In The Land of the Dead
"I still can't believe that actually exists."
"Why not? Guy's just tryin' to make a livin'. And it ain't like people don't have a use for a second-hand store."
"Yes, but – how does that even work?" Lizzie demanded, staring at the barrel in front of the store. The spare arms piled inside seemed to stare back. "Do you have to have the new limb sewn on? What if the stump's already gone skeletal?"
"Hey, you've seen me snap loose bones back into place dozens of times!"
"Yes, but those are your bones. These are from strangers." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "And given the way they're waving at me, they seem to have minds of their own."
Bonejangles waved back, completely unconcerned. "Can't tell ya, Liz – never bought from the guy. Might be able to hunt down someone who did, though, if you're really interested."
"I don't know if I am or not," Lizzie admitted, rubbing her own arm. "Maybe it's a bit silly, but the idea of grafting someone else's body parts to your own – well, it gives me the creeps."
"Twelve years dead and you still get the creeps?"
"I'm sorry, who confessed to me just yesterday that he finds bulldogs and other breeds with flat faces weird?"
"They are! They always look like they just ran into a wall!" Bonejangles insisted, demonstrating with a fist against his palm. "Dogs should have proper snoots."
"You don't have a proper snoot."
"I've got an excuse – it fell off after my first fortnight. Probably busted it one too many times."
Lizzie tapped her own. "Maybe. . .I suppose I should be grateful mine's stayed on for over a decade. Poor Mama's didn't last very long. . .Papa once told me they're not made of the same stuff as the rest of your skull. That's why they decay away and leave a hole."
"Really? Huh. Never knew that." Bonejangles poked at the gaps just above his jaw. "Can tell you a broken nose hurts just about as much as a broken leg, though. And is a pain in the ass to sing around."
"I can bet." Lizzie suddenly giggled and put her head against Bonejangles's shoulder. "We have the weirdest conversations, don't we? The girls I knew back in Oxford would think us both deranged."
Bonejangles chuckled. "Well, nuts to them. Though speakin' of deranged, wanna check in at the Ball & Socket? Lunch rush should be windin' down if you wanna get a snack."
"I could nibble, I think," Lizzie nodded. "I hope that one drunk idiot isn't there, though. Every time he sees me he starts ranting about how you can't live with or without women, then starts crying until he falls to pieces and Ms. Plum has to come by with a broom."
"That's Wilfred for ya – came in off a bad break-up," Bonejangles told her. "Girl he asked to marry him already said yes to another suitor. Stumbled into the B&S reeking of whiskey and with a rope 'round his neck. Bad business. . .mind you, he showed up around the same time as me, so we're all wishin' he'd get over it already."
"Ah – I'll give him that it's sad, but otherwise I'm with the rest of you." Lizzie grumbled. "At least the only person he hurt when she told him no was himself."
"Yeah, that's something." Bonejangles rolled his eye toward her, grinding his jaw. "He ain't bothering you that much, is he? I can tell Ms. Plum to scoot him into the back room when you're around."
"He's just an annoyance," Lizzie assured him. "The first time he went off brought back a few unpleasant memories, but now I think I'm immune."
"All right, but if he starts being a bastard, just say the word. Probably do him good to get kicked out for a night or two."
"It would the rest of us some good, anyway."
They walked into the main square, the horse snorting a greeting as they neared his pedestal. Lizzie paused a moment to give his skull muzzle a few friendly strokes. "Good horsie. . .doesn't he ever get down?"
"I've seen him prancin' round the square at night," Bonejangles said, scratching him behind the ears he hadn't got. "Think he likes it up there, though. People give him old carrots and pettin's and stuff."
"Just like us," Lizzie chuckled. She looked around the hustle and bustle of the square as they continued on. "I have to say, your village is a lot nicer than I expected. Still a bit cramped, but. . .there's plenty to see. And almost everyone's been very dear to me." She glanced up at the purple sky. "You're sure everyone currently Upstairs is uptight?"
"Dunno if I'd use that word anymore," Bonejangles said, tone turning bitter. "Anybody who goes after some poor nineteen-year-old guy who wouldn't hurt a fly needs something a bit bluer."
Lizzie reached down to twist her wrist. "You're going to be angry at them forever for that, aren't you?"
"You're gonna be angry at Bumby forever, ain't ya?"
"Probably," Lizzie allowed, a little flash of rage going through her as she thought of that awful goateed smirk. "But he hurt me and my family directly."
"Sure, but Victor was a pal. You'd understand better if you knew him. Shy and super-quiet, didn't always think before he talked, but he made Emily happy. And once he got over runnin' away from us every time he saw us, he turned out to be real friendly. Mayhew's never had a bad word to say about him. Plus I overheard him and Emily on the piano when he was trying to apologize to her 'bout Victoria – guy's got talent. I was thinkin' of talkin' him into giving concerts once he gulped down the Wine."
"Well, maybe he'll still have the chance Upstairs," Lizzie said, patting his arm. "Burtonsville is just one town. At this point, he could have moved away and started over. I would, if everyone suddenly decided to hate me."
