Blog | Author's Blog | Published 22 April 2021
Is This Your Card?
“Danny? You there?” Alice wrote in her old battered journal. The green leather the journal was bound in was scarred and faded, but the inner pages were still the rich creamy white of high-quality sketch paper.
She waited for her friend to answer, staring down at those pages as she chewed on the end of her gel pen. This one was a cool metallic blue, her favorite, but today she hardly noticed which pen she held. She’d just grabbed whichever one was closest to hand in her haste to talk to Danny.
But there was no response. No symbol appeared, glowing softly yellow in the upper right hand of the parchment page, no pulse of heat flashed under her hand to tell her someone had opened up her journal’s sister and begun to write back to her.
The journal was magic.
It had been the first tangible piece of evidence that Alice wasn’t, in fact, insane like she’d feared—and still did sometimes when she lay awake at night unable to sleep.
The journal had been enchanted to provide a means of communication across a bunch of alternate versions of Earth. A series of related worlds according to Danny who lived in the neighboring world of Ten A. Alice’s world was called, imaginatively, Ten B.
Danny once explained that those worlds that had the most in common were grouped into the same series and that one of the things her world and Alice’s had in common was that English had come to be one of the more widely spoken languages. That was fortunate, since the only other language Alice spoke was a teensy bit of Spanish, which consisted mostly of phrases like no sé, dónde está el baño, and me nombre es Alice.
The one thing all worlds in series Ten had in common was that humans had developed into the dominant species. That was far from a given according to Danny. Apparently, there were twenty recognized series all together and in many of them humans either never had a chance or won gold in the Darwin Awards.
For instance, in Series Three plants were the most intelligent lifeform around, but in Series Eight it was birds. Alice had a hard time believing this, but Danny swore she knew a genius octopus from Series Seven who traveled the related worlds in an advanced land suit.
And Ten A was, apparently, the hub of these related worlds. Enchanters there had created a network of traveling mirrors that allowed beings from all walks of life to move easily from one alternate Earth to another. They did this for many reasons, Danny had explained. For growth, for wealth, for advantage over their enemies or to escape them, or for the shear love of exploration and learning.
Alice would have fallen into that last group. She often wondered what it would be like to visit an Earth where dinosaurs not only still lived but could debate circles around the best Princeton philosophers. Or maybe an Earth where aliens from other planets had made contact.
But not right now.
There seemed to be a great deal of unrest in Ten A from the little asides Danny had been dropping in these last six months. She’d never come right out and simply talked about it. The journals had been compromised before. That was how she’d first ended up talking to Alice. A spy had tapped into her journal and it had skipped over to Alice’s “channel” by accident. But Alice wasn’t stupid and she could read between the lines.
War was brewing in Ten A and that made it a bad time to play tourist. What if Alice went to another world only to be stranded there because the magic users in Ten A—the Gifted, as Danny called them—got into a battle and broke their mirrors or something.
Given all that, Alice supposed she shouldn’t be surprised that Danny didn’t answer right away. She was probably busy shepherding some Nulls, the magically challenged of Ten A, to freedom. Seemed like every time they wrote to each other, Danny was in the middle of smuggling fugitives places.
Alice would have thought such clandestine work would be full of crazy chases and bloody fighting like in the movies. Seemed to Alice that there wouldn’t be time to write out long correspondences and tell stories, but Danny assured her that while it could get exciting, ninety percent of her time was spent waiting. Waiting for her passengers. Waiting for the patrols to pass. Waiting for night to fall or a good thick fog to roll in. Waiting for word that the next conductor was in place and ready to guide the fugitives on the next leg of their journey.
It was in these long boring spells that she wrote to Alice. She said it made the time fly faster and took her mind off all the ways her jobs could go wrong. Alice could only assume, then, that her pen pal was dealing with the other ten percent of her job. The exciting stuff. The dangerous parts. The parts that could get her killed or worse.
