America Thief (Part 1 of 2)
By Alter S. Reiss
3 December 2012
Part 1 of 2
New York, 1923
I looked across the back seat of the Lincoln at Siegel, and he flashed me one of his movie-star smiles. He was smiling because there was a chance that he'd shoot me before the night was out. Not that he had anything against me personally, but Siegel liked killing people.
His name was Benjamin. To his face, people called him Ben, and when he wasn't around, people called him Bugsy, because he was a mean crazy. My name was Beinish, and people called me Benny when they wanted to be polite. When they didn't, I was "that nut Newman," because I thought that I could do magic. That, they'd call me to my face, to my elbow, and to any other body part they wanted.
Bugsy wasn't going to kill me that night, because while they thought I was crazy for thinking I could do magic, sometimes people needed me to do magic for them. Siegel had told the driver to take us up to Lindy's at Time Square, so I had a pretty good idea of who wanted to see me.
I wasn't wrong. He was sitting in his usual booth. Tall, thin-lipped, with a big smile and anxious eyes. The Man Uptown, Mister Arnold Rothstein. "Hey, Benny," he said. "Step up, have a seat."
I stepped up, and I sat down. There was the usual crowd at the table; mostly Jews, but also Irish and Italians, even a colored fellow. Rothstein wasn't picky about his company, not that way, and he needed to have people around him wherever he was. Me, I'd have rather not have been there, but not because I hate Micks or Dagos.
See, it was a Friday afternoon, and since it was winter, sunset was coming on. Which was a problem, because I had agreed to go to a Sabbath dinner at my parents'. I didn't mention this, because I had a feeling that Rothstein wouldn't care about sunset, the Sabbath, or the sort of headache I got after a fight with my old man. A waiter brought over a steak for me, and told Rothstein he had a call; The Man Uptown went off to talk business, and I chowed down.
Lindy's was the furthest thing from kosher, but despite my parents' best efforts, I didn't care about that. If I had, I might have missed out on a damn fine steak.
I was halfway done when Rothstein came back to the table. "So, Benny," he said. "You want some work?"
I chewed, I swallowed. "That depends on what sort of work," I said.
"The sort of work that means you see another day," said one of Rothstein's friends, an ugly Irish guy.
"Easy, Legs," said Rothstein. "It's the sort of work that you're . . . uniquely suited to pursue. Mr. Lansky is the fellow who brought this circumstance to my attention, so, Meyer?"
Siegel was Lansky's friend; from what I heard, they had set fire to pushcarts whose owners didn't pay protection, back when they were kids on the Lower East Side. Lansky was one of the men who walked in Rothstein's shadow.
"You know Hyman Goldberg?" asked Lansky.
"The Goldbug?" I asked. "Yeah, I've seen him around. He's some sort of fence, right?"
"Some sort," said Lansky. "Buys and sells precious metal. He's selling more gold than he's buying."
"A fence," I said, "cheating people?"
"Funny," said Lansky. "The gold he sells checks out. We've had it tested."
I looked over at Rothstein, who gave a little nod of his head. If there was anyone in that crowd who could secure the honest cooperation of an analytic chemist, it was Rothstein.
"Goldbug's dad," said Lansky, "owes me money. Which is how I found this out; Julius Goldberg is making his payments, and he's not earning enough to be making them."
I knew the Goldbug because his family went to my father's synagogue. That Yidl Goldberg had borrowed money from Lansky and couldn't pay wasn't a huge surprise. There were eight kids in that family, and Yidl was a good enough salesman to support one kid. One kid who didn't eat much, and never needed new shoes.
"So," I said. "You think that Goldbug is making gold out of nothing."
"Lead," said Rothstein. "He buys a lot of lead."
I looked around the table. Most of the people there weren't paying much attention. Lansky looked a little embarrassed, and Siegel shook his head. "You want me to find out if Chaim Goldberg can turn lead into gold, or if he's running some sort of scam," I said.
"Of course he's running a scam," said Lansky. "I want to know how he's doing it."
