A Stab in the Heart
The drums caught Henri Karubje unawares.
He had emerged from the subway station, gotten his bearings, and headed south on Utica. The thin warmth of spring sunshine penetrated his jacket. As a homicide detective, Karubje could have checked out one of the department’s sedans, but he’d been downtown when the call came in, and at that time of day the Number 4 train was the fastest way to get to Crown Heights. Besides, he hadn’t learned how to drive until middle age and still wasn’t completely comfortable with it.
For a strange few moments, it seemed as though all the people were moving to the same silent beat. A businessman in a gray suit bopped across the street; a stroller-pushing nanny nodded in time to his strides. Karubje passed a drugstore, a psychic, and a nail salon with his fingers snapping out a matching rhythm before he realized what he was doing.
A dreadlocked young man sat in a doorway, his hands beating a tattoo on a pair of congas. Karubje had seen the effects of the sound before hearing it. It was a sound he always avoided if he could.
The memories pounded against his skull. Africa was inside his head, so intensely he had to blink away moisture from his eyes. The chicken burritos from the vendor’s cart became his mother’s roasted inkoko. The cracked sidewalk, abloom with candy wrappers discarded in scraggly bushes, dissolved into a smooth asphalt swath cutting through the green hills of Kigali, lined with small palms and kept pristine by sweepers’ brooms.
The drumbeats became the running feet of the interahamwe. Karubje saw the flash of the machetes, heard the thud of the clubs. He smelled the stench from the mass graves filled with the Tutsi corpses.
Karubje stilled his fingers.
His cousin Paul had joined a squad of Tutsi rebels hunting down the renegade Hutu militia who had slaughtered their families, friends, and neighbors. Paul was a lanky sixteen-year-old whose peroxide dreadlocks camouflaged a driven personality. When he urged his cousin to join the cause, Karubje, then a prelaw student, refused.
“Appointing yourself judge and jury won’t bring justice,” he said. Paul scowled. “But you can’t do nothing!”
Karubje’s family were outsiders in Rwanda, much as he now was in America. His father was a cattle rancher in a land of farmers. French and English rather than Kinyarwanda were spoken at home. The family attended Mass, while most of their neighbors believed in predestination and an underworld inhabited by spirits who either protected or harassed the living.
Later, when Karubje was in the refugee camp, ghosts had come — his friend Amélie, his cousin Paul, his mother and father, demanding vengeance. Until that day in the food tent, standing in line for his ration of beans and rice, when he glimpsed the man with the red-rimmed eyes and scarred lip that made him look like a snarling hyena.
To escape the spectral pleas, Karubje had turned his back on his homeland. He applied for a visa through his church. When it came through, he got on the plane to New York.
He lived in Koreatown, forsook soccer for baseball. He called himself American, never African. After a decade and a half, he barely remembered the green hills, the whitewashed house, the smell of his mother’s cooking.
Until he heard the drums.
Karubje kept walking, lighting the cigarette he’d have to put out as soon as he got to the crime scene.
He turned at the next corner onto a narrow street of brownstones and small apartments. The buildings looked worn but neat, almost alike in color and design, the result not of a developer’s vision but of their inhabitants’ common culture. The people who lived here were elderly and white. Their clothes proclaimed their dependence on meager savings and Social Security. Hispanics may have taken over other Eastern European communities, but this block was still more Warsaw than Juarez.
A squad car and an ambulance were double-parked in front of one of the apartment buildings. A small group of onlookers stood beside the ambulance, kept in check by the crossed arms of a burly patrol officer. Karubje flashed his shield and identified himself.
“Dwayne Spivak,” the patrol officer said. There was a hint of the bully around his mouth and suspicion in his eyes. He was the type of cop who would retire with a potbelly, a bruised nightstick, and more fishing boat than he could rightfully afford on a city pension. He nodded at the closest apartment building. “Vic’s in there.”
Karubje walked up four chipped concrete steps to a front door of painted steel propped open with a wedge of wood. The bulbs in two of the overhead fixtures were burned out, and he paused in the vestibule while his eyes adjusted to the dimness.