"Maybe." Bonejangles scratched his skull as they headed down Boil Boulevard. "You think anybody in London might know anything about him?"
"Beyond his parents owning a fish cannery? I don't know. . .but we can at least see if he's been mentioned in the papers. Though I think only a tabloid like the Illustrated would treat the dead rising as anything except a case of mass hysteria."
"Heh, yeah. . .serve 'em all right if the rest of the world thought they were loopy. I–"
Lizzie started, looking high and low for the source of the sudden noise. "What the–"
Bonejangles beamed. "New arrival!" He snagged her hand and started towing her forward. "We gotta bunch of bells Plum and friends ring whenever new dead show up at the pub! Come on, let's go say hi!"
"All right, all right, I'm coming!" Lizzie cried, laughing as she did her best to keep up. "You pull any harder and I'll be a customer at that second-hand shop!"
They reached the bar within a couple of minutes – unfortunately, so had everyone else, gathered in the usual chaotic sprawl to greet the newest member of the Land of the Dead. Lizzie stood on tiptoe, swaying slightly as she tried to get a glimpse of who had caused all the commotion. "Can you see anything?"
"Nope – damn ladies with their crazy hats," Bonejangles grumbled, twisting his neck this way and that. "Oi, down in front!"
No one paid any heed. Lizzie squirmed her way along the edge of the crowd, trying to locate a gap in the sea of bodies. Does no one here have any sense of personal space when it comes to greeting newcomers? The poor person must feel like a sardine newly packed in a can! If I can get through, maybe I can get them a bit of – aha! She thrust her arm into the empty space before the corpses could close ranks. "Sam!"
"What? Oh, finally!" Bonejangles hurried over and pushed his way in. Lizzie grabbed his arm, and together they started wading through the crowd. "All right, folks, out of the way! Headliner, comin' through!"
Their fellow corpses paid them little heed, too caught up in enthusiastic exclamations about whoever stood at their center. "Somebody give the lady a drink!"
"What a lovely gown! I do like it when someone arrives in their Sunday best."
"What got ya? You don't look that old."
"Jonathan, what a thing to say! Please excuse him, he died before he learned manners."
"Grrrreat, another women to mock me. . . ."
"Oh shut yer yap, Wilfred."
"Actually, we're new to the village – we're from Oxford originally. Lorina Liddell, and this is my husband Arthur. We're here with our daughter."
Lizzie promptly started waving. "Mama!"
Lorina's head jerked up. "And that's her now! And her friend Bonejangles. . .Arthur, help clear the way!"
"I'm working on it, my dear! Please, everyone, we should all get a turn!"
It took a little more careful maneuvering – and one or two ill-disguised shoves – but at last the inner circle broke, allowing Lizzie and Bonejangles past. "Sheesh – thanks Mr. Liddell," Bonejangles said, straightening his hat and dusting off his arms. "I swear, you wanna say hello to somebody, you gotta–"
And just like that, he stopped, as if he'd been frozen in place by some mystical force. Lizzie blinked at him, then followed his gaze to the corpse standing by her parents. As indicated by the chatter, it was a lady, perhaps a bit older than her mother. Her long blonde hair, tinted with blue, was bound in a tight braid down her back, contrasting sharply with dark brown eyes. Her pale yellow gown was acceptable for church, Lizzie supposed, but it lacked any embellishment whatsoever, and was definitely hand-made. Nothing about either her face or figure struck her as particularly remarkable – certainly not when compared to the round softness of Bloated Barry, or the rapier-thin height of Terry, Ms. Plum's frazzle-haired assistant. She was certainly not worth staring at in the sort of shock Bonejangles was. "Sam?" she asked, giving him a poke in the side.
The woman, who'd been regarding Bonejangles with equal confusion, blinked. "Sam?" she repeated softly.
"Holy shit," Bonejangles whispered. Then he flung himself forward, grin bright in the honey-colored light of the pub. "Ma!"
"Sam!" The woman met him halfway, wrapping her arms tightly around his bones. "Oh dear, I didn't even recognize you! You are down here! When I didn't see you by the house I started to wonder. . . ."
"Ah, come on, Ma, you thought I'd be hangin' out at the old shack after I kicked it?" Bonejangles asked, pulling back with a chuckle – though Lizzie noted with astonishment his remaining eye looked wet. "Since when the hell was I ever good at stayin' in one place?"
"Fair enough. . .oh Sam." Ma Thatcher ran her fingers along the curve of his skull, tone achingly sad. "It's been far too long. I don't think there was a night where I didn't dream about those two lumberjacks showing up at our door, saying they'd found you on the road with your legs busted. . .who did it, Sam? Do you know?" she added, voice turning fiery. "Whoever it was, I hope they were hanged!"
"Whoa, easy, Ma," Bonejangles said, holding up a hand. "You thought I was robbed?"
"Your money bag was missing when we went to fetch you. I know you never took it off your belt."
"Oh – that was just some scavenger after the fact," Bonejangles sighed. "Hell, might've been the lumberjacks. . .anyway, what happened was, I was in a storm and lightning spooked the horse. I just got myself kicked to death."
