The Ritual Bath (10 page)

Shit. She’d brought
her kids.

Decker glanced at his watch. It was two past twelve. At least Rina was punctual. She was trudging toward him, weighted down by shopping bags while her two boys ran ahead and chased each other across the grass. He met her halfway, relieved her of the sacks, and escorted her to an empty bench.

She was goddam beautiful. No doubt about that. Even the long-sleeved shirt and dowdy skirt couldn’t hide a curvaceous body that brushed against the material as she walked. But it was her face—the combination of innocence and sensuality—that got to him. The yeshiva had her well hidden, isolated from the outside world. Otherwise there’d be no way she’d be walking around without ten guys following her, tongues lolling out like panting dogs. If she only knew…Then again, if she knew, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

“You brought company,” he said, making an attempt to hide his disappointment.

“My older boy came down with a scratchy
throat last night that turned into croup. I took them both to the pediatrician for throat cultures, and we just got out. I didn’t think you would mind.”

“Not at all.”

She called her kids, and they came plowing toward her full speed, managing, somehow, to stop short an inch from impact.

“Is this the policeman, Eema?” the smaller one asked.

“Yes. This is Detective Decker.” She looked at Peter. “This is Sammy and this is Jake.”

Decker extended an arm. “Pleased to meet you, boys.”

They each took a turn at shaking his hand. At least she dressed the boys like normal kids, he thought. Baseball caps, shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers. Even if strings were sticking out from under the shirts.

“Do you have a gun?” Sammy asked.

“Shmuel, that isn’t—”

“It’s all right,” Decker said with a smile. “Every boy I’ve ever met has asked me the same question.” He turned to Sammy and tousled the black hair that stuck out from under the skullcap.

“Yes, I have a gun.” He unsnapped the holster and lifted out the butt of the service revolver. After the boys had a peek, he nudged it back in and closed the flap.

“Is it real?” Jake asked.

“You bet.”

“Did you ever shoot anyone?” asked Sammy with growing excitement.

“Did you ever
kill
anyone?” asked Jake with a gleam in his eye.

“Boys, I think that’s enough with the questions. Why don’t we eat lunch?”

“I’m not hungry,” Sammy croaked.

“Throat’s still sore, huh?” Rina asked.

“A little. I’ll just take some juice.”

“I’m not hungry, either,” Jake said.

“Don’t eat if you’re not hungry.” Rina took out a carton of cranberry juice.

“Well, I’m starved,” Decker announced.

“Can I hold your gun?” Sammy asked.

“No,” Decker said firmly. “But I’ll tell you what. How about you boys giving me a few minutes to eat and talk to your mom in private? Then, I’ll take you for a ride in my car.”

“I don’t see a police car,” Jake said, dubiously.

“I drive that beat-up old brown thing parked over there.” Decker pointed to the Plymouth. “Doesn’t look like much on the outside, does it?”

“Sure doesn’t,” the little boy agreed.

“If I was a criminal, I wouldn’t be impressed,” Sammy added.

Decker let go with a full laugh.

“I’ll pass the information on to my watch commander. Anyway, it’s stocked with a police radio and a gun rack.”

“Does it have a siren?” Jake asked.

“Yes.”

“How fast does it go?” inquired Sammy.

“Fast.”

“Can you race it for us?”

Rina interrupted the interrogation.

“Boys, let the man eat.”

“What d’you got, Eema?” Sammy asked.

“I thought you weren’t hungry,” said Rina.

Sammy parked himself next to Decker. “I changed my mind.”

“Me, too,” added Jake, taking the other side.

No matter how hard Rina tried, the boys couldn’t contain themselves from asking questions. Decker finally told her to give it up. He didn’t mind.

He related well to kids, she thought. In a short period of time he’d managed to get a good rapport with the boys. Too good…

After lunch, she instructed the kids to play by themselves. At first they protested their exile, but Decker reminded them of the excursion that awaited if they behaved, and they left without a fuss.

