Across the desk from him sat a mother. Another mother.
She was the third he had seen this shift. The first had been too young, and pretty too, with a tight-fitting white T-shirt and wonderful collarbones. She had complained that her son had been beaten up outside the school yard, and he had listened to her patiently, promising that her complaint would be dealt with seriously. The second had demanded that the police send out a detective to follow her daughter and find out why she speaks in whispers on the telephone and locks her bedroom door at night.
All his recent shifts were made up of similar complaints. A week earlier, a woman had complained that her mother-in-law had put a curse on her. He was sure that the duty officers at his station were out there stopping people in the street and asking them to come in and file ludicrous reports to make fun of him. He wasn’t aware of such complaints being filed on the shifts of the other investigators.
It was 6:10 p.m., and if there had been a window in Inspector Avraham Avraham’s office he would have seen that it was starting to get dark outside.
He had already decided what to pick up for dinner on the way home, and what to watch on the television while he ate. But first he had to ease the concerns of the third mother. He stared at his computer screen, waiting for the right moment.
‘Do you know why there are no detective novels in Hebrew?’ he then asked.
‘Why aren’t there any detective novels? Why doesn’t Israel produce books like those of Agatha Christie, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?’
‘I don’t read much,’ she replied.
‘Then I’ll tell you. Because we don’t have crimes like that. We don’t have serial killers; we don’t have kidnappings; and there aren’t many rapists out there attacking women on the streets. Here, when a crime is committed, it’s usually the neighbor, the uncle, the grandfather, and there’s no need for a complex investigation to find the criminal and clear up the mystery. There’s simply no mystery here. The explanation is always the simplest. What I am trying to say is that I think there is very little chance that something has happened to your son. And I am not just saying so to ease your mind. The statistics say so, and there don’t seem to be any worrying signs that things are any different in your son’s case. He’ll be home in an hour, maybe three hours, tomorrow morning at the latest. I can assure you. The problem is that if I decide now that your son is missing and that the case requires immediate attention, I am obliged to send out officers to begin looking for him right away. Those are the procedures. And I can tell you from experience that there is a chance we will find him in a situation in which you wouldn’t like us to find him. What do I do if he is found with a joint in his hand? I won’t have much choice, and will have to open a criminal report. So you see, I don’t think there is any point in starting to search for him now, unless of course your gut feeling tells you that something has happened to him, and you can give me some kind of sign or explanation why you think so. If that’s the case, we will open a missing-persons file now and begin looking. If not, we should wait until tomorrow morning.’
He fixed his gaze on her, trying to assess the impression his little speech had made. She appeared lost. She wasn’t used to making decisions – or insisting. ‘I don’t know if something happened to him,’ she said. ‘It’s not like him to disappear like this.’
Another fifteen minutes or so went by with them sitting there like that, in his small room, face-to-face. He hadn’t had a cigarette break since 5:00 p.m. His pack of Time was on the table in front of him, a small black Bic lighter on top of it. He had lighters in both pants pockets, and in the pocket of his shirt too.
‘Let’s go over the main things again and agree on what you can do when you get home if he isn’t back yet, okay? You said he left for school as usual. What time did you say it was – ten to eight?’
‘I told you, I didn’t check. But it was the same as every morning, perhaps a quarter to eight.’
He pushed his keyboard aside and used a simple pen he had found in his drawer to jot down short sentences on a blank sheet of paper. He had an odd way of holding the pen, close to the tip, with all his fingers, the ends of which were already dotted with blue ink.
‘The precise time isn’t important,’ he continued. ‘Did he take his backpack as usual? Did you notice if he took anything out of the ordinary, if his backpack was particularly full, if there were clothes missing from his closet?’
‘I didn’t check.’
‘And when did you notice he hadn’t taken his cell phone?’
‘During the day, when I cleaned his room.’
‘Do you clean his room every day?’
‘What? No, not every day. Every now and then, when it’s dirty.’
She seemed to him to be the kind of person who did in fact clean every day. Small, with small hands, sitting there on the edge of the chair, leaning forward, a faded black leather handbag on her lap. She had one hand on the bag and the other was clutching a small cell phone, an old Samsung model, in blue. And this bent-over mother, with a son of sixteen, was his age, perhaps a year or two older. No more than forty. He jotted down none of this because it meant nothing.
‘The phone was turned off, right? Isn’t that what you said?’
