The Watch Thief, Chapter 18

Saturday 15 January, 1916: Joe’s Restaurant, Brooklyn.

Joe’s was where people met people. Men and women swam in one another’s eyes, five friends laughed at every table. Among all the parties Francis Johnson, twenty-two, sat at his table, feeling alone. An old man looked at him judgementally from the table opposite. His whiskey on the rocks shook like boats in a harbour at night.

One Month Earlier…

Over breakfast, Trebitsch was ribbed by Lampe and Bernard. He’s planning his great escape, they said. Trebitsch smiled and waved it off. I’m merely helping out where I can. But didn’t Tunny from the bomb squad grill him? Well, said Trebitsch, that just put the idea in my head to offer my services: I wrote to them several letters outlining the project, and Agent Benham, cleared it. That must speak very well of me, he said. They roared with laughter. Super secret double agent! Gentlemen, we are sat beside a master code breaker. Trebitsch said, we will see if Judge Veeder orders my extradition while I am working for the Bureau of Investigation!

An electric bell drilled in the high hall; twelve keys turned; large steel prison gates shifted back. Trebitsch walked with Marshal Proctor twenty minutes along Fulton and Washington. The Federal building was four storeys: white, polished granite catching the light on the corner. They passed through the semi-circular arch into the sumptuous foyer and along to the mahogany staircase.

The office had two desks. Proctor’s, the larger of the two, faced the door with a window behind it. Trebitsch worked at the smaller one, sat against the wall with a clock over his head, large like a moon. It was half nine when Trebitsch opened the dossier. The first sheet was a carbon copy, line after line of numbers. The second was also numbers, different ones, everywhere. The third was full of numbers. At ten thirty, Trebitsch was copying them onto a fourth sheet, then a fifth by eleven. Proctor was in his mid thirties, a refined and calm gent. They spoke occasionally, when Proctor brought tea, and at midday, when Trebitsch suddenly exclaimed,

“Marshal Proctor! I will be able to decipher these in the next day or two!”

That is great news.” he said. “Well done.”

Shortly after Proctor packed up books and wallets in a black leather bag. Trebitsch was left alone for a while. He read the newspapers and took time to check over some of the proofs for his book. At one, there was a knock on the door. Deputy Johnson introduced himself, with lunch. Trebitsch set down his pen and puffed wearily. He turned to the young face and took the brown bag from his hand. Was cheese and ham alright? Trebitsch’s nostrils moved along the sandwich, inhaling, and he gave an approving ahhhh. He savoured it, the mayo pushing from the wholegrain. Johnson was tall, muscular, with a buzz-cut and a face showing fear from inexperience. Trebitsch gazed at the clock as he crunched into lettuce.

“You can take an hour,” said Johnson. “Proctor says you’re studying German cables?”

Trebitsch set down his sandwich and gave Johnson one of his sheets. “They’re from a German firm in San Juan, Porto Rico. It’s a combination code. A code within a code.”

“You’ve circled the threes.”

“The three recurs more than any other number. Does it look like a certain English letter to you, Marshal?”

Yes, yes, it does. Is this the special insight that led the Bureau to select you?”

Trebitsch spoke of Carl Gneist and Franz Von Papen, who Johnson knew to be a troublemaker. This led into a conversation about Trebitsch’s life as a preacher in Canada, his travels in South America (so he said), becoming a curate in England and a surveyor for one of the great social entrepreneurs. The conversation lasted the rest of the afternoon. They arranged that in the afternoons, when Proctor was usually out, Trebitsch would move to his desk and allow Johnson to work from his own.

Trebitsch’s work continued. In the mornings, Proctor and he walked by the Fulton Ferry District, it’s Romanesque Revival building. The Federal offices doubled as a courthouse and post office so the foyer was chaos, but the fourth floor office was quiet. It took a while to earn Proctor’s trust. When Proctor left and returned, he’d look around his office: the filing cabinet and telephone, bookcase and framed certificates until he was happy nothing had been stolen. Sometimes Trebitsch would feel his eyes crawl across his back. Largely, the deputies were fine with him reading the newspapers and checking over the proofs for his book. He transcribed the coded pages and checked for accuracy, patterns. Proctor brought him acetates and duplicates so he could examine them side by side. At the end of the second week, Proctor asked if Trebitsch would like to go with him to the deli.

