What's your life worth on the open market?
Lirium plays the part of the grim reaper well, with his dark trenchcoat, jackboots, and the black marks on his soul that every debt collector carries. He's just in it for his cut, the ten percent of the life energy he collects before he transfers it on to the high potentials, the people who will make the world a better place with their brains, their work, and their lives. That hit of life energy, a bottle of vodka, and a visit from one of Madam Anastazja's sex workers keep him alive, stable, and mostly sane... until he collects again. But when his recovery ritual is disrupted by a sex worker who isn't what she seems, he has to choose between doing an illegal hit for a girl whose story has more holes than his soul or facing the bottle alone—a dark pit he's not sure he'll be able to climb out of again.
This nine episode serial contains mature content and themes.
"Quinn has a way of writing heart-breaking characters."
"You'll be holding your breath, looking over your shoulder, and begging for more."
It is recommended that you start with the first season, but each season is a complete story for that debt collector and can serve as an entry point to the series. There are five planned seasons in the Debt Collector series, the first four each from the perspective of a different debt collector with the fifth season bringing all four together.
Debt Collector snared me almost immediately with the actual mechanism of the debt collection. Life itself is a form of currency, and an addictive one at that. I was fascinated by the realistic portrayal of the distrust and fear that one who could literally siphon away your life force would garner. Also intriguing was the fact that this is a collected serial, one of several I read in preparing this bundle. – Joseph R. Lallo
My jackboots are new, the latest ultra-light material out of Hong Kong's synthetics district, and they make a strange squeaking sound against the hospital floor. It's the kind of sound that might gather snickers or a raised eyebrow, but no one looks at me, at least not on purpose. I stroll past the ICU desk, taking my time, breathing in the antiseptic smell that masks the odor of death held back by machines and drugs and round-the-clock care. The nurses duck their heads and study their charts, ignoring me. As if catching my eye might mean I'm coming to collect their debt, rather than Mr. Henry's in Room 301.
The floor is so highly polished that I see the reflection of my trenchcoat running ahead of me, black as a midnight grave, a spook that lives on the surface of the oft-scrubbed tiles. It reaches the door to 301 before me and disappears in the dim, flickering light coming from the room. The spook has gone back where he belongs, into the dark recesses of my soul, assuming I still have one. If I was a betting man, I would say the odds of having a soul keep getting longer with every transfer I do. The older debt collectors, the ones who are still alive, don't have anything shining out of their dull-glass eyes, even when they're hyped up on a transfer. There's no telling what my eyes look like.
I stopped looking in the mirror a long time ago.
Mr. Henry's hooked up in all the usual places—tubes in his arms and monitor patches hovering over his temples and the blue-veined skin of his chest. His knobbed knees and shriveled legs stick out the end of the blanket. I don't know if he's tossed the blanket aside or the nurses just forgot to cover him up again after his sponge bath or whatever they do to prepare patients for a debt transfer. Goosebumps raise the hair on what's left of his legs into a small forest of gray fur. I tug the thin, white-weave blanket over his exposed legs, and Mr. Henry opens his eyes.
They're pale green and watery—washed out and used up like the rest of him.
"You've come for me," he says.
I pick up one of the hard-backed, plastic hospital chairs, the kind that makes you uncomfortable sticking around the ICU, just in case all the death-waiting-to-happen doesn't do the trick. I carefully set it down, backward facing at the head of Mr. Henry's bed, and settle in. I don't answer him, just study him for a moment over my laced fingers.
"What's your name, son?" he asks, which makes me lean back and mentally check over his file again. No, he's not an Alzheimer's patient. He shouldn't think I'm his son. And I'm only twenty, but no one's mistaken me for a boy in a while, not since I started collecting.
"Lirium," I say. It's just my collector name, short for Delirium. Some punk collector thought it was funny when we went through training and it stuck. I don't use my real name anymore, so it's as good as any. Most people don't ask.
"Is it going to hurt, Lirium?" His hand wanders out from the blanket, shaking a little and fluttering around his chest, like it's searching for something. Then it lands on the rail of his bed and grips it.
"No, sir." Relief gushes through me like water from a busted hose. When patients have been properly prepared, that's the question they ask. It means they're ready. I should thank the nurses on the way out, if I can get one of them to look at me. "It won't hurt at all, Mr. Henry. In fact, it will be a relief."
This isn't really true, but I imagine it will be better than what he's feeling now, all the aches and pains of the cancer slowly eating him from the inside out. This is where I usually tell them that transferring out is a good thing and how paying their debt will make the world a better place. I tell them it's better for everyone—they get relief from having to live the last painful stages of their disease, they're no longer a drain on the resources of the world, and someone else, someone in the height of their productivity, whose contributions to the world will be long lasting, will receive their debt and do even more with it than they can imagine. And I get my cut. Everyone wins!
I usually leave out that last part.
But today, the words stick in my throat as Mr. Henry draws in one shaky breath after another, his watery eyes searching my face for the truth behind my words.
Instead, I ask, "Do you have any family? Any message you want to give them? I'll see that it gets to them personally." This part is true, although I usually wait until I've paid out and recovered. It's easier to face the families that way.
"No," Mr. Henry says and looks away, staring at the vid screen on the wall, noiselessly playing some reality game show. I think it's the one where you finish a desert obstacle course and win a ton of cash. I don't watch TV.
"There's no one that's too concerned about me anymore," Mr. Henry says.
I nod. If the man had family, they'd have to be some hard cases to let him rack up so much debt that his life doesn't cover the balance. Then again, some families do that on purpose.
"Wait!" he says. It's a croak filled with urgency, and I briefly wonder if he's got dementia on top of the cancer. "There's a cousin of mine! Nick! Yes…" He turns his watery eyes to me. "I'd want Nick to know," he says. "That I've paid my debt."
"Does Nick have a last name?" I hold up my left palm and activate the screen implanted in my hand. All Agency collectors are required to get the implant. Some don't like it, but I find it useful. "Does he live in the Los Angeles area?" That's about 50 million souls, but if I have a last name, it should be possible.
"I don't know." A thousand wrinkles find a home on Mr. Henry's forehead. "I haven't seen him in… I don't know, maybe 20 years?"
"Last name?" I look up from my palm.
I tap it in. No Nick Fisherman in the greater Los Angeles area. I keep my face neutral. "Yeah, found him right here," I lie, swiping to clear the screen. "Living in Santa Barbara." I bring up the recorder and hold my palm out to him. "Would you like to record something for Nick?"
Mr. Henry's shaky hand reaches out and pushes mine away with the strength of a gnat. I lower my hand. "No," he says. "Just tell him for me."
There's a moment where we don't say anything. I stare down at my hand, pretending to do something while I let Mr. Henry collect his final thoughts. Then I hold the screen up to him again, already recording. "Mr. Henry, I need to record your final statement, if you'd like to make one. It's optional, sir, but if you'd like to make one, please feel free to take your time." It's the standard language we're told to use, and it usually works to settle them in. Plus it signals that we're almost done.
Mr. Henry looks at his image on the screen for only an instant, then turns his gaze to me. "No final words."
"As you wish, sir." I tap my palm and rest my hand on the back of the chair. I lean forward and ask quietly, "Are you ready, sir?" I only ask them when I think that they are. I give Mr. Henry a smile, honestly grateful that he's making this so easy on me.
He nods, and I extend my right hand, gently placing my palm on his forehead, like I'm an old-time preacher who's giving him a benediction. Only I'm not healing him, I'm killing him.
If only it didn't feel so damn good.