Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 27 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications
Rabbi Paksher tossed his coat onto the nearest chair impatiently.
“David, can you please call Freund, the principal of Birchas HaTorah, for me?” he asked the new secretary and sank into his chair. “They had a break-in last night,” he added as he rose to pick up his forlorn coat and hang it on the hook.
“There, too?” David asked. “Believe me, sir, if I would have been the secretary at the time of the break-ins at this school, well, there wouldn’t have been any break-ins, on my honor!”
“I know that you’re very capable, David,” Reb Nechemia said with a smile, pushing all the paperwork on his desk over to one side. “But I didn’t know that your abilities are quite so broad.”
“Sure, sir!” David said, forgetting that he was supposed to be dialing Rabbi Freund’s number. “Me, if I would have seen an open window, I wouldn’t have let you leave it that way. An open window is an invitation for thieves, you know!”
“Small thieves,” Reb Nechemia agreed with a sigh and signed the first report card on the pile before him, glancing at the grades.
“Small, big, it makes no difference, sir! And I simply don’t understand the police! Why aren’t they doing anything? And now these vandals are just going from place to place and doing as they please!”
“You also think it’s a group?”
“Sure I do,” David said and looked at Reb Nechemia’s hands as he flipped one report card after another. “You can see the same methods repeating themselves. They get things dirty, do some damage, but hardly steal anything!”
“Same method,” the principal murmured, his eyes fixed on the report card in his hands. Zimmer, Rafi. It was hard to believe that two and a half months had passed since Rafi had come to the school. In another week, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, he would also get a report card. What did it say?
Very good in Chumash, very good in Navi, good in dinim, fair in bei’ur tefillah. How could a child who was still beginning to learn the rudiments of reading have earned these grades? He signed the report card and put it aside, planning to speak to Reb Baruch Perlmutter about it. Reb Baruch was the only “yekke” on the staff, and he had submitted his students’ report cards before all the other teachers.
“I’m telling you, sir,” David said. “You, all the principals, have to sit together and figure out what is going on here. Perhaps that way, you’ll be able to catch them!”
“That’s what I wanted to do now,” Reb Nechemia said, slipping the pile of report cards into a brown manila envelope. “I wanted to speak to—“
“Oh, right!” David said, scurrying back to his desk. “The principal of Birchas HaTorah? I’ll transfer him to you right away, Rabbi Paksher!” He flipped through the black phone book. “But baruch Hashem, Rabbi Paksher, it looks like they’ve been leaving us alone in the meantime, no? It seems as though someone asked them to stop!”
“Yes,” Reb Nechemia replied. “And that’s actually one of the things that’s bothering me.”
It wasn’t easy to catch Reb Shmerel Freund that morning, but David finally succeeded.
“They took apart the bars on a side window. I don’t know how they figured out that it was loose,” Rabbi Freund said with a sigh to the other principal. “Apparently, they checked it out. And you can’t imagine what’s going on here…we don’t know where to start!”
“Did they write anything? Draw anything?” Reb Nechemia lowered his voice as Rabbi Perlmutter entered the room. “Hello, Reb Baruch,” he greeted the teacher, nodding his head and motioning for Rabbi Perlmutter to sit down.
“They didn’t write anything; they just scribbled up all the walls.”
“Like at Reich’s high school,” Nechemia said slowly. “And sifrei kodesh?”
“Here we don’t leave them on the desks. the sefarim are either locked up in a closet in the classroom or the children take them home,” Reb Shmerel said. Then he added, “And they didn’t take anything. Well, that’s not a big deal. Everything of value is in the office, which was locked.”
“I understand,” Reb Nechemia said in the same cautious tone. “Well, Reb Shmerel, may Hakadosh Baruch Hu help and ensure that this whole mess becomes cleared up, with minimal damage to you and your school.” He hung up the phone and turned to the third-grade teacher. “This whole thing with the break-ins is no simple matter at all,” he said. “Not simple at all. In any case, the report cards look good. I just wanted to ask you about what’s going on with Zimmer.”
“His report card is rather good, isn’t it?” the teacher asked.
“That’s what I’m asking about.”
“His father asked me to test him by heart and claimed that grades are not based on reading, but on the subject matter. I think he has a point.”
