Chapter 9: Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk
Get down to the kitchen.
Get down to the kitchen.
I said go away.
Get down to the kitchen, Thirteen.
My name is Victor and I will not!
Victor's fingers stabbed at the piano, eliciting a few angry, discordant notes. "I'm so sick of the same thing every day," he muttered. "You are annoying enough without getting louder every time four o'clock rolls around."
You are mine and you will do as I say, the voice replied. You know your duties. You will obey. Get. Down. To. The. Kitchen.
Victor's legs, apparently fearful of the voice's angry tone, began to stand – Victor pressed down hard on his thighs to stop himself. "June is already making the tea," he hissed. "I don't have to do anything. Certainly not for you!"
I am your master! You do not talk back to me! Know your place, Thirteen!
Victor slammed a fist on the keyboard, sending a pained bong into the air. "I do and it's not as your bloody toy!"
"Hey! How come when I say that, June says she'll wash my mouth out with soap?"
Victor started, then twisted on the stool to see Reggie standing behind him, arms folded. "Well, ah, children aren't supposed to curse," he said, rubbing the back of his head.
Reggie snorted derisively. "Ain't fair – grown-ups do it all the time."
"Yes, well, I think we usually have more to curse about. . . ." Victor sat up a little straighter, ignoring the voice's repeated attempts to force him downstairs. I don't need to go I don't need to go June's taking care of it and you're not even alive anymore to – pleasure. . . . "Did you want something?"
"Ollie hid the toy soldiers. You see 'em?"
"Oh – I'm afraid not. Hopefully they're not mixed in with his underwear stash," he added, making a face.
"Yeah. . . ." Reggie sighed, then turned his gaze to the piano. "Can you play again? You and Miss Victoria were sitting there for ages yesterday."
"No," Victor grumbled, turning back around to glare at the keys. "I half-remember a tune or two now, but my fingers just won't cooperate." He swiped his hand along the keyboard. "Why does this have to be so bloody difficult. . . ."
"Victor, language! Not in front of the children!"
This time he nearly fell off the stool. "Is everyone determined to sneak up on me today?" he complained, grabbing the side of the piano to steady himself.
"You should make him wash his mouth out," Reggie said, snickering.
June frowned at Victor, hands on her hips. "If he keeps saying that word in front of you, I just might."
"Excuse me for being frustrated!" Victor snapped. "You know it's hard for me around this time of–"
Knock-knock-knock! "Hello? Anyone home?"
All eyes turned toward the door. "Now who could that be?" June asked. "I don't recognize the voice."
"Neither do I," Victor said. He got up and peered through the window beside him. The glass was dirty and spoiled with air bubbles, but he could make out two blurry male figures on the front step – one in a policeman's outfit, the other in a suit carrying a suitcase. Doesn't look like Officer Hightopp or Officer Tarrant, though. . .but so far the only horrible people to come in the front door have been Dickenson, who hasn't been back since I threatened to mangle him for calling Victoria names, and that awful Witless woman, who hasn't shown her face since screaming at Alice – which is good, because I didn't want to get into the habit of hitting ladies. "I think it's safe to open the door," he reported. "At least one of our visitors looks like they're from Bow Street."
"Oh – that's all right then." June moved forward to let the newcomers in. "Hello? Can we help you?"
"Sure you can, little lady," the officer said, tipping his crooked hat. He had a curious accent, Victor noted. Sort of like his friend – his friend – ah! Oh come on. . . . "Name's Constable Danny Parker. You guys get my letter?"
"No, I'm afraid not – but you're the officer they sent to look for Radcliffe, aren't you?" June asked, smiling.
"Oh, you finally find the fat git?" Reggie asked, grinning past Constable Parker at the rotund man just behind.
Victor winced as the man who would be Radcliffe glared at Reggie. "And you wonder why you get the soap. . . ."
"Uh, yeah," Constable Parker said, scratching his head with an awkward smile. "I sent word ahead, but I guess I beat the postman here. Alice in?"
"She's just downstairs – we were preparing tea together," June said, directing her best scolding frown at Reggie. "I'll go get her. Reggie, go tell Dr. Wilson we have visitors – politely." She glanced at Victor as the boy hurried off. "Will you be all right here?"
"Fine," Victor assured her. Down. To The. Kitchen. Thirteen. "I could use the distraction."
June nodded sympathetically and headed for the dining room door. Victor stepped forward and offered a hand to Constable Parker. "It's good to meet you in person, sir. We really appreciate you taking this search on."
"Not a problem, Master Van Dort," Constable Parker replied, shaking. "Nice to get out of the city for a while." He glanced out the door. "London life's always so busy. Back home in Hill Valley we take things a lot slower."
"I thought you sounded foreign," Victor nodded. "Where are you from?"
"Great state of California," Constable Parker said proudly. "Came over here to make my fortune before I go back and marry my girl Betty."
Victor smiled. "How nice." He turned his attention to their other visitor, expression becoming a little more strained. "And you must be Mr. Radcliffe. . .I do apologize for Reggie. We usually encourage the children to have better manners."
