At four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, Morris Levy was taking the bus to Zabar’s to buy some pastrami for his family—because what’s Hanukkah without pastrami?—when his cell phone rang. It took him three rings to find the damned thing in his deepest pocket, and two more to find the little button to answer the call. “Who’s speaking?”
“Levy, you old bastard, as if I’m not the only person who calls you on this phone.”
“This better be the last time I hear from you, Gregson. I’m retiring.”
“You’ve been retiring for thirty years. We need you on this one. You heading to Zabar’s?”
“Well, yeah, how’d you know?”
“Because you’re always heading to Zabar’s. Meet you at the cheese section.”
The private detective headed inside. At six foot five, he towered over the other shoppers, but thinning gray curly hair and kind-looking eyebrows detracted from his imposing effect. His eyes were wide, and they got wider when he was hungry.
Jeremiah Gregson, a short, pudgy police inspector wearing a cheap suit and a handlebar moustache, was waiting by the cheese, jostled by a horde of shoppers competing for free samples. “We have a dead woman on 79th and West End,” he said.
Morris sighed and drifted towards the deli counter. “Don’t you have anyone in the department who can handle all the Upper West Side cases you give to me?”
“Nope. You’re the best, and you know it.”
“Alright. What are the circumstances?” Morris was trying to remember which brand of pastrami his wife had told him to buy.
“Victim was found dead in her bathtub with lacerations to her head, but an autopsy revealed death by strangulation.”
“You never fail to take away my appetite,” Morris grumbled.
“Really? That’s not an easy thing to do.” Gregson rubbed his hands together. “The woman, Leah Hosta, 38, was alive and well at 7:45 am yesterday, when her nine-year-old daughter Emily left for school. Before she left, Emily locked the door. This same—”
Morris interrupted: “So either the killer had a key or Mrs. Hosta let them in.”
“Yes. This same— “
“Did anyone else have a key?”
“The daughter says no. This same—“
“This same what?” Morris demanded, and turned to the counterman. “A pound of pastrami: Empire.”
“The daughter! This same daughter… got home from school, found her mother dead, and called 911 at 3:30 p.m.”
“Well, maybe we should take a look at friends and family right now.”
“Leah was a reclusive woman,” Gregson began as they left the store and walked the few blocks to the crime scene. “We’ve got her husband Moishe, new boyfriend Adam, brother Etan, and daughter Emily. I understand Moishe and the victim were not on the best terms.”
“Interesting. All right, now: silence! It’s a bad thing to draw conclusions before making observations.”
In a few minutes, they had reached the building, a typical Upper West Side construction that had probably been there for a century and been designed by the same architect as every other building within a square mile. The family was sitting in the living room and Gregson gave Morris an inventory. Etan was extremely tall, extremely blond, and extremely strong. Adam looked ready to jump out of his seat. Moishe, thin and short with weak arms, didn’t look particularly capable of anything.
“And here’s Emily.” Gregson pointed to nine-year-old girl, small and skinny with mousy brown hair. Her eyes were pink and puffy from tears. Morris beckoned to her, and Emily followed him into the dining room. Gregson tried to follow, but Morris waved him away.
“You’ll scare her,” he said. Morris and the girl sat down across from each other at the small wooden table. “Emily,” he began gently. “I cannot begin to imagine how hard this must be for you, but I have to ask you some questions. You probably don’t want to remember yesterday, but whatever you can recall of your experiences will bring us closer to catching the villain who did this.”
The kid gulped. Morris leaned in. “Can you think of someone who might have wanted to kill your mother?”
The girl stared and shook her head slowly. Morris Levy knew from experience that when questioning children—whether they be your own, and you’re questioning them about who ate the last latke, or someone else’s, and you’re questioning them about who killed their mother—it was important to phrase your question just right, because a child will answer the question and nothing but. Morris sat with furrowed eyebrows, then asked: “Did you hear your mother mention any particular individual who might be coming to see her?”
