Authors: James Patterson,Richard Dilallo
Tags: #Mystery Thriller
FENDING OFF RUDI SARKAR’S arrogant request was a small challenge compared to the problem waiting for me in birthing room 3. Tracy Anne and I move quickly toward the room. Even after years of delivering babies, I still always feel the happy anticipation when a mother is about to bring a new life into this world.
Katra Kovac has quite a few obstacles facing her in the next few hours—a young, first-time mother and recent immigrant, I think from Eastern Europe, and there’s no sign of the baby’s father. But Katra is strong, healthy, and enthusiastic, with the full support of her mother and father.
I follow Tracy Anne into the room. It’s empty.
What the hell?
No nurse, no other midwives, most alarmingly, no Katra Kovac.
“Tracy Anne, is this the wrong room number?”
“No, I’m sure this is the right room. We were assigned to
birthing 3. Emergency Registration was bringing her up when I went out to get you.”
“Well, there’s some screwup,” I say, and I’m hoping that’s all it is—a simple screwup.
Tracy Anne and I head quickly toward the nurses’ station. I’m certain we’re both thinking the worst: have we escalated from missing babies to missing mothers?
My usual good luck: Nurse Charming, Deborah Franklin, is on duty at the central desk.
“Where’s the patient who’s supposed to be in birthing room 3, Katra Kovac? I can’t find her,” I say.
“Did you look in the bed?” Franklin says.
I’m in no mood for Franklin’s sarcasm right now. “Do you know where Katra Kovac is?” I say slowly and loudly. “Did you see her brought up from Registration?”
“I surely did. She was there a few minutes ago. In fact, one of
people was with her.”
“Who was it?”
“I wasn’t watching,” says Nurse Franklin.
I don’t have time for bullshit. I spring into action. “Let’s start looking, Trace,” I say.
Tracy Anne and I each take a side of the hospital corridor. We scurry unannounced into patients’ rooms, bathrooms, visitors’ lounges, even an archaic room with a small brass sign on it that says
FATHERS’ WAITING ROOM
. We look in custodian closets and the food storage rooms that hold the thousands of packets of peanut-butter crackers, Jell-O cups, and apple juice.
Now I’m a bit frightened. Okay, I’m really frightened.
“What should we do?” Tracy Anne asks.
“What do you think? We keep looking, and we call for backup.”
We rush to the nurses’ station. I tell Nurse Franklin to call Security.
“I already have,” she says. “They’re on their way.”
Two men from GUH Security appear almost instantaneously. I know these two guys, but I certainly do not know the other two people with them: a uniformed NYC female cop and a grumpy-looking guy in a rumpled gray suit. The woman looks ready to work. The guy looks just the opposite: sullen, tired. He has one of those slightly paunchy dad bods. He’s got to be the detective.
“I’m Detective Leon Blumenthal, NYPD.”
Was I right or was I right?
“This is Officer Cindy Hazard. Let’s get started.”
Apparently he doesn’t care to know our names. I don’t even try.
“Missing person is seventeen, dark blond hair, wearing hospital gown,” he says. “Let’s search this floor first.”
“We’ve already done that,” I say.
“And you are …?”
I guess he’s changed his mind. He does want an intro. “Midwife Lucy Ryuan.”
“And you found nothing and no one?”
“Well, we certainly didn’t find Katra Kovac.”
“Well, why don’t we just take one more crack at it. I already have a team moving hard through the hospital,” he says. “Let’s go.”
Forget paunchy and tired. I’ll call him
arrogant as shit.
WITHIN MINUTES, TRACY ANNE and I have joined the search with Blumenthal and his colleagues, or maybe they even forgot we were there with them. Either way, we’re tagging along with the crew through Adult Neurosurgery and ICU. I don’t exactly know what Blumenthal and company are doing that’s so different from what Tracy Anne and I were doing fifteen minutes ago. They pull open drawers and look under beds. They go into bathrooms and knock on stall doors. Could it be that their flashlights make them seem professional?
There aren’t many good places to hide in a hospital—no matter what you’ve seen on television. Sure, a supply closet, a visitors’ bathroom, an occasional doctor’s vacant office. But for the most part, the spaces are all very wide corridors and lots of rooms for patients.
“That’s a janitor’s closet,” I say as NYPD officer Cindy
Hazard opens a janitor’s closet, the same one I’d opened fifteen minutes ago. Hazard and Blumenthal step into the closet.
Okay, moving right along.
