Sophie was a rather articulate seven-year old. She was the best reader in her school district for first-grade. She could even spell a few fourth-grader words.
This was due to her parents. Every night, Mommy would tuck her in. Daddy handed her a book. They read aloud together. Then Mommy would sing. Daddy turned out the lights. And they left their darling Sophie to her sweet dreams.
In the shadow of the closing door, the monsters came out. Sophie was assigned to the Shadow Unit because of her intelligence.
Smug was the captain of the Shadow Unit. It was his job to log her nightmares and her justifications, if she turned it sweet or woke up scared. They’d only managed one midnight terror since her last birthday and the Counsel was not happy.
Smug chose tonight to do it himself. He waited for the moonlight to disappear behind the tree of her window. Then he skittered out and climbed her bedskirt to the comforter.
Yelling and cursing, he searched the twin bed. No Sophie.
Smug screamed again.
In pain this time. He fell off the bed and ran back to the shadows. He had 2nd degree Moon Burns. But that couldn’t be right. The moon didn’t move backwards, ever. Smug watched the window. SOPHIE!
A black clothed adult carried a sleeping Sophie under the tree and Away!
Smug scaled the window curtains and watched in disgust and outrage. Then he saw it: a hair wrapped around a nail on the sill. It wasn’t Sophie’s.
“I’ve gotcha now,” he muttered to himself, wrapping it in an Essence Pouch.
“So how’d it go, Boss?” inquired Fear, an ogre and bear type creature who usually handled Sophie. Though, lately, she’d been lucid enough to make him a harmless cub. Outwardly, he was disgruntled. Internally, it was the only time anyone had ever loved him.
“We have a situation,” Smug announced to the cavern designated the headquarters of the Shadow Unit. This got everyone’s attention. Smug never admitted to anything wrong, not on his watch, not in his unit. It’s why the Counsel was itching to replace him for incompetency.
“Our target was stolen,” Smug said calmly. “As I approached at what I thought was Moon Down, a grown-up carried our target out of her Bed, through the window, and Away. However, he left a piece of his essence behind,” Smug held up the Essence Pouch. The hair was halfway transformed into shimmering translucence.
“I can track it when its done, Boss,” Aria piped up. A fairy like creature with vicious fangs, Aria was the best tracker in the whole Dark Dominion. “But what’s he want with our Sophie?”
A chorus of “Yeah,” and “We’ll get him” and “Who does he think he is?” went round the crowded cavern.
Smug calmly held up a hand. Silence was instant. “We know he is male. We know he is Grown. We know he knew the house well enough to find the window to the bedroom. We know from last week’s logs that Sophie was nervous about a new Grown Up in her school. I’d actually planned to use that tonight. We know they are Away,” he took a moment, allowing everyone to process this information.
“Aria, when you track this fella, remember to keep to the bloody shadows. I’ve already been Moon Burned and we can’t afford to lose you.” She nodded soberly. Moon Burns took weeks to heal. Moon Sickness consumed the victim’s energy, until nothing but dust was left. “When you find him, Mark his Shadow in Sophie Pink light so we can find him again if we lose him.”
“Fetch! I need you to deliver my reports to Chancellor Stone Coat. Do not engage in conversation, do not mention what has happened tonight, and do not wait for his reply. Get in, deliver, get out. Best if you’re not seen at all,” Fetch was a pup. Well, a three-headed pup. His dad was in service in Hades and his mom had been taken some weird place called Hogwarts. Left on his own, he’d joined the Shadows.
“As for you, Fear, I’m sending you to the Light Legionnaire. Take on Sophie’s interpretation of you, a harmless cub, and deliver my reports to Titania. Same orders. No conversation, no reply. Try not to be seen.” He handed an amulet off to Fear. “You’ll need this. It protects from the damage of Light.”
Silence filled the cavern. The last time an emissary visited the Light, that emissary was obliterated on sight.
“And, um, wh-what e-e-exactly are y-you going to be d-d-doing, Sir?” squeaked a shadow-mouse.
“I’ll be investigating. And healing. I can’t go in the field, not with these blasted Moon Burns, but I can suss out information, spy on the House and the Room, find out what those Grown-Ups she calls parents know.”
