Wednesday, August 17, 1898—Vienna
Damn that Gross, he thought as he sat restlessly in front of his untouched breakfast, a blank sheet of folio staring at him reproachfully from the desktop.
Advokat Karl Werthen was at loose ends this morning. The lawyer usually reserved the breakfast hour for writing. To date he had published five short stories, tales of "interrupted lives," as he liked to describe them.
Today, however, he had appetite neither for Frau Blatschky’s excellent coffee nor for the antics of his foppish protagonist, Maxim, and the mysterious woman in the checkered mask he had met at the Washerwoman’s Ball. And it was all the fault of his former colleague from Graz, the esteemed criminologist Doktor Hanns Gross, with whom Werthen had had dinner and a subsequent conversation last night. By his very presence, Gross had made Werthen realize that such scribblings were a poor substitute for real action and adventure. Werthen suddenly saw his literary ambitions for what they were: vain attempts at adding spice into his otherwise stodgy life. After all, his creations were far from art; merely clever little stories of amorous boulevardiers which the young ear-nose-and-throat man Dr. Arthur Schnitzler wrote much better, anyway.
Damn that Gross.
He should not be too hard on the criminologist, though, for truth be told this was not the first time in the last six years—since giving up criminal law in Graz to establish himself as one of Vienna’s top men in wills and trusts—that Karl Werthen had wondered if he had made the right decision. Had he been too rash in his decision, too self-sacrificing?
He was distracted from these morose thoughts by a ruckus in the hall outside his sitting room, followed by an urgent rapping at the white double doors.
He glanced automatically over his shoulder to the Sevres clock on the marble mantel. Too early for the first post.
The door opened slowly. Frau Blatschky, red-faced, peered around it, then stepped timidly into the room, chapped hands digging into the pockets of her freshly starched apron.
"A man here to talk with you, Herr Doktor," she began.
He was about to remind her of his sacred breakfast hour when the door behind her was thrust more widely open and a thick, stocky man burst into the room. His short hair was disheveled, his beard in need of a trim, and he wore a violently magenta caftan that hung down to his sandaled feet.
"Werthen!" the man thundered, his working-class Viennese accent clear even in this two-syllable pronouncement. "I must see you, man."
"I believe you are doing so, Klimt," Werthen answered calmly, smiling at Frau Blatschky to indicate she might withdraw.
"I told him you were at breakfast," she murmured, pursing her lips. Werthen nodded at her, smiling more broadly to let her know it was not her fault. "That is fine, Frau Blatschky. You may go."
As she left, she cast the intruder, the noted and notorious artist Gustav Klimt, the look an exasperated mother might give a delinquent son.
"The damned constabulary," Klimt bellowed as the door closed. "They’re making a mess of my studio. You must come."
"Hold on, Klimt. Why would the constabulary be at your studio? A moral’s charge perhaps?" Werthen decided he would take out his peckish mood on the obviously distraught artist. "One too many nude society ladies adorning your canvases?"
"Fools," Klimt spluttered. "They say I murdered the girl. Imbeciles. She was my lovely Liesel, the best model I’ve ever had. Why would I lay a hand on her?"
This turned Werthen’s mood from irritable to curious. "Murder?"
"Haven’t you been listening, man? Liesel Landtauer. Sweet Liesel."
"Start at the beginning," Werthen said, standing now and motioning the painter to one of a pair of Biedermeier armchairs by the fireplace. Klimt eyed the delicate chair warily, but finally thrust his bulk down on the damask cushions. Werthen joined him in the other.
"Now, what are the police saying has happened?"
Klimt rubbed thick fingers through his stubbly hair and leaned back in the chair.
"They found a body this morning. In the Prater."
"Not another one?"
Klimt nodded. "Some lunatic out killing people and dumping their bodies in the Prater, and now they want to go and hang it all on me."
Werthen knew all of Vienna was in the thrall of a series of four murders—five now, it appeared—over the past two months. In fact he and his friend Gross had been discussing the crimes just last night. Respectable newspapers, such as the Neue Freie Presse and the Wiener Zeitung, had reported the killings, but did not involve themselves with sordid details or speculation. The more scrofulous press, however, was quick to mention "certain mutilations" of the corpses, leaving the imagination to run riot. These same papers called the perpetrator "Vienna’s Jack the Ripper." Each of the bodies had been found on the grounds of the Prater amusement park in Vienna’s Second District, in the very shadow of the giant Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, constructed to celebrate Franz Josef’s fiftieth jubilee as emperor.