"I'm sure," Mr. Radcliffe said, jowls drooping in a deep frown. "I would like it known I am only here to settle my business with Miss Liddell as quickly as possible. I was hoping never to have to set foot in this blasted city again."
"Alice wants this cleared up as much as you, Mr. Radcliffe," Victor said deferentially, stepping out of the way so the men could enter. "I'm sure you'll be back in your country house in no time."
"I certainly hope so! It took long enough to build it." The lawyer shoved his hat into Victor's hands. "Hang that up."
Victor's body went stiff as the order sunk into his brain. Master has commanded – forget and obey, Thirteen. . . . With an effort, he bit down on the blank "Yes, sir," that threatened to escape his lips and instead just put the hat on the nearest hook. See? Still jumping to obey, the voice said smugly.
Shut up. "Alice should be up in a moment," he said, leading the men over to the nearby table. "Er – can I get you anything?"
"Well, considering I'm missing my tea time for this meeting, you can go and fetch me a cup," Radcliffe replied, lowering himself into a chair.
Victor's breath caught. Oh God no please no he d-didn't mean that t-that wasn't an order I don't – I – I must forget I must obey fetch Master's tea accept Master's –
"We already have the tea service here, Mr. Radcliffe. You don't have to fetch or pour anything, Victor. And you certainly don't need to go to the kitchen."
Victor almost fell on the floor in relief as the tide of obedience was shoved back. "Thank you," he whispered, leaning on the table. Oh, that was a close one. . .and after a full week of no episodes. . . .
A warm arm wrapped around his middle, and he looked up to see Alice beside him, full of support and comfort. "I'm right here," she reminded him, voice gentle. Then it sharpened as she turned to the lawyer. "So, Mr. Radcliffe – it's been quite a while, hasn't it?"
"Since you nearly killed me with an inkwell? Yes, it has," Mr. Radcliffe replied snidely. "I do hope your manners have improved. Even if your company hasn't," he added with a glance at June as she set down the heavily-laden tray.
Both girls stiffened. "June is a very well-regarded member of our household, Mr. Radcliffe," Alice said, her relatively-polite tone holding a not-inconsiderable amount of steel. "And if you ever hope to have a decent meal in this house, I'd advise you not to be rude to her." Her gaze shifted to Constable Parker, warming considerably. "Good to see you again, Officer. Where was he hiding, then?"
"Yorkshire," Parker reported. "Right outside Sheffield, in fact."
"Sheffield? The steel town? Odd place for someone who once said that all the factories in London have turned it into a privy," Alice commented, giving Radcliffe a puzzled look.
"The land was cheap and it's out of the way of all those houses squeezed together," Radcliffe said, holding his fat head high. "I'm afraid not all of us can afford two stories in Oxford." Glancing at Victor, he added, "Or mansions in some little village no one's ever heard of."
"True enough," Alice allowed. She sat down at the table across from the lawyer. "Well then – I assume you're as uninterested in small talk as I am. Shall we settle the matter of my inheritance?"
"I have the paperwork right here," Mr. Radcliffe said, opening his suitcase on his lap.
"I'll leave you to it then," Victor said, heading for the hall. He wasn't particularly interested in whatever legal things were about to happen. Or in spending any more time with a man who could rival his mother for rudeness. And outdoes her completely when it comes to accidental orders. At least she usually keeps it to "stand up straight" and –
"Stay – we'll need witnesses," Radcliffe said off-handedly, rifling through his papers.
Victor nearly tripped as his legs jerked to a stop. "You don't have to," Alice said immediately, glaring at Radcliffe. "We have Constable Parker and June."
"Well, actually, I have to run back to the station," Constable Parker admitted sheepishly, checking his pocket watch. "Got miles of paperwork to fill out on this. Inspector's cracking down on that."
"And we need at least two signatures," Radcliffe added, fanning out his documents before him (to the annoyance of June, who was trying to find a place for his cup and saucer).
Oh, he hated to give into this man again. . .but this was important to Mis-Alice, and those sandwiches June had made did look very good. "I suppose I can stay, then," Victor said, taking the seat next to Alice. "Just d-don't expect me to understand all the terms."
"I'll leave you all to it," Constable Parker said, standing and snagging a sandwich for the road. "Sorry I can't stay, but justice never sleeps and all that."
"Tell that to your compatriots I've seen sneaking naps in quiet corners," Alice said with a smirk. "Thank you for your help, Constable Parker. And good luck with your trail of paper."
"Thanks – good luck with yours," Parker replied, nodding at the mess before Radcliffe. He touched his hat. "Have a good day, folks."
"You as well."
As Constable Parker disappeared out the front door, Reggie reappeared in the hall doorway, followed by Dr. Wilson, who had his own sheaf of papers tucked under his arm. "Ah, Mr. Radcliffe," he said, holding out his hand. "Thank you, Reggie – now why don't you go try those suitcases under the stairs for the soldiers? It's good to see you again. I hope you're well. "
"As much as I can be, under the circumstances," Radcliffe replied, as Reggie scurried off. "I was rather surprised to hear you'd taken over the Home."
