Hatter made his living selling stolen emotions to people, like himself, who had a limited range of their own. The Casino provided the so-called “Teas” and Hatter sold them at his Tea Shop, the most prosperous in Wonderland. He tasted all the Teas, just once; a good salesman had to know his product. He didn’t drink them regularly; it was bad for business, and they always left him feeling muzzy-headed. Not to mention the niggling in his conscious because he knew how the Teas were harvested.
Tea Shop proprietors had to have good business sense, salesmanship, and most importantly, showmanship. At this last Hatter excelled. He may not have been able to experience a wide range of emotion, but he could act the part, and that made all the difference in his business.
It all changed the day Ratty came skulking into his office babbling about a rogue Oyster. Hatter’s interest was instantly piqued. He couldn’t recall an Oyster ever getting away from the Suits, and he knew there was profit to be had in it if he found the right buyer. So Hatter had Ratty bring the Oyster back to his office, where he waited in his high-backed white chair for theatrical effect.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked without turning around. He was fond of the regular stuff, hot and sweet. He asked the question as a mere formality; he didn’t expect an answer from the Oyster.
“No. Thank you,” the Oyster replied. “Who are you?”
Hatter was so startled he almost spilt his tea. He’d thought maybe Ratty was telling him a tale, but it was true. The Oyster hadn’t been dosed. He hadn’t expected that, it almost made him lose his cool. Almost. After all, he was a professional.
Hatter spun in his chair in a practiced manner and got his first look at Ratty’s Oyster. She was soaking wet, her dark hair hanging over the shoulders of her soggy blue dress. She wore red tights and completely impractical boots with a high heel. Hatter was captivated by her eyes, which were a lovely clear blue.
“A friend,” he said, answering the Oyster’s question. Then he added, with actual sincerity, “I hope. I run the Tea Shop.”
Hatter wondered if all Oysters wore their emotions so openly; he could practically read this one like a book. He saw wariness and confusion.
Ratty untied a raggedy piece of cloth from the Oyster’s arm, turning it so Hatter could see the Glow. The tattoo curled up her arm like a bit of green vine. He couldn’t believe his luck – he really owed Ratty for this one. Curiosity, the first real curiosity he’d felt in years, started bubbling up and Hatter got out of his chair. He stood in front of his desk, his back to Ratty and the Oyster.
“How’d you break out of the Scarab?” he felt compelled to ask. Oysters never escaped. Never. It was supposed to be a fool-proof system.
“The beetle thing?”
Hatter merely grunted and turned to look at her again.
“I used my hairpin and…” The Oyster gestured to her clearly wet appearance.
“You fell,” Hatter surmised.
“As you can see, I’m drenched.”
Oh, yes, Hatter could see that. The little blue dress was clinging very intriguingly in certain areas. It was amazing, the difference between the blank Oysters and one with full faculties. She was practically humming with nerves.
“This place,” the Oyster said. “Where…what is it?”
“Oh!” Hatter gestured with both hands. “Wonderland.”
“That’s a story in a kid’s book.”
“Does this look like a kid’s story to you?” Hatter asked dryly.
“No,” the Oyster said. Hatter could see a bit of fear in those eyes now. He found himself talking, trying to put her at ease even as he drew closer to get a better look at her. In the aim of good showmanship, he grabbed a magnifying glass from his desk.
“It’s changed a lot since then,” he said.
“So you’re saying that it was real?” The Oyster sounded disbelieving.
“You Oysters don’t know how to find us…excuse me.” Hatter grabbed her arm and examined the Glow. It was the only thing marring her otherwise creamy skin. “You tell yourself that we don’t exist and, quite frankly, we like to keep it that way.”
“Why am I an Oyster? This?” the Oyster lightly slapped the Glow on her arm. Hatter’s quick eye took in a flash of sparkle; there was a ring on the Oyster’s hand, a fancy ring. He filed that information away for future use.
