In The Land of the Dead
". . .is it just me, or. . . ."
"Or does Houndsditch look kinda like a dollhouse?" Bonejangles finished for her. He squinted at the deep purple facade through the rusted iron of the fence, then dropped his head against one shoulder, as if a change in perspective might make all the difference. "Creepy one, that's for sure. Don't think my sisters woulda liked playing with it."
"Alice might have – in the sense of pretending to grow giant and trampling it underfoot," Lizzie said, her heart giving a little twist as she remembered her sister stomping around her room after a slice of cake, crushing invisible enemies. "Mind you, I would have been right behind her mashing every last splinter into the floorboards."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, pretty sure it doesn't look like this Upstairs," Bonejangles shrugged. "Unless Bumby's got a thing for grapes."
"Never bothered to find out." Lizzie let her gaze travel from the top of the urine-yellow roof down to the dull greeny-gray of the front stoop. "But you know, even if this place was painted in the most cheerful rainbow imaginable, it'd still have his stink all over it. I – I don't even know how to describe it. It's just – there."
"Yeah, I get what you mean," Bonejangles nodded, eye narrowing as he pulled his jaw back to approximate a frown. "Whole place screams something ain't right."
"Look, we just said we weren't interested – Lizzie? Did you find it yet?"
"Yes, Mama!" Lizzie called, glancing over her shoulder. "It's just around the corner here!"
"Oh good – we don't want any! For goodness sake, find someone else to pester!"
Lorina and Arthur hurried onto the street, chased by an indignant voice. "Who doesn't like a jellied eyeball?"
"Us! Shove off!" Arthur yelled back, then turned back to his daughter with an exasperated sigh. "Teach us to try and cut through the marketplace. I thought living vendors were pushy."
"We must have been accosted by five or six people with trays within one block of stalls," Lorina agreed, scowling. "Though that last was definitely the most persistent. Whatever happened to respecting a customer's no?"
"It's Whitechapel – I'm not sure they know the meaning of the word," Lizzie pointed out. Her voice went dark. "Bumby must have fit in immediately."
Arthur put a hand on her shoulder, then looked up at the house before them. "So this is the place, huh? I was expecting something a little more dour."
"It's the Land of the Dead – only the skeletons aren't brightly colored," Lizzie reminded him.
"Yeah, and I hear even that ain't true in Mexico," Bonejangles said with a chuckle.
Arthur didn't even crack a smile. "I don't like it. It's like candy coating over a cockroach. It gives the place an innocence it shouldn't have."
"I'm not sure I'd call any house with a roof that color innocent," Lorina declared. In a softer voice, she added, "How bad do you think it is inside?"
Lizzie shuddered. "I dread to find out."
Arthur squeezed her shoulder. "You don't have to go in today – or any other day," he said. "No one's going to make you."
"I know, but – the whole point of us leaving Burtonsville and coming here a month early was to find the place and see what we were getting into. What the neighborhood looks like, ways to sneak in so I don't have to confront the rat bastard until I'm ready. . . ." She swallowed. "And where Alice sleeps so I can get her out of it right away."
"And where the toilet is so we don't accidentally fall in while on a good rampage," Bonejangles joked. He rolled his eye from right to left thoughtfully. "Though I don't suppose a place like this has a fancy privy. . .think I could get away with stickin' old Bumbles' head down it?"
Lizzie snorted. "It would serve him right and no mistake. We'll see if we have the time." She reached out and grasped one of the flaking iron bars, her cheer fading like the flash of her father's camera. "Does anyone else feel like we're right back at Rutledge?"
"The thought had crossed my mind," Arthur admitted. "But we survived that trip, and we can survive this one too." He offered up his most encouraging smile. "We're behind you all the way, Lizzie."
Lizzie managed one back. "Thank you. . .though I think I'd like one of you in front of me just at the moment."
"Allow me," Bonejangles said, stepping up. The front gate screeked open at his touch."Into the great unknown, folks. We got an orphanage to map."
Lizzie's boots clicked on the cracked path as she followed him onto the grounds. The Home seemed to glare at her as she neared, daring her to actually come inside. Lizzie glared right back, refusing to be cowed. Did you hear my father? I made it through Rutledge with my wits intact! Squeaking wheels filled her ears as she recalled a doughy face grinning at her, and running out of the building like her heels were on fire. Mostly. . .but that was ten years ago. I'm much better now. You may have horrors of your own, but they'll be a pale imitation of what –
Was that someone watching me?
