Chapter 17: One Day They'll Actually DRINK The Tea
"So – why are you interested in this job, Master Van Dort?"
"Well, sir, I'm rather good with numbers, I take direction well, and I'm used to sitting in one place for hours at a time – I draw, you see. Usually live studies of interesting insects; I've made dozens of drawings of butterflies. . .er, a-anyway, I'm very skilled with a pen, is what I'm getting at. And if for some reason you need me to travel, heh, I've practically traversed the entire city on foot by now. I believe I know just about where everything is."
"That doesn't exactly answer my question."
"Er – um – I-I'm hoping to build up my savings? I need a new place to live, and–"
"Your family mansion isn't good enough for you?"
". . .Sir?"
"Where exactly did you get to be 'good with numbers?'"
"I – I did the ledgers for my father for a while–"
"Exactly. Your incredibly wealthy father with his ever-growing fish empire. To which you are heir. We don't need rich young men looking to 'slum' around London wasting our time, not when we have such an important position to fill. Good day, Master Van Dort."
"But – I'm – I'm n-not – I really do want–"
"Hey, watch where you're going!"
Victor blinked, snapping back to reality to find a lady – in the absolute loosest sense of the term – glaring at him from the step just above. "Sorry," he said, moving out of her way.
The woman huffed and swished past him. "Lousy swells, think they own the street," she muttered.
"Swells have feelings too, you know," Victor grumbled after her as she disappeared down the lane. "Ugh. . .maybe it's time to take all my jackets and waistcoats and see what the local seamstresses will give me for them. A good pair of suspenders would make me less of a target, right?"
Another passerby exiting the station gave him an odd look. Right – most people don't question themselves out loud, Victor reminded himself, hurrying to catch the door before it swung closed. Besides, you need to focus – you're here on much more important business than work clothes! He swallowed as he entered the headquarters of the local police, mounting the steps up to the main floor. Could this be the day? I'm due a bit of luck after that disastrous interview. . .if you could even call it that. Oooh, please let this be the day. Please let them tell me 'oh yes, we have Alice, let us escort you to her cell so you can take her home.' Not that I think she'll be eager to see Dr. Bumby. . .but then, who would be? Lousy crow. . . .
The front desks were busy today, manned by roughly half a dozen officers, all scribbling away in various notebooks. Victor shook his head as he looked down the line. It still amazed him just how alike all of the London bobbies were. Broad shoulders, square faces, thick stubble, heavy brows. . .and the uniforms just made it worse. If not for the differences in hair and eye color, you'd think they were sextuplets. Victor made his way to the nearest who was free, distinguished from his fellows by his stubble being light brown and his top hat being pulled so low over his eyes Victor half-wondered if he was sneaking a nap. "Excuse me," he said, fighting the urge to twist his tie. "My name is Victor Van Dort. I'm here to inquire if–"
"I know you," the officer cut in, pushing his brim up with a smudgy finger. "You're that fellow who keeps asking about Alice."
"Heh – guilty as charged," Victor confirmed with a faint, anxious laugh. Well, he'd been in here often enough – no surprise he was becoming famous among the men. "Have you seen her?"
"Oh yes," the officer nodded. "A couple of hours ago, in fact. Brought her in after she nearly scared the trousers off some wee ones."
Victor's heart nearly leapt out of his chest in joy. Oh God – after a week of waiting and worrying – Thank you thank you thank you! "You did? That's wonderful!" he cried, clasping his hands before him. "Well, n-not exactly, but – oh, you know! If you'll just take me down to her cell, I'll–"
"Oh, no need for that. She's already left."
Victor's smile froze. "What?"
"She was up and talking normal again, so me and Harry let her loose – he told me Dr. Bumby don't like it when we keep her long. She should be back at Houndsditch by now. Probably just missed her on the way here, I bet." The policeman shrugged and turned his attention to one of the piles of paperwork teetering nearby. "Sorry to make you walk all this way, but–"
The papers cascaded across the desk, a few fluttering off the other end to land on the floor. Startled, the officer looked up to find Victor leaning close to him, jaw tight. "You just. . .let her. . .go?"
"Uh – yes," the officer replied, Scottish accent a bit thicker now. "She was acting herself, and – and there was this lusher who needed a place to sleep it off. . . ."
Victor's eyes narrowed, eyebrows forming almost a perfect horizontal line. "You let a young lady suffering from persistent hallucinations and fainting fits leave your jail on her own," he said, voice getting darker and darker with each syllable.
"We was busy," the officer responded, eyes darting from side to side as he scooted subtly away. Victor resisted the urge to blink in surprise. Was he really that intimidating? . . .Good! He needed to be more intimidating! Intimidating was the only way anyone got anything done around here! "And it ain't like any of us are head doctors."
"You couldn't wait until I'd come by," Victor growled, his fingers tightening on the worn wood of the desk. That little part of him that was so horrified by these displays protested that he was being a hypocrite – he himself had let her wander off on her own right after a fit back in late September. The memory just served to make him angrier, though – he'd only done that at her urging, and he'd learned from his mistake. And he'd never expected the police to make such an error in the first place! "You couldn't have sent someone to Houndsditch to inform us that she was in your custody and that it would be much appreciated if either I or Dr. Bumby could come and pick her up. You couldn't even have escorted her back to the premises yourself, knowing her tendency toward psychotic breaks over the past two months."
"We was busy!" the officer said, holding the phrase up like a shield. A few of the others were glancing over now, obviously wondering how this stick insect of a man was managing to unnerve one of their own. "And after what Harry told me about Dr. Bumby nearly handing him his arse on a plate–"
"Harry – Harry Hightopp?! He let Alice out on her own?!" Victor's jaw dropped, then snapped back shut as he slapped his hand against his face. "He of all people should know better!"
"Know better than what?"
Victor looked up to see Hightopp himself enter the room, sporting a most inappropriate, if rather confused, grin. "What are you doing here anyway?" the constable added. "Shouldn't you be back at the Home looking after your girl?"
Victor shot the man his best glare. "There's no girl to look after, Constable Hightopp," he growled through clenched teeth. "I just came from tea at Houndsditch, and I assure you Alice was not in attendance."
Hightopp's smile dropped right off his face. "What – she didn't make it back? But we let her go two hours ago! Don't take that long to get back to Houndsditch. . . ." He and his fellow officer shared a baffled glance. "She can't have wandered off again! Not already!"
"Constable, she herself told me that her first two major episodes were separated by mere minutes!" Victor snapped. "The only reason she lasted as long as she did before the third was because she gave it her all, and even that was barely enough! It's not inconceivable to think that she's already gone back to Wonderland! She's probably been there for at least an hour by now!" His finger jabbed at Hightopp's chest. "And you let her back onto the streets to nearly get herself killed!"
Hightopp stepped back, holding up his hands. "Take it easy, Master Van Dort," he said soothingly. "Shouldn't be too hard to find her again–"
"Oh, of course, it's not like it took you almost a week to locate her this time!" Victor yelled. The rest of the policemen were full-on staring now, but he paid them no mind. Pure incandescent fury was drowning out his usual stage fright. "By sheer luck, I might add! All it takes is one wrong step, and – and she might be dead already, for all we know! I can't believe you had her and – and–" His voice cracked. "Why didn't you send someone to fetch me? I would have come in a heartbeat!"
