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Eight nights of murder! That's what Hanukkah is shaping up to be in Philadelphia, where a killer is stalking America's most outrageous TV talk show host. Ex-FBI agent Gregor Demarkian discovers that behind-the-camera politics and off-the-set malice contribute to a very unfestive atmosphere in this new holiday mystery by the Edgar-nominated author of Not a Creature Was Stirring. Original.
IN THE YEARS SINCE Gregor Demarkian had come back to Cavanaugh Street—come back from Washington, D.C., and a job with the FBI; come back from professional life and nine-to-five identity; come back to sanity—he had gotten used to the fact that even minor holidays would be celebrated around him with an hysteria worthy of the fall of the Bastille. Major holidays, like Christmas and Easter, would be occasions for all-out war. For the second Christmas Gregor had spent on Cavanaugh Street, Donna Moradanyan, his upstairs neighbor, had wrapped every light pole and mailbox in a four-block area with red and green metallic paper. This was Cavanaugh Street and Gregor accepted it. But Cavanaugh Street was an Armenian-American neighborhood and therefore dedicated to the Armenian Christian church, and Gregor had accepted that, too. Long ago, Armenia had been the first country on earth to make Christianity a state religion. Lately, Armenia seemed poised to become the most fervent example of religious revival in the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe. On Cavanaugh Street, the response was subtler but undeniable. Even old agnostics like Gregor showed up at church on Sunday, and a surprising number of young people—raised to be secular children in a secular age—weren't agnostics at all. Father Tibor Kasparian kept them all moving in the direction he wanted them to go. He called that direction "pure Christianity." "The first duty of a Christian in the working out of his salvation is to sanctify the world," Tibor said, in the thick accent he had brought with him from so many countries Gregor couldn't remember them all. Then he proceeded to sanctify the world by finding a religious meaning in Presidents' Day. Gregor had gotten used to finding out that Tibor had discovered deep Christian significance in the Congressional Proclamation that had established Arbor Day. Gregor had even gotten used to the fact that as soon as Tibor had discovered such significance, he wanted to do something about it. What Gregor hadn't gotten used to—what he hadn't even considered the possibility of—was a Cavanaugh Street celebration of Hanukkah.
"Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday," he had pointed out to Tibor that morning, picking his way through the books piled in columnar stacks on Tibor's living room floor to get to the one halfway clear seat he could see. The seat was only halfway clear because it had both of Tibor's present reading projects on it: Judith Krantz's Scruples Two and An Investigation into the Mathematical Nature of Time by George Gamow. Gregor picked them both up and balanced them gently on the shortest stack of books on the end table. Those books were all in the Cyrillic alphabet. Armenia no longer used the Cyrillic alphabet. Gregor had seen a report on that on the evening news a few months ago. Armenia now had an American-born foreign minister, too. It was enough to give a man a headache. Gregor checked out the rest of the books on the end table—some Greek, some ancient Greek, some Latin, some French and Passions of the Sea by Lisetta Farnham—and then turned his attention to Tibor himself, who was trying to bring overfull cups of bad black coffee in from the kitchen. "Hanukkah," he said again.
"Yes, yes," Tibor told him. "I know, Krekor, I know. But it makes sense. And I am not a bigot."
"I never said you were."
"Well, Krekor, it would not have been outrageous if you had thought it. There is the Armenian record on anti-Semitism."
Gregor was curious. "How is the Armenian record on anti-Semitism?" he asked.
Tibor had reached him with the coffee. Gregor reached out for a cup and managed to spill only a drop and only on the floor. This was good, because he was due in less than an hour at a lunch in downtown Philadelphia with a friend of his from the old days at the Bureau. He took a sip of the coffee and nearly choked. He put his cup down on the end table and waited for Tibor to seat himself. Tibor kept tripping over the hem of his cassock.
"So," Tibor said, when he'd finally sat down. "I have told you, Krekor, Rabbi Goldman, David, he was my sponsor when I came to America?"
"You've told me, yes," Gregor said. "As an inducement to going on his sister's television show."
"The television show. Yes. Well, Krekor, David asked me to ask you and so I asked. That is not what I wanted to talk to you about today. You know the television show will be here in just three days?"
"You've told me."
"Yes, well, Krekor, it would be good if you could help us to clear this up before then. The graffiti, if you understand what I am saying."
"No," Gregor said.
"Don't you ever watch the news, Krekor? It is a terrible trial talking to you sometimes. I bring up what everybody knows because it has been on television for a week, and it is as if you have been on Mars. The graffiti was on a synagogue in the—I don't remember the street—here in Philadelphia where there is a neighborhood of Hasidim. The Hasidim are—"
"I know what the Hasidim are. Who."
"How am I supposed to know what you know?" Tibor shrugged. "Never mind, Krekor. You can imagine what kind of graffiti it was, and now everybody is upset. And it is not that they should be blamed for it, Krekor, because the graffiti was very foul. But the worst of it is that the police have arrested nobody for this."