Lizzie paused, squinting suspiciously into one of the upstairs windows. She could have sworn she'd seen a face peeping through the broken panes. "Mama? Did you see that?"
"See what?" Lorina asked, following her gaze.
Lizzie pursed her lips, then shook her head. "Never mind. Maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me." Or my memory. . .ugh, I hope Bumby didn't hire on his own Earl at any point. Dealing with an overly-curious orderly once was enough for one – er – death-time. She banished the thought and held her head high, mounting the front step and pushing open the front doors with Bonejangles.
Inside. . .was actually something approaching homey, much to her surprise. She'd expected cold and utilitarian, much like the asylum's waiting room – everything rotted and moldy, but otherwise a little too white to be comfortable. Instead, she was confronted by wallpaper hanging in peels of green, and dark brown tables nibbled extensively by woodworm. Toys littered the floor – a full pack of cards spread itself across the boards, and tin soldiers lazed about near the fireplace. There was also a dollhouse, to Lizzie's mild amusement, painted in a much nicer combination of blue and white. Past that was – "A piano?"
Lizzie frowned at the instrument, which grinned at her with a mouth of yellowed, crooked keys. "I didn't think he was musical. And when would he find the time to play between keeping up appearances and – making his backroom deals?"
"Maybe he has it to help with the former," Arthur suggested, frowning. "I've heard of lord and ladies buying harps and such just for the look of it – why shouldn't he? Probably claims it exposes the children to a bit of culture."
"He would too." Lizzie touched a key, and the piano glonged in response. "He hasn't been taking very good care of it."
"Maybe we can fix it up before we leave," Bonejangles said, running his fingers over the top. "Makes my ribs ache to see it just rottin' away over here."
"The things people will do to look smart," Arthur grumbled. "At least it's better than hunting trophies on the wall – oh. Though I think I would prefer a pair of antlers over the fireplace to that."
Lizzie turned around to see, and immediately regretted it. Staring out into the world from the confines of an oak frame was the man himself, seated in an armchair surrounded by unhappy children. Age had done little to lessen the smugness radiating from every pore. . .although. . . . "His nose is nowhere near that straight. And I think he told the artist to give him a stronger chin too." She stuck up two fingers while pfffting. "You're an ugly son of a bitch and no amount of paint will ever disguise it."
"Hear hear," Bonejangles agreed, though a bit distantly. "4, 7, 13. . .why the hell are the kids wearing numbers?"
Lizzie took another look, tearing her eyes from her tormentor. Sure enough, each child standing around Bumby sported a bib printed with a seemingly-random numeral. "Probably easier on him if he never has to learn their names," she growled. "I'm honestly surprised he has toys for them, given their ultimate destination."
"Another case of keeping up appearances, I think," Arthur commented, lightly tapping a one-legged soldier with his foot. "If he doesn't at least keep up the pretense of being an orphanage, the police would be around, and he can't have that."
"You think such thoughts would drive him to fill these shelves," Lorina commented, investigating the bookcases lining the walls. "There's barely anything here, and even less that's appropriate for small people. . . ." She grabbed a volume at random. "Oh look, A Short Course of History. One of your favorites, Lizzie."
Lizzie huffed. "A pound says he picked it up for show and he's touched it as much as he's touched the piano."
"'Nother one of those fancy ones nobody actually likes?" Bonejangles asked waggishly.
"It's boring as sin. The author is so dry he could convince the ocean to evaporate with a few well-chosen words." Lizzie smiled nostalgically. "Alice couldn't stand to either read it or have it read to her. Nanny practically had to tie her to her chair to get her to learn her history."
"Well, hey, who likes learnin' about a bunch of. . .dead. . .right, yeah, you're history now, Sam," Bonejangles told himself, pressing his fingers against his forehead. "Sheesh, now I feel bad for every time I ignored Ma durin' lessons."
"It is odd to think of yourself in that way, isn't it?" Lizzie agreed, her stomach twisting just slightly. "Why do we have to learn when Harold was killed? It happened ages ago! Not like I'm ever going to meet the man. Or William the Conqueror, come to think of it." "I'm not looking forward to seeing how far the world's moved on without me."
