Vernon George Waldegrave Kell, Director-General of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau—known professionally as K—had just been given some very bad news indeed.
“This is confirmed intelligence?” he asked Harland, the agent standing before him in his rooms in the War Office.
“A saboteur—no... What’s the German word for saboteur, Harland?”
“It’s Saboteur, sir.”
K sniffed. “They even steal our words.” Harland was going to say something, but thought better of it. K noticed. “Harland,” K rebuked the younger man, “besides the King’s English, I speak German, Italian, French, Polish, Chinese, and Russian. I know whence saboteur.”
“Of course, sir.”
“And one managed to get aboard the largest passenger steamship in the world, flying the Union Jack.”
“What do we know about the ship?”
The question surprised Harland some. “Everything, sir,” he said.
“Yes, of course we do. And what about the stowaway?”
Harland handed K a dossier. K perused it. “Eisberg!” he spat, slapping the file onto his desk.
“Karl Friedrich Eisberg. His parents were not very imaginative when it came to names,” K remarked, “but he is known as Der Schraubenschlüssel—‘the Spanner.’ As in, a spanner in the machinery. And the machinery in question includes 24 double-ended and five single-ended Scotch marine boilers, two four-cylinder reciprocating triple-expansion steam engines, and one low-pressure 16,000-horsepower Parsons turbine driving two bronze triple-blade wing propellers and one quadruple-blade centre propeller, among other things, all installed in a ship 882 feet, nine inches long, 175 feet high, and 92 feet wide, weighing 46,328 gross register tonnes.”
Harland was of course beyond impressed that K had these maritime data already in mind. But K promptly brought their consideration back to the man.
“This is not some disposable operative, Harland. Eisberg is a master spy. We’ve had our eyes and ears on the Krauts for three years now, and whenever the worst has happened, Eisberg has had a hand in it. This scenario threatens to be the worst of the worst. How did he get on the ship? Don’t tell me he just boarded with the rest of the passengers at Southampton?”
“We believe he snuck aboard at Queenstown, sir. We have detained a young stoker, name of Coffey, who jumped ship there. He stowed away on a tender and hid amongst mailbags destined for shore. Coffey’s native to Queenstown, sir, and he might have joined the crew specifically intending to abscond, but...”
“Yes, Harland? Go on, please.”
“Well, sir, he’s told our agents that he had...”—Harland consulted his notes—“...‘a foreboding about the voyage.’”
“I see.” K considered silently for a moment. “Who else isn’t on the ship who was supposed to be?”
“You have the manifest, I presume.”
“And you have—or someone has—compared the manifest with a schedule of reservations made with the owner of the vessel.”
“Right. So tell me: Who was supposed to be on the ship who isn’t?”
“Ah,” Harland said. “I see, sir.” Harland consulted his notes once again, then responded, “Just one person, sir: an American Banker. But he can not possibly have anything to do with this, sir.”
“Really, Harland? And why is that?”
“Ten years ago, this man John Pierpont Morgan financed the formation of International Mercantile Marine Company, an Atlantic shipping combine which absorbed several major American and British lines. One of IMM’s subsidiaries is White Star Line, sir. If anything were to happen——”
“Yes, Harland, I see. Very well. We will remove suspicion from the American banker. I don’t think we need to expend limited resources on a J. P. Morgan chase. In any event, laying blame isn’t the order of the day. Can we stop Eisberg?”
“Unknown, sir—but it’s unlikely. The ship is too far into its voyage for the Royal Navy to intercept it in time.”
“Then the captain must be informed. What’s his name?”
“Smith, sir. Edward J. Son of Edward and Catherine Hancock née Marsh. Born 27 January 1850 in Hanley, Stoke-on Trent. Married, with one daugh——”
“Harland,” K interrupted. “I don’t care about his childhood or family life. I just care about getting him the message that he, his vessel, and the 2,240 souls aboard are in grave danger. And if we can get him the message, with any luck maybe he’ll be able to find the Spanner before it’s too late, and Captain Smith won’t have to go down with his ship.”
“Yes, sir.” Harland removed himself quickly but respectfully from K’s office, to arrange for coded transmissions to be relayed via radio waves to the vessel’s Marconi operators.
K remained seated at his desk, considering just how black the Eye of Providence would be if Germany managed to infiltrate an Olympic-class vessel—on its maiden voyage, no less—and do it a mischief... and with a single operative, no less. Or, rather, no more. Such an incident could, if known publically, lead to calls for retaliation. Retribution.
No matter what happened, Vernon Kell knew, the world must not know the truth.
Harland was back in K’s office. The man was ashen. So the worst has happened.
“She’s gone down, sir.” Harland looked like he was going to do the same. “She... she was supposed to be unsinkable,” the man whispered.
“Practically unsinkable,” K said. Then he said, “Go home, Harland. Get some rest. There’s nothing we can do now. Go home to your wife and kids. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
• • •
When Harland reported for duty very early the following morning, K was already looking for him.
“Someone talked,” K said.
“Have you seen the Times yet?”
“No, sir,” Harland admitted.
K handed him a copy of that day’s earliest edition. Below the date—16 April 1912—ran the headline that made it plain that, indeed, someone in the Secret Service Bureau had spoken to the press:
EISBERG SINKS TITANIC!
Now the worst has happened, thought Vernon Kell. Bloody, bloody hell.
Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.