Story by Hamilton Kohl
Illustration by Carol Wellart
“You don’t look too good this morning, Thompson. You want to take the lead on this, or should I?”
We stood outside The Queen’s Garden, a hotel and casino in the heart of downtown and the legitimate face of Her Royal Majesty’s otherwise not-so-legitimate empire. Everyone knew the Queen’s real money was in mushroom smuggling and the underground Vorpal weapons trade, but everyone from the feds to the LGU had failed to make anything stick to her.
“Knock yourself out, Heart.” He swished his cup and then knocked back most of his coffee and threw the rest in the trash. I’d downed mine on the ride over. I’m nothing without at least one caffeine injection in the morning. And it was barely still morning. It had taken us that long to get the captain to sign off on bothering the queen, and even then, only if we thought we could handle it without any more dead perps.
“Is this Red Queen as mean as they say?” Thompson asked. We stepped through a double door encrusted with glass cut to look like diamonds. She always was tacky as hell.
“Wrong Queen,” I said.
“What do you mean, the wrong queen? Everyone talks about the Red Queen. I mean look at this bloody place.”
“Queen of Hearts. The Red Queen is a chess piece, and she keeps her action on the other coast.” I could see how he could get them mixed up though. The whole casino floor was an orgy of crimson. Red lights on the slots, pretty girls in red dresses handing out liquor, red decor wall to wall. And the worst of it, every table filled to the brim with suckers plugging every red nickel they had into the Queen’s bank account.
Thompson flashed his badge when we got the concierge desk in the lobby. “Detectives Thompson and Heart, here to see the Red…” he caught himself, “…here to see the Queen of Hearts.”
The girl behind the desk picked up the house phone and said a couple of words then let us know someone would be right with us. Thompson looked like he wanted to crawl out of his own skin.
“What’s eating you this morning?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, and I didn’t care enough to ask a second time. A moment later it didn’t matter anyway. The Queen’s page appeared and ushered us across the lobby and through the casino floor towards some elevators. Thompson walked in my shadow like a lost kid. Maybe he was starting to see why the LGU was called in on this one. “What’s her mood this morning?” I asked on the way up. The page knew to keep his mouth shut with all the cameras that had to be covering every square inch of the place, but I caught twinge in the corner of his eye. “That bad, huh?”
The doors opened and he unceremoniously dumped us into the biggest office I’d ever stood in. White marble, floor to ceiling, and at the end of the room, the Queen of Hearts standing behind a white desk, dressed in a white blouse and black pencil skirt. Her lips were blood red, and part of me doubted it was from any lipstick.
She waited, statuesque, as we made our way across the room to stand before her. My stomach started to shrink with each step, but I squashed that real quick, set my jaw and made sure to stare her down. She might have everyone else fooled into thinking this was just a grandiose office, but I knew better. This was just another throne room. Well, if she expected a bow, she had another thing coming.
“Gentlemen. How can I help you?”
“Detectives Jack Thompson and Ace Heart, your Highness,” I let him start things off and saved myself for the main performance. “Do you know a card that goes by the name Frankie Deuce? A two of clubs,” he asked her.
“Hmm, I used to know some cards, but I was never really that close to them.” She cast me a sidelong glance and pursed her lips, but I swore that I could see the faintest smile turning the corner of her mouth.
“You wouldn’t know anything about a few characters losing their heads lately, then?” he pressed her.
“Oh, like the unicorn?” she asked innocently.
He raised an eyebrow.
“It was in the paper this morning dear, talk of the town and all that.”
“You’re saying, you had nothing to do with it then, your highness?”
“No, I don’t think I did, Jack…” She paused like a cat before it pounces. “…Horner, was it?”
Jack sighed. “Thompson, Your Highness. Detective Jack Thompson.”
It was my turn, and I was done playing nice. She was being way too coy for my liking. “Don’t worry about any court etiquette here, Jack. She’s not royalty, just a card with a fancier name than most.” I started walking around her desk. I got ‘careless’ and knocked the potted plant from the corner onto the floor. I looked at her, but she kept cool, so I kept going. I picked up the cup of tea that sat to one side, took a sip, and then spit it back in the cup. Her eyes were starting to frost over, another couple of pushes and they’d be ice cold.
“So, you don’t know me or any other cards, is that right, Queeny?”
“No, though I did have an enchanted deck go missing recently, perhaps you should busy yourself with that.”
“We’ll be sure to pass that along to petty crime,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “have we met before… Ace, was it?”
We’d met before and she knew it. Back when Rabbit-holers first learned they could come through to the other side with Alice, I had been one of the first ones in my deck to cut the strings she held us with. A good hatchet will do that. And let me tell you, it had been no small feat. A card is bound to its dealer, and it had taken me a lot of years and a lot of heads to get to a place where I could take a stand against her. But in case she’d forgotten, it was time to remind her.
