Meet Sam Thornton, Collector of Souls.
Sam’s job is to collect the souls of the damned, and ensure their souls are dispatched to the appropriate destination.
But when he’s dispatched to collect the soul of a young woman he believes to be innocent of the horrific crime that’s doomed her to Hell, he says something no Collector has ever said before.
Light spilled through the window of the pub as I watched them, casting patches of yellow across the darkened street but conveying no warmth. It had been three rounds now, maybe four, and Gardner had yet to pay for a drink; his reading tonight went well, and they were falling over themselves to share a pint with Britain’s Greatest Living Author.
I fished another Dunhill from the pack, lighting it with the dwindling ember of the one that preceded it. The ground around me was littered with cigarette butts—I’d been standing there a while. But the moon was high overhead, and the night was getting on. I wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
Finally, midnight rolled around, and the last straggling patrons were ushered out into the chill spring air, the barkeep locking up behind them. Gardner headed up St Giles, listing slightly. I took a last long drag off my cigarette, and then pitched it into the street, falling in behind him. I kept some distance between us, in case he looked back.
A few blocks later, he ducked into an alley to take a leak. I gave him a minute, and then followed. He was leaning one-handed against a wall, pissing behind a dumpster. The toast of Oxford, or so I’d been told. From here, it was hard to see.
He turned toward me, zipping up his fly. When he spotted me, he started, and damn near tipped over. “Who the bloody hell are you?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
I stepped toward him. My hand found his chest and reached inside. He knew then. Who I was. What I was doing here.
“Sorry,” I told him. “It’s nothing personal.”
I yanked it free then, that light, that life. Gray-black and swirling, it cast long shadows across the alley, and its song rang bittersweet in my ears. Of course, if anyone had happened by, they’d have seen nothing, heard nothing. No, this show was just for me. For Gardner, too, perhaps, though even then I couldn’t be sure.
Gardner’s body crumpled to the ground, whimpering as it hit the pavement. I paid it no mind. It was already dead, or near enough. Sometimes it takes a minute for the meat to get the message.
I removed from my pocket a bit of worn cloth and a small length of twine, wrapping my prize in the former and binding it tight with the latter. The whole package was scarcely larger than an acorn. I slipped it into my inside coat pocket and then set off down the street, whistling quietly to myself as I disappeared into the night.
Sorry – it’s nothing personal.
I wish I could tell you I have no idea how many times I’ve uttered that phrase. That I have no idea how many bodies I’ve left crumpled and inanimate in my wake. I wish I could tell you that, but I can’t.
The truth is, there’ve been thousands. Some, like Gardner, are so damn surprised, they never even see it coming. Some spend their lives in fear of the moment, and catch my scent a mile away; they beg, they plead, they scream. In the end, it doesn’t matter—I always get what I came for. And I remember each and every one of them. Every face. Every name.
I collect souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Not the most rewarding gig, I’ll admit, but I didn’t choose it—it chose me. Once upon a time, I was a man named Sam Thornton. I paid my taxes. I went to church. I didn’t litter. I was a model fucking citizen, and then it all went to shit. That business with Gardner? Sixty-odd years ago, that was me, and believe me, my collection was nowhere near as pretty.
The River Cherwell glimmered in the morning sun as I strolled along its bank, the path before me empty but for the occasional enterprising Oxford student out for a pre-class jog. By noon the place would be packed with folks eager to exorcise the demon winter—couples strolling hand in hand through gardens rife with fresh buds, tourists poling rented punts up and down the river – all manner of lively good cheer I’d just as well avoid. Now, though, I’d done my deed, burying Gardner’s soul deep beneath a patch of dog’s-tooth violet still weeks from flowering, and I thought that for a moment, at least, I could wander in peace. I should have known better. That’s the bitch about being damned—things rarely shake out your way.
