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  Chapter 1 from
The Mission
From the bestselling author of the Spider's Web

By Chaim Eliav 


Other Available Chapters
3 


Chapter One

At 10 o’clock in the morning, Jeff Handler was greeted with an unwelcome surprise.

At 8:30, when he began his daily routine, he had no idea of what was awaiting him. At that hour he cheerily left his home on East 15th Street in Flatbush. He walked toward the parking spot in front of his two-story home and got into his 1982 Chevrolet, the new car he had bought the previous week. The motor roared to life and in a few moments he was cruising slowly down Avenue J and onto Coney Island Avenue, on his way to Manhattan. He had been taking this same route every day now for several years: a careful right turn onto Coney Island, merging into its traffic and putting on speed, and a left at Ditmas toward the broad boulevard of Ocean Parkway. Despite the heavy traffic and massive number of cars racing along with typical New York abandon, Jeff was calm and serene. Now was the perfect time for him to contemplate a chiddush that had occured to him during the Daf Yomi shiur this morning, and to contemplate the diamond sales that were awaiting him in the office. Everything was calm and quiet and absolutely routine. There was no hint of the great change awaiting him so very soon.

It took Jeff 45 minutes to reach his office on Manhattan’s 47th Street. He drove along Ocean Parkway to the Prospect Expressway and then merged onto the BQE. As he approached the Brooklyn Bridge he slowed down. A sharp right and he was on the bridge that stretched over the East River, linking Brooklyn to Manhattan. Beneath him the waters of the river flowed slowly; before him rose the glorious vista of Manhattan’s skyline, its skyscrapers crowding one another and reaching towards the heavens. Always, as he passed over the bridge, he marveled anew at the city’s magnificence.

As he approached Manhattan his thoughts turned to his boss, David Northfeld. Jeff was curious as to how their meeting would go this morning, after the bitter quarrel that had erupted between them the day before. When he returned home last night Jeff had been seething with fury. He had been tempted to call Northfeld and tell him unequivocally that he was quitting. But Jeff had a wise wife, practical and full of insight. Miriam had taken his foolish thought and banished it into the world of might-have-beens: “Where will you find such a good job, with a large company and a good salary, offering challenges and frequent bonuses? Remember Venezuela, Jeff!”

Yes. It was true: DEI was a very successful concern. But if she had known what awaited him at the meeting that was looming closer and closer, perhaps she would have agreed with his decision to quit.

Jeff merged onto the FDR Drive, a highway that curved alongside the East River. When he finally exited onto 42nd Street he was suddenly overcome by an inexplicable feeling of foreboding. Another 10 minutes and he would be in the office. He was already on the famed Fifth Avenue. One more turn and he would be on 47th Street, the center of the diamond industry. So what was this sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, this sudden onslaught of tension constricting his chest and culminating, viselike, in a choking feeling in his throat?

Jeff slid into the parking garage in the depths of the building that housed, on its 10th floor, the company he worked for: Diamond Enterprises, Inc. DEI. He dismissed the strange feeling that had beset him so suddenly, waving it off like an annoying insect buzzing around his head. “Nonsense,” he whispered, in a voice that came out clearly within the silence of the car. Surely it was nothing more than the meeting with his boss that was disturbing him. His boss, stubborn, inflexible, who wouldn’t give in or admit to the truth. That was all. Or was it? Why were the words of the Gemara suddenly running through his head: “Even if a man doesn’t see [what will happen to him] his mazel (destiny) sees [what will happen to him].” Why?

He would try to avoid meeting with his boss today, he decided. It was possible that by tomorrow tempers would settle and emotions cool down.

The elevator brought him up to the glass-fronted office door. Jeff opened it and stood at the entrance.

“Hi,” he said, with a quick smile at the secretary sitting behind the reception desk. Without awaiting a response he hurried into his office. He approached the small safe built into the wall. He pressed the secret code and the safe’s door swung open easily. He pulled out a number of small envelopes that contained his valuable merchandise. Jeff then lit a fluorescent lamp whose white rays glanced off the wall and onto his worktable. He scattered the merchandise onto the desktop and began to count them.

The phone rang. It was the secretary on the line.

“Jeff?”

