Most guards in the room wanted to laugh, the Queen knew. But none of them would risk their heads being cut off. It was a scientific fact: you couldn’t live without a head unless you were the headless horseman from Sleepy Hollow.
“I’m sorry,” Margaret said. “I thought you like to paint all roses red, so I found a genetically-enhanced species that grows only red flowers. It was designed by the March Hare, and I filled the castle with it.”
Of course Margaret wasn’t sorry, the Queen knew again. This duchess was a vicious woman who only bent over for her queen. There was a reason for that—and it wasn’t respect.
“And what am I going to order my guards to paint red now?” The Queen stepped up on a chair and roared in the loudspeaker. “Here is the logic of it. I paint white roses red because they are white. The purpose is to suppress their nature and force them to turn into the color I want. It’s a psychological thing. A Queen’s thing. A message for the masses. Whatever your color is, I will color you my way. Do you get it?”
“So when the flowers are red, I am losing my argument,” the Queen followed. “Now I have no choice but to force everyone to only sell white flowers in England.”
“Yes, from this day on, England only sells white flowers.” She jabbed a finger in the air. “What a brilliant idea.” She jumped off her chair and adjusted her stiff troll-like hair. “Not only that. I want the Parliament to have a meeting and issue a law that prohibits the use of white flowers.”
“But that’s contradictory”
“And beautiful!” The Queen grinned. “Let’s mess with those obnoxious human citizens. Let’s see what they can do about it.”
“As you wish, My Queen.” Margaret chewed on the words. “On the side, I wanted you to take a look at another Wonderland Monster who showed up today, if you don’t mind.”
“I have no time for your silly requests, Margaret,” the Queen dismissed her. “I’m more interested in the results of last week’s Event. Please tell me my employees are wreaking havoc and madness all over the world. Please. Please. Please tell me they are driving the world mad.”
I land and bounce on a fluffy large mushroom—did I really say that? Well, it’s the truth. Way crazier than the Alice in the books.
It’s a huge mushroom, coated with what would make a perfect mattress. Yet it’s both bumpy and has a jelly feel to it on a few spots. I curl my body, tangled in my parachute, and roll on until I fall off the edge, right into the mud.
Somewhere behind me, the Pillar laughs.
It irks me. I am not going to play clumsy in here. Not in Columbia.
Curling out of the tangled parachute is not an easy task. When I am done, I realize the parachute is painted to look like a huge mushroom from above. I twitch, glancing at the Pillar, who’s standing up straight, his suit perfectly clean, and lighting up a cigar.
“I had the parachutes painted for camouflage purposes.” His eyes look beady, enjoying his smoke. “You see, this place where we’re standing now is off the charts. You can’t find it on a map. Of course, you know where Columbia is, but you can never spot where Mushroomland is exactly.”
“Mushroomland?” I trudge heavily in the mud.
“Indeed. This is where all the profitable drugs, hallucinogens, and a few other mischievous plants are grown.”
“Those mushrooms are drugs?”
“Just like in the Alice in Wonderland books.” Oh, he is enjoying his smoke. “Why did you think one side of the mushroom made you grow taller and the other made you smaller, or whatever that nonsense was?”
“I was being drugged, in a children’s book?”
“Well, that’s debatable.” He marches on through the huge mushrooms.
“What’s debatable?” I pick up my umbrella and follow him into the semi-darkness.
“That Alice in Wonderland is a children’s book—but I don’t have time for such debates.” He crouches, investigating the premises. I crouch, too. “You see, Alice. Mushroomland is like Neverland. You’re supposed to think it’s unreal while it is not. No satellite up in the sky can track it. No one is supposed to talk about it. If you die in here, you’re not only going to die alone, badly, but the authorities all around the world will ditch any evidence of your existence.”
“Why all that?” I am whispering. I sense we’re not alone. Danger is on its way. I still need to know why the Pillar thinks this place is where we can get a cure for the plague. Wasn’t facing the Wonderland Monster in London a better strategy?
“Mushroomland grows ninety percent of the hallucinogens in the world,” the Pillar says. “You may think these are a bunch of Columbian vagabonds controlling the drug business, but in reality they are funded by...”
“Black Chess,” I cut in, thinking I am smart.
“Nah, wrong,” he says. “But I’ll get to that in a minute.” We walk ahead cautiously. The moon is the only light I can see next to the orange hue from the Pillar’s cigar. “Those mushrooms aren’t just drugs. They have a substance that controls people’s minds in the world. Some of them are in your every day food you buy from the market. Fizzy drinks, chocolates, and even vegetables. Why do you think they never stop marketing this stuff? Some of it is even sprinkled in the air.”
“To numb you.” He bites on his cigar. “So you feel cool about paying your taxes, tolerating the violence and madness in the world. Hell, some of these are electromagnetic mushrooms that affect your thinking on election days.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Left.” He winks.
I didn’t expect that nonsensical answer. I was expecting a ‘wrong’ or ‘right.’ But this is the Pillar I am talking to.
“I’m not joking. You asked me who is funding Mushroomland? I’d say most of the world’s high caliber governments.”
“So what are we looking for in here? Are we looking to meet someone who can help us find the cure?”
The Pillar nods, now staring through some night-vision binoculars.
“Who exactly are we looking for?”
“The most ruthless, mind-bent man in the world.”
“Does he have a name?”
“Of course he has a name.” The Pillar stands up abruptly and walks on.
When I follow him, I realize we have company.
Men approaching us. Men with machine guns. This doesn’t look good at all. I understand now what the Pillar meant when he said they’d take selfies of your blood on their faces, and I don’t think we’re getting out of here alive. At least, not both of us.
“Don’t say a word,” he hisses from the corner of his mouth. “And raise your hands. Eyes to the ground.”
I do, feeling the weight of the approaching men, listening to the Pillar talk.
“We’ve come here in peace,” he says. “In the name of all mushroom and hookahs and all trippy things.”
“What are you looking for in here?” I hear a man with an accent and a gruff voice inquire.
“I’m looking for a man. A very important man,” the Pillar says, and now I’m about to know the name of the most ruthless drug trafficker in the world. “The Executioner!”
The Columbian men start laughing.
Although I can’t make out their faces in the dark, their laughs send out waves that rattle the mushrooms all around me.
I must be really losing my mind. I mean really, like the acute pain of a heartache when you know for sure that it’s over.
What the heck am I saying?
“Who do you think you are to meet with the Executioner?”
“I have two reasons to believe he wants to see me.” The Pillar’s words come out muffled with that cigar in his mouth. “Besides, I know about the Trail of Mushrooms.”
The men’s laughter grows louder. “You think you can pass the Trail of Mushrooms?”