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The Best of 2013

The Afternoon Circle Jerk Society
by Amanda Earl

Beating the Gothic Out of Her
by Amanda Earl

Real Irish
by Amanda Earl

Mercy and the Man. . .
by Amanda Earl

The Revenant
by Amanda Earl

The Vessel
by Amanda Earl

The Too Beautiful Boy
by Arthur Chappell

The Accidental Fetish
by Corvidae

Never For Punishment
by Daddy X

Like a Brother
by Big Ed Magusson

Old Dogs
by Big Ed Magusson

Goodbye Roger
by Huck Pilgrim

He Sends His Regrets
by Huck Pilgrim

A Small Favor
by Huck Pilgrim

Ava's Honey
by john e

LOX
by john e

Eclipse Sex
by Oxartes

Adam and Eve on a Raft
by Robert Buckley

Dead Man's Switch
by Robert Buckley

Does Immortality come with a Pension?
by Robert Buckley

Embraceable Ewe
by Robert Buckley

A Fragile Desire
by Robert Buckley

Surviving Winter
by Robert Buckley

You're the Only One
by Robert Buckley

Dissolve
by Sybil Rush

Bing Cherry Silk
by Valentine Bonnaire

Colony, Collapsed
by Valentine Bonnaire

Have a Nice Day
by Valentine Bonnaire

l'heure bleue
by Valentine Bonnaire

Once Upon A Time . . .
by Valentine Bonnaire

Red Suede
by Valentine Bonnaire

Yellow, like the daffodils
by Valentine Bonnaire

Novelette

Invisible Lines
by Raziel Moore



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By Mike Kimera
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It May Not be Art...
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Fiend in Need

Sequel to The Vow
by Oxartes © 2010

 

Note From the Author: Like "The Vow," "Fiend in Need" takes place in the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Links follow at the end of each section; if you come across a word, phrase, etc. that you don't recognize, chances are there's a link. But, to get you started: A "get" is a bill of divorce, a "chumash" is a usually smallish bound book edition of one or all five sections of the Torah, "rebbetzin" is what you call a rabbi's wife & a "shidduch" is an arranged match; check the links for details.

In "Fiend in Need", I tie in characters from Robert Buckley's excellent "Paladins." I thank Bob for graciously allowing me to borrow some of his characters.


erotic fiction

Meyer Silverstein completed that new wing of Ner Israel's girls' school in Brooklyn, on the site of Esther's building, in record time, not long after Rabbi Asher and I had unveiled that new granite headstone on Esther's grave.

My life had settled back into its pre-Esther routine. Another cheating spouse, or cheating business partner, to get the goods on. Another bastard blackmailing his wife over a get to be persuaded to see the error of his ways. Another runaway, from a supposedly good family (they're always good) to track down. It never changed. I spilled my guts to Sam Gold early one Wednesday morning as I drove him and his elderly father Max to the Gold family bagel bakery after prayers at Rabbi Asher's synagogue.

"The shit that I see, that I have to deal with as a PI. The lying, the cheating, the depravity! But my clients wear yarmulkes, and the women wear long dresses. They keep kosher. They learn Torah. They go to synagogue."

"That didn't stop that goniff bastard Madoff," Sam interrupted.

"Yeah, but it should have!" I replied, "It should have. You'd think that this," I pulled my yarmulke off my head and waved it, "and that," I pointed to my chumash, which Sam was holding, "would mean something! And they come to me and I have to wade through their shit and then see them on the street or read about them at the synagogue dinner, Mr. Pillar-of-the-Community. And they look down on me because I'm newly-observant, because I wasn't raised orthodox? What chutzpah! It boils me! Maybe this is some kind of test?"

"Could be," Sam replied as I pulled up in front of the bakery.

Sam and I helped Max to his usual corner table and gave him the morning papers, which had been dropped off earlier. Sam went to brew some coffee. I sat in one of the booths and opened my chumash to the weekly Torah portion.

A few minutes later, Sam was back. "Here ya' go, Pop." He poured Max a mug of black filter coffee and then asked me, "You still want that 40-weight Israeli mud?"

I nodded. "I picked up something useful on that singles tour."

"You know that Rabbi Asher meant well."

"I don't doubt it."

"So lighten...ah, here they are," Sam said, looking at the door, "Time to boil and bake."

"They" would be Roscoe and Joline, Sam's long-time employees but only Roscoe entered.

"Where Joline?" Sam asked.

"Beats me. She wasn't on the A. I dunno. Hey Max, hey 'private dick'."

I wagged a finger at Roscoe.

"Yeah, yeah, one day you're gonna kick the shit out of me, I know."

Roscoe was a pal. He followed Sam into the back, leaving Max and I alone out front.

I went back to my chumash. There was a commotion at the door. Joline entered followed by two men who were hassling her.

"Get away from me!"

"But where's my money, honey?"

"I ain't your honey no more, you crackhead loser, and I don't owe you shit!"

It was her worthless ex and some friend of his. The friend was fingering something in his jacket pocket. Not good. I stood up and addressed Joline's ex. "Hit the road and take genius here," I pointed to his friend, "with you."

"You jes go back to your book, my heebie homeboy, and mind yer own fuckin' business."

I took out a handkerchief...

He laughed. "Whatcha gonna do? Blow my nose?"

...and folded it over the corner of my hardcover chumash. "No, bust it." I slammed it upwards into the base of his nose, hard. Blood gushed.

The friend pulled a switchblade.

"Don't or I'll blow your fuckin' head off," I snarled, pulling my Smith & Wesson M&P .357 from my right-side shoulder holster and pointing it at him. "Toss it on the table."

The friend complied.

"Stay the fuck away from Joline," I said, lowering my book and holding it so that Sam, who had rushed out with Roscoe, could remove the bloody handkerchief. I gestured for him to give it to Joline's ex, "or I'll hunt you down, make sure I'm defending myself, and blow you a couple of new ones."

"Deal, no sweat," he said, wiping his nose, "But you and me, we ain't done, not by a longshot."

"Yeah, yeah; whatever," I growled. What was two more enemies? "Just get the fuck outta here."

The tweedledeedipshits took off.

"My man! Yeah!" Roscoe exclaimed. We traded high fives.

"You OK, Pop?" Sam asked Max.

"Bahh. Alex shoulda blown both their heads off. Woulda been an improvement." He went back to the Post.

We all smiled.

"Thank you, Alex," Joline said. She went to kiss me on the cheek but stopped short when I backed up a step. "Oh, sorry."

I waved her off. I holstered my piece and gave her one of my cards, "Just in case Dumb and Dumber bother you again."

She nodded. "Bring you your usual as soon as it's ready?"

My 'usual' was a fresh, hot whole-wheat bagel. "Actually not."

Sam looked up. "You're not staying?"

"Nah, I gotta head over to Ner Israel."

"To see Rabbi Wasserman?"

"No, to see Rebbetzin Wasserman."

"What for?"

Rebbetzin Wasserman was the principal of Ner Israel's girls' high schooI. I shrugged my shoulders. "She wouldn't say."

"It's all business with her; good luck."

"Thanks." I filled my cup with some '40-weight Israeli mud' as Sam had so charmingly called it and walked the three blocks to Ner Israel. "All business" was Sam's polite way of saying that the lady was a hardass. What she wanted from me, I had no idea.
Rebbetzin Wasserman's secretary showed me right into her office and shut the door behind her.

"Ah, Detective Levy, have a seat."

I sat down in a chair that had been pulled right up to her desk.

"You know that the school year starts next month."

"Yes."

She slid a folder across the desk. "Devorah Malka. I want to hire her as my physical education instructor."

"So?"

"Open it; read."

I opened the file. The first page was an official New York State Department of Correctional Services prisoner file.

"Where did you get this?"

"Read."

"Devorah Malka, aka Debbie King...one-and-a-half years at Taconic Correctional Facility. OxyContin...plead to possession, distribution and criminal conspiracy. Raped by her dealer..."

"Who she turned in, which helped prompt the DA's leniency in return for her plea."

I kept reading. "Two years' probation...model prisoner...worked with facility's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Aaron Wasserman and his assistant for women's affairs, Mrs. Rebecca Wasserman, MSW...aha."

"I believe that Devorah wants to turn her life around. She sincerely believes that God has offered her a second chance. She has become orthodox; as far as someone else can appreciate such things, her faith appears to be genuine."

"Albany is letting her teach again? A drugs offender on parole?"

"I'm sure that no public school would dare hire her but I'm hiring her."

I knew that the rules for religious schools were a little different but still. "You must've had to call in a lot of favors to get her license back, even provisionally."

Rebbetzin Wasserman nodded. "In addition to meeting all the usual parole conditions, I have to pass her with flying colors after each quarter. If she clears the parole board, and me, she gets her permanent license back."

"So what do you want from me?"

"Interview her. Talk to her parole officer. Tell me she's not playing me. I'm as far out on a limb for her as I can possibly be, with Albany, with the board, with the parents. Be the rabbi; tell me she's kosher."

"Why are you doing this?"

"The Talmud says that whoever saves even one life, it's as if..."

"They've saved the entire world. You're trying to save the world?"

"No, just Devorah Malka. I think she's legitimate but I need to be sure."

I looked at the folder.

"I will pay your standard fee for a background check, not Ner Israel Institutions but me personally."

I waved her off. "Give it to your scholarship fund for poor students." My accountant said I had to cut out the nice guy shit but I couldn't take Rebbetzin Wasserman's money. Besides, this looked like a no-brainer. Talk to her parole officer, talk to her, piece of cake. I probably wouldn't even have to call Carl, my computer geek, to dig up the dirt on her.

"Her parole officer's details are on page three. Devorah will meet you at Sam Gold's bakery tomorrow morning."

"You don't waste any time."

"I have none to waste. School starts in three weeks."

Hardass indeed. I took the folder and rose to leave. "I'll call you."

"Very good."

I was at the door when I turned around. "Wait a minute. You're not trying to fix me up with her, are you?"

"Detective Levy, this is a job. I have a well-deserved reputation for being all business. Good day."

Good. I was out the door.

"And detective?"

I stuck my head back in. "Yes?"

"Good luck."

Gagghh! Like Rabbi Asher and that ill-fated singles trip to Israel, I knew Rebbetzin Wasserman meant well. I certainly had no prejudice against Devorah for being an ex-con but I resented it that people kept trying to fix me up at every opportunity.

*    *    *

I called Devorah's parole officer. She backed up Rebbetzin Wasserman and said that Devorah was a dream parolee. She passed every random drug test and never missed a meeting of her ex-user support group. She lived alone in her parents' old brownstone in Brooklyn; her parents were deceased. She had a sister in Chicago. I thought of calling her but decided not to.

The next morning, Sam, Max and I drove up to the bakery after prayers. Devorah was waiting out front. She bore little resemblance to her mug shot in the folder. She wore a long pleated skirt and a below-the-elbow length blouse. Her curly hair lay about her shoulders. She was pretty.

I introduced her to Sam and Max. She took a seat in one of the booths while Sam and I helped Max to his table. I sat across from her while Sam went to make coffee.

Surprisingly, Devorah spurned the filter coffee that Sam brought for Max and asked
for the high-octane Israeli brew that I drank.

"The stuff at Taconic was always watery," she said after Sam went to make her some.

Roscoe and Joline arrived and went back with Sam, leaving Devorah and I alone up front with Max.

Where to start? Damn, it was awkward. I knew it was a job but it felt like a shidduch.

Devorah broke the ice. "I know why we're here. I don't blame Rebbetzin Wasserman."

"She's taking an awful risk with you."

"I know. God sent her and Rabbi Wasserman to give me a second chance..."

Interesting way to put it.

"...I won't screw it up. Ask me whatever you want."

"OK. How..." I was about to ask her about how she felt being under everyone's microscope when she cut in.

"Wait, do you have a small scar right here," she pointed to the corner of her left jaw, just below her ear, "under your beard?"

Now how the hell..."That was you?"

"Um, yeah." She blushed. "I'm sorry. I was aiming for Enrique. I didn't recognize you at first just now; the beard must be new."

It was; I grew it when I sat shiva for Leslie. Of course; it all came back to me! Joey and I were cruising the neighborhood when dispatch radioed and said that some hysterical junkie had called to rat out her dealer and begged someone to come right away and bag him, his stash and his books. Joey and I were only one block away and went right over. We heard a whale of an argument and what sounded like a woman getting the daylights beaten out of her. We burst in just in time for me to catch a piece of glass from a vase that Devorah had thrown at Enrique Jimenez, her lowlife dealer, who happened to be standing right next to the door. He bolted for the fire escape, tripped and went splat on Fourth Avenue, six floors below. No loss to society.

I actually smiled. "Debbie King..."

"I changed it when I decided to change."

"...small world."

"I really am sorry."

"No, no, it's OK."

Joline brought us bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. Devorah and I talked while we ate. She was legit, no doubt about it. I also had no doubt that I liked her and wanted to see her, not on the job, her having scarred me for life, literally, notwithstanding. God bless Rebbetzin Wasserman.

"So, do I pass?"

"Oh, sure. Good luck at Ner Israel."

"Thanks."

"Listen, would you like to go out for dinner sometime, tonight maybe?"

"Like on a date?"

"Yeah."

"I'd love to."

"There's a nice dairy restaurant..."

"No, please. Kosher food was a huge problem at Taconic. I was a vegetarian for 1.5 years. I'm sick of vegetables. So, please, meat."