“Yes?”

“Mr. Northfeld wants to speak with you.”

Jeff’s heart thudded; he felt himself tense up.

“No. Don’t tell me that.”

“But I just did.”

“You told him that I’m here?”

“You didn’t tell me not to.”

Jeff breathed deeply. “I don’t want to speak with him today.”

“So tell him that yourself.”

“Do something to make him leave me alone today. Tell him whatever you want. Do you understand? After what happened between us yesterday, I need a break from him. It’s the best thing for him, too.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” she said quickly, “but he’s waiting on the line. Get it?”

Jeff felt himself go cold.

“Okay. But I’m not responsible for the consequences.”

The secretary sounded firm. “You most certainly are responsible. A person’s behavior towards others affects their behavior towards him. And remember what they say: The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss. Now, here he is.”

Jeff tensely awaited David’s voice.

“Hi.”

The “hi,” Jeff noticed, was fairly friendly.

He answered in frigid tones. “Hello.”

“I’m glad you’ve come.”

Now this was surprising. Such affability was not one of the more noticeable traits of his boss, not even when everything was going smoothly. And certainly not after the harsh words they had flung at each other yesterday afternoon. So what did he want? I’d better be very careful, a watchful voice hidden deep within him whispered.

And yet Jeff unbent just a little, and answered guardedly, “You make it sound like I don’t get here every day. Why are you glad?”

Northfeld laughed lightly. “You’re right,” he answered, “and yet I am glad you’ve arrived. I’ve got something important to speak with you about. Later.”

Jeff’s curiosity, like his suspicions, were aroused. “Why not now?”

“Because things aren’t quite clear enough yet. I’m awaiting an important call from abroad, from a certain country. The conversation between us depends on the outcome of that call.”

Again, curiosity flared. “What is this ‘certain country’?”

“You’re very curious, my young friend.”

The words carried just a hint of censure. They grated on Jeff.

“That’s right. But, if you’ll excuse me, you arouse my curiosity and then ask me why I’m curious?”

There was a moment’s silence. Then his boss’s firm voice rang out. “Just be patient, Jeff. I don’t want to discuss this on the phone.”

Jeff chuckled. His free hand gently rubbed his forehead, beneath the black yarmulke. This time his answer came quickly. His self-confidence when it came to his boss had returned.

“Who are you afraid of? You think someone is listening to us? Are we living in Russia?”

Jeff could hear David’s rolling laughter.

“I see I was correct in deciding to speak to you, among all of our employees.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will, Jeff. See you.”

Without warning the boss cut him off. Jeff held the receiver for a short minute, listening in some confusion to the dial tone: a sound that somehow reminded him of the long blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

Finally, Jeff replaced the receiver. He sat motionless and silent for a minute, then he lifted his head toward the ceiling, his eyes closed. He tried deciphering the mysterious words he had heard from David in the conversation that had just ended. How did the unusual dialogue tie in with what had passed between them yesterday? Was David planning on firing him? Or sending him to open a neglected office in some distant backwater, his only motivation being to keep Jeff far away? There had been some recent talk about opening new offices, subsidiaries of the main business in the United States. And what, exactly, was that “certain country” that he had mentioned? Jeff felt slightly resentful. He hated when things were left open and uncertain.

Suddenly he jumped from his chair. He hurried to the door of his office and opened it with a swift motion. He flew though the corridor with long strides until he was standing before the door that led to David’s office. A brief hesitation, that he overcame with a firm nod of the head, and he knocked. Not awaiting a reply, he opened the door and stood on the threshold.

Northfeld was surprised at the sight of his unexpected and uninvited visitor. His gray eyes narrowed, expressing anger at Jeff’s slight towards his authority as boss and president of the firm. But those eyes returned almost immediately to normal. David Northfeld recalled the mission that he planned on delegating to his employee. Now was not the time to stand on ceremony and assert his authority. His eyes even glinted with hidden laughter.

“Oh, I see that you are really curious. Curiosity can be a very helpful trait, when it comes to expanding one’s knowledge. But in business, Jeff, and particularly in business negotiations, it’s sometimes better to show a lack of interest. You understand that, I hope?”

