Posey and Luke are back for a second adventure. Miss the first one? Head on over to Knight at the Royal Arms.
I lean across the guard desk as the glimmer settles in the lobby. The whisper of it raises hairs on the back of my neck. The guards’ faces relax in the muted glow.
All is quiet—except for some gentle snoring.
I stretch and switch off the cameras covering the loading dock and the ones in the stairwell. Then I catch a glimpse of myself at the guard desk. Yes, of course, it will be my face the police will scrutinize tomorrow morning.
Decorative plants cast shadows in the dim light, their leaves wavering in the breeze from the ventilation system. Chin lifted, I gauge the air. Now that the glimmer has fallen completely, I can taste the shadow creature that lives here. The space is full of that anticipation before a hunt and the promise of treasure at the end.
But is it a troll? I’m not convinced. I’m a damsel in distress, after all. I know trolls.
The sound of boots thudding pulls my attention to the large double doors that lead to the loading dock. One door creaks open as if the person on the other side doesn’t trust that I’ve cut the feed to the cameras.
Granted, all four of them are shadow trackers, like I am. The five of us together?
Well, we have trust issues.
In the center of the lobby, I stand, hands on hips. The rest of the team emerges with painfully slow steps. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. The glimmer only lasts for so long. We don’t have all night. Or rather, that’s all we have.
This office building houses not only a software company but also a law firm and a yoga studio on the mezzanine. The moment the sun crests the horizon, and the glimmer lifts, someone is bursting through the front doors. I don’t want to be around for that.
I tap a foot clad in a steel-toe boot and wait.
“All clear, Trombelle?” comes a voice from those double doors.
“Of course, it is.” My sigh echoes in the quiet of the lobby.
The leader of this little expedition is Parker Pankhurst. He’s a pain to deal with and has the bad habit of grabbing his share of the treasure and running. According to him, he’s turned over a new leaf. These days, he specializes in ridding places of malignant shadow creatures (trolls would be among those) for both a fee and any treasure found in their lair.
As business models go, it’s not a bad one.
“We don’t have to bring you along,” he says to me now.
That’s the thing. They do. Nothing happens without a damsel in distress to lure a shadow creature from its lair. True, we often end up bound, ankles and wrists, eyebrows singed. But if a creature has no reason to leave its lair, it won’t.
No unguarded lair? No treasure. It’s that simple.
Trust me, nothing’s venturing out for the likes of Parker Pankhurst.
“Stop being such a knave, Pankhurst.” A new voice joins the conversation, this of Luke Milner.
In truth, the criticism is a bit harsh. Parker Pankhurst is a knave; he can’t help his DNA the same way I can’t.
The same way Luke Milner, knight in shining armor, can’t.
It’s who we are and why we’re able to track the shadow creatures to begin with.
Pankhurst casts Luke a dour look before nodding to the stairwell. “Let’s go,” is all he says.
The IT department is on the third floor. Even so, I feel the climb in my thighs. I’m glad we’re not trekking all the way up to the executive suites. Although maybe we should. I’m still not convinced there’s a troll here.
On the other hand, a crafty sort of shadow creature—say, a dragon—would make its home on the top floor, where it would have a spectacular view, not to mention the run of the executive washrooms.
On the third floor, we emerge to a forest of cubicles. Pankhurst leads us through the rows, each turn taking us deeper into the maze. When we reach what looks like a collaboration area, he holds up a hand, and the rest of us halt.
“Here,” he says. “Here’s where we set the trap.”
Yes, and I’m the bait.
“Do you sense a troll?” I whisper to Luke. Maybe my instincts are off, and I’m simply not detecting it.
“Not at all,” he says.
He shrugs. Luke is all angles and planes, chiseled good looks. Shrugging just makes him appear elegant.
“We should at least be able to smell it,” he adds.
“Trombelle, over here.” Pankhurst barks the order. Next to me, Luke bristles.
I comply since it puts me front and center, and I can make my case. Pankhurst takes me by the wrists and tugs me toward a whiteboard on wheels. He secures me to one of the supports before locking each wheel in place with a solid click.
“Do any of you smell a troll?” I say. “Because I don’t smell a troll.”
The other two in our party—a blacksmith and her apprentice—exchange glances.
“Trust me,” Pankhurst says. “It’s here.”
“We should be able to smell it,” I insist. “This place should reek.”