"Kicked?! Oh God. . .but Samuel Thatcher, what were you doing riding out in a thunderstorm?" Ma Thatcher said, folding her arms.
"Being stupid," Bonejangles replied honestly. "I couldn't help it, Ma. I'd gotten that letter saying there was a bloke interested in Claire, and I wanted to meet him. Older brother's duty to put the fear o'God into him, after all."
"Bloke – Roger," Ma Thatcher groaned, pressing two fingers against her head. "I haven't thought about him in years. . .Claire put him on the stoop the day after your funeral. Caught him making time with another woman – and then we learned he'd gone and gotten a third into trouble! You shouldn't have lost your life over him."
"Oh great. . .hope Claire gave him a good old kick up the backside," Bonejangles grumbled. Then his tone turned worried. "She okay now?"
"Oh yes – she made an excellent marriage. All the girls did, save June." Ma Thatcher's face fell. "She's all grown up now, Sam. I wish you could have met her – she's nothing but sweetness. Reminded me so much of you. . .you've even got the same chin."
Bonejangles rubbed his jawbone. "Poor gal."
The crowd, which had gone silent with shock at the embrace, burst back into noisy life. "This is your mother, Bonejangles?"
"Holy jeez, I would never have guessed! Hello there!"
"Somebody get her a pint!"
"Hey, was he born wearing that hat or what?"
Ma Thatcher shied away as the questions started coming thick and hard. "Ah – er – I can't really – You know, I wasn't expecting such a welcoming party when I left the house," she admitted, edging behind her son. "I – well, it's nice, but – can we go somewhere a bit quieter for a little while?"
"Hold on, Ma – come on, guys, a little space?" Bonejangles called to the crowd.
"She's your mother!" someone yelled back. "I didn't know you had a mother!"
"What, you think I just sprang from the ground like this?"
"Come on, BJ, we're finally gonna get some blackmail meat on ya!" Chauncey shouted with a teasing grin. "What's the most embarrassing story you've got, Mrs. T?"
"Now now, leave them alone!"
Ms. Plum strode through the crowd like a battleship, corpses bouncing off her prodigious bosom. "Yes, it's all well and good to make a fuss," she continued as she came to a stop in front of them, frowning out at the crowd with her hands on her hips. "And I'm as happy to see a new arrival as the rest of you, but – what's your name, dear?"
"Thatcher – Carolina Thatcher," Ma Thatcher provided.
"But Mrs. Thatcher would like a moment alone with her child! Wouldn't we all like the same? Surely you can give her that?"
The sentiment touched something in the crowd – there was a brief murmuring, and then it broke apart, disparate corpses going back to their usual activities. Ms. Plum clapped her hands. "Right, that'll hold them off for a little bit anyway. In the meantime, we have a table right here in the back where you can talk," she said, taking both Bonejangles and Mrs. Thatcher in a firm grip.
"Thanks, Ms. P," Bonejangles said with a grateful smile.
"We'll leave you to get reacquainted then," Arthur said, stepping back.
"Oh no no, you three should stay!" Ms. Plum cried, letting go of Bonejangles to grab Lizzie before she could make her escape. "After all, you're almost family too now, aren't you?"
Ma Thatcher blinked, tilting her head at Lizzie. "Beg pardon?"
Bonejangles chuckled nervously, fidgeting with the brim of his hat. "Well, uh, ya see, me and Liz here. . . ."
Ma Thatcher's eyes grew round. "You – Samuel Thatcher, it took you dying to settle down?" she demanded, though her tone was mostly amused.
"It's all my fault, Mrs. Thatcher," Lizzie replied in her most deadpan voice. "I was rather inconveniently being five years old when he was alive."
Ma Thatcher laughed. "Oh dear, that wouldn't have been good at all, would it? But still, if you're together now, I've no objections to you staying. Or your parents," she added, smiling at the elder Liddells. "You were the first not to shout at me, after all."
"We know what it's like to be overwhelmed by that lot," Lorina said with a nod at the busy bar. "Your son had to plead for our space too."
"Come on, come on, you needn't be on your feet," Ms. Plum urged, tugging Lizzie and Ma Thatcher forward. "Get yourselves settled, and I'll whip up something special for the occasion. Found a new recipe for spider-egg tarts I've been meaning to try."
"Sounds great, Ms. P," Bonejangles said as they made their way to the table, tucked safely away in a shadowed corner. "Thanks again."
"Oh, trust me, it's a pleasure." Ms. Plum patted Ma Thatcher's hand, then bustled off toward the kitchen, humming.
Ma Thatcher watched her go. "Spider-egg tarts?" she repeated, wrinkling her nose.
"You'd best get used to it," Arthur said, he and Bonejangles pulling out chairs for the ladies. "The cuisine down here is – exotic, to say the least."
"Don't worry – you'll barely be able to taste it soon," Lizzie added, half-jokingly. She glanced curiously over at Bonejangles as she slid into her seat. "You know, your son told me Sam was his middle name."
"It is, but – well, who am I to force him to use a name he doesn't like?" Ma Thatcher said, smiling warmly at her child. Then her face darkened. "Besides, his father picked his first, and – my relationship with his memory is – complicated."
