct relief. Her face still stung a little, though, and on her tongue – ugh! “The blood in my mouth tastes like bile,” she reported, resisting the urge to spit. She poked her tongue against her teeth – no, none were loose (another small miracle). Perhaps she’d bitten her cheek without realizing before falling unconscious. She'd done that before many a time in Rutledge when they'd forced her to eat. Nurse Cratchit had slapped her once for it, though the woman's backhand was no match for Jack Splatter's fist –
Splatter! Alice's fingers tightened on her apron. What had become of him? Had that accursed ripper walked right out of the Mermaid without a care in the world? “Where’s the brute that hit me, Nanny?”
“Nasty prat’s out cold,” Nanny said, glowering in the direction of the docks. “Not dead, and more’s the pity.” She shook her head. “What were you thinking butting into that mess, Alice? You could have been killed!”
"You could have been too," Alice retorted, frowning. "If he hadn't decided to leave his cleaver in Long Tim's stomach."
"Shit, that's how he got upstairs?" Nanny wiped some soot off her face. "Poor Tim. . .hopefully I'll have something left to hawk to give him a proper burial. He was a good bloke."
"I'm sure he's in a better place now," Victor told her.
Nanny gave him a small smile. "Guess you'd know, wouldn't you? Oh, don't look so surprised, everybody 'round here knows you say you went underground and found all the corpses livin' it up. Wouldn't mind believing it real now – Tim needs a good drink after getting his guts torn out."
"Maybe the Mangled Mermaid ended up down there too," Alice said, resisting the urge to look back. "I mean, the Ball & Socket had to come from somewhere, didn't it?"
Victor's somewhat-embarrassed expression turned thoughtful. "I never considered that. . .it makes as much sense as anything else relating to Below." Then his eyes and voice became as hard as diamond. "Which is where I thought you were going to end up – how badly did that bastard hurt you?”
Oh dear, she should have expected this. Jack Splatter had a real talent for getting up Victor’s nose. Her friend considered the pimp the living embodiment of everything that was wrong with the East End. Which Alice admitted was not far off the mark, but Victor sometimes forgot that those things included a tendency toward extreme violence. Couple that with strong chivalrous instincts instilled in him from a life in the bread just beneath the upper crust, plus a habit of rushing into things without thinking when he was upset, and it was no surprise he and Splatter had butted heads a couple of times. At least Splatter saw Victor as little more than an occasional annoyance. Alice was quite sure her friend would have had to make a few surreptitious visits to Dr. Tewsbury if things were otherwise. “I’m fine," she told him, laying a hand on his arm. "He knocked me silly, true, but I've been making a habit of falling unconscious lately anyway. I’m upright now, and that’s the main thing.”
Victor opened his mouth as if to argue, but was cut off by a few violent coughs. "Sorry," he whispered as he got his breath back. "I thought I'd gotten all the smoke out." Then he sighed, gaze dropping to his scorched (and waxy? One looked as if it had been dipped in a candle) shoes. “I – I just wish I'd made it there earlier. I was only a few minutes behind, you know. If I hadn't had to go the long way through the icehouse, maybe – maybe I could have stopped him doing any of it.”
“More likely Splatter would have made mincemeat out of you,” Nanny said, though not without fondness. “Yeah, I know, you just knocked him on his arse–” Alice’s jaw dropped “– but even you admitted that was a lucky hit. If he'd been at his best, with a knife in his hand – well, you’d have probably been in the same mess we were in, if not worse.” She patted his back. “Not discounting your bravery, mind. More than half the blokes 'round here would do to even try a punch. And hell, if he went over like that, you must have a pretty decent arm!”
That got a small smile. "Thank you."
Alice stared at him. Victor had – were her ears playing tricks on her? But they usually did that in conjunction with her eyes, and this all seemed real enough. . . . “We – we appreciate the sentiment,” she said slowly. “At least, I – I know I do – I'm sorry, did you really just knock out Jack Splatter?”
The smile changed into a smirk. “I did indeed,” he said, puffing himself up with pride before a cough forced him to deflate a little. “Like Madam Sharpe said, it was mostly luck – that and catching him completely off guard – but I punched him right in the jaw when he tried to keep me from going in to find you. Fell right over and almost broke his head on a packing crate." He fiddled with his fingers a moment. "Perhaps I shouldn’t have done so, but I was utterly furious, and – forgive me, the satisfaction of knowing I sent him practically flying more than makes up for any consequences.”
