Thursday, June 18, 2009

"The Natural Order" by R.A. Zilber

Before leaving work on Friday, Rachel zipped a flash drive loaded with the Current Population Survey Data into a small compartment of her purse. Saturday morning she drove to Brooklyn to meet an old friend who reconnected with her on Facebook. Brighton Beach locals paraded the boardwalk. Young women walking fur clad dogs, cocky teenagers huddled in groups, fat eastern European ladies with their overindulged grandchildren.

A man in his early forties with a dark receding hairline approached her, “Raych!” Smiling, she placed her hands in the front pockets of her jeans forming a barrier between them, after a momentary embrace they walked along the boardwalk.

“So how have you been?” Michael asked.

“Well, hanging in there. You heard Leila died?”

“Yes, I am sorry; so young and all those children. I don’t know how you and Jake manage. I couldn’t do it with one”.

“After Leila died, I adopted her children, and have since come to look upon them as my own. It’s not easy. We do what we have to.”

“And how has life treated you?”

“Well, I had my moment to shine, but I didn’t make tenure. After ten years at Stern, the academic senate voted me out because I didn’t publish in the appropriate journals. I received offers from lesser schools, but after NYU everything seemed minor-league”.

“Yeah, the bureau has its share of washouts, but they didn’t washout of NYU, if you know what I mean. A diller, a dollar, a tenure washout scholar”, Rachel threw her head back in laughter.

“A diller a dollar, switched to statistics, sucky math scholar”, Michael retorted with a wink. “To be honest, I was relieved to leave the academia. There is no going back, but when I began turning into a windbag with a ‘Hey Day’ from NYU, I licked my wounds, and took a job with an investment bank, eventually making triple the money,”

“And your family?” Rachel asked.

“What family? My bed was still warm when the chair of Stern moved in with my wife and son.” “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be. That’s just how it is sometimes. Love belongs in fairy tales,” he said, resuming composure. “A few years ago I met a Swiss banker, originally from Israel and educated in London. After fulfilling his military obligation, he studied economics in London, and before accepting a position with a Swiss bank, worked for the Mossad. Adam formed a wealth management group employing eastern block talent; economists, programmers, and mathematicians, a manage-a-tres made in heaven.” Rachel recoiled at the visual. “He calls them ‘Oracles’ and that’s how he got his nick name—‘King Solomon’. When I mentioned your name --Adam insisted on meeting you, he is a scrupulous businessman.”

“You mean scruple-less businessman,” she said laughing. It began to rain, “Remember ocean beach in San Francisco--how the waves grew bigger curling into themselves before striking shore?” Pointing toward the hovering seagulls, she said, “In contrast to humankind, animals live in nature’s prime real estate. People pay to live in slums surrounded by garbage; their by-product --misery and ugliness.” Feeling a chill move down his spine, Michael turned up his collar, and walked Rachel to her car.

Later that evening, Michael appeared somber when he picked up Rachel in a rented black BMW. Before ariving at the restaurant, Michael said “Adam insists on having a personal relationship with his clients. It’s his trademark”. Rachel remained silent. “Raych, everything will work out, one way or another it will work out.”
“Of course it will, and let’s hope that it works out one way and not the other,” she replied.

The elevator doors opened into a glass walled lounge overlooking the Manhattan skyline. The maĆ®tre d’ led them to a table occupied by a large bearded man in his late forties with reddish hair in. Michael smiled as Adam stood to greet them. While they chatted, Adam studied Rachel through his crystal goblet.

“Well, let us not waste time”, he smiled revealing small white sharp teeth.
“Rachel, ever played 21 questions?” Adam asked in an indistinguishable accent.

“Yes, I know it”.

“Ok, let’s begin then,” he said. “What distribution has the same mean and variance?” “Pardon?” Rachel said, startled by Michael’s nudge. “Oh, never mind. The Poisson.”

“Very good. Now, tell me what the central limit theorem says about n large?”
“Well, if n is large, the distribution of X (the thing we are estimating) will approach a Normal distribution, also known as the Gaussian distribution, and the Bell Curve,” she answered smiling. “Good.” he said.

“How likely am I to win a game against you, if you won 15 out of the last 20 games we previously played?”

“You are three times more likely to win.”

“Tell me something that you didn’t memorize from a flash card.”

