Author: Christina Henry
Published: 28th June 2016
Publisher: Titan Books
I am delighted to be on the tour today for Alice by Christina Henry sharing a brilliant little teaser of this unputdownable book. If you want to read my review of why this has made it into my favourite reads this year, you can do so here. Don't forget to follow along the tour.
The roses’ perfume was stifling at this distance. It permeated the air around them, pushed away the usual stink of sweat and food and offal that hung in the air. But it wasn’t necessarily a better smell, Alice thought. There was something not right about that sweet, twining scent, something that snuck up in between her eyes and made her head ache.
The cottage— for that was what it was, really— was covered so completely in roses that not a sliver of the outside wall was revealed. Only the door— painted white like a gleaming tooth— and a scrupulously clean four- paned window escaped the pervasive touch of the flowers.
Hatcher knocked three times on the door, his hand dark and filthy against the shimmering white paint. Only after Hatcher knocked did something occur to Alice.
“Perhaps it’s a little early to come calling?” she asked. “The sun has barely risen. Won’t Cheshire be angry at being woken?”
Hatcher shook his head, not chagrined in the least. “He won’t be angry if he thinks we’ve brought him something interesting.”
“What do we have that’s interesting?” Alice asked, but she never found out the answer.
The door opened then, smooth and silent on oiled hinges. A very large man stood there, about as tall as Hatcher but much better fed. He was dressed in unrelieved black and held a short coil of silver wire in one hand. There was a tattoo of a smiling cat on the back of that hand, between the last knuckle of his thumb and the thick bone of his wrist.
His eyes were as black as his clothes, and they took in Alice and Hatcher’s ragged appearance in one glance.
“Get off with you,” he said, and started closing the door.
Hatcher reached to stall him, his hand stopping the door halfway. The man looked from Hatcher’s hand to his face, those black eyes calm and endless and unyielding. Hatcher returned the gaze with the same calm, though Alice fought the impulse to tug at Hatcher’s arm and pull him away.
“We’re here to see Cheshire. Tell him Bess sent us,” Hatcher said.
“Mr. Cheshire don’t have time for the likes of you,” the man said. “Now, I’m telling you for the last time, get off and stay off.”
“Cheshire will be very unhappy if you don’t tell him we’re here,” Hatcher said. “And if I remember right it’s not a pretty sight when Cheshire isn’t happy.”
Fear flared in those black depths, a flash so quick that Alice thought she imagined it. The guard’s expression never changed. He and Hatcher continued to stare at each other for a moment longer. “Wait here,” the guard said, and shut the door.
“Hatch, what is it we have that Cheshire will find interesting?” she asked again.
“Us, of course,” Hatcher said.
“But I thought you said not to say anything in front of him,” Alice said.
“I said to watch what you say,” Hatcher said. “Cheshire likes information, and you don’t want him to have any information that you don’t want him to have.”
Alice shook her head, not sure whether the conversation was actually going in circles or whether the roses were making her feel like it was.
“But he likes new things, and new people. And he likes Bess, or he did. He helped her once,” Hatcher said.
“Are you remembering more?” Alice asked. Hatcher seemed a wealth of information all of a sudden.
He tilted his head to one side, thinking. “No. Just what I need to remember. There are still black spots where other things were.”
Alice wondered about the black spots in her own memory, and whether Cheshire could tell her if the Rabbit was dead. If he was such a fountain of information, then he was sure to know. But Bess had told her to stay away from the Rabbit and anything to do with him. And Hatcher said not to tell Cheshire anything. If Cheshire did know about the Rabbit’s fate, then he would wonder why Alice wanted to know. And that might lead to other questions. No, it was better not to bring up the Rabbit at all.
Behind them on the street people were going about the business of their day. Alice heard a noise above them and glanced behind and up. A careworn woman of indeterminate age was removing the washing from the landing that Alice and Hatcher had used to climb down from the roof.
The door swung open again, and the guard stood there. Alice thought he appeared sourer than before, as if he’d eaten something that didn’t taste very pleasant.
“Mr. Cheshire will see you now,” he said. His grip tightened on the silver wire he held, as if he were itching to use it. They were led through a very tiny foyer with a marbled floor into a small parlor, with the most exquisitely carved furniture Alice had ever seen, all of it white and spotless like the front door. A beautiful little round table with elegant curved legs sat in the middle of the room, four matching chairs arranged around it. The chairs had plump embroidered cushions on the seat and the backs were carved filigree.
All around the walls were smaller tables and fat cushioned ottomans, and everywhere there were roses. Roses in vases on the tables and roses painted in pictures and hung in frames. Roses were sewn into the chair cushions and multiplied in patterns on the wallpaper. The same heavy scent that hung outside the house was even more pronounced here, despite the presence of fewer flowers. The windows were shut, keeping the perfume contained in the small space.
On the table were several cakes shaped like roses, and small sugar candies carved in the same likeness. There was a pot of tea, steam curling from the spout, and three cups set out for pouring. Alice wondered that all of this was put together so quickly, while they stood at the door and waited. It was almost as if Cheshire had known they were coming. But that couldn’t be. They’d discussed their plans with no one but Bess.
In the midst of all this petaled splendor was a man, standing near the center table and grinning an oversized grin. Everything about this man was unexpected. The huge guard had appeared scared of Cheshire’s anger. Alice thought a man who wielded so much power and frightened such a large man would be large himself, that he would appear a strong man not to be crossed. But Cheshire was nothing like that.
He was as small and neat as the parlor he stood in. His head would come to just above Alice’s elbow if he was close by her. That head was covered all over with golden brown hair carefully curled in ringlets. His eyes were bright and green and curious and he wore a velvet suit of rose red. It seemed so soft that Alice longed to stroke it with her fingers.
Cheshire’s grin widened as he looked them over, a glint of recognition in his eyes when he saw Hatcher. Alice decided she didn’t like that grin. It wasn’t happy. It was more like a predatory animal baring its teeth.
Cheshire waved at the guard. “Thank you, Theodore.”
Alice glanced behind her as the guard left. He did not appear pleased at being sent from the room.
“Well, well. Bess Carbey’s grandson. What are you doing out of your cage, little bird? I heard a long while ago that you did very bad things and they sent you away, away where all the mad little birds are kept.”
Hatcher started in surprise. “How do you know that? Bess didn’t even know where I’d been.”
“Oh, I know many things. Many things,” Cheshire said, pulling out a chair and seating himself. “Please join me.”
It was not a request. It was spoken in the same cheery tone as everything else, but Alice heard the steel underneath it. She and Hatcher maneuvered into the little chairs, both of them so tall that their knees knocked against the table.
Cheshire poured out the tea, his eyes roving over them all the while. “Yes, I know about Nicholas. But I don’t know you, my lad. And quite big and dangerous- looking you are with that scar. That scar. Hmmm.”
Alice didn’t like the thoughtful look on his face. In fact, she was quickly realizing that she did not like anything about Cheshire at all— not his rose- covered house or the heavy perfume of roses that made her feel sick, not his knowing smile or the speculative way he peered at her scar. She didn’t want to have tea with this man. She wanted to find out what they needed to know and then leave.