"Neither am I," Arthur confessed. "Upstairs is akin to the Moon at this point for me."
"I don't think it's that bad," Lorina said, absently paging through the book. "Most things in London are in the same places they've always been. Oxford hasn't changed too much, from what we've heard. A few families moving out, a few moving in. . .things seem to be going along fine at the university too."
"Yes, but – there's been talk of men exploring the Arctic, and someone inventing reliable electric light, and new machinery in factories that isn't nearly as dangerous as before. . .and I don't get to be a part of any of it," Arthur groused. "I don't even get to read about it in the paper! Going Upstairs and having to face all those changes, all those incredible discoveries, head-on. . .it's going to be an awful–" He stopped abruptly, glancing guiltily at his daughter.
"Tease," Lizzie finished for him, ignoring the way the word curled angrily on her tongue. "It's all right, Papa. I understand, really."
"So do I," Lorina assured him. "But it's only been twelve years. I don't think things could have come so far in just a–"
And then it was her turn to stop dead, staring into space for a moment before whirling in a swirl of skirts to frown at the open doorframe behind her. "Mama?" Lizzie asked, puzzled.
Lorina poked her head through the frame, turning it left and right. "I could have sworn I felt someone looking at me."
Well, that ruled out her eyes having a jape before. "I thought I saw a face peeping out at us from upstairs before we came in!" Lizzie joined her mother in peering into the hallway beyond. "I didn't get a good look before it vanished, though. . . ." She bit her lip, fingers deftly seeking out that loose skin around her wrist. "You don't think–"
"If it is Alice, she's taken to going around on all fours," Lorina said, pulling back. "These eyes were definitely lower than those of a twenty-year-old girl."
"A child, then?" Arthur scrubbed at his beard, baffled. "But what child would want to stay here?"
"One who wasn't one of Bumby's regulars, maybe," Bonejangles suggested. "Lots of nippers just want a roof over their head."
"Don't see why, it never rains here. . .though I guess the sudden appearance of snow in winter would send me running for cover too. . . ." Lizzie ventured cautiously into the hall, and spotted a sampler hanging on the near wall. "'Earn Your Keep.' Well, how lovely. Good to know he really has the best interests of the children here at heart." She glared at it, then eyed the door in front of her suspiciously. "Do you think this is his office?"
"Let's see," Lorina said, stepping forward to open it.
It wasn't – instead, what greeted their eyes when they peeped in was a bedroom. Or, well, it was a bed shoved into a room, at least. There was also a wardrobe slowly turning into splinters in the opposite corner, another sadly-empty bookcase, and what looked like a wine rack repurposed as general shelving on the near wall. "He's been taking house decorating tips from Mr. Payne, I see," Lizzie noted, shaking her head.
"Who?" Bonejangles asked, looking in over her head.
"Fellow in Oxford who often preached about the pleasures of the 'simple life' and the 'humble home.' I think this might be a little too humble even for him."
"Hmph. Let him sleep in a bed like that and see how much he likes 'simple,'" Bonejangles muttered, shaking his head and making his eye rattle. "Looks just like the one I had growin' up, and it was all lumps. Plus I had to bunch up with Claire half the time."
"There's another door behind us," Lorina noted, turning around to take a closer look at the wall that separated foyer from hallway. "Let's see. . . ." She went back and tried it. "No, just a coat closet. Oh, but here – is the dining room! Very cramped, I must say."
"It's not a particularly big house," Lizzie pointed out, coming to see. She frowned at the long table crammed into the thin room. "Though you're right, that's barely enough room for one full-grown man, never mind a horde of children. . .I guess that door at the end leads to the kitchen?"
"It must – otherwise they'd never have a hot supper." Lorina drummed her fingers on the door. "Not that I can see Bumby as a cook. Probably considers it beneath him."
"Mmmm. . .and I don't think they teach the culinary arts in Rutledge," Lizzie agreed. "I hope Alice isn't going hungry."
"If she is, we'll make sure he pays for it," Lorina assured her daughter, taking her shoulder and leading them back into the main hall, where the menfolk were investigating the other doors on offer. "Anything interesting?"