“That’s not gonna come off,” Hatter said, smiling. “Sorry!”
The Oyster looked again at the Glow, then back at Hatter, her confusion obviously growing.
“Only people from your world turn green when burnt by the light,” he obligingly explained. “It’s the Suits’ way of branding their catch. And they call you Oysters because of the shiny little pearls that you all carry inside.”
Hatter returned the magnifying glass to the desk but found he couldn’t stay away from the Oyster. There was just something about her. He reassured himself it was just the novelty of it.
“What do you mean, pearls?” This Oyster was full of questions.
“She’s Alice,” Ratty interrupted. “Tell him who you are.”
And wasn’t that just another interesting piece of information?
“Wow,” said Hatter. “Really?”
He walked round the Oyster, checking her from all sides. “Woooo,” he said, mockingly. The name didn’t hold as much weight as it once did, except to some more superstitious Wonderlanders like good old Ratty. He put his arm around the man in question.
“Ratty, here, thinks you’re Alice. Of Legend.”
“Who?” the Oyster asked. It was clear that none of this meant anything to her.
“The last…um.” Hatter removed his arm, looked down in distaste at some greasy residue left on his fingers. “The last time a girl called Alice came here from your world she brought down the whole House of Cards. Oh, yeah. Made quite an impression. Although it was a hundred and fifty years ago.”
Hatter turned back to glare at Ratty. “It couldn’t be the same girl. Oysters don’t even live that long.”
“I still want a good price,” Ratty insisted.
“Wait a minute,” the Oyster said. “I am not for sale!”
Hatter held a finger up to keep her quiet, never taking his eyes off Ratty. This was business now, and he took his business very seriously. He headed back to his desk, casting one amused glance at the Oyster. He knew Ratty would want to follow him.
“Keep off the grass,” he said. No-one was allowed back there but himself; he liked to keep the carpet of grass nice and green. Hatter bypassed the desk and went to a shelf on the wall behind it. There were several bottles of Tea lined up there, unmarked. His special stash. Normally, a man like Ratty wouldn’t rate one of those bottles, but these were special circumstances. A fresh Oyster was worth one bottle of Tea, and so much more.
Hatter contemplated the colors before him. The blue bottle of Surprise, perhaps? He picked it up, reconsidered. Put it back and grabbed the pink bottle instead. Time for the showman!
“Here we are! Mmmm!” Hatter came back round his desk. “Pink nectar. Filled with the thrill of human excitement. Fifty Oysters were drained of every last drop of hullabaloo so that you, Ratty, can taste what it feels like to win. Just. Once.”
Ratty’s hungry eyes were locked on the bottle. Hatter felt obliged to add the standardized warning as well.
“Warning,” he said, pulling the bottle out of Ratty’s reach. “Don’t drink on an empty stomach, and only one tiny drop at a time or else the experience might burst your shriveled up little heart. Got it?”
“Got it,” Ratty said anxiously.
“Good.” Hatter handed Ratty the bottle. “Go.”
Both Hatter and the Oyster watched Ratty go running back out of the office, his prize in his hand. Still feeling that bit of residue on his fingers, Hatter sniffed them and winced. Eau de Ratty.
“He really stinks,” he said conversationally.
“Oysters were drained?” This Oyster – Alice, Hatter reminded himself – sounded indignant. “What do you mean, drained?”
Hatter didn’t want to agitate her. He decided to change the subject and headed back to his desk where his tea sat cooling. “Ratty tells me you’re looking for someone.”
“His name is Jack Chase. He was taken by a man with a white rabbit on his lapel.”
“I see. Hmm.” Hatter took a sip of his tea. He knew he didn’t have to explain anything but found himself talking anyway. “The White Rabbit is an organization controlled by the Suits. They travel back and forth through the Looking Glass and…vanish people from your world to ours.”
“To use. In the Casino.” As soon as he said it, Hatter knew he’d made a mistake. He’d brought Alice round to the Oysters again.
