Chapter 8: The EPA Chase
No, the night was not through. No, oh dear no – the night was not through at all! Dear me, I was quite mistaken about its having been through! But no doubt you, dear reader, were at least somewhat aware that the night was not going to end there, with everybody comfortably a-bed, (except of course, Johnnie, Sam and Pumpkin, who were outside standing in the cold), – at least, you would never have supposed so if you had pursued a more steady course of novel-reading.
Pumpkin wished it would end, certainly; as a matter of fact, he wished the whole evening away several times throughout the course of the night; and began bandying nonsense about severe colds and numb extremities and sudden amputations to such an extent that Johnnie and Sam had more than once to grind their teeth and keep their tempers from lashing out into more stirring expressions.
And dear me! I was not only wrong about the night having ended, but about Rosy’s ever having ever gone to sleep, and about there being no further stir below.
You see, I got my impressions from Rosy herself, who was laboring under all these delusions, (except of course, the delusion of her being asleep, which deception was practiced for the benefit of Daniella alone) and she was quite convinced, for the greater part of the night, that nothing of interest was going forward anywhere, except in her own little brain; and she had just begun to conclude that she might as well fall asleep if she could, when she heard a door open below, and an unfamiliar voice say softly, “AV?”
“I’m not at home,” said a drowsy voice, which Rosy recognized as coming from under a cocked hat.
“No, I perceive not, and shall take the liberty of coming in,” said the new voice, in a firmer but still cautious tone. “Why, what a dirty little mat you have! I hate coming in this way, on my head!” he added, discontentedly, as he tumbled down from the spinning door.
“There was a mouse crawling all over the mat earlier,” said the cocked hat. “That’s why it’s dirty I suppose.”
“What’d you do with the mouse?” asked the voice, getting right at last and beginning to scrape its feet. Only, it was no longer just a voice, but a whole person; for Rosy had scrambled carefully down the spear-railed stairwell, and had stopped just where she could see everything, of course. (It seemed that AV had disabled whatever it was that erupted if you walked too slowly across from the arch with the battleaxe hanging over it to the stairwell, for nothing went off, and Rosy made the journey in safety.)
“Put it a-bed,” said the cocked hat again.
There was some silence after this; the stranger appeared to be trying to take AV’s last sentence in, and to be wondering if he was perhaps, entirely in full possession of his senses, and the cocked hat seemed to be pouring a vast amount of coffee out the window, on top of the cat’s head.
During this silence Rosy had time to examine the stranger more at leisure (after having assured herself that it was indeed AV who had been speaking with him here-to-fore) and she suddenly perceived that it was no other than an Executive Protection Agent, in full garb. He was standing on the hearth rug now, looking at AV, who, having finished pouring the last of his coffee out of the window on top of the cat’s head, was sitting with his chin on his hands, and of course, his cocked hat a little uncocked (from having been slept on), and his face, very much longer than Rosy remembered it ever having been before.
But he brightened up presently, and shook hands with the EPA, and offered him a seat – “But not that seat,” he added hastily, as the EPA began to seat himself. “There’s an internal calorimeter embedded within the priming,” he explained, gazing at the seat with a faint expression of horror which faded gradually, as the EPA hastily unseated himself and removed farther away from it at his recommendation and took a seat several miles off with a disquieted look at his host as if in greater doubt then ever of his being quite awake.
“I got your message,” continued AV, crushing his hat in his hands as he did so into the shape of a wide-awake and putting it on his head again. “It was not appealing to a man of my temperament. You still don’t know where he is, I suppose? Do you know, my mind is a little dull – a little deadened by the events of the past few nights right now. Would you mind repeating the main occurrences of this horrendous catastrophe? I don’t mean the occurrences themselves of course, but the telling of them – I am quite bewildered by all that has happened – phased. Did he really go mad? He was a jolly sight too good for that.”
