Rebbe"I suggest we dispense with the pleasantries," the rebbe says. His voice comes pitched high, droll, the voice of the well-proportioned, scholarly man he must have been once. Landsman has heard that it's a glandular disorder. He has heard that the Verbover rebbe, for all his bulk, maintains the diet of a martyr, broth and roots and a daily crust of bread. But Landsman prefers to see the man as distended with the gas of violence and corruption. His belly filled with bones and shoes and the hearts of men, half digested in the acid of his Law.
"Sit down and tell me what you came here to say."
"We can do that, rebbe," Berko says.
They each take a chair in front of the rebbe's desk. The office is pure Austro-Hungarian empire. Behemoths of mahogany, ebony and bird's-eye maple crowd the walls, ornate as cathedrals. In the corner by the door stands the famous Verbover Clock, a survivor of the old home back in Ukraine. Looted when Russia fell, then shipped back to Germany, it survived the dropping of the atomic bomb on Berlin in 1946 and all the confusions of the time that followed. It runs counterclockwise, reverse-numbered with the first twelve letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Its recovery was a turning point in the fortunes of the Verbover court and marked the start of Heskel Shpilman's ascent.
Baronshteyn takes up a position behind and to the right of the rebbe, at a lectern where he can keep one eye on the street, one eye on whatever volume is being combed for precedents and justifications, and one eye, a lidless inner eye, on the man who is the center of his existence.
Landsman clears his throat. He is the primary, and this is his job to do. He steals another glance at the Verbover Clock. There are seven minutes remaining in this sorry excuse for a week.
"Before you begin, Detectives," says Aryeh Baronshteyn, "let me state for the record that I am here in my capacity as attorney to Rabbi Shpilman. Rebbe, if you have any doubt about whether you ought to answer a question put to you by the detectives, please refrain from answering, and allow me to ask them to clarify or rephrase it."
"This isn't an interrogation, Rabbi Baronshteyn," Berko says.
"You are welcome here, more than welcome, Aryeh," the rebbe says. "Indeed, I insist that you be present. But as my gabay and my son-in-law. Not as my lawyer. For this I don't need a lawyer."
"If I may, dear Rebbe. These men are homicide detectives. You are the Verbover rebbe. If you don't need a lawyer, then nobody needs a lawyer. And believe me, everybody needs a lawyer." Baronshteyn slides a pad of yellow paper from the interior of the lectern, where he no doubt keeps his vials of curare and his necklaces of severed human ears. He unscrews the cap of a fountain pen. "I will at least take notes. On," he deadpans, "a legal pad."
The Verbover rebbe contemplates Landsman from deep inside the redoubt of his flesh. He has light eyes, somewhere between green and gold. They're nothing like the pebbles abandoned by mourners on Baronshteyn's tombstone puss. Fatherly eyes that suffer and forgive and find amusement. They know what Landsman has lost, what he has squandered and let slip from his grasp through doubt, faithlessness, and the pursuit of being tough. They understand the furious wobble that throws off the trajectory of Landsman's good intentions. They comprehend the love affair that Landsman has with violence, his wild willingness to put his body out there on the street to break and to be broken. Until this minute Landsman didn't grasp what he and every noz in the District, and the Russian shtarkers and small-time wiseguys, and the FBI and the IRS and the ATF, were up against. He never understood how the other sects could tolerate and even defer to the presence of these pious gangsters in their black-hat midst. You could lead men with a pair of eyes like that. You could send them to the very lip of whatever abyss you chose.
"Tell me why you are here, Detective Landsman," the rebbe says.
Through the door of the outer office comes the muffled jangle of a telephone. There is no phone on the desk and none in sight. The rebbe works some feat of semaphore with half an eyebrow and a minor muscle of the eye. Baronshteyn puts down his pen. The ringing swells and dwindles as Baronshteyn slips the black missive of his body through the slot of the office door. A moment later, Landsman hears him answer. The words are unclear, the tone curt, maybe even harsh.