We finish searching Adult Neurosurgery and ICU. We head for the Darlow Pavilion, a fancy area of the hospital with marble floors and dark wood-paneled private rooms. I explain to Blumenthal that the Darlow Pavilion was designed for super-rich patients willing to pay a lot of money for being sick in absolute privacy and luxury. Darlow is a cash cow for Gramatan, and most patients in Darlow are not used to being disturbed by anyone except their masseurs and stockbrokers. Blumenthal and his gang don’t seem to care. We look in. We move on. Now we’re running out of places to look.
We are walking toward the huge physiotherapy rehab room when Blumenthal gets a message on his cell phone. He reports that another police search group think they may have located the “possible MP Kovac.” He says, “The victim is in a basement storage room.”
Why did he use the word
Now I’m nervous as shit. This isn’t a game. This is real.
We run for the elevator. Blumenthal tells us we’re headed for Mechanical Storage and Lab. It’s an area of the hospital I know nothing about. As we run, Blumenthal gets another text. They report that MP Kovac is seriously injured.
During the brief elevator ride, Blumenthal speaks directly to me. “My team says that this storage room is pretty grim. Have you ever been down there?”
“No,” I tell him. “I think it’s probably just where they keep old equipment like out-of-date x-ray machines, filing cabinets, that sort of stuff.”
The elevator arrives in the basement. We exit and quickly survey the area. The basement is vast. Its ceiling is low, and the
very tall Detective Blumenthal has to tip his head forward to avoid lighting fixtures. Long corridors crisscross one another. Two NYPD officers quickly escort us to an open door.
Grim? They said the room was grim?
The harsh lighting, the putrid odors. The room sure is
. But that’s only the beginning.
OUR EYES BURN. OUR throats gag. The storage room is filled with three or four more cops and two men I recognize from GUH Security. We enter a miserable scene: small puddles of filthy, stinky liquid on the floor, dripping, oozing pipes running along the ceiling. The smell is an overpowering mixture of bathroom antiseptic and human or animal feces. Handkerchiefs go to faces, and a tough-looking NYPD officer vomits almost immediately. It is totally out of keeping with the high standards of you-can-eat-off-the-floor cleanliness practiced by GUH.
Two huge MRI machines are pushed up against big old-fashioned x-ray units, twenty-foot-long chunks of steel with worn leather and dirty plastic. Someone more creative than me might see this mash-up as a fascinating art installation, the absurd landscape of a foul medical junkyard, or props from a horror movie.
The sickening odor in the air is accompanied by a nerve-racking soundtrack: squeaking, squawking, screeching sounds. A million birds gone crazy? Then suddenly an answer from many feet away … a woman’s voice …
“Rats! They’ve got cages and cages of goddamn rats!” she screams.
We move toward her voice.
“A lot of rats, maybe hundreds of them,” the same woman’s voice shouts.
Once we know that the squealing and smell are coming from rats—not pigs or birds or even cute little white mice—it all seems even more disgusting, more frightening.
The lights flicker. We see a mountain of desk chairs and examination tables. We turn the mountain’s corner and see yet another pile, a traffic jam of cabinets. We make another turn, and there it is: ten cages packed with rats. Rats scampering over one another. Rats packed tightly together. White, black, brown rats. Some as large as raccoons. Some as small as mice. Fat rats nibble on dead rats.
One of the GUH Security people explains. “This is some sort of goddamn private place for raising lab rats. I’ve got an idea who’s doing it. They grab a few rats brought into the med school for research, and the assholes mate them and raise them down here. Dr. Katz is going to have a shit fit when he finds out.”
My instincts tell me the security guy might know more about this illegal rat farm if we only let him keep on talking. But then suddenly a loud yell erupts from deeper in the pile of abandoned equipment.
“Over here. Detective B, over here.”
The group seems to follow in some sort of order of seniority, Blumenthal at the lead.
The hell with it. I’m on this case, too. I’m the one who knows how to deliver babies.
I push my way to the front of the pack. We make our way, stumbling through a jungle of broken desk chairs, cartons of old glass syringes, office clipboards. The smell. Jesus Christ, the smell.
Another yells, “Hurry up, for Chrissake. Will you just hurry up?”
Blumenthal and I look quickly at each other. We keep moving. We are like a crazy lunatic parade wending its way through the disgusting basement room. We should ignore the smells, the screeching, the filthy floors.
My instincts kick in again. I have a miserable feeling that the nightmare is just beginning.
KATRA KOVAC IS SPREAD unconscious on the narrow bed of another discarded MRI machine. She is a dead or near-dead body in a deserted tunnel. She is almost naked. Only a bloodstained hospital gown is scrunched up around her neck.
“Jesus Christ!” says one of the police officers. He took the words out of everyone’s mouths.
Some of the group turns away. Tracy Anne checks Katra’s neck for a pulse. She’s got one.
