When my great friend, Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, was kind enough to ask me for an excerpt from my new novel, The Red Lotus, for the Weekly, I knew I needed to provide the prologue to introduce readers to my heroine, Manhattan ER doctor Alexis Remnick. But I knew also that I wanted you to meet Ken and Taleen Sarafian. Ken is a Vietnam veteran and retired NYPD cop who plays an instrumental role in the story’s third and final act.
So, here is the very opening of the novel – and then a scene roughly 300 pages later, from Chapter 28. You need to know nothing about the novel to read the prologue. It is, after all, the very opening to the tale. To appreciate the excerpt from Chapter 28, the only background you need is this: The Red Lotus is a “ticking-clock” thriller. Alexis and Austin went on a bike tour of Vietnam, and Austin disappeared. In his absence, Alexis learned that much of what he had told her about himself was a lie – and she has no idea how much danger she’s in. Now, back in New York City, she has retained Ken Sarafian to help her unravel the mystery. One further detail? Ken and Taleen had a daughter named Kathleen, who would have been roughly Alexis’s age, had she not died young.
The Red Lotus arrives at bookstores and libraries on March 17.
The opposite of a hospice? Not a maternity ward or a NICU. It’s a trick question.
The correct answer? An emergency room. In a hospice, you do everything you can to allow people to die. In the ER? You do all that you can to keep them alive.
It was why she loved the ER, especially the night shift in the city. The relentlessness. The frenetic drive to keep a heart beating or to get someone breathing. Oh, sometimes you lost. You called it. You declared the suicide or the stroke victim or the accidental overdose dead. But far more often you won. Or, at least, you won long enough to get the patient into the OR or into a room upstairs, you won long enough that whatever happened to the man or woman or child or toddler or (dear God) baby was someone else’s problem. And so she became a different person in the ER. She had, in fact, become a different person there. She was a tectonic recreation that was unrecognizable even to her own mother, an evolution wrought in months rather than millennia – sixty-six months, if she was going to be precise – that had begun in her first rotation and culminated during her first July night as an attending physician. In the midst of the ER madness – the light and the sound (and there were just so many sounds, the human and the mechanical, the dying and the wounded and the supportive and the scared) that she morphed into an adrenaline junkie. She was no longer a shy soul that balked at attention, a girl as wary of kindness as shelter cats with torn ears that even after adopted would shrink into the dark of the closet. She was something bigger, inexorable and unyielding.
There was just so much pain and so much fear and so much incredulity in the ER. So many tales Alexis heard that began, “It’s a long story” or “It happened so fast” or “You won’t believe it when I tell you” – and so much urgency, that she could forget who she once was. In the ER, there was no chance that she might slip back into the anxiety or the despair or the self-loathing that as a teenager had her using an old-fashioned razor blade or X-Acto knife to cut deep into her thighs. To feel something other than depression or doubt, to be the captain of her own pain. She felt no need to tend to herself when she was tending to people who, at least that moment, were dramatically worse off than she was. Than she ever was (at least on the outside). She was just too busy.
And so it was perhaps fitting that it was in the ER that she met him. Just as fitting was how she met him.
Though he was probably in no danger of dying.
It was a bullet wound, but nothing like the horrors she’d seen bullets inflict in her years in trauma bays and cubicles. The worst (and worst was a high bar when it came to guns and emergency rooms), were the three teenage girls who were shot after school at field hockey practice by a boy (of course) for reasons that would remain forever unfathomable because then he’d gone home and shot himself. He’d used an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and the girls had holes in their abdomens and chests and legs. One of the three was still awake, and just before she was intubated, she begged Alexis to tell her that she wasn’t going to die, her voice so strong that when Alexis murmured, No, no, shhhhh, she believed it. She really did. One of the others had a heart that stopped beating twice as they worked, and so they gave her the paddles, and the child (and she was a child, she was fifteen for fuck’s sake) had lived long enough to die in the OR instead of the ER. Only one of that trio had lived, and when the last of the girls was gone from the room, Alexis had looked at the ER and how everything – everything – was awash in blood. The gloves and the gauze, the bone saw and retractors, the tubes and the tape and the trash cans. The sweatshirts and skirts the girls had been wearing. The white socks. Their cleats. The floor was streaked and splattered, and the team that had striven to save them had left footprints, the soles of their surgical booties sometimes traversing the red veins left on the tile by the wheels of the gurneys.