“Did you talk to her yesterday morning?”
So far, the great detective was getting nowhere with the fourth grade schoolgirl. But, of course, she had been through such trauma. “But you did see her?”
“She got up to make me breakfast. She usually does. But yesterday’s breakfast wasn’t so good.”
Morris sat up. “Why? Was it because she was a little off her game? Upset, maybe?”
“No, it was just that it was French toast, and I really don’t like French toast. It’s just totally—”
Morris put up his hand to silence her. Allowances…forgiveness…but she was so bratty! “She made you breakfast, but you didn’t say anything to her at all?”
“I said ‘not really,’ not ‘not at all.’ ”
Morris was losing sympathy for the obstinate little ragamuffin. “So you did talk to her. Did you get any impression of how she was feeling? Nervous?”
The girl squirmed. “Yes, actually.”
Aha! Now he had an opening. “And what was it that made her seem nervous?”
“She would kind of forget what she was doing. She kept talking to herself, and I was getting freaked out.”
“What did she say?”
“I don’t know.” Morris could barely restrain himself from picking the girl up and shaking her. “You don’t know?”
“I didn’t hear her.”
Morris couldn’t count on his ability to refrain from shouting, so he dismissed Emily. His frustration mounted. Here he was, with a case he couldn’t make a dent in, with pastrami he couldn’t refrigerate until he got home, by which time it would be spoiled, and he’d have to buy a new one and of course on his way back to Zabar’s there’d be another police officer and another dead woman, and he wasn’t getting anywhere! He tore open the package and began eating furiously. (The speed of his eating was a frequent topic of conversation around his dinner table.)
Morris wrapped up what was left of the pastrami, went into the other room, and beckoned to Gregson and to Leah’s husband Moishe. Morris and Gregson sat on one side of the dining room table, and the little rodent of a man huddled on the other, eyeing them with a watery glare. “Well?” His voice was high and nasal. “I suppose you suspect me.” He jumped up. “Why should you, though? What right have you got? You can go to hell, you and your damn police!” He sat back down, exhausted.
“Why should you think we suspect you, Mr. Hosta?” Gregson asked.
“Well, my wife’s family thinks I have a motive.” A semblance of dignity manifested itself in the poor wretch’s countenance.
“And what’s that?”
Moishe laughed—a, short sharp squeal like a terrified Chihuahua’s. “No one told you? My wife and I were on the verge of divorce. Two days ago, she went to the lawyer to get me taken out of her will. She was also going to take our daughter away from me.” Anger appeared in his rheumy eyes—a tiny change in his expression, but it chilled Morris, who saw that the inspector had seen it too. “I see. Can you tell us about your movements yesterday?”
“I spent a lousy day moving furniture into my new house in Brooklyn. I didn’t hear about the whole business until the police contacted me this morning.”
“And did you have someone helping you?”
“No. I have no acquaintances, let alone friends. I also don’t have much furniture: I went to Goodwill and bought an old desk, a couple chairs, a bed.”
Morris suddenly sat up a little straighter. “Tell me, Moishe: what do you do for a living?”
“I write editorials for a Jewish magazine.”
“Nothing menial, then?”
“What do I look like, a muscle man?”
“Thank you,” Morris said. “You may go.” After a quick break to finish off the rest of his pastrami, he heaved himself out of the chair (which he found extremely comfortable) to fetch Adam, the dead woman’s new boyfriend. The young man sprang up and dashed past Morris. He pulled back the chair with such gusto that it flew into him, and he almost stumbled before halting its momentum and sliding swiftly into its seat. Morris gave him a few moments to catch his breath. “Thank you, Adam. So: Did you stand to gain from Mrs. Hosta’s death?”
Adam jumped up again, this time with a severe glimmer in his eyes, but Morris stayed him with a pleasant look. Adam sat back down. “Well I suppose you’ve a right to ask. As a matter of fact, I did stand to gain. She changed her will the day before she died to include me. The estate goes in equal parts to me, Emily, and her brother Etan.”
