It was the same old story, Dentine thought, watching the fist-pumping new graduate receive their holographic instruction pack, smiling sweetly whilst gritting her teeth (and then instinctively running her tongue around them to ensure she hadn’t cracked a single cuspid). Yet another girl picked before her to go out on assignment – and yet she was the one who had achieved one hundred percent in their final exam! Their year supervisor, Professor Caries, had held her up as a “shining example of hard work, determination, and continuous dedication to hygiene and juvenile savings – an example a few of you could learn from”, he’d added, looking down over the tops of his half-moon glasses, his perfect white teeth clicking with disapproval as he glared pointedly at some of the less, well, dedicated students.
Admittedly, this hadn’t helped her cause in terms of being voted Miss Congeniality (a definitive last) with whispers of “teacher’s pet” the kindest of the snide remarks bandied about behind her back; but it shouldn’t affect her chances of being made a full agent – should it? No, she thought to herself, shaking her head absentmindedly, as she kicked the skirting board with her regulation black boots, walking away from the group gathered around Agent 247839. No, popularity wouldn’t count; after all, once on assignment, they were on their own, and friends were irrelevant. It came down to what you knew, and how you used it. That’s what her grandmother had said, and she should know.
“Cadet Dentine!” came a call from behind her. She ignored it, mostly because she assumed it was a fellow student, who would no doubt have something snarky to say about the fact that she was yet to go out on patrol. “I say – Cadet Dentine! Yes, you! Wait, please. I wish to speak with you.” She realised the voice was Head Lecturer Fluoride-Iodine, and so stopped muy rapido in her tracks.
Head Lecturer Fluoride-Iodine was a legend amongst the teaching staff of the Academy. Some said, in whispers, she was Agent Number One – the very, very first, although this was a fairy tale, as she’d need to be beyond ancient. Of course, all chosen for their profession did get life extension as part of their employment benefits package, but still. Not that much.
She was regarded with awe and a fair helping of fear by the cadets as a cross between a goddess, a silently lethal tiger, and a bad-tempered old bag, with nobody ever knowing which was the face likely to be shown to the world at any given time. It only added to her reputation and the level of respect and awe generated whenever she spoke, or appeared in public.
Today, Dentine decided, ‘bad-tempered old bag’ looked as though it was winning out. Head Lecturer F-I – or ‘Wing One’, to give her official title, was not showing her teeth in what could even remotely be described as a smile. More of a snarl, thought Dentine, standing stiffly at attention, heels together and arms by her sides, as required in the presence of Wing One.
“At ease!” barked Wing One, her own posture ramrod straight, uniform immaculate, boots polished to spit factor 10, and hair a shiny conker brown (how was it brown? She must have been at least 124 years old) pulled back in a coronet of tightly braided obedience.
“Thank you, Wing One!” said Dentine, standing in exactly the same pose, with the minor exception of her arms bending by approximately two and a half degrees. At ease, my left back molar, she thought.
Wing seemed to know what she was thinking, because there was a slight twinkle in her eye as she said, brusquely, “I expect you’re wondering why you, as Wand of Honour of your graduating year, haven’t received an assignment yet, eh, Cadet?”
“Yes, I bloody well am!” said Dentine without thinking, looking Wing One squarely in the eye, and then having a minor pulmonary embolism as she realised what she’d just blurted out.
The Head Lecturer appeared to be having a brief internal struggle over whether or not to laugh, because a sound suspiciously like a snort escaped her, before she said sternly: “and why do you assume you don’t have an assignment, Cadet Dentine?”
Dentine tried not to stare at her, then gave up the ghost and boggled at her unashamedly.
“Pardon, Wing One?”
“Are you deaf, Cadet Dentine? Wax in your lugholes? In need of a premature digital aural implant?” Fluoride-Iodine asked, somewhat acidly, endangering her faultless tooth enamel.
“No, Wing One!” barked back Dentine. “I just assumed…” and she looked the Head Lecturer squarely in the eye, with a steely glint which looked somewhat familiar, reflected the Wing, as it should – it had been staring at her in the mirror for more years than she liked to think of – “…I had been overlooked.”
“Nonsense. You, my dear Cadet Dentine, have the top assignment. Strictly classified. The one we can’t trust anyone but the Wand of Honour with!”
Dentine couldn’t believe it. She was actually getting an assignment! A classified, top secret, assignment! Wing One withdrew a holographic assignment pack from within her uniform, and looked around.
Dentine looked around too, just because she felt she should.
“Right”, hissed Wing One. “You’re to go to Africa. The banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River to be precise.”
“Really?”, said Dentine, fascinated.
“Just so”, nodded Wing One, showing she wasn’t averse to a literary in-joke.
“When you get there, open the holographic pack. Your GPS thought implant will get you there, of course. Follow your instructions to the letter, Cadet, do you understand me?”
“Yes, Wing One!”
Fluoride-Iodine looked at her thoughtfully, then returned the salute briskly, surprised Dentine by shaking her hand vigorously, and striding off. After about ten paces, she seemed to recall herself, and strode back.
“Yes, Wing One?”
“A word of advice. Don’t forget your toothbrush. Remember this.”
