Story by Hamilton Kohl
Illustration by Carol Wellart
Thompson killed the cherries when we were a mile out and we coasted into the end of the lane. I called it in and told them to roll a black and white to our location. I was pretty sure we could handle a petite twenty-something with a meek disposition, but careless cops made some of the best dead cops.
The house was nestled on a quarter acre that was peppered with trees. We jumped the picket fence and made our way across the lawn using an old maple tree to cover our approach. Thompson made it to one of the windows first, removed his hat and did a slow peak inside past that little sliver of a window that the curtains never seem to cover. I knew we had it right when he pulled back and drew his gun. I followed suit.
“What is it?” I whispered.
He stepped aside and indicated for me to take a look, so I did. Sitting on the couch across from me was a wide-eyed Henry Diamond. Someone was talking to him, and I could see Henry shaking, or rather, trying to shake his head like he wanted to say no but couldn’t. His gaze shifted to the window for only a second, but it was enough to give us away.
Lorina shouted something at Henry and then flew from the room. I only caught a glimpse of her, but what I saw made my jaw drop. She looked like a dollar store version of the Queen of Hearts. She was dressed head to toe in red: a full length, but the ill-fitting gown that looked like it might have been a Halloween costume, yellow rubber gloves that she had tried to color with a kids magic marker, and on her feet were red canvas Chuck’s, high-tops. But the real showstopper was the broken-and-tapped-back-together plastic crown with a giant ruby red heart that sat on top of her head.
“Looks like the party has started,” I said. But I didn’t need to waste my breath. Thompson was already heading up the steps.
I should have headed around back to cut off any escape, but they got the jump on us. Thompson hit the top of the front stoop and put his size twelve into the door twice; the first shook the entire front of the house, and the second splintered timber and broke the door down. We were over the threshold a heartbeat later.
He looked over his shoulder at me before he went in. “No screwing around this time, Heart, I told you, this ain’t Wonderland.” I knew what he was talking about without him having to say anything more.
“Ya, I don’t prefer killing, Thompson, but if I have to do a little more then I’ll make my peace with it down at Shenanigans.” I brought my revolver into my hand and cocked the hammer–that seemed answer enough for him.
I didn’t know exactly what he had done during his time as a marine, but I bet it involved working point on an entry team. He looked like a dog that had finally been let of his leash, half-starved and told to go hunt for his dinner. I couldn’t blame him, the adrenaline hit me hard, and for a moment I was a younger card freshly dealt into her Majesty’s service.
Henry Diamond was waiting for us in the hall with a sword in his hand and stark raving fear in his eyes.
“Drop it, Diamond,” Thompson shouted.
I backed him up. “You heard him, Henry, lose the blade.”
Henry wasn’t home. His eyes stared off past us, maybe they even stared all the way back to Wonderland. I shouted at him again, but I knew invisible strings bound him tight to the broken queen’s hand. He ran at us with the sword flailing from side to side. He was no headsman; I’ll tell you that much.
I don’t know if it was the idea of the paperwork, but for all his bluster Thompson kept cool and didn’t start shooting the place up. He stepped wide to draw Henry away, and when he did, I crowned the card with the butt of my revolver and relieved him of his sword. Thompson did a quick check of the rooms.
I dragged Henry back to the parlor and threw him on the couch and then stopped dead and stared at the walls. Every single picture had been turned over to reveal a different picture, but in these, all the Rabbit-holers were defaced. The unicorn had a large red ‘X’ scrawled over him, and others had their eyes cut out, or entire heads missing. The one I liked of Alice and been cut to shreds with ‘BITCH’ scribbled across the top. I had to pull myself away from them. Some shrink was going to have a field day with this.
I snapped my fingers in his face until I got something to light up behind his eyes. “Henry, do you know where you are?” I asked him.
“No.” He blinked a few times, and I knew the strings were falling away when he remembered us. “You’re the dicks, I mean, detectives.”
“Where is she, Henry?”
“The bedroom. I was trying to follow her, but she ordered me to take your heads.” He was turning pale. “Oh god, I think I would have done it.”
Thompson heard the last as he walked into the room. “You wouldn’t have come close, buddy.”
“It’s not your fault Henry, she dealt you out, she called the shots.”
He buried his head in his hands, and I told him to stay put.
Thompson pointed up the hall towards two open doors. “Master bedroom, guest room, both clear. Any ideas?”
