Chapter 1: In the Beginning
Cyrus Skeen returned to his penthouse apartment in Carmel Towers on Nob Hill in a somber, disconsolate mood. While his day at Skeen Investigations on the 13th floor of the Humboldt Building on Market Street had been uneventful, he had just seen a client on Fillmore Street to report on one of his rare failures in sleuthing.
His client was Professor Jacob Lerner, on the faculty of Fulton College and an authority on Middle Eastern history. His daughter, Rachel, nineteen years old, and a freshman at the college and a promising amateur pianist, two weeks ago had been raped and murdered in an alley between the Lerner’s apartment building and the next, outside of a custodian’s shack that connected the two buildings. The barbarity of the crime had occupied the front pages of the city’s four newspapers for three days, and then faded from interest when the police could not report any progress in identifying and finding the killer or killers.
Skeen was disturbed by the unusual savagery of the crime, as well, and, when Lerner came to his office a week ago in a state of desperation looking for help, he instantly agreed to investigate the crime. But he could not add to what the police already knew. All the familiar clues, however tenuous, were absent.
Apparently the girl had been followed home from the school early in the afternoon, and abducted into the neighboring alley. There she was gagged with her underwear, raped, and then her ears and nose cut off, her eyes gouged out, her face beaten almost beyond recognition, all before her throat was cut nearly to the bone. The police believed she was still conscious, or at least still alive, before she bled to death.
A scrawled note, in block letters in hand unfamiliar with English, was pinned to her chest on a stiletto: “Ded Jew bitch.”
Her purse was missing, but what alerted a neighbor and then her parents was her school valise, which was found outside the ground floor in some grass near the front door, which needed a key to open.
The police were certain that she had fought back. Blood and slivers of skin were found under her fingernails from her scratching her assailant’s face.
There were no witnesses, no one who could report the abduction or the presence of strangers on the otherwise quiet residential street. The custodian’s shack was hidden from sight from the street by a short fence with a gate, in front of which were the two apartment buildings’ garbage pails.
One police officer assigned to the case, upon first seeing the body in the alley, had grown violently ill at the scene. Shaken, he had resigned from the force. When Professor Lerner and his wife, Irma, went to the morgue to identify their daughter’s body, they could hardly recognize her. Lerner had confessed to wailing in uncontrollable grief and outrage at the sight of the mutilated face. The wife grew hysterical and had to be sedated. Two days later she tried to commit suicide, but was stopped by her husband.
Skeen had visited the crime scene many times, looking for something the police or he had overlooked. He had worked with the homicide detectives at the local precinct and exchanged ideas and pored over the facts with them. He had even interviewed some Syrian businessmen and shopkeepers, asking if they knew of anyone who might have committed the crime. But they were reserved, could tell him nothing, and were a little put out by the presumption that anyone would regard them as “Arabs.”
In the end, there was nothing else to learn or to find about who had butchered Rachel Lerner.
“You did your best, Mr. Skeen,” Lerner had told the detective two hours ago. “I know your reputation. That is why I came to you. And I forgive the police for not making any progress. It is a species of crime they could not be familiar with, even though I told them that the crime had to have been committed by an Arab Moslem. I maintain still that a mujahideen was responsible. It is their modus operandi.”
He paused and added with some bitterness. “Jews have been the scapegoats for whatever evils or misfortunes have befallen men throughout history. Let a German or a Russian catch cold, and it must have been a Jewish conspiracy. Let Moslems seize Christian holy places and slaughter Christians and Jews alike, and it must have been a Jewish conspiracy. Jews exist. They are a natural provocation and can only blame themselves.” Lerner snorted once in contempt. “That is the poisonous excuse that is supposed to explain everything.”
During their original interview in Skeen’s office downtown, Lerner said that his brother, Chaim, who lived in Jerusalem, had written him about the Hebron massacre of the previous August, when much the same things were done to Jewish girls and women by Arab Moslem mobs, if they weren’t attacked or killed outright with axes, knives, stones, and clubs along with their men folk and children.
Today, he repeated the Hebron story. Skeen listened patiently. Lerner was about fifty years old, lean, of medium height, balding, and with a neatly barbered goatee. He could read Arabic, Farsi, modern and ancient Greek, French, and German. And, of course, Hebrew and some of the varieties of Yiddish. His study, where Skeen saw him, was a library of wall-to-wall books in as many languages on all sides of the room. The room nearly gave Skeen claustrophobia. A black kippah, or yarmulke, lay on top of some papers on a cluttered desk. Skeen guessed the man wasn’t obliged to wear it all the time.
