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The Baby Merchant

an extract from the novel
by Kit Reed



The Baby Merchant by Kit ReedChange always comes as a surprise. Stricken, you look up. What just happened? You never saw it coming. It is that gradual, unless it hurtles down on you, screeching. You scream, what. What? One day you wake up with the dry swallows, thinking: I want that. You won't know whether this crashing need for a child is visceral or cosmic, whether it's embedded in human DNA or if there really is a star out there with your name on it. You only know that you are forever changed. You want.

You can't know that wanting is just that. That's all it is. What should be natural isn't always easy. It may be impossible.

You don't really want to know what Tom Starbird does. You don't care what he does, as long as he can help you.

You never guessed it would come to this. The change in you was sudden, and suddenly deceptive. While you weren't looking the birth rate dropped: radiation, herbicides, preservatives, something you don't know about. You said, "That's interesting," because you were still so young that you both were scared of her getting pregnant.

Then ebola, AIDS, avian flu leveled cities and you said, "Thank God that's half a world away."

You barely noticed when Homeland Security locked down Immigration -- to keep out disease and terrorists, they said, when in fact it was to keep out everybody but us. Doors clanged shut before you grasped the implications. You felt sorry for couples stopped at the border with their third-world babies but their stories were just sad, the way something happening to somebody else is sad. Being childless was, after all, their problem, not yours. You said, "Why didn't they adopt American?" You never thought it could happen to you. Not me. Was it your prayer or your incantation? Not me.

Now it's all you think about.

By the time you go looking for Tom Starbird started down the same sad trail. You're used to getting what you want but this time, your bodies failed you. You've been through every known medical procedure. Adoption wait lists are endless, and if you thought you and he could buy a baby, forget it. In this time of limited supply, a baby is a treasure. Like high end pets, every newborn is chipped with a tracking device because like forests, babies are natural resources. You think it's so nobody will steal your treasure, but, look. It also tracks your baby's development for your government. If you're lucky enough to get a baby. You and your mate exchange looks drenched with blame; is it his fault? Hers?

Starbird is your last hope. You hear about him from a friend of a friend. Cautiously, you make contact. Hard as it is for you to admit failure, consider yourself lucky. The man is, after all, in an extremely sensitive business. Thank your stars that you come highly recommended. It's the only reason he agreed to meet. Be glad your salaries are in the high six figures. Cheap at the price, you think because by this time need tears through you like a forest fire. What is it you really want here? Love, or perpetual life?

What are you afraid of? Loneliness? The empty table at Thanksgiving? That at the end there will be nobody left to cry?

Tom Starbird can help you. He's the kind of man it's a pleasure doing business with, although, God! you never guessed this need would become a business matter.

You like his sweet, irregular grin, the chipped front tooth. Beginning crows' feet. Black-Irish coloring, with blue eyes and brows like brushstrokes on rice paper. The coarse dark hair is cut close by a high end barber whose work you know. The Hugo Boss suit and pale shirt are just right -- nothing too showy, nothing too matchy. Only a dot in the left earlobe where the stud came out hints at a life beyond the business of this meeting. He's half your age. Why are you afraid? Because this is by no means a done deal, and you know it. It won't matter how rich you are if you don't fit his parameters. It won't matter how much you have to offer. If you are a bad fit your man Starbird may like you, he may even be sorry for you, but nothing you can do or say will make him help you.

If you pass, he sets a second meeting. Your place this time, because you have survived the interview and aced the psychological tests. Remember, Tom Starbird is as thorough as he is selective. This is the crucial onsite visit. Not an inspection, exactly, but you've spent days preparing. You don't know what he expects of you but you think it had better be perfect. You spent a long time dressing for this encounter, practicing faces. He's brushed the dog and sprayed the plants to make them look glossy and well cared for. She put a pie in the oven because you want Starbird to walk into a bright, sweet place where dogs frolic and children will be happy.

These are all tricks realtors devised for homeowners who are selling, but in this case you are selling yourselves.

Everything hinges on this meeting. What comes next? Is he supposed to begin? Are you?

The smile is nice but my God, the eyes bore all the way in to the center of you. Still smiling, he begins. "Tell me one more time why you think you want a baby."


Tom Starbird

Now, my mother thought she was a poet, and I paid for it. She was so deep into art that she lost track of life. It made me hate illusion. I never talk in figures. I deal in truth and truth only.

What I see is what you get.

The truth? I steal children. I am very good at what I do. I'm willing to tell you more, but when you engage my services you don't want to know, not really.

