"I'm no child killer, Amos. Surely you know that. Surely you see. The concept holds no attraction for me."

The man named Amos looked unconvinced. "But the girl you murdered, Frederick...she was pregnant. I don't see how..."

The interruption was acerbic. "You don't see anything, that's your trouble."

Amos saw this well enough. "But she was a mother, you see, and I really don't think you can ..."

"Enough!" Fredrick smashed his fist into the table causing a few heads to turn. "The female was a harlot. Rancid and contaminated by a worthless life. Instead of whining, you should be thanking me for preventing any more of her porcine progeny being disgorged into the world."

Amos blew out his cheeks and looked offended. "Nevertheless, sir, two lives were taken instead of one. Your aim was not true. The wrong woman died as well as her child. There will be a reckoning."

Frederick curled his lip at the suggestion and stared contemptuously at the younger man. Spineless, he thought cruelly. Insipid and lazy. Too busy bean counting to notice the disintegration of the world around him. Too sheltered in his books and charts to realise that unless steps were taken, all civilisation would crumble like the bones of their ancestors in the little time that remained. Entropy in human terms, he considered in scornful indignation, started in the wombs of the degenerate.

For all of his life, Frederick had been a believer in the cull. To him, the separation and destruction of the weakest would always lead to a stronger pack. He had shot game all over the world, but invariably spared the healthy and the vigorous. It had not been necessary then for a Committee to define his actions or guide his arm and as far as he was concerned, nothing had changed. Frederick sat back in his chair and listened to his companion's bland justifications as well as his toothless threats, but cared nothing for either.

"The Committee won't like it, you know that" Amos continued on blithely. "It takes a dim view of disobedience, however inadvertent. Consider your brief, sir. Surely, you cannot imagine that improvisation will be tolerated, let alone encouraged?"

"Nonsense!" Frederick spat. "Always you exaggerate. What is the difference? How can any single depraved low life be distinguished from others of its kind? I put it to you, Amos, that one dead trollop is as good as another. Perhaps our over-fastidious Committee should be less trivial in its condemnation and more effusive in its gratitude. They hide behind people like us, you know. Behind those who do its dirty work for them."

Amos grimaced at the slur. "I do not think it is our place to judge. Certainly we are not in any position to... "

"Damn it, man, you really are a fool, " the killer interrupted coldly. "An errand boy. A lackey, no more. This Fairchild Committee. Who are they? Why are they? What is it that they want? Anyway, it makes no difference, Amos. They use you and never once have you seen them. Not even one of their craven commissioners has ever shown his face. And you talk of tolerance? I wonder how you put up with it. I would say that you had been brainwashed, Amos, if for a moment I suspected you possessed such an organ."

"That was uncalled for, Frederick," the younger man said, flinching. "Remember, it was not me who fouled up, who shot wildly and killed the wrong girl. Your target was distinctive, sir. Thin and dark, but you hit the blonde beside her. It was an elementary error. If only you had steadied yourself, perhaps taken a breath. You really should have been more careful."

The killer bridled at the criticism. "Don't you dare lecture me! Careful? Careful? How do you think I have survived this long without being careful? I am Ronin, Amos. I answer to no master and certainly no Committee. If you think that the spawn of one stinking whore meeting an untimely death will change me, then we are strangers after all."

The younger man nodded wistfully. "Perhaps we are, Frederick, perhaps we are. Nevertheless, I implore you to keep a civil tongue in your head. Word gets back, you know. We are never completely free from official scrutiny. The Committee watches and does not care for insubordination."

Frederick listened to the man pontificate and felt the familiar, bitter taste of loathing wash over his tongue. For a moment, he was willing to revise his earlier assertion as to the toxic influence of fallen women and suggest that the degradation of Mankind had actually begun in the halls where such asinine assemblies as the Committee had met to formulate its petty rules. He had no time for such bovine attitudes towards progress and little interest in hearing them repeated.

"Your precious Committee can have no complaints," he rasped. "I have carried out its instructions. Kept my promises, more or less. They should be grateful for the added bonus of a ruined foetus; proud even, that their short sighted plans can be embellished and improved upon even in adversity. Serendipity, my dear friend, is a force in this world. Yet you, of all people, should know that it is not an exact science and that sometimes complications can come back to haunt you."

The taunt hit Amos hard. He knew what Frederick was referring to. What aspersions he was seeking to cast. That day, not so long ago, when he had identified a target and then lost her before Frederick had the opportunity to take his shot. It had not been his fault. He had always been vigilant, always alert. But this time the girl had slipped momentarily from his view and to his eternal regret, he had not been able to locate her again.

"They all look the same, these vermin," Frederick had sourly reassured him at the time. Not, of course, to relieve him of any blame or appease his conscience, but simply to reinforce a cynical view of the stereotype. Earnestly, Amos had maintained his search through the crowds for some while but their quarry, despite being oblivious to her peril, had made her escape and at his side, the killer's blue eyes were hard with resentment at the loss.

Amos felt the blood pound at his temples as he struggled to shake loose the shame still lingering due to his blunder. He battled, as he had done before, to bury the memory of a failure that had mercifully eluded the attention of the Committee, but Frederick's next words were calculated to exhume those bones all over again.

