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In The Land of the Dead

Chapter Text

November 6th, 1863

Oxford, England, Land of the Dead

4:32 A.M.

Well. At least the house isn't on fire anymore.

Arthur Liddell blinked muzzily at the ceiling. Sure enough, the flames that had been licking at the plaster had vanished. His previously-immaculate bedroom was now painted with streaks of soot and smelt like the den of a dragon with an upset tummy, but it seemed the actual danger had passed. I guess the fire brigade finally made an appearance, he thought, lying dreamily on the floor. About time. I was rather tired of risking life and limb.

He took a deep breath, then hacked as the cold air roughed over his scorched lungs. Ugh. . .how much smoke had he inhaled? His limbs felt heavy and numb, as if he'd been lying for hours in ice water instead of racing through the burning remains of his house. I hope I haven't lost the use of my legs. . .what even happened? All I remember is this horrendous cracking noise, and then Lorina

Lorina!

Arthur was on his feet in a moment, panic flooding new life through his leaden body. His wife – where was his wife? What had become of her? Was she hurt? And oh God, the girls! What had happened to them? He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing his dulled brain back into action. He and Lorina had said goodnight to the girls, lighting Alice's lamp and wishing them both sweet dreams. . .they'd retired to his bedroom and – engaged in a few pleasurable activities. . .he'd been awoken from a sound sleep by a strange tickle in his nose. . .and then –

Fire, fire, all around fire, leaping from floor to ceiling, chasing itself in circles around the hall. . .had Dante's sinners come to claim them?

Feet pounding down the sizzling carpet, hand locked in Lorina's so he didn't lose her – their daughters, they had to get their daughters, no escape until they were together –

Metal branding his palm as he tried to wrench open something that should have sprung free at a touch – "Lizzie! Lizzie, open the door!" "The key, Lizzie! Unlock the door! You'll burn!"

A dark silhouette in the corner of his eye as they ran back, to find the spare key they never thought they'd need – "Mum? Dad?"

Smoke choking him, squeezing his neck like a garrote, and his little girl, his miracle daughter, trying to follow them – "Mum! Father!"

His own blistered fingers waving her away – "Save yourself, Alice! Get out of the house!"

The thunk of the old oak as he slammed their bedroom door closed behind them, to keep out what flames they could – a little shriek of pain, like an eight-year-old burning her hand on a hot doorknob – his skin peeling in slow strips of agony as he made for his nightstand – and then, that crack, and his beloved Lorina screaming –

And then, darkness. Arthur pressed a hand to his chest, trembling. In the end, the smoke and the fire and the stress had all been too much for him, it seemed. A good forty-eight years without fainting, and now. . . . What kind of father am I to fail my family like that? The brigade probably had a good laugh at my weakness. . .though I'd like to have a word with them about just leaving me here to wake up on my own. Whatever happened to compassion? He scrubbed at his face. All right, Arthur. First things first. Find Lorina. She was – she was going back to her own bedroom, she said. . .gathering sheets to make a rope. . . . He turned around, toward the door that separated his chamber from hers –

Only to find half a heavy oak beam in his way.

And Lorina under it.

The horrified cry that leapt from his throat was more animal than human. He scrambled over his bed, hoping against hope that somehow – yes! The beam hadn't crushed her, not yet – instead, it formed an almost perfect right triangle over her, with her limp form tucked into – the near . . .

Why in God's name was his wife blue?

Arthur squinted. Her hair was the same color as before – a wild ginger halo circling her scalp. And her nightgown was still white speckled with yellow flowers – well, where it wasn't charred black. But her skin, rather than being its customary pale pink or even a brilliant burned red, was now a bright and surprisingly cheerful blue. In fact, Arthur was three-quarters sure it matched her eyes. Is she choking? he thought anxiously, pushing himself over the bed. But – that turns you dark blue. . .and certainly not all over your body! Is this some new kind of burn the medical professors haven't told me about? Or maybe it's fallen plaster. . .no, our ceiling is white! He shook his head viciously. Dash it all, Arthur – what's important here is that she might be hurt! He hurried to her side and reached out a hand, hoping to shake her awake.

His hand was blue too.

Arthur froze, staring at his own digits. What – what madness was this? How was he blue? He hadn't touched anything that color in his run through the hall, had he? He yanked up a sleeve. Blue all the way along his arm. Perhaps it was a consequence of breathing trouble, God knew he'd been struggling against the smoke from almost the moment he'd woken up. . .but he felt fine now! In fact. . .he felt a little too fine. . . .

A groan interrupted his thoughts before they could dwell on the subject. "Oooh. . .Arthur?"

"Lorina. . . ." Arthur dropped to his knees, temporarily shoving all the questions jostling for his attention to the back of his mind. "My darling, are you all right?"

"I – I think so. . .things don't hurt like they did. . . ." She twisted her head around and opened her eyes. "Not an experience I care to repeat anytime – oh!"

She sat up sharply, nearly breaking her crown on the beam. "Ah! Oh dear – Arthur, your face!"

"Blue, I'm guessing?" Arthur said, pulling her out from under the fire-scarred beam.

"Yes! Like you've been dipped in a bath of paint! Even your whiskers are a bit. . .you look like you've eaten another bowl of blueberries all by yourself." She touched his cheek. "What happened to you?"

"The same that happened to you, I think," Arthur said, directing her gaze to her own arm. "Though I'm not quite sure what that is yet."

Lorina gaped at the bright blue limb. (And yes, it did exactly match her eyes. If he'd been a betting man, he might have won himself a pound on that.) "What – how – I thought burns turned you red?" she blurted.

"I've been over it in my own head already – if it was a particularly massive burn we'd both be on our knees in agony," Arthur pointed out. "Though, having said that – shouldn't we be anyway? I mean–" He turned over his hand, staring at the charring on his palm. "That hurt like the dickens not five minutes ago. And you – darling, trust me, you're always beautiful to me, but those were some rather large blisters running rampant over your face before. . . ."

"Before this nearly took my head off entirely?" Lorina completed for him, tapping the beam. "You weren't looking much better, my dear. . .but you're right, none of this makes sense. That fire. . .Arthur, when this snapped right above me, I thought we were mere seconds from death!"

Thick, heavy clouds of gray, snaking their way into his throat and filling his chest with cement. . .he tried to hack it out, but there was always more to replace it. . .and it burned too, in its own way, eyes watering, mouth aflame with some chemical stew. . .he tried to stay upright, but it was just too hard, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe –

He wasn't breathing.

Arthur pressed his hand back against his chest. No motion – not while he was silent. He'd sucked in a breath before, but then he'd been trying. . .and he was having some real trouble feeling his pajamas. It was justified with his hand, that was burned to hell and back, but even the rest of him feel – leathery, he supposed. Not quite deadened of all feeling, but there was the definite sense something was missing. A couple of somethings, in fact. . .he slid two fingers against his neck and waited.

Nothing. His arteries and veins were still. A check of his wrist, just for completeness's sake, confirmed it. He slumped back onto his heels. "Oh no. . . ."

"Arthur?"

Arthur looked at his wife, his heart twisting in his chest. "Lorina. . .we were a few seconds from death. And now – now we're a few seconds after it."

"What?" Lorina groped at her own wrist. Her eyes went wide. "Oh, God. . .we're – we're d-dead?"

"It certainly seems that way. . . ." Arthur looked around the smoldering remains of his bedroom. "Bloody piss-poor afterlife, I have to say."

"Arthur, what – oh, why am I bothering, we're bloody dead. . . ." Lorina went to bury her face in her hands, then stopped and frowned at them. "We're dead. . .and blue. Have you ever heard of a corpse turning blue before?"

"The anatomy students never said. . .of course, I never cared to engage them in conversation about what happened in their little operating theater," Arthur admitted. "I don't think it's usual, though. Katie Winks certainly wasn't blue in her casket."

"No, she wasn't. . .but that's another thought," Lorina said, frown deepening. "Why are we in our house still? I thought – well, you've heard Mr. Dodgson's ruminations on the afterlife. Waking up still burnt and broken, in one's own house, can't be usual either."

"We don't know that," Arthur pointed out. "I've certainly never talked to anyone who's – died before. Maybe something like this happens to everyone. No idea why, of course, but it could very well be usual."

"Unusual sort of usual," Lorina murmured, absently brushing the wrinkles out of her skirt. "Certainly not what I expected when I–" She stopped and swallowed roughly. "This isn't how I wanted to go at all."

"No one wants to go this way," Arthur told her, wrapping an arm around her. "I'm sorry you had to suffer so. . .it wasn't lingering, was it? I just – the smoke was too much in the end, and everything went black."

"The last thing I remember is seeing this crashing down toward me," Lorina said, waving a hand at the beam. She felt her head. "How it didn't hit me, I don't know, but. . .I must have fainted. And after that, it was all over."

"Oh, Lorina. . . ." Arthur ran crispy fingers through his hair, sick again over his own weakness. "If only I could have spared you. If I'd just been able to find Lizzie's spare key, I–"

Funny – one would think that, being dead, his blood would lack the ability to run cold. Judging by her expression, his wife was having the same thought. "LIZZIE!"

Lorina burst from his arms, clambering over the bed like a Barbary macaque. "I can't believe – get her key, Arthur! I'll see if she's–" Unable to finish, she instead shook her head and bolted out the door.

Arthur vaulted over the mattress and tore open the drawer that had given him so much trouble before, emptying it brutally on the floor. A lifetime's worth of midnight detritus tumbled over the blackened carpet. Arthur rooted through the odds and ends, tossing them every which way, until finally he located his older daughter's spare room key. Clutching it tightly in his fist, he darted after his wife. Please, please tell me I have no reason to actually use this. . . .

Unfortunately, his prayers were for naught – Lorina was already at the opposite end of the hall, yanking on Lizzie's doorknob with all her might. "She's in there, Arthur!" she gasped, tears glittering in her eyes. (The dead could still cry? This day simply kept getting stranger.) "I can hear her! Oh, why did she lock herself in?"

Arthur had no reply for her, as that was precisely the question that had bothered him throughout the final moments of his life. The elder of his two daughters openly despised locked rooms – "a prison by another name," she'd once called them. Not even being interrupted in her dressing by a servant (they'd all gone for the night, hadn't they? Sharpe was visiting her sister, he knew that much, and the cook and maids were having an evening off somewhere. . . .) had stayed her desire to keep her door open to the world. Discovering it sealed tight in the midst of a terrific fire. . .had it been an attempt to save herself by blocking out the flames? If so, why hadn't she answered them when they'd tried to get in? She really should have been the first one out, with how light she sleeps. . .unless. . .is Alice in there too? Did Lizzie try to save her, and Alice lock the door to keep the fire away? No, wait, that can't be, I know I saw Alice in the hall . . . .

He shook his head hard. Wool-gathering won't get me the answers I seek. Another thing you think death would have cured me of. . . . Motioning for his wife to stand aside, he slipped the key into the lock and turned it. The door clicked open, creaking on fire-warped hinges. Arthur threw it wide and stepped inside.

The room beyond had been spared the hellish flames their chamber had suffered. The air still stank of that chemical smoke, of course, and the wainscoting would never be the same. But it was clear that the fire, for all its fury, hadn't quite been able to penetrate this part of the house.

But it had done its work regardless. Lizzie sat on her bed, arms wrapped around her legs, face pressed into her knees, shoulders shaking with soft sobs. Like her parents, every inch of exposed skin was blue. Arthur lowered his eyes, unable to bear the sight. His daughter, only so recently a young lady. . . .

"Lizzie!" Lorina pushed past him, dropping onto the bed by her daughter's side. "Oh, Lizzie. . .my poor, sweet girl. . . ."

Lizzie lifted her head, revealing a blue face streaked with tears. "M-Mama?" she whispered. "P-Papa?"

Arthur's own vision went watery. He scrubbed at his eyes. No time for tears, not from him. His wife and daughter needed him to be strong right now. "It's us, Lizzie," he said quietly, moving toward the bed. "I know we must look a bit strange–"

"You're dead too," Lizzie interrupted, voice choked by fresh sorrow. "He got you too. . . ."

"He?" Lorina frowned. "Lizzie, what are you – your neck!"

Arthur blinked taken aback. Neck? What about Lizzie's neck? Puzzled, he peered closer. Blue like the rest of her, and unburned. . . .

But not unmarred. Five long dark blue stripes stretched along either side of his daughter's throat. They looked like bruises – bruises in the shape of fingers. Arthur gaped for a moment, then looked his eldest up and down. The rest of her looked all right – her nightgown was a bit torn around the hem and collar, and badly rumpled, and he thought he could see another bruise on her leg. . .but no blisters, he realized with a jolt. No burning, no charring. . .Lorina and I are a mess, but she's almost picture-perfect! It's like. . .it's like she died before the fire started.

Lorina appeared to be thinking along the same lines, given the look on her face. She lightly brushed the ugly stripes. "Lizzie," she whispered, "what happened?"

Lizzie looked away, chest heaving in needless breath. "I – he – h-he – I told him I didn't want to!" she suddenly screamed, throwing her head back. "I told him I'm not your bloody toy, and he – he took what he w-wanted anyway. . . ."

For the second time that – night? Morning? He supposed it didn't matter – Arthur's dead blood went chill. The pain in his daughter's voice, the sobbing that had greeted them, the state of her nightclothes and those ugly, ugly bruises – it all pointed to one man.

Angus Bumby.

Bumby was one of the horde of undergraduates Arthur and his colleagues corralled at Oxford University, having arrived a couple of years ago to study medicine and psychology. Arthur didn't know much about his family background beyond the man's father being an accountant who'd been shot when he'd argued with a young thief trying to take his wallet. Bumby claimed the incident had inspired him to seek out the poor, the wretched, and the broken, and to help them find a proper calling in their life. Privately, Arthur considered it more likely Bumby had decided the life of a doctor would get him fame, fortune, and the bodyguards to keep it. The young man wore arrogance like a badge of honor, treating the vast majority of his classmates (and even a handful of his teachers) with barely-concealed contempt. After all, he was the only one on the planet who understood how it all worked – shouldn't these pathetic idiots be grateful he was here to explain it to them? Arthur had tolerated the prat at school – for all his airs, Bumby did make good grades, and when in the presence of his social betters, he was a bastion of politeness. But there had been no occasion for them to interact outside the university's halls, a fact the dean was grateful for.

That is, until the day Bumby had caught him just outside his office and asked for an invitation to tea. It was well-known on campus that Arthur occasionally asked students (especially those with an interest in photography) around for a cup and a biscuit, and Bumby had pointed out that it was hardly fair that he'd never been invited. Arthur would have liked to have left it at "No, it isn't," and shut the door in the bounder's face, but unfortunately Bumby had been currying favor lately with an important donor to the school, and Arthur knew he'd never hear the end of it from his fellow faculty if their budgets abruptly shrank because of him. So Bumby had gotten his invitation and shown up with some other boys one fine, sunny day. And Arthur, selfishly, had begged his wife and daughter, preparing for a trip into London, to instead sit with him and make the experience more bearable. Lizzie had protested mightily – "Father, I've spent a week planning out what I want this new dress to look like! And besides, you know how I feel about those toadies" – but had bowed to her father's wishes in the end. And from the moment she walked in. . .well, even a blind, deaf, and dumb man could have guessed Bumby was smitten. The normally-loquacious student had spent the entire meal staring at Lizzie, mouth slightly open, not even touching his food. It was the first time since they'd met that Arthur had seen him let others speak without offering his own (of course superior) opinion on a subject. He'd been surprised, of course, but at the time, his main emotion had been gratefulness at the chance to have a conversation without his student being – to put it crudely – a pain in the arse. And, shamefully, he'd wondered if perhaps having a young lady to impress would inspire Bumby to improve himself. Lizzie had made it her business to hate every undergraduate entirely on principle, considering them nothing more than educated social climbers. And the boys, from freshmen to seniors, all knew it. "It's a fool's errand to court her," Terrence Caruthers had warned Bumby as they left.

"Then I am her fool," Bumby had replied, forcing Arthur to hide a snort. Yes, he'd gone to bed that night full of hope, secure in the knowledge that if he wanted even the slightest chance of capturing the elder Liddell girl's affections, Bumby would have to work very hard indeed.

If only he'd known then what he knew now. Bumby had indeed worked very hard. Unfortunately, what he'd worked very hard at was stalking Lizzie. Arthur had noticed his older daughter becoming more reserved and anxious in the days since meeting Bumby, but he'd attributed it to the knowledge that Lorina was starting to introduce her to young men outside the college, preparing her for real suitors and eventual marriage. Lizzie had always been a free spirit, and the idea of being tied down to one man and his house was probably a hard one for her to handle. He'd tried to be encouraging – "You'll be fine, Lizzie. Just give them all a fair chance." "When you meet the one you love, you'll know. It'll be just like me and your mother." "Don't be afraid! You're going to make a fine wife someday!" – but Lizzie had always either winced and looked away or changed the subject, and he'd eventually given it up as something Lorina was better suited to handle. He'd only been clued in to what was really going on the day Alice had marched into his study and demanded, with folded arms, "You have to expel Angus Bumby!"

"Oh? And why do I have to do that?" he'd replied, quite puzzled. As far as he knew, Alice's acquaintance with the undergraduate went as far as saying "hello" when she'd seen him in the foyer.

"Because he's creepy and mean!" Alice had replied, shaking her bunny to make her point. "He tried to follow Lizzie into the toilet the other day; she told me so! He won't leave her alone no matter what she does! Can't you make him go away?"

And that had led to Arthur knocking on Lizzie's door, and one of the most awkward conversations he'd ever had in his life. Lizzie was initially furious with her sister and refused to talk, but after some coaxing, she'd finally confessed that Bumby had been following her all over Oxford, and even into London. The man had apparently decided that, since he was madly in love with her, she had to feel the same and was just playing hard to get. He'd popped up almost everywhere she went, offering smarmy compliments and thoughts about how wonderful their lives together would be – including, as Alice had said, in the ladies' at Waterloo Station the day before. "I managed to call the attendant before he could try anything too untoward, but God – the way he looks at me, as if I'm his own personal – dolly, I suppose. . . ."

"Why didn't you say anything to me before?" Arthur had demanded, knee deep in indescribable horror.

Lizzie had turned her eyes down, fiddling with a ribbon on her skirt. "II wasn't sure if you would do anything about it," she'd admitted in a small voice. "You keep going on about how someone needs to 'civilize' him, and – I thought you'd volunteer me for the job."

Arthur's heart had ripped in two that very moment. How could his daughter not believe he'd protect her from such a scoundrel? How cruel and unfeeling he must have seemed with all his "encouraging" comments! He'd wrapped in her in his arms, promising her that he'd do everything in his power to keep the bastard from ever seeing her again.

The very next day, Bumby's donor friend had come to his office and said that Bumby deserved another invitation to tea, and could he be sure Elizabeth was in? Arthur had agreed to avoid a scene, but warned Lizzie to be out the moment he got home. Lizzie had gone off to visit a friend the day of the party, and Arthur had done his level best to keep Bumby in the same room as him at all times, even encouraging the man's propensity for monologuing. But it had all been for naught, sadly – Lizzie had appeared after the tea was over, begging him never to invite the scoundrel over again. And when he'd asked what had happened. . ."Oh Papa – I had to come back a little early, so I came round through the back garden – and there he was! He cornered me by the rose bushes and tried to get a hand up my skirt! A slap got me free, but. . .ugggh. Let that friend of his take all his money away – I can't go through that again!" Arthur had already decided that he was putting his foot down about any future "hints" regarding Bumby coming over his house, but that had almost made him decide to put Alice's proposal into action.

Of course, he couldn't actually expel Bumby – the scandal would have ruined all their reputations and cost him the position that allowed him to keep his family comfortable. But he'd done what he could beyond that extreme. A handful of undergraduates who shared some of his classes happily acquiesced to his plea that they form a police of sorts, keeping an eye on the bastard on-campus and making sure he didn't wander off between lectures. The maid Cassandra had been easy enough to enlist as Lizzie's chaperone – Lizzie had chafed slightly at this ("Even when I'm just going to visit a friend?"), but it had taken just one reminder of her experience in the back garden to get her to agree. Nan Sharpe also stood guard over the girls, keeping a wary eye out for rustling in the bushes and disposing of the presents Bumby occasionally left in the mailbox. And the one final time Bumby managed to wrangle himself an invitation to tea (helped this time by both his donor friend and the president of the college), Arthur had promptly given Lorina his wallet and had her treat both Lizzie and Alice to a couple days in London so they'd be well out of the way of the man. His fellow deans and teachers had joked about him being paranoid – "Boys will be boys, Arthur! He's a bit of a git, but he can't be that bad. Your daughter should appreciate having someone so devoted" – but Arthur didn't care. They hadn't seen the look in Lizzie's eyes when she'd pleaded for his help.

Bumby, naturally, had not liked the fact that he could no longer get his favorite girl alone. "She's a tease, that's what she is," Arthur had overheard him complaining to a classmate one day. "An absolutely rotten tease. All 'come hither' looks paired with cruel words. But I'll make her see sense. She can't deny me forever!" Arthur had somehow resisted the urge to march over and shake some sense into the boy. How could anyone, particularly someone studying the secrets of the human mind, be so blind as to how much a woman hated him? Lizzie wasn't the sort to tease at all – on the contrary, she was almost too open with her feelings. He'd had to ground her more than once for mouthing off to university staff. What was wrong with Bumby that he couldn't see that? Was he really that blinded by his own lusts?

Yes, yes he was, as he'd proved three days ago. Arthur had answered a knock at the door and found Bumby on his front step. "I'm here to see Elizabeth," he'd said without preamble. "Let me in."

"She's not here," Arthur had replied (which was fortunately true – she, Cassandra, Alice, and Mr. Dodgson had been taking a wander along the banks of the Isis). "And I wouldn't let you in even if she was. She's told me of the liberties you've taken with her, Master Bumby. What sort of man follows a woman into the bloody toilet?"

"A desperate man!" Bumby had cried. "A man wishing for his beloved to show him just one moment of favor! Dean Liddell, your daughter is driving me mad with her inability to just say what she feels! She loves me, I know she does! I've seen it in every little turn of her head, every sway of her hips! But she won't actually say the words! I don't see why she feels such a need to play hard to get – haven't I proven myself enough? I could give her everything she could possibly want in this life, once I obtain my degree! I will worship the ground she walks on if she'll just confess that she is mine, and has been since the moment we laid eyes on each other!" He'd held up clasped hands, eyes wide behind his glasses. "Please, sir! Just grant me an audience with her! Wouldn't you have felt the same if someone had tried to keep you from your wife?"

And that, right there, had been the last straw. "My courtship with Lorina was started with both of our consent, you bounder!" he'd shouted, backing Bumby off the step and onto the front path. "In fact, she approached me first! How dare you compare your – your sick obsession with our love! A man who truly cares about the object of his desire knows to respect her refusal! And he certainly doesn't try anything like you did in our back garden!"

"I was just–"

"Don't even dare, Angus! I thought you nothing more than a pompous boor before, but now–" He'd jabbed his finger into Bumby's chest, sending the notoriously-unsteady undergraduate sprawling on the dirt. "My daughter does not like you, Master Bumby. In fact, she loathes you more than she has ever loathed any person before. You have gained the enmity of this entire family through your rude and frankly frightening actions. I will not have you anywhere near my girls again. You are no longer welcome in this house, and if I have just one more report of you harassing my Lizzie, I don't care what your patron will do – you'll be spending the night in a jail cell!"

Bumby had gaped up at him briefly – then his eyes narrowed. "Well, that's where she gets it from, clearly," he'd grumbled, getting up and brushing the dirt off his suit. "And to think I once admired you as an educator, Dean Liddell. Good day."

And with that, he'd stalked off in a snit. Arthur had slammed the door after him and strode back to his study, aflame with righteous indignation. The nerve of that idiot. . .but at least he'd finally gotten to tell off the stuck-up prick. The women of the house had all applauded him when he'd told them about the incident over tea, and the next couple of days had been so free of trouble that he'd allowed himself to think he'd won.

Now it was clear that all he'd done was get Bumby angry enough to take what he wanted by force. He squeezed his eyes shut, losing the battle against the threatening tears. "Lizzie. . .my dear, dear girl. . .I'm so sorry. . . ."

"Oh, Papa, no," Lizzie pleaded, voice cracking. "It wasn't your fault. You did everything you could. If – if I'd only had the chance to scream when he–" She cut off, throat choked with another sob.

Lorina pulled her close, resting her head against her shoulder. "It's not your fault either, Lizzie. Who could have guessed he'd go this far?" She glanced at the burns brushing the floorboards. "He really tried to kill us all. . . ."

"Why wouldn't he?" Lizzie replied in cold tones. "He certainly didn't mind killing me when I tried to – f-fight him off. And he said right – right as–" She swallowed. "Well, he told me just how angry he was with Papa for being 'blind to love,' so. . .perhaps he thought it the perfect way to get revenge on all of us."

Arthur pressed his hand to his face. "Monster," he mumbled. "And I thought the worst he could be was arrogant and deluded. . . ." He forced himself to look at his daughter – eternally eighteen, eternally broken. "I wish I'd had him arrested the day he tried to get his hand up your dress."

"You didn't know he'd try this," Lorina said, motioning him into their embrace. Arthur gladly obeyed, though he wasn't sure how much he deserved such comfort. "None of us did."

"I didn't want to think he would," Lizzie muttered. "Especially after all the precautions Papa took." She wiped her eyes roughly. "Why couldn't he have just left you alive? He – he got what he w-wanted from me, why punish my parents and sis–"

She stopped dead, head jerking up in horror. "Oh God – Mama, where's Alice?!"

Lorina gasped, springing to her feet. "Alice! I was so worried about you that I – oh, she must be so frightened! And to – to die so young. . .Arthur, what do we tell her?"

"I don't know," Arthur confessed, scrubbing some charred hairs out of his beard. "She's a smart one, she might have already guessed. . .I'll check her room," he added, standing up. "Maybe she's hiding somewhere. That fire would have dampened even her indomitable spirit, I think." Unwillingly he pictured Alice holed up under her bed, clutching her bunny and crying as the flames slid closer and closer to her young flesh. . . Maybe it's for the best we haven't ended up in Heaven to meet God's grace. I'd have a few choice words for Him otherwise.

"I'll come with you," Lizzie said, sliding off the bed. "She'll probably want me anyway, and – ah–"

"I don't look that much like your father anymore?" Arthur deadpanned, glancing down at his burned hands.

"It's not that bad. . .but you know her imagination, Papa. I don't want her throwing cards at you thinking you're a Bandersnatch or a Jub-Jub bird or any of the others."

Arthur conceded the point with a nod. "You're – all right to see her, though?" he added, voice softening.

"It's better than staying in here," Lizzie replied, grimacing at the bed. "I don't – I – I want her as much as she wants me, I think."

Lorina put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "We'll all go together. We're a family, even – even now."

Arthur nodded. "Exactly. Come on." Bracing himself with a very unnecessary breath, he led the way to Alice's door and threw it wide.

Again, it seemed the fire hadn't been able to quite penetrate this chamber – like Lizzie's room, the main damage was to the wainscoting on the sides of the door and some bubbled varnish on the floor. Unlike Lizzie's, however, there was no crying girl to greet them on the bed. Arthur got on his knees as Lorina went to check the closet. "Alice? Little bunny, are you there?"

Nothing but empty darkness greeted him beneath the old mattress. "She's not here either," Lorina said, emerging from the forest of clothes. "She was in the hall when we were – well – maybe she's somewhere else in the house?"

Lizzie, however, was staring at something else. "Mama? Papa? Why is her window open?"

Arthur's head jerked round. Alice's window was indeed open wide, letting in what Arthur supposed would be a cold breeze if he could properly feel anything. That made absolutely no sense for early November – Alice could be a curious and confusing little thing, but she wanted to be warm at night the same as anyone else. Had she been trying to let some imaginary friend of hers in? Or – or had she –

"Save yourself, Alice! Get out of the house!"

Arthur banged his head on the bed frame as he jerked himself out from under it and ran toward the open pane. The pain was vague and far away, however – more like he remembered how it should hurt instead of it actually hurting – and he had much more important things on his mind. Such as scanning the expanse of blue-tinted snow that was their back garden for any signs of a little figure whose last act had been to fling herself free of the flames consuming their house. . . .

Lorina joined him, holding a blistered knuckle to her mouth. "Arthur, you don't really think – she would have broken her leg or neck if she'd tried jumping!"

"Maybe not in soft new snow," Arthur replied, still searching for mysterious divots or slushy footprints. "And it's a better way out than trying to get down the stairs. You know she's a clever and plucky little girl. She'd never just sit and let herself roast!"

Lizzie squeezed between them and stared hard at the cold, blank landscape. "I don't see her," she finally said, sighing.

"Neither do I," Arthur confessed, slumping. Then he straightened again as a sudden new thought made itself clear. "Although. . .considering we're dead. . .doesn't that mean–?"

"Let's check the rest of the house before we get our hopes up," Lorina said, squeezing his arm. "It would be wonderful, but – well, you remember that time she won hide-and-seek by smushing herself into the kitchen sink cupboard."

"True," Arthur nodded. "And besides, I want to know just how Bumby managed to burn down this place. It's brick – it's supposed to be impervious to just about anything!"

"Well, we didn't die by Barbary macaque, at least," Lorina said, smiling weakly. She tugged him away from the window and took Lizzie's hand. "Come along you two. Even if we're dead, it's no reason to stand around doing nothing. Not with so many mysteries to solve."

"I wish we could hire Mr. Holmes to assist us," Lizzie said as they ventured back out into the hall. "Or even Dr. Watson."

"Detective stories in the afterlife? Too bad we can't write to Mr. Doyle and suggest it," Arthur joked.

The hall was a mess of charred wood, but still stable. The same couldn't be said of the stairs, which now sported so many holes one would be forgiven for thinking they'd been constructed of Swiss cheese. The three carefully wound their way to the ground floor on what was left, linked together in a human chain. "Oh!" Lorina cried as a bit of wood crunched into ash under her foot. "Oh my. . .I suppose we really should just be grateful there's any of it left standing!"

"I know," Arthur said, clinging to the railing with his free hand. "This all should have collapsed in by now, shouldn't it? I mean, if the upstairs is this bad. . . ."

Lizzie stared thoughtfully at the ashen ceiling. "It – it's like the house died with us," she commented. "If that makes any sense at all."

"We're dead, we're in burnt-out remains of our home, and we're all blue," Arthur replied, shaking his head. "I think sense is not a common feature of the afterlife." He sighed as his feet finally touched the relatively solid landing, and helped his wife and daughter over the final gap. "Right – where to?"

"The library," Lorina said. "Alice always did find your photographs fascinating, Art – is it just me, or is that awful smell worse down here?"

"Like rotted fruit," Lizzie said, waving a hand in front of her nose. "Only now it's been thrown to roast on a bonfire."

Arthur's stomach plunged straight to his feet. "Oh no. . . ." He pulled away from Lizzie and rushed through the crumbling remains of the nearest wall.

Beyond – he wouldn't have even known it was a library if it hadn't been in the right place. The pride and joy of his home was nothing more than a scorched husk. The books had been almost uniformly reduced to a fine ash, and the furniture lay in charred heaps. The stench of his developing chemicals hung thick and heavy in the air, and here and there he could see warped glass plates and lenses. He reached down and extracted from the black crusts half a photograph of a starfish. Years and years of work, all gone. . . .

"Arthur? Oh God," Lorina said behind him, leading Lizzie through the hole. "Darling, I'm so sorry. . . ."

"He lit my equipment," Arthur said dully, letting the starfish drop from his numb fingers. "One match is all it would have taken. A few moments burning in the pan, then spreading to the papers and books. . . ." He glanced up at a dark starburst against the far wall, embedded with chunks of dripping metal. "And once it hit the gas line. . . ."

"Arthur. . . ." Lorina wrapped him in a hug from behind. "You mustn't blame yourself, dear. You could not have seen this happening."

"Oh? You did," Arthur retorted, turning around. "'We'll all roast in our beds thanks to your father's unnatural devotion to printed paper.' Remember?"

Lorina winced. "I didn't mean anything by that. I never really thought. . .I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You were right – both of you," he said, looking at Lizzie. "I should have put all this in the basement – or better yet, outside. He couldn't have caused so much damage otherwise."

"I don't know about that, Papa," Lizzie said, poking around in the fireplace. "Look at this." She pulled out the shattered remains of an oil lamp. "This is Alice's nightlight. He must have stolen it after he – he–"

"Lizzie, your hands!" Lorina cried.

Lizzie looked down to find the glass cutting into her palms. "What does it matter anymore? It doesn't hurt. . .I'm missing pain, why am I missing pain?"

"I'm not – but I do miss your touch," Arthur admitted to Lorina. "I can tell you're there, but – that's about it."

Lorina poked a burn on her hand. "So we can see and hear and smell just fine, but feeling eludes us. . .you're right, Arthur, there's not much sense in this afterlife."

"Alice is going to feel right at home," Lizzie said, dropping the lamp. It tinkled against the floor. "It's not fair. You at least should be in Heaven. They don't want to let me because I'm – impure, fine, but it's no reason to leave you out."

"Any Heaven that blames you for what he did is not one I want to be in," Arthur growled. "We'll burn together again in Hell first."

"I wouldn't actually mind I think. Anything to get those – those c-clammy hands off me. . . ." Lizzie hugged herself tightly, sniffling. "I want a bath. Is it proper for the dead to have baths?"

"If the plumbing still works, I'll draw you one, proper or not," Lorina promised, before crossing the room to pull her into another tight embrace. "Lizzie, I – oh Lizzie. . .I'm so, so sorry. . . ."

"Please, Mama, don't say that," Lizzie said, hugging back. "Don't blame yourself. You either, Papa. It just makes me feel worse." She hiccuped. "I – I didn't really lead him on, did I? Make him think–"

"No, Elizabeth," Arthur interrupted, not about to let his daughter take on any blame. "Your feelings were quite clear, believe me. How he could keep up his quest in the face of your hate. . .then again, a man who's not afraid to follow a woman into the loo in public doesn't have much in the way of observational skills." He wrapped his arms around her back. "It wasn't your fault either, Lizzie. Don't ever believe it was your fault."

"It's hard," Lizzie whispered, burying her face in Lorina's chest. "Especially seeing what he did after he – had his way with me." A shiver wracked her body. "Why wasn't it enough to hurt me? Why did he have to drag my entire family into it?" She looked up, eyes glittering with tears. "Alice is only eight years old. . . ."

Arthur sighed deeply. This was wrong. All so very, very wrong. The afterlife he'd always heard about was a place free of regret and fear. This place – well, so far it had been anything but. Wrong indeed, Mr. Dodgson. Good thing you don't know what it's really like when you write to your child friends. "I don't know, Lizzie," he murmured. "But it's too late for whys now. What happened, happened, and now all we can do is pick up the pieces and – move on. So to speak." He pulled back. "Shall we search the rest of the house?"

It didn't take long at all (if time even existed for them now) to scour the remainder of their home. Thanks to the fuel so helpfully provided in the library, the downstairs was largely gutted, with walls stripped down to the frames and furniture crumbling to dust at a touch. Only the sitting room directly beneath Lizzie's had been spared the destruction, and even that bore heavy scorch marks on the walls, and half-melted window panes. There was absolutely nowhere a scared little girl could hide. And yet. . . . "No sign of her," Arthur murmured as they returned to the foot of the stairs. "Like she's melted away into thin air."

"Maybe she did get out," Lizzie said hopefully. "She's small, and she's fast – remember when she got herself stuck up that tree on one of our rowing trips?"

"Oh yes – I take my eyes off her for just a moment, and suddenly she's clinging to a branch a good two feet above my head!" Lorina giggled. "What was it she said? 'I had to prove to Dinah I could climb as good as she could?'"

"All I know is that it took me and Mr. Dodgson to get her down – and she didn't apologize until we took away her cake at tea," Arthur said with a nostalgic grin. "Such a bold and curious creature. . .I hope you're right, Lizzie. Hang me, I had a good life, but – she deserves more."

"We ought to check the garden first," Lorina said, sobering. "We haven't seen the cats either, and while I'd love for all of them to have escaped and be picked up by a neighbor, it's possible they all just ran outside."

"Fair enough," Arthur agreed, turning toward the door. "Suppose we should go see."

Lizzie caught his arm as he grabbed the handle. "Papa – we don't know what's out there."

"Looked like Oxford from Alice's window," Arthur pointed out.

"Yes, but. . . ." Lizzie stared hard at the door. "What if Judgment's out this end, waiting for us?"

"Then we'll have to face it eventually," Arthur told her, not unkindly. "We can't spend the rest of our – lives – rotting away in here."

Lizzie looked ready to argue that point. Lorina touched her shoulder. "You want to see your sister again, don't you?"

"Actually, no, but. . . ." Lizzie swallowed and stepped back. "Just – be careful, Papa. Just in case – he didn't make it out in time either."

"If he's out there, I'll crack his skull open," Arthur promised. Then, taking a deep, steadying breath out of habit, he flung open the door and marched out.

More blue-tinted snow greeted him, covering up the well-manicured lawn he doted on in summer. The path was clear though, as was the sign they'd put up to indicate whose property this was. Arthur squinted at it. Had he really chosen such a garish shade of orange for "THE LIDDELLS?" I guess it does make it stand out. . . . He turned his gaze toward the street. Same cobbles, same hoofprints in the snow, same people coming up the sidewalk. . .how peculiar it was that their afterlife should be so much like their living one –

And then he got a better look at the group passing by on their promenade. Not people so much as what had once been people. Closest to the fence was a man missing half his face, with one eye nothing but a gaping hole and teeth exposed in a gruesome grin. Next to him was a young lady whose hands were skeletal – she too sported an empty socket, though on the opposite side from her companion. Beside her was another woman, this one missing her left arm entirely – a sad stump of bone protruded from the torn shoulder of her dress, which had a rather chewed look. And bringing up the rear was an honest-to-God skeleton with no identifying features beyond a dapper red suit. Their skin – those who still had it – was as blue as Arthur's, and their clothes were both brilliantly colored and terribly ragged. Arthur gaped at them, horrified. Good God – I didn't actually think – is that truly our fate? To watch our skin slough away and our organs fall out until we're nothing but walking piles of bones?

The skeleton-hands woman glanced over from her conversation with the half-face man and spotted the stunned dean on the front porch. "Oh, look, everyone! New arrival!"

The group stopped and regarded Arthur and his house with interest. "Looks like it was destroyed by fire," the half-faced man said, before waving. "Hello! Terribly sorry about what's happened to you, but welcome!"

"Hello," Arthur managed. New arrival? "I'm – I'm Arthur Liddell."

"Arthur – Dean Liddell!" The one-armed lady pushed her way to the front of the group, eyes wide with shock. "Goodness me, what are you doing here so soon? You should have gone quietly in your sleep. . .do you remember me at all?" she added, putting her remaining hand to her mouth.

Arthur searched the worm-eaten face. She did look oddly familiar. . .but from where. . . .

It all came back to him in a flash. The young woman down the lane, who'd lived with her father and brother and was often accused of having the rosiest cheeks in the neighborhood. Lorina's occasional tea friend and Ned Ferarrs' would-be fiancee. The unfortunate victim of a terrible carriage accident that had left without her left arm and with a burning infection. The corpse who hadn't been blue in her casket – but was very much so down here. "Katherine Winks! I never – I s-suppose it's good to see you again."

"Relatively speaking, you mean?" Miss Winks replied, chuckling. "It's all right. I was in shock too when I first arrived. You get over it quicker than you think."

"Katie Winks?" Lorina joined Arthur in the doorway and gasped. "Good Lord! But we buried you four years – um. . . ." She smiled weakly as she struggled to switch conversational gears. "How – how are you, dear?"

"Much better – although even now I still try to pick things up with the wrong arm," Miss Winks added, patting her left shoulder. "But I make do."

"Miss Winks, where on earth are we?" Arthur asked, figuring someone who'd been dead four years would have to know. "This isn't Heaven or Hell, is it?"

Miss Winks shook her head and gave him a bright grin. "Welcome to the Land of the Dead."

Chapter Text

November 6th, 1863

Oxford, England, Land of the Dead

6:43 A.M.

"So – why is the afterlife so much like – life?"

"I'm afraid that's a question a bit beyond my understanding, Dean Liddell," Miss Winks said, her remaining hand resting on her lap as she perched on the loveseat. "None of us know why it's here – just that it is." She chewed the remains of her lip thoughtfully. "I suppose it could be termed a sort of Purgatory? Though there's no punishment of misdeeds."

"Well, no outside punishment, that is," her half-faced friend, whom she'd introduced as Dennis Trigger, put in from the chair next to her. "No God or Devil that I've seen yet. Just angry people ready to see justice done. The bastards who come Down don't tend to last long."

"Glad to hear it," Lizzie muttered from the middle of the sofa, squeezed between Lorina and Arthur. She and her mother were dressed now – the moment she'd heard Miss Winks and company offer to come in and explain, she'd darted (well, half-darted, half-crawled) up the stairs, declaring that no man was ever going to see her in her nightgown ever again. Lorina had followed, saying, "Well, it is only polite to be in real clothes if we're going to have company, right?" Which was reasonable enough, but Arthur suspected her true motive had been to make sure their daughter wasn't going to break down in another crying fit – after all, a fellow who'd lost all his flesh had no real reason to object to someone greeting them in their night things. He'd stayed downstairs, shaking hands and learning names until the girls were ready, then leading the way into the only useable room in the house. Frankly, he'd been a bit surprised Lizzie had come back – after what had just happened to her, one could hardly blame her for sequestering herself in her room until the strangers had gone away. But while she'd clung to Lorina's arm while introductions were made, and kept shooting suspicious looks at Mr. Trigger and his skeletal friend Carlton Prince, it seemed her curiosity over their new situation had temporarily overwhelmed her fears. Either that or she's determined to keep things as normal as possible to keep the pain away. . . . He patted her shoulder, and was rewarded with a shaky smile. That's my girl.

"So am I – but is all of Oxford down here?" Lorina added, absently biting a finger. "Do we still have our neighbors on either side? Is that cafe still two streets away?"

"Is the university down here?" Arthur put in. What a thought – to be dead and still able to go to work!

"Most everything Upstairs has a counterpart down here," Miss Winks nodded. "Though they don't always look the same. I don't know who was in charge of the colors, but they've got a love of sickly green and dark purple."

"And bright blue, as you can well see," her companion Molly Gipe put in, bone hands clacking against each other. "Sometimes even people's hair will turn blue."

"Happened to me before it fell out," Mr. Prince put in jovially. "I was a pretty pale blond in life, so we think that might have something to do with it."

"Fell out. . . ." Lorina tugged experimentally at her own locks. "I can't believe we're actually going to rot away."

"It doesn't hurt," Mr. Trigger assured her, smiling. "You get used to it after a while. And you needn't let it happen any faster than you want. I could pick you up a few bottles of No-Rot this afternoon – sort of a house-warming present."

"No-Rot?" Arthur echoed, deciding not to mention that their house was quite warm enough, thank you.

"Potion that keeps the bugs out and your skin on. Old Lady Gumption's got a knack for making it. It doesn't work forever, and nature eventually wins no matter how much you drink, but it'll keep you fairly fresh for a good dozen years, if you dose yourself regularly."

"Potion? You mean like magic?" Lizzie said disbelievingly. "But that's not–" She stopped and looked down at her blue hands. "What am I talking about? I'm dead, and yet I'm entertaining people. In the burnt-out remains of my old house. If that's not magic, what is?"

"There's quite a lot you find out about the world after you've died," Mr. Prince said, chuckling. "And that's coming from an investigative reporter."

"It won't damn your soul or anything like that," Miss Winks told them. "Honestly, most of the magic I've seen is just – helpful. There's a cleaning spell where you just rub a few flakes of soap on something and just like that, it's sparkling."

"Oh, Cassandra and her friends would have loved that. . . ." Lorina dipped her head. "I wonder what's going to become of them. I'm glad they were out of the house, but. . . ."

"I'm afraid we can't really worry about that any more, my dear," Arthur admitted. "I know at least Nan Sharpe will land on her feet. She's always been a survivor. And there's always a call for maids and kitchen staff. They'll be all right. What worries me more is–" He swallowed and turned to their guests. "You haven't seen our youngest running around, have you?"

"Alice, you mean? No, I can't say I have. . .little girl, dark brown hair, big green eyes?" Miss Winks asked her companions.

"In her nightgown and clutching a toy rabbit," Lorina added. "And likely followed by a black cat and two kittens – one black, one white."

"How old?" Mr. Prince asked, leaning forward. "Younger than five, they don't tend to stay around long – and I've never seen anyone under two years old."

"She's eight – but what do you mean, you've never seen anyone under two?" Lorina demanded. "Don't babies have the right to an afterlife as well?"

"Oh, I'm sure they do – they just don't end up in this one," Miss Winks hurried to reassure her, waving her hand. "The reason I compared this place to Purgatory is because we know there's something else waiting for us too. People don't stay here forever. Some look as though they have, but eventually everyone either goes Up–" she pointed at the ceiling, then turned her finger toward the floor. "–or Down."

Lizzie frowned at the scorched rug. "So there is a Heaven and Hell?"

"We suppose – none of us have seen it happen in person yet, but we've heard plenty of stories."

"Mmmmm – and going Up sounds a lot more pleasant," Mr. Prince said. "Tinkly music and flowers as opposed to being dragged away by some horrid beast."

"Well, some people deserve the latter," Arthur said, thinking of a bearded smirk and shiny glasses. "But that does explain the lack of young children – you don't have much of an opportunity to sin at only a few years old."

"So Alice could have moved on already," Lorina murmured, eyes on the ceiling.

"Your Alice? Oh no – from what I remember, she'd want to have a good look-round into every nook and cranny before she even thought of Heaven," Miss Winks giggled. "We'll keep an eye out, but if she's not with you, chances are she's still alive."

Arthur's heart leapt. "Thank God! So she probably got out the window after all!"

"Which means she's in hospital, poor dear," Lorina said, squeezing her hands together. "I hope they've let her keep her rabbit. She won't go anywhere without it."

"I don't see why they wouldn't. . .what about the cats?" Lizzie asked. "We haven't seen them either. Which I know doesn't mean much when it comes to cats, but. . . ."

"If they've passed on, they'll turn up – animals seem as welcome as people Downstairs," Mr. Trigger assured her. "My childhood puppy was leaping all over me before I'd been here five minutes."

"Really. . . ." Arthur made a mental note to visit his parents' place and see if poor little Puff the cat was still patrolling for mice in the yard. "And after I'd been told all my life animals didn't have souls."

"Quite glad to be proven wrong myself on that one," Mr. Prince nodded. "Life – or whatever you call it down here – wouldn't be the same without my trusty chestnut Charger. Though he lost the chestnut part long ago."

"Right. . .what is it you do here, then?" Lorina inquired. "I mean – do you just pick up where you left off?"

"If you like," Miss Gipe nodded. "It's what most of us do. I spend most of my time making quilts and embroidering samplers." She grinned and wiggled her bony digits. "It got a lot easier when I couldn't prick my fingers anymore."

"I make my own little paper," Mr. Prince said proudly. "Takes a while to copy out, but I've got nothing but time. I'll have to do a piece on your arrival – what happened, by the by?"

Lizzie arched an eyebrow. "It's not obvious?"

"Well, yes, of course there was a fire, but do you know the cause? Accident?" He leaned forward again, eye sockets seeming to glint. "Or murder?"

"The latter, sadly, and you needn't sound so happy about it," Arthur scolded, frowning. "One of my students – he broke in and threw Alice's nightlight into the fireplace in the library. Between that, my photography equipment, and the gas line. . . ."

"Goodness, were you that unfair a dean?" Miss Winks joked, then winced as Arthur nailed her with a glare. "I'm sorry – you get used to making light of death after a few years Below."

"Well, we've been here only a few hours, so if you could mind your manners, it would be appreciated," Arthur said coldly.

"There's something I've been wondering – we can see and hear and smell just fine, but feeling seems to elude us," Lorina said, turning the conversation before it could become too unpleasant. "I would think it has something to do with rot, but – well, Mr. Prince, you seem able to hear us just fine, at least."

"I can see you too," Mr. Prince confirmed. "Decay doesn't seem to affect seeing or hearing at all. Some people still use glasses or carry ear trumpets, but I don't know if they actually need them or if it's just habit."

"It's another one of those 'we don't know the why, but we do know the how' questions," Miss Winks admitted. "Sight and hearing are fine throughout your stay down here. Taste and smell – only the strongest of either affects your tongue and nose. You can eat, if you like, but you're only going to taste it if you let it – sit, for a while."

Lizzie screwed up her face. "I don't think I could ever eat rotted food."

"Suit yourself, you don't have to. . .but there is a certain pleasure in it," Miss Winks said, smiling. "And learning new recipes does help pass the time. I know more about cookery now than I ever did while I was alive." She coughed and turned serious again. "As for feeling – well, that one's more or less denied us. You can tell if someone squeezes your arm, but beyond that. . . ."

"You do usually get a final half-hour to properly feel things before it all goes numb," Miss Gipe put in, then eyed the blisters and burns splattered all over Lorina and Arthur's skin. "Though I would guess that doesn't quite apply in your case."

"We were probably unconscious for it anyway," Arthur admitted, flexing his toasted fingers. "It wasn't the fire so much as the smoke that got us in the end. By the time I woke up I was already feeling pretty leathery."

"Again, you'll get used to it with time," Miss Winks assured him. "I was a mess when I first came down here, but now. . .now it's almost just like home. I'm happy enough with the life I've made. I do wish I could see my father and brother again, but. . .that's magic beyond any we know." She swallowed, fiddling with a wrinkle in her skirt. "And – how's Ned?"

The Liddells exchanged an awkward look. "He's – he got married last July," Arthur reluctantly admitted. "Funnily enough, to another Catherine – hers is just spelt with a C."

To his surprise, Miss Winks smiled – a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. "Well, it's good to know he didn't mope around about me for four years. I wanted him to move on with his life. It's much too precious to waste in constant mourning."

"He does still have that lock of hair you gave him," Lizzie said softly. "On his watch fob in a little glass case. And I think he still goes and leaves flowers at your grave. He hasn't forgotten you."

Miss Winks ducked her head, misty-eyed. "I wish I could have said a proper goodbye. To him and my family. If that infection hadn't burned the sense right out of my head before it took my life. . . ." She sighed. "Maybe that's why I'm still down here. I don't want to leave before seeing them all again."

"I think we're all waiting for someone or something," Miss Gipe commented. "I wouldn't feel comfortable seeing Heaven without my sister and niece by my side."

"Waiting for my wife and son," Mr. Trigger nodded. "It wouldn't be Heaven without them."

"I'm just not ready to give up the search for that next big story," Mr. Prince confessed with a laugh. "I guess eventually I'll get bored, but so far, this world's plenty Heaven enough for me."

Arthur looked over at Lorina and Lizzie, then turned his gaze to the ceiling. "I think we know exactly what's going to keep us here," he said. "Until I get word that Alice really did make it out in one piece, I'm not going anywhere."

"I don't blame you," Miss Winks said. "Littlemore Infirmary is down here too, and – well, sadly, people regularly pop up there. We'll let you know if anyone comes in with any information about Alice." She smiled encouragingly. "She's a hardy little creature, from what I remember. She'll bounce back."

"I hope so," Lorina murmured. "It's going to be a hard life for her as an orphan. Do you think the Hargreaves might take her in? She – well, she sort of likes their son. . . ."

"When he's not being a little snot, you mean?" Lizzie inquired, tone deeply sarcastic. "I'm half-hoping they won't. Alice doesn't deserve to be stuck with someone who calls her names and teases her and won't let her have a moment's peace!"

Arthur started at the sheer venom in his daughter's voice – as did their guests. Lizzie noticed and caught hold of herself. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I just want the best for her. And it's not being t-trapped with some boy who has no sense and already tried to hit – I'm sorry, excuse me. . . ."

She got up and fled the room. Mr. Trigger watched her go, then looked over at Arthur. "That student of yours. . . ."

"Rejected suitor, yes – but I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention that in your paper," Arthur added to Mr. Prince. "It's a very sensitive subject with her."

"That's more obvious than the fire," Mr. Prince said with a serious nod. "I'll keep it vague. Arson will be more than enough for anyone down here." He tilted his head, and somehow the change in light made it look like his permanent grin was more of a smirk. "Once that edition goes out, you're probably going to be flooded with sympathy gifts."

"I – suppose that's nice. . . ." Lorina shook her head. "Oh, it's going to take me years to get used to all of this."

"You'll be fine," Miss Winks assured her, reaching across to pat her arm. "This Land is very nice once you get your head around it. You can do as you like, so long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. And, uh, doesn't involve having children. Unless you adopt, I guess. . . ."

"Let your imagination run wild," Mr. Prince counseled, pulling his head back to let his teeth catch the light. "You're already dead – what else could possibly happen to you?"

"That's a tempting fate question if I ever heard one," Arthur said, smiling back. "We'll think about it. Right now, I think we all need a bit of time to process it all. But thank you for coming in and telling us what you know."

"Our pleasure," Miss Winks said, standing and presenting her remaining arm. "And feel free to call on any of us if you need help."

"I'll be back with the No-Rot later," Mr. Trigger promised as Arthur shook hands with their leader.

"Very kind of you – and if you could show us a preliminary copy of your paper before you start distributing it, I'd appreciate that too," Arthur added as Mr. Prince stood.

"Of course," Mr. Prince nodded. He adjusted his tie. "And don't worry overmuch about your Alice. Children are pretty tough, in my experience. And if she does pass on, at least you'll be here to welcome her. Your whole family, together again."

Arthur thought of his miracle girl breathing her last in some cold hospital room, then waking up to her blue-faced father – or worse, a stranger with his or her flesh withering away – and shuddered. "Yes, well – do forgive me for saying that I hope my family remains split for a long, long time."

That put a definite end to the conversation. After a few last goodbyes, the coterie headed off again. Arthur took a moment to make sure they were safely on their way, then shut the front door and leaned against it. Well. . .now we've got some idea of what's going on. I think. At least we can be reasonably sure Alice is alive. . .but – at what cost? Lorina's right, it would be all too easy to break something leaping from her window. . .what if she escaped only to spend the rest of her life propped up in a wheelchair, needing someone to feed and bathe her? She'd probably be wishing for death then. . .but wouldn't it be worse to die so young? To be trapped in a child's body for – for however long it took to rot away? We nearly didn't even have her, and now she's the only one left. . .how could God possibly be so unfair?

A faint pressure on his shoulder alerted him to his wife's presence. "Are you all right?"

"My head's still in a whirl," Arthur confessed, staring at the wood. "Everything's changed so fast. . .it's hard to believe just a few hours ago we were having dinner together, planning out our summer trip to Brighton. . .and I was going to take Alice to Hyde Park and send her down the slide too. She's going to be so disappointed."

"I doubt she's going to be in any condition to play on slides for a while anyway," Lorina sighed. "We – we really should just be grateful for what we have. We're together, at any rate. The Good Lord didn't separate us. We have our house, and our things. And Miss Winks and her friends were so kind. . .better we know what's happened than not, right?" She swallowed. "And – one of us got out. We have to focus on that. Alice got a chance to escape. And our deaths. . .I – I guess they were fairly quick."

"Lorina, you know that's a damn lie," Arthur said, finally turning. "We choked on toxic smoke trying to save our daughters – one of which was already past saving. And do you think Bumby would let his 'tease' go quickly and quietly? No, he wanted to draw out as much suffering from us as possible. I can be grateful that Alice made it out, but there's nothing good about the way we perished. My only hope is that the lunatic spends the rest of his life locked up in a jail cell."

"Too good for him – I want him to meet the hangman as soon as possible," Lorina growled, clenching her fists.

"And have him down here? No thank you!"

Arthur and Lorina looked up to find Lizzie at the top of the stairs. "I'm with Father – let him wither slowly under Bow Street or the like," she continued venomously. "Far away from any other girl who might catch his eye."

"Hear hear," Arthur nodded, approaching the bottom step. "How are you, Lizzie?"

A little of the fire went out of her. "Still wanting that bath," she confessed, rubbing her arms. "I'm sorry for running out like that. I just – I couldn't stop myself picturing what happened to me – and having Mr. Prince and Mr. Trigger so close did not help," she added with a shudder. "Especially with how eager Mr. Prince was to hear our story. . .can you imagine what he'd do if he knew how I'd died?"

"We won't let his newsletter ruin your afterlife," Arthur promised. Oh, like you said you wouldn't let Bumby near her again? a voice said in the back of his head, but he ignored it. "I'm proud of you for staying as long as you did."

"So am I," Lorina said, pulling herself up over the hole in the second step. "Come on, let's see about that bath. If we're going to stay here, we may as well make sure the plumbing still works."

It did, though the water that gushed out of the tub's tap in their master bathroom was a disturbing shade of green. Lizzie didn't seem to mind though, holding her hand under the spray. "I can't even tell if it's hot or cold."

"It's the hot tap, so. . .do you want any help undressing?" Lorina asked.

Lizzie shook her head. "I can manage. I won't fall apart if I'm alone, Mother." One side of her mouth quirked up. "Figuratively or literally."

Arthur couldn't help a chuckle. "Well, just call us if you need anything," he said, taking his wife's hand and pulling her to her feet. He squeezed her fingers just to remind himself she was there. This numbness was distressing if you thought about it too much.

Lizzie nodded. "I will. I won't be long."

"Take all the time you need, dear." Lorina watched as their daughter shut the door behind them. "Oh Arthur," she whispered, leaning her head against his shoulder. "I can't – how long do you think it'll be before she's herself again? That monster took so much. . . ."

"It'll take some time," Arthur murmured. "But she's strong, and a fighter. She already made quite the effort with our guests today. She won't let him destroy her."

Lorina nodded, slipping her arm around him. "At least she has us," she said. "Although I wish that weren't the case." She winced. "Er, well – I think you know what I mean."

"I do," Arthur assured her, feeling another pang as he imagined the trips Lizzie would never go on, the husband she'd never have, the children she'd never raise. The grandchildren he'd never meet. "It shouldn't have ended like this for us. It shouldn't end like this for anyone."

"No, it shouldn't," Lorina agreed. "And hopefully it won't for Alice."

"Hopefully," Arthur nodded, his thoughts turning to his little girl lingering in a hospital bed, just barely clinging to life. "But she's a fighter too. She'll do her best to pull through. I just hope the world up there treats her right." He smiled sadly down at his wife. "And as for us down here. . .we'll make the best of things. Like you said – we've got each other. That'll have to be enough."