At the end of the hallway, two EMTs and another patrol officer clustered around a prone figure at the bottom of the stairs. The corpse was an old man, its head twisted to the side. A broken neck.
“So you don’t think he fell?” the patrol officer said. She was a coffee-skinned young woman with close-cropped hair.
The older EMT repacked his equipment. “That’s for you to investigate and the DA to prove. My job is to keep ’em alive — if they’re not dead first. You ready, Sid?” The two EMTs picked up their bags.
“Hey, Henri,” said the second EMT. Everyone except the dispatcher who’d grown up in Haiti pronounced his name Hen-ry instead of On-ree.
“Hello, Sidney,” Karubje said. “What do we have?”
Sid hitched his bag higher on his shoulder. “Thought it was a slip-and-fall. No tread on the stairs, vic was wearing those geezer slippers.”
Karubje looked at the old man’s feet. One was bare, the other had a worn fake-leather mule on it.
Karubje had a nearly identical pair at home next to his bed.
Sid continued. “But when I was checking his vitals, Davey” — he nodded in the direction of the older EMT — “noticed the guy was holding something pink in his hand.”
The patrol officer spoke up. “Like strands of wool.” The name tag over her badge read L. HULCE. “But the vic isn’t wearing that color. And I didn’t find anything at the top of the stairs.”
“Time of death?” Karubje asked Sid.
“An hour, plus or minus. But you’ll have to ask the ME.” A voice squawked from one of the EMTs’ radios. “Duty calls,” Sid said. “Later, Henri.”
“Do we have an ID?” Karubje asked when the EMTs were gone.
Hulce consulted her notebook. “Jakob Cohen. Lived by himself on the second floor.”
“And you called Homicide because of the pink fibers in Mr. Cohen’s hand?” Karubje made it a point to use a victim’s name whenever possible.
Hulce ducked her chin. “Yes, sir.”
“And you didn’t find anything at the top of the stairs?” Karubje said. The came out zee. Despite classes to overcome his French accent, Karubje still had trouble with the English th sound.
“No, sir. But there are fresh scratches on the railing.”
Karubje eyed the banister, dull with age and old wax. “So he tried to break his fall.” “But there’s nothing under his fingernails, sir. I checked after the EMTs were done.” “Nothing you could see,” Karubje said mildly.
Hulce ducked her chin again. “No, sir.”
“When the ME van arrives, please ask them for a rush prelim on Mr. Cohen’s hands.” Karubje turned and walked back toward the front door. Spivak’s bulk loomed in the opening.
“Told her it was a waste of time to call Homicide,” he said. “Old guy just fell down the stairs.” Karubje noticed a yellow smear on the front of the patrol officer’s uniform. Mustard yellow.
“But those pink strands are interesting, don’t you think?” Karubje nodded toward the body. “Officer Spivak, secure the lobby until the ME van arrives. Officer Hulce, come with me.”
Spivak blew out a breath that was nearly insubordinate. Hulce, barely suppressing a smile, hurried down the steps after Karubje.
Karubje scanned the rubbernecking crowd. Slightly apart from the others, a young woman stood with her head canted, as though trying to figure out something. She looked to be in her early twenties and was demurely dressed in a knee-length skirt and ballerina flats. She held a bouquet of blue flowers the way a bridesmaid might, with both hands clasped around the stalks.
“Officer Hulce, find out if anyone saw or heard anything. Start with people closest to the building.” Karubje knew that while doers might lurk on the fringes, busybodies usually pushed to the front. He walked over to the young woman with the flowers.
“I’m Detective Karubje,” he said.
Her eyes widened at the sight of his shield. They were the color of raisins, brown with a purplish cast. Like Karubje’s skin.
“Zata Maronski.” She offered her hand, something people rarely did when badged. Karubje took it, then nodded at the apartment building. “Do you live here?” “Third floor. What’s going on? Mrs. Levine said Mr. Cohen was hurt.”
“He apparently fell down the stairs.” “Is he going to be okay?”
“I’m afraid he died from his injuries.”