Gustav the Ripper? Werthen doubted it. Klimt was capable of a crime of passion, perhaps, knowing the man’s history, but not of the cold and calculated butchering of five innocents. However, the constabulary did not know Klimt as Werthen knew him; they could only follow procedure. And procedure meant they investigated first those people closest to the victim.
Even as he thought this, Werthen realized he was experiencing a tingling sense of euphoria, becoming caught up in the web of criminal law once again.
"Obviously they have not charged you, or you would be in custody."
"Well, they’re poking their noses around my studio. Asking all sorts of absurd questions about Liesel, whether she posed in the altogether or not. But of course she did, the cretins! How else do you paint a nude? Dab a couple of dubious breasts on a male model like that pansy Michelangelo did?"
"Calm down, Klimt. What are they accusing you of?"
"One of the plodders found studies for my Nuda Veritas, my sketch for the first issue of Ver Sacrum last spring. They say it resembles Liesel. Bravo for a fine deduction! It should resemble Liesel. She modeled for it."
Werthen remembered the nubile, sweet young thing Klimt had portrayed on the cover of the Secession’s magazine had outraged Viennese respectability. The girl/woman stood there completely naked and apparently completely unconcerned about it. Long tresses partly covered her breasts; she held a mirror in her right hand. Werthen had especially liked the symbolism of that empty mirror. What will modern man see in that looking glass, the searing light of truth, or merely a reflection of his own simpering vanity?
But he thrust such aesthetic considerations aside for the moment. "Answer my question. Are they accusing you of her murder?"
Werthen’s tone of voice finally broke through Klimt’s panic. The painter leaned forward in his chair and placed his hands together at their stubby fingertips and played them like a concertina.
"Well, not exactly. But they’re making an awful mess of things. Werthen, I didn’t even know the other four victims."
"Who is this young woman then?"
"I told you. A model."
"But why should the police come to you? Was she your lover?"
Klimt squashed the concertina, gripping his fingers together now as if in prayer. "She was meant to sit for me last night, but she begged off at the last instant."
The artist did not answer his question about the extent of their amorous relationship, Werthen noticed, and once again the lawyer felt a frisson of delight. Though it had been years since he had last questioned an unreliable witness or suspect, he was happy to note that his skills and instinct were still intact.
"Liesel sent a message that her roommate was ill and that she had to tend to her," Klimt continued. "Lord knows why she felt she had to lie to me. Some young suitor, I imagine."
"And why is it you think she was lying?" Werthen asked.
Klimt shrugged. "Simple enough. I was out getting bread, and when I was coming back, I saw the very roommate just leaving my building. She was delivering the note, so she could hardly have been ill enough to require Liesel’s ministrations."
Relaxing now, Klimt looked over his shoulder at the two half-moons of flaky Kipferl butter rolls lying untouched on the breakfast tray.
"You going to eat those?"
How could the man worry about food at a time like this? Werthen wondered, losing his patience and reserve. "Here, take one."
He got up, placed a Kipferl on a linen napkin, and handed it to Klimt, who wolfed the roll down, dribbling crumbs onto his beard and caftan.
"Why so hungry? Did you miss your usual at the Café Tivoli?" Werthen rejoined Klimt in the chairs.
Werthen knew the painter’s schedule: arising every morning at six to walk a ten-kilometer circuit from his apartment (which he shared with his unmarried sisters and widowed mother) in the Westbahnstrasse out to the Habsburg summer palace of Schönbrunn, and stopping off en route at a café of the old school where he feasted on pots of strong coffee laced with hot chocolate and creamy white peaks of Schlag obers along with fresh rolls piled with mounds of butter and jam. Then back to work at his studio in the Josefstädterstrasse, just doors away from Werthen’s own apartment building.
Klimt looked sheepish at Werthen’s question.
"Well, did you miss your breakfast?" Werthen pressed. Noticing Klimt’s reticence, he continued, "You weren’t home at all last night, were you? Is that the problem, then? No alibi?"
