February 22, 2020

Who Killed Raphael’s Son? Part 2

Editor’s note: This is the second of a five-part excerpt from the novel “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” by Gina Nahai published by Akashic Books.

Gone. As in: faked his own death and, with the help of his wife who has always been under his thumb, avoided the trial and absconded with everyone’s money.

Gone. As in: Probably skipped the country by now, off to Israel or Iran where he’ll lie on the beach in Eilat or at the Caspian, wait out the storm, and turn up somewhere else in the world in a few years, still rich and fat and pretending to be a good Jew.

As in: The son of a bitch wins again.

News of the missing body was announced on the Tumblr page of Angela Soleyman, an Iranian Jewish attorney who despised Raphael’s Son and was happy to say it. She attributed the bulletin to the website of the Los Angeles Jewish Herald.

No sooner had Angela’s Tumblr post gone live than the Herald began to receive calls from livid readers denouncing the publication, Tumblr and all social media, and, especially, Angela Soleyman. She, the callers informed the nineteen-year-old intern who had the misfortune of working the switchboard that day, was a loose cannon with too many college degrees and not an ounce of common sense to help her get along in the world. She was also a monstrous liar who had left out of her so-called reporting (since when does anyone with Internet access become Peter Jennings?) the rather relevant fact that she was an unhappy soul with a very sharp ax to grind against the Iranian community because she was in her early forties and had not managed to find a man stupid enough to marry her. That she had spent years trying to embarrass Iranian Jews and give them a bad name. She should be fired by the Herald, banned by the State of California from ever touching a keyboard again. That’s what the Iranian callers said.

The Americans who called wished to express: a) the depth of their disinterest in whatever fate had befallen yet another rich Iranian; and b) their abiding resentment of the entire community for being bold enough to live in the most desirable neighborhoods of Los Angeles, send their children to the most competitive schools, and excel in the most difficult and lucrative professions while, at the same time, keeping mostly to themselves and each other, speaking Persian everywhere they went, and insisting that their children marry other Iranians. It was simply too cheeky, too unimmigrant-like, for these Eye-ray-nians to be living next door to and eating in the same establishments as the icons and avatars of American culture. The women get their nails done at the same Vietnamese-owned-and-operated, sixteen-dollars-for-a-manicure and you get to pass right through the paparazzi lines even though you’re not a celebrity — yet — shop on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills that Kim Kardashian, that goddess of L.A. culture, frequents.

First-generation immigrants must live in undesirable areas and work their fingers raw doing laundry or selling noodles, or slave in factories and eat cabbage, so that their children can go to school and become middle class. That’s what all the Russian and Polish and Western European Jews did when they first arrived on these shores. Only these Eye-ray-nians don’t know how to take a number and stand in line.

The collective response to the news of Raphael’s Son’s missing corpse alarmed the Herald’s editor, an American who had never understood his fellow white people’s visceral resentment of the Iranian population in L.A.

“I would note,” he said politely to the first few callers before he realized it was a losing battle and told the intern to take messages, “that Ms. Soleyman is not affiliated with this publication and does not represent its views.”

The Americans concluded, once again, that the Herald was too liberal and hung up. The Iranians insisted that, regardless of who paid her bills, the Herald had provided Ms. Soleyman with “fake news” — an act that was especially egregious given that Angela had always had a way of turning any message — good, bad, or indifferent — into a source of anguish and embarrassment for her own people.

Angela S. was a 5-foot-9, 138-pound, Princeton undergrad, Yale law (but she wasted all that education and gave up her $180,000-a-year job at a private law firm to become a writer because she believes in truth, justice, and being poor), Iranian Jewish woman of a certain age — forty-one — who had offended just about every person in the upper income bracket of the community in LA (and most of Long Island) because she was, in the most aggravating sense of the word, frank.