They argued over the best deli in Brooklyn, and Proctor gave in to going for rolls on Flushing Avenue. They passed the Clarendon and Proctor asked if he’d drank there. Trebitsch said he had not. He didn’t drink beer a great deal, except after a day’s work. He added nothing tasted so good after a hard day’s grind. They talked of the battle at Greece’s border as they ate their rolls in the staff lounge, with Johnson and Tunny. Then it was time to go back to the columns of code, as was usual in the afternoons, just Trebitsch and Johnson. The deputy liked him well enough but was nervous and Trebitsch suggested they work either side of the same desk. So Johnson lifted his papers and got comfortable on Proctor’s chair. The cool breeze from the open window brushed the back of his neck.

“If you’re such a great German spy, why turn against them?” asked Johnson.

“It is not the people I hate, but the governments. Wheeling out their military machines! Turning the decent man into cannon fodder!”

“Agent Benham thinks you’ll try to escape,” said Johnson.

“Not I! I want to earn my freedom. I have sufficient facilities to do my work and I am being well treated. I want to regain my liberty by the proper steps.”

Late that day Proctor returned in jubilant spirits and asked for an update. Johnson said he’d made good speed on the case files and Trebitsch announced he too had made an exciting break-through. He believed he had discovered the key, perhaps he might even finish decoding the cable-grams the next morning.

“Wonderful!” said Proctor. “Wonderful! Well I’ve just had drinks at the Clarendon with Tunny. Quite lively!”

“It’s Tunny’s fortieth,” explained Johnson.

“We’re going to the The Clarendon for a meal this evening. Lincoln, why don’t you join us?”

“Well, that’s very kind, Marshal.”

“I’ll clear it with Warden Hayes; there’ll be no problem.”

Two hours later they were at the Clarendon chomping hamburgers and ribs, downing beer and whiskey. Trebitsch had seduced Mabel, a trim blonde with a lively laugh and they’d matched Johnson with her friend, amorous Ethel. The Federal guard who signed Trebitsch in each morning, he was there telling Proctor stories of a trip to California. They talked football and film and were heard by all in the restaurant who remarked loudly of people who show no consideration for others and ‘I came out to have a quiet meal’.

Proctor had already told Trebitsch to call him George and they were goading Francis Johnson into his first whiskey, the glass shaking in the young man’s hand.

“He becomes a man tonight!” roared Proctor, and slapped Trebitsch on the back.

Trebitsch felt the eyes upon him. A giant, at the opposite table, receding hair. Judge Veeder, jaw dropped. Trebitsch was not frozen to the spot, not long. He was lifted from his chair by Tunny and Proctor and carried to the bar for more whiskey. Recommendations! Veeder’s face was lost in the drinking games and womanising. He only returned to Trebitsch’s memory when the bars of Raymond Street prison rolled open, like a drum to his brain.

Several days later news reached Proctor’s office of Veeder’s complaint over prisoner’s privileges. Johnson, still hungover, was particularly upset. Trebitsch said he had Ethel’s number so it wasn’t all bad. So that day he checked for prime numbers and scrutinised for sequenced patterns in German. In the evening, he returned to jail. Warden Hayes was always keen to learn of updates. Jozsef didn’t visit him that night but Olive Jundt did. She loaned him $50. Her sister had lent him $50 the previous night. Johnson continued to be impressed with Trebitsch’s pages of circled ones and zeroes. Francis Johnson was moping about how he missed their socials and Proctor made a point of saying the prisoner had a right to eat. So they went to Trebitsch’s deli and Trebitsch bought lunch for them and Tunny. Behind bars at Raymond Street, he continued to work on his proofs, due with his publisher in a matter of days. During the long hot days, Trebitsch lined up the pages of code and looked for mirror images or paced, stretching his limbs, looking out over the sunny city’s roof-tops.

