Chapter 19: The Most Disturbing Discovery
Thud! Thump-thump-thump – "Ugh, what miserable weather. . .Victor? Come here, please."
"Just a moment, Dr. Bumby!" Victor set the stack of lunch dishes carefully into the sink, then headed back up to the front foyer. Bumby was standing just inside the door, shaking the last of the day's rain off his shoes and umbrella. Next to him, two heavyset men all in white were doing much the same. Victor eyed them, frowning. They seemed familiar somehow. . . . "Yes?"
"Allow me to introduce you to our newest helpers," Dr. Bumby said, gesturing to the pair at his side. "David and Columbus Monroe – two of Rutledge's finest orderlies. Superintendent Monroe has graciously allowed us to borrow them for a while in our search for Alice."
"Lum will do for me," the shorter of the men said, looking Victor up and down before nudging the larger with his elbow. "Scrawnier than Alice in her sickbed, eh, David? We need to wrench your mouth open to feed you too?"
If he'd been Alice, Victor might have been able to come up with a witty and cutting reply. As he wasn't, all he could do was stare. The Monroe brothers were clearly a pair of twins – though judging by the rather striking difference in their heights, fraternal ones rather than identical. David was the proverbial brick privy – a hulking brute with no neck to speak of and a shirt that only just fastened over his massive girth. Lum, by contrast, was shaped more like a pear, with narrow shoulders and stumpy legs with which to waddle around on. Both had large, fleshy faces with down-turned mouths and cruel, deep-set eyes – David's a very pale blue, Lum's a deep brown – and both smelled as if they'd forgotten what a bath was. Or laundry, given the stains splashed all over their uniforms. Neither looked like an example of "Rutledge's finest" – but even if they'd pulled out dozens of ribbons and framed certificates to prove the fact, Victor still wouldn't have trusted them one bit. "Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. . . ."
Bumby blinked as he took off his hat. "Beg pardon?"
"Dr. Bumby, could I speak with you a moment?" Victor said, crossing the room in a couple of quick strides and taking the man's arm. "Privately?"
"Er – I suppose. . . ." The puzzled psychiatrist allowed Victor to pull him into the hall. "What was that you said before?"
"How could you bring those two back here?!" Victor snapped, ignoring the question. "On a search for Alice, no less?"
"They're highly-trained orderlies," Dr. Bumby replied, as if speaking to a child.
"They're also the superintendent's nephews, aren't they?" Victor shot back. "Alice told me about them – and what they did to her in bedlam! She loathes them, and I'm quite certain the feeling is mutual! And don't give me that she exaggerates in this instance, Doctor," he added, jabbing a finger into Bumby's chest. "They fit her description almost exactly!"
"Oh. . .yes, fine, I understand there were a few – 'incidents' between them during her stay in Rutledge," Dr. Bumby sighed, rolling his eyes. "But that was over a year ago. Alice may cling to her past, but these two are willing to let bygones be bygones, I'm sure."
"Are you really?" Victor rubbed his face. "Those two are the ones who conspired with Nurse Cratchet to – to s-shove a d-drill into her brain!"
"Trepanning has been shown to ease certain mental illnesses–"
"How, by turning the patient into a vegetable?!"
"How many times must I remind you that you're not a trained psychiatrist?" Dr. Bumby grumbled.
"None of the people involved in that were either."
Victor was quite proud of himself for rendering Bumby speechless for a moment. "They were just trying to help," the doctor finally snapped, shaking his head. "Besides, no lasting damage was done to Alice."
"Besides the nightmares."
"Alice is prone to those anyway, you know that." Victor huffed and looked away, wishing he didn't have to concede the point. "Look, those two are what Superintendent Monroe gave me, so they're what we have to work with. You may as well try to make a good first impression. I know that's exceedingly hard for you, but put in the effort for once!"
". . .You sounded just like my mother just then."
"Well, in this case she had the right idea! Come on!" Dr. Bumby yanked him back into the foyer, where Dee and Dum – David and Lum, Victor reminded himself – were poking around the bookshelves and dollhouse. "My apologies, Master Van Dort had some concerns about one of the children," Bumby said, putting on his "charming" voice. "What do you think of our humble abode?"
"You've got a leak in that corner," Lum noted, watching water dribble down the wallpaper. "We don't have to sleep here, do we? Hard enough when we have to stay overnight at the asylum. Somebody's always screaming their head off."
"That's usually not a problem here, but you're welcome to return to your own homes at night, so long as you're back in time for breakfast," Dr. Bumby replied. "Besides, you won't be spending much time in the Home itself. I need you out and about looking for our wayward patient."
"Yeah. . .'bout that," David asked, one hand reaching up to stroke a faint gray line crossing his cheek. "Does Alice have to come back in one piece?"
Dr. Bumby just was not having a good day, Victor spitefully noted as the psychiatrist stared. "Yes," the doctor snapped at last. "I expect her to be returned to my care – or Rutledge's – unharmed if at all possible."
"Oh. Right." David exchanged a mean little look with his brother, and Victor knew the twins were already contemplating just how far to stretch that "possible." A sausagey finger indicated Victor. "What about him then?"
"I do my own searching when I'm not busy with the chores," Victor replied, hiding a shudder at the thought of being down an alley – or hell, even on a main street – with those two. "Working with Constable Hightopp of Bow Street. That'll help us cover more ground."
"Well, if we can't find her, maybe we can just stick you in a dress and make you grow your hair a bit longer," Lum said with a smirk. "You look enough like a girl. Lie stiff in your bed with the occasional scream and that'll do for me."
