The movies were very misleading when it came to black market deals.
There were no cavernously empty warehouses, no tense staredowns over a single briefcase, no muscle-bound backup glowering at the scene. Instead, there was a line of delivery trucks with generic company names and artfully forgettable logos. There was an endless stream of boxes: packaged meals for the cafeteria, first aid supplies for the nurses’ stations, snacks and sodas for the hallway vending machines, and organs illegally obtained from god knows where for the long lists of patients awaiting transplants at the Largo Institute. The meaty goods were stowed away in a different truck each time, the boxes carefully marked and set aside to be unpacked later by Nathan and… well, mostly just Nathan.
It was all so easy. Disgustingly easy. But perhaps that was just a testament to the depth of Rotti Largo’s influence.
Acing undergrad was no problem. Neither was getting accepted to the most prestigious med schools in the country. He breezed through his interviews with the scholarship boards like a Fortune 500 CEO.
Talking to the pretty, brown-eyed girl in his advanced physiology course? Impossible.
Nathan tried. He really did. In his head, he’d already had a thousand conversations with her. Asked her for a drink. Asked her to study with him. Asked for a pencil. But every time he thought he’d mustered the courage to speak to her, she’d toss those brown curls over her shoulder or laugh at a friend’s joke and his mouth would dry up like the Sahara desert.
He didn’t even know her name.
So he settled for pining, and trying not to be a creep whenever he saw her on campus, which was distractingly often. They bought coffee at the same campus café – black and simple for Nathan, the girl’s with unholy amounts of espresso and sugar. They studied on the same floor of the library, and Nathan’s notes turned to gibberish when the girl absent-mindedly chewed on the end of her pen or twisted a curl around her finger. She sat a row over from him in the lecture hall, her profile infinitely more interesting than any hormone or blood vessel.
The universe, it seemed, got tired of waiting for Nathan to make a move and made it for him in the form of a door to the face.
“Oh god!” the girl cried out, crouching to gather Nathan’s scattered papers. “I’m so sorry! Are you okay?
“Yeah…” Nathan held his glasses up to the light, hoping neither of the lenses was cracked. He wouldn’t be able to get his hands on another pair before finals. He squinted and a flash of pain lanced through his nose.
“Oh shit, you’re bleeding! Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit.” The girl dug frantically through her purse while Nathan touched his upper lip. His fingers came away red.
“I am really so so sorry,” she continued, now elbow deep in her bag. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Doors are generally opaque,” Nathan agreed, setting his glasses back on his sore nose.
“What?” The girl paused in her excavation to glance up at him in confusion. A moment later, her gorgeous brown eyes lit up and she barked out a laugh. “Ha! He’s cute and funny. Aha!” She triumphantly produced a packet of tissues. Before Nathan had a chance to react (she thinks I’m cute?!), she pulled a tissue free and gently dabbed at Nathan’s nose. A different kind of lightning bolt zipped through Nathan’s face at her touch.
“You don’t have to do that,” Nathan said, trying to take the tissue from her. “I have hands.”
The girl swatted away said hands. “Too bad, I’m already doing it.” Her face softened. “I really am sorry. And embarrassed.” As if to prove it, her cheeks flushed pink.
“Well, if college doesn’t work out, at least we know I have a promising career as a doorstop.” The girl laughed again, and Nathan felt his heart melt into a puddle somewhere around his toes.
“There’s an open mic at the bar near campus, you know the one on the corner of Eighth and Main?” Nathan nodded. “My friend Mag is singing tomorrow night. Come with me.”
“Sure, yeah. Yes.” The girl smiled wider, showing off a dimple in her right cheek as she wadded up the bloody tissue.
“I promised my roommate we’d grab dinner tonight, so I gotta go. See you tomorrow!” Nathan grinned like a loon as she walked away, not caring that it stung his nose. She got about fifteen feet before he realized he’d forgotten a crucial detail.
“I’m Nathan!” he blurted. “By the way.” The girl glanced over her shoulder, the glow of the street light turning her curls into an angel’s halo.
