Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 19 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.
“Hey, Podernik!” It was Pavel again, knocking on the glass partition in the office even before the investigator had had time to take off his beaver fur coat. “Did you hear that someone left something for you with the secretary? Someone from the Financial Crimes Investigation Unit came down here from the seventh floor especially for you.”
“The privacy here is amazing.” Josef gritted his teeth and picked up the internal phone line. “Sasha? I heard that you have something for me?”
“I didn’t see you coming in,” the secretary apologized. “Twenty seconds and you’ll have it. It’s a short video clip, they said.”
Josef took his coat off and hung it up. “Get me Bernie on the line again,” he instructed.
The two things happened simultaneously: Bernie answered the phone, and at the same moment the new piece of evidence arrived. Podernik gazed at his desk, his brow furrowed. “I got what you sent me, Bernie,” he said. “What is it?”
“Did you look at it yet?” Bernie sounded very proud of himself.
“No, I haven’t.”
“So look at it first and then we’ll talk. It’s very good material for the trial.”
“What is it?” the investigator repeated, like a student having trouble comprehending.
“Why are you so suspicious?”
“Why shouldn’t I be, if the only evidence to date that came from you was nothing special?” Suddenly Josef felt tired. When he had gotten his hands on this case, he thought that everything was already compiled and all he would have to do was tie together the loose ends. But with time he discovered that he didn’t have a single piece of solid evidence. He didn’t want to mention the name “Rosenberg” before the trial; his plan had been to pull it out as a surprise to the defense. But over the past three months he had expected that the Jew would mention Rosenberg himself and expose the connection. That’s where he, Podernik, had been proven wrong again and again.
And when the evidence finally did get to him, however mysteriously, it was cut off!
Josef sighed and lowered the volume of the device so that the ever-curious Pavel wouldn’t be able to hear anything. Then he started the clip. Yes, there was Rosenberg himself, passing between the huge portals of the Cosmos Hotel. The camera captured the Jew standing in the corner, near a huge plant, looking at the gleaming floor tiles. He didn’t even seem to notice the billionaire. Rosenberg saw him and approached. They shook hands and exchanged a few words, which were inaudible.
Frustrated, Podernik increased the volume to the maximum. The effort was futile; he couldn’t hear a word. Rosenberg was speaking with animated hand motions, and the Jew listened and nodded. They began to walk a few steps, perhaps seeking a place to sit down. Soon they would be closer to the camera, and maybe he’d be able to hear something—
Then the images froze on the screen.
“I knew it!” Josef was on the verge of exploding. No conversation, no diamonds, no check. Nothing. What use was this clip to him?
“Do you want something good to drink, Podernik?” Pavel again.
“I want some quiet, Pavel.” Trembling with anger, Josef stood up and quickly crossed the large room. The elevator brought him to the seventh floor.
“Bernie Chontaroshov,” he said with pursed lips when he entered the office of the chief clerk in the Financial Crimes Investigation Unit without knocking. “Can I have a word with you?”
The gray-haired man raised his gaze. “Well? It’s good, isn’t it?” he asked with a smug smile.
“No, not at all!” Josef pulled up a chair and sat down. “You gave me a case to handle and promised to help with evidence. Now I am demanding a commission of inquiry to examine who is constantly sabotaging the evidence that you send me. What happened there after the meeting between Rosenberg and the Jew? Why did the person taking the video erase the rest of it?”
“It was taken from the cameras in the hotel lobby,” Bernie said, shifting in his chair. “No one stood there and filmed it.”
“So why doesn’t it have the rest?”
Bernie Chontaroshov sighed. “Because there isn’t any more,” he said wearily. “The cameras seemed to have been tampered with.”
Last year, Naomi had gone to an art club that was given each Monday at the community center. Shlomo claimed that the counselor might favor her because of Chaiky’s job there, but Chaiky, who knew the counselor, reassured him that he had nothing to worry about. Chana Devora, the young woman who taught the little girls, had no special relationship with, nor any particular respect for, her superiors. She would arrive and throw smiles in every direction—or scowls, depending on her mood—before disappearing behind the door of the art room. She would get annoyed when she was not granted permission to purchase expensive materials, and wasn’t afraid to openly share her opinion about what she called “the penny-pinching management style.”
