Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sample Chapter From The YouTube Rabbi

The YouTube Rabbi

Rabbi Ben sat on the edge of his narrow hotel bed, hunched over the screen on his MacBook Pro, using Google Maps’ satellite feature to recon the neighborhood around the Benkamal home. Google showed him fuzzy photos of a tree-lined street of blocky, modest, two-story private homes and apartments.
Ben stared at the picture, puzzling over the men that had followed him. If they had meant him harm, he concluded, they would have attacked when he left Rabbi Zeev’s home. And if they were indeed Mossad, Ben reasoned, someone would now be watching the Benkamal home. And someone, or several someones, would probably be waiting near every subway stop in Bensonhurst. Unless by now they knew where he was staying, in which case they would stake out the hotel.
But to what purpose? he wondered.  To intimidate him? To have him lead them to the Codex? Was something else going on? Ben didn’t know, and he didn’t want to risk calling the Benkamal home—the line could easily be tapped—until he’d met Miryam and could explain the situation. He needed a way into the house without alerting watchers.
He peered again at his computer. Four houses down from Benkamal’s was the concrete playground of a Catholic school. A fence about seven feet high guarded adjacent backyards. A mature tree extended a green-clad limb over the fence.
 A parochial school presented problems. He’d need a plan.
By 7 the next morning, Ben had run a five-mile circuit around Williamsburg and environs and returned to his hotel for a shower and a quick breakfast of coffee, juice and toast. Wearing old jeans, a T-shirt and black training shoes and carrying a small bag, he hailed a cab and left it near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, where he walked around until he was satisfied that no one was tailing him.
In Borough Hall’s marble corridors, he found a restroom with a vacant stall, where he changed into the clothes that he’d rented the previous afternoon. He rode the subway into Manhattan, surfaced at Lexington and 59th, and walked to the Cardinal Terence Cook Building at 56th and First Avenue.
A black Lincoln with darkened passenger windows picked him up there.  Ben had the livery driver take him to back to Bensonhurst, then circle the residential streets surrounding St. Hermione’s Catholic School. Down the block from the Benkamal home, he saw two men in a battered old Mazda with a clear view of the house.
The two men who had tailed him the previous day.
Ben had the driver stop in front of St. Hermione’s.
The driver said, “Shall I wait, Father?”
Ben handed him a hundred dollar bill. “What’s your cell phone number?”
The driver wrote it on a scrap of paper. Ben said, “Wait right here for half an hour. Then go have coffee, and I’ll tell you where to pick me up.”
“Standing in a school zone is a two hundred dollar fine!”
“It’s exactly a hundred and fifteen, but if you get a ticket, I’ll pay it. And another hundred if you stay right here the full thirty minutes.”
“You got it, Father.”
Wearing black summer-weight trousers and a jacket with a white Roman collar, Ben stepped out of the air-conditioned Lincoln and into the heat and humidity of a Brooklyn summer. He marched into St. Hermione’s and hailed the first nun he saw.
“Sister,” he said, in excellent mimic of what one of his college professors had called a Belfast brogue. “Where might I find Sister Agatha?”
The nun was in her 50s, a handsome arrangement of lines and angles in summery street clothing. She smiled warmly at the handsome Irish priest.
“Third floor, street side. Shall I show you, Father ...?”
“Horace. Father Horace Cole.”
“I’m Sister Ignatia. This way, please, Father Horace.”
Sister Agatha was pushing 60, as plump and as plain as Sister Ignatia was slender and aristocratic. She smiled at the young priest through shrewd hazel eyes.
“And to what do we owe the honor?” she trilled.
“A small honor indeed, when a humble servant of God visits one of the Church’s finest schools,” Ben said, still pushing the pseudo brogue.
“Humble servants don’t usually travel in such grand style, Father.”
“Nothing eludes you, Sister Agatha.”
“What can I do for the Archdiocese today?”
“It’s what you’ve already done,” Ben replied, a smile playing on his lips. “Your fifth-grade girls have shown every Catholic in New York the value of a good education.”
And, glory to God, that’s all over the Internet, Ben thought.
Sister Agatha flushed with pleasure. “It’s kind of you to say so.”
“It’s His Excellency who says so.”
“His Excellency himself? Archbishop Dolan?”
“He’s very high on your school, Sister Agatha.”
