Story by Hamilton Kohl
Illustration by Carol Wellart
I didn’t make it three steps inside 51 Division before my day fell apart. Rose glared straight at me from the front desk. I tried to walk past her, but she wasn’t having it.
“The Captain’s looking for you, Ace.”
A flat man like me doesn’t catch a lot of breaks on this side of the rabbit hole, but thankfully, the Captain dishes out misery to everyone in equal measure, human or otherwise. I cursed under my breath, making damn sure she didn’t catch a hint of it. She was passion in a planter, lush silk red petals, a long slender stem, and a full sweet bouquet, but she had no problem bringing out her thorns if you plucked at her the wrong way. Hell, you were still considered a rookie if you didn’t have a scratch or two from Rose.
“Sure thing, beautiful,” I said, trying to make nice.
“Save your smiles for Lily.”
Lily, now there was a soft touch. She was the flower that worked the desk on the weekends. She was just as fragrant and even sweeter, but who was I kidding? I was all about the thorns. Rose turned away to take a call. I took one last glance at her petals and then double timed it past her.
Three flights of stairs and a few minutes later and I had a hot cup of mud in my hand, the captain’s closed door in my face, and a whole lot of yelling in my ear. The door swung inward and it didn’t stop until it met the wall with a bang that rattled the glass. “You waiting for a written invitation, Heart?”
“Not at all, Captain,” I said.
Nothing was welcoming about the captain’s office: four empty walls, one chair, and one desk with two dozen on-going cases spread all over it. Least welcoming of all was the six-foot-one, two-hundred-twenty pounds of grief standing with his back to me. Detective Jack Thompson.
“Jack, you know Ace Heart.” It wasn’t a question. Oh, Jack and I knew each other alright-I knew his left jab, his right cross, and the dirty way he liked to kick a man when he was down. But I had made damn sure that Jack knew as much about me. I’d pulled his face into my knee with his own cheap dime- store tie, and then I gave him a of couple shots besides. Our little conversation in the alley behind Shenanigans that night had been a garbage end to an already trash-filled day.
“You two are going to be working together on this one. We’ve got two dead bodies…”
Thompson had the stones to cut the captain off mid-sentence, “…then this is Homicide’s show. I don’t need a damn playing card form Looking Glass meddling with my investigation.”
He had the stones alright, but he didn’t have the brains. I kept my trap shut and waited for the captain to rein the dummy in. I wasn’t disappointed.
“Jack, I just finished telling you how this is going to go. It’s Homicide’s case, but the Looking Glass Unit is going to chew on this one too.”
That got me into the game. “What do you mean, Captain? What’s LGU got to do with this?”
The LGU. Looking Glass Unit. We were a select group from the other side mixed in with a handful of regulars, and anything that involved the rabbit hole or mirror world got dumped on us. It was all kinds of fun.
The captain already had the phone in his hand and barely answered me. “You’ll see when you get there. The uniforms are holding the scene for you.”
Thompson turned to leave and slammed the case file into my chest—knuckles first—and stalked past me out the door. “I’m driving,” was all he said.
That was fine by me. If he decided to get mouthy, he’d be a hell of a lot easier to hit if he had both hands on the wheel.
— ♦♦♦ —
I needn’t have worried. The drive to the crime scene was dead quiet but riding shotgun with Thompson was like sitting on a bull in a bucking shoot and waiting for the gate to slam open. Similar, but not quite; Thompson was meaner than any bull. We pulled up to a high rise just off the downtown, and he cut the engine. For the first time since gripping the wheel, his knuckles finally turned a color other than white.
I stayed a step behind him and let him do the talking. It was a posh place, with a face of shining glass and a curving post-modern metal skeleton. I instantly hated it, but I doubt either of us could afford the pen most of the tenants used to fill out the application. The concierge led us into a service elevator and took us all the way to the top.
I wasn’t ready for what we found in penthouse twelve.
The door was kicked in and by the look of the deadbolt, someone had taken a hatchet to it before knocking it halfway off its hinges. A uniform stood aside and let us through, but we didn’t have to go far. Inside the front foyer, we found the butler sprawled on his back, except he hadn’t fared as well as the door. And the door hadn’t bled all over the tiled floor and the fancy rug.
“One blow, straight the head,” Thompson said.
I nodded, gloved up, and knelt to carefully spread the lapels of his black tailored jacket open looking for any secondary wounds. There were none. “Yep. One blow to the melon, and it split just like one too. Axe?”
I got an affirmative grunt out of Thompson.
“Is this it?” I asked. “I don’t see anything that makes this a Looking Glass problem so far.”
