I blinked. “What?”
“You’re wanted downstairs,” the man repeated. “We’re in need of your assistance, Agent Ichabod. We need you to help us with… something.”
“What do you mean, you need my help with something? What something? Why do you need my help?” My voice was growing slowly louder, as though I was a radio and someone had gotten their hand on the volume knob.
He looked around nervously. “Please, Agent Ichabod, keep your voice down.”
“Why?” I snorted, for some reason angry that one of Them would show anything resembling fear. “Everyone is outside training.”
“Not quite everyone,” the man said, looking over my shoulder. I turned around. Edgar’s head was poking out of the sick-room door, frowning. “Ida, you ought to be quieter than that, there are sleeping people in this room,” he called.
I wanted to say something along the lines of “look who’s talking”, but before I could get the words out Edgar was walking towards us, tucking his book under his arm and saying something in greeting to the man from the basement. I couldn’t quite make out what he said — my ears had started ringing again.
Edgar knew Them. Edgar had been down to the basement. Edgar was a part of Them, maybe even was one of Them… But no, I was being silly. Hadn’t Rick said that it was highly likely that Edgar had been to the basement before? My head ached, and suddenly everything was tinged with blue and my tongue felt fuzzy. I felt myself sway and grabbed onto Edgar’s shoulder. “Ida!” he cried, gripping my arms. “No more fainting spells, please.”
I swallowed hard and blinked rapidly — gradually, everything came back into focus. “Yeah, of c-course… sorry.”
The man held out his hand, thought better of it, shoved it back into the pocket of his lab-coat, and smiled sheepishly at me. “We understand, Agent Ichabod.”
I stared hard at him. “No. You don’t.” Truth be told, neither did I. Edgar opened his mouth, his expression reproachful, but I pulled away and plowed on. “What do you want?” I demanded.
“I told you. You’re wanted downstairs.”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, you’ll find out if you come, won’t you?”
I shuffled my feet a bit, carefully examining the pattern on the tile. “Um… Is it, you know, alright if… Is it alright if… um… if Edgar comes too?” I bit my lip, feeling my cheeks get warm. Why was I being such a baby?
“Of course,” the man replied. Edgar, probably guessing what I was thinking, looked away from me very pointedly. I stared just as hard at a group of dots on the tile that were arranged in the shape of an alligator’s head. “If you’ll just quiet down,” he continued, “You can follow me.”
Still trying very hard not to make eye contact with either of them, I followed Edgar and the man through the basement door (“Authorized Personnel Only”, the sign said) and down the long, dark, cold stairway, which felt rather like being swallowed whole. I shivered and shoved my hands deeper into my pockets.
The staircase seemed to go on forever, taking us deeper and deeper underground. Twenty feet above me, I thought, Lucy and Officer Stein are training. And I can’t hear them. I can’t see anything, either. My grunt of irritation as I tripped over a metal something resting on one of the steps — a wrench, perhaps — echoed around my head. I jumped, extremely grateful that Edgar could see me no more than I could see him.
“Hold it,” said the man suddenly, throwing out his arm to catch me. “We’re at the bottom.”
I carefully pulled my foot back. “Oh.” Edgar chuckled.
I could hear the sound of skin sliding across stone. “Hang on –” he grunted, “The door’s here somewhere, it always takes a bit to find –”
“Why don’t you just put a light down here?” I asked. “It’s not like the dark is hiding anything, everybody knows you’re here.”
“Well,” he replied, “People are less likely to come down here if it’s dark, right? Light,” he said, “Is attractive. Aha, here we are.” There was a click, followed by a series of bangs that sounded like the turning of an enormous lock, and then with a burst of sterilized white light, the door swung open to reveal the strangest room I’d ever laid eyes on.
Which was saying something. I kill monsters in the bedrooms of children.
The room was green. Cold, glaring, blindingly neon green. I blinked furiously, shading my eyes with my hand, squinting and wondering why on earth anyone would paint a room neon green. Then I saw that the room hadn’t been painted at all — the strange color came from enormous glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that were emitting the green glow. Wait…
“Chandeliers?!” I hissed to Edgar.
He nodded. “Apparently they have some unknown use. Or else the director is just secretly flamboyant, which I doubt.”
I watched as the light slowly changed from neon green to burnt orange. “Why do they change color like that?”
“Oh, the monsters like it. It’s like a drug.”
“So they just give the monsters whatever the heck they want?” I spat, glaring at the man, who was walking again. I didn’t bother to follow him.
