New York City
“Department of nuclear medicine,” said Celina S. Gomez into the telephone. Gomez was a technician in the radiology department at Mount Sinai Medical Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A technician was nowhere near as prestigious as being a doctor or a nurse, but for a girl who had worked her way across town and down eighty blocks from Little Santo Domingo on the West Side, it was good enough.
stood for Selena. Her mother had been such a fan of the late pop singer that she had, in effect, named her twice. “Just like New York, New York,”
used to tell her. “The town so nice they named it twice.” Celina didn’t want anybody calling her Celina Selena, so she kept her middle name a closely guarded secret, but she enjoyed using her middle initial in honor of her mother and because it was cool.
If only mama could see her now. But mama couldn’t, because she had been killed six years ago, when she caught a stray bullet as she was on her way to the
over on Broadway. Celina had still been in high school then, a senior at Mother Cabrini in Washington Heights, and was on a day trip to The Cloisters in nearby Fort Tryon Park when she heard the news. The easy thing would have been to drop out of school at that point and get pregnant, like many of the girls she knew, but she stuck with it, buried her mother, and went to King’s College in Brooklyn.
She’d made the right choice, because now here she was, living on the Upper East Side, in what the gringos used to call the little girls’ neighborhood—safe, boring, secure. She could walk to her apartment over on First Avenue, maybe even hit one or two of the bars on Second on the way home to her walkup, where she paid eighteen hundred dollars a month for the privilege of living with her cat.
“I would like to speak to Saleh,” said a man’s insistent voice at the other end of the wire. She’d heard that expression “the wire” from one of the older women on the staff, and loved its retro sound. It was a throwback to the days when phones really were connected with wires—not like today, when cell phones and smartphones could give you brain cancer if you weren’t careful. Celina knew enough to stay away from as much unnecessary radiation as possible. In her line of work, she was exposed to it every day, to gamma radiation mostly, injected into heart patients to chart the blood flow through their damaged or diseased organs. She felt sorry for them, mostly middle-aged men who had suddenly realized they no longer had a shot at playing shortstop for the Yankees, or dating girls in their twenties, or a host of other fantasies that time had just disabused them of.
“I’m sorry, there’s no Dr. Saleh in this department,” she replied without even looking at the directory. Celina knew everybody on the staff—not just in radiology, but pretty much the entire medical staff. She didn’t intend to stay a technician all her life, so she spent every spare waking moment studying the workings of the hospital, learning the names of all the doctors and nurses and even their faces whenever possible. How else was she ever going to be like them if she didn’t know them?
“Are you quite sure?” said the voice. “No Saleh?”
In a city of a million accents, this one stood out. In addition to a near-photographic memory, Celina had an outstanding ear for accents and dialects. New York, Boston, Southern, standard American, Long Island, Puerto Rican, Nyurican, Spanish Harlem, Jamaican, Haitian, Central American, Mexican, Canadian, British, Scottish, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Japanese, Chinese, subcontinental Hindu/Muslim, Atlantic Avenue Arabic, and whatever. This one was “whatever.” She had to find out more.
She glanced at the phone’s display screen—no ID. Even when calls went through the main switchboard, the system generally preserved caller ID. Whoever had called this way, he didn’t want to be known. She went on alert. “Can you hold a moment, sir?” she said. She pressed the hold button and collected her thoughts.
Since 9/11, all hospitals in New York City, and especially those in Manhattan, had instituted heightened security procedures. For hospitals were a terrorist’s dream, a veritable one-stop shopping depot for all manner of deadly things. It was ironic that a place devoted to healing the sick and saving lives should also be a potential source of destruction, but there you were. Why, right here in radiology, there was probably enough radioactive waste to fuel a small dirty bomb.
She got back on the line. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t seem to find anyone on the medical staff by that name.”
“Are you sure you know how to spell it?” came the voice. “S-A-L-E-H. Aslan Saleh.”
“What kind of name is that, sir?” she inquired.
“An American name.” The tone had turned resentful. “What do you think?”
“Of course it is. I meant, where does it come from? Sorry if I’m being nosy, but it’s kind of a hobby of mine. Names, cultures, languages . . . accents. You know the old saying: ‘Nothing human is foreign to me.’ ”
“It’s Arabic,” said the man. “Yemeni, I believe. Maybe Palestinian. Lebanese. Whatever.”
Whatever. “Well, I’ll certainly be happy to give Dr. Saleh a message for you. Can you please give me your name and telephone number?”
A short pause. Then: “Of course. My number is . . . wait a moment. I want to make sure I have the right place.”
Celina smiled. “Of course.” She could hear the man rummaging through some papers.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, coming back on the line. “I seem to have made an error.”
“That’s quite all right, sir. Now, if you will just give me your name and number . . .”
“I don’t know how I could have been such a fool. This is the New York City Police Department, isn’t it? The Counter-Terrorism Unit?”
“No, sir, this is Mount Sinai Medical Center Radiology, Department of Nuclear Medicine.” This wasn’t good. Nobody made a mistake like this, unless they wanted to. But what could she do about it? Mr. Wald was due to arrive in five minutes for his stress test, and the last time she saw him, he didn’t look so good.
“Yes,” said the voice. “It is, isn’t it?” The voice was cold now, ice cold, its temperature having dropped a hundred degrees in an instant. “So listen to me carefully, Celina S. Gomez. . . .”
Her blood froze. How did he know her name?
“I want you to get a message to Detective Aslan Saleh at the NYPD. Office of Counter-Terrorism. Are you listening to me? Are you writing this down?”
“Yes, sir. I am.” She was scared but excited. This was like one of those episodes of
Law & Order
she liked to watch on TV, except that she was in it. If only Mama could see her now...
“I’ve already spelt the name for you”—
he said, not
—“so I expect you to get it right. His friends call him Lannie. So please tell Lannie that he has an appointment at Mount Sinai Hospital in three days’ time in the Department of Nuclear Medicine. It is quite urgent. In fact, tell him it is a matter of life and death.”
Celina scanned the appointments book for three days from now. Nothing. “Life and death,” she repeated. “How am I supposed to find this Detective Saleh?”
A longer pause this time. “That,” said the voice, “is your problem. Just give him the following message, please.”
“And who may I say is calling?”
“You may not. Now take this down: ‘We are discovered. Save yourself.’ Do you have that? Repeat, please.”
“ ‘We are discovered. Save yourself.’ May I ask—”
“You may not. He’ll know what it means.”
“Will he?” She was listening as hard as she could, soaking in every syllable, every nuance, every breath. There was something about the voice that gave her a chill. Something she couldn’t place. Something evil that this way came.
She would get it. She would get him. From now on, it was a point of pride.
“Can you repeat that for me, please? I want to make sure I have it just right.”
Listen like your life depends on it.
What an idiot she was! Why hadn’t she thought of this before? She switched on the recording device that came as part of the new phone system.
He was still there. She knew it. She could, just barely, hear him breathing.
He spoke, but this time the words came out in a rush and she didn’t understand them at all. Some foreign language, Arabic, Hebrew . . . she couldn’t tell.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, but he was gone.