Chapter 1: Charlie And The Voodooo
October 29th, 1875
Whitechapel, London’s East End, England
"They've been in there an awful long time. . . ."
"Pipe down, they'll hear us!"
"Maybe Doctor's killed him! Like in the dreadfuls!"
"Nah, wouldn't take that long to hide a body."
"How would you know?"
Charlie Tonkers fidgeted as he listened to the hubbub around him, punctuated by Jane's regular complaints about the emptiness of her belly. He couldn't blame her for whining – he was damn near starving himself. Dinnertime was supposed to have been an hour ago, but with their regular cook off wandering the streets in a hallucinatory daze, the rabble of children populating the Houndsditch Home for Wayward Youth was forced to rely on the goodness of the proprietor, Dr. Angus Bumby, for their meals. And the good doctor hadn't been seen since about mid-afternoon – Reggie had spotted him disappearing into his bedroom with a very serious expression. "Asked him what he was about, and he said our old toff needed 'specialized therapy,'" he'd reported shortly afterward. "So we wasn't to disturb him 'less somebody got their head cut off."
"Specialized therapy?" Charlie had parroted as the others stared in confusion. The term wasn't unfamiliar – almost every child who got adopted out went through a few rounds before being shipped off into the wild. Reggie and Charlie themselves were starting on their journey through the process. But – "Why's Victor need that? He's got a mum and dad."
Reggie's response had been a shrug. "He just told me to keep away until he was done. You wanna knock and risk a smack on the rear, you're welcome to it."
Charlie hadn't wanted to risk it, and so the children had dispersed to fill the time until their doctor's reappearance. That is, until the clock had announced the evening meal, and they'd gathered in the dining room only to find not just empty plates, but no plates at all. A raid of the kitchen hadn't turned up anything they could eat except stale digestive biscuits, and nobody knew where exactly Dr. Bumby usually ordered dinner from. And the only street salesman nearby was the one who put rat droppings in his custards. After a half-hour's impatient waiting, their grumbling bellies had eventually driven them up here, clustering around the bedroom door and exchanging wild speculation while trying to work up enough courage to interrupt the doctor in his work. "Nobody's taken this long before," Dennis groused, rubbing his stomach.
Charlie decided not to point out that Dennis, being new, wouldn't really know for sure. "Victor and Dr. Bumby don't get along much," he said instead. "Butt heads like rams. Could be he ain't listening to to whatever Doctor's telling him."
"Yeah, Doctor's always going on about Victor giving him trouble," Elsie nodded. "He's a stubborn swell and no mistake."
"We all are, Jane! Now shut your yap!"
"Is this about that dead lady of his again?" Dennis demanded. "The corpse bride?"
"Yeah, probably," Reggie confirmed. "Why it's takin' so long, I bet – Doctor's likely got him strapped to a chair in there until he fesses up that walking dead people ain't real once and for all."
Abigail snickered. "Or maybe Doctor caught him digging up another wife. We ain't that far from the old churchyard. Musta went looking for another never-was-a-bride, hopin' he'd be better than nothing."
Charlie frowned at her as the rest of the children giggled over the prospect. Why did Abigail have to be so mean about that all the time? Yeah, sure, it was fun to tease the old toff a bit, but – truth be told, Charlie had never cared as much about Victor supposedly being a "necrophiliac" (what a funny long word) as everybody else. So the swell thought he'd nearly married a dead lady – so what? It made him mad as a hatter, yes – practically as mad as Alice, in fact – but it wasn't hurting anybody. In fact, Victor was one of the nicest mad people Charlie had ever known. Despite the regular mocking and teasing, he was almost always kind to them – helping clear dishes and wipe noses and even tuck them in if requested. And he regularly shared stories about his Land of the Dead – a fact Charlie very much appreciated. He liked hearing about the place – all the wild parties and friendly corpses and suchlike.
It made him feel better about what had happened to his old dad.
