The killing kind, p.19
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       The Killing Kind, p.19

           John Connolly
 

  “You see the papers?” he asked.

  “I was there,” I told him.

  “You know who did it?”

  “I think it was our mutual acquaintance.”

  There was a silence on the other end of the line. “How did he find out about your meeting with Al?”

  “He may have been keeping tabs on us,” I conceded. “But it could also be that he was aware of Al Z’s interest in him for some time, and that my investigation precipitated a course of action he’d been planning for some time.” He had learned from his pets that if something starts tugging at the farthest reaches of your web, then it’s a good idea to find out what that might be and, if you can, to make it stop.

  “You weren’t out at your apartment last night,” I continued. “I checked up on you.”

  “I left town as soon as I heard. Somebody called me about Al’s death, a friend from way back, and I knew it had to be Pudd. Nobody else would dare make a move like that against Al Z.”

  “Where are you?”

  “New York.”

  “Think you can lose yourself there, Mickey?”

  “I have people down here. I’ll make some calls, see what they can do for me.”

  “We need to talk some more before you disappear. I get the feeling you haven’t told me all that you know.”

  I thought he would demur. Instead, he admitted: “Some I know, some I’m just guessing.”

  “Meet me. I’ll come down to you.”

  “I don’t know . . .”

  “Mickey, are you going to keep running from this guy for the rest of your life? That doesn’t sound like much of an existence.”

  “It’s better than being dead.” He didn’t sound too sure.

  “You know what he’s doing, don’t you?” I asked him. “You know what the threat of being ‘written’ means. You’ve figured it out.”

  He didn’t reply immediately, and I half expected to hear the connection being ended.

  “The Cloisters,” he said suddenly. “Ten tomorrow. There’s an exhibition in the Treasury you might want to take a look at before I get there. It’ll answer some of your questions, and I’ll try to fill in the gaps. But you’re not there at ten and I walk away. You’ll never see me again.”

  With that, he hung up.

  I booked a ticket on the Delta shuttle to La Guardia, then called Angel and Louis at the Copley. Rachel and I met them for coffee in the Starbucks on Newbury before I caught a cab to Logan. I was in New York by 1:30 P.M. and checked into a double room in the Larchmont on West Eleventh Street in the Village. The Larchmont wasn’t the kind of place Donald Trump was likely to be frequenting but it was clean and inexpensive, and unlike most New York budget hotels, its double rooms weren’t so small that you had to step outside to change your mind. In addition, it had a security-locked front entrance and a doorman the size of the Flatiron Building, so unwanted visitors would be kept to a minimum.

  The city was unseasonably hot and humid, and I was soaked in sweat by the time I reached the hotel. The weather was due to break that night, but until then the A/C would be on full blast throughout the city, while those too poor to afford it made do with cheap fans. After a quick shower in a shared bathroom, I caught a cab uptown to West Eighty-sixth Street. B’Nai Jeshurun, the synagogue with which Yossi Epstein had until recently been involved, had an office on West Eighty-ninth, close by the Claremont Riding Academy, and it seemed that while I was in Manhattan it might be useful to try to find out a little more about the murdered rabbi. The noise of children leaving P.S.166 echoed in my ears as I walked to the synagogue’s office, but it was a wasted trip. Nobody at B’Nai Jeshurun seemed able to tell me much more than I already knew about Yossi Epstein, and I was referred instead to the Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, where Epstein had relocated after his falling-out with the Upper West Side congregation.

  To avoid the rush hour traffic I took the subway from Central Park West as far as Broadway and East Houston, which left me sweating again, then strolled along Houston, past Katz’s Deli and storefront operations selling garbage masquerading as antiques, until I came to Norfolk Street. This was the heart of the Lower East Side, a place that had once been full of scholars and yeshivas, of anti-Hasidic Lithuanians and the rest of the first wave of Russian Jews, who were regarded by the already settled German Jews as backward Orientals. It was said that Allen Street used to belong to Russia, there were so many Russian Jews there. People from the same town formed associations, became tradespeople, saved so their kids could go to college and better themselves. They shared their neighborhoods uneasily with the Irish, and fought with them on the streets.

