Hot Tea and a Drone

The opening night reception at AliceCon was bathed in normalcy, as normal as an audience of Lewis Carroll disciples could be. Acolytes dressed as hatters, hares, hedgehogs, and other Carrollian characters convened in the cavernous ballroom like a belfry of bats. Near the stage, the Queen of Hearts held court, serenaded by a three-piece band and a tipsy walrus warbling “Jabberwocky” to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” After the last wimoweh, the walrus pointed at the Queen and wailed “off with their heads.” He then flippered over, spilling his hot buttered rum.

As the band announced a break, the Queen, a.k.a. Charlotte Litchfield, discreetly checked her costume for rum spatters. She was interrupted by baritones barking in unison.

“How d’ye do?” they said.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee––George and Harold Smith­­––posed arm in arm before her. In typical Tweedle fashion, they held out their free hands so that, as she grabbed both hands at once, they twirled around in a circle: a wisp of a woman whirled between ponderous ovoids.

“So pleased to see you both,” the Queen said when they halted. “It couldn’t possibly be AliceCon without you.”

“Contrariwise,” said Dee with a smirk. “It would be AliceCon, but oh, so dreadfully pedestrian, my Queen.”

“True,” she replied. After three decades of attending AliceCon, the Tweedles had the lock step walks and Carrollian lingo down, as did no others.

Dum leaned in confidentially and the Queen bent down so she could hear him over the background babble.

“Are the rumors true?” he said. “That Jake-ass is writing a bastardized Alice TV show?”

“I am afraid so,” she replied.

“Damnation!” Dum said. “How in heaven can we stop him?”

The Queen adjusted her crown. “I don’t think we can; the best we can hope for is that his TV series, no matter how appalling, reinvigorates interest in Carroll’s works.”

“Nohow,” Dum said. “Not if he’s really turning Alice into a caped crusader.”

“Which has been drearily done,” said Dee. “Psst.” Dee touched Dum on the arm and gesticulated toward an approaching character. Jet-black hair, pointed sideburns, and a black satin cape featuring a scarlet lining identified him as a Hatter (or an Elvis impersonator who’d fallen through the wrong rabbit hole).

Dum’s scowl matched Dee’s and, placing an arm around each other’s neck, the Tweedles trundled off.

“Fat boys bitching that I should be booted out of Wonderland?” Jake-the-Hatter said, sneering at the retreating figures. Without waiting for the Queen’s response, he monologued how he’d been pumped for information about his TV series ever since he’d entered the room. “Some cursing caterpillar just took a swing at me.”

“Which of his dozen or so legs did he use?” she mumbled.

“What did you say?”

“All these years with AliceCon, Jake, and you still don’t understand that long-time Carrollians like the Tweedles don’t like change.”

“That’s why they’re Cheshire chumps, smiling in the face of their own extinction,” Jake replied. “I’m all that stands between Lewis Carroll and obscurity. Look,” he said, waving his hand at the sparse crowd. “Two hundred and ten signed up this year. Four years ago we had double that. If we don’t attract new blood, AliceCon will go the way of the Dodo.”

“There are three dodos in attendance, and I’m well aware of the problem, Jake,” the Queen said.

“Don’t get huffy, your highness. We each have the same objective: put AliceCon back on the A-list.”

“And if you make a tidy profit?”

“What do you care, if it revives the patient?”

“Alice as a martial arts expert? The Tweedles bosses of a crime syndicate? What next, the White Rabbit as an assassin using watch-bombs? ‘I’m late––no, you’re late!’”

“Great idea, Queenie. Mind if I steal it?”

With strident chords on the lead guitar, the band resumed their performance, their booming base drowning out conversation. Jake wandered away to escape the noise while the Queen reclaimed her throne and observed the crowd.

The next morning, AliceCon was abuzz: figuratively with speculation surrounding the TV series, and literally as a small drone flew overhead shooting videos.

The Queen of Hearts flitted hither and thither to ensure breakouts and workshops operated on schedule and the hotel’s catering staff delivered each “Eat Me” cake specified in the contract. The normally buoyant Tweedles wandered long-faced through the vendor showcase, their tetchiness apparent at each mention of Jake’s TV series, whereupon their scowls would deepen identically.

Shortly after lunch, the Queen proclaimed to the Tweedles that she was retiring to her room to nurse a migraine.

Dum noted she’d miss the Mad Tea Party and Jake’s spiel. Dee responded that spiel skipping was a capital idea, and he was of a mind to crash the croquet game.