That evening, an agent for Trebitsch’s publishers McBride and Hitchcock stopped by Raymond Street for his proofs. Proctor had allowed him to work on them at the office, but had drawn the line at using the Bureau’s mail room to send them out. The book told the story of how he fooled Seebohm Rowntree with a pretence of research work as cover for espionage operations. He praised some diplomats he worked with, tarred others. The story’s great villains were Sir Francis Bertie and Sir Edward Grey, together conspiring to isolate and antagonise the German government and force them into war: drenching the world in purest vilest hatred.

It was Christmas Eve and over Trebitsch gave cards to the prisoners, to Warden Hayes, Proctor, Johnson and Tunny. Proctor was adamant they would go for drinks. Forget Veeder!They would just have to make sure not to drink at any bars judges frequented. So they arranged to go to Paddy’s and telephoned for Mabel and Ethel to join them. They were winding down when Trebitsch called out.

Eureka! Francis, see here! How the number five recurs. I think it relates to troop movements. And the number one, I think, is information of a particularly sensitive nature. Agent Benham will be very interested in this.”

Johnson said, “I have his phone number here. Would you like to call him to tell him the good news?”

“Oh yes! I shall call him right away!” said Trebitsch, and he did.

The week after Christmas Trebitsch was not short of visitors. His lady friends as well as the men from the Bureau called. He received a harrowing letter from Margarethe and wrote to her of his bold adventures.

The crypto-analysis continued in January. Trebitsch telephoned Agent Benham to request the aid of a code mathematician therefore settling the whole thing very quickly. To see in the new year, Johnson and Trebitsch found a saloon and knocked back several shorts, enjoying bourbon and rum. As Trebitsch signed his name in and out, both the prison warden and Federal security joked that it was good practice for his forthcoming book. The pages turned on the desk calendar, red and black through January. Trebitsch cabled Agent Benham to tell him only mechanical work remained, he was within an ace of a solution. And Marshal Proctor took him to Olive Jundt’s home for afternoon tea: he’d become quite keen on her. They went to Joe’s too, hot meals arriving through the hatch. Trebitsch offered to pay, but had bought a few rounds at Paddy’s and Proctor wasn’t having it.

Johnson found himself excited over the imminent release of Trebitsch’s book. He suggested a celebratory meal at Joe’s and they put in calls to Mabel and Ethel. Trebitsch led the way down Fulton Street with the cigar his young admirer had brought for him. Joe’s was on the corner with Pierpoint and they left took their coats off and got a table for four. The atmosphere was hearty with banter and love. The staff liked their regulars. Trebitsch excused himself and Johnson ordered his pinot grigot, and a Red Label whiskey for himself. He was getting a taste for it. The waiter brought the drinks over and menus, but he said they were waiting for company.

Johnson looked over the tables at the finely clothed mean and their mistresses and wives and wondered. He wondered if he was good enough for Ethel, if he’d get the promotion at work and if Trebitsch was alright in the lavatory. Had there been some accident? He asked for a menu and wondered about that. He knew what Trebitsch liked, that he’d almost certainly go for the noodles. Ethel would go for the cheeseburger and Mabel would likely have the pasta.

The wine was dulling. Thirty minutes passed. Johnson walked down to the basement. The stalls were empty, the cubicles too. Perhaps Trebitsch had missed him at the bar. Sure enough, he hadn’t seen were Johnson was sat. He climbed the stairs, made his way to the table. Perhaps he’d gone to look for Mabel and Ethel at Paddy’s or the Clarendon. He sat over his drink a few minutes more and knocked it back.

Trebitsch and the girls were at neither bar. The staff hadn’t seen them. Francis Johnson went back across the road to Joe’s and ordered another. They hadn’t seen Trebitsch and his coat was still in the cloakroom. Perhaps he had returned to his flat, or to Anna’s, or to the Federal building, or to Raymond Street.


c. Andy Luke, 2017

The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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Image source: Photo of the Week- Joe’s Restaurant, Brooklyn History.


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