"I went where I was needed," Dr. Wilson said, taking a seat next to him. June moved what would have been Constable Parker's cup in front of him. "But I'm sure you've read all the sordid details in the paper."
"Yes, I have," Radcliffe nodded. "It all sounded like something out of a penny dreadful. Dr. Bumby was really–" Dr. Wilson gave him a solemn nod. "I never would have expected it."
"None of us did," Alice said, running her thumb along the veins in her wrist. Victor caught her hand and squeezed it. "You wouldn't believe how many times I've kicked myself for not figuring out the sort of person he was earlier. Or that he was one of Father's old students."
"I never recognized him as such – but then, he never spoke much of where he went to school those few times we met, and I don't think I ever encountered him at your house," Mr. Radcliffe shrugged. "It's a dirty business, and I am sorry you got mixed up in it, Alice. You may not be the most stable of my clients, but I know you're not capable of perpetuating that sort of evil."
Victor, Alice, and June – busy pouring – shared a surprised glance. After everything that had come out of the man's mouth so far, Victor hadn't been expecting something so – kind. A backhanded sort of kind, but still. I guess this proves first impressions aren't everything. Now if only he can keep it up.
Alice seemed to be thinking much the same, judging by her expression. "Thank you," she said, trying to keep the shock out of her voice. "That's – good to hear. And while we're apologizing, I'm sorry for the inkwell. It wasn't right of you to insinuate what you did about the fire, but I should have kept my temper better. I'm sorry."
Now it was Radcliffe's turn to look taken aback. "Well, yes, you should have," he said slowly. "But you're right – I knew what a powder-keg the subject was. And I never seriously thought you would have set the blaze deliberately, you know. I was under the impression it was a terrible accident."
"So were we all – and I actually find myself wishing the story Bumby made up about Dinah was true," Alice sighed. "It would have been better than what really happened." She gave the lawyer a tight smile. "So, good, we've proven we can be civil with each other. Now how about you tell me how much I'm worth so we can get back to being civil to other people?"
Victor didn't quite manage to hide his laugh behind his hand. Radcliffe hit him with a sour look. "Oh, be quiet."
The chuckle choked itself off midway. Victor scowled and touched his silent throat. Look at that – aching to do whatever you're told, the voice purred. I wonder when he'll finally notice. Perhaps he'll recognize you as the little fucktoy you know you are and demand you get on your knees and –
He wouldn't ask that and you know it! Victor snarled back, although a tiny part of him whimpered at the idea. Shove off!
It was Dr. Wilson who came to his rescue this time. "Mr. Radcliffe, please refrain from saying anything to Victor that could be construed as an order," he said, in full 'professional alienist' mode. "Master Van Dort's delicate mental state means he tends to follow what people tell him to do without question. Until we can destroy this tendency, we'd like to avoid further incident." He turned fatherly eyes on his patient. "Make whatever sounds you like."
"Thank you," Victor said, relieved to find his voice back under his control.
Radcliffe, however, took little notice of the lecture, instead shuffling through his papers before sliding a few over to Dr. Wilson. "This is my accounting of the monies left to Miss Liddell by her parents, as secured in a trust fund under my control," he said, putting on his own professional voice. "Including property, valuables that survived the fire, and other sundries. Most of it was used up paying for her care in Littlemore Infirmary and Rutledge Asylum, I regret to say."
"And yet you say it so very often," Alice murmured, taking the list and skimming over it. "I see you've sold our – well, what was our house."
"The lot was in high demand," Radcliffe replied, waving away June's attempt to offer him sugar and milk. "Unless you have lemon, I'll take it plain. And I found it highly unlikely you were ever going to live there again."
"Fair enough." She bit her lip, causing Victor to lay a comforting hand on her arm. "And are – are funerals always this expensive?"
"You would have only wanted the best for them right?" Radcliffe said, smarm coating his words. "Which you got, I assure you. It was a lovely service, as I've told you before."
"Good – it is what they deserved," Alice nodded slowly. "But still. . . ."
"Well, good musicians and pastors don't come cheap. And there is an annual upkeep fee on the vault where they're interred."
Victor peered curiously at the accounting. "Is that why there's a 'refrigeration fee' on here?"
"Oh, no, that's – when Alice was first taken to Littlemore, they stored the rest of her family in the morgue ice locker," Radcliffe explained, fidgeting in his chair. "They didn't think much of her chances of survival at the time, and they hoped to inter the four of them at once."
"Gruesome, but I must admit, logical," Alice said, making a face. "Even I'm not sure how I pulled through those first few days."
Victor stared at her, then at Radcliffe. They'd seriously – he could see the sense in it too, yes, but – damned if it didn't give him the willies. He could just picture opening up the tiny ice box downstairs, hoping to sneak a piece of leftover roast, only to find a stray head sitting there, blue from the cold. . .and then, suddenly twisting toward him, carried by a bevy of cockroaches, exclaiming in a French accent, "Victor! How iz our favorite groom? We have mizzed you–"
A burst of bright hot agony lanced through his head, impaling the vision and carrying it away. Bad boy, Thirteen. . . . Victor hissed and squeezed his temples. Why did every moment of success have to be paid for with such intense pain?