Lizzie nodded with an understanding smile, even as inside she went, Darn it, you couldn't have said it just once? "Yes, he also mentioned that Dad Thatcher – vanished one day not too long before June was born."
"Just walked out the door one day and never came back," Ma Thatcher confirmed, glaring at the flickering candles in the middle of the table. "I don't know who he got in trouble with – probably made a bet or two that he couldn't pay – but to pull that when we had little ones to feed and another baby on the way. . .if it weren't for Sam stepping so handily to the plate, and Claire and Nora and the rest after he – passed on. . . ."
Bonejangles patted her back. "There there, Ma. It was a long time ago, okay? I'm over it. And trust me, death ain't bad at all. You're gonna like it down here, I promise."
"I'll admit, I certainly got a more friendly welcome from all of them than I did from the village when John and I first came here," Ma Thatcher agreed, glancing behind her. "They've been treating you right, then?"
"Like gold – I own this place," Bonejangles said, beaming. "Well, much as anybody can own anything Downstairs, but it's my face on the sign. And I've got a band! Four blokes like me who ain't afraid to try something new. I'll have to bring 'em round so you can say hello."
"I'd like that." Ma Thatcher shook her head fondly. "Not even death can stop your music, can it?"
"Hell no," Bonejangles replied, puffing up his ribcage. "People down here love it, Ma. Finally found the audience I was waitin' for. We'll have to put on a set in your honor tonight!"
"Maybe tomorrow – give me a chance to settle in, Sam!" Ma Thatcher chuckled. "This is wonderful. All those letters you sent about tomatoes and hecklers and drunks giving you lip. . .maybe I made it to Heaven after all."
"It's close, if you know what you're doin'," Bonejangles told her. "But hey, we got all eternity to talk about me – what about my sisters? You said Claire kicked Roger to the curb – who'd she end up with, then?"
"Enrico Montebano," Ma Thatcher said, grinning. "Claire went looking for work in Bath, and happened upon him in a bookshop. A former bullfighter turned poet. He swept her right off her feet, and before I knew it, she was off to Spain to start a family. They're thrilled with each other – and her oldest, Carlos, is now a father himself!"
"Oh wow – I have a nephew?"
"You have quite a few nephews – and nieces too. We could probably start our own village with just Claire, Hester, and Hannah's children alone," Ma Thatcher giggled.
"Whoa." Bonejangles sat back, shaking his head as he tried to process this. "I'm so used to thinkin' of the littler ones as – well – little. . .they all go that far afield lookin' for a man?"
"No, most of them stayed relatively nearby – though Nettie ended up following Claire to Spain in the end, and Nora lives in France now. She was hired as a maid by Julien Merchant, and he ended up taking an interest in her. His parents were kind enough to pay for us all to come to the wedding." Her mouth twisted up in a darkly amused smile. "Though, deep down, I wonder if they were hoping that seeing the rest of us running around and looking shabby would convince him not to marry the 'help.'"
"Considering you said she's still over there, I assume it didn't work," Arthur said in his blandest voice. Switching to a more interested tone, he added, "You're a very multicultural family."
Ma Thatcher chuckled. "Yes, well, it all started with John and me. . .you've probably noticed my accent isn't the same as yours."
"Sam told me early on you're transplants from America," Lizzie nodded. "Which state?"
"Louisiana," Ma Thatcher said. "Though I myself was a recent transplant from Rhode Island at the time. . .probably why I fell in love with John in the first place," she added, leaning on her hand. "Everything was new and different and exciting, and he was so sweet. . .and if he liked to spend money a bit freely and linger too long at card tables, well, that was just a different kind of exciting. It wasn't until Sam was on his way that I realized what I wanted was 'dependable' instead." She sighed. "But you know, he was always kind to the children, did his best by them. He barely even raised his voice to me unless it was about his habits. Given some of the marriages I've seen, I was very lucky. I just – if only he'd had more sense! More control."
"That's the kicker," Bonejangles said, drumming his fingers on the table. "I still remember all those times you guys started tearing into each other about his card-playin' and dice-rollin' when you thought we were asleep. Dad always going on and on about how 'the next time will be the big one. . . .' We were all just as sick of that line as you by the time I was outta the house."
"Oh dear, I never wanted you to hear that. . .look, the man had his faults, but please don't hate your father," Ma Thatcher said, taking his hand. "If it weren't for him, you wouldn't be here. And there were good times too. I can't say I'm sorry I became Mrs. Thatcher. I'm just glad none of you fell victim to the same vices."
"Bonjour! I understand we have a rather special new arrival?"
"I'm just his mother," Ma Thatcher started with a laugh, turning around. "I don't see what all the fussssssss. . . ."
Lizzie managed to turn her laugh at poor Ma Thatcher's face into a cough. "Yes, this is Paul, the Head Waiter," she said, as Paul nodded politely. "It's all right – Mama almost screamed the first time she saw him."
"Hello," Ma Thatcher managed.