"But I found her for you, did I not?" the older man said, easily penetrating his companion's gloomy thoughts. "Caught her scent and tracked her filthy spore. Ran the bitch to ground before you had time to bleat your miserable confession to your masters. Then I tore the guts from her and deposited her in the river, if you remember. Covered up your embarrassing transgression. Did you thank me for that, Amos? Yes, yes, of course you did."

Come back to haunt you was right, it seemed, Amos thought dismally. He would never hear the end of that affair. Frederick continually revelled in his discomfort, always with the condescending sneer as he gloated in his own triumphs. Amos did his best to conceal his disgust. He knew that the occasional contrived death was necessary; the Committee had told him so, albeit through a third party. And he understood his part in it. Realised from the very beginning that he was merely the spotter, the conduit, for a more lethal being who stopped time for those he stalked.

The Committee had soothed his natural aversion to bloodshed by explaining that certain people were inevitably victims and others ultimately survivors. No one was exempt. It was the natural order of things. But where did creatures like Frederick fit into this pattern? Could a man so casual with his violence, so indifferent to the murder of an unborn child be one of the survivors? If so, what hope was there for humanity? Amos moodily considered his own complicity in these events and didn't much care for the unsettling image presented.

In his anger and confusion, Amos allowed his thoughts to darken. He glared across at his bloody-handed associate and to his annoyance, spotted the all too familiar traces of the man's arrogance seeping like an insidious infection across his face. The sadistic twitch that twisted his upper lip. A ruby flush to his cheeks that underlined the malice coursing through his steel blue eyes. Amos blanched at the iniquity and in his panic, committed the cardinal sin.

"So tell me, Frederick," he ventured recklessly. "How is your wife these days?"

Amos immediately regretted the rash inquiry. He watched with growing alarm as Frederick reacted in fierce and outraged silence. The older man's visage hardened. His chalky skin sank into a sallow reproachfulness that at once seemed jaundiced with loathing and granite grey with suppressed rage. Small veins like scarlet lightning throbbed beneath the surface of his flesh leaving the flustered Amos to fear an imminent stroke, though he was not sure which of them it might hit.

"She is deceased," the quivering Frederick managed at last. "As you well know, my friend."

Amos was sure that he did not. "No, Frederick. I had no idea. I thought that..."

"Dead, Amos, dead," the killer sighed. "Her ravishing heart a cold dark thing. Those lips that sang so softly to me, gone now, like the words that whispered sweetly between them. Is that a quotation, Amos? It sounds as if it should be. Perhaps a poet's lament."

Amos shook his head, shocked. "But what happened?"

"Dead, I say. Dead now. Long gone, my old friend. Rotting in a shallow grave along with the creature that killed her."

"Killed her? But I..."

Frederick raised a trembling hand that slowly tightened into a fist. "Taken by the pathetic, stillborn thing that bled her dry. The life was sucked out of her by that grasping, greedy parasite lurking within, but did not possess the decency to struggle for its existence. It flickered, Amos. It faltered, then failed and took her with it. A rapacious child, my friend. Merciless and predatory. I loathe the very thought of it."

Neither man spoke for a while. The killer gazed into the flames of a vigorous fire burning in the hearth, lost somewhere on a road that bordered hatred and regret; unwilling to display his emotions further though still seething from the seismic shifts that he thought must be his grief raging, but was in fact the last vestiges of his conscience protesting its innocence. Amos sat quietly observing the man's torment and thought guiltily that he really did not care much about his loss. Never would he consider Fredrick a tormented father or any other kind of compassionate soul.

"And so this Fairchild Committee of yours will be put out, will it?" snarled Frederick, without taking his glare from the flames. "Flapping like fledglings in their infantile disapproval, I suppose. It's all so mundane, it wearies me to think of it. Are they, in fact, offended by the unforeseen death or by the disruption to their calculations, do you suppose?"

"They will be concerned," Amos persisted. "And they will be troubled. The Committee is meticulous in its planning and in my experience, ruthless in its execution. Who knows? The child may have had some relevance. In the scheme of things, so to speak."

Frederick almost laughed out loud. "Scheme of things? Amos, really. What does your snivelling Committee know or think they know of such absurdities? Still, now you mention it, I am quite sure they are indeed acquainted with scheming of some kind or another. All of their dealings seem so underhand and devious. But what do they suspect is happening, to be alarmed at a single child's loss? A specific demise. Relevance? They have no understanding of the term since they are totally irrelevant themselves."

"You should not say such things," the younger man hissed. "Not even in jest."

"Don't insult me, Amos. And try not to be so ridiculously naive. Why do you think we meet here? Because of the distinguished clientele? Because of the ambiance?"

Frederick looked about him. They were sat in a booth at the far end of a tawdry public house where the rumble of idle conversation over the crackle of an open fire prevented anything they said from being casually overheard. He perused the patrons quickly and expertly. Reading their expressions. Divining their intentions from the shape of their stance or the pitch of a voice. He perceived no threat and so deduced that the evening crowd was harmless, at least until the copious ingestion of alcohol stimulated their bestial passions.

