Authors: James Patterson,Richard Dilallo
Tags: #Mystery Thriller
I WASH VAL’S FACE. “I should have used Easy-Off oven cleaner to remove all this foundation,” I tell her as I scrub. Then I dress her in a clean white T-shirt and a clean pair of powder-blue hospital scrub pants.
Now Val is ready to see her daughter and to play Mommy. I have to say that Val does a damn good job of it. She cuddles and feeds and changes her baby in the hospital visitors’ nursery.
Meanwhile, I gather copies of any papers the hospital has on file that can help us get through the Manhattan outpost of the Department of Social Services—MSS. Val clearly has the bio-maternal instinct. It takes a lot of cajoling and threatening to get her away from her baby and out of the hospital. Once we’re down in the mechanical sewer they call a subway in Manhattan, we take the A train from midtown all the way to the neighborhood that is almost at the northernmost end of the island: Washington Heights.
Now we trade the chaos of GUH—the guards, the cops, the agents, the nurses—for the chaos of MSS. The guards, the social workers, the pregnant women, the abused women, the homeless women and men, the creepy storefront lawyers. Even Val, a very tough street-smart young woman, is frightened by the sheer noise and confusion of the place. There are, at the very least, nine or ten different languages being spoken here.
The lines are long. Most everybody, including Val and myself, has complicated, emotional stories to tell. So many of the people and their caregivers don’t have the correct papers, the correct signatures. I’ve been to this place a hundred times before. Most of the people who work at MSS know me as Lucy the Baby Catcher. Most of them like me a lot. But some of them think I’m just a pushy bitch. You know what? Both opinions are perfectly valid.
I know one of the social workers pretty well. Lateesha Ro is one of the MSS officials in charge of sorting and providing all the
applications that Val requires—childcare support funds, infant day care, addiction and alcohol rehabilitation. Without my pushy attitude we could spend the rest of the month in this place. You need application approval before you can do anything else. But since I helped birth three of her kids, Lateesha sneaks me to the front of her line. Needless to say, those folks who’ve been waiting patiently (and impatiently) in line for a long time are none too pleased. Lateesha Ro is, however, tougher than anyone. She announces loudly to the many others waiting that “Ms. Ryuan is a medical official, and she takes complete precedence. This is a medical emergency.”
One of the guys waiting in line sizes up the situation quite accurately. “That’s bullshit,” he shouts. And for a moment I think he’s going to smack Val or me or both of us.
Okay, I’d be angry, too, but I don’t let that stop Val and me from cutting to the window where Lateesha stands. We get there without sustaining an injury.
Val is still shaking, disoriented. I have to remind myself frequently that she is what my mother would often say about some of her teenage mothers:
“She’s just a child giving birth to a child.”
Yeah, Val’s very frightened. So I do most of the talking. Most of the questions are easy and expected. But there are a few important decisions to be made. I act as Val’s
. Lateesha is cool with that.
For example, I know that one of the best, and also toughest, rehab spots is located in a repurposed Catholic Church in Bushwick, Brooklyn—Our Lady of the Rosary. It’s a live-in program. And I know a few of my mothers have come out of Our Lady of the Rosary pretty clean and ready to go. Of course I also know a few who have not made it work at all.
“The gals with the pin-cushion arms,”
Troy calls these women.
Val is shaking badly. She’s crying. She’s pulling nervously at her hair. I decide not to tell her that her program will be in a church. We can fight about that when she gets there.
“Now,” says Lateesha. “Let’s figure out childcare for the kiddies you’re leaving behind, and the new little one.” God, how I wish everyone in this line could be treated as patiently and respectfully as Teesh is treating Val.
“I don’t have any other kiddies that I’m leaving behind. Plus I can take care of my one and only baby. I don’t need no one,” Val yells. Her voice is loud enough to be heard over the noise and shouting of the packed MSS office. The nearby men and women look at us.
What the hell is she up to? Is she just about to go crazy on me?
“You’re gonna be in rehab, honey,” Lateesha says. “Don’t you understand that?” Lateesha isn’t fazed by anything.
“You’re going to be living at the place, Val,” I say.
“I can’t do no rehab without my baby.”
Lateesha speaks directly to me. “I can tell you right now that we don’t have much to choose from
in Brooklyn. If we change the rehab location to someplace like the Bronx, we could get the baby closer to the mother. Of course that depends on who’s going to be tending to the newborn. That’s something we have to settle first and foremost.”
