With a grind of motors we pulled up in front of headquarters. The helicopter landed in a patch of flattened grass (a “crop circle”, as we referred to it), and in a few minutes Edgar, Alice, and Ethan were back in the parking lot to find the rest of us already standing in a line, Blake and Austin still toting the sack, which was now twitching. Ethan and Alice quickly joined us, and we all looked to Edgar to hear his full opinion on how we’d done.
If you were ever to see Edgar Vincent in real life, you’d never suspect him of being a spy of any kind, much less a mission leader. He was sixteen, but he didn’t look it. He was small — still two inches shorter than me — bony, skinny, and round-faced. His eyes were enormous and blue and child-like. Most pegged him at fourteen at the oldest, eleven at the youngest. That, combined with his skilled use of a double-edged rapier, was what made him so deadly. No one saw him coming. And there was no denying that, on missions at least, he commanded some serious respect.
“Alright, team,” he started. “Like I said before, excellent work. Not perfect, but everything ran very smoothly, we got our target and I won’t say that this wasn’t one of the best missions I’ve ever been on, although that isn’t unusual with this team.”
We exchanged grins.
“But,” he said sharply, calling us back to attention, “There were some slip-ups that in the future have to be avoided. Lucy?”
“You need to keep your blaster trained on the target, not on your teammates.”
Lucy scowled. “Well, if Her Highness would have kept the cotton out of my face…!”
Priscilla glared right back. “Just shows how easily distracted you are, Murray. Shoddy, shoddy, shoddy.” She shook her head and sighed dramatically, examining her nails. “A real spy wouldn’t let something like cotton distract her from her target.”
“A real spy would look out for her teammates and remember that there is nothing on Earth more stupid to wear on a mission than high heels!” Lucy spat.
I stared at my combat boots.
“Ladies!” called Alice from down the row. Lucy and Priscilla shut up immediately. Lucy’s eyes flashed as she turned back to Edgar.
He looked at them for a minute before continuing. “Lucy. Keep your blaster trained on your target.”
Priscilla smirked and nudged Lucy in the ribs.
She jumped back to attention.
“Priscilla,” he repeated more calmly, “Keep your hands to yourself, and that includes during missions. No one needs a wad of cotton in their face when trying to capture a monster.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied, scowling at the pavement.
“Same goes for you, Ida. You nearly elbowed me in the face aiming your blaster. Remember next time that we are working in a small space and can’t afford to take it up.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, feeling guilty. I hadn’t almost elbowed him in the face — I had elbowed him in the face. He’d apparently managed to stop the bleeding, but I’d wacked him hard.
“Okay, everyone inside. Get some sleep, you’ve had a long night.”
Without a word, we filed into the headquarters.
It was pitch black inside — it always was, we couldn’t risk lighting past 9:00 — but we knew the halls of this old building by heart. With the soft thunk thunk of many pairs of sneakers and boots (and the sharp clack clack of Priscilla’s ridiculous high heels) we let the darkness swallow us up as one by one we disappeared into our respective rooms.
“Mom… Rick… no…”
My eyes flew open. The voice was Lucy’s. This happened every few nights. Everyone here had nightmares.
Without a sound I tip-toed over to Lucy’s bed, knelt down beside it, took her hand, and started humming. Her favorite song was a silly one about a man who’s so in love he can sing and dance in the rain. I didn’t get it — wouldn’t the man just ruin a good pair of shoes? — but Lucy heard something in it that I couldn’t hear, so I just kept humming the too-cheerful tune. And after a while, she calmed down. I rested my head on her out-stretched forearm and let myself drift off…
It must have been hours later, but it felt like less than a second had passed before the breakfast bell was ringing. I slowly felt myself regain consciousness. I was still kneeling on the cold hard tile beside Lucy’s bed. Her arm was gone, though, and my head was on something softer. I could hear footsteps around me and the groans of tired girls as they forced themselves to get up and out of bed.
With a disappointed sigh, I opened my eyes. I was resting on Lucy’s hoodie, her favorite black one that smelt like old books and motorcycle oil. I looked around to see where she’d gone.
Mornings at the PPAA headquarters were an ordeal. None of us (except for Priscilla and her following of Pan wannabes) really cared what we looked like, but none of us were exactly comfortable going to breakfast smelling like monster sweat, the odor of which is enough to put even the toughest of us off our oatmeal. And since there were about twenty girls and only five showers per dorm, early morning was, shall we say, hectic.
