Chapter 12: Not Quite Getting Back To Normal
September 16th, 1875
Whitechapel, London’s East End, England
What on earth are they doing in there?
Victor wrung his hands together as he paced the hall in front of Bumby's office. It's been almost an hour longer than one of her usual sessions, he thought, glancing at the closed door. What’s going on between them? Yes, all right, she's been gone for a week in Wonderland, but – do they have to be so quiet? He took a step closer to the door, then shook his head and pulled back. No, Victor, don't start eavesdropping. You don't want to turn into one of Madam Sharpe's lurkers. Not to mention the trouble I’d be in if I got caught. Although. . .is it really any worse than wearing a groove in the floorboards out here? Maybe I’m already a lurker. Perhaps I should go find something else to do. . .teatime's coming up, and we could all probably use a cup. . . . He looked down the hallway, then resumed his pacing with a sigh. Oh, we all know I wouldn't be able to concentrate. I'd probably burn myself on the kettle and make more trouble for everyone. Better to stay out here, even if it does make me a creeper. He worried his lip with his teeth. I hope she hasn’t had another episode – though I’m pretty sure I would have heard that regardless of where I was. Oh dear, I just want to stop worrying about her for five seconds!
Finally, just as he was wondering if he shouldn’t give in to the burgeoning madness and start literally climbing the walls, the door at last opened. Victor jerked to a stop as Alice stepped out. His friend looked – rather confused, to be honest. Eyes clear and focused, which was a good sign, but her mouth was pulled down in a puzzled frown, and she kept playing with a loose thread on her apron. "We'll try again tomorrow, all right?" Dr. Bumby's voice called after her.
"Yes, Doctor," Alice replied, before noticing Victor. "Oh, hello. Playing guard?"
"I suppose. . .I'm sorry, I just – you know how I am," he said, twisting his fingers into knots. "How’d it go in there?”
Alice closed the door, twirling the thread around her finger. “Odd," she replied, staring at the wallpaper. "Wonderland wouldn’t let me in.”
Victor blinked. That wasn't something he'd expected to hear. “Beg pardon?”
“Dr. Bumby put me under – though it took longer than usual this time; I kept getting distracted by thoughts of ‘I’ve seen this key of his before, I know I have,’ bloody brain – and we did the usual ‘go to Wonderland’ ‘I don’t really want to’ ‘go anyway’ business," Alice elaborated. "But once we were past that bit – well, typically, I'm suddenly in the barren wastes of the Land of Fire and Brimstone, or the fleshy underbelly of Queensland. You know, the usual horrors my imagination loves to inflict upon me. But today – nothing. No matter how much Dr. Bumby prodded, no matter how I tried – and I actually tried this time – Wonderland refused to pop up. I spent most of my session standing in a sea of featureless black, unable to find my way at all.”
“F-featureless black?” Cold slithered down Victor’s spine as a certain memory suddenly thrust itself back into his consciousness: “Just you, me, and the darkness. . .nothing more, nothing less. . . . You don’t like that? Why not? . . .Ah. Childish nightmares are some of the things we’re working on rejecting, Master Van Dort. Darkness always has its place. The golden mean is the ideal of life, and that means balancing light and dark. . . . Well then, why don’t you let me prove it to you? Tell me more about that dream of yours. . . .” And then – blackness and voices smothering and tearing and oh dear God make it stop –
The touch of fingers on his wrist nearly made him leap out of his skin. "Hey!" Alice said, eyes large with worry. "Don't you start going a million miles away now. We need you here."
"Sorry, I'm – I'm sorry," Victor mumbled, covering his face with his hand. Damn it, he thought he'd gotten over that session months ago. Why did he have to be so bloody afraid of that stupid dream? "I don't know why – you said that, and it just all suddenly came back and–"
"Ran you over like a Hansom cab?" Alice put in. Victor nodded. "Trust me, I understand. It wasn't until the end of my stay in Rutledge that I stopped retreating from the world whenever I heard the word 'fire.' Honestly, half the time I still feel like doing so." She traced circles over his veins with her thumb. "I could have put that better, I'm sorry."
"It's fine," Victor told her, taking a deep breath to steady himself. "You shouldn't worry about me."
"If you're going to work yourself into a tizzy over my mental health, I'll return the favor, thank you very much," Alice said, lifting her nose into the air in such a way Victor couldn't help but laugh. "But anyway – given what’s transpired over the last week, it’s rather peculiar, isn’t it? Every domain in Wonderland is being threatened with complete annihilation – you’d think it would want me to hurry back as fast as I can. I’m surprised it’s let me be lucid for this long. I barely lasted five minutes between Hatter's Domain and the Deluded Depths.” She looked back at the office door. “Dr. Bumby’s just as confused. I asked him what it meant that I couldn’t find my way back in, and he actually said he didn’t know.”
“Really?” This was serious. If there was any phrase Dr. Bumby hated, it was “I don’t know.” The good doctor liked to have an answer for everything. For him to actually confess to ignorance. . . . “It is a puzzle, though,” Victor commented. “Wonderland keeps you captive for about a week, allowing only the smallest glimpse of reality while you travel between realms – and then, after all that, when you actually want to return, it shuts and locks all the doors?”
Alice shrugged. “Don’t ask me to make sense of the place. Every time I try, I just end up with a headache. Usually because something's grabbed me and is chewing on it.”
Was it wrong to smile at that? Alice herself was smirking, so Victor guessed not. “Well, you did say last night you were determined to stay in the real world while awake – maybe it’s actually obeying you for a change,” he suggested. “I mean, it is your head. It ought to listen to you on occasion.”