Alice couldn't help smiling back. "Well, then, I'm very glad you got one over on him. God knows he deserved it."
"Damn straight," Nanny agreed. "They're all alike, demandin' money they didn't earn. Wish he'd get a smack every time he tried that nonsense."
"If I could be assured of not ending up like Long Tim, I'd gladly give him one," Victor told her, tone hard again. Then it softened as he turned back to Alice, taking her hand in his. “That said – you’re sure you’re all right?”
Oh, how she wanted to tell him “yes” and be done with it – but it was impossible to refuse those pleading eyes of his. Worse than a puppy dog. “Physically, yes. Mentally – not so much,” she confessed, sandwiching his hand between hers. “My mind’s in pieces, Victor. I’m having terrible visions of Wonderland in peril.”
“I know,” Victor said, lightly squeezing her fingers. “You, ah, called me Carpenter right before you – blacked out.”
"Did I?" Alice searched her memories. The Infernal Train had thundered into the theater, a roaring beast from the depths of the Inferno. . .Carpenter had shoved her out of the way, before shielding her with his body as the monster rumbled past. . .then his touch had turned far too familiar for her liking, causing her meager gratefulness for the protection to give way to annoyance as she was pressed hard against his breast. . .and then, suddenly, his pierced and elongated visage had transformed into the face of her best friend, sooty, frightened, and framed by fire. And it had all been just a little too much to take after the grand finale of Totentanz, meaning her recollections ended there in darkness. “My apologies, Victor. I was dealing with a man by that name in Wonderland,” she explained, blushing.
“I thought you were hung up on a walrus," Nanny said, before hitting her with a deep frown. "Honestly, Alice, you're still on about that?"
“Not by choice,” Alice replied, striking back with her own glower. Carpenter’s last speech to her echoed in her mind: ". . .consider the prospect you have been misled, Alice! Then ask, by whom?" Well, she was quite certain she’d been misled by Witless a fair number of times. But if that old bint was the answer to Carpenter's question, she take up Blue Ruin herself. So who else could it be? She didn't know that many people, and she trusted even fewer. Victor she wouldn't even consider as a possibility. Dr. Bumby – he knew about her past, but he was hardly obliged to share every thought he had on the subject with her. And what could he possibly gain by lying about them? Nanny kept her secrets close too, but Alice considered herself very well-versed in reading the woman. There were always the doctors at Rutledge, she supposed. . .or Radcliffe, that fat git. . . .
She coughed again, then sighed. She wasn't up for this right now. There was something rotten in the state of Wonderland, and her puzzler was much too sore to figure it out herself. And with the natives being their usual utterly incomprehensible selves, all she could do was reach out to the woman who'd known her since childhood and hope she'd be kind enough to provide an answer or two. “Something’s gone terribly wrong in my mind, Nanny. Corruption and pollution reign, destroying everything in their path. And – and I think it has to do with–”
"The fire,” Nanny finished for her, a weary note in her voice. “Same as always. You need to move on, Alice – so do I.”
Alice rolled her eyes. "You are aware that 'moving on' is the whole reason I'm at Houndsditch?"
"Looks more to me like you're going backwards."
"It's not my fault that Bumby's treatments have tended more toward quackery than cure. I swear to you that I wrestle quite regularly with my mind's inability to let the past go. The problem is, I never win." She huffed and leaned on a hand. "I would love to simply forget it all and live solely in the future. Suffering really should have a proper time limit."
"Almost twelve years does seem about long enough," Nanny agreed.
“Were you there the night of the fire?” Victor asked, looking up at the older woman.
“No – I was visiting my sister out of town,” Nanny replied, rubbing her good eye. “Came back to find my employers dead, my charge in the madhouse, and myself out of a job. Before you ask, I would have taken her in, but. . .well, they told me she was going to be in there a while, and without any money. . . .”
“Alice told me as much before," Victor said with an understanding nod. He tried to smile. “I’m sure you did the best you could.”
“Yeah – trouble is, my best wasn’t good enough.”
