PETER DECKER AND RINA LAZARUS
BY FAYE KELLERMAN
One of the most frequently asked questions that I have fielded over my twenty-two years as a published crime fiction writer is: how much of me is in my characters? More specifically, how much am I like the female protagonist of my series, Rina Lazarus? I’ve answered this question hundreds of times, and usually I respond with the following: I am not Rina Lazarus. Rina Lazarus is a fictional entity that I’ve created. She is not based on a single representation but a composite of my experiences and my imagination. Then I add: all of my characters have Faye Kellerman in them. How it could be otherwise? They all come from my unique and sometimes subconscious process of blending fact and fiction, real and imaginary.
But the response does beg the question: how much of me is Rina Lazarus? I find it amusing and not unpredictable that people rarely ask: how much am I like my male series character, Peter Decker? More often than not, Peter takes the starring role in my novels, so if there is any character who is a manifestation of me, why wouldn’t it be Decker?
To answer the question honestly and completely, I’d like to go back to the origins of Peter and Rina. Where did they come from? Who were they before they appeared in fiction and how have they evolved?
To best respond, I need to reconsider my first published novel, The Ritual Bath, where Peter and Rina made their debuts. I’ve italicized the word published because at the time, I didn’t know that The Ritual Bath was going to be my first novel. I had made a few attempts at writing and was now trying to pen a story that would be interesting, entertaining, and, most important, would capture the eye of some farsighted editor. But the characters didn’t come from thin air. To help you understand the biographies of Peter and Rina, I’m going to give you a little background about the author.
As a young child, I had a vivid imagination. Most kids do, but mine seemed to last a little longer and to be just a tad more florid than those of most children. I not only had imaginary friends, I had them in many different locales and diverse centuries. My friends were Greek goddesses of mythology, dames from medieval Europe, turn-of-the-century Boston blueblood girls in boarding schools, barefoot Okies from the dustbowl, and prisoners in concentration camps. Anything I heard or saw was re-created, enhanced, and then acted out in private. My “friends” and I went through a slew of adventures, and all before I reached school age.
Nothing quite kills a fertile imagination like rote learning. No one is saying that times tables aren’t important, but how could such humdrum triviality compete with all my terrific escapades? Nonetheless, school is a necessary evil, and at the age of six I started first grade. And that’s when I discovered that although I had an elaborate imagination, I was saddled with a brain that had a hard time integrating letters with phonetics. Reading was difficult because I couldn’t sound out words. I learned how to read English the same way I learned how to read music-by sight-reading. In actuality, I learned how to read music before I learned how to read words. And, as I did with the notes on a scale, I had to memorize words in order to get my brain to properly translate what my eye saw. To do this, I resorted to a number of memorization and mnemonic tricks. I recall that I could easily identify the word look because of the two O’s that in my six-year-old mind resembled two wide eyes. My dyslexia stalled my reading for a while, but luckily I was compensated with a facility with numbers. I always say in my talks that I could work with X, Y, and Z as long as the letters weren’t strung together to make words. I did not like English. I did not like writing papers and essays. I did like creative writing, but so little of that is done in school that my preference didn’t matter much. As far as learning, I took the path of least resistance and was a math major in high school and college, graduating from UCLA with a BA in theoretical mathematics in 1974.
My next incarnation was in dental medicine. I attended UCLA Dental School and graduated in 1978 fully intending to practice dentistry, but fate had other plans. Jesse Oren Kellerman was delivered about two and a half months after I graduated. I don’t know what I was thinking when I thought I’d be up on my feet a week after birth. I must have been on another planet when I thought I could easily integrate career and children. I had to learn on my own that babies are a lot of work. This was a revelation to me. For the first six months of my son’s life, I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get anything done other than to take care of the little rascal. It helped to know people in the same situation, but as I had always been a competent person and prided myself on being organized to the point of compulsive, I felt I should be doing better.
By the time I finally reached some kind of equilibrium, Jess was around six months old. I was able to brush my teeth, shower, and get dressed all before noon. I was learning how to become a functional person at the same time my son was becoming a person. He was a lot of work, but with that work was the joy of seeing a human being develop. He was a happy little guy-amusing and engaging-and we had a really good time together. As he grew older, he was very responsive and made my life easier by being an early talker. I decided to put off my illustrious career in dentistry in favor of motherhood and I kept telling myself that I’d soldier on with dentistry just as soon as Jesse was in school.
