Chapter 14: Not A Child (Ignore The Toy)
October 16th, 1875
Threadneedle Street, London’s West End, England
“Here you are, sir! Threadneedle Street!”
Victor, in the middle of a particularly tight tie-twisting, sighed in relief. “At last. . .thank you very much,” he said, hopping out of the cab. "How much do I owe you?"
"Ain't a regular route, so we'll go by time, which is two shillings," the cabbie told him, leaning down to receive his money.
Victor handed him three. "For getting me here so quickly," he said with a small smile. “Have a good day now.”
“Oh, you too, sir, you too!” the cabbie said, grinning as he stuffed fare and tip into the inner pocket of his jacket. He cracked the reins. “Come on, Flutter, back to Charing Cross! Lots of other people looking to go places!”
Flutter tossed her mane and trotted off down the street. Victor watched them go, then turned around, looking up and down the rows of grand houses. It was funny to think that Threadneedle wasn’t particularly far from where the West End of London bumped up against the East. Already it seemed like another world – men in fine suits and women in tailored dresses; houses sporting sparking windows and well-kept flower boxes; and a distinct lack of trash on the streets. This was the London he'd been familiar with as a boy, when Mother had dragged him and Father into the city to be a part of the Season. She must wish Houndsditch was located in a neighborhood like this, he thought as he started along the sidewalk. I can’t say I blame her. . .heh, I almost wish I had her here with me. She’d certainly keep Radcliffe busy while Alice and I searched for Mr. Bunny. Talk the poor man’s ear off, no doubt. He’d probably give us the toy just so as he wouldn’t have to listen to her anymore! Then again, maybe they’d get on. Judging by Alice's stories, he and Mother are peas in a pod, at least when it comes to collecting fancy things to show off. And she’s said before he likes rich clients. One hand stroked his chin. I wonder. . .if I promised to speak to my parents on his behalf, might that be a fair trade for her rabbit? It's worth a try, anyway. . .so long as Alice hasn't soaked him in ink again.
Thinking that finally convinced him to do something he hadn't particularly wanted to do – check the time. He flipped open his pocketwatch, then grimaced and rubbed the back of his head. Oh God, I'm at least an hour late. . . . Damn you Jack Splatter! If you hadn't been such a persistent son of a– He sighed heavily. And that 'Cheshire Cat' of course ran off once the coast was clear rather than help me any further. At least that cab got me here quicker than walking – and saved me from having to look over my shoulder every five minutes. But if I starting taking them everywhere, I'll exhaust what little savings I have – and I need them all if I'm to pay Splatter in anything but my own flesh. Ugh, yet another problem to solve. . . .
He examined each house he passed, searching for any indication that it was the one he wanted. Finally, at the end of the road, he came upon a large dark townhouse ringed by a high iron fence, as seemed to be the custom in London. A weathered sign attached to said fence proclaimed it to be the residence of “Wilton J. Radcliffe, LL. B – Soliciter?” Victor sniggered. "That can't be helpful to his reputation." Shaking his head that such a large error could have gone unnoticed, he pushed open the gate and made his way up to the front door.
A speaker box mounted on the frame immediately caught his eye. Well, that was the very latest, wasn’t it – being able to greet your guests from the comfort of your own quarters? Mother would be terribly jealous if she knew. Hopefully Alice has already told him to expect me. He knocked twice, as loud as he could. “Excuse me?”
No answer. Victor knocked again. “Mr. Radcliffe? Sir?”
“You’re wasting your time there, guv’nor.”
Victor blinked and turned his head. One of the city’s various workmen was standing behind him at the gate, albeit in a cleaner shirt than was usual of his kind. “Radcliffe buggered off about a month ago,” he continued. “Said he was sick of the city and had to get away. I helped him move out all that Chinese and Japanese junk he owns. Insisted it was priceless – peh.” The man spat. “Just means it’s too posh to actually use.”
“Yes, I know,” Victor said on automatic as his mind scrambled to process this new information. “I'm sorry, you said he left?”
“Yup – off to the country, only I heard that the house ain't quite finished, so he’s stuck up in one of them fancy hotels for now.” The man smirked and snapped a suspender. “Serves him right for treating me and Larry like common working nags. You one of his clients?”
Well, didn't this just figure. “No, actually,” Victor said, shaking his head. “My friend Alice – Alice!”
He whirled in a circle, his guts leaping into his throat. There was no sign of her anywhere. He grabbed the door handle and started yanking with all his might. "Alice! Alice!"
“Ain’t gettin’ in that way – he had us board it up,” the man informed him, arching a thick eyebrow. “Keep out the ‘riff-raff.’ What’s got you in such a snit?”
“She’s supposed to be here!” Victor cried, knowing it would make no sense to the stranger and not caring. “She promised she wouldn’t stir from this place until I arrived! If she's not here, then – I don't – she might – Alice!” He gave the door a kick, which only succeeded in making his foot sore. "Is there any other way inside? A – a window he might have neglected?"
"Uh – we left the back door clear so we could get out after all was said 'n done. . .don't know if Larry ever bothered to block it up," the man admitted, frowning at him. "But why would this 'Alice' of yours – hey, I'm askin' you somethin'!"