"No time! Some louse started a pub brawl, and we got a rush – nearly had a fight of our own right inside the station!" Hightopp explained, expression now rather sour. "Not to mention the usual crowd of cheatin' bobtails and fawney-droppers. We got things to do and she looked like she had her head on straight!" He folded his brawny arms. "Besides, we may have had a little chat with Splatter about not whacking off any of your body parts, but I bet you a pound he's still got it out for you. Figure I'm doing you a favor by keeping you off the streets."
"Well, you certainly didn't do Alice any." Victor paced the room, practically ripping his fingers through his hair to keep them from forming fists. "Two hours – I missed her by a mere two hours–" He spun toward the gawkers and threw his arms into the air. "What else could possibly go wrong today?!"
". . .Victor?"
Victor whirled around so fast he nearly toppled over. Standing by the front door of the station, staring at him with wide blue eyes, was a shockingly familiar figure. ". . .You have got to be kidding me," he blurted, unable to stop himself.
"I'm – thinking much the same, to be honest," Victoria White replied, coming up the steps toward him. "Goodness, what's happened? I've never seen you like this before."
Victor pressed his face into his hand, forcing his temper back into its cage. "I'm sorry," he murmured, shoulders slumping. "I d-didn't mean to cause such a scene. It's just – a friend of mine has been missing for a while, and she was supposed to be here, and–"
"Are you talking about Miss Liddell?"
Victor's head snapped up, fingernails scraping his hairline. "What – how do you–"
"I met her just a little while ago, not far from here," Victoria said, lips twitching upward. "She mentioned that she knew you. And that you were living at–" The almost-smile faded. "Are you really at a place called the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth?"
"Yes – it's a long story," Victor said, rubbing the back of his head. Not one that I ever wanted to share with you, either. "But that can wait – you saw Alice? How was she?" He swallowed. "Did she seem – c-coherent?"
Victoria bit her lip, suddenly unable to keep his gaze. "Well. . .yes," she said, wringing her hands. "Up until the point she fainted."
And what had he just told Hightopp and company? Yup – back to Wonderland again already, Victor thought with a tiny groan. Can't you keep yourself even five minutes in reality, Alice? "Oh no. . .Victoria, please tell me you saw where she went," he pleaded.
"Went? Victor, she's with Christopher and me."
". . .What?"
"Well, I couldn't just leave her on the street, could I?" Victoria said, putting her hands on her hips. "And since I have no idea where this Houndsditch is, we decided it was best to take her to our hotel room – we're visiting some friends of Christopher's in the city. She's not even awake yet – or, at least, she wasn't when I left. Actually, I came here looking for some help for her. Christopher tried to fetch her a doctor, but the man refused to come once he said who the patient was!" She shook her head, expression indicating she was just holding back a nasty comment about said doctor. "I honestly had no idea she'd come straight from the station. If I'd known, I would have brought her right back."
"Yeah, we'd just let her loose after Fred picked her up as a public nuisance," Hightopp explained, now quite contrite. "Didn't think she'd get back into trouble so soon. . .Bumby really is gonna have my – badge on a platter, ain't he?"
Victoria's eyes widened with astonishment. "Would he? For you trying to help?"
"The proprietor of Houndsditch is not the most pleasant of people," Victor said, finally giving in and giving his tie a good twisting. "Where are you staying? I've got to get her back to the Home – or at least keep her from wandering off again. She does that a lot lately, I'm afraid."
"The Canton – Christopher's friend Robert recommended it, and it's not too far from here," Victoria told him, fidgeting with the top of her skirt. "You're certainly welcome to come with me and fetch her – we were hoping to find you anyway. Though, um. . .Christopher told me that there's rumors that she can't tell fantasy from reality. She isn't – dangerous, is she?"
"Only to herself, most of the time," Hightopp said, tone sympathetic. "Has these funny fits where she wanders around thinking she's somewhere else. Ain't that right, Fred?"
The Scotsman Victor had been talking to before nodded. "Aye. She don't see things like we do. When we was asking around before, fellow told me he heard her ranting about caterpillars and how useless they were. Another said she was screamin' about the National Railroad ripping up her head."
"Infernal Train," Victor corrected automatically.
"Yeah, that," Fred agreed before blinking. "Wait, how–"
"She told me about it, the last time she was herself. It's a much less friendly train than the ones we've got in the Underground, I can say that for sure." Victor shook his head. "Please, let's go now. Every minute we delay is another minute something can go wrong."
"Right, let me just get my hat – what, did you think I wasn't coming too?" Hightopp added as Victor looked at him in surprise. "My fault the little chickadee was set free from her cage – least I can do. And you never know if Splatter might try something if I ain't there to keep an eye on you."
"He's left me alone all this week," Victor argued. "And he doesn't usually come by this way, does he?"
"No, but – better safe than sorry, right? Mean, that's what got us into this mess."
Victor sighed, conceding the point. "True. And the last thing I need is him giving me trouble right now."
Victoria swiveled her head between the two of them, baffled. "I'm sorry, I'm completely lost – who or what is a Splatter?"
"You ain't talking about Jack Splatter, are you?" another officer put in. "'Cause – I know it's going around that some swell knocked him on his ar – er, his nether regions, beggin' your pardon ma'am," he corrected himself with an embarrassed hat-tip toward Victoria. "But you ain't saying–"
Hightopp clapped Victor on the shoulder, grinning like the Cheshire Cat in Alice's drawings. "Yup! This here's the twig who got the better of our favorite Haymarket Hector!"
Victor's cheeks burned as Victoria stared at him. To think not two minutes ago he would have welcomed that epithet. . . . "I'll – I'll explain on the way," he muttered. "Let's – l-let's just go."
The Canton proved to be one of those little hotels that were popping up all over the place now that the Underground was really starting to get popular, born of dreams of quick money. Victor took a moment to admire the vaguely Roman facade as their cab pulled up outside. "It looks nice. . .but I would have thought you'd be staying somewhere like the Langham," he admitted.
"As I said, recommendation from one of Christopher's friends," Victoria said. "It's clean and quiet and close enough to most places we want to go. I'm perfectly content with that." She knotted her hands together. "It's certainly better than your Houndsditch."
"Oh, please, don't refer to it as my Houndsditch," Victor replied, making a face. "I've wanted to leave since the moment I arrived."
Victoria opened her mouth as if to say something – then she glanced up and down the street and closed it again. "I'm – still trying to wrap my mind around what you told me about Alice," she said instead, as Hightopp got out. "Her fits are her wandering off someplace inside her head?"
"Wonderland, yes," Victor confirmed, climbing out. Circling the carriage, he opened the door for Victoria. "Something's gone wrong with it – some horrible invading goop called Ruin, a product of the Infernal Train – and she's trying to save it." He sighed. "I think doing so is supposed to save her sanity as well – she's told me she did something similar while in Rutledge, and it got her out of there. The trouble is–" He huffed. "If it was just fainting, that would be fine. But she won't stay still! Instead, she goes to and fro in a daze, playacting whatever's happening in her mind. I've been chasing her all over London because of it." He gulped. "So if she's r-ranting and raving at nothing up there, please don't be too alarmed."