But then I got pregnant again. By the time Rachel came around, I had come to grips with the fact that I was not just postponing dentistry, I was shelving it. It was an easy decision in some ways, but a very hard one in others. I felt I was wasting years of education and letting my profession down. But at the time, dentistry wasn’t calling my name, and honestly, no one from the ADA has ever phoned me and asked, “Where the heck are you?” It seems that dentistry has gotten along just fine without me.
So I went about the business of raising a family. Now, anyone who has ever spent long periods with a child knows that there’s a lot of down time-pushing a swing, taking a walk, watching your child play at the park.
The mind abhors a vacuum.
Presented with blocks of time without speaking, my brain began to spark and fill in the blanks. In my head, I listed chores that needed to be done. I planned dinner menus. I considered baby gyms and music classes. I was expected to be thinking about all those things. What I didn’t expect was to be making up stories again.
My imaginary friends awoke from the dormancy caused by twenty years of education. They began to make their big-screen comebacks in my head, only this time they materialized in adult form. I began to invent new adventures, more daring quests, more racy and passionate love stories, darker fables, and elusive murder mysteries. Once again, the chief protagonist in all my stories was some kind of Faye Kellerman facsimile, but at twenty-six, I knew better than to act out the stories aloud as I had done as a kid. They put adults away for those kinds of things. I kept all my buddies inside because I felt that there was something a little off with me: making up stories when you’re a wife, a mother, and supposedly a sane person. I firmly believe that I would have left my tales deep inside my gray matter if I had been married to anyone other than Jonathan Kellerman.
Unlike me, Jonathan was a natural-born writer. I think he emerged from his mother’s womb with pen in hand. When I met Jon, I was eighteen. We married a year and a half later, both of us still wet-behind-the-ears kids and very much unformed. Jonathan not only saw me through college and dental school, but elected to go to graduate school in Los Angeles because I didn’t want to move from there. Jonathan graduated with a PhD in clinical psychology from USC at the tender age of twenty-four. My husband was a true Renaissance man, with many interests and hobbies, and one of his extracurricular passions was writing. If he saw me through college, I saw him through nine novels, all of them eventually relegated to boxes in storage. His attempts taught him a lot. They taught me what it meant to persevere and how much fun it was to write. Yes, he cared that his novels weren’t getting published, but it didn’t deter him a whit from writing. It was almost as if writing were an addiction.
Then one day it suddenly dawned on me what he was doing. He was taking his imaginary friends and putting them down on paper and calling himself a writer. If he was brave enough to do that and strong enough to suffer through one rejection after another, what in the world did I have to lose by putting my imaginary friends on paper too? And the timing was perfect. He was on the brink of breaking through into the publishing business. Had he been the monster bestseller that he is today, I would have been much too intimidated to try to write.
Another husband might have been outright discouraging. Another husband might have been encouraging in a discouraging way. Jonathan, bless him, was only encouraging. As the premier author in the family, he was helpful and straightforward, straddling the difficult lines between tutor, critic, and husband. The nights weren’t always easy, but the conversation was always honest.
As with a lot of neophyte writers, my first attempts were competently written but went nowhere. The stories dragged, the characters didn’t develop, the sense of place was wanting. It was good that my initial forays into fiction never saw the light of day, but all those hours of writing bad stories weren’t for nothing. I considered the four-to-five-year experience a protracted course in writing fiction. I had Jonathan’s input, but I still had to act as my own student, teacher, editor, and critic.
The main thing was that I discovered my love for writing. It was cathartic, it was an outlet for my zany imagination, and it gave me something to do. I wrote notebooks full of novels, stories, and plays, but deep inside, I knew I was spinning my wheels. It’s certainly okay to indulge in creative outbursts, but if I had any hopes of getting published-of having my works out there to be read and critiqued-I had to be a little more thoughtful about what I put down on paper.
I began to think about what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. Equally significant, I began to wonder what I wanted to write about. That meant structure.
I needed a plot.
In the ’70s and ’80s, to have a strong story line was somewhat anathema and was eschewed in modern literature. Plot was for chumps, a crutch used in genre writing. But since I wasn’t an English major in college and since I didn’t follow the vagaries of the literary world, I didn’t know that. Plot just appealed to my sensibilities as a mathematician. Well-crafted stories had beginnings, middles, and ends, and propelled the reader forward from the first page to the last. I considered plot to be a good thing. This revelation dovetailed nicely with the kinds of books I liked to read-mystery and suspense novels.
Jonathan had introduced me to Ross Macdonald. He had found The Zebra-Striped Hearse in a used-book store near work, and we began to systematically devour many of the best “hard-boiled” writers-Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett… the list was long and impressive.
