Read an Excerpt
NITA STARED AT the dead body lying on the kitchen table. Middle-aged, and in the place between pudgy and overweight, he wore a casual business suit and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses with silver handles that blended into the gray at his temples. He was indistinguishable on the outside from any other human—the inside, of course, was a different matter. “Another zannie?” Nita scowled at her mother and crossed her arms as she examined the body. “That’s not even Latin American. I thought we moved to Peru to hunt South and Central American unnaturals? Chupacabras and pishtacos and whatever.” It wasn’t that zannies were common, but Nita had dissected plenty during the months she and her mother spent in Southeast Asia last year. She’d been looking forward to dissecting something new. If she’d wanted to cut up the same unnaturals as usual, she would have asked to stay with her dad in the States and work on unicorns. Her mother shrugged, draping her jacket over a chair. “I saw a zannie, so I killed it. I mean, it was right in front of me. How could I resist?” Her black-and-red-striped bangs fell forward as she dipped her head and half smiled. Nita shifted her feet, looking at the corpse again. She sighed. “I suppose you’ll want me to dissect and package it for sale?” “Good girl.” Her mother grinned. Nita went around to the other side of the dead body. “Care to help me move it to the workroom?” Her mother rolled up her sleeves, and together they heaved the round, deceptively heavy body down the hall and onto a smooth metal table in the other room. White walls and fluorescent lights made it look like a hospital surgery room. Scalpels and bone saws lay in neat lines on the shelves, and a scale for weighing organs rested in front of a box of jars. In the corner, a tub of formaldehyde caused everything to reek of death. The smell kept sneaking out of the room and making its way into Nita’s clothes. She found it strangely comforting. That was probably a bad sign. But, if Nita was being honest with herself, most of her habits and life choices were bad signs. Her mother winked at Nita. “All ready for you.” Nita looked down at her watch. “It’s nearly midnight.” “And?” “And I want to sleep sometime.” “So do it later.” Her mother waved it aside. “It’s not like you have anything to get up for.” Nita paused, then bowed her head in acceptance. Even though it had been years since her mother had decided to illegally take Nita out of school, she still had some leftover instinct telling her not to go to bed too late. Which was silly, because even if she’d had school, she’d gladly have skipped it for a dissection. Dissections were fun. Nita pulled on a white lab coat. She always liked wearing it—it made her feel like a real scientist at a prestigious university or laboratory somewhere. Sometimes she put the goggles on even when she didn’t need to just so she could complete the look. “When are you heading out again?” Her mother washed her hands in the sink. “Tonight. I got a tip when I was bringing this beauty back. I’m flying to Buenos Aires.” “Pishtacos?” asked Nita, trying to hold in her excitement. She’d never had a chance to dissect a pishtaco. How would their bodies be modified for a diet made completely of human body fat? The promise of a pishtaco dissection was the only thing that had convinced Nita moving to Peru was a good idea. Her mother always knew how to tempt her. Nita frowned. “Wait, there are no pishtacos in Argentina.” Her mother laughed. “Don’t worry. It’s something even better.” “Not another zannie.” “No.” Her mother dried her hands and headed back toward the kitchen, calling out as she went, “I’m going to head to the airport now. If all goes well, I should be back in two days.” Nita followed and found her sitting, booted feet on the kitchen table as she unscrewed the top of the pisco bottle from the fridge and took a swig. Not cocktail-drink pisco, or mixed-with-soda pisco, just straight. Nita had tried it once when she was home alone, thinking it would be a good celebration drink to ring in her seventeenth birthday. It didn’t burn as much as whisky or vodka, or even sake, but it kicked in fast, and it kicked in hard. Her mother had found her with her face squished against the wall, crying because it wouldn’t move for her. Then Mom had laughed and left her there to suffer. She showed Nita the pictures afterward—there was an awful lot of drool on that wall. Nita hadn’t sampled anything in the liquor cabinet since. “Oh, and Nita?” Her mother put the pisco on the table. “Yeah?” “Don’t touch the head. It has a million-dollar bounty. I plan to claim it.” Nita looked down the hall, toward the room with the dead body. “I’m pretty sure the whole wanted-dead-or-alive thing ended in the Old West. If you just turn this guy’s head over, you’ll be arrested for murder.” Her mother rolled her eyes. “Why, thank you, Nita, for teaching me such an important lesson. Whatever would I do without you?” Nita winced. “Um.” “The zannie is wanted for war crimes by the Peruvian government. He was a member of the secret police under the Fujimori administration.” No