No, don't back off and don't for a minute think that this is in any respect creepy. My motives are pure. I fill a need and in the process, I'm saving disenfranchised kids. The ones turned loose in the world unchipped, which makes them ciphers in this country. I pull them out of bad situations and drop them into good ones, for which, believe me, I am highly paid.

Understand, I don't in any way get off on this; except for my few pro bono jobs, it's strictly transactional.

My clients' motives must be equally pure. If you expect to do business with me this is a given. Our transaction depends on a complete absence of sexual baggage. I won't tolerate anything overt or, trickier: anything latent. The screening you undergo before we meet is calibrated to pick up the slightest hint of corruption. If you are lucky enough to survive it and we arrange a meeting, look deep into the baggage that you bring to the table. If your desires are anything less than parental, I will know it.

If you're hiding anything, be warned. If I pick up the slightest hint that there's anything funny about you I will not only drop you as a client, I will hunt you down and expose you for what you are. Then I will destroy you. Anything to keep this operation clean.

My reputation depends on it.

Now, as for you. Don't for a minute imagine we are friends. This is a business arrangement and you are the client. Like the product, the client must be top of the line. If we are talking, it's because you have survived the background check, scored high on the psychological screening and passed the physical. I want my parents-in-waiting young enough and strong enough for the long haul, which means no psychic breaks in the history and no physical ailments, congenital or otherwise. My clients have to be in shape to see it through. And what you get in return?

Early upheaval makes a man resourceful, resilient and meticulous. You are getting the best.

The few clients I take are top drawer. You know the type.

You are the type.

You come to me in a time of great shortages. When you come you are all at some level grieving. I know this and I'm sorry, even though I don't show it. I can't get emotionally involved. You don't want me to, not really. In fact, you think when this is over you can thank me and walk away. Of course you're wrong, but we'll get to that. You are, furthermore, embarrassed to be here; aren't you supposed to have it all? You worked hard to get where you are, fast track careerists with high profile jobs, so congratulations, you've made it to the top. I see it in the way you walk in here in your hand tailored suits and your discreetly high end shoes. You have the big house, the weekend place, the cars; by the time you come to me, you have everything you want except the one thing you really want, and at this point I have to ask you, what went wrong?

Is it something in the water or the air that dried you up or did you hear your biological alarm clock going off and hit the snooze button one time too many?

You have everything you want except the one thing you can't have: the child who loves you more than anybody, beaming up at you like a worshiper looking into the face of God. You want to know that when you go, you'll leave at least one person behind to cry for you.

Now, who puts you in touch with me?

Like any high end provider, I don't advertise. This is for my security and yours. You come through someone I trust and you must come highly recommended, although if you are resourceful enough to find me on your own and consent to the forty per cent surcharge I may consider you, and you? You have it on excellent authority that I can be trusted to deliver top value.

You come to me because you know I'm the best.

I never meant to get into this line of work. The first time was an accident, as in, I had no idea there would be money. It was a pro bono decision, you know? I did it for my best friends from college. Killing two birds, I guess -- rescuing a baby for Jim and Marie. The had a baby long enough to fall in love with it and then it died. They were devastated. I would do anything to help them stop hurting, so... Where to start?

With the screaming, I suppose. Every night I sat with Jim and Marie until I couldn't bear their grief and every night when I came home I heard a baby crying nonstop. It came from the apartment across from mine; it was the hottest summer in years. We were in an old building and I kept the windows open because I could. Every night this pitiful wail went spiraling up the airshaft and every night I heard a man's big, hard voice shouting, shut up, shut up. The more he shouted the harder the baby cried. Shut it up, he yelled at the mother -- his girlfriend, wife, shut the fucking thing up. It cried, he yelled, the woman screamed: shut up you little bastard, shut up, shut up, I heard furniture crashing and I may have heard his fists thudding into her flesh; I know I heard the smack of a hand on bare skin and over everything I heard the phlegmy, rattling wail that comes out of a baby when somebody's shaking it to make it stop crying and that just makes it howl louder because it can't and they will do anything to make it stop.

I didn't know what to do. Should I go over? Call the cops? Ironic, my best friends were grieving over the baby they lost and here was a couple with a baby they didn't want. Do you know what that's like? Terrible. When nobody wants you they think you don't know it, but no matter how little you are, you know. Night after night after night it cried, while Jim and Marie...

I had to do something.