And then … well, an angel must have started whispering in my ear. I suddenly got a minor brainstorm.
I look at Lateesha and say, “I think we may have a good solution for this. Right near me in my neighborhood is a woman who specializes in foster care for infants. Let me see if she’s available.”
“Is she licensed and on record with us?” Lateesha asks.
“Oh, I’m sure she is,” I say.
This is a complete lie. But I also know it’s a good idea.
I’m standing a few feet away from a sign that says
NO CELL PHONE USE
. I ignore it and I text Sabryna, my best friend and downstairs neighbor.
Will u take care of a newborn for 2 months while baby’s mother in rehab? Favor for me. Adorable baby. Good karma.
Within thirty seconds Sabryna texts back.
R U crazy? No way. 2 much else 2 do
Within fifteen seconds I text back.
NYC pays $10.50 per hour.
Within ten seconds my phone pings.
“SO DID YOU FORGET to bring the baby, Lady Lucy?” Sabryna asks me loudly when I arrive later at her crazy little Jamaican store.
For some reason a live parakeet is perched on the plantain barrel. Never saw a parakeet before in the store. I won’t even ask.
“I was dealing with the big New York City foster care mess today. I think it’s all under control. Tomorrow Social Services will most likely drop off the baby. They’ve got the paperwork, and they’ll have a boatload of questions for you. Be ready. And don’t give them funny answers. Social Services is not into comedy.”
Sabryna nods. I know she’ll come through. “I’m a little scared, Lucy. But I love babies … and the money, that sure doesn’t hurt.”
“This is going to be great for you, and great for this baby.”
I truly believe what I’m saying. Sabryna is simply a superior
human being—honest and hardworking and smarter than almost anybody I know, including myself. And she’ll know just how to handle the one or two social workers who will show up with Val’s baby. I know because I guided her and Devan through a mountain of paperwork for their citizenship application. I also supplied the help of a friend’s daughter, a paralegal, who treated the case as if she were standing in front of the Supreme Court.
Sabryna will be truthful, but she’ll be wise enough to phrase her answers with just the necessary amount of truth.
Here’s a possibility I could imagine:
And what is the status of young Devan’s father? Where is he in his son’s life?
Oh, Lawrence left us long ago. Now he is in a better and even more beautiful world.
No doubt Sabryna will cast her eyes heavenward and certainly not expand upon her sentence with the information that Lawrence deserted Sabryna and their son shortly after Devan’s birth. He hopped a grain freighter for the “better and even more beautiful world” of Barbados. Hasn’t been heard from since.
I check my cell phone and see that the time is six thirty. Immediately Sabryna sees me looking at the time, and she announces: “I will start closing up the store early. The usual seven o’clock will be far too late with a baby coming. And …”
She says the word
with great force. Then pauses.
I ask, “And what?”
if Willie and Devan are not coming through that door in one minute, they’ll both be getting a whipping from me.”
Then miraculously the door of the store opens quickly, and our two little guys appear.
Devan and Willie greet us and kiss us. Hugs all around.
“What’s for supper, Mama?” Devan asks.
a respectful question,” says Sabryna. “Your supper is what Lucy and I put on your supper table.”
“Uh-oh,” says Willie with a quiet sadness in his voice. “I bet they’re making Lucky Pot supper.”
Every week or so Sabryna and I pool all—that’s right,
—our leftovers. She makes a big pot of rice, and we toss in the leftovers from both our kitchens. It can turn into something delicious and magical, or it can turn into something mysterious and only barely edible. When it’s not so tasty, Devan supplements it later with a plate of rice and beans, and Willie microwaves a Hot Pocket or two.
Sabryna closes the store as she promised, and soon she and I are standing at her stove and creating a gourmet masterpiece: curried oxtail, cubes of meatloaf, frozen peas, four Kraft Singles, half a large can of V8 vegetable juice, and—
—this morning’s remains of Willy’s Kellogg’s cornflakes.
“That’s just the crunchiness this dish needs,” Sabryna explains.
The results could go either way. Turns out the Lucky Pot supper tonight is neither a wild success nor a nauseating disaster. The curry flavor in the oxtail seems to dominate, and that’s good. The cornflakes never had a chance.
But of course much better than a plate of passable, edible-enough food is the fact that four very hungry people are sitting together having a beautiful time. Jokes and scowls and stories from our different days.