“And Rafi knows the material you’re covering?”
“Very well, yes, especially considering the fact that this is a child who had never even seen the inside of a Chumash till two months ago.”
The principal nodded. “How is he, in general?” he suddenly asked.
“Fine. I told his father very good things at the parent-teacher meeting. Except for a few fights here and there, he’s a very good boy.”
“A good boy…” the principal repeated and sighed. Should he summon Rafi again? Should he probe whether he had anything to do with what was going on in other places? Why should he be connected? The recent break-ins did not prominently feature a child—not last night’s and not the one at Rabbi Reich’s school. Only in their school had the vandal entered through a tiny window, too small for a teenager to fit through—although that was also the case at the apartment building that was broken into last month.
But Rafi’s image was fixed in Reb Nechemia’s mind. It was one thing to associate him with these acts before he came to live at the Cohens, when who knew what kind of company he kept and what he did to keep busy. But since he was here? Was it possible?
“Did he come to you on Purim with his father?”
“Of course he did.”
The principal raised his gaze. ‘What did he dress up as?”
“Nothing. His father said he didn’t want to dress up. At the class party he also just wore a funny hat, nothing more. That was rather unusual. My third graders usually still get dressed up.”
“Yes, he does come off as very mature sometimes,” the principal said. He paused for a moment. “And how’s Mr. Cohen?”
“Fine. The type who expects results, and I think that’s one of the main reasons for Rafi’s good grades.”
The teacher shook his head uncertainly. “It’s hard to know. He gives the impression of being a good person, and he cares deeply about the child; that much is obvious.”
“That’s not a contradiction,” the principal remarked. He remained silent, as did Reb Baruch.
Ariella swung her legs and looked at her brothers running around enthusiastically in the park. “It’s almost Pesach vacation!” she exclaimed to Nava, who sat on the bench beside her. “Yesterday I cleaned the tape drawer all by myself!”
“You’re terrific!” Nava said and smiled at Moishy, who was sitting in the carriage.
“Nava!” A sweaty Rafi pulled Elazar behind him. “Do you have a tissue? His hands are dirty from the sand! He almost fell.”
“But he pulled me up at the last second,” Elazar declared and gazed with admiration at his big, new friend that Nava had brought with her that day. “Only my hands fell in the sand.”
“Sounds terrible!” Nava laughed and cleaned out the dirt from between Elazar’s fingers. “Your hands fell? Are you sure?”
Ariella tugged at Nava’s hand. “So you hear, Nava? I wanted to do the fridge, but Mommy said she can do it together with Sveta, the cleaning lady. Aunt Ayala and Sari are doing the closets in our room today, while we…”
“While we get to sit here comfortably on a bench in the park,” Nava said with a smile. Keeping an eye on Rafi and Elazar, who were drifting back to the playground, she took out the bag of sandwiches and stood up. “Can you call everyone for supper, Ariella?” she asked.
The next few minutes were spent washing the kids’ hands at the faucet and distributing sandwiches. Nava also had to pick up two cucumbers that fell, fill cups of juice, soothe the kids when the juice spilled, rinse apples and slice them into quarters, and distribute napkins, cookies, tissues, and candies. And then she sat everyone down on the bench to recite Birchas Hamazon.
Rafi didn’t want to eat with them. He stood on the side, laughing to Moishy in the carriage and glancing at the other children every so often.
“Nava?” Morah Ayala suddenly appeared before her, having just come down from the building. In her hands she carried a white bag in place of her ubiquitous schoolbag, and Nava immediately picked up on the faint odor of bleach. “We finished there, so you can go back up whenever you’re ready. Sari stayed behind to help with bedtime.”
“And how is their mother feeling?” Nava asked. She knew that the mono was still present enough to prevent Mrs. Leibowitz from getting back to her full schedule.
“Baruch Hashem. She went to lie down now.” Ayala smiled at her student. “Nava, I really appreciate the fact that you continue to come now, even during this busy time of year.”
