“You’re welcome,” a voice answers.
Then the Pillar appears out of the cockpit. He smiles and high fives a few kids.
“How did you get here?” I say.
“I stepped through the door,” he winks. “Never had a thing for entering a plane through a window.”
“Ah, you mean, how did I fight hordes of Reds on my own without even staining my suit with their blood?” He rubs a feather off his sleeve. “I’ve always had a thing for staying clean and tidy, right children?”
“Pillar clean!” They raise their hands.
“Besides,” the Pillar continues, “if I hadn’t survived, you wouldn’t have been saved from the Reds.” He leans back into his favorite couch and presses a button. A screen of the beach rolls down behind him, and sounds of chirping birds fill the plane.
One of the kids strolls over, wearing an ice cream man outfit. “Ice Cream. Banana flavor. Mango flavor. Even strawberry. One penny each.”
The Pillar leans forward and tips the boy, rewarding himself with an ice cream crone. “Ice cream, kids?” he turns to the others.
It’s a shame I’m drooling over the ice cream in this humid oven of a chopper.
“Ice cream, Alice?” He smiles.
I sneer at him.
“And, please, no need to thank me for saving your pink butt.”
The children can’t stop laughing, their noses stained with some red strawberry flavor.
“I had to leave you behind.” I stick out my neck. “The same way you betrayed me in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.”
“You left me?” The Pillar pouts like a bratty child. “I’m shocked. I thought you had to save the Scientist and didn’t have the chance to think about me.”
“Stop playing with my head. You know I left you on purpose.”
“But you’re glad that I’m alive, right?” he says. “Come on, aren’t you children glad I’m alive?”
The children gather around him, some of them kissing him. I wonder why they like him so much. It’s as if they’re sharing a special connection I can’t put my hands on. The same way I sensed he and the Executioner kept a secret.
“Are you glad I’m alive, my chauffeur?” He cranes his neck at the cockpit.
“Of course, Professor. I need someone to tell me how to drive this plane properly.”
We hit another air bump.
“Watch out for those clouds you keep bumping into.” The Pillar raises his ice cream cone.
“It’s not a cloud, Professor,” I hear the chauffeur snicker from inside the cockpit. “It’s a big mushroom in the sky.”
The kids laugh at this, too. Suddenly I’m the most boring person on set. But I don’t care. It’s time for the next step in stopping the plague.
“I think we better know who the Scientist really is.” I point at the comatose body on the plane’s floor.
“First I need to know where I’m going,” the chauffeur interrupts.
“London, of course,” the Pillar says. “Alice needs to find Carolus and kill him.”
“I’m still not sure how I’m the one who’s supposed to kill him.” I say.
“I’m not sure either. But I believe the Scientist. He didn’t tell us this last precious detail until we pushed him hard.”
“Yes, but how? I mean, just shoot him?”
“I really doubt the likes of Carolus will die that easily. If only Alice can kill Lewis Carroll’s split persona, then there has to be a certain method to do it. Didn’t Lewis ever tell you how when you met him?”
“Not that I remember.”
“I guess he only wanted to give you the key.” The Pillar eyes it in my hand. I grip it harder. “Don’t worry. I won’t take it from you. We need the Six Keys all together anyway. I have one. You have one. That’s about fair.”
“Lewis told me not to show it to you in particular, in case you want to know.”
“I don’t.” He dismisses me. “But I do want to know how you can kill Carolus before tomorrow night, or the world will be toast.”
“And how am I supposed to find that out?”
“Well, let’s start with the Scientist, the Executioner, or whoever he is.” The Pillar walks toward the body, about to pull the hood back. “I’m sure he hasn’t told us everything. Nice pants by the way.”
I sneer at him. “Aren’t all Reds just hollow underneath the cloak?”
“He isn’t a Red, that’s for sure.” He grips the hood.
“How do you know?”
“Didn’t you see how the Reds nudged him to make him talk or stop talking?” the Pillar says. “My assumption is the Scientist was their prisoner. They just wanted us to think otherwise for some reason.”
“So pull it off, then.”
“Are you ready, children?” He acts like a magician again.
Along with the children, I nod eagerly.
Then he pulls the hood back.
It’s not the Executioner, and I am not surprised. I had a feeling the Reds were lying to scare us.
But I never guessed it would be The March Hare.
Queen’s garden, Buckingham Palace, London
The Queen wouldn’t tell Margaret her new plan, and she enjoyed how it drove the Duchess crazy.
“Tell me, Margaret. Aren’t the world’s presidents having a meeting in the United Nations Office at Geneva?”
“Yes, tomorrow afternoon. Why?”
“I want to attend it.”
“But you declined the invitation earlier.”
“That was when I was concerned with stopping Carolus from ending the world.”
“What’s changed? His plague is still going to end the world. We haven’t found a cure.”
“You won’t understand, Margaret. You know why? Because you’re ugly.”
“It’s dumb people who usually don’t understand.” Margaret folded her arms.
The Queen knew how much Margaret hated her but couldn’t oppose her, not before they found the keys. She enjoyed such suppression a lot, even better than painting white roses red.
“Well, then we’re about to change that,” the Queen said. “Once this plague is over, teachers should tell students that it’s ugly people who don’t understand, and that dumb people only look horrible. Now back to what I was saying.”
“All ears, My Queen.”
“Get me on a plane to Geneva to meet up with the presidents of the world tomorrow. Remind me, what was the meeting about?”
“The plague, of course.” Margaret sighed. “The world’s only concern at the moment. They’re looking for a solution.”
“Of course, I knew that, Margaret. Did you think I was dumb—I mean ugly like you?” The Queen grinned.
“And what about Carolus, if I may ask?”
“He’s coming with me.” The Queen prided herself. “Those presidents of the world have no idea what I have prepared for them. It’s so amazing I feel taller already!”
The Pillar’s Chopper
“Professor Jittery?” I cup my hands over my mouth.
The March Hare snaps out of his sleep, stretching his arms out like a blind man. “Where am I?”
“Relax.” The Pillar knocks his butt with his cane. “You’re on my plane.”
I sneer at the Pillar and take the March Hare in my arms to calm him down. I have no idea how he is the Scientist, but I still feel for him since we met in the Hole. One look at him and you realize he is nothing but a child in an old man’s body.
“Oh, I remember now,” he rubs his head. “You hit me on the head, Alice.”
“I had to, so I could bring you here with me. You have no idea what kind of adventure we had while you were unconscious. I still can’t believe you’re the Scientist. Why would you do such a horrible thing like cooking this plague?”
“Because he wants to go back to Wonderland.” The Pillar stands over us, about to pull the March’s long hair and smash him into the wall, I think.
“Is that true?” I pat the March Hare, who’s still shivering in my hands.
“Explain it to me, please.” I say.
“As if we have all the time in the world.” The Pillar looks at his pocket watch.