In The Land of the Dead
That. . .hurt. . .less than I thought it would.
Dr. Angus Gideon Bumby, proprietor of The Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth and noted rising star in the psychiatric community, blinked open his eyes. A collection of hazy golden-brown blobs greeted him – with another blink, they resolved themselves somewhat into a row of worn gas lamps hanging from a high ceiling. A hospital? Or, against all common sense, am I still in the station?
Something hard, thin, and long digging into his back told him it was the latter. Bumby grunted and rolled himself over. His limbs were all wobbly – no doubt a side effect of the terror he'd just experienced – but he marshaled them into place, supporting himself on his hands and knees. He took a deep breath to chase away any lingering shivers, then felt around until he located his glasses just under the edge of the platform. The frames were a bit twisted, and the left lens cracked, but they would do until he could procure another pair. He slipped them on and watched as Moorgate came into full sharpness. "I could have sworn that train hit me head on," he said aloud, just to fill the silence. "What in God's name happened?"
God didn't bother to reply, and neither did anyone else. Bumby grabbed the platform and hauled himself to his feet. His entire body felt like one huge bruise – but he had an entire body to feel that way, and that was something to be thankful for. When Alice had shoved him onto the tracks –
He was still having trouble following that chain of events. Everything had started off so well – he'd been waiting for Miss Thatcher's train, Thirteen standing obediently in the shadows until called (just in case Tarrant or Hightopp was nosing around again – he'd had to go and make some friends in the police force). And then, suddenly, a familiar voice was accusing him of being an "oozing sore of depravity," and Alice had appeared behind him, eyes and hair wild, dress torn and filthy, but memory disgustingly intact. He'd been startled, but played along with her delusions of heroism, watching her expression regularly go vague as she slipped in and out of her precious Wonderland. How any of it had survived his careful treatment, he didn't know, but he'd decided it didn't matter. Despite the fact that he knew no one would listen to the ravings of such a clear lunatic, he'd had no intentions of letting her end the day alive. So he'd let her exhaust herself with her rantings, wondering how best to rid the world of the last Liddell – and then inspiration had struck, and he'd called over Thirteen to do the deed for him. Oh, the look on her face when Thirteen had come up beside him! He wished he'd had Raphael or Michelangelo there to capture it. He'd ordered his toy forward, secure in victory –
And then the worthless little shit had betrayed him! Swung around and delivered a hit that suddenly made him realize just how that stick-thin whelp could actually punch out Jack Splatter! And yelling about how "you won't touch her!" As if it was his place to decide such things -- his place to remember her at all! He'd been swift with his punishment, and Thirteen had collapsed like a house of cards under the dark, but that had been – embarrassing, frankly. He knew about the boy's propensity to fight back against his control if Alice's name was spoken in his presence – what had possessed him to think putting Thirteen right in front of her would go any better? But he'd been angry and jealous and the idea of the mandrake who'd refused him choking the slut who'd refused him to death had been so nice. . . .
Alice, strangely, hadn't taken the opportunity to run for freedom, instead insisting that she would see him charged. Had she really been so dim as to think she could take him down? The respectable philanthropist, breaking ground on a new era of psychiatry? But then again, thinking clearly had never been Alice's strong point – she'd seemed to believe Thirteen would be able to help her, for heaven's sake. He'd set her straight, then – seeing his train was due to arrive any minute – insisted she leave. It wouldn't do for his new assistant to know the old one hadn't actually quit, and he could always hunt her down later. He'd even allowed himself a quick fantasy of enjoying her the way he'd enjoyed her teasing sister. . . .
Which she'd rudely interrupted by snatching away the one memento he had of that night. Again, partially his own fault – he'd known that chain needed replacing – but it was just more proof of the psychotic bitch's degenerate nature. And he'd been about to grab her and force the key from her hand when she'd stopped dead, twirled back around, and – and –
She was a monster out of his worst nightmares – a girl no longer sickly and pale, but brimming with health behind rosy cheeks and ripe-peach skin. Gone was the dirty and ragged black-and-white frock that Witless had more or less shoved her in – her dress now blazed with vibrant blue, and her apron was as white as fresh-fallen country snow. . .except where it was marred with patches of bright red that could only be one thing. Her hair hung about her head in a deep brown waterfall, glossy and well-kept as opposed to the tangled mess he'd seen before. Even her eyes had changed – a brilliant, flashing, dangerous green, as if someone had fashioned emeralds into knives. This was the warrior of Wonderland, the girl he'd read about in Wilson's notes and heard about in Alice's stories, the creature he'd dismissed as some idle power fantasy that would soon be forgotten. . .and now it was coming straight at him, murder written into every fiber of its being. He backed away, terror surging through him even as he thought, It's ridiculous she can't have possibly changed so fast you're hallucinating she's infected you with her madness wake up wake up – and then a cold hand pressed against his unsteady shoulder as he teetered on the platform's edge, and gave him one solid shove. For a moment, he hung in the air, watching the girl's merciless eyes burn into him – then there was a roar, a split-second of blinding pain as flesh met unforgiving, unyielding iron – then blackness all-consuming –
And then I wake up here, as if nothing had happened, Bumby thought, putting a steadying hand on his head. Did I hallucinate the whole business? God, I hope I haven't made an idiot of myself in front of anyone important. I must have looked a sight yelling at someone who wasn't –
Is my hand blue?
