You’d think after all these years, I wouldn’t be nervous in his presence. Yet my sandals shook as I approached the swirling cloud.
“You asked to see me?” I crooked my head, trying—but failing—to spot him through the mist. Why was he always such an enigma?
“Yes.” His booming voice echoed. “I’m sending you back to Earth to do some investigating for me.”
“A man has died, and I’d like you to probe those who knew him best. Find out what happened.”
Now I know better than anyone that it’s not my place to question God. He has his reasons for what he does. But come on. He’s omniscient. Why would he need me to investigate anything for him?
“Umm . . . okay,” I said. “But don’t you already know what happened?”
He chuckled. “Well, yes, I do. But you of all people understand suffering and the need to know why it happens. So I want you to help this man’s family by looking into his death and encouraging the killer to admit his sins and repent.”
“The killer? You mean—”
“Yes. This, Job, is murder.”
In a blinding flash of light, I found myself in a city. Based on the accents, I figured it was Manhattan—though it could’ve been Miami or Fort Lauderdale or, really, anywhere in South Florida. I took a moment to take in the sights. Tall buildings. Automobiles zipping by. And the women walking around immodestly in a state of undress. Bare arms and legs and, in a few cases, midriffs. I knew how the Earth had changed during my years in the afterworld—I like keeping up on things—but actually seeing it in person? Oy vey!
I glanced down and noticed that my apparel had changed, too. Now I was wearing modern clothes: khaki pants and a pale blue polo shirt. I combed my fingers through my hair. Shorn! My long flowing locks were gone. Cropped to my ears. I raked my fingers over my face and breathed a deep sigh of relief. I’d been allowed to keep my beard, though it apparently had been trimmed and combed. I know I shouldn’t care about my appearance, but after you’ve had the same look as many centuries as I have, you get kind of attached to it.
I turned left from the street corner. The avenue had been busy, but this side street was quieter. Trees and brownstones. A good place to think. My mind drifted back to God. He’d apparently changed my appearance so I’d fit in. And he’d dropped me in the victim’s neighborhood, I gathered, so I could get started straight away. But he couldn’t be bothered to tell me the killer’s name so I could quickly get him to confess and repent? That I had to figure out on my own?
I rolled my eyes. (Yes, I’d atone for that later.) Thousands of years had passed, but the Lord still liked to play his little games. I guess when you’re all-knowing, yanking my chain helps keep things interesting.
I stepped off the sidewalk, leaned against a nice shady tree, and took a few moments to try to think things through. I had no idea where to go. I patted my pockets. No money. Nowhere to spend the night. I didn’t even know the victim’s name. Hey, Lord, how ‘bout a little help down here?
Frustrated, I slapped my hands against my thighs and heard something crinkle. That right pocket had been empty just a moment ago. I reached in and pulled out two scraps of paper. The first one was an obituary for Bruce Goldenblatt, a real-estate investor who had died the previous Saturday, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. The second scrap had an address printed on it—for the brownstone right in front of me.
I glanced up. Nice aim. And thanks for the assist.
Time to get down to business. I gazed at the house. Sparkling windows. Spotless front steps bookended by gleaming black wrought-iron railings. Beside the left railing, a handicapped ramp ran from the sidewalk to the stoop. This family might have faced tragedy before. I hoped I could help them now, at least.
It was after the funeral so the family would be sitting shiva for seven days, mourning their loved one and focusing on their loss. Who was I to intrude on their grief? While it would be a great mitzvah to make a shiva call, visitors should be friends and family. I wasn’t either. But they’d all be there. An opportunity too good to miss.
I tilted my head, thinking. I could pretend to be an old friend (real old) of Goldenblatt, but they might ask me questions about him that I couldn’t answer. I tapped my index finger against my lips. Ah. I’d be a grief counselor, sent over by the rabbi. That should work.
