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Back from the Dead

  

 

  Back from the Dead

 

Finding me on her doorstep, my sister Ruth gasps, “Aaron! Thank God! You’re alive!”


Hardly the welcome I’d expected. We have a complicated relationship. I’m never sure how she’ll react to something I do or say, but I do know that Ruth’s always afraid for me, her younger brother, especially after the death of her husband two years ago. David’s car caught fire after an oncoming driver rammed him at high speed.  He was on his way to work on what was, for the rest of the world, just another day. I know how hard Ruth has battled to get through the trauma and how vulnerable she still is, even though she comes across as tough. And right now I probably do look half-dead – filthy, long-haired and soaking wet. Even so, this reaction seems exaggerated.

     

“Why shouldn’t I be?” I ask, following her into the entrance hall. “I told you I’d drop by on my way home.”

   

“The police said you’ve been murdered!”

   

“What! When?” The journalist in me automatically trying to catch up on news of the outside world. At the same time I feel I’ve gone Through the Looking Glass with Alice.


“Two days ago.”


I follow her inside. “How did I die?” Even asking that question seems absurd.


“Someone attacked you in a shed in Shuk Hacarmel... something about money.” In a strangled voice she says, “I thought I’d never see you again.”


Questions are written all over her face. But she doesn’t ask them – not yet. As a top trial lawyer she knows when and how to interrogate. She looks away, a whole language in that slight movement. Experience tells me she’s about to have a hissy-fit now that the initial shock is wearing off. Part of me sees this as a comic film sequence – two 40 somethings, me dripping on a marble floor waiting for my older sister to tell me off. I brace myself.


She doesn’t disappoint. “These assignments! Why do you always take them on?” Her way of dealing with pain is to launch an attack.

Another strategy is to focus on practical things. Noticing the trail of drops from the front door, she leaves me standing in the hallway and comes back with a large sheet of plastic which she spreads out on the floor. “Take those filthy clothes off and go shower.”

Some things never change, I think, pulling off my sodden shoes. I’m starting to feel the cold, standing there in the wet, grubby sweatshirt and gym pants that had been part of my cover to get material for my articles on the homeless. To that end I’d shared a filthy, abandoned shed in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market with four homeless men. I can’t wait to take a long overdue hot shower, but first I want to know more about my death. “How did you find out?”


“You have me listed as next of kin. The police caught the murderer with your wallet.”


Calling him a murderer is a measure of how shaken she is. Normally she’d be in lawyer-speak, careful to say ‘alleged murderer’ or ‘the suspect’.


“Didn’t they ask you to identify the body?


Ruth takes a deep breath before answering, “Apparently it was too badly burned.”


I push that image away. “Who’s the suspect?”


“One of the homeless men you were with - Dima. He’s confessed ... It’s in today’s paper.”

“Dima!?”


“Let’s talk later. You need a shower - you’re turning blue. I’m going to make lunch. Take some of David’s clothes from the hall closet ... I still haven’t been able to get rid of them.” I hear the strain in her voice. Everything, including this body, reminds her of David.

                                                                            

                                                                             *  

 

Preparing food has always been my sister’s way of coping with crisis. Her shrink attributes it to our Holocaust background. Our parents, both Auschwitz survivors who met in a DP camp after the war, were determined to make a fresh start in Israel and live as normally as possible. They never spoke about their time in the camp while we were growing up, except to mourn the family members who had perished. Over a hundred of them. As if to fill that pit of loss, our mother cooked and fed, fed and cooked for us, her family. “Eat darlings – so many children starved to death.” That, and the decimation of the family was all she’d say about the war.


I’d needed to escape that cotton-wool environment. I rebelled. Big time. Skipped  school; girls; fooled around on the beach; smoked pot.  My mother nagged. “You’re going out again? You know it’s a school night.”


“I’ll be back early, Ima.”


“I’ll leave you some food. Don’t forget to eat it. Your father works very hard to put food on the table.”

    

“No Ima, I won’t.” Seething inside, hurrying to be gone. Easier to comply than to argue. Hoping that Ruth would cover for me if necessary. Never thanking her. Mocking her goodness.

    

I settled down. Army service and university. An investigative journalism job with the country’s most highly regarded paper. Marriage. Daniel’s birth. Our parents proud, not realizing I was irresistibly drawn to risk, choosing dangerous undercover assignments that involved brushes with the underworld and occasionally with the country’s enemies. I know I’m on a few most wanted lists. The danger, together with the increasing amounts of time spent away from home were too much for Ilana, my wife. “Why did you even get married and father a child? You’re never there for us!” she’d rage. Divorce was inevitable.

    

Ruth was always the good daughter. She was the one who stayed home on week-nights and kept my parents company, blending into their silences. She took home the school prizes. Studying law and social work at university, she met David. Our parents loved him. “This match with David, it’s beshert,” said Ima, wiping away tears of happiness at the wedding.


The wedding, decadent over-kill. I hated the whole shebang, but for my parents it was a statement - their way of giving the finger to Hitler and his ilk.

