Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of SyFy and Nick Willing and are only used for fan related purposes.
chapter one: Cup of Tea
It was snowing out, the first time he ever saw Alice Hamilton.
Too cold for him to do any of his work out on the streets, Hatter was sitting in his back office, getting ready to enjoy his midmorning cup of tea when he heard the knock at his door. It was a familiar knock, so he had a pretty good idea who it could be—there weren't too many in Wonderland who knew how to find him, and even less with manners gracious enough to knock—but that didn't stop him from immediately responding with, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
There was a pause, followed by a sigh, and then, "You ask this riddle every time, Hatter. I'm not sure which answer you're looking for today."
He grinned and set his tea cup back on its saucer. Despite the chill outside that was slipping under the exit behind him and sneaking into the admittedly garish office, the tea was still far too hot to taste. He only had one tongue, after all, and in his line of work it didn't serve to burn it. How could he ask questions and talk himself out of trouble if his tongue was too burnt to be put to use? He couldn't, and he welcomed the intruder as a way to kill some time until his tea cooled.
Clearing his throat, he called out, "You can come in."
It was his secretary, just like he thought. A thickset yet undeniably mousy sort of woman with tired eyes, a perpetual yawn and more hair over her lip than most men Hatter had ever seen, she all but skittered into the room, making sure to close the door behind her as she entered.
She was known as Dormouse, partly because of her personality and mainly because of her pointed nose and beady eyes, but Hatter always called her Dormie. In Wonderland, it was much safer to use a nickname; no one knew that better than Hatter himself. It had been years since anyone had called him David and even longer since he actually answered to it.
"Mornin', Dormie," Hatter said congenially, chancing a small sip off of his tea cup as he nodded at her. Still hot, but delicious. "Reports for me to sign?" he asked. "Bills for me to conveniently misplace? Payment, perhaps, for that job I did for the Whites last week? What have you?"
"A client, Hatter," Dormie answered promptly. Stubby fingers with barely any nails were tapping anxiously against her pant leg as she explained, "Ratty says he found her wandering in a back alley and she's looking for help. He thought of you."
Ratty. Not one of his favorite people, not by a long shot, but he had his uses. At the very least, it certainly served Hatter's purposes to have his name be the first thought of whenever Ratty thought there was an opportunity for them both to make some quick money. Then again, this was old Ratty Dormie was talking about—he thought catching rats and selling their germ-ridden carcasses for dinner meat was a brilliant idea.
"What do you think, Dormie? Has Ratty brought me a good case?"
"Couldn't say," she said, her words getting lost midway to a yawn. She gave a small jerk, rubbed her eyes and continued, "Ratty kept her waiting outside. It seems he thinks the girl is special, and he's already asking for more than he usually gets."
"Really?" Now that was interesting. If Ratty thought he was going to make a pretty penny off of Hatter, he must have found something good. "Okay," Hatter nodded, "send him in."
Dormie echoed his nod, yawned once more for good measure and rubbed the end of her nose as she turned to leave the office. She left Hatter to his own thoughts and speculations and a cup of quickly cooling tea that, in the wake of Dormie's quick visit, he had forgotten all about.
See, it wasn't that he was some kind of cop or even a detective (though, for name on the door purposes, that's what Hatter called himself). It was just that he had an uncanny knack to know what was going on and, if he didn't, how to find out. He worked by himself mainly but sometimes he employed countless bums and urchins from the streets of Wonderland… if you could even call it employing when all he offered them was hot tea, a room to sleep in at times and then a favor or two; the only ones on the books—ha, he thought, books—were him and Dormouse. So it wasn't unusual for someone like Ratty to see something new, or maybe see someone strange wondering in the alleyways, and come running to him first.
However, it was a little unusual to hear that Ratty, in particular, was closely guarding such a someone. He left her outside, did he? He wants more than normal, huh? Hatter had to admit that his interest was piqued. Just what—who—had stumbled into Wonderland this time?
Dormie had neglected to close his office door behind her when she left but Ratty knew better than to just barge in. His elongated shadow fell at the foot of Hatter's desk before he announced himself with a phlegm-y cough and a sniffle for good measure.
Hatter glanced up, resting his hands casually on his neat and clean desktop. There were only two things apart from his hands on his desk: his hat and his teacup. Hatter was a firm believer of keeping an organized workplace; that, and it was too easy to give away free information if it was lying around all over the place.
"Ah, Ratty, my friend. Come on in."
Ratty was a very… interesting looking denizen of Wonderland. With a long, lanky frame hidden by a longjacket with decades worth of mud encrusting it, and long, limp hair that was both greasy and dandruff-dry at the same time, he definitely looked the part of a ratcatcher. He wore a leather head covering that, even in Hatter's generous opinion, was no hat. A strange smell, of dirt and grime and cat piss, it clung to his muddy clothes and, from past experience, Hatter was already breathing shallowly through his mouth.
At the sound of Hatter's genial tone, Ratty gulped and removed his hat. Gripping it between grubby fingers, he scuttled in slowly, taking careful steps to tread only where he should tread. This wasn't his first time in Hatter's office; he knew the routine well enough by now.
"Hello, sir," he mumbled, speaking more to his chest and the floor than to the man at the desk. "Thank you for seein' me, Hatter."
"Dormie tells me you've brought someone to see me, Ratty."
"Yes, I did, sir, and she's a strange one. She's got no part of Wonderland in her and, to be frank, sir, I don't think Wonderland would want much to do with her, either. She's lookin' for someone, she says, and she's willin' to pay. She's needin' help, she is, so I thought I should bring her here."
Hatter was quick to notice that Ratty had made no mention of the sort of payment he was expecting. From the way Ratty said it, it was almost like he found the poor thing wandering around and, out of the kindness of his heart, he thought he would try to help her find whoever it was she was looking for. Hatter did notice, however, that he did say the girl would pay and he wondered if she might have already.
Keeping the tone light, he called a simple grin to his face. Dimples went a long way with his look—and with inspiring trust in those with feeble minds that he constantly seemed to be surrounded by. "Then where is she?"
Ratty hadn't expected him to be so blunt. It wasn't like Hatter, seeing as how it was more his style to manipulate words and dance around the subject until you weren't sure if up was down and left was right. Coming right to the heart of the matter was only something Hatter did when he thought there was something really good tucked in there somewhere.
The idea of someone managing to find their way into Wonderland and not being ousted as an oyster before he could catch wind of them was definitely something that caught his attention. Especially since it was Ratty who found her first… Hatter had to admit that, considering the alternative was spending the afternoon going through old files and piles of dreadful paperwork—business had been regrettably slow lately, what with the Hearts family cracking down on the likes of him—it definitely brightened his day to find he might had something more worthwhile to focus his considerable talents on.
After hemming and hawing for a few seconds, either working up the nerve to come out and ask for payment or, perhaps, trying to figure out if he should give up already, Ratty dared a glance into Hatter's carefully composed expression. Trust me, the innocent mask seemed to say, you can believe every word I say.
Even when you shouldn't.
Ratty's head did this strange little bobble—Hatter supposed it was a nod—before he jammed the leather scrap on his head again. "I'll bring her in right now," he promised.
Hatter nodded and watched with interest at the way Ratty skittered back out the office. He dared a quick breath, caught the scent of his cooling tea wafting towards him before Ratty's pungent odor nearly burned the hair off the inside of his nose, and remembered that he'd barely started on his drink before Dormie had interrupted him. Picking his cup and saucer up off of his desk, Hatter tested the tea—it was the perfect temperature—and quickly drained his cup. He was just pouring himself a second one when echoing footsteps against the floor told him that Ratty had returned, and that he wasn't alone.
Keeping his expression friendly, Hatter placed his teacup down again. His eyes were too busy taking in the sight that met him which meant that, when the cup missed the saucer, he ended up sending hot droplets of the liquid splashing out of the cup and onto his hand. It smarted, but he barely noticed. It wasn't the worst of burns he'd suffered in his varied careers and, besides, he was still preoccupied by the oyster that was curiously following Ratty.
He watched as her eyes took in his office and was pleased when she looked impressed. His office was the only place he could be himself, he could be real and he had it decorated it in a way that suited him. It certainly wasn't the sort of office, with its bright white walls with odds and ends and interesting wall ornaments hanging all over, that one would expect someone in Hatter's line of work to have but he liked it.
She walked in slowly, looking at everything, he saw, but the man at the desk. Hatter didn't mind. It made it easier for him to get a good look at her when she was so obviously avoiding his gaze.
His first impression was that Ratty was right: this girl was definitely not from Wonderland.
She was very pretty, but not very bright—that, or she was too stubborn for her own good. It was snowing out, freezing cold, and she was wearing a pale blue dress, sleeveless, one that hugged every curve of her body and showed off every goose bump she had refused to acknowledge in her hurry to make it across town. Her fair cheeks were red and raw from the chill wind, and little ice crystals still clung to her dark hair.
Hatter waited until she had walked all the way into the room before he said anything. "Would you like a cup of tea?" he asked her, pointedly ignoring Ratty. Niceties had to be observed, of course, but only for pretty girls in very short dresses.
"No, thank you."
"A shame." And it was. This oolong mix was so delicious that it would have half the gangs on the street calling him a pansy for drinking it—if they dared. You didn't get used to wearing outlandish—outlandish for Wonderland, even—outfits and a trademark of a hat unless you could back up your sense of style with a good and sturdy right hook. "Ratty tells me you're looking for someone."
"I am," she said shortly before looking down the edge of her nose at him. "I'm sorry but… who are you?" She didn't look sorry in the least, Hatter thought, but curiosity was warring with suspicion on her face. The curiosity won, but barely.
Hatter tried to sound as charming as he possibly could. Charm, he discovered, was very important when dealing with young ladies that looked at you that same way. "A friend," he answered before amending his statement to say, "I hope."
He was surprised to see that his words had little effect on her. She barely blinked except to brush off the few remaining snowflakes that were stuck to her eyelashes. Ratty must've kept her out in the cold. The poor thing looked like she was half-frozen as it was.
Ratty cleared his throat then, a terrible scrit-scratching that sounded like hundreds of little rat feet running across the sewers. "I brought her to you, Hatter. I thought she might be better for you than me, and I brought her."
She looked from Ratty to Hatter and back. Her lips were tinged with blue from the cold but, as she bit down in a noticeable anger, the corners of her mouth went white. She had one hand balled into a fist as she glared something fierce at Ratty. "You said you were going to help me," she snapped, sounding quite angry and not near as nervous as Hatter might've expected from someone who wandered into Wonderland. "I paid you twenty bucks for your help!"
Hatter's ears quirked as Ratty dropped his gaze. Ah, he should've known; in fact, he already did, didn't he? In Wonderland, the only person you could trust was yourself—and even that was iffy at times. And there was Ratty who not only conned the oyster out of twenty dollars, but Dormie said he had the nerve to try and earn a larger than normal finder's fee for bringing the girl to Hatter.
Well, not if Hatter could help it.
Climbing up from his chair, he took slow deliberate steps around the edge of the desk. Ratty seemed to fold up inwardly as Hatter advanced, a small grin splitting his face. He walked like a child bouncing on the edge of his heels, all an act, of course, a way to put the other two at ease. This was work, it was, and Hatter—detective, private eye, professional information gatherer—was, more than anything, a character.
But, nevertheless, he was a Wonderlander and a dangerous one at that. A gentle smile could be as sharp as a knife and kind words doubly as killer. Ratty flinched when Hatter drew up right next to him and Hatter didn't blame him. He didn't blame him one bit.
