© Patrick Whittaker 1986
The right of Patrick Whittaker to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988
More fom Patrick Whittaker (stories, novels, films etc):-www.coldfusion.freewebtools.com
A SILENT THUNDER PUBLICATION
1. At the Palace of Hearts
A sad fact: without his make-up the Knave of Hearts looked ordinary. Not even his sequined pyjama top and matching fishnet stockings could provide enough pizazz to lift his appearance above the mundane.
To be honest, he never looked his best first thing in the morning, but on this occasion his glamour level was at an all-time low.
The March Hare handed him a bathrobe. Accepting it with a grunt of thanks, the Knave carried it over to the large wall mirror which dominated one corner of his bedroom and stood in awe of his own reflection. It never ceased to amaze him that such a slight figure could survive life’s tribulations relatively unscathed. He searched his eyes for some clue to his continued existence, some hint of hidden strength. As always, it eluded him.
He flicked impulsively at his kiss curl. Dandruff erupted and fell like a flock of disgraced angels. He farted. ‘Behold the Wind God,’ he muttered. ‘Was ever a man so flatulent as I?’
The March Hare thought probably not, but refrained from saying so. Having been a valet all his adult life, he knew when to leave a question unanswered.
Lifting the lid off the breakfast trolley, he poured a cup of industrial strength coffee.
The Knave knocked it back in one.
His valet shuddered. ‘Your taste buds - ’
‘Are entirely my own affair. Don’t nag. I hate it when you nag.’ The Knave spoke in rich, saccharine tones which disguised his original accent - pure Black Marsh with its hard vowels and soft consonants. His acquired voice had served him well during the years he had lived and worked at the Palace of Hearts. It had protected him from the palace bullies - aristocrats who would think nothing of beating any other man - or woman - to a pulp.
He was effeminate. Almost everyone who knew him called him a poof. There was nothing to be gained from inflicting pain on such a person - no proof of virility, no evidence of manliness.
The Knave’s one official duty was to misbehave. His contract bound him to three practical jokes a week and as much wicked banter as the situation demanded. It was a job he did well and with flair. But he had to keep his eye on the thin line between witty repartee and coarse ridicule, satire and insult. It was a hard balance to achieve and the Knave had chosen his tools with care.
Beneath the fishnet stockings and silk gym slip which had become his trademark, lay a shrewd mind that knew few men would take offence at remarks made by someone who was wetter than an old maid’s hanky. Or appeared to be.
The Knave threw his cup on the bed and farted again. ‘What’s that noise?’
‘You,’ said the March Hare. ‘You botty-burped.’
‘I meant the noise outside. It sounds like a plebs’ convention.’
The March Hare went to the window, pulled aside the curtains. Three storeys below, a group of workmen in the palace gardens argued over what colour to paint the rose bushes.
It was the height of summer and the gardens were a model of controlled exuberance. Hedgerows cut across each other with geometric precision, their tops trimmed as severely as an army crew-cut. The lawns were held within strict boundaries by cobbled pathways and flamboyant flower beds; here and there, fountains captured rainbows in plumes of sparkling water.
‘They’re preparing the croquet lawn,’ said the March Hare. ‘Today sees the start of the Queen’s croquet tournament,’
‘Oh dear. How tedious. I shall spend the day at the races. There’s a filly I rather fancy for the 3.15.’
‘Would you like sandwiches made up?’
‘I think not. Champagne and chocolate should do it.’
‘Milk or plain?’
‘My dear March Hare, utter the word plain in front of me again, and I shall have you made into a pyjama case. I want my chocolate pink and steeped in cherry brandy. I want it encrusted with sherbet and laid upon a bed of Turkish delight. I want it oozing calories and potential heart disease. Just ask the Chef for my Race Day Special. He’ll know what you mean.’
Slipping on his bathrobe, the Knave stepped over to the breakfast trolley and examined its contents. Toast, grapefruit and marmalade. ‘You don’t honestly expect me to consume this crap, do you? Remove it and fetch me something less healthy. A bowl of liquorice perhaps. And see to it that my palate is never again threatened with such insipid blandness.’
At that moment, there was a knock on the door, as sharp and certain as a full stop. Before either of them could ask who it was, the door opened and a Penguin walked in. Despite the clemency of the weather, he wore a raincoat, buttoned from top to bottom and held in check by a leather belt. The formality of his manner made the jaunty angle of his trilby seem contrived.
He smelt of trouble.
‘Excuse me,’ said the March Hare, adopting a tone imbued with quiet indignation. ‘But you can’t come waltzing in here like that. This is a private apartment. The public aren’t allowed in this part of the palace.’
Ignoring this rebuke, the Penguin went straight to the window. He appeared to be studying the curtains, but occasionally his eyes would seek his reflection in the glass. His posture suggested quiet menace. He frowned constantly as if the whole world met with his disapproval. At last he spoke. ‘Which of you is the Knave of Hearts?’
‘I would have thought that was obvious,’ said the March Hare.
‘Obvious?’ The Penguin turned, placed his hands behind his back. ‘In my game, you can never say that anything is obvious. All I know for sure is that I’m in a boudoir being addressed by a giant bunny rabbit while some gormless poof in fishnet stockings looks on.’
‘I’m not a bunny rabbit,’ said the March Hare.
‘And I’m not a poof,’ said the Knave of Hearts.
‘If you’re not a poof,’ said the Penguin, ‘I’m not a penguin.’
‘Never mind him,’ said the March Hare. ‘I object most strongly to being called a bunny rabbit.’
The Penguin shrugged. He glanced briefly in the direction of the window then looked directly at the March Hare. ‘They say you’re mad.’
‘Right now I’m livid.’
‘Then go home. You’re no longer needed here.’
‘Now hang on,’ said the Knave whose cheeks were markedly less pallid than they had been. ‘You can’t go around dismissing other people’s manservants as if they were your own.’
‘Yes I can.’
‘If you don’t leave at once, I shall call the police.’
‘I am the police.’
The Knave stepped backwards, stepped forwards, stepped back again. He puffed out his cheeks. ‘What?’
‘Do you need a diagram? It’s quite simple actually. I am a policeman. Your furry friend here is the March Hare. And you are the Knave of Hearts. Anything else confusing you?’
‘Everything,’ said the Knave. ‘If you’re a policeman, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you out chasing criminals?’
‘I am. Which leads me to my next point. You’re under arrest.’
‘I can’t be.’
‘You can! And I suggest you shut up; every time you open your gob, you say something stupid.’
The March Hare decided he had better take a hand. ‘You cannot arrest my employer,’ he announced in his most authoritative voice. ‘He is innocent.’
‘He’s wearing stockings,’ said the Penguin. ‘What’s so innocent about that?’
‘You still can’t arrest him.’
‘Want to bet?’ The Penguin produced a piece of paper bearing the State Emblem and lots of small letters.
He waved it in the March Hare’s face. ‘This is what we in law enforcement call an arrest warrant. If you’d care to examine the bottom right hand corner you will observe that it has been signed by none other than the President himself.
The Knave struck a defiant posture. ‘I’m going to call my lawyer.’
‘You can’t. He’s in prison. We arrested him for sheep-rustling and crimes against humanity.’
‘At least read me my rights.’
‘As of midnight just gone, you don’t have any.’
‘I am a citizen of Hearts and a true and loyal subject. Of course I have rights.’
‘You seem to have forgotten there’s a war on.’
It was true. The war against Spades held little interest for the Knave who preferred to pretend that no such conflict existed. Although tales of bloodshed and atrocity were common currency amongst the palace staff, they played no part in his thoughts. If a battalion died, it died. If a village was razed - so what? Alongside pink chocolate and champagne, senseless slaughter paled into insignificance.
War, for the Knave, was something that happened to someone else.
‘What,’ he demanded to know, ‘has the sodding war got to do with my rights?’
The Penguin looked pained. ‘Am I to take it then that you’ve not heard? That despite living in the lap of government, you are blissfully unaware of the State of Emergency that now exists? Are you that out of touch?’
‘My fault,’ said the March Hare. ‘I hadn’t gotten around to telling him. I thought it would be best to wait until after breakfast.’
‘I see,’ said the Knave. ‘Perhaps you’d care to enlighten me now? Just what is this State of Emergency?’
‘It means martial law,’ said the March Hare. ‘The army’s taken over.’
‘In other words,’ said the Penguin, ‘the army and police are free to do whatever they damn well like. Which means you can kiss your so-called rights on the buttocks and wish them a fond farewell.’
The Knave pondered the pattern on the carpet. Even before getting out of bed, he’d somehow known that today was not going to be his best ever. But he had not expected this.
He cleared his throat. ‘May I inquire as to what I am accused of?’
The Penguin glanced at the warrant. ‘According to this, you’ve been charged under section IV, paragraph V of the Official Secrets Act.’
‘The Official Secrets Act? I’ve never heard of it.’
‘That’s because it’s an official secret.’ The Penguin looked pleased with himself. He thrust the paper back into his pocket then opened the door. Just as it looked as if he might be leaving, he cried, ‘Constable!’, and a Badger appeared.
‘Reporting for duty, sir!’ said the Badger, saluting smartly. He wore the same coat and hat as the Penguin but lacked his style. Beneath heavy brows, his beady little eyes moved constantly.
‘Permission to beat up the suspect, sir?’
‘Permission denied. Doing people over in public is no longer police procedure. That’s what we have cells for.’
‘But I’m gasping for violence. You know what I’m like if I go without for more than a couple of hours.’
‘You should have had some before we came out. What happened to that lawyer you were questioning?’
‘He died. I didn’t even get the chance to pull out his finger nails. One good poke with a hot iron and he has a heart attack! It just isn’t fair.’
‘That wouldn’t happen to be my lawyer?’ said the Knave of Hearts. ‘Would it?’
The question went unanswered.
‘What about him then?’ said the Badger, pointing at the March Hare. ‘If I were to slit his throat before he could scream, nobody would ever know. I’ve always wanted a lucky rabbit’s foot.’
The Penguin shook his head. ‘He’s a hare.’
‘He’s a protected species.’
‘But Martial Law - ’
‘Has nothing to do with it. He’s still protected.’
The Badger looked peeved. ‘Sometimes this job’s no fun at all. It’s not even as if we’re well-paid. I tell you, if it wasn’t for protection money, I’d never be able to make ends meet.’
‘Just handcuff the suspect, Constable. We’ve a busy day ahead us and I’d like to get on.’
The Knave of Hearts straightened the seams of his stockings before allowing the Badger to cuff his hands. ‘Ormus, he said, turning to the March Hare with a sad smile. ‘Go see Doctor Ormus. Maybe he can sort this out for me.’
The March Hare watched helplessly as the two secret policemen led his employer away.
The whole affair smacked of something sinister - something which was only just beginning to build its momentum. There was no doubt that other arrests would follow. Maybe he himself would be next.
He closed the door and helped himself to a slice of toast. It tasted stale.
2. A Mad Tea Party
On his way to Castle Ormus, the March Hare took a detour to breakfast with his old friend, the Mad Hatter. It was the final day of the Hatter’s tea party and he felt he ought to put in an appearance - for old times’ sake if nothing else.
The party was being held in the spacious garden that swept from the Hatter’s quaint little cottage down to a pond graced with purple and blue lilies. Because it was the height of summer and the skies this year had remained exceptionally clear, the table was set beneath the protective branches of a large oak.
When the March Hare arrived, the only guest still in attendance was the Dormouse; he was fast asleep with his right cheek resting against a mound of jelly. The March Hare sat next to him and waited to be noticed by his host.
Three cups of tea stood on the table in front of the Mad Hatter. He frowned at them with an intensity that bordered on psychotic. With careful sips, he tasted each in turn.
Dressed in top hat and tails, he would have looked elegant but for the obvious fact that his outfit was long overdue for a visit to the cleaners. A large blob of marmalade had conquered most of his left elbow. His cuffs were frayed. There was jam on both his sleeves and what might have been gravy on his lapels.
‘Strange,’ muttered the Mad Hatter, regarding the three cups with graphic distaste. ‘Really bloody strange.’
‘What is?’ ventured the March Hare.
‘This tea,’ said the Hatter without looking up. ‘Quite unlike any tea I’ve ever encountered before. In fact, I’m not at all convinced that it really is tea. And that is plain bloody weird. It was definitely tea when I prepared it this morning.’
‘It looks like tea to me.’
‘Undoubtedly. To a certain extent it even tastes like tea. And yet it appears to have undergone some strange transformation. If I didn’t know better, I would say that this was something closely akin to ice cream.’
‘You mean it’s cold?’
The Hatter snapped his fingers. ‘That’s it! What we have here, dear boy, is cold tea. Did you ever hear of such a thing?’
‘Elementary physics. Hot tea cools down to the ambient temperature of its environment. Clever people like scientists call it entropy.’
‘Well, I call it disgraceful. I paid good money for what I thought was tea and it turns out to be entropy - and not even good entropy at that! You wait till I get my hands on that grocer.
‘You can’t blame your grocer. Entropy is a Law of Nature.’
‘Oh is it? Laws like that have no right existing. It’s a waste of milk and sugar.’
‘Sugar,’ said the Dormouse, stirring slightly. ‘Sugar and spice and body lice...’
The Hatter hit the sleeping rodent with a tea spoon then turned his attention back to the three cups of offending liquid. He prodded the first with his finger and ran a thoughtful hand across his chin. How could the Universe allow good tea to degrade into something so dreadful? And to think there were still people who were convinced the world was created by a benign entity!
Shaking his head ruefully, the Hatter swept his arm across the table, sending all three cups tumbling onto the lawn. ‘There! That’s the way to deal with entropy.’
‘We have no more tea then?’ The March Hare could barely conceal his disappointment as he looked around the table, a scale model of some alien war zone. Fragments of china lay half-buried beneath bread crumbs and old tea leaves. A reservoir of sour milk with banks of ruined fairy cake provided a backdrop to a panorama of fruit peel. In the middle of No-Man’s Land, an ant patrol negotiated a treacle slough.
‘Fresh out of tea,’ said the Mad Hatter, who was beginning to wonder if there wasn’t a wicked witch somewhere who spent her time magically transforming tea into entropy. ‘We’ll have to wait until the delivery man arrives. In the meantime, I’m sure I can find you some cake.’
‘I’m not in a cake mood.’
‘Oh come, come. Cake is the opinion of the people.’
‘Surely you mean opium?’
‘Not at all. Opium is something about which no two people have ever agreed, which is why nobody ever talks about a consensus of opium. Opinions, however, do occasionally match. Which is just as well otherwise democracy would never work.’
‘It doesn’t,’ said the March Hare. ‘At least not any more.’
‘Any more than what?’
‘Any more than it used to.’
‘But I’m sure it did work. I distinctly remember voting for the Panda.’
The March Hare was dismayed. ‘You voted for that tyrant? That bloodsucking vegetarian fur-ball?’
‘Me and three and a half million other people.’
‘That wasn’t a very good idea, was it?’
‘No use getting cross at me,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘I’m mad. Plenty of sane people voted for him. It’s them you ought to be having a go at.’
Feeling his anger rise, the March Hare bit his lip and hoped that a few seconds of silence would be enough to kill the conversation. He had still not come to terms with the arrest of his employer, and right now he was liable to say something that he would regret for a very long time. Best to let the matter drop.
The sound of urgent footsteps broke into the awkwardness that sat between the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. They both turned to be greeted by the sight of the White Rabbit sprinting across the lawn. He was dressed in a formal suit that may have been a distant cousin of the one loosely adorning the Mad Hatter.
As he ran, the White Rabbit slapped a pocket watch against his forehead. ‘Foreign rubbish!’ he cried. ‘Bloody digital rubbish. I never had this problem with my old timepiece. Handmade it was. Didn’t lose a second in all the time I had it.’
The Hare and the Hatter watched wordlessly as this fluffy apparition sped by and disappeared through a gap in the hedge without so much as a hello or a by your leave.
‘The trouble with you talkies,’ said the Mad Hatter after a while, ‘is that you tend to take life too seriously.’
‘The trouble with us what?’
‘Talkies. Surely you’ve heard that term before?’
‘No, I haven’t. But I guess it’s an improvement on stuffed toys.’
‘Some of my best friends are stuffed toys.’
‘They’re not stuffed,’ said the March Hare. ‘They’re inflatable.’
‘And I think it’s very sad they way you treat them as if they were real.’
‘Why shouldn’t I? I treat you as real.’
‘But I am real.’
‘How do you know? Who’s to say what is and isn’t real? Could all that we know - or think we know - be no more than a dream, or a dream within a dream?’
‘I take it you’re referring to the Creed of the Red King?’
‘Of course. You must be aware of my attachment to the Creed.’
‘It sometimes seems to be all you ever talk about.’
‘It’s very important to me. Have you ever been to Looking Glass Land?’
‘No. With the exception of the Albatross, no talking animal is allowed to leave the kingdom. We’re all wards of the King and he won’t let us travel. Thinks once we cross the border, we’ll be shot, stuffed and mounted. He’s probably right too.’
‘A shame. Looking Glass Land is a beautiful country, full of many wonders.’ A look of nostalgia crept across the Hatter’s face. It conveyed a sense of something lost. ‘In my youth, I traveled the whole of the North Continent, visiting not only Clubs and Diamonds, but also a lot of countries most people around here don’t seem to have heard of. I had adventures you would not believe, and I met many wonderful people.
‘But my favourite place of all was Looking Glass Land. It was there that I first heard of the Creed of the Red King. Fascinating stuff. I spent two years in a monastery studying ancient writings on the subject. That’s where I invented rock’n’roll.’
‘You invented rock’n’roll?’
‘Sure. I just took anger and angst and mixed in some blues. Then I added energy and optimism. An old monk lent me his electric guitar and I would play it for hours while contemplating the mysteries of the world. Basically rock’n’roll is a very spiritual thing, a reflection of inner space.’
‘I’d never thought of it that way before.’
The Hatter drummed his fingers on the table as if to tap out the beat of some almost-forgotten tune. Suddenly he stopped and pointed to a figure running in the footsteps of the White Rabbit. ‘Now what,’ he demanded, ‘is that?’
The March Hare looked up. ‘It’s a little girl. She must be lost or something.’
‘Well, get her off my lawn. Little girls are all well and fine but I won’t stand for them trampling on my grass.’
The girl looked as if the past few weeks of summer had passed her by. Her face was pale; her arms were a network of highly visible veins and arteries. From the style of her frock, she was either foreign or lumbered with a mother woefully out of touch with the latest fashions.
Without asking if she might, the little girl came to the table and sat down opposite the March Hare. If she had been chasing the White Rabbit, the matter must have suddenly lost its urgency. Perhaps it was forgotten entirely.
‘Good day,’ she said, panting loudly and speaking in an odd accent. ‘My name is Alice and I’m very pleased to meet you all.’
‘Sod off,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘There’s no room for you here.’
‘Besides which,’ said the March Hare, ‘you’re ugly.’
Alice sniffed haughtily. ‘There’s plenty of room. And only a very stupid person would consider me to be ugly. I’m actually quite pretty in an unorthodox sort of way.’
‘Well, have some wine then,’ said the Hatter who thought it might be fun to get the girl drunk. ‘As much as you like.’
‘There isn’t any wine,’ replied the girl. ‘And I’ve just had some strange mushrooms that probably don’t mix with alcohol.’
‘Mushrooms, you say? You ought to be careful what you eat, my dear. Some of the fungi around here are even more potent than LSD. Children your age should stick to hashish or sniffing glue.’
‘I hope we aren’t going to get involved in a discussion on drug abuse,’ said Alice. ‘I find the subject somewhat boring. Besides, it’s not polite to talk about such things at a meal table.’
‘And it’s not polite to sit down without being asked,’ countered the Mad Hatter.
‘I didn’t know it was your table. And anyway, it’s laid out for a good deal more than three.’
The Hatter decided to try a different tack. ‘I’ll let you stay if you can answer my riddle.’
‘That should be no problem. I’m by far the cleverest girl I know. Mater says I’m something of a genius.’
‘Good. Then try this for size: why is a writing desk like a raven?’
‘A raven idiot?’
‘A raven bird.’
‘Is this a trick question?’
‘No. But it has a trick answer.’
‘Do you mind if I think about it for a while?’
‘You have two minutes,’ said the Hatter. He picked up one of his many tea pots and aimed its spout at a dirty cup. ‘Would you care for a cup of entropy?’
‘That depends,’ said Alice. ‘Is it Indian entropy or Chinese?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Not really. I don’t want it anyway. Too much entropy is bad for you.’
‘Then perhaps I could tempt you with a tea bag?’
‘No thank you.’
‘It’s a very special tea bag.’
‘A tea bag is a tea bag,’ insisted Alice, despite having no idea what a tea bag might be. ‘Once you’ve seen one tea bag, you’ve seen them all.’
‘Not one like this,’ said the Hatter, pulling a silver case from his pocket. He opened it to reveal a tea bag set upon a silk cushion. ‘There are only five of these in existence and they all belong to me.’
Alice sniffed. She was not impressed. ‘Do you by chance have any coffee?’
‘Not one bean of it. Not even the merest whisper of a hint of a speck of it. No man in history has ever been more devoid of coffee than the man you see before you. In fact, it’s fair to say that you have entered a coffee-free environment.’
‘In that case, I will have your tea bag.’ Alice took the bag and held it in her hand. ‘What should I do with it? Put it in water?’
‘Oh deary me, no. One does not add water to a tea bag of such calibre as this.’
‘Then how does one drink it?’
‘One pulls the string. How else?’
‘A bit harder. You have to be firm with these things.’
Alice tugged and tugged again. The tea bag spoke. ‘This tea bag,’ it said, ‘will self-destruct in five seconds...’
With a squeal, Alice threw the tea bag away. It hit the oak and fell straight onto the table.
‘Only kidding,’ it spluttered, its voice bubbling with merriment. ‘You think I’m suicidal or what?’
The tea bag exploded.
‘Shit,’ said Alice, wiping tea leaves from the side of her face. ‘You could have killed me.’
‘Let that be a lesson to you,’ said the Mad Hatter with a chuckle. ‘Never accept a tea bag from a stranger.’
‘Tea kills,’ muttered the Dormouse. ‘But carrots care.’
‘Shut up,’ said Alice, slapping the slumbering rodent on his head. ‘Or I’ll set my cat on you.’
‘Time’s up,’ said the Hatter. ‘I insist you answer my riddle straight away.’
‘I can’t,’ said Alice. ‘It’s a stupid riddle.’
‘It is not.’
‘In that case, I shan’t tell you the answer.’
‘Because you don’t have the answer.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Fish. That’s the answer.’
‘Some people do it for sport. Some people do it for a living.’
‘I meant, why is fish the answer?’
‘Because it’s a joke.’
Alice frowned. ‘I don’t get it.’
‘That’s all right. Neither do I.’
‘What’s the point of telling a joke you don’t understand?’
‘I give up. What is the point of telling a joke you don’t understand?’
‘There isn’t one.’
‘That,’ said the March Hare, ‘is the worst joke I’ve ever heard.’
‘It wasn’t meant to be a joke.’
‘Oh. It was an unjoke then?’
‘Of course it was an unjoke!’
‘Then why did it have a punch line? Unjokes aren’t meant to have punch lines. It’s against the rules of grammar.’
‘Oh shut up!’ snapped Alice. ‘You two are mad!’
‘And you’re ugly,’ said the Hatter. ‘But at least in the morning we’ll still be mad.’
‘More tea?’ said the March Hare.
‘I’d rather not,’ said Alice, her anger turning to quiet resignation.
‘How about a poem then?’ suggested the Mad Hatter. ‘With your kind permission, I would be delighted to recite for you the very verse for which I gained first prize in last year’s Royal Poetry Competition.’
Alice was impressed. ‘Don’t tell me you’re a poet!’
‘If you insist. But I am.’
‘Oh do recite your poem for me. I would so love to hear it.’
‘Very well then. It goes like this:
‘Twinkle, twinkle Cadillac!
‘What has made your piston crack?
‘Along the motorway you cruise,
‘Like an ugly, metal bruise.
‘Twinkle, twinkle Cadillac,
‘What has made your piston crack?’
The March Hare was profoundly moved. To him the motor car symbolized all that was transient in the world; to hear it compared to blemish skin was to be witness to a profound revelation, a marriage between the Material and the Spiritual.
‘My heart is like a sports car!’ he declared, slamming his paw on the table. A startled tea cup took to the air only to be caught up in the fact that it was profoundly unaerodynamic. It crashed into an empty jug and bled cold tea.
‘What,’ asked Alice, ‘is a sports car? Or a Cadillac or a motorway for that matter?’
The Hatter smiled a fatherly smile at her. ‘That was nicely put, my dear. Though you have the face of a warthog and the eyes of a myopic piglet, you undoubtedly have the heart of a poet.’
‘That’s no answer.’
‘So young, so young! And oh so impetuous. In time, little girl, you will learn that answers are unimportant. It is enough merely to understand the question and to know that a question has been asked. Can you not see this?’
‘My brain,’ said the March Hare, still in the heady embrace of inspiration, ‘is a motorbike gleaming crimson in a sunset that unites the sea with the sky.’
‘Shut up,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘Or I’ll tweak your nipples.’
The March Hare shut up.
‘By the way,’ said Alice. ‘Is this a birthday party?’
‘Not exactly,’ said the Mad Hatter.’
‘An anniversary party?’
‘As of today, yes. It’s been a year since this party began.’
‘You mean you’ve been partying for a whole year? How fab!’
‘Of course, it’s starting to wind down now, but at its peak I had over three hundred people and animals here. Even the Queen popped by.’
‘It’s a shame they didn’t all stay.’
‘Shame? Not really. The essence of a good party is that folks be allowed to come and go as they please. No man should be a prisoner to plum pudding, a slave to strawberry fool, a martyr to meringue.
‘Mind you, there’ve been times when I’ve noticed a distinct lack of atmosphere. But that only seems to happen when I’m on my own, so I guess I’ve got no-one to blame but myself. If it wasn’t for my old buddy the March Hare popping by now and then, I think I might have finished the party months ago. There’s nothing like a year long party for finding out who your true friends are.’
‘What about the Dormouse?’ asked Alice. ‘He looks to have been here for a long time.’
‘Oh, he doesn’t count,’ explained the Mad Hatter. ‘He just turned up one day, asked if I was interested in double glazing and then fell asleep.’
‘Have you tried waking him?’
‘Not terribly hard. He makes a good pillow.’
‘You stay here during the night?’
‘My dear, a good host never abandons his guests. That’s one of the first Laws of Etiquette.’
‘Etiquette?’ said Alice, looking around. ‘Is that where I am? Someone told me it was Wonderland.’
The March Hare checked his pocket watch. ‘In another two hours and forty minutes, the year will be up and it will be time to end the party.’
The Hatter was greatly saddened by this observation. It sat on his heart like a dazed bullfrog. ‘Just when things were beginning to liven up!’
Being unable to provide consolation, the March Hare offered food instead. ‘Have some trifle, old chap. That’s what you need - sherry and banana trifle.’
‘There isn’t any,’ said Alice.
‘That’s hardly the point,’ said the Mad Hatter. Three crooked lines formed chevrons on his brow; they pointed down to where his spirits lay. ‘You should always look on the bright side. Be an optimist.’
‘Like me,’ said the March Hare. ‘If I see a glass half-filled with water, I don’t say, "There’s a half-empty glass". I say, "If things get really bad, at least I can break the glass and slash my wrists". It makes all the difference.’
Before Alice could answer this point, the Mad Hatter pointed to a silver bowl filled with small, brightly-wrapped parcels. ‘Have a go at the lucky dip. Every one a winner.’
‘Thank you,’ said Alice, picking out a likely-looking package. Her eyes shone with excitement. She was in her element here - all girlish and awash with innocence and greed. The paper disintegrated beneath the onslaught of her nimble fingers. Finally, a blue capsule about the size of an aniseed ball sat in the palm of her hand.
‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘It’s not poisonous or hallucinogenic, is it?’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘You’re not supposed to eat it.’
‘Then what - ’
‘That, young lady, is the latest breakthrough in medical science.’
‘Not for very long, my dear. Can’t you feel something crawling up your legs?’
‘Well, you jolly well - .’ The Mad Hatter broke off in mid-phrase. A very peculiar look came over his face. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘It’s going the wrong way. Oooh.’ He sighed serenely. ‘Wonderful. The world’s first self-guided suppository.’
Alice was alarmed. ‘You’re a very strange person. You’ll be hearing from my mater about this!’
And with that, she got up and left.
‘What an ugly girl,’ said the March Hare. ‘What an ugly, ugly girl.’
3. Conversation with a Caterpillar
Thanking the Mad Hatter for his hospitality, the March Hare set off on his way once more. Although aware that the message he had been asked to deliver to Doctor Ormus was important, he could not bring himself to be spurred by any sense of urgency. He knew the Knave was doomed. It was not something he could deny either consciously or subconsciously.
The Secret Police always got their man. And when they did...
But why the Knave? What was the nature of his crime? Treason? Subversion? It had to be something serious for it to interest the Secret Police. But the Knave was a harmless fool who neither understood nor cared for politics. It just didn’t make sense.
And why had the Knave dispatched him to Doctor Ormus? Certainly the Doctor was a brilliant man, but his domain was science. What the Knave needed now was a good lawyer, not a cranky old scientist.
If the March Hare had not been so lost in thought, he might have turned his head and been treated to the sight of the Mad Hatter whispering furtively into the spout of a tea pot.
‘Number 12 calling Base. Do you copy?’
‘Base to Number 12,’ replied the tea pot’s hidden speaker. ‘We copy you all right. Where’s the arrow?’
‘The arrow has just left. It is flying in the desired direction. Nigel and out.’
‘That’s Roger, Number 12.’
‘Roger and out.’
‘Roger Andout? Never heard of him.’
A half mile beyond his own cottage with its fur roof and ear-shaped chimneys, the March Hare came to the Pleasure Garden, a small part of the Royal Estate set aside for the cultivation of exotic flora. Lulled by the warmth of the sun and the soothing caress of a hundred different odours, he stopped to admire the snapdragons. He recalled how, at the height of spring, their blooms had burned day and night, dancing red and yellow to lure curious insects to an incendiary death. Now only tiny sparks flickered between their petals, delicate reminders of a dormant majesty.
A nearby signed urged, ‘Please do not feed the flowers’; it was covered in poison ivy.
Beyond the sign stood a forest of giant fungi. The March Hare dawdled amongst the redcaps and toadstools, losing himself in shaded nooks. A nearby stream laughed itself silly through the living parasols before recklessly flinging itself over a grass verge into the calm comfort of an ornamental lake.
It was no surprise to the March Hare when he spotted the Caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, smoking hash from a brass hookah. He was seven feet of articulated splendour, from the bright amber of his face to the twin swirls of camouflage that met at the tip of his tail. As if to take refuge from his own brilliance, the caterpillar kept his head covered with a beret and looked out at the world through a pair of yellow sunglasses.
‘Morning,’ said the Caterpillar, as sanguine as ever. It seemed more a statement than a greeting. ‘What gives? I haven’t seen you around here for a long time.’
‘I was just passing through,’ said the March Hare. ‘I thought I’d stop by and say hello.’
The Caterpillar nodded sagely. ‘Been a rum sort of morning,’ he declared, by way of conversation. ‘There’s an indefinable something in the air which is just plain uncool. I am talking about some really bad karma.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean well. Always have done. But little girls freak me out.
‘I used to have this recurring dream when I was younger. I’d be the size of a normal caterpillar - just your typical pre-adolescent creepy-crawly - and there’d be this little girl who wasn’t so little to me. She’d have hands as big as cricket screens and teeth like bleached mainsails, and she’d pick me up from my mushroom and swallow me whole.’
The March Hare pulled a face. ‘That’s spooky. It reminds me of a nightmare I once had where I was being boiled alive in a stew, drowning in a maelstrom of gravy and lentils.’
The Caterpillar expelled twin plumes of marijuana smoke through his nostrils. ‘There was one here a while ago.’
‘One little girl. She said she was from some place called England. I guess that makes her an Eng.’
‘You must mean Alice. I think she’s lost or something.’
‘You’ve met her?’
‘Yes. At the Mad Hatter’s tea party.’
‘Did she mention anything about the Big Cheese?’
‘The Big what?’
‘The Big Cheese. I sent her to see him. He’s the only one who can help her now.’
The March Hare had no idea what the Caterpillar was on about. Probably some drug-induced fantasy. ‘I got the impression she was chasing after the White Rabbit.’
‘That would explain why she kept going on about the Great White Bunny. She was a strange one, you know. As barmy as an aardvark on acid. And she kept changing size. One minute she’d be knee high to a hemp plant, the next she was big enough to eclipse the sun.’
‘I expect she’s at that awkward age.’
‘She’s just plain crazy, if you ask me.’ The Caterpillar blew a smoke ring which rose up and settled around his antennae before dispersing in the still summer air. ‘Tell me, you ever hear of December?’
‘No. Where’s that?’
‘It’s nowhere. The little girl said it was a month.’
‘She also said there were months called January and August. Sometimes I envy the young. They’re the only ones who experience the world as it truly is, because they aren’t afraid to dream, to look beyond this pale facade we call reality.
‘But what freaks me out about that girl Alice is that she’s so obnoxious. I try to love everyone, but some people just weren’t made to be loved. Isn’t that sad?’
‘Not really,’ said the March Hare. ‘I think love’s kind of over-rated. I mean, it’s not much of a collector’s item, is it?’
‘Love,’ said the Caterpillar, ‘is the concept by which we measure our humanity. Without it, we might as well be rocks.’
And with that, the Caterpillar must have said all he had to say because he suddenly fell silent.
Standing on tiptoe, the March Hare peeked over the top of the mushroom and found him apparently fast asleep. The pale blue vapour which rolled from the Caterpillar’s hookah held a promise of release from cares and worries. As it faded into its own special oblivion, the March Hare felt as if he was watching a dream escape. It took an effort for him to turn away from the prospect of mild euphoria and temporary peace, and once he got going, he did not dare look back.
If he was unable to escape the feeling of being watched, it might have been because of the compound eyes, hidden behind dark lenses, which followed his progress through the Pleasure Garden.
Alone again, the Caterpillar whispered into the side of his hookah. ‘Number 33 calling Base. Number 33 calling Base. Are you receiving me?’
As if choking on its noxious contents, the hookah spluttered twice then whispered back. ‘Reading you loud and clear, Number 33. Go ahead, please.’
‘The arrow is still on course. Should hit the target within the next hour or so.’
‘Roger, Number 33. Thanks for your help. Over and out.’
‘Yeah,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘Really far out.’
At the end of Bluebell Lane, where it met Hangman’s Drive, the March Hare boarded the Enigma ferry and sat on a wooden bench at the front of the boat. The Tired River stretched before him like a lazy yawn, perfectly at peace with itself and the world in general. He trailed his paw over the side, hoping that some of the river’s contentment might rub off on him.
As the ferry set off, its only other passenger turned out to be the Grey Squirrel. He sat on the deck, looking at nothing in particular, a clutch of books brooding in his lap. His red and blue anorak clashed with the March Hare’s mood.
The two animals had never gotten along. Their opposing personalities had seen to that. The Grey Squirrel took life seriously and did not easily suffer the opinions of others. An intellectual, he resented his lowly position in life, and was convinced that had he been human he would have risen to great heights. He certainly would not have spent his adult life serving as a librarian.
The March Hare, on the other hand, enjoyed his job and gave little thought to promotion. He was also - he was the first to admit - a great lover of doing silly and trivial things.
The ferry passed Cobbler’s Wharf. Stooping willow trees did their best to conceal the barbed wire that lined the river bank, but there was no hiding the machine-gun turrets and the concrete monstrosity which they guarded. Four great searchlights rested on the Bunker’s roof, electric owls waiting for night to fall.
Signs were not needed to tell people to keep away. The towers and turrets spoke a language all their own.
‘A sad sight,’ said the Grey Squirrel. He had picked up his books and shuffled towards the March Hare. ‘They must have spent millions building that place.’
The March Hare nodded. When he spoke, it was not out of politeness. He wanted the Squirrel to know that he too was aware of the Presidential Compound’s obscene significance. ‘I remember the warehouse that used to stand there and the meadow behind it. That was the Knave’s favourite picnic spot.’
‘They reckon the President hasn’t left the Bunker in over a year. I sometimes suspect he’s not even alive any more.’
‘He still makes television broadcasts.’
‘They can be faked. Who’s to say they don’t use a stand-in?’
‘For a Panda?’
‘Maybe there’s more than one Panda. Maybe they’ve cloned him.’
‘Highly unlikely. Peregrine Smith was the only man who ever knew how to create clones, and he’s dead. Thank God.’
‘I’ve heard rumours that he’s still alive and working for the government.’