My choice was clear. I decided to write crime novels, and my timing couldn’t have been better. There was a growing renaissance of mystery writing in the ’70s and ’80s. Joseph Wambaugh and Evan Hunter writing as Ed McBain were pumping out some of the best police procedurals in the business. Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake had switched over from Westerns to capers and mysteries. There were others: Arthur Lyons, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Linda Grant, Stephen Greenleaf, all of them giving the murder mystery their unique spin.
To me that was the key: to make the murder mystery genre my own, I needed to give my book a voice. I needed a narration that told the reader that this was a different kind of suspense novel from a new author named Faye Kellerman. I felt that I could put my imprimatur on my story only if I wrote from a point of expertise, i.e., if I wrote what I knew. The problem was, at thirty-two, I didn’t know all that much. I had gotten married at nineteen and had spent most of my adult life being a wife, a mother, a daughter, and a student. I could probably figure out a good plot, but who would my characters be? What could I take from myself that would give my novel an exclusive punch? Who was I and what could I do to set myself apart?
Knowing that I wanted to write a mystery novel was a good first step, but I still had to figure out who would people my deliciously intricate plot. I had to start thinking about who I was so I could develop a flesh-and-blood protagonist.
First, I considered the fact that I was female. That was more relevant than you might think, because in the early ’80s, women PIs were coming into their own. I thought about writing from the perspective of a woman PI-I certainly admired Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky-but I had been married for a very long time. As a wife and mother, I didn’t see myself as chasing down bad guys and wielding a gun, so the idea of writing a character like that really didn’t strike a chord.
Second, I was a dentist. Now, there had been lots of dentists in film and literature, but I struggled to remember the name of any dentist portrayed as a hero. My recollection was that the characterization of fictional dentists usually revolved around their being sadists, louts, or geeks. Although I was sure I could imbue my dentist with sterling qualities, I thought the profession lacked the sexy image that might be needed to interest an editor.
I vetoed a dental protagonist.
Last, I was a Jew.
My Judaism has always been important to me, and I have always loved the rites and traditions of my religion. I was raised in a Conservative home, but we bordered on traditional Orthodoxy. The term used today for my kind of observance is Conservadox. We always kept a kosher home, and we were somewhat Sabbath observant. We didn’t cook, sew, or clean on Saturday, nor did we wash clothing or turn on a vacuum. But we did turn on lights and watch TV. My father had come from an Orthodox home and was a native Yiddish speaker. He added a little of the Old Country to our lives. I loved watching my mother light Shabbos candles. I loved going to synagogue on Friday nights and eating stale sponge cake and drinking flat soda in the social hall. I loved cleaning the house for Passover with my mother and buying boxes of matzo-bread dough that has been baked for no longer than eighteen minutes to prevent it from rising. (My mother used to call it hemstitched cardboard.) I didn’t even mind fasting for Yom Kippur. I fasted earlier than was religiously required because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
Judaism was such an integral part of my being that I had no real sense of self without it. This affiliation was only fortified when I met Jonathan, who was an observant Jew. For me, the change from Conservadox to Orthodoxy was more like a small step than a giant leap. I liked praying in an Orthodox synagogue-it was what I was used to-and it didn’t bother me not to watch TV on Saturday. As I got older, the prohibition against using electricity became a boon rather than a burden.
As I thought about my Judaism and how much it had made me who I was, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t make my characters Jewish. If I wanted to write about what I knew, it was a good start for my books to have Jewish content, and what better way than to have my protagonist be an Orthodox Jewish woman? But how would that play in Peoria? Would it be too limiting for the average reader?
I thought about that for a while. Since I enjoyed reading novels that took me into other worlds, I figured that there had to be readers out there who would enjoy learning about religious Jews. There had been some precedent for Jews starring in novels. For me, Chaim Potok was a tremendous source of inspiration. The Chosen had been one of the most successful novels of its day because it provided a peek into an ultra-religious life.
But Potok wasn’t a crime fiction writer.
Harry Kemelman had penned a very successful mystery series centered on a crime-solving rabbi. The books were informative, but they were also as much about temple politics as they were about murder. The series was far from the crime novels that I had found so compelling.
I narrowed down my definitions. I wanted to write about a Jewish woman in a religious enclave but somehow integrate this into the style of an LA crime novel. That meant darker, deeper suspense fiction. Would it make sense for my religious Jewish woman to run around exposing herself to danger and mayhem to solve a crime? Would it be too artificial to have her chasing clues and outsmarting the police? Might it be better if she was involved in the crime in some way but left the actual nuts and bolts of solving the crime to someone else?
Enter the professional.