“No, I said the monsters like it, not that they want it,” he replied, irritated, as always, at my incorrectness. “The light effects them like a drug, puts them into a near-permanent state of lethargy. They fight it — until you turn it on, and then they can’t. It’s like they’re under hypnosis.”
I scowled at him. “No need to talk to me if you’re going to talk to me like I’m three.”
“I was correcting you. You always jump to conclusions.”
I didn’t answer him, but turned away and looked pointedly over my shoulder at the door.
“You can’t go back until They give you permission.”
Again, I made no reply. There was a silence, during which I heard Edgar shuffle his feet anxiously and clear his throat numerous times, and the man’s footsteps as he continued to retreat towards the other end of the room.
“Looks awfully foolish, doesn’t he?” Edgar finally whispered.
“Everyone looks foolish compared to you,” I snapped, quickly moving to follow the strange man down the room. I wanted to see if Edgar was following, but I didn’t look back. Stupid mission leaders.
As I walked, I braved glancing at the walls on my left and right, though I kept my head trained forward. There seemed to be holes in the wall — fifty or so on each side — deep, black holes, each of about a five-foot radius, with bars over them. I thought at first that they were windows. Why on earth would they have windows underground, I wondered. Then I realized, as a long, spiny tail which had draped itself between one of the bars twitched and began to retreat into the hole again, that these were not windows. They were, in fact, cages.
The tail stopped moving, still have in the open. It twitched again. I flinched.
Why was this room so long?
I rushed to catch up with the man again. He’d put his gas mask back on; as I reached him, I felt the blood rush from my face and I swayed. Behind me, I heard Edgar’s pace quicken. Determined not to lose consciousness again, I forced myself to stand still and look just to the left of the mask. My palms felt clammy. I quickly buried them in my pockets again. “What is this place?”
We’d reached the end of the room. Here, I saw, was another door, as thick and heavy as the first, but painted the same color as the walls so that it would blend in with the lights. There was no door-handle. “The storage room,” he replied.
“And this?” I nodded to the door.
“It’s, well…” He glanced at Edgar, who had now caught up. I could almost hear my mission leader shrug. “You tell me.”
He placed his palm on the door, and it swung inward, taking the three of us with it. With an abrupt burst of noise and bright lights, I found myself standing in what was undoubtably —
“An ice cream parlour?!” I gasped.
“Well… kind of,” said the man. “Really, it’s headquarters. But the Director… he’s what you might call an eccentric.”
“Mr Pan?” The head of the PPAA was a little odd, and his inexplicable need to give his daughter whatever the heck she wanted was certainly not normal; but he eccentric wasn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe him.
“No. Mr Dodge.”
“Did SOMEbody say my name?”
I blinked. Strutting towards us from across the ice cream parlour was the strangest person I’d ever laid eyes on. I have laid eyes on persons of considerable strangeness, but in the case of this person — apparently Mr Dodge, Their director — eccentric didn’t seem to cover it. He was tall — his head brushed the ceiling as he walked — and he was the skinniest person I’d ever seen. His clothing (boy, did he ever have on a lot of clothing) hung from his bony frame like curtains, pooling around his feet as he walked in great swathes of thick, velvety fabric. He was as bald as an eagle on his head, but from his chin and upper lip hung a thick, curly beard of the deepest black that ended just below his ribs. His eyes were hidden by equally thick, curly black brows that stuck out about an inch from his face. His nose was shockingly small, ending in a round snout the shape of a mushroom just above his moustache. His clothes were deep emerald, velvet, and far too big for him, and seemed to be mostly comprised of a pair of pants underneath a robe that tied at his waist and had an enormous fur collar surrounding his neck. He also had on mounds and mounds of jewelry: pearls, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, odd little stones that glittered when he moved… He was strange, alright. Very strange. But I liked him immediately. Aside from enormous eyebrows, his eyes were also surrounded by laugh lines, and the eyes themselves were a deep, deep emerald, the same color as his robe, and even more velvety. I knew right off that as long as this man was in charge, I was safe down here.
“Yes, sir,” said the man in the mask. “I did. I was explaining the main room of headquarters –”
“What’s to explain?” boomed Mr Dodge. “It’s clearly an ice cream parlour.”
“Yes, sir, but I was trying to explain why.”
“Why?!” Mr Dodge roared. “Why?! Because I like ice cream, that’s why!” Abruptly, he turned and looked at me, a long, bony finger pointed directly at my nose. “Would you like some?”
“Some… um…” I was rather taken aback by this strange man’s stranger manner, but I tried not to show it. “Some ice cream? Uh… yes, please.”