And now on top of wondering if she was going to have to be the one to end some stranger’s life, she was worrying about whether she was ever going to hear from her friend again.
“Hey, Allie. You’re home early.”
Alice turned in her desk chair to see Theo stroll into her room and flop down on her bed. Her little brother looked like a ten-year-old carbon copy of their father at that age. Except for those big dark chocolate brown eyes fringed with thick black lashes. Those were all their mother. On her, though, they often sparkled with humor and a bit of mischief. Theo’s eyes were usually more serious and thoughtful, but now they were… resigned.
Alice knew what that look meant and gave him a sympathetic pouty face. “Tessa being a brat again?” Tessa and he might be twins but their temperaments couldn’t be more different.
Theo rolled his eyes and stuffed her pillow under his head. “Yeah. She kicked me out of our room again.”
“Ah well, you can camp out here with me until she simmers back down.”
“Cool. So, what’s up with you? Why’re you back already? Did you get suspended again?”
Alice had turned back to her journal, but that brought her around to glower at her little brother who was grinning now. “Hey, I haven’t been suspended since I was in middle school.” That had been after a boy in her class had gotten knocked out and everyone thought she’d done it. They’d been alone and when the boy had woken up, he hadn’t remembered what had happened. No one had believed Alice when she’d said a shadow monster had attacked them.
There was a reason everyone had thought she was crazy.
“Yeah, well, I guess you’d have to be a reeeaaal screwy screw-up to get kicked out of magic school, huh?”
Alice widened her eyes and let her mouth drop open in mock-outrage, lunging up out of her chair. “Okay, you little twerp, you asked for it now!”
She grabbed Theo by his ankles and hoisted him into the air upside down, swinging him back and forth. “Say it! Say those sweet, sweet words!”
Alice was strong and tall for a girl but it also helped that Theo was kind of small still. Everyone ribbed him that he’d end up tiny like their mom, but Theo always fired back that he was one growth spurt away from being taller than everyone and then they’d be sorry!
“F-f-faster! F-faster! Wheeee!” Theo crowed, laughing his fool head off as all the blood drained to his head, turning his face beet red.
“Oh, whee is it?” Alice grunted back at him, her own face burning with effort. “How ‘bout I dunk your fat head in the toilet, hmm? Give you your first swirly. Be good prep for high school!” Alice started waddle-walking towards her door.
“No, no, no, no!” Theo shrilled, still laughing, trying now to grab anything he could to stop them from leaving the room.
“Say it then! My arms’re gettin’ tired. Gonna drop you soon and it’ll be head first in the toilet bowl. Hope you flushed last time you were in there!”
“Okay! Okay!” Theo gasped. He dragged his shirt out of his face so he could grin up at her. “I’m sorry I said you had to be real screwy. I meant to say you just had to be you-level screwy!”
“Oh, that is it!” Alice mock-growled. She dumped her brother on the ground at her feet and commenced Tickle Torture. She had him begging breathlessly for mercy when a short shadow darkened her doorway.
“Gawd! Can you two be any more juvenile?” Tessa demanded, her hands planted on her hips and the kind of scowl only a tween sister could level at her goofball siblings.
Alice looked up at her from the floor and gave her younger sister a guileless smile. “Why, yes we can! Want to hear some potty humor? Maybe we should make some farting noises.”
On cue, Theo brought the crook of one elbow up to his mouth and let one rip.
The look of pure disgust on Tessa’s face sent both Alice and Theo into fresh peals of laughter.
“I’ve got to be adopted. There’s no way I’m related to you people,” Tessa muttered with an eye roll.
“No, I’m the adopted one, remember?” Alice snickered climbing to her feet. “You shared a womb with this guy here.”
Theo let out an even louder and longer faaarrrt!
Tessa shook her head, unable to handle anymore. “Here! Take these. I’m leaving!” She shoved a fistful of cards at Alice and stomped back to her room, slamming the door closed.
“Oh, good! She’s done,” Theo said, sitting up and swiping the cards from Alice and flipping through them.