They fell silent for a bit as the cart continued its steady path along the cobbles. As they passed under an arch, bright red splashes against the sky caught Alice's attention. Looking around, she realized they were passing through Limehouse, London's personal stewpot of China, Japan, and all those other places that provided the average citizen with someone to gawk at. The shops and stalls were roughly the same construction as anywhere else in the city, but the windows were bedecked with mysterious characters painted in gold, dioramas of folded paper, and charms carved from jade. The tradesmen here hid their Oriental faces under broad straw hats, and babbled to each other in languages that sounded as if someone had put their voice through a washing wringer, before reaching out to passers-by with the few shards of English at their command. "Very good fruit!" one called to them, waving something green. "Cheap!"
"Care to stop for a snack, Victor?" Alice inquired, glad to have something to take her mind off her problems. "I seem to recall we had a decent bowl of noodles here on a previous adventure."
"I'm – ahem – afraid I had to give most of my money to – Caroline?"
Surprised, Alice turned her head. On the opposite side of the street, standing in the gutter and staring blankly into the distance, was a group of children. A pair of men in moth-eaten suits were beside them, one examining them like he would a slab of rump roast while the other presumably extolled their virtues as – her stomach turned before she could finish the thought. Most of the group were young boys, but there was one girl off to the side – and to Alice's shock, she did rather resemble their recently-adopted Caroline! Though it was hard to tell for sure , what with the distance and the heavy layer of grime on her face. . . .
Nanny glared at the men as they trundled past . “Gonophs and lurkers,” she spat. “Common as cockroaches.” Her expression softened and saddened . “And those poor tykes are food for perverts – like the blameless ants that wasps consume, or a spider’s feeble prey.”
Victor gulped. “. . .W-wasps eat spiders too,” he said weakly, apparently using his bent for entomological facts to take his mind off what Nanny was implying. “One species will lay its eggs on a still-living spider after dragging it back to its nest, and the larvae devour it once they hatch.”
“Sounds about right for how these prigs treat each other,” Nanny nodded. “And the bobbies don't give a jot if it means they have to lift a finger. It’s a cruel world, no matter how you look at it. Did one of Bumby's stock end up over there?”
"I thought so – it certainly looked like her," Victor said, looking to Alice for confirmation.
Alice took one last glance over her shoulder as the scene receded behind an acupuncture parlor. The resemblance was striking, but. . . . "It couldn't have been," she said, as much to convince herself as her companions. "Dr. Bumby would never allow it."
"Wouldn't have to – I don't doubt people would adopt a small one just to turn around and sell her off," Nanny said in tones of deep disgust.
"Bumby makes them pay for the privilege, though. Surely that would cut into profits enough to discourage things," Alice replied, refusing to phrase the last as a question for fear of not liking the answer. She turned back to Victor. "We might be able to convince the driver to stop, if you'd like another turn at playing the White Knight."
"I wish I c-could," Victor said, coughing again. "I'd gladly break both their noses if I thought myself able. Or offer up my own bid for the children, just to keep them safe." Nanny started to speak, but he waved her silent. "Oh, you don't need to tell me – they'd take whatever I gave, then knock me senseless, steal my wallet, and take the little ones back, wouldn't they? Either that or put a knife in my ribs for interfering." Red anger and green nausea warred for control of his face. "And you know what? I once tried to tell an officer near Houndsditch about one of the workmen on the train station manhandling a woman. He laughed at me! Said that he wasn't about to get involved in a lover's quarrel and that I shouldn't be such a prude. Makes me almost glad Bumby forbade me getting the police involved right away in our search for Alice." He groaned, one hand covering his eyes. "Ugly city filled with ugly people. . .sometimes I think this whole place belongs in Rutledge.”
That seemed as good a lead-in for a change of subject as any, Alice decided. Besides, poor Victor was looking much too depressed for her liking. Not that she thought her current obsession would cheer him much. “Speaking of Rutledge, I know you visited my room there a time or two early on,” she told Nanny, glancing up as another line of scarlet lanterns swayed overhead. “Was it because you hoped to take me home?”
Nanny blinked. "You recall that? I thought for sure you were dead to the world." She shook her head. "I had a thought of it, but mostly I came at Radcliffe’s request – he thought familiar faces might help bring you round. Never worked, of course. . . .” Her peacock feather drooped dangerously low, and she reached up to jam it more firmly into her bun. “He paid me too – for a bit. A woman alone sometimes does what she doesn’t particularly feel like doing. As you know.”
