Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 2. Enjoy!
Summer was already a fond but distant memory in the family photo album. The High Holy Days had come and gone. Senator Joseph Lieberman had recently become the first Jew to be nominated for high office, providing Jews with much food for thought and giving rabbis everywhere a surfeit of sermon ideas. New York was in the midst of an intense and ugly senatorial race, the mayor had prostrate cancer and a lady-friend who marched with him in the Columbus Day parade, and the Yankees and Mets were playing the first subway series in forty-four years. Miles away, the possibility for peace had come and gone, and war threatened to break out any day in the Middle East.
Despite all that, it was a quiet autumn morning in Brooklyn. Outside my office, the leaves in the backyard hadn’t started to turn yet, and the garden still looked like summer. The one straggly rose bush that had bothered to flower was top heavy with huge pink blooms. School thankfully had begun, and Hannah was safely stowed away in pre-K until three o’clock. Caleb was at the park with Ronit, the babysitter. The house was empty, the sink was clean, the laundry was done, and there was nothing domestic that needed my urgent attention. I turned my thoughts to my files, which sorely needed some care.I had a bad habit of taking out files, searching through them, and then putting them aside to search through more files, never putting away the discarded files. When I’m rich and famous, I’ll hire a personal secretary. In the meantime, I reorganize my desk and my files every few weeks, or whenever business is slow.
I had just completed a job for someone who wanted to find out the name of the ship on which his grandparents had come over from Portugal. He was preparing a surprise for their 60th anniversary. I managed to find out the name of the ship and get him the manifest of passengers and even a photograph of the ship. He was very pleased and had given me a check right away. There it was, balanced against the stapler. As I straightened the desk, I reminded myself to deposit it in our checking account so that it could go right back out of the account in the form of a check to Hannah’s preschool.
All night I had had a recurring anxiety dream that I went to my job in an office, sat at my desk, and couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be doing. On good days I was happy with the choices I had made. But then there were days like today when I got frustrated, and in my frustration let myself give in to that ugliest of emotions—envy. I was envious of the mothers at the preschool who had serious, important careers, expensive suits, and business-trips that took them out of town to hotels where they could order room service and have someone clean up after them. What happened to my great ambitions, my plans to do something important? I hadn’t finished my PhD, I didn’t have a title before my name, and I didn’t make enough money. I hadn’t published a novel, written a screenplay, discovered the cure for AIDS, or launched a business. But I liked what I was doing. Some of the projects that came my way were actually interesting. The research was fun, and challenging. And I loved having time for my kids. I had made a choice. But the truth was I was not only envious of the working moms, I was also envious of the full-time moms who were always there after school, in the playground, and at the mommy-and-me classes. No way to win, either way.
I sighed and stretched my legs. Too much self-reflection can be a dangerous thing. Thinking of Hannah’s preschool and those moms reminded me that there was also a phone call I needed to return. Last spring, in a fit of generosity, I had donated five hours of my professional expertise to the fund-raising auction at Hannah’s school. The woman who “purchased” my services had left a message on my machine last night. I had met her several times and didn’t feel like dealing with her, but I convinced myself to call and get it over with.
I called, and it turned out that she wanted me to go undercover and get evidence, graphic photographs and all, that her husband was having an affair. I explained that that was not my line of work, but that if she wanted me to do some historical research, genealogy, or to trace missing documents, I’d be happy to oblige. She said she would think about it, but I could tell from her tone of voice that she was already writing the whole thing off as an unfortunate waste of money. As we were graciously saying our good-byes, the doorbell rang.
I went to answer, assuming it was either the meter reader or Ronit back from the park with Caleb. Instead, I found a nervous young woman. I was sure I had never seen her before, because she was surely someone I would have remembered. Despite her obvious nervousness, she was beautiful in a striking and unusual way. Her hair was the brightest red hair I had ever seen, her eyes a deep, liquid blue. Her porcelain skin was flawless, making the gold stud in her left nostril appear particularly prominent. She was of medium height but strong and athletic-looking, and despite her apparent youth had a presence about her, like someone usually at ease with herself and only at a temporary loss. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and clutched a piece of paper with an address scribbled on it, which made me think at first that she must be a student looking for an apartment to rent who had come to the wrong address. But before I could re-direct her, she addressed me by name.
“Hi, are you Abby Marcus?” she asked hesitantly. “Have I come to the right place?”
“Yes,” I answered. “Can I help you?”
“Do you mind if I come in? You were recommended to me by someone who thought you could help me. May I?”
My clients never just drop in. Most of my friends don’t even drop in, this being New York and all of us having highly over-scheduled lives. Plus Simon would have a fit if he knew that I was letting a perfect stranger into my office when no one else was even in the building. But she was a young woman, practically just a kid, and she looked perfectly harmless. I should have known right away that her stopping by in person was only the first of many things that would be unusual in this job.
I cleared away Hannah’s crayons and coloring books, and sat her on my couch while I took the adjacent chair.
“I really need help,” she began.
“Well, let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “You know who I am, but I have no idea who you are.”
She cleared her throat, paused, and began to speak rapidly. “My name is Sarah, Sarah Gelberman. I’m trying to do some genealogical research, but I’m running into a lot of roadblocks, because I’m not a pro and I don’t know what I’m doing. I hear that you are really good at it, so I want to know if you can help. Plus I’m busy. So if you could help, that would be great. I don’t have a lot of time. How much do you charge?”
“Well, Sarah, let’s slow down and talk first about what you’re looking for. Where is your family from?” I reached for a pad and pen, ready to listen.
She began to tell me, still in the same halting manner, that her grandfather Jack was having an important birthday in January, and the grandchildren wanted to present him with a family tree. She had heard stories that her grandfather was the great-grandson of the great Chasidic rabbi Leib of Halizch, known as the Halizcher Rebbe, and she wanted to know if I could definitively deny or confirm that rumor. As she spoke, she played with her hair and adjusted and readjusted her legs, looking ill at ease on my comfortable couch. When I asked her if it would break her grandfather’s heart to find that the rumor was not true, and was it worth doing so, she insisted that the family would love knowing one way or another. I wasn’t sure she was right, because having worked in this business long enough I knew that people greatly treasured their stories of grand rabbinic or royal lines, no matter how fabricated they were. But when she told me that the other goal of her search was to find, if he was still alive, her grandfather’s brother, from whom he had been separated in Europe in 1945 following Liberation, I was hooked. I’m a sucker for happy endings, and I knew that if anyone could find the brother or his descendants, I could do it. We agreed on a price, which appeared to be no object to her. She unfolded a creased envelope, counted out the full amount in cash as a retainer, and departed, leaving me with a file of some basic information with which I could begin my search.
After she left, I laughed to myself. What a funny place is this world of late 20th century America, I thought. I was just talking to a young woman who may be the great-great-great-great granddaughter of the Halizcher Rebbe, who sat on my couch dressed in jeans and Nikes with a gold stud in her nose. Then several important things occurred to me at once. One, I had no way of getting in touch with her. The piece of paper on which I had asked her to provide her contact information was gone, and somehow I doubted she had taken it with her accidentally. Two, she had never told me who recommended me to her. Three, her story, which was fairly standard and unexceptional, in no way explained her extreme nervousness, or why she would not have wanted to leave me her phone number or address. Little did I know just how much she had to be nervous about.
[To be continued….]