Thus, the Tea Party began without the Queen of Hearts or the Tweedles. After most of the attendees had helped themselves to snacks, filled their cups with tea, and found seats, Jake took the podium. As was his custom, he applauded new attendees, sucked up to sponsors, and reviewed recent Lewis Carroll research, speaking over the rattle of teacups and murmur of multiple conversations.

When Jake began to speak of “our bright future,” the room hushed and the audience hung upon his every well-rehearsed word.

“It is imperative that we make Lewis Carroll relevant to new generations. Thus, I am exceedingly pleased to announce that I am producing a radical reboot of Carroll’s most famous work, a TV series to be entitled Alisha’s New Adventures.” A rendering of a tall and shapely young woman with long, blond hair flashed on a large screen. Attired in gold tights, a black, low-cut leotard, and a leather jacket, she had a death grip on a ray gun. A smattering of polite applause was almost immediately masked by multiple murmurs.

Jake, with a triumphant smirk, launched into a synopsis of the series. As TV characters flashed on the screen, a drone entered the ballroom and hummed toward the stage. Jake ceased speaking in mid-sentence and watched the machine approach, halt, and hover five feet over his head. Suspended beneath the quadcopter was a neon orange teapot.

Momentarily taking his eyes off the drone, Jake leaned into the microphone. Before he could utter a word, the drone dropped the teapot, which struck Jake’s shoulder, bounced off and smashed onto the stage. The audience gasped.

Jake staggered from the impact, his top hat falling off. He swore loudly and grabbed his shoulder.

The drone abruptly descended and dove at Jake’s head. He lurched backward and the drone retreated momentarily before charging again. Jake squatted suddenly, the whirling blades passing overhead. Sporadic clapping could be heard from members of the audience who thought they were viewing a publicity stunt for Alisha.

The drone circled around him as Jake spun on his toes, his black and scarlet cape swirling as he moved. At times, the quadcopter would feign an attack, and Jake would dart from side to side in frantic evasion. A rapt audience followed each step of the menacing mambo and Humpty Dumpty shouted “Olé!”

One last time the drone flew straight at Jake, who roared and lunged at the charging dervish. As he reached for the drone, Jake slipped on a tea-soaked lemon, his arms windmilling to regain balance before he crashed to the floor. The drone, its rotors still whirring, paused for but a moment before descending towards Jake’s head.

Hysterical screams pierced the ballroom. Sundry beasts of fur and fin charged the stage. A few used their phones to call 911 … and a White Knight snapped a selfie with the stiff.

Barely heard in the din of dismay, one of the mock turtles intoned: “Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

#

Lieutenant Maria Sanchez swept the stray lock of black hair off of her forehead and behind her ear as she consulted her notes. “You’re the event organizer?”

“For the past dozen years,” Charlotte Litchfield replied.

Sanchez eyeballed the crown and red robe. “Red Queen?”

“Queen of Hearts. We’re often confused. Walt Disney blended the Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. I’m the passionate playing card, she’s the cold chess piece.”

“Uh-huh. Fascinating.” Sanchez pulled a small red stress ball out of her pocket and began rolling it around in her right hand. Strange that so many of these people felt compelled to explain their characters in chapter and verse. Literally. Except for an elderly dodo claiming she couldn’t tell the police anything useful because, well, she was The Dodo.

“Jake Cappello,” Sanchez said. “Why the Mad Hatter?”

“Just ‘Hatter.’ Lewis Carroll never called him the Mad Hatter. I don’t know why Jake chose that character. Perhaps because Cappello means ‘hat’ in Italian, or maybe he just liked dreaming up crazy ideas. He did marketing and promotion for AliceCon.”

“I understand he recently ruffled a few feathers,” Sanchez said.

The Queen’s account––it was hard for Sanchez to think of her otherwise while she was in costume––agreed with what Sanchez had heard, including the near-universal animosity to Cappello’s TV series. The Queen also confirmed that having a drone take photos and shorts had been Cappello’s well-publicized idea.

“Are you aware that the drone that killed Mr. Cappello was not the one taking the videos?”

“Wasn’t it?” The Queen reached up to adjust her crown.

“But of course, you didn’t see it. You weren’t at the tea,” Sanchez said.

“I felt a migraine coming on, so I was in my room napping. Next thing I knew, a policeman and Tweedledum––George Smith––were pounding on my door.”

Sanchez pushed her 5’2” figure out of the chair and began pacing, bouncing on the balls of her black-booted feet as she trod the small conference room. “Who would murder Mr. Cappello?” she said.

“Murder? A drone is an odd sort of weapon. Perhaps it was a mere prank gone awry?”

