Too much blood. Too much blood is dripping. He’ll smell it. He’ll find me.
Once again, she stopped for a moment and leaned against a wall under the flashing red bulbs and the piercing alarm. She inhaled and drew the blood back into her body through the poorly sealed gash that arced over her shoulder. A dozen rivulets trickled up her bare arm.
The floor was empty. She’d stayed in the empty office until everyone else evacuated. But once the alarms started, she couldn’t listen for the sounds of anyone else around her. She’d have to rely on her eyes.
And they couldn’t see around corners, so when she turned the one that led to the maintenance stairwell, she ran right into him.
They both stopped where they were.
He raised his arms, then pressed the back of his hand to his nose. Furrows formed between his brows.
She grasped her upper left arm and felt her blood simmering beneath the palm of her right hand.
He stepped aside and raised his other arm, pointing to the stairwell door. She swept past him, keeping her eyes on him as she pushed through the door and started down the stairwell.
She glanced up and saw that he was following. She untied the blazer around her waist and put it on to cover the gash on her shoulder. At the ground floor landing, she pushed open the door that led to the alley behind the building. The door closed, silencing the blaring alarm. She started down the alleyway when she heard the door open again, heard the blaring again, and the panting of the man who’d just emerged into the alley with her.
She turned to face him. He held up both hands, palms facing her.
“You’re being used Mister Brody,” she said.
He nodded. “I know. I’ve been trying to find you.”
“I’ve heard you’re in the business of finding people.”
“I’m also in the business of helping people.”
She narrowed her eyes. “The ones you find? Or the ones who are looking for them?”
“On what?” Blood simmered beneath her palm. Blood trickled from her shoulder.
“On whether it’s the finder or the seeker who’s the bad actor.” He frowned. “You’re hurt.”
His eyes were welling with tears. She saw his nostrils contract just as he brought the back of his hand up to his mouth again. He coughed.
“What are you smelling? Disease?” she asked. A tiny bud of panic started blooming in her chest.
He shook his head, coughing. “No, that’s not it.”
“Then what?” She tried to slow her breathing. She hadn’t done anything to him. But he was reacting as if…
She tried to focus, to focus on her heartbeat, on the blood pumping through her arteries, squeezing through her veins, fanning out through her capillaries. She could track every drop, every microliter. Nothing seemed wrong. The gash on her shoulder was almost sealed.
“Miss Hunter, please, I have to talk to you” he said. He was still panting. Either he was in terrible shape, or it wasn’t the run down the stairs that was causing his shortness of breath. “I have to tell you what I know.”
He was using her alias. He didn’t know her real name, or maybe he was pretending not to know, to make her think she still had the upper hand.
Too many questions, she thought. Too many unknowns.
He leaned against the wall. “It’s overwhelming,” he said. He tried a smile, but it turned into a wince. “I’ve never smelled anything…like you.”
Was he faking it?
Her blood was different. But maybe he knew that already.
She took a step toward him. He turned his face away from her.
“You look like you’re about to pass out,” she said.
“They’re coming,” he said. “And they have guns.” He doubled over and put a hand to his stomach.
“You can smell them?”
He gulped and shook his head. He closed his eyes. “I can’t smell anyone, anything.” He opened his eyes and turned his head slightly her way. “Except you.”
She felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. The blood under palm went still. She didn’t need any supernatural senses to know that he was right about the men with guns. She’d seen them herself. And they wouldn’t just be after her.
Brody huffed out a word. “Cold.” He turned his face toward her. “I need to be somewhere cold. It might help.”
She nodded. “I know a place.”
They entered through the back, where the trash bins were, and a small loading dock, and where employees took their smoke breaks. She had a word with the manager.
“I own the restaurant,” she said as she led him to a walk-in freezer behind the kitchen.
“Interesting,” he said. “You don’t look like someone who could afford a restaurant, much less a start-up that’s on the rise.”
“I’m older than I look,” she said.
He searched her face. “I’ll take you word for it.”
He bundled up in a couple of tablecloths and stepped in.
She shuddered from standing before the open door. “Are you sure about this, Mister Brody?”
“Yeah, lock me in.”
She peered at him. “You trust me?”
He smiled. “I mean this in a good way, but you’re very easy to read. I know you won’t leave me in here.” He already seemed to be breathing easier.