And reek so badly that even when the sunrise banishes the glimmer, the stench would linger. Just how badly? Take a pair of old sneakers, simmer them in dog pee, and toss in a couple of rotten eggs for good measure. Inhale deeply and multiply that by a thousand.
That’s a troll.
“I’ll level with you.” Pankhurst turns, addressing us all. “I got a tip from a reliable source. There’s a troll. It’s making its home back in the server rooms. That’s where the rest of us are headed.”
I’m less than reassured. Luke’s mouth is a grim line. The blacksmith blinks a couple of times, shakes her head, and then secures her long black hair into a ponytail. Her apprentice looks bedraggled. They could probably use their portion of the treasure.
“You okay with this, Posey?” Luke’s at my side, a hand on my bound wrists.
“I guess I have to be,” I say. “It’s what I do, right?”
He’s wearing a pink bandana tied around his upper arm, my token from our first outing together. Since then, we’ve partnered a couple of times. Typically, knights in shining armor are all too little, too late.
Not Luke. If anything, he’s too scrupulous.
“If things get … bad, I’ll double back and get you.”
I nod, and as much as I want to trust Luke, I’ve heard this promise from other knights far too many times before.
“But just in case.” He slips something cool and metallic into my hands and leaves me with a wink.
I’ll grant you that winking is in the knight in shining armor skill set. Still, I’m pretty sure Luke must practice endlessly in front of a mirror.
They head off, through the maze of cubicles. I wonder if rather than a troll, there’s a Minotaur hiding among all those twists and turns.
If so, we may all end up as a midnight snack.
* * *
Only when the scuffling of boots on carpet fades do I investigate the object in my hands. My thumbnail finds a metallic groove. There’s just enough give in the ropes around my wrists that I can spring open the pocketknife.
The barest hints of the workaday world hang in the air—burnt microwave popcorn and room-temperature lattes all mixed with starch and sweat. At least this isn’t my world. Sometimes it is better being a damsel in distress, the occasional singed eyebrows notwithstanding.
I get to work sawing my way through the rope. I don’t dare cut all the way through. The troll—or whatever shadow creature is here—will know. Never mind that they can’t tell steel-toed boots from dainty satin slippers or practical canvas pants from flowing gowns. They’ll know the second I’ve cut the last thread of rope.
And if they know, they won’t venture from their lair to investigate. Never mind no treasure, Luke and the others could end up as that midnight snack.
I can only imagine Parker Pankhurst’s wrath if I botch this hunt—and what it might do to my standing in the tracker community, and Luke’s as well. Not that I’d mention his part in this. Still, knaves have a way of finding things out.
So I saw at the rope and wait, saw and wait, holding my breath each time the knife slips in my fingers. When I notice the shift in the air, I can’t say. The glimmer glows brighter, enough to make the whiteboard shimmer behind me. A clattering comes from several rows away. It’s a light tap-tap-tap of a noise, almost joyful.
It’s certainly not the sound of a troll dragging its knuckles across industrial-grade carpet.
My heart kicks up a notch. I scan the workstations, but nothing looks out of place—just endless rows of chairs and monitors. There’s a rustling and then a decided chomp. All at once, something leaps from one cube to the next, clearing the five-foot-high wall with ease.
Then the creature—or whatever this thing is—bleats.
It sounds like it’s laughing, or more precisely, laughing at me.
This is no troll.
I don’t bother with the pocketknife. Instead, I yank my wrists apart and break the last threads of rope. I rub the tender, red marks around my wrists and consider my next move.
The bleating echoes down one of the many cubicle aisles.
I decide to follow.
* * *
The twists and turns are endless; truly, there can’t be so many employees in this company. I suspect a combination of the glimmer and the shadow creature itself. This is an illusion meant to throw me off its tracks.
I creep past cube after cube, taking each opening with caution because there’s always the chance that this creature is leading me into a trap.
In fact, I’d bet my share of the treasure that it is. Even so, I trail after it. Luke would advocate caution. I know he would. Again, blame my DNA. I’d rather run after a creature, get myself into a tight fix, take the chance that this time it won’t end in a damsel-in-distress grab and dash.
I reach the end of a row and halt. The space in front of me is so dark and vast that it resembles the opening of a cave.
The creature slips inside with a playful kick of its hind legs. There’s that clattering again, like the sound of something hard striking stone. Then nothing but a gentle thud, thud, thud.
I pause outside the entrance. Dark shapes loom from either side. The scent of burnt popcorn is stronger here, as is the aroma of charred coffee. Blinking lights come from one corner, and it’s then I know where I am.