He dropped it in front of his eyes. Sure enough, blue skin greeted his gaze – about the same color as the sky on a hot summer's day, when the smog wasn't too bad. He pushed up his sleeve – blue all the way up, though it was layered a bit with purple along most of his arm. Bruising, no doubt. . .but I haven't read anything on broken vessels or blood loss causing a change like this. Or any other medical ailment, for that matter. Was the train painted? No, that doesn't make sense either – even if they have started decorating the local lines, there's no reason for it to rub off on me. Just to make sure though, he tried to rub it off on his coat.
No luck – the shade was most assuredly part of his skin. He frowned at the affected limb, working his way through his vast reservoirs of knowledge. Hmmm. . .he had heard something about blue skin before. Something to do with dead – Oh my God.
His hand shot to his neck, probing his arteries for the familiar beat. The other he clapped over his mouth, pinching shut his nose into the bargain, waiting for a burning ache in his lungs. She couldn't have she couldn't have she's a weak silly woman and I – I –
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He could have been carved out of marble and he wouldn't have known any different. He let his arms drop, staring into space. She'd killed him. That bloody lunatic had killed him. Stolen his Thirteen and his precious key and killed him! And Thirteen – he'd been right! Almost a year of demanding that he call that corpse bride nothing but fantasy, and he'd been right all along! "I – this – this is not how I should have ended!"
He stomped his foot – petulant, he knew, but why should he care? He was dead! Dead at the hands of Alice Liddell, who was to be his masterwork! And in Victor Goddamn Van Dort's Land of the Dead, which he'd dismissed as a story more ridiculous than that of Wonderland! It was not fair! He should be alive, enjoying the fruits of his labor, secure in the knowledge that everything had worked out for the best – not having everything he'd ever believed in thrown back in his face! "Why am I even still in Moorgate?" he demanded, looking right and left. "Shouldn't I have woken up in my coffin?"
Depends on if there was enough left of you to put in a coffin, a voice whispered in the back of his brain. You should be thankful you're not just a red stain on the tracks.
All right, that was a fair enough point. Bumby shuddered at the thought of how he must have looked once the locomotive finally came to a stop. What a horrible and undignified way to meet his end. . . . I should have been more careful. I should have gone faster and harder with Alice's therapy. I should have broken Thirteen to my will the moment I learned about his terror of the dark. But then, how could I have expected this? Alice was supposed to be either raving in Rutledge or dead in a ditch, and Thirteen. . .he was so perfect, I thought for sure he was mine and mine alone. . . .
But he hadn't been, and she hadn't been, and now he was stuck Downstairs, waiting for a train that would never come. Bumby straightened his lapels and pressed briefly on his temples. No sense in passing his afterlife down here – if Thirteen was to be believed (and obviously he was, Goddamn it, any afterlife that randomly turned people blue had no right existing), London should exist in duplicate beyond the confines of this station. Complete with shops and fellow corpses. And maybe, just maybe, there was one somewhere who could help him unwrap the secrets of ravens' eggs and help him get back Upstairs to secure his revenge. Because such insubordination could not go unpunished, oh no. . . . Drifting into a fantasy of the lurid acts he'd force his two puppets to commit once they were brought to heel, he ascended the stairs to the street.
A blaze of color greeted him as he exited the arch – Thirteen hadn't been kidding when he'd said that Downstairs seemed to contain every shade and hue lost to the world above. Buildings stood out in sharp blood-reds, ripe pumpkin-oranges, and deep grape-purples. The sky was a lighter shade of that last, mixed with a hint of brown, a kind of eternal earthy twilight. The street he was on didn't boast many people, but he could hear them in the market, hawking their wares and bargaining over prices. Funny how life could just go on after the end – but then, didn't everyone find comfort in their routine?
I know I do, Bumby thought, looking approvingly down the street at his Houndsditch Home. It was good to have a familiar location close at hand, even if it was purple and yellow now. He'd have to do something about that. But with any luck, his office, his books, and his bed were still inside. He'd had a trying day – he could do with a lie-down. He strolled down the cobbles, holding his hands behind his back and trying to pretend he was just coming home after a successful day on the block.
As he neared the Home, he saw a group of children gathered on the front steps, playing what looked like tiddly-winks. Rather than his current rabble of Charlie, Reggie, Abigail, and Elsie, though, he recognized Hannah, Walter, Teddy, and – Caroline? Dead already? he thought, blinking. Goodness, Mr. Jones didn't look like a complete idiot when I put you in his hands. . .funny they would all come back here, though. Maybe this place sticks in their empty little minds as "home." He smirked. I bet a few of my former clients are down here. And with the child mortality rate so high. . .I'll need something to keep me busy before I return for my well-deserved vengeance. "Hello children!" he called as he reached the gate. "How are you all?"
The children looked up – and, almost as one being, froze. Eight little eyes bore into his flesh, wide and – frightened? Bumby tilted his head. They shouldn't be frightened of him. He was their doctor! They should remember him as the one who'd shown them their purpose in life! "Children?"