I made my way up the front steps and rang the bell. As I waited, I heard muffled yelling from inside. Soon a girl, maybe fourteen years old with long dark hair, yanked back the door. She was barefoot, wearing a short denim skirt and a low-cut, white tank top, and chewing something pink. Gum, I guessed, though I hadn’t seen it firsthand before. Her toenails and fingernails were pink, too. I never would have allowed my daughters to dress that way.
“Hi?” she said. It was a statement, but it came out like a question.
“I don’t care!” someone shrieked from behind her. “I don’t want children at my wedding.”
“How do you expect me not to invite your cousins after they just came to the funeral?” another woman screeched back. “It would be a shanda!”
“Too bad!” the first voice screamed. “It’s My! Special! Day!”
What was I walking into? “I’m sorry to intrude,” I told the girl. “My name is Jo . . . Joseph.” Close call. “I’m a grief counselor. Your rabbi suggested I stop by.”
The girl turned her head. “Mom! There’s some grief counselor here!”
So much yelling. Maybe the family was hard of hearing.
As the girl backed away, a round, middle-aged woman approached the door. Did hair that blond come naturally? She smiled. “Yes?”
“Mrs. Goldenblatt?” She nodded. “Your rabbi sent me over. He thought I might be able to help you during this difficult time.” I extended a hand. “I’m Joseph . . . Bookman. Grief counselor. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Rabbi Cohen sent you? Well, please come in.”
I walked into a small entryway with a glass table in the middle. A large ceramic bowl filled with apples and pears sat on top. To my left was a staircase, straight ahead ran a long hallway with some closed doors lining the left wall, and a large living room was on my right. It had white leather couches, oriental rugs, and glass tables that matched the one in the entryway.
I blinked a couple times, confused. I saw no low stools for mourners to sit on. The mirror on the living-room wall remained uncovered. The woman wasn’t even wearing a torn black ribbon in memory of her husband. Except for the fruit bowl in the entryway, which could have been a condolence gift, I saw nothing I’d expect in a home sitting shiva. Was I at the correct address?
“It’s very nice that Rabbi Cohen has been thinking of us, but really, we’re doing just fine,” Mrs. Goldenblatt said, motioning me to follow her.
She led me through the house into a shiny chrome kitchen. Now this was more like it! Baskets and trays of food covered nearly every available counter, no doubt condolence gifts from friends and family.
The girl who had answered the door trailed behind us, then picked up a mewing gray kitten and climbed onto a bar stool. An older girl sat at a round table staring at a computer screen. An even older girl—a young woman, really—sat at the same table with piles of papers and magazines spread out in front of her. All three girls had the same thin nose, brown eyes, and long dark hair. None of them wore a black ribbon either.
“Girls, this is Mr. Bookman,” the mother said. “He’s a grief counselor. The rabbi sent him over.”
They all looked at me like I’d sprouted another head. I glanced at my shoulders. Nope. No extra head. Thank goodness. That would have been hard to explain, though I’m sure someone would have thought it was a riot.
Where to begin? “Again, I’m so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Goldenblatt. And you girls.”
“Where are my manners?” the mother said. “Please call me Marjorie. And these are my daughters, Anne, Kayla, and Lauren.”
“Stop calling me Kayla,” the middle girl said with gritted teeth. “Kay. My name is Kay.”
“I’m so sorry, Kay.” Marjorie threw her hands in the air. “I did have a role in naming you, you know. Seventeen years you’ve been Kayla, but noooo. Now suddenly you’re Kay.”
Oh, yes. A big happy family.
“Kay,” I said. “This must be a very hard time for you.”
She shrugged. “Yeah. Dad was supposed to take me to look at colleges—I’ll start college next fall—but now I have to wait till Mom has time to go. And who knows when that’s gonna be. She’s completely wrapped up in planning Anne’s wedding.”
“Lord give me strength,” Marjorie said. “I told you I’d find time to take you.”
“When?” Kay screeched.