If someone had told Nathan he’d spend a significant part of his post-doctoral career harvesting black market organs from dead bodies, he’d have quit med school on the spot. The organs had originally been delivered in their own separate coolers, but somewhere along the line some utter genius had decided it would be better to just send in the entire damn body and let the surgeons (read: Nathan) take what they wanted. The poor bastards even came with little cards listing their basic medical history and any notably healthy organs.
“Like picking chocolates out of a fucking box,” Nathan muttered as he started the Y-incision on the most recent victim’s chest. The first time he had done this, his hands had been shaking so badly he could barely hold the scalpel. He’d thrown up immediately after finishing and hadn’t eaten for two days. Now? The task was practically boring. Spending hours locked in an operating theater alone was not the most stimulating working environment.
“And do I even get so much as a thank you?” Nathan complained to the corpse, grunting with effort as he cracked through each rib. “Thanks, Nathan.” Crack. “Good job, Nathan.” Crack. “You’re the best thing to happen to this company, Nathan.” Crack. He’d started developing a worrying habit of talking to the bodies he worked over. He wasn’t sure which would be worse: being overcome with those sick first-time nerves every time he did this, or getting so used to it that he didn’t feel a thing.
Marni, as it turned out, was an actual angel. She was Nathan’s emotional rock during those awful weeks when it looked as though Shilo’s cancer would win, and she spent hours painting butterflies on a handmade poster when it didn’t. She was whip smart (top 5% of the class, she teasingly boasted to Nathan, as though he wasn’t right up there with her) and witty to boot; warmth and joy seemed to radiate from her person. Nathan wasn’t terribly romantic by nature, but he would’ve written her a poem if day if he could. He’d actually tried to once, high off his ass at a party, and when Marni read it the next day she’d laughed so hard he thought she’d herniate her lung.
It was Marni who approached Rotti Largo about a treatment plan for Shilo’s immune disorder, though she didn’t tell Nathan until a week after the fact.
“Largo? As in Largo Institutes Rotti Largo? How in the hell did you get a personal meeting with him?”
“I’m his favorite niece,” Marni replied mildly.
Nathan stared blankly.
“He’s my uncle?” she reiterated.
“Your un… You…?” Nathan opened and shut his mouth several times, completely blindsided.
“What?” Nathan shook his head. “Tell me!” She smacked his arm.
“It’s just… I always thought people that rich were assholes, which you decidedly are not.” Marni laughed, something she did often (though not often enough for Nathan’s preferences).
“Well, thank you, good sir,” she said with a mock bow. “If it helps stabilize your world view, my cousins are all absolute little shits.”
It should have scared him – would have, just a couple years ago – how quickly Marni made a place in his heart. But it didn’t. For the first time since losing his parents, Nathan felt like he was home.
Rotti Largo exuded money. It wasn’t the expensively tailored suits, the bespoke leather shoes, the heavy rings, or the ivory-headed cane (Ivory? Seriously?). It was in the way he carried his portly frame, the way he looked down his nose as though the world were beneath him, the way he spoke to Nathan as though he were a fresh-faced intern instead of a doctor for god’s sake. Every conversation with the man left Nathan with a bitter, metallic taste in his mouth, as though he’d been chewing on gold bars.
So he did his best to ignore the man as he finished working over the body. He didn’t even turn around when the door opened; Rotti was the only one allowed in the room when Nathan was working. Right lung in one ice chest; kidneys in another; liver in a third. The heart and the left lung were a mess of puncture wounds – those would go down to the cell culture labs, along with a section of spinal cord, to be used by the artificial organ research team. The rest of the body would be incinerated and tossed out with the trash in the morning. Rotti circled the table like a shark, watching and nodding like Nathan needed his damn approval—
“How is your sister?”
Nathan’s head snapped up.
“She started school today, yes?”
A cautious nod.
“A bold choice, considering her condition. Although the infusions have been holding up remarkably well.”
Nathan clenched his jaw hard enough to make his teeth creak. He hated being indebted to Rotti, hated that his sister’s life was held in the man’s fat, greedy hands.
“Your work has been slipping lately, Nathan. Perfectly good organs overlooked. Bodies left too long in storage.” He tsked disapprovingly. “It would be a shame if Shilo’s medical support were to dry up.”
