Debt Collectors, Part 4
If you’re just joining the tale, you might want to jump back to part 1 first.
Max placed the cold can of soda against her bruised cheek.
Roddy had been stronger than he appeared, but she was more motivated. And had the advantage of pointier elbows, heavier boots and more recent lessons from street fighting: hard to hold a person down when you’re on the floor red-faced and grasping your ‘nads.
But she knew what he’d do as soon as he could stand again. The collectors would know her general location shortly, if they didn’t already. Though even the collectors would balk at following her where she’d taken refuge—they would, but they’d hesitate.
After leaving Roddy, she’d gone back to the Green. Deep inside, away from the streets, it was dark and dank. Beside her sat a fetid mass of weeds and scum that hinted at its former life as a pond. People muttered and seagulls screeched, loud enough to prevent her from concentrating but not enough to drown out the voices in her head.
She rested on a weathered concrete wall, stained and slimy. With her head between her knees, she watched a line of ants come and go from a crack in the buckled asphalt. Hidden in her bra, Roddy’s cash pressed against her flesh. The fistful that she’d grabbed off the table as he swore at her from the floor was less than it seemed. Despite its small size, she felt the weight of it, here among the detritus of society: it held enough money that anyone of them would probably shiv her for it.
But it was still not enough to pay her debt.
The greying world indicated dusk descended towards her, and the Green was no place to be after dark, especially with a stack of cash in one’s bra. She had to move, to do something. Maybe if she could get out of the city, she could make her way to the Free Townships.
Max shook her head—what would a city girl do among the Heretical communes … even if she knew how to get there.
Max wandered around Eastside. At some point, rain started to fall, and she pulled up her collar, which channelled the cold drops down her neck. She stopped at a cart and bought the cheapest street meat on offer. Gnawing at the over-seasoned flesh of indeterminate origin, she turned around.
Two men stood on the other side of the street, dressed like those she’d seen that morning—same outfit, same stature, same ass-kicking boots. One of those boots pressed into the back of a man on the ground, who struggled as they collared him and read him his rights. The crowd parted, avoiding eye contact with any one of the trio and ignoring the man’s protests. Same old story: he’d pay it back, he just needed to make a call, he’d have it in another week.
But the pleading did no good—not with the collectors, the judge or the crowd.
Max spun around, her shoulders hunched, and strode away as if just remembering she had somewhere important to be.
Unfurling the mental map etched in her memory from a childhood spent on these streets, she turned right, down an alley and around the corner. Soon, she arrived at the edges of the night market, lit by flickering neon and chemical fires. Booths and food carts heaped against each other in a transitory jumble. The crowd had reached critical mass, a writhing river of humanity. After a quick shoulder check, she pulled her arms in, like she was getting ready for a fight, and dove in. She wove her way through the throng of people, breathing deeply in an effort to not shove—she wanted to melt into the herd, not stand out from it. Glancing around for cameras or spider drones, she wished again that she’d thrown on a hoodie that morning.
An itch crept up Max’s spine, and she looked behind her. She saw nothing and everything. At the next aisleway, she turned left. Unless things had changed, heading this direction took her back to the Green. If she could make it there, she could hide amongst the hungry and the high, at least until the next roundup. She’d have time to come up with a solution.
Scanning the market, she saw black suits and tattoos everywhere, just not on the same person.
She shoulder-checked again, and the kaleidoscope of the market fell into place. It showed a man in black with a butterfly tattoo on his neck. She hadn’t realized it was a butterfly this morning—or was it yesterday already?—hadn’t wondered what made a collector get a butterfly tattoo.
In front of her, she made out the market’s edge, and beyond that the incongruous void in the city lights that marked the Green.
Just another minute. All she needed was another minute. She ran, shoving and throwing elbows, breaking from the crowd like a startled deer. Her heart pounded in her throat. Her breath rasped in her ears.
She glanced behind her again. Butterfly had disappeared. Her stomach fluttered in a heady mix of hope and fear. She turned back towards the Green.
And ran into blackness. A hard wall of black sent her reeling. The other one … you always forget about the other one. Max scrambled to get up, but a black boot pressed down on her chest. The butterfly, a vivid blue, almost appeared to fly as the muscles of the man’s neck twitched under his skin.
Max fought, but it was a losing battle, as they forced her to turn over and strapped her hands.
“I’m trying to come up with the money,” she said, straining to get the words out of her tight throat. “I just need a bit more time.” She craned her neck, trying to look up, but the only eyes that met hers were those of the collectors and a little girl with pigtails and a smudge of soot on her cheek.
“We’re collectors. We don’t deal with payments.”
They put the collar around her neck, its display empty. It would remain blank until she went before the judge. It beeped as it snapped shut.
Max kicked out at the world, hitting nothing but air.
“You have the right to repay your debt. You have the right to a phone call in order to repay that debt. If you cannot repay your debt, you will be indentured, and the collar will remain on for the duration of that indenture. If you try to remove the collar....”
She stopped listening. There was no point once the collar was on. After they finished reading her rights, they dragged her up. One of the collectors, Butterfly, picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder.
“You’ll need that.” The bag and the clothes she wore were all she was allowed. Everything else was sold to pay the collectors. None of it counted towards her debt.
Max looked at the numbers reflected in the transport’s window: 129375:43:24 EST. She did the math. Fifteen years, give or take, Earth Standard Time.
That’s how long it would take her to pay off the debt plus room and board. When the counter reached zero, when the collar unlocked and dropped off, she’d be free to do as she pleased on whatever backwater pissant planet or station she happened to be indentured on at the time. She had no idea where that would be since debt was bought and sold easier than water.
She kicked the back of the seat in frustration. Unfortunately, that brought the flight attendant to attention. A shock passed through her as the woman pressed a button on the fob in her right hand.
Max’s world faded to black.
I always intended Debt Collectors as a short story with an uncertain ending, kind of like life. However, a few readers have asked what happens next. I have some ideas and would like to come back to it one day. But there’s only so much time to write!
If you enjoyed this story, you can check out my writing in The Demon of Midwinter (vampires, demons, and other things that go bump in the night) here on Substack. You can find my scifi and UF books here. And you can always find me at creneastle.com.