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“I told you, Menashe,” Mati fumed, “I should have neutralized your son. Our Ehud smelled something, tucked his tail between his legs, and ran. Isn’t it a shame to lose such a good worker?”
“Others will come just like he came,” Menashe said coldly, clasping his hands together on the glass surface of the desk. “My Amnon didn’t do anything, as far as I’m concerned. He was here, heard details that interested him, and—well, and it’s not my business what he did with them. You and I have other things to deal with.”
“Yes, but the question is if Ehud won’t start sniffing around about our other enterprises.” Mati rubbed his hand on the desk. “Because if he does, then what will you say?”
“He won’t sniff around and won’t find anything, the fool.” Menashe laughed. “It will be fine, Mati. Let’s move on. We’ll find other sources.”
“Why not? I know the field, and Korman helps us with information.”
“Don’t you think we’ve been burned for good now?” Mati waved the thick receipt book in Menashe’s face.
“Not at all. We’ll change names and move on.”
“Okay.” Mati switched on his computer screen. “So what did Aloni want yesterday?”
“He wanted eighty thousand. Do you have sources?”
“Ehud actually left us a nice bundle. When all is said and done, he was a good worker.”
“That’s right. But take it easy! We’ll find someone instead of him. There are plenty of other naïve people in the world.”
“Yes?” Elchanan could not identify the voice.
“This is Gershonowitz. Can I speak to you about something?”
“Sure.” Elchanan tried to sound amiable to the dedicated gabbai of their neighborhood shul, even though he had little patience. In two hours, he was supposed to meet Moishe Berman in Bnei Brak; the man was representing the Wolkovskys. When Elchanan had contacted him again, to find out if Berman had heard other stories about Moreshet since writing the letter in the newspaper, Berman had again requested a meeting with him. The Wolkovskys had sent Elchanan a fax pledging not to sue him for anything, and that was the only way he’d agreed to a meeting.
Nevertheless, he was tense. He would be accused, however they would put it, and he had no way of defending himself—he hadn’t the faintest idea about what had happened. Gershonowitz was probably looking for a donation, having seen the new car Elchanan was driving and having heard about Elchanan’s lucrative job and so on. He didn’t know that right now, he had placed a phone call to an unemployed young man.
“I wanted to ask you something. You told me that as part of your job, you make lots of inter-city trips, right?”
“As part of the job that I had.”
Gershonowitz murmured something under his breath, wondering if he should probe any further or desist. “That’s too bad. I wanted to know if you were going to the central region today. Two people promised donations to the shul, and I have to send someone who’s on the ball to speak to them. So you’re not going in that direction anymore?”
“Actually, I am,” Elchanan said, more alert now. “I’m leaving for Bnei Brak in about an hour. But I am not up for long meetings and persuasive conversations today, Mr. Gershonowitz. I…whatever, not today.”
“It’s not something long at all,” the gabbai promised. “One of them is Flosser from Givatayim; I’ll give you his office address. In Bnei Brak, I just need you to go over to Rabbi Weinstock on 337 Street; he just needs a reminder. He promised a nice sum for the building fund.”
“337?” Elchanan wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“Oh, that street might have another name by now. It’s behind MaayaneiHayeshuahHospital. This Rabbi Weinstock is the rosh yeshivah of Shaarei Aharon.”
Elchanan’s ears perked up. “What’s his connection with our shul?”
“Cohen, you know, the redhead, is his son-in-law. Rabbi Weinstock was once here, and he enjoyed the minyan very much. Do you know him?”
“A little,” Elchanan said, pacing around the empty house.
“Excellent. It’s important that someone go to him personally, and maybe you can convince him to up the amount. This is a huge help, Reb Elchanan.”
The house was neat and orderly; only Mimi could have left it looking like this. She had apparently gone late to school again, and Malka couldn’t decide if the lateness had been so necessary today. She was home, after all, even if she was so tired that she’d slept through the morning routine and had opened her eyes as the small hand on the clock crept toward the ten (shhh…don’t tell anyone…).