Don’t say her fucking name! Nathan wanted to scream, but he held his tongue. Ever the good employee, he offered a curt nod instead and tried to look appropriately shamed.
“Never forget what you did,” Rotti concluded with a decisive tap of his cane. “Never forget what you owe me.”
Medical school graduation was an exercise in professionally muted excitement. Speeches were made by people in heavy robes with too many braided cords around their necks and met with pattering applause. Laughter was polite and appropriately placed.
The after party? Not so much.
“Nathan!” Marni waved to him from one of the bedrooms. He’d just come in from the backyard, where a cluster of shirtless grads by the pool had been doing their best to ignore every piece of medical advice they’d learned over the past four years. Head swimming from who knew how many beers, Nathan allowed himself to be tugged into the room. The door shut behind him, blocking out a little of the noise. He wrapped his arm around Marni’s waist and swept her into a deep kiss.
“Hi,” he said, pulling back.
“Hi.” Marni’s face and neck were flushed, her eyes shining like stars. Nathan thought he’d never seen anything so beautiful.
His love-drunk musings were interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. A hand offered him a short, hot pink plastic straw. He took it, confused, then noticed the group by the dresser snorting lines of white powder off of what appeared to be a medical textbook.
The invitation was clear, but Nathan hesitated. He’d never taken any drugs except for the occasional joint in college and the prescription painkillers after he’d had his wisdom teeth removed. The temptation had just never been there, especially after that whole mess with his father… Faceless hands prodded him forward. Nameless faces goaded him with garbled words that were half encouragement and half taunt. But it was Marni that pushed him to action, her sparkling smile, the hot hand on his forearm, making him want to be bold, cool, someone who could match her wild energy.
Nathan bent over and inhaled…
…and immediately sneezed. He’d barely snorted a third of the line, but his sinuses burned too much to continue. He coughed once, sniffed harder, tried to hide his watering eyes. This was awful, where was the appeal, why would anyone want to-
His brain bloomed, a rush of elation sweeping through his veins as the drug hit his system. He felt as though his blood were made of sugar, of fairy dust, of glitter like Marni’s nail polish. He dropped backwards onto the bed in a fog of euphoria. The mattress dipped as Marni flopped down next to him, and time melted into a colorful haze for a while.
Until his bladder decided to rudely remind him of its existence.
“Gotta pee,” Nathan announced, planting a kiss on Marni’s cheek. She waved him off with a vague, satisfied hum.
The stark brightness of the white-tiled bathroom was a shock to his system. By the time he was finished washing his hands, he was sober enough to think about getting Marni a glass of water, but not sober enough to walk to the kitchen without swaying. He squinted one eye shut in concentration as he filled what he hoped was a clean glass. Feeling triumphant, he picked his way back to the bedroom with his prize and walked straight into hell.
“How much did she take?!”
“A line?? Maybe one and a half?? I don’t know!”
“Shit shit shit-“
“Is that blood?!”
“Hold her still-“
“What do we do?!”
“You guys are doctors, fucking do something!”
Nathan didn’t feel the glass slip from his fingertips. He didn’t hear it shatter on the floor, didn’t feel the cold water splash on his feet or the broken shards cut into his toes. He didn’t remember making a conscious decision to move forward, to shove the panicked masses aside until he reach Marni convulsing on the floor, nose bloody and eyes rolled back in her head.
“Marni?” He grabbed her shoulders. “Marni.” He tried to shake her, to snap her out of it, but she was already shaking so hard— “Marni!” God damn it, he was a surgeon, not a paramedic, why did he pick such a stupid focus, why couldn’t he think what to do— “MARNI!!” It was all his stupid, drunken brain could do, cry her name over and over like a mantra, a spell, a prayer. “Marni, wake up, snap out of it Marni, wake up baby, come back to me, Marni, Marni, Marni Marni Marni Marni Marni Marni…”
It took him five minutes to realize the shaking was only coming from him. Marni’s lips were blue. Marni’s hands were cold. Marni wasn’t breathing.
Marni was gone.