Finally, Sabryna and I exchange secret knowing glances. It’s time to tell both boys about the arrival of Val’s baby tomorrow.
As is often the way with kids, it’s almost impossible to know how they’ll react.
Sabryna is calm and smiling as she tells them. “
are going to have a houseguest.” One of the many great things about Sabryna is that she can only smile if it’s a real smile. And this is a real smile, and it is a big smile.
Willie and Devan look at each other. Then Sabryna tells them the tale of the new baby. We have no sense of what the boys are thinking.
Then Devan speaks: “How long will this baby be living here?”
I don’t like the tone of
So I field the question: “A few weeks, a few months, maybe even longer.” No reaction.
Willie asks, “What’s the baby’s name?”
“I don’t think she’s absolutely fixed on a name. She’s thinking she may name the baby for a relative, like an aunt or a grandma.”
“So this baby is a girl?” asks Devan. His reaction sounds neither positive nor negative at the gender news.
give her a name?” Willie asks.
I’m thinking, and I’m sure Sabryna is thinking also, about the list of names we went through—Stupid-head, Antonio Brown, Dirtball, Lucy the Second, Killer Kahn, Spaz—before we settled on The Duke for our dog.
Sabryna has the correct, all-purpose, never-fail parental answer: “We’ll see. We’ll see.” For this magical phrase to work, it must be said four times. So Sabryna adds another round. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”
Willie yells, “Good deal.” And this apparently requires a high five between him and Devan.
There are, of course, follow-up questions. But the questions
are practical ones: “Where will the baby sleep?” “Does the baby cry?” They ask nothing exceptionally serious, like, “Whose baby is this?” “Where did she come from?” Apparently in their world of
Guardians of the Galaxy
babies can just, well, magically show up, like the baby who’s showing up tomorrow.
We clear the table. The baby news has made the boys particularly helpful with the cleanup.
What in the world are they thinking?
Sabryna begins scooping out sensible small portions of chocolate ice cream. Then quite suddenly the downstairs buzzer rings. We’ve heard it a thousand times before, but just in case we’d forgotten, Devan says, “It’s only the night buzzer for the store.”
Sabryna sighs. Then she says, “Probably some foolish neighborhood guy needing to pick up a six-pack of Red Stripe.”
“Maybe it’s the people with the baby,” Willie says.
Sabryna goes to the very unreliable intercom and presses a button. “We’re closed,” she says firmly.
“No. I look for Mrs. Lucy’s house,” comes a foreign-accented male voice.
“Who do you want?” Sabryna asks.
“The midwife,” the man says. “Is this her house?”
I’m instinctively worried that there’s an emergency somewhere. I hurry to the intercom. I sure hope I won’t be hurrying back to Gramatan University Hospital or making some unscheduled, unplanned neighborhood visit. I take the phone. “This is Lucy Ryuan. How can I help?”
The vaguely familiar voice comes back at me.
“I am Patrik Kovac. I am the father of Katra.”
I LEAVE WILLIE DOWNSTAIRS with Sabryna and Devan. A few minutes later Katra’s father and I settle into my tiny and very untidy apartment.
Patrik Kovac sits on the one cleared chair in my living room. I sit on the edge of my foldout sofa. The foldout is, as always, open, messy, and covered with papers and books and clothing.
“There is a problem that I cannot keep inside me,” Patrik says as I pour him a cup of reheated morning coffee, coffee that wasn’t too great tasting when it was fresh.
“I cannot tell police. I cannot tell the neighbors. So I must tell you,” he says.
Of course I am both extremely curious and extremely nervous as to what he’s about to tell me. I am so accustomed to tales of abuse and poverty and immigration problems that I pretty much assume his story will fall into one of those categories.
“First I will ask, the people who hurt Katra, the people who
stole my grandchild, do you catch them yet?” he asks. “Are they in the jail cell?”
“No, not yet.” I do not share with him my belief that Blumenthal’s investigation team is dragging its ass on the matter.
Then he leans forward in his chair. “Here is what I can tell you. The thief will be Russian, a man, maybe a woman, maybe both, maybe many people,” he says. And his hands are shaking so much that he must rest his mug of bad coffee on the pile of magazines near his chair.
“And how do you know that?” I ask.
“Because I know, because I know you will know when I tell you my story.”
Inside me is the urge to scream,
For Chrissake, get on with it, buddy. Just tell me the story
. But I don’t have to scream. Patrik Kovac begins to explain.