"Another bedroom," Arthur said, one down from "Earn Your Keep." "This one with a linen press and the most ink-stained desk I've ever seen in my life."
Lizzie popped her head in. "Maybe this is Alice's room, then," she suggested. "She always loved to draw when she was small."
"Yes – but didn't she favor pencils?" Lorina murmured thoughtfully.
"She could have switched to ink. Nothing forbidding it, right? Though I suppose one of the children could be responsible." She sighed. "At least, until he was done with them. . .I wonder how many novelists and poets and artists we've lost because of him."
"I don't like to think about it," Arthur said, shaking his head. "How does a man like that even come into being? I'll grant that he suffered tragedy at a young age, but – there's no excuse for the things he's done."
"Maybe some people are just born wrong," Bonejangles suggested, coming up behind them. "I mean, you get folks who start out deaf or blind or with one leg shorter than the other. If it can happen to your body, why not your brain?"
"Astute observation," Arthur told him. "I think we'd all have been happier if Bumby had been born crippled in his flesh, though. What have you found?"
"Bathroom's at the end of the hall," he reported, jerking his thumb to the last door available. "Place has got runnin' water and everything. And indoor privy! Shoved into a closet so you can barely close the door, but hell, I'd take that over runnin' through the snow any day."
"You're acting as if you're going to be using it while we're Upstairs," Lizzie said, amused.
"Wish I could. Like I said, love to jam his head down there and then do a big old–"
"I'll tell your mother what I think you're about to say," Lorina said, though she was grinning.
"You and her got way too friendly way too fast," Bonejangles grumbled, tipping his hat over his left eye socket. "Besides, if there's anybody who deserves to be buried in shit, ain't it Bumby?"
"Maybe we can bribe a man with a manure cart," Lizzie said, letting herself drift into a rather stinky daydream for a moment. "But right now, I want to know where he does his business. Perhaps, if we're very lucky, there'll be something we can take with us to show the police the truth about him."
"All for that," Bonjangles agreed, pulling his hat back up. "Let's go."
They rounded the corner, which didn't have much to interest them beyond a rickety side table piled with old copies of the Illustrated. Arthur picked up one, taking care not to damage the brittle pages too much. "'Fire at match factory,'" he told them. "'Six girls missing.' Such a shame."
"But perhaps inevitable," Lizzie said pessimistically, continuing onward. "I just hope they – went. . . ."
She trailed off. Before her was the stairs to the first floor. . .and a pile of old trunks and suitcases, some with moth-eaten dresses and holey shoes poking out of them. There were also some toys – the upper half of a croquet mallet, with its handle snapped in twain; a rocking horse who had lost all his paint in his last race; and – a doll which had lovely waves of blond hair, but no eyes or arms – or dress, for that matter. It was sitting right in front of her, head twisted to one side, bum in the air. Suddenly Lizzie wondered if they would need the toilet after all – whatever was left of her stomach was doing a pretty good impression of being sick. "I – what are these doing here? Are they all from his – patients?"
The others came to have a look. "Perhaps," Arthur said, as a rat poked a skeletal nose out of the mess. "I can't imagine what he'd need with a rocking horse."
"But – but why keep them when he's – the children who come here don't – I–"
Lorina reached over and plucked the distracting doll from its resting place, tossing it in a corner. Another rat squealed in protest and skittered down a nearby hole. "He might recycle some things with – new patients. It's cheaper to give a child hand-me-downs than buy them new clothes and toys, after all."
"My sisters could write you the book on that, I bet," Bonejangles nodded. "Or maybe he just throws the stuff down here and forgets about it when the nippers – head out."
Lizzie's eyes darted toward the doll, now lying in the shadows. Her jaw clenched. "Or maybe they're trophies. I wouldn't put it past him to keep a reminder of every little one he's broken just because he can. God, I hope he didn't take anything from our house."
"I doubt it," Arthur assured her. "What could he have grabbed after setting the place on fire? Not to mention having any of our possessions on him might have made the police suspect foul play. . .unless that 'friend' of his paid them off," he added in a darker voice. "How he got in so well with Mr. Dommartin is beyond me. . . ."