Victor didn't pay him any mind, darting around to the rear of the house. There wasn't much to it – just a brick square dotted with sickly-looking trees, leading off into a little lane between what looked like some offices. He spun around again, searching for any clue to his belov – best friend’s whereabouts. One of these days I'll break that habit. . . .
No hints presented themselves in the square itself – but as he finished his mad twirling, he saw that the back door was not only open, but hanging wide. Victor stumbled to a stop and flung himself inside. “Alice? Are you here?”
Musty silence greeted him. Victor ventured a little farther into the narrow hallway, coughing slightly as his feet stirred up dust. The house was in a miserable state – wallpaper hanging off in strips, gas fixtures jutting out in bare pipes, and aged boards covering anything that even hinted that it might open up to the outside. Victor pulled out his handkerchief and sneezed into it. "You'd think this place had been abandoned for a year, not a month."
His foot thunked against something, and he looked down to see a bottle rolling away from him, picking up a thin layer of grime from the gray coating the floor. Victor wrinkled his nose. The dirt was thick and clingy – already his shoes looked like he hadn't polished them in a fortnight. Glancing behind him revealed his footprints shadowing him into the house –
Mixed and muddled with a set that looked suspiciously similar to Alice's shoes.
Hope flared up anew in his heart as he dropped to his knees to better examine the prints. They were badly smudged, but he could trace them going down the hall and around the bend. So maybe she is still here? I hope she hasn't hurt herself. . . . Crossing his fingers for luck, Victor followed the trail.
Straight into an elderly man holding half a bottle.
The pair bounced off each other in their surprise. The squatter recovered first, swinging his makeshift weapon in front of him protectively. "Here now, fuckin' cock, what're ya doin' here?" he slurred, breath reeking of whiskey.
Victor held up his hands placatingly. It wouldn't do to escape Jack Splatter only to be stuck by a random homeless person. "I'm not with the police! I'm just looking for someone."
"Suuuuure. You ain't gonna have my stash! Buy yer own!" the man snapped, the jagged edge of the bottle tracing figure eights in the air as he swayed. "I found thish place fair and shquare. Mine!"
"I'm not interested in your 'stash,' I promise," Victor said, faintly nauseated. "Just tell me – have you seen a young lady? Dark hair to her shoulders, bright green eyes, wearing a black-and-white dress?" He gulped. "P-possibly talking to thin air?"
"Lady?" The man somehow managed to stand still for a moment as he thought. "Nah, ain't seen no lady. . . ." A lecherous smile broke through the massive bush of his beard. "Wish I had, though. Been ages shince I afford a bird."
"She is not a bloody prostitute!"
The squatter stumbled backward, hitting the wall in an explosion of dust. Something living in the wainscoting squeaked and ran away. Victor closed his eyes as he mastered his emotions. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm a little tense." He rubbed his face before looking at the man again. "I just want leave to look around the house for a bit. I'll be out of your hair in less than five minutes, I'm sure."
The squatter nodded, then darted into one of the rooms, slamming the door closed behind him. Victor pinched the bridge of his nose, guilt flooding him. Ugh, what was he doing? Shouting at Nurse Witless was one thing – she was a genuinely rotten person. But this fellow – he was just trying to survive in the only way he knew how. I just wish not every man I asked about her would comment about how they'd love to get up her skirt, he thought, gritting his teeth. Everyone here is obsessed with either – 'relations,' violence, or both at once. And I'm turning into one of them, if that was any indication. I mustn't let my temper get so short. The last thing I need is more people trying to turn me into a Lovett meat pie. Dropping a sixpence by the man's door in apology, he turned into the main hall and scanned the floor, hopping against hope that the squatter had simply missed his friend.
But no – one look at the dust proved his moment of optimism had been misguided. While the homeless man's own unsteady feet muddied the trails a bit, there were clearly two sets of Alice prints on the boards – one heading into the house, and one heading out. They crisscrossed at a couple of spots, resulting in the smudged tracks he’d followed inside. Oh, for – Alice, you promised. . . .
Still, this was his best clue for figuring out what had happened while he’d been busy avoiding Splatter and flagging down his cab. Victor walked along the set that led deeper into the house, preparing himself for the worst. Down the hall – a large muddle of prints heading to and from the front door – up the stairs – a brief pause on the landing – up again – and then down the second-floor hall straight to what Victor assumed from the abandoned desk would have been Radcliffe's office. Here the interior tracks terminated in a huge clear blotch on the floor, as if their owner had abruptly decided the boards were the perfect place for a nap. Suppose that could have been left by the man downstairs. . .but I shouldn't try to fool myself. She came inside, made a search, was probably overwhelmed by Radcliffe having vanished so completely, fainted – and then her hallucinations got the better of her once more, and off she went again. "Bloody–"
Vile words picked up through months of wandering through Whitechapel markets started piling up on his lips. Victor choked them back and instead relieved his feelings by kicking over a nearby stack of books. This would happen! I should have never let her out of my sight! She's probably completely forgotten that I nearly – no, no, stop that. It's not really her fault, you know that. She held out the best she could – she made it here, didn't she? Splatter's the one to blame, jumping on us like that and insisting on involving her. . .or that damned cat! If I'd gone my own way, I might have found a hiding spot closer to here and maybe been able to catch her! But no, I had to trust the judgment of a half-starved alley creature. . .ugh. I suppose I should be grateful she's at least wandering the West End this time, but that still means I have no idea where she is!
