February 22, 2020

Who Killed Raphael’s Son? Part 4

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

The Riffraff Brigade — all verminous twenty-seven of them, plus their dull-witted spouses, innumerable children, woebegone in-laws, and ill-treated maids — had told the police they had spent the weekend at their recently acquired family estate in Rancho Mirage. They had left Los Angeles Friday at noon, in time to be safely out of their cars and ready for Shabbat before sundown, and planned to return on Tuesday morning.

The occasion for the trip was to celebrate the purchase — $12 million plus change, all cash, thirty-day escrow — of the house that would henceforth serve as proof, to themselves if to no one else, of the Riffraff family pedigree and their old-money identity. That they had bought the house for less than it had cost to build was, of course, an advantage. That it was paid for by other people’s money was, to the Riffraff, just the sweet flavor of success.

The Riffraff’s weekend getaway, of course, could well be a foil: Surrounded by a golf course, two waterfalls, two swimming pools, and four tennis courts, the estate was easy to enter and exit without detection. Because so many people would stay at the house at once, the temporary absence of one or two could have gone unnoticed by the rest. Because they were all liars and thieves and more putrid, even, than Raphael’s Son (he, at least, had the excuse of having suffered as a child), not one of them was above bearing false witness.

Add to that the very relevant fact, well known in the community but not something the Riffraff would have volunteered to the cops, that the family’s ancestral trade, stretching back three hundred years and two ghettos, plus Cyrus Street in Tehran, was shechita — the kosher method of killing animals for human consumption—and you might have yourself some viable suspects.

Shechita necessitates the use of a smooth, razor-sharp blade, a quick and continuous motion that severs the animal’s jugular vein, arteries, trachea, and esophagus at once, and the draining of the carcass’s blood.

You didn’t have to be a Talmudic scholar to know this, or especially paranoid to buy into the theory that animals, like humans, have a soul; that shechita frees the soul and leaves only the flesh to consume; that animals killed any other way carry their soul in their flesh, from the slaughterhouse to the butcher shop and onto a man’s dinner table and, upon consumption, into the human frame where it—the beast’s unhappy, restless soul — will remain. But you did have to know the Riffraff well enough to realize that not one among them was brave enough to risk running into Raphael’s Son’s soul post-slaughter — hence, one could argue, the single, smooth, and efficient cut to the throat, and the gallon of blood drained in the car before the body was taken away. Leon knew the Riffraff well enough. As far as he was concerned, they were to Iranian Jews what the Oklahoma City Bomber was to the rank and file of the United States Armed Forces: a painful and tragic aberration. But perfidy alone wasn’t proof of homicide.

As far as he was concerned, they were to Iranian Jews what the Oklahoma City Bomber was to the rank and file of the United States Armed Forces: a painful and tragic aberration. 

“They thought he was going to throw them under the bus,” Eddy explained at the apartment. He stood above the hot plate where he had started to make a fresh pot of Turkish coffee.

“They thought?”

Eddy stirred the dark, viscous liquid.

“Who gave them that idea?” Leon continued.

Eddy shrugged and kept stirring. After a minute he picked the pot off the hot plate and turned toward Leon. “His lawyers wanted to quit. He wasn’t giving them anything to work with and they said he was going to jail for twenty years and it would be bad for their reputation.”

Without asking, Eddy poured the coffee into two small cups, put one on top of the TV for Leon, and picked up the other for himself.

Leon ignored the coffee.

“So he gave them his cousins?”

Eddy downed his coffee like a shot of tequila, then felt in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. “I have to go outside for a minute.”

He couldn’t smoke in the apartment and couldn’t be around his mother with his hair and clothes smelling of tobacco. So he went downstairs every hour or so, inhaled two or sometimes three cigarettes at once, then came up and changed his shirt, washed his hands, and wet his hair before he tended to her again.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to quit?” Leon asked rhetorically, as he followed Eddy down the staircase.

On the sidewalk, Leon waited till Eddy had lit up and sucked down a good lungful of smoke. 

“Okay. Come on,” he pressed.

Eddy took another drag. His hands were shaking and his chest was so bony, Leon expected to see cigarette smoke flowing out of his torso. He was one of those people who seem to be perpetually on the verge of having a heart attack or a stroke, but who somehow pull through year after year, then finally die when no one’s looking.

“I’ve been thinking this day would come,” he said, and inhaled another cigarette.

As far as he was concerned, they were to Iranian Jews what the Oklahoma City Bomber was to the rank and file of the United States Armed Forces: a painful and tragic aberration. 

In response to an invitation from Leon, the Riffraff sent three delegates, each representing one aspect of the whole, to the station on Monday afternoon: The brains, Joshua Simcha, was five feet tall in dress shoes. At sixty-three, he had hands the size of a child’s, round spectacles, a mouth shaped like a wide beak, and the nervous, thin musculature of a bird. The brawn, Daniel Simcha—thirty-two, a six-foot-two block of solid, swollen muscle, with a full head of hair and a tinny, nasal voice completely incongruous with the rest of him. The beauty, Hadassah Simcha, forty-nine, resembled a hybrid gone bad: she had Joshua’s beak and his bad eyes, Daniel’s stature and pectorals, and it went downhill thereafter. She arrived wearing a white skirt suit—purchased at Ross Dress for Less on Westwood Boulevard and first worn at her eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah some ten years earlier. Under the jacket she sported a black cotton dress shirt she had bought from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills on the day of the historic “everything must go” sale in 2009 when, according to eyewitness and police reports, fully grown women from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world had broken into fistfights over $5,000 Chanel purses at 50 percent off.