Klimt stood suddenly, the folds of his caftan catching on the arm of the chair and nearly upsetting it. He passed to the window and looked down into the sunlit street four stories below, rattling his fingers on the sill.
"Too many alibis," he muttered into the window, then swung around to face Werthen. "But none of them will I use. They’d be the end of my poor mother. And there’s Emilie to consider."
By whom he meant Emilie Flöge, Werthen knew. She was the younger sister of Klimt’s sister-in-law, a woman more than a decade his junior, with whom he had been carrying on a romance now for several years. After the untimely death of Klimt’s painter brother, Klimt had taken both women under his protective wing. Gossip had it that the satyr Klimt had not so much as kissed the young woman, keeping her instead enshrined as his pure and virginal ideal of womanhood.
"You must explain, Klimt. I am, after all, your lawyer. Such information stops with me."
Klimt sighed, eying the second Kipferl.
"Please, do be my guest," Werthen said, but sarcasm was lost on the painter, who gulped this one down as quickly as he had the first.
"Sure you wouldn’t like some coffee to go with it?"
"You’re a true friend, Werthen," Klimt said, again missing the lawyer’s ironic tone. He poured himself a cup from the white Augarten porcelain coffeepot. "No whipped cream about, I suppose?"
Werthen made no reply, wondering once more why he should have a soft spot for this barbarian. But he knew the answer: because the man drew like an angel.
"It’s like this," Klimt said, sitting again, an incongruous pinkie held out delicately as he sipped the coffee. "I have a special friend. She lives in Ottakring."
Werthen maintained his silence. He was not going to make this any easier for Klimt by guessing the obvious: a working-class mistress in the suburbs with whom he’d passed the night.
"She and my young son, as a matter of fact."
Werthen could not prevent a surprised arching of his eyebrows.
"Yes, I was with her last night. Her and the boy. Now you see why I can never use them as an alibi. The shock would kill poor Mutti. I told her I was working late on a commission and would sleep in the studio last night. And Emilie . . . well, she, too, would be devastated, humiliated."
"And what if the police charge you with this young woman’s death? How far are you willing to risk your neck for the sake of propriety?"
Klimt set the cup down on the silk carpet and slumped back in his chair. "Might it come to that?"
"I don’t know. But we should plan for all eventualities. These Prater murders are begging for resolution."
Klimt shook his head. "I couldn’t do it. Not to Mother ... But you believe me, don’t you, Werthen? I’m not the killing type."
Werthen nodded, but without enthusiasm, remembering how he and Klimt had first begun their association: The painter had been arrested and charged with assault and battery.
"What is your friend’s name, Klimt? I may need to talk to her."
"My God, you, too? Is everyone turning against me?"
The painter thrust himself out of the chair again, almost knocking over the cup of coffee, and began pacing up and down the room.
"Relax, Klimt. A formality. I am a lawyer, a trained skeptic."
"Plötzl. There. I said it. Anna Plötzl, 231 Ottakringerstrasse, apartment 29A."
"Good," Werthen said, leaving his chair and crossing to the cherrywood writing desk, which also served as his breakfast table. There he pulled out a pen and notepad from the top drawer to write down the information.
"I assume you have more serviceable alibis for the other nights in question?"
Klimt looked at him blankly. "What other nights?"
"Of the other Prater murders, Klimt. If the homicide of Fräulein Landtauer is similar to those others, then you are either guilty of them all, or guilty of none, right?"
A light seemed to go on behind Klimt’s eyes. "Right," he said eagerly.
"I’m thinking. What were the dates?"
Like much of the rest of Vienna, Werthen had those dates fixed in his mind. "The night and early-morning hours of June fifteenth, June thirtieth, July fifteenth, and August second."
Klimt screwed up his mouth in thought. "You actually expect me to recall what I was doing months ago? Is it really necessary?"
"Do you keep a diary or journal?"
Klimt shook his head, suddenly crestfallen.
"Never mind, Klimt. We’ll deal with that later. For now, I advise you to stay away from your studio until the constabulary has left. It will only make you angry, and we do not need any altercations with the police. I assume they showed you a warrant?"