"As long as she hasn't wrecked the room, I'll be satisfied," Victoria assured him, leading the way into the lobby. The concierge looked a touch worried at the sight of a policeman, but made no move to stop them. "They're with me – personal business. She does sound in a bad way, poor dear. . .Christopher said that part of the doctor's refusal was a fear of being injured should she wake up," she added in more pained tones.
"Well, there's some stories from the bedlam days floatin' around the streets," Hightopp said. "She ain't really one for attackin' people this time, though. More likely he was lazy and didn't want the trouble of looking after her."
"Hmph." Victoria looked quite unimpressed. "I thought doctors were supposed to take an oath to help anyone they could."
"Unfortunately, around here, the first rule is always 'look out for yourself,'" Victor muttered. "Where's your room?"
"The sixth floor – which is good if she is ranting and raving, as we don't have many neighbors." She glanced back at her former fiance as they reached the stairs. "You never did say a word about that 'Splatter,' you know."
Victor winced. He'd hoped telling her about Houndsditch and Alice's troubles had been sufficient to distract her from that topic. No such luck, it seemed. "Um. . .he's–"
"Ain't really proper to discuss it with a lady like yourself," Hightopp cut in. "Suffice it to say he's bad news."
Victoria's gaze turned steely – Victor was rather uncomfortably reminded of Lady Everglot's sneers. "I survived an attack on my person from a vicious murderer. 'Bad news' I can believe with a name like that, but I think I'm capable of hearing it." The eyes shifted to him. "Well?"
It all came out in a rush. "He's a pimp and I knocked him unconscious once."
Victoria jerked to a stop halfway up a step. "Ah – what?"
"Nastiest dealer of back alley flesh in the East End," Hightopp said, apparently deciding that if Victor was going whole hog, he might as well too. "Known for carryin' around a cleaver for people he don't like. According to Master Van Dort here, he knocked Alice loopy in the Mangled Mermaid – pub over in Billingsgate – back in September, then tried to pick a fight with Victor when he came lookin' for her." He grinned. "Didn't expect a swell to knock him clean into a packing crate! Surprised you didn't bust his head open then and there."
"I'm surprised I hit him at all," Victor confessed, not looking at Victoria. It was funny how something he was so proud of in his new life could seem so shameful when confronted with his old one. "I was running into the Mermaid to help Alice when he grabbed my arm, and when I spun around, it all just seemed to – h-happen."
"Aw, don't sell yourself short," Hightopp said, clapping him on the shoulder. "You keep gettin' one over on him, don't ya?"
"Only through luck and some quick thinking. . . ."
"Still the only one to ever threaten to shove his cleaver in him."
Victoria wasn't even pretending to climb the stairs anymore. "Victor?!"
"I'd had a very bad day and said some very, very stupid things," Victor groaned, covering his face with his hands. "If I hadn't immediately gone to Bow Street and begged for help from you and yours, Constable Hightopp –"
"Yeah, yeah, fair enough," Hightopp allowed, then grinned again. "Still, just proves you've got more balls than most of the actual scum out there."
"More that I can't control my tongue when I'm upset," Victor mumbled.
Poor Victoria didn't seem to know what to make of any of this. "You've – been having some adventures in the city, haven't you?" she finally managed to get out.
Victor couldn't help a laugh at the absurdity. "Yes, and I'd wish they'd stop."
They finally finished their climb to the sixth floor, Victor's stomach beginning to toss and turn in a now-familiar state of nervous anticipation. Victoria beckoned them down the hall. "Our suite is just this – Christopher!"
"Victoria!" Christopher White loped up to his wife, nose wrinkled as if he'd just had a bath of sour milk. "I visited that Rutledge, and they told me – oh! Er, hello," he said, stumbling over his words as he noticed the two visitors. "Officer – and Master Van Dort?"
"Hello, Mr. White," Victor said, attempting a friendly smile. It came out as more of a rictus. "I k-know this must come as a surprise, but I just happened to be in the station when your wife came looking for help. I'm acquainted with Alice – I believe you were told we're living in the same Home?" Christopher nodded. "Yes, well, I figured I might be of assistance. . . ." He swallowed, picking at his tie. "Um – w-what were you doing at Rutledge?"
"Trying to find a doctor who'd actually come to see the poor girl," Christopher explained. "The fellow who didn't want to be bothered directed me there – said I ought to check with a 'Dr. Wilson.' But when I called on the place, the head nurse told me he'd retired some months ago. She offered to send around someone else, but. . .honestly, I'm not sure I'd want help from anyone in that facility," he admitted, lip curling under his mustache. "The orderly that met me at the door looked thick as a brick and twice as cruel."
"Yes, Alice has mentioned the staff there tends toward that sort," Victor said, frowning. "You should hear some of her stories of the place. Though I've met Dr. Wilson, and he's decent enough."
"Oh? Did you have to call him in for a previous fit?"
"No, ah. . .h-he was called in for me by my parents before I came here because of – c-certain incidents," Victor reluctantly admitted, hands kneading his tie.
"Right, your Angela!" Hightopp said with a shit-eating grin.
Victor blinked. "Ang – Emily," he corrected. "How on earth did you get Angela?"
"Huh. . .could have sworn talk on the street was about an 'Angie. . . .'" Hightopp shrugged. "Then again, they also like to say you–"
"Can we go in and see Alice now?" Victor said hastily. "I've gotten her to come around before, maybe I can do it again."
"Of course, of course." Christopher knocked twice on the door nearest. "Alan? We're back, and we have some guests with us. Could you please–"
The door was flung open by a rather disheveled young man, blue eyes frantic and sandy brown hair going every which way. Victor vaguely recognized him as the manservant whom he'd encountered during his visit to Victoria's house. "Sir, she's gone!"
Even though he'd been half-expecting it, it still didn't make the news easier to take. "What?!" Victor darted in front of Victoria and seized Alan by the shoulders, heedless of the rudeness of his actions. "Where did she go?"
"The roof!" Alan cried, flinging an arm skyward. "Though she's not up there any longer, I can't find any sign of her now–"
"The roof?" Victoria repeated, staring. "Alan, what are you talking about?"
"I'm not even sure myself, ma'am," Alan confessed, struggling to keep his composure. "It all happened so fast. . .Not long after you and Mr. White left, Miss Liddell finally stirred. I tried to speak to her, see if she was feeling better, but she didn't even seem to know I was there. Instead, she made her way into the hall and started randomly wandering up and down, muttering to herself. I attempted to guide her back to our rooms, in case she hurt herself, but she screamed the moment I touched her! Then she fled to the balcony and collapsed! I followed, just in time to see her spring back up and start staring at the sky as if she'd never seen it before. Then she mumbled something about – Cambridge?" Alan ran his fingers through his hair, making it stick out at even weirder angles. "Honestly, it sounded more like 'Cardbridge' – and then–" His finger jabbed at the ceiling again. "She climbed right up the wall! I was too shocked to do anything at first, and when I finally got my wits back about me, she was already halfway to the top! I raced up there as fast as I could to try and catch her, but she – she'd disappeared by the time I made it." He covered his face with his hands. "I'm so sorry, I really am. It's just – how often do you expect a lady recovering from a swoon to make like a spider up the side of the building?!"
"When it's Alice, more often than you'd think," Hightopp said, shaking his head. "Ain't your fault, sir. I've chased her over rooftops meself – she's a crafty one when it comes to high places. Seems to know every secret way to get from one house to the next."