This was different.
Austin’s bullet wound was different.
He appeared on a Saturday night – Sunday morning technically – and Alexis was very, very good with a needle, a toothed forceps, and a pair of suturing scissors. With the trauma scissors, when she began by cutting away his sleeve. She was also very good with a scalpel (and probably would have been well before medical school), which mattered because the bullet was lodged near the largest bone in his right arm, three inches below the greater tuberosity of the humerus. It was a low velocity wound and had chipped off a piece of the bone, but it hadn’t shattered it. It hadn’t, thank God, ripped a hole in the brachial artery, which might have caused him to bleed out in the bar, and it hadn’t shredded his rotator cuff, which might have crippled him for life. He was in pain, but not so much that he couldn’t laugh at the fact he had only been in a dive bar in the East Village because he’d left a party and his Uber app had said the nearest vehicle was twenty minutes away. So, on a lark, he’d gone into the bar to watch a couple of guys throwing darts. His smile was ironic and crooked, but far more boyish than rakish. He’d been drinking, and that certainly ameliorated the pain, too, his eyes a little more narrow than she would come to know them, but still open enough that she could see instantly the intangible spark and the tangible green. The muscles in his jaw would tense and untense as she worked, his breath beery, as he grimaced like the men at the gym who would lie on a bench and press three-hundred pounds up off their chests. He had what she would eventually come to learn was a biker’s body: slender but a strong, solid core, and legs that were unexpectedly muscled. His hair was black-coffee dark. He and another dart player had taken a cab the twenty blocks north on First Avenue to the hospital – where, of all things, it would turn out, he worked, too. The two of them hadn’t waited for an ambulance, and they hadn’t waited for the cops. The guy who’d fired the shot? Some crazy junkie, homeless they presumed, who had run from the bar like a madman – no, he was a madman – when he realized that he’d actually discharged his crappy little handgun. Some ridiculous Remington pocket pistol.
“What do you do here?” she asked as she treated him. “At the hospital?”
And he told her. He told her that he worked directly for the hospital’s chief development officer. He raised money. He worked with the folks who managed the hospital’s money. They laughed about meeting here rather than, say, in the hospital cafeteria or along the promenade along the East River as she removed the bullet and stitched him up, and then as they sat in the ER cubicle behind the thick blue drapes and waited for the police to arrive so he could tell them what happened. He guessed that they were probably still at the bar interviewing the bartenders and anyone willing to stick around after someone had nearly killed some yuppie dart player at one in the morning. She asked him about the Band-Aids on the fingers on his left hand. He admitted – sheepishly – that he’d been bitten by a cat the day before. It had been in some woman’s lap in the bakery where he was getting a scone and a cup of coffee, and he startled it when he went to pet it as he was leaving.
“Flirting with the woman?” she’d asked him, which was, in truth, flirting itself.
“Nope. Just surprised to see a cat. The animal was sitting up in one of those cat carriers.”
She insisted on removing the three bandages, none very big, and was startled by how deep and ugly the cuts were. She disinfected them and they talked about rabies, and he was clear and he was adamant: the cat was fine. (And clearly the cat was fine, because it had been nearly seven months ago now that he had taken a cab that night to the hospital. If that cat had had rabies, he would have been long dead.) Still, she’d cleaned the wounds herself, applied an antibiotic ointment, and added a prescription for Augmentin. Meanwhile, his new friend (acquaintance, really) had sat outside in the bright lights of the ER waiting room, stewing, and seemed far more annoyed than scared that there was a guy in a cubicle with a bullet in his biceps.
She had tended to other patients as they waited for the police, pulling on and off the latex gloves, including a little boy with a fever whose mother was terrified (needlessly, it would turn out, when they looked at the blood work) and a deli man who’d snipped off a sizable chunk of his finger with a meat slicer – he was turning tongue into cold cuts – but hadn’t nicked bone and needed only stitches and antibiotics. Nothing very hard and nothing very stressful. No X-rays and no CT scan. For a Saturday night, there weren’t all that many to-be-seen clipboards hanging on pegs on the wall, there weren’t scads of bodies, some stoic and some whimpering, waiting on stretchers like supplicants before royalty.
