What do the following persons have in common: A homeless, peniless street-dweller, a Russian army veteran and survivor of a Soviet slave labor camp, a young orphan from India and a teen-aged runaway girl? Nothing...until an accident in a pedestrian crossing at a busy street intersection causes a riopple effect that alters all their lives.
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By Robert P. Benn
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Robert P. Benn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSanta Monica, California.
For a man who was about to die, Ross Tremaine was feeling pretty pleased with himself, in spite of the headache.
The weeks spent hammering away at the Atkins deal had finally paid off. Both parties had signed on the dotted line and the paperwork was on its way to the escrow company. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he should be receiving his share of the realtor's fee soon, and then he and Susan could really celebrate.
A guy doesn't sell a property for three million dollars every day!
He checked the temperature setting on the air conditioner as he drove home and tried to concentrate on the road. The pounding in his head was intensifying. He knew it would interfere with his vision if it followed the usual pattern. He needed to be extra vigilant; a busy thoroughfare was no place to have a blackout. He could relax at home. He would treat himself to a double shot of bourbon, swallow two migraine capsules and then lie down for an hour.
Perhaps the medication would help this time!
Susan was sure to get on his case again. She'd been nagging him for months about getting an appointment with his doctor. He had procrastinated because there always seemed to be something more pressing to deal with.
The headaches had started up again about six months ago. At first the pain was mild and transient, easily dealt with. A couple of Motrins took care of the problem admirably, ridding him of the discomfort within the hour. As the months passed, the episodes grew more frequent and more severe. His head would pound for hours and no amount of medication seemed to be adequate. Of late they were worse than ever, even worse than they had been while he was in prison.
When the blinding headaches started to interfere with his vision, he called his physician. He hadn't had a proper physical in years. It was time to have it done.
For the present he had to concentrate on getting home in one piece. As quickly as possible, too, for the pounding was reaching an all-time high. It felt as though he harbored a little man armed with a sledgehammer inside his skull, a man who was battering away in an effort to smash his way out to freedom. Thud, thud, thud went the hammer, and Ross's heart thudded away in unison. Each beat of the hammer fell in perfect synchronization with the beating of his heart.
Damn! Better get home real fast.
His foot automatically depressed the gas pedal. The Camry surged forward obediently, gliding smoothly towards the upcoming intersection. The green light at the top of the traffic signal was joined by amber below.
Shoot! I may not make it through.
How he hated these traffic lights. They always seemed to be lying in wait. They would lure him on with a promise of uninterrupted passage, only to change just as he got to the point where he had to make a split-second decision whether to slam on the brakes or try to beat the lights. Today's choice would be taken out of his hands before he could make the decision.
Part of the large artery that lay wedged between his skull and his brain had walls that were considerably thinner than they ought to be. For most of his life it had withstood the pressures imposed upon it by the driving force of his heart. In these latter years, as he had aged, so had his body. The arterial walls had lost their tensile strength and had become prone to excessive elasticity.
Lately, each beat of his heart caused the weakened section of the artery to swell. Thud, thud, thud went his heart—stretch, shrink, stretch, shrink the artery responded.
Each time the walls ballooned out they would inflate to a greater degree than previously. And, as they inflated, they exerted pressure on the adjacent tissue of the brain, causing pain and visual distortion.
Today the artery had reached that point where it would stretch no further. As Ross was about to reach a decision between the gas pedal and the brake, the artery burst. Blood poured out of the rupture and flooded his cranium. His head seemed to explode with a blazing flash of light that blotted out his sight. Ross's fingers tightened their grip and his body slumped forward onto the steering wheel. He never felt his head hit the top of the wheel, for he was dead even before contact was made. His foot was still resting on the gas pedal, so the car continued on its way towards the intersection.
By this time the lights had changed and the Camry was now speeding towards a red light.
Mark Crossley jabbed a finger against the button on the pole.
Come on! Come on! Hurry up and change. These darn traffic lights are so slow.
The aroma of freshly cooked Chinese food wafted up from the bag in his hand and made his mouth water. He'd been away from home most of the day, and was anxious to return and enjoy the dinner and wine he had just purchased.
Two young women appeared at his side and smiled at him. He pointedly averted his eyes with a scowl. A short, bald-headed old man joined them. He pressed the button and smiled at Mark.
"Hi," he said.
The pedestrian lights lit up and spared Mark from responding. He stepped off the sidewalk and set off at a brisk pace, doing his best to stay ahead of the others.
