Vienna, 1900. Lawyer Karl Werthen is puzzling over the suicide of a local councilman when he is assigned by Karl Wittgenstein, a powerful industrialist with many enemies, to find his recently missing son, Hans. Werthen quickly discovers that the young man appears to be alive and well in another country. But when a friend of Hans—a journalist who wrote a number of articles claiming the councilman who committed suicide was corrupt—is found dead, also from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Werthen fears that sinister forces are at work . . .
“[Jones uses] mystery fiction to resurrect beautiful, historic Vienna.” —Kirkus Reviews
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A Viennese Mystery
By J. Sydney Jones
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2011 J. Sydney Jones
All rights reserved.
Alone figure stood high up in the central spire of Vienna's Rathaus. At the observation window above the enormous illuminated clock, he surveyed the city he ruled, feeling the juddering thud of each minute's passing in the mechanism beneath his feet.
For a time, he watched the docile Viennese plod about their business this brutally cold afternoon of the last day of January. The skies were clear, brittle blue, and afforded a view to the northwest of the Vienna Woods, flecked in snow.
Slowly, menacingly, he allowed his eyes to move to the far left middle distance. There stood the twin towers of the Votivkirche, which he regarded as an open insult to him. This was the devotional church to the emperor, Franz Josef, built to commemorate the occasion when the young emperor survived an assassin's knife.
Doktor Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna for three years, and something of a king himself, scowled as he gazed at the emperor's church. He and Franz Josef were old enemies; thrice had the Habsburg denied Lueger his place as mayor, even after the Viennese had resoundingly elected him. Three times Franz Josef had felt it his solemn duty to save the Viennese from themselves.
The old fool had the effrontery to call me a demagogue, Lueger thought. Me, a man of the people who simply takes to heart the plight of the little man and the true Christian in this mongrelized empire.
He made an audible snort.
'Is everything all right, sir?'
Kulowski, Lueger's beefy bodyguard, looked expectantly up at him from the bottom of the last flight of stairs.
Lueger shook his head dismissively at the man.
Of course everything is not all right, you dolt, he wanted to say. As long as there is a Habsburg left in Vienna, things will never be right.
Soon, however, very soon, things would be set right.
As he was accustomed to doing, he threw open the observation window on the tower, breathing in the crisp air. He could smell the scent of black pine and the sweetness of snow. Beneath, on the Ringstrasse, a solitary D streetcar, pulled by a dappled mare, was making its way to Schottentor. A new motorcar suddenly passed it, causing the horse a sudden fright, but the skilled tram driver soon brought the animal under control.
Another tradition: Lueger gathered a gob of saliva in his mouth and spat in the direction of the Votivkirche.
It would fall to earth as a snowflake, he thought.
Then he closed the observation window.
The world was changing. Here we are in the first year of the twentieth century. Motorcars will be the future of transport. The city is growing at an astounding rate; soon it will finger off into the hills of the sacrosanct Vienna Woods.
Now, as the day began to dim, electric streetlights along the Ringstrasse flickered on. Away with gas lighting and horse-drawn equipages – all remnants of an old and tired world. Even the holy shrine of the Vienna Woods could not stop the steady thrum of progress.
Lueger, at fifty-five, felt himself very much a part of the new century, not the old one. He did not wax nostalgic over that which might be lost with modernization, unlike the stodgy emperor who refused even to ride in a motorcar and intensely disliked the telephone.
'Your five o'clock appointment,' Kulowski called up the stairs to him.
Damn the man, Lueger thought. Still, it would not do to keep the ward boss of the Third District waiting too long.
'Coming,' he said.
He no longer carried himself with the same bounce as of old. Mentally he felt younger than ever, and his face was still as handsome as when he was a young man. Thanks to his good looks, he had mobilized the Gretl brigade, or the Amazons, as people called his ardent female supporters. Though these women did not have the vote, they idolized him and in turn enlisted their husbands and male relatives. They still remained his most ardent followers, dubbing him 'Handsome Karl'.
Physically, however, Lueger was beginning to suffer the outward signs of diabetes and nephritis. His illness was still a closely guarded secret, but he doubted it could remain so for long. Climbing the three hundred and thirty-one steps up to the top of the Rathaus was no longer an easy task for him; as a result, he restricted these visits to once weekly. It was worth the effort: to view the world beneath him like this, his personal fiefdom.
And before long he would not have to share it with his old nemesis, Franz Josef.
He was smiling so broadly when he reached Kulowski, that the bodyguard wondered what the mayor was up to. It was the grin of an imp, of a man scheming and damned pleased with himself.
'Nice view?' Kulowski said.
But Lueger ignored him, gripping the handrail as he continued descending.
Going down was worse than going up; perhaps he would have an electric lift installed? After all, he could put the expense down to advocating tourism. Not that he would allow the hoi polloi to ride his elevator, but it would make a fine excuse for funding from the City Council.
