"The City Beautiful is the haunting, queer Jewish historical thriller of my darkest dreams." —Dahlia Adler, creator of LGBTQ Reads and editor of That Way Madness Lies
Death lurks around every corner in this unforgettable Jewish historical fantasy about a city, a boy, and the shadows of the past that bind them both together.
Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.
But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows.
Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.
Release date: October 5, 2021
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Print pages: 304
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The City Beautiful
Anguished sobs echoed down the winding stairwell, bouncing off the walls like the cries of strange birds. Here on Maxwell Street, weeping was as common as bawling babies, quarreling, and laughter. Along with housing a kingdom of rats and roaches, the walls between tenements were paper-thin, so I was constantly involved in the personal lives of my neighbors, whether I wanted to be or not.
As the sobbing continued unabated, I wheeled my bicycle into the third-floor corridor. My next-door neighbor Mrs. Brenner stood in the hall with a red-haired woman I didn’t recognize. Mrs. Brenner was a shadchante, a professional marriage broker. She took her job so seriously, she would try to wed off anything with a pulse. Apparently, this time it hadn’t gone over very well.
“Moishe’s a good boy,” the stranger said in a quaking voice. Tears streaked her cheeks, her face red and blotchy. “He minds his own business. He goes to night school. He isn’t a troublemaker like that Aaron Holtz; he wouldn’t just run off without saying anything.”
The woman wiped her eyes and looked at me.
“Oy, he looks like Moishe!” she exclaimed, pressing her palms to her face. “For a moment, I thought—”
A sob tore through her body. I reached for my handkerchief, but by the time I pulled it from my pocket, she was already hurrying down the hall.
“I’m sorry,” I told Mrs. Brenner as the woman disappeared into the stairwell. “I hope I didn’t intrude.”
She blotted her forehead with a lace-fringed hanky. “It’s fine, Alter. She was just leaving.”
Even with the gaslights dimmed and the hallway windows cranked open, a swampish heat encased us like mud. I couldn’t wait to get out on the fire escape and enjoy the sliced melon left in the icebox.
“That was Mrs. Walden,” Mrs. Brenner said as I stuffed my handkerchief back into my pocket. “It seems her son never came home from work three days ago.”
I tried envisioning Moishe Walden. I thought he might be the slender ginger-haired boy who always had a bisl of mandelbrot or rugelach to share during learning. Shy and soft-spoken, he had never struck me as the kind of person to run off. He was a year or two younger than me and at least four centimeters shorter. Although I had green eyes instead of hazel ones, and my hair was chestnut brown and wavy, I supposed to his mother there must’ve been some resemblance.
“Did she go to the police?” I asked, resting my bicycle against the wall. I didn’t have much confidence in law and order, but it seemed like something a mother might do.
“You know how it is.” Sighing, Mrs. Brenner tucked back a curl that had escaped from her tichel. With her yellow dress and dark silk headscarf, she matched the black-eyed Susans sprouting in her apartment’s window box. “Just another immigrant boy wowed by the big city. The third one these last two months apparently.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “They told her that if he doesn’t turn up in a few weeks, they’ll look into it. Feh! You wonder what they’re paid for.”
“The third one?” I frowned. “I heard about Aaron Holtz, but who was the other?”
“Another of my clients. Josef Loew.”
I sensed a pattern here. “Was Moishe also your client?”
“Yes, and we even had a date picked out. Tonight, Fourth of July. His mother’s been looking everywhere for him, the poor dear. She was hoping he might show up, but as you can see...” With another laborious sigh, she gestured around her. “He’s nowhere to be found.”
I wasn’t too worried. Boys ran away all the time, and even fathers left without a word to escape having to care for their families back in the old country. Besides, as far as I was concerned, being one of Mrs. Brenner’s clients was more than enough to make a person skip town.
Ever since I had turned seventeen, she had brought it upon herself to take my case free of charge. With my mother and little sisters across the Atlantic and my father somewhere beneath it, Mrs. Brenner had declared her intervention a mitzvah, a commandment of God. More like a conspiracy of the Evil One.
The results had so far been disastrous. Just last week, she had tried setting me up with Raizel Ackermann on the first floor, in a dinner that had exploded into a heated argument over anarchism. Raizel believed that society as a whole was corrupt, and that true freedom and liberty would only be achieved once the power structure was dismantled completely and capitalism abolished. I thought it was a pipe dream, and told her as much. The debate had ended with me getting a cup of lukewarm tea dumped in my lap while Raizel’s parents watched on in utter horror.