‘And you believe them? I doubt that even the Panda would throw in his lot with someone as evil as Smith.’
‘You don’t seem to realise how ruthless these people are. They want to take over the world.’
‘Our Constitution forbids occupation of foreign countries.’
‘Constitution, my arse. Whoever’s running things in that Bunker doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss for the Constitution. He’s out of control! Were you aware, for instance, that the military has embarked upon a secret program to exterminate every gerbil in existence? ‘
The March Hare felt himself mentally recoil from the Squirrel’s words. They struck too close to his own thoughts for comfort.
Was the Panda really capable of waging genocide against his own kind? It somehow rang true. What kind of a person was it who could keep himself locked up underground for months on end, never seeing sunlight, never breathing fresh, unprocessed air?
And this was the very person who had signed the Knave’s arrest warrant.
The Squirrel edged closer. ‘You’re on your way to Enigma, aren’t you?’
‘I would hardly be on the Enigma ferry if I weren’t.’
‘You’re looking for the Big Cheese.’
It was the second time he had heard that name that morning. Who - or what - was the Big Cheese? ‘Actually I’m going to see Doctor Ormus.’
‘So am I. He should be expecting us.’
‘Because he’d know by now about what’s happened to our respective bosses. Yours has been arrested and mine’s been murdered by one of the Panda’s Death Squads. He was found this morning with piano wire wrapped around his throat. The police have already said it was suicide, but it strikes me as absurd that anyone would - or even could - kill themselves that way.’
‘But why should the Panda want to knock off the Royal Librarian?’
‘That,’ said the Grey Squirrel, ‘is what I intend to find out.’
4. The Big Cheese
The music filtering into the Conference Room filled the Panda with a vague nostalgia for something he could not name. Resting his elbows on his desk and his head in his paws, he reflected on how different his life might have been had he been human. Instead of twelve feet of reinforced concrete, there would be a sky over his head and perhaps a wife at his side. And children. Things his Generals took for granted.
He doubted that he would have become President. Given a choice, he would have steered clear of politics and entered a more honourable - and less stressful - profession. It was not as if he even cared for the Party or its doctrines. They had asked him to stand as a bye-election candidate, hoping that his cuteness and apparent docility would win over at least the housewives. When he’d come through with a majority unheard of in recent times, it seemed only natural that he should set his sights on the party leadership and then the presidency.
It had been easy. Ridiculously so. No struggle. No starving in the wilderness. It seemed that in politics cuteness was the key.
So here he was, the youngest President in the entire history of Wonderland, a dictator who had come to power by virtue of two black eyes, a wet nose and a streak of ruthless cunning.
The mahogany desk which supported his elbows was littered with maps and documents, well thumbed legacies of his years at the top.
Just one match, he thought, a single flame and the will to use it and these papers become ashes. Then I can get up and walk away, disappear into obscurity, leaving behind only a smoke-filled room. I’ll tell my Generals and Party Big-Wigs that I’m going into retirement and they can find someone else to conquer the world for them.
But, of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. The Panda was too important to be allowed to slip away.
Leaning back in his chair - all velvet and leather - he opened the desk drawer and examined its contents. Everything in there, the chewing gum and the paper clips, the photo of himself as a youth wearing his school uniform - all these were covered by a fine film of dust. It made him feel old, as if he was dead and buried and all-but forgotten.
What made me look in here? he wondered. His younger self stared up at him from the old photo, a reminder of things past and lost forever. In the picture, he was smiling. And in the background, the red brickwork of the Faraday Secondary School gave way to playing fields. There seemed to be a rugby match in progress; the players were blurred, out of focus, matchstick boys playing a game of no significance whatsoever.
The President had been excluded from such games. The school governors had not liked having to allow animals into their school and were certainly not going to put the human children through the ordeal of sharing showers with them. For the most part, they did not even have to work with them. Separate classes. Separate rules.
Suppressing a feeling of hurt, the President closed the draw and pressed a button on the side of his desk.
The response was immediate and predictable. Like a well-trained circus dog, General Cartier appeared in the doorway then marched briskly forward, his face as bland as the buff folder tucked under his arm. He stopped in front of the President’s desk, clicked his heels and saluted.
‘This music,’ said the President, pointing to a speaker hanging on the wall. ‘What is it?’
Cartier frowned. ‘I honestly don’t know, Your Excellency. I’m not really a musical person.’
‘No. You wouldn’t be, would you?’
General Cartier made no response. It did not occur to him that he was being criticised. Snugly sheltered behind his uniforms and medals, he was sure of himself, certain he could hold himself against the strongest of verbal attacks. But his whole strategy depended on the attack being frontal and obvious. He was not a subtle man. Blood and thunder were the terms he thought in and that left him wide open and vulnerable.
Which was why the Panda found him valuable.
There was no danger of Cartier involving himself in quiet, complex conspiracies against the status quo. Such intrigues were beyond the grasp of his imagination. If Cartier was to turn on the Panda, it would be an all-out, nothing-held-back affair. One which could be spotted a mile off.
Standing in front of the President, the General had no real presence. He was like a familiar piece of furniture, a lamp-stand without a bulb.
Or, decided the Panda, a machine without a mind. ‘I want to ask you something.’
‘And I want an honest answer from you. Understood?’
‘Of course, Your Excellency. My expertise is always at your disposal.’
‘I want to know if you think I’m cute and cuddly.’
For a second, Cartier lost a layer of composure. The question hit him like a physical projectile, causing him to blanch. ‘Well,’ he said, and paused while he sought for an answer. Finally, he had one. ‘My wife, Mrs. Cartier, has often told me that you have a way of looking sad and vulnerable which she finds quite endearing.’
‘You mean she wants to mother me?’
‘You’d have to ask Mrs. Cartier that, Your Excellency.’
‘Maybe I will.’ The Panda decided to settle for an impasse. ‘All right, General. We’ll let the matter drop. I hear the Gerbils were busy again last night.’
‘They blew up an ammo dump in Bios - less than ten miles from here.’
‘And what action have you taken?’
‘We’ve set up several road blocks and are using as many men as we can spare to search the area. With any luck, we’ll have the blighters under lock and key by nightfall.’
The Panda doubted it. But there were more important matters to worry about. ‘How about Operation Big Sweep? Do you have the figures?’
Cartier patted the buff folder he had brought with him. ‘All the latest intelligence is in here, Your Excellency.’
‘Where’s General Lazenby? I thought you two were working on this together?’
‘He’s right outside.’
‘Then ask him to come in. And tell him to bring a couple of chairs. I’m not having you two hovering around me like a pair of hungry vultures.’
‘Yes, Your Excellency.’
Two chairs and General Lazenby were duly fetched.
The Panda watched every movement of Cartier’s face as he sat down; he noted that the man never once glanced at Lazenby. The mistrust between his two top Generals was something the Panda both relished and encouraged. Divide and conquer. Keep the enemy at its own throat.
Lazenby perched uneasily on the edge of his chair. A thin, intense person, he chewed persistently at his lower lip, kept looking from left to right as if expecting disaster to strike at any moment. The Panda loathed all his staff but had a special dislike for Lazenby. The man was an opportunist. He had inherited a great fortune at a young age and used his money to bribe and bully his way into General Command, drawing about him a tangled web of deceit and intrigue.
The Panda hoped that Lazenby would one day suffer a nasty and undignified end.
I’m surrounded by perverts and psychopaths, the Panda reminded himself. There’s not one of my Generals who isn’t sick in the head.
‘Everything’s working out fine,’ Lazenby announced. He smirked insolently, pleased with himself for flaunting protocol by addressing the Panda without leave to do so. ‘I would say that at least ninety-percent of our targets have been rounded up and the remaining few have been rendered ineffective. I don’t think we need worry any more about the so-called Red Orchestra.’
The Panda pointedly ignored this snippet and turned to General Cartier. ‘I don’t want any let-up in effort until every last element of dissent is safely neutralized. This gets top priority.’
General Cartier looked uncomfortable. It was his habit to obey orders without question, but these latest ones made no sense at all. ‘I really don’t think we should be wasting our time with a handful of malcontents. So far, they’ve had absolutely no significant effect on any aspect of our war effort whatsoever.’
‘That’s as maybe,’ said the Panda. ‘But I feel this war will be over in a matter of weeks, and I want the path to peace to be as uncomplicated as possible. I don’t expect you to understand my reasons. After all, you’re a soldier, not a diplomat.’
Finally acknowledging Lazenby’s presence, the Panda pointed a clawed finger in his direction. ‘What’s the latest on the March Hare and the Grey Squirrel?’
‘As you predicted, they’re heading to Enigma. In fact, they were spotted passing on the ferry just a few minutes ago.’
‘Straight to Doctor Ormus.’
‘Whom,’ said General Cartier, ‘I feel should have been arrested and charged with treason months ago.’
‘You still insist he’s the Head of the Red Orchestra?’ said the Panda, amused by the General’s naivety. ‘The so-called Big Cheese?’
‘That’s what every piece of evidence points to.’
‘Yes. Kind of convenient, isn’t it?’
‘Begging your pardon, Your Excellency,’ said Cartier. ‘But I think he’s a far more likely candidate than the Knave of Hearts.’
‘Of course. It never even crossed my mind that the Knave was the Big Cheese.’
‘So we can dispose of him?’
‘No. I have plans for the Knave of Hearts. Very big plans indeed.’
Moodily, the March Hare stepped off the ferry and stood on the quayside, studying his own reflection in the grey water beneath his feet. He felt uneasy - not just about his visit to Castle Ormus, but also about the fact that he and the Grey Squirrel seemed to have a common purpose. There was a pattern to everything that had happened today. He could sense it shifting around him. But he had no idea what that pattern could be, or who had set it into motion.
The Tired River slapped lazily across the stone embankment like a slow handclap, throwing out ripples that made a nonsense of his reflection. The top and bottom halves of his face swung in opposite directions, coalesced, parted again. His arms grew and shrank.
He was vaguely conscious of the Grey Squirrel standing behind him, his books clutched in his arms, his anorak flapping in the breeze.
From all around came sounds the March Hare found oppressive. Passing traffic. A vendor shouting meaningless syllables to draw pedestrians to his barrow. A police siren fading into the distance. It was all alien to him - aspects of a murky world that existed apart from the life he led in the pastoral surrounds of the palace.
Enigma, he thought, looking up at the tall, bland buildings that lined the river. At least they’ve named you right.
Without bothering to see if the Grey Squirrel was following, he hurried along the quay and stepped onto a pavement infested with litter. He was faced with a ghost town masquerading as a high street. Glass shop fronts had devolved into wooden hoardings. Boxes of rotten fruit lay moldering against uprooted parking meters. And here and there a burnt-out car served as a monument to all the thousands of vehicles that had ever choked this road, vehicles that now roamed other streets.
Turn any corner, thought the March Hare, and the world will suddenly look normal again.
If he had closed his eyes, listened to the noises echoing from elsewhere, he could have believed that he was not standing on the site of a massacre.
The Grey Squirrel caught up with the March Hare, his short legs pumping like pistons to match the Hare’s pace.
‘I was here when it happened,’ said the Grey Squirrel. ‘I saw everything. It was awful. Just awful. The ZOMOs came here looking for a fight. It was a peaceful protest and they turned up with water cannon and shotguns.’
The March Hare was not interested. What did people expect the government to do when they were undermining the war effort? They should have known the ZOMOs would be sent in. That’s what riot police were for.
‘I suppose,’ he said testily, ‘that the police should have just stood by while these shops were looted and innocent people were driven from their homes?’
‘It wasn’t like that,’ said the Grey Squirrel. ‘We weren’t out to make any trouble. All we wanted to do was voice the legitimate opinion that war is morally indefensible. There wasn’t any riot until the riot police created one. They attacked us with tear gas and rubber bullets. You can’t expect people not to react to that amount of provocation. I saw this girl - she couldn’t have been much more than thirteen - having her face beaten to a pulp by three ZOMOs. That does something to you, seeing something like that.’
‘Let’s drop it. It’s not relevant any more.’
‘Not relevant? Less than a month ago, right here on this very street, the ZOMOs murdered eighteen people and injured hundreds more. And you say that’s not relevant?’
‘Not to me. What I care about is the fact that my employer has been arrested and right now is probably in some mouldy old dungeon being gang-raped. That is if the Secret Police haven’t just shot him in the back of the head and dropped him in a ditch.
‘I’m sorry if things got out of hand here, but what you were doing was illegal. In fact, with a war on, it was treason. Somehow you asked for it.’
‘Thanks a bundle pal.’ The Squirrel’s voice suddenly shot up in both volume and pitch. ‘That thirteen year old girl I told you about - the one whose face was destroyed. Do you know what she was doing? Do you know why three grown men took it upon themselves to ruin her looks forever? It was because she was standing up for herself and for zombies like you who are too smug and too bloody stupid to realise they’re being sold down the river by a gang of despots. I can’t even begin to conceive of that as being irrelevant.’
The March Hare stopped in his tracks. ‘Why don’t you shut the hell up! I don’t need lectures from you or anyone. And if you don’t stop bugging the hell out of me - ’
‘What?’ Dropping his books into the dreck-filled gutter, the Grey Squirrel thrust his paws into the pockets of his anorak and struck a defiant posture. ‘What can you do to me that the ZOMOs couldn’t? I wasn’t afraid of them and I’m not afraid of you.’
They stood facing each other, confrontation in their every breath, in the looks they exchanged, in the narrowing of their eyes. Neither wanted to be the one to strike the first blow. Neither wanted to back down. An impasse.
The March Hare’s temper was the first to cool. He waited until the tension had dropped to a bearable level, then he walked on.
Behind him, the Grey Squirrel stood looking down at his text books, at pages of elegant analysis lying in filth. One of the books had fallen open at a chart purporting to show the current distribution of wealth in the Kingdom of Hearts. A small man, representing the top two percent of the population sat upon a tall rectangular tower. While next to him, a jolly fat giant all but smothered a square which was barely bigger than a full stop. The giant was the proletariat astride a portion of wealth marked 7%.
‘Sod it,’ said the Grey Squirrel. ‘Who needs books anyway?’
5. The Cheshire Cat
There was a lizard in the kitchen. Doctor Ormus watched as it scurried from behind the gas cooker. Its legs moved with a grace that was almost mechanical - like the pistons of some invisible engine. Ormus could sense the dynamo buzzing in the lizard’s head, supplying power to a spine which spun at 36 revolutions per minute. The spine was connected to the legs through a complicated system of pulleys and gears. In half a day, the dynamo would wear down and the lizard would grind to a permanent halt.
As if sensing Ormus’ train of thought, the lizard paused in the canyon formed by his slippered feet. Ormus wondered if he could move fast enough to catch the creature. He had visions of his foot slamming down like a divine judgment, reducing flesh, blood and bone to one amorphous pulp. Assuming - of course - that the lizard was organic.
Recently, Ormus had begun to suspect that his psychotic episodes were founded in reality. Though not perhaps a reality known to most.
The door bell rang.
As the door to Doctor Ormus’ house swung open, the March Hare and the Grey Squirrel instinctively took half a step back. Both had had previous experiences with out-of-control experiments seeking outlet through this very door. The Grey Squirrel would never forget the day he had been enveloped in a yellow fog which had turned his fur a disgusting shade of green. Nor would the March Hare forget how he had been the first recipient of the Ormus Mark I Patent Self-Guided Suppository. On this occasion, however, the talkies were assaulted by nothing more than a faint scent of garlic and sulphur.
Doctor Ormus stared past his visitors as if surprised to find that his door opened onto this particular street. He focused on the suite of shops on the other side of the road. How long had that greengrocer’s been there? Dressed in a blue boiler suit, his back broad, his hands coarse, there was nothing to suggest that Ormus possessed one of the keenest intellects in the world. He was in his early sixties but beyond a few wrinkles and the odd grey hair his looks scarce betrayed his years.
‘There’s a lizard in my kitchen,’ he said. ‘And I’m wondering if it’s been sent here to spy on me.’
‘We’ve come on a mission of grave urgency,’ said the Grey Squirrel, determined not to get side-tracked into a discussion about reptiles. ‘It’s a matter of life and death.’
Ormus nodded. ‘Well yes. I suppose it would be. You’d better come in then.’
The March Hare was suddenly reluctant to do so. Ormus lived in a world of blueprints and half-finished machines. From attic to cellar, the house was crammed with mechanisms of every size and description; most of them tended to drip oil.
A creature dedicated to cleanliness and order, the March Hare had yet to enter this house without developing an urge to tidy it up. Looking past the Doctor, he observed the chaos in the hall. A stripped-down eternal combustion engine sat on the stairs. And the only furniture he could see - a mahogany sideboard - was cluttered with valves and dynamos and what might have been the insides of a gramophone.
‘Fine,’ said the Grey Squirrel, stepping aside and gesturing to the March Hare to go ahead.
‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ said Ormus. ‘I’m sure we’ve got lots to chat about. Do you know that tonight there’s going to be an eclipse of the moon? I’ll have to see if I can’t dig out a camera from somewhere.’
There’s already been an eclipse, the March Hare decided. Only some people don’t seem to have noticed.
Glumly, he followed Ormus into the kitchen.
A girl stood by the gas cooker. Dressed in jeans and an electric-blue blouse, she kept watch over a brass kettle which was beginning to steam.
The girl wore just enough make-up to emphasise the highness of her cheekbones, the depths of her eyes.
‘Julie,’ said Ormus by way of introduction. ‘The March Hare and the Grey Squirrel.’
‘Greetings,’ said the Grey Squirrel. He felt unaccountably awkward. It was something in the way the girl’s gaze seemed to go straight through him. She had a dream-like quality that reminded him of summer afternoons spent lying in a meadow.
The March Hare also sensed an other-worldliness about her. She was undeniably pretty, but it wasn’t that which made her so attractive. She’s like a goddess, he thought.
Julie stroked the tip of her nose. ‘The March Hare? I’ve been wanting to meet you ever since I got here.’
The March Hare blushed. ‘Surely you’re mistaking me for someone else? I’m nothing special - just your common or garden March Hare.’
‘The March Hare. I once heard a story about you which I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I laugh every time I think about it.’
‘If it’s that funny, I’m afraid it probably isn’t true.’
‘Doctor Ormus assures me that it is. Apparently you once set fire to the King’s bed - and very nearly to the King himself.’
The March Hare felt his cheeks grow warm. It was partly pride, partly embarrassment. The incident had cost him a very cushy job, but it had also briefly made him a minor folk hero. ‘The Knave of Hearts had a hand in that,’ he explained. ‘He’d greased all the candle holders. I was showing His Majesty to bed when the candle flew from my hand and onto his bed. I had to use a bottle of wine to put out the fire.’
‘And how did the King take it?’
‘Quite well actually. Which is more than can be said for the Queen who was in bed at the time.’
‘Did she get burnt?’
‘No. But I managed to singe the ear of her favourite teddy bear.’
The Squirrel blew a raspberry. ‘All very interesting, I’m sure. But we have more important things to discuss than your pyromaniac escapades.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Doctor Ormus. ‘I think it’s time we talked about the Knave of Hearts and the Royal Librarian. Shall we adjourn to the living room?’
The lizard was in the living room, perched on the sideboard between a crystal decanter and a large transformer. Doctor Ormus resisted the urge to make a grab for it.
Just a lizard, he reminded himself. Animals are not machines.
‘Sit down,’ he said, indicating a table in the middle of the room. It was stigmatised by the scratches and scars of old experiments. One corner bore an acid burn like an ugly bruise.
The table was dominated by a two way radio with an antenna that resembled a spider’s web.
Sitting down, the March Hare moved aside a set of head-phones and rested his elbows on the table. Ormus sat next to him. The Grey Squirrel preferred to stand.
‘Well,’ said the March Hare, turning his head so that he was looking directly at Ormus. ‘Tell us what this is all about.’
A look of surprise shot across the Doctor’s face. ‘Shouldn’t you be telling me? You were the ones that arranged this little get together.’
‘But you weren’t surprised to see us, and you’ve made it quite clear that you know about our employers.’
The Grey Squirrel pointed to the radio. ‘I take it that thing works.’
‘And that’s how you knew we were coming?’
‘I took a guess. The arrest and murder of your respective employers got a brief mention on the news this morning. You were bound to turn up sooner or later.’
‘But why?’ demanded the March Hare. ‘I mean, why did the Knave send me to you in the first place? You’re not a lawyer.’
‘And why was the Royal Librarian killed?’ added the Grey Squirrel.
Ormus plucked at his lower lip. ‘The Government’s getting panicky because we’re on the verge of losing the war. There are people in this country who have actively opposed the President from the start. And it’s likely that the enemy would rather negotiate a peace with them than the Panda and his cronies. So he’s trying to eliminate all opposition.’
The March Hare was skeptical. ‘You don’t honestly believe that the Spadishers would want to negotiate with the Knave?’
‘Of course not. The Panda is using the Knave and the Librarian as a means to getting at those who really threaten him. For once in his miserable life, he’s being rather subtle.’
‘Too subtle for me,’ confessed the March Hare. ‘I still don’t see what this has to do with the Knave. He may be irresponsible, but he’s no subversive.’
Julie entered. She carried a tray on which sat four cups of coffee, a jug of milk and a bowl of sugar. ‘No biscuits, I’m afraid,’ she said, placing the tray on the table and sitting opposite the March Hare. She handed around the coffee. Doctor Ormus passed a cup over to the Grey Squirrel. ‘We always seem to be running out of biscuits.’
‘That’s because you keep scoffing them,’ said Doctor Ormus. He looked to the March Hare as if asking for moral support. ‘She spends half her time in bed eating chocolate biscuits and drinking brandy.’
‘What else is there to do?’ Julie countered. ‘I’m in a strange land with hardly any friends. And you’re not any help. You’re down in that cellar of yours morning, noon and night. As far as you’re concerned I might as well not exist - except for those rare occasions when you come looking to me for affection.’
‘Rare, schmare!’ said a disembodied voice. ‘You two go at it like a pair of love-struck rabbits! It’s a wonder your bed is still in one piece.’
At first, the March Hare supposed the voice to be coming from the radio. But it sounded too clear. There was no distortion, no background hiss of static. He leaned towards the transmitter, peered through the ventilator grille to examine the valves. None of them glowed.
‘Where have you been?’ demanded Doctor Ormus, not the least bit fazed by the unexpected interruption. ‘You should have been here an hour ago.’
A smile suddenly appeared in front of the radio. It hovered above the table like a swarm of fireflies. The teeth moved slightly apart. ‘So I’m here now. Things have been busy, busy, busy and I would appreciate it if people were a bit more respectful. It’s not as if I don’t have a life of my own, you know.’
‘Hello, Cheshy,’ said Julie. ‘Ignore the Doctor. He’s just being a sour-puss.’
‘I hate that expression,’ said the smile. ‘It’s so cat-ist.’
‘No offence meant. I was just trying to say that I for one am very pleased to see you.’
Yellow fur materialised around the smile, coalesced into the head of the Cheshire Cat. ‘Thanks. I appreciate that. It gets kind of lonely being a glorified messenger boy.’
The Grey Squirrel cleared his throat. ‘I don’t mean to be personal or anything, but would you mind telling me where the rest of you is?’
‘Well, here’s my furthest extremity,’ said the Cheshire Cat as his tail became visible some eighteen inches from his head. ‘I don’t suppose you’d take my word for it that all my best bits are somewhere between my tail and my head?’
‘Whatever,’ said the Grey Squirrel, too disconcerted to make an issue of the point.
The March Hare got to his feet. Part of his mind wanted to ignore the Cheshire Cat, pretend he wasn’t there - or half there. ‘How do you do that?’ he asked.
‘The appliance of science,’ said the Cat. ‘Or some such nonsense like that. It seems I have the dual characteristics of a sub-atomic particle. One minute I’m a particle - the next, a wave. And then the old uncertainty principal kicks in and just don’t know where I am. Ask Doctor Ormus - he can explain it better than I can.’
‘I’d rather,’ said the Grey Squirrel, ‘he explained to us what the hell is going on.’
‘Or better still,’ said the March Hare, ‘what he intends to do about the Knave.’
‘There’s not a lot I can do,’ confessed Doctor Ormus. ‘But if it’s any consolation, they’re not going to kill him straight away.’
‘But they are going to kill him?’
‘Probably. My best information is that they plan to put him on trial.’
‘To stir up popular sentiment against the Panda’s enemies. I take it you’ve heard of the Red Orchestra?’
‘The Resistance? What do they have to do with this?’
‘You might not believe this, but the Knave was a member of the Resistance. My guess is that the Panda is going to have him - and by inference, all the Red Orchestra - accused of a variety of hideous crimes. He’ll probably blame them for the fact that we’re about to lose the war.
‘Right now, there’s a good chance that if Spades wins the war (and that looks very likely), then the Spadishers will ask the Red Orchestra to form some sort of government.
‘The Panda knows this and he also knows that if he can make the people hate the Red Orchestra, the Spadishers will have nobody but the Panda with whom to negotiate a peace.’
The Grey Squirrel sipped noisily at his coffee. He seemed to accept everything Ormus was saying. Probably, it was no more than he had expected to hear.
Re-seating himself, the March Hare considered his own position. Was Ormus lying? Was he deluded? If he only had the Doctor’s word to go on, the March Hare wouldn’t believe a single word he had just heard. But there was no denying that the Secret Police had arrested his employer and that his employer had told him to see Doctor Ormus. And if, as it now looked likely, the Knave really was in the Red Orchestra, then it followed that Ormus himself was also a member.
Which means, reasoned the March Hare, I’m in danger of getting dragged into something I’d rather not know about. ‘I want to leave,’ he announced. ‘I want to get out of here and forget everything that’s been said.’
‘You can’t,’ said the Grey Squirrel. ‘You’re not going to run away from this one. Sooner or later it’s going to catch up with you, so you might as well face it now.’
‘I’m not going to face anything.’
‘Think again. It wasn’t by accident that you were sent to see Doctor Ormus this morning.’
‘I never supposed it was. But I’m still leaving anyway.’
Doctor Ormus got to his feet. ‘I’d rather you didn’t. It would make things very awkward.’
‘What he’s trying to say,’ added the Grey Squirrel, ‘is that he’s not going to let you walk out of here until he’s sure he can trust you. I’m afraid you’re stuck in that old cliché about knowing too much.’
As if to emphasise this point, Doctor Ormus reached into the pocket of his boiler suit and produced a pistol. He held it at hip level with its snout pointing at the March Hare’s head.
Julie’s face clouded over. She reached out her hand towards Ormus’ arm. He stepped away from her. ‘I hope I don’t have to use this,’ he said. ‘But I will if I have to. I don’t see any other choice.’
Rather than anger or fear, the March Hare felt despondency. ‘So it’s come to this,’ he said. ‘I’m now going to be murdered by someone I thought was a friend.’
‘Oh boy,’ said the Cheshire Cat, still grinning. ‘This is one party I don’t want to attend.’
And with that, he vanished.
‘Let’s all just sit down,’ said Julie reasonably. She turned to Doctor Ormus. ‘Do you think it necessary to point a gun at your friend? Why is it you men think you can always make things right by threatening violence?’
‘She has a point,’ said the Grey Squirrel. ‘We’re all in this together, remember? I’m sure that if you explain the circumstances to the Hare, he’ll see he has no choice but to join with us.’
‘Us being who?’ demanded the March Hare.
‘The Red Orchestra, of course. Your employer and mine were both involved in a conspiracy to topple the Panda. And now - like it or not - we’re also involved. Because unless we get rid of that tyrant, we’re not going to stay alive much longer.’
‘Put that bloody gun away,’ Julie insisted, giving Ormus a look that spoke volumes. ‘Before you hurt yourself.’
Like a chastised schoolboy, Ormus did as he was told. Without a word being spoken, all those standing sat down, looked pensively at each other and at their coffee. Only the lizard on the sideboard seemed unaffected by the recent drama.
The silence which followed was an emptiness, a vacuum into which something, sooner or later, had to be drawn. That something happened to be the Cheshire Cat, whose re-appearance at the table seemed inevitable. This time there were no gaps in him. He was complete and unabridged. ‘Crisis over?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Doctor Ormus, his voice level and subdued. ‘It’s over.’
‘Oh goody! Now we can play.’ The Cheshire Cat rolled onto his back. ‘Tickle my tummy. Treat me rough, daddy-o.’
Ormus declined. ‘Playtime will have to wait. I’ve got a job for you.’
The Cat sighed; his smile remained firm. ‘Work, work, work. That’s all I ever seem to do. I tell you something - whoever said it’s a dog’s life wasn’t far wrong.’
‘I want you to make contact with the Knave. Find out where he’s hidden the plans.’
‘So now I’m a messenger boy? It’s not enough that I keep the mice from your larder and the rats from your bed? I have to make like a pussy-gram! If my dear, sweet mother could see the way I’m treated...’
‘You don’t have a mother.’
‘No mother!’ cried the Cat. ‘No mother! You mean I’m an orphan? Is that any reason to treat me like a dogsbody? Where is your heart, man? Where is your compassion?’
Before Ormus could answer, the Cheshire Cat vanished.
‘He’s got the right idea,’ said the March Hare. ‘If you think I’m joining some conspiracy against the State, you’d better think again. I’m a bloody valet - not a saboteur.’
‘If you’re not for us,’ said the Grey Squirrel, ‘you’re against us.’
‘I will not be press-ganged, bullied or intimidated.’
Julie shook her head sorrowfully. ‘You still don’t get it, do you? Nobody’s press-ganging you. But the simple fact is that we’re asking you to join us because you’re on the Panda’s hit list.’
‘The Panda’s hit list. Your boss is a known subversive and as far as the Panda’s concerned, that makes you one as well. Believe me, it’s only a matter of time before the Secret Police come knocking at your door. Or maybe they won’t knock. Maybe they’ll just sneak up behind you with a piece of piano wire.’
‘She’s right,’ said Doctor Ormus. ‘The State has murdered people for far less than associating with Red Orchestra members. Sooner or later the Panda is going to send his thugs for you.’
Again, silence. This time it was broken by the shrill clamour of the front door bell.
‘I’ll get it,’ said Julie. She went out and came back a minute later with the Penguin in tow. His hat was pushed slightly back, revealing a scar that ran across his forehead.
‘So this is the house of the famous Doctor Ormus?’ he said. ‘And what do we have here? A bunny rabbit and a tree rat. Strange company for a respected scientist. Taken up vivisection, have we, Doctor?’
‘I’d like to take it up on you,’ Ormus retorted. ‘These happen to be my friends.’
‘You have my sympathy. And who’s the girl? Your assistant?’
‘Actually,’ said Julie, ‘I’m his lover.’
‘You also have my sympathy. However, I am not here to discuss your domestic arrangements. The Doctor has something which doesn’t belong to him. I’ve been given full authority to see to it that it’s returned to its rightful owner.’
‘And what,’ asked Doctor Ormus, ‘would that something be?’
‘It’s called a Vector Gauge. I understand an old colleague of yours left it with you for safe-keeping. Needless to say, I have the place surrounded and unless I leave here with the device in the next five minutes, none of you are going to be around to see tomorrow.’
‘It’s in the library safe. I’ll fetch it for you.’
‘If you would.’
‘And when you see Peregrine Smith, tell him that I send it with my best wishes.’
‘I’ll do that, Doctor. Now if you’ll just hand over the device, I can be on my way.’
Doctor Ormus left the room. The Penguin turned to follow. ‘I dare say I’ll see all you good people again quite soon,’ said the Penguin.
You can count on it, thought the March Hare. You can bloody well count on it.
6. The Croquet Match
There was a strange atmosphere at the Queen’s croquet match that afternoon. The gay abandon of bunting, pennants and painted rose bushes provided an ill-fitting backdrop to the despondency evident in those attending. The courtiers were dressed for a party; their clothes were flamboyant and screaming with colour. And they laughed and chatted and swapped scandals. But their enjoyment was brittle.
The Palace Guards standing at the edge of the croquet lawn seemed surly. There was no trace of pride in their postures. Wandering around the edge of the game, the March Hare was acutely aware of slouched shoulders and tunics that had been pressed hastily and with little skill. Pikestaffs tended to stray from the vertical. Buttons were undone. Some of the men sported five o’clock shadow.
A sign of the times, decided the March Hare, sitting on the wall of a fountain. He had noticed that several rose bushes had been painted only once - without the obligatory undercoat. Their original colours could still be seen through the thin veneer of gloss. Such minor points troubled him.
A man wearing the garb of a royal gardener sat next to him and began tucking into a thick cheese sandwich, taking large, eager bites which he washed down with ale. The Gardener was clearly drunk. His grip on his beer jug seemed tentative. The March Hare expected it to fall at any moment.
‘Anyone would think it was my fault,’ complained the Gardener. ‘I’ve just about taken all I’m going to take. I seem to get the blame for everything around here. I mean, the slightest thing goes wrong and who does the Queen have a go at? As if I didn’t have enough to do without having the crap beaten out of me every few hours. Bloody Royalty! What do they know about gardening? I told her you can’t spray-paint pansies without killing them, but would she listen? Would she shut that fat gob of hers just long enough to learn something new and worthwhile? Would she hell!
‘Just look at the stupid cow, will you! Calls herself a Queen and she can’t even hold a flamingo properly!’
The game, as usual, was a farce. The unknown sportsman who had started the tradition of using flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls was either a comic genius or an idiot. Probably both.
‘I bet it was Peregrine Smith,’ said the March Hare.
‘Who?’ said the Gardener.
‘Never mind,’ said the March Hare. He had not meant to speak out loud. I must be under a lot of strain, he decided. Being drafted into the Red Orchestra is one thing I could have done without. Before you know it, I’ll be talking to mushrooms and trying to walk up walls.
The air was ripe with the screams of troubled flamingos and the oppressive tones of the Queen forever yelling, ‘Off with his head! Off with her head! Executioner! Fetch the Executioner!’
Lazily, the March Hare watched the game, tried to make sense of it all - the constant bending of the rules, the endless running after hedgehogs who took great delight in rolling at right-angles to the direction they were supposed to go. The biggest mystery, decided the March Hare, was the Queen’s insistence upon calling for the Executioner when it was clearly unconstitutional to have someone beheaded just for scoring points.
The Gardener mopped his face with a damp handkerchief. The labyrinth of broken veins covering his cheeks was an exploded view of his bloodshot eyes. ‘Spent all morning cutting the grass to a height of one quarter of an inch,’ he said, ‘then along comes Her Bleeding Majesty and announces she’s gone metric. She wants the grass two centimetres high. When I ask her why, she says it’s because of Martial Law. She hates Martial Law, you know. Thinks it could lead to the abolition of the Monarchy.’
‘We should be so lucky. The Monarchy’s like something you pick up on the bottom off your shoe and can’t scrape off. Two centimetres! It’s enough to drive a man barmy.’
A rapid series of squeals brought the March Hare’s attention back to the game. Two hedgehogs were fighting on the croquet pitch, their tiny fists driving at each other like rogue steam-hammers. It was a brief and ineffectual flurry, the only damage done being to a croquet hoop which happened to be in their way. Exhausted by their labours, they fell apart, panting and wheezing, and promising vile retribution. One limped over to the March Hare.
‘You can have this for a game of cards,’ grumbled the Hedgehog, sitting in a slouch between the Hare’s feet. ‘I never did like croquet. It’s a sissy’s game. Given a choice, I’d rather be a cricket stump than a croquet ball.’
‘Got to start somewhere,’ said the Gardener.
‘How would you know?’ the Hedgehog snapped back. ‘I bet you’ve never been a croquet ball in your entire life.’
‘Can’t say I have. But I once had a job as a goal post.’
‘Anyone can be a goal post.’
‘Goal post? Did I say goal post? I meant cross-bar.’
‘Some of my best friends are cross-bars. Pretty cushy job if you ask me.’
At this, the Gardener burped and slid into the fountain. The cold water did nothing to sober him.
‘Quack, bloody quack,’ he said, lifting one leg into the air. ‘Damn the torpedoes. Her Majesty expects every blade of grass to be blue.’
The March Hare got to his feet. ‘You’ll have to excuse me,’ he said to the Hedgehog. ‘I’ve just seen someone I know.’
‘Don’t mind me. You go ahead and socialise. I’m off to lunch anyway.’
Alice, the girl who had gate-crashed the Mad Hatter’s party, was running at full-tilt across the lawn in fierce pursuit of a bewildered flamingo. She cut a comic figure with her skirts billowing behind and her face puffed with frustration. Not looking where she was going, she ran straight into the March Hare, delivering a head-butt to his stomach which sent them both sprawling.
‘Oof!’ said the March Hare, deciding against getting up straight away. He sat on the grass, nursing his injured midriff.