I look at the blood-covered belly of the motionless woman. Blood is still seeping in small rivulets down over her sides, puddling on the floor.
Alarms ring. Sirens sound. Somewhere in the distance we can hear loud, fast clattering feet. Nurses and doctors appear in the basement. The goddamn rats won’t shut up; it’s as if they know something terrible has happened. We’re in a hospital, but no one has brought a medical emergency kit. One police officer rips off his shirt to staunch the blood.
Orderlies and two doctors rush in with padding and surgical staplers. Hands covered in plastic gloves reach in and slip an IV needle into Katra’s arm. An oxygen tube is now dangling from her nose.
“Don’t transfer her to a gurney,” a voice yells. It is unmistakably Sarkar’s voice.
“Move her on the bed of the machine. Move the bed
her,” I yell.
Now I suddenly think that Sarkar, Tracy Anne, and I are most likely the only ones present who can tell exactly what has happened: Katra Kovac, nine months pregnant, has been slit open. Her baby has been taken.
The procedure—it’s a disgusting lie to confuse this butchery with the term
—has left the mother barely clinging to life. And the baby? Who in hell knows what has become of the baby, this baby who was literally ripped from its mother’s womb.
Two GUH maintenance men and two residents begin to attack the ancient MRI machine with screwdrivers and electric saws, to detach the bed from its base, while Dr. Sarkar is literally on top of the machine’s bed with Katra, straddling her knees and pushing down on her stomach. If this was not all so horrible, it would look almost ridiculous—a grown man on top of a woman in a blood-drenched hospital gown, surrounded by a highly agitated crowd.
Then a gurney appears. Someone has—perhaps wisely—vetoed my suggestion that Katra not be moved.
“Lucy, you hold her neck,” Sarkar says as he climbs off the MRI bed. ER staff slide Katra onto what is called a
a stretcher thick with a great deal of absorption material. It’s used a lot at accident scenes. Right now it’s ready to suck up Katra’s blood. It’s been a few million hours,
but Katra is now quickly being wheeled toward the elevator. Sarkar hurries along beside the gurney, his hands red and slimy with blood.
I am shaking.
I remember what my mother always told herself when a procedure wasn’t going smoothly.
“We must rise to the occasion, Lucy. We must rise to the occasion.”
Five minutes later, Dr. Sarkar, along with two surgeons—one general, one gynecologic—begins trying to put Katra Kovac back together.
And two rooms away, with a muted CNN report on the television and a stack of old
magazines on a table nearby, sits a trio brought together by unlucky chance: Detective Leon Blumenthal, CEO Dr. Barrett Katz, and me. Blumenthal and I are sick, scared, and spattered with blood. Katz looks rich, beautifully groomed, and very much on edge.
SIMPLY PUT, DR. BARRETT Katz is a big mess of crazy nerves at the moment. I should not take pleasure in his pain, especially at an awful time like this, but I can’t help it. I watch him closely. The guy just can’t sit still. Every few minutes he moves from his chair to the thick glass window that separates our room from the pre-surgical scrub room. The next room over from the scrub room is the operating room itself. Katz squints each time he looks through the glass, as if he believes that if he tries hard enough, he will get x-ray vision and then actually see through and into the operating room. But no one, not even the hospital CEO, is ever allowed an unscheduled visit to the operating room. In fact, so cautious is NYPD now about the discovery of near-dead Katra and her brutal delivery that a detective and two officers have had an antiseptic shower, changed into scrubs, and joined the surgical team in the OR.
The only thing we all know is that Katra Kovac’s condition is dire.
I am not lightly tossing around the phrase
. Sarkar and his team are great, but as my mother used to say,
“You can never be sure of the future. Only the Lord Jesus knows the end of the story.”
I sit and play with my phone. I text Willie. His response is,
Hey, Mom. Busy with Mike. Love u.
Mike, a decent kid from down the street. I text Sabryna. No response. I read some news on CNN.com. I text Troy. I text Tracy Anne. I read my email. On the floor near me is the
It is opened to a page of comic strips and the jumble puzzle. Yes, it seems disrespectful, but I pick up the newspaper and look at the puzzle. I can’t un-jumble the first word … or the second. So I toss the paper back on the floor.
I close my eyes and recite the prayer my mother always prayed. The prayer begins,
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Who can argue with that? I’m thinking a lot about my mother today. A crisis will do that to my brain.
NYPD officers and GUH personnel come in and out of our waiting room to confer with Leon Blumenthal. It’s clear that wherever Blumenthal is, then that’s where his central investigation office is. His laptop might just as well be actually attached to his lap. Whatever the reason, whoever the visitor, Blumenthal keeps tapping on that computer. I don’t believe multitasking is for real, but this guy might prove me wrong.