In college we did everything together, Jim and Marie Jansen and me, I've changed their names for their protection. They got married while I was in business school and instead of breaking up the threesome it bonded us, I was Godfather to the baby they lost. Where I was floating between temp work and crap job offers, Jim designed a genius piece of software and made half a million overnight. The Jansens had everything they wanted and then the baby died. She went in one morning and it was lying there stiff and cold in the crib. Raw agony is painful to see. I would have done anything for them. Nights I hung in and talked and let them cry and talked some more until I couldn't bear another minute of the pain, and when I went home no matter how late it was, the baby across the way was screaming. I don't know how the conversation started or what Marie and Jim said to me, I only know what I said.

For everybody's protection, I will withhold the details. Let's just say I performed a rescue. I solved two problems at once and when I walked away the Jansens had their baby and I was holding enough money to float me until I could swim on my own. Of course I refused, I refused it twice, in spite of which Jim made a wire transfer into my account. The amount staggered me.

Sure it gives you a rush, making people happy. They loved the baby and the money was amazing, but I thought it was a one shot deal. I didn't expect to do it ever again. Funny, I think that every single time. If you want to know the truth, the first job nearly destroyed me. Their raw grief and the sobs, the sound that came out of them when I put that baby into their arms. Then there was the responsibility. A benevolent God is expected to look after His creations. How could I? I was only twenty-four.

When you play God the pressure is tremendous.

Jim and Marie said, "How can we thank you?"

I hugged them both. I touched the soft spot in the baby's skull. A scar, but no implant. I asked the Jansens for a single favor. "Get him microchipped. Forget about me and, please." The big favor. "Please don't look for me."

I left town. I still wonder if the couple in my building ever thought to look for the baby I took. I think not. They'd had the chip removed, so it's pretty clear that I was doing them a favor too. I never saw anything about it in the news.

I moved to Chicago, great place to stay lost. Open all night, perfect for a young guy. The money floated me for almost six months, which I spent reading. I was considering my options. What did I really want to do? Not certain.

As for the business, I never thought of it as a business. I thought I was done.

The Jansens sent another couple. My best friends, and after I made them promise. First lesson: don't do business with friends.

Nice people. I had to get rid of them.

"I'm sorry. You've made a mistake."

The new people were terrible in their pain, with tears standing in their eyes and those moist, urgent grins. That wasn't the only thing troubling me. I couldn't figure out which of us the Jansens thought they were doing the favor.

The wife said, "They said you could help us. They promised." She wasn't much older than me.

It was awful. I backed away.

Her mouth was so dry that her lips stuck together; he kept licking his, they were that hungry. "You know, like you helped Marie and Jim?"

I knew him from the picture: one of the Fortune Five Hundred. He grabbed my hand: steady grip. "Don't say no."

"I just did."

He named a figure.

"I'll see what I can do for you."

The money was even better than the first time. I spent the last of the Jansens' money on a midrange scanner because I had to be sure. I found a deserving baby for my new clients. I put the cash in a Viennese bank. I left town because the connection was too intimate. I couldn't get sucked into their gratitude.

As I said, the pressure was tremendous. Then there's the pain. I took the lesson: Depersonalize.

To keep from breaking your heart every time, you have to detach.

I developed tactics.

I maintain a professional distance, like a doctor. In the operating room a surgeon can't afford to think, my poor friend; he has to think: this liver, this kidney or this heart. This distance is essential to precision. Get emotionally involved and you start making mistakes. Terminology keeps it cool.

Objectify and you can protect yourself. There is a logic to rhetoric. Use the right words for things. From here on out, think of me as the provider. I am an expert technician in a volatile medium, which means close attention to every detail. No I don't want to hear your life story. All I need to know is whether I want to take your case. You are here because I am the best.

In professional terms, the baby I will put into your arms is the subject, until the pickup is made and I know I can guarantee the product. There is, of course, a supplier, but we don't need to get into that.

When we finally come face to face you seem surprised; you paid so much for this appointment and waited so long. Now you are nonplused. I look like a kid to you. What did you expect, the ancient and powerful Oz? You're all alike -- put off by the disparity in our ages but impressed by my bearing and the firm's reputation and, I think, the Saville Row threads. Do not be deceived. I have the power. "Starbird? The Tom Starbird?"


"We have a problem." The shuffling and throat-clearing begin. You're getting ready to sob out your story, which I already know. I've met too many of you in your big, silent houses where no children come; I've seen too many perfect, empty nurseries -- why must you always buy the crib and the Teddy bear before you're sure? I don't need to know what stops you had to make before you played out your string and came here. It's all too sad. "We..."