To do the grunt work, I needed a police detective or a private eye. I chose the former because it was easier and faster to get a police detective involved in a capital crime. Private eyes have to be solicited, whereas the police are the first line of attack when trying to solve a homicide. I could have included a female detective, but I chose a male for contrast. And as long as I had a man and woman, well, what can I say? I’m a sucker for romance. (Which is why Peter was divorced and Rina was a widow.) You have to remember that I had no idea that this was going to be the first novel in a series. I was trying to throw in as much as I could to maybe attract an editor.
This is how Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus first made their public appearance. But to truly understand them, let’s look into their backgrounds.
My characters talk, and I transcribe what they say. I actually hear dialogue as conversation in my head. When I don’t get the words down correctly, my characters correct me. They repeat their conversation to make sure I heard it right. It’s as if I have a tape recording of what they say, and when I make a mistake, I put the tape recorder on rewind and listen again.
“I would never say that,” Decker tells me more often than not. “You’re translating my words like a woman. Understand that I am a six-foot-four, 220-pound man. Write it over.”
“You’re swearing,” Rina tells me all the time. “I don’t swear, and even on the rare occasions that I might use foul language, I wouldn’t use those words in that situation.”
I met Rina before Peter because we had the most in common, specifically our Judaism. By way of introduction, she said to me, “I am Rina Lazarus and I know you very well. Probably a lot better than you know me.”
I told her to go on.
She said, “I know you like reading novels that introduce you to all sorts of people and places. For those two or three hours, you like to be whisked away into an alternate universe involving people of different religions and ethnicities-Catholic priests, American Indians-on the racetracks, in the heart of the Deep South. I bet there are people out there who might enjoy reading and learning about our customs and religion as much as you like reading and learning about other customs and religions. Although we’re not exactly alike, we have much in common. Why don’t you write a story that includes me?”
“Who are you?” I asked her.
“Write me into a story and I’ll let you know.”
I agreed. When Rina first started talking to me, I felt that although she was smart and pretty, she was overly analytical and a little bossy. But that was before I got to know her well. So I decided that it wasn’t enough for Rina to tell me who she was going to be in my story, she also had to let me know who she was before I met her.
Rina Miriam Elias, born Regina Elias, is a child of Holocaust survivors. Her parents, Magda Laslow and Stefan Elias, were born in Budapest, Hungary, and were transported to Birkenau-Auschwitz in 1943, roughly a year and a half before the end of the war in Europe. They knew each other very briefly before the war, and they met again in the camps. Magda worked in the kitchen and helped her husband-to-be survive by stealing food and sneaking it to him. It was a very big risk. Had she had been caught, she would have been put to death immediately.
After the war, Magda and Stefan were sent to a DP camp in Cyprus. They married there and emigrated to the United States two years later, sponsored by Magda’s uncle. Eventually, they settled in Southern California and went about the business of making a living and raising a family. Stefan went into the “schmata” business, manufacturing clothing for Sears, Penney’s, and later for Target. He did very well, allowing him to send his three children to private religious school. Rina’s older brother, David, is an ophthalmologist and lives back east with his wife and their children. Her middle brother, n'ee Scott now Shlomo, lives in a religious area of Tel Aviv, Israel, and he and his wife have seven children.
Rina was the youngest child and only daughter, a beautiful little girl with thick black hair and bright blue eyes, just like her mother. She was a daddy’s girl with an impish sense of humor, but she was always a bit on the serious side. She grew up in a Conservative home, she was a spiritual girl, and was greatly influenced by her religious day school training. When she was only eighteen, she married, even though her parents were very disapproving at her taking such a permanent step at such a young age.
But at least they liked the boy.
Yitzchak Lazarus was smart, handsome, and very idealistic. Within a year of their marriage and at Rina’s urging, the couple packed up their belongings and moved to a religious outpost in Kiryat Arba in the Judean and Samarian area of Israel. Within two years, they had two sons, Shmuel and Yaakov. Life was not only hard on an outpost of civilization, it was dangerous. The area was surrounded by enemies. To prevent the infiltration of suicide bombers, the vast acreage was enclosed with barbed wire, and when the men of the community weren’t learning Talmud, they were doing guard duty. Just a simple trip into Jerusalem to buy food and supplies was a perilous trek. The rigors of life finally began to take a toll, and a few years later, Yitzchak and Rina moved back to the States.