Her call came from behind me, carried like a song on the breeze. “Morning, Lily,” I said, turning. She was a few paces back on the path, her red hair cascading down over a whisper of a summer dress, her bare feet leaving no prints on the dirt path as she approached. “Aren’t you up a little early?”
“When I rise is no concern of yours, Collector. And I’ve asked you not to call me that.”
“Right,” I replied. “Must’ve slipped my mind.”
She cast an appraising glance my way, the faintest of smiles playing across her face, and despite myself, I flushed. “You look like shit,” she said. “Why you persist in eschewing the living in favor of these rotting meat-suits, I’ll never know.”
“The living give me a headache.”
“That is what they do best.”
“This a social call?” I asked, shaking a Dunhill from the pack and striking a match.
“Hardly. Are you going to offer me one of those?”
“No,” I replied, taking a long drag and slowly exhaling. “So who’s the job?”
“Her name is Kate MacNeil.”
“Contract or freelance?”
“She struck no bargain. Her actions are to blame.”
“What’d she do?”
“As I understand it, she slaughtered her family.”
“Christ,” I said, noting her disdainful glare. “Where is she now?”
“Manhattan,” she said. “I trust that’s not a problem?”
“It’s a place like any other,” I replied.
“Of course it is. But as you well know, failure is not an option. I simply thought that, given your history there…”
“I’ll get the job done.”
“Yes,” she said, “I expect you will. You should know that there’s a timeline on this. It seems she’s caught the eye of some rather influential… people. I wouldn’t dally.”
“I never do.”
“No,” she said. “You never do.” She caressed my cheek, a teasing gesture, and then strolled northward past me up the footpath. A warm breeze kicked up from the south, and her sundress clung to her beautiful frame.
“Oh, and Collector?” she called, glancing backward.
“Do try to enjoy yourself, won’t you?”
And suddenly she was gone, replaced by a teeming swarm of butterflies, left to scatter on the warm southern wind.
A few streets from the river garden, I found myself a news stand. I managed to buy a copy of the New York Times, and tipped the guy a twenty pound note – after all, I wasn’t going to need it. Under the shade of a massive oak, I lit another Dunhill, savoring the richness of the tobacco. I’ll tell you, their food might be for shit, but the Brits sure as hell know how to make a cigarette. My pack was still half full, and I didn’t relish the thought of leaving it behind, but I had a job to do.
MacNeil, it turns out, made the front page. My guess is it was the Park Avenue address as much as the three dead bodies that landed her there. Hell, a couple blocks further north, she might have been above the fold. I skimmed the article. Seems some neighbors heard screaming and called the police. By the time they arrived, Kate’s brother and father were dead; the cops got there just in time to watch her slit her mother’s throat. Took six officers to bring her down, and by the time they did, she was unconscious. Now they had her under guard at Bellevue Hospital, at least until she wakes up. With a little luck, I thought, I could have this wrapped up before she ever does.
I tossed aside the A-section and flipped through the paper until I found the obits. Papers like the Times, the obituaries are always a crapshoot. More days than not, they’re stuffed front to back with octogenarians of some historical import – a touching gesture for friends and family, I’m sure, but it doesn’t do me a load of good. Today, though, I was in luck. A playwright, thirty-five. Pills and booze, an apparent suicide. Not half-bad looking, either. It didn’t get much better than that.
I closed my eyes and focused. My limbs grew heavy and ungainly as I pulled away. The jasmine scent of spring retreated, replaced by hollow nothingness.
Somewhere behind me, a body convulsed, thrashing about on the grass as a thousand synapses misfired. Then the world lurched, and it was gone.
The first thing I noticed was the smell—a harsh ammonia reek that burned my sinuses and caught in the back of my throat, making me gag. My stomach clenched and I doubled over, or tried to. My head clanged against something just a couple feet above, a muffled thud. I pressed against the liquid darkness. Cold vinyl pressed back, slick and unpleasant. Clumsy fingers fumbled in the darkness as I followed the line of the zipper. It ended just overhead. I forced a finger through, metal teeth digging flesh, and then pushed the zipper open.