“Ya. Just one, and I don’t like it. Let me take the lead.” I stopped just outside the guest room and popped my head in but didn’t see what I was looking for. We headed for the only other option and entered the master bedroom, one after the other, pistols high.
And there it was.
The room had a pair of sliding closest doors, the cheap floor to ceiling kind that you’ll find in every builder grade, dirt-cheap rental apartment in the state. And they were both mirrored. Thompson had come up beside me we were looking at each other, one in each door; except where Jack’s reflection was no different than the mirror he shaved in that morning, the one I stood in front of shimmered like water.
“We need to move now,” I said to him. “Are you in?” It wasn’t really a question. I knew he was game. His reflection said yes, and we went through.
I didn’t like the Looking-Glass world. It wasn’t home, and chess pieces and cards didn’t play well together. But I didn’t have time to worry about that just then, because it became mirror clear that we had just stepped into a trap.
Lorina had done some serious remodeling on this side. She had torn down every wall in the house to make one large room and then painted it all white in a slap-job mockery of the real queen’s office. She glared at us from the far side where she sat on her very own throne. It was littered with hearts of every size. Apparently, she had used the three P’s as a guideline: paper, plush, and plastic. They were white, pink and red, and to a heart, they were cut, ripped or otherwise broken in two.
She rose slowly and Jack and I both brought up our pistols, matching her inch for inch. She had something in her hand, and at first, I didn’t think it was a weapon, but I was wrong. It was a deck. And dollars to dodo’s it was the stolen deck the real Queen of Hearts had waggled right under our noses. I should have shot her dead right there, but my mind still hadn’t caught up to what was unfolding. I figured it all out in the next three seconds when she drew a card, threw it onto the floor and screamed, “Off with their heads!”
The card rose, first on hands and knees, growing with each movement until it stood as tall as me. Again, and again she dealt from the deck until a wall of cards stood between us. “Off with their heads!” She screamed it over and over.
This is how Frankie Deuce ended playing a game of hatchet man baseball with the Unicorn’s head. Alice’s sister had dealt him out from an enchanted deck. Being dealt into the world was no easy deal. It was like ten quarts of treacle being shoved through a one-ounce funnel. And when you woke, when you took that first ragged gasp of air, you clung to the dealer’s words like a newborn clings to a teat. You grabbed onto it with both hands, and you let it fill you with warmth and purpose.
“I said, Off-with-their-heads!”
These new guys couldn’t fight it like Henry had. He saw what happened to Frankie, he knew what was coming, and he’d been fighting her from the moment she had played him. These cards were locked under her spell, called forth by who they thought was the Queen of Hearts. The poor bastards.
Hatchets and blades of one kind or another appeared in their hands. Thompson dropped whatever restraint he had shown in the house and opened fire as the first one took a step. I kind of had to agree with him. They broke into a run and I added to the thunder that Thompson was already laying down. I pumped all six shots into a pair of sevens, they fell lifeless at my feet. I’d deal with their dying screams later. The drinks were piling up.
My spent casings clinked on the floor. I had a tough choice to make, throw in six more and hope Thompson could cover me, or meet the charge head-on. A second later and Thompson hollered, “reloading,” and everything was decided for me.
My revolver disappeared and I willed my axe into my hand. Not a hatchet like these mindless tools were swinging at us, an honest-to-goodness head-chopper, the kind that would’ve had ‘Vorpal’ stamped on it if it were made in a factory. I could hear the real queen in my head now, giving the order. I heard the cries from the past as I broke my own vow and started to do the thing, I swore I would never do again. My arm snaked out in an executioner’s swing and I started taking heads. Except this time, it wasn’t a duck’s or a duchess, or a little girl in a white pinafore. It was my own kind.
I’m not going to tell some fable about how I was hell on wheels, and that they couldn’t touch me. They touched me plenty. I had gouges and cuts across the face of my card, and I was bleeding from my ear where a blade nicked me good. It was a fair trade though, I’m sure the ten of clubs that landed the blow meant to bury his sword in my neck.
Thompson was behind me and to my left doing a bang-up job of keeping them off me, but then I heard the slide on his gun lock open and I knew he was about to yell for another reload. And when it came, two of them surged past me to get to him. Thompson was no softy; he blocked a swing from the first one and buried his fist it the card’s face. I heard the crack and watched him crumble and knew at that moment that Thompson had taken it all kinds of easy on me that night behind Shenanigans.
The second one was going to get him, so I turned away from the card I was fighting and hurled my axe at his back. It went high and buried itself in his head instead. And that’s when I felt the cut across my middle. I collapsed to the floor folded in two, but not quite torn in half–not yet anyways.