She smirked. “So…have you just shown me the secret of how to block your ability?”
He gave a little shrug as she shut the door. There was a small window through which they’d be able to see each other, after wiping off the condensation. And there was an intercom and emergency switch inside in case anyone did get accidentally locked in. But they needed to have a private conversation. So they used their phones.
She inhaled slowly. “My real name is Lenny.”
“It’s short for ‘Leonora.’”
“Then…can I call you ‘Leo?’”
She raised a brow.
“I know a guy named ‘Lenny.’ He’s…” Brody shuddered. “Anyway, I’m not a fan.”
She held back a smile, but said, “Sure.”
“Leo, I was hired to find you.”
“I know.” Leo gazed through the glass at him. “I hired you first, for Hemoperos.”
Brody dropped his gaze for a second, but he didn’t seem all that surprised. “I didn’t know you had anything to do with the bidders for the company. Not till just now.”
Leo gazed at him through the frosty window. “What do you know about me?”
He told her.
The top bidder for the purchase of Hemoperos was a firm called Policrev. The played on his loyalty to the start-up, or at least to the project that he’d been hired to consult on. They told him that they were the top bidders, but their competitor—Wendilore Holdings—was trying to buy the start-up for the very purpose of dismantling it and destroying all the research on their flagship project. After buying the company, Wendilore would slowly take over, sabotaging the research, showing financial losses, and eventually shutting down the acquired company and reassigning staff to other roles in the corporation. The motive was the same reason why other advancements were stalled or even buried by established interests. In a nutshell, corporate greed. And that greed would go beyond the destruction of one little start-up if need be. If any of the scientists working on the project were undeterred, they would need to be silenced.
As he spoke, Leo’s blood had begun to simmer again.
“They didn’t know,” he said, “and I didn’t know—at first—that I was already looking for you.”
“When I first smelled you,” he said, “I thought I was smelling one of the study participants. They’d told me they were getting ready to start the next phase. They’d called me in a few days earlier to smell all the new lots they’d made, so I could get a baseline, before they transfused the volunteers.” He was starting to shiver. His breath puffed out before him.
“Do you want to get out of there?” Leo asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t think they know about you personally. They were just trying to get rid of the competition. Whatever you offered, it must have been good enough to worry Policrev. They were using me, just like you said. To get rid of the competition. But you’re not trying to buy the company so you can dismantle it, are you? You’re investing. You’ve…you’ve already got some skin in the game. And some blood, huh?”
“Everything they told you is half true,” Leo said. “They’re the ones who are aiming to dismantle Hemoperos once they acquire it. But why would they go to the trouble of telling you that story? Why not just hire you to find me? It’s what you do.”
“I ask questions now. I didn’t use to. But I do now.”
“I hope you answer them too. Because I need answers.”
Brody stepped toward the door. “So do I. Who are you? Why does your blood smell the way it does?”
Leo turned away from the door. She sighed.
“For a few years now, I’ve been looking at different companies and academic research groups who are studying synthetic blood,” she said. “I’ve been searching for a suitable investment. I noticed a pattern. The people who hired you, they’ve been…disrupting the progress of almost every project I looked into. Sometimes by luring researchers away to other projects, usually at their subsidiaries, with much higher salaries. Sometimes by manipulating the awarding of grants. And sometimes they would just swoop in and buy a company. They would do this whenever someone was on the verge of crossing that threshold from practical application in a lab to successfully scaling up their process or product.”
“Because that would mean they’ve got something that ordinary people could actually use?”
She cleared her throat. “When I found Hemoperos and looked into the flagship project, I knew I had another potential. And I planned to swoop in before anyone else did.” She turned back to the door and stepped toward the window. “I’ve got means, Mister Brody, but not like the firm that hired you. Policrev—or whoever is behind them—seems to have unlimited resources. They could easily outbid me and be done with it. So I had to offer something more valuable. Something that would put Hemoperos above and beyond. Something I was frankly surprised that no one had thought of yet. But then again, not a lot of people know that you exist.”
Brody’s shoulders tensed. That could have been from the cold.