Lueger took his mind off the descent by going over the points he would need to cover in his upcoming meeting. His backers in the Third District were getting restless. And by 'backers' he did not mean the Marias and Josephs with their tiny corner Lebensmittel or Bäckerei who thought they were the mayor's special cause. No. His real backers were the landlords who had put millions into his campaigns and were still waiting for some results for their money.
They had reached the bottom of the spire stairs, contiguous with the upper floor of offices, when they heard the shot. Not a military man, still Lueger knew for a certainty it was a gunshot.
So did his bodyguard. Kulowski attempted to grab him from behind and throw him to the parquet of the corridor to protect him.
Lueger resisted, however. 'Leave it, for Jesus' sake,' he bellowed. 'They're not firing at me.'
Kulowski looked at the mayor quizzically for a moment before he realized the shot was, in fact, nowhere near them. Footsteps were pounding along the corridors, followed by excited voices. They followed the throng of people to the southwest corner office.
They could now see that the crush of city workers and other councilmen had gathered at Councilman Reinhold Steinwitz's door; a hush such as at a funeral had fallen over them.
Lueger looked to the crowd of people and then beyond; Kulowski followed his gaze. When the bodyguard looked back to the mayor, Lueger wore a shrewd grin on his face.
The architect Otto Wagner, who had reached the office first and halted at the entrance, aghast at what he saw, now pushed his way back through the crowd. There was the harsh smell of cordite in the air, and Oberbaurat Wagner, despite being nattily attired in his frock coat, was not looking very professorial, Lueger thought. His eyes were wide and there was a nervous urgency about the man that the mayor, who had employed him on municipal projects from regulating the Danube Canal to building the metropolitan railway, the Stadtbahn, had never before seen.
Finally Wagner saw Lueger and rushed to his side.
'Mayor. It's your friend, Councilman Steinwitz. I think he's killed himself.'CHAPTER 2
Despite snow flurries that kept most people indoors or on public transport, Advokat Karl Werthen walked to work the morning of February 5, 1900, a daily ritual he tried not to deviate from.
The Habsburgergasse in Vienna's First District was as void of human activity as if it had been a Sunday and not a Monday. As he approached his office at number four, Werthen could see the profiles of the supporting columns decorating the first-story façade. One of the naked Atlases bore an unfortunate protuberance of snow at just below waist level. These sculptures were a comfort to Werthen; a solid and reassuring presence in the midst of what some days felt to be pure chaos. He did not want to leave this particular Atlas in such disgrace.
Gazing up and down the street, he first made sure no one was about. Then, standing about knee-high to the figure, he took off his felt hat and jumped up, sweeping with the brim to rid the blotch of snow from the statue's penis. Chill flakes speckled his face, but he was pleased to see that the Atlas now stood in all its original and unadorned splendor.
The greeting gave him a start. Behind him stood the building Portier. She was looking at him with a quizzical expression, but he felt in no mood to explain himself to this elderly woman, long the bane of his existence at Habsburgergasse 4.
He quickly put on his hat, then tipped it to her.
Bundled in numerous layers of woolen cardigans, most of them out at the elbows, she carried a rag and a bottle of polish.
'Surely you do not mean to polish the brass on such a day,' he said, attempting to be cordial, or at least to sound concerned.
Once again, his overtures were strongly rebuffed by the gruff old woman.
'Some of us have a living to be made.' She scowled as she spoke. 'Some snip of a girl is already in your office. Says she belongs there.'
'Yes,' Werthen replied. 'She does. She is my new assistant.'
He glanced for a moment at his own brass plaque outside the house door: Advokat Karl Werthen: Wills and Trusts, Criminal Law, Private Inquiries.
'And mind you get the edges of the plaque shiny, as well,' he said, trying to salvage some dignity from the exchange.
As Werthen climbed the flights of stairs to his office, hat in hand, his right knee began to hurt. Injured in a duel, that knee had not bothered him in months, but a chance meeting with Frau Ignatz could resurrect even long-dormant ailments.
The 'snip of a girl' was indeed at work when he entered the office. Erika Metzinger tried bravely to look the part of a secretary, wearing a prim white, high-necked blouse with full sleeves, her hair piled atop her head and affixed with several tortoiseshell combs. She'd even installed a typewriting machine and was busy clacking away at it with two forefingers. The little fingers on both her hands pointed quite elegantly upward, as if she were at a tea party.
Fräulein Metzinger, in fact, had the appearance of a Volkstheater actress attempting the role of secretary. Her obvious discomfort came from the fact that she was, in fact, much more than an office dogsbody. After the recent unfortunate loss of his former junior member of chambers, Werthen had been left in the lurch. He was attempting to build his new business as inquiry agent and thus needed a competent assistant.
'Morgen.' The young woman greeted him in the languid tones of the West Country, for she hailed from Salzburg. The accent, however, was the only thing Werthen had found to be relaxed about her. She was in fact a veritable dynamo; Werthen had never met someone her age so knowledgeable of the law.