“Heart!” Thompson was hollering at me, but it barely seemed like a whisper above the roar in my ears. He had slammed another clip into his 9mm, and fire was erupting from his muzzle and lighting up the room.
I lost time. Then he was standing over me.
“Don’t move, Ace.” It must have been bad if he was calling me Ace.
I let my head loll to the side. Alice’s sister was in cuffs and face down on a floor littered with dead or dying cards. I looked back at my partner.
“Hang in there, Henry’s waiting on the other side to bring the cavalry through.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. At least I think I did. I didn’t figure Jack Thompson would put his faith in a perp that had been on the verge of killing us minutes before. I must have got the eyebrow up because then he said, “You looked halfway to dead, Heart. I took a gamble.”
I chuckled a little but stopped when I felt my guts slide around on the floor.
“Quit moving around, you’re only a couple of inches away from joining Frankie Deuce in the discard pile.”
That’s okay with me, I wanted to say, I had this death coming–and then some. I coughed and lighting shot across my middle as I tore a little more.
It was darker than dark. I was falling out of the sky, and Jack was screaming something at me.
I opened my eyes and picked myself up off the floor to see Jack Thompson on his ass, a deck of cards in his hands, and a complete and utter look of holy hell on his face.
“What just happened? I asked.
“I just-” Thompson cut the deck with one hand, twirled the top half around and then snap-flipped a card and caught it between his thumb and forefinger with the other hand. “-I’m not sure. I pulled you from my deck, I think.”
That was a new trick.
I looked behind me on the floor at a discarded ace of hearts. Besides my blue airplane pattern, it was different than all the other dead cards on the floor–it didn’t have the rest of me attached to it anymore. I gave Jack a sweetheart of a grin. “You dealt me back in, Jack.”
He cleared his throat and stood up. “Don’t make a big deal about it, you’ll owe me one down the road.”
“You’re not wrong on that one, but don’t think this means you got any strings on me, Thompson, ‘cause I made good and sure to cut all those when I came from the other side of things.”
Jack got back on his feet and shoved his deck in his pocket and found his normally sunny disposition. “I’m already starting to regret it,” he said.
I was gonna give him a little more lip just to make sure I tied up the score, but Henry Diamond came through the mirror with a couple of uniforms flanking him.
“What do we do with this one?” one of them asked me. Henry looked up at me the way a man does when he’s trying to tell you that he’ll take whatever he’s got coming, but it was Jack that answered. “Cut him loose after you get his statement, he’s a witness.”
Lorina was still face down on the floor, tears on her cheeks and fire in eyes, the kind that burns long and slow and never dies out completely. I knelt beside her. “All this, just because you hated Rabbit-holers? Because of your sister’s fame?”
I didn’t think she was going to answer but the Broken Queen of Hearts cracked just like the crown lying beside her and it all came flooding out. “You don’t have any idea what it was like watching her go on adventure after adventure, always having to wait for her on the other side. She’d go on and on for hours about all of you!” Then the waterworks came. “And not once did she ever ask me to go with her. Not ever.”
A few of the guys and gals from LGU were on the scene now, and I let them take her away. I’d be seeing her plenty over the coming weeks as Jack and I interviewed her and built the case for the DA. We followed them out and left the rest of them to do the dirty work, the bagging and tagging and everything that goes along with it.
The two of us didn’t get back to 51 Division until about three drinks later, and Rose was at the desk when we did.
“Glad to see you two haven’t killed each other yet,” she said. She didn’t bother to look up from her filing. “How is it out there today?”
I looked over at Jack. “Well, it’s like Detective Thompson here says, Rose. This ain’t Wonderland.” Thompson just snorted. Then the two of us headed up to the captains’ office where there were a couple of hours of yelling and a week’s worth of paperwork waiting for us.
— ♦♦♦ —
Her body was preserved with a grace and perfection, beyond even the most advanced embalming techniques know to man.
Eventually, out of frustration, the good Dr. Sloan decided to cut her open, and examine her innards. But this too proved challenging, for no matter what method he employed or tools he utilized, he could not penetrate the cadaver’s skin. His knives and saws grew blunt against the young woman’s flesh, and even his most acidic agents merely pooled and bubbled, never so much as staining her complexion.
The details of this maiden were significant, not only due to the mysteries they poised to medicine, but in their relation to Dr. Sloan’s death. Her body had disappeared the night he was murdered.