In The Land of the Dead
"Lizzie, dear, if you don't stop bouncing like that you're going to shake your nose clean off."
"I can't help it, Mama," Lizzie replied, her entire body bobbing as she seesawed up and down off tiptoe. "After so long, the moment's finally here! What time is it?"
Arthur checked his pocket watch. "Well, if this can be trusted, 5:49," he said. "Which means eleven more minutes to go." He put it away and patted the satchel hanging against his hip. "Please try to relax, Lizzie."
"You actually expect me to relax? When I'm within a sixth of an hour of seeing Alice again?" Lizzie stopped bouncing and instead began swaying. "Why don't we just go now? Will ten minutes make all that much of a difference?"
"If it's not dark enough, yes," Arthur replied. "I'm not sure what counts as sunset to the spell. If we wait until six, it should be late enough to qualify as night. Plus the streets shouldn't be quite as busy, given that most people will probably either be preparing their evening meal or eating it."
"Yeah, we were always a 'tea at six' kinda family at home." Bonejangles wrapped his arm around Lizzie, forcing her to stay still momentarily. "Come on, Liz, you can tough it out."
"I'm doing my best. . .but my stomach's so full of butterflies I think I'm about to fly up to the Land of the Living under my own power," Lizzie confessed. "How can you be so calm?"
"'Cause I've already done this, remember? Got my fair share of tizzy out of the way then." Bonejangles ruffled her hair. "Too bad this trip doesn't come with a free cake."
"We're taking a few pounds – you can buy a piece Upstairs on me." Lizzie looked down the street, where Houndsditch patiently waited. "You're sure it's a bad idea to cast the spell in there and skip all the fuss of getting inside?"
"Yes, mostly because you wouldn't be skipping any fuss at all, I believe," Arthur said, checking his watch again. "Eight minutes to go. . .if anyone sees us just suddenly appear inside the house, well – I'm prepared to make trouble, but I don't want to invite any extra on my head. Especially any that might allow him to get the upper hand." He looked seriously at his daughter. "We don't want him getting away, do we? Especially with a possible hostage?"
Lizzie shuddered, the butterflies pressing themselves flat against her belly as images of Bumby with a knife against some unfortunate little girl or boy's neck paraded through her head. "Right. . .have you got everything?" she asked to distract herself.
"Right here," Arthur said proudly, lifting the satchel off his shoulder. "Five pounds' worth of emergency money, four eggs and a round two dozen False Flesh potions. Four of which we should probably drink before we head Up," he added, reaching in and rummaging around. "Even with all these handy alleys and such, four dead people coming out of nowhere would–"
It all happened in less than thirty seconds. Some young man in a flat cap and suspenders zipped out of the rubble at the end of the street (Upstairs construction, one worker who'd suffered a nasty blow to the head had told them), rocketed past them – and snatched the satchel straight out of Arthur's hand. "HEY!"
The thief continued on, chortling as if it was all nothing more than a game to him. Lizzie watched him run down the street, frozen in open-mouthed shock – but only for a moment. Then she was racing after him, boots clanging against the cobbles. Bonejangles was at her side seconds later, eye a slit of determination, while Lorina and Arthur brought up the rear. "Get back here, you wanker!"
The thief made a hard right and headed into the marketplace. "Ha, yeah! That's what bloody swells get for coming into our part of the city!" he yelled back at them as they followed, before kicking over a few cages of chickens. They spilled out in a mess of blue feathers and terrified clucking, darting this way and that. "Go back where you belong!"
Lizzie leaped over a chicken and poured on the speed. "You skilamalink meater! When I catch you, I'm going to shake your flannin until it bleeds!"
Apparently startled by hearing his sort of slang leave her mouth, the thief slowed and turned to gawk – which gave Lorina just enough time to overtake her daughter and tackle him. Mother and satchel-snatcher ended up in a heap on the ground, while the bag itself flew into the air. Lizzie made a diving catch for it as it tumbled to the cobbles –
CRUNCH! And fell just short. "No!"
Lizzie scrambled to her hands and knees as runny yellow egg and bright green potion soaked into the cloth, rendering it a sopping mess. "No," she repeated in a littler voice, tears gathering in her eyes. All this time, all this way, only to have it end like this. . . .
"Damn it!" Arthur grabbed the dripping bag and plunged his hand in. "I can't believe – all right, stay calm everyone, we just have to find some more ravens' eggs. It might take a while–"
"Who is going to have ravens' eggs for sale in Whitechapel?" Lizzie demanded, throwing her hands wide. "I doubt we're going to find any wild nests we can raid!"
"You bloody arse!" Lorina snarled at the now-rather-in-over-his-head thief. "What gave you the right?"
"What gave you lot the right to barge in here like you owned the place?" the thief replied, squirming out from under her. "Slummers! You don't come into our homes and start throwing your weight around! That's for the living!"
"We have done nothing of the kind!" Arthur yelled back, face bright with passion. "My daughter lives here Upstairs, and now you've–"
He stopped suddenly, blinking. Slowly, he dropped his head to look at his hand, still in the satchel. "Oh my God. . . ." With immense care, he pulled it out and turned it over –
to reveal a single unbroken egg. Lizzie gasped. "One made it?"
"The smashing of the other three must have acted as a cushion! And I think some of the potions survived too!" Arthur handed the egg to Lizzie and felt around. "Yes, that's definitely a complete bottle. . .this one too! I think there's maybe – four? No, five. . . ." He extracted them one by one, lining them up on the ground beneath him. "Yes, five."
"What on earth is going on around here?"
The thief glared as a policeman, sporting a deep scowl over a chest peppered with bullet holes, came ambling up the street. "Stay out of this, you mutton shunter!"
"He stole our satchel, officer!" Lorina declared, pointing an accusatory finger. "The contents of which are damn near impossible to replace under the circumstances! And he did it simply because he didn't like the look of us! He said so himself!"
"He set my chickens running everywhere!" a skeletal lady added, trying in vain to round up the still-frightened birds. "Toss him in the Tanty!"
The policeman sighed and grabbed the thief's arm. "Why do you keep making trouble for people now that you're down here, Jed? We both died a year ago – do you miss prison that much?"
"They shouldn't be here!" Jed insisted, though his confidence was wavering now that everyone on the entire street was looking at him as if he was something a dog had done in front of their stalls.
"I haven't had a problem with them," the chicken lady said significantly, tucking a squawking hen under one arm. "And those poor little children from Houndsditch certainly seem to like them."
"It's because of Houndsditch that we're even here," Lizzie said, marching up to Jed and slapping him as hard as she could across the face. "You just nearly ruined my hopes of seeing my sister again! Only the fact that this one egg didn't shatter is keeping me from tearing you to pieces right here and now!"
"Eh, your sister's under Bumby's care?" the policeman said, eyes wide with concern.
