Hatter did not like Suits. Not one little bit. Especially not when they forced him to use an alternate route on his deliveries. For chaps with such zealous commitment, they had a horrid sense of timing. Did they really expect to catch tea runners in the middle of the day? Idiots.
Thanks to them, he was being forced to take the long way downcity from the top of the block where his tea shop sat, hundreds of feet above the lake.
Ropes creaked as he cranked the rusty shaft of the old pulley elevator. It wasn't very well known, hidden as it was in the middle of the catacomb hallways of an abandoned hospital. The shaft plummeted down, all the way to the canal levels. It was a long ride, though, and he planned on getting off as soon as he was low enough to be clear of the Suits. The damp air tickled his throat, and he coughed violently, throwing a few curses at the patrols for the sake of the thing. There was really no alternative, though. He had to get down there, and he couldn't afford to get caught with this shipment on him.
He used his free hand to finger the bottles stuffed in his coat and hat, counting them and checking their lids to pass the time.
His tea shop was reputable, of course, selling only those beverages sanctioned by the House of Cards, paying all the necessary exorbitant taxes, and so forth. But that was just a small piece of the business. Most of his trading went on in the back rooms of the shop, with those who knew how to ask and what to ask for. He sold contraband teas – those taken from oysters kept by private owners or tea rings.
Only teas from the Hearts Casino were sanctioned, and it was illegal to drain an oyster for any purpose. But that made very little difference, since the Suits were notoriously incompetent these days, and as long as the royal family wasn't losing too much money they were willing to look the other way. It was still a dangerous business, though, especially if you let people trample all over you.
Fortunately, Hatter was not the type to let trampling go unchallenged, which was why he was headed downcity now. He had a few deliveries to make, and then planned on paying a certain tightfisted weasel of a client a visit. Hatter had a reputation and a sledgehammer hand, both remnants from his days in the Queen's employ. That was behind him now, of course, but the talents he had acquired still came in handy.
He stopped cranking the pulley at the next doorway, wrapped the rope around the enormous hook next to the door, and hopped off the elevator. The building was dark, but it was a piece of cake to find an exit, since elevators were always near one. He found a door, and stepped out onto a narrow ledge. He was still a respectable distance above the lake, and the city's enormous buildings towered around him. It was very calm. It always was. Thousands of Wonderlanders lived here, and many of them were out and about during the day. But sound did not carry here, and their comings and goings were muted and dreary.
He climbed down the nearest fire escape to a canal. It was suspended in the space between the two buildings, like a giant water pipe that had been sawn in half. It sloped slowly and ponderously down to the ground level canals. The streets were grimy and littered with broken glass, the buildings rusted. The air was humid, and, at this time of day, far too hot.
The canals saw the worst of the weather coming off of the lake. They were always too hot, too windy, or too bloody cold. A bit of a lousy district, really. Hatter conducted a lot of his business down here, but he had his shop up top for a reason.
He stepped carefully onto the narrow steel walkway that fringed the upper canals, and walked along it with ease. Time to find his boat and make deliveries.
Two hours later, he was at a pawn shop in the heart of the city. It was dark and musty along this stretch of the water. It didn't see a lot of traffic, or sunlight for that matter, and the canal was clouded with muck. And the smell. Hatter did not care for the smell at all.
The shop itself was brightly lit – not cheerfully or tastefully, but definitely brightly. Hatter stepped through the open doorway and popped down a short flight of stairs into the shop. It was circular, and a long counter ran along the wall, with goods displayed on shelves behind it. There were a few racks in the middle of the room with dried food goods and old rusted cans of ointment. Trickles of humidity clung to the ceiling, and the steel floor looked ready to cave in. The whole place was decrepit, an old relic in an old, poor neighborhood.
The owner, Ricky, was anything but poor. He was ugly as a baby borogove, and not very bright, but most definitely not poor. Hatter knew this because Ricky could afford to buy some of his best teas and resell them at a steep price. He didn't mind doing the supplying, of course, but he took pretty serious issue when his customers failed to pay up. And right now he had serious issues with Ricky.
He sauntered up to the counter and clanged on the bell. There was a sound of falling boxes and something that sounded vaguely like a curse from the back room. Hatter grinned.
A few seconds later, a slender woman in a blue dress stepped out to the counter. "You need something?" Her voice was low and a little tired, with an accent that was clearly from the Other Side. Her dark hair was pulled back from her angular, delicate face.
Her eyes were a very bright blue. Hatter double-checked. Definitely blue. And hollow. This one had a broken heart in there somewhere.
He twirled his hat off his head casually. "Yeah. Is Ricky around?"
She shook her head abruptly. "No. He's been gone all day."
Hatter followed her quick glance at a side door. "You sure?"
"Yeah." She seemed frightened.
He shrugged and put his hat back on. "All right, then. Just let me at the cash box and I'll be on me way."
She glared at him, and he could see that she was very frightened indeed. "Is this a robbery?"
"Nope. He owes me."
She hesitated, then nodded towards the side door. "He's in there." No sooner had she said this, than the door creaked open and Ricky stepped out. He was lanky and bony, with thin hair and a nose that was far too long for one individual. Hatter regarded him with indifference, and just a hint of disdain.