“Alev ha shalom,” the young woman murmured. “Amen,” Karubje said reflexively.
She cut her eyes at him. “Are you Jewish?”
The French may have provided the refugee camp at Lake Kivu with medical supplies, but it was the Israelis who staffed it with top surgeons. Karubje ran errands for the doctors and helped out at the field hospital. In return, they shared baklava sent from home and taught him Yiddish phrases.
He permitted himself a small smile. “A member of one of the lost tribes, you mean? No.” He waited for a follow-up question. It surprised him.
“What kind of accident brings a homicide detective?” Zata said. She had noticed the small print on his badge.
He looked up the street. A hardware store, a Laundromat, a kosher grocery on the corner — it was like a small village. The scene made Karubje think of another neighborhood, one of corrugated tin-roofed buildings, streets clogged with cars and bicycles, and stores with bilingual signs.
“Did you know Mr. Cohen?” he said.
The young woman shook her head. “He moved in after the first of the year. He didn’t really — ” “You should talk to that schmuck Erik,” said a thickly accented voice. It belonged to an old man of modest height and generous girth squeezed into an old suit with unfashionably wide lapels. Even though its collar was frayed, his white shirt was clean and pressed, and his shoes, cracked across the top, were polished.
“Who’s Erik?” Karubje said.
“Erik Brandt, the gonif who lives in the basement apartment who’s supposed to be the super.” The old man waved a pudgy finger under Karubje’s nose. “He’s the landlord’s nephew so there’s no getting rid of him. And the chutzpanik knows it! It took him two weeks to turn off the steam. Did he care that it was ninety- five degrees? No! My Marta could have collapsed from the heat if Mrs. Shulstein hadn’t loaned us her electric fan.”
A woman standing next to the speaker, similar in age and proportion, spoke up. “Levi’s right — Erik’s a balegula. It’s a disgrace he’s in this building. A shtuken nisht in harts.” Despite the warmth of the day, the woman pulled her cardigan close.
Karubje recognized the Yiddish phrase from the doctors’ conversations after a long day in the makeshift OR. A stab in the heart. It referred to a terrible memory. He wanted to ask the old woman what she meant, but she had vanished into the crowd.
Levi rapped his fist on his breastbone as though it were a door. “Erik’s been bothering Mr. Cohen, always following him, trying to talk to him.”
“It’s true,” said another elderly man. His accent, while not as pronounced as Levi’s, was clearly Eastern European. His apron had KARSH’S KOSHER GROCERY stenciled across the bib, the same name as on the awning over the store on the corner.
“Last week when Jakob was in the store, Erik came in. Jakob didn’t even wait to buy his groceries.
Just set them down and asked if he could go out the back. I could tell he didn’t want Erik to see him.” Karubje took out his notebook.
“That’s Erik with a k,” the grocer said, then turned to Zata. “My condolences on the passing of your bubbie. Aleha ha shalom. I have missed seeing her in my store these past months.”
“Thank you for the fruit basket. It was very thoughtful,” Zata said.
“First berries of the season.” The grocer beamed at her, his smile revealing a dental calamity of twisted and missing teeth. “You’re a good mommellah, Zata.” He inclined his head toward Karubje as though sharing a confidence. “When the stairs become too much for Esther, does Zata send her to live with strangers? No! She moves here to take care of her bubbie.”
“You lived with your grandmother, Ms. Maronski?” Karubje asked.
“Please, call me Zata. And yes, since January. That’s when she started having a hard time getting around. The elevator is unreliable and she lived on the third floor.”
Levi snorted. “Those stairs were no problem for Esther. We walked down and up them together when you were at work, Zata. We’d go to the garden in back. Esther said she liked feeling the United States under her feet.” Levi shook his head. “Esther said she didn’t like going out by herself anymore. She thought the neighborhood had changed.”
The grocer glared at him. “You took Esther on a shpatzir? Why did you not come to my store?” Levi’s shirt puffed out at chest level. “The only place she wanted to go was the garden!”