I plopped into her chair and swung my feet up on her desk. Thompson had his eyebrow raised again, but he was giving me room to strut. Either that or enough rope to hang me with the captain. I wasn’t really sure which. “You know damn well who I am, lady.”
Her lip quivered.
“Go ahead. Say it,” I said, “for old times’ sake.” And then I turned and threw my biggest Cheshire-eating grin up at her. I didn’t think she would do it. I just wanted to knock a few quarts of smugness out of her, but then she cracked.
“Off with his head,” she whispered.
“No, that’s not it,” I challenged her. “You couldn’t get me to take anyone’s head with a quiet little order like that.” And she had ordered me to take a lot of heads back on the other side. I had to keep from shutting my eyes as a few dozen screams from the past threatened to pull me under. I saw several drinks in my future.
“Off with his head!” she screamed and grabbed me by the lapels. She hauled me off her throne. “Off with your head especially, my dearest Ace of Hearts.”
“You get that, Jack?” I slowly looked over at him and let myself relax in her clutches. “Off with his head. Didn’t Frankie Deuce say something about that?”
“That sounds about right,” Thompson chimed in.
“In fact,” I continued, “Frankie Deuce, formerly your Two of Clubs, named you as the person who gave the order.”
Her grip loosened on my lapels and then she stepped away. “He did, did he?”
“More than once… said it was always you giving the order.”
If she was shaken at all she didn’t show it. In fact, she was going back to ice-cold faster than we could throw the facts at her. I was starting to have second thoughts.
Then it was her turn. “There’s only one problem with that Executioner Heart—oh, I apologize, I meant Detective Heart, didn’t I. But I don’t give that order anymore. Though I will admit, it felt rather good to scream it out again. Thank you for that.”
I was about to go on the offense again, but she shushed me, and like a good little boy I obeyed. Some habits don’t die at all. “No,” she said leaning back on the desk, “I give orders like this.”
She glared at the two of us and reached back to hit a button on the phone. Thompson casually pulled his jacket open and placed his hand on his hip exposing his shoulder holster. I was ready to pull hardware myself when a white panel in the wall swung open and a man walked in. “Mr. Dread, these two detectives have just accused me of being involved with a recent homicide.”
I wouldn’t have doubted that she picked him straight out of law school just for his name. He came close to rivaling Thompson for height which put him at six foot for sure, but he was wiry, more so in his tailored suit, and I wanted to see if I could twist him into oddly bent knots much like a pipe cleaner. He swept toward us from across the room, producing papers from within a black portfolio. “Harassment perhaps, defamation of character most likely. Perhaps retraining orders are required?” A moment later we were drowning in a score of signed affidavits and sworn alibis.
“In case you haven’t noticed, Ace, I don’t work with cards anymore. And I wouldn’t dirty myself dealing with a two of clubs if I did. Perhaps you should go bother that Alice girl. Maybe she’ll know something.”
— ♦♦♦ —
On top of all the paperwork, the Queen’s lawyer hit us with eyewitnesses and video evidence that showed her in the casino right around the time the unicorn was losing his head, and more importantly, we couldn’t put her anywhere near Frankie Deuce. Thompson was behind the wheel heading down Main Street, but he might as well have been running full throttle towards the nearest dead-end because that’s where this case was headed.
Jack broke the silence, “Well? Should we?”
“Should we what?” Without any of his usual snark, he caught me off guard.
“Should we go ask Alice? You think she might know anything?”
I shrugged. “Could be. She did help a lot of us out when things opened up into the real world. We’ll have to put in some calls to get to her, I’d imagine.” She was a big deal now out in Hollywood, jet-setting all over the world making movies. I’d only ever met her once, but she had seemed like a nice enough girl. I almost took her head.
“Call it into the desk and see if they can get us an address,” Thompson said.
My cell appeared in my hand and he mumbled something about hating it when we did that.
I shot back at him while I dialed. “Hate it when Rabbit-holers do that Jack, or just us flat-men?”
He hit the brakes hard enough that I just about lost my cell out the car window. “Hey, watch it,” I said.
Thompson was as red as the light he’d slammed to a halt for. I knew it was coming and I didn’t feel like holding either of us back any longer. “Well, don’t keep it all to yourself sunshine,” I said. “We’ve been at this all week, why don’t you do us both a favor and boil over already.” I thought he was gonna take my head off but instead, he reached into his pocket and slammed an open deck of cards onto the dash.
“You know what that is?” he asked.
I’m pretty sure ‘a deck of cards’ wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but I gave it anyway.