"Don't ask me – I don't get how anybody could spent five minutes around the guy without sockin' him right in the jaw," Bonejangles said, then squinted at the wall. "Hey, there's another door back here!"
"Really?" Lizzie said, leaning forward. Actually, yes, she could just see an outline of one in the dark. "Where does that one go?"
"Hang on. . . ." Bonejangles picked his way through the luggage and disappeared through the opening. Moments later, he was back. "Back outside – guessin' it's what counts as the 'servants' entrance,'" he said, putting on a mock 'lord' voice. "We'll have to remember it for later, Liz."
"Indeed," Lizzie said, glancing at the doll again. "I just hope the Upstairs version is a little less disturbing. . .speaking of which, we should probably see what the second floor holds."
As it turned out, mostly more bedrooms. Right at the top of the stairs was a large room labeled 'Girls' Room' in childish script, containing bunk beds, a few more amputee dolls, and some old crackly drawings of evil-looking men in top hats. Next to it was its male twin, sporting crayon sketches of angry dogs and more cards blanketing the floor. And right next to that. . .Lizzie opened the door to find a large double bed with a curved headboard, a wardrobe that actually looked new, a nice red carpet on the floor, a bookshelf filled with books, and an end table – sporting a pair of cracked and bent glasses. She instantly reversed out of the room, shuddering. "Well, this is where he sleeps," she said, wiping her hand on her dress.
Arthur took a look and tched. "Gave himself the best of everything, I see," he muttered. "But we already knew he wasn't going to spend his profits on the children. . . ." His brow furrowed. "Though that does leave us with a puzzle. He sleeps up here, those two rooms are for the current 'patients,' and one bedroom below belongs to Alice. . .so who's in the other?"
"Older kid?" Bonejangles offered up. "Or maybe he's got an assistant?"
"In running the orphanage or – his other business?"
Bonejangles ground his teeth together. "Dunno. . .can't tell which is worse either. Your Alice gettin' stuck with two assholes like that, or somebody else gettin' the same from him as she is."
"I think the latter – if only by a hair." Lizzie turned around to look down the bend at the last remaining door in the building. "So that must be his office. Where it all happens."
Arthur touched her shoulder again. "No one's making you," he said. "If you want to just turn around and leave now, I'm happy to do so." Lorina and Bonejangles nodded.
Lizzie was tempted. . .but the idea of finding something, anything that she could use to make sure Bumby was locked up for whatever remained of his life pushed her onward. "We've come this far," she said, straightening her back. "We might as well see and get it over with."
Arthur nodded, a proud if strained smile on his face. "That's my girl." Moving as a single unit, they made their way into Bumby's base of operations.
Once again, the actual room didn't match up to Lizzie's imagination – which was a very good thing, as her imagination had been picturing things like little boys and girls locked up in cages like chickens being transported to market, or an oozing, rotted version of Bumby sitting inside and snatching her away from her family before anyone could even scream. Instead the office beyond the door was almost frustratingly ordinary. A fainting couch with its head pointed toward the broken windows, fluff poking from the cushions; an armchair across from it, threadbare and sitting uneven on the floor; a desk behind both, chewed eagerly by woodworm and rats; more shelves on the back wall, again largely empty but with some old yellowed books thrown in for color; a globe with the continents peeling off; a rug which sported yellowish patterns obviously not intended by the weaver. It wasn't pretty, but neither did it suggest anything untoward happening inside. Well, did you expect life to be like a book and give you some obvious clue to his evil? she scolded herself. Were you hoping to walk in and have a signed confession sitting on the blotter? If he hasn't done it Upstairs, it's certainly not going to appear Down!
Arthur edged past her and approached the desk, pulling open a drawer. "Nothing but old pen nibs and dry inkwells," he reported. He yanked on the next one down, and got a squeal. "And a nest of rats here, do excuse me. . . ."
Lizzie went to the bookshelves and started picking through the contents. "Psychiatry book, psychiatry book. . .psychiatry book in French. . . ."
Lorina checked a cabinet shoved up against the right wall. Something crinkled in her hand. "Well – there are these, but I don't know how useful they are," she said, holding up torn and faded paper bibs. Inked on the top one was a large numeral 5. "Just like in the painting."