Hadassah had a firm handshake that bordered on aggressive. Daniel looked everywhere but in Leon’s eyes, twitched and rocked and shook to release tension from his muscles like a basketball player before a game. Joshua wore a kippah and carried a box of Persian nougat he had just bought from one of the half dozen Iranian grocery stores on Westwood Boulevard south of Wilshire. He put the box on Leon’s desk and sat down in one of two lightweight aluminum chairs without armrests.

The bearing of a gift, usually nougat or pistachio nuts, was one of those gestures that had been de rigueur in Iran: You never called on another person, or asked a favor, without bringing an offering of sweets, or a bundle of flowers, or, if dealing with government officials, cops, or the police and military, a paper bag stuffed with cash. In the early years after the revolution, white people in America and Europe received more boxes of nougat and packets of pistachios than they could have consumed over an entire lifetime. Everyone from the bank teller to the hairdresser to the traffic court judge in areas with large concentrations of Iranians had a stack of brown and yellow boxes of gaz-e Esfahan — nougat from Esfahan — on their desk. The whites had no idea what to make of these offerings, and they were too polite to ask. The Iranians, in turn, sensed the white people’s discomfort and were embarrassed, but couldn’t understand why. It took a year or two for most to realize that offering gaz-e Esfahan to a police detective in the midst of an investigation could be construed as a cheap and ill-advised attempt at a bribe. Three decades later, the Simchas still hadn’t received the memo.

Joshua Simcha told Leon that he and his siblings were second cousins by marriage to Raphael’s Son. Their father, thanks to Hashem, was a big landowner in Iran, and he had provided the seed money for their many investments in America.

“We did okay, thank God.” He adjusted his kippah in hopes of drawing Leon’s attention to it. “Lately, we’ve been hurting because of my cousin who ripped us off.”

Like the handful of other Iranian Jews who had embraced orthodoxy in America as a business decision—good networking possibilities, and a general assumption that people of faith were more honest than others—the Simchas played the religion card whenever possible.They told Leon that they too had been victims of Raphael’s Son’s Ponzi scheme, only they had been singled out and blamed by the other creditors because of their family ties with him.

With Hashem as their witness, every last one of them had stayed in Palm Desert the entire weekend, plus Monday, and were nowhere within fifty miles of Holmby Hills.

They had no idea who could have committed such a heinous crime; only HaShem decides when and how we die. What they knew for sure was that the killer couldn’t have been an Iranian Jew, and that’s because, simply put, Iranian Jews did not kill.

You could go back three thousand years, study the entire history of the tribe, and, with the exception of those who had served in the army and fought in wars, you would not find a single instance — not one — of an Iranian Jew committing murder. Once every decade or so there might be a blow to the head or (more recently, in America) a shooting, but they all involved mentally ill people who avoided being medicated for fear of losing aabehroo. And there might have been a few suicides, but we’ll never know for sure because the families would never admit to that, again because of their aabehroo.

Here, the three Simchas took a break from their narrative, exchanged a few pregnant looks, mumbled to each other in Persian, and finally came to a consensus.

“If I were you,” Joshua reached over and put his own child-size hand on Leon’s, “I’d look outside ourselves for the culprit.” He was whispering—in Persian—and glancing to his right and left from the corners of his eyes for anyone within hearing range who might understand the language. “God forbid I should commit the sin of lashon hara, but you know, Mr. Soleyman had some dealings with that gangster, Jimmy Lorecchio.”

Jimmy Lorecchio was a half bald, grossly overweight, never-learned- how-to-button-his-pants, sixty-nine-year-old alcoholic with only a high school diploma and a red, bloated face marked with pus-filled red boils oozing teenage acne. Barely anyone outside city hall had heard of him or would have recognized his Buddha-like figure with the much-too-small head where, in a futile attempt at vanity, he dyed what little was left of his hair a greenish blond. He would have been better advised to work on his teeth, or whatever internal fumes caused the intense sulfuric smell that lapped out of him every time he so much as opened his mouth as he sat at his desk, already at work on his Wild Turkey, by three every afternoon.

By five p.m. he would be on the phone, yelling obscenities at any and every person foolish enough to take his call at that hour, and by seven he was passed out on the couch in his office, or behind his desk.

His wife had divorced him and obtained a restraining order two decades before, his children had changed their names and moved away, and his only living relative, a sister in Florida, hadn’t reached out to him or returned his calls since Christmas 2001.