“Do you want to know what I offered Hemoperos that was so good it made Policrev panic?” Leo took another step toward the window and smiled. “It was you. I hired you through a proxy and sent you to the company as a unique asset to use in testing their products during the early phases. Help them narrow down their choices, save money and time.”
Brody frowned. “The recruiting company? I checked them out. I could have sworn they’re clean.”
Leo nodded. “They are. It’s a legitimate company.”
“This restaurant and a recruiting company, and Wendilore Holdings. Seriously, lady, who are you?”
Leo smiled again. “You really delivered, Brody. That’s why they were still considering my offer.”
Brody rubbed his upper arms. “That’s why your competitor decided to turn the tables on you and hire me to hunt you down.”
Leo turned away from the door again and began pacing. “I don’t know what happened, but this morning, I received notification that my bid had been rejected. And I learned that Policrev’s bid had won out. The decision deadline is not for another two weeks. I thought I’d have a little more time, but we never do, do we? I’d hired people to go in and make copies of the research, keep eyes on the key researchers—the ones who’d know enough to be a problem for Policrev somewhere down the line. But it wasn’t all ready yet.”
“You went in to get the research yourself?”
Leo nodded. “I knew I didn’t have much time before Policrev would take over the building and lock it down. I’ve been avoiding going there when you’re there. I figured you’d be able to…smell me. But I had no other choice today. I went in aiming to make copies of all the research on Project NH. And anything else I could manage.”
Brody frowned. “It would take hours to copy all that data and information. I only started smelling you minutes before the alarm went off.”
Interesting. He can only smell my blood when it’s outside my body. Should I let him know?
Leo sighed and reached for the freezer door.
“I’m fine in here,” Brody said, shivering. “Really.”
“You should be fine out here too. Let’s test an observation I just made.”
“What now?” Brody asked. He was doing an excellent job of hiding any surprise in his expression. But Leo noticed his nostrils flaring slightly every few minutes. He was trying to smell her blood. But he couldn’t.
They were sitting in a quiet booth in the back. The lunch rush had just begun and the restaurant was filling up.
“Coconut?” he said.
He peered at her. “I have so many questions for you.”
“They’ll have to wait. I need to check on the people who are in immediate danger from this morning’s acquisition.”
“I take it you’re not talking about the ‘getting fired’ kind of danger.”
Leo shook her head as she dialed the first number and brought the phone to her ear. “You’re one of them, Brody. I hope you didn’t leave your favorite mug on your desk, because I wouldn’t recommend going back to get it.”
No one would be fired. There would be layoffs and transfers. But Policrev had identified three people who were highly likely to push back at any efforts to significantly change how Hemoperos operated. The head of Project NH, one of its senior researchers, and the chief operating officer. Leo had acquired the information through her resources. She’d sent teams of bodyguards to watch the three.
“This morning, one of the teams reported that they had lost track of their person,” she said. “It’s another reason I went in. They still haven’t found her.” She pressed her lips together and looked at him.
“You want me to find her,” Brody said.
“You trust me to?”
Leo smirked. “You’re still on my payroll.”
“You’re in danger too, you know,” Brody said.
They were in Leo’s car, searching for Anna Montoya, one of Project NH’s lead researchers. She hadn’t come in to work that morning. The last time anyone had seen her was the evening before when she went to bed as usual. She was married, but her husband was a film director, and he’d been out of the country for a few months.
“If they don’t already know about you, they will soon enough,” Brody said, as he pulled the seatbelt across his chest.
Leo glanced at him. “What about me?”
Brody held up his hands. “I’m not telling anyone anything. But if Policrev is trying to slow down the progress of synthetic blood research, then…”
“I know. It’s just a matter of time. It’s worth the risk.”
“It’s strange. I know what brand of detergent you use on your clothes. I can smell your earwax. But not your blood. How are you doing that?”
Leo pressed the buttons to open all the windows.
“That’s not necessary. I have to focus if I want to smell something specific. Everything blends together otherwise.”
“Like trying to pick out one conversation in a crowded room.”
“Then I ask that you kindly stop eavesdropping on my scents.”
From the corner of her vision, she saw him turn to her.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just…blood is one of the few exceptions. I can usually smell someone’s blood if they’re within a few feet of me. And then I get used to it after maybe fifteen minutes, unless I focus on it. Not being able to smell blood when I’m with a person is…very strange to me.”
