“Uh, Sir? I have the health report for the incoming epidermis shipment here. And I’m…I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”

Malum Sampson sighed, heaving oxygen out of his body as he wordlessly stretched his hand toward the intern quaking before him, not removing his eyes from the tablet in his desk. She placed a thin screen in his fingers before ducking a small, awkwardly formal bow, and scuttled out of his office.

He looked up from the memo he’d been musing over and turned his gaze to the report in his grasp. Low in Vitamin C, scarred, pockmarked, inventory nearly all in differing stages of melanoma. The intern had been right. He didn’t like it. Mal rubbed his face with a large hand, trying to contain his temper. This would set them back half a million dollars, maybe more, and the massive workload that fixing it would entail pressed on the back of his eyeballs.

He counted backwards from ten and attempted to remind himself that the bioparts business was booming, and really, at the heart of it, Vital Luxury would take no significant damage from this slip up. Mr. Tenebris would be livid, but Mal took solace in the fact that the Chief Executive Officer’s rage would not be directed towards himself. This was some harvester’s mistake. Someone was about to get fired, and it would not be him.

He turned back to the file currently making his life difficult and using his left forefinger, scrolled to the last page. Just as he’d suspected; this harvest had come from a volunteer in southern Florida. Even after he’d asked the intake department to change the policy to only taking internal inventory from overly sun-exposed regions. It was like talking to a black hole, for all these people cared about his directions. Even as Executive of Quality Assurance, one of the top five highest positions within this company, the idiots paid him no regard. His blood began to boil again at these infuriating thoughts, and with a violent contracting of his fists, his closed down the file.

Mal hated ending an otherwise productive and pleasant day on this setback, but he was tired, and it was 5:30. Sighing harshly he stood, grabbed his suit jacket from the back of his chair and left his office, locking it down with a jabbing flick of his wrist. The way he walked could have been described as lumbering, if not for the proud and powerful straightness in his stance. All of the company underlings dunked their heads in acknowledgement, and yes, some fear, as he passed them by. Malum wasn’t a particularly cruel boss, and he had never shouted or otherwise brutalized the interns without justifiable cause. However, it was an open secret that at Mr. Tenebris’s rapidly impending retirement, Mal would become C.E.O of Vital Luxury, making him a formidable enemy should any of them accidentally make him one. They felt it was best to stay out of his way and he didn’t want to discourage this decision. He stepped into the elevator, leaned against the rear glass panel, and ordered it to take him to the executive parking garage.

As the elevator smoothly hummed to life, taking Mal down towards his car, he passively glanced out through the glass and groaned. There was yet another tiresome protest gathering at the doors of the building, a bunch of ill-informed conspiracy theorists shouting and holding signs that spouted asinine, sensationalized sayings. Mal’s personal favorites from today’s selection included “Bodies ≠ Currency”, “Bioparts Stop Breaking Hearts!”, and the succinct, if less clever, Fuck Vital Luxury!” He could understand the natural response of discomfort at the idea of the organ donation industry. Before he landed at this company, it had creeped him out a bit as well. That was before he knew their inventory was one hundred percent ethically sourced, as anyone who cared to do a quick second of research could see. All brain deaths and volunteers, the latter even put through extensive mandatory psych evals before the company would agree to harvest their organs. Humanely harvest at that, peacefully sending the volunteers off to sleep with anesthesia before taking every viable life-saving organ. But a well-sourced, savvy company dedicated to match organs with people who needed them wasn’t as grabby as the killing machine people imagined them to be. It was as though these bleeding hearts had some collective amnesia regarding the time before the privatization of organ donation, back when people withered and died as they waited for months, years even, for a new heart or liver or even bone marrow.

The elevator glided downward toward the subterranean parking garage and when it moved closer to the protesters, Mal studied their faces with a tight mouth and narrowed eyes. They were yelling some sort of chant that he could not hear through the glass walls, but somehow he felt he wasn’t missing out on any earth-shaking poetry. One of them, a thin man around Mal’s age with a shock of bright blue hair and a hoop in his nose, glanced towards the elevator and locked eyes with Malum, his expression darkening and his mouth drawing down in a disgusted frown.

It may have been five years since the last time Mal had seen Jay Agnus, but the sneering idiot hadn’t seemed to have grown up at all. Malum smirked at him and waved jauntily, then he let his other fingers drop down to leave the middle one standing up, just as he slipped out of Jay’s sight. Still smirking at this triumph, Mal found himself reminiscing about the day much like today, when he first came into contact with the little man he had just beaten yet again.

It was less than seven years ago, but he really had been much younger then, much less powerful. He was still taking the subway home from his barely above entry-level job at Vital Luxury, and because of that had to cross directly in front of the protest occurring on that day. He’d been ignoring them, rolling his eyes, when one of them had thrown a water bottle at his head. He’d snapped his head toward the assailant, instantly seeing red with rage and ready to rip their face off even if it meant losing this job. There was Jay, his hair pink at the time but just as stupid as today, looking like a chihuahua who had just snapped at the wrong pit bull. Mal would have most likely killed him that day had he not seen the girl standing just to Jay’s left.  Her face stopped him in his tracks, frozen, rooted to the ground as he was transported back to being fifteen and in both high school and love. His breath left him when he saw her face, looking barely a day older than he remembered her.  They’d met at school and had fallen fast and deeply for each other, and had daydreamed together about a shared future. Then she had moved near the end of their eleventh-grade year, and they had lost touch. But here she was.