However, because of Austria's outmoded customs vis-àvis the education of women, she was denied entrance to the university. Indeed, it was only two years ago that the University of Vienna allowed entrance to its first female students, and those only in the philosophy faculty. There was talk recently of allowing women to study medicine in Vienna, but legal studies were still off limits to women in the Austrian capital and were likely to remain so for decades.
'Fräulein Metzinger,' Werthen said in reply to her greeting, nodding his head at her. 'Murderous weather.'
She looked startled at this comment. He had noticed a tendency toward literalism on her part.
'The snow,' he added, showing his snow-speckled hat, and she visibly relaxed.
The daughter and granddaughter of well-known jurists, Fräulein Metzinger might not possess a sense of fantasy or humor, but she had studied law privately and possessed as much legal knowledge as any licensed lawyer. The Austrian feminist Rosa Mayreder, good friends with Werthen's wife, Berthe, had introduced the young woman to him and vouched for her intelligence and character. Fräulein Metzinger had demonstrated both qualities during their brief interview, and Werthen decided immediately to hire her. Still, she was not a certified lawyer, and though she could do much of the paperwork at the office, Werthen had to be the one to check all her work, sign documents and meet with clients, a small price to pay for having one so capable – and yes, so willing and grateful – in the office.
'The Kleist file is waiting your signature, Advokat Werthen. It's on your desk.'
'Excellent,' he said. He could think of no higher praise, made almost speechless by her statement, for that file had languished for months, desperately needing reworking, rewording, adjustments, and disentanglements. Werthen himself had tackled it several times, only to retreat with a headache after several hours of sifting through interminable memoranda and cancelled clauses. The Kleist clan, it seemed, had relatives on every continent, each of whom had numerous amendments to the wording of the family trust. Now Fräulein Metzinger, after only a few days on the project, had brought it to fruition.
'I mean, very excellent.'
You are a dithering fool, he told himself. Just get in your office and sign it.
With the office door closed behind him, Werthen took off his coat and hat, placing them on the mahogany rack, and settled into his chair. As promised, the Kleist file lay on his desk suppliantly.
Wonderful girl, he thought, even if she was deficient in a sense of humor.
He quickly browsed the documents and signed them. Then he settled back to peruse the morning papers, something that he had taken particular pleasure in of late.
For the last five days, Advokat Werthen had kept himself apprised of the Rathaus scandal surrounding the death of Councilman Steinwitz, for the man was a former client of his. He remembered the councilman quite well: a large, florid man who was a blend of Viennese bluff bonhomie and Czech fatalism. Had the Czech blood in the man gotten the upper hand? he wondered. Graft scandal or no, Steinwitz seemed to Werthen the last person in the world to take his own life.
The Viennese newspapers had made an event of the councilman's suicide. Over the previous days the tragic tale had been featured in every newspaper in the land. The usually staid and conservative Neue Freie Presse was atwitter like a maiden aunt having taken too much elderberry wine. The day of the suicide, the headline of its evening edition attempted to balance itself between decorum and innuendo: 'Councilman Takes Life, Irregularities Noted.' Irregularities in the death or in his role as councilman? The eager reader must peruse the article and decide for himself. A feuilletonist for that paper felt called upon to go into great length in his meandering essay on the family history of said Steinwitz: married to Valerie Gutrum, youngest daughter of Colonel Gutrum, a veteran of the Battle of Königrätz during the Austro-Prussian War, and therefore an imperial icon; their two children, Joachim and Helene, 'distraught at the loss of their beloved Vati.' The less august Neues Wiener Journal did not bother with suggestion: 'Steinwitz Kills Self, Subject of Investigation.' Here the reporter posited a link between a recent City Hall graft investigation and the suicide of the center of that storm, Councilman Steinwitz.
The socialist Arbeiter Zeitung, which had first published the tale of City Hall corruption, also placed the story of Steinwitz's death on its front page, above the fold. 'Death of Councilman Laid to Graft Investigation,' read that paper's headline, though no such direct connection had, in fact, been made, for there was no suicide note. Facts, however, should never get in the way of a good lead. The anti- Semitic Deutsches Volksblatt put the entire matter – the story of City Hall graft and the subsequent suicide of Steinwitz – down to a Jewish plot to discredit Lueger and his associates. Even the gadfly journalist and social critic Karl Kraus used the councilman's death as an excuse for an exegesis on suicide, the Viennese sickness – one that, according to the journalist, claimed more lives per year in Vienna than did deaths from other killer diseases, such as tuberculosis and syphilis. Kraus pointed out in his Die Fackel article that between 1888 and 1896, 3,164 Viennese had taken their own lives, an average of about one a day. Men were in the majority, with a four-to-one advantage over female suicides. While hanging was the preferred method, gunshot came in a close second. And, Kraus added, December surprisingly (with all the expectations of the holiday season) proved to be the month with the lowest average number of suicides, while May, with its seemingly uplifting and invigorating weather, was the month with the most, over fifty on average.
Excerpted from The Silence by J. Sydney Jones. Copyright © 2011 J. Sydney Jones. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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