"Mmmmmm. . . ."

Lizzie let out a deep sigh as she slipped into the tub. God, it felt good to have a hot bath. Figuratively speaking, of course – according to her skin, she might as well have been sitting in an empty tub with her clothes still on. But she had her memories of soaking on long Sunday afternoons, letting all the grime and stress of the week wash away, and those were filling in the blanks of her senses quite nicely. Besides, she was almost grateful to be numb.

It meant she couldn't feel the bruises anymore.

She shuddered as she fingered the dark blue stripes stretching across her throat. She'd been trying her best not think about the last hour or so of her life, but it seemed the slightest hint could bring it all rushing back. The way Mr. Prince's skull had gleamed in the lamplight, so eerily like his glasses. . .the memory of Alice's fight with Reginald Hargreaves, so much like how she'd scratched at his flesh. . .and now the sight of her own naked legs before her, dragging her back to her darkened room, stirring from uneasy dreams to find him already on top of her. . . . "Well, if you want it this way, Elizabeth, I suppose I must oblige you. . .stop struggling, damn it! I'm trying to – ow! Lie still! . . .oh yes, oh yes, oh yesssssss. . .you wretched tease, you know you wanted it! I'll silence you for good if you don't stop fighting!" And she hadn't stopped, couldn't stop –

So he'd silenced her.

She couldn't feel the tears streaming down her cheeks, but she knew they were there. He'd broken into her home – her home. Home had always been her refuge, even if the monster had wrangled invitations to tea and cornered her once in the back garden. Because Papa was there and he always looked after her. When he'd told them so proudly of Bumby's visit and how he'd given the bounder a piece of his mind, she'd been thrilled. Oh, she hadn't really believed it would discourage Bumby for long, but she'd hoped for maybe a week's worth of peace while the bastard licked his wounds. Instead she'd gotten pain and degradation, and a last memory of a scowling face above her and clammy hands locked around her neck. And it hadn't been enough for him to kill her – oh no, the rest of the Liddells had to go too. . .when she'd seen her mother and father at the door, more cinders than flesh, the guilt had been almost more than she could bear. If only she'd woken earlier, if only she'd fought harder, if only she'd screamed louder. . . .

Her only consolation was that Alice had somehow escaped in time. And that was poor comfort indeed. It was only too likely that she'd join them down here soon enough. And even if she didn't, what kind of life now awaited the last Liddell outside the infirmary doors? Their grandparents had already passed on, and Mama and Papa were completely lacking in siblings. Would she be shunted off into some orphanage like the kind Dickens wrote about? Or maybe thrown into early service for some cruel old crone? She pictured her baby sister, with the big green eyes and bright smile and boundless imagination, sipping thin gruel from a bowl and scrubbing floors, her spirit crushed and broken. And even if by some miracle she was adopted by a nice family, there was still the little matter of her growing up surrounded by strangers after seeing everything and everyone she loved most burn. . . .

It was too much. It was all too, too much. Lizzie plunged her head under the water, desperate to get away from the world for a while. She held her breath on automatic, then realized she was being silly and let the air go, watching the bubbles float up to the surface and pop. No burning in her lungs, no coldness in her limbs. . .she could stay down here as long as she liked. Good.

She curled up into a little ball on the bottom of the tub, pressing her forehead against her knees. The worst part of all this was, now she was expected to just go on like nothing had happened! What sort of mad afterlife was this, where you simply went on with the business of living even as you decayed into walking bone? She'd been expecting – brilliant light, a golden gate, fluffy clouds with cherubs. She would have even taken the fiery pits of Hell – at least she knew where she stood then! But no, for her crimes against smarmy, forward, disgusting undergraduates, she was trapped in a world so much like the one she'd left that it made her want to scream. How could she put up with the same dull routines and social idiocy she'd endured while alive? How could she live in this house, eat her meals, drink her tea, and not constantly wonder if – if above he'd be caught, and then – she wanted him to suffer, she wanted justice, but if it came with his presence down here, to haunt her for eternity –

What if more people came calling, wanting to welcome the "new arrivals?" What if her parents made friends – male friends? She twitched as she thought of Mr. Trigger and Mr. Prince. They'd been nothing but pleasant during their visit, but who knew what they were capable of behind closed doors? What sort of depravities could they visit on her if they decided to –

The skeleton is going to visit horrors unknown upon you, Lizzie, she scolded herself. And judging by the state of his face, Mr. Trigger's – trigger dropped off long ago. You are acting like the protagonist of a Gothic novel. Next thing you know, you'll be running around in diaphanous nightgowns and using words like "verily."

There's other men who aren't so rotted, though. And they more or less said that the utter bastards come down here as well as the good, judging by that "no outside punishment of misdeeds" comment. Mr. Prince was practically leering when he asked if you'd been murdered. . .maybe I could just spend the rest of my afterlife in my room. Lock the door for once and just – read.

That's letting him win, and you know it. They are not all out to get you. And if someone is, well, you know how to handle them now. Besides, you really want to spend the rest of your afterlife in the bed he took you in? She shook her head, disgusted at her cowardice. Mama and Papa will do their best, but – if you're going to get anywhere in this life or the next, you'd best learn how to let go. The worst has happened. It can only be uphill from here.

Her internal voice was confident, but the rest of Lizzie wasn't. The memory of her violation was simply too fresh. She ran her fingers over her belly and thighs, both splotched with dark blue-purple, and shivered. If only she could let go of him forcing himself onto her, into her. . . . The one good thing about being dead – at least I know for sure I can't get pregnant with the bastard's child.

She had no idea how long she stayed down there, letting the water shield her from the rest of the world. Time was impossible to track when you had neither breath nor heartbeat to separate the seconds. Eventually, though, she managed to uncurl herself and poke her head back up above the surface. Appealing as the idea was, she couldn't stay in the bath forever. Her parents would worry, for a start, and she'd already caused them enough pain. Better to put on a brave face and make the best of things. Besides, wrinkling is the least of my worries now if I stay in the tub too long, she thought, anxiously examining her skin. Sloughing off sounds much more likely. Maybe it would be better though. . .maybe if I weren't so pretty. . .stop it! For God's sake, you're a corpse! Who would want you now?

"Hello, new arrival!"

Lizzie screamed, slamming herself against the side of the tub. What the – who was that?! She whipped her head in almost a full circle as she searched high and low for the intruder, covering herself as best she could with her arms. How could they have gotten in, especially without my noticing?! Then again, I thought my room was perfectly safe too. . . .

"Lizzie?" Her father's voice thundered through the door, worried with an undercurrent of anger. "Lizzie, are you all right?"

"I – I–" Her eyes fell on a large green worm inching along the tub's rim. Ugh, just what she needed, creepy-crawlies on top of everything else. "I t-thought I heard someone–"

"Yes, and no need to shriek like that," the worm said, lifting its head to reveal big black eyes and a pair of plump purple lips. "I was only saying hello."

Lizzie gaped. Had – had that just – had the worm actually – "Lizzie?" her father repeated, tone more anxious by the second.

"The worms down here talk," she reported, unable to take her eyes off the creature. It stared back at her, wrapping its tail around itself so it could "sit" properly. Jane and Carol would have killed to have such a full pout. . . . "You think Miss Winks would have mentioned that before leaving."

"She ought to have, yes," the worm agreed. "Whoever she is. Anyway, I was rather hoping to get a nibble."

"A nib–"

Realization hit, and with it a wave of nausea. "Oh," Lizzie groaned, shivering. "You're not a worm. You're a maggot. It's all right, Papa," she added, glancing toward the door. "I can deal with this."

"You're sure?"

"It's only a maggot. One smack with the scrub brush should put paid to it." Keeping one arm across her chest – those eyes were too human for her to risk uncovering herself – she began feeling around the edge of the tub. Come on, Mother always leaves it in the same spot. . . .

"Here now, there's no call for that!" the maggot protested, squirming away. "Not like I can hurt you, miss!"

"You just asked if you could eat me!" Lizzie pointed out, locating the brush. She swung it roughly in the maggot's direction like an old bristly sword. "Not to mention you're bothering me while I'm in the tub!"

"A lot of us don't ask!" the maggot replied, ducking as the tip of the brush sailed over his head. "They just burrow in, figuring no one will notice. I figure manners is a better way not to get yanked out and flung away or crushed later on. Or ejected by that No-Rot Potion," he added, pulling a face. "Not a fun way to leave a nice cozy hunk of flesh."

"Says you," Lizzie said, scowling. "This is my body. I'd like to keep it in one piece, if you don't mind. And I don't want anything entering me without my permission." Ever, ever again.

"It's going to come apart anyway," the maggot told her, inching a bit closer. Lizzie swiped at him again with the brush. "Easy! Look, even those potions don't work forever. You're going to have bits of yourself fall off no matter what you do. You might as well let someone put them to good use."

"Yes, I'm sure the Land of the Living will deeply appreciate me helping to make new flies," Lizzie said, pouring on as much sarcasm as possible. "How do you talk, anyway?"

The maggot oscillated its body in a way that suggested a shrug. "Haven't the slightest. I think it's got something to do with you lot being dead – certainly can't talk to living people. Never paid it much mind. All I'm interested in is a quick taste of your flesh."

"Why me?" Lizzie demanded. "And keep your eyes above the neck!"

"Because you're fresh! Fresh dead always tastes better," the maggot said, far too cheerfully for Lizzie's liking. "And you don't look as – crunchy – as the people downstairs."

"Those are my parents, and you will treat them with respect," Lizzie snapped, smacking the side of the tub for emphasis. "They died trying to help me and my sister escape a house fire. It's not their fault they're 'crunchy,' as you put it."

"Sheesh, you lot are always so sensitive about how you kicked the bucket," the maggot complained. "What happened to you, then? You don't look burnt."

"That's none of your–" Lizzie started, then reconsidered. Mr. Prince was writing an article about their arrival – it was certain that people would notice the difference between her state and her poor mother and father's. And then. . .oh, she didn't want anyone to know her shame beyond Mama and Papa, but she had to be ready with something. . . . "Strangled beforehand," she admitted, stirring the water with a finger. "Killed for – for refusing the attentions of a suitor." Something dripped into the water beneath her, and she reached up to wipe away the fresh tears. "Then he threw my sister's nightlight into the library to burn the house down and cover up the crime. We think my sister may have gotten out, but. . . ."

"Oooh. . .I'm sorry," the maggot said, and he actually sounded as if he meant it. "Does sound like a bad way to go."

"It was," Lizzie said, stomach twisted in a heavy knot. "God, if I could only–"

She stopped. Slowly, her other hand creeped up and touched the dark stripes on her throat again. Then she dropped her brush and extended a finger to the maggot. "You know what? Maybe we can come to a temporary agreement."

"Knew you'd see sense," the maggot said, grinning as he squirmed on.

"Temporary," Lizzie repeated, not wanting the creature to get the wrong idea. "And only certain bits, mind. I want to keep looking like me for as long as possible."

"Fair enough." He wrapped himself around her finger and looked at her upside-down. "Where do you want me then?"

"You can start here," Lizzie said, putting him on her shoulder and tapping the side of her neck. "Darker blue bits first, please. And then we'll talk about – other areas."

"All right then." The maggot pressed itself up against the bruise and started nibbling. Lizzie pulled the plug on the tub and watched the water drain away, sitting as still as possible so he could get on with things. She still wanted to get some of that No-Rot Potion in her as soon as possible. Even blue, battered, and slowly decaying, she liked her body and wanted to keep it. And the idea of something chewing on her still gave her the creeps.

But not as much as the idea of that bastard's marks marring her flesh for most of eternity.

Chapter Text

November 5th, 1864

Oxford, England, Land of the Dead

4:09 P.M.

"All right – who here can believe it's been a year since we died?"

Lizzie looked up from her biscuit, blinking. "What – really?"

"According to that calendar Miss Gipe worked up for us, anyway," Arthur said, sitting down across from her. "And I'm willing to trust that it's at least mostly accurate." He leaned on his hand. "November 5th, 1864. I wonder what's going on up there. Do you think any of the faculty still spares a thought for me?"

"I'm sure they do, Arthur," Lorina told him, sipping her tea. "You were a popular dean. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if you had a commemorative portrait hanging somewhere in the halls." She glanced up at the flaking ceiling. "I wonder who's bought our house by this point."

"Who's knocked it down and replaced it with something better, you mean," Lizzie corrected, nibbling her biscuit. The stony bread crunched under her teeth, but didn't offer much in the way of flavor. I must not have let the dough sit for long enough. Damn numbed taste buds. "The Ferrars were looking for a new house when we passed, weren't they? I can't imagine anyone would just let the place rot."

"I hope not – I poured a lot of time and effort into that back garden," Arthur declared. "I'd quite like Ned to keep the place up. Boy was studying botany in school, after all." He sighed. "I've missed the latest graduation. I was already thinking about my speech."

Lorina patted his hand. "We've all missed quite a lot. I was looking forward to Mrs. Foglio's start-of-summer garden party. One of the highlights of the season, in my opinion. And then there was our trip to Brighton, and the latest ball held by Lady Vandermeer, and–"

"Alice's birthday."

Silence landed on them like a heavy cannonball. "I never thought I'd miss one of those," Lizzie continued, running her thumb along the end of her biscuit and sending crumbs cascading onto the carpet. "The day before – before the fire, she hopped into my lap and told me that it was exactly halfway to her birthday, and that I owed her a half-birthday present."

"Oh dear – are those like unbirthday presents?" Lorina giggled. "Remember when she got that idea in her head? It took a week for us to convince her that on this side of the Looking Glass, no one was going to give her a gift every day until her birthday."

"She did confess to me she thought she'd have better luck with half-birthdays," Lizzie said, snickering along. "She walked off in a snit when I told her I didn't have anything. 'What's the point of being eight-and-a-half exactly if no one wants to acknowledge it?'"

Arthur laughed and shook his head. "How did we end up with a daughter like that?"

"Pure luck," Lorina told him, setting her teacup down. "And I'm so grateful for it." Her smile faded as she looked into the depths of her green tea. "I wonder what sort of birthday she had this spring. Should – should we check for new arrivals again at Littlemore?"

"I suppose we ought, though I don't know if they'll be able to tell us anything," Arthur said, rubbing the back of his head. "Only two so far have been from Alice's particular ward, and they both said the same – she's wrapped up as silent and still as an Egyptian mummy."

"She's still alive, at least," Lizzie murmured.

Lorina hummed her agreement. "I just hope Mr. Radcliffe is looking after her like he ought to. Sometimes, when you were discussing your will with him, I thought he seemed more interested in who you were giving that Chinese vase of yours to than anything else."

"Oh, I promised that to him long ago just to stop him salivating over it," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "I'm not even sure it's genuine Chinese, but if he wants it so badly, he's welcome to it. But he does know his business – I'm sure he's keeping what remains of our estate in proper trust for Alice. And whoever her new guardian might be."

"I'm still hoping its the Hargreaves," Lorina said. "Don't make that face, Lizzie – Reginald can be a perfectly nice boy."

"He can also be a perfectly mean one," Lizzie replied, eyes narrowed. "I haven't forgotten the incident with the flowers. Or that time he thought it would be funny to throw rocks at poor Dinah. Alice nearly knocked one of his teeth out for that, and I almost didn't stop her! Why she even considered calling him her 'paramour' is beyond me. He's a rotten excuse for a human being and he ought to–"

SNAP!

Everyone looked down at the two halves of a biscuit now resting in Lizzie's lap. "Yes, we probably shouldn't have brought up boys today," Arthur said quietly.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Lizzie rushed to say, dropping the ruined biscuit onto her plate and brushing off her skirt. "It's been a year, and I haven't – I talk to Mr. Trigger sometimes, don't I? And Mr. Prince?"

"Only when one of us is with you, and then you never say more than 'hello how are you' or 'thank you for the latest paper,'" Lorina pointed out. "Don't think you have to defend yourself, dear. We understand."

Lizzie shook her head. "You don't – not fully. But I wouldn't want you to." She touched the heavily-gnawed sides of her neck, letting the tips of her fingers brush against the exposed spine. "I wonder how he's doing. Do – do you think some other poor girl's turned his head?"

"I hope not," Arthur growled. "If there's any justice in the world, he's already been made the sweetheart of a few halfwit bruisers in prison."

"One hopes. . .but I confess, I'm worried by the fact that he isn't Downstairs," Lorina admitted, picking up her cup again and swirling her tea. "Arson is a serious crime, and – and what happened to Lizzie even more so. I know all of us are glad not to have to look upon his face, but. . .do you think that means. . . ."

"The police in Oxford aren't stupid," Arthur argued. "And there were enough reports of his behavior to set them on the right path. Perhaps they don't have any definite proof, but I imagine there's enough circumstantial evidence to keep him away from polite society."

"Unless his patron's used his thousands of pounds to bail him out," Lizzie muttered. "I wish we'd been able to find more that just that one broadsheet of the Illustrated talking about the fire."

"So do I," Arthur admitted. "It's terrible, being so cut off. But perhaps we'll get lucky today."

Rap-rap-rap!

Lorina jumped, her tea sloshing over her hand. "Ah! Oh goodness. . .now who's that?"

"I don't know – Miss Winks and friends come to wish us a happy anniversary?" Arthur said, rising. "We probably should see them today – they were incredibly helpful when we first arrived."

"Maybe we can all have dinner together tonight," Lorina said. "If it is one of them, ask if they're free for about eight." She glanced over at Lizzie as Arthur headed for the front door. "If you're all right with that."

"So long as I can sit next to Miss Winks or Miss Gipe and you, I'll be fine," Lizzie promised her.

"You sure about that?"

Lizzie blinked, then reached into the flesh of her shoulder and pulled out the maggot. "I don't see why you would care," she said, holding him carefully by the tail. "You get to eat either way."

"Yeah, but I know you were up pretty late last night," M (as Lizzie had agreed to call him) replied, swaying from side to side. "And you kept looking at your window like you expected it to bust open."

Lorina bit her finger. "Oh Lizzie. . .nightmares again?"

"They come and go," Lizzie admitted, putting M on her lap. "Some nights are worse than others. . .helps that I don't have to sleep anymore, at least. I had no idea you'd noticed," she added to the maggot. "I thought you were – busy."

"I'm working on it," M told her, tapping her thigh with his tail. "But too much from the same place gets boring after a while. You know, it'd go faster if you'd stop glugging down No-Rot every other month. Or at least let a few of my pals in to help clean up when you're not."

"I told you – I want to keep looking like me as long as possible. And I can just about stand having you nibbling away, especially – in the current area," she said, with an awkward look at her mother. Lorina promptly pretended to be absorbed in cleaning up her spilled tea. "More is – well, it's not an option."

"Eh, suit yourself." M grinned. "Can't say I mind having the whole smorgasbord to myself, even if I gotta burrow in somewhere else every other month."

"And I do appreciate the work you've done," Lizzie said, touching her neck again. No hint of dark blue remaining – even if it meant you could see her bones, she was much happier like this.

"Oh, thank you Mr. Prince! I'll catch up with you later!"

Arthur rushed back into the room, clutching a wad of paper, face alight with anxious hope. "Lorina, Lizzie – someone's just come down who knows Alice!"

Both women sat up straight. "Who?" Lizzie demanded.

"Susan Ashby! Mr. Prince just came by to deliver his paper, and he told me to read the new arrivals page. . . ." Arthur paged through the little pamphlet. "Here we are – 'Susan Ellen Ashby, 29, the late wife of Donald Ashby. Cause of death: Influenza. Arrived here early this morning in Littlemore Infirmary.' And when I asked him if she'd been on Alice's ward, he said she'd told him she'd been a mere two beds away!"

"Oh, Arthur!" Lorina sprang from her seat and hugged him. "That's wonder – well, not wonderful, but at least now we'll have a proper update on her! Though. . .she's really been in hospital an entire year?"

"If she's burned bad enough to warrant display in a history museum, I'm not surprised," Arthur admitted. "But it's better than the alternative, right? Mr. Prince said he'd asked her to meet us at the Mouldering Grin Café at five so we could speak."

Lizzie looked up at the little mantel clock. "Four-thirty one now – we ought to leave right away!"

"Definitely," Arthur agreed. "Come along, my darlings – and keep your fingers crossed it's good news!"

"There's a way for Mr. Prince to get into your good books," M commented with a grin as Lizzie plucked him off her lap.

"I'll give you that it does make me feel rather more favorably to him," Lizzie agreed, putting him back by his hole in her shoulder. "But if you start making marriage jokes, I'll see just how far a glass of No-Rot can send you across the room."

"Hey, I have some manners!" M smirked. "Always chew my food twenty times."

"Just get back in there before I give you a bath in Mama's teacup."


The Moldering Grin Café wasn't far from the Liddell home – during her first venture out of the house Below, Lizzie had recognized it as the Underworld equivalent of a coffee shop she and her friends had liked to visit. Being as it was tea time, the little restaurant was quite busy, with waitresses darting to and fro delivering cups filled with toxic green liquid, sandwiches that sported half-rotted cucumbers, and the occasional actual lady's finger. The Liddells slipped into the nearest empty booth. "Can I get you anything?" one of the older waitresses asked, hurrying over with pen at the ready.

"I wouldn't mind a cucumber sandwich," Lorina admitted.

"Cup of Earl Grey, if you've got it," Arthur ordered.

"Nothing for me, thanks," Lizzie said with a little wave. Her stomach – whatever was left of it – was too knotted up in anticipation for food. Finally, finally, real news about her sister. . .of course, the old cliché declared that no news was good news, and they'd already had some vague reports that Alice was not in a good way. But I'd rather know for certain she was suffering rather than let my imagination fill in the blanks. It's far, far too good at that.

The requested dishes were brought out, and the elder Liddells were about halfway through sandwich and tea respectively when the door opened again. Lizzie looked up to see a woman come in, sporting bright blue hair (someone was a very light blonde while alive) and a hospital gown. Lizzie promptly stood up and waved. "Mrs. Ashby?"

The woman turned, then waved back. "Ah – you must be the Liddells," she said, weaving her way through the tables. Arthur stood up and offered her his seat. "Thank you. . .it's – good to meet you."

"For a given value of such, you mean?" Lorina asked with a small smirk. "Yes, we feel the same. My name's Lorina, and this is my husband Arthur and my daughter Lizzie."

"Pleasure to make your acquaintance," Lizzie said, holding out her hand.

"Likewise," Mrs. Ashby nodded, shaking it. She leaned forward slightly, examining her through squinted eyes. "You look amazingly like your sister, I must say. Older, of course, and different eyes, but that's really about it."

"Yes, it's a curious coincidence," Lorina agreed, putting her arm around Lizzie's shoulders. "Didn't you once joke that you were twins born ten years apart?"

"That was one of Alice's, actually," Lizzie said, biting her lip. "Along with threatening that one day she'd be older than me and could make me do what she wanted. . . ." She clasped her hands on the table. "Please, Mrs. Ashby, how is she? I understand it's probably rude to pester you so soon after your death–"

"It's all right – my demise was awful and lingering, and I'm glad to have something to take my mind off it," Mrs. Ashby assured her. She sighed and dropped her gaze to the tablecloth. "I just wish I had better news to give all of you."

The Liddells exchanged anxious glances. "So Alice isn't doing well?" Arthur asked, biting his lip.

"She's barely doing at all, from what I understand," Mrs. Ashby said, shaking her head at a passing waitress who'd held up her pad.

Lizzie frowned. "What's that supposed to mean? We already know that she was terribly burned. . . ."

"It's more than just that – the poor child's gone 'catatonic,' according to the doctors. From what I can tell, that means staring at the ceiling all day and not responding to anyone who passes. The nurses told me she used to scream sometimes at night, but she stopped doing that shortly before I came in. Now she's as still and silent as the–" Mrs. Ashby stopped and considered her surroundings. "Those sayings don't really work anymore once you come down here, do they?"

"Not at all," Arthur confirmed, sighing. "Oh, my poor bunny. . .do they at least think she'll heal?"

"Actually, yes – I overheard a doctor say that she's recovering with remarkable speed, even for her young age," Mrs. Ashby nodded. "He thought she'd lose the use of her hands, but now he thinks she might get away with just a few nasty scars on her shoulder and legs."

"Well, that's good, at least," Arthur said, smiling. "She was always a fast healer. I think I could count on one hand the number of times she was sick."

"I remember one time, when she was attending her day school, she came home upset because everyone in the class had a cold except her," Lorina chuckled. "She actually wanted to get ill so she wouldn't feel left out!"

Mrs. Ashby giggled along. "She sounds like such a darling. . .it's really a shame what happened to her. What happened to all of you. Dying from the flu was horrible, but a fire?"

"It wasn't nice," Lizzie murmured, staring at the floor and resisting the urge to rub her neck again.

"I'm sure it wasn't. What a terrible, terrible accident."

The temperature in the café dropped a few degrees. Lizzie lifted her head slowly, back stiff and eyes smoldering. "Accident?"

Mrs. Ashby drew back. "Didn't – didn't you die when your cat knocked over a lamp in the library?"

"No!" Lizzie slammed her hand on the table, making the plates and cups jump. "That bastard Angus Bumby broke in and threw Alice's nightlight into the library fireplace to punish all of us for my refusing him! Dinah had nothing to do with it!"

"Didn't the police suspect foul play?" Arthur added, leaning toward the unfortunate Mrs. Ashby. "Surely there were enough reports of Bumby harassing Lizzie before our demise!"

"Ah–" Mrs. Ashby's eyes darted left and right. "Actually, f-from what I remember of the papers. . .for a brief time they were blaming Alice. Mr. Radcliffe said something about how she was the sort to play with matches. . .but then Dr. Bumby stepped in and said that the cat was more likely–"

"Dr. Bumby?!" A few other tables glanced over at them, but Lizzie was beyond noticing. "He – he actually passed his exams?!"

"Radcliffe led the charge against my daughter?" Arthur growled, eyes burning with fury. "That – he was seriously going to put a child in prison?!"

"Nobody thought she'd meant it!" Mrs. Ashby cried, waving her hands frantically before her. "It was just an accident. . .please, I can only tell you what I read in the Illustrated and heard on the ward. . . ."

"We're not angry at you," Lorina said, touching both Arthur and Lizzie's arms in an attempt to calm them. "It's just – this is about the exact opposite of what we wanted."

"Wish I could go up there and smash that bloody vase over his head," Arthur grumbled to himself. "Dear Lord. . .and all that scandal surrounding poor Alice! God, I hope there's a family out there still willing to adopt her!"

A terrible silence followed. "I – I don't think she'll have to worry about that for a while," Mrs. Ashby said in a timid voice.

The Liddells stared at her. "Why not?" Lizzie finally asked, gripping the edge of the table for support.

"They – they were making plans to move Alice when the fever finally broke me. . . ."

"Another hospital?" Arthur asked.

"Sort of. . . ." Mrs. Ashby gulped down a steadying breath. "They're taking her to Rutledge Asylum."

Again a horrible hush fell over them. "She's – she's eight!" Lizzie finally got out, voice shrill.

"Nine," Lorina corrected, her own voice trembling. "You just mentioned her birthday. . .you can't be serious, Mrs. Ashby. Rutledge?"

"You can't send a child to an insane asylum!" Arthur protested, slapping the table for emphasis.

"That's what I said when they took away my brother Richard when he was eleven," Mrs. Ashby replied with a deep sigh. "He went straight to Bethlem Royal Hospital. Turns out they had a special children's ward – as does Rutledge. And Richard – the fits he was throwing. . .he needed the help. I know the treatments sometimes sound – extreme–"

"Barbaric is more like it," Lizzie spat. "I know electricity is coming into fashion as a cure-all, but I have my doubts. And leeches – ugh! Leave them in the rivers, please!"

"They helped Richard, though! He was released when he was fourteen, and now he serves as clerk to a milliner! He's quieter than he was, but he's happy! Or, well. . . ." Mrs. Ashby drew anxious circles on the tablecloth. "I hope he is. Oh dear, if my death causes a relapse. . . ."

"We are very sorry about your brother's troubles – we wish him only the best," Lorina said, grasping Mrs. Ashby's wrist. "But Alice – she's not having fits. She's just grieving. There's no need for this extreme, is there?"

"I don't know. I can only tell you what I heard from the doctors," Mrs. Ashby replied, sighing. "She's really not responding to anything, Mrs. Liddell. She doesn't even cry out when they change her bandages. Dr. Craft said that it was no use keeping her there if they couldn't stir her, and that people who'd actually studied the human mind should have more luck."

"They're probably just tired of her taking up a bed," Lizzie muttered, digging her nails into the table. How could this all be happening? Her tormentor slipping through the police's fingers like a snake, her agonizing death blamed on the family cat, her sister suffering in hospital, on the verge of being committed. . . . "What about Nan Sharpe? Hasn't she come to see Alice? Can't she lend a hand to her former charge?"

"She's come to visit, of course, but she's quite hard up for money from what I gathered from her conversation with the nurses," Mrs. Ashby said, drawing more circles. "Something about needing to support her sister. . . ."

"Ah yes – and the brood of nieces and nephews," Arthur nodded, sighing. "The loss of her position with us must have hit her harder than I thought. But she's always been so good at landing on her feet. . . ."

"She mentioned something about spending time with Mr. Radcliffe, so perhaps he's helping her out," Mrs. Ashby offered up.

"Like how he helped Alice?" Lizzie said, voice dripping poison. "Maybe he's giving her money in exchange for – favors." God, she could feel those slimy, awful hands all over her again. . .it took an effort of will not to grab her father's teacup and dump the contents over her head. "We had other friends, though. . .what about the Johnsons, or the Wrights? Or the Ferrars? Or – God, even the Hargreaves? Maybe having that prat Reginald nearby would snap Alice out of it."

"Ned and Cathy Ferrars, you mean? They moved shortly after the fire," Mrs. Ashby reported. "As for the others. . .well, I never saw them in the hospital. Just Ms. Sharpe and Mr. Radcliffe."

"Bloody fair-weather friends," Arthur snarled. "I thought I was liked around the university."

Lorina twisted her fingers together. "Oh, my dear, dear child. . .left practically all alone. . . ." A tear slid down the length of her nose and dripped onto the table. "You don't think. . .if she wakes up. . .she'll – try to – join us?"

"She'd never," Lizzie said, tone final. "Alice would never. My sister–" Her voice broke, and she dropped her head. "My sister. . . ."

Mrs. Ashby fidgeted in her seat, eyes flicking toward the door in anticipation of her escape. "I – I am sorry to have to tell you all this," she whispered. "I don't mean to cause you pain, I really don't. Mr. Prince simply said you were desperate for information on Alice."

"Please, it's not your fault," Lorina rushed to reassure her. "None of this – we don't blame you. We understand you're merely the messenger. It's just – this isn't what we wanted to happen. This wasn't what was supposed to happen."

"Our being dead wasn't supposed to happen," Lizzie muttered, glaring at the tabletop. "But it happened all the same. Why not ruin the lives of the entire Liddell family?"

"Like I said, the doctors are optimistic about her body's recovery," Mrs. Ashby said, trying a smile. "Perhaps the same is true of her mind. Rutledge doesn't have the same reputation as Bethlem. Maybe she just needs a month or two there to pull through."

"A year in hospital isn't enough?" Lizzie rubbed her eyes. "Then again, maybe it wouldn't have been enough for me either, if I'd been the one who'd lived. . . ."

"None of us would have taken being the only survivor well," Arthur agreed. "They probably would have sent me to Rutledge long before this. But we all know how tough Alice is. She'll pull through. Hopefully by this time next year, she'll already have started rebuilding her life."

"Exactly," Mrs. Ashby agreed, nodding. "Things may seem dark now, but I'm sure she'll soon be warm and safe in the arms of another family who loves her just as much as you did." She stood, brushing the wrinkles from her gown. "I really should be going – I've been meaning to track down my parents ever since I got here, and I've been informed I could reunite with my bird Hartford too. Plus I desperately want some new clothes."

"Don't let us keep you," Arthur said, nodding back at her. "Only natural to want to find your loved ones. And – welcome to the Land of the Dead, for what's it worth."

"Our apologies for not being the best company on your arrival," Lorina added.

"Please, think nothing of it. If only I could have given you better tidings. . . ." Mrs. Ashby sighed. "But it's only been a year. Please, remember that if nothing else. The future can hold many surprises. I thought my brother might be hopeless too."

With that, she left, weaving her way around a waitress laden with drinks. Lizzie pressed a hand to her face. "What a way to spend our first anniversary below. . . ."

"I think we'll have to rescind that dinner invitation, if you remembered to give it," Lorina agreed, leaning heavily on her elbow. "I'm no longer in any mood for company."

"Mr. Prince shoved the paper in my face almost the moment he opened the door – we're safe," Arthur told her. "Unless they come by of their own volition, but they should understand us wanting to be alone."

"I want to find an unoccupied grave and pretend to be proper dead for a while," Lizzie muttered. "Corpses shouldn't have to think about their sisters in hospital, on their way to bedlam, or their – their murderers laughing their way into private practice. Dr. Bumby. . . ."

"His old friend likely made a few significant contributions to ensure his favorite student's grades," Arthur said, voice dripping with contempt. "He's no dunce, I'll give him that, but I know quite a few teachers who would have probably failed him out of spite otherwise."

"I wish they had anyway. How many more lives is he going to ruin now? He's creepy and judgmental and never listens and acts like everyone should bow down before him and – and – God help any pretty girl who comes into his o-office. . . ."

Lorina gathered her tight against her side. "Shhh. It's all right, dear."

"No it's not!" Lizzie snapped. "It's never going to be all right! He got away with it. That was supposed to be one of our comforts, him rotting in jail, and now. . .now to know they almost blamed Alice. . . ." Tears began flooding down Lizzie's cheeks. "Why didn't I fight him off? Why wasn't I strong enough to shove him away and run for the door? If I'd known what he was planning. . .maybe – m-maybe I should have just lain there and t-taken it. We see all the good my struggling did."

"Lizzie, don't talk like that," Arthur said, laying a hand on her shoulder. "It's not your fault. Your mother and I – don't ever think you should have submitted. What he did to you was a crime beyond reason."

"You did everything you could, dear," Lorina agreed. "His sins are on him and him alone. And when he does end up down here, with everyone aware that he murdered us. . .how long do you think he's going to stay in one piece?"

"Me and mine wouldn't mind chewing him to the bone," M's voice came from somewhere around belly level. "And I heard there's an old wolf round these parts that can snap a man's femur clean in two. See how well he 'charms' the ladies after a run-in with that."

Lizzie sighed, wiping her eyes. "I appreciate the sentiments, really. . .but the way things are going, he's going to have had a full, rich life by the time he dies. Even if he ends up gnawed to pieces, he'll still be able to lord that over us. Still be able to say he got everything he wanted, including me." She scratched her nails down the remains of her neck. "It's not fair."

"No, it isn't," Lorina agreed, leaning her head against Lizzie's. "Really, it's things like this that make you wonder if there is a God."

Arthur blinked, then waved a hand around the cafe. "I would have considered this Exhibit A regarding His existence."

"If He exists, He probably gave up on humanity long ago," Lizzie muttered. "I would have." She dried the last of her tears on her sleeve. "Let's just go home. It's too loud here, and frankly I could use another bath."

"Of course, dear." Lorina signaled for the check. "You can go wait outside, if you like – we'll be there in a minute."

"Thanks." Lizzie gave her a quick squeeze, then headed for the door, ignoring any questioning looks sent her way. "What on earth did we do to deserve this. . . ."

"Got me," M replied, wriggling just under her dress. "But hey – you've made a pretty good time of it down here, haven't you? I mean, yeah, you read a lot, but I saw you sneak that clay pipe when your folks weren't looking." He found a hole in the waist hem and popped his head out. "They say living well is the best revenge."

"That requires you to do actual living," Lizzie retorted. "Preferably in front of the person who's wronged you." A faint smile tugged at her lips. "And I don't think the clay pipe incident is the best example of 'living well.' Discovering I could still choke on smoke wasn't fun at all."

M shrugged in his usual oscillating way. "Still. . .at least your sister's away from him. She's still got a shot at a normal life. Maybe she can live well for the lot of you."

"Oh, we can only hope." Lizzie twiddled with her fingers a moment, then looked back down at M. "I do appreciate your offer from before, though. It was very kind of you."

"Hey, least I can do for such a steady and ample meal!"

"Ample? That had better not have been a crack about my weight!" Lizzie said, smirking.

"You want me to call you lean and stringy?" M wiggled back through the hole. "Look, I know it really hasn't been much of one, but – happy anniversary anyway. Glad I got to know you. And hopefully next year you'll get some actual good news."

"I won't hold my breath," Lizzie replied, glancing upward. Then she touched her chest. "Well – I wouldn't if I had any. But I suppose I can at least keep my fingers crossed."

The door opened again behind her, and Lorina and Arthur appeared on either side. "Ready to go home, dear?"

Lizzie nodded, doing her best not to think of the bastard – or her sister's imminent arrival in Rutledge. Please, please get her out of there fast. Some justice must prevail. And please, please, please make sure he doesn't get a position there! "Let's go."

 

Chapter Text

November 12th, 1865

London, England, Land of the Dead

1:46 P.M.

"So – um – we're absolutely certain we want to do this?"

"We paid the cab to take us here, didn't we?" Arthur replied, glancing at his wife. "Would be rather silly to turn around and leave now after getting this far."

"I know, but–" Lorina nibbled the side of her finger. "Do you really want to go inside?"

"No. . .but then, no one does, if they have any sense at all."

"Hence why they only accept people who have no sense," Lizzie mumbled, wrapping her hand around the rusted metal of the gate. Unlike the majority of the Land of the Dead, this particular location seemed to revel in gloom and despair. Past the flaking iron was a yard of dead grass and root-like trees, their branches slumped in misery. A cobbled path cut the flora neatly in twain, weed-strewn and spotted with ankle-twisting divots. At the end of it was a blood-red door, old and scratched up, hanging slightly ajar. And surrounding said door was easily the most intimidating building Lizzie had ever seen in her life – dark, weather-beaten brick stretching up to the sky in a pair of small turrets, then spreading out right and left in two long wings, topped on their innermost points with stone crosses. The effect was that of a large bat, preparing to swoop down on them and rip open their necks to feast on their life fluid. Which I suppose is appropriate, given the name and one of the favored treatments, Lizzie thought, turning her gaze to the arch that curved over the gate, topped with the visage of some demonic creature. Rutledge Asylum. Of all the places I thought I'd visit either in life or in death, this horrible spot never made the list.

Lorina gave her a look. "That's hardly kind, Lizzie. The mentally ill are deserving of our sympathy, not our scorn."

"You're the one who doesn't want to go inside," Lizzie reminded her.

Lorina fidgeted, managing to give the appearance of blushing without actually changing color. "Well. . .you can be sympathetic to someone and still not want to be on the wrong end of one of their fits," she murmured. "Besides, I – I really don't – what if she is one of the residents here?"

"Then we take her home," Arthur declared, voice brooking no argument. "I don't care what might be wrong with her mind. Being with family will be better than being trapped here with strangers."

"Amen to that," Lizzie agreed. "Even the Illustrated believes this place to be vile, and no place to keep a child."

"Yes, but the Illustrated also likes to exaggerate everything they print at least a thousandfold in order to keep their numbers up," Lorina replied. "There was a reason I always told you girls to take whatever you might see in it with a heaping spoonful of salt."

"Be that as it may, we have independent proof that they're right in reporting Alice's incarceration here," Arthur reminded her. "And it's not like we have much luck in getting any other news from Above. The Times and its ilk don't seem to be used to wrap things or fuel fireplaces as much as the Illustrated. We can only work with what we have – and what we have is. . . ." He pulled a rather crunchy broadsheet from his pocket and unfolded it with care. "'Alice Liddell remains hidden behind the walls of Rutledge Asylum. Despite this reporter's best efforts, no update on her condition can be confirmed. All that we know for sure is that dear Miss Liddell has defied all the gloomiest predictions for her future in the grave. Plucky child! Dr. Wilson remains mum on his treatment plans, but given the asylum's recent purchase of a new trepanation device, the coming year appears grim for our favorite orphan. We will continue our efforts to ferret out the truth, and give all our eager and compassionate readers an update as soon as we are able.'" He looked back up. "At least they seem to like her."

"Of course they do – she's circulation gold," Lizzie said cynically. "But I do wish they'd managed to drag a few answers out of this 'Dr. Wilson.' A year in hospital and a year in bedlam, and she's still likely doing nothing but staring at the ceiling? It's – can either of you imagine Alice doing that?"

"Only if she were making a game of being a statue or something," Lorina admitted. "And even then, I wouldn't expect her to be able to keep it up for more than two minutes before she got bored." She swallowed. "But we must remember – she's not the Alice we used to know. My own child, like a stranger to me. . . ."

"Hopefully not for long," Arthur said, eyes fixed on the front door. "We're here for answers, and I don't intend to leave before I get some." He pushed open the gate, sending a horrible SCHRREEEEEEEKKKKK through the dead air. "Let's go, my darlings. Remember – the worst has passed. Nothing can hurt us here."

Lizzie bit her lip as the windows beneath the turrets seemed to glare at them. "I want that in writing."

They crossed the path in a tight huddle, and made it through the red door without incident. A twisty hallway greeted them, with dirty white wallpaper peeling off and revealing a layer of termite-chewed wood beneath. "Do you think it looks this bad Upstairs?" Lorina asked as they navigated the bends. "I know these places always seem to be a bit hard up for funds, but really."

"I doubt it – otherwise they'd never get a new patient," Arthur said, poking the wall curiously. His finger squished right through the mushy beams. "But I would feel more at ease if the place was cleaner."

"Mad people don't care much about hygiene, I think," Lizzie admitted, pushing open the door to the waiting room. A small array of couches and chairs in the same dirty white greeted them, along with a wormhole-ridden front desk. She crossed to the latter and peered over it. "Either that or everyone who dies here immediately makes a run for it. I would. Hullo?"

No answer. "There must be someone here," Arthur argued. "Some ill-fated doctor or nurse who actually cared about the place while they were alive. . . ." He weaved around the couches, leading his wife by the hand. "I mean, wasn't Rutledge named after some–" sproing! "–ONE!"

He jumped backward as an overstressed spring finally snapped its tether and burst through a nearby cushion. After a moment's staring, he laughed awkwardly. "A-all right, maybe I'm a little more on edge than I cared to admit."

"We all are," Lorina reassured him, rubbing his shoulder. "In and out, all right? Just as soon as we're sure Alice hasn't secretly slipped Downstairs, we can leave."

"Right." Arthur opened the door to the next hallway and waved Lizzie over. "Stay close, everyone."

They hadn't gone more than a dozen steps when the hall sharply forked, spreading right and left in a T-shape. "Do you think it matters which wing we start with?" Arthur asked, glancing over his shoulder.

"Well, I assume ladies are on one side, men on the other," Lorina said, pointing randomly. "Of course, I don't know which is which. . .and Mrs. Ashby mentioned her brother being on a special ward. Maybe children are kept in another place altogether."

"Let's start right," Lizzie suggested. "It's how you're supposed to go in mazes, and if it's the wrong side, there's nothing stopping us from turning around and trying the other."

"Good thinking," Arthur said, following the right fork. A pair of thick metal double doors loomed before them, with a badly-painted sign nailed above reading "Ward One." "And we can't leave any stone unturned if we're going to – ugh!"

Arthur pushed open the left-hand door a fraction, then reeled away, letting it swing closed. "God, the smell! It's worse than my photography chemicals!"

"Arthur, don't exaggerate," Lorina scolded, taking the lead. "I'm sure it's not – guh!" She cupped her hand over what was left of her nose. "Dear Lord – didn't they ever empty the bedpans?!"

Lizzie poked her head forward, and just as quickly pulled it back as the stench hit her dead on. "Ooooh. . .we should have brought masks! What were they doing in there?"

"Not cleaning, that's for sure," Arthur muttered. He sucked in a steadying breath, then promptly gagged. "Nope, nope, makes it worse. . .should have thought of that. . . ." He coughed out the offending scent. "Come on. We'll shoot through quick as hares, and then hope that was the worst of it."

Lorina and Lizzie both nodded. Arthur shoved open the doors, and the three dashed through the ward. The smell wasn't the room's only horror, Lizzie noted as they ran. The rows and rows of beds were all uniformly filthy, and many sported stains that could only have been blood, feces, or urine. There were similar splashes of crusty brown-red and dried deep yellow on the checked tiles, and the ceiling was home to a family of roaches. "Barbaric," she growled.

"Says you!" called one of the roaches. Lizzie shot it a rude hand sign.

The smell lingered once they were out the doors at the other end, but fortunately lessened in intensity. The group gratefully turned the bend. Yet another hallway greeted them, but this one was a bit thinner than its predecessors, and lined with heavy doors. Each had a barred window set into it, as if encouraging visitors to peek inside. "Reminds me more of gaol than a hospital. . .I guess we'll just check each in turn," Arthur shrugged, then pointed across the cracking floor. "I'll do this side, you and Lizzie do that side."

"Right." The three slid slowly up the hall, peeping in each cell in turn. Dented metal-framed beds and chipped china basins greeted their eyes, most not in any better shape than the ones they'd just seen in the ward. Lizzie growled softly as she found one with heavy metal loops screwed into the plaster, rusted shackles hanging over the sagging mattress. "Are they prisoners or patients?"

"This one seems a smidgen more humane," Lorina said, beckoning her over to see a cell covered floor to ceiling in white padding. Bits of fluff were poking out from the rotting cloth. "Though I would have given them a window too."

"There's some on this side, but they don't offer much of a view," Arthur reported. "Is there anyone actually in yours?"

"Not a one." Lorina gave the door of the padded cell an experimental tug. It creaked open painfully, scraping against the abused tiles. "I'm starting to think you're right, Lizzie – they wake up here and immediately mount their escape."

"There's still a lot of building to check," Arthur said, though he didn't sound particularly confident. "Keep a move on, my dears."

The hallway split in twain again after the last pair of cells – one side leading to a set of stairs, the other to another pair of double doors. Lizzie wrinkled her nose as she read the sign above the latter. "'Bloodletting.' Ugh. I hope leeches don't talk down here."

"You and M ended up getting on fine," Lorina pointed out as Arthur went to investigate the stairs. "I swear he was rather sad to say goodbye once he finished his – ah – duties."

"I suppose. . .but I never liked to think about what he was actually doing," Lizzie confessed, absently rubbing the outside of her thigh. "And leeches. . .well, they just look like they'd be nasty. If I must have something clinging to my flesh, I'd rather it be good-tempered."

Arthur reappeared at the top of the steps. "It's a door to the yard," he reported. "Ill-kept and ugly, but there's a big tree in the corner Alice probably would have liked. . . ." His lip quivered, and he bit down on it. "We'll investigate it later. Right now, I think our only way forward is through Bloodletting."

"That's what I feared." Lizzie glared at the doors, then squared her shoulders. "Through and over with, then." Taking the lead, she marched into the room.

It wasn't quite as bad as Ward One, she'd give it that. At least there were no urine stains this time, and the smell wasn't attacking her nose so viciously. But the bed in the middle of the room was stained heavily with reddish-brown, and little sticky pools of it lingered on the tiles beneath. And even that was a better sight than the shelves set up around the room, slowly falling into ruin thanks to mold and woodworm. Glass jars filled all those that hadn't fallen, and round and round in them swam. . . . Lizzie shuddered. How anyone can think these are good for the mad I will never understand. Not wanting to linger in this particular slice of Hell any longer than she had to, she hurried across to the doors on the other side.

Another hallway, the twin of the one they had just left, greeted her. She stepped forward and peered in the nearest cell. Nothing again but dust and shadows –

"Well, whaddya we have here?"

She wasn't even sure she had blood anymore, but nevertheless, it turned to ice. Very slowly, Lizzie turned to see a figure at the other end of the hall. "Looks like a lady," it continued, grinning at her in the flickering light. "Pop your strait-waistcoat already?"

He was nothing like Bumby, Lizzie could see that much. While the undergraduate had been all lean, sharp angles, this fellow – an orderly, she guessed from his costume – was all soft, doughy curves. His face was almost perfectly round, like a bun that had been left to rise a little too long, and his hands consisted of pudgy stumps welded onto a thick wad of meat. His eyes were sunken, and his teeth big flat squares – but she knew that smile. That was the smile that had followed her all over Oxford, that had driven a hand up her skirt in the back garden, that had reveled in the final destruction of her innocence – and now it was coming for her once more, and the fact that M had ensured no man would ever find her satisfactory again meant nothing at all in the face of that goddamn grin –

Her hands, realizing her brain was seizing up, took action. They latched around the handle of a nearby cart, laden with bedpans and blankets, and sent it flying toward the fat man. It hit him square in the middle, knocking him back a few paces. He recovered quickly, his natural padding giving him an edge even beyond death's removal of pain – but by then Lizzie's feet had gotten in on the action too, and she was already sprinting back the way she'd come. Her mother yelped as she nearly bowled her over, but she was beyond hearing, beyond seeing, beyond anything but the animal instinct to get away and hide. Through the Bloodletting room again, ignoring the curious thrashing of the leeches – across the split in the hall – up the stairs her father had so recently climbed – out the door he'd said was there –

And then old, dry grass crunched beneath her boots. Lizzie headed straight for the fence, not slowing down a jot. She slammed into the old iron, clinging like a monkey to the bars, ready to climb to safety and disappear into parts unknown. Where no man could ever look at her, or touch her, or – or. . . .

And it would never do any good. She slid to the ground, curling up into a ball as the tears started. Two years. Two bloody years, and the feel of his hands was still fresh against her skin. It didn't matter how much she bathed, or how much she let rot or get chewed away. He'd always be there. Always reminding her she was broken and disgusting and too pretty for her own good. Always flashing her, from a million different faces, that awful, awful grin.

"Goodness me – what happened? You don't look as if you belong here."

Lizzie's head jerked up. Standing over her was a woman, deep blue with black, scraggly hair hanging limply around her face and pale brown eyes. She was dressed in a shapeless gray sack of a gown with no shoes – the uniform of a patient, Lizzie guessed. But the stranger's gaze was clear and sharp. "Just visiting," she muttered, turning away. She wasn't much in the mood for company.

"By the look of things, you got visited," the woman commented, not taking the hint. "It was Earl in there, wasn't it? He's more bark than bite."

"Bark is very good enough, thank you," Lizzie snapped, curling up tighter. "I was hoping to have escaped from all that."

"He only needs one lesson before he leaves you alone," the woman said knowledgeably. "What did you do to him?"

". . .Ran a cart into him, if you must know."

"I slammed a bedpan over his head." Lizzie had to look up at that. "He wore it for a week before he finally managed to wrench it off that overstuffed head of his. Only wish I could have had one last pee into it in the bargain." The woman offered her hand. "Ariel Donovan."

Well, maybe she didn't want to be alone that much after all. You had to respect a woman who knew how to wield a bedpan. Lizzie accepted it, wiggling around to face her properly. "Lizzie Liddell."

"Lizzie!"

The door burst open, and Arthur and Lorina struggled through, slamming into each other in their haste to get outside and reach their daughter. "Lizzie, darling, are you all right?" Lorina demanded, finally winning the battle.

"I'm – I'm fine," Lizzie said, wiping her eyes. Now that she'd had a moment in the fresh air, she was starting to feel a little silly. This "Earl" hadn't even touched her – hadn't even come close to her! It was just. . .that smile. . . . "I – I panicked. I'm sorry."

"'Panicked' is an understatement – you nearly sent the both of us flying just now," Arthur said, sitting down next to her. "What did that bounder say to you?"

"Just something about 'popping my strait-waistcoat. . .'" Lizzie took a shaky breath. "I'll be all right. I just – God, I hope we don't run into any of his friends."

"Oh no, he's the only one left," Miss Donovan reported, leaning up against the fence. "Mr. Chatterwall told me – right before he walked out the door – that all the other staff gets out just as soon as they can. Nobody wants to stay in this awful place except Earl. I heard a rumor he was born here, so I guess it's as close as he can get to home."

"I have a hard time imagining anyone having a child in a place like that," Lorina confessed, looking back at the asylum with its dark wings spread.

"I – think I saw five babies born in there before that fever claimed me," Miss Donovan said, twirling a lock of ragged hair round a bony finger. "I'm sorry, I – you may have guessed I wasn't a nurse."

"It was fairly obvious," Arthur admitted, nodding at her gown. "But you sound as if you've made a full recovery."

Miss Donovan grinned. "One of the nicer bits of dying – opening my eyes here and suddenly realizing that there was nothing watching me from the wallpaper and never had been. Except perhaps the occasional rat. It's a wonder to think clearly after five years of being convinced monsters in the ceiling were going to devour me unless I kept them calm."

"I'm sure it is," Lorina nodded. "Five years in bedlam, though. . .I am sorry."

"It is what it is," Miss Donovan said philosophically. "I'm only waiting around here until we have a few new arrivals, and after I tell them about Earl and what I know of the Land, I'm off. I missed out on a lot when I was alive, and I intend to make up the difference while I still have all my flesh."

"I don't blame you. . .though I'm hoping you might be able to help us first," Arthur said, stroking the remains of his beard thoughtfully. "How long have you been dead, Miss. . . ?"

"Donovan," Lizzie provided.

"Ariel will do," Miss Donovan said. "And I'm afraid I'm not sure. . .I don't think it's more than half a year, though. Mr. Chatterwall looked much like this when he left, and he'd only been deceased seven months or so. . . ." She contemplated her hands briefly. "Suppose I should just be grateful I'm holding up so well. But why do you want to know?"

"Because – because it's the first anniversary of my younger daughter's commitment here," Arthur sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "We wanted – we just need to know how she's doing."

"We died in a house fire two years ago," Lorina explained. "Alice was the only one who made it out. Someone already told us that she'd retreated inside herself while she was mending in hospital. But we've had no news since."

"Alice. . . ." Ariel drummed her fingers thoughtfully on her cheek. "Witless complained about an Alice a few times while checking up on me in the night."

Protective fury flared up inside Lizzie. "And what did that rotund pile of sausages have to say about my sister?"

"That – oh, no, not Earl!" Ariel laughed. "No, Witless was a nurse – and that was her actual surname, believe it or not. The orderlies had fun with it, let me tell you. . .at any rate, I never paid her much mind while she was there, but I seem to recall. . . ." She screwed up her face and mimicked an older woman's voice. "'At least you're quieter than Alice! Screaming all day today about how she killed her family. If it weren't for the bottle in the padding I'd have joined you in the cells!'"

The angry fires died down, smothered under a wave of sorrow. "She – she blames herself for our deaths?" Lizzie whispered, a few fresh tears trickling down her cheeks. "But even that – that crock of shit about Dinah Bumby fed the police had it all as an accident."

"Dinah was always her cat most of all," Lorina murmured, petting Lizzie's hair. "Maybe she thinks she left Dinah in the library instead of taking her up to her room."

"But she always – how could she forget?" Lizzie rubbed her face. "She couldn't know Bumby did it, of course, but. . .surely she. . . ."

"She's scarred, orphaned, and in bedlam – we mustn't think she's as clever as she usually is at the moment," Arthur said regretfully. "Even my memories of the fire are more flashes of heat and pain than anything. This Witless sounds like she lives up to her name," he added to Ariel. "Bottle in the padding, really. . . ."

"I could be remembering wrong – I was always more concerned with making sure there were mice in each corner of the room so the demons would have something to snack on that wasn't me," Ariel confessed. "But that's what it sounded like. She also grumbled about her 'never letting go of that wretched rabbit,' but I could never make heads or tails out of that."

"Rabbit?" Lizzie straightened up. "She still has Mr. Bunny, then?"

"I – assume? So long as Mr. Bunny was a toy and not a pet. I don't think they allowed those in the asylum. Though there were always stray cats yowling outside the windows. . .don't think they helped my dreams of monsters any," Ariel said, twisting up another lock of hair.

"My seventh birthday present to her – a stuffed cloth bunny in a waistcoat," Lizzie confirmed, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at her lips. "Inspired some of my favorite stories from her. . .I – I guess it's good to know she didn't lose it in the fire."

"Sounds like it was the only thing she didn't lose," Arthur mumbled. "Damn it. . .I know I shouldn't have expected much after seeing that article in the Illustrated, but – I was so hoping the reporter had simply missed something. . . ."

"Sorry I can't be the bearer of good news," Ariel said sympathetically. "But it has been some time since I died. Maybe she's started to turn around in the meantime. She had Dr. Wilson taking care of her, and he always seemed kinder than Dr. Black. Though, again, I was in no position to really judge."

"Mmmm. . .I hope so." Arthur sighed again as he looked around. "So it's just you and Earl, then?"

"Unless someone's died and I haven't seen them yet – want me to walk you around the place, just in case?" Ariel offered. "I could use the company, and I'm sure none of you want a second meeting with Earl."

That grin flashed in her mind again, first doughy, then sharp. Lizzie shuddered as she stood, brushing the dirt and paint off her dress. "Certainly not. It would be very kind of you."

"My pleasure – and you could tell me more about what it's like outside the fence," Ariel said with a nod at the rusty iron. "Where are you all from?"

"Oxford," Arthur said as they started around the yard. "I was a Dean at Christ Church there. . . ."


 

"I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help."

"Oh, please, don't worry about it – you were a wonderful guide," Lorina assured Ariel as they looped their way back to the waiting room. "And it's good to have any news on Alice. Even. . . ."

"Horrible, half-remembered news from a former lunatic?" Ariel filled in, smirking. "Trust me, I don't take offense."

"You were a great help," Lizzie said firmly. "It's always better to know than not. And I am glad she still has her rabbit. It's not much, but it's something to be grateful for."

Ariel hummed, nodding. "That's more or less how I feel about my death."

"You could come with us, you know," Arthur said, stopping by the front desk. "The people in Oxford are very friendly. I'm sure you'd get on well with Miss Winks and Mrs. Ashby."

Ariel shook her head. "It's very kind of you, but I can't leave whoever arrives next to face death and Earl all alone. It's simply not right." She smiled. "But when I do get out, I'll come by and pay a visit. If I'm lucky, I might even be able to give you more news on your daughter."

"We'll see, I suppose." Arthur shook her hand. "Thank you for the grand tour of Rutledge, and for telling us what you could. Stay safe here now."

"I will – Earl hasn't come within a dozen feet of me ever since the bedpan," Ariel said, folding her arms. "And you're welcome. I – I hope your afterlife gets better."

"It's not so bad," Lorina said. "We still have our home, and we've made a bit of a routine for ourselves. It's just – if only Alice. . . ."

"I'll keep my fingers crossed," Ariel promised. "For as long as I have them, anyway. And again, I'll try to get more news for when I next see you."

