Having been recently bitten by the short story bug, I’ve been compelled to produce a horror and dark fiction anthology, if only to purge a number of my extraneous ideas from my head, where they continue to gather and swarm like flies about my spoiling brain. Eventually, when it’s complete, the collection will be called Dan’s Macabre.
Seeley’s Legacy is a story I settled on whilst working as a domestic at a children’s hospital. A good job, but hospital environments can be challenging, and sometimes unpleasant sights or stories can’t help but invoke hard questions about mortality which don’t have easy answers. This is a story about morality, euthanasia, and the sometimes cruel effects of prolonged life and advanced medicine. But its also about blood and (I hope) suspense. Naturally, this is all a dramatization, from the characters to the events, but I thought I’d mention it just in case.
Without further ado…
Seeley’s Legacy Daniel James 1 Jordan awoke to the pinch of a needle. The hot, throbbing ache of his skull suggested he’d been hit over the head, but he couldn’t be certain of why or by whom. But of the needle there was no doubt. Zip-tied to a table, he stared in horror as the tubing started to siphon the blood from his vein like a sterile mosquito. He roared against the tape silencing him, feeling it pinch and tear some of his thick black stubble, and sucking back his own spent breath. He was young and bull-strong from weight training, but no matter how much he kicked or rocked, his desperate full-body spasms were not enough to break the yellow plastic ties digging into his thick wrists and ankles. He watched the journey of his blood, leaving him slowly, flowing through the tube to fill what appeared to be a baby bottle set on a nearby stainless steel medical table. He also saw his hospital ID card on the table, good for temporary clearance only. ‘Sorry about the head.’ The voice was hoarse, and Jordan immediately recognised the heavy smoker’s rasp. He craned his head, trying to see the lined and ruddy face of head porter Keough, a man he had barely said three words to since he started his temp contract. Keough spared him the bad neck, stepping into view. He was tall and stoop-shouldered, on the physical slide from a once gallant prime, with short white hair capping his blocky head like sea foam. He held up a recently bandaged hand. ‘You didn’t give me much of a chance.’ He produced a syringe, holding it up on display. ‘This is how I prefer to do it.’ Jordan made a series of muffled pleas which amounted to little more than noise. A hiss issued from the radio on Keough’s belt. ‘Are you nearly done, Glen?’ The woman’s voice was polite but verged on agitation, her voice raised just enough to be heard over an eerie mewling sound. ‘Be right there,’ Keough replied, slipping the radio’s clasp back onto his belt. He reached over Jordan, inciting a fresh but futile resistance, and twisted a small valve on the tubing in Jordan’s elbow crook, stopping the blood flow. Taking the syringe from his bandaged paw, he easily found another vein in Jordan’s muscular arm. ‘It won’t hurt. Only a sedative.’ Jordan watched helplessly as Keough backed away, disposing of the needle into a plastic yellow sharps bin, and taking the baby bottle filled to the brim with 180 millilitres, 6 ounces, of his rich blood. It looked black in the waning light of the large room. Keough fixed the teat onto the bottle, and then gave Jordan a curious look. Was it remorse? Grief? It might have been plain old discomfort from his damaged fingers. The head porter backed through a scuff-marked door, leaving Jordan alone with his fears and confusion. Jordan was still struggling to formulate a coherent syllable, tasting the tang of his panicking breath, when the tranquilliser dulled him, dragging him with leaden hands down deep, deep, deep, into a coma’s darkness. 2 Jimmy slid his busted piece-of-shit Vauxhall Astra into a parking spot on the fourth floor. The staff level parking area was light at this hour, with Sacred Willow Children’s Hospital operating on a skeleton crew from 8:00pm onwards. It sometimes meant harder work for the stretched-thin staff, but the double hourly rate made it a worthwhile ordeal. And Jimmy wasn’t going to turn down the money. He turned the engine off but stayed seated, staring through a windshield coated in dust and a spackle of bird shit, working up the will to drag his tired body out of the car and into another gruelling stint of deep-cleaning the rooms of discharged patients, emptying bins loaded with the horrors of biological waste, wheeling the large sterilising UV light here, there, and everywhere, and anything else which came over the radio—and all while breathing through a face mask. Two years of doing this in haphazard shift patterns had left him in a continuous mental and physical funk, only made worse by the sapping summer heat. But motivation was close to hand. He checked his inbox, skimming over the email again, the one he received that morning from Platform Recruitment. The second reading still packed a walloping relief. Jimmy Eames was finally making the jump from Platform Recruitment to Sacred Willow full-time. Hello job security, goodbye zero hour contract! Riding this little boost, he stepped out into the cooler garage air and locked the car. And then remembered something. He tried calling Jordan again, but once more the call went straight to voicemail. He couldn’t help but wonder if anybody ever used voicemail. He hung up and sent Jordan a text, dreading the possibility that he was going to pull a sickie and not turn in. As upbeat as Jimmy felt over the contract, he didn’t relish the prospect of doing a double workload. Turning away from his car, his eye accidentally caught a couple of serious looking men sitting in a dark mid-range car the next row over. He couldn’t see much of them, the strip light streaking across their windshield, but he felt their edgy attentions on him like a couple of rumbled thieves. He glanced away, and headed for the lifts. * * * Jimmy sat before the supervisor’s desk—not just the supervisor he realised, but now his supervisor—with a vast, open relief swelling inside his chest. Even with the AC humming away, the office was stuffy. Blessedly, the supervisor’s desk fan was finally back in use after a year and change. Since the pandemic started, the precautions and regulations on safeguarding against the respiratory virus had been endlessly changing and conflicting but one of the few things which wasn’t ambiguous was that blowing unruly air currents about a busy underground office was a potential recipe for viral spreading. Since the advent of several vaccines had slowly brought society into something resembling its former self, certain restrictions had been lessened. The masks, however, were now part of the new normal. Jimmy waited patiently for Joan to collect her bearings. He tapped his fingers together whilst she shuffled papers. A car horn honked. He stared out the row of windows at the unflattering sight of the multi-story’s bottom level, watching a driver wave goodbye to somebody and retreat up the exit ramp. ‘Again, I’m sorry it took so much messing about, Jim,’ Joan apologised, her thick Scottish accent ripe for brutish humour and lyricism. ‘But thank you for bearing with me.’ Her dyed auburn waves were slowly becoming heavy again with an undercurrent of grey, and her glasses only highlighted the lines etched around her pale green eyes. After two years of working through a pandemic, Jimmy had seen stress and exhaustion leave its imprint on everybody at the hospital, and the supervisors sat behind the desks were no exception. ‘That’s okay, I’m just relieved it’s finally official.’ Jimmy said. He made an exaggerated phew and blew against his mask, fresh from the box. ‘I know, HR can be a real pain in the backside when it comes to processing, but I’ve now signed you off from your recruitment agency, so now you’re all ours.’ She ended with a single Ha! like it was a cleaver blow severing a piece of gristle. ‘How does it feel?’ ‘Like I can finally breathe,’ Jimmy cracked. Joan slapped the desk with enthusiasm, her wedding ring and gold bracelet catching the wan office light. He didn’t want to come across as too slavish. Even after two years they hadn’t spoken a great deal beyond common courtesies and radio contact, but he’d heard Joan could be a real battle axe when she wanted to be, not above some strategic undermining or backstabbing to better herself with the hospital Trust, and as such she herself was wary of brown noses. ‘Take those deep breaths, Jim, because I have a feeling tonight’s going to be a busy one.’ ‘Did Jordan call in sick? He called me last night, but I was asleep. Now I can’t get hold of him.’ Joan gritted her teeth, the expression of a messenger with unwelcome tidings. Jimmy assumed she’d practiced it in front of a mirror enough times that it now seemed almost genuine. ‘I’m afraid we had to let him go. We don’t have any more hours for him right now. That’s one of the reasons it took so long to sign you over from Platform, the budget’s a bloody nightmare, but we decided we wanted to keep you.’ Jimmy was touched, but couldn’t help but feel shitty for Jordan. And on a more selfish note, Jordan was one of only a handful of people he talked to in here. Most of the other Platform temps had already been cut. ‘You earned it,’ Joan continued. ‘Enough staff here have commented on how hard you work. But don’t worry, the agency will find something else for him.’ With nothing else of substance to add, Jimmy could only nod lamely, the emotional cop-out for those less fortunate. Besides, it wasn’t as though complaining about it would do Jordan any good. And with the ink on his contract still wet, Jimmy felt it prudent to keep shtum. His eye caught the framed photograph of a younger Joan with her teenaged son and daughter, all smiles and dappled sunshine in a park or large back garden. ‘Anyway, you best get yourself a radio,’ Joan said, her charm politely rebuffing any possibility of further communication. ‘Go catch-up with Audrey. She should be in the break room.’ Jimmy sprung up from his chair. ‘Thanks again for sorting all this for me. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.’ ‘Nonsense,’ Joan said, adjusting a sheaf of papers and dropping them onto a tray. ‘Glad to have you on board.’ Jimmy backed out of her room into the main office hub, stopping at the sign-in desk beside the entrance. A bank of radios, most beaten and patched-up with various strips of tape, was positioned beneath a large colourful plaque of Sacred Willow Children’s Hospital. He grabbed the least wounded of the heavy radios, scrawled his name, date, and radio number onto the sheet, and commenced his shift. 3 At 8:15pm, the staff break room on the third floor usually possessed a twitchy anxiety; it was littered with a hodgepodge of domestics, porters, and sometimes even nurses from the nearer wards; grabbing a caffeine boost or a late dinner before the various needs and demands of a hundred sick children sent them all into a chaotic whirl of activity. But tonight it was positively empty. Jimmy spotted Audrey slouching back in a chair near the corner window, one leg propped up on the table, her usual home-brought coffee thermos close to hand, and her phone pressed to her ear. Freddie, one of the easier breezier porters, lay draped across the couch, watching the local news on the old flat screen. ‘What’s happening, Jim,’ he greeted. ‘Alright, mate. You okay?’ ‘Not bad, lad. Bit pissed off though. Keough fucked his hand up last night, so I’m the soft lad who got called in to cover.’ ‘Just think of the overtime and plough through.’ Jimmy grabbed a paper cup from the sleeve and made himself the strongest coffee his heart could manage, and dropped himself down at Audrey’s table. He removed his mask and tossed it amongst the mess of food crumbs and old coffee rings. He gave her a wink and shook a few sugar sachets into his coffee. Audrey gestured to her phone call and rolled her eyes. Jimmy knew what that meant. The news report was covering the on-going fallout from the global two year pandemic, throwing up contradictory facts and figures, snippets of on-the-street interviews with small business owners—those who survived both physically and financially—and locals all relieved to have their lives finally returning to normal. Jimmy hated the doom-mongering news, and contented himself with watching a magpie and its chicks. He had watched it build that nest one twig at a time over the course of a couple of days, and things seemed to be on the up and up for the bird. Jimmy commiserated the magpie’s fate, and sipped his coffee, thankful it wasn’t him who had to fetch worms to feed ravenous wanting mouths each morning. Naturally, the news coverage segued into the additional health complications wrought by a botched vaccine rushed to market by a pharmaceutical firm eager to turn mass panic into profit. After two gruelling years of dystopian preachers, political hand wringing, and fear stoking and muck raking across all forms of modern communication, Jimmy was frankly sick to fucking death of hearing about it all. Freddie changed the channel. It seemed Jimmy wasn’t the only one. Of course he wasn’t, the entire hospital was exhausted by it all too. Audrey finally finished her call. ‘Hey, how are you?’ ‘Much better now.’ ‘Yeah, I heard. Joan told me they sorted your contract. It’s a massive relief, isn’t it? How many hours did you get?’ ‘Thirty a week. I wanted full-time, but who can choose. Anything’s better than that zero hour shit. Nobody can live on that.’ ‘It’s times like this we should both be grateful neither of us have kids to support.’ Jimmy was pretty sure Audrey didn’t mean that. He knew she wanted children. It was obvious from the way she acted around them. For a while the two of them had shared the sort of tingly flirtatiousness which Jimmy suspected wasn’t purely banter. Incidences of stares which went on a little too long, the unnecessary arm or chest touches from Audrey. But if it was anything more, Jimmy hadn’t bitten. Things were complicated. ‘Believe me, I am,’ he joked, the wistful look of a free man in his dark eyes. ‘Still need money to live. Feel bad about Jordan though. They let him go.’ Audrey didn’t appear overly concerned. ‘I never liked him anyway. He was a prick.’ ‘He was okay.’ ‘He was a bad sleaze. Fucking loved himself. Always walked round thinking all the nurses were into him.’ Jimmy had no comeback there. ‘Joan’s let better staff than him go.’ ‘I won’t have many people to talk to soon.’ ‘Staff holidays will start up soon, and the absences, so they’ll have more agency staff again then. You can make some new friends.’ Jimmy gestured to her phone on the table. ‘So how’s, Stephen?’ He didn’t know why he asked that. Stephen was Audrey’s on-again-off-again partner, and one of the reasons why Jimmy hadn’t taken the flirty friendship any further. Which also meant he had become Audrey’s verbal scratching post at some point in his tenure. The champion of moist shoulders for her to cry on, figuratively, of course. She had a rough streak running through her which was one of the reasons he found her attractive. So whilst no actual tears had ever been shed, he’d still been left with ringing ears from her admonishment of Stephen on many an occasion. Jimmy didn’t mind though. She was funny, brutally so sometimes, and he liked a woman with a sometimes cruel streak of humour. But the fact that he also found her sexy as hell was both a bonus and a massive complication, made worse by her often flirtatious attitude. ‘He’s been a total bellend again.’ ‘This still about the dog?’ ‘Yeah! I told him I’m fine with getting a pooch, but if he wants to get it, he’ll have to call the seller and collect him. I don’t have time to drive down there and buy it.’ Jimmy listened, saying nothing but the necessary prompts to help her vent the bile. ‘I’m jealous of you sometimes,’ she said. ‘I see why you don’t want a relationship. Fucking headaches.’ Jimmy thought about the times she had randomly brought up her yoga routines, and imagined there was something else shining in her blue summer sky eyes. A sultry mischief, tempting him to indulge in a brilliant mistake with her. ‘Ah! Don’t worry, you’ll both sort it out. You always do. At least you’re buying a pup and not having kids yet.’ That fell a little flat, and Jimmy was about to rebound with tact when their radios blipped. Joan’s voice came on, asking Audrey to head on over to the Adlard Building. That whole building was on the other side of the grounds and still being refurbished to Jimmy’s knowledge, but Audrey didn’t seem surprised. ‘On our way,’ she answered. ‘Why are we going over there?’ Jimmy asked. ‘We on cockroach killing duty?’ Audrey smiled. ‘Something a bit different for your first night as an official employee.’ 4 There were no cockroaches anymore, but there was still plenty of unfinished dry wall, loose wire and shadow, creating a tenebrous and eerie atmosphere. ‘What are we doing here?’ Jimmy asked, his voice trailing away in the wide bare space. Audrey changed the frequency channel on her radio. ‘Switch to number 7.’ Jimmy did, still looking slightly baffled. ‘No deep cleaning tonight, Jimbo.’ Audrey started walking away, expecting Jimmy to follow, which he duly did. ‘Bit of a secretive job. But it needs doing.’ Audrey’s tone had bled out some of its natural cheer, leaving it stilted. ‘I should tell you now, I’m shit at DIY.’ Jimmy waved a hand about the patchy corridor they were heading down. The ink of night had spilled over the last of the sun’s fire, and the corridor was only illuminated by the stark white lights mounted outside in the freshly finished car park. They were coming up on a large room to their right, a bay big enough for four patients, but at the moment its only occupant was avaricious gloom. Jimmy heard a soft crinkling noise, or maybe it was a shoe scuffing the linoleum. He thought it might have been one of the maintenance men, checking a newly installed sink or toilet. Instead, it was a piece of plastic sheeting stapled over a massive empty window frame, rustled by a gentle wind. Something brushed his shoulder, slender but weighty, causing him to flinch. It was only some dangling wires. ‘It’s okay, you won’t be putting any shelves up. This ward’s unfinished but the next one is almost complete.’ They passed another unfinished bay, neither of them noticing a shadow on the scaffolding outside, splitting one of the sheeted windows with a short, keen blade, slipping between the sheet flaps like a night birthing. A pair of sturdy new doors, painted a cheery green, waited for them at the end of the hall. Big cut-out letters arced across both doors: WELCOME TO NEO-NATAL they greeted in bright kiddie Crayola colours. The papered-over portal windows elicited an ominous feeling in Jimmy. Audrey swiped her ID card across the reader, the magnetic lock popped open, and they entered, with Jimmy none the wiser as to what awaited him. * * * The ward may have been finished, but it was still as dark and lifeless as the one under construction, lit solely by nightlights. ‘Where are we going?’ Jimmy was becoming a little impatient now. Audrey stopped outside another of the large bays, this one fully furnished, but still dark as a womb. ‘You first,’ she said. Jimmy gave her a funny look. ‘Where’s the light switch?’ There was some light in there, but it was far too meagre to work by: glowing teddy bears and happy clowns scrolling across the walls and a single curtained-off bed space. ‘He might be sleeping.’ ‘What kind of answer is that?’ Audrey pumped her hand palm down to the floor to quieten him. ‘This building isn’t officially open, but there’s a friend of the Trust in there. It’s complicated, and Joan needs to keep this quiet. She feels she can trust you. Not worth much, but I’d feel honoured if I was you. It might keep you in her good books for a while.’ Jimmy could only shake his head, annoyed at the ambiguity. What the fuck did it matter who was in here? Unless it was something that required cleaning he wasn’t sure what was to be expected of him. He slid the bay’s heavy glass door open and walked softly towards the curtained bed space. He heard a soft voice crooning some lilting lullaby, almost a whisper; each syllable was little more than the hush of the surf. Respecting the occupants’ privacy, he waited outside the curtain. ‘Hello?’ he asked politely. The lullaby continued unabated, and this close, Jimmy thought it sounded more like a litany than wholesome singsong, a prayer for peace. ‘Hello?’ This time a little louder. The nursery rhyme halted. Nothing. Only silence. Glancing back toward the sliding glass door, Jimmy noticed Audrey was gone. Something dropped onto his shoulder, forcing a noise from him which would have been more suited to a pre-pubescent boy. Fright gave way to relief, then embarrassment. It was a big burly man with rough features, but recognisable from his occasional patrols around the hospital. One of the security guards, raising a thick blunt digit to his slash of a mouth, and gesturing for Jimmy to quietly take a step back. As though on cue, the front curtain was slowly peeled back, revealing a middle-aged woman in a beige pant suit, rendered almost skeletal by a combination of her diet and the pale deep sea tint of the revolving nightlights. Her smile was ghastly, an approximation of pleasantness. That’s when it clicked, and Jimmy recognised her from the news. Gina Seeley. A Member of Parliament. She was far from her London seat being this far north, but then Liverpool’s Sacred Willow was a national treasure in the field of pediatric health care. Hell, one of the best in the world, even if it had fallen on hard times due to ruthless budget cuts. Budget cuts implemented by Seeley’s party. ‘Are you Jimmy?’ Gina asked, and Jimmy realised her smile was as much a product of stress as social grace. ‘Joan told me you’d be filling in this evening.’ ‘“Filling in”?’ Jimmy’s lip hung low, briefly lost for anything else to say. Then, ‘I have no idea what’s going on. Audrey—you know Audrey, the domestic?—she just brought me here.’ He glanced at the doorway again, expecting, hoping that she had returned from wherever, but she hadn’t. ‘Of course I know her, she’s lovely. And been a tremendous help. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do without her. But she normally swaps in and out with another member of staff, but he was injured last night. Caught his hand in a door, few broken fingers. He’ll be off for a while, and I need another reliable staff member to depend on.’ Jimmy was still at a loss. ‘I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ‘Right!’ Gina giggled, a little too manically. She clearly needed a good night’s sleep. ‘It’s nothing big, but I’ll need somebody who can do a few odd jobs. They’re a little delicate in nature. Fetch my baby his bottle, or watch over him if I need to nip out. Small things like that. It pains me to admit this, but this is the best place for him. And so I do a lot of travelling back and forth between here and home, so I need good people to assist me.’ Jimmy was suddenly very nervous. ‘I’m not a babysitter,’ he protested. ‘Why isn’t there a nurse here to help?’ ‘They’re already spread too thin.’ Of course. More of those governmental budget cuts. ‘Aren’t you pushing for private health care?’ he asked, not bothering to keep the serrated edge from his tone. ‘Why not bring in a private nurse?’ Gina expertly danced around the question. ‘If you could just watch over my boy whilst I fetch his bottle, that’d be great.’ She ambled past him, all fawning and choreographed gratitude, so much so that Jimmy half-expected her to involuntarily fire off a few rehearsed bullet points about campaign policy. ‘Gareth will be nearby if you need anything.’ Jimmy watched the guard retreat to the threshold of the room, issuing an update over his radio. ‘One thing,’ she said on the back foot, ‘please don’t stare at him.’ ‘Gareth?’ Gina fluttered with a nervous giggle. ‘No, my little prince. It’s not his fault.’ Jimmy reached out to touch her elbow, but was too slow, too confused as to what was happening. She disappeared, following Gareth to some other part of the ward. Don’t look at him?! From where Jimmy stood, all he could see around the edge of the curtain was a corner of a high cot, roving cartoony holograms sliding over it. A long drawn out rasp came from within the cot. The wet exhalation of laboured lungs. It was a hideous noise. Jimmy glanced at the doorway, finding nothing but empty space and shadow. His fingers lightly gripped the curtain, quietly drawing it back a few inches. Then a few more, as he took a fragile step closer inside. Jimmy’s heart froze in his chest, and his throat seemed to dry out instantly. What was he looking at? That was no child. No life! It was a torment wrapped in a disfigured husk. The spinning lights somehow only made the contents of the cot darker, and he had an impossible time trying to figure out what he was looking at. A spine warped and twisted into agonised geometry, slatted ribs creating trench shadows, ballooning lumps here, some there, a head which was somehow grotesquely enlarged but also tapering towards the crown, and limbs which seemed frozen in spidery articulation. All Jimmy could think of through his fearful paralysis was one single word…death. Surely that was what this genetic abomination deserved. What a cruel, sickening parody of life. Jimmy couldn’t even come to think of it as a boy, only a thing. The wheezing continued, each one a borderline death croak. Another bolt of shock pierced his gummed-up