"Yes, and we're hoping to get her out of it – all right, so we've got one egg and five potions," Lizzie said, turning back to her parents and Bonejangles. "There's only four of us, we might be able to stretch the spell enough. . .and I can do False Flesh on my own, so two of you can double up on potions and get at least six hours–"
Arthur shook his head, stepping forward and wrapping his hands gently around hers. "No, Lizzie. This is much too important to risk a misfire. Elder Gutknecht said that the ideal number for Slip Through The Veil is two – you and Bonejangles use the egg."
Lizzie and Bonejangles both blinked. "What – me?" Bonejangles said, pointing to himself. "Hang on, Mr. Liddell, we're talking about your family here. Shouldn't you and Lizzie go? Or you and your wife?"
"Alice will want to see her sister most of all," Arthur said firmly. "And you've been Upstairs post-death once – you're the one with experience."
"Not to mention you're more familiar with these sorts of neighborhoods than we are," Lorina agreed, touching his arm. "As Mr. Jed just proved, we'll need someone with that sort of knowledge to keep Lizzie getting into trouble."
Lizzie bristled slightly. "If someone gets me into trouble, I'll get myself right back out of it again. I know where to kick this time."
"I'm sure you will, dear, but indulge your mother, won't you?" Lorina rubbed her face. "Besides, I'm sure that trying to pick between me and your father as your companion will be at least an hour-long argument. I can already mount a pretty good defense of Arthur being the one to go."
"I've come up with five reasons why you should already, Lorina," Arthur admitted with a hint of a smile. "But yes, it's just easier if you two make the trip. And it means Bonejangles can have all the potions and thus be protected against detection the entire night."
Lizzie stared down at the egg in her hands. She couldn't fault her parents' logic, and it wasn't like she didn't want to go Upstairs with Bonejangles. It was just. . . . "This is so unfair."
"That's life – and death," Arthur told her, patting her shoulder. "Look, while you're up there, your mother and I will take a turn around the shops – see if we can't find any more of these elusive eggs. More people than Elder Gutknecht must keep them as pets. And if we're very lucky, we might find another potion-maker too."
"If not, well, there's always scarves," Lorina said, before patting her nose-holes. "Large, bulky scarves."
Lizzie laughed despite herself. "All right – what's the time?"
Arthur grabbed his pocket watch. "Six on the dot! Bonejangles, here, drink this." He scooped up one of the potion bottles and pressed it into the skeleton's hands. "And – has anyone got a sack or something they could borrow?" he asked the various sellers. "This satchel's not good for anything right now."
"I have this old purse – don't use it for much anymore," the chicken lady offered, unslinging it from her shoulder.
"That should do fine, thank you." Arthur loaded it up and handed it to Lizzie. "Keep a good close eye on that – I imagine the thieves Upstairs are worse than those Down, and the last thing we need is to give them magic."
"I will, Papa." Lizzie kissed his cheek. "I'll – I'll see you when morning comes, I guess. Or hopefully sooner."
"Much obliged, Mr. Liddell," Bonejangles nodded, thumbing the cork out of his bottle. "I'll take good care of her, I promise."
"I know you will." Arthur stepped back, taking Lorina's hand. "Good luck, you two. Fingers crossed this messy business will be concluded by the end of the night."
"Yeah, all the best with your sister," the policeman agreed, Jed grumbling.
"You might want to pop Up behind the butcher's," the chicken lady suggested. "Nobody goes back there much because of the smell."
"Thank you, that's an excellent idea." Lizzie hooked Bonejangles's arm with her own and pulled him into the brown-and-red-stained alley. "Good to know it's Jed who isn't popular here, not us. . .are you ready to go?"
"Smash 'er open, Liz," Bonejangles said, tipping the potion back and letting it splatter all over his bones.
"Right." Lizzie squeezed her eyes shut and pressed both thumbs as hard she could into the fragile egg. Whitechapel Upstairs, Whitechapel Upstairs, oh please let this work, oh please let this work. . . .
Crack! The shell burst apart in her hands – but instead of the expected slime, Lizzie felt a faint, tingling chill suffuse her flesh. Startled, she opened her eyes into a billowing cloud of orangey-blue fog. This quickly faded into gray as it poured down her body, disappearing into the cobbles like a mouse fleeing their Dinah –
And then the alley was suddenly rather darker, significantly bloodier, at least a hundred times smellier, and playing host to a cat who was licking up splattered offal in the corner.
Lizzie stood stock still for a moment, getting her bearings. Had it really worked? The change in the alley's look (and stink) was almost enough to convince her, but she couldn't help wondering, wanting to be completely and one-hundred-percent sure. . . . She picked her way over the red rivulets running between the cobbles and picked up the cat. It hissed annoyance at being denied its meal and scratched her. Lizzie barely noticed, carefully examining its fur. No hint of blue at all. . .and its chest was going in and out with the effort of breath. She squealed with laughter and dropped the cat on a box, where it took off for greener pastures. "It worked! It honest and truly worked!"
"Sheesh, Liz – after all that, you didn't think it would?" Bonejangles said behind her, amused.
"I'm sorry, but you know my propensity for wor–"
Lizzie's voice died as she turned around. Standing behind her was – a man quite different from the bag of bones she spent the vast majority of her time with. Gone was gleaming white skull and jagged ribs and cracked legs. Instead, what greeted her eyes was dark brown skin, contrasted against a dirty white shirt and tan pants held up with suspenders. The long jaw she'd so often teased him about looked less comical when covered with flesh – strong and solid and square. His nose was a near-perfect right triangle – just a pinch crooked near the end, though she couldn't tell whether that was the result of nature or the multiple breaks he'd spoken of. Blond hair – almost the same shade as his mother's – stuck out in a tangled nest from under the bowler. And his eyes – well, there were two of them once again, but at least they were the same nice brown as before the change. It was a reassuring touch of familiarity.
Bonejangles scratched the back of his head as she stared. "Sheesh, am I that ugly?" he asked with a nervous laugh.
"Ugly isn't the word," Lizzie said, touching her cheeks. "I – I really do owe you an apology about your chin. You're right, it looks – fine."
"Glad to know I've got the official Liddell stamp o'approval," Bonejangles grinned at her. He looked down at his body. "Man, weird to see the old flesh again. 'Specially without the munchers I picked up after dyin'."
"The ones you taught to sing, you mean?" Lizzie said, finally getting a grip on herself. Yes, fine, he's handsome, not much either of you can do about it. Argh, why did you have to be born twelve years before me?
"What else was I gonna do once I stopped gulpin' down the No-Rot? Might as well keep busy. And make gettin' chewed up a little more pleasant." He nodded at her. "Speakin' of which, you'd better hide your gnaw marks."
"Right, right. . . ." Lizzie spotted an old cloth lying in a nearby garbage can. It was stained with substances she did not want to know the origin of, but it seemed nicer to rip that up instead of a chunk off her dress. She still rather liked this gown. She plucked it from the trash, closed her eyes, concentrated on what she remembered used to be in the mirror, repeated three hours three hours three hours a couple of times to be safe, and tore.