                                                                             

                                                                                *           

I luxuriate under the hot stream of the shower, washing away the grime and sweat. The subtle fragrance of creamy soap relaxes the built-up tension of constantly having to ensure I didn’t blow my cover. I go over Ruth’s news: a man gruesomely murdered; the body wrongly identified as me; Dima confessing to my murder. I don’t know why he’d want to kill me. A sense of betrayal?  Had I inadvertently let down my guard, revealing I wasn’t who I’d claimed to be? 


The homeless  had known me as Eli, a former high school teacher who had fallen on hard times: alleged sexual overtures to a pupil leading to my ignominious dismissal, thrown out of the house by my now ex-wife, unable to get back on my feet. Only the part about the ex-wife was true.

    

There was no way they would have known my real identity. Even on the off-chance they’d seen my book or byline photos, that urbane smiling face was totally unlike the one I’d presented to them.


Perhaps I’d blurted something in my sleep. I think back to the nights of hunkering down, burrowing under torn sacking to ward off the icy draughts. Restful sleep was hard to come by. But if I had inadvertently revealed my identity, wouldn’t the others have said something? Or attacked me in the park next day while sharing the pickings we’d scrounged from market stalls?


Nothing happened. So maybe Dima hadn’t known. I put further speculation on hold.

    

                                                                                *

 

Wearing the jeans, sweater and slippers belonging to my late brother-in-law, I look at myself in the mirror. Already shaken by Ruth’s news, I’m even more unsettled seeing myself in David’s clothing. It’s as though I’m functioning on different levels, oscillating between death and life, switching identities between myself and David.


Padding into the kitchen, I sit down at the polished wooden table, already set for the meal. Ruth is at the stove; she hasn’t seen me come in. When she looks up I think she’s going to faint. I wish I hadn’t taken up her offer of David’s clothes.  “I’m so sorry. I should have thought.”


She musters a weak smile. “Don’t apologize ... I offered them to you. You took me by surprise, that’s all.”


Smells of home-cooked food. My stomach rumbles. I’m still discombobulated. In Ruth’s familiar kitchen, the red checked placemats and the vase of scarlet and purple anemones seem over-bright. Then I hear the wind scraping branches against the outside wall and the steady gurgle of rain flushing the drainpipes. Safe, normal sounds.

    

I hope the homeless have found shelter. Only Dima doesn’t need to find a place out of the rain: he’s in custody. I don’t know what’s better for him. If he goes to prison for murder, he’ll survive and probably become a hardened criminal. If he stays on the streets, he’ll die inside five years. Not a good outcome, either way.

     

“Can I see the paper?” I ask.

    

“It’s confronting,” she warns, handing me the relevant page before adding steamed  potatoes to the salmon gently poaching in the pan. I scan the report.

    

Dima’s picture stares back at me, his confession beneath in italics. In addition to what I already know, the report mentions that Dima had confessed after being informed his sentence might be reduced if he cooperated. He told police that he and I had fought over money he desperately needed for drugs. My refusal led him to bash me to death, then set my body alight. A passing security guard had discovered him at the scene and notified police.


I feel myself sweating, but not from heat. That body could so easily have been mine. Instinct had told me Dima could never be trusted. A school dropout before ending up in the shed, he ‘worked’ as a petty thief and was cunning enough not to get caught. In his eyes I was an easy mark to fund his drug habit because I was educated, therefore soft. If I refused, he turned ugly with threats and a string of curses. I made sure to avoid him whenever I saw the telltale glitter in his eyes. 


My sister places the dishes on the table and pours us both a glass of wine. “Eat before it gets cold,” she says, ladling food onto our plates. An echo of our mother, whom she resembles more and more as she gets older. The same slight figure, delicate features, soft brown hair heavily streaked with grey. Wolfing down my food, I take care to keep my still grimy fingernails out of sight.


“Another helping?” she asks, as I push away my plate with a long sigh of satisfaction.


“I’d better not. I’ll probably have trouble digesting this.” 


She purses her lips and I realize she’s taken my remark as criticism. I try to make amends. “It was delicious – just richer than I’m used to.” Her expression softens and I quickly change the subject back to the murder.

    

“Ruth, I’m officially dead. You’re the hot-shot lawyer – what do you advise?”

    

“I already called the police; they’re expecting us ... I also let Daniel know.”


Daniel. As his aunt, Ruth has always attempted to smooth things over between my son and me. I haven’t always welcomed it. Now I feel real gratitude. And shame that I didn’t think of it myself. “Thank you. How did he take it?”


She snorts – half exasperated, half amused. “He’s trekking with friends in the Pyrenees – he didn’t even know.”


A twist in my gut that’s not indigestion. I let it pass, wanting to focus on the murder. “I don’t want my resurrection to make front page news,” I tell her. “Every journalist in town will descend on the Shuk sniffing for interviews. Those men couldn’t handle that.”

    

In the thinking mode I’m so familiar with, Ruth rests her chin on steepled fingers and leans forward on the table, already considering the next steps. “If the police need you to go back to the crime scene, how do you think your former shed-mates will react?”   