Victor slumped against the nearby wall, groaning. "Oh no. . .I was so close. . . ."
"She might still be around," Christopher said, going the optimistic route. "She's a slip of a thing – how far could she get?"
Victor stared. Had – had the man really just – one giggle escaped, then another, and then, almost before he knew it, he'd burst out laughing. "Oh, Mr. White, if only you knew!" he got out between sniggers. "The only time I've ever caught up with her was when she was lying unconscious in a burning building – yes, that was the Splatter incident," he added for Victoria's benefit. Oh dear, his stomach was starting to hurt. . .he sucked in some air, forcing himself to calm down. "She's likely halfway to China by now."
Poor Christopher gaped at him briefly, expression clearly doubtful of his mental state. He got his legs back under him with impressive speed, though. ". . .Well, we – we can't just sit around here and worry, can we?" he replied, straightening. "Alan, come with me – we'll check the buildings on either side, ask if anyone's seen her."
"Right, sir." Alan glanced sideways at Victor, worrying his bottom lip. "I am sorry, Master Van Dort. I never meant for her to escape. I understand you're a friend?"
Victor nodded. "Like Constable Hightopp said, it's not your fault," he assured the unfortunate manservant. "She really does have a talent for slipping away before you know it. . .and it couldn't have helped that you didn't know as much as you ought about her – d-delicate state of mind." He ran a hand down the side of his face, pondering. "Cardbridge – no, she's never mentioned that before. Must be a new domain."
"N-nothing, just thinking aloud." Victor stiffened his spine, mentally girding his loins. All right. Sound the horn, the hunt is on again. "You're right, Mr. White. We can't just sit around. While you two search the buildings, I'll take the street. People do see her, it's just a matter of finding one who saw in what direction she was heading." He turned back to the door. "Come on, before she–"
"You look like you could use a cup of tea," Victoria interrupted, placing a hand on his arm. "How about I call for a pot while they go out on the search?"
Victor gave her a look. "I just came from tea. I'm fine, really."
Victoria returned it. "Victor, you were practically in hysterics just a minute ago."
"I think tea would be better for your nerves, Master Van Dort," Constable Hightopp agreed before Victor could reply. "I'll go out with Mr. White and Alan here and start pounding the pavement. You're gonna wear yourself down to the bone here if you're not careful."
"Please, Victor," Victoria added. "I – I'd like to talk to you. Just you and me."
Victor opened his mouth to mount another defense – but those big blue eyes were so desperately pleading he couldn't find one. He probably did owe her a bit more explanation about all of this nonsense. And it wasn't like he'd had much of a tea at Houndsditch – just half a rather bitter cup and a dry biscuit bolted down so he didn't have to spend too much time in Bumby's presence. "All right," he capitulated with a sigh, before fixing the constable with a hard stare. "But after I have a cup, I'm joining you three. The more eyes, the better."
"Right," Hightopp nodded, then tipped his hat to Victoria. "We'll return shortly, ma'am. Sirs, if you please?"
"Lead the way, Constable," Christopher said, following the officer out the door. "And whatever advice you can give, I'm quite willing to receive."
"I'll have a pot sent up from the tearoom," Alan told them, trailing behind his employer and the officer. "I was going to order room service for you anyway, before the – incident."
"Thank you, Alan," Victoria said with a grateful smile. "It's much appreciated."
Alan nodded at her, gave Victor one last apologetic glance, then followed the others out, leaving the pair alone. Silence descended almost like a physical weight. Victor rocked from foot to foot, wondering what the appropriate conversational opener was, while Victoria brushed invisible lint off her skirt. "Please take a seat," she finally encouraged him after a small eternity. "I don't feel right leaving you standing."
"I thought the hostess was supposed to sit first," Victor remarked, though he did obligingly make his way to the nearest chair. It creaked dangerously as he plopped into it.
"I need to be ready to receive the tea when it comes," Victoria said, still fussing with her dress and not looking him in the eye. "I – I'm sure they'll come back with some information about her whereabouts," she added with an attempt at a smile. "Or perhaps even with Alice herself! Do you really think she could have left the neighborhood?"
Victor sighed and slumped forward, eyes on the carpet. "Maybe, maybe not, but. . .I could probably draw a map of London from memory by now with how far and long I've walked across it on my searches," he muttered. "She has a remarkable ability to vanish whenever people are looking for her. I don't doubt that they'll try their hardest, but – well, you heard Constable Hightopp." He brushed back a stray lock of hair, which defiantly fell right back into place. "The most we'll probably hear is stories of her shouting at nothing and nearly falling off a roof."
Victoria had no response to this – not that Victor blamed her. It wasn't too long ago that he would have been equally as tongue-tied. He forced himself to look up at her. "I meant to ask you what happened to Hildegarde," he said, figuring a change of subject might help the mood a little. "Is she still employed by your parents?"
"No, actually – she's on a prolonged visit to each of her children and grandchildren," Victoria replied, immediately brightening. "She left not long after we moved. Seeing the dead rise made her realize just how little time she might have left in the Land of the Living. She wanted to make sure she'd told all her family how much she loves them before the inevitable." She giggled softly. "Given that she has five children, ten grandchildren, and at least two great-grandchildren, all living far and wide across the country, I don't expect her back before Christmas."
Victor smiled properly for the first time that day. Now that was real good news. "Oh, that's lovely. I'm happy for her, I really am. It's wonderful how that incident inspired something so heartfelt on her part."
"Me too." Victoria's cheerfulness faded. "Unlike what it did with your parents." She suddenly turned to face him straight on, hands tightening on her skirt as she – well, it wasn't quite a glare, but it was close enough for Victor's purposes. "Victor, why didn't you tell me they didn't believe you? Didn't you think I'd stand up for you? After being pulled right into the middle of it all?! I would have gladly told them everything I knew! My parents too, in fact – they may not like you, but they would have backed you up! You didn't have to face yours alone and be sent to – to a place that seems just shy of an asylum!"
Victor jerked back in his seat, fighting the impulse to duck behind it and hide. Did every woman he know have to be terrifying when upset? "I-I know you would have," he assured her, pulling at the knot of his tie. "It just – it didn't even cross my mind to tell you. I was – r-rather distracted by meeting your – h-husband."
Some of the heat went out of Victoria's gaze. "Oh. All right, I can understand that. But afterward?"
"Afterward I was – I wasn't t-thinking very clearly," Victor murmured, the twisted old oak looming up in his mind's eye. "I did try to write to you, but – the words just never came. And then my parents announced my move to Houndsditch, and when I arrived I s-soon was much more focused on arguing with Bumby. . . ." He let out a deep, disgusted sigh. "Besides, the chances of them actually listening to you were remote at best. I think your parents did tell them about what they saw – something about an eye in someone's soup? – and Mother just took it as proof I'd managed to drive them mad as well. Pastor Galswells has been very loud about the fact that I made the dead rise, and they never paid him any mind at all. I don't think anything short of Emily digging her way out of the earth right in front of their faces will convince them I'm not a lunatic. And even then, it's likely Mother would accuse me of staging it somehow."
"I see." Victoria hmphed, playing with her sleeve. "That's awful. I wish I could help. It's not right that they think you're mad."
"It isn't, but I'm learning to live with it," Victor said.
