The Watch Thief, Chapter 16

Little Hungary, 9 February, 1915

Simon saw to the guests at table six. Laid the cutlery in front of them, formally, and set down the red triangle serviettes onto white tablecloths and took their order: rice and steamed vegetables, pork with fried cheese side and halászlé soup. His manager, a portly American, took the note off him at the kitchen door. The customer alone in the corner was his brother, Trebitsch.

Eight hours earlier, the Philadelphia’s foghorn blasted the passenger hold. Trebitsch began again; Anna Jundt, her three children and sister, Olive, an eager audience. They were Germans making a fresh start and Trebitsch understood their plight. He comforted Anna as tear trickled by her silky black hair and remarked that jealousy was no way for them to build an empire. New York’s buildings were tall, he said, taller, yes, than the children stood on each other’s shoulders. Where the people scary? Not as scary as the British, not as scary as the naval spy who sent coded messages by blinking.

Olive took the sleepy children while Trebitsch and Anna walked the deck. They managed somehow to walk half an hour. He was kind and listened as she complained about her husband. He didn’t judge. He spoke impartially, gave his sympathies on what he’d heard and invented nothing. Trebitsch took her elbow in his palm, clearing her path through the people on deck. She sparked at his touch. Below the stink of oil and brine, her scented talcum powder re-lit his sinuses. Anna learned he was poor and offered to lend him money. He was delighted.

She opened the door to the cabin. Her tongue followed his. A hand firm on tit, fidgeting with buttons. Her spine ran down her back, he followed it between her legs. Nails gripped his rear, balancing. Then they were on rowing on the bed. She murmured something too quiet, then a scream as her knees rocked and sweat worked into a rainfall as they came.

When Anna and Trebitsch went above deck the Statue of Liberty signalled their welcome and the Jersey City skyline played itself out before them.

Unwilling to suffer his heavy bag through the noisy traffic, Trebitsch took the Staten Island ferry, bypassing Brooklyn. In Lower Manhattan he found the Little Hungary restaurant: not too many customers, it had some class about it. The aromas drifted from the kitchen: beef, peppercorn and garlic. The waiter asked if he wanted a table for one and he squinted at the unkempt fringe.

Simon?”

“Trebitsch,” he replied cheerfully. “Yes, I work here,” said Simon.

“I did not expect this. I am, of course, here on business. Low key business if you don’t mind.”

Simon sat him down and presented him a menu, then asked if Trebitsch had seen Jozsef or Lajos. He confessed the three of them had moved to New York for work after the Roumanian Oil Company collapsed. The mention of it made Trebitsch’s tone harsher. He told Simon to write down their details, then ordered the Chicken paprikash stew and a glass of table water. Simon handed him the addresses and took his order to the kitchen. He felt his brother’s eyes on him as he left. Table eleven had ordered bright-red halászlé fish soup, not too spicy and the ruby Csaba sausage. He asked them to enjoy their meal then saw Trebitsch with raised finger. The manager blocked Simon’s way, wagged his finger and sent him back to his brother.

Trebitsch informed Simon he expected to eat for free. He reminded him, “I provided you with food and shelter in Darlington; and we still have to settle up for the Roumanian account.”

Simon was speechless, then warned Trebitsch not to start trouble. Oh, no, there would be no trouble, said Trebitsch. Then the manager was calling out Simon’s name and orders, broad and full of bluster. Trebitsch said he was a customer and like any other deserved to be attended to. Simon left and returned with Trebitsch’s plate, orange brown stew with dumpling-noodles, and slapped it down in front of his brother.

Trebitsch continued to drag out the meal, sitting for another hour. Simon passed him and felt his eyes were upon him at all times. Simon said goodnight to the kitchen staff but before he could leave the manager, noticing his neglect, made him call on Trebitsch.

“Was everything alright with your meal, Sir?”

“The service is cold. Could you warm it up for me?”

“Very good,” said Simon.

He walked out onto Broadway with its shouts and cars then heard Trebitsch’s case drag behind him. Simon heard his name called out as a threat, he turned his headand his elder brother drew close.

“The money you took from Roumanian Oil, it must be repaid.”

Simon’s brow wrinkled, scrunching up between his eyes and nose. “What?” he asked.

“Oh, but you see,” said Trebitsch. “I have caught you! £100, Simon!”