"Hatter!" Ricky said with blatantly forced enthusiasm. "Is somethin' wrong?" He shot a sharp look at the woman.
Hatter also looked at the woman. "Does she know about our business, Ricky?"
The other man shrugged. "She'll keep quiet."
"Right. I've not got a lot time to waste today. I believe you owe me about two-thousand."
Ricky's nose twitched. "Fifteen."
"Nope, two-thousand." Weasel. Hatter rested his right arm on the counter pointedly. Ricky glanced at it, sighed, and walked with deliberate slowness into the back room. He re-emerged with a handful of bills and counted them out on the counter for Hatter to see. The woman stood quietly behind the counter, arms folded across her chest, observing them. Hatter pocketed the money and looked at her again. "Is she an oyster, Ricky?"
Ricky curled his lip. "Uh-huh. But that's not what she's 'ere for."
"For what, then?"
"Tends the counter and cleans things up. Some bloke brought 'er in a few months ago. Never bought 'er back."
"How much?" The words were out before Hatter realized it. Prompted by pity, he supposed. He hated to leave her in this place when she looked so scared.
Ricky's eyebrows lifted in surprise, but he answered without hesitation, "Five hundred."
"Five hundred? Don't flamingo me, Ricky."
"She can keep the books better'n most. Clean. Cook. The works." Ricky's nose twitched again. "And she's a reader."
"She's an oyster. They all can read."
"That's not what I meant. She can read 'er teas. Knows how much, which ones. Has an instinct for it."
"Is she stuck on any of them?" Hatter asked. She was watching them, clear-eyed and alert.
Stuck, of course, meant addicted. It didn't happen nearly as much to oysters as it did to Wonderlanders, but when it did...well, it was more or less permanent. Once they reached a certain point, they were expensive to keep and useless, like lamed horses. Many owners threatened to kill their oysters if they became addicted, and some actually did, knowing that there would be no repercussions. This was a definite downside to the tea trade in Hatter's book, but was business was business.
"Does she look stuck to you?" Ricky grabbed the woman's arm and pulled back her sleeve, revealing green tattoos across her forearm and bicep. "She won't be gettin' stuck either, as long as you don't let 'er at anything."
"What's her name?"
"Alice Hamilton." The woman answered before Ricky had the chance to.
Bemused by her interruption, Hatter nodded and rubbed the back of his neck, regarding her one final time. She didn't look like a talker, but then, they never did. He needed help in the shop, and maybe somebody to chat with. Her eyes really were very blue.
Very very blue.
Hatter wondered how old she was. Had she grown up here? Sometimes entire families of oysters were brought through the Looking Glass all at once, and the children spent their years with only vague memories of their former lives. It was easier that way. Children didn't have to be drugged into submission the way the adults did. They were usually more expensive, but you could keep them for years before they wore out, no problem.
This woman…this Alice…well, she wasn't far past childhood. Hatter could tell.
He looked away from her, focusing instead on the disgusting mass of wrinkles and sweat that constituted Ricky's face. "I'll take her for three hundred. No more, got it?"
He was expecting a bit of a fight. This was Ricky, after all. But to his surprise, the other man shoved her towards him. "All yours."
Hatter gave him a quick nod. "Thanks, mate." He produced the three hundred, and then offered his arm to the oyster to assist her outside and into the motorboat. The engine spluttered to life, and in seconds the pawn shop and the filthy docks were out of sight.
Hatter watched her face unabashedly as they navigated the city's maze of waterways. She was staring blankly ahead, and didn't even trouble to look at him. He was beginning to write off the prospect of having somebody to play Shribble and cards with in the evenings. But she knew her teas, and that was the important bit, now wasn't it?
She had that edge to her that oysters tended to get, when Wonderland hit them a little too hard. It was like a callous around those busy little minds of theirs, keeping all the pearls of emotion locked inside. Unless, of course, their masters put them on a drainer. Then it didn't matter how much callous they had, out the pearls would pop.
He looked at those empty blue eyes again, and thought he might be liking the business a little bit less than he had before.
He was also liking the silence less and less. It was stretching out a bit uncomfortably for his tastes.
He tried coughing a little.
She glanced up, then looked away, uninterested. Great. Ricky must have lied about draining her, because she seemed completely apathetic. At least the chaps at the shop would be none the wiser. They were too stuck on their tea to care.
He tried small talk. "So. Ricky. Did he treat you all right?"
She shrugged without raising her eyes.
"Look, no offense, but I got nothing from that. Zilch. Nill."
She swallowed deliberately. "Yeah, he was all right."
Hatter tried a smile. "You can talk, then. You had me worried."
"Sorry for talking, or sorry for worrying me?"
Another shrug. She wasn't taking the bait.
"All right, then…how old are you?"
And yet another shrug. "I don't know. Twenty, maybe. I lost track."
Hatter was not surprised. He mirrored her shrug and plastered a grin on his face. "Myself, I'm a hundred and nine. Old as they come."
"Old as they come? You're still a baby." The corners of her mouth turned up into just a hint of a smile, and Hatter's grin turned genuine.
"I wouldn't say baby. I'm in me prime." He winked at her. When she clammed up and didn't respond, he mentally added, Brilliant.