“It should, but I doubt that’s the reason,” Alice sighed. “I think it’s more likely it only lets me in on its own terms. My first two visits, I just happened to stumble upon the right path into the world. And both the asylum trip and this last one were forced upon me.” She rolled her eyes. “I guess if Wonderland’s not dragging me in by my ear, it doesn’t want me around at all.”
“Hmph. You need an internal world that has more manners, Alice.”
“Don’t I know it.” Alice’s lips quirked up slightly. “Still, we have to consider the fact that this probably means no hallucinations or wandering off in a daze either. I doubt you want to go chasing me all over Whitechapel again.”
“Hardly,” Victor allowed, grimacing as he thought about pounding the pavement with his stomach knotted and feet aching. He patted her shoulder. “If we're lucky, this is actually a sign you're starting to improve again.”
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Counting chickens before they’ve hatched prevents one from making some decent omelets.”
“Perhaps – but someone’s got to have hope around here, and it may as well be me,” Victor declared, straightening up and doing his best to look serious and determined.
Alice giggled. “Well, thank you. Takes the burden off me.” She tilted her head and squinted at him. “Though, speaking of possibly seeing things – is it just me, or has your hair gotten longer?”
“Probably,” Victor confessed, feeling the back of his head. “I haven’t had a trim since I came here.” He gave her a half-smile. “As you might imagine, I’m reluctant to let anyone around Whitechapel near me with anything sharp.”
“Wise move,” Alice assured him, grinning. “But if you’re willing to trust me, I can probably snip off an inch or two for you.”
Something inside Victor whispered, What if she has an episode and thinks the scissors are her Vorpal Blade? Do you want to end up like old Mr. Clipper in the Land of the Dead?
Weren't we just discussing how Wonderland's mysteriously leaving her alone for the time being? Victor shot back, annoyed that such a thing would be his first thought. Looking at her smiling face revealed no signs of instability. Just friendliness – and, maybe, deep in her eyes, a desperate desire to be trusted. Even if she said she wouldn't take offense if I declined, it might deal a blow to our friendship. Besides, it’s just a trim.
Oh, like letting her go to Radcliffe’s was ‘just a visit?’ his internal voice snarked.
Be fair – the problem there didn’t stem from her going mad, now did it? Besides, my only other options are the shop around the corner, which I know charges twice as much as it should, or that Barker fellow on Fleet Street, who's nice enough, but – well, scissors in the head might be preferable to listening to him prattle on about how perfect his wife and daughter are. “I’d be much obliged, thank you.”
September 26th, 1875
Whitechapel, London’s East End, England
“Hey! Postman’s here!”
“What – oh! I’m coming!” Victor called back, setting down his quill. Leaving his sketch of an interesting knothole he'd found in his linen press on the bed, he hurried into the front foyer to find Elsie accepting a letter from the man in blue. “What have we got?” he asked, crouching down beside her as she closed the door.
Elsie glanced at the envelope, then smirked at him. “Somebody’s gonna have to take pills,” she sing-songed, waving it before him.
“What?” Victor made a grab for the letter. "Elsie, let me see!"
Elsie hopped backward. "Oh, no, no, it's for Doctor!" she said with mock indignation. "I should go give this to him right away!"
Victor's stomach abruptly did a cartwheel across his abdomen. "Oh no – it's my parents, isn't it?"
Elsie frowned. "Aww, you weren't supposed to guess!" She thrust the letter into his chest. "No fun now – you might as well read it."
"Thank you – I think," Victor said, taking the crumpled envelope and examining the front. His mother’s familiar hand stared back at him, neatly addressing the letter inside to one Dr. Angus Bumby. Victor swallowed a sudden anxious lump in his throat. With all the excitement over Alice's disappearance, he'd completely forgotten about the psychiatrist's threat of "radical treatments" for his own supposed delusions. Now the dread was back, sitting like a stone on his chest. Flipping the letter over, he stared at the seal, wondering if he dared break it. It is technically about me. . .but then again, do I even want to know what they’ve said?
“Victor? Is that the post?”
Victor’s head snapped up to see Dr. Bumby peering over his shoulder. How on earth did this man keep sneaking up on him? “Y-yes, it is,” he said, straightening up and reluctantly handing over the missive. “For you, sir.”
Dr. Bumby accepted it, smiling as he saw the return address. “Ah – at last,” he said, opening it. “I'd almost forgotten I'd written to them. Now, let’s see. . . .”
Victor lingered nearby as the doctor scanned the letter, rocking on his heels and squeezing his hands together to keep them from fidgeting. Elsie toyed with one of the figurines from the dollhouse, looking as impatient as he for the verdict. After an absolutely agonizing two minutes, Dr. Bumby finally looked up with a scowl. “Hmph. Apparently your parents are not as interested in your mental health as I had hoped.”
Victor’s heart leapt. They’d said no? His mother had actually said no? What wonderful madness had infected her? “May I see the letter?” he asked, as politely as possible.
Dr. Bumby sighed, but handed it over regardless, shaking his head. “You may as well – but be sure return it to me once you’re done. I’ll need it to craft an adequate reply.” He hit Victor with his most severe look. “And don’t start thinking of celebrating just yet. I will convince your parents yet that you need more powerful treatments. This is just a temporary setback on your road to wellness."
"You know, with all due respect, Dr. Bumby – even if they had said 'yes,' I'm under no obligation to obey," Victor said, feeling a familiar frustration crawl through his veins. "I'm twenty years old – by all rights, I should be out on my own anyway."
"A point on which we actually agree, Master Van Dort. But the sad fact is, you're not mentally healthy enough to be on your own."
"Sir, I've just walked the length and breadth of the East End searching for Alice!" Victor pointed out. "And come home in one piece! Surely that proves–"
"That you're an admirably loyal friend," Dr. Bumby cut him off, though he pronounced the word "loyal" as if it were a swear. "But Alice wandered those same streets in a hallucinatory fit and came home in one piece too – thank God, of course. I know you believe you're much more competent than you actually are, but for the time being, you’re still under my care, which makes me responsible for you." He glared at the young man. "Which also means I have permission to punish you if necessary.”