Alice jumped to her feet. ‘Why don’t you look where you’re going?’ she demanded crossly. Then she recognised the March Hare. ‘Oh. It’s you, is it? I might have known. Thank goodness it isn’t March; else you’d be even madder than you already are.’
‘Your accent,’ said the March Hare.
‘What about it?’
‘You wouldn’t happen to know a girl called Julie, would you? You sound very much like her.’
‘I don’t have time to discuss my many friends right now. I’m right in the middle of a very important game.’
‘So I see,’ said the March Hare. ‘I have a feeling you’re new to this.’
‘It’s a silly game,’ said Alice, bitterly. She spat on the palm of her hand and rubbed savagely at her chlorophyll-stained knees. ‘My mallet kept talking back to me, and now the stupid thing’s run off.
‘Where I come from, they’re made from wood. How can one be expected to play croquet with an overgrown parrot?’
‘It’s a flamingo.’
‘And a strange one at that! I’ve never seen such a bird. Come to think of it, this whole world is full of weird and crazy animals.’
Alice looked abashed. ‘I’m sorry. I suppose I shouldn’t have said that.’
‘It’s hardly the worst thing I’ve heard all day.’
‘It’s just that I don’t understand this world at all.’
‘Right now that makes two of us.’
‘Where do they all come from?’
‘The flamingos and the hedgehogs and all the other talking animals I’ve met today.’
‘Nobody seems to know. According to my friend, Doctor Ormus, we’re all at least partially human - though how he works that out, I really couldn’t say. My personal theory is that we were created in some laboratory. We’re genetically-engineered mutations, half-animal, half-human. You’ve surely heard of Peregrine Smith?’
‘Is he the man who invented you?’
‘Well, that’s one way of putting it. Of course, not everyone’s as convinced as I am that he’s behind our creation, but it is a fact that we were discovered just a few weeks after he disappeared.’
‘Disappeared? He was a magician then?’
‘He could have been. Some say he was the greatest scientist who ever lived. Others claim that he dabbled in the Black Arts. There’s even a story that he came from another world.
‘Whatever he was, he was also a criminal. He used corpses for bizarre experiments - and once or twice used actual living people. When the police came to arrest him, he fled to the Rickenbacker Falls and threw himself into the gorge below. They never found his body and there are rumours that he’s still alive. You know how people like to believe these things.’
Including, thought the March Hare, Doctor Ormus and the Red Orchestra. Feeling uncomfortable with the conversation, the March Hare changed the subject. ‘Have you met the Queen yet?’
‘Oh, yes. Now there’s someone I do understand. She’s just like a Queen ought to be - all big and fat and bossy. A bit like the Duchess of Langerhans.’
‘You know the Duchess?’
‘Only since this morning. She said she’d meet me here but she doesn’t seem to have arrived yet.’
‘Try the refreshment tent. That’s where she usually hangs out.’
‘Yes. Someone else told me that. I’ll just go and see if she’s there.’
Alone again, the March Hare wandered aimlessly around the fringes of the croquet match, pausing occasionally to observe the charade taking place all around him. Frantic to please the Queen, her courtiers were going through the motions of croquet, but their efforts lacked enthusiasm. Even the Queen seemed subdued. Her shrill voice lacked its usual cutting edge; her threats of execution were uttered without conviction.
What a day, thought the March Hare. He studied the grey walls of the palace, the ivy and banners that clung to its centuries old granite, and he saw the impermanence of it. Someday, he realised, all this is going to come crashing down. The palace, the Monarchy, the whole bloody country. And it’s going to happen sooner than we know...
He was suddenly aware of a figure in a raincoat and trilby walking towards him. The March Hare thought for a moment that it must be the Penguin, come to rile him some more. But the broad shoulders and hurried steps quickly demolished that idea.
The figure was carrying a hedgehog between two golden paws.
‘Hello there,’ said the Hedgehog as he and the figure passed the March Hare. ‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’
‘Sure,’ said the March Hare who couldn’t remember a day less lovely. He would have hurried on but for the strange contraption strapped across the Hedgehog’s stomach. It was a metal box attached to an alarm clock by two wires. And there was something familiar about the figure in the raincoat. He decided to follow.
‘Clear off!’ said the figure. ‘You’ll ruin everything.’
The Hedgehog giggled. ‘We’re playing a joke on the Queen. It’s going to be a hoot.’
The figure’s face was obscured by his hat but from this close there was no hiding the fact that he was a gerbil. The March Hare backed off. If the gerbil wanted to play a joke on the Queen, that was his look-out.
Rather him than me, thought the March Hare, turning on his heels. It would be best not to hang around. The Queen wasn’t renowned for her sense of humour.
He stopped beneath the shade of a sycamore tree. Maybe he could watch from a safe distance. It would really be something to see the Queen made a laughing stock.
Three exhausted flamingos lay on the grass beside the Queen. They had helped her gain a six hoop lead over the other players and were grateful that their stint was over.
The Queen turned to her caddy and in a loud voice demanded her Number Six flamingo. ‘Tricky shot this,’ she screeched, wiping sweat from her eyes. ‘I think I’ll go for the old up and under.’
Her caddy in the mean time was struggling to remove a flamingo from its leather sheath.
‘I’m Number Five,’ insisted the hapless bird, its eyes bulging in terror. The caddy had it by the throat and was tugging with all his might.
A claw burst through the sheath and carved a long slash up one side.
‘Unnggh!’ said the caddy, reddening from exertion. ‘Urrf!’
All eyes were on the caddy. Only the March Hare seemed aware of the Gerbil sneaking across the lawn.
When he was about fifty yards from the Queen, the Gerbil broke into a run. He lifted the Hedgehog above his head and launched it at the Monarch’s broad back.
‘Death to tyrants!’ cried the Gerbil.
‘Wheee!’ cried the Hedgehog, sailing past the Queen.
A hapless courtier turned just in time to receive the full impact of the Hedgehog in his chest. Dozens of spines pierced his rib cage.
Dazed by this sudden turn of events, the courtier stared stupidly at the creature implanted in his thorax.
‘Yah, missed!’ shouted the Hedgehog, pointing a finger at the Gerbil. ‘You couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo. Call yourself a fast bowler? I’ve seen - ’
The Hedgehog exploded. Flame and flesh burst in all directions, covering the Queen and her entourage in blood. The March Hare saw something metallic fly high into the air, flashing in the sunlight as it tumbled end over end. Without knowing why, he was certain that whatever it was had come from the Hedgehog. And it was not part of the bomb.
The Queen was the first to recover. Before anyone else had even wiped the blood from their face, she picked up her own Hedgehog and returned fire. The Gerbil ducked and was off balance just long enough for three of the Queen’s Guard to reach and overpower him. Knocking him to the ground, they piled on top of the would-be assassin.
Rolling up her sleeves, the Queen advanced. She pushed her Guards away one by one, and then lifted the Gerbil by the scruff of his neck.
‘You nasty little rodent,’ she hissed. ‘You overgrown rat. So you think you can kill your Queen, do you?’ Her voice suddenly thundered, ‘Kill! Me! How dare you even think of it! I’m going to have your skin for a foot mat!’
The March Hare did not want to see any more. He dared not think about the carnage he had just witnessed, nor about the Gerbil’s unhappy fate. It was time to go.
A shadow swept along the grass, passed over his feet. He looked up to see a large white bird turn sharply right before coming in for an awkward landing at the entrance to a maze. In the air, its huge wings had looked impressive. On the ground, they were suddenly a handicap. Their ungainliness made it impossible for the bird to walk a straight line; it teetered from side to side.
A youth stepped out from the maze. Dressed in khaki, he might have been any young soldier on leave from the war. But even from a distance of three hundred yards, the March Hare recognised him at once, and then had to tell himself he must be wrong. Shadrack was dead. He had been killed in action.
The youth and the bird spent some moments looking at one another. Nothing was said. It was as if each was waiting for the other to make a move. Finally, the bird lumbered its way past the young soldier and disappeared into the maze.
The soldier turned and followed.
A series of horrible screams brought the March Hare’s attention back to the drama on the croquet pitch. The shock of nearly being killed must have suddenly gotten to the Queen; she was sitting on the grass bawling her eyes out while her guards and courtiers looked on helplessly. There was no sign of the Gerbil. No doubt he was on his way to some dank dungeon.
The March Hare felt one step removed from events, as if witnessing them second-hand on a newsreel. In the space of a few hours, his world had been turned upside down, leaving him insecure and bewildered. And of all the things he had seen, it was the white bird that bothered him most.
The Albatross had last been in Hearts some four years ago at the height of the cholera epidemic. Previous to that, its every appearance had coincided with some national misfortune - a failed harvest, a massive quake which destroyed the city of Cathode and killed over 700, the death of the Prince of Hearts...
Though not superstitious, the March Hare felt it was more than coincidence that the Albatross should re-appear just when the whole nation seemed to be falling apart. He looked around. Nobody else seemed to have noticed the bird.
Half-convinced he had suffered an hallucination, the March Hare ran towards the maze. There was either something in there which was of the greatest importance to both himself and his country, or else there was nothing at all. He had to know which.
At the very same moment that the March Hare entered the maze, an armour-plated Herschel IV limousine pulled up at the main entrance to the Presidential Complex. Passes were handed to Blue Shirt guards, checked, double-checked, and then handed back. Satisfied that everything was in order, the Sergeant of the Guard waved the limousine through.
The Grey Squirrel looked out from the back seat, sensing how right it was that the windows should be tinted black. From his view point, the colours of the sky and trees were subdued, as dark as they should be on a day like this. A day of deception and betrayal.
It did not occur to him that the blue and red of his anorak were inappropriate.
He shifted restlessly. His thigh briefly touched that of General Cartier’s before reflexes cut in and jerked it away. The momentary contact seemed to drain the last of his energy. He wanted to go home and sleep forever.
General Cartier rolled down the window on his side of the car and threw out the cigar butt that had been resting inertly between his tobacco-stained teeth. Tension showed in the set of his face, the lines that eddied round his cheek bones like badly-drawn contours.
He got out of the car as soon as it stopped, leaving his chauffeur with nothing to do but step out and salute. The General saluted back but otherwise ignored the man.
They were outside the double iron doors which formed the entrance to the Bunker. A machine-gun sat broodingly in a nest of sand bags, its snout roving from side to side as if trying to catch the scent of potential prey. The Blue Shirts manning the gun were grim-faced. If they had any thought at all, it was a common one - protect the Panda at all costs.
A camera above the doors added to the air of menace. It followed the Grey Squirrel’s every move as he opened the limousine door, stepped out and stood at Cartier’s side. Should the Squirrel do anything remotely suspicious, he had no doubt that both he and the General would be ripped apart in a hail of bullets.
With a low hum, the Bunker door swung open, revealing a gently-sloping tunnel with walls lined with narrow slits. Behind each slit, a machine-gun or a flame-thrower loitered with deadly intent.
Together, General Cartier and the Grey Squirrel entered the subterranean fort. To the Squirrel, it seemed as if he had passed through the Gates of Hell.
The maze had been built more for show than confusion. It took the March Hare less than a minute to find its centre. Grass gave way to concrete paving. Statues of famous poets and mythical beasts were scattered at random, a gathering in stone of the fantastical and the fantastic. Mildew and erosion gave character to otherwise bland expressions.
The great poet T.S. Wallis stared down from his lofty pedestal, undisturbed by the huge sea bird resting on his shoulders. Moving round to the front of the statue, the March Hare caught sight of Shadrack. He was sitting on a bench, his head in his hands.
The Albatross squawked. ‘If I were you, pal,’ he advised the March Hare, ‘I’d leave well-enough alone.’
The March Hare ignored the warning. He approached Shadrack with gentle, precise footsteps, worried that any sudden move might scare him off. As yet he had no explanation for his friend’s apparent return from death. It seemed to him that he was caught in a delicate spell. If he said or did the wrong thing, he would break the enchantment and Shadrack’s spirit would be sucked back into the Underworld.
Shadrack looked up. His face was a patchwork of scar tissue and exposed bone. Most of his hair had been burnt away. His one remaining eye regarded the March Hare with cold curiosity.
The March Hare froze in his tracks. A shiver of revulsion ran down his spine. He tried to back away but his legs gave and then his stomach seemed to kick out in protest. Briefly his world fell apart. Sense and meaning receded from him like fragments from an exploding shell. It was what he had wanted all day, ever since the Knave’s arrest.
Seeing the March Hare fall to his knees, Shadrack stood up and held out a bandaged hand. It did not occur to him to offer any assistance or to hide his disfigurement. Nor did he understand his friend’s reaction.
The Albatross laughed a nasty laugh. ‘I’ll leave you two boys to it then. You must have lots to discuss.’
Seemingly pleased with the scenario he had helped create, the Albatross spread its wings and took off. In moments, it was gone.
The March Hare regained a measure of control and looked up. ‘My God, Shadrack,’ he whispered. ‘What have they done to you?’
Shadrack let his hand fall to his side. ‘Hare,’ he said, as if recalling the name. ‘March Hare. Friend.’
7. A Butterfly Screaming
‘The Enigma Concerto,’ said the Panda, ‘by Terence Bergen.’
The Panda stabbed a finger towards the speaker on the wall. ‘That music I asked you about. A popular tune by all accounts. I’ve been thinking about why I’ve never heard it before, and I guess I must have done. Only I wasn’t listening.’
General Cartier felt disconcerted. What was the Panda driving at? Was he supposed to read some profound moral into the President’s previous lack of interest in music? ‘Your Excellency’s a busy man,’ he said. ‘One would hardly expect you to be an expert in every field. I, myself, have little time for the Arts.’
‘If your duties are too much of a burden on your time,’ said the Panda maliciously, ‘just let me know. I’m sure I can find a younger man to fill your shoes.’
‘That wasn’t the point I was trying to make, Your Excellency.’
‘Never mind, General. Let’s get down to business, shall we? I take it you’ve brought the Grey Squirrel with you.’
‘He’s outside, Excellency.’
‘Good. Send him in. Then you can be on your way. I don’t think I’ll be needing you again today.’
Cartier bristled inwardly at being spoken to like some apprentice boy. ‘Yes, Your Excellency.’
When he entered the Conference Room, some of the Grey Squirrel’s despondency left him. The maps on the walls clearly depicted the limits of the Panda’s power. A blue line marked the Kingdom’s Eastern frontier, while beyond that a red squiggle showed the furthest into Spades that the army had managed to push in six years of fighting. The two lines were not very far apart.
So much for Imperial Hearts, thought the Grey Squirrel with some satisfaction.
The Panda sat at his desk, looking no more special than an office clerk. His ceremonial red jacket with its lines of medals and twists of gold braid looked phony.
Only flesh and blood, decided the Grey Squirrel. He’s as mortal and vulnerable as the rest of us.
Playing idly with a paper clip, the Panda waited for the Grey Squirrel to seat himself. It worried him not that the Squirrel deliberately delayed by pretending to study the wall maps. He had seen the ploy used before by every one of his Generals. It was their way of telling him that his power was not absolute, that they were not afraid of him. The first point he already knew. As to the second - the Panda believed that only the fearful go out of their way to show no fear. So he let the Squirrel play his game.
Eventually, the Grey Squirrel turned to face the Panda. ‘You wanted to see me, Your Excellency?’
‘To be precise, I wanted to talk to you. Take a seat.’
The Squirrel did as he was asked but made a point of slouching.
‘Comfortable?’ asked the Panda.
‘Yes, thank you.’
The Panda pointed to a small device occupying the only part of his desk not smothered by papers.
‘You see this?’
‘Do you know what it is?’
The Squirrel shook his head.
‘It’s a metabolism monitor.’
‘It measures the metabolism of anyone within a six foot radius. Right now it’s telling me that your heart is beating twice as fast as normal, your sweat glands are open and there is a very high level of adrenalin in your blood.’
The Squirrel swallowed so hard it hurt his throat. Yes - of course he was scared. He could feel sweat coating the underside of his fur. Who wouldn’t be scared, sitting opposite a homicidal megalomaniac who used people as he saw fit and then discarded them? He looked into the big, black eyes that regarded him so stonily; there was no trace of compassion.
Sitting upright, the Grey Squirrel placed his paws in his lap and waited.
‘Actually,’ said the Panda, ‘I was lying. But then you’d expect that from a politician, wouldn’t you?’
‘One day,’ said the Grey Squirrel in an icy whisper, ‘you’re going to find yourself in a situation you can’t handle.’
‘Possibly. But I think it’s a good bet you won’t be there to see it.’ The Panda scratched at the side of his face. He had the beginnings of a fur ball on his right cheek. ‘Actually, this device is a miniaturised tape recorder. Any resemblance to a metabolism monitor is purely coincidental. Perhaps you’d like to hear what I have on it?’
The Panda held the recorder in his paw, and then craftily pressed both the record and playback buttons at the same time. The resulting squeal of feedback was like fingernails running down a blackboard. Cutting off the device, the Panda leaned back in his chair. ‘Do you know what that sound was?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Would it help if I told you the sound had been magnified a thousand times over?’
‘Would you like to know what it was?’
‘Not really. But I expect you’re going to tell me anyway.’
‘That was the sound of a butterfly screaming. I nailed it to a tiny wheel and tore its wings apart with a red hot needle. And when I was done with it, I crushed the miserable little insect beneath my thumb.’
‘And that gave you pleasure, did it?’
‘Very great pleasure. Yesterday I had my Chief Architect executed for incompetence and I didn’t enjoy that at all. I just signed my name to a bit of paper and he was gone. It was too easy. And that’s the problem with power. It takes all the fun out of being a bastard.’
‘And so you play with insects and bugs?’
‘And people. Don’t forget people. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support and love of the people. Democracy’s such a wonderful thing.’
The Squirrel suppressed a sudden feeling of anger. The Panda was trying to rile him; he wasn’t going to rise to the bait. ‘I believe I used to know your Chief Architect,’ he announced quietly, calmly. ‘He was rather innocuous as I recall.’
‘Innocuous and vacuous,’ said the Panda. ‘But to me he was a threat. When I assumed my current position, I made the people a promise. I told them that I would tear down all the slums in this nation and replace them with housing fit for human habitation. Which is why I hired a Chief Architect in the first place.
‘His job was simple. I asked him for plans for new cities, new places to dwell. And I let him hire as many other architects as he felt was needed.
‘And they keep bringing me their plans - their scrappy, piddly bits of paper - and they tell me it’s the best they can do. They show me streets the way I want them - wide and straight and filled with trees and fountains. They give me houses and hospitals and parks that conform to my exact specifications. And it all looks wonderful, wonderful. But they leave out one thing which is more important than anything else, and they truly believe that I should be giving them medals for doing half a job.’ The Panda was on the verge of tears. His voice was strained with anger. ‘How many times do I have to tell these people? Beautiful streets are not enough. You can build cities as high as you like. You can have your skyscrapers and offices and People’s Palaces but at the end of the day it means nothing unless your foundations are good. If a city is to thrive it must be built on purity.
‘I want my cities to last for a thousand years or more. And I want my citizens to know that beneath their feet is nothing more than good, clean earth, free of disease and filth and vermin.
‘These brains I employ - these architects and engineers - they insist on undermining everything I try to do. I ask them for cities without sewers, and they look at me as if I was crazy. They shrug their shoulders and insist that it can’t be done. And I say why not? And they say because it’s never been done. Cities have always had sewers and they always will.
‘Do you see what I’m up against?’
‘Yes,’ said the Squirrel. ‘You’re up against what I’ve always been up against. People too dull to ever share your dreams.’
The Panda laughed. It was a brief, humourless laugh filled with sharp edges. ‘Dreams? There are no such things as dreams. In all my life, I have never dreamt – not even once. When people sleep, it’s so much like dying they convince themselves they’re not asleep at all. They create their own little worlds and revel in false memories.
‘People are as afraid of sleep as they are of death. Dreams are like the afterlife. They’re a myth. They’re no more real than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
‘I have a man working for me who believes this whole world is some sort of dream. He thinks he owns it. He thinks it exists only in his head. And I let him think that because it makes him useful. People who deny reality and talk about dreams are easy to manipulate. And you, yourself, serve as a good example of that.’
Later, the March Hare was to remember the walk to the Duchess of Langerhans’ summer residence as a series of disjointed images that told fragments of a story. It started with the walls of the maze twisting this way and that, confusing his sense of direction.
Outside the maze, he must have run across the lawn to the forest, through the forest and across Mayflower Meadow. But that part of the journey was lost to him forever.
At the top of Hangman’s Hill, he paused for breath. Although his paw rested on Shadrack’s sleeve, he had no actual recollection of Shadrack being there. From Hangman’s Hill, they crossed Parsifal Bridge. Shadrack uttered something about bulrushes and how blue the Tired River looked. The March Hare replied that it was actually grey; it only looked blue to those who were in love.
A country lane led them up to the gateway to Sunway House; it was a ten minute walk, but the March Hare would always remember it as a single step.
Sunway House was everything an aristocrat’s home was meant to be. Sweeping lawns. High gables. Bay windows besieged by ivy and roses.
Running up a set of steps and reaching the front door, the March Hare tugged urgently at the bell cord, and then came to the realisation that he had done the wrong thing.
The Duchess was a kindly soul, well-known for her acts of charity and compassion. If anyone could - and would - help Shadrack, it was her. But he should have approached with greater caution. The Duchess did not live alone. She had a full compliment of domestic staff, and if the wrong one should answer the door...
Muttering an obscenity, the March Hare took Shadrack’s arm and started to lead him away from the house. Too late. Before he had even reached the bottom of the steps, the door swung open. He heard the click of the latch, the groan of antique hinges. He froze.
Young and tender, the voice sliced into his heart. Even without turning, he knew who had answered the door. He could picture her there in her maid’s uniform, her freckled face a mask of polite welcome.
‘Lisa,’ said Shadrack.
The March Hare turned around slowly. His eyes focused on Lisa’s at the very moment recognition flooded them with shock and tears. Her hand went to her mouth. ‘Shadrack,’ she said. ‘But you’re...’
She did not finish the sentence, could not bring herself to utter that simplest but most final of words. And yet it echoed through her head. Dead. Dead. Dead. Shadrack was dead.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the March Hare. ‘I’m so terribly sorry. I should have thought things through before bringing him here.’
Then he saw her face soften and he saw hope in her eyes, and he wanted to slap her, to tell her that what she was thinking was not so. Her lover had not returned. The Shadrack she had known since childhood and had long planned to marry was still gone. All the March Hare had brought her was an empty, obscene travesty of Shadrack, a shell with half a face.
Ignoring the March Hare, Lisa swept down the steps. She was the heroine of a melodrama, a sweet young girl welcoming her beau home from war. Glad beyond all measure, she ran to him. And then stopped.
Where were the open arms, the cries of joy? Shadrack stood with his back to her, seemingly unaware that she was there at all.
Her eyes sought the March Hare’s for reassurance. They found only pain.
‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘what has happened to him.’
The March Hare began to cry.
Meanwhile back at the Bunker:
‘Why are you telling me this?’ asked the Grey Squirrel. It bothered him that the President of Hearts should be so casual about revealing his feelings. ‘I think you’re more afraid of Death than anyone I know.’
‘In that case you haven’t really been listening. Death doesn’t scare me. In fact, I welcome the thought of giving up life, of not existing, of not being aware.’ The Panda sighed heavily. What was the use of explaining things to mere plebs? Nobody understood him. If they did, they would never have made him President. ‘I guess we’d better get down to business. If you want the Royal Librarian’s job, this is where you start to earn it. Give me a brief summary of your meeting with Ormus. I know, of course, who was there. I just want to know what was said. For instance, did Ormus mention the Red Orchestra?’
‘He did more than that. He drafted us into it - both me and the March Hare. According to him, that was our only chance of staying alive.’
‘Did he tell you the names of any other members?’
‘Only the Knave and the Royal Librarian.’
‘No mention of the Big Cheese?’
‘He alluded to him. Which I guess means that Ormus himself isn’t the Big Cheese.’
‘Any hint of when they plan to move against me?’
‘None whatsoever. But there’s a big meeting at Mrs. Pogue’s tomorrow. I suppose I might find out then.’
The Panda glanced down at some notes he had scribbled on his desk pad. ‘According to the Penguin, there was a girl at Castle Ormus. Tell me about her.’
‘Her name’s Julie. As far as I can tell, she and Ormus are lovers - though I’ve never seen such an unlikely matching in all my life. Also she had a strange accent.’
‘We know all about her. In fact, I am in some small way responsible for her being here. But that need not concern you. I want you to go to that meeting at Mrs. Pogue’s and then wait to be contacted again.’
‘And the job? The Royal Librarian, I mean?’
‘Yours as soon as you’ve earned it. Meanwhile, I expect General Cartier will be wanting to be briefed in greater detail, so I suggest you seek go him out.’
It was a dismissal.
‘I’ll do that,’ said the Grey Squirrel, rising to his feet.
‘And there’s one more thing you should be aware of. It may or may not affect things, but it would be wise for you to bear it in mind.’ The Panda cleared his throat. ‘Shadrack’s escaped. Unless my men can get to him first, he’s likely to end up with Doctor Ormus.’
‘That doesn’t sound so bad.’
‘Ormus isn’t stupid. He’ll spot Peregrine Smith’s handiwork in Shadrack straight away.’
‘He already knows Smith is alive.’
‘At the moment he only suspects. But that isn’t the worst of it. Unfortunately, Shadrack did not escape alone. He took the Albatross with him.’
‘So what?’ said the Squirrel, ‘He’s only a bird.’
‘They say he can bring great misfortune upon those who mistreat him. And right now I don’t expect that he exactly looks upon me as a benefactor.’
‘Is it?’ said the Panda. ‘I only wish I could be sure.’
Clutching a pink gin, the Duchess of Langerhans settled into the plush comfort of a silk-laden sofa and inflicted upon the March Hare a look of reproach. Her spectacles - which were perched on the end of her nose - caught the sunlight and glinted menacingly. She was not pleased.
‘Young man,’ she said in a tone that was crisp and aristocratic, ‘you have caused untold distress to a very fine young lady. What do you have to say for yourself?’
The March Hare shifted uncomfortably in his chair and searched for an excuse. He couldn’t find one. Of all the places he could have brought Shadrack, he had chosen the one he should have avoided.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m just so very, very sorry.’
He felt small. It seemed that the whole room with its lavish tapestries, its high walls and gilt ceiling had been contrived to make him feel that way. He was worthless. He didn’t belong in such a nice house.
Maybe I should just dig a hole and bury myself in it, he decided.
The Duchess shook her head as if she did not believe that someone so crass and insensitive could exist upon the same plane of reality as herself. She was a large woman. The slightest movement in any part of her body set off a series of ripples, a chain reaction of rolling fat. The shaking of her head caused her chins to flap and her jowls to undulate like water beds. Her bosom heaved and fell. ‘Sorry is not good enough,’ she admonished. ‘I’ve a mind to put you over my knee and give you a good spanking. The shock you gave Lisa could have killed her, and that would have left me without a housemaid.
‘Goodness knows where I would have got another one. Thanks to awful Panda and his frankly silly war, I am already seriously understaffed. The last thing I need on my plate is a dead housemaid.’
Feeling trapped and miserable, the March Hare started to rise. The Duchess gave him a look that first stalled him and then pushed him right back into his chair. On the wall behind her, a portrait of the Duchess’ great-grandmother looked down on him with equal disgust. He was beginning to resent his treatment.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’ve said I’m sorry and I don’t know what else I can say. It’s not as if I meant to hurt anyone. I was just trying to help. And if I didn’t think things through as well as I might, that’s because I have been having a very bad time today. My boss has been arrested. I’ve witnessed an assassination attempt on the Queen. And now I find one of my best friends mutilated beyond belief and somehow still alive. Is it any wonder that I’m losing touch with things?’
The Duchess seemed to soften at this. ‘Well, I suppose what’s done is done. There’s no use crying over spilt gin, so we’ll let it go at that. However, that still leaves the question of what to do with poor Shadrack. I think probably it would be best to call Doctor Ormus.’
‘Because he’s a doctor.’
‘Not a doctor of medicine.’
The Duchess appeared amused. ‘Not a doctor of medicine? My dear boy, Doctor Ormus is a doctor of just about everything. Wasn’t it he who invented television?’
‘I think that was Peregrine Smith. And I don’t see what television has got to do with it.’
‘Television? What a time to be thinking about television. We’ve more important things to worry about.’
The Duchess rose to her feet. Her hand explored the forbidding valley between her mighty breasts and emerged moments later clutching a leather pouch. Untying the pouch, she extracted a pinch of snuff. She rolled it between thumb and forefinger then inhaled it with great relish through her left nostril.
‘To work,’ she uttered. ‘There is much to be done and probably very little time in which to do it.’
The Duchess looked as if she was about to launch into a speech, but the ringing of the doorbell laid that possibility to rest. ‘Now who,’ she wondered, ‘can that be?’
‘Maybe someone looking for Shadrack?’ suggested the March Hare. ‘It could be that he’s a deserter and the army have tracked him down. Perhaps we should hide.’
‘In my own home? What a thing to suggest!’
There was a knock on the door.
‘Enter!’ commanded the Duchess. She moved towards the door as it swung open.
Lisa stepped in. Aside from lacking her usual smile, she showed no sign of the trauma she had just been through. Her maid’s outfit showed off the perfection of her figure to a degree that was almost pornographic. ‘A visitor, Ma’am,’ she announced with a curtsey.
‘Who is it, dear child?’
Before Lisa could answer, a coarse voice cried from the hall. ‘Screw the intros! Just tell me where Shadrack is!’
The Duchess dropped her pouch of snuff. ‘What the - !
‘The March Hare leapt to his feet. ‘It’s that bloody albatross. Don’t let him in.’
The bird ambled into the room. ‘That’s no way to treat a guest, pal. You should try being civilised.’
‘Civilised? Right now I would be happy to wring your neck.’
‘I wouldn’t try it. Nasty things happen to people who mess with the Albatross. Just ask Shadrack.’
Giving vent to a shriek of rage, the March Hare lunged towards the bird. The Duchess nimbly stepped in his way, her three hundred pounds of flesh easily absorbing the force of impact. The March Hare fell on his behind.
‘Impetuous youth,’ chided the Duchess. ‘This bird is quite right. He is our guest and therefore it is incumbent upon us to be hospitable. Besides, there are one or two questions I would like to ask him.’
‘Nuts,’ said the Albatross. ‘Just give me Shadrack.’
‘Little bird,’ said the Duchess, placing herself on the sofa. ‘You are in grave danger of finding yourself squashed between the carpet and my buttocks. Now just you behave yourself.’ She turned to Lisa. ‘My dear, fetch some fish for our visitor, will you?’
‘Raw,’ said the Albatross. ‘And make it herring.’
‘Yes, Ma’am.’ Lisa curtsied and left.
Feeling defeated, the March Hare remained on the floor. It was as good a place to be as any.
‘Now,’ said the Duchess to the Albatross. ‘Perhaps you would care to enlighten us as to the nature of Shadrack’s regrettable condition?’
The Albatross hopped onto the sofa and made himself comfortable beside the Duchess. ‘Sure thing, fatso. Where do you want me to begin?’
‘At the beginning, of course.’
‘Well, it all began about two months ago. I was flying across what you folks laughingly call the War Zone.
‘It was morning...’
Morning on the Eastern Front. The War Zone basked in summer’s full glory, enjoying a rare moment of brittle calm. Across the cloudless sky, plumes of white smoke acted as reminders of the temporary nature of the present serenity.
In Trench 206, the men of Company B spoke in reverent tones of their last battle. It had lasted three days and nights, each moment a blaze of screaming, murderous upheaval. It was like being caught in the climax of a great symphony with your veins full of adrenalin and the music going on and on, changing only in pitch, never in volume.
That had been a good fight, said the men, remembering the endless onslaught of howitzers, the sharp, incisive crack of a thousand rifles. Above them, biplanes had swept through columns of fire and smoke, reminding some of swallows, others of the Angel of Death.
They agreed that some good men had died in that battle, but they had died noble, honourable deaths. Even Shorty Mendoza who lasted only a few seconds before mis-throwing a hand-grenade. Poor Shorty. While everyone else had the sense to run for cover, Shorty tried to redeem himself by picking up the grenade in order to rethrow it. They never did find his right arm, but at least they had recovered enough of him to ensure he qualified for a full-size casket.
Shadrack was shaking. Despite the heat, he felt intensely cold. The morning stillness played on his nerves like a cat with a ball. It seemed unnatural, almost hostile. And it gave him time to consider things he would rather not think about.
His one consolation was being on lookout duty, excused the chore of joining with the rest of the company in their version of manly camaraderie. He could hide his fear beneath his field coat. The others had to resort to cracking jokes and boasting about their prowess on the battlefield and in bed.
With his back against the trench wall, he sipped his coffee and stared at Sergeant Rock’s impressive back. Of all things Shadrack hated about this war - some profound, some petty - he hated Sergeant Rock the most. To him, the Sergeant represented all that was crass and futile.
‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’ the bullish NCO told his men. His thick lips were wrapped with obscene intimacy around the butt of an unlit cigarette. ‘I was at the front during the autumn offensive and I can tell you it wasn’t at all nice. Man, how it rained! There was raindrops bigger than an elephant’s testicle and twice as hard. It cut so bad you didn’t dare whiz in case your wanger got cut in two. And these here trenches - they was like swimming pools. I knew this Major who went for a walk and stepped straight into a puddle. Guess the mud must have sucked him down or something, because we never did see him again. Times like that, war just ain’t no fun at all.
‘Which reminds me of this widow I was on intimate terms with back in the Hinterlands. A fine woman she was. Blessed with the biggest mazonkas this side of the Pearly Gates!’
Shadrack winced. Something had bitten his leg. He prayed that it wasn’t a body louse or any one of the other dozen or so parasites currently plaguing the army. They’d been told in training that such infestations would be considered self-inflicted wounds, which meant that a man could find himself court martialed just for carrying ticks. And as if that wasn’t enough, there were now rumours of bubonic plague.
Sergeant Rock shouted an obscenity, then let rip with a great guffaw. Apparently, the vulgar expression he’d used had been the punch line to a joke. The men rocked with laughter. ‘I ain’t kidding,’ said Sergeant Rock. ‘It was the darnedest thing I ever saw and to this day I still don’t know what she did with that rolling pin!’
More raucous laughter.
Shadrack turned away in disgust and chanced a look over the top of the trench. In theory, he should have used a periscope, but such equipment had not found its way to the Front for two years or more.
No-Man’s Land stretched before him like a harsh, ugly fact begging to be ignored. The scars it bore would have been no sadder had they been inflicted upon the face of a good friend. It was a landscape of despair, devoid of all hope, all meaning. It was the line which separated reason from insanity.
The ochre tones of mud laced with barbed wire depressed him. In the distance, a series of wooden spikes served to mark the beginnings of the enemy’s battle lines. There was no sign of movement, but Shadrack could easily picture the scenes in the opposing trenches. They would be much the same as here - men singing and joking, smoking cigarettes and bragging about their bravery. No-Man’s Land was a mirror; each side of it a reflection of the grim reality of the other.
Beside a spent mortar shell, a badly decayed arm rose from the mud like an accusation; it served as a meeting point for a swarm of flies. Unless there was a poison gas attack, it would soon be crawling with maggots.
Shadrack squinted against the glare of the sun, tried to determine whether the sleeve on the arm bore two stripes or three. Meanwhile the boys of Company C - led and encouraged by Sergeant Rock - had launched into a ditty which told of love, war and the sexual proclivities of a certain barmaid and her donkey. Some sang in tones as rich and vibrant as mortars. Others managed as best they could, seemingly oblivious to the painful limits of their vocal abilities.
Above them all, Sergeant Rock’s voice roared like a monstrous cannon.
‘I’ve never seen a lassie so abused,’ they sang, sitting comfortably on their ammo crates, nursing insipid tea and ersatz coffee. Though they would have preferred to be in a circle, the geometry of the trench forced them to sing side by side. ‘We had our way and left her bruised. We kissed her donkey and wished her well. But God help the Devil if she goes to Hell.’
Halfway through the chorus, one of the men detached himself from his comrades and strolled up to Shadrack.
‘Not much of a war, is it?’ he said, handing Shadrack a lighted cigarette. The stripe on his arm announced that he was a lance corporal. He had scarred cheeks and a bruised forehead. ‘It’s all a bit untidy for my liking.’
Shadrack took a long drag on the cigarette, savoured the bitter taste as it crept over his tongue and down his throat. It was the first time in weeks that anyone had shown him anything like friendship and he was surprised at how deeply grateful he felt. Picking a shred of stray tobacco from his lip, he searched for small talk. ‘If you ask me, they’re building for their biggest push yet.’
‘The Spuds, you mean? They’re more likely to be fast asleep in their bunks. Can’t take the excitement the way we can. Knew a few of them before the war, and they were lazy bastards to a man.’