"Oddly enough, he does insist on keeping her rabbit close," Dr. Bumby said, sneering at Victor. "But I'd prefer to have the genuine article." He jerked his head toward the doorway behind him. "Let me introduce you to the children, then we can discuss just what exactly I expect of you."
"Fine." The pair tottered after Bumby, pausing once they were on either side of Victor. "Got her rabbit, eh?" Lum said, deep malice in his tone. "Wonder if it still stinks of porridge."
With that, they continued on, David bumping Victor as he went and nearly sending the young man to the floor. Victor steadied himself against a nearby chair, then – once the twins were safely round the corner – dashed into his room. Alice's rabbit was sitting on his bed, mostly hidden by his pillow so the children wouldn't be tempted to nick it. That wouldn't do for the Monroes, however – especially since Victor was quite certain their plans for it didn't include attendance at an imaginary tea party. He seized the toy and thrust it into the depths of his linen press, covering it with a few handkerchiefs and a shirt. Hopefully that'll do for now. . .I'll have to move it regularly, just to be safe. And start locking my door when I'm out of the house. He groaned and pressed his hand over his eyes. For God's sake, why would Superintendent Monroe – oh, why wouldn't he? He probably has no love lost for Alice either after the spoon incident. But I really didn't expect anything like this when Bumby said he'd be getting help from Rutledge. When will I learn that the universe always throws the worst possible thing it can at me?
He brushed his hair back from his face, then pinched the bridge of his nose. The doctor's right in one regard, though – this is what I've got, so this is what I have to work with. I'll just have to redouble my own efforts to find her. And warn Harry who Bumby has on the hunt now. I'm sure he'll be willing to throw an obstacle or two in their way. And if they do find her first, hopefully Alice will be able to escape! He bit the inside of his cheek. Oh dear, is this what I've been reduced to – hoping Alice stays on the streets in a daze because it's likely better than being in the custody of those two? This place. . . .
Well, let's not dwell on that. I have business to attend to. He crossed to his nightstand and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. First things first – get this letter out to Dr. Wilson. If anyone can have that pair sent back to the pit from whence they came, it's him. After that, it's off to Bow Street, and then – I guess I'll just have to play it by ear. With the sound of the rain pattering against his window surrounding him, Victor sat down and began to write.
"You're looking for Alice Liddell? Where were you two days ago when she invaded my shop and stole a slice of my best white cake with strawberries?"
"Over by 'The Thistle and Straw,'" Victor grumbled, leaning heavily on the counter top. "Believe me, I would have much rather been here."
Something about the pure frustration in his tone must have touched the baker – the man's shoulders relaxed, and his face lost some of its red passion. "Well, I suppose it's not your fault you can't keep tabs on her – she'd strain the patience of any man," he said, scratching under his white cap. Then, with a significant frown, he added, "But I would like to be compensated for my work."
Victor's wallet slid smoothly out of his pocket. "How much does the average slice here cost?"
"Sixpence – I put my blood, sweat, and tears into every one," the baker said with pride.
Two shillings clattered against the counter. "I'll take a slice of chocolate, if you have it, and the rest is for your trouble."
"My generous sir!" The money disappeared into the man's apron pocket, and moments later a surprisingly clean plate bearing a slice of chocolate cake with a fork stuck in the top appeared in front of Victor. "Milk?" the man offered, holding up a bottle.
"No thank you, this will do." Victor pulled out the fork and started at the very tip of the slice. The flavor of fresh cocoa, sugar, and frosting melting on his tongue managed to lift his gloomy mood, but not by much. Yet another day of walking and talking and not getting much out of either. No matter where he went, Alice was either one step ahead or had never been there at all. It was like his life was nothing more than an elaborate flip-book – the illusion of movement was there, but there wasn't any actual progress being made.
All right, maybe that's a bit harsh, he allowed as he ate. It wasn't like he was getting no news at all about Alice's activities. Mostly it was the usual snippets of "yeah, spotted her going round that corner; no, didn't bother to see where she went," but yesterday he'd encountered a banker near Threadneedle who'd reported seeing her having a conversation with the statue of Thomas Gresham at the Royal Exchange: "Quite a serious one too, judging by the look on her face. I didn't dare get closer for fear she'd take out her ill temper on me." And not an hour ago, the cabdriver he'd hired had mentioned passing her while on a job: "Running as if she feared her shadow was about to come up and eat her! Never seen a girl that fast before." And for once Victor's question about if he remembered the street had borne fruit, leading him to this bakery –
And delicious disappointment, Victor thought, tearing off a slightly bigger bite. I was hoping he'd seen her at most yesterday afternoon. . .I might have had a chance of catching up then. Oh well. . .maybe Harry's having better luck. You'd think between his badge and my wallet we could come up with some solid leads. Then again, this is the bobby who thought it perfectly acceptable to release Alice back into the world after bringing her in only half-aware. Perhaps he's not really putting in his best work! He rubbed his eye and sighed. Oh, be honest, Victor – you're angrier with yourself for not skipping tea and visiting the station earlier. Or for not leaving that cat to its own devices and taking your chances following her to Radcliffe's. Or for simply not deciding to forget that session back in September and walk with her to the chemist – maybe if I'd been there, she'd have actually made it. He sucked bitterly on his fork. Why is my world built of old regrets, vanishing loved ones, and near misses? Would it be so hard to have something go right for a change?
"I need to–"
"Wipe your bottom?"
"Will you let me–"
"Go to the pub?"
"Oh, I only wish. . . ."
Yes, kick a man while he's down, why don't you. Victor focused his attention on his cake. Maybe by some miracle they wouldn't recognize him from behind –
"Well, if it isn't the narcoleptic!"
Victor paused mid-chew. That – hadn't been expected. Had Bumby updated his diagnosis?
