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Authors: Ned Beauman

Tags: #Mystery, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Humour

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BOOK: Boxer, Beetle
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‘You can’t imagine the smell if I piss myself,’ I said. In truth, it could hardly get any worse than it already was: I sweat so much when I panic that I turn into a minor airborne toxic event.

He looked at me for a second and then said, ‘Where’s the toilet?’

‘Off the living room.’

‘Go.’

He followed me out of the bedroom into the living room. He flipped on the light, and I glanced back to get a better look at him. I knew I should probably study his calm face, but all I could look at was the gun in his hand, its shape familiar from dozens of computer games, and that was when I noticed the tattoo on his wrist: a hunting dagger atop a rounded swastika.

‘You’re from the Thule Society,’ I whispered.

‘Hurry up, please,’ he said. As I went into the bathroom he added, ‘Don’t close the door.’

I didn’t. But his view of the sink was blocked by my body. With one hand I tugged my penis out of my pyjama bottoms, and with the other I picked up my toothbrush mug. I pissed into the mug until it was almost full. Coming back out of the bathroom, I held the mug behind my back and with my free hand pointed at the letter from Hitler on my computer desk. ‘There it is,’ I said. ‘What I took.’ The Welsh Ariosophist reached to pick it up, and I threw the mug of hot piss in his face.

Trimethylamine in high concentrations starts to smell more like ammonia than fish, and is vilely corrosive to the mucuous membranes. Like a bethylid wasp who squirts venom at her enemy as she flees from a fight, it was only a distraction; but as the Ariosophist coughed and retched and rubbed his eyes
with the heels of his hands, I had time to grab my car keys from my desk and get out of the flat.

I slammed the door behind me, and heard two gunshots no louder than the punch of a big stapler. I ran down the stairs, dodged a few post-nightclub drunks who stood smoking outside Happy Fried Chicken, and got into my car. It had rained through the night, and the street lamps glistened off the tarmac, grainy golden light spreading under my wheels like daffodil blood oozing up through the earth. A helicopter buzzed in the distance.

Zroszak might just as well have been murdered by the Whig Party, I thought, as I careened down Camden Road on the way to Grublock’s penthouse near Battersea Bridge. As far as I knew, the Thule Society hadn’t operated for at least eighty years.

It had been founded in 1914 by Rudolf von Sebottendorff, an occultist and adventurer. He took the name from Thule, the capital of Hyperborea, a lost utopia near the North Pole identified by the American congressman Ignatius L. Donnelly as the real location of Atlantis and the birthplace of the Aryan race. Sebottendorff held meetings in a hotel in Munich and even purchased a local newspaper. In 1919 two Thule Society members, Anton Drexler and Karl Harrer, were asked to establish a political front for the organisation, which they called the German Workers’ Party. Then in 1920 Adolf Hitler joined, and they changed the name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

From then on, not much is known. Sebottendorff moved to Turkey, in flight from the agents of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, and the Thule Society is usually assumed to have withered away like a moth’s cocoon. But one meets a surprising number of people in the internet Nazi memorabilia collecting community who believe that the Nazi Party was never anything but a front for Ariosophist sorcerors. (Meanwhile, others believe that Hitler was either a British secret agent or the boss of some sort of homosexualist mafia.)

Indeed, Stuart insisted for a few months, until he lost interest, that the Thule Society was responsible for the September 11 attacks. You may already have heard that at the end of the Second World War the US military ran something called Operation Paperclip, shipping dozens of Nazi scientists to America to work on nuclear physics and rocketry. Actually, their true expertise, claims Stuart, was in antigravity, extraterrestrial life and necromancy, and many of them were hierarchs of the Thule Society. Somehow, these scientists made an alliance with their cousins at Yale University, the Skull and Bones Club, to which allegiance was owed by many of the most powerful men of the twentieth century, including Robert A. Lovett, architect of the CIA, and both Bush presidents. This ‘Brotherhood of Death’ saw the Third Reich as merely a practice run for the Fourth Reich, America’s New World Order, and their recent dirty tricks have included the demolition of the World Trade Center towers with remote-control plastic explosives and two holographic aeroplanes. Their eventual aim is to conquer the holy city of Agartha, hidden beneath the snows of Tibet, and use its supernatural powers to dominate the earth for eternity.