‘Yes, it was off. It was on the desk in his room.’
‘Did you turn it on?’
‘No. You think I should have?’
It was the first question she had asked him. Her grip on her handbag tightened, and he thought he heard her voice perk up – as if he had said that the moment she turns the phone on, it will ring and her son will be on the line to assure her that he is well and on his way home.
‘I don’t know, ma’am. In any event, I suggest you turn it on the moment you get home.’
‘I had a bad feeling as soon as I found the phone,’ she said. ‘I can’t remember him ever forgetting his phone.’
‘Yes, you said so,’ Avraham continued. ‘And you called his school friend only in the afternoon, right?’
‘I waited until four because he’s a little late sometimes. They have a long school day on Wednesdays and he gets home at three, three thirty. I called at four.’
‘And you believe his friend, right?’
Her reply in the affirmative began decisively but faded into a sense of hesitancy. ‘Why? Do you think he lied? He could hear I was worried.’
‘I don’t know if he lied or not, ma’am. I don’t know him. I only know that friends sometimes cover for one another and that if your son decided to cut school for the day and go into Tel Aviv to get a tattoo, for example, he may have told his best friend and asked him not to tell anyone.’
Would I have done the same? Avraham wondered to himself. And did kids still use the phrase ‘to cut school’? Maybe it was because she sat there so motionless, so frightened to be in a police station, or maybe merely because it was late, but he chose not to tell her he had studied at the same school, that he remembered the mornings on which he had walked down to the bus stop at the top of Shenkar Street to wait for Line 1 or 3 to take him into Tel Aviv rather than go to school. He never used to tell anyone, not even the few friends he had. And he had a good cover story ready in case he bumped into one of the teachers.
‘Why would he do that?’ she asked. ‘He’s never done that before.’
‘Perhaps, and perhaps not; it’s worth checking. If he isn’t home when you get there, I suggest you call his friend again, some of his other friends too, perhaps, and try to find out if there are any particular places he sometimes goes to. Maybe he has a girlfriend you don’t know about. And try to remember if he said anything about having plans for Wednesday. Perhaps he said something and you have forgotten?’
‘What plans would he have? He didn’t say anything to me about plans.’
‘And what about his siblings? Perhaps he told them something that would ease our minds? Or another family member – a cousin, grandfather?’
His question again seemed to awaken something in her, the semblance of a thought, but just for a brief moment. Or perhaps he was mistaken. She had come to the police station in the hope of finding someone who would take responsibility for her son and would start looking for him, and the conversation had confused her. She shouldn’t have been sitting there at all. If her husband had been in the country, he would have been sitting there in the office in her place, making calls from his cell phone, threatening, trying to pull strings. Instead, she was being sent home alone, with instructions on how to look for her son on her own, while the policeman sitting opposite her spoke about him as if he were someone else. The fact that he had started speaking to her in the plural to make her feel she was not alone in her concerns wasn’t helping. He got the sense that she wanted the conversation to end, yet didn’t want to go home. He, on the other hand, wanted very much to go home. And just then, without her noticing, he wrote the name Ofer Sharabi at the top of the sheet of paper, crudely underlining it twice.
‘He hardly speaks to his brother and sister,’ she said. ‘His brother is five, and he isn’t very close to his sister.’
‘It wouldn’t hurt to talk to them. Anyway, do you have a computer at home?’
‘Yes, there’s a computer. In his and his brother’s room.’
‘So here’s something else you can do; check his e-mails, his
Facebook page, if he has one. Maybe he left a message there that would explain things. Do you know how to check?’ He knew she wouldn’t do it. So why suggest it even? She’ll go home to wait and jump up every time the phone rings or at the slightest noise in the stairwell. And even if her son doesn’t get back tonight, she’ll still do nothing. She’ll wait until morning and then come back to the station – dressed in the same clothes she won’t take off all night. She’ll come back to him.
The room was silent. She hadn’t answered his question about the computer. Perhaps she was offended. Or maybe she was too embarrassed to admit she didn’t know how to check it.
