Author’s Note: If you haven’t already, you may wish to read Chapter 0 first, before continuing on with Chapter 1.

Chapter 1

In the ten years that Thomas Butcher had been an agent for Create or Die, there was never a day that he dreaded going to work, but lately, he was starting to wonder what the point of it all was. As he sat on the couch, bouncing his small son on his knee, his mind was elsewhere. The toddler threw his head back and giggled, his thick blue-black hair flopping over his green eyes as he squealed with delight. Any other night, Thomas would have been laughing along with him, throwing his whole body into it as he jiggled and wiggled Ian to elicit a louder laugh, but tonight he was distant, his mind focused on the next contestant he would be sent to kill.

“It’s time for dinner little man,” Sonia cooed as she drifted into the room. Her long, blue-black hair cascaded down as she bent over to pick up the baby, but Ian arched his back and started babbling loudly, protesting because she was putting an end to his fun.

“Listen to your mama,” Thomas placed his hand on Ian’s back and scooted him off his lap. “It’s time to go eat.”

Sonia grabbed Ian’s hand, and he tugged at it, trying to pull her toward the table, but she stayed where she was, and took a long look at Thomas. “What’s wrong?”

Thomas sighed. “Work,” he shook his head. “CoD has increased our quotas. Again.

And, they have yet to hire anyone new, though your father keeps promising he’ll get around to it. I don’t know how he expects us to keep up.”

She shrugged. “You know dad, he has high expectations for everyone, that’s how he gets the best out of someone. He expects more and more from them, pushing them into excellence. You of all people should know that, Mr. Top Agent.” She bent over him, and kissed him where the bald spot was forming on the back of his head.

He hated that spot, hated how his hair was thinning, a reminder of youth slipping away. But she found the spot endearing. It was one more place on his body that she could kiss, so what choice did he have but to let her, despite the constant reminder.

“Top agent,” he snorted. “How did that even happen? Me? There has to be someone else qualified to take the lead. There are other agents who are smarter and stronger than I am. I just don’t understand.”

“You’re special,” she said as she kissed his bald spot again, “that’s why I married you.”

“Your father can’t rely on me forever. What’s he going to do when I retire?”

“Retire? Now?” Her tone shifted.

He sighed and fiddled with his hands. She always got weird when the subject of retiring came up. He wanted to retire for her, for them, so that he could spend more time with his family, but it was almost as if she couldn’t stand the thought of having him around the house all day. “Well, not yet. But soon. It would be nice to spend time with you and Ian.”

“You spend plenty of time with us. What would you do with all your free time? It’s not like retired agents are in high demand.”

“That’s because agents don’t retire every day. It’s not like there are that many of us, but I’m sure someone would hire me. Maybe I could even leverage my fame and put it to work for me. Someone out there probably needs a bodyguard or something.”

“What about taking over the business one day. I know dad was hoping maybe you’d be interested.”

“In CoD? I have no interest in running a mega-corporation. Your father can find someone else.”

“But your contract —”

“That’s the problem. There’s no way out of it, at least from what I can tell.” His contract with CoD was ironclad, and there was only one way out of it — death. He sighed. “Ever since little man came on the scene, all I can think about are the families I’m destroying. Every time I kill a contestant, I’m killing someone’s son, or daughter. Think about that. What if Ian were a contestant? What if I were sent to kill him?”

“Ian will know the importance and seriousness of obligation, but if he decides to become a contestant, then he will have to live with the consequences, whatever those happen to be, just like any other contestant. They knew what they agreed to when they signed up for the show. It’s not like the outcome is secret or anything. The high stakes are part of the excitement. You are just doing your job. A job that you are excellent at, by the way.” She kissed his bald spot again. “Don’t let those people get to you.”

“You’re right. Of course you’re right,” he sighed, “but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

“I know,” she squeezed his shoulder. Ian let out a long, warbled whine, and danced at the end of Sonia’s hand. “I need to go feed him.”

“And I need to go to work,” Thomas pushed up off of the couch and stood, his large muscular frame dwarfing Sonia. He drew her into his arms. She nestled her head against his chest, and he inhaled her scent, a mix of vanilla and lavender, with a hint of spice. His heart beat faster as it swelled with love. They were five years into their relationship and she still sent an electric shiver through him every time they touched.

It was hard enough leaving her, but as he bent down and tickled Ian, a pang of sorrow washed over him. He had to go to work, had to leave his son to kill someone else’s child. Don’t let those people get to him? How could he not, especially now that he fully understood the cost of the lives that he took?