The little boy suppressed a shudder as the thought wormed its way into his head again. Bumby had worked hard on him to erase it, but something like seeing your beloved father's corpse hanging limp and cold from a ratty old rope in the prison courtyard stuck hard in the mind. Same with your mum's vicious screaming as she beat the shit out of you for the third time that week – though happily that was finally starting to fade. He could barely recall most of the arse-kickings he'd received from the rotten smelly bat these days. And while he was aware his dad had come home during one of them and proceeded to break Mum's neck in trying to save him – Ollie had shown him the article in the Illustrated – that incident had been thoroughly wiped from his brain's crevices. Which suited Charlie just fine. He didn't want to think of his dad as a filthy rotten killer – he wanted him to stay the man who'd read him picture books at bedtime and snuck him sweets before dinner. Of course, remembering those moments had a different sting to them, but Victor's stories helped ease the ache. Yeah, his dad was dead, and he weren't likely to see him again anytime soon. But at least now he could take comfort in the idea that Bob Tonker was living the high life (uh, so to speak) down below, sipping beer with his buddies and telling stories about the "best little boy in the world" he'd left up above. It was a real nice thought, and he couldn't blame Victor for digging in his heels against Dr. Bumby's attempts to take them away.
Or getting so sour whenever Abigail said something like that with her evil little snigger. "He's sweet on Alice and you know it," he said, folding his arms and glaring at the pigtailed witch. "He don't need to dig up anybody else."
"Yeah, all right," Abigail allowed, rolling her eyes. "But it ain't like Alice is ever gonna be sweet on him. Maybe he got tired of waiting."
"Could of thought Alice was dead too, and was looking for her there," Elsie offered up. "I mean, we don't know she's not."
"We don't know she is either," Charlie replied with feeling, fingers pulling anxiously at his sleeves. Alice dead – now that was almost a worse thought than his dad swinging from the rope. Maybe she'd be happier if she was Downstairs, but Charlie's stomach turned at the very thought. Alice was the closest thing he'd had to a real mum all his life. She was mean sometimes, sure, and liked to talk to nothing, but she made their beds and got their food and was the best storyteller in the East End – even better than Victor. No matter how much she moaned and complained, it was clear she still gave a damn about the rabble, which was more than what most anybody else in the city gave. And she'd lost her whole family when she was small, just like the rest of them. Most of the others seemed to forget that a lot, but Charlie didn't. He felt bad for her most of the time – from what he'd heard, she'd had a proper swell's life before her house had burned down. No wonder she was so cranky now that she had to live here. He hated it too, and he'd been born in this muck. Plus, he had to admit, he was pretty sure she liked him a little better than the others. Maybe 'cause he tried to pick up his toys when he was done and kept his bed neat, or because she felt sorry for him after what happened to his pop. Either way, she was easier on him than the others when he dropped his clothes on the floor or complained about the food. He didn't want her to go away and have to deal with someone new who might be even meaner, without all the good bits. "She's good at staying alive."
"Yeah, well, if both Victor and the thickies haven't caught up with her–"
And then the door before them abruptly opened, cutting Elsie off as surely as a pair of shears to her tongue. From the blackness within emerged a rather smug-looking Dr. Bumby, followed closely by Victor. "Now then – what?" The doctor frowned at the crowd staring up at him. "What are you all doing here? I said I wasn't to be disturbed."
"I'm huuuuuuuuungry!" Jane wailed, head tilted so far back only her enormous mouth was visible.
"We didn't want to disturb you, Doctor," Abigail said, tugging at one of her braids. "It's just – supper's come and gone and nobody was around to cook."
"And the biscuits are better as skipping rocks," Ollie added, wrinkling his nose.
"Really?" Dr. Bumby consulted his pocket watch. Charlie quickly averted his eyes as the key dangling at the end of the fob chain slipped free of the pocket and started slowly swinging. Would be awful embarrassing to go to sleep in the middle of the hallway. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a bunch of the others doing the same. "Goodness, I had no idea I'd taken that long. . .my apologies, children," he said, dropping the watch back into his waistcoat. "But Thirteen and I had some rather intense therapy to perform."
"Thirteen?" Charlie turned his gaze to the figure of Victor Van Dort, still standing behind the doctor. For the first time, he noticed the old toff looked – different. Oh, he was as tall and thin and pale as ever, but instead of his usual fidgeting and fussing, he was just – staring straight ahead, arms limp at his sides, eyes blank as a doll's. His clothing was rumpled too – which wasn't that weird, but usually it was his tie who got that treatment, not his pants. Had he and Dr. Bumby gotten into a wrestling match? The thought was amusing, but looking at their resident swell's empty face, Charlie didn't feel like laughing. "What'd you do to Victor?"
"Thirteen now, Charlie," Dr. Bumby replied in a gently scolding tone. "And I've finally eliminated his delusions." He grinned, pride coming off him in waves. "He's cured at last, children. Isn't that wonderful?"