"Look around you, Amos," he said, sweeping his arm in a dismissive arc. "What do you see? Refinement and culture, perhaps? No? Base instincts at play more like. Are these the creatures that you hold so dear? I have expunged more than my fair share of them, as you know, but it will never be enough. Their broods would infest us yet. This is a breeding ground for corruption. Would that inevitably slothful child have flourished here? Of course it would. To our detriment."

Amos shuffled in his chair. "No one can say, Frederick. Of course it's possible..."

"I can say!" the killer snapped. "I can tell you that the harlot was one of many. One of millions. Not the first nor the last to indulge in a careless and squalid conception. Her wretched offspring would have followed in her grubby footsteps. Oh yes, my friend, I can say. Your esteemed Committee should recognise its debt to me."

"Got any change, sir?"

Neither Frederick nor Amos had noticed the boy's approach through the burgeoning throng of evening drinkers and were surprised by his enquiry. He was light haired and tan skinned, but his eyes were bright as were his teeth which showed up unusually white in a hopeful smile. His dark clothes were not ragged, but dusty and worn, much like those of the adults that surrounded him. He was unremarkable yet singular, Amos thought, as the blond boy stood before them, composed and alert.

In his hand he held a collection tin draped around which, Amos noticed, was an appeal for a children's charity. Surely it was unusual for so young a petitioner to be trawling licensed premises at this late hour in search of donations? He did not know the answer to that though he suspected that his associate would be scathing in his observations concerning lax parenthood. The boy rattled the tin's contents and then pushed it towards Frederick who looked as if something malodorous had been planted under his nose.

Sensing the youth's intensity, Amos brought forth a coin for the collection, but his offer was ignored; the boy preferring to press his attentions upon the older man. Frederick sniffed and then squinted about him until finally, aware of the disapproving frowns of those standing nearby, produced a handful of change which he shoved irritably through the tin's open slot. When he had finished, the boy stepped nimbly forward to affix a colourful pin to his shirt.

Frederick jumped in his seat as he felt the sharp point penetrate his skin. A small circle of blood appeared rapidly in bright contrast to his pastel garment. He raised his hand as if to strike the boy, but then fell back, his eyes gleaming in shock as his breathing shuddered. A shadow arose from within him. It darkened his vision. Gripped his heart viciously until it spluttered and then abruptly ceased beating. No one noticed his final rattling exhalation or his subsequent slump backwards into his seat except Amos who, upon catching the boy's subtle shake of the head, remained wide-eyed and silent.

Not one of them moved for a full minute. The fair-haired boy appeared sanguine in the presence of death, but Amos could not escape its draining face and sightless eyes. He stared intently at the stricken Frederick, fully expecting him to suddenly revive and start spouting invective at his would-be assassin. But he did not stir. He did not flutter. He did not survive. Finally the boy turned towards him with an unreadable expression.

"The Committee is pleased with you, Amos," the youth said eventually. "No blame for the mistake is associated with you."

Amos blinked. "You know the Fairchild Committee?"

The bright eyed boy nodded. "Certainly. I am its Chairman. At least until midnight that is."

"Midnight?" repeated Amos shakily, hardly able to take his eyes from the cooling Frederick. "What happens then?"

The boy stood calmly in front of the corpse, his eyes dark and brooding. "At midnight I stand down, of course. The Committee has strict rules. Tomorrow is my thirteenth birthday and then I shall be too old to serve. Now you should leave before the child killer's demise is discovered. You are a survivor, Amos. Remember that."

The man nodded bleakly and then without catching the boy's eye again, struggled like an old man to his feet. With only one last look at Frederick the killer, Amos scuttled away towards the tavern door and then out into the refuge of the night. Under a pale moon, he stopped to take in a breath or two of cool air. His fingers tingled with agitation, but the street was quiet and he found himself alone. As he stood stiffly within the confines of a concealing shadow, he considered the Fairchild Committee's unexpected appearance and the secret it had long concealed.

"Don't forget, Amos," a sweet voice murmured from behind him in the deeper shade. "Frederick was a survivor too until he got old and started to make mistakes. He killed one of our own. He made a disastrous misjudgement when he became a killer of children."

" can you? I mean... we all make mistakes," Amos gasped, yet he did not turn around. "How can we possibly avoid them?"

The receding voice echoed a shrill warning . "Don't get old, Amos. Just don't get old."

Amos peered nervously into the plump darkness, but the shadow had emptied. Now the silent street held only the man whose every heartbeat mutinously betrayed his aging blood. His anxious breaths ever increasing in number and perhaps reducing in reserves. He thought of Frederick, dying as he has lived in an act of sudden violence and thought of a world without him. He shook his head. It did not seem a less brutal place after all.

Following a moment of dismal prognostication, he took a hesitant step forward into the silver moonlight and then halted. He inhaled again, then he exhaled almost reluctantly. His resulting gasps plumed wildly as he attempted to calm his racing pulse. The electrified night air did not pacify him, but instead scraped at his nerves and stirred his defiant vitality. No! He could no longer afford to over-excite himself in this way. The Committee would be watching. Calculating. After all, he considered morosely, he was no longer a young man.

The End