From the day they signed the adoption paperwork, David always knew something would take Hannah away from them.
Shannon told him not to be ridiculous, but he knew that was her own way of whistling in the dark. Part of him just could not believe that someone had given them this perfect little creature, with her tiny fingernails and her seashell ears. Surely, someday, Hannah’s parents would realize they had made a terrible mistake and come back and claim her, legal documents be damned.
The knock on the door came in the middle of the before-school scramble. Shannon sat perched on a barstool at the breakfast nook, one finger flipping through the email on the tablet the law firm had given her. Hannah had gotten distracted again by her hamster, as only a ten year old could. So David answered the door with an open backpack in one hand, a spill of homework across the floor behind him.
One look at the man in the impeccable charcoal suit on the stoop, and David’s stomach dropped. Every strand of the visitor’s black hair was in place, his tie understated, and he held a picnic basket for no discernable reason. David’s brain decided to let that pass for the moment. He didn’t know how, but he knew the man was here for Hannah.
Still, he played dumb. “Can I help you?”
Unfooled, the man gave him a Look. David took an involuntary step backwards. It was enough to let the man in the door.
David kept backing up until he bumped into Hannah. He put either arm out to keep her behind him. Shannon looked up and her eyes went wide.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“You may call me Agares,” he said. His voice was unexpectedly smooth.
“The paperwork was all cleared years ago,” David said, stalling for time. Behind him, Shannon swiped furiously. “The court finalized everything and sealed the records.”
Shannon thrust out the tablet. David could see the seal of the scanned order of adoption from where he stood.
Agares smiled. It was not a nice smile. “It is not the mortal paperwork that concerns me.”
Behind him, Hannah ducked back to avoid his gaze.
David’s mouth was dry and he had to swallow to get the words out. “Then whose paperwork concerns you?”
Agares produced a genuine rolled parchment with a flourish. The terms were handwritten, and the scrawl at the bottom was in a suspiciously rusty ink. For a moment, his eyes flashed red.
“Give me that,” Shannon snapped, grabbing the document.
“Daddy, I don’t want to go,” Hannah whispered.
He pulled her into a hug. “Don’t worry,” he whispered back, into her hair. He hated lying to her. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Is this a joke?” Shannon demanded. Her voice was angry, but David could see the panic welling in her eyes. That scared him more than anything else.
“The birth parents want her back?” David asked. Hannah’s fingers dug into his arm.
“He sold her.” Shannon stared at the parchment. “Her goddamn father sold her.”
“Sold Hannah?” David said. “But she isn’t his to sell anymore.”
“Technically, he signed over the rights to the soul of his first-born child.” For the first time, he looked a bit uncomfortable.
“For what?” David demanded.
Agares waved a hand. “Power, riches, the usual I’m sure. I’m just the collections agent, I didn’t negotiate the Agreement.”
“And what do you want with the soul of a seven-year-old?”
“New souls are a currency, of a sort,” Agares shrugged. “Very valuable collateral. The Accountants love them.”
David struggled not to throw up as Hannah began to cry. She had never been a noisy crier, even as a baby. Now, her face merely went dead white as tears began to roll down her cheeks. David wondered if he were strong enough to kill Agares. He wondered if Agares could be killed.
Shannon latched onto the key word. “New souls. But hers can hardly be considered new, she’s been, uh, using it for ten years now.” This might not be the court she was used to fighting in front of, but his Shannon wasn’t going to let that stop her.
Agares looked uncomfortable. “Yes. Well. There was, shall we say, a certain lack of due diligence.”
“So he cheated,” David shouted. “He was supposed to trade his hope of children, not the one he already gave away.”
“He negotiated in bad faith,” Shannon continued. “We have the prior claim.”
“I’m afraid Our claims supersede any mortal ones,” Agares shrugged. “It was certainly bad form. And rest assured, steps are being taken to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. But negotiating in bad faith is fairly customary under such circumstances.”
“But you said you only needed new souls? What could you possibly use hers for?” David asked desperately.