"I told you that wasn't the word!" Lum groaned. "Thick as a brick. . .what are you doing here, Van Dort?"
"I was looking for Alice," Victor said, as the baker eyed his latest customers warily. "When it turned out I was two days late, I decided to have a snack." He glanced over at the brother more able to string two words together. "I don't suppose you've had any luck."
"Mad as a loon!" David cut in with a snigger.
"Will you stop that?! It ain't as funny as you think!" Lum snapped, smacking his twin on the arm. "Anyway, she ain't in any of the haunts we've checked."
"I'm not surprised. She moves around so quickly it's almost impossible to catch up." And she can probably smell you coming a mile away, loony or not.
"She wasn't like that in the asylum," David noted. "Just stared at the ceiling for hours on end. Din't move a muscle." His fingers found the line cutting across his cheek. "'Les you touch her rabbit."
"Yes, she told me that story," Victor said shortly. "Including the bit where you nearly ruined it for life."
"It's her own fault for not taking her food," was Lum's considered opinion. "If she hadn't been so tight and stiff all the time, things might have been a lot better for her!"
"I don't think a catatonic has that much choice in the matter."
Lum glared. "You think you're better than us, don't you? Just 'cause your pop's got money." A pudgy finger drove itself into Victor's side. "I ain't taking that from a man who thought a corpse was fine marrying material!"
"I assure you, I don't think myself above you because my father happens to be rich," Victor said, holding up a hand. I think it because you're a pair of dull-witted bullies. "Look, all I want is a chance to eat my cake in peace before I go back on the hunt or return to Houndsditch."
"I think you'd do better with a turn in the asylum," Lum said cruelly. "Electricity would solve all your ills! A good shock and you'd be ticking on like clockwork again!"
"Or I'd be dead," Victor observed pithily, shoving another forkful of cake into his mouth.
"Dr. Bumby says you want to be dead," David put in. "I could help! I smothered old Brann when he said he didn't want to stare at the walls anymore!"
The fork bounced off the counter onto the floor. "You what?!"
"He's joking," Lum said hastily, elbowing his brother. "Poor fellow just stopped breathing one day, never did find out the reason why. . . ."
"Uncle didn't like him," David said, barely noticing his twin's blow. "Said it was a good thing he died."
"Uncle also told you to keep your stupid yap shut," Lum hissed.
Dear God – file that under 'things to tell Harry,' Victor thought, retrieving his fork with a shiver. How can they let such things happen at asylums? Why do people forget so easily the mentally ill are still human? "Your uncle doesn't seem to like Alice much either," he said, turning the subject slightly.
"Nobody does, 'cept you, and you're mad too," David replied with another little snigger.
"Yeah," Lum agreed, grinning. "Probably hoping Alice'll die so you can–"
"So I can what?"
Lum started backward as Victor suddenly shot up, nose to nose with the shorter twin, fork clutched in his hand like a sword. "Alice isn't the only one who knows how to fight with cutlery!" he snarled, backing the orderly up into his brother's bulk. The pair whitened as he thrust the tines into their faces. "You imply such a thing about me again, and I swear to God–"
"If you're going to fight, take it outside!"
Victor looked over his shoulder at the baker, who was pointing at the door with a scowl. "This isn't the Mangled Mermaid, you know!"
"No, you don't have a player piano," Victor said, the reminder of the start of his feud with Splatter cooling him down a little. Easy now on the temper, Van Dort. It's not worth it to have yet more people ready to smash your skull. "I don't actually want a fight, sir, I promise." He turned and headed back to the counter. "Just let me take the rest of my cake and I'll be out of your–"
Thunk – SPLAT!
Victor gasped as the breath was forced out of him by his chest's sudden introduction to the counter top. Then, slowly, he stood up straight again to find the remnants of his treat smudged all over his jacket lapels. Behind him, he heard both Lum and David laugh. "That's what uppity swells get 'round here!" Lum declared.
"Should have let me do it, Lum!" David said, clapping his hands together. "I could have really made it hurt!"
For five seconds, Victor wrestled with the urge to lunge at whichever was nearest and stick his fork in an unfortunate part of their anatomy. Fortunately, common sense won out and propelled his legs across the shop and out the door before anger could snap its leash. Murder's illegal murder's illegal murder's illegal, he reminded himself as he stormed down the street, puffing like a steam engine. Though considering they've already killed one man themselves, perhaps it would simply be called 'justice' to butcher them like the hogs they are! God, how did that family end up in charge of an asylum? They're not qualified to look after a goldfish!
"Judging by your clothes, I'd say you tried to haggle with dear Arthur about the price of his cakes."
Victor's head swung around to see a man leaning against a door lintel to his left, watching him with amusement. "I tell him, thruppence is the most anyone is going to pay. . . ."
"I gave him two shillings, not that it's any of your business," Victor snapped.
"Blimey – that should have bought you half the shop!" The man looked him up and down. "'Course, you look like a swell, I guess you – hey, are you that Van Dort fellow?"
Victor tensed for a sprint. ". . .who is asking, and why?"
"Name's John Harbor, and I heard a rumor you knocked out some of Jack Splatter's teeth," the man said, standing up straight. "Bully for you! Bastard stayed with me a fortnight and never paid his rent."
. . .Was this what being complimented felt like? He'd almost forgotten after so long in Whitechapel and out of Alice's company. "I – I don't think I got any of his teeth. . .but I did punch him into a packing crate," Victor said with a little smile, relaxing. "I'm sorry, I'm used to being famous for – d-different reasons."
"Yeah, you're that Liddell girl's bloke, aren't you? Word on the streets is that she's back in Rutledge."