The word plopped down among the four like a stone thrown into a still pond. Without any hesitation they scrambled to their feet and shot inside. Bumby caught one hiss "get Miss Lizzie!" before the door was slammed shut. He went to open it, but it was locked tight. "What – children, it's me!" he snapped, starting to get annoyed. "Dr. Bumby!"
"We know who you are!" Caroline shouted from a window. Her face twisted into a furious sneer. "And what you do!"
"You ain't getting me again!" Walter yelled from behind the door. "There's bobbies down here, and they'll come looking!"
Oh damn it – death undid all the careful work he'd done on their minds? That was irritating to say the least. Just another part of dying that wasn't going as he wished it to. . .but he was still the master of Houndsditch, and they were still his patients. Perhaps they outnumbered him, but he was bigger, and knew all their secret fears and nightmares. Besides, he was dead – what could they possibly do to him? He rapped smartly on the door. "Open up!"
"Never!" Walter yelled. "Never ever!"
"Listen here, Walter, it wouldn't take me five minutes to find a–"
Bumby sucked in an unnecessary breath. That voice. . .for a moment, he was twenty-four again, watching the most delectable creature he'd ever seen enter his dean's sitting room. He never thought he'd hear it again, but now. . .could it really be? He whirled around, eyes bright with excitement. "Eliza-BETH!"
The – woman? – standing behind him smirked. It looked like Elizabeth – the same tumbling brown waves of hair, the same sea-blue eyes, the same pink lips he'd longed to kiss. But – but her neck – he could see her spine, smell the rot slowly taking away the precious curves of her skin – her horrifically blue skin, the same shade as everyone else's but no that wasn't right she wasn't supposed to be blue. . . . Her dress was one he'd seen her in often when alive, a sunny yellow with grey and white stripes, but now it was little more than a tattered wreck, sleeves snagged and torn, skirt tattered and chewed – just like her arms, he realized with a jolt of horror. There were worm holes in her flesh, the skin sagging and sloughing away. . . . He stepped back on instinct, stomach twisted. Thirteen had been able to entertain the idea of marriage to something like this?
The smirk widened as the thing – the corpse – stepped forward. "What's wrong, Angus?" that familiar voice purred, the sweetness of her tone undercut by a hint of rage. "Aren't I pretty anymore?"
"You're not her," Bumby whispered, shaking his head in numb disbelief. "You can't be her. My Elizabeth would never–"
"I'm not your Elizabeth," the corpse spat, eyes narrowing in disgust. "I was never your Elizabeth, despite your best efforts. You wretch, you monster, you beast – it took me years to want to speak to to a man who wasn't my father! To even venture out of our house – the house you burned down! It wasn't enough to destroy me and my life – you had to take my parents in the bargain?!"
"I couldn't let anyone know I'd lost my temper!" Bumby blurted, then mentally smacked himself. What the hell was he doing, admitting to that? Elizabeth had been dead before he set the blaze – she didn't need to know he was responsible! Where was all the charm and persuasion he'd spent years cultivating? "I mean–"
"I know exactly what you mean," the corpse cut him off. "You couldn't risk the hit to your precious reputation, and so we all had to go. But one of us made it out alive, didn't she?" She advanced forward again. "You let her rot a decade in bedlam, stole her family and her childhood. . .and then, when she clawed her way out and tried to resume a normal life. . . ." Her fists clenched, then relaxed. "I've spent the last twelve years imagining what I would do to you if I ever saw you again. What revenge would be appropriate. But you know what? That feels like a mere blink of an eye compared to the three months I've had to wait to avenge Alice."
"Avenge?" Bumby parroted.
"I know what you've done, you loathsome insect. I know what you must have had planned for her. I can only hope you died before you were able to put any of it in motion!"
"Elizabeth, please, my heart was always yours and yours alone," Bumby said, holding up his hands and trying to smile. Oh God, how could he even call this creature before him Elizabeth. . . . "Your sister is beautiful, I assure you, but she would have always been a mere candle to your – um – bonfire." Why did I use that metaphor. . . .
"Guess you would know, considerin' how good you are at settin' 'em."
Bumby started. Who was – then he spotted the speaker over Elizabeth's shoulder, ambling up to them from the wall across the street. He – if such a word could be applied to this monster – was nothing more than a mobile collection of bones, with an absurdly large jaw and a single eye, which was currently fixed on Bumby with an expression of utter loathing. Balanced on his head was a bowler hat, much like the one Jack Splatter favored when on the street. "Pity you didn't get yourself burned up in that fire," it continued. "'Course, I wouldn't want you anywhere near poor Liz, but I think we all would have been better off if you'd gotten broiled."
Bumby pressed himself up against the door, gritting his teeth in an effort to keep his knees from shaking. Oh God. . .this was horrible, this was terrifying, this was –
He blinked and took a closer look at the skeleton. It didn't look like anyone he knew. . .and it certainly wasn't the one at the training hospital from his student days. And yet something about it tugged at his memory. Something to do with the Land of the Dead, and – and music. . . .
And then it clicked. Bumby gaped. "Bonejangles?"