The children glanced at each other. "How come he ain't doing much of anything, then?" Reggie asked with a frown.
"Well, it was a very intense session. . .don't worry about it, though," Dr. Bumby said, putting on his "professional" voice. "I've only done what's best for him, and it's not like he'll be leaving my care anytime soon. He'll be taking over Alice's duties until I hire a suitable replacement. The ad's already in the paper."
"What about the thick – the orderlies?" Elsie quickly corrected herself. "They're doing some of what Alice did, right?"
"Oh, those two. . .I'll be sending them back to Rutledge as soon as they finish their latest wander through the streets," Dr. Bumby said with a dismissive wave. "They've proven utterly useless at their assigned tasks. I don't need them increasing our food budget. Thirteen will be able to do everything they did and more, with much less complaining."
"But don't his parents want him back?" Abigail asked, flipping her pigtail behind her shoulder. "Ain't you supposed to send him home once he's fixed?"
"Ah. . . ." Dr. Bumby looked back at Victor – Thirteen, Charlie reminded himself. There was something funny about the way the doctor's eyes raked over his patient. The look was – possessive, like he was writing 'mine' over Vict-Thirteen's skin with his gaze (like Elsie had done with her favorite dolls). And there was something else too, something he couldn't put a name to but which made his skin go creepy-crawly. "Well, we need him for the time being. . .and there's a few last tweaks I'd like to make. I'm sure his mother will understand." He touched Vic-Thirteen's shoulder. "Thirteen?"
"Yes, sir?" The hairs on the back of Charlie's neck stood on end. Bloody hell, he didn't even sound like Victor anymore. He sounded – "wind-up" was the best way he could think of to describe it. As if Thirteen was just reciting from a list of words somebody had shoved into his head, instead of picking them out for himself. No more thought involved than a dolly.
"Accompany me to the kitchen. We need to figure out what to give the children for their supper." Dr. Bumby glanced around the group. "The rest of you, find some way to entertain yourselves until I call you to table. Come along, Thirteen."
"Yes, sir." The pair of them headed down the hall – Bumby walking at his usual pace, Thirteen following at a smooth, even step that was so antithetical to Victor Van Dort you'd think the world would have up and exploded in protest.
The children stared after the two, anxious silence hanging heavy over their heads. "I dun like this," Ollie finally said, twisting his hands together.
Charlie didn't either. "I thought only us got numbers," he said, eyes darting to the placards hanging around most of his compatriots' necks. "And only 'cause we don't have folks yet. Is he gonna make his parents call him Thirteen?"
"Maybe," Elsie said, fiddling with the ties of her bonnet. "Dr. Bumby's awful bossy."
"Did you see the way he was walking?" Dennis asked. He put his arms at his sides and did his best to imitate it. "Like a clockwork solider. Ain't he supposed to be tripping over his own feet all the time?"
There was a general nodding of heads. "Guess it's okay he's not bumping into things, but. . . ." Abigail wrinkled her nose. "What we gonna laugh at now? Normal ain't funny. Normal's just – normal."
"Who's gonna tell us stories?" Jane asked, finally distracted from her rumbling stomach. "I wanted to hear more about Miss Plum."
"Will he still come up and tuck us in if we ask?" Reggie wondered. "Or give us crayons and paper to draw? What about the piano, who's gonna take care of it?"
"He sounds creepy," one of the new girls, Ann, piped up, frowning. "He don't sound like a person no more. He sounds – dead."
Charlie shivered. Yes. . .that was an even better word than "wind-up" to describe Thirteen's voice. You expected something like that when it came from bakelite and clockwork. When it came out of flesh and blood – suddenly Charlie was reminded of Old Mr. Bangers, who'd come from the islands and rented the flat just below the Tonkers'. Charlie had often gone to visit him when his mum was drunk off her arse, sampling the exotic food he cooked and begging for stories from faraway places. And Old Mr. Bangers had delivered, frightening him half to death with tales of evil voodoo priests who lurked in the shadows of the shanty towns and sugar plantations, killing chickens and stealing souls. "Not even death can save you from them," he'd said, his remaining teeth shining like stars in the black cavern of his mouth. "If you've a strong body, sometimes they'll call upon their loa to poison you and make you sicken and die. And once you've been dumped in the ground, they'll steal into your grave and bring your body back, empty and cold, to harvest their crops and do their will. I've seen it – fields worked by men who don't sweat, men with corpse eyes and no songs left in them. Only hope you have is to know your own voodoo, to be able to call upon your own loa to protect you – or pay a decent man to do it." A far cry from the happy-go-lucky dead that Victor had enjoyed telling them about. Had Dr. Bumby done that to Victor to make him into Thirteen? Quietly killed him and then used dark magic and spirits to make the body walk around without any actual soul? Boy, he hoped not. "M-maybe it'll wear off," he said, more to comfort himself than out of any actual conviction.