Honest and to the point. I liked that. "Well, we're drinking this stuff," I waved my glass with coffee sediment at the bottom, "There's a great Israeli steak joint over on King's Boulevard."

"Perfect."

"I'll pick you up at, say, seven?"

"Also perfect. I'll see you then." Devorah rose and left.

I watched her go and didn't notice that Roscoe had come out front to clear our table.

"You supposed to be working."

"I am working."

"Is that what they call it?" Roscoe chuckled, cleared the table and went back to the kitchen.

"I agree." That was Max.

"With what?"

"Looks to be a cute tuchis under that skirt. Oh yeah, she's for real."

I smiled. Max was right, on both counts.

I went over to Ner Israel to see Rebbetzin Wasserman.

"Well?"

"She's kosher, very. She'll be fine. She'll work hard. I don't think you have anything to worry about."

"Very good."

"And, uh, thanks."

"For what?"

Rebbetzin Wasserman was OK.

*    *    *

This was my first date since Leslie died; the singles trip to Israel didn't count. Formality made me nauseous; I hated the suits I had to wear during the day and wore other clothes every chance I could. I wore jeans and a dress shirt, no tie and an old sports jacket to cover my shoulder holster. I drove up to Devorah's brownstone just before seven. She was waiting on the stoop.

"You're punctual," I said, pulling up to the curb on her one-way street.

"Mmm, parolees who want to impress always are," she replied, standing up.

"You're not on parole now."

"But I still want to impress."

Nice! I smiled. "C'mon, let's go."

She walked around to the passenger side and climbed in. She wore a fitted skirt, a closed elbow-length blouse and sandals. Her hair was as before, around her shoulders.

"You look nice."

"Thank you. Finest second-hand in Brooklyn."

I shrugged my shoulders. "You look nice, period. Don't sell yourself short."

"It's still hard not to, but thank you."

I nodded and pulled into traffic.

Dinner was great. We had humus, tehina, salad, fries and grilled meat on skewers until it ran out our pores. I asked Devorah how she got mixed up with drugs.

"I went to SUNY New Pfaltz on a partial athletic scholarship. I played basketball. I was good but not good enough."

"To play professionally?"

"Yeah."

"You sound resentful."

"I used to be and that was part of my problem. My phys-ed major went from being an excuse to the main thing."

"And you weren't exactly thrilled."

"No. I graduated, student taught and found a job at a public school in the Bronx, a tough school but everyone's gotta start somewhere. I got hurt; aggravated an old school injury, and went on Percocet. The doctor eventually said I was better and the scrip ran out. But I found that the pills made all kinds of pain go away. So I found somewhere I could get Percocet without a scrip, it's not that hard, and eventually wound up with Enrique Jimenez. He started me dealing to other 'nice' middle class types like me. The extra money was good, at first. But once I was in deep enough, he turned nasty. One day he claimed I had shorted him and said either I let him nail his 'Jewish princess' or he'd beat the crap out of me."

Devorah averted her gaze and looked down; I didn't say a word.

"So I let him do what he wanted. It became a regular thing and he started slapping me around anyway. One day Enrique tells me that a new customer wanted to talk to me before school the next day and I had better do what he said. The father of one of the big jocks at my school, a star wrestler, accosted me on my way to work. He said he knew all about me and that Enrique had said that I would pass his kid and slip him Percocet."

"Did you?"

"Of course. I didn't want to get beat up worse. Then Enrique said I had to let the father nail me. I figure the old bastard paid him for it. He bent me over in an alley."

I winced. "What made you decide to call the police when you did?"

Devorah took a deep breath. "Enrique said I had to let the kid do me too. He was 16! He was my student for crying out loud!" She had tears in her eyes. "That's when I realized I had hit bottom and called 911."

"Shit."

"So you'll understand if I sell myself short," she said as she wiped her eyes. "The DA went easy on me and I was sent to Taconic. I met Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wasserman almost right away. I really believe that God sent them to help me. I had this big gaping hole," she touched her chest, "which I'm in the process of filling. I'm going to make this work."

I didn't doubt it. "Why change your name?" 'Devorah' was Hebrew for 'Debra'; 'Malka' was Aramaic for 'king', a common Sephardi surname.

"Debbie King was a messed-up junkie."

"And Devorah Malka?"

"I dunno, a work in progress. We'll just have to see." She smiled.

She said 'we.' I smiled too.

"Nu, enough about me. Tell me how Alex Levy, the non-observant beat-cop became Alex Levy, orthodox PI. You could be a mini-series."

I laughed. I told her about Leslie, the fucking drunk who'd run her over, how Rabbi Asher helped me sit shiva and how my becoming observant grew out of that. I told her about quitting the NYPD and becoming a PI. I did not tell her about Esther; Rabbi Abulafia had insisted that that be kept private.

The waiter cleared the table and brought mint tea and baklava.

Devorah asked about my work. I mentioned that it bothered me that some of my clients were only too glad to hire me to do their dirty work and make sure that the junk under the rug stayed under the rug, but still looked down on me as newly-observant, not born-orthodox like them.

"And that bugs you?"

"Hell, yes. Doesn't it bother you when people look down on you?"

"Alex, I used and sold drugs, and let my dealer and a perfect stranger fuck me. Decent people are entitled to look down on me."

Ouch. Set, Devorah.

"And nobody's tried to fix you up, a good looking guy like you?"

"Thank you; they don't stop."

"And?"

"I haven't met anyone that I really like but I think I'm doing OK now."

"Does that mean you like me?" she asked, sipping her tea.

"Yes."

"Good."

We finished our dessert; I paid the waiter and left my usual hefty tip. Devorah and I went back to the van and I drove her home, pulling up in front of the brownstone.

"If I was who I used to be," she said quietly, "I'd invite you in and maybe jump you on the couch."

"And if I was who I used to be, we probably wouldn't even make it to the couch."

"You're really attracted to me that much?"

I was. "Yes."

Devorah smiled. "So we'll see each other again?"

In the orthodox world, pre-marital sex was strictly proscribed, not that it didn't happen, of course, but it contravened Jewish law and was not the norm. Getting laid meant getting married; dating meant looking for a spouse. A couple would meet, sometimes only once but usually several times, to see if they felt right for each other, based on all sorts of factors, physical attraction being one. If they felt enough of a connection and thought that they had potential, they got married. As people who were not always religious, this code of behavior was new for Devorah and I.

"I'd like that a lot," I replied.

"I'll call you but please don't be offended if I don't have a whole lot of time over the next few weeks. I like you Alex, a lot, but this job at the school is my ticket back to the real world; it has to come before everything now."

"I understand." I really did, and respected her even more for seeing it that way.

"Thank you for dinner.'

"My pleasure."

Devorah got out and walked up to her door. I waited until she was inside and then drove home.

*    *    *

We chatted, exchanged emails and saw each other for coffee or a quick sandwich a few times over the next three weeks. I found myself measuring time in the increments between our brief meetings, which I increasingly looked forward to. Devorah's smiles lit my world. I imagined what it could be like, being married, and making love, to her. The night before school started, she called me and said she was all ready and needed a break. I took her to a kosher Chinese place in Queens.

She told me about the school and said that the other teachers were pretty much keeping their distance.

"And not just because phys-ed is the unwanted stepchild in orthodox girls' education?" I asked, as we poked our chopsticks into Szechuan beef, noodles with hot bean sauce and home-made lychee sorbet for dessert.

"That too."

"So it does bother you?"

"What it does, is make me appreciate you all the more." Her eyes sparkled.

"My God, you're beautiful." The words just blurted out.

"Thank you."

The waiter came to clear our table. He brought two fortune cookies along with the bill. I opened mine first. "'He who hesitates is lost.'" What a hint. "What did you get?"

"A typo." She handed me the paper.

"'A fiend in need is a fiend indeed.'" I crumpled the paper. "Stupid typo."

"Trite fortune cookie nonsense."

I paid the bill and left my usual tip. I drove Devorah back to her place in Brooklyn, pulling up in front.

"Good luck tomorrow."

"Thank you. You know, I thought Rebbetzin Wasserman offering me a job was a miracle and then I met you. I can't believe you're happening to me."

"Believe it," I looked into her eyes, which were beautiful but soft, as if she was hiding some kind of residual sadness. Devorah was bright, pretty and the most sincere person I had met in years. I couldn't give a rat's ass about her past. I knew right then that I was going to ask her to marry me, it was just a question of where and when. I suppressed an impulse to ask her on the spot; I figured that I could do better than the front of my beat-up old van.

Devorah nodded. "I will; you're wonderful."

God, I wanted to hold her! But I didn't. "Good night. Good luck."

"Thank you. 'Bye."

I watched as Devorah got out and walked up to her door. Before going in, she turned around and smiled. I smiled back and pulled into traffic. I couldn't believe how quickly I had fallen for her but for the first time since Leslie died I had someone who I looked forward to being with. With Leslie, I had been a self-centered prick; I would not be like that for Devorah. God was giving me a second chance as much as He was giving her. I started thinking about more practical matters, like where I could get a ring and when I would ask her.

*    *    *

If I thought I had seen too little of Devorah in the three weeks before school started, I saw even less of her in the three weeks after it started. We spoke a few times and exchanged brief emails. One day, she SMS'ed me:

"Free tonight. Wine & dine?"

I replied: "Sure. Indian?" I knew a great kosher Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

"Love it & you. Where & when?"

"Pick you up at 7?"

"No; meet you there. Where?"

I sent her the address."

"Thanks. Back to class; see ya!" Devorah signed off.

*    *    *

That evening I dressed pretty much as I had for our first date and drove into Manhattan .

"The Moghul's Palace" was a classy joint. The owner hailed from Kerala. Rather than open yet another Indian restaurant in New York, he thought that he could make a niche for himself by opening a kosher Indian restaurant. (Why not? New York has kosher everything else.) Although he had built up a devoted clientele in the Jewish community, that his food was great could be seen by the fact that, on any given night, most of his customers were Indians, not Jews, who, of course, couldn't have cared less about the kashruth.

I parked nearby and walked in. As usual, the Moghul was crowded. As I spoke to the
hostess, a woman sitting in one of the booths looked up. Devorah grinned and slid out of the booth. I did a triple-take. She wore an obviously new black dress that, while in keeping with the orthodox standards (closed neckline, sleeves past the elbow and hem below the knees), was clingy and altogether flattering to her figure. She looked hot.

She sat back down as I joined her. "Like?"

"You look great. Wow."

"I have to dress so plain at school. I wanted to look nice for you, you know, wear something more fashionable."

"I'm flattered. I hope this didn't set you back."

"I pawned my Grandmother's silver candlesticks. You're worth it," she said as she opened the menu. "What's good here? I haven't had Indian food in ages."

We shared a large platter of various curries and house specialties, and talked as we ate.

"How's school?"

"Typical."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that Ner Israel sees phys-ed as a state-imposed burden for the girls to endure with the minimum necessary effort. Like you said, the unwanted, and ugly, stepchild in orthodox girls' education."

"And you don't like that?"

"Absolutely not. Look, if most of the girls want to be teachers, or just wives and mothers, that's fine, but I want to show them that whatever they want to be, they'll be better at it if they're fit. Fitness, and feeling good about it, is not a sin, is it?"

"Uh, I don't think so."

"I started the girls on aerobics, you know, to music."

Devorah must've seen my pained look.

"Oh, don't worry, it'll be fine. I found some instrumental klezmer stuff. I can't have them standing around playing Newcomb all year."

"Just be careful that you don't rock Rebbetzin Wasserman's boat too much."

"I won't. Besides, the students have me for so little time."

All through our conversation, I couldn't take my eyes off hers. They had a strange look; the softness was gone. She seemed much more focused. I asked her about her students.

"All cut from the same cloth, more or less, not much to tell them apart. A few stand out."

"How so?"

"Well, I've got an 11th-grader, Kochava, who's a real free spirit."

"At Ner Israel?"

"Yep, bit of a discipline case from what I hear. But she likes my class and is the only girl with any real athletic ability. She has potential; she could go far. Then there's her friend, Vered, who's an absolute whiz at science and math. Her father teaches Jewish law at the school. She has her heart set on Stern College but that's way too modern for her father, who, I gather, isn't keen on the idea of girls with brains. He wants to marry her off now to the son of some rabbi."

"How old is she?"

"Just turned 17."

"Shit."

"I think he slaps her around..."

I looked up.

"...and, I dunno, I get the vaguest impression that it might be more than just slapping. She has this look, I saw it on some of the girls at Taconic."

I clenched my fork as hard as I could; my knuckles were white.

Devorah glanced at my fist and smiled, obviously pleased, like a teacher might at a favorite student. "'Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry..." she said.

"'...for anger rests in the bosom of fools.'," I replied, "Ecclesiastes 7:9. One of my favorites."

"Indeed. Did you ever think that they're fools because they let their anger rest in their bosom?"

We paused while the waiter cleared the table.

"Novel interpretation."

"Think about it."

The waiter returned with pista kulfi and masala tea. We talked about our families and
whether we had told them that we were seeing each other. Devorah had told her sister; I had told my brothers. Everyone had wished us luck.

I paid for the meal and drove Devorah back to Brooklyn. I pulled up in front of the brownstone.

"See you again soon?" she asked.

"I'll call you." I nodded.

I watched her walk up to the door. She definitely looked good. I found myself admiring her ass and running my hands over it...My BlackBerry beeped with an incoming SMS.

"Like the view?"

I looked up. Devorah was checking her mail with her back to me.

