by Jennifer Dyer
They’d covered every inch of the table with food. Roasted animal flesh swam in congealed brown liquid. Vegetables drowned in butter. Thick soups included more meat. Piles of flaky rolls anchored the corners, and a layered chocolate cake domed high with strawberries rose in the center like a king’s crown. When was the last time I’d seen a berry?
Enough food for the town, and only a dozen people dined here. A year’s worth of Citizen ration cards wouldn’t buy this spread, but the Officials lived by their own rules.
At least it should make killing them easier.
My bag dug into my shoulder as Sarge barked instructions in my ear. “Do the job, Hitch. This could be the key to ending this war.”
My gut burned. As Sarge always said, assassins weren’t paid ration cards to think. We were paid to get the job done.
Any moment the Head Official would arrive. I needed to finish the job. The cook staff didn’t so much as glance at me when I arrived for cleaning duty, broom in tow. The dish washer sneered my way once, though. Everyone needs someone to look down on.
The guards, though, were more difficult. They were suspicious grunts like me. One of them followed me from room to room, as though I might steal treasures at any moment, like the coins he’d stuffed into his pocket when he didn’t know I was looking. He’d put up a good fight. It wasn’t anything personal. The Citizen Militia wouldn’t be pleased I’d only tranqued him and tied him up out back, but we were two sides of the same coins, weren’t we? Starving jerks trying to collect enough ration cards to delay the inevitable. Did nametag-says-Joe have kids at home to feed? Or maybe like me, he had a family of younger sibs to care for since this blasted war had stolen our parents, our homes, and our futures.
I fingered the tube of liquid in my shirt pocket. I only had to shake it over the table. A drop here and there. Most of them would die without blood, without me pulling the trigger. I had charges I could set, too. Oops. Another war mishap. I’d be practically blameless.
I looked over the steaming table again. Maybe I should focus on poisoning the cake. What pigs, eating cake while the rest of us starved. They deserved it, right? The flames in my gut burned brighter.
My earpod buzzed. “Three minutes.” I glanced out the window. A kid’s swing careened in the wind from the branches of the oak tree.
I headed to the other side of the table to get a better reach on the cake. A chef had piped “Happy birthday, Lizzie” on its front. I brushed past a side table of picture frames. One thumped to the floor. The thick carpet absorbed the sound. The Head Official’s fat jowls grinned up at me. He looked like a stuffed pig on display at a state fair. But twin little girls sat on either side of him. Their blonde hair curled like Jenny’s used to, before she got burned in that bombing. When I looked closer, his shirt said “World’s Greatest Grandpa”.
Heel smashing the picture, I jerked out my bottle and doused the cake. But I couldn’t seem to swallow. My eyes went back to the picture on the ground. I squeezed them shut. Like I said, stomachs weren’t filled by assassins who stopped to think.
I squatted by the table and slammed the charges to the underside of it. There’d be a hot enough blast after they’d eaten to hopefully erase any signs of my visit.
“One minute,” Sarge said in my ear.
I stuffed rolls in my pockets and into the folds of my shirt—hey, the kids deserved to eat, didn’t they? And this group had plenty to share, especially since they were about to die. I dribbled the remainder of the bottle into the soup and sighed. Too bad it had to be this way.
It was a waste of a good meal.
Since I’d smashed the picture, I shoved it into my bagI didn’t want to leave any evidence. I ran out the back door.
Sarge must have been off about his timing because the convoy of cars snaked down the street, in plain sight of the house. The Official’s car hunkered in the center with a flashing-light military escort. If I ran now they’d see me. I scooted back into the house. The warm bread felt like an oven against my skin, and the picture frame knifed at me. I tossed my bag and outer jacket with the rolls into a closet. I’d have to blend with the staff and make my exit in a few minutes.
The Head Official climbed out of his car, family scampering out behind. Three little girls, the twins and one younger. Their dresses fluttering as they hopped.
They ran inside. The youngest one crashed into me—Lizzie, I presumed. She grinned up. “Hey, kid. We’re eating cake for my birthday. Want some?”
Kid. Seemed like a hundred years since I’d thought of myself like that, but I was only 14, at least in years.
The Head Official came through the door after Lizzie, frowning at us standing so close. But then he smiled. “She offered you cake. Best not turn it down.”
Your turn: How would you end this? Would Hitch let them die? Watch them die? Do something to save them? Sacrifice himself? Is the Head Official suspicious or perhaps not the evil man Hitch believed him to be?