A knock at the door cut off Victoria's reply. She hastily put her dress to rights and answered it, accepting a tray filled with all the essentials of tea from one of the hotel employees. "Thank you – I'll send Alan down with the dishes later. . . . You shouldn't have to," she continued as she brought it to the table. "Particularly not in a place like Houndsditch. You're not a youth, nor hallucinating. And while I'm sure you have painful memories, Emily isn't among them, is she?" Victor shook his head. "How does Dr. Bumby 'free' people from those, anyway?"
"He's a hypnotist," Victor explained. "He puts you into a trance, then tells you that you have to forget the memories he's deemed 'undesirable.'"
Victoria arched an eyebrow as she rearranged things on the tray. "Does that actually work?"
"Dr. Bumby claims it does, and Alice has said a few things have gotten fuzzier since she's been in his care – but her travels through Wonderland are bringing a lot of them back, so. . . ." He shrugged. "I'm not the best person to ask – I've been fighting with him over this since April." He smirked slightly. "My parents aren't the only ones with vast reserves of stubbornness."
"I'm surprised you haven't just run away," Victoria admitted, taking her seat. "Your parents may be paying him, but surely they can't actually keep you there."
"I – I was hoping I could tough it out. . . ." He winced under Victoria's sharp, disbelieving stare, grimacing as he turned away. "Yes, I know, bad plan, but – it's s-scary, going out on your own for the first time." He glanced back at her. "Did you think of running away before – Barkis?"
Victoria rubbed her wedding ring with her thumb. "Briefly," she admitted. "But I didn't want – my parents so desperately needed the money. . .and I had no idea where on earth I could go."
"That's exactly my problem – finding work and a flat in this city is harder than you might think." Victor ran his fingers through his hair. "I – I thought I'd found something this morning. . .a clerk's position on Threadneedle Street. I know just enough about figures and ledgers that I thought it would be a perfect fit." He slumped again. "They rejected me outright simply because of my last name. Accused me of 'slumming.' And none of the men from the factories will even look twice at me. Mother and Father send me an allowance – deliberately small – so I do have some savings. . .but if my address changes, not only will the money stop, Mother will likely stampede up here, and then. . . ." It didn't bear thinking about, not until he could afford a guard dog or two.
Victoria picked up the teapot's lid and stared into the liquid within. ". . .Christopher and I could probably afford to give you a loan," she said suddenly. "We're not nearly as rich as your parents – or even mine in the good days – but something to keep a roof over your head should be fine."
"Really?" For a moment, Victor entertained the possibility. The chance to have his own bed, his own parlor, his own – all right, his own toilet was probably pushing it, but maybe one he didn't have to wait so long for in the mornings – all without being glared at and berated daily. . . . Then the cruel harshness of reality hit him upside the head. "That would still bring Mother and Father running, though – Dr. Bumby would tell them I'd left. I don't – he's already threatened me with 'radical treatments,' if he convinces them I need more – 'professional' care. . . ." His breathing quickened as he imagined cold salt water and squirming leeches. "If you ever heard Alice's stories about Rutledge, you wouldn't sleep for a week. What your husband saw was just the tip of the iceberg."
"I don't doubt it," Victoria replied, looking faintly ill. She closed up the pot and began to pour. "What if I talked to Dr. Bumby, though? Having someone to corroborate your story would help, wouldn't it? If he was convinced of the truth, your parents would have to leave you alone."
"Oh no they wouldn't – did I mention Dr. Bumby is my tenth psychiatrist?"
The teapot rattled. "Tenth?!"
Victor nodded grimly. "Though he's only the fifth I've been made to pay any mind to. After Dr. Wilson decided I was, if not perfectly fine, all right enough for normal company, Mother and Father threw him out and started bringing in every other doctor they could think of. They'd already gone through eight by the time we found you."
". . .Then they must at least be running out of possibilities."
"Maybe, but that leads us right back to R-Rutledge. And don't think they wouldn't do it, Victoria," he added, holding up a hand to block further protest. "They've already said they're willing to go to any extreme to make me 'well.' I don't want to drag you into that."
"I've been part of this since the moment you and Emily appeared on my balcony," Victoria retorted, setting down the teapot and picking up the sugar. "I want to be useful. What if I could convince Dr. Bumby? You could get away while they were looking for the next fellow."
"Maybe, but Dr. Bumby's a stubborn arse too," Victor muttered, then remembered he was in front of a lady. "Ah, s-sorry. But it's true. He's awful, Victoria, he really is. He rides roughshod over everyone's desires in therapy, he absolutely refuses to listen to any opinion that's not his own, he makes the children wear numbers for some convoluted reason of 'patient privacy' that I'm not sure I believe, and whenever he tries to be charming, he – he comes off a little like Lord Barkis, honestly."
Victoria winced. "He sounds lovely," she said, with a dose of sarcasm Alice would be proud of. "But I suppose he wouldn't be in charge of so many children if he wasn't good at his job."
"I'm not so sure about that," Victor said, leaning heavily on one hand. "I can't say for certain about the children, but Alice. . .I'd swear she was doing better before he started stuffing pills down her throat and insisting on extra sessions. And his only response to her hallucinations has been recriminations and threats to send her back to the asylum!" A frustrated huff escaped his throat. "He's more of a bully than a doctor. I have no idea how he got to be so well-thought-of." Well, there was one possibility, but Victor had no idea where the psychiatrist would get the money for so many bribes. Adoption wasn't that lucrative a business, was it?
"Neither do I, and I've never even met the man," Victoria muttered, dumping sugar in her tea. "But even if he is – Barkis-like, another eyewitness can't hurt."
"Unless he considers you as mad as I am. He couldn't do anything to you about it, thankfully, but he wouldn't listen either. And even if you did convince him – there's no way around telling him that I genuinely did try to marry Emily, is there?" Victor touched his throat as the church rose up in his mind's eye. "You saw me there, with the poison at my lips. He'd seize upon that as a sign of mental instability right away."
"Oh come now," Victoria grumbled, giving him another Maudeline-style frown. "Surely you've convinced him you have no desire to – go Below, right?"
Oh no. He was going to have to tell her, wasn't he? He'd gone so long without either hearing the word or having it pass his lips. . .he took a deep breath and braced himself. "That's not the m-main charge against me, Victoria. N-Ne-Necrophilia is."
It was frankly a miracle poor Victoria didn't drop the sugar cellar. "What?!"
Victor nodded, pushing down a wave of nausea. "Father's fault – apparently the town crier announcing I'd eloped with a corpse gave him – i-ideas," he said, biting his lip. "I've told them time and time again, there was no – I d-didn't – but they – well, telling them that I w-wanted to marry Emily wouldn't help my case even if they were convinced she was real."
"I – I can see that now," Victoria said, pale. "I had no idea. . .now I'm very glad I didn't bring this up in front of Constable Hightopp." She set down the sugar and ran her fingers through her hair. "I'm so sorry for you. Oh, I hate feeling like my hands are tied!" she added abruptly, cheeks turning an angry red. "You're sure you won't accept that loan? I'd have to talk it over with Christopher, yes, but – or maybe I could convince Mother and Father–"
"Victoria, do you really think they'd help me?" Victor cut in. The very idea of Lord and Lady Everglot offering him aid after the Emily incident – that was enough to make him think she'd taken leave of her senses.