"Thank you." Arthur pressed at the corners of his eyes. "Right now, though, if I don't get out of this place, I'll scream."

"Oh, go ahead – you'd be joining a long and distinguished tradition," Ariel joked. "I'm going to go raid the kitchen – all that walking has made me a bit peckish." She gave them a final wave. "Good journey back."

"Thanks." Lizzie returned her wave, then watched as the woman disappeared back into the hall. "I never thought anyone who'd been in a madhouse could be so nice."

"They are people, just like you and me," Lorina gently scolded. "I'm grateful madness doesn't survive the transition into death. Seeing Alice raging and screaming about our demises. . . ." She scrubbed at her eyes. "I don't think I could take it. Oh, our poor darling. . . ."

"I'm a little more worried about some of the treatments she's likely to get," Arthur confessed. "I mean – you saw that chair down in Ward 2-B, right? That's something you use to execute criminals, not cure the mind!"

"What about that drill in the 'Trepanation' room?" Lorina replied, shivering so hard a few loose pieces of skin flaked off. "What if – they wouldn't really put that in someone's skull, would they?"

"You wouldn't think they'd leave someone soaking in a tub of iced salt water for hours either, but Ariel told us that was her most common 'treatment,'" Lizzie reminded the both of them. "Forget cured – if Alice comes out of this awful place in one piece, it'll be a miracle."

"I know." Arthur sighed heavily, closing his eyes. "I think we ought to stop acknowledging our death's anniversary. It seems to lead to nothing but pain."

"We can't just give up on Alice!" Lorina cried, scandalized.

"Oh, no, I'm not suggesting that. I'm just saying – no more special trips, or planned dinners, or anything like that. So far it keeps backfiring on us. I'm not normally a superstitious man, but. . .well, if there's anything I can do to keep Alice's life from getting any worse, even if it's just a foolish thought. . . ."

"Trust me, I'm happier too when the day passes by unheeded," Lizzie said, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze. "Two anniversaries are more than enough. Especially. . . ." She swallowed. "Especially when Earl appears so close to one."

Lorina wrapped her arm around Lizzie's shoulders. "I would have told you to wait outside if I'd had the slightest idea he was lurking around."

"I know." Lizzie brushed at her sleeves, doing her best not to think of glasses glimmering in the moonlight, and a grin of triumph over her broken frame. It didn't work very well. "When is it going to stop hurting?"

"Eventually," Arthur said, taking his turn to squeeze her hand.

"That's not much of an answer, Papa."

"It's the only one I can give, I'm afraid. I've asked that same question a lot of myself, and. . .I don't like the other possibility of 'never.'"

Lizzie didn't either, though she had a nasty suspicion that was the more correct one. "I hope he dies in a fire too. Spontaneous combustion, just like in Mr. Dickens. If he's reduced to ash, he can't bother anyone anymore."

"And if he doesn't die like that, we all look pretty flammable," Arthur replied, examining the tatters of his own crispy skin. "Shouldn't be too hard to inflict it on him." He started for the exit hall. "But I really am going to scream if I don't leave, and I'd rather not join the invisible chorus Upstairs. Our Alice in a place like this. . . ."

"She'll pull through," Lorina said, taking the role of optimist. "She's made it through a year. That's – that's a good sign, right?"

"Perhaps," Lizzie said, following her father. "But she'd better not still be here on our tenth anniversary."

Chapter Text

July 5th, 1875

Oxford, England, Land of the Dead

2:15 P.M.

"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

"Oh shut it, Darcy – has she not made it clear she loathes you?"

Apparently not, as the novel persisted in continuing after that sentence. Lizzie sighed and closed the book, marking her place with a finger. I probably should have brought something other than Pride and Prejudice out with me. . .but Vanity Fair is no longer the slightest bit appealing, and I've already read Oliver Twist twice, she thought, shaking her head. Along with everything else on my shelves. Time for another trip to the library, I think. . .so long as Jefferson isn't there. 'Hey good-lookin', what's cooking?' indeed – hopefully that Oxford dictionary in the face taught him a lesson! God, twelve years dead and –

Has it really been twelve years?

Lizzie stared off into the middle distance, struck by the enormity of the number. Twelve. Double digits. Slowly but surely coming up on being dead longer than alive. Could it really be so? By our calendar it's 1875. . .and the last time I looked at it, Father had just turned it to July. . .about four months short of twelve, then. If our timekeeping is right. . .but there's no snow, and the trees look as perky as they ever do, so it must be summer, at least. Rather hard to call it that without any heat, though. . .look at me. I used to hate the heat, and now I miss it. She looked down at her hands, withered but still retaining their flesh thanks to the power of No-Rot. I miss a lot of things.

She couldn't say she was unhappy here in the Land of the Dead. She and her parents had settled into a pretty solid routine. Arthur had taken back up his photography hobby (though now he conducted all his experiments with film outside in a special shed he'd built for the purpose) and offered tutoring to the young ones who landed Downstairs, and Lorina sewed blankets and made calls and helped Mr. Prince with his paper. Oftentimes Lizzie wouldn't see them until a desire for food brought them to the table for a family meal. But they were happy keeping so busy, and she enjoyed hearing about their activities. And as for herself, she – she –

Well, she read a lot. And embroidered samplers. And occasionally painted, if the mood struck her. But mostly her world was that of books. She liked books. Books were – safe. With novels, you knew where you stood. Your plucky heroes and heroines could and would suffer, yes, but justice would triumph in the end, and the wicked be punished. Evil might delay its inevitable downfall by a few years, but sooner or later they would be impaled on the sword or locked in a cell. There were no murderers who got away with it completely scot-free, no innocents left to molder away in poorhouses and orphanages for all their lives. And if you didn't like what was happening, you could throw it against the wall and see how big a dent you could make. Yes, books were a distinct improvement on real life. Particularly hers. If only Dr. Bumby could meet his end by lightning or falling off a cliff, she thought viciously, grinding her teeth. Or better yet, have everything he's ever loved and cherished taken away from him in one fell swoop. Preferably with all his ill-gotten riches going to Alice –

The thought of her sister brought her up short, as it always did. Lizzie petted the cover of the book, chewing her already-tattered lip. I wonder how she is these days. The Illustrated has more or less forgotten about her, and there hasn't been any news from Rutledge since Ariel came here to tell us that yes, according to the latest, she was still mostly catatonic with occasional screaming fits. Has she finally recovered? Made a new life for herself? Or is she still stuck behind those dreadful walls with the leeches – and the likes of Earl? She rubbed her forehead, shoving back the image of that bloated face grinning at her. Ugh, it's enough to drive you mad yourself. . .if only more papers would end up down here! Or, at least, less of them arrive with their ink all smeared from having wrapped up something wet. . . .

And then another shocking realization hit her head on. I've been dead longer than Alice was alive when we parted.

She slumped against the back of the bench, one hand pressed against her mouth. She's twenty years old now. She's been an orphan longer than a little girl with a loving family. How well does she even remember us, after the fire and Littlemore and Rutledge? Does she still think about me – still miss our conversations, our playtimes together, however brief? Or am I just a faded figure in the back of her mind? Wetness welled up in her eyes. Or is she still strapped to a bed, screaming about how she should have been the one who died?

No – she couldn't linger on that image of Alice. She was depressed enough already. Forcibly she wrenched her mind away from the subject, sat up straight again, and snapped open her book. Mr. Darcy was still making an ass of himself in proposing, and Lizzie relished reading her name-twin's no-nonsense reply. "In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannotI have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly."

"Hey, mind if I sit here?"

Lizzie jumped, just managing to keep hold of the novel. For a split second, she wondered if Mr. Darcy had somehow managed to escape the covers. Then she shook herself back to reality and looked up.

A skeleton was standing over her, waiting patiently for her reply. He (that was obvious from the voice) didn't appear to be a native Oxford resident – even if she didn't get out that much, Lizzie was quite certain she'd remember that enormous chin. A bowler hat was perched on his skull, shadowing a single eyeball peering out of his left socket. The rest of him was bare, either of clothes or flesh. Long-dead then – or an unfortunate who'd never heard of No-Rot – and feeling like he had nothing to hide. Which he didn't, of course, unless you considered the pelvis obscene.

But still male, a little imp hissed inside her brain. Still capable of looking at you. Still capable of touching you. Still capable of grinning at you.

Well, of course, he's not capable of doing anything else, Lizzie replied, rolling her eyes slightly. And you should be long gone after twelve years. Haven't I taken every precaution to make sure that – that what happened can never happen again? It's not like any man in this city could manage it anymore anyway!

And yet someone still tried to chat you up last month, the imp giggled. It never stops, Elizabeth. They'll find a way. He did, after all. This is what you get for going outside.

I like this bench, and I don't like you, Lizzie thought, furious with herself. I'm not having this argument today! She shrugged and turned slightly, bringing her book back up to her face. "It's a free country. Last I checked anyway." Flippant, perhaps, but it was the best way to speak to him without giving ground to her fears. They are not all out to get you, Elizabeth Lorina Liddell, she scolded herself for what had to be the millionth time. Especially not some large-jawed skeleton who's only said six words to you.

"Supposin' that's a yes," the skeleton said, bringing the total up to ten. He settled himself on the opposite side of the bench, leaning against the arm. Lizzie tried to return to Elizabeth Bennet's evisceration of Fitzwilliam Darcy, but she couldn't stop sneaking furtive little glances at him after every third or fourth word. She pretended she was just trying to figure out how anyone could have a chin that size and still be able to chew their food. He must have had a hard time of it when he was alive. . .I wonder what he wants here. He's no scholar, I can tell that just by the voice. Just passing through? Then why pick my bench to sit on. . . .

The skeleton caught her eye. "Boring book?" he asked, leaning on one hand.

"I'm just not much in the mood for reading," Lizzie admitted, dismissing Elizabeth and Darcy for the moment. "I haven't seen you around before," she added, supposing she might as well make conversation. It was the polite thing to do – and if he proved to be a scoundrel, she'd prefer to know to run sooner rather than later.

"My boys and I just blew in," the skeleton replied, tilting his head. His eye rolled into the opposite socket as he did. "We're doing a tour of the country." He held out a large, long-fingered hand. "Name's Bonejangles."

Lizzie raised an eyebrow. "Bonejangles?"

"Wasn't born with it, but it's what everybody calls me," Bonejangles said, grinning at her. Well, he couldn't help grinning at her, but Lizzie had gotten skilled enough in interpreting bodily tics and vocal inflections to tell what expression a skeleton actually wanted to have. "Bonejangles of the Bone Boys. We went by the Skeletones for a bit, but it just never sounded right."

Lizzie nodded. "I see. Elizabeth Liddell," she added, pushing past the protests of the imp in her head to shake his hand. "I take it you're a musician, then?"

"The musician," Bonejangles returned, chin tilted upward to give him a rakish smirk. "One of the best, alive or dead."

Ugh, what was it about her that attracted men completely full of themselves? And was it possible she could convince another maggot companion to chew it away? She nailed him with her best deadpan stare. "Is that so? Where's your proof?"

"Six sold-out shows behind us, and another one tomorrow at the Hip Joint," Bonejangles said, unruffled. He snapped his fingers. "Come on over 'round eight – you're sure to have a good time."

"If that's a guarantee, I want it in writing," Lizzie responded, folding her arms.

"Give you a poster, but I just hung the last one up." He pointed at a nearby lamppost, where his overly-large chin threatened to impale passerby. "Come on, you ain't one of those girls who only likes Bach or Beethoven or them lot, are you? Classical's fine and all, but you gotta have something you can dance to!"

"I suppose it's no surprise that a man of your ilk doesn't know what a waltz is," Lizzie said, looking away with her nose in the air. "And yes, I do happen to enjoy the classical masters. What I don't enjoy are braggarts."

"Sheesh – excuse me for thinkin' I have some talent," Bonejangles muttered, pushing his hat back. "You really oughta come see before you throw me to the wolves." He pointed at the cover of her book. "Ain't that novel all about not judgin' somebody before you know 'em?"

That caught Lizzie by surprise. "You've read it?"

"About half," Bonejangles replied, rolling his eye back the other way. "Picked it up in a bookshop just outside London when I was living and on the road. Mum was always on me to try some culture. Died before I could finish it, though." He snorted. "Guess if it ends with Darcy and Elizabeth still hating each other, I kinda looked like an idiot just now."

"No, you're safe from that charge just yet," Lizzie said, regarding him with cautious intrigue. A novel-reader with that accent. Who would have thought? Perhaps she had been a little hasty in judging him.

Or perhaps he's lulling you into a false sense of security, the imp whispered. You can tell the book involves prejudice from the title!

Yes, but he sounds as if he knows it – and it's not my place to quiz him on his knowledge. "As for your show, I suppose you're right," she added, absently thumbing the book's spine. "But I'll have to see if my parents want to go with me before attending. It wouldn't be proper for a young lady to attend alone." Particularly if he was the sort to favor bawdy songs with lyrics just this side of obscene. The living Lizzie might have risked it, but the dead one. . .it was better for her to have someone to keep her from throwing things at the stage.

"Parents? Your whole family's down here?" Bonejangles said, sitting up straight and popping his hat forward. "What happened?"

"House fire," Lizzie replied, the words falling easily from her lips now. "My parents and I perished from the smoke – my little sister made it out just in time."

"Aw jeez." Bonejangles scratched his skull, voice nothing but sympathy. "Here's me thinking going from the elements was bad."

"Elements? Were you caught outside in a storm?" Lizzie asked, unable to help herself. Asking how someone had died was more or less part of their formal introduction down here anyway.

"Sort of – more did something stupid and decided to ride through a thunderstorm for home 'stead of stopping someplace," Bonejangles replied, slouching back again. "Lightning struck a tree by the edge of the road, my horse got spooked, and he threw me off and trampled me but good." He lifted his right leg and tapped a badly-healed break in the shin bone. "Was beat up too bad to move, and stuck on a road nobody much used. Screamed my best, but – well, I don't know how long it was, but finally my voice gave out, and the rest of me with it."

Lizzie tried to imagine what it was like, lying broken and alone in the middle of some wood, hunger and thirst tearing at your throat until you were nearly mad. She winced. A wretched fate she wouldn't wish on anybody – except maybe Angus Bumby. And then only if she could watch. "That is a horrible way to die. I'm sorry."

"Eh, it's been years now," Bonejangles reassured her with a wave of his hand. "Barely remember how it felt. And when I woke up here, all I had to do was pick myself up and start on again. Shame not seeing my mother and sisters one last time, but at least I made my next gig, right?"

Lizzie found herself smiling. It was hard not to – the man had a surprisingly infectious cheer to him. "Best to look on the bright side, yes."

"Exactly. And when I found my boys, things got even brighter." He tipped his hat to the right a little, his smile somehow seeming to widen. "Amazin' how creative you can get without everybody breathin' all over ya about the rules."

"What exactly is your musical style then?" Lizzie asked, half-intrigued, half-wondering if she was going to have to listen to another round of something like "The Hedgehog Song" the Ogg woman down the lane favored when she was drunk.

"Eh – well – it's hard to give it a name," Bonejangles confessed, tilting his head down to make his grin turn sheepish. "Ain't nothing like you've ever heard, I bet. Faster, more beats, lots of improv. Gotten to where I feel weird if I have to write the lyrics down." He snapped his fingers quickly a few times. "Lemme put it this way – you couldn't waltz to it."

"How about a fast quadrille?" Lizzie asked. Will you walk a little faster, said a whiting to a snail – no, Lizzie, you're trying not to upset yourself.

"Maybe? If The Hip Joint's got room, you're welcome to try," Bonejangles chuckled. "It's happy stuff, lemme put it that way. I can't get into gloomy music. Most of us been through too much shit already. Now's the time to kick back and have some fun."

Wonder what he thinks is fun, the imp muttered.

Shush – he's been nothing but friendly. I can grant him the same courtesy in return. "A sentiment I can agree with," Lizzie nodded. "Eight tomorrow at that club then?"

"Yup – over on Bruised Boulevard. Think there's a fee, but it ain't high." He pushed his hat back again. "Never understood that down here, to be honest. Back home, the Ball & Socket don't charge nothin'. Then again, I half-own it, so. . . ."

"You own your own club?"

"Yeah, nothing major, just a little bar out in the middle of nowhere, hole-in-the-wall type. But it's home, and that's what's important." He grinned again, teeth shining bright in the dim light as he held up his index finger and thumb in an O, the rest of his hand fanned wide. "And the way the walls bounce the sound? Just perfect."

"I guess we'll have to see if The Hip Joint is as accommodating," Lizzie commented, leaning on her hand. "As I said, I'll have to see what my parents think of the idea, but. . . ." But she had to admit, it sounded more fun than she'd originally thought. A night out on the town, with music and perhaps a little dancing?

And drunk men in a pub, the imp reminded her, nipping sharply on her ear. Any of which could follow you home.

But Papa and Mama will be there. And I've long since abandoned that stupid idea of mine regarding locked doors and cages. Not – not that it would have helped me with him, he would have just stolen the key. . .and most of the men around here know by now I do not like to be bothered.

The one in front of you doesn't. They're all alike, right down to the bones. Why are you even considering this stupid idea?

Because I'm bored, a frustrated Lizzie thought. All I do anymore is read. Time was that I wanted to go traveling – to see France and Spain and India and America. To dive off the cliffs of Dover and go treasure hunting in the Caribbean islands. I wanted some adventure. And now – now it's a rare day where I go to the coffee shop alone! Even this little trip out to the park took a week's convincing of myself! Yes, maybe there will be rotten people there, but I think I've proven quite a few times over by now that I can take care of myself. Which would you rather do – take a chance on having a pleasant evening out, or rot away surrounded by the same four walls?

That finally seemed to shut the little bastard up. Lizzie gave herself a little shake and nodded at her new acquaintance. "We should be there. And even if we can't make it, I do wish you all the best with the performance."

Bonejangles tipped his hat. "Much obliged, Miss Liddell."

"Oi! Bonejangles!"

Lizzie and Bonejangles both jerked their heads up. Standing at the edge of the park was another strange skeleton, tapping his foot impatiently as he glared at them with eyeless sockets. "Stop chatting up the local girls – we got practice!" He waved Bonejangles forward. "Come on!"

"Guy can't stop for a bit of conversation, Chauncey? God, you're just like my mother!" Bonejangles yelled back. He unfolded himself from the bench. "Nice meeting ya, Miss Liddell. Thanks for the company. Hope to see you at the show!"

"It was good to meet you as well," Lizzie said, inclining her head. "And good luck with practice."

"Jangles! You know we got a new song!"

"Hey, just because you ain't smart enough to remember your part. . .thanks, I'll need it with the way he's fussin'." Bonejangles rolled his eye. "I'm coming, Chauncey, keep your shirt on!"

Lizzie stifled a few giggles as the two men headed off, arguing all the way down the street. Well – that was an interesting encounter, she thought, finally reopening her book. That must have been the longest conversation I've had with a male stranger in years. Mama and Papa will be proud, I'm sure. I'm rather proud of me myself.

You let him get awfully familiar, the imp grumbled, finding its voice again.

I didn't let him do anything beyond sit next to me. And he was actually a – well, no, the phrase "perfect gentleman" would never apply to him, but he kept to his own side and didn't attempt to take any liberties. It was like he saw me as just one of the boys. That – that's kind of nice.

So you wouldn't mind seeing him again?

No, I don't think I would, Lizzie decided with a little nod. At the very least, I wouldn't mind attending his performance. With Mama and Papa there, of course, just in case. She relocated her place, settling in to finish Elizabeth Bennett's takedown of Darcy. And you have to give him this – whoever he is, he is definitely the opposite of an Oxford toady!

Chapter Text

July 6th, 1875

Oxford, England, Land of the Dead

8:48 P.M.

"Funny – that's exactly what the maggot said!"

Lizzie covered a snort with her hand as the piano tinkled its way to the end of the song. Good Lord, that had been funny – and without even being particularly raunchy! She enthusiastically joined in the applause as the Bone Boys flourished their instruments at the crowd. Well well – I'll admit it, Mr. Bonejangles. You are indeed no braggart.

Arthur slumped back in his chair as the clapping died down. "What a show! The man's got some real talent there."

"I know," Lorina agreed, sipping her drink. "They all do. I've wanted to get up and dance more than once – shame there's no room for it."

"Mmm," Lizzie hummed, looking around the crowded club. The Hip Joint had proved to be tiny, stuffed to the brim with tables and chairs for patrons. Simply walking around was an activity fraught with peril – to dance the way the songs encouraged you to, with wide kicks and twirls? You'd probably have to be cut free of at least two other guests and their seats if you tried. I guess it's just a lucky thing nobody here has to go to the toilet anymore. I can only imagine the collisions.

Even with her bum needing to stay firmly in its chair, though, Lizzie was having a wonderful time. Her parents had eagerly agreed to accompany her to the club, likely encouraged by the fact she was the one suggesting getting out and about for once. They'd found themselves a nice corner booth, as isolated as one could get in this cramped space, and the two tables closest were exclusively populated by women (well, Lizzie was pretty sure that skeleton at table two had been female). The drinks and nibbles they'd ordered had been aged to perfection, wonderfully agreeable to a tongue deadened by twelve years Below. And, of course, the music had proven to be an excellent surprise. As hard to describe as Bonejangles had said, but it filled Lizzie with a cheerful energy that she hadn't felt since shortly before her death. A risk more than worth the taking, she decided, picking up a moldy pretzel and popping it into her mouth. And to think I'd nearly dismissed him as nothing more but one of them. . . .

"You know what this reminds me of, a bit? Our first date," Arthur commented, grinning at Lorina. "Out on the town, a little nervous, unsure what we were going to see. . .remember that new, experimental opera I took you and your lady-maid to?"

"Oh, God, Arthur, don't compare this to that!" Lorina laughed, the sound whistling through the holes where her nose had once sat. "That was an utter disaster! The lead singer's voice kept cracking on the high notes, and nobody could remember their lines!"

"And then the moon fell down out of the sky and gave one of the actors a concussion," Arthur nodded, chuckling along. "Poor fellow was all right in the end, fortunately, but I'll never forget the mess. I thought for sure you'd consider it an evil omen and never want to see me again."

"It would have taken a lot more than that to drive me away from you," Lorina assured him, taking his hand. "I wish we'd been able to attend a performance like this, though. It would have been such fun! Where were these men while we were alive?"

"Probably on the road," Lizzie said. "And I don't think either Grandmother and Grandfather or Grandmama and Grandpapa would have liked you going to a music hall or pub."

"Probably not – your father's still the most intimidating man I've ever met, Lorina," Arthur admitted to his wife.

"He liked you, you know," Lorina said, shaking her head.

"Yes, but he had a funny way of showing it. I did not appreciate every visit ending with, 'Goodbye, Arthur, good luck at the university, and if you ever hurt my daughter I shall make you wish you'd never been born.'"

"It was just his joke! He knew you never would!"

"Even still, I'm glad he's apparently moved on – I did not relish having to explain how we died to him!"

"Okay, folks, we're wrapping it up here! One last song for y'all!"

A groan came up from the crowd. "Yeah, yeah, we know, but it's a good one," Bonejangles called from the stage, waving his hands. "Written for a friend of mine, name of Emily. She went Up recently, but I don't think she'll mind me still singing it. So yeah, this one's for her." He turned his gaze to the ceiling. "Hope you're happy Up there, Emily. Hit it, boys!"

Chauncey immediately grabbed one of his bandmates and began knocking out a beat on his skull. Bonejangles followed suit on the third member of the Bone Boys. Lizzie giggled – they'd been doing this sort of thing all night, and while she supposed it was disturbing if you thought about it too much, it was also very creative. She tapped her foot in time with the clack of bone on bone, eager for the song to begin proper.

A xylophone-like run of Bonejangles's fingers down his friend's ribcage was the cue for the piano to take up the tune. Bonejangles did a little twirl, snapping his fingers, then launched into the lyrics:

"Give me a listen, you corpses of cheer

At least those of you who still got an ear

I'll tell you a story make a skeleton cry

Of our own jubliciously lovely corpse bride!"

Lizzie blinked as the Bone Boys took up the chorus: "Die, die, we all pass away, but don't wear a frown, cause it's really okay. . . ." Corpse bride? That – seems like an odd subject for such a happy song. . .of course, he's been doing numbers on decomposition all night, but – hmm. She leaned forward, curious to see how the story would continue. "But we all end up the remains of the day! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah. . . ."

Bonejangles winked at the crowd and stepped away from the middle of the stage, leaving naught but his shadow behind. Lizzie wondered what he was doing for a minute – and then, without warning, the shadow changed. She gasped as it grew, split, and became two entirely different silhouettes – a young lady and a large chinned man, the former looking curiously at the latter. "What the – how did he do that?"

"Damned if I know," Arthur said, peering around to see if he could spot the trick. Heedless of their confusion, Bonejangles continued onward:

"Well, our girl was a beauty known for miles around,

When a mysterious stranger came into town!

He was plenty good-lookin', but down on his cash,

And our poor little baby, she fell hard and fast!

When her daddy said no, she just couldn't cope,

So our lovers came up with a plan to elope!"

And just like that, Lizzie's stomach hit the floor. She stared as the shadow-man kissed the hand of the shadow-woman, then caught her as she pretended to faint romantically into his arms. Running away with a mysterious, poor stranger. . .she knew exactly how this story ended, didn't she? Not with violation and fire, perhaps, but with the same broken dreams and shattered spirit. You couldn't be a corpse bride without someone killing you, after all. . . .

It might not be what you think it is, a weak inner voice suggested. Maybe – um – her father discovered the plans and killed both of them in a rage?

Yes, because that's so much better. Either way she ends up betrayed by a man in her life. Lizzie dropped her gaze to the table as the band finished up the second chorus and swung into a state of wild improvisation. I can understand making fun of us rotting away, and even finding something amusing or catchy about disease – no pun intended – but murder? How could his friend have ever approved a song about her death that sounded so – cheerful?

A barely-sensed change in pressure alerted her to the fact that her mother had put her hand on her back. "Do you want to go?" Lorina whispered under the guitar and trombone. "I think we've heard enough to judge his talents."

Lizzie almost said yes – but then stopped herself and shook her head. "It's almost done – and besides, we probably owe it to the girl to hear the whole story. Even if I already have a good idea where it goes. . .and do you think we'd even be able to get out before the song ended anyway?" she added, jerking her head toward the sea of tables around them.

"Unlikely," Arthur admitted. He patted her wrist. "But it might not be as bad as you fear. Yes, obviously it ends before she gets to the altar, but – maybe it's just an unfortunate accident that claims her life. Still sad, but. . .well, it makes more sense than the other possibilities."

"I don't know – I guess we'll find out," Lizzie admitted, looking back at the stage to see the Bone Boys swapping heads in a line, tossing the spare skull back to the one in front to keep the rhythm going. "No matter what, though, it seems to be stretching the bounds of good taste."

"He said he knew her – it can't be that horrible," was Lorina's opinion. "He wouldn't dare taint the memory of a friend."

"I hope not."

The musical chaos wound to a close, and Bonejangles swung back into the center of the stage. Lizzie took a deep breath, preparing herself as he continued on:

"So they conjured up a plan to meet late at night,

They told not a soul, kept the whole thing tight!

Now her mother's wedding dress fit like a glove –

You don't need much when you're really in love!

Except for a few things, or so I'm told,

Like the family jewels, and a satchel of gold!"

The shadows behind him morphed again, this time showing the young woman looking left and right as she stood under the most twisted and gnarled tree Lizzie had ever seen. She clasped her hands tightly together under the table. Here it comes. . . .

"Then next to the graveyard by the old oak tree,

On a dark foggy night at a quarter to three,

She was ready to go – but where was he?"

"And then?" Chauncey asked, leaning in from the side.

Bonejangles peered mysteriously out from under his hat. "She waited. . . ."

"And then?" another Bone Boy inquired.

One bony finger pointed at the door. "There in the shadows, was it the man?"

"And then?" the third Boy took up the question.

Bonejangles clutched his ribcage. "Her little heart beat so loud!"

"And then?" chorused all three of his bandmates.

"And then, baby–" The figure of the man sprouted from the tree with an evil cackle, looming over the girl like a panther over its prey. The girl turned, screamed, and then was devoured in a swirl of shadow "– everything went – black."

An aborted attempt at a scream – weakened fingers clawing at his arm – a final, desperate gasp for air – and then everything went black.

Lizzie clenched her jaw, holding the tears at bay. Trapped in the darkness, alone with a monster, and absolutely nowhere to run – oh yes, she knew exactly how poor Emily had felt in her final moments. And horror of horrors, Emily had loved her killer! Was that better or worse than having everything taken by someone you loathed? Surely the lead-up to her murder had been kinder, but the actual moment of death. . . . It was apples and oranges in the end. All that mattered was it was no way to die.

Even Bonejangles seemed affected by the song – he let the silence hang for a moment, before slinging himself across the piano and letting the shadows fade. He pushed his hat back from his face as he wrapped things up:

"Now when she opened her eyes, she was dead as dust,

Her jewels were missin' and her heart was bust.

So she made a vow lyin' under that tree,

That she'd wait for her true love to come set her free.

Always waiting for someone to ask for her hand–"

He leapt off the piano and spread his arms wide, grin bright in the spotlights:

"When out of the blue comes this groooovy young man!

Who vows forever to be by her side –

And that's the story of our corpse briiiide!"

Lizzie perked up just a smidgen as Boys led the crowd in the last chorus. So Emily had found someone who loved her in the end? That was a relief. After such a terrible betrayal, she deserved some happiness.

Oh? Have you ever actually heard of anyone getting married down here? the imp commented, all too happy to make its presence known. Sounds to me like she was stuck as the corpse bride until the very end. And even if she did get what she wanted, no strings attached, her murderer's still running around up there, free as a bird. Just like yours.

Oh, shut up, Lizzie huffed, annoyed. She didn't have to get married to find love, I'm sure. And – and I know from experience there's nothing you can do about people like that, so you can only enjoy what you have. She deserved whatever joy she could find.

Her father frowned at the stage as Bonejangles and his Boys took their final bows to raucous applause. "That's – peculiar."

"What do you mean?" Lorina asked.

"The ending. . .is it just me, or does it sound like a living man proposed to her?"

"What?" Lizzie stared at her father, baffled. "How and why would that happen?"

"I don't know, but – the lyrics implied she didn't move from that tree. That doesn't help any dead men who might want to court her."

"But she couldn't have stayed Upstairs, either," Lorina argued. "When she died, she came here. That's how death works."

Lizzie put her head in her hands. Great, another wrinkle for them to obsess over. Why did this story have to be so confusing? You couldn't have picked a different number to end on, could you Bonejangles? Ugh. . . .

The piano started up again, and Lizzie looked up to see a fresh player at the keys, with the Bone Boys heading for the bar. She frowned as they settled themselves on the stools. "You know what?" she said abruptly, standing. "I'm going to ask them."

"What?"

"It's not fair for them to leave us in such distress. She was Bonejangles's friend, or so he claims – he can spare two moments to tell me what really happened."

"You'll be all right?" Arthur said, touching her wrist again.

"It's a crowded pub – nobody would try anything," Lizzie said, even as the imp murmured, You don't know that. . . . "And you won't be that far away. I don't want this eating at my brain the rest of the night."

Her parents exchanged an anxious look, but nodded. "All right, dear," Lorina said, drumming her fingers on the table. "We'll be here when you get back."

"I know you will. Back shortly." Lizzie wiggled out of the booth, then carefully threaded her way through the maze of tables.

Bonejangles was chatting away with Chauncey as she neared, the latter with pen and paper before him. "I think we oughta open with 'Mercury Row' tomorrow. Get the blood really pumpin' right from the start."

"What about 'Knocking On Death's Door?'" the other skeleton inquired, ticking off something. "I'm telling you, Jangles, the middle's weak."

"Yeah, I noticed – leave that one off tomorrow, and we'll try and spice it up some. 'What the Maggot Said' was a real hit, though, should keep that one as our show-stopper."

"It was very funny," Lizzie put in, stepping up behind them.

Bonejangles's head twirled like an owl's. Lizzie did her best not to start – twelve years dead and she still wasn't used to all the quirks of the skeleton body. "Oh, hey! So ya decided to come along after all," he said, eye rolling from left to right as he turned the rest of his body to face her. "So – whadya think of the show?"

"Very enjoyable," Lizzie admitted, smiling. "I must apologize for suggesting you might be full of yourself."

Bonejangles waggled his jaw, his grin becoming more of a smirk briefly. "Told ya so." He ran his hand up the side of his ribcage. "'Sides – how can I be full of myself when there ain't nothing left to fill?"

"Oh, you'd be surprised. . . ." She slid onto the stool next to him, rubbing one wrist. "I didn't come over just to say hello, though. I had a question about that last song of yours."

"'Remains of the Day?'" Bonejangles signaled to the bartender. "What's got you all bothered about it?"

"Well – just – what's the real story behind it?" Lizzie asked, leaning forward. "You said you wrote it for a friend, but – about her murder?"

"Yeah – Emily Cartwell," Bonejangles confirmed, crossing his legs and resting one elbow on the bar. "Showed up Downstairs about – six months after I did? Less than a year, I know that, still had all my guts then. Let me tell you, she was a mess when I ran across her in the woods. Big old slice in her side, her head smacked in, and sobbing her eyes out over her flowers. Took me ages to get her to calm down enough to tell me what happened." A bubbling drink slid down the varnished wood – he reached out and snagged it in one large hand. "And then I took her over to the Ball & Socket, and everybody was askin' her how she kicked it, and – well, I could see it wasn't doing her mood any favors. I had the chorus in my head already, so I just scribbled out some words before and after it. Know it probably came out a little too cheerful, but she liked it anyway." He tipped back the glass and poured the drink down what had once been his gullet, letting it splash through his ribs. Lizzie quickly tucked her feet beneath her stool, pulling her skirt out of the way of the splattering alcohol. "Ahh, that's the ticket. . . ."

"I was wondering what she'd think of it being sung to such a bouncy tune," Lizzie admitted, watching the orange liquid drip from his bones. "What a horrible thing to happen to anyone – betrayed by someone you love, and left to rot."

"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, voice dark. "Trust me there wasn't a one of us down in Burtonsville who didn't want to give 'Eddie' the works for screwing her over. I come from a pretty small village, and most everybody Downstairs got there by accident or old age. To see somebody, especially somebody as sweet and friendly as Emily, get out and out stuck like a pig? Oh, we were praying he'd join us soon so we could give him a good warm welcome."

"I know how you feel," Lizzie grumbled, leaning heavily on her elbow.

Bonejangles tilted his head at her. "You do?"

"Yes. . .I didn't give you all the details of my own death before," Lizzie confessed, looking down. "It wasn't just a house fire. It was arson – set by a deranged man whose 'affections' I'd spurned. Everything we've heard indicates he's never been caught."

"Oh. Damn." Bonejangles shook his head, eye rattling between sockets. "That's terrible. I'm sorry for you and your family."

"Thank you," Lizzie whispered, squeezing her skirts to relieve her feelings. "I'm sorry for your friend. Nobody deserves a death like that." She managed a smile. "Still, she got the husband she always wanted in the end. Right?"

Bonejangles laughed awkwardly. "Eh, sort of," he said, rubbing the back of his skull. "What really happened is kinda complicated, and – well, it's tough enough explainin' when you don't have to make every line rhyme."

What did I tell you? the imp crowed triumphantly.

He said 'sort of,' not 'no!' Lizzie protested, though her stomach was already tying itself into a knot. "So what did happen?"

"Lemme see if I can think of a short version. . . ." Bonejangles grabbed another glass of mysterious orangeness and knocked it back, wiping the drippings off his jawbone. "Okay, so – that 'groovy young man' at the end of the song? Didn't mean to propose to Emily in the first place. I learned about all this later, but this guy Victor was getting married to this gal Victoria – his parents were what they call 'nouveau riche,' hers all noble up-and-ups but stone broke. So they threw their kids together and hoped they'd get along. Victor got a very handy thing for Victoria, but had a hell of a time rememberin' his wedding vows. So he headed out to the woods to practice – apparently the pastor scared him away – and when he finally got 'em right. . .well, he had the ring with him, and he slipped it onto Emily's hand. Guessin' he didn't realize what it was. Emily was in the bar when it happened – we were having a chat when suddenly she gets this funny look on her face, then she screams loud enough to knock me off my stool, and by the time I get back up she's gone. Five minutes later, she's back again, with some livin' toothpick slumpin' out of her arms onto the floor and a wedding ring on her finger!"

"But – but how did she get back Upstairs in the first place?" Lizzie demanded, fingernails digging into her knee through her skirt. "You can't go back Upstairs after you've died! It's impossible!"

"Mostly impossible," Bonejangles said carelessly. "You know magic works down here, right?"

"Well, yes, though I haven't learned much – is that how you made the shadows change and move?" she added, her train of thought briefly jumping tracks. "Papa and I were looking for the trick."

"No trick – Shadow Play," Bonejangles beamed. "All you gotta do is keep talking and think of what you want people to see–" behind the bar, his shadow suddenly got up, tipped its hat, and bowed "–and voila! Doesn't last more than a minute after you shut up, but it's great for puttin' on a show."

"I should say," Lizzie said, duly impressed as the silhouette-Bonejangles sat down again. "So. . .there's a spell for going back Upstairs? Why haven't I heard about it?"

"Because we mere mortals don't get a crack at it," Bonejangles explained, shaking his head. "Elder Gutknecht – he's sorta the leader of our little patch of Underworld – explained it to me. Everybody's got a different amount of magic 'oomph,' and most of us don't have enough to make the spell work. Emily, though, got the special treatment. Apparently that tree she died under is in the middle of a magic – sinkhole, I guess, and when she made her vow, it decided, okay then, you wanna marry a living guy? You can come up just long enough to grab him."

"I see." Well, that had been a quick raising and dashing of hopes. If only I'd known about it twelve years ago. . .I could have made my own vow and haunted Bumby into madness. She sighed and tried to turn her attention back to his story. "So it was all a misunderstanding, then. She must have been heartbroken when Victor told her."

"Yeah, she wasn't happy when she found out about Little Miss Living," Bonejangles nodded. "But here's the part where it starts gettin' tangled. Victor's parents' driver died – some sort of coughing fit, best I heard – and he let slip that Victoria was marrying someone else now that Victor was down here with us. Everybody thought he'd vanished, see? Run out on her. Around the same time, Elder Gutknecht tells Emily that her marriage to Victor doesn't work. Vows only last until 'death do you part,' so sayin' 'em to a dead girl don't mean squat. So Victor, who's a decent guy, tells her he'll marry her properly – even though it means havin' to gulp down a goblet of the Wine of Ages."

"Wine of Ages?" Lizzie parroted, doing her best to keep up.

"Poison," Bonejangles supplied. "Only way he could give his heart to her was if it was dead too."

Lizzie's jaw dropped. "And he was willing to do that?!"

"Yeah, even after Emily said she couldn't make him, according to Mrs. Plum – cook at the place, one of Emily's best friends. Like I said, decent guy. Anyway, they've got to do it up in the Living world, so Plum cooks 'em a huge cake and I get the band together, and we all head up there." His grin turned sly. "And some of the folks and I may have teased out of him where Victoria and her folks lived so we could spook 'em a little. Just 'cause."

"Oh, that's mea – wait! You just said–"

"Elder Gutknecht got us up there," Bonejangles explained, gesturing with his glass. "Guy's the best wizard any of us have ever seen, living or dead. He cast the spell on all of us, though it took some doing – had to use an actual phoenix feather. Had no idea they were real birds."

"Neither did I," Lizzie said, then smacked her hand against the bar. "Damn it. . .I so want to see my sister again. . . ."

"Sorry, Miss Liddell," Bonejangles said, accepting a third drink from the bartender. "I've got family I want to see too. I'd take you up myself if I could, but. . . ."

"I know," Lizzie sighed, shaking her head. "It's just frustrating." She squeezed her forehead, doing her best to put the thought out of her mind. "All right – so you made it up there and, I'm guessing, frightened the wits out of Victoria's family."

"Yeah, and all the guests besides – though they came around in the end," Bonejangles added, tone turning nostalgic. "Seeing that one nipper throw himself into his grandpa's arms helped a lot there. So once the screaming was over, we all headed up to the church together. That's when I learned about the deal with Victor and Victoria – ended up escorting her old maid. Lady told me about the arranged marriage, and what a shame it was that Victor had disappeared, because now Victoria was stuck with somebody she didn't love and she'd had such a soft spot for the Van Dort boy. . . ." He fiddled with the brim of his hat. "Made me feel like a real heel for decidin' to wreck her wedding breakfast."

"You didn't know," Lizzie reassured him. "I mean, yes, it was a bit cruel, but it sounded like she was being cruel first."

"Yeah, but. . .still." He shrugged. "Anyway, we make it to the church, push past this arse of a pastor, get all settled, and the wedding begins. Emily looked a sight walkin' down that aisle – never seen her smile so big. She and Victor started going on about 'with this hand' and 'your cup will never empty,' and everything's going well. . .but then, just as Victor's about to drink the poison, Emily suddenly stops him. Says she can't do it and that she's stealing someone else's dreams. We're all confused as shit until she beckons toward a pillar on the far side – and there's Victoria, watching everything with this lost look. My guess is, she snuck in after the rest of us and hid there to see what was going on. Emily must have spotted her, and. . .I dunno. I guess those sad eyes and the wedding dress got her thinkin' about herself. She always told me she'd never want anyone to go through what she did."

"So she – wait." Lizzie frowned, going over the order of events in her head. "But – wasn't Victoria married already?"

"Yup, and just as Emily reunited 'em, her new husband showed up at the door," Bonejangles confirmed. "And guess what? It's Eddie!"

"What?!"

"Dead serious – uh, no pun intended. Going by 'Barkis' this time around, and pretendin' he's a lord. Hildy told me he'd showed up at the rehearsal and stepped right into Victor's shoes when Emily snatched him up. Guessin' he had the same plans for Victoria as he did for Emily."

"That's – why would he go back?" Lizzie demanded, steaming. Filthy, rotten men, corrupting everything they touched. . . . "And why target the Everglots if they're so poor?"

"Obviously he didn't know that bit," Bonejangles smirked. "Anyway, he grabs the sword out of Bonesaparte and starts dragging Victoria away, and we're all pissed as hell, but we can't do anything 'cause it's Upstairs and we're not supposed to. Stupid rule, if you ask me. . .but then Victor steps up and he and Barkis start battlin' it out. Mrs. Plum tried to throw Victor a knife, but – well, poor bastard ended up with a barbecue fork instead," he added with a snort. "Handled himself really well, though – three hits on Lord Arsewipe before he finally got knocked down. Barkis tried to skewer him, but at the very last second Emily jumped in front of the blade. Went right into that hole he stabbed in her, but she didn't even flinch. Just grabbed the sword and told him to get lost. Ain't never been prouder of her."

Lizzie caught herself imagining herself and Bumby in the roles of Emily and Barkis. It was a very satisfying picture. But. . . . "And after all that, he just walked away?"

"Oooh no – you see, even though she's got him at swordpoint, he decides he's gotta be cruel to her all over again. So he goes over, grabs the wine, makes a nasty toast – and then drinks the entire goblet in two gulps." Bonejangles chuckled darkly. "I mean, yeah, he didn't know it was poison, buuuut. . .dead before he could even reach the door. And since that put him on our turf, we decided to show him exactly what we think of lyin', cheatin', murdering arseholes."

A vicious smile spread across Lizzie's face. So every so often there was justice. "Good." Then her features softened back into confusion. "But what about Emily?"

"Told ya – she went Up," Bonejangles said, pointing at the ceiling. "Didn't see it myself – too busy helping the gang with the beatdown – but Elder Gutknecht told us all about it later. Guess finally getting to the altar and seeing the jerk who put her in the ground get his was enough for her. She gave Victor back his ring, threw Victoria her bouquet, then she was off as a cloud o'butterflies. Not surprised, she always liked 'em."

Lizzie wrinkled her brow. "Begging your pardon?"

"Nobody told you? That's how you go Up," Bonejangles explained. "I don't know all the fancy-schmancy bits to it, but – there's something that's keeping us close enough to 'alive' down here, and when you're ready to go on, that gets thrown back into the world as butterflies or flowers, or all sorts of other stuff. From what I hear, you just dissolve away into it, happy as a clam." He gazed contemplatively at the bottles behind the bar. "Think I'd like to become my music. Keep it going even after I'm gone and done."

"I won't stop you – it's good music." Lizzie pursed her lips, thinking. Dissolving away into butterflies or flowers. . .had Miss Winks told them about that when they'd first arrived? She couldn't quite remember – then again, she'd been rather distracted at the time. But it sounded a nice enough way to get to Heaven. "I was fond of lilacs and daffodils when I was alive. . .but I also adored sunny days, so. . .I don't know. I'd have a hard time picking."

"You'll know when the time comes, I guess." Bonejangles rolled his eye toward her. "So yeah, I'd say it all ended happily, even if she didn't get the wedding she wanted. Better she move on, you know? Get out of this dump."

Lizzie eyed him. She recognized that 'I'm trying to convince myself of something but it's not working very well' tone. "You miss her, don't you?"

Bonejangles shrugged. "We were pretty good friends by the end," he said, melancholy. "Mrs. Plum was on us for a while to get hitched, but – well, it was never anything romantic. Being around her was like having one of my sisters back." He tipped back his latest drink. "Besides, I'm not sure it would have worked even if we had tried it. She was pretty set on marrying a livin' guy."

Lizzie nodded. "I understand. Is that why you left your village?"

"Yeah, more or less," Bonejangles admitted. "After she did her disappearing act, there seemed to be memories all over the place, so I talked the boys into doing a tour." He pushed his hat back rakishly. "Didn't have to talk long, of course. We've been meaning to get out and about, share our music with the world. So, here we are!"

"Here you are," Lizzie echoed, smiling. "And I'm glad you came."

Glad? You're glad a new strange man is in town? the imp asked, baffled.

Yes, I am. He's interesting. I haven't had interesting in a while. And he just told me he had a purely platonic relationship with a young woman who, by his own admission, was rather obsessed with getting married. The only thing he's done to even slightly set me off is brag about his music, and he's backed that claim up admirably.

You've still only known him for a day, the imp grumbled.

Then I'll just have to keep getting to know him, won't I? Besides, he won't be here long. Soon enough I'll retire back to my cave. Just let me have this, you wicked thing.

Bonejangles cocked his head. "Are ya? You seemed ready to kick me past the city limits yourself when I first met ya."

"I warmed up quickly, didn't I?" Lizzie retorted. "Though I am sorry for being a little rude before. I don't take meeting strangers – particularly strange men – well."

"Blame the ass who burnt your house down?"

Lizzie nodded. "It's not so bad, I suppose – I've got Mama and Papa. I just wish I could see Alice again one last time. . . ." She sighed, then decided to change the subject before the depression could settle in. "Speaking of which, you mentioned sisters before, didn't you?"

"Oh yeah – looking at the oldest of the Thatcher Twelve here," Bonejangles told her, chuckling. "And all the rest were girls."

"Wha – twelve?!" Lizzie gaped. "What – but – how do you even have that many children?!"

"Ugh, Liddell, don't make me think about what my parents did behind closed doors!" Bonejangles drummed his fingers on the bar. "Lessee – we had me, then Claire, Nora, April, Hester, Nettie, Hannah, Gladys, May, Virginia, Ethel, and June. Never really got to know the ones at the end, though. I was out doing my thing, ridin' around and dodgin' tomatoes, and then I'd come home and another baby would have come outta nowhere. Hell, I'd bet that June only knows I existed through pictures. She couldn't have been more than a coupla months by the time that horse broke me."

"Oh – I'm sorry," Lizzie murmured, folding her hands together on her lap. "That's terrible, having a sibling that you never even got to know."

"Tell me about it. What's worse is that Dad disappeared four months before she showed up. He and Mum were actually from the good ol' US of A – came 'cross the pond right before I was born. Picked up the accent from him," he added, tapping his neck. "Confuses the hell out of people but great for singing. Anyway, Dad was a nice guy, can't say he didn't treat us all well – just couldn't hold down an honest job to save his life. Pretty sure certain he and Mum had to leave America 'cause he pissed off the wrong people. . .and dead positive he vanished later 'cause he'd gotten himself in trouble again."

Lizzie bit her lip. "Oh yikes."

"Yeah, Mum put up with the cardsharping and little stuff like that 'cause it put food on the table, but she was pissed as hell when he didn't come home. Can't blame her either. Can only imagine how she felt when I didn't make it back. . . ." He sighed. "That's what's keepin' me down here, I'm sure – wondering how they're all gettin' on Above. Woulda given anything to see Virginia and Ethel and June grow up. And since we were all out in this tiny village, and didn't even live in it proper, milkin' the new arrivals for info doesn't work too well."

"I lived in one of the nicest parts of Oxford, with my father a respected dean of the university, and even we have to struggle to learn anything about Alice," Lizzie muttered, leaning on her hand. "I think there's a conspiracy to keep us all ignorant."

"Maybe. . .though she might be running around with a different name these days," Bonejangles pointed out. "I mean, I dunno how old she was when you all cacked it, but she's probably been married for a few years by now, right?"

Alice – married? Reginald Hargreaves's smirking face popped into her head – Lizzie shoved it away before it could metamorphose into someone worse. "I don't know. . .she would have just turned twenty in May. That's still a bit young, especially if she has no one to introduce her to anybody."

"Twenty?" Bonejangles's eye rolled into the right socket and squinted at her. "You don't look older than that yourself!"

"I was eighteen when it happened – and Alice was a surprise to our parents," Lizzie explained, taking a bit of nasty pleasure in flustering him. "Your parents may have been very busy behind closed doors, but mine. . . ." And she was already regretting making the joke, as those clammy hands were back again – she pretended to brush dust off her dress to get rid of them. "Well, there was a ten-year gap, let's just say that."

"Ten?!" Bonejangles shook his head. "Sheesh, Ethel and June were the farthest in our lot, 'bout four years apart."

"Well, the doctors told Mama she wouldn't be able to have any other children after me, so. . . ." Lizzie sighed, twisting her fingers into knots in her lap. "And now our 'miracle baby' is the only one left."

"That's irony for ya," Bonejangles said, though he didn't sound amused. "Might not even be a Liddell anymore if she got adopted. Tough, isn't it? Not knowin'."

Lizzie just nodded. Part of her wanted to tell him that, actually, she did know some, and what she knew was arguably worse than ignorance – but no. That was too intimate, too soon. As her little imp had said, they'd only known each other for a day. And stories of Rutledge were much too horrible to dump on a new acquaintance anyway.

"Aw, didn't mean to get you all gloomy. . ." Bonejangles pushed his smile toward her. "Think about it this way – she's still up there, right? Still kickin'."

"Mmmm. . .I just want it to be a good life she's kicking in," Lizzie murmured. "That she's gotten everything she deserves."

"Hear hear." Bonejangles raised his glass. "To Alice and June, and all the rest of my parents' brood too. May they get the lives we didn't get a chance to live."

"I'd drink to that – if I had a drink," Lizzie said, patting the empty spot before her.

"Easily fixed – oi, barkeep!" Bonejangles called, turning towards the bartender.

"Oh, no, it's fine," Lizzie reassured him. "I don't really drink anyway. We all gave vodka a try just the once shortly after our second anniversary here, and – well, discovering you can still get a hangover when dead put me off the idea."

"You sure?" Bonejangles asked, adjusting his hat. "Ain't a problem. Least I could do for yakkin' your ear off."

"Oh, no, don't worry about that. The conversation is payment enough." Lizzie suddenly giggled. "And now I think it must have been fate that I was reading Pride and Prejudice when we met. Proof that first impressions can be complete bunk."

"Whaddya I tell ya?" Bonejangles grinned. "'Course, I thought you were kinda stuck up when I first met ya, so I learned that lesson myself."

"Good, we can be two students together then."

"Lizzie!"

Lizzie turned around to see her mother and father struggling through the crowd. "You've been gone a while – we wanted to make sure everything was all right," Lorina explained as they finally reached the bar. She looked over at Bonejangles. "This is the fellow you met before, then?"

"Bonejangles," Lizzie confirmed, as the skeleton tipped his hat. "Bonejangles, this is my mother and father, Lorina and Arthur Liddell."

"Pleasure to meet ya," Bonejangles said, offering a hand. "Sorry if we kept you waitin' – I got to blabbering on about my folks and stuff."

"Oh, no, it's fine," Lorina said, shaking. "We just weren't expecting her to stay away so long."

"Marvelous performance, I must say," Arthur added. "I wouldn't mind an encore – are you in town for a while?"

"Few days, at least," Bonejangles grinned. "You get a crowd like this, you wanna keep 'em happy, ya know."

"What kinda bull are you tryings to pull?"

Startled, all four heads jerked around toward a nearby table, where a bunch of rather well-built construction types were playing cards. "Now shee here, fair's fair! Aces beat Kingsh!" the man at the top of the table continued, weaving slightly as he stood.

"Kings are top and I dun care what anybody elshe says!" his companion on the opposite side snapped, slapping down his hand. "Broadshman! Cheat!"

"Who you calling cheat?" the first man roared, grabbing his chair.

"Um, I think we're going to retire for the night," Lorina said, grabbing Lizzie's arm. "Very nice meeting you, Mr. Bonejangles."

"Yeah, same here," Bonejangles said, watching with interest as the first man tried to bring the chair down over the second's head, only to hit the player beside him instead. "Hoo-eee, this is gonna be a bad one. . .yeah, I'd skedaddle while you can."

"Right," Lizzie said, slipping off the stool. A meaty "thunk" announced the introduction of the injured man's fist to the first man's face. "Oh, and. . . ." She screwed up her face in concentration, keeping an eye on the wall behind them. "Thank you for the conversation. Have a good night."

Her shadow, standing on the other side of the bar, dipped its skirt in a curtsy in time with her words. Lizzie couldn't help a squeal of delight. "It worked!"

"Hey, not bad," Bonejangles said, impressed, as his shadow returned the courtesy with a bow. "Anyway, yeah, you too–" A bottle suddenly sailed between them and smashed on the shelves. "Hey, cool it! There's a lady over here!"

This had no effect on the enraged players except to make one of them throw his cards at Bonejangles's face. Lorina hauled her daughter and husband away as one of the Bone Boys returned fire with his drink. "And here I thought this was a slightly-higher class establishment. . . ."

"How did you do that?" Arthur demanded of Lizzie, seemingly oblivious to the brawl that was growing bigger with every missed hit.

"Magic," Lizzie grinned at him. "Apparently some of it's a lot simpler than we thought."

"I should say! I'll have to try that when we get home. . . ." Arthur shook his head before looking back down at his daughter. "And that's the longest conversation I've seen you have with a man – particularly a strange one – in eleven years. Honestly, I thought he'd done something to offend or upset you and you'd left the bar in a snit when you didn't come back."

"No – he is a bit brash, but he's nice too," Lizzie told him. "Very sympathetic to our death – he's got family Above that he misses terribly as well. Not to mention his friendship with Emily. . .you were right, Papa, it was a living man who proposed – well, sort of. I'll explain once we're not dodging thrown furniture."

"Right." Arthur ducked as a glass came sailing over his head. "Well, I'm glad you like him! It's good to see you making new friends. Not that your mother and I would say anything if you avoided the opposite sex for the rest of your afterlife. Whatever makes you happiest, Lizzie."

"I know, Papa," Lizzie assured him. Behind her, someone went bang! into the wall. "But I never really wanted to lock myself away from everyone. Besides, never speaking to any man ever again. . .it'd be a bit like letting him win, wouldn't it?"

Better to be safe than sorry, the imp growled.

Go haunt someone else's brain. I was as safe as I could be the first time around, and I was sorry anyway.

"We'll support whatever choice you make," Lorina assured her as the crowd around them thinned, more and more people going to either watch or join in the brawl. "And I assure you, the moment that awful man comes down here, I will personally extract the heart he says you stole."

"Thanks, Mama."

They finally reached the door, the ruckus in full swing behind them. Lizzie glanced back at the chaos, then over at the bar. Bonejangles was still in his seat, a few cards sticking out of his ribcage and a fresh glass in his hand. His eye was firmly fixed on the fighting, but after a moment he seemed to feel her gaze upon him and turned. Lizzie gave him a quick wave, which he returned before having to dodge a clumsily-thrown mug. She giggled and followed her parents outside. Well, that certainly ended things with a bang. But hmmm. . .new friend. . . . She contemplated the idea a moment, then nodded to herself. Yes. I think I like that.

Chapter Text

July 13th, 1875

Oxford, England, Land of the Dead

1:09 P.M.

"So, when I get in the door, here's the picture waiting for me – Mum, Claire, and Nettie absolutely covered in flour, Nora soaked from waist to shoes, and Gladys laughin' her head off over on the side. First thing I can think of to say is, 'You lot know that Halloween isn't til next month, right?'"

Lizzie giggled madly. "Oh dear. . .what did they have to say for themselves?"

"Well, Nora was too busy tryin' to dry herself off, Gladys was already cacklin' too hard, and Claire and Nettie were just about ready to bolt for the closet to hide. Mum, though, she shot right back with 'You're home so rarely you might be a ghost yourself! We're just trying to make you feel welcome!'" Bonejangles laughed. "Always knew the perfect comeback line, my mum."

"My mother's capable of some caustic wit herself," Lizzie grinned. "You should hear her opinion on Proverbial Philosophy."

"That one of those fancy-learnin' books?"

"Yes, and as dull as dishwater. One of our tutors insisted that we try it. I couldn't make it past the first chapter, and Alice fell asleep when Papa read her a few pages." Lizzie shook her head, full of fond sadness. "Of course, it was a fight to get Alice to look at any book that didn't have pictures. To her, the brightly-colored nursery volumes were the be-all and end-all of literature."

"Same way in our house," Bonejangles said, leaning back and pushing his hat over his eye. "Though for different reasons – we couldn't afford anything with 'Philosophy' in the title. I learned to read off penny dreadfuls and Dad's paper. Only my younger sisters got nursery stories, thanks to me finally bein' able to earn a shilling or two delivering stuff or sweeping people's steps."

Lizzie clucked her tongue sympathetically. "Oh dear. . .everything you tell me of your life makes it sound terribly hard. I'm sorry."