Nava smiled, blushing slightly, and glanced cautiously at the windows of the nearby buildings. Did any girls from her school live around there? Did they have time to sit and watch the goings-on outside from their windows? Well, why shouldn’t they? Tomorrow was only Rosh Chodesh Nissan. In most homes, the high school girls were not yet scrubbing the bottom of the fridge or the baseboards. They still had enough time to glance out the window now and then, and could very possibly see her talking with her teacher in public, in a park. That was all she needed!
“My help is not so needed at home right now,” she said quickly, looking over at Moishy’s blond head. “If anyone deserves thanks, it’s my mother, not me.”
“Then tell her I said so,” Ayala said, looking into her student’s eyes. She hesitated a moment, and then said, “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you about it yet, Nava, but you know that your idea to look in the dumpster for the missing journals was right on the mark, don’t you?”
“Not that it helped the police much, but at least we had a better feeling about it,” Ayala said, and smiled sadly. “Well, the other teachers did, at least.”
“Yes,” Nava said quietly. “You told me that only your journal was not there.”
“Right, but suddenly I was curious to find out what had made you think of looking in the dumpster,” Ayala said, taking a deep breath. She didn’t suspect Nava, but every so often she felt little niggling questions in her heart. She usually succeeded in quieting them, but only until the next time. Those nigglings belonged more to a gut feeling than to logic, because she had nothing grounded to base them on. But deep inside her, she had a distinct feeling that Nava had some type of connection to her missing journal. Why not remove those shreds of doubt completely, if that was possible?
“Um…just…out of the blue…” Nava said. “The day after the break-in we talked about it at home and raised all sorts of possibilities. My little brother said that maybe they put the journals in the garbage. I thought then that it was jut a childish idea, but when I passed the garbage dumpster the next day, I decided to peek inside.”
“If I would have found the journal…” Ayala sighed. “I’m really upset that it’s gone. Perhaps I would have let you read a few passages, Nava. It was very interesting.”
Nava smiled and flipped her pony over her shoulder, raising her eyes. The whole brood of kids stood in front of them, red-faced and sweaty. “Here is my brother,” Nava said, trying not to look up at the buildings again. “This is Rafi. Rafi, this is my teacher.”
“Huh.” He took a sip from the juice bottle her mother had sent with them.
“I heard that the idea of looking in the dumpster for the journals was yours,” Ayala said warmly. “So we have to thank you that the teachers found what they had lost.”
“Yeah, Nava told me,” Rafi said, staring at Ayala over the edge of the bottle. “Nava, I’m going up with Elazar, okay?”
“Okay, go,” Nava said. “No, Chani, not you. You’re going up with me. Give me your hand.”
“Take care, Nava,” Ayala said as she walked towards the sidewalk. “He looks like a cute kid. Seems like you get along well, right?”
“Yes, sure,” Nava said and placed her hands on the handlebar of Moishy’s carriage. “Goodbye, Morah.”
Late that evening, when Nava was looking for her White-out, she remembered that Rafi had asked for it that afternoon. She entered his room, glancing at his closed eyes. He was breathing in short ragged breaths and didn’t seem calm at all, but she had learned that this was the way he always slept.
The White-out was not on the desk or in the pencil case. She silently rummaged through the briefcase under the desk, and in a side pocket, she found something long and slim. She took it out, and her jaw dropped in shock when she realized that she was holding the new, metallic pen that belonged to Morah Ayala. This was it, she was sure. A nice pen with a thin, curved handle that had two words engraved into it: For Ima.
Nava completely forgot about her White-out.
Aharon Yaakovi had always liked adventures; he was the one who constantly found lost objects—after extensive questions and research on his part, of course. While in cheder he started to be the local “detective” among his friends, and he still enjoyed sleuthing even as he grew into a yeshivah bachur. As a matter of fact, he had been the one to discover the Romanians who had broken into the dormitory on Rosh Hashanah night and emptied several wallets of their contents.
His knack accompanied him after his marriage as well. Although that suitcase at the entrance to the Kosel plaza, which succeeded in putting half of Jerusalem’s police force on top alert, did not turn out to be booby trapped, it had been placed there by several journalists in order to test the alertness of the mispallelim, and Aharon hadreceived accolades for his vigilance.