It’s the kitchen break area for this floor, lit by the numbers on the microwave ovens.
The thump, thump, thump continues. The sound is headache-inducing. I wince and rub my temples.
The creature pauses in its relentless battering to let out a plaintive bleat.
Trap, I tell myself. This is just the sort of trap someone—or something—might set for a damsel in distress. But the crying is too real, the creature’s distress palpable.
I decide to take it by surprise. I leap into the kitchen area, pocketknife at the ready. I slap my free hand against the light switch and confront the creature.
There, by the garbage, a microwave popcorn bag in its mouth, is the world’s most adorable baby goat.
* * *
The baby goat drops the popcorn bag and lets out a tremendous bleat. I stash the pocketknife and then drop to my knees so we’re on the same level.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I say, my voice as soft as I can make it.
It stops bleating, but eyes me, the look in those strange, rectangular pupils wary and full of stranger danger.
“You know I’m not going to hurt you.”
It must, simply because, at the moment, my DNA is kicking in but hard. I want to give it a bath, tie a ribbon around its neck (although it would probably eat that), and give it lots of hugs and kisses. Or maybe pose it for some cute Instagram photos.
I’m a damsel in distress, after all.
It bleats again and bumps its head against the side of a cabinet.
“Do you need help?”
Now it jumps about, its little hooves clattering against the linoleum tile.
It has already amassed what amounts to a goatly treasure. The microwave popcorn bags, of course, but also a stack of paper to-go cups, a bag of Jolly Ranchers with only the grape ones left, and five greasy pizza boxes.
The cabinet it keeps bumping its head against?
The mother lode, also known as the kitchen garbage can.
The cabinet is one of those new models. The slightest pressure of your hand opens the door. As long as you press in the right spot—and not endlessly knock your head against its center.
I pull out first one and then another sack, both brimming with apple cores and grease-soaked paper towels. The plastic is translucent, and the baby goat dances with glee at the sight of Lean Cuisine packages and giant filters filled with soggy coffee grounds.
I knot the sacks so they won’t disgorge their contents all over the floor.
“Where to?” I ask the baby goat.
With a wag of its tail, it tippity-taps toward the entrance.
I swallow back a pang of guilt along with stale air and a hint of rancid butter. I’m not tricking it, not really. If there ever was a troll in IT, it’s long gone—as is its treasure.
Still, I’d like to know what this little fellow is up to.
Also? I really want to tie a bow around its neck.
* * *
We are deep in the bowels of the server room. My skin puckers from the chill, and my breath emerges in great clouds of fog. The baby goat leads the way, its hooves a light tapping on the elevated floor. I follow, the slosh and scrape of the garbage bags in my wake.
The glimmer is thicker here, like stardust. The air sparkles, but it’s a cold beauty. In all my years of tracking, I’ve never encountered a glimmer quite this strong.
A prickly sensation crawls up my spine. I glance over my shoulder, but if something’s spying on us, I can’t see it. I also can’t see my way back out of this forest of servers. It’s icy and dark, and the sort of spooky that makes me think of goblins, orcs, and especially trolls.
Not for the first time, I wonder who is playing the trick here.
If you were a goat and had a troll problem (as goats so often do), you might lure a damsel in distress into its lair as a way to appease it. Yes, this baby goat is adorable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a crafty little bastard.
And yes, I know. I didn’t just walk into this.
Worse, I left Luke behind. He doesn’t know where I am. Then again, I have no idea where he and the rest of the group have gotten themselves to. The IT department isn’t as vast as all that, not normally anyway.
With the strength of this glimmer? That’s another matter. The glimmer can bend to a shadow creature’s will and create a world for it, one free of annoying trackers like Parker Pankhurst. There’s a good chance Luke, Pankhurst, and the others are wandering through the maze of cubicles no closer to the creature’s lair than when they first started.
The goat leads me around a final corner, and there, standing in the center of the space, a club raised in one meaty hand, stands a troll.
The garbage sacks slip from my grip and land with a splat on the floor. I choke back a scream on the off chance the troll hasn’t seen me yet. I’m about to dash back the way we came. There might be no end to the server room, but this particular spot is definitely a dead end.
I don’t move.
Neither does the troll.
We stand like that, both of us like stone until I realize that there’s a good chance one of us actually is stone.