“Come on, swell, you can’t leave me in the dark like this!”
Victor started. The workman was standing in the doorway behind him, heavy brow creased in puzzlement. “If you ain’t one of Radcliffe’s clients, what do you care that he’s done a runner?” he added. “You obviously ain't lookin' to rob the place. . .and who’s Alice?”
“Alice Liddell,” Victor explained, leaning heavily on the desk. It was unlikely that this fellow had any new information to offer him, but – well, he was here, and it was worth a try. “She’s his client, and my best friend. We were supposed to meet here to talk with him about her inheritance.”
“Ooooh – well, you was out of luck from the start,” the workman said with a laugh. “It was the mad Liddell girl who sent him running!” He grinned at Victor’s stony expression. “Get it? Mad Liddell girl – ‘cause it sounds like–”
“I get it,” Victor said flatly.
The man cocked his head. “No sense of humor? Thought that would be necessary for dealin' with that looney." He smirked. "You know nobody's been able to pry open those drawers yet. Startin' to think something's wrong with her down there.”
“I have no bloody interest in her drawers!” Victor yelled, hands balling up into fists. "And if you're one of those rotten bastards who have been trying to 'pry them open–"
"Easy!" the workman cried, holding up a hand. "Ain't my type at all! Prefer a nice blonde meself. . .you've got it all boilin' under the surface, don't you?"
"Sorry, sorry," Victor muttered, making himself relax. “It's been a bad day, and I just need someone to shout at, I guess. Ooooh. . .what if she's gone for another week? Or even longer? She nearly got herself k-killed the last time this happened! And of course I once again have no idea where she’s gone and Radcliffe’s not around to ask and I won’t be able to go looking for her properly because Jack Splatter’s out for my blood!”
“Jack Splat – hang on, you’re the nob who nailed him?” the workman said, raising an eyebrow.
“It was a lucky punch! Not that he cares about that when he’s threatening to remove the fist that did it!” Victor dropped his head into his hands, digging his fingers into his scalp. “Oh, and now I get to go back to Houndsditch and tell Dr. Bumby that she’s gone again, no less. The man is going to flay me alive. Ugh. . . .” He plopped down on the desk, massaging his temples. "I must have used up all my luck for the year on my father's balking at 'radical treatments.' I would have rather taken pills and endured a therapy session every day than have this happen. What am I going to do. . . ."
There was silence for a long moment. Then, suddenly: “I think Radcliffe’s holed up in the Langham, if it helps.”
Victor lifted his head. “What?”
“The Langham Hotel. I hear it’s posher than posh – definitely the sort of place that old tit would want to stay,” the workman elaborated, rubbing his neck. “I got no idea where your looney bird flew off to, but maybe he knows something. ‘Specially if she’s a client.”
That seemed extremely unlikely – but then again, what else could he do? And if he was in the city still, maybe by some sheer stroke of luck she'd wandered by his rooms. You never knew. “Thank you. That’s – that’s very kind of you,” Victor said, trying not to let his confusion show too much.
The man smirked. “Eh, I got no love left for Radcliffe, not after the way he treated me and Larry. And I’ve bumped into that Dr. Bumby too – man’s a wanker. Can’t believe they let him around children.”
Victor laughed despite his mood. “Me either,” he admitted. “His 'miracle cures' seem more like bullying and badgering to me. I’m just used to being one of ‘the enemy’ myself.”
“I ain’t getting on the bad side of anyone who can throw a punch that knocks Jack Splatter on his arse, even if it only happens once in a blue moon,” was the workman’s pragmatic reply. Then he rubbed his fingers against his palm. “Not to say I wouldn’t appreciate thru'pence or so in compensation for my generosity. . . .”
Victor chuckled, extracting his wallet. “Trust me, I’ve been living in Whitechapel for half a year,” he said, locating a shilling coin and tossing it over. “I know better than not to offer. But thank you very much.”
“Yer welcome,” the man said, eyes lighting up as he saw his fee. “Now why don’t we get out of here before some bobby notices us and thinks we're buzzin' or bug huntin'?”
“Good idea. Though ironically I have an interest in catching actual insects. Butterflies mostly.”
"Ain't gonna find any of them here. Come on, before we do end up hunting the bug hidin' downstairs."
"Right." Victor sighed as he followed the workman back out. This day just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? Still, maybe, just maybe, Radcliffe will know something. And if not – perhaps I can at least figure out what he’s done with her rabbit. I don’t trust any cat to lead either of us to the right place anymore.
It took another two shillings and sixpence, plus a race to get to the cab first against some fellow in a bowler hat (Victor won handily with his long legs), but eventually Victor found himself in front of the Langham. The hotel rose like a storybook castle out of the tangle of streets that made up the great city, a sunny yellow against the dull stone and brick around it. And it's been nine years since I've seen it last, Victor thought, staring up at the elegant arches of the front entrance. Doesn't look like it's changed a bit. Does the Prince of Wales still come by from time to time, I wonder? He chuckled. I can hear Mother now. . . . "William, a member of the royal family opened the place up! We have to stay there for a night or two! It's posher than posh! How better to show all those 'landed gentry' that we're just as good as they are?" It was one of our nicer visits, though, I'll give her that. Radcliffe couldn't have chosen a better hotel. Now to hope that they'll let me in again. . . . He took a moment to make himself presentable, brushing the dust off his suit and making sure his tie lay flat. Then, doing his best to look every inch the young gentleman from good money, he headed inside.