“Ok”, she said. “I believe Gauss used the Mispar Kidmi to arrive at his formula for summing all numbers, she said.”

“Gematria. The Mispar Kidmi is a form of a Gematria.” He said, stroking his beard.

“Yes! Each letter is the sum of all the letter position respectively, up to and including itself. Forming a series of sums where A=1, B=3, D=6, E=10 and so on. Notice the pattern of the difference is n plus 1. Now we find an appropriate scaling coefficient, which gives us Gauss’ result; the quantity, n plus 1 times n and the whole thing divided by 2. Maybe Gauss was Jewish”, Rachel grinned.

“I will accept this as a conceivable hypothesis.” Adam said. Rachel exchanged glances with Michael and excused herself.

“I don’t follow you”, Michael said.

“Michael, decent mathematicians become actuaries, the rest become statisticians. Since she is the latter rather than the former, I had to check her level of statistical understanding before starting collaboration”.

When Rachel returned, Adam asked, “Now, please tell me about your data.”

“Well, I have access to the Current Population Survey—the mothers of all surveys, from which key economic indicators are born. The Bureau collects, processes and delivers the data to the sponsor—the Labour department.”

Adam said, “Yes, I know the Labor department construct economic indicators out of the survey”.

“The bureau is not a research institution; its primary function is collecting and processing data.

Typically it’s the PhD program washout with a chip on his shoulder, claiming to be doing “high level work. I have yet to find someone who published beyond their graduate program. In all fairness to the Bureau, what it lacks in statistical talent, it compensates with geographers” Adam scratched his temple with a manicured finger, revealing a brass ring set with four jewels inside a hexagram.

Narrowing his eyes, he said, “Rachel, name your price.”

Rachel hesitated, and then said, “Mr. Brahms, unauthorized disclosure of confidential information carries a penalty of two-hundred fifty thousand dollars and five years in prison. How much is five years of life worth?”

“Please—call me Adam,” he said. “If it is agreeable to you, let us employ a risk aversion formula to determine an appropriate payment for your services. Please trust me to provide you with the details later.” Reaching inside her purse, Rachel produced a flash drive.

“Gentlemen, one year of CPS data, for the Oracles to practice their skills,” like a well-trained dog waiting for his treat, Adam’s gaze moved from Rachel to the flash drive and back again.

The waiter brought a 1999 Vintage Dom Perignon Rose and chilled Beluga Caviar on mother of pearl plates. Optimism about the future warped her thoughts. Surrounded on all sides by wrong, at that moment, Rachel believed --she was doing right. While Michael was on his cell, Adam moved closer to Rachel and slithered his hand up her back making his way to the nape of her neck, she wriggled, forcing his hand to release, and slither away. Clearing his thought, Adam said, “I owe much of my success to Hedonic principles. For example, optimism bias; an exaggerated idea about how much control we have over outcomes. Most people are far more optimistic about their own circumstances then someone else’s.”

“In other words”, Rachel said, “Optimism bias is a combination of arrogance and a desire to be an individual rather than a statistic.” Afraid of what Rachel might say, Michael raised his glass and said,

“To a lucrative collaboration!”, the clanging of the crystal produced a clear resonating sound.

Surprisingly enough, Rachel was satisfied with the outcome of her trip. It pleased Rachel’s internal sense of order to formulaically establish a price for her services. She sensed omnipresent perfection--keeping the money a secret gave her time to try and understand its purpose. Rachel loathed thinking of herself as a consumer unit. She liked Plato’s ideas from “The Republic”. Plato described an ideal state and the abandonment of the typical family structure. A matrilineal dynasty came to mind; “the House of Rachel”, she whispered. The dynasty would have to wait, and so will Jake, she thought smiling. Rachel wasn’t about jeopardize Jake’s security clearance, it’s too early for him to quit his day job, she thought.
The following morning, Rachel woke to the smell of coffee that Jake made for her before leaving for work. Each sip increased her feelings of disappointment. An inner voice said, ‘you are a mediocre person-- living a mediocre life’. “No! Today is a beginning, “she thought, “it’s a sign of things to come.” She hurled the coffee toward the sink, breaking the cup and splattering the creamy brown liquid against the steel. She tossed the broken cup fragments into the trash, rinsed the sink, and ran upstairs to wake the children.