She had a conviction, fashioned, no doubt, out of resentment of the fact that she was childless and unmarried and without prospects, that Iranian Jews had been silent and insular and fearful of the judgment of others for too long—first, because they were persecuted minorities who survived by remaining invisible, and later, when they were allowed out of the ghettos and into the top echelons of Iranian society, because they had an image to cultivate and maintain — and that they needed her to bring them all out of the shadows so they could shout from every laptop their own and their neighbors’ personal histories, their secrets and flaws and differences, their confessions and complaints and all those other so-called facts they had tried for three thousand years to conceal.

The question of who died and made Angela truth-teller extraordinaire remained, as yet, unresolved, but it was one thing for her to “speak frankly” to one or two or a dozen other people, and something entirely different — indeed, reckless — to begin to operate an instrument of mass destruction.

Angela’s blog on Tumblr, The Pearl Cannon, was named after a real piece of artillery built by a Jewish blacksmith in nineteenth-century Iran. Like her, the cannon spewed a great deal of ammunition every time it was fired up. Like her too, it had its own mind and went against the grain: Instead of shooting its explosive charge forward through the muzzle, the real Pearl Cannon exploded through the back and lay waste to its own team. The only difference was that the Pearl Cannon, having revealed its fatal flaw at the first try, was permanently retired from battle. Angela, on the other hand, kept writing. 

“Let me say it like it is,” she wrote in the closing lines of her column that Monday. “The wolf in a seal’s body is about to pull his biggest rip-off yet, his wife and the Riffraff are going to help him disappear with everyone’s money, and the cops in this town are too incompetent and unmotivated to care.”

That last comment, about the cops, dug deep into the detective who was called to the scene that Monday. Leon Pulitzer was another L.A. writer who thought he was doing time in an ordinary job until fame and fortune caught up with him. He had been in law enforcement for twenty years, never finished a book, and still fancied himself a “crime writer in training.” At six o’clock on the day of the murder, he was summoned to the site when his boss, Detective III Jay O’Donnell, found out that the victim and his family were Iranians.

“Get over here and tell me what the wife’s saying,” O’Donnell had ordered Leon, who was still in bed. “These people all speak English but make no sense.”

Leon was about to protest that he was neither a translator nor a mind reader when O’Donnell mentioned Raphael’s Son’s name. He arrived on Mapleton to find it swarmed with police cars and spectators, television news vans and camera crews and paparazzi, and all the usual hangers-on who popped out of the ground every time there was a hint of celebrity-related news anywhere in Los Angeles.

In the case of Raphael’s Son, the Holmby Hills address was enough to attract a good amount of media attention, given the neighborhood’s famous living residents and especially its most renowned dead person — Michael Jackson — who had been “put to sleep” in 2009 with the help of his in-house physician, in a rented mansion around the corner from Raphael’s Son’s. More recently, the drama surrounding the divorce of the couple who owned the LA Dodgers had made the area a paparazzi favorite. The Dodgers couple, court papers revealed, owned two houses in Holmby Hills, two in Malibu, and three elsewhere in the country.

According to the wife — a smart but starved-looking little critter with a chihuahua’s nervous demeanor who, before the divorce, had paid a hair dresser $10,000 a month to dry and comb her and her husband’s hair—the first house, purchased for $21 million, was intended as their residence; the second house, immediately next door to the first and purchased for $6.5 million, was used for doing “extra laundry.”

Outside the house, Neda stood in her bloodied white terry cloth bathrobe purchased for $275 at the spa of the ugly and expensive Montage hotel on Cañon Drive in Beverly Hills, and her bloodied white terry cloth slippers with the single pink rose, purchased for $5.99 at the Rite Aid (where all the pharmacists are Iranian, the cashiers are Filipino, and the store clerks are Latino; white people, it seems, do not work at Rite Aid) across the street from the hotel.

Glassy-eyed and terrified, she had already given her statement to the uniform, Jose Montoya, who had arrived on the scene in his black-and-white, and was now repeating it for O’Donnell.