Agares paused, considering. He blew out a breath through his nose. “…perhaps she can be an intern of sorts. Do you think you could carry the basket?” He reached out to Hannah, holding the basket.
Hannah reached out one tentative hand and, before David could stop her, lifted the lid a crack. The sound of dozens of terrified newborns crying desperately for their mothers filled the room. Hannah slammed the lid back down and buried her face in David’s chest.
Shannon reached out one hand toward the basket, anguish written across her face. David remembered the same look of longing from the day the elevator had stopped on the maternity floor, right after the doctors had told them that he would never be able to father a child. She hadn’t left him; she had stayed and fought through the adoption process with him. This was his fault.
Something in her snapped, and she started screaming at Agares. David caught bits of legal jargon and impassioned pleading, but he ignored it as he wrapped his arms around his little girl, inhaling her scent, desperately trying to comfort her and engrave every aspect of her into his memory in what little time he might have left. The tickle of a flyaway hair against his nose, the baby fat still clinging to her upper arms, the scent of raspberry shampoo and oatmeal. She clung to him like her life depended on it.
Shannon was winding down, her voice starting to crack. David knew she only could have another minute or two before she broke down. He knelt down so his face was level with Hannah’s, his hands on each of her shoulders.
“I love you, honeybee. I know you’re brave. Go to your mother, ok?”
Hannah nodded, her eyes bloodshot but her face determined. He gave her a little push and she threw herself at Shannon. His wife caught her, pulling her in close, desperately rereading the parchment over her daughter’s head.
“So is the potential for a brand new soul worth more than an already-used one?” he said softly, stepping closer to Agares.
Agares cocked his head. “I’m listening.”
“I’ll trade you. You get my own firstborn, we keep this one.”
Agares paused, and then pulled out a Blackberry. He fiddled with it, then raised his eyebrows. “I told you steps were being taken to improve our processes. I’m afraid you don’t actually have any collateral. I’m glad to see that you’re getting into the spirit of things, though.”
The demon stepped away and raised his voice. “Come then, there are more accounts that need to be settled if we’re going to make the quarterly numbers.”
He snapped his fingers and Shannon was left clutching a small, suddenly empty cardigan.
David slowly sank to his knees, his body letting them down once again.
“Agares.” The senior demon shuffled over in the elevator and folded in his wings so the kid could squeeze in. Her eyes were enormous, but he had to give her credit—she hadn’t cried since they left.
“Heard about your mishap.” Beelzebub glanced down at the kid.
“Hey, not my fault,” Agares protested.
Beelzebub shrugged. “Salesmen.”
“Salesmen,” Agares agreed. The doors dinged open, and the customary wave of heat hit his face with its homey sulfur smell.
The kid trailed after him between the cubicles, clutching the basket. He ushered her into his office. No window, but there was a door that closed. Being a Duke was good for something, at least. He remembered when he used to get to ride a crocodile into the world. Hellishly slow, but it made an impression. They’d modernized, of course—had to keep up with the times. He wondered what had happened to the crocodile.
“Take a seat,” he said, gesturing at one of the chairs in the corner. Uncomfortable, of course, but what office chair wasn’t? He logged into the aging desktop. He really wanted a tablet, but the grapevine said it was going to be at least another couple months until the production line was up and running. Turned out all those tech guys who had knowingly employed child workers in substandard conditions weren’t actually very good at assembling electronics by hand themselves. Especially not while standing on burning rock. But that was hell. No one ever got what they wanted.
He looked at the kid doubtfully. “I don’t suppose you know how to type?”
She gave him a scornful look. He guessed she did, then. Well, there were the Digital Natives for you. The world just kept getting faster, it seemed.
“Here, make yourself useful. Can you enter all these forms” he handed her a stack of half-illegible scrawls “into this template?”
She looked doubtful, but climbed into the chair behind the desk. She could barely see the monitor. She went back, fetched the basket, and sat on top. It was a little precarious, but at least OSHA didn’t have dominion down here. Carpal tunnel was just the beginning of punishment.
Agares ducked down the hall to get some coffee. Lucifer, it had been a long day. Some of the guys waved him over.