"Oh, don't be. Sure, I had to earn my keep almost as soon as I could walk, but at least I didn't get stuck on a factory floor, or down a coal mine. And you learn to make your own fun with what you got. Broom handles and dust buckets made pretty good swords and knight helmets. Plus Dad once came home with a pretty nice hobby horse for us all ta share. Pretty sure he filched it, but ya don't worry about that when you're small." Lifting his hat slightly, he rolled his eye to the other socket and winked. "'Sides – if I hadn't gotten that job in a tavern when I was fourteen, I wouldn't have tried learnin' the piano, or figured out I got a thing for music, or decided to strike out on my own with my own style. Which means I wouldn't be here talkin' to you, and since I'm enjoyin' myself. . . ."

"So am I." Lizzie leaned back and looked up at the indigo sky. "I haven't had such a nice afternoon since I could go out walking with Alice."

"Oh, so I'm like your little brother now?"

"Hardly – having you and Alice as siblings would have driven me to distraction!" Lizzie teased. "Besides, you'd have to be my big brother – I think. You are older than me, right?"

"Only just – twenty to your eighteen," Bonejangles informed her. "Though I bet I've been twenty for longer. . .died in 1852, if you're curious."

"That's three years before Alice was born! You're ancient compared to me!" Lizzie poked his shoulder. "You should be on display in a museum."

"Oi, do I look like one of those weird lizard things they've been digging up Upstairs?"

"Well, with that jaw of yours. . . ." Lizzie giggled as she dodged a swat from his hat. "Come on, you know it's true!"

Bonejangles's only reply was turning his head and pretending to ignore her. Lizzie stuck her tongue out at him and returned her gaze to the sky. Twilight as usual, with that faint edge of brightness to indicate it was day. Imperceptible to living eyes, most likely, but those dead who still had an interest in keeping track of the time learned how to pick it out soon enough, along with the slight deepening of the shadows to signal night. A poor substitute for actual sunlight and moonlight, but Lizzie had learned to make do with what she could get.

And what she'd gotten lately was a surprising amount of happiness and laughter. Ever since that night at the Hip Joint, not a day had gone by where she hadn't seen Bonejangles at some point. She'd bumped into him the next afternoon at the coffee shop (gulping down a cup of pure blackness to combat his hangover), and after a brief conversation, Lizzie had suggested they meet again the next day at the bench where they'd first met. Bonejangles had readily agreed, and it had been their usual haunt ever since. They spent a lot of time just telling stories about their lives, swapping tales about mischievous sisters and the best way to escape an undeserved punishment. Bonejangles had been very impressed with her tree escape from her room; likewise, she'd been fascinated by his ability to fast-talk his way out of trouble. They also brought books to share, Lizzie reading favorite passages aloud to him while practicing her new talent with Shadow Play. Even Oliver Twist was fresh and new again with the help of their silhouette actors. How'd she'd managed twelve years without the spell, she could barely imagine.

Her parents were thrilled with her developing relationship – though they'd never said anything, Lizzie knew they had worried about her shutting herself away so much. Her mother was already talking tea invitations, while her father was suggesting he show off some of his photography to the singer, just two men alone. Secretly Lizzie thought that Arthur probably wanted a chance to size Bonejangles up and make certain that he wasn't another Angus Bumby in disguise. She couldn't blame him – the imp in her head wasn't putting in quite so much unwanted commentary, but it hadn't gone completely silent either. Ever so often there was a little hiss that she needed to beware, needed to be ready. . . . Even when just sprawled on the bench like this, with him at her side, there was a faint tension to her frame – the merest hint that, if anything went wrong, she was ready to cut and run. It irritated her, but she couldn't give up the habit. Not while the memory of shining glasses and clammy fingers lingered in the back of her brain.

Right now, though, the shades of her past seemed far, far away. Lizzie glanced over to see Bonejangles still sulking. "Oh come on, you can't have taken it that personally."

"Hmph – women," Bonejangles replied, still not looking at her.

Lizzie sat up straight and folded her arms. "Now what's that supposed to mean?"

"You're the one being a brat," Bonejangles said, finally turning his head. "I'll have you know this jaw looked just fine when I was alive."

"You'll have to draw me a picture, because I surely can't get my head around it," Lizzie told him, smirking. "Your bottom teeth are at least a foot away from your front."

"The girls Upstairs called it dashing," Bonejangles said, snapping his fingers on the brim of his hat to give it a rakish tilt. "Couldn't go anywhere without somebody telling me I looked like just the guy they'd been waiting for."

And suddenly those shades weren't so far away after all. Lizzie regarded him through narrowed eyes. "Had a lot of girlfriends, did you?"

"Wouldn't call 'em that," Bonejangles replied. "You can't keep up with that kinda stuff on the road. Just, you know, flings. Or maybe you wouldn't know, guess that doesn't happen much in your part of the world."

"Not usually," Lizzie said, remembering a few of the rumors that had flown around about Ned Ferrars and Katie Winks not long before she'd died. "So no one special in your life?"

"Nah – only went after girls who didn't mind a quick roll in the hay, no strings attached," he said, waving a hand. "Never led anybody on about what I wanted, cut 'em loose right away if they started hinting about more." He noted her sour expression. "Yeah, yeah, I know – 'loose women' and 'oughta settled down.' Heard it all before, didn't care then, don't care now. Not like I got anything against settlin' down, but I never met the right girl. And–" He gave her an awkward shrug. "You know how it is. Guy gets – urges."

Urges. The word entered Lizzie's ears, traveled straight down into the center of her belly, and flashed into hot anger. "Oh yes, you lot get urges," she growled, hands tightening on her dress. "Maybe you're nothing but urges."

Bonejangles blinked his single eye. "Uh–"

"And when you get those urges, you don't care tuppence what the girl thinks," Lizzie continued, eyes narrowing to slits as the fire inside her grew. She'd really wanted to give this creeper a chance? Told you so, the imp giggled. "You just want what you want and you don't care from whom you get it."

"Is – is this some weird way of asking me if I paid for it? Yeah, fine, couple of times, what's the–"

But Lizzie was beyond hearing at this point, beyond even seeing his overly-large jaw and bowler hat. "And it doesn't matter if the girl's said no, if she's made it abundantly clear that she does not like you, that she thinks you're creepy and horrible and deserve to fall over a cliff–"

"Hey, wait a minute–"

"No, you just go ahead and take what you bloody well want and don't give a damn how it affects her even after you said you loved her because the only person you really care about is yourself–"

"What the hell–"

"You'd just hold her down and tell her she was asking for it and then threaten to shut her up as she tried to scream for help–"

"You stop right there, Liddell!"

Lizzie's mouth snapped shut. Bonejangles was abruptly right in her face, the shadows hiding his skeletal smile. "Don't you goddamn dare accuse me of that shit!" he snarled, eye smoldering. "Every time a girl and I had a tumble, it was because we both wanted one! If she said no, I backed off!" A long finger jabbed itself into her ribcage. "You forget I have eleven sisters? You wanna know how often I was scared half to death I was gonna come home and find one of them cryin' – or worse – 'cause some asshole decided he was gonna take advantage of her? I cut half my trips outta town short just so I could check on 'em! In fact, that's the whole reason I was in that stupid thunderstorm that sent me down here! And the main reason I was so pissed off about dyin' wasn't so much that I was dead, as much as now my sisters and Mum had to fend for themselves! And yeah, Mum was tough as nails, but there's always some scumbag – I had nightmares for a week after hearing Emily's story! Terrified Claire or Nora or Gladys or even June was gonna end up the same way! Still am, honestly! And now you're gonna sit there and accuse me of being like that bludger?!"

"I – I – I–" Lizzie babbled, clinging to the arm of the bench. Oh God, her feet wanted so badly to run. . .maybe that would be better, he was bloody scary when he shouted. . .she'd already ruined things, why not just leave. . . .

"God damn it, I thought we were gettin' along!" Bonejangles continued, finally leaning back. "But no, one bad word. . .do I really look like the kind of guy who'd–"

Silence struck like a knife as his expression went from furious hurt to thoughtful. . .and then a slow, sympathetic horror. He ground his teeth together. "Oh shit. . .uh, Liddell? Something – something you didn't tell me about the way you died?"

It was the way he said it, she decided later. That tone, so genuinely concerned and sad. . .it just brought it all whirling back. She stared at him for what seemed an eternity, trying to master the swell of emotion inside of her. Then she burst into tears, burying her face in her hands.

For a while, there was nothing but the stabbing hurt of her own grief and pain, still so sharp even after just over a decade. Then she became aware of a light, hesitant pressure on her shoulder. Sneaking a peek through her sobs, she saw Bonejangles resting his hand there, more awkward than she'd ever seen him. Part of her appreciated the attempt at comfort, to the point of wanting to throw her arms around him and soak his ribs straight through. But the other part – the part the imp lived in – was intensely sensitive to the fact that he was a man, and was equally enthused with the idea of shoving him off the bench and watching his bones clatter everywhere. She settled on remaining where she was, concentrating on getting the flow of tears to dry. "I'm – I'm sorry," she whispered as she finally regained some measure of self-control. "I d-didn't mean to. . .it's only that. . .I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Bonejangles told her, pulling his hand back to scratch his skull. "Uh – I'd offer ya a hanky, but I stopped carrying one around the time I stopped needing clothes. . .and I don't think my hat would do your face any favors if ya tried to use it like that."

Lizzie surprised herself by laughing – weakly, but still. "I'm fine," she assured him, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "This – this display hasn't happened since – well, it hasn't happened in twelve years. As you might have guessed."

"Look, ya don't hafta tell me anything," Bonejangles said, pushing his bowler so far forward she could barely see his eye. "I just – it hit me all of a sudden you were talkin' like it. . .it ain't any of my business."

Lizzie almost took the out – then she thought about his rage just moments before. "No," she said, straightening her spine. "It is. Or, at least, I made it such with those cruel accusations. I'm so sorry, it's just – as you might expect, certain words tend to set me off."

"Yeah, my fault for usin' 'urges. . . .'" Bonejangles tipped his hat back up a little. "You're sure you're okay with tellin' me?"

"I wouldn't use 'okay,' but – well, you've more or less guessed what happened anyway, haven't you?"

Bonejangles sighed, the air hissing through his bones. "Bastard who burned your house down?"

"Named Angus Bumby," Lizzie confirmed. "He was one of the undergraduates at Oxford – and easily the most arrogant of them. We met for the first time at a tea my father held. It was love at first sight for him, loathing at first sight for me. I was his obsession within days. I did everything I could to dissuade him, but he just kept coming back for me, insisting that we were 'soulmates,' 'meant to be together. . . .'" She shuddered. "Once he even followed me into the ladies' toilet at the train station! My parents were dears and tried to help me, but. . .well. After Papa told him in no uncertain terms that I was never going to be his by choice. . .he decided I'd be his by – by force."

Bonejangles clenched his jaw. "So he–"

Lizzie nodded, gripping her skirt so tightly she was surprised her fingers didn't rip right through the cloth. "Snuck into our house one cold November night and took me by surprise. Held me down, had – had his – had his w-way with me. . .and then, when I wouldn't stop trying to fight back. . .he s-strangled me to death. My last memory before waking up down here is g-gasping for air like a beached fish while he glared at me and called me a tease." One hand rubbed her exposed spine. The memory of his fingers there was still so clear. . .what good was getting rid of the marks on her body if she couldn't destroy the ones on her mind? "Then he stole my sister's nightlight and – and set the house ablaze to kill the rest of my family and cover his crime."

"Damn," Bonejangles mumbled. "And you said he got away with it, right?"

"Managed to trick everyone into believing our cat Dinah was responsible," Lizzie said, voice low and disgusted. "Though I suppose it's better than them accusing Alice, as they were going to. . .he's a doctor now, can you believe it? He actually passed his exams, and – God, I don't even want to think about how many lives he's probably ruined with those clammy hands and that swollen ego."

"Me either," Bonejangles growled. "Damn, and here's me thinkin' Eddie-Barkis-whatever was the worst of the lot. . .they thought your sister did it at first?"

"Apparently – our own family lawyer said something about her playing with matches," Lizzie grumbled. "I can't believe they might have actually put her in gaol. . . ." She bit her lip, fingers drumming out a beat on her wrist. "On the other hand, maybe it would have been better than the alternative."

"Better than an orphanage?" Bonejangles asked incredulously, tilting his hat to give the appearance of a raised eyebrow.

"No – better than Rutledge Asylum."

"What?! Wait just a damn second, you said she was, what, eight when you died?"

"And nine when she went there," Lizzie nodded, each word like a knife in her heart. "They do put children in there. Children are born there – there's a former patient here in town, I can take you to meet her if you like. We met her when we went there on our second anniversary dead, and – and she told us Alice either just stared at the ceiling or – or shrieked about how it was all her fault and that she should have died too. . . ." She squeezed her eyes shut against a fresh wave of tears. "My poor little sister. . . ."

"I'm not complainin' about how I died ever again," Bonejangles declared, putting his hand back on her shoulder. "That's just – wow. But she – she can't still be in there. . .right?"

"That's the thing – we don't know!" Lizzie cried, finally meeting his eye again. "What papers we've been able to find have been silent on the subject, and Oxford's not close enough to the asylum to hear anything from the newly dead. . .and I don't think I could set foot on the grounds again. You think it's hard not knowing about your family? I'd give all the flesh left on my body to have a chance to go up there and check on her! Make sure she's gotten the life she deserves!" She clamped her fingers around his wrist. "You're sure the only way up is beyond our magic?"

"I heard it from Elder Gutknecht himself, and he knows about this sorta thing," Bonejangles told her. "Tower fulla books and a lifetime of studying this stuff behind him."

"But – it's not fair," Lizzie said, voice choked. She turned away, taking a few deep breaths to master her emotions. "You got to go Upstairs again. Why can't I?"

There was silence. And then, suddenly: "Yeah. Why can't you?"

Lizzie blinked and looked back at him. "I beg your pardon?"

"If the Elder was willing to send all of us up for a wedding, surely he wouldn't mind sending just you up to see your sister, right?" Bonejangles said, pushing his hat straight on his skull. "I mean, ain't like you're plannin' on going on a rampage, just seein' how she is!"

"I – you – you really think he would?" Oh God, she was trying not to get her hopes up too fast, but the traitorous flame was already fanning itself into a proper blaze. . . .

"He's a real nice guy, our Elder," Bonejangles grinned. "Didn't have to let the whole party go up, ya know. Coulda just been Victor and Emily and him – though I guess that wouldn't have worked out for anybody in the end. . . ." He shook off the brief dark cloud passing over his face. "Ain't the point – he can be strict, but he's got a soft heart. You tell him even half of that story, and he'll be pulling out as many phoenix feathers as he can find, I bet."

The fire leapt up in joy. "Oh Bonejangles!" She flung her arms around him, making him start. "Thank you! Thank you!"

"Eh, eh, don't thank me yet – we gotta see the guy!" Bonejangles told her with an awkward laugh, patting her back.

"Oh, right, right – how long do you think it would take to bring him here?" Lizzie asked, pulling away and straightening out where her dress had snagged a little on his bones.

"Er – well, it took us a few months to wind our way up here, but we were taking the long road," Bonejangles admitted. "Probably wouldn't be more than a month going straight up and back. . .but, uh, ya know. . .would be a lot quicker if I took you to him."

"Oh. Yes, it would, wouldn't it," Lizzie said, fiddling with her wrist again. "I'm sorry, I – it's just – I haven't left Oxford in so long. . . ." She looked around the park. "Honestly, this is the most I've been out of my house in years."

"Ain't sayin' you gotta go alone – I'm willin' to let your mum and dad come along for the ride," Bonejangles assured her. "And if you really don't wanna pull up your roots, I ain't got no problem draggin' him here. The Elder's one of those old, crusty skeletons, but he don't fall apart that easily."

Lizzie chewed the inside of her cheek, considering her options. On the one hand, the idea of leaving Oxford was frightening. The first thing that popped into her mind was that decade-old trip to Rutledge – and Earl's bloated face, smirking at her at the end of a darkened corridor. There's all sorts of Earls and Bumbys out there, the imp reminded her, stalking around her skull. All sorts of men who don't give a damn what a woman thinks. Maybe you got lucky with this one, but how quickly would your luck run out if you left? Do you want to be ripped apart and left to rot once again?

But I wouldn't be alone this time, she argued. I'd have Mama and Papa and Bonejangles and the Bone Boys! They'd protect me from anyone who wanted to hurt me! Hell, I'd protect me! Don't you remember what I did to Earl the moment he started leering? Any man who comes near me with bad intentions isn't going to know what hit him!

Having Mama and Papa near didn't deter Bumby.

They were asleep! We were all asleep! And the bastard kept me from screaming! Don't you think Papa would have come running if he'd heard? And we'll have five other men traveling with us besides – and if Bonejangles was a pub musician in life, surely he knows a thing or two about brawling! She huffed slightly. Maybe I'd feel different if we were headed to another city, but we are going to a little village in the middle of nowhere according to him. There cannot be that much danger out there.

Except for the murderer who visited twice. Why do you want to trust this man?

I've been over this before – he's nice. He treats me just the same as everyone else. He listens to me. He's taught me something that makes all those hours reading in my room so much more fun. And now he's offering me the chance to see Alice again. I don't care how scared you are – I'd be a fool to turn that down. "I'll go," she said firmly, looking him right in the eye. "We'll have to ask my parents, but – even if they turn you down, I'll go." She smiled nervously. "Besides, I always wanted to see more of the world beyond Oxford and London. Maybe we could stop by Brighton on the way – we were supposed to take a family vacation there the summer after we died."

Bonejangles snorted. "I've been there – it ain't that great. Boardwalk's fun, though." He twisted his neck from side to side. "Okay! Let's go see your folks, and then I'll tell my Boys we're shippin' out."

"Sounds good to me," Lizzie said, standing. "They won't mind leaving, will they? I'm not interrupting any shows?"

"Uh, no." Bonejangles coughed and looked away. "We played our last gig at The Hip Joint three days ago. Chauncey's been on my back to get movin' again, but – um – I've been having such a good time with you. . . ."

All right, she had to be blushing this time, no matter how impossible it was. "I see." Well, that was an – interesting confession. If any of the undergraduates had said something like that to her, she would have cut them dead with a derisive snort and a comment about how their talents were being wasted. But now. . .looking at his surprisingly shy expression, hat low over his face again. . .it made her stomach flip over in a strange, but not entirely unpleasant, way. He really liked her that much after a mere week? Then again, I'm willing to travel to a strange village with him after the same amount of time. . . . "Um – thank you?"

He laughed, breaking the tension. "Hey, thank you. You're the one who's good company, Liddell."

She grinned. "You're not so bad yourself." He really wasn't. . .she mentally snapped her fingers, making a decision. "And you know, you don't have to call me by my last name. Almost everyone Upstairs called me Lizzie. Except my parents when they're angry and – well – him."

"Lizzie, huh?" Bonejangles rolled his eye into the other socket. "Nice. . .but you look more like a 'Liz' to me."

"Liz?" She giggled, then contemplated it more seriously. "You know, I think I actually like it. Liz it is." She jerked her head toward the road. "Now come on, Bonejangles – the sooner we talk to Mama and Papa, the better."

"Sam."

Lizzie blinked, caught off guard. "What?"

Bonejangles was in that awkward pose again, hat now nearly covering everything but his lower jaw. "Sam," he repeated, back to sounding shy. "That's the name I was born with – Samuel Thatcher. Well, it's my middle name, but my first is so stupid I don't ever go by it. So – yeah." He shoved his bowler back up and shrugged. "Since – you know – you're Liz now."

Lizzie got the feeling she'd been let into a most private club. A pleasant puddle of warmth filled her belly. How the hell could she have ever considered him anything like that arse Bumby? If only you'd been alive when I was – and closer to my age, she thought, sighing softly. It would have been so nice having male company around the house that didn't disgust me. . .but that's life – and death – for you. "All right – Sam." She offered him a hand. "Let's go see how my parents feel about your idea, why don't we?"

Bonejangles took it and hoisted himself to his feet. "Sounds like a plan, Liz."


"All right – let me get this straight. You know someone that, despite all laws of nature, can send us back Upstairs."

"Just for a little while, but yeah," Bonejangles confirmed, tipping his head slightly.

"And he lives back in your hometown and doesn't usually leave."

"He's pretty ancient – mostly keeps to himself in his tower."

"But you're willing to provide transportation should we want to go plead our case before him."

"We got plenty of cash, and we're used to hiring big cabs," Bonejangles nodded. "Adding three more to the list wouldn't break us."

"And you're sure that we'd get there by the end of August?"

"Probably sooner – ain't like any of us actually need to stop to eat or sleep or – well, the other big thing," Bonejangles censored himself with a chuckle. "And we'd be going direct, instead of hitting every little town on the way."

"Okay then." Arthur clapped his hands together, expression very serious. "One final question."

"Shoot."

"Why on earth are we not packing already?"

Lizzie burst into laughter, and Bonejangles snorted. "You'd have to tell me, Mr. Liddell."

"Even the dead can't do two things at once," Lorina answered her husband with a bright smile, before turning it on their guest. "Oh, Mr. Bonejangles, I don't know how to thank you!"

"Aw, it's nothin' – Liz told me a little about how you guys cacked it, and – well, I'd feel like a real heel for not offerin', ya know?" Bonejangles said with a careless wave of his hand. "And you don't have to call me 'Mr.' Bonejangles – does it really sound like a name that needs that?"

"I don't know – I think it makes you sound like a proper gentleman," Lizzie teased him.

"All the more reason not to use it," Bonejangles chuckled. "But yeah – after I heard the story, I – it – what happened to you guys. . .'specially poor Liz. . . ."

Arthur and Lorina's amused and excited expressions faded into shock. "What – did – Lizzie, did you tell him?" Arthur asked, turning to his daughter.

"He kind of guessed," Lizzie said, fidgeting and pinching the loose skin on her wrist. "The subject of his own romantic life came up, and – I went off on him unfairly."

"Blame me using a stupid word," Bonejangles said, fiddling with his hat brim. "But, uh, yeah, I know as much of the whole pile o'shit as she decided to tell me. Never thought I'd hate anybody more than the guy who killed Emily, but this blower takes the cake."

"I hope you understand that that information is meant to be a family secret," Arthur said, straightening up with a severe frown. "And that if any of your band members get any ideas–"

"I'll bang him over the head myself," Bonejangles informed him, bringing down a fist for emphasis. "Swear on my honor as the older brother of eleven girls. Shouldn't be an issue, though," he added, ignoring the way Arthur's eyebrows shot up at the word "eleven." "Teddy and Danny were married and haven't had their heads turned again yet, Chauncey's a self-proclaimed bachelor for life – and death, and Raymond – well, he's like Chauncey, but for a different reason, I think."

"And if any of them were inclined to chat me up, I think one look at you would stop them in their tracks," Lizzie commented, ignoring the imp rattling the bars on her brain. Never stopped Bumby, never stopped Bumby!

"I would hope so," Arthur growled, then relaxed. "I'm sorry, Bonejangles, but under the circumstances–"

"Totally understandable," Bonejangles assured him. "I ain't never been a father, but – like I said, older brother. Can't imagine it's much different."

"I would guess not – especially with eleven sisters, good God. . . ." Arthur stared into the distance for a second, then shook his head. "All right, so – where exactly is this Burtonsville of yours? The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I know I've never been there."

"Isn't that where the fish cannery is?" Lorina asked. "The one that was getting so popular about the time we died?"

"Couldn't tell you about that – I probably kicked it before it was built," Bonejangles said. "But if you get me a map, I can show ya."

As Arthur fetched an atlas and Bonejangles began outlining his preferred route down to the village, Lorina rose and tugged at her daughter's hand. "Could we speak in private for a moment, Lizzie?"

Puzzled, Lizzie allowed her mother to pull her over to the other side of the room. "You're really all right with going on this trip?" she asked quietly, hands on Lizzie's shoulders and eyes full of motherly concern. "He hasn't coerced you in any way? I – I know it's a chance to finally see Alice again, but – this is rather out of character for you."

"Being friends with him in the first place is rather out of character for me," Lizzie retorted. "But all he did was make the offer – even said that if I was too uncomfortable with the idea of going with him, he'd go and bring the Elder to us. And he was the one to say that he was happy to bring you two along. I know it's a bit strange of me, but – he's different, Mama. He's – he's the sort of man I wish we'd had hanging around the house instead of those rotten undergraduates. He listens to me, he jokes with me, he doesn't leer or make – well, he makes rude comments, but not about me. Even after our bad moment, I don't feel particularly scared of him. He's got a frightening shout, but – he's also got a very comforting hand." She smirked. "Besides, I thought you liked him already."

"I do, but – it's a mother's prerogative to worry, especially when her daughter. . . ." Lorina sighed. "I'm still having trouble believing you told him the whole story."

"Well, I didn't get into detail, of course. . . ." Lizzie rubbed her leg under her skirt. "But – he'd already gotten an inkling, and I felt bad for accusing him of being much the same. . .and he was friends already with a girl who lost everything thanks to a cruel and wicked man. He's probably the only man besides Father I'd trust to know. Actually, he's probably the only man besides Father I trust period."

"M doesn't count?"

"M and I had a working relationship – and besides, it's rather different when the other party is a maggot," Lizzie pointed out. "Not to mention he never actually asked about the bruises. He may not have had the best manners, but he likely considered it too awkward."

"I would." Lorina tilted her head, lips pursed thoughtfully. "You know, at first I was a little concerned with you keeping company with a man who sang in pubs, but – you've practically been aglow this week, Lizzie. Out of the house every day, laughing and smiling. . .back to your old self."

"Almost," Lizzie replied with a grin, tapping her exposed spine for emphasis. "But it's been wonderful. I've missed having someone my own age to talk to. Even if technically he should be twice that. . .but no matter. He makes me feel – alive again. It's – nice."

Lorina smiled back warmly. "Just nice?"

Something about the way her mother said that – tone just a little too tender – set off an alarm in Lizzie's head. "It's not like that," she protested, the imp making gagging sounds. "We're friends. That's all." She gave her wrist another quick twist. "He hasn't tried anything at all along those lines, and – I'd certainly be hiding back in my room if he had."

Lorina's smile faded. "True enough. . . ." she mumbled. "My apologies, Lizzie. It's just – even twelve years dead, a few motherly instincts are still going strong."

"It's all right, Mama," Lizzie said, giving her a hug. "I understand. But you'll have to be content with a gentleman friend who's simply that."

Lorina squeezed her, then gave her hair a playful ruffle. "Even still – a gentleman friend is a big accomplishment for you." She held her daughter at arm's length again. "I'm proud of you, Lizzie. Even if he is a pub singer, he's a good man, it seems."

Lizzie took her mother's hands in hers. "I'm glad you approve." Then her expression turned wicked. "And trust me – should any of his Bone Boys try something, I'll snap them apart and scatter them to the four winds."

Lorina smirked. "Now that's my girl."

"Well, it looks reasonable enough to me," Arthur declared, getting their attention. He beckoned them over to look at the route Bonejangles had sketched in pencil. "A little twisty-turny in spots, but it still should get us down there before the summer's out."

Lorina frowned curiously, tracing the line with a finger. "We're skipping London entirely?"

"Yeah – figured you guys wouldn't want to get caught up in anything from the big city," Bonejangles said, tilting his head and rolling his eye from left to right. "Why, you wanna stop in?"

"Maybe just for a day – London is – well, it's where Rutledge is," Lorina admitted reluctantly. "And it's the source of most of our newspapers. It might be a good idea to ask around the asylum if anyone's heard anything." She looked up. "After all – what if there's a time limit on how long we have Upstairs? I don't want to waste a moment looking in the wrong place."

"Oooh, yeah, good point. Elder was talkin' about having to be back by sunrise for Emily's wedding. . . ." Bonejangles picked up the pencil and adjusted their route accordingly. "I don't mind stopping by. Anybody else?"

"Not me – that is a good idea, Lorina," Arthur nodded. "No stone left unturned."

"So long as I don't have to set foot in that nasty building again, I've no objections either," Lizzie agreed, repressing a small shudder. "So when do we leave?"

"First thing tomorrow, if you want," Bonejangles declared, rolling his eye left to right. "Not like me and my Boys have much to pack."

"Neither do we, honestly," Arthur admitted. "Shall we say about seven?"

"Eh, seven-thirty might be better," Bonejangles admitted, voice a touch embarrassed. "Chauncey takes a bit to get movin', especially if he's had a few the night before."

"Seven-thirty then." Lizzie succumbed to impulse and gave him another hug. "You really are the best man I've ever met."

"'Course I am," he said, putting his jaw in the air. "Surprised it took you this long to figure out."

"I'm a slow learner." Lizzie gave him a squeeze, then stepped back. "'Til tomorrow morning, then."

"See ya then, Liz." Bonejangles tipped his hat to Arthur and Lorina. "And you guys too. Thanks for having me over. And don't worry. Sam" – he winked at Lizzie – "will take good care of her."

With that, he ambled out the door. Arthur and Lorina exchanged a puzzled look. "Sam?" Arthur echoed.

"Well, you didn't think his Christian name was Bonejangles, did you?" Lizzie asked, giggling. "Sam Thatcher. He told me it right before we came here."

That suspiciously tender look returned to Lorina's face. "Did he. . . ."

Lizzie rolled her eyes. "It's not like that, Mother," she insisted.

"I'm sure it isn't," Lorina said, smiling. She clapped her hands. "Well – if we're leaving straightaway in the morning, best to get our packing done now, right?"

"Capital idea," Arthur said. "Won't take more than a minute anyway, I've just got to throw an extra suit or two in my bag."

"I'd better figure out which books I haven't read to death," Lizzie said, heading for her room. "And choose a halfway decent dress."

"Have you still got that blue one that matches your eyes?" Lorina asked.

Lizzie paused in the doorway, eying her. "The one you had made when we were discussing my first proper foray into the Season?"

Lorina shrugged, grinning. "You want to look nice for the Elder, don't you? And perhaps a few other people?"

"Oh Mama. . . ."

"It is the gown that survived the fire best," Lorina said, a little more seriously. "Really, Lizzie, you looked lovely in it. You should give it another try."

"I'll think about it." Lizzie shook her head with a sigh as she escaped to the stairs. Mothers. . .ah well, I suppose I can stand a little wittering. Just so long as she understands it's all for naught. Bonejangles may be nice, but – friendship is all I'd ever want from him.

. . .That said, she does have a point. That dress probably is the best I own for visiting. . . .

Chapter Text

July 16th, 1875

Whitechapel, London, England, Land of the Dead

4:23 P.M.

"Eugh. . .what are we doing over here again?"

"Searching out a man with a tray and a smile a mile wide," Bonejangles informed her, stepping over a puddle of some unidentifiable substance in the street with nary a flinch. "You haven't lived until you've tried real London street food, Liz."

"I lived very well without doing so, thank you," Lizzie retorted, wrinkling her nose as the foulest smell she'd ever encountered crawled out of a nearby sewer. Twelve years should have been enough to take care of my sinuses once and for all! "I feel like I've just stepped into Fagan's rat-hole in Oliver Twist. Or one of those charity pamphlets the Progressive Women's Club left around our house after meetings."

"Ethel belonged to one of those," Teddy said from her other side. He kicked a can out of his way, sending it clattering across the grimy cobbles. "She and her friends called themselves the Poor's Crusaders. They always seemed to be making sandwiches."

"The Progressive Women's Club preferred soup," Lizzie told him with a small smile. "Mother only helped with deliveries once, though – they unfortunately happened to pass a Punch and Judy show on the way to someone's house, and she's always had strong opinions on those."

"What's wrong with Punch and Judy?" Raymond asked, pulling down his sunglasses (though to less effect than if he'd had actual eyes behind them).

"They're nothing but 'vulgar domestic arguments' to her," Lizzie explained. "Granted, I don't think I'd take seeing Punch chasing Judy with his stick very well these days. . .they should have given her more chances to fight back."

"Have her steal the stick and smack him around for a change?" Bonejangles mused, then snickered. "Yeah, that woulda been good for a laugh or two. . . ."

"I was thinking more along the lines of getting Mr. Policeman to do his duty, but considering how useless he – was. . . ."

Lizzie trailed off as she caught sight of a man in a laborer's flat cap and suspenders, muscles worm-eaten but still bulging fairly impressively, giving her a much-too-interested grin. She scooted a little closer to Bonejangles, an anxious stirring in her stomach. Stop that stop that stop that. . . .

Bonejangles spotted the problem immediately. "Oi, go bother someone else!" he called, hitting the man with his best glare.

The laborer grunted and wandered off to the other side of the street. Lizzie relaxed a fraction. "God. . . ."

"We wouldn't let anything happen to you, Liz," Bonejangles reassured her, tightening his grip on her arm briefly. "Besides, he was probably just gonna look."

"Looking's quite enough, trust me," Lizzie muttered, keeping a suspicious eye on the man as they passed. "The way they stare, as if you were a piece of meat. . .it was bad enough getting it from the undergraduates."

"I thought all those upper-class boys had to woo a girl with flowers and poetry and all that," Danny commented from the rear.

"Don't think they didn't try. One of them even attempted to recite his poem in Latin. He was quite miffed when I corrected his pronunciation and a few of his conjugations."

Bonejangles snickered again. "You never let any of 'em have an inch, did you?"

"Well, they were all so – fake," Lizzie said, screwing up her face in old disgust. "They put on airs when they came over, and fawned over Papa like he was the Second Coming. 'Might I hold the tea cozy, sir? Might I pour, sir?' As if he wasn't smart enough to see right through them! If they'd just been themselves, maybe all those tea parties would have been more tolerable."

"Never had a tea party in my life," Teddy commented. "Just swigged it out of a mug before it was quittin' time."

"You're not missing much, believe me."

"Wooo! Can't catch me!"

Lizzie, glad for any distraction from the topic of undergraduates, turned her head to see a hoop bouncing its way along the opposite side of the street. Hard on its heels was a gaggle of blue-skinned children, armed with rotten sticks or lost bones and whooping and hollering to their hearts' content. "Hey, I remember doin' that," Bonejangles commented as the band stopped to watch for a minute. "Pop the wood frame off a carriage wheel and it could keep you busy for hours. You have one of those growing up, Liz?"

"No, I was never much interested – Alice did, though," Lizzie told him as the boy in front was overtaken by another. He promptly started hitting his usurper about the head and shoulders with his bone. "She'd chase it all over the garden – and once she showed me how you could spin it around your hips if you wiggled fast enough."

"Huh, really? I was happy enough throwin' it at the wall."

"Oh, she did plenty of that too. Drove Mother to distraction when it happened during my piano lessons." Lizzie sighed as the two lead boys abandoned the chase in favor of throwing each other to the ground and wrestling. "Poor things. I wonder if they miss their parents much."

"Depends on if they knew 'em," Chauncey commented as a girl with a ragged skirt and bones showing through her stockings caught up with the flagging hoop and sent it clattering off in a different direction. The rest of the crowd turned hard to keep up, resulting in most crashing into their neighbors and ending up in a wild tangle of limbs. A few hardy souls managed to avoid said fate, keeping up the pursuit and playfully threatening each other with their sticks. "My pop walked out on us when I was five, and I ain't forgiven him yet. Besides, it's tough as nails Upstairs. They're probably happier dead."

Lizzie glared at him. "What a thing to say!"

"No offense, Liz, but you grew up with money," Chauncey replied, unruffled. "I was fetching scraps in a clothing factory as soon as I could walk! I can still hear the looms and sewing machines and scissors all workin' away above my head. Lemme tell ya, doesn't make for much of a childhood."

"I got sent down a coal mine," Danny put in. "Only twice though – I came up coughin' so hard that they were honestly scared I was gonna die. So they had me sort what came back up instead. Never could get my hands clean afterward."

"I ever tell you about the guy who tried to stick me with a dart back when I was workin' in the local pub?" Bonejangles asked her. "Drunk as a skunk and thought it'd be funny to aim for my rear instead of the board."

"Was this the same man who attempted to brain you with a mug of beer?" Lizzie replied, horrified.

"Nope. We hadda lot of mean drunks around those parts."

"I just sold whatever old scrap I could find on the street," Raymond said, running his fingers over his skull. "Would have killed to have all the free time I wanted to chase hoops and have tea parties."

"Certainly puts my lessons into perspective," Lizzie mumbled, then looked back at the children. "I suppose you're right – they're certainly making the best of things. I guess it's just. . .well. You all had dreams about what you wanted to be when you grew up, right?"

"Who doesn't?" Bonejangles grinned. "I was gonna be the best musician this crummy old patch of England had ever seen."

"Get a real house with more than two rooms and eat meat every night," Danny said with a chuckle. "Managed the first one, at least!"

"I was gonna be a judge and sentence old Moldy Carson to hang," Chauncey said, laughing. "God, I was a little stinker."

"We all were," Lizzie assured him with a smile. Then she sighed. "I was going to travel the world – either with a husband or without. I was hoping to talk my parents into a trip to America for a special Christmas present before. . . ."

Bonejangles slipped his arm out of hers and looped it around her shoulders instead. "Yeah. We've all missed out on a lot," he said sympathetically.

"That's just my point – so have they," Lizzie said, nodding at the raggedy girl and the old lead boy, who'd won his fight and now was racing the girl to regain control of the hoop. "Maybe they haven't realized it yet, but. . .it was bad enough for Emily when she got murdered on the eve of her wedding. How do you think a little girl of eight or nine will feel when she realizes she'll never even get old enough to get that far? Or a boy who was looking forward to following in his father's footsteps one day? I know they get the advantage of permanent childhood, but – still. Is there anyone out there who doesn't really want to grow up?"

"Er – well, there was this one pair down in Kensington I knew who always said they were never ever gonna grow up," Teddy commented, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Wonder whatever happened to Peter and Wendy. . . ."

"Got a point, Liz," Bonejangles said, slumping. "Most of the boys I knew back home were all gung-ho about growin' up and gettin' out of the village. Hell, I was one of 'em. Guess it is kinda bad that they end up stuck down here."

"Doubt most of them see it that way, though," Chauncey argued. "How often do you think about the future when you're a nipper? Bet most of them will be dust before they know they've missed out on anything."

"Mmmm. . .maybe I'm actually just jealous that they can live in ignorance but I can't," Lizzie admitted, picking at the loose skin on her wrist. "Cassandra – she was the daughter of one of the other deans – once declared how romantic it was when ladies died young in books, and that she hoped she went before anyone could remember her as old and ugly. Wish I could go back and give her a good shake. I had so many plans for my life, and now. . . ."

"You ain't gonna go waiting under any oak trees for somebody to propose to you, are ya?" Raymond joked, though Lizzie detected a genuine note of concern in his rough voice.

"No – it's not like I'm miserable down here," she told him as they finally started to move on. "There's plenty to do, and I certainly don't miss some of the messier parts of being alive. I – I guess I'm just saying, I understand when people call this more of a 'waiting room' than anything else."

"And you're getting a little tired of waiting?" Bonejangles asked, squeezing her shoulders.

Lizzie looked at him. "Don't you ever?"

Bonejangles shrugged. "Maybe – right after Emily." Then he lifted his head, grinning shining in the yellow-green glow of a nearby streetlamp. "But I ain't done here yet. I can wait a little longer."

Lizzie thought of her sister, Upstairs and alone, and set her jaw. "Yes. So can I."

"Hah! You can't catch me! You can't – ooof!"

Lizzie yelped as something collided with the back of her legs, sending her sprawling forward. Bonejangles managed to catch her before she hit the pavement. "Whoa! Liz, you okay?"

"Fine," Lizzie said, stumbling briefly before managing to regain her balance. She turned to see a little boy, not more than ten, picking himself up off the cobbles. "Hello there," she greeted him sternly, brushing off her skirts. "Would you please mind where you're going?"

"Sorry, sorry," the boy said, wiping off his ragged shorts. "I was – Alice?"

Her undrawn breath caught in her throat. "I – you – I b-beg your pardon?"

The boy squinted at her. "Oh, you're not Alice," he said, shaking his head. "You got different eyes. You look a lot like her, though." He leaned his head to one side, tapping his stick against his thigh. "You're Lizzie, aren't you? From that photograph she's got?"

"She's Lizzie and I'm Alice. We're twins, you know! Just she was born ten years early." Lizzie gripped Bonejangles's arm so tight she'd swear she was leaving dents. He knows Alice. This little boy in the middle of Whitechapel knows Alice. How does he know Alice? Was he a patient at the asylum with her? Is she his adopted sister? Or perhaps he was her – no, he wouldn't call his mother by her first name! And he knows about me? Photograph, what photograph – the one Father took of us all together? But that had pride of place in the library, it couldn't have survived. . .oh, but she remembers me, she still talks about me. . .does she still think she. . .we spent all day yesterday hunting down every newspaper we could get our hands on with not a word about her, and today when I'm not even looking I bump into some random stranger who knew her personally? What kind of – no, no, Lizzie, ask him how she is before he thinks you're simple and runs away! "Y-yes, that's me," she said, finally regaining control over her tongue. "Elizabeth Liddell."

"And we're the Bone Boys," Raymond put in, the other members of the band waving.

"Farley," the boy returned, sticking out his hand to whoever was closest. "Don't have a last name – Mum tossed me out, so I ain't gonna use hers, and I never knew my pa."

"Oh – I'm sorry to hear that. . . ." Lizzie shook his hand, crouching down in front of him. "Excuse me for prying, but – you know my sister? Or, well, knew my sister?"

Farley nodded, grinning. "Uh-huh. She used to take care of me at Houndsditch! Mad as a hatter, but she told nice stories. Do you know about Wonderland?"

The memory came back in a rush – an unusually warm May 4th, a seventh birthday party held near the banks of the Isis, a white rabbit doll hugged enthusiastically and dubbed "Mr. Bunny," and a sleepy little girl resting her head on her lap and looking up at her with bright eyes: "Oh, what a curious dream I had, Lizzie! There was a white rabbit with a waistcoat and a watch, much like Mr. Bunny here, and a Hatter and a Hare and a Dormouse having tea – all completely mad of course – and a Caterpillar smoking a hookah, and a very ugly Duchess who scolded me about morals, and a Cheshire Cat that grinned just like the cheeses, and this awful Queen of Hearts who tried to have me beheaded for absolutely no reason!" A nostalgic smile spread across Lizzie's face. Oh, to have those happy days back again. . . . "I think I was the first person she ever told about it," she told Farley proudly. "In fact, I might be the reason it exists. Is she still dragging Mr. Bunny everywhere with her?"

"Mister – oh, yeah, that's the one they stole off her in Rutledge!" Farley said, tapping his temple with his stick. "I remember now! She'd just came in and was in her room unpacking when she screamed and we all came running and she was flinging clothes all over the place saying she had to have put it in there! Doctor took her back to Rutledge after a couple of days of whining, but it'd already gone missin'. Alice was grumpy for days."

"What?!" Lizzie's hands tightened on her skirt in a fury. "I gave that to her on her birthday! It was probably the only thing to survive the fire with her! Who steals from a poor orphaned child in an asylum?"

Farley shrugged. "She ain't got it now, that's all I know."

"Barbaric," Lizzie growled, glaring off down the street. "She loved that bunny like her own child. . . ." She turned back to Farley. "Speaking of which, how did she know you? What's Houndsditch?"

"The Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth," Farley recited, as if reading it off a sign. "You get dropped there if you don't got no family left, or the one you got don't want you no more. That's what happened to me – Ma dumped me on the doorstep and told me not to come runnin' back." He huffed. "Like I wanted to, she was a mean old cow."

"That's simply awful," Lizzie said, anger fading into sympathy for this poor abandoned child. "And I assume you died before you were adopted."

Farley dropped his head, as if suddenly unable to look her in the eye. "I – I kinda wish I had," he mumbled, poking at a crack in the sidewalk with his toe. "I don't – the bloke who took me in. . .I d-don't like to talk about it. Don't remember much of it, anyway."

"What, he knock you over the head?" Raymond asked, all empathy. "That's how I ended up down here, and some shit's still scrambled."

"Raymond," Lizzie scolded.

"What, I've bet he's heard worse."

"No, it's – Doctor likes to tell everybody that he gives us new 'purpose,'" Farley explained, glancing up briefly. "With me, that was makin' me forget stuff 'til I didn't even know my own name. Then he sent me to that man, and. . . ." He started fidgeting again. "He – wasn't really a new dad."

Lizzie was completely lost by this point – Chauncey, however, seemed to have guessed the meaning behind Farley's story. "Oh hell," he growled, tone suggesting his eye sockets would be mere slits if they could move. "Asshole's selling you guys to the highest bidder, ain't he?"

"Selling?!" Lizzie shot back up with a gasp. "What – why would he sell children? Are the factories so desperate for workers that–"

"Oh, no, not for labor, Miss Liddell," Chauncey interrupted, clenching his jaw. "My uncle was in this shit, and I swear to God I would have killed him for it if some copper hadn't caught him first." He sucked in a breath, the air hissing through his ribs. "You see, some guys – and maybe a few gals – they don't – they think kids are – older than they are."

Lizzie shook her head. "I'm not following."

Chauncey looked around the group, then sighed and leaned forward, whispering in her ear. Lizzie listened for a moment – then her eyes went wide. "What – no! Never!" she cried, shoving the skeleton away from her with such force that his big toe broke off. "Not with – my sister would never work in a place like that! Never! She wouldn't stand for this – this – disgusting–"

"She don't know!" Farley cried, holding up his stick as protection against Lizzie's vehemence. "She makes beds and sweeps the floor and yells at the teapots for movin' even though they aren't and then gets all pink and won't talk to anybody for the rest of the day! She aint' the one bringing us those places!"

"I should hope not! My sister is the sweetest little girl in the world and – and why is she there?" Lizzie demanded of no one in particular. "Isn't she a bit – old for the people you mentioned, Chauncey?"

"Rutledge didn't want her anymore," Farley said in a small voice as Chauncey shrugged from a safe distance. "So Dr. Bumby said he'd take her in and help her forget too."

The city fell dead silent for Lizzie. She stared at Farley from the center of a black void, the rest of the world too far away to see. No. . .it couldn't be. . .it simply couldn't be. . . "If he ever qualifies, his bedside manner will require improvement!" "Dr. Bumby?" she repeated, trying to keep her voice from raising to a hysterical shriek. She didn't quite succeed. "Angus Bumby?!"

"Uh – I think so?" Farley squeaked, shuffling behind Teddy's leg. "P-pretty sure that's what's on the sign. . . ."

Lizzie clutched at her chest. No – no no no. This can't be. He – I – I knew he qualified, but he's supposed to be far away, treating adults in some high class hospital. Being arrogant and rude but not – He's not supposed to be around children, he's not supposed to be – be wiping their minds clean and selling them to the highest bidder for – and my sister is – "But she should recognize him," she whispered, barely aware she was speaking aloud. "He barged into our house often enough – she was the one to complain to Papa! I can't blame her for not knowing he burnt the house down, but–"

"She said she didn't want to remember the fire anymore," Farley told her softly. "She's had lots and lots of sessions with him and his key. Betcha the first thing he did was make her forget him."

Oh God. Lizzie's hands moved down to her stomach, which was lurching despite probably having dissolved long ago. She was going to be ill. Her darling little sister, trapped with the monster who'd murdered her family. . .praising him as a savior, delivering her from her pain. . .helping him to destroy more lives out of ignorance. . .staining her hands and not even realizing –

She looks like you, the imp suddenly reminded her, its voice sad instead of angry for once. And he's making her forget her life, just like he does with those poor children. Do you really think he'll stop at just keeping himself safe from the police?

It was too much. It was all too much. Lizzie whirled and bolted down the street, needing to put as much distance between her and this horrible truth as possible. Bonejangles called after her, but she ignored him. She couldn't stand to be there one second longer. She had to run.

She had no idea where or how long she ran – the world was a blur around her, and without the limits of breathlessness and exhaustion, there was no way to mark the time. But, eventually, she smacked into a wall at the end of some mold-heavy alley. She beat her fists against the stained bricks, then collapsed to the ground, sobbing so hard her eyes almost popped from their sockets. This wasn't right. For ten years she'd held onto the hope that Alice's stay in the asylum had been brief. That she'd moved on and started a new life for herself. That she'd found a family who loved and cherished her as she deserved. That her future was one worth looking forward to. And instead. . . . "Why?" she croaked out between the sobs. "Why do this to us? Why take everything away from me and my family and give it all to him? What possible crime could we have committed to warrant such punishment?"

The cold bricks were silent. "My father was a good man, and helped educate many. My mother did everything she could to help others! I wasn't perfect, I admit, but I tried! I did my best to be friendly and kind! And Alice – what cause is there for ruining the life of a girl who hadn't even reached ten yet at the time?!" Sorrow boiled away on the flames of anger as she hoisted herself to her feet, glaring at the eternal twilight sky. "You can't tell me Bumby deserves happiness more than any of us! Not after what he did! Where's the justice everyone tells me is supposed to exist? Where's the balancing of the books I always heard about from Reverend Dodgson and his ilk?" She gritted her teeth, tears still streaming down her cheeks. "Tell me what's the point, God! Answer me!"

"Ain't no use, Liz. If He's up there, He don't feel like talkin'."

Lizzie spun. Bonejangles stood at the mouth of the alley, hat in his hands. "You sound like me on my way out," he continued, turning the bowler around and around. "I was pissed as hell that something so stupid was gonna take me away from my family. I asked one of the old village pastors what he thought of it after I'd settled in Downstairs. All he could give me was that old bull about 'He works in mysterious ways.' Me, I'm startin' to think He buggered off a while back. Abandoned us to whatever the hell it is we do. Makes more sense than Him lettin' shit like this happen."

". . .Reverend Dodgson would call you quite blasphemous for that," Lizzie said, wiping her cheeks with her sleeve.

"No lightning yet, so I ain't gonna worry about it." He sighed and looked away, plopping his hat back on his head. "Look, I'm sorry for interruptin' – I know you probably wanna be alone. I just – I couldn't forgive myself if you ran into trouble out here and I wasn't around ta help. Know your parents would definitely find a way to kill me again." He scratched the back of his skull. "But if you want me to skedaddle now, give you a little breathin' room–"

"No," Lizzie said immediately, hurrying toward him. "No, stay, I – oh, Sam. . . ." She flung her arms around him, pressing her face into his ribs as the tears started anew. "My sister, he's got my sister. . . ."

"I know," Bonejangles whispered, sounding sick to his nonexistent stomach. One hand patted her back. "I'm so sorry, Liz. I was hopin' for a better ending too."

"There are no happy endings. Not for us."

There was a moment's silence, broken only by her sniffles. Then Bonejangles said firmly, "That's bullshit, Liz, and you know it."

Lizzie looked up, startled. "You can look at my life and say that," she said, annoyance flickering on the edges of her grief.

"Yeah, because we ain't at an ending yet," Bonejangles replied, frowning down at her. "Crow's got your sister – that's bad and you won't hear me saying different. But it sounds like her head ain't gone yet. And this whole trip's about gettin' you Upstairs. Won't be that hard to turn it from just seein' how she is into a rescue mission."

Lizzie squinted at him. "I thought we weren't supposed to interfere with living affairs."

"You tell me what you think of that."

Lizzie's jaw clenched. "I think you summed it up very well with 'bullshit.'" She let go of him and scrubbed her face with her hands. "You're right – it's not over yet. I can't sit here and wallow in self-pity – not if there's any chance at all of saving my sister. He may have destroyed me, but I swear to – to myself that he won't do the same to her!" She stood up as straight as she could. "I'll have to pass on the street food, Sam. We've got to get back to Mama and Papa – do you think they're still in our hotel room?"

"Now that's the Liz I know," Bonejangles grinned, tipping his hat to the side. "And I don't see why not – your dad's still probably practicin' that speech he's tryin' to write for Alice when he sees her again. Better pick up the Boys first, though, they're waitin'."

"And probably thinking I'm hysterical for just bolting like that. . .well, I feel hysterical," Lizzie said as they exited the alley. "Just have to put it to good use." She smiled over at him. "Thank you for coming after me. You're the best friend a girl could ask for."

"Besides another girl, you mean?"

Lizzie snickered. "Well, I didn't always get on with the ladies around Oxford, so I wouldn't know for sure." She took his hand, wishing – not for the first time – that she could actually feel those bony fingers. "Right now, I'm just glad that I didn't let my temper get the better of me that first day in the park."

"Me too," Bonejangles said, giving her fingers a squeeze. "Thanks for givin' me a chance. You're a hell of a gal, Liz. Damn shame I couldn't have met ya when we were both breathin'."

"To be fair, the age gap might have been a bit of a problem then," Lizzie reminded him, glad of the chance to tease him. It helped settle her nerves. "You think I make jokes about you being ancient now. . . ."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm a dinosaur, I've heard it all before," he said, nudging her. "You need to come up with some new material, Liz." His tone turned more serious. "So, ready to head back?"

Lizzie looked up the street, then back at her friend. Part of her wanted to get started right away, but the other part – the part that remembered chilly hands and shining glasses and pain – was still feeling a bit wobbly. She pulled him close against her, resting her head on his sternum. "In a minute. I'm – I'm not quite ready yet."

Bonejangles nodded, wrapping his arms around her. "Take your time."

 

Chapter Text

July 27th, 1875

Sandford, England, Land of the Dead

2:48 P.M.

"Excuse me? Is this cab for hire?"

The man perched on the seat looked up from his sandwich. "Right after I finish my lunch," he told Lizzie, wiping his mouth with his handkerchief. "Haven't seen you 'round these parts before."

"We just got in yesterday," Lizzie explained, glancing at the anxious group clustered around her. "And we're a bit lost, unfortunately. Tell me, do you know where Burtonsville is?"

"The cannery village? Yeah, I know where that is," the cabbie replied with a nod. "Hell, my last living job was taking some people out of there and to here."

Lizzie clapped her hands. "Oh, wonderful! The last idiot we used almost sent us completely off course because he was too proud to admit he didn't know where it was. . .how far is it from here?"

"Five days, tops, but if we don't stop it'll probably be more like three," the cabbie told her. "In a bit of a hurry, aren't we?"

"It's important business," Arthur spoke up, using his best "dean" voice. "We have to see Elder Gutknecht as soon as possible."

"Well, won't take me more than a couple of minutes to finish this," the cabbie replied, grinning. "Throw any luggage you got on board and hop in."

"Thank you." Arthur promptly followed instructions and hoisted the suitcase containing everyone's change of clothes onto the back. "About bloody time we found someone who knows what they're doing! How far behind are we, do you think?"

"Just a coupla days," Bonejangles assured him. "I was startin' to worry we weren't gonna get there 'til September!"

"We probably would have been in Scotland by then if Danny hadn't noticed we were going in the wrong direction," Lizzie muttered. "Seriously, we're dead. How can you still be so desperate for a fare that you'd lie straight to your passengers' faces?"

"Well, we don't need to worry about him anymore," Lorina said, patting her shoulder. "And I doubt he'll ever pull such a trick again with the way you and Bonejangles laid into him."

"Yeah, that was a hell of a blue streak you cursed, Liz," Bonejangles agreed, all admiration. "I swear, he'd gone white again by the time you were through!"

"He deserved it," Lizzie snapped. "We told him that my sister needed us. Oh God, I hope she's still all right. . . ."

Lorina hugged her. "I hope so too. But we're very close to finding out once and for all."

"She sounds tough," Danny said, opening the door to the cab. "I bet she'll be fine. Maybe she's already figured out who the scunner is and got him thrown in the clink."

"Ooooh, one can only hope."

The cabbie swallowed the last bite of food, then sucked the grease from his fingers, watching them curiously. "Family trouble?"

"My living sister really needs our help," Lizzie provided. "We're hoping Elder Gutknecht can get us Upstairs."

"Is that so? Well, I heard that there was a plague of living dead over in Burtonsville at the beginning of the year, so I'm guessing he can help."

"Yeah, you're looking at part of it," Bonejangles grinned as the others started piling into the cab. "Your final passengers tell you all about it?"

"Just overheard some whispers from the back – you guys scared them silly," the cabbie chuckled. "Guess I should be thanking you, though – gave me a heck of a story to tell the boys when I dropped them off! Never thought I'd have a lord and lady in my cab!"

Bonejangles paused, one hand on the door. "Lord and lady?" he echoed.

"Yeah, Ever-something. Plus their daughter, maid, and butler. Surprised they didn't have a driver of their own. . .then again, the way Old Frog-Face had to paw in his wallet to pay me says they weren't exactly on the ups of society anymore."

Bonejangles ground his teeth together. "Everglot, you think?"

"That's it!" The cabbie slapped his knee. "I remember the lady because she had her hair piled on her head so high I never thought it would fit in the carriage! Was constantly on me to go faster too – drove both me and Pretty Ebony here to distraction, let me tell you. And the girl. . .she was in a wedding dress, but I didn't see any husband. Looked sad as anything. Figured she tried to elope and got caught."

"Mmmm. . .ready to go?" the musician asked, rubbing the side of his skull.

"As soon as you're in." The cabbie waited as Bonejangles joined the others inside, then slapped the reins. "Hiya! Hold on, folks – we're off!"

The carriage rocked forward as Pretty Ebony (who was now more a pretty ivory thanks to most of her skin having fallen off) broke into a quick trot. Lizzie grinned eagerly at her companions. "Three days away! I can hardly wait!"

"You and me both, Liz," Chauncey said, leaning against the back of his seat. "I can already taste the latest Ms. Plum's whipped up at the B&S."

"Think Paul's picked up anything new while we've been gone?" Danny asked.

"Oh, you know Paul – he ain't satisfied until he's got some new cocktail on the menu," Teddy replied.

"Paul?" Arthur asked, tilting his head.

"The headwaiter at the Ball & Socket," Teddy provided.

"Your pub has a headwaiter?"

"Well, he used to work in a fancy restaurant, but when he ended up down here, he and Ms. Plum really hit it off, so. . .he's a nice guy, you'll like him."

"Ms. Plum too," Chauncey agreed, nudging Bonejangles with his foot. "She's a real peach, isn't she?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah," Bonejangles said, staring out the window. "Peachy. Great."

Lizzie frowned. Well, this wasn't like him. He should have been the most enthusiastic of all, apart from herself, about getting back on course. Instead, he seemed distracted – and not in the good "composing a new song" kind of way. "Sam? What's wrong?"

Bonejangles rolled his eye toward her. "Well. . .you know how I was just talkin' with the driver about that lord and lady?"

"Yes, I can remember things that happened not five minutes ago."

"I'm serious, Liz," Bonejangles replied, turning to look at her properly. "It's got me worried."

"What about?" Lizzie asked, swallowing down her next teasing remark. He did look anxious, jaw held tight and eye hooded. It wasn't a good expression on him. "Did you know that family? Play for them once?"

"Not really. Ya see. . .Everglot's Victoria's last name."