But why had it been so important for Mimi to wash the children’s cups from their morning chocolate milk, organize the bedrooms, and air out the linens today? First of all, it was cloudy and humid outside. It wasn’t a good day for airing linen. And besides, why was Mimi doing all this? They often left the house in disarray in the morning, with cups on the table and pajamas strewn all over the bedrooms. What would have happened if the house would have remained like that today? Was Mimi looking for reasons to be late to school?
What a great mother you are, Malka. Instead of being proud of your devoted daughter who is trying to leave you with a clean house to help you stay calm, you’re looking for reasons to complain. Really, you’re taking it too far.
Perhaps, but I’ve been angry at Mimi for a few days already. I just hope she doesn’t notice it.
Malka gripped her left fist with her right hand. She was frustrated and didn’t know how to vent her frustrations. Michoel had listened to her patiently that day when Yaffa Levinsky had spoken to her at the bus stop, but he hadn’t been able to put a finger on the issue that was bothering her.
“You think Mimi is going to make problems for you?” he’d asked. “I don’t understand; are you gong to be teaching her? No. So she won’t make problems for you. If there will be problems, they will be her own, and at worst, her teachers’. I hope that they will be sensitive enough there not to involve you directly. The problems won’t be yours.”
“And the embarrassment?”
“Embarrassment? Mimi’s a big girl, with her own personality. It can lead to some unpleasant situations, but what are you afraid of? That someone will think you don’t know how to raise children?”
“Let’s say that was it.”
“Mimi’s very well-raised.”
“In some areas.”
“Okay, so she has to work on herself in certain ways, but that’s what we’re all in this world for—to work on the imperfections we have. And besides, you are not her. It’s not like someone is telling you that you need to work on yourself.”
“In theory this all sounds nice, Michoel,” Malka had said then, a bit irritated. “But the reality is that when a child doesn’t behave nicely or doesn’t dress appropriately—his parents are blamed.”
“But your friends know who they are dealing with,” he’d explained patiently. “They admire you as a very positive figure. And as much as people would like their children to reflect their successes, it doesn’t always work like that—you know that.”
She understood what he was trying to say, and he was right, in principle. Looking at it objectively, she knew that Mimi should not be scaring her. She was Malka, Mimi was Mimi, and there was no reason to confuse the two. But in reality, what would be?
“I wish Mimi would be going to a different school,” Malka said to the frozen kokosh cake she’d pulled out of the freezer, and then stopped suddenly. The cake fell to the floor with a clatter, and the aluminum foil covering it tore as it hit the floor.
The back garden of The Stern Rehabilitation Center was partially covered with a green tarp, and any of the sun’s rays that came through turned green. Nachum Kotzker thought his wife’s pallor was very sickly, and although he knew it was only because of the lighting conditions, he could not take it.
“Let’s go out into the sun,” he suggested, grasping the handles of Adina’s walker.
It was very quiet during the midmorning hours. Two nurses walked among the few wheelchairs whose occupants had come out for some winter sun. In general, the whole atmosphere was rather sleepy.
“No, no…” Adina said. “It’s hard for me to bear…the sun outside.”
“How was the night?”
“Baruch Hashem, fine. I slept well.”
“That makes sense. You worked hard yesterday.”
“Right.” She closed her eyes.
“And how has the morning been going?”
Nachum nodded in silence. His wife’s progress satisfied everyone, except him. She was walking slowly, with assistance; eating a bit by herself; and trying to work on improving the function in her right hand.
“Huge steps, Abba,” Shaul had said just yesterday. “She’s making great progress.”
But he noticed that his wife was retreating into herself, and growing more distant every day. She had a tremendous willpower, baruch Hashem, and she was as demanding of herself as she’d always been. But something inside her had changed drastically. And as his children grew calmer about her progress, he became more anxious.
Maybe he should discuss the issue with one of the psychologists there. He was sure it wasn’t the first time they’d be hearing of such things.