One of the doormen promptly stepped in front of him. "And how may I help, sir?" he asked, tone deferential but eyes faintly suspicious.
"I'm looking for Mr. Radcliffe, " Victor replied, standing a little taller. Confidence, confidence. Exude it. Don't let them bully you. They're nothing compared to Splatter. "It's a matter of great urgency concerning one of his clients."
The doorman frowned. "Which client would that be, sir?"
"Alice Liddell. I don't suppose you've seen her?" Victor added, crossing his fingers behind his back.
"No, sir, definitely not," the doorman said, shaking his head. "Just a moment, please."
He turned and headed over to the front desk. Victor waited by the doors, knotting and unknotting his hands, as the doorman and the clerk whispered to each other. Then the clerk waved him over. "You say it's urgent?" the man said, his expression suggesting he didn't actually care that much.
"It could be life or death, sir," Victor replied, trying not to let his mind linger on that last word.
The clerk hummed, then pointed him to the stairs. "Mr. Radcliffe is on the third floor, in room 333. Please keep things brief."
Victor grinned. Past the first hurdle! "Thank you, sir," he said, and headed straight up.
It was a quick climb to the third floor – the hotel was fairly quiet at this time of day. Victor proceeded down the hall, counting down the numbers until he reached Radcliffe's door. Well – let’s try this again, he thought, swallowing down a fresh jolt of nervousness as he knocked. Please be in, please be in. . . .
A click, a creak, and a fat, jowly man with thick white whiskers and a squinty look behind a pair of tiny gold glasses was standing before him, expression quite sour. “Aha! It took you long enough,” he snapped, folding his arms.
Victor blinked. “I – beg your pardon?” He’s been expecting me? Is Alice here?
“You won’t be receiving any from me – nor a tip for such leisurely service,” the man said with a hard glare. “It's been thirty minutes! Surely it cannot take that long to fetch a simple sandwich!” He eyed Victor’s empty hands. “And you don't even have it now! Don’t tell me there’s been a problem. I remember when this was the finest hotel money could buy!”
Oh! “I’m n-not an employee, sir,” Victor corrected him, smiling awkwardly. “I’m a visitor. Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Wilton J. Radcliffe?”
“Visitor? Then where is that boy with my food? I’ll have to make a complaint at the front desk. . . .” The man shook his head, then frowned at Victor. “I am Mr. Radcliffe – are you here to tell me my house is finally ready?”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“Then please be on your way. I’m not taking clients at the moment." He stepped back and started to close the door.
“I’m not a client, Mr. Radcliffe,” Victor said quickly, putting his hands behind his back so he could fiddle with his fingers in relative privacy. “My name is Victor Van Dort. I’m a friend of Alice Liddell. She’s gone missing, and – w-well, I know it’s unlikely, but I was hoping that you might just have some information for me.”
Radcliffe paused, then squinted at him, adjusting his glasses. “Van Dort? The same as the fish people?”
“The very same,” Victor nodded. Polite and charming, that's the key. Lay it on as thick as you can. Pretend Mother will scold you if you don’t. “My father’s the owner of the whole enterprise. I am sorry to intrude upon you like this, but it's very urgent.”
“Hmmm. . .and you’re a friend of Miss Liddell?”
“I am. We both live at the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth.”
Radcliffe looked puzzled for a moment. Then, suddenly, something seemed to click in his mind. “Oh! That's right, you're the one who – well. Let’s just say the servants’ talk is less than complimentary." He straightened up. "Quite the nasty business, if they're to be believed. I understand things get mangled in the retelling, but still. . .your poor parents. I never expected to encounter you in the flesh. I do hope Dr. Bumby’s having better luck with you than he is with Miss Liddell.”
Victor couldn't help just staring for a moment. Did he really – I'd often wondered if you were really as bad as Alice made you to be, he thought, concealing his irritation as best he could. Thank you for taking as little time as possible to prove yourself worse! “Please, sir,” he said, keeping his voice carefully level. “I’d rather not talk about – t-that. Like I said, I have a rather more urgent matter to discuss right now. Alice and I intended to visit you at your home earlier today, you see. Unfortunately, we got separated along the way, and now she’s vanished. I’m worried that she may be in a bad state.” He swallowed as memories of Alice screaming at furniture while flames licked at her skin wormed their way back into his mind. “H-have you seen her at all? Out on the street, or even here in the hotel?”
“Certainly not,” Radcliffe said, his fat face wrinkling into a deep frown. “I haven’t been out all this morning, and I doubt Alice would be allowed inside the Langham. To be honest, I would prefer to never set eyes on the girl again." He scowled at Victor over his glasses. "Do you know how our last meeting went, Master Van Dort? She had a complete mental breakdown right in my office! Accused me of stealing her rabbit, of spending all her inheritance. . .she even threatened me in an attempt to get her hands on the inquest report! She forced me to flee my own home for fear of my life! I suppose spending ten years of your life in an asylum doesn’t do much for one’s manners, but she was always a stubborn and impertinent child. Dean Liddell let her get away with far too much.”