surprise there. Pretty much every zannie in the world was wanted for some type of war crime. When your biological imperative was to torture people and eat their pain, there were only so many career paths open to you. That reminded Nita—there was an article in the latest issue of Nature on zannies that she wanted to read. Someone who had clearly dissected fewer zannies than Nita, but with access to better equipment, had written a detailed analysis of how zannies consumed pain. There were all sorts of theories about how pain was relative, and the same injury on two people could be perceived completely differently. The scientists had been researching zannies—was it the severity of the injury that fed them, or the person’s perception of how much it hurt? They’d also managed to prove that while zannies could consume emotional pain, as well as physical, the effect was significantly less. Emotional and physical pain receptors overlapped in the brain center, so the big question was, why did causing other people severe physical pain feed zannies, while causing severe emotional pain had less effect? Nita privately thought it was because physical pain had the added signals from nociceptors, but she was curious to see what others thought. Her mother continued, oblivious to Nita’s wandering mind. “A number of interested parties have offered very large bounties for his head. They, unlike the government, don’t care if he’s alive to face trial.” There was a sharp flash of teeth. “And I’m happy to oblige them.” She rose, put the pisco away, and pulled on her burgundy leather jacket. “Can you have him all packed up by the time I get back?” Nita nodded. “Yeah, I think so.” Her mother came over and kissed the top of her head. “What would I ever do without you, Anita?” Before Nita could formulate a response, her mother was out the door. There was a creak and then a bang, and the house was silent. When her mother departed, sometimes Nita felt like she took more than just noise. She had a presence, a tangible energy to her that filled the house. Without her, it felt hollow. Like the life had left, and there was only a dead zannie in its place. Which, really, there was. Nita turned back to her newest project and allowed herself a small smile. A pishtaco or a chupacabra would have been better, but she’d still enjoy a zannie. The first thing she did was empty its pockets. An old-fashioned timepiece, some Brazilian reais (no Peruvian soles though, which was odd), and a wallet. Nita gazed at it a long time before putting it on the tray, unopened. Her mother would have already taken the credit cards and used them to get as much cash as possible before ditching them. The only other things left in the wallet would be identity cards, club memberships—things that would tell her about the person she was dissecting. Nita had learned a long time ago—you don’t want to know anything about the person whose body you’re taking apart. Better to think that it wasn’t a person at all. And really—it wasn’t. This was a zannie. Nita took an elastic and tied her hair back in a puffy attempt at a ponytail. Her hair tended to grow sideways in frizzy kinks instead of down. In the glow of the fluorescent lights, its normally medium-brown color took on an orange tint. No one else thought it looked orange, but Nita insisted—she liked orange. She put a surgical mask over her mouth, just below her freckle-spattered cheekbones, before putting the goggles on. After snapping on a pair of latex gloves, she rolled her tool set over to the metal slab where the body rested. She slipped her earbuds in and flicked on her Disney playlist. It was time to begin.
Nita couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been fascinated by dead things—perhaps because her home was always full of them. As far back as she could remember, her parents had acquired the bodies of unnaturals and sold the pieces on the internet. The darknet, to be specific. Black market body part sellers didn’t just post their items on eBay. That was how you ended up with a short visit from the International Non-Human Police—INHUP—and a long stint in jail. When Nita was younger, she used to run around the room, bringing her parents empty jars. Big glass ones for the heart, small vials and bags for the blood. Afterward, she’d label them and line them up on the shelf. Sometimes she’d stare at them, pieces of people she’d never met. There was something calming about the still hearts, floating in formaldehyde. Something peaceful. No more beating, no more thumping rhythm and noise. Just silence. Sometimes, she would look at the eyes, and they would stare back. Direct, open gazes. Not like living people, who flicked their eyes here and there while they lied, who could cram an entire conversation into a single gaze. The problem was, Nita could never understand what they were saying. It was better after people were dead. The eyes weren’t so tricky anymore. It took Nita all night and the better part of the next day to finish with the zannie, put everything in jars of formaldehyde or freezer containers, and clean the dissection room until it sparkled. The sun