Thompson bobbed his chin at the uniform. “What else?”
“One more in the bedroom. Through here.”
We went down a hall and stepped through a set of sliding pocket doors to the master suite. There was a notch in one door as if it had been pushed open with the weapon. We followed all the signs of a struggle into the room, and around to the other side of the bed.
The Unicorn lay in a pool of purple blood. His head had been cut clean off and was laying on the marble floor about six feet from where the rest of him fell. He looked like some kid’s broken Pez dispenser.
Thompson was saying something to me, but it was just noise. The only thing I could hear just then was the terrible sound of my own past kicking me square in the gut. “Off with his head!”
“Jesus Heart, you’re acting like you’ve never seen a dead body before.”
That snapped me back out of it. “I’ve seen my share. Doesn’t mean I’ve developed a taste for it.”
I got a smirk and snort in reply.
I ignored him and went back to work. “Same weapon, most likely.”
“You sure he didn’t drown, or maybe cut himself shaving? Are all you guys over in LGU this sharp?”
I’d almost had enough of Jack, and I was just about to explain it to him when something occurred to me. “You’re not shaken up at all, Thompson. You’re as cool as a cactus-like you see a severed head every day. This isn’t the first one is it?” I knew I had it right by the way he kept his mouth shut, but I just glared at him until he understood that I wasn’t going anywhere.
“This is the third in as many weeks. All decapitations, all Rabbit-holers.”
“Took you long enough to invite LGU to the party.”
He shrugged. “Not like you’ve been much help so far.”
He wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t putting eyes on anything that he hadn’t already. Thompson might be a class A knave, but he was sharp where it counted. He had a full tour overseas in the marines and after that he got on as a beat cop and worked his way up through the force until they didn’t have any choice but to give him a gold shield.
I took a closer look at the head and caught a little fleck of red against the white hair of his lip. They say not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it seemed to me they never said nothing about unicorns. “Give me a hand.” He saw what I was onto and held the head while I worked open the teeth and pulled out a prize.
“What is it?” he asked.
I cursed under my breath. I didn’t want to answer him. I cursed again.
I help up the corner of a damp chunk of cardboard and then flipped it over to reveal the pattern on the backside – bicycle red. “Looks like our stiff got a bite in before he lost his head.” Thompson opened up an evidence bag, and I dropped in the piece of the playing card. “Well it’s not an ace, and we don’t have a number, but that’s black ink, so our man’s a club or a spade.”
Thompson dug into me straight away. “Guess it’s hard to kick old habits for some of your friends.” He didn’t even bother to look at me while he scribbled notes onto his pad, but I waited for him to finish. “Off with his head,” he said, through his usual tough-guy grin. He was a real class act for not rubbing my nose in it–a real class act. But he needed to remember that I’d wiped that smile off his face at least once before.
— ♦♦♦ —
When we got to back to the car, Thompson threw the keys at me without so much as a heads up. I caught the glint of silver and nabbed them mid-air before they could take out my teeth. “Your turn,” he said.
I knew what was coming, but I took the bait anyways. “I didn’t think you were the type to ride shotgun, Jack.”
“Well, I’m betting…” His voice trailed off, and I was left wondering what kind of stone he had decided not to throw at me, but then he seemed to change his mind and went for it anyway. “I figure you’ll know where to start.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, it takes one to know one.”
I was just about to pull out of the parking lot, but I slammed the car back into park instead. “You got a problem with Rabbit-holers Thompson? You’ve been giving me the hard looks ever since I started working out of the fifty-first.”
His eyes went all kind of wild. “No, I don’t have a problem with Rabbit-holers, Heart. But damn if I want a flat-man for a partner.”
“What is it you don’t like about cards then, Thompson? You lose a game of Gin Rummy once? Maybe a round of strip poker didn’t go your way and you had to show off little Jack to Suzy whats-her-name from the dorm room across the hall? Why is it that I can’t walk into a room without setting you off? I’m like a powder keg to you.”
All at once the fight went out of him. “Forget it,” he said.
I wasn’t about to go and swell his head, the rest of him was already big enough, but the thing is, he wasn’t wrong. It did take one to know one. I didn’t like how this was all going together. Someone was taking heads, and it looked like another card had something to do with it. Cards aren’t all from the same deck and were not all of the same suit, but we’re not a dime a dozen either. I hadn’t stayed tight with any of the cards I was dealt with, but I still knew who the players were. I put the unmarked back in gear and started us west along Main, and then barrelled down the I-35.
“Where are we heading?”
“The only place we can. We’re gonna start at the bottom of the deck and work our way up.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Here?” asked Thompson.