Victor’s eyes narrowed. “She admitted to me she got a little nasty with you, yes,” he said coldly. “She also said that you accused her of starting the fire.”
The lawyer deflated. “Yes, I did,” he admitted. “Foolish of me, I know. She looks well enough, but appearances often deceive. She's unstable and violent, if the reports of the asylum nurses are to be believed. One does not poke a lion in the eye and expect not to be bitten. Or have a good suit ruined, in my case. . . . But still. If she keeps on like that, she’s going to end up back at Rutledge.” He shook his head before giving Victor a probing look. “She’s gone missing, you say?”
“Yes,” Victor nodded, his stomach breaking out the old circus act. “I managed to track her to your house, but–”
“What?!” Radcliffe gasped. “She broke into my old residence? What a criminal mind she has! I knew right from the start she was trouble!”
Victor huffed. “Sir, forgive any impertinence, but of course she went to your house – that's where we were both going at the start. You never gave her any indication that you'd moved. Besides which, she hardly needed to break in. The back door is wide open.”
“Is it?” Radcliffe grumbled, drumming his fingers against his vast belly. “Those louts must have decided it wasn't worth their time to lock the place up properly. I can only imagine who's taken it over. . .you pay someone good money to have an important job done, and this is what you get.” He hit Victor with another glare. “Did she take anything?”
“Not that I could see, sir. Though, if you’ll pardon me saying so, there wasn’t much to take.”
“Yes, true – thankfully I had the sense to put my most valuable things in storage.” Radcliffe folded his hands in front of him. “Well, I have to say you've wasted your time coming to me. I haven’t seen either hide or hair of Alice in a month. Nor do I wish to.”
“Any idea where she might have gone?” Victor pressed.
“None whatsoever. That’s not my business anymore. I’ll be out of this wretched city soon enough – once those builders correct their mistakes to my quarters. And then I will be conducting any further business with Miss Liddell strictly through the mail.”
Victor sighed, staring at his feet. Damn. He’d known it was a one-in-a-million chance, but there was always that part of him that wouldn't stop hoping. . . . “I see. Well then – thank you for your time.” He started to turn away, then paused. Oh yes. . . . “Actually – Mr. Radcliffe? One more question, if you please?”
Radcliffe, who had almost shut his door, poked his head out irritably. “What now?”
“Do you still have Alice’s rabbit?”
". . .What do you care about that?"
Victor fidgeted under Radcliffe's puzzled frown. “It's – it's c-curiosity, really. Alice was asking about it after the fire at the Mermaid, and. . .how did you come to have it instead of her?”
“She left it at the asylum, as I understand it,” Radcliffe said, opening the door just enough to lean on it. “They found it in her room while moving in a new patient, half-hidden under the bed. Nurse Darling – she was the head of Alice's ward – delivered it to me not long after, asking that I return it to her.”
Victor tilted his head, rubbing his thumb against his tie knot. “Then why didn’t you?”
“I intended to at first, but just two days after I received the toy Dr. Bumby sent me a missive asking me to dispose of it. Said it was an unpleasant reminder of Alice’s past that would simply hinder her therapy." Radcliffe rolled his eyes. "Given I've seen how irrational she gets over it, I can't say I'm surprised.”
“Irrational? It’s her last link to her family!” Victor cried, once again stunned at how inhumane man could be to man – or woman, in this case. “I’d be a bit possessive of such a thing too!”
“This is more than mere ‘possessiveness,’ Master Van Dort,” Radcliffe replied, sounding like a schoolmaster lecturing a pupil. “Alice has an unhealthy fixation with the toy. I repeat, she accused me of stealing it the last time we met as part of her volley of epithets. As if a distinguished barrister and solicitor like myself would have any interest in a child’s plaything!”
Victor arched an eyebrow. “. . .Sir, with all due respect – you’ve kept it for almost a year, haven’t you?”
Radcliffe gave him a look that said that he did not appreciate Victor constantly poking holes in his arguments. “Sentiment prevented me from simply throwing it away,” he confessed reluctantly. “I was fond of the Liddells, and – it just seemed wrong to consign one of the only items to survive the fire to the bin. Foolish of me – all it’s done is make my life worse. What I should have done was donated it to a Christmas giving box the first chance I had. At least then I could have directed Alice to them when she got in a mood.” His eyes suddenly narrowed suspiciously. “Is she really missing, or did she send you here to get it?”
“No!" Victor snapped, before reluctantly adding “Although I'll admit that our planned visit was another attempt to retrieve it. And if you have it with you now, I'll happily take it off your hands."
"It did get mixed into my personal effects," Radcliffe said, glancing behind him. "And I certainly wouldn't mind being rid of it. . .has Dr. Bumby changed his mind, then?"
"Probably not, but I don’t care what Dr. Bumby says – I believe the toy would only help Alice improve. At the very least, she'd be so much happier at the Home. Isn't that a good enough reason to return it to her?”
“You’re hardly a trained psychiatrist, Master Van Dort,” Radcliffe said, folding his arms. “Have you seen Alice at her worst?”
