Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 36 of a new online serial novel, Dance of the Puppet, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Moishe Berman protested that, “It’s not necessary,” and that, “I didn’t do anything yet,” and although he was right, Nosson insisted on pressing a few bills into his hand, for his efforts.
“Because of you, we know that we did whatever we could at this point,” Nosson said. “We’ve had Brutney interrogated by the police, and now we see that our only option is to find Ehud. True, it’s more complicated than it seemed at first, but… By the way, do you believe them that it isn’t Brutney?”
“I think so. He was questioned by a top-notch interrogator, and the interrogator clearly specified in his report that the person is completely innocent. It’s not always the unsavory-looking characters who are the thieves, you know.”
“And it’s not clear that the nice-looking guy was the thief, but…”
“But there is a big chance that he is,” Moishe said. “And I haven’t yet given up on finding him, even if at Pelephone his number is registered under a name of someone who has never been born, and no one knows what we want.”
“And you spoke very strongly to them.”
“Very,” Moishe said dejectedly. “They really couldn’t help me. The number is listed under the name of someone Gideon Streicher from Eilat, who was born in 1962. The Interior Ministry has no records of such a person, or even someone with similar information. There is no such person and never was.”
“Soon I’m going to start thinking that this Ehud guy never existed either,” Nosson said bitterly. “And maybe my father’s esrog box didn’t either.”
“Ehud most certainly does exist,” Berman soothed him. “Even though it’s clear that that is not his real name. The fact that he’s disappeared off the face of the earth, as has the esrog box, is definitely very suspicious.”
“But it doesn’t help us catch him.”
“You know,” Berman said thoughtfully, “there are two more things we can do.”
“First of all, we can share the information we have with other antiques dealers, and maybe one of them will be able to identify our Ehud. Besides that, let’s print a letter in the frum newspapers urging innocent people that there is a swindler operating in the community. Perhaps we’ll get some information from that direction. I suspect that this Ehud hardly deals with collectors, but focuses more on regular people who don’t understand a lot about antiques and simply want to sell and get their money’s worth. Maybe they will be more helpful than the dealers in giving us information.”
Less than five hours later, an email was sent out to a mailing list of antiques dealers. None of the recipients knew who it was referring to—except two: Korman, the dealer from Ramat Gan, who had no intention of responding to the call for help, and only wondered if he should say something to Bar-On; and Meiri, the antiques dealer where Weiner had found the ancient letter that he had sold for pennies.
Meiri glanced at the phone number in the email and jotted it down on a scrap of paper. Perhaps Weiner would be interested in working with this family, although the chances of them achieving anything were minimal. The letter from the Rav of Lissa was already in his possessions, and he found it hard to believe that anything could be done about it even if this Ehud was ever found.
Elchanan’s head was pounding that morning. He parked the car on a side road and sat with his eyes closed, his hands on the wheel. The two days since Shabbos had sped by at breakneck speed. He had traveled around and made purchases, and then returned to the office with his booty to accept Mati’s enthusiastic compliments, He had gotten home each evening drained and exhausted; it was hard to remember that it had just been Shabbos and it was still the beginning of the week. He was ready for Shabbos again.
And Yaffa…well, she had come back from the School Shabbos in a very dismal mood. Actually, when she’d called him immediately after Shabbos, she’d sounded very pleased. Something had apparently happened between then and when she’d gotten back to Yerushalayim.
She didn’t want to talk about what happened, and just looked very tired. Bleary-eyed, she’d offered him a cup of coffee, without noticing that there was a full cup he’d prepared for himself sitting in front of him. When she realized, she smiled sadly and went to the bedroom.
On Sunday morning, she was still sleeping when he went out to daven and when he came home. He prepared Bentzy’s bottle for him, and only when the baby finished the bottle, and began to shriek in a way that meant that he wanted another one, did Yaffa wake up.
“My head hurts,” she said tiredly. “Yesterday, I thought I won’t be going to school today; actually, I was really thinking of quitting my job altogether. But now…I see that that’s just not realistic. I can’t suddenly quit on the school like this. This is my job, it’s my responsibility, and hopefully it won’t be for too long anyway, just as soon as Mrs. Kotzker is well enough to come back…”
Elchanan kept quiet, and so Yaffa continued talking, even as she prepared Bentzy’s baby food.