Lizzie made a face at them. "I think they're suspicious, but if he had a bloody portrait done with them without anyone Upstairs thinking anything of it. . . ." She roughly shoved a book on phrenology back into place. "I wanted a diary! Or a letter, or something!"
"He's got a wastebasket back here – and it's full o'ashes," Bonejangles reported from behind a trunk in the corner. "Hate to tell ya this, Liz, but I think he's still burnin' shit to keep himself from getting caught."
"Oh, of course he is." Lizzie kicked the desk to relieve her feelings, prompting a round of angry chittering from the rats inside. "Ugh. . .I guess it was a long shot, but still. . .after that doll downstairs, I was so hoping. . . ."
"I know, dear," Lorina said, coming over to give her a quick hug. "It would have been nice, wouldn't it? But it doesn't seem we're going to be that lucky."
"If there is any more evidence Upstairs, it probably hasn't been reflected down here yet," Arthur said. "Buildings that are still standing above generally only show what's been destroyed within them, right? With a few decorative exceptions?"
"Should be how it goes," Bonejangles nodded. "Which means those bibs gotta be long gone Upstairs. Guess we could take 'em with us, but – what do you say? 'Hey, this guy's makin' his orphans wear numbers?' Weird, but you don't start wearin' the broad arrows for it."
"Unfortunately." Lizzie rubbed her arms. "I hate being here. Everything about this place makes me feel like he's lurking right over my shoulder, ready to pounce."
"I think we've seen all we need to, then," Arthur said, closing up the desk. "Why don't we head back to our rooms at the Langham and start talking about how we're going to make this man face justice?"
"Fine by me," Lizzie nodded. "I just hope–"
There were a pair of eyes burning into the small of her back.
Lizzie whirled around, some tiny part of her (what remained of the imp, she guessed), certain she was about to come face to face with that bloody bastard taking a good long admiring look at her arse again. Instead, she found herself staring at a little girl, red hair done up in a messy braid under a frilly cap. She squeaked and vanished around the door as Lizzie's eyes met hers. "What – wait!" Lizzie said, darting into the hall. "Come back! We mean you no harm!"
The hem of a tattered skirt swished around the corner – Lizzie followed it to see the girl duck into the Girls' Room and slam the door behind her. She hurried over and knocked. "It's all right," she called, hoping she sounded friendly enough. "We're – we're just visiting. I'm Lizzie. Lizzie Liddell."
There was a brief, agonizing silence – then the door creaked open, and two blue eyes peeped out. "Liddell?" a trembling high voice repeated. "Like – like Alice?"
Lizzie nodded. "I'm her sister." Footsteps behind her alerted her to the approach of the others, and she added, "And if it's them you're afraid of, that's my mother, my father, and my – boyfriend." She hadn't actually called Bonejangles that before – it sent an interesting tingle up her spine. "They're all good, I promise."
A burst of whispering followed this pronouncement. Then, slowly, the door opened, revealing not only the little girl, but two boys about the same age. "You promise?" one of the boys said, skeletal hands on his hips.
Lizzie did her best not to giggle at his overly-serious expression. "I promise," she repeated, crossing her heart to prove it.
"So there are still children here," Arthur said, crouching down. "Hello. I'm Arthur. How long have you been in the Home?"
The trio shrugged. "Dunno," the boy who'd spoken said, scratching his head with bony fingers. "Does it matter?"
"Why are you here?" the other boy demanded, frowning with his upper lip (the only one he had left).
"It's – it's a bit complicated," Lizzie admitted, tweaking her wrist.
The second boy groaned. "Why's everything grown-up have to be complicated?"
This time Lizzie did giggle. "Because that's the way the world works, sadly." She leaned over them. "Who here knows my sister?"
The girl and the first boy raised their hands. "Not well, though," the first boy admitted. "I – I got sold off pretty quick after she came."
Lizzie shuddered. "You poor thing. . .but why did you come back here then?"
"Didn't have anywhere else to go," the boy replied, and made a face. "Wasn't gonna stay where I died, that's for sure!"
"Same," the girl nodded. "'Specially 'cause he died too and–" She looked away. "Kicked his goolies into paste 'fore I left though."
Lizzie found herself torn between heavy tears and a sadistic grin – she rubbed her face to hold them both back. "Good for you. It's awful, but – good for you."
