The Watch Thief, Chapter 15

Whitehall, London. 1st February, 1915.

Reginald Hall left The Strand and entered Watergate House. Mid-forties and kept trim, he had a bulbous head, almost bald. From the back white tufts sprouted round his ears. He wore black, looked more like a captain of business with his wide pleasing smile. Hall’s most noticeable feature was the dark, perceptive eyes interrupted by sporadic twitching and blinking like a signal lamp.

“Shh, Blinker’s here,” whispered Mrs. Carberry.

He’d entered one of the rooms of MO5(g). A pool of fifty or so registry girls sifted through manilla and gave their all to the Underwoods. There were hardly any men: one Romeo perched on a desk at the back, oblivious to his presence. Hall saw Director Kell handing out instructions to a cluster at the far side. Kell was intimidatingly tall, hair swept back, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hall had met him at briefings, found him doddering and sentimental.

“Thank you, ladies,” said Kell. “If you could get on with that, and please excuse me, a very important man has just come in.”

They shook hands. Hall gruffly explained the reason for his visit. Kell led him through the secretaries.

Romeo sat bum up against typewriter. Opposite him was Joan, a tall blonde, with a fake shock on her face. Suzanne’s hand was clasped over her mouth to suppress hysterical laughter. They drew looks from the others around.

“Tell us again of this new recruit you’ve to break in, Captain Kenny,” said Joan.

“Come now, it’s a very serious matter,” he said.

“That’s Kenny?” asked Hall.

Kell put a slow hand on Hall and they stopped there. “Hang back and we’ll hear the s tory’s parlour version.”

“Go on. What of Commander Lincoln?”

Joan was laughing as she said it. An audience gathered around, all eyes on Kenny, serious.

“He applied for a job a few months ago.”

Kenny leaned forward, lowered his voice but raised the drama in his tone. “His plan: feeding the government snippets about fleet movements. He’d lure the Kaiser’s entire naval forces to the North Sea. Our navy would lie in wait.”

The open hands representing the two fleets were pushed together in one fist punched on top of the other. Kenny’s voice was rising.

“We’d lie in wait until his call! We’d destroy them with an ambush. Our masteree of the seas would bring us complete victoree!”

He punched the fist into the sky, then spread his arms out in dramatic magnificence.

“Zee Most Important Contree-bu-tion! Sat-ees-fying!”

The girls laughed, groaned; a few applauded.

“So I said to him, perhaps the War Office may send you to Rotterdam. You could gather data on Germany’s cocoa exports.”

Kenny awaited the second wave of laughter but heads turned away. He was confused, looked around the audience and saw Kell and Hall.

“Captain, always the source of office gossip,” said Kell. “This is Admiral Hall, director of Naval Intelligence. He’d like to hear the story again. If you can spare the time?”

It was Kenny who had passed the case along to Hall but their talk added nothing to what he already knew. Hall walked the short distance down Horse Guards Avenue to the Victoria Embankment and the river. Hall might have been on one of those patrolling boats but illness had cut short a celebrated career. He decided not to go along the glittering Thames to Admiralty House but to New Scotland Yard instead. The bulletin could be written up from there. He had with him files of his own meeting with Lincoln. Those would surely brighten up a Monday.

As luck had it, Assistant Commissioner Thomson and he crossed paths in the lobby. Thomson had grey and white flaking hair, a muscular face, a sour demeanour. Hall explained that Kell recommended he seek Basil Thomson out specifically. The police chief led the blinking Admiral into his office and poured him tea.

“I take my work seriously and I expect the same trait in others,” said Thomson. “To that end, you and I, Kell, and Cumming over at SIS might work more closely in the future,” said Thomson.

“We should. I’m at the moment doing some hands-on work regarding a potential spy. Trebitsch Timothy Lincoln, ex-MP. I believe you have a record on him.”

Thomson brushed his moustache down to his chin. “There was an allegation of espionage. No substance behind it. D.I. Ward and I made the house call and there was nothing untoward. Odd fellow though.”

“Batty, yes,” said Hall.

“Have I missed a trick?” asked Thomson.

“We both have, Basil. Lincoln applied for a job with Kell’s people. Henry Dalziel was pushing for it. He had all the character references, according to Captain Kenny over at Watergate.”

“What went wrong?”

