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 9. Enjoy!
I was upstairs with Caleb when I heard the doorbell to my office ring. We had rigged it so that I could hear the bell wherever I was in the house. Caleb was mid-tantrum, refusing to wear anything to the park but his favorite fire engine red shorts, despite the fact that it was a cold autumn day.
It was probably someone selling candy for the local public school, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. But you never know. I opened the window in Caleb’s room and leaned my head out. Looking down, I saw a head of bright red hair. My lucky day.
“I’ll be right down,” I yelled. She titled her head up, squinted, and waved.
I took a deep breath. “Caleb, you may not wear those shorts. End of discussion. If you do not put on pants, you will not go to the park.”
Caleb crumpled, deflated. “Can I wear my Batman costume?” he asked.
Another deep breath. “If you wear pants and a sweatshirt underneath, yes, you may.”
He jumped up and put his arms around my neck. “Thank you, Mommy. Thank you!”
I kissed him. “Bye, Cabe, I gotta go now. Go get dressed, and Ronit will take you to the park. Love you.”
“Bye, Mommy,” he answered, busy looking through his drawers for just the right pants and shirt. “Love you too.”
I opened the door to my office and let Sarah Gelberman inside.
She nodded her head in greeting, nervously tucking her hair behind her ear as she seated herself on my couch. Luckily this time it was clear of toys.
Before I could even stall with pleasantries while I decided how to approach our conversation, she began to talk.
“How is the research going? What have you found about my grandfather?”
Taking a seat across from her, I studied her demeanor. She seemed to be earnestly interested, but what was the nervousness about? “It’s going well,” I began. “I’ve found some information, but it’s just getting going. I told you it would take some time.”
“Yes, I know, but I’m so excited.”
“I understand. What I don’t entirely understand though is why you didn’t leave me any way to contact you. I need to be able to get in touch. Without a way to contact you, I can’t do the job.”
She chewed her lip. “Okay, well, it’s just that I’m a student, you know, so it’s hard to find me. I’m not in a lot. Classes, studying, you know.”
“Don’t you have voice mail? Or an answering machine?”
“My roommate doesn’t always give me my messages.”
“A cell phone?”
“I don’t keep it on much. Too expensive.”
“So give me your parents’ number. It’s policy,” I lied, opening a file folder. “I need to have a contact number and address in my files.”
She thought for a moment. “Okay, okay, sure, no problem. My address is 47 East Second Street. The phone is 673-9136. 212.” She proceeded to give me her cell number as well, and watched as I wrote the information into my file.
“So what have you found out?” she asked.
“Well, I’m in the process of tracing your grandfather’s family tree. Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting information about the Halizcher rebbe Leib Mendel and his family, so I’m working on it from both ends. The two family trees still haven’t met in the middle, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. I just haven’t come up with the documentation to prove anything yet. And until I do, I can’t find out anything about your father’s brother. But I’m making progress.”
“Okay, sounds good,” she said. “How long do you think this is going to take?”
I shrugged. “Hard to know. Another week or two, at least. It depends how complicated it gets. If I need to contact people in Israel regarding records of Holocaust survivors, it could take much longer. I thought you said there was a lot of time.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I’m just excited.”
“Are you sure there’s no rush, Sarah?” I asked, trying to catch her eye. “Has something changed?”
She was skilled at avoiding eye contact. She kept her eyes firmly focused on her right leg, which she swung up and down over her left knee. “No, no, really. I’ve just never done anything like this before. It’s cool.”
I gave her a brief report on the information I was collecting, and the ways that I was going about collecting it. I told her about my attempt to learn more about Chasidism. I even told her about my visit to Borough Park, though I left out Mrs. Freiburg’s name and any mention of Arieh Freiburg. It was clear that Sarah Gelberman did not completely trust me, and I certainly did not yet trust her. Not revealing my sources was something I had learned long ago, and it seemed especially fitting in this situation. Despite the fact that she was the client, I didn’t want to give her any more information than necessary until the story came together.
When I finished filling her in, she thanked me and laid a thick envelope on the table.
“I haven’t gone through the original money you gave me,” I said, surprised.
She nodded. “It’s okay. In case you have to do some traveling. In the end, if there’s anything left over, you can return it.”
“I really don’t need more for a while,” I said. “You’ve paid my retainer, and given me an advance that will cover quite a lot of travel.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay. My parents. You know. This way they’re sure you’ll have enough to keep going. Won’t stop in the middle, that kind of thing. It’s okay.”
