One hell of a time

Issue 4/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Lanthandlerskans son (‘Country shopkeeper’s son’, Söderströms, 1997). Brooklyn Bridge, Christmas Eve: Otto, a Finland-Swede, attempts to start a new life in 1930s America, where swindlers and even gangsters can, he finds, be duped – even Al Capone. Otto’s grandson listens to his story on tape

I have always loved that sight. A city that you see from the air at night, all lit up. It’s’ beautiful – and at the same time so frightening. I don’t really know how to describe it.

Well, it was Christmas Eve. I was wandering around New York. I had eaten at an automat. Do you know what that is? They don’t exist any more, but in the Twenties and Thirties they were common in America. It’s a cafe, but they didn’t have any staff or waiters, instead the walls were full of little glass boxes where the food was on display. You could select what you wanted – sandwiches and pies and salads, anything. Then you put your nickels and dimes in a slot beside the box and the glass opened and’all you had to do was take out the plate. I was fond of the automats. I liked just sitting there and watching other people eat, no one bothered about you, you were left alone and that suited me. When I’d finished eating I went outside again and somehow or other I wandered upon to Brooklyn Bridge. There was a lot of traffic, people were on their way home. Well, just as I was walking there alone in the company of my thoughts I heard someone shouting ‘Help! Help me!’

At first I thought I wouldn’t bother. But then I saw two big guys who were grappling with a third guy. It looked awful, like they were planning to chuck him down into the Hudson River. They had got him up on the handrail and he was flailing his arms and squealing like a wild boar with a butcher’s knife at his throat. I have never been able to stand several guys teaming up on a guy on his own who is also much smaller than they are. So I didn’t stop to think, but ran straight across to where they were. I gave the nearest of the bums a belt on the jaw so he collapsed like a sack of potatoes. When his buddy turned round he got my fist right in the schmozzle, and I used some force, so I figure some dentist had to do a lot of renovation before that guy was able to smile like a human being again. I’ve always been able to put up a fight when I have to, let me tell you. After that I didn’t wait for the redneck to get over his surprise, but grabbed hold of the guy they’d been trying to drown. As luck would have it, a taxi came by and I made it stop and then dumped him inside and told the cab driver to step on the gas, and we sped off like a greased fart.

As we sat in the cab I finally had time to take a closer look at the guy I had saved from a watery end to the Christmas vacation. He was a real gentleman. He was dressed in a grey suit with waistcoat, white shirt and necktie, and on his feet he had patent leather shoes and white spats. He had a walking stick, and a pink in his buttonhole. Well, of course, the suit was as crumpled as a used paper bag, and he had lost his hat. And of course, I couldn’t help wondering how a gentleman like him had ended up getting thrown in the river on Christmas Eve and all, but I didn’t start asking any questions at the time, just figured that eventually I’d be able to work out how it all hung together. Which turned out to be the right way of going about it.

The taxi dropped us off outside a speakeasy and the gentleman, who had begun to recover the faculty of speech, thanked me for my help and said the least he could do in return was to buy me a drink. I didn’t turn down the offer. So we went inside and got ourselves something to drink and began to talk.

He was a funny guy. He introduced himself as Ludvig von Lustig, former captain in the Austrian Army. Both the name and the officer’s title were as phoney as a two ­dollar bill, and during all the time we were acquainted I never found out what his real name was. I suppose he was American, though when he wanted to it he could speak English with an accent that made him sound as though he was from Austria or Germany. He found that very useful, as it later turned out. As for me, I didn’t say much, and when he asked my name I said it was Boström, damned if I know why I picked on that name in particular, and said I was a Swedish seaman. He nodded thoughtfully and took a monocle out of his pocket and screwed it into his eye. A monocle! I had never seen anything like it. He studied me closely as though I were a recruit on parade. He had piercing eyes, it was as if he was trying to look right through me. For a long time he just sat there, looking at me and not making a sound. In the end I started to feel quite uncomfortable, I’ll tell you. I wondered if I ought to get out of there. Then all of a sudden he became a changed man. He ordered more whiskey and began to talk about everything between heaven and earth, he was warm and polite as though we were old acquaintances. It took me quite a while to realise what was going on. The guy was questioning me, and he was so damn good at it that I nearly didn’t notice that I was being quizzed. Well, I figured I’d do best to go on keeping my distance, and just answered yes and no to his questions. At the same time I wondered what he was after. Then it gradually dawned on me. He was wondering if I liked my life at sea. It wasn’t bad, I replied. Would I like to exchange it for a slightly different job on dry land? Well, that depended entirely on what sort of job it was, I said. Then he nodded and laughed and said he thought that was a good answer. I could have a job with him. He needed an assistant. The one he had had up till now had left him in the lurch in a shameful way. He had studied me closely and come to the conclusion that I was an honest and reliable guy. I didn’t say too much and made it look as though I used my head for more than simply putting my hat on. He liked people like me. So if I wanted, I could have a job with him, Mr Lustig. He could guarantee good pay and quite an interesting time.

