The Watch Thief – Chapter 19

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

Trebitsch passed the wash-room, opened the fire exit into the corridor. Ethel flashed lights, picked him up at the other end of the subway. They sped across Brooklyn Bridge and Hells Kitchen, through the remnants of Little Germany. She dropped him on the kerb at West 125th Street, kissed him as he left. Upstairs, Anna took his cap to burn. Charles applied the lather and he looked at himself. In the black frock he resembled the Canadian curate. As the razor carved it peeled back with it came Trebitsch, the M.P. His hair was thinned out on top. He could be anyone, he thought. Charles cut and he tried not to think about Anna. Just a slip, that’s all it would take. As he waited for a change of clothes, he heard their boy call out, the child so terrified by the blinking spy. The Jundts drove him to the station where Anna brushed his hand with a hundred dollars.

Grand Central Terminal was new, the biggest station in the world. Seated rows waited, then all aboard Vanderbilt’s New York Railroad: fast, clean, along the old streetcar line. 59th and 86th and the prime real estate around Park Avenue tunnel, over the Harlem River: the Bronx and station houses over tracks. Then, White Plains. His destination. Mabel told reception to expect him late but he climbed the stairs of Silver Lakes Hotel shaking, his nerves and the cold night having clubbed together to cling hard to his bones. The porter was too keen with conversation. Trebitsch locked the door.

Deputy Johnson thanked the desk clerk at the Knickerbocker and crossed town to The Intercontinental, waited for the staff to have a free moment. A minute later he was out onto the street. He checked three more bars on the way to Decatur Street; rapped the front door. When there was no answer he rang the third floor bell and waited.

Proper sleep re-energised Trebitsch. He spent Sunday in his room, imagined morning headlines. On Monday he took the papers up there. ‘Lincoln escapes! Leaves a letter for the Government! Does not want to be extradited to England!’ There were none of these and this unsettle him. He walked by the woodlands and wild fields with little streams, Horton Pond and the grain mills; the Quaker settlement. He went out to the new city: stores departmentalised; a destination retail location. He couldn’t imagine something so ludicrous.

An hour and twenty-five miles away, Francis Johnson knocked hard the door of The Park View. His face pale white beads of sweat, he took the news of no guest matching description. He tried the Parlour. Bosco had not seen him either. The door to every toilet cubicle every place checked. Johnson walked up and down the streets before rounding back to Decatur, where he rang the bell and waited.

Silver Lakes dining room was for only dining. Boundaries of cutlery, drab non-Morris walls repeating swags and tassels. The drawing room had cushioned leather and deep rugs and above, a walkway surround invited residents to peer down. That day had Japan claim China’s economy and Congress authorise a new gold coin. Vaudeville man of German farces, Gus Williams, had shot himself in the head at a train station in nearby Yonkers. Hiding beneath his paper, Trebitsch concocted greater copy. ‘How he fooled the whole of the U.S.A. police. Brandy and Girls. Washington thought he would decipher it’s code letters – Satisfied with prison life – District Attorneys Should Not Visit Bars – What he thinks about the end of the war.’ He turned the page, then flapped a page, scanned, and flapped to another sheet, racing through the columns until it was done. Then, he picked up the next newspaper. And another. There was no mention of his escape. He didn’t merit a stub. He four-folded newspapers with finality. He shaved off his moustache and when he was done locked the room behind him.

The train tore through the tree cover of Hartsdale and Tudor Scarsdale, him looking into people’s living rooms, a two horn snort whistle by the cargoes of Yonkers pairing with the Bronx River, heart beating faster, the big sky over Wakefield. Happy the trade of wasteland freight-only Port Morris for Romanesque steeples, arches of Mott-Haven: past Central and the Lincoln Tunnel. On Broadway, he found a payphone. Soeiro was excited. Of course he’d heard. He was The New YorkAmerican‘s editor and made sure it was the afternoon edition front page. Trebitsch said he wouldn’t be drawn into a trap. Soeiro begged. It would be good sense, the publicity. He should hurry. The chemists sold Trebitsch cheap glasses which he put on under flat cap. His head was fixed on the pavement along Newspaper Row.

The newsroom fell quiet when Trebitsch entered.

“A full manhunt is under way. You’ve embarrassed the Feds and infuriated the judges,” said Soeiro.

Trebitsch was assigned a transcriber. The audience stayed quiet as he held court, once jester now King.

“I am sorry for the precarious position in which Deputy-Marshal Johnson finds himself. It would be unjust to punish him. Not all the forces of the United States Secret Service could have prevented the carrying out of my carefully laid scheme. After all, I am a past master in such work.”

Only Soeiro left them to it. He got a photographer and booked Trebitsch a car. His head was testing out headlines too. ‘Lincoln Speaks Out, Great Britian’s Guilt in Unjust War. Mr. Lincoln’s Book Tour – An American Exclusive.’