“Over Christmas, SIS men in Rotterdam spotted Lincoln walk into the German consulate. Later that week he was witnessed with the Consul-General, Carl Gneist, and again the week after.”

“Suspicious. I’ll get you his wife’s address.” Thomson got up and opened the filing cabinet behind him. “So your men flagged him?”

“On the return trip. He’d been pushing Kell’s man. I thought better to let him come to us.. He was in my office on Thursday and came clean: he produced letters discussing espionage with Gneist and German secret intelligence.”

Thomson turned around. “What? He came right out with it?”

“Proudly! He produced secret German codes and dates of their future meetings. Apparently, he thought he would ingratiate himself with us by opening up channels with German espionage. I listened to him sit and tell me all these things.”

“This is rich! So the codes–”

“Absolutely worthless! I told him that, and spelled out he wouldn’t be paid by us for anything at any time.”

Thomson closed the filing cabinet gently, sat down with a slim folder in his hand.

“I’d looked into certain indulgences of his.” Hall blinked. “He’d forged signatures on letters to borrow a large amount of money from a man named Goldstein. Well, he went white as a sheet when I told him I knew this. I said anyone who did that was probably not suitable for intelligence work.”

“He surely didn’t take that well. Was the man not arrested?” said Thomson.

“Goldstein had asked for charges not to be pressed. I could have kept Lincoln’s passport, but it was only valid for three days so I returned it. A foolish decision.”

“He’s gone to ground,” said Thomson.

They collated the intel and wrote the memo. A secretary was instructed to send it to the port police and the constabulary. Lincoln would be arrested on site and checks made to ensure he was blocked from leaving the county. When they examined Thomson’s file, they noted Lincoln had been employed at Mount Pleasant sorting office. Thomson admitted suffering desk fatigue that day: if Hall wished to follow up the lead there and then he would be quite willing to accompany them. So they got a cab: along the Thames and turning on Blackfriars. They rode the full length of Farringdon Street discussing in whispered code the man in charge of state security: their boss, the Home Secretary.

“Really, what can McKenna do?” asked Thomson.

“He’ll throw a hissy fit and we’ll remind him access to information is a vitally preventative measure in wartime.” said Hall.

The cab turned into Islington and stopped at The Mount. They tipped him and walked across the yard to where sunlight shone on winter steps. Then the men were submerged in a near complete blackness and the cold of the former gaol. They found the postal supervisor, Richard Annette, in his office: a straight-talking size of a man.

“Trebitsch Lincoln? Not here for more than a few weeks before he was reprimanded. He was supposed to just sort, then I got wind he’d been taking liberties with the checks we have to make.”

“Hos so?” asked Thomson.

“He was marking the letters, writing on them. I thought if he was going to censor he should do it properly. I sent him to work under those two,” and he pointed to a table in the corner. “They worked with him closely.”

Thomson found time while making notes to glance over at the two men.

“What else can you tell us?” asked Hall.

“Not much,” said Annette. “We had a complaint from an M.P. who got a censorship form with his morning bacon and eggs. The boys fingered Lincoln as the likely culprit.”

“What a mess,” said Hall.

“There was nothing but friction when he was around. He clearly didn’t want to be here. No one was sorry when he resigned.”

They thanked him and made their way across the bay, rows of men and women spilling sacks of envelopes, hills of them shifting and swarming across the tables. Thomson took down the names of the workers Annette pointed out to them: Duncan Robbins and Miguel Duffield. They welcomed the interruption as a chance to slack off.

“Lincoln? Yeah, we worked with him,” said Robbins. “Keen to sort Romanian and Hungarian mail specifically. Claimed he had expertise.”

“He was as amateur as Duncan here!” said Duffield. “Writing all over the letters. It’s part of our job to check…”

“But this fella was making full length annotations. Always whining about how bored he was. Miguel does the same, to be fair.”

Thomson wearied of the banter. “Did he show any pro-German sympathies?”

“Oh, aye. Always speaking out in favour of them.” Duffield rubbed his dark beard. “Very queer for a military censor.”

“A shifty one at that. A few of the boys called him out as a spy. The supervisor got wind of it,” said Robbins.

“Ruddy rascal if you ask me. Remember, Duncan, what he used to say? ‘Eengleesh beegots!’”