After meeting with Adam, Rachel’s desire for professional advancement began to wane. All work at the Bureau, she thought, was essentially the same-- cleaning and processing data. She remembered a professor from her graduate program, saying in a thick Russian accent, “Only excellent statisticians analyze data, most of you, one way or another will be cleaning it.”

She didn’t doubt that the Oracles will reverse engineer Labor’s algorithm. Michael called with the news, “Raych, the Oracles can consistently match Labors economic indicators, and they also found evidence of a data-fudging algorithm that intentionally distorts economic indicators”

“Really!” she exclaimed

Michael said, “Well, it extends time for the rich to convert to cash. Adam is anticipating a market adjustment. Economically speaking, the US economy is going to hell in a hand basket and he is preparing to take advantage of fallout”.
To construct a username for the Swiss bank account, Rachel used the Kabalistic method of calculation she described to Adam previously. She calculated her Hebrew name’s minor Gematria to be 9. She reasoned, nine is three to the second power, a pair of triplets, three points in a triangle; two triangles form the Star of David. She used the census of the twelve tribes from the “Book of Numbers,” for the password. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw a pending deposit of two million.
Rachel executed her scheme with mechanical precision. Each morning she copied the survey files, and keeping only the variables Adam requested, created new data sets, which she transferred to a flash drive, and sent to Adam by overnight mail. Rachel’s scheme provided an escape from commonplace existence. Possessing a natural inclination toward solitary activities, Rachel found most social interaction aversive and hoped that within a few years she could quit her job and live a bohemian life.

Though their family had a common history, it was the study abroad program that brought her and Jake together. Drunk with infatuation, they agreed to marry once Jake fulfilled his military obligation. Even the best-laid human plans are flawed. When she returned, her father Laban, was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer; he said to Rachel “Some things are beyond our understanding when we must do them. During such times, the internal aspects of our character are tested. There is a natural order to things. In it lies truth. Just as it is natural for a parent to precede her child in death, it is natural for the eldest sister to precede the younger in marriage. Before I die I want to see Leila married.”

Rachel’s distressed state prompted Jake to make his intentions clear to Laban. During the engagement festivities Laban pulled Jake aside saying, “my dear boy, though it’s customary for the bride and groom to be engaged for one year, given the state of my health, I have made arrangements for you to marry my daughter tonight”. Jake in a drunken stupor agreed to everything. After Laban prepared a marriage document, enumerating Jakes requirements to his future wife, two men witnessed Jake sign it. Under a stretched tallit held by four men, the Rabbi read the Ketubah aloud, and placed a ring into Jake’s hand, he then eased the ring onto his bride’s finger, saying, “You are consecrated to me through this ring, in accordance with the religion of Moses and Israel.” The Rabbi recited seven blessings over the couple, each time refilling Jakes wine glass. In remembrance of the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple, with a little help from Laban, Jake broke the wine glass placed under his foot. Jake’s intoxicated state prevented his fingers from lifting his brides’ veil during the ceremony. Joyously Jake surrendered to the men that carried him and his bride to a private room to consummate their marriage. When Jake realized he was tricked into marrying Leila, his mind drew a parallel to a time when he tricked his father.

His mother said, “Isaac is asking for Edom, I beg you, he is blind, if you speak in a whisper, he will think you’re Edom. Don’t let your father die with a broken heart.”

On his deathbed, Isaac said, “Edom my son, I made a secret agreement with Laban, when the time comes, you will marry Leila, and by virtue of being a firstborn son—inherit your birthright”. Isaac touched Jake's face, mumbled some words, closed his eyes and never regained consciousness.

Laban’s voice roused Jake from the trance, “Jake, my son, Leila is your wife, not Rachel. Your father made a promise-- yesterday you fulfilled it. You restored your fathers honor, so that I may genuinely say, ‘May his memory be for a blessing’”. The last six words reverberating in Jakes mind, may his memory be for a blessing, and in some such way, in his inexplicable situation, Jake found comfort in Laban’s resolve.
In the next ten years, Leila bore seven children, six boys and a girl. After the birth of her last child, a routine mammogram revealed breast cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she and Rachel listened to the oncologist’s polished, apologetic, and kind utterance, “Despite our best efforts, the breast cancer has returned and is no longer treatable“. Rachel moved in with Leila and began taking care Leila’s children. Toward the end of Leila’s illness, she said to Rachel, “Jake loves only you; I know how much you sacrificed. After I die, promise me you’ll marry Jake and raise my children.” They hugged, and for the first time Rachel cried.