The rebbe catches Landsman trying to eavesdrop and puts his eyebrow muscles to more strenuous use.
"Right," says Landsman. "It's like this. It so happens, Rabbi Shpilman, that I live in the Zamenhof. It's a hotel, not a good one, down on Max Nordau Street. Last night the manager knocked on my door and asked me would I mind coming down to have a look at another guest in the hotel. The manager had been worried about this guest. He was afraid the Jew might have overdosed. And so he had let himself into the room. It turned out that the man was dead. He was registered under an assumed name. He had no identification. But there were a few hints of this and that in his room. And today my partner and I followed up on one of those hints, and it led us here. To you. We believe --- we are all but certain --- that the dead man was your son."
Baronshteyn sidles back into the room as Landsman is giving the news. His face has been wiped, as if with a soft cloth, of all prints or smudges of emotion.
"All but certain," the rebbe says dully, nothing moving in his face but the lights in his eyes. "I see. All but certain. Hints of this and that."
"We have a picture," Landsman says. Once again he produces like a grim magician Shpringer's photograph of the dead Jew in 208. He starts to pass it to the rebbe but consideration, a sudden flutter of sympathy, stops his hand.
"Perhaps it would be best," says Baronshteyn, "if I --- "
"No," the rebbe says.
Shpilman takes the photograph from Landsman and, with both hands, brings it very close to his face, straight up into the precinct of his right eyeball. He's only nearsighted, but there is something vampiric in the gesture, as if he's trying to drain a vital liquor from the photograph with the lamprey mouth of his eye. He measures it from top to bottom and end to end. His expression never alters. Then he lowers the photograph to the clutter of his desk and clucks his tongue once. Baronshteyn steps forward to take a look at the picture, but the rebbe waves him off and says, "It's him."
Landsman, his instruments dialed up to full gain, widest aperture, is tuned to catch some faint radiation of regret or satisfaction that might escape the singularities at the heart of Baronshtevn's eyes. And it's there, a brief tracer arc of particles lights them up. But what Landsman detects in that instant, to his surprise, is disappointment. For an instant Aryeh Baronshteyn looks like a man who just drew an ace of spades and is contemplating the fan of useless diamonds in his hand. He exhales a short breath, half a sigh, and walks slowly back to his lectern.
"Shot," the rebbe says.
"Once." says Landsman.
"By whom, please?"
"Well, we don't know that."
"Not so far."
Landsman says no, then turns to Berko for confirmation, and Berko gives his head a somber shake.
"Shot." The rebbe shakes his head as if marveling- How do you like that? With no discernible change in his voice or manner, he says, "You are well, Detective Shemets?"
"I can't complain. Rabbi Shpilman."
"Your wife and children? Healthy and strong?"
"They could be worse."
"Two sons, I believe, one an infant."
"Right, as usual."
The massive cheeks tremble in assent or satisfaction. The rebbe murmurs a conventional blessing on the heads of Berko's little boys. Then his gaze rolls in Landsman's direction, and when it locks on him, Landsman feels a stab of panic. The rebbe knows everything. He knows about the mosaic chromosome and the boy Landsman sacrificed to preserve hard-earned illusions about the tendency of life to get things wrong. And now he's going to offer a blessing for Django, too. But the rebbe says nothing, and the gears in the Verbover Clock grind away. Berko glances at his wristwatch; time to get home to the candles and the wine. To his blessed boys, who could be worse. To Ester-MaIke, with the braided loaf of another child tucked somewhere in her belly. He and Landsman have no dispensation to be here past sundown, investigating a case that officially no longer exists. No one's life is at stake. There is nothing to be done to save any of them, not the yids in this room, not the yid, poor thing, who brought them here.
"Yes, Detective Landsman?"
"Are you all right?"
"Do I seem 'all right' to you. Detective Landsman?"