“Lux?” He didn’t even realize he’d said her name out loud until she looked up at him, her eyes like honey and amber widening in first surprise and then ecstatic shock as they recognized him. They stood there, statues staring at one another, taking in this old memory suddenly new again and appearing right in front of them.

In the end, she was the first one to move, lowering her picket sign that Mal never even noticed. She smiled a tentative, young smile, and nervously tucked her white blond hair behind one ear. When she spoke, the sound of her voice was one of the most surreal things Mal has ever heard, both familiar and foreign and unbelievable and like coming home all at once.

“Mal,” She said, her eyes skirting up and down his face like she too could barely compute that he was there. “Hi.”

And from that moment, they were inseparable. Admittedly, it didn’t go perfectly at first. She had been horrified upon learning what he was doing there when he told her over dinner that night. She had thrown her glass of wine in his face and stormed out in angry tears, but she had let him catch up to her, comfort her, and take her hand.  Even though it involved a few months of her continued involvement in the protest group and subsequently, endless jokes and judgement from his coworkers, he had eventually been successful in convincing her that Vital Luxury was not so evil after all. Jay, who Mal had been amused to learn was not only a good friend of Lux’s but also a very unsuccessful suitor, had tried his best to persuade Lux that Mal was a monster, a murderer, but it proved to be no use; she had fallen even deeper in love with Malum and left the movement behind her. The memory of Jay’s pinched face and scrunched little body sitting in a church pew at Mal and Lux’s wedding pulled the corners of Mal’s mouth into a smirk as he entered the parking garage. He was still chuckling to himself as he dropped into his car and drove home. 

The grin must have still been planted on his face as he walked through his front door because Lux, looked up from the vase of flowers she was arranging and raised an eyebrow quizzically. She was something of an amateur horticulturalist, and because of her, he was able to passively identify them as yellow chrysanthemums, asphodels, and anemones.

“What’s so funny?” She asked, setting the vase down and stepping toward him.

He crossed the room and kissed her with his smiling mouth, stroking her hair with more gentleness than a bystander would have expected from those massive hands. “I saw Jay today. Outside of the office.”

She laughed lightly, understanding immediately what about that had struck Mal as so hilarious. “You shouldn’t antagonize him. He’s really not that bad once you get to know him.” 

“Whatever you say, my love.” He said breezily, taking off his shoes before dropping onto the couch, wrapping an arm around his wife as she settled next to him. “But I’ll have to take your word for it. I’d rather eat razor blades then get to know him.”

She had feigned elbowing him in the ribs, and he pulled her into his lap, gently tickling her ribs, causing her to release a peal of laughter that always sounded like his favorite song to Mal. She settled into him, running her palm over his chest as they told each other about their days. Within minutes of being back home with her, the dark mood his work had put him in had dissipated and was less than a distant memory to him.

It was about a month later when Mal sat in his office sifting through the newest shipment. After the disaster of the bad batch of organs, he’d begun requiring that a sample of every shipment be sent to him to personally inspect. The organs were packaged in airtight clear plastic casings, state-of-the art vacuum systems keeping them perfect and viable until they could be purchased. These were good product, and they’d been able to harvest everything available in the host body. Pleased and smiling, he flippantly scanned the last page in the report that contained the donor profile and the smile froze on his face as his eyes widened in dismayed shock. He reread the page over and over and over, his brain clicking and whirring as he tried to comprehend what the words said.

When they finally seemed to sink in, Mal found himself shakily rising to his feet and walking down the hall to Tenebris’s office, his cold, stony hand rising to the door to knock heavily.

“Come in.” The familiar gravelly voice boomed from behind it. Mal opened the door, holding up the report with a shaking hand. Tenebris, a small, elderly man in an expensive Italian suit sat behind his huge desk in front of the wall-sized window. He glanced up passively, his beady eyes running over the report (specifically to the page Mal had it opened to) that held, directly above the phrase “Volunteer Donor”, the picture and name of that sour, blue haired twerp called Jay Agnus.

He smiled at Mal tepidly. “Ah, Malum, do you have a question about the order?”

With some distant alarm, Mal found that his voice shook. “I know this man. He’s my wife’s friend from years ago, and I know he didn’t volunteer for this. He never would have. There’s been a mistake.”

Tenebris turned his eyes back to the papers on his desk, utterly unbothered by Mal’s distress. He sounded almost amused as he said, “He did, in a way.”

Mal took a step further into the office, trying to ignore the skin that had begun crawling on the back of his neck. “What exactly does that mean?”

His mentor sighed, rubbing his wrinkled forehead with a liver-spotted hand. “You have worked here for eight years, Mal. You’ve climbed all the way to the top in this company in less than a decade and will take it over from me someday soon, so therefore you are not stupid. You have to have known that sometimes, there are liabilities that have to be taken care of in this business.”