“But I’m really not sure what to do about this ridiculous situation! Everyone expects one thing of me, and I don’t know if that’s what I have to do.”
“Daven,” Elchanan said. “Does this have to do with the daughter of that teacher who you don’t want to accept?”
“Yes.” Yaffa hung her briefcase on the carriage hook. “Tell me, am I stubborn?”
He smiled. “When you want to be.”
“Do you think the way I’m acting now is just due to plain stubbornness?”
“I don’t know the details of who you’re talking about,” he said candidly. “And even though I know you’ve been doing very well at the school, maybe there are things you’re not familiar with.”
“That’s what they say.” She clicked Bentzy’s safety strap closed and kissed her son. “Maybe they are right, but perhaps it’s because I’m coming from the outside and am not so up-to-my ears in these issues—I can see the truth.”
On that day, and then again on the next, she’d tried to call the rehabilitation center to speak to Mrs. Kotzker, but she could not get through. Then, that morning, Tuesday, just before she’d left the house, Yaffa had told Elchanan, “I’m going to try for the last time today, b’ezras Hashem. And if I can’t reach her, I’m going to decide myself.”
“They transfer calls to the patients there?”
“Yael told me that they do. She called once and spoke to Mrs. Kotzker. But whenever I call, they say, ‘We can’t transfer calls right now.’ I guess we’ll see.”
Now, sitting there in his car, Elchanan raised his head. The little side street was quiet, with just the odd car passing him every few minutes. It was hard to believe that just thirty feet from where he was parked, the street turned onto one of the busiest arteries in the city. He rubbed his eyes. Well, he apparently did not have the flu, because he had no fever. He was just tired and stressed out, although he didn’t know from what.
He started the car again. Just then his phone began to ring. It was Mati. Elchanan pressed the button to activate the hands-free speaker.
“Yes.” It was Menashe, not Mati.
“What’s with you today? You’re late, and I have two addresses for you.”
“I’m on the way. My head has been hurting all morning.”
“I see. Will you be able to make calls? Maybe we won’t send you to Kiryat Gat right now, but is Telzstone okay?”
The drive to Telzstone, the time he spent there, and the return trip took him three hours, and he didn’t even end up buying anything. Menashe hadn’t been too impressed with what Ehud reported over the phone.
When Elchanan was sitting in traffic, heading back to Yerushalayim, Menashe called him back. “You know what? I drove you nuts enough today. Go home and rest.”
Elchanan grabbed the opportunity. Five minutes later, the traffic eased up, and he sped all the way home. With half-closed eyes, he took the newspaper out of the mailbox and went up the flight of stairs to his apartment, thinking about a cup of hot coffee and a good nap. The coffee was almost finished, and he barely managed to scrape together half a teaspoon from the bottom of the jar. If he would feel better later, he’d go do some grocery shopping. He and Yaffa had both been neglecting it lately.
But he didn’t go shopping that day, because as he languidly leafed through the newspaper, sipping his bland coffee, his eyes noticed a letter among the rest of the letters to the editor, entitled “Warning—Swindler!”
As he read the words, Elchanan’s eyes opened wide. All thoughts of shopping and tasteless coffee flew out of his mind. All that mattered now were the words jumping out at him from the page:
Anyone who knows any details about a swindler posing as a frum, yeshivish-looking guy who calls himself Ehud, who has recently put in ads about buying collector’s items, is asked to please contact…There was an unfamiliar name and phone number. This person presents himself as an agent for a company named Moreshet, a company that does not really exist, even though he makes it sound reliable. One family that asked him to estimate the value of an antique in its possession had the item stolen just a short time later. All efforts to reach him at his phone number failed. His phone is off, and the number is listed under a different name in the cell phone registry. This is not the only case where he has acted deceptively. Let the public be warned!
Her, of all the people in the world.
“Um…good morning. Can the principal speak for a moment?”
Malka looked at the receiver in her hand with dread. “I’ll check,” she said coldly.
“Thank you.” Yaffa, in Yerushalayim, sat at her desk, tearing the slip of paper with the SternRehabilitationCenter’s number to tiny pieces. This was the last time she would call there, bli neder. It had been foolish of her not to think that Malka herself might pick up.