“Not just any deck of cards, Heart. That’s the deck of cards that cost me every dollar I had. It cost me my house, it cost me my wife. That there is an official house deck from the Queen’s own casino, and it dealt me the worst losing hand I ever had.”
Then it all slammed home–why he had it out for me so much. Our boy Jack had a gambling problem, and it wasn’t slots, or dice, or ponies. It was cards. And he saw it every time he looked at me. I was a walking, talking, reminder of everything that was shit in Thompson’s world. I waited for him to go on.
“Name any card,” he said.
I wasn’t in the mood for card tricks, but Thompson looked like he was about split down the middle and let all his inner demons run wild.
“Knave,” I shot back, “clubs.”
He cut the deck one-handed and flipped over the top half to reveal the very card. The deck was pulling at me the way a shot of turpentine pulls at a gutter bound wino. I knew right then that it was enchanted, a deck someone from the other side could pull strings with, and that meant that someone had done a number on Thompson, the poor bastard if a casino was using a loaded deck like that, he’d been cheated, no how about it. Either way, I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him, and I was damn happy when he put it away.
“Are you two just about done?” It was Rose. I must have swiped dial when he hit the brakes. “I don’t have time for this, fellas, one of you get to talking.”
I fumbled the phone up to my ear. “Hey Rose, it’s Ace, we need to get hold of Alice… ya, that Alice.”
She started giving me an earful, something about not being a miracle worker. I tried to cut back in but that just got her going even more.
“Give me that,” Thompson said and stuck out his hand. The light had changed, and we were rolling again. I shrugged. It was his funeral.
“Hey Rose, it’s Jack–ya, never mind him, Luscious.” He laughed. “Ya, you should try partnering with him.” A second later he moved the phone away from his jaw and told me to take a note while Rose shot him an address. “Thanks, Luscious, I owe you dinner. How about the Duck and the Dodo this Saturday night?” He handed me back the phone and gave me a Cheshire-eating grin of his own. “Not to good with the ladies, are you, Heart?”
“I do just fine, pal.” I didn’t care to tell him that ‘fine’ was completely a matter of perspective in this case. I held up my note pad. “This where we’ll find Alice?”
“Not sure,” he answered. “Last known address–Rose is gonna see if she can track down a phone number to go with it.”
It wasn’t much as far as leads went, but I wasn’t too keen on getting back into Jack’s issue with cards, and if it gave him something else to chew on that wasn’t me, then I’d take it.
— ♦♦♦ —
The address was for a quaint little number way out in the sticks, white picket fences and all that. Thompson rapped on the door in as polite a manner as I suspect was possible for him. I hung back a little and kept an eye on the windows. Plenty of trouble can come from a simple little thing like knocking on a door, but I could have saved myself the worry. The curtain rustled a bit and a moment later a twig of a girl opened up and gave my partner a polite hello. But it wasn’t Alice.
“Sorry to bother you ma’am, but we were hoping to speak with Alice, is she home?”
The girl shook her head shyly and was about to say something to Thompson but then she spotted me. “You’re a playing card, aren’t you? Do you know my sister?”
I shook my head. “I only met her briefly, once.”
“So, you’re Alice’s sister?” He let his question hang until the girl clued in.
“Lorina, and yes, I’m her sister, and who are you to be traveling with such colorful company?”
“Detective Jack-” he started to say, but she cut him off with a clap of her hands.
“Oh, this is delightful. “Are you the Jack that built the house?”
“No ma’am, I-“
“Are you the Jack that…”
It was the first time I saw somebody shut him up. I couldn’t help but smile watching his eyes go wide. He was at a loss for words while this young woman ran him through the numbers.
“…fell down the hill?” she continued, and then reached out a hand and squeezed his bicep. “Though, you don’t look like the type to fall down hills.”
I think he almost blushed. “No. It’s just plain ole’ Jack Thompson. Detective Jack Thompson,” he said and tapped his pen on his note pad. “Perhaps we could talk?”
Lorina seemed more than happy to chat with us and invited us in. It was a cozy little shoebox of a house and the decor looked like it might have been handed down to her from her great grandmother. She showed us to the parlor and excused herself, insisting on bringing us tea.
“Wow,” Thompson said under his breath.
I was speechless. The room was wall to wall framed pictures of Rabbit-holers. Anyone who was anyone had a framed portrait. I strolled around and let my eyes take it all in and only turned away when Lorina came back with a clinking tray of fine china. She laid everything out and poured for each of us. I took mine with a bit of milk, and Thompson took his with sugar. There was nothing we saw eye to eye on.
“So,” I began. “Does Alice live here with you?”
“Oh no, she just uses this for a mailing address now, but she used to.”