“How well do you know Doctor Montoya?”
“We’re friendly. She wears the same lotion every day. It’s got a light cherry scent with a hint of spice. It’s not a fragrance anyone else in the building wears.”
Leo spared a quick glance before returning her eyes to the road. “Smelled her lotion, huh?”
“Hey, she asked me to. She said she would switch to something unscented if it bothered me.”
“Well, I hope you can use it track her.”
“I can. Combined with her body chemistry it’s a unique—wait! Go left at the next intersection.”
“I know where she is,” Brody said, “but we’re being followed.”
Leo glanced over at the rearview mirror. “Dark blue sedan?”
“Let me guess. They have guns.”
“Smells like it.”
“Okay, time to call the authorities.”
“Leo! They’re accelerating.”
The dark blue sedan lurched forward with a screech of its tires, swinging around the two cars that were between them and Leo.
Leo pressed the gas pedal. Steady but quick. But they were still gaining on her.
“There’s another one,” Brody said. He grunted. “Anna was in the other car.”
The dark blue sedan sped up and came alongside them. Leo glanced over at them. The man on the passenger side pointed a gun at her. With his other hand, he pointed to the curb.
Brody dialed his the phone. But the other car came alongside the passenger side. It slammed into Leo’s car. Leo swerved and hit the blue sedan. Brody dropped his phone. He bent down to search for it just as the gun discharged.
The car’s tire pressure warning start blinking.
Leo slammed on her brakes. The car jolted to a stop.
Brody suddenly gasped and started coughing and groaning. She recognized the reaction.
Leo checked herself, her face, her arms, her hands. The slightest scratch on the back of her left hand was just beginning to redden. Tiny drops of blood squeezed through.
How did that happen?
Someone opened the driver side door and waved her out. She raised her hands and slowly exited.
Leo could have sealed the wound, giving Brody some relief. Or she could have let it open further, and saved them both. But these men weren’t aiming to kill Brody and Leo, at least not in the moment. And there was Anna to think of.
She let the little scratch be for now, kept it from clotting, kept it from bleeding.
The men pulled Brody out of the car and walked him over to Leo. Brody was sweating. He stumbled, and the man holding him shoved him into the dark blue sedan.
One of the men wasn’t holding a gun. He strolled over to Leo.
“How about that? The bloodhound came to us.” He pointed a thumb toward Brody and grinned, flashing a set of perfect white veneers. He shook his head at Leo. “With a friend who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The men threw Leo and Brody into a room. Leo’s blood was simmering under the surface of her skin. She wasn’t surprised to see someone else was already in the room. A woman sitting by the boarded up window of the abandoned factory building. She turned to them. Her eyes looked a little less frightened when she saw Brody.
“Doctor Montoya?” Leo asked. “Anna Montoya?”
Anna Montoya’s gaze flicked to Leo. She nodded. She inhaled and blew her breath out slowly through her lips. She was trying to calm herself.
Leo leaned toward Brody and whispered to him. “I need you to get Anna out of here. Here’s the plan—“
Brody groaned and collapsed to the floor. Anna Montoya rushed to him. She looked up Leo.
“What’s wrong with him? What did they do to him?”
He was in far worse shape than the last time he’d smelled Leo’s blood. She didn’t know why. Leo knelt down.
“Doctor Montoya, I need you to get Brody out of here.”
“I drove here, like an idiot.”
“I got a message,” Anna said. She glanced at Brody. “From him. I thought it was him. Telling me to meet him here. He’d been investigating one of the bidders. They seemed shady.”
“Here’s the plan,” Leo said, hearing her voice go calm and cold. “Count to thirty—no thirty-five. Slowly. Like one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand. Then open the door and head down to your car. Don’t leave any sooner. No matter what you hear. Got it?”
“But I don’t have my keys.”
Leo paused. She searched her memory. “They’ll be on the floor, somewhere on your way to the car. Look for them. Take Brody as far away from here as you can. Don’t go home. Go somewhere crowded and cold. Tell Brody that. He’ll guide you where to go. And I’ll meet you there.”
“But—who are you?”
“I’m his associate. Somewhere cold. Remember?”
