Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 20 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.
When Elka sat and checked a whole kilogram of rice in one shot, her husband Nachum knew that something was bothering her. When she moved on to the second package, he knew that whatever the issue was, it was quite serious. The third kilogram was a sign that she was deeply distraught and preoccupied. But when she left it all on the table and went to the rocking chair in the corner of the dining room, it was clear that the situation was dire.
And that’s what happened that afternoon. One kilo, a second, a third, and then the rocking chair.
“What’s going on, Elka?” he asked, emerging from the kitchen with two steaming mugs of tea in his hands. “One sweetener or two?”
“Two…” she replied distractedly.
“That’s what I put in,” he said, pleased with himself, and put her mug down on the coffee table. “Is everything alright?”
“No, not really.” The rocking chair stopped moving. Elka sat for a few more seconds, deep in thought, and then stood up. “It’s beginning to really get out of hand,” she said, taking the cup of tea and returning to the chair. “It’s just too much already.”
“What’s out of hand?” he asked. “What’s too much?”
“Noa is really an excellent worker, and she has very good ideas about how to take our community center to the next level. But this ridiculous demand she is making of me…it’s just not realistic! Not at all! The problem is what will happen if she is not pleased.”
“I don’t quite get what you’re saying,” Nachum said placidly. “Maybe start from the beginning?”
“From the beginning….?” She gazed dreamily at the curls of steam rising from her tea, and took the spoon out of the cup. “From the beginning… So, it’s like this. You know who Noa is, right? And you also know how much she helps me out. And then there’s…it makes no difference who—one of my management workers, who isn’t being so productive right now. Her family is…going through a crisis, and because of that she’s missing a lot of work. Noa has taken on a lot of the workload in her place.”
“What does that worker have to say about it?” Nachum inquired. “And by the way, be careful about lashon hara, because you realize that I imagine I know who you are talking about. You have only two management workers, and the crisis that one of them is going through right now is public knowledge in this city.”
“Yes, but it’s for a to’eles,” she said quietly, defeated. “I am consulting with you now because I really don’t know what to do anymore.”
“So what does Struk say about this new worker taking on her jobs?”
“She seems rather indifferent about it. I told you, I don’t even know how much she notices, because she’s been absent so much.”
“And what about her salary? If she’s absent, she should be getting a smaller paycheck, shouldn’t she? Doesn’t she care about that?”
Elka sighed. “Here and there she brings me sick-leave notes, when she or one of the children really don’t feel well, but it’s rare.”
“What about the other days?”
It looked like Elka preferred to avoid the subject. “If she doesn’t have a sick note, then she should have money deducted from her salary, of course.”
“Should?” he asked.
“Officially, yes. But practically, no.”
“Why is that?” Her organized husband was puzzled.
“Someone is paying for her so that I shouldn’t pressure her.” Elka lowered her gaze to the rounded base of the rocking chair, and looked for a moment like a child caught doing something shameful. “But they prefer that I keep it a secret.”
His eyebrows rose. “And she knows this?”
“We never spoke about it.”
He was quiet for a minute. “Well,” he said finally, “what did you want to ask me about?”
“About Noa.” She looked relieved to be leaving the subject of Chaiky’s paycheck in favor of the Noa dilemma. “You know that my sister Margalit works at the Corporate Accounting firm in Tel Aviv. One of their clients is the Culture and Community Foundation, which funds our center. One day, she heard that they were about to get a huge grant, something well above the standard, and that it would be distributed to just three community centers. In order to decide which centers would get the money, they decided to send out some inspectors, undercover of course.” She took a deep breath. “The three best centers would receive a special award, along with massive funding grants for a whole year.”
“So Margalit told you this?”
“Yes.” Elka began to rock slightly, which was a good sign. “She heard that they were planning to inspect the centers with no advance notice, and she said that they mentioned the name Noa. A short time after she told me this, a girl by that name approached me and asked to volunteer at our center. Do you know what such a budget allocation means, Nachum? Do you know what I could do for the center with this money? We could become the leading community center for the entire northern region of the country!”
“So you think that Noa is a mysterious agent from the Foundation? And that’s why you dance around her like that?”
She grimaced. “You think I could have treated her like any other girl asking for work, as though I didn’t know anything?”
He didn’t answer her question. “And assuming she did come from them, what are you so worried about all of a sudden? The amount of time and effort you’ve invested in the young lady seems to be a surefire way of getting your center to win the funding grant, no?”
Elka stood up and put her full glass of tea back on the coffee table. She hadn’t even taken a sip of it. “Just yesterday,” she said, “just yesterday, Miri told me that Noa was beginning to inquire a bit about our wage slips. Who reports, who is in charge of preparing the paychecks, what the official job of each one of us is.”