"Give the lady her money back, Ratty," he said in a friendly tone that suggested, should Ratty not listen, he wasn't going to be friendly much longer.
Ratty reached into his dirty coat at once, pulled out a crumpled bill, dared a sniff—Hatter pretended not to notice—and then offered it out to the girl. She snatched it and tucked it into the small pocket in the front of her thin dress while Ratty, still staring at the floor, mumbled, "I did help. I brought her to Hatter and Hatter's a man who knows."
"That I am," Hatter agreed, feeling only the slightest twinge of sympathy for the dirty old ratcatcher, "and I'm also a man who knows that he owes you a favor for your help, Ratty."
"Not two?" Ratty asked hopefully. The girl made a tutting sound, a click under her tongue and Ratty nodded hurriedly. "One it is, Hatter. Thank you, Hatter. I'll be seeing you, Hatter." His words, quick and oh so very rat-like, were closer to squeaks than anything else. Bowing his head, flopping it about so that his, well, hat would have to do, his hat almost fell to the floor, Ratty refused to look back at her as he left Hatter's office, groveling and feigning gratitude as he scampered out.
As soon as Ratty was gone, Hatter let out the breath he was holding. Some of the men on the street were good for business if not good for the lingering odor they left behind in his office. As it was, he'd stepped too close and there was a good chance the stink might have infiltrated his lovely paisley print shirt. Phew.
He then waited until he was sure Ratty was really gone, going so far as to pass the girl by and check that there weren't any unwanted ears lurking just outside the doorway before turning his attention back to Ratty's find. She hadn't flinched or moved at all really since she arrived—though she might've shivered once or twice from the cold—and, apart from her outburst, she kept silent. Her eyes, nice blue ones that Hatter might've fancied if they weren't watching him so shrewdly, followed his every step.
After he was sure that Ratty had slunk back to the sewers and that Dormie was in the front office where she belonged, Hatter headed back towards his desk. He paused, though, right as he passed her again. Part wanting to put her at ease, part wanting to show her that he could be a friend—if she wanted him to be, that is, and for the right price, of course—he stopped and daringly stood right in front of her.
Hatter looked her up and down once, trying not to appear as if he was leering as he did so, and said, "You're not from around here, are you?" It was almost a question, but one he knew the answer to which, really, made the whole question aspect of the statement pretty unnecessary.
Apparently, she agreed. She snorted in response, a harsh noise that didn't seem to come from such a pretty creature. Almost without realizing it, Hatter cracked a small grin. "Is it that obvious?" she asked.
A million retorts ran through his mind, ranging from: you're kidding, aren't you all the way to if Wonderland's seen the likes of you before, I'll go right ahead and eat my hat. Hatter settled on, "Yes," before he turned away from her and headed back towards his desk. His mind was still running frantic but his keen sense of business was in control—that, and Hatter had a gut instinct when it came to his line of work. There was no if anymore and, for once, it might not just be about personal gain.
No doubt about it, he was taking this case.
Author's Note: Well, here we go. I got the idea to start this from the quarterly challenge on the new_wonderland community on livejournal. The prompty was AU, the theme was Winter Wonderland and, you see, I just couldn't help myself. The way Alice and Hatter get thrown together in the mini-series was very readily adapted to a PI type of relationship -- and I already have quite a few interesting takes on the story that will make it stand apart (while throwing in a couple of lines/characters/ scenes from the series for kicks!). I hope you liked the first chapter, and I should have the next one out pretty soon :)
-- stress, 01.14.09
Chapter 2: Gumshoe chapter two: Pass the Hat
Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of SyFy and Nick Willing and are only used for fan related purposes.
Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of SyFy and Nick Willing and are only used for fan related purposes.
chapter two: Pass the Hat
"So, what can I do for you?" Hatter asked, opening the conversation as he retook his seat behind his desk again.
There were two chairs, small and egg-shaped and nothing like the sort of chairs you'd expect in a normal private investigator's office—not that he was a normal private investigator, mind—that were perched opposite of his desk and he gestured for her to take a seat. It was an honor he reserved for his clients and, seeing as how he decided to accept the job before she had even offered it, it was time she took a load off of her—he glanced over the desk—her boot-covered feet.
But she didn't. With a small, curt shake of her head, the girl chose to remain standing. "I'm looking for my boyfriend."
Hatter was a pro. His features barely twitched, disguising his disappointment with professional interest, though some part of him, deep down, had to groan. She had a boyfriend. Of course she did.
Then, right away, he was all business again. "Your boyfriend have a name?"
Jack Chase… Jack Chase. Jack, now, that was a pretty common name around town. Hatter could think of a couple right of the top of his head. There was a Jack who lived on the edge of Tulgey Wood and then there was Jack "the Jabberwock" Collins—oh, he was a piece of work—and wasn't one of the Hearts called Jack?
Either way, he was pretty sure he'd never heard of someone called Jack Chase before. That, he decided, was also very interesting and for two reasons, too. One: Hatter thought he knew almost everyone in Wonderland, and two: why would this girl chance poking around Wonderland if she didn't have a good reason in the first place?
Well, that was simple enough. She had to have a reason. That's logic.
Hatter leaned back comfortably into his seat. "And why would you be looking for him here?"
The girl didn't answer him straight away. Hatter suspected she was torn between telling him what he would need to know to help her and, well, telling him anything at all when he was simply a strange man the smelly old ratcatcher had dragged her to. She would make an excellent poker player, Hatter decided. Just because he was good at reading people, he was pretty sure he knew what was going on behind that pretty face of hers but she wasn't giving him anything other than a suspicious stare and silence for him to work with.
And then she nodded once, a small nod, and began:
"It all started this morning. Jack, he likes to stop at my apartment in the morning before work, we share a pot of coffee and then he heads off while I finish getting ready. Today was the same, except Jack seemed… different. Distant, you could say. He said he could only stop by for a moment and barely had time for half a cup. We talked for a few minutes and he was just leaving my apartment but… I had to go after him, I had to tell him… something," she finished, her voice wavering for just that word before she recovered her resolve.
She stopped there, though, a quick but telling pause. Hatter felt his eyebrow quirk. There was already something she was leaving out, wasn't there? Hmm…
"He was gone," she continued, "by the time I made it to the ground floor. Some man, he threw Jack into a back of a van and then he just drove off, with me yelling at him to stop. He didn't, of course," she said bitterly, only the second hint of emotion he saw cross the girl, "but I recognized the sticker on the back window of the van. It was a decal of a white rabbit so I knew coming here, to this… this place was the only thing I could do."
There was a meaningful look in her eye that Hatter caught and he realized that she was testing him, making sure he was the right man for the job as it were. Because, the look seemed to say, if he couldn't pick up on such a heavy handed clue, what sort of private investigator was he?
Oh, she was a smart one. A handful of minutes alone in Hatter's office and she had already managed to bait the hook and catch him on the lure; all there was left was the final act of reeling him in. He made it somewhat easier for her by playing along. "The White Rabbit is a very famous club here in Wonderland," Hatter said carefully before standing up from his seat again and catching her eye with a glance as meaningful as hers had been. Easier, he thought, but not too easy. "And you're sure you're an oyster?"
"What's an oyster?" she asked dubiously. "And why would I be one?"
"They," Hatter said, waving his hands around to indicate everyone out in Wonderland except for himself, "call you oyster, but it really means outsider. Outsider, oyster, right? You know, say outsider that many times and, well, it begins to sound like oyster, don't it? So, if you're an oyster," he continued, "then you're not from Wonderland. And I'm feelin' the idea that you've never been here before."
He refused to drop his gaze, daringly meeting her wide, staring blue eyes, though he did choose to stay behind his desk. On that side he was Hatter, PI. On the other… well, he could be anyone he wanted, couldn't he? He could be her knight in shining armor—or her worst nightmare.
It all depended on what happened next. On what Hatter decided to do, and what she decided to do first.
She met his glance head-on; he was impressed. "No," she answered in a way that the word but was surely to follow, "but—" see, he was right, "—I think Jack might've been."
She shrugged her shoulders and Hatter had to remind himself that this young woman was still a prospective client; she hadn't actually "hired" him yet. He had to keep his mind on the case… but would it hurt for his eyes to watch as she shrugged, her bare shoulders rising and her chest heaving ever-so-slightly? Practiced eyes observed the defensive stance, the way she kept that one hand still balled into a fist and Hatter bit back his sigh. He had a funny feeling that, yes, it might just hurt. A lot, too.
If she noticed the way he was watching (and trying not to watch) her, she didn't say anything about it. Instead, she just shrugged a second time and said somewhat wistfully, "He doesn't talk much about himself."
Hatter tucked that nugget of information away for another time. "But he knew about the White Rabbit."
"He did mention the club to me once. It seemed like a place he'd been to before and I remember him laughing about the logo. They took him," she added, defiant and definite, "and I came here to take him back."
The fierce look of determination she gave him, almost as if she was daring him to disagree, it nearly made Hatter second guess his impression that she wouldn't last in Wonderland. There was something about the girl that told him that Wonderland wouldn't last if she was unleashed on the unsuspecting city. If it wasn't for the fact that he knew what the wars between the Whites and the Hearts were like, he wouldn't even think about taking the case.
Except he already did.
She paused and then, "I can pay you."
"Money? Pieces of paper? Pointless." Hatter shook his head. He would help her but not for money. "The only thing worth anything in my world is favors."
It was the first time she looked rattled; his comment seemed to ruffle her feathers a bit. Hatter, whose office all but served the gutter, did not leave his mind there usually. It took him a second to understand and, when he did, he couldn't keep back the chuckle. "Oh, lighten up, miss. I'm not talkin' about those kinds of favors."
Her face was even redder than it was when she first came out of the snow but, Hatter noticed, she was too stubborn to admit to it. Instead, she changed the subject. "It's Alice."
"My name. It's Alice," she said.
"And what's your last name, Alice?"
And he thought Hatter was an odd name. "Your name is Alice Just?"
"No," she answered, a steely glint in her wide blue eyes that all but dared him to argue. "Just Alice."
He let it go.
Alice… now, why did that name sound so familiar? Unlike Jack, he couldn't come up with anyone he knew with that name but, it was definitely something that struck a chord with him. It was like a little niggle in the back of his mind, an itch he couldn't scratch. He knew it from somewhere but he couldn't remember where. Oh, that was going to bother him...
Trying not to dwell on that, he continued with the introduction. "They call me Hatter," he told her, punctuating his statement by picking his trusty mustard-colored porkpie hat, tossing it in the air where it spun three and a quarter turns before settling precisely on top of his messy brown hair. With a confident look and a bit of a show-offy grin, he tapped the crown just enough to keep it in place.
She barely cracked a smile. "I know."
He looked at her, curious, but didn't say anything. Did Ratty tell her? Did she know him? Hatter knew he was quite known in Wonderland but outside? He never went outside if he could help it… but then how?
Alice jutted her chin out defiantly in answer to his unasked question. "Your name's on the door."
He liked her. Probably not the best impression for him to get, considering she was looking for her boyfriend, but still.
"So your Jack is missin' somewhere in Wonderland, you think. Alright. We'll go lookin' for him, me and you."
"You're going to help me?"
Hatter blinked and held out his hands. "Isn't that why you're here? You need help to get your boyfriend, don't you?"
"Why?" she asked suspiciously, ignoring his question.
"Why would you help me?"