Mrs. Brenner gave me a keen look. “You know, she’s still in there.”
“Who?” Hopefully not Raizel, otherwise Mrs. Brenner might end up with another of her eligible bachelors vanishing into the night.
“Elkie Strauss. She’s from a good family, not like that Ackermann girl downstairs. Elkie is as peaceful as a dove and as lovely as a lily of the valley.” Mrs. Brenner leaned forward, her eyes gleaming in determination. “You won’t find another like her in all of Chicago, my dear.”
Right, a dove and a lily of the valley. If Mrs. Brenner thought plagiarizing the Song of Songs would convince me to ruin my Fourth of July, she was sadly mistaken. I volunteered at our shul’s burial society, and every month, I found myself reciting the Song of Songs over a fresh corpse. Not exactly what I’d call romantic.
“It’s really not a good time,” I said, backing away before she could drag me into her apartment by force.
“Oh, Alter,” Mrs. Brenner cried, aghast. “I thought you were a kind boy. You wouldn’t be so cruel as to leave a girl and her parents waiting alone, would you? You’ll break her mother’s heart!”
I hesitated. Well, when she worded it like that...
“Besides, I made my special kishka. I know how much you love it.”
Her special—oh God. I cringed at the thought. Her beef-liver kishka was as heavy as cement and came out looking the same way it went in, which was never a good sign. No wonder Moishe hadn’t shown up. Before I could come up with a convincing excuse to avoid death by indigestion, a hand fell on my lower back.
“I’m afraid Alter already has a commitment tonight,” a teasing voice said from behind us.
The hand slipped away, and my roommate Yakov stepped around me to face Mrs. Brenner head-on. He was eight centimeters taller than me, but he could move so silently sometimes, like he wasn’t walking on the same cheap, groaning floorboards as the rest of us.
At the sight of him, Mrs. Brenner’s eyes narrowed, and her mouth pursed tightly. She had been cold to him since the day he arrived. She would ignore him outright when they passed in the halls, and kept a wide berth, as though if she strayed into his path, their proximity alone might scald her. I wondered, what had he said to make her so curt? What had he done?
“Ah. I see.” Mrs. Brenner wrinkled her nose, probably offended by the scent of coal smoke Yakov had carried with him from the trainyard. She looked like she wanted to argue, decided against it, and stepped inside her apartment.
“A commitment, eh?” I said, once the door had shut behind her. I couldn’t stop thinking about the patch of warmth Yakov’s hand had left on my back, the heat and weight of his touch.
“Something a bit more enjoyable than a matchmaking meeting.” He turned, favoring me with a smile that made me weak in the knees. “We can’t have her marry you off too soon. She thinks you’re a real catch, you know that?”
“More like a real paycheck, and she isn’t even right about that. No money, dead father. Nobody’s going to want to marry a charity case.”
He cocked his head. “You don’t sound too disappointed.”
The way he said it made my face itch. Every so often, Yakov would look at me or say something in a certain way, and I’d have the suspicion that he could see my desire. I wished I could tell him the truth. Instead I forced a smile. “One family’s more than enough to worry about.”
Every extra penny from my job at the newspaper went to my mother and sisters back in Romania. We had over a hundred dollars saved away. Enough to pay for ship tickets, a wagon to Iaşi, and the train ride from there to Bucharest and the port city of Constanţa. They wouldn’t have to walk to the sea like my father and I had done. I had made sure of that. All I needed to do was raise another forty dollars and I’d be able to get them here.
“Did you see the woman sitting on the stairs?” Yakov asked as he unlocked our garret room door. The key was stubborn, and he wiggled it back and forth. “The one who was crying?”
“Did she have red hair?”
“Like a carrot.”
“That’s Mrs. Walden from shul. Her son, Moishe, went missing.”
He stopped turning the key. “What?”
“He probably just ran away to keep Mrs. Brenner from wedding him off.” I waited for Yakov to laugh, but he never did.
His gas-flame-blue eyes chilled over, and his jawline firmed. “I see.”
“Don’t look so worried,” I said. “Boys run away.”
I would know. The boy who I once considered to be my closest friend had only ended up in Chicago because he’d stowed away on a train from Grand Central Depot. He hadn’t even bothered checking the destination.