"My friend Meyer is unfortunately narrow-minded," said Rothstein. "I am willing to entertain the possibility that he's getting his gold through means that are not generally considered possible. Which is why I have entrusted this task to your care."
"So you want me to find out where Goldbug is getting his gold from," I said. "And?"
"No and," said Rothstein. "Just that. It's a simple job, and I'll give you a thousand dollars for doing it."
"A thousand dollars is a lot of money, Benny," said Legs, putting his oar in. "Live things up a little, show your girl a good time."
To the extent I had a girl, it was Rivki Krantz, and there was a limit to how good a time I could show her, as she was in prison. Either Rothstein knew that, or he just didn't like it when Legs pushed himself in where he wasn't wanted, because the look he gave the Irishman wasn't entirely complimentary. "In any case," he said, turning back to me, "that's the proposition. Interested?"
If I wasn't interested, there'd be problems. Arnold Rothstein isn't a guy you turn down without a good reason. And, hell, a thousand dollars was a lot of money. At some point during the conversation, the waiter had replaced what was left of my steak with a slice of cheesecake, so I dug into that. "It's an interesting story," I said, when it was clear that they were waiting for a response from me. "I'm interested."
They had nothing else to say, so I finished my cheesecake, and headed for the door. Siegel was waiting outside. "Give Rothstein an answer, and quick," he said. "None of us want to waste time on this craziness."
Siegel had dropped into Yiddish to find the right word for craziness. First time any of them had said anything in Yiddish; it seemed that the whole interview had gotten under Siegel's skin.
It had gotten under my skin, too. Siegel went back inside, rather than driving me back out to Brooklyn, so I paid my nickel, and was rattled and battered as the IRT made its clattering way out to Brownsville.
When I started studying magic, it seemed like a ticket to a world that wasn't supposed to belong to people like me. Now, I was running errands for gangsters, which was exactly what was expected of people like me. It didn't put me in the Sabbath spirit.
There were a couple of cops waiting for me at the Saratoga Avenue station. They didn't help my mood either.
"Come on, Benny," said one of them. "We're taking you in."
"I didn't—" I started, and he lifted his billy-club.
I went. Four weeks, nobody comes to visit. The one day I want to go visit my folks, everyone wants to talk to Benny Newman.
They bundled me up into a car, and drove me over to the station. Which was a madhouse, it being Friday night. Hookers yelling that they hadn't been hooking, stuss dealers yelling that they hadn't been gambling, religious guys yelling that it was Friday night. Me, they didn't take to booking, so I didn't have a chance to yell about anything. Just a quiet concrete room, with a quiet man sitting behind a desk.
They sat me down, so I sat. Neither the detective nor the uniforms said anything, so I didn't say anything either. It's a game that cops like to play, to rattle people. I'd prefer cards, maybe even chess, but cops aren't good at games more complicated than "the not saying anything game."
"Benny Newman," said the detective, finally.
I was tempted to say something smart, but that would earn me a club to the back of my head, and wouldn't make the cop any smarter. "Yeah?" I said.
I got a club to the back of the head anyway. "Show some respect," said the guy who hit me.
"Yes, sir, Mister officer, sir," I said, which got me another shot, this time in the ribs. That one I had been expecting.
"Easy, boys," said the detective. "You're a con man, Benny, you're a thief, and you associate with criminals of the worst type."
That last part was true; I mean, those guys behind me had just committed assault, and the guy behind the desk was slandering me. I didn't agree, because I didn't want them to do it again. Slander hurts my feelings. "What do you want from me?" I asked, instead.
"Tell Rothstein that the kid can turn lead into gold," he replied. "He wants to believe it."
That was interesting. "Okay," I said. "Sure."
"I am sure, Benny," he said, standing up. "Do you know why I'm sure?"
Because being not sure required enough brains to think something, and also think that it might not happen. "No idea," I replied.
"It's because there is a Miss Rebecca Krantz currently enjoying the hospitality of the Women's Reformatory at Bedford Hills. Bedford Hills is a fine institution, whose staff makes every effort to reform the depraved and degraded souls given over to their care. And yet, despite those herculean efforts, accidents do occur. If you do not tell Rothstein that Hyman Goldberg can turn lead to gold, an accident will happen to Miss Rebecca Krantz."
