"Both the Queen and the Jabberwock were aware of reality," Wilson informed me curtly, still seeming rather wary of being near me. "A sorry state, indeed, when it used to be something reserved only for Guides."
"Guides?" I was both intrigued and impatient – I want to find Alice, but part of me understood that something crucial was being discovered here.
"Denizens of Wonderland assigned to assist outsiders who visited," defined Dr. Wilson crisply. "They were omniscient; they had to be. But there's much more to all that, you know. I'm simply not the one to explain it."
Again, that prickle of rancor. "Then who? Who? Nonsense is one thing, but mystery is not something I can tolerate."
"Now is not the time, Cat. You must find Alice. She is in greater danger than you can imagine. Someone wants the slate wiped clean. I fear her time is running out. If you love her at all, if you care anything for her, find her and take her far from here. Never mention Wonderland again, to anyone. Never go back. The wheels, the cogs, are turning once again."
I stared in mute shock. The doctor's voice seemed not his own. "Where can I find her?" I managed, finally.
"Room 17," he replied quietly. "Leave here quickly."
I ran down the corridors, counting numbers of cells and finally found number seventeen. Wrenching it open, I saw Alice's huddled form – her lovely gown ruined, her hair undone and tousled, one of her gloved missing. I dashed to her side and eased her to standing. For a moment, she stared at me, stunned.
"Eleven," she whispered. "Eleven is coming."
"Darling, we're leaving," I murmured and effortlessly lifted her into my arms. "We're leaving, and we're never coming back." Carrying her, I walked from the cell and down the hallway until I passed from the lobby out onto the stoop. The carriage was still waiting. I did not once look over my shoulder as I brought Alice to the hansom, and I ignored the startled grunt the driver gave as he saw Alice's state. "Go!" I shouted at him, and he touched the whip to the horses even before I was fully inside the cab. We sped away from the asylum and I cradled Alice against me. She shuddered once, then lapsed into unconsciousness.
When we arrived again at the boarding house, I saw to it that Alice was put comfortably to bed. Then, I went down to the parlor, took a glass of brandy and sat by the hearth, thinking. What had happened? She had seen something, experienced something that had undone her. What had occurred while I was looking for my own demons? I'd been a fool to think my personal conflicts important. Once again, I was putting my own wants before hers – just as I'd always done. Well, no more. No –
The voice startled me out of my reverie. I looked up to see a gentleman in greycoat and gloves smiling faintly at me. He was distinguished and handsome, and vaguely familiar. I nodded, mute, and he offered a small bow. "I made inquiries at your company office in London – they told me you'd come here to Devon. Please forgive my tenacity in finding you, but the matter is somewhat urgent."
"Ah. Of course, of course. Please sit, Mr. ..." The familiarity was fleeing. Perhaps he was just the model English gentleman and would fit the profile anywhere.
"Sutherland. Dr. Sutherland, of Oxford," he answered, and claimed the chair across from mine. "I'm the Director of Psychology at the school."
I blinked. "Truly? And what does a doctor of psychology want with Jabberwock Ltd." I knew already. And it was providential.
"I'm interested in buying Rutlege Asylum, Mr. Cheshire," he replied. "I'd like to refurbish it and open it again as a semi-private institution with backing from the University. Our graduate students have no place to intern, and I thought the asylum would be ideal. I assume you have no plans for it – I was informed that the purchase was made hastily and that the shareholders had let it go for a low price. I think I can ensure a satisfactory profit on the building."
I smiled wryly. "As a matter of fact, Doctor, I am very eager to sell. Profit has become only a marginal concern. How soon could you take the asylum off my hands?"
"Oh, well, as early as tomorrow, if you're willing to have my solicitor visit you," Sutherland replied, surprised. "But, naturally, I don't want to insist on an immediate answer. Are you certain you don't need more time?"
"Perfectly certain," I answered firmly. "Have your man come by at two o'clock tomorrow. I'll have the deed and keys ready."
"Two o'clock," Sutherland echoed, nodding faintly. "Thank you, Mr. Cheshire. I'm very pleased this all will go smoothly, and quite excited for the asylum's prospects." He rose and turned away, then glanced over his shoulder. "There's...there's nothing wrong with the building, by any chance?"
"Only for those who have reason to find wrongs with it," I replied, lapsing back into my cryptic quirk.
Sutherland regarded me for a moment, then took his leave.
I slept soundly for most of the night. Just before dawn, I was awakened by the sudden sound of a grinding gear. When I opened my eyes, nothing was there.
In the morning, I visited Alice and was surprised to see she had no memory of her visit to Rutledge's. Rather than try and rekindle the upset, I told her I'd decided to sell the asylum. She seemed pleased and relieved. I, too, was pleased to see her so well recovered.
"Then I'll be returning to London and my aunt's home immediately," she told me. "And you must go back to Wonderland."
The pleasure died instantly.