“Then again, Moishe’s not the only one who’s disappeared lately,” I added, when Yakov didn’t answer. “Aaron Holtz went missing, too, and so did Josef Loew.”
“Right. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” Yakov said the words slowly, carefully, like handling shattered glass. “People leave here all the time.”
The inside of our apartment was a riot of voices and bumped elbows. There was barely enough space for four people, much less the jumble of mattresses, boxes, and clothing filling the cramped room.
A night on the town meant a nice waistcoat and jacket, polished shoes, and bowler hats. When Yakov and I entered, our two other roommates, Dovid and Haskel, were already dressed and on their way out.
“Good thing we caught you two in time,” Haskel said, his brown eyes bright and cheerful beneath a thatch of curls. “We’re going to a dance hall down in the Levee. You should come, too.”
As I got a good look at him, I tried not to laugh. He was trying desperately to cultivate a mustache on his upper lip and had filled in the empty areas with what looked like brown shoe polish.
Yakov was a bit more unforgiving: “Haskel, I think you have a bit of shmutz on your face. Right here.”
A burning flush crept all the way to Haskel’s collar. He took out his handkerchief and blotted furiously at his upper lip, his freckles standing out like specks of dirt against his reddening complexion.
Beside him, Dovid snickered. “I told you it wasn’t convincing.”
Haskel glowered at him. “Not everyone is as hairy as an ape.”
“You sound jealous,” Dovid said, tweaking his own mustache. Not only did he seem to be able to grow facial hair overnight, but a generous layer of black hair covered his arms and legs. “You should be. I had a better mustache when I was thirteen.”
“So then, it’s true that when you were born, your mother took one look at you and said, ‘vey iz mir, it’s a dog?’” Haskel shot back, before turning to us. “Really, you two should come. Please. Don’t leave me alone with him, Yasha. He’ll scare away all the girls. They’ll think he’s a bear.”
“I’m afraid we already have plans,” Yakov said, then looked at me. “Alter and I are going to the street fair down by the market. Unless he prefers to go dancing.”
“I’d rather not break a leg,” I said. Besides, I knew how a visit to the dance hall would end—standing alone in the corner, wishing I had stayed home. Maybe a girl would approach, and I’d have to mutter an excuse, drift away, and wait in dread for the long walk back, when Haskel and Dovid would tease me mercilessly.
“So frum.” Dovid rolled his eyes, heading for the door. “So pious, he can’t even look at a woman. A true tzaddik, that Alter Rosen.”
“You’re one to talk, Dovid,” Yakov said. “When was the last time you danced with a girl?”
“Just the other night.”
“Nu? Who was she—your left hand or your right?”
Haskel laughed as Dovid’s cheeks reddened. I began to chuckle, then caught myself as Dovid shot me a sour look.
As the door banged shut behind the two of them, Yakov turned to me. “Dovid has drek for brains. Don’t let him drag you down.”
Yakov didn’t look convinced.
“You don’t have to defend me, you know,” I added.
“But I like to.”
Yakov had always been this way, ever since he had arrived on Maxwell Street back in April. Collected and steadfast, always sure what to say in the moment. He was predictable when it came to his gestures of kindness, putting down Dovid’s bullying in an instant or bringing home extra meals if he knew I hadn’t eaten. If he saw me standing alone at the dance hall, he would come join me.
I enjoyed that about him. I had known boys who were unpredictable and short-tempered, who roared through life like a whirlwind and never once looked back. Yakov was different. He lived his life quietly, calmly, and that made me feel safe and secure, as though he were the breakwall that held back Maxwell Street’s noise and chaos. He made this place truly feel like home.
Yakov exchanged his broadcloth jacket for a pin-striped waistcoat and tied his cravat with deft hands. A trained elegance shone through even his briefest gestures and steady posture.
Like everyone on Maxwell Street, Yakov had a story to tell, a place he left behind. He had grown up in a small town near Kiev in the Russian Empire. But when he told me of his past, he made it sound as though he had been born in his thirteenth year—vivid narrations of years spent in the cities of Varshe and Lemberg, along with lengthy visits to Italy, France, and Germany in the company of his uncle, some scholar of European history at the Imperial University.
In his low smoky baritone, Yakov would regale me with descriptions of the River Spree at sunset, spangled with purple and gold; or overgrown ruins along the Mediterranean, fragrant with the scent of honeysuckle and dappled in indigo shadows; Paris in midwinter, a white city spired with icicles and sparkling hoarfrost.
