It was the first day of March when Zilberman called. I remember the date well because my mother hated March with a vengeance.
“It’s a cursed month,” she used to say. “Every bad thing that had ever happened to me has taken place in March.” Every year, when March approached, she would withdraw from all her activities and demand that everyone around her refrain from unusual activities or important decisions.
Even though I consider myself to be a rational person who doesn’t believe in curses and witchcraft, I always felt relieved when April finally came, so when Zilberman called in the beginning of March, it wasn’t a good sign. Zilberman symbolized the destiny I so desperately tried to avoid… the destiny that had been forced upon me, in spite of all my attempts to somehow maneuver away from it. Some decisions I’ve made for myself, but others, life has made for me. I just wanted to sit home quietly and write my books, but destiny continued to knock on my door. Unfortunately, destiny had something else entirely in mind.
After I’d finished my military service, I decided to keep a safe distance from any job that had to do with security and the army, even though I did receive a few tempting offers. Instead, I chose to focus on the literary career I’d always dreamed of. I moved to the city of Herzliya, into a house of a legless old man. In return for buying his groceries and keeping an eye on him, I got my own little room with a separate entrance. I also found a job in a small bookstore two blocks away, but the salary was low. I wanted to save some money for my university studies and I wanted to buy a car and move to the big city of Tel Aviv. I wanted to live at the center of things where everything was happening, not in a far-flung street in Herzliya. So, I found another job―distributing flyers―but I could still barely manage and I had little time remaining to fulfill all my big plans.
Then, Zilberman had called for the first time.
That had been fifteen years ago. He was a good friend of my uncle’s. He had heard about my military background and had offered me a job.
“All my employees have the face of a bulldog and the body of a gorilla. They’re all excellent bodyguards, but I need someone to do the delicate and sophisticated work. You’ve got the face of an angel. No one would ever suspect you,” he’d told me the first time we’d met.
Zilberman’s office offered, “security counseling, special investigations, and intelligence services,” as he poetically phrased on his business card. The first assignment I’d received was to track down a seventeen-year-old girl from Ramat Gan who had run away from home. He had offered me an amount I couldn’t refuse and I’d liked the idea of playing the sophisticated detective who solved complicated mysteries with the aid of trickery and the power of his sharp mind. It took me exactly three hours to find the girl.
Zilberman had been impressed and had offered me more jobs. Filled with regret, I’d left the bookstore and had begun working for him.
“It’s temporary. Only until I finish school,” I’d said. A year later, I’d had enough money to pay for my university tuition. I studied literature and philosophy and had continued to work for Zilberman on my spare time.
When I graduated, I’d had enough money to rent my own large penthouse in Tel Aviv and had started a new career. I’d bid my detective career farewell and had begun to make a living from writing-related jobs. I contacted several newspapers and wrote scripts for a company that produced computer games, and at the same time, I started working on my first novel. For several years, I’d made a decent living. I’d managed. But in the past few years, things had gone downhill. I’d run out of money and had taken out loans. I’d become desperate.
Then March arrived and Zilberman was on the line.
“I heard business is bad.”
“Everything is fine, thank you. I’m just having a few rough months.”
“Then perhaps you’ll have some time to help me with a little something?”
“No, thanks. I’m retired.”
“You can’t make a living from being an artist. Look how your father ended up, just because he was as stubborn as you are.”
“Sorry. Not interested.” I’d hung up the phone.
A few hours later, Zilberman had shown up in my office. He was already sixty-five, but still looked as sturdy as an ox. He had a large bald patch on the crown of his head, a mustache that had turned grayer than the last time I’d seen him, and the arms of a boxer.
“Michael, you’re letting your talent go to waste.”
“You’re wasting my time.”
“Do you remember that locksmith… What did he call himself? ‘Bonny the Locksmith―The Key to Power’?” He laughed.
How could I forget the bastard? He had duplicated his clients’ keys so he could easily break into their homes later on. I had set an elaborate trap for him and had caught him in the act. I’d taken some photos and Zilberman had taken care of the rest.
“Don’t you feel a sense of satisfaction when you get the bad guys?”
“Leave it alone. I’ve moved on. My work is my passion now.”
“I heard you wrote a book. Well done. You’ve fulfilled your dream.”
I didn’t answer.
“I also heard it wasn’t a huge success.”