Jeff didn’t reply. His boss’s eyes gazed at him like one trying to gauge a reaction. Jeff still stood in the doorway. Northfeld’s voice shot through the silence of the room.

“It would really be a major error on your part, if you get too curious on the mission that’s been chosen for you.”

Jeff did not wait for an invitation. He entered the room, and with measured steps approached his boss’s massive, luxuriously appointed desk. He dropped down onto one of the armchairs near the desk, crossed his legs, stared at the face of the man seated across from him in the black leather recliner. It was a face that radiated both authority and pride. Jeff waited, openly defiant.

Northfeld smiled. It was obvious that he was trying to create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.

“You want to know what mission I want to give you? Or the name of the country that I alluded to in our conversation?”

Jeff drummed his fingers on the desktop. Finally he said, “Is it a choice between the two? Can’t I hear about this mission, and about this ‘certain country’?”

“Perhaps. Why not? I just wanted to see how curious you really were.”

Jeff began to lose patience. This unnecessary chatter really didn’t fit in with his boss’s character, and it was annoying him.

“Mr. Northfeld, can we get down to business?”

Northfeld accepted the rebuke without moving a muscle.

“Look, I’m wasting time, because I’m awaiting a telex from Moscow. It should be here any minute.”

Jeff was shocked. He leaned slightly towards the desk.

“Moscow?”

Northfeld savored the moment. “You see, one word and you can hear about both the mission and the ‘certain country’ you were so curious about.”

Jeff felt more and more uncomfortable. “I don’t understand. You want me to go to Moscow?”

Northfeld lifted his head slightly. The jutting of his chin showed a fierce determination.

“That’s right.”

“To Russia? On business?”

“Yes.”

“To the land of the KGB?”

Northfeld’s face took on a softer cast. “Don’t exaggerate, Jeff. It’s not what it used to be. This isn’t the Stalin era. It’s true that the KGB still terrifies the local residents, but it’s not like it was in the past. Besides, you’re an American citizen. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of.”

After a deep silence, he added, “Of course, that’s as long as you don’t get involved in matters that don’t concern you and don’t stick your nose into things that have nothing to do with the diamond business.”

Jeff was wrapped in silence. Something about this did not appeal to him. His eyes skimmed aimlessly over the office walls. The wall hangings, brown running into red, brought home to him just where they were sending him: the country of the Reds. His fingers played restlessly with a gold Parker pen that lay on the desk. Northfeld quietly pulled the pen away from him. He did not like strangers touching his things. Jeff hardly noticed.

Northfeld pushed a bit. “Nu, so what do you say?”

“Nothing. This obviously has something to do with what happened yesterday. A punishment.”

“I forget these ‘yesterdays’ quickly; I only remember tomorrow. But if you really want to know why I chose you, it’s connected to your success in Venezuela a few months ago. With a sensitive topic such as doing business with the Russians, I can rely on you more than on the others in the office. You understand, you studied in yeshivah -- Lakewood, I believe -- and you have a good head for understanding the hard-headed Russian mentality that’s inflexible and uncompromising.”

“A topic that’s sensitive -- and dangerous, you meant to say.”

Northfeld took a deep breath. “I’m telling you again, you’re exaggerating. Russia is going through a profound change. The KGB also, even though it’s still a very cruel secret police force. But there are many Americans now traveling back and forth who are never even aware it exists. Nothing happens to them.”

Northfeld leaned over towards Jeff. He lowered his voice confidentially.

“Try to understand, Jeff. The Russians want to do business with the Americans. And as long as they want to do business they won’t harm a neutral person who has come to Moscow for exactly that purpose. There’s nothing to worry about. They have got good merchandise, small, exquisitely polished stones. A connection with them will help us get out of the grip of the Syndicate. Big profits, Jeff. You’ll get a cut. The bonus will be greater than that of Venezuela. Got it?”

Jeff threw out his hands in a gesture that released some tension. “Of course the bonus will be bigger; the danger is greater. By the way, I assume the bonus goes to my wife if I don’t return?”

He longed to ask Northfeld why he himself wasn’t traveling, if the profits were so great. Let him keep the bonus for himself. But he didn’t want to increase the tension between them.

