TW: Contains some descriptions of blood and violence
Philip smiled at me as I shuffled towards his counter. ‘Morning Frank, how can I help you?’
Good. If Philip was in a cheerful mood, that would make this much easier. I smiled back at him. ‘One course of antibiotics, please.’
He eyed me with concern. ‘You’re sick?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Katy is. She’s got crimson fever.’
Philip’s eyes widened. ‘I’ll get your meds right away.’ He put on his spectacles and turned to rifle through the bottles and packets filling the shelves behind him, the harsh white light of the pharmacy glinting on his balding head. After a few moments, he produced a little bottle filled with red pills. ‘That’ll be point-two units. Are you paying by blood bag or straight from the vein?’
‘The vein, please. I used up my last blood bag weeks ago,’ I said.
He looked me up and down, frowning. Now I’m a small man at the best of times, and these times were far from the best. I’d been pushing myself a little too hard, and with my pale skin and the deep bags under my eyes, I probably looked like a walking corpse.
‘How many units do you have left, Frank?’ he murmured.
‘Nine,’ I replied, perhaps a little too quickly.
Philip pursed his lips and stared at me for a few moments.
‘Alright,’ he said, giving a reluctant nod. He reached beneath the desk and took out a payment syringe. ‘Show me your arm, please.’
I rolled up the sleeve on my right arm and immediately cursed myself. I should’ve gone with the left. But it was too late. Taking one look at the telltale pinpricks on my arms, Philip froze. ‘No way. I can’t take from you when your arm looks like this. Not without a level test.’
A level test was one of the Overlord’s greatest inventions. Their tool to make sure that their precious livestock didn’t accidentally bleed themselves dry. At that moment, it was my worst nightmare. My personal lie detector.
I snatched my arm away, and Philip stared straight into my eyes. ‘Frank, I can’t serve you if you won’t let me take a level test. I need to know how many units you have left.’
I glanced around to make sure no one could overhear, then leaned in close to whisper into his ear. ‘Then just let me take the bottle. You’ve told me that stock goes missing all the time.’
He reeled. ‘Stuff like candy and beef jerky, not medicine! I’ll lose my job! No, why don’t you try another pharmacy? Maybe they won’t ask for a test.’
It was a weak argument, and he knew it. I shook my head. ‘I’ve already tried everywhere else. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to put you in this position, but I don’t have a choice. Please, you’re my last hope. You’re Katy’s last hope. Do this for me, do it for her!’
He wouldn’t even look at me as he shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, Frank. I just can’t do it. If I take you below the redline and anyone finds out, I’m a dead man walking. You know the law.’
The redline. Eight units. The minimum reserve of blood we have to hold back. The concrete law set down by the Overlords to protect their blood supply. Their food supply.
That’s ultimately all they care about. It’s the only reason any of us are still breathing. Maybe that sounds brutal, but the world isn’t really that different to how it was before. The Overlords don’t go around opening up people’s veins on a whim, not anymore. They quickly found that keeping society running as normal was much more effective. So how do they get their blood? The same way the powerful always get what they want, money. They made blood the only acceptable currency and swiftly and publicly executed anyone trying to buy so much as a loaf of bread with anything else. It worked like a charm. Money always has a way of collecting at the top, and before long, the Overlords had more blood than they could drink in a thousand years.
But none of that mattered to me right now.
I raised my voice, beyond caring if anyone overheard. ‘You really won’t do it? Jesus Philip, you came to my wedding. You came to Katy’s christening. You won’t do this for her?’ I slammed my fist onto the counter. ‘Look at me, dammit!’
He still wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘I can’t, Frank, I’m sorry,’ he whispered.
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Screw you.’
I whirled towards the exit, but Philip called out to me. ‘Wait.’
Whirling about, I saw him holding a miniature bottle of whiskey he’d had stashed under the counter. He offered it to me.
‘At least have a drink. You could definitely use it.’
Typical Philip. He wouldn’t bend the rules to save a child’s life, but drinking on the job? That was fine. Still, I snatched the bottle from his hand and stormed out the door into the smog-filled street. Ripping off the cap, I took a deep swig, stomped a few steps down the road, then screamed and hurled the bottle into the ground. It shattered, throwing whiskey and chunks of glass everywhere.
Most of the glass disintegrated into dust, but not all of it. I spotted a particularly nasty shard about the length of my finger. Picking it up, I turned it over in my hand. It had a nice weight to it and was sharp, very sharp. As sharp as a knife. At that moment, it felt like a gift from the universe. A sign.
I looked at the pharmacy, clutching the shard in my hand. I could take what I wanted now. What I needed. Philip was a coward. He wouldn’t try to stop me. Sure, the police would be after me, but I could hide. They’d catch up to us eventually, but not before the medicine had time to work.