Alice went back to her chair and sat down at her desk again. She’d kind of fibbed a little to Joseph when she’d told him she had been working on a new deck of cards. While she was passible at art, she wasn’t the awesome artist the twins were. Tess was good at the rough conceptual stage while Theo was a mad genius fleshing out her sketches and polishing them up. Together, they did fantastic work. They’d already won several school art awards.
“Do you think you can do your thing and have those to me soon?” she asked him. “Joseph’s asked me to help him with one of his cases and I want to try these cards out.”
Theo jumped back onto her bed, perching on the edge of it, his dark eyes lighting up. “Cool! What kind of case? Are you, like, part of a SWAT team or something? You know, because you’re a wizard?”
When Alice had found out she wasn’t crazy, that there really was magic and a whole group of people who used it, namely Joseph and a trippy dude called Harvey, she’d made sure her mom and dad were told the truth.
As it turned out, her own psychologist, Dr. Richards, was what was known as a White Rabbit in Wonderland. Someone who found people who’d been born into mundane society and introduced them to the magical community. Alice had demanded that Dr. Richards explain everything so that her parents believed her. And because her mother, Jean, didn’t believe in secrets in their family, she’d told the twins too, making them promise not to go blabbing about Alice or magic or Wonderland to their friends.
Because apparently keeping secrets from everyone else was perfectly fine.
Theo and Tessa had taken it all remarkably well, being of an age that still half-believed in magic anyway. And best of all, in their eyes, their looney older sister had gone from being a lovable but embarrassing secret they didn’t want to talk about around kids at school to being a supper awesome wizardly older sister whose ultra-cool secret had to be guarded with their lives. Kind of like a superhero’s alter ego.
The fact that she’d asked them for their help in coming up with tools to help her use her magic made them practically worshipful. Alice reminded herself daily not to use her power for evil, though she’d be a liar if she said she wasn’t enjoying her improved status.
But did Alice tell her little brother about what her ‘super awesome’ job as a wizard might ultimately mean? Ten years old, after all, didn’t seem all that mature for such a heavy topic. She wanted desperately to talk to someone about what should she do. That was why she’d rushed straight home and written to Danny. Or her mom or dad if they had been around, she would have talked to them. They hadn’t been, though. Only the twins were home, having just gotten out of school and now Theo stared up at her, waiting for some kind of response.
After another minute of waffling, Alice shrugged and sat down beside him, figuring What the hell, can’t be any worse than those Hunger Games books. Theo and Tessa were advanced readers and their parents didn’t believe in censorship.
“Well, it’s to do with someone who’s running around joy riding in stolen cars and messing with traffic lights, causing pileups. Two people died and a bunch more are in the hospital.”
The youthful eagerness bled out of his face and he grew more serious. “Whoa. That’s rough. What’s gonna happen when you find him?”
“Or her. And I don’t know, but Joseph said something about severe consequences.”
“Like… the death penalty?” Theo asked scrunching up his face and rubbing the back of his neck.
“Well… yeah. I guess. I mean, he didn’t have a chance to go into detail or anything before he got called away. But I do know that all the Kings and Queens of Wonderland are essentially judge, jury, and executioner, so whatever happens, it’s me that has to deal with it.”
“Well… that sucks,” Theo said with a frown. Then he perked up. “But can’t there be something else you can do with them? What if you could recruit them and… what’s that thing when somebody gets out of the worst punishment because they made a deal?”
“You mean when they get their sentence commuted?”
“Yeah, that,” Theo said. “You know, like the Suicide Squad! They were all a bunch of bad guys—the worst of the worst, right? But if they agreed to go on these insanely dangerous missions, they got their sentences commuted. What if you made that kind of deal? I mean, wouldn’t it be great to get someone with awesome mutant abilities to work with you instead of against you?”
Alice thought about that. Whoever it was they were looking for could do things that stumped the Knave himself. Even if this person refused to work with the Playing Cards, if all they did was teach this new trick to them, Alice thought that might be enough to get him or her a lesser sentence.