Victor’s mouth fell open. “What?! Alice, t-tell me she doesn’t mean–” he stammered, squeezing his tie in both hands.
“I swear I’ve never been on the street,” Alice immediately assured him, holding up her hands. “She means having to run errands for Dr. Bumby. Though Nurse Witless likes to remind me regularly that I'd be selling my backside without her help. . .she said you’d fallen on hard times right before I left the asylum,” she added to Nanny, a wave of sadness washing over her. "I didn't realize how hard." What a thought – that Radcliffe had been the one to turn her nanny on to the business of debauchery. It had been shocking enough to seek her out after her release and discover the change in title from "Ms" to "Madam." The idea that she'd gone from looking after young ladies to – well, looking after "young ladies" so quickly was truly a disturbing one.
“I’m no drunk like her!” Nanny snapped, glaring as if she knew Alice’s thoughts – and Victor’s too, judging by the slightly pitying expression on his face. “I’m hurting no one! Hooking’s – not a bad life.”
Victor looked at her a moment, then raised a dubious eyebrow in Alice's direction. Alice returned it with a nod. "Oh yes – except for the pimps."
"Most aren't as bad as Splatter," Sharpe insisted. "Hell, if he hadn't come up on me so sudden, maybe–” She broke off with a huff. "Too late now. Just lucky to have my own skin still. Lost everything else."
Alice reached out toward her sympathetically. "I know exactly how that – Mr. Bunny!"
The gentle hand she'd intended abruptly became a terrified claw, latching onto Nanny's arm. "Witless said you might have my rabbit! Was it in your room when–” Oh God, had her precious toy been consumed by Splatter's rage? She'd cry herself a fresh pool of tears if it had. The mysterious photograph was nice to have around, but her rabbit – that had been a seventh birthday present from Lizzie. It was a reminder of spring days and silly books and darting down rabbit holes for the very first time. Having it around was as close to being with her family again as she could get. Though it had been a stalwart companion at Rutledge (except when Dr. Wilson was taking it away for "therapeutic reasons," the sod), she'd been rushed out of the asylum without it (and started her time at Houndsditch with a scream when she'd opened her suitcase and found it missing). For months she'd mourned the loss, wondering what had happened to it and if she'd ever see it again. And then Witless had implied someone close to her kept it hidden on their way up to the coups, and while she'd been almost immediately distracted by Wonderland, in the very back of her mind a tiny hope for a reunion had been born. Now, though – "Please, Nanny!"
Nanny jerked back, startled. "Calm down, my girl! Your rabbit ain't been burned up. I haven't seen fur nor stuffing of it since your days in the cell. Far as I know, Radcliffe's the one who's got the damned thing."
"Radcliffe?" Alice echoed. All right, Witless hadn't directly said it was Nanny, but. . .Radcliffe?
"Whatever for?" Victor asked, looking as baffled as Alice felt.
“Don’t ask me,” Nanny shrugged. “Not my place to wonder why. Maybe it’s some lawyer thing – part of the estate or some nonsense like that.” She patted Alice's shoulder. “Look, Alice, I can’t give you what I don’t have. I wasn't there the night it all went wrong, and me talking about it never seems to help. Radcliffe wrote the inquest report. I’ll take you to him – we’re headed that way anyhow. Pester him about it all."
Alice sighed. Really, the last thing she wanted to do upon surviving yet another fire was pay a visit to her family’s old solicitor. She and Radcliffe had never quite gotten on. He displayed an amiable enough face to most of the world, but Alice knew him best as the pompous, lazy git spouting things like "women shouldn't strain their minds with chess" and "I hardly think you're in a fit state to handle your own monetary affairs." Still, if bothering him again was her only hope of getting answers (and her rabbit). . . . “All right, but Mr. Radcliffe’s useless,” she muttered.
Nanny huffed and rolled her eyes. “Don’t I know it.”
"All right, folks, this is as far as I go! Kindly bugger off so I can unload."
The cart jerked to a stop in the middle of a little market square, not that dissimilar to the ones in Whitechapel but with some rather better-dressed customers. Past the gate at the far end, one could see a variety of pleasant-looking semi-Gothic buildings, kept clean and in good repair – a violent contrast to Houndsditch's ramshackle lane indeed. Quite appropriate that this is rather close to Limehouse, Alice thought as Nanny squeezed past her and Victor to disembark. This is our own personal version of East meets West.