I stood up, wincing at the pain in my knees and pulling at the neck of my night-shirt. Somebody had dumped their dirty mission clothes on my bed since I’d left it last night. I wrinkled my nose at the smell and checked the tag — “BH”.
“Beatrice!” I yelled.
Beatrice Heathering was one of Priscilla’s clones, a short, small-eyed girl with a mess of corkscrew black hair. She rarely spoke, and when she did it was always in an infuriatingly unbroken monotone. “Get your filthy clothes off my bed!”
She stared at me. I glared back. With slow, deliberate steps, Beatrice walked across the room, held out her hand, and, still looking me directly in the eye, dropped a pair of absolutely foul socks on top of the pile already there.
My blood boiled. My hand flew in the air. Beatrice flinched. With a smirk, I grabbed the pile of clothing and flung them in her face. She scowled at me as she stalked back to her bed.
“Nice job, Private I,” said Lucy, walking over to me with her head wrapped in a towel. “You’ll have to do your sheets tonight, though. Get the smell out.”
“Can’t be worse than your arm to sleep on,” I said, sticking out my tongue playfully.
She laughed. “Shower’s open, better go fast.”
As she passed me, she gave my hand a quick squeeze. I returned it.
A few minutes later, we were both dressed and walking together down the hall to breakfast. She didn’t mention what had happened last night or this morning. Neither did I.
The headquarters cafeteria was big and open and full of broken machinery that we were all instructed to keep well away from. The building had, years ago, been a carpet factory, but it was shut down by the state government when the owners and foremen chose to disregard the child labor laws. Which was funny, considering we had children under ten running missions for us.
Most of the machines were hidden under huge white sheets. The other half of the cafeteria was lined with rows of tables and had a kitchen tucked into the corner, sort of like a large version of one you might find in a kindergarten classroom. Behind the counter, one or two agents who’d been late for missions were despondently washing dishes and spooning piles of oatmeal onto plastic plates. One of them, I noticed with surprise, was Lucy’s older brother, Rick. I nudged her and nodded at him. She raised her eyebrows.
“What’s he doing back there? He’s never late…”
I followed her over to the kitchen area, where she leaned over the counter and tugged Rick’s sleeve. He started and turned around, accidentally slopping oatmeal on the counter. “Oops,” said Lucy with a frown.
Rick laughed. “No problem. Whatcha need, kiddo? Extra oats?”
Lucy shook her head. “No, we’re good. Just wondering how on earth you got stuck back here.”
Lucy’s surprise at her brother’s punishment was understandable. I know there’s no such thing as a perfect guy, but Rick was about as close as you get. He was sweet, smart, encouraging, great at both field and surveillance, and rarely made fun of his sister or her friends, except to occassionally give her an affectionate pull of the ponytail or poke in the arm. All the teachers and officers adored him, all the agents wanted to be friends with him, and Lucy and I knew for a fact that Priscilla Pan was head over heels for him. He did mess up, but rarely. So you can understand our inability to fathom what in the world Richard Murray would have gotten behind the counter for.
Rick gave me a wink as he spooned some oatmeal into a bowl and passed it my way. “I was late for a mission.”
My jaw hit the floor. “You?” I gasped.
“Me,” he grinned.
“But… why?” asked Lucy, shaking her head in confusion. “You’re never late.”
“Apparently, that’s not true.”
He was being unusually difficult; something was going on. Lucy turned to me and leaned her head in close to mine. “We may I have to resort to extreme measures for this one.”
“You’re so nosy,” I said, wrinkling my own nose at her and pushing her back towards the counter. Looking very like her brother, she winked at me and turned back to the kitchen.
Repressing a grin, Lucy leaned even farther over the counter, her bottom lip poking out and her eyes huge and teary. Behind her, I clasped my hands over my chest and blinked quickly, as though suppressing tears. In less than a second Rick was practically doubled over laughing, but Lucy went ahead anyway.
“Rickyyy,” she whined, “Puh-leeease tell us why you were late last night! As your widdle baby sistuh I have to make sure everything’s alright! It’s my job!”
Behind her, trying my hardest not to giggle, I nodded fervently.
“Your job, huh?” laughed Rick, carefully avoiding eye contact with either of us. “Okay, maybe it is your job. But what about your little BFF over here?” He pointed the ladle at me, still chuckling.
“She’d just tell me anyway,” I said cheerfully, pulling over a chair from a nearby table and sitting down in front of my oatmeal. I knew we’d beaten him. Rick could never resist his sister, or me for that matter. Lucy, too, was confident in her brother’s defeat. She squeezed into the chair next to me, grabbing a spoon and helping herself to my breakfast. “So? Go on, tell us. How come you were late last night?”