“Just a minute, she’s picking up,” the icy voice informed her.
The paper had long since been reduced into a little pile of crumbs. Yaffa pressed the receiver to her ear as hard as she could, to try to discern if any words were being exchanged on the other side, but she only heard silence on the line from Petach Tikva.
Yaffa recoiled at how weak and cracked the principal’s voice sounded. When she’d been there the last time, Mrs. Kotzker had sounded so much better!
“Hello, it’s Yaffa.”
“I…um…” Yaffa sighed. She didn’t think she was on speaker phone. Was Malka still in the room? Who knew? “I don’t know what to decide. I’m in a bit of a sticky situation.”
“Yes,” the principal said again, watching as her daughter walked out of the room.
Malka went to find out from the nurses when the speech therapist was supposed to come, all the while gritting her teeth. So Yaffa Levinsky wanted to speak to her mother, huh? On the one hand, that Levinsky pretended to be so pleasant, calling her mother to see how she was doing, while on the other hand, she made so many problems that it was impossible to understand how anyone could have ever considered her suited for this job. To think that her Mimi would not be accepted! Who would have ever dreamed of such a thing?
“I thought that I was right…” Yaffa continued speaking to Mrs. Kotzker, not sure how much attention she was getting, if any at all. She could hardly hear a thing on the other end of the line. “But maybe it’s exaggerated stubbornness. I am thinking of giving in.”
“Giving in,” Adina repeated weakly. “Yaffa, I trust you with whatever you do. It’s hard for me to talk. Yesterday I walked…two steps…and until I did that,” she was panting, as though she’d just climbed six flights of stairs without stopping, “I saw stars.”
What was Yaffa supposed to say now? “Wow, good for you!”? Or, “I’m so proud of you and I’m sure it’s just going to get better”? Or, “All beginnings are difficult,” or “I’m rooting for you from here”?
“That’s a good sign,” Yaffa said finally. “Hashem should continue helping.”
“Amen,” Adina whispered hoarsely. Silence hummed on the line. Mrs. Kotzker didn’t hang up, but Yaffa wondered if it was because she just wasn’t able to and Malka had left the room. So she murmured a “thank you” and put the receiver down, scraping an ink stain off of her thumbnail. She wanted to talk to Yael, but Yael was in the middle of teaching. She wanted to tell someone about this conversation and hear her opinion on the matter. True, she wasn’t the same Yaffa she once was, that was for sure, but even the Yaffa of today needed to know when to seek advice and think hard instead of forging ahead in her own direction no matter what.
She dialed Elchanan’s work cell phone, but kept getting a message that the person she was calling could not take the call. Maybe Elchanan was on a business call? Oh, one second, that was his old number. She had to find the new one. But hadn’t they told Elchanan that there would be a voice mail on his old number to direct customers to his new one? She remembered her husband telling her something like that. Strange that the company hadn’t followed up with it. But anyway, this job was full of strange things. Now, where had she written down that new number?
But even after she found the new number, Elchanan did not answer the call. He was sitting at the kitchen table, ignoring his ringing phone, as his eyes focused on the letter he had just read, on the words that were doing a macabre dance on the page.
Moishe Berman was also reading the letter in the paper. “Well,” he said, a bit morosely, “at least we’ll warn others, even if it doesn’t help us.”
“I actually hope it will help us,” Nosson Wolkovsky said encouragingly. “Within a few hours we heard of another case where someone fell in with him, even though that case was less serious than ours. Let’s wait to see who calls.”
“I’ll tell you who will call,” Moishe predicted. “People who’ll say they think they saw someone like that, and maybe another one or two people who are also looking for him and have been as successful as we have in finding him.”
“Maybe someone who knows how to reach him will call,” Nosson said, refusing to be sucked into the defeatist attitude that had suddenly overtaken his friend, who had been so helpful until now. Maybe it was Moishe’s nature, to give up when he took the final step on the journey and did not see any further action possible other than sitting and waiting.
“Maybe.” Moishe played with an unlit cigarette. “One thing is for sure, though: the one person who won’t call is Ehud himself.” At that second, his cell phone rang.
“Hello?” he responded, suddenly coming to life despite his dismal predictions.
“Good afternoon,” someone said slowly. “This is Ehud, the swindler from the newspaper.”