It was the pain of good times that Ian remembered as he held his wife Caitlyn’s cold hand. Their love had been strong, however prosaic their meeting and their lives together. Her grasp was weak, her smile faint, but she still managed a smile.
“You don’t have to do it,” Caitlyn said. Her voice was thin.
“You know I do,” Ian said. “What would be the point without you?”
Ian and Caitlyn had met online, on a faith-based matchmaking website. Their profiles correlated perfectly: wants and needs, income, hobbies, attitude to children. The first hesitant meeting in a Bath tea house brought no fireworks, no earthquake. They were two shy, lonely people who slowly found each other, slowly their lives became entwined, like loose wires behind a television, until they were so inseparable they made it formal and in their God’s sight, in a small service in the village church, they became Mr and Mrs Price.
“It’ll be okay won’t it,” Caitlyn said. “If we have faith.”
“I’m going to talk to Human Capital Partners, Caitlyn. The adviser was very helpful.”
“What does it cost?” She said. “Can we afford it?”
Ian could not tell her the true cost. She would not let him pay it.
“2I can afford it, I’m going to meet the adviser at his office. I’ll take out a loan that I can afford,” this was not entirely a lie. He grasped her hand tighter.
“I don’t trust them,” she said. “I’ve heard terrible things in the press.” So had Ian, but Human Capital Partners were the only hope. The NHS doctors had given Caitlyn only days to live without a kidney transplant, and at the current capacity even if a suitable donor was found, they would not be able to schedule an operation in time. No, Human Capital Partners it had to be.
“I love you,” Ian said.
Caitlyn grasped his hand tighter, and for a moment, just one moment he saw her old fire.
“Don’t sacrifice yourself,” she said.
But he would, if that’s what it took. That was Ian’s definition of love.
So, Ian said his goodbyes without crying, because he wanted Caitlyn to think he was coping. He walked through the not-quite clinically clean corridors of the hospital and started to breathe deeply when he reached the air outside.
It was a bright day with airy white clouds, in the village the clinic was set in. Ian drove down a pathway between houses. Ian’s car crunched down the long cobbled driveway, while the clinic’s dog barked an irate welcome. The clinic was a converted farmhouse and stables with large patio windows set in elegant grounds, weeping willows, lakes, set off with a plastic heron. The dog, a black Labrador, leapt up as Ian tried to get out of the car. Ian looked out at an immaculately-dressed man who was smiling. Ian got out of the car, dog jumping up and licking his trousers.
“He‘s a soppy old thing,” said the man, extending a hand.
“I’m Julian. We spoke on the phone.” The dog sniffed Ian’s feet. “Keynes!” Julian shouted at the dog. “Stay.”
Julian led Ian into the clinic, grinning with salesman’s teeth. They sat in an office with a large patio window looking out into the garden. A money plant exhaled compost flies. The dog looked in, a deflated rugby ball grasped between its teeth.
The adviser, Julian, sat too close. He wore a navy blue suit, with a pale tie and pressed white shirt. His cufflinks had the company logo of a stylised heart, with the initials HCP. His face was a mask of slick confidence, he was clean shaven, no, his whole head was clean shaven. Maybe all of him was, Ian thought with a shiver.
“How is Caitlyn?” Julian asked, his smile now turned down a shade from greeting to ‘concern with sympathy‘.
Ian looked away, studied the picture on the wall of Julian with the England Fightball Captain.
“It’s not looking good right now,” Ian said, his voice low.
“We’ll see what we can do to help,” Julian put a paternal hand on his shoulder. “You said she needs a kidney. An operation. It’s urgent.”
“Yes. Have you found a donor?”
Julian leaned back and studied Ian’s face. Then a smile spread over Julian’s face, the full force of his salesman smile. He brought out a glossy colour brochure full of smiling people being operated on by well-groomed beautiful surgeons of both sexes. He stopped at a grid of smiling faces.
“These are our kidney donors. Our specialists have matched up a donor who would be perfect.”
“How soon?” Ian snapped, in his eagerness.
“Well, we’ll have to allocate surgeon resource and theatre time. Plus, we’ll have to get the business authorised by our Compliance office. Three weeks. Much sooner than the NHS could offer.”
“Three weeks. That’s too long. She needs it now.”
“I’m sorry. Compliance just wouldn’t sign anything off in less than three weeks.”
“You must have dealt with urgent cases before. There must be a way.”
Julian sat back, studying Ian’s face and tapping his fingers, before speaking: “There is. You see, the criteria are much more relaxed for swaps. The legislation is strict for financial transactions, but if you were to agree to a swap and sign a waiver, then we could bypass a lot of the bloody red tape.”