The other children looked as dubious as he felt. "Don't wear off any of the other numbers," Abigail pointed out.
"Y-yeah, but – that's before they go to their families! Parents wouldn't keep 'em like that, would they?" Though. . .Mum probably would have liked me better if I'd just sat and stared at the wall when she didn't want me around. . . .
"Not his parents," Reggie agreed with a knowing nod. "His mum'll yell if she don't like him like that. She's louder and meaner than Dr. Bumby."
That was an oddly heartening thought. Charlie hadn't liked Mrs. Van Dort when she'd visited – she was ugly and bulgy and squawky, like an overfed, ill-tempered turkey – but if she could make Dr. Bumby turn Thirteen back into Victor, she'd be all right in his book. "Maybe we can write a letter asking her," he said. "Where'd he live again?"
The children looked at each other. "Uh – Button-ville?" Elsie said uncertainly.
"Somewhere far far away," Ollie mumbled. "Take ages to write her. Doctor probably wouldn't let us either."
"He don't have to know," Charlie declared, hands on his hips.
Abigail shook her head. "He always finds out," she said, in a tone that brooked no argument. "Tried hiding one of my mum's old hankies from him once. Set it on fire right in front of me." She sighed. "Not worth getting a whooping for it – or worse. Ain't nothin' we can do, 'cept hope Thirteen ain't too scary."
With that, the group broke up, with everyone wandering away in different directions to try and distract themselves from the settling gloom. Charlie stayed where he was for a moment, then headed with purpose into the boys' room to procure crayon and paper. He didn't care what Abigail had said. "World don't change from people just sittin' on their behinds, my boy," his dad had told him once. The others could be giver-uppers all they liked. He was at least gonna try.
"Specialized therapy" is rotten and mean and I ain't gonna let Doctor do it to me anymore.
Charlie sat on the top bunk of the bed he shared with Dennis, kicking his feet and glaring at the wall. Lunchtime had come and gone, and along with some rather icky-looking fish from the Billingsgate docks it had brought to the young boy the conviction that something had to be done about Thirteen, and soon. The former swell was just as creepy as he'd been when he'd first emerged from Dr. Bumby's bedroom – maybe even more so after a day of watching him sweep floors and serve food. Everything about him was unsettling – from the mechanical precision in his walk to the dull, blank glaze in his eyes. He never seemed to look at you anymore – more through you. And his voice was still dead as a doornail. He didn't speak much, thankfully, but the pure emptiness in his tone was enough to keep anyone from saying more than "Good morning" to him. Charlie had had nightmares the night before of Victor staying like this forever, flesh rotting away as he walked about the Home, until he was nothing but a skeleton. Maybe Dr. Bumby does know voodoo. I wish I could take Victor to Old Mr. Bangers to get him cured. . . .
There was no chance of that, however. Abigail's warning about sneaking a letter under the doctor's nose had proved well-founded. Charlie had managed to get a few words down yesterday afternoon, but after dinner Bumby had made a surprise visit to the boys' room and caught him in the act of writing. He'd forced Charlie to turn over the paper, laughed at the little boy's scribbled pleas for Mrs. Van Dort to come to the Home straightaway, patted his head with a (supposedly) reassuring, "Don't worry, I'll let Mrs. Van Dort know all about her son" – and then very deliberately had torn the letter in two. "You shouldn't trouble yourself over such things. Good boys know their place after all." You would have to be a dim one indeed not to pick up on what the doctor really meant, so Charlie had nodded and apologized and gone to bed early so to stay on Bumby's good side. If he hadn't managed to slip a couple of sentences on a scrap of paper past the doctor, there was no way he could drag Victor off to his old flat to see a magic man. The mere thought of what might happen should Bumby find him doing that sent shivers up and down his spine.