“Soon!” Marjorie yelled back.
This is how they behave with company?
“A wedding,” I said to the oldest girl. “How wonderful.”
“Yeah, you’d think so,” Anne said. “Until your mother starts foisting relatives on you that you don’t want to invite.” She looked at me with a hopeful smile. “I think the bride should get to choose her own guests, even if she’s not paying for the reception. Don’t you?”
Oh boy. I didn’t want to get into the middle of this. “Well, are they relatives on your father’s side of the family? It might be nice to include them, considering his recent passing.”
Anne’s eyes narrowed, obviously displeased. “Daddy wouldn’t have wanted them invited either. He thought our plans were way too expensive. He kept wanting to cut everything down, including the guest list.”
“Well, we don’t have that problem now, do we?” Marjorie said, striding toward Anne. “Thanks to the life insurance, you can have the big fancy wedding you want. I don’t think it’s asking very much to invite your cousins! And you!” She turned to Kay. “Stop moping. At least now you can go to any college you want.”
She took a deep breath and faced me. “I’m sorry. It’s rude of us to talk about money in front of a virtual stranger. It’s just been so stressful. Before Bruce died, we’d been having money problems. With the downturn in the economy, Kayla—Kay—was going to have to attend a state school, and my Anne would have to have a scaled-down wedding. Now Bruce is gone, and so are our money problems. It doesn’t seem right.”
Indeed. Not right at all. All three of these ladies had a reason to kill.
“What happened to your husband, if I might ask? He was so young,” I said.
“He tripped. Fell down the stairs,” said a raspy voice behind me. “Broke his neck.”
I turned to see an old man with heavy wrinkles around his nose and eyes wheeling himself into the room. He had white hair like mine and a long white beard dotted with crumbs.
I glanced up for a moment. How come my beard had to be trimmed so much if this guy can wear his beard long? No response. Figures.
“Dad,” Marjorie said. “I’d like you to meet Joseph Bookman. He’s a grief counselor. Rabbi Cohen sent him.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Saul,” he said as we shook hands. His accent sounded Eastern European. “Terrible thing that’s happened. Just terrible.”
“Dad witnessed the accident,” Marjorie said. “None of the rest of us were home,” she added quickly. A bit too quickly, if you ask me.
“What did Mr. Goldenblatt trip on?” I asked Saul.
“My kitten,” Lauren, the youngest girl, said, her gaze glued to the feline in her arms. “Squeaker didn’t mean to do it!”
“I’m sure she didn’t,” I said. Especially since I didn’t buy the story for a minute.
“Come,” Saul said, as he grabbed a pretzel from a bowl on the counter. “I’ll show you where it happened.”
He wheeled himself toward the front of the house, munching, the wooden floor creaking underneath. “I’m sure the rabbi meant well in sending you over,” he said when we were out of earshot of the kitchen. “But I think it’s best if the girls don’t dwell on this.”
He stopped by the front door, clearly wanting me to leave. But I had a job to do.
I turned to the long staircase. “Is this where Mr. Goldenblatt fell?”
“Yeah.” Saul rolled up beside me. “The kitten came out of nowhere. Bruce was on his way up, tripped, and fell to the bottom. Poor Lauren’s been blaming herself. I really wish she wouldn’t.”
“It’s her cat?” I asked.
“Yep.” He nodded. “For good now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lauren only got the kitten a couple months ago. Bruce was terribly allergic. He wanted her to take it back to the pound, but Lauren’s attached to Squeaker. She desperately wanted to keep her. Marjorie told Bruce he should keep trying the allergy shots, though to be fair they weren’t working.” He shrugged. “So now the girl has no father, but she has a cat. Not the best trade off, if you ask me.”
Me either. Now all the women in the house had a motive. The yelling in the kitchen resumed, something about chicken or fish. At least they weren’t considering pork.
“That must have been a horrible thing to see,” I said.