He did not speak of his childhood. He did not speak of his mother or father, except to tell me once how they had been taken from this world.
I wanted so badly to reciprocate, but what could I tell him that would ever compare to such adventures? My childhood was an endless blur of narrow streets of dirt and cobblestone, my squabbling baby sisters, and the rural silence. After two years in Chicago, it all felt terribly boring and rustic.
“I’m ready to go if you are,” Yakov said, once he secured his watch chain in place.
“I’m ready,” I said, and he took me by the shoulder and drew me from the room.
Chicago was just beginning to settle in for the night. Horse-drawn carts and carriages lumbered past us. The creak of their wheels joined the calls of the pushcart vendors clustered along the curb. Each breath I took was soured by the scorched, sickly sweet odor of the glue processing plants, while the canal, polluted with animal carcasses from the slaughterhouses, reeked of ghastly carnage.
The city was constantly changing—day by day, old buildings were being knocked down to make room for newer ones and a labyrinth of streetcar rails was being laid. With the city ever-expanding, it would only be a matter of time before the marshland at its outskirts was filled in and built upon.
As we walked, Yakov fished his cigarette case from his pocket. He was left-handed, and it always fascinated me to see the way he handled things, like a street magician’s parlor tricks. He offered me a cigarette, but I shook my head. In the corner of my eye, I watched him draw a match from his brass vesta case and light it with an unassuming flick of his fingers.
Another bouquet of flames bloomed across the night sky. In the fireworks’ diminishing glow, the tenement houses across the street seemed precarious, as though they would collapse into ruin and rubble at any moment.
Back in Romania, there was no celebration like this, not even on the day commemorating when Wallachia and Moldavia had united to form the kingdom. If there had been one, my family would have stayed inside anyway. Celebrating meant drinking, which meant that once it got dark, some men might decide to take a little tour through the Jewish quarter.
It was different here. We didn’t have to hide behind bolted shutters and locked doors. We were a part of the community, not severed from it.
“I’ve been waiting for this night for a long time,” Yakov said, taking a drag of his cigarette.
“Oh, right, this is your first Fourth of July here. It’s really something, isn’t it?”
“Aren’t the fireworks amazing?”
“Beautiful.” He looked at me as he said it. Smoke curled from his proud lips, as though the same crackling sparks that lent his blue eyes their intensity now stoked a blaze beneath his skin. “I’m glad we could do this. I want to savor it.”
“As do I,” I said softly, and we continued on our way.
As we neared the market, the warm glow of firelight beckoned us closer. The ground was littered with rotten fruit and corn silk, their fermented scent lacing the more pleasant aromas of sizzling sausages and beer. Music wafted through the dusk—the trill and wail of a klezmer’s violin rivaled by a woman fiddling a lively Irish jig.
In front of the dusty storefronts where the peddlers would spread their secondhand wares on Sunday mornings, the threadbare awnings had been unrolled to shade carts and tables overladen with food and drinks. For a penny apiece, an elderly Italian man scraped up careful balls of lemon ice into miniature glasses.
Yakov stopped me when I held out a coin, closing my fingers around the copper. “Allow me. You have your family.”
“It’s only a penny.”
“I received a raise at work, so let me treat you tonight.”
“Thank you,” I said as he handed me one of the glasses. There was only enough for a couple mouthfuls, but I savored each lick.
Yakov’s lips quirked in a smile. “Alter, you missed a drop.”
Oh no. Before I could swipe it away, he brushed his finger across my cheek, close enough to my mouth that I felt a shiver of longing pass through me. “Right here.”
As we continued down the street, I wiped my face with the back of my hand. I prayed the darkness would hide the blush burning my cheeks.
“Food next,” Yakov declared, his gaze roving up and down the rows. “Ah, over here.”
We ate hot beef sausages served on split buns and slathered with whole-grain mustard, followed by deep-fried knishes stuffed with mashed potatoes and caramelized onions. We washed it all down with root beer and pithy lemonade.
Then it was the shell game, and craps, and three-card monte. Yakov won the first two games, but when it came time to find the Lady at three-card monte, he uncovered a worthless heart. He squatted in front of the apple crate the dealer had set up as a makeshift table and flipped down another nickel. “Again.”
The dealer laid out another three cards, each one heavily creased. Yakov considered the arrangement, his gaze flicking back and forth, before pointing toward the middlemost card.
The dealer flipped it over with an alligator’s smile. Nine of spades.