Still, Charlie didn't like just sitting around on his bottom either. Alice having disappeared into the twisted back alleys of London was bad enough – having Victor not be there while standing right in front of you was worse. Already Charlie missed the enthusiastic tone with which Victor had told his stories, the scratching of his quill as he made pretty pictures, even the way he'd tugged and twisted his tie whenever he was anxious. And what if Alice came home and wanted to see him? Perhaps he wasn't her "beau," like the fancy people said, but not even Abigail could deny they were best friends. Victor was the only one Charlie had ever seen make Alice real honest-to-God laugh. Thirteen? He'd probably make her cry instead. And that was a very, very sad thought. I gotta find a way to make him be Victor again, Charlie decided, climbing down from the bunk and heading into the hall. Dr. Bumby couldn't have fixed him that good, right? Takes ages with us – how could he do a grown-up in just a few hours? No, there's gotta be a way.
He roamed the Home in search of the old toff, poking into every door he dared. Eventually, he found his quarry in the kitchen, washing the dishes from lunch. "Hi!" Charlie greeted him, forcing himself to be chipper in case it helped. "How are you?"
Thirteen didn’t respond – didn't even look up. He merely continued with his task – picking up plates from the water, wiping them with a soapy rag, and then setting them to the side to dry. Charlie watched him for a bit. Over and over the pattern repeated, smooth and unchanging. He really is like a clockwork soldier now, the little boy thought with a shudder. 'Cept not fun at all. “Hello?”
Still no response – just that steady rhythm of clicks and clacks from the dishes. Charlie shifted from foot to foot, wondering if he should just leave. He didn't know nothing about voodoo, or whatever it was Dr. Bumby had done. What good could he do just standing here and talking to somebody who wouldn't even look at him? Who seemed no more aware than a doll?
But then, what harm could he do either? Wouldn't be right to give up almost before he'd started. His dad would have tanned his hide for that (would he? Charlie couldn't remember anymore, though that was no surprise). And the only other options he had were coloring and messing about with the dollhouse – neither of which appealed to him at the moment. No, he wasn't going to quit until he'd given it a good Dolly Sisters kick up the rump. “Dr. Bumby says he’s cured you,” he said, scrambling up onto the counter to sit beside the sink. Some spilled water soaked into his pants, but he ignored it. “Says he wiped all the nasty thoughts right out of your head. That true?”
Thirteen nodded. Charlie grinned – progress at last! “So you don’t remember your corpse bride?" he continued. "Think you said her name was – Emma?" He scrunched his face in thought. "No, Emily! Emily Somethingorother 'cause you were too silly to ask.”
For the first time, the hands paused. Thirteen looked up from his work, blinking, a searching look in his eyes. Charlie held his breath hopefully. Then the blip passed, and Thirteen resumed his task, face blank again. “Corpse brides don’t exist,” he replied in that cold, dead tone. "I was wrong to think so. I need only worry about my purpose."
A chill shot up Charlie’s spine. The way Thirteen had said that last – suddenly, all he could think about was his old bunkmate, Farley. Farley had been "smart-mouthed" and “a troublemaker,” according to the grown-ups, but Charlie had liked him – not in the least because he was always stealing candy and didn’t mind sharing a piece or two. Dr. Bumby had worked on him for months (around the time Alice had arrived in fact), and right before he’d gone off to live with some bloke he’d started acting – well, like this. Just doing his chores without a mind to anybody else, staring right through you if you tried to talk to him, and muttering things about his "purpose." Doctor had started calling Farley “Nine” around that time too, in accordance with his paper bib. He'd said it was all for Farley's own good, but Charlie still hadn't liked it in the slightest. Farley didn’t get in trouble anymore, yeah, and he didn’t cry in the night over his mum tossing him on the doorstep, but he'd also stopped coloring, and making stupid jokes, and playing tag in the courtyard. It was like somebody had taken a big spoon and scooped out all his – “Farleyness," Charlie supposed. He hadn't thought of voodoo then – Dr. Bumby had kept telling them it was normal, and at any rate he'd been distracted by the start of Alice telling them Wonderland stories – but now, seeing Thirteen parroting those exact same words. . . . Please, please let Farley be okay! “You thought they did for a long time,” he pressed, a new urgency in his tone. "You told us all about it."
“I was confused,” Thirteen replied in that blank voice, rubbing crud off the tines of a couple of forks. "It no longer matters. The past is past. I needn't think about it."
"But – but what about that other girl? Victoria? You said she saw it all too."