"Ms. Plum sends these along, with her compliments," Paul said, as unruffled as any true maitre'd by his new customer's staring. His assistant, Terry, passed out tall, bubbling glasses of a bright yellow liquid. "The tarts should be ready shortly. I have just been by the kitchen, and I can assure you that they smell magnifique!"
"Great, give her our thanks," Bonejangles said, picking up his glass and taking a swig. Bubbles dripped down the length of his chin. "Mmm. . .this is the real fancy stuff."
Ma Thatcher nodded vaguely. "Thank you. . . ." She watched, slack-jawed, as Paul was carried away to inquire after Mr. and Mrs. Carter's order a few tables down. "I – how?"
"One of the little peculiarities of the Land of the Dead," Arthur told her, gesturing with his glass and making the bubbly within swirl. "Going from my own personal observation – and my experience as a new arrival – when you first enter the Land, your body reflects the state it was in at the moment of your death. Of course, given the large variety of violent and painful ways to die, that unfortunately does not always mean that you're a whole corpse." He took a little sip of his drink. "Paul himself has stated that, to the best of his knowledge, the rest of him is likely in France. Given that otherwise he should have woken up as two separate parts in the same area, I can only assume that your deathly form also prioritizes the head and brain as the seat of your consciousness."
"In slightly smaller words, if your death involves having bits chopped off, unless they all end up in the same grave, there's a chance you'll be missing something when you arrive," Lizzie summed up for the rather stunned Ma Thatcher. "There's at least one other example running around here that did manage to keep all his bits – sort of. Mr. Ullman was touring a lumber mill he was looking to buy when he somehow fell on one of the saws."
"Sliced clean in half, from head to legs," Lorina said, zipping a finger down her body to demonstrate. "And he can control each separately if he likes. When he's walking about as one whole man, you barely even see the split – and then suddenly his head will come apart and he'll be carrying on two conversations at once."
"Good God." Ma Thatcher stared at her drink. "I take it back – this is far from the Heaven promised us by Pastor Johnston." She turned in her chair to scan the room. "Is he down here? He's been dead himself for a good twenty years. . .poor man probably thinks he's ended up in Hell. I was half-sure I had myself when I first opened my eyes, but – it didn't feel right, if that makes any sense."
"As much as anything does around here," Arthur nodded. "From what we can make of it, it's closer to the Catholic idea of Purgatory. Except that, instead of being a direct accounting for your sins, it's more – life with some of the messier parts filed off."
"And a few different ones tacked on," Lorina said, rubbing the spot where her nose had once been. "Remind us to tell you about No-Rot potions at the soonest opportunity."
"You r–" Ma Thatcher stopped, looking back at her son. ". . .I should have guessed that sooner, shouldn't I?"
"Not like it hurts," Bonejangles assured her. "Life down here's easier without the squishy bits. Anyway, yeah, I ran into old Johnston not long after I died – gave me a line about how 'God works in mysterious ways,' which I didn't buy much into after having my own horse beat me down. Haven't seen him around in ages, though. Either he's gone off to another village, or gone Up."
"Heaven and Hell do exist, from everything we've heard," Arthur told her. "Some people just take longer to get there than others. I believe it has something to do with 'unfinished business.' Those of us waiting for someone, or with a burning need to still complete a certain task, remain here, while those who feel like they've seen and done everything they can. . . ." He shrugged. "I have yet to see a passage either way in the flesh – or bone, depending on the case – but we have quite a few reliable eyewitness accounts."
"Interesting. . .Johnston's successor wouldn't like such talk," Ma Thatcher said thoughtfully. "He was quite firm that you only went to Paradise or Perdition – and judging by his sermons, he was convinced everyone except himself was on an express coach to the latter. I've never heard a man rail so furiously against sin, and Johnston could be a pretty ferocious preacher when he wanted to be."
"You talking about Pastor Galswells, Ma?" Bonejangles huffed, gulping down more of his drink and letting it splash over his bones. "Yeah, he can cram that stupid overlarge hat of his right up his arse."
Ma Thatcher hit him with a stern look. "Sam, I taught you better than that. I didn't care for Galswells myself, but you don't use that sort of language about a man of God."
"Yeah, well, you do when he's a shitter who's houndin' somebody for being 'devil spawn' when all the bloke wanted to do was make someone happy."
"Why would he do that? He's a strict man, but–"
"Perhaps you've heard something recently about a young man trying to marry a corpse?" Lizzie asked, touching Bonejangles's arm to calm him.
Ma Thatcher furrowed her brow. "I – it took a bit for it to wind back to us, and when it did, I thought that the village crier had finally run out of either news or sense. You're not saying it actually happened?"
"I knew the bride, Ma," Bonejangles said, voice softening. "Sweet girl named Emily Cartwell. Got murdered by a bounder named Eddie or Barkis or whatever, and vowed she'd wait until somebody else made her a proper wife. Fellow named Victor stumbled across her in the woods while practicing for his own wedding, accidentally proposed, and in the end we all went Upstairs for a while so they could try to get married the right way. Didn't actually happen, but now that Galswells is accusin' Victor of trying to steal everybody's souls."
