I drop a silver credit into the palm of the disheveled barkeep. At one point she might have been a pretty girl, but drink and disappointment seem to have gotten the best of her. She scurries away from me. No one else in the bar has dared come close. Not looking up, I pull the questionable stew close with my thick knuckled hands.
It's not the worst stew I've eaten in a bar like this, and for the price it's a bargain. Soon my thin frame begins to warm; a pleasant relief after the snow outside. When I'm done with the stew, I use a napkin to wipe any residue from my beard.
"Anything else, sir?" the barkeep asks. She is staring at the cross tattooed beside my right eyebrow. She knows what I do, they all know.
"Bread," I answer.
When she returns with a hard roll, I use it to sop up the rest of the stew and pay her a half bronze credit for the privilege. I gather my things and leave the bar. As I step out into the dark, a man much larger than myself steps out of the way and drops his eyes. He clutches the hands of two small boys, pulling them close. I know he fears I'll snatch one of them away, but it's not his child I'm after.
James Avery. He's the man I met this morning. A man worn from years of farm labor in order to keep his family. The past few years haven't been good on his farm, and he hasn't earned enough credits for a family his size. Three children under nine are hard to keep, but the farm was doing well when he had the third. With the oldest still too young to be conscripted into the military, the only other option was an Angel Agent.
The government calls us that, but to the rest of the country we're Boogeymen, or Stiltskins. Baby killers. When a family can't earn enough credits, they must choose which child will be killed. The government thinks it's kinder if the family has a say in it. I doubt many would agree. James Avery has a daughter who is three years old, and sons who are six and nine; it couldn't have been an easy choice.
When I knock on the farmhouse door it's a few moments before anyone answers. For a minute I fear they've run. Some families do, but it's hopeless. If they run, the whole family will be killed. When James opens the door, his eyes are red-rimmed from crying. His wife is at his side, a ghostly slip of a woman in a black dress, already mourning her loss.
There is no electricity in the house, credits for that having run out long ago. A fire flickers to light the kitchen, and past that a lantern glows dimly in the living room. I see a small bundle of blankets on the couch and walk toward it without a word to the parents.
Their daughter is sleeping soundly; they've given her the sleeping draft I provided that morning. I sit on a sturdy coffee table and pull my kit from my jacket. One hypodermic needle and a vial of quick acting poison. I fill the needle and take a moment to look at the girl. She has sunken, pale cheeks just like her mother. Obviously the family's been stretching their credits to the limit. Blond curls frame her sleeping face. I pull back the blankets to find her small arm.
As always, the needle slides in easily. I push the plunger, sending poison slipping into her. Behind me, I hear the mother gasp out a sob. James Avery murmurs words incapable of comforting her as I cover the child again. She will be dead in moments. I put the empty vial and needle back in the kit and slip it into my jacket. As I leave the house, I can't help but speak.
"I'm sorry for your loss. I hope the crops improve."
"Go away," the mother hisses in a hollow voice. I pull the door shut behind me.
Back on the snowy road to town, I check my watch in the moonlight. If I hurry, I'll be able to catch the train home tonight. I think of my own daughter. She's three, the same as the girl I just killed. Her cheeks are plump from a life where credits don't run short. Only those closest to us know how near we came to losing her to an Angel Agent.
I was a failing farmer just like James Avery, not earning enough credits for even one child. Unlike him, I chose to sell my soul for my child. Many Angel Agents have a story similar to mine, men who ran out of credits and were willing to take the job. James Avery could never kill a child; I knew that by looking at him. Angel Agents know when a man is desperate enough for the job. Killing another man's child seems like a bargain when it can save the life of your own.
It's been two years and still counting since the night I signed on. The contract will last for ten years. I hate myself a little more with each passing day, each kill harder than the last. I know this job will kill me, in spirit if nothing else. That's fine with me if it keeps my daughter alive.