was up, and she didn’t feel tired, so she went to her favorite park on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Tropical trees with large, bell-shaped flowers covered the benches like a canopy, and blue and white mosaics patterned the wall that prevented people from tumbling over the side of the cliff and into the sparkling waters below. Newspapers sat abandoned on the benches, from tabloids announcing Penelope Alvarez looks twenty at age forty-five. Good skin care or something more “unnatural”? to official news sources with headlines like Should Peru sign into INHUP? The advantages and disadvantages to an extraterritorial police force for unnatural-related incidents. Peru was one of the only South American countries left that wasn’t a part of INHUP. There were always a few countries on every continent that stayed out so that black market dealers had somewhere to flee when INHUP finally nailed them. Certain people paid politicians handsomely to ensure it stayed that way. Nita took a seat far away from the other people in the park. Under the shade of a floripondio tree, she cracked open her medical journals on unnaturals. Sometimes it was frustrating reading them and knowing they were wrong about certain things. While lots of unnaturals were “out” and recognized by the world, most still hid, afraid of public backlash. So when the journals talked about zannies being the only species of unnatural that consumed nontangible things, like pain, Nita wished she could point out that there were creatures who consumed memories, strong emotions, and even dreams. INHUP just hadn’t officially recognized them yet. INHUP was big on doing damage control, and part of trying to decrease racism and discrimination against unnaturals was not telling people just how many types there were. It also kept people like Nita’s mother from finding out about them. Sometimes. Nita whiled the afternoon away in the shade of the tree, devouring medical research like candy, until the sun dipped so low there wasn’t enough light to read by. When Nita got home, she was greeted by a string of expletives. She crept into the hall, shoulders tight with tension. Her mother could be unpredictable when angry. Nita had been on the receiving end before and wasn’t eager to repeat the experience. But ignoring her mother was more dangerous, so Nita padded into the kitchen. “What are you doing?” Nita gaped, staring at the mess. Her mother tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and gave Nita a wry smile. Around her, empty shipping crates littered the floor, along with packing materials like bubble wrap and Styrofoam worms. A gun sat on the kitchen table, and Nita briefly wondered what it was doing out. “I want to have the zannie parts shipped out tomorrow. We’ve got something new, and to be frank, this apartment isn’t big enough to hold all the parts.” Her mother flashed her another smile. Nita was inclined to agree. Her dissection room was already at capacity, and they’d only dissected one zannie. There really wasn’t room for a second body. “Something new, huh? I take it everything went well, then?” Nita’s mother laughed. “Do things ever go well with unnaturals that aren’t on the list?” Among the unnaturals that were public knowledge, there was a list of “dangerous unnaturals”—unnaturals whose continued existence depended on them murdering other people. It wasn’t a crime to kill them in INHUP member countries, it was “preemptive self-defense.” But anything not on the list, the harmless unnaturals (which was most of them, in Nita’s experience), it was very much a crime to kill. Her mom mostly brought Nita unnaturals on the list. Mostly. Nita knew her mother had probably killed a lot of not-evil, not-dangerous people and sold them. She tried not to think about it too much, because really, there wasn’t much she could do about it, was there? Besides, they were always dead by the time they got to Nita. And if they were already dead, it would be a shame to let their bodies go undissected. Speaking of . . . “What did you bring back?” Nita asked, weaving through the crates to the fridge, where she took out last night’s leftovers and shoved them into the microwave. “Something special. I put it in the dissection room.” Nita felt her fingers twitch, the imaginary scalpel in her hand making a sliding cut through the air, like a Y incision. She couldn’t wait for the slow, relaxing evening, just her and the body. The straight autopsy lines, the jars full of organs watching over her, like her own weird guardian angel. She shivered with anticipation. Sometimes she scared herself. Her mother looked at Nita out of the corner of her eyes. “I have to say, this one was tricky to get.” Nita removed her food from the microwave and sat down at the kitchen table. “Oh, do tell?” Her mother smiled, and Nita settled in for a good story. “Well, it wasn’t hard at the beginning. Buenos Aires was lovely, and hunting down my tip was easy. Even acquiring our new . . . I don’t even know what to call him.” Nita raised her eyebrows. Her mother knew every unnatural. It was her job. This one must be something really