Victor gritted his teeth, hearing the letter crinkle as his fingers tightened on it. This was infuriating. Why was he still being treated as a third-class citizen? It wasn't like he was some drooling idiot sitting in the corner of a cell at Rutledge. He was a man who'd stared death in the face and come out the other side intact. A man who'd proven himself capable of taking on one of the biggest threats of Whitechapel when lives were on the line. Why couldn't anyone recognize that? Maybe I should invest some of my meager allowance into a punching bag, he thought irritably. I could pretend it’s everyone who doesn’t think I’m capable of surviving here after almost half a year.
However, saying that would just invite more trouble onto his head than he already had. Bumby was obviously not in a mood to listen. Best not to antagonize the beast. “I understand, sir,” he said with cold, careful control. “You'll have the letter back by supper.”
"Thank you." With a satisfied nod, Dr. Bumby went on his way.
Elsie peered at the wrinkled pages in Victor’s hand. “Huh! No pills?" she asked, trying to tug them free for a better look. "Your parents don’t care if you’re sick or not, do they?”
“Oh, I’m sure they do,” Victor said, leaning over the nearby table to smooth out the sheets. "Though you're right, it is odd that they wouldn't immediately leap to approve anything Bumby suggested for me." He picked up the first page and started to read. "Let's see. . . ."
The beginning wasn't very interesting – his mother's usual simpering toward anyone with any power over her. She started with thanking Dr. Bumby for all he was doing for their “recalcitrant son” and how she and her husband were just shocked there hadn’t been a turnaround yet. “I can't believe our Victor has turned out to be the rebellious sort! He was such a terrified little thing growing up – wouldn't sleep without a nightlight, wouldn't talk to strangers, wouldn't go near an animal except for his dog and butterflies. How people change! We’re terribly sorry for all the trouble he’s caused you, and deeply appreciate your patience with him. Where he found this stubborn streak, I have no idea. I’ll make sure you get a special bonus in your next cheque for putting up with him for so long.
"As to your suggestion about starting more radical treatments, I personally would love to authorize you to try anything and everything that brilliant mind of yours could devise to cure Victor. We’re all quite tired of him refusing to see sense. The trouble is my husband. Apparently my son gets his usually-weak nerves from William, I’m sad to say. I’ve always thought him an intelligent man, but he had a completely irrational fit of anxiety over the word “radical.” Said it sounded like you wanted to send our boy away to the madhouse. I told him time again that you probably didn't mean that – and even if it did, then it was only for Victor’s own good – but he just wouldn’t listen to reason! I knew the illness ran in his side of the family. . . .
"But don’t worry too much, Dr. Bumby. I sat him down for a good long talk the other day, and he’s not as opposed to your idea as I first feared. He wants our son to get well as much as I do, he claimed – he just doesn’t like the word ‘radical.’ He wants to know exactly what it is you plan to do to Victor to get his mind back in the proper order. I confess to my own curiosity on this subject – though not enough to stop you from whatever you have in mind – so if you could send us the details of your proposed treatment, that would go a long way toward settling my husband’s nerves and finally bringing an end to this unhappy affair.”
Victor breathed a quiet sigh of relief as he reached the "Yours sincerely, Mrs. Van Dort." Whew! Saved by the skin of my teeth, it looks like. Thank you for that moment of pause, Father! “It seems Dr. Bumby scared them a bit, that's all,” he reported to Elsie. “They don't mind me taking pills and the like, they just want to know what precisely he's planning on doing.”
"'Spe-cia-lized ther-a-py,'" Elsie said, carefully pronouncing each word. "That's what he'll tell them. It's what he tells everybody who asks what happens to us before we leave."
"I think my mother would require a rather more specific answer."
“To what?” Alice asked, entering the room. "And does it have anything to do with Dr. Bumby walking around looking as if his mustache has developed a bad smell?"
“Yes," Victor nodded, holding up the letter. "I never got a chance to tell you that Dr. Bumby threatened me with 'radical treatments' before, did I?"
"Um, no, that didn't come up," Alice said, paling. "He's not going to start stuffing those pills down your throat, is he? They've done bugger-all for me. And the last thing you need is extra sessions to fight with him."
“Not yet – I’ve gotten a reprieve, Alice," Victor assured her. "Mother was all for it, but Father’s nerves failed him.”
“Ah! Lucky,” Alice replied, brightening. “Though I'd bet five pounds that this is only temporary.”
“And win,” Victor confessed, glancing back down at the letter. “Like I said, Mother’s already given her blanket approval for anything Dr. Bumby might have in mind, and all Father wants is the details of the treatment. One more letter and enough hounding by Mother. . . .” He let out a sigh. “I heard a shoe factory a few streets over is looking for men. How do you rate my chances?”
“They wouldn't take mad people,” Elsie declared, shaking her head.
“Not even to sweep the floors? I know how to do that very well now!"
"Little one has a point, I’m afraid," Alice said with a sympathetic grumble. "The moment you came to live here, you were stained with the mark of insanity. And that’s a hard one to wash out. Especially with most of the East End drenched in rumors over your – 'appetites.'" Victor growled in the back of his throat. "If it makes you feel any better, people aren't likely to say it to your face these days, not after you put down Jack Splatter." She rubbed her arm. "I was quite lucky that Dr. Bumby was willing to take me on as a worker as well as a patient. You, I think, will have to be dependent upon your parents’ allowance and goodwill for a while more.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Victor muttered.