“So I hear you’ve got a groupie,” Purson said, scratching his mane.
“Intern, thank you,” Agares said.
“Some guys get all the luck,” Naberius’ middle head said. His left head chimed in, “Yeah, you get a bogus assignment and wind up with someone to carry your basket. Last time sales made a mistake for me, I ended up having to make it up out of my salary.”
“So what are you going to do with her?” asked Furfur.
“I guess I’ll keep her?” Agares said. “Dunno if Accounts Receivable will even take her. She won’t fit in the slot, that’s for sure.”
He wandered back, having stopped at the last second to grab another cup.
“You like milk, right? Aren’t human kids supposed to drink milk?” He handed her the cup.
She looked at it dubiously. “Couldn’t I have some coffee?”
“I don’t know.” Agares scratched the back of his head. “I don’t think you’re supposed to have coffee.”
“Aren’t you supposed to tempt me with things I’m not supposed to do?” she said, continuing to peck at the keyboard. She squinted at the bad handwriting. “Daddy lets me have a little of his. You’ve got really bad handwriting. You must not have gotten very good grades.”
Agares rolled his eyes and handed her his cup. “Knock yourself out, kid. Let’s see how far you’ve gotten.”
He leaned over her shoulder. Some of the spelling was egregiously wrong, but he had to admit privately that he wasn’t sure he’d spelled “deductible” right, either. She’d done it a lot faster than he could, that was certain.
“Ok, well, let’s go turn in the payments now. We can finish the paperwork later.”
His brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
She looked up at him. “I’m not turning in the baby souls. They didn’t do anything. I was mean to Billy and hit him with a dodgeball and I cheated on my math test and Mommy didn’t find out, so maybe I deserve to be here, but they’re just babies. I’m not giving you them.”
He sighed. “Child, I already have them. We just have to turn them over, it’s only a formality.”
“No,” she said again, stubborn. “You don’t. I do, I’m sitting on them. Mommy says that possession is nine-tenths of the law and the rest is just lawyers, and I’m the possess—possessinger—possessing person. They’re mine and I don’t give them to you. You can’t make me.”
He stopped and considered. Strictly speaking, she was right. For all the trappings of the modern world, Hell operated on a fairly medieval and extremely legalistic basis. He had given her the basket. She was in possession of the souls. “I guess you fit in here pretty well after all,” he said with grudging admiration.
There was a knock on the door and Beelzebub stuck his head in. “Can I see you in my office?”
Agares kept his face neutral as he followed him out. Never a good thing when a Prince of Hell wanted to see you in his office.
“So the little girl—how’s that working out?” Beelzebub’s tone was studiously casual as the door swung shut. Outside, flames danced. Princes rated windows in their offices. Good soundproofing, though—you could barely hear the screaming at all.
“Not a bad typist,” Agares said cautiously.
“You like her?”
“She’s growing on me,” he admitted. “Dunno, give her a few years of being raised by demons, she could be an asset.”
“Yeah, well, she’s not getting that kind of time.” Beelzebub cut to the chase. “She’s a payment, Agares. You’re a collections demon. Now, you’ve got a choice. She’s yours right now, you collected her. You can turn her in right now, and we’ll toss in a couple bonus souls to make up for your trouble, and you’ll make your numbers for the month, no sweat. Or you can keep her, and try to earn an extra soul on the side. Won’t look particularly good, come review time, though. We both know you know better than to try to short Accounts Receivable completely, though.”
For a second, he was tempted. Earning an extra soul was a pain, and hardly guaranteed. But he liked the kid. Usually, when he collected souls, they were so unformed as to be uninteresting beyond their intrinsic value or so corroded that there was no point in sympathizing. But this one…she was sparky. Kinda cute. Definitely useful. It might be a good Deal. She’d be fun to have around. And it wasn’t her fault, not really. He found himself wanting to protect her.
And then he came to his senses. He was a demon, and he ate souls for breakfast. Literally, with milk. Not the baby souls, of course—Accounting squirreled those away where the likes of him never got them. But the older ones were crunchy, and they suffered the entire process, including the part where their remains were collected and reassembled and sent back through the process again.