Ma Thatcher sat blinking for a minute. ". . .And I missed all this how?"
"Well, we all showed up inside the village proper. . . ." Bonejangles awkwardly scratched his dripping chin. "I did think 'bout visitin', Ma, but – don't really look much like myself anymore, do I?"
"You probably would have scared poor June half to death," Ma Thatcher admitted, dropping her eyes. "But how did – I thought that when – and how can–" She groaned, putting her head in her hands. "Isn't death supposed to be the end of questions?"
"I'm afraid not," Lizzie said, sympathy pouring into her as she recalled how bewildering the Land of the Dead had been for her in the first hours – even the first fortnight – after her passing. "But we'll do our best to answer any you have."
"Of course," Arthur agreed, tapping his glass with a finger. "Some kind people back in Oxford did the same for us when we were new arrivals. It's our duty to pass on the favor."
"Thank you, I appreciate it." Ma Thatcher straightened up, putting on a brave smile. "So why don't we leave all that behind for a moment and start with something simple. Why are three people from Oxford in our tiny village?"
Now it was Lizzie's turn to fidget awkwardly. "That's, ah, actually one of the more complicated questions," she murmured, looking away.
"We're here because some cruel bastard thought it acceptable to kill my older daughter and burn our house down in response to being told 'no' for once in his life," Arthur said, voice dark. "And now he's got my younger daughter in his clutches, with distinctly ill intent."
"He's one of those blokes who thinks nippers are good for profit," Bonejangles added, narrowing his eye. "Pickin' up little boys and girls who don't got noplace else to go and. . . ." He knocked back a healthy slug of his drink. "Yeah. Since Elder Gutknecht got us all Upstairs, they came to see if he could help them go Above and rescue Alice. And drag that rotter Bumby before a judge if they can."
"We have a plan, but unfortunately we have to wait until Halloween to implement it," Lorina said with a sigh. "So we thought we might as well pass the wait in good company."
Ma Thatcher gaped briefly – then her eyes turned to stormy slits. "That's – my God, I am so sorry for you. What an awful, awful way to die. . . ."
"It was," Lizzie nodded, staring at her lap. "He took everything from me – from all of us. And got away scot-free. It makes me wish that I'd bashed his head in against the mirror when he cornered me in the loo at Waterloo Station."
"I wish I'd been able to poison his tea one of those times he forced his way over," Lorina confessed, rubbing Lizzie's back. "But back then we didn't know the difference between merely creepy and evil incarnate. . .it really is a shame not even magic will let you change the past."
"Cornered you in the–" Ma Thatcher drummed a furious beat on the table with her fingers. "For God's sake – do excuse my continual taking of the Lord's name in vain, it's just – it's barbaric, that's what it is!" She slammed her first against the wood, making all the glasses jump. "John acts the perfect gentleman throughout our courtship and we have to flee the whole damn United States for it, but this bastard follows you into the toilet and kills your whole family and no one says a word?!"
"Um – well, to be fair, he managed to convince everyone Upstairs that the fire was an accident, caused by our cat," Arthur said, tilting his head and frowning. "And no one but us really knew the full extent of his obsession. . .you had to leave behind your home country just for falling in love?"
Ma Thatcher and Bonejangles both stiffened. "Oh – ah—um – you see – there were – complications," Mrs. Thatcher stammered, switching to drawing nervous circles on the wood.
"The gambling?" Lizzie guessed. "Made enemies of the wrong people?"
"Well, I can't imagine that helped – he was always getting in over his head, silly man – but. . .when it came to us. . . ." She looked away. "Our relationship wasn't – approved. By anyone."
"Not even your parents?" Part of Lizzie felt guilty about prying – it seemed a tender subject – but her curiosity had been sparked. And if she wasn't quite as bad as Alice, she was still pretty eager to stick her head down dark holes to see where they led.
Ma Thatcher laughed sourly. "No. I thought they'd be the exception – after all, we were supposed to be from the more 'civilized' North. But I guess saying they should be free didn't extend to being free to marry me."
Lizzie exchanged a puzzled look with her parents. "Beg pardon?"
Ma Thatcher let out a heavy sigh. "John – John was black."
There was a brief silence as the Liddells digested this. "In Louisiana?" Arthur finally said. "I don't know that much about the States, but I was given to assume–"
"Oh, there's a handful of free black families around – some who managed to get money to pay their way out, others who were released by kind owners," Ma Thatcher said. "John and his family were the latter case – their master gave them their freedom for helping save his son's life. But as you might imagine, the white folk don't like them mingling – especially with white women. Even white women from hated New England. We escaped just ahead of a lynch mob – took the first boat we could across the sea."
"Yeah. . .didn't want to tell you this, but I'm pretty sure the reason I got stuff thrown at me in those pubs and on stage was because I took after Dad," Bonejangles confessed, with an uncharacteristically anxious glance at Lizzie. "Well, mostly – hair was closer to Ma's, for some reason."
"June ended up the same way, actually – I have no idea how that happened," Ma Thatcher admitted. "The other girls. . .Claire, Nora, Nettie, Hannah, and Gladys are light enough to pass as farm girls with a good tan. The others are definitely their father's daughters. Didn't make us very popular in the village."