“The British know something of my past, and they are afraid of me. Captain Kenny knew I was an active spy in Central Asia, working as a Buddhist monk.”

“What next, Mr. Lincoln? Will you return to the Orient?”

“I have a scheme to make an end to British rule there and in Egypt too. You will do well to watch the East. When you hear of a great religious revival there, think of I. T. T. Lincoln.”

The sub-editor took the text to the composing room and Soeiro gave Trebitsch $300 cash. It would only take a minute to go to The New York World next door and refute everything he’d just said. Trebitsch got his extra $200 and was led out to the waiting car.

On Thursday, the Foreign Office in London got a telegram. Eyre Crowe reported it in person to the new Home Secretary, Herbert Samuel. He braced himself. Each was as angry as the other.

“The deputy waited two days to report it. He’s being dealt with,” said Crowe. “They have his brothers and associates all under observation.”

“It is utterly absurd,” said Samuel, “amazing negligence.”

“The Justice Department have launched an internal investigation. I’m informed his book is out in a few days.”

Samuel was bearing teeth. “Consider it banned. No copies shall enter Britain. Mr. Crowe, I would ask the Foreign Office consider it of urgent importance this fugitive be recaptured.”

On Friday, the newspaper vendor outside the Federal Building stopped Agent Benham in his tracks with the American exclusive. On Saturday his agents questioned Hearst’s employees. On Monday, the vendor was selling the book. Revelations of an International Spy, by I. T. T. Lincoln. Benham smacked Marshal Proctor around the head with it.

On Tuesday, the reviews continued, Trebitsch eagerly devouring each and keenly disappointed. Hearst’s American and Pulitzer’s World wrestled for coverage. He wrote to the latter and his update appeared in Wednesday’s edition. The snow was falling in White Plains. Two hundred men looking, allegedly. Trebitsch decided, having sent more copy for Friday, that he was too hot for Westchester.

On the electric train out he saw Tuckahoe: a name he liked; Mount Vernon stared back; after Wakefield greener then broader; he watched the New Haven Line diverge to Long Island Sound; Woodlawn Station, site of recent tragedy and bereavement; Fordham with Haberken Jewelers, the sign reading ‘Soda Luncheon’. At Midtown, he took a ferry over Hudson to Weehawken Terminal. Then Hackensack, Passaic. Not yet New Jersey Turnpike. Point No Point: name of promonotory at Kitsap. He nodded off by worked tidal wetlands at Newark Meadows. By the bay. Startled by the bell at Amboy, fought back to sleep over the Navesink, signal of Red Bank.

He walked beside dead country road through mud and bank looking for the weak glow of the farm-house as collapsing grey sky crept in. The path to Jody’s farmhouse was gravelled as rough as Jody himself, a German stout and bold. Trebitsch introduced himself as Timothy, Charles Jundt’s friend, whom he’d called ahead for, there was a room for him. The offered hand waited between them. Jody was a dirty, sweaty man with bad teeth and a face full of agricultural injuries. The farmer looked the scrawny elf up and down, then let go of the frame and walked back in, waiting for Trebitsch to follow. It was a small parlour, one room backing out into a dingy kitchen.

“Thank you very much for allowing me to stay at such short notice. Charles is a wonderful –”

Listen, friend. The rooms are through that door. To the right. The second one is yours. Do not move things around.”

I understand, I understand. I know you probably toil relentlessly to make ends meet. As a surveyor in Belgium I met many farmers renting out rooms to make up the shortfall…”

Jody wasn’t interested. He was already in his bedroom before Trebitsch finished speaking. Trebitsch found his room and tugged his boots off and the pain went with them.

The following morning Trebitsch woke sharply at 4am, by the last hoots of the owl and first verse of the woodcock. He lay a while. Jody was gone when he heated up the kettle on the gas stove. He washed, then poured a hot tea. He opened the back door, set his cup on the chipped sill with the sun, a magical light on the fields. He breathed in the romance of it. Breathed the country air, freedom blew in his eyes. Craning cows with firm slaved bodies plodded and flies buzzed around chunks of horse arse at the stables. Around ten he saw fat grey smoke and found Jody with his hand, T.C., hauling carcasses off a truck. He stood at a distance, the men watching one another. A flap of a man, T.C. said, then chucked another fox on the fire. Trebitsch put a handkerchief to his face. They laughed.

Gorgon tree leaves the house by a fence step to mottled green. He found drowned flower and plant snot on the pond; bridge lichen; light leaves and birch speckle before the spatter of duck flight. Late afternoons inside window with a tint of break, the scullery, where he was expected to cook spuds. Off a table with food cut into grain he, Jody and T.C. ate mutton by tools and greasy lamp. When night came, it was everywhere, night stretching broadly; fields across fields, on either side, above and behind with crystal spiralling stars.

