“Here is how this game is really played,” the Pillar finally interjects “The thing is that all questions asked have only one answer.”

I tilt my head, worrying I am not going to grasp this fully.

“All questions in this game are answered by saying ‘Hookah Hookah,’” the Pillar explains, his eyes on the Executioner. I am more curious than ever to know whatever is happening between those two. “I ask you, ‘How are you?’ You answer, ‘Hookah Hookah.’ I ask you, ‘Where have you been?’ You say...”

“Hookah Hookah, I get it,” I say. “So how is anyone supposed to know if the other is telling the truth?”

The Pillar and the Executioner exchange mean looks for a moment.

“It’s how you say it, Alice,” the Executioner explains. “If you can convince me with you tonality and facial expressions it’s the truth, then it’s the truth.”

Chapter 30

I don’t have enough time to object.

The Executioner demonstrates the game by asking the Pillar, “What’s your name?”

“Hookah Hookah,” the Pillar says, as if he’s just used to answering it this way. It’s mind boggling how believable he sounds.

“Where are you from?”

“Hookah Hookah,” the Pillar answers with a home-sick expression on his face. I suppose that deeper in his mind he was saying ‘Wonderland.’

Then the Executioner turns to face me. “Do you think the Pillar is a good man?”

Now, that’s a shocker.

Sneaky. The Executioner just asked the question I’m not sure how to answer. The game demands confidence and truth in the way I say Hookah Hookah.

It takes me a while to answer. “Hookah Hookah.”

In my mind, the answer is ‘I don’t know.’ It’s the truth. I try my best to sound as if I mean it.

The Executioner’s sharp eyes pierce through me, his fingers reaching for his gun.

I shrug.

“Good answer,” he says. “I don’t know either.”

What? He read my mind?

“My turn,” I say. “Do you truly believe I will not shoot you without waiting for the next question?”

“Hookah Hookah.” He nods toward his guards standing all around us.

Okay. He can actually read my mind. And I am toast because of the guards. But wait!

“But this means that even if I catch you lying in this game, I won’t be able to shoot you,” I argue. “Because your guards will shoot me first.”

“Smart girl,” the Executioner says. “In this game, only you or the Pillar will end up dead. Can you see how nonsense always plays in my favor?”

Chapter 31

Somewhere in the streets of London

The mayhem in the streets of London fascinated the Cheshire.

All those lowlife human beings getting in fights with each other, some of them taking it far, as in really hurting one another. That was just fantastic.

He roamed the streets on foot, possessing one person after another and contributing to the madness. A punch in the face here. A tickle there. Setting a place on fire here. It was all fun.

Revenge on humankind felt so sweet he was about to purr like his ancestors once did.

Blood was everywhere on the streets. Traffic had stopped hours ago. This was better than anything he’d ever seen. He wondered what kind of plague it was, but couldn’t put his paws on it.

Lewis Carroll turned out to be one mad nut, even crazier than all the rest. How hadn’t the Cheshire ever known about this man’s crazy tendencies to spread chaos to the world?

But even though he enjoyed possessing a soul after another, it suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea of who he really was.

Of course, he was a cat in a way or another. But he’d even lost his recollection of what he looked like as a cat many years ago.

Who was he, really? What did he look like? What was the look that really suited his personality?

Had the Cheshire been lost among the many faces he’d possessed, now that he was just a nobody?

His thoughts were interrupted by a phone call. Yes, he possessed many souls, but always passed on his phone so he’d be in contact with whoever wanted to benefit from his expertise.

Like all cats, the Cheshire needed to make a living.

“It’s Margaret,” the Duchess told him on the line. “I need your help.”

“You know I stopped assassinating for you long ago.”

“Yes, but this isn’t about assassinations,” she explained. “I want you to send someone after the Pillar in Columbia.”

“What’s the Pillar doing in Columbia?”

“He’s looking for a cure for the plague.”

“Why? I was beginning to just enjoy it. Did you know it doesn’t affect Wonderlanders?”

“No, I didn’t. That’s good to hear. But the Queen made her point.” Margaret explained how none of them would benefit from the end of the world. Not an argument the Cheshire was fond of.

Who said I wouldn’t be happy with the end of the world?

Although he’d never been on good terms with the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland, he’d started to warm up to her and Black Chess a little. After all, he’d been a bit too lonely in this real world.

It was time to choose a side. Black Chess or Inklings.

“Okay,” he said. “I will send someone to Columbia.”

“You know what kind of someone that is, right? The Executioner will kill anyone who enters his territory.”

“Trust me, I know. That’s why I can’t go there myself. Whatever person I use as a disguise, the Executioner will recognize me. We didn’t all stay away from him for nothing in Wonderland. I will send someone.”

“Do you mean...?”

“Yes,” he said. “Only if I can find them. Because no one’s been able to since we left Wonderland.”

Chapter 32

Mushroomland, Columbia

“My turn,” the Executioner says.

Looking at guards all around us, I wonder what I’m going to do now. I have no way out of this, unless I shoot him and risk being killed one second later.

But why would I shoot him without freeing the children or knowing who cooked the plague?

This is some paradox I’m trapped in.

“So tell me, Alice,” the Executioner says. “Do you think you’re getting out of here alive today?”

“Hookah Hookah.” In my mind, the answer is ‘Hell yeah!’ I just have no idea how.

“Impressive,” the Executioner says. “Even though I know you will die in a few minutes, I still believe you. You know why? Because you definitely believe it. Now ask me.”

“Who cooked the plague?” I shoot.

The Executioner laughs. “Hookah Hookah,” he says. And I realize that in his mind he just answered, but I am not going to know it, not in a million years. Some silly game.

But wait, he doesn’t look like he is telling the truth. What am I supposed to do?

My hand grips my gun. A wide smile forms on the Executioner’s face.

That’s when I realize how tricky this game is. He deliberately gave me the wrong answer. At least he made sure I’d sense it, so I’d try to shoot him and then have his guards finish me off.

Chapter 33

Never have I been so much on the edge of my seat.

The Executioner’s sly grin cuts through me. My hand gripping the gun starts shivering in the nonsensical game played in a nonsensical world. The one thought that is on my brain is: am I still under the mushrooms’ influence, unable to make the right decision?

“It’s the perfect paradox!” the Pillar compliments the Executioner. “Now, that you’re lying—and it shows on your face—she is obliged to pull the trigger and shoot you, but your guards wouldn’t let her.” He leans forward, looking very amused by the situation. “It’s like playing cards with the lion in his den. You winning isn’t really going to prevent him from having you for lunch.”

An inner voice tells me to pick up the gun and shoot the Pillar instead. I have tolerated many of his crazy actions in the past, but I can’t anymore. I should have listened to everyone who warned me of him.