A shamus knows he’s getting old when people ask him stupid questions. And this shamus has been getting a lot of stupid questions lately — things people ought to know without needing to have an over-the-hill private eye like me to tell them. I realized that early one Friday morning in the damp room in Old Katamon that I call my office. The rain was so heavy that even the Hasidim with the plastic bags over their homburgs didn’t dare go out. And that’s unusual for a tough neighborhood like Katamon, where everyone — and I mean everyone — is holier than thou.
I had my feet on my desk, Rabbi Menachem Meiri’s Beit HaBechira open on my lap, a half-filled highball glass in my hand, and a nearly empty bottle of really bad schnapps on the floor. The wind blew the door open and I caught sight of the shingle I’d put up when I was a young dick with an attitude. “Ahrele Andorra—Kushiyot,” it read. Hard questions. That’s what I do, hard questions. Although I’m at an age when nothing that ought to be hard is really hard anymore.
But I guess the all-seeing private investigator up in heaven saw I was getting depressed and, even worse, that if something didn’t happen I’d have to go out in the deluge to get my bottle filled. Providence works in mysterious ways. He didn’t send me something hard. He sent something soft–real soft.
Because after the door opened the next gust of wind blew in this dame. Actually, I couldn’t tell it was a dame at first because she was so wet and bundled up in sweaters, coats and scarves that she looked more like a blowfish after a haircut. But as she started peeling off layers, she revealed a figure that would have inspired Maimonides to compose a 14th article of faith.
She was the slender dark type, with deep brown eyes and a long, wavy kerchief on her head. True, I’m more of a sheitel kind of guy, but a kerchief can do it for me too, especially after the last broad in a wig who walked in here neglected to tell me that her husband, who she’d absent-mindedly forgotten to divorce, packed a Smith & Wesson. But that’s another story.
Anyway, the dame was so wet that it took me a minute to realize that some of the liquid on her face were tears. I got up to close the door against the chill and brought her the only chair in the place that had legs of equal lengths. Then, to keep myself well behaved, I circled back to my seat so that the desk stayed between us. I offered her a package of tissues, but it looked like she needed more than that.
“How do you like your schnapps?”
“In a glass,” she said. I liked that. I found a spare tumbler in a drawer and poured her what was left in the bottle.
“Okay, so let’s get down to business. What gets a girl like you out on a day like this?”
She took a tissue and dabbed her cheeks.
“I should tell you straight off that I take 200 bucks an hour, starting two minutes ago. Plus VAT. Now get yourself together.”
She took a deep breath and looked straight at me. And I felt like diving straight into those dark brown irises.
“It’s my husband,” she said.
It always was, in this burg. PIs in Tel Aviv get single broads ready and willing to do just about anything, any time of the month. Here in the Holy City there’s always a husband and a mikveh between me and bliss.
“What about your husband?” I said. “He’s got a side-order of shikseh? Or he’s made off with the tzedaka box?”
She gasped. “I don’t like your manners, Mr. Andorra.”
“I don’t like them myself,” I said. “I spend long winter evenings grieving over them. Now don’t waste my time. You’re talking to Ahrele Andorra. It’s not just a long name for a tiny country, it’s the moniker of a guy who knows this neighborhood inside out. When you walked in, your face registered right away. You’re Malka Friedman, you’re married to Amihai Friedman, and you’ve got a posh little place on Gadna Street, five rooms plus a separate unit in the basement that you rent out for spare cash. Amihai Friedman is better known, as tradition demands, by the name of his great work of halachic analysis, as ‘the Vayishpot Ahorav.’ To put it in the best possible terms, let’s say it’s a pathbreaking study of the laws of hindsight.”
What can I say, the dame had class. She sat up erect and said, as dignified as a Doberman on a doorstep, “I don’t know what you are implying, Mr. Andorra, but it’s an entirely theoretical work.”
“So if it’s not sex, money, or scandal, what’s this about, kid?”
“My husband,” she whispered tremulously, “has disappeared. He went off to shul this morning, as usual to the 9:06 minyan… at the Shtiblach—he doesn’t like to get up early—and he never came home.”
The Shtiblach — the little shul on Hahish Street with the non-stop services. This was getting interesting.
“Malka,” I said, “everyone says you’re a sharp gal. And I’d like to point out that it’s only a quarter to ten in the morning.”
“But he always comes straight home. And today there’s no Torah reading. So he should have arrived 10 minutes ago.”
“Malka,” I said. “I have an inkling that you know what this is about.”
She began weeping again, but softly. “I warned him not to go! I told him it was dangerous!”
“Dangerous? For a man to go to synagogue for his daily devotions?”