"Not yet, but she's coming dangerously close," Victor murmured, running his fingers through his hair. "And I can't let that happen. . .have you seen her?"
"Not hide nor hair – sorry," Harbor replied with a shrug. "Been busy with my own business."
"Fair enough." Victor sighed and pulled out his handkerchief, attempting to wipe the frosting off his coat. "What is your business, if you don't mind me asking?"
"This here building," Harbor said proudly, patting the door. "I'm in the landlord game. There's always someone looking for a room somewhere in this city. And I was lucky enough to have my father buy a bunch, then die and leave them all to me."
"Really." Victor looked up at the house. It was your standard city brownstone, though someone had made an attempt at adding color with a couple of rough-hewn flower boxes on the lower windows. "How many rooms do you have?"
"Six – what, are you interested in renting?" Harbor laughed.
". . .something to keep a roof over your head should be fine. . . ." "I might be," Victor said slowly, folding up his soiled hanky. "I – I don't know if I can move in right away, but. . .just having the option would be nice."
Harbor blinked – then the capitalist in him took over. "People moving in and out all the time. It ain't much – just your bed, place to sit, table downstairs for breakfast. . .but I do have a privy in the back! With a nightsoil man in and out like clockwork. Ain't more than a couple of bob a week. Can't promise you cake with it, though."
Victor laughed. "Yes, fine, I overpaid. . .but to be fair, Alice stole a piece earlier in the week. I find giving a little extra makes people less inclined to be sour about such things." He rubbed the back of his head. "Two shillings a week. . .my savings would probably cover that for a good month. But. . .oh, I don't know. . .let me think about it."
"Think all you want – I'll have someone in there no matter what," Harbor said, smirking. Then suddenly, he leaned forward and lowered his voice. "But if you're thinking about moving in with someone – I ain't the sort to blab."
That was honestly the most heartening thing Victor had heard all day. "Thank you," he said. "Hopefully I'll see you around soon."
"Good luck out there, Van Dort. And if you see Splatter, give him one over the ear for me, will ya?"
Victor snorted. "I'll do my best." He waved and continued on the street, a new bounce in his step. This day couldn't be classified as "good" by any means, but that meeting with Harbor was certainly a bright spot. Who knew my reputation on these streets could be turned to my advantage? A place of my own. . .just a bed and a table, but that's pretty much all I have at Houndsditch. Wouldn't it be nice if I could just give him the money now and spend the night getting used to a new mattress. . .but I'll be damned if I leave Alice to the tender mercies of the Tweedles, he thought, face darkening. They'll touch her again over my dead body. Speaking of which, it's probably wise for me to pay Harry a visit. Who knows what he might have on Rutledge's superintendent. . . . Purpose reaffirmed, he turned his feet toward Bow Street.
God, I could use a good cup of tea. . .I'm not going to get one, but I could use one.
Victor slumped in the door, wearily wiping the ever-present smog from his eyes. Today had been a particularly rough day. The morning had been completely fruitless – not only had he been forced to spend an hour hiding in a coffee shop after nearly running into Splatter again, not a single person he'd asked had seen Alice. Whereabouts completely unknown. Then, after a stop for a rather unappetizing lunch (he was quite sure chip buttys were not supposed to be wet), he'd visited Bow Street only to be swept up by Harry and Fred rushing out the door: "Come on, Victor! Somebody just told us they saw Alice down on Newbury Street!" Victor had instantly taken the lead, commandeering the nearest cab and promising the driver double fare to get them there with all possible speed. The excitement in the air had been palpable as they bounced their way down the cobbles, and Victor had leapt out of the carriage ready to sweep Alice into his arms and never let her go –
And had instead met Christine, who had roughly the same hair as Alice (though a little darker) and was of a height with her, but had worn brown eyes and was missing three front teeth. And who helped run an opium den – they'd caught her just as she was coming into work. Victor had left the policemen to deal with the addicts and enablers, slouching home under the crushing weight of disappointment. Probably it was a good thing to get Christine and her ilk off the streets, but oh, how much would he have preferred for his missing lady to have been at the end of the trail instead. If only she'd managed to stumble in there. . .and now I'm hoping for her to blunder into houses of sin and ill repute just so we have a better chance of finding her. This is what my life has become. He massaged his face as he headed into the hall, glancing at her door. Oh Alice. . .where are you? Are you safe? Will I find you in –
Bump. "Bloody hell. . . ."
Someone was in his room.
Victor froze mid-step, eyes now fixed on his own door. He distinctly remembered locking it before he went out, as had become his habit now that the Monroe brothers were over at all hours. Yet here it was, sitting ajar, with a faint light streaming out into the hall. And he thought he could hear someone muttering too. . .creeping his way across the old floorboards, he put his eye to the crack. Lum was inside, peering under the bed on his hands and knees. "Where are you, you little bastard. . . ."
It didn't take a genius to figure out what Lum was looking for. Victor slammed the door open and strode in like a thunderstorm. "What are you doing in my room?!"
Lum jumped, then yelped as his head hit the bed frame with a crack. "Van Dort! Aren't you supposed to be–"
"I'm back for tea!" Victor cut him off, face red. "What possible reason could you have for skulking about in here?"
"Uh – pest problem!" Lum said, wriggling out from under the bed and clapping dust from his hands. "Dr. Bumby told us he saw a rat 'round here the other day. You don't want to get rat-bite fever, do you?"
"No, but you know I'm in charge of cleaning now that Alice is – indisposed," Victor replied, folding his arms. "I've yet to see anything more than the occasional unhappy cockroach anywhere in the house. You can tell the doctor his fears are happily unfounded."
