Matilda Asher was crying in the break room. Rumor had it that she was quitting. Couldn’t hack it; nervous breakdown or something. A guilty thrill ran through me. I wasn’t proud of reveling in someone else’s misfortunes, but Matilda’s delicate sensibilities could mean big things for me. Opportunities like this were few and far between.
I had been driven in school – straight A’s in every subject. I was a model student. Well rounded in academics with a perfect ratio of extra curricular activities. I spent my free Sundays volunteering in the community. My resume was impeccable. Even so, my parents cashed in every favor owed to them and promised quite a few of their own. It was only enough to get me an unpaid internship at The Company. I frowned slightly. Granted, their motives were self serving – having an Agent in the family would elevate their social standing considerably.
“Dorothy! Have you heard? Looks like there’s about to be an opening upstairs!” A rumbling growl pulled me out of my introspection.
“Hey Wilbur. Do you think Agent Asher’s really resigning?” I tried not to sound too hopeful.
“That’s what they’re saying.” He looked both ways down the hallway before leaning in. He dropped into a conspiratorial whisper. “The guys in accounting told me that she threw her case file at The Director and stormed out.”
“Dorothy Keifer! My office. Now.” The voice boomed out of an open doorway making both of us jump.
“Speaking of The Director…”
Wilbur gave me thumbs up, mouthing good luck, before gliding down the hallway. I smoothed my scales nervously. I had one chance to make a good impression and get out of the basement. Director Knight was a legend. No, a Legend, with a capital L. The cases he’d worked as an Agent were literally written into the handbook. He was cunning, powerful, and took risks that always paid off. We all wanted to be him. We were all afraid of him. Even his shadow was intimidating.
I’m not sure what I expected The Director’s office to be like. Perhaps some wild reflection of the man. The reality was surprisingly mundane. He sat at a plain oak desk, sturdy and severe. Tidy stacks of files covered the surface, meticulously ordered. A cup of tea, sat cold and forgotten in front of him. His razor sharp talons carefully sorted through paperwork. He pushed a pair of heavy rimmed glasses onto the bridge of his ridged nose. Glasses? Tea? The image was incongruous. I tried not to scoff.
The Director looked up, whirling orange demon eyes fixating on me. The vertical slits of his pupils narrowed and I swallowed hard. An involuntary shiver rippled up my spine. Three barbed tongues flickered between drawn back lips, tasting my fear. I realized quickly that bureaucracy hadn’t tamed him. An evil grin crossed his face, enjoying my discomfort.
I responded instinctively – hissing. My neck frill bristled in a display of dominance. The smile melted from The Director’s face. My stomach flipped. By all the gods, I’d made a huge mistake. What if he took it as a challenge? I was dead. He’d shred me into a million bloody pieces. Worse, I’d definitely be fired.
“If you’ve gotten that out of your system?” His voice was dry and bored, but his eyes twinkled with wry humor. It took the sting out of his words. I nodded, mortified.
“So, you’ve been working the basement of the Williams’ house for what – six months now?” Director Knight flipped through a manila file. “I have your supervisor’s comments here. It looks like a routine haunt, but your instincts are sound. Good timing. Using the environment to your advantage.” He nodded thoughtfully.
“Sir, I know I haven’t been here long. But I’m ready. Just give me a chance and—“
The Director held up one hand cutting me off. He smiled again, this time with a hint of indulgence. The florescent lights reflected diamond-like off the tips his fangs. If office gossip could be trusted, his bite was laced with a potent neurotoxin.
“Yes, yes. Your record is flawless. Normally I’d prefer to work you up through the ranks. Move you out of the basement and promote you to a closet somewhere. You’re young, understand. Untested.” He sighed and took off his glasses. He folded them carefully to avoid scratching the lenses with his claws. The Legend suddenly looked weary. “The thing is – there’s no one else. A kid that age needs an under-the-bed monster. You’re all I’ve got.”
The Director fixed me with a hard stare. Measuring. I held my breath as he considered. Finally he pushed a yellow dossier towards me.
“Sheila Thompson. Age eleven. Review the file and be under the bed by 8PM. That will be all.”
“Thank…thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.” It was all I could choke out. I clutched the file to my chest and barely refrained from skipping to the door.
“Oh, and Agent Keifer? Keep your wits about you. Asher was a good agent. There’s something off about this one.”
A rush of excitement obscured the warning. He called me Agent Keifer!
Wilbur was hovering by the espresso machine, anxious to hear how things turned out. His tentacles were quivering in excitement. Or perhaps he’d just had too much coffee. The job was nocturnal and The Agents liked it strong.
“Well? How did it go?”
“He gave me the Thompson girl! My first real placement. I mean the Williams’ basement was fine and all, but to be assigned my very own kid…” I flapped the dossier under Wilbur’s nose. “I’m officially an Agent!”
“Congratulations! It’s a big responsibility, but you’ll do great.” He gave me a triumphant slap on the back. His suckers made soft popping noises as he pulled away. “So, what does the file say?”
“Let’s see…” I flipped through the few meager pages. “There’s not a lot here. Her name’s Sheila. Eleven years old. Only child. Quiet. Big reader. Afraid of snakes.” I lashed my barbed tail, suddenly concerned. I wondered if I would be considered serpentine. I was really more lizard-like, if long in the body. “There’s a note here from Asher saying that the space under the bed is narrow and cramped.”