“Nice boys,” he said.

“They are. They’re usually not so nosy.”

“They’re inquisitive. It’s healthy.”

“They’re excited at meeting a detective,” she said, smiling.

He looked at her.

“Nice to know I can excite
somebody
.”

She turned away.

He chuckled self-consciously. “That was a ridiculous thing to say.”

She changed the subject.

“Do you want something else to eat?”

“No, I’m stuffed, thank you.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Rina broke it.

“How’s the Foothill rapist—”

“Please! Don’t bring up sore spots!”

“Sorry.”

“I caught hell for not bringing in that Moshe character. There are mutterings that I’m partial.” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I am.”

“I’m sorry if it got you in trouble. But, believe me, Peter, he’s not the man you want.”

“Who is he?”

She sighed. “His name is Moshe Feldman.”

“What is he? Some stray that the rabbi took pity on?”

“No. A long time ago—actually not too long ago—he was a brilliant student. He was best friends with Yitzchak, my husband; they were
chavrusas
—learning partners. Moshe met his wife about the same time I met Yitzchak, and the four of us were inseparable. We even got married within a month of each other.

“Two months after Moshe’s marriage, his wife announced that she didn’t want to be religious and she didn’t want to be married. I don’t know what happened. No one would talk about it. She wrote to me a couple of times saying she had to find herself, but didn’t go into specifics. Last I heard she was living with this rock and roll guitarist…”

Rina threw up her hands.

“Anyway, Moshe withdrew from people after that. Even Yitzchak. They no longer talked as friends, but they still learned together. Yitzy used to say that Moshe’s mind was as sharp as ever, but he was blocked emotion
ally. When my husband died two years ago Moshe stopped learning formally. A month later he asked me to marry him. I refused, and a week later he snapped. He’s been like that ever since.”

Her eyes moistened.

“I know, intellectually, that he was over the border before he proposed to me. He hadn’t been in his right mind since his wife left him. But I couldn’t help it. I felt it was my fault.”

She looked at Decker.

“It was very important to me that you didn’t arrest him. First, because he’s not a rapist. Second, I called you down there. His arrest would have been my responsibility—”

“That’s absurd, Rina—”

“I would have felt that I nailed his coffin. He was a wonderful person, Peter. A sweet man with a brilliant mind. In some ways he was much more attentive to me than Yitzchak. He would never do anything criminal, Peter. Just as you wouldn’t. It’s not in his makeup.”

Decker said nothing.

“You’re not convinced, are you?”

“No, not at all,” he said. “If anything, you’ve given me more reason to suspect him. Rapists usually hold huge grudges against women. Nasty feelings that suddenly explode. Your friend sounds like a prime candidate for an explosion.”

“He’s not, Peter. You’ll just have to trust me.”

“I gave him his one break. Next time, I play by the book.”

“I appreciate what you did.” She started to pat his hand, but stopped herself.

“I don’t bite,” he said softly.

“I wish you did. It would make it a lot easier on me if you were crude and unappealing.”

“Then it’s a good thing you can’t read my mind. A whole lot of crude thoughts are swimming around there.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Did I offend you?”

“Peter, I’m not some naive little Pollyanna who believes the whole world is cotton candy. Or an inhibited prude who thinks people should only make love in the dark with their clothes on. I’m
religious
. I realize that’s a foreign concept to most people, especially in California, but that’s what I am. I don’t do certain things, not because I don’t want to, but because I have religious values.

“I think it’s wrong to have sex if you’re not married. I don’t think fire and brimstone will come pouring down if you do, but I think it’s wrong. Why? Not on moral grounds—though a case could be made for that, too—but because it’s immodest.
Tsnios
—bodily modesty—is important to us. That’s why we dress the way we do, that’s why married women cover their hair. Not to look unattractive—we like dressing up as much as the next person—but because we believe that the body is private and not some cheesy piece of artwork that’s put on public display. We know our way of thinking is considered antiquated, as dated as
an Edsel. But to me, it has meaning.”