It was surprising just how expressive bone could be – a quick realignment of the jaw and the eye dropping from one socket to the other turned the permanently-grinning face from furious to confused. "Huh? How do you know my name?" he asked, sharing a puzzled glance with Elizabeth.
"What are you doing in London?" Bumby returned, putting his hands on his hips. It felt good to have a target for his anger. "Aren't you supposed to be entertaining people in the middle of nowhere?"
"He's here as my guest," Elizabeth said primly. "Now answer his question. You haven't even been dead half an hour – at least, I hope not – and you know who he is?"
"Well, it's rather hard not to have a singing skeleton stick in your mind when you're treating someone for his delusion of marrying a corpse."
Both Elizabeth's and Bonejangles's jaws dropped. "What – Victor?" Bonejangles said quietly. "You – Victor was one of your patients?"
"His parents wrote to me personally," Bumby said, drawing himself up. "Said their son had suffered a turn of madness and could I help? I was only too happy to lend my particular brand of charity to his aid." He glanced left and right. "Fine, yes, he wasn't insane, but how was I supposed to know that? Walking dead, a corpse bride? He's lucky he didn't end up in Bethlehem Hospital!"
"I wish he had!" Elizabeth cried, clasping her hands tightly before her. "To have to suffer your bedside manner – he probably would have preferred leeches!"
"I doubt it. He never seemed keen on them whenever Alice mentioned something about Rutledge. I probably should have threatened him with incarceration there more–"
The slap came out of nowhere and left his cheek stinging (which was a bit odd – shouldn't dead flesh be immune to pain?). "You evil, evil man," Elizabeth growled. "We'll just add him to the list of people to avenge. I am told that God may find it fit one day to drag your loathsome corpse to Hell, but the punishment I trust is the one I dole out myself."
"You dare talk of punishment?" Bumby shot back, grabbing her by the shoulders. Elizabeth squeaked, tensing. "The way you flaunted yourself before me and then declared you wanted nothing to do with me?"
"I never flaunted!" Elizabeth shouted, though he could hear a note of fear in her voice. Good. "You saw something that was never there!"
"Don't play coy with me," he growled, leaning into her face. "You thrived off my attentions. The attentions of all those undergraduates whose heads your turned. You pretended to despise us all, but you always wanted more. And then, when I tried to give it to you–"
"I wanted nothing from you except your drowning in the Isis," Elizabeth snarled, wrenching free of his hands. "The lot of you saw me as nothing more than a piece of meat, but you were the worst! At least the others were willing to consider me having an opinion! You built up your fantasy and never gave me a choice!"
"We would have been perfect together!" Bumby snapped, yanking her close again. "When I think of the advances I could have made with a loving wife to make my dinner and take care of the cleaning–"
"You don't even think I have a mind, do you? I was just something to feed you and wash you and – and–"
"Fuck me?" Bumby said, deciding now was not the time to worry about crude talk. "I tried to make it pleasant for you, Elizabeth."
"You did nothing of the kind," she hissed, eyes ablaze. "You took your pleasure and then silenced me for good. You'd think the scratches I tore into your flesh would have clued in you that I wasn't enjoying myself!"
"You wouldn't give me a chance! You thought you were too good for me, didn't you?" Bumby yelled, shaking her.
"Actually, yes, I did! But then, common garden slugs are too good for you!" She kicked him in the belly. "Get your meathooks off of me!"
Bumby staggered, but managed to hang on. "You whores are all alike!" he cried, old wounds reopening and pouring out a decade of stale pus. "Thinking you can go around, leading respectable men on before throwing them in the garbage – I simply had the courage to take what I was owed!" He dug his fingers hard into her shoulders. "God, I hate all you teases. You, Alice, Thirteen–"
"Thirteen?" Elizabeth's anger took on an edge of confusion. "How can a child–"
"He was the same as you!" Bumby shouted, beyond listening. "Walking around the Home with that magnificent mouth and that delectable arse. . .making the piano sing. . .but never, ever showing me the slightest bit of favor. Acting surprised that I wanted a closer look at the best parts of him! And fighting me every time I tried to go deep into his mind, as if that wasn't the whole reason he was there! Oh, but I showed him, just like I showed you! I gave him just what he deserved!"
Elizabeth opened her mouth to say something – but was cut off by a large bony hand grabbing his collar and slamming him against the door. "What the fuck did you do to my friend, you bastard?!" Bonejangles demanded, nose to nose holes with the doctor.
"Oh, if only I could show you – I had him very well trained in the week I was allowed to enjoy him!" Bumby replied, unable to help his smile. "His tea-making skills were top-notch. What the hell do you care, anyway? He was willing to marry one of you, wasn't he?"
"'Willing' being the key word," Elizabeth said, voice cold with horror. "You can't even leave your own sex alone?"
"I think this proves I'm not going to Hell for it," Bumby said smugly.
Four rock-hard knuckles smashed into his nose, sending starbursts of pain floating before his eyes. "No, you ain't – one of my Boys never looked at a woman that way, and he don't deserve the lake o'fire for it. You're going Down 'cause you ain't even fit to lick his big toe." He yanked Bumby away from the door and spun him around, pinning his arms behind his back and forcing his legs wide. "You know, if Liz weren't here, I'd do the fucking honors myself. But as I actually care what a lady wants, I'll just make sure you ain't going anywhere. Go for it, Liz – we're running low on time."