Morning news, February 3rd, of the arrest of Wener Horn for the Canadian Bridge bombing. Trebitsch recognised Horn from Von Papen’s foyer. There was the hanging of Archduke Ferdinand’s assasins. Reported sightings of Trebitsch at Silver Lake Hotel, locations in Baltimore, Albany and Chicago. He wrote to the American that afternoon.

Trebitsch, Jody and T.C. exercised mutual hatred. T.C. had a scabby face and a voice like a motor, like flint blistering ear. Their business was animal carcass disposal. T.C. had a fixation sexualising garotted animals. Once, gloved, he fingered through racoon’s eyes to animate cranium for Trebitsch’s reaction.

“Teecee, what have i told you about that?” Jody said. “They shit everywhere, but he knows better.”

“Iss true. That coon’s a disease train right there,” said T.C.

A week later, Trebitsch’s money ran out. The same day Jody got a call from town. Over a hundred pounds of deer carcass were to be pulled from between a fence. The job needed three people minimum Trebitsch knew he’d be spotted, knew it would buy him points with his unfriendly landlord. T.C. drove. Jody pointed out the church, Tower Hill, at the corner of Broad and Reckless where they cleaned bat puke. He told Trebitsch more than he needed to know of his work around town where they’d bashed in brains of skunks and squirrels. They’d laid the poison and watched rodent’s insides try to escape their skin.

“Bin raiders and wire chewers. Burn them before they burn us,” said T.C.

“They like to squeeze into these tight spots,” said T.C. when they found the deer with it’s head lodged in the fence bordering two houses. “After they’ve done their harm, the adrenalin has them run until they finds some place safe to close the eyes. It’ll often think it can go fu’ther than it does,” he said.

With all their might they hefted it onto the path. Dead deer laid like dog with girl fingers and soft rabbit face; rippled hair coat worn low onto knees: sock-feet too small.

“The bigger the animal the bigger the stench,” said Jody.

They flapped canvas over trailer ridges and heaved the body on the truck. Trebitsch was weak. He nearly puked four times. At the farm the corpse was sanitized, cleaned of bacteria and maggots. They turned turf while it burned bloody clouds.

The next morning was a vomiting storm with epileptic trees. Jody was annoyed Trebitsch couldn’t pay his bills. He threatened him with a gunshot. So Trebitsch worked for his sanctuary. He dug holes for maggot filled roosters, bashed badgers by burrow holes, washed red dots rambling off rocks. He accompanied them into town were rampant little mice pottered under floorboards, cottages with something in the attic and carted dead things over dark damp uneven fields. In the evenings they’d undress and wash their chests, hairy black legs, swinging cocks and dirt printed fingernails. Trebitsch wasn’t cut out for the work. His back constantly felt as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. The rain though some days lashed down to his socks was never enough to shake the feeling the earth was biting his soles

About a week later, T.C. threw a testicle at him.

“You’ve the muscle of a scarecrow. Like Bessie without the milk,” he said.

Jody said, “He’s not wrong. ‘Oh, the moneys coming soon, theres more were that he came from’. Well where is it? You think we are dimwits. I know there’s a bounty out. $250. Maybe we should cash in.”

“Please, gentlemen, don’t be rash. Jody, I will get you your rent. I have items in my room in Brooklyn that I can sell. And the news-papers, they are very interested in paying me!”

It was decided the three of them would go to Manhattan. Trebitsch wore his dark Homburg tan overcoat under lounge suit. Jody dropped him and T.C. at the flar and arranged to meet them later. They picked up two cases of clothes for the pawn shop on Amsterdam Avenue. T.C. didn’t like the city. Everyone was bunged up with stress and anger, like pigs bathing in the mud of how important they were. Trebitsch took him to a German restaurant and turned on the charm, suggested a visit to a strip club. T.C. softened and mulled it over.

The waiter phoned the police as they walked towards Broadway to meet Jody. The police already knew where he was. He saw them flank Jody, turned quickly, right into T.C.’s arms. Trebitsch got roughed up against the wall. Agent Benham took the labourer out of the way and cuffed him.

“My, but you’re excited! You’re shaking so that you can hardly hold that gun! Congratulations on capturing the cleverest man in America!”

He talked non-stop. The journalists and photographers awaited him at Raymond Street.

“Why, those fellows couldn’t have caught me in a hundred years! I was betrayed into their hands! A fine piece of detective work! “

“Mr. Lincoln, why were you so critical of the police in your letters to the American?”

“My book needed as much publicity as I could give it!” he said.

Agent Benham and Warden Hayes marched him through deep cut halls of the gaol. They applauded off benches in the House of Correction and House of Commons.


c. Andy Luke, 2017

The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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Thematic image source: Stult’s Farm, New Jersey, 1915



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