Two Years Later
The United States of the Northeast has fallen on hard times. Two years ago I would have laughed at the idea that things could be worse, but they are. The President tells us change is coming, but it's little more than empty promises. Most families can barely scrounge up the credits for one child, and fifty percent of women of childbearing age are required to have birth control implants. Of course there are those who are doing well, and as an Angel Agent I've even met many of them. They're fat men with well dressed wives and two or three children who would turn up their noses at anything other than the finest chocolate. Those children know nothing of children in the farming areas who have never tasted chocolate.
Our farms are failing. Anyone with half a brain can see that, but sadly the rich ignore the problem, spending their money on food grown in labs, food able to grow under artificial sunlight and unaffected by the smog that fills the air the poor breath every day. The rich sport high tech air filters clamped to their septums while the poor rely on masks to cover their mouths and noses, masks clearly not meant for long term use.
News reports tell us that the United States of the Southeast are planning to strike against us, but it's only a fear maneuver. For a while slipping across the border to the south was a popular escape, but the government can't have too many of the poor defecting. Then who would pay the taxes that allow the rich to live so well? It makes me sick to think that I'm a part of this country. Worse, I'm one of those who do its dirty work.
"Thomas, come to bed," Elissa, my wife, says, wrapping her arms around me from behind. I feel her rest her forehead against my back and wonder how this woman can still love me. I see only blood on my hands, but she will kiss those same hands like they are made of gold.
"What if we run?" I ask softly and take a long swallow from the glass of scotch in my hand. Ice cubes click against the glass, a small reminder of yet one more thing I have that so many do not. In the window, my reflection is that of a drawn, worn man.
"Think of Kira," Elissa says into my back. "If they caught us, it would be death."
"Perhaps." I nod, knowing she is right, but wondering if it would be worth the risk.
I think of the bag in the back of our closet. Within it sits three thousand worth of paper credits, more than enough to start anew if we could make it to the border. That was the plan when I started saving the credits; if I could save one thousand it would be enough to buy our passage across and still leave us enough to start over with. Fear has kept me here well after I reached my goal.
Elissa turns me to face her. She is beautiful, thin but well-fed with dark curls that fall just past her shoulders and wide brown eyes. Her tan skin always looks so dark against my pale flesh. When she takes my face in her hands and guides my mouth to hers I go willingly, once again wondering how this woman can love me. As she pulls her shirt over her head that thought is pushed from my mind and I allow myself to become lost in her for the moment, taking her on our softly carpeted floor.
As we lay together in the glow of the streetlight beyond our window, I can't help but think of the flea infested carpet in the apartment of the last family I visited just that day. Their son was six. While I lay with my wife, they mourned his death.
Three Weeks Later
"Where have you been?" Kira asks as she runs up to me. Her smile is wide and her cheeks red in the late winter chill. Before I can answer, she continues. "I made this for you." She hands me a white mug. 'Best Daddy Ever' is scrawled around it in her childish writing. The words tug on my heart.
"Thanks, sweetie." I bend and kiss her dark curls before pulling her hat from my pocket and putting it on her head. I want to scold her for forgetting it that morning, but with the mug in my hand I can't.
She keeps up a one-sided chatter on the walk home while I think of the letters in the pocket of my coat. One is my next assignment, which I expected. The other is authorization to have another child, and that I didn't expect. I glance down at Kira. Her pink jacket and hat are an intense burst of color in the otherwise drab streets. We live better than many, but not well enough to afford the District. There an entire town has been constructed indoors; fake sunlight illuminates indoor streets untouched by pollution. Our neighborhood is made up of other families like ours. Mid-level government employees with enough credit in the bank to afford a small home in an area with clean streets where it is safe to leave your car parked outside overnight. Still, the streets and buildings are gray with smog and everyone must wear their filter at all times or risk sickness.
"What do you think?" Kira asks. I blink, unsure what she is talking about.
"That sounds great," I say, hoping for the best. Apparently I answered correctly because she smiles wider and begins to hum to herself.
Another child. Could we really do it? Bring a child into this world knowing its life was paid for with the blood of a hundred others? I want to say no, but the idea is tempting. When we reach our house, Kira drops my hand and runs for the front door to be met by Elissa. Elissa lifts her into her arms and rains kisses on her cheeks. The kisses are met by Kira's happy squeals. When Elissa puts her down, Kira runs down the hall still laughing. Such a happy child, but how happy will she be when she is old enough to understand what the cross tattooed beside my eyebrow means?