"Right, right, I'll do that." Lum hurried to the door, rubbing the back of his head. "Ungrateful son of a bitch. . . ."
"Tuh – learn some better insults."
Lum gave him a look, then left, still grumbling. Victor waited for him to get out of sight, then yanked his door closed and dashed to his nightstand. He didn't find it he didn't find it he wouldn't have been carrying on like he did if he had it's still there it's still there –
And it was, much to his relief. Tucked against the back of the drawer, hidden behind a pile of inkpots and quills, Alice's rabbit still lay safe. Victor pulled it out and gave it a hug. "Oh thank God. . .I dread to think what would have happened to you if I hadn't come back when I did."
He petted the toy's ears to calm himself, then frowned back at the door. Now, how did he even get in? The locks in this house aren't the best, but so far they've always held. Did he have his brother break it for him? No, if that were the case, the entire door would have been lying on the floor, ripped clean off the hinges. He stepped closer and squinted hard at both knob and keyhole. Both seemed undisturbed. I suppose he could have picked it. . .though really, he doesn't strike me as that clever –
A sudden memory popped into his head – his mother, delightedly showing off to Father and him a key she'd just had made that could open any door in the house. She'd claimed that it was so she could keep an eye on the maids, make sure they weren't slacking off in their little quarters, but Victor had always suspected it was so she could also get into his room anytime she wished. That was how he'd learned all his various tricks when it came to hiding things (namely his growing collection of dreadfuls). Why shouldn't Bumby also have a master key for his home? And while it wouldn't be out of character for Lum to knick it in his and his brother's quest to gain revenge on the rabbit, Victor felt certain Bumby had passed along the key freely. He hates this toy almost as much as they do. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if he had them do his dirty work in disposing of it.
He dropped onto his bed with a heavy sigh, still cradling the rabbit against his chest. These past – five days? Was that really it? It felt like so much longer – were easily becoming the most trying of his life. Not even running into a burning building could compare with dealing with David and Lum Monroe. Alice's stories, rather than exaggerations, felt almost like understatements at times. The pair were rude, crude, and while they had yet to actually commit any true physical violence against him or anyone else (that he knew about), remembering what David had let slip the day before last about poor Mr. Brann was enough to make Victor fear for himself, the children, and especially Alice. And Harry doesn't think we can do anything about it, not without proof. . .which their uncle has probably already seen disposed of. God, I hate this place. . . .
Approaching footsteps alerted Victor that he was about to receive another unwelcome visitor. Hastily he stuffed the rabbit into the gap between his mattress and the head of the bed, covering it with his pillow. Moments later, after a perfunctory knock, Dr. Bumby stepped inside. "I understand you objected to Lum searching your room for pests?"
"He could have at least told me about your fears before I left, sir," Victor replied, forcing politeness. "As it is, I've never seen a rat around here. I don't think you need to worry."
"Oh, but I do," Dr. Bumby replied, glasses glittering in the light from Victor's lamp. "Rodents are a severe problem in the East End, I'm sorry to say. You never know when one might find your room a suitable nest."
"I clean regularly, Dr. Bumby, you know that," Victor replied, folding his hands in his lap to keep them from twitching. "Any rodents I might have encountered I would have chased out of the house."
One eyebrow arched. "Really."
"Of course. I don't want the children getting sick. All fuzzy creatures bigger than a matchbox would be sent far, far away, where you would never see them again."
Dr. Bumby tilted his head, eyes boring into Victor. Victor returned the look as blandly as possible, sitting still as a statue. "I see," the psychiatrist said finally. "I'll let Lum and David know the good news. Though of course I hope you understand we'll still do the occasional quick check, just to be certain. Alice's room too – if she does come back into my care, we'll want it to be clean and safe for her, won't we?"
"Of course, sir," Victor nodded. "I understand completely."
"Good. Glad we've got that cleared up." Dr. Bumby turned. "I've already had my tea, but the kettle's still on the stove if you want to make yourself a cup."
"Thank you, Doctor."
Dr. Bumby nodded, then exited, closing the door again behind him. Victor mentally counted to five, then collapsed against the pillow, letting out his breath in a whoosh. "Oh. . .Mother, if only you'd seen that! I think you'd be quite proud of me."
He was certainly proud of himself – what a bluff! It seemed that Bumby was at least seventy-five percent sure that he'd taken the rabbit and hidden it somewhere outside the Home. I wonder if that means he'll be sending his minions on a series of wild goose chases. . .whatever gets them out of the house and away from me more. Victor bit his lip. But that still leaves the threat of random probing when I'm out. And I'm positive he'll make sure they're a lot more thorough from now on. No more relying on the nightstand or the linen press. And I can't sneak it into Alice's room either – not that I would. I was certain from the start that would be the first place they'd look for it. He reached into the gap and carefully extracted the bunny, staring into its single button. I suppose I could give it to Harry – but what if someone stole it from the station? That would be irony at its finest. . .No, I have to keep this somewhere close. I'll worry too much otherwise. But where?
"In you go!"
The one-eyed bunny peered into the wire-strewn darkness below, then turned toward Victor, tilting its head in a questioning manner. "Beg pardon?" The bunny pointed at the interior of the piano, waggling its ears with a twitch of his fingers. "Oh, don't worry. It's perfectly safe in there. And think of the wonderful surprise you'll be for Alice!"