Damn people, he thought. Don't know me from a bar of soap, yet they all greet me as if I'm their buddy.
He was so wrapped up in righteous indignation that he did not notice the Camry bearing down on him.
Awarning shout made Mark turn his head. His eyes opened wide in shock.
I'm about to be run over.
At that moment he felt two hands on his back and he was shoved violently forwards. Mark stumbled for three paces before falling. The two bags he was carrying hit the road and shattered with the crash of breaking glass that masked the sound of the car striking a body.
He sat up, momentarily dazed. As he began to focus, he became aware of women screaming and the squealing sounds of tires skidding along the asphalt as cars had their brakes applied. This was followed by a silence that was only broken by the sobbing of the two young women standing a few feet away as they stared with horror at the body lying in the middle of the intersection.
Chapter TwoMark heard the door chimes ring softly somewhere inside the tiny house on 9th Street.
The door swung aside after a few moments to reveal a short, elderly lady with a snood covering her head. She wore a long skirt that reached to the floor, concealing her feet, and a blouse with long sleeves. Her face and hands were the only parts of her body that were not covered.
I hope she doesn't faint from heat exhaustion, Mark thought.
"Good morning," she said.
"Hi! My name is Mark Crossley. I have an appointment with Rabbi Rosen."
Esther Rosen stepped to one side and opened the door wider. "Please come in. You may wait here in the family room and I'll inform the Rabbi that you are here."
Esther went across the hallway and knocked on the study door before entering. Baruch Rosen looked up from his behind his desk and smiled at his wife.
"Mr. Crossley is here to see you," she announced.
"Please show him in."
Mark entered the tiny study and stood respectfully in front of the old man seated before him.
The rabbi arose and extended his hand. "Mr. Crossley? Rabbi Bernard Rosen. Pleased to meet you."
"Likewise! Thank you for seeing me."
"Not at all. My pleasure. Please take a seat."
Mark sank into the chair facing the rabbi. He was not quite sure how to begin, so he made a show of examining his surroundings.
The study had a desk in front of a window that overlooked a small garden. Rabbi Rosen occupied one chair between the desk and the window and Mark sat in one of two chairs on the opposite side of the desk.
The walls of the entire room were fitted out with shelves holding volumes of books, hundreds of books. Mark had never seen so many books in such a small room before. He wondered if the man sitting before him had read even a quarter of them.
"The answer is 'yes'," the rabbi said.
Mark tore his gaze from the shelves and looked at the old man. "Excuse me?"
"You were wondering if I've read them," Rabbi Rosen said, indicating the books. "The answer is yes, I've read them all."
"What's in them?" Mark asked.
"Those five volumes with the brown covers are the first five books of the Old Testament. We call the combined works the Torah. They represent the word of God as given to the prophet Moses on Mount Sinai. It is from here that we derive the rules by which we live. God dictates how we should conduct ourselves and our duty is to comply.
"All the other books you see are devoted to assist one in the study of the Torah, thereby enabling us to fully understand the knowledge being imparted to us. As a Jew I am commanded to study the law and obey it. As a rabbi I need the knowledge contained between the covers of all those books. That knowledge enables me to advise my fellow men when called upon to assist them in addressing the problems they encounter in their daily lives. Speaking of which, how may I help you?"
"I came here because of a man named David Rifkin. I went to the police and asked about him and they told me he used to work for you."
Rabbi Rosen's smile softened. "Ah, yes, Poor David! Did you know him?"
"No, not at all."
"But you made it your business to find out something about him?"
"It's a bit complicated and may take a while. I'm sure you are a busy man and I'd hate to waste your time."
Rabbi Rosen could sense that the man seated before him was troubled by something so he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "This morning I've got as much time as you need."
"All my life," Mark began, "I've felt that people, most people, certainly all those that I've come into close contact with, were mean and nasty. Everyone treated me like dirt. They were rude and insulting towards me and generally made my life a misery. It was like the whole world was out to get me. What is it that they call it? Paranoia? Persecution complex?
"Anyway, in self-defense, I kept myself distant from everyone at school and later at work. I suffered a setback some years ago that cost me my job and my money. I lost everything that was dear to me, including my home and all my possessions. I became a bum, living on the streets and surviving by my wits. I felt abandoned and alone, a useless, worthless nothing of a person. It was as if I'd been cursed by God."
"I doubt that," the Rabbi interjected. "God does not go out of His way to curse anyone."