    

Shed-mates? Really? That’s taking PC too far but I don’t say so. She’s afraid one of them is the murderer and will try again. I deliberately misunderstand her question. “They won’t care one way or another. They’re about survival, not bonding.”  


Very much the lawyer, she changes tack. “Let’s look at the facts again.” She checklists with her fingers. “There’s a dead body.  

Unrecognizable due to the extent of his injuries. They assume it’s you because it was your spot. Also because the suspect’s holding your wallet. He later confesses to your murder ... Is there anything I’ve missed?”


“I’m wondering if the victim was killed elsewhere and then moved onto my spot.”


“That’s for the police to solve, not us. They’ve got the forensics team.” Gathering up the plates, Ruth takes them to the sink.


Rejoining me at the table she pours herself another glass of wine and stares into its depths before asking, “Could you have been the intended victim all along and the murderer killed the wrong person?”    


“It’s possible.”


“Aaron, please be careful.”


Relieved to see sisterly concern break through the lawyer façade I answer, “Don’t worry, I intend to.” I turn back to the report. “It says here that Dima confessed after the police promised him a reduced sentence if he cooperated. But surely the case against him is purely circumstantial.”


She refills my wineglass, saying, “As it stands, yes ... I wonder if there’s something they’re not making public.”

   

What I really need is strong coffee, not wine, but I don’t want to ask and interrupt my train of thought. “It all hinges on the wallet. The police say he stole it after he killed me. But the timing’s all wrong.”


“What do you mean?”

      

“I left the Shuk for another homeless site before all this happened – and my wallet had already disappeared. So if Dima stole it, it wasn’t when the police said he did.”

    

 She narrows her eyes, saying, “Hmm. I wonder what they’re up to.”

  

‘They’ means the police. Over the years we’ve both had professional dealings with them - Ruth in court; me, interviewing them, seeking facts on the ground. I know the conditions they work under. Not enough manpower. Homicides have to be solved yesterday so they can go on to the next case. Every guy’s a bad guy even if he’s not. I imagine the scenario. Dima’s fortuitous presence at the scene of the crime. Homeless. Possibly stoned. He’s holding incriminating evidence and can’t remember what happened. They have their murderer. To make him ‘sing’, they threaten him with lengthy imprisonment and bribe him with a shortened sentence to make sure he cooperates. He makes a written confession. Case closed. I hope I’m wrong.


The storm outside intensifies, the rain slanting needles against the window. “My gut feeling is that Dima isn’t the murderer,” I say. “And he shouldn’t have to sit in jail because of dodgy police procedure.”


“Well, if he isn’t the killer, someone else is. And again, why leave the body in that precise spot?”


It feels good to have Ruth on my side, helping me unravel this puzzle. I tell her so. She smiles. The prickliness between us is gone. I feel safe enough with her now to open up about an incident that’s been niggling at me.


Scavenging for food one morning, I’d noticed an unmarked delivery van pick up a group of the homeless and quickly drive off, but not before I’d recognized the driver – someone I’d previously had a run-in with while investigating a local crime syndicate. They’d sworn to come after me. Perhaps they thought I was out to expose their latest enterprise – organizing the homeless to beg at various sites throughout the city. “It’s a long shot, but the driver could have recognized me,” I tell Ruth.


“That puts a whole new spin on things. Someone else has motive - and it might explain what’s been bothering me.”

“Which is?”


“Dima’s confession doesn’t add up. Committing murder in a moment of fury suggests loss of control – like someone desperate for drugs. What happened afterwards required a cool head - not Dima’s style at all.”


 “I don’t think he did it.”

 

    

Later, enjoying the luxury of scented sheets in Ruth’s spare bed, I go over the day’s events. The initial satisfaction with the way we teased out the case is replaced by thoughts that keep me awake. Someone had set out to kill me, but as the police agreed, the murderer had killed the wrong man. They now had to find the victim’s real identity.


I’d been lucky – this time.


In a sense I’ve come back from the dead.


This realization sets in train new insights about my life. For almost two decades I’ve polished my image of being a highly respected journalist pursuing social justice. But it’s come at a price – that of a stable family life. Ruth’s barbed criticisms are valid; I’m ashamed of the way I’ve always brushed her off with a flippant remark. I can now see her not as the bossy older sister, but as the survivor of a terrible loss who has always tried to keep a difficult family together.


Other thoughts creep in.


How my parents did their best to overcome trauma by starting a family in a new land going through its own upheavals. How

precious Ruth and I were to them.


Daniel, my son, who has turned out so well thanks to my ex-wife, not me. My son, who didn’t even know I was ‘dead’. What would my death have meant to him? A mere blip in his life? The thought hurts.

 

Ilana’s anger. I now see how justified she was.

It’s time to make changes.

     


 

BIO

After teaching English and writing for most of her adult life in Israel, Lilian Cohen returned to Melbourne, Australia, in 2013.

She belongs to 2 writing groups, and her poetry and fiction have been published in literary journals in Australia, the USA and Israel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

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