"Right. The more I hear about living Burtonsville, the less I like it," Lizzie muttered. "So that's why you exiled yourself outside the walls?"
"Well, that and hoping it would keep John away from gambling. . .for all the good it did," Ma Thatcher added, rolling her eyes. "Oh, the good times were good, but if only he'd had the sense to stop before whatever happened that made him disappear! Maybe he did it to keep us safe, but – well, it was easier on all of us when we were both around and no one felt different."
Bonejangles patted her arm. "It's okay, Ma. You may not have gotten me before that stupid horse, but all the girls got paired up eventually, right? Proves there's enough people in the world who don't care about skin."
"Almost – I wasn't able to get June matched up before that 'stomach upset' took me," Ma Thatcher reminded him, inverted commas snapping neatly into place around her illness. "Oh dear, I hate leaving her all alone. She's cheerful almost to a fault, but – it's hard enough on a woman on her own, never mind one who's. . .mixed. I hope she can find someone who won't care that her skin and her hair don't match. Or, at the very least, can get herself a good position where it won't matter quite so much."
"There's always a call for maids of all sorts," Lorina said encouragingly. "Or a cook, if she has any skill there."
"Oh, yes, in fact. She's an absolute marvel in the kitchen – I'm going to miss her meals." Ma Thatcher rubbed her stomach nostalgically. "Particularly because I barely got to enjoy any before I went. There's nothing like being both starving and ready to throw up at the same time."
Bonejangles made a sympathetic noise in the back of the throat he didn't have. "I'm sorry you had to go like that, Ma," he said, rubbing her back. "Sounds awful."
"It was. . .though I guess it's not a patch on what happened to you," Ma Thatcher admitted, biting her lip as she looked at her son. "I swear, if we'd known you were out there–"
"I know," Bonejangles cut in. "My own fault for deciding to ride through the rain for Roger. The arse," he added.
"Sam, stop using that word," Mrs. Thatcher scolded. "There are ladies present."
"Yeah, well, the lady who hooked up with me uses worse when she's in a real mood."
"Only once," Lizzie said, trying and failing not to giggle.
"But what a once! There's a cabbie out there who's been scared to a whole new shade of blue because he took us the wrong way when we were racin' to get here. Plus there's all the favorite nicknames for the bastard who sent you down here."
"Oh, he doesn't count," Lizzie said with a careless wave of her hand. "It's the same way you'd talk about dog muck on your shoe – and I'd rather have dog muck than him around me."
Ma Thatcher looked between them, then smiled at Lizzie. "You simply had to be eight."
"It's not really my fault you had the boy first," Lizzie returned, grinning. "Though trust me, I've wished more than once we had matched up better when we were alive." Her good cheer faded. "Not that I think it would have stopped Bumby at all. . .he probably would have gone after you first, Sam. 'Disappeared' you and made up some story about you running off with another girl."
"If he'd have tried that, I would have shown him how I handled one of the guys who did try to rob me on the road," Bonejangles said with conviction. "I got a bloody nose, but he got a busted arm and a night stuck up a tree."
"You chased him up a tree?"
"Nah, he chased himself up there to get away from me wailing on him with a branch," Bonejangles grinned.
Lizzie entertained herself with the image of a bruised and battered Bumby clinging to the trunk of an old oak, one arm bent at a funny angle, while below Bonejangles prowled round and round like a wolf. "Too bad there's no convenient trees in Whitechapel. . .though I suppose we could chase him up a building."
"And then follow him up and dangle him off the side?"
"If time permits," Lizzie said with a nasty grin.
"Here we are, folks! Fresh from the oven!"
Ms. Plum marched gleefully up to the group, balancing on her head a platter almost as big around as she was. Piled high upon it were greyish tarts, each sporting a cluster of tiny white eggs in the middle and decorated with threads of spider silk. "Only the best for our new guest," she said, beaming at Ma Thatcher as she deposited the platter on the table.
"Thank you," Ma Thatcher replied, giving the cook a rather fixed smile in return.
"They look delicious," Lorina said with rather more enthusiasm. She plucked one off the top and took a big bite, silk clinging to the sides of her mouth. "Mmm. . .you used a bit of grave dirt in these, didn't you?"
"Oh, always! Brings out the flavor," Ms. Plum nodded. Ma Thatcher did her level best not to look horrified. "How are things over here?"
"We're getting along just fine," Lizzie assured her.
"I knew you would. Shall I send Paul around to top up your drinks?"
"I think we're fine for now," Ma Thatcher said hastily, holding up a hand. "But thank you."
"My pleasure! I'll pop back over again in a little while – can't leave Howard alone for too long, you know how he is." Ms. Plum clapped Ma Thatcher on the shoulder, then hurried off again.
Ma Thatcher looked after her. "How is he?" she asked after a moment.
"He gets the pots and pans stuck on his head – or his ar – well, bum," Bonejangles edited himself, selecting a tart. "You really should give one a go, Ma. Ms. Plum's the best cook we've got down here."