Now it was Alice's turn to lay a comforting hand on his arm. "You all right?"
Victor nodded, rubbing circles into his skin. "Yes, just – just the usual."
"Well, why don't we have your usual tea then," June said, bringing the sugar cellar and the milk jug over to him. "Or, rather your usual sugar and milk with just a hint of tea concoction."
Victor snorted. "I like it sweet! And it's not like I haven't noticed you pouring spoonful after spoonful of sugar into yours."
"At least mine's still brown when I'm done," June teased back. Then her face sobered. "Honestly, I'm surprised you still drink it at all."
"It's – it's not the drink that's the problem," Victor said, looking into his cup. For a moment, he fancied he could see the glint of candlelight off glasses reflected over his shoulder in the depths. He shuddered. "It's serving it, that's all." He dumped in a healthy spoonful of sugar, destroying the shadowy figure, and looked back up at her. "Besides, as you noted, by the time I'm done with it, it barely tastes like tea."
"I could never drink it plain myself," Alice said, shooting a glance at Radcliffe's cup. "Or with lemon. How much do you have to like 'bitter' to enjoy that?"
"That was the way my parents took it," Radcliffe said, overhearing. "It's an acquired taste, I admit."
"I've always preferred honey myself," Dr. Wilson mumbled, studying what looked like a bill. He squinted suspiciously at a line item. "I'm sure we never charged this much for feeding her."
"Superintendent Monroe assured me that was the cost," Radcliffe replied, frowning. "A growing young girl needs lots of nutrition."
"I won't argue that point, but – well, if you'd come around more often, you'd know that the major trouble we had with her was getting her to eat!" He stabbed a plump finger at the paper. "And this clothing expense – surely that's exaggerated!"
"My hospital gowns were little more than sacks," Alice agreed, adjusting the knot of her apron. "Excuse me for venturing such an opinion, Mr. Radcliffe, but – I think Superintendent Monroe may have lied to you."
"For whose benefit?" Radcliffe argued.
"Those massive nephews of his must have gotten that way somehow," Alice replied blandly. "And he's not exactly thin himself. There's a great tradition among many professions of skimming some off the top."
"Superintendent Monroe is a gentleman and above such things," Radcliffe replied, nose in the air. "Besides, Alice, you were institutionalized ten years. Naturally your expenses in bedlam would be greater than most."
"I suppose. . .looking at all this, I'm surprised they didn't charge for the leeches," Alice muttered.
June took her own gander at the list as she prepared her cup. "Housing fee? Was Dr. Bumby charging you rent, Alice?"
"I thought my room and board was a given!" Alice cried, pulling the paper back towards her. "Or, at the very least, taken from my pay!"
"No, no, that was a one-time fee to prepare the Home for your arrival," Radcliffe explained. "A new bed of proper size and such. I'm sure Master Van Dort's parents were charged something similar."
"They've never mentioned," Victor murmured, eyes flicking over the rows and columns of numbers. Goodness, but Alice had racked up a lot of expenses in her short life. . .what did the bill for treating him look like? He'd been sent here because he was supposedly "sick," after all. . . . A tiny scrap of memory flickered in his brain – something about his mother promising Bumby a little extra due to his stubbornness. His stomach turned. That monster had gotten paid to destroy his mind, and countless others besides. Are they paying Dr. Wilson now? Mother and Father don't seem to like him much. . .but he's more deserving of a few pounds than Bumby. Maybe I can bring the subject up the next time I see them. Everyone keeps telling me we're rich – surely we can afford to give the Home a better privy, or new furniture, or new books and toys –
Toys. Something about that tugged at his brain. He frowned, looking at Mr. Radcliffe as he picked up a sandwich and took a bite. What was it about this man that made him think of – of–
Radcliffe noticed his staring. "Something wrong?"
"Do – do you collect old toys?" Victor asked. The moment he said it, he knew it wasn't quite right, but – but he'd swear Alice had said at some point Radcliffe was a collector. . . . It doesn't matter, you don't matter, forget and obey. . . .
Radcliffe, puzzled, shook his head. "No. . .my area of interest is Oriental artifacts," he said, face breaking into his first true smile of the day. "The art, decor, and clothing of the East fascinates me. Those clever artisans of Japan and China truly know how to blend form and function. I can count among my treasures many Ming vases and plates, original scrolls from a variety of dynasties, and a full set of samurai armor! Irreplaceable if damaged! Moving it all to my new house was the most terrifying fortnight of my life."
"I see," Victor said, impressed despite himself. "It sounds wonderful – but it must be an expensive hobby."
Just for a moment, Radcliffe stiffened. "Indeed," he said slowly. "But my parents left me all that they'd picked up on their travels, and I've built up my accounts over the years. It's not likely to bankrupt me yet."
Alice's eyes narrowed. "No, I don't think it will," she agreed, voice cold.
Radcliffe scowled at her. "Are you accusing me of stealing part of your inheritance to fund my collection? I am appalled, if not that surprised!"