"Do they know who did this?"
"Yes and no."
"What does that mean?"
Tibor fumbled around in his pockets and came up with a crumpled sheet of paper. He got up, leaned over yet more stacks of books, and passed it to Gregor. "That is the name of the organization which claims responsibility. I had David write it down for me because I have a hard time remembering it. This is perhaps psychological."
"Perhaps," Gregor said drily.
"The important thing here is that the police know what the organization is but they don't know who is in it. You see the problem? Have you ever heard of them, Krekor?"
What was written on the piece of paper was
WHITE KNIGHTS, DEFENDERS OF FACE AND FAITH
Gregor put the paper on the end table and sighed.
"I haven't heard of them," he said. "I don't have to have heard of them. Groups like this crop up constantly. We had an entire section at the Bureau devoted to nothing but keeping track of them."
"There is perhaps such a section at the Bureau now?"
"No perhaps about it. Of course there is."
"Well then," Tibor said. "Krekor. You go today to have lunch with an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who is a friend of yours. He may have friends of his own in this special section. He may be able to ... help us out."
Gregor picked up the crumpled paper again, stared at the name printed on it in such precise letters, and put it down again. "How long ago did all of this happen?" he asked Tibor.
"A little over two weeks."
"Two weeks. Do you know if the police got any physical evidence at the scene? Anything to link the act to any specific person?"
"I told you—"
"I know they don't know the names," Gregor insisted, "but they might have blind evidence that could eventually be definitive. Hair. Fingerprints. Even singed or torn skin."
"Ah," Tibor said, impressed. "I don't know."
Gregor tapped his fingers against his knee. "Well," he said, "I suppose we can ask. It's always possible they're sounding more pessimistic than they have to. In cases like this, though, the police tend to want to deliver hope if they possibly can. You do realize, if the police don't have anything of the kind I'm talking about, even if we do find out who was responsible, the police aren't going to be able to arrest them?"
"Not enough evidence?" Tibor asked dejectedly.
"Not enough evidence and too far from the commission of the crime. If this had come up within, oh, twenty-four hours or so—if you'd talked to me and I'd talked to the Bureau and the Bureau had come up with a couple of names that fit, all in the first twenty-four hours, then there might have been a chance to dig up a witness or find some new evidence, but now—"
"You make it sound so hopeless," Tibor said.
"It is hopeless," Gregor told him.
"Does that mean you will not ask your friend at the FBI for us?"
"Of course I'll ask my friend at the FBI. But you and your friend Rabbi Goldman have got to understand that what I'll be delivering, if I deliver anything, is a chance to catch these idiots the next time they do anything."
"The next time," Tibor said, shocked.
"This still doesn't explain to me why Cavanaugh Street is celebrating Hanukkah," Gregor said. "Donna came downstairs this morning and planted a neon menorah in my living room window."
"The menorah," Tibor said, leaping to his feet. "I forgot. Donna brought me one this morning and I have not yet put it up."
"I will only be a minute, Krekor. It is important. It is a gesture of solidarity."
"Right," Gregor said, but he supposed he understood. Tibor was always whipping the residents of Cavanaugh Street into a frenzy of solidarity for somebody or the other: starving children in Ethiopia; oppressed students in China; the homeless who filled the shelter run by a consortium of volunteers from Holy Trinity Armenian Christian Church, Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, and the Becker Street African Methodist Church. Tibor was a devotee of good causes. Gregor could hardly fault him for that. As for this latest enthusiasm—why shouldn't Tibor show his solidarity with the Jewish community of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Main Line? Why shouldn't he? The only thing that worried Gregor Demarkian was what form this solidarity would take. The neon menorahs were interesting enough, but Gregor knew Cavanaugh Street. It would never in a million years end there.
Tibor came back from the front hall and tripped over a few books again, the hem of his cassock flapping, the sparse hair on his head bouncing as he flailed.
"There it is. All done. Now I have only to work on my voice. You will be home next Saturday, Krekor?"
"Far as I know."
"Good. You will come to our block party. I want everybody in this neighborhood at our block party. Lida Arkmanian is even now learning to cook kosher food."
"What?" Gregor said.
Tibor wasn't listening. He had finished his coffee and wanted to get more. He had come to that point in the conversation where he did not want to discuss anything more with Gregor Demarkian. That was why Gregor was suspicious. Gregor got suspicious when anybody on Cavanaugh Street told him that something they were about to make him do would be—well, not a complicated mess.
On any other day of the year, Gregor would have stopped and insisted on being told exactly what was going on. On this day, he was in danger of being late for a very important lunch. He got out of his chair and made his way back across the obstacle course of books, wondering when Tibor got the time to read like this when he spent so much time making Gregor Demarkian's life resemble one of the wilder plays of Ionesco. Gregor stopped at the door to the entry and called out,
"Tibor? I'm leaving."