The air is a bit ripe—all coffee grounds and barnyard—but not troll-level ripe. Nothing emerges from its mouth. No roar or howl or the truly strange obscenities trolls favor. I inch forward, the baby goat dancing about me, and swipe a finger along one bulging arm.
Stone—from its hairy toes all the way to its bald, wart-infested head.
“How did you do that?” I ask.
The goat springs and kicks its hind legs. It bleats what must be a tremendously funny story judging by the tone.
“So, there really was a troll in IT.”
“Indeed, there was.”
The voice freezes me in place. The baby goat halts its scampering and ducks its head as if it’s been caught skipping school.
A ponderous clacking sounds against the floor. The steps are serious, and I resist the urge to straighten my shirt and retie my bootlaces. From one of the rows of servers, a second goat emerges.
It’s wearing a pair of rimless glasses and a black turtleneck sweater. The goat gives me a brief once over before taking a knee and inclining its head.
“William Gruff the Third, at your service,” he says.
I bob a curtsey. “Posey Trombelle.”
“Short for Poinsettia. I was—”
“A Christmas baby, no doubt.”
I raise an eyebrow. Usually, I have to explain my name. This is one clever goat.
William Gruff turns a disapproving eye on the baby goat at my side. “And you led her here?”
The baby goat bleats and stamps its hooves. Then it scampers around the overflowing sacks of garbage, both bags threatening to burst.
“It seems,” William Gruff says, turning back to me, “that in all our precautions, we overlooked damsels in distress.”
“Everybody always does.”
It’s all sorry about the goblins or what do you mean, you didn’t get your cut of the treasure.
“Now that you’re here, why don’t I show you around?” William Gruff nods toward a room shrouded by a glimmer so thick it looks like a curtain of golden beads.
Without recourse, I heft the garbage sacks and follow both goats inside.
* * *
“Here’s where the magic happens,” William Gruff announces.
And yes, he means that quite literally.
The space hums, not so much with industry, but the activity of a single goat working on a desktop computer. I’m not sure how, exactly, its hooves hit all the right keys, or any keys for that matter. Again, magic.
The baby goat bites open one of the garbage sacks and scurries to bring its compatriot a series of treats: an oily bag of microwave popcorn, the Jolly Ranchers, and a dripping filter filled with coffee grounds.
William Gruff chews a to-go cup contemplatively. “We need to keep our programmer happy after all.”
I count the goats once, twice, and a third time. Yes. There are only three of them. Of course there are. And they’re doing what, exactly?
“Are you running a … startup?”
William Gruff plucks a business card from nowhere and shoves it along the floor with a hoof.
Gruff Cyber Security
Industry Leader in Eradicating Trolls
Because of course they are.
Again, I peer at William Gruff, at the turtleneck, the glasses, the distinct tuft on his chin that could best be described as Jobsian.
“How—?” I begin.
“You’ve met our angel investor, I believe.”
The troll in IT. I can’t help it. I laugh. The baby goat bleats its approval. Even the second goat lifts its head in acknowledgment.
Then all hell breaks loose.
* * *
The claxon is zombie-movie loud and obnoxious. The glimmer around us shudders. William Gruff charges forward and crashes into me.
“Who did you lead in here?” he demands. “Who? Who? Is it Pankhurst?”
“Pankhurst?” I stumble backward under the onslaught. “Oh, no.”
William Gruff pauses, but I suspect that’s only to gather steam for another attack. “Yes or no? Is it Pankhurst?”
“Yes, it’s Pankhurst.” I raise my hands, hoping to ward off another jab from those mean-looking horns. “But I didn’t bring him here, not on purpose.”
But maybe he used me. Oh, no maybe about it. I’m the overlooked precaution, after all. And Parker Pankhurst—that knave—knew that all along.
“Didn’t you?” William Gruff swipes one hoof and then the other across the floor, gearing up for a colossal attack.
“He tied me up and left me for troll bait.” I hold out my hands and point to the faint red marks around each wrist.
William Gruff turns to the baby goat. “Is that true?”
The baby goat scampers about, bleating and stamping hooves in what sounds like a drawn-out explanation. Then it comes to stand by me. Oh, I love it so much. When this is over, I plan to bathe it, brush out its hair, and dress it in little outfits—with its consent, of course.
Pankhurst bursts through the glimmer. “Get them! Get all of them.” He whirls and points at me. “Get her! She’s conspiring with them.”
The blacksmith leaps onto a desk, but stops when her gaze lands first on the goat and then on me. Luke skids to a halt. The apprentice, wisely, chooses to hang back.
