NEW YORK CITY—1920
The gang looks up wide-eyed.
"What?" Benny says. "You guys look like a bunch of pissed-off Yids. You shouldn’t worry. It was a goddamned guinea that blew up Wall Street. Giacomo Caruso! Damn they love to blow things up. Thank God for the anarchists. The cops got their noses so far up the ass of these rich guys, they could give a damn about Jewish bootleggers right about now."The pockmarks on the facade of 23 Wall Street are the thorn in the flesh of J.P. Morgan’s men, a constant reminder of the September bomb that went off in the Financial District when anarchists made good on their threat. Two-million dollars’ worth of damage was inflicted with a hundred pounds of TNT carried in the back of a ramshackle horse-drawn wagon. The explosion sent a fireball tearing through the streets. Thirty-seven Wall Street workers died. Another three hundred were wounded. The horse that drew the wagon was found in pieces everywhere, his shoes smoldering on the steps of Trinity Church. Morgan men insist this is most likely an accident.
Mike looks at Benny and then at Meyer.
Meyer thinks it over. Benny has been around long enough to have established himself. He’s proven useful on several jobs. He can be trusted. Maneuvering in the moment is Benny’s strong suit and who knows what the boys will face at the winery. Meyer looks to Red. Red nods his approval. Then Mike. Then Tabbo. Finally, Sammy.
"What’s going on?" Benny says.
Mike says, "We got a winery to defend."
The boys shuttle across the Williamsburg Bridge in two trucks. The winery is housed in a large brick building in the industrial part of town. Meyer, Red, Sammy, and Benny park in an alley a block away from the winery, jump out of the truck, and meld with the hustle of Jews trying to make it home before sundown. Mike and Tabbo slip their truck in with a host of delivery trucks sitting idle for the Sabbath.
Meyer approaches the winery. The rebbe darts out the front door.
"Thank you for coming," he says shaking Meyer’s hand vigorously while pressing a key into Meyer’s palm. "We put a new padlock on the door. The Talmud says there is no joy without wine. Obviously, the Goyim Crusade knows nothing of the Talmud."
"Or of joy," Meyer says with a brief smile.
Meyer turns the inch-long key in his hand, glances at the small, round padlock that dangles from a metal strap across the door, and tries not to laugh. Only the most casual of opportunists would be dissuaded by such paltry security.
The boys make their way through the winery under the suspicious eyes of the Hasids who work there. Copper lines run in every direction from large copper pots. The place looks like something from a Jules Verne future. Everything about it is spotless: the equipment, the floors, even the ceiling beams. If cleanliness is next to godliness then the winery is suitable for the Holy of Holies.
Bottles of wine stored neatly in wooden crates are stacked no more than head high; the crates held fast to the brick wall by large straps. If the winery was secured as jealously as the wine, the rebbe would have little to worry about. As it is, a good crowbar and thieves have all they can carry.
Sweat breaks across the rebbe’s face. No one unclean has ever passed over this threshold. Suddenly the room is filled with hooligans and weapons.
If this wine is ruined, the rebbe explains, his worn, red-rimmed eyes pleading for mercy, there will not be another batch for nine months. Without wine, the Jews cannot keep their commitment to G-d. The empty vats are sealed, waiting for the next season of grapes. Each harvest must be divided into pulp and skin, and then conveyed to fermentation vats. They must remain pure, nothing at all added. Every pump, pipe, press, connection vat, is sterilized by clean hands, meaning ‘holy’ hands, and overseen by the rebbe himself. Pressing, juice collecting, filtration, cooling, sampling, opening and closing of the vats, bottling, everything is his responsibility. If polluted, a whole nation could sin.
"The Mevushal is there," the rebbe says pointing. "It is your share to take."
Mevushal is Hebrew for cooked. Mevushal wine retains its religious purity no matter who opens or pours it; no matter who drinks it. The rebbe looks at Meyer, drops his head and mutters a quiet blessing for the winery. With a handshake, he takes to the darkening streets along with his devoted followers.