Arthur and Lorina stared blankly at each other. Lizzie, however, was able to make the leap – as were the Bone Boys. "Our Victor's Victoria?" Raymond asked. "That sad little girl behind the pillar?"

"That'd be her," Bonejangles confirmed.

"You're sure, Bonejangles?" Chauncey pressed, leaning forward.

"Course I'm sure! I was sitting next to their housekeeper during the whole mess, wasn't I? She told me everything about it, and that included who she worked for!"

"So after Emily dumps her biggest dream down the toilet for that lady's sake, she turns around and does a runner on Victor?" Teddy said, steaming. "What a bitch!"

"Language!" Lorina cried, folding her arms.

"Sorry, Mrs. Liddell, but I'm pissed! All of us knew how much Emily wanted a husband, and Victor was right on the verge of giving her one when she saw Little Miss Living's face and decided it was wrong! Now we hear that Old Rosy Cheeks didn't even bother getting married?"

"Hang on, hang on," Lizzie said, holding up a hand. "I heard what the driver said too, and – well. Would you think that someone who looked 'sad as anything' actually wanted to be in his cab?"

"You saying her parents – kinda kidnapped her?" Danny asked, tapping on his mushroom-shaped skull. "Why?"

"Think that's our fault, boys," Bonejangles said, guilt oozing out every little crack and pit in his bones. "We got in their house intendin' to give 'em a fright, right? I'm thinkin' we gave 'em enough of one that they decided they weren't gonna live there anymore. Hildy told me they weren't wild about marrying their kid to somebody in fish anyway. Us showin' up might have been the last straw."

"Aw cra – crud," Raymond corrected himself with a quick glance at Lorina. "And here I was thinkin' we were doing Victor a favor. . . ."

"Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, if you'll allow me the cliche," Arthur said. "But it might not be as bad as you think. I don't know how eager the parents were about the match, but if Victor really loves this Victoria, I'm sure he'd stop at nothing to track her down."

"He did fight a guy waving a sword around with a barbecue fork for her," Bonejangles said, perking up a little. "And from what I heard from Hildy, his parents were crazy about finally gettin' into high society. Bet they wouldn't let the Everglots slip away." He drummed his fingers on his knee. "Would be nice to know for sure, though."

"We can spare a few minutes for you to ask about any news when we get there," Lizzie assured him. "Besides, I know you're not going to let us go see the Elder without introducing us to all your friends first."

That finally made his skeletal grin look like an actual smile again. "Damn straight." He clapped his hands together. "All righty then – who's up for a game to keep us from worryin' about this three days straight?"


". . .This is it?"

"Yup," Bonejangles said, spreading his arms wide. "Home sweet home." He smirked back at her. "Never said it was a big home."

"Yes, but – I'm sorry, I was still expecting a little more," Lizzie admitted, looking around them. Their cabbie had dropped them off in the Burtonsville town square – which, to her eyes, was barely a square at all. There were all of the requisite elements – an open area in the center, shops and houses in a ring around it, and some sort of decoration – in this case, a pedestal sporting the skeletal remains of a horse – for visual interest, but. . .the whole place had a rather hemmed-in look. The buildings pressed up against each other, hunching over the cobbles like children studying insects, and all the streets leading out were quite narrow and crooked. Even the people tended to form smaller, tighter groups, navigating the space with care to avoid collisions. It was like the village was attempting to hide from the world. "Suddenly I'm not surprised nobody could find it."

"Lizzie, that's rather rude," Lorina scolded. "It seems a perfectly nice village."

"Downstairs, yeah, for sure," Bonejangles nodded. "Upstairs they tend to get a little uptight. And yeah, I know it's pretty much a big streak o'nothin', but it's our big streak o'nothin'."

"Which way is your pub?" Arthur asked, squinting at a nearby barber shop. "Hmm. . .I've been wondering lately if I oughtn't do something with my beard. . . ."

"I wouldn't ask Mr. Clipper – he takes off just about everything, including your nose," Chauncey warned. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Ball & Socket's that way."

"And Elder Gutknecht's tower is thataway," Bonejangles said, pointing to the left. "But he does sometimes wander down for a drink, so we might as well check the pub first. Gotta get all the introductions out of the way too." He winked at the Liddells. "Plum won't forgive me if I don't give her the chance to crack a few of your ribs."

The trio chuckled. "Lead on, then, Bonejangles," Arthur encouraged. "After all that traveling, I could do with a pint."

A couple of minutes wandering around the twisty little side streets later, they were in front of the pub. It was a true companion to The Hip Joint, Lizzie, noted – a cozy hole-in-the-wall nestled between decaying stone walls and advertised mainly via a faded wooden sign. Lizzie snorted as she noted Bonejangles's distinctive jaw plastered on the worn brown circle. "Such ego."

"Hey – lead act and part owner here," Bonejangles replied, poking her in the shoulder. "I earned my ego."

"Fair enough – I hope Bumby doesn't have his awful face on the Houndsditch sign," Lizzie added, mood darkening. "I can only imagine how awful it would be for passers-by to have his eyes following you about." She shuddered. "I still can't believe he's running an orphanage. . . ."

"Try not to worry about it too much, dear," Lorina counseled. "We're almost to the point of seeing him off."

"Right on," Bonejangles agreed. "Chin up, Liz. Think about all the neat stuff you'll be able ta tell your sister when you see her again."

That – was actually a very comforting thought. She could already see Alice watching her with bright eyes, hanging on her every word and peppering her with questions about how the afterlife worked. Maybe a bit of it would even end up in her Wonderland – if the Queen of Hearts ever succeeded in beheading someone, they would need a place to go. She nodded. "Better learn all your friends' names then."

"That's the spirit." Bonejangles pushed open the door of the pub and waved them in. "Ladies first!"

Inside, Lizzie again found herself making comparisons to The Hip Joint. The layout was roughly the same – a maze of tables on the green-tinted floor, lit with lamps spewing purple and yellow light; an old, scratched-up bar looming in the back, a rainbow of glowing alcoholic alchemy sitting on its shelves; and a rickety stage to the left, complete with a pink-lined coffin that had been repurposed as a piano. Rather than cards, though, billiards seemed the game of choice for the customers – she could see a couple of skeletons in the back sending the multicolored balls rolling all over their little green field. There was also a dart board, though all the darts seemed to have ended up in the wall beside it. At least there's more room to move in here, she thought, venturing down the stairs with her parents close behind. After so long in carriages, I need the space!

Raymond made a beeline for the piano, followed by Teddy and Danny. "Ah, my sweet baby," he said, running his fingers along the frayed padding lovingly. "Hope they've bothered to keep you in tune!"

"Oh, they know what you'll do to 'em if they don't," Danny teased, zipping his finger down Ray's ribcage.

The sound caught the attention of one of the billiards skeletons. He looked up, and his eye sockets seemed to go wide. "Hey! Bonejangles and the Boys're back!" he called, dropping his cue.

Almost as one, the crowd turned to see – and then corpses were erupting from their chairs and dashing across the floor in a mad explosion of cheering to welcome their wayward son and his merry band of misfits home. Lizzie squeaked, pressing up tightly against her parents. "Good God!"

"Tell me about it!" Lorina said, gripping her tightly. "All that energy – if half of them weren't skeletons, I'd barely know they were dead!"

"And Bonejangles claims the living Upstairs can be uptight?" Arthur said, face full of overwhelmed disbelief. "I'll believe that when I see it!"

A face belonging to a rather wrinkled lady sporting an absurdly large brown hat with what looked like reeds sprouting out the top turned toward the three. "Oh, and there's new arrivals too! Hello dears!"

"New arrivals?" A skeleton with pigtails peered over her shoulder. "No, wait, don't ring the bell, they look as if they've been dead for a while."

"They must be visitors!" another withered lady in a large hat, this time in blue, cried, clapping her hands. "Welcome!"

The crowd surged toward them, everyone shoving their hand forward and eager to make friends. "What are your names?"

"Where are you from?"

"She's a pretty girl – shame to see someone so young down here!"

"Reminds me of poor Emily – you're not a murdered bride too, are you?"

"You must tell us how you keep your hair so well-attached, madam!"

"Look at their clothes, Albert! They must be rich!"

"Why's the Mummy and Daddy look so crispy?"

"Bonejangles, did you pick up some strays?"

"Hell of a thing to call one of the old Oxford deans!" Bonejangles retorted, pushing his way through the mass of people to stand with the trio. Lizzie shuffled behind him a few steps for protection. "Back off, give 'em a little space! They ain't here just for the pleasure of it!"

"But who are they?" a tiny skeleton child in a blue sailor suit insisted.

"Arthur, Lorina, and Elizabeth Liddell," Arthur said, waving at the crowd.

"Lizzie, please," Lizzie said, scanning the crowd. "Excuse me – is Elder Gutknecht here?"

"Nah, haven't seen him in days," one of the skeletons replied. "Why are you looking for him?"

"Well, we – we need to go Up."

The bar abruptly fell silent. Lizzie squirmed as every eye and eye socket seemed to burn a hole through her. "Up?" the blue-hatted lady echoed.

"Everyone wants to go Upstairs these days, it seems," her friend in the brown hat commented. "Why do you want to go back there, my dear?"

"Never ash nice as you – hic – remember," one rather wobbly-looking skeleton at the bar, a tankard in his hand.

"Oh trust me, our nostalgia was removed long ago," Lorina informed him. "It's – it's our daughter. Something awful's happened to her."

"Yeah – she'sh dead," the wobbly skeleton replied, thrusting out his tankard at Lizzie.

"Obviously we have two," Arthur snapped. "Look, this is a delicate subject, but the short of it is, we died in a house fire twelve years ago set by a man who couldn't or wouldn't understand that Lizzie here didn't fancy him." Lizzie shivered, and he squeezed her shoulder. "He was never caught, and now works as a psychiatrist and owner of an orphanage, where – he doesn't have the children's best interests in mind."

A ripple of whispers went through the crowd. "He ain't one of those who–" one of the billiard-playing skeletons started, tone hard.

"We don't know about him himself, but he's certainly selling them to those who are," Lizzie told him. "And – and he's got my sister in his power. Alice was only eight when the fire happened, and she's – she's been in bedlam for the past decade. She doesn't know what sort of evil he's capable of, and–" She swallowed, somehow, despite the lack of necessary soft tissue. "And she happens to look a lot like me."

The bar exploded into noise again, although this time of an angrier sort. "That rotten bastard!"

"Messin' around with little ones – how the hell does anybody do that?"

"Oh, I thought our poor Emily had the worst story of all of us!"

"Bet Barkis or Eddie or whatever would get along great with him."

"Don't worry, folks, the Elder will be sure to help!"

"Oh yes – this demands justice be done!"

"He's a good fellow," a heavyset man in a long coat and top hat nodded. "Gave Master Victor and Miss Emily a chance at a real wedding, after all. And it was nice for me to talk to old Cleavehard one last time. Let him know I'm all right down here."

"Master – oh, you knew Bonejangles's friend?" Lizzie guessed, glancing hopefully at the musician.

Bonejangles shook his head. "Died before the whole mess."

"More in the middle of it," the man confirmed with a grin. "I was the Van Dort driver back when I was breathing. Loved the pipe a little too much – cough finally caught up with me while we were looking for him on the eve of his wedding to Miss Victoria." He chuckled. "Funny thing – the last bit of news I ever heard from our crier was that he'd run off and eloped with a corpse. Then I get down here and find out it's true! Well, mostly." He turned a fond gaze to the ceiling. "Nice bloke, our Victor. Quiet and shy as anything, but with a good heart. Kinda considered it a shame he was going to follow his father into the family business. The way he played his piano. . .course, he didn't like too many other people listening to that. Think his mum scared him off going professional."

Bonejangles winced. "Yeah. . .speaking of scarin', Mayhew, you haven't heard anything about him lately, have ya?" he asked, leaning forward with an anxious look in his eye. "Got some bad news about that Miss Victoria earlier that shook my bones. What went down here after me and my Boys left?"

"Well–"

Before Mayhew could continue, however, there was a delighted yell from the direction of the bar. "Bonejangles! You're home!"

"Ms. P! Hey!" Bonejangles laughed, waving to someone Lizzie couldn't see. "Yeah, had to come back in a hurry–"

"Yes, I see!" There was a commotion near the back of the crowed, and then a short blue woman like a squat bell, clad in an oversized chef's hat and a stained apron, came barreling through assembled corpses, shoving people aside with nary a thought. She flung her arms around Bonejangles – and Lizzie too, to the girl's surprise. "About time you settled down with someone! We'll have to prepare another wedding feast! Who are you, my darling? And oh, you must be the new in-laws! Swept your daughter right off her feet, I'm sure."

"Whoa, whoa, wait – friend, Ms. Plum!" Bonejangles cried, eye darting frantically about the room as people began to catcall. "I ain't – she wouldn't – it's not like that! Christ, woman, you're gonna get me killed by her dad all over again!"

Lizzie giggled, any annoyance over the misidentification melting into amusement. "Lizzie Liddell, and we really are just friends," she said, managing to extract herself from Ms. Plum's sturdy grip. Yikes, cracked ribs is right. . . . "He's doing me a favor – my sister's in trouble Upstairs, and I need Elder Gutknecht's help to warn her before it's too late."

"One of the others will be happy to give you the full story, I'm sure," Arthur said, extending a hand. "Arthur Liddell, and this is my wife Lorina."

"Ms. Plum," the woman said, shaking it. "Oh dear, I'm sorry about all that, it's just – he really needs to find himself a proper lady friend," she added, frowning at Bonejangles.

"I did!" Bonejangles protested, grinning and nudging Lizzie. "You didn't say she had to be more than a friend."

"You know what I mean! A man needs someone to look after him, even after he's dead." She shot a warm look over her shoulder at Mayhew, who returned it. "I still think you and Emily would have done well together. . .though I guess everything with Victor worked out in the end. After all, if she went Up, it couldn't have been a complete disaster, now could it?"

"Maybe not for her, but I heard something just before we got here that makes me think 'complete disaster' mighta hit Victor," Bonejangles said, turning serious again as he crouched in front of her. "We get any new arrivals with the scoop?"

"You can just ask me – Bonejangles, was it? Though I'm afraid I don't have much in the way of good news to tell."

The group turned toward the voice. Tucked away at a corner table was a little old prune of a lady, sitting with a nattily-dressed skeleton sporting a carefully-waxed mustache. "It's all down to that dreadful pastor," the woman replied, adjusting her tiny gold-rimmed glasses – though her eyes were so squinted behind them Lizzie doubted she could see anything at all. "Can't leave well enough alone."

"Hey, I know you," Bonejangles said, straightening up. "You're Alfie's gal, ain't ya? The one who nearly knocked his block off with your walker."

The old lady laughed and rubbed the back of her head. "It's hard to recognize someone when they haven't got any flesh anymore! You did give me quite a turn!"

"It doesn't matter, buttercup," the skeleton – presumably Alfie – assured her, one arm slung lovingly around her shoulders. "Not even a crack. It would take a lot worse than that to keep us apart." He nodded politely at the Liddells. "Alfred and Gertrude Carter, at your service."

"Pleasure to meet you," Lizzie said, dropping a curtsy as both Arthur and Lorina nodded back.

"Yeah – guess it was more of a turn than we thought," Bonejangles said, looking her up and down. "Last time I saw you, you were still breathing."

"Ah, well, it was wonderful to see my Alfie again, but all the excitement. . .my poor heart just couldn't keep up," Gertrude confessed, adjusting her glasses again. "Bedridden the next day, and Below just three days after that. Not that I minded too much," she added with a loving squint at her husband.

Lizzie surprised herself with a tiny spurt of jealousy. She'd thought she was long past any desire for marriage, but – still. Why couldn't that have been her future, instead of what she'd gotten? "I'm sorry about your death. . .but what about the pastor being dreadful?" she asked, pulling her mind away from the subject.

"Yeah, what did Old Stiffy do when he wandered back to the church?" Bonejangles added, slipping into the seat across from the Carters. "Last I saw of him, he was wanderin' down the road in a daze after Johnny told him to shut his yap and stop gettin' in our way."

"Well, he came back, and more's the pity," Gertrude replied, puckering her lips. "The very next day, when the maid came in with my lunch, she told me Galswells had declared poor Master Van Dort damned."

"Damned?" Bonejangles swiveled his head around to look at the rest of the crowd. "Victor? Really?"

"I heard him through my window later – he was going on about how he'd 'broken the veil' and 'summoned demons from Hell' and things like that," Gertrude said, rolling her eyes. "According to him, Master Van Dort was practicing black magic in the woods and brought all of you up as his undead army of darkness or some such nonsense."

"He did see the giant wedding cake, right? And the band? And the girl in a white gown?"

"Yes – labeled it a 'Satanic ritual' to 'bind his soul to the Underworld.'"

Bonejangles plopped his skull into his hands. "Ah jeez. . . ."

"He sounds like he's not all there in the head," Arthur said, tone disbelieving. "He must be quite a lot of entertainment for the living villagers."

"Oh no – the trouble with Burtonsville is, everyone's afraid of Pastor Galswells," Gertrude said, raising a finger. "I told him where to shove that ridiculous hat of his when he came in to do my last rites and told me I'd be slaving in the fiery pit for 'lending assistance to Master Van Dort's infernal activities,' but for most of the village, his word is law. By the time I died, almost everyone else had taken up the cry. Between that and the Everglots vanishing, I don't think that poor boy has a friend in the world Upstairs."

Lizzie bit her lip as her thoughts turned to Alice, all alone with Bumby in Houndsditch, her happiness stolen from her too. "That's simply awful."

"Tell me about it," Bonejangles growled. "Where does that preacher get off. . .hey, you know what happened with the Everglots? Whole reason I got worried 'bout Victor was 'cause the cabbie who got us here said he took the lot of them to Sandford."

"Gone the very next morning – they must have whisked off right after you all left," Gertrude said. "I don't know much more than that, beyond Miss Victoria almost certainly not wanting to go. That moment in the church they had together. . .I can't see her leaving that all behind. Neither could the Van Dorts – last I heard before my death, they were hiring detectives to track her down."

"Yeah, the cabbie said as much too. . .Goddamn, this wasn't how things were supposed to turn out," Bonejangles complained, slumping across the table and dragging his hat low over his brow.

Lizzie patted his spine. "I know all about that. And you seem to know a lot for a woman who was bedridden," she added, looking up at Gertrude.

"Thank our town crier – he makes it his business to know everything everyone is doing and scream it throughout the village. There's no such thing as a secret in Burtonsville unless you pay him off!" Gertrude laughed. "And I wasn't shy about badgering my maid for news – ended up making a last adjustment to my will to leave her a little extra, I was on her back so much. I hope she's found herself another situation."

"Those sort tend to hit the ground running," Arthur said, wrapping his arm around Lorina. "I'm sure she's just fine, Mrs. Carter. And hopefully this Victor Van Dort will be too."

"Yeah. . . ." Bonejangles straightened back up, rolling his eye to the right socket. "Least one good thing came of all this mess. Where's Barkis? I owe him another tooth-rattler."

"Ah, our esteemed 'lord' left us not long after you did," a French accent reported. Lizzie saw a blue head weaving its way toward them, disappearing and reappearing as he struggled through the crowd. "By Bloated Barry's account, he's gone Down."

"Oh, no kiddin', Paul? Wasn't expectin' it to happen so soon," Bonejangles said, disappointed.

"Well, if he's ended up in Hell, surely he's getting more than just a punch to the GAH!"

Lorina leapt backward, and Lizzie herself nearly jolted out of her remaining skin as Paul's head broke through final line of corpses – carried on a silver tray by a man in a chef's outfit. "What – where's the rest of you?" she blurted, unable to help herself.

"Unfortunately, I have never found out, mademoiselle," Paul said. His bow tie twitched as he spoke, and Lizzie realized with a surge of revulsion that it was in fact a pair of cockroaches. "I think perhaps it was shipped back to my parents in France. . .I do hope they never learned the exact circumstances of my death."

"What exactly happened?" Arthur asked as Lorina goggled.

"Let me just say I have learned it is a bad idea to get drunk and take bets in a kitchen in which there are many sharp knives," Paul replied blandly.

Lorina suddenly groaned. "Head waiter. . .you awful people," she said, frowning at Bonejangles.

"He came up with it," Bonejangles retorted, pointing at a chuckling Paul. "Anyway, our favorite sinner's with the rest of the devils?"

Paul nodded – not an easy task when you didn't have much in the way of neck. "Barry told us all about it – Barkis jumped him with a knife near his pond, screaming about how he'd have his revenge for the way we'd treated him."

". . .Seriously?" Lizzie asked, arching an eyebrow.

"That was Barry's thought precisely," Paul laughed. "He said he was ready to just go for a paddle and ignore the man when suddenly, thick white smoke rose from the ground around them. Moments later, they were surrounded by a ring of bloodied young ladies in wedding gowns, who immediately fell upon Barkis. According to Barry, there was quite a lot of screaming, then a fog came over them, and when it cleared–" Paul bobbed his chin in his best imitation of a shrug "–pas plus Barkis."

"Huh – sounds like every girl he killed came back for him," Bonejangles murmured. "Barry see Emily in there?"

"No, he didn't – but I'm sure she was there in spirit," Paul grinned.

"Ugh, that was a bad one, Paul. But yeah, sure you're right. And no matter what, it was no more than the bastard deserved." He pushed back his hat and nodded at the Liddells. "All right – you folks must be itchin' ta get movin', so we're off to see the wizard. You boys keep this lot amused 'til we get back, okay?" he added toward his Bone Boys.

"I think we can manage without ya for a while," Chauncey replied, angling his grin into a shadowed smirk. "Go on, get everything straightened out. And if the Elder tells you 'no. . . .'" He cracked his knuckles. "We'll find ways to get persuasive."

"Yeah, and probably get turned into a newt for your trouble," Bonejangles joked. "But it's appreciated, Chaunce. All right, you guys, hang tight until I get back! Then we'll all have a round, just like old times!"

The pub erupted in cheering. "Don't be long, BJ!"

"Good luck with the Elder, folks!"

"Nice meeting you! Hope you stay around a while!"

"We'll drink to your sister cracking the bastard's skull open!"

"I'll try what's on tap for that!" Lizzie called back, grinning.

There were a few more shouts expressing good wishes for their quest and their rapid return, then gradually the crowd dissolved back into individual pursuits. Raymond slipped onto the piano bench and began to play, while the rest of the Bone Boys took over the billiard table. Bonejangles said a quick goodbye to the Carters, then offered Lizzie his arm. "Come on, let's blow this joint."

Lizzie took it. "I'm with you."

Chapter Text

July 30th, 1875

Burtonsville, England, Land of the Dead

5:46 P.M.

"Well. Your friends are very – enthusiastic."

Bonejangles laughed as they made it back out onto the street. "Yeah, they're a great bunch. Didn't knock your stockings too far across the room, did they, Mrs. Liddell?"

"They came close!" Lorina replied, pressing a hand against her chest. "I thought The Hip Joint was packed full!"

"Well, the Ball & Socket is kinda the place to go around Burtonsville," Bonejangles said, tipping his hat. "Dunno if you've noticed, but we don't really have a happenin' night life round here."

"Yes, you'd expect such a small village to be much quieter. . .I thought you said something about the people here being uptight?" Arthur asked, scratching his beard.

"Upstairs," Bonejangles told him, with a significant point at the sky. "Livin' folk tend to be all about rules and propriety and that sorta thing – and judgin' by what we just heard about their pastor, it's gotten a hell of a lot worse since I died. But once people hit here, they're ready to relax and live a little."

"Mmmm – reminds me of Oxford," Arthur commented, looking at Lorina. "I mean, I know any place with a university can't be that repressed, but. . . ."

"Oh, I know," Lorina replied with a grin. "I saw plenty of rather unlady-like behavior being indulged in after we joined the party down here. Even participated in a bit myself." She rubbed her temple in memory. "Though I think that night with the vodka was a mistake."

"Ya gotta build up your tongue for that stuff," Bonejangles laughed. "Good for you for even givin' it a shot, though. You suck down a glass, Liz?"

"Half, and then slept a good half of the following day on the couch," Lizzie confessed, shaking her head. "And still woke up feeling rather sick. . .it's unfair that you can still get a hangover down here."

"Eh, just be glad you didn't get the headache. The really good stuff will leave you groanin' for days afterward." Bonejangles stopped as they reached the square again. "Okay, we wanna go down Broken Heart Lane. This way, folks."

Arthur looked around at the hunched-in buildings as they crossed the cobbles. "This place looks like it's trying to hide from the world. . .you said before Victor's family is in fish, right? Is he the one with the cannery that was taking off? I seem to recall seeing 'Van Dort' in the market."

"Might be, though I doubt Victor's got it yet," Bonejangles said. "Must belong to his dad. I ain't the best one to ask – croaked long before anything interesting sprang up 'round here."

"Fair enough – I was just wondering why anyone would set up such a large operation here. It seems so – cramped."

"Factories get work no matter where they are," Lorina pointed out. "That's the whole reason London's getting so overfull. Here, at least, they have the pleasure of work and being able to enjoy nature at the end of the day."

"I suppose. . . ." Arthur ran a reflective hand along a wall. "Still, seeing up close just how tiny this village is certainly puts into perspective why the first fellow we hired couldn't find it."

"No excuse for him lying straight to our faces, though," Lizzie said darkly. "The nerve of that man. . .after we told him what a hurry we were in too. . . ."

"Well, he's not likely to do it again," Lorina said mildly. "Certainly not with the language you and Bonejangles threw at him."

"Yeah, I was impressed, Liz," Bonejangles said, swiveling his head around to grin at her. "Posh girl knowing those words? Didn't know the fancy books could be so filthy."

"I'm not that posh – and trust me, you pick up a lot of colorful language around Oxford undergraduates," Lizzie informed him. "They may have pretended to be perfectly proper members of society when father was around, but the things they said to each other when they thought people couldn't hear! And then of course Alice would sneak down to listen and we'd have to stop her parroting them when Mama's friends or the faculty were over."

"Oh God yes," Lorina said, covering her face with her hands as she giggled. "I suppose we were just lucky she mispronounced them half the time."

"Sounds like Gladys – she was kind of a prankster," Bonejangles said nostalgically. "She once managed to throw my best hat onto the roof when I ticked her off about something. Took me an hour and a half to get up there and get it back."

"Alice once nearly knocked a hole right through the plaster with her hobby horse trying to slay her 'giant' nurse," Lizzie grinned. "Papa wasn't pleased at all."

"That dent cost a lot to repair," Arthur defended himself. "Though I guess I preferred that to her waving the carving knife around."

"I know – I close my eyes, and I can see her in her room, blood streaming down her arm because she'd stuck herself trying to slay the Jabberwock." Lorina said, shivering. "I still don't know how it didn't leave a scar. . .sometimes I think the reason she healed so well and got sick so little was because God knew she'd have to in order to make it to her eighteenth birthday."

Lizzie's expression soured. "That almost makes it sound like God planned the fire."

"If He did, we're going to have words," Arthur said, voice cold. "What a thing to inflict on my daughters. . . ."

"Let's not get wrapped up in such gloomy thoughts," Lorina said as they passed an intersection lined with coffins. "Not so close to our goal. Remember our Fourth of July picnic on the Isis?"

"The one where it started raining halfway through?" Arthur asked, perking up.

"Yes, and we ended up in such a tizzy we nearly upended the boat! Good thing you spotted that house on the banks!"

"And that the owners were nice enough to let us in, yes," Arthur agreed. "Even with Lizzie and Alice arguing about whether it would be better to be a Lory or an Eaglet. Weren't you reduced to telling her that you were older and thus had to know better?"

"Yes, and then she pretended not to know how old I was!" Lizzie laughed. "And just to spite her I wouldn't say. I still think I was right in saying it would be better to be a parrot."

"I thought my folks had weird arguments sometimes," Bonejangles said, watching the three of them with amusement. "I always thought you school guys were supposed to be stiff."

"Some of my colleagues were, but I always thought learning should be fun," Arthur told him. "A lot of my worst memories involve dull tutors – why would I inflict the same on my girls?"

"You could never be dull, Papa," Lizzie said, smiling at him. "Just a little overenthusiastic sometimes. You should have seen the library just before – well. He was collecting so many photographs of sea creatures we could hardly move."

"Yes. . .and now they're all gone," Arthur murmured, face falling. "Along with a lot of other things."

"Hey, hey, I thought the deal was you weren't getting gloomy," Bonejangles said, holding up his hand as he turned to walk backwards for a bit. "Look, I know we had some bumps on the road, but we made it here, didn't we? Just a couple more streets and we'll be at the tower. And you heard what Chauncey said – if the Elder don't wanna help ya, we'll make him."

"Hopefully you won't have to go that far," Lizzie said, before taking his hand. "You've done more than enough for us already."

Bonejangles tipped his hat rakishly over one socket and winked. "Just a concerned citizen, ma'am."

"Stop that," Lizzie giggled, shoving it back up. "Alice may have said otherwise, but I know I'm not old enough for 'ma'am!'" Her gaze fell on her blue, rotted, but still eternally-18 hand, and her mirth fluttered away. "I'm never going to be old enough for 'ma'am.'"

"It's not all it's cracked up to be, dear," Lorina told her.

"I'm sure it isn't, but – it would have been nice to have the chance."

"We'll just have to guarantee Alice gets one," Arthur said.

"Mmmm – if we ever find this tower."

"It's around here, hold your horses. . . ." Bonejangles spun his head around in a circle. "Ah! Yeah, right down this way, and we're home free!" He pulled Lizzie into a tiny, hemmed-in alley, her parents squeezing along behind.

"I hope so," Lizzie replied as they wriggled between the tight walls. "The way you've been building it up, it had better be – oh!"

She stopped as they came back out into open space. Looming up before her was easily the tallest building she'd ever seen, alive or dead. Although calling it a building was something of a stretch – the bottom looked to be little more than a huge lump of stone, roughly hewn into a right triangle. Sticking out of the vertical side was an old brick tower, stretching high into the dark sky. Lizzie squinted at the very tip-top, ringed with the tiny fluttering shapes of birds. "All right, I'll admit it – that's impressive," she allowed as her parents caught up.

"Very," Arthur agreed. "But how do we get up there?"

In response, Bonejangles pointed out a staircase carved into the gray rock. "Same way you get anywhere around here – leg power."

"No lift? Magical or mechanical?"

"Ain't like we can lose our breath," Bonejangles shrugged. "Besides, the Elder likes to keep to himself a lot."

"Probably keeps away those who would disturb him about frivolous matters too," Lorina said. "I know if I had magic, I'd want to discourage those who would want me to turn lead into gold or other such silliness."

"Good thing our task isn't silly, then," Lizzie replied, marching forward. She set her foot purposely on the first step. "Come on everyone – up we go."

It was easy to keep up her enthusiasm for the first few feet. But as the staircase slowly wound round and round the ancient stone, stretching upward in a lazy spiral, Lizzie found her determined spirit flagging. "For God's sake, how high is this tower?" she demanded as they finally reached the brick.

"High enough that we'd splat pretty good if we fell," Bonejangles replied, letting his fingers click along the twisted iron railing. "Don't worry, we're almost there."

"Thank God we can't get tired," Lorina commented, pulling herself up behind Bonejangles. She directed her gaze across the purple horizon. "Oh, but the view is beautiful. I think you can see the whole village from up here!"

Everyone paused for a moment to admire the tiny town below them. "There's the town square," Arthur said, pointing. "And oh, there's the Ball & Socket! At least, I think so. . . ."

"Yeah, I'd say it's in the right place," Bonejangles nodded, leaning on the railing. "Man, I never took the time to actually look around whenever I came up here. Bonesaparte's been saying we oughta make a map of the place – maybe I can take him and Wellington up here, keep 'em busy for a while."

"Here be dragons," Lizzie joked. "Or skeletons, as the case may be. Can you see your house?"

"Maybe? We lived outside the village walls proper. . . ." Bonejangles squinted at the vague silhouettes of little huts at the very edge of vision, beyond the crumbling ring of stone that marked the perimeter of Burtonsville. "Could be that one. . .or that one. . .hell, one's as good as another."

"Really? What would your mother think?" Lorina gently needled him.

"She'd think she'd trade for any house that had a privy that was a bit closer to the back door. Getting out there in the winter was murder, I tell you. Always gonna be jealous of people who grew up with indoor bogs."

"Remind me to tell you about the time our toilet flooded the downstairs loo then," Lizzie said, pulling a face. "I seriously thought we were going to have to move."

Whurt?

Lizzie blinked, then turned her head to see a beady black eye staring back at her. It was attached to an equally black head, matched with a black beak. "Um, hello."

The raven croaked and twisted its neck to the other side to regard her from the opposite angle. "That's one of the Elder's pets," Bonejangles said in explanation. "He keeps a whole flock of 'em in his room. Got 'em trained to carry stuff and deliver messages."

"Are they friendly?" Lizzie asked, holding out her hand just above the raven's head. Part of her wanted to pet it, but the other part was not keen on losing any fingers.

"Well, I've never seen any take a snap at anybody, but there's always a first time. . . ."

"They're lovely creatures," Lorina commented as Lizzie drew her hand back. The raven puffed up its feathers a bit, as if swelling with pride. "I've never seen one up close before. What do you think, Arthur?"

Arthur leaned forward, staring hard at the bird. "It's – yes, it's a beautiful specimen – but is it just me, or is that creature breathing?"

Lizzie's eyes went wide. Sure enough, a close examination of the raven's chest revealed a motion she'd almost forgotten about. And there wasn't a speck of blue to be seen in the feathers. "It's still alive?!" she cried, jabbing at it with her finger. The raven hopped away and warked its displeasure at her. "How – just how?!"

"Well – we've seen maggots and spiders down here that are alive," Lorina said logically, though her face belied her own shock.

"Yes, but – you kind of expect that with the dead. Ravens are – are – much bigger, to start!"

"They do eat carrion. . .but then again, so will a wolf, and I've yet to see a living one of those stalking around," Arthur said, regarding the raven through slitted eyes.

"Elder says that some animals have got special magic tricks like humans," Bonejangles commented as the raven got tired of all the fuss and flew away. "You know, like how those spiders and maggots can actually talk to ya after you've bit it. Maybe getting down here without dyin' is a raven's." He gave Lizzie's wrist a tug. "How about we go ask him?"

Lizzie allowed him to pull her up the final few steps into the top of the tower. It appeared that, in life, the structure had housed an observatory, or perhaps a ceiling hothouse. In death, however, it resembled more a gigantic birdcage, twisted metal bars curving over their heads and joining together in a tiny circle above. There were still a few cracked chunks of glass nestled in corners here and there, but most of the crossbars were now perches to ravens – an enormous flock that crowed and cawed and regarded the visitors with an interest that didn't seem merely animal. Lizzie frowned at the one closest to her, which qworked innocently. The pets of a wizard would likely be magical too, wouldn't they? She glanced around the space. Or, at least, very well read.

It was true – if the ravens could read, they had their choice of material twice over. The Elder's sanctuary was filled to bursting with books. Thick shelves lined what passed for the walls, all stuffed and groaning under the weight of dozens upon dozens of tomes. A few dressers and chests of drawers were scattered around, also piled with books. More sat on an ancient, worm-gnawed lectern, which towered over the lesser pieces of furniture. And whatever didn't fit went on the floor, where stacks as tall as Lizzie formed a maze across the worn wood. "You know, I think the reason he doesn't often come out is because he usually can't find the way," she commented, turning in a slow circle to take it all in.

"And I thought you were addicted to printed paper, Arthur," Lorina said wonderingly. "Look at all this! Our library couldn't have contained even half as much."

"It's amazing," Arthur replied, stars in his eyes. "He must have spent decades collecting it all. . . ." He picked up a book at random. "The Study of Magickal Energies In The Firmament, And How To Harness Them. Does he allow borrowing?"

"Let's ask him – HEY, ELDER!" Bonejangles yelled, making Lizzie jump and sending a few nearby ravens scattering. "WHERE ARE YOU?"

Ragged coughing answered the musician's shout. "Now really, is that any way to call for me?" a crackly old voice asked from somewhere behind the lectern.

"Only way that works," Bonejangles retorted. "Come on out into the light for a second – gotta introduce you to somebody."

"You have no respect for your elders, Bonejangles," the voice said, though its tone was amused rather than annoyed. There was another cough, a few thuds as of things being pushed out of the way, and then an ancient skeleton emerged from the shadows, perched atop a little book staircase. While the years had been written all over the face of Mrs. Gertrude Carter, they were etched into the very bones of Elder Gutknecht. His spine was an almost perfect L, ribs perpendicular to his pelvis, and his bones were thin and yellow. Gold pince-nez glasses balanced precariously on the scrap of nosebone he had left, and cobwebs dangled from his chin, giving him a thin, scraggly version of the traditional wizard's beard. There was also a giant crack in his skull – a relic of whatever had killed him, or a simple result of extended time in the Land of the Dead? Lizzie was inclined to believe the latter – there was simply no way that Elder Gutknecht hadn't achieved a ripe old age before he'd passed. The quintessential Learned Old Man. Let's hope he lives up to the stereotype.

There was a sudden flurry of barking from behind the lectern. Moments later, a small skeletal dog bounded down the books and ran up to Lizzie, tail wagging. "Oh, hello there!" Lizzie bent down to stroke its skull as it sniffed at her skirt. "Aren't you a dear little thing!"

"Hey, that's Scraps, isn't it?" Bonejangles said as he and the elder Liddells joined in on the petting. "What's he doing up here with you, Elder?"

"Well, after Emily's passing and Victor's return to the Living world, I noticed that the poor dog was looking rather lonely," Elder Gutknecht said, as Scraps nuzzled the hands around him. "I thought we could both use the extra company." He clapped his hands twice, and Scraps reluctantly broke away from the crowd to go sit by his side. "That's a good boy. . .now then, I see we have some newcomers to our village?"

"These are the Liddells – Arthur, Lorina, and Lizzie," Bonejangles said. "Folks, this is Elder Gutknecht, in case that wasn't obvious."

"How do you do?" Lorina said, dropping a curtsy.

"Quite well," Elder Gutknecht replied, returning it with a bow. "What brings you up here?"

"We have to ask a favor," Lizzie said, stepping forward. "You see – we need to go Upstairs. My sister is in terrible danger, and we have to save her. There's this – m-man, who – damn it, Sam, I should have asked you to write a song about it," she grumbled, turning to Bonejangles. "I hate having to explain."

"Don't think I could have made your story sound any good," Bonejangles said, not without sympathy. "With Emily, I had the tune already down. And it was easier to talk around what happened to her."

"Let me – about twelve years ago, a man by the name of Angus Bumby took an interest in Lizzie," Arthur said, taking the lead. "Lizzie was repulsed by him and repeatedly said so, but he refused to accept it. After we told him off for the last time, he broke into our house, murdered poor Lizzie, and then set the place on fire to cover up what he'd done. Lorina and I perished in the smoke and flames, but our younger daughter, Alice, managed to escape. Bumby was able to convince the police that the fire was an accident caused by our cat – to this day, no one's figured out the truth."

"He sent Alice into an asylum for ten years while he received a doctorate and started an orphanage in Whitechapel, collecting small children and – and destroying their minds," Lizzie came in, her fury over Bumby's actions overcoming her disinclination to speak. "And then he sells them to the lowest form of human being imaginable that isn't him. And now, Alice has finally come out of Rutledge, only to fall straight into his hands! He's ripping away her heart and soul, just like the others, and – and I can't bear the thought of him – you have to send us Up there before it's too late!" she cried, clasping her hands before her. "Before my sister – I know it's a complicated spell, and phoenix feathers don't grow on trees, but please, you have to–"

"Wait, just a moment," the Elder said, holding up a hand. "I don't need a phoenix feather to send you Upstairs. Slip Through The Veil should do fine."

Bonejangles's jaw dropped so wide it unhinged. "Wait, what?" he said, snapping it back into place. "Hang on a minute, Elder, I saw you use one! Back when we were all heading Upstairs for Emily's wedding!"

"Different spell," the Elder clarified. "One specifically intended for large groups."

"So – which one's the Ukrainian Haunting Spell?" Lizzie asked, blinking.

"That is Slip Through The Veil," the Elder told her. "A relatively simple spell for one or two corpses needing to return to the Living world. And all that requires is a raven's egg."

Lizzie lit up. "Really? You must have dozens of those lying around! Just give us a couple and–"

"I'm not done, my dear!" Gutknecht cut in quickly. "I'm afraid the spell has certain limitations. One of which is that you need to have a certain amount of magical power that most people lack. I can certainly check if you do, but it's almost guaranteed that I would have to cast the spell on you."

Oh – whoops. Lizzie rubbed her cheek, trying and failing to convince herself that she wasn't blushing. "Right, Sam – er, Bonejangles – mentioned. . .but that's not so bad. You're willing, right?"

"Yes, this seems a serious matter indeed. . .but tell me this – are you buried in Whitechapel?"

"Certainly not," Lizzie said, frowning. "We're from Oxford. My father was Dean of Christ Church at the university."

"I was afraid of that. . .when you use Slip Through The Veil, you return to the Land of the Living above your grave."

"Er – I think we're 'buried' above ground, actually," Lorina said, gnawing on what remained of her lip. "The Liddell family has a personal vault. . . ."

"I suspect in that case we'd end up in the crypt itself, outside our personal drawers," Arthur replied, Gutknecht nodding confirmation. "But that's not so bad either. Oxford's not that far from London."

The Elder tilted his head. "Close enough to get where you need to go in a single night?"

Arthur's face fell. "Er, probably not. . .we only get one night?"

"The spell only lasts until sunrise," Gutknecht said. "I've done tests. As soon as the rim breaks the horizon, you return to the Land of the Dead."

"Hmmm. . ." Arthur rubbed his chin. "It's not like we need to stop to rest. If we found a fast horse and driver–"

"It's Whitechapel, though – and Lizzie, do you actually know the address of the Houndsditch Home?" Lorina asked, turning to her daughter.

Lizzie groaned, pressing her face into her hands. "No, I don't. I was so upset after meeting Farley that I never thought to ask him. Damn it. . . ."

"Don't beat yourself up, Liz – you had a hell of a lot on your mind," Bonejangles said, patting her back soothingly. "None of us thought to ask either." He tilted his hat forward. "Can't we just start lookin' around one night and then pop back up again the next?"

"The spell would reset – you'd be right back at your graves," Gutknecht said, shaking his head. "And in your case, Bonejangles, that would be the woods outside the village, so it wouldn't be any use to you anyway."

"Oh, yeah, right. . . ."

Lizzie looked up at him. "You want to come with us to look for Alice?"

"Hell yeah! I've gone through all the rest of this with ya, haven't I? I'm just as worried about her as the rest of ya." He rolled his eye from left to right. "You're my best girl, Liz. Unless you don't want me to come, I'm stickin' with ya to the end."

Lizzie smiled, even as the imp stirred in her brain to mumble Best girl? "I'd be delighted to have you along."

"We all would," Arthur agreed. "Though we have to get up there first. . .is the spell restricted to the night hours? Having a whole day to travel would be better, especially in the summer. And if you can send dead people back to the Land of the Living, surely you have a way to make them look alive again."

"False Flesh," the Elder confirmed. "Which I really should have insisted everyone here drink before we went Upstairs for the wedding. . .perhaps we could have avoided some of the chaos that resulted."

"I dunno, Elder," Bonejangles said. "All those folks seeing their grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and everything suddenly come back to life? Probably would have been even worse than what we got."

"Perhaps. . .of course, I was expecting everyone to appear directly in the church," Elder Gutknecht added, giving Bonejangles as steely a look as one could manage with adorably droopy eye sockets.

Bonejangles fidgeted. "Yeah, I know, I mucked it up. . .didn't expect everybody to lose their heads like that. And I definitely didn't – you heard what's happened with Victor, right?"

"I have, and I consider it a shame that any action on our part to help would just make the problem worse. Hopefully the strength he showed in fighting Barkis will come back to aid him once again." Gutknecht sighed, then turned back to Arthur. "As to your original question, the spell can work during the day, but it lasts for only an hour at most, and – well, I felt a distinct wrongness to wandering about the Living world while the sun was in the sky. It may not be technically restricted to the night, but if you want proper functionality. . . ."

Arthur huffed, frustrated. "Damn it. . .I don't suppose there's a spell that will let us travel back to the night of the fire and prevent the damn thing in the first place?"

"The closest you could come is an hour's worth of observation," Gutknecht told him regretfully. "And that's only if you have an immense store of raw magical power."

Arthur winced. "No thank you – living through it once was enough."

"And you can't cast that more powerful spell for larger groups on us?" Lorina asked. "That doesn't seem to put you at your own grave."

"It doesn't – but that is the one that requires a phoenix feather, and I'm afraid I used my last one for Emily," Gutknecht said with a long sigh. "I've been trying to acquire another, but – your daughter put it best. It may be months or years before I find or buy one. There is another spell that allows for instantaneous travel to places, but it's tricky at the best of times, and combining it with Slip Through The Veil. . .the very first time I tried it, I found myself flung into a Cherokee settlement in the Americas when I was aiming for London. I've only gotten the combination to work once, and I wouldn't dare risk it on you with such low odds of success."

Lizzie slumped onto a nearby pile of books, sending a few volumes skidding to the floor. "So you can't help us after all. All this way for nothing. . . ." Scraps, whining, came and sat by her side, leaning against her leg. "We're sorry to have bothered you."

The Elder coughed again. "Well – I may not be able to help you now – but I can help you later."

Lizzie raised her head, brow furrowed. "Pardon?"

"Slip Through the Veil has one important loophole," the Elder said, raising a finger. "You have heard stories of how, on All Hallow's Eve, the veil between dead and living thins? That's actually true. From sunset on October 31st to sunrise on November 1st, Slip Through The Veil can be cast by anyoneand you're able to appear wherever you wish."

Lizzie's spirits burst upward, soaring on wings of almost delirious delight. She could go Upstairs! She could see her sister again! She could save her from that bastard, and all those children in Houndsditch too! She could finally, finally see justice done! And all it would take was a raven's egg, and – and. . . .

And her spirits crashed straight back into the ground. "I – please forgive me, Elder Gutknecht, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but – I have to wait three months?!"

"I know it's far from the ideal solution, but it's the only one I can offer," Gutknecht replied, tone gentle. "I've experimented, remember? I would send you up sooner if I could, but unless you found a way around the travel problem. . . ."

"I know," Lizzie said, pressing her fingers against her forehead. "Just. . .three months. . .anything could happen to her in that time. Even. . .I want to rescue my sister, not avenge her."

"She's held on pretty well for this long," Arthur said, trying to be positive. "And perhaps while we're waiting we could research quicker methods?" He looked around the piles and piles of books. "It seems as if you could use someone to help you organize the place anyway."

"Heh – yes, I have let it get rather out of control," Gutknecht confessed, scratching the top of his head and making the loose plates creak. "You're certainly welcome to look at whatever books you wish. Perhaps you'll find something I've missed. God knows many of them I haven't read in years, and my study was always focused on European spellwork. . . ."

"I'd be happy to lend you a hand," Arthur grinned, holding up The Study of Magickal Energies In The Firmament, And How To Harness Them.

"You just want to read as much as you can get your hands on," Lorina teased. "Watch him, Lizzie – he'll disappear for a fortnight, and then we'll have to drag him out of here kicking and screaming."

Lizzie giggled as Arthur pretended not to have heard. "Probably. . .but before anything, can you check to see if any of us can cast Slip Through The Veil?" she asked the Elder. "Perhaps it's a long shot, but if one of us can, maybe we can figure out a different way to actually get to Houndsditch."

"Of course, my dear." Guknecht crept his way down the book steps and started rummaging around in a set of nearby drawers. "Now, where are they? I must start keeping notes on where I put things. . . ."

Bonejangles patted her back. "Okay, so – gotta wait until Halloween. Better than not being able to go at all, right?"

"Yes, but. . .ugh. I've already waited almost twelve years for this," Lizzie said, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"Then you can wait three more months," Lorina told her, rubbing her shoulder. "I'm worried for Alice too, my darling, but we can't let ourselves dwell on it. Like your father said, she's held on for this long." She played with a lock of Lizzie's hair. "I'm a bit more worried about you, actually. You're sure you're up for this?"

Lizzie stared at her mother, baffled. "Mama, haven't I been leading the charge all this way?"

"I know, Lizzie, but – going Upstairs is a big step. Will you be all right if you see – him again?"

The face that haunted the back of her mind swam before her eyes, all glittering glasses and devil-neat goatees and that infuriating smile. She shuddered. "Maybe. I think I'll try to avoid any meetings, though."

"Oh come on, Liz," Bonejangles said, an evilly playful note in his voice. "I was expecting you to be head-over-heels for reintroducin' yourself to him."

Lizzie raised an eyebrow. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

"We-ell, think of it this way. It's been twelve years, and he thinks he's gotten away with everything scot-free, right? So on Halloween night, he decides to take a little walk, get some air – or what passes for it in Whitechapel. . .and then, outta nowhere–" The shadows behind them twisted, his taking on a shape roughly analogous to Bumby's while hers raised its arms and opened its mouth impossibly wide. "There she is, the 'love' of his life, only now she's blue and rotting and shriekin' like a banshee about to drag 'im down to Hell. . . ."

Lizzie grinned darkly as the Bumby-shadow silently screamed and ran, pursued across the old books by her own. "Oh yes. I think I like that story."

"I do hope you're not planning on killing him," Elder Gutknecht put in, tone scolding as he looked up from a wardrobe he had in the corner. "I acknowledge you have every reason to do so, but Living justice should be meted out by Living authorities. Our two realms aren't supposed to intermix freely, and we should abide by the rules of whichever one we happen to be in. Even scaring him out of his wits – no matter how much he might deserve it – should be subordinate to saving your sister."

"Scaring him out of his wits might help save Alice," Lizzie retorted as her shadow resumed its proper place behind her. "But I promise not to make trouble – or too much of it, anyway. Believe me, I'd rather have him rotting in jail than rotting down here."

"We're not murderers," Arthur confirmed. "I mean, I'd love to trap him in a burning building, see how he likes it, but – you're right. Better to turn him over to the authorities. We'll just have to find some more solid evidence. The testimonies of dead children are probably not admissible in court."

Elder Gutknecht nodded, moving over to another set of drawers and pulling them open. "I wish you all the best with – aha! There you are!" He reached down and grabbed his prize. "And still half left, good."

After all that, Lizzie had been expecting something a little more impressive than a box of matches. "What do those do?"

"Watch." Elder Gutknecht took one out and struck it to life on his leg. "Now we wait ten seconds. . .which should be about. . .now!" He shook the match to kill the flame, then opened his mouth and dropped it inside. The tiny charred stick of wood dropped straight through his ribcage and onto the floor. "Fortunate this does not actually require a working throat. Now then. . . ." He adjusted his glasses and peered hard at Lizzie–

And without warning, his eye sockets filled with bright greenish-gold light, burning like a pair of witch-tainted candles. Lizzie squeaked and moved back a step. "Sheesh!" Bonejangles said, leaning away. "What the hell is that?"

"Signature Sense – it allows me to see just how much raw magical energy you have available," Elder Gutknecht replied, looking them up and down.

"Makes you look like somethin' right out of one of Galswell's nightmares."

"Unfortunate side effect. The effect would be muted if I was lucky enough to still have eyes." He turned to the elder Liddells, who grimaced as the light hit them. "Hmmm. . .well, I can confirm that none of you have the necessary reserves to cast Slip Through The Veil on your own. However, Miss Liddell, you do seem to have enough to cast False Flesh without any help from me."

"Do I?" Well, she supposed that passed as good news. "What do I need for it?"

"Just a handkerchief-sized piece of cloth and your wits. Tear it in half while concentrating on the form you wish to project, and you'll look that way for about three hours," Gutknecht told her. "I'm afraid it's a caster-only spell, though – and it really only fools sight. No-Rot should prevent anyone from smelling anything wrong, but I would invest in thick gloves before offering to shake hands."

"If it's caster-only, where does that leave us?" Arthur asked, frowning.

"Ah – I should have clarified. The spell in its natural form is caster-only. You can also make a potion of it that anyone can use," Elder Gutknecht explained. "I'll be giving you enough for all of you to last the night, don't worry."

"I'll help you make them – it's the least I can do," Lizzie told him. Then, grinning at her father, she added, "And someone ought to be around to keep an eye on Papa."

"I promise I'm not going to just sit around and read all the books!" Arthur said, folding his arms. Then a smile quirked the side of his mouth. "If only because I have just under three months and that's not nearly enough time." His expression turned serious again. "That does bring up the question of where we're going to stay. Burtonsville doesn't seem big enough for any hotels. . . ."

"We got rooms above the Ball & Socket," Bonejangles assured him. "Ms. Plum would be happy to let you stay in one. Or heck, if you don't care about fancy, just pick a coffin laying around any time you want a rest."

"I think we'll take proper beds," Lorina said, shaking her head fondly. "But thank you – both of you. I – I never thought I'd be a-able to see my little girl again before she. . . ."

"Oh, don't cry, Lorina," Arthur said, wrapping his arm around her as she wiped at her eyes. "We're almost there. But yes, thank you. From the bottom of our hearts. You really don't know how much this means to us."

"I believe I could take a guess," Elder Gutknecht said, giving them a toothless grin. "I'm happy to assist you in any way I can. And I'm sure Bonejangles will serve as an excellent escort to our village."

"He's been doing a bang-up job so far," Lizzie said, taking her friend's arm warmly. Bonejangles tilted his hat low over his face, as if shy. "We appreciate anything and everything you can do for us." She touched her throat. "I guess now I have to start rehearsing just what it is I'm going to say to Alice when I see her again."

"We've got time," Arthur assured her. "Right now, I think I could use a quick pint. You did promise everyone a round back at the Ball & Socket, Bonejangles."

"Yeah, I've been waiting on one of Ms. Plum's and Paul's best too," Bonejangles nodded. He tipped his hat at the Elder. "Thanks a bunch. We'll be seein' ya."

"I look forward to it." Gutknecht started ascending the stairs back to his lectern, stopping briefly to whistle. Scraps barked, gave everyone a goodbye sniff and nuzzle, and then bounded up after his new master. "Ah yes, you are a good boy. . .shall we see where I put that box of biscuits?"

The Liddells and Bonejangles picked their way back out to the stairs through the stacks. "Well then – I think that's as good an answer as any of us were expecting," Arthur commented.

"Not really, but I can't complain about being able to see Alice again," Lizzie replied. "Just. . .three months. . ."

"It's our schedule, and we must stick to it," Lorina said, patting her shoulder. "We'll find ways to keep ourselves busy in the meantime."

"I'll show you all around the village," Bonejangles promised. "Though you're on your own for the remaining two months and twenty-nine days. And a half."

Lizzie giggled. "I am eager to see you perform in your native environment. . .and to acquaint myself with all your other friends besides."

"Me too," Arthur nodded. "That pair you mentioned before. . .they're not the real generals, are they?"

"Nah, just nicknames," Bonejangles assured him with a laugh. "Though I'm pretty sure they were both in the right armies. They'll tell you all about it for a drink."

"I'm most eager to get to know this Ms. Plum," Lorina commented. "She reminds me a bit of Nan Sharpe – just more maternal."

"Oh yes – the way she was going on when we first came inside, I half-expected to be dragged off and fitted for a wedding dress," Lizzie grinned.

Bonejangles's laugh turned abruptly awkward. "Ah heh. . .yeah, 'bout that, I'm sorry she kinda just latched onta ya like that. Think I told ya she's been on my butt to get hitched? Showing up with a lovely young lady at my side musta been a dream come true for her."

"It's all right," Lizzie assured him with a pat on the arm. "I was more amused than anything. And it's not like it took you long to set her straight."

"Yeah, well, couldn't have her draggin' you off to the altar, could I?" Bonejangles scratched the back of his skull. "Honestly, I'm surprised a gal like you wants to hang around me at all."

Lizzie blinked, surprised. Hadn't they already covered this topic when discussing how off their first impressions of each other had been? "Why wouldn't I? You're funny, you're talented, you're much more intelligent than you give yourself credit for–"

"Ain't a shade on anybody from Oxford, though."

"If you mean the undergraduates, I'll take your brand of intelligence over theirs any day," Lizzie said, poking his ribs. "All rote recitation of Latin verbs and Newton's laws of physics and who died in the Battle of Hastings. You – you're real. You know things that actually mean something."

"Newton's laws of physics mean something," Arthur said, apparently feeling he should defend his chosen profession and school.

"You know what I mean, Papa. They didn't care so long as they received good marks. I couldn't have a proper conversation with any of them. That is the major point in your favor, Sam – you actually talk to me, not at me. Bumby may have been the worst of the lot, but I know the rest of them considered me little more than just a prize to be won. A pretty decoration around the house. They never listened to what I had to say – just nodded and smiled and hoped it would lead to a kiss – or worse." Her fists clenched. "I am so glad to be rid of them – and to have you instead," she added, looking up at Bonejangles. "Maybe our conversations occasionally verge on the ridiculous, but I like that. You treat me like an equal – just 'one of the boys.' I like it."

Bonejangles looked back at her for a moment – then, to her puzzlement, turned away, pushing his hat low over his brow. "Uh, well – you're welcome, Liz," he said, still rubbing the back of his skull. "Glad I make you feel that way. . .but I gotta confess, you've never been just 'one of the boys' to me." His spine vibrated slightly, suggesting a swallow. "Never met a guy half as amazing as you."

It was the warmth in his tone, she decided later, that made her stop dead in her tracks. A deep, anxious gentleness that she'd never heard before. She stared at him as he determinedly kept his eye on the wall. ". . .Sam?" she finally got out. "I – does Ms. Plum actually know what–"

"Why don't we go on ahead?" Lorina suddenly broke in, with a smile that reminded Lizzie of Alice's stories of the Cheshire Cat. "You two have a lot to talk about, and you don't need us hovering over you."

"Mama!" Lizzie protested. They couldn't leave her, not with this information hanging over her head!

Lorina winked at her. "You'll be fine, Lizzie. We'll meet you at the bottom, all right? That should give you plenty of time." She dragged a gaping Arthur past the pair. "Come along, dear."

"I – but – he just – we–" Arthur babbled, waving his free arm around like a Barbary macaque fending off a persistent mosquito.

"Mustn't interrupt," Lorina said, gentle but firm. "Come on." With another grin and a nod at Bonejangles, she and Arthur disappeared around the bend.

Lizzie watched them go. ". . .She's going to be smug about this straight up until Halloween, you know."

Bonejangles groaned, covering his face with his hand. "Damn it, this isn't how I wanted to tell ya."