I took a step towards the door. Katy will be alright without me. She’ll be taken into care. Another step. The Overlords don’t waste human lives. Our blood is too valuable for that. Another step. Although… I paused. I’d heard stories about some of those homes for parentless children. Bad stories. Stories of abuse and suffering. I took a step back. Then another. And another.
As the first tear ran down my face, I slumped to the ground.
I don’t know how long I sat there. It could’ve been seconds, minutes, or even hours. All I know is that for that time, however long it was, I existed in my own personal hell.
When I came back to reality, I rose to my feet. I had one final option. Another cashier had told me about a man he knew with a warehouse at the edge of town. A man who was a little less worried about following the Overlord’s rules. It was risky. The unregistered economy threatened the Overlords’ entire system, and the punishments for black market traders reflected as much. It was death, not just for the perpetrator but for their immediate family too. If I went to this warehouse, Katy might die. But if I didn’t, she would certainly die. I didn’t have a choice.
I found the warehouse tucked away from prying eyes in a rat run of alleyways. It struck me as a petty criminal’s paradise, providing shelter and dozens of escape routes.
Stepping up to an open garage door, I called out. ‘Hello. Is anybody here?’
A man’s smiling, ruddy face popped out from behind a tower of crates.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked.
‘Uh, yeah, I hope so. Benny sent me. He said you could sell me some… stuff.’
The man’s smile broadened into a grin, revealing a row of immaculate teeth, and he ushered me inside. ‘Well then, come in, come in. Any friend of Benny’s is a friend of mine.’
He swung the door open wide and looked at me expectantly. Taking a deep breath, I entered. I followed as the man led me along a maze-like passage through his horde of boxes and crates until we came to a pair of plush floral armchairs and a small wooden coffee table.
He slumped into one chair and gestured towards the other. ‘Don’t be shy. Take a seat!’
Gingerly, I perched on the edge of the chair, taking the chance to study my host. This whole time, the smile had never left his face. He was also plump, not a common trait these days. Clearly, his business was doing well.
‘My name’s Charles, but everyone calls me Charlie,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Frank,’ I replied.
He leaned closer. ‘Well, Frank Wilson. Tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living?’
‘I work in a Nilecorp Warehouse.’
He grimaced. ‘Oof, tough gig. I hear those guys don’t even let you take bathroom breaks.’
‘I bet you need a good support network to deal with that. You have a family?’
I nodded. ‘A daughter. Katy.’
He brightened immediately. ‘A daughter!? How wonderful. How old is she?’
‘What about her mother?’
My jaw tightened. I’d always thought criminals prized secrecy and privacy. I didn’t expect an interrogation. ‘Why all the questions?’ I snapped.
He held up his hands in surrender. ‘Woah. Easy tiger. I like to get to know my potential customers, that’s all. Anyone walking through my door is desperate. I’m just trying to work out what kind of desperate you are.’
I sighed. ‘Fine. Her mother died. Happy now?’
Charlie winced. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Truly. To lose a loved one is a terrible thing. There’s been no one else since?’
I shook my head. ‘No. It’s just us.’
‘Alright then.’ He nodded. ‘I think I’ve got the idea. Now, what can I do for you?’
‘I need some antibiotics for Katy. She has crimson fever.’
Charlie sucked in his breath. ‘Nasty. But why have you come here? That’s the sort of thing you could get elsewhere for far less than I’ll charge.’
‘The pharmacies wouldn’t sell to me.’
I saw no point in lying. He’d soon discover the truth as all the others had. ‘Because I’m on the redline,’ I said.
He snorted. ‘Typical. Well, you won’t have that problem here. Point-four units, and they’re yours.’
‘Deal,’ I said immediately.
Charlie rubbed his hands together and beamed. ‘Wonderful. Tell you what, since I like you, I’ll offer you a little added bonus.’
He moved over to the nearest crate and took out a small tin. Popping off the lid, he strode over to me and thrust it under my nose. The tin was filled to the brim with chocolate chip cookies. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Have one of these. It’ll help.’
I frowned. ‘Help? How?’
He grinned. ‘There’s iron powder baked into them. It’ll strengthen your blood a bit. Make sure it has all the goodies it’s meant to have.’
I took one, and I have to admit, it was delicious.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’ll fetch the meds and my payment syringe.’
He bustled away, vanishing back into the maze of his stock. While I waited, I took the chance to study the room more closely. Charlie seemed to sell everything. I saw gun cases, cartons of cigarettes, crates of booze, and, yes, bottles filled with medicines of all kinds.
It took me longer than I like to admit to realise it, but eventually, it hit me. Included in the many bottles stashed in this very annex were several types of antibiotics. In that case, what was taking Charlie so long? Surely he wasn’t still looking for his payment syringe? I tried to rise, intending to search for him, only to find that my legs wouldn’t respond. I tried again. Nothing. Frowning, I pushed down on the arms of the chair, trying to leverage myself up. I succeeded, only to fall as my legs gave out beneath me.
