Detective Peter Decker of the LAPD is stunned when he gets the report. Someone has shattered the sanctuary of a remote yeshiva community in the California hills with an unimaginable crime. One of the women was brutally raped as she returned from the mikvah, the bathhouse where the cleansing ritual is performed.The crime was called in by Rina Lazarus, and Decker is relieved to discover that she is a calm and intelligent witness. She is also the only one in the sheltered community willing to speak of this unspeakable violation. As Rina tries to steer Decker through the maze of religious laws the two grow closer. But before they get to the bottom of this horrendous crime, revelations come to light that are so shocking that they threaten to come between the hard-nosed cop and the deeply religious woman with whom he has become irrevocably linked.
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June 25, 2007
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Excerpt from The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman
"The key to a good potato kugel is good potatoes," Sarah Libba shouted over the noise of the blow dryer. "The key to a great potato kugel is the amount of oil. You have to use just enough oil to make the batter moist, plus a little excess to leak out around the cake pan and fry the edges to make the whole thing nice and crisp without being too greasy."
Rina nodded and folded a towel. If anyone would know how to cook a potato kugel, it was Sarah Libba. The woman could roast a shoe and turn it into a delicacy. But tonight Rina was too fatigued to listen with a full ear. It was already close to ten o'clock, and she still had to clean the mikvah, then grade thirty papers.
It had been a busy evening because of the bride. A lot of to-do, hand-holding, and explaining. The young girl had been very nervous, but who wouldn't be about marriage? Rivki was barely seventeen with little knowledge of the world around her. Sheltered and exquisitely shy, she'd gotten engaged to Baruch after three dates. But Rina thought it was a good match. Baruch was a good student and kind and very patient. He'd never once lost his temper while teaching Shmuel how to ride a two-wheeler. He'd be calm yet encouraging, Rina decided, and it wouldn't be long before Rivki knew the ropes just like the rest of them.
Sarah shut off the dryer, and the motor belched a final wheeze. Fluffing up her closecropped hair, she sighed and placed a wig at her head. The nylon tresses were ebony atop long, falling past Sarah Libba's slender shoulders. She was a pretty woman with wide brown eyes that lit UP a round, friendly face. And short, not more than five feet, with a shin figure that belied the fact that she'd borne four children. Meticulous in dress and habit, she worked methodically, combing and styling the artificial black strands.
"Here," Rina said. "Let me help you with the back."
Sarah smiled. "Know what inspired me to buy this shaytel?"
Rina shook her head.
"Your hair, Rina, , said Sarah. "It's getting so long."
"I know. Chana's already mentioned it to me."
"Are you going to cut it?"
"Not too short I hope."
Rina shrugged. Her hair was one of her best features. Her mother had raised a commotion when she'd announced her plans to cover it after marriage. Of all the religious obligations that Rina had decided to take on, the covering of her hair was the one that displeased her mother the most. But she forged ahead over her mother's protests, dipped her hair short, and hid it under a wig or scarf. Now, of course, the point was moot.
Working quickly and with self-assurance, Rina turned the wig into a fashionable style. Sarah Libba craned her neck to see the back in the mirror, then smiled.
"It's lovely" she said, patting Rina's hand.
"I've got a lot to work with," said Rina. "It's a good shaytel."
"It should be," Sarah said. "It cost nearly three hundred dollars, and that's for only twenty percent human hair."
"You'd never know."
The other woman frowned.
"Don't cut your hair short, Rina, despite what Chana tells you. She has a load of advice for everyone but herself. We had the family over for Shabbos and her kids were monsters. They broke Chaim's Transformer, and do you think she offered a word of apology?"
"Nothing! The boys are vilde chayas, and the girls aren't much better. For someone who runs everyone else's life, she sure doesn't do too well with her own."
Rina said nothing. She wasn't much of a gossip, not only because of the strict prohibitions against it, but because she found it personally distasteful. She preferred to keep her opinions to herself.
Sarah didn't prolong the one-way conversation. She stood up, walked over to the fulllength mirror, and preened.
"This time alone is my only respite," she said. "It makes me feel human again."
Rina nodded sympathetically.
"The kids will probably all be up when I get home," the tiny woman sighed. "And Zvi is learning late tonight. . . . I think I'll walk home very slowly. Enjoy the fresh air."
"That's a good idea," Rina said, smiling.
Sarah trudged to the door, turned the knob, straightened her stance, and left.
Alone at last, Rina. stood up, stretched, and glanced at her watch again. Her own boys were still at the Computer Club. Steve would walk them home to a waiting baby-sitter so there was no need to rush. She could take her time. Removing her shoes she rubbed her feet, slipped them into knitted socks and shuffled along the gleaming white tile. Loaded down with a bucket full of soapy water, a handful of rags, and a pail of supplies, she entered the hallway leading to the two bathrooms.
The first one had been used by Sarah Libba, who'd left it neat and orderly. The towels and sheet were compulsively folded upon the tiled counter, the bath mat draped over the rim of the bathtub, and care had been taken to remove the hairs from the comb and brush.