“Well, we’re always told we’re never given more burdens to shoulder than we’re able to bear,” Alice said philosophically. “Which is a load of horse–”
Her voice stopped mid-swear as her eyes abruptly latched onto the table. For a few moments, she and a lopsided stack of books held a staring contest. Then she scowled and wrenched her attention back to her friend. “Manure," she continued primly, folding her hands in front of her stomach. "Though I suppose it's comforting manure to those most burdened.”
Victor nodded. "Yes. . .are you all right?"
"Fine," Alice insisted, setting her jaw and staring hard at him. "Just fine." Despite her best efforts, though, her gaze slowly traveled back toward the books, as if drawn by magnets. “. . .I've an idea, how about we go for a walk? I need to pick up dinner anyway.”
“What’s on the table?” Elsie sing-songed again, grinning.
Alice gritted her teeth. “Nothing,” she growled, managing finally to pull her eyes away. “Nothing whatsoever.”
"Don't look like nothing."
"Well, it is," Victor said, fighting the urge to turn around and give the table a hard glare of his own. Oh dear – I’ve finally spent too much time listening to stories of Wonderland, haven't I? Though given these hallucinations nearly sent her to her death, I doubt anyone could blame me for being cross with them. . . . “And I’d be delighted to take a walk with you, Alice. Let me just return this letter to Dr. Bumby, and we’ll be off.”
Pure gratefulness suffused Alice's features. “Thank you.”
“Awww, don't pretend you're normal folks now,” Elsie complained, folding her arms. “Shoutin' at stuff nobody else can see is what you're best at! Come on, Victor, tell it it's being bad. You’re good at that, aren’t you?”
“He will do nothing of the sort," Alice said, turning pointedly away from the books. "We don't shout at invisible things around here anymore.”
Elsie pouted. “But it was so funny when he did it with the Boojum. Even you laughed.”
“That was – do you lot want me back in Rutledge?” Alice demanded, eyebrows low. “Perhaps I should yell at you to go away, if you're so eager to hear me scream.”
"Elsie, stop it," Victor scolded, shaking the letter at her. "You know better than to be a pest. Go find something else to do."
Elsie rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine. . .you two were better than Punch and Judy, once,” she muttered as she walked away. "Doctor ruins everything. . . ."
Victor waited until she was well out of the room, then put a hand on Alice’s shoulder. “You did say I was free to scold–” he started in a whisper.
Alice shook her head violently. “No," she hissed, waving her hand. "I know I said that, but – let's not even give it the pleasure of acknowledgment. It’ll only encourage the dratted things.” She turned toward the door in a swirl of skirts. "I just want to get out of the house and do something normal. Like everyone else for a change."
“You'll hear no objections from me.” Victor glanced at the letter, then tossed it onto the table and took Alice’s arm. "Dr. Bumby can find it well enough there. Let's go." And I hope I hit whatever it was she saw, he thought as they went outside. “So, what is on the menu for dinner?”
October 9th, 1875
Whitechapel, London’s East End, England
“Here you are. Thank you for your business, sir!”
“You’re welcome!” Victor replied, giving the salesman a cheerful nod as he accepted his cup. The thick white liquid inside glistened like cream – a very good sign, he thought as he moved out of the way of the next customer. Still, might as well make doubly sure. . . . He lifted the glass to his nose and sniffed.
Nothing – certainly no hint of the sinus-clearing sourness of rancid milk, or the slight mustiness of chalk in water. "I pronounce you safe," Victor informed the drink, wandering up the street looking for a quiet spot to enjoy it. "Which is more than I can say for that pudding man who lingers closer to Houndsditch. How he does any business when everyone knows he substitutes rat droppings for raisins is beyond me. . . ."
He found a relatively-clean bit of wall next to the mouth of one of Whitechapel's many alleyways and leaned against it, watching the crowds of people pass to and fro before him. It was lunchtime for many, and the street vendors were taking full advantage of the desire to fill an empty belly. They prowled up and down the sidewalks with battered metal trays or set up little folding tables on the streets, calling out their wares and all but dragging potential customers to have a taste. "Oysters! Fresh oysters here!"
"Bloaters, hot off the flame! Guaranteed from our own Thames!"
"A cup of rice milk for the wee laddie? It'll make ye grow up big and strong!"
"No, a boy like that needs a nice roasted trotter! Got 'em straight from the slaughterhouse this morning!"
"Get your ginger beer! Nothing like a good bottle of ginger beer on a warm day!"
"Meat pies! Sausage inna bun! Interest you in a little something to go with your milk, gov'nor?"
"No thank you, Mr. Dibbler," Victor quickly said, holding up a hand.
"You sure? Gave me tuppence once!"
Yes, before Alice could warn me off the "meat" you use, Victor thought, shaking his head. And unfortunately before I'd taken a bite and found out for myself! "I'm just fine with this, Mr. Dibbler."
A disappointed Dibbler turned away and started chasing after the next poor fool. Victor sighed and took a sip of his milk. He felt for the people who had to rely on those like Mr. Dibbler to survive. Whitechapel street food was the ultimate crapshoot. Half the meat was rotting off the bone, and seafood was likely to make a sudden reappearance on your shoes later in the day. Even something as innocuous as the supposedly-nutritious saloop was often in fact a stew of used tea leaves plucked from the middens. Alice and the children had bombarded him with horror stories after his encounter with Mr. Dibbler's supposed "pie," and he hadn't been able to stomach another bite of food all that day. Even after his appetite's voracious return the next morning, he'd steered clear of anyone selling anything "edible" for the rest of the month.