***

Thomas stood in the bedroom of a home that wasn’t his and waited for the signal. He grabbed his phone out of his pocket and swiped it, checking for notifications. None. He made sure it was on vibrate, slipped the phone into his pocket, and peered into the living room. Most of the time the contestants were engrossed in the show, curious to see how they measured up against their competition, but this time the contestant was up and moving around. Must be a commercial break, CoD should really try to time their notifications better. As he waited, he slipped his gun from his hip, and began screwing on the suppressor. The contestant shuffled from the living room to the kitchen and back again, gathering snacks and drinks for the show.

He sized up the room, noting the layout and location of the furniture and other obstacles, before his eyes turned to the ceiling, looking for any cameras that CoD planted. Two small, dark orbs dotted the ceiling to his left and right, each camera shooting a cross-section of the room. Though he hadn’t located it yet, he knew there was a third camera somewhere. There were always three cameras. His eyes searched the ceiling until he found it at the peak, nestled against the wooden beam that ran the length of the room. The camera was pointed straight down on the contestant’s couch. CoD pointed the cameras differently for him than they did for other agents, making sure to get parts of him on screen, but never his face. It was their arrangement. They got their kill, he got to keep his anonymity. A win-win for both parties.

On the TV, the theme song for Music or Die chimed, signaling the end of the commercial break. He waited for the contestant to settle back down on her couch and watch the show. That was when he liked to strike, when they were so engrossed in the program that the backdrop of the house fell away until there was nothing in focus but the TV. The screen flashed a picture of the contestant who sat before him, a 24-year-old woman with short, spiky hair, her bangs a crest of neon pink in a field of brown. She was the frontwoman for a four-piece all-girl band, and she talked about her influences before the show cut to her submission video. All of the instruments came alive at once, and the singer snarled into the microphone, her voice a growl underneath the cacophony of noise.

In the living room, the singer bobbed her head, rocking out to the music. He couldn’t believe that this was her submission video. Had she ever seen the show? This type of music never goes over well with the audience. Voting analytics showed viewers preferred a mainstream, non-offensive sound, which the contestant would know had she bothered to read the submission guidelines. Despite being easy to locate online, contestants never took the time to read the documents, often to their detriment.

Not that he agreed with the submission guidelines. After hundreds of hours of listening to the same old sounds, it was refreshing to hear something new, something original, like this girl’s band. It wasn’t that great, but there was something beautiful about the unique tone of her voice. The band slowed, the singer let out a final wail before the noise stopped. It was time to vote. Her picture appeared on screen with her name, and a counter, the number set at zero. The contestant tossed handfuls of popcorn into her mouth, the urgency of her crunching an outlet for her nervous energy.

He would be nervous too, if he were her, especially after a performance like that. The counter began flashing, ready to lock in the final count — 200 votes. Ouch. He knew she remained hopeful that another contestant would do worse than she did, they always did, but in the end it was no use. If he was standing in her living room, her fate was already sealed. His phone vibrated in his pocket, letting him know that it was time to do his job. He stepped out of the hallway and raised his gun, training the sight on the back of her head as his finger slid onto the trigger. He paused to control his breathing, giving him a moment to line up the perfect shot, and as he did, a hand shot out from the other side of the couch and landed on the contestant’s knee.

“Well you did the best you could, even if you didn’t win,” an older woman said.

“You gave it your best shot, honey. You’ll do better next time,” the man encouraged.

Parents? Why were her parents sitting there? There were never any extras. Thomas looked around the room, confused. CoD always made it easy. Why were they changing it up now?

The contestant looked up at her parents, her chin quivering. “You don’t understand. There won’t be a next time.” One lone tear rolled down her face.

He shifted, his movement just enough to catch the contestant’s eye and she turned and looked at him, causing her parents to turn and also look at him. Shit! He hated it when contestants saw at him. He shot twice, and her parents slumped dead on the couch, the bullet wounds positioned perfectly between their eyes. The contestant cried out and reached for her parents, and Thomas shot again. She went limp before she could touch them. The bodies had barely settled on the couch when there was a loud pop, and confetti rained down from the sky. The camera crew rushed into the room, everyone talking to him at once. A chorus of congratulations echoed around him.

Thomas pushed passed the crew and rushed out of the front door before they could film him more than they already had. One lone cameraman was brave enough to follow him. Thomas turned, his nostrils flared and fists clenched. The man stopped suddenly, trying not to crash into him, and Thomas wrangled the camera from the man’s hands. It hit the ground with a loud crunch, but he stomped on it a few times for good measure, taking out his frustrations on the camera, instead of the man like he wanted to do. CoD wouldn’t say a word about him roughing up a contestant, but damaging the employees would certainly get him the threat of rehabilitation.

“Hey, that equipment is expensive,” the cameraman cried out as his equipment was reduced to small pieces under Thomas’ foot.

His check would probably be docked for this, but he didn’t care. It was a small price to pay for the injustice CoD had committed against him. Thomas stormed off to his car, his tires squealing as he raced away.

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