I cut you off. "I understand."

"Can you help us?"

"Probably." By this time I've researched suppliers as thoroughly as I've researched you. I may even have a subject ready for pickup, but before we sit down to the paperwork, I have to observe you. I need to see how you play your hand. If I see anything I don't like, we're done.

You're here because you know I can put a baby into your arms. Your lips are turning white the way they do when you've been in the waiting room too long and finally get in to see the latest renowned doctor. You've spent so much time with doctors that I feel sorry for you. You have put your faith in science, and look how far it's gotten you. One of you says, "So, you have a new technology."

"Not exactly." I know what you are thinking. I see visions of cloned babies dancing in your eyes. You want to hand on your genetic material any way you can. You want to do this in spite of the bungled experiments that put the first commercial labs out of business. We still see them on the nightly news, with their botched bodies and vacant, smeared faces, all of them tumbling like kittens waiting to be drowned. God knows you've been warned, but in spite of everything you want to see your own DNA rolling into the future. "It's hard to explain." In fact, I won't. The less you know, the better I can do my job.

But you have put your faith in science for too long. "We don't mind being guinea pigs."

I hack off the rest of your sentence with the blade of my hand. "No need."

"Any protocol's fine with us." You've read about uterine transplants in South Africa, in Switzerland; none of them take, but every fresh try makes the news. You give a nervous little laugh. "As long as it works."

"I'm not a doctor."

"Experimental medicine's fine with us."

It is my job to break this to you gently. I begin. "Science can only go so far."

I don't have to finish. In your hearts, you know. After all, you have gone the rounds. I see this in your drawn faces and your sad eyes, the slight acquisitive curl of fingers that tighten in spite of you. Between you, you've spent too many hours crying, the sorrow has sent you pacing through your quiet house on too many nights, stalking as though the thing you most want will be in the next room if you can only get there fast enough.

You know I work on the wrong side of the law and you come even though you have reservations. As soon as I lay it out for you, your reservations evaporate. You like my looks, and when push comes to shove you are more than grateful for my service. I see the hunger in your eyes. I see the pain and believe me, I'm sorry. You think I couldn't possibly know what it's like: the cold hearth, the gathering silence, but I do. I saw into the void well before you felt it opening, but we don't need to get into that. If I like you I'll help you, so you can rest your heart.

But we are still feeling each other out.

The men in these encounters arrive with varying agendas but you, you mothers in want, you are all the same with your lovely, drawn faces. You are trying not to cry and my heart goes out to you. "Can you help us?"

Nice as you seem, I remain cautious. "I think so."

You brighten, even though I don't exactly smile. "That's wonderful."

"If you can meet my price."

One of you -- he, with his bruised ego, you, with your breaking heart -- one of you says, "Whatever it takes." You, the mother-in-waiting, will do anything to keep from feeling this way. His motives are more complex and harder to pigeonhole. Maybe he just wants an end to your nights of silent weeping.

"You understand this is a high risk profession, which means my service is not cheap." There are expenses, even though I keep my establishment small: an office for these meetings, because I refuse to eat where I shit; the database, which is essential to my searches and encrypted so nobody can hack in. Now, as for staff: aside from the doctor, who works on retainer, there's only Martha, the receptionist, who is also a licensed practical nurse. Sitting down with you, I have to consider the cost of the operation, beginning with the search for a close match, equipment for the pickup and a contingency fund, in the event of unforeseen trouble with the law. The real expense is the post-transfer coverup. It's not cheap, locating a subject and removing that subject to a safe venue without leaving a trace.

Even though they treated these unwanted babies badly when they had them, didn't like them, neglected them, were no good, some of my suppliers will go to great lengths to get their property back. To protect us both, I spare you the details. I simply name the raw figure. "And that's just the expenses."

You say, "Satisfaction guaranteed?"

"If we agree on the terms." My eyes drill into you. "And you have to make me a guarantee."

"Wait a minute, this wasn't in the..."

For emphasis, I wait. Then I say, "You guarantee the product a good home."

"Oh, that. No problem. We can afford the best of the best."

"Fine, but there's more to it than that." While you hold your breath I pretend to calculate. You know how these things work, you secure your order with a cash advance. I produce the child you want and I do it to order. If anything goes wrong I am bonded, so you are indemnified. I hold it another beat and give you the figure.

You don't even wait to hear. You are reckless in your anxiety to seal the transaction. "Fine!"