Yitzchak and Rina were still committed to an ultra-religious Jewish life. Since Yitzchak was from New York, they debated moving to the East Coast, where he could study at any one of the many fine established yeshivot, or seminaries. But then Yitzchak heard of a new yeshiva called Ohavei Torah in the North San Fernando Valley in California. It was headed by Rabbi Aaron Schulman, who was not only a renowned scholar but also a dynamic human being. The community was built in the middle of a large area of undeveloped land and bordered by mountains. The rural setting appealed to Yitzchak. He had grown up in Brooklyn and after two years in the wilderness of Israel, he wasn’t anxious to go back to city living. He was also very considerate of his young wife. He thought it might help her if she was a little closer to her parents.
About a year into his studies, Yitzchak began to get headaches. Rina pressed him to go to a doctor, and when he did, the news was devastating. He had an inoperable brain tumor. Within a few years he passed on, and at the age of twenty-four, Rina was a widow with two young sons to care for.
There is no role or place for a single woman in the community of a yeshiva, which is essentially a men’s college of Torah learning. Rina had made friends with some of the married women, but now that she was single, she was the odd one out. Although couples continued to be polite, most social interaction revolved around Rina inviting people to her home for one of the two main Sabbath meals or someone inviting her to eat with them. She had a few girlfriends, but without Yitzchak, she felt awkward and alone. She knew she didn’t belong, but with no college education and no real skills, she had nowhere else to go-except back home with her parents. It was a move she considered until Rabbi Schulman insisted that she stay at the yeshiva in order to regain her equilibrium.
The kindly rabbi, or rav, told her to remain in her house on the premises for as long as she wanted. This way, while she was formulating a life plan, her children could continue to go to school at the yeshiva. In exchange for room and board, Rina would help with day care of the younger children and she could also run the yeshiva’s ritual bath, or mikvah.
For the next two years, she settled down into a bland, monotonous, loveless life. Though many couples tried to set her up with other religious men, nothing clicked. After a year of shidduch dating-matchmaking-she gave up altogether and went about the business of raising her sons without a father.
Then one night while Rina was working in the mikvah, the unthinkable happened. A woman walking back to her house was abducted into the thick brush surrounding the yeshiva and raped. The unfortunate woman, Libba Sarah, was traumatized but managed to escape with her life. When Rina found her, she was dazed. Rina took her back into the mikvah and immediately called her husband, Zvi, who wasn’t home. The second call Rina made was to Rabbi Schulman, who was teaching a class. The third call was to the police.
Enter Detective Peter Decker.
An oldest child in every sense of the word, Decker was a natural leader. With his can-do, take-charge attitude combined with his obsessive nature, he could have been a CEO for any major corporation. He could have been a high-priced attorney raking in the big bucks. Instead he went into police work.
Adopted in infancy by Lyle and Ida Decker, salt-of-the-earth Baptists, Decker grew up in Gainesville, Florida, a university town near a lot of wide open space. When the boy turned four, the Deckers adopted a second son named Randall. The two boys were close and had a typical sibling relationship. The elder bossed around the younger, and the younger idolized the elder.
The Deckers had their roots in Kentucky and Tennessee, and Peter’s upbringing was decidedly homespun and miles away from the glittering Miami coastline. He was a tall and muscular kid with an easy personality that garnered him many friends-boys and girls. But he was also book smart and quick witted, and that made him a favorite with his teachers. He played football, he souped up engines on cars and raced them, he rode horses at his uncle’s ranch, and he excelled at shop classes. He probably would have gone to a local community college if it hadn’t been for the Vietnam War. It was never in Decker’s plans to volunteer for the war, but when he was called up-saddled with a low lottery number-it never occurred to him to try to get out of military duty.
Two years in Southeast Asia, working as a medic on the front lines, changed him markedly. He grew from a lanky, carefree teen to a troubled man who had witnessed the worst of humanity. Two years later, at the end of his tour and at the age of twenty, he came back to civilization without a clue as to where he was going.
He could have gone back to college-he certainly wasn’t much older than the average college freshman-but academics no longer interested him. Studies seemed sterile and pointless. Plus, the average student held little sympathy for veterans, calling them a variety of nasty epithets. He wasn’t exactly a flag waver, but he had grown up with a sense of duty and loyalty and he couldn’t understand why students were so angry with army vets even when they personally didn’t believe in the war. It was a case of shooting the messenger.
Within weeks, Decker grew restless with people, and he suspected why this was so. Having lived through two years of horror and panic, he had gotten used to the adrenaline rush. After experiencing years of crises and stress, his heartbeat had gotten used to an accelerated pace. If an event didn’t cause a rise in his blood pressure, it wasn’t worth anything.
He thought about flight school. He had keen vision and good coordination, but flight school cost money, and there were loads of trained pilots coming out of the military. He considered racing cars, but the job market for professional drivers was very small. For lack of anything more attractive, he signed up with the police academy. It was a paramilitary organization-he was used to that-and at times, it was exciting. He had a keen sense of justice, so he figured why not put bad people behind bars? Six months later, he was a uniformed officer for the Gainesville Police Department.