"They owe me for Barkis," Victoria snapped. "I may not technically be nobility myself anymore, but they are for all their lack of wealth. A few words here and there, perhaps a few borrowed pounds to smooth things over. . .it could make all the difference!"
"Not for Alice."
Victoria stopped, blinking. "That's the crux of it," Victor continued, absently knotting his tie around his hand. "You can help me, maybe, but you couldn't help Alice." He looked her straight in the eye. "I want out of there, Victoria, I want it almost more than I can stand – but I can't leave her behind. She's my best friend, and she's not well. You and Alan saw that. I can't leave the Home until I know she's safe. I don't know if that's with Dr. Bumby, with another psychiatrist, or even smuggled away with me once I figure out the best way of fighting off my parents, but. . . ." He sighed. "You and yours are the only ones outside of Constable Hightopp that have ever offered to assist me in my search – and thank you so much for that. Everyone else. . .they don't give a d-damn, pardon my language, about her. Except as – well." His eyes darted away from her again. "You know the kind of people I punch nowadays."
"And threaten with their own cleavers, though it sounds like he more than deserved it," Victoria agreed, leaning on her hand. "I understand, Victor. If she's in this much pain, she does need someone to look after her." Her eyes and voice softened. "You really do care for her, don't you?"
"Of course I do – like I said, she's my best friend," Victor replied, a smile spreading across his face as his mind turned toward happier memories. "I never thought I'd meet anyone like her. Certainly not in Whitechapel. She's intelligent, and strong, and imaginative – oh, Victoria, you should hear her stories about Wonderland!" he said, leaning forward and clasping his hands together. "They're just incredible! Every time she starts one, I have to grab my sketchbook, because otherwise my fingers itch to illustrate what she's talking about. She's got mechanical ladybirds that tote around exploding acorns, and fish that are half-frog and spit poison, and a Cheshire Cat that never stops grinning, and a Mock Turtle that cries no matter his mood, and – and whole kingdoms made up of living cards and chess pieces. . .I've never been so inspired in my life! And she listens to me go on about the Land of the Dead – about Emily and Bonejangles and all of them – and while she doesn't believe me, she at least plays along. She's said that if I am mad, it's the gentlest, nicest madness she's ever seen, and that she hopes the afterlife really is like that for her parents and sister. She also likes butterflies as much as I do, and – well, she's a cat person, but no one's perfect," he chuckled. "We've been all over the East End together, and you can thank her lessons on surviving there for me being in one, not-ill piece. The Splatter incidents aside, of course. . . ." His face darkened as he thought of all the nasty comments Jack had sent her way, then shook it off and grinned again. "The children tell me I'm the first person to make her laugh in ages – can you believe that? Me, making someone laugh – without the help of a particularly ridiculous pratfall, I might add. It's such a nice laugh too. . .and she. . . ." His gaze dropped to his hands, folding and unfolding in his lap. "She's seen me at my worst, found me struggling to escape the d-darkest recesses of my mind – and got me out with the first real hug I've had in ages. She's always there with a friendly ear whenever I need one, and she puts up with all my little quirks and nervous habits. Even said that she liked them. And for my birthday, she – she drew me a picture of Emily's piano in the Ball & Socket, despite the fact that it's very hard for her to put pencil to paper these days. Because she wanted to do something special for me. For me. When all I want in the world is to do something special for her. To see her happy. See her smile." He looked off into the middle distance, for a moment back in Hyde Park on their last truly happy day together. Her dark hair fluttering around her face. . .her green eyes shining with delight in the sun. . .the elegant curl of those soft pink lips. . . . "She's got the most gorgeous smile I've ever seen."
Time seemed to drift away for a while as he floated in dreamy remembrance, but eventually his brain registered the fact that Victoria was staring at him. He blinked and flushed at her stunned expression. "Oh – t-that was q-quite the speech, wasn't it?" he said, fiddling with his fingers. "I'm sorry, I–"
"You're in love," Victoria whispered.
Well, that didn't help his blush any. "Am I really that obvious?" he asked, rubbing the back of his head.
"When you go on like that, you are," Victoria said, face now bright with joy. "Oh, Victor, I'm so happy for you! Getting to know someone really does make all the difference, doesn't it?" she added with a playful wink.
"It does," Victor said, unable to help another smile. "Er – n-no disrespect to what you and I briefly shared, of course. I liked you from the moment I saw you. But Alice. . .I've bared my soul to her. And not just through the piano. The way I feel now – it's – it's–"
"More complete?" Victoria filled in. He nodded. "Trust me, Victor, I know exactly how you feel." She squeezed her hands together, as if she were a proud mother. "I'm just thrilled that you've found someone whom you adore so much! Though I'm sorry her – illness is getting in the way of your relationship."
And there was the ice bucket of reality again, ready to soak him through. "Don't be," he mumbled, dropping his head. "T-there isn't one."
"What? Victor, you just described her as your best friend."
"And that's all she is. All she could ever be."
"Because of Wonderland?"
"Well, it's not helping at the moment, but–" He played with the knot of his tie. "E-even if her mind wasn't tormenting her regularly, I – I still wouldn't say anything."
Victor sneaked a glance upward. Victoria looked nothing but sympathetic. . .and she had to be the one person he could talk to about this, right? "Because she'd never feel the same way," he confessed. "I made a horrible first impression on her – I'm still a bit surprised we ended up being such good friends. And – and she's so strong, so determined, so – so vital–" His eyes found the carpet again. "Why would she ever want someone like me?"
There was a moment of silence. Then, in shockingly severe tones, Victoria said, "Victor, that is the silliest thing I've ever heard."
"What?" Victor jerked his head up. She was seriously going to argue this with him? "I–"
"This is exactly the kind of attitude that let you believe I would actually marry Barkis, isn't it?" Victoria continued, arms folded tight across her chest. "You truly think no one would ever want to be your wife."
"N-not her, at any rate!" Victor protested. "You've met her, Victoria! Surely you've seen–"
"What I saw was a nice young woman who, while badly mistaken about your mental state, clearly cared about you a lot," Victoria cut him off, eyebrows low. "You didn't hear just how fondly she spoke about you. And the moment I explained things to her, the first thing she did was whirl away saying she needed to find you. I'd bet half a guinea that if she hadn't fainted she would have burst through the door of Houndsditch ready to beg your forgiveness."
"Well, ah, t-that may be so, but–"
"I'd also like to note that you've already known two women who very much wanted to marry you based solely on first impressions."
"Am I married to either of them?" Victor snapped, then hid a wince as Victoria pulled back as if she'd been hit. Damn mouth running ahead of his brain. . . . "Sorry, that – that came out nastier than I intended. But it's the truth. Emily gave me up in favor of freedom, and you just lauded the virtues of longer courtships and marrying friends."
"Yes, yes, fair enough," Victoria allowed, covering her face with her hand. "But Victor, it's as clear as day you're in love with her. She's going to figure it out eventually – especially if she's as smart as you say." Her eyes narrowed again. "Besides, when you think about it, you not speaking up about your feelings is what got us into the mess with Emily, isn't it? You could have cleared the whole situation up in five minutes had you properly explained to her it was a mistake."
"I know," Victor muttered, massaging his forehead as "I would never marry you!" played over in his mind. "I regret that, I really do."
