A Storm Keeps Everybody Busy

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story from the dark underbelly of 1930s London.

Submitted: October 20, 2015

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Submitted: October 20, 2015

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Winter, 1935

It was a bright, crisp afternoon at the Brighton track and there was a sizeable crowd in attendance waiting in anticipation for the horses to run. The atmosphere was relaxed that day and spirits were high amongst the race goers. Behind the course, the sunlight glistened on the blue sea. Sometimes the courses were not such pleasant places. They could be dangerous and the threat of violence would bubble away, just under the surface. There would be a sudden scuffle or an eruption of shouting and a body left on the ground, or a scream would pierce the air as an unfortunate was slashed with a razor. Criminal gangs fought to control the protection rackets at courses across the country and it was not uncommon for pitched battles to break out between them. Brighton, however, was heavily policed. Also, it was protected.

Moisha Schwartz visited the Brighton course regularly for business and for the clean, refreshing seaside air. Living in West London left his chest tight and the pores on his face clogged with grit. There was no way to escape the thick fug that shrouded the city, except to beat a regular retreat from it. The countryside gave him some respite. Schwartz wore an expensive, dark green overcoat and brown fedora hat to the races. Around his neck he tied a fawn cashmere scarf. It covered a scar that ran across his throat almost from ear to ear. As he tightened it to ward off the chill sea breeze, he suddenly remembered gurgling on the floor, heavy kicks raining in on him and the taste of his own blood. He shut the images from his mind as quickly as they had entered. Schwartz watched the horses being readied for the race. They were magnificent animals, their riders decked out in bright coloured checks and stripes. He saw clouds of their breath and felt the beasts’ impatient stamps reverberating beneath his feet. He had a small bet riding on The Harlequin. Schwartz gambled for pleasure but he knew that giving money to a bookmaker was no way to get rich. He smiled: the bookies’ very existence should give their game away easily enough. But people still flocked, looking for their bit of excitement, their chance of a big win and, in the end, they lost. Mugs.

Protection, Schwartz called it insurance. It was how he made his living. He took a fee from every bookmaker and stall holder at the Brighton track. No rival outfits operated there and he took his cut to keep it that way. The Law took theirs too, from him. Businesses paid Schwartz out of respect and he paid the police, away from prying eyes, to help keep trouble out. His neck had been slashed by a rival gang at Bath race course, twenty five years earlier. The police saved his life that day, a glorious irony that he still struggled to comprehend. It was then, at nineteen years old, that he had realised the value of keeping them happy. There was little trouble at Brighton thanks to his cooperation with the Law and no major investment needed. Insider racing tips and gifts for the Inspector were usually enough. Schwartz resented the Inspector but he needed him. Fat, corrupt prick, he imagined slicing his bloated face open. He felt a bilious anger suddenly rise up in his belly. It had always been like that. Simmer down. Not how we do things these days old son. He reached into his top pocket and took a cigarette from his ivory and gold case. He lit it and immediately felt much calmer. He was no longer the hothead he had once been and most of the time a flashing thought about violence was as far as he went. The capacity for violence was still in him though, a part of his being that would never change.

‘Mr Schwartz, Mr Schwartz!’ A spindly hand touched him lightly on the left shoulder.

Before Schwartz could respond, the hand flew backwards. He felt big hands now, in leather gloves across his chest and a vice like grip.

 ‘It’s alright boss, walk.’

The grip soon loosened and he was walking away, sheltered by the thick arm of one of his minders, a man named Colmore. Schwartz straightened his hat and looked back. Colmore’s partner, Dymes, had a man pinned to the ground a few yards away. Schwartz could see scrawny legs in grey flannel trousers and scruffy boots flailing and kicking. The huge weight of Dymes pressed the helpless figure down but the fact that he was still moving boded well for him. Dymes killed men.

‘I must speak to Mr Schwartz! Please!’

The dark eyes and broken nose looming above terrified the man. Huge arms threatened to crush the life out of him and he struggled to breathe.