“Help me pull him away from the door, and stay as far away from it as you can until you’re finished counting. I know it sounds weird, but—“
“I’ve got it.” Anna Montoya wrapped one of Brody’s arms over her shoulder and gave Leo a single nod.
Leo tried the doorknob. It was locked from the outside. She held the back of her hand to the door. As they were being tossed into the room, she’d seen two men taking flanking guard positions beside the door.
The scratch on the back of her hand opened slightly. A thin trickle of blood reached into the lock, found the components, and started melting them. A caustic metallic odor struck her nose. She wondered if Brody could smell it.
She readied herself to open the door. She couldn’t let anyone get past her once she started moving, couldn’t let anyone get into the room where Brody and Anna Montoya were waiting. Luckily, there was only one way to get to that room from the inside of the building.
Leo’s blood was different. Brody could smell it. She just hoped he didn’t smell what was in it. Toxins, for one thing. High levels. She could hold them in her blood, sequestered in the tiniest of cells that didn’t exist in a typical human body.
She snapped open the door as blood began to seep from her wound. She couldn’t leave a single drop behind. She reached to her left and up as she stepped forward, brushing one man’s face with her hand. She reached across to her right, slapping the other man’s face.
They dropped their guns and started screaming just as Leo shut the door.
Both men fell unconscious. They’d stay that way for a while. She was collecting her blood from their faces when another one came up the stairs. He pulled out his gun and started yelling for others as she rose.
He shot her. She flinched as the bullet grazed her right thigh. He wasn’t aiming to kill her, it seemed. Maybe that meant he wasn’t allowed to yet, unless he had to.
She didn’t feel pain. It wasn’t the first time she’d been shot. She thought she’d get used to it, but it had been a while. It was still shocking. She had to stay calm. As much as she wanted to run toward him, or better yet, run away, she had to walk. Maybe if she scared him, scared them all, they would run instead of trying to fight her. She hoped so, because if there were too many of them, she would have to put them down quickly. She’d have to switch to something fatal.
He kept shooting as she strode toward him, staring at him. His shots moved up to her torso. He ran out of bullets. She kept striding. Some of the bullets went through her. Those wounds were healing. Some of the bullets were still in her. She found them and carried them out through the wounds on half a dozen branches of blood. She stopped walking and retracted her blood. The bullets dropped to the floor. The man didn’t follow the bullets. He didn’t take his eyes off her.
I shouldn’t let him live, she thought. He’ll tell.
But she had to. She always had to let them live.
She was counting in her head. She was already at fifteen. She had to hurry.
She brought her hand to her mouth and sucked blood out of the wound as the man at the top of the stairs cried out and ran at her. He knocked her down. He raised his fist to punch her. She spit blood in his face.
His fist froze in midair as he gasped for breath, and gasped again. He started coughing. She pushed him away and rose.
She couldn’t use anything on these guys that might hurt Anna or Brody when they came through. Just in case.
She reclaimed her blood from the man. Her wounds were already closed when others came up the stairs.
She had counted the men she could see when they were being brought into the building. Half a dozen guarding the outside, a couple milling around just inside the front entrance, the two who were guarding the room with the prisoners, two on the main floor at ground level, and the one guy without the gun. At least thirteen, and hopefully more hadn’t joined them.
The men on the stairs were easy. They didn’t draw their guns because they thought they could just tackle her or punch her. But they were bottlenecked. She just had to stay low and just brush their skin with a sweep of blood.
Six more went down. That left three. She reclaimed her blood.
They’d kept Anna’s car. Maybe they were planning on using it to fake an accident or something. So they had to keep her other things, her keys, her purse. They weren’t using the whole building. It was probably on the ground floor, the office where she’d seen the two who were hanging out.
She only had fifteen more seconds left before Anna would start down those stairs.
Leo found two more men. Guards from outside. She found Anna’s keys and she left them on the ground by Anna’s bag, a conveniently cheerful orange. Anna wouldn’t miss it.
Leo did a quick search of the ground floor before her count was done, but she didn’t find the man who’d seemed to be in charge of the kidnapping, the one with the gleaming veneers.
She hid. If he was still around, he would try to stop Anna and Brody. If he did, then Leo would stop him. She couldn’t use her blood, but she could distract him.