And yet, in spite of his atrocious physique and unsparing halitosis, Jimmy Lorecchio held the mayor, the fifteen members of the city council, the five county supervisors, and every other elected official in L.A. in a permanent state of terror. As head of the largest and most powerful union in the city, the International Brotherhood of City Workers, he could single-handedly swing any election by ordering his workers to vote a certain way. He traded on his reputation, well deserved, of being pathologically vindictive, unreasonable, and interested only in showing anyone who dared challenge him who held the ultimate authority in the city.

For years, there had been speculation that Lorecchio resorted to more than the plain old bullying of politicians to keep his fiefdom in check. Employees who left before they were fired often found themselves unable to find another job anywhere in the city; managers who so much as questioned a single decision he made were accused of everything from unethical behavior to flat-out madness, and summarily fired. Rumors abounded about unexplained house fires, illegal electronic surveillance, and accidental falls from the roofs of twenty-story buildings. No one — not the police, nor the district attorney, nor even private business owners who needed Lorecchio’s support to obtain city contracts or advance their agenda before the city council — dared mention the rumors aloud, much less try to verify their accuracy. Even the mainstream press, struggling to survive the electronic age and weary of the possibility of a union strike, bent over to avoid offending the boss.

“Jimmy Lorecchio had some dealings with Mr. Soleyman,” Hadassah Simcha said, joining her brother in not committing lashon hara. Leon knew where she was going with this, but wasn’t about to make it easy for her.

“That is,” she said, “they knew each other through Lorecchio’s deputy, that guy everyone calls Snake.”

Luci’s right-hand man was a ninety-year-old professional grafter known, not at all affectionately around city hall, as the Rat in the Hat. “Rat” was for his protruding yellow husk-like front teeth, and for his shifty, disloyal character; “Hat” was for the greasy, fraying, ill-fitting cowboy hat he wore day and night, indoors and out. The other was a dark-skinned chauffeur-turned-spy from East Asia who reeked of incense and bore an uncanny resemblance to a Bengali water buffalo. His name was Naji, but he was so openly devious, habitually deceitful, and instinctively mean, most people referred to him as “That Fucking Snake.” Together, they carried out the unsavory tasks Luci did not wish to be linked to directly.

Hadassah was still waiting for Leon to exhibit a sign of recognition. Next to her, the younger brother had gone back to contemplating his knuckles, and Joshua remained still, mouth half open and eyes darting behind the glasses.

“You know that missing $30 million they wrote about in the papers a while ago?” Leon nodded. For years, Jimmy Lorecchio had had singular jurisdiction over the union’s funds and other holdings. He spent as he pleased, to support candidates he could control when they assumed office or to prompt other unions to back his own stance on issues, and God only knows what else, legal or not, because no one from the union, the press, or the city was going to risk alienating him by demanding an accounting.

Among his many expenses was a special fund set up in the year 2000 to “help facilitate greater understanding between labor and business.” At the time of its establishment, Lorecchio transferred $30 million from the union’s coffers into the fund. After that, no one heard about the fund for thirteen years.

In 2013, a Los Angeles Times reporter asked about the fund and was told that it was empty. He asked what the money had been spent on and did not get an answer. Normally, that was as far as the matter would go, given Luci’s sway. But courage comes from the most unlikely places. The paper pursued the question throughout the year. In 2014, a new city comptroller — apparently not angling for reelection — committed blasphemy by asking the courts to order Luci to open the fund’s books or otherwise report on the fate of the $30 million. The last anyone knew, Luci was accusing the comptroller of union busting and had called for a citywide strike.

“Well,” Hadassah sighed, as if truly saddened to have to break such news, “I’ll bet you can guess what happened to that money once Mr. Soleyman declared bankruptcy.”

According to Hadassah Simcha and her two brothers, Raphael’s Son had enticed Lorecchio to entrust him with the fund’s money. They had met in 1998, when Raphael’s Son wanted to buy a piece of land that belonged to the union. Technically, the property wasn’t officially for sale, so Raphael’s Son followed the informal protocol of reaching out to That Fucking Snake with an offer to be taken to the boss. The land was purchased for $10 million, well below market value. Luci’s permission to sell the land was purchased for $2 million, deposited by Eddy Arax in a numbered account in the Caymans. To Raphael’s Son, this was just the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

He prevailed upon That Snake to arrange a meeting with the Rat in the Hat. He, in turn, carried a message to Lucifer. At a time when banks offered an interest rate of 3.5 percent on a CD, Raphael’s Son guaranteed a 10 percent return. From that profit, he suggested, Luci could reimburse the union its 3.5 percent and keep the difference for himself.

They started with smaller deposits — a few hundred thousand dollars at a time. Once a month, the Rat would bring a stack of cash and hand it to Eddy, pick up the interest payment on the existing deposit in cash, and be gone. But Luci got bolder. The deposits became larger.

The fund was established. Thirty million dollars was transferred into its coffers, then promptly handed over to Eddy Arax.

“But you see, Mr. Pulitzer,” Hadassah offered her best Goldie Hawn smile, “you don’t cross Jimmy Lorecchio and expect to get away unharmed.”

And besides, Leon carried the thought to its logical conclusion, who knew what Raphael’s Son would be willing to reveal in order to buy himself immunity from prosecution or enter a plea deal if the trial wasn’t going his way?

To be continued.