He walked away, leaving murmurs and speculative conversation in his wake. Takings weren’t unheard of, but usually the Nightmare Units were simply reassigned. No one had ever attempted to find the missing target before. But that’s exactly what Smug was doing. His orders made that clear. As leader, he was fulfilling his obligation to report it. Barely. Denying both Courts the opportunity to question, or possibly Trial, was a ballsy move. The type of move that, if failed, could get them all executed.
“Nooooo!” wailed the female Grown, Sophie called Mommy. She was holding a talking device to her ear. Smug could faintly make out the voice on the other line. Something called Police were on the way. She was curled up, just like Sophie did, on the rug in front of the window. The male Grown, Sophie called Daddy, was Outside. He had gathered all the other Growns in the area on the porch. They each had a Light and a Dog.
Smug watched. Listened. Observed. Everything was written in his field journal. Not the official one, no. There could be no official documentation of this, at least, not until it was over. The Shadow Mice were tailing the Dogs, staying out of the Light, relaying messages in high and fast Morse.
A bow was found in the tree. A shoe was found in a gutter. One Dog tracked Sophie’s scent to the neighborhood gates. The Grown with it started yelling something about security cameras, footage, “maybe we got the guy.” The Police came. Lots of questions and crying and yelling. Smug managed to get a copy of every officer’s notes.
Though he didn’t understand human technology, “what on earth is a camera and how is it going to be helpful?” he thought, all of the information went into that field journal. Smug set two shadow-mice to each car, to tail the officers. Their instructions were to find the one in charge and stay on him. The others were to return.
By Sunrise, all but two shadow-mice had returned. Something called a Detective was put in-charge.
Aria stamped her pixie foot impatiently, watching the shadows retreat as she waited for the Essence Pouch to finish. She paced her lab, wings fluttering sleep dust everywhere. Just as the Sun crested the window, the hair disintegrated entirely into dust. This, she could track.
“Finally!” she harrumphed, holding the pouch up to the Light. Carefully, she opened the corner of the pouch, tasting the Essence to the tip of her forked tongue. She scented the air, snakelike, finding a trail. She yelled the only four-letter word Sophie new, and spiraled up in the air, only to crash back to the floor. She had almost flown straight into Sun Light.
“Yes, Miss?” squeaked a shadow-mouse. She was smaller than the others, hiding in the corner of the lab, as far away from Aria as she could be without leaving the room.
“Report to Smug. I have the Scent. Advise on how to proceed in Sun Light. If we wait till Moon Down, we’ll lose the trail.”
The shadow-mouse repeated the message verbatim then fled to find Smug.
Fetch was new to skulking. He was clumsy, slow, and painfully obvious. He was a pup, still, and his heads were easily distracted by toys and ropes and boxes and paper and, especially, food. Still, Smug was counting on him, and Sophie needed him to be brave and silent and focused. He refused to let his target down.
Fetch had only visited the Shadow Council once before, on official business. He knew where the Chancellor’s office was. He didn’t know the passphrase. So he waited, ears perked in all directions, listening for someone else to enter and then leave.
“Why hasn’t that blasted slug failed yet?” yelled a voice. A familiar voice.
“One cannot underestimate tenacity, especially in Shadow Society,” said a cool, authoritative voice. Fetch knew this voice immediately. The Chancellor.
“Isn’t his report due today? Can’t we fire him for being late?” said the plaintive voice.
“The issue is, every time you file that complaint, by the time the Council gets to it, the report is already in hand. Tis more likely to bite you for wasting their time. I have no doubt it will arrive at some point before Moon Down.”
Silence. Footsteps, two, no, four pairs. The Chancellor only had two feet, so the other six must be…
“Shiva,” Fetch whispered to himself. His other heads nodded in agreement. The shapeshifter had it out for Boss since they both finished Scare School.
“Moon Blast” Shiva and the Chancellor said at the same time. Their conversation echoed down a corridor heading away from Fetch’s post.
When Fetch could hear them no more, he approached the door and all three heads whispered “Moon Blast.” The doors opened silently. Fetch left the report on the desk, then exited the same way.
He returned to the cavern under Sophie’s bed. He’d done it. He did the job clean and without attention. He decided to take a well-deserved nap.
Fear growled through his massive ogre chest. He hated Light. He hated travel. He hated leaving the cavern. But most of all, he hated that someone had stolen Sophie. Sweet, loving, adorable Sophie. Smart, curious, adventurous Sophie. He understood the desire to steal her away but that didn’t mean someone should!