"I feel we haven't been properly introduced – what's your names?" Lorina asked, leaning on her husband's shoulders.
"I'm Hannah," the girl said, tugging on the strings of her cap. "They're Walter–" the first boy waved "– and Ted." The no-lower-lip boy nodded.
"Huh – I got a Teddy in my band," Bonejangles said, letting the wan light catch his grin. "You play any instruments, buddy?"
Ted shook his head. "But I can throw a card into a hat from across the room," he said proudly.
"Nice! I tried that once between gigs – ended up with a game of Fifty-Two Pickup instead." Bonejangles looked around. "Any more of ya hangin' around?"
"A few. They're outside," Walter said. "Playin' hopscotch."
The four shared a puzzled look. "We didn't see anyone," Arthur said.
"Over there, in the courtyard," Hannah explained, pointing to the left. "Maybe they hid – we don't like visitors, mostly. You're okay, though," she hastened to add. "Kinda recognize you from Alice's picture."
"She has a picture of us?" Lizzie blinked. "From where? Surely all the ones we had burned."
Hannah shrugged. "Came in the post with no address. We thought maybe one of you had sent it to her, like ghosts."
"If only," Arthur murmured.
"Trust me, if we had ended up as ghosts, we wouldn't have let Bumby have any semblance of a peaceful life," Lizzie told the girl, face dark. "I would have driven him into Rutledge for the rest of whatever passes for a life with that miserable sod."
"Ooh, you think they would have dumped him in cold water all the time?" Ted asked, eyes shining with childish malice. "Or give him a shock or two?"
"I'd want leeches poured all over him," Hannah said, folding her arms and nodding.
"Me too – with one jar reserved specifically for his 'manhood,' if you can call it that."
Hannah applauded as the boys grinned. "I like you."
"Dear, please stop being a corrupting influence on the children," Lorina scolded through a smile. It faded quickly as she looked back at the three. "We are so sorry for what happened to you. . .but did you really have no other place to go? What about your families? I – I sadly assume they're dead. . . ."
"Not mine, far as I know," Walter said, scuffing the floor with a shoe. "Mum brought me to Houndsditch 'cause Dad was out of work and we was out of food. Two of my brothers went to different places – think they kept George and Sally."
"My mum's in gaol," Ted informed them. "She, uh – well, she told me I was an accident from a bloke who didn't pull out in time. . . ." Lizzie did her best not to make a face. "Told the bobbies I shouldn't be in a cell with her, so off to Bumby I went." He looked away. "Wonder what she'd think of me keepin' up the family business."
"I'm sure she'd be horrified," Lorina said, shivering. "Any mother would. . .what about you, Hannah?"
"I'm a proper orphan – carriage accident," Hannah told her. "But nobody told me where, and now I can't find 'em. I figure, I stay here, if they come lookin', ain't hard to find me."
"Is that so. . .maybe we could poke around for ya a bit while we're here," Bonejangles offered. "You never know. What's their names?"
"Mary and Cave Donovan," Hannah provided, though her tone wasn't especially hopeful. "If you make bat jokes, Daddy groans."
"We'll make jokes about cave fish and birds then," Lizzie said with a playful smile.
Hannah tilted her head. "Fish live in caves?"
"Well, some – did you think only bats did?"
"Uh, yeah, 'cause they go blind if they go out in the sun."
"Not true," Arthur said, holding up a finger. "There's some Australian fruit-eating bats who are diurnal – that means they're awake during the day. They're known as flying foxes because they tend to have orange-colored fur."
The children exchanged a baffled look. "But – don't bats drink blood?" Walter said, scratching his head. "I thought that's why vampires like 'em."
"There's a few species, but the vast majority eat insects." Arthur shook his head. "I take it schooling was not on Bumby's list of priorities."
"He was takin' stuff out of our heads, not puttin' it in," Hannah reminded him with a scowl. Then it turned into a sniffle. "He didn't even. . .I didn't know I was Hannah 'til I was down here. I got sent off being called 'Three.' Maybe that's why Mummy and Daddy never looked for me." She twisted up her cap strings around her hands. "They d-didn't want a daughter who was only a number."