Morris cast a glance at the inspector and saw a glint of suspicion. “And can you account for your movements yesterday?”
“I was at a family reunion. I was supposed to stay the week, but I came back here as soon as I could.”
Gregson’s face fell. “And can you give us the information of anyone who can corroborate your alibi?”
Adam chuckled. “Sure: my parents, my aunt and uncle, twelve cousins, and my 91-year-old grandmother.”
Morris thanked Adam and dismissed him. “He was perfect,” he moaned to Gregson. “He has the strength, the motive…and a perfect alibi.”
“Maybe the whole family was in on it.”
With an agonized sigh, Gregson went to get Leah’s brother Etan, a Viking who made the chair he sat in look like a toy. “If there’s anything I can do to help, I’ll be only too happy to oblige,” he said in a deep, commanding voice. Morris saw Gregson looking at the guy’s powerful hands.
“Do you know of anyone who might have wanted to murder your sister?”
The mountainous Etan shook his head and began to sob. “She was such a pure, kind soul, excellent at her job.”
“Where was it that she worked?” inquired Gregson.
“Slate Investments, the accounting department. They didn’t treat her so well, but she took her job seriously.” He buried his face in his hands. If this was an act, it was the best Morris had ever seen, and he’d been going to the theater every week for thirty years.
“And yet someone strangled her, then bashed her head in,” Morris muttered.
Etan sat up very straight. “Her head? How horrible.” Then he collapsed in tears again.
Morris put his hand on the man’s immense shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I have to ask—as a formality, you know— about your movements.”
Etan caught his breath. “I spent the whole day on Long Island, visiting a friend who works in the same factory as I do. We make yarmulkes—Jewish skullcaps.”
“I know what a yarmulke is,” Morris smiled. “I wear one myself every morning for minyan.” He let a silence fall, then said gently, “You understand, we have to check…would you mind giving us your friend’s contact information?”
“Yes, of course.” Etan reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled business card printed with the name Avrom Minsky, Kleinfeld, Kleinfeld, and Kleinfeld Yarmulke Co., and a phone number. Morris pocketed the card, feeling weighted down with sorrow for this poor, huge man. As Etan slumped away, Morris remembered something. “One more thing: excuse my asking, but I believe you, along with Adam and Emily, inherited some property?”
Etan sighed. “A little. Leah was almost destitute, so we each get less than $1,000. I’ll be donating my share to her favorite charity.”
“Thank you. That’ll be all.”
“Poor guy,” Gregson said when Etan had left. “And poor us! We’ve interviewed everyone, and it seems like nobody could’ve done it.”
“But somebody did.” Morris picked up the dead woman’s telephone and called the office number on the card Etan had given him. A pleasant female voice answered: “Kleinfeld, Kleinfeld, and Kleinfeld; how may I help you today?”
Morris tried to match her chirpy singsong. “I’d like to inquire whether a person by the name of Avrom Minsky works at your establishment?”
“Indeed, sir. I’ll put you through.”
After a minute of klezmer hold music, a man with a jovial voice said, “Hello, this is Avrom Minsky.”
“My name is Morris Levy, I’m a private detective working with the NYPD, and I’m hoping you can shed some light on a murder investigation.”
“Who was killed?”
“I’m afraid so. Did you see Etan yesterday?”
“Yeah, yeah, we were together at my house from 9 a.m to 4 p.m.”
“Thank you, that’s all I need.”
“Hey, tell Etan I’ll come down to see him in a few days.”
Morris hung up and told Gregson that he had confirmed Etan’s alibi. Then he walked back to Zabar’s to replace the pastrami he had devoured.
Early the next morning, Morris went to minyan wearing his favorite yarmulke, a disc of old, soft suede. As he stepped out of the synagogue, a gust of wind blew off the skullcap, which landed in an oily puddle. He still had the card that Etan had given him in his pocket, and on an impulse he decided to go to the Lower East Side and buy himself a new yarmulke. As soon as he emerged from the subway and turned onto Rivington Street, he saw the awning of Kleinfeld, Kleinfeld, and Kleinfeld. As he approached the address though, he stopped.