“Posey?” Luke’s brow clouds with confusion and what might be hurt. “What are you doing here?”
“There’s no troll, not anymore. There’s no treasure.” I want to explain about the startup and cyber security, but I can’t put it into words because I don’t have the whole story.
“They stole my treasure.” Pankhurst jabs a finger at William Gruff.
“You left us for dead.” William Gruff takes a ponderous step forward. “You tethered this little one in a conference room, left him with no chance of escape. We were nothing but bait to you.”
Pankhurst’s entire face turns red. “You lie.”
“And then you ran.” William Gruff looks serene, but there’s a terrible glint in those rectangular pupils. “We cleaned up your mess. We reaped the rewards.”
“You’d believe them.” Pankhurst gestures, a dismissive flick of his wrist toward the goats. “Over a human.”
No one speaks. The glimmer vibrates a warning. Daybreak is imminent. We’re all in trouble if we’re still here when the sun rises.
I glance down at the little goat at my feet. Its expression is both soulful and hopeful.
“Yes,” I say. “I would.”
Parker Pankhurst whirls then and charges not at William Gruff, but at me.
The baby goat leaps, one of those feats that can take him over those five-foot-high cubicle walls. But he’s so tiny and no match for the combined muscle and beer-gut girth of Parker Pankhurst.
Frantic, I race forward. I’m not fast enough; I’m not strong enough. The second before the collision, the baby goat is plucked from the air and cradled in the capable arms of Luke Milner, knight in shining armor.
He tucks, rolls, and deposits the baby goat safely beneath a desk. He springs to his feet, ready to take all comers. Instead of charging again, Parker Pankhurst shrugs, palms skywards, and shoots us all a slimy smile.
Then the bastard turns and runs.
It’s then I notice the blacksmith and her apprentice have already vanished. It’s then I notice the glimmer fading into nothing. The sun must be up, and that means we have no way out.
“Hurry, both of you.”
The order comes from William Gruff. The baby goat darts from beneath the desk and butts the back of my legs, urging me farther into their room. With a solid kick of a hind leg, it shuts the door.
“Spend the day with us,” William Gruff says.
“But—” I scan the room. I can’t see the glimmer, but it whispers against the back of my neck, caresses my cheeks in a ghostly kiss. “How—?”
Luke looks as perplexed as I feel. He reaches out a hand as if he might touch the glimmer that isn’t actually there.
“You’ve heard of artificial intelligence, haven’t you?” William Gruff says.
“Of course,” I say, “but this isn’t—”
“Possible?” He forages around in a garbage sack and plucks out another to-go cup. He gives it three thoughtful chews. “Are you certain?”
A computer-generated glimmer? Really? No wonder Parker Pankhurst was so interested. Access to the glimmer, day or night? You could do anything with that.
Like launch your own tech startup.
“So this room.” I turn in a slow circle, taking it all in. “It’s protected by the glimmer.”
William Gruff gives a nod.
“And we’re safe?”
“As long as you don’t stray from here. Once the sun sets and the glimmer returns to the rest of the building, you may leave. I’ll grant you safe passage through the server room.”
“My face is all over the security footage,” I say.
William Gruff nods at the second goat, who clatters the keyboard with its hooves. “Not anymore, it isn’t.”
Luke and I exchange glances. He gives me another of those elegant little shrugs. I pluck at the bandana tied to his arm.
“Mind if I borrow this?”
He gives me a tired smile. I don’t know if that’s from this long night or me in general. I suspect the latter.
“Not at all,” he says, and that smile turns indulgent.
I tug the bandana free and, in a matter of minutes, have it fashioned into the cutest bow. I hold it out for the baby goat’s approval. He doesn’t eat it, which is good enough for me.
From the depths of my cargo pants, I pull out my phone and hand it to Luke.
“Take our picture?”
* * *
When you’re a shadow tracker, most nights end without any treasure. This isn’t one of those nights—or days, as the case may be. Both Luke and I leave with shares in Gruff Cyber Security.
I join the yoga studio. Since goat yoga is a thing, no one questions me when I show up with an actual baby goat.
My #goatsofinstagram posts keep racking up views, and I have hundreds of new followers.
Sure, somewhere out there, Parker Pankhurst has a poisoned arrow with my name on it.
But I have something he doesn’t.
A knight in shining armor and three devoted attack goats.
The Troll in IT is another exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.