‘Look, ma’am, I’m really trying to help. Your son doesn’t have a criminal record and you tell me he isn’t caught up in anything out of the norm. Regular kids don’t just disappear. They may decide to cut school, to get away from home for a few hours, or be too ashamed to come home because they think they’ve done something unforgivable. But they don’t simply disappear. Let me paint you a possible scenario: your son decided not to go to school today because he had an important exam and wasn’t ready for it. Do you know if he had an exam? Ask his friend perhaps. He wasn’t prepared and he’s used to getting good grades and didn’t want to disappoint his parents. So he didn’t go to school and wandered the streets instead, or went to a shopping mall somewhere and was spotted by a teacher or someone else who knows him. And he got scared and was sure the whole world would know he cut school. So that’s why he didn’t come home. That’s what happens with regular kids. So if you aren’t hiding anything from me, you have nothing to worry about.’
Her voice shook. ‘What do I have to hide? I want you to find him. He can’t call without his phone . . .’
The conversation was going nowhere. It was time to end it. Avraham sighed. ‘Your husband will be back in only a few days, right?’
‘Two weeks. He’s working on a cargo ship headed for Trieste. He can get off only when it anchors for the first time, in four days.’
‘He won’t have to get off anywhere. Where are Ofer’s brother and sister now?’
‘With the neighbor.’
He suddenly realized he had said the boy’s name out loud for the first time during their conversation. Ofer. And it was such a beautiful name. He immediately changed his first name to that of the boy – like he always did when he heard nice names. His head played around with another name he would never have: Ofer Avraham. Inspector Ofer Avraham. Superintendent Ofer Avraham. Chief of Police Ofer Avraham announced his resignation today owing to personal reasons . . .
‘I suggest you go home to your children, and I assure you we won’t see each other tomorrow. I’ll get someone to call you in the morning to check up on things.’
He placed the pen on the sheet of paper and leaned back in his chair. She didn’t get up. If he doesn’t tell her in plain words that the conversation is over, she won’t leave. Perhaps he could ask her a few more questions. She clearly didn’t want to be left on her own.
And only then did Avraham notice that while they were talking, he had inadvertently doodled a blue stick figure at the bottom of the sheet of paper. A long line for the pelvis, stomach, and neck together. Two diagonal lines at the one end for the legs, and two lines at the other end for the arms – with a circle above for the head. Tied around the circle was something that looked like a rope. And dripping from the circle were blue drops of blood. Or maybe tears? He had no reason for doing so, but placed his hand over the drawing. His fingers were stained with blue ink.
The skies above the police station and the Holon Institute of Technology were almost pitch-black when Avraham left the building. It was past seven. He turned right at Fichman Street and left onto Golda Meir, getting swallowed up among the walkers along the exercise path that stretched between the Neve Remez and Kiryat Sharet neighborhoods. He tried not to get caught up in their walking pace. Slower, slowly. It was a pleasant early-May evening. There wouldn’t be many like it in the coming months.
His slow pace caused small traffic jams among the walkers behind him. Most were twenty or thirty years older than him, in tracksuit pants and T-shirts. They’d slow down and hesitate for a moment before stepping off the path onto the sand and quickly striding by the uniformed policeman and onto the asphalt again. A woman old enough to be his mother bumped into his arm and turned to mutter, ‘Excuse me,’ and he suddenly became aware of the noise of the traffic on the road, as if someone had just removed a set of earplugs from his ears.
He hadn’t heard anything for a few minutes. He had been listening only to himself, an internal dialogue. He couldn’t forget that woman. He recalled the murder of Inbal Amram in 2006. The court ruling was mailed out to every policeman in the country. It found that the police had been negligent in their search and were responsible for her death. But the circumstances were very different. The son of the woman who had sat in his office earlier hadn’t disappeared at night. And there was nothing at this stage to indicate the need for any urgent missing-persons procedures or for mounting a comprehensive and expensive search operation. He had even taken the time, in the presence of the mother, to make some calls to hospitals in the area. None had reported admitting a boy by the name of Ofer Sharabi or anyone matching his description.
Before leaving the station, he had asked to be notified about any relevant report on the matter, to be called in the middle of the night if necessary. He had told the mother how to keep searching on her own, and had left the duty officer with a description of the black backpack with its white stripes – an Adidas knockoff – in case it came up in reports about a suspicious object in the area. Any other course of action would have been a waste of resources – and could land him in hot water. But if something were to happen to the boy that night, something he could have prevented, they’d really let him have it. He regretted his little speech about detective novels and crime statistics in Israel. Inbal Amram was murdered by a car thief who didn’t know her – a carjacking that went wrong.