As if to underscore the point, one of Nanny’s girls was lurking nearby, doing her best to attract the suits. "Here now, what brings you by this way?" she said as Nanny dropped to the cobbles with a thump. "I ain't due back for a couple hours yet."
"Figured I ought to tell you there ain't no back to go to," Nanny replied, taking a seat on a nearby crate. "Mermaid's nothing more than cinders."
Nanny nodded heavily. “Splatter’s doing. I hope you didn’t have anything important in your room.”
"We're very sorry about it all," Victor added as he got out. Turning to Alice and offering her his hand, he added, “Would you like me to accompany you to Mr. Radcliffe’s? It wouldn’t be any trouble, I a-cah, cah, hrrrk–” He bent over, pounded his chest a few times, then managed to straighten. "– assure you.”
Alice's eyes narrowed. "Oh no, I think it would be plenty of trouble," she said, hopping down. "You are going to see the doctor while I'm busying myself with the arse. You keep coughing on and off, and I don't like it at all."
"You and Madam Sharpe have coughed some too," Victor protested, wiping his forehead.
"Not like you have. I can't speak for Nanny, but I suspect I was too unconscious to swallow down the smoke like you must have." She took him by the arms. "I'm not in a mood to see you suffering just because I am. I still remember how badly you took the worst of the summer smog."
Victor tried to reply, but another cough got in the way. Alice gave him a firm stare. "All right, all right," he capitulated. "I just don't particularly l-like leaving you alone so soon after our reuniting."
"I'm not that fond of it either, but better to be separated for a bit than have to have you carried off to hospital because you collapsed inside Radcliffe's office," Alice replied. "Besides, if I bring you, I wouldn't get two words out before he demanded to know who you are. And then, once I introduced you, the conversation would immediately turn to whether or not you or your parents require a 'solicitor of expertise' or some nonsense like that. He doesn’t usually like clients, but he has a soft spot for those of high profile."
"I wouldn't call a fish cannery high profile. . . ."
"The busiest, most well-known in the country? I would. Believe me, he'd be all over you like a hyena on a bone. It’s best if I see him alone.” She put her hands on her hips, regarding him with a puzzled look. “Though while we're together, I really should ask – what were you doing by the docks anyway?”
“Searching for you,” Victor said, rubbing the back of his head. “You haven’t been back to the Home in almost a week, Alice – not since you left for the chemist. I've been up and down the entire East End trying to follow your trail. Billingsgate was one of my last resorts, in fact, I didn't actually think. . .I was so worried that I would find you t-terribly injured or. . . ." He gulped. "D-d-dead. . . .”
Alice grimaced. Oh, wasn’t this wonderful news. Not only had she been wandering blindly around London while she retrieved limbs from a rodent and fought the souls of lost sailors, probably risking her life dozens of times on the busy streets, she’d made it so Victor got even less sleep than was his wont. She’d thought the dark circles around his eyes looked bigger. “I’m sorry to have caused you so much grief,” she sighed, reaching up to brush his cheek. “If I could stop myself from wandering around in a daze when I drop into Wonderland, I would, believe me. It's not fun for me either. But I’m better now – at least, I’m reasonably certain I’m going to keep my head for a while. And even if I don't, Nanny's going to be here. Isn't that right, Nanny?”
“I'm not having you on, Mr. Stick over there really – huh? Oh, yeah. See no reason to leave right away,” Nanny confirmed, briefly looking up from her conversation. “I can keep an eye on her. Not like I don't have eight years' experience chasin' after her while she's imaginin' things.”
Alice laughed and turned back to Victor. “You see? I’ll be fine for however long this takes. You needn’t worry anymore.”
“All right, if you’re – if you're sure. . . .” Victor pulled his tie free from his waistcoat, unconsciously playing with the scorched fabric. “And I suppose I should report back to Dr. Bumby – it'll be nice to give him some good news for once. What should I tell him?”
Ah yes, that old sinner. Alice wasn’t looking forward to seeing him again. The lecture she'd get would likely rival her father's worst. Another reason to delay her arrival back at Houndsditch. “You can tell him that my head’s screwed on straight for the moment, I’ve gone to see my old family lawyer, and I’ll be back as soon as I’m able. By suppertime at the latest. Someone's got to cook, after all.”
