Foreword by the author: “This short story was inspired by the novel ‘The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald’ and Raymond Chandler’s noir style of writing. It was, in fact, my final A-level assignment in 2015 that got me an A* grade. Hope you enjoy reading it.”
I first met the kid, Jay Gatsby, in a dive of a pool bar on Forty-third Street; the kind of smoky, overcrowded joint where you’d easily find the wrong number squirting metal at you if you looked at somebody the wrong way.
I was checking him out as I was pushing my way towards him. Although he was in a soldier’s uniform, he just looked like the kind of kid who was full of dreams but had nothing to show for them in reality. With his shaggy blonde hair and gung-ho blue eyes, he fixed me with a stare, hell-bent on sharing a jigsaw of ideas. It didn’t come to much though. I just saw a jittery, hard up, hungry kid who was lost in the harsh dimensions of the urban world of New York. He’d had something about him though that faintly impressed me at the same time. I’d given him the time of day as I’d heard that he’d been running around with Dan Cody. That’s until Cody’s chick booted him out.
We shook hands and I signalled the bartender for a straight bourbon. The kid started out with something about having been to Oxford College in England. “Let me show you, Mr Wolfshiem.” He took out his wallet and pulled out a white card of some sort. I took it from his skinny kid fingers. “There’s a picture of me a few years back when I studied at Oxford College,” he pitched to me. I looked at the picture of a young egg staring back at me.
From somewhere a medal was swaying off his fingers and again I took it. “I was a first lieutenant in the war,” he said. There was a split second pause as though he awaited my approval. Then he continued, “I got this one from Montenegro after they made me a major.” The kid clearly wanted to impress me with his big talk. I thought ‘Ok, buddy, let’s see what you can do for me.’
From that point on I created him. I was the father figure, “The Brain”, who taught him almost every trick of the trade to make piles of cash. With my know-how and his appetite, we were to build up the most ambitious liquor empire.
The next night, a foggy and cold one, I pulled up outside the kid’s hotel – a low-down flophouse, the cheapest sort of place in the area. All the lights were crashed out along with the residents. Through the haze of my frosty breath, I saw him standing there on the grey, empty sidewalk, hands in pocket, trying to look like the hard man he’d wanted me to take him for. “Are you ready to sell the magic and reel in the cash?” I inquired. He gave me a curt nod of acceptance.
“Come on, you’ll feel at home where I’m about to take you,” I said coolly in a low, quiet voice, attempting to make him feel that he had to be on his toes to impress me. For a few seconds he stood there, then his head jerked up abruptly as if he had to force himself to move. The kid walked towards me and into his new life.
I started the car and we set off for the lockup on Lower East Side. The heavy metal door of the lockup worked its way open with a heavy sigh to an underworld that Gatsby would come to relish.
The lights flickered on and off until they finally blazed over the workshop we’d eventually made a fortune in. The room was bare and had a grey discolouring. The floor was dirty and spiders had been spinning their devilment all along the low dark ceiling; there was only the meagre presence of some barrels. I strolled around the basic perimeters of the almost empty shell, glaring at the kid with faked vehemence.
“Ok… What’s next, Mr Wolfshiem?” The kid seemed perplexed.
“Right then, buddy, here’s how it’s gonna work before I show you anything”. He trembled as I prowled towards him. “You’re gonna have to harden up a bit if you wanna sell some god damn liquor”, I swore right in his face. He straightened himself up and gave me a defiant nod. I loosened up a bit “Good!” and generously tapped his back.
I pointed to the left-hand side of the workshop, “So, kid, this is where the barrels will be piled on top of one another.” He pushed his hands in his pockets and nodded “Ok”. I marched him over to the right-hand side of the workshop, where a desk and a stick phone were bringing life to the bleak space. “This is where the orders will be placed over the blower. You sit on this chair and start dialling.” The kid sat down on the creaky brown chair with an eagerness that confirmed that he was the right man for the job.
“Our deliveries come from the Canadian and Mexican borders, and Captain McCoy, “The Real McCoy”, does the finest rum-running for us from the Bahamas.” The kid, now visibly more relaxed, leant back in the chair and fixed me with a speculative look. “How does it work then, Mr Wolfshiem?”
“Enough with the Mr, buddy. My friends call me Meyer.” I patted him on the back yet again to seal our friendship and saw a smile slowly creeping to the corners of his mouth. I would come to enjoy a lot more of his special smiles in the future.
I cleared my throat and went to answer his question. “As I said, we order the liquor over the blower from our ‘special’ contacts. They ship the moonshine on to fishing boats, which anchor just outside the U.S. territorial waters and wait for our boats to collect. The Coast Guard is not a problem; most of them are in our pocket anyway. There’s not a great chance that any of them get copped. Our guys wait on the docks, load the barrels into vans and bring them here or to our other warehouses around the Lower East Side. Bingo!
The dough gets wired to our guys overseas once we’ve received the goods.” Gatsby nodded and cocked his head to one side “How do we shift the goods, Mr, erm, Meyer?” The kid was getting more confident by the minute and started to ask the right questions. “Our territory runs all along the East Coast and we deliver to all kinds of scatters, clip joints and some rich guys. We’ve got one guy who even supplies the Congress in Washington with our moonshine. Now, what do you say to that, buddy?” I grinned broadly, as this fact always reminded me of how stupid all these drys were with all their liquor rules. They couldn’t even get the guys at the top to follow them and made us filthy rich.
The kid laughed out loud, obviously he was getting it. “And what do you need me for, Meyer?’ he asked with an even broader grin. “Well, buddy, here it comes; I need a right-hand man who can run this op for me. I have other grifts to pull.” I saw a faint blush creep over Gatsby’s face as he tried to contain his excitement. He gave a casual shrug and said, “You’ve found him.” Just like that.
For a second, we looked at each other, mighty pleased with ourselves. I laughed, “Now then, buddy, as you can see we need a refill.” I pointed to the meagre collection of moonshine barrels in the other corner of our money-making palace. “Don’t worry, kid, we’ll do this tomorrow on your first official training day.”
The next day, last night’s fog had been wiped out by a crisp morning, which had plenty of low hanging clouds, but promised to bring a much brighter day. We met at the lockup and I was already working inside when the kid walked in with an attitude that promised me exactly the right-hand man I had hoped for.
“Close the door,” I grunted as I hurried my pen across the papers on the table. I turned around and fixed him with an expectant eye.
“Let the bucks roll!” I announced heartily. The first hurdle, making sure that he was right for the job, had been nailed and now he needed a proper introduction to the business. “I chose you because of your ambition and because you’ve got something about you that I like. I’m ready to move on to other things, but I want to keep a foot in the door and one hand in the dough. You understand, buddy? The old man needs to fix his mind on gambling. I’m a gambler by trade and now I’m gambling on you. Don’t make me lose, kid!” I mocked him. I saw straight away that he could take it.
He strutted over to the desk where I sat and offered his hand to me. “I’m a good bet, Meyer, you’ve made the right choice.” He gave me one of his special smiles and declared, “Let the bucks roll!” Getting up from the chair slowly, I said: “The chair is yours now”.
When I look back on those first few days with Gatsby now, I am sad, but I have to laugh too. He proved me right, he was a damn good bet and a good partner. We came to build up the most ambitious liquor empire; shame it didn’t get him anywhere in the end.