Zata reached a hand toward the quibbling men. “Levi, Mr. Karsh, please.” The gesture bared her wrist, exposing a small tattoo. Its colors were bright and the edges of the design had started to scab.
Mr. Karsh stared at the tattoo. “Oy vey!”
Zata tugged down her cuff. “Forget-me-nots,” she said, dropping her eyes to her bouquet. Her voice became softer. “Bubbie’s favorite flower.”
The Tutsi rebel squads often got matching tattoos. Paul’s had been cut off his arm and stuffed in his mouth along with his genitals. Karubje prayed the boy was already dead when it was done.
“Besides Mr. Brandt, did Mr. Cohen have problems with anyone in the neighborhood?” he asked.
Levi raised his hands, palms up. “Who knows? He only moved into the building five months ago. He wasn’t one to play cards in the park or sit on the stoop and kibbitz.”
“He was Orthodox,” Mr. Karsh said. “Always bought kosher, observed the holiday customs.”
Karubje knew street corners, not second-floor landings, were for random killings. If Mr. Cohen was a victim, he was a chosen one.
The drums beat again in his head. He pressed his fingers to his temple. “Are you all right?” Zata asked.
“Are you going to arrest Erik?” Levi said at the same time.
Karubje dropped his hand. “Right now, I’d just like to talk to him. Officer Spivak?”
The medical examiner’s van had arrived, along with more onlookers. Accompanied by a sulky Spivak, Karubje wove through the crowd and reentered the apartment building. They went downstairs and knocked on the door labeled SUPERINTENDENT.
There was no answer.
Karubje and Spivak went back up the stairs and out onto the street. Hulce was standing beside the ME’s van as Jakob Cohen’s body was loaded through its rear doors.
“I requested a prelim on the vic — Mr. Cohen’s — hands, sir. And I bagged the pink fibers,” Hulce said. Spivak rolled his eyes.
Karubje took the glassine baggie holding the strands of wool. The flowers outside his parents’ whitewashed house were nearly the same color. Before the visit by the man with the red-rimmed eyes and hyena snarl. Before splashes of blood had stained them burgundy.
“The fibers won’t do us much good without something to match them to,” Karubje said. “I’m going to take a look at the landing and Mr. Cohen’s apartment.” He nodded at the row of houses that lined the street. “You two canvass the neighborhood. See if someone knows about any problems involving Mr. Cohen. Or where Erik Brandt might be.”
“Yes, sir,” Hulce said. She bounded up the steps of the nearest brownstone and punched the doorbell. With considerably less enthusiasm, Spivak crossed the street and did the same.
Levi materialized at Karubje’s elbow. “So did you talk to the paskudnik?” “He wasn’t home,” Karubje said. “Does he have another job?”
“That one? He sleeps late, goes out, comes back, I don’t know from where.”
“Sometimes he comes to the store in the afternoon to buy cigarettes,” Mr. Karsh volunteered. “So you will wait for him, yes?” Levi said to Karubje.
“The officers are canvassing the neighborhood. Don’t worry, we’ll interview Mr. Brandt.”
“But when he comes back, he will find out the police are looking for him. Then pft, he will be gone.” Levi hooked his thumbs together and flapped his hands like bird wings.
While Levi was talking, Karubje glimpsed Zata in the crowd watching the ME’s van drive away.
Standing next to her was the old woman in the cardigan who had said it was a disgrace for Brandt to be the super. A stab in the heart.
Zata turned and caught Karubje looking at her.
“Excuse me,” Karubje said. He walked toward the apartment building. Zata met him at the bottom of the steps.
“Is it okay if I go back to my apartment?” She still held the bouquet of blue flowers. They drooped in the heat.
Karubje nodded at the wilted blooms. “Those could use some water.”
“I was going to put them on Bubbie’s grave.” Zata tilted her head. “How about you, Detective?
Would you like some water, too? Or do you prefer iced tea?”
Heat had never bothered Karubje. “Tea would be nice,” he said. “Thank you.”