"You see? Now, granted, that ended up being a rather good mess, what with helping her find peace and stopping Barkis from hurting anyone else. . . ." Victoria's fingers found her wedding ring, stroking the metal. "But the point still stands. Would it really hurt to tell Alice how you feel? Knowing someone loves her might give her something else to fight for when she's in this Wonderland."
"Or it might scare her into thinking I'm about to suffer a premature, unnatural demise," Victor replied, getting annoyed. As if Victoria knew Alice better than he did! "She's lost her entire family to fire, Victoria. The look in her eyes when she speaks of it. . .I know it's why she doesn't like to get close to people."
"You're a very notable exception."
"And I cause her enough worry already!" Victor swept his hand through the air before him. "Forget about whether or not she returns my feelings for a moment – the mere idea of s-someone loving her again might mean – she'd t-think about w-what happened the last time and then – and then she might – she might. . . ."
His voice failed him, leaving the words to hang in the air, practically visible in their intensity. She might leave me.
Just like you did.
The guilty, heartbroken expression on Victoria's face told him she could read them just as well as him. "Oh Victor," she breathed. "You – you know I didn't mean–"
"I do," he quickly reassured her, feeling his own surge of guilt. "I understand it wasn't your choice to be dragged away, nor to believe me dead with Pastor Galswells ranting on like he does. And I'm certainly not going to blame Emily for moving on once her business on – or below – Earth was done. But–" He stopped and swallowed, despair threatening to crash over him. "Victoria, she already l-leaves me every time Wonderland calls her back," he whispered, voice shaky. "If she did it deliberately, even in an attempt to protect me–" He shut his eyes. "I – I tried to follow Emily D-Downstairs again once we got back to Burtonsville," he confessed, and heard Victoria suck in a stunned breath. "I didn't – t-there didn't seem to be anything left to live for. And when I realized s-she truly wasn't there anymore. . .it was worse than dying. I couldn't draw, couldn't compose. . .I just was, in the worst possible way. And I'd b-barely gotten a chance to fall in love with either of you! If – if I lost Alice. . . ." His fingernails dug into the back of his knuckles, as if that would keep his fears at bay. "I can't go through that again, Victoria. I just can't."
A warm, soft touch made him open his eyes to find Victoria's hand on his. "I understand," she whispered. "But Victor. . .I don't want you to be alone all your life, wishing you'd said something, either. She told me you were her best friend too. Isn't it possible she cares enough about you not to dissolve your friendship over this? Even if she doesn't return your feelings?"
Victor genuinely hoped so, but. . .he shrugged, wanting to end the discussion before his mood fell any lower. "It's a moot point right now. I don't dare tell her while her mind rages like this. Having something else to worry about might cause her to topple right over the edge back into catatonia – and I will not be responsible for her going back to Rutledge," he added, voice firm.
Victoria had no arguments for that, it seemed. "All right," she said, sighing. "But – at least consider talking to her once she's coherent again. Please. I know the risk is great to you, but – the reward could be even greater."
"I–" Oh dear, he just could not refuse those doe-like eyes. Maybe it was part of his penance for putting her in such a bad situation so long ago. "I'll think about it," he reluctantly promised.
"Good." Victoria pulled back, her cheeks flushing with sudden embarrassment. "And now your tea's surely gone cold – let me pour you a fresh cup." She picked up his saucer, giving him a little smile. "I've been wondering how you take it ever since you visited us before."
Victor couldn't help a laugh. "Three teaspoons of sugar and enough milk to almost turn it white," he informed her as she made her way to the sink. "Satisfied?"
"For the moment – though I don't think I'll really be unless those three come back with either Alice or some information on her whereabouts."
Victor nodded, leaning on his knee. "Same here, Victoria. Same here."
Of course, they hadn't – no real surprise there. The trio had returned halfway through the tea, carrying little more than reports of Alice wandering over the rooftops. "Fellow said she was jumpin' and spinnin' like an acrobat," Hightopp had said over a cup. "Maybe this 'Cardbridge' is a circus of some kind."
"Nobody got a good look at where she was going, though," Christopher had muttered. "She was moving too fast."
"Figures," Victor had mumbled. "I don't suppose I could trouble you to search just a little farther afield with me?"
"Of course, sir," Alan had replied, smoothing back his hair. "I, at least, am at your disposal."
"I ain't one to shirk my duties," Hightopp had agreed. "Come on, boys – bottoms up, and back to work."
And so they'd gulped down the last of their tea and headed back out onto the streets, spreading out right to the edges of the neighborhood while Victoria held down the fort. Unfortunately, their bad luck held true – while Victor did stumble across another man who'd seen Alice admiring her mental scenery before leaping past another chimney, he proved to be the last eyewitness any of them could scrounge up. Alice herself was clearly long gone.
After that, Victor hadn't seen much reason to stay. Victoria and Christopher had kindly offered him dinner, but his appetite had been shot by another day of disappointment. He had let Christopher hire a cab for him, though – the poor man had been so full of apologies for not being more helpful, Victor couldn't bring himself to say no. (Besides, his feet were complaining again.) They'd made their goodbyes like old friends, Victoria shaking his hand and both of them offering their sincere wishes for Alice's safe return and his own safety while looking for her. It was pleasantly weird to be cared about again, Victor had to say. I really do need to write to her this time, he thought as the carriage bumped along the cobbles. And who knows – maybe, if I still can't find any work in a fortnight, I will take them up on that loan. It would be a nice nest egg toward a proper flat, at least.
As for Hightopp, the constable had returned to the station once they'd realized their quarry was nowhere to be found. "I gotta update the other bobbies, let 'em know to keep an eye out for her," he'd told Victor before he'd left. "They're a rough-nosed lot, but they notice things – particularly Fred Tarrant. He's the bloke who brought her in – and who you took a good couple years off the life of," he added with a chuckle. "Anyway, he'll definitely keep a sharp eye out. We didn't mean to let her get herself into another mess, honest. We're rather fond of the girl, if I say so myself. Yeah, I know most of the lads don't give two figs about her, but me and Fred – well, we feel sorry for her, mostly. Not easy being known as a madwoman on these streets. Not to mention she gets to deal with that gold-hearted Dr. Bumby, charmer that he is." He'd grinned and given Victor a nudge in the ribs. "Besides, if my wife were missing, I know I'd want all the help I could get in finding her." To which Victor had only been able to bite his lip and fiddle with his tie again, wondering when he'd become so obvious in his affections. Still, Hightopp was a good ally to have. It gave him hope that Alice might come home in one less-than-traumatized piece. And it's worth cultivating any friendship with someone willing to stand up to Splatter for me. Ugh, I hope he doesn't show his manky face again anytime soon. I really don't feel like round four.
"Thank you," Victor said, popping open the door. He exited the cab to find Dr. Bumby leaned over a sobbing child, lip curled. "And if you mouth off like that again, you'll get a proper spanking!" he snapped as the boy rubbed his streaming eyes. "As it is, you'll be having double sessions for the next fortnight. No complaints!"
Victor sighed. Home sweet home, he thought, paying the driver. I couldn't come back to something halfway cheerful, now could I? "I think he's learned his lesson, Dr. Bumby," he said as he pushed open the gate.