thoughts. What the fuck was he supposed to do with this thing? Play with it? Dangle his damn keys to distract it? He wasn’t fond of healthy, happy kids, so what the hell was he doing here? A curious croaking sound, a difficult swallowing, told Jimmy that whatever passed for this thing’s sleep was now over. Please, please, please, don’t start shrieking. Jimmy looked to the doorway desperately. Still empty. He realised he couldn’t see the thing’s face. Fuck…did it have one? Morbid curiosity moved his feet around the side of the big plastic cot. There, tacked on the wrong side of its misshapen head like an afterthought, was a pair of googling fish eyes and a small disjointed mouth. One of those lifeless eyes flitted upwards at Jimmy, making him flinch. Instead of crying, the thing made a warbling sound, almost pleasurable. With a giggle of clicks, it tried to roll over to better see him, and for one brief awful moment Jimmy was sure he saw a deep sadness in its eyes as it realised it couldn’t move its body. Anguish filled those pale eyes, but before it could relent to its grief, Jimmy quickly seized a rattle from the cot-side chair. Completely out of his element, Jimmy gave the rattle a practice shake, and slowly sat himself down in the chair. The brewing storm of tears quickly dissipated, and the thing started to rock about ecstatically; not in any coordinated way, merely a full body tremor. Jimmy gave the rattle a few more ups and downs, wanting very much to be scrubbing a viral-contaminated room or floor buffering the entire length of the ICU. This was obscene. And he felt shame at his disgust of this thing, but how could he not? How didn’t everybody who laid eyes on it? Such a thing was not supposed to live, and he felt angry at the doctors, but mostly, he felt angry at Gina Seeley for letting her selfish needs and emotions take priority over the miserable, unbearable wretch of an existence she was subjecting her “prince” to. Jimmy couldn’t do this. He stood up, needing to get away from here, and was as surprised as anybody when the child made a noise of such sorrow at his departure that he stopped. It didn’t want to be left alone. Not in such a state. Jimmy crouched down, his face inches from the cot’s plastic partition. The child’s eyes were fascinated with him, its crackling breath becoming an excited panting. Jimmy swayed his head slowly from side to side, watching as the child tracked him with its innocence. It garbled a laugh. ‘He likes you.’ Jimmy almost fell from his haunches. Seeley was back, plastic calm mask welded on and bottle in hand. ‘Jesus…’ Jimmy mumbled. ‘This is wrong. I can’t do this.’ ‘Looks like you can to me.’ ‘No. This is wrong.’ He turned a limp hand towards her child. ‘Cruel. You need to find somebody else. Or don’t, because this is no way to live.’ He stepped around Gina, snatching his radio. ‘Where’s Audrey? She can do this tonight.’ ‘You need the money,’ Gina called after him, confident in her answer. Jimmy halted. ‘I’m the Secretary of State for Healthcare. I can make a phone call and have your new contract rescinded.’ Her voice was so pleasant and matter of fact that it almost concealed the threat. ‘But I don’t want to do that. I was told you’re a good, valued employee, and that’s what I need. Someone with a good work ethic, but most importantly, discretion. In return, I will pay you extra. Cash in hand. And it’ll only be a few nights a week.’ Jimmy felt trapped, and it wasn’t just because of Gareth’s burly form loitering in the corner of the dark room. It was the very real worries of losing his new job, his income, car, home; being forced into scrounging some zero hour contract bullshit which would barely keep the lights on and petrol in his tank. Of course, all of this sailed out of his mind when he noticed the dark contents of the baby bottle. The soft nightlight illuminated it, highlighting the unmistakable crimson tidemarks. ‘Oh…’ Gina had apparently forgotten she was holding a bottle of what looked a great deal like blood. ‘Yes. Rupert has a condition.’ Jimmy’s mouth was ready to catch flies. ‘What do you mean condition?’ ‘Doctors still don’t know.’ Gina’s cheerful calm briefly skipped like a jittery record needle, and for one swift moment, Jimmy saw the mania within, trying to hold it together. ‘What’s in the bottle?’ Jimmy asked, his voice barely above a whisper. He pivoted on his heel to keep Gareth in his periphery, and felt a nervous sweat begin at the bottom of his back. ‘Animal blood. Pigs.’ Gina glanced at the bottle as if puzzled. ‘My Rupert demands a lot, but he’s worth it.’ ‘Your son has a medical condition that requires him to drink pigs’ blood?’ ‘Please, it’s rude to stare.’ She lowered her gaze to the floor. ‘It’s a genetic disorder, one which the medical community have not encountered before. Rupert has enough disadvantages already, he doesn’t need to be treated like he’s some kind of monster.’ Jimmy was speechless. But despite his best efforts to focus on the grisly dietary requirements of Rupert, all he could think was how much he needed the money. ‘Can I get some fresh air to think it over?’ Gina nodded so enthusiastically it was like her neck was made of rubber. It was a revolting display of mad glee. From within the cot, the deformed child started to make an ear-piercing mewling sound. ‘He’s getting colicky. I had best feed him.’ Jimmy pushed in the transmission button on his radio. ‘Audrey, meet me outside A&E.’ 5 ‘I don’t believe this.’ Jimmy sipped the coffee he bought from the vending machine. ‘Medical condition! That kid is already a minefield of health complications, but he drinks blood too?’ He was trying to keep his voice calm. He and Audrey were sitting on the bench outside the A&E entrance, and he didn’t want to appear to be making a scene for any passing patients or paramedics. Audrey was quiet with her thoughts, vaping and allowing him his due freak-out. ‘It was the vaccine. The Victus Pharma one,’ she said, exhaling mint fresh death. ‘Gina seems to be okay, but it had some side-effects on Rupert as a foetus.’ ‘Victus, isn’t Gina’s husband the head of them?’ Jimmy asked, but knew that he was. Arthur Seeley’s company had been at the centre of quite a volatile investigation, one which was still on-going, pertaining to a considerable number of birth defects and miscarriages. But Rupert, as far as anyone knew, was one of a kind. Jimmy himself had the Victus Pharma inoculations. Most of the hospital Trust had, but apart from a small raised lump on the arm and a few cases of temporary bed-ridden illness, the staff were fine. ‘So the vaccine made her kid some monster. Some fucking…gnarled-up vampire. It doesn’t change the circumstances. This is some horror film bullshit. How can I go along with this? And the same goes for you. What kind of life is that for a kid? It’s mindless. Little more than a pig blood sucking house plant.’ ‘Gina’s not well, Jim.’ ‘I figured that.’ Jimmy sipped his coffee and glanced about the drop-off zone, watching an ambulance heading back out, whilst a big family car with cutesy stickers on the rear window reversed into a spot. ‘What if it was your kid?’ he asked. Audrey gave it some thought. Vaped some more. ‘I can’t have any.’ Jimmy hung his head, as though searching for any more landmines he might blunder onto. ‘Polycystic ovaries.’ That explained her regular arguments with Stephen, and her decision to relent and appease him with a puppy. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—’ Audrey waved it off. No harm, no foul. ‘But if I could, and it was like Rupert…?’ A heavyset mother lumbered out of the family car, testing its suspension. She was still in her soiled pyjamas and slippers, a cigarette in her loud mouth as she aggressively barked down her phone, all hot air and profanity. She paid little mind to the young girl who hopped down from the back seat, wide-eyed and startled. The girl couldn’t have been past six years of age, pale, and clinging tight to a stuffed elephant, and moving with the practiced care and agility of a mouse darting between hippo legs as her mother blundered about, grabbing a bag, slamming the boot, swearing down the phone some more, and leaving the little girl to follow in her dramatic wake. ‘You might not want kids yourself,’ Audrey started, ‘but if you did, and they were like Rupert, you would do everything you could to help him.’ ‘I wouldn’t be that selfish.’ ‘Selfish?’ ‘Look, I know when it comes to kids they’re everybody’s little darlings and we’re all supposed to act like they piss rainbows and shit gold, but the reality is they’re just people. Same as everybody else. And people die, regardless of age. It’s fucked up but there you are, and Rupert upstairs? He wasn’t meant to live. It’s medicine going to the extreme. I mean, at what point is it okay to just admit that some people are better off dead without getting overly precious about it? You’ve seen some of the parents here, the ones with lost causes. The ones who enjoy the sympathy and attention a little too much, using their suffering kid like some prop. It’s fucked up, and they need serious psychological help. Gina’s one of ‘em.’ Jimmy gulped down his cold bitter coffee and tossed the cup in the bin. ‘You didn’t answer the question.’ ‘If Rupert was mine? I don’t know what I’d do.’ Audrey placed her vape pen in her pocket. ‘Not all of us are against starting families.’ ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ ‘Please, you’re a thirty-one year-old curmudgeon,’ Audrey teased. ‘You would have been some narky lighthouse keeper a hundred years ago.’ On any other night she would have enjoyed it more, but circumstances being what they are, her grin was fleeting. ‘Just because a person can have kids doesn’t mean they should.’ Jimmy had intentionally swerved sexual relationships since his mid-twenties, having let the last serious one wither away through negligence. Now in his early thirties, such relations all came with blaring klaxons warning of ticking biological clocks. The big crass hippo reached the low kerb, reaching behind without looking to snatch her daughter’s arm. The little girl almost stumbled but caught herself; the elephant teddy fell from her grip. With the desperate pleas of Mummy, mummy her tiny hand reached out for it. Jimmy jogged over to pick up the plushie. It was soft and warm from the girl’s squeezing hugs, and the purple trunk had flecks of paint on it as though the little girl had at some point tried making him hold a paintbrush. It also bore the ugly black crust of a stubbed out cigarette along one side. ‘Hey,’ he called, loud enough to briefly stop the mum from her complaining. The little girl’s worry bloomed into wide-eyed gratitude, grasping hands pawing for her teddy. She took it from Jimmy and hugged it tight, a big buttery smile on her face. The mum silently regarded Jim like he was a crackhead haggling for a handout, before ploughing through the automatic doors, swearing into her phone. The little girl gave him a big bendy-armed wave farewell, which Jimmy half-heartedly returned. ‘Fat cunt,’ Jimmy muttered of the mum. ‘Nice one, tin man.’ Audrey was fixing her pants, the radio’s weight having a tendency to repeatedly pull them down like the hands of a crafty pervert. ‘What’s it going to be?’ Jimmy still felt like he was being slowly squeezed between a pair of clamps. He glanced about the drop-off zone and the warm summer night, but neither saw nor felt anything other than his own growing uncertainty. ‘I still need the money, don’t I?’ 6 ‘What’s the cash in hand?’ Jimmy asked. Gina looked up from her place beside the cot, blood bottle still half full. ‘Five hundred pound each shift.’ Her wired eyes took on a barely concealed desperation. Jimmy weighed it up, not out of greed, but wanting to show that he wasn’t an easy sell when it came to such an unsavoury task. ‘Okay. I’ll do it.’ Gina momentarily crumpled with delight. ‘Thank you, Jimmy. Thank you.’ Her relieved sigh quickly became an uncomfortable-to-watch playfulness as she leaned in to make silly noises and sillier faces to Rupert. Jimmy turned to Audrey, not knowing where else to look. Her expression was more tolerant than his own. Jimmy couldn’t stand all that stupid baby talk shit, and had infrequently mused on when it had first started. Somehow he couldn’t imagine ancient cultures making a cunt of themselves to softly mollify their child. There came a grating, buzzing sound, which Jimmy first attributed to Rupert; another of his deep, awful noises, but Gina pulled her phone from her blouse pocket, keeping the bottle wedged between the plastic slats of the cot. Gina’s tired, puffy face somehow managed to pale a little more. ‘Jimmy, would you mind taking over?’ Jimmy looked at Audrey, feeling victimised, and thought of the five hundred he’d be pocketing tonight. ‘Whatever.’ He entered the cot space, taking the bottle from Gina, still warm from her tight clutching, and sat in her chair. Gina quietly padded off in her tights, her heeled shoes beside the cot. Jimmy felt Audrey settle down next to him, smelling the faint citrus scent of her shampoo. Audrey watched Rupert, doing a fine job of concealing her revulsion. But Jimmy kept his eyes on Gina. She trotted past Gareth like a startled filly into the gloomy corridor. She answered the phone, but apart from some cold silences and sharp mutterings Jimmy didn’t catch a word of substance. He elbowed Audrey, and motioned towards Gina. Audrey knew something, but her face told him it wasn’t her place to explain. Or was it more of an ask-her-yourself type of look? Audrey curled a loop of her dark hair behind her ear, and Jimmy stole a glance at her delicate chin and smooth, graceful neckline. It was a far sight better than staring at the almost black dead eyes of the monster sucking up pig blood from a rubber tit. But Jimmy did just that. Maybe it was guilt or maybe it was the disaster watching voyeurism of all people, but he angled his sight to take in Rupert’s lumpy, twisted form, and almost dropped the bottle when he saw for the first time, the condition of the infant’s mouth. It was a sort of red, pulpy tube which had unfolded from the mouth, latching onto the teat in the way an anteater ravages ant colonies, or more accurately, a mosquito guzzles blood. It took all his effort to not drop the bottle. And what if he did? He imagined it dangling there from that wet, sucking proboscis like some vile toy meant to dangle over a cot. Audrey placed her hand on his wrist, sensing his momentary flight attempt. He nodded his thanks, but asserted himself; being overly squeamish might insult Gina right out of paying him his bonus. Gina seemed to appear out of the shadows, her face unreadable. ‘What is it?’ Audrey asked, her voice hinting that she already had a good idea. ‘Bastard,’ was all Gina said. And then for Jimmy’s benefit, ‘My husband Arthur. Rupert isn’t the son he wanted.’ Gina tried to add some ghoulish fun to her voice but failed miserably, only highlighting further the grim nature of these circumstances. ‘Isn’t it his fault?’ Jimmy asked brusquely, his ears now attuned even more to the wet glugging sounds. Gina, ever the politician, slipped any blame—direct or by association—like Teflon. ‘He wants him dead.’ The matter of fact tone struck Jim like a sharp poke to the chest. He glanced at Rupert, noticing the bottle was empty, and those idiotic eyes seemed infatuated with him. Such a face couldn’t be loved. Sad but true. It was far too distorted, too alien, to match with humanity’s innate sense of comfort and companionship. But what he did feel was a great and sudden well of pity. ‘Maybe next time the greedy fuck will put people’s well-being before profit.’ He regretted it instantly, expecting Gina to dismiss him and make good on her threat to nullify his new contract. Yet he couldn’t help himself. ‘But hey, like that’ll ever happen, aye?’ Gina didn’t attempt to argue, chastise, or overbear, instead she leaned over the cot and made a few coochie-coo sounds to her uninterested child. ‘He’s trying to kill him,’ Gina said, not looking up from Rupert. ‘That’s why I have Gareth and a couple of his men guarding me here. I have to keep my little boy a secret, until I can think of a way to explain his condition. The media already know I received the vaccine from Art’s company.’ ‘Who gives a shit? Are you trying to protect his reputation or something? You just said he’s trying to kill it—him.’ ‘I have shares in Victus. And I still love Art.’ Jimmy gave Audrey a side-eye, but she was busy taking the empty bottle from him and placing it on the unit next to the cot. ‘Why are you hiding here?’ he asked. ‘You can get pig blood from a butchers in London, can’t you?’ From beyond the curtains, Gareth’s radio crackled sharply. Audrey peered outside, and Jimmy followed. Not Gina though, she seemed stranded, floating against the cot like it was a piece of flotsam. Jimmy noticed Gareth had left his corner. Unease skittered through him like low voltage current. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked Audrey. Audrey glanced at Gina, who hadn’t moved, and mouthed the name Art to Jimmy with a questioning shrug. Jimmy took a step toward Gina, but found his gaze locked on the gloomily lit corridor. ‘You’ve already asked a lot of me, but I’m drawing a line in dealing with your pissed-off fuckhead husband.’ ‘You’ll be fine,’ Audrey said. ‘That’s why Gareth’s here.’ Gareth stalked back in, his neck practically sinking into his tensed shoulders. He breezed past Jim and Audrey, heading straight for Gina. ‘Hudson’s dead, mam. His access card is missing. The intruder entered the blood room, and damaged the fridge motor. But Mitch managed to chase him off before any further damage was done. But we need to consider vacating these premises immediately until we find the intruder.’ ‘I can’t,’ Gina said, her tone cold and flat. ‘Rupert’s food is here.’ ‘We have the fridge compartment in the boot,’ Gareth said. ‘We can take a supply with what we can salvage. It should last until we settle you and your child somewhere safer.’ Gina looked detached from the moment, from the very dangerous reality of her situation. She could have been sleeping with her eyes wide open. ‘Okay,’ she answered finally. ‘But we’ll need to take at least four bottles.’ Jimmy was astonished and disgusted in equal measure. How much blood did this kid need to put away. He’d be better off being raised in an abattoir. ‘Audrey,’ Gina said. ‘Would you mind fetching those bottles for me?’ ‘Wait a minute,’ Jimmy stepped forward. ‘You just said somebody’s killed one of your fellas in there, now you want Audrey to risk her life by going in?’ ‘Gareth said the killer has gone,’ Gina replied, her voice as innocent as a debutant. ‘It’s okay.’ Audrey touched his arm. ‘I know how to do it. Gareth doesn’t.’ ‘Do it?’ Jimmy was confused. ‘Wait, you mean bleed it? You actually have a pig back there?’ ‘It won’t take long.’ ‘The pig’s dead,’ Gareth said, eliciting a troubled look from Audrey. ‘But there might be a bottle left somewhere in that mess. And don’t worry, Mitch will find the intruder.’ Jim didn’t find Gareth’s assurance very reassuring. ‘Fine. But I’m going with you. I’m going to have to learn how to do it anyway, aren’t I?’ Jimmy made sure his stance was unshakable, and was strangely relieved that Audrey didn’t argue the point, though there was a slight trickle of shame in her eyes. He’d ask her about it soon enough, but right now he wanted to walk away. He might have unexpectedly tapped a vein of pity for that thing labouring away in the cot, but he’d be glad to get away from it. ‘I’ll take that money now.’ He held his hand out to Gina, and saw Gareth twitch protectively. Gina stared him down for a few heartbeats, then paced over to a wheeled table to grab her handbag. She rummaged about, then brought out a nice wad of £20 notes, and then a second one for Audrey. Jimmy took them both without comment, handing one to Audrey. ‘This fucking job.’ 7 Jimmy had cleaned the blood room in the main building, knowing it to be rather small. Roughly the size of any other minor treatment or consultant’s room. This one was large. And was actually earmarked to be the milk and special feeds room, full of numerous deep industrial refrigerator units. There was no pig. But there was a lot of spilled blood, pooling from bottles left broken and scattered across the floor, its thick coppery scent mingling with the smoky ozone tang of a broken motor. Most shockingly, there was also a surgical bed with a very pale Jordan strapped to it, eyes closed almost peacefully. A wicked slice across his throat. Jimmy couldn’t find the words. ‘What the fuck.’ He found them, but his voice could hardly speak them. His eyes were bulging, his jaw hanging, utterly confounded by what he was seeing. Audrey raised her fingers to her brow, unable to meet his appalled gaze. For lack of better words, Jimmy simply repeated his last statement, but sounded broken. He rushed over to Jordan, almost skidding in the blood. His hands needed something to do, but he knew how futile it would be to check for a pulse. His throat was a scarlet mess. ‘He’s dead. He’s fuckin’ dead!’ He wheeled on Audrey, still by the door, nauseous at the sight. ‘The throat, it must have been Art. Jordan was alive, I swear. Medically induced coma, but no suffering.’ A look of deranged hilarity briefly flashed across Jimmy’s face as he stared at the stoppered tube hanging from Jordan’s arm like he was a beer keg. He yanked it out. Hands placed on his head, a prisoner of this gut-wrenching moment, Jimmy wandered listlessly back towards Audrey. ‘Was Jordan getting a pay-out for this too? How much?’ Audrey didn’t answer, eyes pinwheeling around the carnage. ‘They bleed him ‘til he dies? That how it works?’ Still no answer. ‘How many agency workers has she done this to?’ Audrey became flustered, trying to formulate a list. ‘Steph, Billy, Prisha, June…err, Chris, Adebayo—’ Jimmy raised his hand, cutting her off, disgusted. ‘You’re not the only one who needs the money, Jim,’ Audrey said. She managed to meet his accusing stare. ‘You’re not the only one. Everybody’s skint. You know what Joan told me the other day? That some of our contracts might be renewed with lesser hours. Don’t know who that will hit, but it could be anyone. I’ve been here five years, and that’s the thanks I get. Constant anxiety of losing hours, and the Union can’t do shit. They try, they really do, but rallies and emails can only do so much.’ Jimmy wasn’t looking at her. He was enrapt by the blood soaking the floor by the gallon, and the huge red-soaked interior of the fridge, which was leaking even more down its front like it was a bloody mechanical mouth. ‘Because of cunts like Gina…’ Jimmy’s tone was sharp enough to cut leather. ‘You’ve been helping that cunt raise her fucking freak, listening to her sob story, and she’s the one who is destroying this Trust, and every other Trust up and down the country while padding her bank account. AND KILLING OUR CO-WORKERS!’ ‘What do you want me to say? That I approve of this? Because I don’t. It makes me sick, and I can’t stand to look at myself. But that doesn’t change the fact that I need the money. And if—’ She trailed off, biting her lip in frustration. ‘If you were risking losing your home, and sleeping in some dump of a shelter or on the streets, you’d have done the same thing too. So get off your fucking high horse.’ She had balled her fists, cheeks emblazoned with fury and humiliation. ‘There are few people whose opinion actually matters to me, but yours is one of them.’ Jimmy was scared, shaking. ‘What do we do here? Because I can’t go along with this.’ The figure lunged at them so unexpectedly that all Jimmy saw was a sweep of blackness before it divided the space between him and Audrey, collapsing face down in the spreading tendrils of blood. Jimmy didn’t recognise the ashen haired man, but Audrey’s yell was quick to rob him of his curiosity. A second figure loomed, stabbing at Jimmy with a knife. Jimmy hopped back on instinct, managing to simultaneously trip on the dead guard’s arm and slip on the blood slick. He went down hard, but was able to shield the back of his head with his arms. The blood saturated the back of his shirt and pants, viscous and warm. The knife man, also dressed in black, but with a balaclava, turned to Audrey, slashing out in a whistling arc. Jimmy’s breath caught. A mental flash of Audrey having her throat opened. Her throat was safe, but one of her protective forearms took a nasty slice, blood arcing from the blade’s passage to spatter the door. Audrey gasped, then whimpered as the pain blazoned. Jimmy tried to get up, but the slippery blood had him thrashing about like a landed fish. Then he saw the heavy black belt around the dead man’s waist. It was loaded with a few ethically questionable items, instantly identifying him as Gareth’s other security officer, Mitch. The killer—Art or a hired hand—saw Jimmy’s intent, and forsook the backpedalling Audrey to dive atop Jimmy, bringing the knife down like he was about to sacrifice a goat on an altar. The killer was taller and heavier than Jimmy, the extra weight aiding the knife’s slow descent. Jimmy gasped and huffed, unable to get any traction, pinned between the heavier mass and the crimson wash. Even with both hands he was losing the battle against the falling blade. Knowing he was physically outmatched, he took a gamble. His jammed one thumb into the killer’s eye socket, and grimaced in absolute horror at what he was doing. He didn’t go deep enough to puncture the eyeball, but certainly went deep enough to reverse the knife’s descent, the killer throwing his hands up to protect his