There was no telltale tingle this time to let her know the spell had worked – but when she opened her eyes, the clock had definitely sprung backwards. She dropped the rag halves and stared at her hands. It felt so peculiar to see them like this again after over a decade of decay – pink and healthy and properly filled out again. She glanced down at her dress – bright green once more, and free of moth holes and tears. She did a little twirl and grinned as the skirt fluffed out. "Wow."
"Yeah. . . ." Now it was Bonejangles's turn to stare. "You look – I ain't gonna say you never look great, Liz, but – it's damn nice to see you before the blue."
"Thank you kindly, good sir," Lizzie said, curtseying. "It's rather nice to be back in my old form, I must say." She reached up to adjust her dress collar –
and started as her fingers went through where she knew her neck was, bouncing off her spine. "Wha – oh, right, it only fools the eye," she said, mood dropping as she recalled Elder Gutknecht's words. "I guess I wanted to be tricked further. . . ."
"It's okay, Liz," Bonejangles said, coming over to sling an arm around her. "Lookin' normal's half the battle. And it ain't like we're gonna be spendin' a lot of time shakin' hands with people."
"I know," Lizzie said, shaking her head. "But it would have been nice to feel myself again. And you."
Bonejangles coughed. "Think you coulda put that a bit better, Liz."
Lizzie wondered if her disguise was doing the blushing she couldn't. "You know what I mean!"
"Yeah, I do." He gave her a little squeeze. "Anyway – what say we get outta this gut-heap and do what we meant to do?"
"I'm all for that," Lizzie said, frowning distastefully at the caking blood beneath her shoes. "I'd forgotten just how bad things could stink in the Land of the Living. Isn't this man worried about flies? Or rats?"
"I've had a coupla meat pies in my time where I was half-expectin' to find a long naked tail," Bonejangles said, leading her around the shop. "And I heard some guys use the droppings in plum duff."
"You wanted me to try Whitechapel street food before."
"Well, Downstairs it don't matter so much, does it?" Bonejangles peeped out from the shadows onto the street. "Yeah, ain't anybody paying attention – let's go."
They exited onto the cobbles, which were indeed very quiet – her Papa had been right in guessing most people were busy with their food at this time. And those who weren't – well, they got a couple of second glances from shopkeepers and customers, but no thirds. "Must be wonderin' what a guy like me is doin' with a gal like you," Bonejangles said, flashing a passing man a grin.
"Let them – if they don't like it, they can keep their opinions to themselves," Lizzie said, holding her head high. "Not like we'll be here long enough for them to try anything."
"Yeah, and if they did – guessin' the Illustrated would have stories for months." Bonejangles held up a hand. "'The Man Who Could Not Be Hanged! And then turned into a skeleton and sent everybody screamin' for their mums.'"
Lizzie giggled. "Let's save that for Bumby right at the moment. . .you remember the story we're using while we're here?"
"Yeah, you're some long-forgotten Liddell cousin, and I'm your – fiance," Bonejangles nodded, letting the last word linger on his imaginary tongue. "You really think that's gonna fly, Liz? Anybody who knows yer family knows ya don't have any aunts or uncles. Plus Alice apparently has a picture of ya that's pretty true to life. . . ."
"Well, considering how much she and I look alike, I don't think people would consider it that much of a stretch to have a cousin share the same face," Lizzie replied. "And there's not anyone here who knows the Liddell family tree. Excepting possibly Bumby, and I certainly don't care if he sees through the charade." She absently played with her wrist skin. "Although if he is somehow fooled. . . ." She made a face. "No, letting him kiss me would not be worth the look on his face when he tasted the rot."
"You think he'd try to smooch ya even if he didn't think you were – you?"
"I look like me, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was enough. I'm–" She swallowed, spine shuddering. "I'm reasonably certain that's why he has Alice around, after all. He could have just let her wither in Rutledge, or wander off content that she too believed the story about Dinah, but. . . ." She squeezed her hands so tightly together she thought she heard the bones creak. "She deserves so much better than being Lizzie Only With Green Eyes."
Bonejangles nodded, rubbing her back. "That's why we're here – to make sure she gets that better."
They exited the market onto Moorfields, and from there it was only a few steps to Houndsditch. "Well, he's certainly not obsessed with grapes," Lizzie observed as they stood before the old brick building. "And I'm glad of the roof not being so yellow either."
"Yeah – wasn't pretty," Bonejangles agreed. "Not that it looks so great now either." He glanced over at her. "Ready to do this?"
Lizzie took a deep breath. "As ready as I'll ever be." Holding Bonejangles's hand tightly, she walked up to the front door and knocked. All right. . .just remember, if he opens the door, you can't kick him in the crotch right away. No matter how much you want to. Or how much he deserves it. Oh, I hope Alice is the one to greet us – and doesn't immediately start screaming when she sees me! God, will I even recognize her? I mean, I suppose I must, particularly if she looks so much like me, but she's been eight years old with tangled curls in my head for so long. . . .
The door creaked open – and for one split-second, Lizzie thought time had gone strange (perhaps Hatter had murdered it again) and it was the eight-year-old version of her sister at the door. Then the little girl stepped into the light, revealing a rather pinched face framed by ratty brown pigtails and a floppy white cap. The beady little eyes squinted. "Who're you?"
Lizzie put on her best smile. "Hello. I'm Joan Liddell, and this is my fiance, Sam." Bonejangles tipped his hat. "I'm Alice's cousin."
The girl wrinkled her nose suspiciously. "Alice always says she ain't got any family left."
"Well, I don't think we've ever properly met – my family spends much of their time abroad," Lizzie lied smoothly. "I've been living in India and only recently got caught up on the news regarding the Oxford branch of our family tree. I think it would do Alice good to know she's not totally alone in the world, don't you?"
The girl played with a pigtail. "You do look kinda like that picture she's got of her sister," she admitted. "But she ain't here anymore. Doctor says she's lost her marbles and has to go back to Rutledge."
Lizzie's entire body went cold. "Rutledge?" she repeated, voice rising to a squeak.
"Yeah, didn't you know? She's madder than a March Hare," the girl reported, flipping her pigtail back behind her shoulder. "They had to keep her locked up ten years in the looney bin. Doctor had the thickies out looking for her before he decided they were too stupid to find her."
"Surely she – looking for her?" Lizzie blinked. "Didn't you just say she was back in the asylum?"
The girl shook her head. "Nobody's seen her for weeks," she said. "She went out one day to yell at Radcliffe for stealing her bunny and never came back! Before that she nearly drowned in the Thames," she added, as if Lizzie's imagination needed help picturing all the trouble her sister could get into. "And then the Mangled Mermaid almost burned down with her inside. And then they threw her in the pokey for throwing an inkwell at that big fat lawyer."
Lizzie put a hand on the doorframe to steady herself. On the one hand, she supposed it was good that her sister was out wandering free from Bumby's influence. On the other. . .is she already dead and we simply haven't seen her Downstairs? London's a big place. . . . "Dear God," she murmured. "I had no idea things were this bad. . . ."
"Easy – Joan," Bonejangles said, wrapping his arm around her waist. "Sounds like she managed to slip outta death's grip all those times. . .but nobody's seen her for a while?" he confirmed with the girl.
