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 20. Enjoy!
I parked the rental car in a guest spot near the entrance to the building. Getting out of the car, I checked carefully to make sure I wasn’t breaking any rules by parking too close to the yellow line or too far from the cement barrier. If this condominium complex was anything like my grandmother’s, you could get your car towed from the lot for a multitude of minor infractions. The complex in which Jack Gelberman lived was called The Seabreeze, despite the fact that it was not on the ocean. The four identical buildings that made up the complex were ivory stucco, with brown wood trim, and blue canopies. There was a sense of well-being in the complex, due in part to the meticulous landscaping and the fresh coat of paint. Each building had been created to look like it was made up of a series of connected townhouses, with covered walkways connecting the entrances on each floor. The first two floors appeared to be made up of duplex townhouses, but Jack Gelberman’s apartment was 3C, on the third and top floor. I took a deep breath, and walked up the steps that jutted out from the center of the building.
I had landed about two hours ago, feeling surprisingly footloose and fancy free. Traveling without Simon and the kids had its advantages. I’d been able to nap on the plane, and to indulge my mystery novel cravings. Now that I was actually there, this trip was feeling fun, despite Simon’s displeasure at my going, and despite my worry that Hannah might be coming down with something. I checked into a hotel, and spent some time there having lunch and getting my bearings. Winter Park was a quiet Florida city, not a major tourist destination but a rather cultured college town. Fairleigh College, the main attraction of the town, provided the locals with concerts, plays, art and even tuition remission for senior citizens. It wasn’t the kind of place where you’d want to retire if you dreamed of spending your golden years on the beach, but it might be a nice place if you were used to a certain proximity to academia, and craved a life of culture along with your sunshine and warm weather.
To squelch my nervousness, I took some deep breaths on my way up the stairs. But deep breathing hadn’t helped in childbirth and it wasn’t helping now. What if he wasn’t home? I had called from the car pretending to be a wrong number. A man’s voice answered, which was the best I was going to get. What if he wouldn’t talk to me? What if he slammed the door in my face?
There I was, in front of 3C. It was the only door I passed that had a mezuzah hanging on the doorframe. One more deep breath, and I knocked. After a few moments, the door opened.
A tall man, appearing to be in his seventies, with a shock of white hair around the crown of his head, stood facing me. Except for the fact that his hair was whiter and there was less of it, and that he was wearing thick glasses, this was definitely the same man I had seen in the photo at the Klein’s house in Altoona, the same prominent cheekbones, the same thick lips. It was definitely the same man, but it was also like seeing a ghost. After all the research, here I finally was, standing across from the man I’d been studying. Whatever secrets he might be hiding, he was certainly real, and that was a surreal feeling. I knew I had to quickly figure out a way to get him to trust me and talk to me. And yet I continued to stare at him. Because despite his resemblance to the photo, something about his appearance was not right.
He stared back at me. “May I help you, ma’m?” he asked politely.
Trying to regain my composure, I smiled. “I’m sorry, yes. Hello. I’m Abby Marcus. I’m looking for a Mr. Jack Gelberman. Might that be you?”
As soon as I mentioned his name, the set of his mouth became tight. “And why are you looking for him?” he asked.
I didn’t have a great cover story, so I was going to have to be as honest as I could be, without blowing the surprise element of Sarah Gelberman’s story. I only had one chance at this. “Well, I’ll come right to the point. I’m here because of your granddaughter, Sarah. I came to know Sarah in the course of my work, and to be honest, I’m concerned about her, and you’re the only family she’s mentioned.”
His expression went from tense to troubled. “Come in, come in, please.”
The living room was small and dark and anonymous, except for the books that filled every possible corner and surface of the room. There seemed to be no particular kind of book that was favored. As I sat on the couch, I noticed books on history, architecture, art, physics, biology, Judaism, Buddhism, communism, and feminism. And that was only the books that were piled on the end tables on either side of the couch.
Jack Gelberman sat across from me on a faded recliner. “Please, tell me who you are, and how you know Sarah,” he said calmly, though I could hear the undercurrent of anxiety in his voice.
I explained, in the most vague terms possible, that I was a researcher living in New York. I told him that Sarah had contacted me regarding a project that she was working on for school, but that midway through, she seemed to have abruptly moved and cut off contact. I was concerned, because I hadn’t been able to find her, and that I hadn’t supplied her with the information she paid me to find for her. I tried to emphasize the fact that I was just trying to finish a job I had been paid for, which wasn’t entirely true, and de-emphasize any sense of foul play, but I wasn’t smart enough or a good enough liar for Jack Gelberman.
“I appreciate your concern for Sarah’s well being,” he said, looking right at me. “But, and I hope you won’t take offense, I don’t quite believe your story. I can’t imagine Sarah paid you that much money to look up some information for her, certainly not enough to make you fly down here to speak to me when you could have easily called by phone. You obviously are talented at finding people. If you were able to find my address, you surely could have found my phone number. For that matter, you could have found the phone number of Sarah’s parents. The other thing that is not believable in your story is that Sarah would have paid someone to do research for her. She is quite talented at research herself, and doesn’t spend money she doesn’t have. I’m willing to listen to you, but you must come up with a better story than that.”
As he spoke, I had the eerie feeling that he could read my mind. What could I say, without spoiling Sarah’s surprise? But by now, my concern for Sarah’s safety outweighed my desire to maintain the element of surprise. Besides which, I had so many doubts about Sarah’s story that I wasn’t sure her goal had really been a surprise for her grandfather. On the other hand, this man had neither denied being Jack Gelberman, nor denied having a granddaughter named Sarah. So I took a deep breath, and began to tell this man some, but not by any means all, of the real reason behind my visit.