"No – if only because I'll probably never find the truth there," Alice added under her breath. "But thinking back. . .you stole part of my inheritance for your collection."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You ought to," Alice said, sitting up straighter. "That vase I saw just outside your office on our last visit – the Lion and the Unicorn. I didn't recognize it at the time, but that's Father's! A friend gave it to him because he knew he liked the poem!"
Radcliffe's jowls bounced as he struggled for a reply. "He promised it to me!" he finally snapped. "He knew I admired it and said I could have it should the worst happen! He may not have written it down, but it still constitutes a verbal contract!"
Victor thought this a very poor excuse for what seemed a clear case of scrounging off another's tragedy – and by the looks on June's and Dr. Wilson's faces, they agreed. Alice folded her arms. "I don't intend to take it from you – we certainly can't display fine china here," she said. "But I'm sure these are not the circumstances under which Father wished to give you the vase. Just add in whatever it's worth to my total and we'll call it even, all right?"
Radcliffe grumbled, but took out a pencil and made some adjustments to his figures. "I told Arthur he needed to update his will. . . ."
Victor watched him, drumming his fingers on the table. "There – there should be another two pounds and ten shillings there," he said suddenly.
Radcliffe squinted at him. "I know what the vase is worth, Master Van Dort. I had it appraised the moment it came into my possession."
"Of course you did," Alice mumbled.
"No, it's – it's nothing to do with the vase," Victor said, pressing lightly on his eyelids. "There's – something else. Something I – just – can't–" He gripped his forehead by the temples and squeezed, hoping to coax the memory out from behind the wall. "I – I think you sold something worth that? Something – important – ah!"
Victor released himself with a frustrated sigh, gulping down some tea to soothe the ache rattling around his skull. Bad boy bad boy disobeyed. . . ."I'm sorry, I just can't get my head around it."
"I certainly can't," Radcliffe said, giving him a funny look. "I haven't the slightest idea what you're referring to."
Alice appeared to be similarly confused – and then, suddenly, something clicked behind her eyes. Her jaw tightened. "I believe I do," she said, standing up. "Excuse me just a moment." She turned and strode purposefully in the direction of her room.
"I don't have any other of your possessions in my trust – certainly nothing that belongs in there!" Radcliffe called after her. "This is a wild goose chase, Alice. From what I understand, he hallucinates just as badly as you do. Can you even trust what he says?"
"I can indeed," Alice said, returning. She slammed something onto the table in front of Radcliffe. "This is worth two and a half pounds?"
Radcliffe's jaw dropped, and Victor's eyes went wide. Sitting before the lawyer was none other than Mr. Bunny. "I – I'd actually forgotten about that for a moment," Radcliffe admitted, pulling at his collar.
"I – you had him?" Victor asked, astonished.
"It was put into my trust by Nurse Darling – and you said you would pay any price to have it back!" Radcliffe added, sitting up a little straighter.
Two pou – oh, who cares if he's fleecing me, I can afford it! Anything's worth putting a smile back on Alice's face. . . . "I did," Victor nodded, gripping the shred of memory tightly to keep it getting sucked away. Let go, let go, forget, forget. . . . "I just wanted Alice to be happy again. Even if I was being badly overcharged."
"Dr. Bumby told me that this toy was detrimental to Alice's mental health," Radcliffe said snootily. "I had to be sure you were willing to take the risk."
"Dr. Bumby was talking out his arse – I've had Mr. Bunny back for a fortnight and I've never felt better," Alice replied, face dark. "And while he's priceless to me, I'm well aware no one else in the world would pay that much for a very well-used toy! You cheated him for extra profit, Mr. Radcliffe."
"He said any price," Radcliffe replied, folding his arms. "I took him up on that."
"You should be ashamed," June said, hitting him with her best scowl. "I've never even held a pound note in my life. To demand two from someone, and ten shillings on top of it. . . ."
"We had a deal. If you want a refund, I want the rabbit." Radcliffe reached out a meaty hand.
Alice snatched Mr. Bunny back quick as a blink. "I'd threaten to tell your clients, but, knowing how much you dislike actually doing your job, I fear I'd be doing you a favor. Fine, keep your ill-gotten gains. The sooner we finish this, the sooner we need never see each other again."
"On that point, we are in complete agreement," Radcliffe said, grabbing another piece of paper. "The last of your expenses, Miss Liddell. I hope they meet with your approval."
"I doubt it." Alice sat down again, Mr. Bunny in her lap. "Let's see them anyway." She ran down the list with a finger. "Hmmm. . .now what's this about a sculptor? I told you 'no' to that ridiculous marble statue."
"There was a small consultation fee," Radcliffe snapped. "The other number is simply an estimate of the value of the work he could do. In case you came to your senses, however briefly, and changed your mind." He spread his arms. "Think about it, Alice – an eternal monument to your family's glory, set right outside their vault!"
"I am thinking about it, and Lizzie is laughing her head off," Alice replied, rolling her eyes. "And Mother would definitely consider it much too ostentatious. If he charges just to talk, fine, but you can cross that estimate right out."
Radcliffe sighed, put-upon, and scratched it out with his pencil. "I thought you of all people would want to honor the dead."