“It’s not like you to be so polite.”
“Okay. I heard it was a complete failure.”
“My line of work is not as stable as yours.”
“So why not combine them?”
“I’d rather concentrate on doing the things I love.”
“As a hobby. But how about some real work?”
I kept my mouth shut.
“I’m leaving you this envelope.” He took out a white envelope from his bag and placed it on the table. “Just take a peek at it and then we’ll talk.” He extended his hand, which I ignored. He let his hand fall. “You’re just as stubborn as your father was.”
With that, he turned and left the office.
My office is located in an old building next to Dizengoff Square. I share a floor with a lawyer’s office, a psychiatrist, a reflexologist, an insurance company, and a travel agency. It’s the type of old, unattractive building only small businesses at the very beginning or the very end of their lives would choose to operate in.
I’d rented the office a few years back so I could concentrate on my writing. It had several advantages―it was located in central Tel Aviv, the rooms were inexpensive, and you could see the sea from the windows. Before moving here, I’d worked for a multimedia company for a few years, writing scripts for educational computer games. I’d worked long hours until I’d gotten fed up and quit. During that period, I had been surrounded by young, adrenaline-filled high-tech people. Now, I met people who were elderly, tired, unshaven, and who walked about the corridors in wrinkled clothing with no pressing destination. I loved the building’s serene atmosphere, removed from the pressure and the chaos of the outer world―a piece of normal tranquility.
Zilberman’s visit immediately disrupted the balance and instilled a sense of pressure and discomfort in me. After he left, I restlessly walked about the office and tried to weigh the pros and cons of his proposition. I was unable to reach a decision and at the end, I grew tired and sat back in the worn-out chair I’d purchased six years ago for a substantial amount of money―an executive chair with orthopedic support, ergonomic handles, and a sophisticated synchronization mechanism, which allowed me to change the angle of its back rest and lock it in any position I desired.
“If you’re going to sit and write all day, this is the perfect chair for you,” the salesperson had explained to me. “Otherwise, you’ll hurt your back.” He had convinced me not to spare any expense on the chair, and I had followed his advice.
Six years later, the synchronization mechanism had collapsed, one of the handles was broken, and the upholstery had almost completely peeled off. If I decided to take the job, perhaps I’d be able to buy a new chair, pay back my debts, and live without a care for a few months.
Zilberman had left the white envelope on the table. That was how he’d always passed information to me when I used to work for him. There was something hypnotic about those envelopes; every time I opened one, I found a different story inside. I used to read the material, memorize the information, then tear the papers into tiny shreds and throw them away, just the way he’d taught me.
Finally, I was unable to resist. I took the envelope and opened it. I was tired and desperate from my failed attempts for a more secure income. I needed money. The envelope was exceptionally thin and I knew what it meant: a little information and a lot of work. Inside the envelope, I found a faded photo of a grim, emaciated elderly man wearing a checkered beret and large glasses, a passport photo of a handsome girl with black hair and large brown eyes, and a photocopy of an old comic book cover, “The Purple Rider.”
There was also a small note. An art enthusiast millionaire is searching for Aharon Gordon, an illustrator who went missing more than thirty years ago. He has a daughter named Daniela. Her phone number is included.
I decided to take the simple course of action; sometimes simplicity was the best solution. I picked up the phone and dialed Daniela’s number. After three rings, I heard a pleasant feminine voice.
“May I speak with Aharon Gordon?” I asked politely.
“No.” The girl’s pleasant voice was replaced with the rise and fall of a disconnection tone.
The next morning, Nava from the bank called and woke me up. She scolded me. “You’re exceeding the overdraft limit again. Unless you satisfy your overdraft by the end of the month, we’ll have to suspend your account.”
“Everything will work out by the end of the month. I’m just waiting for a few checks.” I was exhausted after a long night of writing and had barely managed to crawl out of bed. At ten o’clock, I dragged into the office after downing two oversized cups of coffee. I needed to finish a newspaper article about a microbiology professor who specialized in exterminating the germs that caused bad breath.
I covered the science and technology subjects for the newspaper. My current piece was about a professor who had invented a kit called, “Kiss Report,” which alerted potential kissers to the dangers of bad breath. I tried to think of an opening and deliberated whether I should start with his hobby as a saxophone player, or his theory about odors being the main element of attraction in couples.