Looking back on their first moments together, it wasn’t exactly a “meet cute,” but they knew if their relationship lasted until old age, it would be one hell of a good story for their grandchildren.
From Chapter 28
When Alexis had come to Ken’s office that week, she’d mentioned how she had listened to the voice mails of Austin Harper that she still had on her phone. They were inconsequential, she said, but she listened to them to hear his voice. She said she had read and reread his texts over and over. Because her late boyfriend had ignored the social networks, this was the extent of her digital grieving, and his lack of a presence on such places as Facebook and Instagram was, Ken decided, affecting her ability to mourn the man and move on. He told Taleen this when they were finishing dinner that night. They both had voice mails from Kathleen on their phones. Their devices were rich with pictures of the girl.
Taleen was in the mood to listen to this fatherly – grandfatherly, she had teased him – monologue because earlier that week she had spent the day at an allegedly haunted New York City mansion, and today she had been at a funeral for a friend at St. Vartan’s and then the woman’s burial on Long Island. It was not the same cemetery where their daughter was buried, but Taleen had gone there, too, after the graveside ceremony for her friend.
Now, as they were sitting on the couch and deciding what to watch on TV, she turned to him and said, her tone pensive, “That poor girl. Such a strange limbo she’s in.”
“You’ve never wanted to go back to Vietnam. Right?”
“Never wanted is too strong a feeling,” he replied. “I mean, I saw it. I was there for a year.”
“You’ve never wanted to bring me there. Bring us there.”
He turned to her. “Is this armchair psychoanalysis in response to my armchair psychoanalysis of the ER doc?”
“I’d say inspired by it.”
“Do you want to go to Vietnam?”
“Would it traumatize you if we did?”
“As a veteran? No. Not at all. But you and me? We’re a traumatized people. It’s in our DNA as Armenians,” he said. He hadn’t known that for sure until, after he retired from the NYPD, he and Taleen had gone with a half-dozen other Armenian friends and a professor who taught genocide studies at Columbia to eastern Turkey – historic Armenia – and visited the unmarked mass graves of their ancestors in places like Chunkush.
“I meant something more specific. Something specific to you.”
“I’d be fine. Unless, maybe, you made me sit for hours in a ditch in the rain or told me I had to take a hill that was defended by a whole bunch of guys with machine guns who didn’t want me to set foot on it. But Vietnam for Americans today? Pretty sure it’s kind of like Italy: a beautiful landscape filled with lovely people who harbor no ill will, have really good food, and like the fact we want to go there and spend money. Seriously: where is this coming from? You’ve never, ever expressed even the slightest desire to see Vietnam.”
She shrugged. “I just wonder about the timing of this case. Maybe it’s a sign that you need to add a return to your bucket list. To our bucket list.”
“If you want to go, I’m happy to go. But I don’t need to go for therapeutic reasons, I promise you,” he told her, and reached for the remote. He put it down when his phone pinged. He had a text from Captain Nguyen that he could Skype right that moment, if Ken wanted. And so he asked Taleen if they could postpone finding a new drama to start binge-watching for a couple of minutes, grabbed his laptop, and retreated into their bedroom. He didn’t have an office in their apartment, but he rarely needed one.
* * *
While Ken was skyping with the Vietnamese police captain, Taleen went to the dresser in the guestroom and opened the bottom drawer. There was a shallow jewelry box in the back where she kept Kathleen’s earrings and necklaces and rings. She hadn’t looked at the items in there since her daughter had died. She imagined that someday, when her two boys settled down and married, she’d give the pieces to their brides or, maybe someday, to their daughters.
None of the jewelry was especially valuable. Probably the most expensive item was a gold and silver designer bracelet, an ornate cuff with amethyst and garnet stones on the edges. Tonight she found herself staring at a particular pair of her child’s earrings, silver circles with the Armenian symbol for eternity: a circular fan of overlapping blades. It appeared on ancient Armenian cross stones and even on some of the cornerstones of the Soviet-built monoliths in Yerevan. She placed one in the palm of her hand and gazed at it, her eyes half-closed, trying to recall what it had looked like against her beautiful daughter’s hair and against her beautiful daughter’s skin.