Hatter was used to skepticism, to a certain amount of distrust and uncertainty from his clients. He had a reputation—whether some or most of it was warranted was another matter entirely—as a good private investigator, a man with the answers. Yes, his asking price might be a little steep at times but he was good at his job, and even better at wriggling out of tight spots. Most Wonderlanders he helped were worried he wouldn't come to their aid; the idea that someone would judge him so harshly and be so concerned that he was willing to take their case that they never even stopped to wonder about the why's of it all was new to him.
This girl was different. She was an oyster, that was for sure. She had to be. People from Wonderland didn't ask questions when they got their way.
"Why not? I'm here, I'll help and all you have to do is follow what I say. I'll find your boyfriend—" well, probably, he thought to himself, "—and I'll even get you back past the Looking Glass. All for a simple favor, and all 'cause I'm just that kind of guy."
"I don't believe you."
Oh, yes. He definitely liked this one. Shrugging, he said (almost) honestly, "You should. And, look: I happen to know some people who like helping people like you. Not everyone in Wonderland dislikes oysters and I can get you help. They'll owe me for helpin' you and then you'll owe me and, hey, that's good enough for me."
Alice shook her head royally, thick dark hair swaying with the motion. "That's not good enough for me."
Hatter frowned, just a little stumped. This wasn't going the way it should. Why was she making this so hard? Okay, then. Almost honesty didn't work, but what about brutal honesty?
"Alright, fine. But if you're thinking of me as the frying pan, Alice, then I gotta yell you that the fire's even worse out there. Wonderland'll burn you if you're not careful." He still wasn't entirely too sure that she couldn't make it out there but it was always better to err on the side of caution. Not to mention, it would be a shame if something happened to her—and he was already too full of ideas regarding what sort of favor she would owe him in the end. "And, anyway," he pointed out, "what choice do you really have?"
Alice opened her mouth to argue but stopped, obviously thinking better of it. She nodded. "You're right."
Her hand flexed, finally relaxing from the threatened fist from earlier—and what was that? The overhead lamp flashed off of something that she kept on her ring finger, catching the corner of his eye and catching his attention. He turned his head slightly and saw quite the rock positioned possessively there. It was a big stone on a gold band and it just reinforced Hatter's decision to help in Alice's case.
Blinded, dazzled, he wondered where she had gotten such a ring and, maybe, if her boyfriend had given it to her. It had to be valuable, the way it shone like that and, goodness, it was big and he already could think of at least three fences who could give him a, if not fair, a good price for it. Working for favors had its benefits, Hatter knew, but there was nothing like having a pocket full of gold and a new hat on his head. And a ring like that… well, it could buy a fella a good amount of hats. And there was that new leather jacket Mock Turtle put up in his shop…
Hatter shook his head then, trying to focus on the matter at hand. He was aware of Alice's curious stare and he offered her an impish grin in return. "Of course I'm right," he said, glossing over his momentary lapse in honest professionalism, "and, trust me, you can trust me. Do you know why they call me Hatter?"
Alice looked at him as if he was asking a trick question. She tried to keep a straight face as she offered, "Because you wear that hat?"
He shook his head again, even more noticeably this time. He was enjoying himself, getting into the act. It had been ages since he had a new client and especially such a pretty one at that. "No," he told her, though the hat did, of course, have something to do with that, "it's 'cause I'm always there when they pass that hat. Philanthropy, that's my middle name. I live to help those I can."
"For favors," he agreed.
"Philanthropy," Alice repeated.
"Pass the hat my way and I'll make sure it gets filled."
Hatter nodded, choosing to ignore just how disbelieving she sounded. He'd become a private investigator because he wanted to help people—and because he liked the idea of what they could do for him in return. Besides, Alice was a pretty girl who really seemed to need some help; there was a good chance she wouldn't make it out of Wonderland without any. And, he thought, stealing another glimpse of the impressive ring on her finger, maybe this didn't have to be just about her.
Hatter wasn't a bad man—but he was a smart one. You keep your cool in Wonderland, you keep your head.
He didn't want her to catch on to the fact that he'd been ogling the rock on her finger so he turned his attention back to her which, he decided, wasn't all that smart in and of itself. As if he felt his eyes on her, Alice immediately tensed again though she kept her hands loose. She was wary, not too trusting but smart in her own way. He was the only choice she had, the only option, and they both knew that.
Carefully, he took in the short dress, the bare arms and the goose bumps that dotted her fair skin. It was cold in the office but even colder out on the street. The boots she wore were a nice touch—especially if it was still snowing, and the snow turned to ice—but she wouldn't survive out there like that. Anger and determination could only go so far to keep you warm.
He held up one finger. "Hang on a minute," Hatter told her, turning towards his closet in the back of his office. He flung the thin and flimsy wooden door open with more flourish than he intended, winced when it bounced off the equally thin and flimsy plaster wall, then faced the rather interesting contents. He found what he was looking for on the far right and grabbed it.
It was an old maroon overcoat that smelled vaguely of mothballs. He offered it out to her. "You'll fit in better with this," he told her, "and I won't have to worry about you freezin' to death on me, Alice."
Alice took the coat from him but didn't put it on. "I can't wear this."
"Why not? It's warm enough," Hatter said, nodding at her to put on the overcoat while he grabbed his own faded yellow-brown leather jacket and shrugged it on over his shirt, "and it looks like it'll fit."
"Yes, but it's maroon and this dress is blue," she argued, sounding like a teacher pointing out the colors to a class full of students, "it doesn't match. I'll stick out like a sore thumb if I wear this."
Flicking the sleeves of his coat and double-checking that he had everything he needed in his pockets, Hatter laughed lowly at her concern. It was a smirky sort of laugh, the kind that told the other person that, oh, he would deny it if asked but, yes, he was laughing at you. "Not in Wonderland you won't."
Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who read the first chapter! I wasn't sure how this was really going to play out but I was really pleased with the initial reception. Hope you like this part, and I'd love to hear what you think so far. I've got some really good ideas for this, too, and I've already got the next chapter cooking. Look out for it soon :)
-- stress, 01.17.09
Chapter 3: Gumshoe chapter three: Hairpin
chapter three: Hairpin
Wonderland was a seedy district, a forgotten part of town tucked on the edge of a city too big and too stupid to notice when a good chunk just sectioned itself off and started its own world.
It went as far as Tulgey Wood, a small strip of trees still jokingly referred to as a woods when it had been centuries since more than a handful of skinny, twig-like trees stood there, and split nearly through the whole of the Chessboard, the area in town that was warred over by the White Diamonds and the Red Hearts. There weren't many ways in—or out, for that matter. If you knew how, or you were really that lucky, you might find one of the back entrances, such as the one on the corner of Hole and Rabbit. But, if you were desperate—because, if you were an oyster, you had to be desperate to come to Wonderland—you had to cross over past the Looking Glass.
As far as Hatter knew, and he was pretty sure he knew quite a lot, the Looking Glass was one of the heaviest guarded joints in town. Maybe it was because it was one of the only places that wasn't claimed by the Whites and the Hearts, or maybe because the bar served as an unsaid boundary to the "real world", but there was always a couple of suit-wearing thugs standing right in front around the clock, in the snow and in the rain and in the heat, to make sure that things were kept running smooth. And they were kept running smooth. The head of the Hearts clan saw to that personally.
So, when Hatter, followed closely behind by Alice, left through the back exit of his office and his feet took him in the opposite direction of the Looking Glass, it was the infamous bar that was on his mind. He'd heard rumors of what really went on behind those mirrored doors and, for once, he was more than happy to just take the rumors for what they were worth.
There was a time when he was welcomed in with open arms to the Looking Glass; now, though, those same arms threatened to break his legs if he dared to show his cheeky face inside ever again. Then there were the holding rooms for the unlucky oysters and enemies of the Hearts that he'd heard about. Not even Hatter's trusty right hook would be enough to get him out of those locked cells if he got caught.
Of course, he wasn't about to tell Alice that…
Still, he had to wonder. If that was the path Alice took to sneak—because she had to have snuck in, he figured—into Wonderland, how had she gotten in so far to be able to find Ratty and try to bribe him into helping her without someone catching her first? She was a pretty girl, and, yes, some of the suits were known to let their heads get turned by a quick flash of thigh or a precariously low cut dress from time to time, but something still seemed off to him. Call it instinct if you will, but Hatter had an instinct to survive honed from a life on the streets. Something wasn't right—there had to be more to this, more that Alice was leaving out.
He tucked that thought into the back of his mind, too. It wasn't the right time for his own brand of professional suspicion just yet.
Apart from telling her to keep up when they left, Hatter kept to himself as he methodically processed his thoughts the way only a seasoned private eye can. Too many years in Wonderland told him where he was in the city just by the feel of the cobbles underneath his worn shoes; not even the snow was enough to deter him. He'd taken to this same path countless times before and he could tell how much was left to go. Relying on those senses, he was free to dwell on other matters: like what was going on behind Alice's impassive expression.
He thought about it, realized there was nothing to do but ask and hope like hell he actually got an honest answer for once, and said carefully, without even turning around to look at her, "You're not from Wonderland." It wasn't a question, it was a statement and the same one Hatter had made before.
Okay, he thought. Maybe it wasn't the right time—but he was going to do his best to find out all the same.
Behind him, stepping carefully so she didn't slip in the inch of snow already covering the normally dirty ground, Alice pursed her lips together and shook her head once. "No," she told him again, unsure—or acting like she was unsure—where he was going with this.
"How did you come here, Alice?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"I'm a detective, askin' questions is all part of the job. Can we stop with the suspicion already?" he asked plainly.
"And I told you already," said Alice, stubbornly, "that I followed the white van and kept going."
Hatter shook his head in disagreement. "Now, unlikely as that sounds, you see, that's not what I meant."
Narrowing her eyes shrewdly, Alice managed to put across the impression that she had no idea what he was talking about. Oh, she was really good. "What did you mean?" she asked daringly. Another question, Hatter noticed, and never any real answers.
He shrugged. "Not that many entries to Wonderland," he observed casually, glancing over his shoulder just to make sure she was still following behind him, "or exits, either. You've got me curious. We don't often see oysters, except for the in the casinos maybe. But here you are. And I wonder: how? Which way did you come?"
They had slowed their walk alongside a smoke-stained building, hugging the wall in an attempt to avoid being seen or heard in their discussion. Not that that was something to worry about—the snow was falling heavier than it had earlier that morning and Wonderland was dangerous enough in sunshine. Dip the temperatures and throw some snow and ice in and the normally crowded streets were blissfully empty.
In the still quiet of the midmorning snowfall, Hatter could almost hear the cogs working in Alice's brain, turning and churning as she tried to make something of him and maybe come up with some sort of plausible answer to his question.
He waited, only just resisting the urge to tap his foot impatiently. There were limits to his act, after all.
"I might've passed a place called the Looking Glass on my way in," she admitted at last.
He thought he did, too.
Alice didn't seem to like the sound of that too much. She strode toward him defensively, overtaking him and stopping right in front of him. "It's a free street," she said, "and I can walk anywhere I want to. Who were they anyway to try and tell me I can't look for my boyfriend in this part of town?"
Hatter was pleased with himself though, with Alice only a foot away from him, he had to work hard to keep a smug, self-satisfied grin from passing across his face. It was for moments like these that he lived for as a detective, moments when the perps or the clients gave away too much. Push them one way, poke them or prod them another, find out what makes them tick, what makes them drive, and you can find out anything… including the fact that Alice had not only come in through the Looking Glass, but that she must have already had some sort of run-in with the suit-wearing bastards outside of it.