Decker was amazed at her intensity. “Well, it’s a bit old-fashioned—”

“You know what a mikvah
really
symbolizes, Peter?” She became animated. “Spiritual cleansing. A renewal of the soul. For twelve days, starting from the first day of a woman’s menses, she and her husband are forbidden to have sex. When the twelve days are up, if she hasn’t bled for the last seven days, she immerses herself in the mikvah, and then they can resume marital relations, renew their physical bond. That means for at least twelve days every month a husband and wife are off-limits to each other. I bet that seems nuts to you, doesn’t it?”

He smiled. “In a word, yes.”

“And yet it seems so
normal
to me.”

“Everybody’s standard of normalcy differs, I guess.” He looked at her. “But all Jews don’t do this. I know my wife never did.”

“Well, Torah Jews do. I did!” She paused, then said, “Now do you see why it’s impossible for you and me to go out?”

“I’m starting to get the picture.”

He laughed, and so did she.

“I can’t believe that people actually…For twelve days, huh?”

She tucked ebony strands of loose hair back into her tam.

“You know, Peter, when you stop and think about it, the world’s become perverse. You’re an intelligent man and a good person. You have no problem in accepting that there are
men who rape, men who have no impulse control. They see a woman, objectify her, and tear into her flesh as if she were a piece of meat. Yet, it’s hard for you to fathom men who are the exact opposite, men who can control themselves and their drives. In fact, men who follow
Taharat Hamishpacha
—family purity—are the exact opposite of rapists. Yet, they’re viewed as weirdos.”

“You’re talking about two extremes,” said Decker. “There’s plenty in between—lots of
normal
men, like myself, who’d find your customs very hard to deal with.”

“That’s exactly why we stick to our own kind.”

He had no comeback, so he lit another cigarette and looked at the sky.

He still wanted her. The discussion had added hot blue fire to her eyes which only made her more appealing. She was passionate. He knew she’d be passionate in bed. But there was no choice other than to give up. Just concede defeat and forget about her. It would take a keg of dynamite to blast through her armor.

“I like you,” he said sincerely. “I find you incredibly attractive and very nice to talk to. But I can see where a relationship between the two of us might run into some difficulty.”

“I’m glad you understand,” she smiled. “I hope this doesn’t mean I can’t call you if I hear something strange—”

“Of course not. One thing has nothing to do with the other. I’m still the cop assigned to the
case. I could find you personally repulsive, and I’d still do my job.”

“You’re a good guy, Detective Decker.”

“That’s what they tell me.” He stood up and watched her kids at play. They were waging a battle, using dried twigs and branches for guns and swords. For a brief instant he was transported back to his childhood—he and his friends playing cops, running through the glades during the hot, muggy summers, shooting at the bad guys. His friends had outgrown the games.

Decker thought of his own daughter. She was sixteen now, and a good kid. Neither Jan nor he had ever had an ounce of trouble with her, even during the worst parts of their divorce. He’d never felt he’d missed out by not having a son. But now as he observed her boys, and with forty less than two years away, he began to wonder.

The total was
more than Rina had expected, eight dollars over budget, but she carried an extra ten in another part of her wallet for emergencies like this one. She handed the crisp bill to the checker, who snapped it in her hands.

“Fresh off the press,” the woman said, placing it in the register.

Rina smiled, held out her hand for the change, then stuffed it in her purse hurriedly. Wheeling the shopping cart out of the market, she began the long walk back to her car. The lot was emptier now. When she’d arrived earlier in the morning, there hadn’t been a space on the paved area. She’d had to park in a dirt extension full of broken glass and hope that her tread-bare tires would remain intact. The shopping cart was hard to push; a wheel was stuck, and it was loaded down with bags of groceries. She gave the thing a hard shove and something kicked in.