Yes, boy. So it was that I was hired as assistant and bodyguard to Victor Lustig, who right then was passing himself off as the Austrian count Ludvig Caspar von Lustig ­though if necessary he could also be General Biehlsdorff, or Sir Archibald Mallet-Leigh, or Mr Dionysos Williamson, oil millionaire from Austin, Texas …. The guy had as many names as the devil himself is supposed to have. He must have been one of the biggest liars and swindlers that ever walked the face of the earth. He could tumblack into white and lies into truth just by saying a couple of sentences and blinking his eyes. He could have cheated the shirt off the back of the President of the United States if he’d wanted to. Later on he claimed that he’d once managed to sell the Eiffel Tower in Paris to Europe’s biggest scrap merchant and made a nice profit on the deal. Another time he had duped an American tourist from Kentucky into buying Nelson’s column in London for six thousand pounds. That was just after the world war, when Lustig – I have to call him that, for, as I said, I still to this day don’t know what his real name was  – was wandering around Europe, where he’d arrived with the us Army when America entered the war in 1917. Though he admitted that he’d quickly lost his taste for the soldier’s life, managed to go missing during an assault in the Argonne, and then quietly gone his own way.

After thinking about it for a while, I took up his offer. We sealed it with a handshake. I thought, what the hell did I have to lose? And by Christmas morning I was installed in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in mid Manhattan. It was a big step up the ladder. I played the part of Count Lustig’s secretary, just arrived in America from Austria. Rather cheekily, I called myself Mannerheim. It was a good name to have.

Right from the start, Lustig demonstrated how a real swindler operates. We couldn’t have me going into the hotel the way I was dressed. But he found a solution. In the middle of the night we went to a high-class clothing store on Broadway, and he started knocking on the door until a night guard appeared, wondering what the hell all the noise was about. There was Lustig, at two a.m. on Christmas morning, with his monocle in his eye and his walking stick at the ready, introducing himself as the Austrian consul general in New York, demanding to buy some decent clothes for his poor secretary who had arrived in town on Christmas Eve only to be beaten up and robbed naked and have his baggage stolen by gangsters and hoodlums. Lustig told the man to telephone for the store manager, who arrived and bowed and scraped before us. I was fitted out with a worsted suit and a camel overcoat, we bought underwear and several pairs of socks, we even found me a hat. Lustig signed the bill and told them to send it to the Austrian Consulate General on Fifth Avenue. Then we wished them Happy Christmas and left.

Never in my life had I looked as snazzy as I did in that get-up. But all the time I was scared that we would be found out and they would call the cops. But Lustig told me not to worry. The main thing is always to look sure of yourself and be ahead of the game, and not give anyone a chance for second thoughts. As soon as you begin to hesitate, the game is up. The cooler you are, the more people will believe you. But you have to be careful about the details, little things you’re careless about may easily upset the best ­laid plans. So, far example, we took care to get me some suitcases that we filled with bricks and other junk to make them feel heavy enough; people arriving at a luxury hotel with no baggage always arouse suspicion.

So there I was, living at the Ritz-Carlton. I guzzled turkey off silver plates and drank champagne and real smuggled Scotch and wallowed like a pig in a sty. The porters and maids were at my beck and call as soon as I showed myself. I must admit that I wasn’t at all unhappy with that state of affairs. Once I’d got used to it, I stopped being scared we would be found out and get caught. It was as though Ludvig’s self-confidence infected me in a way. Mostly we stayed in the rooms he rented. Ludvig said he needed peace and quiet as he was planning a big coup. ‘A real scam,’ as he called it.

*
I press the PAUSE button on the little tape recorder and instantly the silence fills my ears. What is the truth and what are the lies in your story, Otto? As usual, I don’t know where I am with you. Do you just make up those stories about the exploits of the swindler Victor Lustig? Are you a liar telling stories about another liar?

I don’t know. I must admit that you’re making me damn confused.