She nodded. "Not even V-Thirteen could track her down," she corrected herself, expression suggesting she was expecting a slap for nearly getting the name wrong. "And he always followed her around like a puppy."
Lizzie sighed. "I guess we could put in some footwork, see if we can't locate her," she murmured. "Poor dear must be so frightened. . . ."
The girl giggled. "Nope – she's probably scarin' everybody else," she said with dark glee. "She keeps going to Wonderland and having to kill things."
"Kill?" All right, Alice had led her fair share of chess battles in Looking-Glass Land when she was younger, and battled the Jabberwock a couple of times, but this – this sounded rather more serious.
"Yeah, she told us all about it when she was still here. Army Ants and Jabberspawn and Boojums. Wonderland doesn't like her anymore."
Lizzie felt a deep, heart-wrenching ache. To think that her sister's own imagination had turned on her so cruelly. . . . "It's not right," she muttered. "I know I say that a lot, but – it isn't!"
Bonejangles nodded. "It ain't," he agreed. "But we're here now. If we can track her down, we can maybe fix it." He turned back to the little girl. "How about the guy who owns this place – Dr. Bumby? Can we see him?"
To Lizzie's surprise, the girl shook her head. "He's busy," she said sourly. "Gave us our supper, then went upstairs with Thirteen. Said he needed another session and he wasn't to be disturbed."
"Not even for us?" Lizzie asked, frowning.
The girl winced and scuffed the floor with a foot. "Doctor really doesn't like it when you interrupt him. He says it makes you bad. You – you don't wanna be bad around here."
Lizzie's heart softened. The poor thing looked so scared. . .she couldn't send her into the lion's den. Not even for the sake of her revenge. "All right – we'll come back later. Thank you for all your help."
The girl nodded. "If Alice comes back, I'll tell her you're here," she said. "Probably say I'm just makin' it up though."
"Well, just make sure she stays until we can return, then," Lizzie smiled. "Have a good night."
"You too, I guess." The girl shut the door without any ceremony.
Bonejangles looked at it for a minute. "Well – that was kinda a kick in the trousers, wasn't it?" he commented.
"No 'kinda' about it," Lizzie replied. "Dear Lord. . .why was she released from Rutledge if she's still not well? Do they just release patients willy-nilly now? And to know she's–" Lizzie clenched her jaw, holding back tears. "Did she deliberately try to drown herself? Or run into that fire thinking it was all she deserved?"
"I dunno – I say we hunt her down and ask her," Bonejangles said. "We've got a whole night to poke around."
"Do you think it'll be enough?"
Bonejangles shrugged. "Won't know unless we try, right?"
"True. . . ." Lizzie directed her gaze to the upstairs windows. "I wonder what poor child is having their mind torn apart right now," she mumbled. "Do you think it's the same Thirteen from the painting?"
"Maybe. . .supposed to be unlucky, ain't it? Nipper might be givin' him trouble."
"I hope so. I hope he's fighting back with everything he's got." Lizzie clamped her hands together. "Perhaps we should give him a hand. We know about that back door, after all."
"Little extra rescue mission? I'm all for it, Liz," Bonejangles nodded.
Fortunately, there was a narrow gap between Houndsditch and the building on the other side that they could squeeze through. Lizzie took the lead, back scraping against the rough brick. This place is bigger than it looks from the front. . .well, so long as the back entrance isn't completely choked with luggage, we should – "Eeep!"
She stumbled backward, clapping a hand over her mouth to prevent any other unfortunate noises. "Liz? What is it?" Bonejangles whispered.
Lizzie flattened herself against the wall and pointed. Standing outside the back stoop were three very large, very dirty, very grumpy-looking men. "Keeps us waitin' all the time," one muttered, smacking a meaty fist into the open palm of his other hand. "Ain't right."
"Why don't he just sell here?" the one next to him complained. "Easier for everybody."
"Shuddap, both of yas," the third man said, punching the second one in the shoulder. "He promised us tonight, and he'll let us in tonight. He's a right bastard, but he always has the goods." The man smirked through rotten teeth. "And maybe we'll get ta see this Thirteen he's so proud of."
Bonejangles whistled, then nodded. "Yeah, I see," he whispered. "Don't think they want any company."
Lizzie shook her head, hand still clamped firmly over her mouth. Oh God. . .one she might have been willing to risk sneaking past, but three? Not even her guilt over leaving that unfortunate child up there could get her feet to move forward. Already the memories were threatening to overwhelm her – a sudden chill as her blanket was torn away, thrashing as her nightgown was yanked up, the pain of him slamming into her again and again –
Bonejangles grabbed her shoulder and pushed her back the way they'd come. "Hey, hey, stay with me, okay?" he said, face deeply concerned. "Don't – he ain't ever gonna touch ya again, Liz. You made sure of that. Ain't nobody gonna touch you again."
Lizzie nodded shakily, letting her hand slip down to her neck to feel her spine and remind herself just how far past the pleasures and pains of the flesh she really was. "Yes. . .I'm sorry," she added, looking at her feet. "I can't – bloody twelve years, and still–"
"It's okay, Liz," Bonejangles assured her as they emerged back into the open air. "I sure as hell ain't blamin' you." He glared back at the alley. "Fucking gonophs. . .let's find your sister. Once we've got her on our side, we can drag a bunch of bobbies over here and end this."
"Right." Lizzie rubbed her face. "Where should we start?"
"Well – where do you think she might go?"
"In a hallucinatory daze? I haven't a clue."
"Come on, you know her better than anybody. Even not thinkin' straight, is there anyplace she might wanna see?"
Lizzie thought. They'd gone up to London plenty for shopping and day trips when she was younger. Alice had never cared too much about visiting the stores. . .but. . . . "Hyde Park," she said. "She likes greenery, and – and Papa and I promised her that, once she was a little older, we'd take her down the big slide there. . . ."
"All righty then," Bonejangles said, looping his arm through hers. "We'll take a little walk through Whitechapel here, see what we can find – and if it ain't her, we'll go check if she's hiding in Hyde."
The bad pun was just what she needed to break the internal tension. Lizzie laughed a bit too much, then leaned against him. "Sounds like a plan."
"Is Nature's home nearby? Is she brewing on a large scale, as Dickens put it some years ago at Christmas-time?"
". . .what?"
"Translation: Good God, it's foggy!"
Bonejangles snorted. "Oh. Yeah, tell me about it. Can barely see my hand in front of my face!" He held it up for demonstration purposes. "Least if False Flesh gets a lot falser all of a sudden, ain't nobody gonna notice."
"I should say not," Lizzie said, squinting into the gloom. All around, the world consisted of indistinct shapes bobbing in a sea of dull gray, heavy with cloying wetness. It was impossible to tell what anything was until you were on top of it – she and Bonejangles had already barked their shins on two benches which had suddenly surfaced out of the clouds. The only relief came from the orange glow of the lampposts, and even that was rather wan and hazy, like will-o-the-wisps who were not quite committed to leading travelers astray. If ever there was a place where she expected to find spooks (other than her and her companion) here in London this Halloween night, Hyde Park would be it. "I think we're the only souls here, alive or dead."