“You’re talking rot,” spat Simon. “I took nothing! If anything–“

“£100, I demand you give it to me now.”

Simon laughed, then paused a moment, cutting Trebitsch off. “I don’t even have £100 !”

“Well give me $10 and you can give me $5 every week until the amount is returned.”

“Go and talk to Jozsef if you want your money!” said Simon and he turned and walked away.

“That’s regrettable,” said Trebitsch, then raised his voice. “That behaviour will be the end of you!”

Trebitsch bought a ticket on the night train and travelled across the country, seeing Philadelphia as the sun set and and black Baltimore were it slowed and stopped and he finally slept waiting on the dawn carriage to Washington. At dawn, he dragged his haulage bag down Pennsylvania Avenue. In the morning light the White House opened in front of him, flashed through the railings so he could almost touch it. At twenty to nine, he walked to the U.S. German consulate on Massachusetts Avenue. The building was four storeys, cold featureless square brick juxtaposed with a European conical turret. The waiting room was extravagant with polished furniture.

“Mr. Werner Horn, Consul Von Papen will see you now,” said the secretary.

Already it was busy and Trebitsch spoke with the waiting Irishman and then an Indian. An hour later his name was called. Franz Von Papen had full black eyes, sprouting eyes and a curling chin which gave him a curious and animated face. Trebitsch took him seriously right away. His office held framed certificates from Von Papen’s time at the Kaiser’s palace and a photograph from the coup in Mexico the year before. In rusty German, Trebitsch repeated the story of his meeting with Carl Gneist in Rotterdam, how he’d been given codes as a try-out.

“I hate the British as much as you,” said Trebitsch. “My wife is German. Right now she is living in England, behind enemy lines. She, and my other contacts in the British elite, can be a valuable source of information. I saw many nationalities in your waiting room. I conclude from that you recognise the importance of good information.”

Von Papen nodded appreciatively. “What are you proposing, Mr. Lincoln?”

“If you give me a job you’ll find I’m a productive worker with exclusive access to contacts within the European state apparatus. I would also require a passport so my enemy Admiral Hall will not discover my presence here or where-ever you choose to send me. The Kaiser would benefit greatly from having me at his disposal. I also have good knowledge of Canada.”

Trebitsch knew of Gneist’s interest in the region and hoped he’d take the bait.

“That’s very interesting. Go on.”

“I toured all round Canada in my disguise as a holy man. The port cities of Quebec and Montreal, right along the St. Lawrence river, to here, to New York.”

“Well, don’t your connections run deep? If your references check out, what would you propose to do for us?”

Von Papen’s accent was hard, the weariness of nobility fused with the belittlement of a military man. He wondered if Von Papen had ever been to Britain. Von Papen had to be made aware, thought Trebitsch, that he was a dangerous man and he should have him on side. “I have seen your codes. I know they could use improvement and the British are closer to cracking them than you might think. Allow me to work on new ones.”

“Those codes come through High Command and are not suited to invention by a diplomat, which is how you described your work in Europe. Would you be prepared to courier certain documents?”

“Yes, yes, I would. The telegram and the new wireless are efficient but they are not suitable for sensitive matters.”

“How sensitive would the messages have to be to be unsuitable to you? Information on fleet movements and strategies need to be safeguarded at all times.”

“This is another area in which I am well versed and happy to serve,”said Trebitsch.

“And would you be willing to take orders? What if you were required to ship armaments?”

“It would likely attract attention and not be the best use of my talents. However, I may be prepared to broker deals. This would work, as I am in dialogue with many influential business people.”

Von Papen said he would contact Gneist to back up the claims. Trebitsch said he would not leave a forwarding address just yet and he would call on him in two weeks.

He arrived in New York by the evening and made his way to Lajos’s home in downtown Brooklyn. He climbed the stairs above Decatur Street, and the door was answered by Jozsef, both brothers surprised to see one another. Lajos embraced him too. It was a grand reunion.

Jozsef brought fresh beef and spaghetti, enough for the three of us,” said Lajos.

You recall how he never has anything in. I see the newspapers have begun to nest again,” said Jozsef.

He files them in boxes as and when it occurs,” said Trebitsch.