She couldn’t understand how she’d run so afar from her budget. Maybe she was having
more company for Shabbos than usual, or perhaps her boys and their friends were eating more. Certainly, her appetite had decreased ever since the mikvah incident. She’d lost four pounds, and her curves were beginning to angulate.

Stopping in back of her battered Volvo, she flipped open the trunk. It was full of junk: old sand toys that the boys hadn’t used for years, newspapers that had yellowed with age, torn paper bags, and an empty juice bottle. She pushed the trash aside and began to load the groceries, but upon hearing sharp footsteps, stopped abruptly and looked up.

There were four of them—punk kids. Teenagers with greasy long hair, glassy eyes, and wise guy smirks. They were dressed similarly—jeans, black T-shirts emblazoned with images of Satan, scuffed up Wellington boots. The one who approached her was of medium height and build, with a weak chin and blond fuzz for facial hair. She had seen him before but had always avoided direct confrontation. Now he was giving her a lecherous smile that showed yellow buckteeth. His left arm sported a tattoo of a knife in a heart, and from his right ear dangled a gold hoop. He pulled out a cigarette and offered her one.

“No, thank you,” she said quietly.

Her eyes scanned the area for signs of life. In the distance was a woman with two small children.

“Can I help you load those bags,
Miss
?” the
kid said. “Miss Jewey. Miss
Kike
. Miss Kikeyikey?”

The other three started to giggle. Rina attempted to ignore them and go about her business, but the punk encircled her arm with grease-stained fingers and yanked her away from the open trunk. Still gripping her tightly, he pulled off the kerchief she was wearing and let out a hoarse laugh. His breath was strong and stale.

“You’re a cutey, little Miss Jew bitch. Those big blue eyes…Nice black kike hair…Where’s your purse, honey?”

He took the bag off her shoulder, but released her arm.

“Let’s see what you got in your goody bag,” he chuckled. “Oh, boys, will you look at this.”

He pulled out her two dollars.

His comrades hooted with delight.

“I don’t think a rich Jew bitch like you would mind makin’ us a little loan, would you? Plenty of bread where this came from. Just gotta spread those nice legs for that rich fucker husband of yours and your purse magically fills up, don’t it.”

She gave him a hard, impassive stare.

He stuffed the bills in his pants pocket.

“Lookie here. What do we got? We got pictures. These two tykes your little ones?”

She said nothing.

“More little kike tykes.” He clucked his tongue. “You fuckers are taking over the world, ain’t you? First you take our money,
now you move in our town and act like you own the place…”

He pulled the photos out of the plastic sheaths, tore them into pieces, ate one, and scattered the rest.

“She got any Jew dope in there, Cory?” One of them asked the leader.

“Nah, you don’t want Jew dope. It’d make your nose hang down to your cock.”

The punks howled.

“What else you got, honey? You got a pen. A nice one. Gold. Only expensive shit for you Hebee Jebees, huh?”

His eyes scrunched up and he moved his lips as he read the inscription.

“To Rina.” He looked up at her. “With love from Yizjack?”

“You people have dumbshit names.” He tossed it to one of his friends. “How fucking sweet! Little Jackshit gave you a
pen
!”

He searched further and pulled out a small pocket prayer book.

“What the fuck is this? Looks like a secret code to me. You some commie spy, rich bitch Hebe lady?”

He took out a knife and began slicing the pages. Rina’s eyes became wet with fury.

One of the others peered into her shopping bag, pulled out a bottle of club soda and started shaking it rapidly.

“Hey, man, I’m kinda hot. Are you kinda hot, Cory?”

“Man, I’m real hot,” he snickered. “I’m hot to trot with Jew baby.”

“Hey, maybe this’ll cool you off.”

He unscrewed the top and let out a gush of carbonated water, drenching them all in the process. The boys doubled over in laughter, having so much fun that they decided to repeat the procedure. After they’d emptied all the bottles, they moved on to the other groceries. Cory, clearly the leader, threw each of his friends an egg.

“I’m hungry.” He grinned. “How ’bout you, honey? You want some
scrambled
eggs?”

He cracked open the shell and emptied the contents in her trunk. The others elected to throw theirs against the car.

Cory belched out loud, filling the air with rancid fumes.

“Hey,” he said, “I heard egg in the hair was real good for split ends.”

He cracked an egg on her head. She stood there frozen and let the goop ooze down her face and neck. She wiped yoke from her eyes and waited for the next assault, trying hard to retain
details
of what was happening.

“Don’t take it personal, honey.” He cracked an egg over his own head and the boys followed suit. “Is this what you people mean by an egghead?”

An older man strode up. He was in his middle fifties, but solidly built, and appeared to be in good shape.

“Why don’t you boys beat it?” he said fiercely.

“Why don’t you knock it off, you old fart,
before you get your motherfucking skull bashed in?”

The man took a swing at the punk, but the boy easily ducked the punch. Rina tried to run away, but was grabbed by Cory. The other three pounced upon the man at the same time. She screamed and Cory cupped a dirty hand over her mouth.

“Don’t waste him,” Cory shouted, holding Rina tightly. He was incredibly strong. “Not yet anyway.”

He leaned his back against the car and pulled Rina to his stomach, grinding his pelvis against her rear. Nausea surged through her gut. Two of the boys grabbed the man, pulled him upright and managed to restrain the writhing figure in their arms. He let go with a bellow, turning red as he struggled futilely in the boys’ grips.

“You fucking asshole,” the boy said as he landed a punch on the man’s nose. Immediately, out poured bright red blood.

Rina cried out again, and the boy stuffed a filthy headband in her mouth. She gasped and started to gag.

“You be a good little bitch, and I’ll take it out.”

He pulled out the piece of cloth. She spat and screamed again.

A moment later they all heard sirens.

“Cops!” Cory yelled.

Rina took advantage of his diverted attention and stomped hard on his instep. As he yelped in pain, she spun around and knee
dropped him. Cory recovered quickly, but not fast enough. Though his friends had managed to flee successfully, he found himself surrounded by patrol cars and cops. Overcome by panic, he pulled out a knife, grabbed Rina and brought the blade to her throat.

“Police officer! Freeze!” a cop shouted, pointing a gun. “Drop the knife! Drop it! Drop the knife! Drop it!”

Cory knew he was finished. He felt his bladder relax and a warm stream trickled down his leg. He obeyed, and the steel fell onto the asphalt, bounced, and landed with a clunk.

“Hit the ground,” the officer screamed at the top of his lungs. “Hit it! Hit the ground! Hit it! Hit it! Hit the ground!”

The boy fell to his knees, and three uniformed officers charged at once. They read him his rights while handcuffing him and kept the boy flat on the dirt, facedown, as they conferred in a huddle.

Rina watched the whole thing in a daze. Though her heart was thumping against her chest and her breathing was shallow, she felt tranquilized. The images were fuzzy around the edges, lines and angles indistinct.

A policeman walked over to her, tapped her gently on the shoulder, and she jumped.

“Are you in need of medical attention, ma’am?”

She stared at him. His lips moved, his eyes blinked, his chest heaved, but he wasn’t real. He was an automaton—an escapee from Disneyland.

“Huh?”

The robot repeated the question.

“I’m…I’m all right,” she stammered.

She turned around and saw the man with the bloodied nose deep in conversation with another officer. The policeman-robot with whom she was talking was young. Very young. Twenty at the most. His badge had a number. His name tag said “Folstrom.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she said, trying to regain composure.

“Would you like to tell me what happened?”

The kid took out a pocket pad.

Not this again. Uh uh. No way. She wasn’t going to talk to this kid. She was sick of talking. She was sick of the police.

“I want to go home,” she announced.

“Ma’am, I realize that you’ve just experienced quite an ordeal, but we need to talk to you.”

“I don’t want to talk to you,” she said forcefully.

“Ma’am, we need your cooperation—”

“The
hell
with my cooperation!” she screamed hysterically. “I cooperated enough with you people over the last month, and it hasn’t helped with the noises outside, has it?”

The young officer looked at her quizzically.

“Forget it,” she snapped.

An older man walked over to them. He had a hard chiseled face and cold blue eyes. His tag identified him as Walsh.

“How are you feeling, ma’am?” he asked her in a mild voice.

“I don’t want to give a statement.” Her voice had become shrill. “I want to go home. Do you mind? I’ve been through enough. I want to go home.”

“Ma’am, why don’t you rest here a moment or two? Try to calm your nerves. Would you like something to drink?”

“No,” she answered quietly. “I want to go home.”

“What’s your name, ma’am?”

“Rina Lazarus. You can get the exact spelling from Detective Decker.”

“Peter Decker?” Walsh asked.

She nodded.

“You’re a friend of his?”

“Yes.”

Walsh took his junior partner aside. “Let’s call Decker and make it easy on ourselves. He’s working Juvey anyway. One more case won’t kill him, and he’ll be more likely to get something out of her than we will.”

Folstrom looked angry but didn’t say anything.

“Call up the station and find his unit number,” Walsh said. “I think it’s 16-552.”

Folstrom complied but was steamed. Why didn’t Walsh give him a chance with the lady? He could have gotten the information. He could have handled her.

Walsh went back to Rina. “We’re calling up Detective Decker now. Would you like to wait and talk directly to him?”

She nodded wearily. “Can I sit in my car?”

“Go ahead. If you want anything, you might as well ask. You may be here for a while.”

She touched the crown of her head.

“I’d like my kerchief back,” she said.

“Did the kid use it in any way as a weapon against you? A gag, a whip, an object of strangulation—”

“He just pulled it off my head.”

“When?” the officer asked.

Rina looked at him. “I’ll tell Detective Decker. Can I have the kerchief?”

“What’s that garbage in your hair now?”

“An egg.”

“Boys do it?”

She nodded.

The policeman gave her a sympathetic look. “We may need the scarf as evidence. I’m sorry. Detective Decker should be here shortly.”

 

They still had Cory spread-eagled on the ground when the Plymouth pulled up. Decker got out, glanced at the punk, waved to Walsh, and went over to the Volvo. He knocked on the windshield, and Rina got out of the car. She took one look at his face and tears started to flow.

The hell with religion, he thought. He threw an arm around her shoulder protectively, and she sobbed against his chest. He hugged her tightly and stroked the back of her head, noticing it was wet and sticky.

“You’re all right, Rina,” he soothed her. When she had calmed down, he asked: “Did
they physically hurt you in any way?”

“I’m fine.” She pulled away from him and wiped her eyes, amazed at how relieved she was to see him. “That one,” she said, pointing to Cory, “pulled a knife on me. But I didn’t get hurt.”

Her hand drifted to her neck.

Decker’s eyes clouded with fury.

“You’ve been through the wringer,” he said with feeling.

“Peter, I’d like to go home. The boys will be back from camp in less than twenty minutes.”

“Did you make a statement?”

She shook her head.

“Briefly tell me what happened. I’ll get an official statement from you later. All right?”

She nodded and related the incident as quickly as she could.

“Rina, we’re going to need the car and its contents for evidence. Eggs, empty bottles, the whole bit. This is going down as an assault with a deadly weapon and possibly an armed robbery, so I’d like photos and good detailed notes. I can have one of the patrolmen drive you home.”

“That’s fine.” She hesitated, then asked: “Do you need a photo of the egg in my hair?”

“Goddam assholes,” he muttered. “No, I saw it. I’ll record it. Look, don’t say anything about this to anyone at the yeshiva. At least keep it under wraps until I’ve talked to you officially. And it’ll be a while before I’ll make it over there. I’m swamped with work. It’s the heat. Brings out all the roaches. And for some
reason, this week they’ve all been juveniles. The three of us have pulled so much overtime, we’re ready to camp out at the station.”

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