Dentine looked puzzled. “Well, of course not, Wing One, as if I’d ever -”
She was cut off. “Don’t forget your toothbrush, Cadet Dentine. And give my regards to your grandmother.” And she was off, scaring the life out of three first years who had been coming around the corner in the opposite direction, bellowing “What?!!” at them, and who subsequently had to return to their dormitory for a strategic change of underwear.
Dentine got ready to leave. She could feel the adrenaline and excitement of the mission fizzing under her skin, as though her entire body was a firecracker just before it takes to the skies, ready to dazzle the world with brilliance and astonishing beauty. The charge, the electricity was tempered by her training and she prepared methodically, each step done as though she had been on a thousand assignments. Funds – check (well, not funds as such in this instance; what kind of target needed raw chickens, she wondered?) Weapon – check. Toothbrush – check. Extra dust – check.
Then she thought about what Wing One had said. Her toothbrush? She had a myriad of them. Polishing, in-built flossing, scraping – it was a complete puzzle. What she could possibly – oh. But how had Wing One known about that?
Before she left for the Academy, with her parents standing, beaming with pride, the neighbours watching with envy that yet another of the Hygiene family had been singled out to one of the most sought-after professions in Neverland, her darling Gran had beckoned to her. “Dentine, my gorgeous, wonderful girl, I knew you would be the one to follow in my wingsteps”, she had said, smiling gravely. “You always were ready for adventure, weren’t you, lovely? Now, I have something for you. It’s not a present, exactly, and it doesn’t look like much; but just remember, if you’re ever on assignment, to take it with you. It may – well, let’s just say it may come in handy”.
With this, she handed Dentine a long, thin, package, hugged her fiercely, and walked away, tears standing in her eyes, unshed, but glistening and ready to fall.
Dentine had looked in the package straight away (well, of course she had), and been less than excited by what she’d found. It was an old, almost bristleless toothbrush. Wowee. Thanks Gran. What was odd about it was its size. It was almost a metre long, and had notches and scars all over it. She shrugged, packed it away in her bag, and forgot about it in the first heady days of learning, and finding out being smart and good at what you did was no guarantee of popularity.
Now, shaking her head to clear the memories, she added it to her kit. If her Gran had said it was handy, and Wing said to take it… then she would take it. Rule One, after all, was to listen to advice. Rule Two, interestingly, was to ignore Rule One, and listen to your own instincts, and she’d often wondered who had come up with the Academy’s rules, but this wasn’t the time for philosophical meanderings. This – Dentine squared her shoulders – was the time for action.
“Gotta fly!” she said out loud in a mysterious and meaning-laden voice, feeling like an action hero for about five seconds.
Then she sighed, and said “this is why nobody likes me; I’m a total wanker”, thought of her location, allowed her GPS brainwave responder to pick the thought up, and flew.
Twenty minutes later, she landed by the Limpopo, bound about as it was by fever trees. It was hot. Hot, humid, and astonishingly still. No monkeys chittered, no birds chirped. No rumbles came from the jungle behind and around her. She took a swig of water, and flicked the holograph open. Wing One stood before her, as real as real, which made her spit the water out.
“Dentine, you are to look 72 degrees south-west. Residing in the Limpopo at that location is your target. Remove the asset, and leave the target their funds. Move quickly. Use your toothbrush if necessary.
“Wing One out”.
Dentine blinked. That was it?
Oh well. Best get on. She took her toolbag, the chickens (yuck) and her Gran’s toothbrush, worked out the coordinates, and moved into the river. Suddenly, what she had taken for a knobbly rock reared up in front of her, and all she saw was a wide, wide mouth, all teeth, snarling and reaching for her as its body thrashed against the churning water.
She reacted without thought, with training, with the instinct of generation upon generation of tooth fairy skill and insight. She took her grandmother’s long, scarred toothbrush and rammed it, upright, between the crocodile’s jaws, leaving it flopping back into the water and looking like nothing so much as a very surprised open handbag.
“Owth!” it said, somewhat reproachfully, and with a toothbrush-induced lisp.
“That hurths. Lotht.”
“You were bloody trying to eat me!” Dentine said indignantly.
“Well, yeth” said the crocodile indistinctly. “Buth thaths what I do. I’m a crocodile. I eat thingsh. Although I can’t really at the moment, becauthe it hurths”.
“Teethth! They acheth. Maketh it hard to bite thtuffth.”
Dentine realised belatedly that the crocodile was in fact, her target. The chickens now made sense. What would a crocodile want with money for a tooth? Purchase a new swimsuit? Perhaps subscribe to Monkey Recipes Monthly? She stared hard at the croc, until he, a creature known for his ability in being unblinking, actually felt uncomfortable.
“Whath? Why are you thtaring at me?”
“I’m the tooth fairy. I’m here to take your tooth.”
The crocodile visibly sagged in relief. “Well, why didn’t you thay tho? Take thith horrible thtick outh, and my toothth, and thorthted! I can thtart eating my favourite thingth again!”