I kicked free of the body bag. The chill of the morgue drawer stung my naked skin. My heart raced—the useless panic response of a fledgling meat-suit. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, and the flutter slowed.
Hands against the back wall, I pushed, and the morgue drawer slid open. The room beyond was dimly lit, but after the absolute black of the drawer, I squinted still. I stumbled to a large utility sink, clumsy as a newborn foal. Bile rose in my throat, and I retched. It happens every time. A reflex, I suppose – just the body’s way of trying to get rid of me. I try not to take it personally.
The water ran cool from the tap. I drank from cupped hands. Whiskey and pills and sick swirled toward the drain. The water calmed my stomach, and the act of drinking was an anchor, fixing me in place. The body no longer fought my movements, no longer coursed with fear. I stretched my limbs, testing each in turn. Not a bad fit, really. Possession can be a tricky thing, particularly with the dead. You’ve got to find one in decent working order, for one—if you don’t get to them quick enough, they tend to run a little rough. And they’ve all got their quirks. The guy I left in Oxford, for example: bum hip, lousy stomach, and apparently scared shitless of bugs. You get something that ingrained, there’s no stopping it, and considering he’d been on his floor a couple days before I found him, I was lucky he didn’t have a fucking heart attack. I had to shower for an hour before his skin stopped crawling. Still, it beats taking the living—no thoughts, no memories, no baggage. Their constant yammering is enough to make you want to take a header off a bridge and bail on the way down.
I glanced at my wrist, a useless gesture. The watch I was looking for was a continent away, adorning the arm of a corpse. I looked around. The clock on the wall read 5am. If I were a betting man, I’d say this place’d be deserted for least another hour. Of course, I’m not a betting man—in my line of work, I’ve seen my share of wagers, and believe me, the house always wins. Still, it couldn’t hurt to poke around a bit.
I peered through the gloom at the bank of morgue drawers behind me. They gleamed faintly in the pale glow of the exit signs. Numbers, no names. I padded naked toward the door at the far end of the room. Beside the door hung a clipboard—a list of names, arranged by drawer. Three of them MacNeil.
I crossed the room and slid one out. As I unzipped the bag, the copper tang of blood prickled in my sinuses, and I went a little woozy. Great—New Guy had a thing about blood. That was gonna be a treat.
He was a boy of maybe twelve, with straw-colored hair and a smattering of freckles across his face. His feet were bare, his pajamas in tatters, and there was so much fucking blood, it was impossible to tell what color they were. His hands were nicked and scraped, his face mostly spared – it was clear he’d tried to protest, to protect himself. His chest was a tattered mess – bone protruding, soft tissue visible beneath. I zipped him up and slid him back.
The father was a mess as well. Well over six feet and not a slight man at that, he looked as though he’d been tossed about like a rag doll. He had at least a dozen fractures that I could see, arms kinked at improbable angles, legs a twisted wreck. His chest, too, was riddled with holes—knife wounds, like the boy—some flecked with chips of bone from the force of entry.
The mother, though—she was something else entirely. With her chestnut hair and her elegant features, she was beautiful once, no doubt, but now her body was a maze of tiny cuts—thousands of them, each no longer than an inch, marking her skin like some unholy etching. And there was something else, too. A familiar scent, mingled with the metallic bite of blood.
Jesus—these cuts, they weren’t intended to kill. They were meant to hurt like hell. To make this woman scream. I wondered how long it took before the neighbors took notice and called the cops. From the look of Kate’s mom, here, it could have been hours. And Kate just kept on cutting, waiting patiently for her audience to arrive before she slit her mother’s throat.
I was suddenly glad Kate MacNeil would be cuffed and unconscious when I came to collect her. She wasn’t to be trifled with, it seemed, and borrowed body or not, the pain’s the same.