Smug’s amulet was almost a choker round Fear’s neck. But it was saving his hide in the Light Legionnaire. His glamour of a harmless cub was working perfectly. Anyone who looked his way thought nothing of a small teddy cub headed to the Capital. Probably for training or a mission.
The Light’s compound was a mirror image of the Shadow’s compound. Where Fear would usually turn right, he had to turn left. Rather than getting turned around, lost, or frustrated, Fear simply traced his steps mentally then did the opposite.
He found himself at the gate of the Queen’s Office in record time, if only because this was, in fact, his first visit. He witnessed Titania herself exit the office with a murmured “Sun Shatter.”
Fear waited for her to disappear down a winding hall and then let himself in. He dropped the report on her desk and left as quickly as he’d arrived. The trip back to the cavern was an exercise in stealth.
He joined Fetch in a well-earned nap.
Aria walked into the main room of the cavern, startled to see both Fetch and Fear already back from their tasks. She sat at the bar and fixed herself an Ambrosia, watching in fascination and envy.
She didn’t need sleep. She fed on energy. Sophie’s energy could sustain her a week, or more, depending on the quality of her fright.
And so they gathered, awaiting new orders from their fearless leader. They all knew that what they were doing could get them executed. They each silently agreed the risk was worth it. Sophie was worth it.
Smug was exhausted. The Moon Burns were taking their toll on his energy reserves. But he had leads. A few leads.
The Detective had watched the footage and identified a profile. White male, mid-30s to late 40s, charming, predatory, a loaner with lofty self-delusions, a con artist and compulsive liar. Smug only understood half of what that meant. People had colors? He understood Charm and Predatory behavior. He understood artists and liars. The rest was lost on him. The concepts were too complicated for the child brigade.
Smug wasn’t about to let that get in his way. He tailed the Grown-Up to a fancy room with machines and screens. He observed the kidnapping. It was like a movie but not made up. He watched what those camera things must’ve seen. Though the movie didn’t show the man’s face, Smug recognized him from Sophie’s memory logs.
Creepy Man from school. Sophie was afraid of this man. She didn’t know why. He was nice and kind and generous. But she avoided him if she could. Smug understood. He, too, avoided certain people for unknown reasons.
Smug watched Creepy Man lay a sleeping Sophie on the backseat of a car. Like Grandpa’s car, but bigger, and a different color. The Detective was “running plates.” Smug knew that dishes didn’t move, but didn’t know what the heck the Grown Up was waiting for.
He’d received three shadow-mice reports. Aria had the trail. Fear and Fetch had done their jobs. He sent a return message to Fear and Aria: transfer the amulet to Aria and let her get started. He gave a letter to the shadow-mouse detailing what more we knew about Creepy Man.
He sighed, and settled in to watch the Detective work. It was boring. Paper work and phone calls, mostly. Then he was called into an office by a bigger Grown-Up wearing more badges. Curious, Smug followed into the office. Sergeant Grown Up wanted an update from Detective. Perfect. Smug pulled out his Field Journal, ready to fact check what he had so far.
“What do we have on the kidnapping case?”
“The perp came in through her bedroom window, on the backside of the house. No one from the street could’ve seen him. The lock was broken, but no glass. We got a footprint on the window sill, but the interior had a rug. CSU is still processing that for evidence. No fingerprints or hairs, yet, we assume he was wearing gloves. According to her parents, she was already asleep when they left her room. They didn’t hear anything.” Detective looked up from his note pad to the Sergeant, making sure he was following.
“The father organized the neighborhood watch approximately four hours after the kidnapping. Two scent hounds found her hair ribbon and her left slipper. The trail ended at the community gate, where we got security footage. Its an old system, black and white, but the man is about six feet tall, two hundred pounds, medium cut dark hair, dark eyes, slim build. The vehicle he used is an 80s model sedan, light in color, license plate CSX-9280, State of Wisconsin.”
Smug jotted down this information he had missed. Sophie didn’t know much geography, but she knew that she lived in New Mexico, and she knew that Wisconsin was really far away and famous for making cheese. Her uncle lived there, though she’d never been. Smug noted this as well.
“Chief, we got something,” a Police said from the door. “Plates just came back. Car was reported stolen yesterday afternoon, couple on vacation was carjacked at dinner. Description matches our kidnapper, too.”