There are gaps in your story. In those gaps I can sense all the things you keep quiet about, like black smudges. And the smudges run together like daubs of black paint. Maybe they are starting to form a pattern. I don’t know. With a sigh, I press the button marked PLAY again.

*

Lustig was a man of expensive habits. He had to have the best of everything when it came to clothes and food and whisky and cigars, he would never smoke nickel cigars, they had to be genuine Havana, otherwise they stayed in the box. And then he was crazy about gambling and betting on horses. He bet big money, yes sir. When he lost, he lost in a big way. It was plain that those two rednecks had been after him because of some gambling debts, even though he would never talk about that business to me. You have to gamble if you’re going to stand up to life, he used to say. Sometimes he had strange turns when he got gloomy and down in the mouth. Then he used to shut himself up in his bedroom for days on end and not say a word, he didn’t want anything to eat or even to drink, he just sat there in the dark like some kind of graven image. What he was thinking and brooding about, I never discovered.

At last he would emerge again, pale and haggard, with black rings under his eyes, looking like death’s own brother, shaking in every limb. The talk gushed from his mouth like water from a drainpipe in a rainstorm, it was as though he needed to make up for all the time he’d been silent. He paced up and down like a fox in a cage. Gradually, of course, I found out why he behaved like that: every now and again he took morphine. For long periods of time he could go without it completely, but then he would get the craving, withdraw to his room and inject the drug. Then a day or two would go by, and then he would slowly become his old self again. After that, he would take me out with him to the museums and the art exhibits and the theater, though I would rather have gone to the movies, and we ate at restaurants and sat in speakeasies. That was the way we lived. And then in October, when it started to get cold and miserable in New York, one morning he suddenly said ‘let’s pack’, and so we checked out of the hotel and took the Orange Blossom Special to Florida, that was the name of the Miami express.

As we sat in the train, he started asking me what I really dreamed of doing. I just spat out the first thing that came into my mouth. I said I wanted to go to Colorado, where my Dad was buried. I told him that my father had been snatched away when I was only a little scrap of a boy with a dirty shirt on my back who didn’t know anything of the world, but it was as though the grief and the loss had got stuck in me, and made a hole in my chest. Perhaps I would feel better if at least I could see his grave and know he was lying there, my Dad. I don’t know it came about that I started to talk that way and I at once regretted it. Lustig grinned and said he thought it was really amazing that a Swedish sailor had a father buried in Colorado, of all places on earth. I said that there were a lot of strange things and a lot of curious coincidences in the world. Then he laughed out loud and said that was probably true. He didn’t ask me any more questions about my Dad, thank God, but promised that as soon as we had pulled off the big coup he had in mind, we would go to Colorado, he and I, and look for my father’s grave.

But it didn’t quite work out like that.

When we got to Miami we rented a house by the beach. It was nice and warm there, in the evenings we sat on the veranda drinking rum as we heard the waves breaking and the palm trees rustling in the wind. Lustig was energetic and on the go. What kind of a coup he had in mind I don’t know to this day, for never discussed his plans with me. He worked in the early morning before it was too hot and after lunch we used to go out driving in a car we had bought, a Pontiac it was, a 1927 model. It was always me who drove, and one day for some reason we went to Miami Beach. Lustig told me to stop outside a big house by the seashore that was surrounded by a high, white wall. A guy who was wearing a suit and a hat in spite of the heat stood leaning against the wall, watching us. Lustig sat perfectly still beside me with his fist clenched tight on top of the dashboard. He was looking at the gate as though it led straight to paradise, and practically licking his lips. When the guy in the hat began to cross the street toward us, Lustig whispered to me to drive away, and I did. That evening he was quite beside himself, wandering about the parlor and giggling from time to time. I’d never seen him like this, and I knew he hadn’t taken any morphine on that occasion. He was still up when I went to bed.

Next morning he was gone. He had left a note telling me to take it easy, he would be back quite soon. Late at night he returned. He seemed pleased and satisfied. The next day he went away again, and came back at night. He refused to tell me what he was up to. When I asked again he lost his temper, it was the first time that had happened since I’d been working for him, he shouted and screamed at me to stop asking questions, I wasn’t to know anything, I should stop snooping, it was for the sake of my own safety. A third day, too, he went away early, but this time he returned just before lunch. He had a briefcase with him. With a strange look on his face he opened the case on the dining room table.

It was full of banknotes.

It was one hundred thousand dollars in bills. Brand new ones. In bundles with ties.

He took a bundle in each hand and danced a kind of war-dance round the house, getting more and more excited. After what seemed an age, he calmed down sufficiently to pour himself a stiff drink. I saw that his hand was shaking slightly as he downed it. At last he told me what had happened. He had got someone onthe hook, someone right at the top. A man with more power and influence than most of the industrial tycoons and senators in the United States put together, indeed, his power could be compared with that of the president. He, Victor Lustig, had hung about outside the place where this guy lived until a guard had come and asked what he was doing, and then let him in. Lustig realised that he was now going to need all his powers of persuasion and really have a silver tongue in his mouth if he was going to get out of this, and he admitted his knees had turned to jello, especially because he was surrounded by guys armed with Thomson machine sub machine guns and ugly revolvers. But without a tremor in his voice he had suggested to the guy who owned the house that they should join forces in a share deal on Wall Street. The plan was as watertight as rubber and the investment would yield a threefold profit in fourteen days, Lustig explained. The guy had studied Lustig closely, and Lustig had felt the sweat trickle down his back. Would a hundred thousand be enough, the guy had asked. Well, I suppose it would do, Lustig had replied calmly. And so he got the money. Damn it, said Lustig, shaking his head. I never thought it would work, never in all my life. But now, I’ve got the money, hell indeed…. One hundred thousand bloody dollars.

Suddenly I froze.

For I had realised that the guy who owned the house with the white wall we had stopped outside was the guy that Lustig had got the money from. And I had a pretty good idea of who he was. It was no big deal. Everyone in Miami knew his name:

It was Al Capone.

*
With my thumb on the PAUSE button I shake my head and giggle, helpless as a schoolgirl. Otto, Otto, you rascal.

*

Yep. Al Capone, the biggest gangster in America, king of the Chicago underworld, emperor of the bootleggers. For of course Lustig didn’t have any share deal in his back pocket. He had never even thought of using the money for a coup on Wall Street. All he wanted was to swindle money out of Al Capone. When he saw Capone’s house in Miami Beach, Capone had recently bought it, and there had been a lot of fuss about the deal-well, when he saw the house and realised who lived there. he couldn’t resist the temptation. And now here we were with Capone’s money. What the consequences would be when Capone discovered he’d been tricked did not bear thinking about.

Those weeks were one hell of a time.

The simplest thing to have done would have been to take the money and run, but we didn’t dare to. Lustig was convinced that Capone would come looking for him, and not rest until he had found him. There was no point in thinking about any share deal, either. We didn’t have enough time, and moreover the bottom had just fallen out of Wall Street. There was a big risk that we would have lost the lot, and then we could have calmly consigned ourselves to the ranks of the dead. Lustig regretted the whole affair. He was in a bad mood and, for the first time in quite a while, took some morphine. We were nervous and got more and more tetchy with each other. Then the day came when Lustig was to meet Capone again. To my surprise, that morning he was in his old good humour again. He even whistled as he went and patted me on the shoulder and said we would see each other soon. I was so nervous that I could neither sit still nor stand up, in the end I fled from the house and trotted off long the beach, going quite a long way. When I got back Lustig was home. He sat there drinking rum and smoking a cigar in perfect calm. He laughed, damn it how he laughed. ‘Do you know what happened?’ he asked me. Then he told me that he put the briefcase containing the money in front of Capone and explained that the whole deal had gone straight to hell. The crash on the stock exchange, which no one had able to predict, had put the kibosh on his brilliant plan. The only good part of it was that he had managed to rescue Capone’s money. He’d said all this with his head bowed and a crushed ended with him being ‘taken out for a ride’, as people said in those days. But to his relief, Capone just shrugged his shoulders. Tough luck, he said, and took the money back. Then he asked if Lustig had had any expenses. There had been one or two, Lustig admitted. Capone nodded and asked how much. Ten thousand dollars, Lustig said. Okay, here you are, Capone said calmly, picked up a couple of bundles and handed them across the table.

I got ten thousand bloody dollars from Al Capone in expenses, Lustig said, took a couple of fistfuls of banknotes and threw them all over the parlor so they rained down like confetti.

I tell you boy, that night we broke Lustig’s own golden rule about moderation with liquor. We drank ourselves as drunk as pigs. Damn it, what a binge we had. I still feel almost ashamed of it even though it happened so long ago.

*
Otto is silent. The tape hisses, empty. I wind it forward to find out if he starts to talk again, but that is as far as he got. With a sigh I tum off the machine and take the headphones off my ears.

Translated by David McDuff

Lanthandlerskans son is a sequel to the novel Colorado Avenue (Söderstroms, 1991; Finnish translation Colorado Avenue, WSOY, 1992)

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