“The drone attacked Jake Cappello multiple times, then dove at his head as he lay helpless on the stage. The rotors mutilated his face before slicing through his jugular.  Is that your idea of a prank?”

The Queen gave no response.

Later that evening while reviewing photos provided by the attendees, the police discovered two that showed an unidentified rabbit outside the ballroom just before the Mad Tea Party. In one, the rabbit was checking his pocket watch; in the other, the rabbit held a small tablet with both paws that Sanchez recognized as a drone control.

Sanchez ordered all rabbits rousted from their rooms, their alibis double-checked, and costumes compared to the photo. A bestirred zoologist of the genus lepus (hare) gave Sanchez a furry earful about the differences between March Hares and White Rabbits, but was nonetheless subjected to interrogation.

The next morning, Sanchez reinterviewed several attendees including the Queen of Hearts.

“We’re fairly certain a white rabbit was the killer,” Sanchez said. “We’ve accounted for the whereabouts of everyone who admits to wearing such a costume. However, I am told that some attendees who have come for many years have multiple outfits.” Sanchez paused for a moment. “Do you know of anyone who has dressed as a rabbit in prior years?”

“No.”

“You would know, of course, given your history.”

The Queen stiffened. “Someone has told you that I’m a descendant of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—whom you know as Lewis Carroll—and that I’ve been attending since I was a child. What of it?”

Sanchez sat back in her chair and stretched, her arms and fingers reaching toward the ceiling. She held the pose for a moment, then pulled out her stress ball and worked it in her right hand.

“There are aspects of this case that could be tied to Lewis Carroll’s work,” Sanchez said. “I read up on him last night, but as you are the expert, I’d like your opinion. The drone attack: does it have any relationship to the flying creatures in his stories?”

“The Jabberwocky, Jubjub Bird, Bandersnatch and Boojam could all fly. And the Snark, of course. The precise form of the creatures Carroll left to the readers’ imaginations, or to John Tenniel’s, the illustrator. ”

“Uh-huh. What about the tea? Why was the drone carrying a teapot? Aside from the obvious fact it was a tea party.”

The Queen raised one eyebrow in a regal shrug.

“Is there any significance to the Earl Grey tea?”

“It has a lovely flavor.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Earl Grey tea dates from the 1800’s, like Carroll’s books.”

“But why carry anything if the intent was to attack Mr. Cappello with a drone?”

“I’m sure I couldn’t possibly imagine why.”

Sanchez slipped the ball back into her pocket.

“What can you tell me about Tweedledum and Tweedledee?”

“Such as?”

“They’re always fighting in Looking Glass.

“They fight each other. They don’t kill anyone.”

“The Smiths seem unusually dedicated Tweedles.”

“Those of us who espouse the Carrollian covenant research our characters thoroughly and do our best to represent them authentically.”

There was a knock on the conference door and a uniformed officer poked his head in. “George Smith is here. He insists on being addressed as, ah, ‘Mr. Dum.’”

Sanchez flashed a satisfied smile. “Bring him in. We’re done here.”

The Queen was still packing her bags when Lieutenant Sanchez arrived with a warrant. The two uniformed officers began searching the closet, drawers, the purse and the bag.

“I understand that in real life, Ms. Litchfield, you are an employee of High Flying Hobbies, a seller of drones,” Sanchez said. “Your boss tells me you are quite the experienced drone pilot.”

The Queen said nothing.

“Got something!” said the officer and drew a Victorian pocket watch on a short gold chain out of a large black purse.

“Be careful with that, it’s … quite important,” the Queen pleaded.

Lieutenant Sanchez examined the watch. Turning it over, she read aloud the initials engraved on the back: “CLD. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, I presume. George Smith recognized the rabbit’s pocket watch in the photo as one your father used to carry when he wore his rabbit costume. The clerk at a post office down the road recalls you sending a package on Friday evening. I expect you’ve sent your daddy’s costume home?”

The Queen picked up her crown from the bed and fingered the silver pinnacles.

“It can’t have been easy,” Sanchez continued, “to watch Mr. Cappello make a mockery of your famous relative.”

“It was an accident,” the Queen cried. “I just meant to douse him with hot tea and embarrass him a bit. But when Jake fell, I … I just lost my head.”

“Oh, I think not. It was the Mad Hatter who lost his head, just as the Queen of Hearts commanded.”

The Queen began to sway as Sanchez’s lips parted to reveal a smile, which grew larger and larger, until all the Queen could see was a deliciously self-satisfied grin.