I slid the drawer closed, eyeing the gooseflesh on my arms as I did. It was cold in here, I realized, noting the tension in my muscles, the ache in my joints. I left the autopsy suite, snatching a lab coat from a line of hooks in the anteroom beyond. Pressing through a set of swinging double doors, I found myself in a hallway ablaze in fluorescent light. The hall was empty, its walls scarred with the scuff-marks of countless carelessly piloted stretchers, and I crept quietly down it, mindful of the doors on either side.
At the end of the hall was a locker room. A set of utility shelves stood along one wall, stacked high with clean scrubs, all neatly folded and arranged according to size. I took a set and slid them on, admiring myself in the mirror. I was a little pale, a little thin, but already my face showed signs of color, and for a dead guy, I cut a dashing figure in the powder blue scrubs. You could hardly even call it theft—in a couple hours, I’d leave this body behind, and both it and the clothes I’d pilfered would wind up right back here.
I put the lab coat back on and headed for the door. An elderly woman pushed a mop bucket past me in the hall, but she paid me no mind. Between the lab coat and the few days’ stubble that graced my cheeks, I looked like I’d just pulled a double shift.
I pushed through a set of glass doors and stepped out into the pre-dawn half-light. It was cold—bitterly so—as though the first kiss of spring I’d felt in Oxford was still some weeks away from warming the dead gray of New York’s steel and concrete. From where I stood, First Avenue was pretty quiet—just the odd commuter among a dozen or so delivery trucks rumbling northward from the East Village. Bellevue lay a few blocks to the south. I pulled my lab coat tight around me and set off walking, my bare feet aching as the chill of the sidewalk leeched upward through my soles.
It’d been sixty-five years since I last laid eyes on Bellevue. Sixty-five years, four months, and seventeen days. Since then, it had changed plenty; with its modern glass atrium jutting skyward and glinting in the morning sun, I almost didn’t recognize it. But the cold, impassive stone face I remembered all too well stared outward from behind the glass, and my own new face twisted into a smile of grim remembrance. Try though we might, we never can quite deny who we once were.
The hospital itself was a massive structure, occupying twenty-five floors and two city blocks. In the nearly three centuries of its existence, its halls had spread and shifted and wound among themselves like vines on a trellis. The result was a tangled labyrinth of wrong turns and dead-end corridors, peppered with the occasional brightly colored map in what I can only assume was a fit of architectural sarcasm.
Of course, it would help if I knew what I was looking for; all I had to go on was what I read in the paper. Killing spree, coma—the girl could be anywhere. Prison and psych wards make for tricky collections—they’ve got armed security, locked rooms, the whole nine—but in most hospitals, they’re also overflowing. My hope was they were keeping Kate somewhere a little less secure. I played the odds and headed for the ICU.
As the elevator doors opened, I knew I’d struck pay dirt. The ICU was a sleek, modern affair, all glass and light—the better to see you with, my dear. A few rooms in, a uniformed cop sat slouched beside an open door, his nose buried in a Scudder novel. I strode past him down the hall. He didn’t spare me a second glance. Through the glass-paned walls, I caught a glimpse of the room’s sole occupant. She looked so tiny and so frail as she lay still in her bed, surrounded by the blip and whir of medical equipment. But her wrist was cuffed to the bedrail, and her hair was flecked with blood—no doubt about it, she was my mark.
I continued without pause down the hall, flashing the nurse at the station a smile as I passed. She flushed and returned the favor. In my line of work, I don’t get looked at that way often. Almost a shame this assignment’s so easy; it’d be a waste to ditch this skin-suit so soon.
As I neared the end of the hall, I glanced back toward the nurses’ station. The nurse was clacking away at a computer terminal, her back to me. I ducked into the nearest room. In the bed was an elderly gentleman—his eyes closed, his pallor gray. A tube snaked from his mouth to a machine beside the bed that accordioned up and down, pumping breath into his lungs.