"They waved some legal-looking document in my face, if that’s what you mean."
"Go home, Klimt. Take a nap. Tell your mother you’re coming down with the grippe."
"There’s work to do at the Secession. We have our first exhibition next month, and the builders are still hammering away."
"That’s fine. Go to the gallery then. But stay away from your studio until I find out what is going on."
Klimt looked relieved. "I knew you would take care of things, Werthen. You’re a prince of a man. And they say lawyers have no souls."
A half hour later Werthen, looking tall, lean, and fit in a linen suit and brown derby, stepped out into the bright sunlight of Josefstädterstrasse. He began whistling a tune from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. It was very unlike him to whistle, and from an operetta at that, but he could not help himself.
He felt buoyant and alive. This Klimt business had done it. It was so clear to him now. For the past six years he had been suffering a sort of long-term malaise, having given up the adrenaline excitements of criminal law.
Last night’s talk with Gross had begun this realization: It made him see—by comparison to Gross—how boring and stifling his life had become.
Gross’s 1893 publication, Criminal Investigations, had made his name in Europe and America; this very year would see publication of a companion volume, Criminal Psychology. He had also just started a monthly journal, Archive of Criminalistics. In demand everywhere, Gross was visiting Vienna for a few days on his way to his new posting as the first chair of criminology in all the Habsburg realms, at the University of Czernowitz in Bukovina.
A large, florid man in his early-fifties with a pencil mustache and a fringe of graying hair around a bald pate, Gross had been animated last night over dinner as he regaled Werthen with his latest cases. Then he had surprised Werthen with the news that he had seen the corpse of the fourth of the Prater victims, a favor arranged by a former assistant of his from Graz, Inspektor Meindl, who was now quite high up in Vienna’s Police Presidium.
Gross could not tell Werthen of the horrible wounds inflicted on the body, for he had been sworn to secrecy by Inspektor Meindl. "Morbid" was the only comment the criminologist would permit himself regarding the disfigurements.
Werthen knew the importance of such secrecy: When the killer was finally brought to justice, only he would be able to confess to the exact nature and methodology of his crimes. Still, Werthen had been amazed to find himself disappointed at being denied such insider information; astounded to realize he was taking an interest in such matters again.
And now, Klimt’s visit reconfirmed that he had only been marking time the last six years. He needed the adventure of criminal law in his life. And the hell with what the Werthens—Maman and Papa—expected from their firstborn.
A lark, he told himself. He would take a vacation from his stodgy law practice.
Indeed, he had already done so, having closed his office for the August holidays last week. He was due at the family estate in Upper Austria in several days, but until then, why not a bit of adventure?
Coming to Klimt’s building, he entered the massive street door and went into the courtyard, an oasis of greenery in the midst of the city. Klimt’s studio stood in the garden that lay in back of the main building, and Werthen could quickly see that the police were done with their searches, but that a burly officer was still stationed outside the door of the studio. Werthen tipped his hat at the officer, his mass of reddish brown hair catching highlights from the sun. The man nodded his thick head curtly, sweating in his heavy blue serge uniform.
"Something gone amiss here, Officer?"
"Painter chap." The policeman jerked his head backward toward the studio. "Never know what they might get up to."
"Indeed not," Werthen agreed. "A rare strange breed, the lot of them."
But Werthen could get nothing more out of the taciturn policeman, so he went back to the street and headed toward the center of the city, whistling as he walked jauntily along, tipping his hat to female passersby, making way for a large pram at the corner of Landtauergasse, buying a single red carnation for his buttonhole at the florist shop at the Landesgerichtstrasse intersection.
Yes, by damn, he was beginning to feel alive again. And what a fortunate coincidence that his old colleague Gross was in town to initiate his awakening. Or was it coincidence at all? More like fate? He chuckled at the notion. Fate was something he had not contemplated in many years.
Now, still whistling, Werthen was headed toward Gross’s hotel, for the criminologist would surely be as interested as Werthen himself in this new development.
Gustav Klimt, the bête noire of Viennese painting, a possible suspect in the Prater murders!
Excerpted from The Empty Mirror by J. Sydney Jones.
Copyright 2009 by J. Sydney Jones.
Published in 2009 by A Thomas Dunne Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.