“No, it’s cool. Can I have her finish typing my report, first, though?”
Beelzebub smiled and leaned back. “Good job. Knew you’d pass.”
Agares’ eyebrows went up. “This some kind of test?”
“Not set up on purpose, but we’re demons. We’re opportunistic. It’s good to make sure your heart is still in the right place. Look, we both know she’s not going to fit through the slot. Send her on up to Upper Management when you’re done and they’ll deal with her, ok?”
Agares allowed himself a moment of regret as he headed back to the office. He was used to the look of betrayal, he was a collections demon. But he really had been looking forward to not having to type his own reports anymore.
Hannah swallowed hard and clutched the handle of the basket. The door behind her closed with a heavy click. The far-off screaming that had been in the background since she left the elevator abruptly cut off, leaving a silence so thick her ears hurt. She shuffled along the cream-colored carpet, but it muffled her footsteps so she could barely hear them, either.
At the end of the corridor, there was another heavy wooden door. She didn’t want to open the door.
Her daddy had said that she was brave, so she was trying very hard. Well, her first daddy had sent her to hell, but her real daddy had always told her that her first parents gave her up. He’d tried to make it sound nice, but she had always figured her first daddy must have been a big meanie-head. And besides, the babies needed her.
She swallowed again and pushed open the door.
Most of the room was windows looking out on people being hurt. She didn’t want to see them, so she tried to just look inside the room. There was a big shiny desk with a bowl of flowers on it. Behind the desk sat a man who looked like an angel. He wore a very nice white suit and he had flowing golden hair to his shoulders, and his fingernails were very clean. His wings were all ruined, though. She had thought maybe the Devil would have bat wings like in movies, but he had regular feathery angel wings, only they were all burnt up. The feathers were black and broken, and here and there she could see raw patches of burned skin. They looked like they hurt a lot.
“Take a seat, child. Put down your basket.”
Hannah edged up to the desk, but before she put down the basket, she thought hard. In stories, demons and fairies and things tried to trick you. She didn’t really understand how any of this worked, but she knew that holding onto the basket was important.
The Devil seemed to understand her dilemma. He sighed. “I formally recognize that you are currently the owner of the basket and its contents, and setting it down does not constitute a relinquishment of ownership.”
She bunched up her nose. “What’s ‘relinquishment’?”
“It’s still your basket even if you put it down,” the Devil said and sighed again. “You can rest your feet on it, if it will make you feel better.”
It was kind of uncomfortable to carry, so she put it on the floor and sat down in the chair across from the Devil. She did put her feet up on it, though, and glared at him defiantly.
“So what are you planning to do with the souls, then?” he asked her.
She hadn’t thought that far. She didn’t want to give them to him, that would be wrong. But what could she do with them? “…can I give them back to their parents?”
“Well, let’s think about this,” said the Devil. “Who gave them to us in the first place?”
“Oh.” She was glad her first daddy had given her to her real daddy. She definitely didn’t want to go back to the first one, and she supposed the little baby souls wouldn’t, either. “What were you going to do with them?” She was a little afraid of the answer, but she was desperately curious.
Instead of answering, the Devil stood up and walked over to the window. He gestured her over. “What do you see?”
Hannah shook her head and stayed put. She hadn’t needed to sleep yet, down here, but she was pretty sure she was already going to have nightmares the next time she closed her eyes. She didn’t really want any more horrible things in her head.
He didn’t force her. “When souls are born, they’re very small, and light, and clean. It’s why you can fit so many in that basket. But they get dirty and heavy as people do bad things. All this,” he gestured out the window, “purifies them. When they’re clean, we send them back into the world.”
She wrinkled her brow. “But Mr. Agares said they were collateral.”
The Devil sighed. His face was still unlined, but somehow he looked very, very old. And very tired. “Mr. Agares doesn’t know everything.”
“They’re not very good at their jobs, are they.” Hannah had heard her daddy complain about the pointlessness of office work. She would have thought immortals would have had time to figure it out better.