"You expect me to eat spider eggs, Sam." Ma Thatcher squinted as a chunk of silk and eggs tumbled through the open part of his jaw and stuck to his thigh. "You expect me to eat at all, actually. How can you even taste that?"
Bonejangles shrugged. "Just happens, Ma. You got any theories, Mr. Liddell?"
"Just empirical evidence – er, things I've seen," Arthur corrected himself. "Sorry, when you're a Dean, old habits die hard. . .but losing the organ necessary for the sense doesn't seem to remove the sense itself. Every skeleton I've met has been able to see and hear just fine. Though death does degrade at least smell, touch, and taste – the reason we're eating spider eggs and grave dirt is because we wouldn't be able to taste the tarts at all otherwise."
"And even then it's not much," Lorina added, a touch sadly. "It's all over by the first half-hour down here, more or less. Have you noticed that you can't feel your seat cushion?"
Ma Thatcher poked her chair. "No," she admitted. "I – I can tell it's there, but that's about it. I can't even feel my dress, and it always made me itch about the waist. . . ." She rubbed her forehead. "I've a lot to learn about how things work down here, don't I?"
"Like I said, we're happy to share everything we know," Arthur assured her. He pushed the platter toward her. "You're sure you won't have at least a bite?"
"Not like it can kill ya, Ma," Bonejangles wheedled. "And it'll make Ms. Plum happy."
Ma Thatcher eyed the platter, then gingerly picked up a tart. "If I feel anything crawling on my tongue, I'm blaming the both of you," she informed the two men.
"They've been cooked – they have to be safe," Arthur insisted. "Imagine you're eating caviar."
"I've never had caviar."
"Which should make it all the easier to imagine! In fact, these are probably better – every tin of caviar I've eaten has been salted to within an inch of its life."
Lizzie scooted a bit closer to Bonejangles as Ma Thatcher eyed her tart. "So – I assume your being mixed is another thing you didn't plan on telling me," she said, as deadpan as possible.
Bonejangles winced. "I – I was worried, okay? I'd have to buy out the stock over at the second-hand shop before I could come close to counting how many guys and gals gave me lip – or worse – for bein' darker than they were. Hell, even down here, jerks liked to throw nasty words and pint glasses at me until I decided to heck with the No-Rot and let it all slough away. That's what I meant about life being easier without the squishy bits. The faster my skin went, the faster I was just – one of the guys."
Lizzie touched the rod of bone that was all that was left of her throat. "I can understand that – but did you truly think I'd be one of the nasties?"
"No, but you gotta understand – sometimes, an idea gets in your head, and it's really really hard to unthink it."
Lizzie made a face as she thought about the imp hissing in her ear. "Right. . .and I guess you really haven't known me and mine for that long. . .Papa was always very firm about treating people as people, though," she added, sitting up a little straighter. "I never had much occasion to meet black people, but we had tea with some Chinese once thanks to Mr. Radcliffe's enduring obsession with the East. The accents were a bit funny, but they were perfectly nice company. And I think the States dragging Africans out of Africa to work their fields for them is cruel."
"You don't know the half of it, Liz – Dad 'entertained' me with some horror stories growin' up," Bonejangles said, shuddering. "Made me glad the worst I got on the road was bottles and tomatoes being chucked at me. If I'd had to watch out for a noose being slipped 'round my neck at every stop, never would have left home." He chewed another bite of tart. "Orientals for tea, huh? Well, I guess they invented it. . .everybody in Oxford so open-minded?"
"I only wish," Lizzie replied, rolling her eyes. "Our guests were talked about for weeks, and I've never heard so many poor impressions in my life. Bumby in particular was of the opinion they should have been put in a zoo. . .oh, he would have loathed you. Claimed you were tainting me with 'impure blood.'" She snorted. "Though, of course, he probably would have said the same if you were pure white and could trace your lineage back to King Arthur."
Bonejangles laughed. "Yeah, well, screw him. Him and all the jackasses who think like him. I don't care anymore if the whole world likes me. The gang 'round here likes me." He took her hand. "And you like me. That's good enough for me."
Lizzie nodded. "Good enough for me too." She gave his clavicle a poke. "For the record, though, what were you planning on telling me when we drank our False Flesh potions and I saw you as you were when you were alive?"
". . .er. . .really, really bad sunburn?"
Lizzie covered her eyes with a hand. "You're terrible, you know that?"
"Yeah, but I thought that's what you liked about me."
"Fortunate for you, yes."
". . .This actually isn't that bad."
Bonejangles turned back to his mother with a grin. "See? Told ya, Ma! You'll be kicking up your heels to the beat in no time."
"I hope so." Ma Thatcher chewed, then swallowed with an effort. "Speaking of which, you still need to introduce me to this band of yours. And you have to tell me how you met Lizzie here!"
"I'll call 'em over," Bonejangles said, standing up. "You'll like 'em, Ma – good guys. We were on tour together when I ran into Liz in Oxford."
Lizzie nodded. "We'll give you the whole story," she promised, leaning forward. "And then, afterward, I'd love to hear your take on a certain tale Sam's told me about a cooking accident in late September. . . ."