Eventually, though, having a few extra shillings in his pocket and a regularly-growling stomach to appease, he'd learned a few of the tricks and determined who was at least somewhat safe. The fruit stall in the market generally made an effort to keep their produce clean and fresh, and Alice had vouched for the local butcher's pork pies. You avoided the plum duff man like the plague, but his friend the treacle salesman was all right. And now, it seemed Victor could add Mr. Brown, with his pails of fresh donkey's milk, to the list. Which is good, because otherwise I might have died of thirst, he thought, running his fingers through his damp hair. I don't mind the brief return of a bit of summer heat, but it feels magnified tenfold after a morning of chasing children around the courtyard. I don’t think I’ve sweated this much since – well, since I ran into the Mangled Mermaid. I need to track down the addresses of my old governesses and write them apologies for my own wild moments when I was small. Whew! He took another sip, smiling as the cool creamy liquid coursed down his throat. Mmmm – this is quite good, actu–
Seemingly out of nowhere, a hand clamped onto his shoulder. Victor yelped as he was dragged abruptly into the alley, milk sloshing everywhere. "What – who do you–" he started, trying to twist free.
Victor froze. That voice – it wasn't supposed to be out on these streets, not for a good long while yet. “S-Sp-Splatter?” he whispered. “Aren’t – aren’t you s-supposed to be in gaol?”
“Finally got meself out,” Jack Splatter growled. What little of his face Victor could see by craning his neck was dark as thunder. “That bunter Annette finally dumped enough money into the chief’s coffers to let me off. Damn near twenty pounds! You got any idea how long it takes to squeeze that out of these skinflints? Good half my life savings!" His fingers tightened painfully, digging into Victor's skin. “And now I think I’m gonna take it back out of your arse.”
“Um – i-if it's all the same to you, I'd rather p-pay you properly,” Victor said, directing a weak smile over his shoulder. "You know, in c-cash." Oh dear, he hoped he didn't sound flip. He was perfectly happy to just hand over his entire wallet to the pimp if it meant getting out of here in one piece.
“Ain’t all the same to me,” Splatter responded, coming back with a glare. “You know they talked about wanting to hang me? Over Long Tim? What a crock! I ain't gonna dance the hemp fandango for a shitter like him. But worse than that was everybody laughin' at me! Seemed to think our little tiff was the biggest joke in the world!" He leaned up close, eyes wild. "Even the pigs were in on it! ‘That swell nobbled Splatter’ – well, that swell’s gonna see what Jack Splatter’s made of now!”
Damn it! Victor thought, his insides trying to curl up on themselves. Why didn't I take Madam Sharpe and Officer Hightopp's comments more seriously? Though I didn't think I'd be encountering him again this soon. . .time to see if I can get lucky twice! Wrenching out of Splatter's grip, he threw away his cup (hopefully Mr. Brown wouldn't mind the loss too much), then whirled around, aiming a milk-soaked fist right at the pimp's nose.
Unfortunately, this time Splatter had anticipated such a move. He sidestepped the punch, then rammed his own fist into Victor's jaw as the young man stumbled. A shockwave of pain shot through Victor's skull as he struggled to keep his balance. Ow! Still, could have been worse – And then Splatter’s sharp-toed shoe slammed into his right leg. Like that.
Splatter laughed as Victor just barely caught himself on the wall, clutching at his injured shin. “Don’t like it when it’s you on the other end of the hit, do you, you blooming toff?” he said. “Well, you’re gonna like this even less.” A large meat cleaver appeared in his hand, its blade stained rust-red with old blood. “Don’t worry, though – filthy rich boy like yourself can live without a few fingers, right?”
Victor’s heart nearly stopped beating. No – no no no no! he thought wildly, pressing himself flat against the wall, hands tucked behind his back. Have to get out of here, I have to get out of here! His eyes flicked toward the alley entrance, just a few precious feet away. If he could just make a dash for it and lose himself in the crowd. . .but his leg was throbbing like mad. If he tried to run now, he'd probably end up as a heap on the ground. Which is likely why he kicked me. And I think he stuffed part of a brick or something in the toe, he thought, wincing at a fresh pulse of pain. Should it really hurt this badly? Oh, but I've got to try. . . .
“Thinkin' of running?” Splatter taunted, following his gaze. “Ain't like anybody out there's gonna give tuppence 'bout you. Hell, halfa them would just throw you back in!” Splatter’s hand darted out and caught Victor’s arm. “Not like I'm gonna let you loose anyway,” he added, dragging the young man further back and spinning them around so he stood in the alley's mouth. Victor tripped and fell from the force of the sudden turn, yelping as his shoulder crashed against the cobbles. “Your neck's pretty thin. . .could probably whack it off with one slice. Or maybe I'll start with the shoulders, butcher ya like a hog. . . .”
Victor forced himself back to his feet as Splatter began advancing. Half his body was screaming in pain now, and his stomach was attempting to shove breakfast back up his throat. But he refused to just give up and let this perverted pimp turn him into a pile of long pork chops. He backed up a few paces, and hit a solid stone wall. Just his luck this confrontation would take place in a dead-end. . . . His eyes darted left and right. Heavy brick surrounded him on both sides, and getting past Splatter to freedom was an impossibility in his state. There just wasn’t anywhere to go!
Except. . . .
Quick as a wink, Victor lurched right, grabbed onto the wall, and started climbing. His sensitive fingers, quite familiar with this sort of situation (though Gordon Tannen had never been even half as dangerous), promptly alerted him to every useful crack and handhold. Within minutes, he was already a good quarter of the way up the aged brick. His bruised leg and shoulder protested angrily as he pushed himself farther toward the sky, but he ignored them. Better to suffer a little pain now than to die on the cobbles – or worse, be forced to give up his precious piano for life.
Splatter froze at Victor's sudden action, unable to comprehend for a moment what was happening. “What the hell are you – hey, get back here!” He snatched at the young man’s ankle, but Victor kicked him off and soon ascended out of reach. Splatter jumped a few times, trying to snag his foot. “You think it’s that easy to get away from me, swell?”
