America Thief (Part 2 of 2)
By Alter S. Reiss
10 December 2012
Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part 1
I couldn't get into that house when it was empty, because it was never empty. If I had a month to work, something might have come up that got everyone out. Or I could have come up with a trick that'd get them out of the house. But I didn't have a month. I had two more days, maximum.
Maybe it's something wrong with me, that I like to find a clever solution when clever isn't called for. I spent the night tossing and turning, trying to come up with something that'd get me what I wanted, and which would make me feel good about getting it. I didn't.
The next day, half an hour after Sadie Goldberg went out to fix lunch for the Rosens, I went to the door, and I knocked. I heard the footsteps coming up from the basement.
"What now?" said Goldbug, opening the door.
I got my foot in the door, and stuck an automatic in his nose. I hated to do it; if I wanted to make a living sticking guns in kids' faces, I'd have a nicer apartment.
"I've got a problem with the money you gave me," I said.
"What problem," he said, trying for tough, but wobbling. I pushed in, keeping the gun on him, and closed the door behind me.
"I don't like money that smells like jasmine," I said. "It confuses me. Where's your lab?"
"Lab?" he said. "Jasmine? You're crazy; I don't know what you're talking about."
"Look, kid," I said. "I'll look around, see what you're up to, and then leave."
"You want to steal my secrets," he said.
"Yeah," I replied. "Sure. I want to steal your secrets, so that I can live in a palace like this one. Here's the thing; it'll be just as easy for me to steal them if you're dead."
"It won't," he started.
"Shut up!" I yelled, which made him jump. It was like arguing with me from ten years ago, and I hated doing that. If it had been an apartment, rather than a row house, someone would have noticed the noise. Nobody did, and Goldberg noticed that, so he marched down into the basement.
Turned out, the basement was his room, as well as his lab. A stack of dime novels, flimsy shoes and old clothes. And some tools I recognized.
I hadn't been lying when I said I didn't need his help to figure out what he was doing. The tools, the materials, the order in which things were laid out told me what spells he was casting, and how the process was supposed to work. There was a crucible, and a salamander stove, with the channel set up, so that. . . . "Where'd you learn—" I started, and then he hit me with a frying pan. Caught me right on the side of the head. I staggered for a second, stars flashing behind my eyes. Goldbug had the pan up again, took another swing. I stepped back, he missed, fell on the floor.
"Hear O Israel," I said. He tried to get up, still holding the pan. The basement was underground. I took out my pistol and shot his bed. The bang and the shower of feathers got through to him. He put the pan down. "You weigh maybe eighty pounds. You really want to take on a guy with a gun?"
"It's my secret!" he said. "I found it! You have no right—"
I leveled the gun at his forehead. "Right doesn't enter into it," I said. "You come out of the basement when I'm still in the house, I'll kill you."
I went back upstairs, put my gun in my pocket, and checked myself in the hallway mirror. I looked a mess. A frying pan, for God's sake. Kids watch too many movies.
I had found what I was looking for. I got on a train over to Manhattan. I felt like I had gone ahead and cast that spell on the policeman. Hell, I'd rather have loosed the spell than broken what little privacy that kid had; at least the cop deserved it. Magic shapes its user, and life shapes people. Like my father said, decent people don't get pulled into things like this. I did what I needed to do it, but what would I need to do next time?
Not that this thing was done, just yet. I got out at Times Square, and went over to Lindy's. "Good evening, Mister Newman," said Rothstein, as I came in. "Have you resolved the little problem which I set for you already?"
"Mind if I sit?" I asked.
"Please do," he replied.
"The kid can turn lead into gold," I said. "But it's not balanced."
There was some hardening of faces at that, and knowing grins on others. Lansky kept his face from showing anything at all, but the rest thought that I was about to sell a bill of goods. Rothstein just looked impatient. "What do you mean, it's not balanced?"
"It's sort of like . . ." I tried to come up with a good analogy. "It's like a horse race, you know? The odds aren't balanced."
"What," said Legs, "the fuck. Are you talking. About."