Victor laughed faintly, then took her hand in his. “You promise?” he whispered, gripping it like he feared she’d vanish like spring snow if he let go.
Alice squeezed his fingers, giving him a smile. “Promise. I’ll do my best to avoid getting into any more trouble. And I expect you to do the same,” she added, poking him in the shoulder with her free hand. “No more running into burning buildings.”
“So long as you don’t get stuck in any more,” Victor replied. His tone was light, but the serious look in his eyes told her he was only mostly joking.
“I have no intentions of doing so,” Alice assured him, before tugging him forward into a quick hug. “Though while we’re on the subject, thank you for helping Nanny. And me.”
Victor smiled at her. She hadn’t realized until just this moment how much she’d missed seeing that. “I couldn’t leave you – either of you – alone in there. No matter what Jack Splatter tried to pull. You mean too much to me.”
How had the East End not chewed him up and spit him out already? Maybe getting dragged to the afterlife gave you mystical powers of survival. “It's nice to mean something to someone again," she admitted. "Trust me, I would have done the same for you.”
"I know you would," Victor said, making a motion like he wanted to run his fingers through her hair, but falling shy at the last moment. "We're best friends, right?"
There was that warm fluttery feeling again. Maybe he woke up the butterflies hidden in her flesh. Made as much sense as anything else. "Right." She stepped back and squeezed his hand again. “I’ll see you in a little while.”
“All right.” With obvious reluctance, Victor released her and stepped back. “Good luck with Mr. Radcliffe.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. “Good luck with Dr. Bumby – and Dr. Tewsbury, don't forget.”
“I'm going straight to him," Victor promised, clearing his throat. "Stay safe, Alice." With a final nod, he turned and headed back through the gate to Limehouse, fussing with his tie to make it neat again.
Alice watched him disappear past the ancient wooden doors, then turned herself in the direction of Radcliffe’s home on nearby Threadneedle Street. Before she could take a single step, however, Nanny waved at her from atop her crate. “'Cuse me a sec, Darla – Alice! Quick word.”
Puzzled, Alice went over. “Far be it from me to pry into another lady’s business,” Nanny said, leaning forward. “But if you have any sense in that head of yours, you’ll get that boy to marry you.”
Alice’s jaw dropped. Was Sharpe really suggesting – “Nanny!” she snapped, folding her arms. “I am not marrying someone just because he’s rich!”
“Rich? Yeah, sure, it's fantastic that he's the heir to the Van Dort fish empire, ain't no doubt about that, but that's just a bonus!” Nanny shook her head. “Are you completely blind, Alice? Victor’s smitten with you!”
"I saw the way he was lookin' at you," Darla added. "No wonder he never throws a pound our way."
Alice tried desperately to fight down the blush. "We haven't been – indulging, so to speak. He's a perfect gentleman."
"Yeah, well, met too many 'gentlemen' to believe he don't at least think about it."
"It ain't even that," Nanny said. "Fellow crashed right into the Mermaid – laid low Splatter – 'cause he was terrified you were gonna be hurt. Never even gave a thought to himself. I haven’t seen anyone that in love since – well, since your mum and dad, honestly."
Alice opened her mouth, then closed it again, struggling with what to say. Going against any opinion that involved her beloved parents felt like a betrayal of her last name. But. . . . “We’re just friends,” she managed at last, dropping her hands to her sides. “That’s all. Friends. We couldn’t be anything more.”
“Friends,” Nanny repeated, and sighed. “Well, you were always good at denying reality. But you keep my advice in mind," she added, waving a sausage-like finger. "Even if you don’t love him back, you can’t ask for a better fate than ending up a rich toff’s much-adored wife.”
“Right,” Alice said, walking away before she let slip just how disgusted that made her feel. Ugh. . .she supposed she couldn’t blame Nanny for trying to steer her toward a life better than either stuck in Houndsditch or selling her backside, but did she have to drag Victor into it? Victor deserved a lot better than anyone from the East End. Even – especially – her. She was lucky enough to have him as a friend – no sense in pushing it. And if I did marry him, I’d have to deal with his mother, she thought, grimacing. Even Nanny wouldn’t blame me for wanting to avoid that.
She shook her head, clearing it of the fluff. She wasn’t going to give this matter another thought. There were more important fish to fry. She turned and started off for Radcliffe’s at a jog. At least with him, I need only fear dull Oriental lectures!