"Go for what?" Bumby demanded, squirming against the skeleton's grip. A creature with no muscles should not be this strong! "What are you talking about?"
"The fact that you're still feeling pain at the moment," Lizzie explained, walking up to him. "You've noticed your senses seem to be working just fine here in the Land of the Dead? That's not going to last. You'll see and hear as well as ever, but taste and smell will slowly fade until the only way to enjoy a good meal is to let it sit out and rot for a day or two. And touch – within a half-hour of arrival, that goes pretty much completely. You'll only be able to tell if someone is poking you, and even then you'll be guessing."
"Well, thank you for the lesson," Bumby said sarcastically. "So I'm right on the edge of not having to fear a punch anymore?"
"Probably," Lizzie agreed. "But it's not punching you should fear from me."
With that, she ripped open his fly. For about a quarter of a second, Bumby's libido cheered that she was about to give him one last thrill – and then, with a flick of her wrist, a wicked-looking knife slid out of her sleeve and into her hand, and the rest of him realized what she was really planning. "No!" he cried, kicking in a desperate attempt to keep her away. "Don't! Elizabeth, stop this! I know you! You'd never do something like this!"
Elizabeth looked him right in the eye, and Bumby saw nothing but pure, unadulterated hate pouring from that beautiful blue. "The me you knew wouldn't, yes – but you killed her."
Seconds later, a loud howling alerted everyone in the area that justice was being done.
"You cunt. . . ."
"Such language!" Elizabeth scolded, wiping the blade off on her skirt. "And you claim to be a mannerly gentleman. It's not like I made you suffer for too long."
"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, leaning over the former doctor. He gave Bumby a solid kick in the stomach, and was rewarded with a whimper. "Me, I woulda taken my time. Made sure he was screamin' right 'til his nerves went numb."
"It was a temptation – but I didn't know just how long he'd been down here, and my main objective was always making damn sure he couldn't do what he did to me to anyone else." Elizabeth smirked at Bumby's curled-up figure. "Mission accomplished."
Bumby glared back at her, hands tightly wrapped around his destroyed groin. The pain was already almost gone, a faded ache far in the distance, but the anger scorching through his soul more than made up for the lack of feeling in his flesh. "Slattern," he choked out. "You won't get away with this!"
"Oh? I do believe I already have," Elizabeth replied, slipping the knife back into her sleeve. "And let me tell you–" her voice dropped a dark octave "– it felt good."
An animal noise of rage tore itself from Bumby's throat. He'd really deluded himself into believing he loved this bitch? He'd truly been a fool. She was rotten to the core, just like all the others. He shouldn't have granted her the clean death of strangulation (accidental as that had been) – he should have left her to die in the smoke, listening to the screams of her family as they burned. No, dragged her outside and made her watch before dispatching of her and her sickening little sister properly! "I can get that back, you know!" he snarled, determined to ruin her victory any way he could.
"After the slicing and dicing she gave it? Good luck," Bonejangles snorted.
"I'm dead! All I need are the pieces and a little thread, don't I?"
"I suppose," Elizabeth allowed, that infuriating little smile never leaving her decayed lips. "But your being dead also means it'll never do you any good anymore. You'll never be able to use it again. You'll just have to sit there and watch it rot."
"Yeah – you're better off without it," Bonejangles agreed with a barking laugh. "Well, more everybody else is – who gives a shit about you?"
"You – you – I will rip you both to pieces!" Bumby roared, scrambling back to his feet. "I will tear you limb from limb – bone from bone! And then I will scatter them across the length and breadth of this accursed world! You'll exist for eternity as nothing more than scraps of flesh and marrow! And I'll make sure to throw everything in opposite directions, so you'll never even have the comfort of knowing a fragment of yourself exists near a fragment of the other! And I will laugh at your suffering, you vile, unfeeling whore!"
"What, no mention of burning the pieces to ashes?" Elizabeth shot back, though he noted her eye twitched. "You're losing your touch, Dr. Bumby." She turned away with her nose in the air. "Come on, Sam. We needn't waste our eternity standing around listening to a madman."
"Am I?" Bumby hissed. No, they would not just walk away after committing such a crime against his person. "Maybe I should demonstrate just how mad I am to your precious Alice."
Elizabeth whirled back around, jaw clenched. "You will not. You're stuck down here. She'll never have to deal with the likes of you again."
"Oh, Elizabeth – that thing standing next to you proves you wrong," Bumby said, voice sickly sweet. "If he can find his way back to the Land of the Living, so can I! And then I will find her, and I will destroy her! Just the mere sight of me should send her running back into the welcoming arms of Rutledge! But don't you dare think I'll let it be that easy, no. I'll make her mine in every way possible first, just like I did with you! With or without that piece you sliced off, you disgusting, teasing harpy!"
"I will tear you to pieces before you ever come near my sister again!" Elizabeth yelled – but there was a slight crack in her voice now. "And if by some miracle you do make it back Upstairs, I know she'll. . .she'll. . . ."