‘Mr Black is busy, how dare you touch him you fucking worm? I should break your neck!’ Dymes growled. The pressure on man’s scrawny chest intensified until he could barely breathe and the snarling mouth sprayed him with tobacco tinged spit. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another pair of legs approaching fast and his first thought was that he was going to be kicked to pieces.

‘Dymes, let him up! The boss says!’

Dymes pushed his huge frame up off the man’s chest, the final movement nearly crushing him. The man groaned and rolled his eyes to the sky, fighting back vomit and tears. His saviour was lifting him up and speaking politely to passers-by:

‘Drunk a drop too much. Needs to be at home.’

Under his breath ‘Breathe son, breeeathe. You’re lucky to be alive.’

Colmore too had a brutish face, dark eyes and a wide nose, once straight, these days, smashed flat.

‘I’m sorry, I need to speak to Mr Schwartz, it’s…it’s an emergency.’

‘Mr Black!’ Colmore said firmly. ‘There are ways to contact him without laying hands on him my friend.’

‘I’m sorry! Mr Black’s life is in danger. Our lives are in danger!’

‘What do you mean son? No one would dare!’

The colour suddenly drained from the man’s tired face. He had dark hair, heavy brown bags under his eyes and looked to be in his early forties although he was probably younger.

‘He’s….there’s…help,’ he spoke quickly, breathlessly.

 ‘Anti-semites! The Italians are going to betray him! I need to speak to him…..now.’ He made a gargling sound and coughed up some blood onto his bottom lip.

 ‘Fascists!’ he gasped desperately. His eyes rolled back again and his head slumped forward smearing blood onto Colmore’s white shirt collar. The man was so slight that the bodyguard lifted him onto his shoulder with ease. He turned round and walked towards his boss and Dymes who were watching, a short distance away.

‘Drunken fool, always acting up when he loses,’ he said to anyone within earshot. ‘I’ll get him home.’

The other spectators paid little attention. The race was in full tilt, the air alive with shouts and the deep drumming of hooves. The Harlequin was leading the pack with two furlongs to go and nobody batted an eyelid at a drunk being shown to the door by security. Only one man, dressed in a grey flannel suit and a brown flat cap pulled low watched from a distance. And smiled.

In his private compartment on the train back to London, Schwartz thought hard about the supposed fascist and Italian alliance. He had listened carefully to Colmore’s account and had spoken to the messenger after he had come round. Schwartz had paid him five pounds for his trouble. Too much he thought now, but he would get it back eventually anyway. The man was a shopkeeper from Whitechapel who paid protection to one of Schwartz’s men. He told Schwartz that rumours had been circulating for several weeks; the shopkeepers panicked when Italian men, speaking loudly in their native tongue, had invaded the streets plastering the walls with fascist posters. That had been the final straw and the man had been nominated to contact Schwartz. Schwartz knew that their prime motivation was to protect their businesses, not his life, but, they were calling on him now as their Protector, their insurer. They paid him after all. The thought of a reward, or perhaps a discount on their future fees, in exchange for this information would also have crossed their minds. Jewish. A wry smile. Schwartz knew that he must find out where this talk had originated. But for now he would treat it as the honest truth and think hard about a solution. 

As the train approached London, things were becoming much clearer. In recent months Schwartz had witnessed the growing anti-semitic sentiment both in London and throughout the country. He had read the sympathetic headlines in the Daily Mail. As a precaution he sometimes used a British name to divert attention and to grease the wheels for certain business negotiations. Schwartz was sure that the Italians were going to use these ugly sentiments to fuel a fire that would distract him whilst they muscled in on his business. He could imagine the bastards scheming about it now and the anger rose, just briefly, in his gut, like a jet of flame. While he was occupied, the Italians would be quietly offering their services to all and sundry, making their proposition attractive with a guarantee of protection from the fascists. The Messinas and the Cortesis it would be, plotting against him. He was the Jew they hated but secretly wanted to be. It was ironic really, he thought, that they were consorting with fascists when their families had anglicised their names to avoid prejudice when they first arrived in London. Perhaps history isn’t their strongpoint. Schwartz felt that the Italians underestimated him and his people. They seemed to forget, or maybe they were just ignorant of the fact, that Jews propped up the Italian Mob in America. Lansky, Rothstein, Buchalter, Siegel and many more. As his train pulled into London Bridge station Schwartz’s mind settled on ‘The Brain’ Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the baseball World Series in 1919. What would he do? The answer was now as clear as cut glass, ‘The Brain’ would manipulate the situation to his advantage.

