Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 18 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.
Long after Prisoner Struk had left, Josef Podernik, the interrogator, sat and toyed with the ashtray on the table. He didn’t exchange a word with the interpreter, who, commendably, waited in silence.
“So, it’s like this,” the interrogator said suddenly, after twenty minutes of thought. He rose to his feet. “Get me a transcript of today’s interrogation in Russian and in English, but put it in Rosenberg’s file, not the Jew’s file. Right now I don’t want it to fall into his lawyers’ hands.”
Two hours later, he was already in his office in the C.K.P. building, the location of the Russian Federation’s investigation commission on Bauman Street in Moscow. “Get me Bernie from the Financial Crimes Investigation Unit,” he ordered the secretary and went into his cubicle. There, surrounded by glass partitions, he sat down in front of his computer. He clasped his short beard in his closed fist.
“What’s happening, Josef?” Pavel, his neighbor to the left, knocked on the partition.
“Nothing special,” Josef replied, mildly irritated. If they would invest in better quality partitions here, then that annoying Pavel would not be able to disturb him now.
“The Zhid’s keeping you quite busy, eh?”
“Do you want some help with your interrogations?”
“No.” He had formed a team of successful investigators and really had no need for Pavel. “One minute, I have an incoming call. Hello?”
“Podernik? It’s Bernie. What did you want?”
“To find out about the recording you gave me.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Has it been tested for authenticity?”
Bernie’s tone was laced with rebuke. “Of course, Podernik.”
“So why is it cut off?”
“What difference does it make? You have exactly what you need there, don’t you?”
“No. I need the rest of it. Do you have it?” It was inconceivable that they should expect him to investigate this incident without giving him all the information.
“No, we don’t have it either.”
“Can you get it?”
“It won’t be simple, because it wasn’t our own wiretap. Before we got the preliminary information about the diamond smuggling in the airport, we had no idea about this story and didn’t know we’d need to assign surveillance.”
“So where is the recording from? You don’t mean to tell me that you violated the agreement with Rosenberg and touched his lines.”
“Of course not.” Bernie fell silent.
“So what is the source?” Just yesterday evening, Josef had been so happy with the new evidence, but that euphoria had dissipated by now.
“What difference does it really make? You got evidence—deal with it.”
Josef scowled. “I’m not one of your lackeys,” he said icily. “So don’t give me orders. As the interrogator in charge of this file, I am asking to know the source of this conversation.”
“I’m not your underling either,” Bernie replied, disliking both the words and tone that Podernik was using. “With all due respect to your success in investigations, you’re just a minor officer in the C.K.P., so don’t make any demands of me, you hear?”
“What can I do that I know, as well as you do, that it is possible that Rosenberg has friends in our office, and they made sure to erase the rest of the conversation in the event that it incriminates him too mu—”
Dial tone. Bernie, in his anger, had hung up on him.
Josef Podernik stuck the ear buds into his ear, pressed the red button, and listened again to the conversation that he knew by heart by now. The Jew answered. Rosenberg began to speak, the Jew ostensibly not knowing who it was. Rosenberg introduced himself as a Jew, using a fake first name. The word “Abraham” must have been a code word between them.
And if Rosenberg himself was making the contact, then the Jew must be deeply embedded in the inner hierarchy of this mafia.
What was said later in the conversation that scared them so much that they had been able to destroy the evidence?
Josef took a deep breath, overcoming the offense to his dignity, and asked the secretary once again to get the antipathetic clerk from the Financial Crimes Unit on the phone.
“Good, you’ve decided to make up with him,” Pavel piped up from the other side of the glass. “Listen to me, Josef; everyone’s sold. Everywhere. That’s how it is in our Russia. Don’t believe a word he says, and don’t believe yourself either.
Josef wanted to reply, but just then the clerk transferred the call to him. That was fast; Bernie apparently wanted to resolve this little tiff with dignity as well.
“I’m sorry, Bernie,” Josef apologized first. “I have nothing personal against you. I know that you are an honest person and they won’t be able to buy you off.” That might or might not have been true. “I was talking out of frustration. I have to get that missing segment for the investigation, do you understand?”
“Yes, yes,” Bernie replied, his hoarse voice softening somewhat. “Look, I’ll try to find out some more, but take into account that it might take some time.”
“Whatever it takes.”
Josef Podernik hung up the phone, ignoring the knocking on the wall to his left. He stuck the ear buds into his ears again and listened to the short clip for the umpteenth time. He was ready to wait patiently until he found out how this recording had gotten to the right people, and then he would try to find out who did the erasing, what they erased, and why they had done it.
But he didn’t have to muster up too much patience. The very next morning Bernie had an answer for him about who had turned over the recording.
It was Iliya Antonovich, a security officer at the airport.
“But why?” Elka refused to understand.
“I want to help her.” Noa refused to back down.
“And you think she’d want to accept such help from you? Come on, Noa. Do you really think Chaiky wants you as a boarder?”
Noa cut a piece of tape off the roll. “What do I really think? I really think that you are smart, Elka, and you usually manage to get what you want, so I trust that you’ll succeed here, too. I have gotten a very good idea of how you manage this community center so skillfully.”
Elka, who had been playing with a pair of scissors, put them down and raised her eyes. This was the first time that Noa had insinuated to her, actually almost spelling it out, the real reason she was here. And she, of course, was not allowed to reveal that she knew the reason already.