I SMS'ed back, "Yes." She had nabbed me red-handed; what else could I say?

She replied, "Good. :-)," and went inside.

Damn! I went over the evening as I drove home. Devorah's whole demeanor had been different. Instead of subdued and demure, she was pert and more forward. And then there was her eyes. I wondered if she was using again. Maybe the job was too stressful; she had resorted to drugs, when under stress, once before. That could explain it. But she didn't have a druggie look, just a different look. I was getting nowhere fast. Then I thought about me. Was I merely infatuated with her? Had my heart, with my dick somewhere in tow, gotten the better of my brain? Maybe. But I liked her, a lot; I couldn't stop thinking about her. I drove past the school, thought about Devorah teaching there and suddenly remembered that it stood on the site of Esther's building. Esther. Her ghost had been trapped in that building for over 70 years. Maybe...No, no, I didn't want to go there. I had put all that stuff behind me. Maybe Devorah was using again, or maybe I was just cuckoo, with a pro-active imagination. I went home and went to bed. It was a warm night; I left the windows open in my fourth-storey apartment.

*    *    *


Sensory impressions cascaded through me in a dizzying sequence. I was resentful, I was defiant, I fled far, far away into the years and hid. I was angry, anger gnawed at me, I gnawed back, anger turned to rage. Other streams...Lust. I crave pleasures of the flesh, my flesh, anybody's flesh, everybody's flesh. Vengeance, I want vengeance. Punish them! Lust, anger, vengeance! Punish them for all eternity! Lightning, prison! Silence, watching, watching. Fire and thunder...freedom! Vengeance, anger, lust, a rush of wings...

I sat bolt upright, soaked in a cold sweat, lunged for my piece in the nightstand drawer
and pointed it around the room. Wings, I had heard a rush of wings in my room. A curtain flapped in the breeze. Panting, I slowly lowered my piece and looked at the clock; it was just before 05:00. I felt like I had after Esther had invaded my consciousness. I still sensed the stream of emotions, someone else's, not mine; a foreign presence had manipulated my dream, had manipulated me. But why? And who was responsible? With Esther, I at least had something to go on. She had come to me and had drawn me to her building, on the site of which Devorah's school now stood. I thought of my weird date with Devorah the night before. Was she involved somehow? Maybe it was all a coincidence but Rabbi Asher always said that there was no such thing as coincidences. I went back to my dream. I did not "see" anything. There were no vivid images, just vivid emotions. With nothing substantial to go on, I decided to go about my regular business. If 'somebody' wanted me badly enough, I figured that they would know how to find me. I showered, dressed and drove off to Rabbi Asher's synagogue for morning prayers.

After my usual bagel and coffee at Sam's, I drove to see Devorah's parole officer. I asked her when Devorah's next random test was.

"I dunno," she replied, "I haven't thought about it. Why? You suspect something?"

"Not sure but I'd like to be able to rule something out."

"Meaning if she's using again?"

I nodded.

"It doesn't seem like her."

"It's probably just me being paranoid but humor me, please."

"Have you shared your...suspicions with Rebbetzin Wasserman?"

"No, and if Devorah's clean, I don't intend to. Why get her radar up about nothing?"

"Good point." She looked at her planner. "I can check her...after school today."

"Call me?"

"No problem. Ya know, I hope you are being paranoid. It's gonna break my heart if you're not. All my cases should be as easy as Devorah."

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

I left. I had other work to do that day including a deposition and a court appearance. On my way home in the late afternoon, I stopped at Genelli's barbershop to have my beard shaved off. Luigi Genelli had been dead for years; his son Michael ran the shop. He had a lot of orthodox Jewish customers and knew to use an electric shaver, never a blade, on them. I had a surveillance job later that evening and didn't want to risk being recognized. When Michael was finished, I noticed my scar in the mirror and thought about Devorah and how our paths had crossed, again. God, obviously, wasn't done with us yet.

After evening prayers at Rabbi Asher's synagogue, I changed into jeans and my old Rangers jacket and cap, and drove to Loco Mike's, a sleazy strip joint out in Queens. The father of a woman involved in a messy divorce had hired me to take pictures of his son-in-law eyeing the ladies. Loco Mike's ran an amateur hour the first of every month; I was told that my mark never missed it.

I parked down the block and put on a pair of fake eyeglasses. They had a wireless fiber optic camera that I controlled with a fake car alarm on my keychain, and which transmitted to a laptop in my van. I checked everything, waited for my mark to show, waited a few more minutes and then followed him in. I flipped the hostess a crumpled $50 for the cover charge, bought an overpriced bottle of Genny Cream and found a seat from which I had an unobstructed view of both the stage and my mark. He paid avid attention to the succession of young ladies who were called on stage to strut their stuff. Most of them were mediocre lookers and even worse dancers but he didn't seem to care; I took lots of good pictures.

It didn't bother me, going into strip joints, or taking pictures of a cheating spouse in flagrante delicto. It was a job and that knowledge, or excuse, helped me detach. Hell, even though I had been celibate since my encounter with Esther, I didn't even get a hard-on, not that there was anything particularly interesting on stage that night. I was about to leave when the stage manager announced the next, and final, amateur of the evening.

"And let's give a big Loco Mike welcome to...Star!"

A busty, young, very young, redhead in a tiny bikini strode on stage and launched herself around the pole like a pro. For the first time all evening, Loco Mike's erupted in whistles and howls, that grew even louder when Star lost her top. She had gorgeous tits and danced with abandon before the fired-up crowd. I felt myself getting hard and decided that I had had enough. I finished my beer and got up to leave just as Star finished her set, to rousing applause. The stage manager came back out on stage.

"And I think we have our winner for the evening! Star, how about another round?"

The crowd cheered.

Star readily agreed.

"Here you go, people, Loco Mike's gives you...Star!"

The crowd whooped it up as Star started up again.

The Hebrew word for 'star' popped in my head and I froze. 'Star' in Hebrew is 'kochav'. "Shit," I cursed aloud, drawing a quizzical look from a passing waitress. I went over to the curtain that led to the dancers' dressing room. A bouncer blocked my
way.

"Off limits; back to your seat buddy."

I flashed my private investigator's ID.

"Who cares?"

"You should." I pointed to Star. "She's only 16."

"Yer shittin' me. No way."

The stage manager walked over. "Who the fuck are you?"

I showed him my ID and pointed to Star. "She's under age."

"She said she was 18. Prove she isn't."

"Lemme see her stuff."

The stage manager nodded and the bouncer stood aside and held back the curtain. I went backstage, ignored the other girls and looked around.

"Over there," the manager pointed to one of the make-up tables.

I went over, opened a large gym bag and pulled out a long skirt, a long-sleeved blue blouse, a chumash, which I kissed before replacing, some notebooks and a textbook, that I held up. The cover read: 'Geometry for the 10th and 11th grades.'

"Ya got me. Oops."

"She leaves with me now and I forget we were ever here."

"Deal."

Kochava finished her number to more rousing applause, came backstage, saw us and stopped. She didn't bat an eyelash.

"Star, honey," the manager said, "Come back on your eighteenth birthday and I'll headline you. But now, you gotta go with Detec..."

"I know who he is."

"Ain't it a small world?"

Kochava walked up and, with her tits in my face, slowly got dressed.

"Hey," the manager piped in, "I like that schoolgirl thing. That could work."

I wanted to smack him but didn't. I grabbed Kochava by the elbow. "Let's go." I took her out through the back. We emerged into an alley and headed around front toward my van.

"What the hell were you doing in there?"

"Duh, dancing. You don't think I was I hot?"

I couldn't believe this! "Gaghh! C'mon, I'm taking you home."

"If you have to," she said as we reached the van.

"Get in." I walked around to the driver's side, got in and started the engine. "Where to?"

"Your place?"

"Shut up! Where do you live?"

"102 Beech. Not far from..."

"I know where it is." I pulled into traffic and headed back toward Brooklyn. I was beside myself. "You don't know what kind of sick perverts are in a hole like that!"

"As opposed to back in pious, pure Brooklyn?"

"Do you want strange guys slavering over you like you were a side of beef?"

"It beats being ignored. And you should see the 'holy people' eye me back home. At least back at the club, nobody's a hypocrite."

My jaw dropped. "How in God's Name did you get the idea in your head to dance in a strip joint?"

"God had nothing to do with it."

"Obviously! Nu, I'm all ears!"

"You really want to know?"

"Yes!"

"A little birdie told me."

I managed not to scream. "Well birds have, you know, birdbrains!"

"Not this one," she replied with a grin.

Now what the hell did that mean? "You have an answer for everything, don't you?"

"If that's the best you can come up with, then yeah."

"Do your parents know what you do in your spare time?"

"'Parent'. I live with my Mom, and no, she doesn't."

"And your Dad?"

"Well, after he cleaned Mom out over a get and ran off with a shicksa who's barely older than me, he doesn't come around much."

Throughout our conversation, Kochava was oddly calm and composed. I would've thought she would at least be rattled, if not downright scared shitless, at being caught stripping but she was not flustered or fazed in the least bit. If anyone was perturbed, it was me, and her coolness was only adding to it.

"Two more questions."

"You're the detective."

"How did you find out about a place like Loco Mike's and how do you know who I am? And yes, I really want to know!"

Kochava shrugged. "OK, suit yourself. 'For a bird of the air shall carry the voice,
and that which has wings shall tell the matter.'"

What the fuck? I just stared at her.

"Ecclesiastes 10:20."

I knew the citation. I was speechless.

"Try not to hit the baglady."

I looked and slammed on the brakes.

A baglady with her cart flipped me the bird and let loose with a torrent of curses.

"Yeah, yeah, sorry." I reached into my wallet, pulled out a twenty, crumpled it and tossed it to her.

She cursed me some more and made her way across the street, from left to right.

"Hey, whaddya know?" Kochava said, "My building." She pointed to a run-down looking apartment block across the street on the left. "It's all Mom can afford."

I parked the van, replaced my Rangers cap with a spare kipa I keep in the door and followed Kochava up three flights. As we approached a particular door, I could hear raised voices from inside:

"Look, I don't know where your sister is! It's way past your bedtime! Just say 'Shema' and go to bed!"

"No!"

"We want Kochava!"

"Well, she's not here!"

Two young children started to cry.

"Just in time," Kochava quipped. She kissed the mezuzah...

I shook my head.

...and opened the door. "Hey!"

"YEAH!!!" Kochava's home!"

Two very young children - a boy and a girl, they looked four or five, the former had earlocks - in pajamas mobbed Kochava, who bent down to hug and kiss them both.

"Read us a story!"

"Pleeease?!"

"How about...Daniel and the lions?"

"Yeah!!!"

"That's our favorite!"

"Give Mommy a kiss."

The kids ran over and kissed their mother, who was sitting at a table.

"And say goodnight to my friend, Mr. Levy."

"Good night, Mr. Levy," they called out in unison.

"Good night," I replied, forcing myself to smile. I watched in disbelief as Kochava, now all sweetness and light, looking like a typical orthodox schoolgirl, led her younger brother and sister, off to bed. They rounded a corner and I heard Kochava leading her siblings in the Shema prayer.

"Hear O Israel..."

A door closed.

I addressed Kochava's mother. "Um, good evening. My name is Alex Levy. I'm a private detective." I showed her my ID.

"Is Kochava in trouble?"

Kochava's mother had a strained, exasperated expression. She looked worn out and was obviously making a great, not altogether successful, effort to keep her composure.

This was hard. "I was out on a job. I had to take pictures of someone at a strip club, in Queens, and Kochava was one of the dancers."

"Oy, gottenyu!" She might as well have been poleaxed, "What a shanda! You...you have pictures of her?"

"I, uh, I'll delete all the pictures with Kochava; I don't need them for my investigation."

"Thank you." Suddenly the mother's face gave way to anger. "Kochava has a new teacher, an ex-drug addict and a whore from what I hear. This is her fault! She put this horrible idea in my Kochava's head!" Kochava's mother burst into tears.

I was incensed but this was neither the time nor the place to rush to Devorah's defense. That we were seeing each other was nobody's business and Kochava's mother was in quite a state. I waited for her to compose herself.

"Kochava told me about the divorce," I said quietly, "Look, I wouldn't presume to lecture you but I think Kochava needs help, some kind of counseling. Here's my card." I left one on the table. "I could ask my rabbi about someone she could talk to. Call me if you want, anytime."

"Thank you, thank you."

"Good night." I let myself out.

I went back to the van, got in and just sat there behind the wheel. What the fuck did Kochava mean: 'For a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which has wings shall tell the matter'? I thought of my dream and heard the rush of wings again in my mind. Someone was definitely messing with me, but who? And how the hell could Kochava be involved? And what about Devorah? Devorah! I figured I had better tell her about my encounter with Kochava especially given her mother's remark. She could make trouble. I called Devorah's cellphone on my BlackBerry. There was no answer. I tried her house. Still no answer. Maybe she turned in early? For a moment, I pictured her laying in bed asleep, with me next to her, a tangle of arms and legs, after raucous sex...A loud, raspy screech snapped me out of my reverie. A large owl flew out of a tree to my right, was briefly illuminated in the light of a street lamp and flew off into the gloom around the far side of Kochava's building. I SMS'd Devorah and asked her to meet me at the bakery before school the next morning. As I drove off, I looked into the alley next to Kochava's building, into which the owl had flown, but it was too dark to see anything. I drove home and went to bed. I left the window open. You want me?, I thought, come and get me. I checked my piece in the drawer, downed a good shot of single-malt Irish whiskey, and soon fell fast asleep.