Of course, there was one problem with him learning information because someone slipped up and spilled more than they wanted to: they never gave him everything he needed to know. He could assume all he liked but, well, Hatter knew better than anyone what they say about those who assume. Hard facts were worth everything in his line of work; rumors were only something to go on and maybe get by if he needed to. And, unfortunately, shooting straight didn't always yield the results he needed.
Sometimes it took just a little instinct and a whole lot of bluffing.
Hatter met her steely gaze directly, stopping only to reflect what an impressive—and, admittedly, a little scary—woman Alice was for only a few seconds before he allowed a small knowing grin to come to his face. It would take another question, but a more direct one this time:
"How did you get out?"
If she was taken aback by that question, she didn't show it. Wordlessly, ever defiantly, Alice reached behind her and plucked something from the depths of her thick, dark hair. Between her thumb and her forefinger she held a brass hairpin.
Peering through the steady snow, he almost couldn't believe what it was he was seeing. It was a shot in the dark, a guess based on what he knew about the Looking Glass, the Hearts and a Wonderlander's opinion of a nosy oyster. The locked rooms in the back of the bar were common knowledge in the district—so common, in fact, that most people laughed them off. It was rare that a real Wonderlander got trapped inside the bar though, Hatter realized, it was probably only rare because anyone thrown in the cells never came back out through the front door again.
And she'd broken out of the back with a hairpin.
"They really locked you up then, did they?" Hatter asked, trying to hide the surprise—and touch of worry—he felt at the sight of the pin.
His smile slipped right off his face just as the pin slipped out from between her fingers. Probably because it did Hatter good to have something to focus on that wasn't the fact that he was helping a renegade oyster—as far as he knew, the first renegade oyster—try to find her way around a district that wasn't known for its friendliness towards outsiders, he immediately bent down to pick up the hairpin for Alice. But, seeing as how Alice had the same idea as Hatter at the same time, they just missed bumping heads.
The pin had sunk into a good inch of fresh snow, and they both reached for the pin with the result being that, right after they missed touching foreheads—or, rather, his hat missed hitting her forehead—they brushed hands. The hairpin was momentarily forgotten for Hatter. A spark seemed to pass from her hand through his but it was quickly chased by a chill that stung him.
"You're cold," he pointed out needlessly.
Cold, he thought, was quite the understatement. Her fingers were raw, ice cold, even, and probably numb; she was too frozen to the touch for his liking. The maroon overcoat he gave Alice was keeping her from freezing to death but it was nowhere near thick enough to keep her warm all over. He automatically reached for her hand, wrapping it with his. It wasn't much but at least he'd had the sense to keep his fingers warm and out of the chill air.
"It's snowing," Alice retorted, snatching her hand out of from between his fingers. She shoved her hands into the overcoat's pockets, leaving the hairpin where it fell. "It has to be cold out."
Hatter took the hint. Scooping up the hairpin with fingers that were still manageable—he didn't like the cold but he wasn't as affected by it as she was… not yet, at least—he dropped it into the depths of one of his pockets before standing up. "Come on," he said, not so surprised to hear a touch of warmth slip into his voice, "we're almost there."
Alice stood up shakily but refused his hand when he offered it. "Where are you taking me?" she asked instead, gritting her teeth and wrapping her arms around her middle, hugging herself for the body heat. The wind wasn't so bad but the snow was falling and melting against exposed skin almost immediately. Just standing there, waiting alongside the brick wall with very little cover was making her feel the cold—the cold and wet—far more than when they were walking.
Hatter noticed and, both in a bid to get her to start moving again and because he couldn't really explain his motives—hell, he couldn't even say what his motives were yet, though he wasn't too sure they included helping this oyster find her boyfriend without getting her to part with that ring first—he started to walk forward again. "To a friend," he called over his shoulder, hoping his voice would be swallowed up by the eerie quiet that had fallen with the snow over Wonderland.
It didn't, of course. In fact, it sounded much louder than he intended it to. Hatter dared a quick glance behind him, past Alice and into the thick white whirlwind that was around them. It was hard to tell, but he was pretty sure they were still alone on the street. He hoped it stayed that way.
"What kind of friend?" Alice asked suspiciously when she caught Hatter looking past her.
"Again with the questions." Hatter shook his head. "Won't you just trust me already, Alice?"
He could've sworn he heard her snort but, seeing as how he was purposely keeping his back to her now, it was easy to pretend he imagined it. It made things easier that way. He shrugged, adjusted his hat so that it kept his hair from getting too damp, and started to walk at a brisker pace. The clomping of Alice's boots echoing against the cobblestones only steps away told him she was, for all the front she put up, just as anxious to get out of the cold as he was.
When he told her they were nearly there he hadn't been lying, or even improving the truth. There were only a few more blocks to go but he was entering into a labyrinthine part of Wonderland and, as such, he had to slow regrettably in order to go the right way. Intersections crossed there, alleys met various side streets and Hatter made sure to pay close attention. All of the buildings looked the same here, dark and brooding brick structures that towered over him. Dirty grey doors, once white, were the only thing breaking up the brick, apart from the crisscrossing streets that were lost beneath the still white snow.
There were no numbers on the buildings, no signs, no identification. These were the back entrances in the back alleys that were forgotten even in Wonderland. No one took to these paths unless they knew exactly where they were going. For those Wonderlanders who wandered these alleys, no identifying marks were needed. If you didn't know where you needed to go, the logic ran, then you wouldn't miss it when you missed it.
Hatter knew exactly where he was going and, for the most part, what was hidden behind each and every one of those eerily similar doors. Almost subconsciously, he kept count of them as he passed so that he would know when they got where they were going. At the same time, though, he wondered if this was the best place to bring Alice. If anyone would know anything about her missing boyfriend it would be Dodo—just like Dodo would be the best chance to get an idea of what that ring of Alice's was worth.
He shook his head. That wasn't a good thought. Alice was his client, Hatter reminded himself, and she'd agreed to owing him a favor if he helped her find her boyfriend. And that was exactly what he would do.
There was nothing to indicate that the door Hatter picked at last was any different from any one of the others that matched it. Still, Hatter marched up to it confidently, knocked twice and waited for an answer. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Alice standing hesitantly a few steps back and he waved her closer. She took one step toward him and stopped. That was as close as she was getting.
Hatter bit back a sigh. The girl had no idea how difficult she was making it for him to want to stick to the straight and narrow and help her. Sometimes he had to wonder why in the world he went straight in the first place. In Wonderland, it was so much easier just to be a crook.
The pair of them didn't have to wait too long in the cold for someone to acknowledge them. In answer to Hatter's knock, a five inch by two inch panel in the center of the door, about hat height, slid open. It was dark inside, impossible to see who was behind the wooden frame, but Hatter already knew who it would be. And he was already expecting the quick question that followed:
"And who are you?"
"I am old father Williams," Hatter recited immediately, just a little bit testy. Alice's head turned sharply to look at him; she wore an expression that said plainly: I thought you were called Hatter. When she opened her mouth to argue, Hatter held up his hand. With a small shake of his head and a roll of his eyes, he stepped on the tips of his boots so that he could peek inside the peephole. "Look," he appealed to the man on the other side, "it's freezin' out here, alright? Do me a favor and let us in."
"How do I know you're who you say?"
Hatter huffed and leaned in. "Because my hair has become very white," he quickly rattled off, his answer a mumble tinged with annoyance. He understood riddles and passwords—he certainly used enough of them himself—but he came this way almost every other week. What was Duck playing at?
There was a moment's pause and then the panel slid back into place. They could hear bolts being undone and locks turned behind the doorway. Hatter muttered, "Finally," his breath visible in the cold air, and stamped his feet, trying to regain some feeling in his toes. He couldn't even look back at Alice. At this rate, if only her lips were as blue as her dress, she'd gotten off lucky.
Duck only kept them waiting another moment or two while he seemed to struggle with the locks on the inside. At last the door swung open, and Hatter and Alice walked gratefully inside—
—and right into the very sharp, very pointed end of a knife.
Author's Note: I hope this chapter kind of set up the world of Wonderland as it will be shown throughout this story. Don't worry if something doesn't make much sense yet -- I hope it will soon. Since I just jumped into this using Hatter as a reference point, there's a lot about Alice he doesn't know yet. He -- and we -- will soon discover quite a bit about her ourselves ;)
-- stress, 01.25.10
Chapter 4: Gumshoe chapter four: the Great Library
chapter four: the Great Library
Hatter removed his hat, gave the snow that coated it a light dusting with the side of his hand, and placed it back on his head. He acted like he couldn't be bothered with the point of the knife directed at his throat, though, really, he had stopped swallowing in case his Adam's apple got too close.
He knew from experience that it was always important to appear unafraid in front of a prospective enemy. Even an enemy with white hair and wrinkles so deep they nearly hid his watery eyes.
The man's hand was shaking, whether from rheumatism, the cold or the fact that the steel knife was probably too heavy for his grip. Hatter nodded casually. "Put that away, Duck. You know me well enough. You won't be needin' it."
Duck lowered the knife, exhaling in relief as his spindly arm dropped, but he didn't move to put the blade away just yet. Hatter was right—he did know him. "Can't be too careful, Hatter," he croaked, his voice as shaky as his hand had been. He cleared his throat. "Are you here for Dodo?"
Hatter nodded, managing to keep his eye on Duck's knife without ever looking at it. He moved a step to his left, positioning himself between Alice and the old man. Just in case.
"Very well. Come this way." Turning around slowly, resigned, Duck started forward before calling behind, "And please shut the door behind you. We wouldn't want to let a draft in. It's quite cold out."
Alice reached behind her to do what Duck had asked as Hatter rolled his eyes. Certainly it was cold out. His goose bumps had goose bumps and it would be some time before the feeling returned to his toes—until then they were nothing but small rocks of ice rattling around his boot. He didn't even want to think about how she felt behind him, her in such a short dress and probably as much sense as Dormie when she missed her morning coffee. But, hey, at least it was warm inside, even if Duck's welcome was frosty.
The room was small, cramped with the three of them inside but empty of anything else. There were two dingy white doors, one on his left side and one on the right, and a pair of steel doors on the opposite wall from the entryway. Hatter was familiar with the elevator and he wasn't surprised when, with a squeak and a ding, the doors opened up to reveal an even smaller room with peeling wallpaper. Duck went inside first, and Hatter followed after. Almost immediately he felt as if he'd shot up three feet, the room was so tiny.
Duck waited for Alice to step hesitantly over the threshold before he reached for the panel that operated the elevator. Three rows of three numbers ran down the tarnished steel panel but he didn't press any of those. A wizened old thumb jabbed at a tenth button; the letter U was almost rubbed away from constant use. Hatter knew why, too.
They were going underground.
The light above them flickered, an annoying static-filled buzz serving as elevator music as they went down. Hatter caught Alice holding tightly to the rail and raised his eyebrows. She looked unsettled. Claustrophobia, perhaps? Not what he expected but, then again, he'd been in this business long enough by now to know not to expect anything from anyone. He didn't say anything about it, but he made note of her reaction.
It was a detective thing.
Duck was standing behind him now, the knife still kept loosely in his hand. When the elevator arrived with a jolt that made Alice stumble—Hatter expected the short drop and braced his knees for it—and the doors opened with a groan, Hatter was relieved to take a step away from the point of the knife. There was only one problem, though. The doors opened to reveal a middle-aged woman with glasses so thick her eyes were magnified standing there… and, like her partner, Owl wasn't empty handed.
"Your hands where I can see them," she trilled, holding an old sawed-off shotgun uncertainly.