“Well, you see,” she said in a low voice, “as you mentioned, we have this unit we rent out. We had it on the market and yesterday this extremely polite and neatly-dressed young man came by. He’s studying to be a pharmacist at the university and wanted to get out of the dorms. He seemed like the perfect tenant.”
“I’m getting the picture,” I said.
“I told Amihai that the neighbors might not appreciate us renting to an Arab, but he said that it was none of their business.”
“Got it Malka. Put your stuff on. We’re going to pay the Shtiblach a little visit.”
Every neighborhood’s got a place where the guys hang out. I mean where the young men check out the competition and compare notes and the old guys who don’t want to be home with their wives put down a shot or two. It’s usually one of the three B’s—barbershop, bar, or barbells. But here in Katamon, it’s a synagogue.
The Shtiblach’s an old stone building with a big yard surrounded by a low wall. And it’s got more rooms available than a seedy hotel that rents by the hour. At any given time there’s morning, afternoon, and evening services in process. And they’re in a variety of flavors — there’s a choice between long Hasidic, terse Misnagdic, and religious Zionists with large, medium, or small knitted kippot. You walk in and there’s a huge plasma screen that tells you which service is about to start in what room.
There was no time for pleasantries. I grabbed Nahman, a New-Ager with the coiled sidelocks that hang down to his knees. He’s the gabbai, and makes a pittance from tips tossed at him by the hotshot lawyers, doctors, and city councilmen who patronize the place.
“Nahman,” I say, “I’m looking for the Vayishpot Ahorav, a.k.a. Amihai Friedman. Seems to me you saw him this morning.”
Nahman’s eyes glazed over. “Never heard of him.”
I gave him a slap that rang so loud the hazan in the room to the left stopped cold in the middle of “baruch-hu.”
“Where’s my man, Nahman?”
Nahman closed his eyes tight and slowly raised his right arm. He pointed at the southeast corner of the room. And there I saw the great redactor of retrospection crouched in fetal position, rocking back and forth like an iniquitous hobby horse on Yom Kippur.
“Oh my God!” Malka screamed, running over to her hubby. She turned a tearful face to me. “What have you done to him?”
“Nahman,” I said gently, “even though you are a Jew, I’m going to have to ask you to turn the other cheek.” And I gave him another smack, twice as loud as the first.
The door to the room on the right burst open and out walked a procession of 40 city rabbis.
“Who are they?” Malka cried.
“A bunch of shady clergymen on the public payroll,” I said.
The 40 rabbis spoke in unison.
“Mr. Andorra, do you presume to challenge our authority? We have placed a ban on this creature. He may not be counted in a minyan or called up to the Torah, nor may God-fearing Jews converse with or approach him.”
“Listen, rabbis,” I said. “Bans are serious stuff. What’s your reason?”
“The man rented his basement room to an Arab,” the rabbis said, “thus violating the Torah precept of giving no foothold to goyim in the Holy Land. Not to mention the halachic ruling we all signed yesterday.”
“My, my, my!” I said. “So much learning around town and so few brains!”
“Don’t you know, Mr. Andorra,” the rabbis glowered in concert, “that that’s what is written in the Torah?”
Like I said, stupid questions.
“The Torah says lots of things, your halachic excellencies,” I replied. “You might be scholars and I’m just an old private eye who got kicked out of every yeshiva between Kiryat Moshe and Lakewood, New Jersey. But there’s one thing I know in my business, and you guys shouldn’t need to have me schlep all the way over here to tell it to you. What makes a law a law is that it’s the same for everyone. A law that favors one person over another isn’t worth the parchment it’s written on. And you know what? That’s what the Torah says. So before you sign any rulings, take a minute to think about whether you want to make the Torah sound like the voice of justice or like the voice of darkness.”
Malka, who’d in the meantime managed to get her husband to his feet, was looking at me adoringly with her big brown eyes.
“Mr. Andorra,” she said, “how can I possibly thank you?”
“Well, babe,” I said, “in the movies, this is the part where the hero and the girl walk into the sunset together.”
“Sunset!” she exclaimed. “It’s Friday and sunset is only five hours away! And I haven’t even begun cooking for Shabbat!”
It always seems to go that way with me. I bought another bottle on my way back to my office and spent the rest of that waterlogged afternoon trying to forget Malka Friedman. It was a half an hour before Shabbat when I couldn’t take it any more. I picked up the phone and dialed her number. Amihai answered.
“Hey, Amihai,” I said. “Is Malka there?”
“Yeah, she’s here,” he said.
“Put her on, will you?”
“She can’t talk to you.”
“Because she’s married.”
I heard Malka’s voice in the background. “Amihai, tell him to come over for Shabbat dinner! There’s nothing he needs that I can’t fix.”