The decision pleased his father but didn’t sit too well with his mother, who felt her elder son had the capability to achieve much more, especially in the way of education. But that was Decker’s decision, and he was not about to be swayed. As a concession to his mother, he agreed to take night classes at the local college and pursue an Associate of Arts degree.
The police in Gainesville had a full-time job on their hands. Although the university wasn’t a hotbed of protest, in the late ’60s and early ’70s all universities had their elements of agitating students. One warm day near the start of the spring session, a particular sit-in became a raucous event that bordered on a riot. Arrests were made, including a California girl named Jan Cohen. She was outspoken and fiery in temperament and she told Peter Decker, her arresting officer, just what she thought of him and the Gainesville Police Department: the words were X-rated. Her lawyer father, Jack, quickly posted her bail and told her it was time for her to come back home to Los Angeles, wanting to keep an eye on his headstrong daughter.
Eventually Jan did return home, but not as her parents had envisioned. She brought with her a husband and a newborn who was the living embodiment of the statement that opposites attract, although the magnetism was all physical.
Jan and Peter had crossed paths in a local bar a few weeks after her arrest, but this time Decker was wearing civilian clothing. Both quickly decided that there were no hard feelings between them, and they struck up a conversation. Decker thought she was cute, and Jan was surprised that Decker wasn’t a cretin. Neither thought that the relationship would ever progress beyond a couple of quick romps, but God had other plans. Jan became pregnant. Though distressed and conflicted, she opted for abortion. She made an appointment unbeknownst to anyone. This was her problem and she’d take care of it by herself.
A few days before the procedure, she ran into Decker by chance. To this day, she still can’t recall why, but she told him about her plans. Jan expected Decker to support her, to be relieved that this was her decision. After all, they were both kids and they had very little in common. But Decker was raised in a pro-life household and though he didn’t have a problem with abortion in general, he had a big problem with abortion of his child. He implored her not to act rashly, and immediately offered to marry her.
She refused, but at least agreed to think about it for another week… which turned into two weeks. She knew she was on the fence with her own feelings, and his passionate pleas gave her pause. By the time she started her second trimester, Jan couldn’t bring herself to get rid of something with a beating heart. She finished out her term at Gainesville, had her baby six months later, and then the trio moved to Los Angeles.
They had no money, but Decker did have job experience. Since the times were turbulent and the police were considered the enemy, the LAPD was not inundated with applications. Decker quickly got a job in the North Valley, and he and Jan lived just a half hour away from Jan’s parents. His mother-in-law was nice but reserved, and Decker’s father-in-law turned out to be a terrific guy. The two of them hit it off immediately. Jack Cohen recognized Decker’s innate intelligence and suggested that he go to college and law school at night to further his economic potential. When he offered to pick up the tab, Decker couldn’t refuse. Jan and her mother seconded the motion. Being a lawyer’s wife was much more appealing to Jan than being a cop’s wife. Coming from a white-collar home, Jan was quick to remind Decker of everything they could have if he made more money.
Decker enrolled in Cal State Northridge and went on to take courses at a very expensive and non-accredited law school. It was then that Jan realized you should be careful what you wish for.
As a full-time police officer and a part-time student, Decker was always busy. With hours alone, Jan embraced motherhood and went about raising their daughter, Cynthia, an alert and active baby with a wide smile. In this way, Jan was able to stave off loneliness. And it worked until two years later, when Decker was upgraded to detective. Jan didn’t think it was possible, but her husband’s hours became even longer.
The two never saw each other. It seemed to Jan that Decker cared a lot more about police work than about being a lawyer, but she pushed those thoughts from her mind. Jan kept quiet and accepted her lot because she was waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel: the time that Decker would graduate law school, pass the bar, and become a lawyer. It was lucky for Jan that Decker was a good test taker. He passed the bar, albeit on his second try, and finally the couple celebrated with a champagne dinner-paid for by Jack Cohen. Of course it was decided that Decker would work in Jack’s firm, doing estates and trusts. The work was clean and it had regular hours.
For Jan, her husband’s new job was a blessing. Decker was actually able to make it home before Cindy went to bed, and for the first time, they could enjoy things as a family. His increase in salary allowed them to buy a house-Jack helping with the down payment-and the family quickly settled into life in suburbia.