He didn’t answer right away. He seemed very preoccupied with wiping up the spilled oatmeal that was still dripping off the counter. Lucy and I waited patiently, alternately watching him and fighting over the oatmeal in our bowl. Finally Rick turned around and I managed to get the bowl away from Lucy. She stuck her tongue out at me, but turned back to her brother without trying to grab it back.
“If you really need to know,” said Rick quietly, leaning towards us, “I was late last night because…” He took a deep breath. “You have to promise that you won’t tell anyone.”
“Of course we won’t,” I said indignantly. “If it’s that big a secret, no one’ll ever hear about it again.”
“Okay.” He sucked in another mouthful of air, glancing around at the officers in the room. “Okay. I was late last night because… I was helping out with monster research downstairs.”
There was an enormous clatter, and I realized that I’d dropped my spoon. Hastily glancing around to see if anybody’d noticed — nobody had — I leaned forward, whispering furiously, “You did not! Nobody’s allowed downstairs. We don’t even know if it is monster research that’s going on down there.”
“Well it is,” he replied, “And I was down there last night, helping Them with it.”
At the word “Them”, all three of us shuddered. “They” were a group of nameless, faceless government officials who had, according to rumours, appeared one day thirty years ago in the basement downstairs. Nobody knew who They were, or where They’d come from, or indeed, anything about Them at all, except that They were highly important to the president, and that on very rare occasions They would recruit an agent who They thought would have special talents in the area of monster hunting, even if that meant taking the child (they were always children) from their beds in the middle of the night, without a word to the parents.
I had been one of these cases. I was supposed to be special to Them, but none of Them ever even looked at me. In fact, except to bring in these rare recruits, They never left the basement.
“Why would They let you down there?” demanded Lucy. “You aren’t one of Their recruits.”
“He’s a good agent, though,” I argued.
“So are Edgar, Evan, Alice, Blake, and Austin, and so are we, but none of us have ever been down there before.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” said Rick. “Of course, I didn’t see any of them. But I wouldn’t be surprised if at least that Edgar has been down there once or twice.”
“But why?” Lucy repeated in exasperation. “Why would either of you be down there?”
Rick hesitated. “You have to promise again. Not to tell anyone.”
“We won’t,” I replied quickly. “Now tell us.”
“I caught a new species two nights ago.”
This time, neither of us dropped anything. Instead, we just stared at him in blatant disbelief.
“I know, I know,” he said, looking almost frightened, “Nobody finds new species anymore. The last one anyone found was in 1943, and now it’s absolutely common. But I did. I found a new one, I swear I did.”
Lucy looked at him disgustedly. “This isn’t like you, Rick. You don’t usually lie to anybody, but especially not to me. Is this some kind of prank? Are we being filmed?”
I put a calming hand on her shoulder. “Hang on, Lucy. What did the monster look like, Rick?”
“Well… I… I don’t exactly know what it looked like.”
“Whaddya –” I grabbed her shoulder again.
“What does that mean… exactly?” I said, shooting Lucy a look.
He frowned in momentary bewilderment. “It… It kept changing. At first it looked like an ordinary monster, a clown, you know, with a knife. But then it turned into a tiger, and then a giant squid, and then some serial killer from one of those movies idiot parents let their kids watch. That’s when I shot it and put it in the bag, and I didn’t see it again until the next night. But then Lizzie told me that I was wanted downstairs, and when I went, it was…” He shook his head, evidently at a loss for words. “It was nothing. You know? Just this black shadow in the back corner of this cage. It didn’t even have a face.”
Lucy looked absolutely flummoxed. “But… so… it’s like a… a shape-shifter or something? Just this mass of darkness that can change?”
“Something like that, yeah…” He nodded, and then stopped. “But no. I don’t know how to explain it.”
I had a sudden vision of long silver talons sliding from the hands of a monster hidden in shadow… hands I hadn’t been able to see.
“This is too weird,” I said. “I wonder if…”
I stopped. Lucy had suddenly seized my wrist and was staring at something behind me, her face very pale. Rick, too was looking over my shoulder, his eyes huge and his lips clamped into a line. Slowly, cautiously, I turned.
Two of Them were in the cafeteria by the main door. They were looking right at me.
I didn’t wait. Two seconds later I was out of the side door behind the kitchen and ducking behind a set of rusty trash cans in the back alley, Lucy right behind me.
“What…” she panted, “Was that all about?”
