February 22, 2020

Who Killed Raphael’s Son? Part 5

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

To see if he could learn any more about either the Riffraff or Lorecchio, Leon paid a visit to the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee. Not the most popular person on the block, the trustee and his army of lawyers, forensic accountants and sundry other experts had so far collected close to $80 million by suing every investor who ever withdrew money (whether capital or interest) from the pool. They had also billed the account and received close to $80 million in fees. In return for their services, they had managed to unearth the following facts: a) that Raphael’s Son had lost or misplaced $500 million of “investors’” money; b) that he had kept no written record of how or why the money was lost; and c) that the trustee suspected most of the money was misplaced in overseas accounts, and the rest of it in the accounts of twenty-seven of his family members. Many a page of the Pearl Cannon had been devoted by Angela to the simple observation that the trustee’s $80 million worth of “discovery” could have been related, to any judge with an IQ of ten or above, by any one of Raphael’s Son’s victims. That the only people benefitting from the trustee’s investigation were the trustee and his crew. That the victims should stop fighting each other and trying to make nice with the trustee so he wouldn’t sue them again, and instead band together and demand that the judge who appointed the person rein him in.

Five years later, the trustee’s divide-and-conquer tactics were still paying off (for him), and the judge still took no interest. The office was on the twenty-fourth floor of a tower in Century City, across the street from where Raphael’s Son had been. The ground floor and half a dozen others were occupied by the Creative Artists Agency, hence the frenetic energy in the lobby and the throngs of attractive young men and women, all dressed like Ralph Lauren models, carrying cups of coffee or lugging laundry bags. Like everyone else in LA with a pulse, Leon thought of CAA as a near-mythological place run by diabolical madmen and more difficult to penetrate than the inner bowels of the Pentagon. Before they moved their headquarters from Beverly Hills to Century City, Leon had tried twice to get a close-up glimpse of America’s Forbidden City. Even with a detective’s badge, trying to approach the agency’s gatekeepers had been an exercise in humiliation. This time he did his best not to look toward the (was it really bulletproof glass?) door, but in the short distance from the street to the elevators he caught himself fantasizing that one of the agents who specialized in selling books for film adaptation had intercepted him and was asking him—Leon—for a meeting.

In his office, the trustee sat across from Leon with his elbows resting on a glass desk and his hands touching at the fingertips. He seemed more like a bad therapist, Leon thought, than a good lawyer. He wore a loose white cotton dress shirt over loose black pants, the obligatory two-tone Rolex, the kind of expensive eyeglasses television news anchors were modeling of late because they thought it made them more credible.

He told Leon that, as far as “the trust” had been able to establish, Raphael’s Son had maintained 113 corporations, most of them unregistered, over a twenty-year period. He moved money around from one to the other until it was untraceable, and he didn’t keep written records of the most important ones because he and Eddy were both products of the Iranian education system where memorization was king. “I’m told that over there kids have to memorize entire books, first word to last, including punctuation, to get through school. To pass the college entrance exam they have to retain ten thousand math problems and be able to spew them out instantaneously. They don’t need Quicken to keep track of their money.”

It was true, Leon knew. Especially for someone as bright as Raphael’s Son. Then again, what a waste it had been—all that work so he could be the human equivalent of some kind of bookkeeping software designed to steal from orphans and widows.

“The bookkeeper maintained a log.” The trustee raised an eyebrow to emphasize how much contempt he had for this manner of record keeping. “Written by hand. In pencil. And good luck making sense of it.”

Leon asked about a relationship with Lorecchio. The trustee smiled mechanically. “I don’t know anything about that.”

From a detective’s point of view, this was a case from hell: too many people with a motive, no body, witness, or weapon, and many an interested party still convinced that the victim was not dead at all, just a fugitive.

Leon asked if the trustee had obtained records of a $30 million deposit, circa 2003. “Compared to some others, that’s chump change.” The trustee touched his fingertips again.

“This is a wealthy community.” He said this as if being rich was an automatic sign of corruption.

“This is a wealthy town.” Leon challenged the implied criticism of Iranians for being successful. “You wouldn’t hold it against the people?” The trustee smiled. He didn’t say no or yes. For Leon, that was the last straw.

“In fact, I’m told you’ve become quite wealthy from this one assignment alone,” he spat, then stood up.

He was almost at the door when the trustee said, “I wouldn’t cross Lorecchio over this.”

Leon turned with his most indignant look to the trustee. Was it not his job, for $80 million, to look into the provenance and fate of creditors’ assets?

“You know, Mr. Pulitzer, the Iranians ask me why the Madoff trustee wrapped up that investigation in three years, and mine is still ongoing.”

Leon waited.

“I tell you what I tell them: because Madoff’s plan wasn’t nearly as complicated.”

Before he joined the academy Leon had changed his surname from Pooldar to Pulitzer because he thought other cops would take him more seriously if they didn’t know he was Iranian. He also felt it did a better job of defining him as a person, since pooldar means “one who has a lot of money”; Leon had been close to broke at the time.

He had come to the United States when he was fourteen, part of a group of Jewish boys spirited out of Iran with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to save them from being used as minesweepers on the battlefront with Iraq. Some of the boys were sent to live with relatives in Israel or America; others, who didn’t have family or friends outside Iran, were placed in Ashkenazi homes. That’s when everyone began to notice the great cultural divide between the Mizrahi Jews of the East and their Western counterparts.