"I've only just had the honor of meeting you," Landsman says carefully, more in deference to Berko's sensibilities than to the rabbi or his office. "But to be honest, you seem all right."
"In a way that appears suspicious? That seems to inculpate me, perhaps?"
"Rebbe, please, no jokes," Baronshteyn says.
"As to that," Landsman says, ignoring the mouthpiece, "I wouldn't venture an opinion."
"My son has been dead to me for many years, Detective. Many years. I tore my clothes and said kaddish and lit a candle for his loss long ago." The words themselves trade in anger and bitterness, but his tone is breathtakingly void of emotion. "What you found in the Zamenhof Hotel --- was it the Zamenhof? --- what you found there, if it is him, that was only a husk. The kernel was long since cut out and spoiled."
"A husk," Landsman says. "I see."
He knows what a hard thing it can be to have fathered a heroin addict. He has seen this kind of coldness before. But something rankles him about these yids who tear their lapels and sit shiva for living children. It seems to Landsman to make a mockery of both the living and the dead.
"Now, all right. From what I have heard," Landsman continues, "and I certainly don't claim to understand it, your son --- as a boy --- he showed certain, well, indications, or ... that he might be ... I'm not sure I have this right. The Tzaddik Ha-Dor, is that it? If the conditions were right, if the Jews of this generation were worthy, then he might reveal himself as, uh, as Messiah."
"It's ridiculous, nu. Detective Landsman," the rebbe says. "The very idea makes you smile."
"Not at all," Landsman says. "But if your son was Messiah, then I guess we're all in trouble. Because right now he's lying in a drawer down in the basement of Sitka General."
"Meyer," Berko says.
"With all due respect," Landsman puts in.
The rebbe doesn't answer at first, and when he finally speaks, it is with evident care. "We are taught by the Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, that a man with the potential to be Messiah is born into every generation. This is the Tzaddik Ha-Dor. Now, Mendel. Mendele, Mendele."
He closes his eyes. He might be remembering. He might be fighting back tears. He opens them. They're dry, and he remembers.
"Mendel had a remarkable nature as a boy. I'm not talking about miracles. Miracles are a burden for a tzaddik, not the proof of one. Miracles prove nothing except to those whose faith is bought very cheap, sir. There was something in Mendele. There was a fire. This is a cold, dark place, Detectives. A gray, wet place. Mendele gave off light and warmth. You wanted to stand close to him. To warm your hands, to melt the ice on your beard. To banish the darkness for a minute or two. But then when you left Mendele, you stayed warm, and it seemed like there was a little more light, maybe one candle's worth, in the world. And that was when you realized the fire was inside of you all the time. And that was the miracle. Just that." He strokes his beard, pulling on it, as if trying to think of something he might have missed. "Nothing else."
"When was the last time you saw him?" Berko says.
"Twenty-three years ago," the rebbe says without hesitation. "On the twentieth of Elul. No one in this house has spoken to or seen him since then."
"Not even his mother?"
The question shocks them all, even Landsman, the yid who asked it.
"Do you suppose. Detective Landsman, that my wife would ever attempt to subvert my authority with respect to this or any other matter?"
"I suppose everything, Rabbi Shpilman," Landsman says. "I don't mean anything by it."
"Have you come here with any notions," Baronshteyn says, "about who might have killed Mendel?"
"Actually --- " Landsman begins.
"Actually," the Verbover rebbe says, cutting Landsman off. He plucks a sheet of paper from the chaos of his desk, tractates, promulgations, and bans, classified documents, adding machine tapes, surveillance reports on the habits of marked men. There's a second or two of tromboning as he brings the paper within focusing range. The flesh of his right arm sloshes in the wineskin of his sleeve. "These particular homicide detectives are not supposed to be investigating this matter at all. Am I wrong?"