Lying flat on my face, I heard a chuckle as Charlie stepped out from behind one of the crates. A broad smile still split his face, but it was now more leer than anything else.
‘Good. I was beginning to think you’d never even try to get up,’ he said.
Eyes blazing with fury, I glared at him. ‘What have you done to me?’ I demanded.
He chuckled again. ‘Lower body paralysis. Makes you a little more malleable. Though, to be honest, it might have been unnecessary. You look half-dead anyway.’
He nodded. ‘Clever boy. Yes. The cookie.’
‘Why are you doing this?’
Charlie snorted. ‘Why? You really think I make a living selling to sad sacks like you?’
At the blank look on my face, he snickered. ‘You were never my client, dummy. You’ve always been the merchandise. My real clients are of a different class. Powerful men with unique tastes.’
‘What the hell are you saying?’
‘I’m saying you’re about to be lunch.’
My face remained blank. Still, I didn’t understand, and with a theatrical sigh, he explained. ‘Not all the Overlords are on board with this whole respecting mortal life deal. Some of them prefer a more… organic meal.’ His grin somehow managed to widen. ‘You’re about to make me a hell of a lot of money.’
‘You won’t get away with this,’ I said, though, in my heart, I knew it to be untrue.
He laughed. ‘Of course I will. Who’s going to come and save you, little Katy? I don’t think so. Mr Henry will drink you dry, then I’ll dump your body in some miserable slum, and the authorities will blame your death on a rabid renegade. They’ll call it a tragedy, say some nice words, and then everyone will forget you ever existed.’
Charlie pulled me back into the armchair and I raised my head to face him, eyes wild. ‘Please, don’t do this. Katy needs me. I’m all she has.’
He looked me straight in the eye and grinned. ‘Don’t worry. Without those antibiotics, I’m sure you’ll be reunited soon enough.’
Letting out a roar, I tried to punch him, but he batted my arm away with ease. My hand slapped against the side of my leg. I felt something hard in my pocket, something sharp. The glass shard. My gift from the universe.
I slipped my hand into my pocket and wrapped it around the cold glass. I just needed him to get closer.
Looking into his eyes, I said. ‘I misjudged you,’
‘You certainly did,’ he agreed.
‘I thought you were a man of the world. An independent businessman. It turns out you’re just a glorified burger flipper.’
His grin morphed into a snarl, and his red face grew redder still. ‘You insolent little shit.’
As he leaned in to slap me across the face, I saw my opening and took it. I lashed out with the glass shard, slicing it towards his throat. A thin red line appeared in its wake. Charlie opened his mouth, probably trying to hurl some insult or cry of outrage my way, but all that came out was a strange, gurgling sound. That, and a growing stream of blood.
Seconds later, he slumped to the ground at my feet, dead. I exhaled in relief, but I wasn’t done yet. I still had to escape, no easy task without working legs. I tried to come up with a plan, but the best I could think of was dragging myself out by my hands alone.
As it happened, I never had time to attempt even that.
‘My, oh my. What do we have here?’ said a prim and proper voice.
Before me stood a tall, slender man wearing a neat, tailored suit. He looked and spoke like a Regency gentleman. He probably was a Regency gentleman once upon a time. The crimson pinpricks in his eyes and his pale, paper like skin were telltale signs that this was no mortal. This was an Overlord. Mr Henry had arrived.
The blood, what little I had left, froze in my veins.
Mr Henry surveyed the scene and cocked his head. ‘I see that you’ve killed Charles.’
‘He didn’t give me much choice,’ I replied.
He chuckled. ‘I’m quite sure that he didn’t. He always was a diligent hound. Still, it seems I owe you my thanks.’
I frowned. ‘Your thanks?’
‘Indeed. Charles was becoming rather too sure of himself for my taste. I would likely have been required to terminate him myself before too long. However, this situation does still leave me with a problem to solve. What should I do with you?’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Tell me, what is your name?
Too petrified to even consider lying, I told the truth. ‘Frank. Frank Wilson.’
He smiled. ‘Well, Mr Wilson, I believe I’ve reached a decision. Since you were the one to deprive me of my last servant, I think it’s only fitting that you help me fill the role, don’t you? Tell me, would you like a job?’
Two weeks later
Frank Wilson entered the pharmacy and waltzed right up to the counter. He carried a brown paper bag in his arms. When Philip saw his approach, he greeted his friend with a tentative smile.
‘It’s good to see you, Frank,’ he said. ‘You look better. How’s Katy?’
Frank grinned back at him. ‘She’s fine. A friend helped me out.’
Philip raised his eyebrows and let out a low whistle. ‘He must be a generous friend.’
‘Trust me. He can afford it,’ Frank said with a laugh. ‘Listen. About before. I put you in a difficult situation. I’m sorry.
Philip shook his head. ‘Don’t worry about it. You were protecting your daughter, I understand.’
‘I do worry about it, though, so I brought you a present.’ Frank opened the bag. ‘Would you like a cookie?’