I approached the bed, my bare feet silent on the tiled floor. The only sounds in the room were the blip of his heart monitor and the grim, mechanical hiss of the respirator. I took the man’s hand in mine. It was cold and dry. At the end of one finger was a small white clip, a wire running from it to the tangle of machinery beside him.
I grabbed the wire and yanked free the clip, letting it fall to the floor as I strode out of the room. A shrill monotone pierced the air as the heart monitor flatlined. Alarms sounded at the nurses’ station, and I was buffeted by medical personnel as they rushed past me down the hall.
As diversions go, they don’t get any easier than that. Time was I’d have had to almost kill the guy to get that kind of rise out of everybody. Now all you have to do is unhook a wire. I only hoped Kate’s guard would be as easily distracted.
I snatched a chart at random from the nurses’ station and set out for Kate’s room. I strode with purpose toward the door, thinking doctorly thoughts. You’d be surprised how often that sort of thing works.
This time, no such luck. The cop stood as I approached, sidestepping in front of me as I tried to shoulder past.
“Where the hell you think you’re going?”
“I’m here to see the patient,” I replied, brandishing the chart by way of evidence.
He scowled. “You ain’t her usual doctor.”
“I’m from Neurology. They called me in for a consult.”
The cop looked me up and down, eyes lingering on my bare feet. His hand crept toward the gun on his belt. “I’m gonna need to see some ID.”
I lunged forward, slamming him against the doorjamb. His hand found the gun. Steel scraped leather as it slid free of its holster. I pressed my hand to his chest and reached inside. His eyes went wide as I clenched tight his soul.
“David,” I said. “She knows. She knows what you did to him.” Somewhere, an eternity from the swirling blackness where we stood, a gun clattered to the floor.
I withdrew my grasp, and David crumpled. He was shaking, whimpering. Tears streaked his pallid face.
“No,” David whispered.
“You know it’s true, or I would not.”
“No,” he repeated. “No no no no no!” He scurried backward along the wall, his gun and his assignment forgotten. He scrambled to his feet and took off at a dead run, not looking back.
Inside, the room was quiet. Just the steady blip of the heart monitor, the soft tap of the IV drip, and the gentle sigh of Kate’s breathing. She was younger than I expected—she couldn’t have been more than seventeen. And Kate was beautiful. Her auburn hair spilled across the pillow like a thousand adolescent fantasies, and though her eyes fluttered in dream, her face carried no hint of worry or concern.
I’d gladly give a limb to have dreams like hers, I thought. But then, these limbs weren’t mine to give.
I approached the bed, caressing her cheek a moment before resting my hand on her breastbone. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s nothing personal.”
I reached inside. My head was suddenly filled with light—blinding, beautiful. I clenched shut my eyes against it, but it wasn’t any use. Still it streamed in, the purest white. Not devoid of color—full of it. And with it her song. So beautiful. So sweet. I staggered backward, blind and helpless. My hand pulled free, and the light and song were gone. I collapsed to the floor, tears streaming down my borrowed cheeks, whether from the beauty of what I’d seen or the sudden horrible absence of it, I didn’t know.
I looked around. I’d so lost myself in that light, that sound, I was unsure of where I was. The lines and angles of the hospital room seemed suddenly harsher, somehow. Colder. My heart thudded in my chest. I climbed trembling to my feet, my body drenched in a cold, acrid sweat. I knew that scent. I’d smelled it a thousand times in the moment before I tore soul from flesh.
It was fear.
It was fear, and it was mine.
I approached the bed again. With shaking hands, I reached toward her. I hesitated, my fingers scant inches from her breastbone. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I knew I couldn’t not. I closed my eyes, steeling myself for what was to come.
That’s when she started screaming.
My eyes flew open. Kate was staring back at me, her eyes wide with fear. She thrashed against her restraints, cuffed wrists clanging violently against the bedrail. Her screams echoed through the tiny room, blotting out all thought.
“My God, is she all right?”