He sets down the paper, and Landsman has to wonder how he ever could have seen anything in the rebbe's eyes but ten thousand miles of frozen sea. Landsman is shocked, knocked overboard into that cold water. To keep himself afloat, he clings to the ballast of his cynicism. Did the order to black-flag the Lasker case come straight from Verbov Island? Has Shpilman known all along that his son is dead, murdered in room 208 of the Hotel Zamenhof? Did he himself order the killing? Are the business and directives of the Homicide Section of Sitka Central routinely submitted for his inspection? These might make interesting questions if Landsman could get his heart out of his mouth and ask them.
"What did he do?" Landsman says at last. "Exactly why was he dead to you already? What did he know? What, while we're on the subject, do you know, Rebbe? Rabbi Baronshteyn? I know you people have the fix in. I don't know what kind of deal you've worked for yourselves. But looking around this fine island of yours, I can see you should excuse the expression, that you are carrying a lot of serious weight."
"Meyer," Berko says, a warning in it.
"Don't you come back here. Landsman," the rebbe says. "Don't ever bother anyone in this household, or any of the folk on this island. Stay away from Zimbalist. And stay away from me. If I hear that you have so much as asked one of my people to light your cigarette, I will have you and your shield. Is that clear?"
"With all due respect --- " Landsman begins.
"An empty formula in your case, surely."
"Nevertheless," Landsman says, recovering himself "If I had a dollar for every time some shtarker with a glandular problem tried to scare me off a case, with all due respect, I wouldn't have to sit here listening to threats from a man who can't even manage to shed a tear for the son I'm sure he helped into an early grave. Whether he died twenty-three years ago or last night."
"Please do not mistake me for some two-bit Hirshbeyn Avenue wiseguy," the rebbe says. "I am not threatening you."
"No? What are you, blessing me?"
"I'm looking at you, Detective Landsman. I understand that like my son, poor thing, you may not have been provided by the Holy Name with the most admirable of fathers."
"Rav Heskel!" Baronshteyn cries.
But the rabbi ignores his gabay and moves on before Landsman can ask him what the hell he thinks he knows about poor old Isidor.
"I can see that at one time, again like Mendel, you may have been something very much more than you are today. You may have been a fine shammes. But I doubt that you have ever qualified as a great sage."
"On the contrary," Landsman says.
"So. Please believe me when I tell you that you need to find another use for the time that remains to you."
Inside the Verbover Clock, an old system of hammers and chimes takes up a melody, older still, that welcomes to every Jewish home and house of prayer the bride of the end of the week.
"We're out of time," says Baronshteyn. "Gentlemen."
The detectives stand, and the men wish one another the joy of the Sabbath. Then the detectives put on their hats and turn for the door.
"We'll need someone to identify the body," Berko says.
"Unless you want us to put him out by the curb," Landsman says.
"We will send someone tomorrow," the rebbe says. He turns in his chair, showing them his back. He bows his head, then reaches for a pair of canes hanging from a hook on the wall behind him. The canes have silver heads, chased with gold. He stabs them into the carpet and then, with the wheeze of antique machinery, hoists himself to his feet. "After the Sabbath."
Baronshteyn follows them back down the stairs to the Rudashevsky by the door. Over their heads, the floorboards of the study utter a grievous creak. They hear the sharp taps and rain-barrel slosh of the rebbe's tread. The family will have gathered in the back part of the house, waiting for him to come and bless them all.
Baronshteyn opens the front door of the replica house. Shmeri and Yossele step into the hall, snow on their hats and shoulders, snow in their wintry gray eyes. The brothers or cousins or cousin-brothers form the points of a triangle with the indoor version, a three-fingered fist of solid Rudashevsky closing around Landsman and Berko.
Baronshteyn shoves his narrow face in close to Landsman's. Landsman lids his nostrils against a smell of tomato seeds, tobacco, sour cream.
"This is a little island," Baronshteyn says. "But there a thousand places on it where a nez, even a detective shammes, could get lost and never come out. So be careful, Detectives, all right? And a good Sabbath to you both."--- From The Yiddish