*    *    *

Shit, morning already? Oh well, time to pray. I'm all alone in Rabbi Asher's synagogue. Where is everybody? I strap on my arm and head tefillin, making sure that the arm strap is snug but not too tight and that my head tefillin is straight. I close my eyes and try to put myself in the right frame of mind for prayer but I can't. Devorah, work, Kochava, birds, too many images crowding in, I can't shut them out. My arm strap tightens, what the...? Oh, shit fuck, it's a snake, a black serpent coiling around my arm and head, oh God, it's too tight, I tear it off, ripping, clawing, pulling and throw it to the floor. Shit, it's just leather. I'm stomping bits of leather. I see the synagogue library; the door is ajar. Yes, a little quiet study will calm me down. I walk in; nobody's here either. I reach for a book but the books multiply and fly in every direction, covering the walls, the ceiling and the floor with hundreds and thousands of books. I'm completely boxed in. I hear a rush of wings from outside the room, the same that I heard the night before. With a piercing screech, the owl smashes into the room, the walls shake, books fly. I want to run but the door is gone, there's no fucking door! The owl divebombs the library again, smashing through the ceiling and walls. The force of the blow sends me sprawling on my back. The owl swoops down, beak agape and talons thrust forward. Where's my piece? Nooo!!! Razor-sharp talons slice through my clothes, Devorah runs her hands along my bare chest and kisses me, sliding her tongue against mine, as she lays her naked body on top of mine. She's wet; her scent, a deep musky heat, is ferocious. I harden instantly, overwhelmed by a savage desire to fuck her brains out. She flashes me that pleased-schoolteacher smile again but I don't care. She lifts her hips, I grab her ass and thrust inside her as hard as I can. She thrusts down on me. We kiss all over each other's faces as we thrash around like goats in heat. Her tits slide all over my chest. An awful pressure builds in my balls; I'm going to come.

Suddenly, she pulls away. "Time to go to work Alex."

What? No!!! My van morphs into a garbage truck. I'm dressed in a filthy sanitation worker's uniform. Devorah climbs into the back and pulls the lever. The hydraulic scoop comes down...

*    *    *

"Nooo!!!!" I sat bolt-upright, wide-awake, panting, aware of the same foreign presence in my dream. But this was different than the previous night; this time I and 'it' had interacted. Why did the owl morph into Devorah? Was the owl trying to prey on me, or set me free? Set me free? My faith is not a prison. 'It' had planted that thought in my head, I think. Shit, I couldn't tell whether it had or hadn't. And the sex with Devorah had been so raw, so primal. I suddenly realized that I was still hard, still very aroused; my balls ached. I looked at the clock. I had just enough time to shower and run off to morning prayers. I climbed out of bed, went into the bathroom, turned on the cold water in the shower and jumped in.

As I drove to synagogue, I thought about who could be messing with me and why. My intimate encounter with Esther, a ghost, made me aware that 'reality' was considerably bigger than what I had hitherto realized. God, and maybe Rabbi Abulafia, only knew what, or who, else was part of it. Devorah's school stood on the site of Esther's building. Esther had been trapped there for over 70 years. Maybe someone else had been too? Or was there some other angle? I thought of Esther's estranged husband. I knew nothing about him other than what Max had told Rabbi Asher and I. He was immersed in his studies and sexually uninterested in Esther. He swore revenge on her and disappeared. Since I had helped free Esther from her vow, maybe he was now taking revenge on me and using Devorah to get at me? I pulled up to the synagogue just as Rabbi Asher walked up.

"Good morning," he said, "Hey, no beard."

"Yeah, I shaved it for a job; didn't want to risk being recognized."

"You OK? You look off."

"I'm good. I was out very late; I didn't get a whole lot of sleep. I'll live." I forced a smile.

"Alright."

Other men began to arrive. Rabbi Asher unlocked the doors and we went in.

Sam, Max and I drove to the bakery after prayers, as usual. Devorah was out front.

Sam scooped up the morning papers and unlocked the door. Sam and I helped Max to his table and gave him the papers.

I sat down opposite Devorah in one of the booths.

"You look younger without your beard."

"Cuter?"

"Don't push your luck." She smiled. Her eyes went to my scar. "You can't see it that much."

"Not anymore."

"It's good that I got your SMS. I wanted to give you a heads-up."

"I actually wanted to give you a heads-up."

Devorah looked confused. "You first."

"OK. I went to a sleazy strip joint in Queens last night. I had to photograph a guy in the audience, a real messy divorce. Kochava Chait was one of the dancers, amateur night."

Devorah went all wide-eyed.

"I took her home. She was all sass and attitude. Her mother's a basket case. She said, 'Kochava has a new teacher, an ex-drug addict and a whore' and accused you of putting the idea in her daughter's head. How much trouble could she make for you?"

"After what happened at the school last night, a lot. My turn?"

"Please."

"Feige Katz teaches chumash at Ner Israel. She's been there forever. She's very old school. She really, really doesn't like me. She doesn't care much for Rebbetzin Wasserman either and is convinced she could do a better job as principal. She has her friends on the board and among the parents. Last night, there was some assembly for the younger girls and their parents. nearly all mothers, but some fathers came. Feige and I, and several other teachers, had to be there. Afterwards, she went to the changing room to shower. She's got no water at home; they're working on the pipes or something. She found a condom."

My brow went up. "A condom?" In any public school, finding a rubber wouldn't be such a big deal. At Ner Israel, it would be a big deal.

"Used."

A very big, huge, enormous deal.

"Rebbetzin Wasserman has it. I think she's going to call you and ask you if you can find out who used it, I guess with DNA. There weren't that many men there last night."

"And you're telling me this because you think the dirt will be that you were on the
receiving end."

Devorah nodded. "You should hear what some of the other teachers say about me."

"I can imagine."

"The staff is so closed and stuffy, it's almost inbred. I knew I'd be the outsider and that I'd have a hard time, but Alex, hardly anyone talks to me. I didn't think that I would be treated like such an outcast. And now this."

My BlackBerry beeped with an incoming SMS. I looked. "It's Rebbetzin Wasserman. She wants me to come see her. Um, shit. Lemme go talk to her."

Sam came out with Max's coffee just as Roscoe and Joline sauntered in. I told everyone that I had to run. Devorah and I went outside.

"Will you be able to find out whose semen it is?"

"That depends on how degraded it is. Even if the lab could get usable DNA, we still have to hope that the guy is in a database somewhere. That's far from certain."

"Alex, what am I gonna do?"

"Nothing. You just go on with your girls. Fuck the school gossip. I believe in you. You turned away from hell and did a year-and-a-half at Taconic. That takes the kind of strength that Feige Katz can only dream about.'

Devorah's eyes brimmed with tears. She raised her hands like she wanted to hug me, struggled for a moment and put them down. "I love you."

I smiled. "And I love you. C'mon, I'll drive you to school."

"No, let me walk. We shouldn't be seen entering the school together."

"Ah..."

"No, shush. I'll walk."

"OK." I watched her round the block and walked back to the van.

I drove over to the school, parked and went to the office. The secretary showed me
in to Rebbetzin Wasserman. A chair had been pulled up to her desk; I sat down.

"I take it Devorah has told you about the condom."

"Yep."

"Naturally, we view this with utmost gravity." She opened a desk drawer and handed me a zip-loc plastic bag. The condom was inside. "Can you identify...who it came from?"

"That depends on how degraded it is. Has it been in your desk all night?"

"No, the school nurse's refrigerator."

Very clever of Rebbetzin Wasserman. "That helps. Assuming the lab can get DNA, the gentleman in question still has to be in a database somewhere. I'll need a list of all the men who were known to be in the school yesterday."

Rebbetzin Wasserman slid me a paper across the desk.

"Very good, thank you."

"What about the other person?"

"Well, assuming that the gentleman who produced the semen wasn't by himself, the chances of extracting usable DNA from whatever bodily fluids other than semen that might be on the condom are close to nil, unless we find a hair or epithelial cells."

"I assume that I don't have to stress the need for discretion?"

"If we get usable DNA, whether we can match it to anyone on this list," I waved the paper, "or not, I'll speak to you before contacting anyone."

"Thank you. For this, you will be reimbursed by Ner Israel Institutions."

I nodded. "Devorah tells me that the scuttlebutt will be that she was the other person."

"She's probably right, unfortunately."

"Is being ostracized part of her probation?"

"Detective, you know as well as I that the Torah teaches us to welcome one who has strayed and receive them with..."

"Disdain and hostility?"

Rebbetzin Wasserman glowered at me. "...with love and compassion. However, you also know that all too often there is a difference between what the Torah teaches and what Jews do. Devorah will have to learn how to deal with that reality, unpleasant and unfair as it may be. She'll be the stronger for it."

She had a point but it still sucked. "I'll be in touch," I said, standing up.

"I'm not done."

I sat back down.

"Rabbi Issachar Belkin teaches Jewish law at the school. He was here last night. Apparently, he has not been seen since. His wife phoned me this morning and told me that he did not come home. He did not phone and ask me to arrange a substitute teacher to take his classes today, which is the normal procedure. I saw his daughter just now; she also said that he did not come home."

"His daughter?" I asked. Something jogged my memory.

"Vered Belkin; she's in the 11th grade."

Hell.

"Detective?"

"Uh, is this unusual behavior for him?"

"Very."

"And he had no appointments or pressing business that might take him out of town?"

"No. His wife is very concerned. I told her that I would ask you to look into it."

"Wait, has she gone to the police yet?"

"Don't you have to wait 24 hours before you can report someone missing?"

"That's a myth. Where do the Belkins live?"

"Crown Heights."

"Then she should go to the seven-one, uh, the 71st Precinct police station, on Empire Boulevard and report him missing immediately, although unless there's some reason to suspect foul play..." I did not say anything about what Devorah had told me, "...I don't know what kind of priority the police will assign to the case. I'll make some enquiries. I'll need a photo and his address, phone number, email address and any ID numbers, Social Security, driver's license, etc. and especially credit card numbers. Do you think that Rabbi Belkin might be...connected to..."

"The condom? Certainly not! He comes from a distinguished and learned family."

I wanted to shout "Which doesn't mean squat" but I didn't. "No offense, but I had to
ask."

"I understand." Rebbetzin Wasserman opened his file, which she had ready, and began copying details.

"I'll need to talk to Mrs. Belkin at some point."

"Today?"

"Uh, no. Like I said, let me make some enquiries. Is there anymore, anything else?"

"No. Isn't this enough?"

"For today, yes." I waited for her to finish copying Rabbi Belkin's details. When she was done, she handed me a sheet of paper. "I'll be in touch." I rose and left. I pulled out my BlackBerry to call Devorah and almost bumped into Kochava, who was coming down the corridor. She flashed me a shit-eating grin, quickly replaced it with a blank expression as two teachers hurried past me, and grinned again before turning into a classroom. I dialed Devorah as I walked out of the school towards the van."

"What? I have a class in two seconds."

"Vered Belkin's father..."

"What about him?"

"He's missing."

"What?"

"What you told me the other night, how widely held is that suspicion?"

"I don't know. Here come the girls. Gotta go." Devorah closed her phone.

I drove straight to the lab I use, gave them the condom and told them to send any data to Carl, who was my next stop.

Carl Dupre was ex-CID, a digital forensics specialist. He took his discharge after someone tried to blow him up in Fallujah; Carl says it wasn't just your random roadside mayhem but a hit, aimed at him personally. The blast left him a double-amputee; he lost both legs just above the knee. He used his Army comp to set himself up as a private "cyberdick-for-hire" (his words, not mine). He was discreet, highly competent and crazy as a loon.

I buzzed the doorbell of his ground-level apartment down in Rockaway.

"C'mon in!" came the reply.

Once, I walked in on Carl and his wife Gloria, who is as eccentric as he is, as she was bouncing up and down on his lap in one of his favorite custom wheelchairs. Ever since then, I listen before going in. I put my ear to the door, heard Carl cursing the Mets, smiled and walked in.

"Bunch 'a lame candy-ass motherfuckers! Hey, Alex, did you see this? They blew it to the fuckin' Padres last night in the 17th, man!" Carl put his hands to his neck and made an exaggerated choking sound.

"You got a mouth like the East River."

Gloria stuck her head out of the kitchen. "They cleaned up that river. Hi Alex."

I pointed to Carl. "He doesn't change."

"Are you kidding? No sugar in your espresso, right?"

"Nope."

Carl wheeled around to face me. "Whatcha got, my man?"

"A bunch of shit. Hopefully, the lab'll be sending you the DNA from some jism from a condom that I retrieved. See if you can get a hit anywhere. If you can, I'm betting it's one of these guys." I handed him the list of men who were at Ner Israel yesterday. "Next, dig up the dirt on this guy, Rabbi Issachar Belkin, missing since last night." I photocopied the paper from Rebbetzin Wasserman and gave Carl a copy. "Check to see if he's on any sex-offender databases."

"Yo," Carl said, "the dude's on your list."

Gloria brought me my coffee and went to rub Carl's shoulders.

"Yeah. It might be unrelated but who knows?" I took one of his notepads and wrote down what I knew about Devorah, her cellphone number, email address, home address, that she went to SUNY New Pfaltz and did time at Taconic, her sister in Chicago, etc. "Dig up what you can about her, anything. See if she has a psych history or anything like it in her family."