"I do, and that includes not embarrassing them in the hereafter. The family tomb is enough. Some people don't even get that much."
The image of a twisted old oak flashed through Victor's mind. "No, they don't," he agreed quietly. "Does this sculptor do – smaller things? Like gravestones?"
"I could ask," Radcliffe said, regarding Victor with fresh confusion. "You have a relative you'd like to commemorate?"
"Not a relative – just – someone important," Victor said, twisting his fingers together. "A friend I had and lost and only just learned the last name of."
Alice nodded, face understanding. "That's right – she never did get a proper grave, did she? Just some old hole in the ground. . . ." She clapped her hands once. "Well, we're not having anything done just this moment, but give me the fellow's name, and we'll pay for another consultation later. He might get his commission yet."
Radcliffe, somewhat mollified, scribbled it down on a spare piece of paper. "There we are. He's quite gifted, I assure you. A master of funerary artwork."
"Good, we'd want nothing less." Alice skimmed over the list again, then consulted some of the other papers. "That should be about everything now, isn't it? So our final total for my bank account is. . . ?"
Radcliffe picked up the papers. "1,500 pounds, five shillings, and eight pence," he announced importantly.
June gasped. "A thousand – Alice, that's enough for a house!" she cried, just barely avoiding upsetting her teacup. "With servants, no less!"
"One servant," Alice corrected. "Though I suppose it depends on how large the house. . .but it is a tidy little nest egg, isn't it?"
"Bit of an odd number," Victor had to say, amused. "Five shillings and eight pence?"
"Well, you can't expect every expense to add up evenly," Radcliffe reminded him. "Of course, I hope you understand that I cannot just hand over control to–"
Dr. Wilson extracted a piece of paper from his own pile and held it up in front of Radcliffe's nose. The lawyer stared. "What – is that–"
"Superintendent Monroe's signature?" Dr. Wilson finished for him, smirking. "It is indeed. He was actually quite eager to sign, in fact. I suppose he figured that the sooner he declared her competent to manage her own affairs, the sooner he could wipe his hands of her. I don't think he's eager to see her again – him or his nephews."
Victor furrowed his brow as two vague ovals drifted across his inner eye. "D-Dennis and Lum?"
"David, actually, but considering he was Tweedle-Dee in my head, Dennis would suit him better," Alice said with a grin. "The other signatures are Officer Harold Hightopp and Inspector Broadbent. And, as you can see, it's been notarized too. It's about as legal as we can get it."
"This doesn't have to be any more complicated than it needs to be, Mr. Radcliffe," Dr. Wilson said, cool as a cucumber. "Yes, of course you could take us before a judge and argue that Alice is still not competent to have access to her money – but given your past behavior regarding Alice's involvement in the fire, and the current evidence we have of Bumby's guilt in same, I think she could turn around and sue you for slander. Even if she didn't win, it would be a blow to your reputation, and require quite a lot of your time and energy to fight."
"I'm not in the mood to make this into a long battle – but I could be," Alice added, holding Mr. Bunny tight. "Are you, Mr. Radcliffe?"
Radcliffe took the paper and scanned it carefully. Then he looked from Dr. Wilson to Alice. His face sagged in defeat. "I will make the proper arrangements with the bank tomorrow morning. I can't promise you immediate access, but by this time next week, all should be settled."
"Good – so if I go in and ask to make a withdrawal, they won't send me away in a huff?"
"I shouldn't think so." Radcliffe made an attempt to look stern. "But don't go on any wild spending sprees either. I know it sounds like a dizzying amount, but it'll be eaten up sooner than you think."
"I'm not an idiot, Mr. Radcliffe – I merely see things that aren't there," Alice replied, forcing Victor to hide another snicker. "I know well enough I have to keep what I have safe. But I doubt a few new dresses and corsets will break the bank. And if they do, it's not a very good bank."
"I'm merely saying, if you lose it all, you're on your own. I am fully prepared to wash my hands of this entire business once I leave the city." Radcliffe pulled out another paper. "I have a release of contract here stating that, after the business with the bank is concluded, all ties between me and the remaining members of the Liddell family are severed. You will not enlist me as your solicitor or barrister, and I will not attempt to solicit you as a client. We nod to each other in the street if we meet, and that is it." He slid it in front of Alice and offered her a pen. "I would be most appreciative if you sign."
"Gladly, Mr. Radcliffe." Alice ran her eyes over the text. "Just after you sign a paper promising you are going to go to that bank tomorrow, and transferring that trust fund to my name only."
Radcliffe glared at her. "You seriously believe I would skip town on you?"
"Excuse me, which one of us had to employ a constable to track the other down after he disappeared?"
Victor snorted, earning himself look from the red-faced Radcliffe. "Fine," he grumbled. "Let me just see what I have here. . . ." A little digging located a blank sheet of paper among the others. Radcliffe took a moment to scribble down his promise, then handed it to Alice. She skimmed over it, then – seeing nothing she objected to – scritched her name onto the bottom line. "Dr. Wilson, you may sign here. . .and you may as well," the lawyer suddenly added, turning and thrusting the pen into Victor's hand. "Even though I don't know how qualified a witness you are in your current mental state."