Dr. Katz lights one of his signature Tareyton cigarettes. Yes, the CEO lit a cigarette in his own hospital.
“I don’t think you want to be smoking in here, Doctor,” I say to him. He looks at me with silent displeasure. This look of displeasure is followed by an unquestionable look of disgust. Katz is looking and acting like a spoiled little brat.
Further proof, he then draws on his cigarette and lets out the smoke with a big satisfied-sounding exhale.
Let’s not even discuss the idea of a medical person smoking! In a group! In a hospital! Should you still doubt that Katz is a nutcase.
“I didn’t know they even made Tareytons anymore,” I say. “When my friends in high school smoked, they always smoked Marlboro Lights. I don’t really remember Tareytons.”
“It’s hard to find Tareytons in New York these days,” says Katz as he emits a big puff of smoke. “I’m lucky enough to have a supplier in London who sends them to me by the case.”
Color me impressed. The asshole is known for his finicky tastes—a framed collection of presidential autographs in his office, custom-made shirts with “exclusive” patterns (whatever that means; they all look light blue to me), English flannel driving caps, which, despite their quality, still make Katz look like a London cabby.
’Op on in, guv-nor.
I say to Katz, “In any case … you should put the cigarette out.”
“In any case,” Katz says, “I’m the CEO in this room, and I want to smoke.”
Blumenthal is seated on the one uncomfortable-looking steel folding chair in the room. I think he’s oblivious to the scene around him. But I turn out to be wrong about that. The detective suddenly looks up—suspiciously perhaps—from his laptop.
“And I’m the cop in this room,” Blumenthal says as he stands up. “Put out the cigarette, Doc.”
There is an unpleasant pause. Then Katz drops the cigarette onto the linoleum floor and begins furiously grinding it out.
Almost immediately the door to the OR opens. A woman
dressed in full surgical garb—head covering, surgical mask, protective eyeglasses, gloves, green scrubs—comes into our waiting area. She pushes the eyeglasses to her forehead and unsnaps her mask, then removes it.
I recognize her immediately: she’s a GUH surgeon, one of the best.
She addresses us. “I’m Helen Whall.”
She is as modest as she is talented, so I tell everyone else in the room that Helen Whall is the finest plastic surgeon at GUH, possibly in all of New York City. When a seven-year-old boy in the Bronx had his ear almost severed by a stray bullet, Whall reattached it perfectly. When the mayor had a melanoma on his shiny bald head, Whall was called in to remove and patch it. There really is no one remotely like her.
“Helen, what the hell is happening in there?” Katz asks.
“Please, stay calm, sir. That’s why I’m here. I’ve got an update.”
Why do I feel that things are not going well?
Helen reports, “The patient’s condition is dangerous. Very dangerous. We all suspected that. Turns out that Katra has a small rupture in the uterine wall. Dr. Sarkar is working on that. And, as you no doubt noticed, there’s been a significant loss of blood.”
Katz is growing impatient. “Yes, as we ‘no doubt noticed,’ she’s lost a lot of blood. But is this patient going to live? I’m the one who will have to face the goddamn media.”
Dr. Whall doesn’t answer.
“I asked you a question, Doctor,” Katz says.
Helen Whall looks at Katz with a face that clearly registers restrained anger. Then she returns to her update. “They’re draining the amniotic fluid. They’ve got the placenta out.
They need to evaluate the extent of the liver damage. But one thing is clear …” Then she pauses.
“For Chrissake, what the hell is that?” Katz yells.
“The incision they used to take the baby out … is neat and elegant, a traditional bikini-cut C-section.”
“And that means what?” Blumenthal asks.
I decide that I’ll answer the question. “It means the C-section was probably done by a professional.”
“A professional?” Blumenthal asks, only slightly confused.
“Yeah, it was done by a trained professional,
a real live doctor.
He, or she, cut the mother, delivered the baby, and then left Katra to bleed out and die.”
Dr. Whall waits for us to register the horror of the information. After a few seconds, she says, “Dr. Sarkar and his team are still guardedly optimistic. Thanks, everyone,” and she leaves.
Leon Blumenthal walks over to me. “Tell me,” he says. “Is the use of the phrase ‘guardedly optimistic’ just hospital speak for ‘not at all optimistic’?”
“It could be. But you never know until the operation’s over.”
Blumenthal nods. “Good answer,” he says.
Then I say, “Only the Lord Jesus knows the end of the story.”
“Amen,” says Blumenthal.
I think he smiled slightly. I’m not sure.