Authors: James Patterson,Richard Dilallo
Tags: #Mystery Thriller
TWO MINUTES LATER DR. Rudra Sarkar and I go our separate ways. He returns to his office, but I return to the stairwell. I’m going back to see Leon Blumenthal.
As I enter the makeshift operations room and approach Blumenthal’s table, I swear there’s a very slight smile on his face.
“What took you so long to get back to me, Ms. Ryuan?” he asks. Yes, that is definitely a smile on Blumenthal’s face.
And he’s even better looking now that he’s lost the grumpy-dad expression. Funny how a guy’s face can turn from meh to handsome just because of the mood he’s in and, I guess, the mood I’m in.
“Nothing like a funny detective when there’s a multiple kidnapping and a brutal assault to be investigated,” I say.
“Haven’t you heard the expression ‘If you don’t laugh, you may end up crying’?”
I roll my eyes a bit.
Then Blumenthal says, “Anyway, how can I help you?”
“I have a great idea.”
“I was afraid of that,” he says.
“Look,” I say. “If you’re going to be an asshole, then I—”
“Sorry,” he says. “And I mean it.” I think he does. There’s something almost annoyingly
about Leon Blumenthal. He’s so real that what he’s thinking and what he’s feeling always seem to show up at the same time.
“Let’s move over to that table near the fruit smoothie machine,” Blumenthal says as he stands up. “I think my colleagues may be a little too interested in our conversation.”
“That’s intriguing. They’re going to hear all about it the moment I leave the room,” I say.
Blumenthal says nothing.
We walk to the end of the room, and I discover that we are standing in a jungle of “healthy food” vending machines. Who knew that such machines existed when I was buying junk food for Blumenthal an hour earlier? One vending machine supplies fresh-ingredient smoothies; another has a complete selection of Nature Valley bars; a third sends out small packets of sunflower seeds or granola or unsalted raw cashews.
Give me a Wendy’s chocolate Frosty and a Milky Way candy bar any day.
Blumenthal and I sit down.
“So what’s up?”
“I’ve got a plan,” I say. “Hear me out before you say no.”
“Go,” he says. And at least he’s acting interested.
“It’s simple,” I say.
“That’s always good,” Blumenthal says. “Simple works for me.”
“It’s simple, but it’s also dangerous.”
“That’s not always good.”
The moment I am actually about to tell Blumenthal my idea, I realize it does seem incredibly dangerous. But it also seems exciting, and most important, it seems like it could work.
“Begin,” he says. “Come on. Let’s bring this plane in for a landing.”
“Okay. I will pose as a pregnant woman, a poor pregnant woman. I can do an Irish accent. I can do a low-class English accent. I can certainly do a low-class Brooklyn accent.”
Blumenthal nods a bit.
I continue. “So we’ll get the name of the Russian couple from Patrik Kovac. I’ll contact them, or you’ll have somebody credible contact them, and then I’ll meet with them. I’ll make arrangements to sell them my baby, and then—”
Blumenthal begins shaking his head back and forth.
I try to ignore him and keep talking. “We’ll start with the first payment. I know that we’ll have to get a payment. Depending on where we meet them, we can have surveillance cameras. Then we—”
Blumenthal stands up. “Stop. Stop right there, Ms. Ryuan.” And, yes, he is speaking in a fairly loud voice.
“No. I won’t stop. This is a good plan. And I know that deep inside you think it’s good, too.” I stand up to face him.
But he’s on a roll. He keeps talking. “No. I absolutely do not think it’s a good plan. Deep inside me or just on my surface, I do not think it’s a good plan. It’s stupid. It’s foolish. It’s unprofessional. These Russians aren’t amateurs. This isn’t a TV show. This isn’t a movie. Don’t you think the Russian couple are part of a larger group? How do you imagine pulling this off? Do you plan on stuffing a pillow in your jeans to fool them? Of course not. Think it through, Lucy. For God’s sake, think it through. They’ll have gynecologists
and pediatricians and thugs with guns and knives. Stick to delivering babies.”