The dunes between Neve Remez and Kiryat Sharet, the two gray neighborhoods he had lived in all his life, were almost gone – replaced by apartment towers, a public library, a design museum, and a shopping mall, glowing in the darkness like a space station on the moon. At the halfway mark to Kiryat Sharet, the bright neon signs of Zara, Office Depot, and Cup o’ Joe beckoned to his left, and he thought about crossing the street and going into the mall. He could get a coffee and a cheese sandwich and sit at one of the empty tables outside to quietly watch the soothing motion of the car headlights and think for a while. As he did most nights, he chose not to.
He wanted to think about other cases he was working on. One, in which he didn’t have a single lead, involved three burglaries within a week on two adjacent streets in the Kiryat Ben-Gurion neighborhood. All had happened during the day, when the occupants were out. Clean break-ins. No broken locks or sawed bars. The burglars seemed to have had precise information on the comings and goings of the occupants. And they were obviously good at opening doors and locks without much noise. These weren’t random break-ins by dopeheads. They stole jewelry, checkbooks, cash. And broke into a safe in one of the apartments.
It was a frustrating case. His only real line of investigation was to wait for the next burglary and hope that the thieves would leave something behind for forensics to pick up. They hadn’t done so yet. Or perhaps some of the stolen property would turn up in a raid on a warehouse somewhere and there’d be someone to question. And he had a hunch that he dared not confess to in team meetings. That only one of the three burglaries was a real one. That only one had any significance to the burglars. And the thing they were looking for, and perhaps found, had nothing to do with money or property. The other two burglaries were staged, to throw the police off the scent.
He had had some success with his other case – but things had gone wrong over the last two days. Igor Kintiev, a twenty-year-old who had been discharged early from the army, was arrested in connection with a series of sexual assaults on women south of Tel Aviv, along the Bat Yam promenade. They had taken place on and off over a two-month period. Kintiev was picked up by detectives who were on a stakeout operation. They noticed him walking back and forth along the promenade, following women – mostly older than him, in their forties at least. He’d follow them and then turn and walk in the opposite direction, or cross the street, until he found another one to follow. He was picked out in a lineup by four of the seven victims. When first questioned, he denied everything, but then, two days ago, he opened up and confessed to the sex crimes and to dozens of crimes that had nothing to do with the original investigation, like setting fire to a retirement home up north two years ago, or an unreported case of attempted arson at a restaurant in 2005.
He was a strange kid, and his Hebrew was odd too – distant. His mother had stayed back in Russia; his father died in Israel. He had no fixed address. He had lived for a few months in a rented basement in the North, and then moved six months ago to the apartment of relatives in Bat Yam, for work purposes. Avraham didn’t believe a word he had said. During one of the assaults, Kintiev had gripped the arm of a fifty-year-old cosmetics marketing manager and forced it into his pants – in the middle of the promenade, on a Friday evening. He was picked up without any ID papers on him and no money at all. In his backpack they had found a brand-new sophisticated compass and a copy of Shai Agnon’s A Simple Story, a special edition for schools – its worn, blue, soft cover peeling apart. The first page displayed a handwritten dedication dated August 10, 1993: To Yoela, a simple love story lost. The name of the inscriber had been erased with Wite-Out.
Avraham didn’t know why he thought the things he did. For no apparent reason, he had formed a picture in his mind of the computer screen in the room of Ofer Sharabi and his brother. An old, heavy monitor, in a shade of cream – or so he saw it. He was primarily concerned, however, with the age difference between the children. A sixteen-year-old boy, a fourteen-year-old girl, and a five-year-old. Why were there nine years between the girl and the young son? Why would a couple that starts having children suddenly stop and wait such a long time for the next one? Perhaps it had something to do with the family’s financial situation, health issues, a marriage crisis. Or maybe the mother had been pregnant before then and had lost the baby? Why the hell does everything need an explanation?
His mind wandered to eight in the morning. The three children leave for school and kindergarten, and the mother remains alone. The apartment’s quiet. The rooms are empty. There’s a soft sound coming from the white living-room curtains. What does she begin doing first? Wander through the empty rooms? The boys’ room – a large space, with a bed that folds into a sofa and a desk on which the old computer monitor sits. On the other side, a child’s bed, and a sideboard. And the girl’s room – small, whitewashed, with a long mirror hanging on the wall opposite the door, in which the mother comes face-to-face with herself. In his imagination she is carrying a washing basket.