After Leila died, Rachel devoted herself to the care of Leila’s family. With Jake working long hours, Rachel developed an evening ritual that included Leila’s pain medication. After a long day with the children, she took comfort in small doses of the liquid opiod. Rachel accepted her role when Leila’s oldest son swallowed hard, puffed out his little chest and said;

“We want you to be our mother.” Rachel and Jake soon married, adding two children to their household.

In a restaurant on the top floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Adam said to Rachel,
“My clients are quite pleased with the results. We are holding large amounts of cash, in a cash poor world.”

Rachel interrupted saying, “Within the year, the Bureau’s computer security policy will disable the USB ports, rendering our data transfer method useless and Jake’s clearance reinvestigation is approaching. I feel that this is a natural place for an ending.”

“Rachel, I guarantee that if Jake agrees to accept a detail in the Jerusalem office, there will be no reinvestigation.” Ignoring Rachel’s look of discomfort, and refilling his glass, he said, “I suggest you encourage Jake to accept. Tell him to bring the children, and you will soon join them.” His features gravely set, he said, “Rachel, I must warn you, snitching in never an option” Adam produced a small box with a digital pad, saying, “It opens when you key the letters of your name. Because they are bitter I recommend you take them with a sweet drink. Death will come quick and painless.”

Rachel gasped, “And what about Michael, was he also bestowed with the same benefaction”?

Adam smiled, “Rachel, there is no free lunch. Take what you want—but pay for it.” Before leaving, they agreed to conclude their collaboration within six moths.
That evening, Jake said, “I had a strange dream, a woman-- maybe Leila, was standing tall, her head above the clouds. An angel began clambering up her body, but after a short time he fell and broke into pieces, followed by a second, and a third. But the fourth angel managed to reach the top and disappear into the clouds.”
Rachel felt goosebumps, “And then?”

“Nothing, then I awake.”

“Jake, each person has a unique destiny--a spiritual path. In the dream the angels symbolize four stages of your spiritual struggle and you will come closer to God, by the auspices of a woman.”

Jake with his eyes cast down said, “I believe you’re concealing something, and I must reach beyond myself to discover it.” Rachel pretended to fall asleep, and Jake stopped talking.

Jake accepted a detail in Jerusalem, bringing his children and a housekeeper. One evening, Rachel received a call.

“Hello, this is investigator Ryan Noonan with the department of treasury, is this Rachel Laban?

Rachel’s heart pounded, “Yes”.

“I am investigating a case involving foreign investments in targeted sectors of the US economy.”

Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. Rachel agreed to meet the detective the following afternoon in a coffee shop across the street from the Marriot Residence, where she was staying. That night, she dreamed that she and Adam were walking through a pomegranate orchard, planning to pick 613 pomegranates. An old man appeared saying, “Pick only the fruit on the trees, leave the fruit that’s on the ground, and don’t pick the fruit from the four corners of the orchard.”

Detective Noonan approached Rachel from the back of the shop.

“I will come straight to the point. I have evidence pointing to your involvement with a central figure of my investigation. We suspect Adam Brahms made investments using illegally solicited data.” Rachel felt bolts of adrenalin shoot through her body.

“Do you have a court order, Detective Noonan?”

“Would you like me to obtain one?” he asked. “Ms. Laban, I can prevent your leaving the country.”

Rachel remained cool saying, “You are going after the wrong person.”

“Are you denying that Adam is your brother in law?” Rachel felt dizzy; she had never met Jake’s brother. The brother’s haven’t spoken since their father died.” He handed Rachel his card, “when you are ready to talk, call me.” Rachel ran back to the residence, and called Adam cell, “Adam”, she hissed, wanting to scream.

“Yes”, Adam’s unemotional voice answered.

“The treasury is investigation us. I know you are Jake’s brother.”

“I returned to collect what is mine.” Both of us lost. You gave everything to Leila’s family, your youth, your love, and your time. Now, you are alone—an orphan—forsaken by the very ones you love. Rachel, with me, you can have whatever you want.” In a low, deliberate voice, he said, “I have a passport and a ticket to Switzerland.”