"Well, that was how I saw it—cursed by God, or whoever runs the universe. At that point in my life I doubted the existence of God. Certainly not the benevolent God everyone said was in control of things. Anyway, one day I came into some money and I now have a home and enough to eat, so that other part of my life is behind me."
"It would appear that God never cursed you at all. It seems that He has blessed you in some measure," the Rabbi smiled. "I venture to suggest it was He who rescued you from the streets."
"There's more," Mark said. "I was on my way to my car some weeks ago. I was standing at the intersection of Wilshire and 6th Street, waiting for the light to change. There were other people waiting to cross—two young women and an old man. The man greeted me with a smile but I turned my back on him.
"The moment the light changed, I quickly stepped off the sidewalk and began to walk away. Suddenly, I heard the man behind me yell out something. I looked up and saw a car heading straight at me and immediately realized that I was about to be run over.
"At that moment I felt two hands on my back and I was shoved violently forwards. It was the old man, the one who had greeted me earlier. He saw that I was in danger and pushed me out of harm's way.
"The two women behind us saw everything. They told the police that the car hit the old man. He was flung into the air and landed on the hood of the car. He rolled over the roof, bounced off the trunk, and landed in the middle of the intersection. Two cars ran over him before the traffic stopped. He saved my life, but lost his own in the process."
Rabbi Rosen leaned forward in his chair and stared intently into Mark's eyes. "I'm sure that God intervened to save you a second time. Surely you must see that?"
Mark squirmed. "I'm not so sure. I've been confused for weeks. I don't know what to think anymore. I went to the police to find out about the man. They gave me his name, David Rifkin, and said that he worked for you."
"So that's how it happened," the rabbi murmured. "Such a tragic end to a life filled with suffering."
"That's why I came here," Mark said. "I need some answers, and I was hoping you could help me."
"What answers are you looking for?"
"Why I was spared, and why a stranger gave up his life for me."
"It takes a special kind of person to do that," Rabbi Rosen remarked.
"So who was he really?"
"Actually, he imparted very little to me about his past. I got most of his background from his wife. This is what I know...."
Chapter ThreeUkraine, Russia.
From his position on the raised bimah, Shalom Rivkevitch turned his head to glance at his son. Dovid was neither absorbed in the siddur nor joining in with the morning prayers as he usually did. Understandable, his father conceded, and then faced forward once more as he continued to lead his small flock in their daily devotions.
Although Dovid held the siddur in his hand, the little prayer book was closed. Today was special and, although outwardly calm, his brain was whirling with conflicting emotions that robbed him of any capacity for concentrating on the prayers.
His gaze wandered around the tiny room that served as the synagogue for the little village of Chernorudka, which was situated on the outskirts of Berdichev. How shabby it looked, with its unpainted wooden walls, its warped floorboards, its rickety chairs. In Kiev the synagogue was clean and bright and well lit. Then again, Kiev was a large, prosperous city. It was unfair to compare his father's little shul to that stately edifice.
How come I never noticed how dingy this room is before, Dovid wondered? Has the place suddenly deteriorated virtually overnight, or has it always been this way? It must be me, he realized. Now that I'm a man, I am able see the flaws. Children don't recognize the reality when it's all they've ever been accustomed to.
In view of the prevailing political climate in Russia, however, there was no guarantee that Kiev would keep its synagogue much longer. The State was closing shuls throughout the country and either murdering the rabbis or deporting them. Kiev might lose its synagogue at any moment. Then synagogues like this little house of worship—be it ever so humble—would have to serve the purpose for any Jew within the vicinity.
He resumed his examination. Everything about the place seemed to be ancient, as if the entire structure as well as all its contents had existed for centuries. Even the occupants appeared to be ancient; a dozen or so old men in patched clothing, sporting graying beards of varying length. One or two younger men were present, but no women. The women were probably at home preparing breakfast. The able-bodied men were most likely on their way to work while the younger children would be walking to school. As I used to do, he recalled with a smile.
He was startled out of his reverie by the sound of the men standing up, for Rabbi Rivkevitch had launched into the closing prayers of the morning. Dovid rose and joined in for the final verses. He watched his father with love and pride as he sang. There was no need to consult his siddur: he knew everything by heart. Father had been a good teacher as well as a good parent.
The rabbi was tall—an inch over six foot—and slender. He was a handsome man with a full head of dark hair and a long beard that was now more gray than black. Dovid had always felt that, if one could see God, He would bear a strong resemblance to Shalom Rivkevitch.
Excerpted from MISTER SANTA by Robert P. Benn Copyright © 2011 by Robert P. Benn. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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