Well, at least this was a question Victor could answer with some confidence. “I have, sir,” he replied, mirroring the lawyer. “I was forced not only to walk the length and breadth of the East End searching for her, but pull her out of a burning building beside. I've lived with her for just about half a year now, and I've seen first-hand how her mind torments her, how she much she has to struggle on the bad days. And even with that, I stand by my opinion. Perhaps I'm no professional, but – but I’ve heard so many stories of Wonderland I believe I know it as well as any of her doctors. Better, even. And that doll – sir, it means the world to her. It's her last link to the happy days – to her sister. Without it, she – she has no guide to her inner world. I know that sounds mad, but it's the truth. Giving her back Rabbit might keep her hallucinations from leading her into danger – give her a necessary link back to reality.” He sighed, then clasped his hands before him. “All I want is for her to get better, Mr. Radcliffe. And I honestly, truly think her rabbit is the key to that.”
“Hmph.” Radcliffe glowered at him, unconvinced. “You should go into Parliament with speeches like that. I hope you don’t expect me to just give it to you.”
Victor bit his lip, scuffing the carpet with his foot. Embarrassingly enough, part of him had. He’d been so fixated on playing the hero for Alice, he’d just assumed that Radcliffe would surrender the toy no questions asked. Of course, life simply didn’t work that way. Ninny – just because he lives in the West End doesn’t mean he’s any different from the other people you know, he scolded himself.
Not any different. . . .
Victor frowned thoughtfully. Then, meeting the lawyer's cold gaze head on, he took out his wallet and opened it with exaggerated care, making sure the lawyer got a good look at the money inside. “Would you be willing to sell it to me, then?”
Two minutes later, Victor exited the hotel with much lighter pockets and an old, tattered white rabbit doll tucked under his arm. He smiled as he emerged into the cool air. He still had no idea where Alice was, but he could chalk this trip up as a success regardless. “She is going to be thrilled to see you,” he told the doll, patting it on the head. “Now I just have to find her.”
"Ow. . .yes, feet, I know, we're almost back. . . ."
Victor limped through the Whitechapel market, doing his best to ignore the complaints coming from his toes and heels. He supposed they had reason to be angry with him. He'd been on them for four hours, after all, roaming all over both West and East End on his search for Alice. Once again, though, he had very little to show for his efforts. Most of the people he'd questioned hadn't had a clue what he was talking about, and those that did hadn't gotten more than a brief glimpse of her. What they'd seen was consistent with her usual behavior while hallucinating, though:
"Dark-haired girl in a black-and-white dress? Yes, actually, I spotted her going around in circles in Mr. Creighton's yard. It seemed like she thought something was chasing her! I didn't want to get involved – you can't trust people like that, you know."
"I think I saw someone like that running around the corner when I'd finished my tea. . .she looked absolutely furious about something, I can tell you that much!"
"The lunatic was engaged in conversation with our fountain! I had our cook chase her off. . .why on earth would I bring her into the house? I don't want to end up like her parents!"
Victor sighed and hugged the rabbit tight against his middle. It just wasn't fair. She'd been able to keep herself more-or-less together for an entire month, mixing and mingling with humanity, anchoring herself as best she could in reality – and then in the space of a morning she'd lost it all. Or had it ripped from her – he was aware of how violent Wonderland could be in pulling her in. Either way, now I get to worry that there's going to be another incident like the one in the Mangled Mermaid, he thought, turning the corner to see Houndsditch's gates looming up before him. Lovely. And there's the matter of telling Dr. Bumby. . .maybe if I present the news over a cup of tea he won't – oh for the love of –
He jerked to a stop, frustration and fear crowding out his weariness. Jack Splatter was leaning on the fence next to the sign, cleaver in hand. The pimp had managed to clean himself up a little from the earlier attack, though the cat scratches still stood out lividly against his face. “You’re a lucky toff, aren’t you?” he commented, idly banging the back of the cleaver against the iron bars. “Seems whenever I’m about to get my due, something comes along and wrecks the mood.”
Victor wondered if it would be smarter to just bolt in the other direction. Donny was nowhere to be seen, and he knew very well he could outrun the pimp. . . . Then he spotted the small faces peeking out at them from the nearby courtyard. If he fled, would Splatter take it out on the children? "That cat w-wasn't my fault," he said, standing his ground.
“Don't care if it was or wasn't,” Splatter replied, running a finger along the edge of his favored weapon. “What's important now is that it ain't here, and you are."
"This is an orphanage! Would you really do this in front of children?" Victor demanded, though he knew it was a stupid question the moment he said it.
Jack snickered. "Why not? Might as well give them a lesson in what happens to those who screw over Jack Splatter.” He smacked the blade against the fence, sending out sparks.
“If y-you'd just give me some time, I could get you twice as much as you p-paid the chief!” Victor cried, backing up a couple of steps. Oh God. . .I have to at least get him away from the courtyard, I can't let Charlie and the others see. . . . “Three times, if you'd like! Why can’t we settle this the way m-most people settle things around here?”