Karubje followed Zata past the tiny elevator and up the stairs. She moved with the grace and quiet of a dancer. As they passed the second-floor landing, Karubje looked at the banister. There were the scratches Hulce had mentioned, fresh scribbles in the wax that had built up over the years. Only a careful eye would spot them. Karubje noted the police seal and a perfect X of crime-scene tape on what he presumed was Mr. Cohen’s apartment door. Hulce did good work.
Zata used two keys on a pair of elaborate locks. The apartment was small and shabby, but the space was arranged pleasantly for comfort. Some of the chairs had lace doilies on their plump arms, and there was a dark wood table with carved bowed legs.
Karubje watched Zata fill a vase with water for the flowers. She then poured two glasses of tea from a pitcher out of the refrigerator and put a few small rolled-up cookies on a plate.
“Please, sit down,” she said, setting the refreshments on the table.
Karubje chose one of the chairs without doilies. He raised his glass — it smelled of mint and lemon — and drank. In the next instant, the mouthful of sweet coolness turned brackish, just like the water from the plastic jugs at the refugee camp. He forced himself to swallow, then ate a cookie. Its cinnamon tang was a relief.
“Who was the woman who called Mr. Brandt a disgrace to the building?” he asked. “That’s Mrs. Levine. She lives on the first floor, in the back.”
“Why would she say that?”
Zata looked uncomfortable. “Because Brandt’s a skinhead. You know, one of those neo-Nazi types. The tenants in this building are older European Jews, mostly Polish, like Bubbie. I’m named after her mother; Zata is short for Malgorzata. Anyway, all of them lived through the war.” She pointed to the array of photos on the mantel and her eyes became shiny. “Most lost their families. That’s why Bubbie didn’t want to go into assisted care. She said the people in this building, in this neighborhood, were her new mishpachah.”
The pounding started in Karubje head’s again. His friend Amélie and her ten-year-old son, Bernard — he hadn’t thought about them for years. The boy had been “strung” by the interahamwe — his Achilles tendons severed so he couldn’t run away — then beaten severely. Amélie made a litter from cardboard boxes and umuvumu branches. Every day, she dragged Bernard to the bathing area, to the food tent, up the little hill so he could watch the other children play.
Later, when Bernard was dying of cholera, Amélie refused to budge from her place beside his pallet. Karubje tried to reason with her. “I am his family,” was all Amélie said. The interahamwe killed her when she left the camp to return Bernard’s body to their village.
The ice tinkled in Karubje’s glass, and he realized he was trembling. He stared at the photos on the mantel.
Framed in cheap plastic were color snapshots of Zata. Her dark hair had reached halfway down her back when she was younger, and her cheekbones were less angular than now. A birdlike woman stood next to her in several of the photos, wearing a black dress that looked too large for her. Zata’s bubbie.
One photo had been taken at a beach. Zata and her grandmother wore black one-piece swimsuits and stood next to each other in the sand. The older woman’s arm curved around Zata’s shoulders, exposing a bruise on the underside. Her expression made plain her fierce love for the little girl.
There were black and white shots of the same woman, twenty years younger, posed in front of New York monuments — the Statue of Liberty, the Staten Island ferry. She stood with brittle poise and her smile was guarded.
At the end of the mantel was a cluster of even older photos. Adults and children posed stiffly before the camera. In one shot, a smiling couple cradled a newborn baby close to the lens. Snow pillowed behind them. From their clothes and background, Karubje guessed the photo had been taken in Europe. BUBBIE was printed in ink across the bottom border. The photo was yellowed and creased, as though it had been folded into a tiny square.
“When did your grandmother pass?” he asked.
“Eight days ago. If you had come yesterday, I would still be sitting shiva.” “I thought grandparents weren’t within the circle.”
Zata raised an eyebrow. “First Yiddish, now Judaism. Do you have a Jewish girlfriend?” Karubje shook his head. “The medical staff at Lake Kivu was Israeli.”
“The refugee camp in Zaire. I am Tutsi. My father was a member of the old government.” Something flickered behind Zata’s eyes that Karubje couldn’t read. “I understand,” she said.