I certainly hope it is! Victor thought, glancing down at the pimp. He took a brief breather, clinging to the wall like a spider, before continuing his climb. Come on, come on. . . .
“You–” Splatter attempted to follow him up the wall, but it soon became apparent he hadn't spent his childhood regularly racing up the nearest tall object like Victor had. It was only moments before his calloused hands betrayed him, and he thumped back onto the ground. "Son of a bitch!" he roared, striking the wall with his cleaver in frustration. A shower of sparks leapt from the blade. “I ain’t losing to no swell! Go on, just try to give me the slip! See you up top, wanker!”
With that, the pimp vanished from the alley, eyes full of rage-induced determination. Victor pressed himself against the wall, breathing heavily. Right. Okay then. One, two, three, four, five. . . .
He stayed where he was until he'd hit sixty twice, figuring that gave Splatter just enough time to force his way into the building and maybe even start up the stairs. Then, teeth gritted against the pain, he carefully descended. His hands slipped a couple of times, and his leg gave out from under him once he made it back to the cobbles, but Victor dragged himself back upright and limped off as fast as he could. Please, please, let him be too angry or too dim to realize the trick!
Luck was with him this time – Splatter was indeed one or the other, and he made it to the safety of the Home unmolested. Better yet, Alice was outside, sweeping the front step. She glanced up as he sagged against the front gate, then did a double take. “Victor!" she cried, dropping the broom. "What–”
“Splatter,” Victor said, rubbing his jaw. Oh yes – he’d be sporting some nice bruises for a while. And his leg probably wasn't going to forgive him anytime soon. “Looking for a bit of revenge. He was planning much worse, but I managed to get away.”
“I can see that.” Alice took his chin, examining the purpling flesh, then slipped his arm around her shoulders. “Let's get you inside, and I'll fetch Dr. Tewsbury. Who is probably not going to be overly impressed with you, I might add."
"I'll live," Victor muttered as she helped him down the little path.
"Well, yes, that's his job." Alice paused before opening the door. "So – still worth knocking Splatter on his arse?”
Victor thought. His jaw, shoulder, and leg bombarded him with furious complaints, backed up by lingering nausea and terror. . .but then, just for a moment, he was back in front of the Mermaid, knuckles throbbing as bone cracked against bone and the pimp was sent flying. “That swell just nobbled Splatter!” echoed in his ears, followed shortly by, “I say if someone like that could lay a finger on him, he's losin' his touch,” and “Seemed to think our little tiff was the biggest joke in the world!” And, despite everything, he'd just proved the bastard a fool yet again and lived. He grinned at her, ignoring the pain. “Yes. Yes it was.”
October 16th, 1875
Whitechapel, London’s East End, England
“That is it!”
Victor jumped, dropping his quill as the shout echoed down to his room. “I am trying to get on with a normal life, you know!” Alice's infuriated voice continued. Abandoning his sketch, Victor tracked it to the front foyer. Poking his head around the doorway revealed his friend glaring, arms folded tight, at the table – or, rather, at a point a couple of feet above it. “Or are you lot determined that I see the inside of a madhouse again?”
Ah. Victor sighed, then rounded the frame to join her. “Who is it?”
Alice glanced at him, face scrunched up in a scowl. “The Cheshire Cat,” she growled, grinding her teeth together. “Asking me why I’m wallowing in Whitechapel when there’s things to do. As if I'm not busy enough here.”
Victor put a comforting hand on her shoulder, then frowned at the spot where he guessed, in Alice’s mind, the Cat sat. "Want me to try?"
"Please. They seem to actually listen to you."
He nodded and shook a finger at the empty air. “Look, she’s had a very trying time of it over the past few weeks – and it’s not like Wonderland is being all that welcoming,” he scolded. “How many attempted visits during her sessions have you refused? If you're not going to let her in, can’t you just leave her be?”
The table provided no answer – at least, not to his ears. “He says that, if he had his way, he’d be lying by a warm hearth with a full belly,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. “But circumstances forbid." She put her hands on her hips with a sniff. "You know, I bet the Duchess would take you back, mangy old thing. You’re too thin for her to even consider for the stewpot.” A pause. “No, you do not have more meat on your bones than Victor – and he’s not ‘tall, dark, and dead-looking.’ According to him, dead people are blue.”
Victor sighed again as Alice continued arguing with the imaginary creature. And she was trying so hard, too, he thought, rubbing his forehead right between his eyes. I mean, you could tell she was still seeing things, the way she started at shadows and frowned at empty windows, but she'd kept herself from talking to any of them. I wonder what snapped inside her today?
"My not liking Dr. Bumby's therapy is no reason for you not to attend! If I make the effort to keep going, you can too. Don't give me that 'cats will do as they please,' Dinah and her kittens were never this ill-tempered."
Ah, right. She had a particularly miserable session yesterday, didn't she? And Dr. Bumby is still forcing her to take those pills. . . . Maybe I should be wondering why she didn't start yelling at empty tables earlier. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked her, gesturing vaguely at the table.
“Not unless you know how to make a Cat who is thinner than your average skeleton stop pestering me about it being the time to reenter Wonderland,” Alice responded, flicking a stray lock of hair out of her eyes.
“Well. . .I do know the way to Billingsgate very well now. Or if he'd be satisfied with tinned fish, there's plenty at the local market.”
Her bad mood lifted slightly as she giggled. “Unfortunately, he’s not the type to be tempted by food. He eats little enough as it is.”
“Probably a survival tactic when dealing with the Duchess.” Victor rubbed his chin, a sudden thought striking him. “Why is he the one who’s pestering you, though? You’re late, you’re late – isn’t this more the White Rabbit’s job?”