"That all?"

"No. One more thing. Do a search and see if you can find any links between sex, or sexual promiscuity, and birds, especially owls."

Carl stared. "You getting weird on me?"

"Don't ask. That's it. Too much?"

"Shee-it, I could do this with Gloria here riding in the hot seat." He slapped his thighs.

"You could not!" Gloria said indignantly.

"Oh yeah woman; wanna bet?"

"You gonna eat them words!"

"I'd rather eat..."

I could see where this was headed. "I'm outta here." I chugged my espresso. "Call me."

I went back to the van and called Joey, my old partner, at the seven-one, where he was now a detective, and asked if he had a few minutes. He said he did and invited me over. The seven-one had been my station; I still knew a lot of people there. I drove over, parked around the block and walked in. I signed in and was showing the desk sergeant my piece and my license to carry a concealed weapon, when Joey sauntered up. We embraced; he vouched for my bona fides to the desk sergeant and we headed upstairs to the detectives' office. I said hello to some of the crew, helped myself to some atrocious coffee and sat down with Joey, at his desk. I asked about Lisa, his wife, and the kids; he asked me if I was seeing anyone yet.

"Yeah, actually, I am." I didn't want to tell Joey just who Devorah was.

"Serious?"

"It looks that way."

"That's great. Good luck. So, what's up?"

I gave Joey the copy of the paper on Rabbi Belkin. "Missing since last night." I told Joey what Rebbetzin Wasserman had told me. I saw no reason, at this stage, to tell him about the condom until I had evidence tying Rabbi Belkin to it; neither did I repeat what Devorah had told me. "I told Rebbetzin Wasserman to tell the wife to come in right away and report him missing. I gather she hasn't yet."

Joey checked his computer and called down to the desk sergeant, who would have referred Mrs. Belkin to an investigator. "No, she hasn't."

"How 'bout the Medical Examiner's Office and Central Booking?"

"Lemme check." Joey played with his computer for a few minutes. "Zilch. He's not at the morgue and he hasn't been processed at Central Booking, not in Brooklyn and not in any of the other boroughs. Whaddya gonna do now?"

"Check some of the local hospitals, I dunno, maybe check Nassau County."

"Ah, he's probably shacked up somewhere. We bust hasids in whorehouses all the times, same as everyone else. Ask one of the undercover policewomen how many hasids they run into." Joey's phone rang. "Hello? Where? Yeah, yeah, I'm on my way." He put the phone down. "Gotta run," Joey said, standing up. "Some moron just violated a restraining order and shot his parents. I'll call you if your Rabbi Belkin turns up."

"Thanks." I stood up too. "I'm sorry for wasting your time."

"Hey, you can waste my time anytime."

We hugged. Joey ran off. I stayed to chat with a few of my old buddies and left. I tried the local hospitals and then drove out to Mineola, where I grabbed lunch, to see if Nassau County had Rabbi Belkin. Zip. Neither the Nassau County Police nor the Medical Examiner had him or any John Does that matched his description. I updated Rebbetzin Wasserman, who informed me that Mrs. Belkin was then on her way to the seven-one to report her husband missing. I spent the rest of the day on other jobs. The lab called in the evening and said that they had extracted usable DNA from the semen in the condom and had sent their report to Carl. Devorah's parole officer called and said that the urine test had come up negative.

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. I went to prayers at Rabbi Asher's synagogue, stayed for a class on I Samuel and went home, where I ate, watched the Mets embarrass themselves again and went to bed. I had no strange dreams and slept like a baby until getting up at 05:10. I showered and drove to the synagogue for morning prayers, after which I drove Sam and Max to the bakery.

Sam and I had just helped Max to his table when my BlackBerry rang.

It was Carl. "Yo, Alex, your lady's clean. Nuthin' out of the ordinary."

"Thanks. Did you get the lab report?"

"Yup but you got bigger problems with Rabbi Belkin."

"What?"

"You still got that laptop in your van?"

"Yeah."

"Check out the Post, and the Daily News, crime news. I'll wait."

I ran out to the van, grabbed the laptop and turned it on. I walked back into the bakery, sat down in one of the booths and called up the Post. "Oh, SHIT!"

"Yeah, man," Carl said, "Catch you later."

I stared at the monitor in disbelief.

Sam came over to look. "Oy."

The headline read: "RANDY RABBI FOUND DEAD IN HOOKER HOTEL."

"Fuck," I muttered under my breath as we read. "Brooklyn Rabbi Issachar Belkin was found dead, reportedly strangled, in a hotel known to be haven for local prostitutes. His naked body..." I went over to the Daily News. The headline read: "HORNY HASID DIES IN HO-TEL." Both articles had pictures of a man's body, with his face and groin blurred, laying face up in bed.

My BlackBerry rang. It was Joey.

"Alex..."

"I'm looking at it now. Holy fuck. Please tell me this is your case."

"It is; we gotta talk."

"Come over to the Gold's Bagels on Seventh."

"Be there in five minutes."

As soon Joey hung up, Rebbetzin Wasserman called. "Detec..."

I interrupted her. "Listen to me. The police will want to search Rabbi Belkin's locker or box or whatever, and the changing room. Tell Devorah to close the changing room, lock it. I have to tell the police about the condom. Lucky for us, my old partner is the detective handling the case. He'll be as discreet as possible. Nobody will come to the school with sirens blaring. I'm at the bakery; Joey, that's my old partner, is on his way here."

"But it's been 36 hours since the condom was found. The room has been cleaned."

"Which is probably why they won't find anything but they'll have to check it anyway. Joey will want to talk to you and any members of the staff who knew Rabbi Belkin. Where is Vered?"

"At home."

"Good. Gotta go. I'll see you soon."

I called Devorah. "Are you at school yet?"

"No but I heard."

"Yeah, major shit is hitting the fan." I told her what I told Rebbetzin Wasserman. "You be tough and know that I love you."

"Then I'll be tough; thank you. I love you too."

"Here's Joey; 'bye."

Joey came in, along with Roscoe and Joline. They went to the kitchen. Joey and I sat in one of the booths. Sam brought us some coffee and left us to talk.

"How did the papers get the story so quick?" I asked.

"They were tipped."

"What?"

"The Post and the Daily News received anonymous calls, directing them to the hotel. After almost getting into a fistfight, the reporters and photographers who went to the scene called us."

"Shit."

"And I take it they're not talking about the calls?"

"Those fucking jackals? Hell no. They've referred all inquiries to their corporation counsels."

"So what happened?"

"Well, like in the pictures, we found him laying on his back. We found jizz and dried vaginal fluids all over his crotch. The m-e says that he was strangled, with two hands, from the front. From the angle of the bruising, we figure she was riding him and when he came, she reached down and..."

"Shit."

"I mean, we're talking one cold-hearted, and weird, bitch."

"What do you mean 'weird'?"

Joey leaned in close. "This dump specializes in rooms by the hour, CSI's worst fucking nightmare, right? Prints and dried fluids everywhere. So they're scanning the place with the u-v lamps, Christ, I almost went blind from all the fluorescence."

I smiled.

"We almost missed it at first. There was something written on the mirror."

"Written?"

"It fluoresced very weakly."

My jaw dropped.

"Yeah. The m-e confirmed - vaginal fluids."

"What did she write?"

"We don't know."

"What?"

"It's in some kind of chicken-scratch hieroglyphics or something; there were five characters; two of them are the same. We're gonna check with the FBI and the Department of Modern Languages over at Gonzaga, to start."

My mind raced to changing room at the school. If the condom there was Rabbi Belkin's and he had the same paramour... "Can you show me?"

"I don't have it on me. I'll see if I can e-mail it to you later."

"Thanks. What about the front desk?"

"Are you kidding? The lowlife who was on duty knows that if he starts id'ing hookers and their johns to us..."

"His business'll dry up, or some angry pimps will redecorate his face, if he's lucky."

"He says that Belkin paid for the room while the lady stood out in the lobby and didn't
look directly at him."

"'Cause she didn't want to be recognized, cause she knew she was gonna kill him."

"Like I said, one cold-hearted bitch. He says that she was better dressed than the average pro' and had shoulder-length hair."

I thought of Devorah but pushed the thought out of my head. "Listen, there might be something else on Belkin."

"Like what?"

"The night before last, one of the teachers at the school where he teaches, went to shower in the gym changing room; she's got no water at home. She found a condom, used."

Joey's brow went up. "In a religious, all-girls school?"

I nodded. "She gave it to the principal, who put it in a baggie in the nurse's fridge overnight, and gave it to me yesterday morning, right before I came to see you. I didn't know if it was connected; it might not be. I took it to a lab. They retrieved usable DNA, which I had them send to Carl."

"How is that crazy bastard?"

"Nutty as one of Lisa's Christmas fruitcakes. Look, I didn't tell you about this yesterday..."

"Because you had no reason to. I know how it goes. You don't have to justify yourself to me. This is all you got on him?"

I did not want to involve Devorah at this stage. "So far, yeah. I'll call the lab and tell them that CSI will be coming over to pick up the condom, any remaining jism and their report."

"Thanks."

"Can I ask you a favor."

"Shoot."

"Ner Israel is a very old-fashioned, closed-off kind of school. A scandal like this is gonna flatten them. Police crawling all over the place, asking all kinds of questions, will only add to their shock. I mean, most hasids still see every policeman as a potential Cossack." This was a lie and I hated manipulating Joey but I needed to get to the changing room before CSI did. "Let me go give the principal a heads-up as to what she can expect. It'll make things easier for your people; I guarantee the school's complete cooperation. I know what you said but I still feel bad about not telling you about this yesterday. Let me go help you out."

"Alex, we're cool. But please, go ahead. I gotta call CSI, organize more uniforms. We're swamped; it'll take a while."

"Thanks."

"Cossack? A goomba like me?"

I smiled. "You're still my paisan."

I saw Joey out. I didn't know how much time I had before his crew showed up at Ner Israel. I was about to bolt for the van when I noticed Max reading the Daily News. It was Joline's comment about something she saw in the Daily News that he was reading, that prompted him to tell Rabbi Asher and I about Esther.

"Hey Max."

"Yeah Alex?"

"Remember Esther, the rabbi's wife, with the long hair, that you told Rabbi Asher and I about a few years back?"

"Yeah. Oh, she was beautiful with that long hair, just beautiful."

Indeed she was. "Her husband the rabbi. You said that he wasn't interested in her physically and that he was always studying. Do you remember anything else about him?"

Max put his paper down. "Lemme see here...Oh yeah, Davie Horowitz, we were pals, said that his zeide had warned him once to stay away from her husband."

"Why?"

"'Cause he was studying kabbalah and Davie's zeide was so Lithuanian it hurt. Does that help you?"

"Yeah, Max, it does; thanks." Esther's husband studied kabbalah? Very interesting; that could explain a lot. I hopped in the van, called Rebbetzin Wasserman as I drove and told her to meet me at the changing room. I set up the laptop to receive from my wireless fiber optic camera eyeglasses, grabbed my high-intensity uv lamp and went straight to the changing room, where Rebbetzin Wasserman was waiting.

"Detective Levy, what's going on?"

"Open please."

"Aren't the police coming?"

"Yes but I need to check something first. Are the lights off?"

"Yes."

"Good. Wait here."

I put on my glasses, switched on the uv lamp and began sweeping the changing room walls, starting next to the showers. I didn't have to look far. On the side of the last locker nearest the showers, I caught a fluorescence. Vaginal fluids fluoresce far more weakly than semen, blood or urine, and can be hard to detect. Luckily, I had a very powerful, high-intensity lamp, that cost me a fortune, and what I saw was relatively bright. It could not have been made when Feige Katz found the condom, approximately 36 hours previously; this was recent. There were nine characters that appeared to be grouped into four- and five-letter words, respectively. I recognized the 'chicken scratch hieroglyphics' as the ancient Hebrew script, which, although I recognized it, I could not read. I quickly snapped several pictures. I ran back to Rebbetzin Wasserman. "Lock the room and please do not tell the police that I was here."

"I don't understand."

"Neither do I, but please."

She nodded.

"Thank you." I ran out to the van. The pictures had transferred to the laptop but despite my u-v lamp, the writing was barely visible. I called Carl.

"Whatcha got my man?"

"I'm emailing you some pictures. You'll see very faint writing in a strange script. Enhance the writing so it's clearer and then mail the enhanced images to Rabbi Isaac Asher. Please do it as soon as you can." I gave him Rabbi Asher's personal and synagogue email addresses.

"No sweat."

"Thanks." I called Rabbi Asher.

"Alex, what's up?"

"I need your help. My computer expert will send, to both your personal and synagogue email, some images of something written in the ancient Hebrew script. Please tell me what it says."

"Ancient script? Are you sure?"

"Yes, two words."

"Is this connected to a case?"

"Yes."

"Rabbi Belkin?"

"Could be but please keep this to yourself. You can translate it, right?"

"Sure but it might take me a while; I've got a pretty solid day."

"No problem. Thank you."

"I'll be in touch."

I would have liked Rabbi Asher's translation as soon as possible but he was one of my best friends and I was not going to pressure him. I ran back into the school, which I thought would be in an uproar but it wasn't. It appeared to be just another day.

Rebbetzin Wasserman and I sat in her office while I told her what to expect with Joey's investigation. She said that since the changing room was off-limits, she had cancelled phys-ed for the day, that Joey could use the gym for interviews and that Devorah would mind the classes of teachers being interviewed.

"Have any parents come to collect their daughters?" I asked.