Chaiky had never thought that Chana Devorah was right, because she and Elka weren’t stingy at all. But in their opinion, little girls could suffice with crafts made of easy-to-obtain, simple materials, and they didn’t have to make projects that each cost NIS 30 or NIS 40.
When Chana Devora complained, Chaiky listened understandingly and explained patiently what they thought. Not that it helped; Chana Devora would continue to vent loudly to anyone who was around. But Chaiky wasn’t particularly perturbed. It was Chana Devora’s right to want the expensive materials, and it was the right of the directors to decide otherwise, especially as their view was far more reasonable.
But when Chana Devora announced one day that, “Mrs. Struk, your daughter really isn’t the indifferent type like you. You had to see what happened yesterday during the class when something didn’t go her way! How do you calm her down at home?”—that was a different story. It was a very busy day at the center, and Ruchama Falk, the speaker for “Positive Jewish Thinking,” was in her office just then. Chaiky had a hard time thinking positively at that moment, about this incident, about herself as a mother, who was clearly failing to raise her child well, and certainly about Chana Devora.
She didn’t remember how she’d reacted on the spot, or what she’d said, but at the beginning of this year, she didn’t register Naomi for Chana Devora’s group, despite the recommendation of Naomi’s teacher that it would be good to strengthen Naomi’s shoulder muscles. Instead, she sent her daughter to an exercise club. That also strengthened the shoulders, didn’t it? The exercise club was on Wednesdays, the only day that Chaiky worked in the afternoon. Naomi was very happy to go to the center each Wednesday with her mother. She’d participate in the lesson, and then go play outside until Chaiky was ready to leave, at which point they’d go home together.
But this Wednesday was the first time since Shlomo had been arrested that Chaiky and Naomi walked hand in hand to the community center. Since Chaiky had stopped her regular schedule at work, especially working in the afternoon, Naomi didn’t want to go to her club either. They had both forgotten how the center looked in the afternoon: alive, vibrant, and full of action. Girls were going up and down the hallways, in and out of doorways, laughing and running. The library was also open now, and that generated plenty of noise and hustle and bustle, too.
The mornings were so different. The women who came for courses then, or to exchange books at the library, could chat in the coffee corner, or use the copy machine, or even drag chairs across the floor, but it was all so much calmer and more sedate. Chaiky suddenly found that this childish exuberance, which she hadn’t encountered for nearly four months, was good for her. Perhaps she needed to start coming back regularly on Wednesdays. Dovi would surely be happy to go to his grandmother, play with the twins, and eat supper there.
“Naomi!” Dini, the perky exercise teacher, met them on the path. “We missed you. How are you?”
“Fine,” the girl replied with a shrug.
“Are you happy to come back to our exercise club?” Dini asked, and Chaiky noticed that she was avoiding her gaze.
“I’m not coming to the club,” Naomi said, shrugging again. “I came with my mother.”
“With your mother!” Dini exclaimed. “That’s so nice for you! Don’t you want to come visit the exercise room, too, though? Do you know that we have new mats and also a trampoline that’s made just for girls your height?”
Naomi looked at her mother in silence.
Chaiky raised her chin. “I thought you wanted to come with me because you wanted to go to exercise again,” she said. “I came because I have something important to look up, but I think it will be boring for you to stay in my office for such a long time.”
Naomi didn’t reply, but when they stopped in front of Chaiky’s office door, she dropped her mother’s hand, waved goodbye, and without a word, followed Dini.
Chaiky walked in and sat down at her desk, but she didn’t even turn on the computer. She just sat motionless in her seat for a few moments. Girls who passed by her office and noticed that the door was open peeked in and waved.
“Mrs. Struk, are you back?” a petite redhead of about eight years old, who Chaiky figured must be a Goldschmidt, asked.
“Yes, sweetie.” Chaiky smiled.
“The other lady isn’t coming anymore?” the girl queried, clutching two big comics books.
“The other lady?”
“Yes,” a dark-haired friend replied. “Noa. The one who also sometimes exchanges books for us at the library. She was in this room a lot—even on Wednesdays when there are library hours, and on Mondays when I came for the Home-Ec club.”
“And last Tuesday, when we came to get the sweater that you forgot,” the Goldschmidt girl reminded her friend, “she was sitting here and typing on the computer.”
“So she only sometimes exchanges books for you?” Chaiky couldn’t hold herself back.