“It is, isn’t it? Where is Rabbit?” Alice asked the table, arching an eyebrow. “Did he really die on that river? I hope not, it was hard enough the first time he – passed away. . . .” She tilted her head toward the answer only she could hear, then groaned. “Yes, that would be the case. . . .”
“What?” Victor inquired, puzzled.
"He said that it’s up to me whether Rabbit’s dead or not, and if I want to know for sure, I ought to go fetch him.” She massaged her temples. “Which means Radcliffe’s again." She glanced out the window. "Well, it’s been a month – perhaps we can talk a bit more civilly. I won’t even mention the fire this time. I’ll just beg for my toy.”
“You’re sure you want to go back?” Victor had to ask. “After the mess last time?”
“I want my rabbit,” Alice said, looking up at him with tired eyes. “I never meant to lose him in the first place. Maybe if I get him, some of the hallucinations will stop. And even if they don’t, at least I’ll have something to hug when they upset me.” Her lips twitched upward. “Well, besides you.”
Victor smiled back. “Well, I may not be as soft as Rabbit, but I’m always available." His hands found his tie and gave it a tug. “However, I'm going to have to insist on accompanying you this time. I haven't swallowed a houseful's worth of smoke to stop me – and if Radcliffe does get distracted by me being nouveau riche, as you predicted, well, maybe it's for the best. I could keep him talking while you searched for your doll.”
“I don't think that would work very well. . .but you’re right, you should come along,” Alice agreed, grabbing one of his hands and swinging it between them. “I don't fancy either making a scene or having an episode – at least, not without someone there to pull me back from the worst of it.”
“Me either,” Victor said, the ghost of a familiar twinge in his legs as he thought back to September's little adventure. “Shall we go now, then? Fetch your poor White Rabbit back to Wonderland where he belongs?”
“I'm in favor – and it seems Cheshire is too," Alice said, eyes following the invisible creature to the door. "Not quite complete without him there. Let's go.”
The day was typical of most days in London – overcast and gloomy, with a hint of rain in the air. Victor studied the mass of cloud with a frown. "Should I duck back in and get your umbrella?"
"No, it's not supposed to do anything," Alice replied, tugging him forward. "Besides, if that umbrella's in any shape to keep out the weather after I beat it to death against my wardrobe, I'd be surprised."
"Fair enough," Victor admitted, then grinned. "Too bad you can't summon that lovely parasol you keep with you in Wonderland. You could send all the rain springing back up into the clouds."
"Which I don't think anyone behind us would appreciate, as it would just rain all the harder on them." Alice worked out a knot in her hair as they proceeded in the general direction of Threadneedle Street. “I should thank you," she added, apropos of nothing.
"Lots of things, but currently for being such a good sport about all this,” she clarified, tossing her head and sending her tangled waves tumbling. “Me wandering about, getting into trouble, and rambling on. . .even Nanny's tired of my stories of Wonderland by this time. You are shockingly tolerant.”
“How can I not be? You weave such fantastic tales,” Victor replied.
"That almost never make any sense. You've remarked on that yourself."
“Maybe they don't, but I still love to hear about all of the domains, and the creatures within them. If you were the author of a penny dreadful, I'd have snapped up the whole collection.” He nudged her gently. “Besides, you put up with my talk of the Land of the Dead.”
“Take what you just said and reverse it,” Alice grinned. “It's a wonderful afterlife, and I'd like to be a part of it someday. When I'm about 80 or so, preferably, but. . . ." She wrinkled her nose. "I confess, though, that I still find it gruesome they’ll eat each other’s body parts.”
“Trust me, I understand completely. I confess I still have a hard time picturing what exactly a Boojum is,” Victor said with a sheepish look. “Even having yelled at one once.”
“It's rather hard to put them into words. If the Insane Children ever relinquish my art skills, I’ll draw you a picture for a change.”
“I'll look forward to it. But really, Alice, I don't need to understand everything you say to love the world," he continued. “I wish I had a Wonderland like yours.”
“What, trying to kill you at every moment? Then again, in your mind, death is hardly the worst that could happen to a person.”
"You know what I mean – something like the Vale of Tears at its best." Victor tilted his head toward the sky as he tried to picture knotted, shady trees and mushrooms as big as dinner tables popping out of a carpet of lush green grass. "Though I probably would end up sticking bits of Below into it. Simply for the colors."
"Your ideal world would be one covered with blotches of bright paint, wouldn't it? Makes one wonder why you work in black and white so of–"
“Merow. . . .”
Alice’s head snapped forward. “You again!”
“What?” Victor said, blinking as he tried to keep up.
"Remember how I told you I followed a furry creature down a dark hole to begin my journey?" Alice pointed. A few paces before them, a white cat sat on the cobbles, grooming itself with its tongue. “Well, there it is, large as life and twice as natural!”
Victor squinted at it. "The one who led you to Witless?"
"Yes! And it was on the Billingsgate dock when I was pulled from the water!"
“Really? I never saw it.”
“Well, it ran off when I tried to approach it. . .what do you want this time, puss?” Alice asked the creature, hands on her hips.
The cat finished licking its tail, then padded over to them. Victor watched as it began winding itself around his legs, purr rumbling through his shins. “Well, it seems to like me,” he commented, bending down to give it a few strokes.
Alice snorted like a bull. “Hmph. That's hardly fair, puss. All this time I’ve spent chasing you, and you choose him to lavish affection on?” She shook her finger at the feline. “Naughty cat.”
The cat blinked at her, bright yellow eyes full of innocence. Then it walked away from the pair, tail held high with the tip twitching. As it reached the intersection, it stopped and gave them a very demanding stare. Alice shook her head. “Oh no," she said, taking Victor's hand again. "Unless you’re going to Radcliffe’s–”
Victor's heart jumped in terror and missed a few beats. “Damn it. . . ." He whirled toward the nearest alley, dragging Alice with him as he prepared to set a new record for the one-mile sprint.