Lajos did have his spices, herbs, and his talent for mixing the right amounts at the right time: poppy seed and oregano, tarragon, dill, coriander and bay leaf, The scent wakened Trebitsch to memories of Darlington when he cooked for them and the smell of meat incensed their mother. They sat in a kitchen with a hardwood floor, all three chairs with a simple circular table that creaked from a bad leg. Jozsef told his brother he’d been working as an elevator mechanic for a city firm. His flat at Washington Heights was too small for guests but he was willing to loan twenty bucks. Lajos offered to put Trebitsch up and he thanked him. The meal was divine.

The next day, Trebitsch slept on the scabby three-seat sofa which was perfect. The day after he rode the bus across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. Simon was not at the restaurant.. Trebitsch drafted a demand for the money, folded it twice and left it with the waiter. Then it was back to pulling the luggage. Every street was a tourist attraction, all the famous places gathered and lined up. He spent a few hours at the Public Library on Fifth Street, looking through the newspapers. There was a report on the Turkish and German armies having reached the Suez Canal and closer, in Los Angeles, the screening of Griffith’s three hour drama, Birth of a Nation. None of the papers had any mention of him, so he wrote to Margarethe assuring her he was safe and asked her to write back care of Louis Szell.

In the mornings he awoke to the sounds of the Atlantic Avenue thoroughfare, horse driven milk carts of Borders and Union Dairy, the man with his hand-crate dashing up and down the row houses. As the months passed, Lajos contributed to one or two Socialist papers and Trebitsch was given ten or twenty dollars when he could afford it. Trebitsch played on his brother’s politics as he ducked out of employment, looking to make his own way. Perhaps he might gain a position with the New York World or The American. He’d tried the German papers too, heard nothing back. Margarethe wrote back that the policeman Ward had called again and searched the house. It had gotten worse though. There was no food to go around. Julius and Ignatius brought in some money as cleaners but they’d been surviving only with the help of the Salvation Army. She was considering giving one of the boys up for adoption.

By mid-April, Trebitsch and Lajos were close to turning on one another. He often returned home late, drunk, with Anna Jundt, or her sister Olive back, or both of them. At just the right time, Anna and her husband lent him money for the rent of a room and he moved to West 135th Street on the bank of the Hudson, not far from Jozsef.

Three years earlier the Pulitzer Building was the city’s tallest, twenty storeys high. It dominated Newspaper Row and laughed at the spires of the church underneath. Trebitsch sauntered into the offices of the New York World. The presses had rolled, the pressure was off the writers. Yet they click-clacked Underwoods and cut carriages across pages. The ink smell was heavy like tar, a fog of cigarette smoke hovering above it. He was led to the editor’s office, a gallery of souvenir clippings on the walls. Frank Cobb, one-time partner to Joseph Pulitzer, stood to shake Trebitsch’s hand and Trebitsch wondered if he might sit in that chair himself one day.

“Yes, Mr. Lincoln. I had a look at your submissions. The anti-British opinion is actually quite a common one in our submissions. To tell the truth, it’s a bit tired.”

“I was a Liberal Party M.P. Surely that would carry some weight?”

“Our readers just wouldn’t be interested by that. Our doors is open if you can come up with substantial news.”

“I was quite influential! I travelled all over Europe getting ready policy on social reform. I was even considered for work with Special Intelligence.”

Cobb raised his head and picked up his notepad. “Go on,” he said.

“I was working at The Mount as a military censor when I formulated a brilliant plan to destroy the German navy. However at that time, there were various factions within the espionage community who were conspiring against me.”

“This, this I’m interested in. Can you substantiate any of it?”

Trebitsch reached inside his bag and took out letters from Hall, Gneist and Kenny and spread them across the desk as Cobb read every single line. Cobb summoned another reporter and told him to get Trebitsch over to his desk.

A half hour later, Cobb saw the two of them writing side by side. Trebitsch’s left hand rested on the desk. Cobb lifted a discarded page. Trebitsch examined his own fingers, black ink marking out the spirals, then Cobb, who was engrossed in the text:

‘I used the codename Kuepferle, which Scotland Yard thought came from the German Secret Service. The English thought they were fooling the Germans, while as a matter of fact they were being fooled. I happened to be one of the dramatis epersonae in this intrigue and counter-intrigue, in the plotting and counter-plotting, in the deep laid scheme of one brain against the other.’

“Mr. Lincoln, if we were to publish… aren’t you worried about your safety?” asked Cobb.

“Oh, it is for the best that I do this. The time is at hand!”

#

c. Andy Luke, 2017

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