She trailed off abruptly, the anger in her face transforming into baffled shock. Bumby barely noticed, his own rage blinding him with its intensity. "She'll what?" he demanded, advancing a step. "Kill me again? I'd like to see her try! She's a weak, silly bitch who can't tell down from up half the time! She hasn't a chance against me! Shoving me in front of that train was – was a mere fluke!" Yes, yes, keep saying that, make yourself believe it, don't think of that blood-splattered dress or that flowing hair or those sharp, pitiless eyes. . . . "A – a trick that I foolishly fell for! I almost had her – and I did have her 'beloved' Victor!" he added, shifting his gaze to Bonejangles. "He fought, oh, he fought, but it wasn't enough – would have never been enough! He'll be my slave for the rest of whatever passes for a life with that squirming little maggot! One word about exiling him to the darkness and he'll beg to serve me! Maybe I won't even need my own manhood after all – I'll just force him to do the deed in my steed! Then wake him up just long enough to show him what he's done! Oh yes, I'll make them both suffer more than you could ever imagine! And if you think you can stop me – pathetic, loathsome, disgusting creatures, I welcome the attempt! I can't wait to see your faces when you discover your sister, wrapped in a straitjacket, praying for the sweet release of death, and your friend, serving as my toady, without a thought ever passing through his brain again!" He jabbed a dramatic finger at their faces. "You think your hatred has lasted long, Elizabeth? Just wait until you see the length for which mine burns!"
Elizabeth or Bonejangles gawked at him, eyes wide with horror. Bumby preened for a moment – then realized their gazes were actually directed at a point just over his shoulder. Irritation flared up in him – had they even heard a word of his delightful speech? He'd thought it was some of his best work. "What?" he snapped, turning. "What the hell are you–"
The words froze in his throat. Standing behind him, slurping and bubbling and growing taller every moment was – was – was something that defied definition. An amorphous blob of thick black slime, wet and glistening and bloated like a blood-fattened leech, composed the bulk of the beast. Peppered all over it were empty-eyed doll faces and arms of gleaming white porcelain. The fingers wriggled like worms in a days-old corpse, while the mouths opened and shut in soundless agonized screams. Steam hissed from a tangle of machinery embedded in its top, churning and whirling in response to some internal source of heat. It was the most horrible thing he'd ever seen in his life – and yet, just like Bonejangles and his own blue hand, something about it tickled his memory. "Pollution – corruption – it's – it's killing me! Wonderland is destroyed! My mind is in–" Ruins. That's right, she described monsters of this sort when she finally came home after that night in jail. . .but – but they're not real, they can't be real, I can't be – this cannot – Can I still be delusional if I'm dead?
The faces jerked toward him, their eyeholes dripping coal-black tears. "Doctooorrrr. . . ." groaned a thousand voices as one – the voices of all those he'd sent into slavery, who'd he scrubbed clean and sold without the slightest flicker of conscience, who'd he treated as nothing but dolls. "Dooooctooooorr. . . ."
The old fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. Bumby swung around to flee, pushing his way between the frozen Elizabeth and Bonejangles. He got three steps before the thing behind him shrieked – and then searing hot blackness grabbed his legs, towing him backwards. Bumby screamed as his deadening nerves suddenly sprang back to life, registering agony he'd never imagined even in his worst nightmares. Oh God, not delusional – oh God, oh God, help, HELP!
But God didn't seem in any mood to heed a call from him. Bumby clawed desperately at the ground, losing his fingernails to the cobbles, as the blob slowly gulped him down into its belly. "Time to play with us, Doctoooorrrrr. . . ." the faces moaned as the china hands latched onto him, as icy cold as the Ruin was boiling hot and just as painful, tearing deep into his flesh.
"No! No no no no!" Bumby shrieked, trying to find purchase for his shredded digits. "I don't want to play! Elizabeth! Bonejangles! Help!"
Neither moved, clinging to each other in numb shock. Bumby reached out to Elizabeth one last time as the black sucked him in, closing over his head. "Liz–"
Then pain became his world.
"What the bloody hell was that?!"
Lizzie yelped and squeezed Bonejangles tighter – then recognized the voice as her father's. She and her boyfriend turned to see her parents behind them, jaws almost to the cobbles. "I've never seen anything like it in twelve years dead!"
"Lizzie, Bonejangles, are you all right?" Lorina cried, hurrying up to them and checking them over.
"F-fine," Lizzie told her, trembling. "A l-little rattled, but – it d-didn't seem to care about us at all. Just him."
"And thank God for that – Bonejangles, have you ever heard of anything like that in your afterlife?" Arthur asked, clutching his chest.
"No! And trust me, I'd wanna know if something like that was lurkin' under the ground!" Bonejangles stared at the spot where the creature had burrowed down after consuming the psychiatrist. "Christ Almighty – sorry, Mum, but that deserves it!"
"I'm sure she'd agree," Lorina nodded, following his gaze. "God, to think such monsters could be hiding just below our feet. . . ."