I looked across the table at the detective. He was wearing a shoulder holster. Badge clipped to his belt, where I couldn't see the name. Brown-blond, thinning hair, bit of a gut. An American, born in America. He probably had a dog when he was a boy. He was playing with me. A man doesn't talk like that unless he's having some fun.
I thought of a few things that I could say to him, thought about them again, and said nothing. Rivki Krantz was up in Bedford Hills for three months for "lewd and obscene behavior," by which they meant, "being a hooker, even though they didn't actually catch her hooking." If I talked back to detective chamber of commerce, he'd make a phone call, and they'd beat the shit out of her. Best case, they'd beat the shit out of her.
Lansky and his crowd think that I'm a fraud. Rothstein thinks I'm an errand boy. The cops think I'm a con man and a thief. They're all right, and they're all wrong. I was holding my hands in my lap; I made a series of small, sharp motions. I took all my rage and pain, and turned it into a little ball, like the little balls of dirt you get when your hands aren't clean and you rub them together.
I didn't have any hair or skin from this guy, and I didn't have his name, but he had given me enough shit to swallow that if I loosed that spell, it would have killed him.
I didn't, for two reasons. First, if you want a guy dead, you give a guy like Siegel some money, and the guy dies. Quicker, easier, safer than doing it with magic. If I had cast the spell, the guy would have gotten cancer, or fallen down a flight of stairs, maybe next week, maybe five years later. Some guys I knew in the Bronx, for two hundred bucks they'd have his body in the East River before the Sabbath ended, guaranteed.
Second, taking all that bile and spite, and shaping it into an instrument of death . . . magic shapes its maker. I should turn myself into the sort of witch who blights crops and kills lambs in their birthing for some penis with a cheap suit and a badge?
"So, what," I said. "You want me to go back to Manhattan and tell Rothstein the kid is legit?"
The penis smiled again. "No," he said. "Not tonight. You know your business better than that. You take a few days, poke around, do your hoodoo. Then you tell Rothstein what we want him to hear."
"Sure," I said. "No problem."
Then they let me out, to finally make my way to my parents. By this point, I was late enough that I halfway wanted someone else to grab me off the street, yell at me for some reason, maybe threaten to kill me. No such luck; instead, I had to go to my parents' apartment, where the Sabbath candles were burning in the window, and my father was sitting at the table. He wasn't happy.
"Your mother," he said as I came in, "was worried sick. She went to sleep crying."
"Sorry," I said. "Things have happened."
"Things," he said. "Things that keep you out until midnight, looking like—"
"If you want me to tell you about them," I said, "I'll tell you about them."
He paused. We don't have an easy time of it, my father and me, and hearing about my work doesn't make it easier.
"It's late," he said. "Have the meal."
I didn't follow the rules, but I knew them. I said the blessing over the sacramental wine, washed my hands, said the blessing over the bread, and so on. The less said about the wine, the better, but the soup was warm and good; for the first time since Siegel had driven up to me on that street corner, I started to relax.
"So," said my father. "What things?"
He asked, I told him.
"That Krantz girl," he said, when I was done. "She's nothing but trouble. I've said that."
"If I ask you if Yidl Goldberg takes money from charity, you wouldn't say he does, because you don't say that sort of thing. The Krantzes, everybody knows they don't. They don't work, either. So Rivki does what she does."
"And work in a factory is too good for her?"
"I tell you what, Pop," I said. "You try and feed three people on what a girl can get in a factory, and you can ask that." He never liked it when I called him Pop. He also never worked with his hands for a day in his life. He was a rabbi, and while that didn't pay much, it was better than factory work.
"And you can't give her enough from your money?"
"When I have extra, I try," I said. "But she—"
"But all your money, it goes for to make magic." Unlike most people, my father believed I could do magic. He also believed that I was going to hell for doing magic, but I'll take what I can get.
"If I didn't make magic, I wouldn't have any money coming in," I said.