The gun was aimed right at Hatter's chest but he knew better than to think Owl would actually shoot him. Still, it was better to humor her. She did have a gun, after all.
"Ah, not you too, Owl," he said, raising his hands slowly as he stepped out into the narrow, dimly lit hall. In a place like this, there weren't many candles around and for good reason, too. Hatter remembered the last time Duck clumsily dropped his candle while underground. Half a shelf had burnt to ash before Dodo swooped in and stamped the fire out.
Owl stepped back in order to allow Hatter and Alice to exit the elevator. The shotgun followed their every move. "We have orders, Hatter."
"Dodo's in one of his funny moods then," Hatter quipped, trying to keep the mood light. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Alice held the same pose as him. He wondered if Duck's knife had anything to do with that.
The old man followed her out into the hall; sure enough, he had his knife held out again. He shook his head, glancing ominously down the passage as he warned, "I wouldn't let him hear you say that if I was you."
"Well, it's a good thing you're not."
Owl ignored him. Using the end of her gun, she gestured down the hall. "You know the way, Hatter."
Hatter nodded and, pointedly lowering his hands, he began to walk confidently forward. After years of surreptitiously working with these two and their ornery boss, he knew the way and, well, Dodo's ways.
The thing was, in a place liked Wonderland, booze and vice and territory wars were the norm. Owl, Duck and Dodo, they were all from the old days when it was a peaceful place, a place of color and light, a place where everyone was welcome and wisdom was shared. Then came the gangs, the White Diamonds and the Red Hearts; with them came the head of the Hearts clan, the Queen, and her urge to provide the locals with a little bit of instant gratification. Almost overnight, it seemed, all knowledge was banned. The library was moved underground, and they moved with it.
And Hatter liked them because, despite their being cut off from the world above, they knew more than he did—and that was saying something. They had more contacts than he could imagine—he was one of them, actually—but he could never figure how they did it. Dodo never answered him when he asked and he knew better than to push his luck where the old librarian was involved. He might be one of Dodo's contacts, but he needed Dodo's answers more than he wanted to admit at times.
Alice, following his lead, lowered her hands and hurried her step until she was walking right beside him. He could see that her hands were balled into fists again—there was no doubt she wasn't exactly pleased by their less-than-welcome welcome—but her curious expression overshadowed any other emotion. Curiouser and curiouser. He wondered if Alice had ever seen so many books in one place before. He knew he hadn't.
Whispering out of the side of her mouth, trying not to draw attention from Owl and Duck, Alice asked, "What is this place?"
"It's called the Great Library," Hatter explained needlessly, gesturing towards the rows and rows of bookshelves that surrounded them on all sides and filled every inch of the room. The passageway was as narrow as it was to fit in just one more book somewhere. "The guy who runs it? Dodo? He was the city librarian until all the bars and casinos and the strip clubs popped everywhere. There wasn't room for learnin' in Wonderland, or for books, so he moved it underground." He dropped his voice. "It's a closely guarded secret. Not many people know it exists now, let alone even remember it was ever here."
Alice listened intently, her eyes wide and staring as she took in the overwhelming sight of hundreds and thousands of books that would never be read again. She gave her head a little shake. "Why is he called Dodo?"
"Spend enough time with only books underground…" Hatter shrugged. "Besides, reading is extinct now. As far as the rest of Wonderland knows, so is Dodo."
From behind them, Duck cleared his throat again. The harsh sound was more of a warning than anything and Hatter let his explanation end there. Sound echoed underground; the last thing he needed was for Dodo to overhear him. Owl was right. The less Dodo heard him say, the better.
Though, Hatter thought uneasily, it seemed that Dodo always knew more than Hatter wanted him to.
The air in the library was stifling, made worse by the smell of it: all musty pages and centuries of caged knowledge in a room with no ventilation and very little light. Being down there always made Hatter antsy. The only way up was back through the elevator and he hated not having any other options. It was a risk every time he went underground but it usually paid off.
For the most part.
At the end of the hall there was an open doorway. Hatter led Alice straight to it but made sure to enter first. There weren't many books kept in Dodo's private office, oddly enough, and the room was filled with so many candles that he was temporarily blinded. He always figured that Dodo did that on purpose.
It took a few seconds for Hatter's eyes to adjust. When they did he found Dodo sitting regally behind an antique of a desk. He looked younger than he was, his goatee covered a noticeably weak chin and not even his enigmatic grin did anything to make him look any less severe. With hardly a change in his expression, Dodo rose up from his chair.
Hatter met Dodo's eye and swallowed. He refused to blink as he nodded his own greeting.
Dodo was a pious man, a self-proclaimed virtuous librarian—which meant, of course, that he regarded anyone from up above with less enthusiasm than the dirt beneath his feet. On his good days, he was knowledgeable, maybe helpful; on his bad, he was insane. From the glint in his eye to the weapons Duck and Owl handled uneasily, Hatter was beginning to think today was a bad day.
Not only that, but he was also beginning to second guess the brilliance of turning to Dodo for help with this case. Of course, Hatter would rather eat his hat than to come off anything less than confident. Calling a charming, dimpled smile to his face, he said cheekily, "Guns, Dodo?"
Dodo frowned, a quick twitch and his grin was flipped. He obviously didn't expect Hatter to jump in like that. Hell, even Hatter was surprised. That wasn't the way their meetings normally ran—but, then again, he'd never been greeted with a knife-wielding Duck or a shotgun-toting Owl before.
His frown was short-lived. A queer sort of smile replaced it, a half-smirk that said: ah-ha, two can play this game. Hatter tried not to look unsettled. It was tough.
"There's an oyster loose in the city," Dodo announced. "Questions are already being asked, Hatter." He walked around his desk, stopping for a beat in front of Alice. With unblinking eyes he looked her up and down—she assumed a defensive stance in response to his obvious leering—before slowly turning his attention back to Hatter. "I should've known it would only be a matter of time until you arrived," he sneered at last, "but I hardly would've believed you'd be so… so foolish to take her under your wing."
Hatter bristled and only remembered in time that he was a professional. A paid professional. "She's a client. She hired me."
Looking less than impressed, Dodo asked, "Who is she?"
"She's looking for her boyfriend. A Jack Chance—"
"Chase," corrected Alice.
"Jack Chase," Hatter amended. "You know almost everything that goes on in the city. I was wondering if you knew where we could find him." There were quite a few ways to deal with someone as… unique as Dodo. Flattery was already a good start. And, of course, there was always the prospect of compensation. "She can pay you," he added.
Was that a flicker of interest? "Pay me with what?"
Now, this was where Hatter had to play his cards right. Dodo was like him. It wasn't bills and paper and coins and money that gave him wealth. Just like Hatter collected favors for his services, Dodo collected things.
Hatter nudged Alice on her side. "Alice, show him the ring you've got."
"My ring?" She lifted her hand up as if to get a good look at the ring she wore before shaking her head and closing her hand into a fist. Crossing her arms over her chest, she tucked her left hand underneath so that the ring was out of sight. "I'm not selling my ring to anybody."
It was too little, too late. When Alice raised her hand, she wasn't the only one who got an eyeful. There was a sharp intake of breath and then Dodo whirled on Hatter again. "What is she doing with that?" he demanded, acting like Alice was just something worthless that, unfortunately for him, was attached to the ring.
Hatter shrugged. "It's just a ring, Dodo."
"Just a ring? Your oyster is wearing the Queen's ring!"
It wasn't often that Hatter was caught off-guard. He was good at his job and part of his job meant anticipating moments like these. You needed your wits to work as a private investigator in Wonderland, you needed to always have one up on everybody else. Right now, he felt as if his stomach had plummeted right down to his shoes, followed by his pride. There was no way that the ring Alice was wearing could be the Hearts' leader's prized diamond ring… could it?
It didn't matter. In denial, scoffing, he shook his head. "I don't believe it."
"I'm never wrong."
In a weird way, Dodo was right, too. Damn it! That's what made the librarian such a formidable threat, and that's why Hatter's stomach sank so far and so fast. Dodo had to be right which meant that Hatter was wrong and that Alice had somehow gotten hold of the most expensive—and not just in turns of actual cash, either—item in all of Wonderland.
Dreading the answer but knowing he had to ask, Hatter turned so that he was both facing Alice and blocking Dodo from his line of vision. The sight of the popping eyes and the satisfied smirk were all too much. "Alice," he said, managing to sound a whole lot calmer than he currently felt, "how did you get the Queen's ring?"
Alice took one defensive step back. Her lips were set in a firm line and she looked determined not to let herself be bullied by Dodo. "It's not some queen's ring, it's mine. And I'm not selling it to him."
"I don't need to buy it from you," Dodo announced, suddenly drawing a gun from out of nowhere. "You're going to hand it over like a good little… oyster."
Hatter made to move in front of Alice. "Dodo, can we just talk about this? Maybe there's something else we can work out where the lady gets to keep the ring." He nodded encouragingly, all the while gesturing with his hand behind him, trying to get Alice to back out of the room. Faced with a crazy Dodo holding a gun much more comfortably than Owl, Hatter forgot that Dodo's two lackeys were guarding the door. "You've known me a long time, right? You can trust me, eh?"
But Dodo didn't trust him—and he certainly didn't want to hear what Hatter had to say. He held up his hand to cut Hatter off and glanced over to where Duck and Owl were watching the whole exchange curiously. Nodding at Owl, he said quite calmly, "Shoot him."
Owl's mouth hung open for a moment before she lowered her gun and shook her head frantically. "Oh no, Dodo, I… I can't."
"Then I will." And he pulled the trigger.
The bullet exploded out of Dodo's gun. Hatter had the sudden realization that it was going to hit him a split second before it did, slamming into his left shoulder and knocking him off of his feet. Like he noticed before, there weren't many books in Dodo's office but, just his luck, he managed to crash land right into the one stack that had been set haphazardly off to the side. Heavy books rained down all around him, the thudding loud enough to drown out his cry of pain.
Owl was panicking. Hugging her shotgun to her chest as if it were her shield, she started to tremble. It was one thing to hold a gun to keep people in line—but to actually fire it? "He shot Hatter," she screeched. "Duck, he shot Hatter!"
"I'm not daft, woman! I can see that!" Duck looked from Owl to the spot where Hatter lay on the floor back to Dodo's victorious expression. He cleared his throat. "Dodo, I—"
"Shut up," Dodo snapped, taking his eyes off of Alice as he turned to look at his underlings. "Both of you, just shut up!"
Even from his place on the floor Hatter could see that that was a mistake. Alice hadn't reacted to the gunshot but the second Dodo's attention was distracted, she moved. Like a rattlesnake she attacked, three quick hits in succession before she landed a heavy kick against Dodo's knee. The man folded like a house of cards, the gun flying out of his hand as he dropped to the floor. The gun followed its master, skidded halfway across the small room and stopped right at Duck's feet.
Duck hesitated and was just about to bend down and retrieve the gun when Alice spun around, her borrowed overcoat fanning out behind her. She spotted the gun before Duck could get to it, kicking the handle with her boot; the gun slid out the door into the hall. Alice chased behind it, fleeing down the passageway that would lead back to the elevator.
Back to freedom.
Hatter watched this all happening from a detached view, as a bystander rather than a participant. His left shoulder was throbbing, he could already feel the bruise that would be there come morning but the thudding of Alice's retreating footsteps revived him—that, and the sight of Dodo angrily trying to get back on his feet.
He was going to go after Alice. And Hatter, for reasons the gunshot blast made a little hazy, couldn't let that happen.