“Because it don't matter how rich your folks are – you’ll never be able to pay me enough to make up for 'That swell nobbled Splatter,'” Jack snarled, eyes glowing coals in his ruined face. He stood up straight and started advancing, swinging the cleaver before him. “Let’s have it out, Van Dort – you and me, right here, right–”
“Yes, thank you Mr. Splatter, I think that will be all.”
Victor jerked his head up to see Dr. Bumby in the front door, face surprisingly mild behind his glasses. Splatter glared at the psychiatrist. “And who do you think you are to order me around?”
“A respectable citizen, the owner of this establishment, and someone who can have you put in gaol for far longer than you were last time,” Dr. Bumby replied calmly as he approached the pair. “He’s one of mine, Splatter. If you have a problem with him, you take it up with me. I’m sure we can come to some sort of suitable arrangement.”
Even though this was the best way out of his current bad situation, Victor found himself rankled by the doctor's words. One of his? Take it up with him? Did he think this was like a schoolboy quarrel? “I’ve already offered to pay him – multiple times,” he spoke up, wanting to regain some agency in the conversation. “Goodness, at this point, I’d be willing to let him punch me in the jaw! Again,” he added, thinking of the last time he had encountered the pimp.
“Violence is the brute’s way of solving problems,” Dr. Bumby said with a frown.
“Yeah, and there ain’t any better brute than me,” Jack Splatter said, grinning like the devil. “Oh, I'll nobble you good, swell. You and your little friend there." He poked the cleaver at the tattered old rabbit resting under Victor's arm. "Still playing with dolls, Can Dort? Want to run home to Mumsy?”
“Dolls?” Dr. Bumby’s gaze flicked down toward the bunny. His eyes darkened. “Victor, where did you get that?”
“I b-bought it off Mr. Radcliffe,” Victor mumbled, grimacing. Damn – he'd really hoped to sneak this inside without telling him. “He w-wanted to get rid of it anyway.”
“Hmph. When I told him to dispose of it, this is not what I had in mind.” Dr. Bumby stepped forward and held out his hand. “Hand it over, Master Van Dort. And then perhaps we’ll have a little chat about how your actions are having a detrimental effect on Alice's health?”
Maybe it was the way Dr. Bumby looked at him – all faux-fatherly disappointment. Maybe it was the way he stood, completely assured of Victor’s unquestioning obedience. Maybe it was the way he was quietly shifting the blame for Alice's pain off of himself and onto the one person who gave a damn. Or maybe it was just the way Jack Splatter sniggered as he watched from the sidelines. Whatever the reason, something deep inside Victor snapped. “No,” he said firmly.
Dr. Bumby pinched the bridge of his nose. “Master Van Dort, I am in charge of–”
“I am not twelve years old, Dr. Bumby,” Victor cut him off, straightening up to his full six feet three inches. Annoyance coursed through his veins, burning away anxiety, fear, and anything else that would normally still his tongue. “I am twenty, and I am perfectly capable of knowing my own mind. I bought this rabbit fair and square from Mr. Radcliffe. Therefore, it is my property, and mine to do with as I wish. Try to take it from me and I’ll summon the police and have them have a little chat with you about theft!”
Dr. Bumby’s jaw dropped open. Victor couldn’t blame him – he'd probably do the same if he was watching this. “You – you can’t talk to me in that manner,” the doctor finally said, his voice full of open astonishment.
“Who says I can't?” Victor replied, spine stiff and face hard. "You have done everything in your power to make my life here as difficult as possible. I do not need to be scolded like a recalcitrant child all the time!" He held up the toy and shook it. "Perhaps you’re right about this being detrimental to Alice’s health. If that is the case, I will retrieve the rabbit myself and apologize when the time comes. But for now, I respectfully disagree with your assessment that she has to give up every last remnant of her family history in order to get well. And I rather less respectfully disagree with your idea of ‘radical treatments’ for me. I do not need pills, or extra sessions, or anything else that you may have planned.”
“I have walked these streets for over half a year! Excluding the incident with Mr. Splatter – which was an act of passion on my part, and which I would dearly love to take back–” he added in Splatter’s general direction “–do I look as though I’m incompetent to handle my own affairs?”
“Your parents would disagree,” Bumby said, rallying.
“My parents, particularly Mother, seem to believe that I never got past the age of five. I’ve let them run my life for far too long. I should have never let them bring me here in the first place, threats to track me to the ends of the earth or no.” He glanced at the rabbit, which stared back at him with its single eye. He could almost imagine it was cheering him on. “Then again, meeting Alice makes up for a lot. . . .” He shook his head. “That doesn’t matter right now. I no longer care what my parents authorize in regards to ‘treatment.’ I’ve been saying from the very start I don’t need help. It's about time I make good on that.” He glared into Bumby's eyes. “I’m not taking pills. I’m not attending extra sessions. I may even stop attending the sessions you’ve already scheduled. I am instead going to find whatever job I can in this wretched city. And once I’ve saved a few pounds, I’m finding a flat and moving out. And nothing you say or do can make me change my mind.”
“A mad swell like yourself? Who the hell’s going to hire you?” Splatter asked, snorting.
“I’ll find someone. I’ll lift boxes or sweep floors for a living if I have to. And I'll give you three-quarters of my wages for however long it takes to pay off my debt, if it means you'll leave me alone.” His brows lowered. "If I don't decide to just take that cleaver and shove it in your belly."