"How did you want to tell me?" Lizzie asked, ignoring as best she could the triumphant return of the imp's shrieks in her mind – You see? You see?! He was worming his way, looking for a weak spot. . . .

"I – well, uh – I wasn't," Bonejangles admitted, eye darting all over the place.

"You – you weren't going to say anything?" Lizzie put her hands on her hips, insulted for a reason she couldn't quite articulate yet. "All this time together, and you were going to lie to me for the rest of our afterlives!"

"Not lie, just – not say anything!" Bonejangles protested. "And it's 'cause of all the time we've spent together that I wasn't gonna!"

"How does that – look, tell me, right here and now, how do you feel about me?" Lizzie demanded, folding her arms and hitting him with her best steely glare.

Bonejangles leaned back. "Honest? Slightly terrified."

Lizzie let her gaze soften. "Okay, then, how you felt about me five minutes ago."

For a moment, Bonejangles seemed on the verge of trying to distract her and book it down the stairs. Then he took a deep breath, pushing his hat up to look at her properly. "All right, you want the truth? You're the most incredible girl I've ever laid eyes on. The one I would have settled down for if we'd both been breathin'. I was pretty hard up for good conversation too when I was alive – if we weren't just havin' a roll-around, the ladies seemed to think I was either too smart or too dumb. Half the reason I only looked for a roll-around, to tell the truth. Never thought I'd meet somebody who cared about what I had to say and didn't make fun of me – much – for not knowing the big words to say it." He chuckled. "Not that I minded gettin' made fun of either. . .you got one hell of a mouth on you, Liz. Mean that in the best way, I promise. Crack great jokes and ain't afraid to let the curses fly – can't believe I ever thought you were prissy! And under all that you've got the sweetest heart o'gold I've ever seen. The way you care about your sister, and those kids. . .you deserved a hell of a lot better, Liz."

Lizzie let her arms drop back to her sides. He really thought all that about her? She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. "Thank you. . .but what made you think I wouldn't want to hear that?"

"The way you freeze up and glare at any other guy who gets too close," Bonejangles replied, pulling his hat down again. "Dunno if you even notice anymore, but your voice drips venom whenever you talk about men. 'Specially our favorite creeper. . .and I don't blame you one bit there. Just. . .whenever I thought I oughta say something, let you know how I felt, little voice inside me shot back, 'Oh yeah, and get lumped in with the bastard who took it all from her? Have the last time you see her be her screaming at you 'bout how they're all alike?' And I sure as hell didn't want ta hurt ya, so. . . ."

He had an imp too? Her own had gone quiet, probably hanging on for dear life with the way her head was spinning. "But – surely you noticed I had no problem with you in Whitechapel," she managed to say. "We were pretty close all through our brief visit there."

"Yeah, and for a second. . . ." He peeped out at her from under his brim, and his eye filled up with hope. Then it went dark again. "But I figured, we were already playing it up for the nobblers and fawney-droppers, and – and look, if you're gonna take a swing at me, just do it and get it over with, okay? Waitin's the worst part."

Yes! Yes! Hit him! Punch him! Shove him over the railing and watch him shatter into a million pieces! the imp roared, shaking a clawed fist. He's a man and they're all alike! They all want one thing in the end!

Lizzie stared at Bonejangles through the ranting. He looked the droopiest she'd ever seen – head low and hollowed out with shadows, hat covering his eye, shoulders slumped. This was worse than when he'd gotten that news about the Everglots. And all because he'd was worried about how she'd take his confession. . . . No, she thought, stopping the imp in its tracks. No, I don't think this man wants the same thing the others did.

Are you mad? the imp protested. Look at him! He's a man!

He's Sam, Lizzie replied, tightening her jaw. I don't want to hurt Sam! He's my friend!

Friend? Hah! He probably took you on this trip to butter you up!

He told me about the one spell that could help me see my sister again, cut his long-awaited tour short, and came back to a place that is full to the brim with bittersweet memories of a friend, dragging my mother and father along besides, to butter me up. Consider me buttered. I can't believe it was all to try and make a move on me. He's too good for that.

None of them are too good, the imp hissed. None of them are good at all, save Papa. You can't trust any of them, can't give them an inch. You cried into his ribs once. . .what do you think was going to happen after we went Upstairs and got Alice away from Bumby?

Actually. . .Lizzie hadn't really thought about that at all. Her mind had been so focused on her plans for justice (or revenge, whichever word would do) that she hadn't considered the future after that. She supposed that she and Bonejangles would go their separate ways, duties fulfilled. . .but picturing that scene, her and her family heading back to Oxford while he and his band resumed their tour, made her heart ache. She didn't want to leave him behind – to go back to her room and her books after all this. And it would be near impossible to send mail to someone always on the move. . . . You know, I – I don't play a bad piano, and while my voice isn't the best it doesn't openly offend the ear. . .maybe I could offer to give Raymond a night off every once in a while. . . .

You'd join the band? the imp said, flabbergasted. What about your family? Your reputation? What about the fact that you'd spend the rest of your afterlife constantly surrounded by men?!

Mama and Papa would understand – they might even be happy for me! And who cares a jot about reputation down here? We're dead – we're past the worst of everything! And I've been with the band weeks now – I trust them!

Trust? Men?

Yes! Yes I do! Because Sam trusts them, and I trust Sam! He hasn't put a toe out of line since I've known him! Lizzie mentally shouted, balling her fists. You may say he's got nothing but ill planned for me, but I don't believe it! He's been almost nothing but kindness itself! He makes me feel safe and wanted and lov–

Loved.

Her hands relaxed as she stared down at them. Yes – that was it exactly. Even before he'd admitted it, she'd felt loved. And – it hadn't disgusted her in the slightest. On the contrary, the idea that someone like Sam could love her, broken and mangled and bitter as she could be. . .she thought about all the color he'd brought into her afterlife, all the joy and laughter, all the fun she'd never thought she'd have again. . .and just how empty eternity seemed without him there. . . . Oh. Oooooh dear. Forget Halloween – Mama's going to be smug straight until Christmas. She's entitled, I suppose. Does it sneak up on everyone like this?

"Liz?" She blinked and looked up to see Bonejangles taking an anxious peek at her from under his hat. "You okay?"

He worried about her even when fully expecting her to rip his skull off. How could you not get soppy about a man like that? He'll betray you, the imp insisted, though its voice was weaker now. They're all alike. He may look good now, but just you wait.

I'm done waiting, Lizzie replied, setting her jaw. And I'm done listening to you. Yes, there are plenty of men out there who are scoundrels and scumbags, but Sam isn't one of them. I knew how to tell the difference, before you came along. You kept me locked up and afraid in my room for twelve years.

I kept you safe!

You kept me a prisoner! In a cage of my own making! Well I'm tired of cages, and terror, and you! I have found something better! Something worth any danger you'd keep me from! I don't need you anymore! She sucked in a deep internal breath. SHOVE OFF!

The imp fled. Lizzie was smart enough to know it wasn't gone for good – soon enough it would crawl back into her skull and start muttering. But she also knew that it would never be as loud as it once had been. And, hopefully, one day in the near future, she'd be able to chase it off once and for all.

For now, though, she was going to take advantage of her quiet head. She smiled encouragingly at Bonejangles, still peeping out nervously at her. "I'm fine," she assured him, then stepped forward. "In fact, I – I reciprocate your feelings."

There was an almost audible hum of gears as Bonejangles worked out what 'reciprocate' meant, and then – oh dear. Bonejangles worried was horrible, but Bonejangles shocked was hilarious. He pushed up his hat, jaw hanging open so wide it hit his sternum. "I – you – wha?"

"I love you too." And then, taking pity on the poor man, she gave his shoulder a playful smack. "Congratulations! You got the man-hater to admit one isn't so bad."

The tension broke as Bonejangles burst out laughing. "Damn it, Liz! Givin' me a heart attack when I don't even have a heart anymore. . . ." He snapped his jaw back into place, then took her hand. "You really mean that, though? This – this is okay?"

"It is," Lizzie nodded, squeezing his fingers. "Though I confess I'm not much interested in traditional courting, not after. . . ." She let the sentence trail off, not wanting to bring his name into the proceedings. "I – I like what we have now. Can't we just go on the way we have been?"

"I ain't gonna say no," Bonejangles replied, grinning bright in the pale light of the Underworld. "I'm not good with flowers or fancy dinners or any of that anyway. We got all eternity to take it slow."

Lizzie nodded. "Good." She glanced down the stairs. "All right, time to tell Mama and Papa. Mama's going to be doing somersaults in the streets."

"Yeah, and Ms. Plum's gonna be right behind. . .but what about your pop?" Bonejangles asked as they started down again, hand in hand. "Don't wanna start anything with you if he's just gonna yank me to pieces."

"You'll be fine," Lizzie said, giggling. "Papa's not that sort. Besides, it's hardly like you can take advantage of me. Or I of you, if we come to it. How are we even supposed to kiss if you don't have any lips?"

"Well, nice thing of being dead is, ain't gonna hurt if you just decide to smack yours against my teeth," Bonejangles grinned.

Lizzie snorted. "Such a romantic. What am I going to do with you?"

"Keep me around a while, I'm hopin'," Bonejangles replied, swinging their hands between them.

Lizzie hesitated – then decided that was something the imp would approve of and threw caution to the wind, raising herself on tiptoe briefly to peck the long white bone of his chin. She smiled at the astonished delight in his eye. "I think I can manage that."

Chapter Text

August 14th, 1875

Burtonsville, England, Land of the Dead

12:47 P.M.

"I still can't believe that actually exists."

"Why not? Guy's just tryin' to make a livin'. And it ain't like people don't have a use for a second-hand store."

"Yes, but – how does that even work?" Lizzie demanded, staring at the barrel in front of the store. The spare arms piled inside seemed to stare back. "Do you have to have the new limb sewn on? What if the stump's already gone skeletal?"

"Hey, you've seen me snap loose bones back into place dozens of times!"

"Yes, but those are your bones. These are from strangers." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "And given the way they're waving at me, they seem to have minds of their own."

Bonejangles waved back, completely unconcerned. "Can't tell ya, Liz – never bought from the guy. Might be able to hunt down someone who did, though, if you're really interested."

"I don't know if I am or not," Lizzie admitted, rubbing her own arm. "Maybe it's a bit silly, but the idea of grafting someone else's body parts to your own – well, it gives me the creeps."

"Twelve years dead and you still get the creeps?"

"I'm sorry, who confessed to me just yesterday that he finds bulldogs and other breeds with flat faces weird?"

"They are! They always look like they just ran into a wall!" Bonejangles insisted, demonstrating with a fist against his palm. "Dogs should have proper snoots."

"You don't have a proper snoot."

"I've got an excuse – it fell off after my first fortnight. Probably busted it one too many times."

Lizzie tapped her own. "Maybe. . .I suppose I should be grateful mine's stayed on for over a decade. Poor Mama's didn't last very long. . .Papa once told me they're not made of the same stuff as the rest of your skull. That's why they decay away and leave a hole."

"Really? Huh. Never knew that." Bonejangles poked at the gaps just above his jaw. "Can tell you a broken nose hurts just about as much as a broken leg, though. And is a pain in the ass to sing around."

"I can bet." Lizzie suddenly giggled and put her head against Bonejangles's shoulder. "We have the weirdest conversations, don't we? The girls I knew back in Oxford would think us both deranged."

Bonejangles chuckled. "Well, nuts to them. Though speakin' of deranged, wanna check in at the Ball & Socket? Lunch rush should be windin' down if you wanna get a snack."

"I could nibble, I think," Lizzie nodded. "I hope that one drunk idiot isn't there, though. Every time he sees me he starts ranting about how you can't live with or without women, then starts crying until he falls to pieces and Ms. Plum has to come by with a broom."

"That's Wilfred for ya – came in off a bad break-up," Bonejangles told her. "Girl he asked to marry him already said yes to another suitor. Stumbled into the B&S reeking of whiskey and with a rope 'round his neck. Bad business. . .mind you, he showed up around the same time as me, so we're all wishin' he'd get over it already."

"Ah – I'll give him that it's sad, but otherwise I'm with the rest of you." Lizzie grumbled. "At least the only person he hurt when she told him no was himself."

"Yeah, that's something." Bonejangles rolled his eye toward her, grinding his jaw. "He ain't bothering you that much, is he? I can tell Ms. Plum to scoot him into the back room when you're around."

"He's just an annoyance," Lizzie assured him. "The first time he went off brought back a few unpleasant memories, but now I think I'm immune."

"All right, but if he starts being a bastard, just say the word. Probably do him good to get kicked out for a night or two."

"It would the rest of us some good, anyway."

They walked into the main square, the horse snorting a greeting as they neared his pedestal. Lizzie paused a moment to give his skull muzzle a few friendly strokes. "Good horsie. . .doesn't he ever get down?"

"I've seen him prancin' round the square at night," Bonejangles said, scratching him behind the ears he hadn't got. "Think he likes it up there, though. People give him old carrots and pettin's and stuff."

"Just like us," Lizzie chuckled. She looked around the hustle and bustle of the square as they continued on. "I have to say, your village is a lot nicer than I expected. Still a bit cramped, but. . .there's plenty to see. And almost everyone's been very dear to me." She glanced up at the purple sky. "You're sure everyone currently Upstairs is uptight?"

"Dunno if I'd use that word anymore," Bonejangles said, tone turning bitter. "Anybody who goes after some poor nineteen-year-old guy who wouldn't hurt a fly needs something a bit bluer."

Lizzie reached down to twist her wrist. "You're going to be angry at them forever for that, aren't you?"

"You're gonna be angry at Bumby forever, ain't ya?"

"Probably," Lizzie allowed, a little flash of rage going through her as she thought of that awful goateed smirk. "But he hurt me and my family directly."

"Sure, but Victor was a pal. You'd understand better if you knew him. Shy and super-quiet, didn't always think before he talked, but he made Emily happy. And once he got over runnin' away from us every time he saw us, he turned out to be real friendly. Mayhew's never had a bad word to say about him. Plus I overheard him and Emily on the piano when he was trying to apologize to her 'bout Victoria – guy's got talent. I was thinkin' of talkin' him into giving concerts once he gulped down the Wine."

"Well, maybe he'll still have the chance Upstairs," Lizzie said, patting his arm. "Burtonsville is just one town. At this point, he could have moved away and started over. I would, if everyone suddenly decided to hate me."

"Maybe." Bonejangles scratched his skull as they headed down Boil Boulevard. "You think anybody in London might know anything about him?"

"Beyond his parents owning a fish cannery? I don't know. . .but we can at least see if he's been mentioned in the papers. Though I think only a tabloid like the Illustrated would treat the dead rising as anything except a case of mass hysteria."

"Heh, yeah. . .serve 'em all right if the rest of the world thought they were loopy. I–"

DINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDING

Lizzie started, looking high and low for the source of the sudden noise. "What the–"

Bonejangles beamed. "New arrival!" He snagged her hand and started towing her forward. "We gotta bunch of bells Plum and friends ring whenever new dead show up at the pub! Come on, let's go say hi!"

"All right, all right, I'm coming!" Lizzie cried, laughing as she did her best to keep up. "You pull any harder and I'll be a customer at that second-hand shop!"

They reached the bar within a couple of minutes – unfortunately, so had everyone else, gathered in the usual chaotic sprawl to greet the newest member of the Land of the Dead. Lizzie stood on tiptoe, swaying slightly as she tried to get a glimpse of who had caused all the commotion. "Can you see anything?"

"Nope – damn ladies with their crazy hats," Bonejangles grumbled, twisting his neck this way and that. "Oi, down in front!"

No one paid any heed. Lizzie squirmed her way along the edge of the crowd, trying to locate a gap in the sea of bodies. Does no one here have any sense of personal space when it comes to greeting newcomers? The poor person must feel like a sardine newly packed in a can! If I can get through, maybe I can get them a bit of – aha! She thrust her arm into the empty space before the corpses could close ranks. "Sam!"

"What? Oh, finally!" Bonejangles hurried over and pushed his way in. Lizzie grabbed his arm, and together they started wading through the crowd. "All right, folks, out of the way! Headliner, comin' through!"

Their fellow corpses paid them little heed, too caught up in enthusiastic exclamations about whoever stood at their center. "Somebody give the lady a drink!"

"What a lovely gown! I do like it when someone arrives in their Sunday best."

"What got ya? You don't look that old."

"Jonathan, what a thing to say! Please excuse him, he died before he learned manners."

"Grrrreat, another women to mock me. . . ."

"Oh shut yer yap, Wilfred."

"Actually, we're new to the village – we're from Oxford originally. Lorina Liddell, and this is my husband Arthur. We're here with our daughter."

Lizzie promptly started waving. "Mama!"

Lorina's head jerked up. "And that's her now! And her friend Bonejangles. . .Arthur, help clear the way!"

"I'm working on it, my dear! Please, everyone, we should all get a turn!"

It took a little more careful maneuvering – and one or two ill-disguised shoves – but at last the inner circle broke, allowing Lizzie and Bonejangles past. "Sheesh – thanks Mr. Liddell," Bonejangles said, straightening his hat and dusting off his arms. "I swear, you wanna say hello to somebody, you gotta–"

And just like that, he stopped, as if he'd been frozen in place by some mystical force. Lizzie blinked at him, then followed his gaze to the corpse standing by her parents. As indicated by the chatter, it was a lady, perhaps a bit older than her mother. Her long blonde hair, tinted with blue, was bound in a tight braid down her back, contrasting sharply with dark brown eyes. Her pale yellow gown was acceptable for church, Lizzie supposed, but it lacked any embellishment whatsoever, and was definitely hand-made. Nothing about either her face or figure struck her as particularly remarkable – certainly not when compared to the round softness of Bloated Barry, or the rapier-thin height of Terry, Ms. Plum's frazzle-haired assistant. She was certainly not worth staring at in the sort of shock Bonejangles was. "Sam?" she asked, giving him a poke in the side.

The woman, who'd been regarding Bonejangles with equal confusion, blinked. "Sam?" she repeated softly.

"Holy shit," Bonejangles whispered. Then he flung himself forward, grin bright in the honey-colored light of the pub. "Ma!"

"Sam!" The woman met him halfway, wrapping her arms tightly around his bones. "Oh dear, I didn't even recognize you! You are down here! When I didn't see you by the house I started to wonder. . . ."

"Ah, come on, Ma, you thought I'd be hangin' out at the old shack after I kicked it?" Bonejangles asked, pulling back with a chuckle – though Lizzie noted with astonishment his remaining eye looked wet. "Since when the hell was I ever good at stayin' in one place?"

"Fair enough. . .oh Sam." Ma Thatcher ran her fingers along the curve of his skull, tone achingly sad. "It's been far too long. I don't think there was a night where I didn't dream about those two lumberjacks showing up at our door, saying they'd found you on the road with your legs busted. . .who did it, Sam? Do you know?" she added, voice turning fiery. "Whoever it was, I hope they were hanged!"

"Whoa, easy, Ma," Bonejangles said, holding up a hand. "You thought I was robbed?"

"Your money bag was missing when we went to fetch you. I know you never took it off your belt."

"Oh – that was just some scavenger after the fact," Bonejangles sighed. "Hell, might've been the lumberjacks. . .anyway, what happened was, I was in a storm and lightning spooked the horse. I just got myself kicked to death."

"Kicked?! Oh God. . .but Samuel Thatcher, what were you doing riding out in a thunderstorm?" Ma Thatcher said, folding her arms.

"Being stupid," Bonejangles replied honestly. "I couldn't help it, Ma. I'd gotten that letter saying there was a bloke interested in Claire, and I wanted to meet him. Older brother's duty to put the fear o'God into him, after all."

"Bloke – Roger," Ma Thatcher groaned, pressing two fingers against her head. "I haven't thought about him in years. . .Claire put him on the stoop the day after your funeral. Caught him making time with another woman – and then we learned he'd gone and gotten a third into trouble! You shouldn't have lost your life over him."

"Oh great. . .hope Claire gave him a good old kick up the backside," Bonejangles grumbled. Then his tone turned worried. "She okay now?"

"Oh yes – she made an excellent marriage. All the girls did, save June." Ma Thatcher's face fell. "She's all grown up now, Sam. I wish you could have met her – she's nothing but sweetness. Reminded me so much of you. . .you've even got the same chin."

Bonejangles rubbed his jawbone. "Poor gal."

The crowd, which had gone silent with shock at the embrace, burst back into noisy life. "This is your mother, Bonejangles?"

"Holy jeez, I would never have guessed! Hello there!"

"Somebody get her a pint!"

"Hey, was he born wearing that hat or what?"

Ma Thatcher shied away as the questions started coming thick and hard. "Ah – er – I can't really – You know, I wasn't expecting such a welcoming party when I left the house," she admitted, edging behind her son. "I – well, it's nice, but – can we go somewhere a bit quieter for a little while?"

"Hold on, Ma – come on, guys, a little space?" Bonejangles called to the crowd.

"She's your mother!" someone yelled back. "I didn't know you had a mother!"

"What, you think I just sprang from the ground like this?"

"Come on, BJ, we're finally gonna get some blackmail meat on ya!" Chauncey shouted with a teasing grin. "What's the most embarrassing story you've got, Mrs. T?"

"Now now, leave them alone!"

Ms. Plum strode through the crowd like a battleship, corpses bouncing off her prodigious bosom. "Yes, it's all well and good to make a fuss," she continued as she came to a stop in front of them, frowning out at the crowd with her hands on her hips. "And I'm as happy to see a new arrival as the rest of you, but – what's your name, dear?"

"Thatcher – Carolina Thatcher," Ma Thatcher provided.

"But Mrs. Thatcher would like a moment alone with her child! Wouldn't we all like the same? Surely you can give her that?"

The sentiment touched something in the crowd – there was a brief murmuring, and then it broke apart, disparate corpses going back to their usual activities. Ms. Plum clapped her hands. "Right, that'll hold them off for a little bit anyway. In the meantime, we have a table right here in the back where you can talk," she said, taking both Bonejangles and Mrs. Thatcher in a firm grip.

"Thanks, Ms. P," Bonejangles said with a grateful smile.

"We'll leave you to get reacquainted then," Arthur said, stepping back.

"Oh no no, you three should stay!" Ms. Plum cried, letting go of Bonejangles to grab Lizzie before she could make her escape. "After all, you're almost family too now, aren't you?"

Ma Thatcher blinked, tilting her head at Lizzie. "Beg pardon?"

Bonejangles chuckled nervously, fidgeting with the brim of his hat. "Well, uh, ya see, me and Liz here. . . ."

Ma Thatcher's eyes grew round. "You – Samuel Thatcher, it took you dying to settle down?" she demanded, though her tone was mostly amused.

"It's all my fault, Mrs. Thatcher," Lizzie replied in her most deadpan voice. "I was rather inconveniently being five years old when he was alive."

Ma Thatcher laughed. "Oh dear, that wouldn't have been good at all, would it? But still, if you're together now, I've no objections to you staying. Or your parents," she added, smiling at the elder Liddells. "You were the first not to shout at me, after all."

"We know what it's like to be overwhelmed by that lot," Lorina said with a nod at the busy bar. "Your son had to plead for our space too."

"Come on, come on, you needn't be on your feet," Ms. Plum urged, tugging Lizzie and Ma Thatcher forward. "Get yourselves settled, and I'll whip up something special for the occasion. Found a new recipe for spider-egg tarts I've been meaning to try."

"Sounds great, Ms. P," Bonejangles said as they made their way to the table, tucked safely away in a shadowed corner. "Thanks again."

"Oh, trust me, it's a pleasure." Ms. Plum patted Ma Thatcher's hand, then bustled off toward the kitchen, humming.

Ma Thatcher watched her go. "Spider-egg tarts?" she repeated, wrinkling her nose.

"You'd best get used to it," Arthur said, he and Bonejangles pulling out chairs for the ladies. "The cuisine down here is – exotic, to say the least."

"Don't worry – you'll barely be able to taste it soon," Lizzie added, half-jokingly. She glanced curiously over at Bonejangles as she slid into her seat. "You know, your son told me Sam was his middle name."

"It is, but – well, who am I to force him to use a name he doesn't like?" Ma Thatcher said, smiling warmly at her child. Then her face darkened. "Besides, his father picked his first, and – my relationship with his memory is – complicated."

Lizzie nodded with an understanding smile, even as inside she went, Darn it, you couldn't have said it just once? "Yes, he also mentioned that Dad Thatcher – vanished one day not too long before June was born."

"Just walked out the door one day and never came back," Ma Thatcher confirmed, glaring at the flickering candles in the middle of the table. "I don't know who he got in trouble with – probably made a bet or two that he couldn't pay – but to pull that when we had little ones to feed and another baby on the way. . .if it weren't for Sam stepping so handily to the plate, and Claire and Nora and the rest after he – passed on. . . ."

Bonejangles patted her back. "There there, Ma. It was a long time ago, okay? I'm over it. And trust me, death ain't bad at all. You're gonna like it down here, I promise."

"I'll admit, I certainly got a more friendly welcome from all of them than I did from the village when John and I first came here," Ma Thatcher agreed, glancing behind her. "They've been treating you right, then?"

"Like gold – I own this place," Bonejangles said, beaming. "Well, much as anybody can own anything Downstairs, but it's my face on the sign. And I've got a band! Four blokes like me who ain't afraid to try something new. I'll have to bring 'em round so you can say hello."

"I'd like that." Ma Thatcher shook her head fondly. "Not even death can stop your music, can it?"

"Hell no," Bonejangles replied, puffing up his ribcage. "People down here love it, Ma. Finally found the audience I was waitin' for. We'll have to put on a set in your honor tonight!"

"Maybe tomorrow – give me a chance to settle in, Sam!" Ma Thatcher chuckled. "This is wonderful. All those letters you sent about tomatoes and hecklers and drunks giving you lip. . .maybe I made it to Heaven after all."

"It's close, if you know what you're doin'," Bonejangles told her. "But hey, we got all eternity to talk about me – what about my sisters? You said Claire kicked Roger to the curb – who'd she end up with, then?"

"Enrico Montebano," Ma Thatcher said, grinning. "Claire went looking for work in Bath, and happened upon him in a bookshop. A former bullfighter turned poet. He swept her right off her feet, and before I knew it, she was off to Spain to start a family. They're thrilled with each other – and her oldest, Carlos, is now a father himself!"

"Oh wow – I have a nephew?"

"You have quite a few nephews – and nieces too. We could probably start our own village with just Claire, Hester, and Hannah's children alone," Ma Thatcher giggled.

"Whoa." Bonejangles sat back, shaking his head as he tried to process this. "I'm so used to thinkin' of the littler ones as – well – little. . .they all go that far afield lookin' for a man?"

"No, most of them stayed relatively nearby – though Nettie ended up following Claire to Spain in the end, and Nora lives in France now. She was hired as a maid by Julien Merchant, and he ended up taking an interest in her. His parents were kind enough to pay for us all to come to the wedding." Her mouth twisted up in a darkly amused smile. "Though, deep down, I wonder if they were hoping that seeing the rest of us running around and looking shabby would convince him not to marry the 'help.'"

"Considering you said she's still over there, I assume it didn't work," Arthur said in his blandest voice. Switching to a more interested tone, he added, "You're a very multicultural family."

Ma Thatcher chuckled. "Yes, well, it all started with John and me. . .you've probably noticed my accent isn't the same as yours."

"Sam told me early on you're transplants from America," Lizzie nodded. "Which state?"

"Louisiana," Ma Thatcher said. "Though I myself was a recent transplant from Rhode Island at the time. . .probably why I fell in love with John in the first place," she added, leaning on her hand. "Everything was new and different and exciting, and he was so sweet. . .and if he liked to spend money a bit freely and linger too long at card tables, well, that was just a different kind of exciting. It wasn't until Sam was on his way that I realized what I wanted was 'dependable' instead." She sighed. "But you know, he was always kind to the children, did his best by them. He barely even raised his voice to me unless it was about his habits. Given some of the marriages I've seen, I was very lucky. I just – if only he'd had more sense! More control."

"That's the kicker," Bonejangles said, drumming his fingers on the table. "I still remember all those times you guys started tearing into each other about his card-playin' and dice-rollin' when you thought we were asleep. Dad always going on and on about how 'the next time will be the big one. . . .' We were all just as sick of that line as you by the time I was outta the house."

"Oh dear, I never wanted you to hear that. . .look, the man had his faults, but please don't hate your father," Ma Thatcher said, taking his hand. "If it weren't for him, you wouldn't be here. And there were good times too. I can't say I'm sorry I became Mrs. Thatcher. I'm just glad none of you fell victim to the same vices."

"Bonjour! I understand we have a rather special new arrival?"

"I'm just his mother," Ma Thatcher started with a laugh, turning around. "I don't see what all the fussssssss. . . ."

Lizzie managed to turn her laugh at poor Ma Thatcher's face into a cough. "Yes, this is Paul, the Head Waiter," she said, as Paul nodded politely. "It's all right – Mama almost screamed the first time she saw him."

"Hello," Ma Thatcher managed.

"Ms. Plum sends these along, with her compliments," Paul said, as unruffled as any true maitre'd by his new customer's staring. His assistant, Terry, passed out tall, bubbling glasses of a bright yellow liquid. "The tarts should be ready shortly. I have just been by the kitchen, and I can assure you that they smell magnifique!"

"Great, give her our thanks," Bonejangles said, picking up his glass and taking a swig. Bubbles dripped down the length of his chin. "Mmm. . .this is the real fancy stuff."

Ma Thatcher nodded vaguely. "Thank you. . . ." She watched, slack-jawed, as Paul was carried away to inquire after Mr. and Mrs. Carter's order a few tables down. "I – how?"

"One of the little peculiarities of the Land of the Dead," Arthur told her, gesturing with his glass and making the bubbly within swirl. "Going from my own personal observation – and my experience as a new arrival – when you first enter the Land, your body reflects the state it was in at the moment of your death. Of course, given the large variety of violent and painful ways to die, that unfortunately does not always mean that you're a whole corpse." He took a little sip of his drink. "Paul himself has stated that, to the best of his knowledge, the rest of him is likely in France. Given that otherwise he should have woken up as two separate parts in the same area, I can only assume that your deathly form also prioritizes the head and brain as the seat of your consciousness."

"In slightly smaller words, if your death involves having bits chopped off, unless they all end up in the same grave, there's a chance you'll be missing something when you arrive," Lizzie summed up for the rather stunned Ma Thatcher. "There's at least one other example running around here that did manage to keep all his bits – sort of. Mr. Ullman was touring a lumber mill he was looking to buy when he somehow fell on one of the saws."

"Sliced clean in half, from head to legs," Lorina said, zipping a finger down her body to demonstrate. "And he can control each separately if he likes. When he's walking about as one whole man, you barely even see the split – and then suddenly his head will come apart and he'll be carrying on two conversations at once."

"Good God." Ma Thatcher stared at her drink. "I take it back – this is far from the Heaven promised us by Pastor Johnston." She turned in her chair to scan the room. "Is he down here? He's been dead himself for a good twenty years. . .poor man probably thinks he's ended up in Hell. I was half-sure I had myself when I first opened my eyes, but – it didn't feel right, if that makes any sense."

"As much as anything does around here," Arthur nodded. "From what we can make of it, it's closer to the Catholic idea of Purgatory. Except that, instead of being a direct accounting for your sins, it's more – life with some of the messier parts filed off."

"And a few different ones tacked on," Lorina said, rubbing the spot where her nose had once been. "Remind us to tell you about No-Rot potions at the soonest opportunity."

"You r–" Ma Thatcher stopped, looking back at her son. ". . .I should have guessed that sooner, shouldn't I?"

"Not like it hurts," Bonejangles assured her. "Life down here's easier without the squishy bits. Anyway, yeah, I ran into old Johnston not long after I died – gave me a line about how 'God works in mysterious ways,' which I didn't buy much into after having my own horse beat me down. Haven't seen him around in ages, though. Either he's gone off to another village, or gone Up."

"Up?"

"Heaven and Hell do exist, from everything we've heard," Arthur told her. "Some people just take longer to get there than others. I believe it has something to do with 'unfinished business.' Those of us waiting for someone, or with a burning need to still complete a certain task, remain here, while those who feel like they've seen and done everything they can. . . ." He shrugged. "I have yet to see a passage either way in the flesh – or bone, depending on the case – but we have quite a few reliable eyewitness accounts."

"Interesting. . .Johnston's successor wouldn't like such talk," Ma Thatcher said thoughtfully. "He was quite firm that you only went to Paradise or Perdition – and judging by his sermons, he was convinced everyone except himself was on an express coach to the latter. I've never heard a man rail so furiously against sin, and Johnston could be a pretty ferocious preacher when he wanted to be."

"You talking about Pastor Galswells, Ma?" Bonejangles huffed, gulping down more of his drink and letting it splash over his bones. "Yeah, he can cram that stupid overlarge hat of his right up his arse."

Ma Thatcher hit him with a stern look. "Sam, I taught you better than that. I didn't care for Galswells myself, but you don't use that sort of language about a man of God."

"Yeah, well, you do when he's a shitter who's houndin' somebody for being 'devil spawn' when all the bloke wanted to do was make someone happy."

"Why would he do that? He's a strict man, but–"

"Perhaps you've heard something recently about a young man trying to marry a corpse?" Lizzie asked, touching Bonejangles's arm to calm him.

Ma Thatcher furrowed her brow. "I – it took a bit for it to wind back to us, and when it did, I thought that the village crier had finally run out of either news or sense. You're not saying it actually happened?"

"I knew the bride, Ma," Bonejangles said, voice softening. "Sweet girl named Emily Cartwell. Got murdered by a bounder named Eddie or Barkis or whatever, and vowed she'd wait until somebody else made her a proper wife. Fellow named Victor stumbled across her in the woods while practicing for his own wedding, accidentally proposed, and in the end we all went Upstairs for a while so they could try to get married the right way. Didn't actually happen, but now that Galswells is accusin' Victor of trying to steal everybody's souls."

Ma Thatcher sat blinking for a minute. ". . .And I missed all this how?"

"Well, we all showed up inside the village proper. . . ." Bonejangles awkwardly scratched his dripping chin. "I did think 'bout visitin', Ma, but – don't really look much like myself anymore, do I?"

"You probably would have scared poor June half to death," Ma Thatcher admitted, dropping her eyes. "But how did – I thought that when – and how can–" She groaned, putting her head in her hands. "Isn't death supposed to be the end of questions?"

"I'm afraid not," Lizzie said, sympathy pouring into her as she recalled how bewildering the Land of the Dead had been for her in the first hours – even the first fortnight – after her passing. "But we'll do our best to answer any you have."

"Of course," Arthur agreed, tapping his glass with a finger. "Some kind people back in Oxford did the same for us when we were new arrivals. It's our duty to pass on the favor."

"Thank you, I appreciate it." Ma Thatcher straightened up, putting on a brave smile. "So why don't we leave all that behind for a moment and start with something simple. Why are three people from Oxford in our tiny village?"

Now it was Lizzie's turn to fidget awkwardly. "That's, ah, actually one of the more complicated questions," she murmured, looking away.

"We're here because some cruel bastard thought it acceptable to kill my older daughter and burn our house down in response to being told 'no' for once in his life," Arthur said, voice dark. "And now he's got my younger daughter in his clutches, with distinctly ill intent."

"He's one of those blokes who thinks nippers are good for profit," Bonejangles added, narrowing his eye. "Pickin' up little boys and girls who don't got noplace else to go and. . . ." He knocked back a healthy slug of his drink. "Yeah. Since Elder Gutknecht got us all Upstairs, they came to see if he could help them go Above and rescue Alice. And drag that rotter Bumby before a judge if they can."

"We have a plan, but unfortunately we have to wait until Halloween to implement it," Lorina said with a sigh. "So we thought we might as well pass the wait in good company."

Ma Thatcher gaped briefly – then her eyes turned to stormy slits. "That's – my God, I am so sorry for you. What an awful, awful way to die. . . ."

"It was," Lizzie nodded, staring at her lap. "He took everything from me – from all of us. And got away scot-free. It makes me wish that I'd bashed his head in against the mirror when he cornered me in the loo at Waterloo Station."

"I wish I'd been able to poison his tea one of those times he forced his way over," Lorina confessed, rubbing Lizzie's back. "But back then we didn't know the difference between merely creepy and evil incarnate. . .it really is a shame not even magic will let you change the past."

"Cornered you in the–" Ma Thatcher drummed a furious beat on the table with her fingers. "For God's sake – do excuse my continual taking of the Lord's name in vain, it's just – it's barbaric, that's what it is!" She slammed her first against the wood, making all the glasses jump. "John acts the perfect gentleman throughout our courtship and we have to flee the whole damn United States for it, but this bastard follows you into the toilet and kills your whole family and no one says a word?!"

"Um – well, to be fair, he managed to convince everyone Upstairs that the fire was an accident, caused by our cat," Arthur said, tilting his head and frowning. "And no one but us really knew the full extent of his obsession. . .you had to leave behind your home country just for falling in love?"

Ma Thatcher and Bonejangles both stiffened. "Oh – ah—um – you see – there were – complications," Mrs. Thatcher stammered, switching to drawing nervous circles on the wood.

"The gambling?" Lizzie guessed. "Made enemies of the wrong people?"

"Well, I can't imagine that helped – he was always getting in over his head, silly man – but. . .when it came to us. . . ." She looked away. "Our relationship wasn't – approved. By anyone."

"Not even your parents?" Part of Lizzie felt guilty about prying – it seemed a tender subject – but her curiosity had been sparked. And if she wasn't quite as bad as Alice, she was still pretty eager to stick her head down dark holes to see where they led.

Ma Thatcher laughed sourly. "No. I thought they'd be the exception – after all, we were supposed to be from the more 'civilized' North. But I guess saying they should be free didn't extend to being free to marry me."

Lizzie exchanged a puzzled look with her parents. "Beg pardon?"

Ma Thatcher let out a heavy sigh. "John – John was black."

There was a brief silence as the Liddells digested this. "In Louisiana?" Arthur finally said. "I don't know that much about the States, but I was given to assume–"

"Oh, there's a handful of free black families around – some who managed to get money to pay their way out, others who were released by kind owners," Ma Thatcher said. "John and his family were the latter case – their master gave them their freedom for helping save his son's life. But as you might imagine, the white folk don't like them mingling – especially with white women. Even white women from hated New England. We escaped just ahead of a lynch mob – took the first boat we could across the sea."

"Yeah. . .didn't want to tell you this, but I'm pretty sure the reason I got stuff thrown at me in those pubs and on stage was because I took after Dad," Bonejangles confessed, with an uncharacteristically anxious glance at Lizzie. "Well, mostly – hair was closer to Ma's, for some reason."

"June ended up the same way, actually – I have no idea how that happened," Ma Thatcher admitted. "The other girls. . .Claire, Nora, Nettie, Hannah, and Gladys are light enough to pass as farm girls with a good tan. The others are definitely their father's daughters. Didn't make us very popular in the village."

"Right. The more I hear about living Burtonsville, the less I like it," Lizzie muttered. "So that's why you exiled yourself outside the walls?"

"Well, that and hoping it would keep John away from gambling. . .for all the good it did," Ma Thatcher added, rolling her eyes. "Oh, the good times were good, but if only he'd had the sense to stop before whatever happened that made him disappear! Maybe he did it to keep us safe, but – well, it was easier on all of us when we were both around and no one felt different."

Bonejangles patted her arm. "It's okay, Ma. You may not have gotten me before that stupid horse, but all the girls got paired up eventually, right? Proves there's enough people in the world who don't care about skin."

"Almost – I wasn't able to get June matched up before that 'stomach upset' took me," Ma Thatcher reminded him, inverted commas snapping neatly into place around her illness. "Oh dear, I hate leaving her all alone. She's cheerful almost to a fault, but – it's hard enough on a woman on her own, never mind one who's. . .mixed. I hope she can find someone who won't care that her skin and her hair don't match. Or, at the very least, can get herself a good position where it won't matter quite so much."

"There's always a call for maids of all sorts," Lorina said encouragingly. "Or a cook, if she has any skill there."

"Oh, yes, in fact. She's an absolute marvel in the kitchen – I'm going to miss her meals." Ma Thatcher rubbed her stomach nostalgically. "Particularly because I barely got to enjoy any before I went. There's nothing like being both starving and ready to throw up at the same time."

Bonejangles made a sympathetic noise in the back of the throat he didn't have. "I'm sorry you had to go like that, Ma," he said, rubbing her back. "Sounds awful."

"It was. . .though I guess it's not a patch on what happened to you," Ma Thatcher admitted, biting her lip as she looked at her son. "I swear, if we'd known you were out there–"

"I know," Bonejangles cut in. "My own fault for deciding to ride through the rain for Roger. The arse," he added.

"Sam, stop using that word," Mrs. Thatcher scolded. "There are ladies present."

"Yeah, well, the lady who hooked up with me uses worse when she's in a real mood."

"Only once," Lizzie said, trying and failing not to giggle.

"But what a once! There's a cabbie out there who's been scared to a whole new shade of blue because he took us the wrong way when we were racin' to get here. Plus there's all the favorite nicknames for the bastard who sent you down here."

"Oh, he doesn't count," Lizzie said with a careless wave of her hand. "It's the same way you'd talk about dog muck on your shoe – and I'd rather have dog muck than him around me."

Ma Thatcher looked between them, then smiled at Lizzie. "You simply had to be eight."

"It's not really my fault you had the boy first," Lizzie returned, grinning. "Though trust me, I've wished more than once we had matched up better when we were alive." Her good cheer faded. "Not that I think it would have stopped Bumby at all. . .he probably would have gone after you first, Sam. 'Disappeared' you and made up some story about you running off with another girl."

"If he'd have tried that, I would have shown him how I handled one of the guys who did try to rob me on the road," Bonejangles said with conviction. "I got a bloody nose, but he got a busted arm and a night stuck up a tree."

"You chased him up a tree?"

"Nah, he chased himself up there to get away from me wailing on him with a branch," Bonejangles grinned.

Lizzie entertained herself with the image of a bruised and battered Bumby clinging to the trunk of an old oak, one arm bent at a funny angle, while below Bonejangles prowled round and round like a wolf. "Too bad there's no convenient trees in Whitechapel. . .though I suppose we could chase him up a building."

"And then follow him up and dangle him off the side?"

"If time permits," Lizzie said with a nasty grin.

"Here we are, folks! Fresh from the oven!"

Ms. Plum marched gleefully up to the group, balancing on her head a platter almost as big around as she was. Piled high upon it were greyish tarts, each sporting a cluster of tiny white eggs in the middle and decorated with threads of spider silk. "Only the best for our new guest," she said, beaming at Ma Thatcher as she deposited the platter on the table.

"Thank you," Ma Thatcher replied, giving the cook a rather fixed smile in return.

"They look delicious," Lorina said with rather more enthusiasm. She plucked one off the top and took a big bite, silk clinging to the sides of her mouth. "Mmm. . .you used a bit of grave dirt in these, didn't you?"

"Oh, always! Brings out the flavor," Ms. Plum nodded. Ma Thatcher did her level best not to look horrified. "How are things over here?"

"We're getting along just fine," Lizzie assured her.

"I knew you would. Shall I send Paul around to top up your drinks?"

"I think we're fine for now," Ma Thatcher said hastily, holding up a hand. "But thank you."

"My pleasure! I'll pop back over again in a little while – can't leave Howard alone for too long, you know how he is." Ms. Plum clapped Ma Thatcher on the shoulder, then hurried off again.

Ma Thatcher looked after her. "How is he?" she asked after a moment.

"He gets the pots and pans stuck on his head – or his ar – well, bum," Bonejangles edited himself, selecting a tart. "You really should give one a go, Ma. Ms. Plum's the best cook we've got down here."

"You expect me to eat spider eggs, Sam." Ma Thatcher squinted as a chunk of silk and eggs tumbled through the open part of his jaw and stuck to his thigh. "You expect me to eat at all, actually. How can you even taste that?"

Bonejangles shrugged. "Just happens, Ma. You got any theories, Mr. Liddell?"

"Just empirical evidence – er, things I've seen," Arthur corrected himself. "Sorry, when you're a Dean, old habits die hard. . .but losing the organ necessary for the sense doesn't seem to remove the sense itself. Every skeleton I've met has been able to see and hear just fine. Though death does degrade at least smell, touch, and taste – the reason we're eating spider eggs and grave dirt is because we wouldn't be able to taste the tarts at all otherwise."

"And even then it's not much," Lorina added, a touch sadly. "It's all over by the first half-hour down here, more or less. Have you noticed that you can't feel your seat cushion?"

Ma Thatcher poked her chair. "No," she admitted. "I – I can tell it's there, but that's about it. I can't even feel my dress, and it always made me itch about the waist. . . ." She rubbed her forehead. "I've a lot to learn about how things work down here, don't I?"

"Like I said, we're happy to share everything we know," Arthur assured her. He pushed the platter toward her. "You're sure you won't have at least a bite?"

"Not like it can kill ya, Ma," Bonejangles wheedled. "And it'll make Ms. Plum happy."

Ma Thatcher eyed the platter, then gingerly picked up a tart. "If I feel anything crawling on my tongue, I'm blaming the both of you," she informed the two men.

"They've been cooked – they have to be safe," Arthur insisted. "Imagine you're eating caviar."

"I've never had caviar."

"Which should make it all the easier to imagine! In fact, these are probably better – every tin of caviar I've eaten has been salted to within an inch of its life."

Lizzie scooted a bit closer to Bonejangles as Ma Thatcher eyed her tart. "So – I assume your being mixed is another thing you didn't plan on telling me," she said, as deadpan as possible.

Bonejangles winced. "I – I was worried, okay? I'd have to buy out the stock over at the second-hand shop before I could come close to counting how many guys and gals gave me lip – or worse – for bein' darker than they were. Hell, even down here, jerks liked to throw nasty words and pint glasses at me until I decided to heck with the No-Rot and let it all slough away. That's what I meant about life being easier without the squishy bits. The faster my skin went, the faster I was just – one of the guys."

Lizzie touched the rod of bone that was all that was left of her throat. "I can understand that – but did you truly think I'd be one of the nasties?"

"No, but you gotta understand – sometimes, an idea gets in your head, and it's really really hard to unthink it."

Lizzie made a face as she thought about the imp hissing in her ear. "Right. . .and I guess you really haven't known me and mine for that long. . .Papa was always very firm about treating people as people, though," she added, sitting up a little straighter. "I never had much occasion to meet black people, but we had tea with some Chinese once thanks to Mr. Radcliffe's enduring obsession with the East. The accents were a bit funny, but they were perfectly nice company. And I think the States dragging Africans out of Africa to work their fields for them is cruel."

"You don't know the half of it, Liz – Dad 'entertained' me with some horror stories growin' up," Bonejangles said, shuddering. "Made me glad the worst I got on the road was bottles and tomatoes being chucked at me. If I'd had to watch out for a noose being slipped 'round my neck at every stop, never would have left home." He chewed another bite of tart. "Orientals for tea, huh? Well, I guess they invented it. . .everybody in Oxford so open-minded?"

"I only wish," Lizzie replied, rolling her eyes. "Our guests were talked about for weeks, and I've never heard so many poor impressions in my life. Bumby in particular was of the opinion they should have been put in a zoo. . .oh, he would have loathed you. Claimed you were tainting me with 'impure blood.'" She snorted. "Though, of course, he probably would have said the same if you were pure white and could trace your lineage back to King Arthur."

Bonejangles laughed. "Yeah, well, screw him. Him and all the jackasses who think like him. I don't care anymore if the whole world likes me. The gang 'round here likes me." He took her hand. "And you like me. That's good enough for me."

Lizzie nodded. "Good enough for me too." She gave his clavicle a poke. "For the record, though, what were you planning on telling me when we drank our False Flesh potions and I saw you as you were when you were alive?"

". . .er. . .really, really bad sunburn?"

Lizzie covered her eyes with a hand. "You're terrible, you know that?"

"Yeah, but I thought that's what you liked about me."

"Fortunate for you, yes."

". . .This actually isn't that bad."

Bonejangles turned back to his mother with a grin. "See? Told ya, Ma! You'll be kicking up your heels to the beat in no time."

"I hope so." Ma Thatcher chewed, then swallowed with an effort. "Speaking of which, you still need to introduce me to this band of yours. And you have to tell me how you met Lizzie here!"

"I'll call 'em over," Bonejangles said, standing up. "You'll like 'em, Ma – good guys. We were on tour together when I ran into Liz in Oxford."

"Really?"

Lizzie nodded. "We'll give you the whole story," she promised, leaning forward. "And then, afterward, I'd love to hear your take on a certain tale Sam's told me about a cooking accident in late September. . . ."

Chapter Text

October 6th, 1875

Whitechapel, England, Land of the Dead

10:21 A.M.

". . .is it just me, or. . . ."

"Or does Houndsditch look kinda like a dollhouse?" Bonejangles finished for her. He squinted at the deep purple facade through the rusted iron of the fence, then dropped his head against one shoulder, as if a change in perspective might make all the difference. "Creepy one, that's for sure. Don't think my sisters woulda liked playing with it."

"Alice might have – in the sense of pretending to grow giant and trampling it underfoot," Lizzie said, her heart giving a little twist as she remembered her sister stomping around her room after a slice of cake, crushing invisible enemies. "Mind you, I would have been right behind her mashing every last splinter into the floorboards."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, pretty sure it doesn't look like this Upstairs," Bonejangles shrugged. "Unless Bumby's got a thing for grapes."

"Never bothered to find out." Lizzie let her gaze travel from the top of the urine-yellow roof down to the dull greeny-gray of the front stoop. "But you know, even if this place was painted in the most cheerful rainbow imaginable, it'd still have his stink all over it. I – I don't even know how to describe it. It's just – there."

"Yeah, I get what you mean," Bonejangles nodded, eye narrowing as he pulled his jaw back to approximate a frown. "Whole place screams something ain't right."

"Look, we just said we weren't interested – Lizzie? Did you find it yet?"

"Yes, Mama!" Lizzie called, glancing over her shoulder. "It's just around the corner here!"

"Oh good – we don't want any! For goodness sake, find someone else to pester!"

Lorina and Arthur hurried onto the street, chased by an indignant voice. "Who doesn't like a jellied eyeball?"

"Us! Shove off!" Arthur yelled back, then turned back to his daughter with an exasperated sigh. "Teach us to try and cut through the marketplace. I thought living vendors were pushy."

"We must have been accosted by five or six people with trays within one block of stalls," Lorina agreed, scowling. "Though that last was definitely the most persistent. Whatever happened to respecting a customer's no?"

"It's Whitechapel – I'm not sure they know the meaning of the word," Lizzie pointed out. Her voice went dark. "Bumby must have fit in immediately."

Arthur put a hand on her shoulder, then looked up at the house before them. "So this is the place, huh? I was expecting something a little more dour."

"It's the Land of the Dead – only the skeletons aren't brightly colored," Lizzie reminded him.

"Yeah, and I hear even that ain't true in Mexico," Bonejangles said with a chuckle.

Arthur didn't even crack a smile. "I don't like it. It's like candy coating over a cockroach. It gives the place an innocence it shouldn't have."

"I'm not sure I'd call any house with a roof that color innocent," Lorina declared. In a softer voice, she added, "How bad do you think it is inside?"

Lizzie shuddered. "I dread to find out."

Arthur squeezed her shoulder. "You don't have to go in today – or any other day," he said. "No one's going to make you."

"I know, but – the whole point of us leaving Burtonsville and coming here a month early was to find the place and see what we were getting into. What the neighborhood looks like, ways to sneak in so I don't have to confront the rat bastard until I'm ready. . . ." She swallowed. "And where Alice sleeps so I can get her out of it right away."

"And where the toilet is so we don't accidentally fall in while on a good rampage," Bonejangles joked. He rolled his eye from right to left thoughtfully. "Though I don't suppose a place like this has a fancy privy. . .think I could get away with stickin' old Bumbles' head down it?"

Lizzie snorted. "It would serve him right and no mistake. We'll see if we have the time." She reached out and grasped one of the flaking iron bars, her cheer fading like the flash of her father's camera. "Does anyone else feel like we're right back at Rutledge?"

"The thought had crossed my mind," Arthur admitted. "But we survived that trip, and we can survive this one too." He offered up his most encouraging smile. "We're behind you all the way, Lizzie."

Lizzie managed one back. "Thank you. . .though I think I'd like one of you in front of me just at the moment."

"Allow me," Bonejangles said, stepping up. The front gate screeked open at his touch."Into the great unknown, folks. We got an orphanage to map."

Lizzie's boots clicked on the cracked path as she followed him onto the grounds. The Home seemed to glare at her as she neared, daring her to actually come inside. Lizzie glared right back, refusing to be cowed. Did you hear my father? I made it through Rutledge with my wits intact! Squeaking wheels filled her ears as she recalled a doughy face grinning at her, and running out of the building like her heels were on fire. Mostly. . .but that was ten years ago. I'm much better now. You may have horrors of your own, but they'll be a pale imitation of what

Was that someone watching me?

Lizzie paused, squinting suspiciously into one of the upstairs windows. She could have sworn she'd seen a face peeping through the broken panes. "Mama? Did you see that?"

"See what?" Lorina asked, following her gaze.

Lizzie pursed her lips, then shook her head. "Never mind. Maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me." Or my memory. . .ugh, I hope Bumby didn't hire on his own Earl at any point. Dealing with an overly-curious orderly once was enough for one – er – death-time. She banished the thought and held her head high, mounting the front step and pushing open the front doors with Bonejangles.

Inside. . .was actually something approaching homey, much to her surprise. She'd expected cold and utilitarian, much like the asylum's waiting room – everything rotted and moldy, but otherwise a little too white to be comfortable. Instead, she was confronted by wallpaper hanging in peels of green, and dark brown tables nibbled extensively by woodworm. Toys littered the floor – a full pack of cards spread itself across the boards, and tin soldiers lazed about near the fireplace. There was also a dollhouse, to Lizzie's mild amusement, painted in a much nicer combination of blue and white. Past that was – "A piano?"

Lizzie frowned at the instrument, which grinned at her with a mouth of yellowed, crooked keys. "I didn't think he was musical. And when would he find the time to play between keeping up appearances and – making his backroom deals?"

"Maybe he has it to help with the former," Arthur suggested, frowning. "I've heard of lord and ladies buying harps and such just for the look of it – why shouldn't he? Probably claims it exposes the children to a bit of culture."

"He would too." Lizzie touched a key, and the piano glonged in response. "He hasn't been taking very good care of it."

"Maybe we can fix it up before we leave," Bonejangles said, running his fingers over the top. "Makes my ribs ache to see it just rottin' away over here."

"The things people will do to look smart," Arthur grumbled. "At least it's better than hunting trophies on the wall – oh. Though I think I would prefer a pair of antlers over the fireplace to that."

Lizzie turned around to see, and immediately regretted it. Staring out into the world from the confines of an oak frame was the man himself, seated in an armchair surrounded by unhappy children. Age had done little to lessen the smugness radiating from every pore. . .although. . . . "His nose is nowhere near that straight. And I think he told the artist to give him a stronger chin too." She stuck up two fingers while pfffting. "You're an ugly son of a bitch and no amount of paint will ever disguise it."

"Hear hear," Bonejangles agreed, though a bit distantly. "4, 7, 13. . .why the hell are the kids wearing numbers?"

Lizzie took another look, tearing her eyes from her tormentor. Sure enough, each child standing around Bumby sported a bib printed with a seemingly-random numeral. "Probably easier on him if he never has to learn their names," she growled. "I'm honestly surprised he has toys for them, given their ultimate destination."

"Another case of keeping up appearances, I think," Arthur commented, lightly tapping a one-legged soldier with his foot. "If he doesn't at least keep up the pretense of being an orphanage, the police would be around, and he can't have that."

"You think such thoughts would drive him to fill these shelves," Lorina commented, investigating the bookcases lining the walls. "There's barely anything here, and even less that's appropriate for small people. . . ." She grabbed a volume at random. "Oh look, A Short Course of History. One of your favorites, Lizzie."

Lizzie huffed. "A pound says he picked it up for show and he's touched it as much as he's touched the piano."

"'Nother one of those fancy ones nobody actually likes?" Bonejangles asked waggishly.

"It's boring as sin. The author is so dry he could convince the ocean to evaporate with a few well-chosen words." Lizzie smiled nostalgically. "Alice couldn't stand to either read it or have it read to her. Nanny practically had to tie her to her chair to get her to learn her history."

"Well, hey, who likes learnin' about a bunch of. . .dead. . .right, yeah, you're history now, Sam," Bonejangles told himself, pressing his fingers against his forehead. "Sheesh, now I feel bad for every time I ignored Ma durin' lessons."

"It is odd to think of yourself in that way, isn't it?" Lizzie agreed, her stomach twisting just slightly. "Why do we have to learn when Harold was killed? It happened ages ago! Not like I'm ever going to meet the man. Or William the Conqueror, come to think of it." "I'm not looking forward to seeing how far the world's moved on without me."

"Neither am I," Arthur confessed. "Upstairs is akin to the Moon at this point for me."

"I don't think it's that bad," Lorina said, absently paging through the book. "Most things in London are in the same places they've always been. Oxford hasn't changed too much, from what we've heard. A few families moving out, a few moving in. . .things seem to be going along fine at the university too."

"Yes, but – there's been talk of men exploring the Arctic, and someone inventing reliable electric light, and new machinery in factories that isn't nearly as dangerous as before. . .and I don't get to be a part of any of it," Arthur groused. "I don't even get to read about it in the paper! Going Upstairs and having to face all those changes, all those incredible discoveries, head-on. . .it's going to be an awful–" He stopped abruptly, glancing guiltily at his daughter.

"Tease," Lizzie finished for him, ignoring the way the word curled angrily on her tongue. "It's all right, Papa. I understand, really."

"So do I," Lorina assured him. "But it's only been twelve years. I don't think things could have come so far in just a–"

And then it was her turn to stop dead, staring into space for a moment before whirling in a swirl of skirts to frown at the open doorframe behind her. "Mama?" Lizzie asked, puzzled.

Lorina poked her head through the frame, turning it left and right. "I could have sworn I felt someone looking at me."

Well, that ruled out her eyes having a jape before. "I thought I saw a face peeping out at us from upstairs before we came in!" Lizzie joined her mother in peering into the hallway beyond. "I didn't get a good look before it vanished, though. . . ." She bit her lip, fingers deftly seeking out that loose skin around her wrist. "You don't think–"

"If it is Alice, she's taken to going around on all fours," Lorina said, pulling back. "These eyes were definitely lower than those of a twenty-year-old girl."