"Yeah, ain't exactly the Exchange." Bonejangles drummed his fingers on his leg. "I don't think Alice is here, Liz. Anybody with a lick of sense – and accordin' to you, even a bit loopy, she's got a lick – ain't gonna wander 'round a park where you can't even find the path."
"What does that make us, then?"
"Tourists," Bonejangles smirked, then became serious again. "And hell, even if she is here, we're not findin' her like this. Unless we crash into her."
"I know." Lizzie twisted a damp curl around her finger. "I'm starting to think the universe is conspiring against us."
"Well, we're tough buggers – we won't let it," Bonejangles said, leading them along to another friendly lamppost. "Where else might she have ended up?"
Lizzie thought, leaning against an advertisement for machine-made corsets. "She always liked boating trips," she offered up. "Perhaps she's found her way back to the Thames again? And hopefully not fallen in," she added, shuddering.
"Worth a look – I've been by the Billingsgate docks before, so maybe we can start there. And we should ask about that Mangled Mermaid place too. Could be the guy who runs it knows a thing or two."
"He could. . .though I'll leave that task with you, if you'd be so kind," Lizzie said, touching her false throat. "I think I proved earlier I'm not good with living men."
"Not a problem, Liz." Bonejangles took her hand. "It's okay, you know. I get it."
"So do I – I just wish I hadn't." She sighed heavily. "I'm just grateful I don't have to see any of their ugly faces here." She glanced left and right. "Even if it means I can't see anything else either. . .we should have asked the Elder for a weather control spell."
"Live – or die – and learn," Bonejangles said. "I think if we keep following these lights, we'll run into the exit sooner or later. Park can't be that big, can it?"
Lizzie grinned. "Oh, if only you could see it properly by daylight. . . ." Then her mood took a sharp right into melancholy. "Except you never will. Would have been nice to take a proper stroll, you and me, no problems, no worries, just – just us."
"Gotta be a dead version Downstairs, right?"
"True, but – it's not quite the same."
Bonejangles nodded understandingly. "Yeah. . .but it's all we got." He took her face gently in his fingers. "Chin up, okay? We may be dead, but at least we're together. Didn't miss out on each other entirely."
That brought a slow smile back to her face. "Right. And I'm very glad of it." She ran her fingers through her hair. "And I'll be equally as glad to get out of this fog. Come on, the sooner we get to Billingsgate, the faster we–"
Is that a person?
Lizzie jerked her head left. Just for a moment, right out of the corner of her eye, she thought she'd seen a shadow pass by the next lamppost in line. Another late-night traveler like themselves? Or her imagination running away with her? "Hello?" she called, stepping forward.
No reply. Bonejangles squinted into the mists over her shoulder. "You see someone, Liz?"
"I – I thought I did, but. . . ." Lizzie stared at where the dark patch had ever-so-briefly been. To chase or not to chase? On the one hand, it was important to follow any lead they had. On the other, she had no idea if it had been real or not. She'd been vindicated at Houndsditch with the appearance of Hannah. . .but even if that glimpse had been of a person, there was no guarantee it was Alice. What if it was another man? Even if he wasn't like the ones whom Bumby served, she wasn't sure she could get close. . . . "And besides, I didn't even see where they went," she said, finishing her last thought aloud with a little huff. "Trying to chase after them now would just get us even more lost."
Bonejangles patted her on the back. "Might've just been a cat – if it was anything at all," he said. "Let's get the hell outta here and over to the docks. You'll feel better once the rest of the world comes back."
"I'm sure I will," Lizzie agreed, starting toward the lamppost with a new sense of purpose. "And besides, I've heard the docks are a hive of activity even at night. Who knows what we'll find?"
How about a big load of nothing, Elizabeth?
Lizzie grumbled to herself as she hopped over yet another puddle of slime and scales. What had possessed her to come this way? Rather, how had she let her new paramour (and wasn't that still odd to think) convince her the docks were the right place to search for Alice? Perhaps her sister liked the river, but Lizzie knew of many much more photogenic places to wander along the Thames. This place was nothing but splintered wood stabbing your feet, stacked crates blocking your path, frayed ropes tripping you up, and stinking fish annoying your nose. How could anyone expect to find a young lady here?
Then again, it's not like anyone sees her as such after a decade in Rutledge, Lizzie reluctantly admitted to herself. Some people would argue she isn't even human anymore. It would be so much easier if she'd still had access to Papa's money – whatever happened to all those pounds he squirreled away just in case the worst happened? Could paying for her – stay in supervised hospitalization – really have consumed them all? Radcliffe ought to know how to budget better than that. . . . Her eyes narrowed. But Radcliffe was also ready to accuse her of starting the fire, and according to that little girl may have stolen Alice's favorite toy. Perhaps we should head over to his house next and demand a look at his ledgers – ah!
She stumbled as her foot caught a loose board. "Bloody – I hate this place!" she snapped, stomping it down to relieve her feelings. "Nothing but a maze of filth and disease. How anyone could eat fish, even the Van Dorts' famous canned variety, after seeing this mess is beyond me." She glared at a nearby smelt lying on the ground. "If by some miracle we do stumble across Alice here, I'm giving her a lecture on appropriate places to explore!"
Oh, you're going to scold your twenty-year-old sister?
. . .Funny how a fact that she'd known about for months was still capable of hitting her upside the head. Lizzie stared at the smelt, who gazed back at her unblinkingly. Twenty. She's twenty now. She's twenty, and I'm eighteen. All those years threatening me with being the older sister one day. . .she wasn't supposed to make good on them. She wiped her eyes. Oh Alice – it was hard enough being separated by ten years. Will you even want to speak to me now? Do – do you even remember me after so long in his clutches? No, you must, you still remember Mr. Bunny. . .I'm getting that back for you tonight, Alice, this I –
"Well, well, well, look who's back. Sayin' hello to that floozy Nan? Or you tryin' a conversation with the fish?"
Every bone in Lizzie's body suddenly became solid ice. With terrified slowness, she turned to see a man standing in the shadows of the icehouse behind her. His face was mostly hidden under the brim of a battered bowler hat, but she could just make out his eyes – hard as flint, and not even half as friendly. Underneath was a lean body swathed in a long coat, the collar of which was lined with thick fur. The style didn't quite suit him – in fact, Lizzie would have ventured to call it ridiculous –
If not for the large, shiny cleaver clutched in his right hand. Oh God oh God oh God where are you Sam no no no –"I – I think you've mistaken me for someone else," she choked out, voice trembling. No, please, not again, not again. . . .