Since Shlomo’s arrest, she tried very hard to concentrate on the words “shehakol nihiyeh bid’varo,” that everything that happens is only by Hashem’s word, and to remember that even people who annoy you are only emissaries from Hashem. But sometimes… “And when she wasn’t busy in the library, she was in here?”
“Yes,” said the redhead. “Typing on the computer.”
“Did you let her?” the dark-haired girl asked.
Chaiky just smiled in response. “Bye, girls,” she said. “Take good care of those books!”
Her eyes scanned the room. She had found signs in the past that Noa had sat at her desk, and had even met her there herself. But to the best of her recollection, that was still when Noa had complained about the old computer in the library. Now she already had a better computer, so there were no more excuses. It would be interesting to know whether or not her forays into this room had come to an end with the acquisition of the better computer.
She quietly stood up from her seat, went over to the door, locked it, and took out the key. Aside for Dini and a few girls, no one had seen her come here.
She wondered if Noa would try to come in.
Chaiky went back to her seat and opened the bottom drawer. Regardless of how many times Noa did or did not come into her office, she could not forget what she had come for. It was strange how she had forgotten about it for such a long time, but the fact was that she’d only remembered this morning to call the bank to get a balance. The banking had always been Shlomo’s domain, but on that Wednesday afternoon a few months back, when she’d been sitting here, at this desk, with Naomi at her exercise club and Dovi at Shlomo’s parents’ house, and she’d received the fateful call, everything had turned over. And it was taking her time to put things back into place.
How was it possible that nearly four months had passed, during which she’d missed countless days of work—and yet the three paychecks that had been deposited into her account were for her full salary?
The first month, well, that was understandable. She would never forget the day that Dovi had entered the house with a blank envelope he’d found in the mailbox. She’d opened it and was stunned to find a sick note in her name, for the duration of three weeks’ time, from Dr. Irena Meirov, her doctor. The diagnosis? Some long English words that she didn’t understand. She’d immediately called the one who was most familiar with her medical file: Dr. Meirov herself.
“Oh, Chaya,” the doctor murmured, “how are you? Lying in bed a lot? Are you able to straighten up the house at all?”
Chaiky had looked at the handset in confusion. “What?” she’d asked quietly.
“Are you cooking meals, or do you not even have enough energy for that?”
“So, so,” Chaiky decided to reply obediently. She couldn’t play games with her doctor; she had to go at her speed.
“I hear. And are you resting? During the day as well as the night?”
“You could say that.”
“That’s why you have a sick pass for three weeks. You rest well at home, and then you can go back to work with lots of energy and no more depression, okay?”
“Depression?” Chaiky echoed, splitting the word into syllables, like a car moving in reverse with its driver looking for an empty parking spot.
“Based on what Dina, your husband’s mother, told me, you’re borderline depressed right now, Chaya. That’s why I put you on sick leave. After you rest, you’ll feel like a new person, you’ll see. You have to be a healthy wife and a healthy mother.”
“My mother-in-law came to you?”
“Dina Struk is your mother-in-law, right? She was here.”
“How did she have my card?”
“You don’t need a card if you were here during this quarter. An ID number is enough.”
“Sure, what other number do you think?”
“And what did she say about me?”
“She asked for sick leave for you, Chaya. Now, I have a long line here. Feel good, and come and tell me only good things.”
“Or maybe my mother-in-law will come instead of me,” Chaiky murmured into the phone, which was dead by then. She was seething.
What right did Shlomo’s mother have to go to her daughter-in-law’s doctor, report Chaiky’s “depression,” and ask for a sick leave for her? Who knows where it was recorded at the clinic or in the computers, and what kind of ramifications it would have in the future? This idea must have come from Menachem and Goldie. Who had asked Shlomo’s mother to run and arrange medical leave for her? She couldn’t even be depressed in peace, without someone interfering?
But she didn’t say a word. At the time, she and her mother-in-law weren’t even talking at all.
Only three days later did she leave the house and go to the community center. “Here is a sick leave note for the days I missed,” she told Miri and put the paper down on the desk. “Give it to Elka.”
And she’d walked out into the sunshine.
No one tried to open the door to Chaiky’s office for the entire hour that she was inside. Not even Naomi. Only when she emerged from the room, with the three puzzling wage slips that she had taken from the bottom drawer tucked into her bag, did Noa pass by. With a slightly surprised smile, Noa waved in greeting to Chaiky. Then she strode rapidly out of the building.