"And a factory is too good for you, also?"
"You know what? A factory is too good for me, also. A factory is such a good place, that I can't walk into it. That's why I do what I do."
He sighed, shook his head. "So what are you going to do?" he asked.
"Do?" I said. "I'll look around. Maybe this kid is legitimate. That'd make everybody happy."
"You don't think he is."
I shook my head. "Making gold out of lead . . . it's hard to do. An expert, maybe. But a kid who's taught himself? No. Not possible."
"And it's important for you to tell the truth to these people?"
I shrugged. "I don't like lying," I said.
"It's good you have principles," said my father. "The problem is that they're stupid principles."
I had to smile. "It's not just principle," I said. "Rothstein finds out I lied to him, one morning, I wake up with a hole in my head."
"You were a charming little boy, you know that?" said my father. "Everyone would give you things, because you were so charming. You would say your prayers every morning with such concentration. Better we should have stayed in Galicia than to see you come to this."
I was four when we left the old country. I didn't remember it very well, but I remembered it well enough to know that it wasn't pleasant. "You want I should buy you a ticket, so you can go back?"
"If I go back, do you come with me?" My expression was a sufficient answer to that one. "So, what do you want, I should go to be killed by the Polacks?"
"I don't want," I started, and then shook my head. "I don't need this on top of everything."
I headed out of the kitchen for my old room, and my father called out after me. "You think that these problems are things which happened to you, and it's not your fault," he said.
I turned and looked at him from the doorway. "I didn't invite myself in to Siegel's car," I said.
"People who lead decent lives," he said. "Do they get invited to rides like that?"
He had a point, but if I decided to walk the straight and narrow, I'd leave Mr. Rothstein feeling put out, and I hate to upset a man who employs so many violent people. So I went to sleep, instead of arguing further.
The next morning, I went to synagogue with my father. Normally, I would duck out of that, and there weren't too many objections when I did—my father wanted me to be in synagogue, but he also knew that when I showed up, it wasn't an advertisement for his skills as a spiritual leader. Maybe the people there didn't all know about the magic, or about the gutters I rolled in. But they could tell I wasn't living in full accordance with ritual law.
I wasn't there to live according to ritual law. I was there to look at the Goldberg family. The women were up in the balcony, Yidl and the boys had a row near the back.
Most of the old men at that synagogue took it seriously, swaying back and forth, eyes closed and faces creased in concentration. Some of the younger men were like that too. Not Yidl, and not Goldbug. Yidl spent the whole time talking to people near him, except when he started drifting off to sleep. Then he got annoyed at some of the kids who were talking, and shushed them loudly. Goldbug didn't talk much, but he also didn't pray much. He just sat there, folded into himself and sullen, in a shirt whose sleeves were too long, and a jacket which was two sizes too small.
By my reckoning, Goldbug was fifteen, but he looked maybe twelve. When the services were finished, there was always a bite to eat—not a lunch, but a snack, with tiny cups of sacramental wine. Rather than jostle in, I watched the Goldbergs. Goldbug pushed in, and stuffed a whole handful of crackers into his mouth before my father finished the blessing on the wine, and while his father was less obvious about it, he didn't eat any less. If Goldbug was turning lead to gold, the Goldbergs weren't turning gold to bread.
I thought about going over and having a chat, and didn't. It could be that I was going to leave the Goldberg family with the impression that someone broke into their house to see their kid's chemistry set. Which meant that I shouldn't go over and start talking about their kid's chemistry set. It's insights like these which make men like Arnold Rothstein seek me out, when they have a problem too complicated for them to handle on their own.
After services, it was lunch with my folks, which was as much fun as could be expected, and then back to my place in the Bronx. The next morning, back to Brownsville.
One of the few luxuries that the Goldbergs enjoyed was that they lived in a rowhouse, rather than a tenement. The house was owned by an uncle, or a cousin, or something, and he let the Goldbergs live there without paying rent. It wasn't a very nice rowhouse, but when you have ten people and no money coming in, well. If there was a heaven, that uncle or cousin or something was buying shares.
