Chapter 1: The Unexpected Replacement
". . .dear God. . . ."
"Not a pretty picture, is it?" Alice asked solemnly, leaning over the desk.
Officer Hightopp looked up at her, face ashen. "I had no idea. . .I mean, I seen rotters on the street tossing boys and girls to the highest bidder – knocked the teeth outta a couple, in fact – but this. . . ." One hand slapped the desk as his cheeks flushed crimson with anger. "The bugger slipped all this under our noses! I would've never fingered him as the reason Razor Bill or Manky Tom had those tots to sell! He was supposed to be this big important doctor helping the poor!" He glared at the journal, flipping through pages upon pages of sales figures. "Guess he was. . .just with all the wrong people."
"And the right ones – I wouldn't be surprised if he was bribing at least one or two of your superiors to cover up his crimes," Alice said, eyebrows low. One of the prime reasons she hated the East End – even people's morals were up for sale. And usually not for a decent price. "Not to mention scores of your fellow officers. You and Tarrant are the only two I've met so far who seem to be on the up and up."
"We try – though I admit, been times when I've looked the other way a moment for a sandwich or a smoke," Hightopp confessed.
Alice smiled a little. "At least you will admit it. That still puts you head and shoulders above some of the bobbies I've met."
"Glad to hear it." Hightopp huffed. "As for Inspector Broadbent – if he was in on it, he'll be only too happy to pin all the blame on Bumby just to stop anybody taking too close a look at his personal affairs. Same with anybody else the good doctor threw sixpence at." He snapped the journal shut, expression serious. "'Specially since, according to you, he's a little too dead to keep paying them. What happened to him, anyway?"
"Accident at Moorgate Station," Alice replied, the lie sliding easily off her tongue. She'd mentally rehearsed for this moment all the way down to Bow Street. "You know how I've been wandering around in a daze, making a nuisance of myself while trying to come to grips with things in Wonderland? Well, that was because I'd started to guess at Bumby's business, but was having trouble actually making myself believe it. Much like you, I thought of him as a savior for the wretched – not their Satan." She sighed. "As luck would have it, I finally snapped out of it right outside the station. Flushed and furious with my new knowledge, I demanded his location from the nearest passerby – and, fortuitously, they'd just seen him head for the platform. I went to confront him immediately, and – you've seen me when I'm upset. You can probably imagine the argument."
"You accuse him of being a hyena too?" Hightopp asked, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth.
"I had rather more colorful language for him. Really, some enterprising soul could have sold tickets for a decent sum if they'd spotted us." She tangled her fingers together. "At any rate, we traded insults for a while – and then, the good doctor attempted to take a swing at me. It went badly wrong, and in trying to correct, he stumbled straight off the platform onto the tracks. I didn't even have time to say anything before a train came barreling through. Moments later–" She shrugged. "Well. I doubt there's much of him left."
Hightopp stared hard at her, gaze probing. "Ah-huh. So you and he had a tiff, and then – he just toppled off the stop?"
Alice stared back, cool as a cucumber. "He wasn't thinking clearly – certainly not with the way I was shouting at him. It could happen to anyone. Especially anyone silly enough not to take into account how dangerous standing at the edge of the platform can be, no matter how eager you are for your train."
Hightopp's eyes locked with hers for a small eternity. Then, abruptly, the officer grinned. "Right you are, Miss Liddell," he nodded. "And the way the engineers run the Underground these days – why, unfortunate accidents happen all the time."
Alice smiled back. Whew! Seems I'm not for the hangman's noose after all. Which is fortunate, as I didn't really fancy going on the run from the law right after securing my revenge."Quite right. That train he was waiting for – at least, I assume it was – didn't even stop. Just raced right through like the driver had forgotten how to brake." Her smile lessened as a sudden nasty thought occurred to her. "I do hope it hasn't turned into a runaway. Bumby's death is enough for one day, I think."