“Excellent!” he cried, whipping around in a flurry of emerald velvet and stepping behind the ice cream counter. “What flavour would you like?”
I stared at the menu that was hanging on the wall behind the counter. “Um… homemade vanilla?”
“NONSENSE, girl!” he boomed. “Vanilla? POO. You want –” Then he froze and looked me square in the eye. For a split-second, I felt as though I’d been stripped bare in front of this man, right down to my bones, and he was looking inside of me… “You want red velvet cake. With white sprinkles.”
That sounded a little rich for my taste. “Why white sprinkles?” I asked him.
“For fun,” he said simply, and quick as a flash he’d scooped both the deep scarlet ice cream and the sprinkles into an enormous waffle cone and was holding it over the counter inches from my face. I reached up and took it, giving it a tentative lick as I took a step back. “That’s it!” he roared approvingly. It tasted very good.
I sat at one of the spotlessly white tables while Edgar asked for mint-chocolate-chip and was instead given triple-chocolate-chunk with crimson and purple sprinkles, licked my own ice cream, and thought. I thought about apologizing to Edgar. I thought about getting up and running as fast as I could back to the crop circle and pretending that none of this had ever happened. I thought about Mr Dodge and his velvety emerald eyes. I thought about how good this ice cream tasted. I thought about the monster tail I’d seen hanging out of the cage back in the storage room. Mostly, though, I wondered. Why the heck was I down here?
By the time I’d worked my way from utter confusion to flat-out bewilderment, Mr Dodge had forced a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the man in the mask and scooped himself a triple-scoop mix of lime sherbet, white chocolate, and red velvet with a mountain of sprinkles of every color imaginable somehow balanced on top. The three of them made their way over to me, all licking their ice cream, and sat down at my table. Watching Mr Dodge eat his ice cream fascinated me. The man in the mask, Edgar and I were all struggling to keep our ice cream from dribbling out of the cones and onto our wrists, but not a sprinkle fell onto Mr Dodge, despite his magnificent beard.
When I’d finished, I glanced nervously at Edgar. He was still busy trying to lap up the slowly melting drops of triple-chocolate-chunk, but he caught my look and nodded at me. I bit my lip and looked back at the eccentric director. “Uh… Mr Dodge, we haven’t been introduced. I’m –”
“Ida Michelle Ichabod. Fifteen years old. Been one of our best agents for nine years. Specialize in automobile driving, laser blasters, and disguises. In the running for mission leader as well as a considered candidate for Officer.” I blinked and opened my mouth, but he continued. “You’ve been an agent since you were six years old, and were, if I recall correctly, one of a very few hand-picked by myself and my men.”
I stared at him, my mouth still hanging open. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then Edgar leaned over, cleared his throat, and said quietly, “Mr Dodge keeps tabs on all the agents, Ida.”
“Of course I do!” boomed Mr Dodge.
“I…” I tried to think of something, anything, to say. “I didn’t know I was a candidate for Officer.”
“You’re not. Officially, anyway. You’re a considered candidate.”
“Oh.” Another pause. “Um… Mr Dodge… I was just — well, I was wondering…”
“You were wondering why you’re here.”
I nodded gratefully. “Yeah. Yes, sir, I mean.”
“Because I wanted to show you something.” Suddenly his green eyes sparkled, like a kid who’s just realized that there’s two days left till Christmas. “C’mere.”
Edgar, the man in the mask, and I followed the mountain of emerald velvet back into the storage room, which was now a jarring shade of neon yellow. Mr Dodge lead us over to one of the cages in the wall. There was no tail in this one, though. In fact, as far as I could tell, there was absolutely nothing in this cage.
“Look!” said Mr Dodge excitedly, pointing another bony finger (this one heavily ringed) at the cage.
I did so. There was still nothing. “What exactly are we supposed to be looking at, Mr Dodge?”
“Exactly what I thought you’d say!” he roared, giving me an approving look. “There’s nothing to look at! Nothing! Until…” Now he tapped one finger on a cage bar.
I watched as a set of all-too-familiar silver talons slid from nowhere in the darkness. And I remembered Rick, saying he’d been pulled down here because he’d captured a new breed of monster — a nameless, faceless monster — and suddenly everything clicked.
“I’m here because of this,” I said. “I’m here because I found something that only one other person has found. I didn’t just find it, I shot it, I bagged it.”
“Not just that,” said Mr Dodge, suddenly quiet as he turned towards me and leaned down, till his mushroom-shaped nose was less than an inch away from my own. “You’re here because we need you. You’re here because we think there are more.
“You’re here because we think the PPAA has been infiltrated.”