‘Have you ever wondered,’ asked Shadrack, ‘where we are?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Are we in Hearts or Spades? We’ve advanced and retreated so many times I bet even our Generals don’t know where this place is.’
‘According to Sergeant Rock,’ said the Lance Corporal, ‘there used to be a village here. But those bastard Spuds bombed it out of existence.’
‘I suppose,’ said Shadrack, ‘that it’s Hearts. At least technically. I mean, it may have been Spades once, but now we’re here it’s our territory and therefore Hearts.’
‘You’re a funny bugger, Shadrack. You’ve been with us two months and still none of us can figure you out. You fight like a demon and think like a scholar. And you’re always bloody day-dreaming.’
‘What else is there to do? Whem we’re not fighting for our lives, things tend to get a bit boring around here.’
The Lance Corporal shrugged. ‘They call me Vinegar Joe, by the way. That’s on account of my father being Crudestuff of Crudestuff foods.’
‘Never heard of them.’
‘You should have. They’re the biggest producers of beef in the Kingdom.’
‘I don’t eat beef. In fact, I try not to eat meat at all. Some of my best friends are animals.’
‘Know what you mean. I’ve met a few talkies in my time, and they all seem like good blokes.’
‘Sure,’ said Shadrack, who wasn’t listening any more. He was gazing up at the sky, following the progress of what appeared to be an extremely large sea gull. ‘That bird’s asking for trouble.’
Vinegar Joe looked up. ‘It’s big enough to be a talkie. You reckon it’s a spy?’
‘Could be. But if it is, it’s one of ours. There aren’t any talkies in Spades.’
‘Yeah, but we wouldn’t send one to war.’
‘And I don’t think they would, either.’
Vinegar Joe looked doubtful. When it came to the enemy, he was always prepared to believe the worst. By now, the rest of the company had sighted the bird. Fourteen rifles were trained on its belly.
‘Wait till it gets closer,’ ordered Sergeant Rock. ‘Anyone scares it off, they’re on fatigues from now till the end of the war.’
The bird spiraled down a thermal, oblivious to the danger below. As it came closer, Shadrack recognised it. ‘Wait a minute, Sarge. We can’t shoot that.’
Sergeant Rock spat. ‘And why the bloody hell not?’
‘That’s the Albatross, Sarge.’
‘A friend of yours?’
‘Oh good. I am relieved. That means we can blast it out of the sky without hurting your feelings.’
‘He’s a protected species.’
‘And this is a war zone. If I say that thing’s meat, it’s meat.’
‘But it’s unlucky to harm it.’
‘You some sort of moron, Shadrack, or what?’
‘No, Sarge. But It’s a well-known fact that - ’
‘Shut up, Shadrack. If you want facts, I’ll give you facts. Fact Number One - I don’t like you, Shadrack. Fact Number Two - I’ve never liked you. Fact Number Three - nobody likes you. Fact Number Four - I ain’t having nobody spreading superstitious crap around here. And here’s Fact Number Five - if I tell you to shoot your own mother, the only thing you I want to hear from you is whether I mean through the heart or through the head. Understood?’
‘I’m glad that’s clear, Private Shadrack. Because you have just been elected to give our friend up there a typical Company C welcome.’
‘Beg pardon, Sarge?’
‘Shoot the bleeder.’
‘I can’t do that.’
‘That’s an order, Mister! Either he gets filled with lead, or you do. The choice is yours.’
It was no choice at all. Conscious of Sergeant Rock studying his every move, Shadrack threw away his cigarette and unslung his rifle. The bolt needed oiling. As he pulled it back, it squealed and then settled into place with a dull click. He took careful aim and fired.
The Albatross gave vent to a hideous shriek. Its wings flapped wildly, grasping at air in a frantic effort to stay in flight. Shadrack could only watch in numb horror as the bird began to descend.
‘Give the man a coconut!’ someone shouted. ‘We have ourselves a prisoner.’
The Albatross landed at Shadrack’s feet and tumbled head first along the trench, rolling beak over flippers, before coming to an undignified halt in a pile of oily rags. A red patch on his abdomen marked the bullet’s point of entry.
‘You bastards,’ screamed the Albatross, lying on his back. ‘Who did that? Who was it?’
All eyes turned to Shadrack. His finger was still on the trigger. A telltale plume of smoke drifted craftily from the barrel of his gun.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, miserably. ‘I was only obeying orders.’
‘Yeah, that’s what they all say! You could have killed me!’
Sergeant Rock stepped in. ‘That was the general idea, little birdy. And unless you’re smart, I’m quite willing to finish the job myself. Me and the boys here haven’t had proper roast meat for a long time.’
‘That,’ said the Albatross, ‘is the least of your worries. Just wait until the King hears about what you’ve done. I’m a protected species. He’s not going to like this.’
‘I think you’re a spy.’
‘And I think you’re a prat!’
A brilliant flood of crimson washed over Sergeant Rock’s grizzled features. ‘Shadrack,’ he said. ‘This here sea gull is now a prisoner of war. You will escort it to Battalion Headquarters and see that it gets interrogated. If it tries to escape - shoot it.’
‘Oh, marvelous,’ said the Albatross. ‘Really bloody marvelous. That’s made my day, that has. It comes to something when a chap can’t even go for a quick spin without being shot down and banged-up by his own side.
‘Boy, are you going to be sorry. All of you! And especially the guy who shot me. Nobody crosses the Albatross and gets away with it.’
The barest shadow of doubt crossed Sergeant Rock’s face. He grinned nervously. ‘On your feet and start marching - or you’ll find my bayonet where it hurts the most.’
‘You’ll have to help me up. Or is that too much to ask?’
‘Shadrack. Help it up.’
‘Yes, Sarge.’ Bending down, Shadrack placed his hands under the Albatross and began to turn him on his front. He was relieved to note that the bullet only seemed to have nicked the bird.
‘Watch it!’ warned the Albatross. ‘I’m a little delicate right now - and you’re in enough trouble as it is. You’d just better hope I don’t die.’
‘Do you want me to carry you?’ Shadrack asked.
‘No thank you. You’ve done quite enough damage already.’
‘Do you hurt much?’
‘What do you care, garbage-breath?’
‘Well ask yourself what happened to everyone else who ever harmed me. There’s not one of them who didn’t come to a nasty end.’
‘Yes,’ said Shadrack. ‘I’d heard something to that effect.’
‘I’m just glad I’m not you, pal.’
At this point in the tale, Lisa returned carrying a silver bowl stuffed to the brim with raw herring. She handed it to the Duchess who placed it on her lap. No-one spoke until Lisa had left the room.
‘Gimme a fish then,’ said the Albatross the moment the door closed.
‘Story first,’ said the Duchess grimly. ‘Fish second.’
‘There’s not much left to tell. That night, Spades launched an all-out offensive and wiped out Company C. Not a single one of them survived.’
‘Was on his way back from Battalion Headquarters when he got caught in a napalm attack. His body was shipped back for burial five days ago. Only I hadn’t finished with him. The son-of-a-bitch wasn’t going to get off that lightly.’
‘So you brought him back from the dead?’ said the March Hare. He had never felt so appalled in his life. ‘You couldn’t let him rest in peace.’
The Albatross was dismissive. ‘Don’t blame me, pal. It was all Peregrine Smith’s doing.’
‘Smith is dead!’
‘Then maybe somebody ought to tell him, because last time I saw the old boy he was pottering around a laboratory in the President’s Bunker.’
‘I think you’re lying.’
‘Think what you like. Now, do I get my fish or what?’
The Duchess placed her hands over the bowl of fish. ‘My dear Mr. Albatross,’ she said chidingly, ‘you don’t honestly think I would reward you for telling me so much and then no more, do you? Kindly finish your story.’
‘Gimme a fish!’
‘Not until you have explained exactly how Peregrine Smith managed to raise Shadrack from the dead.’
‘He used some stuff called orgone energy. And that’s about all I can tell you.’
‘Have you met Smith?’
‘Yes!’ The Albatross seemed impatient to get to his fish. ‘After my illegal arrest, I was sent to the Presidential Bunker and kept in a cage in his laboratory there. A couple of days later, they wheeled in a human corpse which turned out to be Shadrack. I wasn’t too amused when they dumped it right outside my cage.
‘And I know he was dead and I know Smith brought him back to life. I was there when it happened. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
‘I’ll tell you one thing - Smith isn’t going to get away with treating me the way he did. I think he wanted to use me for some experiment, only I managed to escape in time. He and the Panda are going to suffer enormously. Within a week, Hearts will fall to Spades. You just mark my words.’
‘So how did you get out?’ asked the March Hare. ‘That bunker must be near escape-proof.’
‘Some of the guards let me out. They were smart, you see. They know what happens to people who upset the Albatross.’
‘I insisted that he come with me. They weren’t about to argue.’
The Duchess shook her head woefully. ‘I really wish I knew what to make of all this. One thing’s for sure though. Peregrine Smith is probably quite anxious to get his hands on Shadrack again, and I imagine he’ll receive all the help he wants from that disgusting President of ours.
‘We have no choice but to hide Shadrack and hide him well. In the meantime, I had better get in touch with Doctor Ormus to see what he thinks of it all. If anyone can help Shadrack, it is he.’
Sure, thought the March Hare. All roads lead to Ormus. It’s a wonder don’t they canonise him.
‘Now,’ said the Albatross, ‘how about my fish?’
‘Help yourself,’ said the Duchess, placing the bowl on the floor.
‘And don’t forget, I still want to see Shadrack.’
‘That’s not possible.’
‘You’ll be sorry.’
The March Hare wanted so much to hurt the Albatross. As if they had a life of their own, his hands went through the motions of strangling thin air. But he did not leave his seat. There was, he knew, a time and a place for everything.
The Albatross started on the herring.
9. The Velvet Underground
It was if a giant had died by the banks of the Tired River, and all his flesh had been stripped by carnivores until only his rib-cage remained, a huge metal frame tarnished with rust. Bathed in moonlight, it cast a matrix of soft shadow over the old dockyards.
‘This used to be the biggest warehouse in the Kingdom,’ explained the Duchess of Langerhans, sweeping the beam of her flashlight along the ground. The beam revealed railway tracks and fractured concrete. A few hardy shrubs had managed to reclaim parts of the industrial wasteland.
The March Hare followed the sweep of the flashlight. Beside him stood Lisa and Shadrack.
‘If one was to study one’s history,’ the Duchess continued, ‘one would find this to be the oldest part of Enigma. In fact, if it wasn’t for these docks, this town would never have happened. It’s a shame they had to close. I suppose the eternal combustion engine has been as much a curse as a blessing.’
Lisa turned to Shadrack and straightened the lapel of his jacket. Now that the worst of his wounds had been dressed and partially disguised with make-up, his face was unsightly rather than repulsive. They had swapped his army fatigues for a suit that had belonged to the late Duke of Langerhans; it was slightly too large but Lisa decided that it lent him a certain elegance. The patch over his ruined eye made him look roguish.
The March Hare gazed around the abandoned dockyards, wondering that so many buildings should be left to decay. ‘Guess this is the price we pay for progress.’
Lisa took his arm, pointed to the river. ‘I’ve always thought of that as being my own, personal river. Ever since I was little, I’ve sort of identified myself with Miranda. I suppose you could say she was my role model.’
‘Who’s Miranda?’ asked the March Hare.
‘According to legend, she was the wife of a powerful magician who was deeply in love with her because she was the most beautiful woman who ever lived. They say that when she died, her husband just sat down and cried for a thousand years and all his tears became this river.’ Lisa smiled distantly. ‘Isn’t it strange how sad things can be so beautiful?’
The Duchess of Langerhans led the way to a corner of the warehouse. Her flashlight sought out and found a mattress sitting in a cluster of nettles. She turned to the March Hare. ‘Dear boy,’ she said, ‘am I right in thinking that you’re safe from the sting of these awful weeds?’
The March Hare nodded. ‘My fur protects me. It’s just my palms I have to watch out for.’
‘How perfectly convenient. Perhaps you would honour us by removing that mattress? I can assure you that to do so would further our cause no end.’
The mattress threatened to disintegrate in the March Hare’s paws. A foul-smelling concoction of rotten straw and fabric, it played host to a whole encyclopaedia of moulds and insects. A beetle flew straight at his face, skimmed the top of his head and then disappeared into the night. The March Hare took it in his stride.
He pushed the mattress to one side. It had been covering a sheet of corrugated iron. At the Duchess’s prompting, he lifted it up, expecting to find nothing but concrete and dirt. He was wrong.
‘Stairs,’ he muttered.
Beneath the sprawl of Enigma ran a maze of tunnels that had probably given the city its name. Many of the tunnels served as sewers. Some were wine cellars. Still others were unexplored or even forgotten. No-one in recent times could have said why they were built, or by who. The favoured theory - that they were the remains of a subterranean city - begged more questions than it answered.
‘The Rabbit Hole,’ said Lisa.
‘You’ve been here before,’ said the March Hare.
Lisa did not answer. Her face was raised in a kind of rapture to the sky. The March Hare could see in her eyes a strength he had never suspected. It was a strength tempered by determination, by pain and sorrow, a strength untainted by bitterness.
She should hate me for what I’ve done, thought the March Hare. When I brought her Shadrack, she should have slapped me and clawed at my face, called me every name under the sun. I thought I knew her almost as well as I know myself, but it seems I was wrong. Unless I don’t know myself either.
The night seemed to darken. Instinctively, the March Hare looked up at the sky, saw a shadow touch the moon.
‘An eclipse,’ he said.
The Duchess adjusted her spectacles. ‘How jolly fascinating.’
Only Shadrack was left unmoved by the phenomenon. He stood at Lisa’s side, gazing at the ground like a sinner confronted by an angel. For him there was no sky, no moon or stars. Only a dull ache, a vague comprehension of his own existence.
Far away, a church bell voiced its plaintive cry. Like a metal beast, it called ten times across the silence of the night.
Something inside Shadrack answered. It stirred in his mind, worried with sharp, insistent claws at the one small part of him that could still be called human.
For a moment, lucidity came. He remembered a night of thunder, of death falling from the sky, the ground seeming to open beneath his feet. A wash of napalm. His companions dissolving in flames. Fire stripping the flesh from his face. The awful certainty that he was about to die. Then there had been darkness and the darkness had suddenly exploded into blinding light. And after the light - a white room. A cage. A bird...
He felt betrayed. Nature had promised him the peace of Death and then failed to deliver. Like an animal caught in a snare, he was vaguely aware of the injustice of his situation. He’d had his share of pain. Now the Universe owed it to him to leave him be, to let him slip quietly away from this world.
Shadrack wanted to die.
The claws stopped scraping. The human in his mind went back to sleep and all that filled Shadrack was that same dull ache which seemed to have been with him forever.
Tiring of the eclipse, the March Hare probed the Rabbit Hole with the beam of his flashlight. Stone steps eased their way into the ground. He was still unable to fathom the Duchess’s reasons for wanting to bring Shadrack here. Surely there were better places to hide him than this unappealing hole in the ground.
It’s as if we’re out to bury him, he thought. Because he’s not really alive, we want him to be dead. We’re sending him underground to join the souls of the departed.
‘Oh my,’ said the Duchess of Langerhans, suddenly remembering both her business and the 2 a.m. curfew. ‘We had best be on our way.’
At the bottom of the stairs, a stone chamber arched protectively over a pool of stagnant water. A gentle draught seemed to ebb and flow around them as if the underground were a living, breathing thing. Damp brickwork and the constant drip-drip-dripping of water added to the impression of standing inside the windpipe of an immense organism.
The March Hare swept the walls with his flashlight, chasing shadows that grew, shrank and twisted grotesquely. Patches of purple moss gave an obvious clue to how the Velvet Underground had gotten its name.
‘Isn’t it warm?’ said Lisa. Holding Shadrack’s hand, she led the way forward, reinforcing the March Hare’s conviction that she was no stranger to the place.
Fifty yards ahead, a tall archway marked the end of the chamber. Passing through it, they came to a narrow tunnel.
To the March Hare, the way ahead seemed daunting. He wondered that the Duchess, for all her aristocratic bearing, did not mind setting her feet in mud or having to steady herself against walls thick with grime. Her dress was already mottled with filth; a line of dirt ran from her temple to her chins.
The March Hare did not suppose that he looked any better himself. But somehow that was different. He was working class. For him, getting dirty was a fact of life, a fitting consequence of the work ethic. The dignity of labour.
They came to a bridge. A long way below, a rivulet of black water flowed onwards and downwards, following a course mapped out for it by the engineers of a bygone age. Moonlight flooded through a grille in the roof, indicating that the eclipse was nearing its end. Here the moss was thicker, almost luxuriant.
The March Hare reached up to touch it. It felt like damp velvet.
Finally, they came to a huge, circular cavern from which several other tunnels radiated. Its gothic buttresses and mosaic floors spoke of a grander design than the rest of the Velvet Underground had so far suggested. Gargoyles grinned down from high up on the walls, petrified beasts smiling at some private joke. The floor was covered in runes and pentagrams.
Lisa placed her hand against one of the buttresses. Immediately, soft light poured into the chamber, bathing it in a twilight glow.
The sudden light startled the March Hare. It took him a moment to fathom its source - electric lamps placed in niches around the wall.
If all this was bizarre, it paled into mundanity against the sight of the figure sitting at a walnut desk on the far side of the chamber. The red and white patchwork of his jacket competed for attention with his purple sombrero. He was not particularly thin, not particularly stocky. Youngish but hardly a boy. In fact, apart from his clothes, his one distinguishing characteristic was the enormous sadness of his eyes.
‘My dear Mock Turtle,’ said the Duchess. ‘How nice to see you.’
The figure doffed his hat but did not rise. From his manner, it was clear he had been expecting them. ‘Likewise,’ he said in a graveside voice.
‘I’m so glad you could make it,’ the Duchess gushed. ‘These days one can rely on so very few people, but you, my dear Mock Turtle, never let me down.’
The Mock Turtle allowed the briefest of smiles to flicker across his lips. ‘You’re not alone I see.’
‘I have brought Lisa and Shadrack along with me. Also the March Hare.’
‘The dude who burnt the King’s bed?’
‘Amongst other things,’ said the March Hare. He felt an instinctive dislike for the Mock Turtle whose gaudy suit contrasted so markedly - so dishonestly - with his austere looks. ‘Why are you called the Mock Turtle?’
‘Because I’m not really a turtle,’ came the reply.
‘To business,’ said the Duchess, advancing towards the desk. ‘There’s much to be done and very little time in which to do it.’
‘Shouldn’t we wait for Ormus?’ asked the Mock Turtle, vacating his seat.
‘He’ll be here soon enough,’ said the Duchess. She eased herself into the chair and settled down behind the desk. Coming closer, the March Hare was able to make out the inscription on the plaque which dominated the front of the desk. It read:
Social Rehabilitation Scheme
Chief Welfare Officer
Her Grace, the Duchess of Langerhans
Once again the March Hare found himself wrong-footed by events. Though he knew well-enough that the Duchess involved herself with a great many charitable causes, this was one facet of her work he had never even suspected.
He turned to Lisa. She had detected his astonishment and seemed amused by it.
‘The Duchess and I,’ she said, ‘have a very long association with this place.’
‘But why? What possible good can you do down here?’
‘Let’s just say for now that the Duchess moves in mysterious ways. You’ll discover her purpose soon enough.’
‘Ah, my dear Doctor,’ said the Duchess. ‘How unusually punctual you are tonight!’
The March Hare turned to find Doctor Ormus and Julie framed by the archway through which he himself had just entered. They were both dressed in jeans and anoraks. Each carried a flashlight.
Doctor Ormus bowed. ‘May I say how charming Your Grace looks tonight? Truly a vision.’
‘That’s terribly kind of you, Doctor. Terribly kind.’
‘And may I introduce to you my companion and assistant, Julie?’
Julie approached the desk and curtsied. ‘Good evening, Your Grace.’
The Duchess peered at Julie over the horizon of her half-moon spectacles. ‘Oh, you delightful child. What very fine cheek bones you have, my dear. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you had aristocratic blood in you. Oh yes. In fact, you do rather remind me of my dear cousin, the Countess of Tibia. She was violated by a wereboar on her wedding night. Most unfortunate. ‘You’re not by any chance her daughter, are you?’
‘No, Your Grace.’
‘Just as well really. I understand the poor child is having the most ghastly adolescence imaginable. It seems she has a rather awkward habit of turning into a pig whenever there’s a full moon. Of course, one can imagine the frightful difficulties the poor child has courting young men.
‘You know, I’m a silly woman. I do appear to have left my cigarettes back at the house. You wouldn’t happen to have...?’
‘Afraid not, Your Grace.’
There was a general shaking of heads. The Duchess sighed heavily. Reaching between her breasts, she produced a hand-rolled cigarette. ‘Just have to make do with something with a bit more zip then.’
Ormus stepped forward with a lighter in his hands. As he held it to the Duchess’s joint, its flame cast flickering shadows on the rolling flatlands of her jowls. It was reminiscent of wheat fields caught in an autumn breeze.
The Duchess drew thankfully on her joint. When she spoke, she spoke in clouds. ‘I regret that the circumstance under which we meet is not a happy one, Doctor. But then, these are not happy times, are they?’
‘Indeed not,’ agreed Doctor Ormus.
‘And yet, I see no cause to give up hope entirely. I trust that your knowledge of medicine is still as prodigious as ever it was?’
‘I flatter myself that it is. Although of late I have concerned myself chiefly with the physical sciences, I have taken care not to neglect the study of other disciplines.’
‘Then I can leave Shadrack in your capable hands?’
‘It would be best that you do, Your Grace. Aside from Peregrine Smith, I believe I am the only person in this land to possess a working knowledge of orgone energy. And furthermore, I have in my basement an orgone generator which was constructed by myself and Smith shortly before his alleged death.’
‘Does it work?’
‘I really don’t know. I’ve only ever tried it on mushrooms.’
‘The giant ones in the Pleasure Garden are the results of one of my experiments. It seems that orgone accelerates the growth of plants. My main worry is that it could have the same effect on humans.’
‘Is that likely?’
‘From the little I understand of the subject, I would say probably not. But I can’t be sure.’ Ormus glanced briefly at Shadrack. His eyes took in only general details of the youth’s frame and bearing. He could not bring himself to focus on the face. ‘I shall do what I can for him, Your Grace. If my machine works, I believe that the best course would be to subject him to further doses of orgone in the hope that it will speed up his healing processes. Who knows? Maybe a complete regeneration is not out of the question.’
‘Do you think that possible?’
‘I think the process has already begun, Your Grace. For if what the Albatross told you is true, his face - indeed his whole body - must have been burnt away almost beyond recognition. And yet he now has relatively few signs of disfigurement.
‘I cannot promise anything, but I do hold out a great deal of hope.’
Lisa ran a hand through her hair, swayed as if she was about to faint. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered. ‘Whatever you can do for him - ’
‘The problem now,’ said Doctor Ormus, ‘is to find a safe place in which to carry out the treatment. Castle Ormus is quite out of the question. The police have it under constant surveillance.’
‘Not such a problem,’ said the Mock Turtle. ‘You forget that a very good facility exists close by.’
Doctor Ormus shook his head. ‘That’s something I could never forget. But when I discovered the uses to which it was put by Peregrine Smith, I swore I would never go there again.’
‘Do you have an alternative, Doctor?’
Ormus hesitated. Whatever his personal feelings, he owed it to Shadrack to treat him as soon as possible. ‘No. I suppose not.’
‘Good,’ said the Duchess. ‘When can you start?’
‘Not immediately. After all these years of disuse, the place is going to be a mess. Also, I have to find a way of transporting my orgone generator from Castle Ormus without attracting any attention. That won’t be easy. It’s a fairly large piece of apparatus.’
‘First thing’s first,’ said the Duchess. ‘We’ll deal with the generator in the morning. In the meantime, let’s see about cleaning up your laboratory.’
‘It will be quite a task, Your Grace.’
‘I think not, Doctor. Many hands make light work.’ So saying, the Duchess of Langerhans opened a drawer and produced a copper hand bell. ‘Come, my angels!’ she called, shaking the bell into urgent life. ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are. The time has come to leave the shadows and once more face the light of reality.’
It was the Priestess calling to the faithful, the lion to the jungle, the sea bird to the sea. Her voice was strong and commanding. On wings of regality, it flew into the surrounding tunnels like an iron butterfly in search of the sun.
And it was answered.
They slouched from the tunnels, faces as bland as Muzak, feet scraping on stone. There was no poetry to their movements, no grace or vitality. A dozen teenagers dressed in jeans, T-shirts and orange headbands. They wore make-up. Brutal lipstick that varied from black to purple. Heavy eye shadow that accentuated the unwholesome aspects of their features. It was hard to tell male from female, but the March Hare judged it to be roughly an even split.
As they draw near, a musty scent reminiscent of stale cinnamon disclosed the nature of their affliction. The March Hare had only once before met a buzz addict, but the smell was unforgettable.
‘Who are they?’ asked Julie.
‘Buzzniks,’ said the March Hare. ‘The most authentic form of human lowlife ever known.’
The Duchess rose to her feet. Ash dropped from the joint in her mouth and fell down the front of her dress. She spread her arms and beamed warmly at the buzzniks as they gathered around her desk. ‘You dear, delicious dregs,’ she enthused. ‘What rough diamonds you are! The sediment - the very sediment I say! - of our society.’
‘I hope they’re as docile as they look,’ said Julie, who was standing between the buzzniks and the desk.
‘Cute, aren’t they?’ said the Mock Turtle sardonically.
‘Did someone ask if they were docile?’ asked the Duchess. ‘Of course they’re docile! They’re as gentle as lambs gamboling in a spring meadow. There’s not one of them - not one single one of them - who would wish harm to anybody. Saints! That’s what they are. Saints!’
Julie did not look convinced. ‘They’re on drugs, aren’t they?’
‘On drugs and as high as fresh manure, my dear.’
‘But harmless,’ added the Mock Turtle.
‘Oh, very harmless,’ agreed the Duchess. ‘Very harmless and terribly misunderstood. Just look at the poor sweet darlings. Can you not see the pain in their eyes? Can you not read in their faces the tragic circumstances which have brought them this low?
‘If they had ever been presented with one single chance to escape their awful fate, do you not think they would have taken it? Judge not, my child, lest you be judged also.’
‘I’m not judging,’ said Julie. ‘Honestly, I’m not.’
The March Hare noticed a slight stirring amongst the buzzniks. One by one, they seemed to have become aware of Lisa’s presence and were reacting to it in an extraordinary way. She stood behind them, away from Shadrack, and she stood quite still with her hands by her sides, her legs spaced lightly apart. Murmuring an unintelligible incantation, the buzzniks turned slowly towards her and bowed their heads as if in prayer.
The murmuring stopped.
There was almost total silence in the chamber, broken only by the laboured breathing of the buzzniks and the sound of dripping water. Looking at the floor, the March Hare found fresh significance in the symbols and pentacles that radiated from its centre. The buzzniks were revering Lisa.
Curiouser and curiouser, he told himself, though he was sure he knew what was going on. This was the Duchess of Langerhans’ way of controlling the buzzniks. She had engineered a religion for them in order that their miserable lives contained at least some shred of purpose, some reason for them to carry on.
Raising her head, Lisa crossed her arms over her chest and closed her eyes. She uttered a few words of gibberish, and then nodded twice. This must have signified the end of the ritual, because the buzzniks turned away from her and looked instead at the Duchess.
Julie and the March Hare exchanged uncertain glances. They were united in the knowledge that they alone found the present situation bizarre. The Duchess, the Doctor and the Mock Turtle showed no sign of even noticing the ceremony.
Rather guiltily the March Hare realised he had left Shadrack out of the equation.
I no longer think of him as human, he admitted to himself. I don’t expect him to have thoughts or feelings or to be aware of what’s going on.
The Duchess cut into his thoughts with a clap of her hands. ‘Are we all set then?’ she asked, her voice all authority and jolly hockey sticks. ‘We have a long night ahead of us, so let’s be started at once! There’s work to be done, my angels. Do you hear? Work!’
A murmur went up from the buzzniks. It was a vague, non-committal hum, neither protest nor assent.
‘Nobody gets their morning fix,’ added the Duchess, ‘until the job is finished. So follow me and let’s have no shilly-shallying.’
As the last echo of her words died in the chamber, the Duchess disappeared through a nearby arch. The buzzniks trailed after her like jetsam caught in the wake of a passing liner.
‘Hey ho,’ said the Mock Turtle, adjusting the angle of his outrageous hat. ‘Let’s go.’
He and Doctor Ormus departed, side by side.
The March Hare hung back, waited to see if the others would follow. He had no desire to involve himself further with the Duchess’s macabre plans; he wanted nothing more than to go home, slip into bed and forget everything that had happened today. But he knew he owed it to Lisa to stick around, find out what she wanted from him.
Taking Shadrack by the hand, Lisa seemed to notice Julie for the first time. ‘You’re that Earth girl I’ve been hearing so much about, aren’t you? I was rather hoping we’d meet.’
‘So was I,’ said Julie. ‘I just wish it was under happier circumstances. If there’s anything I can do...’
‘Thanks,’ said Lisa. ‘I appreciate that.’
‘Are you going then?’ asked the March Hare. ‘With the others, I mean.’
‘Of course,’ said Lisa. ‘But you’d best head home. This must have been one hell of a day for you, and you look bushed. Thanks for all your help.’
‘Help? I must have caused you more grief than you ever thought possible.’
‘No. On the contrary. You brought Shadrack back to me. And if Ormus is half the scientist he’s cracked up to be, he’ll soon have him as good as new.’
I hope so, thought the March Hare. He could think of nothing more to say, so he turned and headed back the way he came. Lisa was right. It had been without doubt the worst day of his life. Maybe in the morning he would be able to put things into perspective, sort through the day’s events and find that things weren’t as grim as they seemed.
Back in his cottage, the March Hare nursed a cup of tea but could not bring himself to drink it. He watched galaxies of dust dancing in the path of moonlight that spilled through his kitchen window.
When the tea had lost all trace of warmth, he tipped it down the sink and then turned his attention to the letter which had been waiting on his doormat. The envelope bore a small crest and the legend, Department of Labour. He tore it open, carefully unfolded the paper inside. It read:
FORM EL.17/b Notification of Employment Allocation
Department of Labour,1-15 Baud Walk,Conundrum C12 X7S.
Dear March Hare,
following your recent loss of employment and inpursuance of the Emergency Labour and War EffortAct, you have been assigned the following post whichyou are required to take up on the first working dayfollowing receipt of this formal notification. Failure todo so will result in your arrest and imprisonment.
POST : Royal Valet.EMPLOYER : His Majesty, the King.ADDRESS : The Royal Palace of Hearts.
T.J. Walker (Chief Clerk)
10. Of Cabbages and Kings
It was a bad time for solitude. The March Hare knew if he went to bed his thoughts would not leave him alone. They would pummel his mind with an endless array of questions and doubts. Sleep was a distant prospect. There’d be no comfort in satin sheets and cotton pillows.
With remote precision, he folded the government form in half, using his thumbnail to smooth the creases. Then he placed the note on the mantelpiece and went for a walk.
As he left his cottage, he heard a distant cry, a shrill, primal screech like an animal giving vent to some long-suppressed anguish. Chilled by this intimation of a pain too horrible to bear, the March Hare stopped in his tracks and listened. The world was stark. It was shadows and silhouettes gilded by the moon. There was no wind, no movement - nothing to suggest that the March Hare was not the last sentient being in the world.
After long minutes, he was satisfied that the cry would not sound again. He hoped that whatever had called out had laid its ghosts to rest and found peace. And yet, as he walked on, he wondered if t had indeed been a cry of pain. Could it not have been laughter - brief but sinister? Course, manic hysteria such as a madman enjoys at the height of delirium?
He strolled on down the road until he came to the Mad Hatter’s cottage. The Mad Hatter was sitting on the lawn, his back against the oak tree, his hands in his lap. In front of him, his penny-farthing bicycle stood like a monument, perhaps to the remains of his tea-party scattered amongst the grass and flower beds. Old tea bags hung from rose bushes, strange fruit that would never blossom. The Mad Hatter let out a long, heavy sigh.
In his top hat and tails, he looked like a parody of an undertaker. ‘I can’t sleep,’ he announced as the March Hare kicked aside a fairy cake and sat down beside him. ‘On nights like this, I wonder if I’ll ever sleep again.’
The March Hare nodded his understanding. ‘I ache all over. Every fibre in my body is begging me to sleep - and yet I can’t.’
‘Do you know what day it is?’
The March Hare shook his head.
‘Scatterday, the thirteenth of Audacious.’
‘I’ve always wanted the thirteenth of Audacious to be my birthday, but somehow it never works out that way. Year after year, I find myself having my birthday on the same old day - the Eighth of Obelisk. It’s tedious. I wish it would change.’
‘Do you suppose,’ said the March Hare, ‘that I’m getting older?’
‘We’re all getting older, my friend. Why should you be the exception? Has Mother Nature granted you immunity?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just that I’ve never had a birthday.’
‘How could I? I was never born. According to Doctor Ormus, I’m some sort of clone with genes that are part human, part hare. Everything that makes me what I am came from bottles in a laboratory.’
‘You don’t know that. Nobody’s ever been able to prove it. There are plenty of other theories knocking about.’
‘Which one do you favour? The one advocated in The Origins of the New Species?’
‘Spontaneous creation? No, that’s daft. It’s like saying you can make tea without tea leaves.’
‘So where are my parents? Why is there only one March Hare? One Grey Squirrel? One Penguin, one Badger, one Panda?’
‘There are plenty of flamingos and gerbils.’
‘But none of them have parents. They were all found with the rest of us.’
‘What a day that was,’ said the Hatter. ‘I remember seeing it on television - endless shots of baby animals, all furry and vulnerable and so cute I could’ve puked. In fact, I think I did puke.
‘And then there was that famous newspaper picture of you and the White Rabbit. You were asleep in his arms and he was looking at the camera with the goofiest grin ever.’
‘And we all wore name badges. Mine just said MARCH HARE. The hedgehogs, flamingos and gerbils were numbered from one to a hundred.’
‘That’s right. I’d forgotten about that.’ The Hatter plucked a blade of grass, rolled it between his fingers. ‘You know what I thought at the time? I thought we were being invaded from outer space by a race of sentient cuddly toys. I figured that one dark night you would all grow fangs and start shooting death rays from your eyes. And I’m actually on record as saying that you’d all turn out to have green blood and at least three hearts.’
‘And all this happened shortly after Peregrine Smith disappeared. Somehow I don’t think the two events are entirely unconnected.’
‘You think he created you?’
‘I used to be sure of it, but I’ve heard so much evidence to the contrary that I’m now confused.’
‘After he died, they searched his laboratory. There’s no doubt he was doing some weird stuff with animal cells, but there’s nothing to show he was capable of creating his own life forms.’
‘You know what I think?’ said the March Hare. ‘I think Smith faked his death. And I think he had a secret laboratory which was never found.’
‘What makes you say that?’
The March Hare wanted to tell the Mad Hatter about the events he had recently witnessed in the Velvet Underground. Ormus and the Mock Turtle had spoken of a very good facility close by. It was where they had taken Shadrack. And the Doctor had clearly stated that it had been used by Smith.
‘Let’s drop the subject,’ said the March Hare. ‘Perhaps it’s not really important how I came to be here. Life’s a mystery to everyone.’
‘Some more than others,’ said the Mad Hatter.
The March Hare unbuttoned his waist coat. A speck moved across the face of the moon. He pointed it out to the Mad Hatter who gazed up and rubbed his chin.
‘I wonder if that’s a shooting star,’ said the Hatter. It was too slow, too dark.
‘Could be a hot air balloon,’ suggested the March Hare. ‘Or an enemy airship.’
‘This far from the War Zone? It seems unlikely.’
The speck drew away from the moon. As it came closer, it slowly took on a definite and familiar shape.
‘A sea gull,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘An enormous great sea gull.’
‘It’s the Albatross,’ said the March Hare who was now able to identify the source of the cry he had heard earlier.
‘I thought we’d seen the last of him,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘Wherever that bird goes, there’s trouble and calamity. I hope he’s just passing through.’
‘I think he’s leaving now.’
The Albatross suddenly veered to the right, gave a mighty flap of his wings and disappeared beyond a nearby hill.
Once more it screamed, but this time the March Hare was left unmoved. ‘I’m tired,’ he said, turning on his side. ‘I’m going to sleep.’
The Mad Hatter got to his feet and went indoors.
While the March Hare slept, night moved on, leaving the cosmic door open for dawn to slip quietly in and prepare a new day. That day consisted of brilliant sunshine and a soothing breeze.
He woke to the sound of birdsong and the smell of stale food.