Leon’s host family found him polite and shy and grateful for their hospitality. His English was grammatically correct, but his pronunciation and accent made them laugh. He had a habit of standing up, as if at attention, every time an adult walked into or out of a room. He did this in school whenever the teacher came in. The first time his host family took him to see a movie, he asked when the national anthem would play and when the audience would stand up to salute the image of the president. At home, he didn’t laugh at any of the jokes on television, didn’t understand why Archie Bunker was so unhappy about having his daughter and son-in-law live with him and Edith. He said all his prayers in the wrong rhythm and often in incorrect Hebrew, turned beet-red and hung his head anytime an older person addressed him.

The host family set out to teach Leon how to properly “integrate” into American society, and they did a good job of it, so much so that by the time he went off to the University of Baltimore hardly anyoneasked him where he was from anymore.

His choice of law enforcement as a career was unusual for an Iranian Jew. Because he was a man, his aspiration to be a crime writer was even more unusual: while writing seemed to be the weapon of choice for every bored Iranian housewife in New York and Los Angeles, it was not the kind of work self-respecting men willingly engaged in. The housewives could afford to write because they had husbands who paid the bills, and friends who could be co-opted into buying the book and even praising it. The men, on the other hand, risked being laughed out of town if they confused writing with work. Work, for a man, was something that produced a paycheck.

Leon needed a paycheck not just to support himself, but also to care for his parents and sister. They had moved to the United States in 1997, thirteen years after they sent Leon away. They went to live with him in his two-bedroom house on Vanowen Street in Van Nuys. Leon had bought the house as an “investment property” when he still believed he was going to sell a screenplay a year and reach a Hollywood-type pay scale. Now, he slept in the smaller bedroom and had his shirts made by his mother, who had been a seamstress in Iran.

His father was one of the many thousands of Iranian men who had had to choose between living in fear at home or running to safe obsolescence in the West, between being alone in Iran because all their family had moved away, or moving to America to be with his son and, without a job, having to depend on him entirely. He woke up every day and dressed in a suit and tie even though he had nowhere to go. In the afternoon, he took the bus to the Orthodox Iranian shul that was held in a room on the second floor of a strip mall. Then he strolled down to the Persian grocery store on the ground level and spent half an hour selecting the slimmest, crispiest Persian cucumbers. On his way home every afternoon, Leon’s father sat in the rear of the bus and cried quietly for his wasted life and ravaged pride.

On his way out of Century City, Leon took stock of his growing list of possible suspects: There was the wife, Neda; the indentured servant, Eddy Arax; the greedy cousins, the Riffraff. There was the angry gardener, Gerardo; the union boss, Lorecchio; and the random angry creditor. This last category was large and varied. At one end was the example of Raphael’s Son’s father-in-law, Dr. Raiis, a seventy-nine-year-old Iranian pediatrician who had once tried to run over Raphael’s Son with his ancient Volvo and missed. At the opposite end was Mrs. Scheinbaum, an eighty-four-year-old Ashkenazi woman from the Pico-Robertson area who had handed over her entire life savings to Raphael’s Son because she had met him at an Orthodox shul and was impressed by his apparent piety. When she realized that he had “misplaced” her money and was not going to return her calls, and that she was not going to live long enough to see him punished, she opted for the fast track.

One Monday afternoon she put on her nice coat and comfortable shoes, and took the bus downtown. She got off at the Staples Center exit and stood on the sidewalk for a long time, waiting for someone who looked like a murderer-for-hire. When she did see such individuals, however, she was too frightened to approach them. Then, at last, she saw a black man in a dress shirt and jeans get out of a Lexus across the street. He was middle-aged and not very threatening-looking, but he had the other necessary qualifications, so she made her way over to him and asked if he needed “work.”

The black man with the Lexus was the third-highest-ranking administrator at USC. He put little old Mrs. Sheinbaum in his car and drove her home, then told her landlord to keep an eye on her in case she ventures out to look for another assassin. That — through the landlord — is how the entire Pico-Robertson district learned of Mrs. Sheinbaum’s downtown adventure, and why Raphael’s Son sent Eddy Arax to file a police report against her. Two months later, Mrs. Sheinbaum was shopping for spring onions at Benny Produce, the Persian kosher grocery store by Pico and Oakhurst, when she felt a sharp pain in her temples, and dropped dead of a stroke.

From a detective’s point of view, this was a case from hell: too many people with a motive, no body, witness, or weapon, and many an interested party still convinced that the victim was not dead at all, just a fugitive. Leon knew he had been assigned the case because he was Iranian, and that was okay. He knew he could pick up and interpret bits of information that would have taken an outsider a lifetime to understand. You had to know the community, how every person’s story stretched back a few generations, how the past steered the course of events in the present, to figure out where to look or even what questions to ask. You couldn’t apply the same investigative methods to the average Californian—born elsewhere, here temporarily, sees the family once a year for one meal on Thanksgiving and spends six months dreading it; has cousins he doesn’t know about or has never seen; knows nothing about the personal lives of his neighbors or co-workers, and only what his friends choose to reveal about themselves — that you would to people whose lives had been entangled together, their fate dependent on each others’, for three thousand
years. With the Iranians, significant facts might remain concealed simply because the person you were asking didn’t think it was news, or was afraid he would be accused by others in the community as having had ulterior motives for sharing them with the police. Or he’ll know something but keep it to himself
because he thinks it’s bad karma—enough people have been hurt already, why extend the suffering just to exact punishment?

There was all this, Leon knew, and there was also the fact that, had he deemed the case important enough, O’Donnell would have assigned a higher-ranking detective to oversee Leon’s work. Instead, he had left Leon alone, with only Kevorkian to help muddle through. As if summoned by his thoughts, Kevorkian rang Leon at that very moment. For once, she sounded upbeat and pleased with herself. “You’re gonna like this,” she announced. “Methinks the wife has a lover.” n