“A swap? How would that work? Would you take my kidney?”
“Certainly not! You would just need to agree to assign your heart to us in the event of your death.”
“Assign? What do you mean?”
“It’s just like having a donor card and agreeing to leave your body to the medical establishment on your death, only you agree to leave your heart to us.”
“When I die?”
“It’s not like you’ll need it.”
“Would there be any possibility the company would, let us say, hasten my death?”
“What’s the catch?”
“How quickly did you say you need us to operate on Caitlyn?”
“The doctors, well, they say to be sure, 48 hours.”
“That would be very difficult. I’ll do what I can.”
The adviser, Julian, gave a fantastic performance. He called his assistant, then went next door. Ian could hear the tone, the level of sound, but not the specific words. Julian shouted at bureaucrats on the telephone, a pantomime of pulling out all the stops for his client, while Ian waited, looked at the pictures in the brochure of happy patients in gowns and relieved loved ones, back at the dog, then the rubber plant, waving a fly away.
At the end, Julian thanked the administrator on the other end of the line politely and put the phone down. Grimly, he brought out the brochure again and stared at Ian. Then his salesman smile spread over his face.
“I won’t bore you with the deals I’ve had to make. We can do it.”
“Thank you,” Ian’s eyes were drawn from the smile to a fly that flew near his face. “Sorry,” Ian added.
“No, it’s what we’re here for. Just one thing I need from you.”
Julian held out the paperwork: “Sign here.”
“What am I signing?”
Julian waved the thick brochure at him.
“It’s all here if you have time to read it all. But I can’t give our chaps the go-ahead until you sign.”
Ian signed. What the hell. Whatever he was signing away, Caitlyn was more important.
The operation and recovery went smoothly. That wasn’t strictly true. Ian waited during the operation. He was in the operating theatre, holding Caitlyn’s hand. The room was all bright lights and his head swam in terror. The staff were cheerful and sympathetic. They got through it; that was as much as could be said.
The dust had settled, as much as it was going to, in Ian and Caitlyn’s lives, and one fine drizzly Sunday afternoon they sat down to cups of tea and Ian read the Guardian while Caitlyn read a D H Lawrence collection. Caitlyn fixed Ian with that look, the one that meant trouble. Her jaw was set.
“What did it cost?” Caitlyn asked.
“What cost?” Ian said, not looking up from the paper, although he knew very well that she was probing his face for a reaction.
“You know what. Saving my life.” Her tone was serious. Ian looked up from the newspaper, but didn’t quite meet her eyes.
“I just took out a loan.”
Caitlyn’s mouth turned down in anger.
“What did you promise them? I’ve read about how they work. Tell me.”
Ian folded the newspaper and looked Caitlyn in the eyes.
“I agreed to donate my heart, when I die. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Caitlyn looked away, and said quietly, “You won’t say that when they come for you.”
Ian’s face went red. “They won’t come for me. They can’t do that. It’s only after I die of natural causes.”
He wished he could sound more convincing, but he didn’t. Caitlyn didn’t reply, but she went back to her book, her eyes red. They avoided talking about the subject again, and during the time they spent in the vicinity of each other, they didn’t talk about the future. They lived together in a small house, each alone. Neither giving each other the comfort and assurance they needed, the love they had for each other withered on the vine, denied its nutrient.
They went on with their lives, Ian busy with his work translating Egyptian texts to English and Spanish, Caitlyn busy recuperating and maintaining an immaculate house. For Caitlyn’s part, she researched, never telling Ian, the laws and ethics governing pre-death organ assignment, and the cases Human Capital Partners had been involved in. The minutiae of the paperwork. Any loopholes, precedents, get-out clauses. The average statistical lifespan of debtors who had agreed to give an organ in future payment (statistically well below average). She knew they would come for him. He’d signed his life away and perhaps he didn’t even know it. Was he that naïve? She couldn’t ask. Caitlyn had also found there was a way he could get out of the deal. But the cost. The cost of doing so would be high and she knew he would not hear of it, if she told him.
Although their modern redbrick home was small, it was filled with enough books and visitors to avoid spending time meaningfully with each other. Even their bed was big enough so they could both sleep in it, alone.
So they continued, neither could reach out to the other, there was too much unspoken, leaving their love brittle. At the last, there was so little left to lose.
One Autumn day, as dead leaves swirled around the path leading to Ian and Caitlyn‘s house, they came. Julian McGuire stood smiling at the door, accompanied by a man in a sharp suit with a sharp-featured face, carrying a leather folio. Caitlyn answered the door, Ian was out the back, weeding.