In order to be a detective, you had to think like a criminal. In that respect, based on past experience, Hatter was the best investigator in all of Wonderland. For one thing, he was always prepared; for another, he didn't leave his office without a trick or two up his sleeve—or in his pocket. Pulling himself to his feet before Dodo was entirely straight, he swiftly drew his trusty pistol out of his coat pocket with his left hand, holding onto his injured shoulder with his right. It hurt like hell, but he gritted his teeth, raised his gun and pointed it right at Dodo.
"Leave her alone," he demanded, breathing heavily as he eyed the librarian. "Let her go."
-- stress, 02.07.10
Chapter 5: Gumshoe chapter five: Escape
chapter five: Escape
He heard the gasp from Owl, and expected the sigh from Dodo that came next. The old librarian just shook his head in the face of Hatter's determination. "I should've known you'd be harder to kill than a cockroach," he sneered.
"Stay where you are," commanded Hatter, panting slightly as he tried his damndest to ignore the throbbing pain that started at his shoulder and radiated throughout his entire left side. It was a good thing Dodo was such a bad shot—and that he was a suspicious enough bastard to always be prepared. Any lower—any closer—and that bullet would've gone straight through his heart.
Hatter knew that a life devoted to books had made Dodo mad, but he never thought the man was so insane.
Without the gun in his hand, Dodo didn't appear half as threatening. Owl was still standing there, in shock, barely aware of the shotgun in her grasp, and Duck's mouth was flapping open and closed, wordlessly moving as he watched the scene unfold in front of his eyes. Dodo held his hands out innocently, a small, wry smile on his face. They all did what they were told.
For just a moment Hatter really thought that Dodo was going to give up, maybe let him get away without any further threats. But only for a moment because, suddenly, Dodo lunged forward, knocked the gun out of Hatter's hand with one shove, knocked Hatter over and onto the floor with another before running right out into the hall and after Alice. He moved quickly for someone who had at least twenty-five years on Hatter, vanishing out through the door before Hatter even realized what had happened.
There was no time for him to go searching through all the strewn and scattered books on the floor for his gun. Taking care not to put any pressure on his injured side, Hatter pulled himself to his feet, made enough time to at least grab the hat that had fallen when he dropped, and followed right behind Dodo at a somewhat stooped run.
Dodo hadn't had that much of a head start; that, and Hatter had bought Alice some time by turning his gun on Duck, Dodo and Owl. When he emerged out into the hall Hatter saw that Dodo wasn't so far in front of him but Alice was. She was just about at the elevator, a good stretch of the hall in front of Dodo. She could make it… if Hatter did something about Dodo first.
Jamming his hat onto his head so that both hands were free, Hatter put on a burst of speed that quickly closed the gap between him and Dodo. He vaguely recalled shouting something about making sure to hold down the up button, it was a tricky one to Alice before reaching out and grabbing Dodo by the hem of his moldy old coat. Because they'd both been running, Hatter ended up barreling into Dodo and the two men fell heavily to the floor.
His madness lent the old librarian strength. They began to wrestle then, each wanting to be the first to get back to his feet. It was a frantic fight, all shoves, dirty hits and near misses. Hatter almost lost his hat again in the melee and it was only when he used his right hand to steady the crown that Dodo seized his chance. Without Hatter's infamous right hook to stop him, Dodo made the cheapest shot he could and jammed two fingers right at the center of Hatter's shoulder hit.
Hatter gurgled and, seeing stars, fell on his back in agonizing pain; quick as a fox, Dodo was standing up again. He aimed a sharp kick to Hatter's unprotected side that lifted Hatter off of the dusty floor before he landed flat on his back again. Taking his hate and aggression for all of the Wonderland above out on Hatter, muttering taunts and landing blows before Hatter could defend himself, Dodo seemed to forget all about the girl with the Queen's ring who was trying to get away.
And then, suddenly, the taunts stopped. Miraculously—in Hatter's opinion—the hits stopped, too.
He wasn't sure when he had closed his eyes—probably when Dodo's pointed fingers were aiming for Hatter's eye sockets after they'd already found the bullet hole in his poor shirt—but he opened them wide just in time to watch as Dodo's legs went up over his head. There was a thud and a groan as he landed hard.
Hatter was just trying to figure out if what he thought he saw—Dodo flying before crashing onto his back—was really what he had seen when suddenly a hand was thrust in front of him.
Alice, it appeared, wasn't on her way to the surface. She wasn't even standing at the elevator trying to get the blasted thing moving. No, like an avenging angel swooping down in his old maroon overcoat, she hovered over him, offering him her hand. Without wasting another moment in wondering how or why or just what was going on, he took it.
With a strong heft, Alice pulled Hatter to his feet, wrapping her arm carefully behind his back so that she could help him run. When Hatter paused, trying to make some sense of what was going on, she gave his sore shoulder a small squeeze. "No time for that, let's go!"
"What happened to him?" Hatter asked, his curiosity just enough to overrule his self preservation instinct. Yeah, he wanted to get as far away from Dodo as possible, but since when did he fall like that? What had Alice done?
"It was just a basic flip," she explained shortly, shouldering more of his weight in an attempt to get him to move faster, "but it won't keep him down for long so we should really get moving. Unless you like getting shot?"
Hatter's only response was to try and pretend her pressure against his throbbing shoulder didn't hurt as bad as it did. Alice started to run, and Hatter had no choice but to follow. Not that he wanted to do anything else, but maybe she didn't need to jar his injury so much. Dodo was down, Duck and Owl had chosen to stay back in Dodo's office and all of their guns were out of it. Maybe it had been a risky move, coming to Dodo for help, but he'd gotten out of this mess like the hundreds of other tight spots he'd managed to wriggle out of so far during his time in Wonderland.
Except, well, it seemed she was right about Dodo. Damn it, he should've known.
They'd only got a couple of yards away when a quick look over his shoulder revealed that Dodo was already trying to get back up. Alice's flip had left him visibly shaken but it hadn't stopped him. He slowly but determinedly pulled himself to his hands and knees, catching his breath as he struggled to stand. Hatter had to admire the man: you just couldn't keep Dodo down for long.
Hatter elbowed Alice lightly in the side. "Alice, look."
Daring a glance behind them Alice saw what Hatter had seen and cursed under her breath. She stopped abruptly—quite the opposite of the plan Hatter had in mind—and, swiveling her head back and forth, took in her surroundings again. What she was looking for, Hatter didn't have a clue, but he could tell when she found it. A satisfied expression crossed her face as she took her arm back, leaving Hatter to stand on his own.
Dodo had climbed back up, slightly bent and obviously hurting nearly as much as Hatter was. There was malice oozing off of him and murder in his eyes. Hatter got one look and started to kiss his contacts and his future with this faction of Wonderland's unique population goodbye. He would've been better off never leaving his office.
With one quick step, Alice moved in front of Hatter. "Dodo!"
Her cry got Dodo's attention. He sneered. "Are you going to give me the ring now, little oyster?"
Scoffing, Alice shook her head royally. "You wish." She knew he was watching her which was exactly what she was after. Before anyone could stop her she reared back and landed a powerful kick along the edge of the nearest bookcase.
Hatter couldn't believe what he was seeing. He knew that the ruthless Queen of the Hearts banned books and learning and knowledge in Wonderland when her gang rose to power; because of that, the Great Library was moved quickly and secretly underground. Obviously some corners had to be cut somewhere and, between them, Duck, Dodo and Owl were more than one hundred and fifty years old, but to not even bother to nail the bookshelves down? He just couldn't believe it.
The first case toppled over and hit the next, then that one tottered and hit the next until the domino effect took over and it would've been impossible to stop the first row of the library from falling to the ground. Books went flying, wood splintered and crashed and, above all, Hatter heard Alice hiss one word: "Run!"
This time the detective didn't have to be told twice.
Dodo's howls of outrage followed them down the hall. He stopped where he was, watching in horror as his precious books fell all around him. Alice was smart. When it came down to choosing between chasing after her and getting the ring or tending to his library, there was no contest.
Alice reached the elevator first and started to poke the up button frantically. Hatter, adrenaline pumping and slightly out of breath from both the pain and the sprint down the hall, landed with his back up against the elevator doors. He was panting, so loud in fact that he barely heard Alice's frustrated grunts.
When the elevator didn't respond and her frustration grew louder, he managed to ask, "What's wrong?"
"It's the button," Alice spat out, annoyed, "it won't work and we have to get out of here. Ugh, I even tried the down button and nothing. And why is there a stupid down button when we've gotta be as down as we can go? I don't get it! Work already!"
Hatter was glad Alice was so focused on berating the elevator: that way she didn't see the small smirk he couldn't be bothered to hide. Down button on the bottom floor, up button on the top floor… that was Wonderland for you. Only an oyster wouldn't see the humor in something like that.
"I told you, you have to hold it down. Jiggle it a little."
"Give it a good push and hold it. Believe me, okay? It'll work."
Alice gave another grunt, the button finally moved and the old wiring caught at last. She grinned. "It worked."
"Of course it did," he agreed. Then, waiting for the minute or two he knew it would take for the old elevator to remember it was already on the lowest floor, Hatter closed his eyes and allowed his mind to process everything that had just happened.
She'd come back for him. He'd taken on Dodo and tackled the old man so that she could get away but she'd come back for him instead. Why? And why had he risked all that for her in the first place?
A million and one thoughts were racing through Hatter's head just then but when the elevator dinged its arrival, all he had room for was relief. The doors opened and, stumbling without the metal door to keep him standing, he fell inside, back on his back again. A second later, Alice was standing over him with an intense glare that could curdle milk, the elevator door was traitorously closing behind him and he rather fancied another round with Dodo over facing Alice.
First things first, though. Squatting down so that she was nearly straddling him—okay, Hatter allowed, maybe the view wasn't so bad from his place on the elevator floor—Alice quickly reached for his shirt. One quick tug and the top buttons flew open to reveal—
"Body armor?" Alice asked incredulously.
She'd been supporting him, lifting Hatter's upper body off of the dirty floor and trying to get him comfortable, but all that changed when the bloody bullet hole she'd been expecting turned out to be the toughest shield a favor in Wonderland could buy. She let him go abruptly and he dropped back down, wincing when he hit. "You have on body armor?" she demanded.
Alice moved away from him, disgusted, and Hatter couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt that, well, couldn't possibly be warranted. What did she know? This was her first time in Wonderland, she'd said so herself. Was it his fault no one warned her how dangerous of a place it could be? Where was her Jack when Dodo had a gun pointed at her, eh?
Hatter decided it was worth a shot to try to get Alice to answer some of his questions for once. At the very least, maybe it would get his mind off of the pain in his shoulder. "I—" he began.
But Alice wasn't ready to listen. She'd already made up her mind about what had happened in the Great Library and, no surprise, it was all Hatter's fault.
Well, maybe not all Hatter's fault…
"That man was crazy," she yelled, kneeling so that she could jab him with her pointer finger. "He tried to kill me!"
Just mostly Hatter's fault.
"Not to split hairs, Alice, but he actually shot me," Hatter argued through gritted teeth, swallowing back his pants as he rubbed his shoulder gingerly. Just because the armor kept the bullet from going through him, it didn't mean it didn't hurt.
"You're fine. You have on a bulletproof vest!"
"Yes, but he didn't know that."
Hatter bit back a groan as he hoisted himself up to his elbows, trying to put more of his weight on his right side. The elevator was still continuing with its rickety ascent back to the ground level and Alice was still looking down at him as if she'd like to shoot him herself. He had to think of some way to salvage this and quick.