"Detective Levy, is there any immediate and tangible danger to the students' safety?"

"No."

"Then why should parents come to collect their daughters? One does not lightly interrupt Torah studies. Better to keep the girls busy and their minds occupied."

She had a point. "Who's absent today besides Vered Belkin?"

Rebbetzin Wasserman picked up her phone. "Rivka, would you bring me today's absent list, please?"

The secretary entered and handed Rebbetzin Wasserman a sheet of paper.

"Oh, we're good today. Besides Miss Belkin, there are only three absentees. Sarah Kahn is recovering from appendicitis. Dina Schwartz is sitting shiva. And Kochava Chait, no reason given."

My ears pricked up. "Tell me about..."

The secretary came back in. "The police are here."

Damn! Rebbetzin Wasserman and I went out to meet Joey and his crew. I introduced everyone around; Rebbetzin Wasserman promised full and complete cooperation. I told her that she was in good and capable hands, and left. If Joey wanted me, he knew where to find me.

I bumped into Devorah as I headed out. I could see the storm cloud over her head.

"Someone else can babysit," she grumbled, "I'm going to ask if I can go home."

"No, don't. It'll look..."

"What, like I did it? So you think I'm guilty, too? Thanks!" She stalked off.

Shit. I went out to the van to think. Kochava Chait was absent? Sure, she had an attitude to match her bra size but did she also have the gumption to seduce, fuck and strangle her friend's father (while she was fucking him!)? I wouldn't think so but, hell, I wasn't sure of anything at that point. My BlackBerry rang, an out-of-state number.

"Hello?"

"Alex Levy?"

"Speaking."

"My name is Laurie King. I'm Devorah's sister."

This was a surprise. "Yeah, hi. What can I do for you?"

"Devorah told me about you, that you and her are seeing each other. I think that's great."

"OK; thanks. But you're not calling just to tell me that."

"No. Devorah and I talk almost every day, or we used to up until a few weeks ago. Since then, she's been acting, I dunno, weird."

"Meaning?"

"I practically raised Devorah. Our parents worked 25 hours a day in their cigar store, Mom too. They were so obsessed with 'providing' for Devorah and I that that was all they did. I helped Devorah with homework, packed her lunch, bought her clothes with money our parents gave me, sat with her when she was sick, you name it."

"Did you visit her at Taconic?"

"As often as I could. Our parents were dead by then. I know her better than anybody, um, no offense."

"None taken. What has she been doing weird?"

"There's no one thing I can put my finger on but she's become cool and aloof. She doesn't open up to me like she used to. She never has time to talk, she's always blowing me off. She's become almost bitchy. Call it big sister's intuition, but something's not right."

So it wasn't just me. Good, and bad.

"I mean, she hasn't told me a whole lot about you or your relationship or anything and I don't want to pry, but have you noticed anything weird about her?"

"I have noticed some of what you've said, yeah."

"God, I hope she's not using again."

"She's not. Her most recent test was two days ago; she's clean."

"That's a relief. Listen, I have to go back to work; my break's almost over. Will you keep an eye on her? I mean you're her boyfriend but you're also a detective."

"I have your number. I'll be in touch."

"That would be great. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Bye." She hung up.

So how did this fit in with my dreams, birds, the condom at the school, Kochava Chait, a dead rabbi, bizarre graffiti and whatever was left over from Esther's time, maybe her husband? Fuck, nothing fit. I would have loved to try and track down Kochava but I had other work that I couldn't ignore.

Rebbetzin Wasserman called me at 2:00 PM. "Detective Gennaro and his people have left. He was quite the gentleman, courteous and thorough."

"That's Joey."

"As soon as he was done interviewing people, Devorah asked if she could go home. I told her that she could."

"OK."

"She was in quite a state; she seemed very depressed."

"I can imagine; thank you."

"No, thank you for all of your help." She hung up.

I cancelled my next appointment and drove over to Devorah's house. She was sitting on the stoop, drinking a Bacardi Breezer. I parked the van and sat down next to her.

She waved the Breezer. "Want one? They're legal."

"No thanks. Laurie phoned."

"I'm not surprised. That's big sister, always worrying about me, still thinking she's my
surrogate Mom." She finished her Breezer and stood up. "They treat me like I've got fucking leprosy. You should have seen the looks I got today." She shook the empty bottle. "I'm going to get another one; are you sure you don't want one?"

I shook my head and stood up too.

"The girls all stared at me. The staff ignores me; God only knows what they gossip about. I don't know because nobody wants the junkie slut in their little cliques." Devorah's tone was becoming more strident; she was practically shouting. She went inside.

I followed her.

She stopped in the hallway and leaned back against the wall. "You know, I was more accepted in the joint. Everyone knew what I did and nobody cared! Nobody judged me!" She looked at me with tears running down her face. "God Alex, I should go back to Taconic! I don't need Rebbetzin Wasserman's pity!"

Devorah was shrieking; she was also scaring the crap out of me.

"I don't know what the fuck I'm doing! What am I doing? What the fuck..."

I grabbed Devorah's arms and kissed her, more to shut her up than anything else.

Shocked, we drew back slightly and stared at each other for a moment before we grabbed at each other, kissing furiously. I pressed her against the wall and ran my fingers through her hair; she grabbed my back and pulled me to her as we kissed each other's mouths, necks and faces. I pulled her blouse out of her skirt and ran a hand up her front. She moaned as I squeezed her breasts. She ground against my hard-on, then bunched up her skirt and wrapped one leg around me. I reached under her skirt, grabbed her ass, oh God it was so round and soft!, and yanked her upwards. Devorah wrapped her legs around my hips, still kissing me and tearing at my shirt buttons. I staggered backwards, smashing a lamp and mirror off a sideboard.

"You win," Devorah gasped.

"What?"

"We didn't make it to the couch."

She unbuttoned her blouse and unhitched her bra. I buried my face in her tits as we careened into her living room and toppled over onto the couch. I started to roll onto her when she pushed me back into a sitting position.

"No," she whispered, "Me on top." She straddled me, grinding her sopping panties over the bulge in my pants as I kissed her breasts, sucking on and teasing the nipples. My mind was a blank. All I wanted to do was fuck Devorah and fuck her hard; nothing else mattered. Sliding off me, she pulled off her skirt and panties. "Lose these," she said, tugging at my pants.

I kicked off my shoes, pulled down my pants and jockeys and tossed them aside. I sat back down on the couch, my cock jutting up into the air.

Devorah leapt up and plunged down on me, taking me inside her in one fluid motion. She was wet and hot; I slid right in. She clenched her knees at my side. I squeezed her ass as she lay her ankles on my knees. I thrust into her, tonguing her breasts as best I could as she bounced up and down. We were loud, moaning and grunting as we humped with abandon. As I rushed towards the point-of-no return, I caught a momentary flash of a woman, not Devorah, at once ravishing and terrible, seductive and daunting, seething with many passions. The apparition vanished, replaced by a rapid succession of strange visions. A woman riding a man, torturing him, then a stone building crashing down. A mostly-naked woman dancing before a king and then servants bearing a severed head. A man and a woman quarreling on a rooftop in thunderstorm. All the women were different, yet they were also the same. The rooftop! I knew that place! I strained to see more but the visions fell away as I exploded, my orgasm roaring through me as I spasmed again and again, filling Devorah with my fluids.

Devorah screamed, writhing in a frenzy, as she came; her pussy contracted in a violent rhythm, gripping my cock and milking me dry. Gradually, she relaxed and collapsed onto me, murmuring softly as I nuzzled her neck and caressed her ass.

"Mmm," she mumbled, "That was fantastic. You were great."

Still lost in an intense post-orgasmic rush, I made no reply. Slowly, slowly, I floated down to earth. Acutely aware of Devorah's nearly naked body on me, I was still inside her, I thought about what we had just done. We had shattered the sacred law in a frenzy of passion. Was this why the Song of Songs had described human sexuality as being, "as terrible as an army with banners"? Worst of all, I had loved it, loved every second of it. I loved the feel and taste of Devorah's body, her lips, her tongue, her breasts. I loved her scent and every thrust into her pussy.

Devorah snapped me out of my reverie. "Pangs of conscience?"

"Huh?"

"Are you wondering what it is we have done?" she asked in an affected voice, "Did I beguile you?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Do you blame me, or resent me, for seducing you?"

"You didn't."

"How's that?"

"You didn't seduce me. I wanted to do it."

"You're honest; I like that. Do you regret doing it?"

"No."

"But we're not married. Care to change your answer?"

What the hell was she going on about? "No."

"That's my stallion" There was that pleased schoolteacher look again!

"What's with you? Who are you?"

"First ask yourself who you are and what you want, Alex, and then we'll talk." She smiled.

My BlackBerry rang. I grabbed it. "Yeah?"

"Come down to the station," Joey said, "Right now please."

"What's going on?"

"Come down and see."

"Right now?"

"Please."

"OK, I'm on my way." I hung up and looked at Devorah.

"Bye."

I dressed and went out to the van without saying another word. As I pulled into traffic, my BlackBerry rang again. I plugged it into the hands-free. "Hello?"

"Alex?" It was Rabbi Asher.

"Yeah, go ahead."

"I got your emails."

"And?"

"The translation is pretty straightforward. The ancient script letters and the square letters, you know, the ones we all use, match one-to-one."

"What's it say?"

"Navala nizkeket."

"Which means?"

"Something like 'desperate villain' or 'needy villain'."

"Shit."

"What? What's wrong?"

"Could it mean 'fiend in need'?"

"'Fiend in need', yeah, that works. And one more thing, Hebrew being Hebrew, the words are in the feminine. Your 'fiend in need' is a she."

I felt queasy.

"Alex? Are you alright?"

"No, I'm not." I was almost at the station. "I'll call you back. Gotta go."

"Alex..."

I hung up. Did Rabbi Asher just rule out Esther's husband as a possible suspect, was Devorah seriously whacko or was somebody else involved? I figured I would go see what Joey wanted and then go have it out with Devorah. I parked the van and walked into the seven-one. The desk sergeant waved me upstairs.

I marched into the squad room and stopped cold. "What the fuck is she doing here?" Kochava Chait, in a short skirt and a tank-top, sat in front of the desk next to Joey's.

"She's why I called," Joey replied, "We picked her up."

"Not for..."

"Whacking Rabbi Belkin? No, hooking."

"Are you kidding?"

"No. One of our undercovers nabbed her trolling over on Seventh. She had this and said to call you." Joey handed me the card that I had given to Kochava's mother. "Oh, and we figured out that message on the hotel mirror."

"Yeah?"

"It's five letters in the ancient Hebrew alphabet. You know what that is, right?"

I nodded.

"It says 'Li-LEET' or, as she's known in English, Lilith, mother of demons, Adam's first wife, according to some."

"Lilith?"

"Yeah, wait I gotta take this call." Another detective was frantically waving a phone from across the room in an effort to catch Joey's eye. "Here, check out the Wikipedia."

I stepped around to look at his monitor as he walked over to take the phone, and read.

"Now do you get it, detective?," Kochava asked in a low, but triumphant, voice, "Our Mistress has returned."

Our? "But Devorah..," I whispered, sputtering.

"Ha, she's gone."

I wilted as I scanned the entry. I saw that the Hebrew word also meant some kind of owl and that she sometimes appears as one. Fiend in need, hell.

"Yeah, quite a hottie." Joey was back. "There was more graffiti at Ner Israel. Navala nizkeket, means 'desperate villainess' or something like that. We figure our perp is some broad who really, really hates men. Oh, that principal, Mrs. Wasserman, she was very cooperative, thank you."

"No problem," I forced myself to reply.

"Whaddya want us do with Miss Hot-to-Trot here? She's got no record. Warn her & let her go?"

"Yeah, do that. But her get-out-of-jail-free card expires today." I tore up the card. "Put her in the tank and lose her paperwork for a while. Computers can go down, all kinds of stuff can happen, right? Let her sweat a bit."

"No problem." Joey called downstairs for a uniformed woman officer to come and fetch Kochava. His cellphone rang. "Yeah? Oh, Holy Mary, can't it wait? OK, I'll be right up." He closed his phone. "The Captain wants me. I'll be in touch." We shook hands; Joey headed upstairs.

Kochava flashed me that shit-eating grin and blew me a kiss as the uniformed officer came and led her away.

I went out to the van and sat behind the wheel, stunned. Was Devorah possessed by a demon? That would explain a lot, almost everything in fact. Fuck. My BlackBerry rang again. CallerID said it was Carl.

"Yeah, Carl?"

"Hey, my man. I got your owl and sex thing."

"Lilith," I interrupted, "a big-time demon."

"Hoo-eee, if there are more like her in Hell, I'm gonna have to start being, you know, less virtuous. Check ya' later."

"Bye."

It was already early evening, just starting to get dark. I drove to the yeshiva where Rabbi Asher taught an advanced Talmud class to rabbinical students. I flashed my ID at the security guard, said it was an emergency and asked where I could find Rabbi Asher. I found the room and opened the door.

Rabbi Asher caught sight of me, excused himself to his students and came over. "Alex, what..."

"Tell me about Lilith."

Rabbi Asher stared at me for a few seconds. "I guess you should talk to Rabbi Abulafia."

"I guess I should."

He dismissed his class and followed me out to the van. "I'll call him; you drive."

We got in; he dialed as I backed out into the street.