“No biggie. I’ve seen you fold yourself in smaller spaces. Must be nice to be so lithe and flexible.” Wilbur glanced down at his bunched muscles and thick tentacles. He sighed wistfully. “I’ll never get out of the closet.”
“Hey! You’re great at your job. One of the best.” I wasn’t placating. Wilbur was one of the most sought after closet monsters in the business. His scare factor was epic.
“Aw. Thanks, Agent Keifer. It’s not really the same as being assigned a kid though.” He smiled. “I’m not complaining. It is fun to have a change of scenery from time to time. You’re stuck with Sheila for at least the next few years.” He waggled a suckered feeler at me, teasing. “Assuming you don’t muck it up and get fired!”
I vowed not to screw it up.
The pressure not to bungle the first night on the job was intense. It was dusty under the bed and I struggled not to sneeze. I’d be a laughing stock if I gave myself away too soon. I wrapped my tail around my nose and concentrated on the pink laced sneaker that I shared the space with. As I waited, I glanced occasionally at the door, eager for the night to commence. My position was ideal – not only did I have an unobstructed view of the bedroom door, but directly in front of me was a full length mirror. The reflection gave me clear sight to the bed and the room beyond. Perfect. It wasn’t long before my new assignment arrived, mother settling the child in for the night.
“Mommy. Can I have a glass of water?”
“You’ve already had two. And a book. It’s late, Sheila.” The woman kissed her daughter and headed towards the door.
“Wait! You didn’t check for monsters!” The girlish voice trembled.
The woman opened the closet door and pulled a chain. A bare light bulb flickered on, shedding light on a jumble of toys and stuffed animals. She shook her head. After pulling the chain again she closed the door with a soft click. I stifled a cackle – no monsters there. The woman made a solemn production of peering into corners and looking behind chairs. Just in time I turned myself invisible, as she kneeled down to look under the bed. Blue eyes swept over me, unseeing, and then fixed on the solitary sneaker. Her hand snaked out and grabbed it, manicured nails almost grazing my nose. I shrank back, abashed at the rookie mistake.
“No monsters. Just your missing sneaker.” She held it aloft before placing it with it’s mate near the bookshelf. “Now go to sleep, sweetheart.” She turned out the light and closed the door leaving us alone. I settled in to wait.
Slowly the house quieted as the darkness outside the windows deepened. The woman had forgotten to draw the curtains. One by one pinpricks dotted the blackened sky, stars too far away to offer any real illumination. The night was moonless and the room drowned in shadows.
I looked up at the child through the mirror. Despite the late hour, she was awake. Motionless but wide eyed. Tension radiated from her with the conviction of someone who anticipated the worst. It was a deliciously dreadful, slow burning terror. Her hands clutched the blanket, white knuckles desperate for some sense of security.
With forked tongue I tasted the air. The perfume of her fear in the darkness was acrid, potent. The scent was layered, a complex recipe built over time. Night after night. It lingered heavy in the corners, a swirl of thick fog that never quite burns away in the light of day.
Every creak of the settling house echoed clarion, magnified by anxious expectation. I shifted uncomfortably, but remained concealed, biding my time. The minutes stretched painfully, eternal. The child’s apprehension climbed, building to a frenzied crescendo. Soon.
I drew breath in a silent hiss, keen ears hearing footsteps in the hall. They approached slowly, muffled by carpet and hesitation. The bedroom door opened, spilling golden light from the corridor across the floor. His shadow left a man shaped void in the luminescence.
He watched for a moment, face obscured by the brightness of the light at his back. I couldn’t see his expression as he crossed the room. He settled on the edge of the bed, springs in the child sized mattress protesting the adult weight. I watched in the mirror as he wrapped a comforting arm around the girl’s shoulders. She remained stiff, distress unrelieved. Director Knight’s warning suddenly echoed in my ears. There’s something off about this one.
The man made hushing noises to the child. His large hands, workman rough, gently caressed soft flesh. Stroking. It took only a heartbeat for the reassuring touch to transition to something else. Seeking something he had no right to possess. The child shrank from him, small and helpless. Suddenly I caught her eye in the mirror. They were pleading for help. The man grew bolder. A growl bubbled from deep in my throat.
Anger overwhelmed caution. I vaulted from my hiding space, rearing to my full height. Fangs dripping, claws flashing, I towered over the man as I opened my maw wide. My roar shattered the night, jaws close enough to his face that my fetid breath steamed his glasses. His eyed widened in disbelief, followed by horror. He stumbled back, cowering in fear.
“Not with my child! Never again!” I shrieked, spitting in fury. I swiped at him with knife-edged talons, forcing him back toward the door, step by step. He turned and fled.
Turning to the bed, grateful pools of clear blue, brimming with hope stared at me. I wrapped myself around the child. She huddled against me, trembling, chubby fingers clinging to smooth scales. I swelled with responsibility, shepherding the fragile trust. It was what I was born to do. Eventually her breath slowed to the steady, even cadence of slumber.
I settled in to keep watch through the darkness, yellow eyes fixed unblinkingly on the door. I was an Agent for The Company. I chanted the corporate motto in my head, over and over like a mantra. To Watch, To Serve, To Protect. No Child Sleeps Alone.
Shelia, my perfect angel, slept peacefully as I maintained vigil. If the monster returned, I would be ready.