He settled on changing the subject. "How did you do that?" he asked, sincere curiosity finding its way back to his voice.
Alice countered with suspicion. "Do what?"
"Take out Dodo like that? I mean, he's old enough, yeah, but the way you flipped him, I saw his feet go up and that was all. How did you do that?"
She shrugged, still angry but a little more complacent now that they were almost at the top and Dodo was still at the bottom—plus, Hatter's question regarding her ability seemed to mollify her a bit. "I teach self-defense courses down at the community center."
Of course she did. Well, that made sense now. Ha, no wonder she was able to walk through Wonderland unafraid.
The snow hadn't stopped while they were inside the library. To Hatter's relief, however, it had slowed down enough that visibility had gone up enough for him to be quite sure that no one was in front of him and, for now, the only one following him was Alice. That was the good thing about the snow: footprints showed up.
The cold was another big help for Hatter. It dulled the aching throb of his newly blossoming shoulder bruise until he only remembered it hurt whenever he turned again to look behind him. Which he did often. He told himself that he was just checking to make sure Dodo hadn't retrieved his gun and come up after them—considering Dodo hadn't set foot aboveground in years, it was most unlikely—yet he couldn't deny that he was also checking up on his client.
Alice had nothing left to say once they made it back outside. The anger she displayed in the elevator kept her flushed but the bitter cold and stinging snow were more than a match for her. She shivered and pulled her borrowed coat tight around her and that was all. She didn't ask where Hatter was off to now and he didn't tell. But, against his better judgment, he kept turning to see if she was still there.
Before long Alice started to slow and Hatter found himself going slower so that he didn't lose her—or she didn't ditch him, either. She was clomping determinedly behind him, her arms folded across her chest and her boots disappearing in the few inches of snow that covered the ground. Hatter entertained the idea of striking up a conversation, maybe bring up her adventure in the Looking Glass or perhaps find out how she got her hands on the Queen's ring, but he kept quiet. His time in Wonderland gave him a sixth sense about things like that. For now, at least, it would just better if he kept his mouth shut.
It was an easier trip back. He'd gone this way a hundred times, taking the path back to his office so often he could make it with his eyes closed and never stumble. And because Hatter didn't have to worry about where he was going, he spent the much quicker return journey thinking instead about the mess he had gotten himself into by agreeing to help an unlikely oyster find her kidnapped boyfriend.
Like most trips, the journey back was over in no time at all. When they weren't more than a few blocks away, Hatter had come to a reluctant but significant decision. Job or no, promises or no, favors or no… he just couldn't work this one anymore. It had crossed the line from a simple missing person's case the instant Dodo spied the Queen's sparkler on Alice's ring finger. And then for the crazy old librarian to shoot him over it? No—Hatter was a detective, not a superhero. Alice didn't need a private eye, she needed a miracle worker!
But he wasn't heartless. He didn't plan on leaving her on her own. He'd do what he could to help her, keep her hidden in his office until he could sneak her past those suit-wearing bastards that guarded the Looking Glass, and then he could wash his hands of this whole thing. Who knows? Maybe he'd even be able to salvage his working relationship with Dodo if he played his cards right.
Hatter stopped nearly two blocks away from the familiar grungy building that housed his office. He waited until Alice caught up to him and cleared his throat. "You should get out of here while you still can," he told her, inexplicably managing to avoid the piercing glare of her blue-eyed stare. "Dodo, he'll stay in the library, I'm not too worried about him. But if the Queen knows you're here…"
He knew it hadn't worked before she opened her mouth. Then she did, and her haughty tone confirmed it.
"I'm not going anywhere without Jack."
Hatter sighed. "I can tell you mean well, Alice, but no man is worth all this. Trust me."
"You don't understand," she argued heatedly, anxiously brushing the wet snow from her face. "I like him."
"Yeah? Well I like my head. And," he added, nodding at her, "you seem to be pretty attached to yours, too."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
How could he explain? Shrugging, he tried to make some sense of a senseless place to a stubborn oyster. "Look, you're not from Wonderland, you don't know the Queen. She's crazy and—oh, no."
They weren't alone anymore.
It was like a punch to the gut, the way he could see him from this far and still know exactly who he was looking at. The way he stood there like he owned the street, basically guarding the back entrance to Hatter's office while giving off the impression that it was a nice place to wait. In the snow. Without a real coat. Of course.
His hair, what used to be big and brown, bunchy and all over the place, it was slicked down, oiled back, and parted down the middle. He wore a suit that stood for everything Wonderland—and Hatter—was not: a black three-piece suit and, he couldn't believe it, a red tie. He was even wearing the Hearts tie! It was pricey get-up, one he never could've afforded in the old days, but Hatter wasn't surprised. When you sold your morals and your pride, the price was usually pretty good.
Even his presence was friendly, light and carefree, but it was also a lie. If he asked you to stand with him, or to be let in from the cold that he probably never noticed, you had to be mad to listen. Or, granted, madder than March was.
Without another word Hatter grabbed Alice by the arm and pulled her rather roughly into the safe—well, safer—alcove of a nearby alleyway. His heart already pounding, he hoped they hadn't been seen. How in the world could he explain Alice—
Hatter gulped. The Queen knew. Why else would March have come? Somehow he didn't think a beer for old time's sake was on the menu. He didn't know how—he'd only just left Dodo and Ratty would never rat him out—but she had to know. And he should've known. The damn Queen of the Hearts knew everything about Wonderland.
His unexpected pull and subsequent yank had startled Alice but she was recovering nicely. Tugging her arm out of his too-tight grip, she prodded him on the shoulder. At least, Hatter allowed, she did choose the right one. It only sent a tiny shock of pain shooting through his side.
"Did you shush me?"
Hatter whirled around, nearly skidding in the slippery snow that welled up at the alley's mouth. He caught himself in time, held his finger to his lips to hush her again and nodded. Then, before she could answer, he slipped noiselessly to the edge of the alleyway and peeked out. He held a warning hand toward Alice and maybe she finally caught on that he was warning her for a good reason because, amazingly, she didn't follow him out.
He almost expected to come face to face with March but if his old friend had spied them, he was certainly taking his time in coming after them. He wasn't still standing there, though; instead, his trouser legs hitched up, he was squatting down low, peering intently at the snow that covered the ground.
It took Hatter a second to work out just what March was looking at.
See, now, that was the bad thing about the snow: footprints showed up.
Author's Note: I didn't mean to take so long to update but when writer's block strikes, it's never pretty. I do have a good chunk of the next chapter done -- including some backstory -- so the wait shouldn't be nearly as long ;) I hope you enjoyed!
-- stress, 04.16.10
Chapter 6: Gumshoe chapter six: Mad March
chapter six: Mad March
"Oh, no," Hatter repeated, murmuring under his breath, "it can't be."
He had to be careful that his voice didn't carry on the wind. Mad March had a pair of amazing ears… and eyes. Hatter grimaced. Stylish and fashionable as his porkpie hat and leather coat may be, the mustard color didn't blend all that well with the white snow or dreary buildings behind him. Flattening his back against the brick wall, taking care not to put any unneeded pressure against his still aching side, he waited and watched to see if March would be the one to move first.
"Hey, what's going on out here?"
Hatter jumped, banging the brim of his hat against the rough brick with the action, thudding his sore left shoulder against the wall. He tried to stifle a curse, almost swallowing his tongue in a desperate attempt to stay silent; tensed and concerned, he whipped his head to the left to find March again. March was still staring obliviously at the snow—or so it seemed—and Hatter whirled to turn on Alice next. Alice, who had followed him out of the alleyway after all.
He didn't dare hush her again. The brunette had recovered her indignity, open curiosity blazing on her wind-whipped face. She didn't know the danger, Hatter reminded himself, she didn't know who was lurking ever so casually—ever so suspiciously—at the far end of the lane. He just wished he didn't know either.
And then the worst—no, not the worst, March spotting them first would be the worst—the second worst thing that could happen: Alice caught sight of Mad March. "Who—" she began but he quickly silenced her with a small, terse, pleading shake of his head.
"Not now, Alice."
Glancing back at March, the man was slowly starting to rise which meant that Hatter should have been long gone already. And if he'd been alone, he would've been. But no matter how it happened, he wasn't alone. He was with an oyster, which put him in as much hot water as her. To make matters worse, their footprints from earlier were all but filled but March had found them anyway. How much longer until he tracked them back? Back to the alley where footsteps out met with footsteps returning, four pairs in all which only confirmed his double quarry?
Damn it! The girl was making him soft—that, or his encounter with Dodo shook him up more than he thought. Either way, it had been a stupid idea to try to take her back to his office with him and he knew it. He'd been sold out, snitched on, given up… there was no other reason for Mad March to be there. The Queen knew and the Queen was angry, certainly angry enough if she was willing to send out her number one guy.
How did this happen? Year after year he watched his back in Wonderland, working a job here, doing a case for the White Diamonds or the Red Hearts—but never both at once in case one got wind of the other—even performing recon for the old mob Underground, working for everyone but watching out only for himself. And now he was a sitting duck, a target for the biggest boss in Wonderland, all because it was cold and snowy outside and he made the wrong choice to slink back to his office.
Of course, the pretty oyster currently breathing down his neck, making his thoughts all muddled up and his roguish instincts run for cover, she wasn't any help at all.
But, perhaps, she could be…
He doubted he would get away with it twice but still he grabbed Alice's hand before she ever had the chance to react and ordered in a meaningful sort of whisper, "Quick, follow me."
Pulling a surprisingly unresisting Alice after him, Hatter refused to glance over his shoulder for fear of what he would see. Pointedly dragging his feet as he moved, he tried to hide his steps before giving up. If March could track half-hidden footprints in the snow, a bumpy trail that kicked aside the freshly fallen snow would be like a great big arrow following them wherever they went.
It wasn't right, he thought as he hurriedly led them away, being chased or even being sent running away from his own office, his tail curled between his legs and his pride wounded. Hatter was the detective, not March—doing that to unsuspecting perps was his job. But he knew when it was worth it to stand up and fight and when it was time to run away. If it meant having legs tomorrow, it was worth it to run today.
He expected March to catch up to them at any moment, actually waited for Alice's stifled cry or a sudden jerk that meant March had wrenched the shivering girl from his grip. For that reason, among certain others, Hatter tightened his hold on Alice's hand and, most surprisingly, she didn't complain or try to pull free. He could hear her panting just behind him and tried to figure out how to explain what had happened. He couldn't, and he couldn't slow either. Hatter knew who—what—they were running from.
It was when they'd gotten more than four blocks away from his office and they'd turned onto a seedy side street Hatter was familiar with that his brain finally seemed to wake up. In the middle of Wabe Street, there was a short, narrow store that attracted him for no other reason than he knew it to be abandoned. Nestled between a pawn shop and a strip club, Hatter zeroed in on it and, without once stopping to think it might be locked, quickly ushered Alice inside. He didn't follow her, though; searching the lazy snow for any sign of March, he was determined to keep the two of them separated.
As they had been all day, the Wonderland streets were still empty. Hatter was hardly surprised, and not only because the snow and the ice made it treacherous for anyone to chance walking them. Wonderland was always much busier at night, when the dens of debauchery opened up and the lure of the casinos were the strongest. For the first time since Ratty came to him with news of a renegade oyster, Hatter was alone, but he wasn't sure for how long that would be the case.
There was no hint of Mad March anywhere. Not that his absence was any relief to Hatter. It wasn't. He knew March, he knew his methods. Just because he couldn't see him, it didn't mean he wasn't there somewhere, lurking, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.