Alice felt a lightening of the weight in her gut at the idea and almost smiled, but then her shoulders slumped again.
“That’s a really good thought Theo, and if I ever decide to be Queen, I might be able to act on it. But I’m just a student now. Joseph’s the one who’ll be making the call on what to do with this guy when he finds them. And I’ve got the feeling he’s not really the commuting type.”
Theo’s brow furrowed as he stared down at the cards in his hands. “Well… what if you found him first and made a deal before Joseph calls it?”
“I don’t know… that would really be overstepping my bounds,” Alice said thinking Joseph would have a serious problem with her pulling a Lone Ranger act.
“Oh, come on Allie! If they want you doing the Queen’s job so bad, then go ahead and show them how you would do it your way. Anyway, it’s either this or some guy gets whacked who maybe shouldn’t. I mean think about it? Stealing cars for joy rides? Screwing around with traffic lights? Sounds like some punk showing off, right? Maybe this guy played too much Grand Theft Auto or something. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill anybody. Maybe he’s just an asshole, and yeah, he should get what’s coming to him, sure. But does that have to mean ‘Off with his head!’? I think you should talk to him first, see if he should get a second chance.”
“If mom heard you drop the ‘A’ word you’d be so busted right now.”
Theo rolled his eyes with a groan. “Whatever! So, are you going to find him or what?”
Alice chewed on her lower lip, debating. Finally, her shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. “I guess it’s worth a shot,” she said. “Especially since someone’s life might be at stake.”
“Yes! I’ll get these cards finished for you,” Theo said shooting for the door. He paused at the threshold, one hand on the door jamb as he leaned back into the room to grin at Alice. “This is so cool! I feel like Lucius Fox making awesome inventions for Batman!”
“Batgirl!” Alice shouted after her brother.
The slam of a bedroom door was her only reply. Alice smiled and went back to her desk where the journal still lay open.
Only there was more writing under her scrawled question, penned in a tidy slanted hand with bold black ink, the letters sliding and flowing into each other like casual calligraphy.
How are you?
Alice’s heart skipped a beat and she pulled the journal closer to her, picking up her pen.
“Fine. Kind of. Something’s come up and I need your advice,” she wrote back, her own handwriting rushed.
What’s going on?
Alice spent several minutes recounting her day, including her conversation with Theo.
Well, if it’s any consolation, because of magical means, there’s hardly ever any wrongful convictions.
“Believe it or not, that isn’t all that comforting,” Alice wrote back.
I could be mistaken, but I don’t think the death penalty is the only punishment they lay down on a convict. You’d have to confirm this with Joseph, but I seem to recall that the Wonderland courts sometimes do what they call a board wipe. They basically erase the person’s memory and put them in some kind of rehabilitation program.
Alice sat there a moment trying to sort out how she felt about that. Her first thought was that a mind wipe wasn’t so bad, that it was more humane than summary execution. But the more she pondered what it would mean to lose all memory, the more a slow horror crept over her.
“They might as well kill them! Once the memories are gone, would they even be the same person?” Another thought struck her. “And what do they do with them after the ‘rehabilitation?’”
I heard the person is moved somewhere else and given a whole new identity. I think it’s meant as a fresh start. Honestly, it all sounds terribly complicated to me, but at least it’s the convict’s choice.
So, listen to your brother and find them first. Maybe you can offer another option.
“Easy for you to say. First of all, you’ve been a master at your magic for decades,” Alice griped. Danny had once referenced the sinking of the Titanic as something that had happened while she was still a teenager, and by her own accounts she’d already become a proficient magic user by that age. Alice had only been consciously using her magic for a handful of months.
“And second of all, just because Joseph and the Cards want me to be the Queen someday doesn’t mean they are going to listen to me if I plead for clemency.”