It was too late, though – Jack Splatter's fingers were already digging into his arm, and a meaty crony the size of a small privy (and smelling much the same too) was dragging Alice away from him. Alice kicked and squirmed as they clung together, to no avail. "Leave her alone!" he cried as the animate side of beef finally pulled their hands apart.
"Don't worry, cannery king," Splatter smirked as Alice's arms were pinned behind her back. "I got gentle plans for her." He seized Victor's wrist, squeezing so hard Victor was stunned he didn't hear a snap. “You, on the other hand. . .well, you ain't gonna have one of those soon," he continued, drawing a wicked-looking knife.
“Monstrous creature! Let him be!” Alice yelled, twisting in her captor's grip.
“Or you’ll do what?” Splatter asked with a mocking smile. “Set that cheese-cat yer always yapping to on me?" Victor attempted to free himself, only to nearly end up on his knees as the pimp yanked him forward. "Do better to shut your mouth. I could be a gentleman with you, just for laughs. . .or I could make it so you end up like that bloated Nan of yours.”
Rage clouded Victor's vision. “You touch her and I'll–” he started, making a lunge for the knife.
Splatter pulled it out of reach and kneed him in the stomach. “That bit don't concern you,” he informed Victor as the young man gasped for air. “I just want her to see what happens to those who hurt me feelings. Seems she didn’t get the message last time.” He raised the blade high. "No funny business now, Can Dort – I always get what I’m owed!”
A blur of white rocketed into Splatter’s face, all teeth and claws and mindless rage. The pimp screamed in surprise and pain, releasing Victor’s wrist and dropping the knife as he flailed at the monster attacking him. "GAH! AGH! OW! GERROFF!"
Victor dropped to his hands and knees, trembling over his near escape. Oh God, too close, too close. . . . Spotting the knife near him, he snatched it up and scrambled back to his feet. What on earth saved – is that the cat?!
It was indeed, clinging to the top of Splatter's head and raking at his nose like it was a particularly stubborn mouse. Splatter whirled in circles as he tried to dislodge it, blood gushing down his face. "Shit! Donny, get this damn thing off me!"
"But you said I has to hold GEEEUNNNGH!"
The crony stumbled as a black-shoed foot nailed him straight in the crotch. Alice followed up with an elbow to his pig-like snout, before grabbing Victor's wrist and dragging him down the street. "I think we've reached the point where this is no longer worth the pleasure of having knocked him on his arse!" she shouted.
“I thought he’d be in gaol for longer!” Victor shouted back, finally getting his legs into the same rhythm as hers. “Trust me, I don’t want to deal with this every time I step outside either!”
A streak of snowy fur passed between them, the cat apparently having tired of using Splatter as a scratching post. It slammed itself into the side of Victor’s leg as it ran by, almost knocking him over. “Ow! What the–”
The cat fixed its yellow eyes on his face, meowing commandingly. Then it cut in front of him and ran right, down a nearby alley. Victor slowed to a stop from pure confusion. “Why–”
Alice paused too, a strange look on her face. She glanced at Victor, then at the still-recovering men behind them, then finally down both sides of the intersection. Then she put on a determined frown and nodded. “Follow it.”
“Follow it! Jack's more interested in you than me, and I bet the cat knows it – and knows a good place to hide! I’ll go on to Radcliffe’s – I'll be safe enough in the West End.”
"You've got to get there first!"
"Don't worry about me! I can look after my own skin." She darted down the left-hand way, waving at him. “Go! I’ll meet you on Threadneedle Street – and I promise I won’t stir from Radcliffe’s house until you get there!”
"Alice!" Victor started, but strong, angry footsteps behind him made him realize he didn’t have any other choice. Keeping a tight grip on the knife (if Splatter caught up, maybe he could fend him off with a jab to the ribs), he darted after the cat.
It was waiting with surprising patience at the end of the alley, but took off again the moment it saw him. Victor pursued it through a maze of cobbles and brick, doing his best to keep it in sight despite sharp turns and the occasional loose shirt flapping down from the sky. Splatter and Donny's footsteps soon faded away, but he didn't dare stop running. Who knew what dark, secluded spot they would pop out of next?
Finally, the cat popped out onto another busy street, zipping across the road and into a tiny gap between a cheese shop and a bookstore. Victor dodged around a cabbie and his horse and squeezed in after the feline. "Ooh. . .oooh. . .w-well, he certainly can't get me in here," he panted, pressing his back against the cheese shop's creaking wood. "B-barely bigger than a rathole. . . ." He raised a hand to his forehead, closing his eyes. "Things really s-shouldn't be so difficult. . .and I so didn’t want us to get separated again. . .ow!”
He looked down to see the cat climbing up his side, claws pricking through his trousers into his flesh. It settled on his shoulder and rubbed its cheek against his, purring. Victor frowned. “You’re an awfully intelligent and tricky feline," he noted. "Almost like Alice’s descriptions of the Cheshire Cat. Though you’re rather plain to be his London disguise.”
The cat blinked at him, cocking its head to the side. Victor’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps I’ve gone among mad people too long. But – if you are Cheshire in some way, shape, or form–" He lightly poked the cat's nose. "I’m blaming you if she’s not at Radcliffe’s.”
The cat mewed and jumped off, taking up guard at the mouth of the gap. Victor turned his gaze to the grey sky, waiting for Splatter and his hired meat to pass him by. Definitely looks like rain now. . .how do I keep getting into these situations? Ugh. . . . He let his head thunk against the wall. Please, please, please, he begged whoever might be listening. Don’t let this turn into a repeat of the last time she left me behind!