*    *    *

I waited in an alley down the block from Devorah's brownstone, trying to remember everything that Rabbi Abulafia had told me. Devorah left the house and walked the other way. I followed and overtook her near Prospect Park.

"Hi," she said.

"So, do you still strangle infants?"

Lilith grinned. "I haven't strangled an infant since...about the last time I had Indian food. It's so ninth century."

"And horny rabbis?"

A mask of fury descended over her face. "Who bugger their daughters?," she growled. "He had it coming." The mask lifted; she smiled, "Literally and figuratively."

"You're whacked."

"You have no idea. Mmm, you're not shocked to be in my presence."

"Disappointed?"

"Given your experience with the supernatural, no."

Now I was shocked.

"Oh yes, I know all about you and Esther."

"But how?" I stammered, very confused.

"Do you like to watch, Alex? I love to watch." She grabbed my wrist and squeezed tightly.

*    *    *

I stand on the roof of a building. It is dark. Wind whips around me; rain falls in sheets. I shiver; fuck, it's cold. I'm a woman?! A man stands a few yards away, clutching a small manuscript.

"I'm up here," I say, "Surely you don't want to do it up here in the rain?"

"Stay back!" the man cries, "You're just like her. You give me no peace!"

"No," I reply, "I thought I gave you something much better. I could bend over the railing here in the stairwell."

"Shut up! I know what you want! You won't have it!"

"Yosef..."

"I bind you, Lilith, with the Holy Name..." There is a burst of loud static. "...Stand!"

I stand rooted to the spot, unable to move or speak.

"I know who you are. I'll be revenged on you and Esther both!"

He tucks the manuscript into his coat and leans in so close that I can feel his breath. He whispers:

"Descend now, the flame!
My soul for the gage!
By the Holy Name..." There is a burst of static. He grabs the back of my head with one hand and continues, "This place be your cage!"

I want to scream and howl but I can't. He senses this and sneers before kissing me hard and grabbing the lightning rod with his other hand. The sky erupts as a lightning bolt slams into the rod, flaying our souls from our bodies, which are burnt to ash and cinders that scatter in the wind. Yosef, the bastard, flies to the damnation he deserves. The strumpet whose body I've taken goes to her reward. The electric discharge conducts me down into the building...and leaves me there. My body is bricks, mortar, steel beams, pipes and wiring. I want to scream and howl even more but I can't.
_____

Lilith let go of my wrist; we were back by Prospect Park, which she turned into after cocking her head ever so slightly, as if she was listening to something.

I followed. "You were the reason Esther's husband..."

"Yosef."

"...Yosef wasn't sleeping with her. He was sleeping with you."

"Very good, detective, A+. Go on."

"You were in the building itself?!"

Lilith nodded. "You're on a roll."

"And were released when Meyer Silverstein knocked it down. Fire and thunder…"

"Correct."

"But why didn't Esther warn me about you? Why didn't Rabbi Abulafia detect you?"

"Because they couldn't."

"Excuse me?"

"Those bursts of static that you heard, do you know what they were?"

I shook my head.

"Yosef pronounced Names of God, which he discovered in that ancient manuscript he was studying. The Names and their permutations are power; whoever knows a Name, and can pronounce it correctly, can command nature, and unlock and control vast power. He can alter and mould reality. You heard static because the pronunciation of a Name cannot be recorded or reproduced, either electronically or magically. A spell sealed with a Name is perfect and cannot be detected. Esther didn't know I was there; Rabbi Abulafia couldn't detect me even if he wanted to."

"You saw everything."

"Honey, I had a ringside seat. And after I saw what a stud you were, I said, 'Oooh, I gotta get me some of that.' And believe me, I am not disappointed."

"And the fortune cookies?"

"That wasn't easy."

"Meaning?"

"Have you ever worked with the Chinese?"

"I had a run-in with a tong gang once."

"I mean demons. You think I'm weird? They're a whole different league."

"I'll take your word for it. What do you want?"

"Isn't it obvious? You."

"What about Devorah?"

"A girl has to live somewhere. I..." Lilith put up her hand. "Wait." She cocked her head again. "We're about to have company...four of them, friends of yours, I imagine. Let them get the drop on us. Follow my lead but otherwise do nothing; watch and learn, understand?"

I didn't but I nodded anyway.

By then we were fairly deep inside a wooded section of the darkened park, by the lake. The only light came from a solitary pole. I discerned two figures in front of us and become aware of two more behind; we were surrounded. From behind us, I heard the unmistakable sound of a semi-automatic weapon being cocked.

"That's far enough fuckface," one of the figures in front of us said. "You and your bitch hold it right there." It was Joline's ex; next to him was his idiot friend. "Take out your piece and toss it in front of you nice and slow."

I glanced at Lilith. She nodded ever so slightly. I tossed my piece in front of us.

"That's good, Jewboy. Me and Leroy here, we got some business with you, kike." Leroy handed a chain to Joline's ex and pulled brass knuckles and a length of pipe out of his long coat. I looked behind me. One asshole had what looked to be an Uzi; the other held a length of pipe and a chain. "But first, we're gonna show your girlfriend a hot time. You like dark meat, baby?"

"Oh, I'm way too hot for you, licorice breath," Lilith cooed, "Go back to your buttbuddies."

"We gonna put the fear of God into you, bitch!" he snarled, advancing on her. She didn't flinch. "Yeah," he mumbled, grabbing the back of her head. "Give us a kiss."

"OK." With incredible speed, Lilith grabbed the back of his head and pushed his face into hers. He howled and dropped the chain. The hideous stench of burning flesh, along with the pungent reek of him shitting himself, pierced the air. Joline's ex convulsed and screamed uncontrollably as Lilith gripped his head. Finally, after about ten seconds, she let him go. He staggered back; his face a horrible mask of charred skin and tissue. Shrieking madly, he ran off toward the lake.

Lilith glanced at the ground and motioned with her hands. I dropped. She pointed at her feet and then at one of the dirtbags behind me. Three small rocks flew up and smashed his mouth and jaw, one after the other, in rapid succession. He dropped the Uzi and reeled, the lower half of his face a mass of bloody pulp, and stumbled off into the dark.

Leroy swung his pipe. Lilith raised the palm of her hand; he stopped cold, astonished.

"Up, up, up," Lilith said. Leroy rose at least 15 feet in the air.

"Aw, does asshole wanna come down?" Lilith asked in an affected voice, obviously enjoying herself. She waved her arm...

Leroy flew off over the lake.

...and brought it down sharply.

Leroy plummeted into the water.

I got up and watched as Lilith turned her attention to the last punk, who stood shaking like a leaf, scared shitless, literally. She held her breath as she took the pipe and chain from his hands, snapped the former over her knee and pulled the latter apart. She scowled at him and raised her hands. "BOO!"

He screamed, turned and ran smack into the light pole, hard, knocking himself out cold.

Lilith laughed and turned to me. "Fear of God? Ha, look at what goes on in this city; nobody's afraid of Him anymore. But you and me Alex, we'll give them something to be afraid of, hmm? You want to clean up this town? Be my consort and we'll cauterize it!"

"And you'll promise me what, riches, power, long life?"

"If those are what you want, sure, but I can offer you something more."

"Such as?" I had no idea what she meant.

"Fulfillment, a sense of purpose. They," she pointed back towards the borough, "will never accept you. You slave for them and clean up their shit and they despise you for it. How long will you humiliate yourself like that? You're better than any of them! Come with me. I live in a world that you've barely glimpsed. Ghosts and Chinese demons aren't the half of it. Come with me, and I'll show it to you. I'll make it your world. You deserve it. Come with me!" She extended her hand.

"And if I decline?"

"Don't. I'm used to getting what I want and right now I want you. Refusing me would be most ill-advised. Allow me to illustrate. When we were fucking earlier, what did you see?"

"I saw you..."

"Very good. Go on."

"I saw..." I remembered a woman riding a man, torturing him, then a stone building crashing down. "Samson and Delilah?! You were Delilah?!"

"Do you think a simple Philistine peasant girl could have seduced and destroyed the mighty Samson? He wasn't so mighty when he was writhing beneath me, begging to tell me his secret if only I would let him come."

I was stunned.

"Keep going."

"Um, I saw a woman dancing, stripping, before a king and then a severed head. What..."

"You should read the Gospels, they won't bite, or try Josephus. It has been painted many times although none of them get it quite right. Salome danced for her step-father Herod Antipas, who was so enamored that he promised her anything she wanted. I made her ask for John the Baptist's head on a plate. She got it. I wanted Samson and John the Baptist. They spurned me. Please don't make the same mistake."

"Or you'll kill me?"

"Oh, no," she smiled. "Alex, dear, it's like this. You can help me raise hell or I'll make your life hell. Either way, you're stuck with me; I will never leave you alone. Personally, I think being my consort will be much more pleasant."

I looked at her.

She flexed her arms and looked at the backs of her hands. "This will do, for now. Like I said, a girl has to live somewhere, but I can be anyone. You can fuck any woman you want, whoever you fancy, and it will be me. It will be us; it will always be us. Think about it. By the way, this is yours." She handed me a crumpled $20 bill, which I recognized as the one I had given the bag lady in front of Kochava's building.

"What about Devorah?"

"What about her?"

"Why do you hate her?"

"Do you know what the worst sin is? Weakness. From her sister, to Enrique Jimenez, to the Wassermans, she has never decided anything on her own in her life. Pitiful!"

"You would decide for me."

"I'm offering you a choice. You can do better than a helpless junkie."

I pulled my piece and pointed it her.

"Go ahead. Who are you going to shoot?"

I didn't say anything.

"When Samson brought the house down, Delilah was killed, not me. I'm still here. If you shoot this body, it and Devorah will die. I'll just find someone else and then, remember that part about making your life hell? Think about it."

A jogger ran in on us. She stopped short, saw me pointing my Smith & Wesson at Lilith, the unconscious jerk-off sprawled on the ground and the Uzi next to him, and bolted before I could say anything.

I glanced up and spotted the owl on a branch, illuminated by the light from the pole. It appeared to be in a state of torpor, just like Rabbi Abulafia said it would.

Lilith followed my gaze. "Don't even think about it. You'll never get a shot off. In fact, give it here." She started to extend her arm and then stopped, amazed. Her arm shook as if she were trying to extend it fully but couldn't. Amazement turned to fury. "Do as...you're...told!" she snarled, struggling to say the words. Her face contorted in a grotesque visage. Her eyes...for a brief second, they were...

I took aim with the laser sight and opened fire. The first shot went through the owl's breast; it tumbled to the ground, severed almost in half, a mess of blood, feathers and torn flesh.

Lilith glared at me in abject shock. She raised her hands as if to attack me, but screamed as her body racked with convulsions, before collapsing. For an instant, over Devorah's crumpled body, I saw Lilith, much as I had seen her before, ravishing and terrible, seductive and daunting, her face twisted in raw hatred. She vanished.

Devorah stirred.

I rushed over, sat down on the ground and took her in my arms.

She appeared dazed. "Alex?"

"I'm here. It's alright; she's gone."

"Alex!" she focused on me and smiled for an instant. "I fought her. She was so strong. But you had to shoot...Oh God," said, her expression dropping, "Rabbi Belkin, oh God." Devorah burst into tears.

I rocked her as she sobbed.

"She killed him, she killed him and all I could do was watch! These hands," she held up her hands, "She grabbed his neck, I feel his neck! I see his eyes!" Devorah looked up into my eyes. "And what she did to you. I thought, I dreamed we might get married. I didn't want it to be like that." Her voice trailed off. "Oh God, Alex, I'm sorry..." She burst into tears again.

"Listen to me, I love you and I want to marry you..."

"But I'm going to jail. Nobody will ever believe us! They'll think we're crazy! Oh God, I'm going to jail forever."

"Whatever happens, I love you. Devorah, will you marry me?"

Devorah nodded. We were about to kiss but we stopped and drew back.

"She showed me Samson and John...Alex," Devorah's voice dropped to a whisper, "I heard the voice of God walking in the Garden!"

I heard many feet approaching fast.

"NYPD! FREEZE! Hands up, right now!"

"Ask for a lawyer immediately," I whispered to her quickly as we raised our hands, "and don't say a word. If they want DNA, make them get a court order."

Devorah nodded.

That would take time, although for what, I had no idea.

*    *    *

I had been in the interrogation rooms at the seven-one many times but never as a suspect.

"Alex," Joey said, exasperated, "You gotta say something for Chrissakes!"

"The coffee sucks," I muttered, "Same as always."

"The DA's getting a court order for Debbie's..."

"Devorah's."

"Debbie, Devorah, whatever. The DA's getting a court order for her DNA. We will match it to the dried secretions we found at the school and on Rabbi Belkin. We already got her prints from the hotel."

"Along with a hundred other peoples'. CSI's worst nightmare, remember?"

"Shit, Alex, we're bringing in the desk clerk. He will ID Deb...Devorah in a line-up. She ain't no pro so chances are, his memory will improve; he'll give her up easy. We got her for murder; don't go down with her. And then we got you..."

"For what?"

"Great Horned Owls, bubo virginianus, are protected under the US Migratory Bird Act..."

"It attacked Devorah. I was defending her."

"Oh, bullshit! The DA is also looking at conspiracy and obstruction, and firearms, charges. And then there's the Uzi and the gangbanger with the busted nose we found laid out next to you. His prints are on the Uzi but fuck if he don't have more shit in his head than he had in his pants. He says your fiancée beat the bejesus out him and his three buddies. Two of them showed up at Kings County Hospital Center, one with his face extra crispy and the other with bloody sausage for a jaw. We're still looking for the third."