This satisfied the toy in Victor's imagination. Victor chuckled as he carefully inserted it into the space between the hammer for middle C and the corresponding string. Well, I'm having full conversations with inanimate objects now, he thought. I guess I've officially joined the ranks of the mad. Better chatting with stuffed animals than trying to talk to anyone else around here, though. And it's much nicer to think of this as setting up a present for Alice rather than a desperate attempt to keep her toy away from Bumby, Dee, and Dum. He frowned as he extracted his arm and closed the top of the instrument. I just hope it's good enough. I've probably convinced Bumby at this point I would never do anything to ruin the piano's tuning, so I've got that in my favor. But if I don't find Alice soon. . . . He plonked himself on the stool. Why does life have to be so complicated?
He ran his fingers over the keyboard, a smile touching his lips. Even if the true reason was a sneaky one, this really would be a lovely surprise for Alice. Why, he could picture the scene now – Alice dragging herself through the front doors, stomach rumbling and eyes dark, an absolute grouchy mess. Him hurrying to her side, making sure she was all right, fetching her a few digestives. . .then sitting her nearby and – "Perhaps a bit of music would help your mood?"
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt," Alice mumbled, nibbling on her biscuit. "Just make sure it's something sunny, all right? I'm in no mood for one your more depressing compositions."
"Of course, of course." Victor sat himself before the instrument, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from giggling. He flexed his fingers, placed them on the keys, and then –
No sound at all from middle C, and the notes around it were either similarly muffled or a discordant clatter. Victor forced himself to stare at the keys in mock-puzzlement. "Now what on earth. . . ."
"Oh, probably one of the children has thrust something in there as a prank," Alice said, rolling her eyes. "Want me to get it?"
"No, no, you stay there," Victor said, holding up a hand as he stood. "I'm closer." Pressing his lips tightly together to hold in his grin, he reached inside and felt around. "Now where – aha! I think this is the culprit!" He grabbed the toy and pulled. "Does this look familiar, Alice?"
The rest of the biscuit hit the floor. Alice stared at the rabbit, so wide-eyed Victor was half-sure they were about to pop clean out of her head. "What – you – Mr. Bunny?" she whispered, voice so high it was almost a squeak.
Now Victor let his smile shine through. "Mr. Radcliffe, as it turns out, can indeed be bought."
The laugh that escaped Alice's mouth was the sweetest sound he'd ever heard. She sprang to her feet, snatching the rabbit from his grasp and squeezing it against her middle. "Oh God. . .I never thought I'd see this again. . .Victor, thank you, thank you. . . ."
"Anything for you," Victor told her, stepping closer.
Alice beamed – oh, that smile, he could draw it a hundred times over and still not get enough – and flung her arms around him in a tight embrace. "I am so glad I met you. . . ."
"Me too," Victor whispered, pulling her close.
Their eyes locked just then, sparkling green and warm brown. Victor felt his heart start thrumming in his chest. She was just so beautiful, inside and out. . .the rest of the world faded away, leaving them floating in their own private universe. . .her free hand found its way to the back of his head, guiding it down as she stretched up on tiptoe. . .their breaths mingled, ghosting over each other's lips. . .and then –
All right, Van Dort, that's enough, Victor scolded himself, yanking himself out of the daydream as his cheeks burned with mingled embarrassment and desire. It would probably be a good idea to tell her you love her before attempting that. And you can't confess to such a powerful emotion until she's gotten her head on straight. Remember what you told Victoria about not wanting to send her back to Rutledge? He shivered. Not to mention there's still no guarantee she'll return your feelings. Maybe Victoria's right and she won't want to end the friendship over it, but. . . . He swallowed, hands compulsively folding and unfolding in his lap. I've been dragged to the afterlife by a corpse bride, dueled an enraged swordsman armed with a fork, punched the most dangerous pimp in the East End, butted heads with its most prominent psychiatrist, and threatened a pair of orderlies who could easily snap me in two. And yet it's the idea that Alice could say she never wants to see me again that terrifies me the most. This must be love.
Victor started, then turned to see Reggie in the doorway. The child was sporting a wicked smirk, eyes lit up with dark glee. "What is it?" he asked, immediately on edge.
"Dr. Bumby just got himself a letter, and he wants to see you right away," Reggie said with an important nod.
"A – oh, no, the postman didn't give him my reply from Dr. Wilson?" He'd been waiting on that all week! If Bumby found out about his attempts to get Wilson's help right under his nose. . .
"Nope – this is from your parents," Reggie told him, smirk growing wider. "Somebody's gonna have to go see the High Street chemist!"
Oh, that – he'd forgotten all about it again in the excitement of losing Alice once more. Suddenly, Victor found himself wishing it had been Dr. Wilson's letter. At least then he would have had the comfort of knowing it was a friendly missive. So, Mother's finally gotten Father back on her side, has she? "Dr. Bumby can't force me to take any pills," he said, folding his arms.
"Oh yes he can, now that he's got Dumb and Dumber," Reggie pointed out. "That big one could just sit on you while the other got your mouth open."
"If David Monroe sat on me, I'd be in the Land of the Dead having a pint, not swallowing some obscure medication whose name I can't pronounce." Reggie tilted his head and nodded, giving him the point. "Besides, I've been doing a bit of reading – I think I have to be officially declared mentally incompetent before he can move on to pills and elixirs."
"Do you?" Reggie asked, looking honestly curious. "Figured if you lived here, everybody just knew you were loony."
"Perhaps I won't be living here much longer, then," Victor snapped, remembering Harbor and his rooms. He hated to do it, especially with Alice still on the loose, but this was an emergency. He'd rather swallow his pride than those pills.
"What, are you gonna move in with Alice's nanny?"