Images and sounds from more than a decade ago flashed through Karubje’s mind, things he usually didn’t allow into his consciousness. Paul’s maimed body dumped on his mother’s doorstep, his congealed blood squishing up around the soles of Karubje’s sandals. The screams of Karubje’s mother, the sickening thud of the machete hacking at his father’s flesh.
“Tutsi are cockroaches. Tutsi are murderers. Rwanda is our Hutu land” had blared from the radio, day and night. The interahamwe killed a million people in barely three months. “A local conflict, not genocide,” said President Clinton, who did nothing to stop the killing.
At the refugee camp, Karubje found it impossible to eat meat. He took up smoking to mask the smells of blood and infection.
The idea of practicing law lost its attraction. He applied to the police academy the day he received his green card, and progressed from patrol officer to homicide detective with record speed. Fellow cops knew he was “good police.” No suspects ever complained of brutality when Karubje was the arresting officer.
Appointing yourself judge and jury won’t bring justice.
Zata’s soft voice jarred Karubje back to the present. She held up the pitcher and her sleeve pulled back from her wrist, exposing the tattoo again — A2618 written in ornate script surrounded by blue flowers.
“I got it yesterday,” Zata said. “It’s Bubbie’s birthday. See? August 26, 1918. I wanted to…remember her.”
Karubje looked at the photos again. He wondered how many of the people had died in the camps. “Some things are better forgotten.”
A small crease appeared between Zata’s brows.
“No,” she said. “We have to remember.” The crease deepened. “Even the awful things.” His cousin Paul’s lean face materialized above her head. But you can’t do nothing.
Karubje gulped some tea, the now bitter liquid making his eyes water. When his vision cleared, the apparition was gone.
“Will you stay here?” he asked.
Zata shrugged. “It’s a rent-stabilized apartment. The subway’s close and the neighborhood’s safe.”
Would she feel the same if her neighbor’s death turned out to be a murder? “Did your grandmother know Mr. Cohen?” he asked.
Zata shook her head. “He moved in around the time she started staying in more.”
“I understand he lived alone. Did he get a lot of attention from the neighborhood ladies?”
“You should have seen how many women dropped by with Matzah ball soup and homemade knishes. But I don’t think he was interested. At least, I never saw him with anyone.” The crease appeared between her brows again. “I think the only time we spoke was when I carried his groceries up the stairs for him. He wouldn’t take the elevator on the Shabbes.”
Opalescent light shone through the living room window. Karubje saw dust motes drifting in the late afternoon glow. He stood. “I’d better get back to work. Thank you for the tea.”
“Take some rugula.” Zata wrapped two cookies in a napkin. “I’ll never be able to eat everything the neighbors brought.”
Karubje ate one of the cookies as he walked downstairs to Jakob Cohen’s apartment. No reason to try Erik Brandt’s place again. Hulce would call him as soon as the young man surfaced.
Mr. Cohen’s apartment was typical for an elderly man living alone — bed, dinette with one chair, cheap television. Few personal effects. No photos.
Karubje went into the small kitchen. Stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet was a ticket stub.
Yankees, first game of the current season. Karubje had been there, too. The Friday evening was unseasonably warm, and he had stayed until the last inning, when the fans were rewarded by a walk-off homer.
Something glinted on the cheap carpet. Karubje picked it up. A gold cufflink stamped with an eagle, its wings outstretched. He looked under the furniture and in the dusty corners of the room but couldn’t find its mate. He bagged and labeled the cufflink. As he was putting it in his pocket, his cell phone rang.
It was Hulce. Spivak had seen Erik Brandt hop the rear fence and enter the apartment building. He answered his door when the two officers knocked, but quickly became belligerent.
Probably provoked by Spivak. “Where is he now?” Karubje asked.
“Cuffed in the backseat of the patrol car.” Hulce paused. “I searched his apartment, sir. There’s something you should see.”
It was an ordinary cardboard carton, stashed behind a pair of scuffed work boots and a battered tool kit on the floor of the closet. Its contents were packed with care. A flag embroidered with the same eagle emblem as on the cufflink. An SS uniform patch. Photos of men in uniform — guards, not soldiers. A dagger with a swastika on its hilt. Pamphlets, their pages yellowed and crumbling but their hateful messages still legible: HEIL HITLER, CLEANSE RUSSIA, EXTERMINATE JEWISH COCKROACHES.