"Recognize you anywhere, Liddell," the man replied, sliding forward like a cat who'd just cornered a mouse. Lizzie stepped back, her entire body shaking. It's all right, it's all right, he can't hurt you, she attempted to reassure herself, fingers digging into her skirts. He can't, you're dead, what else could he possibly do to – wait, Liddell? How does he know my– Alice, he thinks I'm Alice, how does someone like this know my Alice– "Sound a little sick, but I guess that's what lopin' around like a lunatic does to you." He grinned, and it was the twin brother of the grin Bumby had favored her with the day he'd tried to slip his hand up her skirt outside the back door. "Don't worry – don't bother me if you skip off to 'Wonderland' after this. Just want to send something of yours to a friend."
"I've nothing you can take," Lizzie whispered. Her back collided with one of the interminable stacks of crates. Shit no escape damn it Sam why did I ever leave your side – no please no –
"Oh, I can think of a thing or two," the man said, his teeth glinting like the cleaver in the dim moonlight. A match flared to life in his other hand, illuminating sharp features rounded by a scruff of reddish-brown beard. "Bumby says your beau gets antsy if he hears your name. Wonder what would happen if I sent him a finger or–"
He stopped as he brought the tiny flame near her face. "You ain't Liddell," he said, genuinely surprised. "Look a hell of a lot like her though. So who are–"
With no warning, his face went from plain confusion to pure horror. "Fucking hell!" he screamed, dropping the match and stumbling back. It sizzled briefly in a pile of sludge, then went out. "How – what – you can't–"
Lizzie stared, bafflement tamping down the animal instinct to flee. What had gotten into him? Then some more observant bit of her made her glance down at her hands. Blue skin and rot met her eyes. Oh – spell's worn off, she realized dumbly. Well then.
Her gaze traveled back upward. The man was gaping, shock having apparently frozen him in place. The cruelty had left his eyes, replaced with sheer terror. A surge of confident anger swept through her – how dare this man touch her? How dare he even come near her? How dare he threaten her sister?! She reached up and grabbed him by that idiotic collar, yanking him close so their noses practically touched. He stank of old sweat and blood – and just a touch of fresh urine, she realized with a glow of triumph. How's it feel, you disgusting lout? How's it feel to be the one cornered and afraid?! "I'm Elizabeth Liddell, you son of a bitch," she snarled, baring her teeth. "And if I ever catch you near my Alice again, I'll peel the flesh from your bones and make it into a stew!"
Bang! Her leg shot out and slammed solidly into the man's crotch. He screamed and dropped to his knees, letting out oaths Lizzie hadn't thought possible for the human tongue. Lizzie spat on him for good measure, then darted around him and fled into the shadows, equal parts horrified, stunned, and absolutely elated. I can't believe I just did that! Not that the bastard didn't deserve it, but after those three outside Bumby's back door – I should go back and introduce them to my boot! Oh God, he got so close, I thought for sure. . .and he was going to do that to Alice! How does he even know Alice?! What did she do to make him loathe her so? At least now he should stay away from her. Maybe I should kick him again, just to make sure of it – oh, but what if he gets up and grabs my leg and – and if he did, I'd take all this teeth out! She grabbed a wall and hung onto it for support. Calm down, Lizzie. It's – it's over now. You won. Hahaha, I won. . .I need a moment. I – I have to cry. Or laugh. I don't know. I'm all mixed up. It's mad and bad and I think I love it! She whirled around and clenched her fists, teeth gritted in a wild parody of a smile. "Come on, you wretches!" she screamed into the blackness, the phantom of her shriveled heart pounding against her ribcage. "Try and get me! I can take you all now! You'll never have me helpless again!"
Lizzie nearly leapt straight out of what skin she had left. She spun in the direction of the scream to see someone pounding toward her. She raised her fists, ready to try a punch – but then the figure's proportions thinned, and white bone gleamed as he exited the shadows. "Sam!"
"Yeah hi potion wore off local workin' girl's raisin' a fuss time to go," Bonejangles babbled all in one breath, grabbing her arm as he passed and towing her along.
"I just had a run in with one of the local nasties, so yes, I agree," Lizzie nodded, managing after a moment to match his pace. "Though in my case, the spell wearing off worked in my favor."
"Lemme guess – thought you were pretty and decided to try his luck?" Bonejangles asked as they sought shelter behind one of the warehouses.
"No, actually – he was planning on cutting off at least one of my fingers."
Bonejangles skidded to a stop, eye rolling crazily between his sockets. "What?"
"He – he thought I was Alice," Lizzie explained, voice cracking on her sister's name. "I'm guessing she somehow slighted him, though how he knows her in the first – place. . . ."
Lizzie trailed off as something the man had said finally clicked inside her mind. "Beau?"
"Huh?" Bonejangles rubbed his skull. "You're losin' me here, Liz."
"I've kind of lost myself – that man mentioned Alice having a – a boyfriend!"
"Boyfriend?" Bonejangles repeated, eye wide. "But – look, nothing against your sis, but – how'd she get a boyfriend if she's stuck with Bumby?"
"How am I supposed to know? Maybe it's a secret relationship – no, he said Bumby knew. . .but he'd never let anyone – unless–" Her eyes narrowed. "Unless he's already been pushing her toward one of his customers. Oh God, I hope she hadn't had to do anything she doesn't want to. Or wouldn't in her right mind."
"I'm thinkin' not – before I took a few years offa that lady of the night, she said that her madam knows Alice, and that she's pretty sure she's never – ya know."
Lizzie arched an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I'd trust the opinion of a prostitute on that count."
"I would – who'd know better? She said Sharpe was kinda protective of Alice anyway, before this guy called Jack Splatter started makin' trouble. . .and you're lookin' like you've seen a ghost again, Liz. What now?"
Lizzie shook her head slowly. "Sharpe? Nan Sharpe?"
"Pretty sure that was the name. . .how would you two know her?"
"She was our nanny."
Bonejangles stared at her – then started snickering. "It's not funny!" Lizzie insisted, stomping her foot. "She's – she had a rough sense of humor when we were younger, but – God! Running a brothel – I didn't think she'd ever sink that low." She folded her arms. "Just another life Bumby ruined."
"Sounded ta me like she was doing good business as a madam. . .but yeah, kinda awful she had ta go that route in the first place," Bonejangles admitted, calming down. "Think of it this way – at least you know she landed on her feet."
"Or other body parts. . . ." Lizzie sighed and scrubbed her hands over her face. "I just hope I can trust her word about Alice. To even consider the notion that she – that she and I share more than just a face. . .why must she be so hard to locate?"
"You told me she was a little explorer growin' up. Guess it stayed with her."
"It must." Lizzie glanced back in the direction of the man she'd left sobbing over his privates. "I don't think she'd bother much with this place, though, close to the Thames or not. And, frankly, after the experience I just had, I'm eager to get away." She dug around in her bag and passed another potion over to Bonejangles. "Drink up, and I'll find another bit of cloth to rip. I already know exactly who we need to pay a visit to next."
"Are you kidding me?!"
Lizzie gaped at the abandoned townhouse before her. "You have lived here your entire life, Mr. Radcliffe! By your own admission, you expected to die in this house! What possessed your fat arse to get up and move?!"
"Whatever it was, possessed him a while ago," Bonejangles observed, looking at the boarded-up windows. "He's been gone for ages. Your pop wouldn't be pleased."
