The briefcase closed slowly, the pages inside crinkling and crackling like a winter fire, peeping out of their cage like they wanted to let the world know what the dark, threatening black ink on their pages said.
A hand pushed them gingerly back in, touching them as little as possible, as if it knew that with only a spark they could set the world on fire.
Mr. Semmes paused, his hand still on the briefcase, and stood looking absentmindedly at the bitten cookie on the refreshment plate that lay on the paper and dust crowded desk.
He closed his eyes and thought for a moment.
Was it really that easy to get away with such colossal crime?
How is it that in less than the space of time it takes to finish a good old fashioned homemade cookie, everything can change?
Mr. Semmes found a back exit out of the WAS building, pulled his coat closer, and borrowed a light bender from his Executive Protection Agent, who said in reply to a startled question from Mr. Semmes, “I sent it home an hour ago, sir. My Winton blur detected a DGR device on it. Evidence points to the substitute limousine never making it. You have our apologies, sir. A walk seems quite safe, though it will be a long one, sir.”
Mr. Semmes felt all in a moment that it was too awful to live like this.
“We’ll walk to the yellow house on 24th St. then,” he remarked, in a depressed voice. “It’s only a few blocks away. Unfrequented streets too, is it good?”
The EPA nodded.
A few days ago, Mr. Semmes would have wound his way along the streets carelessly; would have never glanced backwards; would have never asked his Executive Protection Agent to pace up a bit; would have never been afraid of the dark.
Tonight, the very air had subtly changed; he knew he was being followed, somehow, someway, he knew harm was coming fast, and swift, and sure, and would find him at last.
They had not been walking very long, when Mr. Semmes felt something run against him with surprising violence, and jump back startled.
Collaring whatever it was, he heard a struggling girl’s voice say, “I haven’t done anything, put me down! Let me go or I’ll extinguish you immediately!”
“What in thunder are you doing out,” growled Mr. Semmes, setting her down on her feet at once, and holding on to her by her hair. “You look like a respectable little girl, child, stay that way and get home! And I’m not afraid of being extinguished by you,” he added dryly.
“You’re ruining my ponytail!” exploded the other angrily, stepping on his foot. “And my name is Johnnie and I’m going to do whatever I jolly well feel like doing no matter what time it is!”
Johnnie ran off after saying so, and after loudly crashing into the Executive Protection Agent, (who, after having assured himself in the first few seconds of the encounter that Johnnie posed no threat to Semmes, had waited for him to move on) continued down the street, carelessly whistling an annoying tune.
She continued to whistle, until the end of the street, when she suddenly turned around, and looked back at them.
Johnnie smiled to herself and exclaimed, “Glory!” because, as she soliloquized presently to herself, “I smell an adventure – that fellow behind looked jolly well like a bodyguard! And I have nothing particular to do at the moment, have I? I declare, I’m going to follow them.”
She followed them with considerable more dexterity than you expect she did, dear reader; because the fact is you had no clue until just now that this is the sort of thing she did for a living.
Only normally, people hired her; but, as she said to herself, one needs practice anyhow.
But this adventure ended, for the moment, rather flatly, as Johnnie had to admit dolefully to herself; for they had not gone more than two blocks when Mr. Semmes crossed the street, turned into a short path, and walked straight into a double-story Yellow House.
* * *
Johnnie told herself she would not wait around a second after this; which was not at all true, because, for the first thing, she was gathering her hair up into a ponytail the very moment she told herself so, and besides, she had just caught the noise of a man coming down the street Mr. Semmes and the EPA had crossed, though the light was rather too dim for her to see him very clearly yet, and she knew subconsciously that she was going to stick around long enough to figure out what HE had to do with it, anyway.
After all, he was most probably the murderer, or the missing will, or one of those things you’re always bumping into in mystery books.
No way he was just an average ordinary fellow walking around in the middle of the night.
(-“And those don’t exist anyhow,” as Johnnie remarked to herself in an undertone, taking out her light bender as a precaution against bumping into him when he came around the corner.)
So Johnnie watched this happen, and as she watched it happen, this is what happened.
The man walked halfway down the street, and then halfway down the street again (which, as Johnnie remarked to herself “is what I’m going to do from now on,”) and up to the Yellow House, where, taking out a pen and paper, he jotted something down (“so old fashioned! I bet he wrote down the number of the house. Can’t he just remember it’s yellow? I’d have just snapped a picture. So much simpler. Oh wait never mind it’s dark,” amended Johnnie, in an undertone to herself) and turned back, and began to cross the street again (first one half, and then the other, of course.)
At this moment, to Johnnie’s astonishment, the door to the Yellow House opened (in books, one always has to wait all night before the fellows come out again) and two men walked out.
“Glory! This really is getting more and more like a movie every second!” exclaimed Johnnie to herself, barely able to keep still.
At first, she couldn’t at all tell whether they were her two men or not; but when they walked up to Crossing Streets, who was now on her side of the street, (thanks to his going half way down twice, of course), she was fairly sure they were not.
“Well if he is the missing will, I’d better follow him,” remarked Johnnie. “They’re always getting lost again you know, and I’d better not let this one out of sight, now that I’ve got it. Pumpkin would agree, I know. I’ve heard him say he always follows that principle when it comes to cookies,” she added to herself.