"Have a good lunch," Tibor called back.
Gregor went into the entry, got his coat from the closet and headed out the door.
When Tibor refused to talk to him at all, God only knew what kind of insanity was going on.
LATER, GREGOR DEMARKIAN WOULD tell Bennis Hannaford—his immediate downstairs neighbor; the woman half the magazines in America insisted on calling his "constant companion" and that half the people in America thought was his lover (Gregor had once told Tibor he'd as soon take the Tasmanian devil for a lover, it would be calmer)—that the hardest thing about his talk with Tibor that morning was not telling Tibor why he was having lunch with his "friend from the FBI." Tibor Kasparian was probably the man Gregor had been closest to in his life. Gregor's father and older brother had both died when Gregor was very young, and he had no distinct memories of either. Then there had been college and graduate school, the army and the Bureau. Men made close friends in places like that, but Gregor hadn't. Gregor had made a close friend in his wife. She had been enough for him as long as she was alive. It was after she died that Gregor had come back to Cavanaugh Street and found himself at loose ends. It was in coming back to Cavanaugh Street that he had met Tibor. It all got very complicated. Gregor Demarkian had grown up on Cavanaugh Street in the days when it had been an Armenian-American ghetto, the kind of place all its residents wanted to escape for the greener grass of the Philadelphia Main Line. He had come back to a Cavanaugh Street transformed, but not quite. The buildings had been spruced up and gutted and remodeled and rearranged. The tenements had been changed into townhouses and floor-through condominiums with twelve-foot-high ceilings and marble fireplaces and Anderson windows in brownstone frames. The people on Cavanaugh Street, however, had not changed at all. Lida Arkmanian bought her clothes at Saks these days and covered them over with a chinchilla coat, but she still went at cooking as if she could bring about world peace with it and worried about everybody's grandchildren. Hannah Krekorian took her vacations in the Bahamas these days, but she still talked a blue streak and lusted over love and romance the way a cat lusted after fresh fish. People were so much the same, Gregor sometimes found himself stopped dead in confusion, as if he had wandered into a costume party that refused to come to an end. Surely any minute now Lida would trade in that chinchilla coat for a cloth one from Sears, and Sheila Kashinian would confess that all those diamond rings were just paste. Surely any minute now Gregor's own mother would come trundling up from Ohanian's with a soft reed basket under her arm, carrying a plucked chicken and two cups of bulgur to make for tonight's dinner. Of course, Gregor's mother was dead now and Ohanian's had become Ohanian's Middle Eastern Food Store. Gregor put flowers on his mother's grave every Christmas Day and Ohanian's sold prepackaged filo leaves to tourists from Radnor for twelve ninety-nine a pound. It should have been enough to cause a case of terminal disorientation in anyone, but it wasn't, and that was the problem. Gregor Demarkian's loyalties were here. For the rest of his life, they would be. What Gregor had had a hard time not telling Tibor that morning was what he was having lunch with his "friend from the FBI" for. Gregor kept putting the phrase—"friend from the FBI"—in quotes, because it belonged in quotes. Don Elkham was not strictly a friend of his, although Gregor described him that way, for want of another term to use for him. Gregor and Don had known each other since their first day of training at Quantico, and followed each other through the ranks at the Bureau ever since. The difference was, while Gregor had ended up chief and originator of the Department of Behavioral Sciences, Don had gotten stalled along the way. Of course, Gregor was retired now, with no standing at all. There was no reason for a man like Don Elkham to be jealous of a Gregor Demarkian who had demoted himself into nothing but an amateur. Even so, the jealousy was there. Gregor had felt it coming over the phone when Don had called.
What Don had called about was what he insisted on referring to as "a little criminal anomaly in New York." What he meant was that one of the staff members on Rabbi David Goldman's sister's television show had been murdered in Manhattan last month and there was enough strangeness around the case to get all the law enforcement people a little nervous. Gregor had wondered out loud what that had to do with the FBI, but the explanation had turned out to be less than sinister. Don Elkham was a station agent in Philadelphia. His best buddy from the army was the police lieutenant handling the case in New York. Everybody knew about the connection between Lotte Goldman's brother David and Father Tibor Kasparian, and between Father Tibor Kasparian and Gregor Demarkian.
"It's all over the place that you've been asked to be on The Lotte Goldman Show," Don had said on the phone, "and it's like Chickie said. Put two and two together, and it sure as hell is hot, the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot is going to be all over this case as soon as The Lotte Goldman Show hits Philadelphia."
"If you call me the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot one more time," Gregor said, "I'll hang up this phone."
"Chickie said I should call you up and ask you to lunch and talk it over with you," Don said. "Just to see what you're up to."
Excerpted from Festival of Deaths by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1994 Orania Papazoglou. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 10, 2013