Duncan Robbins dropped his easy demeanour and stood full to attention. “’Vee communeecations must bee properlee scrootinised!’”

In the car back to Whitehall,Thomson said he would send D.I. Ward to question Margarethe Lincoln. Ward could turn the place upside down to find him. Hall got out at Ripley Courtyard, said farewell, and walked to Admiralty House. He was met with the news of the Kaiser’s declaration of a German blockade around the British Isles. The Kaiser had declared merchant vessels under neutral flags would be sunk on sight. He set the Lincoln file in a heap and pondered his reaction. The Germans couldn’t take on the Royal Navy with only small boats, but could try to starve their resources.

Two full weeks later, Seebohm Rowntree was called to London on business. He was in Trafalgar Square when Reginald Hall recognised him, their trajectories having pushed them together. He asked if he would accompany him on the short trip to Admiralty House and Rowntree felt he could not refuse the meeting.

“Thank you. I’ll not take up much of your time,” said Hall as he led him Rowntree into the office. “I’m investigating a criminal matter related to your one-time protege, Trebitsch Lincoln. I believe you employed him as a land surveyor in Europe and sponsored his parliamentary effort. ”

The colour drained from the gent’s face. “Yes, yes, I regret it deeply.”

“I do not mean to interrogate you, sir.”

“This is about that business with Mr. Goldstein,” said Rowntree.

“John Goldstein put in a report to Scotland Yard in December. Unfortunately it slipped under the radar until recently. Yourself and Goldstein were involved in Mr. Lincoln’s oil ventures, is that right?”

“Trebitsch cabled asking me for financial assistance for Roumania as well. I sent an investigator out there to look and he found the fields drying up. Projections were terribly off. It seemed Trebitsch was always embroiled in some sort of dispute or other about them.”

“So you didn’t finance it?” asked Hall.

“I was briefly involved in the Galicia venture, you could say as an investor, but it was as a friend. However, once burned…no, no. It was John Goldstein got the worst of it. John told me he sent him £500, £600, every few weeks for months. £1000, on one occasion.”

By now Rowntree’s face was sad, the heart seemed to be leaving him. “If I had known, I would have warned him.”

“I understand this is difficult. I spoke with Mr. Goldstein. He told me you alerted him to the fraud which occurred in December of last year?”

“The poor fellow.”

Rowntree’s grew angry.

“I arrived at the Liberal Club and found two letters. One from Goldstein reminding me that as guarantor, Lincoln’s time to repay £900 was up. The other letter, from Lincoln, admitted to taking my mail from the Liberal Club, and forging my hand in saying I would act as his guarantor. He asked me not to judge him! Dear God. A terrible thing.”

“Presumably you’d had enough?”

“I contacted Mr. Goldstein immediately.”

“He exonerated you completely, Mr. Rowntree. You have nothing to be concerned about. Yet it seems Lincoln has slipped the net.”

“Lincoln would be better served if he remembered his own wife and five children.”

Hall thanked him, showed Rowntree out. It struck a nerve to see a great man brought so low. Hall read back over the case file and came back to his own meeting with Lincoln. With a sudden spark of determination he brought the secretary in.

“I want this wired direct. ‘Urgent. Telegram from Admiralty. Ignatius Trebitsch Lincoln. A warrant has been issued in this county for the arrest of the undermentioned person for the undermentioned offence. Apply for provisional arrest for a view to extradition.’”

Across the North Sea and Helinium River delta, the Consul-General in Rotterdam read Hall’s message. ‘Age 36, looks older. Height five feet nine inches, stout, hair black, bald on top of head, eyes black, ears large, fresh complexion, wears eyeglasses, Jewish Appearance. Very excitable.’

Two days later, after investigations were made the diplomat prepared a reply for Hall. ‘Careful examination of passengers and crew were made in the presence of one of my Vice-Consuls who saw Lincoln when he was last in Rotterdam but no trace of him was found.’

Hall shook his head. There were more important matters in his head. That week the Kaiser stepped up his blockade and authorised airship raids on London Docks. Within a few months Britain would suffer a perilous munitions shortage, mourn the loss of the Luitsiana and cower as London was bombed. Hall didn’t think of Lincoln, didn’t hear from him, or consider him worth his attention.


c. Andy Luke, 2017

The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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