Even now, at two-thirty in the morning, as he sat in a taxi on the way home from Haddassah Mount Scopus hospital, exhausted after the hours of waiting that had culminated in the birth of his oldest son—the most beautiful baby in the world, his half-closed eyes did not miss the strange group standing on the street corner, as though they didn’t know where to go.
“Wait! Stop for a minute! The light is red!” he said to the driver, who was about to run the red light at the outskirts of Ramat Eshkol under the cover of darkness, as he had done with the other lights. “Haven’t you ever heard that you go only on green? My mother taught me that when I was four!”
“So where were you for the other two lights?” the driver asked meekly.
Aharon didn’t respond. He was focusing on the figures standing there, speaking with animated hand motions. They were young, not more than sixteen, seventeen, but there was a much shorter kid there. The taxi was too far away for Aharon to see the child’s face and decide if he was just a short teenager or really a boy, but he could clearly see the yarmulke perched on his head. The tall street lamp cast a glow right onto the group and Aharon could see the glitter that decorated the child’s yarmulke.
The boy stood a bit apart from the others, his head lowered. He was not part of the conversation, and Aharon could see him flinch slightly every time one of the other boys waved a hand towards him. He didn’t give the impression that he was pleased to be there at all. So what was he doing there?
“What do you think this is all about?” Aharon Yaakovi murmured to the driver who was glaring impatiently at the traffic light.
“What do I think what is all about?”
“That group over there.”
The driver gave a wave. “Ah, just a group of bored kids,” he said. “Really, sir, don’t you have anything better to do now?”
“Maybe,” Ahraon said, looking at the traffic light that had by now turned green. “No, don’t wait. Go on, drive quickly,” he said and looked behind him. “When we’re far enough away, make a u-turn and come back here. I have to see who that kid is.”
“Who, the one with the kippah?” the driver asked, looking in the mirror. “The truth is, I could see why you’re curious. He doesn’t look like one of them.”
After warning Aharon about the meter that was ticking away, oblivious to the situation, the driver gave in to his strange passenger’s whims and, he stopped the cab at the next corner. He waited for Aharon to go out and peek at the boys from closer up, through his eyelids that twitched with the familiar feeling of a new adventure brewing.
Something had changed there in the group. “Let’s move,” Aharon said, running suddenly back to the car, diving into the front seat this time. “They’re walking. Go behind them; bear right, but carefully! Don’t let them notice us.”
The problem was that it was very hard to follow the group while in a car, when there wasn’t a single other vehicle on the street, without the suspects noticing the tail.
“Can’t you switch off the lights?” Aharon grumbled, hoping that they weren’t about to lose the group because of the distance between them. He squinted his eyes. “We have to get a bit closer; I could lose the kid in a second!”
“Are you the same guy who just told me that I’m not allowed to drive on red?” the driver asked, not turning anything off. “Are you nuts? You know what I’ll get from a cop if he catches me driving without lights? And do you know what can happen even before a cop comes?”
“What?” Aharon asked innocently.
“We’ll both be on our way back to the hospital, and not for good reasons, got it? I don’t know what you want, but that’s for sure not what I want!”
“Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, either. But what do you suggest we do?”
A dull hum could be heard in the distance, although in the stillness of the night it was clear. They stopped talking. “A motorbike,” the driver said, suddenly alert. “What now?”
“Okay, wait for me here in this alley, but don’t turn off the engine,” Aharon said and opened the door before the car slid into the curb. “I’ll be right back!”
He ran to the tree at the corner, looking through the branches at the figures who were receding until they were tiny specks. There were only four of them now, and they were all more or less the same height. He returned to the taxi. “The kid is on the motorbike,” he said energetically. “Now just find him for me.”
“How?” the driver grumbled, stepping on the gas. “Odeliah won’t believe me when I tell her what kind of detective I had in my car tonight. Are you sure you don’t want to go home?”
“According to the noise,” Aharon said, keeping his eyes peeled.
“By the noise. You wanted to know how to find him, right? So I answered you.”
“You think I can move at the speed of that bike?” the driver asked, stomping on the gas. The taxi darted forward, passing the four remaining members of the group in less than a minute. “You’re in a Mercedes 89, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m sure you can do it,” Aharon said encouragingly, closing his eyes and trying to concentrate on the night noises that surrounded them.