Jan was happy, but Decker was not. Being a lawyer-especially an estate lawyer-bored him to tears. He toughed it out for a year or so, then abruptly announced that he was quitting the firm. He had decided to look for a job in the district attorney’s office. Jan was not happy with the decision, but it was tolerable. Yes, there would be a decrease in salary, but an ambitious deputy DA could go on to become a private defense attorney. Some of those wound up printing money. Plus, Decker’s experience as a cop would probably give him a leg up in understanding what went on in criminal justice.
There were no immediate spots available in the downtown division of the DA’s office. Jan thought that Decker would work with her father until a spot opened up. Instead, he did the unthinkable.
He rejoined the LAPD.
Decker was lucky enough to find an opening as a Juvenile and Sex Crimes detective in his old stomping ground in the North Valley. When a position for a downtown DA opened, Decker conveniently forgot to apply until the deadline had passed. His unilateral decision permanently ruptured their marriage, although they slugged it out for another six years or so, with Decker turning a blind eye to the slow death of their union. When Jan found love in the arms of another man, Decker was forced to concede defeat. They divorced when Cindy was nine, Jan keeping the house and Decker moving into a small apartment that could barely contain his six-foot-four frame. After several years of scrimping and saving, he bought a horse ranch with acreage that led into public trails near the mountains. The best part was that it was only about twenty minutes from his work.
The house and the stalls were in serious disrepair, but Decker had nothing but time on his hands. It took him about two years to get the house and the stalls in decent condition. By the time he was done, he had three bedrooms-one for himself, one for Cindy, now thirteen, and one for an office-three baths, and a six-stall horse stable. He built a corral, planted some citrus groves, got himself a couple of horses, and began his new life as a gentleman rancher.
For the first time in his life, Decker experienced the delicious taste of freedom. When he didn’t have Cindy every other Wednesday and on weekends, his nights were his own, and he felt like a kid again. He went out with his colleagues after work, going to bars and drinking too much. He dated lots of women and spent too much money. He worked extra hours and smoked too much. It’s not that his newly found lifestyle wasn’t fun for the next couple of years, but as he reached his midthirties, it began to wear a little thin. There were too many hangovers, too many cigarettes, and too many strange women in his life. He was in a rut. The problem was he didn’t know how to get out of it until happenstance put him in line to catch the next sex crime call. The incident was a rape at Ohavei Torah.
Rina’s telephoning the police became an immediate source of controversy and tension at the yeshiva. Almost everyone agreed that she should have waited to hear from Rabbi Schulman before she contacted the outside world. Rina never for a moment assumed that the yeshiva would want to handle it in-house only and without the police being involved. A terrible crime had been committed, and there was a rapist on the loose. Of course the police had to be brought in. And once the call was made, there was nothing anyone could do to put things in reverse. The crime became a police matter, and that was that.
Decker and his partner, Marge Dunn, arrived on the scene and began to divide up labor. Decker would interview the witnesses while Marge would talk to the victim. Both of them knew that the yeshiva was an isolated and provincial enclave, but neither was prepared for the closing of ranks that followed. It seemed that only the mikvah lady, Rina Lazarus, was willing to talk to the cops. Decker flattered himself that he was the reason that she took him into her confidence and helped him navigate the yeshiva world.
In truth, there was an initial physical attraction between the two of them, but Rina knew that having a relationship with someone not religious and probably not even Jewish was out of the question. But there was no denying kismet: the two were destined for each other. They talked and people whispered. The two of them danced around the issue of religion for a couple of years-and a couple of books-until finally they made a commitment to each other. Peter promised that he would try to live as a practicing Jew, and Rina promised that she would accept Peter as he was-an obsessive police detective who worked long and odd hours.
The two of them married between the novels Milk and Honey and Day of Atonement-off camera, so to speak. They decided on a quiet wedding because it was the second time around for both of them and there were children involved. After the wedding, Rina and her boys moved to Decker’s ranch and started a new life there. The boys got along well with their stepfather, although he was very different from Yitzchak Lazarus. Rina got along with her stepdaughter, Cindy, by frequently playing the second girl in Decker’s life. It was a blended family, not without its issues, but it functioned pretty well.
Having been a widow for years, Rina was used to having time alone and was self-sustaining. She didn’t relish long nights by herself, but she could cope. She kept busy by raising her two sons. When she found she was pregnant, she was ecstatic.