  Now those times were largely gone. There was still a workers’ co-op on Grand Street, a few Jewish bookstores and skullcap manufacturers between Hester and Division, one or two good bakeries, of course, and Katz’s, the last of the old-style delis, now staffed almost entirely by Dominicans, but most of the Orthodox Jewish community had moved to Borough Park and Williamsburg, or to Crown Heights. The ones who were left were mainly too poor or too stubborn to retreat to the suburbs or Miami.

  The Orensanz Center, the oldest surviving synagogue in New York, once known as the Anshe Chesed, the People of Kindness, seemed to belong to another, distant time. Built by the Berlin architect Alexander Saltzer in 1850 for the German Jewish congregation, and modeled on the cathedral of Cologne, it dominated Norfolk Street, a reminder of the past still extant in the present. I entered through a side door, walked along a dark entrance lobby, and found myself in the main, neo-Gothic hall among elegant pillars and balconies. Dim light filtered in through the windows, turning the interior to the color of old bronze and casting shadows over flowers and white ribbons, the remnants of a wedding held some days earlier. In one corner, a small man with white hair, dressed in blue overalls, was sweeping paper and broken glass into a corner. He stopped his work as I walked over to him. I produced my ID and asked if there was anybody who might be willing to talk about Yossi Epstein.

  “Nobody here today,” he said. “Come back tomorrow.” He resumed his sweeping.

  “Maybe there’s somebody I can call?” I persisted.

  “Call tomorrow.”

  I wasn’t getting very far on looks and good manners alone. “Mind if I take a look around?” I asked and, without waiting for a reply, began to walk toward a small flight of stairs leading down to the basement. I found a locked door with a card pinned to it expressing sorrow at the death of Epstein. A bulletin board to one side listed times of services and Hebrew classes, as well as a series of lectures on the history of the area. There wasn’t much more to see, so after ten minutes of unsuccessful snooping around the rest of the basement, I brushed the dust from my jacket and walked back up the stairs.

  The old guy with the broom had disappeared. Instead, there were two men waiting for me. One was young, with a red skullcap that looked too small for his head and a head that looked too small for his shoulders. He wore a dark shirt and black jeans and, judging by his expression, wasn’t one of the people of kindness. The man beside him was older, with thinning gray hair and a thick beard. He was dressed more traditionally than his friend—white shirt and black tie beneath a black suit and overcoat—but didn’t look significantly kinder.

  “Are you the rabbi?” I asked him.

  “No, we are not connected with the Orensanz Center,” he replied, before adding: “You think everyone who dresses in black is a rabbi?”

  “Does that make me anti-Semitic?”

  “No, but carrying a gun into a synagogue might.”

  “It’s nothing personal, or even religious.”

  The older man nodded. “I’m sure it’s not, but it pays to be careful with such matters. I understand you are a private detective. May I see some form of identification, please?”

  I raised my hand and slowly reached into my inside pocket for my wallet. I gave it to the young guy, who handed it in turn to the older man. He examined it for a good minute, t
hen folded it and handed it back to me.

  “And why is a private detective from Maine asking about the death of a New York rabbi?”

  “I think Rabbi Epstein’s death may be connected to a case I’m investigating. I hoped that somebody might be able to tell me a little more about him.”

  “He’s dead, Mr. Parker. What more do you need to know?”

  “Who killed him would be a start, or doesn’t that concern you?”

  “It concerns me a great deal, Mr. Parker.” He turned to the younger man, nodded, and we watched as he walked from the hall, closing the door softly behind him. “What is this case you are investigating?”

  “The death of a young woman. She was a friend of mine, once.”

  “Then investigate her death and leave us to do our own work.”

  “If her death is connected to that of the rabbi, it might be in both of our interests for you to help me. I can find the man who did this.”