Leon stood next to him and listened: The last time she saw her husband alive, Neda explained, was Friday evening. At the time, they hadn’t been on speaking terms for about ten days, which wasn’t unusual for them, though she couldn’t recall the reason for the latest estrangement. Her husband had been unusually busy at work, and his bedroom, separate from hers, was situated at the opposite end of the house, so that he could have come and gone half a dozen times in one night without her taking notice.

On Sunday night she had eaten dinner alone, in the “functional” ground-floor kitchen (not to be confused with the other, more expensive “just for show” kitchen also on the ground floor). After dinner she had watched an old episode of The Borgias on Showtime in the family room, then retired upstairs to her bedroom by ten p.m.

She had not seen the girls before she went to bed Sunday night either. She thought the older one had been studying at the library, and that the younger one — well, to be honest, she had no idea what the younger one had been up to. As had become her routine in the last three and a half years — since Raphael’s Son had made himself and his family social pariahs—Neda had downed two Xanax, plus half an Ambien, plus two melatonin gelcaps, to fall asleep. Hours later, a loud noise had awakened her. She believed the time was “three thirty-something,” but she could be wrong. The Xanax had worn off and the melatonin was useless, but she was still groggy from the Ambien, so she had drifted in and out of sleep for the next hour before she finally got up, driven, she said, by the “feeling that something had happened,” and ventured out of her room to investigate the source of the disturbance.

Without first checking the house, she went straight into the yard, hiked down to the gate, heard the sound of the Aston Martin’s engine still running, and saw the front of the car pressed against the metal bars.

Here, Neda stopped, drew a hollow, stunted breath, turned more ashen, and told O’Donnell, “I’m sure he was dead.”

At this, O’Donnell smiled broadly and turned away from Neda toward the ever-growing circle of onlookers at the edge of the police tape. Like any normal Angeleno, O’Donnell hated the paparazzi, thought they were less than pond scum, that they should have their cameras confiscated and their asses kicked to the curb as long as they were chasing other people. But if it was he they chased . . . well, in that case… O’Donnell’s heart quivered at the thought that he might be quoted, even featured, on TMZ or E! So he sucked his stomach in and stood with his feet wide apart, wiped his face every few minutes, and did his best to look professional and photogenic.

“Ma’am,” he said, one eye on Leon and the other on the television cameras, “this is Detective Pulitzer. I believe he speaks Farsi. In case you’re more comfortable.”

The security cameras outside the house were dummies intended to scare off inexperienced thieves. Raphael’s Son had disabled them when he bought the house because he didn’t want any record kept of his own comings and goings. The lights that should have illuminated the driveway and the gate had been dark since the Department of Water and Power launched its Compact Fluorescent Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs campaign in 2009; the lightbulbs conserved energy by going dark after a week or two, or breaking as they were being installed.

O’Donnell sent Neda into the house with a female cop to change out of the bathrobe and slippers that were now evidence, told Leon to follow her in and “see what you can squeeze from her between pals,” then sauntered with as much reluctance as he could feign toward the Channel 9 news van.

The path from the gate toward the main building led up a slowly rising, pleasantly winding walkway paved with smooth white stones and lined on both sides by an emerald-green lawn dotted with giant palm trees and white marble benches. On the left, a dark blue infinity pool lay above a sharp slope toward a terraced area with a tennis court and, below it, an orchard. On the right, a massive river gushed out of a set of polished black rocks and into a tropical pond complete with a bamboo bridge, waterfall, wet bar, fire pit, and a cabana.

The front door was twelve feet high, made of black oak with shiny brass hardware; the foyer was as large as a decent-size hotel lobby.

The family room, where Leon met Neda once she had changed out of her bloody clothes, was as large as his house. Divided into three sets of sitting areas, it was furnished with oversize armchairs, wrought-iron-and-glass coffee tables, heavy drapes and fine Persian rugs, and, here and there, mammoth books with titles like Tuscan Villas and The Jewels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Perched on a giant sofa with light-blue and lime-green upholstery, Neda looked like a small stuffed animal afraid it would be picked up by a maid and thrown in the trash before its owner could save it.