Saul stared at the floor. “Yeah, it was terrible.”
Was the old man covering for someone? One of them could have pushed Bruce down the stairs. Did the mother care more about throwing a fancy wedding and sending her daughter to an expensive college than she did about her husband? Or was the bride so selfish that she’d kill her father for the life insurance money? Or her sister with the nickname—was attending some impressive school that important to her? Or the youngest one? Did she choose a kitten over her father?
Sheesh. I’d like to believe none of them was capable of such a horror. Unfortunately I feared otherwise.
“You live here?” I asked Saul.
“Yeah, ever since my Estelle died five years ago.” He nodded at a room off the hallway. “Moved in there. It used to be Bruce’s home office, but he was nice enough to convert it into a bedroom for me.” He rolled closer. “Look, Mr. Bookman, I want you to know, these girls loved their father. And Marjorie loved her husband. I know how it must have sounded back there. So much bickering, especially at a time like this. But that’s just their way.”
I bent down so Saul and I would be eye to eye, and I laid a hand on his arm. “It must be hard for you, being the only man in the house. Now that Bruce is gone, you’re their protector.”
He nodded. “Not that I’m really needed. Marjorie’s a very strong woman.”
“Do you go to shul, Saul?” I asked, rising.
“Synagogue? Of course, on the High Holy Days. It’s not so easy getting around with this chair, but I manage. We’ll all go together next week for Rosh Hashanah.”
“A time to ask for forgiveness of sins.” I began pacing. “There are many sins in this world. It can often seem confusing. If you’re trying to help someone you love—to protect them from the consequences of something they’ve done—is that a sin?”
Saul sat quietly for a moment. “I’d like to think that when God closes the Book of Life each Yom Kippur, that he considers everything a person has lived through and everything he’s done, not just one act. We all know good men can do bad things.”
“And good women.”
He stared at me, his lips curling. He wanted to tell me what happened. I could see it.
“Mr. Bookman,” he finally said. “I think you should go.”
“Go? Already?” Marjorie approached us with a plate of rugelach. “You just got here. And I haven’t even offered you anything to eat or drink.”
I wasn’t getting anywhere with Saul. Maybe I could work on Marjorie directly. I turned to her, selected a piece of pastry filled with raisins, and smiled. “A glass of water would be nice. Thank you.”
Saul wheeled to his bedroom, muttering to himself, while I followed Marjorie to the kitchen.
An hour later, my stomach was stuffed, my head was pounding from all the yelling, and I knew more about the impending wedding than anyone would ever want to know. (Apparently having the same vase and flowers at every table is out. Each table needs its own “pop of style,” whatever that means.) But I wasn’t any closer to figuring out which of these women needed to unburden herself, and I had the feeling I was wearing out my welcome. I needed to speak to each one alone. But how?
Just then the kitten scampered past. Ah. I glanced up. Thanks.
“Lauren,” I said. “I can tell you feel bad about Squeaker tripping your dad. Why don’t we take a little walk and talk about it?”
“Okay,” she said and hopped off her barstool.
“I hear your dad was allergic to Squeaker,” I said as we entered the hallway, heading toward the front of the house.
She shuffled next to me, focusing on the floor. “Yeah. Anytime Dad was in the same room with Squeaker, his eyes turned red and he started sneezing.”
“Must have been hard for you.”
“Uh huh.” She looked up. “Dad wanted me to give Squeaker back, but Mom convinced him to keep taking the allergy shots. He told me he’d try them for another month, but if things didn’t get any better . . .”
“How’d that make you feel?”
“Mad. I mean I know it wasn’t Dad’s fault, but why couldn’t I have a pet like everyone else?”
I couldn’t tell if she was just a typical self-involved teen or something worse. I needed to test her.
“You know,” I said as we approached the front staircase, “your grandpa could only see what occurred from a distance. Maybe it just looked like your dad tripped on Squeaker. Maybe he actually tripped on something else. Loose carpeting, perhaps.”
