Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 14 of a new online serial novel, Night Flower, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
The watchtower that soared to the fifth floor of Nikolai Rosenberg’s estate was designed to elegantly blend into the scene. It looked like another architectural adornment on the sprawling luxury estate. But once inside, it became apparent that it was a full-blown watchtower, with all the accoutrements: two massive screens, one transmitting images of what was happening below in real time, and one serving as a huge database of images, names, and addresses. The walls were forty centimeters thick, the windows were barred and bulletproof, and five firing loopholes were situated opposite the weak points in the wall that surrounded the house. Nikolai Rosenberg was very good at protecting his possessions and his life.
The two armed guards who regularly sat in the tower had already chased away unwelcome guests, but they greeted the blue Volga now slowing down in front of the estate with folded arms.
“It’s them,” one of the guards said, studying the screen on the wall to his right. The images of the car projected on the database screen were identical to the one now driving below. Beside the image of the vehicle were three headshots: the editor of the Segodniya newspaper, writer Vasiliy Antonovitch, and the editor’s chauffer.
“Send their pictures downstairs,” the guard on the right said. “They should check them close up. I can’t see the faces well enough from here…” He turned to the screen next to him and tried to maximize the images to the largest size possible, but the faces of the passengers were still too blurry. “It looks like them,” he finally said. “But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.”
After a few seconds, the iron gate in the wall opened, and the car glided into the gated complex. It took almost a full minute for the guards below to identify the passengers with certainty, and they opened the next gate.
“A prison,” Vasiliy Antonovich hissed, but he fell silent as the Volga drove into a breathtaking, illuminated lane. The trees lining both sides of the lane towered above them, and their leafy branches intertwined with one another, creating a canopy of ice dotted with tiny electric bulbs. Glistening white and clear icicles glittered in the strong fluorescent lights against the nighttime sky. No one in the car said a word until the car emerged from the blinding lane.
“A very specific kind of prison,” the editor observed dryly. “And I believe you wouldn’t object to living here.”
The vehicle advanced a bit further before being stopped by a uniformed man. He instructed the passengers to emerge from the car, and the driver was directed to an underground parking lot. Antonovich and the editor had to follow the uniformed man by foot.
They stood opposite the main entrance to Rosenberg’s palatial home. Vasiliy Antonovich reflected on how foolish it had been of him not to visit here before writing his silly article. It would have enabled the end product to be much, much richer. “Here you go,” their escort indicated with a broad sweep of the hand.
The two climbed the marble stairs, lined on either side with silver animal sculptures that squirted water in a series of patterns. The water spilled into small waterfalls and drained into an artificial river that encircled the house and disappeared behind it.
Their escort stopped in front of closed oak doors. “Forty minutes,” he said. “Every additional minute will cost you parking for your car.”
The editor didn’t say a word and was the first to enter the spacious corridor. Vasiliy followed.
Sitting at the head of a massive, carved table, on which rested only a bottle of clear liquid and a tray with a few crystal glasses, was Nikolai Rosenberg. By contrast to the grandeur of the tremendous hall, he sat on a simple wooden chair with a high back. He remained seated as he offered his hand in greeting.
“Good afternoon,” he said to the editor, ignoring the writer. “Please sit down. I’m sorry I didn’t come out to greet you. My back has been bothering me for the past two days.”
The editor sympathized politely and then said, “Mr. Rosenberg, when we made this appointment, your secretary asked what it would be about.”
“That’s correct,” the white-haired billionaire agreed, lacing his fingers together.
“Did you receive our reply?”
“Indeed,” he said in the same tone of voice.
“Then please allow our former reporter to explain himself.”
Rosenberg cast a fleeting glance at Antonovich and then nodded.
Antonovich cleared his throat. “First of all, I’m happy that I have the opportunity to personally apologize to you, sir,” he began, trying not to look behind the back of the older man. The two burly men standing there were staring at him with fury in their eyes.
“But I’m afraid that the mistake was not my fault. When I conducted the investigation about you, I learned that your only daughter lives in Israel. She registered in the offices of the Jewish Agency as a Jewess, and her husband and their children are registered as Jews, as well.” He opened his plain cardboard file full of papers. Very early on in the process they’d been told they would not be allowed to bring any computers or telephones into the complex.
“Go on,” Rosenberg said impatiently, not even glancing at the copy placed in front of him.
“Later we learned that this was a forgery, but…” He returned the paper to his folder and spread out his hands. “But what are good Russians doing in the land of the Jews? Especially as…” He looked around.