I shook my head, afraid to speak for fear of vomiting all over her shoes. Why was I sweating? Why was I shivering? Why did I feel as though someone had clamped a huge, heavy hand over my mouth and suddenly I couldn’t breathe?
“Ida?” said Lucy, sounding worried now, “Ida, what’s the matter?”
Why was I, Ida Ichabod, a girl who hunted monsters for a living, afraid of two men who I’d never even seen before?
I am floating… floating at the bottom of a pool. It’s dark down here. And quiet. Down here I can think…
When I woke up, I was lying, not on the cement outside where I’d lost consciousness, but on a soft, white-sheeted bed. The sick room.
Edgar, Lucy and Rick were sitting in chairs around me. Lucy and Rick were both sound asleep — Lucy was snoring — but Edgar was awake. Completely absorbed in his book, he hadn’t noticed that I’d regained consciousness. I figured I’d let him read. Now to the business of how exactly I’d gotten here…
I remembered our conversation with Rick, and seeing two of Them staring at me. I remembered being scared, and there was also something about cement and rust…
“Edgar?” I said. My voice didn’t sound as though I’d been injured or sick.
He glanced up at me from his book and smiled, looking rather dazed. “Oh… hey, Ida. You woke up.”
“What are you reading?”
“‘The Screwtape Letters’.”
I stared at him blankly.
I shook my head.
“Shoulda known. You ought to read more often, Ichabod. You might learn some stuff.”
He was lecturing, but at least he was fully present. “What happened?”
He frowned at me. “Well… you sort of… had a bit of a meltdown in the back alley.”
“A meltdown?” Then I remembered. The two of Them watching me in the cafeteria, running with Lucy into the back alley, sobbing, shaking, and finally puking before losing consciousness. “Oh.”
“Yeah…” He was still frowning at me, looking confused and worried. “What exactly was that about?”
I shook my head. “Not sure.”
“Lucy said you kept muttering about your mother.”
My mother? I didn’t even remember my mother. I certainly didn’t remember saying anything at all about her in the alley. I squeezed my eyes shut, pressing the heels of my hands into them. What was wrong with me?
There was a silence, during which Lucy murmured in her sleep about oatmeal and Edgar rustled the pages of his book.
After a few minutes, I took my hands away and opened my eyes. “How long have I been out?”
This time he didn’t even look up from his book. “A day or so.”
A day?! “I missed a mission?”
“Yeah, but don’t worry, we still got the little booger. Some zombie over in Denton.”
I stared at him in horror. He looked up. “Nobody got hurt, Ida, it’s just a zombie. Kids are terrified of them, we deal with them all the time.” I just gazed at him in mute incredulity. He didn’t understand. “Look, Ida, nobody’s mad that you missed it. I’m not marking you down, you won’t have to do kitchen duty, and you still have a decent chance of getting your own team in a couple of years.” His gaze became abruptly more intense. “Nobody blames you for hitting your head on a trashcan. It’s happened before.”
Hitting my head on a trashcan? Bemused, I reached up and felt around my head for some sign of injury, but there was nothing. Not a cut, not even a bump. If I had hit my head on a trashcan, it certainly hadn’t been hard enough to knock me out for a whole day… Then I got it. Nobody else had seen Them in the cafeteria — just me, Lucy, Rick, and apparently Edgar. Nobody was supposed to know They had been there. He was giving me my story.
I nodded at him. “Well, I guess… I still wish I hadn’t missed, though.”
Edgar smiled at me and I knew he knew I got it. “There’s always tonight, if you’re up to it.”
“Up to it? I’m on my way to training now.” And with that, I swung my legs off of the bed, grabbed my hoodie and marched out the door. I could hear him chuckling behind me all the way down the hall.
Training took place out in one of the “crop circles” behind the factory. We worked with mainly silent weapons and, surrounded by stalks of corn more than ten feet high, we were quite without risk of ever being caught. The circle was huge — big enough to fit at least fifty agents and some officers. Officers were former agents who had earned the right to remain with the PPAA well into adulthood. They were strict, but they knew their stuff, and out of the crop circles most of them were alright. I found my favorite one, Officer Stein, teaching some newer recruits swordplay techniques.
“You want to grip it in the middle of the hilt, with your fist a little closer to the guard than the pommel,” he was saying. One of the agents raised her hand. I put her at about twelve. “Yes, Agent Hamilton?”
“Why do we need to learn swordplay?” she asked. “I mean, I know that’s how they did back in Medieval Times, but don’t we have things like laser blasters and Fly Paper now?”