Lizzie started to nod – then one of her higher brain functions kicked back in and directed her to take a closer look at the path. That creature was at least twice as tall as Bumby, wasn't it? How does something that big tear its way from the depths, eat someone, and then burble away back to whatever hell-cave spawned it – without disturbing the earth at all? I know the Land of the Dead isn't exactly known for making the most sense, but –
Hmmm. Hell-cave. . . . "Actually – I don't think that we were ever in danger," she said slowly. "I think that – that thing specifically appeared for Bumby."
"How do ya figure, Liz?" Bonejangles asked, tipping his head and letting his eye roll left to right.
"There should be a hole if the monster was something that could pop up and eat us at any time," she said, pointing. "But there isn't. Everything's just as it was before. And you told me once that people can go Up to Heaven in all sorts of different ways. Shouldn't those going Down to Hell also have unique expresses?"
"Mr. Prince did say once that you got dragged away by a horrid beast," Arthur murmured, expression turning thoughtful. "And that Barkis or Edward fellow was set upon by his vengeful brides, wasn't he?"
"Yeah," Bonejangles nodded, clicking his teeth together. "That makes sense. Sure as hell proved he wasn't interested in makin' amends just then. . .why something like that, though?"
"Damned if I know – perhaps he was just big enough a monster to justify something equally terrifying swallowing him up," Lizzie said, leaning on him. "I rather wish it had waited for a more private moment instead of scaring another few years of rot out of me. . . ."
"You ain't kidding." Bonejangles laughed nervously and wrapped his arm around her. "At least we know for sure he's gettin' what he deserves. Don't think any Hell that would send that up to collect him is gonna go easy on him."
"Not at all," Lizzie agreed. She glanced down at her hands, still stained with what blood Bumby had had left in his body when she'd taken his favorite part. She bit her lip. "Sam – did I do the right thing?"
"Was it – it felt right when I first saw him, but now. . . ." She turned her hands over. "Should I have left his punishment to the Devil? Trusted in God to make sure justice was done?"
"Liz, I think if the Big Guy Upstairs had any objections, he woulda had Bumby eaten first thing," Bonejangles told her, hugging her around her shoulders. "I sure as hell ain't gonna say you did the wrong thing. Not after the shit he pulled and the crap he said."
Lizzie felt another burst of rage as she thought about the threats he'd leveled toward her sister. "Ugh, yes. . .but – I don't know. I just – don't like the idea that I sunk to his level."
"Hey, I ain't one to judge there," Bonejangles told her, holding up his free hand. "I'm one of the folks who broke a few of Barkis's teeth after he drank that wine. Wasn't worried about sinkin' to his level then."
"Lizzie, whatever you chose to do, it was fine," Lorina said, stroking her hair. "Haven't we said over the years how much we would have liked to have murdered him if we'd had the chance earlier? Maybe it wasn't the most Christian thing to wonder about, but – whatever evil you might have committed against him, it was nothing to what he inflicted on other people."
"Hear hear – we're all allowed a bit of darkness in our souls," Arthur agreed. "And you sought your revenge not only for yourself, but for everyone else he's ever hurt. I know the phrase is 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions,' but – well, the monster didn't try to grab you too, now did it?"
"No, it didn't." Lizzie sighed and pressed up against Bonejangles. "Thanks. I'm not really sorry for cutting him off – it's just nice to hear other people agree with me."
"Woulda done the same if you weren't here, Liz," Bonejangles assured her. His voice turned dark. "'Specially after what he let slip about Victor."
"Victor?" Lorina parroted. "Your friend Victor Van Dort? How would he know Bumby?"
"His parents sent him to the bastard," Lizzie said, the words stabbing her tongue. To think someone's own family had condemned him to Bumby's attentions. . . . "Because of the whole Emily business. And – and it turns out Bumby had an interest in boys as well as girls."
The silence that followed these words was almost suffocating. "You mean. . .you mean he did the same to that poor boy as he–" Lorina started, voice high.
"Worse," Lizzie whispered, digging her fingers into the flesh of her chest. "For everything he visited on me, at least he left my mind intact. Victor – he was g-going on about how he had him 'well-trained' and that there wasn't a thought left in his head. . .and he kept calling him 'Thirteen' – oh damn it, Sam, it was him that night! If those wankers hadn't been by the back door–"
"Easy, Liz," Bonejangles replied softly. "Ain't your fault, okay? I'm sure even Victor would say the same." He winced. "If there's any of him left. . . ."
"There must be," Arthur said firmly. "The children here regain their former personalities upon death. Bumby obviously can't actually erase who he was before. Just – hide it, somehow. Hopefully he'll fall into the hands of someone who can undo the damage. And not with electric shocks and bloodletting." He swallowed. "Did – did he say anything about Alice? She's not running around as Fourteen, is she?"
Lizzie smiled, glad to have some good news to present. "No, he was never able to break her. In fact–" she laughed, less from humor and more from relief "–by his own admission, she's the one who killed him!"
"Really?" Lorina stared, then did her best to resist a smile. It didn't work. "Oh, I'm so glad! I know I shouldn't be, but still! How – how horribly wonderful!"
"Feels like justice to me," Arthur said, drawing himself up proudly. "That's my girl – never let anyone steer her wrong." His shoulder slumped. "Though, now we have to worry about seeing her sooner because of the hangman. . . ."