Three years ago, he and his wife and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Katra, entered the United States. Back in Croatia they had bought forged immigration-visitor papers that showed proof of relatives living in Sunnyside, Queens. Of course they actually had no relatives living in Queens or anywhere else in the United States. Their visitor permits were good for only three months. Patrik and his wife, Mariska, lived in fear every day. He tells me that a person “never becomes accustomed to fear. But we move on. Things will work out.”
I still am amazed by Patrik’s youthful presence. He looks like a Brooklyn hipster.
“Katra works as nanny for a mother in Flushing. Mariska works to clean office building at 34th Street. Me? I try. But no job. Sometimes I sweep barbershop and beauty parlor. But no job. Little money. But we will move on.”
I think Patrik may be planting the seeds of a sweet
American immigrant success story. But I turn out to be really wrong with that prediction.
“Then last year Katra becomes pregnant.” He looks to the ground as if he’s just spilled the saddest story of his life. And it very well may be that among his many problems this one is indeed the saddest.
In my world, pregnancy is not an unusual condition. It’s my life’s work.
“Katra, she say the father of children she cares for makes her pregnant. Then she says she is fired. And the wife says she will have her thrown out of country. And then …”
A long pause.
“And then?” I ask. I’m bracing for bad stuff. I’m guessing that perhaps Patrik went after the baby’s father with a knife. I’m thinking that maybe they planned an abortion and then changed their minds. Turns out what I’m thinking isn’t nearly as frightening as what he tells me.
“One morning, early, five o’clock, two visitors, a man and a woman, knock on the door. I think they are Russian. I think they look like Russians, the accents are like the sound of Russian.”
Now the story really begins. The two “Russian” visitors have heard from one of the Kovacs’ neighbors—they do not tell Patrik who has informed them—that Katra is going to have a baby.
“They say they can give us money for Katra’s baby. They will buy the baby. They will give us one thousand dollars now and then they will give us nine thousand dollars more when they take the baby.”
I just nod. I’ve heard of these deals before. Not often. Not many. But I have heard of them. When you’re a New York midwife, you hear lots of scary stories.
“So we cry. And we cry. And we cannot stop crying. Mariska and Katra and I stand and cry in front of strangers who want to buy baby. The woman, she is nice. She comforts Katra. ‘Oh, the baby will be loved,’ the woman says. ‘She will be kept warm and in good schools always.’ The woman knows the people who want the baby.”
Another pause. I say absolutely nothing.
Then, “Katra says okay. ‘Ten thousand dollars!’ she says. ‘So much money.’”
“And you and your wife agree?” I ask.
“No. No, we do not agree. We scream that this cannot happen. We cry more and more. Finally, Mariska say maybe it’s for best.”
“So then you agreed?” I say.
“Yes. It is bad, but we say okay. Then we cry more and more.”
I’m no genius. I’m no psychologist. But I’m smart enough to know that a story that ultimately ends in a brutal forced C-section and the kidnapping of a newborn is not over yet. I want to reach for my iPad and look up my GUH chart on Katra. I have a vague recollection that her arrangements with my midwife group were legit. But there’s sometimes chaos and many screwups at a huge hospital, and … and Mr. Kovac has more to tell.
He says the female Russian visitor visited almost every week to see how Katra was doing. The woman brought candy and cookies and always bottles of sweet wine. Katra was growing bigger. She was healthy. She was apparently happy. The woman apparently did some basic prenatal examination: stethoscope on belly, blood pressure. But one day something different happened.
Last month the woman arrived with her sweets and her
wine, and Katra made a startling announcement. “I want to keep the baby,” she said.
“Don’t be a stupid fool,” the lady said. “The arrangement has been made.”
“We will return the one thousand. We will not take the nine thousand,” Katra said.
“The ship has sailed,” the woman said.
The disagreement between the woman and the Kovac family was noisy, Patrik says, but brief. The woman was stern and cold and actually spit on the floor.
I take his hand and say, “This is a very bad lady.”
Then Patrik says quietly, “But we are also very bad, to make this evil arrangement.”
I shake my head no. I ask if anything else happened.
“Only when the bad lady is walking out the door.”
“And what was that?” I ask.
“She say, ‘Don’t try to change things. If you do, no matter what you want or what you try to do,
we will find a way to get Katra’s baby.
And so they did.