That last line—
“Stick to delivering babies”
—is the one that really kicks me hard in the stomach.
I know Blumenthal is being sensible. Maybe he’s even absolutely right. But now I’m in that weird position of not being able to back down. I search for a defense. And I come up with a really shitty one.
“I’m trying to be proactive,” I say.
“Proactive?” he says, loud enough for a few of the people at the other end of the room to suddenly look toward us. “Proactive?
is the dumbest new made-up word in the English language. It’s a synonym, a synonym for wasting time, for making a lot of noise for no real reason.”
I decide to storm away from the table before he can storm away.
I get to the door of the cafeteria. I turn around and say exactly what I feel like saying.
“Remember this, Detective Blumenthal. Remember that I gave you a golden opportunity. Remember it when another baby goes missing.”
“Wait, Ms. Ryuan,” he says loudly.
The strength of his voice freezes me in place. The next thing I know, Blumenthal is standing close to me. Closer than he should.
“Look. I really do understand your passion about what’s going on. I really do.”
“No. I don’t think you—”
“Take me at my word.”
And suddenly I feel as if I will.
“Take a break. That’s my advice. Get away. Take a break. Go to the beach. Go to the country. Go to the movies. Do
something. Take ninety-six hours to stop delivering babies, stop thinking about this case.”
I look into his hazel eyes. For the first time, I don’t have the urge to disagree with him.
“When you get back—after that little break—we can talk again. You have done a lot for this case, and I appreciate the help. You are one smart woman.”
I PRACTICALLY RUN BACK to my office. Not in anger. Not in frustration. Not for any reason but that I’m tired, and Blumenthal might be right. And—oh, hell—I don’t know what I’m even doing.
Up those same damned back stairs. I’m breathing heavily, and my heart is pounding. I’ve gone full speed.
It’s about midnight, but of course GUH, under siege and security, is as hectic as if it were noon. I fade into the hospital crowd. Guards and NYPD officers patrol the halls. Patients buzz their buzzers. The air is pierced by the cries of “Nurse. Nurse. Please, Nurse.” The PA system regularly blasts announcements like “Dr. Somebody, please report to Room Someplace immediately.” Orderlies joke with nurses. Babies wail.
I pass through the dark and empty waiting room of the Midwifery offices. I notice the lights are on in Tracy Anne’s cubicle. I step inside.
“What’s keeping you here?” I say.
“Gina Esposito’s husband is driving in from Brooklyn. Gina’s having contractions. In fact, I should get over to the birthing room now,” Tracy Anne says.
“You want me to hang out? I can help,” I say.
“No. Don’t you dare try to help. Get home, and get some sleep. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but Troy and I are both worried about you,” she says.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” I answer, not really believing what I’m saying.
“Well, all I can suggest is this: if you’ve got a mirror handy, take a good look in it. You look deader than a corpse.”
“There is nothing ‘deader than a corpse,’” I say.
“Yeah? Well, just look in a mirror.”
I chuckle, but I don’t need Tracy Anne or a mirror to tell me that I’m exhausted. Pissed off and exhausted. Frustrated and exhausted. Sad and exhausted. But in any case, exhausted.
With a note of eagerness, Tracy Anne says, “When you get a chance, maybe you can fill me in on what’s going on. Troy won’t let on. He says that it’s for you to let me know.”
“Honestly, Troy doesn’t know the half of it. I’ll let you both know real soon. I’d tell you now, but I just don’t have the energy,” I say.
“It’s okay. I’ve gotta get over to Gina and her baby,” Tracy Anne says. She stands and touches my shoulder as she walks past me. “Go home and relax, Lucy. Just a little. Okay?”
I’m standing at the entrance to Tracy Anne’s cubicle. Her tiny space is a landslide of papers and medical books, a poster of Beyoncé, a plastic skeleton of the pelvic area, a bad reproduction of an Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe print.
I reach for my cell phone. A spontaneous gesture, I guess.
I scroll down to
R SARKAR (EMERGENCY ONLY)
. I press the
corresponding key for Rudi’s home number. After a few rings I hear that voice.