“Adina, I’m going inside for a minute, alright?”
The nurse inside listened to him attentively. “Dr. Altschuler will be happy to answer any questions you have,” she said. “He’ll be here this evening. Should I write you down for a slot?”
“Umm…” Nachum hesitated. He was thinking of leaving in another hour or two. Should he leave Malka to speak to the doctor? No, even if she would understand what he was talking about, she wouldn’t be able to convey all the nuances. He would have to speak to the psychologist himself. “Yes, write me down,” he said decisively. “As early as possible, please.”
He davened Minchah at the local shul while Adina rested, exhausted from the endless physical therapy, and then stayed to learn a bit. Then he bought a danish from the vending machine and pondered how pleased Adina would be when she returned to herself and discovered how much weight he’d lost. Was it any wonder? Despite the frozen meals and other goodies that his daughter and daughter-in-law kept him supplied with, he hardly ate, and this had been going on for half a year already.
The meeting with the psychologist was set for seven. Nachum, who had never put much faith in psychologists, and certainly not the young crop, discovered a very young man who seemed to have just graduated university, but Dr. Altschuler actually made a good impression on him from the first moment.
“Very normal,” Dr. Altschuler said sympathetically. “And it’s not a mental decline, based on the information I have on file. It’s actually a borderline mild depression. Your wife was very active, a figure whom others had a hard time managing without, and as she recovers, she is comparing herself more and more to what she was in the past, and that is breaking her.”
“What can be done?”
Dr. Altschuler was emphatic. “Return her as much as possible to her old life,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s a real, diagnosed case of depression right now, and I really don’t want it to get to that point. Let her manage the school from here. She can speak, right? She thinks, she can answer questions, and she communicates very well when she’s not exhausted. So what’s the problem?”
“The school is in Jerusalem.”
“So what? With phones, faxes, and email, these days you can manage a place even if it were in America.”
“I don’t know what the school will say about the idea.”
“Fight for it,” the psychologist said. “This is about your wife, isn’t it?”
Nachum nodded. What could he say to that? That he wasn’t a fighting spirit?
“Until now, have they maintained contact with her? Called for advice?”
“She was adamant that she didn’t want anyone to come and visit her, and hardly answered the phone. She is in touch, to an extent, with her substitute, I believe, and there was even one issue that the substitute came here to seek my wife’s advice about.”
“And what did your wife answer her?”
“She said that she backs up the substitute’s every decision.”
Altschuler shook his head. “That’s not good,” he said firmly. “She has to be the decider, not the supporter. Do you understand, Mr. Kotzker? She shouldn’t be an honorary principal; she should be the active principal.” He closed the file in front of him, and Nachum stood up.
“I see,” he said. “Thank you. I will try and work in that direction.”
“Good luck,” the psychologist replied. “And listen to me; do it. It is the tried-and-true prescription for people like your wife.”
“Money laundering,” Moishe Berman declared decisively. “A company, or rather a gang, of money launderers, in my opinion.”
“Money laundering?” Elchanan squinted. “Can you be a bit more specific? I’ve heard of people who launder money, but what does a company have to do with it? Does that make it more organized? Legal?”
“Organized, yes; legal, certainly not. Let’s say you’re a drug dealer.”
“Brrr.” Elchanan smiled and thought of Yaffa’s reaction if she would be sitting in on this conversation.
“And huge sums of money go into your bank account every month,” Berman continued. “We aren’t a dictatorship here, but the Income Tax Authority does check if there is unusual activity somewhere. The bank also has instructions from higher up to be on the alert. And then they start following—who is this Levinsky, who, a year ago, made a deposit of 30,000 shekel at once, and then, half a year ago, there was a deposit of 80,000 into his account, and, two months ago, another 60,000? What does this guy do?”
“But people declare this money as being earned in all sorts of legal ways,” Elchanan interrupted him. “They get fabricated wage slips and fake receipts as though they provided services to people. That’s money laundering, I know.”