Red remembers with no small amount of remorse his promise to bring kosher wine home for Shabbat. But it is too late. His mother has already struck the match and lit the Shabbat candles and recited the Shabbat blessing—
Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe,
The boys position themselves around the winery. Hours creep by like so many days. The mercury drops. The boys shiver behind the ceremonially clean vats. A barking dog signals a passing drunk.
Another hour passes.
Outside, Tabbo says, "I hear something."
Mike cranes around, searching the street. It is well past midnight. Moonlight falls between the crevices of the buildings, lighting the alley. Inching down the narrow pocket of land, Mike and Tabbo make out the open cabin of a flatbed truck. Three heads bob and weave as the truck crawls along the deeply creviced back alley.
"It’s the Irish," Mike says.
Tabbo squints but the moonlight refuses to yield the details.
"Oh, come on!" Tabbo says.
"Shh," Mike says. "Trust me."
The flatbed stops at the winery’s loading door. The three toughs jump from the truck’s open seat and saunter to the door, as though enjoying a spring day at the beach. Mike lurches toward them but Tabbo pulls him back.
"Wait," he whispers. "Wait for Meyer’s signal."
The interlopers rattle the new padlock, then break out laughing. One of them jams a crowbar between the lock and the door and throws his weight against the load. The door easily breaks free. With a kick, the door swings wide.
The winery is dark and silent.
"Stupid hebes," the tall one says.
Benny tenses, steadying his arm atop a stack of boxes. He sights the leader with his Colt .38, the army version 1911A chosen for its dependability in battle.
The tall one reaches for the light switch on the wall. They’ve been here before. He flips the switch and lights flicker to attention throughout the small room where the large cache of Mevushal wine sits ready to go.
"Jesus Christ, will you look at this," the tall one says. "They musta known we was comin."
"Let’s get the stuff and get out," the thug in the plaid cap says. "This place gives me the creeps."
Sammy recognizes the voice. It is the Schmatte that dates his sister, the Irish kid who fancies himself a gentleman, the stone-cold hoodlum who once put a bullet through Sammy’s shoulder as Sammy drove a load of Canadian whiskey through the Schmatte’s blockade. Sammy squirms. The movement behind the case of wine catches the Schmatte’s attention.
"You little Jew bastard," the Schmatte says. "What are you hiding in the dark for? You over there praying for your god to protect your sacred wine? Don’t you Jew boys know that when you killed Jesus, you lost all your heavenly privileges?"
Meyer steps from the shadows.
"Who needs prayers when we have .38’s?" he says.
Benny stands, the Colt now trained on the Schmatte’s head.
The Schmatte reaches for his handgun but fumbles. The Luger, a brilliant piece of Russian technology brought back by a returning WWI soldier, drops to the floor. The Schmatte scrambles for the pistol. The tall Irish flips the light switch and the winery goes black. Benny squeezes off two shots in the Schmatte’s direction. The Schmatte, searching the floor wildly, finally seizes the Luger’s steel snout. He flips it, fires in Benny’s direction.
A bullet hisses past Benny’s ear. The Schmatte makes a run for the open door. Benny aims at his silhouette passing in front of the moonlit window. He fires and takes out the window.
The Schmatte squeaks through the crowbarred door. His gang is close behind.
Mike and Tabbo are ready, Mike at the wheel of his parked truck, Tabbo riding shotgun. Mike hits the gas as the Schmatte jumps behind the wheel of the flatbed Chevy. Tabbo fires on the gang but it is Benny, springing through the winery door, who manages to land a bullet in the Schmatte’s back.
The Schmatte slumps forward dropping the Luger which sails into the gutter. The tall Irish scoops the Schmatte onto the truck’s bed as the third Irish, already at the wheel, tears down the alley. Benny sends a shot through the windshield. The Chevy fishtails, turns at the corner, and disappears.