The EPA nodded sadly. “Mr. Semmes did go mad, I am afraid – and quite suddenly too. Went off like a shot, one might say. Well, sir, I shall comply with your request. Here are the main facts as I have them: Number one, it happened the evening I was on duty; he had had a perfectly good day, until evening, when something in the atmosphere seemed to change. He became quite nervous, suddenly; and though I admit, there had been a security issue, it was comparatively small and I had not thought it would disquiet Mr. Semmes the way it did. Anyway, we were planning to walk home, when he expressed a desire to go visit the second commandant of the Public Communications department. They were I believe, friends, in their unprofessional lives at any rate. Well I told him it was perfectly safe, and so it was; and I distinctly remember bumping into somebody on the way to the Yellow House; and Mr. Semmes was certainly in full possession of his faculties then. Number two, we arrived at the Yellow House without further ado. Presently, after the – well, after a disturbance,” he continued with an enigmatic smile, which blanched suddenly as he went on, “Mr. Semmes ran straight into the wall, much harder than I would have thought anybody capable of doing. When he next regained consciousness, he was feverish, and in short, as you know, mad. Quite mad. As mad as the mad hatter ever was when he first proposed to my – well, nevermind.”
AV looked at him in sudden doubt of his ears, but the EPA went on without taking notice. “Next occurrence, number Three. He was medically proven mad shortly after.”
(“After what?” asked Rosy in an agonized whisper. “After being knocked out!” shouted Daniella, startling everybody very much.)
“What was that noise?” asked the EPA, in astonishment. “Oh – Your daughter talks in her sleep? Ah, of course, to be sure. Shouts in her sleep. Of course. Well, as I was saying, my shift had not yet ended when two officials whom I did not recognize showed me WAS credentials and asked to see Mr. Semmes. They removed him, with my consent, having fully proved their credentials to be authentic – and I thought most likely that you were behind the move. I fear I acted unwisely, but indeed I had no choice, and little fear then, for I suspected nothing. Due to the unusual stress of the last few hours I was released from my shift shortly after and sent home. I have been there ever since, until I got your summons, sir.” The EPA paused here, and watched the fire feelingly.
“Very well,” said AV in a dull, almost uninterested voice. “I’ve got it all now. Finished the collection of my brains, so to speak, and I heartily thank you for your help in this uncanny process. I’ll show you out myself.”
He led the way out of the room, and they passed so near to where Rosy was standing that she could have reached out and touched them.
AV opened the door, and was politely bowing the stranger out, (if such an expression may be used to indicate the complicated process by which the EPA was lifted onto the door, over the frame of it, and off onto the front door step on the other side) when his companion stopped and remarked, “Oh, AV, I noticed something as I was coming in – my lightbender detected the anatomical presence of three figures, but they did not appear to be moving, so I didn’t stop to see. Just thought you’d like to know,” he added briefly, as he lent uncomfortably against the door in preparation for that strange locomotive to take him outside. “Arrivederci AV. See you another time.”
AV lifted his hat to him, and watched him mount in safety; but once the door had come back around again he turned around, flung his hat all the way across the room, and ejaculated in a low thunder, “Bother!”
Rosy smiled confidentially to herself, bolted upstairs again, and snuggled into her covers.
And her last thought as she turned the corner was, “Just wait ‘til I tell Johnnie about this. Won’t it be jolly!”
* * *
Dawn was breaking into a million luminous pieces when the EPA at last emerged from the front gate of AV’s house, glancing around him in the dim morning light, as if to ascertain if there was anybody by.
There was not anybody by, as it happened; but there were some great big footsteps in the snow, leading around the gate, out of sight, which he did not fail to notice; but he followed on his intended way regardless.
No sooner had he got to the end of the street then the footprints became feet, and Sam, Pumpkin and Johnnie emerged doubtfully into view.
“Ought we to follow him?” asked Sam, looking from the EPA back to Johnnie in one swift motion and twirling his keys around in the air.
“No,” declared Pumpkin, sitting down on the snow with a defiant glower at the rising dawn. “We have no moral obligation to follow every single suspicious character we see walking down the streets. In fact, our moral obligation leads us in the opposite direction of procuring ourselves breakfast without further ado. I have a grandmother who erected a house nearby not a fortnight since. Providence is gratuitous, my fellow citizens. If we bring her a geranium she’ll cook us some eggs and bacon.”
“Think twice before looking as if you disagreed, Johnnie,” urged Sam, hungrily. “Think about the bacon.”
“Stop talking about bacon!” exclaimed Johnnie, smacking Pumpkin virtuously across the head. “I recognize the fellow’s uniform. He’s an EPA for the WAS. And you can bet your money I’ll confiscate your badge if you don’t follow him,” she added, hastily dragging Pumpkin up and tugging on Sam’s jacket.