"You look horrible," Elissa says, kissing me gently. "Rough day?"
"Only a new assignment," I answer, voice tired. "Down near the Southern border, going to have to take the night train down." I can't tell her about the authorization, I need to wrap my head around it first.
"At least it might be a little warmer there," Elissa says, always the optimist.
"Might be," I answer, forcing a small smile for her. "It's another farmer." I hate being assigned farmers, it hits too close to home. I remember all too well the days of waking before the sun and doing my best to keep a crop going and the cows milked.
Elissa grimaces; she remembers those days as well. I allow her to pull me inside, letting Kira's laughter and chatter drown out the dread of what's to come.
On the train down, I sit alone. The farther from home I get, the more suspicious people become. The District marks the center of the Northeast, no longer separated into states. From there on out the areas grow poorer, from the neighborhood beyond ours where people rarely worry about losing a child, to the one beyond where people scrape up enough credits but know they are only one bad day away from losing it all. After that the odds of it only increase, and in some of those neighborhoods half of all children over thirteen are conscripted into the military.
In those areas if you can keep a child to thirteen, you're doing well. Military life is better than a visit from a Stiltskin. Government likes its soldier brats; I've seen them let a family take out a loan to get the kid to thirteen if it's only a few more months. Course then the parents are little more than slaves to the government after that, but they can say their child's alive.
Once you get to the farmlands, everyone looks at an Angel Agent like he's the devil himself. Can't blame them. Most of the families clinging to farm life have lost a child or two.
I busy myself reading up on the man I'm visiting. Dirk Harding, father of two, ran a successful dairy farm up until the milk scare over three years ago. Had to have his herd put down when they were infected with the T112 virus. Insurance only paid out enough credits to buy half as many new cows. On the upside those cows were heartier than the ones he lost; downside was they didn't produce as much milk.
Milk still sells for high credit though, so the farm limped along the last few years, breaking even but not turning a profit. When his six-year-old son developed a lung infection, their savings went fast. I shut the file, a picture of Dirk Harding already forming in my mind. He's an honest man who loves his family dearly. Another man might have let the infection run its course without treatment; the kid might have gotten better on his own. I realize with a stab of regret that Dirk Harding is the man I once was.
I sleep fitfully, waking often as the train passes through the dark night. It's better to travel at night, better not to see the buildings falling in on themselves and the shanty towns that have sprung up in the least populated areas. The sun is just starting to fight its way through the smog when I climb off the train. Like most villages this far out, there's no station, only a platform at the edge of the village.
The village itself is nothing much to look at, only two dozen buildings lining one street, all of them businesses with housing either in back or above. It's nothing more than a touch point for the farming families in the area. I consider stopping in at the local diner for breakfast, but as I stare at my reflection in the door, cross tattoo obvious to anyone who looks my way, I can't do it.
I pull my tracker from my pocket and punch in the coordinates for the Harding farm. It's a bit of a walk, but I don't mind. I walk head down, mind drifting, wishing I was somewhere else. Part of me hopes that Dirk Harding will be the sort of man I can offer an Angel Agent contract to. I've only offered two contracts while doing this job. It's bittersweet when they accept. It's one less child I have to kill, but I know the pain I'm signing those men up for. Not all Agents hate the job though; some seem to revel in it. I shudder to think of those men.
Halfway to the farm I stop for a brief moment of rest. A stream runs nearby. In another time I might have bent to drink from it; my throat is certainly parched enough, but that water hasn't been drinkable in many years. Instead, I pull the letter from my pocket and read it over again. One sentence stands out: 'We are pleased to offer authorization to you and your wife to birth a second child.' I crumple the letter into a ball and throw it into the stream. Before it can float away regret ripples through me and I pull it from the water. I don't want the letter, but I can't add any more pollution to the stream.