"N–" Victor blinked. Wait – Nanny! Why hadn't he thought of her before? The woman probably had no room to spare, what with picking up the pieces of her life – but she would need someone to help her get the Mermaid back up to snuff! He was no construction worker, but doing odd jobs, learning how to pull pints, maybe securing another piano – that was well within his talents. He didn't particularly like the idea of working near prostitutes and drunken louts, but he couldn't afford to be picky. And he was almost certain she would take him on – she'd seemed to like him well enough the last time they'd spoken. And saving her old charge from a burning building had to have earned him plenty of goodwill. "I should talk to her," he whispered, then turned back to Reggie. "But let's take care of Dr. Bumby first. He wants to see me?"
"Yeah, in his office," Reggie said, jerking his head around.
"All right then." Victor picked up as much as he could of a deck of cards off the floor. "Here – play a round of Patience or Happy Families or something." He absently patted Reggie on the head, then strode away, face set in a determined frown. "I'll show him that he can't always get what he wants."
His march upstairs was blessedly quiet – most of the remaining children (they'd lost a couple more to "good homes" during Alice's absence) were either messing about in their rooms or playing hopscotch and marbles in the courtyard outside. A couple of the boys glanced his way when he went by their door, but otherwise didn't pay him any mind. Good – I'm not in the mood to match wits with people less than half my age. Bad enough I have to do so with someone twice it. Reaching the office, he rapped hard on the door. "Dr. Bumby? I–"
Creeaaaak. . . .
Victor stepped back, startled, as the door fell open under his fist. Well, that was odd. Usually the psychiatrist kept his office securely shut against intrusion. Of course, I am expected. . . . Curious, he poked his head through the crack. Fainting couch, tattered armchair, half-empty bookshelves, wormwood-chewed desk, peeling wallpaper, and yellowed globe – but no doctor. Or am I? He stepped inside, looking left and right with a frown. This doesn't make sense. Why call for me and then vanish? Did one of the children get into trouble and I not see? Or was he just struck with a sudden urge for the loo? He shrugged and wandered toward the desk. Well, I might as well wait here until he comes back. Gives me a chance to rehearse just what it is I'd like to say to him. Unless he returns with Dee and Dum in tow, in which case I'll throw the inkwell at his head and then make my escape out the window.
He idly scanned the contents of the weathered wood before him, searching out some way to amuse himself. There was a book open in front of Bumby's usual chair, with a pen lying beside it. Victor squinted at the upside-down words. It didn't look like a psychiatry manual. A diary, perhaps? Or maybe it was Bumby's own personal manual, written over years of treating his various patients. Victor fiddled with his tie, fighting the desire to take a closer look. It was wrong to snoop, he knew that, but he couldn't help but wonder if –
Wait. Was that his name?
Curiosity getting the better of him, Victor crossed around to the other side of the desk. It did indeed look like a diary now – apparently Dr. Bumby had been working on an entry before disappearing. Victor found the beginning and began to read quickly, hoping to keep the voice lecturing him for ill manners from getting too loud:
"A most annoying day so far. Victor, his two policemen friends, and those idiotic orderlies all continue to report total failure in finding Alice. It is utterly amazing how a woman who is, by all accounts, completely lost within her own mind can evade capture so well. Sometimes one really has to wonder if she's faking her worst episodes as an excuse to do what she likes without fear of reprisal. Almost an entire year of work wasted, tossed into the bin by a psyche that refuses to be molded and tamed. Well, if she would prefer to go completely mad once more, that's fine by me. I would have preferred the alternative, but perhaps it's better for us all if she returns to Rutledge a raving lunatic. It would certainly stop me from worrying about my reputation."
Yes, because that's all that really matters to you, isn't it? Victor thought with a scowl. You self-important git. I know you'd given up on ever curing her, but to say that you might prefer her being locked away again? How this arse ever got a reputation for compassion is beyond me. Shaking his head, he read on:
"As for Victor, still no luck in getting him back into treatment – not that I'd trust him to cooperate even if I could. The stubbornness he exhibits whenever I try to bring him deep – not to mention his insistence that he's a 'real adult.' Ugh. Not even Alice tries my patience so hard. Fortunately, the one bit of good news I've had today is Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort finally authorizing more radical treatments. About bloody time. At last I'll be able to reach as far into his brain as I like and make him realize his true place in this world. Shame such a handsome boy should be such a fool as well, but soon it won't matter. That mouth of his will make him a particularly good"
And that was where Victor's brain locked up, because the next word was one that not even the worst of his bullies back in Burtonsville had used to describe him.
Victor grabbed the edge of the desk, reeling. Bumby – Bumby thought of him as – he swallowed, hardly able to believe it. He'd been accused of being one of Sodom's ilk before, mainly by Splatter and his girls, but not even they had used that word for him! How could Bumby even –
The deeply-unnerving sensation of eyes burning a hole through the back of his trousers. . .standing back up only to come face-to-face with the last person he expected. . ."What – oh. My apologies, Victor – I was thinking of something else. . . ."
Victor found himself reaching to cover his backside as the memory played out before him. He'd thought for sure that he'd been imagining things, letting his dislike of the doctor get the better of him, but now – he shuddered, skin crawling underneath his suit. At least now I have an explanation for why he leaned so close to me during some of our sessions. . . . On impulse he flipped backwards through the journal, wondering if he'd find some sort of sick paean to his rear.
Instead, he found pages and pages full of numbers, neatly arranged in rows and columns. Victor frowned at them, uncomprehending. It – it looks rather like the ledgers Father uses for the fish stall in the town square – just not so neatly printed. But why do this in his personal diary? Shouldn't he have a separate book specifically for the business of the orphanage? Whatever business that is. . . . "Profit," "Amount Paid," "Market Value," "Production Costs" –
The word burned on the page, as if written in hellfire. Victor stared at it for a moment, then slowly made his way down the column. Numbers from one to twelve, just like Reggie and Abigail and Charlie and all the rest wore ("why make them wear numbers? That just seems so – dehumanizing. . ."). And across from each one, a series of figures expressed in pounds, shillings, and pence. "Production Costs" (Bumby had complained about how much it took to feed and clothe his charges). "Market Value" (not a factory in this city that would refuse child labor. . .or was he – gonophs and lurkers in Limehouse, and a little girl he'd sworn he'd known. . .). "Amount Paid" (and what high amounts they were). "Profit."