Although it’s perfectly obvious to me that we’ve been told a lot of lies about September 11, I find Stuart’s account a bit implausible for reasons I won’t go into here. It’s funny, I suppose, that an organisation like the Thule Society, composed mostly of paranoid bores who talked about nothing but the gods of Atlantis and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even worse than my ‘internet friends’, should itself return as a ghost to haunt every modern conspiracy theory. All paranoids soon begin to imitate their enemies, and the Thule Society did so almost too convincingly. Either way, however, there was something laughable about the notion of the Ariosophists, in the twenty-first century, assassinating a London private detective. Something laughable, and something terrifying. As I crossed Vauxhall Bridge, the MI6 building on my left,
I thought of how a city is just whatever happens to accrete around the intersection of a million secrets: a fox in your garden is a stolen kiss is a pirate radio station is a dead detective is a Welsh Ariosophist with a gun is an ounce of skunk with your greasy chips is the collection of Nazi memorabilia that my employer, Horace Grublock, keeps upstairs in his penthouse flat.

5
AUGUST 1935
 

Judah Kölmel, half-brother of the gangster Albert Kölmel, bent to lick Sinner’s shoulder. It was as salty as a herring, so Kölmel said, ‘That’s all for now.’ Any good coach could taste the sweat on a boxer and know if he’d trained long enough that day, but eighteen years after he painted the words ‘KOLMEL’S GYM’ over the door of an empty garment warehouse on Eighth Avenue, Judah Kölmel could do a lot more. He could taste if you ate kosher; he could taste alcohol and nicotine and marijuana; he could taste flu before your first sniffle. He could taste if his naked wife had faked it. He sometimes thought that he could taste bad luck, that he could taste impurity before God, and that he could taste the shadow of death. Three times out of four, he could taste if a boxer was going to win or lose his next fight. But when he tasted Sinner, he could taste, naturally, that Sinner had been skipping, jogging, and sparring for eight hours and that he’d done just about enough, but beyond that, nothing – sweat as blank as the condensation on a mirror.

So Kölmel, still a little perturbed by this even after a week’s acquaintance, made no wisecrack as he handed Sinner a towel, leaving his cousin Max Frink to say, ‘You worked hard today.’ The three of them started up the metal stairs to Sinner’s first-floor dressing room, though several customers of Kolmel’s Gym (which had never, for trading purposes, rescued the umlaut) were still at their punching-bags.

‘Can I go to Times Square tonight?’ said Sinner. He said it sarcastically, as he had every night since they arrived in New
York, knowing the answer would be no. Frink insisted that it wasn’t half as good as Piccadilly Circus, anyway.

‘No need, Seth,’ said Kölmel. ‘We’re having some fun tonight. Big dinner.’

‘What?’ said Frink.

‘A banquet with Rabbi Berg,’ said Kölmel. ‘You know, like I promised in my letter.’

‘In you go,’ said Frink.

‘I’m out of fags,’ said Sinner. Kölmel handed the boy three Chesterfields and shut the door after him, leaving the two older men in the corridor.

‘What the hell is this about a dinner?’ said Frink quietly.

‘Rabbi Berg is excited to meet the kid. I’m sure I told you about it.’

‘Will there be wine?’

‘Yes, but—’

‘Rabbi Berg can meet Sinner another time.’

‘I promised him!’

‘No.’

‘Max, you don’t know how much the Rabbi does for us all. Or how much the guy could do for Sinner. He’s like a kid himself when it comes to boxing – he loves it. And he has relatives in London.’

‘Are you crackers? We’re paying to keep a bloke on the boy’s bedroom door at night, and now you want to throw him a nice party with wine?’ said Frink, struggling to keep his voice down. ‘Listen to me, Judah, maybe I don’t know much about this Rabbi Berg, but I’ll tell you what you don’t know: you don’t know how fast it can go wrong with Sinner. You’ve never seen it. For God’s sake, he has to fight tomorrow night.’ Kölmel had arranged a couple of warm-up bouts with local boys in advance of Sinner’s crucial match with Aloysius Fielding the following weekend. If Sinner beat Fielding, and he ought to, it would be enough to establish him in America, and that meant bigger fights, bigger titles,
bigger purses. He might not have to return to England for months. The trip couldn’t have happened without Judah Kölmel, and Frink was so grateful that he would normally have gone along with anything he said, but this was too important; and if Frink was capable, once in a while, of defying Albert Kölmel, which very few men or women ever did, then he was certainly capable of disappointing Albert Kölmel’s half-brother.

‘All we got to do is watch him. You sit on his left, I sit on his right, and we follow him when he goes to take a piss.’ Kölmel’s false teeth were loose and they rattled as he spoke. He was rumoured to carry a small automatic pistol in his hip pocket at all times, and was a member of the New York Pangaean Club.

‘No. Absolutely not. We’re honoured by the invitation, Sinner and me, but absolutely not.’