I asked her a few softball questions, but that was pretty much a wrap for me, so Thompson finished up the interview while I looked at the photos. Some were from the other side, some from over here. A few had her sister in them, one lovely one that caught my eye was of a young Alice in her white pinafore standing by herself in front of a mushroom.
“Had you ever met The Unicorn?” Thompson was asking. But she hadn’t.
We each had a polite sip of our tea, said our goodbyes, and left.
— ♦♦♦ —
We were on our way back to 51 Division when my cell rang. I put it on speaker without thinking, figuring it would be Rose. I let an overly familiar ‘hey gorgeous’ die between my teeth.
“Is this the Ace of Hearts?” It was Alice.
I stared out through the windshield and tried to make my jaw work. Thompson was looking over, quiet, except for a throw of his chin, trying to get me to spill who was on the other end of the line.
“It’s… pardon me,” I coughed so I could swallow the lump in my throat without sounding like a scared little schoolboy. She waited patiently on the other end of the line. “…it’s actually just Ace Heart now, Alice. Thanks for getting in touch with us.”
I hadn’t known her very well back in Wonderland, only a few minutes really, but what I saw left an impression. She had a boldness to her, even then, and face to face with the Queen of hearts she hadn’t wilted. But I had to stop thinking about her–thinking about those beautiful blues as they looked up at me from beneath my hatchet. She’d wilted a little then. But just a little.
I was ready for her to take a swing at me–take a bite outta me–let me have it. Anything. But all she said was “well, how can I help you, Detective?” All I got was a heaping of cold indifference. So, I did what a cop always does when he doesn’t like the taste of something. I swallowed it whole and got back to doing the job.
I started to fill her in on what had been happening. The first two victims, and then I caught myself and walked real softly into the third, “the most recent victim was the Unicorn. I’m sorry Alice, I know you and he were friends.” She fell quiet on the other end of the line and I left her alone until she told me to continue in a calm and steady voice. I smiled a little to myself–the kid still had some toughness to her.
“Have you questioned, her?” she asked pointedly.
“The Queen,” I said, “ya, we threw a few questions at her, but nothing stuck. And to be honest, I don’t think she gave the orders.” We hadn’t compared notes yet, but Thompson was nodding his head from behind the wheel.
I ran down the usual questions with her, but she didn’t know much. She’d been away for months. Ya, she’d talked to the Unicorn a few weeks back, and ya, she remembered Frankie Deuce, she’d helped him line up his security job when he first came over, but that was years ago.
I was about to let her go when Thompson elbowed me. “Tell her we talked to Lorina.”
I wasn’t sure where he was going with it, but I obliged. “One last thing, Alice. We talked to your sister this morning.” I left it hanging out there for a second so I could weight her response, see if whatever itch was bothering Thompson led to anything. This type of thing worked much better in person; did they look baffled, angry, ashamed, or better yet, did they start to break a sweat.
Alice played it cool. “Oh,” she said, “we haven’t really talked in a while. Is there anything you need to tell me, Detective?”
“No. Nothing, I guess. I just wanted to mention it. She just seemed like a really sweet girl, reminded me of a little of you, is all.”
She paused again. Thompson was on to something and he motioned for me to keep her talking as he listened in. I wanted to give her a nudge, get her to open up, but I decided to hold back and let the passing seconds do the work for me.
She broke the silence first. “She didn’t seem a little off to you, Ace?” That was the first time she used my name, she was looking to gain my trust, show herself as an ally. This is basic interrogation 101, they are with you or they are against you.
“Not really. Polite, charming, invited us in for tea while we asked her a few questions. Showed us pictures from some of your adventures. The parlor is full of them.”
I barely finished my sentence before she started stumbling right over top of me. “She had pictures? And you went into the house?”
“Ya, why is that odd?” I asked.
“She hates, and please excuse the term, Detective, but she hates Rabbit-holers. All of them. She’d die before she’d sit down and have tea with one.”
And then Thompson broke in. “Unless she didn’t want to play her hand.”
“Is that your partner, Ace? Jack something? The nice Rose that connected us told me, Detectives Heart and… Jack Sprat! That’s it. It’s nice to meet you Detective Sprat.”
“, it’s Detective Jack-ah, it’s not important. I’m sorry to cut this short, Alice, but Detective Heart and I have to go.”
I offered a fast goodbye and killed the call. Thompson hit the accelerator, flicked on the cherries and made the tires scream while we fishtailed a one-eighty across the interstate and headed back to the quaint little house with the pictures on the walls.
— ♦♦♦ —
“It spoke!” “All right, what did it say then?”
“I don’t know, I couldn’t really tell. I think one of the words was reclaiming.” Alex said. They were quiet. The only sound was the distant crash of hidden waves.
“I’m putting this thing back in the sea,” Tommy said.