face. An almost musical clang rang out as Audrey put a partially disassembled IV stand across the back of the murderer’s head. He fell sideways off of Jimmy, who rolled with him, clawing about for the IV stand in Audrey’s hands. She released it, and Jimmy, kneeling on the stabbing wrist, used the stainless steel bar to press down onto the masked man’s throat. The killer gagged and sputtered, a trail of saliva landing on his masked chin, clear blue eyes bulging in reddening sockets. Jimmy’s knees were slippery upon the red mess, and the heavier man almost shook him loose several times, but Jimmy had a good wide, flat base as he drove the pipe deeper. Cartilage crunched, the knife hand slackened, and with one final gurgle, those wide blue eyes glimpsed a distance of untold miles. Jimmy fell sideways off the corpse, making another drunken blood angel as he scrabbled away in horror. He couldn’t believe what he’d just done. Been forced to do. Thoughts raced through his head but none caught any traction or connected, he was lost in white noise. Audrey was at his side, helping him up, her forearm leaking blood. She crouched back down, removing the balaclava. It wasn’t Arthur Seeley. She said as much, but all Jimmy heard was his own rushing blood. Despite her injuries, she grabbed him by the cheeks, forcing him to look into her eyes. She was telling him he’s okay, that it’ll be okay, but her voice seemed so distant. Jimmy shook his head clear. ‘Did you say he’s not Gina’s husband?’ Audrey nodded. ‘So who…?’ ‘Some paid killer?’ Jimmy stared at the body—bodies—with trembling red stained hands, and let his gaze drift back to Jordan and the cabinets behind him. ‘How—’ His teeth were chattering from adrenaline. ‘H—how do they put them to sleep?’ Audrey was wrapping a large wad of sterile wipes about her arm, tears of pain, shock, but most of all, shame burning her eyes. Jimmy set about helping her, but she waved him off, needing to do it herself. ‘Barbiturates, pentobarbital. In the cupboard over there. Syringes.’ She waved vaguely to the cabinets behind Jordan. ‘The dosage doesn’t affect Rupert. I think it took some regulating. At first it put him under too, during his feedings. But he adapted.’ Jimmy was still so shaken that his question was far ahead of his own understanding. Why had he asked that? Then he knew what his subconscious already did. ‘Then can we can up the dosage? Put him under for good, end this fucking horror show.’ Audrey fumbled a piece of surgical tape onto her makeshift tourniquet. She was at a loss for words, a titanic struggle behind her eyes. ‘It isn’t just the money,’ she said. ‘You’re talking about killing a child.’ Jimmy gave her a distasteful look. ‘I’m talking about euthanasia. The thing’s a damn vegetable, mindless. People aren’t supposed to live like that. And people are dying to keep it alive for fuck’s sake!’ His tone softened, but only so much. ‘It’ll be a mercy to all involved.’ ‘I didn’t mean to get so deep into this.’ Audrey pulled her vape pen, drawing on it like it was oxygen. ‘It just…happened! My God…’ Jimmy didn’t like seeing her upset, but it was impossible not to see her in a completely different light. ‘Show me where the meds are.’ He started back across the red lake, walking slowly. Audrey followed in a state of near catatonia, leaving vape clouds in her wake. ‘Should we call the police?’ she asked. ‘How do you think that would play out?’ Jimmy knew the answer, which meant she did too, but she was trying to make up for her former inactivity. The police would show up, find a lot of blood, four bodies, and a detached-from-reality MP ready to throw a few working-class Northerners to the wolves. Jimmy was flinging open cabinets at random. ‘Bottom left,’ Audrey said. He pulled it open, finding it bare but for a few glass bottles and fresh syringes. Grabbing one of each, he cast his eyes back to the fridge, seeing that not a single blood bottle was left intact. ‘I can’t spike his food. It’ll have to be a straight injection.’ The thought revolted him, but he was still so overcharged on shock from having killed a man in self-defence that he was able to accept the choice. ‘At least he won’t feel it,’ Audrey said, her voice weak. The gash was already bleeding through her bandage in splotches. ‘What about Gareth? How will you put Rupert to sleep with him there?’ Jimmy slid the needle into the bottle, drawing a full dosage which would surely be lethal to a fully grown man. He didn’t have an answer to her question. 8 They left twin trails of red footprints back to the bay, each one shining ghostly under the weak fluorescents. The nearer they got towards Rupert and Gina’s room, the more leaden Jimmy’s feet became. Morality and humanitarian ethics paled in the face of such extreme actions and pending criminality. He knew what he was doing was right. Gina was murdering people, those expendables who wouldn’t be missed, but try explaining that to a court of law. Jimmy was a nobody. The quiet bay was just ahead, the swirling constellations of clowns and teddies skimming the room’s threshold. Jimmy couldn’t help but wonder whether Gina had already fled with Rupert and Gareth. Then…voices, quiet but edged with recrimination, reached his ears. Audrey stopped, placing her hand on his arm. They stood listening. A man’s voice, southern accent, upper reserved pronunciation. Had to be Arthur Seeley. Virologist. Corporate leader. Amoral capitalist. One-half creator of Rupert and the cause of who knew how many other in-vivo nightmares. Jimmy clutched the syringe like a dagger, and watched Audrey, looking for some cue or idea of what to do next. His resolve was weakening. His stomach seemed to be sinking deeper into his guts, deeper still into his pelvis. And the overpowering scent of blood, and the weight of it soaking his whole back, was positively nauseating. He couldn’t do this. Audrey looked even more doubt-stricken, a sheen of pained sweat on her brow. A stone coalesced in Jimmy’s stomach, a sudden hardening of resolve. He leaned against the thick glass of the bay wall, listening to Art command the room with a soft, clipped menace. Jimmy thought about where Gareth was, and why he wasn’t ripping Art’s arm from its socket right now. He slowly peered through the shadowy glass. Rupert’s cot had been wheeled into the middle of the room, but the flight had been disturbed. A large hump was slumped between the cot and one of the bay’s thick pillars. Gareth. Art must have got the drop on him as he was wheeling the child out. Gina was trying to shield her son from Art, her back to the cot, arms spread across it. It looked utterly futile. Arthur Seeley wasn’t much of a physical threat, but he could easily overpower Gina. He was of average height, but slightly overweight with a paunch pressing against his shirt, and a dull lifeless hairstyle which seemed completely devoid of style or pretence. Arthur was so tense he was practically leaning forwards on the balls of his smart shoes. He held a ball-peen hammer in one gloved hand. ‘You could have stopped this. Selfish bitch.’ Art’s hammer was dancing in his hand. ‘You knew that thing wasn’t meant to be, during the scan, but you just had to have a baby.’ Art’s voice took on an embarrassing preening. He was clearly dallying with madness. ‘Had to play dolly, even if the dolly was a fucking monster.’ His voice ominously dropped an octave or two. ‘Look at that thing for God’s sake. That’s no legacy of mine.’ He took a step toward Gina, who was fighting back angry tears. ‘How many people have you let die for that bastard mistake? Not including these men, who sadly threw their lives away protecting it. They should have been protecting it from you. You’ve made me do this. How many times did I plead? We could have tried again, had a healthy child. But you refused to see reason. You pushed me into these drastic actions.’ A noise like distant surf started to rise up from the cot. Rupert was stirring. Gina tried to hush him, but the strained cheer in her voice only seemed to cause further problems. Art was loathe to acknowledge the quarrelsome infant, its noise quickly becoming a racket of gasps and clicks. Arthur’s leather glove crinkled as it gripped the hammer more tightly. Jimmy was about to tiptoe past the glass and enter when Audrey grabbed his elbow like it was a life-saving handhold. ‘Wait,’ she whispered. ‘Isn’t this what you wanted? Art will—’ A pained look split her features, ‘…kill Rupert. Gina too, probably. Let’s just go. Tell Joan. She will clear us both of all of this.’ Jimmy was so wrapped up in terror and anger that such an obvious answer hadn’t occurred to him. But what if… What if Arthur Seeley got to just drive away from all of this? He wasn’t responsible for Jordan and all the other Platform workers who’d been bled like feed bags, but it was him and his reckless and short-sighted business acumen which led to Gina birthing Rupert. Who knew how many other mothers had become hosts to genetic disgraces, or miscarried, or themselves died. And how many men, girls, boys and the elderly had suffered health complications, some fatal, because he was desperate to palm some quick coin with a barely tested vaccine? ‘Arthur needs to go too. It’s his fault.’ Jimmy seemed to exit his body, allowing his instincts to take volition over his fear and doubt, his breathing shallow and rapid. Between the strafing night light and large openness of the bay, Jimmy knew he was vulnerable. He had to close the distance between him and Art before Art turned around. Bringing the IV stand up, his bloody sole squeaked just loudly enough to startle Art. Jimmy’s eyes bugged, watching Art turn. But Art must have been anticipating the return of his thug. In seeing Jimmy, he flinched, his hammer was quick, but not as quick as Jimmy. The IV stand crunched into the side of Art’s head, knocking him into a state of confusion. Coherence was now beyond the man’s reach as he side-staggered a step or two. Jimmy hit him again, needing to make sure. The clang was teeth-gritting, and Jimmy tried not to think of a splitting coconut. Art was down, and wouldn’t be getting back up. Panting heavily, Jimmy heard Gina sobbing, thanking him, but it was all a distant muddle against the endless rasping and gurgling of Rupert. She crouched low, peering into the disfigured physiognomy of Rupert, caressing and cooing and promising he was going to be okay. ‘Why didn’t you use a blood bank?’ Gina flashed Jimmy a parody of innocence. ‘I’m sorry?’ Jimmy repeated his question. ‘I was dumb enough to believe you were bleeding some sow you bought from a farmer. You’ve been murdering people. I know we don’t really qualify as people to the likes of you, in your private little bubble worlds. But you are a murderer, and so I’m wondering why you didn’t at least work something out with a blood bank?’ Gina’s tight smile wouldn’t have looked out of place on a fleshless skull. Too much teeth and too little in the eyes. ‘At first I did try pigs’ blood. And cows. Chickens. But my brave little boy couldn’t keep it down for long.’ Audrey slowly drifted up, shoulder to shoulder with Jimmy. ‘And the blood banks refused to help. I tried paying some of the board members, favours, anything.’ Gina’s eyes became bitter little pits. ‘They thought my Rupert was a lost cause and not worth the blood. They told me that there are people out there with real chances at life who need the blood more.’ The shadows roving across her face offered the first true pangs of psychosis, as if the very notion of another life being more worthy than her own child’s was ludicrous. ‘And you’re right, Jimmy. Nobody would miss a few agency workers here and there. Chosen correctly, they’re all easy enough to lose in the shuffle. Destitute. Depression. Drugs and alcohol. Suicide. You can both still work for me. I can make a call, have this mess cleaned up. Now that that bastard is no longer a threat—’ Her gaze came down like a hammer on Arthur Seeley’s corpse. Jimmy didn’t show Gina the syringe, but it felt so profoundly lethal in his hand, each passing second bearing more weight into it. ‘You can look at me that way all you like. I’m not a monster. You should do anything for family, Jimmy.’ She pursed her lips through the bars and kissed Rupert on some unintelligible fleshy mound of his head. Rupert’s slow eyes blinked individually. His arrhythmic breathing increased, and that slick mouth funnel dropped out, dampening the pillow. Gina seemed to think it was the most beautiful thing in the world. ‘You would do the same in my position,’ she said. ‘My dad had Alzheimer’s,’ Jimmy said, his voice slow and hard. ‘He used to be the nicest fella you could meet. Couldn’t walk down the road without letting on to half the neighbours, stopping for a chat. It used to piss me off when I was a kid, because he’d be driving me somewhere, or walking me somewhere, and I’d have to stand around for ten minutes because he didn’t like cutting people short. The dementia was late on-set, small miracles, I guess. But I still struggle thinking about those last months, watching as he forgot a little bit more about who he was, and who I was. I watched this man, so full of life and joy the likes of which I never knew, fade away into a drooling bag of meat, pissing into bags, shitting into nappies, staring through me like I was part of the wall.’ He swallowed a dry lump. ‘If the doctors had told me that they had a way to prolong that existence of his, I would have turned them down without a second’s hesitation. Because he deserved better than that. And I know he’d want me to remember him the way he was. That’s what I’d do for family. I’d make the tough choice that best suited them, not me.’ He made a vague gesture towards Rupert. ‘Because that’s not mercy, it’s selfish. It’s a fucking punishment.’ Gina rose to her feet slowly, tired. ‘So you won’t help me. Audrey?’ Jimmy watched her from the corner of his eye, hoping her morality wasn’t so cheap. Audrey shook her head, cupping her wounded arm. ‘I’m sorry for Rupert. He’s innocent. But fuck you.’ ‘Then I’ll be forced to have your contracts terminated after this. Maybe I’ll even—’ Gina’s eyes bugged-out, her breath hissing out in pain. Jimmy almost thought she was suffering a heart attack, but then he saw the quivering snake? It was thin, flailing like a severed power line. It was some defective umbilical cord, another grotesquerie from birth. It had crept out from Rupert’s naval seeking nourishment, and if he wasn’t going to be fed, it would feed itself. Gina twisted about, trying to reach around to seize hold of the feeding tube sticking in the middle of her back. She was calling her boy’s name, trying to sweet talk him. To Rupert it was all just meaningless sounds. ‘Do it,’ Audrey said, wincing from her red-soaked bandage. Jimmy hurried in, seeing what looked like hope and thanks on Gina’s cringing face. The look crumpled into confusion when she saw the syringe in his hand. She was about to scream and protest further when Jimmy jammed the needle into her breastbone, sinking the entire quantity of barbiturates into her system. It took no time at all. Gina’s wild, trapped animal eyes fluttered then rolled back, her knees gave out, dropping her into a slack pile beside the cot. Rupert’s umbilical tube was still pulsing readily, finding sustenance. The siphoning slowed down, stopped. It all stopped. And Rupert’s incognisant eyes lost what fractional life they held. Finally, Rupert had the peace he deserved. The bay was deathly quiet, and for a few seconds all Jimmy and Audrey could do was stand there staring at the cause of so much secret pain and horror. Jimmy felt no sense of justice, at first. Only a gagging disgust for the situation. But then somewhere behind his wall of shock, he heard something. A voice. A memory. His dad’s, but he wasn’t speaking words so much as delivering the indelible inflections of his voice from a thousand conversations which Jimmy would give anything to revisit. He felt his throat close up, and swallowed the lump before tears ruined him. ‘It was for the best.’ Jimmy’s voice was as monotonous as a trauma victim’s. ‘He wasn’t given a chance at life. He’d lost everything before he was even born.’ Audrey silently took her radio from her belt, examining it like she no longer recognised what it was. ‘Joan… She’ll bury this whole thing. We’re in the clear.’ Audrey pushed in the transmission button, and told Joan that they all needed to talk. But neither of them moved. They stood inanimate, almost hand in hand, staring at the carnage of blood and shadow and nightlight. ‘I’m looking forward to getting that puppy,’ Audrey said. Jimmy could barely manage a nod. ‘Dogs are good company.’ Finally, they wended their way out of the peaceful dark of the bay, leaving bloody footprints in their wake. If you stuck it out, thank you! Daniel James is an author of speculative (and sometimes dark and weird) fiction from Liverpool, England. He is the recipient of two Kirkus Star reviews for his character-driven, action-packed urban fantasy novels Hourglass and The Ferryman's Toll. Hourglass was also voted one of their Best 100 Indie novels of 2021.