“Yes, we do, Agent Hamilton, but what happens if the monster manages to disarm you, or outsmart your trap? Remember, these are skillful, intelligent beings. It is likely that, were you in a situation with a monster and nothing but a sword to fight with, you would find yourself evenly matched. Without a sword, you may as well be dead.”
Agent Hamilton blinked. The other young agents around her swallowed and exchanged nervous looks. Without another word of argument, they each picked up a sword and diligently began working on their grips.
Grinning, I strolled over to him. He glanced at me. “Agent Ichabod! Glad to see you back in action.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, remembering to be respectful.
He hesitated before saying, “Bump on your head healed up alright, did it?”
“Um, yeah, yeah, it did… sir.” So he knew.
Finally, he turned to face me and looked me directly in the eye. “Maybe you should go work on your blasting. It may come in handy later. And of course, it would be nice and easy on your head.”
I raised an eyebrow. “With all due respect, sir, when have I been nice and easy on anything?”
Now he laughed. “All the same, Agent.”
Obediently, I turned and headed towards the other side of the crop circle, dodging arrows, bullets, and laser beams as I went. What had he meant by “it may come in handy later”? Laser blasters always came in handy during missions. “Easy on your head” had obviously been a cover-up… he was giving me a hint, and didn’t want anyone else to know. But what was the hint? And why did I need hints, anyway?
When I reached the blasters section I found Lucy waiting for me. “Edgar woke me up and told me where you’d gone, not that I couldn’t have guessed for myself,” she explained. She was giving me a funny, wary look, as though afraid that if she made a wrong move I’d throw up again.
“What, you can read my mind now?” I said, raising an eyebrow playfully.
“Totally,” she laughed, relieved.
I seized an unheated blaster and aimed it at her. “Out of my head, Prober!” I yelled in mock anger.
She rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at me. “Very funny, Private I. You know full well that the last Prober we caught was ten years ago.”
“Maybe you’re the last one,” I said, tossing her another unheated one. “Maybe you’re a monster, a Prober, masking yourself in a human body in a plan to take over the agency!”
“You guessed it, mortal!” she grinned, pointing the nozzle at me. “You know too much; and for that, you die!”
She pressed the useless trigger, and with a dramatic cry of pain, I fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.
She came over and nudged my stomach with the toe of her sneaker. “Well, I guess you’re dead, Ida.”
“Yup,” I replied, opening one eye. “You win, Prober.”
She laughed and helped me up. “We’d better actually start working now. We’ll have another mission tonight.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”
Lucy and I whirled around, raising the useless laser blasters to our chests, as though they would protect us from the unseen speaker.
“Who said that?” demanded Lucy.
No one replied.
I stared hard into the surrounding stalks of corn. The voice, I was sure, had come from there. At first I thought I saw a shadow flitting through into the darkness, but when I leaped into the crop with a yell, there was nothing. Just me, some corn, and a very bewildered Lucy with some unheated laser blasters.
Then the voice came over the intercom: “Ida Ichabod, please report to the sick room.”
I walked down the hall, wanting to break into a flat-out run, but not daring. Why did Mr Pan want me in the sick room? He knew I was alright. I had just been training… Was I in trouble? Had my meltdown caused a scene yesterday? I knew They didn’t want attention drawn to Them. I looked down and realized that my hands were shaking. I stared at them for a few seconds, and then stuffed them into the pockets of my hoodie.
With a start and a cry of shock I whipped around. There, behind me, was one of Them. Tall, broad-shouldered, the face covered by a gas-mask that made him look like a huge insect… Big, heavy hands…
Fear rose in my throat. I opened my mouth, but the man stepped forward, holding up his hands. Forgetting to scream, I stumbled backward in horror. “Don’t touch me,” I gasped.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” said the voice, strange and muffled.
“You… you… you’re one of Them!” I blurted out. Of course he was one of Them. He was wearing the mask, the same mask They always wore, They never took them off, not even to recruit terrified children in the middle of the night…
But he was taking off the mask now. Taking off that awful insect face and raising his hand to brush his strangely human hair out of his eyes. I stood rooted to the spot in shock as he lowered his hand.
He looked so… so normal.
Why did that shock me?
“Don’t panic, Agent Ichabod,” said the man in a low, calm voice, as though he were speaking to a cornered animal. “I’m not going to hurt you. You’re okay. You’re safe.”
“S-safe?” I repeated, staring at the mask in his hand.”
“Safe. You’re not wanted in the sick room, Agent.”
I raised my eyes to his face.
“You’re wanted downstairs.”