------------

Clerkenwell, East London

‘Do you think that Yiddisher took the bait boss?’ said a scrawny dark haired man in his early twenties. The worn flannels and cap from the races had been replaced with a smart dark blue suit and grey overcoat. He could have easily passed for Jewish or Italian but he was a Maltese Londoner. He had lived in Islington since he was five years old. He was sitting in a pub, the Ordnance Arms, with his boss, Jack Rook. From a distance Rook looked like a young lawyer or bank manager. His nose was straight, his hair and clothes were smart and his complexion was good. Observed at closer quarters he had the face of a man who had seen violence. Scars, a misshapen left eye socket and cold eyes.

‘We’ll see in time,’ Rook replied, hedging his bets. ‘Don’t you let Solomons hear you using the Y word, he’ll cut you a second mouth. We ain’t fuckin’ anti-semites, remember?’

‘Yes boss, understood,’ the Maltese replied.

‘We play the waiting game Joe. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long. Schwartzy likes to move fast and get things done. You’ve got to respect the prick for that.’

Rook plucked a cigarette from the silver case on the table and sipped his whisky before lighting up.

‘Go to the Rileys, ask them if there’s any word about the guns. After that, go to ground and wait for me to call you, understand? You did a cracking job putting the word out for me, but we don’t want anyone to trace that word back to us.’

‘Yes boss,’ Joe nodded and put on his grey fedora. He pulled up his coat collar and put a small cigar in his mouth. ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ 

He nodded, and walked out of the dark, smoky bar into the London night.

Rook smiled to himself and took another sip of his drink. Instinctively his hand moved over the inside left pocket of his jacket. He felt a comforting warmth in his stomach as the whisky went down and as he traced his fingers along the shape of his favourite clasp razor. As always, his mind whirred with a frenzy of ideas. He was a year away from thirty and ambitious, so ambitious that his impatience and the pressure he put on himself hurt him sometimes. He felt that his latest scheme was his best yet. A way to get the old guard of the London underworld at one another’s throats, without getting directly involved, giving him the opportunity to make a move for the top. Despite the gut wrenching desire for power and success which drove him and haunted him in equal measure, Rook had some respect for Schwartz and the Italians. Their weakness was that they were narrow minded and it was that narrow mindedness that presented him and his followers with such a golden opportunity. His mob wasn’t exclusively Irish or Italian, Jewish or English like the rest, nor did it centre round a family. Rook’s Firm, as he preferred to call it, was small currently but international. He had London villains on his payroll, Maltese, Corsicans, Greeks, Irish and even some Chinese. No Italians were interested, they were too busy keeping themselves to themselves. Schwartz’s mob was exclusively Jewish and in truth, they ran London with the Italians snapping at their heels. Any Jews not with Schwartz worked alone and the drifters like the huge, psychopathic Solomons, Rook was working on. His first step had been to quietly and patiently raise money from post office scams and robberies. The second move was to bring young recruits onto his payroll and keep them loyal. His most recent and audacious play had been to plant a rumour, a scare that would distract his rivals and give him the space to make a strike at the top of the London underworld. The fascist black shirts, splashed all over the news, were the unwitting protagonists in all this. Rook smiled. Clever boy.

------------

Back home in West London Schwartz thought hard. He thought better there, especially in the evening. Now the fog of anger was clearing the opportunities seemed endless. He saw how he could manipulate this situation to make people perceive him as a protector of the public interest, a defender of the vulnerable people. He could rally these frightened communities behind him whilst expanding his customer base. He could mould the Jewish shopkeepers, the Irish, the old East End families - the Communists even - into an army. Schwartz’s army could protect him and further his business interests and people would pay him tribute, not just protection. Who would begrudge paying Schwartz, their defender, to protect them from the demonic black shirted thugs and their greedy Italian sidekicks? Business would boom as a result and the opposition would be forced out for good. He took a sip of brandy and thought of the little man at the races struggling and squirming under Dymes’s grip and he thanked God that he had come to warn him of the Italians’ intentions. Treacherous bastards. He traced his finger slowly along his scar. As he did so he imagined running a knife across the throat of an enemy. A smile crossed his lips; he was proud of his scheme but he knew that he had no time to rest on his laurels. He had to act quickly.

‘Lads!’

He called his two lieutenants into his study. The room was dimly lit and swathed with wreaths of blue cigarette smoke. The two smartly dressed thugs looked out of place in such opulent surroundings, flanked by walls full of leather bound books and shelves full of antiques. Schwartz told them to get to work, gathering information, looking for clues.

‘Be discreet just put the word out, see what you can dig up. No commotion.’

Two weeks later, Schwartz was sitting in the back office of one of his clubs, The Crocodile, in the West End. He was getting impatient. Colmore and Dymes had uncovered little, despite much effort. His friends in high places and spies in low were all completely in the dark about the Italian plot. All he knew was that the shopkeepers were scared, Italians had been plastering his streets with fascist posters, and that a rumour had started from places unknown that his rivals were plotting a move against him.

‘Boss, there’s someone here to see you.’

Colmore’s voice sounded strained. Dymes was still out, chasing shadows.

‘Come!’

Colmore walked in slowly, his hands clasped behind his head. Behind him loomed an even bigger man. Schwartz reached to his top drawer for his revolver but the damned thing was locked. Fuck it!

‘Slow down Moshey,’ the huge figure spoke.

‘Sit down you!’ He shoved Colmore forward.

‘I’m ‘ere to talk Moshey, ‘ere to help. I hat to take precautions on account of the money I owes.’

‘Sit down Billy,’ Schwartz said. ‘And put that bloody tool away.’

The man continued to stand near to the door, gun in hand, trained on the two seated men. He began to talk.

------------

Rook had made the upstairs room of the Ordnance Arms his base during the last few weeks of preparation. He liked to sit alone and think big. His plans were working: the guns had arrived from Ireland; Schwartz was in hiding. With all the expertise and nationalities he was recruiting he saw potential for his Firm to reach out from London all over Europe and perhaps further. And now they were well armed. Money and power were his motivations, family, race and religion were irrelevant. Growing up he had been beaten to a pulp by his father and his God fearing mother had drunk herself to death. His Firm were his family. His only worry was that he had lost Maltese Joe. He had gone to ground so effectively that he had disappeared. It had been Joe’s idea to take a group of Corsicans to the East End postering for the fascists stirring up worries and adding truth to rumour. No matter that the group spoke in a mix of Corsu and Maltese dialects he had said, the Jews wouldn’t know the difference. Rook smiled, Joe was a clever bastard. That was why Rook had approached him. He would find him soon, he’d already put the word out that he wanted to meet. Rook felt thirsty. He headed downstairs to the musty, closed bar. Before his eyes could adjust to the dim light, he registered a sudden movement in the air. Then blackness.

When he awoke Rook thought he was dreaming. He came to in a room where the walls and furniture flowed into one another in a sea of black and white stripes, swirls and rectangles. Was this a dream, was this heaven? Or hell? His jaw ached and his mouth had a cut inside. He could taste blood. He was tied to a chair facing across what looked to be a ballroom, with a view down a long corridor. The entrance to the corridor was square with wide, floor to ceiling windows on each side. Through the left window he could see a wide staircase with a red carpet, through the right, twenty or so soft, grey, armless chairs scattered around between drinks tables with black legs and flat, white, circular tops. The corridor stretching into the distance to a large, closed red door was tiled entirely with black and white rectangles.

‘What the…!’ he called out, still struggling to come round.

Rook heard footsteps behind him, at least two people. His vision and mind were hazy but he was awake enough to be scared now. Moisha Schwartz walked out to face him.

‘Hello Jack.’

Rook was surprised that he knew his name.

‘Untie him. Now!’

The rope binding Rook’s wrists to the chair was cut in one swift movement and a man he didn’t recognise walked out and stood next to Schwartz. He wore a black suit with a dark red tie. He was small, with a thick moustache and piercing green eyes. He spoke with an Italian accent.

‘I represent the families Cortesi and Messina. They are very unhappy with you Mr Rook.’

 ‘As am I,’ Schwartz added. He was wearing black trousers, a white dress shirt open at the collar and a red velvet smoking jacket. He held a large brandy glass in one hand. 

‘But I’m a forgiving man. We were all young once and we all make errors of judgement. Would you like a drink? We have good whisky here.’

‘Y..yes,’ mumbled Rook. He wanted to wash away the taste of blood.

Schwartz clicked his finger and Rook heard heavy footsteps approaching. Dymes appeared and handed him a full glass. Rook knew he would need it to steady his nerves. He could get out of this one if he was clever. I’m smarter than these old men. He knocked the drink back and it stung the cut in his mouth. Dymes fetched him another and Rook gulped it down gratefully.

‘Now. Who was behind all this? You?’ Schwartz asked calmly, like a school teacher gently chastising a child.

‘No! It’s all down to a bloke called Solomons, a psycho. He wants you out. He came to me asking me to join up with him. I’ve been working for myself but I’m not a rival to you. I can tell you where he is!’

 ‘Interesting. You’ve been working have you? You probably owe me some money then son. Another drink?’

Dymes approached and placed the glass of whisky on a table to Rook’s left. Rook reached for it. Schwartz slapped him hard across the cheek.

‘Hold on son! Was there anyone else? You fucking tell me! ‘

The Italian punched Rook in the ear with a sharp right hand. He slumped back in his chair and was steadied by Dymes. He was more shocked than hurt and he regained his composure.

 ‘A Maltese named Joe was involved too, a devious bastard. Him and Solomons, they were in it together!’

He lied to save his own skin. His explanations seemed to satisfy Schwartz and the Italian who were both smiling.

‘Thank you for your honesty,’ Schwartz said as he patted him on the shoulder.

‘Now, have that drink.’

Rook guzzled it back and felt the warmth in his stomach.

‘A fine Dalmore that, 1910. The best,’ Schwartz said.

Rook was confident that he had at least bought himself some time, Schwartz would want his money, Solomons and Joe.

‘Did you enjoy it?’

‘Y..yes. Thank you.’

Schwartz smiled and nodded his head. Rook started to stand. He had done it. Suddenly, the Italian grabbed his left arm, Dymes took the other. He was on his tiptoes and helpless. He had no time to be frightened. He heard footsteps behind him again. Dymes and the Italian swung him to the left and Rook gasped as he saw Solomons. He wore a black overcoat and a white scarf and he was brandishing a butcher’s knife.

‘We go back a long way Moshey and me,’ Solomons hissed. ‘Boyhood pals. We’ve ‘ad our differences but time is a great healer. Money ‘elps too of course.’

‘Please!’ pleaded Rook. ‘Please listen!’

Solomons, shook his head slowly, grinned and moved closer.

‘I hope you enjoyed the drink,’ he whispered. ‘Because it’s the last one you’ll ever have my son!’

Before Rook could say anything, Solomons laughed and drew the knife across his throat. His debt to Schwartz was paid off.

---------------

Islington, East London

During the summer of 1936 Joe was postering again. For Schwartz this time. The posters read:

‘Answer Mosley’s Provocation! Demonstrate against fascism!’

Six months on from his beating from Colmore and Dymes his legs and ribs still ached and he walked with a pronounced limp. His looks would never return after the pummelling he had taken. But at least he was alive. When Solomons had first found him he had been terrified; when he had been delivered to Schwartz he had given up all hope. After the beating he had talked. He told Schwartz everything he knew about Rook. Joe was certain that Rook was dead now, to save his own life he had told Solomons where to find him. In time, his wounds had healed and Schwartz appeared to have forgotten him. The Italians paid him no attention. Joe guessed that they did as they were told by Schwartz and there were real distractions this time. The fascists really were marching on East London now, this was no rumour. When Dymes came to tell him that he was needed for postering he couldn’t refuse. As he pasted the last sheet to the grimy wall his shoulder burned. He needed time to plan his future. But all he could think about now was resting. More fucking postering tomorrow. Schwartz was determined to get a big turnout to oppose the march.

Joe headed towards his mother’s house where he was now forced to stay. He’d given all his money to Schwartz. He always cut across the graveyard at Bunhill Fields. It was a quiet evening and he savoured the peace. There was a long path through the graveyard flanked with black wrought iron railings, four and a half feet high. On both sides stood rows of tall, grey stones and monuments to the dead. He looked up and saw a figure approaching but paid little attention. As the figure drew closer he felt unsettled, the man was looking at him, walking down the middle of the path. He was an unremarkable man, a market stall hold or shopkeeper perhaps, but he walked with confidence. Joe looked back over his shoulder, nervously. There was no one behind him. He thought about turning and running. But then the man would be at his back and his legs were not what they used to be. He moved to the side and pressed his back to the railings. He could keep an eye on the man and make a burst past him more easily if he had to. The shopkeeper moved to the right with a sideways glance at this odd character, leaning against the railings. The man was past him now and Joe felt a surge of relief. He reached into his coat for a cigarette, trembling with nerves. At that moment the man swung round and Joe was lifted off his feet from behind. The spiked railings dug into his shoulders and a rope tightened around his neck. His eyes bulged as the rope cut in. The man was in front of him now, a knife in his hand. He had devilish eyes and a thick black moustache. He smiled as he plunged the knife into Joe’s stomach and chest several times as he was bent back, garrotted and helpless over the railings.

 ‘Moshey says hello,’ hissed Solomons.

On the last lunge of the knife Solomons let go of the rope and Joe slumped forward onto the path. The Italian spat on him and the killers walked quickly away as blood seeped between the cobbles.

---------------

September 1936 was unseasonably warm and Morris Black spent much of his time strolling around Hyde Park, a stone’s throw from his apartment. He had taken a liking to his anglicised name and the air of respectability that he felt it lent him in legitimate business circles. His empire was growing. He was working with the Italians to grow his racing operation, using their men to muscle in on courses around the country and giving them a cut of the profits. They had been savvy enough to realise that collaboration was better than war. They were good men, once you understood that they never truly trusted anyone who wasn’t one of their own people. The Messinas and Cortesis were related and now both families worked in partnership with him. They ran their spielers and restaurants and took protection from Italian shopkeepers paying him a percentage. He protected the Jewish businesses, controlled the race course operations and managed his clubs in the West End. He could call on Solomons as murder for hire when the occasion demanded. He had split Rook’s business with the Italians but had been sure to keep the Irish guns. The Italians were happy and he felt secure as a result. But the feather in his cap was the forthcoming march against the fascists. The real march, in October. His men had plastered east London with posters, calling the community out. He could now put his master plan into action, rallying the people behind him as their Lord Protector. He would then be a step closer to total control of the London underworld. As he walked across Hyde Park to his home Black smiled to himself and thanked God for the so called ‘Jew Baiter,’ Oswald Mosley, and his British Union of Fascists.

Historical note

The Battle of Cable Street took place on Sunday 4 October 1936 in London. Mosley planned to lead thousands of black shirted marchers through the East End which then had a large Jewish population. The Jewish community and others were frightened. Jewish gangsters, men on whom Moisha Schwartz is loosely based, were involved in the clashes, primarily with the police who were escorting the heavily outnumbered fascists. Some revelled in their reputations as self-proclaimed ‘defenders’ of the same community that they exploited. In reality it was a show of solidarity between a diverse range of groups, ethnicities, political parties and trade unions that united to protect the community from Mosley's fascists that day.

 

 


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