Nachum raised an eyebrow. “You want to know the truth? Until this second I was sure that despite all the signs, Noa was not connected to the Foundation’s inspection, and that you’d really spoiled her all this time for no reason. But this does sound quite suspicious.”
Elka passed a hand over her forehead. “Yes,” she said distractedly, “and now she’s asking me to arrange for her to live by Chaiky Struk. Do you understand? First of all, there’s no chance that will work out. Chaiky won’t agree, of that I’m sure. But more importantly, I am afraid that Noa will want to obtain documented proof about Chaiky’s paychecks, and she’ll see right away that Chaiky is spending half a week at home and is still getting a regular salary. If the Foundation discovers that, not only can I kiss my dreams goodbye, I can also bid the center farewell.”
On the bulletin board of the yeshivah office was a note pinned up with a colorful pushpin: “Eliyahu Margulies asked that you contact him urgently.”
Reb Ezriel Struk stared at the note for a long moment and then turned to the phone on his desk. On that fateful day a few months ago, too, it had been Eliyahu Margulies who had asked him to contact him urgently, but back then, Reb Ezriel hardly knew who Eliyahu Margulies was. He had only heard a bit beforehand from Shlomo about this remarkable person who was one of the pillars of the Even Yisrael community in Moscow. Reb Ezriel had wondered what this man, of all people, wanted to tell him, two and a quarter hours before Shlomo was due to land back in Israel.
But Shlomo didn’t land two and a quarter hours later, and that’s what Margulies wanted to tell him.
“There’s a very serious problem. Your son has been arrested,” Margulies had said in measured tones. “It’s surely a mistake. But tell me, I understand that you returned my call from the phone in Yeshivas Orchos Chaim? That is the number that was on the receipt that Shlomo gave me. Do you have another number where I can reach you?”
Reb Ezriel had given him his cell number, and after a moment, the man called again, this time on Reb Ezriel’s cell phone. “I just don’t know if there is a wiretap on the phones in your yeshivah,” he said bluntly. “If they caught Shlomo at the airport with dozens of illegal diamonds that were probably meant as a donation for the yeshivah… Reb Ezriel, your son is in serious trouble, but we will do everything we can to help him out. Do you want to come to be able to deal with the issue here?”
That’s how it had all begun.
Was it any wonder that since then, every piece of paper with Eliyahu Margulies’s name on it sent a chill down Reb Ezriel’s spine?
He already knew to call from his cell phone. True, the yeshivah had hired a company to check the office, and the investigators had guaranteed that none of the phones were tapped. While an indictment was being prepared against Shlomo, it did not seem related to the yeshivah at all, but rather against Shlomo as an individual. But Margulies was obsessed about a wiretap anyway. “I’m not talking on this line,” he’d declared. “We’ll speak from a different number.”
Two rings. Three. Five.
Reb Ezriel almost breathed a sigh of relief as he prepared to hang up. It was better this way. He would ask Menachem to call Margulies. He had nothing against the man, chas v’shalom. Margulies was a warm person who was dedicated to helping Shlomo, giving the issue a lot of attention and expressing his empathy. He also opened his home happily to those coming in from Israel to deal with the case. Still, there was something about him that Ezriel didn’t like. Perhaps it was the overly-energetic personality on one hand, and the pessimism on the other; perhaps it was just the association from their first conversation that made Reb Ezriel nervous.
In any case, his sigh of relief now was premature, because just then Margulies picked up.
“Oh, Rabbi Struk,” he said ominously. “Thanks for calling back. There’s a very, very serious problem.”
“I know,” Shlomo’s father replied, looking for a chair. He was used to this introduction already. “We’ve been deep in this problem for three and a half months already, haven’t we?”
“No. I’m referring to the latest development. He announced his resignation just an hour and a half ago.”
“Who?” Reb Ezriel raised his voice a bit.
“Attorney Morchov. He is getting regular reports—it doesn’t matter how—about what is happening with the prosecution. And they have clear proof that Shlomo is part of Rosenberg’s mafia.”
“Rosenberg? Who is that?”
“You’d be better off not knowing. It’s one of the biggest mafias, and it controls half of the import and export businesses here. The authorities don’t get involved with the man himself or any of his big honchos, but if they find something that is considered to be a small screw, they won’t miss the opportunity.”
“Therefore Morchov resigned. He isn’t ready to represent a case where his failure is assured.” He sighed. “We’re left with one lawyer, no less successful than Morchov, but I don’t know if he can handle this case himself. And that’s even before I heard what he has to say about this latest development.”
A long silence ensued. Eventually Margulies broke it. “I know you always tell me, Reb Ezriel, that I am too pessimistic. Believe me, I’m trying very, very hard to be optimistic now—but I just don’t see a way how.”