Hatter had no doubt in his mind that March was ready and willing to do just that and he cursed under his breath again. How in the world was he supposed to know a simple kidnapping case could turn into something like this?
He thought he heard something then, a crackle on a sheet of ice, and Hatter returned his attention to the matter at hand. A quick look around revealed that no one else was in sight and, while that didn't make him feel any less on edge, he dared a glance down at his feet. The accumulated snow was coming up halfway to his ankle, stray clumps and flakes clinging to his pants. Past that point on the snow-covered sidewalk there was nothing; behind him, an obvious trail led right to the doorway where he was currently huddled inside.
The abandoned shop promised him warmth and a quiet place to think through the mess he suddenly found himself in the middle of but what good would it be if it turned out to be just the place they waited in for Mad March to find them? No, there had to be another way.
Using skills he hadn't had to rely on in, oh, so many years, Hatter took deliberate steps to the end of that same block, made a sharp right turn that extended six steps past the corner and then, just as carefully, backtracked, turned left and went even further down. Working quickly and in that same sneaky way Hatter laid multiple false trails. It wouldn't be enough to throw March off his scent but, if he was lucky, it might just buy him enough time to figure out what the hell he was going to do next.
He had the sinking suspicion he already knew what he might have to do—he just didn't like it. Alice probably wouldn't either, but she did promise him a favor. Hatter had to wonder if she would pay up even if he failed to hold up his end of the bargain…
Heavy in thought, and admittedly worried that Mad March could still sneak up on him at any moment—and him leaving his lucky pistol Underground with Dodo, too—Hatter made his way back to the shop he left Alice at, going as quick as he could without making it look like he had gone back at all.
It was an old secondhand book store with boarded up windows and a weathered sign that announced it was once called: LC Books, established 1865. It looked it, too. It was drab and dingy to begin with, from both neglect and time; the gaudy trinkets in the pawn shop and the neon lights from the strip club next door only made it look even worse.
Both of the other two businesses were presently closed but Hatter doubted it was because of the snow. Wonderland only really came to life at night and, once the sun went down, the nightlife would start up. But not the book store. It had been abandoned when the pleasure-seeking Red Hearts cornered this part of the district, pushing the White Diamonds back until all they owned was the Chessboard—and even the Queen had infected that part of Wonderland in the last few months.
The door hadn't been locked. There was no need for it to be. To be caught with a book these days meant a quick trip to the back rooms of the Looking Glass if the Hearts found out. When the Queen said knowledge was banned, that only dark pleasures and sin and instant gratification would be the wonders in her Wonderland, she wasn't kidding. Hatter had used the dusty old shop once or twice as a cover or a hide-out when one of his cases went bad and from the musty smell that greeted him, it was easy to see he was the only one to ever set foot inside.
And this, he decided as he eased the door shut behind him, this was as bad as it could ever get…
Or so he thought—until he slipped further inside and came face to face with a grim, glaring Alice.
She had kept the overcoat on and, no surprise, there was no heat on; still, it was much warmer and Hatter felt grateful for the chance to thaw again. Her arms were crossed warningly over her chest and she blocked him from moving any further in, pointedly refusing to allow him to dodge her or her questions.
Hatter closed his eyes for a moment. Somehow, someway, he should've been expecting this.
"Who was that?" she demanded, and he opened his eyes back up.
"Hold on a second," he answered quite calmly, considering, as he tried to squeeze past her. Having been in here plenty times before, Hatter knew that it wasn't only a bookshop—it was once a thriving, cozy café. Though it had been years since any customers were served at LC's, beyond the narrow rows of books so like the stacks in the Great Library there was a table and a chair that was calling his name.
The café part of LC's Books had never been large, just a handful of round tables and wooden chairs where one-time patrons could sip their drinks and read in peace. Though years of disuse made them dusty and the strength of the wood supporting him was questionable, Hatter wasted no time sinking into the hard chair of the table closest to him.
If they were going to have this conversation—and the look on her face as Alice clomped after him told him that they would—Hatter at least wanted to be comfortable. He leaned back on his good side and removed his trusty hat, letting it settle on the table in a cloud of dust. Running his chilled hands through his hat-flattened hair, he looked up and over at Alice expectantly.
She was more than happy to oblige. "Who was that?" she asked again.
"I think…" he said, because he could maybe fool them both with think, "I think it was my old partner."
"Partner? You mean, he was a detective too?"
"No." His answer was short and he found himself unwilling to understand why her simple question bothered him so much.
"Then who was he?" she persisted.
"Look, Alice, I can't really explain." Hatter ran one of his fingers against the brim of his hat, watching the other trace a circle in the dust. The thing was this: he had his body armor but no gun to defend himself, and Alice was an open target in that tiny blue dress of hers. He sure didn't feel comfortable sitting still when he knew March was after him. If he wanted to get out of this with his head, he needed to stay one step ahead—at least until he could figure out where he'd gone wrong. Starting to stand, he said, "Maybe it would be a better idea if we left. He could be outside right now."
"I'm not going anywhere until you do."
Of course not.
He bit back a groan as he sank back into his seat. Looking through the closest row, he directed a fleeting stare through the cracks of the boarded up window. If Mad March was already coming after him, they were in more trouble than he thought. Still, maybe she was right. Maybe it was the smartest move to stay right where they were, at least until night fell. It would be much easier to get through Wonderland under the cover of neon lights and the clangs from the slot machines. Besides, March would never think he'd do something as stupid as sit tight when a threat was presenting itself.
But, if he was going to have to hide out with her until it was safe—especially since returning to his office was no longer as option—he knew he would also have to tell her what he didn't really care to. He had a strong hunch she wasn't going to let him rest until he did.
Sighing, Hatter decided to just come out with it: "I wasn't always a detective, all right? And… when I wasn't… that guy was my partner."
"Yeah. Trust me, you don't wanna work with that guy, either. He's… he's crazy," Hatter explained. "The last thing we want is him on our tail."
Alice shook her head stubbornly. "Why is he coming after us?"
Hatter could see that she wasn't going to let this go. She needed to, she needed to just accept that that was how things were in Wonderland; only then did she have a chance to get back out again. If she didn't start understanding what a threat he was, there was a good chance March was going to find them and bring her to the Queen before Hatter could stop him. And Hatter wasn't sure he could stop him anymore.
"He was my partner, right? For years, it was Hatter and March. We were a team… we were the best thieves in Wonderland," Hatter admitted, "and then he died."
"Died?" Alice looked horrified. "Then what was—"
"You don't understand. He's not a zombie, walking around feastin' on brains, Alice. It's just that one day he vanished, gone without a trace. I looked for him for months but I was a thief not a detective. I couldn't find him and then… then he found me. But that man out there isn't my partner, not anymore. He's mad and Mad March is vicious. Brutal. I never found out what they did to him but I know he got trapped inside the Looking Glass himself once. He got out and now he'll answer to no one but the Queen."
Alice scowled at the mention of the Queen. "Queen? What queen? The one my ring belonged to? Who is she?"
"The Queen of the Hearts," Hatter said warily. He didn't understand what was going on. He was the detective—he was the one who was supposed to be asking questions. When did everything change?
When Mad March started snooping around the back of his office, that's when. Or maybe when Dodo actually shot him in the chest. And then there was always Alice…
She scoffed, bringing Hatter back to earth. "There's no queen."
"'Course there is. Oh, she's not real royalty or anything but I wouldn't tell her that. She's head of the Hearts gang and the way her law is obeyed, you wouldn't think of her as anything less than Queen."
"And your, um, your old partner works for her?"
"Yes." There was no hiding the bitterness in his tone. He just couldn't be bothered to.
Alice sounded just as accusing when she asked, "Then who do you work for?"
"I work for me."
The pause that followed, heavy and tense and full of meaning, it told Alice that this conversation was suddenly over. Hatter had said everything he would on the matter, and probably more than he ought to have. She knew how to pick her battles and when enough was enough. With a short nod and a small frown, Alice dropped it.
Hatter couldn't deny—or even comprehend—the rush of relief he felt. It had been harder than he expected to relive the past, especially when there was a good chance his past could easily be part of his future. The last time March had cause to come after him he'd only just managed to escape and that was for old debts. He could only imagine what the psycho would have in store if his orders came from the Queen herself.
So, glad the conversation was done and over with, he cleared his throat and gestured at the seat opposite of him. "It'll be dark soon, and then we can go. Might as well take a load off 'til then."
She didn't move. "Why the dark?" Alice asked suspiciously.
"You've never been to Wonderland, you've never seen the city at night. Trust me, if March is out there, even he'll have a hard time picking us out of the crowd."
Hatter saw the way Alice glanced down at the maroon overcoat, the curious way she picked at her sleeve, and he laughed. "I'm tellin' you, Alice, you'll fit in fine."
"He was wearing a suit," she reminded him.
"Well, that's because he's an assassin, isn't it?"
Alice's head shot up. Without her hairpin to keep the strands in place, her hair fell forward but not enough to hide the way her big blue eyes went even wider. "A what?"
"An assassin," Hatter repeated, wondering why he'd opened his mouth in the first place before deciding that it would be for the best at any rate. It wasn't doing either of them any good, trying to pretend Wonderland wasn't as dangerous as it was. "March always had a nose for blood."
Beneath the curtain of her dark hair, Alice paled but she swallowed and regained her composure. When she told him that she was going to look around, maybe see what there was to find in the café, her voice barely cracked.
He could understand why she needed some space. It was hard to believe they'd only just met that afternoon, with her coming to him for help in finding her missing boyfriend, especially after all that had happened to the pair of them, and all that promised to happen. Jack What's-his-face was basically forgotten all because the discovery that the ring Alice wore so brazenly was in actuality the Queen's was so much more pressing of a concern. The Queen, the ring and the sudden appearance of Mad March, that is.
See, now, ever since March disappeared and came back… different Hatter had worked on his own. Yeah, he relied on informants and Dormie was as good a secretary as you could get in Wonderland, but it was strange being out on the street with someone else. Add that to the fact that Alice was a client—an oyster client—and it was no wonder this whole thing left him unsettled. Oh, what he wouldn't give or what favors he wouldn't grant to be sitting back in his office, a steaming cup of oolong tea perched invitingly before him.
And then, as if reading his mind, Alice reappeared. He'd let her go off before, flitting through the rows and stacks of books, barely paying any attention to her as he devoted the time to thinking and, perhaps, talking himself out of leaving. He didn't know how long she'd wandered around for, snooping in the kitchen or scoping out the backroom, but when she finally came back, she didn't come back empty handed.
"What's this?" Hatter asked, nodding at the chipped cup Alice held in her hands.
"I found a couple of tea bags in the kitchen," she explained, "and when I checked the faucet, the water was never shut off, so I thought…" Alice shrugged, very nearly sploshing some of the amber-colored liquid on her sleeve. "I already had some. It's not that bad."
It was a peace offering, a gesture of friendship and an apology for roping him into this mess. Hatter reached for it gratefully. "Thanks, Alice."
She handed the cup over almost hesitantly. "It's not hot or anything," she said, almost daring him to refuse, "and it didn't steep that well, but it's wet. Maybe you could do with some sort of a pick-me-up."
"It's perfect," he assured her, chancing a sip. She was right. The tea was cooler than lukewarm should be and there was no sugar, no lemon, no cream even, but he drank it anyway.
Alice awarded him a small, tentative smile and, at last, took the seat he offered her earlier.
-- stress, 05.06.10