“Lucy, this is a first. You’re calling me at my house. I am extremely flattered, to say the least.” Sarkar’s soothing baritone is in full seduction mode.
“Don’t be flattered just yet. I’m calling to ask a favor,” I say.
“For you, I would move the world.”
“Well, not the world. But how about moving your Lexus?”
“You want me to buy you a Lexus?”
“No, I want you to loan me that big, beautiful blue Lexus of yours. Just for a few days.”
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“Look,” I say. “If there’s going to be an application form, I’ll borrow a car from someone else. All I know is that I don’t trust my Hyundai to make it beyond five miles from my house. And I’m going a little farther than that.”
“Very well. Of course you can take my car on your little trip.” He pauses, then he goes in for the big one. “Would you like me to accompany you? As you know from experience, I am a very good driver.”
“Absolutely not,” I say. “Where I’m going, you wouldn’t exactly fit in.”
“Ah, someplace like a lady’s spa, eh?” he asks.
“Not quite. But I hope I can relax there and come back feeling really refreshed.”
“Will you have company on this journey? A man, perhaps?”
“A young man,” I say. “And that’s it for the questions, please. Any more and I’ll just contact Hertz.com.”
“My car is now your car.”
SOMETIMES A BODY JUST needs to go back to where she came from. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m going home, home to Walkers Pasture, West Virginia.
My boy, Willie, and Willie’s dog, The Duke, are along with me, and my worries are seat-buckled into Rudi Sarkar’s midnight-blue Lexus, playing Catch Me If You Can with the radar machines on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Walkers Pasture is just a tiny slice of a town a few miles from the Ohio border, but it’s home, and it’s the place I visit when my brain needs straightening out. And does my brain ever need straightening out right now. I need a rest from the likes of Leon Blumenthal and Rudra Sarkar, and the army of guards and doctors and cops who have surrounded my life.
Even just on the road to home I can feel my West Virginia twang returning.
The very name of the town, Walkers Pasture, has a story. Here’s the short version: In 1895, Mr. Walter Walker dug a
coal mine in his hilly, overgrown cow pasture. Among the men who worked that mine were my great-grandfather, my grandfather, one of my uncles, and my own father. Even with all those strong Ryuan men helping out, it took them nearly a century to strip the mine bare. When that happened, the mine was closed, and the state of West Virginia renamed the area The Wholly Incorporated Town of Walkers Pasture. A town? This patch of land? Not really, it was (and pretty much still is) just a few hundred tract houses built during LBJ’s War on Poverty. There’s a one-woman post office the size of a horse stall, a good diner with decent coffee, a fairly small grammar school, a fairly large opioid problem, and mostly neat front yards, with only an occasional shell of a rusted Chevy Malibu for decoration.
I know it would sound insane to my city-raised friends, but I actually had a good time growing up there. Maybe it was my basic aggressiveness, because I just didn’t let people get under my tough skin. Sure, the town has its share of substance abuse issues, but most of us only smoked weed and drank rye whiskey for our highs, my brother and his buddies being the exception to that.
All that aside, the biggest reason for my good memories of Walkers Pasture is my family. My childhood was a happy one because of my mom, a tiny, super-smart woman known to almost everyone in her world as Big Lucy.
I was the only help Big Lucy had in caring for her long-dying husband and her drugged-out son. I worked hard, but Big Lucy worked so much harder. I won’t say she was always smiling, but I will say that she rarely cried. She poured herself two snorts of Jim Beam every night, then she and Mr. Beam settled down in front of the CBS news programs. She watched the news so intensely that Daddy used to say she
could, at any moment, fill in for the secretary of state. Later on, my mom would say ten Hail Marys in front of her plastic Lady of Fatima statue. She was and
one of a kind.
Big Lucy is still a certified midwife, but she doesn’t do much birthing anymore. When she started out helping women with their deliveries, most of her births took place in houses—in beds and on couches and tables and floors. When she wasn’t catching babies, Big Lucy worked at a nursing home in Parkersburg. Her only fun time seemed to be her alternate Saturday nights with her friend Audrey, the two of them playing the slot machines at the Wheeling Island Casino.