“Especially as it looks to you that the woman didn’t lack anything while living here,” Rosenberg finished the sentence for him.
The man laughed. “I’ll answer you briefly: My family affairs are not your business.”
The writer swallowed. “I see,” he said. “Can we move on to the next point? I have two more.”
The editor of Segodniya sat with his hands folded.
“If you’ll allow me to bring my iPod in here, I’d like to play something for you.”
The billionaire hesitated for a moment, and then turned to someone standing near the door. “Bring it,” he said tersely.
Three minutes of heavy silence ensued. The only sound was the ticking of the collection of clocks that were displayed on the eastern wall of the hall. Vasiliy Antonovich chose to focus on the eight massive chandeliers that hung in a perfect circle over their heads, and wondered if the branches were made of pure gold or if they were merely gold-plated. The editor chose not to look around at all, and instead, pulled his employee’s file in front of him and leafed through it, passing his hand over his forehead. Rosenberg looked calm, too calm, even though he clearly saw that they had come well equipped.
The device was brought in.
“May I?” Vasiliy asked, and took it carefully.
A small, nearly imperceptible nod.
The device was laid on the table again, and a small blinking red light showed that it was on. The file began to play: it started with the noise of what sounded like a busy street, followed by a motor starting up. At that point, the conversation began, in a mix of English and strange German. A Russian translation appeared on the screen:
“Good evening, who is this, please?”
“Am I speaking with Shlomo Struk?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Rosenberg, and I got your name from friends. I understand that you are coming to Russia to collect money for your institution in Israel, correct?”
No one in the room had to wonder who the voice belonged to. The man sitting in his tall chair, his fingers raking his white hair, listened with an inscrutable expression.
“Good, I’m happy to hear it. I live here in Russia. I am also a Jew, and my heart likes to donate to Jewish institutions. I imagine that you won’t object, right?”
“Object?” (Uneasy chuckle)
“Right, so I knew you wouldn’t. So when can we meet, Rabbi?”
“Whenever you’d like, Rabbi Rosenberg…”
“Oh, I’m not a rabbi at all. Abraham Rosenberg, to you.”
“Thank you, Reb Abraham. The truth is that I am very surprised by your call. I’ve hardly managed to contact anyone in Russia yet…”
“Oh, my Jewish heart is always looking to make contacts. So when should we meet, Reb Shlomo?”
Here, the device went silent.
“The Jewish heart…” the editor said slowly. “Abraham Rosenberg… You’ll admit it’s interesting, Mr. Rosenberg.”
On Shabbos morning as well, the volunteers from Refuah Sheleimah came around and distributed packages with everything one could need for a seudah. Chaiky took portions for herself and for Dovi, who was especially excited by the big bag of nosh that was at the bottom of the package.
“But first we eat food, not nosh,” Chaiky said. She spread the large white napkin that was included onto the night table.
The curtain opened. Not a trace of the nighttime tears remained on Rachel’s face, but her smile was crooked and a bit wobbly. “Uh…good morning,” she said. “How’s Dovi?”
“Baruch Hashem, really good.”
“Uh…great. I’m happy to hear.” She remained at the opening for a bit longer, and Chaiky, not knowing what she was expected to say just then, began to make Kiddush. Then she washed Dovi’s hands and her own.
“Will you join us, Rachel?” she offered in a friendly tone, struggling to open the container of fish.
“No, no, I ate the seudah already,” the girl said. “I eat early in the morning with Elsie. Especially today, as I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
Chaiky wanted to ask something about the mysterious Elsie, but just then the stern-faced nurse who had been on shift the night before as well pulled the curtain back sharply. “Rachel, are you here again?”
The girl looked at her with an expression in her eyes that Chaiky could not interpret.
“Nonsense, it’s all nonsense,” the nurse said firmly. The tag on her pocket read “Elsa Krautholder.” She looked again at Rachel and then at Chaiky. “How is Dov?” she inquired.
“Baruch Hashem, he’s fine.”
“Good.” She looked again at the girl. “I’m sorry that I’m asking you this, Mrs. Struk, but about how old are you?”
Chaiky put her fork down near her plate. “Twenty-nine,” she replied after a momentary pause.
“You see?” Elsie turned to Rachel. “I told you you’re imagining things! She’s too young!” She smiled apologetically at Chaiky. “This is the first time that Rachel has met anyone else named Struk—that’s her last name, too, you know. It’s no wonder she was overcome with hope…”