The man pocketed the coin. “Better luck next time, kid.”
Yakov bit his lower lip, staring down at the spread of cards.
“It’s a trick,” I whispered, resting on my haunches beside him. “No one wins this game, Yakov.”
“I know, but...” His gaze returned to the cards. “I wanted to win all three games.”
“You won the other two. That’s an accomplishment enough. It’s better to stop while you’re ahead.”
He said nothing. Down the street, a firecracker sprayed crimson sparks across the sky. Even after the flames died down, I thought I could still see their glow reflected in his blue eyes, the memory of fire.
A commotion drew my attention across the lot. At the other end of the street, a small crowd had gathered.
“Let’s take a look.” Cramming the last bit of knish in my mouth, I took Yakov by the wrist and pulled him closer.
It was a monkey and an organ grinder. The monkey scampered up to the people who had gathered to listen, cupping its hands for coins. When it came to us, Yakov gave it the dime left over from his winnings, as though he could only leave here with less than what he had brought.
I chuckled, a bit taken aback. “That monkey’s going to eat well tonight. I think it gets paid better than I do.”
He glanced over. “Speaking of which, have you shown your boss that article yet? The one about growing up in Romania?”
“I need to work on it some more,” I said.
“Alter, you’ve been working on it for weeks now. Have some confidence or you’ll end up running the printing presses forever.”
“It’s just...it’s not ready.” I looked down at the monkey. “Mr. Stieglitz has said before, he isn’t interested in stories about the old country. And it isn’t an article, not really. It’s just memories.”
“Sometimes those are the most important thing.”
As the organ grinder reached the end of his song, the crowd applauded, and the monkey danced. Their clapping was joined by the sudden rustling of wings overhead. I searched the indigo sky for the noise’s source. Night jays, no doubt.
When I looked back down, Yakov’s smile had faded. He had his pocket watch in one hand, held to the glow of a lantern. He snapped its case shut and slipped it into his pocket.
He averted his gaze. “I’m sorry. I need to go.”
“It’s not even eight yet.”
“I’m going to a show at the Fair, and if I wait any longer, I’ll be late.” He hesitated. “I’d invite you to come along, but I’m meeting someone from back home. Besides, I suspect it’s not your kind of show.”
My face felt paralyzed. I understood it now. This had only been an appetizer for him, an interlude before the main event. He hadn’t gotten dressed up so nicely to attend a street fair with me, it had been to go to the real fair, the World’s Fair, with someone more special to him. Of course. It shouldn’t have upset me. It shouldn’t have felt like a punch to the gut.
“I—I see.” Taking a deep breath, I forced a smile. “It’s all right. I’m actually rather tired. I think I’ll just head home.”
He placed his hand on my arm. “Let me walk with you.”
I brushed his hand away and took a step back, hating the sting of his words, hating my own pettiness even more. Why was I so upset? He had always been kind to me. It wasn’t as though he would change his plans just to suit me.
“No, it’s all right,” I repeated. “You go to your show.”
Not your kind of show. Long after I had returned to our room and retreated to the fire escape, Yakov’s words echoed in my head. Not your kind of show.
Sighing, I stretched out on the mattress I had left to air out on the platform and stared at the night sky, exposed in bits and pieces through the fluttering clotheslines. All the fireworks had died down, and there was only darkness now.
Not your kind of show.
The statement was harmless, but the memory of it made my cheeks burn. It felt like an insult. How did he see me? Did he think that I was too cold? Too prudish?
I cringed. Too frum?
I liked to think we were close. We had shared in our griefs. I had told him about my father’s sickness, and he had told me about the accident. Yet there was still so much I didn’t know, so many things I wanted to ask him. Such as: Why do you cry out at night, Yakov? Were you having a nightmare? It’s okay, you can tell me. I won’t tell anyone.
I’ll never tell.
Everything about Yakov intrigued me. I yearned to uncover all his history, like parting the petals of a closed bud. But there was danger in getting close to a person, any person. The only way to ensure that nobody found out how rotten I was inside, was if I kept my distance. Over and over, I reminded myself: be careful and give him nothing he could use against you. Don’t trust him, don’t get too close to him, and don’t feel. Never feel.
Dovid and Haskel returned when it was still dark, reeking of booze and sweat, and passed out the moment they crashed into their separate cots. When I rose at six o’clock to prepare for work, Yakov’s bed was still empty, the blanket smoothed and folded. I stared at it as I went through my morning routine—washing my hands, putting on tallis and tefillin and davening.