"Well, June could sign it i-if you're worried about that," Victor said, fumbling with the pen.
Radcliffe glanced over. "I don't know about her credibility as a witness either. . . ."
"I am of sound mind and body, Mr. Radcliffe," June said coolly. "Isn't that all you really need?"
"Oh dear – you're spending far too much time around me, June," Alice said with an amused grin. It faded as she turned back to the lawyer. "But she has a point. There's nothing else about her that should be objectionable, right?"
"Fine, both of you sign," Radcliffe snapped, shoving the paper in their direction. One plump finger stabbed at the bottom of the page. "Put your name right here, Master Van Dort."
Victor's hand moved before the rest of him, and his name appeared in the indicated spot. It was an eerie feeling – what he imagined ghostwriting must be like. See how little control you have over yourself? the voice sing-songed. Still just a mindless little puppet, willing to dance for anyone who pulls your strings.
Victor gritted his teeth and handed the pen to June, who signed just below him. With Radcliffe's good conduct assured (or at least given a solid prod with a stick), Alice took the pen back and signed the release of contract. "Thank you," Radcliffe said coldly. "Now, Dr. Wilson, if you could do the same as before here. . .and Master Van Dort, your name here. . . ."
To Victor's embarrassment, his hand attempted to sign the paper before Dr. Wilson could actually give him the pen. The voice sniggered. Oh dear, and you seriously thought you were doing better.
"Shush!" Victor hissed, grabbing the pen and scrawling a rather sloppy signature on the appropriate line.
June added her name, and Radcliffe took the release back, waving the paper slightly to dry it. "Good. Thank you. This officially concludes our little adventure together."
"And we're all the happier for it," Alice said, standing and setting Mr. Bunny aside. "For what it's worth, Mr. Radcliffe, I hope your new country home serves you well." She smirked. "Away from all those clients you hate so much."
"Humph. Well, I hope your life improves and you find your way out of the city," Mr. Radcliffe said, gathering his documents back into neat stacks and fitting them into his suitcase. "If only because I wish never to read about you in the paper again."
"That's one of my great hopes too. June, do you need a hand with the tea things?"
"I'm fine," June assured her, stacking plates and cups. "Anything you want to take with you, Mr. Radcliffe?"
"No thank you – I simply want to get back to my rooms," Mr. Radcliffe replied, standing and brushing a few crumbs from his lapels. "Master Van Dort, get my hat."
Once again, Victor went stiff, a monotone "Yes, sir," hovering on his tongue. Master has commanded, Thirteen, the voice purred. Master always commands, and you will always obey, just like the silly worthless cocksucking doll you are. Get up and do as you're told. . . .
"Mr. Radcliffe–" Alice started, irritated.
"Master Van Dort, now!" Radcliffe demanded, ignoring her completely.
Forget and obey, Thirteen! the voice agreed. First his hat, then your arse!
Victor wasn't sure what did it – the sheer undiluted arrogance in the voice, the anger on Alice's face, or his own deep frustration with Radcliffe's refusal to listen and casual command. Whatever it was, something deep inside him stretched and bent under it –
And, finally, snapped. "Get it yourself! I'm not your servant!"
The entire room went silent. Radcliffe, Dr. Wilson, Alice, and June all stared, frozen in place, as if he'd suddenly gotten up and stripped completely nude. Which was how he was starting to feel with all those eyes upon him. . . . How rude, Thirteen, the voice said coldly. Denying your purpose? Someone is asking to be sent back into the dark.
Be still, Victor replied, fidgeting as his eyes flicked to the nearby lamp for reassurance. Just a voice can't hurt you Alice won't let you be dragged back there oh damn it why won't someone else say something before I slip again –
Alice slowly leaned forward. "Victor," she said, her gaze boring into his, "get Mr. Radcliffe his hat."
Victor's jaw dropped in shocked betrayal. What the hell – she was taking the lawyer's side?! He shoved himself to his feet with a glare. "No!"
Victor's fingers dug into the table for support as the realization hit him full-force. No. He'd said no. He'd just had two direct orders in quick succession, one of them from the woman whom he still, on bad nights, called "Mistress" – and he'd said no. Even the voice in his head was silent from the shock of it. I can say no. I can say no!
Alice's face split into the most delighted smile he'd seen yet. In the blink of an eye, she'd dashed around the table, throwing her arms around him. Victor enthusiastically returned the embrace, torn between laughing and crying in his joy. No! he repeated to himself, relishing the simple word. No, no, no! I don't have to obey!
Only bad boys don't obey! the voice shrieked, trying to reestablish control. And bad boys get punished!
As if you don't try to punish me for existing every bloody moment of every day, Victor replied. Though, to be fair, I've been saying "no" to you for a while now, haven't I? Just nice to not have you sneak into everyone else's voice.
The voice snarled. Master is FURIOUS, Thirteen!
Maybe. Victor gave Alice a little squeeze. But Mistress is thrilled, and we all know which opinion I care more about.
Alice beamed up at him. "Oh, Victor, I'm so happy for you."