By the time the farm comes into sight I've worked myself up to the point where I'm fuming over the letter. We didn't ask to have another child and yet the government thinks they can buy my continued loyalty by offering one. As always they are looking for a patch instead of fixing what is truly wrong. I knock on the door louder than I mean to and fight to compose myself before the door opens.
The smile on Dirk Harding's face fades before the door is half open. This is the hardest part; the moment they realize who you are and why you're there. He doesn't close the door in my face or threaten though, only meets my eyes with his own sad, tired stare.
"Have we fallen that far behind then?" Dirk asks.
"I'm afraid so," I reply. "May I come in?" For a moment I think he will say no, spit on me and shove me off his steps, but he only nods and steps aside.
The inside of the farmhouse is better than many I've seen. The kitchen he leads me into is clean and well-kept, and I'm surprised to see his sons and wife at the table. I nod my head to his wife, a pale woman with blond hair falling in wispy strands to her shoulders. The boys are towheaded and as pale as their mother. All three of them stare at me with wide blue eyes. Behind me, Dirk clears his throat.
"Benny, can you get our guest a plate?" Dirk asks. Before I can argue, the smaller of the boys is out of his seat and pulling a plate from the cupboard.
"You don't need to go to any trouble," I say as the boy sets the plate and a fork on the table.
"Nonsense," Dirk says. "Hannah, a cup of coffee for the man?" His wife nods and pours a cup from the pot on the stove. I sit when Dirk motions to the chair. "Please, eat." Dirk motions to the pile of hard biscuits at the center of the table as he returns to his seat. I grab a biscuit just as Hannah sets the mug of coffee in front of me.
"Cream goes good with both," the older boy says. He holds a small pitcher of cream out to me and I take it gratefully. The scent of the strong coffee almost burns my nose hairs. One sip tells me it's mostly grain coffee, probably heavy with wheat. Once covered in cream the biscuit is actually quite good.
"Thank you for your hospitality," I say, feeling more awkward than I have on any other assignment.
"We may not have much, but we try our best to retain our manners, isn't that right boys?" Hannah asks. Both boys nod and I almost smile despite myself. They are thin, but clean and happy enough. I wouldn't have guessed the younger one almost died of a lung infection. I wipe my mouth on my sleeve and stand.
"Perhaps you and I should go for a walk," I say. Dirk frowns, but nods.
Outside, Dirk leads the way toward the barn. The farm hasn't yet fallen to ruin and it reminds me of the farm I once had. The smell of cows is heavy in the air before we reach the barn.
"Have you ever considered which child it would be?" I ask as we watch his thin herd.
Dirk lets out a snort of laughter. "You may as well ask me which arm I would chew off." He stops and faces me. "Do you have children, Mister . . . ?"
"Thomas Hart," I say. He is one of the few men who bothered to ask my name. "And yes, I have a daughter."
"And what would you do if you were in my shoes?"
"I've been in your shoes," I answer honestly. Perhaps he is a man I can deal with. He appears to be keeping a level head, but it may all be for show. "I chose to do this to save her."
Dirk looks at me with some surprise. "So the rumors are true? You can buy your child's life?"
"At a heavy cost," I agree. "The contract is for ten years."
"And how long have you been doing this?"
Dirk seems to let the number sink in a moment before he continues. "And how many have you killed?"
"More than I care to think about," I answer. In truth it's been slightly more than one hundred children. I've delivered at least that many to the army as well.
"Is it worth it?" Dirk asks. When his eyes meet mine again, they are filled with a familiar pain.
"Yes," I answer quietly. "I would be lying if I answered in any other way. My daughter's life is worth all of theirs to me." I stop, trying to convince myself not to say more, but I'm on a roll now. "But I'm rarely happy anymore. I can't help thinking of them each day my daughter is alive. Each breath she takes was bought with their deaths."
"It will have to be Benny, won't it?" Dirk asks. I'm not sure if he really wants an answer so I'm silent until it is clear he is waiting for an answer.
"I would think so," I reply. "Perhaps the older boy can be kept until he is thirteen."
"It's only two more years," Dirk says. "I thought we would make it at least until then."