I gave him a disgusted look. "Look, you know how when the horses run around and around, there are these numbers called odds, which all the people at the racetrack care about?"
I wasn't endearing myself to the Irishman, but he didn't say anything.
"Some horses have low odds, so if you bet on them, you only get a little money if they win, and some horses have high odds, so if you bet on them, you get a lot of money. Why do you think that is?"
"Some horses are fast," said Legs, "and some horses are slow."
"Not exactly," said Rothstein.
"Right," I said. "Horses with low odds are horses that lots of people are betting on. Horses with high odds are horses not a lot of people bet on. Bookies don't care how fast a horse runs; they just want to get paid."
"An admirable exposition," said Rothstein. "But I'm not sure I see the connection."
"A bookie who doesn't balance his odds," I said. "It looks good, you know—he takes money in, and when the race goes in his favor, he can be pretty flush. But it's not a profitable business."
"So, sometimes it doesn't turn into gold?"
"It's not exactly like horseracing. That's just an example. The gold he makes is real; it's yellow, and shiny, and it feels nice when you touch it. But there's not enough going into the process. It looks for balance. So nobody associated with that gold sees much of a profit, until the gold gets balanced."
Rothstein shook his head. "I still don't understand," he said. "Try a simpler explanation. Pretend that you're talking to Legs." Legs didn't like that joke, which was too bad. I thought it was funny.
"When someone turns lead to gold," I said, "they have to put something into it. Skill, experience, effort, materials, all that. They have to put in enough to make the equations equal. Goldbug isn't doing that. So the gold . . . it takes things, until it balances itself out."
Rothstein gave a short nod, but didn't seem convinced. "The Goldbergs live in a dump in Brownsville," I said. "Goldbug wears patched jackets, and socks that are mostly holes. This is what you expect from someone who can turn lead to gold? And Mr. Lansky—he's got a pigeon on a string who pays two hundred dollars in gold every week. Why would he want to sell you someone like that?"
"You think I was trying to sell—" started Lansky.
"Yeah," said Rothstein.
"Yeah. My point is, the kid has potential. But he's trying to take shortcuts, and getting nowhere. A little instruction, he could—"
"No," said Rothstein. "Meyer, you wanted twenty thousand for the father's debt." Rothstein pulled out the biggest wad of cash I had ever seen. Well, that I had ever seen, since the last time I saw Rothstein pay someone. "You'll take eight and a quarter, and you'll be happy."
Lansky hesitated for a second, then shrugged. "Sure, I'll take it."
Rothstein riffled through the cash in his hand. "Here you go." Then he peeled off some bills for me. "Benny, I said a thousand; that's yours. So long as you don't say word one to that kid about changing his methods. You do that, it's still yours, but I'll have people kill you. You understand?"
"Not entirely," I said. "He'd be worth more if he knew what he was doing."
"People come to me with things," he said. "If I can see a profit in it, I'll do some buying and selling. This kid—this kid I can unload. Someone who looks like he's worth a fortune, but doesn't produce shit? There are a thousand people to whom I'd love to give that sort of present."
Truth is, I did understand. I just didn't like it. "The gold is eating him up," I said. "It's taking parts of him, looking for balance. Five years, maybe ten years—he'll be dead."
"Buddy," said Legs, "he can join the club."
That got a laugh from Rothstein's crowd.
"Well," I said. "You own him now. It's your call, I guess."
"Exactly," he said.
I decided not to argue. I made my way out to the street. Where I loitered for the better part of an hour, until Meyer Lansky came out.
"Mr. Lansky," I said. "Can I have a couple of minutes?"
He shrugged. "Sure, why not." Siegel and another of Lansky's guys pulled up in the big Lincoln. "Hop in."
It wasn't ideal, but I hopped.
"So," I asked. "Good enough?"
"Good enough for what?" asked Lansky.
"Good enough that Rivki Krantz enjoys the fresh air and cool weather of upstate New York, without anything bad happens to her?"