"Probably just some idiot new on the job," Hightopp assured her. "Wouldn't worry until you actually hear the crash." His gaze drifted over her shoulder. "So how does your gentleman friend figure into all of this? Poor chap looks like he's seen a ghost – and not the friendly kind he talks about so much, either."
Alice twisted her head. Victor was huddled up against the wall, pressing himself so close that he almost faded right into the wallpaper. His arms were wrapped tightly around him, and his eyes never stopped moving, scanning the busy station for any sign of danger. One of Hightopp's fellow officers walked by him, and he cringed away, stifling a whimper. Alice bit her lip, heart aching. He reminded her of a puppy – one who was still coming to grips with the fact there would be no more boots in his side, and didn't quite trust this 'petting' business. Maybe bringing him along wasn't my best idea. . .but what was I supposed to do, leave him back at Houndsditch surrounded by memories of Bumby?"He's the one who found that journal," she explained, nodding at the document of filth. "And – and paid dearly for it. From what I was able to piece together, Bumby caught him with it, and to keep him from going straight to you, he – well. He took Victor on as his 'personal assistant.'"
"Personal assist–" Hightopp sucked in a breath as it clicked. "Oooh. . .bloody hell. Never struck me as that sort either. . .you all right there, Master Van Dort?" he called, peering around Alice.
Victor didn't react. "Master Van Dort?"
"Victor?" Alice waved to catch his attention. "Officer Hightopp's talking to you."
Victor blinked, gaze shifting from Alice to Hightopp and back. "M-my name's – V-Van Dort?" he asked softly, testing out how it felt on his tongue.
"Last time I checked it was," Hightopp said, frowning. "Which was the day we raced off to that opium den thinkin' we'd finally found Alice here, only for it to be some manky old toad with half her teeth missin'. Remember?"
Victor winced and hunched in on himself. "No."
"Part of becoming said 'personal assistant' involved Bumby ripping his memories out of his head," Alice explained, struggling to contain a fresh wave of nausea. To think that she'd come within a hair's breadth of that fate herself. . . . "We've recovered a few meager scraps, but – that's about it."
"Good God." Hightopp shook his head, hand pressed firmly against his face. "The Illustrated's going to be all over this like a hound on a soup bone."
"No doubt. Hopefully I can count on their continued sympathy toward me, however condescending it is. . . ." Alice rubbed her forehead. "Not to mention that I'm currently the sole person in charge of Houndsditch. I may not be as mad as I was, but I doubt I'm capable of running that place on my lonesome. I lack the proper education for a start."
"We'll ask around, see if we can't get someone decent in to help you," Hightopp promised her. "Must be some doctor willin' to take over the place and make his mark."
"Hmph. Well, whoever it is, they'd best be prepared for me to watch them very closely," Alice declared, folding her arms. "I'm not about to throw those children from the frying pan into the fire. They've already suffered more than enough."
"You can trust me and Fred, Alice," Hightopp assured her. "We'll make sure this all gets set right." He looked over at Victor again. "Though I admit – not sure how we're going to make a start with your friend."
Alice sighed, shoulders slumping as her arms fell back to her sides. "I'm not sure either," she confessed. "But I'll figure out something." It's part of my penance for being so blind, after all.
"Wish you all the best with that." Hightopp tipped his hat. "You two ought to get back to the Home, though. Can't leave those little ones alone for too long."
"Quite right. I'll be back to speak with you and Tarrant later, Officer Hightopp. Keep that journal safe in the meantime." She dropped a quick curtsy, then turned to Victor and held out her hand. "Ready to go?"
Victor gratefully took the offered appendage. "D-do you really think they'll help us?" he asked as they made their way across the lobby.
"They seemed like decent sorts when I met them last," Alice said, tossing a look back at the officer. He was now engaged in a spirited conversation with some man in a butcher's apron, but she could see he still had a protective hand over the journal. "Hightopp especially. And they apparently like you, so that's another point in their favor. I wish I could say if you liked them back, but. . . ." She looked up at him, worrying her lower lip with her teeth. "Has anything else returned? Even just a word, or a picture?"