Rachel interrupted, “No, Adam, that’s not how I am. My answer is and always will be--no”.

When Michael called Jake to tell him everything he set an avalanche of events in motion. All night Jake wrestled with guilt about taking his brothers place at his father’s deathbed. When he met with Adam, he told him about Rachel, Leila, and his children. But the moment of clarity came when Jake said, “Greater civilizations fell before ours and it is inevitable that ours will follow suit. Without society’s constraints, people become like animals capable of eating their young. By observing traditions and rituals of the book and teaching them to our children, regardless of the circumstance—we will remain rooted in humanity”. Before the brothers parted, Adam confessed to Jake that he gave Rachel suicide pills, he said, “if the pills are swallowed whole they will harmlessly pass through the digestive tract producing only an appearance of death, but if they are crushed between the molars -- they will release a fast-acting poison. I told her to swallow them”, Adam voice filled with remorse.

Jake was minutes away when Detective Noonan knocked on Rachel’s door,

“Ms. Laban, I know you’re in there. It’s useless to stall; I will have a search warrant within the hour. Open the door!”

Her nerves wound to the highest pitch of tension, she emptied the contents of the box, remembering Adams words, “death will come quick and painless”. In a moment of weakness Rachel swallowed the rubber-covered ampules. She stretched out on the floor, closed her eyes, and whispered, “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad,” but the last word came out as “Ehath”. As her breath became quick and shallow, she experienced an overwhelming feeling of regret.

Detective Noonan’s rookie partner Davis sprung out of elevator, waving the warrant,
“I got it! I got it!” Noonan grabbed the warrant,”

Let me see”. Forming a fist with his hand, he pounded the door, blaring, “Open up, I have a search warrant. Open the darn door, I say.”

Davis produced a plastic room key and opened the door. Rachel’s lifeless body was sprawled across the floor, next to her lay a sheet of paper, and the brown rubber ampule. Noonan, grabbed the sheet and read aloud,

Detective Noonan,
Stalemate! You win!

“Bitch! Bitch! Goddammit”, Noonan raved while Davis checked Rachel for signs of life. The rookie detective flinched when Noonan kicked Rachel’s body spitting, “All my work came to nothing! Nothing! I have no goddarn case with that bitch dead. Uhg! Noonan picked up the brown rubber ampule, and said, “She’s dead—these are cyanide pills. I’ve seen them when I was an OPS officer with the CIA,” Noonan said in disgust. “And don’t even think of calling the cops, a scandal like this can cost me a career. I want a promotion not a demotion Leave this trash for the garbage collectors—the Metro police. Understood! Now let’s get the hell out of here.” Davis bowed his head and followed Noonan out of the room.

Minutes later, in the residence’s basement two men pushed a gurney into the rear of a service van and closed the rear gate. Inside the van, a woman positioned one electrode hand over Rachel’s right breast and the other under the left breast. The man stood back as Rachel’s body jerked from the voltage. The woman produced an auto-injector syringe, made a fist around it, swung back her fist, and thrust the syringe into Rachel’s heart. For five long minutes they took turns administering CPR before Rachel’s vital signs stabilized. The blows from Detective Noonan’s sharp pointed shoe caused agonizing pain in Rachel’s hip. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, she heard words: “passport”, “today”, “no time”.

Four hours later Jake wheeled a heavily sedated Rachel through the security gate at JFK airport. The TSA officer returned the passports to Jake, and in a thick southern accent, mispronouncing their new names, said —Isra-El, take good care of that there Lee-Ah. Ya’ll come back now. Y'hear!”


  1. I am in awe, that after numerous rejections, my story found a place to "shine". Thank God for Crookedwebzine and their editors, for restoring my faith in the esoteric genres and online publishers--long live the free world wide web, which demonstrates its infinite wisdom, and boundless opportunity for self expression.
    Please send me your comments.
    -Raisa Alexandrovna Zilberman

  2. Awesome story with incredible depth that requires some digging. The parallels between Adam and Edom are strong and echo clearly to the story of Jacob and Essau.

    This twist of Essau leading an assault on Rachel is a nice midrash. This is exactly the thing Essau could do to steal back the blessing of Isaac from Jacob, that he thought was taken from him unfairly.