I sipped my coffee.

"Alex, why are you holding out on me? I know you got religion and everything but this isn't like you! We been friends for how long? What the hell is going on here, buddy? C'mon, it's me, your paisan!"

Joey and I been partners, and friends, for years. We faced bullets together. "I know how bad this looks..."

"Bad? Your girlfriend's the fucking Titanic and she's gonna pull you down with her!"

"I can't say anything."

"Can't or won't? What, are you some kind of fucking spook?"

Someone rapped on the door and opened it. It was one of the other detectives. "Hey, Captain wants to see you, right now."

"Sit tight, I'll be right back."

I tipped my styrofoam cup to Joey. I was trying to figure out what to do. Joey was right. They had Devorah dead-to-rights. I didn't want to call Rabbi Abulafia. He wasn't a lawyer and I certainly did not want to get him involved. I was thinking I should call Rabbi Asher and ask him to contact Rabbi Abulafia and ask him about getting a lawyer we could trust when Joey walked back in and put my Smith & Wesson on the table.

"The DA has decided not to press any charges against you or your fiancée. Our investigation is over; the case is closed. You're both free to go."

"Joey, what..."

"Alex, I got no idea. This is what the Captain instructed me to tell you. Somebody's waiting for you downstairs."

I holstered my piece and followed Joey out into the hallway. Devorah came out of one of the other rooms. "What's happening?"

"I don't know."

We went downstairs.

Rabbi Asher was waiting for us. "Here are some sandwiches, coffee and the keys to my Buick, which is right over there," he said as soon as we were outside, "Give me the keys to your van. Where is it?"

"Rabbi Asher, what..."

"Rabbi Abulafia will explain everything. He's in my car; he'll tell you where to drive. I'll park your van in the synagogue parking lot; where is it?"

Utterly mystified, I told him that it was in an alley, down the street from Devorah's brownstone. Devorah and I watched as Rabbi Asher hailed a cab and got in. "Rabbi Abulafia," I started to explain, "is..."

"I know who he is," Devorah said quietly, "She showed me; she showed me everything."

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you."

"It's OK. Rabbi Abulafia asked you to keep it secret. I wouldn't have been so quick to tell a story like that either. Ghosts are almost as unbelievable as demons." She smiled.

"I love you."

She blew me a kiss.

We crossed the street and got in. Devorah sat up front next to me.

"Hello Alex, Devorah."

Devorah and I nodded.

"Please put these around your necks, under your clothes," he said in his soft, faint voice, handing us what looked to be medallions on fine silver chains. Writing in the ancient script was etched onto both sides of the medallions. When we had done so, he said, "They were made in Sana'a, Yemen, in the 17th century. They will do, for now, until new amulets, made especially for you, are ready."

"Amulets?" Devorah asked, "For what?"

"To protect you, from Lilith. You two have made a very dangerous enemy."

"But, she's dead. Alex shot her, her owl."

"Dead? No. She is diminished, yes, weakened, but only for a while. The prophet Elijah cursed her. He cast her out of her own body and into an owl. She cannot assume human form on her own; she can only possess the bodies of others. When she is not in her owl, it is always nearby, but in a state of torpor. Her presence in this world depends on it."

"Two days ago she possessed a bag lady, only briefly I think. She can possess more than one person at a time?" I asked.

"No. Devorah, I suspect that you were deeply asleep at the time."

"Wait a minute," I said, thinking aloud, "Then Kochava Chait…"

"Followed Lilith only too willingly," Devorah replied, "Rabbi, what happens now?"

"She will find a nest with newly-laid eggs, enter one and wait for it to develop and hatch. When the owlet reaches maturity, she will be able to attack and possess human women again. She will never stop hunting you. These amulets will keep her at bay. Never take them off."

"But Alex and I want to get married..."

"Mazel tov."

"Thank you. But what about when I have to go to..."

"My beit din will give you a special authorization to wear it even when you go to the mikvah." He addressed me, "Please drive us here." He handed me a card with an address up the Hudson, past Yonkers.

"Um, I have to teach tomorrow," Devorah asked.

"A substitute teacher has already been arranged. Alex, if you please."

I pulled into traffic and headed north.

*    *    *

I pulled the Buick into the driveway of a large, isolated, house, in a wooded area, well off I-684. I saw rented vehicles and several cars with different diplomatic plates in the driveway. A g-man (you can spot them a mile away) came over, opened the door for Rabbi Abulafia and helped him out.

"Hello Rabbi. How was the ride up?"

"Very nice." Rabbi Abulafia beckoned for Debbie and I to get out of the car. "Alex and Devorah, please meet Special Agent Mullens."

We shook hands and followed him inside; Rabbi Abulafia took my arm.

Mullens ushered us into a large parlor, where the strange shit got a whole lot stranger.

A Roman Catholic cardinal embraced Rabbi Abulafia like they were old friends and helped him to the chair next to his. Mullens spoke to an Israeli woman (you can also spot them a mile away). A burly guy and a thin, pretty young woman were helping themselves to drinks.

Devorah grabbed my arm and stared at the young woman. "Alex, she..."

The young lady noticed and proffered her hand. "I'm Rachel."

"That's Racey," her companion quipped, getting an elbow in the ribs. "I'm Locan."

Mullens and Israeli came over. "This is Anat," he said, "She's the Mossad station chief in New York and this," he added, pointing to the prelate, "is Cardinal LeRocque."

"What're you drinking?" Locan asked.

"Uh, Irish, neat," I said.

"And your fiancée?"

"White wine," Devorah replied, "but..."

Locan pulled a bottle out an ice bucket. "Kosher," he said, waving it, "courtesy of Anat here."

"OK," Devorah said weakly, still staring at Rachel. "You..."

Rachel just smiled.

"Having been possessed by Lilith for so long," Rabbi Abulafia said, "it appears that you have gained some of her abilities. You will now find that you can see a great many things of which you were previously unaware."

"But which are very real, nevertheless," Cardinal LeRocque added.

"Some of which are friendly," Rabbi Abulafia continued...

Rachel smiled again.

"...and some of which are not, but which must be dealt with."

"That's where we come in," Locan said.

"Who's 'we'?" I asked.

"Do you find it strange," Cardinal LeRocque asked, "that Rabbi Abulafia and I are here together?"

"Yes."

"We do not deny or make light of our differences," Rabbi Abulafia said, "but it is what we have in common that brings us together."

"Indeed," the Cardinal added, "You'll find that we speak much the same language."

"Merely different dialects," the Rabbi replied. "Alex and Devorah, we are all agreed that you will make fine Paladins."

"What's a Paladin?"

Special Agent Mullens pulled up chairs for Devorah and I as Locan handed us our drinks.

"Sit," Cardinal LeRocque said, "And we'll explain it to you."

*    *    *

The next day Devorah received an official pardon from Governor Patterson's office; her record was expunged. She resigned from Ner Israel. We received Israeli diplomatic passports and began training in earnest a few days later.

We announced our wedding for the following month. Laurie and my brothers were thrilled, Joey less so. I was told that if he wanted to believe that I was some kind of 'spook', I was not to disabuse him of the notion.

I went to Ner Israel to hand deliver a wedding invitation to Rebbetzin Wasserman. We chatted in her office for a few minutes. She knew that something was up, after all her husband had been the third member of the ad hoc beit din - along with Rabbis Abulafia and Asher - that had declared Esther's vow fulfilled, but was discreet and knew not to ask questions I would rather not answer.

"Two last things," she said just before I left, "Vered Belkin has been accepted into a preparatory program for Stern College and Kochava Chait is leaving the school."

"Really?"

"Her mother is moving the family to Monsey. She has a sister there. I also hear she is getting remarried. Maybe that will help Kochava to settle down."

"I hope so. See you at the wedding."

"Good luck."

I left her office and headed for the school exit. I rounded a corner and nearly stumbled over Kochava as she was cleaning out her locker.

"My Mistress will find me."

"Your point being?"

"Where is it? Under your shirt?" Kochava looked and reached up as if to touch my chest and neck.

"Touch me and I'll break your fingers."

"Temper, detective." She withdrew her hand. "Don't rely on that bauble overmuch. You're not the only one with powerful friends."

I glared at her.

She smiled, closed the locker and walked towards the exit. When she had gone a few steps she stopped and turned around. "I almost forgot. Mazel tov." She turned back around and left.

I waited a few minutes and then went to meet Devorah.

*    *    *

Max Gold, Roscoe and Joline, my brothers, Laurie, Carl and Gloria, even Joey and Lisa, all came to the wedding. We wanted to invite Locan, Rachel, Anat and Special Agent Mullens too but Rabbi Abulafia and Cardinal LeRocque vetoed that idea; people might ask who they were. Sam Gold and Rabbi Wasserman were the witnesses. Sam Gold's wife Hannah and Rebbetzin Wasserman escorted Devorah to the chuppah. Rabbis Asher and Abulafia shared the officiating. We honeymooned in Israel although with all the training, it was more like a working visit than a honeymoon.

After returning to the US, Devorah and I tracked down a dybbuk, which Rabbi Abulafia thereupon exorcised. It tried to hide at Citi Field during a Mets game but Devorah spotted it. Locan, Rachel, Devorah and I worked together to bring down a very nasty wendigo. Being Paladins is such a trip.

We keep an eye on Kochava Chait in Monsey but we suspect that she isn't the only member of a new Lilith-worshipping cult. Devorah and I are very careful. Lilith had better be careful too; she isn't the only one who can be a dangerous enemy.

_
Author's Notes for Fiend in Need:
1) a "get" (Jewish divorce): http://www.jewfaq.org/divorce.htm  
2) yarmulke: http://www.jewfaq.org/signs.htm#Yarmulke
3) chumash: http://www.jewfaq.org/torah.htm#Chumash &
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chumash_(Judaism)#Usage
4) shidduch: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shidduch
5) chutzpah: http://www.jfri.org/page.aspx?id=41612
6) tuchis: http://www.sillymusic.com/yiddish_dictionary_definitiions.asp
7) kosher (adjective)/kashrut (noun): http://www.jewfaq.org/kashrut.htm
8) SUNY New Pfaltz: http://www.newpaltz.edu/   
9) Klezmer music: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klezmer
10) Newcomb: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newcomb_ball
11) Stern College: http://www.yu.edu/stern/index.asp  
12) Getting married in New York State: http://www.health.state.ny.us/vital_records/married.htm   
13) Pista kulfi: http://www.manjulaskitchen.com/2008/07/22/pista-kulfi-pistachios-ice-cream/
14) Masala tea: http://www.indiasnacks.com/recipe/535/Masala-Tea.php
15) Shaving in Judaism: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ethics/Our_Bodies
 16) Genesee Cream Ale: http://www.geneseecreamale.com/AmericanOriginal/
17) shicksa: http://www.sillymusic.com/yiddish_dictionary_definitiions.asp
18) Saying the "Shema" prayer before bed:
http://judaism.about.com/od/blessingsprayers/a/shema_bed.htm
 19) Mezuzah: http://www.jewfaq.org/signs.htm
20) "Oy gottenyu": http://www.jfri.org/page.aspx?id=41612
21) shanda: http://www.sillymusic.com/yiddish_dictionary_definitiions.asp
22) mindset for prayer: http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer.htm#Kavanah
23) tefillin: http://www.jewfaq.org/signs.htm#Tefillin
24) "CID" (US Army Criminal Investigation Command): http://www.cid.army.mil/
25) Digital forensics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_forensics
26) New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner:
http://www.nyc.gov/html/ocme/html/home/home.shtml
27) Mineola & Nassau County: http://www.mineola-ny.gov/ & http://www.nassaucountyny.gov/
28) Zeide: http://www.jfri.org/page.aspx?id=41612
29) Kabbalah: http://www.jewfaq.org/kabbalah.htm
30) "Lithuanian":
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithuanian_Jews#Ethnicity.2C_religious_customs_and_heritage
31) Ancient Hebrew script: http://www.jewfaq.org/alephbet.htm#Ancient &
http://www.mezuzah.net/scripts.html
32) sitting "shiva": http://www.jewfaq.org/death.htm
33) "terrible as an army with banners": Song of Songs 6:4 & 6:10
34) Salome, John the Baptist & the Dance of the Seven Veils:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salome & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_of_the_seven_veils
35) Lilith: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilith
36) Prospect Park: http://www.prospectpark.org/home
37) Names of God:
http://jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=52&letter=N&search=Names%20of%20God
38) Tongs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tong_(organization)
39) "the voice of God walking in the Garden": Genesis 3:8
40) Kings County Hospital Center: http://www.nyc.gov/html/hhc/kchc/html/home/home.shtml
41) Mazel tov: http://www.jfri.org/page.aspx?id=41612
42) beit din: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beth_din
43) mikvah:
http://www.jewfaq.org/sex.htm#Niddah
& http://mikvah.org/directory/mikvahPhotos.asp?pageNumber=3
44) Monsey: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsey,_New_York
45) Jewish weddings: http://www.jewfaq.org/marriage.htm
46) Dybbuk: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dybbuk
47) Citi Field: http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/nym/ballpark/citifield_overview.jsp
48) Wendigo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windigo

© 2010 Oxartes. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Bio: Oxartes, 47, is the married papa (proud, on both counts!) of two children. He is a professional copyeditor and proofreader who has discovered that he like to write erotica as a hobby. "Writing is like therapy," he says.


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