  “The man,” he repeated, emphasizing the second word. “You seem very certain that it was a man.”

  “I know who he is,” I said simply.

  “Then we both know,” he replied. “The matter is in hand. Steps have been taken to deal with it.”

  “What steps?”

  “An eye for an eye, Mr. Parker. He will be found.” He drew closer to me, and his eyes softened slightly. “This is not your concern. Not every unlawful death is fuel for your anger.”

  He knew who I was. I could see it in his face, my past reflected back upon me in the mirrors of his eyes. There had been so much newspaper coverage of the deaths of Susan and Jennifer, and the final violent end of the Traveling Man, that there would always be those who remembered me. Now, in this old synagogue, I felt my personal loss exposed once again, like a mote of dust caught in the sunlight pouring through the windows above.

  “The woman is my concern,” I said. “If the rabbi’s death is connected, then that becomes my concern too.”

  He shook his head and gripped my shoulder lightly.

  “Do you know what tashlikh is, Mr. Parker? It is a symbolic act, the casting of bread crumbs onto the water, symbolizing the sins of the past, a burden with which one no longer chooses to live. I think you must find it in yourself to lay aside your burdens before they kill you.”

  He began to walk away, and was almost at the door when I spoke.

  “ ‘This was said by my father, and I am the atonement for where he rests.’ ”

  The old man stopped and stared back to me.

  “It’s from the Talmud,” I said.

  “I know what it is,” he almost whispered.

  “This isn’t about revenge.”

  “Then what is it about?”

  “Reparation.”

  “For your father’s sins, or your own?”

  “Both.”

  He seemed to lose himself in thought for a few moments, and when the light returned to his eyes a decision had been made.

  “There is a legend told of the Golem, Mr. Parker,” he began, “an artificial man made of clay. The Rabbi Loew created the first Golem, in Prague, in fifty-three forty. The rabbi formed him from mud and placed the shem, the parchment bearing the name of God, in his mouth. The rabbi is justified in legend for creating a creature capable of defending Jews against the pogroms, against the wrath of their enemies. Do you believe that such a creature can exist, that justice can be served by its creation?”

  “I believe that men like him can exist,” I replied. “But I don’t think justice always plays a part in their creation, or is served by their actions.”

  “Yes, perhaps a man,” said the old Jew softly. “And perhaps justice, if it is divinely inspired. We have dispatched our Golem. Let the will of God be done.” In his eyes I could see the ambivalence of his response to what had been set in train; they had sent one killer to track another, unleashing violence against violence, with all of the risks that such an act entailed.

  “Who are you?” I asked.

  “My name is Ben Epstein,” he answered, “and I am the atonement for where my son rests.”

  The door closed gently behind him, its sound in the empty synagogue like a breath exhaled from the mouth of God.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  Lester Bargus is alone behind the counter of the store on the day he dies, the same day on which I meet Yossi Epstein’s father. Jim Gould, who works for Bargus part-time, is out back fieldstripping a pair of stolen H&K semiautomatics, so there is nobody in the rear storeroom, where a pair of TV screens show the interior of the store from two angles, one from a visible camera above the door, the other from a lens hidden inside the shell of a portable stereo kept on a shelf behind the register. Lester Bargus is a careful man, but not careful enough. His store is miked, but Lester Bargus doesn’t know that. The only people who know are the ATF agents who have been monitoring Bargus’s illegal gun operation for the best part of eleven days.

  But on this particular day business is slow, and Bargus is idly feeding crickets to his pet mantid when the door opens. Even on the oddly angled black-and-white recordings made by the cameras, the new arrival seems strangely out of place. He is dressed in a black suit, shiny black shoes, and a thin black tie over a white shirt. On his head he wears a black hat, and a long black coat hangs to the middle of his calves. He is tall and well built. His age is hard to gauge; he could be anything from forty to seventy.