"I know – it's almost a blessing he didn't come up here and see this," Lizzie admitted, furiously yanking on her wrist skin. "I can just about guess at the language he'd employ in response."
"Yeah. . .maybe the guilt over nearly sendin' an eight-year-old to gaol finally got to him," Bonejangles said, shaking his head.
"Probably not – more likely he's spent the entire family fortune by this point and skipped town before Alice could find out," Lizzie grumbled bitterly. "With her rabbit no less. What use could that be to a lawyer obsessed with the Orient?"
"Trade it for something? Dunno what, but. . . ." Bonejangles rubbed her back. "I'm sorry, Liz. Seems we just keep running into one stone in the road after another."
"I know. . .I was hoping I could at least pry whether or not he's seen Alice lately out of him," Liz said. "I guess we could just ask around the neighborhood as we've been doing. . . ."
"Oi! No loitering!"
Lizzie and Bonejangles turned to see a policeman standing behind them, one hand on his nightstick. "I do not want to bring the full force of the law against a lady, but I will if I must!" he continued. "Please move along!"
Lizzie made a snap decision. She'd hoped to have actual evidence – something sneaked from Houndsditch or clawed from Bumby's terrified hands – but given her luck tonight, mere "suspicions" would have to do. At least she could plant the idea in the officer's mind. "Actually, we were hoping to see a bobby tonight," she said, stepping forward. "I have something to report."
The policeman blinked. "You – do?"
Lizzie nodded, ignoring Bonejangles's puzzled look. "It's about the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Children," she explained. "I and my fiance visited there earlier, and – well, I've got a bad feeling about the place."
The officer regarded her curiously, scratching beneath his helmet. "A bad feeling."
"I know that's not much to go on, but. . .the child who answered the door seemed terribly frightened of upsetting B-Dr. Bumby." Ugh, she hated having to say that. . . . "Surely his patients shouldn't be scared of him?"
"Well, little nippers scare easy – especially if they've had a hard life, like the ones in there," the policeman said with a shrug.
"What about the fact we heard he let his assistant go wanderin' off in a daze without trying to get her back?" Bonejangles put in, stepping up. "Apparently she just walked out the door and never came back."
The policeman laughed. "Oh, you mean Alice? Nothing he can do about that – she goes where she likes when she likes. Should have never let her out of Rutledge, that one. Harry and Fred say she's no danger to others, but I've heard she once sliced a man's cheek open with a spoon."
Lizzie's vision went red around the edges. "Isn't that all the more reason he should try to recapture her?" she growled.
"He's had us looking – though I know I wouldn't get near her if I saw her," the officer added, fidgeting. "I'm not interested in having bits carved off. Dr. Bumby wants her back, he can grab her himself." He fixed Lizzie with a suspicious eye. "Why do you care so much?"
"Because it doesn't speak well of a man who has been entrusted with the care of children," Lizzie replied, folding her arms. "You want a true upstanding moral citizen for such a job."
"Oh, Dr. Bumby's upstanding! Nobody around here has a bad word to say about him. Not that social, but he's smart, and always going on about how he's helping boys and girls find their purpose. I think he got honored by his fellow alienists for it, in fact."
The red crept in further, obscuring more of the street. "Being popular doesn't necessarily mean 'good,' Officer."
"Well, I don't think Inspector Broadbent would associate with a fellow who wasn't."
"Inspector?" Lizzie dropped her arms, the red retreating in the face of cold shock. "One of your own?"
"Why not? Good to have friends who have the occasional ear of a lord or lady," the policeman replied. Then his gaze traveled over to Bonejangles, taking in the illusory dark skin with a sneer. "Guess you wouldn't know much about that, though."
The red came roaring back. "You son of a–"
"Ooookay, Liz, think it's time to let the nice officer finish his patrol," Bonejangles said, hastily hooking her arm. "Sorry to waste your time, sir, we'll just be on our way. Night!"
With that, he dragged her away. "I hope you choke on your next ciggy!" Lizzie managed to shout before she was towed around the corner. "God, people make me sick – you should have let me at him!"
"And spend the rest of the night in a gaol cell? No thanks," Bonejangles told her. "Trust me, Liz, that look he gave me don't even rank in the top ten of shit I've had to deal with 'cause of my skin. Mean, surprised he said that to a lady, but then he don't seem the sharpest knife in the drawer."
"I should say," Lizzie growled. "I seriously thought we were supposed to be better than the Americas in that. . .but I suppose bigots sprout wherever they're welcome."
"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, just as disgusted. "Only have to look at what old Galswells did to Burtonsville to see that."
"Mmmm. . . ." Lizzie's shoulders slumped as the fire within her receded. "He's in with the Inspector. Or one of them, anyway – I've never actually heard that rank before. They must have instituted it after we died. . .sounds important, though."
"Detective-y," Bonejangles agreed. "Which means ya think he'd be able to see Bumby for what he actually is."
"Apparently not. I knew Bumby was said to be charismatic in the presence of his betters, but given his behavior toward me, I never believed it. Apparently he's better at sweet-talking people than I thought."
"He could also be just straight-up bribin' him," Bonejangles pointed out. "I met plenty of watchmen who'd let ya do whatever ya wanted for a pack of smokes or a free sandwich. Inspectors probably want cold hard cash, but same deal in the end."
"What worries me is if this 'Broadbent' is in fact a client," Lizzie confessed, a hard shiver racking her body. "The very idea of one of Bumby's own working his way into the police. . .but then again, Bumby's talked his way into fame and – perhaps not fortune, but judging by that bedroom, he lives comfortably enough in the Home." She pressed her face into her hand. "Honored by his fellow alienists. . .we never had a chance of exposing him, did we? Not unless I walked into the police station looking as I usually do, and then everyone would be too busy screaming."
"And Elder Gutknecht would have your hide once we went back," Bonejangles nodded. He scratched under his hat, ruffling his imaginary hair. "I'm sorry, Liz. I didn't want things to be this way either. I was hopin' we could just get in, grab your sis, make him shit his trousers, then wrap the whole thing up before midnight."
"That was my dream too." Lizzie pressed on her eyes. "This night has not gone according to plan."
Bonejangles chuckled weakly. "Yeah – that was Victor's problem too, from what I hear. Why I don't make many of 'em." He pulled her close. "Still, there's one bit of good news – your sister may be walking all over London fightin' monsters in her head, but at least she's not with him."
"I can't believe that's the standard of 'good' news in my life now – but you're right," Lizzie allowed, looking up. "If nothing else, he can't influence her anymore. Better trapped in Wonderland than trapped in Houndsditch. I just hope it doesn't lead to trapped in Rutledge again." She brushed some hair out of her eyes. "We still have some night left, right?"
"Yeah, last I remember, sun don't rise until almost eight in November. Got a few hours, anyway."
"Good. If nothing else, we can keep looking for Alice and try to get her somewhere safer. I – really have no idea where that would be, apart from dragging her to the Land of the Dead with us, but. . . ."