Cockroaches. George Rutaganda had shouted the word as he pounded on the door of their whitewashed house. He was their neighbor, a bean farmer. Karubje would never forget his red-rimmed eyes and hyena snarl. He hid in the cellar. Later there were the screams, the coppery smell, the red splotches on the pink flowers.
The afternoon sun all of a sudden seemed unbearably bright. Karubje raised a hand to shield his eyes. “Are you all right, sir?” Hulce asked.
“Let’s talk to Mr. Brandt,” he said.
Brandt slumped in the backseat, cuffed hands in his lap. According to his ID, he was twenty-four years old. He had an empty dinner plate of a face with small, close-set eyes.
Spivak held up an evidence bag. “He had this on him.”
It was a gold cufflink. Karubje compared it to the bagged one in his pocket. Two eagles with outstretched wings.
“Did you Mirandize him?” Karubje asked. “Twice, sir,” Hulce said. “He didn’t invoke.”
Karubje opened the patrol car’s rear door. Brandt smelled like cigarettes, breath mints, and overworked deodorant. The short sleeves of his T-shirt exposed pale skin and crude tattoos — 88, a Celtic cross, a swastika.
“Mr. Brandt, were you in Mr. Cohen’s apartment this afternoon?”
Brandt spit. The gob barely missed Karubje’s shoe. “That traitor? He deserved to die. He — ” Brandt abruptly stopped talking.
“Mr. Brandt?” Karubje said.
“Forget it, mud person.” Brandt spit again. “Lawyer. That’s all I got to say.” His lip curled in a sneer.
Drums pounded in Karubje’s ears. Fists on a door. The noise grew louder. Karubje lunged. His hands closed around the meaty neck. Fingers clawed at him, but he hung on. Rutaganda’s small eyes rolled back in his head.
“Stop it, sir. Stop!”
The pounding in Karubje’s head receded as quickly as it had come. He let Hulce pull him away from the patrol car. Coughing, Brandt scooted to the other end of the seat.
“Goddamn crazy mud person!” he rasped. “I’m suing your ass! You’re gonna — ”
A grinning Spivak slammed the door on Brandt’s tirade while Hulce stared at Karubje.
He took a deep breath. There was a gash on the back of his hand. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and pressed it against the wound. “Officers, why don’t you take five, buy yourselves a soda,” he said.
Hulce hesitated, but then followed Spivak to the corner store, looking back twice over her shoulder.
The carton of Nazi paraphernalia was in the open trunk of the patrol car with the sheaf of photos on top. Karubje paged through the images of jack-booted soldiers on parade, Hitler throwing a salute, wraith-like men and women penned behind tall fences of concertina wire.
He glanced up at Zata’s apartment building, then at other houses on the street, thinking of the old people living in them. Erik Brandt had made them prisoners again in their new country, afraid to go to the corner store. A shtuken nisht in harts.
An old woman made her way along the sidewalk, pulling a handcart of laundry. Mrs. Levine. Karubje now understood why she thought it a stab in the heart that Brandt was the super. Karubje put the lid on the carton to hide its contents.
Mrs. Levine peered into the backseat of the squad car as she passed.
Brandt’s words carried through the steel and reinforced glass. “Get out of here, cockroach,” followed by curses at the old woman.
Ms. Levine pulled her sweater close around her. “A choleryeh ahf dir,” she muttered as she shuffled past.
May you get cholera. Karubje blinked. Across the sidewalk, thin but upright, Bernard stood beside his mother’s tent, staring at him. Karubje blinked again, and the boy became a broom in the hardware store display once more.
Hulce and Spivak returned, carrying drink cups. Spivak sucked noisily on his straw. “Should we roll, sir?’ Hulce asked.
“Sooner we get this cockroach locked up, the better,” Spivak said.