"So am I," Victor whispered, resting his chin against her hair. "I – I really am getting better. . . ."
". . .I'd still like my hat, please," Radcliffe cut in, shaking off his surprise. "And we really shouldn't be rewarding him for his rudeness. I know he comes from a well-to-do family and all, but that's not reason to refuse a – oooof!"
He staggered as Alice, having released Victor and fetched the much-desired hat, abruptly pulled him into a hug as well. Victor laughed openly at the shock covering the lawyer's round face. Oh, what a picture that would make! We could put it over the fireplace to replace that one with Bumby. . .incidentally, my drawing is what I'm getting back next, you arse.
I'd like to see you try, Thirteen, the voice growled.
Alice released Radcliffe after a moment, shaking her head. "For once, I'm glad you're a rude, unthinking buffoon," she informed him. "Apparently that's just what Victor needed." She plopped the hat in his hand. "Have a good day, Mr. Radcliffe. I really mean that."
Radcliffe eyed her as if waiting for Dr. Wilson to slap her in a fresh straitjacket. "Thank you," he said, edging away as he replaced the hat on his head. "You – you too." He managed a nod to Dr. Wilson, glanced very briefly at Victor and June, and then was out the door before anyone could say another word.
June promptly dissolved into giggles. "Oh dear. . .Alice, I think he would have taken it better if you'd given him a jab in the backside with a red-hot poker!"
"He'll just have to live with having gained my good opinion for once," Alice declared, still beaming. "I never thought – oh, Victor, this is fantastic!"
"An excellent step on the road to recovery," Dr. Wilson agreed, suffused with paternal pride. "Even if Mr. Radcliffe didn't intend it to be such. . .he doesn't listen well, does he?"
"He never did – at least, not to the ladies of the family. He was always very attentive to Papa. . .then again, I know he's an Oxford graduate. He might have been putting on an act for his alma mater." Alice shook her head. "And he's always been a pompous ass. I challenged him to chess once when he was over – he refused, saying it would tax my brain too much. I was furious and complained to Papa, who informed him in no uncertain terms he didn't believe in women's minds overheating from an excess of intelligence. Radcliffe gave in to keep the family peace, and I beat him in twenty moves. He made a point of avoiding the chess set after that."
Victor snickered. "Oh dear. . .why did your parents keep him on? It doesn't sound like they liked him much either."
"I think he actually is good at his job, when he bothers to do it," Alice admitted. "Papa wouldn't have left my trust fund in his care if he believed it was all going to disappear into a black hole of Japanese silks and Chinese teacups."
Dr. Wilson frowned seriously. "Do you think he did steal from it? I'm still suspicious of some of those charges."
"I don't know," Alice said, rubbing her face. "You saw how rude he can be, and Nanny certainly thinks he was mostly interested in what he could get from my inheritance. . .but trying to untangle that mess might be more trouble than it's worth. Superintendent Monroe might have indeed charged that much simply because I could technically afford it. Or maybe Bumby was quietly sneaking funds away – Radcliffe would have allowed him access on the basis of being my caretaker, I'm sure." She waved her hands. "At this point, I'd rather just write it off as lost and enjoy what I do have. Especially since it means never having to talk to that smug layabout ever again."
"I'm quite glad of that myself," Victor said, leaning on his hand. "Though I guess I do owe him a debt for making me frustrated enough to where 'no' was easier than 'yes.'"
"I doubt he'll ever want to collect, so you're safe there," Alice told him.
June stacked up the plates. "A thousand pounds," she murmured. "Alice, you could move out today if you liked. Even a flat in the most expensive part of the city wouldn't take it all in one go."
"I could – but until Victor is better, I'll stick it out," she said, slinging a loving arm around his middle. "If he waited for me, I can wait for him. Even if I still think you were a bit dim to refuse that loan from the Whites."
Victor let out a soft "heh," then squinched up his face as something tickled his brain. "I – I think I was tempted by an offer of a few rooms outside of Houndsditch," he admitted, chasing the snippet of memory down. The voice clawed at his skull, but he ignored it. "But even then, I – I was thinking of us l-living there together. Which is deeply i-improper, I know–"
"But we live in the East End, so propriety doesn't dare cross these streets," Alice said, smirking. "Besides, we're technically living together already. And I already know I don't want to live apart from you."
Victor's insides melted into a warm, happy goop. "Me either."
Alice nodded, then gave him a tug toward the door. "In the meantime, I would very much like to throw that damned green dress on the fire and replace it with something that will actually keep me warm this winter – care to come window shopping with me for a bit?"
"I'd like that," Victor replied. "It's been ages since we had a proper walk together. And I'd like to keep his voice quiet in the back of my head."
"Just remember to be back by dinnertime," Dr. Wilson said, rising. "And Victor, take your coat, it's cold."
The faintest echo of Master has commanded slipped through Victor's mind – then it was gone, and his will was entirely his own again. He shot the doctor a playful grin. "No, I shan't," he said, taking Alice's arm and walking out the door.
A minute later, they were both back inside, hurrying to the coat hooks. "All right, I will, but because I want to. Good God it's cold. . . ."