“Mrs Price,” said Julian. “I hope you are well.” The sharp-featured man looked right past Caitlyn into the house.
Caitlyn gave Julian The Look.
“Who are you? What do you want?” She said, her tone hostile.
“Julian McGuire-“ he held out his hand, but Caitlyn did not take it. “Human Capital Partners. HCP. This is Francis Wells; he’s an independent Compliance Consultant. Here to keep me in line.” Julian laughed as if he was just there on a pleasant social call.
“You can tell me why you are here,” Caitlyn said. “Or you can leave now.”
Francis shot Julian a look. Julian nodded.
“We’d just like a word with your husband.”
“No,” Caitlyn said. “He isn’t home. I don’t know where he is.”
The sound of the patio door opening, and Ian walking in from the garden gave this the lie.
“Mr Price!” Julian called out. Ian walked to the door, but Caitlyn stood between him and Julian.
“I’ll handle this,” she said. “For God’s sake don’t go with them. They can’t legally come into the house uninvited, but if you step outside they can take you.”
Julian looked at Francis, who nodded.
“It’s okay,” Ian said. “I’ll talk to them.”
Julian smiled and reached out a hand to Ian, past Caitlyn. To Caitlyn’s dismay, Ian accepted the handshake and moved to the door, within the threshold.
“Ian, you did the right thing,” Julian said. “Your wife is looking so well. This is partly a courtesy visit; are you happy with the service HCP gave you – providing a life-saving operation to Mrs Price?”
“Yes,” Ian said. “Yes, thank you.”
“I’m very glad,” Julian said and a reassuring smile spread over his face. God, his teeth were frighteningly white.
“Mr Price, this is Francis Wells, he’s a Compliance Consultant. He’s here to keep me honest.” He laughed. Francis’s sharp features were unmoved.
“Cut the crap,” Caitlyn said, putting an arm between Ian and the door. Ian looked at her, with an expression of confusion. “Mr McGuire, what do you want with my husband?”
Francis looked at Julian. “If directly asked,” he said with a deep calm voice, “you have to disclose your full purpose.”
“We’re here to make a collection,” Julian said, with a smile. “I can reassure you that we would only collect at this time because a Platinum-grade client requires life-saving treatment.”
“Collect?” Ian asked.
“For God’s sake!” Caitlyn said, and started to shut the door. Julian held it open, still smiling. He was deceptively strong for a Suit.
“We need you to come with us, Mr Price.” Francis said.
“No,” said Caitlyn.
“This can’t be right,” Ian said. “Julian – you said there would be no collection until I… passed away.”
“That‘s right,” said Julian. “The organ will only be removed once you have passed away.”
“You bastards.” Ian said.
“You did agree to this, Mr Price. You signed the waiver. Francis?”
Francis reached into his portfolio and brought out a sheaf of papers. At the top was the signed agreement. “You signed to show you understood all of the terms, including the Principal Platinum override clause.”
“HCP reserves the right of early repayment, when the life of a platinum client is in danger. We never do this lightly, but our platinum clients are key members of society.”
“What is this?” Ian said.
“Leave now,” Caitlyn snapped to Julian and Francis. “Or I will call the police. You’re threatening my husband’s life.”
“I will call the police,” said Francis. “If you or Mr Price prevents us from recovering the property, the organ, that now belongs to Human Capital Partners. We have a court order.” He produced a stamped and signed piece of paper.
“I know this is distressing,” said Julian. “But this is the right thing to do. The client in question is a microsurgeon. That’s why the court agreed we could collect early. They weighed up his life and the impact his loss would have on society: lives would be lost. Possibly hundreds of lives within just a few years. Your translation work, though noble and intellectually fascinating… won’t save a single life. But the agreement you have made with us will. You’re a great man, Mr Price.”
“This is disgusting,” said Caitlyn. “We’ll fight this with everything at our disposal.”
“The decision has already been made,” Francis said.
“I’ll come with you,” Ian said. “Caitlyn- we’ll straighten this out.”
“No you won’t,” said Caitlyn, holding him back.
“I’m sorry,” Ian said. “You just make sure you’re okay. We could fight this in the courts and it would ruin us. They’ve sewn it all up. Get on with your life. Make yourself happy. Or this will have meant nothing.” Gently, but firmly he removed her hands from him, and went with the men, tears worrying at the corners of his eyes. Caitlyn raged, and shouted, but it changed nothing.