Sales figures. Bumby was selling the children.
Part of him wanted to stop right there – to slam the book closed and run as fast as he could to empty his stomach in the privy. But his own horror held him in place, forcing him to continue flicking through the journal, needing to see just how deep the rabbit hole went. Most of the pages were taken up with the ins and outs of Bumby's cruel business, but there were plenty that were dedicated to the psychiatrist's private thoughts:
"Little Anthony squeaks so sweetly when the instrument is inserted. I'll have to double his price on the market. They want the best, they can damn well pay for it."
"Crew from Old Nichol says he wants me to provide him more girls. A hard to acquire commodity on these streets. If only Abigail didn't grip her parents' memory so tightly! Drake has implied he'd be plenty free with his coin for pigtails and scraped knees."
"She's not nearly as gorgeous as my first love, but Alice has a simple beauty all her own. Makes me want to take her to my bed straightaway. I wonder if she'd squirm and thrash, or just lie there like the dead. . . ."
"I wish those morons in the back would clear off. I've told them time and time again, she'll be ready when she's ready! Breaking her is a beautiful process – you cannot rush art! Besides, they could hardly afford her even if she was willing to spread her legs. A girl like Alice you charge top dollar for, as they say in the States."
"He is frustration personified! The way he parades around, pretending to be all shy and innocent – the boy violated the sanctity of marriage with a corpse! The least he could do is allow me to bend him over my desk!"
"Splatter being a pain again – said that he'd like the pleasure of training Alice. Hah – I told him that was reserved for me and me alone. As if he'd know what to do with her. She's taking much longer than I expected, but I must be patient. She wants to forget, I want her to forget – she'll come around. And when she does – when I rip all that dangerous knowledge out of her head once and for all, along with everything else that clutters up that pale beauty of hers – it'll be worth it to strip her of those clothes and –"
Victor slammed the book closed and shut his eyes, trembling. God in Heaven – this was a man people trusted. This was a man they lauded as a savior! And he was – Fury wound through his horror, burning in his veins like one of Wilson's mysterious chemical concoctions Alice had told him about. This can't go on. Depravity like this – I have to stop him, now. I'll go straight to Bow Street and show Harry and Fred. And if that's not enough, I'll send a fast letter to Father and force him to spend some of his money on a good cause for a change. Oh my God, how could my parents have ever sent me to this – this thing? How could anyone with even the slightest sliver of a heart perform such acts? How could I have missed –
"Master Van Dort?"
Victor's head jerked up. Dr. Bumby was standing in the doorway, staring at him. Victor stared back, hardly daring to breathe. For a moment, they just stood there, eyes locked, the air stiff with sudden realization: I know everything.
Then Bumby exploded into motion, flying forward with arms outstretched and face twisted in rage. Victor snatched up the journal and ducked under the furious hands, weaving around the doctor to try and get out the door while he still could. He was too fast for Bumby to catch –
But unfortunately, he was also still too clumsy for his own good. His foot caught on some invisible crack in the floorboards, and he fell, landing hard on his chest. Moments later, a heavy weight on his back told him the doctor had him pinned. "How much did you read?" Bumby demanded, one knee pressing painfully into Victor's spine as his fingers dug into the young man's shoulders. "How much?!"
"Enough, you perverted monster!" Victor yelled, jabbing upward with an elbow. Bumby jerked to the side, and he hit nothing but air. "How can you do such things? They're children!"
"They're useless," was Bumby's response. "Without purpose – until I give them one. Why let them take and take and take from society when they can earn their keep? And earn it so well. . . ."
"You despicable beast!" Victor thrashed, and felt Bumby adjust his grip. "Have you no sense of decency?"
Bumby actually laughed. "This from the necrophiliac."
"I'm not a necrophiliac! And I'm not – w-what you called me either!" Damn it, he'd hoped to keep his voice from shaking. He'd faced down Barkis without stuttering. But Barkis wasn't even in the same league as this monster – and hadn't gotten him trapped so soon. If only I'd thought to grab a pen or the letter opener!
"I know," Bumby said, and now his voice was full of hate. "Do you know just how much trouble you've been to me, Master Van Dort? Refusing to let me into your mind, clinging to your delusions of an afterlife and a corpse bride–"
"They're not delusions!"
"–showing unnecessary kindness to the children," Bumby continued, ignoring him. "And getting much too involved with Alice." He leaned down, beard tickling Victor's ear. "Perhaps you're the reason she's backsliding into insanity."
"Better insanity than what you had planned," Victor growled, trying to elbow him again. Yes, a return to Rutledge would be horrible for Alice – but not as horrible as the things he'd read in that journal. "You won't touch her."
"No. Not as long as I'm around."
"Really." One hand slid up to Victor's neck, pressing it down. "Then I guess I'll just have to get rid of you, then."
"Kill me?" Victor found himself wanting to laugh. He forced it back. "I'm not afraid of death. And my parents will notice me missing–"
"Not kill," Bumby interrupted, his other hand leaving Victor's shoulder. "Not quite."
With that, he slammed something (another book? an inkwell? that decorative vase he kept high on the right wall?) into the back of the young man's head. Pain burst through Victor's skull, shooting off fireworks in his eyes –
and then everything went dark.