"We'll figure something out," Bonejangles assured her. "Just hope she doesn't see me as some monster she's gotta stick a spoon in."
"I somehow doubt it. . .and how do you even cut someone with a spoon?" Lizzie asked, finally letting that bafflement in.
"There was this one guy I knew when I was first startin' out who kept all his forks and stuff sharpened on one side. . .'course, he only had one arm, so guess it was necessary if he ever wanted to cut the top off a hard-boiled egg. . . ."
"Huh. I should suggest that to Katie Winks when I next see her." Lizzie cracked her neck. "But right now, I think it's off to the shops. One of Alice's friends in Wonderland is a milliner, so might as well see if she's intruding on the hospitality of a real one."
"Right beside ya, Liz."
"Miss! Mister! Fresh onions? Dug them up this morning!"
"No thank you," Lizzie mumbled as they passed. The lady shrugged and continued loading up her basket. "Not that I could taste them anyway."
"Seem pretty ripe to me," Bonejangles said, fake nose wrinkling. "But I ain't eating one on its own." He glanced back at her sadly. "We gave it our best shot, Liz."
"I know," Lizzie murmured. "I just hate that it wasn't good enough."
"London's a hella big city – findin' her just outta the blue was a long shot."
"Yes, but still. She's my sister, and this whole trip was to help her, and – and I didn't even get a shot at Bumby," she grumbled. "Why is there always someone hanging around that back door when we go to check?"
"To be fair, Liz, it was just a washerwoman this time. You were the one who didn't want her screamin' and bringin' anybody else over."
"I might have risked it if I hadn't – you feel it too, right?" Liz asked, looking into his eyes. "A sort of – internal countdown?"
"Yeah, I do," Bonejangles nodded. "Don't think we got more than fifteen minutes up here now."
"Right – and we weren't going to get anything done in fifteen minutes. Better to leave the poor woman unmolested." Lizzie leaned her head against Bonejangles's shoulder. "This has been a rotten night."
"Certainly ain't gonna rank in my top ten, that's for sure," Bonejangles agreed. "I wish I could make this better, Liz, I really do."
"I know. You being just as frustrated as me helps a little." Movement in a nearby window caught her eye, and she turned to see her own reflection staring back at her. Her exhaustion and sadness was written all over her face – and Bonejangles's too, come to think of it. She watched him in the impromptu mirror as he looked down at her. "This is how it should have been," she muttered.
"This," Lizzie repeated, waving her hand at the unbroken curve of her throat and his – everything – in the glass. "It shouldn't be just an illusion. We should be strolling along here just like any other young couple in love. I should be able to feel your hand in mine. You should be able to kiss me instead of just waving your teeth in my direction. We – we should have both lived."
"Ain't gonna argue that, but I think you keep forgettin' the part where I woulda been twelve years older than ya if we had."
"People have married who were more than twenty years apart," Lizzie replied. "And not always at the command of their parents. If I'd met you when I was eighteen and you thirty, I think I would have liked you just as much." She scuffed her foot into the mud between the cobbles. "I wasn't opposed to getting married when I was younger. I just wanted to either have a few adventures first, or meet someone who would go on them with me. You would have fit the bill perfectly."
Bonejangles smiled. "Yeah, I wasn't gonna settle down either until I found a gal who could keep up with me. Annoys the shit out of me that it was only after we both died." He gave her hand a squeeze. "But what the hell can you do about it? No magic in the world that can get a corpse back alive, or change the past. We can only work with what we've got."
"I know. And I'm not unhappy with what we have now, it's just. . .it would have been nice to have it properly." Lizzie smiled faintly. "And with flesh – you're distractingly handsome."
Bonejangles snorted. "Sorry. Though you know how to brew up those potions now. I ain't gonna object if you want me to keep gulpin' 'em down."
"Maybe for special occasions – I don't want you to have to deal with any more nonsense just because you're darker than me."
"Oh, there's always gonna be nonsense, Liz. But it's a lot easier to take when I'm with you."
He could be truly romantic sometimes. Lizzie looked back up at his profile – that sharp, strong chin, the slightly-crooked nose, those big brown eyes – and made a decision. They could only work with what they had, and they shouldn't deny themselves the pleasures of being a couple. He may not be able to kiss her properly anymore, even with illusory lips –
But she could kiss him. She hooked her arms around his neck and leaned up, pressing her lips against his lower teeth. Bonejangles started, surprised. . .but then his arms slipped around her waist, helping support her, and he angled his head slightly, giving her a bit more access to the top half of his mouth. Lizzie closed her eyes and snuggled up against him. For just a moment, it was almost like they were a regular couple, out on the town, enjoying an early-morning snog. . . .
"Ah, young love! Would our happy pair fancy a bit of breakfast?"
. . .and being interrupted. Lizzie dropped back onto her heels and frowned at the man who'd come up to them. "What?"
"Pies!" the man said, heedless of her sour look. He held up his tray, slung round his neck and loaded with misshapen lumps of dough and meat. "Fresh outta the oven! Special early morning deal of sixpence, and that's cuttin' me own throat!"
Lizzie and Bonejangles looked at each other. She could still feel the time ticking down inside her, urging her to find shelter behind the butcher's before they disappeared in the middle of the street and caused a scene. . .but there was still about ten minutes, and – "He's been on me to try something ever since we got here," she admitted to the salesman, reaching into her bag. "I think I've got some change. . . ."
She did – the coins still smelled a little of egg, but the man accepted them without a second thought and promptly passed over two pies. Lizzie handed one to Bonejangles and bit deep into hers. To her surprise, she could actually taste it pretty well. Fresh out of the oven my behind. . .but I can't complain about the flavor. "This is quite good," she said, giving the man a smile.
The man's expression suggested most people didn't say this. "Really?"
"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, happily chowing down. Lizzie hoped nobody noticed the chewed-up meat dropping to the ground under him. "You got a talent for this, mister."
The man goggled briefly, then got his feet under him again. "Glad you like! Here, take my card – and make sure to tell all your friends about Mr. Dibbler!"
"We will," Lizzie promised, accepting the little scrap of pasteboard and tucking it away. Mr. Dibbler beamed and headed off deeper into the market. She chuckled and took another bite from her pie. "At least this is a nice way to – what the–"
"What is it, Liz?" Bonejangles asked, tilting his head as he finished off the last of his meat.
"Something – stringy." Lizzie took the pie out of her mouth and dug around inside. "What, did a shoelace somehow. . .get. . . ."
Her voice died as she pulled out a long, naked rat tail. She and Bonejangles just stared at it for a long moment. Then Bonejangles said, "I think I did warn ya, Liz."
"You did," Liz said, deliberately dropping the tail to the ground. She looked at the remaining hunk of pie. "I guess I might as well finish it – then we'll go back to the butcher's and update Mama and Papa."
"Good plan," Bonejangles said. "Least you got a funny story to tell 'em."
"I suppose. . . ." Lizzie glared at the back of the retreating Dibbler. "But I assure you – if I wasn't dead, he would be."