Victor shook his head. "N-nothing. I've been t-trying ever since we left the Home to come here, but – I keep s-stumbling on his voice, t-telling me I mustn't, that I can't. . . ." He squeezed his eyes shut. "It's – it's h-hard for me to believe he's really dead. I keep thinking I'll round a corner and h-he'll be there, ready to p-punish me for being b-b-bad. . . ."
Alice wrapped her arms around him, pressing her head against his shoulder. "Shhh. It's all right," she murmured. "He's not coming back. I swear on my life he's not. You're free, Victor. And we're going to silence that voice and get your memories back. I didn't spend all that time fighting to save myself only to lose you." She rubbed her stomach. "Maybe some food would help – are you hungry?"
Grrrrraaaarrrrwwwwl. . . .
A couple of nearby loiterers jerked their heads around in surprise. Alice herself couldn't help a start. She quirked an eyebrow at Victor's belly. How could such a loud noise come from such a thin stomach? "What was that again?"
Victor flushed. "I – I got u-used to ignoring that under him. . . ."
Damn it, Bumby had to ruin even the mildly amusing moments, didn't he? Alice gave Victor a little squeeze. "Let's go home and quiet it down, then. Trust me, it'll make you feel better."
They picked their way back towards Houndsditch, taking every back alley and side street Alice knew to avoid the crowds – which was even more important now that she had to resist dodging around hallucinatory tree roots and jacks in her path. Londerland, for all its loveliness, seemed to enjoy throwing obstacle after obstacle across her way, and even knowing that they would obligingly fade into nonexistence should she need to walk through them didn't stop her feet from turning away to avoid a crash. Yet another thing to add to my to-do list, she thought, glowering at a huge, multicolored tree spreading its branches through the windows of a nearby fruitier. What is with this mysterious blending of Wonderland and London? Perhaps it makes the latter more pleasant to look at, but all the beautiful sights in the world mean nothing if they're an indicator I'm asylum-bound once more. Once I have a spare moment, I'll have to find that blasted Cat and yank some answers out of him – literally, if necessary.
"M-Alice? Y-you're not mad at me, are you?"
Alice glanced over at Victor. "What makes you think that?"
"You – you l-looked so angry all of a sudden. . . ." He swallowed. "I'm t-trying to be Victor, I really am."
"I know you are," Alice quickly reassured him, wrapping her arm around his waist. "I was thinking about something else entirely just now. You're still in my good books."
A smile almost reached Victor's face – then a passing drunkard bumped into him, and he immediately tensed, jerking his head around as if he expected to be grabbed and pulled down a dark alley. Alice sighed softly. To think that the last time I saw him, he walked through this place almost as if he'd been born here. . .which, honestly, I wasn't that fond of either, but it was better than this terrified stumbling. Half a year's progress, all wiped clean. . . .She tangled a lock of hair around her finger. I'll have to keep a close eye on him whenever we go out. Not that I think he's going to want to leave the house much–
Alice started as a small figure dashed up to them, panting. "Charlie? What are you doing here?" she asked as he skidded to a stop. "I told you lot to stay in the Home while I was gone."
"We drew straws, and – and I didn't lose, but Abigail looked too scared, so – so I pretended I had anyway," Charlie gasped out, thumping his chest. "Somebody came round while you and Victor were at the station!"
A thousand horrible possibilities bubbled up from the back of Alice's mind, ready and waiting to strike. "Who?" she demanded, holding Victor tightly against her as she sorted through them quick as lightning. Another policeman? That would be best, she could just direct him to Hightopp. . .same with a reporter. . .but what if it was someone looking to – buy? Or worse yet, one of Bumby's associates in the business? Damn it, and me without a weapon – I'll have to get into the habit of carrying a knife with me now, I've had enough practice with the Vorpal Blade in Wonderland. . .ugh, if only summoning it up whenever I liked worked here in the real world too . . .