That’s my town, and that’s my family, and I still keep coming back—especially when I need to shake my blues away and clear my big-city head. Next exit ramp? Walkers Pasture.
WILLIE AND THE DUKE and I make the trip to Walkers Pasture in a little over seven hours, with just one stop: to walk the dog, hit the bathroom for humans, and consume twenty-five Chicken McNuggets.
I do not call ahead. Mom has no idea that we’re showing up. That’s how we operate with each other. She hears us pull into the driveway. Big Lucy and her cane rush out to greet us with an explosion of “Holy cow!” and “Holy shit!” and “Did you want to give me a heart attack?” She has mastered the craft of smiling and crying at the same time.
Big Lucy shouts at her only grandson, “Who drove? Willie or The Duke?”
Willie, a real little wise guy, answers, “We took turns. And then when we got tired, we let Mom drive.”
My mother hugs Willie so tight that even she feels compelled to say, “You just tell me when I’m hugging you too hard, Willie.”
“Now!” he shouts.
So she turns to me and hugs me just as hard. As far as I’m concerned, she can never hug me hard enough or long enough. As Mom and I hug, I can see two men over her shoulder. Coming through the screened front door are my dad and my brother, Cabot. To put it bluntly, my dad is a mess, a frightful mess. He can’t weigh much more than 110 pounds. A small plastic oxygen tube is attached to his nostril, and the tube itself is attached to a portable oxygen tank on wheels. Daddy hobbles and stumbles along with his walker. Cabot wheels the oxygen tank, looking none too sure of himself.
In fact, Cabot doesn’t look a helluva lot better than Daddy. My brother is almost as frail and skinny as our father. Cabot’s eyes are red rimmed. His head twitches. His brown hair is greasy and matted. His arms shake terribly as he tries to guide the oxygen tank behind Daddy.
Mom sees her two men on the tiny front porch. She stops hugging and starts yelling. “Harold, you should be staying inside on the couch. Cabot, you should be inside with him. You’re in no proper state of mind to be wheeling the oxygen.”
Two things are immediately clear to me: one, Daddy simply does not hear his wife talking; two, Cabot is still a serious drug user. I break away from Mom and rush toward my father, who looks up at me. He’s confused.
“It’s me, Daddy. It’s Lucy,” I say. I kiss him, but he bends his head back down so quickly that I end up kissing the top of his mostly bald head.
“Where’s that little monkey-faced kid of yours?” Cabot asks. He laughs as he speaks, and I know he means it as a joke, but there’s a flatness to his voice, a definite lack of humor. It makes me wince slightly, even though I know that Willie
and his uncle Cab usually have a really good relationship. It’s almost like a friendship between two young boys. Now Willie runs toward me and Daddy and Cabot. The next thing I know, Cabot is rubbing Willie’s hair, and I’m trying to hold the oxygen cart steady.
“Hey, bro,” Cabot says to Willie. “I got the new Call of Duty game. Come on inside here so I can beat the shit outta you.”
“Nice way to talk in front of a child, Cab,” I say. But my opinion doesn’t count for much down here in Walkers Pasture. Willie has taken hold of Cabot’s hand, and they’re heading back through the front door. Even The Duke is barking behind them and following. Mom and I are both involved in trying to turn Daddy around to begin the painful journey back to the front door.
“It’s amazing,” I say to my mother as we baby-step to the door. “Willie’s always had a fancy for Cabot. Now even The Duke’s taken a shine to him.”
“I know. I know. Most grown-ups think Cabot’s just a lazy druggie, throwing his life away,” Mom says. “And I guess they’re right. But you know, Lucy, sometimes children and animals have better instincts than grown-ups.”
I disagree completely, but I don’t say so.
We are at the front door, helping Daddy get up the step to the inside. I lift his left leg. The leg is in. Mom lifts the right leg. It’s in. It feels like the three of us are climbing Mount Everest.