In much of the Third World, entire villages now sold kidneys or became surrogate mothers, selling rental space in their wombs. It was called the red market—the wholesale buying and selling of body parts—and it was a booming business, both legally and illegally. She had read a report of Bolivian murderers who sought out victims to sell their fat to European beauty supply companies. In China, prisons were harvesting the organs of dead inmates, gutting them out, with whispers that some prisoners were being purposefully killed for profit. And in one case in Nepal, a dairy farmer had turned from delivering milk to supplying blood. He captured local hikers, imprisoned them in his barn, and repeatedly drained his new livestock of their blood, keeping them forever at the edge of death.
Worst of all, such a marketplace moved in only one economic direction: from the poor to the rich. It was an unfortunate side effect when a price tag was placed on organs. Inevitably, flesh moved only up the social ladder, never down.
Movement across the room drew Kat’s attention. A mahogany door opened and a rugged-looking man in his midforties stepped into the waiting room. He had jet-black hair, stood six feet tall, and was decked out in a knee-length white lab coat over expensive navy-blue trousers, a crisp white shirt, and a crimson tie. His smile was overly broad as he approached Lisa, who stood to greet him.
“Welcome to NCFC,” he said and shook her hand.
It was Dr. Paul Cranston, head of the clinic. Kat knew everything about him, even his social security number and where his passport had last been stamped: New Zealand.
He led Lisa out of the waiting room and into the inner sanctum of the facility. As that door closed, another opened. A man, likely a hospital orderly, stood at the threshold of a doorway neighboring the front desk. He looked like a pit bull in scrubs. The receptionist beckoned to Kat.
She stepped forward.
“If you’ll follow me,” the man grunted, not bothering with her name.
She hurried forward but stopped at the reception desk to grab a business card. She fumbled and purposefully knocked the holder off the counter and onto the reception desk.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching over to help collect the scattered cards.
The receptionist sighed heavily and picked a few cards off the floor by her chair. Kat used the moment to slip the ballpoint pen palmed in her hand into the receptionist’s cup. It held a tiny camera that recorded audio and video passively to a micro SD chip. A small antenna allowed burst transmissions of the saved data with the pinged call from a cell phone.
She had four more pens in her purse, with the goal of strategically placing them in key locations throughout the facility—or, at least, where she could reach without raising an alarm. If given the chance, it would be easy for a confused girl to get lost in here and wander where she didn’t belong.
But first she had a role to play.
“Just go,” the receptionist said and pointed to the side door.
Kat apologized meekly and followed the orderly waiting for her. He led her out of the world of gardens and velvets and into a sterile environment of vinyl floors and stark white walls. Here was the hospital hidden behind the façade: sparse and utilitarian.
They eventually reached and entered a short enclosed walkway that connected the main building to a more drab structure at the back of the grounds. As she marched, she noted each of the four clinic wings was connected in a similar manner. It seemed there was no need to leave the air-conditioned splendor for the summer heat. She also eyed the windowed walls to either side. The glass was thick, appeared bulletproof.
Then again, the clinic’s clientele were often celebrities or foreign dignitaries. Maybe the extra protection was necessary.
Still, a chill that had nothing to do with the air-conditioning swept through her. The space felt less protective than it was imprisoning.
They entered the next building, and Kat was taken to a small examination room, one of a long row of them in this wing. The orderly handed her a series of forms to fill out, secured on a clipboard.
“Fill everything out. Someone will be in to talk to you in a few minutes.”
He left, looking as bored as when he’d first collected her.
She began to fill out the forms when she heard a small click at the door. Stepping forward, she tested the handle.
She frowned, fighting back a flicker of panic. Securing the door might be protocol, to maintain confidentiality. Either way, she was committed. She’d have to keep playing her hand—but something was definitely wrong about this place.
She hoped Lisa was faring better.
“As you can see, we do all of our work in-house,” Dr. Paul Cranston said, stopping before a window that looked into a sealed in vitro fertilization lab.
Lisa studied the space with a critical eye. The room was state-of-the-art, with enclosed workstations equipped with laser oocyte scanners and Narishige micromanipulators for egg fertilization. Nothing was substandard, from Makler counting chambers to automatic sperm-analyzers, advanced warming blocks, and cryogenic chambers.
Her guided tour had already included the surgical suite, used for both egg collection and embryo implantation. The clinic’s high-tech operating theater would put most hospitals to shame. Even the neighboring recovery rooms were private spaces that could have graced the pages of Architectural Digest, with fine linens, subdued lighting, and tasteful decorations.
Clearly this tour was meant to impress.
And it did.
“We are a one-stop shop,” Cranston finished, offering a beaming, self-effacing smile. “From sperm and egg collection, to fertilization and implantation. We do all of our own patient monitoring, but we’re certainly happy to work in collaboration with a primary care physician.”
Lisa nodded. “I’m sure some of my clients would prefer the anonymity of care outside the DC circles.”
His eyes lingered a bit too long on her. Plainly, he desired to know more about whom she represented, but he knew better than to inquire directly. Lisa’s ironclad cover had been built to draw the personal interest of the clinic’s head, and obviously succeeded. She had been given the grand tour, along with the full-court sales press.
“Why don’t we return to my office? I can supply you with brochures detailing each level of service, including fact sheets containing our success rates, and, of course, I’ll be happy to answer any other questions.”
“That would be perfect.” She checked her watch in a move to urge him to hurry along. “I won’t take up much more of your time.”