"A lady! Came in all cheerful – she says she works there now!"
. . .Huh. Reality was more unexpected than usual today. "'Works there?'" Alice parroted, blinking. "Unless Hightopp's managed to convince some nurse to aid me in the last two minutes, that can't be right. You're sure you haven't accidentally let in a robber?"
"Too smiley," Charlie said, shaking his head. "We told her to sit and wait in the doctor's office til you got back."
"Ah – well, if she steals anything from there, she's welcome to it. Let's go see just what it is she wants." Frowning with new purpose, Alice hastened for the Home, Victor and Charlie jogging along behind her.
Most of the children were gathered in the foyer when they arrived, milling around in uneasy idleness. They swarmed the little entourage the moment they opened the door. "What's going on? Who is she?" Abigail asked, pulling on Alice's skirt.
"How on earth should I know? Has she done anything to any of you?" Alice demanded in turn, scanning each child for the telltale marks of abuse. Although Bumby never left much of a sign – at least, not on the body. . . .
"Nope – just went right upstairs with a bounce," Elsie reported. "She's way too silly to be anybody bad, I think."
"You can't know that for certain. You all stay down here, and be ready to run should I tell you." Alice turned to Victor, who was fiddling with his tie (at least that was still the same). "That goes the same for you," she added authoritatively. "Stay here and wait for my signal. I'm sure that office doesn't hold much in the way of pleasant memories."
For just a split second, Victor's expression went blank. "Yes, Mis–" Then he winced and grabbed his hair. "Sorry! I – I d-didn't mean to – I w-will – will obey. . . ."
"Forget it!" Alice cried, waving her hands. "Forget it, it's fine, you can come!"
Another half-second of blankness – and then Victor stared at her, completely confused. "I – I'm sorry, w-what did you just say?"
Oh bloody Christ he literally forgot what I just told him can I even speak to him without messing up his mind more – Alice sucked in a deep breath and twisted her apron in her hands to relieve her shaken nerves. "Victor – I'm going up to Bumby's office to meet with our guest," she said slowly and carefully. "Do you want to come with me or stay here?"
Victor's hand moved back to his tie. "I – I d-don't like his office. . .but I want to stay with you," he said plaintively. "You make me feel safe."
Not just now I don't think I did – easy, Alice. Just remember, nothing that even sounds like a direct order. "All right, then you can come," she nodded. "But please, feel free to leave if you get overwhelmed by anything, all right?"
Victor nodded, fully himself again. "I – I will."
"Good." Alice swallowed back her fear, standing as straight and tall as she could manage. "Let's see who this is, then." Taking his hand once more, she led the way up to Bumby's former base of operations.
Waiting inside, tapping her feet as she sat on the couch, was a woman not much older than Alice, dressed neatly in a black blouse and skirt that didn't quite fit – hand-me-downs from an older sister, no doubt. Her blond hair, twisted into a loose braid, shone like spun gold against the deep brown of her skin, and her eyes were on the dark size of hazel. Her other most notable feature was a shockingly strong jaw – Alice had never seen one that jutted out so far on a lady. A little longer, and there's no way she'd ever be able to close her mouth. "Ahem."
The woman looked up, beamed, and sprang to her feet. "Hello! I'm June Thatcher!" Her voice was almost pure sugar – she could have candied fruit just by giving it a kind word. "I'm here for the dogsbody job?"
"I wasn't aware we were hiring," Alice admitted, politely offering her hand. Well, Charlie certainly hadn't been lying about the newcomer being all smiles. The cheerfulness was rather welcome after so long in the East End. "Alice Liddell."
"Alice?" June tilted her head. "But – Dr. Bumby said you–" her eyes flicked away, then back "–quit. That's why he hired me."