“Yes, and it’s a serious crime, to take money that you got illegally and ‘launder it’ to make it seem clean. Now, there are people, like your employers, who open offices as a front for their money-laundering service that they offer to others.”
“That’s only your assumption,” Elchanan pointed out.
“Right, and you’ll understand in a minute what I’m basing it on, and you’ll realize that it seems to be more like a hard fact. People who earn money illegally turn to these money launderers, and they arrange for the money to look legal. To do that, they need a business front, something that brings in clean money. What’s the recommended field? Collectors’ items, antiques.” Moishe Berman’s wide beard jiggled up and down with every word. “You brought in nice sums, right? And the minute it’s not a purchase and sale that is registered by law, and is done privately—they can write down whatever sum they want. You sold something for a thousand shekel? As far as they are concerned, you sold it for fifty thousand, and it’s not the type of thing someone will try to corroborate, because in this business, the prices are not at all fixed.”
“But what makes you think that’s their goal? I became suspicious only because of the break-in.”
“Oh, I think that’s a side thing. They weren’t interested in investing the large sum that Mrs. Wolkovsky was asking for her Judaica piece, and they, or someone connected to them, heard the details and decided to get a hold of it in a different way. It doesn’t hurt them to earn a profit aside from the large percentage that their customers pay them.”
“But why are you fixed on your money-laundering theory?”
“Wait, I didn’t finish yet. People who you worked with contacted me following the warning we published. None of them complained about deception or robberies, but I get the impression that your ‘company’s’ prices are very erratic. Either you paid a very low price to buy things or you paid a fortune. Whoever is behind you doesn’t understand antiques any more than you do, and they don’t really care about the profitability of the antiques angle of their business.”
“They were always changing the sums to whatever they wanted.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying!” Moishe clapped his hands together. “Fictitious receipts are very common. People change their addresses because it pays for them to be registered in one place, they draft contracts that don’t exist, they inflate their expenses to reduce their tax liability, and they reduce the cost of their merchandise for the same reason. But fictitious inflation of revenues? What does that give them, except for a very swollen bill for income tax?”
“Money laundering,” Elchanan replied as he rubbed his forehead.
“That’s it. Money laundering is the only viable option in my opinion. What can I tell you? That whole business stinks something awful, and it’s a good thing you left. The fact that they suddenly changed your phone number—it’s clear why they did that; they didn’t want the Wolkovsky family to contact you. But why did they give you another name to work with from the beginning? What kind of strange thing is that? And why did you never see any other agents, if there are any? And why aren’t they registered as a legal company under the name Moreshet, and why do they send you running all over to buy and sell and buy and sell?”
Elchanan nodded again.
“Well, I think I can answer the question of why they send you on the runaround. If they would keep more than fifteen antique items in their possession, they would have to be registered as a legal collector, and every sale and purchase would have to be documented, and they don’t want that. They want to work freely and forge their receipts as they need them, and not one of the people who you dealt with—so you noted—asked any questions. That’s why it was so easy for them.” He tapped his finger on the table. “So that’s why they always wanted you to sell before they accumulated fifteen items.
“Why did they give you another name? I imagine it must have something to do with them trying to cover their tracks as much as possible. This way, in case anyone ever smelled anything funny with what you were doing, they could always exonerate themselves by saying that they have no idea who ‘Ehud’ is—after all, they hired a man named Elchanan Levinsky, not someone by the name of Ehud.
“And once they’d wash themselves clean of you, you wouldn’t see an ounce of pity from them ever, of course. You’re just their front man, the clothespin that they used to hang all their dirty laundry—and who knows if they themselves wouldn’t have thrown all their accusations on you, the front man, when their day of reckoning comes. And I imagine that day will come at some point.”
“But you left them,” Moishe hurriedly reassured him. “And you can always claim you did so because you didn’t like the way they were operating. Our only question now is how to get back Mrs. Wolkovsky’s esrog box. I’m afraid the chances of that happening are very slim.”