“He was?” said Crossing Streets suddenly to the two men.
It is a shame to record it, but the fact is, that not only had Johnnie been thinking so loud that we could hear her, but she had been thinking so loud that it was the first time she realized the three men she was following had been conversing together and she had not heard a word. (It was one of those unfortunate things that happened fairly frequently to her, and could easily ruin her reputation as a detective. She wouldn’t like it if she knew I had mentioned it to you.)
“I daresay I have missed it all!” said Johnnie, snapping her light bender shut with a snap, very much vexed with herself.
But, having once begun to pay attention, she did not miss a single word. (And as she would very much like me to tell you this now that I have told you the other, she had some very sterling detective qualities that more than made up for – well, we won’t mention it again.) And what she heard was this.
“For quite some time,” repeated the man on the left to Crossing Streets.
“He was quite mad, he didn’t say a single sensible word,” observed the man on the right, somehow managing to speak as if his mouth were full.
“Well, thank you for answering my inquiry. Very civil of you,” replied Crossing Streets, stopping.
They shook hands all round, Johnnie almost forgetting to hide in time, for as soon as Right and Left had continued walking on, saying, (Right to Left), “Such ex-cellent boiled potatoes!” (in a way that quite made Johnnie’s mouth water, though she hadn’t an idea of what he was talking about, or why he was eating boiled potatoes at that time of night), well, as I was saying, as soon as they had walked away, Crossing Streets did a face-about, and began to make his way towards the Yellow House once more.
“And so,” soliloquized Johnnie to herself as she followed him once more (she really began to feel quite silly, all this walking up and down the same street so many times!), “what they told him was really quite important. It sounded awfully trivial for all that. Oh bother, if only I’d heard the rest of it! Well nevermind, other chances will come, Johnnie dear,” she continued soothingly. “Only I daresay not for months. What a bother it all is! All I have to say is, if he goes into the house, I am going too, and that’s all there is to it!” Johnnie set this forth in a very decided tone; as if she wasn’t so much talking to herself this time as to her good angel, who was, as she very well knew, about to raise an objection.
By this time they were very near the Yellow House; but Johnnie quite forgot herself as she crossed the street in the new and novel fashion, so she turned around and did it again, it was so very exciting; and she was sure, after a third time, that she was getting better with practice, when suddenly she looked up at the Yellow House, just in time to see the real Crossing Streets’s coat-tail disappearing through the upper window.
Johnnie watched in horror. “How ever did my dear Crossing Streets get up there in this inhuman darkness? I knew he was brave, I could tell by his voice.” And then thinking again, “There aren’t any footholds up that way, I’m positive about it! Oh well, I’d better try it myself and make sure.” Which was a rather idiosyncratic way to end her sentence, but as nobody else was listening, Johnnie didn’t mind herself, and proceeded to do it at once.
She was undoubtedly a daredevil, and if Sam had been there, he would not have allowed it; but only, Johnnie reasoned to herself as she put her foot in a very precarious place, because he wanted to do it himself.
Besides, as it turned out, there was quite a helpful little awning half-way up, but even so, Johnnie nearly fell three or so times, and it was “sheer grit” that stopped her plummeting straight to the ground. (“Which,” as Sam remarked aside to everybody else, “is sheer nonsense.” But I am not sure I agree with him.) “Grit will do any number of things for you,” remarked Johnnie to herself, as she tumbled quietly through the window, thankful to her stars it was open, but devoutly hoping Crossing Streets was no longer in evidence there.
He was not.
Johnnie didn’t quite know what to do now; it was dark up here; and as the stair-well was not lighted, she ventured to take a few steps towards it.
It relieved her very much when the boards under her feet did not creak, though it was only for the practical reason that they were not boards at all, but some sort of velvety carpet.
Johnnie smiled to herself. “I always told people it isn’t safe to put carpets down on second stories, but nobody listens to me, and look what’s happened to these fellows! Fancy having your house broken into twice in one night.”
Johnnie peeked rather unprofessionally over the handrails.
It was a well lit room that she was peering down into, and it suddenly became evident that Crossing Streets had just crept down the stairs rather unprofessionally himself.
Johnnie strained every nerve and muscle to hear and see what was going on.
A door opened from somewhere and Mr. Semmes and the EPA walked in most unexpectedly; but Mr. Semmes was looking quite another way and didn’t notice the stranger.
I feel this to be an odd thing, and so did Johnnie when it once became evident, but you will see as you progress in this story, (like we have) why after all, it was not strange for the circumstances at all.
The EPA looked tense, and Johnnie saw him make a questioning sign to Crossing Streets. It appeared that Crossing Streets showed him something concealed under his coat, though Johnnie couldn’t tell what it was (not even when Pumpkin insisted on her telling) but the EPA was quite satisfied; and it was immediately after that that something frightfully unexpected happened.
Johnnie never could make anyone believe it afterwards; but the minute Mr. Semmes turned his head and saw Crossing Streets, he turned half-way around to where there was nothing but a blank space of wall with a picture on it, and passing his surprised Executive Protection Agent, ran slam against the wall with a loud crashing sound that petrified all the hearers to their very bones.
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