Lizzie's heart wrenched in her chest. "That cannot be true," she said, getting down and pulling Hannah into a hug. The girl started, but didn't try to flee. "It's more likely they simply haven't figured out where you are yet. The Land of the Dead is a big place. I can't imagine they'd abandon you."
"I can," Walter said darkly. "And what about Farley's mum? She just about threw him away!"
"Well, some people aren't fit to be parents then," Lizzie replied, annoyed. What was it about this section of the city that attracted all the worst in humanity? "But don't give up hope just yet, Hannah. We'll ask around, see what we can find out."
"Thanks." Hannah wiped her eyes. "Why do you wanna help, though?"
"Because – because Bumby hurt me too, long ago," Lizzie admitted, dropping her head. "The reason Alice doesn't have a family is because that bastard killed us all. I didn't want him to – 'play' with me, so he burned down the house."
The children goggled. "Izzat – but how come she didn't start screaming for the bobbies once she saw him?" Walter asked.
"Because Bumby's got everyone convinced, including her, that our cat was the culprit," Lizzie explained, bitterness leaking from every pore.
". . .how's a cat set a fire?"
"Well, obviously he didn't say Dinah did it on purpose – knocked over a lamp, isn't it?" she asked her parents.
"That's the story Mrs. Ashby told us," Arthur confirmed. "I still can't believe it held up to scrutiny."
Hannah frowned, then wrapped her arms around as much of Lizzie as she could reach. "That's rotten. I'm sorry. I hope Alice remembers right soon."
"Me too – before it's too late," Lizzie said, biting her lip.
Ted patted her back. "Well, it takes a while to get everything out of your head," he said comfortingly. "Maybe she'll give him what-for before then."
"Oh, I hope so." Lizzie squeezed Hannah before releasing her and standing. "We do apologize for intruding. I just – I heard about the place from your friend Farley, and I was hoping. . .does he do any of the business here?" she asked, hating herself a little but needing to know. "Do you remember?"
The three shook their heads. "Beyond the swingy-key thing? Don't think so. We get – uh – divvied up somewhere else," Ted said, fiddling with his fingers. "Least, nobody remembers getting sold out the back door."
Lizzie sighed. "Damn. There goes any evidence we could take with us." She brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. "I suppose we should go then."
Hannah grabbed her skirt. "Do you have to? Right now?" she asked, digging her shoe into the floorboards. "Maybe you could tell us about the cave fish first?"
"And flying foxes?" Walter added, eyes bright with curiosity. "I thought Australia was just where they put all the really bad people."
"Oh, not at all!" Arthur said, lighting up. "It has any number of fascinating creatures. . .if you want, I'd be happy to play schoolmaster. It's been ages since I taught."
"Don't know natural history, but I could show ya how the piano works – if it still does," Bonejangles chuckled. "A little ditty makes everything better. Least, that's how I look at it."
"I've got no objection to staying," Lorina said, smiling. "I don't know what I could teach, but. . .well, there must be a storybook around here somewhere."
"If not, we'll make up our own," Lizzie decided, warmed by the grins of the children. I'll never have any related by blood. . .but perhaps play-acting for a while will do. Besides, we could all use a distraction from the memories this place forces on you. "Go gather the others and we'll set up in the front foyer, all right?"
"Sure!" The three pelted off down the stairs.
Arthur laughed. "Eager little things. . .oh dear, I hope I remember enough of my encyclopedias! We might have to pay a visit to a bookstore if this becomes a regular feature of our time here. Ah, if only there was a quick way to transport them to Elder Gutknecht's tower. . . ."
"Oooh boy – dunno if the Elder would approve," Bonejangles laughed. "Though I guess Scraps would be happy with the attention." He headed down the hall. "I'd better go see if that piano's got any life left in it."
"I'll come with – if it does, I can help you tune it," Lizzie said, falling into step beside him.
"Great – maybe we could even try a duet." Bonejangles rolled his eye over to the right as they descended the staircase. "Guess we got three more reasons to make sure this guy gets his, don't we?"
"Plus however many are in the courtyard," Lizzie nodded. She sighed. "And there's still just under a month to go. . . ."
"Well, at least we got something to do now while we wait."
"True. And if I can make any of these children's afterlives a little better – well, I'm happy to do so." Lizzie took his hand, then looked up at the ceiling. "Just a bit longer, Alice. Hang on."