Her eyes lit up. “You think?”
She raced to the stairs and scrutinized each one. I followed her up. She looked so hopeful. She really believed it could be true. A good feeling rose in my heart. She couldn’t have pushed her father.
When we reached the top, she turned to me, shoulders hunched. “I don’t see any loose carpeting. Thanks for trying, Mr. Bookman. I guess Squeaker really is to blame.” She burst into tears and ran down the hall. A moment later, a door slammed and loud music began blaring from behind the door.
Great. I made a child cry. More to repent for.
I bent down to examine the top step. Had God sent me on a wild-goose chase? Could Goldenblatt really have just fallen over the cat? Heck, maybe he threw himself down the stairs to get away from all this squabbling. I needed to talk to the other girls to—
I felt hands on my shoulder blades. Then a shove! I began tumbling down the stairs. Oof! Urk! Hey, my suffering was supposed to be over!
I landed at the bottom and smacked my brow hard against the entryway table’s base. Apples and pears began falling on my head. Lord, what have I done to deserve this?
When the pounding stopped, I opened my eyes. Blinked. The room spun. I shut my eyes and waited for someone to come help me up, fearing it could take a while. Between the music upstairs and the yelling from the kitchen, I doubted anyone had heard me fall.
Hey. Wait a minute. Who pushed me?
Not Lauren. I would have seen her coming. Couldn’t have been Marjorie. I could clearly hear her in the kitchen. And there was Anne, yelling back, also in the kitchen. And Kay’s complaints were wafting down the hallway, too.
What the heck?
The floor creaked, and I felt a shadow fall over me. “God, forgive my terrible temper again,” Saul said. “But he was trying to hurt my girls, to blame them for what happened.”
I opened my eyes. His flew wide.
“You’re alive?” he said.
“You pushed me?” I said, eyeing his wheelchair. “And Bruce? But how?”
He suddenly appeared very old and scared. “The elevator.” He nodded toward one of the closed doors in the hall. “Bruce had it installed for me when I moved in.”
An elevator in a house? I guess I wasn’t as up on the modern world as I’d thought.
“I don’t understand,” I said, trying to get up but slumping back down. Oy, my head hurt. “He let you move into his home. Gave you his office. Enabled you to get around the whole house, apparently. Why would you do this to him, Saul?”
He paused. For a moment he seemed far away, lost in thought. Then he held out his left forearm and pushed up the sleeve. Tattooed numbers. I sighed deeply.
“I was a teenager when we were sent to the camps,” he said. “Auschwitz. I never saw my mother and sisters again.” He shivered and shook his head, as if he could make the memories disappear. “I was the only member of my family to survive. When the war ended, I promised myself I’d create a new family and I’d protect them from everything.”
“But Bruce loved you and the girls. Didn’t he? How was he a threat?”
Saul gazed toward the kitchen, where the argument had moved on to the flavor of the wedding cake. “Marjorie and the girls raise their voices, but not Bruce. Never Bruce. Until the economy turned, and he lost a lot of money in the market.” Saul wrung his hands. “He wanted Marjorie and the girls to sacrifice. A small wedding. A state school. That I could understand, but he had no right to yell at my Marjorie.”
He paused. I stared quietly at him, hoping my silence would encourage him to continue. Finally, he did.
“The day Bruce died,” Saul said, “he and Marjorie had another argument about money, much louder than the one going on right now. He called her extravagant, said she was spoiling the girls. Marjorie called him a tightwad and insisted on her way, but Bruce said that for once he was going to get his way. Marjorie’s waterworks wouldn’t work. Marjorie stormed out, and Bruce headed up the stairs here. I was at the top, where I’d been listening. I couldn’t help myself. I was so angry. My Marjorie deserved to be treated like a queen! You don’t scream at queens.” Tears spilled from his eyes. “No one suspected a thing. Just like they won’t with you.”
He grabbed the ceramic fruit bowl and raised it over my head.
“Daddy, no!” Marjorie ran toward us. “Not again!”
Saul’s arms quivered as he lowered the bowl. I let out a deep breath. I’d died once before. Believe me, once had been enough.
Marjorie grabbed the bowl from Saul’s outstretched hands and clutched it to her chest.
“You know?” he asked her.
A tear ran down her cheek. “I thought you did it for the money, Daddy. So Anne could have her wedding and Kayla could go to a good school. I didn’t know you killed Bruce because of me. You shouldn’t have. I loved him. He was a good man.”
Saul leaned back in the chair, his face ashen. “It was the yelling, Marjorie. I couldn’t stand that he yelled at you.”
“I’m a grown woman, Daddy. I could have handled it.”
“I know,” he said quietly. “I lost my temper. I’m sorry.”
While they were talking, I’d struggled to my feet. My head hurt, but I’d felt worse. Marjorie seemed to notice me at that moment.
“Oh, Mr. Bookman. Please don’t turn my father in. He did a terrible thing, but his heart was in the right place. He’s suffered so much already, and we need him here with us.”
I looked at her and then at Saul for a good while, and I understood why God had sent me.
“You should go to your rabbi, both of you. Confess what happened. He’ll help you find your way.”
Marjorie’s eyes widened, afraid, but Saul nodded.
“You’re right, Bookman. I’ll go. We’ll both go.” He held out his hand, and I shook it. “It’ll be good getting it all off my chest. Maybe we can find a way to let Lauren know that she wasn’t to blame because of her cat. And I’m sorry about . . . this.” He gestured at the bowl and had the decency to look sheepish.
I nodded and turned back to Marjorie. “I have to ask. You said you weren’t home at the time. How did you know what happened?”
“Yeah,” Saul said. “How?”
She set the bowl on the table. “I was only gone a couple minutes, Daddy. Remember? Got as far as the corner, then turned around. I came in, saw Bruce, and screamed. You called from upstairs that you were on the phone with 911. You said Bruce had tripped over Squeaker halfway up the stairs. Fell all the way down.”
“So?” Saul asked.
“I knew Bruce couldn’t have tripped over Squeaker. Bruce would have known if Squeaker were anywhere near him. He started sneezing whenever the cat came within five feet.” She sniffed hard and reached out, plucking a large crumb from Saul’s beard. “And then I saw some pretzel crumbs on Bruce. You’re the only one of us who eats pretzels, Daddy. You eat them constantly, as if you’re afraid we’ll run out of food. I knew Bruce must have made it to the top of the stairs, and you must have touched him. It’s the only way crumbs from your beard would have fallen onto him. So I knew you lied about how he fell.”
Saul turned my way, looking surprised yet also proud. “That’s my girl,” he said. “A regular Columbo.”
I said my goodbyes, left the brownstone, and by the time I reached the sidewalk, poof! I was home again. My hair was long, and I had on my favorite robe and sandals.
The swirling cloud appeared before me. “A job well done, Job.”
“So it was Saul, huh?” I said. “I didn’t suspect him for a minute. I knew all about elevators, but I didn’t know they put them in houses. That’s what I get for taking classes from Moses. Sure, he knows his Torah, but he also got lost in the desert for forty years. I never should’ve expected he’d get all the details on the modern world right.”
“I hope I handled things the way you wanted,” I said.
“Yes. You got Saul to confess his sin and Marjorie to admit she knew about it. Good work.”
“Too bad I nearly had to die to do it,” I said.
“Well,” God said, “it’s not like you haven’t died before.”
Easy for you to say.
“If there’s nothing else,” I said, “I think there’s a pinochle game going on.”
The mist began swirling more.
“I’ll speak to you again soon, Job.” If a cloud could wink, I’d swear this one did. “Hopefully things won’t be so dangerous the next time.”