Now it was Splatter's turn to look shocked. "You wouldn't have the guts."
"I suppose the story of how I took on an enraged swordsman with only a fork hasn't circulated? I got first, second, and third blood on him, Splatter. I'd only need first with you."
“Master Van Dort, stop this at once!” Dr. Bumby shouted, fists balled. "You cannot just abandon your therapy!"
“I can and I will! And do you know what else? If Alice ever gets tired of you and your insistence on erasing her entire past under the guise of ‘helping,’ I’ll invite her to come and live with me!” Victor yelled back, buoyed forward by the sheer power of pure exasperation. “I don’t care anymore what anyone might say about it. Even in the West End I’m apparently known by ugly names. What harm could it possibly do to my reputation now?” He spun on his heel and headed for the front steps. “I am through discussing this at the moment, Dr. Bumby. There are much more important matters that need our attention."
"Such as?" the psychiatrist snapped.
"Such as you needing to talk to your 'contacts' about setting up another search for Alice – I’m terribly sorry to report she’s gone missing again." He shot an icy look over his shoulder. "No thanks largely to the man who stands beside you. I personally will be discussing the matter with the police. It's about time we got professionals involved.”
“She’s what?!” Dr. Bumby started toward him. “Master Van Dort, you get back here right this instant or I’ll–”
Victor whirled around, his patience completely at its end. “Oh, go to hell, you blooming crow! And you too, you muck snipe!”
Bumby froze, jaw practically on the cobbles this time. Splatter too seemed stunned into muteness. Victor whipped away again, stalking through the front doors, anger carrying him all the way to his room. Oh, the two of them, they make me so – urgh! He slammed his door and tossed the rabbit on his bed. Worthless, wretched pieces of humanity! It's enough to make you think we should ask God for another Flood and start over a second time! Uuuugh. . .I hope I got the insult right. I’m pretty sure ‘crow’ means ‘doctor.' And 'muck snipe – well, I'm not sure, but it didn't sound pleasant when that workman shouted it at the bricklayer. Not like Splatter doesn't deserve worse. . .which I threatened to give to him. . .oh my God I just threatened to kill Jack Splatter what is wrong with me?!
Victor pressed himself up against his door, hyperventilating as he came off his adrenaline-fueled high. I'm never going to be able to go outside again! That was an open declaration of war! He's not even going to hesitate the next time he sees me, he's just going to show me the color of my own liver! And God, I just told someone with a direct line to my parents and the full ability to have me committed to go to hell! What was I thinking?! . . .That he's an arse, what else?
For some reason, that brought on a fit of giggles. Victor clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle them, folding over on himself. "Oh. . .oh dear," he whispered as he finally calmed down. "Well, I certainly can't scold Alice for her fits of temper anymore. . . . I never thought I could get that angry. Control, I need to get myself back under control. . . ."
He slumped onto the bed, rubbing his forehead. He'd made some powerful enemies today and no mistake. But even with that knowledge, he couldn't quite regret what he'd said. Yes, he shouldn't have gone as far as he had, especially with Splatter. But – he’d nearly gotten married twice, survived a trip to the afterlife, almost taken a sword through the ribs for someone, kept his sanity (mostly) while confined to Whitechapel, and punched the East End’s most notorious pimp in the face hard enough to knock him over and render him unconscious. It was about time that he started actually sticking up for himself. He turned to look at the rabbit laying next to him. “I think Alice would be proud of me, don’t you? At least for the bit regarding not being treated as a child?”
The bunny didn’t respond, of course. Victor colored as he realized talking to old soft toys didn’t exactly help his case of declaring he was an adult. Ah well – at least he was in relative privacy. And besides, that rabbit is the best conversational partner I’ll get around here with Alice gone, he thought, picking it up and putting it in his lap. Damn it, where could she have wandered off to this time? There seems to be a correlation between her surroundings and Wonderland, but I don't know what she actually saw before she fell down the rabbit hole again. . .nor what it means for her behavior in the domain she's been summoned to. He sighed and flopped over, staring at the ceiling. I hope she doesn't start attacking people now – the guilt would ruin her completely. At least this time I can get the help of the police. Constable Hightopp seemed kind enough – I’ll talk to him about it, ask him to keep an eye out for her. And, uh, perhaps seek his help in dealing with Splatter too. . .I've got enough saved to pay for a bodyguard, I think. Because I can't just stay in here and rot. If I don't start looking for work, Bumby will think I'm all talk. Which – I have been, let's face it. It's just always been easier to go along with what everyone else thinks is right. . .but no more. I’ll be pounding the pavement as soon as I'm able, searching for Alice, jobs, and lodgings. The sooner I can separate myself from my parents’ allowance, the better. He chuckled. Emptying my wallet today on cabs, information, and toys was probably a good start.
He stroked the rabbit behind the ears, feeling a tiny bit better about things. “Perhaps it’s a step backward to say this, but I wish you could come to life and lead me to her,” he muttered. “You’re supposed to be good at that, from what I hear. Well – sort of. Enough.” He glanced down at the toy. “Please?”
The rabbit again made no reply. Victor turned his gaze back to the ceiling. “Well then – wherever you are, Alice, I hope you’re in a better place than I am.”