"A child, then?" Arthur scrubbed at his beard, baffled. "But what child would want to stay here?"

"One who wasn't one of Bumby's regulars, maybe," Bonejangles suggested. "Lots of nippers just want a roof over their head."

"Don't see why, it never rains here. . .though I guess the sudden appearance of snow in winter would send me running for cover too. . . ." Lizzie ventured cautiously into the hall, and spotted a sampler hanging on the near wall. "'Earn Your Keep.' Well, how lovely. Good to know he really has the best interests of the children here at heart." She glared at it, then eyed the door in front of her suspiciously. "Do you think this is his office?"

"Let's see," Lorina said, stepping forward to open it.

It wasn't – instead, what greeted their eyes when they peeped in was a bedroom. Or, well, it was a bed shoved into a room, at least. There was also a wardrobe slowly turning into splinters in the opposite corner, another sadly-empty bookcase, and what looked like a wine rack repurposed as general shelving on the near wall. "He's been taking house decorating tips from Mr. Payne, I see," Lizzie noted, shaking her head.

"Who?" Bonejangles asked, looking in over her head.

"Fellow in Oxford who often preached about the pleasures of the 'simple life' and the 'humble home.' I think this might be a little too humble even for him."

"Hmph. Let him sleep in a bed like that and see how much he likes 'simple,'" Bonejangles muttered, shaking his head and making his eye rattle. "Looks just like the one I had growin' up, and it was all lumps. Plus I had to bunch up with Claire half the time."

"There's another door behind us," Lorina noted, turning around to take a closer look at the wall that separated foyer from hallway. "Let's see. . . ." She went back and tried it. "No, just a coat closet. Oh, but here – is the dining room! Very cramped, I must say."

"It's not a particularly big house," Lizzie pointed out, coming to see. She frowned at the long table crammed into the thin room. "Though you're right, that's barely enough room for one full-grown man, never mind a horde of children. . .I guess that door at the end leads to the kitchen?"

"It must – otherwise they'd never have a hot supper." Lorina drummed her fingers on the door. "Not that I can see Bumby as a cook. Probably considers it beneath him."

"Mmmm. . .and I don't think they teach the culinary arts in Rutledge," Lizzie agreed. "I hope Alice isn't going hungry."

"If she is, we'll make sure he pays for it," Lorina assured her daughter, taking her shoulder and leading them back into the main hall, where the menfolk were investigating the other doors on offer. "Anything interesting?"

"Another bedroom," Arthur said, one down from "Earn Your Keep." "This one with a linen press and the most ink-stained desk I've ever seen in my life."

Lizzie popped her head in. "Maybe this is Alice's room, then," she suggested. "She always loved to draw when she was small."

"Yes – but didn't she favor pencils?" Lorina murmured thoughtfully.

"She could have switched to ink. Nothing forbidding it, right? Though I suppose one of the children could be responsible." She sighed. "At least, until he was done with them. . .I wonder how many novelists and poets and artists we've lost because of him."

"I don't like to think about it," Arthur said, shaking his head. "How does a man like that even come into being? I'll grant that he suffered tragedy at a young age, but – there's no excuse for the things he's done."

"Maybe some people are just born wrong," Bonejangles suggested, coming up behind them. "I mean, you get folks who start out deaf or blind or with one leg shorter than the other. If it can happen to your body, why not your brain?"

"Astute observation," Arthur told him. "I think we'd all have been happier if Bumby had been born crippled in his flesh, though. What have you found?"

"Bathroom's at the end of the hall," he reported, jerking his thumb to the last door available. "Place has got runnin' water and everything. And indoor privy! Shoved into a closet so you can barely close the door, but hell, I'd take that over runnin' through the snow any day."

"You're acting as if you're going to be using it while we're Upstairs," Lizzie said, amused.

"Wish I could. Like I said, love to jam his head down there and then do a big old–"

"I'll tell your mother what I think you're about to say," Lorina said, though she was grinning.

"You and her got way too friendly way too fast," Bonejangles grumbled, tipping his hat over his left eye socket. "Besides, if there's anybody who deserves to be buried in shit, ain't it Bumby?"

"Maybe we can bribe a man with a manure cart," Lizzie said, letting herself drift into a rather stinky daydream for a moment. "But right now, I want to know where he does his business. Perhaps, if we're very lucky, there'll be something we can take with us to show the police the truth about him."

"All for that," Bonjangles agreed, pulling his hat back up. "Let's go."

They rounded the corner, which didn't have much to interest them beyond a rickety side table piled with old copies of the Illustrated. Arthur picked up one, taking care not to damage the brittle pages too much. "'Fire at match factory,'" he told them. "'Six girls missing.' Such a shame."

"But perhaps inevitable," Lizzie said pessimistically, continuing onward. "I just hope they – went. . . ."

She trailed off. Before her was the stairs to the first floor. . .and a pile of old trunks and suitcases, some with moth-eaten dresses and holey shoes poking out of them. There were also some toys – the upper half of a croquet mallet, with its handle snapped in twain; a rocking horse who had lost all his paint in his last race; and – a doll which had lovely waves of blond hair, but no eyes or arms – or dress, for that matter. It was sitting right in front of her, head twisted to one side, bum in the air. Suddenly Lizzie wondered if they would need the toilet after all – whatever was left of her stomach was doing a pretty good impression of being sick. "I – what are these doing here? Are they all from his – patients?"

The others came to have a look. "Perhaps," Arthur said, as a rat poked a skeletal nose out of the mess. "I can't imagine what he'd need with a rocking horse."

"But – but why keep them when he's – the children who come here don't – I–"

Lorina reached over and plucked the distracting doll from its resting place, tossing it in a corner. Another rat squealed in protest and skittered down a nearby hole. "He might recycle some things with – new patients. It's cheaper to give a child hand-me-downs than buy them new clothes and toys, after all."

"My sisters could write you the book on that, I bet," Bonejangles nodded. "Or maybe he just throws the stuff down here and forgets about it when the nippers – head out."

Lizzie's eyes darted toward the doll, now lying in the shadows. Her jaw clenched. "Or maybe they're trophies. I wouldn't put it past him to keep a reminder of every little one he's broken just because he can. God, I hope he didn't take anything from our house."

"I doubt it," Arthur assured her. "What could he have grabbed after setting the place on fire? Not to mention having any of our possessions on him might have made the police suspect foul play. . .unless that 'friend' of his paid them off," he added in a darker voice. "How he got in so well with Mr. Dommartin is beyond me. . . ."

"Don't ask me – I don't get how anybody could spent five minutes around the guy without sockin' him right in the jaw," Bonejangles said, then squinted at the wall. "Hey, there's another door back here!"

"Really?" Lizzie said, leaning forward. Actually, yes, she could just see an outline of one in the dark. "Where does that one go?"

"Hang on. . . ." Bonejangles picked his way through the luggage and disappeared through the opening. Moments later, he was back. "Back outside – guessin' it's what counts as the 'servants' entrance,'" he said, putting on a mock 'lord' voice. "We'll have to remember it for later, Liz."

"Indeed," Lizzie said, glancing at the doll again. "I just hope the Upstairs version is a little less disturbing. . .speaking of which, we should probably see what the second floor holds."

As it turned out, mostly more bedrooms. Right at the top of the stairs was a large room labeled 'Girls' Room' in childish script, containing bunk beds, a few more amputee dolls, and some old crackly drawings of evil-looking men in top hats. Next to it was its male twin, sporting crayon sketches of angry dogs and more cards blanketing the floor. And right next to that. . .Lizzie opened the door to find a large double bed with a curved headboard, a wardrobe that actually looked new, a nice red carpet on the floor, a bookshelf filled with books, and an end table – sporting a pair of cracked and bent glasses. She instantly reversed out of the room, shuddering. "Well, this is where he sleeps," she said, wiping her hand on her dress.

Arthur took a look and tched. "Gave himself the best of everything, I see," he muttered. "But we already knew he wasn't going to spend his profits on the children. . . ." His brow furrowed. "Though that does leave us with a puzzle. He sleeps up here, those two rooms are for the current 'patients,' and one bedroom below belongs to Alice. . .so who's in the other?"

"Older kid?" Bonejangles offered up. "Or maybe he's got an assistant?"

"In running the orphanage or – his other business?"

Bonejangles ground his teeth together. "Dunno. . .can't tell which is worse either. Your Alice gettin' stuck with two assholes like that, or somebody else gettin' the same from him as she is."

"I think the latter – if only by a hair." Lizzie turned around to look down the bend at the last remaining door in the building. "So that must be his office. Where it all happens."

Arthur touched her shoulder again. "No one's making you," he said. "If you want to just turn around and leave now, I'm happy to do so." Lorina and Bonejangles nodded.

Lizzie was tempted. . .but the idea of finding something, anything that she could use to make sure Bumby was locked up for whatever remained of his life pushed her onward. "We've come this far," she said, straightening her back. "We might as well see and get it over with."

Arthur nodded, a proud if strained smile on his face. "That's my girl." Moving as a single unit, they made their way into Bumby's base of operations.

Once again, the actual room didn't match up to Lizzie's imagination – which was a very good thing, as her imagination had been picturing things like little boys and girls locked up in cages like chickens being transported to market, or an oozing, rotted version of Bumby sitting inside and snatching her away from her family before anyone could even scream. Instead the office beyond the door was almost frustratingly ordinary. A fainting couch with its head pointed toward the broken windows, fluff poking from the cushions; an armchair across from it, threadbare and sitting uneven on the floor; a desk behind both, chewed eagerly by woodworm and rats; more shelves on the back wall, again largely empty but with some old yellowed books thrown in for color; a globe with the continents peeling off; a rug which sported yellowish patterns obviously not intended by the weaver. It wasn't pretty, but neither did it suggest anything untoward happening inside. Well, did you expect life to be like a book and give you some obvious clue to his evil? she scolded herself. Were you hoping to walk in and have a signed confession sitting on the blotter? If he hasn't done it Upstairs, it's certainly not going to appear Down!

Arthur edged past her and approached the desk, pulling open a drawer. "Nothing but old pen nibs and dry inkwells," he reported. He yanked on the next one down, and got a squeal. "And a nest of rats here, do excuse me. . . ."

Lizzie went to the bookshelves and started picking through the contents. "Psychiatry book, psychiatry book. . .psychiatry book in French. . . ."

Lorina checked a cabinet shoved up against the right wall. Something crinkled in her hand. "Well – there are these, but I don't know how useful they are," she said, holding up torn and faded paper bibs. Inked on the top one was a large numeral 5. "Just like in the painting."

Lizzie made a face at them. "I think they're suspicious, but if he had a bloody portrait done with them without anyone Upstairs thinking anything of it. . . ." She roughly shoved a book on phrenology back into place. "I wanted a diary! Or a letter, or something!"

"He's got a wastebasket back here – and it's full o'ashes," Bonejangles reported from behind a trunk in the corner. "Hate to tell ya this, Liz, but I think he's still burnin' shit to keep himself from getting caught."

"Oh, of course he is." Lizzie kicked the desk to relieve her feelings, prompting a round of angry chittering from the rats inside. "Ugh. . .I guess it was a long shot, but still. . .after that doll downstairs, I was so hoping. . . ."

"I know, dear," Lorina said, coming over to give her a quick hug. "It would have been nice, wouldn't it? But it doesn't seem we're going to be that lucky."

"If there is any more evidence Upstairs, it probably hasn't been reflected down here yet," Arthur said. "Buildings that are still standing above generally only show what's been destroyed within them, right? With a few decorative exceptions?"

"Should be how it goes," Bonejangles nodded. "Which means those bibs gotta be long gone Upstairs. Guess we could take 'em with us, but – what do you say? 'Hey, this guy's makin' his orphans wear numbers?' Weird, but you don't start wearin' the broad arrows for it."

"Unfortunately." Lizzie rubbed her arms. "I hate being here. Everything about this place makes me feel like he's lurking right over my shoulder, ready to pounce."

"I think we've seen all we need to, then," Arthur said, closing up the desk. "Why don't we head back to our rooms at the Langham and start talking about how we're going to make this man face justice?"

"Fine by me," Lizzie nodded. "I just hope–"

There were a pair of eyes burning into the small of her back.

Lizzie whirled around, some tiny part of her (what remained of the imp, she guessed), certain she was about to come face to face with that bloody bastard taking a good long admiring look at her arse again. Instead, she found herself staring at a little girl, red hair done up in a messy braid under a frilly cap. She squeaked and vanished around the door as Lizzie's eyes met hers. "What – wait!" Lizzie said, darting into the hall. "Come back! We mean you no harm!"

The hem of a tattered skirt swished around the corner – Lizzie followed it to see the girl duck into the Girls' Room and slam the door behind her. She hurried over and knocked. "It's all right," she called, hoping she sounded friendly enough. "We're – we're just visiting. I'm Lizzie. Lizzie Liddell."

There was a brief, agonizing silence – then the door creaked open, and two blue eyes peeped out. "Liddell?" a trembling high voice repeated. "Like – like Alice?"

Lizzie nodded. "I'm her sister." Footsteps behind her alerted her to the approach of the others, and she added, "And if it's them you're afraid of, that's my mother, my father, and my – boyfriend." She hadn't actually called Bonejangles that before – it sent an interesting tingle up her spine. "They're all good, I promise."

A burst of whispering followed this pronouncement. Then, slowly, the door opened, revealing not only the little girl, but two boys about the same age. "You promise?" one of the boys said, skeletal hands on his hips.

Lizzie did her best not to giggle at his overly-serious expression. "I promise," she repeated, crossing her heart to prove it.

"So there are still children here," Arthur said, crouching down. "Hello. I'm Arthur. How long have you been in the Home?"

The trio shrugged. "Dunno," the boy who'd spoken said, scratching his head with bony fingers. "Does it matter?"

"Why are you here?" the other boy demanded, frowning with his upper lip (the only one he had left).

"It's – it's a bit complicated," Lizzie admitted, tweaking her wrist.

The second boy groaned. "Why's everything grown-up have to be complicated?"

This time Lizzie did giggle. "Because that's the way the world works, sadly." She leaned over them. "Who here knows my sister?"

The girl and the first boy raised their hands. "Not well, though," the first boy admitted. "I – I got sold off pretty quick after she came."

Lizzie shuddered. "You poor thing. . .but why did you come back here then?"

"Didn't have anywhere else to go," the boy replied, and made a face. "Wasn't gonna stay where I died, that's for sure!"

"Same," the girl nodded. "'Specially 'cause he died too and–" She looked away. "Kicked his goolies into paste 'fore I left though."

Lizzie found herself torn between heavy tears and a sadistic grin – she rubbed her face to hold them both back. "Good for you. It's awful, but – good for you."

"I feel we haven't been properly introduced – what's your names?" Lorina asked, leaning on her husband's shoulders.

"I'm Hannah," the girl said, tugging on the strings of her cap. "They're Walter–" the first boy waved "– and Ted." The no-lower-lip boy nodded.

"Huh – I got a Teddy in my band," Bonejangles said, letting the wan light catch his grin. "You play any instruments, buddy?"

Ted shook his head. "But I can throw a card into a hat from across the room," he said proudly.

"Nice! I tried that once between gigs – ended up with a game of Fifty-Two Pickup instead." Bonejangles looked around. "Any more of ya hangin' around?"

"A few. They're outside," Walter said. "Playin' hopscotch."

The four shared a puzzled look. "We didn't see anyone," Arthur said.

"Over there, in the courtyard," Hannah explained, pointing to the left. "Maybe they hid – we don't like visitors, mostly. You're okay, though," she hastened to add. "Kinda recognize you from Alice's picture."

"She has a picture of us?" Lizzie blinked. "From where? Surely all the ones we had burned."

Hannah shrugged. "Came in the post with no address. We thought maybe one of you had sent it to her, like ghosts."

"If only," Arthur murmured.

"Trust me, if we had ended up as ghosts, we wouldn't have let Bumby have any semblance of a peaceful life," Lizzie told the girl, face dark. "I would have driven him into Rutledge for the rest of whatever passes for a life with that miserable sod."

"Ooh, you think they would have dumped him in cold water all the time?" Ted asked, eyes shining with childish malice. "Or give him a shock or two?"

"I'd want leeches poured all over him," Hannah said, folding her arms and nodding.

"Me too – with one jar reserved specifically for his 'manhood,' if you can call it that."

Hannah applauded as the boys grinned. "I like you."

"Dear, please stop being a corrupting influence on the children," Lorina scolded through a smile. It faded quickly as she looked back at the three. "We are so sorry for what happened to you. . .but did you really have no other place to go? What about your families? I – I sadly assume they're dead. . . ."

"Not mine, far as I know," Walter said, scuffing the floor with a shoe. "Mum brought me to Houndsditch 'cause Dad was out of work and we was out of food. Two of my brothers went to different places – think they kept George and Sally."

"My mum's in gaol," Ted informed them. "She, uh – well, she told me I was an accident from a bloke who didn't pull out in time. . . ." Lizzie did her best not to make a face. "Told the bobbies I shouldn't be in a cell with her, so off to Bumby I went." He looked away. "Wonder what she'd think of me keepin' up the family business."

"I'm sure she'd be horrified," Lorina said, shivering. "Any mother would. . .what about you, Hannah?"

"I'm a proper orphan – carriage accident," Hannah told her. "But nobody told me where, and now I can't find 'em. I figure, I stay here, if they come lookin', ain't hard to find me."

"Is that so. . .maybe we could poke around for ya a bit while we're here," Bonejangles offered. "You never know. What's their names?"

"Mary and Cave Donovan," Hannah provided, though her tone wasn't especially hopeful. "If you make bat jokes, Daddy groans."

"We'll make jokes about cave fish and birds then," Lizzie said with a playful smile.

Hannah tilted her head. "Fish live in caves?"

"Well, some – did you think only bats did?"

"Uh, yeah, 'cause they go blind if they go out in the sun."

"Not true," Arthur said, holding up a finger. "There's some Australian fruit-eating bats who are diurnal – that means they're awake during the day. They're known as flying foxes because they tend to have orange-colored fur."

The children exchanged a baffled look. "But – don't bats drink blood?" Walter said, scratching his head. "I thought that's why vampires like 'em."

"There's a few species, but the vast majority eat insects." Arthur shook his head. "I take it schooling was not on Bumby's list of priorities."

"He was takin' stuff out of our heads, not puttin' it in," Hannah reminded him with a scowl. Then it turned into a sniffle. "He didn't even. . .I didn't know I was Hannah 'til I was down here. I got sent off being called 'Three.' Maybe that's why Mummy and Daddy never looked for me." She twisted up her cap strings around her hands. "They d-didn't want a daughter who was only a number."

Lizzie's heart wrenched in her chest. "That cannot be true," she said, getting down and pulling Hannah into a hug. The girl started, but didn't try to flee. "It's more likely they simply haven't figured out where you are yet. The Land of the Dead is a big place. I can't imagine they'd abandon you."

"I can," Walter said darkly. "And what about Farley's mum? She just about threw him away!"

"Well, some people aren't fit to be parents then," Lizzie replied, annoyed. What was it about this section of the city that attracted all the worst in humanity? "But don't give up hope just yet, Hannah. We'll ask around, see what we can find out."

"Thanks." Hannah wiped her eyes. "Why do you wanna help, though?"

"Because – because Bumby hurt me too, long ago," Lizzie admitted, dropping her head. "The reason Alice doesn't have a family is because that bastard killed us all. I didn't want him to – 'play' with me, so he burned down the house."

The children goggled. "Izzat – but how come she didn't start screaming for the bobbies once she saw him?" Walter asked.

"Because Bumby's got everyone convinced, including her, that our cat was the culprit," Lizzie explained, bitterness leaking from every pore.

". . .how's a cat set a fire?"

"Well, obviously he didn't say Dinah did it on purpose – knocked over a lamp, isn't it?" she asked her parents.

"That's the story Mrs. Ashby told us," Arthur confirmed. "I still can't believe it held up to scrutiny."

Hannah frowned, then wrapped her arms around as much of Lizzie as she could reach. "That's rotten. I'm sorry. I hope Alice remembers right soon."

"Me too – before it's too late," Lizzie said, biting her lip.

Ted patted her back. "Well, it takes a while to get everything out of your head," he said comfortingly. "Maybe she'll give him what-for before then."

"Oh, I hope so." Lizzie squeezed Hannah before releasing her and standing. "We do apologize for intruding. I just – I heard about the place from your friend Farley, and I was hoping. . .does he do any of the business here?" she asked, hating herself a little but needing to know. "Do you remember?"

The three shook their heads. "Beyond the swingy-key thing? Don't think so. We get – uh – divvied up somewhere else," Ted said, fiddling with his fingers. "Least, nobody remembers getting sold out the back door."

Lizzie sighed. "Damn. There goes any evidence we could take with us." She brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. "I suppose we should go then."

Hannah grabbed her skirt. "Do you have to? Right now?" she asked, digging her shoe into the floorboards. "Maybe you could tell us about the cave fish first?"

"And flying foxes?" Walter added, eyes bright with curiosity. "I thought Australia was just where they put all the really bad people."

"Oh, not at all!" Arthur said, lighting up. "It has any number of fascinating creatures. . .if you want, I'd be happy to play schoolmaster. It's been ages since I taught."

"Don't know natural history, but I could show ya how the piano works – if it still does," Bonejangles chuckled. "A little ditty makes everything better. Least, that's how I look at it."

"I've got no objection to staying," Lorina said, smiling. "I don't know what I could teach, but. . .well, there must be a storybook around here somewhere."

"If not, we'll make up our own," Lizzie decided, warmed by the grins of the children. I'll never have any related by blood. . .but perhaps play-acting for a while will do. Besides, we could all use a distraction from the memories this place forces on you. "Go gather the others and we'll set up in the front foyer, all right?"

"Sure!" The three pelted off down the stairs.

Arthur laughed. "Eager little things. . .oh dear, I hope I remember enough of my encyclopedias! We might have to pay a visit to a bookstore if this becomes a regular feature of our time here. Ah, if only there was a quick way to transport them to Elder Gutknecht's tower. . . ."

"Oooh boy – dunno if the Elder would approve," Bonejangles laughed. "Though I guess Scraps would be happy with the attention." He headed down the hall. "I'd better go see if that piano's got any life left in it."

"I'll come with – if it does, I can help you tune it," Lizzie said, falling into step beside him.

"Great – maybe we could even try a duet." Bonejangles rolled his eye over to the right as they descended the staircase. "Guess we got three more reasons to make sure this guy gets his, don't we?"

"Plus however many are in the courtyard," Lizzie nodded. She sighed. "And there's still just under a month to go. . . ."

"Well, at least we got something to do now while we wait."

"True. And if I can make any of these children's afterlives a little better – well, I'm happy to do so." Lizzie took his hand, then looked up at the ceiling. "Just a bit longer, Alice. Hang on."

Chapter Text

October 31st, 1875

Whitechapel, London, England, Land of the Dead

5:48 P.M.

"Lizzie, dear, if you don't stop bouncing like that you're going to shake your nose clean off."

"I can't help it, Mama," Lizzie replied, her entire body bobbing as she seesawed up and down off tiptoe. "After so long, the moment's finally here! What time is it?"

Arthur checked his pocket watch. "Well, if this can be trusted, 5:49," he said. "Which means eleven more minutes to go." He put it away and patted the satchel hanging against his hip. "Please try to relax, Lizzie."

"You actually expect me to relax? When I'm within a sixth of an hour of seeing Alice again?" Lizzie stopped bouncing and instead began swaying. "Why don't we just go now? Will ten minutes make all that much of a difference?"

"If it's not dark enough, yes," Arthur replied. "I'm not sure what counts as sunset to the spell. If we wait until six, it should be late enough to qualify as night. Plus the streets shouldn't be quite as busy, given that most people will probably either be preparing their evening meal or eating it."

"Yeah, we were always a 'tea at six' kinda family at home." Bonejangles wrapped his arm around Lizzie, forcing her to stay still momentarily. "Come on, Liz, you can tough it out."

"I'm doing my best. . .but my stomach's so full of butterflies I think I'm about to fly up to the Land of the Living under my own power," Lizzie confessed. "How can you be so calm?"

"'Cause I've already done this, remember? Got my fair share of tizzy out of the way then." Bonejangles ruffled her hair. "Too bad this trip doesn't come with a free cake."

"We're taking a few pounds – you can buy a piece Upstairs on me." Lizzie looked down the street, where Houndsditch patiently waited. "You're sure it's a bad idea to cast the spell in there and skip all the fuss of getting inside?"

"Yes, mostly because you wouldn't be skipping any fuss at all, I believe," Arthur said, checking his watch again. "Eight minutes to go. . .if anyone sees us just suddenly appear inside the house, well – I'm prepared to make trouble, but I don't want to invite any extra on my head. Especially any that might allow him to get the upper hand." He looked seriously at his daughter. "We don't want him getting away, do we? Especially with a possible hostage?"

Lizzie shuddered, the butterflies pressing themselves flat against her belly as images of Bumby with a knife against some unfortunate little girl or boy's neck paraded through her head. "Right. . .have you got everything?" she asked to distract herself.

"Right here," Arthur said proudly, lifting the satchel off his shoulder. "Five pounds' worth of emergency money, four eggs and a round two dozen False Flesh potions. Four of which we should probably drink before we head Up," he added, reaching in and rummaging around. "Even with all these handy alleys and such, four dead people coming out of nowhere would–"

It all happened in less than thirty seconds. Some young man in a flat cap and suspenders zipped out of the rubble at the end of the street (Upstairs construction, one worker who'd suffered a nasty blow to the head had told them), rocketed past them – and snatched the satchel straight out of Arthur's hand. "HEY!"

The thief continued on, chortling as if it was all nothing more than a game to him. Lizzie watched him run down the street, frozen in open-mouthed shock – but only for a moment. Then she was racing after him, boots clanging against the cobbles. Bonejangles was at her side seconds later, eye a slit of determination, while Lorina and Arthur brought up the rear. "Get back here, you wanker!"

The thief made a hard right and headed into the marketplace. "Ha, yeah! That's what bloody swells get for coming into our part of the city!" he yelled back at them as they followed, before kicking over a few cages of chickens. They spilled out in a mess of blue feathers and terrified clucking, darting this way and that. "Go back where you belong!"

Lizzie leaped over a chicken and poured on the speed. "You skilamalink meater! When I catch you, I'm going to shake your flannin until it bleeds!"

Apparently startled by hearing his sort of slang leave her mouth, the thief slowed and turned to gawk – which gave Lorina just enough time to overtake her daughter and tackle him. Mother and satchel-snatcher ended up in a heap on the ground, while the bag itself flew into the air. Lizzie made a diving catch for it as it tumbled to the cobbles –

CRUNCH! And fell just short. "No!"

Lizzie scrambled to her hands and knees as runny yellow egg and bright green potion soaked into the cloth, rendering it a sopping mess. "No," she repeated in a littler voice, tears gathering in her eyes. All this time, all this way, only to have it end like this. . . .

"Damn it!" Arthur grabbed the dripping bag and plunged his hand in. "I can't believe – all right, stay calm everyone, we just have to find some more ravens' eggs. It might take a while–"

"Who is going to have ravens' eggs for sale in Whitechapel?" Lizzie demanded, throwing her hands wide. "I doubt we're going to find any wild nests we can raid!"

"You bloody arse!" Lorina snarled at the now-rather-in-over-his-head thief. "What gave you the right?"

"What gave you lot the right to barge in here like you owned the place?" the thief replied, squirming out from under her. "Slummers! You don't come into our homes and start throwing your weight around! That's for the living!"

"We have done nothing of the kind!" Arthur yelled back, face bright with passion. "My daughter lives here Upstairs, and now you've–"

He stopped suddenly, blinking. Slowly, he dropped his head to look at his hand, still in the satchel. "Oh my God. . . ." With immense care, he pulled it out and turned it over –

to reveal a single unbroken egg. Lizzie gasped. "One made it?"

"The smashing of the other three must have acted as a cushion! And I think some of the potions survived too!" Arthur handed the egg to Lizzie and felt around. "Yes, that's definitely a complete bottle. . .this one too! I think there's maybe – four? No, five. . . ." He extracted them one by one, lining them up on the ground beneath him. "Yes, five."

"What on earth is going on around here?"

The thief glared as a policeman, sporting a deep scowl over a chest peppered with bullet holes, came ambling up the street. "Stay out of this, you mutton shunter!"

"He stole our satchel, officer!" Lorina declared, pointing an accusatory finger. "The contents of which are damn near impossible to replace under the circumstances! And he did it simply because he didn't like the look of us! He said so himself!"

"He set my chickens running everywhere!" a skeletal lady added, trying in vain to round up the still-frightened birds. "Toss him in the Tanty!"

The policeman sighed and grabbed the thief's arm. "Why do you keep making trouble for people now that you're down here, Jed? We both died a year ago – do you miss prison that much?"

"They shouldn't be here!" Jed insisted, though his confidence was wavering now that everyone on the entire street was looking at him as if he was something a dog had done in front of their stalls.

"I haven't had a problem with them," the chicken lady said significantly, tucking a squawking hen under one arm. "And those poor little children from Houndsditch certainly seem to like them."

"It's because of Houndsditch that we're even here," Lizzie said, marching up to Jed and slapping him as hard as she could across the face. "You just nearly ruined my hopes of seeing my sister again! Only the fact that this one egg didn't shatter is keeping me from tearing you to pieces right here and now!"

"Eh, your sister's under Bumby's care?" the policeman said, eyes wide with concern.

"Yes, and we're hoping to get her out of it – all right, so we've got one egg and five potions," Lizzie said, turning back to her parents and Bonejangles. "There's only four of us, we might be able to stretch the spell enough. . .and I can do False Flesh on my own, so two of you can double up on potions and get at least six hours–"

Arthur shook his head, stepping forward and wrapping his hands gently around hers. "No, Lizzie. This is much too important to risk a misfire. Elder Gutknecht said that the ideal number for Slip Through The Veil is two – you and Bonejangles use the egg."

Lizzie and Bonejangles both blinked. "What – me?" Bonejangles said, pointing to himself. "Hang on, Mr. Liddell, we're talking about your family here. Shouldn't you and Lizzie go? Or you and your wife?"

"Alice will want to see her sister most of all," Arthur said firmly. "And you've been Upstairs post-death once – you're the one with experience."

"Not to mention you're more familiar with these sorts of neighborhoods than we are," Lorina agreed, touching his arm. "As Mr. Jed just proved, we'll need someone with that sort of knowledge to keep Lizzie getting into trouble."

Lizzie bristled slightly. "If someone gets me into trouble, I'll get myself right back out of it again. I know where to kick this time."

"I'm sure you will, dear, but indulge your mother, won't you?" Lorina rubbed her face. "Besides, I'm sure that trying to pick between me and your father as your companion will be at least an hour-long argument. I can already mount a pretty good defense of Arthur being the one to go."

"I've come up with five reasons why you should already, Lorina," Arthur admitted with a hint of a smile. "But yes, it's just easier if you two make the trip. And it means Bonejangles can have all the potions and thus be protected against detection the entire night."

Lizzie stared down at the egg in her hands. She couldn't fault her parents' logic, and it wasn't like she didn't want to go Upstairs with Bonejangles. It was just. . . . "This is so unfair."

"That's life – and death," Arthur told her, patting her shoulder. "Look, while you're up there, your mother and I will take a turn around the shops – see if we can't find any more of these elusive eggs. More people than Elder Gutknecht must keep them as pets. And if we're very lucky, we might find another potion-maker too."

"If not, well, there's always scarves," Lorina said, before patting her nose-holes. "Large, bulky scarves."

Lizzie laughed despite herself. "All right – what's the time?"

Arthur grabbed his pocket watch. "Six on the dot! Bonejangles, here, drink this." He scooped up one of the potion bottles and pressed it into the skeleton's hands. "And – has anyone got a sack or something they could borrow?" he asked the various sellers. "This satchel's not good for anything right now."

"I have this old purse – don't use it for much anymore," the chicken lady offered, unslinging it from her shoulder.

"That should do fine, thank you." Arthur loaded it up and handed it to Lizzie. "Keep a good close eye on that – I imagine the thieves Upstairs are worse than those Down, and the last thing we need is to give them magic."

"I will, Papa." Lizzie kissed his cheek. "I'll – I'll see you when morning comes, I guess. Or hopefully sooner."

"Much obliged, Mr. Liddell," Bonejangles nodded, thumbing the cork out of his bottle. "I'll take good care of her, I promise."

"I know you will." Arthur stepped back, taking Lorina's hand. "Good luck, you two. Fingers crossed this messy business will be concluded by the end of the night."

"Yeah, all the best with your sister," the policeman agreed, Jed grumbling.

"You might want to pop Up behind the butcher's," the chicken lady suggested. "Nobody goes back there much because of the smell."

"Thank you, that's an excellent idea." Lizzie hooked Bonejangles's arm with her own and pulled him into the brown-and-red-stained alley. "Good to know it's Jed who isn't popular here, not us. . .are you ready to go?"

"Smash 'er open, Liz," Bonejangles said, tipping the potion back and letting it splatter all over his bones.

"Right." Lizzie squeezed her eyes shut and pressed both thumbs as hard she could into the fragile egg. Whitechapel Upstairs, Whitechapel Upstairs, oh please let this work, oh please let this work. . . .

Crack! The shell burst apart in her hands – but instead of the expected slime, Lizzie felt a faint, tingling chill suffuse her flesh. Startled, she opened her eyes into a billowing cloud of orangey-blue fog. This quickly faded into gray as it poured down her body, disappearing into the cobbles like a mouse fleeing their Dinah –

And then the alley was suddenly rather darker, significantly bloodier, at least a hundred times smellier, and playing host to a cat who was licking up splattered offal in the corner.

Lizzie stood stock still for a moment, getting her bearings. Had it really worked? The change in the alley's look (and stink) was almost enough to convince her, but she couldn't help wondering, wanting to be completely and one-hundred-percent sure. . . . She picked her way over the red rivulets running between the cobbles and picked up the cat. It hissed annoyance at being denied its meal and scratched her. Lizzie barely noticed, carefully examining its fur. No hint of blue at all. . .and its chest was going in and out with the effort of breath. She squealed with laughter and dropped the cat on a box, where it took off for greener pastures. "It worked! It honest and truly worked!"

"Sheesh, Liz – after all that, you didn't think it would?" Bonejangles said behind her, amused.

"I'm sorry, but you know my propensity for wor–"

Lizzie's voice died as she turned around. Standing behind her was – a man quite different from the bag of bones she spent the vast majority of her time with. Gone was gleaming white skull and jagged ribs and cracked legs. Instead, what greeted her eyes was dark brown skin, contrasted against a dirty white shirt and tan pants held up with suspenders. The long jaw she'd so often teased him about looked less comical when covered with flesh – strong and solid and square. His nose was a near-perfect right triangle – just a pinch crooked near the end, though she couldn't tell whether that was the result of nature or the multiple breaks he'd spoken of. Blond hair – almost the same shade as his mother's – stuck out in a tangled nest from under the bowler. And his eyes – well, there were two of them once again, but at least they were the same nice brown as before the change. It was a reassuring touch of familiarity.

Bonejangles scratched the back of his head as she stared. "Sheesh, am I that ugly?" he asked with a nervous laugh.

"Ugly isn't the word," Lizzie said, touching her cheeks. "I – I really do owe you an apology about your chin. You're right, it looks – fine."

"Glad to know I've got the official Liddell stamp o'approval," Bonejangles grinned at her. He looked down at his body. "Man, weird to see the old flesh again. 'Specially without the munchers I picked up after dyin'."

"The ones you taught to sing, you mean?" Lizzie said, finally getting a grip on herself. Yes, fine, he's handsome, not much either of you can do about it. Argh, why did you have to be born twelve years before me?

"What else was I gonna do once I stopped gulpin' down the No-Rot? Might as well keep busy. And make gettin' chewed up a little more pleasant." He nodded at her. "Speakin' of which, you'd better hide your gnaw marks."

"Right, right. . . ." Lizzie spotted an old cloth lying in a nearby garbage can. It was stained with substances she did not want to know the origin of, but it seemed nicer to rip that up instead of a chunk off her dress. She still rather liked this gown. She plucked it from the trash, closed her eyes, concentrated on what she remembered used to be in the mirror, repeated three hours three hours three hours a couple of times to be safe, and tore.

There was no telltale tingle this time to let her know the spell had worked – but when she opened her eyes, the clock had definitely sprung backwards. She dropped the rag halves and stared at her hands. It felt so peculiar to see them like this again after over a decade of decay – pink and healthy and properly filled out again. She glanced down at her dress – bright green once more, and free of moth holes and tears. She did a little twirl and grinned as the skirt fluffed out. "Wow."

"Yeah. . . ." Now it was Bonejangles's turn to stare. "You look – I ain't gonna say you never look great, Liz, but – it's damn nice to see you before the blue."

"Thank you kindly, good sir," Lizzie said, curtseying. "It's rather nice to be back in my old form, I must say." She reached up to adjust her dress collar –

and started as her fingers went through where she knew her neck was, bouncing off her spine. "Wha – oh, right, it only fools the eye," she said, mood dropping as she recalled Elder Gutknecht's words. "I guess I wanted to be tricked further. . . ."

"It's okay, Liz," Bonejangles said, coming over to sling an arm around her. "Lookin' normal's half the battle. And it ain't like we're gonna be spendin' a lot of time shakin' hands with people."

"I know," Lizzie said, shaking her head. "But it would have been nice to feel myself again. And you."

Bonejangles coughed. "Think you coulda put that a bit better, Liz."

Lizzie wondered if her disguise was doing the blushing she couldn't. "You know what I mean!"

"Yeah, I do." He gave her a little squeeze. "Anyway – what say we get outta this gut-heap and do what we meant to do?"

"I'm all for that," Lizzie said, frowning distastefully at the caking blood beneath her shoes. "I'd forgotten just how bad things could stink in the Land of the Living. Isn't this man worried about flies? Or rats?"

"I've had a coupla meat pies in my time where I was half-expectin' to find a long naked tail," Bonejangles said, leading her around the shop. "And I heard some guys use the droppings in plum duff."

"You wanted me to try Whitechapel street food before."

"Well, Downstairs it don't matter so much, does it?" Bonejangles peeped out from the shadows onto the street. "Yeah, ain't anybody paying attention – let's go."

They exited onto the cobbles, which were indeed very quiet – her Papa had been right in guessing most people were busy with their food at this time. And those who weren't – well, they got a couple of second glances from shopkeepers and customers, but no thirds. "Must be wonderin' what a guy like me is doin' with a gal like you," Bonejangles said, flashing a passing man a grin.

"Let them – if they don't like it, they can keep their opinions to themselves," Lizzie said, holding her head high. "Not like we'll be here long enough for them to try anything."

"Yeah, and if they did – guessin' the Illustrated would have stories for months." Bonejangles held up a hand. "'The Man Who Could Not Be Hanged! And then turned into a skeleton and sent everybody screamin' for their mums.'"

Lizzie giggled. "Let's save that for Bumby right at the moment. . .you remember the story we're using while we're here?"

"Yeah, you're some long-forgotten Liddell cousin, and I'm your – fiance," Bonejangles nodded, letting the last word linger on his imaginary tongue. "You really think that's gonna fly, Liz? Anybody who knows yer family knows ya don't have any aunts or uncles. Plus Alice apparently has a picture of ya that's pretty true to life. . . ."

"Well, considering how much she and I look alike, I don't think people would consider it that much of a stretch to have a cousin share the same face," Lizzie replied. "And there's not anyone here who knows the Liddell family tree. Excepting possibly Bumby, and I certainly don't care if he sees through the charade." She absently played with her wrist skin. "Although if he is somehow fooled. . . ." She made a face. "No, letting him kiss me would not be worth the look on his face when he tasted the rot."

"You think he'd try to smooch ya even if he didn't think you were – you?"

"I look like me, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was enough. I'm–" She swallowed, spine shuddering. "I'm reasonably certain that's why he has Alice around, after all. He could have just let her wither in Rutledge, or wander off content that she too believed the story about Dinah, but. . . ." She squeezed her hands so tightly together she thought she heard the bones creak. "She deserves so much better than being Lizzie Only With Green Eyes."

Bonejangles nodded, rubbing her back. "That's why we're here – to make sure she gets that better."

They exited the market onto Moorfields, and from there it was only a few steps to Houndsditch. "Well, he's certainly not obsessed with grapes," Lizzie observed as they stood before the old brick building. "And I'm glad of the roof not being so yellow either."

"Yeah – wasn't pretty," Bonejangles agreed. "Not that it looks so great now either." He glanced over at her. "Ready to do this?"

Lizzie took a deep breath. "As ready as I'll ever be." Holding Bonejangles's hand tightly, she walked up to the front door and knocked. All right. . .just remember, if he opens the door, you can't kick him in the crotch right away. No matter how much you want to. Or how much he deserves it. Oh, I hope Alice is the one to greet us – and doesn't immediately start screaming when she sees me! God, will I even recognize her? I mean, I suppose I must, particularly if she looks so much like me, but she's been eight years old with tangled curls in my head for so long. . . .

The door creaked open – and for one split-second, Lizzie thought time had gone strange (perhaps Hatter had murdered it again) and it was the eight-year-old version of her sister at the door. Then the little girl stepped into the light, revealing a rather pinched face framed by ratty brown pigtails and a floppy white cap. The beady little eyes squinted. "Who're you?"

Lizzie put on her best smile. "Hello. I'm Joan Liddell, and this is my fiance, Sam." Bonejangles tipped his hat. "I'm Alice's cousin."

The girl wrinkled her nose suspiciously. "Alice always says she ain't got any family left."

"Well, I don't think we've ever properly met – my family spends much of their time abroad," Lizzie lied smoothly. "I've been living in India and only recently got caught up on the news regarding the Oxford branch of our family tree. I think it would do Alice good to know she's not totally alone in the world, don't you?"

The girl played with a pigtail. "You do look kinda like that picture she's got of her sister," she admitted. "But she ain't here anymore. Doctor says she's lost her marbles and has to go back to Rutledge."

Lizzie's entire body went cold. "Rutledge?" she repeated, voice rising to a squeak.

"Yeah, didn't you know? She's madder than a March Hare," the girl reported, flipping her pigtail back behind her shoulder. "They had to keep her locked up ten years in the looney bin. Doctor had the thickies out looking for her before he decided they were too stupid to find her."

"Surely she – looking for her?" Lizzie blinked. "Didn't you just say she was back in the asylum?"

The girl shook her head. "Nobody's seen her for weeks," she said. "She went out one day to yell at Radcliffe for stealing her bunny and never came back! Before that she nearly drowned in the Thames," she added, as if Lizzie's imagination needed help picturing all the trouble her sister could get into. "And then the Mangled Mermaid almost burned down with her inside. And then they threw her in the pokey for throwing an inkwell at that big fat lawyer."

Lizzie put a hand on the doorframe to steady herself. On the one hand, she supposed it was good that her sister was out wandering free from Bumby's influence. On the other. . .is she already dead and we simply haven't seen her Downstairs? London's a big place. . . . "Dear God," she murmured. "I had no idea things were this bad. . . ."

"Easy – Joan," Bonejangles said, wrapping his arm around her waist. "Sounds like she managed to slip outta death's grip all those times. . .but nobody's seen her for a while?" he confirmed with the girl.

She nodded. "Not even V-Thirteen could track her down," she corrected herself, expression suggesting she was expecting a slap for nearly getting the name wrong. "And he always followed her around like a puppy."

Lizzie sighed. "I guess we could put in some footwork, see if we can't locate her," she murmured. "Poor dear must be so frightened. . . ."

The girl giggled. "Nope – she's probably scarin' everybody else," she said with dark glee. "She keeps going to Wonderland and having to kill things."

"Kill?" All right, Alice had led her fair share of chess battles in Looking-Glass Land when she was younger, and battled the Jabberwock a couple of times, but this – this sounded rather more serious.

"Yeah, she told us all about it when she was still here. Army Ants and Jabberspawn and Boojums. Wonderland doesn't like her anymore."

Lizzie felt a deep, heart-wrenching ache. To think that her sister's own imagination had turned on her so cruelly. . . . "It's not right," she muttered. "I know I say that a lot, but – it isn't!"

Bonejangles nodded. "It ain't," he agreed. "But we're here now. If we can track her down, we can maybe fix it." He turned back to the little girl. "How about the guy who owns this place – Dr. Bumby? Can we see him?"

To Lizzie's surprise, the girl shook her head. "He's busy," she said sourly. "Gave us our supper, then went upstairs with Thirteen. Said he needed another session and he wasn't to be disturbed."

"Not even for us?" Lizzie asked, frowning.

The girl winced and scuffed the floor with a foot. "Doctor really doesn't like it when you interrupt him. He says it makes you bad. You – you don't wanna be bad around here."

Lizzie's heart softened. The poor thing looked so scared. . .she couldn't send her into the lion's den. Not even for the sake of her revenge. "All right – we'll come back later. Thank you for all your help."

The girl nodded. "If Alice comes back, I'll tell her you're here," she said. "Probably say I'm just makin' it up though."

"Well, just make sure she stays until we can return, then," Lizzie smiled. "Have a good night."

"You too, I guess." The girl shut the door without any ceremony.

Bonejangles looked at it for a minute. "Well – that was kinda a kick in the trousers, wasn't it?" he commented.

"No 'kinda' about it," Lizzie replied. "Dear Lord. . .why was she released from Rutledge if she's still not well? Do they just release patients willy-nilly now? And to know she's–" Lizzie clenched her jaw, holding back tears. "Did she deliberately try to drown herself? Or run into that fire thinking it was all she deserved?"

"I dunno – I say we hunt her down and ask her," Bonejangles said. "We've got a whole night to poke around."

"Do you think it'll be enough?"

Bonejangles shrugged. "Won't know unless we try, right?"

"True. . . ." Lizzie directed her gaze to the upstairs windows. "I wonder what poor child is having their mind torn apart right now," she mumbled. "Do you think it's the same Thirteen from the painting?"

"Maybe. . .supposed to be unlucky, ain't it? Nipper might be givin' him trouble."

"I hope so. I hope he's fighting back with everything he's got." Lizzie clamped her hands together. "Perhaps we should give him a hand. We know about that back door, after all."

"Little extra rescue mission? I'm all for it, Liz," Bonejangles nodded.

Fortunately, there was a narrow gap between Houndsditch and the building on the other side that they could squeeze through. Lizzie took the lead, back scraping against the rough brick. This place is bigger than it looks from the front. . .well, so long as the back entrance isn't completely choked with luggage, we should – "Eeep!"

She stumbled backward, clapping a hand over her mouth to prevent any other unfortunate noises. "Liz? What is it?" Bonejangles whispered.

Lizzie flattened herself against the wall and pointed. Standing outside the back stoop were three very large, very dirty, very grumpy-looking men. "Keeps us waitin' all the time," one muttered, smacking a meaty fist into the open palm of his other hand. "Ain't right."

"Why don't he just sell here?" the one next to him complained. "Easier for everybody."

"Shuddap, both of yas," the third man said, punching the second one in the shoulder. "He promised us tonight, and he'll let us in tonight. He's a right bastard, but he always has the goods." The man smirked through rotten teeth. "And maybe we'll get ta see this Thirteen he's so proud of."

Bonejangles whistled, then nodded. "Yeah, I see," he whispered. "Don't think they want any company."

Lizzie shook her head, hand still clamped firmly over her mouth. Oh God. . .one she might have been willing to risk sneaking past, but three? Not even her guilt over leaving that unfortunate child up there could get her feet to move forward. Already the memories were threatening to overwhelm her – a sudden chill as her blanket was torn away, thrashing as her nightgown was yanked up, the pain of him slamming into her again and again –

Bonejangles grabbed her shoulder and pushed her back the way they'd come. "Hey, hey, stay with me, okay?" he said, face deeply concerned. "Don't – he ain't ever gonna touch ya again, Liz. You made sure of that. Ain't nobody gonna touch you again."

Lizzie nodded shakily, letting her hand slip down to her neck to feel her spine and remind herself just how far past the pleasures and pains of the flesh she really was. "Yes. . .I'm sorry," she added, looking at her feet. "I can't – bloody twelve years, and still–"

"It's okay, Liz," Bonejangles assured her as they emerged back into the open air. "I sure as hell ain't blamin' you." He glared back at the alley. "Fucking gonophs. . .let's find your sister. Once we've got her on our side, we can drag a bunch of bobbies over here and end this."

"Right." Lizzie rubbed her face. "Where should we start?"

"Well – where do you think she might go?"

"In a hallucinatory daze? I haven't a clue."

"Come on, you know her better than anybody. Even not thinkin' straight, is there anyplace she might wanna see?"

Lizzie thought. They'd gone up to London plenty for shopping and day trips when she was younger. Alice had never cared too much about visiting the stores. . .but. . . . "Hyde Park," she said. "She likes greenery, and – and Papa and I promised her that, once she was a little older, we'd take her down the big slide there. . . ."

"All righty then," Bonejangles said, looping his arm through hers. "We'll take a little walk through Whitechapel here, see what we can find – and if it ain't her, we'll go check if she's hiding in Hyde."

The bad pun was just what she needed to break the internal tension. Lizzie laughed a bit too much, then leaned against him. "Sounds like a plan."


 

"Is Nature's home nearby? Is she brewing on a large scale, as Dickens put it some years ago at Christmas-time?"

". . .what?"

"Translation: Good God, it's foggy!"

Bonejangles snorted. "Oh. Yeah, tell me about it. Can barely see my hand in front of my face!" He held it up for demonstration purposes. "Least if False Flesh gets a lot falser all of a sudden, ain't nobody gonna notice."

"I should say not," Lizzie said, squinting into the gloom. All around, the world consisted of indistinct shapes bobbing in a sea of dull gray, heavy with cloying wetness. It was impossible to tell what anything was until you were on top of it – she and Bonejangles had already barked their shins on two benches which had suddenly surfaced out of the clouds. The only relief came from the orange glow of the lampposts, and even that was rather wan and hazy, like will-o-the-wisps who were not quite committed to leading travelers astray. If ever there was a place where she expected to find spooks (other than her and her companion) here in London this Halloween night, Hyde Park would be it. "I think we're the only souls here, alive or dead."

"Yeah, ain't exactly the Exchange." Bonejangles drummed his fingers on his leg. "I don't think Alice is here, Liz. Anybody with a lick of sense – and accordin' to you, even a bit loopy, she's got a lick – ain't gonna wander 'round a park where you can't even find the path."

"What does that make us, then?"

"Tourists," Bonejangles smirked, then became serious again. "And hell, even if she is here, we're not findin' her like this. Unless we crash into her."

"I know." Lizzie twisted a damp curl around her finger. "I'm starting to think the universe is conspiring against us."

"Well, we're tough buggers – we won't let it," Bonejangles said, leading them along to another friendly lamppost. "Where else might she have ended up?"

Lizzie thought, leaning against an advertisement for machine-made corsets. "She always liked boating trips," she offered up. "Perhaps she's found her way back to the Thames again? And hopefully not fallen in," she added, shuddering.

"Worth a look – I've been by the Billingsgate docks before, so maybe we can start there. And we should ask about that Mangled Mermaid place too. Could be the guy who runs it knows a thing or two."

"He could. . .though I'll leave that task with you, if you'd be so kind," Lizzie said, touching her false throat. "I think I proved earlier I'm not good with living men."

"Not a problem, Liz." Bonejangles took her hand. "It's okay, you know. I get it."

"So do I – I just wish I hadn't." She sighed heavily. "I'm just grateful I don't have to see any of their ugly faces here." She glanced left and right. "Even if it means I can't see anything else either. . .we should have asked the Elder for a weather control spell."

"Live – or die – and learn," Bonejangles said. "I think if we keep following these lights, we'll run into the exit sooner or later. Park can't be that big, can it?"

Lizzie grinned. "Oh, if only you could see it properly by daylight. . . ." Then her mood took a sharp right into melancholy. "Except you never will. Would have been nice to take a proper stroll, you and me, no problems, no worries, just – just us."

"Gotta be a dead version Downstairs, right?"

"True, but – it's not quite the same."

Bonejangles nodded understandingly. "Yeah. . .but it's all we got." He took her face gently in his fingers. "Chin up, okay? We may be dead, but at least we're together. Didn't miss out on each other entirely."

That brought a slow smile back to her face. "Right. And I'm very glad of it." She ran her fingers through her hair. "And I'll be equally as glad to get out of this fog. Come on, the sooner we get to Billingsgate, the faster we–"

Is that a person?

Lizzie jerked her head left. Just for a moment, right out of the corner of her eye, she thought she'd seen a shadow pass by the next lamppost in line. Another late-night traveler like themselves? Or her imagination running away with her? "Hello?" she called, stepping forward.

No reply. Bonejangles squinted into the mists over her shoulder. "You see someone, Liz?"

"I – I thought I did, but. . . ." Lizzie stared at where the dark patch had ever-so-briefly been. To chase or not to chase? On the one hand, it was important to follow any lead they had. On the other, she had no idea if it had been real or not. She'd been vindicated at Houndsditch with the appearance of Hannah. . .but even if that glimpse had been of a person, there was no guarantee it was Alice. What if it was another man? Even if he wasn't like the ones whom Bumby served, she wasn't sure she could get close. . . . "And besides, I didn't even see where they went," she said, finishing her last thought aloud with a little huff. "Trying to chase after them now would just get us even more lost."

Bonejangles patted her on the back. "Might've just been a cat – if it was anything at all," he said. "Let's get the hell outta here and over to the docks. You'll feel better once the rest of the world comes back."

"I'm sure I will," Lizzie agreed, starting toward the lamppost with a new sense of purpose. "And besides, I've heard the docks are a hive of activity even at night. Who knows what we'll find?"


 

How about a big load of nothing, Elizabeth?

Lizzie grumbled to herself as she hopped over yet another puddle of slime and scales. What had possessed her to come this way? Rather, how had she let her new paramour (and wasn't that still odd to think) convince her the docks were the right place to search for Alice? Perhaps her sister liked the river, but Lizzie knew of many much more photogenic places to wander along the Thames. This place was nothing but splintered wood stabbing your feet, stacked crates blocking your path, frayed ropes tripping you up, and stinking fish annoying your nose. How could anyone expect to find a young lady here?

Then again, it's not like anyone sees her as such after a decade in Rutledge, Lizzie reluctantly admitted to herself. Some people would argue she isn't even human anymore. It would be so much easier if she'd still had access to Papa's money – whatever happened to all those pounds he squirreled away just in case the worst happened? Could paying for her – stay in supervised hospitalization – really have consumed them all? Radcliffe ought to know how to budget better than that. . . . Her eyes narrowed. But Radcliffe was also ready to accuse her of starting the fire, and according to that little girl may have stolen Alice's favorite toy. Perhaps we should head over to his house next and demand a look at his ledgers – ah!

She stumbled as her foot caught a loose board. "Bloody – I hate this place!" she snapped, stomping it down to relieve her feelings. "Nothing but a maze of filth and disease. How anyone could eat fish, even the Van Dorts' famous canned variety, after seeing this mess is beyond me." She glared at a nearby smelt lying on the ground. "If by some miracle we do stumble across Alice here, I'm giving her a lecture on appropriate places to explore!"

Oh, you're going to scold your twenty-year-old sister?

. . .Funny how a fact that she'd known about for months was still capable of hitting her upside the head. Lizzie stared at the smelt, who gazed back at her unblinkingly. Twenty. She's twenty now. She's twenty, and I'm eighteen. All those years threatening me with being the older sister one day. . .she wasn't supposed to make good on them. She wiped her eyes. Oh Alice – it was hard enough being separated by ten years. Will you even want to speak to me now? Do – do you even remember me after so long in his clutches? No, you must, you still remember Mr. Bunny. . .I'm getting that back for you tonight, Alice, this I

"Well, well, well, look who's back. Sayin' hello to that floozy Nan? Or you tryin' a conversation with the fish?"

Every bone in Lizzie's body suddenly became solid ice. With terrified slowness, she turned to see a man standing in the shadows of the icehouse behind her. His face was mostly hidden under the brim of a battered bowler hat, but she could just make out his eyes – hard as flint, and not even half as friendly. Underneath was a lean body swathed in a long coat, the collar of which was lined with thick fur. The style didn't quite suit him – in fact, Lizzie would have ventured to call it ridiculous –

If not for the large, shiny cleaver clutched in his right hand. Oh God oh God oh God where are you Sam no no no "I – I think you've mistaken me for someone else," she choked out, voice trembling. No, please, not again, not again. . . .

"Recognize you anywhere, Liddell," the man replied, sliding forward like a cat who'd just cornered a mouse. Lizzie stepped back, her entire body shaking. It's all right, it's all right, he can't hurt you, she attempted to reassure herself, fingers digging into her skirts. He can't, you're dead, what else could he possibly do to – wait, Liddell? How does he know myAlice, he thinks I'm Alice, how does someone like this know my Alice– "Sound a little sick, but I guess that's what lopin' around like a lunatic does to you." He grinned, and it was the twin brother of the grin Bumby had favored her with the day he'd tried to slip his hand up her skirt outside the back door. "Don't worry – don't bother me if you skip off to 'Wonderland' after this. Just want to send something of yours to a friend."

"I've nothing you can take," Lizzie whispered. Her back collided with one of the interminable stacks of crates. Shit no escape damn it Sam why did I ever leave your side – no please no

"Oh, I can think of a thing or two," the man said, his teeth glinting like the cleaver in the dim moonlight. A match flared to life in his other hand, illuminating sharp features rounded by a scruff of reddish-brown beard. "Bumby says your beau gets antsy if he hears your name. Wonder what would happen if I sent him a finger or–"

He stopped as he brought the tiny flame near her face. "You ain't Liddell," he said, genuinely surprised. "Look a hell of a lot like her though. So who are–"

With no warning, his face went from plain confusion to pure horror. "Fucking hell!" he screamed, dropping the match and stumbling back. It sizzled briefly in a pile of sludge, then went out. "How – what – you can't–"

Lizzie stared, bafflement tamping down the animal instinct to flee. What had gotten into him? Then some more observant bit of her made her glance down at her hands. Blue skin and rot met her eyes. Oh – spell's worn off, she realized dumbly. Well then.

Her gaze traveled back upward. The man was gaping, shock having apparently frozen him in place. The cruelty had left his eyes, replaced with sheer terror. A surge of confident anger swept through her – how dare this man touch her? How dare he even come near her? How dare he threaten her sister?! She reached up and grabbed him by that idiotic collar, yanking him close so their noses practically touched. He stank of old sweat and blood – and just a touch of fresh urine, she realized with a glow of triumph. How's it feel, you disgusting lout? How's it feel to be the one cornered and afraid?! "I'm Elizabeth Liddell, you son of a bitch," she snarled, baring her teeth. "And if I ever catch you near my Alice again, I'll peel the flesh from your bones and make it into a stew!"