I looked at her, again to no avail. Her gaze was firmly focused on a stain on the carpet. Someone was going to have to give this young woman some lessons in eye contact. “I wouldn’t stop in the middle. That’s not how I work,” I replied. “Worse comes to worse, I would just call you. Your parents could send a check.”
“It’s okay,” she repeated. “No need. They feel better this way.”
“Okay, then,” I said, shrugging. “Tell them not to worry.”
I walked her to the door, promising to provide an update in a week.
“And remember,” she said, as she turned to go, “It’s supposed to be a surprise. You can’t contact my grandfather, or do anything that will clue him in that something is going on.”
“Don’t worry,” I said to her, smiling my most reassuring smile. I’m quite discrete.”
“I know,” she answered. “That’s what I’d heard.”
It was only afterward, as I was entering my notes from our conversation into the computer that I realized I had never asked her why she told me her grandfather had lived in New York City and not Altoona. What kind of researcher was I! So much for my fantasies — I would never have made it as a real P.I. Not only that, there were countless other questions I hadn’t asked her as well. Like, for example, if her father had any other siblings who might be able to supply more information. In fact, come to think of it, I’d done most of the talking, and I hadn’t learned anything new from Sarah Gelberman at all.
I was furious at myself for not being focused and prepared. I opened a new document, and began typing a list of questions for Sarah Gelberman. No more fooling around. If I was going to do this, I had to do it right. And if there really was something weird going on here, I had to find out. When I finished the list, I printed it out and put a copy in the file folder labeled “Jack Gelberman.” That made me feel a little bit better. The next time I talked to her, I would be ready to ask questions and hear answers.
I dialed the phone number she had given me, hoping to leave a message for her to call me as soon as she got home. If not, I would just keep calling, even if it meant trying her by cell phone on the ride to Altoona. I was bound to get her eventually. Instead, after three rings I got a message from the phone company telling me that this phone number was disconnected. I had felt like an idiot a minute ago. But now I felt like an absolute moron. And what’s worse, a gullible moron. Needless to say, the cell number wasn’t active either.
That was when I remembered the envelope on the table. Inside was a stack of hundred dollar bills. One hundred of them, to be exact. I know, because I counted. And then I counted again, and added it to the money she had already given me. She said her parents were funding this. Still, it was a lot of money to spend on a birthday present.
Simon arrived in time for an early dinner before we set off for Altoona.
“I can’t believe you talked me into this, Abby,” he grumbled as he picked out a suitcase from the hall closet.
“Oh, come on Simon, we’ll have a grand adventure, off into the unknown,” I said, throwing toys and books and snacks for the kids into canvas bags. “Who knows what we’ll discover. It will be fun.”
“With this particular project of yours, it’s certainly true that who knows what we’ll find. Whether or not it will be fun remains to be seen. I’m just worried — it’s seems like there’s more here than meets the eye.”
“It seems so innocent on the surface. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for the weird stuff, for Sarah’s hinkiness and for that Arieh guy’s creepiness.” I tossed tapes and a cassette recorder into the bag, along with Hannah’s favorite coloring book. “I’m hooked, though, whatever it is. I want to know what’s going on.” And I hadn’t quite gotten around to telling Simon all the details of my meeting with Sarah this afternoon. I had left out crucial items, like the money, and the fact that Sarah had given me fake phone numbers. It wasn’t that I wasn’t going to tell him, but it was a just a matter of when and how. The timing would have to be right.
Simon’s disembodied voice floated down from the bedroom. “I do too, but in a sort of distant way. I’d be happy reading about it in a book. Not seeing it unfold right up close. I don’t want you to get caught in the middle of something ugly or dangerous.”
“Hey, Simon, pack the kid’s toothbrushes and toothpaste,” I yelled back at him. “And make sure I took my toiletry bag. If it’s still there in the bathroom, please pack it. Thanks. Anyway, how could this be dangerous? And ugly, sure, a lot of the research I do touches on things that are ‘ugly,’ but I’m only the researcher. It doesn’t affect me.”
There was silence as we each continued to pack. I went into the kitchen and grabbed packs of juice boxes, then checked that the kids’ pillows, jackets and sleeping bags were by the front door.
Simon came down the stairs with his bag. “Let’s just hope that’s true in this case, Abby, let’s just hope that’s true.”
[To be continued….]