Again a slight pause, a few blinks – then nothing. "I don't know anyone named Victoria," Thirteen finally said, picking up another plate.
“What?” Charlie was getting really frustrated now. "So, all those stories you told us and Alice were lies?"
Shards of porcelain abruptly filled the air as the plate smashed against the side of the sink. “Oi!” Charlie cried, shielding his face with his arms. “Doctor will have your neck for–”
He stopped. Thirteen – no, Victor, he weren't going to call him by a number unless he had to – was staring straight ahead, eyes wide and unfocused, face somehow paler than before. “Al. . .ice?” he said slowly, and his voice was – it wasn't the corpse voice of before, but it was still funny, like – like it was a swimmer kicking against the Thames, looking for the air. . . . He reached up and pressed a wet hand against his forehead, apparently heedless of the dishwater trickling down his nose. “Alice?” he repeated, but now he sounded – frightened? Worried? Charlie hopped off the counter, eying the door as he shuffled his feet. What did he do now? He'd gotten Victor to stop sounding so creepy, so hooray there, but he didn't know what came next –
“What’s going on in here?”
Dr. Bumby appeared in the doorway, frowning. “Charlie, you know better than to–” he started, then caught sight of Victor’s expression. “Thirteen?”
Victor turned anxious eyes to him, breath coming in hard bursts. “I – w-what – you – Alice, w-where’s–”
Dr. Bumby was across the room in two strides, grabbing Victor’s wrist and pulling him away from the sink. “I think we need another session,” he said, and Charlie swore he heard just the tiniest note of fear in the doctor’s voice. But how could that be? Dr. Bumby wasn’t supposed to be scared of nothing! He'd said so himself! “Charlie, go play with the others.”
With that, Dr. Bumby dragged a bewildered-looking Victor out the door. Charlie stared after them, his stomach doing flip-flops. Oh no. . .that wasn't what he'd wanted at all. What was Bumby going to do to Victor? What was Bumby going to do to him? He was in trouble, that was for sure, but how bad? Whooping bad? Run away before he caught you bad? And what about Victor? Had he actually helped the old toff at all? Or had he just made things worse? "All I wanted was to make him better. . . ."
He stayed where he was for a good five minutes, shifting from foot to foot as he tried to decide what to do. Might as well just do as Doctor told me, I guess, he finally thought. Like to follow 'em, see if I can stop the voodoo 'fore it starts, but Bumby'd probably spot me and I'd just get deeper in hot water – or worse. And I can't run away either, 'less I want my belly rumbling more than normal and no bed. Should at least tell Reggie and Abigail and the rest what happened. Maybe if they know how to knock him back to himself, we can save him after all. Worrying his lip with his teeth, he hurried back upstairs to report.
It wasn't until right before dinner that he saw either Dr. Bumby or Victor again. He was in the boys' room, picking up the cards from where Reggie had thrown them all over the floor – he was gonna give Ollie a smack for falling for "Wanna play 52-pickup?" – when he saw a familiar tall figure pass by the doorway out of the corner of his eye. "Victor?"
Victor didn't reply. Charlie tossed the cards on the bed and hurried to catch up with him – then stumbled to a stop as he got a better look at the old toff's face. Blank and dead again, without a flicker of the life he'd seen over the sink. Charlie scowled, furious. Darn Bumby and his voodoo! Well, he knew what to do now – and so did the others, even if they were probably too chickenshit to try it. He was just about to run to Victor's side and say Alice's name again –
When a shadow fell over him, and he looked up into the glittering glasses of Dr. Bumby.
Charlie gulped. Hoo boy – the doctor did not look happy. Charlie recognized that shade of red from when he’d scolded Alice and Victor for dancing. Maybe I should just run for it? No, he'd catch me right quick. Act like nothing's wrong and he might not do more than shout. "Hi, Dr. Bumby," he said, putting on his best smile as he turned. “Is Victor–”
The slap came completely without warning, leaving his cheek a stinging bright pink. “Never mention that whore’s name in this house again,” Dr. Bumby snarled, eyes ablaze. “Do you understand me? Any hint of it, and you'll have the courtyard as your bed for a night! Without supper!" He grabbed Charlie's shoulders and gave him a hard shake. "And get it through your thick skull – it’s Thirteen, not Victor!”
With that, he stalked off, grumbling to himself. Charlie gaped after him, one hand half-covering, half-probing the forming bruise on his face.
Well. So much for forgetting the beatings Mum used to give him.