Shading his eyes against the rising sun, he spotted the Mad Hatter sitting at the table, enjoying a cup of tea.
‘Good morning.’ said the Hatter, seeing his friend awake. ‘I trust you slept well. I slept like a kitten myself.’
The rings around his eyes called him a liar.
‘What time is it?’ asked the March Hare. He slowly got to his feet, fighting stiff muscles all the way. ‘I have to get to the palace this morning. The King’s given me my old job back.’
‘There’s time enough for that,’ replied the Hatter. ‘You really must have a cup of tea before you go anywhere. I insist upon it.’
The Hatter’s best ceramic tea pot sat on a silver platter at the head of the table. Steam rose from its spout like the softest of sighs. Without waiting for further invitation, the March Hare poured himself a cup and splashed in generous amounts of milk and sugar. The first sip grabbed his throat like a firm hand shake.
The Mad Hatter helped himself to a biscuit. ‘The summer goes on and on like a daytime soap opera. It’s hard to think in terms of Time any more. So I retreat into poetry and regard every day that passes as a stanza.’
‘Oh,’ said the March Hare.
‘Last night, when you were asleep,’ the Mad Hatter continued, ‘I composed a poem. Perhaps you’ll allow me to recite it to you?
‘It’s called Last Night, on account of that’s when it was written and that’s what it’s about.’
Placing his tea cup on the table, the Mad Hatter spread his arms and began to recite:
‘Last night someone killed my guitar;
‘They drowned it with minor chords.
‘I found it in my swimming pool,
‘With all my old records
‘Last night we laughed at rock’n’roll;
‘I told you it was dead.
‘You said you’d lost your lust for life,
‘But I found it in my bed.
‘Last night I saw Love fly away,
‘On wings of burning chrome.
‘I turned to ask you the reason why,
‘But I found myself alone.’
‘It’s a love poem,’ said the March Hare.
‘Yes. I suppose it is.’
‘What inspired you?’
‘The Albatross. There was something in the way he flew - a cold determination, I think - which suggested he would never again return. And it was as if he was taking with him a part of me which I once cherished but had forgotten about.’
‘Which part would that be?’
The March Hare smiled at the Mad Hatter’s unwitting irony. ‘The Albatross as a symbol of innocence? You don’t know him very well.’
‘No better than I knew my innocence. I sometimes wish I could start my life all over again. There are so many things I would do differently.’
‘We all feel that way now and then.’
The Hatter sighed deeply. His eyes misted over, presenting the March Hare with a rare sight; the Mad Hatter looked deeply miserable. ‘If you only knew the burden I carry. Responsibility can be a terrible thing.’
He got up and went indoors. The March Hare had no time to consider those final, cryptic words. It was time to head for the palace.
The Hall of Balconies had in recent years become the King’s favourite retreat. It was the one room in the palace his wife refused to enter.
Despite its name, the hall boasted but two balconies. They were both situated at the north end, perched like eyebrows above an ornate door which led to what had once been a torture chamber. The door was locked; it had not been opened for more than three centuries, and speculation as to what lay beyond was invariably gruesome and vivid.
Whether it was out of a genuine love of science, or whether it was a simple ruse to keep Her Majesty the Queen at bay would be difficult to say; but the fact of the matter is that, upon his sixtieth birthday, the King had suddenly declared a keen interest in arachnology - the study of spiders. To this end, he had set aside the Hall of Balconies for his own use and filled it with row upon row of glass tanks.
The King’s domain had shrunk from a Kingdom to a room-full of spiders. About two million of them. He had started with three hundred, representing some forty species from twelve countries and three continents. There had even been a pair of rare arctic funnelwebs, brought from the Northern Plain by a seal hunter who’d had little idea of their scarcity or value. Alas, the funnelwebs were no more. In a vignette of great irony, the female had devoured the male and then died of food poisoning. Arctic funnelwebs do that a lot. It’s what makes them so rare.
Upon his arrival at the Royal Palace, the March Hare was directed to the Hall of Balconies. It was not yet eight o’clock but the King had been driven by insomnia to visit his lair long before the crack of dawn. And so it was that the March Hare found himself knocking on the most avoided door in the palace.
He tapped three times, waited, and then tapped again. A deep, ponderous voice reverberated through the mahogany door, it bade him enter.
The King was at his desk, eating breakfast. His huge bulk loomed over a bowl of cereal, dominating it the way a mountain dominates a lake. By palace standards, it would have been a fairly mundane scenario but for the dissected spiders pinned to the desk.
The March Hare bowed. The King seemed not to notice. Sunlight spilled through low, narrow windows, bestowing glistening glory upon a forest of spider silk. Strands of gossamer vibrated as their builders awoke and took up position in readiness for the first kill of the day.
The King dropped his spoon. The March Hare picked it up and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket.
‘If his Majesty will excuse me one moment, I will hasten to the kitchens and bring him another spoon.’
Shaking his head, the King held out his hand. ‘Give.’
‘But, sire, it would be most inadvisable to use this spoon now that it’s been on the floor. Just think of the germs.’
‘Cornflakes,’ said the King. ‘Just think of my cornflakes. How long will it take you to bring a clean spoon?’
‘No more than a minute, Your Majesty.’
‘A bit more than that, I think.’
‘Well, maybe two - perhaps even three. But definitely no longer.’
‘And what, in the meantime, will happen to my cornflakes? Will they not absorb the milk and become soggy? Do you expect me, your sovereign, to burden my already-troubled digestive system with flaccid cornflakes?’ The King slammed his fist on the table, throwing up a tiny cloud of dust. ‘I cannot conceive of anything less pleasing than a gutful of mushy breakfast cereal! Now give me that spoon or I’ll have you flogged!’
Reminding himself about the better part of valour, the March Hare returned the spoon then turned away and feigned and interest in a row of eight tanks, all marked with a red cross. A sign on each of them warned: Feed only as instructed - see log for details.
The King finished his cornflakes and then attracted the March Hare’s attention by tapping his bowl with his spoon. ‘Don’t bother clearing the table just yet. You can do it later. First I want to talk to you.’
‘There’s no chair.’
‘I’m getting mightily pissed-off,’ said the King, ‘with the way I’m being treated in my old age. Once upon a time, I actually had some say in the running of this kingdom. Nobody questioned it. Why should they? By the grace of God, I was King and that was an end to it. People knew that Kings and Kingdoms have a special function. Together they serve the people - provide a framework of tradition in which everyone can work and live without worrying about sudden changes in the order of things.
‘Straighten your shoulders, boy. You’re a Royal Servant, not some hick yokel from way out yonder. Let’s see some dignity.
‘Where was I? Oh yes - Kings and Kingdoms. In any society, the one key thing which holds the fabric together and prevents a drift towards chaos is Leadership. And only a few men are blessed with the quality of character to provide it. I’m all for democracy - within reason - but at the end of the day there has to be someone whose word cannot be questioned, whose decision cannot be over-ruled. And that someone has to be born to it. They have to have the correct heritage, training and background. It’s in the genes. Do you see what I’m driving at?’
‘You’ve put it very succinctly, sire.’
‘The Panda is not a King. He has no understanding of the workings - the nature - of our Kingdom. This damned war is proof enough of that.
‘Left in the hands of that lunatic, Hearts will be destroyed, humiliated and subjugated by people who were once our friends and allies. I suppose I must accept part of the blame for that. I should never have let the situation get this far out of hand.
‘Listen, boy. I know what your friend Doctor Ormus is up to. I know all about the Red Orchestra and their plans to overthrow the Panda and re-establish my power as Head of State. And, frankly, I’m all for it.
‘Oh, don’t look so dismayed, boy. I may have relinquished most of my responsibilities, but I do nonetheless keep an eye on what my subjects are up to. The Panda thinks he has the largest, most effective spy network in the country. He’s wrong. Ask me what the least of my citizens had for supper last night and I’d be able to tell you within three hours. For instance, I know that you are as yet unaware of the identity of the true leader of the Red Orchestra - the so-called Big Cheese. Perhaps you think it’s Doctor Ormus? I hope not. Only an idiot would believe it was him.
‘I know who the Big Cheese is, but I’m not going to pass that information on to you. If the Red Orchestra want to keep you in the dark, then they have their reasons.
‘I just want you to let them know that I intend to give whatever support I can. But they must always keep in mind that I can in no way be directly involved or implicated in any of this. Certain of my men have already provided Ormus with valuable intelligence. Of course, he had no idea they were my men, but that hardly matters. A friend is a friend is a friend.
‘I want you to tell Ormus that I have a man in his organisation who will reveal himself in the next day or two. If he co-operates with my man, he’ll have all the help I can give him. Is that clear?’
It was only too clear. The March Hare felt himself being pulled ever deeper into a position of dire peril. Tendrils of intrigue were closing around him, tightening their grip with every passing second. The more he fought against it, the more he twisted and turned, the tighter the tendrils would hold him. They would not relinquish their hold now that they had him so firmly in their grasp.
‘Is that clear?’ repeated the King.
‘Terribly clear, sire.’
‘Good. Any questions?’
‘Just one, sire. It concerns the Knave of Hearts.’
‘A brave man, but a reckless one. He should never have got caught. You’ll be pleased to hear that he’s very much alive and will stay that way for a few more days at least. The Panda is arranging a show trial for him.
‘I’ve done as much as I can for him. It’s clear that the Panda hoped to use the trial as a means of stirring up resentment against the Red Orchestra. His intention was to turn them into scapegoats.
‘Fortunately, however, he decided to charge the Knave with a breach of the Official Secrets Act, and with a war going on that translates to a charge of high treason. I have therefore exercised my Royal Prerogative to bring the matter into my own jurisdiction. It will be I and not the Panda before whom the Knave will stand trial.’
‘And you’ll find him not guilty?’
‘I only wish I could. But to do so would leave me open to charges of collaborating with the Red Orchestra, and that would be very bad for all concerned. We have to face facts, and the most obvious fact right now is that we are losing the war. It won’t be long before the Spadisher army comes marching in triumph through the gates of this palace. If this nation is to survive at all, it must have a Monarchy. Were I to be condemned as a traitor - or if the people should even suspect that I was one - then the whole fabric of our society would disintegrate, possibly forever.’
‘And so you’re going to let the Knave die.’
The King looked grave. ‘I have no choice. Tell Ormus to give up all hope for the Knave. This is war. There’s bound to be casualties.’
‘I won’t tell Ormus anything,’ said the March Hare, bitterly. ‘This whole affair makes me want to be violently sick. I’m not even sure who the good guys are any more. Neither you nor the Red Orchestra have any right to involve me in your schemes. I don’t care for them and I don’t think they have a hope in hell of succeeding.
‘Once we surrender to Spades, we can kiss our independence good-bye. They’re going to swallow us up and it’s going to be as if we never existed. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it.
‘And in the meantime, I just want to be left alone.’
‘A person cannot shrug off his responsibilities so easily,’ said the King in a soft voice. He seemed neither surprised nor angered at the March Hare’s outburst. ‘I tried it and you can see where it got me.’
‘If I may be so bold, Your Majesty - therein lies the difference between a King and a valet. Affairs of State are no concern of mine.’
The King frowned.
‘No,’ he agreed. ‘You are not a political creature by any means. I can see that clearly. But you are a Heartsman and technically a Royal Ward. However much I may have neglected my people, I’ve always seen to it that the talkies have been well taken care off. And yet, I’m not even going to try to appeal to your sense of loyalty. Rather, I wish to prove to you just how much of a personal stake you have in the current situation.
‘Let me show you something.’
Opening a drawer, the King brought out a handful of photographs and placed them in a line along the edge of the desk. They were black and white, a series of studies taken at either dawn or dusk. The March Hare recognised Gerbil Town by the peculiarly domed buildings and the stone cross in the Market Place.
Each picture was a variation upon the same theme. Gerbils littered the pavement, hung from windows, stood clinging lifelessly to railings and lamp posts. It was as if they were pretending to be dead, enacting a massacre to satisfy some childish longing. There were no shattered windows. No burnt ruins. No blood. Just bodies.
‘Gas?’ said the March Hare.
‘Not gas,’ said the King. ‘At the risk of sounding trivial, it was an invisible death ray, or something closely akin to one.’
The March Hare was appalled. ‘The Spuds have a weapon like that?’
‘Not the Spuds. Our own side did this. And don’t try telling me that you don’t believe it; I can see from your face that you do. And I think you know who was responsible.’
‘Peregrine Smith. Nobody else could build such a weapon.’
‘Correct. He’s been hiding in the Presidential Bunker these past few years, conducting his infernal experiments with the help and blessing of the Panda.’
‘Then he’s definitely still alive?’
‘Most definitely. The Panda’s been protecting him in the hope that he would develop such a weapon. And now he has. The damned thing’s called TARTS for some reason or another.’
‘Why did they use it on the gerbils? They’re on our side.’
‘The weapon needed testing, and the Panda has long nursed a grudge against the gerbils. I suppose you could say it was a case of killing two birds with one stone.’
‘With this, we could win the war.’
‘Or destroy the world. And I think that’s what Smith intends to do.’
‘Because he’s mad, is the simple answer, but there’s got to be a better one than that. And I intend to find it.
‘I admit to having little affinity for gerbils, but they were my subjects and I feel I let them down. I want to see Smith’s and the Panda’s head on a platter for this, and I expect you feel much the same way.’
‘I don’t feel anything,’ said the March Hare. ‘Except disgust. I’m still not interested in joining the Red Orchestra.’
‘Then let me show you one more thing,’ said the King, again opening the drawer of his desk. This time he produced a large jar filled with embalming fluid and the charred remains of a hedgehog. ‘This is the chap involved in the attempted murder of my wife. Or rather what’s left of him. As soon as it’s prudent, we’ll give him a decent burial - but first there are a few mysteries he can help us clear up.
‘You must remember that this is the first time a talkie hedgehog has ever expired, and so I ordered a postmortem. We’ve often wondered how something with so small a brain capacity could display such a disproportionately large amount of intelligence.’ The King placed the jar on the desk. Reaching into the drawer, he brought out a tiny mesh of wire, not unlike a spider web. Where the strands met, tiny black nodes stood out in contrast to the wire. ‘You won’t know what this is boy, so I’ll tell you. It’s a computer - a thinking machine with a capacity far beyond anything our scientists have ever been able to come up with. As far as we can tell, this mesh covered the hedgehog’s brain and somehow endowed it with an intelligence comparable to a human being’s. It’s so advanced, we can’t even begin to understand how it works. Which can only mean it’s alien.
‘There is somebody on this planet with a knowledge of science that’s centuries beyond our own.’
‘It could be Smith,’ said the March Hare.
‘Without a doubt it’s Smith,’ said the King. ‘He made this hedgehog - and he made you and every other talkie in existence. The man is so far ahead of us, that he might just as well be God. And now he’s working for the Panda. Or maybe the Panda’s working for him. Whichever way round it is, this world’s in mortal danger.
‘Are you prepared to stand back and watch those two destroy - or at the very least enslave - every last man, woman and child in the world?’
There was a knock on the door. It startled the March Hare who only now became aware of the fact that for the past few minutes he had been shaking.
‘Come!’ said the King.
The White Rabbit entered and bowed stiffly. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you, Your Majesty, but His Excellency requests your presence in his Campaign Room. Shall I inform him that you are presently indisposed?’
‘There’d be no point. He knows damned well how I spend my time. Have my limousine waiting for me in the West Parade Ground. I’ll be there in a minute.’
‘Yes, sire.’ The Rabbit departed.
‘You’re angry with me,’ said the King. He shrugged his shoulders in resignation. ‘I don’t blame you. If you want to go home, you may do so. Otherwise I’d like you to come with me to see the President. I think you might find it informative.
‘I think I might at that,’ said the March Hare.
Tomorrow, he would look back on his insolence towards the King and shudder. Later he would much the same way about it as he did now. He would feel proud.
11. Nurse Jane
‘It’s a unicorn.’
‘It’s a horse.’
Unicorn or horse, the beast in question was cut neatly in half and laid out on a table, each pair of opposing legs spread a hundred and eighty degrees apart. Its organs lay in its left rib cage, trussed up in plastic bags and labeled with name, function and time of removal. The Panda picked one at random and held it in his paws.
‘That’s its liver,’ said Peregrine Smith, his voice like the rustling of dry leaves. ‘It’s half the size it ought to be.’
The ancient scientist sat almost inertly in his wheel chair. When he spoke, only his lips moved. His eyelids were open the merest fraction; they never seemed to blink.
‘Thanks to the primitive technology I have to work with, the creature never developed as I hoped,’ he went on. ‘The entire body is riddled with toxins and cancer.’
‘So you’ve got a dead horse,’ said the Panda, caustically. He felt ill at ease. Surrounded by white walls, dissected cadavers and an old man who seemed barely alive, he had to fight down an urge to leave immediately. The white tiles covering the floor, walls and ceiling reminded him of a public lavatory. Not once had he ever entered the Clinical Investigation Theatre without wanting to urinate.
‘Unicorn,’ insisted Peregrine Smith. He lifted an emaciated arm in order to point to his lap where a heap of grey meat sat on a square of canvas like a sleeping kitten. ‘This is its brain. If you’d care to examine it, you’ll find that the cerebellum has been pierced to a depth of two and a half inches.’ The arm dropped.
‘So you’ve spent my money creating a horse with a hole in its brain. Thanks a bundle.’
‘Not a horse. A unicorn.’
‘So you keep saying. But from where I’m standing, it looks like a horse. I’m no expert, but I was under the impression that a unicorn is meant to have a horn on its head. In the seven months of this wretched creature’s miserable life, you and your cronies have spent hours watching for the slightest hint of such a growth. You kept promising me that it would appear at any moment, but it never did.’
‘It was there all the time. We just couldn’t see it.’
‘Great,’ said the Panda. ‘Here we are in the middle of a war and my chief scientist comes up with a unicorn with an invisible horn. What a breathtaking breakthrough for genetic engineering that is!’
‘The postmortem,’ said Peregrine Smith, who was either impervious to the Panda’s sarcasm or else incapable of showing a reaction, ‘revealed that the horn had been growing inward. And that’s what caused the unicorn’s death. I have the horn in my study if you wish to examine it.’
‘Left-hand thread or right?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Smith - you’re an idiot. I’m going to go take a shower and try to wash every trace of this room out of my fur. In the mean time, you can take your horn and stuff it wherever it will cause you the most discomfort.’
Standing in the Conference Room of the Presidential Bunker, watching the Panda toweling his head dry, the March Hare was still in a mood to assert himself. The confined nature of the room helped him immensely. His world was limited to four walls and three people - including himself. He could handle that.
A King, a President and a valet, he thought. Quite a trio. Perhaps if I say the right thing - something witty and incisive, or just plain profound - I can somehow influence one of these two, help decide government policy. I might even change the course of history.
‘I trust you’re happy with your new valet,’ said the Panda, letting the towel drop to the floor. He shook his head and fluffed up his fur with his paw. For once, he was not wearing his uniform. Just a dressing gown and a pair of slippers. ‘I’ve never seen the appeal of having someone waiting on me hand and foot - but I’m not Royalty, am I?’
The King let the jibe slip by. ‘My other valet - the White Rabbit - tends to have a lot on his plate these days. I thought it prudent to lighten his load.’
‘And why not? We must look after our menials, mustn’t we? It would not do to tire them out. Of course, my bureaucrats informed me of your request to have the March Hare assigned to you. I’m told of these things as a matter of routine - national security and all that. I’d hate to see you assassinated by an enemy agent,’
‘Your concern is most touching but hardly necessary. The March Hare has been in my employ before and is without doubt worthy of my every confidence.’
‘I quite agree. That’s why I approved the assignment. I understand he’s not exactly playing with a full deck, but my security people seem to think he’s harmless.’
‘I’m glad he meets your standards.’
‘He’s a splendid chap by all accounts,’ said the Panda, graciously. He grinned at the March Hare. ‘We were at school together, weren’t we?’
‘Yes,’ said the March Hare, consciously addressing the Panda with a minimum of civility.
‘I remember you well. You were always keen to donate your lunch money to my cigarette fund. I think such charitable impulses are utterly admirable. Which is why I used to encourage them.’
‘You used to encourage them quite a bit,’ agreed the March Hare. ‘Chiefly by sitting on me and beating me about the head with your lunch box.’
‘For your own good, my friend. You were rather prone to hysteria back then, weren’t you? I’ve always assumed that to be the reason why you kept putting sand in my bean shoot sandwiches. It was an aberration - a temporary lapse of reason.’
‘I wish I’d used arsenic.’
The Panda cupped a paw over his ear. ‘I don’t believe I heard you right. I’m sure you must have addressed me as Your Excellency, but just to make sure, why not try again?’
‘I wish I’d used arsenic, Your Excellency.’
‘Yes, I suppose you do. But then you always were inclined to rash acts, weren’t you? Take for instance that time you were nearly expelled from school for heresy. I believe you claimed that we talkies were as human as the other children. Seems a strange thing to say, but I’m sure you had your reasons.’
‘That happened just after Doctor Ormus announced that he had discovered human proteins in our genetic make-up.’
‘He never got around to publishing his proof though, did he?’
‘The government wouldn’t let him, but they must have believed him because they passed the Bill of Equal Rights.’
A look of vague disgust settled on the Panda’s face. ‘Equal rights to what? To the afterlife?’ He turned to the King. ‘Tell me, Your Majesty. How many times has the Church Council met to discuss the spirituality of talking animals? Three times? Four?’
‘Four, I believe.’
‘And how many times have they issued a decree stating that no animal has a soul?’
‘I’m not sure. I have no say in religious matters.’
‘Would four be a good guess?’
‘I imagine so.’
‘And there we have it. They’ve locked the Gates of Heaven on us. We’re condemned to living our miserable little lives as best we can in the sure and certain knowledge that it’s to no end whatsoever. We live. We die. We’re worm meat.
‘They’re happy to give us the vote. Why not? We’re too much a minority to upset the political balance. But what they won’t give us is our souls. If we had the whole world, it would count for nothing.’
‘The Church could be wrong.’
‘By the time I’m through,’ said the Panda, ‘the Church will be history.’
The King reddened. ‘You have no jurisdiction over the Church.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong, Fatso. As President, I am Commander-In-Chief of the armed services and while Martial Law is in force I have jurisdiction over everything not covered by Royal Prerogative. You can have the Knave of Hearts, but the Church belongs to me. Or do you intend to change the Constitution?’
It was a question for which the King could find no ready answer. The Constitution had stood unchanged for centuries, inviolable and immutable. It allowed for the formation and dissolution of parliaments, but mandated that the Twin Estates of Royalty and Presidency be abolished by no man.
For the moment, the King could only estimate the full extent of the Panda’s power under Martial Law. He would have to consult with his Privy Council to discover what curbs - if any - he could legitimately place on the Panda.
The need to rid his Kingdom of the President seemed more urgent than ever.
Satisfied that he’d had the last word on the subject, the Panda turned to other matters. ‘I’ve had an unusual request from the Royal Prison Hospital,’ he said, sitting down at his desk. ‘The physicians feel a visit from your valet might be in order.’
The King looked suspicious. ‘The White Rabbit?’
‘The March Hare. It seems that the Knave of Hearts is not responding to treatment as well as he might. He’s somewhat withdrawn and the doctors think a visit from his friend here might snap him out of it.
‘The Knave is now your prisoner, therefore I hand the request on to you to decide upon as you will. If your answer is yes, then I can have one of my staff drive the March Hare over there and bring him back again.’
‘I see no reason to refuse this request,’ said the King. ‘When will they be expecting him?’
‘Any time he can get there. Frankly I’d prefer it if he went now. His presence here is beginning to grate on my nerves.’ The King dismissed the March Hare with a wave of his hand. ‘Report back to work in the morning.’
The March Hare turned towards the door, took a step forward and then stopped. ‘Your Excellency,’ he said, without looking around, ‘I just want you to know that if the Knave dies, I’m going to make you suffer. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I will.’
The Panda laughed. ‘I really miss the good old days when I had you for a punch bag. Now clear off. Me and the King have things to discuss.’
The Royal Prison Hospital rose from the surrounding heathland like the surface of a dead moon. Every aspect of it - the watchtowers and barbed wire, the granite walls with their small, barred windows - seemed designed to intimidate, to warn away all but the most desolate in spirit.
Sitting in the back of an army jeep, the March Hare watched silently as the vehicle carried him inexorably towards the hospital. The building seemed to be waiting for him.
He thought of the dreams he had been having of late, dreams that until now had seemed to hold no significance whatsoever. The images were still clear in his mind. He was adrift on a log raft in the middle of a very calm sea. The water must have been deep, because although it was clear, he could detect no bottom to it. Nor could he discern any sign of life. The sky was empty. Nothing swam by.
Then a great blackness would loom before him. It was something he felt, rather than saw, but he knew it was there and he knew he was drifting towards it. He also knew he could not avoid it.
An emptiness, he thought to himself as the jeep pulled up outside the Prison Hospital. And every time I see it, I’m certain that I’m about to become part of it, cease to have any true existence. Is that what life holds for me? Or was I seeing the Knave’s future, his internment in this granite monstrosity?
There’s no hope left for him, he realised. Between them, the King and the Panda are going to use him and tear him apart. They’re going to destroy every last atom of his being.
‘We’re here,’ announced the driver needlessly. He leaned against the steering wheel and his body language made it very plain that he would not leave the jeep. From here on in, the March Hare was on his own.
‘Thanks, Sergeant,’ said the March Hare. He jumped onto the concrete road and surveyed the front of the hospital. A red door, no bigger than an ordinary domestic one, appeared to be the only entrance. Glancing upwards, he caught sight of a guard standing with his back to him in a watchtower.
‘Through there,’ said the driver, pointing to the red door. ‘Show your i.d. at the desk. I’ll wait for you out here.’
The March Hare went in and found himself inside a small room cluttered with filing cabinets. A white-suited orderly stood leaning against the wall, a cigarette in his hand.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked, eyeing the March Hare in a cool, disinterested manner.
‘I believe I’m expected,’ said the March Hare. ‘I’ve come to visit the Knave of Hearts.’
‘That loony?’ The orderly jerked his thumb in the direction of a green door. ‘Through there and speak to Security. They’ll know what to do with you.’
The door led into a larger room. It was evidently some sort of control centre. A row of desks took up the length of one wall; they were occupied by old men in green uniforms who sat in silence as they watched the television monitors in front of them.
No-one turned as he came in, so he spent a few moments looking over people’s shoulders. Most of the screens showed mundane scenes of the hospital - long corridors, an empty lounge, a dormitory full of sleeping people.
On one screen, a hospital corridor suddenly slipped out of existence and was replaced by a padded cell. It was empty; the patches of blood on the walls and ceiling told their own story. Their abstract shapes were like an atlas, the lost islands and continents of a soul in distress.
With bile rising in his throat, the March Hare turned away and looked to see if there was anyone who could direct him further. He coughed, hoping to attract someone’s attention. The old men stared at their screens.
Giving up, he was about to go through the next door when it opened and a tall, attractive nurse walked in. She moved with a model’s poise, her hips swaying to some delightful inner rhythm, her eyes burning with sexual mischief. A leather gun belt served to emphasise the concise curvature of her waist.
‘You’re here already?’ she said, closing the door behind her.
The March Hare nodded. His eyes drank in the full glory of her blonde hair. She wore it like a crown. ‘I hope I’m not where I shouldn’t be,’ he said, feeling a tightening in his throat. ‘I was told to come through and ask for Security.’
The Nurse placed her hand on his chest, thrust her pelvis forward a few sly, provocative inches. ‘Screw security, Bunny Rabbit. If you’re not living dangerously, you just ain’t living.’
Without parting her lips, she directed a smile at him. It was loaded with erotic potential.
The March Hare backed away, swallowed nervously. ‘Is he all right, Nurse?’
‘Call me Nurse Jane. Is who all right?’
‘The Knave of Hearts.’
‘Of course he is, my precious. You mustn’t worry about him, you know. He wouldn’t be treated better if he was royalty.’
Her attention turned to the television screens, all of which were now displaying the same picture - a man standing in his pyjamas on the roof, his arms akimbo.
‘Oh dear,’ said Nurse Jane. ‘The things some people will do for attention. It looks like he’s going to land in the fish pond, and we’ve only just had it restocked. Some people have no consideration.’
‘Don’t you think,’ said the March Hare, ‘that you ought to try talking him down?’
‘He’ll come down in his own good time.’
No sooner had she spoken, than the patient fulfilled her prophecy. He stood to attention, held his arms above his head, and then dived.
‘Ah,’ said Nurse Jane. ‘I know who that is now. That’s Dibdin. He used to be a high-diver before that business with the chainsaw.’
This girl’s psychotic, thought the March Hare. How can they let someone like this become a nurse? And yet, it makes a certain kind of sense. Most nurses thrive on the compassion and healing that goes on in hospitals; they put up with the suffering because it’s part of their job. But for this one, it’s the reverse. She enjoys suffering, and in a place like this she must get all the job satisfaction anyone could hope for. I bet in her own way she’s a damned good nurse.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ said Nurse Jane, brightly. ‘If I take you through now, I can get on with phoning Dibdin’s relatives to tell them the tragic news. Shouldn’t take too long. He killed all but two of them.’
As he followed Nurse Jane into the corridor, the March Hare noted that her gun holster was not merely decoration. It held a snub-nosed revolver with a thick barrel that left no doubt as to its lethalness.
Finding the swaying of Nurse Jane’s hips distracting, he caught up with her and walked by her side. ‘What was that room?’ he asked. ‘What was going on in there?’
‘Occupational therapy,’ she replied, matter-of-factly. ‘We try to give our senior citizens the idea that they have some sort of control over what goes on in this place.’
‘Does it work?’
‘Who cares? It keeps the old codgers quiet.’
At the end of the corridor, they turned right, into a long passage lined with doors. The click of the Nurse’s high heels echoed between the whitewashed walls like a swarm of invisible bugs.
‘Room 343,’ she announced, stopping outside a door with that number on it. She removed a key from her pocket and leaned forward to unlock the door. As she did so, the back of her skirt rode up to reveal that magic borderline between stocking and flesh. The March Hare felt his temperature rise.
If this woman wanted to eat me alive, he told himself, I’d serve myself up with caviar.
She stood up, straightened the hem of her skirt. He was certain she knew the effect she was having on him; her every move was worked out in advance like a gambit in some kind of sensual chess game. Femme fatale was too weak a word to describe her. She was the sexual equivalent of a full-scale massacre.
Placing herself in the doorway, Nurse Jane beckoned for the March Hare to come through.
He had to squeeze past, pressing his body against her in an intimacy that both appealed and appalled.
‘My, my,’ she said with a knowing smile. 'We are a big boy, aren’t we?'
12. Die Young, Stay Pretty
Room 343 was white upon white. It opened up on the March Hare like a surgical incision, revealing the true nature of the hospital; it was without heart, without soul.
A closed-circuit television camera intruded from the ceiling and swiveled slowly back and forth as if to stir the thick, humid air. Behind him, Nurse Jane pushed the door closed with a jerk of her hips. The groaning of its hinges was answered by a distant scream from down the corridor.
The March Hare shut the cry from his mind. He ignored the camera, refused to dwell on the possibility that he was being watched by old men undergoing shock therapy.
There were two beds in the room. One was occupied by a thin youth rendered immobile by a combination of chains and straight-jacket. His eyes were closed and the trembling of his lips suggested that he might be saying a prayer.
In the other bed lay the Knave of Hearts. His head was partially obscured by a bandage, but his mouth and one eye were still visible. A length of twine looped about his head, pulling his jaws firmly together.
‘Don’t you go exciting him,’ Nurse Jane cautioned, smoothing down the front of her blouse.
‘Or you’ll upset his meta-whatsit. I would, however, appreciate it if you could get him to utter just a few words. It’s not natural, the way he lies there refusing to talk to anyone. In fact, I’m losing patience with his childish behaviour and I really don’t intend to put up with it for very much longer.’
‘Perhaps he can’t talk,’ said the March Hare. ‘Maybe that string he’s got wrapped around his head stops him.’
‘Oh, that’s it, Bunny Rabbit. You go right ahead and take his side. I’ve a good mind to take away his damned string and let him try to heal his jaw on his own. A couple of fractures and the little wimp thinks the world owes him an apology. Honestly! Men are such big babies!’
The March Hare sat down on the chair next to the Knave’s bed. With Nurse Jane looking on, he felt self-conscious - if not downright intimidated. He smiled weakly at the Knave, rubbed his paws together and searched his mind for something to say.
The Knave tried to sit up, but Nurse Jane came over and pushed him back down.
‘I’ve told you before about that,’ she snapped, waving a well-manicured finger like a malediction. ‘Someone spent a great deal of time stitching up your abdomen, and I don’t think they’ll be very pleased if you undo their handiwork. Now just lie down and behave yourself.
‘I’m off to powder my nose and see what those old codgers in the Therapy Unit are up to. I’ll be back in five minutes and I don’t want to find you out of your bed or sitting up. Is that understood?’
She straightened the bed clothes and moved towards the door. ‘Don’t leave the room while I’m gone,’ she told the March Hare. ‘The guards shoot first, ask questions later.’
The March Hare nodded dumbly, watched as Nurse Jane let herself out. The door closed. He could hear a key inserted in the lock and knew he could not leave even if he wanted to.
‘I hate that woman,’ said the Knave, speaking through clenched teeth and swollen lips. ‘She keeps giving me enemas.’
‘I thought you liked enemas.’
‘There are enemas and there are enemas. And right now I could do without that sort of thing. The bastards have already ruined my rectum as it is.’
‘The Secret Police.’ The Knave rolled delicately on his side. ‘She’s got a nice arse though.’
‘Nurse Jane, you mean? She certainly has.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought you’d notice.’
‘I couldn’t help but notice. I’m not sure whether that woman’s going to give me nightmares or erotic fantasies.’
‘You don’t have erotic fantasies. The only things you ever dream about are lettuce and carrots. Or do you perhaps secretly yearn for some cute little bunny girl?’
The March hare suppressed a wave of annoyance. He did not like being stereotyped, told what he did and did not dream about, think about or yearn for. Had the Knave been healthy, had he been out of bed and standing before him with his fishnet stockings, a well-groomed kiss curl and his patent leather stiletto shoes, the March Hare would have come back with a blistering retort. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’m afraid I couldn’t bring you any fruit or sweets,’ he said. ‘It’s against regulations.’
‘That’s all right. I can only eat soup anyway. And even then I seldom manage to keep it down.’
‘I went to see the Panda,’ said the March Hare. ‘I’m working for the King now and he took me along to see him. That’s where I’ve just come from.’
‘The Panda? Is he mad?’ asked the Knave. ‘Do his eyes spin crazily? Does he foam at the mouth and tear out his fur in great chunks? I can see him now - gaunt and tortured, tormented by a thousand voices screaming in his head.’
‘He appeared normal and healthy,’ said the March Hare. ‘He’s no worse than when I went to school with him. I really don’t think he’s crazy at all.’
‘Then why is he helping Peregrine Smith?’
‘Smith’s helping him.’
‘They’ve murdered the gerbils with alien technology. Who do you think’s going to be next? He has to be stopped. Someone has to destroy TARTS and end this thing!’
‘You’re not making sense,’ said the March Hare, suddenly remembering the camera above his head. ‘Perhaps we should change the subject.’
‘Good idea. My jaw aches to buggery and I have more important things to talk about. Like that letter for instance. The one on my locker.’ The Knave pointed a bandaged hand at a neatly folded sheet of A4. ‘I dictated it to Nurse Jane, but she says I’m not allowed to send it, even though it’s addressed to my own left testicle. They had to cut it off, you know.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Don’t be. I still have the other one. It was electricity that did it. 1200 volts through my scrotum. ‘You can read it, if you like. The letter, I mean. There’s not much point reading my left testicle.’
The March Hare took the piece of paper and carefully unfolded it. Nurse Jane’s handwriting was bold and confident, as intense and lurid as a neon sign.
My dear Left Testicle,
How are you keeping? I am sorry that we have been parted in such a cruel and sudden manner, but life is like that. It’s an endless series of meetings and departures. I am sure that you will soon make lots of friends in your new home.
I’ve made the doctor promise to change your pickle at least twice a week. He assures me that he will use nothing but the highest possible grade of embalming fluid. Some organs have to make do with vinegar, so you can see just how lucky you are.
Your friend, Mr. R. Testicle, sends you his best wishes and has asked me to tell you that he misses you very much.
If everything works out as I think it will, then you could well be reunited in a matter of days.
I have applied to what’s left of the State Welfare Department for a Social Worker to visit you every now and then - just to make sure that you’re adapting ok to your new environment. It may even be possible to get you adopted. I hear that many a brave soldier has returned from the trenches missing vital organs, and it warms my heart immeasurably to think that you - my one and only left testicle - might one day bring hope and happiness to a fellow human being.