If they wanted to shoot me, I had mailed a letter to a lawyer in Omaha, Nebraska, who I kept on retainer. Nobody knew him—hell, I didn't know him. But every week, I sent a letter. When I died, things would be published which would cause all kinds of upset.
Lansky didn't seem bothered by my accusation. He settled into his seat, straightened the cuffs of his shirt. He was a little guy, but he seemed taller than he had in Lindy's. At a guess, I figured Lansky was about twenty, maybe twenty-two. In Rothstein's shadow, I'd have said eighteen. "Sure," he said. "How'd you figure it was me who sent you that message?"
"Who else would care if I told Rothstein yes or no on the Goldbug?" I said.
Lansky gave a half-smile. "And you found a way to say both. If the kid performs, you said he could. If he doesn't, you said he wouldn't."
"You could be having this conversation with Rothstein," continued Lansky. "Why me?"
"Because I've told Rothstein what he needed to know. Now it's your turn."
"Hey," said Siegel. "You want me to shut this fellow up?"
"No," said Lansky. "He's got a letter somewhere. So what do I have to know?"
"That maybe I'm a nut. But I'm not a stupid nut."
"Benny," said Lansky. "I think it's you who needs to know some things. My friend Mr. Siegel thinks that you're a fraud. More than that, he thinks that I think that you're a fraud. But you're not a fraud, and you're not a nut."
I didn't say anything. "Here's another thing you need to know. I don't care that you're not a fraud. Rothstein is a gambler, so he's superstitious. More than that, he's excited by superstition. Me, I have an advantage. I have a lack of ambition."
"A lack of ambition?" I asked, seeing as how that was expected of me.
"Exactly. I make money with things I know, with things I understand. I make a lot of money. I don't need to jump in to things I don't understand, to try and make more."
I had to admit, he had a point. "And you're telling me this," I said. "To let me know that if I get between you and money, you'll have me fed to the bears in the circus."
That got a chuckle. "Exactly right," he said.
"Not exactly right," said Siegel. "It'd be the river, same as everybody else. I'm not some kind of body disposal poet."
"Close enough," I said, and they let me off.
It had been an interesting few days, and I had a thousand dollars. The problem was, I had earned it by turning a child over to the slaughter. A horrible child who had hit me in the head with a frying pan.
My father was still awake when I came in, reading something in close-written Aramaic. "What do you want?" he asked. I took out a book, wrapped in paper. It was from my collection, and I hated to let it go. I pushed it across the table. "This is a dangerous thing I'm asking," I said, "but next year or the year after, see that Yidl Goldberg gets this, for Chaim."
He touched it like it was on fire. "This is one of the tools of your trade," he said. "I'd sooner give him poison for his children."
"It's to save the kid's life," I said.
"There are three things," he said, "which it is better to die than transgress. Idolatry, adultery, and murder."
"It's not idolatry," I said. "It has nothing to do idols."
"Yeah, it's magic."
"In the Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides says that magic comes close to idolatry," I said. "But he doesn't say it is idolatry. Wounding comes close to murder, but it isn't murder, and as such, it isn't worse than death."
"You still remember," he said. "You've gone away, but it's still there."
I had shifted into rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, there, in addition to Yiddish, because that's how conversations like that work. So I had to admit that he had a point. "America thief," I said.
"America thief," he replied.
It's a phrase that means, "America, you clever rascal, you're a hell of a place," and which also means, "you take so much away, America." We meant different things by it, we were both right, and there was nothing else to say.
He hadn't touched the book, and hadn't said that he would, and I wasn't going to press it. I gave my dad two hundred bucks, most of which he'd probably give to charity, and I went home.
If Rothstein found out about what I'd done, he'd have my parents killed. He wouldn't, because the part of town he's from, there's a wall between people like me and people like my father. Also, by the time my father passed the book along, Rothstein would probably have forgotten about the whole thing, if he was still alive.
I'd have been better off if I hadn't done anything. Goldbug was never going to like me. But what the hell. Sometimes I do things because I have to, sometimes I do things I don't have to do.