“I’m so tempted to be flattered and prideful.”
“He’s considering a visit.”
“The Archbishop’s coming here? When?”
“You can’t tell anyone, Sister.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s the reason I’m here.”
“Where are my manners! Would you like a cup of coffee, Father?”
“Thank you, but I allow myself but one cup, and that’s now ancient history.”
“Something stronger, then?”
“Sister, I stand with Thomas Aquinas on the virtue of temperance.”
Sister Agatha looked contrite.
“Then again, if we could both swear that the sun had set on the Hudson and you had a wee drap [stet: drap] of the Jamie, I’d happily do my penance with the others.”
Sister Agatha burst into laughter.  “Tell me what you need from St. Hermione’s.”
“Thomas Aquinas, no less than His Excellency, ranks prudence first of the cardinal virtues. Sad to say, but the day when a man like Timothy Michael Dolan could go anywhere in this city without fear—that day has passed.”
Sister Agatha bowed her head.
“His Excellency has enemies, Sister, but also many friends. And some right here.”
“The Jews, you mean?”
“Indeed. They may be stiff-necked, they may refuse to see the errors of their beliefs, but they remain our elder brothers, our family in faith.”
“Of course. As the Holy Father in Rome has instructed us—”
“Exactly. And they have observed some suspicious foreigners in this area.”
“Not the ones in black that never shave their whiskers? The Hasids?”
“Some of those Jews are very close to His Excellency. I refer to strangers, possibly from the Middle East.”
“I pray that they are not. In any event, my superior, Monsignor Pierce—” 
Sister Agatha raised a plump palm. “A tall, heavy man with deep blue eyes?”
Ben shook his head. “Neither tall nor short, heavy nor thin. And as for his eyes, blue or brown, he misses nothing. One of my junior colleagues calls him ‘Hawkeye.’ He serves his Excellency as, shall we say, secretary of prudence. He asks that I have a look around the grounds, if that’s not inconvenient.”
Sister Agatha’s frown was enough to turn any 10-year-old’s knees to jelly. “Summer classes are in session. What are you looking for?”
“Entrances and exits. Places to hide explosives or weapons.”
“You must think me a fool.”
Ben’s heart sank. She was on to him! He somehow mustered a smile. “Not at all.”
Sister Agatha said, “These children are more precious than all the bishops in Christendom. And yet they are safe here. Do you suppose that is mere accident?”
“Certainly not. But no physical security is foolproof. And your resources are limited. More to the point, there are many schools and few archbishops. I commend you for keeping our children safe, but I need a look around just the same.”
Sister Agatha sighed. She’d made her point but gained nothing. “But how is it that you just materialize on my doorstep like a David Copperfield, without so much as a phone call to introduce you, with the courtesy of an hour’s notice?” she inquired.
“A fair question, Sister. At one time, not so long ago, if you picked up a phone in Manhattan to call Brooklyn, there was wire all the way from one instrument to the next.”
“So what?” Sister Agatha snapped.
“And now it’s all digital, it’s all radio waves, and anyone with a hundred dollars can buy a little black box and listen to anyone else. Do you suppose nobody’s tuned in to the Cook Building, listening to every word that goes out into the ether?”
 “Of course not, Father. Where shall we start?”
“No need to disturb your students. Let’s begin in the basement.”
Forty minutes later, having descended and climbed every flight of steps in the school and ascertained to Ben’s satisfaction that there was no hidden passage, unguarded door, or secret entrance, Ben allowed Sister Agatha, panting and damp from her exertions, to return to her office while he inspected the playground.
He found no holes in the fence. Ready to abandon his masquerade, he slowly paced the wall between the schoolyard and the two adjacent homes, one facing 82nd Street and one 83rd and separated by small yards. He paused near the tree, eyed the overhanging limb, measured its height and thickness. He backed away, a step, two, three. He crouched. Then in one fluid motion, Ben flew forward, bounding skyward with his third stride to seize the limb, extending his legs before his body, letting his momentum carry him up and over the fence and out of sight in the blink of an eye.
He landed with bent knees and let himself roll forward on the grass.
An enormous mastiff bounded into the yard, fangs bared, then crouched, growling, 120 pounds of terror ready to spring at his throat.

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