Five young boys and girls were standing at the number 97 bus stop on the main road at the entrance to Kiryat Sharet. The line’s final stop was in Tel Aviv. One of the young girls was showing one of the boys something on her iPod. She was short and stocky, but noisily cheerful nevertheless. Dressed in unflattering black tights and a gray Gap sweatshirt, she tried to coax the boy into putting the earbuds into his ears. He refused, acting as if he were disgusted by the idea. Without meaning to, Avraham fixed them with a stern gaze. They were silent as he passed by, smiling in his wake. The girl with the iPod might have made some funny gesture. Was Ofer there among them? He must be. And if not there, then at a different stop.
Toward the end of his talk with the mother, just before she agreed to leave, she told him that Ofer had run away from home twice before. He wasn’t yet twelve the first time. He walked – ‘in flip-flops,’ she said – more than six miles, to his grandparents’ house. It was on one of the holidays, after a fight with his father. A year or so ago, he fought with her too, and left the house that afternoon saying he wasn’t coming back. He returned after nine, in the end, let himself in with his key, and went straight to his room, without a word about what he had done that evening. They never spoke about it again. Avraham had asked her why she hadn’t gone to the police then too, but she didn’t answer. Probably because the father was home at the time.
An image froze in his mind. He didn’t know exactly what the boy looked like, but he could see Ofer Sharabi placing his black bag on a bench in a dimly lit, deserted public park and lying down on his back. He’s covering his body with a gray sweatshirt – like the one on the girl at the bus stop. He’s getting ready to go to sleep. There’s not a soul there aside from Ofer. And that’s good. He’s not in any danger.
Avraham passed by the building in which he had grown up – 26 Alufei Tzahal Street. His parents’ home. He inadvertently lifted his head to look up to the third-floor window. Everything was shut tight. Not a sign of life. How long had it been since he was last here? The shutters of the second-floor window were open, and a shirtless man sat there on the windowsill with his back to the street, his face turned toward the glow of the living room and the sounds of the television set coming from it. The news would be on soon. The man spoke to someone in the apartment, maybe his wife in the kitchen. He was one of the neighbors who a few years earlier had found Avraham’s father lying in the stairwell after the stroke.
He continued up the road and went into the supermarket. He thought for a moment about changing his plans, about cooking himself a nice dinner that would clear his mind of all his thoughts and make him happy. Maybe a simple bottle of Côtes du Rhône with some packaged ravioli that he could boil and then top with some olive oil and grated cheese. But his bubble popped again. He went over to the refrigerated section and took out a small single-portion tub of spicy tahini. It took him a while, but he eventually found a semi-fresh bread roll among the few items that still remained on the bread shelf, feeling them with his bare hands. He added a small box of tomatoes to his basket as he approached the cashier. Had he not forgotten to take the sheet of paper on which he had written the address, he would have gone home, got in his car, and driven to the building where the mother now waited. He would have staked out the place until he saw Ofer Sharabi walking into the stairwell and heard the mother’s shouting or weeping. He would have slept easier. But he forgot to take the paper – even though he had folded it into a small square with the intention of putting it in his shirt pocket. Perhaps he didn’t want to take the drawing that had startled him for no reason. He had an idea: he could call Ilana for advice. If Ilana told him to return to the station and put out an urgent missing-persons report, that’s what he would do despite the late hour. But if he called her, he would again be exposing his insecurity, and he didn’t want to do that. He paid with a credit card so as not to spend the small amount of cash in his wallet.
He returned to Alufei Tzahal Street, passed by his parents’ home again, and decided against going up. His father was probably sitting in the dark in front of the TV, staring at the news. It was the worst time to disturb him. If his mother wasn’t out walking, she would be sitting at the kitchen table and speaking on the phone. He wasn’t in the mood for listening to her. Besides, he could already hear her voice playing in his head as she spoke to some friend: ‘Oh my, it’s Avi. I must go heat up something for him to eat.’ He preferred to eat on his own and watch an old episode from the third season of Law & Order that he had seen countless times before. It was on Channel 3. He discovered something new each time he watched – another mistake in the investigation, a new way to acquit a defendant. He walked down the road and turned left, continuing for another three or so minutes past dark, silent buildings before reaching his own on Yom Kippur Street.
He’d leave his cell phone by the bed that night in case someone from the station called.
Excerpted from The Missing File by D.A. Mishani. Copyright © 2013 by D.A. Mishani.
First published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 by Keter Books as תיק נעדר This edition published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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