If you need anything, please let me know.
The letter was not signed. Also on the locker was an envelope which was addressed to:
Mr. L. Testicle Esq.,
Pickle Jar 23,
Royal Prison Hospital,
The Middle of Bloody Nowhere,
Wonderland, HS2 3BC.
‘I never was much of a letter writer,’ confessed the Knave as the March Hare placed the letter and its envelope back on the locker. ‘But I thought I ought to keep in touch. Old friendships mean a lot to me. Especially when it comes to bollocks.’
‘It’s all bollocks,’ said the man in the other bed. He was sitting up now, his back to the wall, his legs tucked as far under his arms as the straight jacket would allow. ‘Friendships mean nothing. We’re here. We live. We die.’
The March Hare had forgotten that the room had a second occupant. Now he looked him over, tried to appraise something of his character. There was little to be gleaned from his face. It was blank and non-committal, with only the slightest hint of an angry crease along the forehead.
‘You sound like the Panda,’ said the March Hare, annoyed by the unsolicited interruption. ‘And what makes you such an expert on death anyway? You’ve never died and I strongly expect that you’ve never really lived. So how can you sit there and tell us that death is the end of everything?’
‘Because I have to,’ said the man. ‘I hope to say it often enough to convince myself that it’s so. I’ve been to war, and I’ve witnessed horrors that have no root in rationality. For six years, we and the Spadishers have been at each other’s throats, inventing new ways of killing, new ways of making each other suffer. And the only thing I’ve learnt from it is that there is no God, because if there was a God, everything I’ve seen out there would make some sort of sense. The pain would be smothered in nobility. We could charge the enemy lines in the hope of gaining glory, not just a few more yards of churned-up real estate.
‘I’ve seen too much, and now I don’t want to see any more. And I don’t want to live, and I don’t want to die if it just means going to some other world that’s anything like this one. How can Heaven be Heaven if it’s filled with people? Tell me that!’
‘Ignore him,’ said the Knave of Hearts. ‘He’s just feeling sorry for himself because he got into a nasty fix. They sent him here for deserting.’
‘I thought they shot deserters,’ said the March Hare.
The Deserter laughed. ‘They do normally, but when they caught up with me, I begged them to do it. I said, "Please bind my wrists and put me against the nearest wall. You don’t even have to bother with a blindfold."
And that really pissed them off. Army brass hats hate it when they’re told what to do by a private.
‘They think I’m mad, you know. They tried to get rid of me by sending me on a suicide mission, and do you know what I did? I completed the mission and came back alive. They didn’t like that one bit, but me - I just cracked-up! I laughed so loud and so long they thought I would never stop laughing. Which is why I’m here.
‘Even now, I’m laughing inside. I may look miserable and broken, but I promise you that my ribs ache with suppressed laughter. I’m just one big bundle of mirth.
‘Life is nothing but a sustained joke, and the longer it goes on, the more you realise that the punch line is going to be a real corker - a right old side-splitter. And I’m chuckling in anticipation of the final twist. Do you understand? Can you see what I’m getting at?’
‘No,’ said the March Hare. ‘So shut up.’
‘I will,’ said the Deserter. ‘If that’s what you want. Live and let live - that’s what I say. Also, I think that sedative the Nurse gave me is beginning to work. Is it...? Yes. I believe it is.’
His eyes fluttered like a pair of badly-fitted blinds. Then he fell onto his side and was silent again.
The Knave beckoned with his head for the March Hare to bend down so that he could whisper in his ear. ‘Do you know what I think?’ he asked in a muffled voice. ‘I think the bastards are out to get me.’
‘You’ve still got friends,’ said the March Hare, holding out the only grain of comfort he had to offer.
‘Did you see Doctor Ormus?’
The March Hare nodded, conscious of the television camera hovering above his head like a bird of prey. He could not bring himself to tell the Knave that his friends had given him up for dead. ‘The Doctor’s very optimistic about your situation. He’s been in touch with his lawyers and they think they can get you off.’
‘You’re a lying bastard,’ said the Knave. ‘But thanks for trying. If Ormus has got any sense, he’ll forget about me and concentrate on putting TARTS out of action.’ The Knave groaned. ‘I wish that bitch, Nurse Jane, would stop giving me enemas.’
‘Do you want me to try to persuade her to leave off?’
‘You wouldn’t stand a chance. Besides which, I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She’s quite likable in a horrid sort of way.’
‘I suppose she is sweet.’
‘Sweet? She’s a bloody monster.’
‘I remember you once describing your ideal woman as being tall, blonde and threatening. I would say Jane fits that perfectly.’
A key turned in the lock. Nurse Jane entered, followed by the tallest man the March Hare had ever seen. If he was less than seven feet tall, it could not have been by much. Perhaps by normal standards he was not particularly thin, but his height and the harsh angles of his face gave the impression of a man who was all skin and bone.
With his hands in the pockets of his trousers, he ducked through the doorway, sidestepped the swiveling camera, then sat down on the edge of the Knave’s bed. He seemed about to speak, but Nurse Jane got in first. ‘It seems,’ she said to the Knave, ‘that you’ve been a very bad boy. I’ve just been down to the Therapy Unit and seen a video of you chatting with a rather large cat with a very irritating grin. We have rules here against bringing pets into the hospital, and I don’t like to see my patients breaking them.
‘We’ll go into how the moggy got in and out of your room later, but I just wanted you to know that your transgression has been duly noted and will - when the time comes - be dealt with.’
As she spoke, her chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Whatever punishment she planned to mete out to the Knave, she was clearly looking forward to it. As for the Knave, the March Hare wondered how his employer felt about Jane. There was an ambivalence in their relationship that would take a lifetime to unravel.
The tall man rubbed his hands together in a brisk, business-like manner. ‘Well,’ he said, cheerfully, ‘ this is cozy, isn’t it. My name’s Doctor Malpractice, and yours isn’t.’
‘My what isn’t what?’ asked the Knave.
‘Oh you can speak, can you?’ said Nurse Jane. ‘I was beginning to wonder.’
‘Your name isn’t Malpractice,’ said Malpractice. ‘I made sure of that before I operated on you. You may think me over-cautious, but I make it a rule to never operate on someone with the same surname as myself.’
‘That’s a safeguard,’ said Nurse Jane, beaming happily. ‘It prevents him from accidentally operating on his own body. Works quite well.’
‘One can never be too careful,’ added the Doctor. ‘I once knew this chap who mistakenly took out his own appendix. I had to pop it back in for him before the Medical Council found out. They’re very strict about these things.’
‘How is he?’ asked the March Hare.
‘Dead. Died a few days later in the middle of giving himself open-heart surgery.’
‘I meant the Knave.’
‘Oh him. He’s fine. Just fine. That hernia he’s got is just a bit worrying, but a hernia never killed anybody, did it?’
‘What about his jaw?’
‘Hardly worth mentioning. Fractures come and fractures go. They don’t bother me in the least. You’d be amazed out how well the human body copes with such things. ‘Of course, his leg’s a different kettle of fish entirely. I’m afraid it just won’t straighten out, no matter what we do. Still, so long as he doesn’t wear tight trousers, I doubt that anyone will notice.’
‘We’ll soon have him on his feet,’ said Nurse Jane.
‘Foot,’ said Malpractice. ‘We had to chop off his left one in order to remove his trousers.’
‘You could have cut them,’ said the March Hare, appalled.
‘We thought about it, but we couldn’t find anything sharp enough. Besides, it was a nice pair of trousers. It would have been a shame to ruin them.’
‘I wasn’t wearing trousers,’ said the Knave. ‘I had stockings on.’
Doctor Malpractice punched him playfully on the shoulder. ‘Only kidding. We surgeons have a great sense of humour, you know.’
‘I wish you could have saved my stockings,’ said the Knave plaintively. ‘If there’s one thing I’ll never forgive the Secret Police for, it’s the way they tore apart my beautiful fishnets. They were pure silk and had little pink teddy bears on the heels.’
Nurse Jane clucked sympathetically. ‘I have a pair like that,’ she said. ‘You can have them when you leave.’
‘Thank you. That means a lot to me.’
‘Anything else we can do for you?’ asked Doctor Ormus. ‘We do like to keep our patients happy, you know.’
‘There is just one thing,’ said the Knave. ‘Perhaps you could have a look at my stomach sometime. It keeps rattling.’
‘Whoops,’ said Doctor Malpractice, reddening just a shade beyond pink. ‘Silly me. I never was one for scalpel counts.’
‘My stomach is full of scalpels?’
‘No more than two or three. It’s nothing to worry about. They’re quite blunt and I don’t need them right now. If you don’t pass them in the next few days, I’ll just dig them out during the postmortem.’
‘I don’t think I’m up to a postmortem. Couldn’t we just skip it?’
‘Afraid not. Hospital regulations and all that. Corpses have to be dissected and labeled. Can’t see the point myself, but rules are rules.’
‘Small point, Doc. But doesn’t one have to be dead to be a corpse?’
‘You’ve noticed that, have you? Yes, you’re quite right. That’s a very astute observation.’
‘So I’m going to die?’
‘Unless you’ve got yourself a red-hot lawyer.’
The Knave looked to the March Hare, a desperate plea in his one good eye. ‘I don’t want to die,’ he said. ‘I kind of like me the way I am.’
‘Look on the bright side,’ said Nurse Jane. ‘At least you’ll never grow old. Die young, stay pretty - that’s what I always say.’
‘On the other hand,’ said the Knave, ‘looks aren’t everything. I don’t mind becoming all stooped and wrinkled. Really I don’t.’
Jane shot him a look of reproach. ‘You’re not going to have one of your sulks, are you? Because you know what I’ll do if you are.’
‘Not another enema!’
‘I don’t know why you always have to make such a big fuss over a little thing like an enema. I’d have thought you’d be used to them by now.’
‘Maybe I would be if you didn’t keep using Big Bertha. Or if you at least lubricated the shower head properly.’
‘There’s a war on. Or had you forgotten? It’s just not that easy to get axle grease these days. Now it’s time for your afternoon nap. I want you asleep within five minutes - and you’d better not let me catch you snoring.’ She turned to the March Hare, treated him to a look of desire.
‘It’s been nice meeting you, Mister Rabbit. I do hope to see you again very soon.’
‘I’m a hare. Rabbits have shorter ears and wet noses.’
‘How interesting. You’ll have to tell me about it sometime.’
The March Hare got up to leave, but had reached no further than the end of the bed when the door opened and the Penguin breezed in. He tipped his hat. ‘I hope I’m not disturbing you good folks. Just popped-in for a quick chat with the patient.’
‘Not at all,’ said Nurse Jane, pushing back her hair and pouting flirtatiously. ‘You know you’re always welcome here.’
The Penguin nodded a stiff greeting at the March Hare. ‘And how’s our friend the mentally unstable Bunny then? I hear you’ve rejoined the King’s Staff. The old boy must have forgotten that you set fire to his bed. I wonder if he’s aware of your association with certain criminal elements.’
‘He knows of my relationship with the Knave of Hearts, if that’s what you mean.’
The Penguin stepped over Doctor Malpractice’s legs and fixed his attention on the Knave. ‘Relationship, hey? Now there’s a word with interesting connotations.’
‘Screw you,’ said the Knave.
‘Succinctly put, my friend. But somehow rather cryptic.’
‘Now you’re repeating yourself, and that’s always a bad sign. Still, I can understand that. I never did much like hospitals myself.’
‘So you’ve said. Tell you what - if you should get bored of astounding us all with your extensive vocabulary, perhaps you’d care to chew over the fact that your trial has been set for tomorrow.’
‘Morning or afternoon?’ Nurse Jane demanded, anxiously.
‘Oh good. I’ll still have time to give him a few more enemas.’
The Knave hid his head beneath the covers and groaned.
13. The Flying Man
When the Hatter got restless, he was inclined to take to his penny-farthing. The simple act of mounting this archaic bicycle invariably resulted in a change of perspective; his view of the world would become transformed by the simplest of all machines.
The Mad Hatter loved his penny-farthing. It was one of the few things in his life that made sense.
As the first shades of evening drew themselves together, he navigated through narrow and twisting lanes, pedaling furiously in an attempt to get everywhere and nowhere at once. On this occasion, he rode in his shirt sleeves and his finest black bowler, discarding the elegance of his topper in favour of reduced wind resistance.
Past Hangman’s Drive, a farm labourer looked up from his toils to be startled by the sight of a man apparently flying. He could not know that it was the Mad Hatter; it had grown dark and a large hedgerow hid the bike from him. Nor could he know that the Hatter’s curious expression was a mixture of carefree abandonment and total absorption.
Wiping his hands on the seat of his trousers, the labourer did not bother to search for a rational explanation. Here he was, witnessing a man rushing by at great speed - a man whose feet could not possibly be touching the ground. It had to be magic. What else could it be?
The labourer licked his dry lips and pictured himself in the local inn, telling his fellow rustics of the Flying Man of Hangman’s Drive. They would, of course, laugh and sneer, tease him and call him mad, and he would smile back at them, the noble stoic beset by fools. And then one day, maybe years hence, someone else more respectable than he - perhaps a magistrate or a local squire - would come rushing into the inn to report that they too had observed the exact same phenomenon. From that moment on, skepticism would turn to respect, and every scoff and jibe could be returned in full. Maybe his picture would appear in the local paper...
Unaware that he was destined to be the catalyst for a long-running controversy, the Mad Hatter rode on, caught in a high that was part adrenaline, part exhilaration; a high that was better than any drug.
Up ahead, the Tired River cut across the landscape. It gleamed in the twilight like a vein of silver.
The Hatter ceased pedaling, let momentum carry him forward. He steered the bike onto the footpath that followed the river. The stony, uneven surface made speed both hazardous and uncomfortable, so the Hatter brought the machine to a halt and dismounted with practiced ease.
Leaving the bicycle against a tree, he sat by the Tired River and watched its denizens perform their evening rituals.
A pageant of swans drifted by. They looked neither left nor right; they did not wonder about their place in the scheme of things. They did not ask if life served any purpose. They had their river; they had each other. And for them, that was enough.
A dragonfly hovered briefly above the Mad Hatter, and then darted away into the darkness. Elsewhere, bullfrogs called to each other. Crickets sang.
There’s a pattern here, the Hatter told himself. The Red King dreams an ordered dream. But where do I fit in? What instrument am I meant to be playing in the Red King’s Orchestra? Am I a virtuoso or just a penny-whistle player with dreams of one day making it into the strings section?
With a sigh, he turned to his penny-farthing and patted its over-sized front wheel. ‘It’s a weird and wonderful world,’ he announced. ‘And a fine life if you can work out how to live it.’
The bullfrogs and crickets echoed his sentiments.
In a miserably cramped laboratory, Doctor Ormus contemplated a different sort of order. It had been a long day, not made any easier by being surrounded by buzzniks.
As he’d expected, Peregrine Smith’s old secret lab had needed a lot of work to make it usable. The room had been full of dusty equipment, most of it rusted or broken beyond any hope of repair. At his direction, the room had been emptied. The tunnel outside was now lined with a bewildering array of technology, a monument to the warped genius of an alien geriatric.
‘I wish I knew what half of it is for,’ he told Julie. She had just returned from carrying out a sack of mouldy blueprints - the last of Smith’s junk.
‘Half of what?’ she asked.
‘That stuff outside,’ he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the door. They were alone now. Just the two of them and Shadrack, who was lying unconscious in a long, metal tank. ‘I worked with Smith for nearly five years, but I got nowhere near understanding most of the gadgets he used. Much as I hate Smith, I have a grudging respect for the man. If I had his intellect - ’
‘You do,’ said Julie, simply. She peered down at Shadrack, wondering at the change in him. His face was still disfigured, but his expression no longer seemed so tortured. Earlier, she had peeked beneath his bandages and found pink scar tissue where earlier there had been only bone. She wondered if he was dreaming. ‘You just don’t have his training.’
‘So you say. But who’s to say what training he’s had? Maybe even on his own world, he was ahead of his time. I must have known him better than anyone, but I hardly knew him at all. He was just so alien.’
‘No. He’s not like you at all.’
‘He’s from the same planet.’
‘A different time.’
‘We’re the same race of people.’
‘But not the same type of people. You’re almost like one of us.’
‘Let’s face it, Doc. I’m a stranger in a land I’m never going to get used to. I’m no less lost now than I was when Smith first brought me here.’
Gingerly, Ormus sat down on the edge of the dynamo unit. There were no chairs in the lab, nothing that could offer comfort. With Smith’s equipment removed, the room looked scarcely bigger than before. The small amount of space that had been regained was largely taken up by the dynamo and the two units of the orgone generator - the generator itself and the tank in which Shadrack lay.
‘Of course,’ said Ormus, ‘we could be completely wasting our time here. I’ve never used this equipment before. The only thing that tells me it’s working is that red light on it.’
‘It’s working,’ said Julie. She stood up and began to unbutton her blouse.
‘What are you doing?’
‘You’re feeling depressed, and I’m feeling homesick. What we both need right now is physical contact.’
‘I’m tired. I don’t think I could.’
The blouse was discarded. It lay on the newly-swept floor, an electric blue invitation to a moment’s pleasure. The Doctor’s gaze shifted from the blouse to Julie’s breasts. A sudden longing washed over him. It wasn’t sexual. It was a need to be touched and comforted, to be told that he wasn’t alone or unwanted.
The red light on the generator went out. Ormus got to his feet, all thoughts of Julie forgotten. Peering into the casket, he watched as Shadrack’s one good eye opened.
‘Well?’ said Julie. She had picked up her blouse and was holding it over her breasts.
‘I don’t know,’ said Ormus. ‘With all those dressings, it’s hard to tell.’
Shadrack gazed up at them. He was stepping out of a dream, returning from a phantom zone in which he was neither alive nor dead. He recalled the napalm raining from the sky, a great wash of fire that clung to him, scorched his body and soul. A few fleeting moments that had rolled on and on forever, until the heat had sucked the air from his lungs and pain and terror had given way to darkness. And there were other, hazier memories. He had seen Lisa crying. The March Hare had led him across green fields. And he had gazed up at the moon.
‘Where,’ he asked, ‘am I?’
‘Somewhere you don’t know about,’ said Doctor Ormus, who felt relief wash through him like cold water on a hot day. The treatment had been successful. ‘Somewhere safe. The Panda won’t find you here.’
‘Is it all right for me to sit up?’
‘That depends. Do you feel up to it?’
‘I feel fine. I must have been asleep for quite some time.’
‘Yes,’ said Julie. She was suddenly conscious of not being fully dressed, but it seemed petty for her to do anything about it. Like Lazarus, Shadrack had risen from the dead. What did it matter if he caught a glimpse of her breasts? ‘You’ve had one hell of a sleep.’
‘And I’m hungry,’ said Shadrack, sitting up. He yawned and started to rub the sleep from his eyes, then stopped when he realised that something was not quite right. Instead of flesh, his fingers brushed against bandages. He was blind in one eye, and that eye was covered by some sort of patch. ‘So I didn’t dream it after all? There really was a napalm attack?’
Julie turned away. She felt Shadrack’s anguish and confusion as if it were her own. Behind her, Ormus began explaining in quiet tones all that had happened to Shadrack since the moment of his death. It was disconcerting to hear someone being told that they were alive after being dead, that they had not reached the after-life. It was a religious revelation in reverse.
Have we done the right thing? she wondered. Maybe we’ve committed a blasphemy. The finality of death is a law of nature. Now that we’ve broken it, will we be punished?
Morosely, she put her blouse back on and buttoned it up. ‘I’ve given you as much orgone as I can for now,’ Ormus was saying. ‘It will take a while to get the equipment recharged and ready again. We’ll come back tomorrow night and repeat the treatment. I’m not sure, but I think I can restore your face within a couple of days. Meanwhile, if you feel up to it, we can head back to the surface and find you a bed for the night. The Duchess has had a room prepared for you.’
‘No,’ said Shadrack. His voice sounded strained. ‘Lisa will be there. It’s not the right time for us to meet again.’
‘Lisa’s in the Chapel tonight. She promised the buzzniks a mass in return for sorting this place out. She won’t be home until the morning.’
‘All the same, I’d rather stay here. Alone.’
‘That’s not a good idea. We don’t know if the treatment’s going to have any side-effects. It would be far better for you to be near friends.’
‘I want some time to myself,’ Shadrack insisted. ‘It’s not every day that a man finds himself resurrected, and there are a lot of things I need to think about.’
‘Of course,’ said Julie. She turned to Ormus. ‘I don’t know why, but I think it best to do as he asks. He’s a free agent. What’s the point of giving a man his life if you take away his right to decide?’
‘But there’s no bed here,’ objected Ormus.
‘This will do fine,’ said Shadrack, tapping a knuckle against the side of the tank. ‘I slept in worse places than this when I was in the War Zone. Besides which, I really don’t think I’ll be doing too much sleeping tonight. The only thing I would ask you for though is a pen and some paper.’
Ormus reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a note book. He tore out two pages of equations, handed the rest to Shadrack. ‘I don’t think I have a pen.’
‘There’s one behind your ear, Doctor.’
‘Right.’ The pen was handed over. ‘Are you sure you’ll be all right?’
‘Of course he will,’ said Julie. ‘Now let’s get home and get to bed. I need my sleep.’
Back at his cottage, the Mad Hatter made himself a cup of tea and settled down for a quiet evening by the radio. The Home Service was broadcasting the Enigma Concerto, one of his favourite pieces. Amid the flutter of violins and the sturdy pounding of full percussion, he found himself able to concentrate.
The first movement led him through narrow alleyways into a place where arpeggios leapt towards infinity. He was reminded of the fountains in the Old Market Place and the house on the corner where he’d been born.
He recalled the poverty, the smell of damp and the constant scurrying of unseen rats and mice. Had it been a happy childhood? He really could not remember. All he had were fleeting impressions of a long struggle up a slippery slope.
Happy or not, he thought, I’ve come a long way since then. And probably got nowhere. I’m the outside chance in the Red Queen’s Race.
Feeling exhausted from his bicycle ride, he pressed himself into the comfort of his armchair.
He wanted it to swallow him, keep him hidden from a world that was growing increasingly hostile. If his information was correct, Hearts was virtually finished as an independent state.
The war was not going her way. Supplies were short, morale was low and even the most loyal of the Panda’s generals were making plans to bail out.
The war wasn’t all that was bothering the Mad Hatter. Tomorrow morning, his friend, the Knave of Hearts was due to stand trial. It wasn’t enough for them to torture him in private; now they were going to publicly humiliate him, drag his name through the dirt. Possibly make him the most hated man in the Kingdom.
And the one person who could put a stop to it - the King himself - was too scared of the Panda to even try.
The Hatter stared into his tea cup. He could just make out the whites of his eyes reflected in the brown liquid. They were eyes filled with self-accusal. Never mind about what others might or might not do. What about himself? Had he done all he could?
‘What the hell,’ he muttered. ‘I tried, didn’t I?’
With a growl of cellos, the radio mimicked the Tired River pushing itself relentlessly through the heart of Enigma. It reminded the Hatter of distant gunfire, of a war that had been deliberately kept remote. In this age of television and high-speed publishing, never once had the government allowed the public to glimpse the realities of war. Always, the papers displayed pictures of happy soldiers, brave young men on their way to a bold adventure.
The government lied about the casualties, lied about the way the war was going.
There were no victims. No widows. Just martyrs and mothers proud of sons who had laid down their lives for their country.
The Mad Hatter pictured endless rows of corpses about to be pushed into mass graves. No ceremonies. No head stones. And then, at last, he focused in on the biggest problem of all. The real problem. The one that could make the trial of the Knave and the outcome of the war ultimately irrelevant.
‘TARTS,’ sighed the Mad Hatter. ‘We have to do something about TARTS.’
Placing his cup on the arm of the chair, the Mad Hatter leaned forward and manipulated the radio’s tuning dial. Snatches of music, static and bleeps fluttered around his ears until he found the station he was looking for.
Radio Free Hearts was still on the air. If there was any cause for hope in that fact, the Mad Hatter was only too willing to grab at it. He settled back and listened as a sombre voice described how Gerbil Town had been wiped out by the most devastating weapon ever devised.
Shadrack had no idea of the time. He did not know if it was day or night.
It didn’t matter.
As he wandered through the Velvet Underground, time meant very little. The damp walls with their myriad cracks, the shadows that fled from the glare of his flashlight, the arched ceiling with its dirty stalactites - all these were elements of another age, another world.
Beyond a small chamber filled with hieroglyphics, he came to the Chapel. This was a large, hexagonal chamber. The walls were draped with saffron cloth. Candles formed a ring around the centre of the Chapel. On the outside of this ring, fifty buzzniks were on their knees, tonelessly chanting a prayer.
Shadrack stood in the entrance, hidden from sight by shadows. For the first time, he felt a kinship with the buzzniks. Like him, they were caught between life and death with no hope of ever returning to the former.
Dressed in a white robe, Lisa stood in the circle of candles. Her face was touched by rapture. She seemed almost ethereal, no more solid than moonlight on a lake.
He wanted to touch her. He wanted to whisper a spell that would make them one person, Lisa/Shadrack. An hermaphrodite. The perfect blend of male and female.
But Shadrack knew no such spell, nor did he hold much faith in magic. Quietly, he knelt and offered a prayer to Lisa. It was the only prayer he had ever learnt.
14. The Trial
A squad of ZOMOs, the President’s own riot police, formed a wall around the Royal Court of Justice. Amidst the tranquility of the palace grounds, their grey uniforms seemed misplaced, an overstatement of power. Having lost jurisdiction over the matter, the Panda was obviously determined to make sure that the trial of the Knave of Hearts would not go unnoticed.
The March Hare passed through the wall without being stopped, but once inside, he was frisked by a security guard and then waved through into the Central Chamber. As he came through the swing doors, he took immediate note of those in attendance. The jury consisted entirely of animals; there was not a human amongst them. So much, thought the March Hare, for trial by one’s peers.
The Knave stood in the dock, leaning his hip against the side for support. He was a motley collection of bruises, bandages and chains. Beneath his pyjamas, the outline of a suspender belt was vaguely visible. Nurse Jane had kept her promise.
The King, decked out in his judicial gown and ceremonial regalia, appeared ill at ease. He was sitting beside his wife, and seemed intent upon shrinking inside himself. He really did not want to be here at all. The Queen, on the other hand, was flushed with anticipation. Since the Panda’s rise to power, she had found herself with too few opportunities to show her authority, and she was set to milk this one for all it was worth.
The platform on which their Majesties thrones were set had recently been raised an extra four inches in an attempt to emphasise the Royal Prerogative. It was the King’s way of thumbing his nose at the Panda.
In front of the platform stood the White Rabbit decked out like a page boy. He held a trumpet in one hand, a scroll of parchment in the other. As the jurors and members of the public settled into their seats, he shuffled from one foot to the other, impatient to begin his duties.
Elsewhere in the court, bedlam reigned as people squabbled over who was sitting where and argued in loud voices as to the probable date and method for the Knave’s execution. Nobody seemed in any doubt as to the outcome of the trial.
So who else was there? The March Hare picked out many familiar faces. The Gryphon, wearing a suit two sizes too small. The Dormouse (already asleep). The Guinea Pig. The Ostrich. Several members of the palace staff. A clutch of journalists. And Alice.
The little girl was doing everything possible to make her presence felt. Hardly a moment passed without her objecting to something or another - the scraping of a juror’s pencil on slate, someone picking their nails, someone breathing too loudly. Before the trial had even started, she had insured that she would be the most hated person present.
The March Hare looked around for a spare seat and discovered to his chagrin that there was only one left. It was next to Alice.
He seated himself just as the King raised his hand to demand silence. ‘Herald,’ he said, as the babble dropped to a murmur, ‘read the accusation.’
At this, the White Rabbit blew three blasts on his trumpet, unrolled the parchment scroll, and then read the following:
‘Be it known that the Knave of Hearts is charged that he did, on a certain day or days, knowingly, willing and with malice aforethought and complete disregard for the safety and security of the Realm and its Peoples, commit a felony contrary to the Official Secrets Act, Section IV, Paragraph V.’
The King leaned his bulk forward and tapped the Rabbit on the shoulder. ‘Is that all it says?’
‘Word for word, Your Majesty.’
‘Hand me that scroll.’
The White Rabbit obeyed with slight but noticeable reluctance. An air of expectancy settled in the court as the King read through the document. After some moments, he looked up. ‘What’s this about TARTS?’
‘May it please, Your Majesty,’ said the White Rabbit, ‘but that paragraph has been deleted.’
‘It doesn’t please me. Why has it been deleted?’
‘It was so ordered by the Department of State Security, Your Majesty.’
‘This is my court. The DOSS has no jurisdiction here. I want it written into the records of this trial that the original charge specifically states that the accused allegedly stole the plans for something called TARTS - whatever that is. Did he steal a cookery book?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know, Your Majesty. It’s Top Secret.’
‘Is there anybody here who does know?’
‘Only the accused, Your Majesty. And he’s not permitted to say anything about it.’
‘Are you telling me that you’ve brought a man before me in order for him to defend himself, and he’s not even allowed to mention his alleged crime?’
‘He’d be breaking the law if he did.’
‘The Official Secrets Act.’
‘Why was I not informed of this before?’
‘Because it’s an Official Secret.’
‘Oh fiddle-faddle!’ said the Queen, who was getting impatient. ‘This is getting us nowhere. Someone had better call the first witness.’
The White Rabbit put his trumpet to his lips and blew three blasts. ‘First witness!’
From a door behind the jurors, the Mad Hatter appeared. He strolled up to the witness stand, a tea cup in one hand, a saucer in the other. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of square-lensed sunglasses.
‘Why,’ said the King, ‘are you wearing sunglasses?’
‘I wish to remain anonymous, Your Honour.’
‘You flatter me. Please just call me sir.’
‘I meant that you should address me as Your Majesty, not Your Honour.’
‘So what’s in a name?’
‘You look a mess. When did you last have that suit cleaned?’
‘Shortly before the commencement of my legendary tea party, Your Worship.’
‘And when was that?’
‘The tea party? Oh, let me see now. It started just over a year ago and finished the other day. Bedsday, I think it was.’
He looked to the March Hare for confirmation.
‘Cheeseday,’ said the March Hare.
‘No, it wasn’t,’ said the Dormouse with a yawn. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. ‘It was Cryday.’
He got up from his seat and squeezed in between Alice and the March Hare.
‘Take no notice of the rodent,’ the Mad Hatter told the King. ‘Cryday was when my furry friend finally woke up. The party had in fact finished long before then.’
‘Write that down,’ the King ordered the jury. ‘It’s not important, but it will give you something to do.’
‘I don’t have a pen,’ said the Mad Hatter, shouting above a sudden welter of scraping.
‘Not you,’ said the King. ‘All I require from you is that you shut up and give your evidence.’
‘I can hardly do both, Your Grace.’
‘Then choose one or the other. I don’t care which.’
‘Actually,’ said the Queen, ‘I think it would be best if you first did the latter, then proceeded to the former. In other words, give your evidence and then shut up.’
‘A nice plan,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘But there is one slight problem, Your Battleship.’
The Queen arched an eyebrow. ‘Oh?’
‘I don’t actually have any evidence to give. In fact, I haven’t the foggiest idea as to why I was called in the first place.’
‘Well, who summoned you?’
‘They wouldn’t tell me. Apparently it’s all Top Secret.’
‘You’d better make them tell you,’ the Queen hissed. ‘Because unless you come up with something relevant pretty damn quick, I’m going to have you chained-up in the deepest dungeon we’ve got!’
The Hatter turned pale and dropped his tea cup. It bounced but did not shatter. Tea splashed over his shoes, formed a tiny puddle at his feet. He mopped his brow with a slice of bread.
‘This is unfair!’ cried the Dormouse.
‘Silence!’ roared the Queen. ‘Or I’ll have you removed and flogged to within an inch of your life!’
‘But it’s this silly girl, Your Majesty. She’s taking up more than her fair share of the bench. I’m getting squashed.’
‘That is no concern of this court.’
‘She’s bent my whiskers.’
‘Have you quite finished?’
The Dormouse muttered something about Man’s inhumanity to small, furry rodents, then fell into a sulky silence.
The Hatter raised his hand.
‘Yes?’ said the King.
‘Oh, thank you,’ said the Mad Hatter. He picked up his fallen tea cup and marched out of the room.
‘I’ll get him one day,’ promised the Queen. ‘Just see if I don’t.’
‘Hell’s bells!’ screeched the Dormouse. ‘This is too much!’
He was right in more ways than one. In the space of less than one minute, Alice had grown nearly a foot in height.
‘It isn’t my fault,’ said Alice. ‘I’m at that sort of age.’
The Dormouse got to his feet. He was clearly angry. ‘You’ve been taking steroids, haven’t you?’
‘I have not.’
‘Don’t tell lies. Your tongue will drop off.’
‘Young lady,’ said the Queen. ‘Is it your intention to grow any bigger?’
‘But I’m hardly growing at all.’
This was plainly untrue. Her anatomy was ballooning in all directions, swelling at an ever-increasing rate.
Fearing for their safety, the March Hare and several other members of the public vacated their seats. They stood in the middle of the courtroom and looked at each other in the clear expectation that someone might do something.
Mindful that they were in a Court of Law, they did their best to remain unobtrusive. With the exception of the Dormouse.
‘I’m going to sue you for this!’ he screamed. ‘There are laws against bending a person’s whiskers. It’s people like you who are turning our cities into suburban slums. I’ve a good mind to put you over my knee and give you the spanking you deserve.’
By now, Alice’s head was at least four feet above everyone else’s. She had to shift sideways just to keep from falling off her seat.
‘You nasty girl!’ continued the Dormouse. ‘You pack that in and become little again this instant!’
‘That’s enough of that,’ said the White Rabbit, striking the Dormouse with his trumpet. ‘You had better keep quiet, you know.’
The Dormouse squealed and ducked away from his assailant. Blood dripped from his forehead. ‘That was uncalled for.’
The Rabbit hit him again. ‘I must ask you to leave the courtroom. It’s against the rules to bleed in here. So bugger off.’
With a final indignant squeak, he Dormouse scurried to the exit and was gone.
‘Right,’ said the King in the lull that followed. He gazed warily at Alice, was relieved to find that her rate of growth had slowed considerably. ‘Let’s have the next witness.’
The White Rabbit glanced at his list of names and called, ‘Alice!’
‘Here!’ cried Alice, jumping to her feet just as a sudden spurt of growth doubled her size. She turned towards the King and inadvertently knocked over the jury box with her heel. ‘That’s me.’
What was left of the jury box lay on its side. A large part of it was match wood. Injured and dazed jurors littered the courtroom floor. Many were bleeding, clutching at battered skulls and grazed knees. One - the Lizard - complained loudly of a broken wrist.
‘Oh, I beg your pardon,’ said Alice. She bent down and placed the jury box in its proper position but was unable to do anything about it leaning heavily to one side. Then she began picking up the jurors; to her, they were no bigger, no heavier than her cat Dinah. She brushed them down and placed them back in their seats. ‘Aren’t I the silly one? I’m just not used to being this big.’
‘The trial cannot proceed,’ said the King, ‘until all the jurymen are back in their proper places – and the right way up,'
Alice, in her haste, had placed the Lizard upside down. His short, stubby legs were bent in such a way that, had he not been resting on his head, he would have been crouching. Uttering a breathless apology, Alice turned the Lizard 180 degrees and gently set him down. He had stopped complaining about his wrist and was staring straight ahead in a very peculiar fashion. Those who noticed put it down to shock.
‘Are you quite finished?’ asked the King.
Alice examined the jury and then counted them. ‘Yes,’ she announced. ‘I’m finished.’
‘Good. Perhaps you’d care to tell the court what you know about this matter?’
‘I don’t know an awful lot, Your Majesty. You see, I’m from another world and I only came to be here because somebody made some tarts.’
‘One moment,’ said the White Rabbit. ‘The jury is ordered to disregard all mention of TARTS, and the witness must never mention the subject again.’
The King gave the White Rabbit a stare that could have wilted daffodils. ‘Tell me, boy. Is it or is it not my job to give orders in this court?’
‘Only in Matters of Procedure, Your Majesty.’
‘I see,’ said the King, who didn’t see at all. He rephrased his question to Alice. ‘Excluding anything to do with TARTS, what precisely do you know about the matter in hand?’
‘Nothing at all.’
‘Nothing comes of nothing,’ said the White Rabbit, looking pleased with himself. ‘That’s a very well-known equation.’
‘But,’ said the King, ‘is it correct? It is my understanding that nobody has ever been able to present a definite proof of that assertion.’
There followed a whispered and excited interchange between the King and the White Rabbit.