The police officer was apologetic, even sympathetic. He calmly explained to Caitlyn that although what Julian and Francis did was arguably unethical, it was legal. Their paperwork was in order. There was nothing she could do, she just had to accept that Julian was gone. She had the right to be present at the organ collection. She had the right to disposal of the remaining body, once the organ in question had been taken. There could be a full burial with any relevant religious rites.
It wouldn’t come to that, Caitlyn decided, despite the cost.
What hurt Ian most was that Caitlyn had not even come to see him one last time. She had declined her right to be with him during the collection. When they spoke on the telephone, she hadn’t explained. Neither had been able to talk articulately, through their hurt. Julian, smile now on a sympathetic setting had offered Ian the final meal of choice and a blessing from a minister of his choice. Ian had rejected both. He had no appetite, and his religious faith, once so strong had not survived this blow. Even so, he said a prayer to himself, as he faded away under anaesthetic, as darkness filled him.
Caitlyn phoned the ambulance, before applying the knife. She had already written the letter, using the precise wording required. The solicitor had checked and agreed it. The timing was crucial. If she survived, her instructions in the letter would be void. If she died too soon, the kidney would be useless, so again her instructions would be void. The painkillers weren’t enough. The pain was sharp and hot as the knife sliced into her skin. But this was right.
Julian was there when Ian came to under the bright lights, Julian was there. The salesman’s smile was gone. Francis stood at a distance. They were in the room with the money plant and compost flies. There were more of them now.
“You are free to go,” Julian said, his voice hollow.
“Mrs Price did the only thing that would render our deal null and void.”
“She returned the Capital. She died, leaving a letter expressly returning the kidney you purchased with the assignment of your heart to HCP.”
“She killed herself and gave us the kidney back,” Francis called over. “Our technicians checked it and the condition was satisfactory. So the agreement is null and void.”
“You mean- Oh my God.” Ian buried his head in his hands. His face melted into tears.
“She sacrificed herself for you,” said Julian. “Bloody-minded woman.”
“That’s Julian’s personal opinion, not mine or that of HCP,” Francis said. “You’re free to go. Of course there are the operation costs you are liable for but Mrs Price took care of that too. HCP receive her life assurance payment. It’s enough. We have no claim on you. You’re free.”
“I can’t just sit here and listen to this. Ian, if you walk away, a better man dies,” Julian said. “A man who could save many lives. It’s not too late. You can still gift your heart to him.” Julian pointed at Ian. “It’s the right thing to do. Your life hasn’t amounted to much, let’s be brutally honest.”
“Save the life of a man who tried to buy someone else’s heart. Who decided his life was more important than that of a stranger and paid you to carry out a murder on his behalf. No, whatever job he does, he’s not worth saving. Caitlyn’s sacrifice won’t be in vain. I’ll live, Julian. I’ll make this life worthwhile.” A fly came right up in his face. Ian caught it and squashed it.
Ian left, the dog barking at him, jumping up until he got in his car, which even now seemed cold and empty, and he drove, to his house which would be empty, with Caitlyn gone.
Julian watched Ian Price go, then turned to Francis.
“Is there really nothing we can do?”
Francis shook his head. “The contract is void. We can’t touch him. Mrs Price’s sacrifice saved him. Would anyone do that for you?”
“They won’t need to,” Julian said and laughed. “I wouldn’t get caught in one of our shitty contracts.”
Francis brought out a sheaf of papers contained in a clear plastic wallet.
“Mr McGuire. Our client can’t be allowed to die. He is too important.”
“Then what do we do? Is there another match?”
It wasn’t really a smile; just a slight curl of the lip but it was the closest to a smile Julian had seen on Francis.
“All Human Capital Partners are tested, as you know.”
“A formality at point of employment.”
“You signed the agreement. Clawback. In the event of an adviser losing a candidate for transplantation, they agree to serve as a back up, if compatible.”
“My God,” Julian got to his feet. “You wouldn’t. You bastard.” He spat, pointing a finger at Francis.
“You are compatible,” Francis said.
Julian pushed past him and headed for the office door. His way was blocked by two orderlies in scrubs. Francis stood up, and led the way to the operating theatre. Julian followed, struggling, sandwiched between the orderlies.
Bio: Mark has previously had work published in The British Fantasy Society Journal, Another 100 Horrors, seinundwerden, A Touch of Saccharine, Full Fathom Forty, Escape Velocity, Scheherazade, Estronomicon, The Nail, and others. He has also written and performed in pantomimes. He is still working on two novels. Mark is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers. More of Mark’s writing can be found at http://syntheticscribe.wordpress.com/