With faint protests from the male part of the triumvirate they rushed off; but such had been their delay that upon arriving at the end of the street, they could see no traces of the EPA at all – not even so much as a flying coat tail.
“We´ll go left,” yelled Johnnie to Pumpkin, pulling Sam with her. “You go right!”
Pumpkin grunted assent, and sped down Flysters St; but at first glance it looked empty, minus the crooked lamp posts. “Foiled! Blast it,” he muttered, hoping Johnnie and Sam were more fortunate than his luckless self, without considering the lucklessness of humanity in general due to the scarcity of that commodity.
Be that as it may, Sam and Johnnie were in clover, for before many more corners – four, in fact, which Johnnie thought was a very good omen for the clover part of this sentence – had been turned they came in full view of the EPA, crossing the bottlenecked street on the point of tergiversating himself.
“Ha, that’s a dead end for our hunted deer. (And it’s what he deserves for not paying attention to the deer crossing sign),” added Johnnie in a panting parenthesis as they raced after him. “Rack up, he’ll never make it out now. – Keep running, Sam Brongst!”
“I hope it really is a dead end, Johnnie,” remarked Sam, pausing at the corner. “You’ve been wrong about these things before.”
“Me? Wrong? About dead things? Say, never a bit,” replied Johnnie, settling into a slow trot beside him and looking meditatively before her. “Just think of that time I betted on the lacerated squirrel being dead after the self-propelled vehicle went over it. I was right that time, and it was the rule, not the exception, I assure you.”
“Your veracity is not to be doubted,” conceded Sam dryly. “Just look at your dead end now, and much good it may do you,” he added, stopping short in dismay upon arriving at the very deadest part of it,
“He’s vanished,” complained Johnnie, looking around in arousing fear at the tall houses.
“Into the sky,” said a bass voice with an irreverent grin in it from above. “I’m not an EPA for nothing, Miss Devenshire.”
Johnnie looked up, and found the Executive Protection Agent standing on the pinnacle of the house at the end of the street. A second later he had slipped down the otherside, (to the immediate danger of all his limbs) and disappeared from view.
“How did he know my name?” complained Johnnie, watching him disappear in gloomy dispair. “Sam, can’t you do something?” she added, tugging on his sleeve and kicking the door in front of her with vigorous hope that it was a sort of tunel straight to the other end.
“Bon voyage,” began Sam calmly, giving a congratulatory succession of thumbs-up to the EPA as he paused to glance back at them one more time before sliding down the roof.
Once he had entirely disappeared, Johnnie glared at Sam and made him feel her gaze until he stopped thumbs-upping and turned to her.
“I thought you told me to do something. Sorry if a thumbs-up wasn’t what you thought he needed. I thought it was a nice gesture. But I’m sorry,” added Sam, in the unrepentant, virtuous voice of conscious well-doing.
Johnnie sighed. “You’d better be. You just threw away the only lead you had.” She threw her arms back suggestively in exasperation and accidentally broke a nearby window.
Sam peered into the crunched up looking house, hoping it was uninhabited.
“No I didn’t,” he denied, in sudden thought.
“Didn’t what?” demanded Johnnie, rubbing the blood off her elbow (and onto his coat, incidentally).
“I didn’t throw our only lead away.”
“What do you mean you didn’t?” returned Johnnie, coming back to reality. “He’s gone! Our lead is out the window. Is that hard to understand, Sam?” she added, putting her hands on her hips and looking disrespectfully down her nose at him, her left elbow still dripping blood.
“Why is your blood such a weird color?” asked Sam in surprise. “I’ve never seen such blue blood,” he added, sniffing superiorly. “Whatever do you do to it? Inject anti-oxygens into it every week?”
Johnnie blushed. “Nothing. I don’t do anything to it. I just eat a lot of termologien, for my health, you know. And I’m royalty, so that helps,” she added with smug satisfaction.
“That’s so weird,” inveighed Sam, binding up her elbow for her with his hanky and making a neat touquet with it.
“My point was,” he resumed, presently, “(And if I remember it correctly I did have a point, being as it were, a sharp person in general myself,) was that I didn’t throw the lead away. It climbed away of its own accord. And you got several details wrong, because it didn’t climb out the window either.”