"Alice is smart – I'm sure she didn't let anyone see her do it," Lizzie said, though a worried How do you shove someone in front of a train without people seeing? poked at the back of her mind. "And anyways, maybe she'll consider her life worth the trade. I would in her spot."
"I suppose I would to, but – I can't believe I'm saying this, but fingers crossed she got away with it," Arthur said, shaking his head. "Maybe once she proves what sort of person Bumby really was to the police, they'll go a bit easier on her. . .under the circumstances, she might even be able to claim self-defense."
"Or the defense of others. . .those children still at Houndsditch need someone to look after them," Lizzie murmured, thinking of that frightened little girl who'd greeted them at the door. "And – and Victor too. . .oh Sam, I'm so sorry. To have that happen to him. . .but Alice will take good care of him, I'm sure."
To her surprise, Bonejangles suddenly laughed. "Yeah, I bet she will, considering he's her boyfriend."
"I – what?"
"Didn't you catch that? I just did, even with that thing swellin' up behind him," Bonejangles said, tipping his eye back toward her. "Bumbles called him her 'beloved' Victor. He's gotta be that mystery beau that arse on the docks told ya about."
". . .So my sister and your friend – while we're down here – Sam, that is a weird coincidence," Lizzie said, blinking. "I wonder if they found each other around the same time we did."
"Got me – maybe next Halloween we can go up and ask," Bonejangles grinned, before letting a shadow fall over his face. "If everything's okay by then."
"One hopes," Lorina said, rubbing her face. "Our Alice with a gentleman friend. . .after the way she punched Reginald for laughing at her giving him flowers, I never thought I'd see the day."
"Yeah, looks like you've got a chance at grandchildren after all, Mrs. Liddell!"
This time they all laughed for real. "I'll be happy so long as they can just get married," Lorina told him. "And not on the run."
"Or with corpses interruptin'?" Bonejangles smirked.
"No, from what I hear, that improves a ceremony."
"Is it gone?"
The group turned to see Walter and Teddy peeping out the door, ready to dart back inside at a moment's notice. "Both of them are," Lizzie assured them. "That monster didn't want anyone but Bumby – and now, he'll never be able to hurt any of you ever again."
The children slowly trickled outside, fidgeting as they gathered around the spot where Bumby had been sucked down to his final "reward." "You – you promise?" Hannah asked, pulling at a loose curl of hair.
"Did it look like he was comin' back from that?" Bonejangles told her, patting her head. "He's gone, guys. You're safe at last."
"That's right," Lizzie agreed, kneeling before the crowd. "Don't even spare him another thought. You're free."
Hannah beamed and wrapped her arms around Lizzie. "Good."
A cheer went through the assembled children, and a few celebratory games of chase and wrestling broke out. Bonejangles put his hand on Lizzie's shoulder as they watched the joyous chaos. "Goes double for you, ya know," he told her. "You're done at last."
Lizzie smiled, feeling something inside of her relax for the first time in over a decade. "I know." She slipped her hand over his as she got back to her feet. "I guess that means our business here is concluded, then."
"Are we going back to Oxford?" Arthur asked. "It has been a while since we've seen our old house."
"I would like that – catch up on what everyone's been doing," Lizzie admitted. She looked over at Bonejangles. "How about you? I assume you wouldn't mind more time with your mother."
"Yeah, but – we're official now, Liz. I go where you go," Bonejangles told her, taking her hand and swinging it between them. "'Sides, I haven't seen Oxford in a while either. Hip Joint might be willin' to take me solo – least til I can get the Boys to come up for a spell."
"And maybe we can get you two out on a proper night on the town," Lorina said, eyes sparkling. "Your trip on Halloween doesn't really qualify."
"What with all the runnin' around tryin' to make sure old Dickless hadn't messed Alice up too bad? Yeah, guess not," Bonejangles allowed. He glanced down at Lizzie. "You're, ah, gonna have to give me some pointers. Never really went on an actual date before."
"Neither have I, so we can be unprepared together," Lizzie said, kissing the side of his jaw. "It'll be weird, spending time with you where I'm not worried about Alice and Bumby."
"It's going to be weird for all of us," Arthur chuckled. "But we have some definite proof now she can take care of herself. And we'll keep consulting the papers too, see what they have to say. The death of a prominent psychiatrist is sure to make some headlines."
"I just hope none of them put our little girl on the gallows," Lorina said, wringing her hands together. "Or your friend in an asylum, Bonejangles."
"Just have to wait and see," Bonejangles said, crossing his fingers. "But I think we're past the worst of it. Right, Liz?"
Lizzie nodded. "Right. I wouldn't say I'm ready to move on, but – I finally feel like I've gotten at least a little of what he stole from me back."
Lorina and Arthur smiled warmly and pulled the two into a hug. "That's all we ever wanted for you, Lizzie."
"It's all I ever wanted for me too." Lizzie snuggled tight into her parents and boyfriend. "So – on to the rest of eternity?"
Bonejangles tipped his hat to a rakish angle and gave her his best grin. "Lead on, Liz. Lead on."