Bang! Her leg shot out and slammed solidly into the man's crotch. He screamed and dropped to his knees, letting out oaths Lizzie hadn't thought possible for the human tongue. Lizzie spat on him for good measure, then darted around him and fled into the shadows, equal parts horrified, stunned, and absolutely elated. I can't believe I just did that! Not that the bastard didn't deserve it, but after those three outside Bumby's back door – I should go back and introduce them to my boot! Oh God, he got so close, I thought for sure. . .and he was going to do that to Alice! How does he even know Alice?! What did she do to make him loathe her so? At least now he should stay away from her. Maybe I should kick him again, just to make sure of it – oh, but what if he gets up and grabs my leg and – and if he did, I'd take all this teeth out! She grabbed a wall and hung onto it for support. Calm down, Lizzie. It's – it's over now. You won. Hahaha, I won. . .I need a moment. I – I have to cry. Or laugh. I don't know. I'm all mixed up. It's mad and bad and I think I love it! She whirled around and clenched her fists, teeth gritted in a wild parody of a smile. "Come on, you wretches!" she screamed into the blackness, the phantom of her shriveled heart pounding against her ribcage. "Try and get me! I can take you all now! You'll never have me helpless again!"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!"

Lizzie nearly leapt straight out of what skin she had left. She spun in the direction of the scream to see someone pounding toward her. She raised her fists, ready to try a punch – but then the figure's proportions thinned, and white bone gleamed as he exited the shadows. "Sam!"

"Yeah hi potion wore off local workin' girl's raisin' a fuss time to go," Bonejangles babbled all in one breath, grabbing her arm as he passed and towing her along.

"I just had a run in with one of the local nasties, so yes, I agree," Lizzie nodded, managing after a moment to match his pace. "Though in my case, the spell wearing off worked in my favor."

"Lemme guess – thought you were pretty and decided to try his luck?" Bonejangles asked as they sought shelter behind one of the warehouses.

"No, actually – he was planning on cutting off at least one of my fingers."

Bonejangles skidded to a stop, eye rolling crazily between his sockets. "What?"

"He – he thought I was Alice," Lizzie explained, voice cracking on her sister's name. "I'm guessing she somehow slighted him, though how he knows her in the first – place. . . ."

Lizzie trailed off as something the man had said finally clicked inside her mind. "Beau?"

"Huh?" Bonejangles rubbed his skull. "You're losin' me here, Liz."

"I've kind of lost myself – that man mentioned Alice having a – a boyfriend!"

"Boyfriend?" Bonejangles repeated, eye wide. "But – look, nothing against your sis, but – how'd she get a boyfriend if she's stuck with Bumby?"

"How am I supposed to know? Maybe it's a secret relationship – no, he said Bumby knew. . .but he'd never let anyone – unless–" Her eyes narrowed. "Unless he's already been pushing her toward one of his customers. Oh God, I hope she hadn't had to do anything she doesn't want to. Or wouldn't in her right mind."

"I'm thinkin' not – before I took a few years offa that lady of the night, she said that her madam knows Alice, and that she's pretty sure she's never – ya know."

Lizzie arched an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I'd trust the opinion of a prostitute on that count."

"I would – who'd know better? She said Sharpe was kinda protective of Alice anyway, before this guy called Jack Splatter started makin' trouble. . .and you're lookin' like you've seen a ghost again, Liz. What now?"

Lizzie shook her head slowly. "Sharpe? Nan Sharpe?"

"Pretty sure that was the name. . .how would you two know her?"

"She was our nanny."

Bonejangles stared at her – then started snickering. "It's not funny!" Lizzie insisted, stomping her foot. "She's – she had a rough sense of humor when we were younger, but – God! Running a brothel – I didn't think she'd ever sink that low." She folded her arms. "Just another life Bumby ruined."

"Sounded ta me like she was doing good business as a madam. . .but yeah, kinda awful she had ta go that route in the first place," Bonejangles admitted, calming down. "Think of it this way – at least you know she landed on her feet."

"Or other body parts. . . ." Lizzie sighed and scrubbed her hands over her face. "I just hope I can trust her word about Alice. To even consider the notion that she – that she and I share more than just a face. . .why must she be so hard to locate?"

"You told me she was a little explorer growin' up. Guess it stayed with her."

"It must." Lizzie glanced back in the direction of the man she'd left sobbing over his privates. "I don't think she'd bother much with this place, though, close to the Thames or not. And, frankly, after the experience I just had, I'm eager to get away." She dug around in her bag and passed another potion over to Bonejangles. "Drink up, and I'll find another bit of cloth to rip. I already know exactly who we need to pay a visit to next."


 

"Are you kidding me?!"

Lizzie gaped at the abandoned townhouse before her. "You have lived here your entire life, Mr. Radcliffe! By your own admission, you expected to die in this house! What possessed your fat arse to get up and move?!"

"Whatever it was, possessed him a while ago," Bonejangles observed, looking at the boarded-up windows. "He's been gone for ages. Your pop wouldn't be pleased."

"I know – it's almost a blessing he didn't come up here and see this," Lizzie admitted, furiously yanking on her wrist skin. "I can just about guess at the language he'd employ in response."

"Yeah. . .maybe the guilt over nearly sendin' an eight-year-old to gaol finally got to him," Bonejangles said, shaking his head.

"Probably not – more likely he's spent the entire family fortune by this point and skipped town before Alice could find out," Lizzie grumbled bitterly. "With her rabbit no less. What use could that be to a lawyer obsessed with the Orient?"

"Trade it for something? Dunno what, but. . . ." Bonejangles rubbed her back. "I'm sorry, Liz. Seems we just keep running into one stone in the road after another."

"I know. . .I was hoping I could at least pry whether or not he's seen Alice lately out of him," Liz said. "I guess we could just ask around the neighborhood as we've been doing. . . ."

"Oi! No loitering!"

Lizzie and Bonejangles turned to see a policeman standing behind them, one hand on his nightstick. "I do not want to bring the full force of the law against a lady, but I will if I must!" he continued. "Please move along!"

Lizzie made a snap decision. She'd hoped to have actual evidence – something sneaked from Houndsditch or clawed from Bumby's terrified hands – but given her luck tonight, mere "suspicions" would have to do. At least she could plant the idea in the officer's mind. "Actually, we were hoping to see a bobby tonight," she said, stepping forward. "I have something to report."

The policeman blinked. "You – do?"

Lizzie nodded, ignoring Bonejangles's puzzled look. "It's about the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Children," she explained. "I and my fiance visited there earlier, and – well, I've got a bad feeling about the place."

The officer regarded her curiously, scratching beneath his helmet. "A bad feeling."

"I know that's not much to go on, but. . .the child who answered the door seemed terribly frightened of upsetting B-Dr. Bumby." Ugh, she hated having to say that. . . . "Surely his patients shouldn't be scared of him?"

"Well, little nippers scare easy – especially if they've had a hard life, like the ones in there," the policeman said with a shrug.

"What about the fact we heard he let his assistant go wanderin' off in a daze without trying to get her back?" Bonejangles put in, stepping up. "Apparently she just walked out the door and never came back."

The policeman laughed. "Oh, you mean Alice? Nothing he can do about that – she goes where she likes when she likes. Should have never let her out of Rutledge, that one. Harry and Fred say she's no danger to others, but I've heard she once sliced a man's cheek open with a spoon."

Lizzie's vision went red around the edges. "Isn't that all the more reason he should try to recapture her?" she growled.

"He's had us looking – though I know I wouldn't get near her if I saw her," the officer added, fidgeting. "I'm not interested in having bits carved off. Dr. Bumby wants her back, he can grab her himself." He fixed Lizzie with a suspicious eye. "Why do you care so much?"

"Because it doesn't speak well of a man who has been entrusted with the care of children," Lizzie replied, folding her arms. "You want a true upstanding moral citizen for such a job."

"Oh, Dr. Bumby's upstanding! Nobody around here has a bad word to say about him. Not that social, but he's smart, and always going on about how he's helping boys and girls find their purpose. I think he got honored by his fellow alienists for it, in fact."

The red crept in further, obscuring more of the street. "Being popular doesn't necessarily mean 'good,' Officer."

"Well, I don't think Inspector Broadbent would associate with a fellow who wasn't."

"Inspector?" Lizzie dropped her arms, the red retreating in the face of cold shock. "One of your own?"

"Why not? Good to have friends who have the occasional ear of a lord or lady," the policeman replied. Then his gaze traveled over to Bonejangles, taking in the illusory dark skin with a sneer. "Guess you wouldn't know much about that, though."

The red came roaring back. "You son of a–"

"Ooookay, Liz, think it's time to let the nice officer finish his patrol," Bonejangles said, hastily hooking her arm. "Sorry to waste your time, sir, we'll just be on our way. Night!"

With that, he dragged her away. "I hope you choke on your next ciggy!" Lizzie managed to shout before she was towed around the corner. "God, people make me sick – you should have let me at him!"

"And spend the rest of the night in a gaol cell? No thanks," Bonejangles told her. "Trust me, Liz, that look he gave me don't even rank in the top ten of shit I've had to deal with 'cause of my skin. Mean, surprised he said that to a lady, but then he don't seem the sharpest knife in the drawer."

"I should say," Lizzie growled. "I seriously thought we were supposed to be better than the Americas in that. . .but I suppose bigots sprout wherever they're welcome."

"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, just as disgusted. "Only have to look at what old Galswells did to Burtonsville to see that."

"Mmmm. . . ." Lizzie's shoulders slumped as the fire within her receded. "He's in with the Inspector. Or one of them, anyway – I've never actually heard that rank before. They must have instituted it after we died. . .sounds important, though."

"Detective-y," Bonejangles agreed. "Which means ya think he'd be able to see Bumby for what he actually is."

"Apparently not. I knew Bumby was said to be charismatic in the presence of his betters, but given his behavior toward me, I never believed it. Apparently he's better at sweet-talking people than I thought."

"He could also be just straight-up bribin' him," Bonejangles pointed out. "I met plenty of watchmen who'd let ya do whatever ya wanted for a pack of smokes or a free sandwich. Inspectors probably want cold hard cash, but same deal in the end."

"What worries me is if this 'Broadbent' is in fact a client," Lizzie confessed, a hard shiver racking her body. "The very idea of one of Bumby's own working his way into the police. . .but then again, Bumby's talked his way into fame and – perhaps not fortune, but judging by that bedroom, he lives comfortably enough in the Home." She pressed her face into her hand. "Honored by his fellow alienists. . .we never had a chance of exposing him, did we? Not unless I walked into the police station looking as I usually do, and then everyone would be too busy screaming."

"And Elder Gutknecht would have your hide once we went back," Bonejangles nodded. He scratched under his hat, ruffling his imaginary hair. "I'm sorry, Liz. I didn't want things to be this way either. I was hopin' we could just get in, grab your sis, make him shit his trousers, then wrap the whole thing up before midnight."

"That was my dream too." Lizzie pressed on her eyes. "This night has not gone according to plan."

Bonejangles chuckled weakly. "Yeah – that was Victor's problem too, from what I hear. Why I don't make many of 'em." He pulled her close. "Still, there's one bit of good news – your sister may be walking all over London fightin' monsters in her head, but at least she's not with him."

"I can't believe that's the standard of 'good' news in my life now – but you're right," Lizzie allowed, looking up. "If nothing else, he can't influence her anymore. Better trapped in Wonderland than trapped in Houndsditch. I just hope it doesn't lead to trapped in Rutledge again." She brushed some hair out of her eyes. "We still have some night left, right?"

"Yeah, last I remember, sun don't rise until almost eight in November. Got a few hours, anyway."

"Good. If nothing else, we can keep looking for Alice and try to get her somewhere safer. I – really have no idea where that would be, apart from dragging her to the Land of the Dead with us, but. . . ."

"We'll figure something out," Bonejangles assured her. "Just hope she doesn't see me as some monster she's gotta stick a spoon in."

"I somehow doubt it. . .and how do you even cut someone with a spoon?" Lizzie asked, finally letting that bafflement in.

"There was this one guy I knew when I was first startin' out who kept all his forks and stuff sharpened on one side. . .'course, he only had one arm, so guess it was necessary if he ever wanted to cut the top off a hard-boiled egg. . . ."

"Huh. I should suggest that to Katie Winks when I next see her." Lizzie cracked her neck. "But right now, I think it's off to the shops. One of Alice's friends in Wonderland is a milliner, so might as well see if she's intruding on the hospitality of a real one."

"Right beside ya, Liz."


 

"Miss! Mister! Fresh onions? Dug them up this morning!"

"No thank you," Lizzie mumbled as they passed. The lady shrugged and continued loading up her basket. "Not that I could taste them anyway."

"Seem pretty ripe to me," Bonejangles said, fake nose wrinkling. "But I ain't eating one on its own." He glanced back at her sadly. "We gave it our best shot, Liz."

"I know," Lizzie murmured. "I just hate that it wasn't good enough."

"London's a hella big city – findin' her just outta the blue was a long shot."

"Yes, but still. She's my sister, and this whole trip was to help her, and – and I didn't even get a shot at Bumby," she grumbled. "Why is there always someone hanging around that back door when we go to check?"

"To be fair, Liz, it was just a washerwoman this time. You were the one who didn't want her screamin' and bringin' anybody else over."

"I might have risked it if I hadn't – you feel it too, right?" Liz asked, looking into his eyes. "A sort of – internal countdown?"

"Yeah, I do," Bonejangles nodded. "Don't think we got more than fifteen minutes up here now."

"Right – and we weren't going to get anything done in fifteen minutes. Better to leave the poor woman unmolested." Lizzie leaned her head against Bonejangles's shoulder. "This has been a rotten night."

"Certainly ain't gonna rank in my top ten, that's for sure," Bonejangles agreed. "I wish I could make this better, Liz, I really do."

"I know. You being just as frustrated as me helps a little." Movement in a nearby window caught her eye, and she turned to see her own reflection staring back at her. Her exhaustion and sadness was written all over her face – and Bonejangles's too, come to think of it. She watched him in the impromptu mirror as he looked down at her. "This is how it should have been," she muttered.

"Huh?"

"This," Lizzie repeated, waving her hand at the unbroken curve of her throat and his – everything – in the glass. "It shouldn't be just an illusion. We should be strolling along here just like any other young couple in love. I should be able to feel your hand in mine. You should be able to kiss me instead of just waving your teeth in my direction. We – we should have both lived."

"Ain't gonna argue that, but I think you keep forgettin' the part where I woulda been twelve years older than ya if we had."

"People have married who were more than twenty years apart," Lizzie replied. "And not always at the command of their parents. If I'd met you when I was eighteen and you thirty, I think I would have liked you just as much." She scuffed her foot into the mud between the cobbles. "I wasn't opposed to getting married when I was younger. I just wanted to either have a few adventures first, or meet someone who would go on them with me. You would have fit the bill perfectly."

Bonejangles smiled. "Yeah, I wasn't gonna settle down either until I found a gal who could keep up with me. Annoys the shit out of me that it was only after we both died." He gave her hand a squeeze. "But what the hell can you do about it? No magic in the world that can get a corpse back alive, or change the past. We can only work with what we've got."

"I know. And I'm not unhappy with what we have now, it's just. . .it would have been nice to have it properly." Lizzie smiled faintly. "And with flesh – you're distractingly handsome."

Bonejangles snorted. "Sorry. Though you know how to brew up those potions now. I ain't gonna object if you want me to keep gulpin' 'em down."

"Maybe for special occasions – I don't want you to have to deal with any more nonsense just because you're darker than me."

"Oh, there's always gonna be nonsense, Liz. But it's a lot easier to take when I'm with you."

He could be truly romantic sometimes. Lizzie looked back up at his profile – that sharp, strong chin, the slightly-crooked nose, those big brown eyes – and made a decision. They could only work with what they had, and they shouldn't deny themselves the pleasures of being a couple. He may not be able to kiss her properly anymore, even with illusory lips –

But she could kiss him. She hooked her arms around his neck and leaned up, pressing her lips against his lower teeth. Bonejangles started, surprised. . .but then his arms slipped around her waist, helping support her, and he angled his head slightly, giving her a bit more access to the top half of his mouth. Lizzie closed her eyes and snuggled up against him. For just a moment, it was almost like they were a regular couple, out on the town, enjoying an early-morning snog. . . .

"Ah, young love! Would our happy pair fancy a bit of breakfast?"

. . .and being interrupted. Lizzie dropped back onto her heels and frowned at the man who'd come up to them. "What?"

"Pies!" the man said, heedless of her sour look. He held up his tray, slung round his neck and loaded with misshapen lumps of dough and meat. "Fresh outta the oven! Special early morning deal of sixpence, and that's cuttin' me own throat!"

Lizzie and Bonejangles looked at each other. She could still feel the time ticking down inside her, urging her to find shelter behind the butcher's before they disappeared in the middle of the street and caused a scene. . .but there was still about ten minutes, and – "He's been on me to try something ever since we got here," she admitted to the salesman, reaching into her bag. "I think I've got some change. . . ."

She did – the coins still smelled a little of egg, but the man accepted them without a second thought and promptly passed over two pies. Lizzie handed one to Bonejangles and bit deep into hers. To her surprise, she could actually taste it pretty well. Fresh out of the oven my behind. . .but I can't complain about the flavor. "This is quite good," she said, giving the man a smile.

The man's expression suggested most people didn't say this. "Really?"

"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, happily chowing down. Lizzie hoped nobody noticed the chewed-up meat dropping to the ground under him. "You got a talent for this, mister."

The man goggled briefly, then got his feet under him again. "Glad you like! Here, take my card – and make sure to tell all your friends about Mr. Dibbler!"

"We will," Lizzie promised, accepting the little scrap of pasteboard and tucking it away. Mr. Dibbler beamed and headed off deeper into the market. She chuckled and took another bite from her pie. "At least this is a nice way to – what the–"

"What is it, Liz?" Bonejangles asked, tilting his head as he finished off the last of his meat.

"Something – stringy." Lizzie took the pie out of her mouth and dug around inside. "What, did a shoelace somehow. . .get. . . ."

Her voice died as she pulled out a long, naked rat tail. She and Bonejangles just stared at it for a long moment. Then Bonejangles said, "I think I did warn ya, Liz."

"You did," Liz said, deliberately dropping the tail to the ground. She looked at the remaining hunk of pie. "I guess I might as well finish it – then we'll go back to the butcher's and update Mama and Papa."

"Good plan," Bonejangles said. "Least you got a funny story to tell 'em."

"I suppose. . . ." Lizzie glared at the back of the retreating Dibbler. "But I assure you – if I wasn't dead, he would be."

Chapter Text

November 5th, 1875

Whitechapel, London, England, Land of the Dead

12:05 P.M.

That. . .hurt. . .less than I thought it would.

Dr. Angus Gideon Bumby, proprietor of The Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth and noted rising star in the psychiatric community, blinked open his eyes. A collection of hazy golden-brown blobs greeted him – with another blink, they resolved themselves somewhat into a row of worn gas lamps hanging from a high ceiling. A hospital? Or, against all common sense, am I still in the station?

Something hard, thin, and long digging into his back told him it was the latter. Bumby grunted and rolled himself over. His limbs were all wobbly – no doubt a side effect of the terror he'd just experienced – but he marshaled them into place, supporting himself on his hands and knees. He took a deep breath to chase away any lingering shivers, then felt around until he located his glasses just under the edge of the platform. The frames were a bit twisted, and the left lens cracked, but they would do until he could procure another pair. He slipped them on and watched as Moorgate came into full sharpness. "I could have sworn that train hit me head on," he said aloud, just to fill the silence. "What in God's name happened?"

God didn't bother to reply, and neither did anyone else. Bumby grabbed the platform and hauled himself to his feet. His entire body felt like one huge bruise – but he had an entire body to feel that way, and that was something to be thankful for. When Alice had shoved him onto the tracks –

He was still having trouble following that chain of events. Everything had started off so well – he'd been waiting for Miss Thatcher's train, Thirteen standing obediently in the shadows until called (just in case Tarrant or Hightopp was nosing around again – he'd had to go and make some friends in the police force). And then, suddenly, a familiar voice was accusing him of being an "oozing sore of depravity," and Alice had appeared behind him, eyes and hair wild, dress torn and filthy, but memory disgustingly intact. He'd been startled, but played along with her delusions of heroism, watching her expression regularly go vague as she slipped in and out of her precious Wonderland. How any of it had survived his careful treatment, he didn't know, but he'd decided it didn't matter. Despite the fact that he knew no one would listen to the ravings of such a clear lunatic, he'd had no intentions of letting her end the day alive. So he'd let her exhaust herself with her rantings, wondering how best to rid the world of the last Liddell – and then inspiration had struck, and he'd called over Thirteen to do the deed for him. Oh, the look on her face when Thirteen had come up beside him! He wished he'd had Raphael or Michelangelo there to capture it. He'd ordered his toy forward, secure in victory –

And then the worthless little shit had betrayed him! Swung around and delivered a hit that suddenly made him realize just how that stick-thin whelp could actually punch out Jack Splatter! And yelling about how "you won't touch her!" As if it was his place to decide such things -- his place to remember her at all! He'd been swift with his punishment, and Thirteen had collapsed like a house of cards under the dark, but that had been – embarrassing, frankly. He knew about the boy's propensity to fight back against his control if Alice's name was spoken in his presence – what had possessed him to think putting Thirteen right in front of her would go any better? But he'd been angry and jealous and the idea of the mandrake who'd refused him choking the slut who'd refused him to death had been so nice. . . .

Alice, strangely, hadn't taken the opportunity to run for freedom, instead insisting that she would see him charged. Had she really been so dim as to think she could take him down? The respectable philanthropist, breaking ground on a new era of psychiatry? But then again, thinking clearly had never been Alice's strong point – she'd seemed to believe Thirteen would be able to help her, for heaven's sake. He'd set her straight, then – seeing his train was due to arrive any minute – insisted she leave. It wouldn't do for his new assistant to know the old one hadn't actually quit, and he could always hunt her down later. He'd even allowed himself a quick fantasy of enjoying her the way he'd enjoyed her teasing sister. . . .

Which she'd rudely interrupted by snatching away the one memento he had of that night. Again, partially his own fault – he'd known that chain needed replacing – but it was just more proof of the psychotic bitch's degenerate nature. And he'd been about to grab her and force the key from her hand when she'd stopped dead, twirled back around, and – and –

She was a monster out of his worst nightmares – a girl no longer sickly and pale, but brimming with health behind rosy cheeks and ripe-peach skin. Gone was the dirty and ragged black-and-white frock that Witless had more or less shoved her in – her dress now blazed with vibrant blue, and her apron was as white as fresh-fallen country snow. . .except where it was marred with patches of bright red that could only be one thing. Her hair hung about her head in a deep brown waterfall, glossy and well-kept as opposed to the tangled mess he'd seen before. Even her eyes had changed – a brilliant, flashing, dangerous green, as if someone had fashioned emeralds into knives. This was the warrior of Wonderland, the girl he'd read about in Wilson's notes and heard about in Alice's stories, the creature he'd dismissed as some idle power fantasy that would soon be forgotten. . .and now it was coming straight at him, murder written into every fiber of its being. He backed away, terror surging through him even as he thought, It's ridiculous she can't have possibly changed so fast you're hallucinating she's infected you with her madness wake up wake up – and then a cold hand pressed against his unsteady shoulder as he teetered on the platform's edge, and gave him one solid shove. For a moment, he hung in the air, watching the girl's merciless eyes burn into him – then there was a roar, a split-second of blinding pain as flesh met unforgiving, unyielding iron – then blackness all-consuming –

And then I wake up here, as if nothing had happened, Bumby thought, putting a steadying hand on his head. Did I hallucinate the whole business? God, I hope I haven't made an idiot of myself in front of anyone important. I must have looked a sight yelling at someone who wasn't –

Is my hand blue?

He dropped it in front of his eyes. Sure enough, blue skin greeted his gaze – about the same color as the sky on a hot summer's day, when the smog wasn't too bad. He pushed up his sleeve – blue all the way up, though it was layered a bit with purple along most of his arm. Bruising, no doubt. . .but I haven't read anything on broken vessels or blood loss causing a change like this. Or any other medical ailment, for that matter. Was the train painted? No, that doesn't make sense either – even if they have started decorating the local lines, there's no reason for it to rub off on me. Just to make sure though, he tried to rub it off on his coat.

No luck – the shade was most assuredly part of his skin. He frowned at the affected limb, working his way through his vast reservoirs of knowledge. Hmmm. . .he had heard something about blue skin before. Something to do with dead – Oh my God.

His hand shot to his neck, probing his arteries for the familiar beat. The other he clapped over his mouth, pinching shut his nose into the bargain, waiting for a burning ache in his lungs. She couldn't have she couldn't have she's a weak silly woman and I – I –

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He could have been carved out of marble and he wouldn't have known any different. He let his arms drop, staring into space. She'd killed him. That bloody lunatic had killed him. Stolen his Thirteen and his precious key and killed him! And Thirteen – he'd been right! Almost a year of demanding that he call that corpse bride nothing but fantasy, and he'd been right all along! "I – this – this is not how I should have ended!"

He stomped his foot – petulant, he knew, but why should he care? He was dead! Dead at the hands of Alice Liddell, who was to be his masterwork! And in Victor Goddamn Van Dort's Land of the Dead, which he'd dismissed as a story more ridiculous than that of Wonderland! It was not fair! He should be alive, enjoying the fruits of his labor, secure in the knowledge that everything had worked out for the best – not having everything he'd ever believed in thrown back in his face! "Why am I even still in Moorgate?" he demanded, looking right and left. "Shouldn't I have woken up in my coffin?"

Depends on if there was enough left of you to put in a coffin, a voice whispered in the back of his brain. You should be thankful you're not just a red stain on the tracks.

All right, that was a fair enough point. Bumby shuddered at the thought of how he must have looked once the locomotive finally came to a stop. What a horrible and undignified way to meet his end. . . . I should have been more careful. I should have gone faster and harder with Alice's therapy. I should have broken Thirteen to my will the moment I learned about his terror of the dark. But then, how could I have expected this? Alice was supposed to be either raving in Rutledge or dead in a ditch, and Thirteen. . .he was so perfect, I thought for sure he was mine and mine alone. . . .

But he hadn't been, and she hadn't been, and now he was stuck Downstairs, waiting for a train that would never come. Bumby straightened his lapels and pressed briefly on his temples. No sense in passing his afterlife down here – if Thirteen was to be believed (and obviously he was, Goddamn it, any afterlife that randomly turned people blue had no right existing), London should exist in duplicate beyond the confines of this station. Complete with shops and fellow corpses. And maybe, just maybe, there was one somewhere who could help him unwrap the secrets of ravens' eggs and help him get back Upstairs to secure his revenge. Because such insubordination could not go unpunished, oh no. . . . Drifting into a fantasy of the lurid acts he'd force his two puppets to commit once they were brought to heel, he ascended the stairs to the street.

A blaze of color greeted him as he exited the arch – Thirteen hadn't been kidding when he'd said that Downstairs seemed to contain every shade and hue lost to the world above. Buildings stood out in sharp blood-reds, ripe pumpkin-oranges, and deep grape-purples. The sky was a lighter shade of that last, mixed with a hint of brown, a kind of eternal earthy twilight. The street he was on didn't boast many people, but he could hear them in the market, hawking their wares and bargaining over prices. Funny how life could just go on after the end – but then, didn't everyone find comfort in their routine?

I know I do, Bumby thought, looking approvingly down the street at his Houndsditch Home. It was good to have a familiar location close at hand, even if it was purple and yellow now. He'd have to do something about that. But with any luck, his office, his books, and his bed were still inside. He'd had a trying day – he could do with a lie-down. He strolled down the cobbles, holding his hands behind his back and trying to pretend he was just coming home after a successful day on the block.

As he neared the Home, he saw a group of children gathered on the front steps, playing what looked like tiddly-winks. Rather than his current rabble of Charlie, Reggie, Abigail, and Elsie, though, he recognized Hannah, Walter, Teddy, and – Caroline? Dead already? he thought, blinking. Goodness, Mr. Jones didn't look like a complete idiot when I put you in his hands. . .funny they would all come back here, though. Maybe this place sticks in their empty little minds as "home." He smirked. I bet a few of my former clients are down here. And with the child mortality rate so high. . .I'll need something to keep me busy before I return for my well-deserved vengeance. "Hello children!" he called as he reached the gate. "How are you all?"

The children looked up – and, almost as one being, froze. Eight little eyes bore into his flesh, wide and – frightened? Bumby tilted his head. They shouldn't be frightened of him. He was their doctor! They should remember him as the one who'd shown them their purpose in life! "Children?"

The word plopped down among the four like a stone thrown into a still pond. Without any hesitation they scrambled to their feet and shot inside. Bumby caught one hiss "get Miss Lizzie!" before the door was slammed shut. He went to open it, but it was locked tight. "What – children, it's me!" he snapped, starting to get annoyed. "Dr. Bumby!"

"We know who you are!" Caroline shouted from a window. Her face twisted into a furious sneer. "And what you do!"

"You ain't getting me again!" Walter yelled from behind the door. "There's bobbies down here, and they'll come looking!"

Oh damn it – death undid all the careful work he'd done on their minds? That was irritating to say the least. Just another part of dying that wasn't going as he wished it to. . .but he was still the master of Houndsditch, and they were still his patients. Perhaps they outnumbered him, but he was bigger, and knew all their secret fears and nightmares. Besides, he was dead – what could they possibly do to him? He rapped smartly on the door. "Open up!"

"Never!" Walter yelled. "Never ever!"

"Listen here, Walter, it wouldn't take me five minutes to find a–"

"You."

Bumby sucked in an unnecessary breath. That voice. . .for a moment, he was twenty-four again, watching the most delectable creature he'd ever seen enter his dean's sitting room. He never thought he'd hear it again, but now. . .could it really be? He whirled around, eyes bright with excitement. "Eliza-BETH!"

The – woman? – standing behind him smirked. It looked like Elizabeth – the same tumbling brown waves of hair, the same sea-blue eyes, the same pink lips he'd longed to kiss. But – but her neck – he could see her spine, smell the rot slowly taking away the precious curves of her skin – her horrifically blue skin, the same shade as everyone else's but no that wasn't right she wasn't supposed to be blue. . . . Her dress was one he'd seen her in often when alive, a sunny yellow with grey and white stripes, but now it was little more than a tattered wreck, sleeves snagged and torn, skirt tattered and chewed – just like her arms, he realized with a jolt of horror. There were worm holes in her flesh, the skin sagging and sloughing away. . . . He stepped back on instinct, stomach twisted. Thirteen had been able to entertain the idea of marriage to something like this?

The smirk widened as the thing – the corpse – stepped forward. "What's wrong, Angus?" that familiar voice purred, the sweetness of her tone undercut by a hint of rage. "Aren't I pretty anymore?"

"You're not her," Bumby whispered, shaking his head in numb disbelief. "You can't be her. My Elizabeth would never–"

"I'm not your Elizabeth," the corpse spat, eyes narrowing in disgust. "I was never your Elizabeth, despite your best efforts. You wretch, you monster, you beast – it took me years to want to speak to to a man who wasn't my father! To even venture out of our house – the house you burned down! It wasn't enough to destroy me and my life – you had to take my parents in the bargain?!"

"I couldn't let anyone know I'd lost my temper!" Bumby blurted, then mentally smacked himself. What the hell was he doing, admitting to that? Elizabeth had been dead before he set the blaze – she didn't need to know he was responsible! Where was all the charm and persuasion he'd spent years cultivating? "I mean–"

"I know exactly what you mean," the corpse cut him off. "You couldn't risk the hit to your precious reputation, and so we all had to go. But one of us made it out alive, didn't she?" She advanced forward again. "You let her rot a decade in bedlam, stole her family and her childhood. . .and then, when she clawed her way out and tried to resume a normal life. . . ." Her fists clenched, then relaxed. "I've spent the last twelve years imagining what I would do to you if I ever saw you again. What revenge would be appropriate. But you know what? That feels like a mere blink of an eye compared to the three months I've had to wait to avenge Alice."

"Avenge?" Bumby parroted.

"I know what you've done, you loathsome insect. I know what you must have had planned for her. I can only hope you died before you were able to put any of it in motion!"

"Elizabeth, please, my heart was always yours and yours alone," Bumby said, holding up his hands and trying to smile. Oh God, how could he even call this creature before him Elizabeth. . . . "Your sister is beautiful, I assure you, but she would have always been a mere candle to your – um – bonfire." Why did I use that metaphor. . . .

"Guess you would know, considerin' how good you are at settin' 'em."

Bumby started. Who was – then he spotted the speaker over Elizabeth's shoulder, ambling up to them from the wall across the street. He – if such a word could be applied to this monster – was nothing more than a mobile collection of bones, with an absurdly large jaw and a single eye, which was currently fixed on Bumby with an expression of utter loathing. Balanced on his head was a bowler hat, much like the one Jack Splatter favored when on the street. "Pity you didn't get yourself burned up in that fire," it continued. "'Course, I wouldn't want you anywhere near poor Liz, but I think we all would have been better off if you'd gotten broiled."

Bumby pressed himself up against the door, gritting his teeth in an effort to keep his knees from shaking. Oh God. . .this was horrible, this was terrifying, this was –

Strangely familiar.

He blinked and took a closer look at the skeleton. It didn't look like anyone he knew. . .and it certainly wasn't the one at the training hospital from his student days. And yet something about it tugged at his memory. Something to do with the Land of the Dead, and – and music. . . .

And then it clicked. Bumby gaped. "Bonejangles?"

It was surprising just how expressive bone could be – a quick realignment of the jaw and the eye dropping from one socket to the other turned the permanently-grinning face from furious to confused. "Huh? How do you know my name?" he asked, sharing a puzzled glance with Elizabeth.

"What are you doing in London?" Bumby returned, putting his hands on his hips. It felt good to have a target for his anger. "Aren't you supposed to be entertaining people in the middle of nowhere?"

"He's here as my guest," Elizabeth said primly. "Now answer his question. You haven't even been dead half an hour – at least, I hope not – and you know who he is?"

"Well, it's rather hard not to have a singing skeleton stick in your mind when you're treating someone for his delusion of marrying a corpse."

Both Elizabeth's and Bonejangles's jaws dropped. "What – Victor?" Bonejangles said quietly. "You – Victor was one of your patients?"

"His parents wrote to me personally," Bumby said, drawing himself up. "Said their son had suffered a turn of madness and could I help? I was only too happy to lend my particular brand of charity to his aid." He glanced left and right. "Fine, yes, he wasn't insane, but how was I supposed to know that? Walking dead, a corpse bride? He's lucky he didn't end up in Bethlehem Hospital!"

"I wish he had!" Elizabeth cried, clasping her hands tightly before her. "To have to suffer your bedside manner – he probably would have preferred leeches!"

"I doubt it. He never seemed keen on them whenever Alice mentioned something about Rutledge. I probably should have threatened him with incarceration there more–"

The slap came out of nowhere and left his cheek stinging (which was a bit odd – shouldn't dead flesh be immune to pain?). "You evil, evil man," Elizabeth growled. "We'll just add him to the list of people to avenge. I am told that God may find it fit one day to drag your loathsome corpse to Hell, but the punishment I trust is the one I dole out myself."

"You dare talk of punishment?" Bumby shot back, grabbing her by the shoulders. Elizabeth squeaked, tensing. "The way you flaunted yourself before me and then declared you wanted nothing to do with me?"

"I never flaunted!" Elizabeth shouted, though he could hear a note of fear in her voice. Good. "You saw something that was never there!"

"Don't play coy with me," he growled, leaning into her face. "You thrived off my attentions. The attentions of all those undergraduates whose heads your turned. You pretended to despise us all, but you always wanted more. And then, when I tried to give it to you–"

"I wanted nothing from you except your drowning in the Isis," Elizabeth snarled, wrenching free of his hands. "The lot of you saw me as nothing more than a piece of meat, but you were the worst! At least the others were willing to consider me having an opinion! You built up your fantasy and never gave me a choice!"

"We would have been perfect together!" Bumby snapped, yanking her close again. "When I think of the advances I could have made with a loving wife to make my dinner and take care of the cleaning–"

"You don't even think I have a mind, do you? I was just something to feed you and wash you and – and–"

"Fuck me?" Bumby said, deciding now was not the time to worry about crude talk. "I tried to make it pleasant for you, Elizabeth."

"You did nothing of the kind," she hissed, eyes ablaze. "You took your pleasure and then silenced me for good. You'd think the scratches I tore into your flesh would have clued in you that I wasn't enjoying myself!"

"You wouldn't give me a chance! You thought you were too good for me, didn't you?" Bumby yelled, shaking her.

"Actually, yes, I did! But then, common garden slugs are too good for you!" She kicked him in the belly. "Get your meathooks off of me!"

Bumby staggered, but managed to hang on. "You whores are all alike!" he cried, old wounds reopening and pouring out a decade of stale pus. "Thinking you can go around, leading respectable men on before throwing them in the garbage – I simply had the courage to take what I was owed!" He dug his fingers hard into her shoulders. "God, I hate all you teases. You, Alice, Thirteen–"

"Thirteen?" Elizabeth's anger took on an edge of confusion. "How can a child–"

"He was the same as you!" Bumby shouted, beyond listening. "Walking around the Home with that magnificent mouth and that delectable arse. . .making the piano sing. . .but never, ever showing me the slightest bit of favor. Acting surprised that I wanted a closer look at the best parts of him! And fighting me every time I tried to go deep into his mind, as if that wasn't the whole reason he was there! Oh, but I showed him, just like I showed you! I gave him just what he deserved!"

Elizabeth opened her mouth to say something – but was cut off by a large bony hand grabbing his collar and slamming him against the door. "What the fuck did you do to my friend, you bastard?!" Bonejangles demanded, nose to nose holes with the doctor.

"Oh, if only I could show you – I had him very well trained in the week I was allowed to enjoy him!" Bumby replied, unable to help his smile. "His tea-making skills were top-notch. What the hell do you care, anyway? He was willing to marry one of you, wasn't he?"

"'Willing' being the key word," Elizabeth said, voice cold with horror. "You can't even leave your own sex alone?"

"I think this proves I'm not going to Hell for it," Bumby said smugly.

Four rock-hard knuckles smashed into his nose, sending starbursts of pain floating before his eyes. "No, you ain't – one of my Boys never looked at a woman that way, and he don't deserve the lake o'fire for it. You're going Down 'cause you ain't even fit to lick his big toe." He yanked Bumby away from the door and spun him around, pinning his arms behind his back and forcing his legs wide. "You know, if Liz weren't here, I'd do the fucking honors myself. But as I actually care what a lady wants, I'll just make sure you ain't going anywhere. Go for it, Liz – we're running low on time."

"Go for what?" Bumby demanded, squirming against the skeleton's grip. A creature with no muscles should not be this strong! "What are you talking about?"

"The fact that you're still feeling pain at the moment," Lizzie explained, walking up to him. "You've noticed your senses seem to be working just fine here in the Land of the Dead? That's not going to last. You'll see and hear as well as ever, but taste and smell will slowly fade until the only way to enjoy a good meal is to let it sit out and rot for a day or two. And touch – within a half-hour of arrival, that goes pretty much completely. You'll only be able to tell if someone is poking you, and even then you'll be guessing."

"Well, thank you for the lesson," Bumby said sarcastically. "So I'm right on the edge of not having to fear a punch anymore?"

"Probably," Lizzie agreed. "But it's not punching you should fear from me."

With that, she ripped open his fly. For about a quarter of a second, Bumby's libido cheered that she was about to give him one last thrill – and then, with a flick of her wrist, a wicked-looking knife slid out of her sleeve and into her hand, and the rest of him realized what she was really planning. "No!" he cried, kicking in a desperate attempt to keep her away. "Don't! Elizabeth, stop this! I know you! You'd never do something like this!"

Elizabeth looked him right in the eye, and Bumby saw nothing but pure, unadulterated hate pouring from that beautiful blue. "The me you knew wouldn't, yes – but you killed her."

Seconds later, a loud howling alerted everyone in the area that justice was being done.


 

"You cunt. . . ."

"Such language!" Elizabeth scolded, wiping the blade off on her skirt. "And you claim to be a mannerly gentleman. It's not like I made you suffer for too long."

"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, leaning over the former doctor. He gave Bumby a solid kick in the stomach, and was rewarded with a whimper. "Me, I woulda taken my time. Made sure he was screamin' right 'til his nerves went numb."

"It was a temptation – but I didn't know just how long he'd been down here, and my main objective was always making damn sure he couldn't do what he did to me to anyone else." Elizabeth smirked at Bumby's curled-up figure. "Mission accomplished."

Bumby glared back at her, hands tightly wrapped around his destroyed groin. The pain was already almost gone, a faded ache far in the distance, but the anger scorching through his soul more than made up for the lack of feeling in his flesh. "Slattern," he choked out. "You won't get away with this!"

"Oh? I do believe I already have," Elizabeth replied, slipping the knife back into her sleeve. "And let me tell you–" her voice dropped a dark octave "– it felt good."

An animal noise of rage tore itself from Bumby's throat. He'd really deluded himself into believing he loved this bitch? He'd truly been a fool. She was rotten to the core, just like all the others. He shouldn't have granted her the clean death of strangulation (accidental as that had been) – he should have left her to die in the smoke, listening to the screams of her family as they burned. No, dragged her outside and made her watch before dispatching of her and her sickening little sister properly! "I can get that back, you know!" he snarled, determined to ruin her victory any way he could.

"After the slicing and dicing she gave it? Good luck," Bonejangles snorted.

"I'm dead! All I need are the pieces and a little thread, don't I?"

"I suppose," Elizabeth allowed, that infuriating little smile never leaving her decayed lips. "But your being dead also means it'll never do you any good anymore. You'll never be able to use it again. You'll just have to sit there and watch it rot."

"Yeah – you're better off without it," Bonejangles agreed with a barking laugh. "Well, more everybody else is – who gives a shit about you?"

"You – you – I will rip you both to pieces!" Bumby roared, scrambling back to his feet. "I will tear you limb from limb – bone from bone! And then I will scatter them across the length and breadth of this accursed world! You'll exist for eternity as nothing more than scraps of flesh and marrow! And I'll make sure to throw everything in opposite directions, so you'll never even have the comfort of knowing a fragment of yourself exists near a fragment of the other! And I will laugh at your suffering, you vile, unfeeling whore!"

"What, no mention of burning the pieces to ashes?" Elizabeth shot back, though he noted her eye twitched. "You're losing your touch, Dr. Bumby." She turned away with her nose in the air. "Come on, Sam. We needn't waste our eternity standing around listening to a madman."

"Am I?" Bumby hissed. No, they would not just walk away after committing such a crime against his person. "Maybe I should demonstrate just how mad I am to your precious Alice."

Elizabeth whirled back around, jaw clenched. "You will not. You're stuck down here. She'll never have to deal with the likes of you again."

"Oh, Elizabeth – that thing standing next to you proves you wrong," Bumby said, voice sickly sweet. "If he can find his way back to the Land of the Living, so can I! And then I will find her, and I will destroy her! Just the mere sight of me should send her running back into the welcoming arms of Rutledge! But don't you dare think I'll let it be that easy, no. I'll make her mine in every way possible first, just like I did with you! With or without that piece you sliced off, you disgusting, teasing harpy!"

"I will tear you to pieces before you ever come near my sister again!" Elizabeth yelled – but there was a slight crack in her voice now. "And if by some miracle you do make it back Upstairs, I know she'll. . .she'll. . . ."

She trailed off abruptly, the anger in her face transforming into baffled shock. Bumby barely noticed, his own rage blinding him with its intensity. "She'll what?" he demanded, advancing a step. "Kill me again? I'd like to see her try! She's a weak, silly bitch who can't tell down from up half the time! She hasn't a chance against me! Shoving me in front of that train was – was a mere fluke!" Yes, yes, keep saying that, make yourself believe it, don't think of that blood-splattered dress or that flowing hair or those sharp, pitiless eyes. . . . "A – a trick that I foolishly fell for! I almost had her – and I did have her 'beloved' Victor!" he added, shifting his gaze to Bonejangles. "He fought, oh, he fought, but it wasn't enough – would have never been enough! He'll be my slave for the rest of whatever passes for a life with that squirming little maggot! One word about exiling him to the darkness and he'll beg to serve me! Maybe I won't even need my own manhood after all – I'll just force him to do the deed in my steed! Then wake him up just long enough to show him what he's done! Oh yes, I'll make them both suffer more than you could ever imagine! And if you think you can stop me – pathetic, loathsome, disgusting creatures, I welcome the attempt! I can't wait to see your faces when you discover your sister, wrapped in a straitjacket, praying for the sweet release of death, and your friend, serving as my toady, without a thought ever passing through his brain again!" He jabbed a dramatic finger at their faces. "You think your hatred has lasted long, Elizabeth? Just wait until you see the length for which mine burns!"

Elizabeth or Bonejangles gawked at him, eyes wide with horror. Bumby preened for a moment – then realized their gazes were actually directed at a point just over his shoulder. Irritation flared up in him – had they even heard a word of his delightful speech? He'd thought it was some of his best work. "What?" he snapped, turning. "What the hell are you–"

The words froze in his throat. Standing behind him, slurping and bubbling and growing taller every moment was – was – was something that defied definition. An amorphous blob of thick black slime, wet and glistening and bloated like a blood-fattened leech, composed the bulk of the beast. Peppered all over it were empty-eyed doll faces and arms of gleaming white porcelain. The fingers wriggled like worms in a days-old corpse, while the mouths opened and shut in soundless agonized screams. Steam hissed from a tangle of machinery embedded in its top, churning and whirling in response to some internal source of heat. It was the most horrible thing he'd ever seen in his life – and yet, just like Bonejangles and his own blue hand, something about it tickled his memory. "Pollution – corruption – it's – it's killing me! Wonderland is destroyed! My mind is in–" Ruins. That's right, she described monsters of this sort when she finally came home after that night in jail. . .but – but they're not real, they can't be real, I can't be – this cannot – Can I still be delusional if I'm dead?

The faces jerked toward him, their eyeholes dripping coal-black tears. "Doctooorrrr. . . ." groaned a thousand voices as one – the voices of all those he'd sent into slavery, who'd he scrubbed clean and sold without the slightest flicker of conscience, who'd he treated as nothing but dolls. "Dooooctooooorr. . . ."

The old fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. Bumby swung around to flee, pushing his way between the frozen Elizabeth and Bonejangles. He got three steps before the thing behind him shrieked – and then searing hot blackness grabbed his legs, towing him backwards. Bumby screamed as his deadening nerves suddenly sprang back to life, registering agony he'd never imagined even in his worst nightmares. Oh God, not delusional – oh God, oh God, help, HELP!

But God didn't seem in any mood to heed a call from him. Bumby clawed desperately at the ground, losing his fingernails to the cobbles, as the blob slowly gulped him down into its belly. "Time to play with us, Doctoooorrrrr. . . ." the faces moaned as the china hands latched onto him, as icy cold as the Ruin was boiling hot and just as painful, tearing deep into his flesh.

"No! No no no no!" Bumby shrieked, trying to find purchase for his shredded digits. "I don't want to play! Elizabeth! Bonejangles! Help!"

Neither moved, clinging to each other in numb shock. Bumby reached out to Elizabeth one last time as the black sucked him in, closing over his head. "Liz–"

Then pain became his world.


 

"What the bloody hell was that?!"

Lizzie yelped and squeezed Bonejangles tighter – then recognized the voice as her father's. She and her boyfriend turned to see her parents behind them, jaws almost to the cobbles. "I've never seen anything like it in twelve years dead!"

"Lizzie, Bonejangles, are you all right?" Lorina cried, hurrying up to them and checking them over.

"F-fine," Lizzie told her, trembling. "A l-little rattled, but – it d-didn't seem to care about us at all. Just him."

"And thank God for that – Bonejangles, have you ever heard of anything like that in your afterlife?" Arthur asked, clutching his chest.

"No! And trust me, I'd wanna know if something like that was lurkin' under the ground!" Bonejangles stared at the spot where the creature had burrowed down after consuming the psychiatrist. "Christ Almighty – sorry, Mum, but that deserves it!"

"I'm sure she'd agree," Lorina nodded, following his gaze. "God, to think such monsters could be hiding just below our feet. . . ."

Lizzie started to nod – then one of her higher brain functions kicked back in and directed her to take a closer look at the path. That creature was at least twice as tall as Bumby, wasn't it? How does something that big tear its way from the depths, eat someone, and then burble away back to whatever hell-cave spawned it – without disturbing the earth at all? I know the Land of the Dead isn't exactly known for making the most sense, but –

Hmmm. Hell-cave. . . . "Actually – I don't think that we were ever in danger," she said slowly. "I think that – that thing specifically appeared for Bumby."

"How do ya figure, Liz?" Bonejangles asked, tipping his head and letting his eye roll left to right.

"There should be a hole if the monster was something that could pop up and eat us at any time," she said, pointing. "But there isn't. Everything's just as it was before. And you told me once that people can go Up to Heaven in all sorts of different ways. Shouldn't those going Down to Hell also have unique expresses?"

"Mr. Prince did say once that you got dragged away by a horrid beast," Arthur murmured, expression turning thoughtful. "And that Barkis or Edward fellow was set upon by his vengeful brides, wasn't he?"

"Yeah," Bonejangles nodded, clicking his teeth together. "That makes sense. Sure as hell proved he wasn't interested in makin' amends just then. . .why something like that, though?"

"Damned if I know – perhaps he was just big enough a monster to justify something equally terrifying swallowing him up," Lizzie said, leaning on him. "I rather wish it had waited for a more private moment instead of scaring another few years of rot out of me. . . ."

"You ain't kidding." Bonejangles laughed nervously and wrapped his arm around her. "At least we know for sure he's gettin' what he deserves. Don't think any Hell that would send that up to collect him is gonna go easy on him."

"Not at all," Lizzie agreed. She glanced down at her hands, still stained with what blood Bumby had had left in his body when she'd taken his favorite part. She bit her lip. "Sam – did I do the right thing?"

"Pardon?"

"Was it – it felt right when I first saw him, but now. . . ." She turned her hands over. "Should I have left his punishment to the Devil? Trusted in God to make sure justice was done?"

"Liz, I think if the Big Guy Upstairs had any objections, he woulda had Bumby eaten first thing," Bonejangles told her, hugging her around her shoulders. "I sure as hell ain't gonna say you did the wrong thing. Not after the shit he pulled and the crap he said."

Lizzie felt another burst of rage as she thought about the threats he'd leveled toward her sister. "Ugh, yes. . .but – I don't know. I just – don't like the idea that I sunk to his level."

"Hey, I ain't one to judge there," Bonejangles told her, holding up his free hand. "I'm one of the folks who broke a few of Barkis's teeth after he drank that wine. Wasn't worried about sinkin' to his level then."

"Lizzie, whatever you chose to do, it was fine," Lorina said, stroking her hair. "Haven't we said over the years how much we would have liked to have murdered him if we'd had the chance earlier? Maybe it wasn't the most Christian thing to wonder about, but – whatever evil you might have committed against him, it was nothing to what he inflicted on other people."

"Hear hear – we're all allowed a bit of darkness in our souls," Arthur agreed. "And you sought your revenge not only for yourself, but for everyone else he's ever hurt. I know the phrase is 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions,' but – well, the monster didn't try to grab you too, now did it?"

"No, it didn't." Lizzie sighed and pressed up against Bonejangles. "Thanks. I'm not really sorry for cutting him off – it's just nice to hear other people agree with me."

"Woulda done the same if you weren't here, Liz," Bonejangles assured her. His voice turned dark. "'Specially after what he let slip about Victor."

"Victor?" Lorina parroted. "Your friend Victor Van Dort? How would he know Bumby?"

"His parents sent him to the bastard," Lizzie said, the words stabbing her tongue. To think someone's own family had condemned him to Bumby's attentions. . . . "Because of the whole Emily business. And – and it turns out Bumby had an interest in boys as well as girls."

The silence that followed these words was almost suffocating. "You mean. . .you mean he did the same to that poor boy as he–" Lorina started, voice high.

"Worse," Lizzie whispered, digging her fingers into the flesh of her chest. "For everything he visited on me, at least he left my mind intact. Victor – he was g-going on about how he had him 'well-trained' and that there wasn't a thought left in his head. . .and he kept calling him 'Thirteen' – oh damn it, Sam, it was him that night! If those wankers hadn't been by the back door–"

"Easy, Liz," Bonejangles replied softly. "Ain't your fault, okay? I'm sure even Victor would say the same." He winced. "If there's any of him left. . . ."

"There must be," Arthur said firmly. "The children here regain their former personalities upon death. Bumby obviously can't actually erase who he was before. Just – hide it, somehow. Hopefully he'll fall into the hands of someone who can undo the damage. And not with electric shocks and bloodletting." He swallowed. "Did – did he say anything about Alice? She's not running around as Fourteen, is she?"

Lizzie smiled, glad to have some good news to present. "No, he was never able to break her. In fact–" she laughed, less from humor and more from relief "–by his own admission, she's the one who killed him!"

"Really?" Lorina stared, then did her best to resist a smile. It didn't work. "Oh, I'm so glad! I know I shouldn't be, but still! How – how horribly wonderful!"

"Feels like justice to me," Arthur said, drawing himself up proudly. "That's my girl – never let anyone steer her wrong." His shoulder slumped. "Though, now we have to worry about seeing her sooner because of the hangman. . . ."

"Alice is smart – I'm sure she didn't let anyone see her do it," Lizzie said, though a worried How do you shove someone in front of a train without people seeing? poked at the back of her mind. "And anyways, maybe she'll consider her life worth the trade. I would in her spot."

"I suppose I would to, but – I can't believe I'm saying this, but fingers crossed she got away with it," Arthur said, shaking his head. "Maybe once she proves what sort of person Bumby really was to the police, they'll go a bit easier on her. . .under the circumstances, she might even be able to claim self-defense."

"Or the defense of others. . .those children still at Houndsditch need someone to look after them," Lizzie murmured, thinking of that frightened little girl who'd greeted them at the door. "And – and Victor too. . .oh Sam, I'm so sorry. To have that happen to him. . .but Alice will take good care of him, I'm sure."

To her surprise, Bonejangles suddenly laughed. "Yeah, I bet she will, considering he's her boyfriend."

"I – what?"

"Didn't you catch that? I just did, even with that thing swellin' up behind him," Bonejangles said, tipping his eye back toward her. "Bumbles called him her 'beloved' Victor. He's gotta be that mystery beau that arse on the docks told ya about."

". . .So my sister and your friend – while we're down here – Sam, that is a weird coincidence," Lizzie said, blinking. "I wonder if they found each other around the same time we did."

"Got me – maybe next Halloween we can go up and ask," Bonejangles grinned, before letting a shadow fall over his face. "If everything's okay by then."

"One hopes," Lorina said, rubbing her face. "Our Alice with a gentleman friend. . .after the way she punched Reginald for laughing at her giving him flowers, I never thought I'd see the day."

"Yeah, looks like you've got a chance at grandchildren after all, Mrs. Liddell!"

This time they all laughed for real. "I'll be happy so long as they can just get married," Lorina told him. "And not on the run."

"Or with corpses interruptin'?" Bonejangles smirked.

"No, from what I hear, that improves a ceremony."

"Is it gone?"

The group turned to see Walter and Teddy peeping out the door, ready to dart back inside at a moment's notice. "Both of them are," Lizzie assured them. "That monster didn't want anyone but Bumby – and now, he'll never be able to hurt any of you ever again."

The children slowly trickled outside, fidgeting as they gathered around the spot where Bumby had been sucked down to his final "reward." "You – you promise?" Hannah asked, pulling at a loose curl of hair.

"Did it look like he was comin' back from that?" Bonejangles told her, patting her head. "He's gone, guys. You're safe at last."

"That's right," Lizzie agreed, kneeling before the crowd. "Don't even spare him another thought. You're free."

Hannah beamed and wrapped her arms around Lizzie. "Good."

A cheer went through the assembled children, and a few celebratory games of chase and wrestling broke out. Bonejangles put his hand on Lizzie's shoulder as they watched the joyous chaos. "Goes double for you, ya know," he told her. "You're done at last."

Lizzie smiled, feeling something inside of her relax for the first time in over a decade. "I know." She slipped her hand over his as she got back to her feet. "I guess that means our business here is concluded, then."

"Are we going back to Oxford?" Arthur asked. "It has been a while since we've seen our old house."

"I would like that – catch up on what everyone's been doing," Lizzie admitted. She looked over at Bonejangles. "How about you? I assume you wouldn't mind more time with your mother."

"Yeah, but – we're official now, Liz. I go where you go," Bonejangles told her, taking her hand and swinging it between them. "'Sides, I haven't seen Oxford in a while either. Hip Joint might be willin' to take me solo – least til I can get the Boys to come up for a spell."

"And maybe we can get you two out on a proper night on the town," Lorina said, eyes sparkling. "Your trip on Halloween doesn't really qualify."

"What with all the runnin' around tryin' to make sure old Dickless hadn't messed Alice up too bad? Yeah, guess not," Bonejangles allowed. He glanced down at Lizzie. "You're, ah, gonna have to give me some pointers. Never really went on an actual date before."

"Neither have I, so we can be unprepared together," Lizzie said, kissing the side of his jaw. "It'll be weird, spending time with you where I'm not worried about Alice and Bumby."

"It's going to be weird for all of us," Arthur chuckled. "But we have some definite proof now she can take care of herself. And we'll keep consulting the papers too, see what they have to say. The death of a prominent psychiatrist is sure to make some headlines."

"I just hope none of them put our little girl on the gallows," Lorina said, wringing her hands together. "Or your friend in an asylum, Bonejangles."

"Just have to wait and see," Bonejangles said, crossing his fingers. "But I think we're past the worst of it. Right, Liz?"

Lizzie nodded. "Right. I wouldn't say I'm ready to move on, but – I finally feel like I've gotten at least a little of what he stole from me back."

Lorina and Arthur smiled warmly and pulled the two into a hug. "That's all we ever wanted for you, Lizzie."

"It's all I ever wanted for me too." Lizzie snuggled tight into her parents and boyfriend. "So – on to the rest of eternity?"

Bonejangles tipped his hat to a rakish angle and gave her his best grin. "Lead on, Liz. Lead on."

The End