I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself. You first have to find this person and talk to them. It could be that they don’t want to strike a deal, or maybe they’re unhinged and you think better about bargaining a lesser sentence for them. Maybe they’re the kind of arsewipe who doesn’t deserve a deal.
“But still… don’t they have any prisons?” Alice asked, thinking of a certain favorite children’s series.
Not that I know of. Neither do we for that matter, but I think you should take one step at a time. Find the person first. Work out the rest as you go.
“That’s going to have to wait for Theo. He’s finishing the last few cards I want to try out.”
Yes, this deal with the cards. I think it’s a brilliant tool. You’ll have to tell me how they work out for you.
Alice was relieved to read Danny’s approval and she smiled a little to herself. “I wish you would tell Joseph you think it’s a good idea. He thinks they’re a crutch and I shouldn’t be using them.”
Well, it’s true that you never want to become too dependent on any tool, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to use them. I can do a lot by simply using imagery and sheer will, but there are many times when a dedicated instrument prepared in advance can make all the difference in the worlds.
Anyway, it sounds like you have some time to kill and could use a little distraction while you wait. I’ve been working on that story for you. I wrote it out in advance because
Alice perked up at that.
Ever since Danny had left off her story just as she’d gained her freedom, Alice had been asking how she got involved with her world’s version of the Underground Railroad but the moment never seemed right. Because of the demands on each of their time, their written conversations had been on the shorter side. Alice’s full class load and Danny’s secretive missions often meant that their talks consisted of Alice asking for advice and Danny doing her best to help, given that she wasn’t from the same world and didn’t always know Ten A’s customs or practices.
Up until now, Danny had kept putting off telling her about those first months of freedom, saying it was a long story that needed to be told the right way—and Danny always had to tell the story in just the right way. It was a point of pride with her. But now it sounded as though Danny was finally going to lay out how she got her start as a thief extraordinaire.
Alice was more than happy to keep her mind busy until she could act on her own troubles and so she hastily scrawled out, “Finally! I’ve been waiting forever!”
So, if I remember right, I left off with Bran and I stranded in some fabricated environment, right?
Well, it so happened that we’d popped out of the ley lines right into one of the train cars for a circus. The Romanovs’ Greatest Show on Any Earth to be exact. It was the first circus of its kind and—
“Wait, you mean like the Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth?”
Exactly like that.
August Romanov, the man who started our circus, served his last stint as an active traveler in the Traveler’s Guild in Ten B. As I understand it, he spent most of his three years there traveling with the Ringling Brothers’ circus. When he came back to Ten A, he started his own, modeled after that one. There’s plenty of differences, but most of the terms and the logistics of moving what is essentially a small town by rail… that’s all adopted from the Ringling Brothers’ circus.
“Wow! Is he still around?”
August is very much still around. He might be well into his second century now, but he keeps saying the only way he’s leaving the ring is feet first!
Alice was once again struck by how long-lived the magic users of Ten A were, even Gifted.
“So, you guys ran away from your family to join the circus?” Alice wrote grinning.
We thought, at first, that we should head north to Boudicca, that maybe that city would serve us well as a home base since it’s the capital city of Maidu and has some of the biggest ley line nexi and traveling mirrors in the province. We were only a day’s flight away when we realized the circus was actually perfect for our needs and that we needed to go back to their winter quarters in Kumeyaay.
“Remind me again,” Alice wrote. “Maidu Province is basically California and Baja California rolled into one, right?”
And since you live in California, you can imagine how annoying that was. We’re talking about a distance roughly equivalent to your miles between Sacramento and San Diego. That’s a long way for a raven and an owl to wing it—twice!
“I can,” Alice wrote, thinking how long her commute was from her home in Nevada City to Joseph’s headquarters in Sacramento and how glad she was she didn’t have to fly it every day.
No, thank you!
“So, you went back to Kumeyaay to join the circus…” Alice prompted Danny, eager for the rest of the story.
But, of course, we couldn’t go as ourselves, since we were officially dead, right?
So, this next story starts with figuring out an appropriate disguise…