Peter, on the other hand, had a much tougher time. His integration into Orthodoxy was a long and tough journey. Rabbi Schulman was kind enough to help him with classes and tutoring, but still there were many times when Peter felt he was backsliding, at least psychologically. Many times he was unhappy being part of a community with so many rituals and rules. And the fact that his parents disapproved of the union and of Peter’s adoption of a new religion only made things worse. But even if he had been inclined to back out, Decker wouldn’t have made the move. He was loyal, a man of his word, and he genuinely loved Rina and her boys. As soon as their daughter, Hannah Rose, was born, with Rina almost dying in the process, he knew he was in for the long run. He had made a promise and he’d fulfill it to the best of his capabilities.
The breakthrough in their relationship came when Peter sold the ranch and he and Rina bought a home together. It signified a new start that didn’t carry any baggage from previous relationships. The house they purchased was set up for a family. The boys would continue to share a large bedroom, and little Hannah could have her own space. In their new place, they could start fresh and build their life together.
Both felt comfortable with a traditional marriage arrangement. For the first twelve years of their marriage, Peter worked full-time and Rina took care of the children. She loved being home with her baby. She loved to cook, she loved to garden, she loved to sew, and she loved to potchke-or tinker-around the house.
When Hannah grew to school age, Rina decided to do something other than homemaking. She began to take community college courses in teaching and education. Eventually, she was solicited to teach Hebrew at the local Jewish day school. Because the institution was Orthodox, she never had to worry about making it home on time for Shabbos or being absent from work because of the numerous Jewish holidays. Her summers were her own, and although she didn’t make much money, she loved what she did and she loved the kids. Rina continues to teach, but several parents have suggested that she should consider being the school principal. She hasn’t decided yet. Although she has been with the school almost since its inception, she knows that the added responsibility may be beyond what she’s willing to take on. So far, she’s resisted, but who knows what will happen in the future?
During the years of his marriage to Rina, Decker has been assigned to some of his most difficult cases. He has worked steadily and hard, taken necessary exams, and has gotten several promotions. Currently, he’s a detective lieutenant, and although his job includes a lot more paperwork and politics, he is still out in the field if the case is unusual and needs his attention. He still enjoys the feeling of getting his hands dirty and his heart racing, but he doesn’t mind the desk work as much as he might have sixteen years ago.
For the living, the march of time is inexorable. Fictional characters have a lot more leeway. Some of them never age, fixed in the year of their appearance. Some age but not in real time. Peter and Rina have certainly aged, and their children are firsthand accounts of how old they are.
Decker started the series in his thirties; he is now in his fifties. His once bright red hair is streaked with silver, and his joints ache every once in a while. But he’s kept off the extra pounds and is still strong and vibrant. He continues to wear a thick mustache even though it’s no longer in style.
Rina, being much younger than her husband, is still in her early forties. She’s dynamic and full of energy, especially because her children are older and require less attention, although she keeps in daily contact with all of them, including Cindy.
For Decker, having worked twenty-plus years with the LAPD, retirement is an option, although it isn’t imminent. Once Hannah leaves home for college, both Rina and Decker would like to do a little traveling. They have never been together for extended periods of time without a child in tow and they look forward to taking a long-overdue honeymoon.
They can afford to do so. First of all, they have savings. Second, if Decker lasts a few more years-and all indications say this will happen-he will retire with a pension equal to his salary. Third, Rina inherited some valuable paintings from an acquaintance. It wasn’t until later that they realized that some of the artists were well-known and that their paintings were valuable. They’ve already sold a few at Christie’s Auction House, and the money helped defray the tremendous burden of private education for Rina’s sons and their daughter. Decker had help when sending Cindy to college. Jack Cohen picked up the lion’s share of the tuition, God bless him.
Cindy is now a GTA detective in Hollywood and aspires to homicide detail. She is married to Yaakov “Koby” Kutiel, who works as a neonatal nurse at Children’s Hospital. Recently Decker helped the two of them expand their tiny house and hopes the remodel was done in order to eventually welcome a new addition to the family. At last, all that shop class instruction paid off.
Sammy Lazarus is now in Einstein Medical School in New York. He is engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Rachel, who is also at Einstein but a year behind her fianc'e. They both want to finish school before they marry. Jacob Lazarus is studying molecular biology at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He also has a steady girlfriend, named Ilana. Hannah Decker is sixteen. Driver’s license in hand, she prides herself on being completely independent except when she needs money. She adores her parents even though she sometimes considers them a little wacky. But unlike a lot of her friends, she still talks to her parents, confiding intimate details of her life that sometimes Decker feels he’d be better off not knowing. She has many male admirers, although at the moment she is without a boyfriend. This pleases her father immensely.
Where the future will take them is anyone’s guess, including my own. I don’t schedule their lives; I don’t formulate their adventures. Peter and Rina live like any other married couple with children, one day at a time. I’m grateful that from time to time they decide to include me in their plans.