Smug followed the three Grown-Ups into the lobby. Two more Grown-Ups were waiting, nervous. The lady was crying and wringing her hands. The man was holding her shoulders. Smug couldn’t hear the conversation in the noisy lobby, but they all went to another room, quieter.
Another man came in with a large notepad and pencil. Sketch Artist, they called him. The couple spent hours talking at the man as he drew, erased, drew again, shaded. Finally, there was a portrait of Creepy Man. Smug copied it into his own Field Journal.
Smug decided that his best chance of finding this “perp” was to help the fumbling, bumbling Police. He left his notes that the Detective didn’t have on his desk, in the Detective’s own handwriting, thanks to a bit of glamour.
Sophie knew this man from school
She was afraid of him but didn’t have a reason to be
He was new to the school environment
Not a Parent or Teacher
Always giving candy, toys, other rewards, especially at recess or in the library
Smug watched, waiting for the Detective to notice. He picked up the note, read it, looked around, scratched his head, then went back into the Sergeant’s office.
“Hey Sarge, I must be sleep deprived or something, but have we interviewed anyone at her school?”
Sergeant stares blankly then yells a four-letter word. He goes into the workroom and gathers all the Police. They start sharing information as he writes it down on a white board. Pinning photos, taking notes, making lists. Smug has never seen anything like it, so he copies it to his own notes.
Aria takes the amulet from Fear. It hangs heavy down her tiny torso, but she’s grateful for the protection. She ventures out of the cavern to the edge of the bed’s protection and scents the air. The window is still open but yellow tape surrounds the area outside. Ignoring it, Aria flies at top speed, over the gates and around the left corner.
The scent winds, following the streets. Left, Right, Left again. Soon, Aria is outside of Sophie’s World. She slows down, following her instincts of caution in new territory. Aria finds herself, and a strange car, in a dead-end alley. She inspects the windows. Sophie was here. Not anymore, but she had been here.
Aria whistles up her shadow-mouse. The shadow-mouse makes a dust-map and stores it in an Essence Pouch, then delivers it to Smug.
Aria scents the air, turning slowly, forked tongue flicking to find the next concentration. She’s lost the Man, but she finds Sophie. The girl had woken up and pitched a fit, leaving a trail of anger and fear.
Smug takes the dust map and compares it to the map on the Police board. He takes a marker and draws the road trail, then sticks a pin where Aria found the car. Then he whistles as loud as he can and dives into the shadows.
Detective walks over to the board and shakes his head, disbelieving. “Alright, very funny, who did this?” he yells, throwing his thumb over his shoulder at the board. Silence ensues. Sergeant walks over then yells, “I want two units at this pin location yesterday!”
Aria hears the wails of distant sirens approaching the abandoned car. She leaves them to it, following the scent of Sophie’s fear. Sweet and tangy, like candied bacon, the trail is easy to follow but does nothing for Aria’s energy.
She finds herself at the back entrance of an abandoned warehouse. No windows, a garage-style door bolted to the ground, and the distinct scent of Creepy Man and Sophie going straight through the door.
Smug follows in Detective’s car to Sophie’s school. Teacher is crying for “sweet Sophie,” praying for a safe return. Smug is less disgusted than usual because he wants the same thing. Principal is an unhelpful, evasive man. His words drip sympathy but his eyes are empty of emotion.
“Who is new to the school? Staff, janitors, groundskeepers? Who did you hire recently?” Detective asks.
“I’d have to get that list from my secretary, who is on vacation in the Swiss Alps,” he says unhelpfully. “I suppose you could request it from the school board, though,” he adds with a touch of…something. Glee? No, that’s not right. Satisfaction. Yes, that’s a good fourth-grade word.
“You haven’t noticed someone hanging around at, say, recess? Or the library?” Detective presses.
Principal hesitates. “Well, I hardly spend my days in those places. I’m usually in meetings or with troubled students. I never saw Sophie in my office, so I wouldn’t know,” he says honestly.
Detective wraps it up and moves to the Librarian. “Oh, you must mean my new assistant. I’d been requesting help all school year and the board finally approved the salary last month,” she informs Detective.
“How much contact does he have with students?”