The phone rang.
“Michael, how are you? Zilberman got a hold of you?”
I immediately recognized the rough, bass voice of uncle Chico. “You shouldn’t have told him to call.”
“I’m worried about you. Worried. The last time you earned a decent living was when you worked for him. You gotta work with him. You gotta.”
Chico, my mother’s brother, used to talk very quickly and double his words every few sentences. Mom always used to poke fun at him, but I actually liked that quality. The man had style.
“I’ll make sure he takes care of you… keep you out of trouble, even if it’s only for a single job. You can put some money in the bank. Some money.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Terrific, terrific. So, when are you coming for a visit? When? I’ve been here for five years and you still haven’t paid me a single visit.”
Up until five years ago, Chico owned a company for security and alarm systems. Zilberman had been one of his regular customers, but he’d closed the company and opened a leadership school in the Negev Desert, the kind that emphasized the values of nature and protecting the environment. He was extremely proud of the school, and very disappointed I hadn’t come to see it.
“You know what I’m like. I barely get out of town. I don’t like being too far from home.”
“You need to get out of town more. Listen to me. The desert will give you all the inspiration you need.” He told me in great detail about all the recent school activities, lectures, workshops, and trips. “The latest innovation the students have developed is a monthly barter market for clothes, kitchen utensils, and toys. People come from all around. It’s such a joy to see how one can manage even without money. Without money.”
I promised Chico to try and drop by for a visit soon. I also promised to give Zilberman’s offer some serious consideration.
Following our conversation, I finished the article and sent it to the editor―a hundred and fifty dollars for seven hundred words. I should have written a longer piece, but didn’t really feel like it. I had to write an average of at least ten articles a month in order to make ends meet.
I tried to call Daniela again; when simple didn’t work, move on to sophisticated methods. I changed my voice a bit and presented myself as a journalist. “I’m looking for Mr. Gordon. We’re doing a series of articles about children and young adult book illustrators.”
“You’re persistent, I’ll give you that. What happened to your voice? Did you catch a cold?”
I had always been a terrible actor. “Something like that.”
“I recommend you sleep with your socks on.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
“Sorry, I’ve no idea where he is.”
“When did you last hear from him?”
“Even if you find him, he won’t agree to be interviewed. He’s been traumatized by the press. You’re probably familiar with the story.”
“I had no idea what she was talking about, so I continued to improvise. “I’m a great admirer of his. I just want to talk to him.”
“Sorry. Last time I heard from him was more than thirty years ago.”
“I had no idea if she was telling the truth, but I knew it was pointless to put too much pressure on her at this stage. “Can I meet with you?”
“No.” She hung up the phone.
I guess politeness wasn’t her strongest suit. I called Zilberman. “Okay, so what’s the deal here?”
“I don’t have a lot of details. First of all, I recommend you call his daughter.”
“I tried to. She’s not cooperating. I need more information.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Who’s the customer?”
“Our customer is a millionaire. Sorry, a billionaire. A few years ago, he sold some sort of communication network in South America.”
“Good for him.”
“He’s got a hobby. He’s a rare comic book collector. He’s got a huge collection. No one knows about it because he’s afraid it’ll ruin his reputation as a hardened businessman. One of the artists he admires the most is Aharon Gordon. He’s got all his books, all except one.”
“The Purple Rider?”
“That’s what second-hand bookstores are for.”
“The book has no value unless it’s signed by the artist.”
Rich people follies. “Aharon Gordon’s daughter said he suffered some sort of trauma from the press.”
“Yes. At the end of the sixties, he wrote an article against the occupation. It wasn’t so popular back then. He got fired from his job at the newspaper and was ostracized for a few years. He couldn’t find a job. I heard he went through a rough patch. This is more or less everything I know.”
“Can I speak with the mysterious comic book collector?”
“No. I promised he’d only be speaking with me.”
I kept quiet. My intuition told me something didn’t quite fit.
“So, does this mean you’re taking the job?”
“You’ll get an answer by tomorrow. I need to think about it. Where’s Aharon Gordon’s wife?”
“Passed away a few years ago.”
“How many children does he have?”
“One daughter. Daniela.”
“What do you know about Daniela?”
“That she’s smoking hot, married to a basketball player, and has a bakery shop called ‘The Happy Cake’ at the Dizengoff Center shopping mall.”