The image of Lux’s face shattering as she found out what had happened to her old friend flashed across Mal’s mind. He pressed his lips together against the bile rising in his throat. “Oh, my lord…you…you…”

“Eliminated a threat and added good product to our inventory in the bargain, yes. Good business sense.”

Mal ran his hand through his hair, trying to convince himself that he had no idea, had never suspected this, that he believed in Vital Luxury’s innocence as much as he told everyone, told Lux, that he did. His heart seemed to sink as he felt how hollow these inner protests were. Tenebris looked Mal’s face over, sighed, and gestured to a chair in front of his desk. Mal sank into it, feeling sick to his stomach.

“Mal, the truth is, even though people refuse to acknowledge it, humans as a whole are a remarkably selfish species. People are not often interested in giving so much as a penny, let alone a part of their very body, to anyone without getting something out of it. When the government finally allowed properly licensed companies like us to pay people for their organs, the health crisis all but disappeared. But donations don’t quite meet demand, so we supplement with people who have no quality of life, like the homeless, who we are really saving from their circumstances,” The reports of skin cancer in the previous shipment seemed to bloom in Mal’s brain, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his desert mouth. “And those who work against us and would keep people from being saved.” 

Mal parted his lips, meaning to argue, but his voice seemed to have fled from his throat. Tenebris continued in a calm, soothing voice. “This man, this Jay Agnus, was working against us. I’m not saying he was evil, but he was terribly, dangerously misguided and refused to see reason. He would not stop spreading his pernicious words and ideals and would have kept sick children, old people, hurting people, from the organs they needed just to satisfy his own self-righteousness. What is the lesser of two evils: virtually killing God knows how many good people, or eliminating a single threat who in turn will save those people?”

The image of Jay’s smug face popped into Mal’s head, his arm thrown possessively around Lux’s shoulders in the protest line, and he realized he was nodding to what Mr. Tenebris had said. It made sense, the math of it, and the proverbial scales seemed to be balanced.

However as hard as he tried, sitting there in Tenebris’s office, he couldn’t justify what the company had apparently being doing to innocent homeless people. His stomach rolled as flashes of terrified and filthy old men being rounded up and virtually butchered slammed across his mind. He pressed the back of his hand against his mouth, his heart beating in his throat, as the crushing weight of guilt pressed down on his shoulders. A more collected voice in the clinical part of his brain, the part where the businessman in him lived coolly, reminded him that if he walked now, not only would he lose his job, his salary, his benefits, his power, but worst of all, he would have to explain to Lux that he had been a part of her worst nightmare and most likely lose her too. And, after all, he would take ownership of Vital Luxury soon and could put an end to the practice. He couldn’t guarantee that anyone else would do it if they were given the job. Under his leadership, Vital Luxury could truly become the noble and philanthropic company he had convinced Lux it was all those years ago. Staying was the only sensible answer, the only ethical answer. Of course, it was obvious.

He looked up into the unfailing and unflaggingly confident face of the most powerful man he knew, and the last reservations fled the pit of his stomach. He left the C.E.O’s office a few minutes later feeling completely at ease, and maybe, though he would never admit it even to himself, with a little bit of that triumphant glow that besting Jay had always left him with. He walked into his own office, sat at the desk, and continued working.

It was a mere six months later that Mal came into work one morning to find a letter on his desk, as well as a medium-sized black box. He opened the envelope and grinned broadly as he read the words formally offering him the position on C.E.O upon Tenebris’s retirement in the upcoming year. He proudly placed his thumbprint on the sensor indicating his acceptance, and when it had gone through with a congratulatory bell sound, he gently placed it on his desk and sat down, turning his attention to the contents of the box.

It was inventory; a beautiful, perfect heart to be precise. He raised an eyebrow, wondering how it had ended up on his desk, considering he wasn’t expecting a shipment and it was just this single organ, separated from the rest of its grouping.

He lifted the heart in its clear protective casing and saw a note on the donor profile, obscuring the photograph of the donor, in Tenebris’s handwriting. It read, “Congratulations, Mal. This company is your life now, and in many cases, vice versa. Put it first above all else and you will do great things. Remember the greater good. Remember the cost of the one can save the many. Goodbye and good luck.”

Mal reached to remove the note, meaning to save it and maybe frame it on his desk, next to the nameplate that would soon read Malum Sampson, C.E.O, but as his eyes landed on the picture hiding behind the note, his hands went limp. The note fluttered to the ground like a dead moth.

He sat in his chair, unmoving, a marble statue with lifeless eyes, for maybe minutes, or hours, or perhaps years. Time had unbuckled itself from any meaning and had floated beyond his comprehension.

When he finally moved, it was mechanical, robotic, as he picked up the heart from his desk. He stared at it unbelievingly, not really seeing it, brushing a numb thumb across it. His fingers and palms cradled it with more gentleness than a bystander would have expected from those massive hands.

In the box, the picture seemed to smile adoringly at him as it sat above the words that in unflinching, bold, black ink, proclaimed, “Lux Sampson: Volunteer Donor.”