Bumby looked up with a deep frown. "I'll decide that," he declared snidely. He gave the unfortunate child a shoved toward the front doors. "Go inside and clean yourself up. Any luck?" he added as he straightened, tone deeply sarcastic.
"Worse than usual," Victor reluctantly admitted. "They'd found her – even got her to come in quietly." His eyebrows lowered. "But because someone decided to make a fuss the last time they kept her overnight, the moment she was up and talking, they let her go."
"Ah." Dr. Bumby sighed, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Let me guess – she's already wandered off again in some fresh fugue?"
"I'm afraid so. The truly awful part is that she was picked up again right after she left. She fainted in front of – a nice young lady and her husband–" no, better not to let Bumby know his ex-fiancee was in town just yet, in case he decided to go and hound her "–who took her back to their rooms – but by the time I arrived, she'd already escaped."
Dr. Bumby huffed. "That does it. The girl is quite obviously beyond all help," he said, folding his arms. "I'll be calling on Rutledge first thing tomorrow morning. Some of their orderlies can join the hunt – she'll be going back there soon anyway."
Victor's blood ran cold. "Dr. Bumby–"
"Don't start, Master Van Dort," Dr. Bumby cut him off sharply. "You are not her caregiver – I am. Or, at least, I was. Clearly my abilities are insufficient to render her sane. A shame, really. I had very high hopes for her eventual destiny." He tched and fixed Victor with a steely eye. "Yours too, if you'd only cooperated."
"Yes, well, perhaps you're just not that good a psychiatrist to those over the age of twelve," Victor replied, putting his hands on his hips before realizing he was adopting Alice's favorite scolding position. Oh dear – apparently in her absence, I'm turning into her. Then again, there are worse fates. "And while I agree she needs more help, surely there must be a place she can receive it from other than Rutledge! She'd never return willingly, Dr. Bumby, you know that! And from what she's told me, it's – it's little more than a g-glorified torture chamber!"
"Alice exaggerates, Victor," Dr. Bumby said with a patronizing shake of the head. "It's a hallmark of her psychosis. Your tendency to swallow everything she tells you without the merest hint of skepticism will get you into trouble one day. Rutledge is quite well run, with an excellent staff and the latest treatments. They know how to handle her there."
"I bet they do," Victor muttered, thinking of cold saltwater baths and electric shocks. "Dr. Bumby, you forget I've met someone from Rutledge, and he–"
He stopped, the wheels turning in his head. "Yes?" Bumby prompted impatiently.
"He treated Alice. You should write Dr. Wilson!"
Bumby blinked, regarding him with puzzled eyes. "Heironymous Wilson, you mean? I was given to believe the man had retired."
"From Rutledge, yes, but he still does private consulting – he's the very first psychiatrist I ever saw! And the friendliest and most patient, I might add," Victor said, not caring if Bumby took offense. "And he's the one with the most experience with Alice. Surely it would be in everyone's best interest for him to take a look at her first?"
Dr. Bumby pursed his lips, scrunched up his nose, then nodded, sighing. "As much as it pains me to admit it, you do have a point. I suppose I should at least seek his advice." His eyes narrowed. "But that won't stop me from going to Rutledge tomorrow, mind. We need all the help we can get recapturing her. And your method of just waiting around for something lucky to happen doesn't appear to be working." He smirked. "Unless you're convinced that rabbit of hers will eventually come to life and hop down the street to wherever she is?"
"Do excuse me, but you know very well I'd be out walking the streets every day if I could," Victor replied testily. "You're the one who's keeping me busy here with dusting and mopping."
"Someone has to help keep the place tidy while my obstinate maid is off gallivanting through frivolous fripperies," Dr. Bumby snapped. "Not to mention your little problem with the local pimps." Victor did his best to hide a wince at the reminder of Splatter. "Besides which, I've watched you two together for quite some time, and – some of your behavior has been less than appropriate."
"I – what?"
"The constant holding of hands, the lack of regard for personal space, the far too familiar way of using her given name. . .I know we're not on Saville Row, but the way you carry on is inexcusable for mere friendship. Alice does not need you making an idiot of yourself just because–"
"Dr. Bumby, I love her!"
Victor started backward, shocked to hear the words escape his mouth. He hadn't actually meant to say that – it had just somehow slipped out during an unprotected moment. Still, everyone else seemed to be guessing that he was in love with Alice – Dr. Bumby probably already knew on some level too. And Victoria had said that he should stop keeping it all inside, more or less. . . .
Dr. Bumby stared at him. Then his face darkened. "You know nothing of love," he spat.
Victor's hackles rose. How dare this cold-hearted crow say that? "I know more than you," he shot back, causing the doctor to stiffen. "Love is what drove me to fight a madman wielding a sword armed with only a barbecue fork. Love is what helped me bring peace to a broken young lady after years of sadness and regret underground. And love – love stronger than any other I've known – is what inspires all of that 'inexcusable' behavior. Is what keeps me looking for her despite so many days of failure. Is what gives me hope that she can be well even after everyone else has given up on her. Including you." He looked Bumby straight in the eye. "You can send her to Rutledge. You can wash your hands of her. You can tell everyone she's a lost cause – but you can't stop me loving her. And you can't stop me doing everything in my power to save her."
For a moment, the expression on Bumby's face reminded Victor of the expression on Lord Barkis's right before the man had tried to put General Bonesaparte's sword between his ribs. Then it softened into general annoyance and disgust. "Twenty years old and you think you know everything," the psychiatrist grumbled. "Just get inside and make sure Three – Barney–" he corrected at Victor's hard stare "– has stopped crying. I've business to attend to."
"Of course, doctor." Victor strode past, mouth set in a thin line. "I cannot get out of here soon enough. . . ."
Fortunately, Charlie was the only one playing in the foyer for the moment, and was only too happy to direct Victor to the washroom to find his fellow patient. Victor took a moment to calm himself before knocking lightly on the door. "Barney? Are you all right?"
The door opened a crack, and Barney poked his head out, eyes red and puffy. "He's awful," he whimpered, lip stuck out in a pout.
Victor nodded, patting the young boy's hair. "I know. I hate him too."
Barney sniffed and rubbed his face. "Is he really gonna send Alice away?" he asked, sounding uncharacteristically worried. Apparently the children really did care, deep down. "Didn't know she was that sick."
"He's going to try," Victor admitted, slipping into the tiny room. "But Alice is smart, even if she is sick. I bet she won't let him. And I won't let him either, if I have my way."
"But what can you do?" Barney asked as Victor helped him up the step in front of the sink.
"Write to Dr. Wilson myself, for one thing," Victor said, turning on the tap. The pipes rumbled as the water slowly chugged up them. "I don't know if he'll listen to me, but – it's worth a try. And not give whoever Dr. Bumby brings back from Rutledge a friendly welcome. And keep searching for Alice on my own, no matter what."
Barney bit his lip and rubbed his hands together. "Dr. Bumby's gonna hate you even worse," he warned. "He might do mean things to you."
"He already does," Victor said as water finally began glugging out the faucet. "I can't bring myself to care anymore." He wet his handkerchief and turned off the flow. "I'll be out of here as soon as I know Alice is safe and I can find some work." He leaned down and half-smiled as he wiped Barney's eyes. "Besides – there are lots worse things out there than Dr. Bumby."