"That is, pending the home visit." I give you a long look in which I satisfy myself that you are on the level. I can see you holding your breath but I have to make sure I want to find a child for you. At last I say, "Assuming the home is right, then... OK."

I see you exhale: whew. I know where this is coming from. No more back alley deals with unscrupulous lawyers for you, no more cold speculums, no more routine humiliations in examining rooms, no more desperately functional sex with charts and thermometers and no more paper cups and in vitro sessions; no more trying to fix the blame and better yet, no heartbreak at the adoption agencies, and this is the best: no risk of the birth mother going to court to take back her baby, never mind how much you paid. For the first time since this started you can relax. "Thank God."

"Don't thank God, thank me."

I love that inadvertent, joyful murmur of relief.

Money changes hands. Cash, never checks or money orders and certainly not plastic -- wire transfers from the usual banks are too easily traced, which is definitely not good for either of us. I take the envelope.

Your gratitude is embarrassing. "We can't tell you how much we... Oh Mr. Starbird, we..."

To shut you up I stick out my hand and let you shake. "You can call me Tom."

You, the mother-in-waiting are weeping with happiness but like me, your man is all business. He pulls out his PDA to enter the details. "When do we start?"

"The meter's already running." What you see is what you get and you get what you pay for with Tom Starbird. Top value.

We get down to the specifics. You are snobs, all of you. It is a given that your new child will come from the approved demographic. If you want to tie a bow on your particular genetic package, I guarantee a thorough search and a close match. And if you want to try for an upgrade, a baby you can count on to grow up smarter or better looking than you? Specify and I can deliver, but it will cost you.

Next you must decide how old. Of course I can provide heirs of any age but you should know that for both provider and client, the older the subject, the more complicated the job. Remember, I am an altruist. I find great parents for great babies, in the end everybody's better off. Still, even when they're begging to be rescued the older ones do come fitted with memories, so be advised. You're going to see trauma and crying plus residual from the first imprinting. To say nothing of the danger of its being recognized. I prefer a subject too young to know where it used to live or who its birth mother was but, by the time I make the pickup, old enough to sleep through the night.

Naturally these meetings run long. By this time he is growing impatient, perhaps because this was her idea and he wants to get it over with. He is a businessman after all. "Where do we sign?"

I pull him up short. "Not so fast."

I see her soft lips tremble. "Is there a problem?"

Oh, ma'am, not you! I don't mean you! I smile to reassure her and then I skewer him with a glare. "Not if you agree to the conditions."

"I told you, whatever it costs!"

"You understand, this is going to take time." If we've reached this point you have agreed to the downpayment, expenses and of course the per diem, as well as a large cash reserve put by for unforeseen exigencies. Now all you have to do is prepare the baby's room and wait. In locating the product, I study potential subjects just as carefully as I do the clients, and I am looking for more than a close genetic match. I know which ones are loved and which are neglected or despised, but you don't need to know. My database is filled with prospects whose parents didn't care enough about them to have them chipped. All you need to know is that when I'm done everybody is better off.

You're angry. You want a baby today. "How much time?"

"As long as it takes." If you want instant gratification, take your business elsewhere. There are no overnight deliveries here. You can't rush a quality operation, and given time, I will come up with exactly what you ordered. Only when the transfer is made and all parties are satisfied -- when the circumstances are exactly right -- then and, OK, only then, will we sign the final agreement, and be advised, I reserve the right to assess the situation and if it's indicated, return your money and cancel the deal. "Unless you want to find somebody else."

"No!" We both know there is nobody else.

You have to be willing to wait for as long as it takes, and do not pester me.

Delivery day is by no means the end point. You aren't buying a child. You are taking on a lifetime responsibility to a singular, irreplaceable human being. Before we're done you will agree to devote yourself to this child until it's grown, which is why I set a cutoff age for clients. More. You will agree to onsite spot checks. You will guarantee funding for private schools, four years at a top college and if indicated, full support for graduate school. No waiting tables for my products, no crap night work. I couldn't do these jobs if I didn't know that my rescues are better off with you than they would be in their old lives.

Now, the agreement. Before I deliver you will swear to this in writing, and this is the make-or-break clause:

To love the product without qualification, put this baby's well-being before your own, and in every moment of every day, to honor its integrity and its individuality.

This is the bottom line.

And if I am telling you all this now?

That's another story.


© Kit Reed 2006.
The Baby Merchant is published by Tor Books (June 2006; ISBN: 0765315505).
The Baby Merchant by Kit Reed

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