"I'm expecting your replacement. . . ."
Alice's eyes went wide. Oh, damn – with everything else that had been going on, she'd completely forgotten about that tidbit of information. And now it was standing directly in front of her, with an increasingly puzzled look. What did she do? "Um–"
"I thought Victor was the dogsbody now," Abigail's voice piped up. Turning, Alice saw the little girl peeking around the doorway, absently undoing the end of her pigtail. "That's what Dr. Bumby said, anyway."
"I told you to stay downstairs," Alice scolded.
"If she's gonna murder all of us, I wanna know first!"
"Why would I – and who's – Victor?" June looked over Alice's head and spotted the tall, pale figure hovering near the door. "Oh, hello!" she said, waving. "I – may be your coworker?"
Victor flapped his hand back at her, trying and failing to muster a smile. "I'd a-actually rather hope you weren't."
Alice sighed and rubbed her arm as June stared at Victor in confusion. How did she put this mildly? "Miss Thatcher, I'm afraid – well, something's happened, and–"
"Were reports of your leaving greatly exaggerated?" June cut in, expression now almost frightened. "Dr. Bumby did say that you were in a – a very bad way, but you seem all right to me. Am I not needed? Or are you just back here temporarily?" She turned in a circle to take in the whole office. "I haven't seen the doctor at all since I arrived, and the children seemed reluctant to speak of him. . .is he indisposed in some way?"
Oh, to hell with mild. Bluntness had always served her better. "He's dead, actually."
"Yes – died this very morning," Alice said, folding her arms across her chest. "He and I were arguing at Moorgate Station earlier, and in his passion he tried to hit me and fell off the platform instead. Moments later, a train came barreling through, and–" She slapped her hands together. "Never had a chance."
June clapped her hands over her mouth. "Oh my God. . .I think – I think my train hit him! The engineer had some trouble with the brakes and we ended up stopping a station later than we should have. . .and then there were all these people gathered near the front when I was getting off. . .but I was so worried I was going to be late, I didn't even think to see if there had been an accident. . . ." Tears welled up in her eyes. "Oh no. . . ."
"I'm sorry, June," Alice said – and she meant it too. She didn't mourn the death of Dr. Bumby in the slightest, but this poor girl shouldn't have had to get mixed up in it. Though it's still better than whatever her potential fate was if everything had gone according to Bumby's plan. "I wish I had happier news for you."
June sank back into her seat, shaking her head slowly. "That's horrible. . .oh, Dr. Bumby. . .and you had to see it, you poor thing!" Abruptly she sprang to her feet again and tried to envelop Alice in a hug. "To have to watch someone die right before your eyes!"
"I've already dealt with that," Alice told her, nimbly evading the young woman's grasp. "Seeing your family burn is far, far worse."
"Oh – yes, that's right, you're that Alice. . .Mother used to use you as a warning about why we shouldn't play with matches," June admitted, then winced. "That – I didn't mean for that to come out quite like it did."
"I can't be fussed if it keeps anyone else's house from burning down," Alice replied, although she couldn't help a flicker of annoyance. "Please, sit down. I'll get you a glass of water and we can discuss this properly."
"Yes, okay. . . ." June plopped onto the couch, picking at her skirt. "This is terrible, simply terrible. . .you said you were arguing? And that he tried to hit you? What on earth could have caused such rage in him?"
"Trust me, you'll want the glass of water first," Alice informed her, biting her lip. "Abigail, go back downstairs – and tell the others they are not to come up. Besides, you already know this story."
"But she's funny," Abigail protested, now working on the other pigtail. "She's as twitchy as Victor! Well, almost. And you never told us about it proper. I want to hear what it was like when he was actually ran over!"
June's mouth formed a perfect O of shock before being pulled down into a hard frown. "What a thing to say! Nobody deserves to be hit by a train!"