“In a minute,” Karubje said. Brandt had called Cohen a traitor, not a cockroach. Why would he…
Karubje sorted through the bagged evidence until he found the gold cufflink from Jakob’s apartment.
He realized something just as important had been left behind. “I’ll be right back,” he told the two patrol officers.
Karubje took the stairs two at a time. He tore down the crime-scene tape, opened the door, walked to the refrigerator, and slid the ticket stub out from under the magnet.
NEW YORK YANKEES and APRIL 1 were printed under a photo of Yankee Stadium, followed by FRIDAY 7:05 PM. An hour when an Orthodox Jew would have been at synagogue, not in the stands.
He searched Jakob’s apartment more carefully this time. He found the hidden cupboard next to the radiator. The trove of memorabilia was smaller than Brandt’s. An old pistol marked with a swastika. Photos of men in uniform — guards, not soldiers. A worn velvet jeweler’s box.
Karubje opened the box. There were dents in the cushioning that he knew would match the contours of the eagle cufflinks. OSWIECIM was stamped on the box’s inside lid.
Oswiecim. The Israeli doctors sometimes mentioned this place after a new wave of interahamwe victims arrived. Auschwitz.
Karubje scrutinized the photos, trying to imagine how the Aryan visages would look sixty years later. After two passes he was pretty sure he’d found the one that belonged to the body crumpled at the foot of the stairs.
The day his visa came through, Karubje had seen George Rutaganda in the food tent. There was no mistaking that hyena snarl. He was hiding among his victims, posing as one of them — eating food from the relief agencies, drinking their scarce water, using their precious medical supplies.
Eric Brandt must have stumbled on the cupboard while he was turning off the steam.
Karubje deposited the contents of the cupboard into an evidence bag and relocked the apartment. At the landing he hesitated, then went up instead of down. He wanted her to know about the masquerade that had led to murder.
He knocked on the apartment door. While he waited, he looked through the clear plastic at the photos of the prison guards. The prints were creased and faded, with scalloped edges.
Hours before he was to leave for New York, Karubje had crept through the darkness. In his fist was a scalpel from the OR. He drew back the tent flap where George Rutaganda lay snoring. He watched the pulse beat in the fleshy neck.
Iminsi nticuza imana, said the other refugees. Destiny is never defeated.
Karubje had let the tent flap drop, thrown away the scalpel, and caught the bus to the airport.
Now he turned the evidence bag over in his hands. He noticed a folded sheet of paper between two of the photos. He opened the bag and slid it out.
It was a court order, signed by a judge.
Whereas defendant Jakob Clebsche was born in Germany…joined the Nazi Party…served as a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, which housed Jews…on his visa application, defendant did not mention…defendant naturalized as a United States citizen…defendant willfully misrepresented and concealed material facts…
Karubje felt his hands shaking as he turned the page.
Defendant’s citizenship revoked…this order of deportation is hereby entered this 22nd day of December…
Karubje put the letter back into the evidence bag. He thought about the newborn baby among the pillows of snow. She could not have been born in August.
He rubbed his face. It felt slick and greasy. Zata opened the door.
“You’ve hurt your hand,” she said.
Karubje glanced down. There was a smear of blood from his scraped knuckles on the plastic of the evidence bag.
He saw everything.
On Zata’s wrist was the Auschwitz identification number adorned with forget-me-nots. On her feet were the ballerina flats that would have made no sound as she slipped downstairs and pushed a startled old man. Somewhere in her apartment, on a shelf in her closet or in a drawer, would be a wooly pink sweater or a fluffy pink scarf.
For a moment, Karubje was back creeping through the darkness, scalpel in hand. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them.
“I know,” he said.
Zata started to speak, but he cut her off.
“I came to tell you that Mr. Cohen’s death was an accident. Mr. Brandt won’t be charged.” He turned to leave.
“Shalom, Detective,” Zata whispered. The apartment door clicked shut.
As Karubje walked downstairs, he recalled the word in Kinyarwanda. Amahoro. He pushed against the steel front door. Peace.
Out in the street, the conga player had started up again. The drumbeats matched the beat of Karubje’s heart.