“They’re very good at their jobs; it’s just not their job to be good.” The Devil sat on the edge of his desk and looked into her eyes.
“But Mr. Agares hates his job.”
“Humans aren’t the only ones being punished here.”
It sounded like the kind of reasoning Mommy said she would understand when she was older. It didn’t make a lot of sense to her now. She focused on the main problem. “So the baby souls?”
“Well, they haven’t really been used yet, so we just send them back to have another try.”
That didn’t seem so bad. Maybe next time, the babies would get nice parents. Now Hannah felt bad. The basket didn’t seem like a very nice place to be. She had thought she was protecting them, but had she just been keeping them from getting a nice new home?
But if she gave them back, where did that leave her?
“Would you like to make a Deal?” asked the Devil.
She thought about it. She wondered what she could trade for. Riches? Long life? Could he send her home? She wondered what her first daddy had tried to get. “What happened with my Deal?”
“You mean your father’s?” When she nodded, his lip curled in satisfaction. He might be acting nice, Hannah realized, but the Devil was not a nice man. “Let’s just say he won’t be enjoying his gains for very long.”
“Deals with you don’t usually go very well, do they.”
He looked at her solemnly. “No, they don’t. Do you know why?”
She shook her head.
“Because most people who Deal with me are greedy. They try to trade something that isn’t theirs, or they think they can find a loophole. But I have been doing this for a very, very long time, and I know all the loopholes.”
Hannah thought some more. “The souls aren’t really mine, are they?”
“What do you think?”
She didn’t think it was right that her first daddy had been able to trade her away. “I think they belong to themselves.”
“So where does that leave you?”
There was no way to get home, she realized sadly. “Here. I don’t actually have anything to trade.”
“You’re giving up the souls? Even though you could have used them?”
“It’s not right.”
He leaned back, looked oddly satisfied. “You forgot something.”
She bit her lip, puzzled.
“If the souls belong to themselves, who do you belong to?”
He nodded. “So what do you want to do with yourself?”
“I want to go home!” But she remembered how souls got back into the world. “…but I don’t want to go…out there.”
“Oh, child. Your soul isn’t that heavy yet. Besides, strictly speaking, you haven’t actually died.”
Hope rose to her throat. “So…?”
“As I said, I know all the loopholes. We can’t have you here interfering. Especially since it was our mistake you ended up here in the first place. And especially since you haven’t made any decisions that would keep you here.”
Her eyes were drawn to the basket. “You mean, if I’d tried to bargain…”
“You would have belonged here after all.”
She felt sick. “Am I going to come back?”
“Well, that depends on you, doesn’t it?” He smiled. He meant it to be scary, she was sure. Somehow it looked more sad. “But you’re only human. And who among us is perfect?”
David swirled the slivers of ice in the glass. Whatever alcohol had been in there had long since disappeared, but he kept swirling and sipping. The water puckered in his mouth. Across the room, Shannon stared blankly at her chipped nailpolish. It occurred to him to wonder how much longer the firm would let her extend her leave. He let the thought drift across his mind, and then drift away again.
The door opened. Apparently he hadn’t locked it, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. A small silhouette blocked out the harshness of sun in the dim room.
He was on his knees before he knew what had happened. The scent of raspberry filled his nose as his daughter threw herself into his arms. Behind it lurked the smell of brimstone. He pulled back just enough to see her eyes. Something much older and darker lurked there now.
He didn’t want to ask, but he forced himself. “And Agares?”
“He won’t bother us again,” she said. “He promised. If he sees us, he’ll just wave from the windows.”
BIO: R. Rozakis has the amazing superpower of causing professors and technicians to stare at her lab equipment and say, “I’ve never seen it do that before!” Her current job in marketing in New York City seems so much safer, really. Her biggest argument with her exceedingly patient husband is in what order they should show Star Wars to their preschooler. Previous work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Allegory, Liquid Imagination, Every Day Fiction, and the anthologies Substitution Cipher and Clockwork Chaos.