rare. “Well, anyway.” Her mother sat down beside her. “It wasn’t even so bad getting him. Security wasn’t too much of an issue, easily dealt with. The problem was getting him back.” Nita nodded. Airlines usually frowned on stuffing dead bodies into overhead bins. Her mother gave her a conspiratorial wink. “But then I thought, well, why don’t I just pretend he’s a traveler? So I put him in a wheelchair, and the airline never even guessed.” “Wait, a wheelchair?” Nita scowled. “But wouldn’t they notice that he didn’t, well, move or breathe or anything when they were helping him to his seat?” She laughed. “Oh, he’s not dead. I just drugged the hell out of him.” Nita’s fingers twitched, then froze. Not dead. She gave her mother a sickly smile. “You said you put him in my room?” “Yes, I spent the morning installing the cage. Bugger of a thing. You know they don’t make human-size cages anymore? And I had to get the handcuffs at a sex shop.” Nita sat there for a long moment, smile frozen like a rictus on her face. Then she rose and began making her way through the crates to her dissection room. Her mother followed. “This one’s a little different. He’s quite valuable, so I’d really like to milk him a bit for blood and such before we harvest the organs.” But Nita wasn’t listening. She had opened the door to see with her own eyes. Part of her beautiful, sterile white room was now taken up by a large cage, which had been bolted to the wall. Her mother had put a padlock and chain around the door. Inside the cage, a boy with dark brown hair lay unconscious in the fetal position. Given the size of the cage, it was probably the only way he could lie down. “What is he?” Nita waited for her mother to list off the heinous things he did to survive. Maybe he ate newborn babies and was actually five hundred years old instead of the eighteen or nineteen he looked. Her mother shrugged. “I don’t know if there’s a name for what he is.” “But what kind of unnatural is he? Explain it.” Nita felt her voice rising and forced it to calm down. “I mean, you know what he does, right?” Her mother laughed. “He doesn’t do much of anything. He’s an unnatural, that much I’m sure of, but I don’t think you’ll find any external signs of it. He was being kept by a collector in Buenos Aires.” “So . . . why do we want him?” Nita pushed, surprised at how much she needed an answer, a reason to justify the cage in her room and the small, curled-up form of the boy. His jeans and T-shirt looked like they were spattered with something, and Nita wondered if it was blood. “Ah. Well, he’s supposedly quite delicious, you know. Something about him. That collector had been selling vials of his blood—vials, not bags, mind you—for nearly ten thousand each. US dollars, not soles or pesos. Dollars. One of his toes went up for auction online last year, and the price was six digits. For a toe.” Her mother had a wide, toothy grin, and her eyes were alight at the prospect of how much money an entire body could make. Nita wondered how soon the boy’s time would be up. Her mother preferred cash in hand to cash in the future, so Nita doubted the boy would be prisoner for long. “I already put him up online, and we have a buyer for another toe. So I took the liberty of cutting it off and mailing it while we were in Argentina.” It took a few moments for Nita to register her mother’s words. Then she looked down, and sure enough, the boy’s feet were bare and bloody. One foot had been hastily wrapped in bandages, but they’d turned red as the blood soaked through. Her mother tapped her finger to her chin. “The only problem is, his pieces need to be fresh—well, as fresh as we can get them. So we’ll sell all the extremities first, as they’re ordered. He should be able to survive without those, and we can bottle the blood when we remove them and sell it as well. We’ll do the internal organs and such later, once we’ve spread the word. Shouldn’t take too long.” Nita’s mind spun in circles, not quite processing what her mother was saying. “You want to keep him here and cut pieces off him while he’s still alive?” “Exactly.” Nita didn’t even know what to say to that. She didn’t deal with live people. Her subjects were dead. “He’s not . . . dangerous?” Nita asked, unable to tear her eyes off the bandages around the missing toes. Her mother snorted. “Hardly. He got unlucky in the genetic draw. As far as I can tell, everyone wants to eat him, and he has no more defenses than an ordinary human.” The boy stirred in the cage and tried to twist himself around to look at them. Nita’s heart clenched. It was pathetic. Her mother clapped her on the shoulder before turning around. “We’re going to make good money off him.” Nita nodded, eyes never straying from the cage. Her mother left the room, calling for Nita to help her organize the crates in the kitchen so they could start packing the zannie parts. The boy lifted his head and met Nita’s eyes. His eyes were gray-blue and wide with fear. He reached a hand up, but it stopped short, the handcuffs pulling it back down toward the bottom of the cage. He swallowed, eyes never leaving Nita’s. “Ayúdame,” he whispered. Help me.