“I’m happy that you think that way of our community center,” she said with a broad smile as she rolled the scotch tape back and forth on the table. “It’s a big compliment, especially coming from you. But I really don’t think there’s any connection between that and what we were talking about.”
“But I think there is.” Noa put a book wrapped in shiny plastic on the stack of books at the edge of the desk and took another book to cover. “People’s abilities are multifaceted. Elka, won’t you do this for me?”
Her voice, like so many times before, was a bit pleading, as though she were a spoiled child asking for something. But for the first time, Elka detected a different, unfamiliar tone. A tone that said that the spoiled child already had a lot of experience in this role, and she was convinced that everyone would do anything for her. And she would not stand for receiving a “no” as an answer, because if so…
What would happen if so?
Elka knew that she would not ask Noa that question. In any case, there was no need to ask it. Margalit had told her about it all some time ago, when Noa had just begun spending time in the library, long before she had bashfully approached Elka to ask if there was any way she could work there.
“I can try to speak to Chaiky,” Elka said now haltingly to Noa. With all due respect to Noa, the Culture and Community Foundation, and the secrets that Margalit had learned and shared with her, she could not become a dishrag, being squeezed over and over, incessantly, in order to satisfy their wishes.
“Dina, how are you?”
Dina Struk could hardly be heard against the backdrop of loud noise. “Baruch Hashem, wonderful. Who is this? Elka? Oh, hi! We’re just coming out of my granddaughter’s class’s siyum now—Chaiky’s daughter. It was a pretty major siyum, and it was so moving…really something…”
“Beautiful, mazel tov. And lots of nachas, Dina,” Elka wished her warmly. “I really don’t want to disturb you now. I just wanted to ask about what you told me the other day, you know, about finding a boarder for Chaiky. I know a nice girl who’s becoming more observant. A really nice person. Could you ask Chaiky in general terms if that’s the type she’s looking for?”
“I’m not the address for that, Elka.” Dina suddenly sounded very tense. “Why don’t you speak to her about it? You speak to her much more than I do.”
“No, I’m not the address for this, either.”
“Why not? If you know someone who might be shayach, then why don’t you suggest it to her?”
“Because I’m afraid that she has some preconceived opinions about this person, that’s all. And she won’t change those preconceived opinions on my say-so. That’s why I prefer that the suggestion come from somewhere else.”
“But that ‘somewhere else’ can’t be from me. I’m really sorry, Elka.”
An entire week passed until Shlomo came face to face with the interrogator again. During that time, he had managed to review the first perek of Maseches Beitzah from the small pocket Gemara that the prison authorities had agreed to give him. He had also managed to plot three different types of escapes from this prison, each one more zany than the next. The only purpose of planning these escapes, of course, was the emotional freedom that it gave him. He had also drawn a pretty card for Naomi, with the words “Mazel tov on your siyum!” on it. He hoped that he would be permitted to give it to his lawyer, who would hopefully mail it out, because he himself wasn’t allowed to send actual letters, only to receive them.
“Listen, Struk, I haven’t yet managed to obtain the recording of the rest of your conversation with Mr. Rosenberg, but we will get it and then we will confirm what you said. Meanwhile, let’s run through your version again. You say that you spoke to Mr. Rosenberg on October 27.”
“And what is ‘Abraham’?”
“Excuse me? I don’t understand.
“I asked a simple question: what is ‘Abraham’? What does the code mean?”
“It’s not a code—it’s Mr. Rosenberg’s first name,” Shlomo explained patiently.
“It’s not his first name. We both know very well that he has another name.”
Shlomo shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir, but I will say again that I have no idea what you are talking about. This was the first time I spoke to Mr. Rosenberg, and that’s how he introduced himself to me.”
“Let’s move on. According to what you said, you set up a meeting with him for three days later, on October 30.”
“In the lobby of the Cosmos Hotel.”
“So you didn’t say anything to him about the motorcycle rider?” Josef Podernik asked accusingly.
“No.” Not on the phone call.
“And what did he want from you at the meeting?”
“He wanted to give me money for the institution that employs me.”
“Yes, the uh…yeshivah.” Podernik carefully pronounced the word. “And he gave you the money?”
“Six thousand dollars.”
Podernik clucked with disapproval. “Miser.”
Shlomo looked at him. “I have been brought up to say thank you for everything I get, sir, and in any case, for our yeshivah this was a lot of money.”
“How did he give it to you? Cash?”
“No, a check.”
“And what did you do with it?”
“I deposited it at the Central Federation Bank.”
“The next morning.”
The interrogator jotted something down and then raised his head. “In which account?”
“In the yeshivah’s account.”
“Write the number down here.” He pushed a small piece of paper and a pen toward Shlomo and watched his hand automatically write down a row of numbers.
“Good,” he said with a distorted attempt at a smile, and took the note. “Too bad you won’t be benefitting from it, eh?”
“I wouldn’t have gotten anything out of it anyway.” Shlomo felt that a certain point had not yet been clarified to this gentile. “It’s a donation to a yeshivah, sir.”
“We don’t know the meaning of the word ‘donation,’” Josef said arrogantly and stood up. “We are familiar with the word ‘payment.’ We both know that even if it’s like you say, you got a certain sum from Rosenberg. There is no donation or anything like that here, just a payoff for your quality work on his behalf. Did you really think we wouldn’t figure out the connection between you two?”