"So you won't sign a contract?" I ask. "I can give you more time to consider. I won't return until this evening to do the deed."
"No contract," Dirk answers, shaking his head. "If blood is to be on my hands it will be the blood of my family. I won't be the one to kill another man's child."
I nod. I could try and convince him otherwise, but I don't have the energy.
I've made my decision before I reach the village again. I enter the town's single boarding house with only one thought on my mind. After renting a room, I sit on the bed and pull out my tracker, setting it to contact mode before entering Elissa's number. She picks up on the second ring.
"Thomas? Is everything okay?" she asks. I know she fears something bad has happened and I hurry to soothe her worries.
"Everything is fine. Just missing you and Kira." I pause, taking a deep breath before speaking again. "You're right about the south, it's much warmer here. I was thinking maybe you and Kira could come down and spend a couple days here with me." It's an odd request and she knows it.
"I was just about to take her to school," Elissa says.
"There is a train leaving in an hour," I push. "Dust off the bag at the back of the closet and throw in some clothes. You can be here by dinner."
There is the briefest unnatural pause and I know she realizes what I'm saying. I close my eyes, hoping she won't decide to argue or make a scene.
"Alright," Elissa says. "That sounds nice. How much can Kira really miss in a couple days of first year?"
"Great." My smile is genuine. "I'll meet you at the train tonight."
"Okay. Love you."
"Love you too," I answer and end the call. Now I can only wait.
The day passes with the dragging slowness only experienced by those waiting for a life-changing event. By the time I leave the boarding house to meet the train I feel as if I must have left a rut in the floor of my room with my pacing. For a moment when the train pulls to a stop, I fear they won't be there. When Elissa steps from the train, I breathe a sigh of relief.
"Daddy!" Kira runs and jumps into my arms. I cling tightly to her, savoring the feel of her small body against mine.
"Do you have--?" I ask Elissa, but she lifts the bag before I can finish the sentence.
"It's really happening then?" Elissa asks. She looks south. We're less than two hour's walk from the border to the Southeast. If Dirk has so much as a carriage and a decent horse we'll cut that time in half.
"Yes," I reply. When she leans in to kiss me, it's the sweetest kiss yet.
Dark has fallen by the time we reach the farmhouse. I've carried Kira piggy back most of the way and it's a relief to set her down. Elissa and I didn't speak much. I know she must be nervous, and I have much to consider. I pray Dirk has a carriage. Without one our chances of reaching the border diminish greatly. I know I have nano-trackers implanted inside me just in case I ever decide to do something this foolish, but we are far from the government center. The nearest outpost is roughly two hours away even by helicopter. There was a time when the government kept troops in every village and town, but as poverty grew, it became easier to turn a blind eye if soldiers weren't there to see it. I believe I've taken everything into consideration. I believe we can do this.
"Benny's still awake," Dirk says bitterly as soon as he opens the door. "You didn't leave the sleep draft." Only then does he notice Elissa and Kira at my side. "What's going on?" Dirk asks.
"Quickly," I say. "Dress warmly and pack a few items. If you have any credits to your name, this is the time to grab them."
"What do you mean to do?" Dirk asks.
"I mean to save all our lives," I answer. "And perhaps my soul." Dirk looks long and hard into my eyes before nodding.
It takes no time for his small family to prepare. Kira and Benny play shyly with one another in the living room, but the older boy helps his mother wrap food in a satchel. When they're ready, we stand in a huddle at the door.
"Do you have a carriage?" I ask.
"Yes and one fine horse that runs like the wind," Dirk answers. He looks around at our group. "Though perhaps not quite so fast with this large of a group."
"Where are we going?" Hannah asks. She holds both boys tight against her.
"To the Southeast border," I reply.
"They'll shoot us on sight," Hannah says, drawing back.
"We have more to fear from our own border patrol," I say. "I'm hoping the credits in this bag will buy our way through." Hannah looks like she might argue again, but Dirk cuts off any other arguments.
"It's the only choice." He looks at Benny. "It's all or none of us now."