‘Here’ was one of a couple of dozen cargo terminals that made up the port district south of the city. A flat, hard concrete island where a guy (or a flat man) with a bit of a rap sheet could scratch out a living if they kept their heads down.
“Only so many places a down and out card can work, Thompson. And I figure whoever it is, he ain’t likely some uptowner who wouldn’t get their hands this dirty, or even some tired nine-to-fiver with a house in the suburbs. No, we’re looking for a card who’s been dealt into a losing hand and this is as good a place to start as any.”
Thompson kept quiet. I didn’t take it as approval. It probably just meant he didn’t have any better ideas.
We stood outside a guardhouse. An old man sat with his hat pulled down over his eyes. I rapped on the window to get his attention and flashed my shield. “Sorry to interrupt your nap, Pops.”
If we surprised him, he didn’t show it. He pushed his hat back up with a thumb and nodded to us through the glass. “Afternoon, boys.”
“Were looking for a couple of cards that might be working around here,” I said.
Pops looked at his watch and then threw the same thumb over his shoulder. “Out back, break table behind the second row of containers.”
We found it behind the third row, but only one card was there when we turned the corner, a three of diamonds. He caught my eye right away and watched us approach.
“Three, is it?” I said. I didn’t know him; we weren’t from the same deck. He had a red spiral pattern across his back. I sport a classic blue plane.
“It’s Henry,” he told us, “Henry Diamond.”
A lot of cards took on new names when they came into the world. Some wanted a new start, but most were just looking to fit in.
“You’re an Ace? Of Hearts?” He gave me a knowing look but didn’t say anything more.
“That’s right, Henry. Detective Ace Heart, with the LGU.” I looked over my shoulder. “Care to introduce yourself, Jack?”
Henry started to laugh. “Don’t tell me. Jack be Nimble?”
“It’s Thompson,” Thompson said, and none too friendly. “You about finished?”
Henry threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Just having a little fun, Detective Quick.” He threw out the last comment with a bit of a sneer.
I figured this was exactly the card we wanted to talk to. He wasn’t missing any pieces, so I knew he wasn’t our guy, but he had a sharp look about him. He had made us out for five-oh in a flat second and he didn’t seem concerned. This guy knew the score.
“We’re just looking to talk, Diamond. Any other flat-men working out here?”
He went back to his sandwich and took another bite before answering. “Ya, Frankie. He’ll be right back. What’s this about anyway?”
“Someone lost their head. Seems like something a flat-man might know about,” Thompson said.
Henry swallowed hard and looked at me. I gave him a stiff nod and let him know he’d heard right.
“Shit. You don’t think she’s started throwing orders around again?” he whispered.
I knew who he meant, and I figured Thompson did too. “We don’t know, Henry, that’s what we’re trying to find out. You hear anything?”
Another card came out from between a row of containers before Henry Diamond could finish telling us nothing. This new guy didn’t look too good, he sagged at the waist like he was about to fold in two any second, but he got real straight when he laid eyes on us.
“This must be Frankie.” I couldn’t make out his suit, only a bit of black under the navy-blue jacket he was wearing. The bomber was made to look like the ones the beat cops wore, but it had the cheap sheen of nylon with a more-yellow-than-gold embroidered badge on the chest that screamed rent-a-cop. “Is it Frankie Club, or Spade?”
He looked real nervous.
“Naw, I just go by Deuce,” he said. “Frankie Deuce.”
He came over but didn’t take a seat with Henry. “What’s this about, officers?”
Henry clued him in. “They’re detectives, Frankie.”
Frankie smirked, but it fell away into a pained droop just a fast. “A pair of dicks, is it?”
I didn’t bother trying holding Thompson back from that one. He got right in the card’s face and jabbed a meaty finger into his chest. “You better think real hard about cracking wise with me again–Deuce.” Thompson didn’t hold any of the condescension back in his voice.
“Ease up, Jack.” It didn’t take a softy to feel bad for Frankie. It was no easy thing being the low man in the deck. Nobody had any love for a deuce. Most days you were nothing but bad luck on the Blackjack table, and at best you might make out a win as a lousy pair at a two-buck-table. But even then, only if nobody else was holding anything. No one wanted a deuce in their hand, and no one wanted to be one in life.
But my partner wasn’t looking to ease up. “I don’t know how they do things over in the Looking Glass Unit, but in Homicide, we don’t shy away from putting a perp to a few hard questions, Heart.” Man, oh man, Jack must have been buying the condescension from a bulk-grocer by the pound.
Henry Diamond and Frankie Deuce, to their credit, kept their traps shut and watched with a mix of wide-eyed fascination and stark terror as me and Thompson looked to go a round in front of them.