“Not much. The occasional check out. He takes his breaks on the playground, preferring fresh-air, he says. Not that I blame him. These stacks get quite dusty.”
“I see. Did you ever see him with Sophie?”
“I don’t think…well, let’s see now. She was in here last week and he checked out her books. She was very proud to be checking out something from the Third-Grade shelf. I think he gave her a sucker.”
“Thank you. That’s quite helpful. Can I get his name and address from you? Just to rule him out, standard procedure.”
“Of course, let me get that for you.”
Detective copies it down from the librarian’s computer and is on his way. Over the radio, he calls in the information to dispatch. A unit will meet him there.
Aria finds a way in through the ventilation system in the roof. Flying cautiously down the shafts, she finally emerges into the garage. Sophie’s scent is impossibly everywhere. Instead, Creepy Man’s scent is easier to follow into a back room. A small office, of sorts.
He’s sitting at the work desk. Sophie is asleep on a pallet behind him, breathing the dreamless sleep of a carefree child.
Aria snuggles into Sophie’s pajama pocket and whistles up a shadow-mouse. The mouse sees the both of them, and immediately runs to get Smug. Aria goes to sleep with her target.
The shadow-mouse is running frantically around the Police house and can’t find Smug anywhere. She notices the board and Smug’s essence on the map. A ball of nerves and unsure what else to do, she wills a glamour.
20 minutes later, she’s glamoured herself a hand big enough to draw on the map. She follows a foot path from the car pin and sticks a pin in the warehouse. She scampers to the corner of the board and screams as loud as she can. A few Police look up in the direction of the map as she runs to hide in the shadows once more.
A Police looks around, looks at the map, then calls for the Sarge.
“I don’t know what the hell is going on around here, but get four units and medical out at that warehouse. Something is helping us and I’m gonna take it!”
Detective picks up the radio call. “Roger that,” he says, then flips on lights and sirens, speeding to the warehouse. Smug doesn’t know what’s going on, he missed the call, but he makes a split-second decision and jumps in the Detective’s shirt pocket.
When they get a block away, Detective turns off both and creeps up to the warehouse. Four other Police cars are already there, with an ambulance around the corner.
Smug jumps down and follows Aria’s trail. She found Sophie. He knew it. He guessed he’d missed the message because he wasn’t at the station, but that’s alright. She’d found a way to get him there.
Police break down the garage door and bust in with lots of noise and light. Creepy Man was tackled and handcuffed. Sophie, with Aria, was carried to the ambulance. Smug climbed in with Aria, and they stayed with their target all the way to the hospital.
Sophie blinked her eyes. Bright hospital lights were disorienting, but she made out two familiar shapes. “Mommy? Daddy?”
Both started crying, Daddy kissing her forehead, Mommy holding her hand. Nurses said she’d been drugged to sleep, but she’d be fine, no lasting damage. Maybe some memory loss, but Creepy Man hadn’t had time to hurt her.
“What about Mr. Davis?” Sophie asked, quietly afraid that she’d be in trouble.
Detective came in. “He’s going to jail. Then he’ll be tried. You’re too young to testify, but I promise you, he’s going away for a very long time.”
“How did you find us?”
“That’s my job, to find little girls and boys like you, to bring you home safe, to put away the bad guys.”
She nodded then went back to sleep. The Grown Ups went to the hall.
“Who is this Davis?” Daddy asked,
“He’s the assistant librarian at your daughter’s school. He used a deceased cousin’s information to pass the background check. His name is Richard Davis. He’s a convicted pedophile and wanted in four states and two countries. Thankfully he was on the move so there wasn’t time for him to harm your daughter,” Detective said honestly.
“How did you find him?” Mommy pleaded.
“Honestly, ma’am, we had a little help. Security cameras, sketch artist, and some anonymous information. We don’t exactly know where the information came from, but it sped along our investigation by hours, if not days. Your little girl has protection, no doubt about it.”
Aria and Smug looked at each other and smiled. They had their target back. And no one was ever going to hurt her again.
“Thanks guys,” Sophie breathed in her sleep. “I know it was you. Thank you.”
They started. How in the world did Sophie know they existed? How long had she known? This was an abortive protocol if ever there was one.
“Protocol shmotocol,” Smug said. Aria nodded her agreement. They went to sleep with their target, no nightmare plans to enact. Sophie had lived one, and nothing they came up with could top it.