“Did I say use? Slip of the tongue.” Hatter set down his tea and stood up. He noticed that Alice was standing on his nice green grass, but he didn’t say anything. “They’re fine. You know, they keep them…alive. And…moderately happy.”
“How do I get to this Casino?” Alice asked. Hatter laughed. What did she think she was going to do, just walk in and get her boyfriend back?
“That’s the thing. You don’t. Way too dangerous.”
And was that anger he saw now on the Oyster’s face? Her eyes narrowed, and she glared at him. Hatter’s brain started working on a plan.
“But, I know some people. Who know some…well…other people. If you know what I mean.” Now he was right in front of Alice, clearly intruding on her personal space. “It’s one of the privileges of owning a Tea Shop.”
Hatter popped the ‘p’, making Alice jerk back. Yes, this Oyster was far from a blank slate. He could see a touch of fear in her eyes, and he suddenly felt badly for putting it there.
“Lighten up,” he muttered. Whether he meant the Oyster or himself, he wasn’t completely sure. Hatter had a plan in mind now, but there was something he had to do before he could take the Oyster out of the Tea Shop. He went to his glass wardrobe and opened the doors with a bit of theatrical flair.
“Ta da! You should wear this.” Hatter removed a plum-colored velvet coat from the closet. It flared a bit at the waist and was clearly made for a woman. Hatter, a bit of a clothes horse himself, always kept some items on hand for the ladies…just in case.
“It’ll hide the Glow and stop you from catching a cold.” Hatter held the coat in his hands, but Alice just stood there looking uncomfortable.
“I have a little money,” she said. “But I understand you don’t use that here.”
“Pieces of paper?” Hatter exclaimed. “Pointless.” He knew some people that collected Oyster money, but it had no value at all in Wonderland.
“Then why would you help me?” Alice asked, clearly suspicious of him again. Hatter walked around behind her.
“Do I need a reason to help a pretty girl in a very wet dress?” he asked quietly. He’d meant it to be flippant but found that he actually meant it. He wanted to help her. And if he helped himself as well, was that such a bad thing? Alice turned round and the look she gave him got his ire up.
“Oh. I see. You don’t trust me. Fine!” Hatter slapped the coat down on his white couch. He was just as angry at himself as he was at Alice. Why did he care if she didn’t trust him? She’d be a fool to trust anyone she’d just met, especially in Wonderland. It was time to amp up the theatrics.
“I am genuinely hurt,” Hatter said. “Do you know why they call me Hatter?”
Alice glanced up at his head. “Because you wear a hat?”
It was an innocent answer and took him aback for a moment.
“No. It’s because I’m always there when they pass the hat. So to speak. Philanthropy. Generosity. You can call it what you will, it’s who I am. And right now, looking at you there, there’s nothing I want more than to help you find…” And now he was at a bit of a loss.
“Jack,” Alice supplied.
“Jack! And return you both to your charming world of children’s stories.”
“I don’t believe you,” Alice said. And was she smirking? Hatter had no idea that Oysters were this intelligent. He’d only ever just seen them staring blankly at the gaming tables.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Hatter said. “If I’m the frying pan, then that out there is the fire. I’ll be square with you. I know some people who like to help your kind. And if, every once in a while, I scratch their back…”
“They’ll scratch yours,” Alice finished.
“Precisely. Lot of scratching.”
Hatter waited and was rewarded for all of his fancy talk when Alice retrieved the coat and slipped it on. He had to admit it looked good on her, especially with that little blue dress. With that done, he walked to the door behind his desk.
“Do try to keep up,” he said. He opened the door, revealing a breathtaking view of the city and a narrow ledge. Alice sighed, then joined him.
Hatter indicated a ladder off to the left. “We need to go down a floor. Follow me.”
He ran the plan through again in his mind. It was fairly solid, assuming Dodo was feeling generous today. And if Alice was moving a bit slowly behind him, he really didn’t take much notice.