“Of course,” he thought, “these things do change. It could easily be…. But surely…” He fished the crumpled business card out of his pocket, studied it, and looked up at the awning. The phone numbers didn’t match. Morris got out his cell phone and dialed the number on the awning. After many rings, a voice grunted, “Yeah?”
“Is this the Kleinfeld and Kleinfeld Yarmulke Co.?”
Morris looked at the awning again. “I mean, is it the Kleinfeld, Kleinfeld, and Kleinfeld Yarmulke Co.?”
“And who else would it be?”
“Ah, right. And do you have an Avrom Minsky working there?”
“And why should we have a Minsky?”
Morris hurried back to the subway and rushed home to sit in the large, green armchair where he did all his thinking. He looked immobile, but his brain went into action: First, the woman who had picked up the phone when he called the number on the card did not, in fact, work for the yarmulke company. Second, Avrom Minsky didn’t work for it either. Third, Etan had given him a fake business card. But why would he go to such lengths to kill his sister?
Morris jumped up and paced, but nothing came to him, so he sat in his chair again. Of course! He picked up the old-fashioned rotary phone that sat right next to his thinking chair and dialed. Even before Inspector Gregson managed a “Hello,” Morris practically shouted, “I need to know whether there have been any unusual changes in Etan’s bank balance recently.”
He could sense the inspector’s mustache drooping at the other end of the line. “That could take a couple days.”
Morris Levy possessed an enviable ability to shut out whatever was bothering him when he couldn’t do anything about it. For the next two days, he went to morning minyan early and wore one of the pathetic white nylon yarmulkes that sat in a basket at the synagogue. He had just returned from the service and was checking his e-mail when a message from Gregson arrived. He quickly scanned the attachment and gave a satisfied grunt. He clicked “Reply” and typed three words: “Pick him up.” Then Morris returned to his thinking chair, sat for a few minutes, jumped up, and tapped out an even shorter message to Gregson: “Moishe too.”
An hour later, Morris walked into the police department and found Inspector Gregson waiting with the hulking Etan and the rodent-like Moishe, who were both wearing cuffs. “Levy, care to explain why we arrested these two?” Gregson asked dryly.
“Etan strangled her for the money,” Morris announced.
“But I hardly inherit anything,” Etan protested.
“True, but you had an organization behind you: Slate Investments, where your sister slaved diligently in the accounting department for so many years. She must have discovered something—a discrepancy in their accounts, perhaps—and the company wanted her dead. They realized that you were hard up your bank records prove they paid you generously to dispose of her.”
“That’s got nothing to do with me!” screeched Moishe.
“You’re right. So why did you try to disguise a murder you hadn’t committed by banging your dead wife’s head against the bathtub?”
Moishe burst into tears. “Because of li…li…little Emily,” he sobbed. “Leah was going to take her f-f-f-from me.” He was hard to understand through the blubbering. “I found her…on the fl…the floor, and I knew I would be suspected. So I wanted to make it look like she fell. I panicked…hit her head on the tub.”
Gregson smoothed his moustache and grumbled, “How did you know, Levy?”
“First, because I remember how surprised Etan was when he learned about Leah’s head wounds. Those injuries must have been inflicted by somebody else. Second, Moishe couldn’t have moved his furniture alone, the way he said he did, because he’s a weakling. He doesn’t have the strength to strangle a living woman, but he can manage to smash a dead woman’s skull.”
Morris looked at the wretch with a mixture of pity and repulsion. Then he remembered: Today was Hannukah! His family would be arriving momentarily “Mazal Tov, Inspector!” he yelled. “Don’t forget to look into those gonifs at Slate Investments.” And with that Morris dashed out of the office, the call of frying latkes drawing him irresistibly home.
Age 14, Grade 9
Hunter College High School