I had said Shacharis so many times, I didn’t even need to concentrate on the prayers’ words. Instead, numbers raced through my head. Ninety dollars for three steerage tickets. Sixty cents per day for food. No, make that seventy just to be safe. But what if my mother or sisters needed a doctor? And once they arrived here, what about train and ferry tickets?
When I had first started raising money for my family’s passage, it had felt impossible. I had been so afraid I’d never be able to save enough money to get them here. Now that I was so close, it terrified me to actually think of their arrival. I couldn’t stop imagining the three of them being hustled down the gangway of Ellis Island, my mother gripping the twins’ hands tightly, the Statue of Liberty turned toward the shore, as though having forsaken them. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society would be able to point my mother in the right direction, even help her get tickets at the train station. But there would also be a myriad of predators stalking the streets of Manhattan, waiting for new arrivals.
I couldn’t stand the thought of Rivka and Gittel being carried off by America’s false glitz. By the whoremongers and sweatshop bosses. By the cruelness.
After saying the Pesukei DeZimra, I asked God for protection, strength, and endurance. Nobody answered, and the silence grew heavier. The strip of leather that bound my arm became as hefty and cumbersome as a chain. Slowly, I unwrapped the tefillin from around my arm and lowered its twin from my brow. As I put them away in their velvet bag, Dovid stirred and groaned.
He cracked open one eye and regarded me blearily. “What time is it?”
I glanced at the clock. “Six twenty.”
He laid his arm over his eyes. “Oh, kill me.”
“Whatever you drank looks well on its way to.”
He laughed, then groaned.
“Yakov isn’t home yet,” I said.
“Nu? He probably found a girl.”
“Maybe,” I agreed reluctantly, but I didn’t think that was the case.
As Dovid rolled back under the covers, I poked through my grocery box’s contents. Ugh. The loaf of bread was already as hard as a rock, no good for anything but boiled dumplings. As for the half bushel of potatoes, they had begun to sprout in their sack.
“Lovely.” Sighing, I scrounged my finances journal out from under my pillow and tried to figure out what I could afford at the market.
For a city whose economy was built on slaughter, kosher meat remained an unobtainable luxury. How could I spend thirty cents on a kilo of beef roast, when I could get twice as many potatoes for a fifth of that price? That extra quarter-dollar would mean two more meals for my sisters, a fraction of a train ticket, or part of a bribe to pay off corrupt officials.
“I guess it’s more potatoes,” I muttered, glancing at the sack. My stomach turned at the thought of boiled potatoes, or mashed potatoes, or potato latkes fried in schmaltz. No, if I had to eat another potato today, I’d turn into one. Maybe I could grab something small before work.
I was in the process of buttoning my shoes when someone knocked on the door. Three hard knocks, insistent, impatient.
“I’m coming, just hold on.” Setting down my buttonhook, I rose to my feet. I was forced to walk lopsidedly across the room with one shoe on and one foot bare, weaving through the mess of furniture and junk.
Two more knocks, then a light rapping of the knuckles, like a message in Morse code. A cry for help.
“I said I’m coming.” Annoyed, I twisted the lock and threw open the door. “Yakov, did you lose your...”
I trailed off.
A man in a dark blue uniform stood at the threshold. Underneath the leather brim of his cap, his pale eyes looked me up and down. He opened his mouth and shot out words in a fast staccato I could hardly make sense of.
“Can you repeat that?” I asked in English. “Slower, please.”
“Police.” He stretched out the word: Puuh-leece. “Is this the residence of Yakov Kogan?”
“The residence. The home. The abode.” He sighed impatiently. “Does Yakov Kogan live here?”
“Yes.” I stepped out into the hall. “Er, what’s this about? What did he do?”
Out of the four of us, Yakov was the last one I expected to get arrested. Must’ve been some show.
“He didn’t do anything.” The officer looked at me with flat pity in his eyes. “He’s dead.”
“You can start by telling me your name,” the officer said, tapping his fountain pen against the desk. He had introduced himself as Johnathon Rariden, a mouthful of syllables I struggled to wrap my tongue around.
“Alter Rosen.” The precinct’s Yiddish-speaking detective was absent, so I spoke in halting English, question after question flung at me like pummeling fists. My eyes ached in the harsh sunlight spearing through the office’s wooden blinds.
Officer Rariden lifted his eyebrows. ...
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