Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The King in Black

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The King in Black

Article excerpt

An exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union


Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.

"He didn't answer the phone, he wouldn't open his door," says Tenenboym the night manager, when he comes to roust Landsman. Landsman lives in 505, with a view of the neon sign on the hotel across Max Nordau Street. That one is called the Blackpool, a word that figures in Landsman's nightmares. "I had to let myself into his room."

"Did you touch anything in the room?" Landsman says.

Tenenboym says, "Only the cash and jewelry."

Landsman puts on his trousers and shoes, and hitches up his suspenders. Then he and Tenenboym both turn to look at the doorknob, where a necktie hangs, red with a fat maroon stripe, already knotted to save time. Landsman has eight hours to go until his next shift. Eight rat hours, sucking at his bottle, in his glass tank lined with wood shavings. Landsman sighs, and goes for the tie. He slides it over his head and pushes up the knot to his collar. He puts on his jacket, feels for the wallet and shield in the breast pocket, pats the sholem he wears in a holster under his arm, a chopped Smith & Wesson Model 39.

"I hate to wake you, Detective," Tenenboym says. "Only I noticed that you don't really sleep."

Landsman puts his hand on Tenenboym's shoulder, and they go down to take stock of the deceased, squeezing into the Zamenhof's lone elevator, or ELEVATORO, as a small brass plate over the door would have it. Fifty years ago, when the hotel was first built, all of its directional signs, labels, notices, and warnings were printed, on brass plates, in Esperanto. Most of them are long gone, victims of neglect, vandalism, or the fire code.

The door and doorframe of 208 do not exhibit signs of forced entry. Landsman covers the knob with his handkerchief and nudges the door open with his toe.

"I got this funny feeling," Tenenboym says, as he follows Landsman into the room. "First time I ever saw the guy. You know the expression 'a broken man?"

Landsman allows that the phrase rings a bell.

"Most of the people it gets applied to don't really deserve it, if you know what I mean," Tenenboym says. "Most men, in my opinion, they have nothing there to break in the first place. But this Lasker. He was like one of those sticks you snap, they light up for a few hours. You know? And you can hear broken glass rattling inside of them. I don't know, forget it. It was just a funny feeling."

"Everybody has a funny feeling these days, Tenenboym," he says, making a few notes in his little black pad about the situation of the room, even though such notes are superfluous, because he rarely forgets a detail of physical description. Landsman has been told, by the same loose confederacy of physicians, psychologists, and his former spouse, that alcohol will kill his gift for recollection but so far, to his regret, this claim has proven false. His vision of the past remains unimpaired. "We had to open a separate phone line just to handle the calls."

"These are strange times to be a Jew," Tenenboym agrees. "No doubt about it."

A small pile of paperback books sits atop the laminate dresser. On the bedside table Lasker kept a chessboard. It looks like he had a game going, a messy-looking endgame with Black's king under attack at the center of the board and White with the advantage of a couple of pieces. It's a cheap set, the board a square of card that folds down the middle, the pieces hollow, with plastic nubs where they were extruded.

One light burns in a three-shade floor lamp by the television. Every other bulb in the room apart from the bathroom tube has been removed or allowed to burn out. …

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