He sits down opposite me and folds his legs. He asks me if I want any food and gestures to the bowl of carrots on the table between us.
“You sure? You might not get to eat for a while.”
As he says eat I realise he’s right – who knows how long I’ll be here. In those shows like Law & Order you see people get kept in these rooms for hours at a time, and the more I look at them the more the carrots look delicious. Orange and chunky, cold and firm. I take one and take a bite, it’s extra crunchy.
I nod in agreement before I can stop myself.
“My wife, she picked them fresh this morning. We started growing them last year. Nothing sweeter than the taste of your own, am I right kid?”
I of course know what he’s doing – the casual reference to his wife to make him seem like a good guy, talking about homegrown family vegetables, calling me ‘kid’; he’s really sugarcoating this wholesome, friendly, neighbourhood cop shit. Next he’s going to tell me he’s got a boy about my age or some fucken shit.
“So tell me – why do they call you The Hatter?”
Well, this has taken a turn. First of all, that’s the line the other cop should have spoken, only there’s no-one else in the room so I guess I’ll let that slide. But it’s way too early for showing your hand, detective.
“It’s way too early to show your hand, detective.” I lean back in my chair and crunch on his wife’s carrot, chewing with my mouth open, showing him how tough I am. He pauses for a second and smiles, reaching into his pocket. That was meant to unsettle him and it hasn’t worked.
“Is it the hats you wear Jacob? The funny hats? I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you but you look like an idiot in them.”
He slides the photos from his pocket across the table. Grainy CCTV of the attack. You can just about see me in the photos but there’s no jury that would ever convict based on that resemblance. You’d have to lock up every bearded white man under 50 in the city. I’m probably looking at them too closely because when he jabs his thin finger onto one it startles me.
“See, I know that’s you.” He moves his finger and he’s right, it is me. “How’d you do it, Jake?” Classic shortening of the name, dropping in familiarity like he’s either my dad or an overly familiar Geography teacher. “How’d you get the hat to stay on when you’re beating someone to death?”
There’s a secret to it, of course, but I intend on keeping that to myself. Who wants a world of copycats wearing fancy hats as they kill their prey? He stares at me for a long while and then sits back. He’s really eyeballing me. Damn, this fucker’s hard to read. He goes again for his pocket and I half expect he’s got Arthur’s watch in there but-
He offers me the pack. Friendly Geography teacher with an edge? Jesus Christ.
“Didn’t think so.” He lights one for himself and inhales deeply, breathing the smoke out through his nose. “Truth is, Jake, I couldn’t give a fuck how you do it.” Here we go, time for the full bad cop.
“Then I guess we got something in common, detective.”
He leans back in his chair and roars with laughter. The room seems to quiver at the seams when he does, the rolling ha ha has vibrating off the windows. It goes on for minutes, the sound gets louder and louder and when I think the cacophony is too much he stops for another drag on his cigarette.
“Those carrots weren’t for you, you know.”
Huh? I must look genuinely nonplussed at that but his next statement makes me even more confused. “You know, Jacob, they may call you The Hatter, but do you know what they call me? Your friends ever talk about my nickname?”
His tone is ominous, his breathing is deep. I can hear the spit dripping from his lips.
“I’ll take that as a no. Your friend Arthur, he knows, but I bet he hasn’t got the god-damn balls to tell you.” The mention of Arthur is enough to cause my mask to slip for a split second and my face cracks with worry. He sees it and his face lights up like fucking London Bridge.
“Don’t worry kid, I already knew I had you. You’ve not given anything away that you hadn’t when we dragged you out of bed this morning. You see, Arthur doesn’t have the balls to tell you my nickname because he’s too afraid of me to even say it. In fact, he’s not said my name out loud since the fall of the White Cliffs. Oh, yeah,” he reads the fear on my face, “I know you know what happened there. You see, me and Arthur, we go way back. Maybe that’s the problem. We have history. We go so far back I just can’t live without him. And I need to send him a message. I need to get back inside his nightmares, I need to remind him of who he is.” My heart is pounding in my chest. If he knows about the White Cliffs then he knows everything. He knows the pacts, he knows the Balloon, shit, I bet he even fucking knows about the watch. I don’t even bother trying to hide my reaction, he’s just watching me panic and smiling some sick grin, drumming the fingers of his empty hand on the table.
“That’s right boy, the scariest son of a bitch you’ve ever met is only scared of one person. One person. One person in the entire world, and you’ve got the extreme misfortune of being sat opposite them right now.”
He laughs again. As he laughs he leans in towards me until his mouth is inches from my ears and the sound is deafening, it’s like I’m in the middle of a gunfight.
“Who are you” I manage to squeak.
“I’m The Magician, kid. And I told you, those carrots aren’t for you. They’re for the rabbit.”
The Hatter screams and his left hand grabs his stomach, his right hand flies out and collides with the bowl of carrots which go flying across the room. He curls his hand into a fist and blindly flails for The Magician, who has crossed the room and is standing by the door.
“WHa…ugh…What IS this…Please…please make It SToo-“
The Hatter lunges forwards and falls to his knees. His chair screeches against the floor and falls on its back, as does he. He rips open his shirt and looks down – his stomach is swelling, surging, throbbing – there’s something in there. His face contorts with pain and shock and he doesn’t finish his sentence before he emits a piercing scream as the skin over his abdomen splits under the pressure. It’s at this point that The Hatter bit off his tongue.
The Magician lights another cigarette and watches from the side of the room. The blood that has sprayed across the floor from where the kid’s stomach split open has splattered his right leather boot. He tuts, and wipes the droplets onto his left trouser leg.
The Hatter is still conscious but unable to make much noise. He gurgles and splutters, his face is as white as china and his eyes are wrenched open, so the last thing he sees is the bloody fur of the rabbit’s head as it emerges from his lower intestine. There’s bits of entrail in its teeth. His entrails. The Hatter’s day comes to as bloody an end as its start.
The rabbit, its fur matted with chunks of skin and organ, hops out of its bloody burrow. Its ears stick up as it sniffs around the mangled carcass, head down, adjusting to its new surroundings. It hops over The Hatter’s outstretched limp arm and begins to gorge itself on the chunks of carrot all over the floor.