“You’re tough this morning,” Northfeld said quickly. “But I forgive you.”

Jeff stood up. “Is that it? Can I give you an answer tomorrow?”

Northfeld nodded his head in assent.

“By tomorrow I’ll have the telex authorizing your trip.”

Jeff did not answer. He was angry at his boss for working behind his back. He had already arranged a permit for him to enter Russia, without even asking him! But -- he would keep quiet.

When he was standing by the doorway ready to leave, he felt himself pulled back by his boss’s words.

“Remember, Jeff, if you refuse I won’t send anyone else. The business will be lost.”

Jeff turned to face David Northfeld. He didn’t say a thing. He could hear an inner voice telling him: He’s just trying to make you feel guilty.

“Bye,” he muttered, and turned away.


“You’re not going. And that’s it. Period.”

Miriam, Jeff’s wife, stood in their living room, trembling with rage and nervous excitement.

Jeff laughed. “You told me yesterday that I shouldn’t quit a terrific job that has so many new challenges. So here I am: I didn’t quit, and I’m being offered an exciting new challenge.”

Miriam burst into tears. Jeff was at his wit’s end. He realized that refusing to go would ultimately lead to his losing his job at Diamond Enterprises, Inc. That wasn’t what he wanted. On the other hand, this trip to Moscow frightened him. Maybe his fear was rooted in past history; still, fear wasn’t something you could simply set aside. It existed. That was all. At the same time, he didn’t know how to calm his wife and deal with her unequivocal refusal, that totally ignored financial considerations.

An idea flitted through his brain. “You know what? I’ll do whatever my father tells me to do.”

She didn’t answer. He began to dial Israel, Ramat Gan, where his father and grandfather lived.

“Hello, Abba, how are you? How’s Imma? Grandfather?”

“Is that you, Yisrael Yaakov? Baruch Hashem, we’re fine. Why are you calling?”

“I’ll get straight to the point. I’m a little confused and don’t know what to do. My boss wants me to travel to Russia to finish up some business that he’s begun. What should I do, Abba? Miriam objects very strongly. But if I don’t go there’s a danger that I’ll be fired. That’s what I think, at least.”

The international line grew silent for a long minute. Finally, Jeff heard his father’s voice.

“I don’t know what to tell you. Today Russia is much less dangerous than it used to be. And yet -- Besides, you remember that we’re from Russia.”

“I remember.”

“And Grandfather left there in a way that got him into trouble with the authorities. Do you know about that?”

“Sort of.”

“How do I know that they won’t make trouble for the grandson because of him?”

Another silence.

“Look, Jeff. I think you should try to put the matter off. Use your brains, of course. It’s a shame to lose your job.”

“I hear. Do you want to speak with Grandfather about it?”

“Okay. If I come up with anything new, I’ll be in touch. Bye.”

Shalom.”

Jeff turned to his wife, who had gone to the kitchen and was busy there, trying to release her tension.

“Okay, calm down. Abba says I shouldn’t go.”

A few minutes later, the telephone rang. It was his father from Israel.

“Look, I’m sitting with Grandfather, and he thinks you should go. He’s very firm on the subject.”

Jeff was shocked. He was simply dumbfounded.

“Jeff? Can you hear me?”

“Yes, I hear,” he answered weakly.

“What happened to you? Why does your voice sound different?”

“You don’t know why?”

“I understand. Here’s Grandfather, he wants to speak with you.”

“Yisrael Yaakov, how are you?” The voice was feeble with age.

Jeff answered quickly, “I’m fine, thank G-d. That is, okay.”

“Look, Yisrael Yaakov, I want you to go. I have an important mission for you to do for me in Moscow.”

“Okay,” Jeff answered automatically.

“So you’ll go?”

“If you want me to, I’ll go.” In his brain he was already weaving excuses, ways to get out of it.

“Look, Yisrael Yaakov, when are you supposed to be leaving?”

“In about two weeks.”

Nu, so you’ll have enough time to come to Israel and hear what I have to ask you.”

Jeff didn’t understand.

“Why not on the phone, Grandfather?”

“No. Impossible. Only face to face.”

“Are you afraid that someone is listening in?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“What kind of question is that? The KGB!”

 
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