“Look, Jack, there’s asking a few hard questions, and there’s asking a few questions the hard way. And right now, you’re a March Hare’s breath from doing this the wrong way. He’ll answer just fine without you feeding him any knuckles. Isn’t that right, Frankie?”
He was smart enough to nod-once at me–and then twice more at Thompson.
Thompson put his finger away but kept up the attitude. “Well, maybe we can start with this.” He pulled the evidence bag with the corner piece in it from his pocket. “How about you take that bomber off and we can clear this right up.”
All of a sudden Frankie found his spine. Whatever had him ready to fold a minute ago left in a real hurry. “I don’t think so, detective. I know I ain’t much over here on this side of the rabbit hole, but I know I got rights.”
He stared Thompson right in the eye, and when Jack didn’t back down, he tried with me, but I had nothing friendly for him either.
“You heard ‘em, Frankie,” I said. “Time to show.”
Thompson grabbed him by the lapels and in one jerk pulled the jacket down over his shoulders. Frankie yelped and shoved him away, but it was too late. We all saw his missing corner and the perfect denture bite left by the Unicorn’s pearly whites.
“Hands up, Frankie,” I yelled as both Thompson and I reached for our hardware, but Frankie Deuce had other ideas.
He swung his hand out towards me, and halfway through the swing a hatchet appeared in his grip. I rolled on my heels and took most of it with a boxer’s block, but the flat of the axe head slipped past and cracked me just over the ear. The fight went right out of me for second and I dropped to one knee.
Frankie ducked back through the containers and Thompson set off after him.
I tried to work myself up to speed, starting at a slow stagger but never getting much past a morning jog. By the time I remembered exactly who and where I was, I found the two of them in a blind alley, walled in by cargo containers on three sides. Frankie’s only way out was past a scarlet red Jack Thompson with a locked and loaded police issue 9mm.
Somewhere along the way, Frankie had lost the bomber. His left arm hung useless along his side. It was barely attached under his torn corner. He held the hatchet out in front of him with his one good arm.
I got myself past Thompson and cut off his shot. “You’ve got no play here, Frankie, drop the weapon and we can talk.”
If he could hear me, he wasn’t showing it. He just kept muttering for us to keep back.
“Get out of my line, Heart. And get your damn weapon up. This isn’t Wonderland.”
He had that right. It wasn’t Wonderland. But I wasn’t up for killing if I didn’t have to. I needed to get this guy to start talking before my partner ended things his way. “Why did you do it, Frankie? Did you have a beef with the Unicorn?”
He looked straight at me and his eyes finally lost that far off stare into nothing. “No…no,” he stammered. “I didn’t want to do it. It was her.”
“Who, Frankie? Who told you to put the Unicorn out to pasture? What about the others?”
“Don’t start playing dumb now, Frankie,” I said. But with the confused look on his face, I’m not sure that he was.
Thompson rattled off the list of victims: “The Unicorn, a Goose, and a footman formerly in the employ of the Duchess. All decapitated.”
“It wasn’t me; I swear it.” He was almost begging.
“Except the Unicorn,” Thompson offered.
His eyes lost focus again and his face twisted up like he was about to go the way of the Hatter. “No… I mean, I’m not sure.” Then he screamed at the top of his lungs. “It was her! It was all her! I didn’t have a choice.”
“Who, Frankie? We need a name,” I said.
“The Queen. It’s always The Queen. You know how she is.” For a second he was sobbing, blubbering like a school kid, then he snapped and I though the hatchet was coming again. Thompson was moving behind me to find another shot. “You were her executioner! You’re just as guilty as I am!”
A bark from Thompson filled my ears: “God damn it, Heart, get your gun up.”
But I didn’t need to. Frankie Deuce, once upon a time the Queen’s own two of clubs, wasn’t going to suicide by cop. No. He went the old way. The way some of us use to go when we couldn’t take all the killing anymore. He straightened up real slow and reached across with the hatchet and nicked himself underneath the arm.
“What’s he doing?” Thompson asked.
“It doesn’t have to be like this Frankie,” I made a dive for him, but he flourished the axe one last time before letting it hit the concrete. He grabbed himself above the start of the cut with his good hand and in one clean yank, tore himself in two.
— ♦♦♦ —
I spent the entire next day doing three things: paperwork, getting an earful from the captain, and drinking. And none of it in that particular order.
— ♦♦♦ —
There was a story floating about the USS Buzzard regarding a ship that sacrificed ‘unworthy’ or ‘unfit’ crew members to a monster lest the whole ship be swallowed into the depths…Some nightmares are true.