"He did," Abigail replied, scowling. "He tried to make me forget my mummy and daddy. And he made Victor make tea for him."
June stared at Abigail briefly, then turned her baffled look on Alice. Alice shrugged back, rather baffled herself. Bumby's attempts to take the memories of Mr. and Mrs. Cloutier were worthy of a place in Hell, to be sure, but – forcing Victor to perform domestic duties seemed rather far down the list of his crimes.
Then she caught sight of Victor's face – pale and drawn, with a thousand-yard stare. Suspicion rose up inside of her. "Victor," she whispered, "was it just tea?"
Victor shook his head. "There was a–" His eyes went to the desk – specifically, to the gap where Bumby would have put his knees. "A r-ritual to it. . . ." He suddenly lurched forward, grabbing her by the shoulders with the most desperate look she'd seen on his face yet. "If you see me heading for the kitchen at four o'clock, don't let me go! I d-don't want to – even if he isn't there anymore, I-I'll try–"
"I won't," Alice reassured him, wrapping him in a tight embrace. He was shaking like a leaf in a tropical storm. Or like he was that first day Bumby condemned him to the dark. . . . "We won't let anything happen. He's gone now. He won't hurt you again."
". . .My employer-to-be wasn't a very nice man, was he?"
Alice turned back to June with a sardonic smile. "You are a master of understatement, my dear Miss Thatcher."
June gulped. "I think I'll have that glass of water now, thank you."
As it turned out, it took two glasses to get June through the story – one at the beginning, and an emergency one rushed up to her via Charlie to keep her from fainting at the end. "Dear Lord," she whispered, clutching it tightly. Little waves lapped the rim's circumference as she trembled. "He really – no, he couldn't have, nobody could–"
"He did," Alice said, her tone brooking no argument. "If you don't believe me, I'll take you on a walk up to Bow Street. That's where I left his journal, in the care of one of the only two policemen I can be said to trust. It's all down there in black and white, the mad sod. Why he didn't burn it I'll never guess. Sentimental value, perhaps, or he was truly arrogant enough to believe he'd never get caught. Which, to be fair, he nearly didn't. . . ."
June shuddered and gulped down some water. "It's barbaric," she declared, wiping her mouth. "I mean – grown women are one thing. They have some sort of choice in the matter. But children. . .and oh, Master Van Dort. . . ."
Victor rubbed his face. Alice was surprised that he was still in the office – she'd fully expected him to bolt when she'd started explaining the length and depth of Bumby's crimes. But he'd ridden it out – pressed up against the doorframe, yes, and looking slightly green, but he'd made it. A swell of pride rose up within her – he truly wasn't as fragile as he looked. "Don't worry about me," he mumbled. "I – I'll be better. Eventually. It's the children we've got to focus on."
"Oh, but you matter too!" June put the glass on the floor and stood up, spreading her arms. Victor shied away from the attempted hug. "You poor, poor people. . .I really don't know what to say. . . ."
"I do – when did you hear about the job?" Alice asked. "I'd like to know how long he's been trolling for a new assistant." And likely victim.
"I saw an ad in the paper maybe – a fortnight ago?" June replied, biting her lip. "I wrote offering my services, and he replied that I sounded ideal and could I come up on the first train in to discuss my duties. . .and now. . . ." She covered her face with her hands. "Oh, I know it's horribly selfish of me, but I can't – I needed this job! I'm the youngest of my family, my sisters are all married – with a few abroad – my father's been missing for ages, my brother's been dead for almost as long, and I just buried my mother three months ago. . .and we never had a lot of money, and I – what am I going to do?"
She collapsed back into her seat, all her cheer gone – even her braid looked droopier. "I know I wouldn't have had a good position under Dr. Bumby – no matter how you define the word," she added, shuddering. "But I was relying on it, and I can't. . .I've never been to London, it's a wonder I found the house. . . ."