Mike charges down the alley. Benny jumps on the running board. The jolt of speed very nearly pulls his arm out of its socket as he desperately clings to the door.
"Come on," Benny yells. "I want this little bastard."
Mike bumps the truck around the corner. Benny forms a vise grip with his arm, his head half inside the cab for leverage. The Irish skid through the intersection, drifting badly around the corner. The tall Irish and the Schmatte are thrown from one side of the truck to the other.
As Mike straightens his line, Benny shoots again, this time clipping the driver’s arm.
The Chevy hops the sidewalk and grazes the front of Klein’s fur storage, then smashes headlong into the facade of an adjoining shop. The driver overcompensates, slamming the gear shift into reverse. The truck springs from the storefront. As the back wheels hit the street, the driver throws the gearshift into first, cranking the steering wheel away from the sidewalk, but, lacking the room for a clean maneuver, wraps the truck around a lamppost. The wheels splay out at opposite angles. Steam pours from the radiator. The driver slumps motionless along the bench seat. The tall Irish, thrown from the truck in the crash, picks himself up and staggers toward the curb, unable to make sense of his surroundings.
Mike slams to a halt. Benny jumps from the running board. Wild and ferocious, he straddles the half-conscious Schmatte laid out in the middle of the road. He grabs the Schmatte’s shirt at the neck and lifts him a foot off the ground. The Schmatte’s head flops limply backwards.
Benny says, "Listen, you little piece of shit Mick. Next time you think you’re gonna take down a Jew, think again. I’ll gut you where you stand. If I even hear you talking about Jews, I’ll hunt you down and put a bullet between your beady little eyes." Benny snuggles the Colt up to the Irish chin, slides it across the Schmatte’s lips and over his nose then stops the barrel cold between the Schmatte’s eyes. "That’s a promise from me." He goes a little wild-eyed. "They don’t call me Bugsy for nothing."
The Schmatte meets this with a blank stare.
Meyer, Red, and Sammy drive up next to Benny. Benny drops the Schmatte. His head bounces off the cobblestone.
Red says, "Benny, come on...the cops."
Benny sniffs the air and says to the Schmatte, "Whadya know, your shit does stink after all!"
The next morning, a hotwire of gossip moves through the backyards of Williamsburg. By afternoon everyone has heard of Meyer’s victory. The rebbe itches to see what’s left of the wine but the rules of Shabbat must be honored. He decides to take a stroll. If the stroll should happen to take him by the winery just after sundown, so what?
He passes the wrecked Chevy where neighborhood kids scavenge the remains of the demolished truck. A newspaper reporter interviews the crowd. The kids pose for pictures around the car. A block later, the rebbe is joined by two young Black Hats.
They reach the crowbarred door and huddle in sacred conversation until Shabbat has ended. With a deep sigh, the rebbe takes in the very un-kosher mess. The other Black Hats give the rebbe an "I told you so" glower. Everything will have to be sterilized.
"Don’t judge too harshly until you have the facts," the rebbe says.
Meyer waits for the rebbe outside of the Black Hat cafe. Eventually, the rebbe arrives, Meyer hands him the key to the winery’s padlock, the one thing not broken in the raid.
Meyer says, "We didn’t need the key after all."
The rebbe says, "You couldn’t have stopped them before they jimmied the door?"
Meyer says, "It wouldn’t have made any difference. You won’t have any more trouble."
The rebbe says, "You didn’t take the wine. I put it aside for you. You didn’t take it."
Meyer says, "Do me a favor."
The rebbe says, "What kind of favor can I possibly do for you?"
Meyer writes an address on a piece of paper and hands it to the rebbe.
"Make sure this family always has wine for Shabbat."
The rebbe looks at the paper and nods. The address is a small flat in Williamsburg that belongs to Red’s family.
Copyright © 2019 by Dylan Struzan.