Johnnie felt like grinning at Sam’s jumpy conclusions, but restrained herself and struck a thoughtful pose instead. “Hey, what if we go back to the Yellow House, Sam? That creep of a doctor told us we could go back in the morning, and it’s past dawn now. How about we go it jolly fast and pick up the other two on our way?”
“Go it jolly fast,” repeated Sam, slowly. “You mean -?”
“To see Seems?” added Sam, the puzzled look leaving his face.
“Mmmmmmmhmmmmm,” repeated Johnnie with maddening maladroitness.
“So you were wrong again,” began Sam, with a smile, tossing a cookie into the air and catching it in his mouth. “We had two leads after all.” He swallowed the cookie whole and choked on it.
Johnnie patted him on the back. “I just wanted to make you feel bad,” she said, enjoying her triumph with blissful unconsciousness as Sam contorted his face and bent over in a painful fit of cookie-induced coughing. “I knew there was no way we’d catch that EPA.”
Once again we behold Johnnie Devonshire and Samuel Brongst presenting themselves before the doorstep of the Yellow House, pulling politely – on Sam’s part – at the doorbell, and pounding vehemently – on Johnnie’s part – on the door; while the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, until the world was in a blaze of midsummer sunshine and a sudden dewy morning glaze of light flooded the inhabitants of the sleepy world outside.
Johnnie’s knuckles were turning purpler and purpler during that dewy glaze of light business, and Sam’s hand had become so mechanical in it’s function of pulling the doorbell cord that when they received an answer at last, it cost him an effort to pull it away – but with Johnnie’s help, he managed to get it off with one final uncontrollable jerk of the doorbell that broke the string, right under the eyes of the man who had just opened the door.
“Hello?” asked the man, inquiringly. “Is there a problem with my doorbell, gentlemen? – And girl?” he added, seeing Johnnie for the first time.
“No, it’s a perfectly ritzy doorbell,” began Johnnie, pleased at his address, “and you’re a perfectly elegant fellow. I was wondering, could you let me and Mr. Brongst in to see a Mr. Seemes, second floor on the right?”
“Oh, Tony’s just gone out. That is… well, as I’m sure you know – he had a mental breakdown, so of course he didn’t exactly go out, the way we would, in our boots and all – figuratively speaking. But he left with a companion in charge of him, a little before dawn.”
“Was the Doctor of Moddletown with them, by any chance?” inquired Johnnie, jabbing her elbow with great presence of mind into Sam’s ribs to keep him quiet.
“I… don’t believe Moddletown is a place,” replied the man doubtfully, raising a dry eyebrow at her that shadowed twinkling eyes. “But no, he wasn’t.”
“Alright, Johnnie,” began Sam in an undertone to Johnnie, tugging her away. “It’s in your face now. Seemes is taken. We can’t do anything about it except cry. Thank you for help, sir,” he added in a louder voice, turning with congenial admiration to the man, who still stood stolidly in the doorway of the Yellow House. “You’ve been most helpful, and we’re most obliged. If you ever want work as a footman, I’d be willing to engage you as soon as I have an establishment. You’d make an excellent doorkeeper, too, and if I have any grounds you’ll be the first one in line to feed the deer and the… the um…”
“Sam, you’re getting distracted,” hissed Johnnie, trying to pull him away in a sudden fever of impatience.
“Also, you’d be in good company, for besides myself-” Sam was continuing, but here Johnnie cut him off abruptly and well-nigh body slammed him across the street and out of earshot.
“Whatever do you mean by interrupting a conversation like that?” exploded Sam, when the man had turned around and closed the door behind him. “I was in the middle of an important business deal, Johnnie! Really, I’m astonished at you.” He looked astonished at her; most virtuously so, if astonishment can be said to be one of seven virtues.
“Oh, good night, we just lost our second lead and you’re worried about how many servants you’ll have in your mythical mansion?” returned Johnnie, carefully steering him in the direction of AV’s house. “Where do you suppose Rosy and Pumpkin are?” she added in a preoccupied voice a second later, unkindly ignoring Sam, who was saying, “Yes, I do. It’s a very important subject.”
Sam’s voice faded suddenly – so suddenly that Johnnie forced herself to follow his gaze.
It lay unbroken on the first floor window of AV’s house, which framed Pumpkin’s placid face as he cleaned it, wiping it down from the inside.
Continue to Chapter 9
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