7.3 Assumed Command

At the Foreign Office, Fitzmaurice was at the Foreign Secretary’s calendar. On the other side of the desk, Tyrrell, reading the morning mail.  Suddenly, Tyrrell threw himself back into the chair and cried out, “Dear God!”

“Hmm?” asked Fitzmaurice. “Something for Sir Grey?”

Tyrrell flapped the letter from above his head and flapped it some more at Fitzmaurice.

“This was hand-delivered by Rowntree’s man: the Hungarian! ‘I will take the liberty of calling upon you tomorrow, Saturday, for letters of introduction to our Ambassadors or Ministers in Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Stuttgart and in other places in the German Empire where we have accredited representatives.’”

“He’s got a hope. Wait, didn’t we already provide those letters?”

“He says it’s for Rowntree Snr., for the purposes of ‘temperance and social reform’.  ‘Hoping that you will have the letters ready dah-de-dah… as I have to leave London tomorrow evening.’”

“Heavens! Probably best we don’t inform Sir Grey of this,” said Fitzmaurice.

 

Berlin, 1906

Mid-October and Trebitsch sat on the platform at Cöpenick waiting for the 2:30. Eleven Prussian soldiers disembarked. They were commanded by Wilhelm Voigt, an old, large man with flaking moustache and puffy face.

Three months earlier, Trebitsch met Voigt by chance outside Cafe Adlon. They were sat at adjacent tables, each un-bothered by Adlons’ extension. Trebitsch had his coat off and sleeves rolled up, leaned back on his chair admiring the view of the Brandenburg Gate. Voigt, similarly casual, said this was why he served on so many tours: so he could come home to this sight. A spirit of peace and unity its six Athenian columns enlarged the street and the sun split through them. Trebitsch said he hoped he could take a walk through it before the sun set but only the Royal family could, according to Captain Voigt, as he introduced himself. He guarded there under Ludendorff once. At that moment a waiter arrived and Trebitsch cheekily ordered coffee for both of them.  He told Voigt he was researching Germany’s land holdings, transport and employment. With Voigt’s knowledge would he object to some questions?  Not at all, he’d heard the British ambassador was a good man. Frank Lascelles, said Trebitsch. Voigt said Lascelles curbed the Emperor’s worst notions, amid the clanging of steel on steel. The waiter apologised and set their coffees down. Voigt looked at the scaffolding and said half of Berlin was building hotels. Trebitsch mentioned the Fürstenhof, Voigt: the Excelsior. They would open one at the Alex, the Alexanderplatz, after the station was built. Trebitsch understood Germany had the best railway networks. Voigt firmly agreed. They had trains out to Ruhr, Hamburg and Bremen. Then there was the Simplon Railway Tunnel connecting Switzerland and Italy. A German engineer didn’t Trebitsch know?

Trebitsch was confused upon seeing Voigt at the station. He was angry too, a mind full with humiliation. Unusually for Trebitsch, he found himself rooted to the spot as the soldiers and their Captain walked past.

In July, under lime trees Voigt ordered more coffee. The air was thick with it, and the smell of apfelstrudel, and from the nearby embassies, status. Trebitsch said Mr. Rowntree was interested in employment and the steel industry. Had Trebitsch been out to the Krupp factory in Essen. No, but he planned to and recalled reading the factory had its own railway line and over sixty buildings. Voigt said  it was practically a city. They even had their own police and fire services. They discussed Berlin’s growing population, around two million. They praised Bismarck’s welfare state, where those unlucky enough to be out of work would be looked after. It was the first of its kind in the world and Trebitsch responded saying his employer hoped Britain would follow. Voigt thought this sensible. The unemployed, he said, “could not make anything of themselves in a down-ward cycle: no passport, no work, no home.” Voigt saw the change at home, Cöpenick, a town fifteen miles away. Trebitsch saw it in on a map in Lascelles’ office were the River Spree and Dahme met. Voigt noted the summers were warmer in the city, buildings stored a lot of heat. Trebitsch excused himself to go to the rest room and behind him, Voigt called the nearby waiter for more coffee.

As he pissed he thought about the afternoon, how he and the Captain had got on very well. They complimented one another, like two parts in a performance. After drying his hands, he felt his passport in his trouser pocket and thought to leave it in his coat. Then he thought of taking Voigt into his company. It was about time he had his own research assistant.

Inside the Adlon Trebitsch drew suspicious stares. Outside there was no Voigt. Two five goldmark notes rested on the table but Trebitsch’s jacket was laid on the ground. His temper rose. He lifted it, found his wallet underneath.  He thumbed through it. There were fifty marks missing, but the rest, a hundred or so remained.

“Where is he?” said Trebitsch.

The waitress with coffee looked at him.

“Where is the Captain?”

“That wasn’t a Captain; that was the shoe-maker.”

The waitress had just arrived on shift. She recognised Voigt, who had spent half his life in gaol, hadn’t served a day in his life, she said. Whenever Trebitsch looked at his fob watch in the months ahead he cursed Voigt, cursed he’d fallen victim to a con man.

On the platform, Trebitsch watched as Voigt’s sergeant barked at the police. In a daze, he boarded the train. In the weeks ahead Vossische Zeitung speculated, reported how a petty crook had procured a Captain’s uniform. At barracks he enlisted the services of men taught never to question a superior officer. Trebitsch smiled as he read how ‘The Captain’ had imprisoned Mayor Lahengrans and gotten away with four thousand marks. Whenever he walked by Brandenburg Gate, he felt great stirrings of pride.

Ignacz The Watch Thief is serialised five days a week. To donate go to patreon.com/andyluke and access four advance chapters, commentaries or bonus art.

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