It was going to be hard to look him straight in the eye and not be entirely honest, so I kept my eyes on the books behind him. I told him that among other things, I was a genealogical researcher. I told him that Sarah had hired me to create a family tree for his birthday, and that she had disappeared under suspicious circumstances. I told him that there were people who had warned me away from this research, and that I was afraid Sarah might have gotten tangled up in something bigger than herself. When I was done, I looked back at him, and he was smiling.
“This is an interesting tale you tell,” he said. “It sounds incredibly plausible, and certainly fascinating. Except for one thing. I just spoke to Sarah last night. She is in her senior year at Amherst, where she is busy researching the mating patterns of moths for her senior thesis. She has never lived in New York, nor does she appear to be in any danger. Not only that, but I celebrated my birthday two months ago, in August, and Sarah gave me a lovely present. You can probably guess, a book.” And again, he smiled. “So, I am going to ask you once more, who are you, and why you are here?”
I turned and stared at him, my mouth open in surprise. “Actually, what I just told you is true. There are details I didn’t elaborate on, like the fact that I went to Altoona to learn as much about you as I could, and that I have a good suspicion that you are the grandson of the last of the Halizcher rebbe despite the fact that the Halizchers think you, or rather, he, died in Treblinka. I don’t have it all figured out. But everything I just told you concerning Sarah is true, to the best of my knowledge. The young woman who came to see told me that she was Sarah Gelberman, and so far my research inon her identity has revealed nothing to contradicts that. She signed a lease under that name, and presented the landlord with a copy of a driver’s license.”
Now he stared at me, not in surprise, but rather in thoughtful concentration. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, he ran his hands through what was left of his hair, and let out a long, slow sigh. “Well then, Ms. Abby Marcus. I don’t know what to make of the fact that you have been going around finding out things about me that I might not want to be found. But we can discuss the merits of freedom of information at another opportunity. Let me ask you this: This Sarah Gelberman who came to see you, did she have red hair?”
“Yes,” I answered, confused by the question. “Yes, she did.”
Without a word, he quickly got up, and walked into what I assumed was the bedroom. If this had been a spy novel, I would have used the few moments he was out of the room to rifle through his drawers and unearth his secrets. But this wasn’t a novel, and I wasn’t a spy. Besides, I didn’t really know how to rifle through drawers. That was all I needed, to be caught going through his things. However, while I wasn’t a spy, I was a good observer. And as I sat waiting for him return from the bedroom, my attention was drawn to a pile of mail on top of some books on the end table next to the couch. On the very top of the pile was an envelope with an interesting return address—Jewish Memorial Home, in the Bronx. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, except for the story the Kleins had told me about a mystery relative in New York. And this letter didn’t look like a random junk mail solicitation—it was addressed to Mr. Jack Gelberman, and had a first class stamp.
Before I had time to ponder the ethics of going through a stranger’s mail, Jack Gelberman returned, holding in his hand a framed picture, which he held out to me. “This is from Sarah’s brother’s bar mitzvah a few years ago,” he said. “She’s the one on my right. Hasn’t changed much since then, only gotten smarter.”
I took the picture, and stared at the young woman who stood second from the left in the family grouping. There was no way that this was my Sarah Gelberman. It wasn’t even a matter of hair dye. This man’s granddaughter looked Asian, or at least partially Asian. Or at least, not like the Sarah Gelberman who came to see me. She had gleaming, long black hair, dark skin, and dark eyes. Jack Gelberman’s son Nathan had married an Asian woman, and their three children were clearly a combination of Eastern European and Asian genes. The son looked a great deal like his father, with the same nose and eyes, but his mother’s broad cheeks, small mouth, and black hair. The middle sister had fair hair, the mother’s eyes, and fair skin. Suddenly I understood what everyone in Altoona had meant when they remarked on how the children looked different and stood out. No wonder. There probably weren’t a lot of racially mixed couples in Western Pennsylvania twenty years ago. And this also explained what Rabbi Bergman might have meant about there being issues over whether or not Nathan Gelberman and his family was going to join the synagogue, and why the Kleins had segued from talking about Nathan and his family to the issues of intermarriage in their own family. Nathan’s wife wasn’t Jewish, or at least hadn’t been born Jewish. This also explained why my Sarah Gelberman hadn’t known that Jack Gelberman had lived in Altoona, because he wasn’t really her grandfather, apparently. Some puzzles were solved, but a bigger problem remained. Who was the young woman who had come to me for help, and why was she paying me to research a man who was not her grandfather?
I handed him back the photograph. “You’re right, this is not the Sarah Gelberman who came to see me. But you knew she had red hair. Why?”
He took the photograph and came to sit next to me on the couch. “A lucky guess. Let’s leave it at that for now. I have some appointments this afternoon that I must not be late for, I tutor at an after-school center, but would you care to meet for dinner?”
I nodded my head in agreement. “I would love to speak to you some more.”
“Good. We will speak then.” He got up, and I followed suit. He led me to the door, and opened it.
I stepped out into the warm sunshine, a stark contrast to the unlit apartment, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my skin.
Jack Gelberman blinked in the bright sunshine. He slipped off his thick bifocals and rubbed his eyes as they adjusted to the sunlight. “Still hard sometimes getting used to the sun. Anyway, let us meet at five o’clock,” he said, his face appearing rounder and softer without the glasses. Smiling, he continued, “We’ll catch an early bird special at one of my usual haunts. It’s one of the only perks of getting old.”
I agreed, gave him my cell phone number in case there was a change in plans, and thanked him for his time. He closed the door, and I started down the steps. All I could think about was how different he looked without his glasses on, almost like another person entirely. As I drove away it again occurred to me that something wasn’t right about the man I just met, something important, but I still couldn’t figure out what.