Sensing the urgency of the matter, the children are all silent as the carriage rolls through the night. Dirk knows the way to the border so I toss my tracker from the carriage as we go. If only it would be so simple to keep them from following us. I really should tell the others that the government will be following us, but not even Elissa knows about the nano-trackers, and I need them to remain hopeful.
When the crossing to Southeast is just visible in the distance, the only thing lit so brightly for miles, I tell Dirk to pull the carriage from the road. We'll walk from here, better to catch one guard near the border than argue with a crew of them at the crossing. As we unload from the cart I hear the dreaded thwump thwump of a helicopter in the distance. I feel my heart sink.
"Hurry," I order, lifting Kira into my arms.
We crash into the woods, first running away from the road, and then turning to move parallel. It isn't long before the noise of the helicopter is passing over us and landing in the road. They'll see the carriage, but there isn't anything to be done about that.
"Is it the government?" Dirk asks, yelling over his shoulder to me.
"Yes," I reply, glancing back to see flashlights in the woods behind us. They're moving more quickly than I could have guessed. "Just keep going."
Soon we can see the clearing in the woods that marks the border. In the dim, filtered moonlight I believe the guard there is wearing a green armband over his navy uniform. If so he's Southeastern, and the only guard in sight. My heart hammers in my chest. If he's Southeastern, our chances have just doubled. Behind us, the flashlights are getting closer, too close.
I make a split second decision and pull Elissa to a stop. I press Kira into her arms and lean close to kiss each of them.
"Thomas, no," Elissa says. She knows what I'm thinking. Kira only looks frightened.
"Someone needs to buy time," I reply.
"Don't be a fool," Dirk says, looking at me scornfully. His small family stopped only a few feet ahead of us.
"Just get across," I tell Elissa. "Promise the guard the money, but not all of it. Offer him fifteen hundred credits, two thousand if he demands it, all of it if you must, but get across."
"Come with us," Elissa begs. She presses against me, but between the bag and Kira her hands are too full to grab me. Behind us, the flashlights are closer yet.
"Take care of them," I say, glancing at Dirk just long enough to see him nod. Then I'm running again.
I run toward the flashlights, looking back only once to see that the others are heading for the border. I think I can hear Kira crying, but it might just be my imagination.
"There he is," someone shouts and I know I've been spotted. I make an abrupt turn, still heading for the border, but angling away from the path the others took.
Behind me the government officers are crashing through the woods. Strangely, it reminds me of when I was a boy playing chase in the woods near my home. They'll catch me. I knew it when I was a boy and I know it now. That's okay though, I only need to buy enough time.
"Thomas Hart, stop where you are!" a voice shouts. I hear the low hum of a pulse gun and taste the electricity in the air as the pulse rips past me. They aren't pulling any punches and I speed up despite myself.
I'm rushed by two Northeastern border guards as I reach the clearing. I let them push me to my stomach. My head is turned in the direction of Elissa and the others. In the darkness on the other side of the border I can just see movement. The guards cuff my hands behind my back and lift me to my knees as the officers push into the clearing.
"Well done," a tall, gray-haired man says, clapping the young guard on the shoulder. The guards back away, letting the officers take over. Their attention remains on me however, none of them noticing the movement across the border.
"Thomas Hart." The gray-haired man clucks his tongue. "You should know better than to run. Just authorized to have another child and you throw it all away. Where are the others? Hiding in the woods?"
When I don't answer, he nods to another officer who steps forward and punches me hard in the mouth. I think he might have knocked loose a tooth.
"Where are they?" asks the gray-haired man again, bending down to look me in the eye. I spit blood in his face. He kicks me in the groin. The officers are holding me so tightly I can barely bend over at the pain. "Scour the forest," he commands. Almost as an afterthought he adds, "Kill him."
As they press the pulse gun to the side of my head, the smog must clear a little because the moonlight illuminates a flash of color across the border. Kira's pink jacket. I watch them follow the Southeastern guard away from the border and towards safety.
I hear the hum from the pulse gun and just taste electricity before pain explodes inside my head.
Then there is nothing.