So while Sinner washed and changed his clothes, Kölmel went into his office, telephoned Rabbi Berg and persuaded him not to serve wine at the dinner, achieving, in ten minutes, what thirteen years of Prohibition never had.

Out in the street the five o’clock sunshine seemed to rise up like dew from the cracks in the pavement. Sinner and Frink took a cab back down to their hostel on the Lower East Side next to the old Bialystoker Synagogue. Kölmel knew the owner, and Sinner had been put in a room with bars on the windows and a heavy lock on the door. Sinner drank a Dr Pepper – which he had never tasted before and found almost alarmingly delicious – flicked through a boxing comic called
The Abysmal Brute
– which despite the name made boxing appear as bloodless as cricket – and changed into a suit borrowed from a tailor friend of Kölmel’s – which was both too tight and too long in the legs. Then the two Englishmen walked over to Rabbi Berg’s house on Cherry Street.

Frink couldn’t pretend he didn’t feel guilty to be treating
Sinner like this, to be dragging him around like a convict on remand, to be denying him a single moment’s unharnessed enjoyment of this extraordinary place. When Frink fought ‘for England’ in the war he had really fought for London, and yet he had to admit that New York felt like an even greater city. This was what he was stealing from Sinner, who would only be seventeen once. But to reassure himself, he only had to think of the times that the boy had turned up to prizefights drunk, or vomited during training, or disappeared entirely for days at a stretch – not to mention the more carnivalesque episodes, like the time he stole a police horse. Frink had known Sinner had that chaos in him ever since the day they met, but it had got worse and worse. And despite all the help Frink had given Sinner, with his jabs and his scabs and his dinners and his debts, he couldn’t do the first thing to help him with this. He desperately wanted to, but he couldn’t. Frink knew what it was like to want to drink sadness into the distance, and he knew the sadness that Sinner had, or some of it. But he often felt that Sinner wasn’t drinking because of sadness, but rather because he looked at drunkenness like he looked at almost everything else: as a territory to be conquered, an opponent to be tested, a lover to be used up. No gouging, no biting: those were the words spoken before every fight like a harsh grace. Gouging and biting, though, were both just ways of grabbing a little bit of something that wasn’t yours. And Sinner, if he could, if he wasn’t stopped, would try to gouge and bite until there was no world left. Or until there was nothing left of him but fingers and teeth. Or until there was nothing left of him at all. Which was why he had to be a prisoner, as guilty as it made Frink feel.

But actually, to Sinner, as they passed a shop window advertising ‘MOSHA 100% PURE PUMPERNICKEL’ which just at that moment was nearly smashed by a little boy kicking a tin can, this place didn’t seem all that different from
Spitalfields; except that New York had a certain deep generosity of sky which he would never forget. And, anyway, Frink wasn’t wrong to be wary: Sinner wanted gin, or whatever they drank here, and one way or another he would get some. He looked back at the little boy, and thought about how the kid would soon know his name, just like everyone else in this city would.

Rabbi Berg’s house was crowded with paintings and ornaments and little lamps and half-broken things. He welcomed them in saying, ‘Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.’ His face was deeply and finely lined all over, as if he’d once been caught in a shrimping net. ‘A great pleasure to meet you, Seth. Who is your rabbi in London? Rabbi Brasch? Our paths have not crossed. Come and sit down because I cannot stand up for too long and Mr Kölmel is already here.’ They went into the dining room and drank iced blackberry cordial. Within a few minutes the two remaining guests had arrived: Mr Balfour Pearl, a handsome dark-eyed man in his mid-thirties, introduced as having come straight from the mayor’s office, and Rabbi Shmuel Siedelman, who was around the same age as Pearl and much more reserved than his colleague Berg.

Their host sat at the head of the table, with Kölmel and Siedelman on his left, Sinner and Frink on his right, and Pearl at the opposite end. As his maid brought out their dinner of veal sausage with minced onion dumplings and cabbage, the rabbi led his guests in a prayer for the Jews in Germany. Everyone closed their eyes except Sinner, who looked around the dining room. This wasn’t the first time he’d been in a nice house: there were toffs he’d met in the Caravan who’d taken him back to grand old places in Belgravia or Knightsbridge. But this was the first time he’d been in a nice house as a proper guest, let alone a guest of honour, and the first time he’d been attended by a maid. The rabbis he knew in London didn’t live like this, and they wouldn’t aspire to have
government officials over for dinner, either. He wondered what the difference was, really, between a man like Rabbi Berg and a man like Albert Kölmel. You knew everybody, everybody knew you, and that was the foundation of your power: before long, there was no one left who didn’t owe you a favour. It was only the incantations, it seemed to Sinner, that were different.

BOOK: Boxer, Beetle
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