The March Hare took advantage of the lull to study his ex-employer. The Knave was in bad shape. Both hands trembled; his lower lip had turned blue.
‘Poor bastard,’ muttered the March Hare. He sat down, then jumped up again. He had sat on Alice’s foot. Her head was lost in the rafters. The veins in her legs were as big as sewage pipes. Even the King noticed.
‘I wish you’d return to your proper size,’ he told her. ‘How is a man expected to follow abstract mathematical theory with a thirty foot girl staring down at him?’
‘I’m not that big at all,’ Alice protested. ‘It’s just that you’ve all shrunk.’
‘Utter twaddle!’ said the Queen. ‘Monarchs don’t shrink.’
‘From a relativistic point of view,’ said the White Rabbit, ‘the young lady does have a point.’
‘Do shut up,’ said the Queen. ‘You’re a very boring person.’
Rubbing wearily at his brow, the King attempted to bring the proceedings to an end. ‘I think it’s time for the jury to consider its verdict.’
The Knave growled. His already misshapen lips twisted into something resembling Moebius strips. For a moment, he appeared to be on the verge of giving vent to a howl. Instead he spoke in a quiet but surly voice. ‘I wish to make a statement.’
‘Not allowed!’ cried the White Rabbit, jumping from one foot to the other in extreme agitation. ‘The Department of State Security –’
‘-has no jurisdiction here,’ reminded the King. ‘I will not have one of my subjects denied the right to speak in his own defence. Is that clear?’
The White Rabbit looked miffed. ‘Yes. Quite clear.’
‘Good,’ said the King. He gave the Knave what he hoped was a re-assuring smile. ‘Can you manage to say what you have to say without your jaw dropping off? That string appears somewhat frayed.’
‘It will hold,’ mumbled the Knave.
‘Very well. You may begin.’
‘Wait a minute,’ said the White Rabbit, holding up a scrap of paper. ‘This has just been handed to me.’
‘What is it?’ said the King.
‘A poem written by the accused.’
‘Is it in his own handwriting?’
‘No. That’s why I think it’s significant.’
‘It certainly sounds suspicious,’ agreed the Queen.
‘I don’t write poetry,’ said Knave. ‘That must be a forgery.’
‘You admit it then? You confess to counterfeiting verse? What more evidence could the jury possibly require?’
‘Plenty,’ said Alice, speaking from the rafters. ‘We don’t even know if it’s a good poem or a bad one.’
‘Read it,’ ordered the King.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where should I begin, Your Majesty?’
‘That depends on the poem. If it’s abstract, you may as well start anywhere. Otherwise, you had best begin at the beginning.’
‘I hope Your Majesty will forgive me if I don’t get the meter quite right. Though I often recited poetry at school, I have had little opportunity since to practice the art.’
‘Get on with it!’
The White Rabbit drew in a deep breath, and then recited –
‘1 pkt tea
‘Is that it?’ asked the King.
The White Rabbit nodded. ‘In its entirety, sire.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Well,’ said the Queen. ‘That is the most treasonous, seditious piece of writing I have ever heard. I shudder to think what effect that sort of thing could have on the young and impressionable.’
‘Actually,’ said Alice, ‘apart from the fact that it didn’t rhyme, I quite liked it.’
‘All right,’ said the King. ‘I’ve heard all I want to hear. I have an ulcer that feels like a blow torch, the beginnings of a migraine and a thirty foot schoolgirl cramping up my courtroom. Therefore the jury will retire and consider its verdict.’
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice. ‘You haven’t heard the Knave’s defence yet!’
The King started to say something about there being no point, but he was drowned out by his wife.
‘We’ve heard all we want to hear!’ she thundered. ‘The confused stands condemned by his own demeanour. Pyjamas in court indeed!’
‘He’s not confused,’ Alice pointed out. ‘He’s accused.’
‘Actually,’ said the Knave, ‘you’re both right.’
‘Why do you let this fat bag bully you?’ Alice wanted to know. ‘She’s nothing but a puffed-up sack of lard!’
The Queen’s face underwent a dramatic transformation. Demons played in her eyes, infusing them with burning sulphur and the fury of Hell. A flush broke through her several layers of make-up. Muscles twitched around her lips, the side of her nose. Even her ears were trembling. ‘Insolent wretch! I will not be spoken to in this way!’
‘Oh yes you will,’ said Alice. ‘Bag! Fat, fat, fat bag!’
‘How dare you! You - you - ’
‘You are the ugliest, nastiest queen I’ve ever seen in my whole life,’ said Alice, reveling in her new-found power. ‘I’ve a good mind to tread on you.’
‘Guards! Guards! Off with her head!’
Nobody came forward. The two guards flanking the Knave of Hearts stepped back to hide behind their prisoner. It was no part of their job to take on giant schoolgirls.
‘Off with her head!’ screamed the Queen, turning an unwholesome shade of purple. ‘Do you hear? I want this monster destroyed. Why do you just stand there? Why won’t you come to the aid of your monarch?’
The Queen rose to her feet, slammed her fist against her thigh. ‘I want her flogged and then executed! I want her head on a platter! I want... I want...!’
The Queen clutched at her throat. Her eyes rolled up. She wheezed.
‘A doctor!’ cried the King. ‘Someone fetch a doctor!’
‘Oh dear,’ said the White Rabbit, close to tears. ‘That can’t be done, sire. Rule ninety-seven states quite clearly that no doctor may ever - ’
‘Bugger the rules! My wife is dying!’
‘Is there anything I can do?’ asked Alice.
The King raised a finger towards the rafters. ‘You! This is your fault! You’ll suffer for this! I’ll make you pay!’
Even as the King spoke, the Queen threw her arms out wide and went rigid. Then with a sigh like the creaking of old timbers, she drew a final breath, fell forward and died.
A dreadful silence followed.
The Knave spluttered. He tittered. He giggled. A guard slapped his face.
The King looked to the Knave. The Knave shrugged. A rivulet of blood rolled slowly from the corner of his mouth. The King rose to his feet, stepped down from the platform.
‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘Tell me this has not happened.’
‘In your dream or mine?’ said the Knave. ‘Or the Red King’s?’
‘Screw you, you old fart. You’ve got exactly what you deserve.
The King’s face twisted in anger. His breathing was ragged, tortured. ‘Why have you done this to me? I’ve tried to help you today. I tried to show everyone that your arrest and trial are travesties. I might even have been able to save you. And this is how you repay me?
‘Tell me, boy. Anybody! Just tell me what I’ve done to earn your contempt and your hatred. Have I really been that bad a Monarch?’
A tear as big as a tennis ball fell at the King’s feet. He looked up. Then screamed. ‘YOU! This is your doing! YOU... KILLED... MY... WIFE!’
Alice buried her face in her hands. It was like an aircraft hanger closing its doors. ‘I... I... I...’
‘Witch!’ cried the White Rabbit.
‘What?’ said Alice.
‘Who?’ said the King.
‘Witch!’ the Rabbit repeated. ‘I tell you the girl’s a witch!’
‘Oh no,’ said Alice. ‘I’m not. Honestly. I’m just a little girl who’s lost and confused and shouldn’t even be here. All I want is to go home...’
‘She looks like a witch to me,’ declared the Ostrich. ‘A giant witch!’
‘Of course she’s a bloody witch!’ said the Knave of Hearts. ‘And witches are for burning!’
A murmur of agreement rippled around the Court Room. In the jury box, the Field Mouse nudged excitedly at the Lizard.
The Lizard fell forward.
‘He’s dead!’ screamed the Field Mouse. ‘The witch has killed the Lizard! Don’t look at her. She’s got the Evil Eye!’
This was all that was needed to turn the near-hysterical jurors and attendees into a howling, blood-thirsty mob.
‘Burn her!’ they chanted. ‘Burn the witch! Burn! Burn! Burn!’
The March Hare stood in the midst of it all, looking on in numb horror. It went through his mind over and over again to leave immediately, before he was irretrievably caught up in the inevitable consequences of the mob’s frenzy. But he could not. A horrid fascination had him rooted to the spot.
‘Do you hear?’ the King shouted. ‘Do you hear what they’re saying? They want you to burn, little girl. They want to send you down to Hell!’
Alice put her hands over her ears. ‘I’ll wake up, she whimpered, squeezing her eyes shut. ‘I’ll wake up and it will all be just a dream and I’ll be sitting by the river and my sister will be teaching me history and none of this will have happened and it will be all right. I’ll be back home and there’s no place like home... There’s no place like home... There’s no place like home...’
‘Clear the Court!’ ordered the King. ‘She’s chanting a spell. Fetch paraffin! Fetch torches! Hurry!’
There was a general rush towards the exits. Benches were overturned as people fought to escape the nightmare they had helped create. Fur was lost in the stampede. Feathers went flying. Someone broke a rib.
Eventually only six remained. Of these, the Queen and the Lizard were both quite dead. Alice was terrified. The King and the Knave were probably insane. And the March Hare was searching for a reason for it all.
He did not try to get the Knave away. There was nothing he could do. The Knave had about him the aura of a doomed man, a man beyond hope.
Two guards returned. Each carried a bucket of paraffin which they emptied over Alice’s enormous red shoes. The pink liquid flowed around her silver buckles, soaked into her socks.
In a fit of desperation, Alice attempted to stamp on the guards, but they were too quick for her; without looking back, they sprinted out into the corridor.
Next came three ZOMOs. They had discarded their batons in favour of blazing torches. The flames danced wickedly, fueling Alice’s terror, the Hare’s dismay. One ZOMO was careless. He slipped; both he and his torch were extinguished beneath Alice’s shoe. The two remaining riot cops were more cautious. They threw their torches from a safe distance, then departed immediately.
As flames swept up Alice’s legs, the King clapped his hands in manic glee and began to dance a merry jig. Her frock ignited. The Knave laughed hysterically.
Sinking to his knees, the March Hare was held spellbound by Alice’s destruction. He took in every detail of her perdition - the flailing of her arms, the melting of her face. Black strands of carbonised hair drifted through the smoke; her clothes fell apart.
The Knave thrashed around in his chains. His every movement was made strobic by the wash of shadow and light. He was a flickering vision, a Jack O’Lantern dancing in and out of existence. ‘Roast beef!’ he cried, playing the fool one last time. ‘I smell roast beef! Pass the mustard!’
As if this was some pre-arranged signal, the girl stopped screaming, stopped pounding at the smoke-filled air
Realising his peril, the King ran out of the Court Room, .tearing his crown from his head and throwing it aside. His sobbing echoed down the corridor.
Like a penitent sinner, the Knave looked up at Alice and smiled serenely. Her right arm fell to the ground and shattered, showering the Knave with hot cinders, dark ashes. Then with a mighty whoosh, Alice toppled, broke apart into a dozen burning pieces.
Her right thigh landed on the Knave, killing him instantly.
15. Primal Screams
The Queen was dead.
In the Pleasure Garden, the snapdragons burned feebly. The March Hare sat on a toadstool watching wispy, swan-like clouds glide across the moon; some part of him was far away, drifting in a space of its own.
There was music. He had brought along his portable tape recorder. The Caterpillar bathed in the rolling melodies. The March Hare merely listened.
‘Imagine,’ said the Caterpillar, ‘drowning in an arpeggio.’
The March Hare breathed in a lungful of hashish. They smoked from opposite ends of the same hookah; each had his own tube through which to inhale the heavy blue smoke. A casual observer might have supposed a symbiosis, a self-contained ecology of Caterpillar, Hookah and Hare.
Nodding thoughtfully, the March Hare smacked his lips. ‘How about sailing on a sea of symphonies?’
‘Cool,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘I can see myself as Captain of the good ship Concerto.’
‘And I could be the angry wind whipping the sea to a crescendo. Driving all before me, I’d rejoice as notes crash against tall cliffs, broiling and bubbling in an orchestrated frenzy.’
A piano spiraled up a staircase of chord progressions, twisted around in tonic contortions.
Resting for a moment on a sustained harmonic, it suddenly tumbled three octaves to be caught in the sturdy arms of a bassoon.
The Knave was dead.
The March Hare could not focus on anything this side of eternity. Cannabis and music were taking him into uncharted territory. He was an astronaut, a dancer in a ballroom haunted by stars.
‘Sometimes it’s all just too beautiful,’ said the Caterpillar.
‘Life. So exquisite and so delicate we seldom have the courage to grasp it. We think it’s going to fall apart in our hands. And then one day, it’s gone.’
The March Hare began to cry.
‘Why are you crying?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Is it because of what happened to the Queen?’
‘No. It’s not that.’
‘Not that either. I think it’s because something’s happened to me and I really don’t know that I can handle it. I’ve suddenly grown up. I never thought I would, but I have. Life’s become so serious. I just don’t know who the hell I am any more.’
‘How old are we?’ said the Caterpillar. ‘We must be about thirty years old. Maybe it’s about time we did grow up. I can’t be a caterpillar all my life. Soon I’m going to have to grow wings and fly away.’
The March Hare giggled.
The Caterpillar sighed. ‘Man, those wings are going to be so big and beautiful, they’re going to take me all the way to the moon.’
‘What will you find there?’
‘Everything I ever wanted.’
‘Do you suppose the moon’s big enough?’
‘I don’t know. Any more than you know why you’re crying.’
‘I told you why.’
‘Cool,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘Real mellow.’
He fell asleep.
The March Hare attempted to get to his feet. The toadstool seemed to twist away from under him; it pitched him backwards and over the edge. He landed on his side, his fall broken by a pile of fresh humus.
Giggling uncontrollably, he crawled around on his paws and knees until he was brought to an abrupt halt by the end of a gun barrel. It pressed into the flesh between his eyes, forcing him to focus at last on his situation.
It was just after sunset. The night was muggy and warm and he felt sick. From the toadstool which seemed to rear impossibly high above him, came the strains of a rock’n’roll song. It was The Puppy-Kicker Five with their latest hit, Sex Mad Aardvark.
Arms encircled his waist, pulled him to his feet. Pink eyes stared into his. A paw slapped his face.
‘He’s stoned,’ said whoever was holding him up. ‘The Big Cheese ain’t gonna like this.’
The pink eyes blinked. For the merest instant of time, they seemed to disappear. ‘Let’s get him to Mrs. Pogue’s quickly. Maybe some coffee will sort him out.’
They pulled and pushed him through the Pleasure Garden. A Babbage Convertible was parked on the lawn outside. The door opened and he was thrown onto the back seat and found himself propped against something warm and furry.
Recovered from his giggling fit, the March Hare vaguely recognised his fellow passenger as a gerbil. He was dressed in combat fatigues and carried a shotgun. Two more gerbils climbed into the front.
‘He’s off his face,’ said the one in the driving seat. ‘Keeps telling us he’s gonna fly to the moon. Let’s hope we can bring him down without too much of a bump. `
Mrs. Pogue’s Home for the Bewildered and Slightly Insane had not served its intended purpose for three years or more. A sudden cessation of government funding had strangled the life out of it, leaving Mrs. Pogue no choice but to turn her unhappy residents out into the streets. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Pogue had been found face down in the Tired River. The coroner had recorded an open verdict; few people doubted that she had committed suicide.
The Home was actually a disused farm house. Getting there entailed a tortuous journey along twisting lanes that were all dirt and potholes.
Sitting in the back of the Babbage Convertible, the March Hare reacted to every bump with a deeply-felt groan of discomfort. His head ached intolerably.
‘Nearly there now,’ the driver informed him. ‘You feeling any better than before?’
The March Hare rubbed the back of a paw against his eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I feel just dandy.’
‘Well, at least you’re coherent. You must have quite some metabolism to recover so quickly.’
‘It’s been engineered that way,’ said the March Hare. ‘Yours must be the same.’
‘Courtesy of Peregrine Smith?’
‘So it seems.’
‘That’s kind of spooky when you think we intend to kill him. I mean, he made us and all that. Would you call that patricide or Deicide? Smith, after all, is our equivalent of God.’
‘He’s flesh and blood, and if ever I get the chance, I’m going to blow a hole right through his head.’
‘Because of what he did to Gerbil Town?’
‘That and a few other things.’
‘Sure,’ said the driver. He swung the convertible around a sudden corner and coaxed it along a short but treacherous track which brought them to the front of Mrs. Pogue’s. There was a light showing in the upstairs window. Sharply defined shadows moved across the surface of the net curtain. A tall, stocky figure paced backwards and forwards; it was unmistakably Doctor Ormus.
‘Oh no,’ said the March Hare, recalling the meeting Ormus had called for tonight, here at Mrs. Pogue’s. So the Gerbils had joined the Red Orchestra? That was hardly surprising. ‘You may as well go in without me. I’m having nothing to do with any of this.’
The driver turned round. ‘The three of us are all armed,’ he warned. ‘And if we thought you were going to be any trouble, we wouldn’t hesitate to kill you. Now, get out of the car and start walking to that door. The Big Cheese is rather anxious to have a chat with you.’
Having no choice, the March Hare did as he was told. The initial effects of the hash had worn off completely, leaving him shaky and depressed. He approached the door, uncomfortably conscious of the three gerbils following very closely behind. If he made a dash for it now, they could over-power him before he’d taken more than a few steps. And they probably wouldn’t even bother. It was simpler for them to shoot him, and he had no doubt that they would. Their fanaticism was palpable in the grim set of their faces. Like Blue Shirts, he thought. Oriented more towards death than life.
As his eyes became adjusted to the dark, he was able to make out his surroundings in greater detail. A small fleet of army trucks was parked beside a barn. The trucks bore no markings and looked old and run down, Ahead of him, a figure stood motionless beside the door.
Obviously a guard, he held a machine gun at hip level and traced the March Hare’s progress with it. Like the gerbils, he was garbed in combat fatigues; his face was obscured by a balaclava.
Felling resentful, the March Hare pushed open the door and steadied himself against the frame. In the darkness, he could just make out a set of stairs leading up to the floor above. He knew immediately that he could not climb them on his own.
The Driver pushed past him, opened a door on the left. He reached in, found a light switch.
The doorway opened onto a second flight of steps. These led down.
‘You go that way,’ said the Driver. ‘You’ll find the Big Cheese waiting for you down there.’
‘I can’t,’ said the March Hare. He swayed slightly, had to constantly shift his feet to maintain his balance.
‘I’ll help you then.’ The Driver took the March Hare’s left arm and placed it over his shoulder.
Together they slowly negotiated the steps, finding it difficult to manouevre in the cramped space. Twice, the March Hare stumbled, but the gerbil was stronger than he looked and they somehow managed to reach the bottom of the stairs without coming to grief. There was a doorway ahead of them.
‘Knock and go in,’ the Driver instructed. ‘From here on, you’re on your own.’
Then with rather too much haste for the March Hare’s liking, the Driver set off back up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
The March Hare did not bother to knock. He went straight in.
It was a windowless room, as cold and restrictive as the President’s Campaign Room had been. And yet it had character, a simple rustic charm which was imbued by the flint walls and mosaic floor. Two old and broken barrels in the corner hinted that it might once have been a wine cellar.
A third barrel served as a chair for the Mad Hatter. He was seated at a wooden table on which the inevitable pot of tea steamed away. The Hatter looked ragged and drawn. His shirt was criss-crossed with red stripes.
The March Hare advanced. He recognised the stripes as blood but could not bring himself to comment on them.
‘They found you then?’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘In some vague way, I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t. I don’t think you’ve got much stomach for fighting.’
‘So you’re the Big Cheese? That explains a lot of things.’
‘Don’t tell me that you never once suspected?’
‘What’s this all about, Hatter? I don’t mean why is the Red Orchestra trying to topple the Panda. I mean what’s your angle in this thing?’
The Mad Hatter arched his eyebrows. ‘That’s a good question, my friend, and I wonder why no-one’s asked it before. But I’m not going to answer you - at least not yet. Instead I’ve got something I want you to see.’
Moving aside the tea pot, he pointed to a piece of paper which had been lying beneath it. The March Hare picked it up. ‘What is it?’
‘A suicide note.’
The Hatter laughed a brief, empty laugh. Everything about him seemed brittle, as if he was about to splinter into a thousand little pieces. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s Shadrack’s. Ormus found him this morning in the Chapel. He’d taken an overdose of buzz.’
‘You don’t seem very shocked.’
‘I’m not. I think Shadrack’s better off this way.’
‘Poor March Hare,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘When they found you floating on that raft, there was a note pinned to your lapel which read - Handle with care. This creature is mad. And all through your life, you’ve tried to live up to that. So now you’re finding out that you’re no crazier than anyone else and you’re lost. So absolutely and totally lost.’
The March Hare had no answer. It was beyond him right now to decide if the Mad Hatter was right or wrong. Maybe the distinction between rationality and lunacy had always been more blurred than he’d supposed. For the moment though, it really did not matter.
He unfolded the note. What struck him first was the neatness of the handwriting, the careful definition of every letter, every punctuation mark. Whatever Shadrack had to say, he’d wanted to make sure that it would be read and understood.
The March Hare scanned the note.
forgive me for the way that I’m leaving you now. I wanted to say goodbye but could think of no better way than this. When they sent me to fight their stupid war for them, there were many things I would have said to you if I could have found the words. Now I know what I should have said. It is simply that I love you and will always love you, and that’s the one thing the bastards can never take from either one of us.
So who shall we blame for what’s happened? Let’s blame no-one. Something tells me that if we can forgive them for what they’ve done to us, then we’ve at least done something to make it all a little better.
I’m leaving now for what I am sure is a better world. It’s not because I want to, but because I know I must. Already I can feel the new life I’ve been given slipping away from me. What no-one seems to have realised is that orgone energy is but one aspect of the life force. On its own, it cannot sustain me. Peregrine Smith supposedly cured me, but within a day of his treatment, my face fell apart, exposing once again my wounds. The same thing is certain to happen this time.
How can I come back to you like this? You’re a sweet, compassionate person and you would not turn me away because of my deformities. But inside you would be filled with horror, revulsion and - worst of all - pity.
For the sake of both of us, we can never be lovers again. At least not in this world. And without you, nothing makes sense anyway.
Please don’t grieve for me. I go willingly, and thanks to you, I have found more joy in my few short years than most people could know in a thousand lifetimes.
Once again - I love you.
The March Hare folded the note and handed it back to the Mad Hatter. Neither spoke for a moment. Leaning forward on his elbows, the Hatter tapped idly at the tea pot with his fingernail.
‘Was it true?’ said the March Hare. ‘About his face falling apart?’
The Mad Hatter nodded. ‘According to Ormus, he would quickly have reverted to the way he was when they brought him back from the War Zone.’
‘And Ormus knew that?’
‘Not to begin with. In fact, he had no conception of the possibility until he read this note. He’s quite upset by it all.’
‘How’s Lisa taking it?’
‘She doesn’t know yet. So far the only people aware of what’s happened are you, me and Ormus.’
‘And how long do you think you can keep from telling her?’ The March Hare slapped an angry paw on the table. ‘Damn it, Hatter! She has a right to know.’
Undoing the top button of his shirt, the Mad Hatter stood and pushed the note towards the March Hare. ‘So you tell her. Give her this and let her know her boyfriend’s just died all over again.’
The March Hare backed away. ‘Now wait a minute. That isn’t fair.’
‘Fair? No, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that Shadrack suffered like he did, and it’s not fair that Lisa’s going to have her heart broken all over again. But don’t let that stop you. You go right ahead and tell her everything. Like you say, she has a right to know.’
‘Sure,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘There’s always later.’
‘You know, I feel quite sorry for them,’ said Lisa. She and Julie were standing by the window making a pretense of examining their make-up in the mirror of Julie’s compact. Actually, they were covertly scrutinising the three gerbils who stood in a restless huddle in the far corner.
‘Especially the one on the left. He looks so cute and helpless.’
‘With that bloody great rifle in his hands?’ Julie rolled her eyes. They both giggled.
Behind them, Doctor Ormus leaned against an empty book case and brooded. His face was drawn into an anxious mask that showed both his feelings and his age.
Earlier, Julie had tried to draw him out on the reason for his tenseness and he’d been abrupt with her. So now she wasn’t talking to him.
At least she’s hitting it off with Lisa, he told himself. It’ll do them both good to get to know each other. Though I doubt that it can do much for my own personal relationship with the girl.
Elsewhere in the room, which had once been the main dormitory at Mrs. Pogue’s, the Mock Turtle and the Grey Squirrel were seated at opposite sides of a table, drinking wine and discussing politics. For once, the Grey Squirrel’s anorak seemed almost tasteful, but that might have been because the Mock Turtle was dressed in a piebald suit that was part pink, part yellow. His shirt with its zigzag motif clashed perfectly.
The two girls laughed at a private joke. Lisa closed her compact and placed an affectionate hand on Julie’s shoulder. Both girls seemed remarkably relaxed, almost as if they were at a party.
The door opened. All conversation in the room broke off as the Mad Hatter strolled in. He was closely followed by the March Hare, who staggered breathlessly into the room.
Julie let out an audible gasp. ‘Your shirt - ’
‘Pretty, isn’t it?’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘I’m thinking of opening a boutique. This is just the thing to capture the public imagination. It’s what you might call designer outrage.’
‘Or self-mutilation,’ said Doctor Ormus. ‘I thought you got over that sort of thing.’
‘I felt it was time for a revival. The razor blade has such a sweet kiss.’
‘Suppose I said I didn’t feel you were in a fit state to lead this group? It’s my opinion that you’re mentally unsound.’
‘And this from a man who has psychotic visions. Mechanical lizards, indeed!’
‘I could have you certified.’
‘I already have been. If you were to look in my bedroom, you would see a framed Certificate of Clinical Insanity hanging on the wall. And it’s valid for another three years.’
The Grey Squirrel knocked back the remainder of his wine. ‘So you’re the Big Cheese? I should have known.’
‘No, you shouldn’t,’ countered the Mad Hatter. ‘It’s supposed to be a secret. If you’d known it, I would have had to kill you.’ He glanced around the room, doffed his top hat towards the gerbils. ‘Glad to have you aboard, gentlemen. These must be trying times for you.’
One of them stepped forward. The March Hare recognised him as the Driver. ‘Just give us a crack at the Panda,’ he said. ‘That’s all we ask.’
‘No sooner said than done. Because tonight’s the night we make our move.’
The March Hare caught his breath. He wondered if he was expected to fight.
‘Is that wise?’ asked the Mock Turtle, turning his sad eyes on the March Hare. For a moment, their faces reflected each other’s misgivings. ‘I don’t think any of us are ready for this. You might have warned us.’
‘I couldn’t take the chance, my friend. I’m as loyal a subject of the King as anyone here, but I really wouldn’t want him to catch wind of our intentions. I know he has a spy in our organisation, and I really don’t mind that. But he has a habit of letting his secrets end up on the desk of the Panda. And we wouldn’t want that, would we.’
‘The King’s on our side.’
‘Sure he is. But there are certain of his Ministers who are altogether too sympathetic towards the Panda. As much as I hate to say it, the King’s a security risk.’
‘He could give us a lot of help.’
‘If it’s anything like the help he’s already given us, then we can do without it. Tomorrow when this is all over, you have my blessing to send him a complete report.’
‘You know I’m his man?’
‘I’ve known for a long time, and that’s why I’ve kept you out of the way. Frankly, the less His Majesty knows, the better I like it.’
‘I have some intelligence from him anyway. It concerns TARTS.’ The Mock Turtle paused uncertainly.
‘Go ahead,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘From now on, we’re going to be sticking pretty close to each other. If there are traitors here, they won’t have any chance to betray us.’
‘Well, you must be wondering why TARTS hasn’t been used as an offensive weapon since the unfortunate incident at Gerbil Town. According to my sources, something went wrong with the machinery shortly afterwards. I’m no scientist so don’t expect me to go into any great detail. All I can tell you is that something called a vector gauge blew out, which meant they could no longer control the direction of the beam.
‘Anyway, they’ve nearly fixed that now. It seems they got a replacement from somewhere.’
‘From me, I’m afraid,’ Ormus muttered unhappily. ‘The Penguin came by the other day and demanded that I hand it over. I’m really sorry but I had no idea of its purpose. Peregrine Smith left it with me many years ago.’
‘It seems then,’ said the Mad Hatter, ‘that we have less time than we thought. Once they get TARTS working again, we don’t stand a chance. Instinct told me that tonight was the night for our coup d’etat, and this proves I was right.’
‘Right, schmight!’ said the Cheshire Cat, strolling in through the open door. He hopped onto the table and looked from left to right, as if to evenly distribute the effect of his smile. ‘Just come to tell you that everything’s ready when you are, Boss.’
The Mad Hatter clapped his hands together. ‘Splendid! Let’s not waste any time. We’ve got one hell of a night ahead of us and I’m rather looking forward to it.’
‘But what’s the plan?’ asked the Grey Squirrel.
‘Simple. You and the March Hare stay with me and the rest follow the Cheshire Cat. He’ll take you downstairs where you’ll find combat uniforms and rifles. And then you’ll go on to the banks of the Tired River and wait for the signal to attack the Bunker. Doctor Ormus has all the details and he’ll fill them in for you as you go along.’
‘Am I to take it,’ said the March Hare, still groggy from the marijuana, ‘that you expect to overthrow the Panda with just a handful of men?’
‘Indeed not, you furry fool. Out there is a whole army of able body men and women. They’ve been hiding in the barn. If you look out of the window, you might just catch the last of them getting into the army trucks.’
‘Great plan,’ said the Mock Turtle, with obvious sarcasm. ‘We just charge the bunker and that’s it - two thousand Blue Shirts throw down their arms and surrender.’
‘My plan is a bit more devious than that,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘I’m going to tip the scales so far in our favour they’ll probably break. Tonight, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.’
‘Fear, schmear!’ said the Cheshire Cat. ‘The way I see it is simple. Keep your claws sharp and your tail up and the world’s your lobster.’
16. The Fourth Card
When the others had left and the last of the army trucks had gone, the Mad Hatter led the March Hare and Grey Squirrel out onto the back terrace. The night was rich with country smells that carried a hint of nostalgia - apple blossom and freshly turned earth. Tranquility ruled supreme.
A low picket fence mapped the limits of Mrs. Pogue’s back yard. Beyond that, fields of corn swept in a golden array to the horizon, merged with a sky that was awash with starlight. There are nights when stars are stars - very pretty but no more than that. And there are nights when the firmament is covered in a soft mist, as if seen through a veil of tears. On such nights, one can only look and wonder.
‘Endless,’ said the March Hare. ‘That’s the only way to describe it. A sky like this is a glimpse of eternity.’
The Grey Squirrel stepped down off the terrace. He kicked idly at an empty beer can. ‘When you’ve seen one sky, you’ve seen them all.’
‘You speak like someone who’s never seen anything,’ said the Mad Hatter, settling into the inevitable rocking chair.
‘I speak as a proletarian,’ said the Grey Squirrel. ‘One day the stars will be ours to do with as we wish. When that day comes, I’ll be glad of their existence. But until then, they count for nothing.’
‘They count for everything,’ objected the March Hare. ‘When you look into such a sky, you begin to understand that there’s a purpose to life, some grand design that lies behind everything we say and do.’
‘Bollocks! Life is the end result of billions of years of random chemical exchanges. There is no God. That’s something I know without having to know why or how I know. It’s instinct.’
‘There’s nothing random about you,’ said the Mad Hatter, speaking in a voice of cool venom.
‘Peregrine Smith put you together in a test tube.’
The Grey Squirrel spat. ‘Smith had nothing to do with it.’
‘Yes he did. Ask Doctor Ormus. I have.’
‘And what did he have to say?’
‘That Smith is an alien.’
‘An alien from the planet Earth.’
‘There’s no such planet.’
‘Not in this universe,’ the Mad Hatter conceded. ‘But the Red King dreams many dreams. He dreams of other Red Kings, all with dreams of their own. And at the centre of one of those dreams is a planet called Earth. It’s where Julie and Alice come from. They were accidentally brought here as the result of certain experiments performed by Peregrine Smith.’
‘Nothing’s impossible,’ said the Mad Hatter with conviction.
‘And everything is permitted, I suppose?’
‘Absolutely.’ Removing his hat, the Mad Hatter reached inside the lining and brought out a deck of playing cards. ‘I’m going to do something now, and it’s very important that you understand it.’ He exposed the bottom card and tapped it with his finger. ‘The Red King is the key.’
‘Wait,’ said the Grey Squirrel, stepping back onto the terrace. ‘That’s not the Red King. That’s the King of Hearts.’
‘Oh? Does it look like the King of Hearts?’
‘The current one? No. But that design is hundreds of years old.’
‘So humour me. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it is the Red King.’
But the Grey Squirrel was having none of it. ‘Card games! Make-believe! Is this your idea of how to run a revolution? Are we going to spend all night discussing mythology while our comrades are out there putting their lives on the line?’
‘I’m trying to explain my plan to you.’
‘And that involves cards?’
‘Every General has his own method of planning strategy. Some use mathematics; some use astrology. Still others thumb through history books to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of their predecessors.’
‘And the Mad Hatter uses playing cards!’
‘I use philosophy and instinct. The Red King himself directs my every movement. That’s why the resistance movement is called The Red Orchestra.’
The March Hare watched in silent amusement as the Grey Squirrel’s face went through a series of bizarre contortions, expressing in turn anger, confusion and frustration.
‘I don’t believe this is happening,’ announced the Grey Squirrel.
‘Believe it,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘And accept it. No man can out-run his destiny. The Creed of the Red King defines the underlying force behind reality. We are no more than the figments of a vast imagination.’
‘That’s why they call me the Mad Hatter.’
‘If Ormus knew the way you see things...’
‘He knows and he’s with me all the way. He has as much faith in the Red King as I do.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘Than what do you believe?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Maybe. Maybe not. But what both Doctor Ormus and I believe is that we were always destined to fight the Panda and lead the Resistance. I was the first to know, because I saw it all in a pack of playing cards. Ormus saw it too, in his own way, but his vision was not as clear as mine. That’s why I was chosen to lead the group, and that’s why it has fallen to me to bring about the Panda’s demise.
‘Every move I’ve made against the President has been on the advice of these cards. You see, cards are a symbol system. Each one is charged with its own meaning, its own data. They’re a doorway into the mind of the Red King.’
With a deft movement of his little finger, the Hatter flicked the King of Hearts into the air. It fluttered to the ground like an injured butterfly.
The Squirrel stepped away from it. ‘Are you saying that your plans were formulated according to the random fall of cards?’
‘Something like that. Only the term "random" has no real meaning. It’s a label we tie to events when we’re unable to see their cause.
‘Here. Take them.’
The Mad Hatter handed the cards to the Grey Squirrel who held them in his palms as though they were something fragile.
‘Shuffle,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘Let’s see what your future holds.’
‘I can’t shuffle.’
‘Then just draw four cards from anywhere you like.’
The Grey Squirrel cut the pack, counted out four cards. These he gave to the Mad Hatter.
Looking all the time at the Grey Squirrel, the Mad Hatter bent forward and laid the cards face-down in a line on the floor. He turned over the rightmost one. ‘This,’ he said, ‘reveals your character.’
It was the Ace of Clubs.
The Grey Squirrel was suddenly nervous. ‘What does that mean?’
‘It means that a great violence drives you on. There are feelings inside of you that are so strong you dare not face them. You spend your life running away from yourself. You have no centre, no motivation other than to keep moving, never looking back.
‘The second card will speak of your dealings with others. See? The Jack of Diamonds, symbol of mercenary dealings. Someone is paying you for certain immoral activities. I wonder who that can be.’
The Grey Squirrel made no comment.
‘And this third card - the Jack of Clubs - means you intend betrayal.’
‘And the fourth card?’ asked the March Hare, intrigued. ‘What does that say?’
‘This is nonsense!’ said the Grey Squirrel, abruptly. ‘I’ve had enough of this. Maybe we should go and catch up with the others now.’
‘There’s plenty of time for that,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘You can’t leave now. Not without seeing the fourth card. Your future lies there. Isn’t that something worth knowing?’
‘I’ll know it soon enough.’
The Mad Hatter flipped over the fourth card. The Ace of Spades. The Death Card. With a startled squeal, the Grey Squirrel reached for the gun in his anorak pocket. The Mad Hatter leapt to his feet and produced a gun of his own. Bullets sang out. Echoes tumbled into the night.
The Grey Squirrel dropped to his knees, held his head in his paws. ‘Mother of Mercy,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve been murdered.’
Dust flew into the air as his face crashed to the floor.
The Mad Hatter stroked his revolver. A thin wisp of smoke spiraled from the barrel. ‘Every time a gun is fired,’ he said sadly, ‘another bullet dies.’