There was a time where Alice would have declared that to be Miss Thatcher's own problem and left her to deal with it alone. That time was before she discovered what horrors she'd let run wild by minding no one's business but her own. Besides, the solution to this problem was wonderfully simple. "Well, no one's saying you can't stay here."
June looked up, blinking rapidly. "I – what?"
"There may not be any Dr. Bumby to employ you anymore, but that just means we need help around the Home more than ever," Alice said, unable to help a grin at June's stunned-fish face. "I can't run the place on my own, and Victor. . . ." She glanced regretfully over at her friend, who stared at his shoes. "Victor can help, but he's more patient than dogsbody right at the moment. I could really use an extra set of hands to make sure things run smoothly until whoever's going to take over officially arrives. I don't know yet how your wages would work – not in the least because I haven't the slightest idea where the bastard had his money squirreled away – but I can at least offer you a roof over your head and food in your stomach. And if you do your job well, a recommendation to the next man to come along. Once I've made sure he's going to do his job well, of course."
The stunned face persisted for a bit – then June's lips lifted in one of those dazzling grins. "Oh, Miss Liddell, that would mean the world to me!" she said, bouncing back out of her seat. "And I'd be delighted to help you with whatever it is that needs doing. Oh, thank you, thank you!"
"You're welcome," Alice said, smiling back – until she found herself having to dodge the other woman's arms again. "Ugh – and now that you're an employee, rule number one: please stop trying to hug me. I don't like being touched!"
"Oh – I'm sorry," June said, stepping back with an appropriately chastened look. "It's just the way I am, and – well, you didn't have any objections to wrapping your arms around Master Van Dort."
"Victor, please," Victor said quietly, twisting the end of his tie in one hand. "Master V-Van Dort – it's not – me. Whoever I am."
"Rule number two: we don't stand on ceremony here, so first names are fine for everyone," Alice nodded. "Except probably our eventual doctor, but we can ask him about that when he arrives. Back to the previous comment, a woman's allowed to have exceptions – Victor and I have known each other for almost a year now, after all."
"Did know," Victor mumbled.
"Have known," Alice insisted. "It'll be that again soon enough. Besides, you'll note in that case it was me doing the hugging."
"Fair enough – I'll hug you if you hug me first," June offered, extending a hand.
Alice grinned and shook it. "Deal. Now we just need to find you a bedroom. . . ."
"Shouldn't there be one free?"
"Well, yes, but it's Dr. Bumby's."
June turned green. "I'd rather sleep on the floor."
"You may have to – the only other rooms are taken up by the children, myself, and Victor. And after all I've been through lately, I'm not keen on giving up my bed, if you'll forgive me."
"I don't mind sleeping in the girls' room," June said, tightening her braid. "In fact, it might be for the best, right? Someone close in case there's an accident in the middle of the night?"
Alice knew June was most likely referring to bed-wetting and stubbed toes, but her mind immediately raced ahead to darker possibilities. "I like the way you think," she nodded. "We'll get something set up – there must be a spare mattress around here somewhere."
"I've slept in much worse places." June glanced around at the peeling wallpaper and water-stained wood, then at Bumby's desk. "Relatively speaking."
"So have I," Alice said, her memories temporarily transforming the room into her quarters at the asylum. "For now, though, I suppose I should give you everyone's names–" grwwwnnn "– actually, first, how about some food?" she backpedaled, rubbing her angry stomach. "It's been an absolutely mad morning, and lunch hasn't been my top priority."
"I can cook!" June offered, bouncing on her heels. "I don't know what you have in your icebox, but I'm willing to give it my best go!"
Now there was an offer she couldn't refuse. "I look forward to your adventures in our kitchen, then." She inclined her head toward the door. "Let me give you the grand tour. And for what it's worth, welcome to Houndsditch."
"Thank you," June replied warmly. "And for being the one to greet me, instead of Dr. Bumby."
"Oh, trust me June – that was entirely my pleasure."