Dentine eyed him narrowly. She could now see the tooth in question, amongst the dribble from the toothbrush. It was clearly infected, and looked extremely painful. It needed extracting, stat. She thought, quickly, about her Oath as an Agent of Dental Health and Wellbeing; her promise to improve the mouths of the world, as well as their piggybanks.
“Whath did you thay?”
“I said, no. As soon as I take the stick, as you incorrectly referred to the toothbrush, out of your mouth, and remove the tooth in question, you’ll be eating your favourite things alright – me.”
The crocodile attempted to look affronted, but realised, after another look at Dentine, it wasn’t going to work. He sighed.
“Okay. I’ll do you a deal. Fixth my toothth, and I will not only not eath you, I will give thomething of great value – anything you with for. Within reathon” he added hathtily – I mean hastily. Thorry. It’s catching.
“Do you swear?” said Dentine suspiciously.
“I thwear the Truth of the Crocodileth; by our thkin, by our thmile, and by our anthethtor, the Great Crocodile againtht whom the Hook could not thtand” he intoned with dignity, and some spittle.
Dentine heard the truth in his words, and before the crocodile knew it, the toothbrush was gone, and so was that horrible, horrible, aching tooth, which had stopped him enjoying Chimp a l’Orange for the last two months. He grinned, which is not normally something one wants to see a crocodile doing. In this instance though, Dentine grinned back.
“Thank you” he said, and it was so heartfelt, she finally realised her own pride in being an Agent of the Tooth wasn’t, and shouldn’t be, about high marks, or winning. It was simply about making mouths a better place to be.
“Right” he said briskly. “What do you want?”
Dentine thought long and hard. What could she request which would be of most use to her? Then her eyes fell on the crocodile’s long, long glistening wet hide. She grinned, widely, and looking at her perfect white teeth, the croc experienced the sudden knowledge of a young monkey’s visceral reaction to his own toothy smirk. Oh poop. This was not going to go well at all…
Back at the Academy, Dentine knocked politely at Wing One’s door. “Come!” was the terse response. She entered, saluted, and stood, waiting.
“Ah, Agent Dentine”, said Wing One, not looking up from her paperwork. “You’ve returned safely I see. Report.”
“Yes, Wing One. All went according to procedure. The target was acquired, the asset was removed. The er, funds were left, a little on the whiffy side, and I departed immediately. On this occasion there was a slight departure from the norm, as being a crocodile” – and here she somehow managed to underline and bold the word crocodile verbally, which is an impressive skill to have – “it was not necessary to stay invisible, nor use the Amnesia Dust.”
“Very good, Agent. Knew you were the right fairy for the job. Excellent.”
Dentine couldn’t help it. “How did you know, Wing One? You don’t know me at all!”
“Oh, yes, well, this is true of course. But your grandmother and I were – are – best chums. Didn’t doubt a grand-daughter of Mandible’s would be the goods. Not for a second.”
Dentine looked a little stunned.
“But my grandmother is, begging Wing’s pardon, 118 years old, and you’re er… not.”
“Actually, she’s 374. I’m a shade under. 368. She decided to give up her most magical gifts, and have a family. Pressure of being Agent Number One finally made her want to have a normal life. Understandable. Agent Number Two’s no picnic either. Still miss her, though. Anyway. Enough sentiment and jawing. Haha. Be keeping my eye on you, Agent. But not often. You’ll be too busy, I warrant.
“Here’s your next assignment. Feel you’ll enjoy this one. A Count Dracula. Pretentious name. Seems he’s been causing a few issues, bathing in virgins’ blood, invading young women's’ dreams, that sort of malarkey. Now has gingivitis. Nasty case. All have to come out, I’m afraid. Bit of poetic justice there, what?
And Wing One nodded in dismissal.
Dentine saluted automatically, took the holograph pack, and moved towards the door, her head whirling.
As she was turning the handle, she heard Wing One clearing her throat.
“Er… Agent Dentine?”
“Yes, Wing One?”
“I see you’ve got non-regulation boots on, Agent.”
Dentine looked down at her gleaming crocodile-skin boots, and grinned. The croc had kept his promise, making her a pair of boots. They were not from him, of course, but from a recently deceased old crocodile who was awaiting burial. But nobody needed to know that part, she thought, fingering the gold coated crocodile tooth around her neck.
“Yes, Wing One. A souvenir of my first assignment. I thought I might allow word to get around… casually, of course… about what that assignment was. If Wing will allow it, that is. Along with the non-regulation boots.”
Their eyes met.
“Carry on, Agent Dentine.”
“Yes, Wing One.”
And as Dentine strode down the corridor, she could already hear the whispers running like ribbons of respect before her. And she strode even straighter, her camouflage-toned wings held high, her non-regulation crocodile boots thudding in regulation time, and her Gran’s toothbrush held casually in her hand, with the sort of casualness which makes it very clear to anyone who may be interested that they could be pinned against a wall with it before you could say ‘brush for at least two minutes’.
The moral of this story? It’s a small, but fairly clear one.
Look after your teeth; don’t neglect your gums, and maintain good general dental health.
Oh – and never underestimate a tooth fairy. Or smile at a crocodile.
Unless, that is, you have your toothbrush handy.