She had cleaned the blood off her face and hands, but she hadn’t managed to rub the smell out entirely, and thus she remained: Head slightly cocked to the right, hands abandoned on her lap, staring at the coffee table in front of her with that dull, steady gaze of the overly medicated or the lobotomized which she had perfected over the years. She told Leon she had no idea who would have wanted Raphael’s Son dead. It’s true he had “differences” with some people, but he was an observant Jew, she said, as if this alone might make him immune to harm. 

When she had answered all of Leon’s questions, she gave him permission to talk to her daughters.

The older girl, Nicole, had bright red hair and hazel eyes, and the smooth, round face, impeccable white skin, and softly aquiline nose of the girls in dreamy fashion magazine photos. She was the type of child — quiet, kind, smart, and studious — most parents dreamt of having, then spend years worrying about: Her quietness made her insipid, her kindness allowed others to take advantage of her, her intelligence frightened boys, and her studiousness meant she had no friends.

She told Leon she had been at the library till nine o’clock the night before. She had come home through the garage and gone straight to her room, where she had stayed till she was awakened by Esperanza’s barking through the foyer as she spoke to the emergency operator on a cordless phone. Nicole hadn’t seen anyone when she came home, didn’t remember if her parents’ cars were in the garage. She had no idea who else was at home, but that again wasn’t unusual for their family.

“We’re not the communicative type,” she explained. “Most of the time, everyone’s in their own room with the door locked.”

She spoke with her eyes cast down and her skin blushing a faint pink. She hadn’t heard the crash that awakened Neda, didn’t know what time Esperanza started to scream. Asked if she had any idea who might have wanted to harm her father, Nicole studied Leon’s face, then shrugged ever so slightly and said, in a voice that was at once removed and ridden with heartache, “Everyone.”

“My mother has this idea that we’re this nice, respectable, normal family, like all those other Persians,” she said after awhile. “She’s always talking about her aabehroo. She knows people hate us. She knows my dad cheated his friends and even cheated on her all the time, but she doesn’t say anything, hasn’t once stood up for herself or my sister because, what do you know, it’s bad for our fucking nonexistent aabehroo.”

That word, aabehroo, is one of those for which no equivalent exists in the English language. It alludes to the impression that others hold of an individual’s virtue and respectability. To have aabehroo means that the world regards a person in high esteem. You may be born with aabehroo because of your family history, but holding on to it requires a great deal of restraint and self-sacrifice. It means making sure you do everything in compliance with society’s idea of what is right, that you live honorably and protect the sanctity of your family’s name and reputation. It means being capable of feeling deep, personal shame before an exacting, infinitely multitudinous jury.

Asked if she had any idea who might have wanted to harm her father, Nicole studied Leon’s face, then shrugged ever so slightly and said, in a voice that was at once removed and ridden with heartache, “Everyone.”

You have to have lived in a place like Iran, Leon thought, grown up with a strong sense of propriety and shame, and feared the judgment of others, in order to understand such a word. You certainly can’t imagine what it means, really, if you’ve lived most of your life in America. In this land of perpetual hope and endless good fortune, this country built on the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — where else in the world is happiness a right? — where even the dead look good and healthy, dressed up and painted and coiffed in the coffin as if on their wedding day, there’s no awareness, perhaps no need, nor would there be any tolerance, of that kind of sacrifice.

He was about to go back to Nicole’s other comment — about Raphael’s Son having cheated on Neda — when a uniform knocked on her door. There might be a witness — of sorts — who claimed he had seen everything. He had come forward on his own, but he insisted he wasn’t going to talk to “any Podunk street cop.” He had crucial information about the day’s happenings, and he would only share it with the chief of police. n