She watched Anna leave, dragging Brody across the front room and out through the door. Anna kept glancing around as she moved. She found her bag and her keys, gathered them up, and left.
Leo didn’t come out of hiding until she heard the car drive away.
She did a complete search of the factory before calling the authorities to come pick up the men who were lying in the hallway and the stairs.
Leo raised a brow. “Protective custody? How? I didn’t find any evidence where they were holding us.”
Brody shrugged. “I called in some favors. And once Anna talked to the others on Policrev’s list, she convinced them to resign, and join her.”
“That won’t keep them safe for long.”
“It might, as long as they stay away from studying synthetic blood.” Brody brought his mug of coffee up to his nose. They were sitting in the booth in Leo’s restaurant. The dinner rush was just ending. Neither of them would be going home that night, but Leo had a place for them stay for the time being.
“You know, I’ve got a hot take here, but hear me out,” Brody said. “I think there may be more going on with this than just corporate greed.”
Leo shook her head and gave a mirthless laugh. “Yeah, I just don’t know what…yet.”
“Don’t you?” He peered at her.
“I’m sorry, Brody, for getting you sick.”
“I wasn’t sick. I was…something else. Not like those all those guys you laid out. How’d you do that? I didn’t see a mark on them. I saw bullets on the floor. But nobody was shot.” He looked her up and down. “Including you, it seems.”
“I didn’t owe you any answers before, but I think I do now.”
Brody put his mug down and leaned forward.
“Have you ever heard of…?” Leo paused. “Have you ever heard of Modern Blood?”
“Sounds kind of familiar but…” Brody shrugged.
“Okay, so you know these days that the world’s blood supply consists of donated blood and the generic synthetic blood substitute that most people call ‘Factory Blood.’ It’s not as good as donated blood. But if you’re healthy, you can last on Factory Blood for quite a while. Last I checked, the record was twenty years or thereabouts? But you’d eventually need natural blood, donated blood.”
“Okay, I follow,” Brody said.
“Don’t get me wrong. Lots of people who are here today would not be alive if not for Factory Blood. It’s extraordinary. Modern Blood was its predecessor. It was made over fifty years ago. But unlike what you’d expect, the older version was superior in almost every way. It wasn’t just a substitute. It wasn’t a clone. It was set up to be better than natural blood. Able to keep people from getting diseases of the blood and diseases borne in the blood. And maybe even to cure. Imagine if every bloodborne disease was just eradicated.”
“Exactly. But it all went wrong. People still don’t know why.”
Brody narrowed his eyes. “I smell a cover-up.”
Leo couldn’t help but to chuckle. “Cute. Does that ever get old?”
“Well, the solution was to get Modern Blood out of people’s systems. And take it out of circulation. And it succeeded, for the most part. But for some people, MB did something that it wasn’t supposed to do. It got into their bone marrow and replaced their natural blood cells. They got sick. Some of those people put themselves in the hands of the authorities. Some didn’t.”
Brody wiped his mouth with his hands. “Your folks?”
Leo nodded and neither of them spoke for a moment.
“Since finding out about you,” Leo said, “I wondered how you could be out and about in the open. How you could show what you could do without being afraid that someone was going to snatch you up and experiment on you.”
“Well, if someone came after me, I’d smell them coming.”
She nodded. “Maybe you haven’t shown all that you can do.”
“Look who’s talking.”
Again they were silent for a few moments, Brody sniffing his coffee, Leo stirring her tea.
“Where do we go from here?” Brody said at last.
He sat back. He brought his coffee mug up to his nose again, and gently inhaled. “I’ve been in danger before. I’m pretty good at hiding. But I need work, and you seem to have money.”
“I do.” Leo raised her cup of tea and took a sip. “And I need help and you seem to be in the business of helping.”
“I am. And I have questions about that too, by the way, the money you have.”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“I’m a curious guy.”
“And I’m a cautious gal.”
“Cautious is not how I would describe you.”
Leo leaned back and crossed her arms. “Really? How would you describe me? As someone who’s known me for so long.”
Brody held up his hands.
The conversation veered—for the time being—towards beverage preferences and the personality clues hidden within.
Hemoperos would soon be gone. Despite the blood, sweat, and tears that Leo had poured into trying to save it. Hemoperos was about to end.
But something else was about to begin…
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel