“They didn’t say anything. No stories. No information. Just warnings”
Felix shifts the baby from one shoulder to the other and prays that she will not start crying once again. He has been designated nursemaid by Emmy, who has taken Chasya along with her on her adventure.
How do these women do it? He has spent the last half hour looking down at the screaming red face, requesting in his most polite tone of voice, in a tone of voice that is entirely rational, and devoid of such emotion as frustration or helplessness, that the baby simply indicate what ails her.
He would be more than happy to supply it. He has milk in a bottle and a fresh change of clothes in case she is wet. He has a blanket if she is too cold, which he will remove if she is too warm. Really, he would be most happy to oblige as long as she would stop crying.
“It is a good thing babies grow up to be rational beings, otherwise there would be no hope,” he tells her. He lifts his gold watch and looks at the time. They have only been out an hour. Far too long. Though certainly not long enough for their liking.
One hour on a reconnaissance mission, as Emmy called it. It was odd to see her and Chasya waving goodbye, laughing between themselves. He had felt left out, somehow. But he was glad to see Emmy interested in something other than Perla. For really, if Wolf’s assessment is correct, that direction will lead only to disappointment and tragedy. He can feel it in his very unrational bones.
Leibele, at least had been loyal. “Can Felix not come with us?” he had asked, as they had stepped out the door together.
“No, no, not today.”
“So then let me stay with him. I shall help him care for the baby.”
Ah. Had he known. An hour older and rather wiser. Their plan was that Leibele would be a talking point, a conversation starter. Those women—if they can care for a baby surely they can manage an investigation alone. He should have insisted that Leibele take the role of secondary nursemaid (or primary nursemaid, for that matter). Next time.
He looks down. The baby has quieted. She has found a finger and is sucking enthusiastically. Just as she is closing her eyes the front door clicks open.
So much noise! How much noise can be made by two ladies and a little boy as they clatter through the door. Do they not understand what it takes for a baby to finally, finally fall asleep?
The baby whimpers. She opens her eyes, the smooth peace slips off her face, she begins to wail, and it is as if the entire work of an hour and a half is for nothing. Almost as bad as his abandoned dissertation.
Chasya holds out her arms and the baby lurches into them. She excuses herself to tend to the baby, but Emmy and Leibele are excited by their adventure.
Emmy begins imitating the women they have met. “We asked them for employment advice.” She changes her voice to imitate the women they have met: “You can knit stockings, my dear. If your stitching is neat and your hands are nimble, then perhaps you can embroider initials onto handkerchiefs. You may iron, but you will have to collect the money for a good iron, and that could take half a year.
“You could, if you are lucky, find work in one of the cotton factories. They have a few women that they employ, mainly to sweep the factory floor, beware, though, for all the cotton pieces enter the lungs and you could be dead within a year. Which may not matter too much—what is life but a burden—but you have a child to raise.”
This is not what he wants to hear. Something in him is itching for the punchline of all this.
“And so we asked people about domestic employment overseas.”
“Tochter, if you value your life, you will stay far away from these crooks.” A breath. “Far gelt bakumt men alts, nor keyn sechel nit, money buys everything apart from common sense.”
“But what did they say? What stories did they tell?”
“Nothing. They didn’t say anything. No stories. No information. Just warnings.”
Felix drops his shoulders and straightens his spine. Then, with what he hopes is an air of cool confidence, he walks through the doors of Živnostenská Banka.
He strides up to the inquiry desk and presents the card he had printed this week: Felix Schweibel, Investigative Journalist. The bored-looking clerk looks at the card, looks up at Felix and then back at the card. His eyebrows rise. Felix drums his fingers on the desk.
“And how can I help you, sir?”
“I would like to see Herr von Albrecht.”
The clerk nods slowly, and then slowly gets off his chair and leads Felix up a grand staircase, complete with gilted banister. Staring down at them, as they ascend, are large oil paintings of the current and former presidents of the bank.
At the end of a long corridor, the clerk stops and motions to the door. Outside is a brass sign: J. Von Albrecht. Felix thanks the clerk, takes a deep breath, and knocks sharply on the door.
He has not seen Joachim for months. Not since the night the man had delivered a pale but composed Emmy back to their home, and had tipped his hat at Felix. He had tipped his hat at Emmy too, but although at first he had been angry, angry as only a brother can be at the man who has captured his sister’s heart, he has a grudging respect for the man. He acted on his principles, and he was never less than honest and scrupulous, though he may have left Emmy angry and broken.
Joachim cocks his head to the side. “Well, well, well. That’s not who I expected to see.”
A hesitation and then a warm smile.
“But that does not mean that you are not welcome.”
Felix studies him. They are the same age, and here he is, a banker at a respectable institution. Not ancient, but solid enough to command much of the business done in Prague. An office of his own—small, but with attractive furnishings and his own fire in the grate.
Joachim takes a little silver box of tobacco and reaches into his drawer for cigarette paper. With deft fingers, he rolls himself a cigarette, then pushes the box and paper across to Felix. They both light up. Felix inhales.
The tobacco is good quality, much better than the usual fare. He may work in a small office, but the man can afford good tobacco. Well, of course. The von Albrechts have a hand in half of the businesses in Prague.
“I am here to ask for your assistance.”
Felix takes out a piece of paper, with a name and a bank account number on it. He carefully copied it down from a check that his attacker gave to Wolf, in payment for his advertisement.
“What can you tell me about this bank account?”
Joachim stubs out his cigarette and leans back in his chair. He lifts his arms behind his head and leans back, observing. “And what makes you assume that I would break my gentleman’s honor, compromise my discretion, and give you this information?”
He would love to mirror the man, and stub out his own cigarette, but he has no matches with him, and it will feel somewhat undignified to pick up the half-smoked stub and ask him to relight it. So he balances it through his fingers and slowly, one-handed, rolls up his shirt sleeve.
Joachim keeps his blue eyes trained on Felix’s arm.
When his sleeve is rolled up, and the bandage is revealed, Felix struggles to unpin the bandage and slowly unwind it from the top of his arm. The gash that is revealed is long and deep, slightly curved.
Joachim wrinkles his nose. “You can put that away.”
Felix takes a long drag of the cigarette. It may be his imagination, but it eases the pain. Or maybe it just distracts him.
“The man whose information I seek attacked me without provocation.”
“So go to the police.”
“There is something here I need to understand.”
Joachim lets out an exaggerated sigh.
“I believe this man is involved in criminal activity.”
Joachim leans forward and looks him in the eye. “Then that is all the more reason for me to have nothing to do with your request.”
The house of the Rosh Kehal is hung with tapestries and decorated with bright colored rugs and pillows. A large mosaic covers the floor and Becca blinks, unsettled by the colors and mass of objects. How could one ever think clearly in such cacophony?
She blinks. The wife of the Rosh Kehal, a straight-backed lady who looks to be in her late fifties, with a surprisingly warm smile, settles her onto a low couch and brings her a glass of something that is yellow and thick and smells of cinnamon. She sips. The taste is surprising. It is thick and grainy on her tongue, but it’s sweet and tastes good.
The lady of the house sits across from her, watching, as Becca sips.
“I understand you sent me a message,” Becca says.
The woman allows herself a long, slow smile—longer than Becca has time for. She still has another two calls to make today. Still, it would not be seemly to demonstrate impatience towards the wife of the Rosh Hakehal. One foot out of line and she could be sent straight back to Paris. And while that would be welcome in many ways, well, she is not quite ready for it.
So she simply sips and waits. Only when she has finished the whole glass, and is feeling rather uncomfortably full, does the woman speak.
“I thank you for coming to me today,” she says.
“It is my honor to meet you.”
“It is just that we have received an unexpected visitor. We have tried to understand her but we have, so far, failed. She is rather distraught, and although we have tried to settle her for a few days now, she will not be calmed. My husband believes that she speaks mainly in Yiddish and so we have called for you, in the hope that you can help us to understand who she is and why she is here.”
Becca nods. “Of course. I shall be glad to help.”
With a wave of her hand, the woman motions for her to follow. She opens the door of a side room and points to the figure lying on the narrow bed, motionless.
Becca steps inside. There is a strange smell; part grime, part incense. The figure on the bed does not move. Something cold crawls up her skin and she shudders. She steps back. “I do not know why you think I can help you.”
She takes a step out of the room.
The figure on the bed shifts.
Becca turns. A young woman, clothed in a long black, shapeless garment. It could be that she is contained in a black sack, transported against her will. On her head, too, a black headdress. Strange but also familiar. Between all this black, a small white face peaks out.
Becca shakes her head. “You have made a mistake.”
“No,” says the woman.
“But…” She looks again. “This is a nun. I do not know what language she speaks, but I doubt that it is Yiddish.”
She turns and steps towards the doorway. Just a case of mistaken identity. That is all. Nothing to it. Just a waste of time. Or perhaps an interesting story to write to Hannah. A nun finds her way to the home of the Rosh Kehal.
The woman puts a hand on her shoulder, but Becca has no time for this. There are two other families waiting for her services today, and she would like to be finished before moonrise.
She takes another step towards the door.
A cough. The nun is clearing her throat. Well, let her. She will learn to gesture for a drink, surely the wife of the Rosh kehal has more of that yellowish sweet stuff.
A sound. Becca stops.
She turns, fear and shock prickling through her body.
Again, the nun says. “Gei nisht.”
She steps forward.
The nun’s white complexion makes her eyes look huge. “Ich darf dir, Becca.”
Becca, I need you.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 707)
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