“Mujahideen?” Skeen had queried, slowly pronouncing the unfamiliar combination of syllables.
“Moslem fighters, ‘sacrificers,’ beasts ready to die in the cause of Allah, especially if it means killing Jews. They are an ancient breed. When there are no Jews handy, they will kill infidels with as much fervor and sadistic thoroughness.”
Skeen could only absorb the information with a mental shudder. He had said, “But there are no Arab Moslems in the city here, at least, none that we know of. There are Syrian Christians here, and Lebanese Christians who left the French Mandates. But I know little about Islam.” He had paused to add. “Still, I don’t think there are any Arab Moslems in the whole country.”
Lerner had answered, “You would do well to learn more about Islam, Mr. Skeen. And, you are probably right. The nature of Islam is such that this country, or any Western country, would be inhospitable in regards to the practices and doctrine of Islam. Islam is the most intolerant religion in existence. There are the Sunnis and the Shiites and half a dozen subsects and they are always at each other’s throats. God forbid that this fine republic should ever become hospitable to Islam or Moslems of any national stripe.”
He had paused to lean over his desk to smile wanly at Skeen. “I am Jewish, you are a gentile, but my religion permits me to call you a gutte neshome and my fraynd – even though I suspect you are relatively godless.”
Skeen had smiled in silent acknowledgment, and guessed he had just been called a “friend.” Then he set aside the teacup and saucer he was holding and reached inside his coat to produce a check. “I usually tell prospective clients that I charge for my expenses and time, whether or not I solve their problems. But, in this instance, I wish to make an exception to my rule. I failed you miserably.” He had extended the check over the desk to Professor Lerner.
Lerner had waved a hand. “A charitable gesture, to be sure, Mr. Skeen. But you spent time on my matter. I will not accept a refund. You tried to find justice for my daughter. That was enough. Your heart was in the task. I did not expect you to perform a miracle. Perhaps God has forbidden one.”
After a few more pleasantries, Skeen had departed and driven home. On the way, he reflected that he knew almost as little about Judaism as he did about Islam. He was an atheist, having been raised by parents who were lapsed Presbyterians. He hadn’t volunteered the information to Lerner and Lerner hadn’t enquired about his faith – or lack of one. It was a not-much-discussed open secret in the city that he was an atheist. Religious matters did not concern Skeen, unless they impinged on an investigation, as they had when he came to the defense of Enoch Paige, the notorious atheist lecturer accused of murdering his ex-wife, early last year. That murder had been almost as savage as Rachel Lerner’s. But he had exonerated Paige, and identified the most unlikely perpetrator.
Skeen sighed, lit an Old Gold, and concentrated on his driving. It was raining heavily and this made driving in San Francisco perilous. His new roadster’s windshield wipers worked furiously to clear the glass of the pounding, view-obliterating torrent which created indecipherable blurs ahead of him.
But even now his mind raced over the Rachel Lerner case, trying to find another entry that would allow him to make some progress. Professor Lerner did not know of anyone who bore him ill will, neither on the College’s faculty nor among his neighbors and acquaintances. Questioning the girl’s classmates and friends turned up no suggestions to any animosity worse than teenage pique about some of her other friends. Her few boyfriends seemed amiable and innocent enough. Her music teacher at Fulton College was an Old World Russian immigrant woman who cried when asked questions about her star pupil. She could not imagine anyone wanting to hurt Rachel Lerner.
So he was left empty-handed in his quest to find some association between Rachel Lerner and her killer. He could only surmise that the killer had observed Professor Lerner and his daughter together in some public venue, perhaps on the street, perhaps on the Fulton campus. There was no other way he could have known the girl was Jewish. He had seen photographs of a lovely young girl whom he was certain would have bloomed into a heartbreaker and the object of many suitors. And he had seen the morgue photographs. Skeen shuddered in memory of the contrast, and put it out of his mind.
It was as though some poisonous harpy had materialized out of nowhere to befoul the life of Rachel Lerner in the most hideous way it could imagine, and then vanish, leaving not a trace behind but its motive and malice and hellish handiwork.
Something had sat in the back of his mind since then, nascent knowledge of a particular kind of malice: a hatred for beauty for being beauty. He could not yet articulate it as such.
It was Friday, February 14th, 1930. Skeen was looking forward to a restful weekend. He parked the roadster in the underground garage of Carmel Towers, not intending to take it out again until Monday.