  But it is only when the few clear images obtained by the cameras are frozen and enhanced that his strangeness becomes truly apparent. The skin is stretched taut on his face and he appears to be almost entirely without flesh, the striations of the tendons in his jaw and neck clearly visible through his skin, his cheekbones like shards of glass below dark eyes. He has no eyebrows. The ATF agents who later examine the tape suspect at first that he may simply be so fair that his hair does not show up, but when the images are enlarged they reveal only slightly roughened skin above his eyes, like old scar tissue.

  His appearance obviously shocks Lester Bargus. On the tape, he can be seen taking a step back in surprise. He is wearing a white T-shirt with a Smith & Wesson logo on the back, and blue jeans with a lot of room around the crotch and the ass. Maybe he is hoping to grow into them.

  “Help you?” His voice on the recording is cautious but hopeful. Especially on a slow day, a sale is a sale, even if it does come from a freak.

  “I am looking for this man.” The accent makes it clear that English is only a second language, possibly even a third. He sounds European; not German, but Polish maybe, or Czech. Later, an expert will identify it as Hungarian, with Yiddish inflections to certain words. The man is a Jew, originally from Eastern Europe but with some time spent in the west of the continent, probably France.

  He takes a photograph from his pocket and pushes it across the counter toward Lester Bargus. Lester doesn’t even look at the photograph. All he says is: “I don’t know him.”

  “Look at it.” And his tone tells Lester Bargus that it doesn’t matter what he does or does not say from now on, because nothing can save him from this man.

  Lester reaches out and touches the photograph for the first time, but only to push it away. His head does not move. He still has not looked at the photograph, but while his left hand is in sight his right is moving to grasp the shotgun that rests on the shelf beneath the counter. He has almost reached it when the gun appears. Firearms will later identify it as a Jericho 941, made in Israel. Lester Bargus’s right hand returns to the counter alongside his left, and both hands start to tremble in unison.

  “For the last time, Mr. Bargus, look at the photograph.”

  This time, Lester does look down. He spends some time staring at the photograph, weighing up his options. It’s obvious that he knows the man in the picture and that the gunman is aware of this fact because the gunman wouldn’t be there otherwise. On the tape, it’s almost possible to hear Lester gulp.

  “Where do I find this man?” During the whole encounter, the expression on the gunman’s
face has not altered. It is as if the skin is so tight across his skull that simply to talk requires a huge effort. The palpable menace of the man is obvious even from the black-and-white recording. Lester Bargus, forced to deal with him face-to-face, is terrified beyond belief. It is audible in his voice when he speaks what will be his second-to-last sentence on this earth.

  “He’ll kill me if I tell you,” says Bargus.

  “I will kill you if you don’t.”

  Then Lester Bargus says his last words, and they reveal a prescience that I didn’t think Lester would ever have. “You’re going to kill me anyhow,” he says, and something in his voice tells the gunman that this is all he is ever going to get out of Lester.

  “Yes,” says the gunman. “I am.”

  The shots sound incredibly loud after the conversation that has just taken place, but also distorted and muted as the sound levels fail to cope with them. Lester Bargus jolts as the first bullet takes him in the chest, then keeps bucking and spasming as the rest of the shots tear into him, the static-ridden thunderclaps coming again and again until it seems that they will never end. There are ten shots, then there is a noise and a movement from the left of the picture as part of Jim Gould’s body appears in the frame. Two more shots come and Gould falls across the counter as the gunman springs across it and darts into the rear of the store. By the time the ATF agents reach the scene, he is gone.

  On the counter, now soaked with Lester Bargus’s blood, the photograph remains. It is a picture of a group of demonstrators outside an abortion clinic in Minnesota. There are men and women holding placards, some obviously screaming their protests as police try to hold them back while others stand openmouthed in shock. To the right of the picture, the body of a man lies slumped against a wall as medics crowd around him. There is black blood on the pavement and on the wall behind him. At the fringe of the group another man has been caught in the act of walking away, his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, tiny hoods of skin shrouding his eyes as he looks back toward the dying man, his face inadvertently revealed to the camera. A red circle has been drawn around his head.

 

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