Hell, I'd say a psalm or two for him myself; he gave them a house opposite a candy store, where I could sit and watch the goings on at the Goldbergs without being obvious. There was also a crowd of loafers outside, so when I was done drinking egg creams and reading magazines, I could go stand outside and loaf. It was perfect.
Unfortunately, the situation at the Goldbergs' wasn't perfect. Sadie Goldberg left her house with one of her daughters—Adele, I think was her name—at about six. She came back at seven, with a few bags of groceries. Then the kids went out to work. Yidl left later, at around nine. Before Yidl left, Goldbug came back from wherever he went in the morning. Then Sadie left, an hour before noon; she cooked for the Rosens. After she came back, Goldbug went out. Then the other kids started coming back at about six. Yidl came back last, with a stagger in his step. Gold into liquor he could manage.
There was no time when the house was empty. The closest it came was during lunch, when there was nobody but Goldbug there. I had hoped to get in, look at the kid's setup, and leave without anyone noticing me. That wasn't going to work. Also, the egg creams at that place across the street from the Goldbergs were terrible; they used half as much syrup as they should have. It was like a kiddie version of watered rum.
I wasn't completely out of ideas. There were plenty of pawnshops around, so I found one, and got a gold brooch for two bucks. If the guy had known it was gold, he'd have charged more, but pawnbrokers don't have as good an eye for that sort of thing as wizards. The stones were fake—the originals had probably been replaced, and the thing was . . . well, maybe a Hungarian would like it.
I balanced it in my hand. About a quarter of an ounce. Four dollars metal weight; one of the benefits of my career is that you learn to recognize things like that. Particularly when it comes to gold. There's a connection between gold and the magical world. It was either that, or I was just more Jewish than most guys. Point being, I knew what I had.
I stopped Goldbug on his way home. "Hey," I said. "Kid."
"Yeah?" he replied. I was watching his eyes. He wanted to be home, but he was willing to wait.
"I heard you buy gold," I said.
"Sometimes," he said. I passed the brooch over.
"Dollar fifty," he said, handling it.
"Four dollars," I replied.
"Oh, come on," he said. "You want four dollars for this, go to a jeweler. You want to get rid of something hot. Dollar seventy-five."
"Who's saying it's hot? I found it in a Cracker Jack box. Three."
"Look, I don't have time for this. Two twenty-five, or get out of my way."
"Hell of a way to do business, kid," I said. "Two twenty-five, fine."
He paid me out in a pair of crumpled bills and a quarter, and took the brooch.
An interesting exchange. For one thing, I had made a profit. Not enough that I was thinking of going into business selling gold to Hyman Goldberg, but enough to pay my egg-cream expenses. Wherever Goldbug was getting his gold, it wasn't from pawnbrokers, or there wouldn't be deals like that at a hock-shop two blocks from his house. Also, he knew gold, when he held it.
Once the kid was out of sight, I uncrumpled the bills, and took a long smell. Mostly, they smelled like money, and like damp pockets, but there was something else. Jasmine.
Things had changed since I was a kid—nobody talked about the Kaiser anymore, and there were a lot more automobiles and a lot fewer horses. But while it was possible that the style of grooming among the youth of Brownsville had changed, I didn't think that they had changed enough for the boys to be wearing jasmine perfume.
Similarly, while it was possible that the techniques of wizardry had changed since I learned them, those don't change easily. And jasmine—that is, oil of the jasmine flower, collected when it opens on the first night of summer—was one of the ingredients that was used to turn lead into gold.
Which was interesting. Also interesting was a big Lincoln that slowed down as I finished sniffing my bill. Siegel was in the back seat, but he didn't call me over or anything; just gave me a smile, and then the car drove on. Two days I had been working, and already they were impatient. Impatient with guns.
If they wanted a quick answer, I had one. The kid was doing magic. Which was nice; it was good to see someone from the old neighborhood taking an interest. But I couldn't tell Rothstein to be happy about his goose, and go on collecting those eggs. Goldbug was too poor, too young, and too careless to be turning lead into gold.