A nurse, in the doorway. I forced myself to focus. “She’s seizing!” I replied. “Give her something to calm her down.”
The nurse hurried to Kate’s bedside, snatching a needle from the cart beside the bed. “Pushing four of Ativan.” Kate’s thrashing slowed, and her cries died down to little more than a whimper. Her eyes met mine. Terrified, pleading. Then the spark within them guttered and died, and her lids came crashing down. Kate MacNeil was once again asleep.
I, unfortunately, had no such luxury. My mind was reeling. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, urging me to flee. I knew I had a job to do. But that light, that song – in all my years, I’d never seen anything like that. Something wasn’t right here.
“Her wrists,” I said, embarrassed by the sudden quaver in my voice. “They’ve been abraded by the cuffs. I’d like to have a look at them. Do you have a key?”
“I’m not supposed to unlock her,” the nurse replied.
I nodded toward Kate’s sleeping form. “You think she’s going anywhere?”
She hesitated a moment, and then fished a small set of keys from her pocket, unlocking first one set of cuffs, and then the other. “The police should really be here when she wakes up,” the nurse said. “They’re going to want to talk to her.”
I nodded my agreement. “The officer that was stationed at her door was asleep when I arrived. When I woke him, he said he was gonna head down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re not going to be too happy with him if they find out he was gone when she came to. You could catch him if you hurry. Tell him to call in, let them know that she’s been stirring.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her until you get back.”
She gave me a curt nod, and took off at a jog. A good kid, I thought – the trusting sort. It almost made me feel bad for what I was about to do.
Beside the bed was a wheelchair, folded and propped against the wall. I yanked it open. Then, with a glance over my shoulder to ensure I wasn’t being watched, I slid the IV from Kate’s arm. Blood welled red in its wake. I blotted it with the bed sheet, and replaced the tape that had held the IV in place. Then I lifted her into the wheelchair. Her eyes fluttered, but she didn’t stir.
Outside Kate’s room, the hall bustled with activity. The nurse had headed left, so I went right. No one gave me a second glance as I wheeled her down the hall, her head lolling to one side.
What the hell was I supposed to do now? It would only be a matter of minutes before they discovered she was missing, and this girl was a hot commodity. I knew what I should do was make the collection and be on my way. I also knew that wasn’t going to happen – not until I figured out what the hell was going on.
“Hey! Hey, you!”
The call echoed down the length of the crowded hallway. I pretended not to hear – just kept on pushing Kate down the hall like I hadn’t a care in the world. As soon as we were around the corner and out of view, I broke into a run. The wheelchair rattled and shimmied beneath my sweat-slick hands – any moment I expected her to spill out of the chair and onto the floor. But she stayed put, and I kept running.
Some fucking plan this was.
There was a clatter of footfalls behind us, a bevy of shouts. We reached a bank of elevators, and I pressed the call button. My lungs and legs were burning, and my heart thudded in my chest. Kate, for her part, seemed content to sit and drool on the shoulder of her hospital gown. At least it beat the screaming.
The elevator door pinged open. Two uniformed cops rounded the corner, guns drawn. I rolled Kate into the elevator and chose a floor at random. Then I hit three more below it, just to keep them guessing.
The cops were rapidly approaching, and still the door was open. I pounded on the button to close it, and slowly, it began to move. One of the cops made a leap for the door, arm extended in desperate attempt to halt the door’s progress. A second more, and he might have made it, but he was too slow, too late. The door slid shut. A bang reverberated through the elevator shaft as he pounded on the door in frustration. The sound filled the elevator car, and then receded as we lurched downward.
And just like that, we were gone.
Copyright ©2012 Chris F. Holm
Chris F. Holm was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for crime fiction. He wrote his first story at the age of six. It got him sent to the principal’s office. Since then, his work has fared better, appearing in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and The Best American Short Stories 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. His first novel, Dead Harvest, is a supernatural thriller that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp.