From beyond the ghetto walls come the peal of church bells; pure and clear, clear and pure the sound fills the night above the ghetto, and Shomer and the children stop and listen to it, spellbound in their captivity.
Beyond the walls, ordinary citizens are on their way to church and then to All Hallows’ feast and celebration. But inside, day turns to night like every other cycle of the world as it spins on its axis. the soldiers with their guns watch over the walls and the Jews inside crowded like so many birds for the slaughter. Only they do not fatten them, here. They starve them, the more efficiently to dispose of, later. And Shomer’s daughter shivers in her thin coat, and he lifts her in his arms, how hard he cradles her as though it is in this way that he could pass to her some warmth, to stave away the onslaught of winter. And Bina listens to the church bells and she smiles, and it breaks Shomer’s heart that she does. And Avrom says, Papa, Papa, when can we go home again?
And Shomer says nothing.
They walk on to the Yiddish theatre, held in the hall of the old gymnasium. Shomer pays the price of admission and ushers his children in with the rest. They sit, shivering, on their coats. How much he loves them, he thinks, Avrom, Bina—his children. He remembers each birth, how he paced outside before being allowed in, at last, and how he held, each of them, in his arms, upon this miraculous entry into the world, and he their father, sworn to love and protect them.
And he thinks, how long do we have, how many days how many hours? For in the ghetto they speak, in hushed tones, of the trains headed east. Resettlement, some say. And others shake their heads and mutter, No, no.
But now his old friend, Yenkl, comes on stage, draped in a cape, with oversized teeth protruding comically. And the children clap, excited, for tonight on this night of the goyishe day of All Saints, the theatre’s staging a movie. Shomer had seen it once, when there were still cinemas, and he remembers how much he loved it, and he wishes he could escape into the screen of the past, and pull his children after him for safety. The lights dim. I bid you welcome, Yenkl says. And Shomer blinks back, no, not tears, he has none left of those to shed, but something. And he retreats into the only safety he has left, his writer’s mind, nothing but useless fantasy. And he thinks, no, it is only fantasy which is left to us, the dying, for comfort in our final days.
A cheap tale and only that, an entertainment. We have that, still, as yet.
His name was Heinrich Himmler and he was what the English, in their barbaric, pig-sty tongue, call a c—t.
How I hated the English! I hated the smell of boiled beef and soiled terrycloth nappies and Gentlemen’s Choice Old Spice, their noisy overcrowded streets ill-lit with gas lamps, I hated the ludicrous grooming of their facial hair, like old Prussian officers, and their women, who looked like old Prussian officers themselves. Back in Germany I had been a leader of men! For a decade we waged dirty street war against the communists, but then, in the elections of 1933, I was inexplicably defeated.
Hitler! Hitler! How they chanted my name! Then the bastard Jew commies threw me in a concentration camp and it was there that I lost several teeth and nearly lost my leg, which still aches in cold weather—which, on this godforsaken island, means constantly. How I escaped that camp, and into England, is another matter. Now I went by my old nom de guerre of Wolf.
‘Wolf, Wolf, Wolf, Wolf!’ the c—t Himmler said. I stared at him in hatred. I had not seen him since the Fall in ’33. Then, he had been the head of my militia, the Schutzstaffel, or SS. There had been fifty-two thousand of them, men ready to serve my cause. Then, the Fall. Now that fat fuck Ernst Thälmann of the KPD was Reichskanzler, and I was an out of work private eye in London, living above a Jew baker’s shop and paying rent I could ill afford, in this Year of Our Lord, 1938.
‘What do you want, Heinrich? I thought you were dead.’
He smirked. ‘You mean you wished I was?’
‘I’d hoped someone would have helped you commit suicide with a round of bullets in the back, if that’s what you mean,’ I said.
‘Those men you sent after me soon went to feed the fish in the Havel, and you should have been dancing the Spandau Ballet a long time ago, old friend. Yet here we are.’
He looked good, the bastard. His face had a sheen of health and his suit must have cost nearly as much as a Rothschild’s kipah.
‘I decamped. I spent some time in Transylvania, then France …’ He patted his stomach. ‘You know me,’ he said. ‘I can’t complain.’
I felt awfully tired. He’d hunted me down to a tea shack in Soho where I’d sat in the back, drinking some awful concoction and watching the door. I always watched doors. Nothing good ever came through them.
‘What do you want, Heinrich? I won’t ask you again.’
‘I was told you are the man to speak to. If one needs to locate missing things.’
‘What did you lose? Besides your honour and my respect.’
‘Wolf, please. There is no need for banter.’
I wanted to strangle him, but the English constabulary get heated up over publicly committed murders. I could never understand it. Back when I was running things, my men killed on the streets of Munich and Berlin with impunity. Different strokes and all that …
‘You want me to work for you?’ I said.
‘Is that so hard?’ he said. He took out his wallet and extracted a thick wad of notes. I stared at the money.
‘It’s kosher, Wolf,’ he said, and laughed at his own little joke.
‘What are you looking for?’ I said.
He sat down across from me, and he was no longer smiling. His eyes shone with the devotion of the true fanatic. A terrible feeling came upon me then, for I had known Himmler and his weird obsessions, and every sense I had was tingling with the thought that I should either shoot him, or run.
‘The Spear of Destiny, Wolf!’ he said. ‘It’s in London! At least, it will be soon, if it isn’t here already. The real one, I mean. Not that scheisse fake they have in the Hofburg in Vienna.’
I buried my head in my hands. My morning shit had been drier than an English whore’s muffin, I hadn’t had a client in three weeks and my rent was overdue, and it had rained all fucking day, in that sort of thin drizzle that has the consistency and smell of British beer … but you know me, I can’t complain.
All I needed now was Heinrich fucking Himmler and his occult obsessions. The Holy Lance! I saw it in the Hofsburg back in ’12. Then, as an impressionable youth of twenty-three, it had felt to me as though I had held it before, as though I myself was some mythical reincarnation of the legendary leaders of history—Charlemagne! Barbarossa! Sigismund! I imagined myself holding it in my hands and leading the forces of Germany in total war against the world—conquering first the ancestral Sudetenland, then the rest of Czechoslovakia, before annexing Austria back into the Greater German Reich and invading Poland.
After that—the world!
Or so I thought, back then. Now, there was only one question on my mind—
‘This spear,’ I said. ‘Expensive, is it?’
‘But Wolf, it is priceless!’ Himmler said. ‘One could hardly put a price to the spear that pierced the saviour’s side!’
‘I thought you gave up on Catholicism.’
He nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But the spear is an object of great antiquity—and great power, Wolf. A man who possesses it could never be defeated on the field of battle.’
‘And if you put a leaf of mint in your shoe it will keep it smelling fresh all day,’ I said. Lord! Spare me from my former Nazi comrades and their eternal obsession with the occult!
‘I can pay you. Handsomely!’
He sounded desperate, now. I stared at the money. The very thought of working for a former underling—for this loathsome toad—this enormous c—t—the very thought was repugnant to me.
‘I would need the fee upfront,’ I said.
‘Of course,’ he said, smoothly. He peeled off several notes and handed them to me. ‘And when you find it for me, Wolf, then you could simply name your price.’
‘You want it that much?’
‘I must have it. I have been searching for it for a very long time.’
‘All right,’ I said, tiredly. ‘Then tell me where to start.’
The Spear of Destiny, or the Holy Lance, is one of those relics that used to be traded with great enthusiasm back in the Middle Ages, and which clearly had its avid collectors even unto the modern day. It was the spear that, according to the Gospel of John, pierced Jesus’s side as he hung on the cross. Like all such relics of dubious authenticity, there are several claims as to the ‘true’ lance. There is one in Rome, and another in Vienna, and yet another one in some shithole in Armenia, or whatever they’re calling the place nowadays. In that, it joins similar objects such as the Turin Shroud, the Crown of Thorns, the True Cross and the Veil of Veronica—not to mention the Holy Grail, of course.
Back in the Middle Ages, one could easily purchase a piece of the cross, or a fragment of bone from Jesus’s body, or any number of other ridiculous fakes manufactured for easy profiteering from the delusions of the weak. I myself had abandoned my early Catholicism but, unlike Himmler, I was not much given to the occult nonsense that his ilk chased like so many moonbeams in a meadow.
The man was a dangerous buffoon, but a buffoon who had grown fat and wealthy in the years that followed the Fall. Like many who were attracted to my National Socialist movement in the early days, he was a ruthless and practical man who merely saw an opportunity to enrich himself on the back of my ideology. He may have bet on the wrong winner that time, but he soon enough fell back on his feet. This is the thing about rats: They are so very hard to get rid of. And there was hardly a rat as big and as diseased as Heinrich Himmler.
God, how I wished he was still running my beloved SS!
As a leader, I had use for such rats. These days, all I could do was take their money.
‘I am … Dracula,’ Bela Lugosi said. I sat in the dark watching the flickering light of the projector as Renfield turned and stared at the count on the screen.
‘I bid you welcome.’
I was at the Pavilion on Shaftesbury Avenue, not far from my office. I wasn’t there to watch Lugosi being an ass on screen. I was trailing a man who had his own interest in the Spear of Destiny.
Himmler had hunted for it in Transylvania. From there he had tracked its whereabouts to France and the Carmargue, and to an old Gypsy church, but was too late to acquire it. Now he had it on good authority that the spear was on its way to London by sea, if it wasn’t there already.
I believed none of it, of course. Or rather, I believed that he believed it, for I had seen the sort of things Heinrich Himmler believed in, and even on a good day the man was as weak in the head as a soft-boiled egg. What hadn’t he believed in! Veganism and nudism and Satanism and occultism and … well, Nazism, of course, but I rather flattered myself that that particular ideology wasn’t entirely insane … whatever my numerous detractors claimed.
The man I was trailing was named Pound. He was a miserable-looking fuck in his fifties and a poet who made his living sucking my old friend Mussolini’s cock, and twice on Sundays. I never had much time for the Italians, myself. Benito had been a useful fool for a time, but the man could hardly keep his dick in his pants and he had the intellectual capacity of a wilted asparagus.
It was not hard to find this Pound. He was staying in a dingy hotel in Bloomsbury, and I understood from Himmler that, like himself, Pound was also after the spear.
‘I last had a run-in with the man in Pisa,’ Himmler said, darkly. ‘He was quite an admirer of yours, as it turns out, back in the day. We had a good chat—well, I mean, my men gave him a good beating and I conversed over a glass of port—mostly about how the next time I run into him I’ll kill him. But I can’t, Wolf! Mussolini considers him useful.’
‘Mussolini!’ I said. ‘The man’s a buffoon!’
‘Yet a fashionable one.’
I trailed Pound across London, as he met with various literary figures of little interest to me—Eliot, the degenerate American poet, was the only one I recognised—and he seemed to do little else but that—that and drinking, I mean. He was dressed in trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a hand-painted tie and a single, large blue earring. He looked like an ageing French prostitute. By the time we’d reached the Pavilion the man was swaying on his feet and swearing loudly, going on about Chinese poetry, the tenets of Italian Futurism, and his undying hatred of the Jews. I half-expected him to break into the Horst Wessel Song at any moment. Instead, he swayed his way to the cinema, where I saw, with a sinking heart, that a Blackshirts demonstration was taking place. These minions of the Fascist politician Oswald Mosley were the cut-rate copy of my own superior SS—grocers’ boys and clerks’ brats and the illegitimate sons of inbred aristocrats with the table manners of pigs and with wives to match. They were dressed in Mosley’s own Futurist uniforms of black parachutist garments, held at the waist with a black belt and a shiny metal buckle, and with a single lightning bolt on the breast. They looked like an expedition to an alien planet that they intended to, sooner or later, pillage and rape.
Pound went cheerily through them, shaking hands, slapping backs and generally being a grand dame for the cause. When I approached, however, the sons-of-whores turned on me and viewed me with suspicion, blocking my way.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘I shall be late for the picture!’
‘Not from around here, are you?’
‘What’s it to you, sonny?’
‘This is English land, for English people. Go back to where you came from, you fucking kraut!’
‘Yes,’ chimed in another. ‘We don’t want stinking foreigners coming over here, do we, lads?’
‘No, we don’t!’
‘Get back to where you came from!’
‘Stink of cabbage and shit.’
‘It’s called sauerkraut and it’s very healthy!’ I shouted. ‘You little fucking cock-sucking shits, do you not know who I am!’
‘No idea, mate.’
‘You all look the same to me.’
‘I could have ruled the world!’
‘You don’t look like you could rule dick,’ someone said, which I thought was rather rude, and also sounded strangely American. Then they were on me, shoving and punching until I went down, and then they really got to work. As the group of young men began to viciously kick me, I could do nothing but curl into a ball and try to protect my head and private parts. Their steel-capped boots found the soft spots in my body and would have broken my bones had not some old biddy, no doubt drunk on cheap sherry and perhaps with fond memories of the Great War in her addled brain, began to hit the Blackshirts with her handbag while screaming curses at them, until they sheepishly broke away from breaking my bones and, if not dispersed, at least left me be.
I stood up, wincing with pain, and hobbled into the cinema. I washed the blood off my face in the restroom, procured a ticket, and made my way into the darkened theatre. I saw Pound and sat a few rows behind him.
The film began.
‘I have chartered a ship to take us to England. We will be leaving … tomorrow … evening.’
It was then that I saw her.
She was nearing sixty then, and I daresay she wasn’t much of a beauty in her youth, either. She had the face of a Jewish laundress. A weak mouth and mean eyes and she wore a black mink-fur coat, as though draping herself with a poor dead animal’s skin could make her seem more glamorous. I recognised her, of course. Her name was Margherita Sarfatti and she was Il Duce’s ideologue and whore.
She wends her way to Pound and sat in the row behind him. They spoke in low voices, but I could hear them all the same.
‘Do you have it yet?’
‘My source says it arrives tomorrow on board the Hestia, from Reykjavik.’
‘Reykjavik? What in the—’
His voice was barely perceptible to me. ‘He is after it, now.’
‘Cohn? Cohn is here?’
‘The captain dead, tied to the wheel. Horrible tragedy! Horrible tragedy.’
‘He must not be allowed to gain access to the spear!’
‘We must have it for Italy, Pound. For Il Duce!’
‘Why, he's mad! Look at his eyes! Why, the man's gone crazy!’
‘Don’t you think I know that, you Jewish harpy?’
‘You’d better watch the way you speak, Pound. Or you won’t be the first foreign poet to suffer a fatal accident in Italy.’
‘What does he see in you?’ the man said, with surprising bitterness.
‘What does he see in you!’ she said.
‘I am a great poet!’
‘And I am a great—’
‘Lay? I doubt it, Margherita.’
‘… strategist, you degenerate American fanculo.’
‘Fuck you, Margherita, you dried up bitch—’
Heads were turning, and I’d heard enough. I got up from my seat and left the cinema, Dracula’s voice echoing behind me in the darkened auditorium.
‘There are far worse things … awaiting man … than death.’
‘Oh, shut up, Bela!’ I said.
Exit Wolf, stage left.
I walked away along Shaftesbury Avenue. Idiot’s Delight was showing at the Apollo. Children went guising along the road dressed as tiny little skeletons, and by the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus a merry bonfire was burning, and as I came closer I saw that the people around it were feeding it books.
‘Stop!’ I said. ‘What are you doing!’
But the people ignored me. They seemed hypnotised by the fire. I loved books! The right books, of course, not books by Jews or anything degenerate, but Schiller! Goethe! Karl May! Back in Germany I had thousands of books in my library, many of them personal gifts to me from their authors. I myself was an author! Admittedly, My Struggle had not done as well as I’d initially hoped, but it should have been a best-seller! It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a good manuscript is soon in want of a publisher … how I had been betrayed! I, who could have led Germany to victory!
‘Fuck off, kraut,’ someone said. Had I been speaking aloud?
‘Yeah, piss off back to your own fucking country!’ an old woman said, and pushed me. I was so startled that I fell over. As I lay there, I saw the books they were throwing in the fire. It was all manner of garbage from the book stalls on the Charing Cross Road—nothing but an assortment with no sense or sensibility—‘No!’ I said, in pain. ‘Not Agatha Christie!’
I was very fond of her books.
But it was no use. These barbarians—these animals!—they just kept throwing these books into the bonfire, that All Hallows’ Eve, with not a care in the world as to their ideological purity or otherwise. I think … I think they just liked the feel of the burning.
And so, not wishing to be attacked again, I pulled myself up and continued on my way.
I hopped a bus outside Patterson’s Pills, headed east. I sat on the upper deck and watched the city go past beyond the window. We went along the river until the docks came into view. I climbed down and walked. The Thames was wider here, and ships were docked at the quays. Even at this hour there was movement along the pathways. I searched among the ships but could not see the Hestia. I approached the shipping office, where a taciturn man around my age was the only one about. He was reading a book called The Way Out, that looked cheaply produced.
‘Help you?’ he said, laying down the book at my approach. Strangely, he had an American accent.
‘Looking for information on a ship, the Hestia,’ I said. ‘Out of Reykjavik.’
‘The Hestia …’ he said, and looked at me sharply. ‘Why do you ask? It carries fish from the Norwegian Sea, and you don’t strike me as a man in the fish business.’
‘What do men in the fish business look like?’ I said.
‘They look less fishy,’ he said, and sneered at me.
‘Listen to me,’ I said, ‘you imbecile. There is precious cargo on that ship and I must have it. You strike me as a man without recourse to vast funds.’
‘That is true,’ he allowed. ‘I am an author, you see. Name of Keeler.’
‘Well, I never fucking heard of you,’ I said. ‘But I imagine the pay’s poor.’
‘It is. I am on a visit to London to research a novel, and I took on this job. Do you have an offer for me?’
‘I could pay you handsomely. My client is wealthy.’
‘I am a private detective,’ I said. ‘Name’s Wolf.’
‘I see. And the cargo in question?’
‘It is some sort of an archaeological find. A Roman spear.’
‘You intrigue me, Mr Wolf.’
‘Here,’ I said. I handed him a wad of cash. Himmler had been generous.
Keeler took it without changing expression. ‘And if I can get hold of it?’ he said.
‘Then bring it to me.’ I wrote down the address for him. ‘I could triple the money.’
‘Triple it, eh? Very well. But I make no promises.’
‘Auf wiedersehen, Mr Keeler.’
‘Yeah, right, see you.’
‘I sincerely hope so.’
With that, I left him. I knew he would to it. You knew where you were with writers. They were always impoverished, and they had no morals. They were as selfish as cats and as ruthless as cuckoo birds. I felt quite satisfied with myself as I walked away and back into town. I was somewhere near London Bridge when I heard footsteps behind me, and the purr of a car, but I thought nothing of it at first. Then I felt one pair of arms and then another on either side of me, as two large and rather intimidating men in dark and expensive-looking suits grabbed me and hustled me forward.
‘Wait,’ I said, ‘wait, wait, hold on, we can talk about this—’
A black Mercedes limousine pulled to the curb and the doors opened. The two men bundled me inside without ceremony and shut the doors.
I was trapped.
The car took off with a soft purr of the engine. For just a moment, it felt good to be sitting inside a miracle of German engineering again.
Then I saw the man sitting opposite from me. He had a shiny forehead and the eyes of a gold trader and a face meaner than my father’s after he’d had a few drinks. My father would hit me with his belt but I never cried, I refused to cry; a good Aryan boy does not cry. I did not even cry at his funeral.
This man was not my father but he had that same mean look in his eyes. He lifted his hand and smacked me across the face, and his ring dug into the flesh and ripped through it. I winced in hatred and pain.
‘So you’re the gumshoe,’ he said.
He too had an American accent.
‘May I know who is addressing me?’ I said, masking my hatred with politeness. ‘I’m afraid I have not had the pleasure.’
‘What pleasure, you little cocksucker?’ he said. His two men crowded me on either side. I would have ripped his eyes out but for them—and for the dainty little gun that materialised in his hand. He pointed it at me.
‘I want it,’ he said. ‘The spear. Where is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Listen, bucher, I asked you a question. And when Harry Cohn asks a question, he doesn’t ask it twice.’
‘So you’re Cohn. The movie producer. Your films are shit.’
‘I made Lost Horizons, you fucking dummkopf.’
‘I saw Mussolini Speaks. The first five minutes, anyway, before I wanted to shoot myself.’
‘I could do it for you,’ he said, smiling widely and waving the gun menacingly. ‘Just say the word, kraut.’
‘Look, Cohn, I don’t know where it is.’
‘But you’re looking for it? That shit Himmler hired you, didn’t he?’
‘What if he had?’
‘How does a nobody like you know Heinrich Himmler, anyway?’ he said. Then he stared at me closely. ‘You know, you almost look like …’ Then he began to laugh.
‘I just have that kind of face,’ I said.
‘You won’t have much of a face left if you don’t answer my questions.’
‘I told you, I don’t know where it is! What do you want it for, anyway?’
‘A movie, gumshoe. It will be about this archaeologist who searches for the Spear of Destiny and fights the communists for it. At the end of the movie he uses the spear to vanquish his enemies—swish! Swash! Big fireworks display, the works—I’ve got the guy who worked on Metropolis working on contract for me, for a song.’
‘Metropolis was degenerate art.’
‘You’re a fucking degenerate.’
‘That’s all it is to you? A prop?’
‘That, and I get to stick it to the others. They want it, so isn’t that enough reason to take it from them? I like taking things from people.’
‘I can see that.’
The gun was in my face and his men were on either side of me and it looked like I’d have to change my tune or pay the piper, as the fellow said.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘Let’s be reasonable.’
‘I told you I don’t have it, but I might be able to find it for you.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Himmler is an ass,’ I said. ‘And I bet you can pay better.’
‘I could buy Buckingham Palace and fuck the old queen if I want to,’ he said. I let that go past, for all that it was an utterly disgraceful way to speak about the monarchy. If only it was I holding the gun!
But I wasn’t. And so, ‘If I can get it,’ I said. ‘Is that worth a reward?’
‘You could name your price,’ he said.
‘Then let me work for you. I can bring it to you, Cohn! Fuck those others. Just set me free.’
‘You really are a rat, aren’t you,’ he said. But he made the gun disappear, and he relaxed back in his seat.
‘Drink?’ he said.
The man on my left reached for a cabinet that opened at the press of a button, revealing an array of bottles and glasses inside. He poured a scotch for Cohn and something complicated and colourful for me.
‘What is it?’ I said, sniffing in suspicion.
‘A Mickey Finn,’ Cohn said, and sniggered.
‘I am not familiar with that,’ I said, stiffly. ‘And I never touch alcohol.’
‘Just drink it, you piece of shit, before I change my mind,’ he said.
I took a gulp and grimaced. It hit me worse than an uppercut from Jack Dempsey.
‘Where can I find you?’ I said.
‘I shall be staying at the Ritz.’
‘Good. Good.’ I began to giggle. He looked at me with amusement.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘You Jews,’ I said. ‘You’re such c—’
My mouth was moving but no words came out. My lips felt like alien, rubbery appendages. The world went in and out of focus and the last thing I saw was Cohn’s smile, and then the world went dark and, for a while, everything stopped.
I woke up to the smell of garbage. My head ached indomitably. I was lying by the bins outside Kettner’s and flies were buzzing over the stench of congealed Bourguignonne. I dry-retched, for I had not eaten anything in hours, and dragged myself upright. That cocksucker Cohn must have drugged me. It was no longer night, and a wan sun shone down on the dirty streets. London is ugliest in daytime. Night suits it better, and in winter the fog lies low and acts to further obscure the hideous old streets, and the repulsive characters who wandered them. I made my way back to my office on Berwick Street. The bakery was open and the smell enticing. I stepped inside, where my landlord, Edelmann, was serving behind the counter.
‘Herr Edelmann,’ I said, stiffly.
‘Mr Wolf?’ he looked at me in concern. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘What’s it to you?’
‘It’s just, you look a little …’
‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘And I would like two Berliner pfannkuchen and an apfelstrudel.’
The truth is I have always had a sweet tooth.
He wrapped the pastries and handed them to me without further comment. I peeled a note and handed it to him.
‘And the rent, Mr Wolf? I would not ask, only that it is due, you see.’
‘I will get you your damn money, Edelmann.’
‘I don’t doubt it, Mr Wolf. Nevertheless, it is due, you see.’
‘Here!’ I said, and shoved the rest of the money at him. He took it from me with a sorrowful expression.
‘Till next time, then, Mr Wolf.’
‘Till next time, Edelmann.’
‘Enjoy your pfannkuchen!’
‘Fuck off,’ I muttered, but under my breath, as I left his shop. My pocket was lighter but my rent was paid, and my mouth was full of vanilla cream. Things could be worse! I thought almost cheerfully, as I climbed the stairs up to my office above the shop. I pushed open the door, which was when I saw the corpse.
Keeler lay curled on the floor in a foetal position, in a pool of blood. A spear stuck out of his side. It was a very old spear. I pulled it out of the wound. Keeler had been killed with the Spear of Destiny, and someone had thoughtfully left it for me to find.
I had to get rid of the corpse.
It was clear someone was out to frame me. I didn’t know how far behind the police were, but I was certain they will soon make an appearance. Those fucking pigs! Who could it be? Who could have done this to me? To me!
‘Wolfy? Is that you?’
‘Martha, how many times do I have to tell you to stay out of my fucking office!’
‘Oh, dear,’ she said, pushing the door open and leering at me through the cake of makeup on her face. ‘I hope this isn’t another one of your clients.’
My only neighbour, she was a former streetwalker and now sold seeds to tourists to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. The seeds were poisoned. So was she.
‘Listen, you have to help me.’
‘Anything for you, Wolfy, you dear, dear man!’ she said. ‘Do you have money?’
I pushed her out and followed, shutting the door behind me. ‘Quick, let’s go in your room.’
‘It’s a bit early for me to go the full gallop,’ she said, ‘but I can give you a canter, Wolf, if you give me a hand.’ And she laughed uproariously.
‘Shut up, Martha, you disease-riddled whore!’
Her hand rose and she smacked me across the face hard enough that I could feel it in my teeth. She looked at me and leered. ‘You like that, don’t you, Nancy-boy?’
‘Shut up.’ My voice was hoarse.
‘I could do it for you, Wolf. For a price. I could hit you all you want …’
‘Shut up! Please …’
Her hand was on my gaying instrument, squeezing painfully.
She released me abruptly and leered again, her hideous old face as monstrous as a heathen idol’s.
‘I’m retired, Wolfy. You know that.’
‘Listen, Martha!’ I pushed her into her bedsit, across the hall from mine, and shut the door. I still held the blood-stained spear. ‘Forget all that. You have to hide this for me.’
‘No, damn it. Here.’ I shoved some money at her. My bankroll was quickly vanishing, I realised ruefully. ‘Now shut the door and keep quiet while I go get rid of the body.’
‘If I had a penny for every time a man said that to me …’ she said dreamily.
I shook my head in despair, left her in her bedsit and returned to my office.
The door was open.
The corpse was gone.
‘Son of a bitch!’
‘What’s the matter, Wolfy?’
‘That fucking guy, he wasn’t dead dead!’
‘If I had a penny for every time a man said that to me …’
‘Oh shut u—’ I gave up.
I stared at the floor. Bloody footprints led to the door and down the stairs, and a note had been left for me, The Spear of Destiny brings only sorrow. Next to it, that hack Keeler had drawn a skull. Why, I had no idea. Maybe the guy just liked skulls.
‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘Without a corpse, no one can accuse me of murder, can they?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘And I do have the spear. That’s a stroke of luck and no mistake.’
‘It looks like a piece of old junk, Wolfy.’
‘Takes one to know one?’
‘Really!’ she said, huffily.
I ignored Martha. I paced my office, back and forth, back and forth. Things were turning up my way, for once! The question was, how would I make the most out of the situation? The way I saw it, I had a valuable—rare—priceless!—object in my exclusive possession. Sure, Himmler offered me cash. But so had Cohn. And as for that shit poet, Pound, and that Italian woman he was apparently in cahoots with—well, they looked as starved as dormice but they had Mussolini’s ear, didn’t they? And, presumably, a hand in the old lecher’s pocket. This was the problem with Italians—they were led by their dicks, and sooner or later the biggest dick was in charge.
No, I had to maximise my earning potential. With that in mind, I began to hum a cheerful tune, and I sat down at my desk, put my feet up (ignoring the blood on the soles) and wrote three notes, which I sealed each into three neat, white envelopes. It made me think, rather fondly, of Agatha Christie, and that funny little Belgian detective of hers. I had always rather fancied the idea of invading Belgium. It was a little shithole of a country where they didn’t even know if they were Dutch or French. I would have made them Germany’s slaves, and grateful for it.
I began to laugh. And laugh, and laugh, until I couldn’t stop and tears came.
Then I left my office and went to deliver the letters.
In the dark hall of the Yiddish theatre in the old gymnasium, Shomer blinks back tears as the lights rise over the stage. The actors take a bow. There is Yenkl, resplendent in his black Count’s robes. There the graveyard, with the fake fog lying low over the tombstones. And Shomer shivers in the cold, a hint of premonition, and he gathers the children to him as though, by holding them like this, so close, he could not only keep them warm but keep them safe, forever. There they rise, the audience, shuffling and stretching, wrapped in poor coats, in ill-fitted shoes, and their bellies empty and their eyes hollow. But it is not yet time, there is yet hope, there is, yet, a life, however meagre. And he hugs Avrom and Bina to him and holds them against the encroaching night.
‘You must be wondering why I gathered you all here,’ I said.
I’d always wanted to say that.
‘Listen, you dolt,’ Cohn said. ‘I know why I’m here. Why are they here?’
They were an ungainly assembly. Cohn to one side, Himmler with a scowl to another, and Pound and the Sarfatti woman with their backs to the ancient walls. We were down underneath St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in the old crypt. I needed somewhere quiet and private to conduct this business.
‘You all want the spear,’ I said. ‘The question is, who of you can afford it?’
‘You little untrustworthy bastard,’ Cohn said. ‘You know what an honest man is, Wolf? A man who, when he’s bought, stays bought.’
I ignored him, as did the others. Himmler licked his lips. ‘Do you have it, Wolf?’
‘Here,’ I said. I brought out the spear. It was wrapped carefully in grey paper. The others stared at the bundle in my hands.
‘I will give you two thousand pounds,’ Margherita Sarfatti said.
‘Three thousand,’ Himmler said.
‘Four,’ Cohn said. ‘You cocksucker.’
Sarfatti consulted with Pound in a low voice. ‘Five,’ she announced.
‘Six!’ Cohn said.
‘You bastard, Wolf, I thought we were friends,’ Himmler said. ‘Seven thousand pounds. With this spear, I shall be the one to become the new Fuhrer of Germany!’
‘You are not fit to lick my shoes,’ I told him. The truth was, when I had held the spear, I had felt nothing. The lights in the crypt were dim. Boxes were lying every which way. The church used it for storage, and I had broken in.
‘Ten thousand pounds,’ Cohn said. ‘But let us see it, Wolf. Let us see the Spear of Destiny!’
I shrugged. The others exchanged glances. Could they beat Cohn for the price?
I unwrapped the paper. The spear felt light in my hand. I imagined that Roman centurion, Longinus, as he must have held it two thousand years earlier, standing before the man hung on the cross. I myself would have changed the world, like Jesus. If only I hadn’t been betrayed!
‘Here it is!’ I shouted. I held it high, shaking it at them. ‘The Holy Lance which pierced the saviour’s side! The weapon held by Charlemagne when he united Europe! I can feel it now, its power calls to me, I who would have succeeded Sigismund!’
Spittle flew from my lips. I would be damned if I gave it to them, I thought! For too long I had been trodden upon and ignored—now, at last, I could claim back my destiny, return to Germany, resume my rightful place, declare a war upon the world!
‘Mine! Mine!’ I screamed.
‘Fuck this,’ Cohn said, and he pulled out a gun. In seconds, guns appeared in the hands of Himmler, Pound and the Italian woman. They didn’t seem to know who to aim at—me, or each other.
‘Give me the spear, Wolf.’
‘Toss it! Toss it now!’
A shot nicked my arm. The fucking Jewish woman shot me!
I dropped the spear and it clattered to the centre, between us. I held my arm and cursed. None of them moved. Their guns were trained on each other.
‘I will take it, for Il Duce.’
‘I will take it, for Germany!’
‘I will take it to shove up your asses,’ Cohn said.
‘Is this it?’ Pound said.
‘It’s just …’
‘It’s just that it doesn’t look Roman,’ Pound said. ‘It’s too short, and the shape of the head is wrong.’
‘What?’ Himmler dropped his gun and bent down to look at the spear, oblivious of the threat from the others. He raised his head and glared at me in fury.
‘It’s nothing but a cheap fake!’
‘What?’ I said. ‘Wait, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, old friend, that’s not—’
I waved my hands desperately and the four of them turned on me. ‘No, no, no, you don’t underst—’
‘Son of a bitch!’
Then they were on me, the bastards. Guns forgotten, they were possessed in the fury of spiteful children, hitting me with fists and nails until I fell to the cold floor of the crypt, and then they were on me with abandon, kicking and screaming and calling me every name under the sun, until the pain became unbearable and their voices became the drone of waves against a distant shore, and I drowned.
When I came to, they were gone, and so was the spear. I lay on the floor of the crypt, crying in pain, until I saw a shuddering beam of light, followed by footsteps, and someone cried out, ‘Shit!’
It was the night watchman for the church. He pointed the light at me but made no attempt to help me up. ‘Sleeping rough, old boy?’ he said. ‘You’ll have to move it, I’m afraid. Breaking in is a crime, you know.’
‘I am not …’ I said, tears of humiliation and rage choking my voice.
‘There, there. Toddle off now, there’s a good lad.’
‘I am not …!’
I gave up. Somehow, I pulled myself upright. When I reached for my wallet, I found that it, too, was gone. One of the bastards had robbed me!
I dragged myself home along the dark streets. The last of the guisers went past me, ghostly figures holding lanterns, tiny skeleton children and monstrous ogres. On Berwick Street the bakery was closed. I climbed upstairs to my room and collapsed on the bed. This was my struggle.
A knock on the door, and that fat cow Martha came in, holding a half-full bottle of cheap schnapps. She saw the state I was in and clucked.
‘Make some room, Wolfy,’ she said. She pushed me with her arse and sat herself comfortably on the narrow bed beside me, her back to the wall. She took a meditative sip of schnapps.
‘Things didn’t go well?’
‘No, Martha. They have not been going well for some time.’
‘I never drink … schnapps.’
She burped. I closed my eyes. The stench was disgusting. Outside the window, the first rays of light could be seen.
‘Happy Halloween, Wolf,’ she said.
Walking back with the children, Shomer hears, beyond the ghetto walls, the peal of church bells. Beyond the walls children run, laughing and playing, their bellies full. Beyond the walls life goes on as though nothing had happened, as though this enclave within the city, this prison of the Jews does not exist. He leads his children home, avoiding the umschlagplatz and the train station, from which the first shipments of Jews to the East have already started. He leads them home safely, and he tucks them into bed.
‘Please, Papa,’ Bina says, sleepily. ‘Tell us a story.’
He holds her close. ‘What sort of story?’ he says.
‘A silly story!’ Bina says, and Avrom nods his head very seriously in agreement.
Shomer kisses the tops of their heads, one after the other, and then he sits back and closes his eyes, and there is darkness.
And so he makes up a story to tell them; and for them, he takes out all the bad parts.