Deep in the bowels of his Bunker, the Panda amused himself by reading the latest report from his Chief of Applied Technology. This one was entitled The Military Applications of the Self-Destructing Unicorn. It ran to thirty six pages of meticulously reasoned argument. Page 7, for instance, detailed a scheme whereby the creature would have its front brain removed and replaced by gelignite. The unicorn would then be sent as a gift to an appropriate party, such as a foreign Head of State or even a home-grown subversive. Three months later, the in-growing horn would reach the jelly and trigger an almighty explosion.
‘Pop,’ said the Panda, with some amusement. He was alone in his Campaign Room, surrounded by maps and charts and a brand new set of propaganda posters depicting Spadisher soldiers committing barbarous acts against women and babies. Not knowing whether it was day or night, the President wore pyjamas.
An exploding unicorn, he thought. An amusing idea. Perhaps I’ll give one to each of my Generals as a sort of thank you for all the help they’ve given me these past few years.
Lazenby can have two. With any luck, one will explode just as he’s buggering the poor thing.
The Panda’s thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Irritated, he slouched forward in his chair, placed his elbows on the desk. ‘Enter,’ he said abruptly.
General Lazenby walked in, carrying with him an aura of nervous intensity that made the room feel five degrees cooler. Though dressed in full uniform, he looked uncommonly disheveled. His top button was undone and there was a slight but noticeable smudge of oil on his tunic. He saluted briefly then sat opposite the Panda.
‘Well?’ said the Panda.
‘Everything’s set,’ said Lazenby. His thin lips grew thinner. It was obvious that he did not enjoy the task the Panda had given him. ‘We’ve fitted and tested the vector gauge and Smith assures us that all he needs now are the co-ordinates and a few hours to build up the power.’
‘Good. But I want everything checked and double-checked. We’ve had too many cock-ups already on this front.’ And that, thought the Panda, is an understatement.
The last time TARTS had been deployed, a relay had jammed, switching the machine into Transceiver Mode. So instead of killing, it had reached into another reality - the same one Smith had originated from - and brought back a little girl. Alice.
Lazenby wiped his palms on the sides of his trousers. ‘I’d like your permission to set up a study group,’ he ventured.
‘To what end?’
‘To map out all possible uses for TARTS.’
‘What you’re trying to tell me, General, is that you’d like it to be used as something other than a weapon. Because for someone like you, war is acceptable provided it’s fought with guns and rockets and razor-sharp steel. I don’t think you even care who wins this war - just so long as we stick to some whimsical code of chivalry.
‘Well, let me tell you something, General. We have no choice but to use that machine as a weapon. I’ve just received a report that the Duke of Pancreas has broken through our lines and is very close to Enigma. Unless we wipe out the Spadisher army within the next few hours, we’re going to see our country in the hands of foreigners. Or rather, we’re not. Because at about the same time, you and I are going to be swinging by our necks from lamp posts - hung by our own men. To the victors, the spoils. To the rest, nothing.’
‘I can see your point,’ said Lazenby. ‘But that isn’t what I was getting at. Smith beamed himself here from Earth to escape prosecution for conducting illegal experiments. Then he built TARTS, a crude duplicate of the machine that had brought him here. He demonstrated its transportation possibilities by bringing across that girl Julie - the one who’s now co-habiting with Doctor Ormus. Then when the machine went wrong, it sent out a beam to the exact same trans-spatial co-ordinates and brought back Alice.’
‘So what?’ said the Panda. ‘This isn’t exactly news for me.’
‘But here’s something that is. About an hour ago, I was talking to Smith and he let slip that he and those two girls are both from different periods of Earth’s history. That can only mean one thing - with TARTS we have the ability to not only travel to other universes, but to other times as well. We can go back and alter the past!’
The Panda leaned back in his chair and considered. Time travel could, of course, have many advantages. But then again, it was a two-edged sword. Supposing someone else got hold of the secret? Could they then not alter history in such a way that he, the Panda, was never even born? The risk was slight but not worth taking. At the first possible moment, he would have TARTS destroyed and all those who had even the remotest grasp of its principles would have to be eliminated. ‘All right, General Lazenby. Your point is duly noted. Leave it with me and I’ll let you have your answer in a day or two.’
And the answer, thought the Panda, will be a bullet through the base of your skull.
17. The Rise and Fall of the Red Queen
Leaving the Grey Squirrel’s corpse to the flies, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare went back indoors. A warm breeze was beginning to rattle the windows like an insistent child wanting to make its presence felt. It was as if the whole world had been holding its breath, just waiting for this moment to happen.
At the top of the stairs, the Mad Hatter paused and turned to his friend. ‘You understand that he had to die, don’t you?’
The March Hare took a deep breath, then nodded. ‘If he was about to betray us, there was no choice. In fact, I think I would have pulled the trigger myself.’
‘I have no doubt of that. In days to come, you’ll look back on tonight and see it as an initiation, the start of a long, slow education in the realities of life.’
‘Tell me one thing then. Why do they call you the Mad Hatter? I mean, are you really as mad as all that?’
The Mad Hatter opened his shirt and traced his finger across the grid work of fresh razor wounds. ‘By my own standards, I’m totally out of my tree, but now is not the time to contemplate such things. There’s a certain lady who’s been dying to meet you, and we really shouldn’t keep her waiting.’
There were two doors at the top of the stairs. One led into the dormitory in which the March Hare had earlier met the Red Orchestra. Going to the other one, the Mad Hatter produced a key and unlocked it.
‘Before we go in,’ he said, ‘I should warn you that what you see in here will probably shock you. It may even make you angry.’
‘I can’t be shocked any more,’ said the March Hare. ‘Over these past few days, I’ve been to Hell and back. My emotions are overloaded. They’ve blown a fuse.’
The March Hare pushed open the door and strode purposefully through it into a room illuminated by a series of candles placed around the floor. There was no furniture, only an electric generator and a grey metal cabinet resting by the window.
‘Like an alchemist’s laboratory,’ he observed, walking over to the cabinet. He looked down and found himself staring at the Queen of Hearts. She lay naked in the cabinet, her arms across her chest. In death, as in life, she was a grim and forbidding sight.
The Mad Hatter closed the door behind them. ‘I suppose you heard the Queen disappeared shortly after she was removed from the court room?’
‘She lived a long and useless life. If she had a single saving grace, she kept it well hidden. But now she’s dead, and I shall lead her to the path of redemption. Tonight, the Queen of Hearts will rise again and atone for her sins.’
‘Rise? Then this box must be Ormus’ orgone generator.’
The Mad Hatter nodded. ‘Call me Necromancer. I am he who can steal a soul from the devil and return it to its mortal shell.’
‘For how long?’
‘Long enough. While the Red King sleeps, His Queen will run her race. And in the morning, she will be back where she started. But if you’ve no stomach for this, then you’re free to go. There’s no reason for you to be involved.’
‘Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m staying anyway.’
‘Good. I’d hate for you to miss the end game. We’ve played political chess against the Panda for long enough. The Queen is the strongest piece on the board. With her help, we can break the tyrant’s back.’
The red light on the cabinet suddenly went out.
‘Now,’ said the Mad Hatter, ‘the Red Queen is with us.’
‘She’s not moving.’
‘I’ve given her a strong dose of refined buzz. She’s alive, but in a light hypnotic trance.’
‘I wonder at the way your mind works.’
‘Not my mind. All I do is follow the wishes of the Red King, as revealed to me by the cards. The Sleeping Monarch yearns for his wife. He wants to see her just one last time before she departs to the Netherworld for all eternity. Without my help, his desire would drive him to abandon his dream and awaken. And that would mean the end of the world.’
Dropping to his knees, the Mad Hatter leaned over the side of the cabinet. ‘Your Majesty? Can you hear me?’
The Queen’s lips trembled. Her nostrils flared. ‘Who’s there?’ she asked. Her voice was vague and distant. She spoke like a lost child.
‘A friend,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘A friend and a loyal subject who has the most appalling news to impart to you.’
‘Leave me. I was sleeping. I was caught in a wonderful dream of flying down a long tunnel towards a golden light.’
‘Your Majesty,’ said the Mad Hatter. ‘There’s something you must know.’
‘What is it?’
‘You’re naked, Your Majesty. As bare as the day you were born.’
‘No. Never naked... Not since I was six years old...’
‘You have no clothes, Your Majesty. The Panda has stolen them.’
The Queen tensed. ‘That heathen!’ she hissed. ‘That monstrous little freak!’
‘He hates you, Your Majesty.’
‘And I hate him!’
‘Perhaps Your Majesty would care to discuss this with the Panda?’
‘I have nothing to say to him.’
‘He’s stolen your clothes. Everybody’s laughing at you.’
‘Your subjects are mocking you. Can you not hear them?’
‘Such wicked laughter! Make them stop. Tell them to go away.’
‘They won’t go away. When I ask them to leave, they laugh all the more.’
‘I am their Queen. They’re supposed to love me. Why then do they treat me this way?’
‘Because the Panda has been spreading evil, loathsome lies about you. Why don’t I take you where no-one can see you?’
‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘That would be best.’
‘Then stand, Your Majesty. Rise up and follow me.’
The Queen opened her eyes. It happened so unexpectedly, the March Hare caught his breath. Her gaze passed from the Mad Hatter to the March Hare, then back to the Mad Hatter.
‘You must help me,’ said the Queen. ‘I am weak. I do not think I can stand by myself.’
The Queen’s left armpit was sweaty. It smelt of stale perfume and almonds. For the March Hare, placing his paw into that hairy alcove was something close to purgatory. Coarse hairs dug into the soft pads of his palms. He shuddered.
The Mad Hatter, who had to perform the same manouevre on the other side of the Queen, looked equally disgusted.
‘The things I do for Truth, Liberty and Justice,’ he complained, tensing himself for the task of lifting the Queen. ‘I hope somebody remembers to give me a medal for this.’
Ten minutes later, the Queen stood in the moonlight, gazing into the distance at nothing in particular. Behind her, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter were kneeling in the grass, panting and groaning and wiping their soiled hands on the ground.
‘You can have this for a game of cards,’ said the March Hare. ‘It’s a wonder I didn’t put my back out.’
‘Never mind,’ said the Mad Hatter, wiping a bead of sweat from his top lip. ‘From here on, it’s downhill all the way.’
He got to his feet and approached the Queen. By the light of the silvery moon, her pale flesh possessed a celestial quality. The mounds of her buttocks moved strangely in the breeze, as if maggots crawled beneath her skin.
Hearing the Hatter’s footsteps, the Queen turned. ‘I feel strange,’ she said. ‘As if I’m caught in somebody else’s dream.’
From his pocket, the Mad Hatter produced a small bottle. Around its neck was a paper label with the words Drink Me printed on it in large, gothic letters. ‘This will make Your Majesty feel better.’
The Queen held out her hand. ‘I am so very thirsty. And hungry. And lonely.’
‘And naked,’ added the Mad Hatter.
Looking down at herself, the Queen trembled, not with rage but with a sadness such as she had never thought possible. It was not that her body was unbearably gross; it was the sudden knowledge that her love for her subjects had not been returned.
She took the bottle from the Mad Hatter and dispatched its contents in one swallow.
The Mad Hatter shrank before her. The horizon seemed that much closer.
‘The heavens!’ she uttered. ‘It is a dream after all. The world is growing smaller. Soon it will disappear completely. I shall be the only thing in all creation, and then I will wake up.’
The March Hare realised immediately what was happening. In the space of a few short seconds, the Queen had tripled in size. Her great, quivering thighs filled his vision.
‘You bastard!’ he screamed at the Mad Hatter. ‘That was magic mushroom juice!’
The Mad Hatter ignored him. ‘Your Majesty!’ he cried, backing away to what he hoped was a safe distance. ‘Don’t forget the Panda! He has your clothes.’
‘Yes!’ roared the Queen, majestic once more. ‘This may only be a dream, but I shall have my pleasure. Let me grow, dear God! Let me dwarf the mountains and become so vast that I shall dine on stars and sleep on the spiral arm of a distant galaxy.’
Her buttocks brushed against a tree, producing a shower of broken branches. She was over fifty feet tall and still growing. A limb of the tree was embedded in her thigh. She swiftly removed this splinter and tossed it aside.
In the meantime, the Mad Hatter and March Hare had taken cover in a nearby cornfield.
The Mad Hatter lay on his back, rocking slightly from side to side as he tried to suppress his mirth. Everything was going as planned. Adrenalin flooded his metabolism, producing a high that felt like free fall. The March Hare, on the other hand, was neither amused nor elated. As the Queen of Hearts expanded before him, he felt again the sheer horror he had experienced in the Court Room as Alice toppled onto the Knave. Whatever the Hatter’s motives - and he did not believe them to be pure - what he had done was obscene. It was a sin against Nature, a perversion of the workings of the Universe. A blasphemy.
The Queen’s foot swept forward, creating a draught that swept over the Mad Hatter and the
March Hare, bending corn and whispering like a spiteful gossip. The foot came down on Mrs. Pogue’s Home for the Bewildered and Slightly Insane, pile-driving through the roof and grinding bricks into dust. A grey cloud billowed around her left calf.
‘My knickers!’ she howled. ‘How dare he steal my underwear!’
Her voice was a hurricane, an explosion of words, a barrage of raw emotion.
The March Hare fought a strong desire to curl into a ball. Again and again, his eyes were drawn towards the Queen’s breasts, swaying in tandem like a pair of drunken sailors. The nipples were rogue moons trying to escape the gravitational pull of her chins.
She turned, presented him with a view of a white mass streaked with varicose veins. Her buttocks quivered, parted momentarily, leaving the March Hare with an image of the sky splitting in two.
Shaking off the remains of the house from her foot, the Queen strode off into the distance, dust and thunder following in her wake. As she receded into the distance, tranquility began to fill the breach left by her passing.
The Mad Hatter threw off his hat and stood up to watch her go. He had never in his life seen such an awesome and wondrous sight.
‘I feel,’ he said, with some pride, ‘that I have just created the greatest work of art this world has ever known.’
Stubbing out an illicit cigarette, Private Roy Dawson of the President’s Own Regiment looked down nervously from his lofty perch. He had never been comfortable with heights and there was something about a watchtower which made him feel especially vulnerable. Beneath him, the Presidential Bunker sat like a concrete toad. Searchlights swept across its featureless back and forayed into the surrounding scrub, highlighting barbed wire and ditches of stagnant water.
Beyond the bunker, a mist rolled along the Tired River. It reminded Dawson of a spectral army marching to damnation. He was not often inclined towards fancy, but at times like this there was little else to occupy his mind. It had been a quiet, disturbing night, filled with rumours and a sense of unease. Before he’d come on duty, the mess room had been abuzz with whispers of a momentous battle and a resounding defeat which had allowed the Spadishers to break through into Hearts. If such tales were true, then the Duke of Pancreas was only hours away from Enigma.
He looked beyond the Tired River and gazed with fascination at an odd cloud formation. It was lower and denser than the few wisps of cirrus drifting across the sky, and it was going in entirely the wrong direction. In fact, it was approaching the Bunker.
Could it be smoke? he wondered, lifting a pair of field glasses to his eyes. Stars swept before him as he moved the glasses in the direction of the cloud. Something white loomed on the horizon. Excitedly, he adjusted the focus and was startled to find a face looking back at him.
Giant eyes blinked. Veins as thick as pylon cable radiated from pupils bigger than the moon. Dawson felt his knees give a little. His ears were filled with the roaring of his own blood.
‘The Queen!’ he yelled, pointing towards the face. Suddenly he felt foolish. Letting his field glasses drop, he looked around to see what effect his pronouncement had produced. In the watch tower next to his, the sentry waved but seemed otherwise unconcerned.
Dawson peered into the darkness and examined the white mass. It was drawing closer with alarming speed. With his naked eyes, he could make out arms and legs and a black triangle which could not be mistaken for anything other than what it was.
Almost without thinking, Dawson hit the panic button. As sirens rent the air with their shrill screams, he offered up a silent prayer that he had not just made the biggest mistake of his life. A firing squad was no way for a soldier to end his career.
Doctor Ormus swore long and softly. From his hiding place beside the Tired River, he had spotted the Queen of Hearts almost at the same moment as Private Dawson. He’d been lying behind a fallen oak, a walkie-talkie in his hand, awaiting instructions from the Mad Hatter.
And though he immediately identified the pale apparition as the Queen of Hearts, he could not know that she had flattened Mrs. Pogue’s, thus destroying the Mad Hatter’s radio equipment.
Beside him, Julie and Lisa were watching the approaching giant. Neither recognised the dead Queen, but it was beginning to dawn on them that what they were seeing was not normal.
Three gerbils who had been hiding in a nearby hedgerow with the Mock Turtle broke cover and stood in a huddle, each waiting for one of the others to offer a suggestion. Fortunately for them, the guards in the Presidential Compound were too concerned with the approaching Queen to continue their usual pattern of sweeps with the search lights; otherwise the three rodents would have been picked out in stark, merciless detail.
Ormus waved frantically at them, but he could not catch their attention. Across the river, sirens howled and Blue Shirts poured from the Bunker’s sole entrance. Orders were shouted. Artillery men worked with hasty efficiency, manipulating their anti-tank weapons in the direction of the Queen.
No-one was sure of the range. The Queen did not stay in one place long enough for them to judge her distance, and there’s something about a giant, naked woman which destroys all sense of perspective. Unless they knew her exact size, it was impossible to say how far away she was.
Worse than that, many of them now recognised her as their Queen.
Ormus swore again.
‘Oh boy,’ said the Cheshire Cat, strolling by with his tail in the air. ‘Will you just look at the dumplings on that?’
‘Get out of here!’ snapped Ormus, taking an angry swing at the Cheshire Cat. The blow did not connect. Even as his arm swept round, the Cheshire Cat vanished.
‘Bloody animals! We should cage the whole lot of them!’
‘My, my,’ said Julie. ‘I’d never thought I’d see you get so flustered over a woman, Doctor. Not even a naked one.’
Ormus gave her a look of daggers and acid. ‘This is the Mad Hatter’s doing! I’m supposed to be his Second-In-Command and he told me nothing about this! What the hell does he think he’s playing at?’
‘What do we do now?’ asked Lisa. ‘Whatever that thing is, it’s coming our way.’
Before Ormus could answer, a hideous bellow drove through the night. ‘WHERE’S THE PANDA? I WANT THE PANDA!’
‘It’s the Queen,’ said Julie.
By now, shock waves could be felt running through the ground. The Queen’s every step produced a minor tremor. The waters of the Tired River became agitated; waves slapped against its banks, here and there spilling over in plumes of foam.
The gerbils were shouting at each other. Their squeals could just be heard above the sirens and the thunder of the Queen’s footsteps. One aimed his rifle and fired; it had no effect.
Meanwhile, the Blue Shirts had finally grasped the situation enough for someone to give the order to fire. Shells whistled through the air. They exploded a hundred yards in front of their intended target. The Queen did not even seem to notice. The next volley landed closer, but still she did not falter.
Tonight was her night. She was going to have some fun.
The Panda did not like entering the Weapons Laboratory. Situated in the lowest level of the Bunker, the lab had originally been conceived of as an armoury. It was to have been piled high with bazookas, cannon and flame throwers - articles the Panda could relate to.
It was a mistake handing this over to Smith, he told himself, examining a crystal pillar that ran from floor to ceiling. Several such columns stood side by side in front of a contraption that looked like a well-polished oil drum. The pillars were as thick as his arms and glowed a faint green.
How much has this cost me? he wondered. Why did I let that idiot scientist talk me into giving him so much of my budget?
The walls of the room were lined with black glass. They curved outward, giving an impression of being surrounded by giant televisions. In each corner, a spider-like machine slowly rotated, each one flexing and unflexing an array of titanium legs.
The Panda made no attempt to understand the paraphernalia surrounding him. It was alien technology, a hundred times more advanced than anything his planet had produced in the days before Smith.
A circular platform dominated the middle of the room. It supported a hollow plastic tube which reached up to the ceiling. Big red letters on the tube spelt out Trans-Actuality Relay Transmission System.
Peregrine Smith sat in his wheel chair beside the column. For him, this was the centre of the world, the heart of everything he had worked for in the years following his supposed suicide.
Anything or anyone inside the tube could be transported quite literally from here to eternity. A similar but far more advanced tube had been his gateway from Earth.
It was, he reflected, unfortunate that the President refused to see any potential in the system beyond his its immediate application as a weapon. Maybe when the war was over, he would be allowed to follow his own course. A course that might just lead him back to his own planet.
TARTS worked. Alice and Julie were proof of that. But the system was unrefined. Had either of the girls not been in perfect health, they would have been left seriously ill. Smith knew that if he entered the machine, it would kill him. There was much to be done before he could safely return home.
The Panda suddenly cocked his head. He darted a questioning look at Smith. ‘What was that?’
Smith shook his head. ‘I didn’t hear anything.’
‘A sort of rumbling noise - like an earth tremor.’
‘It’s the devil riding out to claim your soul.’
‘I don’t have a soul. And that’s official.’
Smith was ready with a retort, but he was cut off by the urgent clamouring of alarm bells.
‘So,’ said the Panda, ‘it seems as if you might have been right about the devil after all. I wonder how long it will be before somebody bothers to tell me what’s going on.’
‘I suggest,’ said Smith, ‘you order this level sealed off.’
‘Nonsense. This Bunker’s impenetrable. Anyone trying to get to us wouldn’t get as far as the perimeter fence. And if it comes to it, we can always use your machine.’
‘Out of the question. If we focus the beam at this close a range, we’re going to get feedback and blow ourselves to Kingdom Come. Besides which, it will be another hour before it’s built up a usable charge.’
General Cartier stormed in. ‘We’re being attacked.’
The Panda was neither worried nor surprised. His intelligence sources had already told him that the Red Orchestra was going to launch an assault in the near future. His one emotion was disdainful amusement. Did Ormus and his men really think they could defeat him with a handful of rifles and shot guns? ‘All right, General. We’ll just hold them off for now. In the mean time, get in touch with the palace and have the Palace Guard come out and attack them in the rear. I want as few casualties amongst my Blue Shirts as possible.’
‘This isn’t the Red Orchestra, Your Excellency. It’s the Queen of Hearts! She’s about a mile high and heading this way!’
‘Judging from your remarks, General, I would say it was you who was a mile high. It seems that you’re duties have proved too much for you after all. You are hereby stripped of your command until such a time as I decide what to do with you.’
‘Look, you remember the Knave’s trial, what happened then? The Queen must have been given some magic mushrooms, and now she’s after your blood. She keeps screaming something about you stealing her underwear.’
‘The Queen is dead, General.’
‘So was Shadrack! But we brought him back to life. Someone must have done the same to the Queen.’
‘But we’ve got the technology to do that, General. Who else on this planet is capable of resurrecting the dead?’
‘Doctor Ormus,’ said Peregrine Smith. ‘Before we parted, I left him with a half-finished orgone generator.’
‘I think,’ said the Panda, ‘that I had better go see for myself.’
The Queen of Hearts looked down upon the world and roared with the sheer delight of power. Naked she may be, but there was not a man in the entire world who could bend her to his will. With thighs that dwarfed oak trees and hands that could lay waste to whole towns in seconds, she was in effect a goddess, an obese juggernaut with frightful breath and the will to crush any and all opposition.
‘Behold!’ she cried, slamming her foot into the Tired River which bubbled and eddied between her toes. ‘A Queen for all men and all time! Call me Mother or call me Whore, none shall resist my fatal allure. I am every woman you ever dreamed of. Look upon me and know what it is to dread!’
A 35mm shell thudded into her abdomen and tore apart her womb. Blood and flesh rained upon the river. She felt no pain, only shock and resentment. For a moment, she stood motionless, unable to quite believe that she had been so cruelly and savagely penetrated. It was a feeling of rape, of hideous defilement.
Phlegm rose in her throat. She spat it out and immersed a gun emplacement in mucous. The three Blue Shirts who were manning it ran around blindly, their eyelids glued together. Two of them vomited; the third sank to his knees and cried like a baby.
With a ghastly wail the Queen of Hearts bent suddenly forward and brought her fist crashing down upon the Compound. The concussion deafened anyone within fifty yards of the impact. A watch tower went tumbling end over end through the nearby woods, throwing its occupant through the air. He was dead before he landed.
On the roof of the Bunker, a soldier took aim with his bazooka. The Queen scooped him up and crushed him between finger and thumb. She flicked his remains into the bushes.
A rocket barrage was unleashed upon her. Great chunks of meat spewed from her left thigh. Flesh blistered. Blood fountained through the air and onto the Bunker. Again, the Queen lashed out. She scooped up three machine gunners and pulped them into a meat ball. She tossed the meat ball at the rocket launcher.
This was too much for the artillery men. They turned and ran unthinkingly into a hail of machine gun bullets.
Elsewhere, Blue Shirts had begun to desert their posts in droves. Some tried to climb the fence, forgetting that it was electrified. They fried. Others fled through a gap created by the Queen’s left foot. They ran straight into a mine field and were torn apart in a series of explosions. One made it to the River before becoming aware that his arms were missing. Fainting with shock, he fell into the icy waters and drowned.
‘Gaze upon me and weep, you worthless dregs!’ cried the Queen. She knew she was dying, but this only steeled her determination to wipe out as many Blue Shirts as possible. She’d teach them to usurp her authority, to claim her Kingdom as their own. For too long, she’d had to bear their arrogant presumptions, their claims that they were the Aristocrats of a New Order owing no allegiance to the Royal House of Hearts. Now they were going to pay for it.
‘Where’s the Panda?’ she demanded, tearing at the Bunker. Her hands bled and her nails broke, but she had the satisfaction of seeing chips of concrete come flying off. She gripped the sides and tried to lift it. There was a slight movement. ‘Where’s the Panda? Where is this glorious warlord of yours, this brave and noble warrior who will lead you to world domination? Why does he not show his face? Why does he not fight and die with his men?’
The answer was that he had shown his face just long enough to absorb what was going on and be scared witless by it. So now he sulked about his Campaign Room, screaming at the walls, exalting them to bear witness to his betrayal.
He was thrown to the floor as the Queen again took hold of the Bunker. She jockeyed it to the left, then the right. Mounds of earth peeled from its side. She was reminded of the day her last tooth had come loose and she’d pulled it out with her own hands.
Groaning mightily, she tensed her back and wrenched the Bunker from the ground. The sudden lack of resistance sent her toppling onto her back. As she fell, the Bunker slipped through her hands and sped through the air like a monstrous bullet. It arced into the night sky, briefly eclipsing the moon before plummeting towards the side of a nearby hill. Just as it dawned on the Panda that he was in free-fall, the bunker fell to earth and he was dashed to pieces against a map of the world. His intestines formed a new continent; his brains obscured the North Pole. Like many a dictator before him, the Panda ended his life with more drama than dignity.
The Queen’s head hit the ground with a sickening thud. The impact created a tremor that was felt three miles away in Enigma. The Tired River grew frenzied as her legs thrashed about in the water. All around her, a cloud of dust rose to cover the satisfied grin that seemed to split her face in two.
On a perfect summer’s night, the Queen of Hearts died once more. Her last thought was that she had just dreamt the loveliest dream of all.
18. The Purple Mushroom
The silence that followed the fall of the Queen of Hearts was as unnerving as it was profound. It was not a total silence. From the Presidential Compound and its surrounding mine fields came the heart-clawing cries of the injured and dying.
Though the sky was beautiful and the surrounding corn fields were crowned with the glory of ripening corn, the only thing that seemed to matter was the perdition that existed in this one small area of Hearts. It was as if the gaze of the whole universe was focused upon the Compound.
Half a mile away, a column of dust marked the spot where the President’s Bunker had come to rest.
The Mad Hatter arrived on his penny-farthing, breathless and jubilant. He found Doctor Ormus sitting under an apple tree with Julie and Lisa. Their pallid cheeks and blank expressions painted a clear picture. They were in shock.
Dismounting, he left his bicycle on the ground and went over to inspect the Queen. Already her flesh had begun to turn blue and sink into itself. Her face was a rigid mask, dominated by an inane, malicious grin.
This then was his vengeance upon the House of Hearts for their betrayal of his country. He removed his hat in a gesture of half-hearted respect.
‘I’m sorry, Your Majesty. But you’ve merely reaped what you yourself had sown. This is what you get for abdicating your responsibilities to a ruthless tyrant.’
From across the Tired River, a burst of machine gun fire marked the arrival of a band of Red Orchestra fighters. It was a brief, unanswered volley aimed at nothing in particular. The few Blue Shirts who had survived the battle unscathed and had not fled were in no mood to continue the fight. Demoralised, they either surrendered or waited quietly to be noticed.
With the Panda dead, neither side felt any sense of purpose.
The Mad Hatter bowed to the Queen of Hearts. There were footsteps behind him. He turned to find Julie approaching with a pistol in her hand. Tears had etched twin tracks through the dirt on her face.
‘Where’s the March Hare?’ she asked in a voice that was barely a whisper.
‘Did he know you planned to use the Queen like this?’
‘No, my dear. He was as surprised about it as you are.’
‘I hate you for what you’ve done.’
‘A Royalist? I’m surprised there are any left.’
‘I’m not a bleeding Royalist. And I don’t give a damn about the rights and wrongs of what’s happened tonight. But you’ve killed Peregrine Smith and destroyed TARTS, and now I’m stuck here the rest of my life, and it’s all down to you. I really want to kill you for what you’ve done.’
‘Why don’t you?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Julie. She turned her back on him and walked back to Ormus and Lisa.
The Mad Hatter ran after her, caught her arm. ‘Do you think I wanted this? Any of this?’
‘Do you know what I’ve done?’
Angrily, Julie pulled away from him. ‘Do you?’
‘I’ve saved this planet from being destroyed.’
‘Nobody was going to destroy this planet. Not even the Panda would be that crazy.’
‘So I should have just left him alone with the most devastating weapon of all time and trusted to his good will?’
‘You know what I think?’ said Julie. ‘I think you don’t give a damn about this planet. You don’t even care about your country. You’re in cahoots with the Duke of Pancreas, aren’t you?
‘What’s in it for you, Mr. Mad Bloody Hatter? A peerage? A share of the booty? Maybe you’re hoping the King of Spades will appoint you as Governor?’
‘Before you go calling me a traitor, look at the facts. The Duke of Pancreas is encamped on the far side of Enigma. If I hadn’t ended this war, he would have done it in his own way. Thousands of innocent people would have suffered. Is that what you want? Would you like to see an entire city laid to waste?’
Julie spat at his feet. The look on her face said it all. They were worlds apart; they always would be.
Wordlessly, the Mad Hatter walked away from her and remounted his bicycle. There was still much to be done. For the Mad Hatter, the night was far from over.
The March Hare despaired of ever returning to a normal life. Whether the Mad Hatter’s plan worked or not, the morning would clearly see Hearts under foreign rule for the first time in recorded history. The Kingdom was washed up.
And serves us right, he decided. We’ve no-one to blame but ourselves. All along the way, we’ve had chance after chance to overthrow the Panda, or at least curb his powers. But we couldn’t be bothered. It was too much trouble. He led us into this war, and we just followed like sheep. So now we’ve thrown away everything - our heritage and our history. Even our self-respect. The House of Hearts is going to become just a memory.
Would things be better under the King of Spades? he wondered. Perhaps being vanquished would throw the people out of their apathy, unite them in a common cause.
He doubted it.
He was on his way home, determined to leave behind all the insanities he had witnessed these past few days. As he approached the Pleasure Garden, the ground beneath his feet seemed to give a gentle quiver.
He paused, looked around.
In the east, the sky was tinged with a vermilion glow. He took this to be a result of the Queen’s attack on the Bunker. In fact, it was an indication of the strength of the Spadisher forces camped outside Enigma. Though he did not know it, the March Hare was looking at the light from a thousand camp fires.
He pushed on towards the Pleasure Garden, entering it through a gap in the hedge. Overhead, a monkey-puzzle tree sliced the moonlight into irregular shapes and cast them upon a bed of shadow.
The March Hare followed a path that meandered between a row of trees. Succulent fruit hung heavy on their limbs, and he reached up to sample some. Something nipped his paw. He jumped back with a yelp, realising too late that he had been attempting to pick a crab apple.
A voice called his name.
The Duchess of Langerhans came running down the path towards him, blue smoke trailing from the cigarette in her mouth. Her movements seemed to defy the laws of motion. The March Hare watched in rapt fascination. It was only by picturing a great wave rolling in from the sea that he could persuade his senses that something so vast could move with such speed and grace.
She waved frantically. ‘Come quick!’ she cried. ‘It’s the Caterpillar. Something dreadful has happened!’
Slipping out of his lethargy, the March Hare broke into a sprint. The Duchess turned abruptly and led him through a wicket gate and over a small, bubbling brook. Ahead lay the mushrooms.
The March Hare passed the Duchess, leapt over a bed of azaleas.
The Duchess called from behind. ‘He’s under the purple mushroom. Be careful - it could be infectious!’
The Caterpillar’s hookah lay on the grass beside his sunglasses and beret. Detached from their owner, they had lost their character and become ordinary.
A great sac of silk hung from the purple mushroom. It swayed slightly in the breeze and glistened like dew. The Duchess and the March Hare stood side by side. The former’s eyes blazed with wonder and fear.
‘He did it himself,’ she gasped, struggling to catch her breath. ‘I begged him to stop, but he kept saying it was the will of God. Oh dear. I hope he hasn’t suffocated.’
‘When did this happen?’
‘This evening. Just a few hours ago. I’ve been running around ever since, trying to get somebody to come and look at him. But nobody seems interested. This is terrible! This is the most dreadful thing I have ever known.’
The March Hare touched her arm. ‘It’s not dreadful, Your Grace. This is something wonderful.’
‘Whatever can you mean? Where is his splendid face and his magnificent body? What has he done to himself?’
Before the March Hare could begin to explain, the cocoon shuddered. A hand-sized piece of it came loose and fell to the ground. Then began an insistent crunching like an army of marching ants.
The Duchess put her hand to her mouth. Her eyes widened even further.
Part of the cocoon fell in on itself, exposing something damp and moving. The crunching became frantic, increasing its tempo from a march to a mad gallop. The March Hare had to resist an impulse to run forward, to break up the cocoon with his paws. This was something he felt he could not intrude upon.
With unbearable slowness, the hole grew, revealed more and more of the creature inside. A black antenna inched its way out and probed the night air.
Then a head appeared.
Multi-faceted eyes blinked in the faint light, then described an arc as if slowly taking in the glory of their surroundings. A smile revealed satisfaction.
The creature gave a sudden convulsion and pushed itself free of the cocoon. As it lay on the grass, it slowly unfurled wings that were six feet across and filled with rainbows. Moisture ran through the gullies between the scales.
The Duchess gasped. ‘You’re a butterfly!’
‘You got it in one, sister,’ said the Butterfly.
‘Baby, we’re all beautiful. It’s just that most of us keep it hidden.’
‘How wonderfully, wonderfully delicious!’
‘You wouldn’t happen to have seen my shades, would you?’
The March Hare picked them up from the grass. ‘Here they are.’
The Butterfly smacked his lips. ‘That’s cool. Now if you’d care to assist a dude with no hands by putting them on my face, that would be just dandy.’
The sunglasses still fitted. They seemed as much a part of the Butterfly as his wings.
‘Hey,’ said the Butterfly. ‘That’s much better. Without my shades, I feel naked.’
‘Do you want your beret?’
‘Thanks, man - but no. I guess I’ve outgrown it.’
‘My dear Butterfly,’ said the Duchess, regaining her composure. ‘I ought to be extremely cross with you for giving me such a fright. However, under the circumstances, I can only say that you’ve made me a happy woman. You’re magnificent, my dear sir. Quite magnificent!’
‘You’re not so bad yourself, sweetheart.’
The Duchess blushed. Great continents of fat, fired by flattery, glowed like the setting sun. ‘How terribly kind. I feel as if I have just been blessed by the heavens themselves.’
‘Cool,’ said the Butterfly. ‘You have some real mellow vibes there.’
The March Hare came to a decision. ‘I really have to go now.’
‘I’m pretty exhausted. And I have things to do.’
The Butterfly looked up at the moon. ‘To be is to do. And the more we do, the more we become. Until one day we’re finally everything we were always meant to be.’
‘You think so?’
‘Absolutely. Why doubt it?’
‘Because most people never seem to get that far.’
‘We all get there. That’s the easy part. The trick is knowing that you’re there.’
The March Hare wasn’t sure that he agreed. His head was spinning and for all he knew the Butterfly might have said something truly profound. On the other hand, it could all be bullshit. ‘I really do have to go now.’
‘Same here,’ said the Butterfly.
‘When God gives you wings, you fly! I’m off to the moon.’
‘Gosh,’ said the Duchess of Langerhans. ‘How wonderful!’
‘You said it, lady!’
With a joy that only the truly free can know, the Butterfly launched himself into the mysteries of the night sky. The stars drew him on.
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 09.04.2010
Alle Rechte vorbehalten